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Friday, April 30, 2010

The Road (2009)

Australian director John Hillcoat directs this grim post apocalyptic vision based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smith-McPhee) travel a barren gray landscape hoping to merely survive (and avoid the roving bands of hooligans who will rape you, kill you then eat you) as the father loses his humanity and the child desperately tries to hold on to his. It’s relentless in its bleakness and Hillcoat doesn’t spare us anything. This isn’t MAD MAX! No action and no heroes. It’s an achievement of sorts but guaranteed to empty seats. I counted at least 4 people who walked out. Still, if you hang in there, there’s an almost darkly lyrical beauty to it. Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce and a nearly unrecognizable Robert Duvall co-star.

Perfect Strangers (1950)

A potentially intriguing premise gets derailed by contrivances and stock secondary characters. A jury is sequestered in a murder trial in which a man is accused of murdering his wife in order to be free to marry another woman. Two married jurors (Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan) fall in love as their affair parallels that of the accused man and his mistress. But the screenplay by Edith Sommer only superficially takes advantage of the possibilities. Too much time is devoted to the stereotypical other jurors like the tiresome Thelma “Here comes another wisecrack” Ritter who are only there to pad out the already brief running time. Only Margalo Gillmore as a snooty society woman ready to come apart at the seams holds any interest. Rogers goes all actressy on us in full KITTY FOYLE mode and deflates any possible genuine emotions.

Grand Slam (1967)

A gem of an international heist thriller courtesy of Giuliano Montaldo (SACCO AND VANZETTI) is first rate stuff. A retired professor (Edward G. Robinson) asks the assistance of his childhood friend (Adolfo Celi THUNDERBALL), now a crime lord, in requisitioning four professional criminals (Klaus Kinski, Robert Hoffman, George Rigaud, Riccardo Cucciolla), each with their own specialty, in pulling a theft of 10 million dollars worth of diamonds. An uptight “plain” secretary (Janet Leigh in glasses) literally holds the key to the theft’s success. The robbery is beautifully played out with the requisite tension and a marvelous twist at the end. Unfortunately, Ennio Morricone’s score comes off as hastily put together.

Crescendo (1970)

Weird, slightly kinky Hammer horror yarn has a young grad student (Stefanie Powers) doing a thesis on a deceased composer while a guest of his widow (Margaretta Scott) and her wheelchair bound son (James Olson) in France. But everything is not as it seems. The widow insists Powers dress in a dead woman’s clothes, the son has schizophrenic mood shifts, the maid (Jane Lapotaire) has blackmail plans and the butler (Joss Ackland) is there to protect the ugly family secret (which is easily guessed). With the exception of one genuinely shocking moment, there aren’t many thrills to be had. Powers' naive heroine seems unnecessarily slow on the uptake as the audience is always one step ahead of her. The film moves along nicely but the director, Alan Gibson (A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA), can't seem to establish the menacing atmosphere necessary to such efforts.

A Single Man (2009)

Pretentious pap with a capital P! Fashion designer Tom Ford makes his directorial debut with this affected tale of a gay college professor (Colin Firth) who must deal with the death of his lover in the early 1960s. It’s all filmed in this dreamy, hazy and artsy veneer with lots of shots of bare chested young men, male bottoms and flat abs that it begins to resemble gay soft porn. By the time, there was a chichi close up of lips blowing smoke, I’d had enough and jumped ship about 50 minutes into the film. Co-starring Julianne Moore with a wretched English accent. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987)

Irresistible, lush melodrama set in the highest echelons of New York society of the 40s, 50s and 60s that make and enforce their own rules focuses on a showgirl (Ann-Margret) who marries into an aristocratic family. What starts out as a Cinderella story turns into a grand tragedy of murder, revenge, manipulation, hypocrisy and class privilege. It’s the filmic equivalent of a juicy best seller than you can’t put down. Ann-Margret gives the performance of her career as the young Mrs. Grenville going from naïve chorus girl to hardened and bruised alcoholic and Claudette Colbert is the cold, unforgiving elder Mrs. Grenville in her final film role. Elizabeth Ashley, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, Sam Wanamaker, John Rubenstein co-star.

The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (1927)

Perhaps the first true Hitchcockian film as we’ve come to know the term. Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of a mysterious lodger in a rooming house who becomes a prime suspect in the serial murders of young blonde girls is full of Hitchcock touches, many he would re-use over again. It’s a silent film which allows Hitchcock to devote himself to such visual flourishes as the justifiably famous glass floor shot and the lovers’ first kiss. The famous composer and performer Ivor Novello plays the lodger of the title, the solitary named June is the mannequin he’s in love with, Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney as her parents and Malcolm Keen as her policeman suitor.

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarnatino’s love of movies infuses every frame of his revisionist WWII fantasy. Who hasn’t wanted to rewrite history the way he wanted to see it happen? Thankfully, Tarantino uses the title and not much else of the ghastly 1978 Italian WWII adventure that he inexplicably admired. Brad Pitt heads a renegade brigade of scalping Nazi hunters, Melanie Laurent is the Jewess who escaped death by the Nazis only to find herself a tool in the middle of a Nazi propaganda event, Christoph Waltz is the coolly sadistic Nazi Colonel and even Mike Myers and Rod Taylor (as Winston Churchill) show up. I’m not enamored of Waltz’s obvious and hammy performance as the critics who are throwing every conceivable acting award at him. Even in Tarantino’s heightened reality, Waltz’s performance comes across as more grotesque and cartoonish than the already larger than life performances of everyone else. Again, Tarantino shows what a great ear he has for film music in the chosen pieces of music he uses in the film (everything from Ennio Morricone to Giorgio Moroder). With Daniel Bruhl.

Maid Of Salem (1937)

This Frank Lloyd directed film isn’t really interested in exploring the horrors of the 17th century Salem witch trials but merely using it as a backdrop to the Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray romance. Of course, the Salem trials were a horrendous miscarriage of justice that just about any film on the topic is bound to hold one’s interest but Colbert and MacMurray seem terribly out of place. The first portion of the film when they meet “cute” could well be straight out of a romantic comedy. Colbert tries to fit in but MacMurray is in dire need of rescue. The supporting cast includes Gale Sondergaard, the marvelous Madame Sul-Te-Wan and Bonita Granville doing a riff on her THESE THREE role is the witchcraft accusing brat that starts the whole thing.

White Christmas (1954)

The only Christmas movie I watch religiously each year. Don’t ask me why. The story is mundane, it stars Bing Crosby (probably my least favorite actor ever) and most of the songs aren’t among Irving Berlin’s best. But there’s a certain likability about the whole event. Loyal Griggs’ Technicolor eye popping cinematography, Edith Head’s gorgeous costumes and Robert Alton’s choreography all contribute to the film’s enjoyability and, of course, Crosby aside, there’s the wonderful Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Mary Wickes. Co-starring Dean Jagger and in small roles, Barrie Chase and George Chakiris.

Me And Orson Welles (2009)

Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, Richard Linklater (BEFORE SUNRISE) directs this wonderfully clever conceit about a high school senior (Zac Efron) who gets a small part in Orson Welles’ legendary Mercury theatre production of JULUIS CAESAR in 1937. It’s a dreamy look at the magic of theatre and of art and of genius (in this case, Welles). Christian McKay gives a deliciously wicked portrait of Welles that goes beyond mere impersonation and inhabits the egotistical wizard. Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, James Tupper (as Joseph Cotten) all give excellent support.

Operation Secret (1952)

This WWII espionage thriller, directed by Lewis Seiler (GUADACANAL DIARY), has an intriguing premise. The film begins with a tribunal investigating the murder of a French resistance fighter (Paul Picerni) by an American soldier (Cornel Wilde) several years after WWII. The soldier has long since disappeared and presumed dead so the tribunal attempts to reconstruct the events leading up to the murder using several witnesses who were participants in the affair (Steve Cochran, Karl Malden, Phyllis Thaxter, Jay Novello and Lester Matthews) by the use of flashbacks until the truth is revealed. There’s a lot of unnecessary padding in what should have been a leaner film that releases the tension a thriller should possess. There’s also the air of “Red” paranoia so prevalent in American films of the 1950s that dates it. Curiously some of the actors playing French, like Karl Malden, attempt a French accent while others, notably Steve Cochran don’t even bother.

Horror Island (1941)

The owner (Dick Foran) of a small boulder of an island is heavily in debt. He decides to bring tourists to the island and charge them for a weekend of ghostly thrills and buried treasure. But his first trip turns deadly as someone is murdering the guests one by one. Although this is a strictly by the numbers, this minor fright effort by Universal features the usual group of strangers in an old dark house (with secret chambers and hidden passages, of course). There's more than a bit of Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS in the story line and the usual over abundance of comedy relief, this time provided by Fuzzy Knight and Leo Carrillo. It's mercifully brief at barely an hour so it doesn't wear out its welcome. If you're partial to this kind of stuff (as I am) then most likely you'll tolerate the cliches. With Peggy Moran, Iris Adrian, Walter Catlett and Lewis Howard.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)

Terrific western is a winner all the way down the line! Solidly directed by Russell Crouse with a tight screenplay by Crouse and Frank D. Gilroy (THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES), this unusual western deals with a respected shopkeeper (Glenn Ford) who doesn’t wear a gun and doesn’t drink but who harbors a dark, complex past that the town doesn’t know about. When his “secret” spills out, Hell comes to visit. I loved the way the story shoots down (no pun intended) all our traditional expectations. Ford is excellent as the tortured shopkeeper and even Jeanne Crain rises to the occasion as his spouse who finally takes a stand. Others in the cast include Broderick Crawford as a cold blooded gunman, Russ Tamblyn (there’s even a dance number inserted to showcase him) and Leif Erickson. The crisp B&W cinematography is by George F. Folsey (FORBIDDEN PLANET) and Andre Previn’s intense score hits all the right notes.

The Lovers (aka Les Amants) (1958)

Louis Malle’s once controversial (in the U.S., its obscenity case went all the way to the Supreme Court) still retains its ability to hold one’s attention although far from Malle’s best work. Living in the provinces, an upper class bourgeois wife (Jeanne Moreau) dissatisfied in her marriage keeps a polo playing lover (Jose Luis De Villalonga, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) in Paris. A house party involving her lover, her husband (Alain Cuny), her best friend (Judith Magre) and a stranger (Jean Marc Bory) brings a shocking revelation to her. At its best, there is the exquisite Jeanne Moreau, one of cinema’s greatest actress at its center. At its worst, it resembles those florid romance novels with purple prose done over with an artistic sheen, Moreau in a diaphanous negligee floats thru the woods with her lover while Brahms plays oh so tastefully on the soundtrack.

Battle Beneath The Earth (1967)

Tacky sci-fi mess contains a pretty loopy plot. A renegade Red Chinese faction with plans to take over the world digs tunnels under the Pacific Ocean (no, I’m not kidding) all the way to the United States where they house nuclear bombs underground with the intention of taking over America. When seismic activity indicates recent upheavals are not earthquake related, U.S. army intelligence discovers the diabolical plot and it’s a race against time to foil the dastardly plans of Chinese terrorists. You’d think with a cockamamie plot like that it would at least be fun but it’s a pretty wearisome affair. The most bizarre thing is that almost all the Chinese are played by Caucasian actors in oriental make-up spouting sing-song dialogue. Talk about your politically incorrect. Kerwin Mathews (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) is the nominal hero.

King Of The Roaring 20s (1961)

Joseph Newman (THIS ISLAND EARTH) directs this biopic on the mobster Arnold Rothstein. As with most gangster biopics, it plays fast and loose with the facts. As a gangster movie, it’s not bad. David Janssen plays Rothstein, a notorious gambler who became a kingpin of organized crime (even alleged to have been behind the 1919 Black Sox Scandal) with an unusual restraint (perhaps too much restraint), quite a different mobster than the Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel types. A couple of performers stand out. Mickey Rooney as Rothstein’s doomed childhood friend and the underrated Dianne Foster as Rothstein’s ex-showgirl wife. Jack Carson, Keenan Wynn, Joseph Schildkraut, William Demarest and Diana Dors (wasted) co-star.

The White Ribbon (aka Das Weisse Band) (2009)

Michael Haneke (CACHE) may have directed his most disturbing film yet with this unsettling look at a small German village in the months before the break out of WWI. Shot in the starkness of B&W, it focuses on a series of brutal incidents. Out riding, a doctor and his horse are tripped by a wire, a worker falls thru the rotted floor boards to her death, a young child is cruelly beaten and hung upside down, a retarded child is tortured to the point of blindness, etc. As the film moves on, to our own horror, not only do we suspect the perpetrators of but we fully comprehend the why of it. And the fact that it’s set in Germany speaks volumes (though I’m not sure Haneke intended it as such) of the horrors that were yet to come in its immediate history. The film’s methodical pace is often a drag but ultimately a small price to pay.

Too Hot To Handle (1938)

Energetic fast paced adventure features Clark Gable as a newsreel reporter who’d do anything to get a story including fabricating incidents. Walter Pidgeon is his nemesis on a rival paper and Myrna Loy is the aviatrix (hoping to find her brother who’s lost in the Amazon jungle) who becomes the focal point of a hoax concocted by the two newsmen. Jack Conway directs with vitality and some disturbing racist attitudes aside (Gable refers to the Amazon natives, who are black rather than Indian, as monkeys and jitterbugs), it’s an agreeably amusing romp.

Rhapsody (1954)

Charles Vidor (GILDA) directs this glossy MGM Technicolor romancer which is set in the world of classical music with large doses of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven concerts stopping the movie cold. A neurotic, spoiled rich girl (Elizabeth Taylor) must play second fiddle to an emerging violinist (Vittorio Gassman) whose first love is music. Meanwhile, a pianist (John Ericson) pines over Liz. Someone’s bound to get hurt big time. Taylor is at the height of her beauty and looks terrific in her Helen Rose frocks and gowns and the glam factor is enough to hold one’s interest until it gets all sappy and sentimental during the film’s final 20 minutes. With Louis Calhern, Michael Chekhov, Barbara Bates and Stuart Whitman.

Bella Mafia (1997)

This contrived mafia potboiler reaches such heights of operatic absurdity and ludicrousness that it becomes enjoyable in the way only certain bad movies can be. After the decimation of the male members of the family, four mafia widows concoct a plan for revenge that will avenge their spouses and once again make them a formidable power in the Mafia. It teeters dangerously toward “camp”. Vanessa Redgrave as a gun toting mafia widow? Peter Bogdanovich as a Mafia kingpin? The acting ranges from good (Nastassja Kinski whose character anchors the film) to terrible (James Marsden’s Luca is near astonishing in the annals of bad acting). Still, it’s never boring. Jennifer Tilly, Illeana Douglas, Franco Nero and Dennis Farina co-star.

Crazy Heart (2009)

During the end credits, I was surprised to see CRAZY HEART was based on a novel because it comes across as a formulaic Hollywood film. Burnt out, boozed up, gone to seed 50ish artist (he’s a singer/songwriter) at the end of the line is redeemed by a beautiful young woman, young enough to be his daughter. Yawn. If Jeff Bridges wins an Oscar for this, it will be a career Oscar because his performance, while more than decent, is of the been there, seen that variety. The ghost of TENDER MERCIES hovers around the film so it comes as quite a shock when Robert Duvall shows up halfway in the movie. Colin Farrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Oscar nominated for the wrong 2009 movie) are solid in underwritten roles. The best part of the film is the music. Not because they’re great songs. They’re good enough but they have an authenticity to them and Bridges and Farrell sing them with authority.

Women Of The Night (aka Yoru No Onnatachi) (1948)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s film is somewhat of a disappointment. He’s done other films on women using or selling their bodies to sustain themselves but this one lacks finesse. It’s not just that it’s lurid and borderline exploitative but that it’s near hysterical in the way it portrays the lives of its three protagonists. A war widow (Kinuyo Tanaka), a dance hall hostess (Sanae Takasugi) and a runaway teenager (Tomie Tsunoda) all fall prey to prostitution (not the semi-glamorous geisha kind, we’re talking streetwalking) and the film comes across as one of those overbearing overly dramatic “teaching” films you show to young impressionable girls (“See this? This is what will happen to you if you go all the away with a boy! You’ll get syphilis and pregnant too and end up living and dying in the streets!”). The actresses don’t even get a chance to develop characterizations. Poor Tanaka goes from decent if naïve secretary one minute to syphilis ridden whore the next with no stops in-between. Still, there’s no denying it’s compelling to watch.

Return Of Jesse James (1950)

Poverty row western is historically pretty ludicrous. Using real personages of the Old West like Frank James (Reed Hadley), Robert (Clifton Young) and Charlie Ford (Tommy Noonan) and the Younger gang but in a totally fabricated plot. A cocky outlaw (John Ireland) usurps Jesse James’ identity and goes on a robbing spree thus leading the authorities to believe that James isn’t dead after all and the Fords killed the wrong man. The silliness of the plot aside, the term noir western applies here and is where any interest lies. The cold blooded Ann Dvorak (Hawks' SCARFACE) is as scheming as any noir femme fatale and the fatalistic ending is right out of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE or THE KILLING. Hugh O’Brian and Henry Hull co-star.

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Marvelous Samuel Fuller pulp thriller takes place in the seedier habitats of Los Angeles. The film opens with the murder of a stripper in the streets of L.A. and the two detectives, one Caucasian (Glenn Corbett) and the other Asian (James Shigeta) assigned to the case who have a history together going back to the Korean war (they even live together). When both fall in love with a witness (Victoria Shaw) in the case, repressed racial tensions come into play. Once again, like SHOCK CORRIDOR, PICK UP ON SOUTH STREET and NAKED KISS, Fuller thrives in the lurid world of misfits, outsiders, strippers, criminals that serve as a contrast to the “normal” environs of a more respectable society.

Homecoming (1948)

This wartime romance directed by Mervyn LeRoy is a handsome MGM production that wears out its welcome by going on too long. What should have been a 90 minute sudser clocks in at about two hours. A self centered doctor (Clark Gable) seems to have it all. A successful and profitable practice, a beautiful wife (Anne Baxter) and home. When WWII comes and he goes to Italy as an army doctor, he slowly begins to realize the shallowness of his previous life especially when confronted by his feisty nurse (Lana Turner, deglamorized and very good). A tad sentimental in spots, it nevertheless makes some important points. John Hodiak, Gladys Cooper, Cameron Mitchell, and Marshall Thompson co-star. There’s a lovely delicate score by Bronislau Kaper.

Barricade (1950)

Tidy little western eschews, for the most part, all the western clichés. Most likely because it’s based on Jack London’s THE SEA WOLF but transposed to the Old West. The transition is seamless because if one weren’t aware of the original source material, you’d never know. It doesn’t have the awkward feel that adaptations sometimes have when removed from their natural settings. Three strangers , two (Dane Clark, Ruth Roman) on the run from the law and the third (Robert Douglas) with a secret, find themselves stranded in a mining camp in the middle of nowhere run by a sadistic egomaniac (Raymond Massey, excellent) without any avenue of escape. Shot in bright Technicolor, it perhaps might have been better served if filmed in black and white but as a western, it’s several notches above average.

Wistful Widow Of Wagon Gap (1947)

This Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy set in the West is one of their better vehicles. Traveling through a small Montana town, Costello accidentally shoots the town vagrant and the local ordinance says he is obligated to take care of the widow of the dead man. The widow is Marjorie Main in full battle axe mode. Comedic highpoints include a frog in Costello’s soup (pretty hysterical) and a poker game with Main. Mindless fun. Directed by Charles Barton. With Audrey Young and George Cleveland.

Spinning Into Butter (2008)

A well intentioned look at racism in contemporary America gets sabotaged by a didactic, preachy screenplay co-written by Rebecca Gilman (based on her play) and static direction by Mark Brokaw. In a small college in Vermont, an ugly racial incident snowballs into both a media frenzy and a major confrontation between the in denial administration and the school’s angry students. The Dean of Students (Sarah Jessica Parker) attempts to act as a liaison between the administration and the students while confronting her own racism. Everyone is a talking head, spouting the author’s tired dialogue which would do Stanley Kramer and Abby Mann proud. Miranda Richardson, Beau Bridges and Mykelti Williamson co-star.

Breaking And Entering (2006)

Oscar winning director Anthony Minghella’s final feature film was unfairly ignored by both critics and audiences. It’s a potent film, not perfect by any means but intelligent film making is so few and far between that a film like this should be embraced, flaws and all. Jude Law and Robin Wright Penn, though not married, are involved in a 10 year relationship that seems to have come unglued. When some teenage thieves break into his place of business, Law finds himself drawn to the mother (Juliette Binoche), a Bosnian refugee, of one of the thieves and an illicit affair begins that has traumatic effects on all involved. Performances are uniformly fine but it’s Robin Wright Penn whose work here is sensational. Vera Farmiga and Martin Freeman co-star and the delicate score is by Gabriel Yared.

Kitten With A Whip (1964)

When a film begins with Ann-Margret in a “baby doll” nightie running scared through the streets of San Diego, you know you’re in movie trash heaven. I didn’t think it could live up to its lurid title but it does, oh it does. Annie is a juvenile delinquent with psychological problems on the run after stabbing a matron at the detention home. She breaks into the suburban home of a senatorial hopeful (John Forsythe) whose wife is away and along with her hoodlum buddies (Peter Brown, Skip Ward) terrorize him. It’s wonderfully tawdry and much of the fun is unintentional. Like using Henry Mancini’s score from TOUCH OF EVIL or the “Tijuana” locations which is really the Universal backlot. Anyone who’s ever been on the lot or taken the Universal tour will recognize it. Patricia Barry, Richard Anderson and Audrey Dalton co-star.

Violette (1978)

Claude Chabrol directs this engrossing account (based on a true story) of a petulant teenager (Isabelle Huppert) who leads a double life. To her parents, she’s a studious good girl but in reality, she’s a lying, thieving, promiscuous syphilis ridden, homicidal tramp. A role this juicy might cause a lesser actress to overact but Huppert (she won the Cannes film festival best actress award for this) gives a near brilliant, chilly portrayal of calculated immorality. Not only a solid portrait of a sociopath but a solid thriller as well. An excellent performance by Stephane Audran as Violette’s mother.

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Curiously having turned down the leading role in GASLIGHT (which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar), Hedy Lamarr took on this sluggish, slow moving GASLIGHT retread. With Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST) at the helm, one would hope for a stylish efficient thriller but it’s hopeless. A doctor (that dullard George Brent) falls in love with the fragile wife (Lamarr) of a mentally unbalanced sadist (Paul Lukas WATCH ON THE RHINE) who is slowly driving his wife mad. It’s psychologically weak and poorly acted except for Olive Blakeney as Lukas’s perceptive sister. It’s a handsome looking film thanks to the Oscar nominated art direction team. Albert Dekker and Julia Dean co-star.

Foul Play (1978)

One of the most delightful confections of the 70s movie going was this hybrid of romance, comedy and thriller. In most cases, one is grateful if any of the genres are done right but when you mix them all together, sometimes it’s a cinematic recipe for disaster. However, Colin Higgins (9 TO 5) who directed in addition to writing the screenplay concocted a congenial blend of mystery, laughs and charm. A librarian (Goldie Hawn) innocently picks up a hitch hiker then finds herself mixed up in murder, missing dead bodies, albino killers and dwarfs and an assassination by a radical political group. Hawn is irresistible here, you can see why she was America’s reigning sweetheart of the 70s. Chevy Chase keeps both his smugness and mugging in check and an amusing Dudley Moore starts his American career. The theme song Ready To Begin Again is one of the great movie love songs which inexplicably lost the best song Oscar to You Light Up My Life. With Burgess Meredith, Rachel Roberts, Brian Dennehy and Billy Barty.

Split Second (1953)

Intense if minor thriller is the directorial debut of actor turned director Dick Powell. An escaped murderer (Stephen McNally) and his accomplices (Paul Kelly, Frank DeKova) and six hostages (Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling, Richard Egan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Keith Andes, Robert Paige) are holding up in an abandoned town in the Nevada desert. The only problem is that the town is smack in the middle of an atomic testing site with a bomb due to go off the next morning. Powell’s direction is tight, never loosening its grip as the fate of these strangers shifts right up to the final countdown. With the exception of Alexis Smith’s embarrassing performance, the acting is decent. The film’s ending seems a bit naïve considering what we know today of the long term effects on victims of atomic blasts.

The Chalk Garden (1964)

Enid Bagnold’s Broadway play was turned into a solid, if uncinematic, film under the direction of Ronald Neame. An emotionally disturbed teen (Hayley Mills), who is a pathological liar, has run through a series of governesses until she meets her match in Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr), a woman with no past. The girl’s determination to discover that secret past and its revelation and consequences is the crux of the film. It’s superbly acted by all involved including John Mills as the household’s butler, Elizabeth Sellars as the girl’s mother and in a terrific Oscar nominated performance. Edith Evans as the girl’s grandmother. Quite possibly Malcolm Arnold’s best film score, too. Highly recommended.

The Badlanders (1958)

Delmer Daves is responsible for some of the best westerns of the 1950s. THE LAST WAGON, JUBAL, WHITE FEATHER and the great 3:10 TO YUMA. Alas, THE BADLANDERS isn’t among them. Using the same source material as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (the novel by W.R Burnett) but setting it in the American west instead of using the urban landscape of the big city, Daves’ film has two ex-convicts (Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine) and a Mexican peasant (Nehemiah Persoff) robbing gold from a neglected mine. The nihilistic ending of Huston’s 1950 film is abandoned in favor of a happier outcome for its characters. Still, it’s modesty entertaining. Ladd is as wooden as ever but Borgnine is quite good (and sympathetic). Katy Jurado, the purring Claire Kelly (Ray’s PARTY GIRL) and Kent Smith co-star.

The Housemaid (aka Hanyo) (1960)

This bizarre, often startling, assuredly twisted, domestic quasi horror film directed by Ki-Young Kim from Korea is like something I’ve never seen though the similarities to FATAL ATTRACTION are too obvious to overlook. And with the most unlikable group of characters. A spineless, weak willed eunuch of a music teacher finds himself the target of his obsessed, psychotic housemaid (the actress playing her keeps licking her lips in a furtive childish manner). His wife is materialistic, more concerned with how things will appear to society and two bratty, annoying kids complete the household from Hell. Adultery, abortion, knife wielding banshees and murder are all tossed into a melodramatic movie salad. There’s a ridiculous coda which demeans everything which preceded it. Like it or hate it, it’s a fascinating watch. A big thank you to Kerpan for allowing me the opportunity.

They Met In Bombay (1941)

What begins promisingly as a breezy comedy adventure jumps ship half way through to become a routine action film. While in India, unknowingly two thieves (Clark Gable, Rosalind Russell) are after the same fabulous jewel, the Star Of Asia. When Gable and Russell are trading quips and trying to put one over on each other, it’s amusing. But when they get to Hong Kong it runs out of steam when they become heroes during the Japanese invasion of China. Still, there’s no denying the star power of Gable and Russell and they have a terrific chemistry together. Pity they only had one starring vehicle together (Russell previously lost Gable to Jean Harlow in CHINA SEAS). Co-starring Peter Lorre.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Avatar (2009)

Whoa! What a rollercoaster ride! Oh sure, the script seems pieced together with odds and ends from LORD OF THE RINGS to HEAVY METAL to DANCES WITH WOLVES among many others but everything (plot, characters) is subservient to the visual story and here is where director James Cameron leaves one breathless with awe. I’ve never seen 3D with so much detail, sharpness and clarity and to his credit, Cameron doesn’t use it as a gimmick. Nothing tossed at you every 5 minutes to remind you you’re watching a 3D movie. I’m no 3D fan boy but if it must be used, this is the way to use it though I fear the mediocrities that will follow in its wake. 3D is the justification for a movie like this as the movie, as cinema, is pretty dumb. The story deals with the planet Pandora and the race of people on it called the Na’vi who are an ecological, spiritually based populace. Enter the earthlings comprised of the good guys (Sigourney Weaver) who want to study the indigenous natives and the bad guys (Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi) who simply want the natural resources of the planet and the natives be damned. This is to be seen in theatres, not on home video. A truly special experience but make no mistake about it, it's no more than the cinematic equivalent of a rollercoaster ride and once is enough for me and as much as I enjoyed, I have zero desire to see it ever again. With Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, CCH Pounder and Wes Studi.

The Last Station (2009)

Director/screenwriter’s Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of the Jay Parini novel set during the last weeks of Leo Tolstoy’s life is sure to be a major contender this awards season. But it would be unfair to dismiss the film as Oscar bait. What Hoffman and his stellar group of actors have done is turn what could have been a tedious postcard period piece into a vital film laced with generous doses of wit. The impeccable cast includes Helen Mirren (in an Oscar nominated performance) as Countess Tolstoy, Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy, Paul Giamatti, James McAvoy and the winning Kerry Condon. Sebastian Ebschmid gets the honors for the splendid camera work and the gorgeous score is by Sergei Yevtushenko. Highly recommended.

Gambit (1966)

Ronald Neame (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE) directs this elegant heist comedy/thriller which is a piece of fluff but handsomely done. Petty crook and international thief wannabe (Michael Caine) devises a complicated plan to steal a valuable bust from a wealthy Arab millionaire (Herbert Lom) and to this end, recruits an Eurasian dancer (Shirley MacLaine) who resembles Lom’s deceased wife. Of course, as with all good thrillers, the “perfect” plan never plays out as planned when Caine underestimates Lom. It’s a lightweight diversion, the young Caine is a charmer and MacLaine, coiffed by the legendary Sydney Guilaroff, looks sensational in her Jean Louis wardrobe. Maurice Jarre contributes the tiresome score.

Rage (2009)

Sally Potter (ORLANDO) directs this clever conceit of a movie. Over the course of several days during a New York fashion show, two models die. One in a horrible freak accident and the other a murder victim. The entire film consists of 14 characters (each with their own color screen) sitting and talking directly into the camera. Through these characters, we learn not only about the events taking place but also about them and their place in this high fashion hierarchy. Among them, Jude Law as a transgendered model, Judi Dench as an acerbic fashion critic, John Leguizamo as a bodyguard, Dianne Wiest as the salon manager, Eddie Izzard as the owner of the company, Steve Buscemi as a photographer, even the pizza delivery boy (Riz Ahmed). The premise is intriguing enough to keep us interested but the writing (though it seems improvised) is too erratic and some of the acting is just plain bad (Simon Abkarian’s designer and David Oyelowo’s police detective).

The Unforgiven (1960)

Based on a novel by Alan LeMay (who also penned the source material for THE SEARCHERS), it’s clear the wrong John was handling the directorial reins. Directed by John Huston, this western revolves around a family whose adopted daughter (Audrey Hepburn) is suspected of being Kiowa and thus responsible for the Kiowa attacks in the vicinity when her brother demands her return to the tribe. This is the kind of stuff John Ford handled with finesse but Huston’s handling of the material is miscalculated. Hepburn is miscast as an Indian partially because we’re always aware of her being Audrey Hepburn, movie star, something she made us completely forget in THE NUN'S STORY the year before. Burt Lancaster seems ill at ease but Lillian Gish, Audie Murphy and Charles Bickford provide solid characterizations. With Joseph Wiseman, John Saxon, Albert Salmi, Doug McClure and Kipp Hamilton.

Bad For Each Other (1953)

Melodrama is a solid programmer based on a story and with a screenplay written by author Horace McCoy (THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY?). A young doctor (Charlton Heston) from a working class background (the coal mines of Pennsylvania), fresh out of the Army, is seduced by a rich, spoiled society woman (Lizabeth Scott) and gives up his medical school ideals to become a society doctor treating rich hypochondriacs for lots of money. Meanwhile, his pretty but ethical nurse (Dianne Foster) is a constant reminder of what he gave up. It’s well done for what it is and it’s interesting to see Heston so early in his career with his strong screen presence already in full bloom. Scott manages to actually say her lines as if she understood what they meant and the rest of the cast includes Mildred Dunnock, Arthur Franz, Marjorie Rambeau and Mrs. Heston, Lydia Clarke as a suicidal society drunk. Very enjoyable.

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

Mawkish and sentimental romantic fantasy courtesy of director Henry Hathaway (who usually directed grittier fare) begins terribly with two children (the horrible child horrors, Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler) who love each other but are torn apart by fate. The middle section when they meet again as adults (in the form of Gary Cooper and Ann Harding) holds up relatively well then collapses again as fate steps in and tears them apart again. Cooper, in particular, looks ill at ease reciting the florid dialogue but Harding looking lovely blithely sails above it all. Ida Lupino pops up as a cheeky soubrette and livens things up briefly.

This Is It (2009)

This documentary comprised of the rehearsal footage of Michael Jackson’s final concert tour shot shortly before his death is still one of the best “concert” films I’ve ever seen. No, it’s not Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ but in addition to being a testament to Michael Jackson’s star power and master entertainer, it lets us see how a show is put together. Director Kenny Ortega pieces together various rehearsals (during one number, Jackson can be seen in 2 or 3 different sets of clothes) seamlessly to allow us to see how the show would have looked. The show seems about 90% complete and Jackson is in superb form. It would have been nice if there were just a bit more footage of the dancer auditions (one of the film’s many highlights) but it’s a minor complaint.

Out Of the Fog (1941)

Anatole Litvak’s (THE SNAKE PIT) nifty little drama (based on a play by Irwin Shaw) has a noir-ish feel to it. A mean spirited thug (John Garfield) extorts money from poor, hard working people. Two of the men (Thomas Mitchell, John Qualen) after Mitchell is brutally beaten by Garfield turn their thoughts to murder. The film is resplendent in atmosphere (the fog of the title is literal) and James Wong Howe’s splendid B&W cinematography is rich in detail. Garfield’s character is so despicably unsympathetic, it’s hard to see a leading star of today take on such a role. With Ida Lupino as Mitchell’s daughter who falls hard for Garfield, Eddie Albert as her boyfriend who gets tossed aside and Aline MacMahon as Mitchell’s hypochondriac wife.

As You Like It (2006)

Director Kenneth Branagh’s decision to transfer Shakespeare’s comedy to 19th century Japan is distracting as it lends nothing to the story itself. Oh sure, the Japanese screens, kimonos and sumo wrestlers lend a certain exoticism to the tale but not much other than that. Even the stunning “Japanese” countryside which plays an important part is actually the English countryside. Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) flees to the forests of Arden with her cousin (Romola Garai) and the court fool (Alfred Molina) to avoid retaliation from her wicked uncle (Brian Blessed) who has usurped the throne from his brother (also Blessed). Masquerading as a boy, she toys with the youth (David Oyelowo), also banished, who loved her as a girl but does not recognize her in her male guise. The rich dialogue often makes no sense given its new and unintended surroundings and with a couple of exceptions (Janet McTeer, Alfred Molina) indifferently acted. Kevin Kline gets to give the famous “All the world’s a stage …” soliloquy. Patrick Doyle’s score is quite lovely though the final musical fling seems stagey.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Often considered one of Katharine Hepburn’s weakest films, it starts off okay if somewhat clumsy before it ventures into a trite soaper. Directed by Mark Sandrich (TOP HAT), Hepburn is a Victorian feminist who finds herself pregnant by a married man (Van Heflin). She passes off her daughter (Doris Dudley) as her niece and continues to work for women’s rights until 20 years later her past threatens to destroy everything she has ever worked for. Hepburn is rather wonderful which compensates for the rather creaky execution. Co-starring Herbert Marshall as the suitor who hangs around waiting for Hepburn, Donald Crisp as her cold, unloving father and Elizabeth Allan and David Manners as her ill fated sister and brother in law.