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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

An internationally famous symphony conductor (Rex Harrison) suspects his young wife (Linda Darnell) of having an affair with his male secretary (Kurt Kreuger). While conducting a concert with his wife in attendance, he fantasizes about a way of killing her and placing the blame on her lover. After the concert, he attempts to carry out his plan. This often witty black comedy written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges was a box office flop despite encouraging reviews when first released. It's easy to see why. In his fantasy, Harrison slashes Darnell's throat so viciously he almost decapitates her! Hardly the stuff 1940s audiences would find amusing. It's failure signified the end of Sturges' comedic reign in Hollywood. The verbal wit of the first 2/3 of the film is replaced by some slapstick which simply isn't as funny as the stuff that preceded it. Still, when it sparkles, it ranks with the best of Sturges great comedies like THE LADY EVE and THE PALM BEACH STORY. The film was so undervalued for so long that now its dangerously close to being overpraised. Still, an essential film in the Sturges catalog. With Rudy Vallee, Barbara Lawrence and Lionel Stander.

Hollywood Wives (1985)

Hollywood wives, second wives, ex-wives and daughters struggle to keep their position in the hierarchy of Beverly Hills social standing as well as forwarding careers of either their husbands or themselves. Among the participants: a kleptomaniac (Candice Bergen) married to a fading actor (Steve Forrest), a writer (Stefanie Powers) married to an Oscar winning English director (Anthony Hopkins), the director's ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy), a blackmailing sex symbol (Suzanne Somers), a studio head (Rod Steiger), a powerful agent (Angie Dickinson), the promiscuous daughter (Mary Crosby) of a legendary actor (Robert Stack), a pimp (Roddy McDowall) for male escorts and a struggling actor (Andrew Stevens) and his wife (Catherine Mary Stewart). Who doesn't like to wallow in lurid trash, based on the book by Jackie Collins, like this occasionally? The first three hours is sleazy fun with the lurid plots, overripe dialogue, hideous 80s hairdos, Nolan Miller's DYNASTY fashion toss offs and Laura Branigan's disco title song. But the last hour and a half is a thumping bore as they tie up the loose ends of the increasingly preposterous plot. Andrew Stevens has a dual role, in addition to the struggling actor, he plays a homicidal psychopath and it's a toss up as to which performance is the worst. Directed by Robert Day. With Frances Bergen, Julius Harris and Fran Ryan.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Lone Gun (1954)

A stranger (George Montgomery) in town is hired as a sheriff by the town's mayor (Fay Roope) because of a series of cattle rustling. But when push comes to shove, the new Marshal finds that he has no one but himself to stand up to the outlaws. This run of the mill "B" western doesn't have much to offer than the usual western fare. Fist fights, gunfights, stand offs, gamblers, horses, beautiful vistas, an upright sheriff, a pretty gal in gingham and a happy ending. The most interesting character in the film is the amiable gambler played by the reliable character actor, Frank Faylen (THE LOST WEEKEND), who's framed for murder. He's the only one in the film who's not a stock character and the one character you're hoping nothing bad happens to. Directed by Ray Nazarro. With a brunette Dorothy Malone who has nothing to do but look fetching and Neville Brand, Robert J. Wilke and Douglas Kennedy as the bad guys.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

After suffering a nervous breakdown involving her wealthy husband's (Alec Baldwin) financial downfall and suicide, a woman (Cate Blanchett) attempts to get a fresh start by moving to San Francisco and living with her sister (Sally Hawkins). She is unable to disguise her contempt for her sister's downscale lifestyle and taste for "loser" boyfriends. Woody Allen's latest film is a variant of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with a juicy role for Cate Blanchett as a woman slowly unraveling before our eyes. Unfortunately, there's not a note of authenticity in Blanchett's performance. True, if you look upon her character a phony (which there is some justification for) then it plays better but even phonies have flashes of honesty. One can see the wheels turning in Blanchett's mannered performance as she carefully connects all the dots like a good little actress but it's a forced performance. It's the kind of acting that Allen's former muses, Keaton and Farrow, did effortlessly. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is Allen's condemnation of his lead character as a justification of his own peccadilloes. Set in San Francisco (affectionately shot by Javier Aguirresarobe THE OTHERS), one wonders how much time Allen actually spent there as two of his characters (played by Bobby Cannavale and Max Casella) are straight out of Brooklyn rather than the West Coast! Hawkins is pretty terrific here, not only giving the film's best performance but the film's most likable character. With Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tammy Blanchard.

Tristana (1970)

After her mother dies, a young girl (Catherine Deneuve) is taken in by an older friend (Fernando Rey) of her late mother. But the young girl's innocence is soon corrupted when the old man seduces her and becomes both father and husband to her. Loosely based on the novel by Benito Perez Galdos, Luis Bunuel's perverse examination of his favorite topics: the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, the impracticality of the Church, all with the impudent touches that mark it indubitably as a Bunuel film. In one of her best performances (even if she is dubbed into Spanish), Deneuve captures the innocence of a child/woman as she slowly finds her own voice but eventually becomes as venal as the man who exploited her. There's not much of the irreverent wit among the perversities that Bunuel usually injected into his films, this is a pretty bleak melodrama. But it stands with the best of his work. With Franco Nero as the lover who almost frees Deneuve from the clutches of her tormentor, Lola Gaos and Jesus Fernandez.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Swing Time (1936)

A gambler (Fred Astaire), accompanied by his friend (Victor Moore), goes to New York to make his fortune so he can marry the woman (Betty Furness) he loves. Instead, he meets a dance teacher (Ginger Rogers) and they form a partnership and he becomes conflicted about returning to the girl he left behind. Quite possibly the best of the Astaire & Rogers collaborations, the film is near flawless on all levels. First off, there are those exquisite Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field songs including A Fine Romance, Pick Yourself Up and the sublime Oscar winning The Way You Look Tonight. The choreography by Hermes Pan is perfection including Bojangles of Harlem and the transcendent Never Gonna Dance, considered by many to be the apex of the Astaire & Rogers dances. Then there's the second bananas, the droll Helen Broderick and bumbling Victor Moore, who manage to hold their own every bit of the way. Directed by George Stevens, whose contribution makes the film stand a notch or two above the other Astaire & Rogers movies. With Eric Blore and Georges Metaxa.

The Card (1952)

An ambitious washerwoman's son (Alec Guinness) weasels his way through opportunity and charm to wealth and position. That about sums up this amusing British comedy based on the popular 1911 Arnold Bennett novel. It's a rare romantic leading man role for Guinness and while he's no Cary Grant, he's got enough charm to be convincing as an unabashed opportunist able to win friends and influence people. His meteoric rise might be a bit quick to be authentic but that's not the point of the film, is it? Supporting Guinness in the fun are a bevy of talented actresses, notably Glynis Johns as a Guinness's female equivalent, a golddigging temptress who manages to latch on to any man with a healthy bank account. There's also winsome Petula Clark, Valerie Hobson as Guinness's first conquest, Veronica Turleigh and Joan Hickson. Retitled THE PROMOTER in America, it was turned into a musical in 1973. Directed by Ronald Neame (PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE). With Michael Hordern, Wilfrid Hyde White, Edward Chapman and Joey, the mule (yes, he actually gets billing!).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thunder Island (1963)

Set in Puerto Rico, a professional hit man (Gene Nelson, OKLAHOMA!) is hired by a woman (Miriam Colon, SCARFACE), who represents an underground political group, to assassinate a former dictator (Jose De San Anton). An ex advertising executive (Brian Kelly, TV's FLIPPER), who now charters his boat to tourists, is forced to help the hit man to protect his wife (Fay Spain). This little "B" movie is unexpectedly well done for the most part. Taut and lean, it wastes no time in getting down to business. Based on a screenplay co-written by a young Jack Nicholson (yes, the actor), the director Jack Leewood (normally a producer of "B" movies like THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE) efficiently prods the movie along while keeping us absorbed in the story. Alas, the film goes flat in the last ten minutes or so as Kelly runs around an island chasing Nelson. The CinemaScope lensing by John M. Nickolaus Jr. is polished though the B&W cinematography doesn't do justice to the lush Puerto Rican locations. With Art Bedard and Evelyn Kaufman.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dive Bomber (1941)

A Navy flight surgeon (Errol Flynn) clashes with a daredevil pilot (Fred MacMurray) but they eventually put their difference aside to work together in an attempt to solve blackouts during nose dives as well as high altitude sickness. This overlong (it runs over two hours) aviation adventure needed cutting shears applied to it. Plenty of Technicolor footage of planes taking off, planes flying in formation, planes doing nose dives, planes landing until it ultimately becomes tedious. The irony is that the aerial footage is the best thing about the film! We also could have dispensed with Alexis Smith's character who pops up every now and then to assure us that Flynn and MacMurray are heterosexual. There's a tight no nonsense action picture in there if only the fat were trimmed. As it stands, the aviation buffs will probably enjoy the flying sequences but everyone else will be bored. Still, Bert Glennon's Oscar nominated color cinematography is quite nice. Max Steiner's military score is shamefully lazy. Directed by Michael Curtiz (his 12th and final film with Flynn). With Ralph Bellamy, Craig Stevens, Robert Armstrong, Regis Toomey, Ann Doran and Allen Jenkins.

Top Secret Affair (1957)

The powerful owner (Susan Hayward) of a publishing empire resents it when a U.S. Army General (Kirk Douglas) is appointed to a government position she had hoped to go to a personal friend. So she invites the General to her country house for the weekend, ostensibly to do an in depth interview for her magazine but in reality, a hatchet job to destroy his reputation. Very loosely based on the novel by John P. Marquand (creator of the Asian detective, Mr. Moto), the film is a sophisticated romantic comedy which plays out like a filmed play even though it wasn't. It's dialogue heavy and most of the central action takes place at Hayward's estate with a lengthy finale at a congressional hearing. Hayward and Douglas are about the last two actors one would think of when casting a romantic comedy. More famous for their often heavy handed intensity in their film work, neither possesses the light touch necessary for this kind of movie. Though to be fair, they were last minute substitutes for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who bowed out of the film when his fatal illness made him too sick to work. There are glimpses of what might have been like an amusing scene where Douglas attempts to teach Hayward the art of Judo defense or a drunk Hayward doing the Samba with a lead footed Douglas but it just doesn't light up. Directed by H.C. Potter (MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE). With Jim Backus, Paul Stewart and the director John Cromwell as Douglas' commanding officer.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Scorchers (1991)

Set in the steamy Louisiana bayou during a wedding party, several stories criss cross: the frightened bride (Emily Lloyd) who refuses to give up her virginity on her wedding night, a gun toting bridesmaid (Jennifer Tilly) who goes on the warpath looking for her adulterous husband and a small bar where a tired streetwalker (Faye Dunaway), the town drunk (Denholm Elliott) and the bartender (James Earl Jones) exchange philosophies. Based on his play, David Beaird directs from his own screenplay adaptation. With the exception of a long opening monologue by Leland Crooke set in front of an artificial bayou backdrop, Beaird manages to avoid making his movie look like a filmed play despite the emphasis on dialogue over a visual style. The first half is a rather amusing sex comedy, sassy and lively. Unfortunately, the second half goes all serious and the spark dies out and what we get is a rather ponderous drama with Emily Lloyd talking to her dead mother in an empty chair and Faye Dunaway analyzing Tilly's sexual problems. It's a short film so that if you make it through the first half, you may as well stick through the second half. At least the Louisiana bayou locations are authentic. With James Wilder as the frustrated bridegroom and Anthony Geary (TV's GENERAL HOSPITAL) as a preacher and a steady customer of Dunaway's hooker.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Black Gold (1962)

Set in the oil boom of 1920s Oklahoma, a wildcatter (Philip Carey) joins forces with a beautiful woman (Diane McBain) in drilling for oil on her property without much success. But that doesn't stop a ruthless oil baron (Claude Akins) from wanting control of their oil properties. This rather lackluster programmer shot in B&W on the Warner Brothers backlot plays like an unsold television pilot cobbled together to make a feature film though it was, in fact, made for cinemas. The second string cast consists of early 60s TV regulars. In addition to Carey, McBain and Akins, there's Fay Spain and James Best. There are a myriad of reasons why Carey and Best never broke through to the "A-list" and they're all on display here. Akins and Spain fare best since their roles allow them a little more detail in their characterizations while McBain, looking like she stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, is eye candy. It's the kind of film where one is always a step ahead of the predictable screenplay. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. With William Phipps, Dub Taylor and Iron Eyes Cody.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Member Of The Wedding (1952)

A gawky 12 year old tomboy (Julie Harris in her film debut) is no longer a child but not yet a woman. As she struggles with her pubescence, her identity and her place in the world, her 7 year old cousin (Brandon De Wilde) and a black housekeeper (Ethel Waters) provide companionship. Based on the play by Carson McCullers by way of her novel, this is an outstanding presentation of that terrible period in (most of) our lives where we don't fit our skins, where we don't belong and we're on the outside looking in. But McCullers' insightful work goes beyond the usual "coming of age" stories. It's about being different and not fitting because of that difference (though this is more explicit in McCullers' novel). Her dialogue is as good as Tennessee Williams at his best, so it's a pity she wasn't more productive as a playwright. Anchored by an unforgettable performance by the great Julie Harris (who died today which motivated me to rewatch it), she effortlessly plays a 12 year old at the age of 26 and she's utterly convincing! And when I say unforgettable, it's not hyperbole, once seen you'll never forget her performance. But equally remarkable is Ethel Waters who exhibits a lifetime of adversity and grief in her face and body language. Skillfully directed by Fred Zinnemann with a subtly evocative score by Alex North. With Nancy Gates, Arthur Franz and James Edwards.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

On a cotton plantation in 1920s Georgia, after his mother (Mariah Carey) is raped and his father (David Banner) is killed standing up to the rapist (Alex Pettyfer), a young boy (Aml Ameen) is taken in as a house servant by the rapist's mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Thus begins a long journey of serving the white man that eventually leads to the White House as butler (Forest Whitaker) from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan administration. What could have been a heavy handed treatise on racism becomes, under director Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) deft guidance, a stirring odyssey through several decades of America's growth. Oh sure, we've seen it all before: civil rights movements, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam war etc. but this is no FORREST GUMP! Daniels is even handed here, the film's African-American protagonists are far from the noble Sidney Poitier archetype and even the film's white racists like Redgrave's crotchety Southern matriarch are allowed to show glimmers of humanity. That Whitaker gives an outstanding performance is no surprise. He's simply one of the best and most reliable actors working in film today. It's Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker's chain smoking, gin guzzling, sex hungry wife that's the surprise. It's her best performance yet! Sadly, Daniels who kept his previous films like PRECIOUS and THE PAPERBOY edgy to its last frames, goes all huggy "I love you" sentimental toward the end. The large ensemble cast is impeccable, even the famous actors playing cameos essentially, give us real people not star turns. Among them: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, James Marsden (X-MEN) as JFK, Alan Rickman as Reagan and Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley (HAIRSPRAY), Clarence Williams III and Yaya DaCosta who, if there's any justice, will go far.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Les Soeurs Bronte (aka The Bronte Sisters) (1979)

In the bleak English countryside, the three Bronte sisters (Isabelle Adjani as Emily, Isabelle Huppert as Anne, Marie France Pisier as Charlotte) and their brother Branwell (Pascal Gregory) live an austere existence with only each other and their creativity to give them solace. The film's running time reputedly had a three hour running time cut down to two hours. I suppose it's a blessing in disguise as the two hours we have move at a snail's pace and one shudders at sitting through three hours of such tedium. On the downside, that missing hour might have provided more insight into the lives of the Bronte family especially their creative drive which is all but absent from the film. I suppose one could carp at a movie about three famous English sister novelists living in the isolated Yorkshire moors being made in and by the French but Hollywood had been making films about France with American casts for years so what's good for the goose ..... but that's the least of the film's problems. It's just as lifeless as the gloomy Northern England setting on display despite the attempt by three of France's best actresses to breath life into it. Directed by Andre Techine. With Jean Sorel, Helene Surgere and Patrick Magee (dubbed into French) as the Bronte patriarch.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

An English girl (Margaret Lockwood) on her way back to England via train to get married becomes friendly with an elderly governess (Dame May Whitty). When she wakes up after a nap, she inquires into the whereabouts of her traveling companion, only to be told the woman doesn't exist! Attempts to get others to believe her prove fruitless until a young musicologist (Michael Redgrave) decides to assist her in her investigation. The apex of Alfred Hitchcock's British period easily demonstrates why the anonym Master Of Suspense was quickly conferred upon Hitchcock. Most of his strengths and none of his weaknesses are on view here. The brisk pacing, the sly wit, the subtle double entendres, romance and mayhem and quickly etched characterizations from the leads down to the smallest supporting roles. I don't know that Redgrave has ever been as appealing on film again. Remade in 1979 but not as skillfully. With Paul Lukas, Googie Withers, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers and as the prototypical cricket obsessed Englishmen, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford whose characters proved so popular that they appeared in three other films.

Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)

A dissipated pianist (Louis Jourdan) arrives home late one night after being challenged to a duel early that morning. Upon his arrival, his servant (Art Smith) gives him a letter. The letter chronicles the lifelong love for the musician by the letter's writer (Joan Fontaine), who is dying. Max Ophuls' elegant and tragic tale of an obsessive love that's never returned in kind is his greatest American film and with the possible exception of the exquisite THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE..., perhaps his greatest film period. On the technical level alone, it's an awesome achievement. The detailed recreation of 19th century Vienna by art director Alexander Golitzen (SPARTACUS), the set decorations by Russell Gausman and Ruby Levitt, the meticulous costumes of Travis Banton and the polished B&W cinematography of Franz Planer (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) are impeccable. But it's not just a handsome costume picture. Ophuls' portrait of the compulsive passion of its heroine is probably matched only Hitchcock's VERTIGO in its intensity and ultimate tragedy. Fontaine gives one of her very best performances, far more believable here as a 14 year old than in THE CONSTANT NYMPH. With Mady Christians and Howard Freeman.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Raw Deal (1948)

When a convict (Dennis O'Keefe) breaks out of jail with the help of his girlfriend (Claire Trevor), they hightail it to San Francisco where the escapee expects a $50,000 payoff from the mobster (Raymond Burr) that he took the fall for. Along the way, they take a pretty social worker (Marsha Hunt) as a hostage but things become uncomfortable when Trevor realizes O'Keeefe is falling for Hunt. An early noir effort by Anthony Mann, the film is unusual in several ways. The voice over is by Trevor's moll rather than the hero and one can't help but be touched by her one man woman who realizes she's losing her man and can't do anything to stop it. It's rather disheartening because we see what O'Keefe doesn't ... that Trevor is the better woman. Burr's villain is a bit of a coward and even his henchman (John Ireland) is derisive of him. There's also a scene that presages the famous coffee in the face of the heroine scene in THE BIG HEAT by five years but Burr tosses a flaming dessert to his mistress (Chili Williams) instead. John Alton's (ELMER GANTRY) expert B&W lensing practically defines film noir cinematography with its shadows, reflective surfaces and fog. The only element that seems off is Paul Sawtell's synthesizer laced score which more often than not suggests a science fiction movie rather than a noir. Also in the cast: Regis Toomey and Whit Bissell.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Betrayed (1954)

During WWII, a Dutch intelligence officer (Clark Gable) reluctantly sends a woman (Lana Turner) into the Nazi occupied Netherlands as a spy even though he is suspicious of her loyalties. Her mission is to join forces with a Dutch resistance fighter (Victor Mature). The story itself has a potential that the script doesn't take advantage of but miscasting compromises any chance of believability. The scowling Gable, a brunette Turner and the swaggering Mature are more Hollywood than ever and placed in actual Holland locations and a European cast, they stand out like Wall Street brokers in a "hippie" commune. Turner looks quite pert in her brunette locks but she compensates for her miscasting by getting all actress-y and while it works beautifully in BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL or IMITATION OF LIFE, it's quite out of place here. This was the last of the four movies Turner and Gable did together and the chemistry on display in the previous three isn't in evidence here. Directed by Gottfried Reinhardt (TOWN WITHOUT PITY). The large supporting cast includes Louis Calhern, Wilfrid Hyde White, Nora Swinburne, Niall MacGinnis, Roland Culver, Anton Diffring and O.E. Hasse.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Don Giovanni (1979)

The notorious lech and womanizer Don Giovanni (Ruggero Raimondi) kills the father (John Macurdy) of a woman (Edda Moser) he attempted to seduce. She makes her fiance (Kenneth Riegel) swear to avenge her father's death. Meanwhile as the libertine attempts to make a new conquest (Teresa Berganza), a discarded flame (Kiri Te Kanawa) arrives on the scene seeking revenge. Joseph Losey's film of Mozart's opera is not a filmed opera but an opera movie. It's not just the sumptuous visuals and the Venice locations (though the Mozart opera is set in Spain) though they help. Losey and his cinematographer Gerry Fisher's camera glides sinuously around and puts us in the thick of the action rather than keeping us at a distance. Opera on film can be problematic. What works on an opera stage is often at a disadvantage on film. Raimondi's Don Giovanni could well make a compelling Giovanni on stage but the camera reveals a rather portly unattractive middle aged man, not the most convincing of Casanovas. Also conventions that are acceptable on stage are glaring on film. For example, when Don Giovanni and his servant (Jose Van Dam) wear masks of each other's faces in order to confuse Giovanni's conquests, everyone seems to ignore the fact that the masks are immobile and held by hand and we can easily see the real person's face underneath! Still, it's a stunning looking film and gloriously sung and some of the performers (especially Te Kanawa) seem quite comfortable in front of the camera.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Parent Trap (1961)

At a summer camp in the mountains, a girl from Boston (Hayley Mills) meets a girl (also Hayley Mills) from California and they're astonished at how much they look like each other. When they discover they share the same birthdate, they begin to piece together that they were twins who were separated as infants when their parents divorced. They switch identities so each can meet the parent they never knew. Has anyone who saw this film in their adolescence ever forgotten it or outgrown it? It has an overwhelming pull that goes beyond mere nostalgia. Based on the German book DAS DOPPETTE LOTTCHEN by Erich Kastner, director David Swift (HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING), who also did the screenplay, has crafted a charming fable that taps into the fantasies of children of divorce. Despite a wonky American accent, Mills does a credible job in differentiating the contrasting twins, one a tomboy and the other a perfect young lady. As the divorced parents, Maureen O'Hara (looking gorgeous) and Brian Keith make for an attractive couple (they did Peckinpah's DEADLY COMPANIONS the same year) and Joanna Barnes makes for a marvelous golddigger, her "fish out of water" camping trip scenes are hilarious. Remade in 1998 with Lindsay Lohan as the twins. Also in the cast: Leo G. Carroll, Charles Ruggles, Una Merkel, Cathleen Nesbitt, Ruth McDevitt, Linda Watkins and Nancy Kulp.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Vantage Point (2008)

When the President of the United States (William Hurt) attends a summit on terrorism in Spain, he is shot and his assassination is followed by two large explosions killing many people including spectators. The film then shows the assassination from the vantage points of several people including secret service agents, terrorists and tourists and with each new vantage point, we get another clue that will eventually let us see the whole picture. This is a clever, rapid fire political thriller that (with the exception of one stupid scene) is quite a nail biter. Whenever any film shows the same story from a different perspective, they are almost inevitably likened to Kurosawa's RASHOMON and not favorably either. It's not fair and especially not fair with this film. RASHOMON showed us the impossibility of knowing the truth as each man saw his own truth. VANTAGE POINT has no such existential aspirations, it's a straight forward action piece that uses a gimmick (not unlike Nolan's MEMENTO) as a fresh way of spicing up a story that if presented chronologically would be routine. The film's dumbest WTF? moment is when some terrorists on the run, after they've detonated a bomb killing masses of innocent people, swerve a car to avoid hitting a little girl ... as if. Directed by Pete Travis. The large cast includes Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, Matthew Fox, Zoe Saldana, Bruce McGill, Edgar Ramirez, Ayelet Zurer and James Le Gros.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Le Sang D'un Poete (aka The Blood Of A Poet) (1932)

An artist (Enrique Rivero) wipes away the mouth of a portrait he is drawing and finds the mouth has attached itself to the palm of his hand ... and it speaks to him! Thus begins Jean Cocteau's surrealistic journey of images that have no narrative tying them together. I suppose one could attempt to decipher a theme or a "message" from Cocteau's dream like voyage but why? It works perfectly well as a visual equivalent of a literary form. It's not what it means so much as what it makes you feel or project onto it. The film is purposely cryptic: a statue coerces a man to jump through a mirror, an abused child floats to the ceiling to avoid his tormentor, a lethal snowball kills a boy, an elegantly dressed couple play cards by a dead body whose guardian later literally absorbs the boy into himself, etc. One could call it Cocteau in Wonderland and you wouldn't be far off! The film is brief (less than an hour) but its images will stay with you much longer than that.

Across The Pacific (1942)

Set just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a man (Humphrey Bogart) is court-martialed from the U.S. Coast Artillery for embezzling funds. In disgrace, he sets sail on a Japanese freighter that will pass through the Panama Canal. Once on board, he become involves in some intrigue involving a beautiful woman (Mary Astor), a pro-Japanese doctor (Sydney Greenstreet) and a Japanese-American (Victor Sen Yung). The film has many of the key personnel from THE MALTESE FALCON: in addition to the three leads, there's director John Huston, cinematographer Arthur Edeson and composer Adolph Deutsch. Needless to say, it's nowhere near as good. Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet essentially do a variation on their MALTESE characters. Repeating a line from FALCON, Bogart even says to Astor, "You're good!" when he suspects duplicity on her part. It's a serviceable propaganda piece that moves along amiably until it falls flat on its face at the end. Its problems are probably mainly due to the fact that the film faced a hasty rewrite (it was supposed to be about subverting an attack on Pearl Harbor then Pearl Harbor got bombed for real) and that Huston left the film before it was finished. With Lee Tung Foo, Frank Wilcox, Richard Loo, Keye Luke, Frank Faylen, Anthony Caruso and Philip Ahn.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Secret Of The Incas (1954)

A less than ethical adventurer (Charlton Heston) works as a tour guide in a secluded but picturesque village of Cuzco in Peru. What he's really interested in though is a bejeweled gold relic buried in a tomb in the Andes. Accompanied by a Romanian refugee (Nicole Maurey), he steals a plane and they make the treacherous climb to Machu Picchu where the tomb is located but they find an archaeological expedition already there digging for the tomb. Great fun! Clearly the source of inspiration of Spielberg's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the similarities are too striking to overlook. Especially Heston's costume of a brown leather bomber jacket and fedora hat! The movie isn't laden with the special effects of Spielberg's film, its simple pleasures coming from an often subtly humorous script, Heston's devil may care hero and exotic Peruvian locations. The popular (at the time) Peruvian singer Yma Sumac has a small role and sings two songs in her four octave range (when she hit her high notes, my cat's ears started quivering!). Directed by Jerry Hopper. With Robert Young, Thomas Mitchell, Glenda Farrell, Marion Ross and Michael Pate.

Lovelace (2013)

A young Florida girl (Amanda Seyfried) falls under the spell of a seedy bar owner (Peter Sarsgaard). They get married and he builds her into the famous porn star known as Linda Lovelace, the star of DEEP THROAT. A rare narrative film by the documentary film makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (LIFE AND TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, THE CELLULOID CLOSET), it's a two for one movie. The first part of the film charts Lovelace's entry into the porn business and her rise. The second part shoots back in time and shows us what went on behind closed doors and it's not a pretty picture. There are contradictions in Lovelace's allegations regarding her being forced into porn by Chuck Traynor. Yet there are others who collaborate her allegations. Whatever one chooses to believe, the film gives lie to the belief that porn is harmless and doesn't hurt anybody. The phone scene between Lovelace and her father (Robert Patrick) just about breaks your heart. There's a delicacy and an innocence innate in Seyfried that is in direct contrast to the real Lovelace, who was anything but. Still, she gives a gutsy performance that bodes well for her future as an actress. The film's biggest misstep is that Sarsgaard's Traynor is such an obvious scumbag that one wonders what Lovelace could possibly have been attracted to. Surely the film could have given him some level of charm or likability to mask the demon underneath. The large supporting cast includes Sharon Stone as Lovelace's coldly sanctimonious mother, James Franco as Hugh Hefner, Bobby Cannavale, Chris Noth, Chloe Sevigny, Wes Bentley, Debi Mazar, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple and Adam Brody.

The Story Of Esther Costello (1957)

When a wealthy American (Joan Crawford) visits a small Irish village, the local priest (Denis O'Dea) introduces her to a blind and mute teen-aged girl (Heather Sears) living in dire poverty. The woman takes the girl under her wing and educates the girl and after their story is published in the newspapers, she starts a fund to help other blind persons. But when her estranged husband (Rossano Brazzi) enters the picture, the charity grows until it becomes a money making and exploitation machine. Based on the novel by Nicholas Monsarrat (which is much harsher than the film), the film is a decent effort that balances melodrama with the "message" film but it's no IMITATION OF LIFE in that department. In one of her best later film performances, Crawford is remarkably restrained (for her) and shows how effective she could be using the less is more approach. But the film belongs to young Sears (who won a BAFTA best actress award for her work here) giving a delicate and nuanced performance. A good portion of the film takes place in America but the film was shot in Britain and utilizes English actors playing Americans without much conviction. Directed by David Miller (LONELY ARE THE BRAVE). With Lee Patterson, Ron Randell, Fay Compton, John Loder and Bessie Love.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Oliver! (1968)

In the mid 1800s, an orphan (Mark Lester) runs away from a workhouse to London where he falls in with a group of child pickpockets and thieves led by a devious crook (Ron Moody). On the face of it, Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST would seem an unlikely subject for a musical but the show (with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart) was a hit in both London's West End and on Broadway. Carol Reed's film adaptation ranks with the greatest movie musicals ever made. Reed doesn't attempt to make the film a wholesome family musical. Dickens' darkness is still there whether in the grim workhouse surroundings, Bill Sikes' (Oliver Reed, the director's nephew) chilling sadist and his physical abuse of his mistress Nancy (Shani Wallis) or Fagin's (Moody) criminal exploitation of the children. Yet there are moments of sheer joy like the early morning Who Will Buy? number and the lovely I'd Do Anything that are so jubilant that it brings tears to your eyes. Reed has a huge assist from John Box's incredible Oscar winning production design and Onna White's stunning choreography (so impressive that she was voted an honorary Oscar for her work here). The performances are uniformly excellent. With Jack Wild, Harry Secombe, Hugh Griffith, Peggy Mount, Leonard Rossiter and Megs Jenkins.

Shatter (1974)

After he assassinates an East African dictator (Yemi Ajibade), a hitman (Stuart Whitman, looking tired) arrives in Hong Kong to collect his $100,000 payment. Instead, he finds himself the victim of a double cross. The assassination was not for political motives but mercenary ones and the syndicate that hired him plan to make him the fall guy. The hitman, with the assistance of a Kung Fu master (Lung Ti, John Woo's A BETTER TOMORROW), carefully plots his revenge. This sloppy mixture of vendetta thriller and Kung Fu action seems hastily pasted together. The Hong Kong locations are nice to look at and have some ambience but the Kung Fu choreography isn't particularly exciting and the plot line is often confusing. The film was started by Monte Hellman (TWO LANE BLACKTOP) but he was fired after three weeks and the producer Michael Carreras (PREHISTORIC WOMEN) took over the directorial reins which might account for the slapdash feel. The cheesy 70s score is by David Lindup. With Peter Cushing, Anton Diffring and pretty Lily Li providing the romantic interest.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

North By Northwest (1959)

An advertising executive (Cary Grant) is kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. A foreign agent (James Mason) assumes him to be a spy but when Grant denies this, Mason orders him killed in a driving "accident". He manages to escape but the authorities don't believe his story and he finds himself reluctantly over his head in a game of espionage of which he has no control. What can one say about NORTH BY NORTHWEST that hasn't already been said? One of the most entertaining chase movies ever made, it's such a dizzily inventive thriller that one can easily forgive Alfred Hitchcock's implausible over embellished narrative. The epitome of the term "Hitchcockian", the film contains the usual Hitchcock scenario: the falsely accused innocent man, the cool blonde (Eva Marie Saint in a rare glamorous role) and some of the greatest set pieces in his entire filmography. Notably, the classic crop dusting sequence, the breathtaking chase on the face of Mount Rushmore and the impudent Freudian last shot. As close as one can get to sheer perfection without actually being perfect. The witty Oscar nominated screenplay is by Ernest Lehman and there's a dynamic score by Bernard Herrmann. With Martin Landau, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober and Edward Platt.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sitting Target (1972)

In prison for murder, when a rather beastly convict (Oliver Reed) discovers his wife (Jill St. John) is pregnant by another man and wants a divorce, he goes berserk. He plots an escape in order to kill her. This is a vicious little thriller with a rather nasty underbelly. A more unpleasant group of characters would be hard to find, one can't even summon up much sympathy for the intended victim. But it's undeniably compelling. The film's over elaborate plot is confusing at times and some of the motivations of characters like Edward Woodward's policeman aren't entirely clear and I'm still not sure who Frank Finlay was supposed to be. But Douglas Hickox (THEATRE OF BLOOD) makes sure you don't have time to think, which is just as well I suppose, as he races to the film's gloomy finish. Reed is quite good as is Ian McShane as his slimey fellow escapee but it's difficult to judge St. John's performance as she's dubbed (unable to do a decent English accent?). There's an effective score by Stanley Myers. With Freddie Jones, Robert Beatty and Jill Townsend.

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Blue Heaven (1950)

After a musical comedy actress (Betty Grable) has a miscarriage due to a car accident, she and her husband (Dan Dailey), who's also her TV co-star, try to adopt but the archaic regulations regarding adoption prevent them from doing so. So they go through the "black market" to adopt a child which will later have repercussions. While she stays home to nurse the baby, a predatory actress (Mitzi Gaynor in her film debut) puts the make on her husband. While most of Grable's musical vehicles were fluff, this one has a darker edge to it. Miscarriages, black market babies, adultery, a forced entry kidnapping etc., hardly the stuff of the usual Grable vehicle. Directed by Henry Koster (MY COUSIN RACHEL), the stronger narrative makes for a more satisfying watch between the musical numbers. The songs by Ralph Blane (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) and Harold Arlen (WIZARD OF OZ) are unmemorable throwaways even as you're watching them but the choreography by Billy Daniel and Seymour Felix is pretty good, highlighted by the Friendly Islands production number which spoofs SOUTH PACIFIC (which ironically Gaynor would star in 8 years later). With David Wayne, Jane Wyatt, Una Merkel, Louise Beavers, Larry Keating and Elinor Donahue.

Term Of Trial (1962)

A mild mannered schoolmaster (Laurence Olivier) is stuck in a dead end job and an unhappy marriage to a French wife (Simone Signoret). When an overdeveloped teenage girl (Sarah Miles in her film debut) develops a crush on him, she attempts to seduce him but he rejects her. In revenge, she accuses him of assaulting her. It's hard what to make of TERM OF TRIAL. It's intentions seem honorable enough but it has the air of a "ripped from the headlines" exploitation movie. Based on the novel by James Barlow, the director Peter Glenville manages to keep a lid on the more lurid aspects of the story but both Olivier's and Miles' characters seem too artfully constructed to comes across as real. As a director, Glenville has an assured hand with actors as he showed with films like SUMMER AND SMOKE and BECKET and he doesn't fail us here. The most interesting character though is Signoret as the wife. An uneducated woman in a foreign country whose contempt for her husband's weakness has made her a bitter harridan. Now, a film about how those two got together in the first place would make for a fascinating film. The film contains the only film score composed by the classical composer Jean Michel Damase. With Terence Stamp (also in his film debut), Hugh Griffith, Roland Culver, Thora Hird, Allan Cuthberson, Barbara Ferris and Julia Foster.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald And The Last Of The Belles (1974)

During a particularly difficult time in their marriage, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (Richard Chamberlain) writes a short story called THE LAST OF THE BELLES in which he fictionalizes the first meeting of he and his wife Zelda (Blythe Danner) and gives it the ending that maybe it should have had instead of what actually transpired. Directed by George Schaefer, the film spends most of its running time on Fitzgerald's short story with the fictional Fitzgerald (David Hoffman, tragically murdered at 39) and Zelda (Susan Sarandon) which is just as well since it's far the more compelling of the storylines. As Fitzgerald, Chamberlain is inauthentic and though Zelda is underwritten, Danner brings an inner life which makes you want more of her performance while Sarandon makes for a bewitching Southern belle. The film's insistent use of period tunes eventually becomes grating, as if the film makers didn't trust us (despite the setting and costumes) to get that this was taking place during WWI. With James Naughton, Brooke Adams, Richard Hatch, Jane Hoffman and Ernest Thompson (who would later write ON GOLDEN POND).

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

A scheming social climber (Robert Wagner) from a middle class background woos a girl (Joanne Woodward) from a wealthy family. But when she gets pregnant, he realizes her disapproving father (George Macready) will cut her out of his will thus making her of no use to him. So he murders her while making it look like a suicide. But his ambitious plans won't stop there and he continues on both his gold digging and homicidal paths. Based on the award winning novel by Ira Levin (ROSEMARY'S BABY), this is a compact little noir-ish thriller directed by Gerd Oswald (SCREAMING MIMI) with a controlled grasp that keeps things tight and moving at an economical clip. Rather than shoot the film in B&W with all the shadows and light associated with noir, like LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN it's shot in vivid and bright sunshine. The film gives the young Wagner a juicy role that showed he was more than just a hunky pin-up for teenaged girls and possessed a genuine acting ability. With Jeffrey Hunter, Mary Astor, Virginia Leith and Robert Quarry.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Romolo E Remo (aka Duel Of The Titans) (1961)

In order to protect her twin infants from the wrath of a King, a Vestal priestess (Laura Solari) sends her babies down a river on a small raft. The infants' cries attract a she wolf who carries them back to her lair where she nurses them along with her other cubs. They are found by a shepherd who adopts them as his own and names them Romulus and Remus who will eventually built a city that will be the foundation of the Roman Empire. As directed by Sergio Corbucci (DJANGO) and with a screenplay that includes Sergio Leone among its writers, the narrative is much stronger than most Peplum movies. The brothers who founded Rome are given a Cain and Abel backstory which provides some needed internal conflict. The battle scenes are okay but its the well done burning volcano sequence that's the film's visual highpoint. It's not the kind of film where acting matters much but Gordon Scott (Remus as Cain) proves to be a better actor than Steve Reeves (Romulus as Abel) who doesn't seem to be able to even smile believably. The solid score is by Piero Piccioni and the CinemaScope lensing by Enzo Barboni. With Virna Lisi (looking stunning) as Reeves' love interest, Jacques Sernas (HELEN OF TROY), Massimo Girotti and Ornella Vanoni.

This Could Be The Night (1957)

A school teacher (Jean Simmons) takes a part time job as a secretary in a nightclub to supplement her meager income. Her education and good breeding catches the fancy of the club's owner (Paul Douglas) but irritates his partner (Anthony Franciosa in his film debut). How long will it be before she breaks down his resistance? This charming romantic comedy directed by Robert Wise (was there any genre he couldn't do?) is breezy and effortless in its appeal. Part of the film's appeal is in its roster of Runyonesque supporting characters that populate the nightclub from the Middle Eastern busboy (Rafael Campos) to the dancer (Neile Adams, Mrs. Steve McQueen at the time) who really wants to cook. Simmons and Franciosa make for an attractive "opposites attract" couple and Douglas does his usual gruff act which never loses its pizzazz. With Joan Blondell, J. Carrol Naish, Julie Wilson (who sings the title song), Zasu Pitts, Tom Helmore, Vaughn Taylor, Frank Ferguson, Murvyn Vye, June Blair and Ray Anthony playing himself.

Jack London (1943)

In 1890, an aspiring writer (Michael O'Shea) is determined to lift himself out of poverty. After a series of odd jobs, he travels to the Yukon where trapped by the snow in his cabin, he writes THE CALL OF THE WILD and he's on his way as one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century. As with most film biographies of this period, this is a mixture of fact and fiction with fiction winning out. The very early parts of the film featuring his black foster mother (Louise Beavers) and his waterfront mistress (Virginia Mayo, who would become Mrs. O'Shea four years later) have a basis in fact then it goes off the track. It totally eliminates his first marriage and two children and jumps to his second marriage to his publisher's reader (Susan Hayward in her ingenue period). Worst of all, the film's last third which is set in Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 becomes a stand in for WWII with London writing articles with predictions and warnings of Japan's plans for world domination. As London, O'Shea seems rather innocuous and anachronistic, never giving the viewer the sense of a creative mind. Directed by Alfred Santell. With Osa Massen, Harry Davenport, Ralph Morgan and Regis Toomey.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Popiol I Diament (aka Ashes And Diamonds) (1958)

Set in Poland during the last days of WWII, a member (the unappealing Zbigniew Cybulski) of the Polish resistance movement, along with another comrade (Adam Pawlikowski in the film's best performance), are given the task of assassinating a Communist leader (Waclaw Zastrzeznski). He kills the wrong man however and holds up in a hotel where the Commissar is staying to finish his job. While waiting, he romances a young bardmaid (Ewa Krzyzewska). Based on the 1948 novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, the film is beautifully shot in B&W by Jerzy Wojcik whose gifted lensing made the film for me. In most other respects, I found Andrzej Wajda's much admired film a rather dreary watch. It's such an unsubtle film that I had the feeling I'd seen it before (I hadn't) and found Cybulski, often referred to the Polish James Dean (as if ...) more of an imitation than an original. I freely admit I'm not much of a fan of Polish or Czech cinema and ASHES AND DIAMONDS despite watching it with an open mind, only confirms my antipathy. With Bogumil Kobiela whose performance as a bureaucrat playing both sides of the fence (the resistance and the Communists) is too cartoonish to take seriously.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Isn't She Great (2000)

A struggling actress (Bette Midler) is getting nowhere in her acting career so her husband (Nathan Lane) prods her to write a novel about what she knows best ..... the seamy side of show business. Not only must she deal with the numerous turn downs from the more prestigious publishing houses but she must deal with the institutionalization of her autistic son and breast cancer. But she finally gets her novel published and it becomes the biggest selling book of all time ..... VALLEY OF THE DOLLS! This is a glossy, highly fictionalized movie biography on DOLLS' author Jacqueline Susann re-imagined as a comedy with drama around the edges. Susann's real life, which contained as much lurid melodrama as her books, would make a fascinating movie but this isn't it. The movie skips over a lot of things like her first book which sold well and makes it seem that DOLLS was her first published book. Midler doesn't play the ambitious hard edged Susann, she seems content to play Susann as yet another version of her "Divine Miss M" persona. Lane fares somewhat better but best of all is Stockard Channing as Susann's glamorous actress friend. There's a nice score by Burt Bacharach though. Directed by Andrew Bergman. With John Cleese, David Hyde Pierce, John Larroquette, Amanda Peet and Christopher McDonald.