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Monday, February 8, 2016

The Big Operator (1959)

A corrupt labor union boss (Mickey Rooney) is under federal investigation. When he denies knowing a convicted felon (Ray Danton) who strong arms for him, to avoid perjury charges he has his thugs put the screws on the witness (Steve Cochran) who can tie the two men together. This "B" picture courtesy of exploitation producer Albert Zugsmith (HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL) is, for the most part, a tough little crime thriller not all that unlike the Warners gangster movies from the 1930s. While it gets rather silly during the film's final seven minutes, it's an acceptable programmer. It's also possibly the only movie where Mamie Van Doren isn't playing some sort of sexpot. Here, she plays an ordinary housewife and mother serving waffles for breakfast and sending her kid (Jay North, TV's DENNIS THE MEANCE) to bed without supper for misbehaving. June Cleaver, she ain't! Rooney is suitably repellent as a Jimmy Hoffa stand in and director Charles F. Haas manages to move things swiftly along. With Mel Torme, Jackie Coogan, Leo Gordon, Donald Barry and Ziva Rodann.  

East Of Sudan (1964)

When the Mahdi forces siege the village of Barash in the Sudan, a small group consisting of two soldiers (Anthony Quayle, Derek Fowlds), a governess (Sylvia Syms) and her ward (Jenny Agutter) take flight down the treacherous Nile towards Khartoum. Directed by Nathan Juran (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD), this low budget action programmer never set foot outside of Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England. It's a sound stage bound Egyptian locale supplemented by lots of inserted footage from THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939) blown up from 1.37 and formatted for the scope process, rear projections and lots of stock footage from other movies filmed in Africa. It actually becomes amusing after awhile because the difference in the footage is not only obvious but when the protagonists attempt to start an elephant stampede in front of a rear projection of elephants, it almost becomes surreal. It was nice to see Anthony Quayle, normally a supporting character actor, playing the action hero for a change though I wish Syms' character weren't written as such a ninny. As cinema, it's routine fare. With Johnny Sekka.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Welcome To L.A. (1977)

Set in Los Angeles during Christmas, a group of various characters interact with each other searching for something. But what? Love? Sex? Communication? If they're in a relationship, they're unhappy, if they're not in a relationship, they want one. They are a songwriter (Keith Carradine), an agent (Viveca Lindfors), a free spirited maid (Sissy Spacek), a realtor (Sally Kellerman), a businessman (Harvey Keitel), a photographer (Lauren Hutton), a millionaire (Denver Pyle), a spaced out housewife (Geraldine Chaplin), a furniture salesman (John Considine) and a pop star (Richard Baskin). Produced by Robert Altman and directed by Alan Rudolph, the film's sensibilities are clearly influenced by Altman but the film lacks Altman's essence. It would take a few more movies under his belt before Rudolph found his own voice. In fact, the film seems like a trial run for Rudolph's later and superior CHOOSE ME. I liked the Richard Baskin songs that hold the film together but the only character I had any feeling for was Chaplin's lost waif (it may be my favorite Chaplin performance). The film is too aimless for its own good without any artistic content to justify it. With Diahnne Abbott and Allan F. Nicholls.

The Anniversary (1968)

A wealthy but malevolent woman (Bette Davis) has an anniversary celebration each year although her husband has been dead for ten years. Her three sons can't stand her but they go through the ritual each year since she holds the purse strings and keeps them under her thumb. But when the youngest son (Christian Roberts) brings a girl (Elaine Taylor) to the party and announces she's his fiancee, it encourages a rebellion among the sons but mother will have none of it. Based on the play by Bill MacIlwraith and adapted for the screen by Jimmy Sangster, this acidic black comedy features a marvelous turn by Davis as the mother from Hell. The role was not written for her (Mona Washbourne played it on stage) but Davis makes it inimitably her own, squeezing every possible laugh from the venomous dialogue. The director Roy Ward Baker (a replacement after Davis clashed with the original director) makes no attempt to disguise the film's theatrical origins, it plays out like a filmed play which in this case is just fine. It's not a great play after all and any distractions from Davis' "this is my show" performance would only weaken the film. With Jack Hedley, Sheila Hancock and James Cossins.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

In 1951 Hollywood, a studio executive's (Josh Brolin) job is to keep the studio's stars out of the newspapers and boy, does he have his hands full: the studio's top star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a communist cell, their resident aquatic star (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and unmarried and he's being threatened by a pair of rival sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton playing both roles) about exposing a secret that could ruin the career of their top star. This is Coen Brothers lite and lacks their usual dark and pungent wit. It's not worthless and there are enough good moments that it's a double pity that it's not better. The biggest problem is that the Coens don't seem to have a genuine affection for the genres they're spoofing and if there's no love, it's just condescension. In a superb movie parody like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for example, it's clear that Mel Brooks loves the B&W horror movies he's spoofing. On the upside, Clooney gets a chance to work out his comedy chops and there's a likability about his dimwit shallow actor, Johansson doesn't have enough to do but her sass and spunk are welcome and Alden Ehrenreich's singing cowboy is just adorable. What I found most interesting though is that the Coens' premise is that there WAS a communist infiltration in Hollywood rather than treat it as "red paranoia". The huge cast includes Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand (in the film's funniest gag),  Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert and Wayne Knight.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959)

Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) is asked by a country physician (Francis De Wolff) to intercede in the case of the new Lord (Christopher Lee) of Baskerville Hall who inherited the estate when the last Lord died under mysterious circumstances. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's third Sherlock Holmes novel has been adapted for film, stage and television too many times to count. It follows the novel fairly closely but this is a Hammer production, so alterations have been made to try and squeeze it into the horror mold. It's a very good adaptation nonetheless. Directed by Terence Fisher, Cushing makes for a solid and believable Holmes and Andre Morell as Dr. Watson brings a quiet authority to the role rather than the befuddled Watson which Nigel Bruce specialized in. The cinematographer Jack Asher does a nice job of creating an atmospheric Dartmoor grassland. With Marla Landi, Miles Malleson and John Le Mesurier. 

A Tolonc (aka The Undesirable) (1915)

In a rural village, a dying father (Andor Szakacs) tells his daughter (Lili Berky) that he's really her Uncle and that her mother (Mari Jaszai) is in prison for killing her real father. Bereft and alone, she sets out to the big city in search of her future. Directed by Kertesz Mihaly, who would later change his name to Michael Curtiz (CASABLANCA) when he moved to America, this early Hungarian effort is more of a curiosity than anything else. Long thought to be a "lost" film, it was only recently discovered in a basement in the Hungarian House cultural center and extensive restoration has been done. The print is stunning in its clarity and detail and all 100 year old movies should look this good! As cinema, it's a hoary old tale based on a popular Hungarian play but Curtiz already shows a strong sense of storytelling that would make him one of the so called Golden Age's most prolific and popular directors. The acting is generally solid though Victor Varconi (who looks like Omar Sharif) as the romantic lead tends to flail his arms about too much. If you're interested in silent cinema, it's a must see. If you're not, I don't know as you'd get much out of it. There's a wonderful newly commissioned score by Attila Pacsay. With Gyula Nagy and Mariska Simon.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Happy Ending (1969)

A discontented wife (Jean Simmons) walks out on her husband (John Forsythe) on their 16th wedding anniversary and travels alone to the Bahamas. While the film contains a wonderful performance by Simmons, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance, the screenplay by its director Richard Brooks (married to Simmons at the time) is ill conceived. It's an examination of an unhappy marriage from the wife's point of view but the husband's character is so vague that that one wonders why she married him in the first place. It's hard to drum up much empathy when she runs away from the marriage rather than taking the bull by the horns and dealing with it! If anything with all the booze and pills she downs, the sympathy goes to husband if anyone. It's worth seeing for Simmons' performance but don't expect any insights or enlightenment in this pre-feminist melodrama. With Shirley Jones, Bobby Darin, Lloyd Bridges, Teresa Wright, Nanette Fabray, Tina Louise, Dick Shawn and Karen Steele. 

Black Legion (1937)

After being passed over for a promotion in favor of an immigrant (Henry Brandon), an angry factory worker (Humphrey Bogart) joins a secret racist and fascist organization that wear black robes and hoods while terrorizing "foreigners". In the 1930s, Warner Brothers was in the forefront of topical social problem films "ripped from the headlines" as they say. Sadly, this gritty and bleak look at xenophobia made almost 80 years ago still resonates today as the current political scene will attest. Bogart was not yet a star (he would have to wait 4 more years) but this was a rare leading role for him and he does quite well. There really was a Black Legion in 1930s Michigan and the film is loosely based on the kidnapping and murder of a WPA organizer by the same. Directed by Archie Mayo (PETRIFIED FOREST), it's primitive film making but it's that very coarseness that makes it so vital. Unsettling and disturbing. With Ann Sheridan, Dick Foran, Erin O'Brien Moore, Joe Sawyer and Addison Richards.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

A writer and astronomy buff (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend (Barbara Rush) are enjoying a quiet evening in the Arizona desert when they see what appears to be a meteor crash nearby. When they investigate, he discovers it's not a meteor but some kind of space vehicle ..... and it's inhabited! Based on an unpublished short story by Ray Bradbury, this is a persuasive piece of sci-fi pulp directed by with flair by Jack Arnold. The characters are pretty stock and it's not the kind of film where the acting matters much but with the exception of Charles Drake who overdoes the dumb lawman bit, the rest of the cast plays it straight. Though I watched a "flat" print of the film, it was originally released in 3D and even in a flat transfer, one can see how effective it might have been in 3D. Clifford Stine's images are carefully composed to maximize the 3D effect, a lot of the desert scenes were actually shot on a soundstage.  The stereophonic sound is directional and very good. With Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes and Joe Sawyer.