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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Morning Glory (1933)

A pretentious yet naive young girl (Katharine Hepburn) arrives in New York from a small Vermont town to become a stage actress. Her climb won't be easy as she finds out that to make a living, she often has to put her artistic principles aside and her heart comes into conflict with her career goals. Based on a play by Zoe Atkins, this "unknown understudy gets big break when the Star leaves the show and becomes an instant Star" stuff was probably already pretty hoary in 1933. Lord knows it was used often enough. The young Hepburn's eccentric mannerisms which can often irritate in the wrong parts are perfectly right for this role though and she's was impressive enough to to nab the first of her four Oscars for her work here. But as good as she is, she still can't redeem the creaky material. It's the kind of nonsense about the theatuh that Joseph L. Mankiewicz ribbed in ALL ABOUT EVE. Eve Harrington was the dark side of Hepburn's Eva Lovelace, it's only fitting that their first names are so similar. It's Hepburn's show and everyone else is there to prop up her performance. Directed by Lowell Sherman. Remade by Sidney Lumet in 1957 as STAGE STRUCK. With Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Adolphe Menjou, C. Aubrey Smith, Mary Duncan and Helen Ware.

A Hole In The Head (1959)

Set in Miami, a dreamer (Frank Sinatra) spends money he doesn't have on good times and dames, while the shabby hotel he owns goes into foreclosure. He's also raising an 11 year old son (Eddie Hodges) who adores him. But when his brother (Edward G. Robinson) and his wife (Thelma Ritter) arrive in Miami and see the conditions the child is living under, they threaten to take the boy away. Based on the Broadway play by Arnold Schulman (who also did the script), this Frank Capra comedy contains the usual CapraCorn sentiment but some solid performances redeem the inherent saccharine. I'm not a fan of "classic" Capra and prefer his late work (like this and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES) to his beloved treacle like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. As I said, the performances are good especially Robinson. What a joy it is to watch the old pro elevate a standard script by the sheer power of his acting. Even "here comes another wisecrack" Ritter puts aside the quips and does it straight. Sinatra and Robinson have a beautifully played scene toward the end though inexplicably Capra shoots most of it from the back of Sinatra's head! With Eleanor Parker, Carolyn Jones, Keenan Wynn, Joi Lansing, Dub Taylor and Ruby Dandridge (Dorothy's mom).

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Return Of Frank James (1940)

After the murder of his brother (Tyrone Power in footage from 1939's JESSE JAMES), his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) goes after Jesse's murderers, the Ford Brothers (John Carradine, Charles Tannen). While I'm a great admirer of Fritz Lang in both his German silents and Hollywood period, I'm not a fan of his westerns. While I haven't seen WESTERN UNION, I've never understood the cult status of RANCHO NOTORIOUS. But at least RANCHO NOTORIOUS was lively and never dull. This highly fictionalized and historically inaccurate story of Frank James is pretty much a stock western that even the most staunch of Lang supporters would have a hard time defending. The most interesting aspect about it is a brief moral conundrum when Frank chooses to go after the man who killed his brother rather than save the life of the black farmhand (Ernest Whitman) innocently sentenced to hang as Frank's accomplice to a murder. A good half hour is devoted to one of the most dull trials ever put on film. The film features lovely Gene Tierney, rather colorless, in her film debut as a feminist ingenue. The three strip Technicolor cinematography by George Barnes (REBECCA) is quite handsome though. With Jackie Cooper, Henry Hull, Donald Meek and Barbara Pepper.

Don Juan De Marco (1994)

A young man (Johnny Depp) who claims to be Don Juan, the world's greatest lover, is taken into custody after a suicide attempt and placed in a psychiatric facility. As he tells his life story to his psychiatrist (Marlon Brando), he has a profound effect on his analyst who starts questioning his own complacency. This rather clever conceit of a movie was written by its director, Jeremy Leven. Like Brando's psychiatrist, we too fall under this Don Juan's spell and his fantastic stories. We're enraptured, we want to believe them even if our intellect cries out hogwash. It's been said that after seeing Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, that Greta Garbo reputedly cried out, "Give me back my beast!". So here when the official explanation of Depp's "real" life is given, we don't really want to know or care, well, at least I didn't. I wanted my Don Juan back. Perhaps sensing this, the film's final coda plays into that wish. Depp has never been more charming and although he was in Orson Welles territory weight wise at this point in his career, Brando he still gives off enough of the old spark even if he is working on two cylinders instead of all four. With Faye Dunaway as Brando's wife, Rachel Ticotin, Talisa Soto and Bob Dishy.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

After breaking into a U.S. facility in Geneva, Switzerland along with two compatriots (who are both killed) in an attempt to blow it up, a terrorist (Lou Castel) escapes. But first not without unknowingly being infected with a deadly strain of bacteria which is highly infectious. He stowaways on a train heading for Stockholm while passengers on the train begin to fall ill after being in contact with him (or his germs, he coughs into some rice in the kitchen which is later served to passengers). This late entry in the fading all star disaster movie genre of the 1970s gets a bad rap but as improbable as its plotline is and as weak as the script is, it does its job. While Burt Lancaster as a brusque military intelligence officer and Ingrid Thulin (CRIES AND WHISPERS) as a research scientist hold down the fort at headquarters, Richard Harris and Sophia Loren as a world famous doctor and his novelist ex-wife take over the speeding train to its disastrous fate activities. The cliche ridden dialogue and situations are in place but when you've got Loren, Lancaster, Harris as well as Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, Alida Valli and even O.J. Simpson running around the screen, there's always something to keep your eyes glued to the screen. Directed by George Pan Cosmatos with a strong Jerry Goldsmith score to keep things percolating. With Lee Strasberg, Lionel Stander, John Phillip Law and Ann Turkel.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Il Conformista (aka The Conformist) (1970)

An ambitious Fascist (Jean Louis Trintignant) joins the secret police. Yet he also aspires to a "normal" life and to this end marries a bourgeois girl (Stefania Sandrelli). He is assigned to assassinate his old university professor (Enzo Tarascio), an anti-Fascist. He appears to have conflicts when he falls in love with the professor's wife (Dominique Sanda). Based on the novel by Alberto Moravia, the director Bernardo Bertolucci (who also wrote the Oscar nominated screenplay) has created an opulent and sensual tapestry of an aggressive if maladjusted patrician who desperately wants to be accepted. Trintignant's character doesn't seem so much committed to Fascism as much as wanting to belong to the "in" group. So much so that when he has an out, he can't accept it. He's a weakling and belonging to such a group essentially covers up his basic cowardice, his moral rot. The narrative would be no where near as compelling if it weren't for luxurious lensing by the great Vittorio Storaro. The acting is uniformly excellent. The lyrical score is by Georges Delerue. With Pierre Clementi and Gaston Moschin.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Diary Of A Chambermaid (1946)

In late 19th century France, a young woman (Paulette Goddard) is hired as a chambermaid by an old conservative aristocratic family. The mistress of the house (Judith Anderson) grooms her as a paramour for her sickly son (Hurd Hatfield, PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY). Very loosely based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau, director Jean Renoir serves up a buffet of eccentric off balanced characters, both amusing and creepy, in this moderately entertaining effort. Goddard was never very interesting as an actress but Renoir uses her impudent sexiness to good advantage here. The film was produced by Goddard's then husband Burgess Meredith who plays the old lech neighbor and competes with Francis Lederer for the film's worst performance. Meredith wins by default as Lederer's performance is merely incompetent as opposed to Meredith's shameless ham. It's actually quite enjoyable despite my misgivings. Remade in 1964 by Luis Bunuel with much darker undertones. Also in the cast: Florence Bates, Reginald Owen and Irene Ryan (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES).

The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

After one of their agents (Herbert Stass) is murdered in Berlin, the British Secret Service sends a new agent (George Segal) to take over the mission. The mission is to ferret out a neo-Nazi organization working undercover in West Berlin. Ah, the 1960s and the proliferation of Cold War films. Technically, this isn't a Cold War thriller as it's not the Soviets but neo-Nazis in West Berlin that are the enemy but the style and atmosphere are the same though Harold Pinter's taut and literate script (based on the novel by Trevor Dudley Smith) owes a lot to Graham Greene. Michael Anderson (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS) is a director without a distinct style or personality which makes most of his films rather generic. But this movie, along with SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL, shows that he could make a solid intense drama that can hold its own. One thing that is never explained is what is an American doing working for the British Secret Service? No explanation is given as to why, we're just meant to accept it. That aside, this is one of the better anti-James Bond spy thrillers of the 1960s along with THE IPCRESS FILE and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD though we're often one step ahead of its hero. The end comes as no surprise. The atmospheric underscore is by John Barry (how he is missed). With Alec Guinness, who makes the most of his brief screen time as Segal's superior, Max Von Sydow, lovely Senta Berger, George Sanders and Robert Helpmann.

Friday, April 25, 2014

For The First Time (1959)

After receiving bad press in Vienna for not showing up for a performance, a temperamental opera singer (Mario Lanza) hides out on the island of Capri until the heat is off. However, once there he falls in love with a deaf girl (newcomer Johanna Von Koczian) and resolves to help her to hear before they marry. To this end, they see famed specialists all over Europe. Lanza's final film (he died two months after the film opened) is a typical Lanza vehicle with an over generous dose of saccharine. All the old musical chestnuts are dragged out from O Sole Mio to Ave Maria to Vesti La Giubba from PAGLIACCI. Lanza's in fine voice and if you're a fan, you'll most likely enjoy this. I'm not a Lanza fan and even I found it rather tolerable in spite of the treacle. The wide screen cinematography by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) takes full advantage of the breathtaking isle of Capri scenery. Directed by the veteran Rudolph Mate (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE). With Zsa Zsa Gabor as Lanza's old flame, Kurt Kasznar, Walter Rilla and Nico (LA DOLCE VITA).

Platinum Blonde (1931)

A brash newspaper reporter (Robert Williams) romances and marries a wealthy heiress and socialite (Jean Harlow) leaving a colleague (Loretta Young) heartbroken. Though the film is named after her, the third billed Harlow hadn't quite developed the persona that would make her one of MGM's (this was a Columbia film) most popular stars. Indeed, Harlow might have seemed better cast as Williams' fellow reporter (Young's part) rather than the hoity toity heiress. Directed by Frank Capra, the film benefits by its two leading ladies as its abrasive leading man Robert Williams (who died shortly after making this film) is a rather uncharismatic and charmless substitute for Lee Tracy or Pat O'Brien. As a film, it's enjoyable in the way many of those fast talking 1930s stock comedies are but outside of its leading ladies and the fact that it was directed by Frank Capra, there's very little about it that would draw one to it. With Reginald Owen, Halliwell Hobbes, Walter Catlett and Louise Closser Hale.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Day Of Fury (1956)

As civilization makes its final encroachment on the Old West, a gunfighter (Dale Robertson) rides into a respectable town and proceeds to take it over. Because the gunfighter once saved his life, the town's marshal (Jock Mahoney) bends over backward to be fair to the gunfighter despite the citizens' outrage. But the town quickly starts unraveling as its townsfolk discover they aren't as civilized as they thought. The 1950s were the golden era of the movie western, just about every major male star of the era headlined a western or two. The westerns were so popular that a proliferation of minor (or "B") westerns filled the market and Universal studios was one of the studios that ground them out. The majority of them were routine oaters but every once in awhile, a programmer would offer up just a little bit more to stand above the crowd. This is one of those westerns. The film keeps us off balance, certainly as far as our sympathies go. The gunfighter is a thug but the townspeople are no prize either, even the town's judge and minister come off as bullies. When the "civilized" townspeople start falling apart, the gunfighter likens it to lifting a rock and seeing the rot underneath and he's not far wrong. Thankfully, the film's somewhat vague ending doesn't tie it up with a band-aid. Directed by Harmon Jones. It's not a film where the acting matters much but the cast includes Mara Corday, John Dehner, Carl Benton Reid, Jan Merlin and in a nice little turn as the town's schoolmarm, Dee Carroll.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oklahoma! (1999)

In 1906 Oklahoma (before statehood), a cowhand (Hugh Jackman) sets his eye on a farm girl (Josefina Gabrielle) but so does a rather maladjusted farmhand (Shuler Hensley). The tension between the three can only lead to no good. The landmark 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (their first show together) is a perennial revival on the New York and London stages as well as community theaters across the country. This filmed version of the acclaimed 1998 London revival shows the musical has lost none of its homey appeal and boasts a marvelous Curly in Jackman, a show stealing performance by Shuler Hensley as Jud Fry (his rendition of Lonely Room is a killer), boisterous choreography by Susan Stroman and assured direction by Trevor Nunn. Nunn has nipped and tweaked the show a bit as has Stroman's dance numbers. Notably in the dream ballet where normally dancers double for the two leads (Curly and Laurey) but Jackman and especially Gabrielle are good enough dancers to handle the dancing themselves without the substitutes. The show was obviously reformatted for film and shot on a sound stage but interspersed with filmed pieces from a live performance before an audience to make us think we're seeing a fully live performance. With Maureen Lipman as Aunt Eller, Jimmy Johnston as Will Parker and Vicki Simon as a very anemic Ado Annie. She has one of the show's best numbers, I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No, which falls flat here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Man And I (1952)

A Mexican migrant worker (Ricardo Montalban) takes on a job with a mean spirited farmer (Wendell Corey) for a month. But between the farmer's sexually frustrated wife (Claire Trevor) and the Muscatel guzzling barfly (Shelley Winters) he falls in love with, his problems are only just beginning. Ricardo Montalban was one of the few Hispanic actors who managed (for the most part) to avoid stereotypical Latino roles. In films like this and BORDER INCIDENT, MYSTERY STREET and BATTLEGROUND to name just a few, he played Hispanic men with a dignity, with a purpose, providing well round characterizations rather than the usual Latino stereotype. Directed by the veteran director William Wellman from a screenplay co-written by John Fante (author of one of the quintessential L.A. novels ASK THE DUST), the film has a solid first hour until Montalban's character does something so insanely stupid that the film jumped the track for me and my interest dwindled. The mawkish title refers to the Montalban/Winters romance which doesn't come across as very believable. Much more interesting are the supporting characters played by Trevor and Corey. Stuck in a miserable marriage, each contemptuous of the other, one can't help but wonder what brought them to this point in their lives and why they still cohabit. With Jack Elam (unconvincing playing Mexican) and George Chandler.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Night Tide (1961)

A sailor (Dennis Hopper) on shore leave spends the day at an amusement park on the beach in Southern California. He becomes infatuated with a strange girl (Linda Lawson) who believes she is a Siren, mythic mermaids who lured men to their doom in Greek mythology. Despite warnings from others (her last two lovers died under mysterious circumstances), he insists on developing the relationship. This dark dream of a movie, its mood intentionally echoes Edgar Allan Poe, never got the release it deserved back in 1961, although Time magazine named it as one of the ten best films of the year. It's developed a cult reputation in the ensuing years however. Its low budget (it cost $50,000 to make) on location shooting (not a single studio shot) actually gives the film a distinct and credible feel to it which enhances the reality versus fantasy aspects of the narrative. It's not unlike another low budget B&W cult horror in that respect, Herk Harvey's CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Filmed in the grimy and atmospheric city of Venice, California (where Welles shot TOUCH OF EVIL) before it became the trendy conclave it is today, Curtis Harrington's film is heavily influenced by Jacques Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE. Indeed, he boldly lifts a scene from the Val Lewton movie at the beginning of the film. It's crude indie film making at its most basic level but effective, very very effective. The score is by David Raksin (LAURA). With the wonderful Luana Anders, Gavin Muir and Marjorie Cameron (whose own life would make for a terrific movie).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Monsieur Hire (1989)

A rather drab misanthrope (Michel Blanc) is not liked by his neighbors because he keeps to himself and refuses to socialize. When the murder of a young girl occurs in the neighborhood, he becomes the chief suspect. In the meantime, he continues to look out of his window into the apartment of an attractive young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire, VAGABOND). Based on a short novel by the prolific Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon, the director Patrice Leconte does a fine job of keeping the narrative concise (the film clocks in at less than 90 minutes) which is good as there's only the thinnest of plots and the rest filled in by character detail. At first, we can understand why Blanc's Monsieur Hire is unliked, we don't like him either. But we soon see his innate loneliness and despite his misanthropy, his need for another human's touch. We're not quite sure how all this will play out until we get the "twist" which comes past the midway point after which it becomes rather predictable. But even its predictability doesn't negate the poignancy and sadness we feel at the film's end. The droning score is by Michael Nyman (THE PIANO). With Luc Thuillier and Andre Wilms.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sordid Lives (2001)

The matriarch (Gloria LeRoy) of a rural Texas family dies after tripping over the artificial legs of her married lover (Beau Bridges) and hitting her head in the middle of the night at a motel. Her dysfunctional family attempts to group together for the funeral. The film's tagline proclaims, "A Black Comedy About White Trash" and that about sums it up. Unfortunately not only is it not funny, it's downright amateurish. Talk about your stereotypes from drag queens to gun toting Texas rednecks to the mentally ill, they're all here. The writer and director Del Shores has dragged out every cliche (gay men come out the worst) he could think of and proudly displays them as if he actually discovered something fresh and profound. The acting ranges from horrendous like Kirk Geiger, who never made another film or TV appearance after this and one can see why, it's a career killer performance to two performances (Bonnie Bedelia, Beth Grant) that miraculously manage to overcome the ill advised material and hold our interest. And whose idea was it to cast Olivia Newton John as a tattooed and pierced ex-con fresh out of jail? Inexplicably the film has a cult reputation and even spawned a TV series, go figure. With Delta Burke, Newell Alexander and Leslie Jordan.

The Great American Pastime (1956)

An attorney (Tom Ewell, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) accepts an offer to coach his son's (Rudy Lee) little league team. A decision he comes to regret when he discovers the parents of the children are far more competitive and unreasonable than the kids but also when his wife (Anne Francis) suspects one of the boys' mother (Ann Miller) has designs on her husband. This is the kind of low key B&W comedy that was quickly supplanted by TV sitcoms. It's not a bad film, just innocuous and without much flair. After romancing Monroe and Mansfield in his previous movies, the hangdog faced Ewell gets gorgeous Anne Francis for a wife ..... only in the movies! Miller is surprisingly adept in a rare non musical role, her last at MGM (it would be 20 years before she did another film). As a film, it's no better or worse than, say, the popular THE BAD NEWS BEARS which came twenty years later. Directed by Herman Hoffman from an original screenplay by Nathaniel Benchley (THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING). With Dean Jones and Raymond Bailey.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Love From A Stranger (1937)

A young woman (Ann Harding) wins a lottery which allows her financial freedom and she quits her job. Soon after, she is swept off her feet by a handsome stranger (Basil Rathbone) and they quickly marry and move to the country. But his behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and he has unexplained temper tantrums ..... and why won't he allow anyone down in the cellar? Based on the Agatha Christie short story PHILOMEL COTTAGE by way of a play version by Frank Vosper, the story is too obvious and predictable to have much suspense going for it. Harding is attractive and agreeable but Rathbone overplays the craziness of his character to the point of parody. Still, if you're an Agatha Christie fan or completist, it's worth checking out at least once. Remade in 1947. Directed by Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN). With Joan Hickson, Binnie Hale and Bruce Seton.

Under The Skin (2014)

An alien from ..... somewhere adopts the body of a dead woman (Scarlett Johansson) and proceeds to cruise the streets of Scotland looking for men. But not just any man, it has to be the right man. It's been a long ten years since director Jonathan Glazer's last film, the still undervalued BIRTH which just might be my favorite film of 2004. It was well worth the wait! This is one amazing piece of cinema. If you saw BIRTH and didn't like it, just skip this one too. If you want a film to resolve all your questions by the film's end or insist on a plausible and followable narrative, this movie isn't for you. If you want to something unique, something that challenges you, you might find something wonderful here as I did. Considering the superb performance Glazer elicited from Nicole Kidman in BIRTH and the equally superb performance by Johansson here, it would appear that Glazer has a knack for bringing out the best in his actresses. Johansson's near mute alien (a 360 turn from her unseen but vocal performance in HER) lures men to their doom for a reason known only to her but she soon becomes fascinated by the human body she inhabits ... and that's her downfall. The Scottish brogues of the rest of the cast (some are amateurs) are so thick that it doesn't even sound like they're speaking English thus making us feel like an alien on the landscape too. The film benefits from Daniel Landin's monochrome cinematography and Mica Levi's shrill atonal underscore. Hopefully Glazer won't make us wait another ten years for his next opus. It's only April but I can guarantee this film will find a place in my ten best for 2014.

Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985)

In a prison cell in an unnamed Latin American country, a homosexual (William Hurt in his Oscar winning performance) regales his cellmate (Raul Julia), imprisoned for revolutionary activities against the repressive government, with tales of his favorite movies. Based on the novel by Manuel Puig from a screenplay by Leonard Schrader, the film is a talky affair that is illuminated by its two central performances. It's distracting at first because Hurt is so wrong for the part he's playing. To put it simply, he's just too butch (yes, gay men can be butch but not for this character). Considering that he's miscast (he and Julia should have traded roles) though, it's a superb performance. Once you can get past Hurt's essential miscasting and it does take a bit, you can appreciate the intricacies and details of his performance even though he's never totally believable. Ironically, the sequences of the film that Hurt narrates (a Nazi propaganda film with Sonia Braga as a French chanteuse collaborating with a Nazi) which he uses as an escape for him and Julia to let them escape from the sordidness and confinement of the prison cell are rather tedious. Instead of pulling us out of the their cell and into fantasy, we just want to back to the cell, it's just more interesting. Sonia Braga playing a movie goddess lacks the genuine presence of a real movie goddess like Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner that would have made the sequences more compelling. Hector Babenco's strong direction keeps us focused.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Perfect Friday (1970)

A bank manager (Stanley Baker) recruits a snooty but impoverished aristocrat (David Warner) and his sexy wife (Ursula Andress) to help him rob the bank he works at. If done even halfway well, heist films are often intense (like Kubrick's THE KILLING) or stylish fun (like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR). This modest sleeper is just plain fun. What's better than sexy? Funny and sexy, of course, as Marilyn Monroe proved and the glimpses of comedic talent that Andress sometimes displayed in her prior films come to fruition here. Whether it's the larcenous twinkle in her eye or her amoral grin, you can't help but hope she gets away with it. Baker and Warner don't have the same sparkle, they're rather drab but they provide a wonderful rapport for Andress to play off of. I suppose one could wish it were a tad better but it's such a pleasant and cunning charmer that I guess one should be grateful that it works as well as it does. The dull score by John Dankworth is no help and the direction by Peter Hall is no more than efficient. With Patience Collier, T.P. McKenna and Joan Benham.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Johnny Reno (1966)

On his way to a small western town to look up an old girlfriend (Jane Russell), a U.S. Marshal (Dana Andrews) is ambushed by two brothers (Tom Drake, Dale Van Sickel) on the run. After disposing of one brother, the Marshal takes the surviving brother in in spite of his entreaties of innocence. In the 1960s, the producer A.C. Lyles made a string of low budget westerns featuring stars whose salad days were behind them. Andrews and Russell still have a bit of their old spark left but they're definitely a little ragged around the edges. Even in his prime, the slender Andrews would have seemed out of place in the barroom brawl here featuring an obvious but robust stunt double. This is a simple (or simplistic if you prefer) uncomplicated western that owes a lot to John Sturges' BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. Just replace the Japanese farmer of that film with an Indian and you can pretty much guess where the film is going. Andrews and Russell are always welcome but there's not much they can do with the cliched dialogue or predictable narrative. Drake's character as written is so dumb that it's hard to drum up much sympathy for him. Directed by R.G. Springsteen. Among the other veterans in the cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Lyle Bettger, John Agar (as incompetent as ever) and Richard Arlen.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Amelia (2009)

As the famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) makes her attempt in 1937 to be the first woman to fly around the world, her rise from a young woman with ambitions to be a female Lindbergh to world famous aviatrix is chronicled in flashback. The mystery of Amelia Earhart's fateful disappearance while flying on July 2, 1937 never to be heard from again has captured the imagination of several generations. Several bizarre theories (and some not so strange) have been concocted but this is not concerned so much with what happened to her (it presumes she simply went into the ocean after running out of fuel) but her life. Quite simply, aside from her feminist outlook and rather daring views on monogamy, her life wasn't all that interesting. The film trumps up a romantic triangle involving Earhart, her husband (Richard Gere) and a colleague (Ewan McGregor) in an attempt to sex up the film but it's the least interesting aspect of the movie. The film's tense filled final 25 minutes are very well done and if the rest of the film had been served as well, it would probably have done much better critically and at the box office. The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (THE PIANO) is handsome and there's a beauty of an underscore by Gabriel Yared. Directed by Mira Nair (MONSOON WEDDING). With Mia Wasikowska, Christopher Eccleston and Cherry Jones as Eleanor Roosevelt.

In Harm's Way (1965)

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a U.S. Navy captain (John Wayne) is removed from command for not following procedure when he went after a Japanese vessel. Also, a Navy commander (Kirk Douglas) is demoted for getting into a drunken brawl. But soon, they'll both get a chance to redeem themselves as the war in the Pacific begins to heat up. Based on the best selling novel by James Bassett, director Otto Preminger's ambitious WWII epic (it pushes the three hour mark) is well made and well acted but it tries to cram too much into its narrative and the film suffers because of it. Notably the Paula Prentiss and Tom Tryon story line which seems to have been cut to the point that their story seems extraneous to the rest of the film. Jettisoning their story would have cut 20 minutes out of the movie and some of the battle scenes are somewhat confusing (as in what's going on?). The film eschews jingoism and shows a warts and all Navy and its characters flawed rather than typical All-American heroes. The crisp Oscar nominated B&W wide screen lensing is by Loyal Griggs (SHANE) and there's a topnotch score by Jerry Goldsmith. The massive cast includes Patricia Neal (very good though her BAFTA best actress win for work here seems inexplicable), Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Brandon De Wilde, Burgess Meredith, Franchot Tone, Hugh O'Brian, Jill Haworth, George Kennedy, Carroll O'Connor, Larry Hagman, Patrick O'Neal, Stanley Holloway, Bruce Cabot and Barbara Bouchet.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Station West (1948)

A military intelligence officer (Dick Powell) arrives in a small town but keeps his identity to himself except to the Captain (Tom Powers) in charge of the local Army troop. His mission is to find out who killed two soldiers who were guarding a gold shipment. Suspicion points in the direction of the beautiful owner (Jane Greer) of the town's saloon. This western is a bit of an oddity in that it seems a film noir disguised as a western more than anything else. Powell's tough talking cowboy could be Philip Marlowe out west and Greer's femme fatale is right out of Raymond Chandler. Substitute the military for cops and the bad guys for mobsters and there you have it! I thought it was just okay myself but one has to give credit to Frank Fenton and Winston Miller's adept screenplay for the lively dialogue which goes a long way in making the picture a notch above the average oater. The direction by Sidney Lanfield doesn't suggest much style which the film sorely needs. With Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Raymond Burr, Regis Toomey and Steve Brodie.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Houseboat (1958)

A widower and single father (Cary Grant) attempts to raise his children on his own shortly after his wife's death. Meanwhile, an Italian girl (Sophia Loren) runs away from her overprotective father (Eduardo Ciannelli), a famous symphony conductor. She accepts a job as a housekeeper on the widower's houseboat where he lives with his three children. Cary Grant ... Sophia Loren ... how long before romance breaks out? It's hard to resist this glamorous piece of unlikely romantic whimsy, so why try? Just give in. There's really not much one can say about a chunk of pastry like this. Directed by Melville Shavelson (CAST A GIANT SHADOW), it's got an above average Oscar nominated script by Shavelson and Jack Rose that doesn't insult our intelligence too much, an alluring Loren who looks fantastic in her Edith Head wardrobe, a tender George Duning (PICNIC) score and one of the best movie songs from the 1950s, Almost In Your Arms as sung by Sam Cooke. With Martha Hyer (once again playing the other woman), Harry Guardino, Murray Hamilton, Werner Klemperer and as the three children, Paul Petersen (THE DONNA REED SHOW), Mimi Gibson and Charles Herbert.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Ghoul (1933)

A dying professor of Egyptology (Boris Karloff) believes that if he offers a rare diamond to the Egyptian god Anubis that he will be granted eternal life. But after his death, there are many who desire that diamond, some for cultural reasons, others for profit. Despite Karloff in the title role and the similarity to THE MUMMY, this is not a Universal horror but a British film which imitates the Universal style. If you're a fan of the Universal monsters series, you'll most likely find some favor here but it's pretty anemic. It has the most pompous stiff hero (Anthony Bushell), comic relief in the form of Kathleen Harrison (TURN THE KEY SOFTLY) that's more annoying than amusing and characters behaving in illogical ways. For instance, after Cedric Hardwicke spots a man returning from the dead breaking into the mansion, does he panic in terror and tell everyone to get out of the house? No! He fixes himself a stiff drink. The film has a lot of atmosphere which helps a lot and its moderately enjoyable. Directed by T. Tayes Hunter from the 1928 book book by Frank King though there's little resemblance outside of the title. With Ralph Richardson in his film debut, Ernest Thesiger and Dorothy Hyson.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

De Vierde Man (aka The Fourth Man) (1983)

A burnt out alcoholic writer (Jeroen Krabbe) sees a handsome young man (Thom Hoffman) in an Amsterdam train station and becomes obsessed with him to the point of following him although he eventually loses him. When after delivering a lecture at a literature society, he spends the night with a beautiful woman (Renee Soutendijk), he discovers the young man is her lover. He connives to have her invite him for the week as he plans to seduce the young man. But what he discovers about her in the meantime is either crazy ... or he is. Before he went to Hollywood to make such dubious films as SHOW GIRLS and STARSHIP TROOPERS, director Paul Verhoeven directed this clever and wicked "black widow" thriller. Crammed with more symbolism than you'll rarely find outside of an Ingmar Bergman movie, the movie is an often ingenious and witty puzzle whose clues we try to unravel. I'm not sure it has much to actually say but Verhoeven knows that the chase is half the fun. Krabbe is marvelous as the decadent writer taking unbridled pleasure in his own calculated impertinence. Though some of its Christian imagery may offend the more conservative or religious audience, for the more open minded, it's a hell of a rollercoaster ride. The lensing is by Jan De Bont (DIE HARD) and there's a wonderfully atmospheric underscore by Loek Dikker.

Honky Tonk (1941)

Tired of constantly being run out of towns, a con man (Clark Gable) in the old West decides to display a respectable front to the townspeople of a new town while subtly continuing his charlatan ways and bleeding the town dry. He becomes a very powerful man in the community even deluding his new bride (Lana Turner) but not her father (Frank Morgan). After ZIEGFELD GIRL, MGM knew it had a new Star on its hands with the 20 year old Turner and began building her up by placing her as a co-star to its top male stars. This was the first of four films she did with Clark Gable and they have a nice easy going chemistry. Still, it's not much of a movie and after the first half hour or so, there's no doubt where the picture is going. It's the kind of movie totally dependent on the star power of its leads, which it has in spades, it's not the story that keeps you watching. The veteran director Jack Conway (LIBELED LADY) dutifully puts his cast through their paces without much style (or enthusiasm). With Claire Trevor, wasted as a saloon hostess stuck on Gable, Marjorie Main, Albert Dekker and Chill Wills.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

A failed pianist (Alan Alda), now working as a music journalist, finds favor with a renowned concert pianist (Curt Jurgens) and his daughter (Barbara Parkins). What he doesn't know is that they have made a pact with the Devil and that he will soon be a pawn in their nefarious plans. While this slightly above average entry in the Satanic horror genre lacks the complex subtext of a ROSEMARY'S BABY or the disturbing resonance of THE EXORCIST, it delivers on its promise of creepy thrills. Cheap thrills I grant you but thrills nevertheless. While the film could have used a stronger leading man (its premise that one would sell their soul to the devil for Alan Alda is perversely amusing), the two female leads are strong. The other woman in the picture is Jacqueline Bisset as Alda's wife who acts as the audience's proxy as it's she who guides us through this maze of horror as each secret reveals itself. Some of the film's images are genuinely macabre, so much so that Philip Kaufman borrowed one of them for his 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. While it can't quite avoid some of the silliness inherent in the genre, it's modest aims are admirable. The goose pimply score is by Jerry Goldsmith. Directed by Paul Wendkos (THE BURGLAR). With Bradford Dillman, Kathleen Widdoes, William Windom, Barry Kroeger and Pamelyn Ferdin.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Forget Me Never (1999)

An administrative assistant (Mia Farrow) in a major law firm finds herself struggling with disorientation and memory lapses. Although only in her fifties, she is diagnosed with the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. TV movies about people suffering from a disease, everything from cancer to AIDS, are a staple of TV movies, usually bad ones. So much so that it's become a quick put down or dismissal as in "It's like a TV movie of the week"! But every once in awhile, they get it right. This is one of those times. Based on the non fiction book LIVING IN THE LABYRINTH by Diana McGowin (played by Farrow here), this is a non sentimental, hard nosed look at one woman's dealing with the onset of the disease. Anchored by a terrific performance by Farrow, she lets us see her confusion, fear, anger, strength as she comes to terms of the reality of her situation. This isn't a tearjerker but an opportunity from someone suffering with the disease to allow us to see a little, just a little, of what her world is like. It might have been made for TV but it's shot like a feature film and the creative cinematography by Mike Rash (THE WHALES OF AUGUST) elevates the look of the film. Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman. With Martin Sheen, Colm Feore and Roberta Maxwell.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Escape To Burma (1955)

In Burma (now known as Myanmar), a miner (Robert Ryan) is on the run from the governing British law enforcement for the murder of the son of a Burmese ruler (Robert Warwick). He hides out at the estate of a plantation owner (Barbara Stanwyck) while a police captain (David Farrar, BLACK NARCISSUS) is in hot pursuit. The veteran director Allan Dwan did a series of films at RKO in the mid 1950s under the aegis of producer Benedict Bogeaus. This is one of the least interesting of their collaborations and even Dwan's admirers have very little positive to say about it. Its biggest crime is that it's routine which doesn't mean its bad. It's an inoffensive jungle adventure with the usual elephants and tigers for local color (though it appears to have been filmed on sound stages) punched up a notch by some strong star power by Stanwyck and Ryan. A perfect time waster on a rainy day with a hot cup of coffee or tea. With Reginald Denny, Murvyn Vye and Lisa Montell.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (1972)

A series of seven vignettes on sexually related matters: a court jester (Woody Allen) lusts for a Queen (Lynn Redgrave), a doctor (Gene Wilder) falls in love with a sheep, an Italian bride (Louise Lasser) appears to be frigid, a married man (Lou Jacobi) likes to dress in women's clothes, a game called What's My Perversion? challenges its panel to guess the contestant's sexual perversion, a giant breast terrorizes the countryside, the brain's control center attempts sexual penetration. Though it takes the title of the best selling non fiction manual by Dr. David Reuben, Woody Allen's portmanteau comedy bares little resemblance (thankfully) on the book. The movie is an amusing toss off made during Allen's lesser period (aka pre-ANNIE HALL) and gives him an opportunity to satirize 1950s horror films (the giant breast), 1960s Antonioni (the frigid bride) as well as FANTASTIC VOYAGE (the brain control center sequence). Not unexpectedly, some of the results are hit and miss. Still, each segment is short enough not to wear out its welcome (though some of its sexual attitudes now seem dated) as it breezily moves along. With Burt Reynolds, Tony Randall, Anthony Quayle, Regis Philbin, John Carradine, Jay Robinson, Pamela Mason, Geoffrey Holder, Heather MacRae, Robert Q. Lewis and Erin Fleming.

Texas Killing Fields (2011)

Despite protestations from his partner (Sam Worthington, AVATAR), a homicide detective (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) feels compelled to investigate a series of killings of young girls outside their jurisdiction whose bodies have been dumped in a forlorn marsh area designated the "killing fields". Man, this is one dark and disturbing movie. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann (the daughter of director Michael Mann but I won't hold that against her), we're tossed into a world of child prostitution, serial killers, abusive mothers, vicious pimps and cops who cross the boundaries of ethics. It's so grim that its slightly (very slightly) hopeful ending seems out of place. I don't think the film's intention is that of a typical thriller but more of a mood piece and on that level, it's very effective. The acting is surprisingly good, even Sam Worthington gets to show he has acting chops. The film's reception has been mixed and I can see why. It's not a film I'd recommend to everyone. I'd give it a thumbs up but I suspect the lack of entertainment value or a cathartic pay off would put most people off. With Jessica Chastain, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jason Clarke, Annabeth Gish, Stephen Graham and Sheryl Lee, barely recognizable as the Laura Palmer of TWIN PEAKS, as Moretz' promiscuous mother.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

When the United States and the Soviet Union detonate nuclear bomb tests unintentionally simultaneously, the Earth is thrown off its axis. Enormous changes in weather and climate follow including melting polar caps, flooding, earthquakes and most obvious of all, extreme high temperatures. Can the world be saved? The sci-fi classic directed by Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT) is considered one of the best examples of British science fiction. I can understand its cult status as a thinking man's disaster movie. The film takes a generally realistic and grim look at a plausible scenario and its ambiguous ending is wonderfully appreciated. But its liabilities are pretty heavy. The film's special effects are fairly shoddy by today's standards and too much stock footage is utilized. Its protagonist, Edward Judd as a journalist, is irritatingly obnoxious and if he's an example of the best mankind has to offer, perhaps the world should end! Edward who? Exactly! A less interesting actor would be hard to find. Neatly shot in B&W (with red tinted sequences) Dyaliscope by Harry Waxman (THE WICKER MAN). With Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Michael Goodliffe, Renee Asherson and Marianne Stone.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Stella Dallas (1925)

When a rather coarse girl (Belle Bennett) from the "wrong side of the tracks" marries up to a well bred upper class young man (Ronald Colman), they have a child. But almost immediately, their lifestyles as well as their different values clash and when the husband is promoted to a job in New York, she stays behind with their daughter. Mother love has been a staple in films since the inception of cinema and STELLA DALLAS is one of the more notable examples of the genre, in fact, it practically defines it. Most moviegoers remember the 1937 version with a superb Barbara Stanwyck performance and perhaps its less successful remake with Bette Midler in 1990. This first film adaptation directed by Henry King (SONG OF BERNADETTE), is an effective piece of cinematic sentiment. I'm unfamiliar with the work of Belle Bennett (who died in 1932) but based on her memorable performance here, she appears to be a formidable actress. Not on a par with Stanwyck's career benchmark performance but impressive nonetheless. The transfer I saw was truly silent, it had no music at all so I put on the Elmer Bernstein soundtrack to BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ and it was downright eerie how effective it was. With Alice Joyce, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Jean Hersholt and pretty Lois Moran who effectively plays the daughter from the age of 10 to her 20s.

Coma (1978)

A female doctor (Genevieve Bujold) at a major Boston hospital is devastated when her best friend (Lois Chiles) goes into the hospital for minor surgery but goes into a coma and pronounced brain dead. Perplexed that a healthy young woman would go into a coma with no medical explanation, she begins to investigate. When another healthy young patient (Tom Selleck) goes in for minor knee surgery but goes into a coma, she is positive something suspicious is going on. She doesn't know that half of it! Based on the popular best seller by Robin Cook and written and directed by doctor turned novelist turned movie director Michael Crichton, this is a pulpy if competently made paranoid thriller with sci-fi/horror overtones. It starts off realistically before its narrative turns loopily far fetched. The film is lucky to have Bujold at its center. A talented actress like her is overqualified for a grown up Nancy Drew mystery like this. But Bujold doesn't condescend to the pulp material, she gives it all her skills as an actress so that you totally believe her despite the hard to swallow scenario. There's a nice Jerry Goldsmith underscore, too. With Richard Widmark, Elizabeth Ashley, Rip Torn, Ed Harris and Lance Le Gault.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sansho Dayu (aka Sansho The Bailiff) (1954)

In feudal Japan, after their governor father is exiled for refusing to carry out his lord's orders, his wife (Kinuyo Tanaka), son (Masahiko Tsugawa) and daughter (Keiko Enami) are sold into slavery. The mother is forced into prostitution and the children grow into adulthood as slaves. But while she (now Kyoko Kagawa) still retains the righteous morality taught by their father, he (now Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has taken on the cruelty of his owner. This is a superb film, the great Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece! This was my first viewing and I don't know what took me so long to get around to it, perhaps I was intimidated by its reputation, but it's every bit as unforgettable as its standing dictates. It's an intimate epic about barbarism's slow journey of baby steps to enlightenment and with an ending that could pull tears out of a stone. Despite the film's title, Sansho the bailiff (Eitaro Shindo), the pitiless slave owner, is peripheral to the story which is centered on the family's survival despite the inhumanity and hardships they endure. It's the kind of film you'll never forget. The delicate score is by Fumio Hayasaka, one of the best Japanese film scores I've heard. With Akitake Kono, Ichiro Sugai and Kikue Mori.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Barefoot In The Park (1967)

A newlywed but insecure bride (Jane Fonda), who is a rather spontaneous free spirit, becomes irritated with her conservative "stuffed shirt" groom (Robert Redford). Something's got to give or the marriage will be over before it begins. Based on the smash Broadway romantic comedy by Neil Simon, the film holds up very well principally due to its expert cast who make the material seem better than it is. Oh, I suppose it was all very adorable in 1967 but today it comes across as a well written episode of a TV sitcom. Fonda's needy and demanding bride has lost some of her charm since the evolution of the feminist movement but Fonda is a terrific comedienne and her fastidious comic timing goes a long way in covering up the cracks. Redford is likable and relaxed but it's Mildred Natwick (in an Oscar nominated performance) recreating her stage role as the mother of the bride whose expert playing steals the picture. The director Gene Saks doesn't have much to do except stay out of his actors' way, it's all about Simon's line up of quips anyway. And kudos to the art and set direction team, that teeny walk up apartment is a charmer. With Charles Boyer, Doris Roberts, Mabel Albertson, Herbert Edelman and Ted Hartley.

The Hangman (1959)

A U.S. marshal (Robert Taylor) is tracking down a man (Jack Lord) who was part of a robbery that resulted in a killing. The problem is that the only person who can identify him is a woman (Tina Louise) who was once in love with him. His job is further hampered when the townsfolk are downright hostile toward him because the suspected killer is beloved by the entire town. Directed by the prolific Michael Curtiz, this is a decent if unexceptional western. It connects all the right dots but one wishes for a detour from the predictable path. There's not much one can say about a fairly generic western like this. To its credit, the film seems more interested in the psychological aspects of the story rather than the usual shoot 'em up. Taylor, who became a better actor as he aged, manages to bring a few layers to his cynical character while Tina Louise can't do much with her role. Loyal Griggs (SHANE) is responsible for the sharp B&W cinematography. With Fess Parker, Lorne Greene, Mickey Shaughnessy, Gene Evans and Mabel Albertson.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Accidental Tourist (1988)

A travel writer (William Hurt) finds his marriage disintegrating after the death of his son (who was murdered). After his wife (Kathleen Turner) leaves him, he finds his routine life invaded by a quirky dog trainer (Geena Davis). While she brings him out of his shell, he still finds himself attached to his old life and wife. Based on the novel by Anne Tyler, this was one of the most praised films of 1988. The New York Film Critics named it the best film of 1988, it also was nominated for a best picture Oscar and Geena Davis won the best supporting actress award for her performance. But it doesn't seem remembered today as one of the major or important films of the 1980s, which is a pity as it's a wonderfully contemplative look at how accepting we become of the routine of our lives, how we often fight against change and opening up. Its protagonist is a conundrum, he's unable to deal with the problems his life has thrown at him and avoids conflict yet he realizes his inability. When we meet his anal retentive family (they place the products in their pantry alphabetically), we can see the where and the why of his personality. I love Hurt's performance here and he was probably my favorite actor of the 1980s. He has the uncanny ability of hiding his acting so that all you see is the character, a rare feat. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan. With Bill Pullman, Amy Wright, Ed Begley Jr., David Ogden Stiers and Robert Hy Gorman.

Bride By Mistake (1944)

In order to be sure she is loved for herself and not her wealth, an heiress (Laraine Day) switches places with her secretary (Marsha Hunt). But when she falls in love with an Army Captain (Alan Marshal), he can't seem to make up his mind if he's love with the heiress (who's really the secretary) or the secretary (who's really the heiress). This innocuous piece of romantic comedy fluff suffers from three leads who don't have the sufficient comedic skills to pull off material like this. The material is rather thin anyway so you need a Cary Grant and Jean Arthur to punch it up. Laraine Day is lovely and charming but this Day is no Doris and Marshal lacks even a strong presence to compensate for his lackluster performance. Only Allyn Joslyn as Hunt's fiancee shows any ability for high comedy. Amiable is about the best you can say for the movie. Directed by Richard Wallace (SINBAD THE SAILOR). With Nancy Gates, Edgar Buchanan and Slim Summerville.