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Friday, Dec 5, 2014
Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid is proof that the athlete-to-actor transition is no natural one, but it's worth seeing if your expectations aren't too high going into it.

Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid (1969), also known as Alive or Preferably Dead, was supposed to do for Nino Benvenuti, Italy’s greatest boxer, what Conan the Barbarian (1982) did for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the world’s greatest bodybuilder: it was supposed to launch his movie career. But neither Benvenuti nor the spaghetti western he starred in had the power of Schwarzenegger and his sword and sorcery epic. The world champion boxer’s acting career ended before it even began. 


When Benvenuti won the welterweight Gold Medal in the Rome-hosted 1960 Olympics, he became Italy’s national hero. When as a professional he unified the light middleweight division before going on to win the middleweight title by getting the better of Emile Griffith in a trilogy for the ages, he secured his place as the greatest boxer in Italy’s history. Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid was filmed at the height of the boxer’s career and its producer, Ennio Flaiano, hoped his fame would carry over to the spaghetti western genre. 


Flaiano hired Duccio Tessari to direct the film and Giuliano Gemma to star alongside Benvenuti. In 1965, Tessari and Gemma collaborated on the first two ‘Ringo’ films— A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo—which found financial success at the time and have since become classics of the genre. With Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid, however, they had to work with an inexperienced actor in Benvenuti and an undeveloped story credited to the producer. 


The story starts when two estranged brothers, an indebted gambler from the city named Monty Mulligan (Gemma) and a wholesome hillbilly of a farmer named Ted Mulligan (Benvenuti), receive an inheritance from their uncle on the condition that they live together for six months. When Monty leaves the city and shows up at Ted’s farm, it doesn’t take long for him to get into it with a local bully named Bad Jim (Chris Huerta). A shootout takes place that ends with Ted’s farm burning down, and the rest of the film follows the two brothers, who have nowhere to live and no source of income, wandering around the west trying to make some money.


Their moneymaking attempts are organized into a couple of interwinding episodes, the best of which features a wide-eyed, chatterbox of a blonde named Scarlett Scott (Sydne Rome). They hold up the carriage she is driving in and go through all of her luggage (about a dozen different suitcases) in search of some money, but all they find is fancy underwear upon fancy underwear. She, meanwhile, is incredibly excited to be held up. “My friends will be so jealous,” she squeals with glee. When they learn that she is the daughter of the local banker (George Rigaud), they take her hostage.


At first, the brothers only want to demand $1,000, but she is insulted at the low price and talks them into demanding $10,000 dollars. They then send a messenger (Antonio Casas) to her father with the demand. Her father, however, refuses to give them $10,000 for her release, even refusing to negotiate. He doesn’t want his daughter back and is actually willing to pay them $10,000 to keep her. We then see why he doesn’t want her back: she takes over the hostage situation, and, through manipulation, puts the brothers to work preparing meals, cleaning house, doing yard work, and washing her many pairs of underwear. 


All of this, like the film as a whole, is supposed to be funny. I didn’t laugh once, and rarely let out a chuckle, but I did have fun watching the light-hearted slapstick antics of Monty and Ted. The bathing scene, in which Bad Jim and his crew ambush the brothers, was a particularly good time. Monty sits in the bath scrubbing himself with a brush while simultaneously using it to beat the ambushers, and Ted shows off Benvenuti’s world renowned boxing skills as the soapy bath water fills the room and his opponents slip and slide amongst the bubbles. 


The stunt work of both Benvenuti and Gemma is impressive throughout the film. They get into some solid brawls, there is a good stagecoach chase, and an excellent moving train sequence that concludes the film. While the violence that we expect to see in spaghetti westerns is almost non-existent and the poor acting ability of Benvenuti is sometimes distracting, Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid is worth seeing if your expectations aren’t too high going into it.


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Thursday, Dec 4, 2014
The sharp direction of Lloyd Baker, along with the ace acting of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, makes this rat-a-tat '30s comedy a gem.

James Cagney ought to be more famous for comedies than gangster movies, because he’s never more delightful than when spinning like a dynamo, throwing off rat-a-tat dialogue and now and then bursting into a graceful dance. Exhibit A: Boy Meets Girl, now available on demand from Warner Archive. Hollywood has made so many good comedies at its own expense that you might be forgiven for never having heard of this one, yet it’s among the best. The script by Bella & Samuel Spewack, based on their play, has it all: brilliant lines, excellent characters, and a smooth, surprising plot to wrap them in.


Cagney and Pat O’Brien, together again (as the trailer trumpets, or perhaps trombones—that’s a joke in the movie), play a frantic, irreverent screenwriting duo supposedly inspired by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In this homage to the audacity and wackiness of creativity, they are mischievous devices to spin the narrative. Supposedly their motive is to preserve their jobs by spewing out variations of the “boy meets girl” plot for their studio, but the accidental by-product of their manipulations is, of course, true love.


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Tuesday, Dec 2, 2014
Disney may have "invented" it, but here are ten examples where live action footage blended with animation to become a cinematic statement all its own.

Let’s get one thing straight right up front: we clearly recognize, going into this category, that almost every movie made in 2014 could be considered for this list. Thanks to a little something called CGI and its overuse by modern moviemakers, almost every film featured at your local Cineplex contains some animated element. That beautiful rendering of your favorite city or countryside? Digitally tweaked. That stunning car chase or impossible stuntwork? Aided by computer-generated vehicles and characters.


Of course, your favorite superhero and his equally engaging villains are rendered with the help of technology. Even basic stuff, like support wires, make-up mistakes, and posthumous performances are altered, thanks to those post-Jurassic Park technical breakthroughs. So we aren’t going to address this approach. If we did, we’d have to parse through hundreds of movies and make mention of each instance where a laptop or motherboard made a difference.


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Monday, Dec 1, 2014
Sure, this is a melodramatic, but don't be ashamed of that swelling in your heart... the music really is that beautiful.

How do you film someone playing the violin? How about overhead, looking down on the fingering like Busby Berkeley presenting geometric legwork? You can find that and other graceful ideas in Archie Mayo’s direction of the scenes where legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz performs in They Shall Have Music, now available on demand from Warner Archive. In his first performance, the camera seems to be mounted on a crane that glides gracefully around Heifetz in a single shot, then rises majestically upward, as though on the notes themselves. No wonder the grubby little delinquent kid from the Brooklyn slums, who found his way into the audience while fleeing the cops, is spellbound.


The kid is Frankie (Gene Reynolds), and it turns out his late father used to play the fiddle and taught him to recognize musical notes. This impresses the teacher (Walter Brennan) at a music school for poor kids, into which Frankie has wandered by accident while chasing his scene-stealing dog Sucker (played by “Zero”), for Frankie is blown by the winds of fate throughout this plot. Too bad the school is on the verge of being shut down and having everything repossessed for lack of funds, unless—wait a minute—what if the great Mr. Heifetz could play at their concert? It’s so crazy, it just might work. Joel McCrea and Andrea Leeds are on hand to provide romantic interest without getting in the way, and Marjorie Main plays Frankie’s put-upon mom.


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Friday, Nov 21, 2014
He was more than just a filmmaker. With his passing at age 83, Mike Nichols leaves behind a legacy filled with awards and attitudes which influenced every medium he was involved in.

Mike Nichols won nine Tony Awards, four Emmys, a Grammy and an Oscar, making him one of the few artists in any medium that can claim such honors. Not bad for a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who thought of becoming a doctor but, instead, dropped out of the University of Chicago to try the theater. It was there where he met partner Elaine May, and the two would soon become the toast of contemporary (‘50s) pop culture.


He was accepted into the Actor’s Studio and studied under the great Lee Strasberg before joining the Windy City’s Compass Players in 1955. Along with May, Shelley Berman, Del Close, and Nancy Ponder, they were the predecessors for the noted Second City improv troupe. In 1960, Arthur Penn directed the Broadway smash An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and soon both were huge household names.


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