Blondie (1938, Frank R. Strayer)

When I was in middle school, I read most of the comic strips in the newspaper, Blondie being one of them. I remember seeing, in the TV listings around the same time (probably a little later), some station running a bunch of Blondie movies at five o’clock in the morning. I missed taping them, but they’ve since shown up on DVD (some of them–I guess the series has twenty-seven entries). This first film, which I wasn’t expecting much from, is actually fairly good. There are a number of problems, the most damaging being the kid. First–as a relatively modern reader of the Blondie strip, I wasn’t aware of its classical content–is the name: Baby Dumpling. I’m not sure I ever got over it, but the silliness dulled as the movie went on. However, the kid playing the kid, Larry Simms, comes off like a little shithead, not an adorable troublemaker.

The film’s at its best when it’s out of the house and doing comic strip-sized gags. There are a number of three panel gags in the film–until the last act, most of the film is these gags, actually–and they work well for the most part. When in the house, Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake are less successful together then they are alone. For whatever reason, doing the comic strip gags doesn’t work with the two of them. When the film’s acting like its own animal, they’re all right. Lake isn’t particularly good, though he’s a decent physical comedy actor (which is why the scenes with him alone work better) and Singleton ranges in quality too, best when she’s putting up with him, which is the Blondie character’s defining trait. The film’s best scene is a quiet one, when they both check in on the baby. Watching the film, even today, one is participating in the concept–the adaptation of the Blondie comic strip, which has its own set of rules, rules a regular film does not have–and the baby checking scene really breaks free of the concept. It gives the characters real character, as opposed to the two dimensional adaptation.

The best performance in the film is Gene Lockhart, who plays a captain of industry obsessed with tinkering. In a film with so many mediocre performances, Lockhart immediately stands out as giving an excellent performance. I kept waiting for him to come back around.

As for the writing and directing… well, the writing’s all right. It’s certainly not as innocuous as I expected and I did laugh a few times. The director, Frank R. Strayer, is adequate. He’s better outside than in, but the film doesn’t offer many of those opportunities.

I wasn’t expecting much from Blondie (in fact, I was expecting to turn it off), but it’s a nice enough way to spend seventy minutes.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Richard Flournoy, based on the comic strip by Chic Young; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Leigh Harline and Ben Oakland; produced by Frank Sparks and Robert Sparks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Penny Singleton (Blondie), Arthur Lake (Dagwood Bumstead), Larry Simms (Baby Dumpling), Gene Lockhart (C.P. Hazlip), Ann Doran (Elsie Hazlip) and Jonathan Hale (J.C. Dithers).


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Godzilla (1984, Hashimoto Koji)

On a few levels–like the one with the giant monster–Godzilla fails. On some other ones, like the production values, the acting, and the approach, it succeeds. It’s a peculiar film and it should have been better. Apparently, the Japanese film industry had some trouble in the 1970s and the Godzilla series took a nine year break. Since it was such a public return, this Godzilla became an event picture. It’s also a quintessential 1980s film (and not in a bad way). There are a handful of films, from the 1980s, dealing with metropolitan environments (Die Hard is one). It’s just an observation, not a thought-out theory , and it’s more about the feeling the films convey than any sort of sociological commentary. It’s also late and I don’t want to use the wrong word.

For the first half hour, Godzilla is going to be pretty good. There’s a good lead performance from Tanaka Ken as a reporter and the film’s structured around his discovery of a story and the revelation of Godzilla’s return (this Godzilla is a direct sequel to the original Godzilla). For that first half hour, when Godzilla’s nothing but a shadow and an outline, the film really works. Once it shows up, the film loses its footing. Instead of teasing the audience with the newly improved monster, we get the full monty and we didn’t need the full monty. We needed the tease. The Godzilla-based special effects vary in quality, but the film still manages to create a context where the giant monster isn’t trespassing. However, some of the miniature work in Godzilla is breathtaking. It’s never been this good since, maybe because they were worried about creating a miniature city to matte behind people and for people to interact with, instead of just giant monsters fighting….

Once Godzilla shows up, the film–which had established itself as mildly political already, the Prime Minister is a protagonist–loses the good character stuff it was doing. One character is actually shipped away, just because there’s nothing for him to do between montages of military equipment preparing for Godzilla. The film bounces back at the end, when the characters get stuck in a building Godzilla’s knocking around. The film stays with them instead of centering on Godzilla and there are some great destroyed city sets for them to run around on.

The film reminds me–with its problems–a lot of Behemoth, because there’s an attempt to do something with the film, then the need to satisfy audience expectations. Godzilla is a boring film and it needed to be longer and more boring. It needed fifteen minutes of scientific mumbo-jumbo and some more scenes with people walking through Tokyo at night. This music in this film, besides the song at the end–a song, in English, saying goodbye to Godzilla–is some of the more effective scoring I’ve heard. It does a lot of work for the film. Sets mood for characters, sets up story changes, all sorts of good stuff.

I usually consider Godzilla films a guilty pleasure (and preface any post with that disclaimer), but Godzilla doesn’t fit that categorization. It just works too differently to scratch that itch and instead it scratches one I didn’t know I had.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hashimoto Koji; screenplay by Nagahara Shuichi, based on a story by Tanaka Tomoyuki; director of photography, Hara Kazutami; edited by Kuroiwa Yoshitami; music by Koroku Reijiro; production designer, Sakuragi Akira; produced by Hayashi Norio and Kanazawa Kiyomi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Tanaka Ken (Maki Goro), Sawaguchi Yasuko (Okumura Naoko), Natsuki Yosuke (Dr. Hayashida), Kobayashi Keiju (Prime Minister Mitamura), Takuma Shin (Okumura Hiroshi), Ozawa Eitaro (Kanzaki), Koizumi Hiroshi (Minami), Suzuki Mizuho (Emori), Naito Taketoshi (Takegami), Orimoto Junkichi (Director-General of the Defense Agency), Sato Kei (Gondo), Takeda Tetsuya (Homeless Man), Hashimoto Sho (Captain of Super-X), Kaneko Nobuo (Isomura), Emoto Takenori (Kitagawa), Murai Kunio (Henmi) and Tajima Yoshifumi (General Hidaka).


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Shakedown (1988, James Glickenhaus)

Shakedown is such a terrible film, I’d have to go through it line by line to adequately catalog its deficiencies. The big action climax features Sam Elliot hanging onto landing gear of a jet flying over the World Trade Center, then dropping into a river. This climax–from take-off to dropping into the river to the plane landing–takes about thirty-seven seconds and features some of the worst special effects I have ever seen. So why did I sit through Shakedown? A few reasons. First, it’s Peter Weller from his “prime.” I’m not sure Weller’s any good in Shakedown, but the role’s different for him–it’s a poorly conceived character, but Weller brings some respectability to it (enough you occasionally forget the quality of the film, then the dialogue reminds you). Second, I’ll probably never see another James Glickenhaus movie and the guy has a great name. His movie’s absolute trash, but he’s got a great name. Finally, Shakedown was filmed on location in New York City. Today, there are a few blocks in Los Angeles where movies set in New York do most of their filming. Back in the 1980s, movies like Shakedown could afford to film in the city and today, eighty million dollar superhero movies cannot. Fourth–I know I said finally, but I wasn’t sure I was going to admit to this one–Shakedown is a document of an era past and, to some degree, forgotten. An era I mostly missed.

I know little about the cheap action film genre. Something happened in the late 1980s, when big companies (Warner and Fox) started producing this dreak. While I never saw that crap… well, some of the Seagal’s, but never the Van Damme’s (until he hooked up with Peter Hyams and, wow, had Hyams ever nose-dived). Had I seen Shakedown growing up, before I could just dismiss it out of hand, maybe I’d feel different about it. It’s an awful film. Its ideas are kind of scary–it’s offensive to women, blacks, intellectual whites, ignorant whites–the only real people of merit are Texans and Jimi Hendrix devotees. I certainly wouldn’t want to know anyone who thought it was good, but it is so absurd it was mildly amusing. I didn’t have a bad ninety-six minutes, especially not after the Universal logo at the beginning took up a whole minute as they tried to stretch it above the ninety minute mark.

There are also a lot of familiar faces in the film. There’s one scene with a parking lot attendant who has a very familiar voice and it turned out to be Harold Perrineau. Richard Brooks has a decent-sized supporting role and he’s actually pretty good. He probably gives the best performance in the film.

But seeing it on location was the most compelling aspect of the film. Not even movies shot in New York today use it to the extent Shakedown used it. Otherwise, it’s a piece of garbage. It’s so stupid, one would have to watch it to believe it. But, somehow, as a film, it’s not offensive. It’s not poorly made–besides those end special effects–though Glickenhaus does love low-angle shots. The writing’s awful. Maybe because it wasn’t a hit. But Weller, coming off Robocop, couldn’t find anything better to do?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Glickenhaus; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Paul Fried; music by Jonathan Elias; production designer, Charles Bennett; produced by J. Boyce Harman Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Peter Weller (Roland Dalton), Sam Elliott (Richie Marks), George Loros (Officer Varelli), Thomas G. Waites (Officer Kelly), Daryl Edwards (Dr. Watson), Jos Laniado (Ruben), Richard Brooks (Michael Jones), Blanche Baker (Gail Feinberger), Shirley Stoler (Irma), John C. McGinley (Sean Phillips) and Patricia Charbonneau (Susan Cantrell).

Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin)

Wow, Watch on the Rhine’s got it all. Not only does it have a nice metaphor for the United States waking up to the horrors of the Nazis and determining to do something about it (which the United States never did), it’s also got a nice ending telling mothers their place is to send their children to certain death. Watch on the Rhine is an odd piece of propaganda. First, it’s a little too late. The film came out in 1943 and the events take place in 1940. It’s selling a particular false history. The play–from co-screenwriter Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett gets the main credit–came out in 1940, so I suppose it was at least honest… Second, the film’s a mash of a family drama, a play adaptation, and the propaganda. The first quarter of the film, until Bette Davis gets home with her German resistance fighter husband and oh-so-precious kids, is an amusing family drama. Lucile Watson, playing the matriarch, is absolutely fantastic, even if she is playing a metaphor for isolationist America. All of her scenes, as she gets excited for her returning daughter (Davis) and the grandchildren and the son-in-law she’s never met, make Watch on the Rhine something special. These scenes bring honest human emotion to even the most extraordinary circumstances.

Then, once Davis and her husband arrive (Paul Lukas, who’s saddled with some bad dialogue, but his performance is incredible–so incredible the word’s making its return here to The Stop Button to describe it) and the film changes. Davis has a number of monologues and, for a moment, the viewer forgets it’s a play adaptation and thinks she’s talking to her family. But the moment passes quickly because the shots never change. Director Herman Shumlin is the least exciting director I’ve seen recently. Watch on the Rhine, at times, positions itself like Casablanca, reminding just how important Michael Curtiz was to that film. It’s not a technicality, these lack of reaction shots, it’s the absence of the characters. The film is from the perspective of the family, of Watson and son Donald Woods, even from bad guy George Coulouris (who’s also great and brings a real sense of dread to Rhine). When there are no reaction shots, the film is floundering. Davis is good and her delivery of the monologues is good, but, in a film, monologues aren’t delivered. There are only three or four but they’re all important and Shumlin messes them all up.

Hammett’s dialogue ranges in quality. When it’s a bunch of Nazis talking shop, it’s fine. When it’s the romance subplot… it’s not. From his IMDb filmography, it looks like his only credited screenwriting credit. He’s particularly bad–this might be from Hellman’s play, I don’t know–with the children’s dialogue. While they’re supposed to be wise beyond their years (as children of a resistance fighter), they’ve also got a lot of cute dialogue. And the eldest son, Donald Buka, has an important part and Buka’s awful.

Obviously, Rhine’s worth watching for the lead performances–particularly Lukas and Watson–but it doesn’t deliver the flawed film the first act promises. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been special.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Herman Shumlin; screenplay by Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, from a play by Hellman; directors of photography, Merrit B. Gerstad and Hal Mohr; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Sara Muller), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Fanny Farrelly), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Beulah Bondi (Anise), George Coulouris (Teck de Brancovis), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Henry Daniell (Phili Von Ramme), Eric Roberts (Bodo) and Donald Buka (Joshua).


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