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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939)

The heir (Richard Greene) of the Baskerville estate in the moors of Devonshire arrives from Canada to take his rightful place as the last of the Baskervilles after the mysterious death of his uncle (Ian Maclaren). A local doctor (Lionel Atwill) asks the renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) to look into the death as he believes it may be the result of a long standing curse. The surprise success of this film (Rathbone doesn't even get top billing) resulted in Rathbone doing 14 Sherlock Holmes movies. After awhile, they got further and further away from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels, often using original scripts and placing Holmes in contemporary settings fighting Nazis! But this first effort stays close to the Conan Doyle source material and remains the benchmark of the Rathbone series. The unobtrusive direction by Sidney Lanfield along with the richly atmospheric art and set direction (lots of fog in those craggy moors) and the sterling performances of Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson make this a bona fide treat for mystery lovers. With Wendy Barrie, John Carradine, Mary Gordon, Eily Malyon and Morton Lowry.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Triple Cross (1966)

During WWII, an expert English safecracker (Christopher Plummer) is in prison on the isle of Jersey when the Germans invade the island. In order to get released, he offers to spy for the Nazis. When they smuggle him into England to blow up a factory, he then contacts the British and offers to spy on the Germans if they give him a pardon. The Brits agree to his demands and send him back to Germany but ..... just whose side is he really on? The film is based on a real person by the name of Eddie Chapman who was considered Germany's no. 1 spy in Great Britain while, in fact, working as a double agent for the British. The movie takes a great deal of dramatic license in altering facts to make the film more exciting so inspired by rather based on would seem to be a more appropriate description. As to the film itself, it's a fairly conventional WWII action flick of the WHERE EAGLES DARE variety though not as polished or coherent. There was always something rather chilly about Plummer which is why he never became a major star and as an action hero, he's no Roger Moore. Still, you won't be bored. Directed by Terence Young (DR. NO). With Yul Brynner, Romy Schneider, Trevor Howard, Claudine Auger and Gert Frobe.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Death Of A Gunfighter (1969)

A corrupt and cowardly town wants to get rid of its sheriff (Richard Widmark) for two reasons. One, his way of doing things doesn't fit in with their idea of a civilized west and two, more importantly he knows their secrets and misdeeds. This western, like many done around its time (THE WILD BUNCH, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), reflects on the changing West and the encroaching civilization. Its premise of a vile and unworthy town that resorts to cold blooded murder to achieve its own ends is intriguing. Intriguing enough to hold our attention and wish it were better. But there's something flat about it and something feels missing and not all of its characters are fully developed. For instance, Carroll O' Connor's barkeep doesn't make sense, just what is his problem? Lena Horne (in a rare dramatic role) is Widmark's mistress and the owner of the town's brothel, yet their interracial romance is never addressed which leads one to suspect the role may not have been written for a black actress. The film was directed, for the most part, by Robert Totten who left after the usual "creative differences" with Widmark and was replaced by Don Siegel who didn't want his name on the film. Thus, we get the directed by the non existent "Allen Smithee" credit. Still, for a film that's an orphan, its promise is enough to make it worth a watch. There's a nice score by Oliver Nelson, too. With John Saxon, Kent Smith, David Opatoshu, Royal Dano and Jacqueline Scott.

Her (2013)

Set in a not too distant future, a recently divorced introvert (Joaquin Phoenix) is having trouble adjusting. But when he purchases a new computer operating system, he becomes enthralled with the computer's "voice" (Scarlett Johansson) to the point of actually having a romantic relationship with her. Spike Jonze's (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) original new film is inspired and has tapped into something important. Our society has increasingly become detached from each other and dependent on social media to fulfill our needs. Everyone walks around with their their iphone or ipad attached to their hand that it's almost part of their body. We tweet, we text, we twitter and we facebook to the point that it seems preferable to actual face to face interaction with another human. With the increasing sophistication of computer technology, is falling in love with our electronic devices the inevitable next step? To be fair, Jonze's wonderful sci-fi/romance blend is about much more than that but its premise is entirely believable. Phoenix follows his terrific performance in THE MASTER with a 360 turn around as the subdued loner. Johansson gives what might possibly be her best performance ever though we never see her, just hear her. With Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Kristen Wiig and Brian Cox.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Grease (1978)

In 1950s Southern California, a visiting Australian teenage girl (Olivia Newton-John) and a local greaser (John Travolta) share a summer romance. But when she unexpectedly enrolls as a student at his high school, they discover how different they really are. Based on the 1971 hit Broadway musical, I suppose one "had to be there" to appreciate this energetic pastiche of faux fifties pop and stereotypes. The film never tries to be anything more than what it is ..... a fun musical that winks affectionately at the naive innocence of its era. Taken that way, one would have to be a bit of a curmudgeon not to fall under its captivating spell. Travolta was at the height of his budding stardom while the part of Sandy seems tailor made for Newton-John. Directed by Randal Kleiser (his first feature film) and the vigorous choreography, highlighted by the dynamic Born To Hand Jive dance number, is by Patricia Birch. The large cast includes Stockard Channing (terrific though she looks like the oldest high school senior in Hollywood history), Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Joan Blondell, Frankie Avalon, Alice Ghostley, Jeff Conaway, Dody Goodman, Edd Byrnes, Didi Conn, Dinah Manoff, Lorenzo Lamas and Kelly Ward.

The Velvet Touch (1948)

An actress (Rosalind Russell) unintentionally kills her producer and lover (Leon Ames) when he attacks her after she tells him she is leaving him for another man (Leo Genn). She gets away with the killing but her conscience begins to trouble her especially when another woman (Claire Trevor) is suspected of the murder. Though one can't exactly call it a murder mystery since we know who the murderess is from the very beginning, the film nonetheless keeps us in suspense as to whether or not she will break down and confess. Being a 1940s Hollywood film, we can be fairly sure of the outcome but the film is greatly aided by its backdrop, the world of the Broadway theater which gives the film a unique touch. Russell is suitably neurotic, Trevor does her usual spot on bruised woman number and Sydney Greenstreet is a delight as the police inspector investigating the case with a taste for fine food and good theater. Yet one can't help feel that it could have been better. But where does the blame go? Perhaps to director John Gage whose only film this is. With Martha Hyer, Lex Barker, Frank McHugh, Theresa Harris, Esther Howard and Dan Tobin.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Forever, Darling (1956)

A chemical engineer (Desi Arnaz) and his wife (Lucille Ball) have started to drift apart in their marriage. But her guardian angel (James Mason) visits her in an attempt to save her marriage. The success of their TV show I LOVE LUCY was enough for MGM to try and duplicate their small screen success on the big screen with THE LONG LONG TRAILER in 1953 and they did, the movie was a big hit. But this follow up was a flop and it's easy to see why. It simply isn't very funny. Unlike the first film, the actors make a sincere attempt to distance themselves from their TV personas. At least till the end of the film when suddenly some unrelated slapstick enters the picture but by then it's too late. But at least we get some nice location shooting in Yosemite National Park. The screenplay was apparently an old script that MGM dusted off and talked Lucy and Desi into doing and it creaks. Poor Mason seems adrift as if he knew how weak the script was and he just wanted to get it over with and collect his paycheck. Directed by Alexander Hall (HERE COMES MR. JORDAN). With Marilyn Maxwell, Louis Calhern, Natalie Schafer, John Hoyt, Nancy Kulp and John Emery.

August: Osage County (2013)

When the patriarch (Sam Shepard) of the Weston family commits suicide, the family gathers for his funeral. But grief is the last thing the family has on their mind as ugly "truths" are spewed forth and dark secrets revealed. Eventually it leads to a face off between the vicious drug addicted matriarch (Meryl Streep) and the strongest of her three daughters (Julia Roberts), who is suffering from problems of her own. Tracy Letts' Tony and Pulitzer winning three hour play has been compacted into two hours but Letts, who adapted his play for the screen, has retained the ferocious banter and wit that was the play's trademark. As a dysfunctional family drama, it's the spawn of Eugene O'Neill by way of Edward Albee, only with more laughs. But it provides an arena for an ensemble (and this is a true ensemble film) of excellent actors to exercise their acting chops. Streep is problematic. She's excellent yet one is almost always aware that she is acting (especially next to Roberts' and Julianne Nicholson's naturalistic acting style), giving the kind of performance the Streep haters always accuse her of. The film is well written but it doesn't give us anything new. Still, acting this good all in one film is hard to come by and it's well done. The large cast includes Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney and Misty Upham (FROZEN RIVER).

Monday, December 23, 2013

Le Casse (aka The Burglars) (1971)

Set in Greece, a master thief (Jean Paul Belmondo) and his three accomplices (Renato Salvatori, Robert Hossein, Nicole Calfan) rob a wealthy millionaire (Jose Luis De Villalonga, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) of a million dollars in emeralds. But a corrupt policeman (Omar Sharif) decides he wants the emeralds too. Based on the David Goodis novel which was previously filmed in 1957, this French/Italian production directed by Henri Verneuil (THE SICILIAN CLAN) was shot in French and English. I watched the French language version which is about 7 minutes longer than the American cut. The film is memorable for two things: a spectacular car chase that seems to go on forever and is the longest one I've ever seen and Belmondo doing his own stunts. Most notably a dazzling fall down a steep embankment without a cut so when he gets up, you can clearly see it was Belmondo who took the fall. The only American in the cast Dyan Cannon is dubbed into French which unfortunately means her unique laugh is also dubbed. The film differs from its 1957 American counterpart in that there is lots of humor sprinkled through out the film whereas the 1957 film was pretty somber noir. The Greek locations are handsomely shot by Claude Renoir and there's a spiffy score by Ennio Morricone.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Eloise At Christmastime (2003)

Set in 1958, a precocious six year old girl named Eloise (Sofia Vassilieva) lives with her nanny (Julie Andrews) at the plush Plaza hotel while her mother lives in Europe. The cheeky child makes it her business to keep her finger in the lives of the hotel's guests and employees. Based on the book by writer/performer Kay Thompson (FUNNY FACE), what could have been ruined by an attack of the Disney cutes remains true to the Thompson source material. Vassilieva pops right out of the book's pages, sassy, brassy and a bit annoying ..... but inevitably a charmer. Andrews nicely plays against type, her lady like elegance not to be seen as the slovenly, egg nog slugging nanny. It's bright and colorful with a genuine feel of Christmas and one can view it without making apologies. Directed by Kevin Lima. With Christine Baranski, Jeffrey Tambor, Debra Monk, Kenneth Welsh, Sarah Topham, Rick Roberts and Gavin Creel.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

When his wife and co-anchor (Christina Applegate) is promoted to anchorwoman on primetime news and he is fired, anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) gathers his former cronies (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner) and they go to work on a new concept ..... a news channel 24 hours a day (this is set in 1980)! Doing a sequel when so much time has elapsed since the last film can be a risky business. It's been nine years since the 2004 ANCHORMAN was released. Luckily, it's paid off. For most of its running time, it's inspired hilarity, every bit as funny as the first, perhaps even more and all the while shooting pointed barbs at the state of TV news. Steve Carell hasn't been this funny in years! Ferrell's first encounter with his new black female boss (Meagan Good) is a priceless comical take on politically incorrect nervousness. It runs out of steam toward the end when a blindness theme enters the picture (the film is constantly flirting with bad taste) but recovers for a slam bang finish where a lot stars show up (someone called in a lot of favors). Directed by Adam McKay. With Harrison Ford, Will Smith, Liam Neeson, Marion Cotillard, Tina Fey, Kanye West, Sacha Baron Cohen, Vince Vaughn, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Poehler, John C. Reilly, Kristen Wiig, Greg Kinnear and James Marsden.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Remember The Night (1940)

With Christmas only a week away, a prosecuting attorney (Fred MacMurray) causes the case of a shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) to get postponed after the Christmas season so the jurors won't have any qualms about putting a woman in jail for Christmas. Since she has nowhere to go, he offers to drive her to her mother in Indiana for Christmas since it is on the way to his own mother's. But it's Christmas and love is in the air. While most Christmas movies revel in sentiment, REMEMBER THE NIGHT manages to keep the sentimentality to a minimum while still having its heart in the right place. Thanks to a razor sharp script by Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen's nimble direction and two appealing leads, this is a Christmas movie that even Scrooge could embrace. Stanwyck was one of the few actresses who could give MacMurray some sex appeal (they would go on to do three more movies together) and she gives one of her very best performances. So impressed was Sturges by Stanwyck's work here that he wrote THE LADY EVE especially for her. With Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Hayden and giving a very funny performance as Stanwyck's hammy attorney, Willard Robertson.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cast A Long Shadow (1959)

A bitter saddle tramp (Audie Murphy) inherits a massive ranch from an iron fisted land baron who might have been his father. He wants nothing to do with the ranch and agrees to sell it to the ranch's employees for $20,000. But the town's resentment toward him and their arrogant attitude changes his mind and he decides to keep the ranch and keep the workers under his thumb as firmly as their former employer did. So many routine westerns were ground out during the 1950s that a few sleepers slipped under the radar and never got their due. At first, I thought this might have been one of them. The premise is strong and promises something special and for the first half it delivers before squandering into a conventional cattle drive western from which it never recovers. Directed by Thomas Carr, Gerald Fried did the generic underscore. With Terry Moore as the love interest, John Dehner, James Best, Rita Lynn, Ann Doran and Denver Pyle.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

After the death of his partner, a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) struggles going solo in the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene. You got to hand it to the Coen Brothers, they're always giving you the fresh and unexpected. In possibly their best movie since FARGO, the Coens could have named their film PORTRAIT OF A LOSER. Isaac's Llewyn Davis can't get a break if his life depended on it but then again, he's not exactly a likable person and his talent is adequate, nothing more. He's one of those ordinary people trying to make a mark in the world without any extraordinary qualities to get them there. The Coens won't pander to its audience and when you sit back and expect the cliche to happen, they go right past it. While it might seem that they're in a sour mood, the film slowly creeps up on you until it's got you hook, line and sinker. The performances are uniformly good especially John Goodman as a burnt out jazz musician and Carey Mulligan as a pissed off one night stand but it's Isaac's performance that is the glue that holds the picture together. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is so precise that you'd swear the film was shot in B&W even though it's in color. With Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Jeanine Serralles and a cat called Ulysses that gives the most winning animal performance since Uggie in THE ARTIST.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dangerous Christmas Of Red Riding Hood (1965)

From his cage at a zoo, a wolf (Cyril Ritchard) recounts how he was misunderstood and gives us the true story of the Red Riding Hood (Liza Minnelli) incident. A musical revisionist tale, the film's main asset is the strong Broadway worthy songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, the composer and lyricist of FUNNY GIRL and its two lead performers. Minnelli is in great voice and Ritchard hams it up deliciously. The weak production values are cheap looking like something you'd see at a community theater Christmas play and the choreography by Lee Theodore never rises much above that level either. In an attempt to attract the teenage crowd, the rock group The Animals (The House Of The Rising Sun) are cast as Ritchard's wolf pack but their one song We're Going To Howl Tonight is the weakest of the show's songs and they seem uncomfortable when required to say the simplest of lines. Also on hand, Vic Damone as the woodsman. Directed by Sid Smith.

Storm In A Teacup (1937)

A reporter (Rex Harrison) is assigned to interview a Scottish politician (Cecil Parker) who is running for Parliament. When the politician rudely kicks a poor woman (Sara Allgood) out of his house when she attempts to plea for her dog (Scruffy) to be saved from extermination, the reporter's subsequent article causes a scandal which grows ... well, like a storm in a teacup. It only complicates matters when the reporter is attracted to the politician's daughter (Vivien Leigh). This slight comedy is quite daffy but it has a sweetness about it that's quite charming. The satire is evenly aimed at both the pompous politician and the frenetic dog lovers. Harrison and Leigh are not quite the stars (or actors) they would later become and Leigh, in particular, is wasted in a standard ingenue role. Fluff but of interest in seeing its two leading players so early in their careers. Co-directed by Ian Dalrymple and Victor Saville. With Ursula Jeans and Gus McNaughton.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

La Grande Bellezza (aka The Great Beauty) (2013)

On his 65th birthday, a journalist (Toni Servillo, THE GIRL BY THE LAKE) begins to question and examine his "success" in life. Once an acclaimed novelist for his one and only book, he's achieved celebrity by chronicling the high life of Rome's artsy set. This is a ravishing film, a contemporary riff on Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA. In fact, it was probably the 1960 film that influenced Servillo's writer to go to Rome and write about the beautiful people. For those who wax nostalgic over the great Italian directors of the 50s and 60s like Fellini, Visconti or Antonioni; Paolo Sorrentino's LA GRANDE BELLEZZA proves as vital and as potent as the great Italian films of that period. Sorrentino has a near astonishing eye and the episodic nature of the film allows him to lavish some stunning images whether it's a shot of cranes nesting on a balcony at dawn (there were audible gasps in the audience at this shot) or a Roman debauchery to a throbbing dance beat, this is a movie lover's feast for the eyes as well as the senses. In the central role, Servillo captures the regret of talent wasted in a life of hedonism. It's his film all the way though other actors are able to make an impression especially Sabrina Ferilli as a 40ish stripper and Sonia Gessner as a 104 year old nun. Awesome is such an overused term but I can't think of any other word that describes my reaction to this great film. With Carlo Buccirosso and Fanny Ardant.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Caprice (1967)

An industrial spy (Doris Day) for a cosmetics company is attempting to steal the secret of a revolutionary water repellent hairspray from a competitor. But when murder and narcotics enter the picture, her mission becomes less superficial. An attempt at re-imagining Doris Day into a more "mod" image, a sort of American Modesty Blaise, the film was a failure when released (Day disliked the film) but today it plays better than its reputation would suggest. Which doesn't mean it's very good, just better than the commonly held negative opinion. Some of the skiing sequences and stunt work are pretty good though the obvious backdrops spoil the effect. The director and co-writer Frank Tashlin's influence is discernible, his cartoonish slapstick style is prominent, notably in a pursuit chase by police in an apartment complex. The film's biggest stumbling block is that Day and her leading man, Richard Harris, have zero chemistry. Charm was never the intense Harris's forte but I suppose it was the studio's idea to pair her with a then "hot" British actor. Still, some of the scenes seem strange coming in a Day film like when Michael J. Pollard is feeling Day up and sticks his hand right up her dress! Of course, being Day she slaps him. The theme song sung by Day is quite pretty though and Frank De Vol did the Mancini-ish score. With Ray Walston, Lilia Skala, Edward Mulhare, Irene Tsu and Jack Kruschen.

Hilda Crane (1956)

A two time divorcee (Jean Simmons) returns to her small hometown after a failed attempt at a career in New York. At her mother's (Judith Evelyn) urging, she accepts a proposal from a prosperous architect (Guy Madison) even though she doesn't love him. Based on a play by Samson Raphaelson, this is a fairly typical glossy soap opera of the Fox CinemaScope period. Simmons chain smokes, drinks scotch on the rocks, wears a mink and suffers in Charles LeMaire's attractive costumes. All in all, quite daring for its day (the film's trailer asks you to judge Hilda Crane) as Simmons' character is not only twice divorced but lived openly with a man and runs off with her lover (Jean Pierre Aumont) for a hotel shack up. It's not one of Simmons' best performances, she's too superficially overwrought and her two leading men don't seem worth her time. The film doesn't seem to have anything nice to say about motherhood either as Judith Evelyn as Simmons' cold and remote mother and Evelyn Varden as Madison's vindictive and manipulating mother get the blame for their children's messed up lives. There's quite a nice underscore by David Raksin. Directed by Philip Dunne (TEN NORTH FREDERICK). With Peggy Knudsen and Gregg Palmer.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Brute Force (1947)

A sadistic, near psychopathic chief guard (Hume Cronyn) rules a prison with an iron fist while the ineffectual warden (Roman Bohnen) looks the other way. But his vicious cruelty drives the men to the brink of their endurance and it's only a matter of time before everything explodes. The title says it all. This is a gritty and violent look at prison life, where rehabilitation takes a backseat to cruel and unusual punishment. Even though the film takes place entirely in a prison (except for the obligatory flashbacks), Jules Dassin's film is often classified as noir. The sense of a hopeless predestined fate is there as well as the requisite B&W chiaroscuro lensing courtesty of William H. Daniels (NINOTCHKA) and a moody score by noir veteran Miklos Rozsa. If the film has any strong drawback it's in the somewhat overdone portrayal of Cronyn's evil guard who you almost expect to twirl his moustache and give a wicked laugh. There's nothing wrong with Cronyn's performance, he's quite good, it's in the writing. The flashbacks are necessary to bring the girls into the story though they only minimally add anything to the narrative. With Burt Lancaster, Ann Blyth, Yvonne De Carlo, Howard Duff, Charles Bickford, Ella Raines, Charles McGraw, Sam Levene, Whit Bissell, John Hoyt, Anita Colby, Art Smith, Jay C. Flippen and Jeff Corey.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

American Hustle (2013)

A career con man (Christian Bale) and his mistress (Amy Adams) are busted in a sting. But an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) offers them a deal. If they help him ensnare a bunch of politicians in a money scam, they'll go free. What sounds simple enough turns into a complicated and dangerous operation where you wonder who's scamming who? Pure bliss and absolutely irresistible! The screenplay by director David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer is improbable and its characters far fetched. But hey, this is a comedy, not a true life drama (though it's "suggested" by real life events) and who cares when you're having such a great time? Russell whizzes his actors (all at the top of their game) through their stride and though the film goes past the two hour mark, you're never aware of the time because you're on a rollercoaster. The period detail (it's set in 1978) is perfect and the actors, all with hideous 70s wigs and hairpieces, dig into their roles like a dog with a bone. Best of all is Jennifer Lawrence who bats it out the ball park as Bale's dizzy wife. Forget THE STING, this is the real deal. A genuine treat and one of the best films of the year. With Robert De Niro, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola, Colleen Camp, Jack Jones and Elizabeth Rohm.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Avalanche (1978)

A recently divorced woman (Mia Farrow) visits the popular winter ski resort in Colorado owned by her ex-husband (Rock Hudson). He wants to get back together but she's not so sure. But a deadly avalanche soon dwarfs their personal problems. Possibly the least seen of the 1970s disaster films (and justifiably so), AVALANCHE was produced by Roger Corman, known for his low budget films and it shows. The film lacks the production values of the big budget Irwin Allen movies with shoddy special effects and stock footage that only emphasize the cheapness of the film. Other than Hudson and Farrow, there are no other big stars so the supporting characters, for the most part, are played by generic actors. When the avalanche hits, we're not quite sure who is who and what their relationship to each other is as the film's script doesn't devote much time to character development. So, the audience doesn't have much invested in the characters. The cliched underwritten script is no help and the movie feels like a made for TV knockoff rather than a big screen adventure. Hudson's days as an A-list leading man were pretty much over and Farrow was at a low point in her career, her resurrection as Woody Allen's muse a few more years away. The excellent underscore by the modern classical composer William Kraft is the only first rate thing about the film. Directed by actor turned director Corey Allen (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE). With Robert Forster, Jeanette Nolan, Steve Franken, Joby Baker, Antony Carbone and Barry Primus.

Five Golden Hours (1961)

Set in Italy, an undertaker (Ernie Kovacs) has a routine of seducing the wealthy widows of recently deceased gentlemen and living off them, taking money and gifts. But the tables are turned when he becomes besotted by the beautiful but devious widow (Cyd Charisse) of an impoverished Baron. He cons his widows out of their money to support the Baroness. But she has a few ideas of her own and they don't include the undertaker! This black comedy courtesy of director Mario Zampi (LAUGHTER IN PARADISE) is only intermittently amusing. It takes awhile for the film to get its comedic rhythm going and by then the film is almost half over. Kovacs was one of the great comedians of the 1950s but he wasn't much of an actor and this film begs for a Peter Sellers in the part. Still, the sequence when Kovacs plans to kill three widows at the same time is quite hilarious. It's a pity the film was shot, by Christopher Challis (TWO FOR THE ROAD), in black and white as the gorgeous Italian locations cry out for Technicolor. With George Sanders as a mental patient, Ron Moody (OLIVER!), Kay Hammond, Dennis Price, Finlay Currie, Martin Benson and Marianne Stone.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

The author of MARY POPPINS P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly makes the trip to Los Angeles where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is determined to obtain the rights to make her book into a film. But the obstinate writer makes a formidable opponent to the persistent Disney, making demands that border on the unreasonable. The behind the scenes drama behind the making of a film, especially a classic like MARY POPPINS, can be fascinating especially for the film buff. In that respect, SAVING MR. BANKS is a success. Still, this is a Disney production so I wouldn't give the movie much credibility in its representation of the actual facts. Travers is portrayed as a rather dour, unhappy woman till she's Disneyfied by the film's end. Her reactions during the film's premiere ring false. The film is encumbered with lots of flashbacks to Travers' childhood, taking us away from what we really want to see. The backstory would have been better served if it had been told or recalled rather than interrupting the main story regularly. At the film's core, Thompson is marvelous! In fact, the entire film is well acted but the film belongs to Thompson. Directed by John Lee Hancock (THE BLIND SIDE). With Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, Kathy Baker, Rachel Griffiths, Melanie Paxson, Annie Rose Buckley and Ruth Wilson, who gives a fine understated performance as Travers' mother.

A Yank In The R.A.F. (1941)

A brash and egotistical American flyer (Tyrone Power) joins the Royal Air Force. He doesn't take the war seriously and is more interested in pursuing a dancer (Betty Grable) working in London. The emphasis on this lightweight piece of celluloid is on romance with the war (the U.S. had not entered WWII at this point) providing some action. Unless you find cockiness appealing, Power's character remains a turn off through out the film despite the actor's innate charm. Though she has a couple of musical numbers, Grable is used primarily as an actress here and while the role hardly applies any demands on her, she's a blank. Curiously, the film somehow seems to equate irresponsibility with heroism but then again, this is a Hollywood view of the European war before we were into it. Some of the aerial sequences (director Ronald Neame was one of the cinematographers) are well done (especially a forced landing on a beach) but the entire film was shot on the Fox sound stages rather than any location shooting, understandable as there was a war on in Europe. Efficiently if generically directed by Henry King. With John Sutton as Power's romantic rival, Reginald Gardiner and Ethel Griffies.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Restless Breed (1957)

In 1865, an East Coast attorney (Scott Brady) goes to Texas to avenge the death of his father, a secret service agent investigating the smuggling of guns from Texas to Mexico. The director Allan Dwan had a prolific career dating back to 1914 and directing such luminaries of the silent screen as Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks. But by the 1950s, he was relegated to directing a lot of "B" westerns with the occasional gem like SLIGHTLY SCARLET and SILVER LODE to show he still had his directorial chops firmly in place. This routine oater isn't Dwan at his best but I doubt there was much he could do with the ragged material anyway. Everyone dutifully goes through their paces including Anne Bancroft as a sexy "half breed", the kind of role that sent her fleeing Hollywood for the New York stage where her talents were put to better use. The shoddy score is by Edward L. Alperson Jr., the producer's son but John W. Boyle's Eastmancolor lensing is bright and sharp. With Jay C. Flippen, Rhys Williams, Scott Marlowe, Leo Gordon, Jim Davis and Evelyn Rudie.

Hold Your Man (1933)

When a grifter (Clark Gable) meets a fellow con artist (Jean Harlow), sparks fly! But when they attempt to blackmail one of her married lovers, everything goes wrong and she ends up in prison. There are pleasures to be had in basking in the glow of genuine movie stars like Gable and Harlow. It's such sheer gratification just to watch them play off each other that it almost seems rude to ask for more ... like a great script. But the best thing about the film is the lengthy prison sequence which leaves Gable out of the picture for awhile. Since this is a pre code film, we get a gritty look at a diverse assortment of female inmates (both ethnically and socially): a radical leftist (Barbara Barondess), a drunk (Dorothy Burgess), a black preacher's daughter (Theresa Harris) among others. The subplot with Harris who has been turned in for theft by her preacher father (George Reed) is notable for its portrayal of its African-American characters by giving them some substance and dignity rather than the usual stereotyping. Directed by Sam Wood (who is inexplicably not credited). With Stuart Erwin as the good hearted chump hopelessly in love with Harlow, Elizabeth Patterson, Louise Beavers, Inez Courtney and Garry Owen.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Naked Jungle (1954)

In 1901 South America, a mail order bride (Eleanor Parker) by proxy arrives at the large cocoa plantation of the husband (Charlton Heston) she's never seen or met. He's rather cold, aloof and suspicious of a beautiful woman who would marry a stranger she's never met and leave civilization for the jungles of South America. Exotic jungle adventures were very popular at the box office in the 1950s whether the jungles of Africa, India or South America. This is quite possibly the best of the bunch, I know it's my favorite. The death of its leading lady, Eleanor Parker, today caused me to pull it off the shelf and give it a rewatch in her memory. The adventure is exciting if simplistic but the combination of Heston and Parker, who have a great chemistry together, makes this just pop! The stalwart Heston has never been sexier and Parker positively smolders (the look she gives him as he rubs lotion on her is invaluable). Produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin who had teamed up on WAR OF THE WORLDS the year before, the movie manages to make ants as terrifying as some horror movie monster and if you first saw the movie as an adolescent, its images stayed with you forever. With William Conrad and Abraham Sofaer.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Christmas Wish (1998)

After his grandfather's death, a rising young executive (Neil Patrick Harris) comes down from New York to temporarily manage his grandfather's real estate business. His grandmother (Debbie Reynolds) asks him to locate a mystery woman that her husband wrote about in his journals, fearing that she might have been his mistress. Trying to track down the mystery woman leads him on a path of discovery ... of his grandfather, of himself ... and forgiveness. Every year around this time, there seems to be a surfeit of Christmas TV movies, usually from Hallmark or Lifetime. Most of them are unbearably treacly but if THE CHRISTMAS WISH doesn't quite escape the sentimentality inherent in these annual holiday offerings, it's still a cut above the usual stuff. It's characters are nicely drawn and the performances by Harris, Reynolds and a young Naomi Watts as a single mother are solid and the Christmas spirit isn't exploited to the point of nausea. Directed by Ian Barry. With Alexandra Wilson, Ian Meltzer and Beverly Archer.

We Were Strangers (1949)

In 1933 Cuba, a group of revolutionaries (or terrorists depending on your point of view) use guerrilla tactics in an attempt to overthrow the repressive government of the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado Y Morales. They include a Cuban born American (John Garfield), a bank clerk (Jennifer Jones), a dock worker (Gilbert Roland) and a student (David Bond). One of director John Huston's least known films, it came out at the wrong time. Its realistic and gritty (for 1949 Hollywood) portrait of underground rebels systematically targeting government officials in an attempt to topple the government didn't resonate too favorably with a nation where the House Of Un-American Activities was hauling people (including the film's star John Garfield) before them to testify their allegiance. The film has some nice attention to the little details (as days pass, the men actually get face stubble) which makes up for some of the poor rear projection though the lensing by the great Russell Metty (TOUCH OF EVIL) is quite good. Jones does nicely with a Cuban accent but most of the cast like Roland, Pedro Armendariz, Tito Renaldo, Jose Perez and Ramon Novarro are actually Hispanic which lends authenticity. The score is by George Antheil. Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald watched this film twice the month before he shot Kennedy. Make of that what you will.

Deamboat (1952)

An English professor (Clifton Webb) finds his quiet life turned upside down when his secret past is revealed. When a series of silent movies is shown on television, his former career as a romantic leading man in silent films is exposed. Resentful of the unwanted publicity and intrustion into his private life, he and his daughter (Anne Francis) go to New York to threaten to sue to keep the films off television. If you can buy the idea of Clifton Webb as a dashing 1920s heartthrob a la Valentino, this pleasant if minor comedy is quite agreeable and moves along nicely except for a rather sluggish court sequence toward the end of the film. It shoots some rather vicious arrows at the vapidness of television (circa 1952) but seems rather impervious to its own rather condescending view of silent cinema. Ginger Rogers is quite good as Webb's former leading lady, now hawking perfume on TV. There's an inconsequential subplot involving Francis as Webb's bookish daughter and her romance with a New York public relations man (Jeffrey Hunter). Directed by Claude Binyon. With Elsa Lanchester, Fred Clark, Helene Stanley, Ray Collins, Marietta Canty and Gwen Verdon.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Invisible Woman (2013)

A respectable young girl (Felicity Jones) is romantically pursued by the famous author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs) even though he is already married. She is appalled by the idea of being his mistress yet can't resist the genius of the man. Based on the non fiction book by Claire Tomalin, the film starts falteringly and I expected the worst, one of those dull spawn of the BBC costume dramas with lots of tea sipping among ladies and gentlemen. But director Fiennes, working from a solid screenplay by Abi Morgan, gives us a stark portrait of the conventions of the time and how those who attempt to break them want their cake and eat it too or become victims of their actions. Fiennes' Dickens is a warts and all portrayal, letting us see both his genius and his cruelty. A respectable effort and don't be afraid of the BBC sheep's clothing ... there's a wolf underneath. The obtrusive score is by Ilan Eshkeri. With Kristin Scott Thomas (Fiennes' squeeze in THE ENGLISH PATIENT, now playing Jones's mother), Tom Hollander and as Dickens' wife, Joanna Scanlan in a performance that you won't soon forget.

The Mask Of Dimitrios (1944)

At a cocktail party, a mystery writer (Peter Lorre) is told by a Turkish police Captain (Kurt Katch) of the mysterious Dimitrios (Zachary Scott) whose murdered body has been found washed ashore on a beach. Intrigued by the policeman's story, the writer decides to investigate the life of Dimitrios with the possibility of turning it into a book. But he soon finds himself embroiled in the dark forces that surrounded the dead man. Based upon the novel by Eric Ambler (TOPKAPI), the film is greatly admired by the noir crowd but I found it only intermittently entertaining. The "twist" late in the film is no surprise at all (I guessed within minutes of the film's beginning) and much of the film is devoted to flashbacks as to what a horrible person Dimitrios was. I got it the first time! Still, how can you go wrong with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre at the center of things. The director Jean Negulesco provides a suitable ambience that never quite justifies the result but there's nothing wrong with Arthur Edeson's (THE MALTESE FALCON) B&W lensing or Adolph Deutsch's effective underscore. With Faye Emerson, Steven Geray, Victor Francen, Florence Bates, Eduardo Ciannelli and Marjorie Hoshelle.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Valmont (1989)

In 18th century France, after discovering her lover (Jeffrey Jones) is going to wed a 15 year old virgin (Fairuza Balk), a wealthy widow (Annette Bening) asks her ex-lover (Colin Firth) to seduce the young virgin. He refuses but not before they make a pernicious wager, that he will seduce a virtuous married woman (Meg Tilly). But this is only the beginning of the emotional destruction that the malevolent pair bring about. VALMONT had the misfortune to be the second film based on Choderlos De Laclos' LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES and released a year after the superior 1988 Stephen Frears film DANGEROUS LIAISONS. Though there's much to appreciate in Milos Forman's version (principally Bening's performance), VALMONT lacks the intense maliciousness of the Frears film. In addition, while the 1988 film was impeccably acted (well, maybe not Keanu Reeves), two performances here simply don't work. Firth's blobby Valmont and Tilly's anemic angelic wife don't generate any passion whatsoever so that their relationship seems manipulated and forced. Handsomely shot in wide screen by Miroslav Ondricek. With Sian Phillips, Henry Thomas (E.T.) and Fabia Drake.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Avalanche Express (1979)

A team of CIA operatives use a defecting high ranking Soviet general (Robert Shaw) as bait by having him travel by train. Their intent is that the Russians will openly attack the train hoping to kill the defector and thus expose their secret agents. With a top notch cast (in addition to Shaw, there's Lee Marvin, Maximilian Schell, Linda Evans), a solid director in Mark Robson, a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky (BODY AND SOUL), one would expect, at the very least, a competent Cold War action piece. But everything seems to go wrong. An enervated Marvin and a tired Shaw seem to walk through their parts and Polonsky's screenplay is often incoherent and illogical. It didn't help that both Robson and Shaw died during the making of the film and Shaw's voice is dubbed throughout the film. The film's avalanche sequence seems to belong to a different movie, perhaps a disaster film. The only asset the film has is Jack Cardiff's nicely rendered cinematography but he's not even listed in the film's credits and Evans at least seems trying to give a performance. With Horst Buchholz, Mike Connors, Joe Namath and Vladek Sheybal.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Under Fire (1983)

In 1979 Nicaragua, rebels batter away against the repressive and corrupt regime of President Anastasio Somozsa (Rene Enriquez). Two American reporters (Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy) and a photo journalist (Nick Nolte) find their "neutrality" put to the test as they become intimately involved in the country's fate. This potent film is one of the best films of the 1980s decade. Political films can often be ham fisted (think Oliver Stone) in their agenda and the narrative's human angle becomes lost in a plethora of talking heads spouting platitudes concocted by the screenwriter rather than coming from the heart and the gut. The director Roger Spottiswoode working from a screenplay by Clayton Frohman doesn't force anything on us. What we get are three people who are above involvement in the stories they cover and proud of it, there's an ironic shot of journalists sipping cocktails on a rooftop bar while the city is being bombed. But what happens when the horror becomes so real that you can't ignore it any longer? Spottiswoode gives us just what we need to see, there's nothing extraneous. For example, a less intuitive director would have shown us Nolte and Cassidy making love for the first time, Spottiswoode just gives us the morning after and quickly at that. Mention must be made of John Alcott's compelling images, Jerry Goldsmith's great Oscar nominated score and Mark Conte's impressive editing. With Ed Harris as a cold blooded mercenary, Jean Louis Trintignant, Richard Masur, Holly Palance, Jenny Gago and Eloy Casados.

The Angry Red Planet (1959)

A rocket ship returns to Earth after mankind's first landing on Mars but there are only two survivors out of the four person crew. The crew's leader (Gerald Mohr) is unconscious and has a strange growth attached to his arm while the biologist (Naura Hayden) has a loss of memory. This is low budget science fiction at its cheesiest. Shot in little over a week (and it shows), the screen goes literally red when they are outside of the spaceship and exploring the planet. Well, that's one way of disguising the painted backdrops passing for Mars or the creepy papier mache creatures right out of a Japanese "monster that ate Tokyo" movie. It wouldn't have mattered in the long run if the movie were at least fun but it's tedious to the extreme. It's a particularly ugly looking movie so I was quite stunned during the end credits when I saw the film was shot by the great Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER)! Directed by Ib Melchior. With Les Tremayne and Jack Kruschen.