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Friday, May 6, 2016

I Vampiri (1957)

In Paris, a string of murders against young women is receiving great attention in the press. The killer is dubbed The Vampire because the bodies are all drained of blood but there aren't any bite marks on their neck but there are needle marks. I VAMPIRI is reputedly the first Italian horror film of the sound era. While it wasn't a success when released, it eventually paved the way for such giallo film makers such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava (who's the cinematographer here) among others. Handsomely shot in B&W CinemaScope by Bava, who finished the film after the director Riccardo Freda left the project. With its large old castle with dungeons and hidden pathways, mad scientists and bloodthirsty countesses, it combines elements of both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA and its influence can be seen in some of the Hammer films like COUNTESS DRACULA.  It's remarkably subtle in its horror elements considering some of the giallo horrors that would follow. The film suffers from a rather dull leading man (Dario Michaelis) playing an irritating character so that I developed a perverse sympathy for the villainess (Gianna Maria Canale). With Carlo D'Angelo, Wandisa Guida and Angelo Galassi.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Melancholia (2011)

As a rogue planet called Melancholia races on a collusion course with Earth, a bride (Kirsten Dunst) falls into a great depression on her wedding day. Her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy but it isn't long before she begins to unravel too. The director Lars von Trier has a history of putting his female protagonists through the most horrible circumstances imaginable. Think Nicole Kidman in DOGVILLE, Bjork in DANCER IN THE DARK and Emily Watson in BREAKING THE WAVES. von Trier doesn't degrade Dunst or Gainsbourg the way he did those three "heroines" but he does push them through a dark and emotional nightmare which, of course, isn't a nightmare at all, it's real. It's a bold, fearless film with a killer performance by Dunst at its core. It has its flaws but von Trier is so daring in what he is trying to accomplish that it would seem churlish to dredge up its minor blemishes. That being said, I could have done without those blasts of Wagner on the soundtrack which in the context of the film sound as slurpy as some of those scores Max Steiner churned out at Warners in the 30s and 40s. With Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard and Udo Kier.  

Pride And Prejudice (1940)

In a small English country village, a mother (Mary Boland) is eager to marry off her five eligible daughters and sets her cap and two gentlemen of means: a newly arrived neighbor (Bruce Lester) and his even richer friend (Laurence Olivier). But the friend's pride clashes with the prejudices of the eldest daughter (Greer Garson) in spite of an attraction between the two. Of all the major film studios of the Hollywood "Golden Age", MGM was the most literary minded. Adaptations of Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy among others were filmed on a regular basis. Despite some changes, this adaptation of Jane Austen's novel is fairly faithful to the book and it's quite entertaining. Garson hadn't yet settled into her great lady of MGM mold and she's charming here while Olivier brings a genuine aristocratic authenticity to his Darcy. Of course, it looks great as it gets the full A budget MGM deluxe treatment but the screenplay (co-written by Aldous Huxley) is full of vinegar and wit. Tastefully directed with Robert Z. Leonard. With Edmund Gwenn, Mary Boland (stealing whole scenes), Maureen O'Sullivan, Marsha Hunt, Ann Rutherford, Frieda Inescort, Heather Angel, Karen Morley, Melville Cooper and Edna May Oliver. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Farewell My Lovely (1975)

Set in 1941 Los Angeles, a private detective (Robert Mitchum) is hired by a hulking ex-convict (Jack O'Halloran) fresh out of prison to find his missing girlfriend. It seems like a simple enough case but when people start turning up dead all over the place, it's clear that there's more here than meets the eye. Based on the 1940 Raymond Chandler novel which was previously filmed in 1944 under the title MURDER MY SWEET. Neo noir this may be and in color but it's a near perfect genre piece that holds its own with the better B&W noirs of the 1940s and 50s. The weary looking Mitchum makes for a perfect Philip Marlowe and the rest of the cast is right behind him. Charlotte Rampling makes for a classic femme fatale, John Ireland for a hard nosed cop and everyone else down the line, too. This isn't a revisionist look that sets the genre on its ear like Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE, it's the real deal.  John A. Alonzo's cinematography is a thing of beauty, the period milieu is superb (kudos to Dean Tavoularis' production design) and an excellent score by David Shire. Directed by Dick Richards. With Sylvia Miles (in an Oscar nominated performance), Harry Dean Stanton, Anthony Zerbe, Kate Murtagh and in one of his earliest roles, Sylvester Stallone.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

A film company is shooting a movie set in Victorian England about a paleontologist (Jeremy Irons) who is engaged to marry  a young woman (Lynsey Baxter) but who becomes obsessed with a woman (Meryl Streep) with a mysterious past. The two actors (also Streep and Irons) playing the lead roles, while married to others, are also having an affair. Based on the celebrated John Fowles novel and adapted by Harold Pinter, Fowles novel is one of those books that defies a faithful transition to the screen. In Fowles' novel, the narrator is a character and there is no equivalent in the film. The novel has three different endings and the film creates the "making a movie" scenario which is not in the book to parallel one of the endings. With all that in mind, the film does a good job of approximating the intent of the novel. The Victorian portion works better than the modern portion because we can accept the reserved passion due to the societal constraints of the time but the contemporary "romance" is passionless. Part of the problem might be due to the casting of the dried out Irons, perhaps one of the least passionate actors out there but Streep is excellent if perhaps too meticulous.  Karel Reisz's direction is exemplary. With Leo McKern, David Warner, Patience Collier, Hilton McRae and Peter Vaughan.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Signpost To Murder (1964)

Set in the English countryside, a man (Stuart Whitman) breaks out of a mental institution and hides from the authorities at the secluded home of a married woman (Joanne Woodward) whose husband is away and holds her hostage. Based on a 1962 play by Monte Doyle (with Margaret Lockwood in Woodward's role) that was a hit on the London stage. It's one of those plays like DIAL M FOR MURDER or DEATHTRAP that's more or less stage bound as the characters talk away until there's a neat little twist at the end. Unfortunately, Doyle's play, adapted here by Sally Benson (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS), is never more than average and sometimes less than that. It plays out like an episode of the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. Curiously, why two Americans who don't know each other are doing in a remote English village is never addressed. The true star of the film is Edward C. Carfagno and George W. Davis's spectacular set design! A to die for 2 story country home surrounded by a river and lush foliage. An open living room with lots of windows and a huge water wheel in full view. Directed by George Englund (THE UGLY AMERICAN). With Edward Mulhare, Murray Matheson and Alan Napier.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Merry Widow (1952)

The King of Marshovia (Thomas Gomez) commands his nephew (Fernando Lamas) to woo a rich American widow (Lana Turner) so they can pay off the country's national debt. But the nephew mistakes the widow's secretary (Una Merkel) for the rich American while the real widow passes herself off as an American chorus girl. Based on the popular 1905 Franz Lehar operetta which had already seen two major film incarnations. Erich von Stroheim did a silent version in 1925 while Ernst Lubitsch did the first sound version in 1934 and even in the 1970s, there was a planned version with Barbra Streisand directed by Ingmar Bergman that never came to fruition. As directed by Curtis Bernhardt, this version gets the full lush MGM treatment so we get gorgeous sets and costumes though most of Lehar's songs have been cut. One has to question why film an operetta and cast the lead with a non-singer (Turner is dubbed in her one song) though I suppose we should be grateful we were spared Kathryn Grayson's trilling. Other than the sets and costumes (both Oscar nominated), the best thing about the film is Jack Cole's choreography though there's not enough of it. With Richard Haydn, Robert Coote, John Abbott, Marcel Dalio, Lisa Ferraday and Gwen Verdon. 

Mother's Day (2016)

As Mother's Day approaches, a group of disparate parents must come to terms with their relationship to their own parents and children: A divorced mom (Jennifer Aniston) whose ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) has recently remarried. Two sisters with bigoted parents (Margo Martindale, Robert Pine), one (Kate Hudson) married to an Indian (Aasif Mandvi), the other (Sarah Chalke) in a same sex relationship. A widower (Jason Sudeikis) raising two daughters while still mourning his wife (Jennifer Garner). A young mother (Britt Robertson) with abandonment issues who refuses to marry the father (Jack Whitehall) of her baby. Flat as a pancake! I felt sorry for the poor actors (who've all proven their worth elsewhere) who have nothing to work with. They keep spinning their wheels in the hope that something will click but except for two very brief (like seconds) moments, it never does. Ironically, the dreaded gag reel which plays over the film's end credits is much funnier than anything that's in the movie. Maybe they should have tossed the script away and let the actors improvise. Poor Julia Roberts is saddled with the most disfiguring wig worn by a movie star since Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Directed by Garry Marshall. With Hector Elizondo, Jon Lovitz, Cameron Esposito and Shay Mitchell.

Jane Eyre (2011)

After enduring a cold unhappy childhood, first in the home of an Aunt (Sally Hawkins) and then a cruel Spartan school, a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) accepts a position as a governess in the home of the charismatic but aloof Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Charlotte Bronte's great Gothic novel has seen over 20 film adaptations (if you count films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and over a dozen TV adaptations. The 400 page novel has never been fully done for film but the story is so compelling that it's almost impossible to botch it. The director Cary Joji Fukunaga tones down the romantic elements that often permeated other film versions and concentrates on the harsher aspects of the tale. It's a brisk film and manages to avoid that stately but dull BBC Masterpiece Theatre aura that kills off most classic novel adaptations. Wasikowska is closer to Bronte's "plain" Jane than most actresses who've played the part but the Rochester of Bronte's novel who is described by Bronte as not handsome is played by the handsome Fassbender. In that respect, George C. Scott is probably the closest movie Rochester (1970's Jane Eyre).  With Judi Dench, Jamie Bell and Simon McBurney.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Heidi Chronicles (1995)

Beginning in 1965, the film follows a young woman (Jamie Lee Curtis) from high school to a career as an acclaimed art historian in the mid-90s through America's changing landscape from Vietnam to feminism to AIDS, etc. Wendy Wasserstein adapted her Tony award winning play for the small screen (it debuted on Turner Network Television). I haven't seen Wasserstein's acclaimed 1989 play so I must come to the conclusion that it worked better on stage or that perhaps time hasn't been kind to it. Wasserstein's dialogue wants to be profound when it comes across as trite and one wishes Woody Allen would come along and rewrite it and skewer her characters rather than treat them as if as if they were icons of the boomer generation. I couldn't help but scratch my head at Heidi's (Curtis) affectionate attachment to the narcissistic character played by the charmless and uncharismatic Peter Friedman. Curtis tries and with a few exceptions (the speech at a woman's luncheon), she can't bring Heidi to life. Directed by Paul Bogart. With Tom Hulce (who won an Emmy for his performance), Kim Cattrall, Sharon Lawrence, Shari Belafonte and Roma Maffia.