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Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Life Of Her Own (1950)

An aspiring model (Lana Turner) leaves her small Kansas hometown for New York where she seeks fame and fortune. But be careful of what you wish for. As directed by George Cukor, the film starts out promisingly. It appears that it might be a hard, dark look at the cutthroat world of fashion modeling. But it soon deflates into a sordid tale of Turner's character having an affair with a married man (Ray Milland). The film might have worked with a stronger actress than Turner, who is miscast as a high fashion model. She doesn't have the figure (too short and thick wasted) or the carriage of a real model. It doesn't help that she and Milland (who's pretty bad here) have zero chemistry. Apparently the film's downbeat ending was changed at the studio's insistence. Two performances stand out however. Ann Dvorak is wonderful as an aging model turned party girl at the end of her tether. She brings a reality and a truth to the film and when her character exits the film, it never recovers. The other performance is that of Margaret Phillips as Milland's wife. In what could have been a cliche of the martyr wife, she brings a quiet dignity and class to the role. There's a lovely score by Bronislau Kaper (so lovely he reused it again two years later for INVITATION). With Tom Ewell, Barry Sullivan, Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern, Phyllis Kirk, Lurene Tuttle and Kathleen Freeman.

Die Buchse Der Pandora (aka Pandora's Box) (1929)

The mistress (Louise Brooks) of a wealthy newspaper publisher (Fritz Kortner) will have none of it when he tells her that he is leaving her for another woman (Daisy D'Ora) and intends to marry her. She gets her way for awhile but her carefree lifestyle will soon take a dark turn, ending in degradation, prostitution and death. Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (which also served as the source material for Alan Berg's opera LULU), G.W. Pabst's (THREEPENNY OPERA) film would seem inconceivable without Brooks in the leading role. A mixture of vitality, sensuality and innocence, Brooks inhabits the role of Lulu to the point that she and the character become one. The film itself is a chronicle of the rise and fall of an amoral pleasure seeking temptress yet there doesn't seem to be any moralizing on Pabst's part. Perhaps, like us, he's infatuated with Brooks' Lulu and she seems a victim of her own nonconformity and passions rather than a self conscious femme fatale. With Francis Lederer (who would go on to a Hollywood film career), Alice Roberts, Carl Goetz and Gustav Diessl. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Battling For Baby (1992)

Two former childhood friends, a concert pianist (Suzanne Pleshette) and a beautician (Debbie Reynolds), must reconcile their bitter dislike for each other when their children (Courteney Cox, John Terlesky) marry. But when a baby comes along, the feud goes into a no holds barred rivalry. This average family friendly comedy goes through the motions without a trace of originality. You know as the glamorous grandmother (Pleshette) and the homespun grandmother (Reynolds) toss barbs and quips at each other, that they will eventually get to the source of what really broke up their friendship and that a warm and fuzzy happy ending isn't far behind. Any minor (very minor) pleasures to be had come from the expert playing of Pleshette and Reynolds who manage to make the cliches tolerable. These two gals know their way around a quip. Directed by Art Wolff. With Doug McClure and Leigh Lawson.

Ten Seconds To Hell (1959)

In post war Berlin, six Germans are employed as a bomb disposal unit. There are still hundreds of unexploded Allied bombs through out the city. The six men make a pact. They all put up half their salary and the money will go to the sole survivor of the six. For two of the men (Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance) who have an antagonistic relationship, it becomes personal. The director Robert Aldrich has an aggressive directorial style and a knack for bleak and darker films with cynical protagonists. Films like KISS ME DEADLY and WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? for example, follow their lead characters through a maze that leads to ironic conclusions which come too late for their central figures. TEN SECONDS TO HELL is not one of Aldrich's better films. Although he co-wrote the screenplay (based on the novel THE PHOENIX by Lawrence P. Bachmann), Aldrich is unable to form a believable relationship between its two combatants. It doesn't help that Chandler and Palance aren't remotely believable as Germans but Chandler gives a very poor performance. He's so innately likable that he can't make a convincing bastard and his drunk scene is cringe inducing. The bomb defusing sequences are well done with the requisite tension however. With Martine Carol (Ophul's LOLA MONTES) as the love interest,  Wesley Addy, Dave Willock, Virginia Baker, Robert Cornthwaite, James Goodwin and Jim Hutton.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Romeo And Juliet (1936)

In Verona, two powerful clans have a long standing feud between them. But when the son (Leslie Howard) of the Montagues and the daughter (Norma Shearer) of the Capulets fall in love, the fierce opposition to their romance will lead to tragedy for both families. MGM pulled out all the stops, sparing nothing for this lavish production of Shakespeare's beloved tale of ill fated young lovers. Oliver Messel, one of the great stage designers of all time, was the consultant on the production design and the costumes. A Shakespeare scholar was flown in from Harvard to be on the set and none other than Agnes De Mille herself choreographed the ball sequence. Visually, it's impressive but ..... the performances do the picture in. Putting aside the fact that most of the actors are about 15 to 20 years older than the characters they're playing, Howard and Shearer are egregiously miscast. There's no passion to Howard's Romeo, he says the line "I am fortune's fool" with all the feeling of ordering a burger. Shearer's acting (with a capital A) is affected and one cringes watching her act all girly and indicating. Also miscast is John Barrymore as Mercutio but he brings a much needed vitality to the proceedings. George Cukor directed this "prestigious" film but I don't know whether to blame him or Irving Thalberg. With Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith, Andy Devine, Reginald Denny, Ian Wolfe and in the film's best performance, Edna May Oliver as Juliet's old nurse.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Devil Girl From Mars (1954)

A diverse group of guests are gathered at an inn in the Scottish countryside when a flying saucer makes an emergency landing near the inn. A leather clad alien (Patricia Laffan, QUO VADIS) threatens the guests while her ship is being repaired by her robot companion. Science fiction has been a popular genre since the days of silent cinema. But sci-fi plays? This low budget British "B" hokum is based on a play by James Eastwood (who also wrote the screenplay) and the majority of the film takes place on the inn set with minimal action and the characters yakking away. It's difficult to decide which is worse. The dialogue or the acting. I'd call it a draw though only one performance is jaw dropping bad, Hugh McDermott as a London reporter.  There's a small degree of amusement to be derived from the awfulness of it all though it never quite manages to cross over into camp. If you've an appetite for kitschy 1950s sci-fi, this should be right up your alley. For everyone else, I suspect it's rather dull. Also in the cast: Hazel Court, Adrienne Corri, Peter Reynolds and Joseph Tomelty.

Deadfall (1968)

A recovering alcoholic and jewel thief (Michael Caine) is recruited by a mysterious woman (Giovanna Ralli) and her homosexual husband (Eric Portman) to help them in a dangerous jewel heist. But when he and the woman become lovers (with her husband's knowledge), things become even more complex as the trio head toward tragedy. A stylish and elegant heist thriller handsomely shot in Spain by Gerry Turpin (SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON) and directed with aplomb by Bryan Forbes. The film's big set piece comes midway into the film. A mansion break in and robbery intercut with a concert. The concert piece Romance For Guitar And Orchestra plays in the concert hall but it also acts as an underscore to the robbery as Forbes goes back and forth between the concert and the robbery. Having reached its highpoint so early, the film struggles for the next hour until it is saved at the last moment by its forlorn conclusion. The film has a bit of fat however. The playgirl played by Nanette Newman has no place in the film (unless it was an excuse for Forbes to give his wife a job) and clogs up the narrative unnecessarily. The superb score is by John Barry (who also appears in the film conducting the concert). With Vladek Sheybal and Renata Tarrago.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen (1981)

When a series of bizarre murders occur in San Francisco, the famed Chinese detective Charlie Chan (Peter Ustinov) is called in to help solve the case. By coincidence, his half Jewish/half Chinese grandson (Richard Hatch, he puts soy sauce on his lox and bagel), eager to follow in his grandfather's footsteps, is a San Francisco resident and joins forces with his grandfather in helping to track down the killer. The main suspect is Chan's old nemesis, the Dragon Queen (Angie Dickinson) just released from prison and seeking revenge on Chan.  Directed by Clive Donner (WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT?), this is a rather silly hit or miss frantic comedy. Some of it works like Roddy McDowall's insolent butler in a wheelchair or Lee Grant's widow obsessed with her husband's urn but there's a lot of slapstick stuff that falls flat. Principally, the klutzy Hatch and his fiancee (Michelle Pfeiffer) who are constantly tripping and falling. This was one of Pfeiffer's first movies and she already shows the charm and presence that would soon turn her into one of the major actresses of the 1980s. Paul Lohmann's (NASHVILLE) location photography shows San Francisco at her best. Also in the cast: Rachel Roberts, Brian Keith and Johnny Sekka.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Son Of Fury (1942)

In 18th century England, the son (Roddy McDowall) of a deceased Baronet is taken by his uncle (George Sanders) and turned into an indentured servant. The man fears that the boy may one day attempt to claim his rightful title of Baronet and to the properties and title his uncle now holds. When the boy grows into manhood (and into Tyrone Power), he escapes to the South Seas where he hopes to make his fortune and return to England to claim his rightful place. Based on the novel BENJAMIN BLAKE by Edison Marshall, this is a relatively well done adventure movie even if it offers nothing beyond an enjoyable hour and a half. This was the kind of movie hokum that Power was tired of making though it would be a few more years before he had more challenging roles in THE RAZOR'S EDGE and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. This was during Gene Tierney's "exotic" period when Fox wasn't quite sure what to do with her and cast her as Eurasians and, as here, Polynesian. Rescue in the form of LAURA would come two years later. The film is also notable as the tragic Frances Farmer's (who plays Sanders' haughty daughter) last film before her mental illness got the better of her and she would not make another film for 16 years. Nicely shot by Arthur Miller (HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) with Pasadena standing in for the South Seas. Directed by John Cromwell. Also in the cast: John Carradine, Kay Johnson, Harry Davenport, Dudley Digges and a nice turn by Elsa Lanchester as a prostitute.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Last Page (aka Man Bait) (1952)

A clerk (Diana Dors) in a book store gets involved with a petty criminal (Peter Reynolds) who pushes her to blackmail her boss (George Brent) for some money. She's reluctant but goes ahead anyway but everything goes wrong. Before Hammer films became synonymous with horror, they did a series of low budget semi-noirs and crime thrillers usually with an American actor (or two) who had seen better days to make the film lucrative to U.S. audiences. Here, George Brent and Marguerite Chapman provide the American "star power" but it's the sexy young Diana Dors, who gets introducing billing, that makes the film watchable. The screenplay is by Frederick Knott who wrote DIAL M FOR MURDER and WAIT UNTIL DARK but this film lacks the the precise detail and intelligence that made those films quality efforts. All the characters here are pretty dumb and their actions are stupid so it's hard to drum up much sympathy for any of them. None of them bother to think out the possible consequences of their actions and the hot water they get into are of their own making. Directed by Terence Fisher, who would go on to become one of Hammer's premier horror directors. With Raymond Huntley and Eleanor Summerfield.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

Kansas City, 1927. A trumpet player (Jack Webb) and his small jazz band are eking out a living when a mobster (Edmond O'Brien) attempts to become their "agent". When they refuse, the band's drummer (Martin Milner) is killed and they give in. The gangster forces an aging alcoholic singer (Peggy Lee in an Oscar nominated performance) on them. How much will they be able to take before things come to a head? Directed by Webb, the film is rich in 20s atmosphere and the music is sensational. It's a tough little crime drama reminiscent of those 1930s Warners gangster melodramas. However, the less said about Webb the actor, the better. He seems to have switched his Joe Friday badge for a cornet but little else has changed. As a romantic leading man, he's a stiff and he and Janet Leigh (as a society flapper) have zero chemistry. Also in the cast: Lee Marvin, Ella Fitzgerald (who does a great rendition of Hard Hearted Hannah), Jayne Mansfield and in a rare dramatic role, Andy Devine.

Dinner At Eight (1989)

A rather self absorbed but ditzy society hostess (Marsha Mason) plans a dinner party for some British royals. The guest list includes her husband's (John Mahoney) old flame (Lauren Bacall), a crass tycoonA rather self absorbed but ditzy society hostess (Marsha Mason) plans a dinner party for some British royals. The guest list includes her husband's (John Mahoney) old flame (Lauren Bacall), a crass tycoon (Charles Durning) and his trampy wife (Ellen Greene, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and a washed up Hollywood actor (Harry Hamlin). This remake of the 1933 MGM comedy (by way of the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber Broadway play) can't hope to compete with the George Cukor film but it doesn't help matters by updating the plot to the 1980s. Instead of John Barrymore's alcoholic we get Hamlin's cocaine addict and it just feels off and Bacall lacks Marie Dressler's comedic timing. Greene does what she can with the brassy Jean Harlow role but try as she might, she can't fake the sex appeal. The source material is good enough that it doesn't need the updating.  Chalk it up to a misfire. Directed by Ron Lagomarsino. With Julia Sweeney, Stacy Edwards, Joel Brooks and Tim Kazurinsky.

McFarland USA (2015)

After being fired from his last high school coaching job for losing his temper, a teacher (Kevin Costner) moves his family to a small but poor Mexican-American community which is the only place he could get a job. Unfamiliar with their culture and way of life, he's ready to move on again but something remarkable will soon happen. Normally, sports movies aren't my cup of tea. But this film, which is based on the true story of the 1987 McFarland high school cross country team, hit home for me. I was a high school cross country and track runner and the film couldn't help but bring back memories of the physical pain of running, the grueling practices and the rush of exhilaration. And looking at the audience which was mostly Hispanic (and no longer a minority but the majority in California) eager to see themselves portrayed on the screen where they are still underrepresented. The film can't entirely avoid the cliches of sports movies but it has an authenticity that can't be faulted in both the cross country scenes and the Mexican-American milieu. And in the film's stirring epilogue, we're reminded that in the end, this is a film about people who exist. Directed by Niki Caro providing further proof (as if it were needed) that a woman can direct films that deal with other than "women's" issues. With Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor and Carlos Pratts, a young actor who I hope has a big career ahead of him.

The Snake Pit (1948)

A young woman (Olivia De Havilland) in a mental hospital with the help of her doctor (Leo Genn) tries to reconstruct the reasons for her mental breakdown. In the 1940s, Hollywood films began taking on serious social issues like alcoholism (LOST WEEKEND) and anti-semitism (GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT). Most of them haven't aged very well, they seem rather simplistic as we've come to learn more about the subjects. THE SNAKE PIT seems to be an exception and holds up surprisingly well. Sure, some of its psychoanalysis seems oversimplified but it's still strong stuff. Reputedly, the film caused severe changes in the conditions at state hospitals and their treatment of patients. De Havilland gives a forceful complex performance with a strength she'd rarely shown on screen up to that point. Alfred Newman did the strong underscore. Directed by Anatole Litvak. The massive cast of talented actors includes Celeste Holm, Mark Stevens, Beulah Bondi, Betsy Blair, Isabel Jewell, Natalie Schafer, Lee Patrick, Jacqueline DeWit, Ruth Donnelly, Ann Doran, Glenn Langan and Helen Craig.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lust For Life (1956)

After his attempt at a religious career fails, Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) becomes obsessed with painting. He fights his inner demons as best he can but they will eventually get the better of him. Unsuccessful in his lifetime, posterity will validate his genius. Based on the Irving Stone biography, Vincente Minnelli's film on the life of Van Gogh manages to cut through the phoniness of most Hollywood biographies. Shot in the CinemaScope format, Minnelli and his cinematographers Freddie Young and Russell Harlan (incredibly not Oscar Nominated) do an amazing job of recreating Van Gogh's palette visually, the colors and the textures. Then there's Kirk Douglas's performance. As an actor, Douglas can be problematic. He's almost too intense for many of his roles, he seems like he's ready to jump out of his skin. Here, it's used to perfection. You can believe he's a soul in constant torment, you can almost smell the sweat coming off him. Normally, Douglas is so imposing that no one gets the best of him but Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin (in an Oscar winning performance) manages to intimidate him believably. Stimulating, moving and eventually heartbreaking, it's one of the best films about art, artists and the art of creating. Miklos Rozsa's score is a thing of beauty. With James Donald, Pamela Brown, Everett Sloane, Henry Daniell, Isobel Elsom, Lionel Jeffries, Jill Bennett, Niall MacGinnis and Madge Kennedy.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Conspiracy Of Hearts (1960)

In 1943 Italy, a convent located near a German concentration camp smuggles children from the camp and to freedom. While the mother superior (Lilli Palmer) is adamant in her determination to save the children from possible extermination, one nun (Yvonne Mitchell) resents the danger she feels the mother superior is putting the convent in. Nuns, Nazis and children! Five years before THE SOUND OF MUSIC hit movie screens, this emotional tearjerker used the same formula and while you know you're being manipulated and even as you resent it, you can't help but give in. This is a manipulative movie yet who won't get watery eyes as Nazis terrorize nuns and children and threaten to execute them as they hold their chins up bravely? As directed by Ralph Thomas, it was effective enough to be an enormous box office hit in Great Britain though its UK success wasn't repeated in the U.S. The performances are quite good and there's an effective score by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT). With Sylvia Syms, Ronald Lewis, Albert Lieven, Peter Arne, George Coulouris and Megs Jenkins.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Six Days Seven Nights (1998)

A fashion magazine editor (Anne Heche) and her boyfriend (David Schwimmer) are on vacation on a small island in the South Pacific. When a work assignment calls her away temporarily, she hires a pilot (Harrison Ford) to take her to the assignment but their plane crashes on an uncharted desert island. Movies about men and women shipwrecked on a desert island have been film fodder since the silent era and movies like DeMille's MALE AND FEMALE (1919). The man and woman are usually antagonists at the beginning but it's only a matter of time till they fall in love and SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS follows the tried and true path. Is there anything fresh here? No, but Ford and Heche make for an attractive couple and there's a nice muted chemistry between them. Add to that the gorgeous tropical location (it was filmed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai) and there are worse ways to while away 90 minutes. This was the movie that was supposed to be Heche's breakout film and make her an A list leading lady but shortly before the film opened her personal life made headlines and it never happened although the film itself was a modest hit. Directed by Ivan Reitman (GHOSTBUSTERS). With Allison Janney, Danny Trejo and Jacqueline Obradors.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Il Gatto A Nove Code (aka The Cat O'Nine Tails) (1971)

A blind ex-journalist (Karl Malden) overhears a conversation in which blackmail is mentioned. The day after, the research institute where the man (Carlo Alighiero) who made the blackmail comment works is broken into and shortly thereafter he is murdered. The blind man joins up with a newspaperman (James Franciscus) to solve the killing and the murders that follow. CAT was giallo master Dario Argento's follow up to his acclaimed BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Though decidedly inferior to its predecessor, it's still an effective giallo with its moments and suitably gory killings (isn't that what giallos are really about?) but its premise regarding the killer's motives is scientifically and medically unsound. There's also an unenlightened creepy gay bar sequence that ranks with the one in Preminger's ADVISE AND CONSENT. Franciscus' character is a bit of a jerk but the actor lacks any charisma or screen presence that would compensate. Poor Catherine Spaak should shoot whoever designed her hideous rags and made her wear that fright wig. Nicely atmospheric score by Ennio Morricone. With Cinzia DeCarolis, Rada Rassimov and Tino Carraro.

The Thirteenth Guest (1932)

A young woman (Ginger Rogers) returns to the now abandoned house where 13 years earlier, a dinner party was given and a mysterious thirteenth guest never showed up. Now it appears a mysterious killer intends to murder the surviving dinner guests. Based on the novel by Armitage Trail (SCARFACE), this is a rather creaky whodunit. The emphasis is as much on comedy as the actual solving of the killings but even at one hour and eight minutes, it's slow going. This is a very early film in Rogers' career, she had not yet done those Busby Berkeley musicals at Warners or yet paired with Fred Astaire for their classic RKO musicals. She displays very little star power here and there are zero sparks with her undistinctive leading man Lyle Talbot. Unless you're a fan of early 30s murder mysteries, there's not much here for you. Directed by Albert Ray. With J. Farrell MacDonald, Paul Hurst and Frances Rich.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (aka Elevator To The Gallows) (1958)

A woman (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover (Maurice Ronet) plot to murder her husband (Jean Wall), a wealthy and important businessman and make it look like suicide. What would seem to be the perfect crime starts to fall apart when a young thug (Georges Poujouly) and his girl (Yori Bertin) steal his car. The directorial debut of Louis Malle, ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS is an intense thriller whose stylish intricacies would do Hitchcock proud.  The narrative itself is clever enough if not particularly original but Malle soaks it with a strained yet creamy brew that keeps you riveted. You know where everything is going but you're compelled to watch it to the inevitable if predictable finale. Malle has three co-conspirators to this end. Henri Decae's superb B&W cinematography, Miles Davis' moody underscore and Moreau whose love affair with the camera really begins here. With Lino Ventura, Charles Denner, Jean Claude Brialy and Elga Andersen. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Last 5 Years (2015)

A struggling actress (Anna Kendrick) and a struggling writer (Jeremy Jordan) fall in love. He has an early success with a best selling novel while she continues to struggle as an actress and this affects their relationship especially after they're married. What should have been a perfect love story begins to unravel. Based on the off Broadway musical  by Jason Robert Brown (book, music and lyrics), the film doesn't go out of its way to disguise its theatrical origins. It's still a two character musical and the director Richard LaGravenese (an Oscar nominee for his FISHER KING screenplay) is content to let the camera stay in place as the characters sing though he has added some flourishes that keep it from becoming stagnant. It's insightful in its look at a  relationship that should have worked floundering. It's a lovely film, touching and ultimately heartbreaking. After this and INTO THE WOODS, I'm all for Kendrick doing nothing but musicals. Jordan lacks her screen presence but they make for a likable couple so that you're rooting for them. Brown tilts the scales a bit in Kendrick's favor by giving her all the best songs.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturn 3 (1980)

On Saturn's third moon, a hydroponics scientist (Kirk Douglas) and his assistant (Farrah Fawcett) do research on replenishing the Earth's dwindling food supply. A functionary (Harvey Keitel, whose voice is dubbed) arrives and puts together a robot which will take the place of the scientist and uses his own brain to direct feed information to the robot. But there's a big problem ..... the visitor is psychotic! The story was the creation of production designer John Barry (STARS WARS) who had hoped to direct the film but he was replaced by Stanley Donen (SINGIN' IN THE RAIN). The movie's budget was slashed during filming and the film re-cut in post prodction. In its initial release (blown up to 70 millimeter), the film received terrible reviews as well as poor box office. While not the greatest piece of sci-fi, it's far better than its reputation would suggest. The robot is genuinely creepy, Stuart Craig's production design is first rate and there's a solid Elmer Bernstein score. Donen wasn't the man to direct something like this though he gives the film a tense atmosphere and it's a pity that Barry wasn't allowed to carry out his original plans for the film. Although fired from the film, he never saw the result as he passed away before the film was released.

Witness To Murder (1954)

Looking out her window late at night, a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) sees a man (George Sanders) strangling a woman. She calls the police but when they investigate they find nothing and dismiss her claims as a nightmare she had. She attempts to do some investigating on her own but the murderer has some diabolical plans of his own. This no frills potboiler is reminiscent of REAR WINDOW even though it opened before the Hitchcock classic. Since we witness the killing along with Stanwyck, we know she's telling the truth while everyone around thinks she's crackers. It might have benefited the film if the actual murder was in doubt so we would be kept in suspense if Stanwyck really was losing her mind. As it is, her behavior is somewhat irritating because her actions are unstable. The film goes a little further than necessary when it makes Sanders an ex-Nazi still spouting "superman" garbage. But it's the presence of those two pros than make the film watchable and there's the wonderful stark noir-ish lensing of the great John Alton shooting on locations rather than studio sets. Efficiently directed by Roy Rowland (5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T). With Gary Merrill, Juanita Moore, Jesse White, Claude Akins and Claire Carleton.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dip Huet Seung Hung (aka The Killer) (1989)

A professional assassin (Chow Yun Fat) for a criminal Triad in Hong Kong accidentally blinds a nightclub singer (Sally Yeh) during a shootout. Feeling guilty, he befriends her while keeping his identity and motive secret from her. Meanwhile, a police detective (Danny Lee) is determined to bring the hitman to justice. John Woo's dizzying orgy of bloodshed can get you giddy on violence. Woo's cinematic skills are plentiful and undeniable and the setpieces are thrilling. But the violence is so prevalent and over the top and Woo relishes every gunshot and wound that you're laughing even as you're carried away by the excitement of it all. There's no sting like you get in a Peckinpah or (when he's good) Scorsese movie. Woo's patchwork film lifts from other films (Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Sirk's MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and Vidor's DUEL IN THE SUN to name just three) but his biggest handicap is a sentimentality that weaves through out the film. For example, when the assassin's best friend (Kong Chu) dies, white doves flutter about the inside of a church while Lowell Lo's treacly score plays! But it's best not to dwell too much on a film like this because it will begin to unravel.

Cousin Bette (1998)

In 1846 Paris, the impoverished cousin (Jessica Lange) of an aristocratic family is a spinster who works as a seamstress in the theater. She secretly harbors a passion for the poor artist (Aden Young) who lives above her room. When her young cousin (Kelly Macdonald) steals him from her, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and she plots the downfall of the family. Loosely based on the Balzac novel, I found it quite engaging although the mixture of both American and British actors all playing French seemed a bit jarring. An entirely British cast or American cast wouldn't have been a problem, it just seems that they're all not quite in the same movie. Elisabeth Shue (LEAVING LAS VEGAS) in particular comes across as very American. Lange is quite good as the "old maid" cousin even though try as they might, they can't disguise her good looks. It's amusing and while Balzac purists may object to the rather drastic changes from the novel, what director Des McAnuff has given us isn't bad at all. With Bob Hoskins, Geraldine Chaplin, Hugh Laurie, Toby Stephens, Simon McBurney, John Sessions and Toby Jones.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Big Brown Eyes (1936)

A manicurist (Joan Bennett) is in love with a police detective (Cary Grant). When she mistakenly thinks he's been cheating on her, she quits her job and goes to work for a newspaper. It's there that she gets a hot tip on a baby killer and decides to play detective on her own. Although it has two top stars and is directed by the renowned Raoul Walsh, this is definitely a lesser film in their filmographies. It's a throwaway really but on its own terms, it's a nicely polished programmer that goes down easily and is quickly forgettable. A middling detective story with screwball comedy trimmings ..... or perhaps it's the other way around. Grant wasn't quite the Cary Grant yet and Bennett was still a blonde standing in for Carole Lombard. In a few more years, both would have bloomed into the stature that personified their star status. Co-starring Walter Pidgeon (not yet a leading man) as a crooked insurance detective, Lloyd Nolan as the baby killer thug, Isabel Jewell, Douglas Fowley and Henry Brandon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Juggernaut (1974)

A British transatlantic ocean liner carrying 1,200 passengers has seven bombs planted on it. When the bomber (who calls himself Juggernaut) makes a ransom demand for 500,000 pounds by dawn the next morning or the bombs will go off, a bomb disposal unit is air lifted to attempt to dismantle the bombs. This splendid high seas thriller is often inappropriately lumped together with the disaster films so popular in the 1970s but it's not really part of the genre. The director Richard Lester (THREE MUSKETEERS) has a lean hard nosed script that eschews sentimentality. For example, the wife (Caroline Mortimer) and children of a Scotland Yard detective (Anthony Hopkins) assigned to the case happen to be on board. The wife seems enervated and distracted and her children undisciplined, in particular her brat of a son (Adam Bridge) who causes the death of several innocent people. Lester makes no attempt to make the child cute or apologize for his spoiled behavior. The "romance" between the ship's Captain (Omar Sharif) and a married woman (Shirley Knight, who does wonders with an underwritten role) seems more cool than hot. Lester doesn't even save the best for last, indeed the film's highpoint comes about 35 minutes into the film. A stunning sequence with the bomb disposal unit parachuting into the the stormy sea that is beautifully shot (by Gerry Fisher) and edited. With Richard Harris, Ian Holm, David Hemmings, Roy Kinnear, Clifton James, Freddie Jones, Julian Glover and Cyril Cusack.

Nightmare Alley (1947)

An ambitious con man (Tyrone Power) works at a traveling carnival assisting a mentalist (Joan Blondell), who he's having an affair with, and her alcoholic husband (Ian Keith). Not content with working the small time, he takes what he's learned from the mentalist and reinvents himself as The Great Stanton and plays the posh nightspots in Chicago with his new wife (Coleen Gray) as his assistant. But his ambition and his greed will also be the cause of his downfall. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, this dark and disturbing piece of film noir was the brainchild of Tyrone Power who was seeking to expand into more complex and challenging roles than swashbucklers like MARK OF ZORRO and THE BLACK SWAN. Power's movie star handsomeness overshadowed his abilities as an actor and he seemed an unlikely candidate to play a conniving hustler who rises to the top only to sink the lowest a man can go. But his belief in himself was justified. It's the best performance he's ever given. But he's matched by a spectacular performance by Helen Walker (THE BIG COMBO) as the duplicitous psychiatrist who turns the tables on him. A gripping film directed with an assured hand by Edmund Goulding and stunning B&W cinematography by Lee Garmes (DUEL IN THE SUN) that defines film noir. With Mike Mazurki, Taylor Holmes, Julia Dean and Roy Roberts.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Carmen Jones (1954)

During WWII, an independent flirt (Dorothy Dandridge) who lives by her own set of rules works in a parachute factory in the South. She seduces an Army Sergeant (Harry Belafonte) even though he's engaged to another woman (Olga James). But one man can never hold her for long and her need for freedom will be her undoing. This musical re-imagining of the Bizet opera CARMEN (via the 1943 Broadway musical) uses Bizet's famous score but Oscar Hammerstein (THE SOUND OF MUSIC) provides updated lyrics. It should be godawful but it's surprisingly entertaining. In the title role, Dorothy Dandridge, who was the first black actress to receive an Oscar nomination for her performance here, is terrific in the title role. Hands on hips, prowling around like a cat in heat, eyeing Belafonte as if he were a dish on a menu, she's a fiery force of nature. Otto Preminger's direction doesn't bring much verve to the proceedings but he's smart enough to know what he has in Dandridge and lets her take center stage. Though they were both singers, Dandridge and Belafonte were dubbed by operatic voices (Marilyn Horne, LeVern Hutcherson). Fortunately, Pearl Bailey as Dandridge's slinky mink and diamond minded friend is allowed to sing in her own inimitable voice. Also in the cast: Diahann Carroll (a singer but also dubbed), Joe Adams, Brock Peters and Roy Glenn.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Young Frankenstein (1974)

The grandson (Gene Wilder) of the notorious Baron von Frankenstein travels to Transylvania after inheriting his grandfather's estate upon his death. He has been trying to play down his reputation as the grandson of the "mad" scientist but upon his arrival at the family castle, he can't resist the urge to continue his grandfather's experiments ... including creating life from death. Mel Brooks' zany parody of the classic B&W James Whale horror films is also a genuinely affectionate homage to the genre. There was always a bit of wit in the Whale horrors but Brooks goes for the kid in us (think ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN) rather than the intellect. Of course, it helps if one is familiar with the films that Brooks is referencing but even if one isn't, the laughs are still there. The comedic timing of the film's cast is impeccable as one would expect from such expert farceurs like Wilder and Madeline Kahn, who plays his teasing fiancee. But even Peter Boyle, who plays the monster, and Gene Hackman show razor sharp comedic timing. The contributions of Gerald Hirschfeld's crisp B&W lensing and John Morris' intentionally derivative underscore can't be underestimated. With Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars and Richard Haydn.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Dark Avenger (aka The Warriors) (1955)

In 1359 as the Hundred Years War between England and France comes to an end, Edward III (Michael Hordern) returns to England and leaves his son Prince Edward (Errol Flynn) to rule the province of Aquitaine in France. But he is ill prepared when the defeated French noblemen band together led by the Comte De Ville (Peter Finch) and break the truce and attempt to reclaim the province of Aquitaine. A rather cliched and drab tale of knights and castles with moats and lovely damsels in distress that we've seen too many times before. The director Henry Levin (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH) doesn't bring anything fresh to the swashbuckling genre. An enervated Errol Flynn hasn't aged well (ironically he's 2 years older than Hordern who plays his father) and his former physical brio has long since given way to a debauched shell of a man. He would be dead in 4 years. The cinematographer Guy Green (Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS) does what he can in filling up the CinemaScope screen but couldn't he have given us some close ups? Considering Flynn's condition perhaps it's just as well. With Joanne Dru as the requisite damsel in distress, Yvonne Furneaux (LA DOLCE VITA), Christopher Lee and Robert Urquhart.

Belle De Jour (1967)

A respectable young Parisian housewife (Catherine Deneuve) married to a doctor (Jean Sorel) is frigid. This apparently stems from sexual abuse as a child. However, she soon finds a sexual freedom working during the afternoon as a prostitute in a brothel which brings out her masochist tendencies. Based on the novel by Joseph Kessel, Luis Bunuel's pungent piece of sexual surrealism has lost none of its bite in its almost 50 years. Perfectly cast, Deneuve's elegant facade hides a dangerous fetish under her porcelain exterior and she gives her most iconic performance. The film is rife with symbolism, some obvious and some not so obvious (just what does those unseen cats meowing on the soundtrack mean?) that Freud would have a field day. Bunuel keeps us off kilter between Deneuve's sexual fantasies and the film's "reality" so that we don't even know how the film really ends. We're given an ending but is it real or a fantasy? A disturbing, unsettling film when it opened in 1967 and no less so today. With Michel Piccoli, Genevieve Page, Pierre Clementi (genuinely creepy), Macha Meril, Francoise Fabian and Francisco Rabal.

Still Alice (2014)

A linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) at Columbia university is diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer's disease. With her husband (Alec Baldwin) and adult children to support her, she puts up a valiant fight. Okay, let's get the positives out of the way. Moore, no surprise, is excellent. She gives a strong emphatic performance that cuts to the quick. She receives solid support from Baldwin and Kate Bosworth as her oldest daughter. But as cinema, this is a decidedly mediocre piece of film making. Outside of the acting (which redeems the film), it can never rise above a manipulative Lifetime movie. When Moore gives a stirring speech about dealing with Alzheimer's, there's a cut to the audience wiping away tears thus cluing us that we should be crying too. It's that kind of a film. There was a 1999 TV film called FORGET ME NEVER with Mia Farrow that dealt with the same subject and which I found far more compelling. Still, movies like this are what the Oscars are all about hence the term Oscar bait. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from the novel by Lisa Genova. With Kristen Stewart as Moore's other daughter whose relationship provides some of the more trite moments in the film.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Scared Stiff (1953)

A nightclub singer (Dean Martin) and his pal, a busboy (Jerry Lewis) at the club, flee to Cuba to avoid a hit put out on them from a mobster (Leonard Strong) after he catches the singer fooling around with the gangster's mistress (Dorothy Malone). It doesn't hurt that an attractive blonde (Lizabeth Scott) is also going to Cuba where she's inherited a haunted mansion. Another case of a director remaking his own movie, director George Marshall guides Martin and Lewis through this remake of his 1940 THE GHOST BREAKERS with Bob Hope. Only this time, Hope's role is split between Martin and Lewis while Lewis also takes on Willie Best's part from the previous film. I'm partial to comedy horror films and while I may prefer GHOST BREAKERS, the formula works again just fine. Scott (who just passed away) may have been a noir icon but she was no comedienne and lacks Paulette Goddard's finesse from the first movie. Lewis is in fine form and had me cackling away and this is the film where he does his hysterical Carmen Miranda impression. With Carmen Miranda (the real one), Earl Holliman, George Dolenz, William Ching and Henry Brandon.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Four Frightened People (1934)

When their ship is infested with the bubonic plague, four passengers flee the ship on a small boat to the Malayan coast: a spinster schoolteacher (Claudette Colbert), a society woman (Mary Boland), a radio journalist (William Gargan) and a shy chemist (Herbert Marshall). Once they land, they begin the trek through the jungle to get to civilization on the other side with only an inexperienced native guide (Leo Carrillo) to guide them. The guide's inexperience proves disastrous when they become lost. This is a change of pace from the usual epics (SIGN OF THE CROSS, CLEOPATRA, THE CRUSADES) that Cecil B. DeMille was directing around this time. It can't quite find the proper tone. Is it a comedy? An adventure film? A jungle romance? DeMille tosses them all into the batter and what we get is a schizophrenic film that never quite blends into something cohesive. It's loopy fun however. Boland attempting to teach planned parenthood to the jungle natives is amusing as is Colbert's spinster taking her hair down, her glasses off, taking nude waterfall showers (this was pre-code) and wearing garments made of plant leaves. No explanation of where she found the lipstick and eye shadow however. With Ethel Griffies, Nella Walker and Chris Pin Martin.

Missing (1982)

During the 1973 right wing Chilean coup (which was backed by the U.S. government) that deposed democratically elected President Salvador Allende, a young American (John Shea) goes missing. He was seen arrested by the military police but his whereabouts unknown. His father (Jack Lemmon) flies in from the U.S. to help assist his daughter in law (Sissy Spacek) in finding him. Based on the true story of Charles Horman, this is a potent piece of political film making. No one does political thrillers better than Costa-Gavras and like his masterful Oscar winning Z, MISSING flings us into a nightmare world where no one is safe from the repercussions of a fascist regime preying on its own people, no one including Americans who may think they are exempt because they are Americans. And even worse, with the complicity of the U.S. government. To be fair, a lot of what Costa-Gavras and his co-writer Donald Stewart have concocted is speculative and perhaps manipulative in his determination to give us the "truth". Lemmon and Spacek (both Oscar nominated) give strong performances. With Janice Rule, Melanie Mayron, Richard Bradford, Charles Cioffi, David Clennon, Joe Regalbuto and Keith Szarabajka.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Bravados (1958)

A stranger (Gregory Peck) arrives in a small town to witness the hanging of four men (Stephen Boyd, Lee Van Cleef, Henry Silva, Albert Salmi), who are to be hung for a bank robbery and a slaying. When the men escape, he is determined to track them down and see justice served. Not for the bank robbery, he has his own reasons for vengeance. One of the best westerns of the 1950s, posterity has not yet caught up with THE BRAVADOS. This dark and gripping tale of revenge should have a better reputation than it currently holds and Peck's Jim Douglas is not all that dissimilar from John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in Ford's THE SEARCHERS. Peck gave some of his very best performances under Henry King's direction in films like THE GUNFIGHTER and 12 O'CLOCK HIGH and he's excellent under King's assured hand here too. It's a brutal and at times relentless western that only falters toward the second to last scene with Peck and the town priest (Andrew Duggan). Its moralistic sanctimoniousness would have marred the film if it weren't for the unstated irony of the last scene. The film has a beauty of a score by Hugo Friedhofer and Alfred Newman though for some reason the underscore is credited to Lionel Newman. With Joan Collins, Barry Coe, George Voskovec, Gene Evans and Kathleen Gallant.

Mr. Soft Touch (1949)

Returning home from WWII, a pilot (Glenn Ford) finds that the nightclub he co-owned has been taken over by gangsters and his partner murdered. He robs the club of $100,000 that belongs to him but both the mob and the police go after him. Planning on skipping the country, he hides out at a rescue mission for the next 24 hours until his ship sails. But a pretty social worker (Evelyn Keyes) throws a wrench in his plans. This piece of whimsy tries to be both tough and sentimental, an odd mixture to be sure and only really succeeds in the latter. Anyway you look at it, it's a pretty forgettable programmer. Inexplicably, the film has two directors. Henry Levin (WHERE THE BOYS ARE) and Gordon Douglas (IN LIKE FLINT) but neither man is able to do much with the material. Maybe if just one of them had directed it, it would have had a more cohesive feel to it but the material is pretty derivative. It actually feels more like a 1930s Warner film than a late 1940s Columbia movie but Ford and Keyes make for an attractive coupling. However, the film's dated attitude toward domestic violence seems rather cavalier by today's standards. With John Ireland, Beulah Bondi, Ted De Corsia, Angela Clarke, Percy Kilbride and Clara Blandick.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Love Is The Devil (1998)

The acclaimed painter Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi) catches a young burglar (Daniel Craig) breaking into his studio. They become lovers but it's a tempestuous relationship. Bacon is rather bitchy and narcissistic and not always kind while the tough thief feels uncomfortable in the artistic circle of his lover as they barely hide their feelings of superiority. The young man starts to drink heavily, take drugs and unravels. Based on Daniel Farson's biography of Bacon, THE GILDED GUTTER LIFE OF FRANCIS BACON, the film's portrayal of Bacon is merciless and highly unflattering. While Jacobi's performance is just fine, his Bacon is a turn off so whatever sympathies one has goes to Craig's rough street thief who finds himself a fish out of water among the pretentious artsy circle of his lover. Speaking of pretentious, the director John Maybury and his cinematographer John Mathieson (GLADIATOR) shoot their film through a haze of twisted reflections, blurred slow motion and dark angles so that we can only guess at what's going on. The underscore, what there is of it, by Ryuichi Sakamoto (THE LAST EMPEROR) is a disappointment. With Tilda Swinton in one of her rare poor performances.

Monday, February 2, 2015

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

In the 1920s, a husband (Dan Dailey) and wife (Ethel Merman) vaudeville team decide to give up the gypsy life and settle down so that their three children can have a more stable life. But show business is in their blood too and all three (Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Johnnie Ray) grow up to become part of the family act. But as adults, the children begin to take control of their own lives which doesn't always suit their parents. This big lavish 20th Century Fox musical overwhelms its flimsy narrative. But the plot, such as it is, is merely an excuse to raid the Irving Berlin songbook and those great Berlin songs are reason enough to justify the film. It's the musical numbers that make the film highly watchable. Whether it's O'Connor's buoyant footwork in A Man Chases A Girl, Merman belting out the title number or Marilyn Monroe sizzling up the screen with Heat Wave (a shocked Ed Sullivan called it "a flagrant violation of good taste"), the songs are irresistible. To actually ask for a fresher script seems almost churlish. Directed by Walter Lang (THE KING AND I). With Hugh O'Brian, Frank McHugh, Rhys Williams, Lee Patrick, Eve Miller and Robin Raymond.

The Long Duel (1967)

In the British colonial India of the 1920s, a superintendent of police (Harry Andrews) orders a tribe of nomads arrested for alleged poaching and thievery. The tribe's leader (Yul Brynner) leads an escape, along with a group of other prisoners, and becomes a hero to the people when he and his men fight the British ruling class. When a more humane and India friendly officer (Trevor Howard) is put in charge of finding and arresting the bandit, there is a clash of wills between the superintendent and the officer. An engaging action programmer that delivers the goods. The film is clearly on the side of the oppressed Indian population and Trevor Howard gives a nicely restrained performance as an Indian sympathizer who is disliked by the British Raj in power but tries to do his job while being fair. The cinematographer Jack Hildyard (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) does a first rate job of turning Spain into India though the often inferior rear projection work mars his precise camera work. John Scott's score is uneven though he wrote a lovely theme for the shrine sequence but I could have done without the ghastly song over the end credits. With Charlotte Rampling, Virginia North, Edward Fox, Laurence Naismith, Maurice Denham, Marianne Stone and Andrew Keir.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

That Touch Of Mink (1962)

An unemployed young lady (Doris Day) meets a millionaire (Cary Grant) when his car splashes mud on her dress during the rain. There's an attraction and they date but while she's interested in marriage, he's definitely not. Doris Day gets a bum rap about being the "eternal virgin" in her movies and fighting off the wolves to keep herself pure. If, in fact, you've actually seen her films, she's an experienced woman who's not a pushover and wants to keep her integrity (not her virginity). That being said, THAT TOUCH OF MINK is the only movie which actually provides ammunition to her detractors. In MINK, she's a 38 year old virgin trying to keep Cary Grant at bay. You have to wonder what she's waiting for and if you have to lose it, Cary Grant is the way to go! Day's character lets him fly her around the world in his private jet and she lets him buy her an entire couture wardrobe and then objects when Grant wants some payback? Still, all that aside, it's hard to resist two of the most winning movie stars of their era at the height of their careers. It's no PILLOW TALK but it has its charms. This lightweight got an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, go figure. Directed by Delbert Mann (MARTY). With Gig Young, Audrey Meadows, John Astin, John Fiedler and Dick Sargent.

A Most Violent Year (2014)

New York, 1981. An ambitious businessman (Oscar Isaac) owns a fuel company that is expanding to the point that it is a viable threat to his competitors. He is an honorable man in an often dishonorable business and trying to stay that way and keep clean. But his wife (Jessica Chastain) is a piece of work and maybe not so honorable. One of the most intense films I've seen in quite awhile. The director J.C. Chandor grabs you at the very beginning of the film and continues to squeeze until the end credits. It's a tough and tight little thriller though to call it a thriller is perhaps unfair to the film. It's also rich in character with two strong central performances by Isaac and especially Chastain who gives us a contemporary Lady MacBeth. If you've seen Chandor's MARGIN CALL, then you'll recognize his style and how if he can make a film about the impending stock market disaster a thriller then this is a piece of cake. The narrative is rather complex and Chandor gives us the time we need to soak it all in so we won't get confused. Even so, there are some minor contrivances that stand out (at least for me) but not annoying enough to mar the film. The supporting cast is very strong and include Albert Brooks (almost unrecognizable), David Oyelowo (quite good), Catalina Sandino Moreno, Alessandro Nivola and Elyes Gabel, an actor I'm not familiar with but impressive enough that I'll keep an eye out for his future work.

The White Tower (1950)

A young woman (Alida Valli) is determined to achieve her father's dream to climb the White Tower, a mountain in the Swiss Alps that killed her father when he attempted to climb it several years before. The expedition includes an ex-pilot (Glenn Ford), a disillusioned novelist (Claude Rains), a geologist (Cedric Hardwicke), a guide (Oscar Homolka) and a German ex-soldier (Lloyd Bridges) who still holds with the beliefs of Aryan superiority. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff (THE WINDOW) from the novel by James Ramsey Ullman, this is a competent mountain climbing movie about on a par with THE EIGER SANCTION but lacking any real excitement. It's a bit more symbolic than your average RKO actioner, the mountain obviously representing the obstacles in our life that we must overcome if we are to conquer our fears and move forward. The acting is decent though I wish the script had spent more time fleshing out Rains' character which might have made his motives clearer. The Technicolor cinematography by Ray Rennahan (DUEL IN THE SUN) does the French Alps location justice. With June Clayworth and Lotte Stein.