Movies Till Dawn: What You Could Be Watching This Week (Sweet and Sour Edition)

Frank and the Wondercat” (2017, Brinkvision) After enduring years of emotional anorexia from his father and ex-wife, Pittsburgh native Frank Furko found something like family and happiness with a football-sized cat named Pudgie Wudgie. For nearly two decades, Furko parlayed Pudgie’s modest knack for tricks and, more importantly, infinite patience while being dressed in an array of costumes for local and national audiences alike, including an appearance on Maury Povich’s show, until the animal’s death in 2001. “Wondercat” picks up in 2015, with the now-octogenarian Furko attempting to understand his place in a world without Pudgie. In different hands, the barrage of VHS clips detailing the duo’s low-wattage adventures and newer footage of Furko grappling with the past and present might play as maudlin or a mocking sideshow, but by tracing the arc of Furko’s life from pre- to post-Pudgie, directors Tony Massil and Pablo Alvarez-Mesa have encompassed, in small but still significant terms, one of the core truths about love and companionship: we may not understand everything about them, but we certainly know them when we see and feel them.

The Girl Without Hands” (2016, Shout! Factory/GKids) French animated feature that draws on one of the Brothers Grimm’s least known and most grisly fables, about a young girl who suffers the titular fate as part of a bargain between her father and the Devil. How this hideous incident serves as a transformative (literally and figuratively) experience for the girl is among the key laurels of this film, which marks the feature debut of animator Sebastien Laudenbach. His visual palette – impressionistic watercolors that wash and blend over fluid, pen-and-ink images – is appropriately dreamlike (or nightmarish), but it’s the complexity of the relationships between the girl and those around her, including a prince and a river goddess, that leaves the greatest impression, especially in regard to the call for more stories of female empowerment and self-sufficiency. Though it’s probably too dark for younger viewers, “Girl” might be worthwhile viewing for tweens who have eclipsed Disney’s fairy tales; the Shout! Factory/Gkids Blu-ray includes an interview with the director, several of his short films, and a making-of featurete.

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall” (2017, Lionsgate) Befuddling mystery-drama from writer-director Shawn Christensen (ex-Stellastar) which traces the rise and fall of a teenaged writing prodigy (Logan Lerman), who pens one of those generation-defining novels before flaming out under the weight of fame and his own rather awe-inspiring pretension. Christensen – an Oscar winner for his 2012 short “Curfew” – adopts an ambitious episodic structure to detail Lerman’s dissolution, which only serves to confound rather than clarify his predicament (there’s a hidden revelation in the sting of the story, but arrives too late). Also, if you’re going to anchor your film around a best-selling author, his prose probably shouldn’t sound like a first-year BFA final. To his credit, Christensen has assembled an almost foolproof cast to sell his premise, including Lerman, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Nathan Lane and Michelle Monaghan. They almost make it work. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette.

The Apartment” (1960, Arrow Video) Office drone Jack Lemmon‘s plan for career advancement – lending his apartment to company executives seeking an anonymous location for extramarital affairs – hits a painful snag when he discovers that the HR director (Fred MacMurray) who can send up him the corporate ladder is using the flat to carry on with the elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) he secretly adores. Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Billy Wilder‘s Oscar-winning comedy-drama is certainly well-timed, given the current proliferation of news items about abuse of power and harassment in the workplace, but the film’s cynical look at corporate ambition and laissez-faire sexual politics, and its honest and funny observations on what people will do to avoid loneliness, are welcome at any time. Wilder won Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay (with I.A.L. Diamond), and Lemmon, MacLaine and Jack Kruschen (as neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss) all rightfully received nominations, but there’s a wealth of excellent performances on hand, including the great Edie Adams (MacMurray’s salty secretary), Ray Walston and Hope Holiday (Lemmon’s ill-fated pickup, Mrs. Margie MacDougall); the Limited Edition Blu-ray includes commentary and analysis by producer Bruce Block and critics David Cairns and Philip Kemp, as well as a mix of new and vintage interviews with Wilder, MacLaine and Holiday.

2018 House Cleaning: “Incident” (Warner Archives Collection, 1948), is a better-than-expected thriller from poverty-struck Monogram Pictures, which puts salesman Warren Douglas in the crosshairs of thugs after he’s mistaken for a rival gangster. Director William Beaudine belies his reputation for shoddy quality control by applying a firmer hand to the plentiful action, and the results are surprisingly watchable. And “The Love of a Woman” (1953, Arrow) initially seems like sudsy fare – medico Micheline Presle must contend with narrow-minded locals on a remote French island and a romance with engineer Massimo Girotti – but actually plays as a carefully crafted and often frank look at the schism that can arise between women’s goals and wants. It’s directed by Jean Gremillion, a largely overlooked French director whose career is profiled in a 1969 documentary from French TV included on the disc.

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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