Moon, and six more movies

Ballad in Blue (1965)

If you're unaware of it, blues singer Ray Charles was blind. That's pertinent to the plot of Ballad in Blue.

This was his debut and exit as a movie star, and at the start of the movie, it's painful listening to a class of kids singing off-key backup vocals on "Hit the Road, Jack" while Charles beautifully belts out the tune.

Charles is singing as a visitor to the City Institute for Sightless Children, where he befriends a recently-blinded child, and even gives him his Braille watch. Eventually the plot puts Charles almost into the background, and becomes more about the boy's overprotective mother and piano-playing boyfriend, but those stories are interesting, too.

If you're bored, though, relax, cuz in a few minutes Charles is going to sing another song. Surprisingly, he also delivers dialogue quite well, with the exception of one scene where he's driving a bumper-car at an amusement park, and might've been scared shitless.

I was certain that Ballad in Blue was going to be at least strange and probably awful, but instead it's rather lovely. Written and directed by Paul Henreid, who played freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. Produced by Alexander Salkind, who later made Superman with Chris Reeve.

I didn't do a complete roll call, but it seems like every member of Charles' band and all his back-up singers got at least one line of dialogue.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Cobweb (1955)

Among the top ten things to hate about humans is our ability to be obsessed and get furious about the most insignificant matters. Can't get much more insignificant than this: The titular 'cobweb' refers to internal politics at a mental hospital, focused — at least on the surface — on the choice, design, and installation of new draperies for the library.

Lilian Gish is the hospital's penny-pinching accountant, who wants to purchase the plainest, cheapest drapes. Stevie, a flamboyantly nutty patient at the nuthouse, wants to design the new drapes himself. Charles Boyer, nominally the head of the hospital, sides with Gish, but Richard Widmark, the powerhouse clinician who thinks he's (or maybe he is) really in charge, wants the patient-designed drapes. And his wife, Gloria Grahame, has designs of her own.

Clearly, the fate of the free world hangs on these drapes, but just as clearly there are more serious issues at hand. Dr Widmark gives all his attention to his patients (and those darn drapes), but ignores his wife, to whom he says, "Don't be so full of your feelings." Meanwhile, he's paying perhaps too much attention to Lauren Bacall.

Doc Widmark is the main character here, but Gish takes charge of every scene she's in, and the glorious Grahame (who should've been a much bigger star than she was) carries most of the drama on her shoulders.

The Cobweb is very melodramatic, with few laughs, unless for you (like for me) melodrama inherently leads to giggles. It's a good movie, though, and also offers great bits from infamous smart-ass Oscar Lavant, and Fay Wray in a tiny role.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Moon (2009)

Sam Rockwell's three-year stint mining helium on the moon is almost finished, but then his lunar vehicle gets clobbered by a rockslide. The base's computer will fix him up fine, though.

Written and directed by Duncan Jones, who also made Source Code, and whose old man made "Space Oddity." Yeah, his dad was David Bowie, so sci-fi is in his genetics. 

This is slow but smart science fiction, which could also serve as training material for corporate HR. Rockwell is marvelous. For fear of saying too much I'll say nothing more, other than that it's a very nearly flawless movie.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Neverending
Film Festival

Moonfleet (1955)

This is a starched English costume drama set in the 1700s, wherein a young boy attaches and adopts himself to the mysterious Mr Fox (Stewart Granger). The boy is Dickens-style precocious, and Mr Fox is an unlikable playboy who wears puffy shirts, runs a smuggling operation, and quotes the Bible after shooting an assailant dead.

Directed by Fritz Lang, and wearing a Brit white wig, George Sanders gets major billing for a supporting role, but Moonfleet isn't nearly as good as you'd hope with those names attached. There's flamenco dancing, drunken stage-style debauchery, and quite a good sword and axe fight, but it takes too long to get interesting, and never rises above the genre.

"Will nothing teach you once and for all that I will not be bound by responsibilities and debts and ties and obligations?"

This was produced by John Houseman, who had a long and successful career as a stage and film producer, though to me he's mostly the actor who played the law professor in and on The Paper Chase. "You come in here with a skull full of mush; you'll leave thinking like a lawyer," etc. I'll always love old man Houseman for that, but the movies Houseman produced, like this one and The Cobweb (above), are often excessively stagey and theatrical.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

On the Yard (1973)

Two of my brothers went to prison, but when they got out they didn't talk about it much, so my knowledge of life behind bars is based mostly on prison movies. This doesn't feel like an ordinary prison movie.

On the Yard was filmed literally on the yard at a functioning state prison in Pennsylvania. Can't get more realistic than that.

It moves slowly, but that's how time passes in prison. The heaviest dramatic conflicts between prisoners are threats and debts over cigarettes.

It's only interested in the white prisoners, most of whom have college vocabularies, rarely raise their voices, and use surprisingly few four-letter words. Maybe that's authentic, too. How would I know?

It's engrossing and smart, and well worth watching. By my own no-spoiler rule I'll say nothing about the movie's climax, except that my benefit of the doubt reached the breaking point, and what happened felt false, both as a matter of physics and prison dynamics. Enjoyed getting there, though.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Step Down to Terror (1958)

Yeah, this is definitely a step down.

Johnny has been away from home for years, but he's coming back, and bringing some serious phobias or psychoses with his luggage. He doesn't want anyone in the family to see a newspaper article about him, he's in a panic that someone's given his little-kid nephew a bike, and undercover cops are snooping around, trying to find out about Johnny.

"Why, this whole thing is ridiculous," his sister-in-law says to a cop. "Johnny, a dangerous man?" She's shocked and incredulous, but by the time that line's delivered, it's obvious that Johnny is a dangerous man, and it should've been clear to his sister-in-law, since he's already been acting creepy toward her.

I hate it when movies are full of stupid characters, and this is a movie with characters even stupider than me.

Here's another passing moment that annoyed me: 

A kid delivers a telegram, and the recipient says "Telegrams make me nervous," so the kid says reassuringly, "There's nothing bad in this one." Well, I am old enough that I've actually received telegrams, and they're handed to you in an envelope you can't see through. Privacy existed back then, and a delivery kid would not know the contents of a telegram.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

What Waits Below (1984)

This movie feels like Roger Corman was involved, but IMDB says he wasn't.

Regardless, it's a good example of a Corman-style, very effective low-budget thriller. Start with a decent script and an affordable actor like Timothy Bottoms, build some sets that look like caves, outfit everyone with cheap spelunking gear — just ropes and hard hats with a light on the front. Then tell us there's a monster in these dimly-lit caves, and with competent direction and eerie music and a flock of actors eager to act, it all actually works.

Well, except for the few minutes when the very unconvincing monster is on-screen.

Verdict: MAYBE.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  

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