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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Cobweb (1955)

At an exclusive psychiatric clinic, both the patients and the staff suffer from unstable, neurotic behavior. When a new set of drapes are planned for the clinic's library, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of aggravating circumstances as the seemingly innocuous drapes become a symbol of power and hierarchy, of frustrated marital relationships and a source of pride. Based on a best selling novel by William Gibson (THE MIRACLE WORKER), director Vincente Minnelli manages to imbue just enough wit to make the whole overheated crazy atmosphere engrossing enough to hold your attention. No one gets off unscathed, not even the nominal hero Richard Widmark as the aggressive, hotshot psychiatrist with controversial "new" ideas. He devotes so much time to his patients that he doesn't even notice he's driving his wife (Gloria Grahame) crazy! By today's standards, the psychological insights seem rather banal but the film is compelling enough to overlook it. Minnelli and his cinematographer George Folsey make terrific use of the CinemaScope frame (to see it in a pan and scan format, is to not have seen it). The atonal score is by Leonard Rosenman. The impressive cast includes Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish (who steals the film as a hostile, bitter accountant), Susan Strasberg, John Kerr, Oscar Levant, Fay Wray, Adele Jergens, Paul Stewart, Jarma Lewis, Virginia Christine, Edgar Stehli, Bert Freed, Mabel Albertson, Olive Carey, Marjorie Bennett, Tommy Rettig and Sandy Descher.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

54 (1998)

Set in the disco scene of the 1970s, a handsome young kid (Ryan Phillippe) from New Jersey gets seduced by the glitter, freedom and drugs of the New York party scene when he works as a bartender at Studio 54, the place to be seen in New York until it all came crashing down. This is the film that should have been called THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO which was the title of another film which came out a couple of months earlier. The director Mark Christopher (who also wrote the screenplay) uses a fictional group of characters (with the exception of Mike Myers who plays Steve Rubell, the real life owner of Studio 54) who personify the period and Christopher captures the feverish high and lows of the era. It's not without major flaws however. Christopher had his film interfered with by its producers (the Weinsteins, who else?) and had 45 minutes cut from the original print and re-shot 25 minutes of new footage for the release print. The most egregious addition is a voice over by Phillippe which seems superfluous. The authentic soundtracks is almost a greatest disco hits of the 1970s. The large cast includes Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell, Mark Ruffalo, Sela Ward, Heather Matarazzo, Breckin Meyer, Michael York, Lauren Hutton, Thelma Houston and as an 80 year old disco diva, Ellen Albertini Dow.

The Secret People (1952)

A refugee (Valentina Cortese) from an unnamed totalitarian country and her younger sister (Angela Fouldes as a child, Audrey Hepburn as an adult) arrive in England. They have been sent by their father (who is later murdered by the fascist regime) to live with their uncle (Charles Goldner). Much later, Cortese's old lover (Serge Reggiani) arrives in Britain and pressures her to assist in the political assassination of the dictator on his visit to England. She agrees but something goes horribly wrong and the repercussions are far reaching. Directed by Thorold Dickinson (QUEEN OF SPADES), the film is an engrossing and thought felt treatise on violence vs. political idealism. Are the innocent expendable if it brings down an evil personage? Or is violence wrong no matter who it is directed against? Dickinson (who co-wrote the screenplay) is smart enough to understand he is making a movie and not just a political tract (not unlike Costa-Gavras) and he keeps the suspense element strong. Cortese in the film's core performance is very good, Reggiani shows his hand before he should and while sweet, the young Audrey Hepburn gives no indication here of the icon she would later become. With Irene Worth, Megs Jenkins, Athene Seyler and Reginald Tate.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Paradine Case (1947)

A married barrister (Gregory Peck) is hired to defend a wealthy but mysterious Italian widow (Alida Valli) on charges of poisoning her blind husband. But he loses all objectivity when he finds himself falling in love with her. This Alfred Hitchcock film isn't admired much and, in fact, most consider it one of his weaker films. I'm not so sure. Granted, it's unusually chatty for a Hitchcock film (only ROPE and DIAL M FOR MURDER may be talkier) but outside of the domestic scenes which are the weakest part of the movie, I found it quite vital. Unfortunately, it seems that almost half the film is devoted to the tedious, domestic scenes between Peck (in one of his rare unsympathetic roles) and Ann Todd as his wife, playing the understanding wife to end all understanding wives. Charles Laughton as a lecherous and sadistic judge and Ethel Barrymore (who received an Oscar nomination for her role here) as his mentally abused wife provide some respite from the Peck/Todd domestic scenes. The screenplay is credited to the film's producer David O. Selznick and Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville. The undistinguished score is by Franz Waxman and Lee Garmes (an Oscar winner for SHANGHAI EXPRESS) did the crisp B&W cinematography. With Louis Jourdan, Charles Coburn, Leo G. Carroll, Isobel Elsom and Joan Tetzel.

Quentin Durward (1955)

Based on the Sir Walter Scott novel, a Scottish knight named Quentin Durward (Robert Taylor) is sent by his aged, stingy uncle (Ernest Thesiger) to go to France and plead his case to the young, beautiful and wealthy Countess Of Marcroy (Kay Kendall) as a possible husband. Once there, Durward becomes involved in the political intrigues of the French court and the fight over power between the crafty King Louis XI (Robert Morley) and the duplicitous Duke Of Burgandy (Alec Clunes). Director Richard Thorpe and his star Robert Taylor hit a home run with their first Sir Walter Scott effort, IVANHOE. They're not so fortunate here. The film lacks the layers and complexity of that 1952 film. Oh, it's fun enough but it can't seem to manufacture the genuine sense of adventure necessary to make these swashbucklers work. That wonderful comedienne Kay Kendall seems out of her element as a typical damsel in distress and indeed, as the recipient of some of the film's worst dialogue, she seems on the verge of parodying her lines. Morley makes for a marvelously sly Louis XI though. The busy score is by Bronislau Kaper. With Marius Goring, George Cole, Laya Raki, Eric Pohlmann and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Overboard (1987)

After an unbearable, rich bitchy socialite (Goldie Hawn) falls off her yacht and gets amnesia, the small town carpenter (Kurt Russell) she stiffed out of his money gets his revenge by pretending to be her husband. As screwball comedies go, this one gives it the old college try but it runs out of steam pretty fast. Most of the humor comes in the first part of the film as the spoiled Hawn, now a fish out of water, attempts to be domestic and raising Russell's four kids who she believes to be her own. The film is near unimaginable without Hawn. The laugh mileage she gets from the predictable material is near remarkable. While it's a pity the material isn't better, is there any doubt she's one of the great screen comediennes, right up there with Lombard and Dunne? While Hawn doesn't get any help from director Garry Marshall, her real life "hubby" Kurt Russell make for a great romantic comedy team. I could have done with less of the typical 1980s synthesizer machine score by Alan Silvestri. With Roddy McDowall, Edward Herrmann, Katherine Helmond and Hector Elizondo.

Mister Buddwing (1966)

A man (James Garner) wakes up in Central Park with amnesia. All he has on him is a phone number, some pills and a ring inscribed "from G.V.". Encounters with four different women (Jean Simmons, Suzanne Pleshette, Katharine Ross, Angela Lansbury) he doesn't know will eventually lead him to remember the tragic incident which caused his loss of memory. Though the film has the form of a thriller, it's really a melodrama about a selfish man whose "selling out" turns his personal life into a battlefield. Strangely, the film gives us flashbacks of Garner's life but when we return to the present, he doesn't seem to have recalled the information given us. Are the flashbacks for us, the audience, and not Garner's character? And if they are his flashbacks, why doesn't he retain the info? The flashbacks are interesting in that they provide three of the actresses (Simmons, Pleshette, Ross) a chance to play two characters. The three different women they are in the present and the same mystery woman in Garner's past via the flashbacks. Other than that, the film is ultimately a disappointment. Based on the Evan Hunter (THE BIRDS) novel and directed by Delbert Mann (an Oscar winner for MARTY). With Jack Gilford, Raymond St. Jacques, Joe Mantell, George Voskovec, Wesley Addy, Ken Lynch and Nichelle Nichols.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lookin' To Get Out (1982)

After ripping off some thugs for $10,000, two unscrupulous losers (Jon Voight who co-wrote the screenplay, Burt Young) ditch New York City and go to Las Vegas to gamble the money. Once there, they con a hotel into believing they're friends of the owner in order to get the luxury treatment. Directed by Hal Ashby (SHAMPOO), the movie was originally recut by the studio by about 15 minutes which have been recently restored to the film. It's a hard film to like. Voight's character in particular is so charmless and annoying and as played by Voight, so hyperactive that the performance just wears you out. If we're supposed to care what happens to these two jerks, there has to be something that pulls us to them rather than pushing us away. To Ashby's credit, he doesn't attempt to sentimentalize them nor does he redeem them. The film has a good feel for 1980s Las Vegas (though the exteriors were done on a sound stage) and the Oscar winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler does a formidable job of capturing it as does the pulsating score by Johnny Mandel. With Ann-Margret, whose underacting is a breath of fresh air, Richard Bradford, Bert Remsen and in her film debut as Ann-Margret's daughter, Angelina Jolie.

Yolanda And The Thief (1945)

When a naive young girl (Lucille Bremer) raised in a convent comes into age, she inherits an estate worth millions of dollars. A con man (Fred Astaire) overhears her praying to her guardian angel. Determined to relieve her of some of her wealth, he pretends to be her guardian angel come to guide her in the form of a mortal man. The plot line of this Vincente Minnelli directed fantasy is pedestrian, it's indifferently acted and the songs (by Harry Warren and the producer Arthur Freed) anemic. What still makes this worth checking out are twofold. The stunning visual elements, both the art direction of Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith and the set direction by Edwin Willis, all beautifully photographed in three strip Technicolor by Charles Rosher. Then there are two production numbers choreographed by Eugene Loring that remain high points in the Astaire canon. The surrealistic Dali-esque dream ballet presages the more famous ballet of Minnelli's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and the rhythmic Coffee Time number in which the dance takes place on a black and white patterned floor (reportedly designed by the costume designer Irene Sharaff) that gives the illusion of three dimensional depth. With Frank Morgan as Astaire's partner in crime, Mildred Natwick as Bremer's scatterbrained aunt, Leon Ames and Mary Nash.

Ghost Ship (1952)

A young couple (Hazel Court, Dermot Walsh) decide to buy a yacht and use it as their home. This despite the shipyard manager's (Joss Ambler) warnings that the yacht has a bad reputation of being haunted. However, soon after purchasing and renovating the boat, mysterious things being to happen. Despite the word ghost in the title, this is a relatively mundane entry into the horror genre. In fact, I hesitate to even call it a horror film at all because not only are there no frights or suspense but not even any mood or atmosphere. It's more like a psychic detective story and even on that level, it's fairly routine. The lovely Hazel Court manages to bring some spark to the wife but Walsh is a pretty monotonous leading man. Directed by Vernon Sewell and with Joss Ackland and Patricia Owens (1958's THE FLY).

Friday, June 24, 2011

Murder By Death (1976)

An eccentric millionaire (Truman Capote) invites five of the world's greatest detectives (and their companions) for the weekend to his isolated country home for "dinner and a murder". At dinner, he tells them someone seated at the very table will be murdered at midnight and challenges them to solve it for one million dollars. This clever parody of the detective genre, an original screenplay by Neil Simon, is a feast for detective movie fans. Simon's often witty, sometimes silly quips are delivered by an impeccable cast, all playing parodies of famous movie and literary detectives. Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), James Coco as Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot), Peter Falk as Sam Diamond (Sam Spade), Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles (Jane Marple) and David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston (Nick and Nora Charles). Simon's script is both a send up of the genre and an affectionate homage and he's not afraid of political correctness with many of the jokes directed toward the blind butler (Alec Guinness) and the deaf mute cook (Nancy Walker). Directed by Robert Moore (THE CHEAP DETECTIVE) and with Eileen Brennan, Estelle Winwood, James Cromwell and Richard Narita.

Ministry Of Fear (1944)

Just released from a mental asylum for the mercy killing of his wife, a man (Ray Milland) wins a cake at a carnival by mistake. The cake was intended for a member of a covert Nazi group working in the U.K. but that mistake plunges Milland into a maelstrom of attempted murder, seances, femme fatales and spies. Based on a novel by Graham Greene and directed by Fritz Lang, the film is a rather far fetched if modestly entertaining spy thriller. But the film makers have excised all the darkness and moral ambiguity of Greene's book and put nothing in its place. This is one movie that deserves a remake! One of Lang's least memorable films. It doesn't help that the film is saddled with the pretty but bland Marjorie Reynolds as the heroine when the wickedly elegant "bad girl" Hillary Brooke is so much more intriguing. On the plus side, there's the atmospheric noir like cinematography of Henry Sharp (Vidor's THE CROWD). The workman like score is by Victor Young. With Dan Duryea, Alan Napier, Carl Esmond, Cyril Delevanti and Mary Field.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Robbery (1967)

A daring plan of hijacking a mail train carrying several million pounds is carefully put into motion by a master thief (Stanley Baker). To this end, he sets up a team of criminal minds, each an expert in his field. This British heist thriller, expertly directed by Peter Yates, was enough to capture the attention of Hollywood which imported him to direct BULLITT. There's a thrilling car chase through the streets of London in the film which now seems like a trial run for the more famous car chase in BULLIT. Clearly inspired by the infamous "Great Train Robbery" of 1963, Yates spends a great deal of time on the details and the planning of the robbery but far from being boring, it's the most intense part of the film. The actual train robbery, while superbly done, almost seems like an anti climax. One of the very best of its genre. The swinging jazz score is by Johnny Keating (HOTEL) and the cinematography by Douglas Slocombe (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). The cast includes Joanna Pettet (second billed but wasted as Baker's wife), James Booth, Frank Finlay, Barry Foster, William Marlowe and Clinton Greyn.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sabita Naifu (aka Rusty Knife) (1958)

Two ex-thugs are attempting to lead clean lives. When they are subpoenaed as witnesses for a murder they witnessed years ago, their responses are quite different. The stronger one (Yujiro Ishihara) refuses to cooperate with the police but just wanting to be left alone, he also refuses hush money from the gang responsible for the crime. The weaker one (Akira Kobayashi) accepts the money and plans to blackmail the gangsters for more. This crudely made yakuza film, directed by Toshio Masuda, is strongly influenced by those Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s. One could easily see, say, James Cagney and George Raft in the Ishihara and Kobayashi roles. But the characters, with the exception of Mie Kitahara as the murdered man's daughter, are unlikable. Not only that, they're not very bright either so rather than get involved, we watch with a thin veneer of contempt for them. Unfortunately, Ishihara makes the mistake of grinning several times during the film but, alas, he has the most hideous teeth I've ever seen in a leading man! Masaru Sato did the intrusive score and Kurataro Takamura is responsible for the well composed NikkatsuScope images.

Night Monster (1942)

In an isolated mansion surrounded by foggy swamps where a couple of mysterious murders have occurred, several "guests" including four doctors are staying the night when mysterious apparitions and several stranglings occur. Despite being top billed, horror veterans Bela Lugosi as a stodgy butler and Lionel Atwill (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN) as a doctor have supporting roles. It's a middling Universal creature feature, heavy on atmosphere but light on the chills and with uninteresting romantic leads, Don Porter and Irene Hervey. Janet Shaw as a sassy no nonsense maid brings some needed spark to the proceedings so, of course, she's one of the first to get knocked off! If you're fond of "old dark house" movies, you may find enough to hold your interest but even at a brief 72 minutes, I found it rather tedious. Directed by Ford Beebe and with Leif Erickson, far creepier than anyone else in the film as a lecherous chauffeur, Fay Helm, Ralph Morgan, Nils Asther, Doris Lloyd and Cyril Delevanti.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Walk The Proud Land (1956)

The true story of John Clum (Audie Murphy) sent by the Department Of The Interior as an Indian Agent to the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona territory in 1874. After years of abuse from both previous agents and a hostile military, Clum attempts to restore pride and self sufficiency to the Apaches with the aim that the reservation will eventually be self governing by the Apache. A fascinating story in its own right, the film places a fictitious "romantic" conflict between an Indian widow (Anne Bancroft) and Clum's wife (Pat Crowley) to pad out the film's brief running time. However welcome it always is to see Bancroft, it wasn't necessary as it takes away the focus of Clum's intriguing story. Alas, it took many years for Clum's dream to be fulfilled. It wasn't until 1955 when the U.S. government actually turned over the San Carlos reservation to the Apaches. Jesse Hibbs directed and the CinemaScope lenses were under the care of Harold Lipstein (PAL JOEY). With Charles Drake (who has one of the worst drunk scenes I've ever seen), dancer Tommy Rall (7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS) who's used principally as an actor but gets to do an Indian war dance, Anthony Caruso, Morris Ankrum and as Geronimo, Jay Silverheels.

Se, Jie (aka Lust, Caution) (2007)

Set in 1938 Hong Kong and later 1942 Shanghai under the Japanese occupation, a young student (Tang Wei) is recruited into a resistance movement that plots to assassinate an important Chinese official (Tony Leung) who is collaborating with the Japanese. To this end, she eventually becomes his mistress in order to obtain necessary information but their relationship becomes complex on both their sides which causes her conflict. Directed by Ang Lee (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) and based on a novella by Eileen Chang, this is a rich and fascinating examination of a naive young girl who's basically turned into a whore for her country and how she is unable to sustain the necessary distance and not surrender to her emotions to accomplish her mission. The young Tang Wei gives a beautifully modulated performance capturing both the innocent young girl and the woman torn apart with inner conflict. The period look is impeccable, in large part to costume designer Lai Pan and the six art directors, handsomely shot by Rodrigo Prieto (BABEL) who imparts an authentic period feel. The haunting score is by the wonderful Alexandre Desplat. With Joan Chen as Leung's mahjong playing wife.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Payment On Demand (1951)

Tired of his social climbing wife's (Bette Davis) ambitions and controlling nature, a businessman (Barry Sullivan) stuns her by asking for a divorce. After he leaves, she reflects on their marriage and what brought them to their unhappy end. This domestic soap opera, directed by Curtis Bernhardt, sat on the shelf for two years before being released but only after Howard Hughes (the head of RKO at the time) changed the pessimistic ending to a more hopeful one. It's too bad because the ending seems too pat, too arbitrary after all we've been shown. The most unusual aspect of the film is the use of theatrical scrims (we can see through walls into other rooms or the outside) and stylized painted backdrops (a starry sky revolves continuously during a night drive) during the flashback sequences while the scenes set in the present are presented naturally. Davis is fine, though her Edith Head wardrobe isn't very flattering, in one of those wives from Hell parts (think Mary Tyler Moore in ORDINARY PEOPLE or Crawford in HARRIET CRAIG). Victor Young provides the score. With the famed stage actress Jane Cowl as a wealthy aging divorcee living in Haiti with a gigolo, Frances Dee, Peggie Castle, Richard Anderson, Kent Taylor, Otto Kruger, John Sutton, Natalie Schafer and Betty Lynn.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Beginners (2011)

A middle aged bachelor (Ewan McGregor), who has trouble holding on to relationships, must cope with not only the revelation that his father (Christopher Plummer) is coming out of the closet as a gay man at the ripe, old age of 75 but that his father has terminal cancer. On paper, this sounds like a schmaltzy disaster ready to happen but director/writer Mike Mills (who based the film on his own father's coming out at age 75) miraculously balances both the innate sadness of the situation with an authentic appreciation of the dark humor inherent in such situations. In other words, it's like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT without the manipulation. Mills provides the film with both a back story and a back history, the repressive 1950s, and both McGregor's parents hiding important layers of themselves which were anathema to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America at that time. Namely, the father's sexuality and the mother's (beautifully underplayed by Mary Page Keller) Jewish roots. It's a lovely film that echoes the hope that it's never too late for a new beginning. With Melanie Laurent (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) as the French actress who gives McGregor his second chance, Goran Visnjic as Plummer's young lover and in the film's best performance, a scene stealing Jack Russell called Cosmo who plays Arthur.

Nadine (1987)

Set in 1954 Texas, a dingbat (Kim Basinger) attempts to get back the semi nude photos she posed for from the photographer (Jerry Stiller) but while she's waiting in another room, he's murdered. But when she involves her soon to be ex-husband (Jeff Bridges) into obtaining the photos, they find themselves involved in something bigger and more dangerous than they expected. Directed by the Oscar winning Robert Benton (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), this rather anemic comedy (as empty headed as its heroine) depends way too much on the likability of its two leads to carry our good will to its predictable conclusion. Basinger and Bridges play white trash impeccably but the screenplay doesn't give them any opportunity to flesh out their characters so we have to settle for the stereotype. On the plus side, the cinematography by Nestor Almendros (DAYS OF HEAVEN) has an appropriately bleak and dusty period look to it. A moderately pleasant time waster is the best one can say for it. With Rip Torn as the rattlesnake toting villain, Gwen Verdon, Glenne Headly and Jay Patterson.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Escape To Athena (1979)

Set in 1944 German occupied Greece, some prisoners of war are used to dig for archaeological Greek treasures which in turned are looted by the Nazis and returned to Germany. The head (Telly Savalas) of the local resistance movement plans to liberate the POW camp while inside the camp, a group of prisoners (David Niven, Elliott Gould, Richard Roundtree, Sonny Bono) plot to escape and rob the local monastery of its treasures. This WWII action adventure doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be THE GREAT ESCAPE or HOGAN'S HEROES. The comedy elements border on the offensive amongst the indiscriminate Nazi executions and Roger Moore as the POW commandant is problematic. He's supposed to be a "good" German (actually, the film goes out of its way to make it known he's Austrian) and when Stefanie Powers has an affair with him, are we not to think she's a collaborator? The film meanders aimlessly for most of the film before whipping up a genuinely exciting finale as the resistance takes over a Nazi stronghold in the mountains. The pedestrian score is by Lalo Schifrin but Gilbert Taylor (DR. STRANGELOVE) does a nice job of capturing the island of Rhodes on film. With Claudia Cardinale as the local madam and William Holden whose brief presence as a POW is an "in" joke referring to his Oscar winning role in STALAG 17.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Not As A Stranger (1955)

An idealistic but struggling medical student (Robert Mitchum) faces being kicked out of medical school because he can't afford the tuition. When he meets an older and dowdy, lonely nurse (Olivia De Havilland) with a small nest egg, he marries her in order to be able to finish medical school. The first feature film directed by Stanley Kramer, this soapy melodrama (based on a now obscure best seller by Morton Thompson) is more enjoyable than his preachy, heavy-handed efforts like THE DEFIANT ONES and INHERIT THE WIND. That doesn't mean it's any good, mind you, just free of the civics lessons mentality and though the film flirts with medical ethics as a plot point, it's just a "juicy" melodrama inflated with just enough self importance to come in over the two hour mark. Mitchum, along with Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin, all look a bit mature to play medical students and interns. Mitchum gives a decent performance however. There is a priceless moment of unintentional humor, however. Just before Mitchum succumbs to the allure of the other woman (Gloria Grahame), he lets her raging stallion out of the barn who promptly leaps over the fence to satisfy himself with a mare! The score is by George Antheil. The large cast includes Broderick Crawford, Charles Bickford, Harry Morgan (who has a terrible Swedish accent), Virginia Christine, Whit Bissell, Mae Clarke and Lon Chaney Jr.

Hausu (aka House) (1977)

A young school girl (Kimiko Ikegami) invites six of her school chums to spend their summer vacation with her at her aunt's (Yoko Minimida) isolated country house despite the fact that she hasn't seen her aunt in years. Once there, as the girls disappear one by one, it's clear that something evil inhabits the house. What to make of Nobuhiko Obayashi's surreal, stylized horror fantasy? You've never seen anything like it. Often very (intentionally) silly, funny yet still with a genuine sense of horror, Obayashi uses everything from animation to obvious painted backdrops to pull us into this strange supernatural world. When one of the characters says, "This doesn't make sense", we nod in agreement, it doesn't make sense but I don't think it's supposed to. Decapitated heads that bite you on the ass, the cat from (literally) Hell, homicidal pianos, severed legs performing kung fu, etc. but it works so ..... The girls have names like Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet and Melody so they seem like fragmented feminine stereotypes (sugar 'n spice and everything nice) that I began to wonder if the film were some kind of odd treatise on pubescent female sexuality. A one of a kind film, that's for sure and I'm not too sure how seriously we're supposed to take it but it's a lot of fun.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Inferno (1953)

After his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover (William Lundigan) leave him stranded in the desert to die, a millionaire (Robert Ryan) must learn to survive by cunning and his wits in an attempt to stay alive. This tightly drawn Technicolor thriller, directed by the Brit Roy Ward Baker (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER), was originally filmed in and shown in 3D but it doesn't need all that 1950's 3D "in your face" junk thrown at you to keep you on the edge of your seat. In fact, the 3D effects are pretty minimal, rocks falling down on you, a rattlesnake lunging at the camera. Baker makes Ryan's struggle to survive against all odds extremely compelling so that the focus of our interest is on not only how and if he will survive, but what will he do to the duplicitous lovers if he survives. Ryan is very good here with most of his performance in voice over (after all he's all alone in the desert) but Fleming gives a nicely nuanced, conflicted performance whereas Lundigan is pretty one dimensional. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard's desert landscapes are impeccable and the discreet score by Paul Sawtell is effective. If you've not seen it, you're in for a treat. With Larry Keating, Carl Betz, Henry Hull and Barbara Pepper.

The Blue Bird (1976)

Two peasant children (Patsy Kensit, Todd Lookinland) go on a quest for the Blue Bird Of Happiness at the bequest of Light (Elizabeth Taylor). This is the fifth film adaptation of the Maurice Maeterlinck story, the most famous one being the 1940 Technicolor version with Shirley Temple. This one was an Anglo-Soviet co-production filmed in the Soviet Union directed by George Cukor (MY FAIR LADY). The film looks like it was made in 1933, so one can only imagine how it positively creaked in 1976. Ostensibly a musical but the songs are forgettable and the choreography awkward and clumsy and performed by the Leningrad Ballet yet! Only the Irwin Kostal music (but not Tony Harrison's lyrics) and underscore display any sense of competence. Almost insufferably maudlin so that when Ava Gardner shows up as a debauched, lewdly grinning Luxury one wants to cheer! Jane Fonda as Night and Cicely Tyson as Cat (I'd almost call it her career low point if it weren't for THE CONCORDE AIRPORT '79) aren't so lucky. A very bizarre film. Cinematography by Freddie Young (DOCTOR ZHIVAGO) and Edith Head did the costumes for Taylor, Gardner and Fonda. With Robert Morley, Harry Andrews, Will Geer, George Cole and Mona Washbourne.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Maniac (1963)

After his daughter (Liliane Brousse) is brutally raped, her father gets his revenge by killing her attacker with an acetylene torch. He is declared insane and sent to a mental asylum and it would seem to end there. But several years later, when an American painter (Kerwin Mathews) comes to stay at the inn run by the wife (Nadia Gray, LA DOLCE VITA) and daughter, both of whom are attracted to him, of the incarcerated madman, it becomes clear that the past is far from over. This Hammer production directed by Michael Carreras is a top notch psychological thriller. Beautifully filmed is B&W "MegaScope" in the Camargue district of southern France by Wilkie Cooper (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD), the film has a beautifully crafted screenplay by Jimmy Sangster that keeps you guessing till the very end with a twist you can't possibly see coming, than -bam- another twist and yet a third twist to finish off the finale. If you like mystery thrillers, you can't miss this one! The score is by Stanley Black. With Donald Houston and George Pastell.

Marjorie Morningstar (1958)

A young Jewish girl (Natalie Wood) attempts to break away from the stereotypical expectations of her parents (Claire Trevor, Everett Sloane), that of marrying a nice boy and settling down as a wife and mother. She opts instead for a career as an actress but a love affair with a struggling, aging composer (Gene Kelly) interrupts her plans. Based on the 1955 best seller by Herman Wouk (THE CAINE MUTINY), the film is unique in its placing of Judaism and Jews at the forefront of its story rather than playing down that aspect of the story. While there have been many Jewish characters in films through out the years, films about Jews were almost non-existent in Hollywood. But the film's screenplay alters much of the novel's plot, most importantly in the ending. On paper, Wood would seem to be ideal for Marjorie and I'm not sure she isn't. But she seems overwhelmed and I suspect director Irving Rapper wasn't much help (he wasn't much of a director either). Gene Kelly is miscast. He's not a strong enough actor to make Noel Airman palatable or make us understand what Wood (or anybody else) sees in him. The idea of someone pining for years over Kelly seems downright bizarre. Music by Max Steiner and the lovely song, A Very Special Love by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster received an Oscar nomination. The leads flounder but the supporting cast is excellent including Carolyn Jones, Martin Balsam, Ed Wynn, Martin Milner, Paul Picerni, Ruta Lee, Edd Byrnes and George Tobias.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bandit Of Sherwood Forest (1946)

William of Pembroke (Henry Daniell), regent to the child King (Maurice Tauzin), revokes the Magna Carta and usurps the throne of England. It falls to the son (Cornel Wilde) of Robin Hood (Russell Hicks) to save the day, much as his father did when Prince John usurped the throne from King Richard. This lively Technicolor adventure can't disguise its low budget and the film lacks the panache of the classic 1938 ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. The film is credited to two directors, George Sherman and Henry Levin (WHERE THE BOYS ARE), so I'm not sure who's responsible for what but it's a congenial, modest entertainment with enough swashbuckling to please the most demanding of the genre's fans. Wilde cuts a fine swath as the young Robin but Anita Louise, though only 31, looks rather matronly as the lady in waiting who provides the romantic interest. The energetic score is by Hugo Friedhofer (who would go on to score his Oscar winning BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES the same year). With Jill Esmond (the first Mrs. Laurence Olivier) as the Queen, George Macready, Edgar Buchanan as Friar Tuck and Ian Wolfe.

Bold And The Brave (1956)

In 1944 Italy as the war nears its end, the film follows three soldiers. A coward (Wendell Corey), a religious bigot (Don Taylor, FATHER OF THE BRIDE) and a small time gambler (Mickey Rooney) with big dreams. The first half of the film is the best as Taylor's fanatic falls for the charms of a local tramp (Nicole Maurey, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST) and begins to become human ... for awhile, at least. The second half, the combat portion, is fairly predictable. We know the coward will find his courage, the bigot will be humbled and based on Rooney's hyperactive performance, his fate is clear even before it happens. Still, the Academy liked it enough to nominate him for an Oscar in the supporting category and the screenplay by Robert Lewin got a nod, too. As war films from the 1950s go, it's pretty decent but it's no MEN IN WAR or PORK CHOP HILL. Directed by Lewis R. Foster with a score by Herschel Burke Gilbert though the hideous title song was the brainchild of Rooney and Ross Bagdasarian (best remembered today as the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks). With John Smith and Race Gentry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Then She Found Me (2008)

Within days of having her husband (Matthew Broderick) leave her and her mother dying, a teacher (Helen Hunt) is contacted by a woman (Bette Midler) claiming to be her birth mother. Based on the 1990 novel by Elinor Lipman, Hunt not only directs but co-wrote and co-produced the film. It's clearly a labor of love so it's a double pity that the film isn't better. It is as the actress that Hunt fares best. She gives an often touching, low key performance as a woman overwhelmed by the wave of dire circumstances that pull her in every direction. The film itself tries to balance the more realistic aspects of the story with the sitcom elements and they just don't mesh. In particular, Midler seems out of place, giving a rather broad performance that conflicts with the more naturalistic performances around her including Colin Firth as a single father who falls in love with Hunt. Still, it's a sincere and heartfelt effort and if not entirely successful, it has enough moments that you won't feel you've wasted your time. With Ben Shenkman, John Benjamin Hickey and in cameos, Tim Robbins and Janeane Garofalo.

Dream Wife (1953)

Frustrated by his fiancee's (Deborah Kerr) workaholic mentality which leaves very little time for him, a man (Cary Grant) breaks off the engagement and pursues a Middle Eastern princess (Betta St. John) brought up in the ways of pleasing a man. This is pretty much a one joke comedy and the variations on that joke wear thin very rapidly. Also, the slight undertone of misogyny in the screenplay leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Directed by the Oscar winning screenwriter Sidney Sheldon (best known for such trash novels as THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT and BLOODLINE), Grant and Kerr attempt to sparkle and near astonishing considering the paucity of the material, they actually do shine from time to time. Women (and Islam, for that matter) fare poorly as all sorts of lame attempts at humor fail to give the movie the kick it needs. Helen Rose's stylish gowns received an Oscar nomination and Kerr (not ordinarily a glamour girl) looks particularly smashing in them. With Walter Pidgeon, Eduard Franz, Bruce Bennett, Richard Anderson, Steve Forrest, Dean Miller, Gloria Holden and Kathleen Freeman.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

A group of geeky nerds (I think they're supposed to be in high school but they act like grammar school) are filming an amateur film late at night in the hopes of entering it into a contest. But they witness a horrible train wreck that unleashes a mysterious power that soon terrorizes the town. Of course, duh, the government knows all about it but is keeping them in the dark. Putrid about sums it up. It's the kind of cold, calculated soulless, cliche ridden CGI extravaganza that gives summer blockbusters a bad rep. Director J.J. Abrams is shameless! He piles on the sentimental twaddle like when boy bonds with girl (to Michael Giacchino's syrupy score) while they watch home movies of his dead mother, I kid you not! The ending is a shocking, near scene for scene, blatant rip-off of E.T. which sadly gives credence to the accusations that the film's co-producer Steven Spielberg might be a whoremonger after all! The film is a patchy, lazy piece of film making. One minute, the brats are in an underground cave trapped by a murderous alien, the next scene they're out of the cave and we're left to our own imagination as to how exactly they got out! Except for Elle Fanning, who has an actress's presence, the acting is abominable. The precocious brats here are Hollywood's idea of all American kids and bear no resemblance to the actual adolescent population. Loud and stupid and disgusting!

Not Of This Earth (1957)

An alien (Paul Birch) from a dying planet (their blood is destroyed by continuous exposure to radiation) is sent on a mission to earth to determine if the human species blood is compatible to theirs. If it is, then mankind will be used as a blood supply for their planet ..... or something like that. It's never a good idea to dwell on these loopy 1950s sci-fi plots. It's a rather silly "B" sci-fi horror courtesy of Roger Corman, who produced and directed. But the earnestness in which all the actors dutifully play their parts makes for quite an enjoyable piece of hokum. Plus, there's the often (unintentional) humorous dialogue and the occasional "in" joke like when scream queen Beverly Garland literally uses her screams as a weapon against Birch whose hearing is super sensitive to high pitched sounds. Garland is provided a romantic interest in the form of stick in the mud Morgan Jones but those Corman hipsters, Dick Miller (BUCKET OF BLOOD) and Jonathan Haze (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) are around to provide some vinegar. Believe it or not, it's been remade twice already. In 1988 with ex-porn star Traci Lords in the Garland role and again in 1995 with Michael York in Birch's role.

Revanche (2008)

An ex-con (Johannes Krisch) who works in a Vienna brothel is in love with one of the prostitutes, a Ukrainian (Irina Potapenko). He plots a robbery which will be their ticket to freedom. A policeman (Andreas Lust) has a seemingly happy marriage but his wife (Ursula Strauss) has a miscarriage and they seem unable to conceive a child, something they both desperately want. Their parallel stories cross, horribly and tragically, in this tale of revenge and redemption. An Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, director Gotz Spielmann's probing and intense screenplay is hindered by a near sluggish snail pacing, practically crying out "This is profound!". As if a taut and suspenseful, well edited movie can't also be artful and have something to say. But if you hang in there and don't throw the towel in, you'll be rewarded with a well crafted, fascinating film with twists and turns that while often predictable, still provide a punch. It takes awhile to warm up to the characters, all of whom are terribly flawed and initially off-putting but by the end, Spielmann opens them up and lets understand their pain, guilt and fear. The handsome cinematography is courtesy of Martin Gschlacht.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sincerely Yours (1955)

A famous and admired popular pianist (Liberace) begins to lose his hearing. Unable to continue with his career, he begins to become involved in the lives of strangers and helping them. In the annals of bad movies, this is something special. A one time experiment that was never repeated, Liberace had a two picture contract with Warner Bros. but this one was such a bomb that Warners paid him off rather than make another movie with him. The film is horrific, but like a train wreck you can't take your eyes off it, you're compelled to watch. It's not just the image of Dorothy Malone, one of the most carnal of film actresses, as Liberace's love interest but I truly tossed my cookies when Liberace did a soft-shoe at his Carnegie Hall concert! Liberace's idea of serious acting is not blinking his eyes. It's got a crippled child (Richard Eyer), a sweet old lady (Lurene Tuttle) treated badly by her daughter (Lori Nelson), a fiancee (Malone) in love with another man (Alex Nicol) but won't break the engagement because Liberace is deaf, the suffering secretary (Joanne Dru) secretly in love with the boss etc. Every maudlin and sentimental cliche you can think of. Previously filmed in 1932 under the title THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD with George Arliss and Bette Davis. Directed by Gordon Douglas and with William Demarest, Ian Wolfe, Edward Platt and Guy Williams.

Underworld (1927)

A notorious gangster (George Bancroft) takes an alcoholic ex-lawyer (Clive Brook), who's fallen on hard times, under his wing. Complications ensue when an obvious sexual attraction occurs between Brook and the gangster's moll (Evelyn Brent). This film was a breakthrough for director Josef von Sternberg in Hollywood after several false starts, both critically and financially. Based on a film treatment by Ben Hecht (who would later write SCARFACE for Howard Hawks), von Sternberg's film is rich in texture, a visual feast with three strong central performances especially Bancroft who gives a fierce performance. von Sternberg neatly orchestrates the frantic and feverish underworld of mobsters living a precarious existence while balancing it with the poignant romance between two people looking for a second act in life. Hecht (who won an Oscar for his original story here) disliked the affecting coda that von Sternberg gave the film, referring to it as sentimental. I think he's being unfair because it works wonderfully, adding another layer to Bancroft's character. If you get an opportunity to see the film with the score by the Alloy orchestra, it's preferable to the recently composed score by Robert Israel which is too busy.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Over-Exposed (1956)

A hard blonde (Cleo Moore) from the other side of the tracks claws her way to the top of New York celebrity as a famous and sought after photographer. This tawdry "B" movie is actually a lot of fun even though it has a by the numbers screenplay. The voluptuous Moore comes across as a junior league Mamie Van Doren who went to the Lana Turner school of acting. But she's a quite likable, if unmemorable, presence in her form fitting Jean Louis gowns. Still, movies like this are no help to any one's career and she quit acting after one more movie. It's probably just as well. A very young Richard Crenna, who hadn't yet found his actor's grace, plays the newspaperman who wants Moore to give up her money grubbing ways and settle down to domestic bliss. Directed by Lewis Seiler (WOMEN'S PRISON). With Jack Albertson, Isobel Elsom, Jeanne Cooper and Raymond Greenleaf as the sympathetic photographer fallen on hard times who sets Moore on her path.

Night Of The Eagle (aka Burn Witch Burn) (1962)

A psychology professor (Peter Wyngarde) discovers that his wife (Janet Blair) has been practicing witchcraft behind his back. She maintains that it's her spells that have brought him success but he demands she destroy her all her witch paraphernalia. After she does, strange things begin happening and his once secure life begins to unravel. This atmospheric horror tale would do Val Lewton proud. Director Sidney Hayers (CIRCUS OF HORRORS) skillfully blends suspense and the supernatural with a naturalism that helps make the unbelievable believable. Hayers is aided in this by a clever screenplay by Twilight Zone's regular contributors, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont as well as George Baxt which is based on the Fritz Leiber novel, CONJURE WIFE which had been made previously in 1943 under the title WEIRD WOMAN. Blair, imported from the USA, is excellent as is Margaret Johnston. The effective score is by William Alwyn (CRIMSON PIRATE). Released in the U.S. with the more lurid title, BURN WITCH BURN. With Kathleen Byron (BLACK NARCISSUS), Anthony Nicholls and Colin Gordon.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Last Valley (1971)

Set in Germany during the Thirty Years War, a former teacher (Omar Sharif) struggling to stay alive stumbles across a peaceful valley untouched by the horrors of war. Shortly, a band of pillaging and looting mercenaries lead their Captain (Michael Caine) discover the valley and Sharif convinces him to protect the village while the villagers shelter he and his men until the spring. An uneasy peace seems to be working but what will happen in the spring? This ambitious, intelligent epic written (from the novel by J.B. Pick) and directed by novelist turned director James Clavell still hasn't found its audience 40 years later which is a pity. It's flawed, yes, but what it attempts to do and, for the most part, succeeds in doing is more challenging than many more successful efforts with lesser aims that one can forgive it its trespasses. One can't fully embrace either the barbarianism of the soldiers but neither can one accept the bigotry and religious fanaticism of the villagers so it's easier to invest empathy on individuals (like the Satan worshipping Florinda Bolkan) rather than as a whole. The over insistent score by John Barry is problematic, not so much because it seems derivative of his LION IN WINTER but it tries too hard. Filmed in Austria. With Arthur O'Connell, Nigel Davenport, Yorgo Voyagis, Christian Roberts, Michael Gothard, Madeleine Hinde, Brian Blessed and in an overwrought performance, Per Oscarsson as the village's fanatical priest.

Man In The Shadow (1957)

After a Mexican bracero (migrant farm worker) is brutally killed because of his attention to the daughter (Colleen Miller) of a cattle baron (a restrained Orson Welles), it falls to the newly elected sheriff (Jeff Chandler) to bring the boy's murderers to justice. But he receives stiff resistance in his investigation, not only from the ranch but from the townspeople who depend on the cattle ranch for their livelihood. This minor contemporary western (the sheriff drives instead of rides) directed by Jack Arnold (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE) is an intense piece of "B" movie making, perhaps slightly ahead of its time in that it examines the resentment of "illegal aliens" and how they are considered somewhat less than human by the Caucasian townspeople. It presages Arthur Penn's THE CHASE which came 9 years later in that it covers remarkably similar territory even down to a shocking and brutal beating on the sheriff, Chandler here and Brando in THE CHASE. The film borders on something almost great that could have elevated it from a "B" movie to an important one but it's not sufficiently well written to transcend itself. Plus, there's one huge loophole (plenty of witnesses that saw the killers drag the victim away) that's never addressed. With Barbara Lawrence, James Gleason, Ben Alexander, John Larch, Royal Dano, Paul Fix, William Schallert and Leo Gordon.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Night Flight (1933)

Set in the early days of aviation when night flying was not the routine business it is today. A pilot (Clark Gable) takes off from Chile with a destination to Argentina, flying over the Andes, but gets lost when a storm throws him off course. His fate is tensely awaited by both his wife (Helen Hayes) and the cold hearted company manager (John Barrymore), who pushes his pilots to the brink. Not seen in 68 years due to a rights problem with the Antoine De Saint-Exupery (who wrote the original novel) estate, the Clarence Brown (NATIONAL VELVET) film is best when dealing with the aviation side of the story. He manages to keep a disquieting tension through out especially in the Gable (who plays his role with very little dialogue) storyline. The women don't fare as well with Hayes and Myrna Loy as fretting wives who wait while their men fly dangerous routes, though Hayes has one good scene when she tells off Barrymore. The cinematography (credited to three different men) is very good and the flight images often more than that. A must for fans of aviation movies and even if you're not, it's quite gripping. The solid score is by Herbert Stothart. With Robert Montgomery, Lionel Barrymore and William Gargan.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

When a famous crooner (Dean Martin) drives through a desolate Nevada town, two aspiring songwriters (Ray Walston, Cliff Osmond) concoct a plan that will force him to spend the night and therefore, hopefully, sell him one of their songs. Unfortunately, the singer is an oversexed satyr so Walston sends his pretty wife (Felicia Farr) away for the night and brings in the town's resident tramp (Kim Novak) to pretend to be his wife and "help". When first released in 1964, this Billy Wilder film caused a bit of a firestorm. Not only was it condemned by the Catholic church but it was greeted with hostile reviews from the critical establishment calling it "long on vulgarity" and "it seems to have scraped its blue humor off the floor of a honky tonk nightclub" among other things. By today's standards, those shocked critics seem rather prissy. In fact, the film is frequently quite funny and its raciness, while still not for the kiddies, refreshingly adult. The fly in the ointment is the uncharismatic Walston (who was a last minute replacement for Peter Sellers) who lacks pizzaz and unfortunately takes up most of the screen time. But Martin is amusing, good naturedly playing a parody of his image and Novak has a sweet Monroe-ish pathos that's very appealing. And if a film score can be called witty, Andre Previn's contribution is that. With Barbara Pepper, Skip Ward, Alice Pearce, Howard McNear and Doro Merande.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sitting Bull (1954)

A major (Dale Robertson) in the U.S. Cavalry, who is sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans, attempts to intercede in the tense relationship between the Sioux nation and the U.S. cavalry represented by General George C. Custer (Douglas Kennedy) which will eventually erupt into the battle of Little Big Horn. Essentially a low budget "B" western, the film is elevated by the strong compositions in the CinemaScope format by cinematographers Charles Van Enger (ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN) and Victor Herrera. Historically, most of it is fabricated though one admires its sympathetic look at the Indians. Alas, too much time is wasted on the hackneyed romantic triangle (Robertson, Mary Murphy, William Hopper) when the focus should be on the Indian angle. The film is unusual for its time in its portrayal of a black man (Joel Fluellen), an ex-slave who chooses to live with the Indians rather than the white men, in a non stereotypical way. The score is by Raoul Kraushaar, who weaves Max Rich's haunting title song Great Spirit into the score proper. Directed by Sidney Salkow with location shooting in Mexico done by Rene Cardona. With J. Carrol Naish (who's Irish) in the title role, Thomas Browne Henry and Iron Eyes Cody.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cluny Brown (1946)

A plumber's niece (Jennifer Jones) and a Czech refugee (Charles Boyer) meet briefly when she fixes the drain pipes at the flat of a British aristocrat (Reginald Gardiner). Later they meet again at an English country manor, he as a guest and she as a servant, where they find themselves victims of the English class system. Based on the novel by Margery Sharp, this wickedly witty comedy was the last film completed by the great Ernst Lubitsch (he died while filming THAT LADY IN ERMINE which was completed by Otto Preminger) and it's a great swan song. The famed "Lubitsch touch" is much in evidence and his pointed arrows at the upper English classes (and their servants) find their target every time. Some of the humor is surprisingly racy. When referring to drain pipes, Jones proclaims the joy of "banging", the prissy servants mistake it for something else! Jones is a delight and it's clear from this (and BEAT THE DEVIL) that she missed her calling as a comedienne. Boyer exudes his effortless continental charm and, indeed, the entire cast is perfection. Among them Peter Lawford, Helen Walker (NIGHTMARE ALLEY), Reginald Owen, Richard Haydn, Una O'Connor, Sara Allgood and C. Aubrey Smith.

En Kvinnas Ansikte (aka A Woman's Face) (1938)

Bitter and resentful after a fire disfigured her face as a child, a young woman (Ingrid Bergman) turns to a life of crime by organizing a gang conducting blackmail schemes. When a surgeon (Anders Henrikson), the husband of one of her victims, offers to perform plastic surgery on her in the hope she will reform, she agrees but it won't be that easy. Directed by Gustaf Molander (INTERMEZZO), this is a tautly conceived character melodrama and the young pre-Hollywood Bergman already displays her formidable talent. She subtly shows the transformation from scarred on the inside to healing on the inside without going all actress-y on us. MGM did a remake in 1941 directed by George Cukor and with Joan Crawford in Bergman's role but that film, while good, isn't as honest as this Swedish version, instead making concessions to audiences by giving it a happier ending among other things like changing character's motivations. With Tore Svennberg, Georg Rydeberg and Karin Kavli.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tree Of Life (2011)

A mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram telling her of her son's death. The father (Brad Pitt) gets the news via telephone. The brother (Sean Penn) is overwhelmed and begins to ponder and reminisce ..... and thus a mystical journey into the nature of God, death, family and our place in the cosmos begins. Very rarely, if we're lucky, while watching a film we sense the presence of greatness almost immediately and posterity be damned. Antonioni's L'AVVENTURA was one, Kubrick's 2001 another. This is a masterpiece. A polarizing one to be sure, like all great films often conjuring up a "love it/hate it" reaction (my filmgoing companion was positively enraged by it!), but a masterwork nonetheless. It's the kind of film where the "hate it" crowd throw accusations like "pretentious", "self indulgent" or "boring" at it. It's much easier to be glib than actually attempt to decipher a profound work of Art and this is coming from someone who is no Terence Malick fanboy. I intensely disliked his DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE NEW WORLD had me bolting my seat halfway through. To call Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography stunning is to demean it. I don't think the word exists that can do it justice. A great film ... but not for everyone.

Hesher (2011)

A young boy (Devin Brochu) is having difficulty in coming to terms with the death of his mother. His father (Rainn Wilson) has retreated into prescription drugs and his grandmother (Piper Laurie) is addled and not quite all there. Into his life comes a mean spirited slacker (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who, without being asked, invades the family's home and takes over. To call this movie hideous and one of the worst films I've ever had to sit through is an understatement. It's a mass of cliches, indifferently acted and one can imagine director Spencer Susser rubbing his hands behind the camera and saying, "Man, this is going to be such a cool movie!". Well, I suppose it is cool to potheads who preface every statement with "dude" but I suspect the rest of the universe won't be so congenial. Levitt is meant to be a non conformist rebel who rails against society but he only comes across as an annoying pain in the ass. Susser wants his cake and eat it too and in the end Levitt's Hesher, despite his counter culture credentials, spouts the usual cliches as if they were pearls of wisdom. Truly a godawful film, Susser may as well have pissed on his audience, at least it would have been honest. With Natalie Portman putting another nail into the coffin of her career and John Carroll Lynch. Yuck!

A Distant Trumpet (1964)

Set in the 1880s, a recent West Point graduate (Troy Donahue) arrives for duty at an isolated fort on the Arizona/Mexico border. The cavalry soldiers are undisciplined and lax and it's up to the new officer to whip the men into shape and attempt to capture or negotiate a surrender with the renegade Apache leader who is raiding the nearby areas. Based on the Paul Horgan novel, veteran director Raoul Walsh's main accomplishment here is his superlative use of the wide screen format, in this case Panavision. Visually, the film is quite stunning and the wide screen compositions (William Clothier is the cinematographer) would do David Lean and Freddie Young proud. The film is also notable for its depiction of the Apaches. They aren't sentimentalized but neither does it portray them as blood thirsty savages but a people betrayed who only want to live in peace on their land. Donahue does well enough, it's probably his best film performance, but it's difficult to get around the central miscasting. He just doesn't belong. Suzanne Pleshette and Diane McBain are rivals for Donahue's affection. The stirring score is by Max Steiner. With James Gregory, Kent Smith, William Reynolds and Claude Akins.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Doctor And The Devils (1985)

A doctor (Timothy Dalton) who teaches at a medical school has no ethics when it comes to the cadavers supplied to him, He insists it's all in the name of science, even when the evidence indicates they have been deliberately murdered by his suppliers (Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea) for the money he pays them. Based on the real life exploits of Burke and Hare, almost 32 years passed from the time Dylan Thomas (UNDER MILK WOOD) wrote the screenplay and the film actually came to fruition, this time with screenwriter Ronald Harwood (an Oscar winner for THE PIANIST) updating Thomas's earlier screenplay. Directed by Oscar winning cinematographer (SONS AND LOVERS, GLORY) turned director Freddie Francis, the film is an unpleasant ghoulish affair, not unlike Val Lewton's 1945 THE BODY SNATCHER only more graphic. Still, there's no denying the compelling nature of the subject. The production design by Brian Ackland Snow and Robert W. Laing does a splendid job of recreating early 19th century England squalor (though the actual Burke and Hare murders took place in Scotland). With Julian Sands, Twiggy (quite likable as a cockney whore), Patrick Stewart, Sian Phillips, Beryl Reid, T.P. McKenna and Jennifer Jayne.

Caesar And Cleopatra (1976)

Julius Caesar (Alec Guinness) arrives in Egypt and attempts to settle the dispute over who should rule Egypt, Cleopatra (Genevieve Bujold) or her brother Ptolemy (Jolyon Bates), by having them rule jointly but the ambitious Cleopatra has other ideas. This adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play lacks the lavishness of the better known 1945 film version. But the lack of pageantry allows more attention to Shaw's text without the distraction of spectacle. The director, James Cellan Jones, lets the story unfold simply so that the political maneuvers are at the forefront. Guinness plays Caesar with an air of resignation rather than power and his chemistry with Bujold is good. Bujold makes for a cunning, sexy Cleopatra with her impish, wicked grin. Though much of Shaw's play has been severely edited, it still makes for a satisfying production. The minimal score is by Michael J. Lewis (THEATER OF BLOOD). With Margaret Courtenay as Ftatateeta, Iain Cuthbertson as Ruffio and Clive Francis as Apollodorus.