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Monday, May 31, 2010

Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955)

This glossy romance between an American correspondent (William Holden) and a Eurasian doctor (Jennifer Jones) is one of the seminal 1950s celluloid love stories. In comparison to most movie romances of this period (like AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER), it’s solidly written with a restraint in the romanticism. Holden is solid but the film belongs to Jones who is positively radiant here. The handsome Hong Kong locales (expertly shot by Leon Shamroy, Oscar nominated here), Alfred Newman’s Oscar winning beautiful score (incorporating the popular title song) assist in making this one of the more memorable movie romances. With Torin Thatcher, Murray Matheson, Isobel Elsom, Donna Martell and Virginia Gregg.

Some Came Running (1958)

One of the great films of the 1950s, this is one of the cinematic highpoints in the Vincente Minnelli canon. Only Douglas Sirk has better exploited the melodrama into an art form and infused it with such incisiveness. Based on the massive 1200 page James Jones best seller, the film follows an ex-serviceman’s and failed writer (Frank Sinatra) unwilling return to the small mid-western town of his birth where his presence disturbs his social climbing brother (Arthur Kennedy). Two women, an uneducated but goodhearted tramp (Shirley MacLaine in an Oscar nominated performance) and a cultivated schoolteacher (Martha Hyer, also Oscar nominated) both pull him in opposite directions. Minnelli almost pushes it to the heights of tragedy, using visual imagery (the stunning carnival sequence was borrowed by Brian De Palma for his BLOW OUT) to create both the conflicts and hypocrisy of a small post war Midwestern town struggling with the new morality and the changing climate of class and respectability. With Dean Martin, Nancy Gates, Leora Dana, Betty Lou Keim, Larry Gates, Connie Gilchrist, Marion Ross and Carmen Phillips.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ladies Of The House (2008)

Listed as a “Faith & Family Production”, that about says it all. Three women (Florence Henderson, Pam Grier, Donna Mills) are asked by their pastor to help refurbish a dilapidated old house left to the church by a parishioner so it can be sold and raise money for the church fund. Each woman must also deal with a crisis within their own marriage. The movie means to be inspirational but it trudges along dutifully with homilies sprinkled through out. The ladies do their best to punch it up (though Donna Mills’ plastic surgery has caused her to eerily morph into Faye Dunaway) and they have a nice chemistry camaraderie between them. Richard Roundtree, Lance Henriksen and Gordon Thomson are the men in their lives.

Search For Beauty (1934)

Pre-code film isn’t as saucy as some. Some bouncing braless bosoms, male nudity and a handful of double entendres. Two con artists (Robert Armstrong, Gertrude Michael) fresh out of prison join forces with a third (James Gleason) using an exercise and health magazine as a front for more nefarious activities. To this end, they lure two Olympic swimming champions (Ida Lupino, Buster Crabbe) to front for them. Lupino hadn’t quite defined her persona yet but she’s a spirited ingénue though Crabbe is hopelessly wooden but then I don’t think he was hired for his acting. There’s an international “search for beauty” health contest for the best specimens that is kind of creepy as everyone is distinctly Aryan in their look (nary an Italian or Spaniard in the bunch). Directed by Erle C. Kenton.

Strawberry Shortcakes (2006)

Hitoshi Yazaki’s quietly knowing film focuses on four young women in contemporary Tokyo as each grapples with the messiness of love. A receptionist (Chizuru Ikewaki) at an escort service, a call girl (Yuko Nakimura) so fatalistic she sleeps in a coffin, a graphic artist (Kiriko Nananan) and an office clerical (Noriko Nakagoshi). Each looking for that special someone but for some of us, it never happens and this journey takes them through the process of accepting it and realizing that a contentment can still be had from life, even for those who never quite find romantic happiness. The film is near remarkable in its subtlety, lacking the obviousness that many such themed films would hit you over the head with. Isao Ishii’s cinematography and Chie Matsumoto’s production design make enormous contributions to the telling. Highly recommended and a big thank you to Kerpan for sharing this film with me.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rachel, Rachel (1968)

Tedious to the extreme, this is like a Tennessee Williams play about a repressed virgin but without the poetry. Joanne Woodward is the Rachel of the title, a 35 year old virgin and the summer she loses it to a visiting high school teacher (James Olson). The film, directed by Paul Newman, has lots of unnecessary flashbacks with Rachel as a little girl (played by Newman and Woodward’s daughter, Nell Potts) to pad it out and annoying little voice overs by Woodward and fantasy sequences that don’t ring true. There is one sensational sequence however. A religious revival meeting headed by Geraldine Fitzgerald perfectly captures the feverishness of such an event as well as Woodward’s claustrophobia. With Estelle Parsons and Kate Harrington. The unobtrusive score is by Jerome Moross. Inexplicably admired in its day, it even got a best picture nomination as well as acting nomination for Woodward and Parsons.

Unknown Island (1948)

Tacky low budget precursor to JURASSIC PARK with a little KING KONG tossed in. A motley group of travelers (Richard Denning, Virginia Grey, Barton MacLane, Phillip Reed) search out an unchartered island where prehistoric animals still exist. Instead of the Harryhausen stop motion technique which would have been cost prohibitive, we get rubber dinosaurs and men in gorilla suits. It’s purely a soundstage jungle and desert island with lots of process shots and backdrops. It was filmed in the ugly Cine Color process which gives the film the look of a colorized film. Still, amusing in its cheesy “B” movie way.

Gun Glory (1957)

Middling western directed by Roy Rowland with enough excitement to keep one’s attention. A gunslinger (Stewart Granger) who abandoned his wife and son returns home after many years to find his wife dead and his son (the pretty but untalented Steve Rowland, the director’s son) resentful toward him. The peaceful town isn’t happy at his return either but when a bully of a cattleman (James Gregory) threatens to drive his cattle through the town, they have second thoughts. Rhonda Fleming is the red-haired beauty who works as Granger’s housekeeper while the town ‘s gossips wag their tongues and Chill Wills is particularly restrained as the town’s understanding preacher. Jeff Alexander’s score is pretty good and the CinemaScope lensing is by Harold Marzorati.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

VIVRE SA VIE is one of Jean Luc Godard’s most successfully audacious films. I call it successful because it is in the sense that he accomplishes exactly what he set out do to but that doesn’t mean the endeavor isn’t without obstacles. Godard is fortunate that the camera (and Godard) adores Anna Karina who is the film’s subject, an aimless young girl who half heartedly aspires to be an actress but drifts into prostitution which ultimately proves fatal. Without Karina, I can’t imagine the film existing. Godard presents the film in twelve chapters, his camera seemingly as aimless as Karina’s Nana but you can be sure the camera is exactly where Godard wants it to be. Some of it seems a bit coy like a scene at a restaurant where the action is played by focusing on the back of the heads of the actors rather than their faces. Others are inspired like another restaurant scene where the street outside the window is obviously a backdrop with walking figures frozen in motion (or is it merely wallpaper?). Occasionally, it’s self indulgent but those moments are more than made up for by moments like Karina’s spontaneous dance at a pool hall which may be the most blissful moment in any of Godard’s films. The music is by Michel Legrand.

Wedding Night (1935)

Unusual King Vidor film for its day in that it manages to eschew the usual clichés of the usual “forbidden love” romances and is surprisingly and refreshingly adult. A novelist (a particularly charmless Gary Cooper) has a horrible case of writers block so he and his wife (Helen Vinson in the film’s best performance) leave Manhattan for the rural Connecticut countryside near a community of Polish immigrants. The community, in particular a young girl (Anna Sten), gives Cooper inspiration for his next novel while his bored wife goes back to New York. Inevitably, they fall in love but the film doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go and avoids the usual clichés about adultery. Sten is quite appealing but Samuel Goldwyn’s attempt into make a her major Star flopped every bit as much as her films. Pity, she’s likable and talented. The most interesting character is Vinson’s wife, who’s witty and nice and who acknowledges the other woman but won’t give him up because she loves him rather being vindictive which would make it so much easier to dislike her. With Ralph Bellamy as Sten’s brute of a fiancé, Walter Brennan, Esther Dale and Sig Ruman.

La Boheme (1926)

This King Vidor silent film of LA BOHEME doesn’t give credit to the Puccini opera as its source material but rather the book by Henri Murger which was also the source of the Puccini opera. It’s a lovely film which allows the legendary Lillian Gish to give one of her very finest performances as the doomed waif, Mimi. The stars of Vidor’s THE BIG PARADE, John Gilbert and Renee Adoree play Rodolphe and Musette. Gish, who’s never looked more beautiful, has one of the longest death scenes in movie history but it’s hard to keep the tear ducts dry. The tinny piano score doesn’t do the film justice so I put the Elmer Bernstein score to THE AGE OF INNOCENCE on the CD player and it accompanied the film just fine.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tony Rome (1967)

If shot in B&W and directed by Don Siegel and starring Robert Mitchum, this might have made a terrific noir. As it is, it’s shot in bright candy pastels in color in Panavision with Frank Sinatra in the title role, a down on his luck detective involved in a complicated whodunit of murder, bigamy, drugs and strip clubs. It has that “ring-a-ding-ding” swinging Sinatra vibes which automatically causes us to take the events less seriously than we should. It may have one of the most complicated plots since THE BIG SLEEP (1946) but lacks that film’s style (directed by the generic Gordon Douglas, THEM) or performances. The large cast includes Gena Rowlands, Jill St. John, Sue Lyon, Richard Conte, Simon Oakland, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Bochner, Virginia Vincent, Shecky Greene, Jeanne Cooper and Elisabeth Fraser.

Marie (1985)

Based on a the true story of Marie Ragghianti, a woman who exposed corruption in the Tennessee legal system and whose subsequent actions including a court trial for wrongful dismissal sent several people including the governor of Tennessee to prison. It’s a pretty dramatic and juicy story but director Roger Donaldson and his screenwriter John Briley (an Oscar winner for his GANDHI screenplay) offer up a nondescript TV movie. The court trial which should be the highpoint of the film is shockingly tepid. Steven Soderbergh showed how to handle a similar subject the right way with ERIN BROCKOVICH. Sissy Spacek tries in the title role but its underwritten. Co-starring Morgan Freeman, Jeff Daniels, John Cullum and playing himself, Fred Dalton Thompson who was Marie’s attorney before embarking on an acting career and the U.S. senate.

The Beast Within (1982)

Quite possibly, if not the worst, the most disgusting horror film I’ve seen. A young couple (Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch) traveling thru a small Southern town have their car breakdown. He leaves her alone in the car to get help but she is brutally raped by an unseen attacker. Jump 17 years and their 17 year old “son” is having major medical problems that may kill him. So, they travel back to the small town to find the “father”. What follows is bloody and graphic but filled with such boneheaded characters that can’t seem to add 2 and 2 and come up with 4. The writing, directing and acting are stupendous in their ineptness . When one character goes thru a hideous horrifying physical transformation, does anyone scream? Run for help? Get their asses out of the room? No, they all watch and stare open mouthed! The score is by Les Baxter.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

S.O.B. (1981)

After his unpleasant experience with Paramount and DARLING LILI, Blake Edwards wrote this black comedy, an outrageous satire on the swinish excesses, hedonism and self indulgences of Hollywood, which still hasn’t quite found its audience almost thirty years after it was made. It’s uneven to be sure but filled with witty arrows and amusing stings. After his expensive movie becomes a notorious flop, a famous director (Richard Mulligan) loses his mind and after several failed suicide attempts, decides to turn his flop into a softcore erotic flick including nude scenes by his wife (Julie Andrews), a wholesome actress known as America’s Sweetheart. It’s a venomous fairy tale and while one wishes it were better, it’s good enough. The huge cast includes William Holden, Robert Preston, Shelley Winters, Rosanna Arquette, Larry Hagman, Robert Loggia, Marisa Berenson, Robert Webber, Robert Vaughn, Gene Nelson, Loretta Swit, Craig Stevens, Paul Stewart and Virginia Gregg.

Valentine's Day (2010)

Garry Marshall directs this omnibus on romance with decidedly mixed results, mostly negative. The films takes about 20 characters in various stages of romantic love and criss crosses their paths for two hours. The conceit is too slight to carry the burden placed on its shoulders. There’s no time to know everyone so everything is telegraphed for us, there are no surprises, no romance and very few laughs. Two characters, a florist (Ashton Kutcher) and his school teacher best friend (Jennifer Garner), anchor the story while everyone and everything else moves around them. Marshall simply tries to pack too much into a small container. The huge cast includes Jessica Alba, Kathy Bates, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper (in the film’s one surprise scene), Eric Dane, Patrick Dempsey, Hector Elizondo, Jamie Foxx, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Queen Latifah (who has the film’s best lines), Taylor Lautner, George Lopez, Shirley MacLaine, Joe Mantegna, Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts and Taylor Swift.

Dr. Renault's Secret (1942)

Minor Fox programmer (“inspired” by H.G. Wells’ ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU) is barely an hour long which is just as well as it’s not very good and predictable. A young doctor (Shepperd Strudwick) arrives in France to meet his fiancée’s (Lynne Roberts) uncle (George Zucco) who has been conducting some strange experiments. His assistant is a strange, simple minded simian like man called Noel (J. Carrol Naish) and it doesn’t take long for us to connect the dots. The most interesting aspect of the film is the affecting and touching portrayal of Noel, who is a sympathetic figure rather than of horror. With Mike Mazurki, Ann Codee and Arthur Shields. The film features an early score by David Raksin.

The Rains Came (1939)

20th Century Fox spared no expense in this lavish adaptation of the Louis Bromfield best selling novel. They imported Myrna Loy and director Clarence Brown (THE YEARLING) from MGM as well as George Brent from Warner Bros. Set in the Indian city of Ranchipur, a jaded playgirl (Myrna Loy) married to a titled aristocrat (Nigel Bruce) has her eyes on the local physician (Tyrone Power, weak but looking impossibly handsome). A dissolute painter (George Brent) finds himself the object of affection from a missionary’s daughter (Brenda Joyce). When a horrendous earthquake and flood followed by a plague epidemic threatens to destroy the city, duty must be put forward before personal lives. Loy is particularly good playing against type rather than the usual perfect wives she played at MGM. The special effects were top notch for its day and good enough to win the best special effects Oscar over THE WIZARD OF OZ. With Maria Ouspenskaya, Joseph Schildkraut, Jane Darwell, Marjorie Rambeau, H.B. Warner and Henry Travers.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Conspirator (1949)

Surprisingly well done, if dated spy thriller. A young 18 year old girl (Elizabeth Taylor) marries a dashing older Army officer (Robert Taylor). What begins as a blissful happy marriage turns dark when she discovers to her horror that her husband is actually a Communist spy working for the Soviets. The screws get tightened as the husband realizes that he may have to kill her to shut her up. There’s more than a little Hitchcock influence on the Victor Saville directed film. There’s even a scene of Robert Taylor going up the stairs with a drink in his hand a la Cary Grant in SUSPICION. However, unlike that film, remarkably CONSPIRATOR continues to its inevitable downbeat conclusion. While Robert Taylor can’t quite bring the conflict the role requires to the fore, Elizabeth Taylor is perfect as the naïve young bride forced to grow up in a hurry. A young Honor Blackman, as Taylor’s best friend, co-stars.

Little Giant (1933)

Directed by Roy Del Ruth, this is an amusing “fish out of water” comedy. After the repeal of prohibition, a Chicago gangster (Edward G. Robinson) decides to go straight and using the profits from his bootlegging years, heads to Santa Barbara, California to break into respectable society. He’s a babe in the woods however as a gold digging heiress (Helen Vinson, I WAS A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG) whose her family is near bankruptcy sinks her claws into him. Robinson displays some fine comedy chops and there’s a rugged sweetness about him that’s charming, even when threatening to put his foot down the throat of dowager. Mary Astor is the financially strapped heiress that rents her mansion to Robinson and Russell Hopton is Robinson’s humorous sidekick.

Queen Bee (1955)

Irresistible trash, badly acted (except by Betsy Palmer) and as subtle as a sledgehammer. Written and directed by Ranald MacDougall, who scripted the 1945 MILDRED PIERCE, this is perhaps the quintessential Joan Crawford vehicle. A young girl (Lucy Marlow, A STAR IS BORN) comes to stay at her cousin’s (Crawford) home in Louisiana. There, she finds a family on edge, ruled by manipulative bitch (Crawford, who else?), the Queen Bee of the title. Crawford overdoes the wickedness to the extreme that you’d think she was playing the evil queen in Snow White so any attempt at taking it all seriously goes right out the window. It may be her worst performance, her breakdown in front of a mirror with cold cream is simply godawful. Still, it’s enjoyable in the way that only some bad movies can be. Except for Betsy Palmer’s touching performance as one of Crawford’s victims, the rest of the cast seems stunned into submission by La Crawford including Barry Sullivan, John Ireland and Fay Wray.

Monday, May 24, 2010

5 Against The House (1955)

Flabby heist thriller courtesy of director Phil Karlson who’s done better work in the thriller genre. A group of annoying, aimless, aging college students (Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Kerwin Mathews, Alvy Moore) concoct a plan to rob a Reno casino. The plot is fairly ridiculous and riddled with plot holes. There’s very little tension which is death to a thriller and the characters so pedestrian that you don’t care if their plan is successful or not but one can’t help wishing they’ll get caught as punishment for putting you through it all. Fortunately, there’s Kim Novak (as Madison’s girlfriend) looking all movie goddessy to remind us why she became a Star. Kathryn Grant, Jean Willes and William Conrad co-star.

Bug (2006)

Unsettling, disturbing film directed by William Friedkin is based on Tracy Letts’ play which had some success in London and New York (off-Broadway). A lonely, disaffected cocktail waitress (Ashley Judd) meets a strange young man (Michael Shannon) and what begins as a seemingly benign relationship between two emotionally isolated people turns into a dark tale of paranoia and psychological horror. With a couple of exceptions, the entire film takes place in a shoddy motel room which in most cases would betray its stagebound roots but in this case heightens the claustrophobia so integral to the story. Ashley Judd is absolutely sensational in the best performance of her career as the girl and Michael Shannon (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD) gives an intense and genuinely creepy performance as the ex-soldier. Co-starring Harry Connick Jr. Not for the faint of heart.

He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

This ensemble romantic comedy doesn’t explore any new territory but it’s quite engaging and a notch above most of the standard run of the mill romcoms. Sort of a LA RONDE re-imagined with 20 somethings, the story is lucky to be populated by five of the most likeable young actresses working today: Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson, Ginnifer Goodwin plus the likeable Kevin Connelly as it twists and turns as everyone plays romantic musical chairs and the occasional nugget of truth emerges amongst the romcom clichés. Alas, Johansson has her two best scenes cut from the film (including one with Theresa Russell as her mother) which is unfortunate as they give us a little more insight into her character. Ben Affleck, Kris Kristofferson and Justin Long co-star.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pearl Of The South Pacific (1955)

South seas adventure is a Saturday matinee potboiler set on a soundstage desert island with a rubber giant squid in a stagebound lagoon. Three con artists arrive at a secluded island intent on stealing black pearls from the lagoon. Virginia Mayo masquerades as a missionary and I love the way the film has her lose her clothes so she can wander around preaching Jesus in a sarong! Her partners in crime are Dennis Morgan who’s in love with her and David Farrar as a cardboard villain. Basil Ruysdael is the white man who lords over the natives and is justifiably suspicious of his shady visitors. Directed by veteran director Allan Dwan whose career goes all the way back to the silent era and who’s done much better. It’s all pretty hokey and must have seemed so even in 1955. With Lance Fuller, Lisa Montell and Murvyn Vye.

On The Town (1949)

Not really as innovative (except for its on location shooting) or ebullient as its prominence would suggest but it sure sparkles. Based on the Broadway hit, inexplicably just about all of the Leonard Bernstein/Comden & Green songs were junked and replaced by new songs by Roger Edens and Comden & Green. The new songs aren’t a bad lot (PREHISTORIC MAN is a musical highpoint) but I CAN COOK TOO is sorely missed. The simple plot has three sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin) on a one day pass in New York where they fall for three girls (Ann Miller, Betty Garrett, Vera-Ellen). Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly who I assume were also responsible for the uncredited choreography. With Alice Pearce (repeating her stage role), Florence Bates and Carol Haney.

Night Of The Iguana (1964)

While NIGHT OF THE IGUANA doesn’t have the regard of some of Tennessee Williams’ more renown works like A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE or CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, it features some of Williams’ most eloquent writing. The John Huston film makes some additions (like the sequences prior to the arrival at Maxine’s hotel) and some deletions (like the German hotel guests) but for the most part is quite faithful to the play. An ex-minister (Richard Burton) after suffering a nervous breakdown (and an alcoholic) is reduced to being a tour guide for a third rate travel agency. At the end of his rope and desperate, he kidnaps the tour bus of female school teachers and at a rundown hotel in Mexico overlooking the sea must come to terms with his demons. No American playwright (with the possible exception of Eugene O’Neill) expresses the beauty and the pain of the human condition as well as Williams. The performances are impeccable (perhaps too perfect) with Deborah Kerr as the New England spinster, also at the end of her rope, given the play’s best lines. Ava Gardner, Sue Lyon, Grayson Hall (in an Oscar nominated performance) and Skip Ward co-star. Handsomely shot in B&W, one can’t help wonder what Technicolor would have added to the film but perhaps the lushness of the tropical setting would have been too distracting. The subdued score is by Benjamin Frankel.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

MacGruber (2010)

How do you take an amusing 2 or 3 minute recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live and turn it into a 90 minute feature length film? Well, you can’t, not successfully. At least if MACGRUBER is any indication. Hardly as bad as the critics are proclaiming but there’s no denying that the film just doesn’t work. Oh sure, there’s bound to be the occasional laugh. A cemetery sex scene had me chuckling and the amazing Kristen Wiig can bring a smile to your lips with the weakest of material. But a lot of it is just sophomoric adolescent humor and if celery stalks up the butt is your idea of funny then you might enjoy it. Will Forte is a talented comic but not enough to overcome the half witted screenplay. With Ryan Phillippe, Maya Rudolph, Powers Boothe and Val Kilmer.

Letters To Juliet (2010)

Gary Winick (TADPOLE) directs this exuberantly romantic tale about an aspiring writer (Amanda Seyfried) on a vacation with her fiancé (Gael Garcia Bernal) in Verona, Italy who finds a letter written over 50 years ago by a distressed English teenage girl in love with an Italian boy who must abandon him. When the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) comes to Italy with her stodgy grandson (Chris Egan) to seek out the boy she loved, Seyfried decides to accompany them in their quest. The film is fairly predictable but if you’re an unabashed romantic, you’re likely to drop all pretense and revel in it. For the rest of you, there’s the gorgeous Italian scenery and landscape. Seyfried is an attractive and likeable screen presence but it’s the glorious Redgrave who spins gold out of the most common dialogue. Co-starring Franco Nero.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Haeundae (aka Tidal Wave) (2009)

Hollywood isn’t the only film industry making disaster movies and in this case beats Hollywood at its own game. Set in Haeundae, a popular Korean beach resort located in the Busan district, an assortment of characters cross paths, form allegiances and fall in love while a series of undersea earthquakes grow stronger eventually building to a tsunami that hits the beach town with disastrous results. Unlike their Hollywood counterparts (at least the recent ones), Je-Gyun Yun’s film gives ample time to the development of the characters, letting us get to know them in detail and their backstories rather than the stick figures Hollywood gives who are there simply to perish, so that when the tsunami hits, we are genuinely concerned about what happens to them and who will survive. Yun has a lot of humor in his film which seems sorely out of place but then I’m beginning to suspect I don’t get Korean humor anymore than I get British humor. I didn’t much “get” the humor in THE HOST either. As with all multiple storyline films, the cast is large but I particularly liked Min-Gi Lee. Young Ho Kim’s wide screen compositions are excellent with a fireworks sequence particularly poignant and romantic and there’s a solid score by Byung Woo Lee.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mr. Imperium (1951)

An ill advised attempt to turn opera star turned Broadway star Enzio Pinza (star of Broadway’s SOUTH PACIFIC) into a Movie Star that backfires. An American singer (Lana Turner) in Italy meets a Prince (Pinza) and they fall in love but duty calls and the prince returns to his country to rule. Jump 12 years later and they have a rendezvous in Palm Springs which rekindles their romance. Pinza is a lousy actor, has zero screen presence and one cringes for poor Turner whenever he attempts to make love to her. The songs are by Harold Arlen and Dorothy Field, terrific songwriters but they come up with mediocrities here. Some spark is provided by a young Debbie Reynolds and Marjorie Main. With Barry Sullivan, Cedric Hardwicke and Ann Codee.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mayday At 40,000 Feet (1976)

Telefilm is an attempt to ride on the coattails of the AIRPORT movie franchise though not nearly as fun. It lacks production values and glamour and the “all star” cast is far from “Star” laden. A murderer (Marjoe Gortner, recycling his EARTHQUAKE performance) being transported on a passenger airline goes amok, shooting several passengers and disabling the plane’s hydraulic system. David Janssen is the pilot, Christopher George the co-pilot, Shani Wallis (OLIVER!) and Lynda Day George are flight attendants and others in the cast include Ray Milland, Jane Powell, Broderick Crawford and Maggie Blye.

Milky Way (aka La Voie Lactee) (1969)

Luis Bunuel in an irreverent playful mood again but, alas, not as irreverent as the film would like to think it is. Two beggars (Laurent Terzieff, Paul Frankeur) journey from France to Spain on a pilgrimage to a holy shrine. Along the way, they meet an odd assortment of both contemporary and historical religious and secular characters. The film examines the absurdities and anomalies of the Catholic church’s dogma as well as heresy, the virgin birth, the holy trinity and miracles. The plot is fragmented, not unlike Bunuel’s DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. Still, as blasphemous satires go, it’s more fun than SIMON OF THE DESERT. Among the more familiar faces in the large cast are Delphine Seyrig, Michel Piccoli, Pierre Clementi, Alain Cuny and Julian Bertheau.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Sniper (1952)

In its own way as unsettling and disturbing as PEEPING TOM. For a minor “B” film, it has impressive credentials behind the camera. Directed by Edward Dmytryk (CROSSFIRE), produced by Stanley Kramer, written by Oscar winners Harry Brown (A PLACE IN THE SUN) and Edward and Edna Anhalt (PANIC IN THE STREETS), cinematography by Burnett Guffey (BONNIE AND CLYDE) and a score by George Antheil. Filmed mostly on location in San Francisco, the film follows a misogynist serial killer (Arthur Franz) as he randomly murders women, striking terror amongst the populace. As this is a Stanley Kramer production, there’s a social message. Namely, the early discovery and treatment of sex offenders before they become a threat to society. The sniper is aware of his psychosis but can’t help himself and he leaves clues all over the place to his condition before his killing spree but they are ignored. The film walks a fine line between exploitation and social drama. With Marie Windsor as the first victim (and a shocking exit), Adolphe Menjou, Richard Kiley, Frank Faylen, Robin Raymond and Jean Willes.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

There’s not much of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in this pastiche based on a play by William Gillette and starring John Barrymore as Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, at least as written here, doesn’t give Barrymore much chance to shine either. In fact, the juicy role is that of Professor Moriarty which is played to the hilt by Gustav Von Seyfferitz. The wan plot deals with a girl (Carol Dempster) who has some incriminating letters wanted by both Moriarty and a client of Holmes. The cast consists of some familiar faces who would later go on to higher profile careers and it’s interesting to see them looking young! They include William Powell, Roland Young (TOPPER) and Hedda Hopper. Louis Wolheim (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) has a minor role. The silent film is accompanied by a dreadful organ score so I played the soundtrack from Wilder’s PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Miklos Rozsa which did the job quite nicely.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Brass Bottle (1964)

The inspiration for the popular long running television series I DREAM OF JEANNIE, this inoffensive fantasy comedy plays out like a TV sitcom and even looks it with its familiarly bland Universal backlot houses and streets. The laughs are obvious and far between though the dinner party scene is fairly amusing. Tony Randall plays an architect who uncorks a brass bottle which lets out a genie (Burl Ives) who in gratitude for being freed tries to help Randall but only succeeds in messing up his life considerably. It doesn’t help that Ives hardly looks Middle Eastern but every bit the Scottish Irishman that he is. Still, it’s a modestly pleasant time waster. With Barbara Eden (who would later play TV's JEANNIE) as Randall's girlfriend, Kamala Devi, Edward Andrews, Richard Erdman, Ann Doran and Kathie Browne.

The Caretakers (1963)

Well intentioned if agitated melodrama about a mental hospital that becomes a battlefield between a new forward thinking doctor (Robert Stack) and the iron maiden head of the nursing staff (Joan Crawford) who believes in discipline. With one exception, the mental patients represent a “greatest hits” of crazy patients clichés. Polly Bergen has the most screen time among the mentally ill and she can’t seem to resist the opportunity to chew up the scenery with her unbridled hysteria. Only Janis Paige (in the film’s best performance) as a man hating hooker is able to flesh out a human being rather than a stereotype. The B&W cinematography by Lucien Ballard was good enough to get an Oscar nomination and the score by Elmer Bernstein is a killer. The large cast includes Diane McBain, Robert Vaughn, Susan Oliver, Herbert Marshall, Constance Ford, Barbara Barrie, Sharon Hugueny, Ellen Corby and Van Williams.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Letter To Three Wives (1949)

A sharp and witty slice of satire written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz who won the best screenplay and direction Oscars for this effort, a hat trick he would repeat the following year for his other sharp and witty slice of satire, ALL ABOUT EVE. Three wives (Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern) on a children’s picnic receive a letter from their “friend” (Celeste Holm) notifying them she has run off with one of their husbands. As the day slowly progresses, each wife reflects on their marriage and the possibility that her husband might be the one. Like EVE, the dialogue is so tartly written that repeated viewings cannot diminish the enjoyment. Fortunately for Mankiewicz, none of his cast disappoints. From Crain who gives a career best performance to an immaculate performance from Paul Douglas as well as Kirk Douglas, Thelma Ritter, Jeffrey Lynn, Barbara Lawrence, Florence Bates and Connie Gilchrist.

Umberto D (1952)

This masterwork by Vittorio De Sica is as good as anything he’s ever done. Remarkably, its timeliness and relevance are as strong today as they were in 1952. The film deals with the marginalization of the elderly (perhaps only Ozu’s TOKYO STORY is as eloquent), the struggle to survive on a day by day basis, loneliness in an increasingly detached society, the strong bond between people and their pets. There are moments of pure poetry that that one can’t describe in mere words but have to be seen to be appreciated. An aging pensioner (Carlo Battisti) and his dog struggle to live on his meager pension with only a servant girl (the luminous Maria Pia Casilio) to give them any human kindness. The ending is both uplifting and heartbreaking. One of the few films I’d like to know what happened to its characters after the film is over. But perhaps its for the best … it’s a cruel world.

Up In The Air (2009)

I have to confess that I studiously avoid Jason Reitman’s previous films JUNO and THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING. Having said that, the dialogue in this film (Reitman’s and Sheldon Turner’s screenplay based on the Walter Kim novel) is some of the best I’ve heard in years. Witty and on target yet still the way real people talk, not movie characters talk. With a job that keeps him constantly traveling and living in airports, airplanes and hotel rooms, a man (George Clooney) comes to terms with the emptiness of his existence. Clooney gives a superlative performance and is he the last real male Movie Star? He holds the camera as effortlessly as Gable and Cary Grant and is a better actor to boot. Anna Kendrick is getting all the Oscar buzz but it’s Vera Farmiga who really shines here as Clooney’s female equivalent (though the film saves a real kicker for the film’s final moments). Probably as close to perfection as any American film of its year. With Jason Bateman and Melanie Lynskey.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jack The Ripper (1988)

Though the film claims that documented research corroborates its version of the true identity of the notorious Jack The Ripper, the revelation is pretty preposterous and is not affirmed by any of the most popular theories of this unsolved crime. If taken purely as a fictional concoction, it’s mildly diverting but even so, there are so many plot holes and illogical actions and conclusions that it’s quite difficult to take seriously. Michael Caine does well enough as the Scotland yard detective assigned to the case and Susan George has a nice cameo as one of the Ripper’s victims but most of the acting is either terrible (Armand Assante) or negligible (Jane Seymour).

Friday, May 14, 2010

King Creole (1958)

Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Elvis Presley, this is considered one of Elvis’s 2 best films (the other being Don Siegel’s FLAMING STAR). Based on a novel by Harold Robbins (THE CARPETBAGGERS) and set in New Orleans, Presley is Danny Fisher, a high school dropout who becomes a popular singer in a Bourbon Street dive. When a mobster (Walter Matthau) decides he wants Presley at his own club, things get ugly. Filmed in B&W, it’s a gritty film which eschews sentiment for a fairly realistic portrait of a young kid trying to stay on the straight and narrow but with temptation at every turn. Curtiz and company (Michael Gazzo who wrote A HATFUL OF RAIN co-wrote the screenplay) don’t make everything black and white but shades of gray. Even the “good” girl (Dolores Hart) isn’t all good and the “bad” girl (Carolyn Jones in the film’s most poignant performance) isn’t all that bad. And they keep the ending pretty grim too. With Dean Jagger, Liliane Montevecchi, Vic Morrow, Paul Stewart and Jan Shepard.

Uncle Vanya (1970)

Anton Chekhov’s plays are problematic in the sense that they deal with characters who are, for the most part, passive. Life passes them by and as they bemoan their bored lives, it’s no so much about what they say but the subtext of their words. The narratives of Chekhov’s plays are essentially plotless and it’s not about story but about the people who inhabit the story. His plays are often described as comedies but more in the irony than in the execution. Unfortunately, this production of UNCLE VANYA is rather heavy going with the actors beating their chests and whimpering their unhappiness drearily. Freddie Jones plays Uncle Vanya rather creepily so it’s easy to see why Ann Bell as Yelena is repulsed. Only Anthony Hopkins as Astrov, the doctor, gives any texture to his performance. All the other actors seems to be playing on the surface while Hopkins peels away layers.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Operation Mad Ball (1957)

Good military comedies are few and far between and this one is the cream of the crop! Directed by the underrated Richard Quine with a clever screenplay (Blake Edwards was one of the writers and it’s easy to see his hand in the mix), Jack Lemmon is an army private on a temporary Army medical base in France just after the war’s end where fraternization between enlisted men and nurses are strictly forbidden. To keep up morale, Lemmon decides to throw a “mad ball” off the base at a chateau where the men and the nurses can whoop it up but first he has to contend with strictly by the book Captain (Ernie Kovacs) in charge. It’s a freewheeling farce and one would be foolish to resist it. The talented cast are all up for the fun and among the many familiar supporting players are Mickey Rooney (hilarious as a hipster master sergeant), Dick York (TV’s BEWITCHED) as a crafty corporal, Kathryn Grant as the Lieutenant that catches Lemmon’s eye, Arthur O’Connell as a Colonel and James Darren, Roger Smith, Paul Picerni, William Hickey, Betsy Jones Moreland, Mary LaRoche and Ron Kennedy. Wonderful fun. Treat yourself.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Torch Singer (1933)

Pre-code film has a solid central performance by Claudette Colbert as an unwed mother who gives up her child when she no longer is able to take care of her. She becomes hardened as she climbs the ladder to success in New York café society as a notorious nightclub singer who collects diamonds and men. But when she accidentally becomes the host of a children’s radio show, she begins to yearn for the daughter she gave up. The film fails to sustain the provocative story line and goes all sentimental on us during its final moments but until then, it’s an engrossing entertainment. There are some minor quibbles. One, Colbert’s singing voice (it sounds like she’s doing her own singing) isn’t very good so one wonders how she became a popular singer. Two, the ending leaves a lot open to speculation with its unanswered questions which prevent the finale from being truly satisfying. Ricardo Cortez and David Manners (DRACULA, THE MUMMY) are the men in her life.

Bhowani Junction (1956)

George Cukor is known as a “woman’s” director, meaning that he seems to draw the best work from the actresses working for him. This belief is cemented by the Ava Gardner performance here, probably a career best, in BHOWANI JUNCTION. Set in 1947 India during the waning days of British colonial rule as they prepare to withdraw and turn India over to the native populace, the film follows a young bi-racial Anglo-Indian woman (Ava Gardner) who doesn’t feel like she belongs to either culture. Filmed in Pakistan, it was quite a provocative subject for 1950s Hollywood to undertake and if it seems somewhat white washed, the attempt is not only appreciated but well executed. Stewart Granger as a British colonel, Bill Travers (BORN FREE) as a half caste who identifies with the British and Francis Matthews as an Indian Sikh are the men in her life. Miklos Rozsa provides the most unique score of his career using only authentic Indian music. With Lionel Jeffries and Abraham Sofaer.

Zeppelin (1971)

Exciting WWI adventure directed by Etienne Perier has Michael York as a British spy in Germany gathering information on the new design of a new zeppelin airship that could possibly affect the outcome of the war. The suspense reaches momentum during the maiden test voyage which turns out not to be a test voyage at all but a mission. While more modest in scale than the bigger WWII adventure films like WHERE EAGLES DARE or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, it still provides its share of thrills. The wide screen cinematography by Alan Hume (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) captures the excitement of a perilous aerial undertaking. Elke Sommer (surprisingly good) is the wife of the zeppelin’s designer (Marius Goring, THE RED SHOES), both of who find themselves unwilling passengers on the deadly mission. With Alexandra Stewart and Anton Diffring.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Chandler (1971)

There were a couple of attempts in the early 70s to turn character actor Warren Oates into a Bogart like leading man and this was one of the more feeble endeavors. It seems to want to ape the noir genre, even to the point of naming its hero after Raymond Chandler, but can you imagine Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe in a high speed car chase? But as fine an actor as he is, unlike Bogart, Oates simply isn’t leading man material. One of the characters refers to him as “that monkey faced detective” and that pretty much explains it. The film is choppy in execution and obviously has been edited severely and the coherence suffers. The Monterey and Carmel locations are handsomely captured by the Panavision lens. Leslie Caron is lovely as the requisite femme fatale but noir icon Gloria Grahame is shamefully wasted. With Charles McGraw and Marianne McAndrew (HELLO DOLLY!).

Fallen Sparrow (1943)

A surprisingly dull spy noir that not even the strong screen presence of John Garfield can do much to save. Garfield plays a former prisoner of the Spanish Civil War who, after being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, returns to New York to solve the murder of his best friend. He begins to suspect that the fascists who tortured him have followed him to New York but have they? Or is it just his paranoia, the residue of his previous mental condition? The villains are so obvious right from the start so there’s no suspense regarding who the bad guys are, just how will they be found out. Maureen O’Hara looks beautiful but she has nothing to do (though there’s a pay off at the end). Handsome B&W cinematography courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca. Co-starring Walter Slezak, Patricia Morison, Martha O’Driscoll and Hugh Beaumont.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Little Drummer Girl (1984)

Directed by George Roy Hill and based on the acclaimed novel by John Le Carre, THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL is so contrived in its conception and execution that one must take a major leap of faith in order for the film to work. I’ve not read the Le Carre novel but it was well reviewed so I assume Le Carre was able to make the circumstances more believable. As a film, it just doesn’t make any logical sense. In a bravura performance, Diane Keaton is a young pro-Palestinian actress/activist (apparently based on Vanessa Redgrave) with psychological baggage, who is kidnapped by Israelis and broken down until she becomes a double agent. Working for the Israelis, she infiltrates a terrorist organization but the psychological and emotional conflicts begin to take their toll. I took that big leap of faith so as a political thriller as well as an elemental portrait of a blank slate (Keaton) being used by exterior forces, it worked just fine. Co-starring Yorgo Voyagis, Klaus Kinski, Sami Frey, Anna Massey, David Suchet and Bill Nighy.