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Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Set in Hamburg, Germany; the head (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a secret anti-terrorist group sets his sights on a young Chechen refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who he suspects will lead him to bigger fish, notably a well respected and internationally known Islamic philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) he believes channels monies to Islamic terrorists. Based on the novel by John Le Carre (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE OLD), this is an intense espionage thriller anchored by a strong performance by Hoffman in the central role. This was his last completed film (he died while filming the next HUNGER GAMES installment) and the film stands as a testament to his standing as one of the best actors of his generation. In Le Carre's "don't trust anyone" spy world, there are no heroes and any attempt to be one is doomed to failure. This is a movie for grown ups. Layered and complex with lots of gray and not much black and white. You can't guess the ending but you know won't be leaving the theater feeling good. Directed by Anton Corbijn. The wonderful supporting cast is chock full of good performances including Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl and Nina Hoss.

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

In an experiment to prove that there's no real difference between the aristocracy and the common folk, a Count (George Zucco) sends a down on her luck cabaret singer (Joan Crawford) to a plush Alps resort and pass herself off as a wealthy society woman for two weeks. Once there, she plots to snag herself a rich husband (Robert Young) though her heart is susceptible to the charms of a local postman (Franchot Tone). Based on a play by Ferenc Molnar (LILIOM), this was considered one of the mediocre films that soured MGM on Crawford. So it was a surprise to discover how charming it was. Though it lacks the feminist subtext that the director Dorothy Arzner brought to films like DANCE GIRL DANCE and CHRISTOPHER STRONG, it's a polished piece of a fairy tale romcom with Crawford at her most appealing. A minor irritant is Lynne Carver (though no fault of the actress) as Young's all forgiving doormat fiancee which is an unfortunate product of the time. The trite underscore is by Franz Waxman. With Billie Burke, Reginald Owen and Mary Philips (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN).

The Long Good Friday (1980)

A crude British gangster (Bob Hoskins) has ambitions of legitimizing his organization by investing in property that will home the future Olympic games. To this end, he seeks the support of an American syndicate whose representative (Eddie Constantine, ALPHAVILLE) has arrived in London. However, a series of killings and bombings of the gangster's cohorts threaten to derail the deal and he is determined to find the culprits. But he doesn't realize just how over his head he is. Directed by John MacKenzie (THE FOURTH PROTOCOL), this is a terrific and nasty portrait of a street thug who rose from the gutter to a crime kingpin yet doesn't seem to realize that he can't control everything around him and that his violent tactics often make matters worse. This was Hoskins' breakthrough film and he gives a superb performance. He's both frightening and attractive at the same time, you can see why a looker like Helen Mirren (as his mistress) would be drawn to him. It's a tough little gangster film that spares us nothing, no glamorizing the life here. Really first rate stuff! I could have done without Francis Monkman's overcooked score though. With Derek Thompson, Dave King, Bryan Marshall, Paul Freeman and in his feature film debut, Pierce Brosnan.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kansas City Bomber (1972)

A single mother (Raquel Welch) turns to skating in the roller derby as a way of supporting her two children who live with her mother (Martine Bartlett) while she travels with the Kansas City team. Things get complicated when she is traded to Portland, Oregon where's she's seen as a threat by the "star" (Helena Kallianiotes, FIVE EASY PIECES) of the Portland team. It doesn't help that the team's owner (Kevin McCarthy) thinks he owns her outside the skating rink too. While the film can't seem to decide whether it's an out and out exploitation film or a serious study of a woman trying to find her place in a world that exploits her both professionally and personally (something Welch knows something about), it's a tight little film with a surprisingly effective performance by Welch. Two supporting performances stand out: Kallianiotes who wears her simmering rage on her sleeve and Norman Alden as a sensitive big gorilla of guy who's not too bright but exploited also. The skating sequences seem authentic though it's clear Welch is using a double for the more physical portions. Directed by Jerrold Freedman with a nice jazz infused score by Don Ellis (THE FRENCH CONNECTION). With Jeanne Cooper, Cornelia Sharpe and 10 year old Jodie Foster as Welch's daughter.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Nikutai No Mon (aka Gate Of Flesh) (1964)

In the burnt out squalor of postwar Tokyo, a recent rape victim (Yumiko Nogawa) joins up with four prostitutes who ply their trade and keep a strict code (no sleeping with American G.I.s, no sex for free). But when an ex-soldier (Joe Shishido, he of the chipmunk cheeks) moves in with the women, their carefully knit "family" begins to unravel. If you're familiar with director Seijun Suzuki's notable work in the Yakuza genre for which he's known, this film may come as something of a revelation. Before anything else, the film's stunning production design by Takeo Kimura must be addressed. Kimura is just as much responsible for the film's artistry as Suzuki. The Tokyo slums are totally fabricated on the Nikkatsu backlot which gives the film an often surreal and intentionally stylized look with no attempt to conceal that they are sets. Combined with the vivid color scheme (the prostitutes are identified by the color of their dresses) which would do Douglas Sirk proud, Suzuki truly creates a hellish atmosphere. As for the narrative, though it comes almost 20 years after the end of WWII, there's a bitterness toward the American occupation of Japan and the loss of the war running through the film. Tellingly, as a character describes the Hell on earth, the last shot of the film is of an American flag. I'm not suggesting that the film is anti-American by any means but rather the film is about the hopelessness of defeat and the animal existence the survivors of war and an occupied country must resort to. Startlingly, some of the brutality is actually quite erotic and intended so but I could have done without the graphic slaughter of a cow. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura. With Satoko Kasai, Tomiko Ishii and Misako Tominaga.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Right Cross (1950)

Despite being in love with the WASP daughter (June Allyson) of his fight promoter (Lionel Barrymore), a Mexican-American boxer (Ricardo Montalban) feels paranoid that "gringos" have it out for him. When his right hand becomes damaged and his fighting days seem numbered, he plots to get out of his contract with his promoter and sign with another promoter (Barry Kelley) who can do more for him financially. Directed by John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK), this is a well done programmer with three appealing leads (Dick Powell as a sports reporter is the third) and a solid screenplay by Charles Schnee. The race angle is handled well without the Krameresque heavy handedness. Allyson may be top billed but the film really belongs to Powell and Montalban who establish a believable bond of friendship, a genuine "bromance". The film's big boxing sequence toward the end is excellent though this is coming from someone who is not a fan of the sport. There's no real underscore to speak of but David Raksin composed a corker of a main title. With Kenneth Tobey, Larry Keating and in a bit part as a model Powell tries to pick up ... Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

A massive gambling house in Shanghai run by the notorious Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson, Belle Watling in GONE WITH THE WIND) attracts a mix from all walks of life: society types, government officials down to con men and prostitutes. When a rich spoiled playgirl (Gene Tierney) and a down on her luck chorus girl (Phyllis Brooks) enter the establishment, they will both provide Mother Gin Sling with the means for revenge against the man (Walter Huston) who did her wrong. This is one insane movie! Directed by Josef von Sternberg (though the film has no connection to his SHANGHAI EXPRESS), one has to wonder what hallucinogens he was taking when he made it. Considering the censorship restrictions of the time eviscerated the source material, it's still amazing what the film gets away with. In the original play, Mother Gin Sling is Mother Goddam and she runs a brothel rather than a gambling establishment. Is it a "good" film? No ... but it's much more enjoyable and fun than so many "good" films that we know we are supposed to like. Boris Leven's Oscar nominated set, a circular multi-leveled casino with a huge chandelier viewing the gambling tables on the bottom floor, is pretty awesome. A surreal experience that should be seen at least once. With Victor Mature, Eric Blore, Albert Basserman, Mike Mazurki and Maria Ouspenskaya whose role seems to have been cut, she has no lines.

June Moon (1974)

A naive young man (Tom Fitzsimmons) from Schenectady moves to New York City in the hopes of becoming a songwriter. He collaborates with an older songwriter (Jack Cassidy) but he falls into the clutches of the older man's devious sister in law (Susan Sarandon) who uses him to make her lover (Kevin McCarthy) jealous. What will it take for him to wake up and smell the coffee? Based on the 1929 Broadway show by George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner, this was filmed twice in the 1930s, once under the original title in 1931 then as BLONDE TROUBLE in 1937. This version filmed for public television retains the original play's modest charms while putting a darker spin on the money hungry bitchy sisters (Sarandon and Estelle Parsons) which borders on misogyny at times. The satire on Tin Pan Alley holds up well and fortunately for this production, at its core is Fitzsimmons who plays innocent naivete beautifully which is not always as easy as it looks. Too often it comes across as forced and phony but Fitzsimmons aces it. Directed by Burt Shevelove and Kirk Browning. With Barbara Dana, Austin Pendleton, Lee Meredith and Stephen Sondheim in a rare acting role.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Hanging Tree (1959)

During the gold rush in the latter part of the 1800s, a doctor (Gary Cooper) with a mysterious past arrives in a Montana mining camp. He blackmails a young man (Ben Piazza) into becoming his indentured servant. But when a woman (Maria Schell) is found with severe sunburn, dehydration and temporary blindness from exposure, she will affect both their lives. The director Delmer Daves has directed several of the best westerns of the 1950s: the great 3:10 TO YUMA, THE LAST WAGON and JUBAL. You can add this one to the list. It's a complicated western that puts the emphasis on character development and psychology rather than gunfights or cowboys vs. Indians. The acting is uniformly good and the film provides that rarity in westerns, a strong and complex part for a woman. But ... and it's a big but ... the film seemed like it was on its way toward something dark and horrible and then, all of a sudden there's this what the ancient Greeks called deus ex machina. Out of nowhere, a quick and pat resolution. It's a serious enough flaw that prevents me from calling it a great western. But it's still one of the best westerns of the era, good enough to inspire Max Steiner to give it a fresh score rather than one of his retreads. With Karl Malden, George C. Scott (in his film debut), Karl Swenson and Virginia Gregg (aptly referred to by Piazza as a female snake, not good enough to crawl).

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

A transient (Jack Nicholson) hitchhiking his way to Los Angeles stops at a small roadside cafe and gas station run by an older Greek man (John Colicos) who offers him a job as a car mechanic. He's reluctant to accept until he sets his eyes on the Greek's sexy young wife (Jessica Lange). After they become lovers, it's only a matter of time before they conspire to kill him. The second American film version (it's also been made in France, Germany and Italy) of the James M. Cain novel, this is more accurate to Cain's novel than the 1946 Lana Turner/John Garfield MGM film. Restricted by the censorship dictates of the era, the Tay Garnett film could only suggest the sexual heat the two protagonists had for each other. I'm not trying to denigrate the 1946 film which is excellent and one of the important noir films of the 1940s, but the sexual aspect is key to the Cain novel. Handsomely shot by the great Bergman collaborater Sven Nykvist, the period detail is exquisite. I've never been a fan of David Mamet either as a playwright or screenwriter and his adaptation is troublesome. He seems to want to gut Cain's style which, despite it being cleaned up, the 1946 film managed to suggest. But if the 1976 KING KONG suggested that Lange was a star in the making, this film fulfills that promise. Disheveled and tense, Lange lets us see this woman's desperation and longing to break out. The film editor is Graeme Clifford who would direct Lange to an Oscar nomination in FRANCES the next year. Gracefully directed (perhaps too graceful) by Bob Rafelson with a beauty of a score by Michael Small. With Anjelica Huston, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd and John P. Ryan.