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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Superman (1978)

As the planet Krypton approaches destruction from its sun, a scientist (Marlon Brando) sends his infant son to the planet Earth in another galaxy. There, he will grow into a young man (Christopher Reeve) with super powers known as Superman. But he has an alternate identity, that of a mild mannered news reporter named Clark Kent. Based on the Action comic books first published in 1938 and created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and directed by Richard Donner (THE OMEN). This delightful family friendly superhero film remains the pinnacle of film adaptations of comic superheros (sorry,, Batman). The phrase "He was born to play this part" is a cliche but sorry, I have to say it. Christopher Reeve was born to play Superman. He perfectly encapsulates the stiff jawed all American purveyor of justice but with a twinkle in his eye. The plot dealing with master villain Lex Luthor's (Gene Hackman) attempts to destroy California in order to make his land holdings increase in value is simplistic (keeping true to its comic book roots) but Donner doesn't rush through action sequence to action sequence, instead taking the time to savor the characters and occasionally witty dialog. Performances are fine all around although I could have done without the painfully unfunny antics of Ned Beatty as Hackman's dumb henchman. The John Williams score is marvelous. The large cast includes Margot Kidder (as Lois Lane), Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Valerie Perrine, Terence Stamp, Maria Schell, Phyllis Thaxter, Harry Andrews and Jackie Cooper.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Pelican Brief (1993)

After two Supreme Court justices (Hume Cronyn, Ralph Cosham) are assassinated, at the urging of her law professor and lover (Sam Shepard), a law student (Julia Roberts) writes a theory (referred to as the pelican brief) on the possible motivations behind the assassinations as well as who is behind it. The professor passes it on to a friend (John Heard) who works for the FBI. But when the professor is murdered and other killings follow, it becomes clear that her theory hits too close to home. Based on the novel by John Grisham and directed by Alan J. Pakula (KLUTE). This is a first rate conspiracy thriller which is not surprising considering that Pakula (whose last film this was) directed one of the best in the genre, THE PARALLAX VIEW. If it doesn't quite measure up to that film, it's slicker and more polished than PARALLAX but if it doesn't require much thought, it still makes for an exciting thriller. In addition to the terrific chemistry between Roberts and Denzel Washington (as a Washington DC journalist) in a double shot of Star wattage, this is a stunning looking film thanks to Stephen Goldblatt's (PRINCE OF TIDES) cinematography. It's a bit on the long side (pushing 2 1/2 hours) but it's intense and it never lags. With John Lithgow, Stanley Tucci, Cynthia Nixon, Robert Culp, Tony Goldwyn, William Atherton and James Sikking.

Marco Polo (1956)

The famed Venetian traveler and explorer Marco Polo (Alfred Drake) travels from Italy to the court of Kublai Khan (Paul Ukena) in China. Co-written by Neil Simon (BAREFOOT IN THE PARK) and directed by Max Liebman. This exotic musical (performed live on television in 1956) reunites the stars of the Broadway hit KISMET where they played father and daughter. Here, they are the romantic leads. Like KISMET which adapted the music of Alexander Borodin with added lyrics for the songs, this production adapts the music of Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov with lyrics by Edward Eager. Alas, it's no KISMET. As a musical, it's rather humdrum and the songs aren't memorable although both Drake and Morrow are in excellent voice. The choreography by James Starbuck and Beatrice Kraft (which seems influenced by Jack Cole) is very good though. This being 1956 all the Asian roles are played by Caucasians though it appears very little attempt was made to make them look Asian via make up which I suppose is for the best in the long run. With Ross Martin and Arnold Moss. 

Stranded (1935)

Set in depression era San Francisco, an unlikely romance develops between a Travelers Aid worker (Kay Francis) and a rough and tumble construction engineer (George Brent). Based on LADY WITH A BADGE by Frank Wead and Ferdinand Reyher and directed by Frank Borzage (A FAREWELL TO ARMS). This romantic drama doesn't really come alive until the film's last half hour. At first, it seems like a meandering romance and I couldn't help but wonder what attracted Borzage to the material. But as the movie progresses to its finale, it turns into a combination feminist manifesto and gritty drama about racketeering in the construction business. Brent's macho construction worker belittles Francis's chosen profession and insists she give up her "silly" job helping losers when they get married which she refuses to do thus causing a rift in their relationship. Meanwhile, Brent must contend with thugs demanding protection money or they'll sabotage his construction work on a bridge. Kay Francis is all noble but Brent displays more life here than his later films where he's a generic leading man to Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert and other grande dames of the screen. With Barton MacLane, Patricia Ellis, Frankie Darro and Donald Woods.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Critic's Choice (1963)

A New York theater critic (Bob Hope) is known for his delight in writing clever if negative reviews of plays. But when his wife (Lucille Ball) not only writes a play but gets it produced on Broadway, he finds himself in a dilemma. If he writes a bad review, it could impact his marriage. Based on the play by Ira Levin (ROSEMARY'S BABY) and directed by Don Weis (LOOKING FOR LOVE). The play (with Henry Fonda in Hope's role) was only a middling success running just over six months. The concept is interesting and I can see why the film makers thought they could make a successful film comedy with Hope and Ball. They didn't. They didn't solve the problem of the weak material but the casting is off. Hope is a comedian, not an actor and although the movie rewrites some of the play to allow for some broad comedy, it backfires. Hope has an extended drunk scene and he's just terrible (it's got to be a career lowpoint) and suddenly his smart character is turned into a buffoon. As an actress who does comedy rather than a comic (as she often pointed out), Ball fares better but she can't survive the material either. It has its moments but not enough to hold it together. With Rip Torn, Marilyn Maxwell, Marie Windsor, John Dehner, Soupy Sales, Jessie Royce Landis, Jim Backus, Dorothy Green and Joan Shawlee.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

While sunbathing on a boat, a man (Grant Williams) is enveloped by a strange mist which covers him with debris. It isn't long after that he finds his body slowly but inevitably shrinking. Based on the novel THE SHRINKING MAN by Richard Matheson and directed by Jack Arnold (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON). This is one of the seminal science fiction films of the 1950s. What makes it unique and sets it apart is its thought provoking narrative which arrives at a mystical and almost existential conclusion. Thankfully, director Arnold resisted studio pressure to give the film a more conventional "happy" ending. The central performance is crucial to a film like this and to that end, Grant Williams gives one of the best performances in a science fiction film. His commitment to the part is strong and because of that, unlike many sci-fi films of the decade, it never once crosses over into kitsch or "camp".  The film's special effects were top notch for its time and still hold up today. With Randy Stuart (ALL ABOUT EVE) as Williams' wife, April Kent, Paul Langton, Raymond Bailey and Orangey (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) as the house cat who terrorizes the miniature Williams.

Vaghe Stelle Dell'orsa (aka Sandra) (1965)

A young bride (Claudia Cardinale) and her new husband (Michael Craig) return to the decaying mansion that was her ancestral home. Unexpectedly she finds her brother (Jean Sorel) there and they begin to rekindle their unconsummated incestuous relationship under her naive husband's nose. Directed by Luchino Visconti, this take on the Greek tragedy of Electra is a dark and unsettling film. The mythological story of Electra and her brother and their revenge on their mother has long fascinated playwrights from Euripides and Sophocles to Eugene O'Neill and Jean Paul Sartre and even in operas by Strauss and Mozart. Here, Visconti uses the tale to examine the rot of a decadent and dying aristocracy. In this version, the mother's (Marie Bell) crime is denouncing her husband to the Nazis resulting in his death in a concentration camp. This was Cardinale's third film with Visconti (she would go on to do one more) and her best work under him (though I love her in THE LEOPARD). She displays the complexities of a woman both torn and repulsed by her desires. The only downside and it's a minor one, I could have done without the sour underscore which uses the compositions of Cesar Franck. With Renzo Ricci and Fred Williams (who's actually a German actor despite the name).

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Hour Of The Gun (1967)

After the violent gunfight with the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral, Marshal Wyatt Earp (James Garner) must contend with Clanton's (Robert Ryan) attempts at revenge. Based on the non fiction TOMBSTONE'S EPITAPH by Douglas D. Martin and directed by John Sturges (THE GREAT ESCAPE). The legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral has provided fodder for many westerns prior to this one but they almost always ended with the gunfight. HOUR OF THE GUN begins with the gunfight and then explores the aftermath. It's a very good western and if it peters out at the very end, well ... that's what happens when you go for the facts and not the legend. Garner and Jason Robards (as Doc Holliday) give fine performances as they dominate the film. It's a testosterone driven film, there's only one female character and she has only two lines. Still, as good as it is I still prefer Sturges' earlier take on the story GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) even if it strays from the facts. The Jerry Goldsmith score is a disappointment. With Jon Voight, Albert Salmi, Charles Aidman, William Windom, Steve Ihnat, Larry Gates, Monte Markham and Lonny Chapman.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Set in an unspecified New England town, the iron fisted mayor (Spencer Tracy) of the city is running for re-election. A man of the people as opposed to his conservative money backed opponent, he and his strategists do whatever it takes to win the election. Based on the novel by Edwin O'Connor and directed by John Ford. As a political film, it's not very interesting but its central character is and Tracy gives a wonderful performance as the son of Irish immigrants who hasn't forgotten his roots in the often mudslinging world of politics. It's his life and he's sacrificed everything for it and when it's taken away, it kills him (literally). I don't have the statistics to back me up but I'll wager Tracy's death scene is one of the longest ever put on film, it seemed like a half hour. The film is crammed with familiar character actors, many of them veterans of Ford's films. The large cast includes Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp, John Carradine, James Gleason, Jane Darwell, Anna Lee, Wallace Ford, Frank McHugh, Edward Brophy, Helen Westcott and Ricardo Cortez.

Munster Go Home! (1966)

A man who looks like Frankenstein by the name of Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) inherits an estate in Great Britain along with the title of Lord. He and his wife (Yvonne De Carlo), father in law (Al Lewis), son (Butch Patrick) and niece (Debbie Watson) all travel to England to see their new home. But the matriarch (Hermione Gingold) and her son (Terry Thomas) of the estate won't give up without a fight and a dirty fight at that. Directed by Earl Bellamy, this theatrical film was made after the TV series THE MUNSTERS ended its two year run. TV shows with their original cast turned into feature films was nothing new. To name just two, DRAGNET in 1954 and OUR MISS BROOKS in 1956 were turned into movies while their TV shows were still on the air. How is this film different from the TV show? It isn't. It's more of the same but it might have been different if the film had actually been shot on location in England but here "England" is the Universal backlot. If you found the TV series amusing, you should find the film to your liking. I wasn't a fan of the series but I did chuckle a couple of times during the film's running time at some sight gags and it was nice seeing the characters in color instead of B&W. With John Carradine, Richard Dawson Robert Pine and Jeanne Arnold.