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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Viskningar Och Rop (aka Cries And Whispers) (1972)

In a late 19th century manor in Sweden, two sisters (Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin) come to stay with their sister (Harriet Andersson) who is dying of cancer. The only other person in the house is a servant girl (Kari Sylwan) devoted to the dying woman. One of director Ingmar Bergman's more accessible works, CRIES AND WHISPERS is a dream piece bathed in blood red (literally in one startling scene). This is the one Bergman film where color is not only indispensable but mandatory in the narrative's structure. Beautifully shot by the great Sven Nykvist (who won the Oscar for his work here), Bergman lets us enter the women's psyche where we discover insincerity (Ullmann), loathing (Thulin), hope (Andersson) and faith (Sylwan). Of course, one can never fully plumb the depths of a Bergman film since Bergman is a quiz master who never gives us the answers but the framework of this film gives us clues that practically bite us on the nose. If there's a downside to the film, it's possibly that those "clues" are too obvious and sometimes the film can seem like a Freudian nightmare, Psychology 101. The acting is across the board excellent though Sylwan is hampered by an underwritten part. But this is still a potent piece of cinema, one of Bergman's finest. With Erland Josephson, Georg Arlin and Henning Moritzen.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Jewel Of The Nile (1985)

A writer (Kathleen Turner) of romance novels is having problems finishing her latest book which is past its due date at her publisher. When a dashing Arab potentate (Spiros Focas) invites her to his country to write his biogaphy, she accepts. This does not make her boyfriend (Michael Douglas) happy and, indeed, the visit turns into a disaster. A sequel to the previous year's ROMANCING THE STONE, this one is a disappointment on just about every level. The spark is gone and its two leads can't seem to generate the chemistry they shared in the first installment. Even Danny DeVito seems more superfluous and annoying than he was in STONE. The plot is silly and the film's stereotypical depiction of its Arab characters borders on demeaning. In a nutshell, it's just not as fun as the first one. There's a dreadful chintzy synthesizer score by Jack Nitzsche but Jan De Bont's Panavision lensing is crisp and attractive. Directed by Lewis Teague (CUJO). With Holland Taylor and Avner Eisenberg.

Miss Sadie Thompson (1953)

A good time gal (Rita Hayworth) with a dubious past is stuck on a Samoan island (actually the island of Kauai in Hawaii) when the ship she's sailing on gets quarantined for Typhus. A marine (Aldo Ray) starts to romance her but a religious fanatic (Jose Ferrer) takes it upon himself to reform her from her immoral life. The W. Somerset Maugham short story had seen (at least) two other film versions prior to this one. Gloria Swanson in 1928 and Joan Crawford in 1932. By this time, the story had been gutted and cleaned up to appease the censors. Ferrer's character isn't even a clergyman anymore, he's just a religious zealot and Hayworth is a "singer" who got in with the wrong people. Hayworth was in her mid 30s about this time and frankly, she looked 40-ish. But this actually works in her favor, it gives her performance a certain sadness and poignancy. An aging party girl whose options are beginning to dry up. The dour faced Ferrer has at last found a role that fits him like a glove. Three musical sequences have been added to the film but only one kills it, Hayworth's sizzling rendition of The Heat Is On! Directed by Curtis Bernhardt and originally show in 3D. With Charles Bronson, Harry Bellaver and Russell Collins.

Maleficent (2014)

A young fairy (Isobelle Molloy) meets a young thief (Michael Higgins) and they become friends and as they grow up, they fall in love. But as adults, he (Sharlto Copley, DISTRICT 9) becomes greedy and ambitious and betrays her (Angelina Jolie). Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned so she places a curse on his daughter that when she turns 16 (by which time she's Elle Fanning), she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep until she receives a true love's kiss. Yet another revisionist fairy tale (Snow White's already had two and Cinderella has her turn soon), this one based on Charles Perrault's THE BEAUTY SLEEPING IN THE WOOD or more commonly known as Sleeping Beauty. I can't imagine this movie without Angelina Jolie. She's never been more of a Movie Star and she attacks the role as if she were playing Lady MacBeth. Her compelling presence drives the movie forward. Without her, it's another CGI laden extravaganza with perhaps a little more heart than the usual blockbuster. The script is by a woman (Linda Woolverton) and there's more than a casual dose of feminist rhetoric in the film. It's not Prince Charming who saves the day and perhaps it's about time little girls found that out! I enjoyed it but the film doesn't live up to its Star. With Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville, Sam Riley and Brenton Thwaites.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Hawaiians (1970)

Set in the mid to late 1800s, a sea captain (Charlton Heston) finds himself cut out of his grandfather's will and the family fortune left to his brother in law (Alec McCowen). All he receives is a "worthless" parcel of land but from that land, he begins to build his empire. At the same time, a Chinese immigrant and indentured servant (Tina Chen, 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR) has ambitions of her own. James Michener's best selling but massive near 1,000 page novel HAWAII was impossible to be made into just one film. Today, it would probably have been a TV mini series. But the third chapter of the book (the arrival of the missionaries) was filmed in 1966 under the book's title and this film covers the fourth chapter as well as part of the fifth. It's simply not as good as the 1966 film. Unlike the first film (which had a longer running time), THE HAWAIIANS attempts to cram too much into one film. The Heston story line and the Chen story line compete with each other rather than complementing each other so both suffer. The director Tom Gries (WILL PENNY) does a serviceable job and elicits several strong performances from his cast including Heston and Chen (who ages from a young girl to an old woman). Unfortunately, poor Geraldine Chaplin is saddled with an underdeveloped role as Heston's partly Polynesian wife who goes nuts. There's a wonderful score by Henry Mancini and Bill Thomas's costume design fetched the film's only Oscar nomination. With John Phillip Law, Mako, Lyle Bettger, Naomi Stevens, James Gregory, Harry Townes, James Hong, Chris Robinson and Mary Munday.

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

A nurse (Frances Dee) is hired to take care of the wife (Christine Gordon) of a sugar plantation owner (Tom Conway) in the West Indies. Once there, she finds the relationship between the husband and his brother (James Ellison) strained. It seems there's more behind the wife's illness than just mental inertia. Using Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE as a template, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur have created an idyllic and lyrical horror film. Romantic horror films are very rare. Some of the film versions of DRACULA, like Werner Herzog's and Francis Ford Coppola's, would count I suppose but I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE with its lush but supernatural Caribbean atmosphere as the background heightens the love story. Everything is just right here, it's about as flawless a piece of dream horror as has ever been made. The film is smart enough to not to give a definitive explanation of the circumstances that drive the narrative forward. Natural explanation or voodoo? You decide! With Theresa Harris, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Jeni Le Gon and Sir Lancelot.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Funeral In Berlin (1966)

A British secret agent (Michael Caine) is sent to Berlin to meet with a high ranking Russian official (Oscar Homolka) who wants to defect to England. What at first seems a simple case of a Russian defecting to the West turns into a complicated cat and mouse game of deceit and double crosses. The second of the three Harry Palmer films starring Michael Caine and based on the Len Deighton novels, FUNERAL IN BERLIN is a worthy follow up to THE IPCRESS FILE (BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN would follow the next year) and in some ways, more enjoyable. Like its predecessor, it's a stripped down spy movie without any of the glamour or action set pieces of the Bond films. Caine perfectly encapsulates the cynicism and weariness of a man who has long lost his illusions about Her Majesty's Secret Service. If it lacks the memorability of a SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, it still provides an alternative look to the spy spoofs and flashy espionage thrillers that saturated the 1960s. Directed by Guy Hamilton (GOLDFINGER). With Paul Hubschmid (BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), Guy Doleman and Eva Renzi as the film's femme fatale.

Our Daily Bread (1934)

During the great depression, a young married couple (Karen Morley, Tom Keene) move from the city to a farm where they hope to make a go of it. Unable to make a success of it on their own, he recruits other victims of the depression and utilizes their trades and they form a coalition. A community collective where everyone works and shares in the bounty. Though independent cinema is the norm now, it's not new. The director King Vidor was unable to interest any of the studios in this low budget project, so he funded it himself and was able to make it without studio interference. The film's premise is a Utopian fantasy, of course, the kind of idealistic philosophy that is destined to fail given mankind's penchant for upward mobility. Most of the film is devoted to the ragtag collection of depression victims struggling to make their dream come true and it's more than a little simplistic. But near the end, there's a spectacular piece of cinema. The entire irrigation sequence is a thrilling example of montage, unlike the rest of the film it has a rhythm of its own and the editing is as precise as a choreographed production number. Vidor has some help from Joseph L. Mankiewicz (dialog), Alfred Newman (score) and Robert Planck (cinematography). With Barbara Pepper as the serpent in Eden, Addison Richards and John Qualen.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

A Colonel (John Wayne) in the Union cavalry leads a brigade behind enemy lines. His mission is to destroy a Confederate supply station and railroad line. While not one of director John Ford's greatest films, this one is still pretty solid. Based on an actual incident in the Civil War, the film does a good job of showing both the ugliness of war as well as its heroism without tipping the balance in either direction. There are a few miscalculations along the way, Ford uses the sequence of children as soldiers for humor rather than the insidious practice it is/was. Fortunately, for the most part, he's restrained himself from his usual misguided attempts at humor. As the conflicted Colonel, Wayne gives one of his best (if unsung) performances. This is a man who's doing his duty even if he dislikes what he must do. Holden's role as a cavalry doctor is rather colorless, more a foil to Wayne than anything else and Constance Towers as a treacherous Southern belle gets to do more than just being "the girl". Though there are battle scenes, the film comes across as more of what the effect the war has on its characters rather than an action movie. With Strother Martin, Anna Lee, Denver Pyle, Hank Worden, William Leslie and the tennis champion, Althea Gibson.

The War Between Men And Women (1972)

A cranky writer (Jack Lemmon) with an inclination toward misogyny is going blind. When he meets a divorced woman (Barbara Harris) with three kids and a dog, the last thing on his mind is marriage. So guess what happens? "Suggested" by the writings and drawings of James Thurber, one can see what the film makers were attempting but it just doesn't work. For a film about a misogynist, the film feels misogynist which surely isn't what the film makers intended. The movie interpolates live action with animation sequences but they're crude and ineffective. As an audience, we need to see what attracts Harris to this cantankerous anti-social curmudgeon and we don't other than he's played by Jack Lemmon who's played so many nice guys that it's hard not to like him. Harris's body of film work isn't large and any opportunity to see her is welcome but she's really wasted here as is Jason Robards as her ex-husband (as soon as we hear of his occupation, his fate is predictable). Still, it's one of Lemmon's better 1970s performances. Directed impersonally by Melville Shavelson (YOURS, MINE AND OURS). With Herb Edelman, Severn Darden, Ruth McDevitt, Lisa Eilbacher and Joyce Brothers.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Deep In My Heart (1954)

The composer Sigmund Romberg (Jose Ferrer) rises from playing piano in a small cafe to the toast of Broadway! Yet another tiresome movie biography about a composer's dull life dressed up a bit with faux dramatic moments to kill time between the all star musical numbers. MGM had been down this route before with movie bios on Jerome Kern and Rodgers & Hart. I'm not a fan of Romberg's operetta style tunes but if you are, you might make it through this without wanting to do a Van Gogh on your ears. Romberg had an uneventful life so there are lots of musical numbers in an attempt to keep you interested. Only two stood out for me: Ann Miller's snappy toe tapping It and a rather erotic dance to One Alone danced by Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell. Other than that, we have Jane Powell trilling and Tony Martin bellowing. Still, they're both preferable to a hideous scene where Jose Ferrer acts out the plot of one of his shows playing all the characters! On the technical side, the Eastman color is vivid and the sets and costumes are impressive. Directed by Stanley Donen without the panache he invested in his other 1954 musical, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. The huge cast includes Merle Oberon, Gene Kelly, Walter Pidgeon, Rosemary Clooney, Helen Traubel, Howard Keel, Vic Damone, Tamara Toumanova, Joan Weldon, Russ Tamblyn, Jim Backus, Paul Stewart, Isobel Elsom, Susan Luckey and Doe Avedon (THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY) as Mrs. Romberg.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Shi (aka Poetry) (2010)

A grandmother (Jeong Hie Yun) living on government subsistence is raising her slacker grandson (Da Wit Lee) while holding on to a part time job taking care of an elderly man suffering from a stroke. When she is diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, she takes a poetry class which requires she complete a poem at the end of the class. She must also deal with the moral dilemma of a horrible act committed by her grandson and his friends. It's most difficult to describe what makes POETRY such an exquisite film. On one level, everything about it is incredibly simple. Yet there are undercurrents of something deeper and more profound lurking beneath its tranquil surface. Yes, the protagonist is dealing with the onset of Alzheimer's but this is no tearjerker. It's a precise and tight (despite its over two hour running time) and yes, at times poetic contemplative glimpse into the world of an ordinary person who must do something extraordinary. Yun's performance is extraordinary, the kind of subtle and discreet acting that too often gets pushed aside in favor of flashier acting pyrotechnics. A beautiful film.

The Immigrant (2014)

In 1921 New York, a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) and her sister (Angela Sarafyan) arrive on Ellis Island. When the sister is quarantined because of tuberculosis, the young woman is taken under the wing of a procurer (Joaquin Phoenix) and coerced into prostitution. Determined to survive and get her sister out of Ellis Island, she submits to the degradation waiting for the day she will be reunited with her sister. It's taken awhile for THE IMMIGRANT to open in the U.S. It screened at last year's (2013) Cannes film festival and the Weinsteins planned a late 2013 U.S. opening during the awards season when they abruptly pulled it from their schedule. Apparently they've lost interest in the film because it's quietly opened without the usual Weinstein hoopla. It's a pity because this is a very good film. Just on a technical level, the cinematography by Darius Khondji (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) and art direction evoke a rich and palpable atmosphere of New York in the early 1920s. Cotillard gives a heartbreaking performance and is matched every bit of the way by Phoenix who lets us see the human under the beast. Normally, if someone told me a film is about forgiveness, I'd run in the other direction. In this case, it's a beautiful darkly romantic (and I mean dark) piece of work, easily James Gray's best film to date. With Jeremy Renner.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Chorus Line (1985)

A hard nosed choreographer (Michael Douglas) is holding auditions for his newest Broadway show. After eliminating his dancers down to 16, he attempts to probe their lives. I first saw the the musical A CHORUS LINE when it opened in San Francisco with the national touring company. To say I was appalled is an understatement. This was the show that everyone wet their pants over and received 12 Tony nominations and the Pulitzer prize for drama (sic)? The dancing was thrilling, yes but the sappy cliched dialog and those crappy Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban songs! The mawkish breakout "hit" What I Did For Love set my teeth to grinding. Clearly I was in the minority as those around me gushed and cooed over it. Considering the rancid source material, there was no way a decent film could ever be made out of it. A musical that definitely should have been left rotting on the stage. And who thought the director of GANDHI, Richard Attenborough, was the man to direct a movie musical with an emphasis on dance? So what was the result? Like the stage show, the dancing is impeccable but every time someone opens their mouth either to sing or talk!!! Since the emphasis is on dancing (which it should be), the dancers are impeccable except for Audrey Landers (who was hired for obvious other reasons) who disappears during some of the more difficult dances. Did they think we wouldn't notice? A few of the actors manage to save themselves. Michael Douglas conveys an SOB quite believably, Vicki Frederick's "chip on her shoulder" aging dancer has the ring of truth and Janet Jones is cute as a button that your eyes seek her out. Choreography by Jeffrey Hornaday. With Alyson Reed, Terrence Mann, Cameron English, Nicole Fosse, Tony Fields, Yamil Borges, Matt West, Jan Gan Boyd, Justin Ross, Charles McGowan and Michelle Johnston.

Design For Living (1933)

Traveling to Paris by train, a struggling artist (Gary Cooper) and an as yet unpublished playwright (Fredric March) meet a girl (Miriam Hopkins) and the three become friends. However, when love enters the picture, the girl can't decide who she loves more and proposes they all live together! Barely based on the Noel Coward play (if you're a fan of the play, you won't recognize it), Coward's sophisticated wit has been replaced by Ben Hecht's less sophisticated but equally amusing wit. The great Ernst Lubitsch brings his elegant touch to the proceedings and his three leads are in grand form. I've never been a fan of the dramatic March, I much prefer him in his comedies like NOTHING SACRED, I MARRIED A WITCH and here, where he's never been so appealing. Cooper's playing seems less assured and awkward but his boyish charm goes a long way in compensating. Hopkins is perfection and looks great! Not quite the home run that is TROUBLE IN PARADISE, but since this is a pre-code film, the film doesn't shy away from the sexual roundelay aspect of the film. Hopkins is clearly having her cake and eating it too! With Edward Everett Horton, Jane Darwell, Isabel Jewell and Franklin Pangborn.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Giant (1956)

A wealthy Texas rancher (Rock Hudson) makes a trip to Maryland to buy a stallion. He also happens to get the strong willed daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) of the horse's owner (Paul Fix). When he brings her to Texas, it's just the beginning of a sprawling family saga that will span almost three decades and three generations ..... and it feels like three decades just watching it. Lord have mercy! What a thudding bore! Dragging on for almost three and a half hours, the George Stevens' epic yarn based on the Edna Ferber bestseller is in serious need of a good editor. Stevens elongates every scene way beyond necessity as if he intends us to savor every snail paced moment as if he was giving us something profound. I'm convinced if the pace was picked up and a good half hour eliminated, I'd find the film much more agreeable. This was James Dean's last film and for the film's first two thirds, he's the best thing about the film. In the last third however, he's simply awful (though some of this might be due to some obvious post dubbing by another actor). While Taylor and Hudson (who got his sole Oscar nomination for his work here) manage to convey aging in the last third, Dean can't. The loud obtrusive score is by Dimitri Tiomkin. With Carroll Baker, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Mercedes McCambridge (Oscar nominated), Rod Taylor, Chill Wills, Jane Withers, Earl Holliman, Judith Evelyn, Alexander Scourby and Carolyn Craig.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Big Easy (1987)

An unethical New Orleans cop (Dennis Quaid) is investigating some gangland style killings. When an attractive assistant District Attorney (Ellen Barkin) begins to look into police corruption in New Orleans, the pair square off against each other despite the obvious sexual attraction between them. Working from an original screenplay by Daniel Petrie Jr., the director Jim McBride pushes too hard. He's got a great set of actors, the chemistry between Quaid and Barkin is smoking, but McBride seems to be forcing the chemistry instead of just letting it be. It's there, leave it alone! The film itself is a fairly standard police corruption movie but dressed up in its New Orleans setting, it's hard to resist. I liked that the film didn't shy away from the blatant sense of entitlement many policemen seem to have ("I'm risking my life for you! Gimme some perks!") which can lead to the rot that can infect the good cops ("we protect our own") too. It's a well made film though the ending seems so abrupt that I suspect something ended up on the cutting room floor. With John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Grace Zabriskie, Marc Lawrence and Charles Ludlum.

Casa D'Appuntamento (aka The French Sex Murders) (1972)

After being convicted of the brutal murder of a prostitute (Barbara Bouchet, IN HARM'S WAY) in a Paris brothel, the accused (Pietro Martellanza) proclaims his innocence and that he will return from the grave to get revenge on those who testified against him. After his death, the dead bodies start piling up. A supernatural return from the grave? Or is the killer more earthly? For a giallo, the film is fairly antiseptic (though the sex scenes are more detailed) but I did have to turn away when an eyeball was being dissected. For a giallo to be effective, it needs to be stylish, atmospheric or outrageous or at least make us giddy with the anticipation of the next over the top murder. FRENCH SEX MURDERS has none of that. If you've read Agatha Christies THE ABC MURDERS, you might figure out the motive behind the killings. Acting doesn't matter in a film like this but even taking that into account, the hollow anonymous dubbed voices (though some of the restored scenes are from a French print with subtitles) render the actors detached from the proceedings. The Morricone-ish score is by Bruno Nicolai. Directed by Ferdinando Merighi. With Anita Ekberg as the brothel's madam, the Bogart lookalike Robert Sacchi, Rosalba Neri, Evelyne Kraft, Howard Vernon, Renato Romano and Gordon Mitchell.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Key (1958)

An American (William Holden) serves in the British navy's tugboat rescue program. Since WWII has just started, this consists of rescuing many ships attacked by German submarines and planes. An old friend (Trevor Howard), also serving in the program, gives him the key to his flat and makes him promise to take care of his fiancee (Sophia Loren) if anything should happen to him. It seems that key, however, has been passed through many hands. Based on the Jan De Hartog novel, the film's intriguing premise is compromised by its rather overwrought execution. The director Carol Reed doesn't seem engaged with the material and there's a sense of repetitiveness about the project. Howard is dispatched fairly early but his performance was impressive enough to win him a BAFTA best actor award. Loren, on the other hand, seems stifled by her part. Why cast one of the sexiest, most vital of movie actresses and frump her down for a glum "kitchen sink" performance when Maria Schell or Mai Zetterling were available? Oswald Morris's B&W CinemaScope photography is quite nice but Malcolm Arnold's score, save for a charming accompaniment to a routine tugboat exercise, is heavy handed. With Oscar Homolka, Kieron Moore, Bernard Lee and Bryan Forbes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sundown (1941)

As the war begins in Europe, a small outpost in Kenya under the command of a sparse group of British military attempts to find out how guns are being smuggled to the natives in the hopes they'll drive the British out. When a beautiful half caste (Gene Tierney) arrives at the outpost, things begin to heat up. For the most part, this minor war action film avoids the propaganda aspects of many films of its era. At least until the very end when it's laid on thickly with a trowel. It's the kind of forgettable programmer where about halfway through the movie you suddenly realize you've seen it before! As the Arab maiden, Tierney was in exotic mode during this phase of her career. She would follow this with another half caste (SHANGHAI GESTURE), Polynesian (SON OF FURY) and Eurasian (CHINA GIRL) before LAURA rescued her. Directed by Henry Hathaway (TRUE GRIT), the film garnered three Oscar nominations including one for Miklos Rozsa's score. With George Sanders, Bruce Cabot, Reginald Gardiner, Joseph Calleia, Harry Carey, Marc Lawrence and Dorothy Dandridge.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Flight From Ashiya (1964)

Set in Japan, as the U.S. Air Force Rescue Service flies through a storm to help rescue the survivors of a shipwreck, three of its crew reflect on pivotal moments in their past via flashback. A paramedic (Yul Brynner) recalls his ill fated love affair with an Arab girl (Daniele Gaubert) in Tunisia, a pilot (Richard Widmark) recalls the death of his wife (Shirley Knight) in a Japanese POW camp and the co-pilot (George Chakiris) remembers an accident that caused the death of the very people he was trying to rescue. For a potboiler that promises a generous dose of action, this is one tedious film. Based on a novel by Elliott Arnold (who co-wrote the screenplay), the film appears to have been more ambitious than what we're given. Several of the characters would appear to be underdeveloped but I suspect their story lines were victims of the editing shears. Suzy Parker, for example, has a relationship with Brynner that's only hinted at and the actress isn't given much to do other than waiting around. The actual rescue sequences are well done but the bulk of the film is devoted to the dreary backstories. There's a strong score by Frank Cordell (KHARTOUM). Directed by Michael Anderson (LOGAN'S RUN). With Eiko Taki as Chakiris' love interest, who also seems a victim of the cutting room.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)

Set in San Francisco, a young woman (Brooke Adams, DAYS OF HEAVEN) is perplexed by the changes in her live in boyfriend (Art Hindle). She is convinced he is not the same person and she confides her fears to a co-worker (Donald Sutherland). She's not the only with this conviction. But what at first seems a sort of mass hysteria paranoia becomes a horrifying reality. This remake of the 1956 Don Siegel sci-fi classic gives lie to the belief that remakes are unable to match their originals. Philip Kaufman's take on the 1956 film (based on Jack Finney's novel THE BODY SNATCHERS) stands on its own and as the equal of the 1956 predecessor. The screenwriter W.D. Richter updates the 1950s red paranoia and taps into the 1970s rampant paranoia that our authority figures (government, corporations) were lying to us, "They're out to get us!" as exemplified by Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright's nonconformist married couple. But unlike most of the other conspiracy thrillers of the era, this one is great fun. Those of us who were lucky to the film on its first run engagements will remember the superbly unsettling Dolby sound design by Art Rochester. The sensational score is by Danny Zeitlin, sadly his only film score (he disliked doing film music). With Leonard Nimoy, Lelia Goldoni and in cameos, the director of the original film Don Siegel and its star Kevin McCarthy.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Chef (2014)

A chef (Jon Favreau, who also directed and wrote the script) at a popular upscale restaurant is blindsided by a disastrous review by a food blogger (Oliver Platt). After the restaurant's owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists he stick to the tried and true menu rather than exercise some creativity in the kitchen, he quits. After huge blockbuster movies like the IRON MAN franchise and COWBOYS AND ALIENS, director Favreau goes the small indie and film festival route with this charming piffle of a film. If you're a film fan and a foodie, this movie is for you. I'm quite partial to "foodie" movies myself (think BIG NIGHT or BABETTE'S FEAST) and with culinary master Roy Choi as technical adviser, the film has the ring of authenticity. It balances its food porn aspects with the father/son bonding (an expert performance by 10 year old Emjay Anthony as the kid) narrative laced with some romcom vibes (Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson). Don't go to it on an empty stomach! With Robert Downey Jr., John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale and Amy Sedaris.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Francis Joins The WACS (1954)

A bank teller (Donald O'Connor) is called back into active duty with the Army. However, a computer error has him assigned to the Women's Army Corps. As coincidence would have it, he finds an old friend there. A talking mule called Francis (voiced by Chill Wills). This fifth installment in the Francis The Talking Mule franchise is showing signs of exhaustion. It's a essentially a one joke concept that's been milked dry and probably should have wrapped it up with this entry. There would be two more (with Mickey Rooney replacing O'Connor in the last one) and heaven knows where else the franchise would have gone ... FRANCIS GOES TO MARS? FRANCIS MEETS TARZAN? O'Connor, who had been in every Francis movie since the first one in 1950, dutifully goes through his paces while a bevy of Universal contract lovelies don WAC uniforms. This being 1950s Hollywood, every WAC is a babe! The film sends out mixed signals about women in the military. Parts of the film are extremely condescending toward the female soldiers yet they ultimately triumph over their male counterparts. Directed by Arthur Lubin. Among the WACS: Julie Adams, Mamie Van Doren, Lynn Bari, Allison Hayes, Mara Corday, Joan Shawlee with Robert Bray and Zasu Pitts.

Playing By Heart (1998)

A disparate group of characters must deal with love in its various forms: an ill man (Sean Connery) and his wife (Gena Rowlands) approaching their 40th anniversary must deal with a 25 year old infidelity, a wild child (Angelina Jolie) has a hard time trying to coerce a quiet young man (Ryan Phillippe) into a relationship, a man (Dennis Quaid) goes from bar to bar inventing stories that aren't true, a mother (Ellen Burstyn) nurses her dying son (Jay Mohr), a woman (Gillian Anderson) is hesitant about committing a relationship with a new man (Jon Stewart), a married woman (Madeleine Stowe) is having an affair with a minister (Anthony Edwards). As the film moves toward the ending, the stories become interrelated. I suppose Altmanesque is as good a way of describing the film's structure but its much more conventional than Altman's often zig zagging overlapping rides. It's also much more sentimental than Altman ever could be. That's not meant as a put down. Actually, I liked this move a great deal. It doesn't miss a trick and covers all its bases. Best of all, marvelous performances by a first rate cast. Written and directed by Willard Carroll with a lovely jazz score by John Barry. Also in the cast: Nastassja Kinski, Patricia Clarkson, Amanda Peet, Alec Mapa and April Grace.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Les Biches (1968)

A wealthy and fashionable woman (Stephane Audran), who at first appears to be a predatory lesbian, picks up a young street artist (Jacqueline Sassard, ACCIDENT) and whisks her off to St. Tropez. But once there, the young girl shows interest in a handsome architect (Jean Louis Trintignant), who later seduces the older woman. As they say, three's a crowd! The director Claude Chabrol has a talent for relaxed titillation and corruption among the upper class bourgeoisie and he exploits it to the fullest in LES BICHES. Though it touches on the same exchange of personalities that were explored in more detail in Bergman's PERSONA and Altman's THREE WOMEN, I don't think that's the focus of Chabrol's interest. He seems more interested in the languid atmosphere of St. Tropez in the winter and the stylish but vacuous inhabitants who populate the austere landscape, who seem to have nothing better to do but feed off each other. Whatever Chabrol's motives, it's an elegant and compelling watch. With Henri Attal and Dominique Zardi.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Eyes In The Night (1942)

When an old friend (Ann Harding) asks for his help in dealing with a fortune hunter (John Emery) who's romancing her stepdaughter (Donna Reed), a blind detective (Edward Arnold), aided by his clever seeing eye dog Friday, soon finds himself immersed in both murder and Nazi agents. Based on THE ODOR OF VIOLETS by Baynard Kendrick, this "B" detective programmer is an early effort by Fred Zinnemann (HIGH NOON) after relocating to Hollywood from Germany in the late 1930s. The film was popular enough to spawn a sequel three years later, again with Arnold as the blind detective, but a franchise never happened. It's really an undistinguished routine murder mystery, we know very early on who the killer(s) is and most of the film is a waiting game until the police get there in time. I suppose if you have a penchant for 40s murder mysteries you might find some appeal in all this but for the rest of us, it's rather dull. The film could have used some wit. With Barry Nelson, Stephen McNally, Reginald Denny, Mantan Moreland, Katherine Emery, Allen Jenkins and Rosemary DeCamp.

Steel Magnolias (2012)

On her daughter's wedding day, a mother (Queen Latifah) expresses concern over her daughter's (Condola Rashad) health. She's a type 1 diabetic and is determined to have a baby even though her doctors have advised her against it. But with the support and love of their woman friends, they will see it through together. This remake with an all black cast is based more on the 1989 film than the original Robert Harling play. Even then, there are some obvious changes from the 1989 film. So how does it measure up? Well, the source material is a perfectly crafted tearjerker with lots of bite and humor so on that level, it's almost impossible to go wrong if it's done halfway decent. Alas, with two exceptions, the actresses just aren't up to the material. It's almost as if they deliberately went out of their way to avoid any comparison with the 1989 film. They say the lines but something's missing. Queen Latifah is adequate as the mother but it's not until the film goes past the halfway mark that she brings her full force to the part. On the other hand, Alfre Woodard as the perennially grouchy Ouiser gets it right from the start. Directed by Kenny Leon. With Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Adepero Oduye.

Dead End (1937)

Luxury apartments for the wealthy begin to pop up on the East River affording the upscale tenants a view of the river. But those townhomes are an eyesore for the slum dwellers below. The high rises and the upper class tenants only serve as a reminder of their dire poverty and bleak lives. Based on the socially conscious play by Sidney Kingsley (DETECTIVE STORY) and adapted for the screen by Lillian Hellman, William Wyler's film doesn't push the film's obvious message (the poverty environment breeds criminals). First and foremost, it's a well crafted story filled with interesting characters and even the actors with the briefest of screen time manage to make an impression. For example, Claire Trevor has just one small scene as a prostitute but she kicked it to an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. While the focus is on whether Joel McCrea should go with sad eyed Sylvia Sidney (lovely enough to make even poverty seem attractive) or pretty blonde Wendy Barrie, it's the street kids who steal the movie and, indeed, known as the Dead End kids originally, they went on to make a series of popular low budget films right up until the 1950s when they were known as the Bowery Boys. With Humphrey Bogart as a killer who returns to see his old girlfriend (Trevor) and mother (Marjorie Main in a rare dramatic performance), Allen Jenkins, Ward Bond, Esther Howard, Elisabeth Risdon and as the Dead End Kids: Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan and Bernard Punsly.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Landlord (1970)

A young white man (Beau Bridges), who comes from a conservative but wealthy family, buys an apartment house in a downtrodden black neighborhood with the intention of evicting the tenants and gentrifying the apartment. What happens, however, is an eye opening learning experience. THE LANDLORD is a film that could only have come out of the 1970s. It's an uneven comedy (with some dramatic elements) so perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that the film is filled with stereotypes, both black and white. The rich whites are unapologetic racists and the blacks are funky and fun. But it was one of the first mainstream films that dealt with black rage and black pride. One can look past its often glib execution and savor its arrows when it hits its targets. Three performances stand out. Louis Gossett Jr., the great Diana Sands (who's amazing) and Lee Grant (in an Oscar nominated role) who manages to rescue her caricature and turn it into a personal acting triumph. Directed by Hal Ashby (his first film as a director) from Kristin Hunter's novel. Also in the cast: Pearl Bailey, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein, Trish Van Devere, Walter Brooke, Mel Stewart and Marki Bey.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Comedians (1967)

Set in Haiti during the repressive reign of terror headed by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier (reputedly over 30,000 killed), a British hotel owner (Richard Burton) attempts to avoid the political repercussions of Duvalier's regime. But when an English businessman (Alec Guinness) arrives on the scene, his naivete and dishonesty force the hotel owner's hand. Meanwhile, he's having an affair with the wife (Elizabeth Taylor) of a South American ambassador (Peter Ustinov). Based on the novel by Graham Greene, who also wrote the screenplay, the film received tepid if not hostile reviews when it opened in 1967. A reception which I think was unfair. I suppose the critics were tired of the Burton/Taylor coupling (you couldn't pick up a magazine without them on the cover), both on the screen and in life, and this might have clouded their judgment. To be fair, the romantic coupling drags the movie down and Taylor, in what may be her worst performance, has never been more unappealing. But the film itself provides a colorful but terrifying portrait of a poor island nation under siege by its own government. Burton and Taylor may be the stars but the film belongs to Alec Guinness and to a lesser extent Peter Ustinov. The director Peter Glenville (SUMMER AND SMOKE) should have trimmed some of the extraneous fat from the film but that would have necessitated cutting down Taylor's role. But if you're willing to put up with the dull parts, you'll be rewarded. The score by Laurence Rosenthal is a particular standout. With Lillian Gish, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Paul Ford, Raymond St. Jacques, Roscoe Lee Browne, Gloria Foster and Georg Stanford Brown.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Black Bart (1948)

A respectable cattle rancher (Dan Duryea) near Sacramento in California has another identity, that of the notorious masked bandit Black Bart whose reputation was made by robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches. He becomes infatuated with the famous Spanish dancer Lola Montez (Yvonne De Carlo) but so has his former partner (Jeffrey Lynn, LETTER TO THREE WIVES). There was a real Black Bart, of course, but this film is highly romanticized and fictionalized. The real Black Bart was married and there was no evidence he ever met Lola Montez, much less fell in love with her and Black Bart's fate in this version never really happened. That aside, this is actually a pleasant little western, beautifully shot in three strip Technicolor by Irving Glassberg (TARNISHED ANGELS). The romantic triangle makes a pleasant diversion from the standard outlaw activity and De Carlo, who has two dance numbers, was made for Technicolor. Despite the downbeat ending, the film has a sense of humor and the last shot is bound to make you chuckle. Directed by George Sherman. With Frank Lovejoy, John McIntire, Percy Kilbride and Ray Teal.

The Conqueror (1956)

The leader (John Wayne) of the Mongols kidnaps a Tartar woman (Susan Hayward) on her way to be married and takes her as his own despite her protestations. This precipitates a war between various tribes. THE CONQUEROR has the unenviable reputation of being one of the worst films of all time. Principally due to the insane casting of Wayne as Genghis Khan and redheaded Hayward as his Tartar woman. But take away the miscasting and how bad is it? In truth, it's no worse than those Tony Curtis/Piper Laurie exotic sword and sandal programmers Universal was churning out in the 1950s, it's just not as fun. In fact, for a supposed piece of kitsch, it's remarkable how dull it is. If the film had been cast more appropriately, say, Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida, it still wouldn't be any better. The dialogue has to be heard to be believed ("I feel this Tartar woman is for me and my blood says take her") but other than a bump and grind sword dance by Hayward, there's not much to grin about. On the plus side, handsome CinemaScope cinematography that utilizes the Utah desert landscapes to advantage and a full bodied Victor Young score. Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by actor Dick Powell. With Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armendariz, Lee Van Cleef, Thomas Gomez, John Hoyt, Ted De Corsia and William Conrad.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Bostonians (1984)

In the Boston of the 1880s, a spinster (Vanessa Redgrave) who is a fervent believer in the emancipation of women movement takes a young girl (Madeleine Potter) under her wing and mentors her into a spokeswoman for the cause. But a chauvinist Southern lawyer (Christopher Reeve) who does not support the feminist movement is determined to take the girl away from her calling and marry her. Based on the 1886 novel by Henry James, the film takes its time in depicting the battle between two determined foes for the girls' very soul. I've not read the James source material but the film does a credible job of not only showing the struggles of the early feminist movement but also in Reeve's character, the very insidious contempt that women were held in by males who felt a woman's place was in the home under their husband's thumb. The central struggle between the spinster and lawyer is severely compromised by the casting of Potter as the object of their affection. She's a decent but average actress but there's nothing compelling about her in anyway (looks, presence) that would explain why two intelligent people would be enthralled by her. Plus Reeve isn't dangerous enough to suggest a wolf in sheep's clothing. At the core of the film is Vanessa Redgrave in what can legitimately be called a great performance. Her bearing, her very fiber, her pain and determination just comes out of her pores. Directed by James Ivory. With Jessica Tandy, Linda Hunt, Nancy Marchand, Wesley Addy and Barbara Bryne and in the film's worst performance, Wallace Shawn who acts as if he learned his lines phonetically.

Operation Amsterdam (1959)

In May 1940 as the Nazis invade the Netherlands, the British government sends a team consisting of two Dutchmen (Peter Finch, Alexander Knox) who are diamond experts and a British officer (Tony Britton) into Amsterdam to secure the city's diamonds before the Germans reach the city. Based on an actual incident, this British WWII action piece is very well done. Set entirely during a 24 hour period, the director Michael McCarthy (who died six months after the film opened) and his editor Arthur Stevens know their way around a thriller. There's very little time wasted as the action starts immediately and never lets down. The script is not much to brag about and perhaps sensing this, McCarthy compensates by jacking up the activity. The film creates a little more suspense by having the film's female lead (Eva Bartok, THE CRIMSON PIRATE) playing an ambiguous character. We're never quite sure if she's a loyal Dutch or working for the Nazis. The film's one downside is Philip Green's awful underscore. Even if you're not into war movies, there's much to like here. With Malcolm Keen and Christopher Rhodes.

The Cheat (1931)

Set in the country club set of Long Island, the upper class wife (Tallulah Bankhead) of a young stockbroker (Harvey Stephens) lives beyond her means. Not just clothes but gambling debts. When she embezzles $10,000 from the charity of which she is the treasurer, she turns to a sinister adventurer (Irving Pichel, who would later turn to directing movies like DESTINATION MOON) to loan her the money to replace the theft. However, what he wants in return isn't to be paid back but to possess her. A remake of the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille silent, this is a vehicle to showcase the talents of Bankhead, a popular stage actress whose film career never caught fire. But it wasn't until the 1940s when she had vehicles that showcased her properly (LIFEBOAT, A ROYAL SCANDAL). She's good but the low-minded material which was probably shocking in 1915 seems just coarse and obvious in 1931. Fortunately, at one hour and seven minutes, the film is economical in its storytelling and doesn't waste our time. Directed by the stage director George Abbott (THE PAJAMA GAME).

Friday, May 9, 2014

Neighbors (2014)

A 30-something married man (Seth Rogen) and his Australian wife (Rose Byrne, BRIDESMAIDS) have a nice house in the suburbs and a new baby (Elise and Zooey Vargas, who'll melt the iciest of hearts). But suburban domesticity has them longing a bit for their wilder days. When a frat house moves in next door, the loud music and wild parties keeps them and the baby awake at night. When they call the police, the frat president (Zac Efron) declares war! I thought the NEIGHBORS preview looked pretty lame myself and while the film is better than its trailer would lead you to believe, it's still a disappointment. Oh, it can be hilarious, don't get me wrong and I did often laugh at its irreverent "anything goes" gross humor (even rape and HIV are put up for laughs) but the film's premise runs out of fuel way before its conclusion. What might have made a classic SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE extended skit turns into a bloated one note comedy sketch. None of it is the fault of its talented cast. Rogen and Byrne's comedic timing is spot on and Efron is perfect as the hunky but not too smart frat leader. Still, the script has a bit of meat on it for those who insist that a movie has something to say and I confess I enjoyed it more than ANIMAL HOUSE but face it, warring neighbors each acting more like a jerk than the other can only wear thin after awhile. I think I'll have a hard time remembering much of it by next week. Directed by Nicholas Stoller. With Lisa Kudrow, Dave Franco (yep, James' brother), Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Arthur (1981)

A wealthy spoiled alcoholic (Dudley Moore), who's never grown up, is looked after by his valet (John Gielgud in an Oscar winning performance). He's pressured into an arranged marriage with the daughter (Jill Eikenberry) of his father's (Thomas Barbour) business associate (Stephen Elliott). But when he meets a shoplifting waitress (Liza Minnelli), it's love at first sight. While alcoholism in the movies is usually treated with somberness in movies like THE LOST WEEKEND and LEAVING LAS VEGAS, director-writer Steve Gordon's (whose only directorial effort this is, he died a year after this film) manages a balancing act of milking laughs yet still showing us the sadness underneath Moore's drunken veneer. While some drunks get mean when they drink, Moore's Arthur is happy and fun and it's contagious. At the film's opening, when the drunk Moore picks up a hardened street hooker (Anne De Salvo), we see her melt under his genuine kind nature. It's that sweetness that draws us to him rather than being repulsed by his alcoholism. Gielgud channels Clifton Webb superbly, tossing off barbed quips (he tells Minnelli, "One usually has to go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your quality") while letting us see his concern and affection for the child man he raised and loves. The score is by Burt Bacharach and contains the irresistible Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) which won the best song Oscar. With Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ted Ross and Barney Martin.

Lulu Belle (1948)

A Broadway musical star (Dorothy Lamour) and her older lover (Otto Kruger) are shot in her dressing room. The primary suspect is her ex-husband (George Montgomery), recently released from prison. As the victims hover between life and death, through a series of flashbacks, we get the whole story of the singer's rise from singing in a Mississippi dive to the lights of Broadway. Based on the 1926 Broadway play by Charles MacArthur (THE FRONT PAGE) and Edward Sheldon, this is a rather routine programmer about a gold digger who uses men in her climb to the top. It's a rare chance for the likable Lamour to give her acting chops a workout but the script does her no favors. Instead of a hard as nails opportunist, the screenplay softens her character to let us know she's not all bad underneath but instead, all it does is make her character look schizophrenic. Still, I liked the ambiguity of the film's ending which suggests the possibility that someone sees through her games. Lamour sings several numbers but the songs are a dreadful lot. Directed without much verve by Leslie Fenton. With Glenda Farrell, Albert Dekker and in the film's best performance, Greg McClure as a small time boxer.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut Du Bien (aka With A Friend Like Harry) (2000)

After he runs into an old high school friend (Laurent Lucas), who's now married with three young daughters, a man (Sergi Lopez, PAN'S LABYRINTH) feels that his friend is wasting his life and talent on a bourgeois existence. He decides to do something about it but as the saying goes, with a friend like Harry, who needs enemies? This is one disturbing film. Early on we find out Harry is a psychopath and most of the film's tension comes from not only how far will he go (he appears to have no conscience) but how long before his friend discovers his insanity. Even more disturbing is the film's subtext: How often do we wish someone would just go away or die thus freeing us? Conscience, morals and societal taboos prevent us from doing anything but what if someone else, a sort of dark angel, did the dirty work. How clean are our hands by wanting it? This is the kind of script Hitchcock would have a field day with and the director Dominik Moll does a bang up job of turning on the screws ... and the guilt. Remarkably, with one exception, all the characters are unlikable. The two men appear to exist in a moral vacuum but the nagging wife (Mathilde Seigner) and crying kids are almost impossible to bear. The kindest character is Harry's mistress (lovely Sophie Guillemin, who looks like Drew Barrymore) and her fate is the unkindest cut of all.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Wayward Bus (1957)

A motley group of passengers travel in a rundown bus from a small bus stop town called Rebel Corners to San Juan De La Cruz, another small town but with a mission that attracts tourists. The journey proves quite intense, both physically (landslides, floods) and emotionally (romance and conflict). Based on a lesser John Steinbeck novel, the film plays out like one of those 1970s disaster films: a group of disparate characters are thrown together as fate toys with them and by the end of the journey, they've all learned a lesson. The execution is rather trite and, as written, the script doesn't deal a fair hand to its cast. The 23 year old Joan Collins looking quite lovely is hopelessly miscast. Clearly, the role was written for an older woman (probably late 30s) whose looks are fading and has turned to booze. The part cries out for a Jan Sterling or Ann Sothern. Jayne Mansfield as a stripper involved in a tabloid scandal surprisingly gives the film's best performance. The film could have used more grit instead of polish. Directed by Victor Vicas, a Russian director who worked principally in Europe. Also in the cast: Dan Dailey, Dolores Michaels, Rick Jason, Betty Lou Keim, Kathryn Givney, Robert Bray and Larry Keating.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Vamp (1986)

In order to join a fraternity, two college kids (Chris Makepeace, Robert Rusler) must provide a stripper for a frat party. They bum a ride with a third student (Gedde Watanabe, SIXTEEN CANDLES) and go to a big city to hire a stripper. However, the strip club they choose turns out to be a nest of vampires. Horror comedies are often hit and miss. The best horror films often have a subtle strain of humor running through them anyway from DRACULA to JAWS. This one is a modest success on the horror level but very lame on the witless comedy. It tries too hard and isn't half as clever as it thinks it is. The best part of the film is the strip club sequence. The dynamic Grace Jones, whose character doesn't have any dialog (she doesn't need to), lends her unique persona to the proceedings and performs a killer strip act that's the highpoint of the film. Alas, for most of the film we have to be satisfied with the insipid presences of Makepeace, Rusler and Dedee Pfeiffer (Michelle's sister). The film's ace is its cinematographer Elliot Davis (THE IRON LADY) who gives the film an atmospheric sheen, the night sequences are bathed in greens and pinks. Written and directed by Richard Wenk. With Sandy Baron and Billy Drago.

Massacre (1956)

An officer (Dane Clark) in the Mexican Federales leads his troop into Yaqui Indian country looking for a man (Miguel Torruco) suspected of selling guns to the Yaquis. They don't find him at his home but they take the man's wife (Martha Roth) with them to help them in their search. Unfortunately, she's deadlier than a rattlesnake! Filmed in Mexico, this low budget and I mean very low budget (when Dane Clark sits on a "rock" it gives way under his weight) western has a few surprises up its sleeve. It's a fairly conventional horse opera but its "bad guy" is a woman, Roth's character is a real rotten to the core bitch with no redeeming qualities and boy does she cause a lot of trouble. Mercedes McCambridge in JOHNNY GUITAR has nothing on her and part of one's pleasure is waiting to see her get her comeuppance. And I have to hand it to the film makers, I wasn't expecting the totally downbeat ending but it was a welcome relief from the normally false heroics one often sees in the genre. It's a second tier (maybe even a third tier) western but if you're a western film buff, you could do worse than seeking it out. With James Craig and Jamie Fernandez (Friday in Bunuel's ROBINSON CRUSOE).

Eight On The Lam (1967)

A single father (Bob Hope) is raising seven kids on the meager salary of a bank employee. When he accidentally finds $10,000 lying in a parking lot, it seems his prayers are answered. But when his employers discover money has been embezzled, he becomes the prime suspect. Bob Hope didn't fare well, cinematically speaking, in the 1960s. With edgier and sexier comedies like THE PRODUCERS, THE PINK PANTHER, BEDAZZLED and WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? to compete with, Hope's brand of humor seemed hopelessly out of touch. It's a wholesome family comedy but there's an air or desperation in its script (four writers are credited). When the comedic finale has Jonathan Winters and Phyllis Diller in go carts chasing Bob Hope on horseback, one just has to shake one's head. I mean Winters and Diller are wonderful and talented comics and if trusted to their own material, they're hilarious. So how does the movie exploit their unique talents? Chasing Hope on go carts! Given the sporadic nature of the screenplay, they're are bound to be a few scattered laughs and there are, just not enough of them. Still, it's not the worst of Hope's 60s output (that would be CALL ME BWANA). Directed by George Marshall (HOW THE WEST WAS WON). With Jill St. John, Shirley Eaton (GOLDFINGER) and Bill Williams.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ankokugai No Bijo (aka Underworld Beauty) (1958)

After serving three years for robbery, a man (Michitaro Mizushima) recovers the diamonds he hid after the theft. His intention is to give the diamonds to a cohort (Toru Abe) who was wounded in the robbery and lost the use of a leg. But the rapacious Yakuza boss (Shinshuke Ashida) who oversaw the original robbery has other ideas about those diamonds. Like many of the Japanese gangster movies, this tough crime thriller owes a big debt to the American films that influenced them. But this isn't just a homage , director Seijun Suzuki has a real feel for the genre and his original vision gives us an uncommon take on the genre. The underworld beauty of the title is a tough little cookie (Mari Shiraki), the rebellious younger sister of the crippled man and the focus of much of the narrative. It was Suzuki's first film in the scope format and he uses the wide screen frame like a veteran. The cinematography is credited to one Wataro Nakao whose only film credit this is so that I can't help musing that it might be a pseudonym (for Suzuki?). With Hideaki Nitani.

Stars And Stripes Forever (1952)

After a successful career in the Marines as the director of the United States Marine Band, John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb) leaves the military life to pursue his dream of his own private band. Very loosely based on Sousa's autobiography, MARCHING ALONG. Was the country really waiting for a movie about John Philip Sousa in 1952? My distaste for marches in general aside and with all due respect to the man, his life just wasn't that interesting. Perhaps sensing this, the movie's writer conjures up an innocuous romantic subplot involving Robert Wagner and Debra Paget that takes up a large portion of the movie. Fortunately, Webb's natural acidity manages to keep the boredom level in check when he's on the screen. The one musical standout is a stirring rendition of The Battle Hymn Of The Republic as sung by a black church choir. Still, I suppose if Sousa marches are your thing, you might find something to enjoy but for the rest of us, it's a tough slog. Directed by Henry Koster (FLOWER DRUM SONG). With Ruth Hussey as Mrs. Sousa, Finlay Currie and Roy Roberts.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Thing (1982)

At an Antarctic research station, a group of scientists (at least one assumes they're scientists though they act like anything but) find themselves under siege by an alien life form that has the ability to transform itself into the person or animal it has just killed. Based on the short story WHO GOES THERE? which also served as the basis for the 1951 sci-fi classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, this John Carpenter directed re-imagining manages for most of its running time to be a taut and suspenseful horror film. But it can't sustain itself and towards the end, one just wants it to be over and done with. Its characters are poorly delineated so we're not vested in their outcome or death, they're stock types and the screenplay doesn't take the time to flesh them out. We simply don't care about them and the suspense comes from wondering whose body the alien is inhabiting. It doesn't help that most of the performances are really poor (Wilford Brimley being the most egregious offender). But Carpenter knows how to clutch his audience and put the fear of the movie god into them although sometimes he mistakes gross out for suspense. The unsettling score is by Ennio Morricone. With Kurt Russell, Keith David, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart and T.K. Carter.

Fading Gigolo (2014)

After his rare book store closes due to poor business, an older man (Woody Allen) talks his his younger long time friend (John Turturro, who also directed) into going into the male prostitution business. The older man will act as his agent/manager and receive 40% of his earnings and tips. What at first seems a ludicrous plan blossoms into a profitable venture. This idiosyncratic comedy is rather sweet and amusing in fits and spurts but Turturro can't seem to find the right balance or tone that can make it work. The most refreshing aspect of the film is the look we get of the tightly knit, almost secretive, Hasidic community. The lovely Vanessa Paradis in a rather touching performance as a Hasidic widow who blooms under Turturro's kindness and Liev Schrieber as her jealous Orthodox admirer. Allen is Woody Allen (would we want him any different?) but the film also features two sly performances by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara as Turturro's clients who enjoy his services both separately and together. I didn't enjoy the film as much as Turturro's 2006 directing effort, the undervalued ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES but there's enough that's unique about it that makes it of interest. But ultimately, it's a lesser piece of cinema. With Michael Badalucco, and Tonya Pinkins.

The Sound And The Fury (1959)

A once respected Southern family has fallen onto hard times following several generations of scandal. Currently, the youngest male member of the family (Yul Brynner) attempts to hold what's left of the family together with an iron fist but the rebellious youngster (Joanne Woodward) of the clan clashes with him over his overbearing ways. Like Kazan's film of Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN, the director Martin Ritt concentrates on the last part of the William Faulkner book and then only very loosely. Faulkner's novels are very difficult to adapt to the screen (as last year's James Franco film adaptation of AS I LAY DYING proved) and Ritt and his screenwriters, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., don't even attempt to approximate the novel's complicated prose style. It seems Faulkner's lesser works like THE TARNISHED ANGLES (reputedly Faulkner's favorite of all his film adaptations) and THE LONG HOT SUMMER found transition from page to screen easier. Figuring out the family's structure and their relationship to each other is often very confusing and one wishes for more clarity. Still, as a steamy Southern Gothic (more Tennessee Williams than Faulkner), it's often quite entertaining. The humid score is by Alex North. With Margaret Leighton (a strange choice for the older Caddy but she's good), Stuart Whitman, Jack Warden, Ethel Waters, Albert Dekker and Francoise Rosay.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

A 19 year old kid (John Travolta) lives with his parents and is stuck in a dead end job. His only release is the weekend evenings at a disco where he is the King of the dance floor. When a meets a rather snooty young woman (Karen Lynn Gorney) with aspirations for better things, his interest goes beyond just being her dance partner. It seems each decade has a film that captures the pulse of its young generation and becomes a cinematic time capsule. In the 1950s, it was REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, in the 1960s EASY RIDER, in the 1980s THE BREAKFAST CLUB. In the 1970s, it's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Based on a magazine article published in New York magazine titled "Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night", John Badham's film catches the feverish and heady spell of the disco scene, where it didn't matter who you were or what your economic status was, the anonymity of the dance floor made you part of the "tribe". Travolta's magnetism was never more apparent, he's never been as seductive a screen presence since. But it's not just the magnetism, he inhabits the frustrations of someone smarter than he's allowed to be and surrounded by friends and family who pull him down. You can see why a girl, however pretentious, like Gorney would attract him. His performance was the only Oscar nomination the film received. The dance sequences are terrific, a highlight being the hypnotic Night Fever number. One of the seminal movies of the 70s. With Barry Miller, Donna Pescow, Joseph Cali, Julie Bovasso and an unrecognizable Fran Drescher as one of Travolta's dance partners.