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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dying Room Only (1973)

From the pen of Richard Matheson (I AM LEGEND) comes this taut little thriller with a familiar premise. A married couple (Cloris Leachman, Dabney Coleman) on vacation stop at run down diner in the desert for something to eat. She goes to the ladies room but when she returns, her husband is gone … and no one knows where and what’s more they couldn’t care less! Leachman feels in her gut that something is terribly wrong and who can blame her when everyone around her acts like they have guilt tattooed on their forehead? I wish that Matheson had written a smarter heroine though. Leachman’s hysteria becomes irritating after awhile and her actions foolish rather than thought out. But there’s no denying the suspense factor is kept pretty high. With Ned Beatty, Ross Martin, Louise Latham and Dana Elcar.

Green Mansions (1959)

The 1904 W.H. Hudson novel GREEN MANSIONS has too flimsy a narrative to make a successful film. A young man (Anthony Perkins) on the run travels into the jungles of Venezuela to look for gold. There, he encounters an Indian tribe who takes him in and a forbidden forest where a strange girl (Audrey Hepburn) lives with her grandfather (Lee J. Cobb). The character of Rima is ethereal and on paper might seem ideal for Hepburn but she’s too elegant, too chic to play the native jungle girl. The film is tedious with long stretches of Hepburn and Perkins frolicking in the jungle but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Visually, it’s quite an eyeful with Joseph Ruttenberg’s wide screen cinematography of cascading waterfalls and lush jungle foliage. Though some of the film was shot in Venezuela and Colombia, it’s clear most of the jungle scenes are actually on a soundstage. Directed by Mel Ferrer (Hepburn’s husband at the time). The score is by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Bronislau Kaper. With Sessue Hayakawa, Nehemiah Persoff and Henry Silva.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Glass Menagerie (1973)

Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE is a delicate, fragile memory piece, almost as fragile as its heroine, Laura Wingfield. When done correctly, it can be heartbreaking. Alas, this filmed production lacks the both the humor and the nuance to make it work, it’s altogether too heavy handed and it suffers awfully by a terrible performance by Katharine Hepburn in the central role of Amanda, the matriarch of the impoverished Wingfield family. Hepburn’s strong Yankee countenance is all wrong for the faded girlish Southern belle (though the young Hepburn might have made an effective Laura) and while she can be a monster, Amanda is never annoying which is what Hepburn’s performance is. Joanna Miles is surprisingly effective considering how physically wrong she is for the role, Sam Waterston as Tom seems more self centered than seems necessary but Michael Moriarty as the gentleman caller seems to have a strong sense of his character which is a relief. Directed by Anthony Harvey (who directed Hepburn to an Oscar in THE LION IN WINTER), photography by Oscar winner Billy Williams (GANDHI) and the sparse score is by John Barry.

Monday, July 26, 2010

First Wives Club (1996)

Some inspired casting headed by three expert comediennes make this contemporary screwball comedy a pleasure to sit through. After the suicide of a college girlfriend (Stockard Channing), three school chums (Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton) reunite at the funeral. They find the one thing they have in common is that their husbands have all left them for younger women. Then their “get even” plan against their exes snowballs into something more important. While the material is fairly well written, what elevates above a decent sitcom episode is the crack comedic timing of Midler, Hawn and Keaton and luckily, they have a terrific chemistry and play off each other impeccably. Great fun. The huge cast includes Maggie Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Heckart, Stephen Collins, Dan Hedaya, Victor Garber, James Naughton, Heather Locklear, Elizabeth Berkley, Rob Reiner, Bronson Pinchot, Timothy Olyphant, Debra Monk and Philip Bosco.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Evel Knievel (1971)

An ineffectual film biography (John Milius, APOCALYPSE NOW, co-wrote the screenplay) on the motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. The major problem is that his life just isn’t all that interesting and the film never goes into the psychology of what makes a man risk his life and limb (the real Knievel has broken every bone in his body at one time or another) for fame. Evel, as played by George Hamilton, is presented as egotistical and self centered but with a certain irresistible charm. Hamilton is well cast here and it’s one of his 2 or 3 best performances and Sue Lyon is also very good as his wife. The film doesn’t take its subject seriously, presenting his life in a tableau of humorous episodes that don’t ring true. With Rod Cameron, Bert Freed, Dub Taylor, Betty Bronson and Ron Masak.

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

This perfectly charming musical, directed by Richard Fleischer, has an inexplicably bad reputation. It was poorly reviewed and was a box office flop. Certainly it’s no SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or GIGI or even a CHICAGO but it’s got a first rate tuneful Leslie Bricusse score and there’s a unforced sweetness about the whole thing, not at all cloying. Dr. Dolittle (Rex Harrison who plays him like a second cousin to Henry Higgins) is an animal doctor in a small English village in the late 19th century who talks to animals. But in his case, he speaks their language and they talk to him. The special effects are a bit crude by today’s standards but that only adds to the charm of the film. Future film director Herbert Ross (STEEL MAGNOLIAS) staged the musical numbers and the impressive Oscar nominated art direction is by Mario Chiari, Ed Graves and Jack Martin Smith. With Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough, Norma Varden, Peter Bull and Charlie Dix.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Inception (2010)

Glorious poppycock! Christopher Nolan’s most satisfying film to date and a thrilling rollercoaster ride. Nolan’s loopily clever conceit about a team that infiltrates dreams in order to extract secrets and information defies all logic but Nolan is smart enough to keep the action going at a breathtaking (literally) pace that you don’t have the time to dissect it nor do you want to. It lacks the pretentiousness of MEMENTO and the pomposity of BATMAN BEGINS and is crammed with a kinetic pop a minute rat-tat-tat technique that keeps you riveted as each twist and turn shakes you up. In all the razzle dazzle, there’s even time for Leonardo DiCaprio to give yet another solid performance. The huge cast includes Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite and I’ll be damned if even the dreaded Hans Zimmer doesn’t rise to the occasion. Let‘s just hope the fanboys don‘t get a hold of it and start analyzing it to death and turn it into another MATRIX!

Dark Waters (1944)

Andre De Toth (HOUSE OF WAX) directs this average gothic thriller but it never rises above the routine. A young girl (Merle Oberon) after surviving a shipwreck which killed her parents goes to the Louisiana bayous to recoup and be cared for by her only living relatives, an aunt (Fay Bainter) and uncle (John Qualen). But when she starts hearing voices and lights go on and off, is she losing her mind? Or is someone trying to drive her crazy? Well, if you’ve seen GASLIGHT and its spawn, you know the answer to that. The ambience is wonderful, the steamy overgrown bayous and old dark house courtesy of art and set directors Charles Odds and Maurice Yates but Oberon, a stunning beauty, isn’t a good enough actress for us to invest ourselves in her predicament. With Franchot Tone, Thomas Mitchell, Elisha Cook Jr (who has a great demise), Rex Ingram, Alan Napier and Nina Mae McKinney. The score by Miklos Rozsa is one of his lesser efforts.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Peacock (2010)

John is a repressed introvert who works at a bank and lives with his wife Emma who he dominates and keeps at home. When a train car jumps the track and lands in his backyard, public attention is focused on John and Emma. Emma blossoms under all the attention while John begins to unravel. The problem? John and Emma are the same person (and skillfully played by Cillian Murphy, 28 DAYS LATER) though neither are aware that they are the same person. As a psychological drama, it’s engrossing though there’s a faintly disturbing undercurrent that (like PSYCHO and DRESSED TO KILL) seems to tie transvestism and psychotic behavior together. Curiously, or perhaps not considering the film’s outcome, Murphy is much more attractive and appealing as Emma than he is as John. Directed by Michael Lander and with Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Keith Carradine, Bill Pullman and Josh Lucas.

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

Harold Robbins’ sprawling, sleazy best selling roman a clef about Howard Hughes was turned by producer Joseph E. Levine and director Edward Dmytryk into a juicy, trashy potboiler with a purple prose screenplay by John Michael Hayes (REAR WINDOW). Hayes miraculously turned Grace Metalious’ lurid best seller PEYTON PLACE from a sow’s ear to a silk purse. Alas, no such miracle here. But you can’t take your eyes off the screen. George Peppard plays Jonas Cord (the Hughes stand-in) and he’s excellent at playing cruel and unlikable but he has zero charisma. Surely there must have been something compelling about a man like Hughes that attracted people to him besides money. Carroll Baker plays the Jean Harlow equivalent (a role she would play again the following year) and Alan Ladd, in his final film, plays the aging cowpoke Nevada Smith (the novel contained so much background on the character that Steve McQueen made a whole movie of it 2 years later). The large cast includes Robert Cummings, Martha Hyer (in the film’s best performance), Elizabeth Ashley, Lew Ayres, Martin Balsam, Audrey Totter, Leif Erickson, Tom Tully, Arthur Franz, Archie Moore and Ralph Taeger. The eye catching costumes are by Edith Head and the energetic score by Elmer Bernstein.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Statement (2003)

Norman Jewison (MOONSTRUCK) directs this thriller adapted from the Brian Moore novel which was influenced by the true story of Paul Touvier, a Vichy collaborationist and responsible for the execution of seven Jews and who escaped justice for almost 50 years. A determined judge (Tilda Swinton) and an Army colonel (Jeremy Northam) attempt to track down a Nazi collaborationist (Michael Caine) responsible for the death of seven Jews during WWII. However, he seems to be protected by a certain segment of the Roman Catholic church who shelter him. After an attempt is made to assassinate him (which may be an Israeli group seeking revenge or perhaps made to look like a Jewish group for political purposes), he goes on the run. Though set in France with French characters, the entire cast is British which gives the film a generic feel to it rather than any authenticity (though the striking locations are authentic). That aside, it’s very well done with Caine giving an excellent performance as the tortured collaborationist. With Alan Bates (in his final film role), Charlotte Rampling, Frank Finlay and John Neville.

The Innocent (aka L'Innocente) (1976)

Luchino Visconti’s final film is a visually ravishing and emotionally disturbing if somewhat distancing exploration of the psychology of romantic pride. But Visconti’s intellectual reserve also distances us from the characters which ultimately works against the film. An 18th century aristocrat (Giancarlo Giannini) is obsessed with his mistress (Jennifer O’Neill SUMMER OF 42) causing his wife (Laura Antonelli) to also look elsewhere. But what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander and Giannini begins breaking down cerebrally. Giannini’s character is one of the most narcissistic characters I’ve ever encountered in cinema and he is matched by his Machiavellian paramour which leaves only the tormented spouse for us to relate to. Still, it’s an impressive swan song from a legendary film maker.

Death Of A Centerfold (1981)

Two years prior to Bob Fosse’s STAR 80, this telefilm did its take on the notorious Dorothy Stratten murder. It plays vaguely with the facts (afraid of lawsuits?) and lacks the intensity of the Fosse film. Dorothy Stratten, as written here, comes across as too na├»ve to be taken seriously. She has victim tattooed on her forehead from scene one. Jamie Lee Curtis (who possesses an innate intelligence that is the opposite of Stratten‘s victim) as Stratten does as well as she can but the fault is in the writing, not her performance. Best to stick with the 1983 Fosse film which has a better Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) than the obvious whack job (Bruce Weitz) here. With Robert Reed in the Peter Bogdanovich part and Mitchell Ryan as Hugh Hefner.

Death Of A Cyclist (aka Muerte De Un Ciclista) (1955)

Juan Antonio Bardem’s intense sociological thriller has the feel of Hitchcock meets Antonioni. Set at the height of Franco’s Spain, two upper class Spaniards having an affair accidentally hit a bicyclist but leave him to die on the road. Fear and guilt then begin to chip away on their relationship, affecting not only them but those around them. The beautiful Lucia Bose (STORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR) brings a concentrated poise as the adulteress but the actors playing her lover (Alberto Closas) and husband (Otello Toso) are so similar physically and in acting style that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart on first viewing.

What's New Pussycat? (1965)

Clive Donner’s sex farce based on a Woody Allen script is one of the more amusing examples of the ample sex comedies that proliferated in the “swinging” 1960s. While still very much tangled in the decade, there are enough verbal and visual gags to keep one tickled. The superb cast is up for the shenanigans: Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Woody Allen and a quartet of delectable comediennes (Romy Schneider, Capucine, Paula Prentiss, Ursula Andress) all bring their particular brand of idiosyncrasy to the proceedings. The irresistibly catchy score is by Burt Bacharach.

Caesar And Cleopatra (1945)

Gabriel Pascal’s film of the George Bernard Shaw play (which has a screenplay by Shaw) was the most expensive British film ever made at the time. But as a spectacle or an epic, it’s pretty much a wash out. It’s a very chatty movie which normally would be a nuisance but Shaw’s dialogue is more often witty than not and when you have actors the caliber of Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh in the leading roles, it makes the static go down easier. Handsomely filmed in three strip Technicolor by Freddie Young, the solid supporting cast includes Stewart Granger, Francis L. Sullivan, Basil Sydney, Cecil Parker, Jean Simmons and Flora Robson stealing scenes as the slave with the tongue twisting name of Ftatateeta. The 13 year old boy playing Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy is Anthony Harvey who would later direct such films as THE LION IN WINTER.

An American Dream (1966)

There’s a good movie to be made out of Norman Mailer’s novel but unfortunately, this wasn’t it and it’s unlikely to be rectified anytime soon. Pauline Kael once remarked that John Huston was the man to direct it and she wasn’t far off. Instead it got a TV director Robert Gist (Agnes Moorehead’s ex-husband). From the opening credits layered over pink satin with Johnny Mandel’s elegant cocktail jazz music, it’s clear that they have it all wrong and the first shot of a nude Eleanor Parker wearing only sunglasses and pearls lounging on a fur bedspread conjures up Harold Robbins, not Norman Mailer, and the film continues to mutilate the novel. Then Parker’s shrieking banshee performance flings the movie into bad movies we can’t resist territory though after Parker’s spectacular fall from a 30 story balcony, a lot of the “fun” goes with her. Still, it’s bad enough to be compelling though Stuart Whitman as Parker’s husband (and her murderer) and Janet Leigh as his ex-girlfriend suffer thru the film’s worst lines (though Leigh is given the film‘s best and last line). It also has that awful television look that so many Universal films from the 1960s had. Only two things elevate from its tawdriness. Lloyd Nolan does the only good acting as Parker’s father and Johnny Mandel’s moody score gives the film a class it doesn’t warrant.

Miss Julie (1951)

Alf Sjoberg’s adaptation of the Strindberg play is so seamlessly fluid that unless you were already aware of it, you’d never guess its theatrical origins. Sexual politics and class distinction come to a brink as a wealthy landowner’s daughter (Anita Bjork as the Miss Julie of the title) comes into conflict with her father’s male servant (Ulfe Palme). Winner of the grand prize at the Cannes film festival, Sjoberg’s film may lose the claustrophobic innervation of the play but he compensates by visual equivalents for Strindberg’s dialogue and situations as well as the heightened intensity of Bjork and Palme’s performances.

Serious Charge (1959)

Terence Young (WAIT UNTIL DARK) directs this drama, a frank and adult topic for 1950s cinema. A juvenile delinquent (Andrew Ray) falsely accuses a minister (Anthony Quayle) of sexual advances. When his story is substantiated by a respectable woman (Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter) in retaliation for the vicar rejecting her sexual advances, he finds himself both a target and a pariah of the gullible small minded town. It’s an odd little mix of a film. Part social drama, part teenagers gone wild and part teen musical (50s Brit heartthrob Cliff Richard as Ray’s brother). Very strong subject matter handled frankly unlike much of American cinema at the same time. Sarah Churchill is particularly effective here as a sexually repressed small town spinster.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007)

Stephen Sondheim’s great musical seemed ideal material for film that it seems astonishing that it took nearly 28 years for it to reach the screen. Perhaps it’s just as well as the material is not easy and needed just the right director to nurse it along and Tim Burton understands the material perfectly and has created a stunning adaptation of the Sondheim musical. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has bleached all the colors so the film looks near black and white (except for the flashback sequences which are bright) and Dante Ferretti has created an exquisite stylized Victorian London (and justifiably winning an Oscar for it). Johnny Depp gives one of his very best performances as Sweeney, the demented barber who returns to London to avenge the man (Alan Rickman) who took his wife and daughter from him. Helena Bonham Carter is simply perfect as his murderous accomplice. Bonham Carter plays the role as more of a calculating wench with common sense and a darker sense of purpose than the kewpie doll that Angela Lansbury played in the original Broadway production. And the casting of a child (Ed Sanders who’s sensational) instead of a young man as Toby is inspired. Also starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener and Laura Michelle Kelly. The gorgeous orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are faithful to the original score and Paul Gemignani does a superlative job of adapting and conducting the music.

Without Trace (aka Tutte Le Auto Della Polizia) (1975)

A young 16 year old girl (Adriana Falco), the daughter of a wealthy and prominent doctor (Gabriele Ferzetti L'AVVENTURA), tells her mother she’s going over to a friend’s home to study and jumps on her motorcycle and we never see her alive again. When she’s found shot in the back of the head and dumped in a lake, what seems to be a routine homicide case turns into a more complex case of police corruption, blackmail, illegal abortions (this is Italy) and child prostitution. Directed by Mario Caiano , for most of the film it’s a straight forward thriller until the last half hour when it goes all giallo with three graphic murders and not very original either. When a nubile teenager gets naked and slips into a hot bath, you just know the killer is going to come in and cut her up. And the killer has got to be one of the dumbest serial killers in moviedom. Antonio Sabato (GRAND PRIX) is the detective assigned to the case and Luciana Paluzzi is wasted as his policewoman partner.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Best Foot Forward (1943)

Energetic MGM Technicolor musical about a military cadet (Tommy Dix) who writes a fan letter to a movie star (Lucille Ball) inviting her to the prom. To his shock, she accepts and much to the chagrin of his girlfriend (Virginia Weidler). The movie is engaging with a melodic score by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane who would go on to write the songs for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS the following year. Ball is a good sport playing herself (her character is called Lucille Ball) as an actress whose career is on the wane and using the prom for publicity. Choreography by Charles Walters and the large supporting cast includes June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, Nancy Walker, Chill Wills, Harry James, William Gaxton, Sara Haden and Donald MacBride.

Human Desire (1954)

After being fired, a railroad man (Broderick Crawford) begs his young wife (Gloria Grahame) to use her influence in getting his job back. But his irrational jealousy causes him to kill the man (Grandon Rhodes) after suspecting his wife slept with him to get his job back. A train conductor (Glenn Ford) lies to the police about seeing Grahame near the murder victim’s train compartment but he begins an adulterous affair with Grahame. This Fritz Lang remake of Jean Renoir’s LE BETE HUMAINE (1938) is unfortunately sanitized to the point of practically making the hero (Ford) a eunuch. He’s supremely uninteresting and all our sympathy, however perverse, goes to the poor, unraveling sap played by Crawford and his wife who has continually been abused and used by men. When Ford makes his holier than thou speech, I just wanted to smack him. Still, there are many pluses in the film including Gloria Grahame in what might be the quintessential Gloria Grahame role, even better than Simone Simon in Renoir’s original. 1950s American morality wins out over French pessimism. With Edgar Buchanan and Peggy Maley.

Another Thin Man (1939)

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles had the most fantastic chemistry, not even Tracy and Hepburn could touch them, especially in the THIN MAN franchise. This was the third entry in the series and it’s quite fun though the plot seems more convoluted than need be (though the murderer is fairly easy to figure out). While the Charles are guests for the weekend at a country estate, their cranky, grumpy unpleasant host (C. Aubrey Smith) is found brutally murdered and there are a plethora of suspects. The film’s casual attitude toward murder may be somewhat unsettling at times (there’s a moment when Powell suspects someone is in danger but he doesn’t do anything to stop it), the witty banter and elegant camaraderie between Powell and Loy (and that scene stealing Asta) goes a long way in overlooking the film’s flaws. With Virginia Grey, Otto Kruger, Patric Knowles, Ruth Hussey, Marjorie Main, Sheldon Leonard, Harry Bellaver and Nat Pendleton.

Chloe (2010)

Directed by Atom Egoyan (THE SWEET HEREAFTER), CHLOE is an incisive look at jealousy and obsession and how it haphazardly turns a family’s routine life into a nightmare. A wife (Julianne Moore) suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) of infidelity and hires a call girl (Amanda Seyfried MAMMA MIA) to attempt to seduce him. But it quickly turns into a darkly erotic labyrinth of deceit, manipulation, erotic fantasies and danger. I was afraid the film was going the FATAL ATTRACTION route but thankfully Egoyan spare us that. Neeson has precious little to do here, the film belongs to Moore and Seyfried (very good). Well written, intelligent and a sensational score by Mychael Danna (ICE STORM).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two Of A Kind (1951)

Directed by Henry Levin (WHERE THE BOYS ARE), this is a rather innocuous example of so called noir. A crooked lawyer (Alexander Knox) and his mistress (Lizabeth Scott) pick up a small time hustler (Edmond O’Brien) and cook up a plan to pass O’Brien off as the long lost heir to a ten million dollar fortune. The screenplay is sketchy and without enough detail to fill in the gaps, it’s a hard film to swallow. This is one case where the brief running time of 75 minutes is not an asset. Scott doesn’t have much to do but pout (and considering her limited acting ability, it’s just as well), O’Brien is fine and perky Terry Moore as the screwball niece of the millionaire (Griff Barnett) with a penchant for reforming criminals is charming.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Arch Of Triumph (1948)

Ambitious romance based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque and directed by Lewis Milestone who won an Oscar for directing Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930). Set in Paris in 1938, the specter of the impending WWII hovers over this liaison between a German refugee (Charles Boyer) without papers in constant fear of deportation and a strange, obsessive girl (Ingrid Bergman) he meets in the rain one night. He’s closed off with only vengeance on his mind toward a high ranking Nazi (Charles Laughton) but she slowly melts his objections away. Bergman is really wonderful here playing a complex often infuriating and manipulating character. The film runs over two hours and it seems excessively long for its subject though it appears there may have been even more left on the cutting room floor. A major name like Laughton doesn’t come to the foreground until the film’s last 45 minutes and Ruth Warrick (CITIZEN KANE) receives fifth billing but has about two lines indicating her character was the victim of severe cutting. With Louis Calhern (very good as a Russian refugee) and Stephan Bekassy as a playboy who tries to steal Bergman away.

Crime And Punishment U.S.A. (1959)

The idea of taking Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and transferring it from 1860s St. Petersburg to 1950s L.A. might seem whacked at first but despite some failings in the execution, it works a lot better than you might suspect. A young law student (George Hamilton in his film debut) brutally murders an old woman. He feels as a superior being, he is beyond the law but then begins a cat and mouse game between the police lieutenant (the wonderful Frank Silvera) who suspects him and Hamilton in living up to his “superman” ideals vs. his conscience. The young Hamilton was still a promising actor here and hadn’t yet turned into the butt of so many jokes. Though he doesn’t quite have the weight to carry the part, he was good enough to get nominated for a BAFTA award. Directed by two time Oscar winning Denis Sanders and shot on the streets of Venice, California; the film has an urgency to it that propels the film quite nicely. Co-starring Mary Murphy (in her best role since THE WILD ONE) as a prostitute, Marian Seldes as Hamilton’s sister and in the film’s one bad performance, John Harding as a murderous letch. An effective jazz score by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

A gorgeous three strip Technicolor plotless extravaganza utilizing several directors including Vincente Minnelli, George Sidney and Charles Walters in an attempt to recreate a contemporary version of the Ziegfeld Follies by way of song and dance and comedy routines as supervised by Ziegfeld himself (William Powell) in Heaven. In a piecemeal variety anthology like this, the results are bound to be hit and miss. Fortunately, they’re mostly hit. Among the highlights: the excitement of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dancing together for the first time in The Babbitt And The Bromide, the stunning Limehouse Blues production number danced by Astaire and Lucille Bremer, the sultry Love as sung by Lena Horne, the comedic and witty Madame Crematon performed by Judy Garland and a chance to see the legendary Fanny Brice strut her comedy chops. Among the clunkers: James Melton and Marion Bell in a dull duet from La Traviata and a ear piercing shrieking Kathryn Grayson singing amongst the soap suds. With Lucille Ball, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams, Victor Moore, Red Skelton, Keenan Wynn, Hume Cronyn, Virginia O’Brien, Edward Arnold and William Frawley.

Gumshoe (1971)

Tedious attempt at either a parody of or homage to the film noir detective (Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer etc.) flounders around looking for an idea. A stand up comic and amateur detective (Albert Finney) in Liverpool puts an ad in the paper hiring himself out as a private investigator. He gets a response from a mysterious “fat man” who gives him money, a gun and a photo of a girl he wants found. From there it bounces around incoherently till, finally, exhausted of ideas limps to a conclusion. The film, directed by Stephen Frears (THE GRIFTERS), shows no real affection for the genre much less any wit. It’s too self conscious and lacks the sense of fun of Neil Simon’s THE CHEAP DETECTIVE or Carl Reiner’s DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID, both of which seemed to understand the genre much better than Neville Smith’s screenplay. The grimy cinematography by Oscar winner Chris Menges (THE MISSION) and deliberately intense score by Andrew Lloyd Webber seem on the right track though. With the wonderful Billie Whitelaw, Janice Rule, Frank Finlay and Carolyn Seymour.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Lisa Cholodenko (HIGH ART) directs this captivating film on a most unusual family dynamic and I suspect it may be her breakthrough film (it was an audience favorite at this year‘s Sundance festival). The two children (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore) seek out their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) out of curiosity and what follows affects all five of them in ways they never expected. Outside of a few cheap laughs that are beneath it, Cholodenko’s film is both funny and insightful, touching and heartbreaking without pandering itself to the audience. The characters are refreshingly two dimensional and, considering the subject matter, not stereotypes. The acting is first rate and Wasikowska who was a zero as Alice in Burton’s recent ALICE IN WONDERLAND displays a presence and charm she lacked as Alice. With this year's MOTHER AND CHILD and now this, Bening is having a great year. Highly recommended.

Kismet (1944)

A lavish and opulent three strip Technicolor MGM Arabian nights fantasy is such a piece of prime eye candy and a buoyant entertainment that would be churlish to voice annoyances with its hokey plot. Ronald Colman is the King Of Beggars who begs for alms during the day but at night masquerades as a visiting Prince from a far off empire while wooing the Grand Vizier’s (Edward Arnold) queen (Marlene Dietrich) while he keeps his daughter (Joy Page, CASABLANCA) hidden behind walls until Prince Charming comes along. Dietrich is as frozen faced as ever but so exotic that she’s the only one in the cast who seems to belong in old Bagdad! It was a mistake to give her a dance number however as she’s a far from graceful dancer. James Craig is the Caliph masquerading as a gardener’s son. With the marvelous Florence Bates as Page’s dour chaperone. The music is by Herbert Stothart whose colorful score was justifiably Oscar nominated along with Charles Rosher’s velvety cinematography.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

You'll Never Get Rich (1941)

Lightweight fluff but with a Cole Porter score and some dazzling dancing by Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. A series of mix-ups propagated by a philandering husband (Robert Benchley) attempting to hide his escapades from his wife (Frieda Inescort) cause the tenuous romantic relationship of choreographer Astaire and dancer Hayworth to falter. As storylines go, it’s inoffensive though it lacks the wit of Astaire’s musicals with Ginger Rogers at RKO or his sophisticated work at MGM. But it’s a musical and here it delivers with a solid Porter score with gems like Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye and So Near And Yet So Far and some terrific dance numbers choreographed by Robert Alton that reveal Hayworth to be one of Astaire’s best dance partners. With Ann Shoemaker, Osa Massen, John Hubbard, Donald MacBride and Martha Tilton.

The Purchase Price (1932)

Early William Wellman directed pre-code vehicle is a showcase for the young Barbara Stanwyck as a jaded nightclub singer who’s tired of the New York wild life and responds to an ad from a farmer in the wilds of Northwest Canada for a mail order bride. This unlikely scenario strains credibility but Stanwyck’s likable performance goes a long way in suspending disbelief. George Brent, normally the sophisticated leading man opposite Bette Davis, is surprisingly good as the awkward, unsophisticated backwoods yokel who sent away for the mail order bride. The contrast between their personalities and uncomfortableness of their relationship comprises the bulk of the film. Lyle Talbot as Stanwyck’s racketeer lover and Hardie Albright as the society playboy who jilts her co-star.

X-15 (1961)

Directed by Richard Donner (THE OMEN), X-15 is an interesting mixture of space program propaganda circa early 60s with a dash of domestic soap opera tossed in for good measure. It’s the kind of film Philip Kaufman brought to epic proportions in THE RIGHT STUFF but here, an engrossing little programmer. Three air force pilots (Charles Bronson, Ralph Taeger, David McLean) do test runs on the X-15 rocket planes in anticipation for the first outer space flights. The film documents both the technical problems and malfunctions the space program had to deal with as well as the pressure and stress on both the pilots and their wives and girlfriends (Mary Tyler Moore, Patricia Owens, Lisabeth Hush). With James Gregory, Kenneth Tobey, Brad Dexter and narration by James Stewart.

City Of Your Final Destination (2008)

James Ivory’s first film since his partner Ismail Merchant’s death was made almost three years ago and has been making the film festival rounds and only now getting an official release in the USA. A middle eastern doctoral student (Omar Metwally, RENDITION) in a Midwest college, when denied official permission to write a biography of a famed deceased writer from his heirs, flies down to Uruguay to change their minds. Once there, he is seduced by the unconventional lifestyle on their private estate. His widow (Laura Linney) and mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are against the book but his gay brother (Anthony Hopkins) is for it. Metwally isn’t much of an actor or a screen presence which I suppose makes him a good choice for the cipher that his character is. But Linney is marvelously unlikable as the steely widow and Gainsbourg disarming as the mistress and Hopkins relationship with his younger lover (Hiroyuki Sanada, LOST) is quite poignant. The film runs too long and could have easily done without the unnecessary “4 months later” coda addition but the very final scenes between Linney and Alexandra Maria Lara as Metwally’s ex-girlfriend are a perfect ending. With Norma Aleandro (OFFICIAL STORY) as a sort of Uruguayan Auntie Mame.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Brothers Rico (1957)

In THE GODFATHER PART III, Michael Corleone cries out, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”. That outcry resonates in Phil Karlson’s wonderful and dark Mafia tale. Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) has long since left his mob connections, he’s now a respectable and legitimate businessman and happily married. But when the mob kingpin, his “uncle” (Larry Gates) calls him and asks him to find the youngest Rico brother (James Darren), who was involved in a mafia hit and who he fears may sing to the Feds and get him out of the country, he listens. But ever so slowly he realizes how he’s been duped by the very man he trusted like a father as his safe haven crumbles around him. It’s the mafia as a business and a family long before THE GODFATHER or THE SOPRANOS and all shot in the bright Florida and California sunshine, not the dark, wet night streets. It’s just such an absorbing and tragic tale that one can forgive the film’s last mawkish 2 minutes which doesn’t seem part of what preceded it. The acting is excellent even James Darren (GIDGET) and Kathryn Grant (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) shine. With Dianne Foster, Argentina Brunetti, Paul Picerni, Harry Bellaver and Rudy Bond and a superlative score by George Duning.

Une Femme Mariee (1964)

Like a lot of Jean Luc Godard, UNE FEMME MARIEE is both fascinating and irritating, very often in the same frame. What are we to make of Godard’s heroine (beautifully embodied by Macha Meril)? She doesn’t seem very bright but she’s constantly asking questions, probing. She seems more concerned with how others react to or perceive her yet she seems somehow more in touch with herself than the more intellectual men, husband Philippe Leroy and lover Bernard Noel, in her life. Godard photographs his actors in fragments of body parts: hands, arms, neck, stomach, backs and in Meril’s case, legs (and who can blame him?) but since Meril is often naked (which the men aren’t), if I didn’t know Godard better I would swear he was objectifying her. What’s it all about? Like Godard’s heroine, I haven’t a clue but it’s a compelling watch.

Murder At The Vanities (1934)

Two for the price of one! A splashy backstage musical and a whodunit in the same movie. It’s opening night of the new “Earl Carroll’s Vanities” on Broadway. The stars of the show (Kitty Carlisle, Carl Brisson) are getting married after the opening but not if Brisson’s bitchy ex partner (Gertrude Michael) has her way. First one murder, then another. The police in the form of Victor McLaglen are called in while manager Jack Oakie juggles keeping the show going while McLaglen investigates. This is the pre-code in which Gertrude Michael sings the infamous Sweet Marijuana. The rest of the musical numbers are pretty mediocre lot save Duke Ellington’s Ebony Fantasy though as a musical I suppose it’s no more wretched than those awful Busby Berkeley musicals. Michael plays the wicked Rita Ross to perfection and there’s a nice performance by Dorothy Stickney as Michael’s abused maid.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Moontide (1942)

Moody atmospheric noir with a screenplay by John O’Hara and one of the rare Hollywood films of Jean Gabin can’t help but be reminiscent 30s French cinema. Not just Gabin’s presence which brings up images of PORT OF SHADOWS (there’s even a stray dog who accompanies Gabin) and PEPE LE MOKO but since almost the entire film takes place on the waterfront and on a barge, L'ATALANTE also comes to mind. An aimless drifter (Gabin) with a violent temper and an emotionally lost wharf waif (Ida Lupino), both “damaged” people, find each other and attempt to make a life together despite the malevolent intentions of a rat (Thomas Mitchell) who may have sexual designs on Gabin (there’s a bizarre sequence of Mitchell whipping a naked Claude Rains with a towel!) trying to break them up. Gabin and Lupino play off each other wonderfully and the exquisite B&W shadowy cinematography is by Charles Clarke who received an Oscar nomination for his work here. Directed by Archie Mayo. With Robin Raymond and Jerome Cowan.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dr. No (1962)

The debut of Ian Fleming’s James Bond on film and who would have guessed this modest spy caper would spawn a global franchise. British agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to the Caribbean to find out what happened to their man in Jamaica. What he uncovers is a diabolical plot by the villainous Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) for nothing less than world domination. The most remarkable thing about the film is how lean and economical it is with far less padding and bloat than many of the later Bonds, a perfect exercise in simplicity. Director Terence Young keeps the narrative straight forward and places Bond front and center and he’s a cool one. After a brutal killing, the first of the Bond girls (the stunning Ursula Andress) asks, “Why?” to which he coolly and without remorse replies, “Because it was necessary”. Connery, of course, makes the role his own forever more from his first “Bond, James Bond” entrance. With Jack Lord, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Anthony Dawson, Zena Marshall and Eunice Gayson.

The Lives Of Others (aka Das Leben Der Anderen) (2006)

Winner of the 2007 best foreign language film Oscar, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is an absorbing, slick and glossy well crafted Hollywood like commercial film that is slightly overpraised. This, I suspect , is because it’s a German film. Had this been made in English, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger, I suspect the film’s cheerleaders would be dismissing it as a typically slick piece of mainstream Hollywood cinema for the multiplexes. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed it (some bad acting from Sebastian Koch aside) though some judicious pruning shears would have been welcome. In 1984 pre-glasnost East Berlin, a Stasi (secret police) investigator (Ulrich Muhe, excellent) and loyal and strict Socialist party member wiretaps the apartment of a playwright (Koch) and his actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck), allegedly for suspected subversive activities but really because a high ranking official is after the girl. Slowly, as he becomes involved in their lives, he is humanized from the cold party member to a caring individual with disastrous results for him.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Backfire (1950)

Intriguing semi-noir directed by veteran Vincent Sherman (MR. SKEFFINGTON). An injured war veteran (Gordon MacRae) is slowly recovering from his injuries at a V.A. hospital. His best friend (Edmond O’Brien) and his pretty nurse (Virginia Mayo) giving him the encouragement he needs. Suddenly, O’Brien disappears without an explanation and when MacRae is released from the hospital, the police pick him up for questioning. It appears the missing O’Brien is a murder suspect. MacRae takes it upon himself to track O’Brien down as the story takes all kinds of twists and turns until the final twist (which I spotted about 10 minutes before it happened). It’s no great shakes and MacRae, in a rare non-singing role, makes for a bland noir hero and Mayo, here the good girl, is always more interesting as the bad girl. But the economic and tight screenplay is solid enough to keep you glued and there are good performances by Viveca Lindfors, Dane Clark, Ed Begley and Sheila Stephens (who would later marry MacRae and retire from acting).

Hurt Locker (2009)

Anyway you look at it, Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER is a near staggering piece of film making. That Bigelow exudes talent is no secret to anyone who has seen NEAR DARK or STRANGE DAYS but with HURT LOCKER, she’s achieved a consummate piece of cinema. Set in the last 38 days of rotation duty of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, the film concentrates on a staff sergeant (Jeremy Renner in a sensational performance) who is a wild card and gets off on the thrill of toying with death. Bigelow doesn’t take a stance on the war in Iraq but instead focuses on the troops who have to deal with the death and destruction on a day to day basis. Often brutal to watch but never less than intense and realistic. Bigelow's gender busting Oscar win as best director was entirely justified. With Ralph Fiennes and Anthony Mackie.

Nightfall (1957)

Based on a story by David Goodis (whose DOWN THERE was filmed as SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER by Truffaut), this nifty noir-ish thriller courtesy of Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST) doesn’t quite deliver what it so promisingly starts. An artist (the underrated Aldo Ray) on the run from both the law and a couple of murderous thugs (Brian Keith, Rudy Bond) seems to have found a haven in Los Angeles but he’s unaware that he’s being watched by an insurance investigator (James Gregory). Eventually, the thugs find him and he must make a stand. The film is hampered by a series of awkward flashbacks which give us background on why Ray is on the run and why the thugs are after him and Gregory is watching him. But really, all that exposition could have taken about five minutes of dialogue and freed the film from stopping dead in its tracks. Tourneur gives the film some nice touches (when Ray and Anne Bancroft are running away from the thugs, she’s wearing a tight evening gown and high heels which slows her down and Ray just swoops her up and continues running) but one can’t help wishing it weren’t so conventional. With Jocelyn Brando and a solid score by George Duning who, thankfully, didn’t have anything to do with the film’s dreadful title song.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Private Life Of Don Juan (1934)

A rather static comedy, directed by Alexander Korda, which is too bad considering the premise is very enticing. An aging and in poor health Don Juan (Douglas Fairbanks in his swan song) longs for anonymity and rest. When a young lothario impersonating Don Juan is killed in a duel, he uses it to his advantage to gain the solace he’s seeking, even attending “his“ own funeral. But in death, the legend of Don Juan grows even bigger than before and he finds that he dislikes being a nobody. A couple of scenes crackle and hint at what might have been with a wittier script, like Fairbanks encounter with a barmaid (Binnie Barnes) but the film is surprisingly inert. But Oliver Messel’s costumes are quite handsome and Vincent Korda’s soundstage Seville is stylish and there’s a lively score by Ernest Toch. With Merle Oberon, Melville Cooper, Benita Hume and Abraham Sofaer.

Where The Boys Are (1960)

Too often unfairly dismissed as the first of the beach party sex and surf films, WHERE THE BOYS ARE is an intelligent and often incisive look at the budding sexual mores of college age kids and frankly discusses pre-marital sexual activity among young adults as a very real event, something Hollywood until that time rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Based on the Glendon Swarthout novel, four college co-eds (Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss, Connie Francis) go to Fort Lauderdale on spring break where each girl must handle romantic and sexual entanglements in her own way from comic (Francis) to tragic (Mimieux). Directed by Henry Levin and with George Hamilton, Jim Hutton, Barbara Nichols, Frank Gorshin, Chill Wills and Maggie Pierce.

Love Is Better Than Ever (1952)

The same year as he co-directed the classic SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, Stanley Donen directed this mindless romantic comedy about a small town dance teacher (Elizabeth Taylor) who goes to New York and falls in love a Broadway agent and man about town (Larry Parks THE JOLSON STORY). It’s “love” for her but just another fling to him. The idea of the most beautiful girl in the world pining away for the homely Parks stretches the limits of disbelief but if they at least had some chemistry, it would go down easier. There’s no charm to the story but plenty of attention paid to the “adorable” moppets that are Taylor’s dance students. We’re supposed to coo over them as they dance out of step and stare at the camera. Tom Tully, Josephine Hutchinson and Elinor Donohue co-star and even Gene Kelly shows up.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love Ranch (2010)

Every time I see “inspired by a true story” at the beginning of a film, I cringe. It usually means that there’s very little actual fact in the film and the movie is going to suck. With the single exception of DOLORES CLAIBORNE which is a terrific film, I’ve found director Taylor Hackford’s work to be routine to downright abysmal. LOVE RANCH is a botched job. “Inspired” by the true story of legalized brothels in Nevada, there’s a great movie subject in here but this isn’t it. What the film is is a crappy May-December romance between a sleazy Argentinean boxer (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, repulsive looking and a dreadful actor) and an older married madam (Helen Mirren) who runs the brothel with her sleazy husband (Joe Pesci). Hackford gets the sordid milieu correct, the only thing about the film that seems authentic. With a wasted cast including Gina Gershon, Bai Ling, Harve Presnell and Bryan Cranston. Well, after this, Mirren can no longer call CALIGULA the nadir of her career.

The V.I.P.S (1963)

A glamorous ensemble piece about a disparate group of V.I.P.s in a London airport whose lives are jeopardized by a fog which grounds all the planes thus preventing them from reaching their destination. For a variety of reasons, time is of the essence for each of them. The wife (Elizabeth Taylor) of a billionaire (Richard Burton) is running off with her lover (Louis Jourdan, a tycoon (Rod Taylor) may lose his company if he doesn’t reach New York in time, a film director (Orson Welles) must be out of the country by midnight otherwise he’s subject to a million dollars in British taxes, a Duchess (Margaret Rutherford in an Oscar winning performance) must get to Florida for a job that will enable her to keep her ancestral home. It’s quite enjoyable in its glossy “Oh, how the rich do suffer” movie way though as drama its insubstantial. Directed by Anthony Asquith (THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE) and co-starring Maggie Smith, Elsa Martinelli, Linda Christian, Michael Hordern and Dennis Price with a gorgeous Miklos Rozsa score.