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Friday, May 29, 2015

Return To Oz (1985)

Six months after returning to Kansas from the land of Oz, young Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) is troubled and can't sleep. Her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) takes her to a dubious doctor (Nicol Williamson) who specializes in electric healing in the hopes he can help. But Dorothy escapes with the help of another young girl (Emma Ridley) during a thunderstorm and soon finds herself back in Oz. Loosely based on the L. Frank Baum books, MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ and OZMA OF OZ, the film was not a success at the box office. Perhaps audiences (and critics) were expecting a bright cheerful film like the 1939 classic instead of this dark, unsettling yet touching fantasy. Closer to the Baum books than the MGM musical film, this is a wonderful film that is slowly but surely getting the recognition it deserves. It's disturbing undercurrent makes it unsuitable for young children (when I showed it to my 6 year old nephew many years ago, he was quite upset). But I maintain that it is a poignant look at childhood fears. Expertly directed by Walter Murch (whose only feature film this is) with a highly effective score by David Shire. With Jean Marsh, Matt Clark and Sophie Ward.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bikini Beach (1964)

It's summer and the Beach Party gang are up to their old tricks at the beach but a wealthy newspaper publisher (Keenan Wynn) wages an anti-surfer campaign in his newspaper. Meanwhile, a British Beatles like pop star (Frankie Avalon) threatens to steal the girlfriend (Annette Funicello) of our beach hero (Frankie Avalon). One of the weakest entries in the Beach Party franchise, this one is on auto control. The songs (except for Stevie Wonder) are a yawn and the jokes are lamer than usual and Harvey Lembeck's Von Zipper act was getting pretty tedious. And one has to wonder what Martha Hyer (she even has to kiss an ape) and Keenan Wynn are doing here. That "ape" is so obviously an actor in a monkey suit that one wonders how dim the characters are that they can't even notice! Directed by William Asher. With Boris Karloff, Don Rickles, John Ashley, Donna Loren, Jody McCrea, Candy Johnson, Meredith MacRae, Michael Nader and Timothy Carey.

Show Boat (1936)

In the 1880s, a show boat run by Captian Andy (Charles Winninger) traveling the Mississippi river picks up a gambling man (Allan Jones) to act in his show. Despite the disapproval of his wife (Helen Westley), his young daughter (Irene Dunne) falls in love with the gambler. One of the greatest musicals of the American theatre, SHOW BOAT has yet to receive a definitive film version in spite of being made three times (it was also made in 1929 and 1951). This one, directed by James Whale (BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), is generally considered the best of the three though frankly, in spite of its flaws, I prefer the 1951 MGM Technicolor version. Dunne and especially Jones are insufferable as the romantic leads. Fortunately, the film has Helen Morgan in one of her rare film roles recreating the role of the bi-racial Julie which she played in the original show. Then there's the great Paul Robeson whose rendition of Old Man River gives one goosebumps and whose acting style seems the most contemporary of anyone in the film. Also in fine support are Hattie McDaniel who gets a chance to show off her singing talent and Queenie Smith and Sammy White as Frank and Ellie. The film's ending defines schmaltz!  One of my favorite songs from the show Life Upon The Wicked Stage is eliminated from this version but was put back in the 1951 movie. With Donald Cook and Sunnie O'Dea.

For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943)

During the Spanish Civil War in the year 1937, an American professor (Gary Cooper) joins the Republican guerrilla forces fighting against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco. An assignment to blow up a strategic bridge finds him holed up in the mountains with other guerrilla fighters. It is there where he meets the girl Maria (Ingrid Bergman) and falls in love. Based on the celebrated novel by Ernest Hemingway, the film can't hope to approximate the Hemingway novel (at least with the restrictive cultural taboos of the time) but director Sam Wood has done a pretty decent job of transferring the novel to the screen nonetheless. It helps that he has Cooper and Bergman who have a nice romantic chemistry (a chemistry that spilled over in real life reputedly) that anchors the film. Wood does a neat balancing act with the romantic elements and the action scenes and a fine supporting cast who bolster the film considerably. The film was a huge moneymaker in its day. The score by Victor Young was very popular, too. With Katina Paxinou in her justifiably Oscar winning performance. The scene where she describes her life as an ugly woman is simply terrific. Also in the cast: Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Arturo De Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff and Fortunio Bonanova.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

A scientist (Hugh Marlowe, ALL ABOUT EVE) in charge of a space program is contacted by aliens from outer space. Their planet is dying and they want to colonize Earth. But how to stop them? This modestly entertaining piece of 1950s science fiction suffers from over earnestness. With the dullest of second tier leading men like Hugh Marlowe (where's Kenneth Tobey when you need him?) and poor Joan Taylor saddled with the drab "wife" role, the movie desperately needs an infusion of humor to leaven things out. Tim Burton's homage to EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, the witty MARS ATTACKS succeeded in doing just that. The special effects work by the legendary Ray Harryhausen is noteworthy and the film isn't long enough for any lethargy to set in. Directed by Fred F. Sears. With Morris Ankrum, Donald Curtis and Thomas Browne Henry.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Run Silent Run Deep (1958)

It's 1943 during WWII and at Pearl Harbor, a Navy submarine commander (Clark Gable) is currently holding a desk job after losing his submarine to a Japanese destroyer one year before. When he is given a new submarine command, there's only one thing on his mind ..... getting the Japanese destroyer that downed his submarine. Based on the novel by Edward L. Beach Jr., this is a tight and lean action film with no flabby subplots or extraneous romance (the only female in the film is Mary LaRoche briefly seen as Gable's wife) to hold it back. Directed by Robert Wise, the film is as focused as Gable's character in getting down to business. Once we're on the submarine, we're in there for the remainder of the film with no respite from the tension from either the ship's crew which threatens to snap at any minute nor the sub's dangerous mission. Only once did it falter: a minor character that may as well have had "I'm going to die before this movie is over" tattooed on his forehead!  With Burt Lancaster as Gable's adversarial second in command, Jack Warden, Don Rickles, Brad Dexter and Joe Maross.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Nasty Habits (1977)

At an obscure convent in Philadelphia, a nun (Glenda Jackson) conspires to win the election as the new Abbess when the current Abbess (Edith Evans) passes away. She is aided in her plot by two other nuns (Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson). However, she must first defeat her competition, a younger nun (Susan Penhaligon). But an in house scandal may soon bring her reign to a crashing halt! Based on the novel THE ABBESS OF CREWE by Muriel Sparks (PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE), time has caused this movie to lose much of its edge. It's a satire on the Watergate scandal of 1973 and the eventual fall of Richard Nixon as U.S. President. Over forty years have passed and its topicality has faded to the pages of the history books. So, can one enjoy the comedy without a detailed knowledge of the Watergate scandal? I think so but it assuredly helps if you're familiar with it. But even in 1977, the movie was hit and miss in its humor. There's no lack of talent in the project and Jackson makes for an icy and ambitious power hungry leader. But the real scene stealer is Sandy Dennis who is hilarious as the John Dean fall guy stand in. While the other actresses try to keep it relatively subtle, Dennis gives an all out broadly comedic performance. Directed by Michael Lindsay Hogg. With Melina Mercouri (doing Henry Kissinger), Eli Wallach, Rip Torn, Jerry Stiller, Mike Douglas, Jessica Savitch and the late Anne Meara as Gerald Ford's parallel. 

Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock And Roll (2014)

In the 1950s and 1960s, pop music took hold in Cambodia. First, there was the French influences (from Edith Piaf to Johnny Hallyday) but then came the English (Cliff Richard and the Shadows) and, of course, American. It was a fusion of American pop/rock and Afrro-Cuban (think Santana). The music scene thrived and created their own pop stars but when the Khmer Rouge took power, pop music wasn't merely censored, it was systematically dismantled (only "patriotic" songs were allowed) and many of the country's biggest stars were sent to forced labor camps. This fascinating and often moving documentary can't help but also include Southeast Asia's political turmoil (and U.S. involvement) in its influence on the music scene (U.S. soldiers introduced Cambodians to a lot of American rock). What film clearly shows is that Art will survive. You may even destroy the artist but you cannot destroy his Art. Art is influential so it is necessary for a fascist government to suppress or censor it but you can't destroy it. Alas, since so much actual footage of the artists was destroyed, the director John Pirozzi is often forced to use stills, repeated footage, voice overs etc. to recreate the era. Luckily, some of the artists survived to tell their story. Well worth seeking out.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Noi Vivi (aka We The Living) (1942)

In 1920s post revolutionary Russia, a young girl (Alida Valli) moves to Petrograd with her family whose textile business has been seized by the new Communist government. Struggling in poverty, she meets a young anti-revolutionary (Rossano Brazzi) and they fall in love. She also becomes involved with a student revolutionary (Fosco Giachetti) who is a member of the secret police. Based on the novel by Ayn Rand, the film was made in Fascist Italy during WWII and without her permission. The film was never released in the U.S. but Rand liked most of what she saw and before her death cooperated in turning the four hour film (released in Italy in two parts) into one three hour film. As directed by Goffredo Alessandrini, what we get is a potent look at how "socialism" (at least as practiced by the Soviets) is destructive to the human condition. While Valli's character remains resolute in her ideals, the two men become disillusioned. Indeed, the film's hero is the policeman who sees the State corrupt the very ideals he fought for while the anti-revolutionary becomes corrupt and exploitative. We're spared the novel's depressing end and given an uncommitted more open end which at least gives us hope. A film that demands to be seen at least once whatever your political beliefs. With Emilio Cigoli, Guguelmo Sinaz and Cesarina Gheraldi.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Outland (1981)

Set on Io, one of Jupiter's moons, where a major corporation mines titanium, a federal marshal (Sean Connery) discovers that an amphetamine like drug is being fed to its workers to increase productivity. As written and directed by Peter Hyams (CAPRICORN ONE), this is an uncredited remake of HIGH NOON set in outer space. The premise of setting an iconic western deep in the cosmos is intriguing but Hyams barely taps into it, he merely uses its shell. On a visual level, the film is a marvelous looking  toy. But Hyams has failed to flesh out his characters beyond stereotypes so that we get potentially interesting or underdeveloped characters spouting tripe. Frances Sternhagen as a grouchy doctor who aids Connery manages to dress up a rather ordinary role and make it stand out, heaven knows it's not in the writing. The hyper score is by Jerry Goldsmith. With Peter Boyle, James Sikking, Steven Berkoff and Kika Markham (Truffaut's TWO ENGLISH GIRLS) as Connery's wife.