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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sordid Lives (2001)

The matriarch (Gloria LeRoy) of a rural Texas family dies after tripping over the artificial legs of her married lover (Beau Bridges) and hitting her head in the middle of the night at a motel. Her dysfunctional family attempts to group together for the funeral. The film's tagline proclaims, "A Black Comedy About White Trash" and that about sums it up. Unfortunately not only is it not funny, it's downright amateurish. Talk about your stereotypes from drag queens to gun toting Texas rednecks to the mentally ill, they're all here. The writer and director Del Shores has dragged out every cliche (gay men come out the worst) he could think of and proudly displays them as if he actually discovered something fresh and profound. The acting ranges from horrendous like Kirk Geiger, who never made another film or TV appearance after this and one can see why, it's a career killer performance to two performances (Bonnie Bedelia, Beth Grant) that miraculously manage to overcome the ill advised material and hold our interest. And whose idea was it to cast Olivia Newton John as a tattooed and pierced ex-con fresh out of jail? Inexplicably the film has a cult reputation and even spawned a TV series, go figure. With Delta Burke, Newell Alexander and Leslie Jordan.

The Great American Pastime (1956)

An attorney (Tom Ewell, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) accepts an offer to coach his son's (Rudy Lee) little league team. A decision he comes to regret when he discovers the parents of the children are far more competitive and unreasonable than the kids but also when his wife (Anne Francis) suspects one of the boys' mother (Ann Miller) has designs on her husband. This is the kind of low key B&W comedy that was quickly supplanted by TV sitcoms. It's not a bad film, just innocuous and without much flair. After romancing Monroe and Mansfield in his previous movies, the hangdog faced Ewell gets gorgeous Anne Francis for a wife ..... only in the movies! Miller is surprisingly adept in a rare non musical role, her last at MGM (it would be 20 years before she did another film). As a film, it's no better or worse than, say, the popular THE BAD NEWS BEARS which came twenty years later. Directed by Herman Hoffman from an original screenplay by Nathaniel Benchley (THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING). With Dean Jones and Raymond Bailey.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Love From A Stranger (1937)

A young woman (Ann Harding) wins a lottery which allows her financial freedom and she quits her job. Soon after, she is swept off her feet by a handsome stranger (Basil Rathbone) and they quickly marry and move to the country. But his behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and he has unexplained temper tantrums ..... and why won't he allow anyone down in the cellar? Based on the Agatha Christie short story PHILOMEL COTTAGE by way of a play version by Frank Vosper, the story is too obvious and predictable to have much suspense going for it. Harding is attractive and agreeable but Rathbone overplays the craziness of his character to the point of parody. Still, if you're an Agatha Christie fan or completist, it's worth checking out at least once. Remade in 1947. Directed by Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN). With Joan Hickson, Binnie Hale and Bruce Seton.

Under The Skin (2014)

An alien from ..... somewhere adopts the body of a dead woman (Scarlett Johansson) and proceeds to cruise the streets of Scotland looking for men. But not just any man, it has to be the right man. It's been a long ten years since director Jonathan Glazer's last film, the still undervalued BIRTH which just might be my favorite film of 2004. It was well worth the wait! This is one amazing piece of cinema. If you saw BIRTH and didn't like it, just skip this one too. If you want a film to resolve all your questions by the film's end or insist on a plausible and followable narrative, this movie isn't for you. If you want to something unique, something that challenges you, you might find something wonderful here as I did. Considering the superb performance Glazer elicited from Nicole Kidman in BIRTH and the equally superb performance by Johansson here, it would appear that Glazer has a knack for bringing out the best in his actresses. Johansson's near mute alien (a 360 turn from her unseen but vocal performance in HER) lures men to their doom for a reason known only to her but she soon becomes fascinated by the human body she inhabits ... and that's her downfall. The Scottish brogues of the rest of the cast (some are amateurs) are so thick that it doesn't even sound like they're speaking English thus making us feel like an alien on the landscape too. The film benefits from Daniel Landin's monochrome cinematography and Mica Levi's shrill atonal underscore. Hopefully Glazer won't make us wait another ten years for his next opus. It's only April but I can guarantee this film will find a place in my ten best for 2014.

Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985)

In a prison cell in an unnamed Latin American country, a homosexual (William Hurt in his Oscar winning performance) regales his cellmate (Raul Julia), imprisoned for revolutionary activities against the repressive government, with tales of his favorite movies. Based on the novel by Manuel Puig from a screenplay by Leonard Schrader, the film is a talky affair that is illuminated by its two central performances. It's distracting at first because Hurt is so wrong for the part he's playing. To put it simply, he's just too butch (yes, gay men can be butch but not for this character). Considering that he's miscast (he and Julia should have traded roles) though, it's a superb performance. Once you can get past Hurt's essential miscasting and it does take a bit, you can appreciate the intricacies and details of his performance even though he's never totally believable. Ironically, the sequences of the film that Hurt narrates (a Nazi propaganda film with Sonia Braga as a French chanteuse collaborating with a Nazi) which he uses as an escape for him and Julia to let them escape from the sordidness and confinement of the prison cell are rather tedious. Instead of pulling us out of the their cell and into fantasy, we just want to back to the cell, it's just more interesting. Sonia Braga playing a movie goddess lacks the genuine presence of a real movie goddess like Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner that would have made the sequences more compelling. Hector Babenco's strong direction keeps us focused.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Perfect Friday (1970)

A bank manager (Stanley Baker) recruits a snooty but impoverished aristocrat (David Warner) and sexy wife (Ursula Andress) to help him rob the bank he works at. If done even halfway well, heist films are often intense (like Kubrick's THE KILLING) or stylish fun (like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR). This modest sleeper is just plain fun. What's better than sexy? Funny and sexy, of course, as Marilyn Monroe proved and the glimpses of comedic talent that Andress sometimes displayed in her prior films come to fruition here. Whether it's the larcenous twinkle in her eye or her amoral grin, you can't help but hope she gets away with it. Baker and Warner don't have the same sparkle, they're rather drab but they provide a wonderful rapport for Andress to play off of. I suppose one could wish it were a tad better but it's such a pleasant and cunning charmer that I guess one should be grateful that it works as well as it does. The dull score by John Dankworth is no help and the direction by Peter Hall is no more than efficient. With Patience Collier, T.P. McKenna and Joan Benham.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Johnny Reno (1966)

On his way to a small western town to look up an old girlfriend (Jane Russell), a U.S. Marshal (Dana Andrews) is ambushed by two brothers (Tom Drake, Dale Van Sickel) on the run. After disposing of one brother, the Marshal takes the surviving brother in in spite of his entreaties of innocence. In the 1960s, the producer A.C. Lyles made a string of low budget westerns featuring stars whose salad days were behind them. Andrews and Russell still have a bit of their old spark left but they're definitely a little ragged around the edges. Even in his prime, the slender Andrews would have seemed out of place in the barroom brawl here featuring an obvious but robust stunt double. This is a simple (or simplistic if you prefer) uncomplicated western that owes a lot to John Sturges' BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. Just replace the Japanese farmer of that film with an Indian and you can pretty much guess where the film is going. Andrews and Russell are always welcome but there's not much they can do with the cliched dialogue or predictable narrative. Drake's character as written is so dumb that it's hard to drum up much sympathy for him. Directed by R.G. Springsteen. Among the other veterans in the cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Lyle Bettger, John Agar (as incompetent as ever) and Richard Arlen.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Amelia (2009)

As the famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) makes her attempt in 1937 to be the first woman to fly around the world, her rise from a young woman with ambitions to be a female Lindbergh to world famous aviatrix is chronicled in flashback. The mystery of Amelia Earhart's fateful disappearance while flying on July 2, 1937 never to be heard from again has captured the imagination of several generations. Several bizarre theories (and some not so strange) have been concocted but this is not concerned so much with what happened to her (it presumes she simply went into the ocean after running out of fuel) but her life. Quite simply, aside from her feminist outlook and rather daring views on monogamy, her life wasn't all that interesting. The film trumps up a romantic triangle involving Earhart, her husband (Richard Gere) and a colleague (Ewan McGregor) in an attempt to sex up the film but it's the least interesting aspect of the movie. The film's tense filled final 25 minutes are very well done and if the rest of the film had been served as well, it would probably have done much better critically and at the box office. The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (THE PIANO) is handsome and there's a beauty of an underscore by Gabriel Yared. Directed by Mira Nair (MONSOON WEDDING). With Mia Wasikowska, Christopher Eccleston and Cherry Jones as Eleanor Roosevelt.

In Harm's Way (1965)

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a U.S. Navy captain (John Wayne) is removed from command for not following procedure when he went after a Japanese vessel. Also, a Navy commander (Kirk Douglas) is demoted for getting into a drunken brawl. But soon, they'll both get a chance to redeem themselves as the war in the Pacific begins to heat up. Based on the best selling novel by James Bassett, director Otto Preminger's ambitious WWII epic (it pushes the three hour mark) is well made and well acted but it tries to cram too much into its narrative and the film suffers because of it. Notably the Paula Prentiss and Tom Tryon story line which seems to have been cut to the point that their story seems extraneous to the rest of the film. Jettisoning their story would have cut 20 minutes out of the movie and some of the battle scenes are somewhat confusing (as in what's going on?). The film eschews jingoism and shows a warts and all Navy and its characters flawed rather than typical All-American heroes. The crisp Oscar nominated B&W wide screen lensing is by Loyal Griggs (SHANE) and there's a topnotch score by Jerry Goldsmith. The massive cast includes Patricia Neal (very good though her BAFTA best actress win for work here seems inexplicable), Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Brandon De Wilde, Franchot Tone, Hugh O'Brian, Jill Haworth, George Kennedy, Carroll O'Connor, Larry Hagman, Patrick O'Neal, Stanley Holloway, Bruce Cabot and Barbara Bouchet.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Station West (1948)

A military intelligence officer (Dick Powell) arrives in a small town but keeps his identity to himself except to the Captain (Tom Powers) in charge of the local Army troop. His mission is to find out who killed two soldiers who were guarding a gold shipment. Suspicion points in the direction of the beautiful owner (Jane Greer) of the town's saloon. This western is a bit of an oddity in that it seems a film noir disguised as a western more than anything else. Powell's tough talking cowboy could be Philip Marlowe out west and Greer's femme fatale is right out of Raymond Chandler. Substitute the military for cops and the bad guys for mobsters and there you have it! I thought it was just okay myself but one has to give credit to Frank Fenton and Winston Miller's adept screenplay for the lively dialogue which goes a long way in making the picture a notch above the average oater. The direction by Sidney Lanfield doesn't suggest much style which the film sorely needs. With Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Raymond Burr, Regis Toomey and Steve Brodie.