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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Gunman In The Streets (1950)

Set in France, an American army deserter (Dane Clark) turned petty crook escapes from the van transporting him to a court date. He contacts his girl (Simone Signoret) to help him get out of the country. Will the police catch him before he escapes? This gangster thriller was filmed in France with a French crew but with an American director, Frank Tuttle (THIS GUN FOR HIRE), at the helm. Clearly influenced by the Warners gangster movies of the 30s and 40s, it was filmed in two versions, one in English by Tuttle and one in French with Borys Lewin directing the French version. It's a highly atmospheric noir-ish piece with a generous touch of the French fatalism of such films as LE BETE HUMAINE and LE JOUR SE LEVE. Clark is properly thuggish and Signoret already has the potent screen presence that would make her one of the major French actresses of the decade. The only negative is the awful Joe Hajos underscore. With Fernand Gravey, Michel Andre and Robert Duke whose American journalist is a bit too good to be true.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Agony And The Ecstasy (1965)

When the Florentine sculptor Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) is summoned by the Pope (Rex Harrison) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he protests as he considers himself a sculptor and not a painter. But the Pope persists and the animosity between the two men is center stage as Michelangelo reluctantly takes on the project. Based on the novel by Irving Stone, who had previously written LUST FOR LIFE about Vincent Van Gogh. He's not so lucky this time around. The film makers have attempted to make an Epic out of what should have been a simple film. To that end, there's a lot of bloat in the film. The film begins with a 10 minute prologue discussing Michelangelo's work (which presumes its audience has no idea who the man was!) before the opening titles. There was no "romance" in Michelangelo's life so an unrequited romantic relationship has been concocted in the form of Diane Cilento as a Contessa that is unnecessary and could easily have been eliminated. The film has an intermission at the 1 hour mark. With the fat trimmed, the film could have easily run under two hours. As written here, there's no way poor Heston could have salvaged Michelangelo. At least, covered in paint and sweat he looks the role. Harrison barks his way through the film and comes off somewhat better. Visually it's quite handsome and there's a majestic underscore by Alex North. Directed by Carol Reed who would recover nicely with his next film, OLIVER! With Harry Andrews, Tomas Milian, Maxine Audley and Adolfo Celi. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Beautiful Girls (1996)

A late 20-something man (Timothy Hutton), currently living in New York, returns home to his small town in Massachusetts for his high school reunion. His friends have never left and he uses this visit to try and discover where he wants his path to go. Directed by Ted Demme, this ensemble dramedy had me going hot and cold through out its running time. The cast is excellent with each character well defined and it was a pleasure watching the actors go through their paces. On the downside, most of the characters are jerks (are there really rednecks in Massachusetts?) and all of the male characters borderline a-holes. And it's hard to sympathize with some of the female characters who inexplicably want those jerks! To the film's credit, Scott Rosenberg's original screenplay allows its characters to finally man up and grow up. The relationship between Hutton and the 13 year old girl (Natalie Portman) is a bit on the creepy side, almost venturing into Woody Allen territory. But Portman and Uma Thurman (as a Chicago visitor) provide some much needed levity and sensibility. With Matt Dillon, Mira Sorvino, Rosie O'Donnell, Sam Robards, Martha Plimpton, Annabeth Gish, Michael Rapaport, Lauren Holly, Noah Emmerich, David Arquette, Max Perlich and John Carroll Lynch. 

Le Dernier Metro (aka The Last Metro) (1980)

After her Jewish husband (Heinz Bennent) is forced into hiding to avoid the Nazis in German occupied Paris during WWII,  his wife (Catherine Deneuve) takes over the running of their theater company. But it's a day to day struggle to survive amid the restrictive atmosphere of the Third Reich. While there have been many films dealing with France under the German occupation, Francois Truffaut's film takes a different route by concentrating on artists struggling to create their Art under oppressive political pressure as well as the human element of dealing with an invasive and intolerable fascist element. In a way, this mini valentine to theater makes a perfect companion piece to his DAY FOR NIGHT which did the same for cinema. This was one Truffaut's most popular films, not only critically but at the box office both in the U.S. and in France. It's easy to see why as he populates the film with an ensemble of engrossing characters, all beautifully acted. With Gerard Depardieu, Andrea Ferreol, Jean Poiret, Sabine Haudepin and Jean Louis Richard.

Friday, June 26, 2015

From Noon Till Three (1976)

A bank robber (Charles Bronson) dallies with a widow (Jill Ireland) on an afternoon from noon till three while his outlaw buddies rob her town's bank. But when his compatriots are caught and about to be hung, she urges him against his better wishes to go help save them which he has no intention of doing. To please her, he pretends to be going to save them. What happens next is ..... well, the stuff legends are made of. Based on the novel by Frank D. Gilroy (THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES), who also adapted the screenplay and directed, this is an unexpected comic delight. The presence of Bronson and his wife Ireland suggests an action filled and bloody western. What we get is a wry romance with an ironic bite. A genuine gem of a sleeper. Bronson has never been more charming and it's the best screen role Ireland ever had. In a way, it seems like Bronson's valentine to her. It's an atypical Bronson movie but I could see him wanting to do it, not only as a change of pace, but as an opportunity to show off his wife's acting skills. The film gets a lift from its cinematography by Lucien Ballard (THE WILD BUNCH). With Betty Cole, Davis Roberts and Elmer Bernstein (who wrote the score) and Alan Bergman (who wrote the title song lyrics) as a pair of songwriters.

Saddle The Wind (1958)

An ex-gunslinger (Robert Taylor) has raised his kid brother (John Cassavetes) since he was four years old. When the younger brother brings a saloon girl (Julie London) home and presents her as his fiancee, the older brother disapproves. But he's more concerned with the brother's penchant for being trigger happy and he's right to be concerned. This modest western is a nifty little effort that concentrates more on characterization than most westerns. It's a morality tale that has no fat and doesn't waste its time (it runs around 84 minutes). Taylor is one of those actors who became a star in the 1930s because of his looks but learned to act eventually and by the 1950s was a solid actor. Cassavetes is problematic because he seems out of place here. He plays the trigger happy cowboy like a teenage rebel a la THE WILD ONE or REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. His performance stands out like a sore thumb. Directed by Robert Parrish with a score by Elmer Bernstein. With Donald Crisp, Charles McGraw, Richard Erdman, Royal Dano, Ray Teal, Jay Adler and Irene Tedrow. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tokyo Tribe (2014)

Constantly being shaken by earthquakes, a futuristic (or perhaps alternate universe) Tokyo is ruled over by several tribes or gangs if you prefer. They manage for the most part to tolerate each other by staying off each other's turf. But the evil Big Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) and his henchman (Ryohei Suzuki) have plans to start a turf war and take over all of Tokyo. Based on the manga (a Japanese graphic novel) TOKYO TRIBE 2 by Santa Inoue, the film is a colorful mixture of part SIN CITY, part THE WARRIORS, part ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS all done to a hip hop beat. Indeed, since over half the movie is sung (rapped?) to hip hop, it's fair to call it a musical though it's unlike any musical you've ever seen. The violence is of the comic book variety though there is much nudity but the movie is rich in humor too. At first I was leery about a two hour movie with almost non stop rapping (in Japanese) but the mesmerizing hip hop beat and the dazzling visual look of the film (courtesy of Daisuke Soma) are difficult to resist so I just gave in. I can't imagine anyone not being beguiled with it. Directed by Shion Sono. With Young Dais, Nana Seino and Ryuta Sato.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Panic Button (1964)

In order to get a tax write off, an American businessman (Mike Connors) produces a film of ROMEO AND JULIET starring a washed up ex-movie star (Maurice Chevalier), a blonde who can't act (Jayne Mansfield) and directed by a pretentious "artsy" director (Akim Tamiroff). If you've seen Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS, you know how this will end up! At first, one may think this is a rip off of THE PRODUCERS but this was actually made some years before the Mel Brooks comedy classic. It would be nice to report that it's a comedy sleeper awaiting reevaluation but the truth is ..... it's just not very good. As directed by Hollywood veteran George Sherman (BIG JAKE), the laughs just aren't there. The film might have benefited from being shot in color so it could showcase the Rome and Venice settings but it's in B&W. I think I laughed once (Tamiroff says "Make her hair sad, it looks too happy") and when not even Chevalier in nun drag can make you smile, you know you're in trouble. With Eleanor Parker (not exactly known for her comedic skills either) and Leopoldo Trieste.

Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933)

It's 1536 and Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) anxiously awaits the execution of his second wife Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) so he can quickly marry his third Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). But Seymour won't be the last of Henry's wives. As the title indicates, Alexander Korda's film isn't interested in Henry as King of England but Henry in the bedroom. It's not the sort of film where one dwells on historical accuracy but it's amusing and entertaining with a bit of poignancy here and there. The film is a showcase for Laughton as the lusty Henry (he won the best actor Oscar) and made him a viable Hollywood star. Of the relationships, most of the screen time is devoted to the love triangle between Henry, Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) and her lover (Robert Donat, GOODBYE MR. CHIPS). With Elsa Lanchester in a rare role that allows her to be attractive though the fun comes from her consciously making herself unattractive, John Loder and Everley Gregg.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Julie & Julia (2009)

A young woman (Amy Adams) in a government job decides to write a blog about the experience of cooking every recipe in MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING by Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in one year's time. Her story is interweaved  with the story of Julia Child's life in France in the 1950s and her beginnings as a cook and writer. The last film of writer/director Nora Ephron, JULIE & JULIA is only half successful. Try as she might, she can't make the contemporary story very interesting. It's not the fault of the likable Adams or Chris Messina who plays her supportive husband. Every time the film shifts to the contemporary story, I longed to be back in France with Child and her husband (Stanley Tucci) who are much more interesting characters, we want more of them. Still, the movie has its undeniable charms and yet another marvelous Streep performance. She manages to give us a seemingly authentic Julia Child and not a Julia Child imitation. I suppose I shouldn't complain, half a good movie is better than none. With Jane Lynch, Linda Emond, Frances Sternhagen, Deborah Rush and Helen Carey. 

A Breath Of Scandal (1960)

In 1907 Austria, a Princess (Sophia Loren) finds herself attracted to an American aluminum salesman (John Gavin) but that won't stop her from fulfilling her duty and marrying a Crown Prince (Carlo Hinterman). But not if he has anything to say about it and it's American perseverance versus Old European tradition. Based on Ferenc Molnar's play OLYMPIA, this period comedy needs a lighter touch than director Michael Curtiz is able to give it. It's the kind of stuff that Ernest Lubitsch did so well in the 1930s. Reputedly Loren was in a panic over Curtiz's direction (or lack of it) that she had Vittorio De Sica coaching her without Curtiz's knowledge. Alas, Gavin (no surprise) lacks a comic bone in his body and he's his usual wooden self and there's zero chemistry between him and Loren. The film looks fantastic however thanks to Mario Montuori's lensing of the Austrian countryside, Hal Pereira's sumptuous art direction and Hoyningen Huene's gorgeous turn of the century costumes which Loren wears nicely. With Maurice Chevalier, Angela Lansbury (wasted), Isabel Jeans (who gives the film's best performance as Loren's mother) and Milly Vitale.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy (1955)

When two Americans (Bud Abbott, Lou Costello) stranded in Egypt attempt to apply for a position with an Egyptologist (Kurt Katch) to accompany his finding (a mummy) to the U.S., they find him murdered. This is only the beginning of an adventure that will find them dealing with two opposite factions interested in finding the tomb of the Princess Ara. Silly nonsense but that's exactly what you expect and want from an Abbott and Costello movie. This is one of their better comedies (and their last under their Universal contract) and is directed by Charles Lamont who directed them in 9 of their films. They rework several of their old comedy routines for the movie and they're still funny this time around. The ante is raised by the casting of the wonderful Marie Windsor as the film's tough villainess. It's a Universal backlot Egypt of course but who's looking for authenticity? With Michael Ansara, Richard Deacon, Dan Seymour and Peggy King.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Beyond The Forest (1949)

A frustrated and bored housewife (Bette Davis) feels  trapped in the small town she lives in and hates all the people in it. Although married to the town's doctor (Joseph Cotten), she begins an affair with a wealthy businessman (David Brian) from Chicago. Determined to get out of hicksville and to Chicago where she plans to marry the businessman, she'll stop at nothing ... including murder! The film has an inexplicable reputation as a "camp" film (no doubt influenced by the opening scene in Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?) but those seeking a "so bad it's good" movie are bound to be disappointed. While not on a par with his other overheated melodramas from the same period like THE FOUNTAINHEAD or RUBY GENTRY, King Vidor manages to whip up an engaging Americanized and updated version of MADAME BOVARY (ironically MGM and Minnelli did the real thing the same year).  But the the film has a huge stumbling block and that's its star. Davis is so miscast, there's no way of getting around it. While watching all I could think was how Patricia Neal could have batted it out of the park. Davis tries but you can tell she realizes it's a lost cause. The Oscar nominated score by Max Steiner is one of his very best. With Ruth Roman, Dona Drake, Regis Toomey, Minor Watson, Ann Doran and Sarah Selby.

I'll See You In My Dreams (2015)

A retired widow (Blythe Danner) finds herself at a crossroad. There's something absent from her life that she can't quite put her finger on. But the death of her 14 year old dog and an unusual relationship with her pool man (Martin Starr) starts her off on her journey. In the 1970s, Blythe Danner seemed on the verge of becoming a major star. Why it didn't happen is a mystery. She had the looks, the talent and the charm. Today, it seems most people think of her as Gwyneth Paltrow's mom or the mother in the FOCKERS movies. I only bring it up because her performance in I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS shows a superior talent on display and in a meaty role that allows her to show her stuff and what we've been missing. Except for one condescending "cutesy" scene (her bridge club gets stoned on pot), the film manages to show a realistic and unsentimental view of aging with both pathos and humor. It's a lovely film that I hope doesn't get relegated to the geriatric ("it's a movie about old people for old people") film heap. Danner's karaoke rendition of Cry Me A River is one of my personal movie highlights of 2015 so far. Co-written and directed by Brett Haley. With Sam Elliott (proving age doesn't dim sex appeal), Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman, Malin Akerman and June Squibb (NEBRASKA). 

The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1976)

A psychologically disturbed young woman (Millie Perkins, DIARY OF ANNE FRANK), who was the victim of sexual abuse as a child, has trouble deciphering reality from fantasy. She is promiscuous but finds herself repelled by male sexuality. To this end, she castrates and slashes her sexual conquests to death with a razor. How long before the police catch up with her ..... or will they? Though clearly an exploitation film, its fascinating premise manages to edge it to cult status. Still, its graphic scenes of child sexual abuse are difficult to sit through though the graphic murder scenes are somewhat diluted by the unrealistic looking brown (sic) blood. The film is poorly directed by Matt Cimber (the notorious Pia Zadora flick BUTTERFLY) from an interesting script by Robert Thom (WILD IN THE STREETS). In better hands (like Brian De Palma), this could have been a real sleeper. As it stands now, it's an exploitation film with high ambitions, too high for its meager resources. With Vanessa Brown, Rick Jason, Lonny Chapman and Peggy Feury, who achieved her greatest fame within the industry as an acting teacher.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru (aka The Bad Sleep Well) (1960)

A young man (Toshiro Mifune) develops an exacting plan to get revenge for the death of his father. This includes not only directly working for the man (Masayuki Mori) responsible and gaining his trust but marrying his daughter (Kyoko Kagawa). But even he is not fully aware of the enormity of the corporate evil he is dealing with. Akira Kurosawa was an admirer of Shakespeare and often used his plays as a take off point for his films. THRONE OF BLOOD (MACBETH) and RAN (KING LEAR) come to mind and THE BAD SLEEP WELL can't help but conjure up memories of HAMLET. So it's quite apt to call THE BAD SLEEP WELL a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. The film is meticulous and takes its time (it's a shade over 2 1/2 hours) telling the tale but the film works as a thriller too even if you're painfully aware no happy ending is forthcoming but still, you hope against hope. A great film. The entire cast is impeccable and includes Tatsuya Mihashi, Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara.  

Friday, June 19, 2015

Merry Andrew (1958)

A British school teacher (Danny Kaye) at a boys academy carries on the family tradition of academia but his heart is with archaeology. During a school break, he attempts to locate a statue left by Roman legions but he falls in with a circus playing at the site and falls for the pretty trapeze artist (Pier Angeli). Based on the short story by Paul Gallico, this is the only film directed by the great choreographer Michael Kidd (7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS). Unfortunately, this isn't one of Danny Kaye's best vehicles. It's not bad mind you but its attempt at a cheerful family musical just limps along. The songs, save one, are a destitute bunch courtesy of Johnny Mercer and Saul Chaplin. The one good number Salud benefits from Kidd's lively choreography. Other than that, Kaye doesn't get an opportunity to show his manic energetic comedic style, he's rather anemic. With Robert Coote, Noel Purcell, Patricia Cutts, Salvatore Baccaloni, Rex Evans and Tommy Rall.  

Emma (1996)

In early 19th century England, a well meaning if slightly snobbish young lady (Gwyneth Paltrow) of breeding fancies herself a matchmaker. When she attempts to secure a proper mate for her friend Harriet (Toni Collette), misunderstanding and unhappiness abound. Based on the 1815 novel by Jane Austen, director Doug McGrath's film (he also adapted Austen's novel for the screen) is utterly charming. McGrath manages to avoid the musty over respectful BBC Masterpiece Theater style which often mars film adaptations of classic novels. McGrath's touch is airy and light and in Paltrow, he has found the ideal actress to inhabit Austen's heroine. The film has warmth, it has wit and it has an excellent cast to support Paltrow. The one weak link may be Ewan McGregor who seems out of place though not problematically so. The Oscar winning score is by Rachel Portman (the first woman to win a best score Oscar). With Greta Scacchi, Alan Cumming, Jeremy Northam, Polly Walker, Juliet Stevenson, Sophie Thompson and Kathleen Byron.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mohawk (1956)

A Boston artist (Scott Brady) is on commission from a Massachusetts society to paint landscapes of the as yet unsettled upper New York State where the Iroquois Indians reside. When his fiancee (Lori Nelson) arrives unannounced, she finds that he isn't ready to settle down ..... at least with her. This "B" western is bright and colorful and benefits from the lush Pathecolor cinematography of Oscar winning Karl Struss (Murnau's SUNRISE) even though much of the film has a stage bound look to it. Directed by Kurt Neumann (THE FLY), the film heavily borrows footage from the 1939 DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK to give it a more impressive (as in bigger budget look). In the end, it's your standard settlers vs. the Indians western (even though it takes place in New York state) but it's innocuous entertainment. With Rita Gam as the Indian maiden who steals Brady's heart, Neville Brand, Allison Hayes, Rhys Williams, Ted De Corsia, John Hoyt, Mae Clarke, John Hudson and Barbara Jo Allen.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

Set in Iran, a young man (Arash Marandi) must deal with his embittered widowed father (Marshall Manesh) who is also a drug addict in debt to his dealer (Dominic Rains). But one night he meets a mysterious girl (Sheila Vand) who walks the streets at night and his attraction to her will challenge his loyalties. The feature film debut of English born Ana Lily Amirpour is a mesmerizing curiosity. Set in a desolate Iranian city and spoken in Farsi, it was actually filmed in Southern California. The razor sharp B&W cinematography (beautifully shot and lit by Lyle Vincent) gives the film an eerie isolated atmosphere and atmosphere is really what the film is all about. Dialogue is at a minimum and the narrative while unusual (vampires in Iran?) seems merely a hook to which Amirpour can spin her dark romantic web ... which she does beautifully. I can't wait to see what she does next. With Mozhan Marno, Rome Shadanloo, Milad Eghbali and Masuka the cat who is as important a character as the human cast.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Birth Of The Blues (1941)

Set in the 1890s, a young man (Bing Crosby) has a jazz band but no one is interested in hiring him. No one wants to listen to "colored" music. But things start looking up when he adds a girl singer (Mary Martin) to his band. A tedious affair. The title is a misnomer. It's not about the birth of the blues, the blues had already been born. It's about a white band usurping black music and making it palatable to Caucasian audiences. The jazz infused songs aren't really blues anyway. We don't get the authentic blues until Ruby Elzy (who's black) sings St. Louis Woman. Even when Crosby sings Melancholy Baby he sings it as a lullaby rather than blues or jazz. Mary Martin is often lumped with other Broadway legends (like Ethel Merman and Carol Channing) as being "too big" for the movies but as evidenced by this film, she's a decent film actress. It's a screen presence that's lacking, she's just too bland. Directed by Victor Schertzinger. With Brian Donlevy, J. Carrol Naish, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Cecil Kellaway and Barbara Pepper.

Sweet Bird Of Youth (1989)

An aging movie star (Elizabeth Taylor) takes up with a male gigolo (Mark Harmon) who brings her to the Louisiana gulf town where he hopes to reclaim the girl (Cheryl Paris) he loves. But not if the girl's father (Rip Torn) has anything to say about it. Based on the 1959 play by Tennessee Williams which was previously made into a film in 1962. SWEET BIRD isn't one of Williams' great plays but even so, nothing prepared me for the bowdlerization and shambles that screenwriter Gavin Lambert (INSIDE DAISY CLOVER) has made of Williams' work. Lambert has added great chunks of unnecessary exposition and banal dialogue that only further weaken the material. As she proved in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, Taylor is good at playing Williams but she's terrible here. It doesn't help that Lambert has botched her big scene, the telephone call where she finds out her comeback was a success rather than a failure. He's also softened Taylor's character, making her less of a vainglorious monster. The director Nicholas Roeg (DON'T LOOK NOW) isn't much help, was this a collect a paycheck job? The best performance comes from Valerie Perrine (LENNY) as Miss Lucy although the script eliminates her best scene, the fingers in the jewel box. With Ruta Lee, Seymour Cassel and Kevin Geer.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949)

An incompetent secretary (Lucille Ball) is purposely hired for her lack of skills by a con artist (William Holden)  who is using a real estate business as a front for his bookmaking syndicate. The idea being that she's too dumb to know what's really going on. It's a decision that he will soon regret. Hard to believe now that Lucille Ball was at one time a bigger movie star than William Holden was. The next year's SUNSET BOULEVARD would soon change that. But at this stage of the game, while Holden hadn't yet reached his full potential, Ball's career was on the down swing. Curiously, this film shows the seeds of the comic persona that would soon become iconic in I LOVE LUCY. Her first scene shows her gift for physical comedy as she struggles with a typewriter ribbon, her character gets into hot water a lot and she ends the film impersonating a tough gun moll (her bitch slapping Holden is the funniest thing in the film). But the film itself is a throwaway. Something you can moderately enjoy while you're watching it and barely remember the month after. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. With James Gleason, Janis Carter, Frank McHugh and Roy Roberts.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Bible: In The Beginning... (1966)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Then came Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd) and they begat Cain (Richard Harris) and Abel (Franco Nero) and ..... well, you know how it goes. John Huston's ambitious undertaking is notable for how he takes the bible stories literally and simply as if he were presenting familiar folk stories or fairy tales. He avoids the gaudy hoopla of the DeMille epics nor does he gives us a contemporary revisionist view like Aronofsky's recent NOAH. The first half is the best especially the Noah (played by Huston, who also is the voice of God) sequence which has some magic to it. The second half suffers from the interminable and less interesting story of Abraham (George C. Scott) and includes the Sodom and Gomorrah section which comes across as rather silly, like a community theater production of FELLINI SATYRICON. It's a film, if so inclined that should please both believers and agnostics (can't vouch for the atheists). Giuseppe Rotunno is responsible for the film's luscious look and the Oscar nominated score is by Toshiro Mayuzumi. With Ava Gardner, Peter O'Toole, Stephen Boyd, Gabriele Ferzetti and Eleonora Rossi Drago and Zoe Sallis (whose union with the director produced actor/director Danny Huston). 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Devastated by a nuclear war, the world is now a vast wasteland. A group of survivors are ruled by a disfigured tyrant (Hugh Keays Byrne). When a truck driver (Charlize Theron) aids a group of fashion models to escape the clutches of the evil tyrant who plans to breed them, he goes after her with everything he's got. This is a pure visceral experience. It's really not a movie, it's a video game disguised as movie (that's not meant as a put down) and the director George Miller directs it with a kinetic energy that leaves you breathless. He hardly gives you a moment to think (which is probably just as well). It doesn't feel like a movie directed by a 70 year old man, the young dogs can learn a few tricks from him. The film starts off with a truly awful pre-credit sequence that had me squirming, "Oh lord, 2 hours of this!" but then grabs you and never lets go. I had a good time. But it's hardly a flawless film. The CGI effects look like computer generated images, okay I can live with but the film is so sped up (no one moves that fast, it's humanly impossible) that it gives the actors a jerky motion when they move. One can't talk about the acting because there isn't any and poor Tom Hardy, inheriting Mel Gibson's old role, barely registers. He simply lacks the screen presence that made Gibson a star but it's Theron's movie anyway. Visually, it's one of the most stunning looking movies I've ever scene and a great score by Tom Holkenborg. With Nicholas Hoult and Rosie Huntington Whiteley. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Swamp Women (1956)

A policewoman (Carole Mathews) goes undercover to a Louisiana prison and plots an escape with three other prisoners (Marie Windsor, Beverly Garland, Jil Jarmyn) who were wives of a gang that stole over $200,000 worth of diamonds. But once they escape, they must survive the treacherous bayou swamps. Along the way, they grab two hostages (Mike Connors, Susan Cummings). This early Roger Corman low budget effort has no pretensions, it's an exploitation film, pure and simple. Nobody plays tough broads better than Windsor and Garland and they snarl, punch, scratch, bully, kick and shoot all the while running through the bayou in denim hot pants (though I believe they were just called short shorts back then)! There are a couple of alligators in the movie but they're no match for these tough broads. The transfer I watched was terrible. Pan and scan, jump cuts, scratches, color so faded that some of the scenes looked B&W but it only added to the cheesy drive-in entertainment factor. With Ed Nelson and Jonathan Haze. 

Suddenly Last Summer (1993)

Set in the 1930s, a wealthy and socially prominent New Orleans matron (Maggie Smith) attempts to silence her niece (Natasha Richardson) whose startling account of her son's death in Europe (possibly Spain or Portugal) she considers libelous. To this end, she contacts a doctor (Rob Lowe) whose specialty is lobotomy, a new and unproven method at the time. Tennessee Williams' one act play was originally done off Broadway but the Joseph L. Mankiewicz film version was one of the major hits of 1959. It's not one of his best plays but it contains two of his best written monologues, one spoken by Violet Venable (Smith's character) at the beginning and the other by Catherine Holly (Richardson's character at the play's end). The language and images are pure Williams poetry. Unfortunately, Smith isn't up to the part. She seems over directed and there's an unnecessary harshness to her performance and Williams' poetic language seems difficult for her. Richardson fares much better and she seems more comfortable with the dialog. Andrew Dunn's cinematography seems overly dark and muddy looking. The 1959 film (Williams co-wrote the screenplay) actually made some improvements to the play. With Richard E. Grant and Moira Redmond. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ladri Di Biciclette (aka Bicycle Thieves) (1948)

In post WWII Rome, an unemployed man (Lamberto Maggiorani) is faced with supporting his wife (Lianella Carell) and young son (Bruno Staiola) as well as a new born baby. After months of no work, he finally gets a job that requires transportation, a bicycle that enables him to post bills around Rome. But when his bicycle is stolen, so is his livelihood and in order to save his family, he begins to search for the bike or the man who stole it. Acknowledged as one of the greatest films of the 20th century, Vittorio De Sica's neorealist film utilizes non-actors (though you'd never know it from the performances they give) to give us a shattering emotional experience. The film's simplicity belies its intricacy. The father's journey takes us along and allows us glimpses of poverty and the indignities poverty not only puts us through but the things it sometimes forces us to do.  It's the kind of film that lingers in your cinematic memory for the rest of your life. Bruno Staiola gives one of the most memorable child performances I've ever seen, he's a real heartbreaker (apparently he grew up to be a math teacher). The understated score is by Alessandro Cicognini. Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cry Of Battle (1963)

The day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack the Philippines. The son (James MacArthur) of a wealthy American who has business interests in the Philippines finds himself stranded in the outlying mountains. He is befriended by another American (Van Heflin), a dangerous loud mouth braggart who is taken with him and together, they take refuge with a band of guerrilla fighters. But a girl (Rita Moreno) will come between them.  This low budget programmer is a minor footnote in American history though not for its cinematic qualities. This was the film playing at the movie theater where JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was hiding and arrested. The film itself looks good (cinematography by Felipe Sacdalan), its B&W images giving a nice rendering of the Philippine locations. But it's difficult to find any sympathy for MacArthur's inexplicable loyalty to Heflin's character. The man is a racist raping murderer, so what if he saved his life? Had Heflin been raping white women and killing Americans instead of Filipinos, would MacArthur's character have been so forgiving? The film hints at but never explores Heflin's homosexual feelings toward MacArthur though it's clear Moreno's character is aware of it. Directed by Irving Lerner.

Stage Door (1937)

When a blue blooded aspiring actress (Katharine Hepburn) moves into a theatrical rooming house for struggling actresses, the other girls resent her grand manners and polished ways. In particular, a  hoofer (Ginger Rogers) who she is forced to room with. Very loosely based on the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, as directed by Gregory La Cava, this is a fast moving witty wisecrack dripping comedy with an emotional core that comes out toward the end. Usually it's Hawks' HIS GIRL FRIDAY that gets the credit for the rat-a-tat-tat overlapping dialogue but perhaps while not as quick, there's barely time for a breath before the next piece of rapid fire dialogue. This is one of Hepburn's best performances, I'd rank it below only LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and ALICE ADAMS. Her "Calla lillies are in bloom again" speech is one of her great moments on screen. Her co-star Ginger Rogers isn't so lucky. Oh she's terrific for the majority of the film but she has a painfully unfunny drunk scene that dampens my enthusiasm. The rest of the cast is cluttered with stars and soon to be stars including Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Adolphe Menjou, Eve Arden (who wears her pet cat as a stole), Jack Carson, Gail Patrick, Constance Collier, Franklin Pangborn and in an Oscar nominated performance, Andrea Leeds as the ill fated ingenue. 

The Blue Max (1966)

An ambitious and arrogant German pilot (George Peppard) becomes a fighter pilot during WWI. As he's from the working class, the other pilots coming from the aristocracy distrust him. But he intends on using his war career to climb socially into the aristocracy and he is ruthless to the point of using (and sleeping with) whatever means necessary. Based on the novel by Jack D. Hunter (there are considerable changes from book to film), this is one of the better aerial films. While so many films of this kind reign supreme in the air, they fall flat in their earthbound scenes but that's not the case here. The compelling story line keeps you invested in the outcome and the director John Guillermin was actually a pilot in the Royal Air Force so he brings some authenticity to the proceedings. The film is a favorite among flying buffs. Although he's on the mature side (in the book, he's 19), Peppard gives one of his best performances and Ursula Andress as the promiscuous wife of a General (James Mason) actually gets a chance to act rather than rely on just her looks. In addition to the spectacular airborne sequences (shot by Douglas Slocombe), there's a sensational underscore by Jerry Goldsmith. With Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Vogler, Loni Von Friedl and Anton Diffring.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hangman's Knot (1952)

Unaware that the war between the states is over, a group of Confederate soldiers attack a Union cavalry troop carrying a shipment of gold. They are pursued by a band of vigilantes who want the gold for themselves. Trapped at a stagecoach way station, it's a stand off between the Confederates and the vigilantes with civilians caught in between. I'm not partial to films that are sympathetic to Southern rebels as if somehow they were wronged anymore than I would be to films that tend to portray "good" Nazis. The lead character played by Randolph Scott (in one of his best performances) gives us the usual "I was a soldier just doing my job" line and while that may be true, why is he keeping the gold instead of returning it? My personal prejudices aside, it's an extremely well made oater that manages to intensify the action with the characters holed up in a claustrophobic situation. Written and directed by Roy Huggins (whose only feature film this is as a director). With Donna Reed, Lee Marvin, Richard Denning, Frank Faylen, Jeanette Nolan, Ray Teal and Claude Jarman Jr. (THE YEARLING).

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Fury (1978)

An ex-government agent (Kirk Douglas) is determined to find his son (Andrew Stevens) who was kidnapped by a secret intelligence organization. His son has telekinetic powers and the agency wants to use those powers for their own nefarious purpose. The ex-agent's only hope in finding his son is a troubled teenage girl (Amy Irving) who also has telekinesis abilities. Based on the novel by John Farris (who also did the screenplay), Brian De Palma's insane film is one crazy horror extravaganza. It's not the kind of film where one places too much attention to the plot or it would fall apart. The narrative is there for De Palma to push the edges of the envelope (for its time) of the supernatural horror genre. Visually, and with great assistance from Richard H. Kline's superb camera work, De Palma tosses out some great set pieces. There's the out of control amusement ride which is a homage to Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN finale and a breathtaking tour de force sequence where Amy Irving escapes from the institute, filmed in slow motion with no dialog and only John Williams' underscore. Speaking of which, Williams' Herrmannesque score is a corker! The piece de resistance, of course, is John Cassavetes' horrific yet hilarious exit from the film. With Carrie Snodgress, Charles Durning, Carol Rossen, Dennis Franz, Daryl Hannah, Rutanya Alda and Laura Innes.  

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

A photographer (Bob Hope) who specializes in baby pictures is in prison awaiting execution for murder. In an interview with the press, he relates the events that got him on Death Row. It seems when a private detective (Alan Ladd) in his building went on vacation, a beautiful brunette (Dorothy Lamour) needed help so he usurped the detective's identity ..... which turns out to be a very bad idea! While not one of Hope's best comedies, this amiable spoof of hard boiled detective movies is a modest piece of entertainment. With Bing Crosby out of the picture (until a gag at the end of film), Hope has Lamour all to himself here and she makes for a fetching straight woman. Directed by Elliott Nugent. With Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney Jr, John Hoyt, Ann Doran and Charles Dingle.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Pirates Of Penzance (1983)

When a young man (Rex Smith) turns 21 years of age, he has completed his apprenticeship to the Pirate King (Kevin Kline). Once free of him, he falls in love with a pretty lass (Linda Ronstadt) but the pirates aren't ready to let him off the hook so easily. Joseph Papp's 1980 production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta enjoyed a great success on Broadway and the entire cast save one (Angela Lansbury replaces Estelle Parsons) recreate their roles in this film adaptation. Although the film is opened up, the director Wilford Leach doesn't bother to disguise its theatrical origins. What's been done is to give the film an even bigger "stage" to play on as the art directors have emphasized the artificiality of the sets rather than attempt to have a more realistic or natural setting.  So it plays out on a fake beach with fake rocks etc. which is fine as any realism would have only accented the theatricality of the piece. It's a raucous and engaging production though if you're not into Gilbert and Sullivan, you may tire of it easily. But I find their clever wordplay and patter songs irresistible. With the rubbery Tony Azito as the police sergeant.

Harriet Craig (1950)

Harriet Craig (Joan Crawford) is a control freak who insists on controlling every aspect of her and her husband's (Wendell Corey) life from their friends, their home, even his work and their neighbors. Her husband is hopelessly in love with her but how long before he sees her for what she really is? From what we know of the "real" Joan Crawford (was there a real Joan Crawford or was she her own fabrication?), the title role of Harriet Craig comes uncomfortably close to real life. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play CRAIG'S WIFE by George Kelly (Grace's uncle), this is actually the third film version of the play. Previously done as a silent with Irene Rich in 1928 and Dorothy Arzner directed Rosalind Russell in a 1936 film adaptation. Crawford isn't bad in this at all though the tendency to overact can't be restrained. The film itself remains a solid entertainment even if it follows a predictable path. Directed by Vincent Sherman. With Lucile Watson, Allyn Joslyn, William Bishop, Ellen Corby and K.T. Stevens.

Love & Mercy (2015)

Set in the 1960s and the 1980s, the film follows Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) of the Beach Boys who wants to advance musically from the popular Beach Boys hits into more complex music but his demons threaten to railroad him to the point that in the 1980s, he (John Cusack) finds himself under the care of a manipulative psychologist (Paul Giamatti) who takes over his life completely and isolates him from his family and friends. LOVE & MERCY miraculously manages to avoid the dreaded curse of the movie biography. This isn't the usual rags to riches to downfall to triumph movie biography. Bill Pohlad directed a film in 1990 and this is only his second film. In between, he became a film producer of such films as 12 YEARS A SLAVE and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Pohlad was smart enough not to try and do an entire life in two hours but focuses on two specific time periods, the 60s when Wilson produced the (now) classic Pet Sounds album against the advice of everyone and the 80s when Wilson was at his darkest under the thumb of an unethical psychiatrist. This allows more detail and factual elements. Dano and Cusack's tandem performance is seamless and one can easily believe one grew into the other. With Elizabeth Banks as the woman who literally saves Wilson's life (and later became his second wife).

Saturday, June 6, 2015

G.I. Blues (1960)

Stationed in Germany, a solider (Elvis Presley) takes a bet that he can spend the night with a nightclub dancer (Juliet Prowse) who has a reputation as an iceberg. But when he begins to have genuine romantic feelings for her, he hesitates in going through with the bet. After KING CREOLE (1958), Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army and G.I. BLUES was his first film in two years. Audiences eager to see Presley back on the big screen made it a big hit but it's a paper thin film that doesn't offer much other than a chance to see Presley sing. The film can't help but get treacly at times as when Elvis sings a lullaby to a baby or serenades a puppet at a kids puppet show. In most Elvis movies, he's the whole show and rarely gives his co-stars a chance to strut their stuff but here that leggy wonder Juliet Prowse gets two solo dance numbers all to herself. For Elvis fans only. Directed by Norman Taurog. With Leticia Roman, Jeremy Slate, Arch Johnson, John Hudson and James Douglas.

Vargtimmen (aka Hour Of The Wolf) (1968)

On an isolated island, the wife (Liv Ullmann) of an artist (Max Von Sydow) gone missing relates the events that lead up to his disappearance. Still one of Ingmar Bergman's lesser films but riveting nevertheless. It's about as close as he's ever gotten to making a horror film. In fact, HOUR OF THE WOLF is often referred to as Bergman's "horror" film and I suppose it is in a generic way. It's one of Bergman's surrealistic films where we're never sure if we're supposed to take things literally or are they figments of the artist's tortured psyche. At the end, the wife questions this also which gives a slight weight that perhaps they weren't entirely the artist's visions or perhaps the wife is beginning to go mad too. As usual, Bergman's actors are impeccable and his close ups lets us read their faces. The film has some startling images that rank with the best of Bergman like the old lady literally tearing her face apart or the chilling murder of the young boy by the seaside. With the great Ingrid Thulin and Erland Josephson.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Raffles (1939)

A famous cricket player (David Niven) is secretly The Amateur Cracksman, a gentleman thief who steals for the pleasure of it and often returns the stolen goods to Scotland Yard with a note. But when he falls in love with an aristocrat (Olivia De Havilland), he decides to give it all up. But at a weekend party at a country house, he finds that it's not that easy. Sam Wood (FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS) directed this remake of the 1930 Ronald Colman film which itself was the third film version. It adheres closely to the original source material (the 1930 film) which restricts what Wood can do with it. The 1930 was an early talkie and rather awkward in its execution and Wood doesn't stray visually from the Colman film. Indeed, it was probably a bit creaky in 1939 too. But the two leads are likable and at an hour and 12 minutes, it passes painlessly. With Dame May Whitty and Dudley Digges.

Always (1989)

An aerial firefighter (Richard Dreyfuss) takes risks which irritates his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) no end. He promises her he will take a job as an instructor but he has one last flight but he doesn't make it. In the afterlife, an angel (Audrey Hepburn in her last film) tells him he must return to Earth and guide someone else to the right path. Steven Spielberg directs this remake of the 1943 A GUY NAMED JOE, a film I'm not fond of. On the other hand, I like this film. More proof that remakes can often best the originals. Spielberg switches the WWII setting to aerial firefighters. Dreyfuss and Hunter have an ideal chemistry which is essential in a film that deals with a love so strong that even death can't stop it. If you don't/can't believe in that love, the film fails. ALWAYS touches on many things: grief, moving on, our own selfish motives, the things unspoken that we regret. Lest it sound like a heavy film, there's a lot of humor (some of it doesn't work), more than the 1943 film. As usual, that musical wizard John Williams hits all the right notes. With Brad Johnson, Marg Helgenberger and Keith David.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Begin Again (2014)

A record executive (Mark Ruffalo) who has seen better days and is now drunk most of the time discovers a young singer (Keira Knightley) and convinces her to let him produce a record with her. I disliked John Carney's criminally overpraised ONCE so intensely that I've avoided his films. The reviews for this one were very good and I like Ruffalo and Knightley but I still wasn't convinced. However, some people whose opinion I respect prodded me and so I'm catching up with it just now. Well, I loved it! Charming seems like an overused word when describing movies but I can't think of a better one in this case except maybe exhilarating. It's a dreamy movie romance yet the film's two protagonists never so much as kiss or declare their feelings toward each other. In fact, the movie doesn't even end the way we expect (or want) it to. The songs (mostly written by Gregg Alexander with various lyricists) are quite good and while Adam Levine is a singer, Knightley surprised me with her graceful vocals. A film full of intimate touches and an observant eye on relationships. With James Corden, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Yasiin Bey and CeeLo Green.

The Four Musketeers (1974)

When Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) orders the kidnapping of the mistress (Raquel Welch) of the musketeer D'Artagnan (Michael York), it sets forth a chain of events that will result in revenge, political assassination, murder and execution. It would be incorrect to refer to THE FOUR MUSKETEERS as a sequel to the previous year's smash hit THE THREE MUSKETEERS since it originally was intended to be one film but when it became clear that the film would be four hours long, it was divided into two separate films. FOUR is merely the second half of the Dumas novel. The energy and wit of the first part is still very much in evidence and Faye Dunaway as the wicked Milady, who had minimal screen time in the first part, gets a chance to shine here. The scene between her and Heston as they discuss the killing of D'Artagnan and his mistress shows two actors playing off each other at the top of their game. If I had to nitpick, it's that Lalo Schifrin's score is very inferior to Michel Legrand's splendid work in the first film. Superbly directed by Richard Lester. With Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Lee, Frank Finlay, Simon Ward, Roy Kinnear and Jean Pierre Cassel.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Christmas Holiday (1944)

A soldier (Dean Harens) on his way to San Francisco finds himself stranded in New Orleans. It is there he meets a nightclub singer (Deanna Durbin) and in the next 24 hours, he listens to her sordid story of her marriage to a psychologically disturbed convicted murderer (Gene Kelly), now serving a life sentence. With a cheerful title like CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY and two of the most popular musical stars of the 1940s like Durbin and Kelly, one would expect a lighthearted musical. But since it's based on a 1939 novel by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by film noir maestro Robert Siodmak, it isn't long before we realize this is anything but. Almost all the characters are "disturbed" to some degree, even its heroine. What kind of woman wastes her life pining away for a convicted killer?  Durbin is surprisingly good here. She sets her perky personality aside and though it's not a musical, as a chanteuse (in the novel, she's a prostitute), she sings two songs but not in her shrill soprano but in the lower registers. Kelly manages to get by (barely). With Gale Sondergaard, Gladys George and Richard Whorf.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

After a large meteorite crashes in the California desert, when its pieces come into contact with water, they grow and multiply and move. Any human who comes into contact turns into a stone like statue. One of the better Universal  sci-fi films of the 1950s, it's surprising how well done it is in spite of a less than satisfactory screenplay (director Jack Arnold didn't direct but he was partly responsible for the story). Much of it has to do with its rather unique concept of rock formations as "monsters" from outer space. They're nothing but rock, they don't think, they have no plans for conquering the planet, they just are. The horror comes from the mindless destruction they are capable of. The special effects by Clifford Stine and Frank Brendel hold up remarkably well. As for the actors, well ... it's not the kind of film where the acting matters much but still, one can't help but feel sorry for the actors spouting the drivel. Directed by John Sherwood. With Lola Albright (who deserves better than this), Grant Williams, Les Tremayne and Trevor Bardette.

The Last Sunset (1961)

A man (Kirk Douglas) on the run from the law escapes from the U.S. to Mexico where he seeks out his former lover (Dorothy Malone), now married to a boozer (Joseph Cotten). But when a lawman (Rock Hudson) shows up determined to take him back to Texas for justice, they both become rivals for the same woman. But first, they all must make that long trek from Mexico to Texas on a cattle drive. This is a very good "adult" western. Adult in that its themes are and narrative are not typical of the western genre. This isn't your usual shoot 'em up cowboys and Indians oater. Based on the novel SHOWDOWN AT CRAZY HORSE by Robert Rigsby from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (SPARTACUS), director Robert Aldrich goes for high tragedy with a touch of Sophocles and succeeds admirably. Handsomely shot by Ernest Laszlo (STALAG 17), it has one of the best dust storm sequences I've seen in a film. All the players are well cast (Douglas is perhaps too well cast) and their collective performances form the foundation of the film's core. With Carol Lynley, Neville Brand, Jack Elam, Regis Toomey and James Westmoreland.