Saturday, February 8, 2020

Frozen II (2019)

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee; produced by Peter Del Vecho

After dangerous and exciting adventures, Queen Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) and her sister, Princess Anna (voice of Kristen Bell), have spent several years in quiet contentment with their people in the Kingdom of Arendelle. But as Anna contemplates the inconstancy of things in life, Elsa begins hearing a magical voice, a voice that becomes a summons she can’t resist. She, Anna, the latter’s boyfriend, Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff), and Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) go in search of the voice’s origin. What they find will change all of them.

It’s perhaps a movie cliche that sequels are never as good as the originals, and this is the case with Frozen II. One of the problems is that originals, whether movies, books or vocal recordings, are often made after years of preparation, honing stories, phrases, sounds, and getting everything just right. Sequels are distributed as soon as something can be slapped together that will be finished enough to draw a paying crowd.

Frozen II is not as bad as that. It is, in fact, not bad at all - but neither is it very good. Something that is missing here appears to be direction - not the kind that determines who says what when, but the kind that keeps a story on its appropriate path. With the initial song, the subject of which is inevitable change, a viewer expects that to be the theme; the movie ends with that sentiment. But in between, it meanders. Other story elements are introduced: a secret from the Arendelle Royal Family’s past; Kristoff’s attempt to propose to Anna; nature-spirits; a little fire-lizard (salamander?) whose flames cause some excitement but are essentially a waste of five minutes of the film… Some of these aspects of the story go nowhere.

Aside from aimless sub-plots, there are features of the writing that are not consistent, such as Elsa’s encounters with the nature-spirits. These sometimes take the form of an angry ocean, at other times a horse made of ice; likewise they are variable in their reaction to Elsa, sometimes seeming to help her and other times hindering her, eventually even freezing her. How was that last action accomplished, given Elsa’s powers, we don’t learn. And the origin of the mysterious voice is pretty much a shaggy dog story: was Elsa being called? Was the entity behind the voice conscious? Was its intent to bring Elsa to her destination?

As well, details are not as thoroughly considered as in the first movie. Now, Arendelle seems to comprise little more than the town of that name. Elsa is queen but when she travels, she has to borrow a peasant’s cart. Knowledge of the setting’s background seems scanty compared to the preceding film.

The songs are forgettable. There is usually one blockbuster, a memorable tune, an instance of great singing, in a musical. There is nothing of the sort here, though Kristoff’s lament regarding his love for Anna sticks in the mind for odd reasons. Out of place compared to the other show-tunes, it is a 1980s-style song, in which the back-up chorus is supplied by reindeer. I have no idea whether it was meant to be taken seriously or not.

The animation remains first-rate. There are a number of scenes in which the facial expressions of the characters are very realistic, even if the faces themselves remain the exaggerated forms of cartoons. In particular, there is a moment when Elsa is contemplating a raging sea, and the viewer knows exactly what she is thinking, despite the absence of words, or even of motion in her countenance.

Despite the number of negative paragraphs overwhelming the positive in this review, Frozen II was perfectly watchable; certainly it’s better than most animated fare offered these days. But it could have been much better. Its principal fault is a lazy story and uncertain themes. Frozen deserved either a much better sequel – or none at all.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Crime Wave (1953)

Directed by André de Toth; produced by Bryan Foy

In the aftermath of a violent gasoline station robbery, one of the three perpetrators (Ted de Corsia, Charles Buchinsky, Ned Young) seeks help from a former convict (Gene Nelson), now a parolee with a loving wife (Phyllis Kirk), a good job and a decent home. The ex-prisoner wants nothing to do with his old life, but circumstances quickly coerce him into helping his erstwhile acquaintances. Hot on his trail, though, is the most ruthless and unforgiving police detective (Sterling Hayden) the city has. Caught between the cop and the crooks, an innocent man will have a hard time surviving.

A tough and tense film, Crime Wave is a late entry into the era of black and white film noir – but better late than never. It has all the elements of a good example of the genre. The writing is lean and terse; there are few extraneous lines, certainly none spoken by the main characters. What we learn about Nelson comes from the police and the criminals discussing him; what we learn about Hayden is that he’s given up smoking.

The acting is very good. The stand-outs are, predictably, Hayden as a cop who comes as close to being despicable as one can without being an actual criminal, and Nelson, who, while not really exuding warmth and charm (his situation, squeezed between law and disorder, rather precludes this), nonetheless makes us wish everyone would just leave him alone. But all are convincing here. De Corsia is a smooth villain who gives the impression that he would let bad things happen, rather than commit them himself, and Buchinsky – better known later as Bronson – is the one he’d let do them. It’s interesting to see how the two actors each convey a different sense of menace. Jay Novello is a former doctor, now a veterinarian, so low he rifles the pockets of a corpse for money – but compassionate enough to refuse to put down a dog the owners of whom don’t want anymore.

Familiar faces may be seen in Dubb Taylor (he later dropped one the B’s and became a western-film character actor) as the gas station attendant, and Hank Worden as an airport manager.

De Toth makes fine use of Los Angeles locations, and the expansiveness of the city as compared with, for instance, the canyon-like streets of New York, is ably depicted. He creates real tension in a number of scenes, such as the invasion of Nelson’s home by the criminals, and the climax. The whole movie provides suspense in the question of what will happen to Nelson and Kirk, especially since both sides of the law are after them. The denouement offers a surprise.

Though film noir continued into the age of colour movies, it lost something in the transition. The monochrome process itself was a component of the genre, recording a world that was gritty and harsh. Crime Wave shows why black-and-white photography continued to be used for film noir so long: a low-budget picture with a hard, unsentimental story that will satisfy.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Last Wagon (1956)

Directed by Delmer Daves; produced by William B. Hawks

On the run from the law, accused murderer ’Comanche’ Todd (Richard Widmark) is at last caught by his sadistic pursuer (George Mathews). His hanging will have to wait, however, as he becomes the only hope of the survivors of an Indian massacre as they try to slip unnoticed through the Apache-controlled ‘valley of death’, and on to safety.

With a promising start, showing Todd ambushing and shooting without mercy one of his hunters - establishing immediately and effectively the character’s anti-hero status -  The Last Wagon follows a route between good and indifferent as bumpy as the trail the wagon takes in the film. Widmark is capable and credible; his fatalistic, practical character embodies both cynicism and sympathy in a believable proportion. The other roles are either less interesting or less consistent, such as Murphy’s sheriff, who calls Todd ‘the bravest man I’ve ever hunted’ but shows him no respect otherwise. Felicia Farr plays the obligatory love-interest; her feelings for Todd are not unrealistic but her character, the hard-riding frontier girl who, for some reason, is going across country to marry a townsman, pulling her little brother along, is almost a stereotype.

The writing is inconsistent, as well. There are small points that cause a number of questions, usually beginning with the phrase, “Why didn’t they…?” Following a shoot-out that leaves him with no ammunition, Todd throws away his rifle, as if no other rounds in the world will fit that firearm. After killing one opponent, he is captured by another, who not only doesn’t bring back the other’s body (though probably his own brother, there may not have been much sentiment in the family) but leaves behind a horse, with saddle, accoutrements and weapons, all surely worth a tidy sum. When he complains that one of his party wastes half the ammunition they have on killing a snake, Todd then abandons an arrow that he fashioned, with a bow, for their defence, despite having only five or six arrows. These points may seem piddling, but they indicate sloppy writing.

On the other hand, a good scene is when Todd, raised by Comanches, goads a couple of Apaches into hand-to-hand combat by telling them it takes two of their tribe to fight one of his. When they approach, they see a blue-eyed, blond white man and ask if he is Comanche. When this is confirmed, they accept the answer, perhaps because they understand that white children were sometimes taken in by Indian tribes (at least in the movies) or because they wouldn’t think a white man would make such an untrue claim. In any case, I found the exchange more intriguing than any other in the film.

There are good points to mention. The action is exciting, the fight scenes convincing, and the climax, though not what one expects, is satisfying, while the denouement is less so. There is a moment when Todd is listening to Apache drums in the night; the drumming ceases, and this gives definite tension to the scene before the drums begin again. Also, the scenery is well-used, the cinematography showing its colour and scope to advantage.

As an indirectly related aside, The Last Wagon started me thinking about how Hollywood treated Indians in its movies. I have come to believe that the treatment was not as bad as commonly held. Certainly, Indian characters are usually marginalised in plots, often treated simplistically, and, while native Americans are often used as villains, white people are more frequently the evil ones. The villains in half of John Wayne’s westerns and most of Randolph Scott’s are white men. When Indians are the antagonists, they are usually given a credible motive for their actions, even in films in which historical accuracy is disregarded (eg. They Died with Their Boots On). In The Last Wagon, Todd learns that the Apaches are on the warpath because “some whites” attacked an Indian camp and slaughtered 110 people, including women and children. Though the killing of innocents is never forgivable, the actions of the Apaches are at least given a motive more sympathetic than mere bloodlust. Oddly, the action of the villainous whites in this movie are not so treated.

Racism is definitely a factor in The Last Wagon. As related by Widmark’s character, “no white jury is going to convict white men of killing Indians”. And the hatred of one woman (Stephanie Griffin) toward her half-sister (Susan Kohner), who is part Navaho, is shown to be both malevolent and corrosive. Even between Indians tribes, there is animosity, as is shown in the previously mentioned scene of Todd challenging the Apaches.

In the final analysis, The Last Wagon has enough going for it to make it a good western, though not a very good western. An entertaining time-filler, its principal asset is its highly watchable star, Widmark.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Directed by Richard Fleischer; produced by Stanley Rubin

A Los Angeles police detective (Charles McGraw) travels to Chicago to bring the widow of a mob boss to California, to testify against her late husband’s associates. The latter will do anything to stop her, anyone on the train to the west coast may be a killer, and the woman being escorted (Marie Windsor) would rather be anywhere else. The cop’s day started out bad and will probably get worse.

The Narrow Margin is the epitome of both a B-picture and a film noir, but is one of the best of both categories. In fact, only the low production values and the lack of big names make it a B, but the small budget is made to work for the movie, and the actors - actually well-known and respected by cinema aficianados - are as good as any high-paid star. The movie’s release was delayed for two years (it was produced in 1950) while studio boss Howard Hughes debated re-shooting the story with larger box-office draws, including Robert Mitchum in the lead.

The director takes the setting - most of it on a moving train - and uses it to advantage. The camera-work is close and claustrophobic. A fistfight in a compartment is not only realistic but almost physically involving for the viewer. Scenes outside of the train are restricted to station platforms, rear seats of taxi-cabs, staircases and tiny apartments; all tied to the principal setting or equally confining. The viewer almost longs for a breath of fresh air, only to be thrown back into the tense box of a railway carriage or corridor.

The actors handle their parts expertly. Fletcher directed McGraw in Armored Car Robbery (recently reviewed on this blog), and so knew how to work with him. McGraw’s character is very similar to that in the earlier film, but displays more personality, more emotion: he feels guilt over a colleague’s death, and softens considerably in the company of a fellow passenger (Jacqueline White, in her last role). Windsor, on the other hand, is the hardest of the hard, giving the impression of callous disregard for everyone but herself. McGraw, one of the toughest of movie tough guys, barely holds his own against her.

The leads’ relationship is reflected in the dialogue. There is going to be no romance between them, and it’s an open question whether the mob will kill Windsor or if McGraw will. When her apathy for others’ suffering becomes too much for him, McGraw barks, “You make me sick to my stomach,” to which Windsor retorts, “Well, use your own sink.” This is what the Charles’s marriage would have been like if Nick and Nora had hated each others’ guts.

Subsidiary characters are well-played, too, and one never knows which side they are on, if any. In particular, Paul Maxey, whose girth uses up precious space in train corridors, lends some possibly sinister mystery. Even when apprised of his stated purpose on the train, one isn’t sure whether he’s genuine.

The Narrow Margin works in pretty much every way, including the brief running time (71 minutes), which cuts out the fat and leaves a lean, brisk movie. How do you make an inexpensive film with largely unknown actors that people are still praising seventy years later? Watch The Narrow Margin and you’ll see.