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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Walk On The Wild Side (1962)

Barely recognizable from its source material, the Nelson Algren novel, WALK ON THE WILD SIDE is often unfairly maligned which is unfortunate because it's an often powerful, if erratic, film. While almost all the sexuality has been omitted that was plentiful in Algren's novel, the Edward Dmytryk directed film doesn't shy away from its brothel setting nor the lesbian relationship between its madam (Barbara Stanwyck) and its star prostitute (Capucine). The film is severely damaged by Laurence Harvey in the male lead. It's not only that he's terrible in the film but he's way too old. His character should be around 19 or 20 at the most (when Harvey says, "I know a lot for my age", why shouldn't he? He looks to be around 35). Anne Baxter as the Mexican proprietor of a cafe is also miscast but Jane Fonda in only her second film role is very good as a young hustler. Stanwyck brings a steely dignity as the madam and even Capucine (like Harvey, too mature for her character) brings an appropriate self loathing as the sculptress turned whore. The main title credit sequence designed by Saul Bass featuring a small black alley cat roaming the streets until he meets up with a white cat and they go at it tooth and claw is justifiably famous. With a strong Elmer Bernstein score. With Joanna Moore, Juanita Moore and Karl Swenson.

Frisco Jenny (1932)

Ruth Chatterton had a great success with the 1929 film version of MADAME X including a best actress Oscar nomination as a mother forcibly parted with her infant son, falling into a life of disrepute and eventually put on trial as a murderess defended by her adult son who doesn't know it's his mother he's defending. This William Wellman directed vehicle (pre-code so it's allowed to be racier than usual) follows the same path except the adult son is prosecuting her, not defending her. They even toss in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to add some thrills to the mother melodrama. The quake is actually quite well done, the equal of the more famous earthquake sequence in W.S. Van Dyke's SAN FRANCISCO which came four years later. As for the film itself, Chatterton is fine though too mature for the early portions of the film when she's supposed to be a young girl. The film is entertaining though its mother love sentiment borders on treacle and as good as she is, Chatterton just isn't good enough to overcome that. With Louis Calhern, Donald Cook and Helen Jerome Eddy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Platonov (1971)

One of Anton Chekhov's earliest works and not published in his lifetime, PLATONOV is a rather grim comedy but intentionally so. A schoolmaster (Rex Harrison), despite having a faithful adoring wife, is also a scoundrel and a debauched roue whom women cannot resist. They positively throw themselves at him and he's too weak to resist. Alas, in the farcical last act, comedy and tragedy slam into each other. This production too often seems too low keyed as if they were playing a tragedy instead of a comedy. Fortunately, Harrison is at the center of things and the wonderful Sian Phillips, playing an impoverished aristocrat, tosses off her deadpan quips with just the right amount of bite. With Clive Revill, Georffrey Bayldon and Joanna Dunham.

Union Station (1950)

Solid suspenser directed by Rudolph Mate (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE) is a gritty, unsentimental thriller. It starts off simply enough. A secretary (Nancy Olson) on a train notices a man concealing a gun under his jacket and she reports him to the conductor. From there, it blooms into a race against time $100,000 kidnapping to find the victim whose kidnapper plans to kill her after he collects his ransom. Mate eschews any romantic subplots or other padding and the film wraps it all up in a tight 81 minutes. Curiously, whether intentional or not, the film portrays its blind kidnap victim as annoying, hysterical and shrill and even her kidnapper snaps, "$100,000 for that?". William Holden is the cop assigned to the case. Daniel L. Fapp's B&W lensing gives it a noir-ish feel especially in the final shoot out in an underground tunnel. With Barry Fitzgerald, Jan Sterling, Lyle Bettger, Allene Roberts, Edith Evanson, Kasey Rogers and Herbert Heyes.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ponyo (aka Gake No Ue No Ponyo) (2008)

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's THE LITTLE MERMAID, this latest offering from anime master Hayao Miyazaki is perhaps less sophisticated (though not in its imaginative visuals) and more child friendly than his previous efforts but I enjoyed it immensely. A small boy finds a goldfish with a human face who through magic or perhaps sheer will power becomes a litle 5 year old girl out of her love for the boy. However, her turning into a human throws the balance of nature out of whack as a massive tsunami puts most of the earth underwater and the moon approaching closer to the earth. I'm not sure the kiddies will get the ecological thematic aspects of the story which isn't forced but the simplicity of the tale makes it family friendly though I had reservations about the portrayal of the boy's mother who seemed reckless, taking unnecessary risks that put her child in danger. The English language (supervised by E.T. author Melissa Mathison) voice cast is impressive: Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Tina Fey and Cloris Leachman. And while some of the voice work is wonderfully done (especially Tomlin, White and Leachman as a trio of seniors in an old folks home), the Japanese language track is the way to go. The lovely score by Joe Hisaishi is one of his very best.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Going The Distance (2010)

Lame romantic comedy about a long distance relationship, Drew Barrymore in San Francisco and Justin Long in New York, sputters and limps its way to its predictable conclusion. It's the kind of film where Long and his buddies (Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day) call each other "dude" and make juvenile masturbation jokes and when Barrymore, in all seriousness, declares SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION her all time favorite film I sank in my seat expecting the worst and I wasn't disappointed. The trite dialogue never musters above the routine. It's a shame because Barrymore (looking great) and Long have a wonderful knack for comedy but here their combined expertise can't help rescue a floundering screenplay. Whatever laughts the movie can muster up are courtesy of Christina Applegate as Barrymore's sister though how she manages it is anybody's guess. When you see what magic can still be done in the genre like last year's marvelous (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, this just looks anemic.

Middle Of The Night (1959)

Based on the television play by Paddy Chayefsky (with Eva Marie Saint and E.G. Marshall) which he turned into a stage play (with Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands), Chayefsky also adapted the screenplay directed by Delbert Mann who won an Oscar for directing Chayefsky's MARTY. A May-December romance between a 56 year old Jewish garment manufacturer (Fredric March) who falls in love with his 24 year old secretary (Kim Novak). Chayefsky's script is very good and he gets the flux of such a relationship plagued with potential problems. Modestly shot in B&W on location in New York, Mann gives the film a natural ambience that would be lost if given the usual Hollywood gloss. Unfortunately, the film is damaged by the two central performances of March and Novak. Novak simply tries too hard, granted her character is neurotic and there's an intenseness about her but Novak looks ready to jump out of her skin when she should pull back. Still, there's a naturalness in Novak that's lacking in March's calculated performance and he doesn't come across as Jewish at all while the actors playing his family and co-workers indicate it successfully without overdoing it. The rest of the cast are very good including Lee Grant, Martin Balsam, Albert Dekker, Glenda Farrell, Lee Philips, Rudy Bond and in the film's best performance, Joan Copeland as March's daughter with her repressed Oedipal complex.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Venus In Furs (1970)

Softcore Euro-trash courtesy of schlockmeister Jesus Franco is all done up in artsy colored filters, dreamy soft focus and trippy editing but no amount of ominous portent can disguise the unfocused illogical intent of the film. A musician (James Darren) discovers the mutilated nude body of a murdered girl (Maria Rohm) on an Istanbul beach. A few years later in Rio De Janeiro, an exact replica (also rohm) of the murdered girl walks into the nightclub where he's playing and he becomes obsessed with her. But when those responsible for the murder victim's death start dropping like flies, it begs the question ... is she real or a ghost bent on revenge? Well, eventually we get the answer but it doesn't make any narrative sense! The dialogue walks a fine tightrope between groans and unintentional smirking. Rohm is beautiful but nothing suggests that she could be the object of an obsession. In fact, Barbara McNair as Darren's chanteuse girlfriend is far more interesting than Rohm's cipher gliding nude under her furs. Manfred Mann did the pop score. With Klaus Kinski, Dennis Price and Margaret Lee.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

She Wouldn't Say Yes (1945)

This tepid attempt at screwball comedy has a vexing undercurrent of sexism that prevents any enjoyment of the lightweight plot. A psychiatrist (Rosalind Russell) has a chance meeting with a cartoonist (Lee Bowman) and it's love at first sight on his part and he pursues her to the point of stalking. The film treats Russell's character, an intelligent strong woman in full control of her life as some kind of uptight freak precisely because she's in full control of her life and happily without a male companion. The film insists on humiliating her until she caves in to the joys of married bliss. We're supposed to be charmed by Bowman's neanderthal insistence on forcing his attentions on her. Russell gives more than the movie deserves. Directed by Alexander Hall (HERE COMES MR. JORDAN). With Adele Jergens (very funny as a Carmen Miranda vamp), Darren McGavin, Percy Kilbride, Harry Davenport and Sara Haden.

Dark City (1950)

A solid, well done thriller with noir touches. After a group of crooked gamblers (Charlton Heston, Jack Webb, Ed Begley) con a family man (Don DeFore) out of $5,000, that wasn't his to begin with, in a poker game, he commits suicide. When one of the gamblers turns up murdered, it's clear that someone is out to get revenge on the men. Veteran film director William Dieterle keeps everything driving forward at a taut pace and always keep the audience tightly in his grip. This was Heston's first big break in the movies and he already seems to have a strong sense of his physical personage so it's interesting to see him evolve from a conscienceless punk into a frightened man desperately trying to stay one step ahead of his killer. Lizabeth Scott, never much of an actress in the best of circumstances, is dull as the nice girl carrying a torch for Heston. She was always more interesting when playing bad girls. With Viveca Lindfors in fine form as the suicide's widow, Dean Jagger as the police captain attempting to catch the avenging killer, Harry Morgan and Mike Mazurki.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Das Blaue Licht (aka The Blue Light) (1932)

This mythical tale set in the Swiss Italian alps (and shot entirely on location) was written and directed by the notorious Leni Riefenstahl (TRIUMPH OF THE WILL) who also plays the leading role. A strange, mystical mountain girl (Riefenstahl) is thought to be a witch by the people of her village. She has the ability to climb a treacherous mountain from which a mysterious blue light emanates every full moon that defeats the young men of the village who feel compelled to climb the mountain but inevitably fall to their deaths. A German tourist (Mathias Wieman) arrives and his effect on the girl and the mystery of the blue light brings dire consequences. It's not so much the film's narrative that is fascinating but Riefenstahl's incredible compositions, fluid camera work and editing which was far more advanced than what was being done in American sound cinema at that time and all of which imparts a sense of pastoral serenity and bucolic enchantment covering up a conspiracy of rancor. Reputedly one of Hitler's favorite films.

The Naked Maja (1959)

Henry Koster (THE ROBE) directs this overblown romance based on an alleged romance between the famous Spanish painter Francisco de Goya (Anthony Franciosa) and the 13th Duchess Of Alba (Ava Gardner). Historically, there is no evidence that Goya and the Duchess were ever lovers nor that she was the model of one of his most famous paintings La Maja Desnuda which caused quite a scandal in 18th century Spain. But the film supposes that they were lovers and throws in Goya as a victim of the Spanish Inquisition for added drama. The overwrought Franciosa plays Goya as a petulant ill tempered brat, surely the most misconceived portrait of the artist as a backward child until Tom Hulce in AMADEUS. Thankfully there is Gardner at the height of her beauty and breathtaking in her Maria Baroni period costumes. The film's highlight is a sensual dance in a tavern between Gardner and Franciosa. The superb score is by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino. With Massimo Serato and Lea Padovani.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Beloved Infidel (1959)

A glossy, romanticized view of the romance between author F. Scott Fitzgerald (Gregory Peck) and the Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (Deborah Kerr) in 1930s Hollywood that fudges on the facts in order to bring us something more along the lines of LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING. There's even a lush theme song. Directed by Henry King and based on a true story but it rings false on almost every level. Peck and Kerr do well enough (and Kerr sometimes more than that) but Peck's drunk scenes are uneven, often opting for the cliche of a movie drunk rather than the reality of it. Peck and Kerr do have one great scene where he's physically abusive and threatening her with a gun. The film could have used more scenes with that kind of dramatic intensity. Outside of Kerr and Peck, there aren't any performances to speak of and both Eddie Albert (playing Robert Benchley) and John Sutton (reduced to a walk on) seem to have been victims of the cutting room floor. The plush score is by Franz Waxman. With Karin Booth.

The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Positively dreadful! The makers of this remake of the 1972 disaster classic seem clueless as to what made the original film a hit. Their attempt to make the film more "relevant" by replacing the tidal wave with an explosion caused by terrorist bombs is pathetic. And at three hours, they've added an extra hour for more trite dialogue, dull characters and tiresome exposition at the command headquarters where the rescue operations are overseen. None of the poor actors have as strong a presence as the original cast and their characters are rewritten for the worse. We get huge blocks of tedious domestic drama and the film upholds family values by killing off a married man's mistress at the last moment to punish her for breaking up a family thus paving the way for the family to reunite. Two of the actors manage not to embarrass themselves. Adam Baldwin as Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine in the 1972 film), here not a cop but a homeland security agent and Sylvia Syms as Belle Rosen (the Shelley Winters part) who plays it more subtly than Winters did. As for the others, let them hang their heads in shame: Rutger Hauer, Bryan Brown, Peter Weller, Alex Kingston, C. Thomas Howell and the worst offender, Steve Guttenberg.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Le Mouton Enrage (aka Love At The Top) (1974)

A dark comedy or satire if you prefer to look at it that way but either way, this Michel Deville directed film is a nasty piece of goods and not very amusing either. A timid bank clerk (Jean Louis Trintignant) quits his job and under the guidance of a bitter, vengeful mentor (Jean Pierre Cassel) begins climbing his way to the top by seducing women, behind the scenes political chicanery and media control which leads to murder and suicide. Oh, did I say this was a comedy? Trintignant isn't a charming or charismatic enough personality to convince us that he could bend people to his will. Perhaps if he and Cassel had switched parts, it might have been more convincing. It's hard to laugh when people are being subjected to manipulation and cruelty and innocents are killed. The three women in the film deserve better than the film's misogynstic undercurrent. Romy Schneider (looking gorgeous) as Trintignant's married mistress, Jane Birkin (DEATH ON THE NILE) as a street prostitute and Florinda Bolkan as an amusingly hard hearted bitch all brighten up the film.

Eat Pray Love (2010)

After a painful divorce, a writer (Julia Roberts) finds herself unfulfilled and without passion or purpose so she takes a year off in her life to take a journey of self discovery that takes her to Italy, India and Indonesia. It's the 2000's equivalent of the 1970s AN UNMARRIED WOMAN but without the unsubtle feminist rhetoric and with a flawed heroine instead of a victim. Still, it's a glossy romanticized journey of self discovery with a sensitive, compassionate Javier Bardem at the end of the rainbow for a prize. Fortnately, the film is laced with generous doses of humor to temper the philosophizing. Visually, the film feeds your taste buds with the Italy section, the India section doesn't shy away from the problems of poverty and forced marriages and the Bali section gives one an illusion of paradise that I suspect doesn't really exist. But if movies give us our dreams then the film has done its job. Directed by GLEE's Ryan Murphy. With James Franco, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins and Viola Davis.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Meredith Willson’s Broadway musical about the Titanic’s most famous survivor wasn’t much of a musical to begin with. It’s score is serviceable but nowhere near the accomplishment of his melodic MUSIC MAN triumph. An uneducated hillbilly (Debbie Reynolds) from the mountains of Colorado leaves her home determined to crash into high society and marry a millionaire. It’s a juicy role for any actress and Debbie Reynolds acts it as if her life depended on it. Fortunately, it’s a good match and Reynolds does a splendid job of showing the evolving of the vulgar nouveau riche society crasher into the worldly, disillusioned American expatriate living in Europe. Harve Presnell makes for an enthusiastic Johnny Brown who woos and weds her. Peter Gennaro is responsible for the energetic choreography displayed to full advantage in the Belly Up To The Bar Boys and He's My Friend production numbers. Certainly not one of the great musicals but a personal triumph for Reynolds. With Ed Begley, Jack Kruschen, Martita Hunt, Hermione Baddeley, Harvey Lembeck, Hayden Rorke, Eleanor Audley, Vaughn Taylor and Audrey Christie.

Fog Over Frisco (1934)

This tale of an spoiled and devious heiress (Bette Davis) who gets mixed up with gangsters and a plot to steal securities starts off promisingly enough but alas, Davis is killed off way too early and the movie dies with her. At this point in her career, Warners didn’t know what a firecracker it had in Davis and was putting her in minor programmers like these. William Dieterle (the 1939 HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) directs at a galloping gait and it moves along quickly enough at a quick 68 minute running time but to no avail though the newspaper profession doesn‘t come off very well. Without Davis we’re stuck with the likes of the bland Donald Woods as a newsman and Margaret Lindsay as Davis’ sister. Co-starring Douglass Dumbrille, Lyle Talbot, William Demarest, Hugh Herbert and as a mobster, Irving Pichel who was a director in his own right (MOST DANGEROUS GAME, DESTINATION MOON).

Lovely To Look At (1952)

This glossy Technicolor remake of the Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach & Dorothy Fields musical ROBERTA , directed by Mervyn LeRoy, still retains that wonderful and melodic score but the narrative which was pretty hackneyed in the 1930s seemed doubly so in the 1950s. Three showmen (Howard Keel, Red Skelton, Gower Champion) are having difficulty finding backers for their Broadway show. When Skelton suddenly inherits one half interest in a Paris haute couture fashion house, they fly to Paris to sell his interest and use the money to fund their show. However, they didn’t count on the two sisters (Kathryn Grayson, Marge Champion) who run the business nor the romantic entanglements that ensue. Red Skelton has some painfully unfunny comedy bits, Grayson suffers and trills but Ann Miller has a killer number with I'll Be Hard To Handle and that whirling dervish of a dance couple, Marge and Gower Champion, do some fancy footwork courtesy of Hermes Pan’s choreography. The film’s highlight is a gaudy Technicolor fashion show designed by Adrian and directed by an uncredited Vincente Minnelli. With Zsa Zsa Gabor as a giddy model who can’t speak English and Kurt Kasznar as her wealthy boyfriend and Marcel Dalio.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Wild North (1952)

Solid actioner set in the Canadian wilds (with Idaho doing an excellent job of standing in for Canada) and directed by Andrew Marton. A Northwest Mounted policeman (Wendell Corey) goes into the mountains to bring back a trapper (Stewart Granger) to stand trial for murder. As the two men return to civilization, mother nature and other forces test their stamina as they survive an avalanche, below zero weather, lack of food, wild animal attacks (the night attack by a pack of wild wolves is a highlight) as well as the worst of human nature. A tentative respect and bond occurs between the two men that will prove fateful. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Surtees captures the landscapes beautifully. Granger’s weak French Canadian accent may get on one’s nerves after awhile but other than that, the film goes down smoothly. Co-starring Cyd Charisse as the Indian maiden that Granger falls in love with and a scene stealing kitten.

Zombies On Broadway (1945)

Two publicity men (Wally Brown, Alan Carney) go to the Caribbean in order to procure a real zombie for a nightclub called The Zombie Hut which is the brainchild of a gangster (Sheldon Leonard, who else?) going legit. Corny, hokey “horror” comedy directed by Gordon Douglas (THEM!) is in the vein of films like the far superior GHOST BREAKERS or ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. In fact, Brown and Carney come across as a low rent version of Abbott & Costello. Still, if you’re partial to the genre as I am, it can be kind of fun in a dumb movie way and there are a couple of genuinely laugh out loud moments, one of them provided by Bela Lugosi of all people. Who knew he had comedic timing? With Anne Jeffreys as the singing beauty they bring back with them and Ian Wolfe.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Three Musketeers (1948)

This rousing, splashy Technicolor MGM rendition of the Alexandre Dumas novel has enough adventure and tongue in cheek to have served as a template for the 1974 Richard Lester version which pushed its tongue even further into its cheek. Compacting the lengthy novel into one film (Lester split Dumas’ opus into two films) gives short shrift to the second part of the film. As D’Artagnan, Gene Kelly is too mature for the role of the young swashbuckler but he uses his athleticism and dancer’s grace to great advantage in the fighting scenes. Lana Turner makes for a deliciously evil Lady de Winter and Vincent Price is perfect as wicked Richelieu though he’s not a Cardinal in this version in an attempt to placate the Catholic church. Only June Allyson as Constance seems awkward as if she realizes she’s out of place in period films. George Sidney directed. With Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury, Frank Morgan, Gig Young, Robert Coote, Patricia Medina, John Sutton and Marie Windsor.

Kangaroo (aka The Australian Story) (1952)

Set in the outback country of South Australia, two con men (Peter Lawford, Richard Boone) ingratiate their way into the graces of a rancher (Finlay Currie) in order to use his desolate ranch as a hideout from the law. What they didn’t count on was the rancher’s daughter (Maureen O’Hara) and the great drought which threatens to destroy their livelihood. The first Hollywood film to filmed entirely in Australia must have seemed quite exotic to American audiences back in 1952 what with aborigines and kangaroos gracing the Technicolor screen. As a film, despite being directed by Lewis Milestone (OF MICE AND MEN), it never rises above a solid programmer aided considerably by its unique locations. Boone, in particular, stands out as a black hearted criminal who’d kill without conscience and there’s a marvelous battle of whips between Boone and Lawford. The score (which has a terrific main title theme) is by Sol Kaplan. With Charles Tingwell.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Strangers When We Meet (1960)

This excellent examination of adultery in the suburbs of the 1950s, based on the novel by Evan Hunter, still hasn’t received its due. A married architect (Kirk Douglas) and an unfulfilled housewife (Kim Novak) begin an affair but the ramifications of their infidelity bring consequences that they’re not prepared for. The director, Richard Quine, stays away from the clichés for the most part and when he uses them, he manages to invest them with a reality too often missing from these kinds of films. It’s not unlike Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER but without the romanticism, this one stings. With the exception of John Bryant as Novak’s husband (we‘re never really privy to him though there's a suggestion he may be gay), the major characters are allowed full development. It would have been easy for Quine and company to portray Douglas’s wife (a fine performance by Barbara Rush) as a cold fish or a shrew but she’s a decent, loving wife. The resignation of its protagonists at the end of the film precludes an emotional catharsis but it rings true. Handsomely shot in CinemaScope by Oscar winner Charles Lang. The large cast includes Ernie Kovacs, Walter Matthau (in fine form as a hypocritical lech), Virginia Bruce, Kent Smith, Helen Gallagher, Nancy Kovack, Roberta Shore, Paul Picerni, Betsy Jones Moreland and Sue Ane Langdon.

4:50 From Paddington (1987)

While traveling by train, a woman (Mona Bruce) looks out her window at a passing train and sees a woman being strangled. She reports this to her friend, Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) who formulates a plan to unravel the mystery after the police dismiss the crime as a fantasy. This adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel suffers from changes made to her novel which add nothing to the film but serve to drag the film down with unnecessary filler that have nothing to do with the mystery at hand. A major character is removed, one character’s murder is changed from being poisoned to being shot and the film has one of Christie’s murder victims survive in the film. There’s not enough Miss Marple in the story either but as usual, Hickson embodies the beloved Christie sleuth to perfection. Still, it's a more faithful adaptation than the 1961 film version which was called MURDER SHE SAID. With Maurice Denham and Joanna David.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Latitude Zero (aka Ido Zero Daisakusen) (1969)

Enjoyably cheesy, but with a certain charm, Japanese sci-fi film plays out like a live action Saturday afternoon cartoon. Directed by Ishiro Honda who brought us such creature features as GOJIRA, RODAN and MOTHRA, the film is the resulting handiwork of both Japanese and American interests. The screenplay is by Ted Sherdeman, produced by Don Sharpe but directed by Honda, a score by the great Akira Ifukube and cinematography by Taichi Kankura with a cast consisting of both American and Japanese actors. When an underwater volcano erupts, the inhabitants of a bathysphere (Richard Jaeckel, Akira Takarada, Masumi Okada) are rescued by the residents of a massive underwater city whose leader is Joseph Cotten. The film’s villains are a hammy bug eyed Cesar Romero (who transfers human brains into animals) and an evil Patricia Medina as his paramour. The outrageous costume design by Linda Glazman and Kiichi Ichida goes overboard with the gold lame. Linda Haynes as a nurse has a uniform consisting of a backless gold lame dress with white leather go-go boots and poor Joseph Cotten looks embarrassed in a silk blouse open to his navel with gold chains and a gold lame belt and a green silk scarf around his neck! The film’s “monsters” are clearly people in animal costumes and look more cuddly than scary. The Japanese version is some 15 minutes shorter than the American language cut.

Appointment With Danger (1951)

This uninspired heist film is directed by Lewis Allen (THE UNINVITED) and never creates enough apprehension or trepidation to engage us. A postal inspector (Alan Ladd) is investigating the murder of another postal inspector and his only witness is a nun (the British actress Phyllis Calvert in her only Hollywood film). He decides to infiltrate the gang responsible for the murder in an attempt to gather enough evidence for conviction. As usual, Ladd’s bland acting fails to draw us to his character and Calvert doesn’t have much to do except act saintly. There are two shocking acts of brutality that come out of nowhere or perhaps they seem more shocking than they are because of the flatness of the rest of the film. Not surprisingly, the baddies are a much more colorful group. Paul Stewart is the cool ringleader, Jack Webb the chilling killing machine, Harry Morgan as the doomed henchman and Jan Sterling, very good as Stewart’s moll.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kiki (1926)

Clarence Brown (NATIONAL VELVET) directs this silent comedy with Norma Talmadge, one of the great Stars of the silent era. It’s a real showcase for her comedic talents which were rarely displayed on the screen. It’s unfortunate that the vehicle is rather tiresome. Talmadge plays a Parisian gamin who cons her way into the chorus of a popular Follies show produced by Ronald Colman who she promptly falls in love with. The major problem is that Talmadge’s Kiki is supposed to be a captivating, impish child of the streets and we the audience are supposed to find her antics adorable. What Kiki is, however, is a little deceitful and annoying brat. Destroying other people’s mail, threatening people with scissors, pretending to be ill etc. and we’re supposed to think, “Oh, how cute!”. The one performance I did enjoy was George K. Arthur as Colman’s valet who’s onto Kiki’s tricks. With Gertrude Astor, Marc McDermott and Frankie Darro.

Red Garters (1954)

A charming and affectionate spoof of westerns (and long before BLAZING SADDLES) and, stylistically, one of the most unusual movie musicals ever made. A cowboy in white (Guy Mitchell) rides into town looking for the killer of his brother and immediately falls for a local girl (Pat Crowley). Shot in vibrant three strip Technicolor, Art and Set directors (Hal Pereira, Roland Anderson, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer) have the unique visual concept of setting a western town (obviously on a soundstage) with only the framework of the buildings so we can easily see inside. The sky is bright mustard yellow rather than blue and golden sand is on the streets. The costumes by Edith Head for the women and Yvonne Wood for the men are equally vibrant and correlated to the overall visual concept. Unfortunately, the songs (it is a musical) by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, though they are effective in the film, are mostly unmemorable though Rosemary Clooney has one terrific torch song, Bad News. The choreography by Nick Castle is rousing and energetic. Also with Jack Carson, Gene Barry, Buddy Ebsen, Joanne Gilbert and Cass Daley.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Quo Vadis (1951)

Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of the 1895 Henryk Sienkiewicz novel is, perhaps, the definitive biblical epic. Cleverly combining both actual historical personages and fictional characters, the film is basically a romance between a Roman centurion (Robert Taylor) and a young Christian girl (Deborah Kerr and never more beautifully photographed) set against the backdrop of Rome under Nero’s (Peter Ustinov) rule. The film is gorgeous and impressive visually. When see we Marcus’s (Taylor) entry into Rome, we’re really seeing a cast of thousands and not some computer generated images of something like GLADIATOR. Alas, the stalwart Taylor and simpering Kerr are uninteresting as characters and the film suffers horribly after the burning of Rome (the film’s major setpiece) when the Christians are at the forefront, suffering nobly and singing psalms. Much more fun are Ustinov, hamming it up as the mad Nero and deliciously too and Patricia Laffan as Poppaea, Nero’s empress, reveling in her wickedness. Miklos Rozsa did the strong score. With Leo Genn (who has an amusing exit), Marina Berti, Felix Aylmer, Finlay Currie, Rosalie Crutchley, Abraham Sofaer, Nora Swinburne and Buddy Baer.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cass Timberlane (1947)

Glossy soaper in the MGM style based on the Sinclair Lewis (ELMER GANTRY) novel and directed by George Sidney. A well respected judge and widower (Spencer Tracy), who’s popular in the country club circuit, falls in love with a much younger woman (Lana Turner) from the wrong side of the tracks. Conflict arises when she attempts to blend in to his world which she despises. Tracy and Turner certainly make for an odd coupling but given their lack of magnetism together, their performances are decent but none of the characters conjures up much sympathy. The film itself feels rather staid and after an encouraging beginning meanders to its maudlin conclusion. The large supporting cast includes Zachary Scott, Mary Astor, Albert Dekker, Tom Drake, Josephine Hutchinson (very good as an unhappy wife), Selena Royle, Margaret Lindsay and Walter Pidgeon in a cameo.

The Locket (1946)

Directed by the unfortunately too often overlooked John Brahm (HANGOVER SQUARE, GUEST IN THE HOUSE), this is a marvelous gem of psychological noir with a complex execution. On the day of his wedding, the groom (Gene Raymond) is paid a visit from a psychiatrist (Brian Aherne) who claims to be the first husband of the intended bride (Laraine Day). As he tells of their history together, the film goes into a flashback and a flashback within that flashback and yet another flashback within that flashback. What is revealed is a detailed but fascinating accounting of the psychosis of a liar, thief and murderess and the men who are drawn to her. Thematically, it’s similar in narrative to Hitchcock’s MARNIE but less polished, less astute and not as elaborate and Day’s performance, while a career best, lacks the intricacies of Tippi Hedren’s superb performance. Still, it’s a corker of psychological mystery guaranteed to keep you spellbound. With Robert Mitchum, Martha Hyer, Reginald Denny, Henry Stephenson and Ellen Corby.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pret-A-Porter (aka Ready To Wear) (1994)

A fragmented but often engrossing tart, sometimes amusing dark comedy from Robert Altman. The term Altmanesque has come to mean a multiple character storyline with the characters criss crossing throughout the movie, the film’s aims seemingly unfocused until the film’s finale when there is clarity. Like his masterworks NASHVILLE and SHORT CUTS, PRET-A-PORTER follows this structure during fashion week in Paris as fashion designers, models, journalists, buyers, celebrities etc. congregate for the annual collections. Except that this year, a mysterious death disrupts the usual festivities. When sticking to the fashion world which is ripe for satire, Altman often hits a cynical bull’s-eye but when he wanders away to the peripheral stories like Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins as two American journalists stranded without luggage in a Paris hotel room or Danny Aiello and Teri Garr as a buyer and his mistress, it feels like filler. Michael Legrand provides a delicate score and the pop alternative soundtrack is terrific. The massive cast includes Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Kim Basinger, Forest Whitaker, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman, Lauren Bacall, Stephen Rea, Jean Pierre Cassel, Lili Taylor, Rupert Everett, Cher, Harry Belafonte, Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc, Linda Hunt, Richard E. Grant, Rossy De Palma, Lyle Lovett, Francois Cluzet and Ute Lemper.

Golden Arrow (1936)

Slight screwball comedy has that old chestnut of a plot, a newspaper reporter (George Brent) and a wealthy heiress (Bette Davis) get married despite the disparity in their incomes and lifestyle. There’s a neat plot twist about 30 minutes into the film but for the most part, it’s standard fare. As usual, Brent’s low key acting style is a perfect match for Davis’s intensity. The material is rather lethargic however but it’s a mercifully brief one hour and eight minute running time assures that it won’t wear out its welcome. This was Davis’s first released film after winning her Oscar for DANGEROUS and the film’s advertising played on it but who wants to see Davis in romantic fluff? With Eugene Pallette (who the film could have used more) and Dick Foran.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Shout At The Devil (1976)

Peter Hunt (ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE) directs this action adventure set in pre WWI Tanganyika with overtones of THE AFRICAN QUEEN. An American expatriate (Lee Marvin) cons a British aristocrat (Roger Moore) into helping him poach elephant tusks. After a German battleship sinks their boat, Marvin takes Moore back to his home where he falls in love with the American’s daughter (Barbara Parkins) shortly before WWI breaks out and violent circumstances pull them into it against their will. It’s an uneasy mix of broad comedy and high adventure with Marvin shamelessly mugging as if he’d seen too many Victor McLaglen movies and the shocking deliberate killing of an infant dampens whatever attempts at humor that follows. Ian Holm as Marvin’s Arab servant mugs nearly as much as Marvin and he plays a mute! The score by Maurice Jarre does what it can to whip up the excitement but the air of familiarity is difficult to disguise. With Rene Kolldehoff, Jean Kent, Maurice Denham, Murray Melvin, George Coulouris and Karl Michael Vogler.

Young Bess (1953)

Hollywoodized glossy version of English history (meaning historically inaccurate) focuses on the young Elizabeth I (Jean Simmons) and her unrequited love for Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger) who is married to the widow (Deborah Kerr) of her father, Henry VIII (Charles Laughton). It’s a gorgeous watch, what with the MGM art department pulling out all the stops, Walter Plunkett’s sumptuous costumes (both Oscar nominated) and a rich Miklos Rozsa score to whip it into shape. But there’s precious little substance and director George Sidney (BYE BYE BIRDIE) seems out of his element with costume drama. Even Laughton returning to his former Oscar winning triumph as Henry VIII (PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII) can’t seem to summon up more than a shadow of his previous performance and poor Deborah Kerr seems pitifully wasted. Still, it’s not dull and I suppose we can be grateful for that. Co-starring Kay Walsh, Kathleen Byron, Guy Rolfe, Cecil Kellaway, Norma Varden, Elaine Stewart (as Anne Boleyn), Dawn Addams, Alan Napier, Robert Arthur, Leo G. Carroll and young Rex Thompson (THE KING AND I) as the young King Edward.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

Originally intended as a prestigious “roadshow” release, the film was shortened considerably by deleting many scenes and a couple of musical numbers. It didn’t help. The film was still poorly received by both the critics and the public. And at 2 hours, 10 minutes it still seems unnecessarily long. Addicted to cigarettes, a young girl (Barbra Streisand) goes under hypnosis by a doctor (Yves Montand) who discovers that she has psychic abilities and has lead many past lives. Vincente Minnelli has the help of the terrific Cecil Beaton (MY FAIR LADY) and Arnold Scaasi costumes and the clever production design of John DeCuir (in some scenes, Streisand’s costumes match the bed linen or the wallpaper) as well as the tuneful Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner songs. Streisand has never looked more glamorous than as shot by the great Harry Stradling in the flashback period sequences. Perhaps the film’s major flaw is the casting of Yves Montand. He and Streisand have no chemistry and he seems to be struggling with the English language and his music hall singing voice isn’t strong enough to sock some of the songs over. With Jack Nicholson, Larry Blyden, Bob Newhart, Simon Oakland, Leon Ames, John Richardson, Mabel Albertson, Irene Handl and Jeannie Berlin.

The Moon Is Blue (1953)

This once shocking sex comedy may seem utterly conventional by today’s standard but oh, the outroar this Otto Preminger film caused in 1953. In 1953, words like virgin, seduce, mistress and sex just weren’t bandied about in romantic comedies. A young architect (William Holden) meets an aspiring actress (Maggie McNamara, whose chatty performance inexplicably was nominated for a best actress Oscar) at the top of the Empire State building. Holden is sufficiently interested into inviting her back to his apartment and that’s when the troubles start. It’s based on a very popular Broadway success and Preminger doesn’t do much to disguise its theatrical origins, you feel like you’ve got the best seats in house. The staginess of the enterprise wouldn’t matter so much if the dialogue were witty or scintillating but it’s all rather mundane. Poor McNamara fares the worst, working overtime on being perky till you‘re ready to strangle her. Fortunately there’s David Niven as Holden’s lecherous neighbor to liven things up. This is an actor who knows how to squeeze a line for all that it’s worth and he’s a treat. With Tom Tully, Dawn Addams and Hardy Kruger.

La Fille Du RER (aka Girl On The Train) (2009)

It’s hard to warm up to Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne), the heroine of this Andre Techine film. She seems to be an aimless drifter without any passion, making stupid unrealistic decisions and a habitual liar to boot, eventually telling a lie with horrendous social ramifications. But by the film’s end, we get a clearer insight into her particular psychosis and she gets our empathy. Jeanne has a opposite counterpart in the film, a wiser than his years 13 year old Jewish boy (Jeremie Quaegebeur) but who seems to have a healthier grasp of the pressures of life and more specifically, parental pressures. It’s unclear if Techine is suggesting that the parents and grandparents in the film are responsible for damage done to their children. Jeanne’s mother (Catherine Deneuve) seems like a loving parent as does Nathan’s even if they unintentionally seem to be using him as a weapon. All in all, a very disturbing but provocative film. The discreet score is by Philippe Sarde. With Michel Blanc, Mathieu Demy, Ronit Elkabetz and as the film’s most intriguing character Nicolas Duvauchelle as Jeanne’s drug dealing wrestler boyfriend.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Les Bijoutiers Du Claire De Lune (aka The Night Heaven Fell) (1958)

Has there ever been a more startling carnal presence in cinema than Brigitte Bardot in her prime? The way she walks, her tousled hair, her pout and that sensational body. And, at least it seems, it’s natural as opposed to the often manufactured, sexed up Hollywood counterparts. If I dwell on Bardot rather than the film, it’s because she’s the reason to see it. Directed by Roger Vadim (who thrust Bardot upon the world in ... AND GOD CREATED WOMAN), the storyline is jumbled and motivations seem unclear as if we, the audience, are not privy to something unspoken. A convent girl (Bardot) is sent to live with her aunt (Alida Valli) and her lecherous husband (Jose Nieto). But she falls in love with her aunt’s lover (Stephen Boyd) and after he accidentally kills Nieto, the two go on the lam from the law all over the Spanish countryside and seaside. Amusingly, Bardot is all done up like a schoolgirl when we are first introduced for her but it doesn’t take long for Vadim to have her prancing around in her slip or underwear. The score is by Georges Auric. In CinemaScope, with Fernando Rey.

Murder In A Blue World (aka Una Gota De Sangre Para Morir Amando) (1973)

This weird and bloody Spanish exploitation film is hugely influenced by Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE but without its intellectual pretensions. I must confess I enjoyed it much more. In a futuristic society where people are glued to their televisions and a blue drink (hence the title), which may or may not act as a sedative, is the beverage of choice, black leather clad thugs with red helmets break into homes and brutally beat and rape their victims. But the protagonist is a nurse (Sue Lyon in her best film role since LOLITA) who is a humanitarian by day and a psychotic serial killer by night. The film has the feel of an Italian giallo. The director Eloy De La Iglesia homage to Kubrick has some characters watching A CLOCKWORK ORANGE on television just before a gang breaks into their home to terrorize them, Lyon is seen reading Nabokov’s LOLITA (need you be reminded she played Lolita in Kubrick’s film) and she listens to Strauss waltzes (2001) and what Kubrick suggests at the end of CLOCKWORK, Iglesia makes much more graphic and explicit. The futuristic set design is quite good and is the work of Eduardo Torre De La Fuente. With Jean Sorel (BELLE DE JOUR) and Christopher Mitchum (Robert’s kid).

Moon Of The Wolf (1972)

Daniel Petrie (RESURRECTION) directs this wan horror yarn set in the Louisiana back country. A small town sheriff (David Janssen) investigates the brutal murder of a local girl that is at first attributed to a wild animal. But when further killings ensue, it becomes clear that this was no four legged animal doing the slaughter. For a horror flick there aren’t any scares at all and not even any atmospheric tension and is there anything duller than a horror movie without any tension or frights? Janssen gives a nice, easy going performance as the sheriff though. With Barbara Rush, Bradford Dillman, Geoffrey Lewis, Royal Dano and Claudia McNeil.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Crack In The World (1965)

While attempting to drill into the earth’s core, a group of scientists headed by Dana Andrews hit a dense layer of material. In order to proceed with their project, they use an atomic device to push its way through the barrier. Unfortunately, the atomic device actually causes a crack in the earth’s core that threatens to destroy the earth. Even a layman can sense that the film’s basic plot is not scientifically sound but hey, it’s science fiction so a suspension of belief is in order. But the film’s crude special effects and stock characters do little to sustain our interest on a most basic level. With a better script and today’s special effects capability, a solid remake would be welcome. The film takes place in Tanganyika, Africa but was filmed in Spain. Directed by Andrew Marton (KING SOLOMON'S MINES) and with Kieron Moore, Janette Scott and Alexander Knox.

The Greek Tycoon (1978)

How could a roman a clef about the "romance" of Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy be such a bore? Two of the most famous and interesting people of their day and it’s all so tiresome and flaccidly directed by J. Lee Thompson (GUNS OF NAVARONE). I don’t think I expected it to be any good really but it’s not even tawdry Harold Robbins/Jacqueline Susann trashy fun. Anthony Quinn (who else?) plays the Onassis stand-in and we’ve seen him do the bigger than life Greek before from ZORBA THE GREEK to A DREAM OF KINGS but still, when he starts doing the Greek folk dancing, throwing plates and yelling “Opa!” I recoiled in horror. Jacqueline Bisset is the Jackie Kennedy stand-in, James Franciscus the John Kennedy stand-in and Marilu Tolo the Maria Callas stand-in. The Greek locales are nice to look at though. With Edward Albert, Raf Vallone, Charles Durning, Luciana Paluzzi (wasted) and Camilla Sparv.

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

Juicy three strip Technicolor melodrama directed by John M. Stahl (the 1934 IMITATION OF LIFE) is often referred to a Technicolor film noir but it’s not really noir at all. A self centered jealous beauty (Gene Tierney) demands everything revolve around her and when it doesn’t, she resorts to whatever means necessary including murder and suicide. Tierney has never been put to better use and her restrained underplaying in a part that many actresses would have ridden right over the top is impeccable. Leon Shamroy’s rich Oscar winning color cinematography is near legendary and the dark Alfred Newman score is among is his very, very best. The fine cast also includes Cornel Wilde as the object of Tierney‘s passions, Jeanne Crain as her sister, Vincent Price, Darryl Hickman as Wilde’s ill fated kid brother, Chill Wills, Ray Collins and Mary Philips.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

From Russia With Love (1963)

Excellent! One of the very best offerings in the James Bond canon. It’s a bit more elegant and sophisticated than its predecessor DR. NO and with two terrific villains. In this one, SPECTRE plays the British and the Russians against each other by luring Bond (Sean Connery) into a trap using an encryption device and a beauty (Daniela Bianchi, not much of an actress but what a looker) as bait. The film hadn’t as yet resorted to fancy gadgets that would show up in the next entry and the film contains several setpieces including a great fight between Connery and Robert Shaw in a train compartment as well as a homage to Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Shaw makes a terrific vicious killer and the great Lotte Lenya (THREE PENNY OPERA) matches him as a cold blooded villainess. This is also the first film featuring a score by John Barry though the title song is by Lionel Bart. With Pedro Armendariz, Martine Beswick, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Eunice Gayson and Vladek Sheybal.

The Medusa Touch (1978)

Jack Gold directed this strong thriller with sci-fi elements. The film opens with a man (Richard Burton) getting his head bashed in. As the victim lies in the hospital in a coma, a French detective (Lino Ventura) attempts to discover the attempted murderer but as he investigates, it becomes much more complicated. It seems the victim felt he had the power to make people die, accidents happen, planes crash etc. His psychiatrist (Lee Remick) thought him delusional but the inspector isn’t so sure. Gold is savvy enough to let the momentum build slowly until the suspense is acute, making the preposterous believable and the film ends with a smash bang finale. At this stage of his career, Burton was almost a caricature of himself but his intensity works in his character’s favor and both Remick and Ventura are able to create interesting characters out of what could have been stock figures. Co-starring Marie Christine Barrault, Harry Andrews, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Brett, Michael Hordern and Gordon Jackson.

Jeanne Eagels (1957)

This film biography (most of it highly fictionalized) on the legendary stage actress Jeanne Eagels suffers from the usual clichés of the genre. Sweet young thing ignores the man who loves her for fame and fortune, marries the wrong man, becomes a drunk and dope addict, only in this case there’s no big comeback; at least the film kept that part correct. The success of films like this depends on the performance of the actor playing the film’s subject. In this case, while she has several impressive moments (her reaction to a character’s suicide, her stage breakdown), Kim Novak simply isn’t a strong enough actress to carry the burden of such a difficult character and it doesn’t help that the script is very weak. In one scene, she’s fine and then in the next scene, suddenly she’s a raging alcoholic without any background on how she got that way. Novak is unable to suggest what made Eagels such a great actress. Co-starring Jeff Chandler as a fictionalized lover, Agnes Moorehead, Virginia Grey (quite touching as a washed up actress), Murray Hamilton, Charles Drake, Larry Gates, Gene Lockhart and director Frank Borzage playing himself.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mannequin (1937)

Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by Frank Borzage and starring Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy but don’t let that fool you into thinking this might be anything special. The film starts off promisingly and the first ten minutes or so have a feel for tenement life but after that it’s just another mawkish Crawford shopgirl romance and she’s a doormat to a loser (Alan Curtis and superbly slimy) of a freeloading husband. Individually, Crawford and Tracy are pretty good and hold the screen as befits their star presences despite the tired clichés of the script but they have zero chemistry together. With Elisabeth Risdon (who has one beautifully played scene) as Crawford’s mother, Leo Gorcey as her brother, Mary Philips and Ralph Morgan.

The Kentuckian (1955)

One of two movies that Burt Lancaster directed as well as starring in. This one (the other was MIDNIGHT MAN), the first, is about a naïve uneducated backwoodsman (Lancaster) and his son (Donald MacDonald) from Kentucky on a trek to Texas. But at a stopover to visit his brother (John McIntire), he finds himself dangerously close to settling down and putting down roots much to his son’s frustration. The film has a nice rural feel to it and Oscar winning cinematographer Ernest Laszlo does justice to the handsome Kentucky and Indiana locales with an untypical (for him) Americana score by Bernard Herrmann. Still, it’s simplicity is almost too simple to the point of obviousness and the deviousness of almost everybody that Lancaster meets (including his own brother) seems a bit much. The women in love with him are well played by Dianne Foster as an indentured servant and Diana Lynn as the local schoolmarm. With Walter Matthau in his film debut as the whip wielding villain, Una Merkel, John Carradine, Lisa Ferraday and Rhys Williams.