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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

After 25 years of marriage, a man (Steve Carell) is stunned when his wife (Julianne Moore) asks for a divorce and admits an affair with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon). Tossed unceremoniously into the single life again, a player and ladies man (Ryan Gosling) takes him under his wing and thus begins a series of events that spiral into ways he (and the audience) never imagined. The title says it all. But this is no cute WHEN HARRY MET SALLY romcom or wild and crazy BRIDESMAIDS farce. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS) have created a marvelous examination on the messiness of love. The highs, the lows, the anger, the shame, the pain, the contradictions, the insanity of it. By turns both poignant and hilarious, the film feels fresh and vital. Carell gets a chance to show his acting chops and Gosling encompasses the shallowness of a gym rat perfectly but his transformation is subtle and believable and one of the most charming things about the film. Marisa Tomei gets as close to stealing the film as anyone playing a recovering alcoholic with impeccable comedic timing. Two youngsters, Jonah Bobo as a 13 year old in love with his sister's 17 year old babysitter played by Analeigh Tipton (who's in love with Carell) have just the right amount of sincerity and awkwardness. The rest of the cast is spot on including Emma Stone, John Carroll Lynch and Josh Groban. An absolute delight!

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

In 1873 Arizona, a man (Daniel Craig) awakens with no previous memory. When he arrives in the nearest town, he is arrested by the sheriff (Keith Carradine) for robbery and murder and put in jail. But when the town is suddenly attacked by alien spaceships which kidnap many of the town's citizens, the mysterious stranger becomes the town's only hope. With IRON MAN, director Jon Favreau proved it was possible to take a comic book summer blockbuster and turn it into an intelligent, creative and witty film. Based on a graphic novel, before the opening credit sequence is even finished, Favreau opens COWBOYS & ALIENS with panache and a punch and you relax knowing you're in good hands. Favreau knows what he's doing. The idea is so irresistible that you wonder why nobody had thought of it before and Favreau delivers what he promises. The very concept is rife with comic possibilities and he utilizes them but never patronizes the western genre. I'm not a fan of CGI but I have to admit this has some of the best I've ever seen. Of the actors, Harrison Ford rouses himself out of his recent lethargy and gives a nicely etched character performance as a grizzled land baron by way of Walter Huston. There's a stand out of a score by Harry Gregson-Williams when he's not competing with the ear splitting sound effects. A fine cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Paul Dano (THERE WILL BE BLOOD), Adam Beach and Clancy Brown. Good fun!

The Bat (1959)

A famous mystery writer (Agnes Moorehead) rents a creepy "old dark house" for the summer. Meanwhile, a killer known only as The Bat (who kills women by ripping out their throats with his claws) begins to terrorize her and her house guests. Directed by Crane Wilbur (probably more known for his screenplays like HOUSE OF WAX and HE WALKED BY NIGHT than as a director), this hoary old chestnut based on a 1920 stage play and previously filmed as a silent in 1926 and a talkie in 1930 is rather silly and shows its age. Certainly not scary by today's standards but if you're partial to those "it was a dark and stormy night" old dark house thrillers with secret passageways, hidden treasure and shadows on the wall, it can be good fun. The house itself is a real corker, expertly rendered by art and set directors Dave Milton and Rudy Butler. Vincent Price as a doctor experimenting on rabid bats doesn't have much to do except lend his authoritative presence. The B&W cinematography is by Joseph Biroc (an Oscar winner for TOWERING INFERNO). With John Sutton, Elaine Edwards, Gavin Gordon (BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), a grown up Darla Hood of The Little Rascals fame and Lenita Lane as Moorehead's maid in a performance so amateurish, it has to be seen to be believed.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Absence Of Malice (1981)

Frustrated in his attempts to break the case of missing union leader, an ambitious Federal prosecutor (Bob Balaban in a truly terrible, one dimensional performance) intentionally leaks misinformation to a reporter (Sally Field) who prints the story. This misinformation implicates an innocent man (Paul Newman) who the prosecutor wants to squeeze for information. This taut and well written screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, under Sydney Pollack's assured direction, is a clever examination of (un)ethical newspaper and government practices. Perhaps too clever because as entertaining as its "turn the tables" plot is, it's not very convincing. Its supporting characters seem like devices who function as pawns for the film's King and Queen, Newman and Field. There is one breakout performance that cuts through all the contrivances though. Melinda Dillon (in a justifiably Oscar nominated performance) as a fragile, chain smoking, anxiety ridden pal of Newman's who's responsible for the film's most wrenching moments. There's a fine score by Dave Grusin. With Josef Sommer, Luther Adler, Barry Primus, Don Hood and Wilford Brimley in a shameless performance as if he knew his one scene was his only chance to make an impression.

When The Boys Meet The Girls (1965)

A rich East Coast playboy (Harve Presnell) finds himself stuck against his will at an out of the way college in the Nevada mountains. But when a rancher's daughter (Connie Francis) catches his eye, he decides to help build a hotel on their property in order to get them out of debt. This third film version of the George and Ira Gershwin success GIRL CRAZY (Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney starred in the 1943 version) has a negligible and creaky plot to put it mildly (but to be fair, it probably had cobwebs on it way back when) which serves to showcase the movie's 12 musical numbers. The Gershwin tunes are supplemented by new pop songs of variable quality. It's a hodge-podge musical, where else could you see both Herman's Hermits, Louis Armstrong, Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs and Liberace all in the same movie? The best of the new stuff includes Francis's bouncy Mail Call and Herman's Hermits' Listen, People while the Gershwin classics are well served by a Francis/Presnell duet of But Not For Me and the film's big production number of I've Got Rhythm highlighted by Earl Barton's choreography. Directed by Alvin Ganzer. With Sue Ane Langdon, Joby Baker, Fred Clark and Frank Faylen.

Biruma No Tategoto (aka The Burmese Harp) (1956)

At WWII's end in Burma, a band of Japanese soldiers attempt to cross the border to Thailand when they receive word the war is over and they surrender to the British. But a private (Shoji Yasui) is asked by his captain (Rentaro Mikuni) to attempt to persuade a group of Japanese soldiers, still fighting in the mountains, to surrender. When that attempt proves a disaster, he dons a Buddhist monk's robe and begins his own spiritual journey. Kon Ichikawa's exquisite film is both lyrical and grieving as it probes the nature of human suffering amongst the mysteries of mankind's propensity for war. Far from being an "in your face" anti-war treatise, Ichikawa almost leisurely lets the protagonist's conversion from solider to monk take place as he brings to the forefront the lush Burmese vistas (superbly photographed in black and white by Minoru Yokoyama) and Akira Ifukube's moving score (one of the best Japanese film scores I've ever heard) to move the story forward. One of the most powerful pieces of Japanese cinema, the film was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar (losing to Fellini's NIGHTS OF CABIRIA). Apparently, Ichikawa remade the film in color in the 1980s.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965)

An omnibus film centered around three separate stories in three different countries, each utilizing the same yellow Rolls-Royce to frame the stories. The curtain raiser features a cuckolded British aristocrat (Rex Harrison) who presents the Rolls-Royce to his unfaithful wife (Jeanne Moreau) as an anniversary present. The second story features an American gangster (George C. Scott) and his moll (Shirley MacLaine) in Naples where she finds herself attracted to a gigolo (Alain Delon). The third and best is saved for last. A rich American widow (Ingrid Bergman) travels to Yugoslavia, just before the Nazi invasion, where she becomes involved with a band of Yugoslavian patriots headed by Omar Sharif. Directed by Anthony Asquith (THE BROWNING VERSION) and based on an original screenplay by Terence Rattigan (SEPARATE TABLES), the film has a glamorous sheen and aided by its all Star cast and striking locales though the middle segment sags the film down considerably until the Yugoslavian sequence picks up the pace. The score is by Riz Ortolani and features the song Forget Domani which became quite popular. With Art Carney, Edmund Purdom, Wally Cox, Isa Miranda, Joyce Grenfell, Michael Hordern, Moira Lister, Gregoire Aslan and Roland Culver.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

It Happened In Hollywood (1937)

A popular cowboy star (Richard Dix, CIMARRON) in silent films finds his limited acting skills are a deterrent to a successful transition to the talkies. As his actress girlfriend's (Fay Wray) career blossoms, he finds himself losing everything. The first half of the film is quite interesting and it looks for awhile like it's going down the A STAR IS BORN route (also released in 1937). One of the three credited screenwriters is future auteur Samuel Fuller and I wouldn't be surprised if his contributions were for the first half because the second section of the film becomes increasingly maudlin (a sick orphan becomes the focal point) and preposterous, very unlike Fuller. One can't find much sympathy for Dix's character. He gets a chance at a comeback but refuses to take it because playing a cop killer would tarnish his clean scrubbed image! It doesn't help that Dix's acting isn't all that much different from his character's stilted screen test. The highlight of the film is a Star laden party Dix gives to impress the sick orphan but since he's washed up, instead of real Stars he invites doubles who look like them. So we get to see imitators of Mae West, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Chaplin etc. Directed by Harry Lachman. With Franklin Pangborn as an acting coach.

Follow The Boys (1963)

Set in the French and Italian Riviera, the film follows four Navy "seagulls" (wife and girlfriends who follow the fleet) and their respective romantic mix ups and entanglements till everything is sorted out for the predictable happy ending. The Mediterranean vistas, attractively photographed in Panavision by Ted Scaife (THE DIRTY DOZEN) dwarf the slight plot-line but director Richard Thorpe (IVANHOE) doesn't do much to utilize the landscapes, it may as well have been shot in Hollywood rather than on location. The girls: Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, Janis Paige and Dany Robin (Hitchcock's TOPAZ) are exceedingly likeable and Francis gets to sing four songs, all of them fairly lacklustre though the title song was a top 20 hit for her. Their mates: Roger Perry, Russ Tamblyn, Ron Randell and Richard Long respectively make less of an impression.

Journey To Italy (aka Viaggio In Italia) (1954)

An English couple (Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders) travel to Naples in order to dispose of a house owned by a recently deceased relative. This journey precipitates a crisis in their relationship which is exacerbated by the relaxed and sensual Neapolitan atmosphere which contrasts with their sterile marriage. This uneven examination of a troubled bourgeois marriage contains many powerful moments. Derided upon its initial release, the film's reputation has since been embraced by the likes of Francois Truffaut and Martin Scorsese. The director, Roberto Rossellini, uses the historical landscape of Pompeii and Vesuvius as a metaphor for both the decay and lack of life (the couple have no children) in their marriage. Cinematically speaking, the highlights of the film are the four visits to cultural and historical sites: the museum, the caves, the sulfur pits and Vesuvius itself. Bergman and Sanders are quite good with Sanders in a refreshing change of pace from his jaded cad roles. Still, what is one to make of the abrupt and emotionally false "happy" ending which comes in the last two minutes of the film? I saw the 81 minute cut which seems to be the only available version of the film which might explain the phony ending. Apparently, the original cut was around 97 minutes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Looking For Love (1964)

A struggling singer (Connie Francis) gives up her dreams of show business and instead decides to pursue a career as a wife and mother. The object of her desire (Jim Hutton) shows little interest in her but ironically her show biz career begins to flourish. This slice of MGM romantic fluff was built around singer Francis. Coiffed by the great Sydney Guilaroff, stylishly gowned by Don Loper and beautifully photographed by the Oscar winning Milton Krasner (THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), she's never looked more glamorous. It's Sandra Dee territory except that Francis sings seven songs, most of them very good. The comedy isn't particularly fresh but the disastrous Be My Love with choreography by Robert Sidney production number is amusing. Directed by Don Weis. The large and able cast includes Susan Oliver, Joby Baker, Barbara Nichols, Jay C. Flippen (whose wife Ruth Brooks Flippen wrote the original screenplay), Jesse White, Chris Noel and cameos by Johnny Carson (in his film debut), Danny Thomas (who duets with Francis on I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me), George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux and Paula Prentiss.

The Actress (1953)

A stage struck teenager (Jean Simmons) is determined to become a stage actress despite her father's (Spencer Tracy) insistence that she become a physical education teacher. Based on the autobiographical play YEARS AGO by the Oscar winning actress Ruth Gordon (ROSEMARY'S BABY), the film never quite convinces us that Simmons has the talent nor the drive to become the successful stage actress that Gordon became. As an actress, we all know that Simmons has the acting chops so I'll scratch it to the script (also written by Gordon). Anyway, despite the film's title, the movie belongs to Tracy as her ex-seaman father. He walks his way through the film like a bull in a China shop (that's meant to be a compliment) bringing some much needed vitality. It compensates for the drab performance of Teresa Wright as the mother. Still, there are several amusing moments. Directed by George Cukor. With Anthony Perkins as Simmons' young suitor (his film debut), Mary Wickes, Jackie Coogan, Ian Wolfe and Kay Williams, who retired after this film to become Mrs. Clark Gable.

Monday, July 25, 2011

In The Valley Of Elah (2007)

Based on true events, a former military man (Tommy Lee Jones in an Oscar nominated performance) receives word his son (Jonathan Tucker) has recently returned to the U.S. and gone AWOL. After the son's body is found mutilated and burned, the father and a police detective (Charlize Theron) attempt to unravel the circumstances that led to his killing. Produced, written and directed by Paul Haggis (an Oscar winner for his CRASH screenplay), who structures his story in the form of a murder mystery. This allows Haggis to pull the viewer in and incorporate other themes like post traumatic stress disorder and the war in Iraq instead of a somber heavy handed treatise on the subject. Alas, the film was still a box office failure and it deserved a better fate. The film is not without its flaws. Haggis goes for some cheap shots with Theron's sexist "good ol' boy" police compatriots who don't add anything to the film. Haggis is lucky in his acting trio, Susan Sarandon as Jones's wife is the third member, who all bring an almost elegiac gravitas to the proceedings. The film's final shot is a real punch in the gut. The refined score is by Mark Isham. With Josh Brolin (in the film's only bad performance), Jason Patric, James Franco, Frances Fisher, Barry Corbin and Wes Chatham.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Kapo (1959)

In WWII Paris, a 14 year old Jewish girl (Susan Strasberg) and her parents are taken to a concentration camp where the parents are executed. With the help of a doctor, she takes over the identity of a dead girl who isn't Jewish and slowly in her attempt to stay alive finds herself dehumanized as she becomes a kapo, a prisoner warden of the other prisoners. One of the first films to directly deal with the Holocaust, this Gillo Pontecorvo (BATTLE OF ALGIERS) film was an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film. By concentrating almost entirely on an individual character, Pontecorvo is able to more fully examine the effects of the Holocaust and how an innocent Jewish girl becomes not only a victim of the Holocaust but eventually of her own conscience as well. The fragile Strasberg gives a strong nuanced performance though it may be difficult to judge the full impact of the performance as the American actress is dubbed into Italian. Though the film has a standard narrative style, visually it has a documentary look courtesy of Aleksandar Sekulovic. The ineffective score by Carlo Rustichelli. With Emmanuelle Riva (HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR), Laurent Terzieff and Didi Perego.

Midnight Bayou (2009)

After jilting his fiancee, an attorney (Jerry O'Connell) gives up his Boston practice and impulsively buys an old Southern mansion in Louisiana bayou country. But soon he begins seeing and re-living images of the house's past residents of a 100 years ago and hearing voices and it's not long before he discovers the mansion's dark history and how he is tied up with it. This contrived possessed house potboiler directed by Ralph Hemecker, based on a Nora Roberts novel, should be a lot more fun than it is. Even its supposed "dark secrets" are easy to figure out. Too much time is expended on the contemporary romance between O'Donnell and Lauren Stamile and while both are appealing presences, they are defeated by the trite dialogue and situations they are given to play. Faye Dunaway as Stamile's cornbread baking granny and Isabella Hoffman as Stamile's junkie white trash mother fare better with more interesting characters to play. The authentic New Orleans, both city and countryside, locations are a treat to see under Anghel Decca's lensing.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sword Of Lancelot (aka Lancelot And Guinevere) (1963)

King Arthur (Brian Aherne) sends his most valued knight Sir Lancelot (Cornel Wilde) to bring the Princess Guinevere (Jean Wallace) back to Camelot to be his wife and Queen of England. But he doesn't count on Lancelot and Guinevere falling in love on the journey back to Camelot. With the exception of some well done battle scenes, this is a rather dull affair. Although in real life married at the time, Wilde and Wallace don't give off much heat. There's much talk of passion but very little of it is visible. Wallace as Guinevere is problematic. She's a wispy voiced and wan Guinevere and as written, she's not very likable either. Wilde does very well in his physical scenes (he's an excellent swordsman) but a rather pallid lovesick knight and his dubious French accent doesn't help things. Aherne does well as King Arthur in his second time around (the first, PRINCE VALIANT from 1954). Wilde is pretty much responsible for everything. In addition to playing Lancelot, he directed and co-wrote (under a pseudonym) and was one of the producers. The colorless Ron Goodwin score is of no help but the wide screen Panavision images of Harry Waxman (THE WICKER MAN) are handsomely rendered. With George Baker and Adrienne Corri.

West Side Story (1961)

Animosity between two rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, over turf reaches raging proportions. Against this rivalry, a romance develops between an ex-Jet (Richard Beymer) and the sister (Natalie Wood) of the Sharks' leader. This re-imagined, contemporary telling of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET is one of the landmark film musicals, a stunning achievement on several levels. The sublime score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the astonishing choreography by Jerome Robbins (who shares co-directing credit with Robert Wise) stand out, of course, but the contributions of Boris Leven's remarkable production design, Daniel L. Fapp's beautiful work as cinematographer and Thomas Stanford's Oscar winning editing are not to be dismissed. It's easy to take a musical like this for granted with all the awards and praise lavished on it through the ensuing decades but a fresh viewing displays a film to which the adjective "timeless" is apt. The lovely Wood makes for a poignant Maria (though her performance is slightly marred by Marni Nixon's bland generic soprano) and while poor Richard Beymer is barely there as Tony, he doesn't hurt the film. As for the rest, Rita Moreno is perfection, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris are spot on (though Chakiris's Oscar win is questionable). With Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, Tucker Smith, Tony Mordente and David Winters.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Accidental Husband (2008)

After his fiancee (Justina Machado) breaks off their engagement on the advice of a radio relationship guru (Uma Thurman), a fireman (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) plots his revenge. His young computer whiz neighbor (Jeffrey Tedmori) hacks into New York City public records and creates a marriage certificate between Morgan and Thurman. This doesn't sit well with Thurman's fiance (the ubiquitous Colin Firth, surprisingly charmless here). Actor turned director Griffin Dunne's romantic comedy is an unoriginal retread of countless romantic comedies we've seen before. A half hour passes before anything remotely amusing occurs and even then the film makers don't take full advantage of the comic possibilities. Thurman lacks the comedic chops of a Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock and her idea of being funny is flapping around manically but it's doubtful even a Doris Day could have salvaged this rom-com. The likeable Morgan seems to be channeling Brad Garrett while Firth doesn't try at all! Strictly by the numbers. With Isabella Rossellini, Keir Dullea, Brooke Adams and Sarita Choudhury.

Great Expectations (1946)

A young boy (Anthony Wager) provides a kindness to an escaped convict (Finlay Currie) who is soon recaptured. Later, an eccentric woman (Martita Hunt) invites him to her estate so she can watch him play with her ward (Jean Simmons). The consequences of these events determine the boy's future as a young man (John Mills). This not quite faithful rendering of the Charles Dickens novel is one of David Lean's best films. Unlike so many films based on classic literary works, there's a vitality and texture that keeps the spirit of the novel so that one can overlook the handful of incidents that have been eliminated or changed from the novel's transition to the screen. The only major nuisance is the foisted happy ending which seems terribly at odds with all that preceded it. While Mills and Valerie Hobson (who plays the adult Simmons) don't make any false steps, they lack the perfection of their cast mates who seem to have walked right out of the pages of the novel. Most notably Hunt, Currie, Wager who's such a natural that he puts Hollywood's child actors of the era to shame and a young Alec Guinness as Mills' compatriot. Guy Green (who would later become a director himself) won an Oscar for the fleecy B&W cinematography and there's a beauty of a score by Walter Goehr. With Francis L. Sullivan, Bernard Miles, Torin Thatcher and Freda Jackson.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

A race car driver (Elvis Presley) arrives in Las Vegas for the Las Vegas Grand Prix but gets distracted by a pretty redhead (Ann-Margret) who works as the hotel's pool manager. He not only has to overcome her aversion to auto racing but the debonair Italian (Cesare Danova) who is his chief romantic rival. This light hearted (and lightweight) MGM musical is the best of Presley's musicals. Most of Presley's musicals were designed around him and padded out with Elvis songs which rarely had anything to do with the plot. This film comes with the pedigree of some MGM musical veterans. The producer Jack Cummings was responsible for 7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS, the screenwriter Sally Benson wrote MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and the director George Sidney directed the 1951 SHOW BOAT and it shows. If there was ever a match made in movie heaven, it was Presley and the sizzling Ann-Margret (hot off BYE BYE BIRDIE) who matches The King twitch for twitch. The sensational title song was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and done in a single take without any cuts. The choreography is by David Winters. With William Demarest, Nicky Blair and one of the dancers is Teri Garr.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Blackbeard The Pirate (1952)

A doctor (Keith Andes) is secretly working to prove that "ex-pirate" Sir Henry Morgan (Torin Thatcher) still engages in piracy. However, he is taken prisoner, along with the beautiful Linda Darnell, by the notorious pirate Blackbeard (Robert Newton). Shot in Technicolor by William Snyder (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and directed by the veteran Raoul Walsh, this high seas swashbuckler isn't very inventive though some of it is clearly tongue in cheek, particularly in the back and forth banter between Newton and William Bendix. In actuality, there's not much difference between Newton's playing of Blackbeard and his Long John Silver from TREASURE ISLAND. Andes is a rather stolid hero but the doe eyed Darnell is every boy's dream of a damsel in distress. A minor footnote in the chronology of pirate movies but mildly entertaining. The score is by Victor Young. With Richard Egan, Irene Ryan and Anthony Caruso.

Piranha (1978)

An insurance investigator (Heather Menzies, THE SOUND OF MUSIC) and a hard drinking hermit (Bradford Dillman), while looking for two missing hikers, stumble across a former military installation. To their horror, they discover that a covert government operation has bred a sturdy strain of piranha that are near indestructible and on their way down the river devouring swimmers, fishermen and tourists! This cheesy, silly piece of nonsense has inexplicably become a cult favorite. I just found it tacky and poorly constructed. To be fair, the screen writer John Sayles has infused the script with generous doses of humor ("Piranha? What about the piranha?", "They're eating the guests, sir") which tends to be more sophomoric than witty. There's not one moment of legitimate horror or tension. It plays more like a JAWS rip off than anything else. Still, as I said, there are those who have a great affection for it. The dull score by Pino Donaggio (CARRIE) doesn't help at all though he wrote a lovely piece for Dillman's underwater swim. Directed by Joe Dante. With Keenan Wynn, Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele (overdoing the dragon lady bit), Bruce Gordon, Dick Miller, Brenda Balaski and Paul Bartel.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bottom Of The Bottle (1956)

Set in an Arizona border town separated from Mexico by a river, a wealthy and respected rancher (Joseph Cotten) finds his escaped convict brother (Van Johnson), a recovering alcoholic, hiding in his garage and asking for help. He needs to cross the river where his wife (Nancy Gates) and children are waiting but the river is flooded. The past animosities and bad blood between the brothers come to a head and Johnson falls off the wagon. This rather intimate story about two brothers and whether one is or should be "thy brother's keeper" seems dwarfed by the CinemaScope format and color by Deluxe, it would have been better served in black and white though Lee Garmes' handsome landscape shots are well composed. Johnson is very good here though he plays the his alcoholic scenes more like a mental case than a drunk. The film also allows a solid role for the undervalued Ruth Roman as Cotten's wife, a woman who covers up for an unhealthy marriage by being the life of the party. Based on the novel by the French novelist Georges Simenon and directed by Henry Hathaway. The effective underscore is by Leigh Harline. The large cast includes Jack Carson, Margaret Hayes, Bruce Bennett, Peggy Knudsen, Brad Dexter, Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Sandy Descher and Margaret Lindsay.

Tonight And Every Night (1945)

In WWII London during the Blitz, a music hall vows never to close its doors in order to make its show available to the soldiers 24 hours a day whenever they get leave. A romance develops between an American showgirl (Rita Hayworth) and an English pilot (Lee Bowman). This Victor Saville directed musical is loosely based on the true story of London's Windmill theatre which was told somewhat more accurately in the 2005 film MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS. As a musicals go, this one is pretty anemic. The backstage story is hackneyed, the songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn are forgettable (though one of them called Anywhere was nominated for a best song Oscar) and though everyone (except Hayworth) are playing Brits, no English accents are even attempted. The two bright spots are Hayworth, looking luscious in three strip Technicolor, and the choreography by Jack Cole, highlighted in the Latin flavored number You Excite Me. With Janet Blair, the athletic dancer Marc Platt (7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS), Florence Bates, Ann Codee and Shelley Winters.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Above And Beyond (1952)

The true story of Col. Paul Tibbets (Robert Taylor), the pilot of the Enola Gay which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and of the intense secrecy behind the testing and preparations of the event. It is this very secrecy which nearly destroys his marriage to his wife (Eleanor Parker). This is a very fervent and vivid film, co-directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama (THE COURT JESTER), which manages to curtail the usual cliches of wartime movies and instead focus on the realities of strain and stress on both the military men and their wives, almost to the breaking point. Sadly, though the film ends on a positive note, several years after the film was released, the Tibbets did end their marriage. In most films of this sort, the domestic scenes are a drag but here, they have a purpose and Parker brings an admirable restraint to her hysteria which she has a tendency to overdo (AN AMERICAN DREAM and MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM come to mind). The actual bombing of Hiroshima is superbly done, invoking the mixed emotions of getting the job done yet realizing the full horror they have unleashed. The Oscar nominated score by Hugo Friedhofer is one of the best film scores I've ever heard. With James Whitmore, Marilyn Erskine, Larry Keating, Jeff Richards, Larry Gates, Jim Backus, Barbara Ruick and Steve Dunne.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Baaria (2009)

In a tiny Sicilian village called Baaria, the film follows three generations and 60 years from the 1920s through the 1980s. The main protagonist is Peppino (Francesco Scianna), the son of a shepherd, who becomes a committed communist during WWII. He falls in love with the lovely Mannina (Margareth Made) and they raise a family but his commitment to communism keeps him away for much of the time even as he slowly becomes disillusioned. I've never understood the great affection for director Giuseppe Tornatore's CINEMA PARADISO that most film lovers have but Tornatore's work here, though flawed, is both ambitious and beautiful. Though the film clocks in at 2 1/2 hours, the film seems choppy. Tornatore tries to cram too many stories, too many incidents and too many characters in the running time so that we never quite have the time get to know anybody but Peppino and his wife. Fortunately, the appealing Scianna and fetching Made hold our interest. The film needs a more leisurely pace. I suspect that a director's cut would run closer to 4 hours and I'd love to see that version. Visually, the film is stunning, Enrico Lucidi's wide screen images among the most beautiful I've ever seen and at times, it seems enough to just bask in those images. The ending is a real beauty. The gorgeous score is by Ennio Morricone. The massive cast includes Angela Molina and Monica Bellucci.

Up Close And Personal (1996)

An ambitious young woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) from Nevada with aspirations to work in the TV news industry starts from the bottom at a local TV station in Miami. There, she is both mentored and romanced by a former TV journalist (Robert Redford), who used to be a major player before his career took a nosedive. How this film, which started out as a film bio on the late TV newswoman Jessica Savitch (the film's credits say it was "suggested" by a Savitch bio) who lead a dramatically tragic life that screamed out to be made into a movie, turned into this phony cliched mess directed by Jon Avnet (FRIED GREEN TOMATOES) is almost a movie in itself. The producers wanted a more commercial movie so all the drugs, abortions, suicides and death were all excised. So what we get is a movie about an incompetent ninny (Pfeiffer) who can't make it without being saved by her all knowing, worldly guy (Redford). It's a terribly sexist film. We never find out drives Pfeiffer, what makes her want to be a journalist other than she wants to be a "Star". Even as the film winds to a close, it's Redford who's the true hero of the movie, not Pfeiffer who's essentially a wind up doll with Redford pushing the buttons. The film's big set piece is a dangerous prison riot with Pfeiffer caught in the action but when Redford gets through to her via a remote in the middle of the riot, what does she say? She romantically coos, "I was just remembering when we went fishing in the Keys"! An offensive film and not only to journalists. With Stockard Channing who's a breath of fresh air, Kate Nelligan (who's wasted), Joe Mantegna, James Rebhorn, Raymond Cruz and James Karen.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Woman Obsessed (1959)

After her husband (Arthur Franz) is killed in a forest fire, a woman (Susan Hayward) on a rural Canadian farm hires a quiet, if coarse, man (Stephen Boyd) to help with the farm chores. After the town gossips start talking, she decides to marry him, not only to quell the rumors, but to provide a father for her 7 year old son (Dennis Holmes). But soon after the marriage, the new husband and the boy clash and things take a turn for the worse. This rustic soap opera was directed by the veteran Henry Hathaway (NORTH TO ALASKA) but it's lazily made. After the husband's death, we jump to a month or so. We never see how Hayward accepts the news of her spouse's death or how it affects the child, both important elements considering how the story unfolds. The CinemaScope photography by Oscar winning William C. Mellor (PLACE IN THE SUN) is often quite handsome as it investigates the landscapes but there is a lot of clumsy rear outdoor projection shots that frequently clash with the realistic mountain settings. Hayward emotes away as the miscast Boyd (the role needed a less refined actor) broods and even the normally reliable Hugo Friedhofer can't manage much in the way of a decent score. With Theodore Bikel, Barbara Nichols, Ken Scott and James Philbrook.

The Burning Plain (2009)

After her mother (Kim Basinger) is killed in an explosion with her lover (Joaquim De Almeida, who's pretty bad), a teenager (Jennifer Lawrence, WINTER'S BONE) begins to replicate the affair with the son (JD Pardo) of her mother's lover with dire consequences. As an adult woman (Lawrence morphs into Charlize Theron), she carries two terrible dark secrets. This first feature film directed by Oscar nominated screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (BABEL), the film has a fractured non-linear time structure. The film opens in the present before jumping back and forth between Basinger's and De Almeida's affair, Lawrence and Pardo's affair and Theron's emotionally sterile, promiscuous present. It's a morose piece of celluloid and despite an excellent central performance by Theron, it all seems a pretty pointless exercise in style. I think we're supposed to be sympathetic to Basinger's character but she comes across as pretty selfish. Lawrence's character is problematic. She's a strange if complex teen but we're not sure if it's because of the mother's behavior or something inherent in her character. While the film is not without interest, ultimately it's a noble failure. The dreary score is by Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Hans Zimmer. With John Corbett, Rachel Ticotin (TOTAL RECALL), Robin Tunney, Danny Pino, Tessa La and Jose Maria Yazpik.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Johnny Allegro (1949)

An ex-gangster (George Raft), who once escaped from prison without completing his time, is contacted by a U.S. Treasury agent (Will Geer) to go undercover and infiltrate a counterfeit ring with a vague promise that it might pardon him. This enjoyable potboiler, directed by Ted Tetzlaff (THE WINDOW), has too many familiar elements from other thrillers (like THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME for one) to be original but it's fast paced and there's always something happening. The enervated Raft, never much of an actor, is already starting to show his age here and he has no chemistry with his leading lady, a sexy Nina Foch. But the lush, jungle like island setting off the coast of Florida (it's actually an arboretum near Pasadena, California) is a marvelous playground. George Macready as the sinister crime king seems to be doing yet another retread of his GILDA role. The active score is by George Duning. With Ivan Triesault and Gloria Henry.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Target Earth (1954)

Four people find themselves in a deserted city after it was evacuated without them. A businessman (Richard Denning) was mugged and knocked unconscious, a woman (Kathleen Crowley) took an overdose of sleeping pills in a failed suicide attempt and a bickering couple (Virginia Grey, Richard Reeves) were drunk. What they can't figure out is why the city was evacuated until they come face to face with invaders from Venus! This black and white "B" sci-fi flick, directed by Sherman A. Rose, is based on a short story, DEADLY CITY by Paul Fairman. Despite its obvious low budget (the robot invader from Venus looks pretty cheap), the film manages to present an effectively realistic panorama of a deserted city, in this case Los Angeles shot in the wee hours of the morning before people and traffic could ruin the shots. Grey and Reeves go the extra mile and gives us some interesting characters, an unmarried couple together for 10 years tossing wisecracks and insults at each other but in the end, completely devoted to each other. The constantly interrupting scenes in an Army lab where they're analyzing how to defeat the robot army are pretty tiresome. The martial score is by Paul Dunlap. With Robert Roark as an escaped murderer and Whit Bissell as a scientist.

The Shadow Box (1980)

Set in a cancer hospice nestled in the California mountains, three sets of people and their loved ones must contend with terminal illness. A bisexual teacher (Christopher Plummer) being cared for by his lover (Ben Masters) gets a visit from his flamboyant ex-wife (Joanne Woodward). A blue collar worker (James Broderick) is visited by his wife (Valerie Harper), who hasn't accepted the finality of his illness, and their son (Curtiss Marlowe). A spinster (Melinda Dillon) must deal with her abusive mother (Sylvia Sidney) who is also suffering from dementia. Directed by Paul Newman (who doesn't appear in the film) with a screenplay by Michael Cristofer based on his award winning play. The play not only won the 1977 Tony for best play but also won the Pulitzer prize for drama. That such a mediocre play should win both awards indicates that it was a weak year for American drama. While the hillside setting is beautiful (filmed at a Salvation Army retreat in Calabasas, California), Newman can't hide the theatricality of the piece. I couldn't help feel sorry for the actors who give it their all but seem unaware that the lines they're spouting are unredeemable. With the exception of Dillon who somehow cuts through all the crap and manages to indicate a semblance of a real human being, the cast is defeated. Masters being particularly bad. The quiet score is by Henry Mancini.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ride A Crooked Trail (1958)

When a fleeing bank robber (Audie Murphy) arrives in a new town, he is mistaken for the lawman that was pursuing him by the town's judge (Walter Matthau). When an old flame (Gia Scala, GUNS OF NAVARONE) shows up, Murphy persuades her to pose as his wife until an opportune moment when he can rob the town's bank. But her current boyfriend (Henry Silva) also has plans to rob the bank. This is a wonderful, tight (it runs 88 minutes) little western that manages to infuse the proceedings with a lot of humor (mainly the interplay between Murphy and Scala posing as husband and wife) in addition to the suspenseful situation (will they or will they not be found out?) amidst the usual western familiarities. It's obvious that Matthau, even with the gray powdered into his hair, is too young for the hard drinking judge but that doesn't stop him from overacting shamelessly! Fortunately, it's balanced out by Murphy's underplaying. Harold Lipstein (DAMN YANKEES) handled the CinemaScope lensing. With Joanna Moore, Leo Gordon, Mary Field and Eddie Little as the river rat "adopted" by Scala and Murphy.

The Great Man's Lady (1942)

A 100 year old woman (Barbara Stanwyck) reflects on her life from her beginnings as a young Philadelphia socialite to pioneer woman to boarding house owner to gambling fancy woman. But mostly it's about her relationship with a beloved and respected statesman (Joel McCrea), who we find out via her history wasn't always so well intentioned. It's a juicy, wonderful part for Stanwyck (her aging make up is superb!) and she really sinks her teeth into it. But the film itself is lacking. Considering how overlong most films are, it seems odd to complain about a film being too short but at 90 minutes, it seems large blocks of the story are left out. The story itself has the making of an Edna Ferber like epic (or at least a television mini series) but the movie seems like highlights from a longer, more complete film. Thus, the underrated Brian Donlevy as the lovestruck gambler who hangs around waiting for Stanwyck to see the light gets the short end of the stick. One wants to see more of the complexities of his and Stanwyck's relationship. The director, William Wellman, gets unaccountably treacly toward the end. The film's last 15 minutes are pretty hard to digest. Worth seeing for Stanwyck's work and Wellman completists. With K.T. Stevens, Lloyd Corrigan, Mary Treen and Charles Lane.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Seventh Sign (1988)

In Haiti, a mass of dead fish wash up on the beaches. In Israel, an entire city is wiped out in the desert ..... frozen by ice! The moon turns blood red. A boy (John Taylor, an actor with actual Downs Syndrome) kills his parents (who also happen to be brother and sister) because God told him to. In California, a pregnant housewife (Demi Moore) rents a room above her garage to a mysterious stranger (Jurgen Prochnow) who, along with a Vatican emissary (Peter Friedman) have an unusual interest in her and her unborn child. Directed by Carl Schultz (CAREFUL HE MIGHT HEAR YOU), as far as apocalyptic end of the world movies go, this one isn't half bad. If you can get past the difficulty of accepting Demi Moore being the world's savior, you'll be rewarded with a taut race against time thriller. Oh sure, there's the far-fetched literal interpretations that seem inherent in these kinds of movies but if you can't accept them, then these movies don't work at all but does anyone take them seriously? The unsettling score is by Jack Nitzsche. With Michael Biehn (THE TERMINATOR) as Moore's husband, Manny Jacobs as a young Hasidic scholar, John Heard, Akosua Busia and Lee Garlington.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Party Girl (1958)

In 1930s Chicago, two hardened and cynical individuals, a criminal lawyer (Robert Taylor) who works for the mob and a showgirl (Cyd Charisse), reassess their lives when they fall in love. But starting over may not be so easy when a power mad mob boss (Lee J. Cobb) threatens them both if they deviate from his wishes. Nicholas Ray directs this stylish, candy colored gangster drama that is as far away from the B&W gritty Warner gangster movies of the 1930s as you can get. But Ray isn't interested in the "realism" of those films. Beautifully shot in CinemaScope (a format that Ray proved he was a master of with REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and BIGGER THAN LIFE) by Robert Bronner (WHERE THE BOYS ARE), Ray creates a claustrophobic atmosphere where the bruised lovers (an upscale version of his lovers from THEY LIVE BY NIGHT) are thwarted by the circumstances of their own distrust which has turned in on them and of which they are now its victims. Used here principally as an actress, Charisse gets to do two splashy dance numbers which only add to the near surrealism of Ray's vision. With John Ireland, Kent Smith, Claire Kelly, David Opatoshu, Corey Allen, Carmen Phillips, Barbara Lang, Myrna Hansen, Vaughn Taylor and Geraldine Wall.

The Abdication (1974)

Queen Christina (Liv Ullmann) of Sweden abdicates her throne and flees to Rome where she expects to convert to Catholicism and be given Holy Communion by the Pope himself. Once there, however, her motives are questioned and it is up to a Cardinal (Peter Finch) to probe further before allowing her access to the Pope. The film's historical accuracy is dubious but it's based on a play by Ruth Wolff (who also did the screenplay) and while the film is visually affluent thanks to Geoffrey Unsworth's (2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY) lensing, Peter J. Hall's costume design and the art and set direction from Terence Marsh and Alan Tomkins, it's still basically a talk piece with Finch and Ullmann passionately arguing over the nature of love, God and humanity. It's the kind of Oscar bait material that cries out "prestigious" but the film's weighty pretensions found no favor with either audiences or critics. To be fair, strong actors that they are, Ullmann and Finch's scenes together often crackle but they're constantly being interrupted by tedious flashbacks to pad out and open up the film. There's a potent score by Nino Rota. With Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Byron and Michael Dunn whose part seems to have nearly been cut out of the film.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Letyat Zhuravli (aka The Cranes Are Flying) (1957)

At the outbreak of WWII in the Soviet Union, two young lovers (Tatyana Samoylova, Aleksey Batalov) are separated when he goes to the war front. As months pass and Samojlova hasn't heard from Batalov, she despairs and after being raped by his brother (Aleksandr Shvorin) in her desperation she agrees to marry him. But her guilt over betraying her lover festers and threatens to destroy her. The winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1958 Cannes film festival (the film's title comes from Chekhov's THREE SISTERS), Mikhail Kalatozov's melodrama must have seemed near revolutionary at the time coming from Russia but without an agenda of pro communist, anti-western propaganda. But that aside, it's a heartbreaking saga of love, betrayal and guilt. Kalatozov was a professed admirer of Vincente Minnelli and this can clearly be seen by his homage to Minnelli's wartime romance THE CLOCK specifically in the parting at the station when Batalov goes off to war. The central performance by Samojlova (ANNA KARENINA) is wonderful and she has a screen presence worthy of an Audrey Hepburn. Kudoes too to Sergei urusevsky's stark B&W cinematography, the only sour note being Moisey Vaynberg's mediocre score. I can't imagine anyone not being touched by the film's finale.

Larry Crowne (2011)

When a divorced, middle aged man (Tom Hanks) is let go from his store manager's job because of a lack of formal education, he decides to attend the local community college. Directed by and co-written by Hanks (along with MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING's Nia Vardalos), you would think a story of a 50ish man being fired, losing his house and having to start all over would be a hard hitting and relevant topic in today's recessive economy. But instead of exploring the hardships and difficulties of such a situation, Hanks turns it around into a "feel good" movie as if audiences wouldn't be able to hand the reality. Forrest Gump without the mental deficiency. Hanks' screen presence is as charming as ever but his Larry Crowne, as written, isn't a very interesting character. By default, Hanks turns the picture over to Julia Roberts' character who's much more compelling. A resentful, alcoholic, pill popping teacher who hates her job and is stuck in a bad marriage. Now, that's something the audience can relate to! I dreaded the moment when Hanks would make Roberts' character all warm and fuzzy but to his credit, he doesn't ... well, not quite. With her sassy screen presence, there's no way you can make Roberts cuddly. No to LARRY CROWNE, yes to Julia. With Bryan Cranston, Pam Grier, Taraji B. Henson, George Takei, Rita Wilson and Cedric The Entertainer.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Little Minister (1975)

In rural Scotland in the mid 1800s, the daughter (Helen Mirren) of an aristocrat disguises herself as a Gypsy so that she may move freely among the local villagers and also warn them of soldiers who, at her father's behest, plan to arrest some of the locals. However, as the Gypsy she also catches the eye of the town's prim young minister (Ian Oglivy) who is unaware of her true identity. Based on the J.M. Barrie novel and play, which was previously filmed in 1934 with Katharine Hepburn, the film suffers from a surfeit of quaint supporting characters intended to provide color and atmosphere but instead are mostly annoying. It's not so much in the writing as in the performances but they overdo the Scottish brogues and the performances are so obviously calculated to be charming but they seem condescending instead. Luckily, Helen Mirren doesn't fall prey to the "cutes" and instead gives a genuinely charming performance with ease and Oglivy matches her though his role is essentially colorless. It's the kind of dated play that doesn't wear well unless somehow re-thought out by a more imaginative director. Cedric Messina wasn't one of them.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Sodom And Gomorrah (1962)

As the wicked Prince of Sodom (Stanley Baker) plots to take the throne away from his evil sister the Queen (Anouk Aimee), Lot (Stewart Granger) leads his Hebrew tribe through the desert hoping to establish a homeland on the river Jordan. Lot and the Queen form an uneasy truce as she allows them to make the land their own in exchange for tribute and defense. Robert Aldrich, the gritty director of such films as KISS ME DEADLY and WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, seems an odd choice to direct a biblical epic. He doesn't seem to have much interest in the project but despite that, it's surprisingly fun. It's a curious hybrid of a movie, lacking the production values and glamour of such Hollywood epics as THE ROBE or TEN COMMANDMENTS yet possessing an intelligence absent from the usual Italian sword and sandal peplum, it belongs to neither yet has attributes of both. There's an exciting and well done battle between the Hebrews and the Elamites that may be the work of the second unit director, Sergio Leone. Anouk Aimee, looking more like Joan Crawford than ever, steals the movie as the lesbian Queen with a penchant for sadism. There's a strong score by Miklos Rozsa and Maurice Binder did the striking main title sequence (which reputedly took 3 days to film). The cast includes Pier Angeli as Lot's wife, Rossana Podesta (HELEN OF TROY), Claudia Mori and Rik Battaglia, Scilla Gabel and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I Married A Witch (1942)

A warlock (Cecil Kellaway) and his witch daughter (Veronica Lake) are burned at the stake in colonial Salem. But before being burned and her ashes imprisoned under an oak tree, she puts a curse on the man (Fredric March) who denounced her that he will never be happy in love. Jump a couple of hundred years later and Lake's and Kellaway's spirits are released from the oak tree and she plans to exact her revenge on March's descendant. This lightweight frothy farce, directed by Rene Clair (AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT), is amusing enough if unmemorable and plays out like a well done sitcom. It came full circle when it was actually turned into the popular 60s TV sitcom, BEWITCHED. As he proved in NOTHING SACRED, March could be an excellent farceur and he makes for a wonderful straight man to Lake's purring vixen. The Roy Webb score was nominated for an Oscar. With Susan Hayward, who can't do much with her one dimensional spoiled bitch part, Robert Benchley and Elizabeth Patterson.

Phenix City Story (1955)

The true story of the venal and corrupt Phenix City, Alabama (known as "sin city" because of its gambling, drugs and prostitution) and how the political assassination of its honest state Attorney General nominee (John McIntire) outraged its citizens and martial law was declared in an attempt to rid the city of its criminal element. Directed by Phil Karlson, the film is filmed in a faux semi documentary style. What stands out the most about the film is its depiction of the graphic violence and brutality (including the cold blooded murder of a black child) that occurred and which the film doesn't flinch from. It's crude, even awkward, film making but you can't deny its raw power. Unfortunately, the film begins poorly with a stone faced broadcast journalist, Clete Roberts, interviewing some of the actual citizens and participants of the story. While it may have been effective in 1955, today it comes across almost as a parody of itself and it does Karlson's visceral film an injustice. In fact, some prints excise it altogether. The large cast includes Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, James Edwards, Biff McGuire, John Larch, Jean Carson and Meg Myles.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nine Hours To Rama (1963)

Feeling that Mahatma Gandhi (J.S. Casshyap) is responsible for the partition of India as well as appeasing the Muslim population to the detriment of the Hindu, Naturam Godse (Horst Buchholz) sets in motion a plot to assassinate the beloved leader. Meanwhile, when a police superintendent (Jose Ferrer) uncovers the plot, he realizes he has only 9 hours to prevent the assassination. A predominantly fictionalized account of the events leading up to Gandhi's assassination, director Mark Robson (PEYTON PLACE) manages some genuine suspense but it's frequently dissipated with flashbacks involving Buchholz's romance with a sophisticated married woman (Valerie Gearon, ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS) which has nothing to do with the main story but allows the attractive screen presence of Gearon to take over. Also problematic is the presence of non-Indian actors playing Indians like the German Buchholz, the American Ferrer, the British Robert Morley etc. opposite genuine Indian actors which undercuts the believability. The musically authentic score is by Malcolm Arnold and the BAFTA nominated cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson who shows the Indian locations to advantage. With Diane Baker, very good as a prostitute, Harry Andrews and Don Borisenko.

Radio Days (1987)

Set in the early 1940s, an unseen narrator (Woody Allen) recalls growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Queens and how the radio shows of the day provided entertainment, adventure and romance for his family. Written and directed by Allen, the film has no plot but rather it's a series of anecdotes and incidents (both amusing and poignant) of growing up tinged with nostalgia as well as some gossipy stories about the radio personalities they listened to. I don't think Allen's ever been so heartfelt in his film making, his usual cynicism taking a backseat to loving memories. This is one of Allen's most perfect films with everything falling into place and not a flaw to be seen. Allen is greatly aided by the Oscar nominated art and set direction of Santo Loquasto and team and the spot on costumes of Jeffery Kurland. And, of course, his impeccable ensemble cast whose standouts include Mia Farrow as a ditzy cigarette girl in a posh nightclub, Dianne Wiest as a hopeless romantic and a young Seth Green as the narrator's young self. The huge cast includes Diane Keaton, Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Wallace Shawn, Danny Aiello, Kitty Carlisle, Josh Mostel, Kenneth Mars, Tito Puente, Robert Joy and Danielle Ferland.

The Wild Country (1970)

A family (Steve Forrest, Vera Miles with Clint and Ron Howard as their sons) from Pennsylvania resettles in Wyoming hoping to make a go out of farming. But they must contend with both the elements and man, specifically the rancher (Morgan Woodward in the film's best performance) whose dam intentionally withholds the water from their land. Since this is a Disney movie, the film espouses the usual wholesome family values but there's a strong element of violence that's unusual for a Disney film. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about the film but there are two sequences that stand out. A horse giving birth is handled very well and there's a well done tornado sequence, the more impressive considering there were no computer generated images used like there would be today. Young Ron Howard is a rather colorless actor, it's probably just as well that he turned to directing but still, he's far better than his younger brother Clint who is just awful here. The beautiful Wyoming locations are nicely rendered by Frank Phillips' cinematography. Robert F. Brunner is responsible for the derivative score (it sounds like watered down Jerome Moross). With Jack Elam in a rare good guy role, Frank DeKova, Dub Taylor and Karl Swenson.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two For The Seesaw (1962)

A soon to be divorced attorney (Robert Mitchum) from Nebraska moves to New York City to start a new life and becomes romantically involved with a neurotic beatnik (Shirley MacLaine). Based on the Tony award winning play by William Gibson (MIRACLE WORKER) and directed by Robert Wise, the play doesn't translate well to the screen. It's one thing to have a one set, two character play under the proscenium but as cinema, it's pretty monotonous unless the dialogue is scintillating or poetic (like Tennessee Williams). Gibson's isn't. For almost two hours, the Mitchum and MacLaine characters banter back and forth and eventually come up with what we knew from the beginning. They're a mismatched couple. Director Wise makes a few half-hearted attempts to "open up" the film but to no avail. Fortunately, it helps that the two characters are played by Mitchum and MacLaine, two bona fide Stars with strong screen presences. It's always a pleasure to watch them but it's a pity the material isn't better. It's the kind of play that's outdated which might account for why it's rarely revived today. There's a nice bluesy score by Andre Previn and the crisp B&W Panavision cinematography by Ted D. McCord (THE SOUND OF MUSIC). With Ken Berry and Elisabeth Fraser.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Michael Clayton (2007)

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a "fixer", an attorney for a prestigious law firm that uses whatever means necessary to cover up or provide information through influence and/or connections for the often unethical actions of their clients. When another of the firm's attorneys (Tom Wilkinson) has an emotional breakdown during a high profile case, Clayton is assigned to minimize the damage. This leads him thru a labyrinth of deceit, corruption and murder. This is an intense and compelling film that justifies our paranoia about American big business. The director Tony Gilroy propels the film forward like precision clockwork, never a wasted moment. Clooney's performance is the title role is pretty awesome with just the right amount of self loathing yet possessing a vulnerability borne out of desperation. The film ends with a long, beautifully sustained uncut close up of Clooney that may be the greatest close up since Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA. The rest of the cast is just as perfect especially Tilda Swinton (who wan Oscar for her work here) as the consul for an unscrupulous firm, Sydney Pollack, Ken Howard and Michael O'Keefe. The subtle Oscar nominated score is by James Newton Howard.

Our Hospitality (1923)

In the 1830s, a young man (Buster Keaton) travels to Kentucky to claim an inherited estate. While traveling he becomes smitten with a young beauty (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton's wife), unaware that she is the daughter of the family that has had a blood feud with his family for years though nobody can remember why. Directed by Keaton along with John Blystone, this was Keaton's first feature length narrative film. Of the famed comedians of the silent era (Chaplin, Harold Lloyd), Keaton had the most astute visual sense and it's displayed here as the camera lovingly lingers on the Kentucky (actually California and Oregon) landscapes as well as the forerunner of the locomotive, a steam engine that pulls what looks like stagecoaches along a primitively laid track. Quite unusual, Keaton begins his film quite seriously with two tragic deaths before subtly transitioning to comedy. The film's set piece is probably the impressive waterfall sequence (which would probably be done with CGI today) which seems strongly influenced by Griffith's WAY DOWN EAST. There's a comedic bit involving domestic violence that doesn't play well today. With Joe Roberts as Talmadge's father who suffered a stroke during filming and died shortly after.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Westbound (1959)

During the war between the states, a Union officer (Randolph Scott) is relieved of his duties and asked to take over the stagecoach line that transports gold from the West for the Union. Confederate sympathizers headed by an old nemesis (Andrew Duggan), now married to the woman (Virginia Mayo) Scott once loved, plot to prevent the gold from reaching the Union. The sixth of the seven collaborations between Scott and director Budd Boetticher, this was the only one of the bunch not produced by Scott and Harry Joe Brown but instead was a purely director for hire project for Boetticher. Which doesn't mean it's inferior to their other six collaborations. Running a little over an hour, Boetticher packs the film with as much excitement and color as he can and the film is unusually violent for its era but Scott's character lacks the motivation that makes his character so compelling in previous collaborations as THE TALL T and RIDE LONESOME. David Buttolph did the score and Peverell Marley (HOUSE OF WAX) is responsible for the cinematography. With Michael Pate whose black-hearted villain is one dimensional, the luminous Karen Steele, Wally Brown and Michael Dante (NAKED KISS) as Steele's husband, a one armed solider returning from the war.