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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mirror Mirror (2012)

A vain, corrupt and evil Queen (Julia Roberts) has bankrupted her kingdom with her lavish lifestyle and kept her stepdaughter, the lovely Snow White (Lily Collins, THE BLIND SIDE) restricted to her bedroom. When the young girl ventures out to the kingdom on her 18th birthday, she discovers the true breadth of the devastation her stepmother has wreaked on the kingdom. However "Grimm" that synopsis sounds, this a visually stunning, irreverent and often witty take with a feminist twist on the Snow White story. Since it's directed by Tarsem Singh (THE FALL) who's visual style is his signature, this is one opulent looking movie. The stagebound sets of forests and villages add a stylized feel to the proceedings that give the film that "once upon a time" feeling. Roberts as the wicked Queen and Nathan Lane as her put upon servant can do parts like this in their sleep but Roberts seems to be having a great time and relishing being so deliciously wicked. Collins seems ideal casting for the Audrey Hepburn story when it gets made and Armie Hammer (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) as Prince Charming proves charmingly adept at comedy. The breathtaking costumes by the late Oscar winning Eiko Ishioka (the film is dedicated to her) are works of art. The wonderful underscore is by Alan Menken (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST). The kids will love it. With Sean Bean and Mare Winningham.

Pilgrimage (1933)

A cold and selfish mother (Henrietta Crosman) would rather see her son (Norman Foster, who later become a director of such films as RACHEL AND THE STRANGER) dead than leave her. When he falls in love with the girl (Marian Nixon) on the neighboring farm and gets her pregnant, the mother forces him to join the Army during WWI where he is killed in action in France. After his death, she takes a pilgrimage to his grave in France where she must come to terms with her selfish and cruel actions. This paean to mother love was directed by John Ford and it's easy to recognize his hand here. Ford had a sentimental spot that ruined many a moment in his best films. Here, he saves it for the end. It's blatantly, shamefully, manipulatively sentimental but it does what it set out to do. The pacing is on the sluggish side but it's entertaining and Crosland is very good. With Heather Angel, Maurice Murphy, Hedda Hopper and Lucille La Verne (1935's A TALE OF TWO CITIES) as a corn cob smoking hillbilly on her first visit to Paris.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Il Ladro Di Bambini (aka The Stolen Children) (1992)

After their mother is sent to prison for pimping her 11 year old daughter (Valentina Scalici) as a prostitute, a young "carabiniere" policeman (Enrico Lo Verso) is entrusted with taking the girl and her younger brother (Giuseppe Ieracitano) from Rome to an institution in Sicily. Winner of the David Di Donatello (the Italian Oscar) for best film and director as well as the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes film festival, this is a wonderful film that can stand next to De Sica's SHOE SHINE and BICYCLE THIEVES as compelling Italian cinema focusing on compromised childhood. Gianni Amelio's blunt yet tender film may be heartbreaking but never sentimental though perhaps the glimmer of hope he offers us, only to be dashed by the film's final moments, seems almost cruel in retrospect. The two child actors, Scalici and Ieracitano, give fine naturalistic performances that are free of the phony histrionics so prevalent in the legion of Hollywood child actors and Lo Verso's easy going performance wins you over immediately. The "stolen" of the title refers not only to the three day trek but to their stolen childhood innocence which they will never get back. In an unfair world, nobody wins and even an act of human kindness can have destructive effects.

East Of Eden (1955)

In 1917 Monterey along the California coast, the young son (James Dean) of a moralistic and religious rancher (Raymond Massey) struggles to find favor with his father who favors his other son (Richard Davalos). He is also aware that his father lied when he said their mother died. She (Jo Van Fleet in an Oscar winning performance) abandoned them and now runs a brothel in another town. Based on the second half of John Steinbeck's massive novel, director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Paul Osborn (PORTRAIT OF JENNIE) have distilled the elements of Steinbeck's novel into a fervent and lyrical, perhaps quintessential, contemplation of the chronic upheaval between generations. Kazan and his cinematographer Ted McCord make terrific use of the CinemaScope frame (this was the first wide screen film for both) and use the format to accent the story and characters rather than merely impress the eye. Lost in the justified praise for Dean and Van Fleet, Julie Harris gives an expressive performance that's also memorable. Her scenes with Dean on the Ferris wheel and at Massey's bedside are beautifully played out. The excellent score is by Leonard Rosenman. With Burl Ives, Lois Smith, Albert Dekker, Barbara Baxley, Timothy Carey, Lonny Chapman and Nick Dennis.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sleep My Love (1948)

A wealthy Manhattan socialite (Claudette Colbert) wakes up in a train compartment, with a gun in her purse, in a train headed for Boston. But the last thing she remembers is being in bed in her New York townhouse and she has no idea how she got on the train. Her concerned husband (Don Ameche), sporting a gunshot wound, insists she see a psychiatrist. Yes, another entry in the "husband trying to drive the wife crazy so he can get all her money" movie sweepstakes. Hysteria doesn't sit well on Colbert's shoulders but Ameche makes for a nice unctuous villain. He's a pleasant contrast to the bland Robert Cummings who's in love with Colbert and becomes suspicious of Ameche. A rare thriller from director Douglas Sirk (from Mary Pickford's production company), the film benefits from the excellent art direction and atmospheric shadows and light cinematography by Oscar winner Joseph A. Valentine (Hitchcock's ROPE). It's a middling effort but eminently watchable. Still, some of it is sloppy. For instance, one character can't see a thing without his glasses yet he's shooting a gun and hitting his target without them! With Raymond Burr, Rita Johnson, George Coulouris, Keye Luke, Queenie Smith, Ralph Morgan and Hazel Brooks (BODY AND SOUL).

The Buttercup Chain (1970)

Two first cousins (Hywel Bennett, Jane Asher) have a close relationship, almost too close. One summer, they enter an unusual romantic relationship with two others. A Swedish architect student (Sven Bertil Taube) and a free spirited American girl (Leigh Taylor Young). On a vacation in the Spanish countryside, the lines in their relationships, desires and loyalties become blurred. Very much of its time, this is one of those "swinging 60s" films that doesn't translate well in contemporary terms. The four lead characters, perhaps Bertil Taube's less so, are a rather self centered bunch. So much so that when their self involvement is responsible for a tragedy, they seem more concerned with how the tragedy involves them rather than the tragedy itself. None are particularly likable but Leigh Taylor Young seems to have thought out her performance in such a way that she almost makes her air headed narcissism almost touching. The 1970s fashion are hideous, in particular an ugly white outfit that swallows up Bennett and makes him look like Truman Capote. Directed by Robert Ellis Miller (THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER). The score by Richard Rodney Bennett gives the film a much needed assist. With Clive Revill as Taylor Young's millionaire sugar daddy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ten North Frederick (1958)

In 1945 at her father's (Gary Cooper) funeral, his daughter (Diane Varsi, PEYTON PLACE) reflects on the events of the last five years of his life and how he went from the potential Lt. Governor of his state to a dying alcoholic. Based on the novel by John O'Hara (BUTTERFIELD 8) which won the 1956 National Book Award, the director and screenwriter Philip Dunne has reduced O'Hara's layered complex novel to a glossy CinemaScope soap. The film is neatly divided into two parts. The first is a rather tawdry melodrama about a politically ambitious wife (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who is determined to push her attorney husband (Cooper) into state office then the White House at all costs including sacrificing her adult children's happiness. The second half is more interesting. A bittersweet but poignant May-December romance between Cooper and a young model (lovely Suzy Parker) that's treated romantically but with eyes wide open. Interestingly, the film is shot in black and white (by Joseph MacDonald, THE SAND PEBBLES) which cuts down on the potential glossiness of the romantic aspects of the story. The nice underscore is by Leigh Harline. With Stuart Whitman, Barbara Nichols, Tom Tully, Ray Stricklyn, Linda Watkins and Jo Morrow.

Puss In Boots (2011)

The notorious feline outlaw Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) is conned by his childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) into stealing some magic beans from two pig lovin' outlaws (Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris) and, like Jack in the fairy tale, climbing the beanstalk and stealing the goose that lays golden eggs. This Oscar nominated (best animated film) prequel to SHREK 2 where Banderas' Puss In Boots was first introduced is a mixed bag. It looks great and when it sticks to cats, it's often amusing. But too much time is wasted on Galifianakis' whining rotten (literally) egg. It's unclear what the demographics for a film like this is. Ostensibly, it's for the kids but some of the humor surely wasn't intended for children. Example: when Puss is caught with catnip, he pleads, "It's for my glaucoma", how many kiddies will get that joke? Banderas' Puss stole SHREK 2 (though nothing could save SHREK 3) and fans of the character were waiting for an entire movie devoted to him. And this was the best they could come up with? Still, as much of a patchwork as it is, its assets outweigh the liabilities and there are some inspired bits. Directed by SHREK's director Chris Miller. The lively score is by Henry Jackman. With Salma Hayek as Kitty Softpaw and Constance Marie.

Futureworld (1976)

Several years after the disastrous events at the Delos resorts (Westworld, Medievalworld and Romanworld) where robots ran amok slaughtering guests and employees, the resort entices two reporters (Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner) to the resort in the hopes that the publicity will inspire public confidence. However, the real motives behind the resort's invitation is much darker and dangerous. I found this sequel to 1973's WESTWORLD much more satisfying than its predecessor. Its protagonists are stronger and more interesting, its villains more realistic and its premise (borrowed from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) more disturbing than robots run amok. This sequel, directed by Richard T. Heffron, works as an action thriller as much as a science fiction film. The screenplay also allows for more character development, something sorely lacking in WESTWORLD, notably in the poignant relationship between an anti social employee (Stuart Margolin) and a dilapidated robot (James M. Connor). Even the underscore by Fred Karlin is better this time around. With Arthur Hill, John P. Ryan, Allen Ludden and briefly reprising his role from the first film, Yul Brynner.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Savages (2007)

An estranged brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and sister (Laura Linney) must come together when the father (Philip Bosco) they've cut out of their lives needs to be cared for because of his dementia. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS), the film's narrative navigates through what could have been treacherous territory. But while lesser directors would have gone for the tear ducts, Jenkins isn't interested in sentiment. Hoffman and Linney's characters are easily recognizable as the broken issue of a dysfunctional family but rather dwell on the effects of an abusive father and absent mother, the film focuses their struggle to move forward with their lives rather than wallowing in their victim status. Jenkins balances the inevitable humor of life's craziness with the everyday pain that comes with living. While Jenkins doesn't give us a neat tied in with a ribbon ending, she gives us the possibilities of things being set right. Linney (in an Oscar nominated performance) and Hoffman give superb performances as does Bosco. With Peter Friedman, Cara Seymour, Margo Martindale, Rosemary Murphy (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and Debra Monk.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Story Of Mankind (1957)

When mankind invents a weapon, a super H bomb, capable of destroying the entire planet, a celestial court convenes to decide whether mankind should be allowed to blow itself up or prevent the bomb from detonating. The Spirit Of Man (Ronald Colman) argues for mankind's survival while The Devil (Vincent Price) argues for mankind's destruction. Each uses examples from the history of mankind in their pro and con arguments. Directed by Irwin Allen, better known as the producer of disaster films like TOWERING INFERNO and POSEIDON ADVENTURE, this is a bad movie of spectacular proportions. Not only is it tedious but it's an ugly looking film. The budget was spent on its massive "all star" cast and the footage consists of tacky sets and stock footage from the Warners library (including LAND OF THE PHARAOHS and HELEN OF TROY). It's based on the award winning children's book by Hendrik Van Loon and it comes across as an amateurish pageant of history. That being said, for film buffs there is some pleasure in spotting familiar faces in the cast playing historical figures. Among them: Hedy Lamarr as Joan Of Arc, Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra, Dennis Hopper as Napoleon, Agnes Moorehead as Elizabeth I, Peter Lorre as Nero, Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton and Charles Coburn as Hippocrates. Also with Cedric Hardwicke, Groucho Marx, Marie Windsor, Cesar Romero, John Carradine, Cathy O'Donnell, Marie Wilson, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Daniell, Franklin Pangborn, Chico Marx, Francis X. Bushman and Dani Crayne as Helen of Troy.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

An aging actress (Meryl Streep) steals the fiance (Bruce Willis) of her best friend (Goldie Hawn). 14 years later, after an enormous weight gain and a nervous breakdown, Hawn plots her revenge but it doesn't quite work out the way she planned. Director Robert Zemeckis is probably more celebrated (or derided) for FORREST GUMP and BACK TO THE FUTURE, but this wickedly funny black comedy arguably remains his best film. Curiously, when initially released, the film was coolly received by the critics but has since become a cult film of sorts. Hilariously, Siskel and Ebert dismissed it because it "lacked depth". And BACK TO THE FUTURE didn't? This satire on this country's obsession with youth culture (even more timely today!) features first rate comedic performances by Hawn, Willis and especially Streep whose hilarious performance in a musical version of Tennessee Williams' SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH must be seen to be believed. The film can't quite keep up the momentum and starts fading during the last 15 minutes or so. The film's original ending was rather sweet and poignant but axed for a more laugh friendly conclusion. It was a mistake I think. With Sydney Pollack and Isabella Rossellini in an amusing performance as an eternally youthful sorceress.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cornered (1945)

At the end of WWII, a Canadian pilot (Dick Powell) goes on a self appointed mission to track down the Nazi who murdered his bride and kill him. This takes him to France, Switzerland and eventually, Argentina. This taut and tenacious noir is smoothly handled by Edward Dmytryk, who along with his star Powell and screenwriter John Paxton, had given us the classic MURDER MY SWEET the year before. Powell's protagonist is an irresponsible, headstrong bull; the kind that busts into a room shooting or beating up people and asks questions later. What this does, in fact, is risk far more important plans as well as jeopardize lives that go beyond his own personal vendetta. To the film's credit, the film doesn't try to justify his actions but paints a portrait of a very flawed hero. With Walter Slezak, Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Steven Geray, Nina Vale and Micheline Cheirel (CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS).

House of Women (1962)

Convicted of a crime she was innocent of, a young pregnant woman (Shirley Knight) is sent to prison as an accomplice to a robbery. Due to the state laws, children are raised by their mothers in prison for the first three years of their lives before being sent to foster homes if the mothers haven't been paroled. This contrived "women behind bars" melodrama is a cross between serious social examination women's prison movies like CAGED (of which this is a very loose remake) and exploitation flix like WOMEN IN CAGES. It seems well intentioned but all the cliches of the genre are here. The mean spirited corrupt warden (Andrew Duggan), the tough butch matron (Jeanne Cooper), the kindly prison doctor (Jason Evers), the inmate (Constance Ford) pushed to the brink who goes bonkers, the inevitable prison riots where the staff are taken hostage, etc. Strictly "B" movie territory but, of course, enjoyable in a way that so many trashy movies are. Directed by Walter Doniger. With Barbara Nichols (who has a wonderful moment where she tells the parole board where to stick their parole), Margaret Hayes (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE), Virginia Gregg, Paul Lambert and Virginia Capers. Ever mindful of cross promoting their actors, there's a scene where a fight breaks out when one inmate draws a moustache on another inmates Troy Donahue 8x10 photo.

China Seas (1935)

On a passenger ship bound from Hong Kong to Singapore, the ship's captain (Clark Gable) is pursued by a brassy blonde (Jean Harlow) and an elegant English lady (Rosalind Russell). But before they reach their destination, they must deal with a deadly typhoon at sea as well as pirates who plunder the ship for its precious cargo and passengers of their possessions. This lavish sea adventure gets the deluxe treatment from the MGM production department and it defines the classy MGM style of the 1930s era. The storm at sea is a real corker and has a realistic feel that no computer generated images can equal. As they proved in RED DUST, Gable and Harlow have a chemistry that crackles and it's just as strong here. It's a lively and amusing wisecracking roundelay in between the film's action set pieces. Directed by Tay Garnett (THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE) from a screenplay by Jules Furthman (THE BIG SLEEP). With Wallace Beery as the film's amiable villain, Lewis Stone, C. Aubrey Smith, Akim Tamiroff, Lilian Bond, Edward Brophy and Hattie McDaniel, looking a bit more glamorous than usual as Harlow's feather and spangles loving maid. When Harlow gives her one of the sequined gowns she's grown tired of, McDaniel quips, "I may have to let this out a bit".

Friday, March 23, 2012

Please Give (2010)

A woman (Catherine Keener) who buys furnishings from estate sales and survivors of the deceased and resells them for a much higher profit has guilt feelings which cause her to give generous amounts of money to the homeless on the New York streets. Meanwhile, the cantankerous old woman (Ann Morgan Guilbert, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) is being taken care of my her two granddaughters, one love and caring (Rebecca Hall, THE TOWN) and the other, cynical and bitchy (Amanda Peet). In the narrative sense, nothing much happens, it's really a series of moments. But as she showed with her last film, the wonderful FRIENDS WITH MONEY, director Nicole Holofcener has a feel for the rhythm of the way everyday angst overcomes our lives, how the most normal emotion becomes a near crisis. PLEASE GIVE's characters have all hit a wall in their lives and like a trapped animal sniff and scratch in desperation to find a way through that wall. Holofcener doesn't judge her characters nor does she offer any solutions. But her empathy breaks down any resistance we may have about the often self involved characters. A lovely gem. With Oliver Platt as Keener's husband, Sarah Steele, Thomas Ian Nicholas and the wonderful Lois Smith (FIVE EASY PIECES).

The Buccaneer (1958)

Set during the 1812 war between the United States and Great Britain, the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) is courted by the British to aid them in their cause but he's disposed to helping the Americans. Not the least because he's in love with the daughter (Inger Stevens) of the Louisiana governor (E.G. Marshall). Originally set to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who had earlier directed the 1938 version, but ill health caused him to turn the directorial reins over to his (then) son in law, the actor Anthony Quinn. But DeMille's heavy hand is obvious through out the film. Historically, there's more fiction than fact, but it's an entertaining piece of swashbuckling hokum. Though filmed in 1958, the movie looks like it was filmed in the 1930s or 1940s. It has an artificial look to it, most likely because the entire film including exteriors were shot on the Paramount backlot and sound stages, even the battle scenes. The battle scenes in the Louisiana swamps are heavily shrouded in fog, no doubt to disguise the fact that we're on a movie sound stage. The disappointing score is by Elmer Bernstein. With Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson, Charles Boyer (very good) and Claire Bloom, wasted as a lady pirate. The massive supporting cast reads like a who's who of Hollywood character actors: Lorne Greene, Henry Hull, Ted De Corsia, Douglass Dumbrille, Kathleen Freeman, Woody Strode, Norma Varden, Robert F. Simon, Bruce Gordon, George Mathews, Barry Kelley, Iris Adrian and Fran Jeffries.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies (2006)

An OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agent (Jean Dujardin) is sent to Cairo to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent (Philippe Lefebvre). Once there, he stumbles across an arms deal that involves the Soviets and Arab revolutionaries. This spy spoof is an utter delight. It recalls Blake Edwards at his best with films like THE PINK PANTHER and THE PARTY and I couldn't help but think what a marvelous Clouseau Dujardin would make. An irreverent but affectionate spoof of the international spy genre, the film is set in the 1950s and Maamar Ech Cheikh's production design and Fabrice Leuci's art direction perfectly replicate the look of 50s cinema aided immeasurably by Guillaume Schiffman's camera work. Don't try to waste too much time trying to understand the wacky plot, just enjoy the gags. Directed by Oscar winner Michael Hazanavicius of THE ARTIST, that film's leading lady Berenice Bejo provides the principal romantic interest. The wonderful pastiche score is by Ludovic Bource, also an Oscar winner for his ARTIST score. With Aure Atika and Laurent Bateau.

The Last Hunt (1956)

Two buffalo hunters partner for one final last hunt as the buffalo is dying out from massive overkilling by both the white man and Indian. But while one (Stewart Granger) does so with regret, the other (Robert Taylor) relishes the slaughter. When an Indian maiden (Debra Paget) is captured by Taylor, she becomes a bone of contention between the two men. An adult western in the truest sense of the word, this is a superior oater. There's no nostalgia for the Old West here. But a dark and gritty look at the hardships and hate that often played out between "civilized" men and those that lived by their own laws. Taylor is surprisingly good here. His pretty boy good looks that made him a heart throb in the 30s and 40s were gone and in its place, a face that reflected a life which is used to great effect as the hateful cynic who derives pure pleasure out of killing. While the film is sympathetic to the plight of the disappearing buffalo, buffalo are actually killed during the hunting scenes. The film was shot during the annual government approved "thinning" of buffalo herds in the Black Hills of South Dakota and when we see Granger or Taylor shooting a buffalo it's actually a government marksman doing the killing. Still, even if sanctioned, it's an unpleasant sight and the film makers practically rub our face in it. Directed by Richard Brooks and shot in CinemaScope by Russell Harlan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) featuring some spectacular footage of buffalo running. With Russ Tamblyn, Constance Ford, Joe De Santis and a wonderful performance by Lloyd Nolan as a boozed up, one legged buffalo skinner.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Escape From Zahrain (1962)

An Arab state called Zahrain is in political turmoil as its corrupt ruler, in league with American oil interests, rules his country with an iron hand while rebels attempt to overthrow the government. The country's hope for self independence lies in the hand of an imprisoned revolutionary (Yul Brynner) condemned to die. A daring escape of several prisoners including the revolutionary finds them journeying across the desert in a stolen ambulance with soldiers in pursuit. 50 years later and the film shows that the political climate in the Middle East hasn't changed much. Politically, it's a rather simplistic film but as an action adventure, this is an exciting film. Unfortunately, it's held back by its low budget. California's Mojave desert substitutes for the Middle East and the film is compromised by poor rear projection shots, desert scenes that are clearly set on a Hollywood sound stage and some poor special effects like a cheesy desert sandstorm. All in all though, great fun. Nicely directed by Ronald Neame (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE) with a rousing score by Lyn Murray (TO CATCH A THIEF). With James Mason, Sal Mineo, Jack Warden (in the film's best performance as an embezzler), Anthony Caruso (in the film's worst performance), Jay Novello and lovely Madlyn Rhue.

Alice (1990)

A pampered upper class Manhattan wife (Mia Farrow) seems to have it all. But when she finds herself attracted to a divorced saxophone player (Joe Mantegna), she begins to question not only her marriage but her lifestyle. Written and directed by Woody Allen, this is a whimsical and magical (literally) fantasy of a woman's journey through all the clutter of a life that betrayed her youthful values. Almost a valentine to Farrow from Allen, this is quite possibly her best role in the ten year and 13 films collaboration between her and Allen. Farrow's Alice becomes invisible, flies over Manhattan, converses with her own personal artistic Muse (Bernadette Peters), dances with a dead boyfriend (Alec Baldwin), all by taking special herbs from a Chinese acupuncturist (Keye Luke in his final film role). Allen manages to balance witty one liners with little poignant moments and grains of truth. If not as memorable as Allen's key films, it's still a charmer. Allen's screenplay received an Oscar nomination. The large ensemble cast includes William Hurt as Farrow's husband, Judy Davis, Cybill Shepherd, Blythe Danner, Gwen Verdon, Julie Kavner, Patrick O'Neal, Judith Ivey, Bob Balaban, Elle Macpherson and Diane Salinger.

In The Cool Of The Day (1963)

An unhappily married Englishman (Peter Finch) falls in love with his best friend's (Arthur Hill) young wife (Jane Fonda), who is frail and in ill health. While vacationing together in Greece, their love blooms but not without consequences. This romantic sudser contains some interesting characters, most notably Angela Lansbury (who walks off with the movie) as Finch's spiteful, bitter wife but the lackluster direction of Robert Stevens (principally a TV director with very few feature films to his credit) and the wan script with cliched dialog by Meade Roberts (based on the novel by Susan Ertz) doesn't leave us with much to hold on to. It doesn't help that Finch and Fonda have zero chemistry. I don't think I've seen so much passionless passion since the pairing of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in THE ENGLISH PATIENT! Though watching I couldn't help but think what a marvelous Nicole in TENDER IS THE NIGHT Fonda would have made. The wide screen Panavision cinematography by Peter Newbrook makes the Greek locations look postcard perfect. The over insistent score is by Francis Chagrin and Nat King Cole sings the schmaltzy title song. With Constance Cummings, Alexander Knox and Madeleine Sherwood.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Yentl (1983)

A young Jewish woman (Barbra Streisand, who also directed) in 1904 Eastern Europe (most likely Poland) secretly breaks Jewish laws by studying the Talmud, which is forbidden to women, with the help from her Rabbi father (Nehemiah Persoff). Determined to continue her studies after he father's death, she disguises herself as a man in order to continue her studies at a Yeshiva (a Jewish educational institution). But it is as a male, that she discovers her true feelings as a woman. A labor of love for Streisand, her passions shows in every frame. It's an exquisite musical drama. Often dismissed as a vanity project or called TOOTSIE ON THE ROOF, Streisand tempers the film's feminism with pathos and humor. It's near amazing that this is a film by a first time director, so assured is her hand. A compelling portrait of a woman struggling for an identity in a male dominated society that allows her no options except wife and mother. The score with its gorgeous Michel Legrand melodies and the telling lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman is a beauty and took home an Oscar for their efforts. The superb cinematography is by David Watkin (an Oscar winner for OUT OF AFRICA). Based on YENTL THE YESHIVA BOY by Isaac Bashevis Singer. With Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving (in an Oscar nominated performance) and Steven Hill.

The Sound Barrier (1952)

The owner (Ralph Richardson) of an aircraft company is determined to break the sound barrier. To this end, despite the trepidation from his daughter (Ann Todd), he recruits his son in law (Nigel Patrick) as a test pilot for his program in spite of the dangers. Thirty years before THE RIGHT STUFF, David Lean directed this fictionalized story from a screenplay by Terence Rattigan (SEPARATE TABLES) which was both a critical and popular hit in its day. While Oscar winner Jack Hildyard's (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) aerial footage is spectacular, the narrative itself is a rather hoary piece with the daredevil pilot heroics and the waiting wives. What the film does convey very well is the excitement that those pilots and aircraft engineers must have felt during the transition from propeller planes to the jet travel. Richardson's tightly wound performance was greatly admired when the film came out, he won the New York Film Critics award for best actor. But today, the technical inaccuracies (not to mention that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947) preclude the film from being anything more than a curio and it's probably one of Lean's least seen films. The underscore is by Malcolm Arnold. With John Justin (THIEF OF BAGDAD), Denholm Elliott and Dinah Sheridan.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Friends With Kids (2012)

After observing how their friends' marriages seem to suffer after the birth of their kids, two platonic friends (Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt) decide to have a child together then search for their soul mates. Written, directed and produced by Westfeldt (along with her life partner Jon Hamm who also acts in the film), the film has four actors who were in last year's big hit BRIDESMAIDS. In addition to Hamm, other cast members include Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd. But those expecting another BRIDESMAIDS will be in for a disappointment. While it starts off as a typical sex comedy about 30 something relationships, it turns dark fairly quickly. But while the film does have some insight, both amusing and serious, into how kids change relationships with friends as well as marriage, the predictability of where the movie is heading is frustrating and when it comes, it's worse than you could possibly imagine. It doesn't help that Scott is a rather weak and uncharismatic leading man or that Westfeldt seems to be unsuccessfully channeling Diane Keaton. There's a nice New Years' celebration scene with some bite (and a nice turn by Hamm) that the movie could have used more of. With Edward Burns as the perfect guy who courts Westfeldt and Megan Fox as Scott's Broadway dancer girlfriend.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Around The World Under The Sea (1966)

A civilian submarine is recruited by the a government agency to travel around the globe and plant sensors on the ocean floor that will monitor and signal impending earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. The crew consists of four scientists (Lloyd Bridges, Brian Kelly, David McCallum, Marshall Thompson), an inventor (Keenan Wynn) and a woman doctor (Shirley Eaton, GOLDFINGER). This underwater sci-fi fantasy has the feel of a Jules Verne fantasy, sort of an underwater JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. The brain child of family friendly undersea film maker Ivan Tors (his company did the underwater filming in THUNDERBALL) and directed by Andrew Marton (1950's KING SOLOMON'S MINES), this is a rather lackluster effort by all involved. Oh, the child in us may still have an affection for it but it's all too sluggish to maintain much interest. An attack by a giant sea serpent perks up the movie midway and there's a tense finale involving the submarine trapped next to an underwater volcano but for the most part, it's pretty mundane. The Harry Sukman underscore is decent. With Gary Merrill and Ron Hayes.

The Suspect (1944)

Set in Victorian era London, an unhappily married man (Charles Laughton) falls in love with a young secretary (Ella Raines, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO). When his bitter shrew of a wife (Rosalind Ivan, who ironically would play a similar role in Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET the following year) refuses to give him a divorce and threatens to ruin him and the girl ..... he has no recourse but murder! Expertly directed by noir stylist Robert Siodmak (THE KILLERS), this is a wonderful thriller. The Victorian period setting allows Siodmak and cinematographer Paul Ivano (QUEEN KELLY) an opportunity to dispense an atmosphere rich in environment and tone. But it's Laughton's adroit performance, one of his very best, that's the film's backbone. Laughton's Philip Marshall is a decent man, not a murderer so one's empathy is entirely with him. The two murder victims in the film are vile, destructive persons whose death benefits those around them. The detective (Stanley Ridges) who pursues Laughton is only doing his job yet he comes across to a modern viewer as unappealing as LES MISERABLES's Javert dogged pursuit of Jean Valjean. The film is not without humor, the funeral scene has some wit to it. A jewel of a suspense film. The nicely applied score is by Frank Skinner (WRITTEN ON THE WIND). With Henry Daniell, Dean Harens and Molly Lamont.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Westworld (1973)

Two Chicago men (Richard Benjamin, James Brolin) are vacationing in a $1,000 a day resort known as Westworld where guests can act out their wild west fantasies with life like robots as gunslingers and saloon girls. But inexplicably the robots begin to rebel against their human counterparts. Directed by Michael Crichton (COMA) in his feature film debut; this clever, almost inspired, premise was influential in several later films like JURASSIC PARK (also written by Crichton) and THE TERMINATOR. Unfortunately, the potential of its tantalizing premise isn't fully realized. While there are two other fantasy resorts as part of the complex (the others being Romanworld and Medievalworld), the film concentrates on Westworld, specifically the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner in a satiric homage to his role in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, rather than the more cinematic carnage in the other two parks. Benjamin is very good as the mild mannered everyman suddenly thrust into a "tables are turned" nightmarish world where he's made a hunted victim. The film seems ripe for a remake if in capable hands. With the lovely Victoria Shaw in her final film role, Dick Van Patten, Steve Franken, Nora Marlowe and Marjel Barrett.

Identificazione Di Una Donna (aka Identification Of A Woman) (1982)

Recently divorced, a film director (Tomas Milian) enters a relationship with a young enigmatic aristocrat (Daniela Silverio) but he's warned by a mysterious stranger to leave her alone. After the aristocratic girl suddenly disappears, the director begins a relationship with a French actress (Christine Boisson). A late career entry by the great Michelangelo Antonioni (he would complete only one more feature length film), this is an interesting failure. Strikingly photographed by Carlo Di Palma (HANNAH AND HER SISTERS), the film is too derivative and vague, even on its director's own artistic terms, to be satisfying. The angst of Milian's film director and his troubling relationships with women conjure up Fellini's 8 1/2 and Silverio's out of the blue disappearance in the middle of the film recalls Lea Massari's disappearance in Antonioni's own L'AVVENTURA and there's even a pinch of Kubrick's 2001 at the very end. Then there's the film's insistent focus on a bird's nest in a tree but there's no payoff. Visually, the film's highlight is a superb sequence set on a fog enshrouded highway that's filled with portent but stylish as it is, it doesn't contribute to the narrative. It seems there just so Antonioni can show off. Still, I enjoyed it more than his THE PASSENGER or BLOW UP. The bland synthesizer score is by John Foxx.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)

A young girl (Nina Foch) applies for a live in secretarial position with a wealthy widow (Dame May Whitty) and her son (George Macready, GILDA). When she wakes up after being sedated for several days, the woman and her son insist she is, in fact, his wife and her daughter in law recovering from a nervous breakdown. Though he'd been working in Hollywood for about eight years, this stylish and economical (it runs five minutes over an hour) thriller made director Joseph H. Lewis's reputation and he would go on to direct such noir classics as GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO. What sets JULIA ROSS apart from the usual damsel "being driven mad" in distress scenario (think GASLIGHT) is the plucky resourcefulness of its heroine. As played by Foch in a nicely thought out performance, she's no pushover or delicate rose wringing her hands at her plight. It's also quite amusing to see Dame May Whitty, usually cast as sweet old ladies or likable dowagers, as a crafty villainess. With Roland Varno and Queenie Leonard. Based on the novel by Anthony Gilbert, it was remade (without credit) in 1997 as DEAD OF WINTER by director Arthur Penn.

Vengeance Valley (1951)

A Colorado cattle rancher (Ray Collins) has two sons. A natural son (Robert Walker) who is a shiftless wastrel but married to a decent woman (Joanne Dru) and an adopted son (Burt Lancaster) who is honest and loyal. When the married son fathers a child with a local girl (Sally Forrest), her two brothers (John Ireland, Hugh O'Brian as two of the most incompetent bad guys ever seen in a western) come to find the father but the girl won't tell. Essentially a domestic western rather than a traditional western, the film is Cain and Abel in the Old West. It's rather routine with no surprises. We know from the start the predictable journey the film will take and that's just what it does. Walker's character is so obviously a worthless ne'er do well that you know it's just a matter of time until he goes too far and all his enablers will stop covering up for him anymore. He seems to be practicing here for his next role, Bruno in Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Unenthusiastically directed by Richard Thorpe and nicely shot in Technicolor by George J. Folsey (FORBIDDEN PLANET). With Carleton Carpenter and Ted De Corsia.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

8 Million Ways To Die (1986)

After killing an unarmed man in a drug bust, a cop (Jeff Bridges in an uneven performance, his drunk scenes are awful) resigns from the force and becomes an alcoholic, destroying his marriage in the process and eventually leading him to join Alcoholics Anonymous. When a hooker (Alexandra Paul) comes to him for help in escaping the prostitution life, what at first seems like a chance at redemption leads him down a dark path involving drugs and murder. The last film of director Hal Ashby is a far cry from the days of BEING THERE and SHAMPOO. It seems nobody was happy with the finished product. Ashby was fired after the film wrapped and had nothing to do with the post editing process. Co-screenwriter Oliver Stone wanted his name taken off the credits (it wasn't) because Ashby threw out his script and reputedly had the cast improvise (it sure sounds like it). After all that, you'd think the film would be a hideous mess. Well, it is a mess but an entertaining one in spite of the erratic acting and writing. The film is pure 80s in look and feel especially the James Newton Howard synthesizer underscore. With Andy Garcia in his star making role (he seems to be channeling Pacino from SCARFACE), Rosanna Arquette and Randy Brooks.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Burglar (1957)

A trio of thieves (Dan Duryea, Mickey Shaughnessy, Peter Capell) steal an emerald necklace worth a fortune from the mansion of a wealthy spiritualist (Phoebe Mackay). Things begin to fall apart when the trio disagrees on the time line of getting rid of the necklace, which is "hot", via a fence. A lonely young girl (Jayne Mansfield) who cases homes for the trio to rob becomes a catalyst to a fateful showdown in Atlantic City. This is a nifty little film noir from a novel by David Goodis (whose novel DOWN THERE was filmed by Francois Truffaut as SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER). It's a quasi existential thriller that deserves to be better known. From the moody atmospheric B&W lighting of Don Malkames to Duryea's quintessential noir hero, this is first rate all the way. Not perfect mind you. The femme fatale of Martha Vickers is poorly written and she's saddled with some awful dialogue but Mansfield is really marvelous here, downplaying her sexy image as the forlorn waif who just wants to be loved. In his film debut, the director Paul Wendkos (GIDGET) seems influenced by Welles' LADY FROM SHANGHAI especially in the funhouse finale. Sol Kaplan did the Coplandesque underscore. With Stewart Bradley.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen (2012)

A rather stuffy bureaucrat (Ewan McGregor) in the fish and wildlife department of the British government is assigned to assist a wealthy Arab sheik (Amr Waked) in his dream of introducing salmon fishing to his desert country. Though married, he finds himself attracted to the sheik's British representative (Emily Blunt) whose solider fiance (Tom Mison) is missing in action in Afghanistan. Despite its awkward sounding title, this is a romantic comedy. But it's not your run of the mill romcom. As directed by Lasse Hallstrom (MY LIFE AS A DOG), it's intelligent, well written and often witty. How many romantic comedies do you know that include terrorism, the Afghanistan war and political assassination? There's a wonderfully acidic comedic performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as a tough talking, manipulative public relations conscious assistant to the Prime Minister which is a gender switch from the book where the character is male. Based on the novel of the same name by Paul Torday. The score is by Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (ATONEMENT). With Rachel Stirling as McGregor's wife.

A Tale Of Two Cities (1935)

Set just before and during the 18th century French Revolution, a dissolute attorney (Ronald Colman) becomes infatuated with the fiancee (Elizabeth Allan) of a Frenchman (the dull Donald Woods) accused of treason against England. His devotion to her causes him to make the ultimate sacrifice. Based on the classic novel by Charles Dickens, this is a wonderful focused adaptation done in the lustrous MGM style of the 1930s. It's a rather Readers Digest compacted version of the novel and some of the acting is pretty bad but the director Jack Conway (LIBELED LADY) does a credible job of bringing Dickens' novel to a cinematic life. Colman manages to actually act and not rely on his voice do all the work for him. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur are credited with directing the revolution sequences. There's a wealth of rich supporting performances with two that stand out: Blanche Yurka's demonic Madame De Farge, fervently knitting away as the blood bath that followed splashes around her and Edna May Oliver as Allan's fierce and proud English companion. There's a nice Herbert Stothart underscore which fortunately uses restraint in its use of La Marseillaise, one shudders to think if Max Steiner had scored the film. With Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen, Henry B. Walthall, H.B. Warner, Lucille La Verne as the cackling witch The Vengeance and Isabel Jewell who just about breaks your heart as the condemned seamstress.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lo Scopone Scientifico (aka The Scientific Cardplayer) (1972)

An impoverished couple (Silvana Mangano, Alberto Sordi) live in a hut with their three children in a rundown neighborhood in Rome. But each year in the spring, a wealthy woman (Bette Davis) and her constant companion (Joseph Cotten) return to their villa high on a hill and play cards with the couple. The millionairess gives the couple the stakes they need to play and which she ultimately wins back. This is a black comedy about greed and how it infects people. The two men are rather weak and dominated by the women who are the better card players. The poor couple are so greedy that they literally pawn everything they have in the hopes of winning some of the old lady's millions. Even the old witch with all her millions has a furious fit if she loses any even the smallest amount and so addicted, she even wants to play on her deathbed! The greed infects the neighborhood (who pools money to stake the couple) which fantasizes about what they are going to do with the won money. Even the kids are greedy. Director Luigi Comencini gives us an obvious clue early in the film that foreshadows its twisted ending. It's in Italian so it's a bit of a shock to hear Davis' inimitable voice dubbed into Italian but the actress who dubbed her does a credible job and a few times, you think it is Davis speaking. But the film belongs to Mangano and Sordi who won David Di Donatello (the Italian Oscar) awards for the performances here. It would make a great double bill with THE CINCINNATI KID.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Edge Of The City (1957)

A neurotic drifter (John Cassavetes) dealing with his own private demons becomes friends with a black longshoreman (Sidney Poitier) when he gets a job on the Manhattan waterfront. That's about it. Unusual for its day in its portrayal of an interracial friendship, the film comes across today as a well intentioned if heavy handed piece of melodrama. Based on a television play (which also starred Poitier) and directed by Martin Ritt (HUD) in his feature film directorial debut. It's a solid effort by all involved though not without problems, the major one being the character played by Cassavetes is, for most of the film, a manic and nervous wreck yet we're somehow supposed to identify with him. Poitier, no surprise, is just wonderful here and his natural and engaging performance makes up for all of Cassavetes' tics and mannerisms. The film's ending is imprudent since it feels like a low rent take on ON THE WATERFRONT. The atonal score is by Leonard Rosenman the gritty black and white location photography by Joseph Brun. With Jack Warden as the stevedore bully, Ruby Dee, Kathleen Maguire, Ruth White and Robert F. Simon.

Summer And Smoke (1961)

A sexually repressed spinster (Geraldine Page in an Oscar nominated performance), the daughter of a minister (Malcolm Atterbury), has been secretly in love with the boy (Laurence Harvey) next door since they were children. But his cynicism and lust for life clash with her genteel ways. The Tennessee Williams play, never one of his major works, has always been problematic. Opening on Broadway in 1948 following the smash success of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, it flopped. But four years later it opened in an off-Broadway revival with Page in the lead and became a great success and established Page as one of the great actresses of her generation. Williams, however, was never happy with the play and rewrote it as ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE which he preferred to the original. Personally, I prefer SUMMER to ECCENTRICITIES but either way, how lucky we are that the producer Hal B. Wallis allowed Page to recreate her stage role for the screen. To say she is magnificent is an understatement. It's the kind of performance that, to use a cliche, knocks you out of your seat! Even the ludicrous miscasting of Harvey as a Southern stud doesn't impede the majesty of Page's work. Directed by Peter Glenville with one of Elmer Bernstein's greatest scores. With Rita Moreno, Pamela Tiffin, Earl Holliman, John McIntire, Thomas Gomez, Lee Patrick, Max Showalter, Pamela Duncan and Una Merkel whose marvelous performance as Page's unstable mother received an Oscar nomination.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Double Exposure (1983)

In Los Angeles, a serial killer is randomly killing women, usually hookers and models. A commercial photographer (Michael Callan, CAT BALLOU) has recurring nightmares about murdering his models. Could there be a connection? Duh! This 80s slasher flick is a cut above the standard slasher film. Oh, it's still a low budget exploitation movie aimed at the horror market but its ambitions are a bit higher. From the stylish opening credits which take the film's title literally to the first rate underscore, you can see that there trying to be more creative in the genre. Unfortunately, their aspirations exceed their abilities. Though it's quite obvious who the killer is early on, the movie cheats when showing the killings in order to keep us from identifying the killer. Some of Callan's "mad" scenes are a bit over the top as if he's trying for an Oscar nomination. With one exception, the murders themselves are rather restrained in comparison to other splatter movies. The one exception involves death by rattlesnake and the camera lingers on the poor girl's death much too long. Directed by William Byron Hillman. With Joanna Pettet (THE GROUP), Terry Moore, Seymour Cassel, Sally Kirkland, Ken Scott, Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES), Pamela Hensley, Joey Forman, Misty Rowe and James Stacy in the first film he made following the accident that cost him an arm and leg.

Three Ages (1923)

Three romances in three different time periods: prehistoric times, ancient Rome and contemporary (1923). All feature the same five actors playing similar characters. Boy (Buster Keaton, who also directed), girl (Margaret Leahy), villain (Wallace Beery), father (Joe Roberts) and mother (Lillian Lawrence). Very loosely a satire of D.W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE which used a similar structure but perhaps insurance that if the film flopped, they could be released as shorts. As it stands, while not one of Keaton's triumphs, it's a delightful comedy with that most athletic of silent comics Keaton doing pratfalls and sight gags that have you laughing out loud more often than not. The film is filled with terrific comedic moments like Keaton giving a lion a manicure in ancient Rome, dictating a stone age will and an amusing football game where he's practically a rag doll against the brute strength of Berry's bully. At a brief running time of a little over an hour, it allows the multi tiered storyline to not wear out its welcome.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ivanhoe (1982)

In 12th century England, a knight by the name of Ivanhoe (Anthony Andrews) returns home from the Holy Wars to find Prince John (Ronald Pickup) has usurped the throne of his brother King Richard (Julian Glover) and the Normans have taken the country from the Saxons. Based on the romantic medieval classic by Sir Walter Scott, this is a rather lackluster production. The film follows the novel closely and connects all the dots but there's no excitement, no passion to the tale. It moves along slowly and feels padded out. It doesn't help that Andrews is rather pallid as Ivanhoe which allows Sam Neill to take center stage as the knight Bois-Guilbert whose passion for a Jewess (Olivia Hussey) proves his undoing. The film's final duel between Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert is very well done but this comes near the end of the film's 2 1/2 hour running time. Outside of Neill and James Mason as the Jew, Isaac of York, the acting is decidedly mediocre. Directed by Douglas Camfield with an uninspired score by Allyn Ferguson. The 1952 MGM film remains the definitive version to date. With Michael Hordern, Lysette Anthony, Stuart Wilson, John Rhys Davies and Michael Gothard. Curiously, the film is very popular in Sweden and supposedly shown every New Years Day.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Racket (1951)

A large Midwestern metropolis is drowning in corruption. An honest, incorruptible police captain (Robert Mitchum) is determined to bring down the crime boss (Robert Ryan) responsible for the venality but he's stymied at every corner by the rot that has infested both law enforcement and government. Based on a 1927 play (Edward G. Robinson played Ryan's part) by Bartlett Cormack and previously made as a film in 1928, this is a taut and frugal piece of film noir. Very few actors can be convincing in threatening Mitchum and making you believe they're a potent adversary but if any actor can, it's Robert Ryan. Their scenes together crackle. Lizabeth Scott is the film's femme fatale as a nightclub singer having an affair with Ryan's kid brother (Brett King) and as long as she playing the tough cookie, she's fine. But when she starts getting all sincere, her limitations as an actress are all to painfully obvious. A tough if {very) minor crime thriller but quite enjoyable. Directed by John Cromwell (THE GODDESS). With William Talman, Ray Collins (who six years later would team up with Talman for TV's PERRY MASON), William Conrad, Robert Hutton, Don Porter, Virginia Huston, Joyce Mackenzie and Herb Vigran.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Devil Within Her (aka I Don't Want To Be Born) (1975)

A demonic and debauched dwarf (George Claydon) puts a curse on a stripper (Joan Collins) that she will give birth to a monster. After marrying a respectable businessman (Ralph Bates), she gives birth to a 12 pound homicidal baby possessed by ..... Satan? The little darling indulges in such pastimes as putting mice in the housekeeper's tea, drowning his nanny, hanging his father and decapitating his doctor. For a horror film, there's not a single frightening moment in the film. Indeed, the film often comes across as a Saturday Night Live parody of demon child movies. Since the little spawn of Satan is still an infant, we never actually see the tyke with knife in hand, just the knife which doesn't allow for much genuine horror. He isn't even allowed to spin his head around or speak in a deep voice. The film contains the most innocuous of exorcisms performed by a nun (Eileen Atkins with a hilariously bad Italian accent). The film isn't helped any by the ugly mid 70s fashions and decor nor Ron Grainer's inappropriate underscore. Poorly directed by Peter Sasdy. With Donald Pleasence, Caroline Munro and Hilary Mason (DON'T LOOK NOW).

Pat And Mike (1952)

A female athlete (Katharine Hepburn) is intimidated by her fiancee (William Ching) and performs poorly when he's around. A sports manager and promoter (Spencer Tracy) sees her potential and he takes her under his wing to train her and make her a first class athlete. This enjoyable romp is one of the best of the classic Tracy and Hepburn vehicles. Expertly directed by George Cukor from a Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin screenplay (they wrote the prior Cukor directed Tracy/Hepburn pairing from 1949, ADAM'S RIB), the film isn't entirely without flaws, minor though they be. While Hepburn with her lean athletic build is perfectly cast, Tracy is cast against type and his performance isn't as effortless as Hepburn's. Playing a rough and tumble, street wise Brooklynese spouting character doesn't come easily to him and it shows in his acting. Not that he's bad because he isn't but one sees the effort he's putting in. But as I said, that's a minor gripe in a charmer of a romantic comedy. Tracy and Hepburn aren't the whole show, there's room for Aldo Ray as a dimwitted heavyweight boxer and he's quite amusing. The score is by David Raksin. The supporting cast includes Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors, Jim Backus and George Mathews as well as several sports stars like golf's Babe Didrikson Zaharias and tennis' Gussie Moran.

Colorado Territory (1949)

After breaking out of jail, an outlaw (Joel McCrea) is prodded by a dying friend (Basil Ruysdael) into doing one last job, a train heist, that will set them up for the rest of their lives. He reluctantly agrees. A rare remake that equals the original, director Raoul Walsh has taken his 1941 gangster film HIGH SIERRA and reinvented it as a western and it works out marvelously. Made the same year as Walsh's WHITE HEAT, it shares the same pessimistic fatality as the Cagney film. McCrea's character wants to put his past behind him and start a new life but he's caught in a web that has to be played out till its bitter conclusion and, unlike HIGH SIERRA, his fate is shared by the woman (Virginia Mayo in a lovely performance) he loves. Walsh's direction is energetic and the New Mexico and Arizona locales are handsomely shot in B&W by Sidney Hickox (THE BIG SLEEP). The score is by David Buttolph who would also score the second remake of the film in 1955, I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES, which wasn't directed by Walsh. With Dorothy Malone as the selfish and dissatisfied girl that McCrea plans on marrying, Henry Hull, John Archer, the dancer James Mitchell in a dramatic role, Morris Ankrum, Ian Wolfe and Maudie Prickett.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

An ex-cop (Ed Begley) recruits two men to pull off a bank heist. One is a black gambler (Harry Belafonte) who is unable to pay off his gambling debts and the other is an ex-con (Robert Ryan) who is also a racist who hates the idea of working with a black man. A gritty noir directed by Robert Wise, the film has a sharp and tense flow and Belafonte and Ryan put out some sparks with each other. Ryan tends to overdo the vicious racist (some subtlety would have gone a long way) but he holds the screen and Begley and Belafonte turn in solid performances. Rare for a 1950s film, Belafonte is allowed to play a complex and highly flawed black character. The film's symbolic fiery finale is a bit too obvious and the film's final shot of a dead end sign is feels like the film makers don't trust us to get it. The film's women don't fare very well. Shelley Winters as Ryan's clinging girlfriend is at her whiniest and that icon of noir femme fatales Gloria Grahame is wasted as a frustrated housewife. The screenplay was co-written by the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky under a pseudonym. The jazz score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet is quite effective. With Cicely Tyson, Zohra Lampert, Wayne Rogers and Will Kuluva.

Yabu No Naka No Kuroneko (aka Black Cat In A Bamboo Grove) (1968)

A mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter in law (Kiwako Taichi) wait for the return of her son (Kichiemon Nakamura) from the 16th century Japanese civil wars. But a group of wandering samurai rape and murder them and set their house on fire. With the aid of a mysterious black cat, they become ghosts wreaking revenge on all Samurai. This most elegant of ghost stories is directed by Kaneto Shindo, best known for the excellent ONIBABA which also dealt with two women who lured samurai and murdered them. This one contains a moral conundrum when the two ghosts are confronted with the son and husband who returns from the wars as a glorious samurai who is assigned the task of finding and destroying the "demons" killing the samurai. Will the mother and wife destroy the son or will the samurai kill his wife and own mother? Alluring, unsettling, atmospheric and yet ultimately tragic. The film is beautifully shot in B&W scope by Kiyomi Kuroda with the superb stylized art direction by Takashi Marumo for which the film was a fitting swan song. The underscore by Hikaru Hayashi is one of the best Japanese film scores I've ever heard.

So Long At The Fair (1950)

An English brother (David Tomlinson, MARY POPPINS) and sister (Jean Simmons) are visiting the 1896 Paris Exhibition. That evening they go to Montmartre for dinner and then on to the Moulin Rouge before retiring. The following morning, the brother has disappeared and the hotel's manager (Cathleen Nesbitt) insists that Simmons arrived alone and there was no brother and not only that but the room no. 19 he was allegedly in ... does not exist! This little modest suspense film could have benefited from a more assured hand or perhaps it's because its plot (based on an urban legend) has been used before and since in films like THE LADY VANISHES and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING to name just two that its "mystery" is no mystery at all. The film has the curious habit of having its French characters speak in French with no subtitles thus leaving those who don't speak French literally in the dark though it's clear from their expressions, that nothing good is going on. Directed by Antony Darnborough and Terence Fisher (who would go on to be a Hammer regular) with a score by Benjamin Frankel (who used some of this score for a concert piece). With Dirk Bogarde, Honor Blackman, Felix Aylmer, Zena Marshall and Andre Morell.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Nuts (1987)

When a high rent New York call girl (Barbra Streisand) is arrested for manslaughter after killing a client, her mother (Maureen Stapleton) and stepfather (Karl Malden) attempt to have her declared mentally incompetent rather than stand trial. Based on the play by Tom Topor, the majority of the film takes place in a courtroom and it feels like a play, no more so than when at the end, Streisand delivers her lengthy dramatic monologue that in the legitimate theater would probably have garnered her a strong round of applause. Topor's play is a rather obvious piece of dramatic claptrap and while the director Martin Ritt (THE HUSTLER) does a nice job of keeping the narrative tightly moving along, it's Streisand's performance that anchors the film. It's an inspired piece of casting really. Streisand's often strident persona can be very divisive to audiences but here it fits beautifully into a character whose rage and cynicism are equally irritating to her doctors and lawyers. I could have done without the film's unnecessary "cute" epilogue. The muted underscore is by Streisand. With Richard Dreyfuss as her public defender attorney, James Whitmore, Eli Wallach, Robert Webber and William Prince.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Quantez (1957)

Four bank robbers (Fred MacMurray, John Gavin, Sydney Chaplin, John Larch) and a girl (Dorothy Malone) on the run from a posse find haven in a deserted town for the night. What they don't know is the town is surrounded by hostile Apaches. It sounds more interesting than it is. It's a rather sluggish western and the director Harry Keller (TAMMY TELL ME TRUE) doesn't take advantage of the story's potential. There's a lot of talk, talk, talk and some action in the film's last 10 minutes but by then, it's too late. The film's most interesting character is Sydney Chaplin who plays a white man raised by Indians and filled with hate for the white man and contempt for the Indian. Considering that the film's not very visual, choosing to focus on the interiors rather than the exteriors, the film's cinematographer, Carl E. Guthrie, (HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) makes good use of the CinemaScope format. Curiously, Malone's character is called Chaney and her next film role at the same studio was as Mrs. Lon Chaney in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. Coincidence or an in joke? Perhaps not as amusing as the credit "Gowns by Rosemary Odell" when Malone's entire wardrobe consists of denim jeans and a work shirt. The solid score is by Herman Stein. With James Barton and Michael Ansara.