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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Prom Night (1980)

When a 10 year old girl (Tammy Bourne) is accidentally killed by falling out of a second story window, four other children who were terrorizing her vow to never mention the incident. Jump to six years later and it's prom night and someone is stalking the four (who are now teenagers) and heads will roll ..... literally! This generic slasher flick was enormously popular when it came out but it's really just a routine and predictable slasher film with a dash of disco. That's not necessarily meant as a negative criticism as the film gives its audience what it wants and it is what it is. The question is ... do you want it? The film seems longer than its running time because it's padded out with red herrings that never pay off. There's also a lame CARRIE subplot ripoff that almost seems like an afterthought. This was at the height of Jamie Lee Curtis's "Scream Queen" career but she really doesn't have all that much to do and she's unflatteringly coiffed and costumed. Even the topbilled Leslie Nielsen (as Curtis' father and the high school principal) is barely in the movie. Among the other actors, only Anne-Marie Martin as the school bitch makes much of an impression. Directed by Paul Lynch. With Antoinette Bower, Casey Stevens, Michael Tough and Joy Thompson.

Birdman (2014)

A washed up actor (Michael Keaton), most famous for playing the superhero Birdman in the movies, attempts a comeback by writing, directing and acting in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story for the Broadway stage. As the show approaches its opening night, his personal demons threaten to derail the show as much as his co-star (Edward Norton), a loose cannon who can't seem to control himself. For most of its running time, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's BIRDMAN (subtitled THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) is an exhilarating and imaginative piece of cinema. Seemingly shot in one long uninterrupted take (though obviously there are unseen cuts), Inarritu and his ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (GRAVITY) have fun with the possibilities of cinema but too often it seems showy but not necessarily in a good way. Inarritu and his co-scripters (there were three others) balance the film with both humor as well as pungent commentary but they can't seem to have found an acceptable ending for the film and so they fumble badly on the finish line. But at heart, this is an actor's film and there it glows. Keaton, in a career best performance, deserves all the accolades he's been getting and Norton and Emma Stone (as Keaton's daughter) are pretty awesome too. I didn't care much for Antonio Sanchez's drum underscore. I love drums as much as the next guy but it became annoying after awhile and called attention to itself. With Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough and Lindsay Duncan who shares one of the film's best scenes with Keaton.

The Prodigal (1955)

A young Hebrew man (Edmund Purdom, THE EGYPTIAN) becomes obsessed with a pagan high priestess (Lana Turner) after seeing her in Damascus. He abandons his betrothed (Audrey Dalton) and leaves his father's (Walter Hampden) home taking his inheritance and squandering it in an attempt to possess the priestess. Very loosely (emphasis on very) based on the Biblical parable of the prodigal son, this is one of the duller and more absurd of the big budget Biblical spectacles of the 1950s. It looks like a million bucks but one could wish that they had spent as much time on the script as they expended on the impressive art direction and lavish costumes. It's not a film where the acting matters much but even so, Turner's posing and Purdom's stiff line readings are a poor substitute for performances. Still, to be fair, Brando and Streep couldn't have done any better with material like this. What's surprising is how compelling all this awfulness is to watch. It's too sluggish to be "camp" yet it's hard to pull your eyes away. As with most heavy handed epics of the era, many of these films contain superb underscores far superior to the films they're composed for and it's no different here. Bronislau Kaper's score is glorious. Directed by Richard Thorpe. With Louis Calhern, Joseph Wiseman, Taina Elg, Francis L. Sullivan, Neville Brand, James Mitchell, Cecil Kellaway, John Dehner, Jarma Lewis and the wonderful child actress, Sandy Descher.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Bedroom Window (1987)

A young man (Steve Guttenberg) is having an affair with his boss's wife (Isabelle Huppert). While looking out of his bedroom window one night, she sees a man (Brad Greenquist) attacking a woman (Elizabeth McGovern). If she goes to the police to tell them what she saw, it would uncover their affair. So he goes to the police stating he saw the attack but he wasn't as well prepared as he thought he was and the consequences are dire. Based on the novel THE WITNESSES by Anne Holden, Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) directed and wrote the screenplay. This pseudo Hitchcock thriller is entertaining enough but it would be so much better if Hanson had made his hero smarter. The protagonist's actions aren't well thought out and in some cases, downright stupid and lethal causing the death of others! Some of this might be due to the casting of the dim Guttenberg but a lot of it is inherent in the screenplay. That's what's so frustrating about a film like this, the potential is there for a crackerjack thriller but the film makers let us down. Huppert's acting seems inhibited by speaking her lines in English and McGovern seems just too cheery for an attempted rape victim. The film's best performance is by Greenquist as the killer who gives off a disturbing vibe without even saying anything. Also in the cast: Paul Shenar, Wallace Shawn, Maury Chaykin and Carl Lumbly.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cleopatra (1934)

When Julius Caesar (Warren William) arrives in Egypt to settle a dispute over the throne of Egypt between Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) and her brother, she charms him into becoming her lover. After his assassination, she also charms Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon), who has come to take her in chains to Rome, into becoming her lover too. Cecil B. DeMille's take on the Cleopatra/Caesar/Marc Antony story is a lavish spectacle that lives up to the DeMille tradition of more is better. While the film does away with inconvenient facts (like the son Cleopatra had by Caesar), it's an entertaining if at times absurd telling of the tale. It can't possibly complete with the superior 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz production. Among other things, it lacks the literacy of that film's screenplay and better performances and in spectacle, nothing in the 1934 movie is as jawdropping as Cleopatra's entry into Rome in the later film. When Antony arrives on Cleo's barge where she seduces him, the orgy looks like a Las Vegas floor show and Colbert plays Cleo as a coquettish schoolgirl. The dialog is pedestrian and we're cheated on the battle scenes which are done in a quick montage. Still, for what it is, it's eminently watchable. With Gertrude Michael, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, C. Aubrey Smith and Irving Pichel.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Killer Shrews (1959)

A skipper (James Best) arrives on his boat at an isolated island with supplies for a team of research scientists. Once there, he discovers that an experiment gone awry has produced a mutant breed of large shrews that are terrorizing the island's inhabitants. Perfectly dreadful piece of cheesy sci-fi horror. The killer shrews are, to quote a pal, "poor doggies in mangy costumes" though for close ups, dog puppet heads are used. They are so painfully obvious that unintentional laughter results though if those fake fangs were actually put on the dog's snouts, it borders on animal cruelty. The acting is horrendous. Gordon McLendon (whose acting consists of taking his glasses on and off) as a research scientist reads his lines as if he were a fifth grader reciting in front of his class. And how a Polish Jew (Baruch Lumet, Sidney's father) by way of New York produced a daughter (Ingrid Goude) with a thick Swedish accent is never explained. I suppose it might be amusing if you view it as "camp". The blame for the direction goes to Ray Kellogg, who co-directed THE GREEN BERETS with John Wayne. Also in the cast: Ken Curtis (who produced as well), Alfredo DeSoto and Judge Henry Dupree.

What A Way To Go! (1964)

A wealthy four times a widow (Shirley MacLaine) feels she is a jinx as each of her four marriages has ended disastrously. She started out as a simple country girl with no interest in money and fame yet her all husbands ended up as millionaires even if they didn't start out that way. This big budget comedy is a satire on movie conventions while playing into those conventions so completely that it seems that the film makers lost their way and have become the very thing they're parodying. As a comedy, it's very hit and miss and never as funny as it tries to be which is disappointing because its screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the ultimate movie satire SINGIN' IN THE RAIN! MacLaine imagines each of her marriages as a film genre: Her marriage to Dick Van Dyke is seen as a silent movie, her marriage to Paul Newman is seen as a B&W foreign film, her marriage to Robert Mitchum as a lush Sirk like Technicolor drama and her marriage to Gene Kelly as a big budget MGM musical. Some of the stuff works, some of it doesn't. The film's real star is Edith Head whose exaggerated eye popping costumes are among her best and most imaginative work. Directed by J. Lee Thompson whose filmography (GUNS OF NAVARONE, CAPE FEAR, TARAS BULBA) doesn't suggest he has the requisite touch for a comedy like this. With Dean Martin, Robert Cummings, Margaret Dumont (in her final film), Reginald Gardiner, Fifi D'Orsay and Barbara Bouchet.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

South Of St. Louis (1949)

After guerilla raiders burn down their ranch, three friends go their separate ways. Two of them (Joel McCrea, Zachary Scott) run guns for the Confederacy from Mexico while the third (Douglas Kennedy) joins the Confederate army. But the two gun runners find themselves at odds with each other when one of them becomes greedy for power and money. An average western whose appeal is heightened by some gorgeous Technicolor scenery and a couple of minor divergences from the expected cliches. Notably Zachary Scott and Dorothy Malone (as McCrea's fiancee) who have character arcs that allow them a little more leeway in their performances. Other than that, it's your standard oater and once again with Confederate sympathizers as heroes fighting against the Union. Directed by Ray Enright (THE SPOILERS) with Max Steiner nudging the film along with one of his generic scores. With Alexis Smith as the standard "bad" saloon girl with the heart of gold (what western would be complete without her?), Victor Jory, Bob Steele and Alan Hale.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Saga Of The Viking Women And Their Voyage To The Waters Of The Great Sea Serpent (1957)

Three years after their men have left for an expedition and not returned, a group of Viking women set out to sea in search of their men. After their ship is overturned by a massive sea serpent, they find themselves washed on the shores of Malibu Beach where a group of Barbarians enslave them. This rather ludicrously named (it was cut down on marquees to the slimmer VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT) piece of low budget American-International pulp courtesy of writer/director Roger Corman is grandly entertaining in the way so many bad movies can be. The Viking women sail the seas against a rear projection backdrop with a Godzilla like rubber monster roaring at them while off screen prop men toss buckets of water on them. Confronted by one of the Barbarians, Jonathan Haze anachronistically yells at him, "You big slob!". You get the picture! If you've a taste for this kind of low budget ham and cheese, you'll be in hog heaven. The cast includes Abby Dalton (TV's FALCON CREST), Susan Cabot, Betsy Jones Moreland, Richard Devon and Bradford Jackson.

Tokyo Monogatari (aka Tokyo Story) (1953)

An elderly husband (Chishu Ryu) and wife (Chieko Higashiyama) travel to Tokyo to visit their adult son (So Yamamura), daughter (Haruko Sugimura) and widowed daughter in law (Setsuko Hara). Their trip is dampened by the seeming disinterest of their adult children who are too wrapped up in their own lives to take much interest in entertaining their parents as well as the churlish behavior of the grandchildren. Only the daughter in law expresses genuine pleasure in their arrival. Often cited (justifiably) as one of the greatest films ever made, this is Yasujiro Ozu's crowning achievement. It's a beautifully rendered portrait of traditional family life at the crossroads, when the growth of an urban society caused families to fracture and move apart and grow apart. Ozu doesn't judge the adult children too harshly, it is what it is. After seeing this, I don't think anyone will ever look at their parents in the same way again. Ozu's pacing and camera work may not be very fluid but his intense yet almost lyrical gaze allows the poetry to creep into our consciousness before we're even aware of it. Truly, a landmark piece of cinema! With Kyoko Kagawa and Nobuo Nakamura.