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Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Day Of Fury (1956)

As civilization makes its final encroachment on the Old West, a gunfighter (Dale Robertson) rides into a respectable town and proceeds to take it over. Because the gunfighter once saved his life, the town's marshal (Jock Mahoney) bends over backward to be fair to the gunfighter despite the citizens' outrage. But the town quickly starts unraveling as its townsfolk discover they aren't as civilized as they thought. The 1950s were the golden era of the movie western, just about every major male star of the era headlined a western or two. The westerns were so popular that a proliferation of minor (or "B") westerns filled the market and Universal studios was one of the studios that ground them out. The majority of them were routine oaters but every once in awhile, a programmer would offer up just a little bit more to stand above the crowd. This is one of those westerns. The film keeps us off balance, certainly as far as our sympathies go. The gunfighter is a thug but the townspeople are no prize either, even the town's judge and minister come off as bullies. When the "civilized" townspeople start falling apart, the gunfighter likens it to lifting a rock and seeing the rot underneath and he's not far wrong. Thankfully, the film's somewhat vague ending doesn't tie it up with a band-aid. Directed by Harmon Jones. It's not a film where the acting matters much but the cast includes Mara Corday, John Dehner, Carl Benton Reid, Jan Merlin and in a nice little turn as the town's schoolmarm, Dee Carroll.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oklahoma! (1999)

In 1906 Oklahoma (before statehood), a cowhand (Hugh Jackman) sets his eye on a farm girl (Josefina Gabrielle) but so does a rather maladjusted farmhand (Shuler Hensley). The tension between the three can only lead to no good. The landmark 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (their first show together) is a perennial revival on the New York and London stages as well as community theaters across the country. This filmed version of the acclaimed 1998 London revival shows the musical has lost none of its homey appeal and boasts a marvelous Curly in Jackman, a show stealing performance by Shuler Hensley as Jud Fry (his rendition of Lonely Room is a killer), boisterous choreography by Susan Stroman and assured direction by Trevor Nunn. Nunn has nipped and tweaked the show a bit as has Stroman's dance numbers. Notably in the dream ballet where normally dancers double for the two leads (Curly and Laurey) but Jackman and especially Gabrielle are good enough dancers to handle the dancing themselves without the substitutes. The show was obviously reformatted for film and shot on a sound stage but interspersed with filmed pieces from a live performance before an audience to make us think we're seeing a fully live performance. With Maureen Lipman as Aunt Eller, Jimmy Johnston as Will Parker and Vicki Simon as a very anemic Ado Annie. She has one of the show's best numbers, I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No, which falls flat here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Man And I (1952)

A Mexican migrant worker (Ricardo Montalban) takes on a job with a mean spirited farmer (Wendell Corey) for a month. But between the farmer's sexually frustrated wife (Claire Trevor) and the Muscatel guzzling barfly (Shelley Winters) he falls in love with, his problems are only just beginning. Ricardo Montalban was one of the few Hispanic actors who managed (for the most part) to avoid stereotypical Latino roles. In films like this and BORDER INCIDENT, MYSTERY STREET and BATTLEGROUND to name just a few, he played Hispanic men with a dignity, with a purpose, providing well round characterizations rather than the usual Latino stereotype. Directed by the veteran director William Wellman from a screenplay co-written by John Fante (author of one of the quintessential L.A. novels ASK THE DUST), the film has a solid first hour until Montalban's character does something so insanely stupid that the film jumped the track for me and my interest dwindled. The mawkish title refers to the Montalban/Winters romance which doesn't come across as very believable. Much more interesting are the supporting characters played by Trevor and Corey. Stuck in a miserable marriage, each contemptuous of the other, one can't help but wonder what brought them to this point in their lives and why they still cohabit. With Jack Elam (unconvincing playing Mexican) and George Chandler.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Night Tide (1961)

A sailor (Dennis Hopper) on shore leave spends the day at an amusement park on the beach in Southern California. He becomes infatuated with a strange girl (Linda Lawson) who believes she is a Siren, mythic mermaids who lured men to their doom in Greek mythology. Despite warnings from others (her last two lovers died under mysterious circumstances), he insists on developing the relationship. This dark dream of a movie, its mood intentionally echoes Edgar Allan Poe, never got the release it deserved back in 1961, although Time magazine named it as one of the ten best films of the year. It's developed a cult reputation in the ensuing years however. Its low budget (it cost $50,000 to make) on location shooting (not a single studio shot) actually gives the film a distinct and credible feel to it which enhances the reality versus fantasy aspects of the narrative. It's not unlike another low budget B&W cult horror in that respect, Herk Harvey's CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Filmed in the grimy and atmospheric city of Venice, California (where Welles shot TOUCH OF EVIL) before it became the trendy conclave it is today, Curtis Harrington's film is heavily influenced by Jacques Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE. Indeed, he boldly lifts a scene from the Val Lewton movie at the beginning of the film. It's crude indie film making at its most basic level but effective, very very effective. The score is by David Raksin (LAURA). With the wonderful Luana Anders, Gavin Muir and Marjorie Cameron (whose own life would make for a terrific movie).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Monsieur Hire (1989)

A rather drab misanthrope (Michel Blanc) is not liked by his neighbors because he keeps to himself and refuses to socialize. When the murder of a young girl occurs in the neighborhood, he becomes the chief suspect. In the meantime, he continues to look out of his window into the apartment of an attractive young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire, VAGABOND). Based on a short novel by the prolific Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon, the director Patrice Leconte does a fine job of keeping the narrative concise (the film clocks in at less than 90 minutes) which is good as there's only the thinnest of plots and the rest filled in by character detail. At first, we can understand why Blanc's Monsieur Hire is unliked, we don't like him either. But we soon see his innate loneliness and despite his misanthropy, his need for another human's touch. We're not quite sure how all this will play out until we get the "twist" which comes past the midway point after which it becomes rather predictable. But even its predictability doesn't negate the poignancy and sadness we feel at the film's end. The droning score is by Michael Nyman (THE PIANO). With Luc Thuillier and Andre Wilms.

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.