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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Death Defying Acts (2008)

A con artist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter (Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT), working as a medium and her assistant, plot their biggest con, the internationally famous magician Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce). But both romantic and psychic complications ensue that neither are prepared for. This Gillian Armstrong (MY BRILLIANT CAREER, LITTLE WOMEN) film slipped under the radar with little fanfare (at least here in the States) and one can see why. It’s a mere slip of a film, an engrossing conceit that never taps into its potential while slipping into a maudlin mire. There’s a strong performance by Pearce as the bedeviled Houdini. With Timothy Spall.

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

A couple of newlyweds (Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz) decide to invest in a trailer home and spend their honeymoon traveling to the various states to the engineering projects that he is employed on. Capitalizing on the success of the I LOVE LUCY television series, MGM and their top director Vincente Minnelli took a chance that their popularity would transition to the big screen. Their personas for the film depart from their Ricky/Lucy Ricardo characters on the TV show but they were obviously playing it safe and didn’t wander far enough to not make it seem on some level like a Technicolor (actually Ansco color), bigger budgeted episode of I LOVE LUCY. There is a darker side to the relationship, namely her passive/aggressive tendencies toward her husband and his naiveté in indulging her like a spoiled brat , that’s never fully explored. With Marjorie Main and Keenan Wynn.

King Arthur (2004)

Is there a bigger blight on the cinema scene today than Jerry Bruckheimer? This awful film adaptation of the Arthurian legend is yet another example of Bruckherimer’s bloated, excessive, simplistic bombastic cinema. The tale of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the knights of the round table have seen hundreds of incarnations from big budgeted spectacles, Broadway musicals, TV mini series and even opera. This is easily the worst I’ve seen. Purporting to be the “true” story of Arthur based on the latest archaeological findings (a dubious claim at best), it’s an overlong, laborious clichéd, horribly acted and absurd to the point of giggles. Director Antoine Fuqua has obviously studied (or perhaps borrowed) Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Olivier but to no avail though the film is best when everybody shuts up and we just get the visuals. The film, in its most hilarious moments, has the frail Keira Knightley as a sword wielding, blue faced Guinevere as Amazon warrior. Clive Owen walks through the part of Arthur saving himself the embarrassment of actually having to act it. No such luck for the others like Ioan Gruffudd, Hugh Dancy, Stellan Skarsgard and Ray Winstone in perhaps the film’s worst performance which is quite a feat. The earache of a thudding score is by the dreaded Hans Zimmer.

Ghost Writer (2010)

Roman Polanski is in top form in this terrific thriller. A writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to write the memoirs of a British ex-Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) after his writing predecessor dies in a drowning accident. But what seems as a simple enough job turns complicated after he suspects that his predecessor was murdered rather than an accident. Soon, he finds himself over his head in a world of political deceit, corruption, adultery and murder. This film would make a great triple bill with ROSEMARY'S BABY and CHINATOWN as McGregor’s character (simply called The Ghost) has much in common with Rosemary and J.J. Gittes. Like them, an innocent who stumbles into a world of malfeasance. The devil coven for Rosemary, the L.A. water fraud for Jake and for The Ghost the unscrupulousness of ….. well, see for yourself. Polanski tightens the vice till you almost can’t stand it (it was a nail biter, literally) and if the ending leaves a cynical bitter aftertaste, it’s pure Polanski. Excellent performances by McGregor, Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach (95 and still acting up a storm) and especially Olivia Williams. A corker of a score by Alexandre Desplat that suggests he may well be the best film composer working today. Hitchcock would have been proud. With Timothy Hutton and James Belushi.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

Easily the weakest of the seven westerns Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott made together. It’s not just that Scott’s Buchanan is probably the least interesting character in the film but that he’s … well, dumb. The audience is always one step ahead of him and we can see the consequences of his mistakes even before he does. Scott’s Buchanan is a rather innocuous cowpoke who wanders into a nasty little town called Agry (is it just me or is it fitting that Agry is angry without the “n”?). When he attempts to help a Mexican (Manuel Rojas) being beaten up, he’s unceremoniously thrown into the clinker along with the Mexican. Three of the supporting characters are far more involving. Two nefarious brothers, one (Tol Avery) a judge, the other (Barry Kelley) a sheriff who clash over money and power and Avery’s henchman (Craig Stevens), who seems to have a sense of fairness despite his involvement with the corrupt Avery.

The Stalking Moon (1968)

An army scout (Gregory Peck) on his last patrol meets up with a white woman (Eva Marie Saint), who was captured and lived with the Apache for ten years, and her Indian son. He agrees to help her back to civilization but what he doesn’t know is that the boy’s father is determined to get the boy back at any cost, even if it means slaughtering his way to him. There have been charges of racism toward the film (the Indian killer is never seen in close up) since its initial release but really people are reading or projecting something into it that simply isn’t there. It’s not a social statement, it’s the western as thriller and tautly directed by Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) who expertly keeps the tension quotient on high. The dialogue is minimal and Peck and Saint give fine performances. The boy (Noland Clay) has no dialogue but he’s very good in communicating his ambivalence and fear. With Robert Forster easy going and likable as a mixed blooded scout, Frank Silvera and Lonny Chapman. Fred Karlin’s muted score is very good except for a motif that he repeats and repeats to the point of annoyance. The Nevada locations are breathtaking.

Monday, June 28, 2010

My Blood Runs Cold (1965)

Trashy thriller directed by actor William Conrad is the kind of bad movie that you can’t take your eyes off of. A stranger (Troy Donahue, awful as ever) has a chance meeting with a spoiled rich girl (Joey Heatherton, who turned a perpetual pout into an acting style) and announces they were lovers in a past life and when Heatherton says of the bland Donahue, “He’s the most fascinating man I’ve ever met!”, you just know what a deliciously bad movie this was going to be. The normally reliable Barry Sullivan as Heatherton’s father gives Donahue and Heatherton a run for the bad acting sweepstakes but Jeanette Nolan in an unusually glamorous (for her) role and Nicolas Coster bring some levity to the proceedings.

They Do It With Mirrors (1991)

Not one of Agatha Christie’s exceptional efforts but still, it deserves a better effort than this. Joan Hickson is probably the best Miss Marple we’ve had to date but even she can’t pump some life into this lethargic adaptation. Marple is invited by an old friend (Faith Brook) to visit her sister (Jean Simmons) who she suspects is being poisoned. The plot, which seemed to have some clarity in the novel, is difficult to follow with so much unnecessary attention paid to characters cluttering up the landscape. Joss Ackland is Simmons’ spouse but no one else makes much of an impact.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kiss Me Kate (1953)

Even though much of Cole Porter’s adult entendres and lyrics were (mostly) bowdlerized for this adaptation, it’s still a glittering confection and one of the most enjoyable of the MGM musical library. A backstage musical with a terrific Cole Porter score, most of it surviving the trek from stage to screen. A battling divorced theatrical couple (Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson) are reunited for a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW. Keel is marvelous in his best film performance and even Grayson seems to rise to the occasion and only occasionally tortures us with her shrill soprano. In some of her numbers, specifically I Hate Men, she’s actually restrained and quite good. That tapping diva Ann Miller has one great solo Too Darn Hot and the film is blessed with a trio of sensational male dancers (Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, Tommy Rall). George Sidney (BYE BYE BIRDIE) directs and Hermes Pan did the expert choreography. With Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore, Kurt Kaszner, Ron Randell, Carol Haney and Ann Codee.

The Sheepman (1958)

A stranger (Glenn Ford) comes into a cattle town with the intention of raising sheep, much to the ire of the locals especially their leader (Leslie Nielsen). The two men have a past that will eventually have to be settled the way of the old West ... a gunfight. This charming little western is more of a comedy than your usual traditional western though I couldn't call it strictly a comedy western, not in the sense of a SUPPORT YOU LOCAL SHERIFF or THE PALEFACE, since there are enough dramatic moments for it to remain true to its genre. Outside of a few ugly process shots, Robert Bronner's cinematography with the exteriors shot in Colorado is quite handsome. Directed by the veteran George Marshall (DESTRY RIDES AGAIN). With a delightful Shirley MacLaine as Nielsen's fiancee, Pernell Roberts as a cold blooded killer, Edgar Buchanan as the shifty livery owner and Mickey Shaughnessy providing comic relief as Nielsen's henchman.

Masada (1981)

Based upon the novel by Ernest K. Gann (THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY), this is a fictionalized account of the Roman siege of the Masada fortress in 72 AD. The Roman governor of Judea (Peter O’Toole) along with a Roman legion marches on the Masada fortress (a near impenetrable mountain plateau in the desert) where Hebrew zealots are holed up and the six hour film (an hour could have cut and not missed) focuses on the many hardships faced by both sides with the face off as well as the political intrigue in Rome. Filming on the actual location where the siege took place lends an aura of authenticity to the project. Acting wise, the Romans get the better part of the bargain with strong British actors like O’Toole, Anthony Quayle and David Warner (who won an Emmy for his work here) playing Romans while the Hebrews are played for the most part by bland American actors like Peter Strauss, Alan Feinstein and Paul I. Smith. Fortunately, Barbara Carrera is cast as O’Toole’s Hebrew mistress so at least the Jews are shown to have some assets. Jerry Goldsmith won an Emmy for his strong score. With Joseph Wiseman, David Opatoshu, Denis Quilley and Timothy West.

Brothers (2009)

I haven’t seen Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film BRODRE of which this Jim Sheridan film is a remake but I trust it wasn’t as derivative and bloated with clichés as this exasperating film. Good son Tobey Maguire goes off to Afghanistan and is presumed killed and while away bad son Jake Gyllenhaal changes his spots and steps in to take care of Maguire’s wife (Natalie Portman) and two little girls. Then Maguire (after severe trauma and torture by Afghan rebels) returns home a zombie and we sit and wait for his big scene, the inevitable meltdown freak out. Yawn. Considering the recycled material (everything from COMING HOME, BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE WAR AT HOME), the actors (except for Maguire who is defeated by the material) do extremely well especially Gyllenhaal. Sam Shepard, Carey Mulligan and Mare Winningham co-star. The shameless score is by Thomas Newman and the crappy end credit song courtesy of U2.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

La Cicala (aka The Cricket) (1980)

Odd little film by director Albert Lattuada (FRAULEIN DOKTOR) is about an aging washed up showgirl (Virna Lisi), who prostitutes on the side, who hooks up with a free spirit (Clio Goldsmith) known as La Cicala “The Cricket” who becomes her only friend. Lisi impulsively marries an older man (Anthony Franciosa) which she sees as her last chance but when her 18 year old daughter (Barbara De Rossi) arrives to live with them, she’s threatened by the daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and they become rivals which leads to disaster. On one hand, it’s a serious character study of a woman frightened of losing her beauty and sexuality which is how she defines herself and Lisi’s performance her was good enough to get her the Italian Oscar for best actress, the David Di Donatello award. On the other hand, Lattuada’s penchant for getting Goldsmith and De Rossi nude or in various stages of undress at every opportunity borders on softcore porn. The character’s action seem arbitrary with very little logical motivation and there’s a vaguely sexist undercurrent as the women are punished for their transgressions but the males aren’t. Definitely worth a look for Virna Lisi’s performance though. With Renato Salvatori.

Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)

The definitive film version of the Mary Shelley gothic classic has yet to be made. As directed by Terence Fisher, this handsome Hammer production is quite popular but it diverges from the Shelley source as much (if not more) as the many versions that preceded it and came after. Peter Cushing comes across as a bit mature for the eager young scientist and his Baron Frankenstein is completely unsympathetic. As the monster, poor Christopher Lee hasn’t anything to do and neither does Hazel Court except look lovely (which she does effortlessly). It lumbers along but at least it’s good to look at.

The Furies (1950)

Sensational! This Anthony Mann western (one of three he directed in 1950) was not a success when first released and for many years was in the shadow of Mann’s other 1950 masterwork, WINCHESTER 73 but time has been kind to THE FURIES and it’s amazingly fresh. The term Freudian western is applicable here. The iron willed daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of an equally strong willed cattle and land baron (Walter Huston) finds herself beset by both a cold hearted gambler (Wendell Corey) and her father’s new wife to be (Judith Anderson), the combination of which threatens to destroy her intense personal relationship (as in Electra complex) with her father. A taut screenplay by Oscar winner Charles Schnee (BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) and based on a novel by Niven Busch (DUEL IN THE SUN) under Mann’s dexterous direction gives birth to a complex and daring western. Stanwyck and Huston are superb here and their scenes together positively crackle. With Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, Albert Dekker, Thomas Gomez and John Bromfield.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Last Grenade (1970)

Passable actioner as long as you don’t think about it too hard. A mercenary (Stanley Baker, looking a little ragged around the edges) in the Congo and his group of men are betrayed by another mercenary (Alex Cord) who has been bought off and changed sides and resulting in the wholesale slaughter of the group except for Baker and a couple of others. Recovering in a hospital, Baker wants revenge and to that end accepts a mission in Hong Kong. The film spends almost as much time on the illicit relationship between Baker and the married wife (Honor Blackman) of a British general (Richard Attenborough) and it’s actually this portion of the film that is more engrossing then the vengeance aspect though eventually the two storylines merge. Cord is particularly lousy here, his idea of an out of control killer being to laugh maniacally as if he saw Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH one too many times. With Andrew Keir, Julian Glover and Rafer Johnson.

Jane Eyre (1970)

Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE along with sister Emily’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS are probably the two most renowned gothic romances in the arts. They’ve been made into films numerous times and even opera and musicals. This Delbert Mann adaptation is adequate with a fine central performance by Susannah York as Jane though like most film adaptations, far too pretty for Bronte’s plain governess. George C. Scott as Rochester (he makes no attempt at playing British) takes a bit getting used to and eventually manages to bring a melancholy strength to the part. There’s a beautiful, evocative score by John Williams. With Ian Bannen, Jean Marsh and Rachel Kempson.

The Steel Claw (1961)

WWII potboiler directed by George Montgomery (who also plays the male lead) is a standard WWII action adventure which has some sense of authenticity since it was shot in the Philippines and outside Montgomery and another actor is comprised entirely of a Filipino cast. Montgomery plays a one handed marine (his right arm is a steel hook, hence the title) who leads a handful of Filipino guerillas to rescue an American general held hostage by the Japanese. The film seems a bit insulting to Filipino women. Whenever Montgomery appears on the screen, every Filipino female within range goes into lust over him. Unfortunately, the acting is very amateurish and the production values nil.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Murder By Contract (1958)

Low budget “B” noir by director Irving Lerner is a cult film embraced by Martin Scorsese (its influences on TAXI DRIVER are obvious). A cool and dispassionate hit man (Vince Edwards), quite possibly a misogynist, is taken aback to find out his next target is a woman (Caprice Toriel in an amateurish performance, apparently her only film role). Slowly, he begins to unravel. One can see why the film is admired. It’s spare and slightly Melvillelian but lacking Melville’s cold elegance. It’s also one of the talkiest thrillers I’ve ever seen with Edwards spouting off slightly existential views on life. Still, there’s no denying that it’s compelling even if it’s crudely made. There’s an annoying electric guitar score courtesy of Perry Botkin that’s reminiscent of Anton Karas’ annoying THIRD MAN score. With Herschel Bernardi, Phillip Pine and Kathie Browne who has a showy scene as a call girl.

Gan (1953)

Melodrama directed by Shiro Toyoda takes a leisurely pace, almost too leisurely, in telling its story. A young girl (Hideko Takamine) is edged into becoming a usurer’s mistress by poverty. The usurer (Eijiro Tono) lies to her about his place in society and even his marital status in order to seduce her. While she comes to loathe her situation, her father, having become accustomed to the niceties her position has entitled him to, urges her to remain in her situation. A chance meeting with a medical student (Hiroshi Akutagawa) offers a possible way out but she is hesitant to act on it. While one sympathizes at first with her situation, she seems too complacent, too resigned to be a victim of a patriarchal society. If she won’t help herself, how are we to empathize with her. While the character may be annoying, Takamine’s performance is masterful. In the hands of a lesser actress, I might have long since given up caring. The obvious soundstage sets actually work in the film’s favor, giving it an almost dreamlike quality. The score by Ikuma Dan is quite good.

Wild River (1960)

One can’t help wish Elia Kazan’s WILD RIVER were a little better. Not that it’s bad because it isn’t. It’s just that its potential is undermined by the contrivances of its plot. In the early 1930s, a government agent of the Tennessee Valley authority (Montgomery Clift) attempts to convince the lone hold out (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her land in order for the government to flood the land. While the woman defies both he and the government, Clift falls in love with the woman’s granddaughter (Lee Remick). The portrayal of Southerners is pretty stereotypical. They're bigoted, ignorant and beat up outsiders. I’m not saying these conditions didn’t exist in the South but everybody? Surely, there were some decent people even in the South. Unforgettable is pretty much the word to describe Jo Van Fleet’s performance as the feisty Ella Garth. Long after the film’s images start to fade, you’ll remember her. Yes, it’s that kind of performance. The discreet score is by Kenyon Hopkins and the excellent cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks (SEVEN DAYS IN MAY). With Bruce Dern, Albert Salmi, Frank Overton and Barbara Loden.

Summertree (1971)

The 1970s yielded some remarkable films but this relic isn’t one of them. Nothing dates a film faster than topicality and SUMMERTREE is mired down in a 1960s sensibility that seem antiquated in the 21st century. If the film were any good at all it it wouldn't matter but it’s so simplistic in its execution and morality that even in 1971, it couldn’t have looked good. Produced by Kirk Douglas and directed by actor Anthony Newley (DOCTOR DOLITTLE), it’s about this guitar playing child of the 60s (Michael Douglas) trying to find himself while images of Viet Nam rage over the TV and radio airwaves. He’s lost interest in college and spends his time mentoring a young inner city youth (Kirk Calloway who’s embarrassingly bad) and romancing a married nurse (Brenda Vaccaro). As the threat of being drafted looms, he must make some life changing decisions. Outside of Calloway, the actors are quite good but they’re floundering around with an insufficiently written script and Newley’s pedestrian direction. With Jack Warden, Barbara Bel Geddes, Rob Reiner and Teri Garr.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Island In The Sun (1957)

Based on the best selling novel by Alec Waugh, Robert Rossen (THE HUSTLER) directs this melodrama of racial tension on a small island in the British West Indies. A jealous plantation owner (James Mason) suspects his wife (Patricia Owens THE FLY) of infidelity with a visiting Michael Rennie, the island governor’s son (Stephen Boyd) is courting Mason’s sister (Joan Collins) and two interracial relationships play out. A budding political leader (Harry Belafonte) and an elite member (Joan Fontaine) of island society and a young stenographer (Dorothy Dandridge) and a government aide (John Justin THIEF OF BAGDAD). The societal taboos of the 1950s caused the film makers to hold back (apparently an interracial kiss between Fontaine and Belafonte was cut) which undercuts the film’s message. Still, it accurately reflects the racial strain and stress during a time of changes. Beautifully filmed in the Caribbean on the islands of Barbados and Grenada in CinemaScope by that wizard Freddie Young (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO). With Diana Wynyard, John Williams and Basil Sydney.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiesta (1947)

A curiosity in the filmography of Esther Williams at MGM in that it’s not an Esther Williams vehicle as such. She swims for about 10 seconds from a raft to the shore and that’s the extent of her in the water. She’s used as an actress here but a major suspension of disbelief is required if we’re to accept Williams not only as a Mexican but Ricardo Montalban’s twin sister as well. Ricardo (the only authentic Mexican in the cast) and Esther are the children of a famous bullfighter (Fortunio Bonanova) who wants Montalban to follow in his footsteps but Ricardo’s love is music, not the ring. Aaron Copland’s EL SALON MEXICO has been adapted by Johnny Green as a composition by Montalban’s character, here called FANTASIA MEXICANA. Mary Astor as the mother is ill used except for one good scene, Cyd Charisse is Ricardo’s girl (they have one good dance number), John Carroll is Esther’s guy and the always agreeable Akim Tamiroff, a family retainer. It was hard for me to get past the bullfighting theme and sequences as it’s a “sport” I detest.

Son Of Samson (aka Maciste Nella Valle Dei Re) (1960)

Filmed in Totalscope, this is standard sword and sandal schlock and in this case, not much fun. This time instead of Steve Reeves as Hercules or Gordon Scott as Goliath, we get Mark Forest as the “Son Of Samson”. He’s on a mission in Egypt to save the Egyptians from the Persians and in between fighting stuffed lions and rubber crocodiles and breaking chains with his bare hands, he pauses to watch the exotic Chelo Alonso belly dance. Maria De Matteis’ costumes for Alonso are perhaps the most “fun” thing in the film including an what looks like a crown with a chicken on it!

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1967)

This witty musical satire about an ambitious if devious young window washer’s (Robert Morse) climb up the ladder of corporate America remains as sparkling as ever. Director David Swift (THE PARENT TRAP) wisely retained most of the original Broadway cast in transferring the Broadway hit musical to the screen but he isn’t intimidated by its proscenium origins and balances movie fluidity while not entirely doing away with the Broadway conventions. Robert Morse is really terrific here, one of the best musical comedy performances I’ve ever seen. The songs by Frank Loesser are smart and melodic and Nelson Riddle’s arrangements do the score justice. Robert and Edward Boyle’s candy colored art direction is handsomely photographed by Burnett Guffey (BONNIE AND CLYDE). With Michele Lee, Rudy Vallee, Maureen Arthur, Murray Matheson and Anthony Teague.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Runaway Bus (1954)

I’ve always had a fondness for comedic whodunits and comedy thrillers and this amusing piece of English fluff, directed by Val Guest (DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE), goes down very nicely. In middle of a dense fog which prohibits flying, a small group of passengers are on an airline bus taking them to another airport. However, the “boot” (trunk to we Yanks) contains gold bullion from a heist and the one of the passengers or crew is a diabolical criminal. Will they reach their destination without incident? Of course not and that’s where the fun starts. I’m not familiar with the British comic Frankie Howerd though his style seems breezily effortless and not forced. Does young Petula Clark have more on her plate than her stewardess job? George Coulouris (CITIZEN KANE) is acting suspicious, is the handsome pilot (Terence Alexander) a good guy or a bad guy? Why is the imperious Margaret Rutherford so eager to get to her destination? Is the sexy Belinda Lee really as ditzy as she seems? And why is Frankie Howerd’s name not match up with security? It’s all played rather broadly and farcically and the great Rutherford has the knack of turning the most ordinary lines into comic gold.

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (2010)

A documentary that looks at a year in the life of 75 year old comedienne Joan Rivers. Even if you’re not particularly a fan of Rivers, it’s still an engrossing look at a driven woman, fearful of not being employed, of not being wanted, of failing and the absolute need to work at her craft because she simply doesn’t know anything else. Rivers’ unique sense of humor drives the film but she’s honest enough to let us peek into the more private moments in her life (like her husband’s suicide) as is her daughter Melissa who must deal with her mother’s drive and saying one thing while doing another. We see working on a one woman show headed for Broadway, we see her working her acts in 4,000 seat auditoriums as well as a run down dive in the boondocks of Wisconsin (where she brilliantly turns on a heckler who screams out that she’s not funny). A no brainer to see if you’re a Rivers fan. For everybody else, it may come as a surprise at how compelling it is.

Other Men's Women (1931)

Shockingly mediocre! It’s directed by the notable William Wellman but you’d never know he was more than a factory hack based on this awkward film. Granted, it’s an early talkie but still. Two railroad men and lifelong friends (Grant Withers, Regis Toomey) come into conflict when Toomey finds out his wife (Mary Astor) and Withers are in love with each other. The film is stilted and its leading man, Grant Withers, is plain pitiful. It’s clear why he never became a major actor and his drunk scenes are cringe inducing. By the time we have a blind man stumbling in the rain along the railroad tracks and jumping on a train and driving it himself, I just gave up. Some of the crude special effects (notably a flood) are decent for its era. In smaller and minor roles, two future stars stand out: James Cagney (who briefly does a little hoofing) and Joan Blondell. I must say though that the transfer is incredibly sharp and crisp for a film of its vintage.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Io Sono L'Amore (aka I Am Love) (2010)

Okay, let me say it up front. This is a stunning film! A cinema lover’s feast of riches. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, it’s a hybrid of ANNA KARENINA and MADAME BOVARY, echoing the operatic grandiosity of Visconti, the emotional complexities of Antonioni and the extravagant passionate heights of Sirk. Set in Italy, a wealthy Milanese family celebrates the birthday of the dying patriarch (Gabriele Ferzetti of L'AVVENTURA) as he passes on the family’s fortune and business to his son (Pippo Delbono) and grandson (Flavio Parenti). But it’s the son’s Russian wife (Tilda Swinton) that is the focus of the film, a woman on the brink of self discovery and discontent and a forbidden love affair that results in grand tragedy. The sensational score is comprised of the concert works and operas of John Adams. Bold and rich music that proclaims the great scores of the Golden era (though as noted none of it written with cinema in mind), none of this subtle modernist stuff. Swinton, no surprise, anchors the film with another superb performance and does it all in Italian and Russian, too! With Marisa Berenson (CABARET), looking elegant as ever as the family matriarch. Highly recommended.

Songs In Ordinary Time (2000)

Ordinary is right! Based on a best selling novel (helped by the Oprah book club), this is an astonishingly predictable piece of standard fare. Into the life of a lonely woman (Sissy Spacek) comes a con man (Beau Bridges) and sweet-talks his way into her life. She seems like a fairly intelligent woman and her three kids see right through him but she doesn‘t? It’s exasperating to watch her make a fool of herself but, of course, in the end -gasp- her eyes are opened and all ends well. Spacek usually excels in these dishwater roles but the material lets her down. There’s a nice performance by Keir Dullea as her alcoholic ex-husband.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Shining (1997)

Those of us who loved Stephen King’s novel THE SHINING and hated the hatchet job that Stanley Kubrick did to it in his 1980 film version wondered if the novel would ever receive a decent rendering. While this 1997 telefilm is a drastic improvement, it still is highly flawed. King himself detested Kubrick’s film and not only wrote the screenplay for this version but produced it too. At 4 ½ hours, the film allows Jack Torrance’s (played here by Steven Weber) descent into madness more gradually (and therefore more believably) rather than the instant telegraphy of Jack Nicholson‘s madman. The Wendy of Rebecca De Mornay is given the backbone she had in the novel that was taken away from her in Kubrick’s film though, alas, De Mornay doesn’t reach the dramatic heights of Shelley Duvall in the Kubrick film which allowed her some sensational acting peaks. But at 4 ½ hours, there’s about a good 40 minutes of flab that a good editor could have pared down and the mawkish ending that replaces the dark ending of the novel has King betraying even himself. Still, as a work of horror, it’s more effective than the 1980 film and more true to King’s vision. With Elliott Gould, Melvin Van Peebles and Courtland Mead (not entirely successful but an improvement on the 1980 Danny).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Comin' Round The Mountain (1951)

Bud Abbott & Lou Costello at it again, this time involved in a long standing hillbilly feud in the Kentucky hills. It’s no where near their better vehicles but there are a couple of comedic highpoints that rank with their best moments including a hilarious sequence with Lou Costello and Margaret Hamilton (in a countrified version of her WIZARD OF OZ persona) dueling with voodoo dolls that’s priceless. Also in the cast Dorothy Shay (billed as the “Park Avenue Hillbilly“ and apparently popular enough to perform at Eisenhower‘s inauguration ball), Jack Kruschen, Ida Moore, Joe Sawyer and Kirby Grant.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tribute To A Bad Man (1956)

Solid western is directed by that cinematic jack of all genres Robert Wise. A young drifter (Don Dubbins) saves the life of an ambushed rancher (James Cagney) and is taken under his wing. Dubbins falls in love with the Greek immigrant (Irene Papas) who’s taken shelter in Cagney’s household while horse thieves steal and terrorize Cagney’s horses. There’s much to admire in the film particularly in Cagney’s and the lovely young Papas’ performances. I don’t know as she’s ever looked more beautiful on screen. Dubbins was obviously being groomed for stardom but he’s so bland that you can see why it never happened for him. There’s a disturbing piece of (simulated) animal cruelty and Cagney’s character makes an abrupt about face change that it makes no narrative sense. Stephen McNally, Lee Van Cleef, Vic Morrow and Jeanette Nolan co-star. Excellent CinemaScope lensing by Robert Surtees and a strong score by Miklos Rozsa.

Castle In The Sky (aka Tenku No Shiro Rapyuta) (1986)

A glorious achievement from Japan’s anime wizard Hayao Miyazaki. A young girl, a descendent of a lost civilization, is pursued by government agents who want the crystal pendant she possesses that holds the key to Laputa, an island floating in the sky. Visually, Miyazaki has created a stunning unique universe that (as accompanied by Joe Hiisaishi’s gorgeous score) that boasts non-stop action and is never less than magical. The English dub is adequate at best but the film seems less harsh in its native Japanese. Among the English voice actors: Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman (probably the most successful of the English speaking cast), Mark Hamill, Mandy Patinkin, Andy Dick and James Van Der Beek. Easily the equal of Miyazaki’s HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE and KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Final Assignment (1980)

Cold war thriller takes its time in getting started but once it kicks in, it’s pretty vivid. A journalist (Genevieve Bujold) on assignment in the Soviet Union gets romantically involved with a Russian government official (Michael York). But when a Soviet scientist (Colleen Dewhurst) gives her a tape of dangerous experiments being conducted in Russia, Bujold finds herself conflicted between her neutrality as a journalist and her moral obligation. The plot is fairly ludicrous and Bujold’s character seems unnecessarily dimwitted at times but overall it works though it remains a minor thriller. Burgess Meredith and Alexandra Stewart co-star.

Merrill's Marauders (1962)

Set in Burma during WWII, a battalion of exhausted and ill soldiers due for relief are lead by Jeff Chandler (in his final film role) after new orders are received and pushed beyond the limits of endurance as he orders them to march over 500 miles to their objective. Samuel Fuller has often returned to the subject of war in his films such as THE BIG RED ONE, THE STEEL HELMET, FIXED BAYONETS and CHINA GATE. While MARAUDERS doesn’t really tell us anything new about war or men in war and doesn’t reflect the power and artistry of his BIG RED ONE or STEEL HELMET, it’s a solid well crafted film with a strong pull. It’s fortunate that acting doesn’t matter much in a film like this since a lot of the actors are bland Warner contract players like Ty Hardin, Peter Brown and Will Hutchins. The film’s ace is its superb wide screen lensing in color by William Clothier (MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). Fuller and Clothier’s use of the scope screen are textbook examples on how to composition for the wide screen. With Andrew Duggan, Claude Akins and John Hoyt.

Evening (2007)

Directed by Lajos Koltai (MEETING VENUS) with a screenplay by Michael Cunningham (THE HOURS) and Susan Minot (based on her novel), EVENING follows a dying woman (Vanessa Redgrave) as she hallucinates about her past (the film fluctuates between the past and the present) and the choices she made and her friends made that brought her to her present existence. It’s a lovely, fragile memory piece that, for the most part, does a delicate balancing act between schmaltz and honest sentiment and truths. The level of talent in the cast is near extraordinary. Besides Redgrave, there’s Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Claire Danes (playing the young Redgrave), Natasha Richardson (Redgrave’s real life daughter playing her daughter), Eileen Atkins, Toni Collette, Patrick Wilson, Hugh Dancy, Barry Bostwick and Mamie Gummer (Streep’s daughter, playing the young Streep). The formidable cinematography in Panavision wide screen is by Gyula Pados. Alas, the film has never received its proper due.

Monday, June 14, 2010

God's Little Acre (1958)

The 1933 novel was a scandalous world wide best seller. The novel combined Marxist themes with lots of sex. It’s author, Erskine Caldwell, was even tried in court under obscenity charges. 25 years later, under the direction of Anthony Mann, it finally reached the movie screen. A dirt poor farmer (Robert Ryan) lays his farmland to waste as he digs for the gold he’s obsessed with and he runs his family (sons Jack Lord and Vic Morrow, Lord’s wife Tina Louise, daughter Fay Spain) with a loving iron fist. His son in law (Aldo Ray) is a laid off factory worker organizing the unemployed workers to take back the factory. Mann uses Ryan and his family initially as a source of amusement and Ryan is really good here in one of his most unusual roles but Mann skillfully turns the farce into tragedy. The novel really isn’t very good (I don’t think it’s even read much today) and with all the sex taken out for the film version, we’re left with nothing more than a mildly entertaining “white trash” dramedy. The wonderfully atmospheric score is by Elmer Bernstein and the strong B&W cinematography by Oscar winning Ernest Haller (GONE WITH THE WIND). Also starring Buddy Hackett, Michael Landon, Rex Ingram, Helen Westcott and Lance Fuller.

It's Complicated (2009)

Nancy Meyers had a critical and box office hit 6 years ago with her mature romantic comedy SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton and here Meyers returns to the well with somewhat less engaging results. This is the kind of film with educated, moneyed people who live in beautiful houses, wear stylish clothes, have terrific jobs and engage in witty movie banter. It’s pretty predictable with a few zingers and comedic situations that hit their targets but it misses as often as it hits. It’s the kind of film that depends on the actors to pull it off and in this case, Meyers delivers a home run with Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin all at the top of their game and often turning the most mundane lines into gold. With John Krasinski, Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, Alexandra Wentworth and Nora Dunn.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ensign Pulver (1964)

As far as military comedies go (I’m not a fan), this one is amiable enough. Based on the character of Ensign Pulver (played by Jack Lemmon in the 1955 film) from MISTER ROBERTS, it contains all the usual clichés of the genre: horny sailors crazy for broads and booze. Despite a handful of bona fide funny moments, director Joshua Logan tends to dwell on certain scenes long after they’ve made their point. Something that may be amusing becomes annoying when trying to milk it to death. The most interesting aspect is what the film does with the character of the Captain (played by Burl Ives here, James Cagney in MISTER ROBERTS) as it tries to give him a complex background to explain his fascist, unfeeling behavior. Ives’ one note performance doesn’t help but the rest of the cast gives the material better than it deserves including Walter Matthau, Jack Nicholson, James Coco, Larry Hagman, James Farentino, Al Freeman Jr. and among the ladies Millie Perkins, Diana Sands and Kay Medford.

Exterminating Angel (aka El Angel Exterminador) (1962)

After an evening at the theatre, a group of upper class society types go to a late night dinner party at the invitation of one of the group. But in the wee hours of the morning when it’s time for them to leave … no one is able to leave. Oh, nothing logical is stopping them. Suddenly, they’re emotional cripples and victims of their own fear. As days and even weeks pass, without food and privacy and everybody starting to smell, they lose all semblance of civilization and turn into savages. Yes, it’s Luis Bunuel again, giving the bourgeoisie another slapping around. It’s a film that’s easier to admire than embrace but there’s do denying the claustrophobic surrealistic universe that Bunuel creates is both clever and frightening. But since the bourgeois characters are basically pawns (the acting is pretty weak, too) and we have no investment in them, we’re more or less a dispassionate audience. Silvia Pinal (VIRIDIANA) is the most recognizable name in the cast.

Rampage (1963)

It’s impossible to look at RAMPAGE without comparisons to Hawks’s HATARI! which was a big hit the year before. They both deal with trapping jungle animals for zoos, John Wayne in HATARI! and Robert Mitchum here and they both have the same leading lady, Elsa Martinelli. However, where HATARI! was an amusing romp, RAMPAGE is darker in tone as trapper Mitchum squares off with hunter Jack Hawkins in their bid to bring The Enchantress (a rare tiger/leopard hybrid) back to Germany and Martinelli as the enchantress who comes between them. Director Phil Karlson is better known for more urban dramas like 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE and HELL TO ETERNITY but he keeps it exciting and the exotic Malaysia jungles are breathtaking. A middle aged Sabu shows up as one of the safari guides. There’s a strong Elmer Bernstein score too. The one aspect that most likely wasn’t an issue in 1963 but in 2010 is disturbing. The film’s finale has a wild jungle cat on the loose in the streets of Germany. As she’s being hunted, all I could think of was how she was kidnapped from her natural environment and here in a world alien to her, she is the enemy?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fathom (1967)

Breezy spy/heist caper doesn’t take itself too seriously which is just as well but it’s an enjoyable romp. A skydiver (Raquel Welch) is approached by an international agent (Ronald Fraser) and his aide (Richard Briers) into helping them locate a missing atomic weapon referred to as the Fire Dragon which is also being sought after by the Red Chinese. But everything is not as it seems and the lovely Raquel becomes a disposable pawn as other predators want the Fire Dragon. Welch is at her most stunning and Maurice Binder’s clever main titles emphasize her allure. There are double crosses, dead bodies and treachery galore and it’s all in modest good fun. With Anthony Franciosa and Clive Revill. The melodic score is by John Dankworth.

There's Always Tomorrow (1956)

Perhaps the one Douglas Sirk jewel still to take its place among his remarkable string of ruminations on the American dream and landscape in 1950s America. A husband (Fred MacMurray in one of his best roles), though taken for granted, seems complacent as the head of a typical suburban household. When an old flame (Barbara Stanwyck) comes back into his life, his life no longer seems as fulfilling. Sirk lets us (and Stanwyck) see what MacMurray can’t see and while we sympathize with him, we realize his wife (Joan Bennett) is also a victim of the suburban strait jacket. There can’t be any winners in a situation like this and Sirk’s bittersweet but honest ending settles for the lesser of two “evils“. Shooting in B&W instead of color allows Sirk more restraint (shown in the performances) than the lush overheated palettes of Technicolor. Co-starring Pat Crowley, William Reynolds and Gigi Perreau.

Toys In The Attic (1963)

Directed by George Roy Hill, screenwriter James Poe (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) adapts Lillian Hellman’s Broadway hit to the screen with decent results. A failure (Dean Martin) returns to his Southern roots, along with his simple minded child bride (Yvette Mimieux) to visit his spinster sisters (Geraldine Page, Wendy Hiller), only this time he’s rich. The sisters reaction to his wealth is radically different with Page downright resenting it. Page’s unnatural obsession with her brother and animosity toward his wife unwittingly brings a tragic and bitter denouement. Hellman is flirting with Tennessee Williams territory here but she lacks the poetry of Williams’ dialogue so much of the seams show. Page (who plays roles like this to the manor born) and Hiller are excellent as are Gene Tierney as Mimieux’s mother and Frank Silvera as her black chauffeur lover. Dean Martin’s performance is problematic. He’s actually very good, connecting all the dots as an actor and showing some insight into his character yet his performance still doesn’t work. It’s not authentic (Southern Italy perhaps but not the Old South) and admirable as he tries, this is a part that screams out for a Paul Newman. There’s a fine score contributed by George Duning. With Nan Martin and Larry Gates.

Valley Of Decision (1945)

Good, solid piece of old fashioned storytelling, the kind of film of which it is often lamented “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. The film plays out like a juicy best seller (which it was) and while it doesn’t contribute much if anything to the “Art” of cinema, it’s a satisfying watch. Set in 19th century Pittsburgh, the film follows a young Irish lass (Greer Garson) from a mill working family as she enters service as a maid in the wealthy household of the steel mill’s owner (Donald Crisp) where she falls in love with the son (Gregory Peck) but class distinctions as well as political, whether the mill will be unionized, and personal, Garson’s father (Lionel Barrymore) blames the mill owner for the loss of his legs and his bitterness promises to destroy them. Normally Garson’s prissy persona can be hard to take but she’s spot on as strong willed colleen and received an Oscar nomination. Other strong performances include Gladys Cooper as the family matriarch, Jessica Tandy as the manipulative maiden out to sink her claws into Peck, Marsha Hunt as the social climbing daughter, Dan Duryea as the spendthrift son, Marshall Thompson as the alcoholic son whose drunkenness inadvertently causes bloodshed and Preston Foster as Garson’s unionizing suitor. There’s a beauty of an Oscar nominated score by the underrated Herbert Stothart.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Honey Pot (1967)

A millionaire (Rex Harrison) concocts a devious plan to gain even more wealth by inviting three of his former lovers (Susan Hayward as a Texas heiress, Capucine as a princess, Edie Adams as a movie star) to his Venetian palazzo and playing them against each other. But when one of them dies, the joke may be on him. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of the 17th century Ben Jonson comedy VOLPONE (via several other permutations) isn’t as sharp as his other dialogue driven films like ALL ABOUT EVE or A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and at a running time of over two hours (almost 20 minutes have been cut including Herschel Bernardi‘s role even though he still retains billing), it can’t sustain the suspense but there’s just enough style and wit to moderately hold one’s interest. With Cliff Robertson, Maggie Smith and Adolfo Celi and a frequently effective score courtesy of John Addison.

Ice Follies Of 1939 (1939)

Ghastly! Long considered one of Joan Crawford’s worst films, it’s every bit as horrible as its reputation suggests. Did MGM think the public was clamoring for a Joan Crawford movie on ice skates? Crawford herself doesn’t skate but the story is bogged down by lumps of ice show performances and activity that stops the movie cold (no pun intended) every bit as much as those circus sequences that killed THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. The anemic plot has James Stewart trying to jump start a career as an ice follies producer while wife Crawford goes to Hollywood and becomes a big star. The ice numbers mimic the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas but they lack even the kitsch quality Berkeley sometimes had. The film is in black and white but the last 20 minutes of the film are in three strip Technicolor and we suffer through an interminable Crawford as Cinderella ice number with dancing blackbirds and dancing cows. With Lew Ayres, Lewis Stone and Lionel Stander.

2012 (2009)

Tiresome and trite and often just plain offensive, 2012 is the easily the most inept disaster film it’s ever been my misfortune to see. It makes THE SWARM look like an Ingmar Bergman film. I cringed every time some poor actor had to deliver the most vapid dialogue but it must be a relief for John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Oliver Platt and George Segal that having delivered the worst performances of their career, they have nowhere to go but up. The film, an uncredited adaptation of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, focuses on the destruction of the planet and an attempt by a number of “chosen” people (and a handful of the unchosen) to survive. What I found extremely offensive was the cheap laughs amid what should be the most horrible fate of mankind and the treatment of it as one big amusement park ride straight out of Disneyland what with planes dodging collapsing skyscrapers as if it were a video game and everybody screaming as if they were on a rollercoaster ride. If this film is to be believed, it’s the dregs of humanity will survive. The only character I had an iota of sympathy for was Beatrice Rosen as the mistress of a rich Russian so, of course, she must die a lingering death while the ciphers live.