Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, DVD, Film Reviews, Raoul Walsh

Blu-ray/DVD: Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ and the silent spectacle of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’

Argo (Warner), the third feature from actor-turned-director Ben Affleck, was released early in October, just before the traditional roll-out of high-toned dramas and Oscar-bait showpieces gets aggressively competitive, and debuted to glowing reviews, enthusiastic audiences, and impressive box-office. Pretty good for a real-life drama about the stranger-than-fiction rescue of the six Americans who escaped capture when Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy and took American hostages. But then it’s a savvy picture that takes a few liberties with the historical record to create a nail-biter of an escape thriller.

It was an early Oscar favorite, then lost momentum as the season rolled ahead and competition heated up. For reasons still not clear, Ben Affleck was passed over as a Best Director nominee and even though the film snagged seven Oscar nominations – an impressive count by anyone’s standards – it seemed to have lost its luster. Then it caught its second wind: a Best Director award from the DGA, Best Director and Best Picture Golden Globes, an award for the ensemble cast from the Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA wins for Best Picture and Best Director. Now, as handicappers tip “Argo” as for the Best Picture Oscar, it arrives on disc and digital delivery less than a week before the Academy Awards.

Awards hype aside, Argo is a terrific piece of filmmaking. Not Zero Dark Thirty brilliance or Life of Pi beauty, mind you, but a solid, well-made film with personality, humor, drama, tension, and a superb sense of time and place. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio establish the era and the complicated history that created the Iranian situation smartly and efficiently, and Affleck seamlessly combines actual news footage with recreations that segue into the story at hand. And while I’m not convinced that the escape-movie contrivances that drive the film’s final act necessary to communicate the stakes of this mad plan, there is something oddly appropriate in the way this meeting of Hollywood fakery and true-story spycraft plays out like a movie.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, DVD, Film Reviews, Raoul Walsh

“The World in His Arms” – Gregory Peck Goes North to Alaska

In the 1952 adventure The World In His Arms, Gregory Peck is a boisterous sea captain in the Pacific Coast, circa 1850, who has a plan to buy Alaska from the Russians… if they don’t kill him first.

It’s not the kind of role that we immediately associate with Peck. He’s the man of principle, the dedicated father, the unbendingly loyal leader, protective and modest and unyielding in face of injustice, and still quite charming under all that poised decency. That’s the man we know from films ranging from The Yearling to Twelve O’Clock High to The Big Country to To Kill a Mockingbird. He could be stiff but his stiffness was part of the charm.

But he was also a studio star who made his share of westerns, war films, adventures and romantic comedies, and he could put that smile and poise to work as a man of action with the best of them. The World in His Arms, adapted from the Rex Beach novel by Borden Chase (Red River) and produced by Aaron Rosenburg, Universal’s man for dynamic outdoor adventure, lets Peck be the maverick entrepreneur in the wild far west of the Barbary Coast and the Bering Straight.

Imagine the rebellious kid brother of Peck’s Horatio Hornblower (another Walsh collaboration), rejecting the discipline of Her majesty’s Navy and gone to the New World for the freedom of free enterprise in a country without limits. The captain of a fast ship and a lovably roughneck crew that he gives free reign to let loose in their San Francisco shore leave between trips, he’s “the Man From Boston,” the nickname that the Russians have given him (along with the brand of “pirate”) for his wildcatting success in their waters. He’s still got that educated diction and East Coast culture in his voice and his bearing, but he’s also happy roughneck. He leaps into bar brawls, arm wrestles Anthony Quinn and romances Ann Blyth, Hollywood’s tiny porcelain doll of a leading lady playing a pampered Russian countess who comes alive in Peck’s big arms.

The story is terrific Hollywood hockum, with the bad boy Peck as the spirit of American can-do action and a model of respect for the natural balance—he’s not just  the most successful seal trapper on the West Coast, he’s also a proponent of responsible thinning of the seal herds, in stark, proto-ecosavvy contrast the Russians who are decimating the population—and this two-fisted adventurer is the perfect mate to bring the Russian aristocrat into the great American melting pot. There are larger than life accents (Anthony does his lovable rogue as “the Portugee,” a genuine crook who is still somehow welcomed into the brethren and invited to fight side by side against the “true” crooks of imperial despotism), lively clashes between the classes and revolutionary action as a fun-loving brawl that the Americans are destined to win.

Raoul Walsh is Hollywood’s great director of men in action; his characters are defined by what they do and how they do it and Peck is nothing if not a man who acts from his heart. And while the film resorts to some clumsy back projection for a number of the more exotic backdrops, the film’s most thrilling sequence — a race to Alaska between rival sailing ships — offers us the real thing with dramatic photography of men and vessels fighting the choppy seas.

Posted in: Actors, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, Film Noir, Film Reviews, Raoul Walsh

“The Man I Love,” “Road House” and Ida Lupino: The Noir Heroine

If Barbara Stanwyck was the Queen Bee of film noir (as she was dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in They Drive By Night (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in High Sierra (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.

It may be stretching definitions to call The Man I Love a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

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