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Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Black Orchid (1959)

A lonely widower (Anthony Quinn) and a recently widowed woman (Sophia Loren) find each other and a romance begins. But there's a major impediment when the man's adult daughter (Ina Balin) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the thought of her father remarrying. Directed by Martin Ritt (HUD), this is a lovely romance drama. The ending seems rushed and contrived though I suppose any other ending would have been a bummer. I just wish they had taken their time at arriving there. It usually seems some movies feel padded out but this one could have gone on another 15 or 20 minutes so the ending would be more organic and not so rushed. When Loren did TWO WOMEN two years later, everyone gushed about her emergence as a great dramatic actress but her work here (she won 2 acting awards for it) was already a sign that she wasn't just a sexy comedienne, this was an actress! Quinn is also excellent. He gets a lot of flak for his overacting (often justified) but here, he's restrained and quite endearing. Ritt has always been an actor's director, so I'll give him the credit for keeping Quinn low keyed. With Peter Mark Richmond, Virginia Vincent, Naomi Stevens and Whit Bissell. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Siege (1998)

After the man (Ahmed Ben Larby) believed to be the mastermind of a terrorist attack is kidnapped by U.S. military, a series of terrorist attacks occur in New York City and begin to escalate. Eventually, the city is put under martial law as the city's Arab population are interned. Filmed three years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the film received mixed reviews when it opened but it is one of those films which viewed today seems all too timely and relevant. Indeed, a possible vision of Trump's America as if we didn't learn anything by the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Directed by Edward Zwick (GLORY), the film raises a lot of complex and pertinent questions which it doesn't answer. It is after all, a piece of mainstream entertainment with big Hollywood stars (Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Annette Bening) and backed by a major studio and entertaining it is. It would be too much I suppose to ask for less cliches and more artistry but for what it is, it's pretty good and eerily somewhat visionary. Willis can't do much with his stolid military patriot but Washington brings a nice fire to his FBI agent and Bening, who has the film's most complex role, does what she can with the poorly written ambiguous CIA agent. With Tony Shalhoub, Sami Bouajila, Chip Zien and E. Katherine Kerr.  

Fantomas (1964)

A master of disguise (Jean Marais) by the name of Fantomas is the talk of Paris because of his daring crimes and the inability for the police to catch him. He becomes enraged when a journalist (Jean Marais) fabricates an interview with him for a newspaper and kidnaps him with the intent of making the police think the journalist is the notorious Fantomas. Directed by Andre Hunebelle and based on the series of novels (a total of 32) by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre which began in 1911. Its best known film incarnation is the six chapter serial by Louis Feuillade from 1913. This version was a huge hit in Europe and spawned two sequels. It's much lighter in tone than the original books. It's more of a spoof of the spy genre though not as good as the same year's THAT MAN IN RIO which did the same thing. The aging Marais (Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST)  was over 50 when he did FANTOMAS and doesn't quite cut the swashbuckling image of an action hero though to his credit, it appears he did a lot of his own stunts. The film's most amusing moments belong to Louis De Funes as the frustrated police commissioner. The film's last half hour or so is an elongated chase by auto, train, helicopter, boat and motorcycle which while visually attractive loses its steam quite quickly. With the lovely Mylene Demongeot as the romantic interest but under utilized. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

St. Martin's Lane (aka Sidewalks Of London) (1938)

A 40ish street performer (Charles Laughton) takes pity on a thieving teenage street urchin (Vivien Leigh) and recognizing her talent, he mentors her and falls in love with her. But it won't be long before her ambition leads her to success on the London stage. In Great Britain, street performers were known as buskers and often entertained theater queues waiting to enter the theater and made their living by donations from the crowd. Directed by Tim Whelan (1940's THIEF OF BAGDAD), this may sound like a British variation of A STAR IS BORN but it's not really. It's a charming but heartfelt platonic romance, the homely older man without social skills in love with the much younger ambitious snippet who grasps the first opportunity to further her career. Yet she's so guileless that you can't really resent her. Laughton really was one of the most extraordinary talents of the 20th century and Leigh demonstrates the qualities that would make her a perfect fit for Scarlett O'Hara the following year. Reputedly Laughton and Leigh didn't get along when the cameras weren't rolling but you'd never know it from their solid work here. With Rex Harrison and Tyrone Guthrie.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Major Dundee (1965)

In 1864 as the Civil War is nearing its end, a Union cavalry officer (Charlton Heston) leads a motley crew of soldiers including Confederate prisoners and civilian mercenaries into Mexico to pursue Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his men in retaliation for the massacre of civilians and soldiers. Originally 2 hours and 26 minutes long before being cut by the studio (Columbia), Sam Peckinpah's ambitious sprawling epic western seemed cursed from the beginning. Peckinpah reworked the original script by Harry Julian Fink into a more complex western than it originally was with a conscious nod to Melville's MOBY DICK. Reputedly, Peckinpah drank heavily during the filming and was abusive to both cast and crew and Columbia wanted to replace him until Heston gave up his salary to keep him on the picture. When the initial reaction was negative, the studio cut the film against Peckinpah's objections. Would it ever have been a great picture if it had stuck to Peckinpah's vision? Who knows? But what remains (and I saw the extended cut which restores 14 minutes to the film) is more than good enough to suggest it might have been. As it stands, it's an engrossing look at a military martinet whose obsession and single mindedness result in a costly and unnecessary loss. The large cast includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Senta Berger, Warren Oates, Mario Adorf, Ben Johnson, Brock Peters and Michael Anderson Jr.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Hollars (2016)

A struggling graphic novelist and artist (John Krasinski, who also directed) is in a relationship with a wealthy girl (Anna Kendrick) who is expecting his baby and fatherhood and marriage isn't something he's ready for. But a major crisis pushes this dilemma on the back burner when his mother (Margo Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumor and he flies to Mississippi to be by her side. Despite the grim sounding synopsis, this is a comedy! It's yet another dysfunctional family comedy where everyone is united by a family tragedy but it's a good one. The script is strong and the ensemble cast is impeccable. For fans of the wonderful Martindale, it's a treat to see her in a major role. My only complaint is that there's very little spontaneity, everything including every laugh seems planned right down to the inch. And that's what keeps it from being something special instead of another riff on movies like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Also, I'm not a fan of Josh Ritter whose songs provide the film's underscore which didn't help. But it's a more than decent movie and if your eyes water more than once, you can either resent the manipulation or give in. I gave in. The terrific cast includes Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day, Mary Kay Place and Josh Groban (don't snicker, he's good).

Undercurrent (1946)

With spinsterhood soon approaching, a woman (Katharine Hepburn) is swept off her feet by a rich manufacturer (Robert Taylor). After a quick wedding, she's whisked off to Washington DC where her husband is part of the social set. But it isn't long before she sees the dark side underneath the charm and begins to suspect he may be mentally unstable. An unusual entry from director Vincente Minnelli, a director not known for thrillers. He does well enough, the flaws in the film come from the screenplay which seems cobbled together from bits and pieces of films like REBECCA and GASLIGHT. While Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum are both successfully cast against type, Hepburn doesn't fare as well. Actresses like Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman in their respective films had a fragility that made it seem like they would crack if enough pressure were applied. Hepburn seems to have an innate resourcefulness that we're never quite in fear for her life as she seems to be able to take care of herself, however tremulous she may act. After a sluggish exposition, it's entertaining but it's not the kind of film that resonates. There's a nice underscore by Herbert Stothart that helps push it along. With Edmund Gwenn, Marjorie Main, Jayne Meadows and Clinton Sundberg.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Strangerland (2015)

When their sexually promiscuous 15 year old daughter (Maddison Brown) is involved in a scandal, her family relocates to a small dusty town in the Australian outback hoping to start over. But the daughter continues her sexually promiscuous ways and when she and her brother (Nicholas Hamilton) disappear in the middle of the night, the town suspects their parents (Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes) may be responsible. Directed by Kim Farrant in her feature film debut, the film starts off very well but after awhile it goes off the tracks and never finds its way back. One has to admire Nicole Kidman once again. Has any contemporary actress taken such risk taking roles in interesting films that almost no one sees? It's another first rate performance but the screenplay and direction leave her adrift, a diamond looking for the proper setting that just isn't there. Other than the son, there's no character that we can invest in. The parents are crappy parents and not without complicity in their daughter's behavior, the daughter is a slut, the policeman (Hugo Weaving) investigating the case is inept and the townspeople in general are cretins. The film gives us no closure and I have no problem with that but it doesn't give us anything else either. See it for Kidman's performance and P.J. Dillon's super cinematography (a sand storm is a corker) but go in with low expectations. With Lisa Flanagan and Meyne Wyatt.    

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)

On the 65th birthday of the family patriarch (Burl Ives), a wife (Elizabeth Taylor) must not only deal with the alcoholic apathy of her husband (Paul Newman) but the machinations of her brother in law (Jack Carson) and his wife (Madeleine Sherwood) to wrest control of the family estate. Based on the Pulitzer prize winning 1955 play by Tennessee Williams and directed by Richard Brooks (ELMER GANTRY). This being 1958, the play's homosexual content was white washed though the suggestion is still there albeit buried under rewritten dialog which softens the potency of Williams' play. Still, while it does compromise the film but it doesn't ruin it. It's still an excellent rendition of Williams' work with a superb cast. Reputedly, Williams was unhappy with the film version but to be fair, he himself had altered the original play at Eliza Kazan's (the play's director) request but restored it for subsequent revivals. All that aside, Taylor and Newman both look impossibly gorgeous but fortunately they can also act which is important as Newman has to convince us he's not interested in bedding Taylor which he somehow manages to do. Not the definitive filmed version of Williams' popular play but still the best all in all. With Judith Anderson, Larry Gates and Vaughn Taylor.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Flashdance (1983)

An 18 year old girl (Jennifer Beals) works as a welder by day and at night works as an exotic dancer in a working class bar. But she has dreams of being a legitimate professional dancer even though she has no formal training. Directed by Adrian Lyne (FATAL ATTRACTION), this was one of the first movies to utilize the styles of MTV music videos for the big screen. At the time, it was fresh and invigorating and its influence was felt through out the rest of the 80s decade. It benefits greatly from the stylish cinematography of Donald Peterman (MEN IN BLACK), a catchy song soundtrack (the title song won an Oscar) and an appealing central performance by Beals (not quite yet an actress at this stage of her career). Ironically, for a film about a dancer, Beals can't dance so she has a dance double (Marine Jahan) doing her dancing. It's essentially a Cinderella story and one can't help but root for the likable Beals but the script is pretty bad. Written by Thomas Hedley Jr. and Joe Eszterhas, it's a string of cliches and I suspect the worst scenes in the film (like the lobster dinner) were written by Eszterhas, the man who gave us the hideous SHOWGIRLS. Definitely a case of style over (lack of) substance. With Michael Nouri, Lilia Skala, Cynthia Rhodes, Belinda Bauer, Kyle T. Heffner and Micole Mercurio.