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Friday, February 28, 2014

Kaze Tachinu (aka The Wind Rises) (2013)

When a young boy (Hideaki Anno) obsessed with flying grows up, he becomes an aeronautical engineer in 1920s Japan. Working for a private airplane manufacturer contracted by the Japanese government to design a more efficient fighter plane, his diligence pays off when he designs a plane that will be preeminent in WWII. Very loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical designer who designed the Mitsubishi Zero aircraft used by the Japanese in WWII. This swan song of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is, no surprise, stunning both visually and stylistically. Yet it's also often ponderous, not an adjective I'd ever normally think of when describing Miyazaki's work. For a film about planes and flying, there's little of the excitement and beauty of flight, something you can find readily in other films from WINGS to THE BLUE MAX. I was actually more taken with the personal love story of Horikoshi and his ill wife (Miori Takimoto) that ran concurrently with the aircraft narrative. Still, a film about the creation of a plane whose purpose was to cause destruction and death during WWII without addressing that fact seems somewhat disingenuous. Sort of like making a film about the creation of the atom bomb while ignoring Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Disappointing but it's still Miyazaki, a master of anime whose work should never be missed. There's an English language version playing out there but I saw it in the original Japanese which, considering its subject matter, is preferable.

Paroles Et Musique (1984)

A struggling singing duo find their career gaining momentum. But when one of them (Christopher Lambert) becomes involved with a married woman (Catherine Deneuve), he seems more focused on her than the music which causes friction between him and his partner (Richard Anconina). Exceedingly mediocre and so problematic that I don't know where to start. The duo seems based on a Hall and Oates type but the songs they sing are generic mindless pop, the kind of stuff that you would switch channels if listening to the radio. Lambert and Anconina's singing voices are dubbed (or appear to be) and seem tinny and doesn't seem to emanate from them. Plus, and this is especially true of the stunningly awful Anconina, they don't have a real singer's bearing or stance, watching them lip sync while bopping around the stage is painful to watch. It's a stretch to believe that they're sought after pop stars. One wonders what Deneuve is doing here in what is essentially a supporting role with top billing. And perhaps most importantly but danced around, the two guys seem bi-sexual, more interested in each other than their women (Anconina is paired with Gayle Haddon). When Lambert spends time with Deneuve, Anconina has a jealous hissy fit and there are more kissing scenes between the guys than with their ladies. Aptly, the film's last shot has the two guys holding hands. The film's biggest surprise is that the crappy songs were written by the great Michel Legrand (lyrics by Gene McDaniel). Directed by Elie Chouraqui. With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jacques Perrin and Nick Mancuso.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Come September (1961)

A wealthy American (Rock Hudson) owns a plush villa on the Italian Riviera. He spends every September there with his Italian mistress (Gina Lollobrigida). When he arrives in July however, he finds his caretaker (Walter Slezak) has been using the villa as a hotel and pocketing the profits and the current guests are a gaggle of American teenage girls and their stern chaperone (Brenda De Banzie). When some American college boys find the girls, trouble follows. One of the best romantic comedies of the 1960s, the film isn't hampered at all by its dated sexual attitudes which, if anything, add to the film's charm. Hudson proves why, even without Doris Day, he was the premier romcom leading man of that decade. Lollobrigida also displays her comedic timing to advantage. Add the adorable Sandra Dee to the mix, you've got yourself a winner! William Daniels (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) shooting in CinemaScope takes full advantage of the lush Italian location and Morton Haack's eye popping costumes display every one of Lollobrigida's curves. Directed by Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). With Bobby Darin (who would marry Dee before the film came out), Joel Grey, Rossana Rory, Ronald Howard and Joan Freeman.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Man In Grey (1943)

In early 19th century England, a young girl (Phyllis Calvert) enters a loveless marriage of convenience with a cold hearted but titled cad (James Mason) who is part of the aristocracy. Her treacherous best friend (Margaret Lockwood, THE LADY VANISHES) moves in to their home at her request but she quickly becomes the mistress to the man of the house. This rather lurid period costume drama is near irresistible in its kitsch, a dime store Harlequin romance paperback come to life on celluloid. As the brooding man of the manor, this was James Mason's breakthrough role, making him a matinee idol of sorts in Great Britain. Odd considering his character here is rather repellent. But the wickedness of Lockwood's and Mason's characters are much more preferable and certainly more fun than the goody goody Calvert and the noble Stewart Granger as the adventurer she falls in love with. The film is dated uncomfortably in some of its sexist and racist attitudes. Calvert is told, "When we marry you must learn to obey me" and she happily accepts it and blacks are casually referred to as savages and the "N" word by Granger. That aside, it's an enjoyable bodice ripper. Directed by Leslie Arliss. With Martita Hunt, Helen Haye, Nora Swinburne and young Harry Scott, who appears to be white playing in blackface as Calvert's loyal urchin.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1982)

A brothel called The Chicken Ranch has existed in a small Texas town since the turn of the century. But when a conservative watchdog (Dom DeLuise) with a TV show turns the spotlight on the brothel, it causes no end of grief to the town's sheriff (Burt Reynolds) and the brothel's madam (Dolly Parton). Quite possibly the raunchiest mainstream movie musical ever made with foul language and nudity galore. Considering that it's really not very good, it's highly enjoyable. Based on the hit Broadway musical, some of the plot has been altered to accommodate Reynolds and Parton and several of the shows songs have been cut and replaced by new ones written by Parton. By this time, Reynolds' redneck charms were beginning to dim but fortunately Parton is delightful. Musically, her tender rendition of I Will Always Love You puts Whitney Houston's later bombastic version to shame. The other musical highlight is the bittersweet Hard Candy Christmas sung by Parton and the prostitutes when the house is shut down. Perhaps the film's low point is the absurd football victory dance in the locker room with high kicking chorus boys masquerading as husky football players ..... as if. Directed by Colin Higgins (his final film). With Charles Durning (who got an Oscar nomination on the strength of his one song), Jim Nabors, Lois Nettleton, Theresa Merritt, Barry Corbin and Robert Mandan.

In Secret (2014)

In 19th century France, abandoned by her father (Matt Devere) to the care of his sister (Jessica Lange), a young girl (Elizabeth Olsen) finds herself trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage to her cousin (Tom Felton, the HARRY POTTER films). When she takes a lover (Oscar Isaac, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS), they realize getting rid of her husband is the only solution but it's amazing how guilt can dampen a romance. Emile Zola's 1867 novel THERESE RAQUIN has been adapted to film, TV and the stage many times. Most notably Marcel Carne's excellent 1953 film with Simone Signoret and the 1980 BBC production with Kate Nelligan. In his feature film debut, Charlie Stratton (who also wrote the screenplay) gives us an energetic abundance of passion, guilt and fatalism. It's a dark film, literally as the film is in all blacks, grays and browns with only a splash of green to give it any color. Alas, I'm not sure there's a market for a film like this. It's too grim and sexual for the tasteful BBC crowd yet too conventionally "classic" for the multiplex crowd. It's too good to fade away which is exactly what it will do (there were 5 of us on a Sunday matinee) but maybe it will get a second life on DVD. The acting is uniformly excellent: Olsen once again proves she's one of the best young actresses out there, Isaac excels in a totally different turn than his Llewyn Davis and best of all, Jessica Lange who doesn't even let her character's stroke from keeping her from giving a compelling performance. With Shirley Henderson and Matt Lucas.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Atlantic City (1980)

As the old Atlantic City is being torn down and renovated for the large gambling casinos, an aging former small time hood (Burt Lancaster) spies on his young neighbor (Susan Sarandon), a dealer in training but currently working in an oyster bar. But when her husband (Robert Joy) and her pregnant (by him) sister (Hollis McLaren) come to town, he's there to sell some cocaine he stole from some mobsters, everything rapidly turns topsy turvy in all their lives. The director Louis Malle is one of the few French directors to transition to American films successfully. This is a marvelous movie filled with both the poignance for a past that is crumbling in the face of its former denizens and the tenuous future of a new generation. Lancaster (in possibly his greatest performance) is revitalized by the ambitious dreamer played by Sarandon, who has visions of going to France and working in Monte Carlo as a blackjack dealer. For a brief moment in time, they connect but, of course, the gap between them (age, values, experience) is so huge that it can never go beyond that moment. The script by John Guare (SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION) is clever and humorous but it never condescends to its characters, we always laugh (or cry) with them, never at them. As good a movie as you could ask for. With Kate Reid as an ex-beauty queen, Michel Piccoli, Robert Goulet, and Wallace Shawn.

Friday, February 21, 2014

We're Not Married! (1952)

When a Justice Of The Peace (Victor Moore) receives his appointment on December 24th Christmas Eve, he immediately begins performing marriages. After the fact two years later, it is discovered his appointment began on January 1st of the next year. Thus the five couples he married during that 7 day period aren't legally married. They include a famous married couple (Ginger Rogers, Fred Allen) who have their own radio show but can't stand each other, a professional beauty queen (Marilyn Monroe) and her Mr. Mom husband (David Wayne), a soldier (Eddie Bracken) being sent overseas and his pregnant wife (Mitzi Gaynor), a couple (Paul Douglas, Eve Arden) who no longer communicate and an oil millionaire (Louis Calhern) and his golddigger wife (Zsa Zsa Gabor). Which begs the question ... if you had to do it over again, would you? Portmanteau films can be fun. A series of sketches, usually with an all star cast, tied together with a common theme. WE'RE NOT MARRIED! zips quickly along (its running less than 90 mintues) and doesn't dwell on any of the stories long enough for any of them to wear out their welcome (though the Gaynor/Bracken storyline pushes it). It's painless watching and sometimes more than that, the radio commercials done by Rogers and Allen on their radio show are cuttingly amusing. Directed by Edmund Goulding (GRAND HOTEL). With Lee Marvin, Jane Darwell, Paul Stewart and James Gleason.

The Devil Ship Pirates (1964)

In 1588, a privateer ship sailing under the flag of the Spanish Armada puts in for repairs off the coast of England. But after the repairs, its Captain (Christopher Lee) and his men have no intention of returning to the Armada but instead sailing to the Indies and their former lives as pirates. To this end, they tell the secluded villagers that Spain has defeated England and is now under Spanish rule. This pedestrian Hammer swashbuckler offers no surprises but it manages to entertain without embarrassing itself though the acting leaves a lot to be desired. The film has a rich look to it that belies its low budget status, Michael Reed's (ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE) thoughtful camera work a major factor in this as well as the art direction and costumes. As far as the film's alliances, both the English and the Spanish come off looking stupid but the film's female characters carry the brunt of the inanity. Directed by Don Sharp (BRIDES OF FU MANCHU). With Andrew Keir, John Cairney, Suzan Farmer, Barry Warren and Natasha Pyne.

The Trouble With Harry (1955)

It's autumn in Vermont in a small country town and there's a dead body in the woods! A retired sea captain (Edmund Gwenn) thinks he accidentally shot him while rabbit hunting, a spinster (Mildred Natwick) thinks he died after she hit him on the head when he attacked her and his estranged wife (Shirley MacLaine) thinks he was killed after a blow to his head when she smashed a milk bottle over it. So just how did Harry die and does anybody really care? While humor has almost always had a place in director Alfred Hitchcock's films, HARRY is one of this rare actual comedies (MR. AND MRS. SMITH is his only other notable one). But it's a subtle comedy, no pratfalls, no jokes, no hysteria. Not surprisingly, the film was one of Hitchcock's box office failures as its discreet wit was probably too indirect for 1955 audiences. Truth to tell, the film is not entirely successful. There's a charm to it but the film feels a bit self conscious. MacLaine's performance is so assured that you'd never guess this was her film debut. Cinematographer Robert Burks takes full advantage of the gorgeous fall scenery and the playful score is by Bernard Herrmann (his first and the beginning of his 8 film collaboration with Hitch). With John Forsythe, Mildred Dunnock, Royal Dano and Jerry Mathers (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) as MacLaine's son.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Le Serpent (aka Night Flight From Moscow) (1973)

A high ranking KGB official (Yul Brynner) defects to the West in Paris but seeks asylum in America. While he is cooperative when being interrogated and the information he gives leads to the exposure of Soviet agents in France and Germany, the U.S. officials are still suspicious about his motives for defecting. How trustworthy is he? Quite similar in narrative to the Hitchcock cold war spy thriller TOPAZ, it may not be as polished but it's a better film. Its approach is more like a semi-documentary not unlike those Louis De Rochemont films of the 1940s. It's typical of the international spy thrillers of the 60s and early 70s with its polyglot cast consisting of American (Henry Fonda), English (Dirk Bogarde), French (Philippe Noiret), Italian (Virna Lisi) and German (Elga Andersen) actors. Fortunately, in the version I saw there wasn't that annoying dubbing as English, French and Russian were spoken. As far as cold war espionage thrillers go, it's quite decent and should hold your attention to the very end. Its only shortcoming is its occasionally incoherent narrative. Directed by Henri Verneuil (THE SICILIAN CLAN). The inconsequential score is by Ennio Morricone. With Farley Granger, Robert Alda, Michel Bouquet and Marie Dubois (JULES AND JIM) who has one good scene.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

S.O.S. Eisberg (1933)

A German explorer (Gustav Diessl) lost in the Arctic is presumed dead. But when evidence that he is still alive appears, his partner (Sepp Rist) and a small four man search party return to the nether regions of Greenland to find him. But when they become trapped on an iceberg floating out to sea, the explorer's aviatrix wife (Leni Riefenstahl, who would direct TRIUMPH OF THE WILL the following year) joins the search. This was filmed twice, once in English and once in German. The English version was directed by Tay Garnett (THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE) with Rod La Rocque replacing Gustav Diessl but the rest of the cast repeating their roles. It is markedly different than the German version and ten minutes shorter. I watched the German language version which is directed by Arnold Fanck. Its narrative may be simple but visually, it's astonishing. Shot in Greenland and Switzerland, the footage of the Arctic landscape, the formation of the icebergs, Eskimo villages and the all around remarkable record of the force that is nature makes this a must see. Add to that the spectacular aerial sequences and it's a veritable movie feast for the senses. Some of the scenes are hard to take: a starving man gobbling a raw fish head, two polar bears tearing a seal apart, a sled dog drowning in the icy water and when someone shoots a spear into a polar bear, it sure looked real to me! With Gibson Gowland, Max Holzboer, Ernst Udet as himself and Nakinak, the sled dog who gives one of the best performances in the film.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

These Wilder Years (1956)

A steel tycoon (James Cagney) returns to his hometown to find the son that was given up for adoption twenty years ago. When the director (Barbara Stanwyck) of the adoption agency refuses to give him the information he wants, he takes her to court. But in doing so, he must confront his own past. This provocative (for its day) melodrama examines the options of the unwed mother in a repressive society that likes to point fingers as well as a look at man whose unfeeling behavior comes back to haunt him. The only pairing of Cagney and Stanwyck, it's unusual in that there's no romantic involvement between the two. The focus is on their opposing relationship. There's a subplot involving a 16 year old girl (Betty Lou Keim, SOME CAME RUNNING) who's pregnant and alone but the outcome of her story is telegraphed. There are no surprises especially in the film's last 20 minutes which are unsatisfactory and come off as contrived. Up until then, it remained eminently watchable, no surprise when you have troupers like Cagney and Stanwyck in the leads, who both bring decades of experience combing talent and star power. Directed by Roy Rowland (5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T) with a lovely underscore by Jeff Alexander. With Walter Pidgeon, Don Dubbins, Dean Jones, Edward Andrews and Dorothy Adams.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Love Is A Ball (1963)

A matchmaker (Charles Boyer) matches destitute aristocrats with unwary wealthy heiresses ... and gets a little fee from the groom. His latest protege is an impoverished Spanish Duke (Ricardo Montalban) that he hopes to marry off to a pretty young American (Hope Lange, all glammed up). To this end, he hires an English instructor (John Wood), a chef (Andre Luguet) and a carefree ex-race car driver (Glenn Ford) to help his plan. But his scheme doesn't go quite as planned. This elegant lightweight romance is typical of the Hollywood romantic comedies shot in Europe in the 1960s. This one benefits from being shot in Monaco and Nice, France. There's nothing distinctive about it but it's amiable if all too predictable. The film's title is a misnomer though, judging by the film's narrative, love is anything but a ball. The film's one surprise is Telly Savalas (who still had some hair at this point in his career) who plays against type as Lange's pretentious snob of an uncle and he's quite amusing. The jazz score is by Michel Legrand. Directed by David Swift (THE PARENT TRAP). With Ulla Jacobsson (SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT) and Ruth McDevitt.

The Unfinished Dance (1947)

A young ballerina (Margaret O'Brien) in training worships the lead dancer (Cyd Charisse) at the ballet school she attends. When another dancer (Karin Booth) arrives and is given SWAN LAKE instead of the resident dancer, the child plots to throw the stage into darkness to sabotage her performance. But she pulls the wrong switch which opens the trap door sending the dancer into a fall that will end her career. Despite the bright three strip Technicolor, gorgeous costumes, the adorable O'Brien in the lead and Danny Thomas (in his film debut) stopping the action to sing two ditties, this is a rather dark film. O'Brien's conscience so bothers her that it drives her to the brink of a breakdown while the self centered object of her idolatry (Charisse) turns out not to have been worth the worship. This may be O'Brien's best screen performance and both Charisse and Booth do very well, too. Thomas's character is just plain annoying. I can see that MGM was hoping that he'd be a new star but he just takes space on the screen. The ballet numbers are wonderful though. Directed by Henry Koster (THE ROBE). The large cast includes Marie Windsor, Elinor Donahue, Esther Dale, Barbara Billingsley, Connie Gilchrist and Ann Codee.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Radioland Murders (1994)

In 1939 Chicago, a brand new radio station has a splashy opening night. But the usual opening night nerves quickly fade as members of the cast and band as well as executives start dropping dead. A married couple, one of the writers (Brian Benben) and the station owner's secretary (Mary Stuart Masterson), try to solve the murders before the end of the show. Based on a story by executive producer George Lucas and co-written by his AMERICAN GRAFFITI scripters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the film attempts to recreate the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s ..... unsuccessfully. HIS GIRL FRIDAY seems to be the template with Benben and Masterson as a battling couple spitting out rapid fire dialogue that whizzes by. But even if the material were better, Benben and Masterson aren't Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Normally, I'm a pushover for these farcical comedies where everyone flies around like a chicken with its head cut off and hysteria prevails, stuff like IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING but this one is just exhausting. So exhausting one yearns for a quiet moment. The storyline is near impossible to follow and finally one just stops trying. Directed by Mel Smith. The massive cast includes George Burns, Rosemary Clooney, Ned Beatty, Candy Clark, Christopher Lloyd, Harvey Korman, Peter MacNicol, Michael McKean, Anita Morris, Michael Lerner, Jeffrey Tambor, Corbin Bernsen, Anne De Salvo, Billy Barty and Stephen Tobolowsky.

20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

One of the five nominees for this year's best documentary feature Oscar, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM is a riveting look at the unsung back up singers (predominantly women and predominantly black) that have become part of our musical heritage without the fame and fortune that accompanies the lead singer, the star on the album cover and in the spotlight. Listening to and watching their accomplishments, it's amazing how familiar we are with these singers' work without ever knowing who they are though anyone remotely knowledgeable of the pop/rock scene of the 60s and 70s know women like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. Besides an appreciation of the art of these gifted women like the great Lisa Fischer (who can send a chill down your spine and bring tears to your eyes), Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, Susaye Greene and Judith Hill; the film contemplates the question of stardom and success, why some make it and some don't (talent sometimes has nothing to do with it) and how some are perfectly content remaining in the "shadows". A must for every music lover, this is a glorious experience. Among the many interviewees: Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and Chris Botti.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Permanent Midnight (1998)

A recovering drug addict (Ben Stiller) hooks up with another recovering drug addict (Maria Bello) and in between sex, he tells her about his double life as a top Hollywood TV writer while descending to the depths of drug abuse from pills to crack. Based on the autobiographical book by Jerry Stahl (who wrote shows like MOONLIGHTING and THIRTYSOMETHING), the film has an authoritative feel to it from someone who's really lived it. Just one example: in typical L.A. fashion, Stiller's character only eats healthy organic foods and runs five miles a day to keep his body fit, all the while shooting junk into his arm. One could laugh at the irony if it weren't so hideously true. Directed (his only film as a director to date) and written by David Veloz (who co-wrote NATURAL BORN KILLERS), his script is better than his direction which is flat. Stiller in a rare dramatic role is quite good though perhaps more effective in the recovering aspects of his character than the full on druggie which he tends to overplay. The story is compelling enough to have deserved a better movie but there are enough good moments to justify its existence. The large cast includes Owen Wilson, Sandra Oh, Elizabeth Hurley, Fred Willard, Cheryl Ladd, Janeane Garofalo, Connie Nielsen, Lainie Kazan (whose role as Stiller's mother seems to have been severely cut) and Andy Dick.

Gunman's Walk (1958)

A cattle rancher (Van Heflin) indulges his older son (Tab Hunter) with a sense of entitlement which allows him to be arrogant and set himself above the law. When the son is brought to trial for manslaughter, the rancher will stop at nothing to protect his son including paying off a "witness". But the son's contempt for his father holds no bounds and eventually the father must come to terms with his responsibility in the creation of this "bad seed". Nominally a western, the film is really about a parent who places no limits on his children and fails to realize that he's created a carbon copy of himself. There's a younger son (James Darren) who is in direct contrast to the older son but, of course, not as favored as the older son because he is less like his father. It may be Hunter's best screen performance but it's Heflin who commands the screen, a man out of time who finds out too late to rectify his mistakes. Strongly directed by Phil Karlson (HELL TO ETERNITY), this is a solid western robustly shot in CinemaScope by Charles Lawton (3:10 TO YUMA) with a nicely restrained score by George Duning (PICNIC). With Kathryn Grant as the love interest, Mickey Shaughnessy, Robert F. Simon, Edward Platt, Ray Teal and Dorothy Adams.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Omen (1976)

When their child dies at birth in a Rome hospital, an American diplomat (Gregory Peck) agrees to substitute another baby without telling his wife (Lee Remick). But five years later, when he is given the position of U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, strange and disturbing things begin to happen: a nanny's (Holly Palance) public suicide at a children's party, the child's hysteria when they attempt to take him to church, zoo animals freak out at the child's presence and then there's the weird new nanny (Billie Whitelaw). Could it be ..... Satan? This well crafted piece of pulp horror was a monster hit in 1976 and spawned two inferior sequels but it remains as creepily effective as ever. What could have come off as ridiculous and laughable benefits from the gravitas of Peck and Remick in the leads, who both bring a dignified presence and solid talent that is able to make the incredible credible. Richard Donner directs with a secure touch while Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar winning score provides a chilling atmosphere. With David Warner, Leo McKern, Patrick Troughton and Martin Benson.

La Femme D'a Cote (aka The Woman Next Door) (1981)

When a new couple move in next door in their small town in the country, a husband (Gerard Depardieu) discovers the woman (Fanny Ardant) is his ex-lover from eight years ago. It was an unhealthy relationship that they were well rid of ... but it seems fate isn't through with them yet. Love makes you crazy. For some people, it's toxic. There are some people who don't understand this and the behavior it generates. God bless 'em in their ignorant bliss, they usually laugh at or are exasperated by characters like this. Francois Truffaut's next to last film turns its eye toward two people who should never have been together but their passion, like a cancer, metastasizes until it's fatal. It's not an easy film to watch, their behavior often makes no sense and their self destructive behavior affects not only them but those around them like their respective spouses (Henri Garcin, Michele Baumgartner) who deserve better. Truffaut has shown an interest in noir having filmed two Cornell Woolrich stories and a novel by David Goodis but surprisingly this film is closer to the noir perspective than those films. Ardant's femme fatale is much more complex than the simplistic fatales of pulp fiction. She's ambiguous and we're never quite certain how much of her is sincere and how much is manipulation. With Veronique Silver as a victim of love's insanity, 20 years ago she jumped out of a window in an attempt to kill herself when her lover married someone else but survived and has a crippled leg to remind her of love's malicious hand.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Little Princess (1939)

In 1899 Victorian England, a soldier (Ian Hunter) from a distinguished family is called to South Africa during the second Boer War. He places his daughter (Shirley Temple), who has been raised in India, at an exclusive boarding school for girls. But when he is reported killed in action and his diamond mine holdings taken over by the Afrikaans, the mean spirited headmistress (Mary Nash, THE PHILADELPHA STORY) sticks her in the attic and makes her work off her debt. Based on the popular novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, this is young Shirley Temple's (who passed away this week) best movie. Shot in handsome three strip Technicolor with solid production values, the film has a decent script and requires Temple to give a performance (her character has some layers) rather than trading in on her "adorable" persona which made her one of the top box office attractions of her day. I have to confess I was never a fan of the popular child actress but I'm quite fond of this film. The film stops cold with a fantasy dream sequence featuring ballet which doesn't move the story forward but other than a delightful rendition of Old Kent Road sung and danced by Temple and Arthur Treacher, it's not a musical. Directed by Walter Lang and remade in 1995 by Alfonso Cuaron (GRAVITY). With Cesar Romero, Richard Greene, Anita Louise, Sybil Jason. Eily Malyon and Beryl Mercer as Queen Victoria.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Cairo (1942)

Due to a misunderstanding, a reporter (Robert Young) and a movie actress (Jeanette MacDonald) in Egypt each think the other is a Nazi spy. So they do what any spy would do ... they spy on each other! I suppose a spy spoof with songs in the middle of WWII while American soldiers were fighting overseas didn't sit well with American audiences so this film was a flop. It looks a lot better some sixty years later. While her trilling is still hard to take, MacDonald is very glamorous and relaxed and gets a chance to mock herself. When asked if she's ever been to San Francisco, she retorts, "Once. With Tracy and Gable" and her ability to hit a high C is prominent in foiling the Nazi's plans. There is one uncomfortable moment when MacDonald sings "colored" and shuffles and sings dat instead of that! On the other hand, Ethel Waters plays MacDonald's maid but she's allowed grace and dignity (she's more of a companion than a servant) rather than the usual black maid stereotype. The dull musical numbers (except for Waters belting Buds Won't Bud) aside, it was a pleasant diversion. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke (billed as Major W.S. Van Dyke here). With Lionel Atwill, Reginald Owen, Dooley Wilson (CASABLANCA), Eduardo Ciannelli, Mona Barrie and Rhys Williams.

Niagara (1953)

A young married couple (Jean Peters, Max Showalter) arrive on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for a delayed honeymoon that he hopes to combine with a business trip. At their cabin, they meet an emotionally disturbed man (Joseph Cotten) and his sexy young wife (Marilyn Monroe) and become involved in a murder plot that backfires. 1953 was Monroe's breakthrough year (her other films for the year were GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE) after toiling in small supporting roles since the late 1940s. Shot in vivid three strip Technicolor, she's at her most erotically sensual here, you can see why she'd drive Cotten crazy with jealousy. Squeezed into the tightest of dresses, she moves like a jello mold on a shaky table. She's the reason to watch this color noir and the film never recovers after she disappears from the story. Poor Jean Peters, normally a lovely presence in her own right, she's aced by the competition. Directed by veteran Henry Hathaway (KISS OF DEATH). With Lurene Tuttle, Richard Allan, Dennis O'Dea, Harry Carey Jr., Henry Beckman and Russell Collins.

I've Got Your Number (1934)

A cheeky telephone repairman (Pat O'Brien) falls for a telephone operator (Joan Blondell) at a hotel. But when she gets fired for inadvertently helping a crook (Gordon Westcott) scam a hotel guest, she's fired. He helps get her a new job but Westcott devises a plan for duping her again and absconding with $90,000 in bonds from her new employer. One wouldn't think a movie about the phone company with a telephone repairman as a hero would have much to offer but this pre-code piece of trifle is fast and entertaining. For a pre-code, it's not very racy except for a sequence where O'Brien and his co-worker (Allen Jenkins) fix the phone for some call girls. But the dialogue is snappy, full of wisecracks and clever comebacks and it's over fairly quickly. Directed by Ray Enright (THE SPOILERS). With Glenda Farrell, Eugene Pallette and Louise Beavers, for once not playing a maid but a con woman in a psychic scam.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Man Of A Thousand Faces (1957)

A vaudeville performer (James Cagney) is told by his singer wife (Dorothy Malone) that she is going to have a baby. But when she meets his deaf mute parents (Celia Lovsky, Nolan Leary) for the first time, she becomes hysterical that their baby will be born a deaf mute. After the child is born (he is "normal"), the marriage crumbles and she attempts suicide on stage during his performance. The ensuing scandal sends him to Hollywood and the movies where he eventually becomes a major star. This largely fictionalized film biography of the legendary Lon Chaney is enjoyable enough but it comes with all the usual melodramatic cliches of the genre. The film plays fast and loose with the facts: just two examples, the same year he divorced his wife he married his second wife (played by Jane Greer) but the film has him marrying her three years after his divorce, rather than dying at a hospital, the movie has him dying in bed at home, etc. It doesn't help that the 57 year old Cagney was already 10 years old than Chaney when he died. As good an actor as he was, Cagney didn't have a thousand faces ... maybe 4 or 5 but indisputably Cagney. As an actor, he simply doesn't have the ability to transform himself like Chaney did and even here, he seems to want to remind us that he is Cagney. After performing a dramatic scene as Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN, he does a soft shoe tap a la Cagney. Malone as the unsympathetic neurotic first wife is quite good as she is able to lend some empathy to the character. Directed by Joseph Pevney. With Jim Backus, Marjorie Rambeau, Jack Albertson, Jeanne Cagney, William Hudson, Robert Evans as Irving Thalberg and Roger Smith as Lon Chaney Jr.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The April Fools (1969)

After receiving a promotion, an unhappily married executive (Jack Lemmon) is invited to his boss's (Peter Lawford) luxury apartment for a cocktail party. He leaves the party with a beautiful French blonde (Catherine Deneuve) to go for a drink but they end up spending the night together and falling in love. What he doesn't know is that she's the boss's wife. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE), this is one of the best movie romances of the 1960s. The first part of the film is almost magical especially a sequence where the two meet up with an eccentric long married couple (Charles Boyer, Myrna Loy) who live in a spectacular mansion. The second half of the film gets a bit silly especially an interminable sequence featuring Lemmon with two drunk companions (Jack Weston, Harvey Korman). Lemmon and Deneuve are very sweet together and if their chemistry doesn't quite sizzle, its more realistic than fireworks. The film's score is by Marvin Hamlisch but it's Burt Bacharach's music that highlight the film. In addition to the lovely title song sung by Dionne Warwick, one of the film's funniest moments features Bacharach's I Say A Little Prayer sung by Susan Barrett at the cocktail party. The cast includes Sally Kellerman, Melinda Dillon, Kenneth Mars and David Doyle.

The Man Between (1953)

When an English girl (Claire Bloom) arrives in post war Berlin to visit her brother (Geoffrey Toone), she notices something strange going on involving her German sister in law (Hildegard Knef) and a mysterious man (James Mason) from the Eastern sector of Berlin. Her suspicions are just the beginning of her involvement in the rancorous politics of East and West Berlin. While not on the level of his masterful THE THIRD MAN, director Carol Reed does for post war Berlin what he did for post war Vienna in his 1949 classic. The first portion of the film is a mystery while the second half is a thriller that takes us through a nightmare vision of East Berlin as our protagonists attempt to make their way across to the western sector. Mason's been down this road before with Reed in ODD MAN OUT, just substitute Ireland for Germany and you get an idea of what THE MAN BETWEEN is. Mason's German accent wavers, Bloom is lovely but it's Hildegard Knef whose presence lends some authenticity to the proceedings. In her performance, you get a genuine feeling of East/West tensions immediately following the war. The excellent score is by John Addison (TOM JONES) and the effective cinematography courtesy of Desmond Dickinson (there's a marvelous shot of a snow covered auto with eyes made by windshield wipers moving like a dreadful monster down a street). With Ernst Schroder and Aribert Wascher.

Love At First Bite (1979)

When Count Dracula (George Hamilton) is expelled from Transylvania by the current Marxist regime, he and his servant Renfield (Arte Johnson) head for New York where he hopes to meet the top fashion model (Susan Saint James) he has fantasized about for years. This loopy comedic parody of the Dracula movies was a surprise hit in 1979. While its humor is slapdash hit and miss, it remains surprisingly funny 30 something years later though its ethnic humor is a bit dicey. Like Leslie Nielsen in AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN movies, the previously bland but eternally tanned George Hamilton reinvented himself as a comic actor and showed a talent for self parody. The film is basically an extended skit but it manages to sustain itself for the majority of the film but shows signs of exhaustion toward the end. Three supporting turns by expert farceurs keep the film from being The George Hamilton Show. Johnson, Dick Shawn and especially Richard Benjamin whose turn as Van Helsing's psychiatrist grandson is priceless. The film seemed to cry out for a sequel which never materialized which is perhaps just as well. Hamilton followed this up with a Zorro parody which which was nowhere near successful. Directed by Stan Dragoti. With Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, Barry Gordon and Susan Tolsky.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Song Is Born (1948)

A group of musicologists find that being sheltered for years working on their musical encyclopedia has left them ignorant of contemporary music such as jazz, swing and be-bop. To this end, one of the professors (Danny Kaye) goes out into the world to study this new music. He invites a nightclub singer (Virginia Mayo) to visit the institute and assist his colleagues. She refuses but when the police are after her, she finds it's a good place to hide from the law. Howard Hawks directs this remake of his own 1941 screwball comedy BALL OF FIRE. It's pretty much a faithful remake but this time with songs and Technicolor added to the mix. Kaye and Mayo do quite well standing in for Cooper and Stanwyck but the music feels like padding out but it's still a decent effort. Fans of jazz and swing get the treat of seeing/hearing such greats as Benny Goodman (who unlike the others has a character to play rather than play himself), Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Page Cavanaugh and Mel Powell. With Steve Cochran, Sidney Blackmer, Hugh Herbert, Felix Bressart, Paul Langton, Esther Dale and repeating her role from the 1941 film, Mary Field.

Investigating Sex (aka Intimate Affairs) (2002)

In 1929 Massachusetts, a researcher (Dermot Mulroney) is conducting interviews with several male subjects on male sexuality. His research being funded by a wealthy mentor (Nick Nolte), he hopes to publish his findings. But his attempts to control the dialogue isn't successful and the direction the conversation takes becomes splintered, especially when women are invited to participate. At his best, director Alan Rudolph (a protege of Robert Altman) is responsible for some of the best films of the 1980s. Movies like CHOOSE ME, SONGWRITER and TROUBLE IN MIND. But he's also directed some shameless duds like WELCOME TO L.A., REMEMBER MY NAME and ENDANGERED SPECIES. This effort falls in the dud category. Rudolph deserves some sort of prize for not only making a film about sex without a hint of eroticism but downright dull. Never mind that the film is a supposed comedy where there isn't a laugh to be had. People sit around for near two hours and talk, talk, talk about sex. This might be engrossing if the writing were any good but it's terribly written and poorly acted. But one can't blame the poor actors (well maybe Jeremy Davies) because the pretentious dialogue would defeat anybody. With Tuesday Weld, who has a few good moments as a faux Russian by way of Brooklyn, Neve Campbell, Julie Delpy, Terrence Howard, Alan Cumming, Robin Tunney and John Light.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Jamboree (1957)

Two young singers, a boy (Paul Carr) and a girl (Freda Holloway), are put together as a singing duo by their managers who were once married to each other. The two youngsters fall in love but his manipulative manager (Kay Medford, FUNNY GIRL) plots to break up the act by having him go solo much to the chagrin of her manager (Robert Pastene). This slim excuse for a plot is merely an excuse for a fifties rock 'n roll extravaganza aimed at the teen set. Over half the film is devoted to musical acts. Most of them are inconsequential but the film offers up the opportunity to see some of the best rock/blues/swing performers of that era. There's the great Fats Domino pounding the ivories to Wait And See, Jerry Lee Lewis introduces his sizzling Great Balls Of Fire for the first time, Count Basie swings the One O'Clock Jump while Joe Williams wails I Don't Like You No More. Then there's a young pre-stardom Frankie Avalon and Buddy Knox performing his top 10 novelty hit Hula Love and Carl Perkins singing Glad All Over (later recorded by The Beatles) and even though she's not in the film (she dubs Freda Holloway), a pre-stardom Connie Francis gets prominent billing as "and the voice of Connie Francis". If you're interested in the music of the era, it's worth your while but don't watch it for the simplistic plot. With Dick Clark as himself.

Gloria (2013)

Set in Santiago, Chile; a fifty-ish divorcee (Pauline Garcia, who won the best actress award at the Berlin film festival for her work here) with two grown children attempts to fill a void in her life ..... a relationship. When she meets a recently divorced man (Sergio Hernandez) at a dance bar, the two connect immediately. But unlike her, he can't seem to move on from his ex-wife and grown daughters. Armed with glowing reviews, I was looking forward to seeing this film and perhaps I expected too much but I couldn't help but feel disappointed. Certainly not disappointed in Garcia's performance which is wonderful and it was refreshing to see an honest film about middle age romance without the contrived trappings of the usual Hollywood romcom. But there was a bittersweet pall over the entire venture that depressed me. Perhaps because part of me understands Gloria's predicament all too well. But at least the film was honest and didn't give us the sugarcoated "happy" ending all too prevalent in American cinema. Worth seeking out but chances are coming out you may possibly feel melancholy instead of the exuberance the critics have ascribed to it. Directed by Sebastian Lelio.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Under Two Flags (1936)

In the turn of the century (the 20th) Algiers, a Sergeant (Ronald Colman) in the French Foreign Legion incurs the animosity of his superior (Victor McLaglen) when the Major believes the Sergeant has stolen the affection of a cabaret performer (Claudette Colbert). In actuality, the Sergeant has his sights set on a visiting English rose (Rosalind Russell). Based on a novel by Ouida which had already been filmed four times (including a silent with Theda Bara in the Colbert role) by the time director Frank Lloyd got his turn, the emphasis is on romance rather than action. Colman is all wrong for a romantic action hero but fortunately a sexy and sassy Claudette Colbert manages to convince us that he's worth slobbering over. While it's no GUNGA DIN or BEAU GESTE, it's a decent "Meet me at the oasis under the blue moon" kitschy romanticization of colonial North Africa. Palm Springs and Arizona stand in for Algeria. With Gregory Ratoff, Nigel Bruce, John Carradine and Onslow Stevens as the warring Arab chieftain.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Ice Storm (1997)

Set in the Connecticut suburbs of Thanksgiving 1973, as the Watergate scandal blares on the TV news, two disaffected upscale families deal with the sexual revolution, changing values and alienation due to unspoken dissension. One of the best films of the 1990s, director Ang Lee beautifully captures the angst of a decade where everything was turning upside down. We could no longer trust our leaders, marriage was no longer sacrosanct (the key party sequence remains as startling now as it was then) and alcohol and drugs could no longer blunt the pain. Reportedly the novel's author Rick Moody was very pleased with Lee's film and one can see why. Not necessarily cinematic, Lee's film feels like the equivalent of reading a first rate contemporary novel, his images (beautifully shot by Frederick Elmes, BLUE VELVET) carefully approximating the details of the book's prose. Lee manages to get stellar performances right down the line, especially from its youngest cast members like Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci (never better), Elijah Wood and Adam Hann Byrd. The unobtrusively delicate score is by Mychael Danna. With Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Katie Holmes, Allison Janney, Jamey Sheridan, David Krumholtz and Henry Czerny.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ruthless (1948)

After he runs away from home, a young boy (Robert J. Anderson) is taken in by a family who treat him as one of their own. But as a young man (Zachary Scott), his ambitions lead him to use anyone who will help him in his climb up the ladder to financial success and then abandon them when they're no longer useful. His victims include his his first love (Diana Lynn), his best friend (Louis Hayward), a socialite (Martha Vickers) and a utilities magnate (Sydney Greenstreet) and his young wife (Lucille Bremer, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS). Director Edgar G. Ulmer's reputation rests on his ability to transform low budget genre pieces that might have remained schlock in lesser hands into often vital and creative cinema. While his fame rests principally with two films, DETOUR and THE BLACK CAT, his filmography is relatively unexplored. The aptly titled RUTHLESS is an engrossing look at the rise of a callous and aggressive machine in the form of a man who's burned his bridges once too often. The most interesting aspect of the film though is not Scott's character. It's the relationship between the old tycoon (Greenstreet) who adores his young wife (Bremer) unconditionally while she resents being married to an old man and longs to break away and lead a life of her own. Bremer is surprisingly good here, good enough to suggest that perhaps Hollywood wrote her off too early. With Raymond Burr, Claire Carleton and Ann Carter (CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE).

Monday, February 3, 2014

Lost In Alaska (1952)

In 1890 San Francisco, two volunteer fireman (Bud Abbott, Lou Costello) rescue a man (Tom Ewell, SEVEN YEAR ITCH) from drowning himself. In spite of the gold mine he has in Alaska, he's despondent over being rejected by the woman (Mitzi Green) he loves. But when he receives a letter from her saying she loves him, the three return to Alaska. Except that it wasn't her who wrote the letter. This may possibly be the worst of the Abbott and Costello vehicles. I only laughed once at a gag I should have seen coming. The material feels recycled from one of the Hope and Crosby ROAD films (like THE ROAD TO UTOPIA). The only bright spots are not provided by Abbott & Costello but by former child star, Mitzi Green who sings two cute novelty numbers. The film looks like a cheap quickie, its Alaska is obviously a sound stage and I can live with that but when they meet a polar bear, it's so obviously a man in a bear suit! For the Abbott & Costello completists only. Directed by Jean Yarbrough. With Bruce Cabot and Minerva Urecal.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

L'Inconnu Du Lac (aka Stranger By The Lake) (2013)

Set entirely on a lake where gay men sunbathe and cruise and have sex in the adjoining woods, a young man (Pierre De Ladonchamps) becomes obsessed with a handsome stranger (Christophe Paou) and is determined to get him. When he sees the stranger murder his most recent lover late at night by the lake, he is disturbed but his ardor is not dampened. This is a dangerous game he will see to the very end. Nominated this week for eight Cesar awards (France's Oscar) and winner of a best director award at this year's Cannes film festival, the film is as sexually explicit as BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (15 minutes into the film, the two blue haired ladies behind me gasped and dashed out of the theater). This is a compelling yet unsettling piece of cinema. The director Alain Guiraudie is fastidious in the specificity of his narrative; nothing is wasted, not a shot, not a look, not a word. It's almost as if Hitchcock had directed a gay porn film. It's even unclear who the stranger by the lake is. It would seem to refer to the killer but the film features a wonderful performance by Patrick D'Assumcao as an overweight heterosexual man who comes to the lake to sit in the sun away from everybody and just watch. The stranger of the title could just as well refer to him. There were some audible groans as the film faded to black because its story was unresolved. Personally, I was relieved ... I didn't want to know.

Wild In The Streets (1968)

When a rock star (Christopher Jones) is approached by an opportunistic Kennedy-esque candidate (Hal Holbrook) running for the senate to headline a fund raising concert, he turns the tables on him by demanding the voting age be reduced to 14 years. Thus begins an unsettling look at a youth obsessed utopia where people over 35 are put into concentration camps and force fed LSD. American International had its pulse on the youth of America and exploited it in the late 1950s with cheapies like ROCK ALL NIGHT, DRAGSTRIP GIRL, MOTORCYCLE GANG and HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS. They really hit the jackpot in the early 60s with their BEACH PARTY movies but when there was a shift in the youth culture in mid 60s, AI was the first to jump on the band wagon with movies like THE TRIP, PSYCH OUT and this, WILD IN THE STREETS which may be their masterpiece. Like their other exploitation films, it was a toss off (shot in 15 days) but it benefits from a witty script that taps into the paranoia of the older generation's view of the youth culture: the pot smoking, LSD taking flower children. The dialog is clever: during a protest on the Sunset Strip a journalist reports that "many surfboards were sacrificed for the occasion" and when Shelley Winters as Jones' mother is asked about her son's activities, she says "I'm sure my son has a very good reason for paralyzing the country!". Jones (whose death this Friday gave me a reason to rewatch the film) has a languid arrogance perfect for the part but the film's best performances come from Winters and Diane Varsi, hilarious as a spaced out LSD addled tambourine shaking California congresswoman. The pop/rock songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil are catchy. Directed by Barry Shear. With Richard Pryor, Millie Perkins, Ed Begley, Bert Freed, Dick Clark and Pamela Mason.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Krakatoa, East Of Java (1969)

In 1883, the captain (Maximilian Schell, who passed away today) of a salvage ship is looking for a sunken ship that contains a shipment of rare pearls worth a fortune. Unfortunately, the volcano on the island of Krakatoa (which is actually west of Java) is about to explode so it's a race against time to find the ship and get out of the treacherous waters before all Hell breaks loose. This rather bloated disaster film feels unnecessarily padded out. It was originally released as a prestigious "Roadshow" presentation (shot in 70 millimeter, overture and intermission etc.) so I suppose the producers felt they had to justify its status by extending its length. So we get unnecessary time wasting scenes like Barbara Werle singing and stripping for Brian Keith or nuns and children singing little ditties as the volcano makes loud ominous noises in the distance. What should have been a fun "popcorn" movie slogs along and doesn't really kick in till the film's last forty minutes. No one is at their best here and some, like Diane Baker, are at their worst and that includes Frank De Vol whose score is shameless. Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski. With Sal Mineo, Rossano Brazzi, J.D. Cannon, Marc Lawrence, John Leyton, Jaqui Chan and Geoffrey Holder and Niall MacGinnis whose parts seem to have been cut as they have no dialogue.

The House Of The Seven Hawks (1959)

The captain (Robert Taylor) of a charter boat is carrying a solitary passenger (Gerard Heinz) from England to Holland when the passenger suddenly dies. Upon his arrival in Holland, he is greeted by the police who don't buy the captain's explanation of the events especially since the passenger was murdered. But the captain isn't telling the police anything about what he found on the man's body ... and where he hid it! Based on the novel by Victor Canning, whose THE RAINBIRD PATTERN was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into FAMILY PLOT, the film shows early signs of being an enjoyable piece of pulp. Like THE MALTESE FALCON, everyone is after what Taylor's captain has. Not only the police (represented by Donald Wolfit's police inspector), but the violence hating villain (Eric Pohlmann), the femme fatale (Linda Christian), the double crossing police informant (Philo Hauser) too. But after the initial flurry of excitement, the movie quickly fades into a muddled international thriller with lots of unlikable characters including the hero. In fact, the only likable character is the murdered man's daughter played by the lovely Nicole Maurey. In his late 40s, Taylor looks haggard and out of shape and not connected to the material. Directed by that most generic of directors, Richard Thorpe.