Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie Monday: Hyde Park on Hudson

This week's Movie Monday is the historical drama Hyde Park on Hudson!

I generally don't review current films for Movie Monday, preferring to stick to more obscure (or, at the very least, vintage) fare. But ever since I first heard of this movie--my favorite actor playing my favorite President--it remained at the top of my "must see" list. And now that I have seen it, I felt like I should give the film it's due here.
Hyde Park on Hudson takes place over a very concentrated period of time in our nation's history--the week or so in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt, and the country, awaited a visit from the newly-crowned King and Queen of England, on the eve of another world war.

The film is told from the point of view of Daisy (Laura Linney), a shy, withdrawn distant cousin of the President's. Living in a small, beat-up house with her mother, her life is a universe away from that of Franklin's. So she is shocked when she receives a call from one of FDR's people that he wants to see her at his retreat, aka Hyde Park.

At first, Daisy is looked upon by the people surrounding FDR (his wife the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, his overbearing mother Sara, his "assistant" Missy LeHand) as an intruder. But the President wants her there, and he treats her with tender care, showing her his precious stamp collection among other thihgs. We soon learn, however, that Daisy has been brought there for more than just simple companionship--despite their familial connections, Daisy is expected to provide certain...physical comforts to the President, which she does obligingly.

Amid all this family drama is, of course, the impending visit by the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman). They have their own issues--utterly befuddled by American customs, not to mention a little thing like Germany threatening to gobble up all of Europe. They show up at Hyde Park, and are shocked at the informality that passes amid the "ruling class" in America (the First Lady doesn't live with President, for instance). The Queen mostly holes herself up in their room while the King, knowing what must be done, tries to make the best of it, embracing local customs like eating hot dogs.

I cannot fully explain how much I was looking forward to this movie. I am an unabashed fan of FDR, having read a number of books on the man, even going so far as to making him a recurring character in Ace Kilroy. Considering his titanic importance to U.S. history (he is the only President to serve more than two terms) I feel like he has generally been underserved by the movies; there really hasn't been a FDR movie since 1960's Sunrise at Campobello, and even that movie didn't focus at all on his life in office. So a movie all about FDR--played by Bill Murray, of all people--just seemed to aimed right at my wheelhouse.

So it's really disappointing for me to report that Hyde Park on Hudson is...well, a disappointment. A big one. Bill Murray is effective as FDR, pretty much disappearing into the role. He doesn't really imitate the man so much as offer an alternate version of him, one that perhaps no one but those closest around him got to see (I don't recall a single scene with him alone). But Murray isn't done any favors by the screenplay: a lot of time, FDR comes across as a loathsome creep, and while it's certainly possible he was like that some of the time, it felt sordid watching a whole movie focused on this aspect of the man. After all, this was a guy who served four terms as President, helped steer us out of the Great Depression, and helped win World War II for Pete's Sake, and what are we watching? FDR getting a handjob from his cousin. Yick.

Another problem with the movie is that, even though it's Daisy's story and she narrates from beginning to end, we barely get to understand her as a person. She seems so meek, so out of her depth, that it's hard to picture her surviving in the pressure cooker situation she was thrust into. Yet she, um, grasps--and goes along with--the whole giving-her-cousin-a-handsy bit with a nary a word spoken between them. Then, later, she's totally shocked to learn that FDR is sleeping around with other women! This leads to an almost ridiculous scene of Daisy running through the woods, chased by Missy LeHand. Olivia Williams (Murray's co-star in Rushmore) appears briefly as Eleanor, but she gets the short shrift along with her husband, in favor of more scenes with Daisy looking doe-eyed.

Additionally, the two characters we seem to get the know the best are the King and Queen of England. Considering these two historical figures got their own movie (The King's Speech) less than two years ago, it seemed like an odd decision to keep cutting away from FDR to give us more scenes with the visiting royalty, where they even cover the King's stuttering. Haven't we seen this story somewhere before?

By the end of the movie, we watch the press waiting for FDR to be carried into his car, like a helpless child. Then they are given the okay sign, and they start snapping pictures, complicit in the cover-up of the President's handicap. In the narration, Daisy longs for the Good Old Days, when we, as a people, could still keep secrets. This is immediately followed by a coda that explains that this whole story was discovered via a box of letters found after Daisy died at age 100. Ah yes, secrets sure are a nice thing--except when they make good fodder for a movie, then it's bombs away!

One final detail that bugged me while watching Hyde Park on the Hudson: as you might expect, there's lots of period music in the movie. Unfortunately, the three main songs are the same three tunes that you hear in every movie set in the pre-WWII era: "Moonlight Serenade" by Glenn Miller, and two Ink Spots songs: "I Don't Want to Set The World on Fire" and "If I Didn't Care." I know that there was a lot less entertainment for people to avail themselves of back then, but surely there were more than just those three songs in existence? It felt the whoever chose the music for the movie did an iTunes search for "1930s hits", picked the top three most downloaded songs, and then went on vacation.

I really hate being so negative about the movie, because as I said, I love FDR as a subject and I think Bill Murray acquits himself well as the 32nd President. The scenes with him and the King are the best in the film, and it's in these brief exchanges we get a sense of how charming and crafty FDR was--a hint at how he was so successful as President, and Murray pulls it all off. He rarely stars in movies anymore, so when THE Bill Murray chooses a lead role you figure it's because he saw something really special. Too bad that movie didn't get made.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Monday: The Boogie Man Will Get You

This week's Movie Monday is the Karloff/Lorre horror/comedy The Boogie Man Will Get You!

I had heard of this movie but never seen it, so when TCM ran it one afternoon, I moved my day around to watch it (TCM is pretty much the only channel that I watch "live"): 
I didn't know much about this movie going in, but I couldn't pass up the Karloff/Lorre combination. At the same time, the fact that this film is (relatively) obscure made me think it wasn't all that great--after all, if it was a horror/comedy classic on par with, say, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, there'd be all sorts of DVD/Blu-Ray editions of it available.

Anyway, the film opens (and takes place entirely) in a small town, where Prof. Nathaniel Billings (Karloff) owns a small in, which he has put up for sale, not being able to keep up with the mortgage. Living there with him is his dottie housekeeper Amelia (Maude Eburne) and weirdo Ebenezer (George McKay).

A stranger arrives, interested in the property. It's a nice lady named Winnie Layden (played by Jeff--yes, Jeff--Donnell), who wants to turn the place into a hotel. She seems not a whit concerned with how dilapidated the inn is, and is ready to write a check. Billings is thrilled, but mentions there is one small hitch in selling the place: that he be allowed to stay there and continue his...experiments:
Yes, of course, Billings is a Mad Scientist, who has filled the inn's basement with all sorts of equipment picked up at a Frankenstein Yard Sale. In the opening scene, we see Billigs and one of his guinea pigs, who promptly dies after Billings turns on the contraption the guy has been placed in. Billings seems sweet if spacey; but he seems not to even give it a second thought that he's just murdered someone!

Winnie's ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks) arrives, and is against the sale. Winnie doesn't seem to care, so Bill decides to stay at the inn for a couple of days to see if he can change his ex-wife's mind. That night, Bill finds the dead body in the basement, reporting it to the town's Mayor/Coroner/Notary Public (and a few other things), Dr. Arthur Lorentz, played by Lorre:
As weird as Billings is, Lorentz is weirder: in addition to carrying cats around in his jacket pockets, Lorentz has a bit of a long-standing adversarial relationship with Billings. But when he learns what's going on, he wants in on the racket! They at first want to experiment on Bill (I'd be for that), but when that doesn't work out, they try out a traveling salesman (Maxie Rosenbloom):
There's a whole lot of running around, pratfalls, and other shenanigans when Karloff and Lorre aren't on screen. None of it particularly funny, or interesting; luckily our two horror titans do get a fair amount of screen time. Lorre in particular is great; he's such an odd figure to be found in a Norman Rockwell-esque small town that you wonder how he ended up here. (Indeed, the town seems to be a magnet for weirdos, in addition to Billings, the traveling salesman, an escaped Italian saboteur named "Jo-Jo" wanders by, with plans to steal Billings' equipment)

Anyway, the cops are finally called, and we find out that Billings has numerous victims piled up in the basement (all of them traveling salesmen--"They seem so lonely", Billings muses)! But it turns out that none of them are dead, just in suspended animation. Billings' dream to create an army of supermen (to aid in the war effort) was a tad misguided, you might say.

The cops drop the murder charges, but decide to send the everyone involved to the nearest sanitarium. No worries, Lorentz assures Billings, he's on the hospital's board! And with that, our wacky little story concludes.

Even at a brisk 66 minutes, The Boogie Man Will Get You wears out it's welcome. Karloff and Lorre and clearly enjoying themselves, and their scenes are a lot of fun. Lorre keeps bugging out his eyes at what Billings has been doing, then quickly goes along with it. In his black frock coat, Lorre looks great, like some weird Riverboat Gambler version of Death.

But the rest of the movie is so silly and uninspired that it leaves all the heavy lifting to Boris and Peter, so when they're off screen the movie pretty much grinds to a halt. There are some nice and/or unusual bits--at one point the housekeeper Amelia takes a walk right into a wall; a nice bit of slapstick. Also, it's rare to see a main female movie character be divorced--sure, her and her husband seem to spend a lot of time together, so it's like they are still in a Production Code-approved capital-M Marriage, but it's an odd little detail.

Basically, if you're a fan Karloff and Lorre, The Boogie Man Will Get You is fun. The gleam in their eyes is infectious, and even when the movie is mediocre, it's a blast watching two masters at work.

Post Script: I didn't mean to cover two Peter Lorre movies in a row, it just worked out that way. We all could do a lot worse!

(Thanks to Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension for the stills!)


Monday, January 14, 2013

Movie Monday: The Man Who Knew Too Much

This week's Movie Monday is Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much!

I recently finished reading Alfred Hitchcock: A Life In Darkness and Light, an excellent history of the man, focusing primarily on his legendary career. Arguably the most famous movie director of all time (maybe, at this point, he's been surpassed by Spielberg?), Hitch carved out a identity for himself and his films that remains unmatched.

The main takeaway I had from the book was wanting to either watch--or in many cases re-watch--all of his films. I had seen almost everyone from the 40s and 50s, with bigger gaps in the bracketing decades. So I've decided to rectify that, and so every so often--about once a month or so--I'm going to devote a Movie Monday to one of the man's films.

I didn't want to start with the silents--not only are they really hard to find, but I just have a very tough time, still, watching silent films. So I put those Hitchcocs aside for the moment, deciding to start with a story of which I was familiar, but had not seen this version of: The Man Who Knew Too Much, from 1934: 
The film opens in Switzerland, where a young British couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best), are on vacation with their young daughter (the wonderfully named Nova Pilbeam). Jill is an expert marksman (already we're in odd territory), participating in a clay pigeon shooting contest.

They befriend a French man staying in the same hotel, and at a party that night, Jill dances with the man, only to watch him be assassinated in front of her very eyes:
Turns out the man in a spy, and in his last moments he passes some secret information to her, which he says must reach the British Consul. The assassins in question are led by the creepy Abbott (Peter Lorre, who else?), and to make sure they don't talk, they kidnap young Betty:
At the same time, if Bob and Jill do not deliver the information, an important diplomat is scheduled to be assassinated, as well. Feeling they are on their own, the Lawrences return to England, following the only clue they have as to their daughter's whereabouts, a secret message hidden in the spy's room.

There are so many scenes in the film that are what would become known as pure Hitchcock that I can only imagine how they came across to an unsuspecting audience: a scene set in a dentist's office (featuring Bob and a friend of his) starts off with a shot of grotesque teeth, slowly panning out to reveal they're just a prop sign:
There's another scene, set in dark room full of Sun worshippers(!) that feels goofy and creepy at the same time. These people aren't a threat, exactly, but they're so odd that it gives you the creeps, even when Hitchcock indulges in near-slapstick during a fight scene.

Bob finds out that Abbott is the ringleader, and is also taken hostage. Bob's friend though escapes, telling Jill where the assassination is to take place--the Albert Hall. While she sits in the audience, trying to decide what to do, Abbott and his men (plus his girlfriend, Nurse Agnes) listen to the concert on the radio, knowing that when a certain note is hit, the shot will be fired.

Apparently at this point in his career, Lorre knew almost no English, having learned all his lines phonetically (!!). Nevertheless--or maybe because of that--Lorre is dynamite in the movie. Always looking like he's about to burst into laughs, he never overplays and while he always seems threatening, it's a kind of laid-back threatening:
There's a final shootout between the police and the gang, ending with Jill's sharpshooting skills coming back into play (women are doing it for themselves!). The film ends with the family being reunited, but there's something haunting about this "happy ending": take a look at young Betty in the final moments. She looks absolutely shell-shocked, like a zombie. Sure, everyone is back together, but you get the sense that this young girl is in for years, maybe a lifetime, of therapy having gone through this experience.

At 75 minutes, The Man Who Knew Too Much moves at a lightning pace, and features some truly amazing scenes. Hitchcock's mastery of tension is already completely in place: the scene in the dentist's office is as unsettling in it's own way as the more famous sequence from The Marathon Man ("Is it safe?"), just less graphic. The penultimate scene at the Albert Hall is Classic Hitchcock: a horrendous scene of anticipatory violence happening amid a crowd of people who don't know what's going on.

I will admit, the film suffers a bit from it's age--the bits of comedy don't work as well, but that was simply the style back then. There might be creepy murderers and spys running about, but you also had stiff-upper-lip British guys phumphering around and getting laughs (or at least trying to). And Nova Pilbeam (that name!) seems a little too old to be playing a precocious, Shirley Temple-type tot. Maybe putting someone younger through some of the scenes would have been considered bad taste, so they had to go a bit older (Pilbeam was 16 when she made this).

But those are minor complaints--overall The Man Who Knew Too Much is a blast, and a great way to start my run, any run, of Hitchcock films. If you like the Master's work and haven't seen this one, I unreservedly endorse seeking it out.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Movie Monday: Three Bad Sisters

This week's Movie Monday is the 1956 sex thriller Three Bad Sisters!

This is one of those movies you find while absent-mindedly browsing through the Netflix WI queue. I had never heard of it before, but the title was enough to draw me in! Let's go, daddy-o!
Three Bad Sisters opens with news that a business tycoon named Marshall Craig has died in a plane crash. The report comes over the radio, and a blonde bombshell named Valerie (Kathleen Hughes) hears it, along with her quasi-boyfriend. We learn within the first two minutes of the movie that Valerie ain't right, because A)she's the tycoon's daughter, and she barely bats an eye at the news, and B)her boyfriend slaps her hard across the face, and instead of being angry, she seems to get kinda turned on:
Valerie quickly hatches a plot with the pilot of the plane (who escaped, though not without his professional reputation up in smoke--too soon?) to get her father's money. You see, one of Valerie's sisters, a nice lady named Lorna (Sara Shane) has been made executor of their father's will. So she sends Jim Norton (John Bromfield, who thrilled us all in Revenge of the Creature) to seduce Lorna and either convince her to change the will, or simply commit suicide, a trait that runs in this crazy-ass family:
But of course, the film isn't called Two Bad Sisters, so there's still one more to go: Vicki (Martha English) Craig, who seems to spend a lot of time in pin-up poses, just waiting for someone to come by and paint her I guess. The minute she gets her eyes on Jim, she wants him for herself, using come-on lines like "I graduated summa cum laude from Embraceable U."
There's a whole lot of gabbin' (including a scene where Norton gets a professional dressing-down, which I bet was added solely to creep the film over the 70-minute mark), and it takes too long to get all the three sisters together, where you assume sparks will fly. And you would be right...sort of.
(See? Tell me Vicki isn't just waiting for Robert McGinnis to wander by!)
The whole which-floozy-gets-the-dough plot comes to a bit of a head--or a face, more precisely--when Valerie and Vicki get in a cat fight and Valerie climbs atop her sister, and thwaps her in the face with a whip about half a dozen times. Valerie does this while looking right in the camera, a nice effect, and Val looks like she's ever-so-lightly getting off on bringing the pain like this. It's by far the movie's most lurid scene, the kind of transgressive bit that makes these little Bs so fun.

Unfortunately, after Vicki emerges and looks in the mirror, all she has is a couple of bloody cuts on her cheeks. If she had really taken the whipping we saw her get, her face would like a piece of hamburger. Sure, they could only get so graphic in a 1956 movie, but after such shocking piece of violence, seeing what looks like not much more than some papercuts really exemplifies that the filmmakers weren't all that interested in getting down in the muck, despite the title.

Speaking of the title, it's really a misnomer: there's really only two bad sisters here. Lorna is troubled, but she's not bad (their pistol-packing aunt, played by Madge Kennedy, is more like the other two). There's a whole lot more talking, ending with a car crash that looks like it's going to end in twisted, fiery death, yet the car has a big dent in the front and that's about it. As the great Del Griffith once said, "They'll be able to buff that out no problem."

So I was hoping to report that Three Bad Sisters is a juicy, obscure little piece of B-level trash that flew under the radar and is great fun. And while it is that, in parts, even at 75-minutes or so mark it gets a bit tedious and by the end I was just waiting for it to wrap up. Sorry ladies!

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