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Ken and Robin Consume Media: More Noir, Demon Children, and Liberation on VHS

August 30th, 2016 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

Castle of Sand (Film, Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1974) Police detectives doggedly pursue an unpromising set of clues as they investigate the murder of an elderly John Doe. A stoic paean to the quotidian grind of actual homicide case work takes on a sweeping, silent-era emotionalism when the backstory behind the killing stands finally revealed. Imagine an oddly lyrical episode of “Dragnet” that suddenly morphs into Broken Blossoms.–RDL

Cause For Alarm! (Film, US, Tay Garnett, 1951) Stressed housewife (Loretta Young) plunges from suburban normality into a nightmare of paranoia after her hateful invalid husband (Barry Sullivan) pens a letter to the District Attorney accusing her and his best friend-slash-doctor of plotting to kill him. Tense domestic noir reverses the genre’s standard gender setup, making the narrator a woman threatened by an initially alluring homme fatale who spins her in a web of doom.—RDL

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (Film, Romania, Ilinca Călugăreanu, 2015) Documentary shows how black market videotapes of Hollywood’s greatest and cheesiest 80s output brought a love of cinema and a spark of defiance to Romanians suffering the most repressive era of the Ceaușescu regime. Interviews, beautifully shot recreation sequences and clips in aptly crummy VHS resolution tell a tale that is by turns warm, funny, sad, and scary.—RDL

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (Film, Romania, Ilinca Călugăreanu, 2015) A mosaic of talking heads (most of them bystanders) and spy-film-style re-enactments lays out the story of Romania’s 1980s black market in dubbed American movies on VHS. Not quite The Third Man, then, but video impresario Teodor Zamfir and his chief dubbing artist Irina Nistor (“the second-most familiar voice in Romania, after Ceausescu”) become irresistible characters in this aptly lo-fi tale of dissent, capitalism, and yes, Chuck Norris (eventually) triumphant. –KH

The Harder They Fall (Film, US, Mark Robson, 1956) In his final film, Humphrey Bogart plays a broke sportswriter who becomes a press agent promoting an enormous but incompetent boxer, Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), for racketeer Nick Benko (Rod Steiger). Real-life champion Max Baer, one of four actual boxers in the film, plays the champ. Such authenticity holds throughout, down to the source novel by boxing reporter Budd Schulberg, who based his book on Baer’s real-life opponent Primo Carnera. Schulberg’s insider eye for Hollywood artifice adds still meatier depth to the terrific Philip Yourdan screenplay, more than compensating for its tendency to lecture. The core of the movie is the captivating acting duel between the fiery Steiger and the laconic Bogart; even the first-rate fight scenes take the undercard in this heavyweight match. –KH

His Masterpiece (Fiction, Emile Zola, 1886) Impoverished founding genius of the “Open Air” painting school faces a choice between domestic happiness with his adoring, concerned wife, or continued pursuit of his work in the face of an cruelly indifferent art world. Requires an investment of patience before it blackens into a crushing journey into the darkness at the heart of creative ambition. Based in large part on the author’s friendship with Cezanne, who, perhaps unsurprisingly given the fate Zola assigns to his literary doppelganger, never spoke to him again after receiving his copy of the book.–RDL

Shakedown (Film, US, Joseph Pevney, 1950) Unscrupulous San Francisco photojournalist Jack Early (Howard Duff) connives with criminals and romantically exploits his editor Ellen Bennett (Peggy Dow) to gain fame and fortune. Lawrence Tierney gives boffo contained rage as the subject of the titular shakedown, and the midcentury newspapering business feels real and lived-in. With a stronger score and a better performance from Anne Vernon (the object of Early’s ambitious affections) this would be a noir classic; its plot is visible in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014). –KH

Young Man With a Horn (Film, US, Michael Curtiz, 1950) Jazz trumpet virtuoso Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) is driven by his genius and torn between human feeling (Doris Day) and 20th-century Modernist alienation (Lauren Bacall). Although the film suffers from the usual structural problems of the biopic (it’s based on a novel loosely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke) and from a studio-added happy ending, the music (played by Harry James) is simply outstanding. Superb character turns by mentor Juano Hernandez and sidekick Hoagy Carmichael (who knew and played with Bix) round out another of Curtiz’ baffling classics. –KH

Good

Alibi Ike (Film, US, Ray Enright, 1935) Mooncalf pitching prodigy (Joe E. Brown) runs afoul of baseball fixers and his lovely fiancee (Olivia de Havilland), thanks to his compulsion to lie his way out of even the most innocuous situations. You may know Brown for his later pivotal role as the none-too-picky suitor in Some Like It Hot; this amiable comedy shows what he was like in his box office prime as a 30s answer to Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell. Gains bonus irascibility points from the presence of William Frawley as his put-upon coach.–RDL

Hellions (Film, Canada, Bruce McDonald, 2015) Demon children posing as trick-or-treaters launch a home invasion to claim a 17 year old’s unborn child. Too arty and deconstructed for the horror crowd, too genre for fans of rock n roll auteur McDonald (Roadkill, Hard Core Logo, Pontypool) this earned a 4.3 on IMDB and a Metacritic score of 34. So evidently I sit dead center in the tiny sliver of an intersection point on that particular Venn diagram. With Robert Patrick.–RDL

Line Walkers (Film, HK, Jazz Boon, 2016) A missing undercover cop’s apparent resurfacing touches off drug gang mayhem from Hong Kong to Rio, with stops for further bloodshed in Macao and Shenzhen. Lavishly mounted, baroquely plotted flick keeps shedding its skin, adopting the gestures of a different cop sub-genre every twenty minutes or so. Stars Louis Koo, Nick Cheung and Francis Ng.–RDL

Meet Danny Wilson (Film, US, Joseph Pevney, 1951) Danny Wilson (Frank Sinatra) is a violent-tempered, impulsive, golden-throated singer from the streets who gets tangled up with the Mob (personified with pained malevolence by Raymond Burr) on his way to stardom, but other than that there’s no resemblance. The film lurches tonally all over the place from melodrama to musical comedy to noir, but it features nine (!!) Sinatra numbers, recorded at the height of his powers. His gender-flipped duet with Shelley Winters on “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is especially jaw-dropping given the strong homoerotic subtext between Wilson and his best friend/piano player Mike Ryan (Alec Nicol). –KH

Okay

Flesh and Fury (Film, US, Joseph Pevney, 1952) Bloodsport-craving gold-digger Sonya Bartow (a great, carnivorous Jan Sterling) drives deaf boxer Paul Callan (Tony Curtis) toward a championship until well-meaning blue-blood Anne Hollis (Mona Freeman) enters the picture. In between boxing sequences the film stops dead, larded by earnest 1950s bathos and condescension. Western stalwart Wallace Ford is squandered in a one-dimensional part, and Curtis’ almost wordless performance belongs in a much better movie. –KH

The Night Manager (TV, UK, BBC, Susanne Bier, 2016) Hotel manager Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) must infiltrate a morass of cliché, and also the inner circle of arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), to further an extrajudicial vendetta run by bureaucrat Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). Colman’s fine performance, a delicious turn by henchman Tom Hollander, and the charisma of the two ostensible stars are wasted on a tepid story that is somehow even more cartoonish than the late Le Carré novel it comes from. Glossy camera work sells the luxe-villainy sizzle, but there’s no steak. –KH

Outside the Wall (Film, US, Crane Wilbur, 1950) After spending his entire adult life in prison, manchild Richard Basehart is pardoned. Finding Philadelphia too cruel and chaotic, he takes a job at a rural sanatorium, only to find crime has coincidentally followed him. Neither Basehart nor Wilbur manage to pull a real through-line across the four or so pieces of this strange drama, but the Philadelphia location shots are great, as are Dorothy Hart (the good nurse) and Henry Morgan (a sadistic criminal). –KH

Not Recommended

Beasts of No Nation (Film, US, Cary Joji Fukunada, 2015) Child soldier is drawn into the horrors of guerrilla warfare in West Africa. If you were to ask me for a fiction film about child soldiers in Africa I wouldn’t point you to this overlong, talky and often surprisingly flat docudrama, but to Kim Nguyen’s 2012 War Witch, which follows a character through essentially the same arc much more economically and with a sense of cinematic geometry that goes much further to put the viewer in the protagonist’s footsteps.–RDL

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