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Friday, April 30, 2010

The Road (2009)

Australian director John Hillcoat directs this grim post apocalyptic vision based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smith-McPhee) travel a barren gray landscape hoping to merely survive (and avoid the roving bands of hooligans who will rape you, kill you then eat you) as the father loses his humanity and the child desperately tries to hold on to his. It’s relentless in its bleakness and Hillcoat doesn’t spare us anything. This isn’t MAD MAX! No action and no heroes. It’s an achievement of sorts but guaranteed to empty seats. I counted at least 4 people who walked out. Still, if you hang in there, there’s an almost darkly lyrical beauty to it. Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce and a nearly unrecognizable Robert Duvall co-star.

Perfect Strangers (1950)

A jury is sequestered in a murder trial in which a man (Ford Rainey) is accused of murdering his wife in order to be free to marry another woman (Frances Charles). Two married jurors (Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan) fall in love as their affair parallels that of the accused man and his mistress. Based on the play LADIES AND GENTLEMEN by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht and directed by Bretaigne Windust. A potentially intriguing premise gets derailed by contrivances and stock secondary characters. But the screenplay by Edith Sommer only superficially takes advantage of the possibilities. Too much time is devoted to the stereotypical other jurors like the tiresome Thelma "Here comes another wisecrack" Ritter, who are only there to pad out the already brief running time. Only Margalo Gillmore as a snooty society woman ready to come apart at the seams holds any interest. Rogers goes all actressy on us in full KITTY FOYLE mode and deflates any possible genuine emotions. With Paul Ford, Harry Bellaver, Marjorie Bennett, Edith Evanson, Anthony Ross, Whit Bissell and Ned Glass.

Grand Slam (1967)

A retired professor (Edward G. Robinson) asks the assistance of his childhood friend (Adolfo Celi, THUNDERBALL), now a crime lord, in requisitioning three professional criminals (Klaus Kinski, George Rigaud, Riccardo Cucciolla), each with their own specialty and a gigolo (Robert Hoffman) in pulling off a theft of 10 million dollars worth of diamonds. An uptight "plain" secretary (Janet Leigh in glasses) literally holds the key to the theft's success. A gem of an international heist thriller courtesy of Giuliano Montaldo (SACCO AND VANZETTI) is first rate stuff. The robbery itself is beautifully played out with the requisite tension and a marvelous twist at the end. The movie is set in Rio De Janeiro during carnival time and cinematographer Antonio Macasoli takes advantage of that as well as the colorful Rio locations. Unfortunately the usually reliable Ennio Morricone's score comes off as hastily put together. If you're remotely interested in heist thrillers, this is definitely worth checking out.

Crescendo (1970)

Weird, slightly kinky Hammer horror yarn has a young grad student (Stefanie Powers) doing a thesis on a deceased composer while a guest of his widow (Margaretta Scott) and her wheelchair bound son (James Olson) in France. But everything is not as it seems. The widow insists Powers dress in a dead woman’s clothes, the son has schizophrenic mood shifts, the maid (Jane Lapotaire) has blackmail plans and the butler (Joss Ackland) is there to protect the ugly family secret (which is easily guessed). With the exception of one genuinely shocking moment, there aren’t many thrills to be had. Powers' naive heroine seems unnecessarily slow on the uptake as the audience is always one step ahead of her. The film moves along nicely but the director, Alan Gibson (A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA), can't seem to establish the menacing atmosphere necessary to such efforts.

A Single Man (2009)

Pretentious pap with a capital P! Fashion designer Tom Ford makes his directorial debut with this affected tale of a gay college professor (Colin Firth) who must deal with the death of his lover in the early 1960s. It’s all filmed in this dreamy, hazy and artsy veneer with lots of shots of bare chested young men, male bottoms and flat abs that it begins to resemble gay soft porn. By the time, there was a chichi close up of lips blowing smoke, I’d had enough and jumped ship about 50 minutes into the film. Co-starring Julianne Moore with a wretched English accent. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987)

A showgirl (Ann-Margret) marries into an aristocratic New York society family. But her husband's (Stephen Collins) mother (Claudette Colbert) finds the girl common and is against the marriage. What should have been a Cinderella story turns into a grand tragedy of murder, revenge, manipulation, hypocrisy and class privilege. Based on the novel by Dominick Dunne and directed by John Erman. An irresistible, lush melodrama set in the highest echelons of Manhattan society in the 40s, 50s and 60s that make and enforce their own rules is the filmic equivalent of a juicy best seller than you can't put down. Ann-Margret gives a potent performance as the young Mrs. Grenville going from naive chorus girl to hardened and bruised alcoholic and Claudette Colbert is perfection as the cold and unforgiving elder Mrs. Grenville in her final film role. The lavish underscore is by Marvin Hamilisch. With Elizabeth Ashley, Penny Fuller, John Rubenstein, Sam Wanamaker, Penny Fuller and Sian Phillips as the Duchess of Windaor.

The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (1927)

A mysterious lodger (Ivor Novello) in a rooming house becomes the prime suspect in the Jack The Ripper like serial killings of young blonde women. Based on the 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This is perhaps the first true "Hitchcockian" film as we've come to know the term. The movie is full of Hitchcock touches, many that he would use over again. It's a silent film which allows Hitchcock to devote himself to such visual flourishes as the justifiably famous glass floor and the lovers' first kiss.  The film has been remade several times, most notably in 1944. The screenplay seems to go out of the way to make the policeman suitor (Malcolm Keen) unpleasant in order to make Novello more sympathetic. The version I saw had an excellent underscore by Ashley Irwin. With June Tripp as the model who becomes the bone of contention between the lodger and the policeman and Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney as her parents. 

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarnatino’s love of movies infuses every frame of his revisionist WWII fantasy. Who hasn’t wanted to rewrite history the way he wanted to see it happen? Thankfully, Tarantino uses the title and not much else of the ghastly 1978 Italian WWII adventure that he inexplicably admired. Brad Pitt heads a renegade brigade of scalping Nazi hunters, Melanie Laurent is the Jewess who escaped death by the Nazis only to find herself a tool in the middle of a Nazi propaganda event, Christoph Waltz is the coolly sadistic Nazi Colonel and even Mike Myers and Rod Taylor (as Winston Churchill) show up. I’m not enamored of Waltz’s obvious and hammy performance as the critics who are throwing every conceivable acting award at him. Even in Tarantino’s heightened reality, Waltz’s performance comes across as more grotesque and cartoonish than the already larger than life performances of everyone else. Again, Tarantino shows what a great ear he has for film music in the chosen pieces of music he uses in the film (everything from Ennio Morricone to Giorgio Moroder). With Daniel Bruhl.

Maid Of Salem (1937)

Salem, Massachusetts in 1692! Hysteria takes over the town when a young girl (Bonita Granville) accuses several of the townspeople of witchcraft and it rapidly spreads as accusations are thrown out and innocent people hanged. Directed by Frank Lloyd (MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY), this is a precursor to Arthur Miller's 1953 play THE CRUCIBLE. I'm not sure how interested the film is in exploring the horrors of the 17th century Salem witch trials or is the film merely using it as a backdrop to the Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray romance. Of course, the Salem trials were a horrendous miscarriage of justice that just about any film on the topic is bound to hold one's interest. Colbert and especially MacMurray seem out of place. The first portion of the film when they meet "cute" could well be straight out of a romantic comedy. But the horror of the senseless accusations and deaths easily takes over the romance portion of the movie and it remains a compelling watch. The supporting cast includes Gale Sondergaard, the marvelous Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Beulah Bondi, Louise Dresser and Donald Meek. Granville's witchcraft accusing brat that starts the whole thing is too close for comfort to her similar role in THESE THREE. 

White Christmas (1954)

Two WWII Army veterans (Bing CrosbyDanny Kaye) team up to do a musical act which is hugely successful. But when they come across a sister act (Rosemary ClooneyVera Ellen)romantic complications arise. Add to thatthey discover their old Major General (Dean Jagger)now retiredis struggling to make a success of his Vermont inn. Directed by Michael Curtizthis is the only Christmas movie I watch religiously each year. Don't ask me why. The story is mundaneit stars Bing Crosby (probably my least favorite actor ever) and most of the songs aren't among Irving Berlin's best. But there's a certain likability about the whole event. Loyal Griggs' Technicolor eye popping cinematography (it was the first film released in the VistaVision wide screen process)Edith Head's gorgeous costumes and Robert Alton's choreography all contribute to the film's enjoyment. Among the film's musical highlights: the spectacular Mandy production number and the amusing Martha Graham parody Choreography. With Mary Wickes and Barrie Chase.

Me And Orson Welles (2009)

Set in 1937, a high school senior (Zac Efron) with no experience finds himself cast in a small role in the legendary Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR directed by Orson Welles (Christian McKay). Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow and directed by Richard Linklater (BEFORE SUNRISE). I'm of two minds about this movie. On one hand, it's a wonderfully clever theatrical conceit. A dreamy look at the magic of theater and of art and of genius (in this case, Welles). Christian McKay gives a deliciously wicked portrait of Welles that goes beyond mere impersonation and inhabits the egotistical wizard. The film has an authentic 1930s atmosphere and film seems to owe something to some of Woody Allen's memory pieces (RADIO DAYS, SWEET AND LOWDOWN, CAFE SOCIETY etc.), even down to the underscore of 1930s records. That being said, I wish this fictionalized version had been done as a roman a clef rather than using real names because it plays as fiction, not as a biographical document. The sole survivor of the Mercury group Norman Lloyd (hideously played by Leo Bill) hated the film and labeled its narrative ridiculous and bearing no relation to the actual facts. This tarnishes the film because there's so much good about it. Hopefully, others will enjoy the film for what it is but realize what they're seeing is pure fiction. With Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly.

Operation Secret (1952)

A tribunal is investigating the murder of a French resistance fighter (Paul Picerni) by an American soldier (Cornel Wilde) several years after WWII. The soldier has long disappeared and presumed dead so the tribunal attempts to reconstruct the events leading up to the murder using several witnesses who were participants in the affair (Steve Cochran, Karl Malden, Phyllis Thaxter, Jay Novello, Lester Matthews) by the use of flashbacks until the truth is revealed. Directed by Lewis Seiler (GUADALCANAL DIARY), this WWII espionage thriller has an intriguing premise. There's a lot of unnecessary padding in what should have been a leaner film that releases the tension a good thriller should possess. There's also the air of "Red" paranoia so prevalent in American films of the 1950s that dates it. Curiously some of the actors playing French, like Karl Malden, attempt a French accent while others, notably Steve Cochran don't even bother. Still, I must confess that with all its drawbacks, I was totally into it. With Dan O' Herlihy and Wilton Graff.

Horror Island (1941)

The owner (Dick Foran) of a small boulder of an island is heavily in debt. He decides to bring tourists to the island and charge them for a weekend of ghostly thrills and buried treasure. But his first trip turns deadly as someone is murdering the guests one by one. Directed by George Waggner. Although this is a strictly by the numbers, this minor fright effort by Universal features the usual group of strangers in an old dark house (with secret chambers and hidden passages, of course). There's more than a bit of Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS in the story line and the usual over abundance of comedy relief, this time provided by Fuzzy Knight and Leo Carrillo. It's mercifully brief at barely an hour so it doesn't wear out its welcome. If you're partial to this kind of stuff (as I am) then most likely you'll tolerate the cliches. With Peggy Moran, Iris Adrian, Walter Catlett and Lewis Howard.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)

A respected shopkeeper (Glenn Ford) resides in a small town and lives a quiet life with his pregnant wife (Jeanne Crain). He doesn't wear a gun and he doesn't drink but he harbors a dark, complex past that the town doesn't know about. When his "secret" spills out, Hell comes to visit in the form of a slightly deranged gunslinger (Broderick Crawford). Based on a 1954 TV play by Frank D. Gilroy (THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES) and directed by Russell Crouse, who also wrote the tight screenplay with Gilroy. This is a fine and unusual western that's a winner all the way down the line. I loved the way the story shoots down (no pun intended) all our traditional expectations. Ford is excellent as the tortured shopkeeper and even Jeanne Crain rises to the occasion. The crisp B&W cinematography is by George F. Folsey (FORBIDDEN PLANET) and Andre Previn's intense score hits all the right notes. Others in the cast include Russ Tamblyn (there's even a dance number inserted to showcase him), Leif Erickson, John Dehner, Virginia Gregg and Rhys Williams.

Les Amants (aka The Lovers) (1958)

Living in the provinces, an upper class bourgeois wife (Jeanne Moreau) dissatisfied in her marriage keeps a polo playing lover (Jose Luis De Villaonga, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) in Paris. A house party involving her lover, her husband (Alain Cuny), her best friend (Judith Magre) and a stranger (Jean Marc Bory) brings a shocking revelation to her. Based on the novel POINT DE LENDEMAIN by Dominique Vivant and directed by Louis Malle. This once controversial (in the U.S., its obscenity case went all the way to the Supreme Court) still retains its ability to hold one's attention although far from Malle's best work. At its best, there is the exquisite Jeanne Moreau (looking tres chic in her Chanel haute couture), one of the cinema's greatest actresses at its center. At its worst, it resembles those florid romance novels with purple prose done over with an artistic sheen: Moreau in a diaphanous negligee floating through the woods with her lover while Brahms plays oh so tastefully on the soundtrack. With Gaston Modot and Michele Girardon (HATARI). 

Battle Beneath The Earth (1967)

A renegade Chinese faction with plans to take over the world dig tunnels under the Pacific Ocean (no, I'm not kidding) all the way to the United States where they house nuclear bombs underground with the intention of taking over America. When seismic activity indicate recent upheavals are not earthquake related, U.S. Army intelligence discovers the diabolical plot and it's a race against time to foil the dastardly plot of the Chinese terrorists. Directed by Montgomery Tully, this tacky sci-fi mess contains a pretty loopy storyline. You'd think with a cockamamie plot like that it would at least be fun but it's a pretty wearisome affair. The most bizarre thing is that almost all the Chinese men are played by Caucasian actors in "oriental" make-up spouting sing-song Fu Manchu dialogue. Talk about your politically incorrect (although the Chinese women are played by Asian actresses). The film seems "off" from the very beginning but I chalk that up to the film being set in the U.S. but it was made in England with a lot of British actors playing American. Kerwin Mathews (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) is the nominal hero. With Peter Arne, Robert Ayres, Viviane Ventura, Martin Benson and Ed Bishop. 

King Of The Roaring 20s (1961)

Set in the 1920s, an ambitious if cold hearted gambler (David Janssen) rises in the world of Manhattan mobsters to the point that he becomes a force to be reckoned with. Based on the book THE BIG BANKROLL by Leo Katcher and directed by Joseph M. Newman (THIS ISLAND EARTH). As with most gangster biopics, this movie on the life of mobster Arnold Rothstein plays fast and loose with the facts.  As a gangster movie, it's not half bad. Janssen plays Rothstein, a notorious gambler who became a kingpin in organized crime (even alleged to have been beyind the 1919 Black Sox scandal) with unusual restraint, perhaps too much restraint. His Rothstein is quite a different mobster than the likes of Al Capone or Bugsy Siegel types. A couple of performances stand out: Mickey Rooney as Rothstein's doomed childhood friend who falls on hard times and the underrated Dianne Foster as Rothstein's ex-showgirl wife. Franz Waxman (SUNSET BOULEVARD) did the jazz underscore. With Jack Carson, Keenan Wynn, Diana Dors (wasted), Dan O'Herlihy, Joseph Schildkraut and William Demarest.

The White Ribbon (aka Das Weisse Band) (2009)

Michael Haneke (CACHE) may have directed his most disturbing film yet with this unsettling look at a small German village in the months before the break out of WWI. Shot in the starkness of B&W, it focuses on a series of brutal incidents. Out riding, a doctor and his horse are tripped by a wire, a worker falls thru the rotted floor boards to her death, a young child is cruelly beaten and hung upside down, a retarded child is tortured to the point of blindness, etc. As the film moves on, to our own horror, not only do we suspect the perpetrators of but we fully comprehend the why of it. And the fact that it’s set in Germany speaks volumes (though I’m not sure Haneke intended it as such) of the horrors that were yet to come in its immediate history. The film’s methodical pace is often a drag but ultimately a small price to pay.

Too Hot To Handle (1938)

A newsreel reporter (Clark Gable) will do anything to get a story including fabricating incidents. His nemesis (Walter Pidgeon) on a rival newspaper is no better and when an aviatrix (Myrna Loy) is used by Pidgeon for a fake news story, Gable blunders into it and finds himself attracted to the girl but he's not above exploiting her either. Directed with vitality by Jack Conway (LIBELED LADY), this is an energetic fast paced comedy adventure with major star power at the center. The film ends up in South America with Loy hoping to find her brother lost in the Amazon. However, oddly the film makers seem to be on the wrong continent as the natives are not Indian but black and of the "umgawa" variety. Here some disturbing racist attitudes rear their head as Gable refers to them as jitterbugs and monkeys. That aside, it's an agreeably amusing  and lightning fast romp. With Marjorie Main, Walter Connolly, Leo Carrillo and Virginia Wiedler. 

Rhapsody (1954)

A neurotic, spoiled rich girl (Elizabeth Taylor) must play second fiddle to an emerging violinist (Vittorio Gassman) whose first love is music. Meanwhile, a pianist (John Ericson) pines over over Liz. Someone is bound to get hurt big time. Based on the novel MAURICE GUEST by Henry Handel Richardson and directed by Charles Vidor (GILDA). This glossy MGM Technicolor romancer is set in the world of classical music which means we get larges doses of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven concerts to pad out the film. Unfortunately, they stop the movie cold and unless you're a huge classical music fan, it becomes rather tedious. Taylor is at the height of her beauty and she looks terrific in her Helen Rose frocks and gowns and the glam factor is enough to hold one's interest until it gets all sappy and sentimental during the film's final 20 minutes. If you're not a Taylor fan as I am, you might get turned off my Taylor's needy character who demands total devotion without regard to the needs of the other. With Louis Calhern, Michael Chekhov, Barbara Bates, Stuart Whitman and Madge Blake.

Bella Mafia (1997)

After the decimation of the male members of the family, five Mafia widows concoct a plan for vengeance that will avenge their spouses and once again make them a formidable power in the Mafia. Based on the novel by Lynda La Plante (WIDOWS) and directed by David Greene (RICH MAN POOR MAN). This contrived Mafia potboiler reaches such heights of operatic absurdity and ludicrousness that it becomes enjoyable in the way only certain bad movies can be. It teeters dangerously close toward "camp". Vanessa Redgrave as a gun toting Mafia widow open firing in a courtroom? Peter Bogdanovich as a Mafia kingpin? The acting ranges from good (Nastassja Kinski whose character anchors the film) to terrible. James Marsden's Luca is near astonishing in the annals of bad acting and believe you me, I've seen a lot of bad acting. I can say without hesitation that it is the single worst performance I have ever seen. Almost his entire performance is done with his mouth open. Still, it is never boring. With Jennifer Tilly, Illeana Douglas, Franco Nero, Dennis Farina, Tony Lo Bianco, Dimitra Arliss and Gina Philips.

Crazy Heart (2009)

During the end credits, I was surprised to see CRAZY HEART was based on a novel because it comes across as a formulaic Hollywood film. Burnt out, boozed up, gone to seed 50ish artist (he’s a singer/songwriter) at the end of the line is redeemed by a beautiful young woman, young enough to be his daughter. Yawn. If Jeff Bridges wins an Oscar for this, it will be a career Oscar because his performance, while more than decent, is of the been there, seen that variety. The ghost of TENDER MERCIES hovers around the film so it comes as quite a shock when Robert Duvall shows up halfway in the movie. Colin Farrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Oscar nominated for the wrong 2009 movie) are solid in underwritten roles. The best part of the film is the music. Not because they’re great songs. They’re good enough but they have an authenticity to them and Bridges and Farrell sing them with authority.

Women Of The Night (aka Yoru No Onnatachi) (1948)

A war widow (Kinuyo Tanaka), a dance hall hostess (Sanae Takasugi) and a runaway teenager (Tomie Tsunoda) all fall prey to prostitution (not the semi-glamorous geisha kind, we're talking streetwalking) or at the very least exploitation by the male sex. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, the film is somewhat of a disappointment. He's done other films on women using their bodies to sustain themselves but this one lacks finesse. It's not just that it's lurid and borderline exploitative but that it's near hysterical in the way it portrays the lives of its three protagonists. The movie comes across as one of those overbearing and overly dramatic "teaching" films you show to impressionable girls ("See this? This is what will happen to you if you go all the way with a boy! You'll get syphilis and pregnant and end up living and dying in the streets!") The actresses don't even get a chance to develop characters. Poor Kinuyo Tanaka goes from decent if naive secretary one minute to syphilis ridden whore the next with no stops in-between. Still, there's no denying it's a compelling watch even with its over the top hysterical tone. I suppose some will see a feminist statement in this film. I just found it rather ludicrous.

Return Of Jesse James (1950)

A cocky outlaw (John Ireland) usurps Jesse James' identity and goes on a robbing spree thus leading the authorities to believe that perhaps James isn't dead after all and the Fords killed the wrong man. Directed by Arthur Hilton, this poverty row western is historically nonsense. Using real personages of the Old West like Frank James (Reed Hadley), Robert (Clifton Young) and Charlie Ford (Tommy Noonan) and the Younger gang but in a totally fabricated plot. The silliness of the plot aside, the term noir western applies here and is where any interest lies. The cold blooded Ann Dvorak (Hawks' SCARFACE) is as scheming as any noir femme fatale and the fatalistic ending is right out of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE or THE KILLING. With Hugh O'Brian, Henry Hull, Margia Dean and Victor Kilian.

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

When a stripper (Gloria Pall) is murdered on the streets of L.A., two detectives are assigned to the case. One Caucasian (Glenn Corbett) and the other Japanese (James Shigeta), they have a history together going back to the Korean war (they even live together). When they both fall in love with a witness (Victoria Shaw) in the case, repressed racial tensions come into play. Directed by Samuel Fuller, this pulp thriller gives us a peek at the seedier habitats of L.A. as well as Little Tokyo. Once again, like SHOCK CORRIDOR, PICK UP ON SOUTH STREET and NAKED KISS, Fuller thrives in the lurid world of misfits, outsiders, strippers, criminals that serve as a contrast to the "normal" environs of a more respectable society. It's a crude film in many ways (even the acting is rather primitive) but it's one of the few films of the era (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is another one) that examines the prejudice toward Japanese-Americans. But it's actually the love or bond between the two men that is the backbone of the film rather than the interracial romance. With Anna Lee, Jaclynne Green and Walter Burke.

Homecoming (1948)

A self centered doctor (Clark Gable) seems to have it all. A successful and profitable practice, a beautiful wife (Anne Baxter) and home. When WWII comes and he goes to Italy as an army doctor, he slowly begins to question the selfishness of his previous life especially when confronted by his feisty nurse (Lana Turner). Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, this wartime romance is a handsome MGM production that starts to wear out its welcome by going on too long. What should have been a 90 minute sudser clocks in at about two hours. A tad sentimental in spots, it nevertheless makes some important points. This was the third of the four Gable and Turner pairings and was a big hit. Turner is deglamorized here and turns in an earthy low-keyed performance. Her costumes consist of military fatigues and uniforms while it's Anne Baxter who gets to wear the Helen Rose gowns. There's a lovely delicate score by Bronislau Kaper. With John Hodiak, Gladys Cooper, Cameron Mitchell, Marshall Thompson, Ray Collins and Lurene Tuttle. 

Barricade (1950)

Three strangers, two (Dane Clark, Ruth Roman) on the run from the law and the third (Robert Douglas) with a secret, find themselves stranded in a mining camp in the middle of nowhere run by a sadistic egomaniac (Raymond Massey, excellent) without any avenue of escape. Directed by Peter Godfrey (CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT), this tidy little western eschews, for the most part, all the western cliches. Most likely because it's based (but uncredited) on Jack London's THE SEA WOLF but transposed to the Old West. The transition is seamless because if one wasn't aware of the original source material, you'd never guess. It doesn't have that awkward feel that adaptations sometimes have when removed from their natural settings. Shot in bright Technicolor, it perhaps might have been better served if filmed in black and white but as a western, it's several notches above the average. With Morgan Farley, Walter Coy and George Stern.

Wistful Widow Of Wagon Gap (1947)

Traveling through a small Montana town, a traveling salesman (Lou Costello) accidentally shoots down the town vagrant and the local ordinance says he is obligated to take care of the widow (Marjorie Main) of the dead man. Directed by Charles Barton, this comedy western may not be up there with the very best Abbott and Costello comedies but it's pretty close. Fresh off the success of THE EGG AND I, Main in full battle axe mode makes for a wonderful comedic foil for Costello. The film's comic highpoints include a frog in Costello's soup (pretty hysterical) and a poker game with Main. It's also amusing when the worm turns and we get to see Costello boss Bud Abbott around for a change. With Audrey Young (who would marry director Billy Wilder and retire from films) as Main's oldest daughter, William Ching and George Cleveland.

Spinning Into Butter (2008)

At a small college in Vermont with a principally white student body, an ugly racial incident snowballs into both a media frenzy and a major confrontation between the in denial administration and the school's angry students. The school's Dean of Students (Sarah Jessica Parker) attempts to act as a liaison between the administration and the school's students while confronting her own racism. Based on the play by Rebecca Gilman (who co-wrote the screenplay) and directed by Mark Brokaw. This is a well intentioned look at racism in contemporary America that gets sabotaged by a didactic, preachy screenplay and static direction. Everyone is a talking head, spouting the author's tired dialog which would do Stanley Kramer and Abby Mann proud. This isn't a movie, it's a lecture. Granted, the movie says some important things that need to be said but without any artistry, it's just a civics lesson on racism. The identity of the perpetrator becomes obvious in the film's first 10 minutes although it's supposed to be a shocking big reveal near the film's end. With Beau Bridges, Miranda Richardson, Mykelti Williamson, James Rebhorn, Peter Friedman and Paul James. 

Breaking And Entering (2006)

An architect (Jude Law) and his girlfriend (Robin Wright), though not married, are involved in a 10 year relationship that seems to have come unglued. When some teenage thieves break into his place of business, the architect finds himself drawn to the mother (Juliette Binoche), a Bosnian refugee, of one of the thieves (Rafi Gavron) and an illicit affair begins that has traumatic effects on all involved. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) whose final film this was. The movie was unfairly dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences. It's a potent film, not perfect by any means and often contrived but intelligent film making is so few and far between that a film like this should be encouraged, flaws and all. There's more than enough that the film gets right that its faults become secondary. The performances are uniformly fine but two really stand out. Robin Wright's conflicted mate trying to balance a relationship and an autistic daughter (Poppy Rogers) and Vera Farmiga as a Russian prostitute. With Martin Freeman, Juliet Stevenson, Ray Winstone and Ed Westwick.

Kitten With A Whip (1964)

Escaping a juvenile detention center after stabbing a matron (Nora Marlowe), a psychologically disturbed teenage girl (Ann-Margret) breaks into the upper class suburban home of a senatorial candidate (John Forsythe) whose wife (Audrey Dalton) is away. It soon turns into a home invasion when she invites some thugs (Peter Brown, Skip Ward) over to party. Based on the novel by Wade Miller and adapted for the screen and directed by Douglas Heyes. When a movie begins with Ann-Margret in a "baby doll" nightie running scared through the streets of San Diego, you know you're in movie trash heaven. I didn't think it could live up to its lurid title but it does, oh it does. It's tawdry and exploitative and much of the "fun" is unintentional. The "hip" dialog of the twenty something teenagers, using Henry Mancini's score from TOUCH OF EVIL or the "Tijuana" locations which is really the Universal backlot. Enjoyable in the way a bad movie that takes itself seriously can often be. With Patricia Barry, Richard Anderson, Ann Doran and Leo Gordon.

Violette Noziere (1978)

In 1933, a petulant teenager (Isabelle Huppert) leads a double life. To her parents (Stephane Audran, Jean Carmet), she's a studious good girl but in reality, she's a lying, thieving, promiscuous syphilis ridden, homicidal tramp. Directed by Claude Chabrol, this is based on a notorious true crime. A role this juicy might cause a lesser actress to overact but Huppert (who won the Cannes film festival best actress award for her work here) gives a near brilliant and chilly portrayal of calculated immorality. Not only a solid portrait of a sociopath but a solid thriller as well. Curiously, the real Violette Noziere gained a large amount of public sympathy and was eventually pardoned and went on to marry and have five children. An excellent performance by Audran as Huppert's mother. With Bernadette Lafont, Jean Francois Garreaud and Dora Doll.

Experiment Perilous (1944)

A doctor (George Brent at his dullest) meets an eccentic woman (Olive Blakeney) on a train. This chance meeting leads to his involvement with a beautiful woman (Hedy Lamarr) and her diabolical husband (Paul Lukas, WATCH ON THE RHINE) who is a mentally unbalanced sadist. Based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter and directed by Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST). Curiously, having turned down the leading role in GASLIGHT (which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar), Hedy Lamarr took on this sluggish, slow moving GASLIGHT retread. With Jacques Tourneur at the helm, one would hope for a stylish efficient thriller but it's hopeless. It's psychologically weak and poorly acted except for Blakeney as Lukas' perceptive sister. It's a handsome looking film thanks to the Oscar nominated art direction team and there's a spectacular finish though the coda is pretty silly. With Albert Dekker, Margaret Wycherly and Julia Dean.

Foul Play (1978)

A librarian (Goldie Hawn) innocently picks up a hitch hiker (Bruce Solomon) then finds herself mixed up in murder, missing dead bodies, albino killers, dwarfs and an assassination plot by a radical political group. Written and directed by Colin Higgins (9 TO 5), this is one of the most delightful confections of 1970s movie going. A hybrid of romance, comedy and thriller. In most cases, one is grateful if any of these genres are done properly but when you mix them all together, sometimes it's a cinematic recipe for disaster. However, Higgins concocted a congenial blend of mystery, laughs and charm. Hawn is irresistible here, you can see why she was America's reigning sweetheart of the 70s. Chevy Chase as a detective on the case manages to keep both his smugness and mugging in check and an amusing Dudley Moore starts his American career. The theme song Ready To Begin Again is one of the great movie love songs despite being sung by Barry Manilow. Inexplicably it lost the best song Oscar to You Light Up My Life. With Burgess Meredith, Rachel Roberts, Brian Dennehy and Billy Barty. 

Split Second (1953)

An escaped murderer (Stephen McNally) and his accomplices (Paul Kelly, Frank DeKova) and six hostages (Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling, Richard Egan, Keith Andes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Robert Paige) are holed up in an abandoned town in the Nevada desert. The only problem is that the town is smack in the middle of an atomic testing site with the bomb due to go off the next morning. Directed by actor Dick Powell in his directorial debut. This one is a gem of a thriller with noir-ish trimmings. Powell's direction is tight, never loosening its grip as the fate of these strangers shifts right up to the final countdown. Powell would go on to direct four more films including THE CONQUEROR (1956) and the irony is not lost that SPLIT SECOND deals with an atomic blast and the cast and crew of THE CONQUEROR were victims of unknowingly filming near an atomic test site with some 91 deaths from cancer which was inordinately high. That grim note aside, this minor thriller delivers the goods and with one exception, the acting is good. The one exception is Alexis Smith whose histrionics didn't quite convince me. The film's ending seems a bit naive considering what we know today of the long terms effects on the victims of atomic radiation.

The Chalk Garden (1964)

An emotionally disturbed teen (Hayley Mills), who is a pathological liar, has run through a series of governesses until she meets her match in Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr), a woman with a secret past. The girl's determination to discover that secret and its revelation and consequences is the crux of the film. Based on the play by Enid Bagnold and direced by Ronald Neame (PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE). I've not read Bagnold's play but I understand the film has been cleaned up a bit for movie audiences and not so complicated as its theatrical version. What remains is a poignant tale of an unhappy childhood at risk if it isn't caught in time. It's a solid, if uncinematic, film. It's nice to see the young Hayley Mills in a role that challenges her instead of the usually wholesome Disney roles she played but the entire film is superbly acted by all involved including John Mills as the household's butler, Elizabeth Sellars as the girl's mother and in a terrific Oscar nominated performance, Edith Evans as the girl's grandmother. There's a solid underscore by Malcolm Arnold. With Felix Aylmer in the only other substantial role in the movie.

The Badlanders (1958)

Set in 1898 Arizona territory, a man (Alan Ladd) just released from prison for a crime he didn't commit plots to swindle the mine owner (Kent Smith) who had him sent to prison by selling him gold ore from his own mine! Loosely based on the novel THE ASPHALT JUNGLE by W.R. Burnett and directed by Delmer Daves. John Huston had directed a film based on Burnett's novel in 1950. This version sets it in the American west instead of using the urban landscape of the big city. Daves is responsible for some of the best westerns of the 1950s (3:10 TO YUMA, JUBAL, WHITE FEATHER, LAST WAGON) but alas, THE BADLANDERS isn't among them. Ladd doesn't seem the brightest of con men. The moment we see Kent Smith, we know not to trust him but of course, Ladd walks right into the lion's lair. The nihilistic ending of Huston's 1950 film is abandoned in favor of a happier outcome for its characters (well, maybe not Nehemiah Persoff). Ladd is as enervated as ever but Ernest Borgnine as his partner is quite good. With Katy Jurado, the purring Claire Kelly (Ray's PARTY GIRL) and Robert Emhardt. 

The Housemaid (aka Hanyo) (1960)

This bizarre, often startling, assuredly twisted, domestic quasi horror film directed by Ki-Young Kim from Korea is like something I’ve never seen though the similarities to FATAL ATTRACTION are too obvious to overlook. And with the most unlikable group of characters. A spineless, weak willed eunuch of a music teacher finds himself the target of his obsessed, psychotic housemaid (the actress playing her keeps licking her lips in a furtive childish manner). His wife is materialistic, more concerned with how things will appear to society and two bratty, annoying kids complete the household from Hell. Adultery, abortion, knife wielding banshees and murder are all tossed into a melodramatic movie salad. There’s a ridiculous coda which demeans everything which preceded it. Like it or hate it, it’s a fascinating watch. A big thank you to Kerpan for allowing me the opportunity.

They Met In Bombay (1941)

What begins promisingly as a breezy comedy adventure jumps ship half way through to become a routine action film. While in India, unknowingly two thieves (Clark Gable, Rosalind Russell) are after the same fabulous jewel, the Star Of Asia. When Gable and Russell are trading quips and trying to put one over on each other, it’s amusing. But when they get to Hong Kong it runs out of steam when they become heroes during the Japanese invasion of China. Still, there’s no denying the star power of Gable and Russell and they have a terrific chemistry together. Pity they only had one starring vehicle together (Russell previously lost Gable to Jean Harlow in CHINA SEAS). Co-starring Peter Lorre.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Avatar (2009)

Whoa! What a rollercoaster ride! Oh sure, the script seems pieced together with odds and ends from LORD OF THE RINGS to HEAVY METAL to DANCES WITH WOLVES among many others but everything (plot, characters) is subservient to the visual story and here is where director James Cameron leaves one breathless with awe. I’ve never seen 3D with so much detail, sharpness and clarity and to his credit, Cameron doesn’t use it as a gimmick. Nothing tossed at you every 5 minutes to remind you you’re watching a 3D movie. I’m no 3D fan boy but if it must be used, this is the way to use it though I fear the mediocrities that will follow in its wake. 3D is the justification for a movie like this as the movie, as cinema, is pretty dumb. The story deals with the planet Pandora and the race of people on it called the Na’vi who are an ecological, spiritually based populace. Enter the earthlings comprised of the good guys (Sigourney Weaver) who want to study the indigenous natives and the bad guys (Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi) who simply want the natural resources of the planet and the natives be damned. This is to be seen in theatres, not on home video. A truly special experience but make no mistake about it, it's no more than the cinematic equivalent of a rollercoaster ride and once is enough for me and as much as I enjoyed, I have zero desire to see it ever again. With Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, CCH Pounder and Wes Studi.

The Last Station (2009)

Director/screenwriter’s Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of the Jay Parini novel set during the last weeks of Leo Tolstoy’s life is sure to be a major contender this awards season. But it would be unfair to dismiss the film as Oscar bait. What Hoffman and his stellar group of actors have done is turn what could have been a tedious postcard period piece into a vital film laced with generous doses of wit. The impeccable cast includes Helen Mirren (in an Oscar nominated performance) as Countess Tolstoy, Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy, Paul Giamatti, James McAvoy and the winning Kerry Condon. Sebastian Ebschmid gets the honors for the splendid camera work and the gorgeous score is by Sergei Yevtushenko. Highly recommended.

Gambit (1966)

A petty crook and international thief wannabe (Michael Caine) devises a complicated plan to steal a valuable bust from a wealthy Arab millionaire (Herbert Lom) and to this end, he recruits an Eurasian dancer (Shirley MacLaine) who resemble's the millionaire's deceased wife. Directed by Ronald Neame (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE), this elegant heist comedy/thriller is a piece of fluff but handsomely done. Of course, as with all good thrillers, the "perfect" plan never plays out as planned when Caine's thief underestimates Lom's millionaire. It's a lightweight diversion with the young Caine in his first flush of stardom (he'd just come off ALFIE) at his most appealing and MacLaine, coiffed by the legendary Sydney Guilaroff, looks sensational in her Jean Louis wardrobe. Disastrously remade in 2012. Maurice Jarre contributes the tiresome score. With Arnold Moss, John Abbott and Roger C. Carmel.

Rage (2009)

Over the course of several days during a New York fashion show, two models die. One in a horrible freak accident and the other a murder victim. Directed by Sally Potter (ORLANDO), this is a clever conceit of a movie. The entire film consists of 14 characters (each with their own color screen) sitting and talking directly into the camera. Through these characters, we learn not only about the events taking place but also about them and their place in this high fashion hierarchy. Among them: Jude Law as a transgender model, Judi Dench as an acerbic fashion critic, John Leguizamo as a bodyguard, Dianne Wiest as the salon manager, Eddie Izzard as the owner of the company, Steve Buscemi as a photographer, even the pizza delivery boy (Riz Ahmed). the premise is intriguing enough to keep us interested but the writing (though it often seem improvised) is too erratic and some of the acting is just plain bad (Simon Abkarian's designer and David Oyelowo's police detective). Wtih Bob Balaban, Adriana Barraza and Lily Cole.

The Unforgiven (1960)

Based on a novel by Alan LeMay (who also penned the source material for THE SEARCHERS), it’s clear the wrong John was handling the directorial reins. Directed by John Huston, this western revolves around a family whose adopted daughter (Audrey Hepburn) is suspected of being Kiowa and thus responsible for the Kiowa attacks in the vicinity when her brother demands her return to the tribe. This is the kind of stuff John Ford handled with finesse but Huston’s handling of the material is miscalculated. Hepburn is miscast as an Indian partially because we’re always aware of her being Audrey Hepburn, movie star, something she made us completely forget in THE NUN'S STORY the year before. Burt Lancaster seems ill at ease but Lillian Gish, Audie Murphy and Charles Bickford provide solid characterizations. With Joseph Wiseman, John Saxon, Albert Salmi, Doug McClure and Kipp Hamilton.

Bad For Each Other (1953)

A young doctor (Charlton Heston), fresh out of the Army, is seduced by a rich, spoiled society divorcee (Lizabeth Scott) and gives up his medical school ideals to become a society doctor treating rich hypochondriacs for lots of money. Meanwhile, his pretty but ethical nurse (Dianne Foster) is a constant reminder of what he gave up. Based on the novel SCALPEL by Horace McCoy (THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY?) and directed by Irving Rapper (NOW VOYAGER). This melodrama is a solid programmer dealing with medical ethics but very enjoyable. It's unpretentious and well done and it's interesting to see Heston so early in his career with his strong screen presence already in full bloom. Noir icon Lizabeth Scott manages to actually say her lines as if she understood what they meant. With Mildred Dunnock, Arthur Franz, Marjorie Rambeau, Ray Collins, Rhys Williams, Dorothy Green, Ann Robinson, Robert Bray and Lydia Clarke (Mrs. Heston) as a suicidal drunk.

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

Beginning in Paris, two children (the horrible child actors, Dickie Moore and Virginia Wiedler) who love each other are torn apart by fate. But they will reunite in adulthood (as Gary Cooper and Ann Harding) with a love that will transcend time and dimension. Based on the novel by George Du Maurier and directed by Henry Hathaway. This mawkish and florid fantasy begins terribly with the section devoted to the children. I'm not sure Hathaway (who usually directed grittier fare) is the kind of director for this sentimental  twaddle. The middle section when they meet as adults holds up relatively well then collapses again as fate steps in and tears them apart. Cooper, in particular, looks ill at ease reciting the flowery dialogue but Harding looking lovely blithely sails above it all but even she comes crashing down to earth in the film's overripe finale meant to jerk tears. With Ida Lupino as a cheeky soubrette who livens things up briefly, John Halliday, Douglass Dumbrille, Doris Lloyd and Donald Meek.

This Is It (2009)

This documentary comprised of the rehearsal footage of Michael Jackson’s final concert tour shot shortly before his death is still one of the best “concert” films I’ve ever seen. No, it’s not Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ but in addition to being a testament to Michael Jackson’s star power and master entertainer, it lets us see how a show is put together. Director Kenny Ortega pieces together various rehearsals (during one number, Jackson can be seen in 2 or 3 different sets of clothes) seamlessly to allow us to see how the show would have looked. The show seems about 90% complete and Jackson is in superb form. It would have been nice if there were just a bit more footage of the dancer auditions (one of the film’s many highlights) but it’s a minor complaint.

Out Of the Fog (1941)

A mean spirited thug (John Garfield) extorts money from poor hard working people. When he brutally beats one of his victims (Thomas Mitchell), the victim and his friend (John Qualen) turn their thoughts to murder. Based on the play GENTLE PEOPLE by Irwin Shaw and directed by Anatole Litvak (THE SNAKE PIT). This is a nifty little drama that has a noir-ish feel to it (all that fog). The film is resplendent in atmosphere (the aforementioned fog) and James Wong Howe's exceptional B&W cinematography is rich in detail and Heinz Roemheld's score helps considerably in that respect too. Garfield's character is so despicably unsympathetic, it's hard to see a leading star of today take on such a role. Frankly, I didn't much like any of the characters. Everyone is either a nasty piece of goods (Garfield), too weak to stand up for themselves (Mitchell, Qualen) or complicit in their own trouble like Ida Lupino as Mitchell's daughter who falls hard for Garfield even when she knows he's a rat. With Eddie Albert, Aline MacMahon as Mitchell's hypochondriac wife, George Tobias, Leo Gorcey and Jerome Cowan.

As You Like It (2006)

Director Kenneth Branagh’s decision to transfer Shakespeare’s comedy to 19th century Japan is distracting as it lends nothing to the story itself. Oh sure, the Japanese screens, kimonos and sumo wrestlers lend a certain exoticism to the tale but not much other than that. Even the stunning “Japanese” countryside which plays an important part is actually the English countryside. Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) flees to the forests of Arden with her cousin (Romola Garai) and the court fool (Alfred Molina) to avoid retaliation from her wicked uncle (Brian Blessed) who has usurped the throne from his brother (also Blessed). Masquerading as a boy, she toys with the youth (David Oyelowo), also banished, who loved her as a girl but does not recognize her in her male guise. The rich dialogue often makes no sense given its new and unintended surroundings and with a couple of exceptions (Janet McTeer, Alfred Molina) indifferently acted. Kevin Kline gets to give the famous “All the world’s a stage …” soliloquy. Patrick Doyle’s score is quite lovely though the final musical fling seems stagey.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

A Victorian feminist (Katharine Hepburn) finds herself pregnant by a married man (Van Heflin). She passes off her daughter (Doris Dudley) as her niece and continues to work for women's rights until 20 years later when her past threatens to destroy everything she has ever worked for. Based on the novel PORTRAIT OF A REBEL by Netta Syrett and directed by Mark Sandrich (TOP HAT). Often considered one of Hepburn's worst films (by those who obviously haven't seen SPITFIRE or MARY OF SCOTLAND), it starts off okay if somewhat clumsy before it ventures into a trite soap opera. Hepburn is rather wonderful which compensates for the rather creaky execution. Alas, it was a flop at the box office and contributed to Hepburn's place on the exhibitor's box office poison list. With Herbert Marshall as the suitor who hangs around waiting for Hepburn, Donald Crisp as her cold and unloving father, Elizabeth Allan and David Manners.