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Friday, December 19, 2014

Macao (1952)

A drifter (Robert Mitchum) arrives in the Portuguese colony of Macao (about 35 miles off the shore of Hong Kong) and becomes involved with a nightclub singer (Jane Russell) who works for a smuggler (Brad Dexter) wanted by the American police. Although the legendary Josef von Sternberg gets the directorial credit, he was fired midway into production and the film was finished by Nicholas Ray. The film feels more like a Nick Ray film than a von Sternberg movie. The plot itself doesn't seem all that important. It's all about style, it seems to wink at you. As cinema, it's a breezy piece of noir-ish entertainment with some sharp dialog and heated chemistry between Mitchum and Russell. It could have been better, sure but I'm more than pleased with what we got. Also in the cast: William Bendix, Thomas Gomez, Philip Ahn, Vladimir Sokoloff and in one of her four roles in 1952 that collectively won her a supporting actress Oscar (though officially it was for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL), Gloria Grahame seductively doing her femme fatale bit as Dexter's mistress.

The Cossacks (1928)

A peace loving young Cossack (John Gilbert, QUEEN CHRISTINA) is chastised by the people of his village for not wanting to fight and wage war against the Turks. But when his father (Ernest Torrence) beats him, he fights back and becomes a great Cossack warrior. On a technical level, this is a very well made film. There's a nice mix of action, romance, humor and even dancing. But I couldn't help but bristle at the film's obvious subtext. These Cossacks are ignorant barbarians who make their women toil in the field while they go off pillaging and killing the "unbelievers" (aka Turks). Gilbert's character before he turns brute is referred to as a "woman man" and ridiculed and the Russian Prince (Nils Asther, BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN) is made fun of because of his elegant manners and the film seems to implicitly condone the behavior. The film's rousing finale with the Cossacks returning in victory with Turks and their women tied in bondage seems to be asking for cheers! I won't even go into the scene where Renee Adoree (reunited with her BIG PARADE leading man) crawls on her hands and knees declaring her love for Gilbert! If one can get over that, it's an entertaining piece of hokum. Loosely based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy and directed by George W. Hill. The newly composed spirited underscore is by Robert Israel.

La Legge (aka The Law) (1959)

In a small Italian fishing village, several stories unfold: a free spirited if amoral girl (Gina Lollobrigida) sets her sights on the handsome engineer (Marcello Mastroianni) sent to clean up the marshes, an unhappily married woman (Melina Mercouri) plots to leave her husband for a younger man (Raf Mattioli), the sadistic crime boss (Yves Montand) fights to hold on to his power while the town's patriarch (Pierre Brasseur) finds his health failing him. An Italian/French co-production directed by Jules Dassin (NIGHT AND THE CITY), this tale of passions running wild, hypocritical facades and power struggles is a riveting melodrama where the tension slowly builds, eventually paying big dividends. Lollobrigida and Mastroianni provide the sex appeal while Mercouri and Montand provide the acting and Dassin firmly holds everything together with a sharp and focused eye toward its satisfying denouement. With its powerhouse cast, you'd think the film would be better known but too few have seen it. Released in the U.S. with cuts as WHERE THE HOT WIND BLOWS. With Paolo Stoppa and Vittorio Caprioli.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gypsy (1962)

An ambitious and ruthless stage mother (Rosalind Russell) is determined to make her little girl (Morgan Brittany, later Ann Jillian) a big vaudeville star and won't let anything stand in her way. Her focus on the girl has her ignoring the needs of her other daughter (Diane Pace, later Natalie Wood). Based on the smash 1959 Broadway musical that starred Ethel Merman in what many consider her greatest role, the film version has been much maligned and no one more so than Russell for stepping into Merman's shoes. Russell is not a singer and she's dubbed by Broadway star Lisa Kirk (KISS ME KATE) but Merman wasn't much of an actress. I'm in the minority that thinks Russell does a very good job as Mama Rose and in fact, she does most of her big number Rose's Turn in her own voice with Kirk taking over toward the very end. It's that rarity in musicals in that it has a very substantial book with complex characters and isn't totally dependent on its songs for its strength. But thankfully the songs are there and what terrific songs Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) gave us. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. With Karl Malden, Paul Wallace, Jean Willes, Harvey Korman, Jack Benny, Parley Baer and as the three scene stealing strippers with a "gimmick": Betty Bruce, Roxanne Arlen and Faith Dane.

The Kingfisher (1983)

An aging novelist and womanizer (Rex Harrison) reads an obituary of an old rival who married the woman (Wendy Hiller) he loved. He invites the widow to tea in the hopes of rekindling a fifty year old romance. Based on the play by William Douglas-Home (THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE), this is a three character piece that doesn't bother (or can't) hide its theatrical origins. Fortunately, instead of a film set, the film was shot in a gorgeous old renovated mill house in the English countryside which gives a less stage bound feeling to the proceedings. It's the sort of film that depends heavily on its cast and here it shines. Harrison elegantly navigates his way around a quip easily, Hiller brings her no nonsense graciousness and Cyril Cusack as Harrison's servant turns a pout into a master acting class. It's a chatty little piece but with enough agreeableness to keep one grinning. Directed by James Cellan Jones.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"10" (1979)

A 42 year old songwriter (Dudley Moore) is having a mid life crisis. Although in a monogamous relationship with an actress (Julie Andrews), while driving he spots a young bride (Bo Derek) on her way to her wedding and becomes obsessed with her. Obsessed to the point of following the young woman on her honeymoon in Mexico! This sex comedy was a huge hit in 1979 and made Moore a bankable box office name and Derek one of the most talked about sex stars for several years. The director Blake Edwards is one of those rare directors who genuinely has a knack for both sophisticated comedy (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) and physical comedy (THE PARTY), often balancing them within the same structure. While this doesn't rank with the best of his work, it's a solid second tier effort. The film isn't entirely without substance, Edwards touches on some salient points about aging, the generation gap and male chauvinism. Since Moore plays a songwriter, music is a very important element in the film and Henry Mancini's Oscar nominated underscore mixes love songs, disco, jazz and of course, classical music. This is the film that made Ravel's BOLERO a best selling record! With Robert Webber, Brian Dennehy, Dee Wallace, Max Showalter and Sam J. Jones (FLASH GORDON).

Another Dawn (1937)

When her one true love is killed and believing she can never love again, a woman (Kay Francis) agrees to marry a Colonel (Ian Hunter) in the British army even though she doesn't love him and travel with him to his outpost in the Sahara desert. It is there that she discovers that she can love again ... only it's not her husband but a handsome Captain (Errol Flynn) working under her husband's command. Based on the Somerset Maugham short story CAESAR'S WIFE, this romantic melodrama lays it on pretty thick with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's underscore heaving with passion as Francis and Flynn fight the inevitable. But it does it with style and the two leads are quite appealing and there's even a moment or two that manages to tug at the heartstrings. It's the kind of film that flourished in the 1930s, titillating us with the idea of adultery without actually committing it. At an hour and 14 minutes, it's brief enough not to wear out its welcome and there's even some action (Flynn fighting marauding Arabs in the desert) to give us some momentary relief from the swooning romanticism. Directed by William Dieterle. With Frieda Inescourt as Flynn's sister and Herbert Mundin as a soldier seeking to redeem an act of cowardice on the battlefront.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The 300 Spartans (1962)

The King of Persia (David Farrar, BLACK NARCISSUS) marches his armies into Greece with the intention of making Greece part of his empire. While the Greeks delay any action against the Persian King until after a religious festival, the King of Sparta (Richard Egan) takes 300 of his personal guard to hold the Thermopylae pass until the rest of the Greek army can join them. They will never come. One of the lesser known sword and sandal epics of its era, 300 SPARTANS is actually one of the better efforts. While it lacks the star power of SPARTACUS or BEN-HUR (or their budgets), its an effectively made action film that benefits from the authentic Greek locations, beautifully shot by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). The acting ranges from decent to poor, notably David Farrar and not surprisingly Barry Coe but it's not the kind of film where the acting is a vital element. The first rate underscore is by Manos Hadjidakis (NEVER ON SUNDAY). Neatly directed by Rudolph Mate. This was the inspiration for Frank Miller's graphic novel 300. Also in the cast: Ralph Richardson, Diane Baker, Kieron Moore, Ivan Triesault and Laurence Naismith.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Slander (1957)

A sleazy scandal tabloid run by a ruthless publisher (Steve Cochran) plans to publish a story about a secret in the past of the puppeteer star (Van Johnson) of a children's television show. As a teenager, he stabbed and robbed a store owner and went to prison for four years. The publisher promises not to publish the story if the puppeteer spills the goods on a famous film actress. He tries to do the right thing but tragedy comes to everyone involved. While a minor B&W effort from the MGM factory, the film packs a punch and sadly is more timely than ever. Today, with social media, supermarket rags and tabloid TV's insatiable appetite for dirt on celebrities, nothing has changed. It's worse than ever and what's even more terrible is that somehow it is now a part of our culture and we feed on it. It doesn't matter who it hurts as long as it sells and gives us our daily dose of scandal. To the film's credit, it pulls no punches and there's no happy ending ... everybody loses. I don't want to oversell it but it's a film that resonates. Directed by Roy Rowland. With Ann Blyth as Johnson's wife, Harold J. Stone, Richard Eyer (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD), Lurene Tuttle and in a strong performance, Marjorie Rambeau as Cochran's mother.

Wild (2014)

After the death of her mother (Laura Dern), a young woman (Reese Witherspoon) finds her life unraveling around her as she descends into a life of drugs and promiscuous sex which eventually costs her her marriage. Trying to find herself, she embarks on a thousand mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Oregon ... alone. Based on Cheryl Stray's biographical book WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, this is essentially a one woman show with Witherspoon in practically every frame of the film and very often, the only person in the film. It may be Witherspoon's finest hour on screen, yes even more impressive than her Oscar winning performance in WALK THE LINE. The director Jean Marc Vallee (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB) keeps a tight rein on the film and a focus on Whiterspoon's character though I wish we had been given more of Laura Dern, so good that we just want to see more of her. We could have used a little more back story on the mother-daughter dynamic which is important to the film's structure. Beautifully shot in wide screen by Yves Belanger who makes great use of the stunning locations. With Gaby Hoffman, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae and Cliff De Young.