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Friday, October 24, 2014

Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981)

Returning from Spain to his birthplace of California (still part of Mexico), a ladies man (George Hamilton) finds his father has passed on. When he finds out his father's secret identity was that of Zorro, who protected the poor and underprivileged from the greed and brutality of the police state, he decides to carry on the family tradition. In 1979, George Hamilton's Dracula spoof LOVE AT FIRST BITE was one of the sleeper hits of the year. Hamilton's comedic ability surprised everyone and he got some of the best reviews of his career. So it's understandable that he would go to the well one more time and this is an attempt to do to Zorro what he did to Dracula in the first film. Alas, this ZORRO is no where near as clever and amusing as the 1979 Dracula comedy. Which is not to say there aren't moments of hilarity but they're only intermittent. Things pick up briefly when Hamilton appears as Bunny Wigglesworth, Zorro's gay brother but the joke soon wears thin. Only Ron Liebman as the cruel alcalde manages to be consistently amusing in his performance. The underscore consists mostly of an adaptation of Max Steiner's score to the 1948 ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Directed by Peter Medak (THE RULING CLASS. With Lauren Hutton, Brenda Vaccaro, James Booth, Clive Revill, Carolyn Seymour and Donovan Scott.

The Fly (1958)

The wife (Patricia Owens) of a research scientist (David Hedison) confesses to his murder (his head crushed beneath a hydraulic press) but refuses to give a motive for the killing. The only clue to her motive is in her obsession with finding a particular fly! One of the seminal science fiction films of the 1950s, THE FLY is still an impressive example of of taking a potentially "B" film and with a vigorous screenplay, strong acting and solid production values coming out as an "A" film. The film veers dangerously close to "camp" but never crosses the line. Much of the movie's success can be attributed to its cast who never once condescend to the material. To veterans like Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall, who play Hedison's brother and a police chief respectively, it's second nature but the dramatic burden falls on the lovely Patricia Owens who's put through the cinematic wringer here and emerges victoriously. The accomplished direction is by Kurt Neumann. With Katleen Freeman, Charles Herbert and Betty Lou Gerson (the voice of Cruella De Vil in Disney's 101 DALMATIANS).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Working (1982)

Based on the non fiction Studs Terkel book WORKING: PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY DO ALL DAY AND HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT WHAT THEY DO adapted into a musical. It's a series of monologues with workers ranging from steel worker, waitress and cleaning woman to corporate executive, schoolteacher and call girl. Some are straight monologues while others are done through song and some a combination of both. This is a straight adaptation of the stage musical and viewed as such it doesn't travel well to another medium. Both the writing and the songs are hit and miss. Some are tedious but once in awhile (but not often enough), touching and very effective. The songs are by a multitude of composers including James Taylor, Stephen Schwartz and Mary Rodgers. Among the the highlights: Barbara Hershey's call girl (no song), Rita Moreno's waitress (It's An Art), Eileen Brennan's mill worker (Mill Work sung by Jennifer Warnes), Charles Durning's retiree (Joe) and the rousing Something To Point To sung by the entire cast. Directed by Kirk Browning and Stephen Schwartz. With Patti LaBelle, Barry Bostwick, Barbara Barrie, Charles Haid, Beth Howland, Lynne Thigpen, James Taylor, Scatman Crothers, Didi Conn and Edie McClurg.

Pygmalion (1938)

A phonologist (Leslie Howard, who also co-directed the film) makes a bet with an acquaintance (Scott Sunderland) that he can pass off a Cockney flower girl (Wendy Hiller) as a genteel lady in a matter of months by teaching her to speak properly. What he doesn't count on is the attachment that will form between them during the ensuing months. George Bernard Shaw's play is perhaps better known (and unfairly so) as the source material of the musical MY FAIR LADY. This film version directed by Anthony Asquith and Howard remains the definitive version with a screenplay by Shaw himself (for which he won an Oscar). Howard has never been more charming or as lively on screen and the lovely Hiller makes for a delightful Eliza! I'd been underwhelmed by her "transformation" from guttersnipe to butterfly in past viewings but I've come around. She may not make you gasp (like Audrey Hepburn did in MY FAIR LADY) but it's a more believable and natural transformation. The story itself, based loosely on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, is irresistible which is why variations of it (like PRETTY WOMAN) continue to proliferate to this day. Arthur Honegger provided the underscore. With Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, David Tree, Jean Cadell, Anthony Quayle and Cathleen Nesbitt, who would play Henry Higgins' mother in the original MY FAIR LADY.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

C'era Una Volta (aka More Than A Miracle) (1967)

Annoyed when his mother (Dolores Del Rio) nags him about taking a wife, a rather arrogant Prince (Omar Sharif) flees the palace to the countryside where he is thrown from his horse. It is then that he encounters a poor village maiden (Sophia Loren) and a very complicated relationship ensues. A change of pace for the director Francesco Rosi (HANDS OVER THE CITY), there is much that is charming in this quirky adult fairy tale: flying monks, witches fighting over proper spells, a dish washing contest for Princesses etc. but the film needed a lighter touch which Rosi doesn't provide. Jacques Demy fared much better when he attempted a similar effort, PEAU D'ANE a few years later. But for what Rosi provides us with, it's quite watchable if lacking in genuine magic. Loren, as always, is a delightful comedienne and quite luscious. Sharif's Prince is a bit of a mean spirited jerk so one has to wonder what Loren's character would see in him, Prince or no Prince. Piero Piccioni's underscore, a personal favorite, is one of the best film scores I've ever heard. Also in the cast: Leslie French and Georges Wilson.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Yellow Sky (1948)

A band of bank robbers led by a tough no nonsense gunfighter (Gregory Peck) trek several days through a scorching desert to escape the pursuing cavalry. Near death due to thirst and heat, they arrive at a ghost town inhabited by an old coot (James Barton) and his feisty granddaughter (Anne Baxter). This is one of the best westerns to come out of the 1940s. As directed by William A. Wellman, it's a tough and unsentimental (well, maybe a wee bit sentimental toward the end) adult western, intelligently written and executed. The gang of thieves, including Peck, are a bunch of cold hearted bastards and Baxter is no demure heroine, she's a hellcat! Wellman smartly lets the tension slowly build up before he lets all Hell break loose. It's a refreshing change of pace from the standard western where everything goes by the numbers while the minimal cast allows for more character development than usual. With Baxter as the only woman in the film, Lamar Trotti's screenplay emphasizes the potential possibility of rape at almost every opportunity and indeed, she fights off several attempts. Joseph MacDonald (MY DARLING CLEMENTINE) does a superb job of shooting the Death Valley and Lone Pine locations in crisp black and white. The rest of the gang are played by Richard Widmark, John Russell, Henry Morgan, Robert Arthur and Charles Kemper.

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.