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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pocketful Of Miracles (1961)

In 1930s New York City, an old hag called Apple Annie (Bette Davis) peddles apples on Broadway. A minor gangster (Glenn Ford) believes her apples bring him luck so he won't make a move without one of her apples. But the old woman has a secret. She has a daughter (Ann-Margret in her film debut) raised in a convent in Spain who thinks her mother is an elegant society matron. When the daughter announces she's coming from Spain with her fiance (Peter Mann) and his father (Arthur O'Connell), the gangster and his moll (Hope Lange) conspire to give the old girl a make over. Based on the short story by Damon Runyon, this is the second time that the director Frank Capra adapted the Runyon story for the movies. The first attempt came in 1933 under the title LADY FOR A DAY which received Oscar nominations for best film and best director. I'll be upfront that I'm no Capra fan and LADY FOR A DAY didn't do much for me and I've always preferred this 1961 remake. It's colorful, whisks along amiably and heartwarming without being too treacly. That being said, Davis is miscast as Apple Annie. One can almost sense her discomfort in the part. Ford and Lange do fine but it's in the supporting players that the film shines with a roster of familiar character actors from Thomas Mitchell down to Mike Mazurki. But the scene stealer is Peter Falk who parlayed his performance here into an Oscar nomination (the costumes and title song were also nominated). Also in the large cast: David Brian, Edward Everett Horton, Ellen Corby, Mickey Shaughnessy, Sheldon Leonard, Jerome Cowan, Jay Novello, Frank Ferguson and Gavin Gordon.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Powder River (1953)

An ex-lawman (Rory Calhoun) puts on a badge again after his partner (Frank Ferguson) is murdered with the intention of killing the man who did it. He forms an unlikely friendship with an ex-doctor (Cameron Mitchell) turned gunfighter who's seriously ill and doesn't seem to care if he lives or dies. Based on the same source material by Stuart N. Lake that served as the basis of Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, this is an economical tight little western. Clearly a programmer that 20th Century Fox tossed out to keep theaters occupied in between their major releases, nevertheless it's a stronger film than many of their big budget offerings. Calhoun and Mitchell's characters are obviously based on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday though their names are different in the screenplay. Handsomely mounted in Technicolor and shot by Edward Cronjager (Lubitsch's HEAVEN CAN WAIT), it's some 20 minutes shorter than the Ford film and thus doesn't have time to wear out its welcome. Directed by Louis King. With Corinne Calvet, Penny Edwards, John Dehner, Carl Betz and Robert J. Wilke.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

An innocent man (Vincent Price) sentenced to death for the murder of his brother escapes from prison with the assistance of a doctor friend (John Sutton). The doctor injects him with a serum that renders him invisible. The downside is that without an antidote, the serum will eventually make him insane. This was the first of three sequels that Universal made carrying on from the 1933 film of H.G. Wells' THE INVISIBLE MAN. As sequels go, it's not bad at all. Though the direction by Joe May doesn't have the assured hand of James Whale (the director of the 1933 film), it's a commendable effort with an effective story line and a solid performance by Price in the title role. Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the real murderer makes for an efficient villain. Though the film can't help but retread some of the same ground of the earlier film, the special effects are good and the movie entertaining enough to hold one's attention. Also in the cast: Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier and Nan Grey (DRACULA'S DAUGHTER), looking like Jane Wyman, as Price's loyal fiancee.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sabrina (1954)

The young daughter (Audrey Hepburn) of the chauffeur (John Williams) to a wealthy Long Island family has been infatuated with the younger playboy son (William Holden) of the household, who is barely aware she exists. She is packed off to Paris for her education but when she returns, she is quite sophisticated and soigne and this time catches his eye. But the family sees this as a threat to the engagement (and business merger) and potential marriage to the wealthy heiress (Martha Hyer) to a sugar fortune. ROMAN HOLIDAY made an immediate international star of young Hepburn and this follow up film solidified her star status. Based on the play SABRINA FAIR by Samuel Taylor, Billy Wilder's film is an elegant and stylish adult fairy tale, Cinderella style. It's a very slight piece and its success is principally due to its three principals. Humphrey Bogart as Holden's older brother has often been criticized as miscast (reputedly he thought so too) but his rather austere presence is what makes his part and the film work. He and Hepburn make for an odd coupling but the mismatch somehow seems natural. Remade by Sydney Pollack in 1995. With Ellen Corby, Walter Hampden, Francis X. Bushman, Nancy Kulp, Marcel Dalio, Marjorie Bennett and Marcel Hillaire.

The Homesman (2014)

A lonely spinster (Hilary Swank) is self sufficient and lives alone which is an anomaly in the 19th century West. When no one else will, she takes on the job of escorting three married women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter), who have literally been driven mad by the hardships of the West, back to civilization where they will be cared for. She realizes she won't be able to do it alone so she saves a claim jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) from hanging under the condition he assists her in her journey. The American West has been romanticized by Hollywood for decades, giving the genre a nostalgic mystique that continues to this day. Even when the revisionist westerns of Peckinpah and Leone came in the 1960s, they didn't quite dispense with romanticism either. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout (WHERE THE BOYS ARE), Tommy Lee Jones directed, co-wrote the script and co-produced in addition to playing a leading role. Jones does not romanticize the West, indeed he gives us a western that shows what a shit hole the West could be and most likely was. It's a sparse, grim film that emphasizes the bleakness and lack of hope that the day to day life was in the West and no more terrible than for its women. It's a difficult journey for both its protagonists and its audience but well worth it. With Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, William Fichtner, Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT) and Tim Blake Nelson in the film's only weak performance.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

This Rebel Breed (1960)

At a high school filled with racial tension and drug problems, two young cops go undercover as high school students. One (Mark Damon) passing himself off a half black/half Mexican attempts to join the black gang while the other blonde cop (Douglas Hume) attempts to join the white supremacist gang. Meanwhile, a romantic relationship between a Mexican girl (Rita Moreno) and a Caucasian boy (Don Eitner) leads to a killing. Make no mistake about it, this film is a pure exploitation flick utilizing headlines of the day to make their film "relevant". Yet there's more honesty, more realism about racial tension than in more mainstream movies at that time dealing with the subject (yes, THE DEFIANT ONES, I'm talking about you). At times, the movie veers toward the laughable sanctimoniousness of stuff like HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL as when a policeman (Gerald Mohr) lectures the kids on the brotherhood of man or when a thug (Richard Rust) force black kids to smoke marijuana to get them hooked. The 100% on location shooting on the streets of L.A. adds to the authenticity and gives the film a gritty quality. Directed by Richard L. Bare. The film was later re-issued with added scenes in a T&A version called BLACK REBELS. Also starring a very young Dyan Cannon, Al Freeman Jr., Jay Novello and Tom Gilson.

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (aka Nightcap) (2000)

A young girl (Anna Mouglalis) insinuates herself into the family of a famous pianist (Jacques Dutronc) in the belief he may possibly be her biological father. But the pianist's second wife (Isabelle Huppert), who just may be an amoral sociopath, seems to have other plans for the girl. Based on the novel THE CHOCOLATE WEB by Charlotte Armstrong (DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK), the director Claude Chabrol (LES BICHES) seems less interested in the potential thriller aspects of the film than the psychological complexities of the situation, notably Huppert's tranquil on the surface but manipulative and disturbed spouse. Though often compared to Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol brings no tension to the setting, instead languidly taking his time to develop some ambiguous character development. Huppert's performance is a marvel, She's almost expressionless yet she manages to exude an imposing danger simmering below the placid exterior. I would have preferred a bit more intensity to the proceedings but perhaps that would have been too conventional. Also in the cast: Rodolphe Pauly and Brigitte Catillon.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Birdcage (1996)

A young 20 year old boy (Dan Futterman) and an 18 year old girl (Calista Flockhart) want to get married. But the drastic different lifestyles of their parents causes a major problem. She has a right wing politician (Gene Hackman) and a stay at home mom (Dianne Wiest) for parents while he was raised by his gay father (Robin Williams) and his drag queen lover (Nathan Lane). A remake of the French hit LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, this is one of those rare instances where the remake is just about as good as the original. Working from a sharp screenplay by Elaine May, the director Mike Nichols (who died today) has crafted a whirling dervish of a farce with an expert cast of jesters who go through their paces with assurance and aplomb. The sole exception is Hank Azaria as a Guatemalan houseboy whose performance is truly terrible. While it may not make you forget the 1978 French original, it remains an amusing piece of burlesque, broadly played but with its heart in the right place.

Since You Went Away (1944)

It's 1943 on the American homefront as WWII wages in Europe and the Pacific. A wife and mother (Claudette Colbert) tries to keep up the morale and raise her two daughters (Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple) while her husband is away doing his wartime service. But the horrible reality of death and war can't help but intrude its way into their lives. One of the few WWII propaganda films to focus on the homefront rather than the battlefield, producer David O. Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay) takes what should have been a simple story and turns it into an epic. Pushing the three hour mark with Roadshow trimmings (Overture, Intermission and Entr'acte), Selznick's script often reeks of shameless sentiment. Notably Lionel Barrymore's Sunday sermon and Alla Nazimova's Statue Of Liberty speech. But there also moments of genuine poignancy, mostly in the scenes between Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker as a young soldier that are extremely touching. Particularly, their evening with a lonely sailor (Guy Madison) and the heartrending goodbye at the train station. Max Steiner won an Oscar for his score and it's pretty good except for his use of the sappy standard Together. The direction by John Cromwell is probably as good as anyone could do. The large cast includes Joseph Cotten, Monty Woolley, Agnes Moorehead, Hattie McDaniel, Keenan Wynn, Craig Stevens, Albert Bassermann, Ruth Roman and Dorothy Dandridge.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1978)

A country doctor (Terry-Thomas) asks Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cook) and Dr. Watson (Dudley Moore) to look into the strange death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who was apparently killed (according to a family curse) by a spectral hound. He fears the new heir (Kenneth Williams) to Baskerville Hall will be the hound's next victim. This zany comedy, for some reason, is almost universally despised. I found it hilarious and laughed out loud several times. It's quite silly and wacky and not all of it works, Dudley Moore's one legged runner for example but I found its slapdash "anything for a laugh" style worked for me. The movie has some wonderfully awful puns. When a psychic medium dies, someone says "I've lost a medium rare in a world of high stakes!". Yes, it's that kind of movie. There are some parodies of famous films like THE EXORCIST and THE SEVENTH SEAL but the humor tends to be pretty lowbrow (chihuahuas peeing in your face) but it has the feel of a good Abbott and Costello movie. Directed by Paul Morrisey, the director of such Andy Warhol productions as TRASH and HEAT. The large cast, all game, includes Joan Greenwood, Denholm Elliott, Hugh Griffith, Jessie Matthews, Roy Kinnear, Spike Mulligan and Irene Handl.