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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Narrow Margin (1952)

A Los Angeles cop (Charles McGraw) is assigned the task of accompanying a gangster's hard boiled widow (Marie Windsor) on a train from Chicago to L.A. The mob is after her because she has a payoff list that can incriminate them. Directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA), this classic example of film noir is a lean (not an ounce of fat, i.e. padding out the story) thriller. The economical screenplay by Earl Felton was justifiably Oscar nominated and Fleischer pushes the action forward at an intense pace. I'm a big fan of thrillers and murder mysteries set on trains and this ranks with the best. The performances are good right down the line with noir icons McGraw and Windsor pitch perfect. I was a bit disappointed that Windsor's character was pretty much ignored after her final scene considering what she's been through but this is a film without sentiment. Unusual for a film of its day, it has no underscore. Remade in 1990 but with significant changes. With Jacqueline White, Don Beddoe, Queenie Leonard and Peter Virgo.  

Monday, June 18, 2018

Dutchman (1966)

A disturbed blonde (Shirley Knight) spots a middle class black man (Al Freeman Jr.) in a nearly deserted subway car and proceeds to both seduce him and ridicule his conservatism and "white" ways. Based on the play by Amiri Baraka (writing under the name of Le Roi Jones) and directed by Anthony Harvey (THE LION IN WINTER). Written during the rise of black nationalism, Baraka's play is very much of its time. It's not a naturalistic play, even in 1966 it could only work as a stylized allegory. Knight's Lula is a crazy woman that any normal person would go out of their way to avoid yet Freeman's Clay not only seems attracted to her but engages in a dialog with her. Its symbolism is rather heavy handed as Knight munches apple after apple and offers them to Freeman as we think, "Ah, she is Eve and offering him the forbidden fruit that will be his downfall." We know it will be only be a matter of time before his black rage against the white man will come spewing forth. Meanwhile, the fellow passengers that have boarded all sit quietly like the background actors that they are ignoring the histrionics. What holds the film together now are the superb performances by both Knight and Freeman who inhabit their characters with a commitment that is impressive. The brief but highly effective underscore is by John Barry. 

La Morte Ha Sorriso All'assassino (aka Death Smiles On A Murderer) (1973)

Set in 1906 Austria, an unmarried young woman (Ewa Aulin) dies in childbirth. The father (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) of the child is a rich man who abandoned her. Her brother (Luciano Rossi) who has been molesting her for years resurrects her dead body to life. Hell hath no fury like a woman bent on revenge! Directed by Joe D'Amato, this film is often mistakenly referred to as a giallo when it has more in common with Corman's Poe films from the early 1960s. Of course, it has more gore and graphic sex than Corman's Poe films ever did. The film has an unsavory aspect to it as it not only features incest but disemboweled bodies, needles stuck into eyes, homicidal felines, people buried alive, shotgun blasts to the face etc. But D'Amato knows his audience and it's hard to turn away, you're compelled to watch. There's no denying its effectiveness. The film features a neat little twist at the very end. The faux Morricone score is by Berto Pisano. With Klaus Kinski (creepy as ever), Sergio Doria, Angela Bo and Attilio Dottesio. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Portrait Of A Dead Girl (1970)

A New Mexico lawman (Dennis Weaver) is escorting a prisoner (Shelly Novack) from New Mexico to New York City. But in transferring the prisoner to the local authorities, the lawman is attacked and his prisoner kidnapped. Back in the day, the major networks would often do TV movies to check out the potential of turning them into weekly TV series or as a way of hooking viewers when it eventually became a TV series. An unofficial spin off of the 1968 Don Siegel film COOGAN'S BLUFF, this would be titled MCCLOUD and seven months later debut as a series on NBC. This is the usual "fish out of water" premise of a rural cowboy finding himself in an urban landscape with the typical problems of coping with a different environment. Dennis Weaver tends to overdo the country boy bit but audiences ate it up for seven years. The plot is dragged out to feature length but would be better served in a concise one hour episode. The cast includes Julie Newmar, Raul Julia, Diana Muldaur, Craig Stevens and Peter Mark Richman   

Ocean's Eight (2018)

Just paroled from prison, a woman (Sandra Bullock) contacts her former partner in crime (Cate Blanchett) to convince her to join her in a heist that she spent five years in prison planning. The prize? A $150 million dollar diamond necklace! Directed by Gary Ross (PLEASANTVILLE). In terms of pure pleasure, this may be the most enjoyable movie I've seen so far this year. It's the kind of movie that does the work for you so you can give your brain a rest and enjoy the mindlessness of it all and focus on the performances, the style and the humor. I probably won't remember most of it six months from now but for an "in the moment" movie, it's perfect. The female fueled cast are wonderful, even Cate Blanchett, probably my least favorite living actress. She's smart enough to realize this isn't the kind of movie where you need to act and she's relaxed and it's a relief to see her not emoting with a capital A. If anyone steals the picture though, it's Anne Hathaway as movie star who's the target of the heist but Helena Bonham Carter is also terrific as a ditzy high fasion designer. Slick and fun about sums it up. The massive cast includes James Corden, Sarah Paulson, Dakota Fanning, Rihanna, Elliott Gould, Mindy Kaling, Katie Holmes, Elizabeth Ashley, Awkwafina, Marlo Thomas, Griffin Dunne, Dana Ivey and Richard Armitage.   

Needful Things (1993)

A mysterious stranger (Max Von Sydow) arrives in a small town in Maine and opens an antiques store. Soon after, violent and destructive actions begin to occur and the townspeople start turning against each other. Coincidence? Based on the novel by Stephen King and directed by Fraser C. Heston (Charlton's son). This black comedy starts off promisingly and its first hour sets up the premise and has us anticipating the mayhem but the second hour is a huge letdown. Heston can't quite seem to balance the inherent unpleasant undertone of the situation with the over the top slyly comic wickedness. Is skinning a dog out of spite ever funny? There's apparently a longer cut that has been shown on TV but I suspect that it just extends the unpleasantness. As it is, the film is highly watchable though bordering on overstaying its welcome. Some of the performances are very good. Von Sydow of course but you expect that but also J.T. Walsh and Amanda Plummer stand out. There's also a marvelous score by Patrick Doyle that aids the film immeasurably. With Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia and Ray McKinnon. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Zombies Of Mora Tau (1957)

A wealthy American (Joel Ashley), along with his wife (Allison Hayes) and crew, journeys to Africa in search of a sunken ship reputed to have a cache of diamonds aboard. What he wasn't prepared for were the zombies protecting the diamonds from being taken. Directed by Edward L. Cahn, this low budget bottom bill programmer is from the Sam Katzman factory so you know it's a cheapie. Whoever thought that underwater zombies was a good idea? I suppose it works as a kitschy creature feature if you're in a forgiving mood but boy, is it dull. Hayes' bitchy wife seems like she could save the movie if they'd only let her rip but she's turned into a zombie far too early. As for the other actors, with one exception, they're a sorry lot. The one exception is Marjorie Eaton as the grandmother who uses an actor's resources to bring a surprising authority to the movie, it's certainly not in the script. With Gregg Palmer as the film's "hero" (you may have problems differentiating him from the zombies), Autumn Russell and Morris Ankrum. 

The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

Set during the depression era of the 1930s, a serial killer (Robert Mitchum) masquerading as a preacher courts lonely widows with money then murders them after marriage. His latest victim is a woman (Shelley Winters) whose husband stole and hid $10,000 before being hanged. She doesn't know where the money is but her young son (Billy Chapin) and daughter (Sally Jane Bruce) do. Based on the novel by Davis Grubb and directed by the actor Charles Laughton, sadly his only film as a director. Shockingly dismissed by both audiences and to a lesser extent critics when it opened, this is a great film. Certainly not without flaws and some weak performances but not to the film's detriment.  It's a film that's not easy to categorize. Part allegory, part noir, part horror but always intense. The often expressionistic cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez (MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) is stunning. Visually, the children's escape down the river is pure cinemagic and only the walk through the cane fields in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE comes even close. And Mitchum in possibly his greatest performance is magnificent here as is Lillian Gish as a bible quoting country woman taking in stray children. As the children, Chapin is good but Sally Jane Bruce is embarrassingly amateurish but after all, she is just 5 years old. The superb score is by Walter Schumann. With Evelyn Varden, James Gleason and Don Beddoe.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Importance Of Being Earnest (1986)

Two friends discover that they have invented fictional beings in order to avoid social responsibilities. One (Paul McGann) has invented an irresponsible brother and the other (Rupert Frazer) invented a sickly friend. However, this deception comes back to haunt them when their respective loves (Amanda Redman, Natalie Ogle) discover the deceptions. Based on the 1895 farce by Oscar Wilde and directed by Stuart Burge. Wilde's most popular (and most performed) play is so cleverly constructed that one could almost assume it's fool proof. On the page, it is. Its unraveling often comes because of the performances and direction. Wilde's characters are often notoriously self centered and snobbish so charm and line delivery are key to accepting their characters. In this particular production, Frazer's Algy is charmless and his line readings turn wit into lumps of dough so that he comes across as unappealing and as Cicely, Ogle's comedic skills aren't obvious. Two of the actors, however, seem to understand Wilde perfectly. Redman's Gwendolyn shows shrewdness in her performance and Joan Plowright as Lady Bracknell seems born to play her. With Alec McCowen and Gemma Jones.

Doctor Blood's Coffin (1961)

After being kicked out of medical school for unethical experiments, a young doctor (Kieron Moore) returns to the small Cornwall village of his youth to help his doctor father (Ian Hunter) out. But that doesn't mean he's stopping those horrid experiments. Written by Nathan Juran (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) and directed by Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE), this is yet another riff on Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN with a touch of THE MONKEY'S PAW thrown in. The film delivers very few thrills with only one moment of genuine horror. In fact, it plays out more like a murder mystery although we know from the beginning who is responsible for a series of deaths. Stephen Dade (ZULU) does a nice job of rendering the Cornwall seaside and its caves in vivid Eastman color and the score is provided by Buxton Orr (SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER). Die hard horror fans should find much to enjoy here. With lovely Hazel Court exercising her "scream Queen" lungs and Kenneth J. Warren.