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Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Salamander (1981)

After a high ranking General is assassinated, a special agent (Franco Nero) is assigned to investigate his murder. But what he uncovers is a conspiracy among right wing leaders of the government to overtake Italy. Can they be stopped in time? Based on the novel by Morris West and directed by Peter Zinner. This pulpy conspiracy thriller is quite enjoyable if difficult to follow at times. Outside of Nero's protagonist, you're never sure who you can trust and sometimes you're not even sure about him! The all star cast do well though Paul L. Smith's sadistic assassin borders on "camp". The cinematography by Marcello Gatti (BATTLE OF ALGIERS) benefits from the handsome Italian locations though major portions of the film are supposedly set in Switzerland and there's a nice underscore by Jerry Goldsmith. The large cast includes Anthony Quinn, Claudia Cardinale, Eli Wallach, Christopher Lee, Sybil Danning (used for more than eye candy for a change), Martin Balsam and Cleavon Little.

Wonder (2017)

A young boy (Jacob Tremblay) born with a facial defect (Treacher Collins syndrome) has been home schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts). But she feels that it's time he faced the challenges of the real world and sends him to a public school for the first time. The challenge of "fitting in" which are hard at the best of times becomes even more difficult. Based on the best selling young adult novel by R.J. Palacio and directed by Stephen Chbosky (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER). This is a beautiful little film on so many levels. Anyone who's ever been the odd man out in a school situation can relate but the film goes beyond the problems of its young protagonist but to those surrounding him: family, friends, schoolmates and each with their little cross to bear. The film manages to be incredibly moving without icky sentimentality. Anyone fearing that young Tremblay's superb performance in ROOM was a one shot deal can relax. He gives a marvelous performance here. Roberts brings an unexpected depth to the mother role and I don't think I've ever found Owen Wilson (who plays the father) more likable. With Mandy Patinkin, Sonia Braga, Izabela Vidovic, Daveed Diggs, Danielle Rose Russell and that marvelous young actor Noah Jupe (SUBURBICON) who equals Tremblay.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Majo No Takkyubin (aka Kiki's Delivery Service) (1989)

As is their tradition, a young witch (Minami Takayama/Kirsten Dunst) leaves home at the age of 13 to seek her fortune in the world. All she takes with her are her broom and her black cat (Rei Sakuma/Phil Hartman). Based on the book by Eiko Kadono and produced, directed and adapted for the screen by the great Hayao Miyazaki. This utterly captivating example of Japanese anime is a charming tale of the process of growing from adolescence into a young woman as the young witch grapples with loneliness, self doubt and independence. As usual for Miyazaki, the animation is stunning. Rich and vibrant with color and precise in the detailing. Although released in 1989, the film didn't reach U.S. shores until nine years later. I watched the original Japanese language version but the English is very well done too I thought. Among the actors voicing the English dub are Debbie Reynolds, Janeane Garofalo, Brad Garrett, Edie McClurg and Matthew Lawrence. This was one of Phil Hartman's last performances and the U.S. dub is dedicated to him.

Lady Bird (2017)

Set in 2002 Sacramento, a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) in her senior year deals with her strong willed mother (Laurie Metcalf) as well as discovering boys. Written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig, this is a splendid look at the chaos and angst of being an adolescent whose parents just don't (or rather we think they don't) get it. Gerwig's screenplay is sharp and funny but never at the expense of the truth of the material, she doesn't go for the cheap laughs. Two sensational performances drive the film. Ronan continues to impress as one of the best young actresses working in film today and finally, the wonderful Laurie Metcalf gets a movie role worthy of her expansive talents. Their scenes together are pure bliss. If the film's conclusion seems all too familiar and perhaps the tiniest bit predictable, it's still been a thrilling journey to get there. The excellent supporting cast includes Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet, Lois Smith and Beanie Feldstein.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Norliss Tapes (1973)

An investigative writer (Roy Thinnes) doing a book on the occult goes missing after leaving a cryptic message with his publisher (Don Porter). The publisher finds a series of tapes by the writer describing the events leading up to his disappearance. Directed by Dan Curtis (THE NIGHT STALKER) and based on a story by Fred Mustard Stewart (THE MEPHISTO WALTZ). This minor horror film intended as a pilot for a TV series (it never sold) was released as a stand alone telefilm. It's a decent effort with a cult following and it's fun but in spite of some atmospheric locations like San Francisco, Carmel, Big Sur along with a surfeit of rain, there's no genuine sense of dread. The voice over narration by Thinnes gives the film a sense of film noir which is effective but the cheesy underscore by Robert Cobert (THE WINDS OF WAR) undermines whatever tension the film may have had. With Angie Dickinson as a recent widow who starts the plot in motion. Also with Hurd Hatfield, Claude Akins, Michele Carey, Vonetta McGee and Robert Mandan.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tarzan The Ape Man (1959)

Guided by a Watusi (Thomas Yanha) on a hazardous trek through uncharted lands, three people search for an ancient elephant graveyard which yields a fortune in ivory. They include an adventurer (Cesare Danova), his partner (Robert Douglas) and his partner's daughter (Joanna Barnes). The daughter becomes separated from the other two and is saved by a mysterious jungle man (Denny Miller). Directed by Joseph M. Newman (THIS ISLAND EARTH), this is a very low budget and loose remake of the original 1932 MGM Tarzan film with Johnny Weissmuller. It's an odd little film and more enjoyable than it has any right to be considering what a patch job it is. It's an MGM backlot Africa with copious amounts of previously used footage from KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1950) and the early MGM Tarzan movies inserted in. The inserted footage doesn't match the new footage and the optical effects are really bad. A scene of Miller and Barnes swimming underwater is clearly the actors shot in a tank and inserted over previously shot underwater footage. Then there's the swinging jazz score by Shorty Rogers which feels out of place. Miller makes for a likable and rather sweet Tarzan (though that name is never used in the film) if you can get over him looking like he wandered in from a beach party movie.  

Shadow Of The Thin Man (1941)

When a jockey who threw a race is found murdered at the track, a police Lieutenant (Sam Levene) requests the help of retired detective Nick Charles (William Powell). But two more murders will occur before the case is solved. This is the fourth entry in the Thin Man franchise with Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. It's also the weakest or least interesting of the seven Thin Man films. It seems like forever for the film to actually start, we get a lot of foreplay, and when it does, it's routine. Powell and Loy banter back and forth and they're a treasure but they're spinning in a vacuum. Fortunately, the gathered suspects in a room finale is wonderful but by then the movie is just about over. The acting is good and we get to see the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler in a rare film role (she only did three movies) as a blonde floozy. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. The cast includes Donna Reed, Barry Nelson, Alan Baxter, Louise Beavers and the scene stealing Asta.  

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Seagull (1975)

In late 19th century Russia, a group of people gather on a country estate including a famous actress (Lee Grant), her writer lover (Kevin McCarthy), her artistic son (Frank Langella), her brother (William Swetland) who is in ill health, a young girl (Blythe Danner) with ambitions to be an actress, a doctor (Louis Zorin), the estate manager (George Ede), his wife (Olympia Dukakis), their daughter (Marian Mercer) and a school teacher (David Clennon). Based on the 1896 play by Anton Chekhov and directed by John J. Desmond. Considered by many to be Chekhov's masterpiece, this is an uneven production but the acting is mostly good and in one case, exceptional. Kevin McCarthy makes for a rather dull Trigorin, he can't seem to muster either a writer's passion nor the casual cruelty that can destroy a girl's life. Langella is a bit too old for Konstantin but that aside, he gives a solid performance and Lee Grant as Arkadina gets to the core of the actress's self absorption. The stand out performance is given by Blythe Danner who makes for a splendid Nina going from tremulous and fragile to ravaged and unraveled. A great play that could have used a more delicate hand to unlock the subtext of Chekhov's dialog. Still, this is a production worth seeing. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Showdown At Abilene (1956)

Returning home from the Civil War, the former sheriff (Jock Mahoney) of Abilene finds the town changed considerably. Instead of the peaceful farm community, he finds the town taken over by cattlemen and tensions run high between the farmers and cattlemen. He also finds his former fiancee (Martha Hyer) engaged to marry his childhood friend (Lyle Bettger). Directed by Charles Haas, this is a decent if unoriginal programmer. However, casting causes a strange shift in empathy. Normally, the hero protagonist would be our focus of interest but as played by the colorless Mahoney, he's just not very interesting. Bettger is a better actor than Mahoney which allows his conflicted cattleman to take center stage despite being the third wheel. The lovely Martha Hyer as the "girl" doesn't have much to do except wring her hands and look pretty. With David Janssen, Grant Williams and Ted De Corsia.

Algiers (1938)

A well known thief (Charles Boyer) lives in the native quarter of Algiers called the Casbah where he is protected from the police by the citizens of the Casbah. But when he encounters a beautiful Parisian tourist (Hedy Lamarr) slumming in the Casbah, his fate is sealed. A painstaking remake of the 1937 Julien Duvivier film PEPE LE MOKO which starred Jean Gabin in the title role which was based on the novel by Henri La Barthe. Directed by John Cromwell, it may not be quite on the level of the Duvivier film but on its own merits, it's quite good. If you were ever curious what made Boyer a star, this film should answer your question. He's almost impossibly romantic yet never soft, there's still a cold intensity that alerts you that this is not a man to mess with. In her American film debut, Lamarr is so incredibly stunning in her beauty that her acting seems irrelevant. Add James Wong Howe's stylish B&W cinematography and you have a smoky treat. With Sigrid Gurie, who's good but her clinging character becomes annoying after awhile. Also with Gene Lockhart (Oscar nominated for his work here), Joseph Calleia, Leonid Kinskey, Joan Woodbury and Alan Hale.