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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cobra Woman (1944)

On the day of her wedding, a native girl (Maria Montez) is kidnapped and taken to the island of her birth which is ruled by her wicked twin sister (Maria Montez). Of course, the bridegroom (Jon Hall) and his mascot (Sabu) are in quick pursuit to rescue her. This pastry of Technicolor nonsense should be a lot more amusing than it is. Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE) goes beyond the call of duty in trying to breathe some life into it but to no avail. It's stillborn. Oh sure, there's that eye popping luscious three strip Technicolor but that hardly compensates for the atrocious acting (a double dose of Montez!) or the hideous costumes by Vera West, among the ugliest I've seen in a major film. The film only came to life once when Montez, I thought, gave a realistic portrayal of an epileptic fit but to my horror I realized she was supposed to be seductively dancing! I think I gave up after that. Still, some people seem to revel in this twaddle, go figure. With Mary Nash, Lois Collier and Lon Chaney Jr.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Jumanji (1995)

A boy (Adam Hann-Byrd) finds an old board game called Jumanji at an excavation site. That evening when he attempts to play the game with a friend (Laura Bell Bundy), the board game shows supernatural powers. First causing bats to fly into the living room then sucking him into a vortex. Jump 26 years later, and two new kids (Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce) and their aunt (Bebe Neuwirth) move into the house where the kids discover the game in the attic. This CGI laden fantasy adventure doesn't make much demands on its audience (to put it mildly) and though it's aimed at kids, undiscerning adults should find it mildly and mindlessly entertaining too. It's a very noisy film what with hysterical screaming, destruction, crashes, floods and wild animal stampedes, etc., even the James Horner score is noisy. A relatively restrained Robin Williams plays Hann-Byrd as an adult with Bonnie Hunt taking over for Bundy. Directed by Joe Johnston (HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS) and with David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde (playing two roles) and Patricia Clarkson.

Along The Great Divide (1951)

A federal lawman (Kirk Douglas) and his deputies (John Agar, Ray Teal) rescue a cattle rustler (Walter Brennan), who allegedly killed the son of a rancher (Morris Ankrum), from a lynch mob with the intent of taking him to the nearest town for a fair trial. The lawmen, along with the suspect's tomboy daughter (Virginia Mayo), then set off on a perilous trek across the desert with the lynch mob in hot pursuit. This modest western directed by veteran director Raoul Walsh isn't brought up much when discussing the classics of the genre but it's a taut, economical piece of work. Walsh focuses his energies on the conflicts between the unlikely companions thrown together by circumstance. Coming in at a tight 88 minutes, he doesn't waste much time on unnecessary filler and makes every moment count culminating in a satisfying climax. Douglas is his usual intense self but Brennan is a bit of a treat as the shiftless, manipulative rustler whose saving grace is his love for his daughter. The only sour note is the presence of the supremely untalented Agar who, fortunately, is dispensed with early in the proceedings. With James Anderson (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) as Ankrum's other son.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Rack (1956)

Returning home from two years in a Korean prisoner of war camp, an Army captain (Paul Newman) is accused of collaboration with the enemy. The ensuing court martial recounts the events and reasons leading up to his act of treason. Based on a teleplay that Rod Serling wrote for The United States Steel Hour in 1955, the film version directed by Arnold Laven (THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD) is a well intentioned drama of psychological torture with a generous dash of Freud tossed in. The film makes valid points about physical torture versus mind games played by the enemy and how accountable are we for our choices? Laven doesn't attempt to "open up" Serling's teleplay, it still comes across as a play rather than a movie. Newman's performance is uneven, some of it very Actors Studio histrionics and some moments of genuine character insight. His last speech on the stand is wonderfully done. However, more surprising is that Walter Pidgeon steals the acting honors as the distant military father unable to realize what he's done to his sons until too late. With Lee Marvin, Anne Francis, Edmond O'Brien, Cloris Leachman, Dean Jones, Robert F. Simon and recreating his role from the TV adaptation, Wendell Corey as the military prosecutor.

Il Deserto Dei Tartari (aka Desert Of The Tartars) (1976)

In 1907, a young officer (Jacques Perrin) is sent on his first assignment to a desert outpost. While he doesn't intend on staying there long, the fortress's monotonous existence as well as the almost hypnotic spell of the desert begins to draw him into the mass paranoia that has already infected most of the fort's soldiers. Based on the 1938 novel THE TARTAR STEPPE by Dino Buzzati and directed by Valerio Zurlini, who won the David Di Donatello (the Italian equivalent of the Oscar) best director award for this film, the film succeeds in presenting an oppressively mundane atmosphere (so much so that Ennio Morricone's monotonous score seems like overkill) without actually becoming boring, not an easy thing to do. We're never really sure if there is an enemy. Like Godot, the legion waits and waits for an enemy that never shows up and when we see glimpses of ghostly riders, even then we're not sure if it's real or the hallucinations of a fort descending into a collective madness. All in all, an admirable film. The large international cast includes Max Von Sydow, Jean Louis Trintignant, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, Helmut Griem (CABARET) and Giuliano Gemma who won a Donatello, too, for his performance.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Ramen Girl (2008)

After moving to Japan to be near her boyfriend (Gabriel Mann), an American girl (Brittany Murphy) finds herself abandoned when after a short time he splits for Shanghai. After finding comfort from a bowl of ramen soup, she becomes determined to make the perfect bowl of ramen. To this end, she asks an ill tempered tyrant (Toshiyuki Nishida) who takes abuse to new levels to be her teacher. It's the kind of film one wants to like and while it's likable, it's also rather mundane. The kind of film where there's a montage of the heroine dancing alone around her apartment to pop music. It's frustrating because much of the misunderstanding between Murphy and Nishida is because neither speaks the other's language. Of course, if Murphy learned Japanese much of the film's conflict would evaporate. The film is fairly predictable but there are a couple of nice scenes that stand out, the reaction when the ramen shop's customers taste Murphy's ramen for the first time and later, a surprising twist when you think you know what's coming. Credit to the director Robert Allan Ackerman (if, indeed, it was his decision) letting the Japanese actors speak in their native language with English subtitles. With Tammy Blanchard as Murphy's hard drinking party girl friend, Kimiko Yo and Sohee Park. And is there really a ramen museum in Yokohama?

The Visit (1964)

A small impoverished town in Eastern Europe is anxiously awaiting the return of their prodigal daughter (Ingrid Bergman), who left the town penniless and pregnant but is returning as the world's wealthiest woman. The town hopes that Bergman will aid them financially and when she returns she agrees to give the town two million dollars ... on one condition. They execute the man (Anthony Quinn) who wronged her! German director Bernhard Wicki (THE BRIDGE) directs this film adaptation of the stage success by Friedrich Durrenmatt but the film, while effective, considerably diminishes the play's impact by eliminating much of the black humor and watering down the play's nihilistic ending. But it still manages to convey the horror of, what on the surface, appears a decent small town morphing into a hotbed of fascist justice. Bergman is marvelous. Tightly wound up and ready to jump out of her skin, seems to relish playing the scorned woman avenging her wrong. Bergman's elegant Rene Hubert costumes received an Oscar nomination and the minimal score by Richard Arnell and Hans Martin Majewski. With Valentina Cortese, Irina Demick, Claude Dauphin, Romolo Valli, Paolo Stoppa, Hans Christian Blech and Eduardo Ciannelli.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Window (1949)

In a lower East Side tenement, a boy (Bobby Driscoll) who has a history of fabricating stories witnesses a murder when on a hot summer night, he sleeps on the fire escape. But because he has a reputation as a liar, no one believes him ..... except the killers (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman). Better known as a cinematographer (Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS) than as a director, Ted Tetzlaff manipulates some genuine tension in this low budget thriller (yet another variation on Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf once too often) but much of it is dissipated because of Driscoll's irritating central performance. It's one of those annoying child actor performances where they seem to be play acting and indicating everything rather than giving off a semblance of a real child though this is a minority opinion. His performance is apparently much admired. It also doesn't help that the killers, as incompetent and not very bright as they are, are much more likable than the kid either. The fusion of the actual New York locations and the RKO soundstage sets are melded nicely. Music by Roy Webb. With Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy as Driscoll's working class parents.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Until They Sail (1957)

Set in WWII New Zealand, four sisters react differently to the influx of American soldiers into their small town when their men are off to war. Barbara (Jean Simmons) is a faithful wife, who while awaiting word of her husband's fate in North Africa, finds herself attracted to a marine (Paul Newman). Anne (Joan Fontaine) is a prim spinster disgusted by the Americans. The unhappily married Delia (Piper Laurie) welcomes the chance for some excitement and 14 year old Evelyn (Sandra Dee, charming in her film debut) is too naive to fully comprehend what is going on. But before the war ends, their lives will change forever climaxing in a brutal murder. This acute, adult melodrama directed by Robert Wise avoids, for the most part, sentimentality. Instead it focuses on the reality of lonely women whose husbands have been away at war for years and the American G.I.s eager for companionship, the misunderstandings that result and how a war can change one's concept of morality when death is so close at hand. The performances are first rate with Laurie stealing the film as the promiscuous, unfaithful wife. Screenplay by Robert Anderson (TEA AND SYMPATHY) from a short story by James Michener (HAWAII). Music by David Raksin and shot in B&W CinemaScope by Joseph Ruttenberg. With Charles Drake and Mickey Shaughnessy.

A Foreign Affair (1948)

In post war Berlin, a congressional committee from the United States arrives to observe the morale of the servicemen stationed there. Among them is an uptight, hard nosed "plain Jane" Republican congresswoman (Jean Arthur) who is shocked at the open fraternization between the G.I.s and the local female populace. When she hears that a former Nazi (Marlene Dietrich), the ex-mistress of a high ranking Gestapo officer, is receiving favors and protection from an unknown American serviceman, she demands an investigation. Did I mention this was a romantic comedy? It's laughless and without charm or wit but it tries and the film is filled with the patented cynicism of its director Billy Wilder. I don't know how amusing 1948 audiences thought it was but I found some of the humor off putting, like when a swastika obsessed child draws swastikas over everything including his father's clothes, ha-ha, so funny ... not! Arthur, in her late 40s at this time, is about 10 years too old for the part and her attempts at playing girlish are awkward. The post war Berlin locations are interesting though Wilder (this is one of his weakest films) doesn't use them effectively. Dietrich drones several dreary songs in that unpleasant manner that some find fascinating. With the uncharismatic John Lund as the Army Captain romancing both women (couldn't Wilder have gotten Fred MacMurray?) and Millard Mitchell as his superior.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Prize (1963)

Set in Stockholm during the days preceding Nobel Prize ceremonies, a hard drinking and womanizing American writer (Paul Newman), the recipient of the Nobel for literature, suspects that the recipient (Edward G. Robinson) of the Nobel Prize for physics of being an impostor. Soon, he finds himself over his head in kidnapping, murder and international intrigue. Based on the potboiler by Irving Wallace (THE CHAPMAN REPORT) and directed by Mark Robson (PEYTON PLACE), screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who wrote Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST) has whipped up a witty and entertaining pseudo Hitchcockian thriller that's superior to several films Hitchcock did around the same time like TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ. Though the film is overlong (it could have lost about 20 minutes), Robson contrives a tense and vivid race against time peppered along the way with many Hitchcockian touches: the nudist meeting, Newman on the bridge, even the kiss between Elke Sommer and Newman has echoes of the Grant and Bergman kiss from NOTORIOUS. The glorious score is by Jerry Goldsmith. The large international cast includes Diane Baker, Kevin McCarthy, Micheline Presle, Sergio Fantoni, Gerard Oury, Leo G. Carroll, Jacqueline Beer, Anna Lee, Don Dubbins, Virginia Christine, John Qualen, Martine Bartlett and Karl Swenson.

Night Must Fall (1937)

A conniving but mysterious con man (Robert Montgomery) inveigles his way into the graces of a tyrant of a hypochondriac (Dame May Whitty recreating her stage role) and charms her into hiring him as a companion against the wishes of her live in niece (Rosalind Russell) who doesn't trust him. When the body of a decapitated nude woman is found in the nearby woods, Russell's suspicions become stronger. Richard Thorpe (IVANHOE) directs this film version based on a play by Emlyn Williams that was a success in both London and New York. Thorpe and screenwriter John Van Druten don't make much of an attempt to disguise the film's theatrical roots. It plays out like a play, most of the film taking place on one set. This is one chatty thriller! One wishes that Hitchcock would swoop down and infuse some cinematic tension into it but I suppose the one set feeds the claustrophobic feel which is the film's major asset outside of the performances. Both Montgomery and Whitty were nominated for Oscars and Russell gives a strong performance, both attracted and repelled by Montgomery at the same time and in her way, complicit in his final crime. In the play, she was more complicit but the Hays office censors would have none of that in 1937. The effective score is by Edward Ward. With Alan Marshal and Kathleen Harrison.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Someone Behind The Door (1971)

A neurosurgeon (Anthony Perkins), living in England, has been aware for awhile that his wife (Jill Ireland) has a lover (Henri Garcin) in Paris. When a rapist and murderer (Charles Bronson) with a severe case of amnesia comes under his care, he concocts a plan to make Bronson think he's married to Ireland and convinces him to kill her lover. But the amnesiac is an unreliable walking time bomb. Will Perkins be able to execute his plan before the time bomb goes off? Directed by Nicolas Gessner (LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE), the film's premise is intriguing enough to overlook the preposterous, flimsy plot but there are so many loopholes in Perkins' murder plan that an intelligent man should have considered that one can't accept the ludicrousness of it all. Perkins (his screen persona forever linked to PSYCHO) is so creepy as the doctor that he seems crazier than Bronson who plays the amnesiac as a case of arrested development. Only Ireland as the wife seems recognizably human. The film's unusual open ended denouement might have had a stronger punch if the preceding hadn't been so inept. Still, I have to confess that I was hooked for most of the running time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It's Always Fair Weather (1955)

Three G.I.s (Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd), who have bonded during the war, return home from Europe at the end of WWII and vow to meet in ten years time. Ten years later, they meet up for a reunion but each finds that they've changed and can no longer relate to the other two. This bittersweet, cynicism drenched musical was originally intended to be a tart follow up to the more ebullient ON THE TOWN but somehow morphed into this wry, sardonic examination of broken dreams and selling out. Co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, this is one of the great unsung musicals (though its reputation has blossomed in the ensuing years) of the 1950s. The songs by Andre Previn and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green aren't particularly memorable or melodic outside the film but within the context of the film, they work marvelously. There are several musical standouts: the Kelly/Dailey/Kidd dance number with trash can lids is amazing, Kelly has a great dance solo on roller skates and Dolores Gray, in a scene stealing performance, hits it out of the ballpark with the witty Thanks A Lot But No Thanks! Donen and Kelly make excellent use of the CinemaScope format, using the wide screen to enhance the story rather than just filling the screen. With Cyd Charisse, Jay C. Flippen, David Burns, Hal March, Herb Vigran and Madge Blake.

The Hypnotic Eye (1960)

A police detective (Joe Patridge) is baffled a series of strange self mutilations (drinking lye, setting themselves on fire, slashing their faces with a knife, etc.) by beautiful women, who have no memory of mutilating themselves. When his girlfriend's (Marcia Henderson) best friend (Merry Anders) washes her face with acid after attending a hypnotist's (Jacques Bergerac, GIGI) act, they begin to suspect that all the victims may have been under hypnosis. This schlocky low budget potboiler is a clone spawn of William Castle (THE TINGLER). The ads proclaim "Filmed in Hypno-Magic" and near the film's end, the film stops cold as the film's audience (both in the film and watching the film) is laughably put through several hypnotic suggestions (none of which worked on me). Both the identity of the mutilator and the motive for the murders are easy enough to guess. Still, the film's tackiness is infectiously enjoyable if you've an appetite for "B" movie cheese. Directed by George Blair. With Allison Hayes (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN).

Sunday, May 22, 2011

All The Brothers Were Valiant (1953)

Set in mid 19th century New England, the captain (Robert Taylor) of a whaling vessel returns from two years at sea to discover his brother (Stewart Granger) disappeared while at sea and is presumed dead. On his next whaling voyage, accompanied by his new bride (Ann Blyth) who his brother also loved, he attempts to find out what happened to his brother. Based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) and directed by Richard Thorpe, this spirited sea faring adventure is decent enough though its finish is anti-climactic rather than the thrilling finale one expects. A major portion of the film is devoted to a flashback regarding Granger and some villainous pearl thieves (James Whitmore, Kurt Kasznar) that seems more attractive than the squabbling among the brothers in the present. Taylor seems unusually lethargic but Granger more than compensates by upping the scoundrel quotient. Blyth is lovely with little to do but change costumes. The Technicolor cinematography by George J. Folsey received an Oscar nomination. The rousing score is by Miklos Rozsa. The large supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn, Betta St. John, Lewis Stone, John Lupton, Michael Pate, Frank DeKova and Leo Gordon.

Hurry Sundown (1967)

Set in the post war South of 1946, a G.I. (John Phillip Law) returns home from the war to find that his small farm and that of a black neighbor (Robert Hooks) are under pressure to sell to their land to the greedy and racist landowner (Michael Caine) who owns the land surrounding them and who wants to sell the properties to a major business conglomerate. Civil rights were very much in the news in 1967 and this was reflected in several high profile Hollywood films of that year including GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER?, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and this pitiful entry courtesy of Otto Preminger. Based on a massive 1,000 pages plus novel by Katya and Bert Gilden, the film is so awful in so many ways that one doesn't know where to start. Though credited with co-writing the screenplay, Preminger threw out all of Horton Foote's (TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL) work out because it wasn't melodramatic enough. It's the kind of hysterical "evil South" corn where all the white characters (save one good white trash family) are rabid, foaming at the mouth racists and all the black folks are noble. Faye Dunaway, just a few months away from mega-stardom with BONNIE AND CLYDE, hated working with Preminger claiming Preminger knew nothing about the process of acting and considering all the good actors giving hideous performances, I can believe it! It's the kind of movie you know is bad and yet you're compelled to watch it. In addition to Dunaway, the cast includes Jane Fonda (in a career low point, she performs a sex act on a saxophone), Diahann Carroll, Burgess Meredith, George Kennedy, Jim Backus, Madeleine Sherwood, Rex Ingram, Beah Richards, Robert Reed and Frank Converse.

Mississippi Gambler (1953)

On a riverboat trip down the Mississippi river, an honest gambler (Tyrone Power) runs afoul of a no good, spoiled scoundrel (John Baer) from a respected New Orleans family and his haughty Southern belle sister (Piper Laurie) with whom Power falls in love. His love and hate relationship with these two will bring tragedy to all of them. This entertaining piece of diversion directed by Rudolph Mate (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE) makes for a perfect lazy Sunday afternoon matinee (which is how I saw it). Movies like this don't hold up under much scrutiny but then again, they were never intended to. The handsome Power makes for a dashing riverboat gambler and Laurie looks ravishing in her Bill Thomas period costumes. Still, it's one of those films where the good girl (Julie Adams) has ten times the worth of the bratty one (Laurie) and one is frustrated when Power can't see it as Adams nobly and patiently stands by his side and waits. The lively score is by Frank Skinner (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS). With Gwen Verdon (in black-face yet doing a voodoo dance with a chicken that would have PETA up in arms if made today), Anita Ekberg, John McIntire, Dennis Weaver, Ron Randell, William Reynolds, Guy Williams and Hugh Beaumont.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Midnight In Paris (2011)

A frustrated Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson), in the process of writing his first novel, and his uptight fiancee (Rachel McAdams) accompany her parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) on a business trip to Paris. Once there, not only does he fall under the spell of Paris but enters a portal to Paris in the 1920s where he encounters Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali among others. This heady Woody Allen concoction is cinematic champagne that stands with the best of his work like PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO and HANNAH AND HIS SISTERS. His screenplay is assured an Oscar nomination. Allen (who does not appear in the film) performs several feats of magic, one of which is actually making the normally grating Owen Wilson charming. Wilson wears the Allen persona as if tailor made and his wide eyed American in Paris is probably his best performance to date. Without getting heavy handed, Allen makes some insightful observations about nostalgia, how no matter what era one lives in, one always looks at the past through rose colored glasses. Wilson longs for Paris in the 1920s yet when he gets there, Picasso's current mistress (Marion Cotillard) longs for the 1890s Belle Epoque period, her "Golden Age". Cinematographer Darius Khondji is responsible for the loving Parisian images. The large cast includes Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill (MILK) as Zelda Fitzgerald and Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, as a helpful museum guide. Highly recommended.

Chichi Ariki (aka There Was A Father) (1942)

After a schoolboy drowns under his watch, a school teacher (Chishu Ryu) feels responsible and quits his vocation preferring instead to devote himself to the raising and welfare of his son (Haruhiko Tsuda as a child, Shuji Sano as an adult). There have been many films about mother love and devoted mothers (STELLA DALLAS, IMITATION OF LIFE, MILDRED PIERCE etc.) but very few films about a father's devotion to their children. Family has almost always been at the focus of the films of Yasujiro Ozu but here I'm not quite sure what Ozu's intentions are. The father appears to have his son's best interests at heart but whenever the son reaches out to the father, he seems to push the son away. He instills in his son a good work ethic as well as a sense of right and wrong but there's a chasm, a distance, between the two that the son appears to want to repair while the father either ignores it or is unaware that, in fact, it exists. Perhaps it's a cultural thing. The Japanese aren't a huggy-feely people. Still, in the film's final scene, Ozu seems to indicate that the son will not follow in his father's footsteps but become a major part of his son's (who has yet to be born) life. A perfect film for the upcoming Father's Day.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cancel My Reservation (1972)

A New York television talk show host (Bob Hope), under orders from his physician, flies out to his Arizona vacation home for rest from stress, some of it partly induced due to a strained marriage with an unhappy wife (Eva Marie Saint). When he arrives at the Arizona house, he finds the body of a murdered girl in his bedroom. When he attempts to report the murder, the sheriff (Keenan Wynn) arrests him for the girl's murder. Outside of a couple of guest appearances, this was Hope's last feature film as a leading man, a sad swan song. He looks tired and as if sensing the stale quips given him to toss of, his timing is off. Curiously, it's based on a novel THE BROKEN GUN by the Western writer Louis L'Amour which was not a comic novel. The fusion of a murder mystery in the American Southwest with a broad comic twist might have worked but the screenplay is pretty dire. It has that ugly TV look that so many films of the late 60s and early 70s had so it came as a shock to see the credited cinematographer was the great Russell Metty (TOUCH OF EVIL). With Ralph Bellamy, Anne Archer, Forrest Tucker, Pat Morita, Herb Vigran and Chief Dan George and in a dream sequence, John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Johnny Carson.

Hold Back The Dawn (1941)

A Romanian gigolo (Charles Boyer) is stuck in a Mexican border town impatiently awaiting the approval of his visa to the United States which will take several years. When he meets his ex-mistress (Paulette Goddard), an Australian, who married an American in order to gain entry into the United States, he plots to do the same. So, when a naive young American school teacher (Olivia De Havilland in an Oscar nominated performance) visiting Mexico enters the picture, he makes his move. Directed by Mitchell Leisen (TO EACH HIS OWN), the film benefits from a strong screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett which infuses some wit and humor into the melodrama and romance, not so much with the three leads but with the colorful supporting characters who live in a rundown hotel that caters to immigrants awaiting entry into the U.S. Boyer is perfectly cast as the heavy lidded Latin lover, Goddard as the gold digging bitch and especially De Havilland who gives a lovely, layered performance. Alas, the film's ending seems incredibly rushed and hobbled together but until then, it's an intelligent if predictable love story. The Oscar nominated score is by Victor Young and the cast includes Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Richard Webb, Walter Abel, Rosemary DeCamp, Nestor Paiva, Madeleine Lebeau and Victor Francen.

Helen Of Troy (1956)

Paris (Jacques Sernas), a prince of Troy, while on a peace mission to Sparta is shipwrecked and falls in love with a girl (Rossana Podesta) who he thinks is a slave but is, in fact, Helen the wife of King Menelaus (Niall MacGinnis). Eventually, they flee Sparta to Troy but the fury of the Greeks follows them and Helen becomes the "face that launched a thousand ships" and the legendary siege of Troy by the Greeks begins. Based on Homer's ILLIAD, the film takes many liberties with the myth but director Robert Wise (THE SOUND OF MUSIC) has crafted a handsome and intelligent epic with enough pageantry, battles and romance (all accompanied by a superb Max Steiner score, one of his very best) to satisfy the most demanding sword and sandal connoisseur. The lovely Podesta and Sernas (looking like a young Richard Burton), both foreign born, have their voices dubbed but make an attractive couple. Shot in CinemaScope by the Oscar winning Harry Stradling (MY FAIR LADY), the film features many recognizable actors in supporting roles including Brigitte Bardot, Stanley Baker, Cedric Hardwicke, Torin Thatcher, Janette Scott, Robert Douglas, Marc Lawrence, Maxwell Reed and Nora Swinburne.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alice In Wonderland (1933)

Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND has seen too many incarnations in both film and television to keep track of. This disagreeable, all star Paramount film version is charmless and dull, surprising since the screenplay was co-written by that master of verbal wit Joseph L. Mankiewicz (ALL ABOUT EVE). It helps if the actress playing Alice is appealing but Charlotte Henry makes for a bland, uninteresting Alice. It might have helped if it had been filmed in Technicolor but that didn't come along until two years later. The film lacks magic and most of the famous names in the cast are heavily disguised so that all we hear is their voice. For all we know, they're not even inside their costumes. They include W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper as the White Knight and Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat. The score is an early effort by Oscar winner Dimitri Tiomkin (HIGH NOON). Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The animated The Walrus And The Carpenter segment is well done, however. Also with Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, May Robson, Alison Skipworth, Jack Oakie and Mae Marsh.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Song To Remember (1945)

The life of composer and pianist extraordinaire Fredric Chopin (Cornel Wilde), romanticized and given the stereotypical Hollywood treatment with not much actual historical accuracy. Directed by Charles Vidor (who ironically was working on a film about Franz Liszt, SONG WITHOUT END from 1960 when he died) and in plush Technicolor with sumptuous art direction by Frank Tuttle and costumes by Walter Plunkett and Travis Banton. The film attempts to paint Chopin as a fiery Polish revolutionary forced to flee Poland to avoid prison. The film is pure unadulterated hokum. Considered a prestige picture in 1945, it barely qualifies as kitsch today. Wilde's painful expressions inexplicably got him a best actor Oscar nomination while Merle Oberon (as George Sand) is portrayed as some kind of fascist degenerate. Oberon tends to bark her lines as if she'd seen too many Joan Crawford movies. Nothing, however, can prepare one for the sheer awfulness of Paul Muni as Chopin's teacher and mentor. He takes overacting to new levels never before attempted or seen since. The man can't stop making faces or sit still, he's always twitching and moving until you're exhausted just watching the man. Nina Foch as the girl back home in Warsaw gives the film's only naturalistic performance. Chopin's music is adapted by Miklos Rozsa. With George Macready, Stephen Bekassy and George Coulouris.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

City Of Fear (1959)

A convict (Vince Edwards) breaks out of prison taking with him what he thinks is a canister of heroin but, in fact, is a lethal radioactive powder that is not only killing him slowly but those who come into contact with him and the canister. This low budget paranoia potboiler, directed by Irving Lerner (ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN), follows in the footsteps of such better films as PANIC IN THE STREETS and KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK in its depiction of a city health department and the police attempting to track down a carrier of a deadly substance (it's a virus in PANIC and KILLER) before an entire city is contaminated. Shot on the streets of Los Angeles and its environs which lends it an authenticity, it's fairly gripping but it suffers from a pedestrian script (one of the writers, Steven Ritch, plays a doctor in the film) and some amateurish acting, the worst offender being Sherwood Price as a caricature hophead. The film's faux documentary look is courtesy of Oscar winner Lucien Ballard (Kubrick's THE KILLING) and the film features an early scoring effort by the great Jerry Goldsmith which gives no indication of the film scoring master he would later evolve into. With John Archer, Patricia Blair, Lyle Talbot and Kathie Browne.

Viva Maria! (1965)

Set in 1907 Central America, after the death of her father, the daughter of an Irish terrorist (Brigitte Bardot) joins a traveling troupe of players. She takes over as the other half of a singing act after one of the girls commits suicide. Together (the other half of the act is Jeanne Moreau), the two girls invent the striptease when Bardot accidentally tears her costume and Moreau joins her in the undressing. But when Moreau falls in love with a revolutionary (the living 8x10 glossy George Hamilton, which may be the film's best joke), the two become devoted revolutionaries, determined to bring down a fascist dictator (Jose Angel Espinoza). Directed by Louis Malle, the film is split into two parts. The show biz story and the revolution story. The film itself is an adventure/comedy but the film plods and doesn't kick into high gear and find its rhythm until the halfway mark, about an hour into the film. The film should sparkle but despite Bardot and Moreau's efforts, it just doesn't. The film is often witty with amusing visual images (pigeons dropping grenades on soldiers, a headless priest carrying his head in his hands) but it's terribly uneven though as I said, the second half is better than the first. The stunning Bardot is such a screen presence that even Moreau (normally a powerful screen presence in her own right) pales next to her. The score is by great Georges Delerue and rich looking cinematography (shot in Mexico) by Henri Decae.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

A private investigator (Casey Affleck) and his assistant and girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) are hired by the aunt (Amy Madigan) to help the police in the search for her missing 5 year old niece. As they investigate, it becomes obvious that this is not a simple kidnapping and there's more than meets the eye. The first feature film to be directed by Ben Affleck (based on this film and THE TOWN, he's proving to be a better director than actor), this is a potent piece of cinema. Affleck has a genuine eye for the Boston working class neighborhoods as well as its underbelly. At the center of the film is a conundrum: when is the right thing to do the wrong thing to do or, if you prefer, when is the wrong thing to do, the right thing to do. The film doesn't answer the question for us, it just asks it and we have to decide for ourselves. Amy Ryan as the child's drug addicted, promiscuous "white trash" mother received all the critical praise and awards including an Oscar nomination. It's the kind of flashy role that's hard to resist but the real acting honors go to Ed Harris as cop on the case. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (MYSTIC RIVER, SHUTTER ISLAND). The muted but effective score is by Harry Gregson Williams. With Morgan Freeman, John Ashton and Titus Welliver.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lancelot Du Lac (1974)

Set after the failure of the quest for the Holy Grail, the surviving knights of Arthur's legendary round table return in defeat to their King. The Arthurian legend of the Knights Of The Round Table is given an austere, stripped down exercise in asceticism from director Robert Bresson (DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST). Clearly not interested in the romanticism of the legend, Bresson uses amateur actors (and it shows) who say lines rather than act. Passion, a strong component in the Lancelot and Guinevere portion of the legend, is totally absent. Their fate, as well as everyone around them, is preordained yet they still fight against the inevitable. Even the jousting tournaments are shown in fragments with no tension or excitement. This lacklustre approach, while cerebreally intriguing, makes for a rather sterile film. Bresson introduces characters in pieces. They enter a frame by their legs, their shoulders, their backs as if their faces were irrelevant. Bresson amplifies the sound so that the clanking of their armor sounds like thunder and the neighing of a horse in the distance (repeated so often that it almost becomes a joke) sounds like a scream. The score, what there is of it, is by Philippe Sarde. While I can admire Bresson's intentions (beautifully photographed by Pasqualino De Santis), it's a cold, cold piece of work.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bridesmaids (2011)

When her best friend (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be her maid of honor at her wedding, Kristen Wiig naturally accepts but things go spiraling out of control quickly. Not only does Wiig's love life suck (she's being used as a sexual convenience by Jon Hamm), she has the room mates from Hell, gone bankrupt when her bakery goes belly up but a new girl (Rose Byrne) threatens to become Randolph's new BFF. Simply put, BRIDESMAIDS is priceless, a laugh riot. I honestly can't remember when I laughed so hard and so consistently. Most comedies peter out at around 90 minutes but BRIDESMAIDS keeps pummeling you with the zingers non stop, never wearing out its welcome. That comedic sorceress (it's amazing what she can do with just a look) Kristen Wiig carries the film, investing her character with some depth but never forgetting that she's there to make us laugh. Those who've seen her work on Saturday Night Live know what a chameleon she is and it's about time she got a vehicle that puts her center stage. I'd venture to say she's the best comic actress working today (sorry, Tina Fey!). That other comedic enchantress Maya Rudolph has less to do but she's always a welcome presence. The film is stolen outright however by Melissa McCarthy as the sister of the groom. I can't imagine anyone but the most humorless curmudgeon not giving himself in to the hilarity. Paul Feig directed the screenplay co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo. With Jill Clayburgh (in her final film role) as Wiig's mother and Chris O'Dowd.

The Mating Game (1959)

Instigated by a mean spirited neighbor (Philip Ober) with ulterior motives, the Internal Revenue Services sends down an agent (Tony Randall) to investigate a farmer's (Paul Douglas) failure to have never filed a tax return. The unconventional, almost Bohemian, lifestyle of the family causes Randall some frustration which is increased when he finds himself attracted to their eldest daughter (Debbie Reynolds). This folksy comedy is very loosely based on the British novel THE DARLING BUDS OF MAY by H.E. Bates which was done more faithfully in the early 90s for British TV and launched the career of Catherine Zeta Jones in Reynolds role. Directed by George Marshall, it has that forced, wholesome sheen so prevalent in the 1950s. It's calculated innocence aside, it's moderately enjoyable if you're in the right mood. Reynolds' performance is a little bit Tammy, a little bit Molly Brown but Randall is questionable as a romantic leading man. He's a wonderful character actor and third wheel but isn't charismatic enough to leading man status. It's the kind of part that someone like Tom Hanks can sleepwalk through yet Randall stumbles. With Una Merkel, Fred Clark and Charles Lane.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gloria (1980)

An accountant (Buck Henry), who works for the Mafia, and his family are marked for assassination when the mob realizes the accountant has been cooperating with the FBI. The accountant's wife (Julie Carmen) asks her neighbor, a middle aged ex-gangster moll named Gloria (Gena Rowlands), to take her children, only one (John Adames), a seven year old agrees to go. Once the mob discovers Gloria has the child, she is targeted too and from then on, she and the boy are on the run. A rare foray into mainstream cinema by cinema verite film maker John Cassavetes, he displays an aptitude for thrillers that one wouldn't ordinarily suspect. Cassavetes' muse, his wife Rowlands, gives a powerhouse performance and in her stylish Emanuel Ungaro wardrobe, she holds the screen with the magnitude of a Davis or Stanwyck. The child actor, John Adames, is problematic. he has a terrific face for the movies but he's a very weak actor and his line readings are often amateurish. Bill Conti provides one of his very best scores. With Lawrence Tierney and Tom Noonan. Remade (poorly) in 1999 by Sidney Lumet with Sharon Stone as Gloria.

Desperate (1947)

A self employed trucker (Steve Brodie) receives a call from an old friend (Raymond Burr) to haul some freight. When he arrives, he realizes he's being set up by his old friend and that the freight is stolen goods. Things fall apart when a policeman is killed and Burr's younger brother is apprehended by the police and sentenced to death. Brodie and his wife (Audrey Long) flee, not from the police but from fear of Burr's vengeance. This poverty row potboiler is much admired in certain quarters, most likely because of its director Anthony Mann. Sadly, it's not very good. While Burr makes a formidable villain, the film is saddled with uncharismatic leads in Brodie and Long. Cinematographer George E. Diskant is an old hand at noirs with films like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, NARROW MARGIN and ON DANGEROUS GROUND on his resume and the film looks good, full of the shadows, silhouettes and half lit faces and other expressionistic devices that define film noir. Still, given its cult status, it's a surprisingly dreary movie. Music by Paul Sawtell (VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA).

Diplomatic Courier (1952)

A diplomatic courier for the state department (Tyrone Power) is sent to receive an important package from a colleague and old friend (James Millican) in Austria but the contact pretends to not recognize him and is later murdered and the package missing. Veteran director Henry Hathaway (TRUE GRIT) is behind the camera for this intriguing espionage cold war thriller. Shot in black and white by Lucien Ballard (THE WILD BUNCH), the film doesn't take advantage of the colorful Austrian and Italian locations which would have benefited from a Technicolor perspective. If would have been different if the B&W photography contributed a noir-ish post WWII atmosphere like Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN but it's not that kind of movie. The film profits by having two femme fatales, a globe trotting widow (Patricia Neal) who Power meets on an airplane and a Czech spy (Hildegard Knef) who Power meets on a train. Hathaway keeps the film whizzing along to its conclusion with very little lagging. An enjoyable, if minor, entry into the cold war movie canon. The large cast includes Karl Malden, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Stephen McNally, Herbert Berghof, Helene Stanley and Michael Ansara.

Son Of Ali Baba (1952)

In a convoluted plot to discredit Ali Baba (Morris Ankrum) and get his fabled treasure, the Caliph (Victor Jory) forces a girl (Piper Laurie) to enter the house of Ali Baba's son (Tony Curtis) under false pretenses and a plot that looks like she was kidnapped but the Caliph didn't count on Laurie falling in love with Curtis. This enjoyable piece of Arabian Nights hokum, directed by Kurt Neumann (THE FLY), is colorful and fun and doesn't take itself too seriously. Curtis handles a sword nicely and Laurie is gorgeous in Technicolor and at a brief running time of about 75 minutes, it's just enough swashbuckling, jumping parapets, dancing girls and romance without wearing out its welcome. This is the film where the urban legend began that Curtis spoke the immortal words, "Yonder lies the castle of my fadda", but in actuality, his diction is perfect and he says father, not "fadda". The large cast includes Hugh O' Brian, Harry Guardino, Susan Cabot, William Reynolds, Gerald Mohr, Mara Corday, Katherine Warren and Ann Robinson.

The Rainbow (1989)

After a passionate affair with her free thinking bi-sexual schoolteacher (Amanda Donohoe), a young girl (Sammi Davis) in the Midlands of Victorian England becomes dissatisfied with her placid and rigid surroundings and longs to experience life on her own terms. Based on the D.H. Lawrence novel and directed by Ken Russell, who successfully brought Lawrence's WOMEN IN LOVE to the screen twenty years earlier, this is a rather indifferent film lacking the provocative ambiance of Russell's 1969 film. The film (as the Lawrence novel) is actually a precursor to WOMEN IN LOVE as the main character of Ursula (predominant here) is one of the four central characters (along with her sister Gudrun) in WOMEN IN LOVE. Russell seems tired here, the film could have used some of that "oomph" he brings to his best work. Sammi Davis as Ursula is a charmer (it's a pity she left acting so early to concentrate on marriage) but with the exception of Donohoe and David Hemmings, the rest of the cast don't register. Glenda Jackson as Davis's mother (Jackson playing the mother of the character, Gudrun, that she won an Oscar for in 1970) is wasted. Paul McCann is rather listless as the soldier who sets Davis on fire. The score is by Carl Davis. With Christopher Gable (THE BOY FRIEND) as the father.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Favorite Spy (1951)

When a notorious international spy (Bob Hope) is wounded during a gun battle, a third rate vaudeville comic (Bob Hope), who looks like him, is coerced by the U.S. government into impersonating him in order to get some important microfilm. But when the real spy escapes from the hospital, it becomes a race against time to see if his doppelganger can get the microfilm before he arrives. This spy spoof directed by Norman Z. McLeod (TOPPER) is one of Hope's very weakest comedies. It's all very frantic but to no avail, it's still born and if sensing that it's all going downhill, during a sequence where Hope is under the influence of sodium pentathol ("the truth serum"), he breaks out into a hokey musical number. It doesn't help that Hope's leading lady, Hedy Lamarr, has no comedic timing and she's unable to even play the straight man to Hope's antics. It's fun to see, albeit briefly, Hope play a steely, cold blooded killer when playing the real spy. There's an amusing "in joke" when Hope and Lamarr go to a nightclub, Victor Young's theme from SAMSON AND DELILAH (which starred Lamarr) is played. The large cast includes Francis L. Sullivan, Arnold Moss, John Archer, Angela Clarke, Iris Adrian, Frank Faylen, Marc Lawrence, Mike Mazurki and Kasey Rogers.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Greengage Summer (1961)

Set in the Champagne region of France, a 16 year old girl (Susannah York) on holiday with her mother and three siblings must take charge of the younger children after her mother is taken seriously ill to a hospital. At the country chateau where they're staying, they meet a mysterious Englishman (Kenneth More) who takes a fancy to the visitors which disturbs his mistress (Danielle Darrieux), the inn's proprietor. "Coming of age" films are plentiful and usually predictable but this one is special. Based upon the novel by Rumer Godden, Director Lewis Gilbert (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME) manages, for the most part, to avoid the cliches of the genre while walking a fine tightrope to avoid the Lolita-esque elements inherent in the screenplay which lesser film makers may have fallen prey to. The young York (in only her third film) blooms and glows in the role of a girl entering womanhood and all the conflicts that come with it, though I must confess the puffy looking and aging Kenneth More seems an unlikely fantasy for an adolescent girl. The striking cinematography is courtesy of Oscar winner Freddie Young (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) and the delicate score by Richard Addinsell. With Jane Asher, Maurice Denham and Bessie Love.

H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)

A conservative, middle aged businessman (Robert Young, the H.M. Pulham of the title) stuck in a conventional, dull lifestyle and marriage reflects back on his life, in particular a romance with an independent, unconventional career woman (Hedy Lamarr). Directed by King Vidor (THE CROWD) and based on the novel by John P. Marquand, the film seems to espouse acceptance of one's place in life, however passive and drab. Perhaps if the title character had been played by an actor with more charisma and screen presence than the wan Young, one could see the tragedy of a young man unable to break away from the chains of a life predestined for him. With the inflexible Young in the part, his future seems inevitable rather than tragic so it's difficult to garner much sympathy for his situation. Lamarr, in a change of pace from the glam femme fatale roles, is surprisingly good as the feminist heroine though even her frumpy Robert Kalloch wardrobe can't disguise her beauty. The score is by Bronislau Kaper. The able supporting cast includes Ruth Hussey as Young's bourgeois wife, Van Heflin as Young's hedonistic best friend (the movie could have used more of him), Charles Coburn, Bonita Granville, Anne Revere, Leif Erickson, Sara Haden, Connie Gilchrist and Frank Faylen.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Four Seasons (1981)

Three married couples (Alan Alda and Carol Burnett, Jack Weston and Rita Moreno, Len Cariou and Sandy Dennis) are very close and take their vacations together. During one such vacation, Cariou expresses unhappiness with his marriage to Dennis and his intention to seek a divorce. After leaving his wife, Cariou falls for a much younger woman (Bess Armstrong) which causes conflict among his friends. Both written and directed by Alda, the film is ostensibly about the trials and tribulations that true friendship carries with it and how the tenuous bonds can be easily torn asunder. The film's main problem is that this an unlikable bunch. Alda is pompous and judgmental, Cariou is self centered, Weston is neurotic, Moreno is insensitive and Burnett is passive/aggressive. The characters laugh hysterically at their own situations which aren't remotely amusing and I suppose we're supposed to think, "What a great group of people" when they're the kind of people you try to avoid. Only Sandy Dennis somehow (it's certainly not in the writing) manages to create a recognizable human being in pain rather than a glib poseur tossing off one liners but, of course, she has the least amount of screen time. Used as an underscore, the music of Antonio Vivaldi is used like cinematic mayonnaise spread across the film.

Brainstorm (1965)

After saving her from a suicide attempt, a young scientist (Jeffrey Hunter) falls in love with the wife (Anne Francis) of a wealthy but sadistic millionaire (Dana Andrews). Together, they plot his murder with the intent of using not guilty by reason of insanity as his plea. This minor but clever noirish thriller was poorly received upon its initial release but during the ensuing years, its reputation has grown considerably and it's easy to see why. Directed by William Conrad, the film would make an excellent double bill with Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR since thematically they share similar territory. While not the near masterpiece that the Fuller film is, BRAINSTORM manages to eclipse its pulp roots and bring a provocative take on the noir genre. Hunter's performance is slightly problematic. Since he's "acting" insanity, it's unclear whether his awkwardness is the character or the actor. The most interesting character is the ambiguous psychiatrist played by Viveca Lindfors. Played with a Mona Lisa smile, we're never quite sure how much she knows and how "pure" her motives are. Shot in handsome B&W Panavision by Oscar winner Sam Leavitt (ANATOMY OF A MURDER) with a jazz infused score by George Duning (PICNIC). With Kathie Browne, Michael Pate and Strother Martin.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

My Blueberry Nights (2007)

A young New Yorker (singer Norah Jones in her film debut), unable to cope with her boyfriend leaving her for another woman, finds solace at a cafe run by an expatriate Brit (Jude Law) who offers her advice over blueberry pie. In an attempt to heal her emotional wounds, she leaves New York and ends up in Tennessee and then Nevada where two different experiences make her grow as a person. The first English language film by the acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai (IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE), this affecting rumination on the affliction of love and how one moves on and lets go was greeted with an underwhelming critical reception when it opened which is too bad as it's a jewel of a film, as affecting as in its way as IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE or 2046. As an actress, singer Jones is adequate which is fine as her part doesn't require much. It's the peripheral characters that are the backbone of the film, the alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) who can't let go of his young wife (Rachel Weisz) who feels suffocated by him or the poker hustler (Natalie Portman) who "reads" people yet can't seem to get her own life in order. The delicate underscore is by Ry Cooder and the creative cinematography (some of the images look drawn) is by Darius Khondji (SE7EN).

Eccentricities Of A Nightingale (1976)

A high strung minister's daughter (Blythe Danner) is the town's eccentric, who has always been in love with doctor's son (Frank Langella) from across the street but kept her passionate secret to herself. But on a hot July summer, she seems consumed by her passion and begins to unravel. This is the 1964 revision of Tennessee Williams' SUMMER AND SMOKE, which he preferred to his original 1948 play. Directed by Glenn Jordan, this version differs significantly from the original in several ways, notably in the character of Langella's mother, played by Neva Patterson whose character was negligible in the 1948 play but has a major role here. While I can see why Williams would prefer it, I don't it's necessarily a better play than SUMMER AND SMOKE. But the writing is pure, unadulterated Williams in his prime. Danner is wonderful as Alma, a typical Williams heroine but in danger of spinning off into parody if not played with all the right notes which Danner does and superbly. Langella plays his role with admirable restraint which contrasts nicely with Danner's repressed hysteria. With Tim O'Connor as her father and Louise Latham as her mentally unstable mother.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Beggar's Opera (1953)

As the notorious highwayman MacHeath (Laurence Olivier) is scheduled to be hanged, the composer (Hugh Griffith) of an opera on his life relays his musical conception to the outlaw. Based on the 1728 satirical ballad opera by John Gay (later re-invented by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht into the immortal THE THREEPENNY OPERA) and directed by the acclaimed stage director Peter Brook (his first film), this delightful and infectious Technicolor confection does justice to the witty Gay work. Olivier makes a dashing MacHeath and does his own singing (which is more than decent) as does Stanley Holloway as Lockit but everyone else's singing voice is dubbed but when all the actors are clearly having a rollicking good time, who cares? The impressive art direction is by George Wakhevitch and William C. Andrews and the score is melodically adapted by Sir Arthur Bliss. The exquisite cast includes Dorothy Tutin as Polly, Daphne Anderson as Lucy, Yvonne Furneaux and Athene Seyler and Margot Grahame.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dark Passage (1947)

An escaped convict (Humphrey Bogart) is helped by a wealthy amateur artist (Lauren Bacall) who hides him from the police while he attempts to prove his innocence in the death of his wife. Based on a novel by David Goodis (whose novel DOWN THERE provided the basis of Truffaut's SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER) and directed by Delmar Daves, the most interesting aspect of the pulpy plot is that the first hour of the film is seen through the POV of Bogart's character. We never see his face until he undergoes plastic surgery, just hear his voice. It's a rather talky piece and drags in many spots but the casting is pretty good and even the most minor roles are played by actors who make their presence felt, in particular Houseley Stevenson as a creepy plastic surgeon whose medical license has been revoked. It's not one of Bogart's best performances (he acts so guilty who could blame the cops?) and though he still has that chemistry with Bacall, her fatale act was beginning to wear thin at this point but Agnes Moorehead, in a rare glam role, ups the ante as Bacall's malicious friend and she makes a spectacular exit. Music by Franz Waxman. With Bruce Bennett, Tom D'Andrea, Douglas Kennedy and Mary Field.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cabaret (1972)

In 1931 Berlin, during the last days of the Weimar Republic, a young Brit (Michael York) moves into a shoddy boarding house where he meets an American party girl, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), who sings in a cabaret. They eventually become lovers but as the rise of Nazism grows stronger around them, its corruption begins to poison everything around them. This marvelous Bob Fosse (direction and choreography) musical is one of the greatest musicals ever made. Fosse doesn't sugarcoat anything but neither does he nudge us to cluck our tongues at the decadence, he simply lays it all out for us to see. The tawdry atmosphere is compelling and one can see how one can be drawn in by the vulgarity and the brazenness of it all. Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies, with his pasty white make up and rouged cheeks and lips, positively reeks of dissipation. Minnelli and Grey deservedly won Oscars for their performances but Minnelli, as superb as she is, is miscast. Her performance as an actress is first rate but so is her singing which is all wrong. Sally is a third rate singer who'll never become a Star but the way Minnelli plays it, she's dripping with charisma and has Star written all over her. Why is she wasting her time in a dive like this? The effective subplot features Fritz Wepper as a gigolo who attempts to seduce a wealthy Jewish heiress (Marisa Berenson). With Helmut Griem who turns the Minnelli/York romance into a menage a trois. The songs are by John Kander and Fred Ebb.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Burn After Reading (2008)

A satire of the Washington D.C. intelligence community by the Coen brothers. A CIA analysts (John Malkovich) with a drinking problem decides to write his memoirs after being fired, his adulterous wife (Tilda Swinton) uses his firing as an excuse to finally divorce her spouse and marry her lover (George Clooney), a paranoid Treasury department official. Meanwhile, two airheads (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand) who work at a local gym find a CD containing a draft of Malkovich's memoirs which they mistake for secret government files and blackmail him. This is Coen brothers lite, clearly in a wicked and playful mood. I don't think we're supposed to take much of this seriously because although it hits its mark frequently, like all satire it's exaggerated to make its point. The talented cast is up for it with Pitt getting the most laughs as a dingy personal trainer. The excellent percussive score by the Coen's regular composer Carter Burwell, consisting mostly of Japanese taiko drums, propels the film along. With Richard Jenkins, Jeffrey DeMunn, Elizabeth Marvel, J.K. Simmons and Dermot Mulroney.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Moonraker (1979)

After a space shuttle is hi-jacked in midair, James Bond 007 (Roger Moore) is sent to California to investigate. There he meets the billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) who build the space shuttle and Dr. Goodhead (Lois Chiles), a scientist on loan from NASA. The trail continues on to Venice, Italy and Brazil and eventually outer space as Bond discovers a diabolical plan to destroy the human race. The 11th entry in the Bond franchise, directed by Lewis Gilbert, is frequently maligned as one of the worst Bonds but the film was enormously popular upon its original release and it's actually one of my favorite Bond films. It's one of the best looking Bonds (photographed by Jean Tournier, DAY OF THE JACKAL), the elegant cinematography taking great advantage of the exotic locations and Ken Adam's terrific production design. The outer space sequences have a near magical quality about them though that may be due, in part, to the gorgeous John Barry score. Of the actors, Lonsdale's deadpan and droll villain stands out ("I'm going to put you out of my misery"). The haunting title song is performed by Shirley Bassey. With Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Corinne Clery, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewelyn and returning from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, Richard Kiel as "Jaws".

Beneath The 12 Mile Reef (1953)

Set in the Florida Keys, two rival families who dive for sponges clash over diving rights but when the Greek son (Robert Wagner) of one diver (Gilbert Roland) falls in love with the daughter (Terry Moore) of the patriarch (Richard Boone) of the rival clan, complications ensue. After the celebrated success of THE ROBE and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, this was the third film to be released in the CinemaScope format. Its simple Romeo & Juliet storyline is overshadowed by the underwater diving sequences, which while no doubt impressive in CinemaScope to 1953 audiences, result in tedium today and slow down the narrative. Wagner and Moore are likable enough but they lack the screen presence that's needed to keep us focused on the trifling storyline. The cinematography by Edward Cronjager received an Oscar nomination but the real star of the film is the eloquent score by Bernard Herrmann which binds the film together both below the sea and on the land. With J. Carrol Naish, Peter Graves, Angela Clarke, Jacques Aubuchon, Jay Novello and Harry Carey Jr.