Movie Review – “The Band Wagon” (1953)

 

Any movie that has a musical number featuring dancing triplet babies that talk about buying a gun they can shoot their other siblings is at least worth a watch in my book.

That, and it is the only movie I’ve ever seen that combines musicals and film noirs. “The Band Wagon” literally has a sequence that plays out like a hard-boiled detective story, complete with femme fatales and over-the-top cheesy narration, while it plays out like ballet with elaborate dance sequences.

I’m not sure I need to say anything else – Babies that want guns and musical film noirs. If that does not peak your interest in “The Band Wagon,” nothing will.

Or it could be that “The Band Wagon” is one of the last big musicals for Fred Astaire, as he plays a role that he was becoming more and more every day – an aging film star that had been forgotten by the Hollywood system and was looking for one last shot to remain in the limelight. Astaire goes all out on his musical numbers, especially one early on in the film where he dances around while getting his shoes shined and playing carnival games.

 

 

If my description of these events sounds odd, it’s only because this movie is odd. The musical numbers are intricate and elaborate, while fully embracing the insane situations, including the now famous “That’s Entertainment!” number that seems like a cut scene from “Singin’ In the Rain.” My personal favorite number is the aforementioned film noir musical bit, if only because I’ve never seen two genres that have nothing in common work so well together.

There are slow parts to “The Band Wagon,” but when this movie gets good, it is impossible to take your eyes off the screen.

Final Grade: B-

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Number 29 – “Godzilla Raids Again” (1955)

 

 

Now that we’ve got the disrespectful and terrible Godzilla movies out of the way, we can move to just the terrible ones!

These next three or four entries are all ones that are simply awfully put together movies that are mostly harmless, but I would still rather watch two hours of C-SPAN than turn on these Godzilla movies again. Of these entires, the worst of them is my pick for the most boring entry in the series – “Godzilla Raids Again.”

This one was made less than a year after the release of the first Godzilla film in 1954 and is the only other movie to be shot in black and white. The film also sees the introduction of Godzilla’s long time ally, Anguirus (or Anglias, or Angurus, or Anguillas…he has more names and pronunciations than any other Toho monster), the spiky-backed Ankylosaurus that seems to be the only sticking point from this film.

Set roughly a year after the events of the first film, when the first Godzilla was killed by a chemical weapon known as the Oxygen Destroyer, the world is shocked to learn that there is not only a second Godzilla but another monster entirely, noting that these two kaiju love to fight each other. The forces of Japan scramble to come up with a solution to fight off the two monsters, or at the very least keep them away from Japan.

But that’s not the important part of the film, because far more than half of “Godzilla Raids Again” is spent with Shoichi Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Koji Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki), two airplane fishing scouts, and their every-day drama. They both live in a small fishing town in a tightly-knit community, Shoichi has a girlfriend whose a radio operator and Koji is terrible with the ladies. They’re the ones who find Godzilla and Anguirus on a remote island when Koji’s airplane is forced to make a water-landing.

Are you starting to see why “Godzilla Raids Again” isn’t the most well-received among Godzilla fans?

 

 

Godzilla feels like an after-thought in this movie, with the main focus being some pilots. It would be one thing if we cared about these guys and their struggles, but the film never gives us any reason to like or give a damn about them. Shoichi is too busy talking to his girlfriend that half the time he doesn’t do his job, and Koji is dim-witted and too focused on finding love. These elements would be fine if this was just a Japanese melodrama about finding love in a small fishing town, but this is the direct sequel to one of the darkest and most disturbing giant monster movies of all time. Everything involving these guys doesn’t feel like it belongs here.

While “Godzilla Raids Again” has one of the shortest runtimes of any Godzilla movie, just 82 minutes, the pacing is excruciatingly slow. While we get a glimpse of Godzilla and Anguirus fighting at the beginning, it lasts all of ten seconds, and then we don’t see the two again for what feels like an eternity. We’re given a recap of the events of the first film through recycled footage, though with no audio or music, so it’s about as exciting as your uncle showing you slides from his vacation to Mt. Rushmore. Then the military spends about ten minutes trying to come up with a plan and every single general takes his sweet-ass time to give his two cents.

And you would think that once Godzilla and Anguirus show up that would be the focus of the movie. But nope, there is a long scene dealing with prisoners trying to escape while being transported, only to set most of Osaka on fire, and Shoichi’s girlfriend constantly looking at the destruction from about five miles away at a safe location. To be fair, this leads to the only cool shots of the movie, as we slowly but surely see Osaka get engulfed in flames.

 

 

My point is that it takes this movie more than half of its runtime before we finally get to see Godzilla and Anguirus throw down. More than 45 minutes of slow, dull, uninteresting conversations that feel like they don’t amount to anything.

Even when we do get to the monster fights, the camera work gets strange. When focusing on solo shots of the two kaiju, their movements seem slow and lumbering, as they should be. But when the two are forced to fight, the camera movement speeds up to 11 and every little movement feels unnatural, like Godzilla and Anguirus are on drugs.

But strangely enough, after the two fight for a little while, Godzilla actually kills Anguirus and just leaves Osaka. Yet the film isn’t over. In fact, there’s still about 25 minutes left. And we end up spending most of with the pilots again and their drama. The big climatic battle between your two monsters wasn’t the end of the movie? We had to get 20 more minutes with these forgettable characters before one last showdown with Godzilla?

The film could have ended after everything in Osaka and our torture could have ceased! But hey, we had know if Koji ended up getting a girlfriend, right?

 

 

This leads to one last scene with Godzilla where the local fishing pilots literally start bombing the snowy mountains around him to encase the monster in ice. Let that sink in for a moment – you plan to surround a giant fire-breathing irradiated lizard with snow and ice. Yeah, I’m sure that will hold him for all of five minutes. Also this one mountain seems to have an endless supply of snow, since I swear these guys bomb the mountain about fifty times, each one as uninteresting as the last one.

There’s one last thing I’d like to point about “Godzilla Raids Again” and that is the English dub. I won’t normally talk about the differences between the Japanese version and English version in these reviews, but this one deserves special mention. Mostly because, in the English dub, all mention of Godzilla is removed from the movie. Instead, the movie is called “Gigantis, the Fire Monster” and Godzilla has now become the titular Gigantis. They also replace most of Godzilla’s roars with Anguirus’ roars, but don’t do anything with Anguirus’ roars, making it twice as confusing when you cannot tell which monster is roaring.

The explanation the scientists give for this is to say that Gigantis and Anguirus are of the same species. I don’t know if any of these scientists looked at a picture of these two monsters that look nothing alike or if they’re blind, but in any case I’m calling bullcrap.

In fact, I call bullcrap on the entire English dub; it takes an already slow, boring movie and makes it even harder to get through, with two monsters that have the same roar and below-average dubbing for the 1950s.

Overall, “Godzilla Raids Again” is not only the most boring Godzilla film, but also the most forgettable. You could marathon the entire series but skip this one and ultimately nothing of value would be lost. There are no note-worthy scenes here, the characters are unlikable, and the pacing is atrocious. As a direct follow-up to the first Godzilla film, this film misses all the marks.

 

 

 

Movie Review – “Marty” (1955)

 

 

“Marty” is one of the most simple yet easily relatable movies I’ve seen in a long time, all thanks to its main character and the heartwarming performance of Ernest Borgnine. The film follows the titular Marty, a 34-year old butcher who lives with his mother in New York. He has watched all of his other siblings, both older and younger than him, get married and start up a family of their own, but Marty has resigned himself to the life of a bachelor. Not because he likes the single life, but because he’s tried finding a woman who likes him for himself, and he has only known heartache.

This has given Marty some terrible self-esteem issues, even yelling at his own mother that the reason no woman wants him is because he’s “fat, old, and ugly.” Over the course of the film, we learn about his time with the Army and how he lost his purpose in life upon coming back. This is a normally quiet, kind man who normally keeps to himself, but wants the opportunity to do something with his life, even though no woman will give a chance. That is, until he meets Claire (Betsy Blair), a shy school teacher, at a dance and the two just listen to each others’ problems.

 

 

Borgnine’s performance is the highlight of this movie, giving us a vulnerable role that shows a man who has more than a few problems and a bit of a temper when it comes to those problems. I would describe his role as the flawed every-man. We sympathize with Marty, realizing how fragile he is, but he is relatable for that same reason. Unlike other every-man characters, especially those played by Jimmy Stewart, Borgnine’s character is so wrapped up in his weaknesses that he is blinded to his strengths.

I loved “Marty” for how different it was for the 1950s, at a time when other movies and television wanted to portray the perfect family. That every man should have a nice upper-class job and be the head of the house, while women worked on the house and kids, here’s a film about a damaged man with a job even he looks down on, and cannot find someone to love him. Yet, the film is ultimately an upbeat one about coming to terms with those flaws and loving someone anyway. I came for Ernest Borgnine’s performance, but I was transfixed by how understanding and accepting “Marty” truly was.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Imitation of Life” (1959)

It is funny that I mentioned Douglas Sirk in my “An Affair to Remember” review, and then I watch my first film by Douglas Sirk in years shortly after that review. Going into “Imitation of Life,” I had no idea that it was a movie by Sirk, a director who certainly left his mark on the romantic genre and the portrayal of strong women that didn’t follow the norms of society back then.

“Imitation of Life” follows widowed mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother, and her daughter, who has fair skin that passes for white and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. Both mothers do their best to make a living for their daughters and try to be someone that their daughters can look up to. As they grow older, their daughters drift away from them, especially Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is tempted by the seedy side of town.

 

 

This is ultimately a film about motherhood, and all the triumphs and baggage that comes with it. The reason Lora and Annie work so well off each other is because of their determination to make the best possible lives for their daughters, but both eventually realize the insurmountable odds they have to face to get there; which is why they need each others strength. Lora’s devotion and patience combine with Annie’s kindness makes the pair the highlight of the movie.

To witness “Imitation of Life” is to appreciate all the effort and pains mothers must go through. To watch these women realize that they here, not just for themselves any longer, but to care and nurture another life.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “An Affair to Remember” (1957)

 

There’s a strange concept to many “forbidden love” stories from the 1950s that often has me rolling my eyes – the tragic twist.

Years ago, I remember watching the Douglas Sirk movie, “All That Heaven Allows,” which is about a middle-aged woman in small town falling for a much younger man. It was competently handled, if a bit uncomfortable to watch at times, but the only thing I remember is the tragic twist that comes near the end and how out of nowhere and infuriating it made me. I watched the film with a large group and I recall a few people walking of the movie with their arms thrown up in frustration at how absurd and unnecessary the ending felt.

I now realize that “All That Heaven Allows” was not the only one to do this, as “An Affair to Remember” has a similar scene that makes everything that came before this moment feel wasted and everything that comes after hard to watch.

To be fair, I went into “An Affair to Remember” expecting a much different movie – Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the later years of their careers. I went in thinking this would be more of a screwball comedy, with lots of wordplay and sarcasm from Cary Grant, similar to his suave jerk persona in “North by Northwest” with some light romance with lost souls looking for another chance to love again.

And for about the first hour that is close to what we get. Grant plays a painter and well-known playboy, who is about to be married, and Kerr plays an aging nightclub singer, who is in an unhappy marriage, and the two meet on an ocean liner on its way from Europe to New York. They develop a friendship that quickly turns into a romance when Kerr sees there is more to Grant than just the party boy. As the cruise ends, they profess their feeling for one another, but are concerned about their committed relationships. So they make a promise – They will meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months. If they are both up there, they will get married that day, but if one does not make it, then they will know it wasn’t meant to be.

 

 

I will not give away the tragic twist ending, but let’s just say it causes a drastic shift in the movie that was completely avoidable. This change occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and suddenly the film changes from a forbidden love story to one of acceptance. This works at times, but other times it comes across as the filmmakers not having enough material to work with so they insert at least two scenes of children singing instead.

These two stories are so drastically different that I lost interest the moment this tragic twist occurred. It also doesn’t help that all the drama of this situation could have been avoided if either of them picked up the telephone and told the other exactly what happened. Instead, we get a third act where both characters think the other is a terrible person and needs to constantly be reminded of that.

At its best, “An Affair to Remember” is “North by Northwest”-lite – Funny, over-the-top banter from Cary Grant while he takes the opportunity to put the moves on a woman. It its worst, the film is groan-inducing and hard to get through without screaming at your TV screen. It’s like watching two long lost lovers waiting for the other all night long, talking about how the other is a terrible human being, when all along they just got the addresses mixed up – You’re invested in their struggle, but appalled at how stubborn and stupid they can be.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)

 

 

Imagine if Charles Foster Kane was a country singer instead of a newspaper man, and you’ll get “A Face in the Crowd.”

Actually, that is not an enitrely fair description. “Citizen Kane” painted the good and the bad of its protagonist and showed him for who he really was – a flawed man who had wants and desires that could never be fully achieved, like all of us. “A Face in the Crowd” takes a similar angle, by showing a man rising from nothing to position of power and ultimately being corrupted by that same power and greed.

“Citizen Kane” does its best to mantain Charlie Kane’s humanity, despite his growing need for love and affection. But in this movie, its main character Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) embraces the megalomania and shows just how deep his lust for power can go.

Lonesome is found by a local Arkansas radio persona, Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) in the town’s prison for drunk-and-disorderly conduct but has a knack for singing and playing his guitar. Marcia decides to bring in Lonesome to play on the radio in the morning, and he quickly uses his airtime to say a few things about the people in this town, like the sherriff running for mayor and the owner of the radio stations’ massive pool on a hot summer day. At first, Lonesome feels he is using his voice of the “common people” and putting it to good use, making sure they vote for the right person and helping out kids during a scortching day.

But the way he speaks to people gets the attention of bigger news stations in Memphis and eventually New York, when Lonesome Rhodes gets his own television program that is watched by millions of people across the country. As Rhodes gains more fame and has women swooning over him at every event he attends, he also eventually gains power over a senator and wants to start making his way into politics.

 

 

The power of “A Face in the Crowd” comes from how small and simple Lonesome Rhodes starts out, even with his big personality. He claims at one point that he puts everything he has into everything he does, even his boisterous laugh. But as we see Rhodes using his power more and more to his own advantage, instead of for the people like he did while on the Arkansas radio, we see more of this sadistic man who is only out for himself and will do anything he pleases, losing what made him popular in the first place.

But because Lonesome started out in a place where everything comes from, we end up seeing a lot of ourselves in him. That if we were given the same opportunity where a camera or microphone is constantly forced in our faces, we might lose ourselves as well and give into the power he has. It is both freightening and relatable at the same time.

Of course, Andy Griffith’s performance is what makes this movie so powerful. It is strange having only known about his television work before watching “A Face in the Crowd,” where I had known him to be a wholesome and honest character, yet we see him playing a despicable man who drinks too much and handles more women than a brothel, but still knows how to connect to the common man. He does everything over the top and so passionately, like any moment will he his last moment of life, which makes meanical transformation so much fun to watch.

I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen during “A Face in the Crowd,” as I was always so curious how far Lonesome Rhodes would take his power trip and what would be lost in the process. It is also a great example of how the media can corrupt people with good intentions, or take people with bad intentions and give them a platform to reach other people. While the movie doesn’t outright attack all media outlets, so does show that media creates power quickly, and that power can be corrupted easily.

Final Grade: A