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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (aka Nightcap) (2000)

A young girl (Anna Mouglalis) insinuates herself into the family of a famous pianist (Jacques Dutronc) in the belief he may possibly be her biological father. But the pianist's second wife (Isabelle Huppert), who just may be an amoral sociopath, seems to have other plans for the girl. Based on the novel THE CHOCOLATE WEB by Charlotte Armstrong (DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK), the director Claude Chabrol (LES BICHES) seems less interested in the potential thriller aspects of the film than the psychological complexities of the situation, notably Huppert's tranquil on the surface but manipulative and disturbed spouse. Though often compared to Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol brings no tension to the setting, instead languidly taking his time to develop some ambiguous character development. Huppert's performance is a marvel, She's almost expressionless yet she manages to exude an imposing danger simmering below the placid exterior. I would have preferred a bit more intensity to the proceedings but perhaps that would have been too conventional. Also in the cast: Rodolphe Pauly and Brigitte Catillon.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Birdcage (1996)

A young 20 year old boy (Dan Futterman) and an 18 year old girl (Calista Flockhart) want to get married. But the drastic different lifestyles of their parents causes a major problem. She has a right wing politician (Gene Hackman) and a stay at home mom (Dianne Wiest) for parents while he was raised by his gay father (Robin Williams) and his drag queen lover (Nathan Lane). A remake of the French hit LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, this is one of those rare instances where the remake is just about as good as the original. Working from a sharp screenplay by Elaine May, the director Mike Nichols (who died today) has crafted a whirling dervish of a farce with an expert cast of jesters who go through their paces with assurance and aplomb. The sole exception is Hank Azaria as a Guatemalan houseboy whose performance is truly terrible. While it may not make you forget the 1978 French original, it remains an amusing piece of burlesque, broadly played but with its heart in the right place.

Since You Went Away (1944)

It's 1943 on the American homefront as WWII wages in Europe and the Pacific. A wife and mother (Claudette Colbert) tries to keep up the morale and raise her two daughters (Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple) while her husband is away doing his wartime service. But the horrible reality of death and war can't help but intrude its way into their lives. One of the few WWII propaganda films to focus on the homefront rather than the battlefield, producer David O. Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay) takes what should have been a simple story and turns it into an epic. Pushing the three hour mark with Roadshow trimmings (Overture, Intermission and Entr'acte), Selznick's script often reeks of shameless sentiment. Notably Lionel Barrymore's Sunday sermon and Alla Nazimova's Statue Of Liberty speech. But there also moments of genuine poignancy, mostly in the scenes between Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker as a young soldier that are extremely touching. Particularly, their evening with a lonely sailor (Guy Madison) and the heartrending goodbye at the train station. Max Steiner won an Oscar for his score and it's pretty good except for his use of the sappy standard Together. The direction by John Cromwell is probably as good as anyone could do. The large cast includes Joseph Cotten, Monty Woolley, Agnes Moorehead, Hattie McDaniel, Keenan Wynn, Craig Stevens, Albert Bassermann, Ruth Roman and Dorothy Dandridge.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1978)

A country doctor (Terry-Thomas) asks Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cook) and Dr. Watson (Dudley Moore) to look into the strange death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who was apparently killed (according to a family curse) by a spectral hound. He fears the new heir (Kenneth Williams) to Baskerville Hall will be the hound's next victim. This zany comedy, for some reason, is almost universally despised. I found it hilarious and laughed out loud several times. It's quite silly and wacky and not all of it works, Dudley Moore's one legged runner for example but I found its slapdash "anything for a laugh" style worked for me. The movie has some wonderfully awful puns. When a psychic medium dies, someone says "I've lost a medium rare in a world of high stakes!". Yes, it's that kind of movie. There are some parodies of famous films like THE EXORCIST and THE SEVENTH SEAL but the humor tends to be pretty lowbrow (chihuahuas peeing in your face) but it has the feel of a good Abbott and Costello movie. Directed by Paul Morrisey, the director of such Andy Warhol productions as TRASH and HEAT. The large cast, all game, includes Joan Greenwood, Denholm Elliott, Hugh Griffith, Jessie Matthews, Roy Kinnear, Spike Mulligan and Irene Handl.

Body Heat (1981)

A rather seedy lawyer (William Hurt) pursues the wealthy wife (Kathleen Turner) of a very rich but crooked businessman (Richard Crenna). Spurred on by passion and greed, they concoct a plan to murder the husband for his money. But the road to Hell is paved with unexpected twists and turns. This outstanding neo-noir, a clever updating of Billy Wilder's 1944 DOUBLE INDEMNITY, was the directorial debut of writer Lawrence Kasdan and the film debut of Turner. While it doesn't have the complexities or intricacies of CHINATOWN, the film is rich in mood and style and a killer performance by Turner, who was compared by critics to Lauren Bacall. But Turner gives us the real deal that Bacall faked. It's not all Turner's show by a long shot, she is matched every step of the way by her partner William Hurt, who plays the dupe to perfection. The cinematographer Richard H. Kline captures the muggy humidity of a hot Florida summer and John Barry's sensual score (one of his finest) propels the film forward. With Mickey Rourke, Ted Danson and J.A. Preston.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (aka The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari) (1920)

A young man (Friedrich Feher) regales a stranger with a curious story involving his friend and romantic rival (Hans Heinrich Von Twardowski), who are both in love with the same woman (Lil Dagover). At a carnival, a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt, CASABLANCA) tells him he will not survive the dawn and indeed, he is murdered in his bed. This landmark film has a justifiably exalted reputation. It's influence continues to this day and it is the most accessible example of what is referred to as German expressionism. Its plot is relatively uncomplicated but this is not a film driven by its narrative. The director Robert Wiene and his team of production designers (Walter Reimann, Walter Rohrig, Hermann Warm) have created a surreal, dream like world that disorients its audience. It's both terrifying and compelling simultaneously. Almost 100 years later, it hasn't lost any of its magic. This is a film that deserves the appellation of masterpiece. I saw it accompanied by a very effective hypnotic synth score by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky). With Werner Krauss in the title role.

She (1935)

Two men (Randolph Scott, Nigel Bruce) travel to the Russian arctic in search of the "flame of life" which gives immortality to those who bathe in its flame. It is there that they meet "she who must be obeyed" (Helen Gahagan) who rules her kingdom with an iron fist and recognizes Scott as the reincarnation of her late lover. Based on the H. Rider Haggard novel, this lavish and kitschy adventure is irresistible. The outlandish plot, the purple dialogue, the over the top Art Deco set design, the hilarious choreography (which was actually nominated for an Oscar) etc. all add up to one crazy movie! Produced by Merian C. Cooper, who hoped to duplicate the success of his KING KONG two years earlier, the film was not a box office success but has turned into a cult film in the ensuing years. This was Gahagan's only film. She entered politics and became the victim of a rather unsavory campaign against her by Richard Nixon's camp. The underscore by Max Steiner is rather impressive, one of his better efforts. Remade in 1965 with Ursula Andress. Directed by Irving Pichel and Lansing C. Holden. With Helen Mack, Gustav Von Seyfferitz and Lumsden Hare.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cat Ballou (1965)

When a young schoolteacher (Jane Fonda) returns from the East to her father's (John Marley) ranch in Wyoming, she finds that a land baron (Reginald Denny) is behind a scheme to take her father's ranch away. She hires a gunslinger (Lee Marvin) to protect her father but when he is killed by the land baron's hired gun (also Lee Marvin), she turns outlaw. This modest comedy was one of the surprise hits of 1965, winning Marvin a best actor Oscar and making him, after years in the business, a bankable leading man. It's a sweet good natured comedy, often poking friendly fun at the conventions of the western genre. While I personally may prefer other comedic westerns like THE PALEFACE or BLAZING SADDLES, it's an amiable treat. The cast all put their best foot forward (well, maybe not Dwayne Hickman) though Marvin's Oscar win does seem rather inexplicable today. Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye are two balladeers who occasionally pop up as a sort of singing Greek chorus, the songs courtesy of Mack David and Jerry Livingston and one of them, Ballad Of Cat Ballou, received an Oscar nomination for best song. Directed by Elliot Silverstein. With Michael Callan, Tom Nardini, Jay C. Flippen, Arthur Hunnicutt and Bruce Cabot.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Astonished Heart (1950)

As her husband (Noel Coward) lies dying, his wife (Celia Johnson) calls her husband's mistress (Margaret Leighton) to come over to see him before he expires. While waiting for her to arrive, the wife reflects on how and when the love triangle began. The title comes from the Bible, Deuteronomy 28:28, "The Lord shall smite thee with madness, blindness and astonishment of heart". Based on one of his one act plays featured in TONIGHT AT 8:30, Noel Coward wrote the screenplay and the film's underscore as well as playing the leading role. What might have been a decent romantic melodrama along the lines of his BRIEF ENCOUNTER falls flat in no small part by Coward's egregious miscasting. In a film about a man destroyed by passion, the rather dowdy Coward can't seem to even say his own lines with any conviction. It's hard to imagine Leighton and Johnson suffering for love of Coward when he can't summon up anything remotely resembling fervor. For example, there's a scene where a "jealous" Coward is harassing Leighton to find out about her former lovers with all the intensity of a tired schoolmaster quizzing a backward student! Not addressed is the concern that both the women are too good for him. Co-directed by Terence Fisher and Antony Darnborough. With Joyce Carey, Michael Hordern and Graham Payn.

Tarantula (1955)

In a small desert town, a biological research scientist (Leo G. Carroll) is experimenting with atomic isotopes on animals with the intention of creating a super nutrient that will take the place of food in the future when overpopulation overtakes the Earth. It has a side effect of making the lab animals grow much faster than normal and when a tarantula escapes from the lab, it's not long before he's terrorizing the countryside. One of many giant creature features that populated the 1950s, this Jack Arnold directed piece of science fiction is one of the better ones. The acting is sub par, the plot far fetched but the special effects are pretty neat and hold up well. It's a programmer that has probably long outlived its expected expiration date but it's good fun. With John Agar as the cardboard hero, Mara Corday as the screaming heroine, Nestor Paiva, Raymond Bailey Ross Elliott and a young Clint Eastwood in one of his earliest film roles as a jet pilot dropping napalm on the tarantula.