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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Deathtrap (1982)

A once successful playwright (Michael Caine) of thrillers has had a series of flops. Fortunately, his wife (Dyan Cannon) has money though she is afflicted with a weak heart. He invites an aspiring young playwright (Christopher Reeve), who has sent him the manuscript of a thriller he wrote, to his home with the intention of murdering him and stealing his play which he believes will be a smash hit. From there, the twists and turns come left and right. Thriller plays with minimal characters (DEATHTRAP has five) are often quite successful on Broadway but the transition to film is a bumpy one and not always satisfying. For every WAIT UNTIL DARK that manages not to collapse under its theatrical origins and actually convinces you you're watching a movie, you have verbose and static vehicles like DIAL M FOR MURDER and SLEUTH which can't shake off their proscenium past. DEATHTRAP is such a vehicle. I suppose Sidney Lumet's success with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS suggested he might be the right man for the job but he doesn't do much here, but given his excesses as a director, perhaps it's just as well. Caine is quite good, there's not much Cannon can do with her part and Reeve is too obvious. Johnny Mandel's score mimics John Addison's score to SLEUTH (intentionally?) but Tony Walton's set design is very impressive. With Irene Worth and Henry Jones.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Flesh And Fantasy (1943)

Three stories of the supernatural: a homely and bitter girl (Betty Field) dons a mask at Mardi Gras and flirts with a handsome but troubled man (Robert Cummings), a palm reader (Thomas Mitchell) tells a wealthy lawyer (Edward G. Robinson) that he will commit a murder, a tightrope walker (Charles Boyer) dreams of falling from his tightrope while a beautiful woman (Barbara Stanwyck) screams. Produced by Boyer and directed by Julian Duvivier, the only story which has any resonance is the second one. The other two are rather trite, even the star power of Boyer and Stanwyck can't save the dull third tale and the first suffers because of the dubious notion that anyone would pine for Robert Cummings. But the middle one, based on a short story by Oscar Wilde, is a winner. Robinson gives a solid performance of a man slowly unraveling out of fear of what he might do and Duvivier provides the requisite atmosphere that nurtures the tale along. The three stories are (weakly) framed together by a sequence with Robert Benchley which the film could have done without. There's a solid score by Alexander Tansman. With Peter Lawford, Anna Lee, Gene Lockhart, C. Aubrey Smith, Marjorie Lord and Dame May Whitty.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Voulez-Vous Danser Avec Moi? (aka Come Dance With Me) (1959)

When her dentist husband (Henri Vidal) becomes the primary suspect in the murder of a blackmailing dance instructor (Dawn Addams, THE MOON IS BLUE), his wife (Brigitte Bardot) goes undercover at the dance studio when she's hired as a dance teacher to ferret out the real killer. The prospect of seeing Bardot at the height of her beauty in a comedy murder mystery is inviting. But unlike its voluptuous star, it's flat. Bardot looks luscious and gets to dance a bit but the mystery itself is a bit of a bore. The suspects aren't very interesting though to the film's credit, it planted a major clue at the beginning of the film as to the murderer's identity that went right over my head and I'm usually pretty good at spotting these things. Sadly, Vidal died of a heart attack at age 40 before the film was released. Directed by Michel Boisrond (who directed Bardot in three other films). With Serge Gainsbourg, Noel Roquevert and Philippe Nicaud.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Carrie (2013)

A young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) is bullied by classmates because she is different. She has been kept cloistered and discouraged from a social life by her religious fanatic mother (Julianne Moore). When she has her first menstrual period in gym class, she thinks she's bleeding to death but it is also when she discovers she has telekinetic powers. Was a remake of the classic 1976 Brian De Palma horror film necessary? Absolutely not! That being said, it's startling how very well done the film is. Having a female director, Kimberly Pierce (BOYS DON'T CRY) at the helm gives the film a slightly different perspective. For example, the opening shower sequence in the De Palma film had a slightly erotic layer with the nubile girls running around in various stages of undress and even Sissy Spacek's seemed to be taking a slightly sensual pleasure in her shower. Pierce dispenses with all that. With bullying making frequent headlines and news in recent years, this version emphasizes that aspect. The class bitch (Portia Doubleday) films Carrie's menstrual humiliation via her smartphone and posts it on youtube! Moore's whack job mother is more restrained than Piper Laurie in the 1976 film with even a dash of sympathy added. The big difference is that special effects allow for Carrie's prom revenge to be much more graphic and horrific than De Palma's film. Rather than going back to the original novel, the film hews close to the 1976 film, so much so that the original screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen gets screenplay credit. Not necessary to see but if you do catch it, it has much to offer. With Judy Greer, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort and Hart Bochner.

Barbary Coast (1935)

During the California gold rush of the 1850s, a woman (Miriam Hopkins) arrives from New York to San Francisco to get married. But her intended bridegroom has been killed so she accepts an invitation from a bully and thug (Edward G. Robinson) who runs the notorious Barbary Coast to operate the roulette table in his saloon. Directed by Howard Hawks (who doesn't seem much interested in it), the film is a moderately pleasant diversion, nothing more. I doubt even the most ardent of the Hawks auteurs could make anything more of it than the tolerable entertainment it is. There's a juicy turn by Robinson, who makes for a splendidly oily ruffian but the emphasis is on the sappy romance between Hopkins and Joel McCrea as a poetry reading adventurer. Fortunately, both Hopkins and McCrea are agreeable enough to make it adequate. Ray June's camera work got an Oscar nomination and Alfred Newman did the music but it's damaged by the annoying and constant incorporation of Stephen Foster's Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair in the underscore. Based on the novel by Herbert Asbury. With Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Harry Carey, Donald Meek and Frank Craven.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

It's Only Money (1962)

A TV repairman (Jerry Lewis) wants to be a private detective so he attempts to help his detective friend (Jesse White) in locating the missing heir to a multi million dollar fortune. However, the fiance (Zachary Scott) of the heir's aunt (Mae Questel) has no intention of the heir being found since he plans on killing his bride after the wedding and keeping the money to himself. The collaborations between Jerry Lewis and the director Frank Tashlin are among the best of both the Martin & Lewis vehicles as well as Lewis' individual projects. Alas, IT'S ONLY MONEY is one of the weakest of the Lewis/Tashlin pictures. It's not from lack of trying as Tashlin once again attempts to translate cartoon antics to live action. The repeated but failed attempts by Jack Weston as Scott's henchman to kill Lewis are reminiscent of the coyote's frustrated attempts to do in the road runner but it's just tired. Still, there are a few laughs to be had though few and far between. Lewis would hit comedy pay dirt with his next movie, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. With Joan O'Brien, Barbara Pepper and Ted De Corsia.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

And Now... Ladies And Gentlemen (2002)

A professional jewel thief and master of disguise (Jeremy Irons) has serious blackouts which may be an indication of a brain tumor. A jazz chanteuse (Patricia Kaas) recovering from a romantic break up is having similar blackouts. Fate sets up a meeting for them in Morocco. This romantic drama from director Claude Lelouch (A MAN AND A WOMAN) has a premise that is filled with possibilities of which few are met. Instead, not content to focus his story on the two main characters, Lelouch pads out the simple storyline with extraneous characters and situations which not only detract from the central story but often have no payoff (like the boxer and his wife). I can't help but feel that hard as he tries, Irons is simply miscast. He's best at playing darkly ambiguous characters like REVERSAL OF FORTUNE or DEAD RINGERS, a romantic leading man he's not. Kaas, on the other hand, is marvelous. A popular French singer, this is her only film. There's a better movie here struggling to get out but if nothing else, it's worth seeing for Kaas who sings several songs with wonderful arrangements by Robin Millar. Music by Michel Legrand. With Claudia Cardinale as an Italian countess, Thierry Lhermitte (in the film's worst performance), Alessandra Martines, Jean Marie Bigard in a dual role and Yvan Attal.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

12 Years A Slave (2013)

In 1841, a black freeman and musician (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is lured from New York to Washington DC by two con men (Taram Killam, Scoot McNairy) with the promise of work. To his horror, he finds himself kidnapped and transported to the South where he is sold into slavery. Based on the incredible true story of Solomon Northup who chronicled his years in slavery in book form, this is a powerful gut wrenching film experience. One would have to be inhuman not to be affected. But after two and a half hours of seeing black men whipped, tortured, lynched, murdered, humiliated, black children torn from their mother's arms and sold into slavery, black women raped and beaten, one becomes numbed and it can become an endurance test if you let it. Who doesn't know that slavery is the most abominable and shameful chapter in American history? The film doesn't tell us anything we don't already know and the way director Steve McQueen takes an almost sadistic pleasure in showing it to us is disturbing. Still, this is preferable to the cartoon buffoonery of DJANGO UNCHAINED. McQueen puts the sting back in the evil of slavery and trust me, no one will laugh. With two minor exceptions, it's superbly acted, notably by Ejiofor whose performance is stunning and by Lupita Nyong'o whose performance will break your heart. The exceptions are Paul Giamatti whose acting bag of tricks are played out and no longer interesting and Paul Dano whose limitations as an actor are increasingly apparent. The rest of the first rate cast includes Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adepero Oduye, Chris Chalk and barely in the movie, Quvenzhane Wallis (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD). It's to slavery movies what SCHINDLER'S LIST was to Holocaust movies and to be honest, I'm not sure if I could ever sit through either again.

Tam Lin (1970)

A mysterious but incredibly wealthy older woman (Ava Gardner) surrounds herself with a crowd of wanton, beautiful young people. Her ability to control them suggests that she may be a witch. But when her latest lover (Ian McShane) falls in love with the vicar's daughter (Stephanie Beacham), even her powers may not be strong enough to destroy the romance. The only film directed by actor Roddy McDowell looks great. McDowell has an eye (he was an excellent still photographer) and aided by Billy Williams (an Oscar winner for GANDHI), they make superb use of the Scottish locations. But it's a silly film! Based on a Scottish folk legend, it teases us with the supernatural without ever actually committing to it. What we end up with is a bunch of drug induced decadent swinging young Londoners living off an older woman and acting like a bunch of ninnies! It's fun at first to see Gardner (who looks great) exuding old time movie star glamour as she floats around in her Balmain costumes but it grows tedious very quickly. The hapless McShane is defeated by his underwritten character and dialog and the sultry Beacham is miscast as the virginal vicar's daughter. With Joanna Lumley, Cyril Cusack, Sinead Cusack, Richard Wattis and Peter Hinwood.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

In 1986, a self employed electrician, part time rodeo rider and full time party animal (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed with HIV. When he has a toxic reaction to AZT which he obtained illegally, he goes to Mexico where he discovers medications not yet approved by the FDA that improve his medical condition. He then forms the Dallas Buyers Club where members join for a monthly fee and get the meds he smuggles from all over the world. Based on a true story, as cinema Jean Marc Vallee's film (amazingly shot in just 25 days) never rises above solid and competent. It's well made though the familiar terrain never allows the film to surprise us. As the hard drinking, macho and homophobic cowboy, we know it's only a matter of time before McConaughey's character breaks down and realizes homosexuals are people too and start treating them with respect. More interesting are his battles with big government and the FDA, how pharmaceutical companies are making huge profits off of not finding cures or how the FDA is resistant to alternative medical treatments. But if there's any real reason to see the film, it's for the two potent performances of McConaughey and Jared Leto (a no brainer for an Oscar nomination) as a transsexual who becomes his business partner. With Jennifer Garner, Denis O'Hare, Steve Zahn and Griffin Dunne.

The White Cockatoo (1935)

In a rather shabby hotel off the coast of France, a young girl (pretty Jean Muir) awaits a visit from her brother in New York. But there's something strange and ominous about the hotel's occupants and staff so it's not surprising when several murders occur. This whodunit should be more fun than it is. It has all the necessary trappings: a large sinister hotel with locked doors and secret rooms, constant howling winds, lights going out at inopportune moments, plenty of suspects etc. but it lacks wit. If only Nick and Nora Charles had popped in, it would have helped immeasurably. Instead we get a rather unappealing Ricardo Cortez as an American visitor to unravel the mystery. The actors overdo it, they all act guilty and when one character says something, we get reaction shots of the other characters darting their eyes! Still, I'm a chump for these 1930s B&W murder mysteries so I gave it plenty of slack, others may not be so charitable. Directed by Alan Crosland (THE JAZZ SINGER). With Ruth Donnelly, Minna Gombell, John Eldredge, Walter Kingsford, Addison Richards and, of course, the white cockatoo of the title who gives the best performance in the film.

Leon Morin, Pretre (1961)

Set during the WWII of Nazi occupied France, a widow (Emmanuelle Riva, AMOUR) who is both communist and atheist attempts to provoke a priest (Jean Paul Belmondo) during the act of confession. Instead of chastising her, a series of dialogues begin between the woman and the priest regarding faith and God. He does not push or bully her toward the "right" path but wants her to choose it of her own accord. While there are other characters and incidents in the film, it is essentially about these two people. Based on the prize winning novel THE PASSIONATE HEART by Beatrix Beck, Jean Pierre Melville's (LE SAMOURAI) film is a calculated leisurely paced look at France under occupation, sexual repression but predominantly about God's place in our moral (or lack of it) structure. Still, this is assuredly not a religious film, Jean Paul Belmondo's priest is nothing like Bing Crosby in GOING MY WAY (thank heavens!). It's an atypical role for Belmondo and he's letter perfect here. His usual sensuality and brashness nowhere to be found. I'll be honest, I'm not sure I got anything from the film but it's an assured piece of cinema. With Irene Tunc, Nicole Mirel and Patricia Gozzi (SUNDAYS AND CYBELE).

Friday, October 18, 2013

Enough Said (2013)

A divorcee (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), whose only child (Tracey Fairaway) is about to go off to college, is a self employed masseuse. She begins dating again when she meets a good hearted but heavyset man (James Gandolfini in his final film role). He seems like a keeper but she begins to have doubts when one of her clients (Catherine Keener) spouts off about her ex-husband and her own unhappy marriage. Nicole Holofcener is rapidly becoming the Woody Allen of the West Coast. Like Allen's dissection of upper class Manhattanites and their romantic travails, Holofcener's keen eye does similar duties for upwardly mobile professionals of Southern California. As she showed with FRIENDS WITH MONEY, Holofcener has the gift of making possibly pretentious people relatable and winning rather than off putting. The exception, and it's intentional, is Keener's embittered poetess. Louis-Dreyfus is, well ..... Julia Louis-Dreyfus but Gandolfini has never been more likable and charming. A big cuddly and sweet natured and even sexy grizzly bear. Still, his or rather his character's obesity is a major point of contention in the film and one can't help but think of how it contributed to his early demise in real life. Excellent support from Toni Collette, Ben Falcone and the adorable Tavi Gevinson.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

When A Stranger Calls (1979)

A babysitter (Carol Kane) receives continuous phone calls from a stranger asking her if she's checked on the children. Alone (except for the sleeping children), she becomes quite frightened and phones the police for help. What happens next will traumatize her for years. Jump seven years later and the psychotic killer (Tony Beckley, who died shortly after the filming) has escaped from a mental asylum and a police detective (Charles Durning) on the original case is now a private investigator and is determined that history won't repeat itself. The first twenty minutes of this film are among the most intensely terrifying of "scary" movies. Anyone who's seen it will never forget those twenty minutes. Alas, those twenty minutes are so brilliant (Kane's fear is palpable) that the rest of the film simply can't measure up in quality and it never quite regains its momentum. But it still has it sporadic moments particularly in Colleen Dewhurst's performance as an aging barfly, one of her few good film roles. The creepily evocative score is by Dana Kaproff. Directed and co-written by Fred Walton based on his short film, THE SITTER. With Rachel Roberts, Ron O'Neal (SUPERFLY), Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Tale Of Two Cities (1958)

A cynical and dissolute English solicitor (Dirk Bogarde) finds himself involved in the lives of a doctor (Stephen Murray) recently released from the Bastille after 18 years, his daughter (Dorothy Tutin) and a French aristocrat (Paul Guers) who has disowned his title and his family. But the long, bloody and vengeful arms of the French Revolution will impact their lives. The celebrated Charles Dickens novel had been adapted to film at least three times prior to this incarnation, most notably the 1935 MGM film with Ronald Colman. This is a solid and strong adaptation and, in several ways, superior to the 1935 version. I'm not normally a fan of Dirk Bogarde's ennui as an acting style but his weariness is perfect here. His Sidney Carton is much better than Colman's. Bogarde lets you see the dissolution in his face. This is a man for whom life holds no joy and no reason for his existence. Generally, the acting (except for Guers) is better including Rosalie Crutchley who makes for a sensational Madame DeFarge. Curiously, the director Ralph Thomas insisted in shooting it in B&W when color would have added some vibrancy to the proceedings. The large cast includes Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Ian Bannen, Athene Seyler, Leo McKern and Marie Versini.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In The French Style (1963)

A young American girl (Jean Seberg) has come to Paris to paint. But soon art takes a backseat to a semi-hedonistic lifestyle of parties and affairs among the sophisticated and somewhat jaded "artsy" set. This is a lovely film. If anyone still needs proof that Seberg could act, this film ought to settle that. She's effortlessly convincing as the naive mid-western teenager out of her element and seamlessly morphing into the soignee darling of the jet set. Based on the novel by Irwin Shaw (RICH MAN POOR MAN) who also did the screenplay and co-produced, the film once again has Seberg as the Henry Jamesian like heroine (think DAISY MILLER), the unsophisticated American ingenue ripe for European corruption. Her character is even named Christine James. But it's more than that, it explores the basic need to belong to someone amongst a crowd that considers such feelings petit bourgeois. Directed by Robert Parrish and handsomely shot in B&W by Michel Kelber (Renoir's FRENCH CAN-CAN). With Stanley Baker, Philippe Forquet, Claudine Auger, Addison Powell, Jack Hedley and James Leo Herlihy (the author of MIDNIGHT COWBOY) as Seberg's suitor.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

A manned rocket ship plunges to Earth in the English countryside. But there is only one survivor (Richard Wordsworth), there is no physical trace of the other two crew members. But the traumatized survivor is almost comatose and unable to speak. Worse still, his body is undergoing strange physical changes. Based on a popular 1953 British television serial, QUATERMASS XPERIMENT which was renamed THE CREEPING UNKNOWN for its American release was a big hit and is highly regarded by science fiction and horror afficionados (the film is a favorite of Stephen King and John Carpenter) but I found it unexceptional. The Quatermass of the title is a scientist played by Brian Donlevy in a brusque offhand manner that leaves no room for the human touch and the rest of the characters are so underwritten that it leaves no room for characterizations. All that would be minor quibbles if the film were sufficiently imaginative or exciting but the director Val Guest could have used a little more exposition and character development to make up for the script's deficiencies. There is a nicely unobtrusive score by James Bernard. With Jack Warner, Margia Dean, Lionel Jeffries, Gordon Jackson and Thora Hird.

Friends With Money (2006)

A group of female friends who, with the exception of one, are upwardly mobile find themselves confronted with a personal crisis. There's Jennifer Aniston as a former teacher now working as a maid who can't let go of the married man she had an affair with, Frances McDormand who has unreasonable anger issues and refuses to wash her hair, Catherine Keener whose husband (Jason Isaacs) is emotionally disconnected and Joan Cusack whose husband (Greg Germann) enjoys spending her money. Director Nicole Holofcener's wry look at upscale friendships where financial security doesn't guarantee an unwrinkled existence is a wonderfully written (also by Holofcener) adult comedy. Granted, the problems of these women may seem trivial compared to, say, underprivileged single mothers living month to month but Holofcener has a wonderful ear for rhythmic and clever dialog that it's hard to resist investing ourselves in their privileged lives. Holofcener was smart enough to have Aniston's seemingly self destructive character as a contrast to the somewhat superior attitude of her gal pals, she acts as a buffer with one foot grounded in a reality the audience can connect to. With Simon McBurney, Scott Caan, Bob Stephenson and Ty Burrell.

Strike Up The Band (1940)

A high school student (Mickey Rooney) dreams of having his own dance band while his mother (Ann Shoemaker) wants him to be a doctor. He and his girlfriend (Judy Garland), the band's singer, enter the band in a contest to be held in Chicago in the hopes that winning will put their band on the map. The plots of these Rooney/Garland "Hey gang! Let's put on a show" musicals are so similar it's difficult to tell the films apart. So it's the musical numbers that set them apart. This is the one with the fruit and chocolate cake symphony and the spectacular Conga number choreographed by the film's director, Busby Berkeley. Songwriters Roger Edens and George Stoll come up with a winner in Our Love Affair which nabbed a best song Oscar nomination and there's the swinging Drummer Boy which allows Rooney to show off his drum skills. Other than that, it's pretty hokey with a lot of "Gosh" and "Golly Gee" dialog. There is a nice dramatic scene played straight by Rooney and Shoemaker that's quite touching. With band leader Paul Whiteman as himself and the agile June Preisser as a peroxided baby femme fatale.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Never Say Goodbye (1956)

A doctor (Rock Hudson) in California is raising his young daughter (Shelley Fabares) as a single parent. But on a business trip to New York, he sees his wife (Cornell Borchers) who he thought dead. Shocked upon seeing him, she runs out into the street where she is struck by a car. Waiting in the hospital as she recovers from surgery, he recalls how they met in post war Vienna and how his jealousy proved destructive to their marriage. This melodrama has all the trimmings of a Douglas Sirk film (Hudson, the lush photography, Frank Skinner's insistent score, a heightened reality) but it was directed by Jerry Hopper (SECRET OF THE INCAS) and lacks the reflective irony that Sirk brought to his projects. Based on a play by Luigi Pirandello which was previously made in 1945 as THIS LOVE OF OURS with Merle Oberon and Claude Rains, it's problematic for a myriad of reasons. Hudson's character's jealousy renders him unappealing while George Sanders loves Borchers unconditionally. It's Sanders who deserves to end up with Borchers but this being 1956 Hollywood, it's never in question whose arms she'll end up in. Borchers was one of many European actresses Hollywood imported without much success. She's attractive, she's appealing and she can act but without that special something that could have made her a star and she retired three years after this film. But if you're partial to the glossy Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s, you should be sufficiently entertained. With Clint Eastwood, David Janssen, Gia Scala, Ray Collins, Jerry Paris and Robert F. Simon.

Kidnapped (1960)

Set in 18th century Scotland, a naive young man (James MacArthur) leaves his home after the death of his father to seek his rights as the heir to the House Of Shaws. But his devious uncle (John Laurie) has him kidnapped and sent off to the Americas on a ship. But he's saved by a storm at sea and a newly found friend (Peter Finch). Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson which has been filmed several times, this is the Walt Disney "boys' adventure" version. It's a rather lackluster telling of the tale, saved only by the gorgeous Scotland locations shot by Paul Beeson (TO SIR WITH LOVE). A miscast MacArthur, a wholesome all American type, is quite out of place among the British cast and his Scottish accent (unconvincing to begin with) comes and goes. Written and directed by Robert Stevenson (MARY POPPINS), the narrative is fairly faithful to the source material but there's very little thrills to be had. With Peter O'Toole, Bernard Lee, Finlay Currie and Niall MacGinnis.

Mortal Thoughts (1991)

A young wife and mother (Demi Moore) is being grilled at the police station by a detective (Harvey Keitel) regarding the murder of her best friend's (Glenne Headly) husband (Bruce Willis). We see the narrative via her testimony which is done as a flashback but we share the detective's suspicions that we aren't getting the real story. Released the same year (1991) as Ridley Scott's THELMA AND LOUISE which was a big hit, Alan Rudolph's MORTAL THOUGHTS was the flip side of Ridley Scott's feminist action flick which was embraced for its depiction of two women who refused to accept the chauvinistic status quo any longer. Indeed, both films featured a detective played by Harvey Keitel who becomes involved with its two female protagonists. But the heroines of MORTAL THOUGHTS (whose title comes from MACBETH) aren't as noble or as life affirming as Thelma and Louise. They walk on the dark side and as the story plays out, you're never quite sure where the fine line between victim and perpetrator begins and ends. Moore and Headly do very well as the Jersey girls, friends since childhood, who enter a blood pact and as the loutish husband, Willis is suitably repugnant. Rudolph's film deserved a better fate, both critically and at the box office. With John Pankow and Billie Neal.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Under My Skin (1950)

After winning a race he agreed to throw, a jockey (John Garfield) and his young son (Orley Lindgren) flee Italy for France. There, he meets an attractive cabaret singer (Micheline Presle) but it isn't long before the thug (Luther Adler) he double crossed shows up and demands he fulfills his promise. Based the short story MY OLD MAN by Ernest Hemingway, there's a sentimentality pervading the film that's uncharacteristic of Hemingway. I haven't read the story it's based on but I suspect very little of Hemingway is in the final product other than his name in the credits. To the film's credit, Garfield's character is an unattractive jerk and the movie doesn't make any attempt to clean him up to make him more appealing, at least until the film's mushy end. Lindgren gives a typical child actor's performance of that era (the 1950s), reciting lines and making faces without any of the authenticity of a real child. Despite the film's French setting, it was filmed on the Fox lot but the art directors (Maurice Ranford, Lyle Wheeler) do an admirable job of recreating it. Directed by Jean Negulesco (THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN). With Noel Drayton, Anthony George, Steven Geray and Ann Codee.

Captain Phillips (2013)

On April 8, 2009, an American cargo ship under the command of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is attacked, boarded and hijacked by Somali pirates. This film chronicles the tense filled five days from the hijacking to the eventual rescue by the U.S. Navy. The director Paul Greengrass has previously shown his ability to take a real life situation of which we already know the outcome and create an intense atmosphere heightened by an emotional core in UNITED 93, one of the best films of the previous decade. While CAPTAIN PHILLIPS doesn't reach the forceful emotional heights of UNITED 93, it's an expertly made piece of craftsmanship. Wisely, Greengrass has abandoned (at least for this film) his addiction for shaky handheld camera work that, while minimally effective, can make one queasy. Hanks, in his best performance since PHILADELPHIA is sensational and a lock for a best actor Oscar nomination, his final scene a career highpoint. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray flesh out the film's "villains" which allows Barkhad Abdi (in his film debut) as the head of the Somali pirates to give a textured performance rather than a standard third world bad guy. Henry Jackman's score amps up the tension quota. With Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat M. Ali.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Captain Apache (1971)

When the U.S. Commissioner (Luis Induni) of Indian Affairs is killed, his dying words are "April morning". It's up to a Captain (Lee Van Cleef), who happens to be Indian, in the U.S. Cavalry to uncover the meaning of those words and why the Commissioner was murdered. This is one crazy ass western! One can't call it a spaghetti western since there's nothing remotely Italian about it, it's Spanish. But it has the flavor of a spaghetti western, notably in its attempt at dark humor and the Morricone infused score by Dolores Claman. But it's a shambles! Yet also so bizarre that, like a train wreck, you can't pull your eyes away. Not content to just play the lead role, Van Cleef "raps" the title song and sings (badly) the end credits song. Then there's the hallucinatory sequence which serves no purpose except that, I suppose, in 1971 it was considered "cool". Directed by Alexander Singer (A COLD WIND IN AUGUST). Co-starring Carroll Baker who is wasted as a floozy and Stuart Whitman as the villain. With Percy Herbert and Hugh McDermott.

Saikaku Ichidai Onna (aka The Life Of Oharu) (1952)

Told in flashback, in 17th century Japan, a lady in waiting (Kinuyo Tanaka) falls in love with a man (Toshiro Mifune) of a lower class which violates the standards of the ruling class. He is executed and she is banished. But her life only gets worse as she goes from concubine to courtesan and eventually common prostitution with only a brief respite of happily married life. "Fallen" women are no stranger to the films of the great director Kenji Mizoguchi and this is perhaps his ultimate fallen woman film. While Mizoguchi makes it clear that Oharu is a victim of circumstance in a society where a woman's options are practically nil and often exploited, after humiliation after humiliation and suffering, it becomes clear that's all there is and we patiently wait for the movie to conclude. Yet one can't deny the power of the film's final 10 minutes. Fortunately, there's also a dynamic performance in the title role by Kinuyo Tanaka who's in practically ever scene. The persuasive underscore is by Ichiro Saito. Based on the novel by Ihara Saikaku. With Ichiro Sugai, Yuriko Hamada and Hiroshi Oizumi.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Act Of Violence (1948)

A WWII hero (Van Heflin) lives happily in a small California town with his wife (Janet Leigh) and child. But while he's away on a fishing trip, a man (Robert Ryan) comes to town bent on exacting vengeance on his former friend who's not quite the hero he appears to be. This is a wonderful film noir that still hasn't quite got the recognition it deserves. There are no hard boiled private detectives, no femme fatales (unless one counts Mary Astor's aging prostitute), no black and white hero or villain. Instead, we get a man torn with guilt about his past who must finally deal with his conscience when confronted with one of his victims. The director Fred Zinnemann lets us see both sides of the situation and because of this, we can't choose sides, it's much more complex than that. The cinematography by the great Robert Surtees (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) contrasts the sunny opening shots of the film with the darker and more ominous night shadows typical of noir as the film grows bleaker. Heflin and Ryan are in peak form but the movie provides strong roles for its trio of actresses. In addition to Leigh and Astor, there's Phyllis Thaxter as Ryan's girlfriend who acts as his conscience. With Barry Kroeger, Taylor Holmes and Connie Gilchrist.

Berserk! (1967)

When a series of deaths in a traveling circus prove to be murder rather than accidental, the circus owner (Joan Crawford) seems less concerned with the danger than the ensuing publicity which assures sold out houses. This garish circus thriller is as seedy as its circus setting. In between the gory deaths, we're treated to trained poodles going through hoops and a musical number by the bearded lady and the circus strong man! I've never understood the appeal of circus films. While it might be a thrill to see a man walking a tightrope without a net in a real circus, in a movie it's not. Far more disturbing than the film's explicit killings is the "romance" between the 61 year old Crawford and the 37 year old Ty Hardin ("You've got 25% of the circus and a 100% of me!") which can't help but have a necrophilic aura about it. Crawford barks and snaps her way through the film (though her legs are in great shape) but you have to hand it to the lady, she's a Star and she doesn't let you forget it. All in all, a pretty ludicrous film but that's what makes it so morbidly watchable. Directed by Jim O'Connolly. With Diana Dors (still in pretty good shape), Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Geoffrey Keen, Marianne Stone, Bryan Pringle and George Claydon.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)

A daring and cunning thief (Douglas Fairbanks) maneuvers himself into the Caliph's palace with the intention of pillaging the palace treasures. But when he sets eyes on the royal Princess (Julanne Johnson), he falls hopelessly in love. But first, he must win her from the other marriage candidates including a devious Mongol Prince (Sojin Kamiyama) who plans on taking over Bagdad by force if he doesn't win the Princess. Directed by Raoul Walsh, this is one of the great swashbucklers and fantasy adventures of all time. The wiry and athletic Fairbanks (with probably the best physique in silent cinema) climbs, jumps, dashes and bounces around like an enthusiastic little monkey eager to please. Who can resist? The ensuing years haven't dimmed its charms. The only quibble I have, and it's a minor one, is the excessive length as in too much of a good thing. The exotic production design and art direction by William Cameron Menzies are imaginative and impressive. Some of the special effects are quite crude by today's standards but still captivating. The costumes are by Mitchell Leisen, who would go on to become the director of such classics as MIDNIGHT and HOLD BACK THE DAWN. With Snitz Edwards, Noble Johnson, Mathilde Comont and the great beauty, Anna May Wong.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Racers (1955)

A ruthless race car driver (Kirk Douglas) becomes involved with a French dancer (Bella Darvi, THE EGYPTIAN). But his arrogance and recklessness places a wedge in their relationship. In a film about racing, you'd better come up with some pretty exciting racing footage but although handsomely shot in CinemaScope and set in Italy and Monte Carlo, the racing sequences are marred by obvious rear projection shots. It doesn't throw you head first into the excitement and frenzy of international racing like John Frankenheimer's GRAND PRIX from 1966. Douglas is almost too perfectly cast as the hot headed, self centered racing champion but poor Darvi struggles with even the simplest dialog and she carries a lot of the film. Still, despite all the strikes against it, the veteran director Henry Hathaway punches it up with enough melodrama to keep your attention. The bustling score by Alex North helps a lot. The supporting cast includes Lee J. Cobb, Gilbert Roland, Katy Jurado, Cesar Romero, George Dolenz and John Hudson.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Revengers' Comedies (1998)

After his wife leaves him and he's fired from his job, a man (Sam Neill) plans to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. Once there, he meets a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) also planning on suicide by jumping off the bridge. She suggests a revenge exchange. She will destroy the man (Steve Coogan) who fired him and he will destroy the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) of her lover (Martin Clunes). While she gleefully holds up her end of the bargain, he finds himself falling in love with his intended target. This black comedy based on the play by Alan Ayckbourn (who also did the screenplay) is a considerably compact version, the play ran five hours while the film clocks in at 90 minutes. Inspired by Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, one can see the potential in the project but it's never fulfilled. It doesn't feel fresh and it's not outrageous enough, Ayckbourn and director Malcolm Mowbray needed to push the envelope but all they did was offer up an indifferent dish. Neill is a bit of a dullard (he doesn't have a comic's soul) but the wickedly impish Bonham Carter knows exactly what she's doing though it's a case of her being better than the material. With Rupert Graves, John Wood and Liz Smith stealing scenes as the ancient housekeeper.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Romancing The Stone (1984)

The lonely writer (Kathleen Turner) of a series of best selling romance novels gets a phone call from her sister (Mary Ellen Trainor) who's been kidnapped in Colombia. Her deceased brother in law has sent her a treasure map and her sister's kidnappers threaten to kill her sister unless she comes to Colombia with the map. When she's stranded in Colombia, she hooks up with an adventurer (Michael Douglas). This comedy adventure was a massive hit back in 1984, sort of a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with a female protagonist. The movie plays out like her romance novels, only this time, she's the heroine. Kathleen Turner has never been more appealing. She's a natural beauty but manages to suggest the timid soul whose beauty is hidden under her insecurities without any eyeglasses or any other contrivances that actresses use to hide their good looks. As the swashbuckler hero of her fantasies, Michael Douglas is problematic. Is there anyone who ever fantasized about Douglas swooping down on a swinging vine and carrying them off? He's simply too urban. But it's a fun action flick with a zingy drive and with Turner at its center, it delivers the goods. There was a sequel the following year JEWEL OF THE NILE but it just seemed a retread. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Danny DeVito, who tries too hard, Holland Taylor, Alfonso Arau and Manuel Ojeda.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gunslinger (1956)

After the town's sheriff (William Schallert) is killed, his widow (Beverly Garland) takes over as sheriff until the new marshal arrives. The town's saloon owner (Allison Hayes, ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN) hires an out of town gunfighter (John Ireland) to kill her but he finds himself unexpectedly attracted to his target. This low budget oater was shot in a week by director Roger Corman. Despite its slap dash approach, it's an interesting pre-feminist (though I'm sure it wasn't intended as such) look at a strong and determined woman who steps up to the plate when the men in the town turn away. Garland's Rose is no rose (pun intended). When she gets into a barroom scrap with Hayes, she doesn't scratch and claw, she punches! One can't make a case for it as some kind of an undiscovered gem but it holds together a lot better than its humble cost (when someone gets punched against a wall, the whole wall quivers) would indicate. If there were any sense of artistry to the film, one might think that the film's finale was a homage to DUEL IN THE SUN but it lacks that film's extravagant sense of style. With Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS).

Gravity (2013)

During a spacewalk, debris from a satellite destroys a space shuttle leaving an astronaut (George Clooney) and an engineer (Sandra Bullock) adrift in space. With time and oxygen running out, what are their options? GRAVITY arrives with near universal critical acclaim since its debut at the Venice film festival. Can it possibly live up to the hype? A resounding YES! It is an extraordinary film experience and experience is the operative word here. It's about as close to space travel that any of us is likely to get near. I'm no fan of 3D but if any film justifies 3D, it's GRAVITY. The clarity is astounding and never once is it used as a gimmick but as a cinematic tool that gives us more insight to what its characters are physically feeling. With this film and TREE OF LIFE, Emmanuel Lubezki has taken his place as the prime cinematographer working in film today and I can't praise the awesome multi directional sound design of Niv Adiri enough who does for your ears what Lubezki does for your eyes. This is not the kind of film you wait for the DVD and see at home. If you don't see it in 3D, you haven't seen it. There are only two characters in the film and Clooney is essentially a supporting role, the film belongs to Bullock whose performance here is a lock on an Oscar nomination. Mention must also be made of Steven Price's near non stop music score which is a very part of the film's fabric. If you love the movies, you can't miss this! Bravo, Alfonso Cuaron!

Appointment With Venus (1951)

After the Nazis invade the Channel Islands, the British government realizes a prize breeding cow called Venus is on one of the islands. Determined to keep her out of German hands, they plot a rescue to bring the cow to England for the duration of the war. But how to cownap her under the Nazis' watch? The plot is so daffy that it's hard to believe it's loosely based on an actual incident. But it's actually quite a charming little tale of wartime bravery and chutzpah. The appealing cast is headed by David Niven as the Major in charge of the operation and Glynis Johns as the island native, now working for the war office, returning home. Though not intended as a family movie, it really makes for a film that both adults and kids could enjoy equally. Directed by Ralph Thomas from the novel by Jerrard Tickell with location filming on the island of Sark in the Channel Islands. There's a wonderful score by Benjamin Frankel (NIGHT OF THE IGUANA). Also in the cast: Kenneth More, Barry Jones, George Coulouris and Bernard Lee.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon) (1960)

Sent by the father of an acquaintance (Maurice Ronet) to persuade his son to return home to San Francisco, a young man (Alain Delon) becomes seduced by the hedonistic lifestyle of his friend. Eventually, his identification with the wealthy playboy becomes fatal. Based on the novel THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith (and filmed again in 1999 under that title), Rene Clement's film is a fascinating portrait of a psychopath. In perhaps his best screen performance, Delon, in his star making role, is perfectly cast as the amoral and narcissistic sociopath. When Delon kisses himself in the mirror, it seems perfectly and frighteningly natural. There has been some criticism of the compromised ending which is different from Highsmith's novel which is considered a sop to the moralists but I like the symmetry it brings to the film. Henri Decae (THE 400 BLOWS) makes the most of the lush Italian locations but Nino Rota's underscore is rather pedestrian. With Marie Laforet, Billy Kearns, Frank Latimore and Romy Schneider.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Third Girl From The Left (1973)

An aging chorus girl (Kim Novak) in a New York nightclub becomes tired of her boyfriend (Tony Curtis) of thirteen years constantly postponing their marriage. When the owner (Louis Guss) of the club takes her out of the front line of the chorus and puts her in the back, it precipitates a crisis and she begins an affair with a much younger man (Michael Brandon, LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS). Written by the songwriter Dory Previn (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and directed by Peter Medak (THE RULING CLASS), this is a rather banal effort. The only reason it resonates at all is because of Kim Novak. An aging actress, who was once one of the top stars in America and now with a floundering career, now playing an aging chorus girl losing her looks and getting pushed to the back of the dance line. The parallels are more than coincidental, they're intentional. Novak acquits herself nicely but Curtis, who's cast as a Dean Martin type lounge singer, goes for the obvious and it doesn't help that when he sings (he's not dubbed), he's pitifully off key. As written, he's also a jerk. Are we really supposed to feel good when she ends up with him? With George Furth and Barbi Benton.

Broadway Melody Of 1936 (1935)

An aspiring dancer (Eleanor Powell) arrives in New York and attempts to contact an old flame (Robert Taylor), now a big time Broadway producer, in the hopes he'll get her in a show. But he refuses to help her and insists she go back home to Albany, New York. However, she and the producer's secretary (the always welcome Una Merkel) concoct a plan to get her in the show. As always with these BROADWAY MELODY musicals (there's also 1929, 1938, 1940), the thin story is just something to fill up the spaces between the musical numbers. Luckily for us, the songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed are a superior bunch: among them You Are My Lucky Star, Broadway Rhythm and the irresistible I Got A Feelin' You're Foolin'. They make up for some the ill advised comic bits like the guy (Robert Wildhack) who does snore imitations (I kid you not!) who is given not one but two whole segments. Top billed is Jack Benny as an unsavory tabloid columnist, who does smarmy quite nicely. Powell is, of course, pure bliss when she dances. Directed by Roy Del Ruth. With Buddy Ebsen (whose dancing is an acquired taste) and his sister Vilma, Frances Langford, Sid Silvers (who helped write the screenplay) and the lovely June Knight who's quite likable playing unlikable.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ocean's 11 (1960)

Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) gathers a group of his WWII soldier buddies to rob five of the major casinos in Las Vegas during New Year's Eve. Directed by Lewis Milestone (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) whose career dates back to silent cinema, this heist film hasn't worn well and in a rare case of a remake being superior to the original, Steven Soderbergh improved on it in 2001. Perhaps the definitive "rat pack" movie, one's enjoyment of it may depend on your nostalgia for the oh-so-cool and hip antics of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. As a heist movie, it takes a full hour of tedious exposition (like Sinatra's on and off marriage with Angie Dickinson, Sammy singing etc.) before it gets down to the actual robbery and by that time, you barely care anymore. As a time capsule piece of fifties Las Vegas, it has some archival interest but it doesn't rank highly in the annals of great heist movies. The massive supporting cast includes Shirley MacLaine, Richard Conte, Red Skelton, Cesar Romero, Akim Tamiroff, George Raft, Patrice Wymore, Henry Silva, Jean Willes, Ilka Chase and Joan Staley.