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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Two brothers known as the fabulous Baker boys (Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges) play piano in hotel cocktail lounges across the state. As their bookings dwindle, they hire a girl singer (Michelle Pfeiffer) in an attempt to make the act more appealing. It works ... but her presence causes an unspoken tension between the brothers to simmer to the surface. Fabulous is right! A superbly written character piece enhanced by its three central performances and a couple of musical numbers that stand out enough that you almost wish for a full blown musical. Although he broke out of the gate first, Beau Bridges' career seemed get lost in the shadow of little brother Jeff's career once it took off. But here, he goes toe to toe with his brother and proves he's his father's son (that's Lloyd to you). But the film belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer whose performance grabbed just about every best actress award that year (except the Oscar). It's not an actress-y performance by any means yet she gets under the skin of an "escort service" worker trying to make the transition to show business. Her scenes with Jeff Bridges crackle. The film's one weak spot is the audition scene: really, 37 girls and none of them can carry a tune? Inventively shot by Michael Ballhaus with a nicely moody score by Dave Grusin. Written and directed by Steve Kloves (one of only two movies he's directed). With Jennifer Tilly and Xander Berkeley.

Life Of Crime (2014)

A pair of petty criminals (John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) kidnap the trophy wife (Jennifer Aniston) of a small time crook and embezzler (Tim Robbins) and hold her hostage for a million dollars. A simple plan ... what could go wrong? Well, as anybody who's ever gone to the movies or read an Elmore Leonard novel (this is based on his novel THE SWITCH) knows, everything that could go wrong ... goes wrong. This black comedy needed to be darker, more edgy. As it plays out, it's an affable and clever piece of comedic noir with occasional shocking bursts of violence (a lit cigarette shoved in someone's eye!) with some excellent performances. This is Aniston's best performance yet, even better than THE GOOD GIRL, her character is the one the audience depends on to hold on to our sense of equilibrium. To the film's credit, we think we know where it's headed but it manages to keep us surprised at every turn and double cross. Directed by Daniel Schechter. With Will Forte as Aniston's nerdy wannabe lover, Isla Fisher as Robbins' two timing mistress and Mark Boone Junior as a Nazi loving white supremacist who throws his lot in with the kidnappers.

The Normal Heart (2014)

It's 1981 in New York City and gay men are enjoying a sexual freedom and openness that they've never had before. But then they start dying in large numbers from an unknown disease known as the "gay cancer". It's taken almost 30 years for Larry Kramer's incendiary play to reach the screen (Barbra Streisand tried unsuccessfully to make a film of it for years) and while one might say better late than never, in fact, perhaps it's just as well for we might not have gotten a production of it as good as this. Directed by Ryan Murphy from Kramer's own screenplay, it's a surprisingly fluid film which belies its theatrical origins. The film thoroughly captures the 80s gay scene in all its excess, it doesn't attempt to clean it up for mainstream consumption nor is it apologetic. The performances are superb across the board but it's Mark Ruffalo who anchors the film, perfectly embodying the seething anger, flaws and all (the film doesn't hide that he can be a major jerk and his own worst enemy) of a man screaming against the indifference of a complacent society and government. All the actors get their turn in the spotlight and do themselves proud: Matt Bomer as Ruffalo's boyfriend, Joe Mantello as a frightened NYC employee, Taylor Kitsch as an ex-Green Beret and Julia Roberts as a wheelchair bound doctor fighting to be heard in both the gay community and by government sources ... and getting a deaf ear from both. With Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Dennis O'Hare, BD Wong and Danielle Ferland.

Friday, August 29, 2014

State Fair (1962)

A wheat farmer (Tom Ewell) is taking his hog to the 1961 Texas state fair in the hopes of winning a blue ribbon for best in show. His wife (Alice Faye) is taking her mincemeat in the hopes of getting a blue ribbon. Their son (Pat Boone) is going to enter the fair's auto race and their daughter (Pamela Tiffin) is just going. This remake of the Oscar winning 1945 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (the 1933 film version wasn't a musical) lacks the earnestness of the 1945 version which in itself was fairly hokey. But it did have those wonderful Rodgers & Hammerstein songs (including the sublime It Might As Well Be Spring) of which this version retains only five with Richard Rodgers penning five new ones (Hammerstein had passed on by this time), none of which are memorable. Alice Faye, in her first film in 17 years, looks rather glum as if she didn't want to be there and paired with Ewell, I wouldn't want to either. But Ann-Margret in only her second film sizzles, no wholesome family musical is going to water her down. The great Alfred Newman is responsible for the musical score's supervision as well as conducting so naturally the songs sound marvelous. Directed by Jose Ferrer (yes, the actor). With Bobby Darin as Tiffin's love interest and Wally Cox.

Uccellacci E Uccellini (aka Hawks And Sparrows) (1966)

An old man (Toto) and his young son (Ninetto Davoli) are walking down a road in the Rome countryside. They encounter a leftist intellectual talking raven who accompanies them on their journey. Pier Paolo Pasolini's comedic fantasy fable is an easy going satire. It's clear that the crow is Pasolini's spokesperson in the film but he's very cynical about mankind's future (though I'm not sure Pasolini himself would agree with my assessment). The travails of the father and son mirror Pasolini's acceptance that nothing will change while pointing out the cruelty of a capitalist based culture. Toto, a great physical comedian. and the adorable Davoli have a relaxed chemistry that goes far in giving an often fragmented film consistency. As a comedy, it's only moderately successful, it feels too self conscious to be truly funny. As a Marxist lecture on celluloid, it's too obvious. But it's an inventive film with a few inspired moments and Pasolini the most playful I've ever seen him. The film's opening title credits are amusingly sung (by Domenico Modugno) to Ennio Morricone's lively underscore.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Expresso Bongo (1959)

A seedy down on his luck promoter (Laurence Harvey) discovers a teen age singer (Cliff Richard) and signs him to a four year contract even though he is underage. He's exploiting the young boy but it's not long before an aging American singer (Yolande Donlan) and a record company executive (Meier Tzelniker) realize they can profit from the young boy, too. A shrewd and clever satire on the cutthroat music business, it's based on a hit West End musical but the film makers have pretty much eliminated most of the songs from the original show and made it more of a comedy with music rather than a musical. In the film, only Cliff Richard is given songs to sing. Even so, it remains a sharp and canny look at the music business. Harvey is as unconvincing as always but since he's playing a phony, it's not a problem. Donlan is very good, she's quite amusing while still letting us see her desperation as she realizes her career is on the downswing. The songs are a forgettable bunch but Cliff Richard has a crude charm. Directed by Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT). With Sylvia Syms, Hermione Baddeley, Eric Pohlmann and Burt Kwouk.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mr. Peabody And The Mermaid (1948)

While on vacation in the Caribbean with his wife (Irene Hervey, PLAY MISTY FOR ME), a man (William Powell) while out fishing catches a mermaid (Ann Blyth) by hooking her tail! Instead of tossing her back in the sea, he brings her back to his villa and places her in its deep pond. Of course, he falls in love with her. This is a rather sweetly romantic fantasy, often attributed as the inspiration for the 1984 hit SPLASH even though it wasn't a remake. The film focuses on Powell's obsession with the mermaid as a mid-life crisis (he's turning 50) and since he's married, the flirtation with adultery is quite daring for a 1940s film. Indeed, one of the funniest sequences in the film is when he attempts to buy only the top portion of a two piece bathing suit for the topless mermaid ("She won't need the bottom!") from a befuddled saleslady (Mary Field). Powell brings some pathos to his role but Blyth, whose character doesn't speak, doesn't have much to do but react. Even with its adult content in mind, I suspect it's children who would enjoy this fantasy more than adults would today. Directed by Irving Pichel. With Andrea King and Clinton Sundberg in the film's best performance.

Captain Blood (1935)

In 1685 England, a doctor (Errol Flynn) is arrested for treason against King James II simply because he was tending an injured man who participated in a revolt against the King. He is sent to the West Indies where he is sold into slavery but it won't be long until he escapes and becomes the notorious Captain Blood, a famed pirate! One of the greatest swashbucklers of all time, this is the film that made Errol Flynn a Star and it's easy to see why. His dashing good looks, strong screen presence and sincerity as an actor all but assured stardom. It helps that he has a lively script, solid direction by Michael Curtiz and a potent chemistry with his leading lady, Olivia De Havilland (they would go on to make seven more films together). It's a hard film to find flaws with, it's so perfectly crafted. Romance, pirates, battles, all with a dash of wit, what's not to like? Erich Wolfgang Korngold did the score. With Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill (suitably despicable), Henry Stephenson, Donald Meek, Ross Alexander and J. Carrol Naish.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Clambake (1967)

A millionaire's son (Elvis Presley) trades places with a water ski instructor (Will Hutchins) in Miami, Florida. He wants to find out if people, and more importantly girls, will accept him for who he is rather than for all his money. Presley's early films from 1956 to 1962 were fairly distinctive from each other for the most part and he worked with some good directors like Don Siegel, Michael Curtiz and Phil Karlson. But after 1962, with one exception (VIVA LAS VEGAS), his films became generic and it's difficult to tell them apart. The plots were simply variations of each other and only his leading lady changed and sometimes not even that. But I grew up on these Elvis movies and it's hard to let go of them in the nostalgic sense even though they're not very good, so a film like CLAMBAKE is for the Elvis completists. Visually, this is one gaudy looking film with bright oranges, hot pinks and vivid purples and I'm talking art direction and set decorations, not costumes! The songs are a dire bunch except for Presley's rendering of one great song, the Ray Charles hit You Don't Know Me. But Presley barely registers here, going through the motions as if realizing his film career was on its way down. Directed by one Arthur H. Nadel, an episodic TV director. With Shelley Fabares, Gary Merrill, Bill Bixby and James Gregory.

D.O.A. (1988)

When one of his students (Robert Knepper) commits suicide by jumping off a school building, his professor (Dennis Quaid) soon finds himself involved in a sordid tale of adultery, incest and murder ... including his own. But before he dies, he's determined to find out why he was a marked man. A loose remake of the 1950 noir classic D.O.A., the film holds on to the main premise, that of a man attempting to track down his own murderer but the narrative itself is substantially altered ... and not for the better. The film is branded an 80s film by several things including its rockish underscore by Chaz Jankel and trendy camera tricks courtesy of Yuri Neyman. As the protagonist, Quaid (in his mid 30s) is simply too young to play a burnt out writer clinging to his past glory. As the spunky heroine, Meg Ryan is cute as a button but hardly the femme fatale of film noir. The director(s) Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton add a Hitchcockian touch of the accused but innocent man bound to the protesting heroine (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, THE 39 STEPS) but all it does is slow the film's stride and distracting us from the main plot line. It's slick, I'll give it that. With Daniel Stern, Jane Kaczmarek and Charlotte Rampling.