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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

7th Heaven (1927)

In pre-WWI Paris, a street cleaner (Charles Farrell) takes in a street waif (Janet Gaynor in one of the three performances that got her the first best actress Oscar awarded) to avoid her going to jail for prostitution (or maybe it was just vagrancy, it's never quite made clear). However, what at first was meant to be a kind gesture turns into genuine love. But when WWI breaks out, it will be the true test of their love. This is an incredibly maudlin film, even for the most romantic among us. At times, particularly the war sequences, it drags on interminably until one almost resents the way director Frank Borzage is trying to squeeze every possible sob out of you. Despite its syrupy narrative, there's a certain charm to the lovers' poverty loft overlooking Paris lifestyle. If you've got be poor, this is the way to do it! Despite her Oscar win, Gaynor doesn't have much to but look the gamin though she has some powerful moments in her big scene toward the end. A real disappointment to me since I've been wanting to see this forever. With Ben Bard, David Butler and Gladys Brockwell as Gaynor's whip wielding sister.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Clue (1985)

Set in 1954, six guests: a Senator's wife (Eileen Brennan), a widow (Madeline Kahn), an ex-psychiatrist (Christopher Lloyd), a homosexual (Michael McKean), an ex-Army Colonel (Martin Mull) and a madam (Lesley Ann Warren) are invited to a secluded mansion in the hills for a dinner party by a host (Lee Ving) they have never met. Once there, the host's true motives become known: all six guests and the butler (Tim Curry) are being blackmailed by their "host". I'm a sucker for murder mysteries (straight or comedic) set in large creepy mansions with secret passages and the passing of Eileen Brennan this week led me to revisit this old favorite. The humor is inconsistent but all the actors have expert comedy timing and they act the hell out of it. Whether it's Brennan getting hysterical when she thinks she's been poisoned, Kahn responding to the number of husbands she's had or McKean struggling to hold up an overweight corpse; these are actors who know how to get the most out of a comic moment. The house itself is a humdinger of a Gothic mansion (John Robert Lloyd and Thomas Roysden did the art and set direction) and director Jonathan Lynn wisely keeps things moving a mile a minute. Surprisingly a failure when first released, the film now has quite the cult following. With Colleen Camp, Bill Henderson, Jeffrey Kramer and Jane Wiedlin (of The Go-Go's).

The Sea Gull (1968)

In the Russian countryside of the late 19th century, a famous actress (Simone Signoret) is spending the summer at her brother's (Harry Andrews) country estate. Accompanying her is a minor writer and her latest lover (James Mason) which perturbs her artistic, temperamental son (David Warner) who resents his presence. Anton Chekhov's great play doesn't seem ideal movie material but one is still unprepared for what Sidney Lumet's clumsy directorial hands has done to it. It's like a beautiful cake that once bitten into reveals inferior ingredients. Beautifully shot in Sweden (subbing for Mother Russia) by Gerry Fisher with impeccable production design and costumes by Tony Walton (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS), Lumet directs it like a soap opera and without a trace of the subtle Chekhovian wit. As for misguided miscasting of the French Signoret as a Russian (all the other Russians are played by Brits except for Kathleen Widdoes' Masha), her lack of command of the English language makes her unable to say Chekhov's lines with any degree of shading. Some of the performances are good. James Mason makes for an affecting if uneven Trigorin, Widdoes gets Masha's melancholia down pat, Alfred Lynch's sheepish Medvedenko is rather touching and best of all Vanessa Redgrave makes for a magnificent Nina. Others in the cast: Denholm Elliott, Eileen Herlie and Ronald Radd.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Free Soul (1931)

A willful and independent socialite (Norma Shearer) has been raised by her alcoholic attorney father (Lionel Barrymore in his Oscar winning role), the black sheep of his family. He has urged her to live her life the way she sees fit rather than let society dictate her actions. But when she dumps her fiance (Leslie Howard) and takes up with a crude gangster (Clark Gable), he violently objects to the relationship. This is one creaky old melodrama with very little to recommend it! One can see the seeds of Shearer's irritating "great lady of MGM" performances germinating, she poses rather than acts and it's all too much though it's preferable to Barrymore's shamelessly hammy performance. It's the kind of film that can turn neophytes off classic Hollywood films forever. Phony and mawkish with one good thing going for it, Clark Gable. This was his breakthrough performance which took him out of the supporting player category to leading man. He's both dangerously seductive and charismatic here and one can see why Shearer would be drawn to him rather than the dull, pasty faced Leslie Howard. Directed by Clarence Brown. With James Gleason and Lucy Beaumont.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

In 1971, a husband (Ron Livingston) and wife (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a lakeside home in Rhode Island. But when unsettling occurrences start: the clocks all stop at the same time, mysterious bruises appear on the wife's body, a strange odor wafts through rooms, doors open and shut by themselves and ultimately a physical attack by an unseen force, they contact a married couple (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson) who have a solid reputation as paranormal investigators. Based on a "true" story (the Farmiga/Wilson couple do exist), this is a first rate horror movie. The director James Wan (SAW) takes all the usual haunted/possessed house cliches and teases us mercilessly with them until the goosebumps appear on our skin. He permeates the movie with a solid sense of dread and creates an atmosphere where you feel true evil exists. It's the kind of movie where you want to close your eyes but still can't take your eyes off the screen. The film it most resembles is POLTERGEIST (1982) but Wan manages to terrorize us without the expensive special effects and relying on mood rather than gore. As expected, Wan can't sustain the genuine tension until its conclusion and perhaps understanding that we've seen one movie exorcism too many, the "everything but the kitchen sink/all Hell breaks loose" finale is a disappointment. But the journey getting there is a scary ride.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Heartburn (1986)

A food writer (Meryl Streep) meets a Washington journalist (Jack Nicholson) at a mutual friend's wedding and soon after wedding bells are ringing for them. But his philandering ways places a great stress on their marriage which she attempts to hold together. Based on the novel by Nora Ephron (who did the screenplay) which was a thinly disguised roman a clef about her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, Mike Nichols directs this amusing and prickly look at a mismatched marriage. We're seeing it from her side of course but even if her anger gives us a possibly lopsided view of the actual situation, it doesn't lessen the sting. The film's biggest problem is a miscast Jack Nicholson. Granted, he's supposed to be a prick so it's not that he's charmless but he's downright creepy. The guy (his character) never has a chance! Whether making piggy noises while gobbling his food or singing horrendously off key, he's repulsive. Some actors are so overpowering that they almost never can play everyday Joes, Nicholson is one of them. The understated score by Carly Simon includes the terrific Coming Around Again which inexplicably didn't get a best song Oscar nomination. The large supporting cast includes Kevin Spacey, Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Steven Hill, Mercedes Ruehl, Catherine O'Hara, Richard Masur, Cynthia O'Neal, Joanna Gleason, John Wood, Caroline Aaron, Karen Akers and the director Milos Forman in a rare acting role.

Cash On Demand (1962)

During the Christmas season, a strict and unforgiving martinet of a bank manager (Peter Cushing) berates his employees for petty transgressions. But when a cool insurance investigator (Andre Morell) from the main office turns out to be a thief with a near perfect plan to rob the bank, the bank manager finds out what it's like to be at the other end of someone's mercy. This minor offering from Hammer films is a real find! Played out in almost real time, the film is based on a play by Jacques Gillies with very little concessions to cinema. However, this actually works in the film's favor as the bank setting (taking place in three sections of the bank) lends the film a claustrophobic feel as a cat and mouse game plays out between Cushing and Morell. Essentially a morality play dressed up as a thriller (with a few touches of humor), the director Quentin Lawrence keeps a tight rein on the proceedings so that we don't feel the obviousness of the film's message which is a rather subtle homage to Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Cushing is truly excellent here in one of his rare leading performances outside the horror genre. The bracing B&W camera work is by Arthur Grant (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT). With Richard Vernon and Norman Bird.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Good News (1947)

At Tait College, the football hero (Peter Lawford) is piqued that the new girl (Patricia Marshall) on campus won't give him the time of day. He gets the bookish librarian (June Allyson at her most appealing) to teach him French in the hopes of winning the pretentious newcomer's favor but he finds himself attracted to pert librarian, too. The second film version (the first was in 1930) of the hit 1927 collegiate musical is a real charmer. It's plot line may be as corny as Kansas but its execution is tuneful, colorful and infectious. And those delightful songs! Lawford should be the last person one would cast as an All American football hero and in a musical yet but his earnestness is hard to resist especially in the clever French Lesson with Allyson. Other highlights include Joan McCracken's delightfully frantic Pass That Peacepipe number and the rousing Varsity Drag production number. Directed by Charles Walters and the energetic choreography is courtesy of Robert Alton. With Mel Torme, Connie Gilchrist, Donald MacBride, Clinton Sundberg and Ray MacDonald.

Giornata Nera Per L'Ariete (aka The Fifth Cord) (1971)

A serial killer is on the loose in Rome (though one of his victims survives the attack) but there's a connection to all the victims: a journalist (Franco Nero) knew all of the victims, so naturally he becomes a chief suspect. So it's a race against time for the journalist to find the killer's identity as the killer's next victim may hit closer to home. Based on the novel by D.M. Devine and directed by Luigi Bazzoni. On its own, this is a well done example of the Italian giallo but what elevates it to another plateau is the great Vittorio Storaro's (LAST TANGO IN PARIS) stunning cinematography. This may well be the best shot giallo ever made. So superb that it's sometimes distracting as you're in awe of the compositions and lighting instead of concentrating on the narrative. But it's stylish and atmospheric rather than bloody although a tasteful giallo might seem a contradiction. Contemporary gay sensibilities might be somewhat disturbed by the killer's motives, however. The film's suspense highlight is a well executed sequence of a child all alone in the house. The typical Ennio Morricone score contributes to the film's effectiveness. With Pamela Tiffin, Edmund Purdom, Agostina Belli, Rossella Falk, Wolfgang Preiss, Ira von Furstenberg and Silvia Monti.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Genghis Khan (1965)

A 12th century Mongol leader (Omar Sharif) is determined to unite all Mongol tribes and forge a nation. After an interlude in China where its Emperor (Robert Morley) holds them as "guests" against their will, he becomes known as Genghis Khan and fulfills his destiny. Technically, it's an impressive film with Geoffrey Unsworth's (2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY) striking wide screen compositions, the impressive art direction (particularly the Emperor's palace) and Dusan Radic's rousing score. But its historical inaccuracies aside, it never comes to life, it just plods along. The best one can say for it is that it's not boring. The film is rife with miscasting. It's doubtful the liquid eyed, honey voiced Sharif could lead a band of girl scouts into battle, much less an army of fierce Mongols. The worst piece of miscasting though is James Mason, in quite possibly his worst performance, as a Chinese adviser (with a sing-song accent) to his Emperor. Although miscast as everyone else, Stephen Boyd as Sharif's chief adversary manages to give a strong performance and one can't help but think he might have made a better Khan. Yugoslavia makes for a believable stand in for China. Directed by Henry Levin (WHERE THE BOYS ARE). With Francoise Dorleac, Telly Savalas, Yvonne Mitchell, Woody Strode and Michael Hordern all as Mongols and Eli Wallach as a Persian Shah.

The Las Vegas Story (1952)

A woman (Jane Russell) returns to Las Vegas, where she had previously worked as a lounge singer, but this time she has a rich husband (Vincent Price) in tow. The visit proves disastrous however for several reasons: her bitter ex-lover (Victor Mature), a stalking insurance investigator (Brad Dexter) and her husband's reckless gambling. This routine blend of romance and action needed a stronger script. Such as it is, the characters aren't sufficiently interesting enough for us to care much about their problems but the director Robert Stevenson (MARY POPPINS) devises a bracing chase sequence between a helicopter and a car late in the film that's the best part of the movie. This was the only on screen pairing of Russell and Mature so it's a pity it's not a better vehicle. As actors, they're two peas in a pod: bodies built like Olympians, minimal acting abilities, but good natured enough that one would have to work awfully hard to dislike either of them. With Hoagy Carmichael, Colleen Miller, Jay C. Flippen, Robert J. Wilke and Clarence Muse.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Entertainer (1960)

Set in the 1950s in a dilapidated seaside resort on the coast of England, an aging music hall performer (Laurence Olivier) finds his personal and professional life slowly crumbling around him. He attempts to find solace in the arms of a young girl (Shirley Anne Field) but nothing goes right. Often referred to as one of the world's greatest actors, here Olivier shows why that appellation is justified. It's a richly detailed performance, so authentic that one can't loath the character since his own self loathing is so realized that we can afford some sympathy for the man. The John Osborne (based on his play) screenplay isn't all that it should be and it's very obvious at times but the director Tony Richardson knows that it's the performances that will push it forward. Magnificent as he is, Olivier's not the whole show. Roger Livesey, in his best role since LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, as Olivier's father is pretty terrific and there's solid support by Brenda De Banzie as his second wife and Joan Plowright (soon to become Mrs. Olivier) as his daughter. With Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Daniel Massey, Thora Hird, Miriam Karlin and Charles Gray.

Jigokumon (aka Gate Of Hell) (1953)

In 12th century Japan, a lady in waiting (Machiko Kyo, RASHOMON) masquerades as her Queen during an attempt to overthrow the ruling clan which allows the real Queen to escape. A loyal samurai (Kazuo Hasegawa) carries her to safety and becomes infatuated with her. But after he discovers she is married, his infatuation turns into a deadly obsession. Upon its original release, it quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed films from Japan: winner of the Grand Prize at the Cannes film festival, the New York Film Critics award for best foreign film as well the Academy Award for best foreign film and for its costume design. Its stunning use of color (it was the first color Japanese film to be seen outside of Japan) was almost always remarked on. Even as a cinema neophyte before I started seeking out international cinema, I had heard of GATE OF HELL. But it seems in recent years to have fallen by the wayside while other Japanese films and film makers have moved into the spotlight. Certainly the director Teinosuke Kinugasa's reputation is nowhere near that of Kurosawa, Ozu, Ichikawa or Mizoguchi. The praise of its use of color is justified but as cinema, its simple tale is compromised by an ending that doesn't make sense to contemporary Western sensibilities and the heroine's husband's (Isao Yamagata) sensible and logical plea of "Why didn't you confide in me?" renders the pseudo Shakespearean tragic finale unsatisfying. Still, it's a film that demands to be seen.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Divorce American Style (1967)

A typical middle class suburban couple (Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds) are unable to resolve their marital differences and file for divorce. He becomes involved with a divorcee (Jean Simmons) after her ex-husband (Jason Robards) pushes them together in the hope that they'll get married and free him of alimony payments so he can marry his pregnant girlfriend (Eileen Brennan). The wife takes up with a TV car salesman (Van Johnson). One of the better film comedies of the 1960s, the Oscar nominated screenplay by Norman Lear (TV's ALL IN THE FAMILY) is clever and smart with the sting of truth to it. One scene with a group of divorced and remarried fathers picking up their children for their weekend visits and getting the kids mixed up is priceless. Reynolds (in one of her best performances) and Van Dyke as the typical suburban couple are so perfectly matched up that it's positively scary! But Lear's screenplay never lets the laughs get in the way of the often bitter and unhappy situations caused by divorce. In fact, for such a noted liberal, he's quite conservative on the subject. Directed by Bud Yorkin. With Lee Grant, Shelley Berman, Tim Matheson, Tom Bosley, Emmaline Henry and Pat Collins.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Watch On The Rhine (1943)

As the clouds of war hover over Europe, a German refugee (Paul Lukas in his Oscar winning performance) and his American wife (Bette Davis) arrive in America with their three children seeking a haven with her upper class family in Washington D.C. The refugee is, in fact, a key member of the anti-Fascist underground and when a pro-Nazi house guest (George Coulouris) suspects his true identity, some far reaching decisions must be made. Propaganda films were a staple of WWII Hollywood but they were usually jingoistic war films involving the fighting in Europe or the Pacific. Based on the Lillian Hellman play (with a screenplay by Dashiell Hammett), this is homefront propaganda which means talk, talk, talk. One can't argue with the film's ethics, they're solid but instead of dialog we get characters making speeches which eventually makes for a tedious film however well intentioned. Davis seems ill suited for the role of the quietly admiring wife and she's there for box office value as the film's leading man Paul Lukas had none. It's a product of its time and a far cry from Hellman's best work like THE LITTLE FOXES and THE CHILDREN'S HOUR. Directed by Herman Shumlin who directed the original Broadway play. With Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lucile Watson, Beulah Bondi, Henry Daniell, Donald Woods and Anthony Caruso.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Red 2 (2013)

A retired CIA operative (Bruce Willis) is settled into domesticity with his girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker) when the death of a friend and former fellow agent (John Malkovich) pushes him back into the thick of things. Their names, it seems, have been leaked on the internet regarding an old covert operation known as Nightshade which was about smuggling nuclear weapons into the Soviet Union. The follow up to the surprise 2010 hit RED (based on a graphic novel), I found the sequel a notch or two above the original. It's nothing more than guns and more guns, big explosions, karate fights, car chases, crosses and doubles crosses tied together with some amusing patter. Who cares if the tossed together plot seems too far fetched, the movie is energetic and eager to please and I had a good time at it. Returning from the original are Brian Cox and Helen Mirren, who takes the movie and tucks it in her little pocket and walks away with it. Whether drolly pouring acid over bodies in bathtubs, strapped into a strait jacket in a loony bin screaming "I'm the Queen of England!" or shooting off two pistols at once during a car chase, she's a marvel to behold! Directed by Dean Parisot (GALAXY QUEST). With Catherine Zeta Jones as a Soviet agent, Anthony Hopkins as a nuclear scientist, Byung-hun Lee, David Thewlis and Neal McDonough.

House Of 1,000 Dolls (1967)

Set in Tangiers, a magician (Vincent Price) and his glamorous assistant (Martha Hyer) are in actuality a front for a group of white slavers. Nubile young beauties are kidnapped and used as prostitutes in the infamous brothel known as the House Of Dolls. But when they kidnap one such beauty (Maria Rohm, VENUS IN FURS), her fiance (Sancho Gracia) tracks down her whereabouts which sets in motion a series of events that put the white slave ring in jeopardy. This slice of Euro-sleaze is actually rather tame. A flash of breasts, babes stripped and whipped while the sadistic madam (Yelena Samarina) gloats, hardly shocking even for 1967. Still, apparently, there are several versions out there and it depends on whether you're watching the English, Spanish or German version and running times vary from 90 to 95 minutes (which is the version I saw). Curiously, a scene in which George Nader's character's real identity is revealed is in German, not English, which makes me suspect it was cut for the American release. But for the Euro-trash it is, it's mildly entertaining but never as outrageous as an exploitation film should be. Directed by Jeremy Summers. With Ann Smyrner and Wolfgang Kieling.

Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989)

A well respected, successful ophthalmologist and humanitarian (Martin Landau) finds himself in a dilemma when his emotionally unstable mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to expose their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom) as well as some dubious financial dealings. Meanwhile, a struggling documentary film maker (Woody Allen) reluctantly takes a job profiling his famous brother in law (Alan Alda), a television producer, for a TV show. Both the ophthalmologist and the film maker must make difficult moral choices which will determine the rest of their lives. The tone and theme of Woody Allen's film, one of his best, is made obvious by two lines in the film, "We define ourselves by our choices" and "We are the sum total of our choices". Can we commit an offense against another person or even ourselves, whether a major crime or a small misdemeanor, and go unpunished even if no one but us knows? It's not a particularly original premise (Dostoyevsky among others got there first) but Allen's posing of the moral dilemma is provocative and well played out. The large cast includes Mia Farrow, Daryl Hannah, Sam Waterston, Jerry Orbach, Joanna Gleason, Frances Conroy and Caroline Aaron.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

When a thick London fog prevents guests at a fancy dress ball from leaving the hotel, a young woman (Merle Oberon) is forced to spend the night with a young attorney (Laurence Olivier) in his hotel suite. They find themselves attracted to each other but in a case of mistaken identities, he mistakes her for the four time married wife of a client (Ralph Richardson). She plays along with his erroneous conclusions. This bright Technicolored attempt at screwball comedy looks like it was filmed inside a candy box. It goes into overdrive at being bubbly and witty and it occasionally succeeds but one can see the wheels spinning and the actors trying too hard. Olivier, looking quite handsome, still hadn't learned to relax in front of the camera yet (he credits William Wyler for teaching him to act on film the following year in WUTHERING HEIGHTS) and Merle Oberon was never very good at a light touch. Oscar winning Harry Stradling (MY FAIR LADY) did the lensing and if you didn't see his name in the credits, you'd never guess the innocuous score was by Miklos Rozsa. Directed by Tim Whelan (THIEF OF BAGDAD). With Binnie Barnes and Morton Selten.

La Mariee Etait En Noir (aka The Bride Wore Black) (1968)

After a failed suicide attempt, a woman (Jeanne Moreau) embarks on a mission to track down five men for reasons we, the audience, discover in sections via flashback. Only after she pushes the first of the five men off a high rise balcony to his death, do we begin to understand this is a vendetta of revenge. It seems almost every director at one point in his career attempts a Hitchcockian film and this was Francois Truffaut's first attempt. Except for one or two sequences (such as a flashback with no dialogue, just Bernard Herrmann's underscore), it's not very Hitchcockian and some of it is very careless. Hitchcock, even at his best, could be careless too but the intensity of his technique overrode any other considerations and that very technique is what Truffaut lacks. But if you can possibly force Hitchcock from your mind, it's a decent if conventional murder mystery. One could debate whether Jeanne Moreau is a bit mature for the role I suppose but she's very good in the part. Apparently Truffaut himself wasn't happy with the final product but he's definitely made worse movies (THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN for one). Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich, writing under the pseudonym William Irish. With Jean Claude Brialy, Charles Denner, Michel Bouquet, Michael Lonsdale, Daniel Boulanger, Claude Rich and Alexandra Stewart.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Accident (1967)

A married Oxford professor (Dirk Bogarde) finds himself attracted to one his students, an Austrian aristocrat (Jacqueline Sassard). She is also the object of desire for one of his peers (Stanley Baker) as well as another one of his students (Michael York). On a languid Sunday afternoon, all four of them plus the professor's pregnant wife (Vivien Merchant) have a house party in the country which begins a series of events that can't end well. Joseph Losey (who directed) and Harold Pinter (who did the screenplay) would seem a match made in either Heaven or Hell, depending on your viewpoint. Their specialty, at least during this period, was the vivisection of the upper class bourgeoisie which means biting and enigmatic dialog articulated by unpleasant empty shells with human faces. It's a very good film really but not actually likable which I suppose defeats the purpose but the long Sunday's journey into night sequence is near remarkable in its accuracy. Bogarde effortlessly plays these morally corrupt weaklings so well that it no longer seems like acting which allows Stanley Baker in an atypical performance to take the acting honors. The weak link is Sassard who isn't very interesting as an actress and thus not interesting as a character so one wonders why all the gents are gaga over her. With Delphine Seyrig, Alexander Knox, Freddie Jones and Pinter himself as a television executive.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sierra (1950)

A young horse wrangler (Audie Murphy) and his father (Dean Jagger) live a secluded life in the mountains away from civilization. The father is a wanted fugitive for a crime he did not commit. When a young girl (Wanda Hendrix, Mrs. Audie Murphy at the time) gets lost near their mountain cabin, it isn't long before their hideout is revealed and the law after them again. This minor second tier western is a pleasant enough diversion for undemanding western buffs. Russell Metty's (TOUCH OF EVIL) vivid cinematography takes full advantage of the spectacular Utah locations with an assist from solid matte work (a cabin on the edge of some high cliffs). Hendrix looks like a dead ringer for Gene Tierney but without her strong screen presence. Directed by Alfred E. Green. With Burl Ives, who sings so many folk songs he threatens to turn the movie into a musical at any minute, and Tony Curtis, Elliott Reid, Sara Allgood, James Arness and Elisabeth Risdon.

Words And Music (1948)

Lyricist Lorenz "Larry" Hart (Mickey Rooney) and composer Richard Rodgers (Tom Drake, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) are introduced by a mutual friend (Marshall Thompson) as potential songwriting partners. They click and hit shows and hit tunes follow although Hart's erratic and unprofessional behavior threatens to derail their success. This glossy and glossed over Technicolor MGM musical bears little resemblance to the actual facts. Hart's bouts of depression are touched on only superficially but not surprisingly (this was 1948 after all) his alcoholism and homosexuality aren't dealt with. Even the shows themselves aren't safe, Gene Kelly did not star in 1936's ON YOUR TOES! The storyline is essentially phony as Hell. So is there a reason for watching it? You bet! You've got some of the best popular songs ever written, every one an ace and impeccably performed! We get to see Lena Horne owning The Lady Is A Tramp, Mel Torme crooning Blue Moon, Rooney and Judy Garland tearing down the place in I Wish I Were In Love Again, June Allyson in the delightful Thou Swell number, Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen in the thrilling Slaughter On Tenth Avenue ballet to name a few highlights. Directed by Norman Taurog. The large cast includes Janet Leigh, Cyd Charisse, Ann Sothern, Perry Como, Betty Garrett, Jeanette Nolan, Allyn Ann McLerie, Marietta Canty and Clinton Sundberg.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Verna: USO Girl (1978)

Set in 1944 during WWII, a young girl (Sissy Spacek) has dreams of being a singing and dancing Star and believes she is special. What she doesn't seem to comprehend however, is that she has no talent whatsoever. But when a second rate performing troupe can't get anyone else in time for their European USO tour of military zones, they reluctantly let her join the show. Based on Paul Gallico's short story, this is a simple but affecting story enhanced by Spacek's guileless performance. Spacek is, of course, a much better singer (remember COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER?) than she plays here but one can see why the G.I.s would be utterly charmed by her despite her character's flat singing voice and clunky dancing. Filmed on location at U.S. military bases in Germany and (one assumes) the participation of hundreds of actual G.I.s is combined with the film's drab color palette to give the film a stripped down naturalistic look. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (LITTLE DARLINGS). With William Hurt as the soldier who falls in love with Spacek, Sally Kellerman as a jaded singer and Howard Da Silva (in an Emmy winning performance) as the troupe's kind hearted leader.

Monday, July 15, 2013

City Beneath The Sea (1953)

Two salvage divers (Robert Ryan, Anthony Quinn) arrive in Jamaica at the behest of an insurance company who hope to locate a ship that was lost in a hurricane ..... and carrying over a million dollars in gold! What, at first, seems a simple salvage job turns into a tale of greed, double crosses, romance and voodoo. Although directed by Budd Boetticher, don't expect much. This isn't one of his complex, layered westerns with Randolph Scott but an uncomplicated exotic Saturday matinee Technicolor adventure. It's the kind of movie where you can only pay half attention to and still get everything that's going on. Ryan seems adrift here, he's the kind of actor who needs a part with some teeth. As a generic action hero, he seems uncomfortable and it shows. Quinn fares better as Ryan's hard drinking, two fisted, skirt chasing partner. For a film shot on the Universal backlot, the Universal art department does a decent job of turning it into the Caribbean. With Mala Powers and Suzan Ball as the romantic interests of Ryan and Quinn respectively. Also with Woody Strode, George Mathews, Karel Stepanek, Barbara Morrison, Hilo Hattie and Lalo Rios.

Undercover Blues (1993)

A married couple (Kathleen Turner, Dennis Quaid) are on vacation in New Orleans with their baby daughter (Michelle Schuelke). They are, in actuality, retired spies but when a renegade Czech arms dealer (Fiona Shaw) dealing in and transporting dangerously unstable chemical weapons arrives on the scene, their boss (Richard Jenkins) lures them back into the espionage game for one last job. This is a routine comedy action flick with a gimmick. The gimmick is the baby! But the gimmick backfires because (yes, I know it's only a movie!) the baby is constantly put in harms way and what sane parent would endanger their infant so? For example, Quaid battles some thugs with one hand while holding the baby with the other and Turner and Quaid take the baby with them when breaking into the house of a potentially dangerous situation. Quaid comes off as glib when he's supposed to be "cool" though Turner remains appealing. There's also an annoying comic performance by Stanley Tucci as a stereotypical Latino thug that might be slightly less offensive if it were actually played by a real Latino. Shaw gives the one truly funny performance in the film as the cartoon villainess. Directed by Herbert Ross (STEEL MAGNOLIAS). With Obba Babatunde and Larry Miller as a pair of not too bright New Orleans cops, Tom Arnold, Saul Rubinek and Park Overall.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Shadow On The Window (1957)

A young boy (Jerry Mathers, TV's LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) is traumatized into muteness when he sees an elderly man (Watson Downs) murdered and his mother (Betty Garrett, ON THE TOWN) attacked by three thugs: John Drew Barrymore (yes, Drew's dad), Corey Allen (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) and Gerald Sarracini. It then becomes a race against time to see if the police can find where the thugs are holding the woman before she is killed. This pulpy potboiler is a good idea poorly executed. The director William Asher (BEACH PARTY) manages to keep enough uneasiness in the situation to keep one's interest but the acting rings hollow especially the stoic faced Philip Carey who deserves some kind of prize for keeping expressionless in even the most emotional and intense of moments. I mean the guy's wife has been kidnapped and his kid in a state of shock yet he can't even summon up a raised eyebrow or a quiver in his voice! George Duning's underscore brings a touch of class to the proceedings. With Paul Picerni, William Leslie, Mort Mills and Eve McVeagh.

La Decima Vittima (aka The 10th Victim) (1965)

In a futuristic societyinstead of warmankind's violent aggression is channeled through a globalized game called The Big Hunt. each player signs up for ten turnsfive as a hunterfive as a victim. If they survive all ten gamesthey are retired to greath wealth and fame. A beautiful woman (Ursula Andress) is on her final 10th game and her victim (Marcello Mastroianni) is in desperate financial and emotional straits due to pressure from his mistress (Elsa Martinelli) and ex-wife (Luce bonifassy). Based on the 1953 short story SEVENTH VICTIM by Robert Sheckley and directed with a wink in his eye by Elio Petri (INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION). This oddball mixture of science fiction and black comedy is imaginative and often amusing though it turns quite silly by its end. It's quite startling how a film made in the mid 1960s looks more futuristic than ever (not unlike Godard's ALPHAVILLE). Not only due to Piero Poletto's production design assisted by Piero Piccioni's 60s style cool jazz underscore but the film's staging of the killing as a television special  (complete with dancers with guns) seems rather omniscient now in this age of outrageous reality shows. With Massimo Serato and Salvo Randone. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Way, Way Back (2013)

A 14 year old boy (Liam James) and his mother (Toni Collette) are spending the summer at the beach house of his mother's new boyfriend (Steve Carell) along with his teenage daughter (Zoe Levin). Having a hard time dealing with his mother's boyfriend, he spends his days at a water park with the laid back manager (Sam Rockwell) and finds himself opening up under the wing of his new mentor. This is the directorial film debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who won Oscars for their screenplay for THE DESCENDANTS along with Alexander Payne. THE DESCENDANTS was one of my most disliked films of 2011 mainly because of its screenplay, so imagine my surprise at this well written often incisive coming of age tale. Let's be honest, there's only so much you can do with yet another coming of age story so it's not so much the journey but telling of it and the telling of it here is marvelous. For the most parts, the film resists going for the obvious and while it often revels in its quirkiness, it's never at the expense of its characters. The film belongs to Rockwell but he gets a lot competition from Allison Janney as an alcoholic, horny single mother of two. The rest of cast includes Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, AnnaSophia Robb, Rob Corddry and River Alexander. Go see it!

Friday, July 12, 2013

See No Evil (1971)

Recently blinded in a horse riding accident, a young woman (Mia Farrow) is recovering at the home of her aunt (Dorothy Alison) and uncle (Robin Bailey) and their daughter (Diane Grayson). After spending the day with her boyfriend (Norman Eshley), she returns home unaware the entire family has been murdered. But the killer has accidentally left behind a clue to his identity. This taut little thriller bears some superficial resemblance to WAIT UNTIL DARK, another thriller with a blind heroine in danger scenario. But the similarity ends there. Whereas WAIT UNTIL DARK was based on a play and the film version played out mostly on one apartment set, Farrow's role is more physically demanding (knocked off horses, falling down stairs and hillsides, slapped and strangled etc.) than Audrey Hepburn's blind heroine. Farrow gives a strong performance balancing the delicate damsel in distress with a resourceful, determined heroine. Curiously, the film attempts to make a link between sex (the killer reads porn) and violence (the killer goes to violent movies) in society as a possible motive for the murderer's actions. Still, as a "damsel in distress" thriller, it's pretty potent. The excellent score is by Elmer Bernstein. Directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA). With Paul Nicholas (TOMMY), Brian Rawlinson and Lila Kaye.

A Midwinter's Tale (1995)

A frustrated out of work actor (Michael Maloney) takes matters into his own hands and attempts to stage a production of HAMLET in ten days during the Christmas season in a church in a small English village. His company consists of a ragtag group of fellow failed actors whose enthusiasm makes up for the multitude of problems and headaches that arise. The film profits by being written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who knows both Shakespeare and actors which gives the advantage of authenticity to the project. Anyone who has ever been a member of or worked in a theater troupe will see the shock of recognition more than once. That being said, there's an underlying sentimentality that doesn't quite ring true which mars the proceedings but not enough to discredit it. Shot in black and white which accents the film's alternate title, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER. The game cast includes Joan Collins, Celia Imrie, Richard Briers, John Sessions, Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, Hetta Charnley and two of ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS alumni, Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawalha.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)

At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet submarine runs aground on a sandbar off the coast of a sparsely populated island off the coast of Massachusetts. When a small party of the sub's sailors set foot on the island looking for a boat that could pull the submarine free of the sandbar, the island assumes it is under attack by the Russians and hysteria reigns ... on both sides. Over 45 years later and with the Cold War long over, this frantic farce transcends topicality and remains as funny today as it was in 1966. This is mostly due to William Rose's clever Oscar nominated screenplay (based on Nathaniel Benchley's novel THE OFF ISLANDERS), Norman Jewison's adroit direction and the expert comic timing of its ensemble cast. It's only flaw is that it's a bit long and threatens to run out of steam at any moment. The picturesque community of Fort Bragg in Northern California (handsomely shot by Joseph L. Biroc) stands in for Massachusetts and the nimble score is by Johnny Mandel. The large cast, all of them excellent, includes Alan Arkin (in an Oscar nominated performance) in his film debut, Eva Marie Saint, Carl Reiner, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, Theodore Bikel, John Phillip Law, Paul Ford, Tessie O'Shea, Andrea Dromm, Vaughn Taylor and the talented child actor Sheldon Collins (now a dentist!).

Blood Of Dracula's Castle (1969)

A photographer (Gene Otis Shayne) inherits a castle in the middle of nowhere from his deceased uncle. He and his girlfriend (Jennifer Bishop) drive down to the castle with the intention of displacing the current tenants. What he doesn't know is that the current tenants are Dracula (Alexander D'Arcy) and his wife (Paula Raymond). So inept and amateurish in its film making skills that one could write pages on the nonsensical and illogical behavior of its characters and plotholes. Although D'Arcy and Raymond play their roles for comedy (the only professional performances in the cast), everyone else seems to be flatly reading their lines off cue cards. It's the kind of movie where young beauties drive through deserted country roads and when, of course, their car breaks down, do they walk along the road seeking help like most normal people do? No, they walk through the woods! And one has to wonder just what is those woods that attract nubile young maidens (two others do the same) to wander through it all alone. The film has the silliest make up job for its Wolf Man. You'd think his victims would burst out in a fit of giggles rather than scream. The film is a veritable textbook on bad film making. Remarkably there are a couple nice visual touches like a long tracking shot of a man running courtesy of Laszlo Kovacs (EASY RIDER) before he moved on to "A" films. Directed by Al Adamson. With John Carradine as Dracula's butler.

Right Of Way (1983)

When a woman (Melinda Dillon, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) drives from Carmel to Los Angeles to visit her aging parents (Bette Davis, James Stewart), they inform her that the mother is terminally ill and that they plan a double suicide rather than be separated. When attempts to talk them out of their plan fail, she contacts L.A. County Social Services for assistance. But instead of help, it starts a bureaucratic machine in motion that declares the couple incompetent to take care of themselves. This grim drama pulls no punches, this isn't ON GOLDEN POND. It's a painful sit as we watch this determined couple robbed of their choices, their dignity as the law determines what is best for them. The one and only teaming of Davis and Stewart is a treat. They play off each other very well, their mismatched personas (the befuddled congenial Stewart, the acerbic tart tongued Davis) reflecting so many real life mismatches one sees in real life that somehow complement each other. There's a smattering of comedy, mostly by the couple's multitude of felines named after movie stars ("Robert De Niro just threw up a bird's head!"). Whoever did Dillon's disfiguring hairstyle should have been taken out and horsewhipped! Directed by George Schaefer. With Jane Kaczmarek and Jacque Lynn Colton.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pillow Talk (1959)

An independent career woman (Doris Day in an Oscar nominated performance) shares a party line on the telephone with a carefree bachelor (Rock Hudson) she has never met. A phone feud develops between the two over his continuous jamming of the phone lines by using it for his romantic conquests. When by accident, he meets her, he pretends to be a Texas cowboy visiting New York City and romances her. Can he keep the pretense up long enough to seduce her before she finds out his duplicity? This effervescent romantic comedy is both smart and slick. While the Oscar for best original screenplay seems a bit of overkill, nevertheless it's inventive and Arthur E. Arling (THE YEARLING) makes superb use of the split screen in his CinemaScope lensing. Day and Hudson's chemistry together positively crackles (they did two more films together) and one can readily see why they're considered among the great screen couples. One wonders what younger viewers would make of the "ancient" party line situation since they are now non-existent (aren't they?). Directed by Michael Gordon. With Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter doing their usual schtick and solid support from Nick Adams, Marcel Dalio, Allen Jenkins, Julia Meade, Lee Patrick, Mary McCarty, Jacqueline Beer, Hayden Rorke and Valerie Allen.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Phantom Lady (1944)

After a fight with his wife, a man (Alan Curtis) spends the evening with a mysterious woman (Fay Helm). When he returns home, he is met by the police who inform him his wife has been murdered. As the prime suspect, he explains to the police that he spent the evening in the company of a lady. But when the police question witnesses who might corroborate his story, they deny they saw any woman in his company! Based on the novel of the same name by Cornell Woolrich (REAR WINDOW), this slice of noir pulp as directed by Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE) has all the right ingredients: atmospheric shading and lighting, a psychopath lurking under the veneer of normalcy, an innocent man accused of murder, etc. The film is erratic and the film is clearly a case of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the acting is pretty bad, particularly the charmless Curtis, but the winsome Ella Raines as his secretary compensates. The film contains one of the weirdest segments I've ever seen: Elisha Cook Jr. as a hopped up drummer leering at Raines from the orchestra and later takes her to a jazz jam session that's filmed as if he's taking her to a drug den with all the musicians in the throes of sheer ecstasy (or weed?). It has to be seen to be believed. With Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez and Aurora Miranda.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

In a small South American port town, a showgirl (Jean Arthur) finds herself in the company of the pilots of a small air freight service. She's attracted to the manager (Cary Grant) who, because of a bad previous relationship, has a rather hardened and cynical attitude toward women. This is a wonderful movie! Very much in his element, Howard Hawks throws us into the adrenaline rushed world of daredevil pilots who take dangerous risks and live on the brink. Considering that it was shot on the Columbia sound stages, Hawks and his art director (Lionel Banks) do a terrific job of creating the authentic feel of a bustling "flying by the seat of their pants" atmosphere set amid a dilapidated air field. Cary Grant would seem an unlikely choice for the rough and tumble adventurer but he's very good. Jean Arthur plays the archetypal Hawksian woman but she has some of her thunder stolen by the young Rita Hayworth in her breakthrough role as Grant's ex-girlfriend. As Hayworth's current husband, Richard Barthelmess (BROKEN BLOSSOMS) seems rather stiff. Dimitri Tiomkin supplied the score. With Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, John Carroll, Sig Ruman and Donald Barry.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sommaren Med Monika (aka Summer With Monika) (1953)

Two young teenagers, she (Harriet Andersson) is carefree if immature while he (Lars Ekborg) is more practical, are stuck in boring jobs. Together, they run off to spend a romantic summer amid a secluded island area but as the summer ends, their idyllic romance gives way to the harsh realities of the everyday world. This early Ingmar Bergman work features the marvelous Harriet Andersson in the first of her nine films with the Swedish director. Her Monika is one of those free spirits who captivates us in the beginning but who we soon tire of when we see their "true" nature. It's to her credit that Andersson (and Bergman, of course) allows us to empathize with her while not condoning her reprehensible behavior. It's a bittersweet pill of a movie and while an excellent example of early Bergman, it's still a pretty conventional film (though daring by 1953 Hollywood standards) that lacks the complexity of the master artist that would soon emerge. Edited down to a little over an hour and released in a dubbed exploitation version called MONIKA, THE STORY OF A BAD GIRL, it was America's introduction to Ingmar Bergman. Mention should be made of Ekborg's fine work which often gets lost amid the justified praise for Anderssson. With John Harryson and Dagmar Ebbesen.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Night Crossing (1982)

In 1978 East Germany which was separated from West Germany by the infamous Berlin wall, two men (John Hurt, Beau Bridges) plan a daring escape to the West with their families. Their method of escape: a hot air balloon. Based on the true story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families who escaped to West Berlin on September 16, 1979 via a homemade hot air balloon, I suspect John McGreevey's screenplay might have tweaked the story a bit to accent the suspense elements (certainly Jerry Goldsmith's strong score does) but it does come across as plausible in its simplicity rather than a hyped up fabricated adventure. It helps that it has some excellent actors like Hurt, Bridges and the wonderful Jane Alexander at the film's core where we can read in their faces the frustration at living in a totalitarian regime. The film works more as an action-adventure film rather than a political tract (though there's some of that too) but this is a Disney film so that's to be expected. Solidly directed by Delbert Mann (SEPARATE TABLES). With Ian Bannen, Glynnis O'Connor and in her final film role, Kay Walsh (Nancy in Lean's OLIVER TWIST).

The Music Man (1962)

In the early 1900s, a traveling con man (Robert Preston) stops over in a small Iowa town and sells the townspeople on the idea of forming a marching band for the young boys of the town while promising that he will personally teach and lead the band. What he intends, however, is to skip town once he gets their money. Meredith Willson's 1957 Broadway smash musical makes the transition to film as smooth as silk with not only its original leading man (Preston) but director (Morton DaCosta), choreographer (Onna White) and several other key cast members and almost all its score intact. The show is pure corn, of course, but it's probably the tastiest corn you're ever likely to feast on. Willson's song score is memorable, White's choreography is high kicking and energetic but it's Preston's powerhouse performance that's the glue that holds the movie together. It's near impossible to imagine the movie without him. Is it possible that this show invented "rap" with the Rock Island and (Ya Got) Trouble numbers? Ray Heindorf's arrangements are immaculate. With Shirley Jones as Marian The Librarian, Buddy Hackett, Hermione Gingold, Paul Ford, Pert Kelton, Mary Wickes, Susan Luckey, Timmy Everett and a little guy by the name of Ron Howard.

The Leopard Man (1943)

In a small New Mexico town, a black leopard escapes into the night. When a young girl (Margaret Landry) is mauled to death by the leopard, a posse is formed to find the creature. But when other young girls are killed by the leopard, a man (Dennis O'Keefe) suspects that it may be human hands rather than leopard's claws behind the killings. The third and final collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur may not have the critical and cult following of their previous two (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) but it's got some memorable moments that rank with the best of Lewton's oeuvre. For those of us who first saw the film as impressionable youngsters, the leopard's eyes shining in the pitch dark or the helpless screaming girl beating at the door and the pool of blood seeping under the door are images never ever forgotten. The film makers wisely give us just enough backstory on the victims so that we know them and care about their fate (which is a recurring theme in the film) rather than anonymous pretty young things there merely to be bumped off. The superb atmospheric camera work is by Robert De Grasse. Based on the novel BLACK ALIBI by Cornell Woolrich. With Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, James Bell, Abner Biberman, Jacqueline DeWit and Dynamite as the ill fated leopard.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Lure Of The Wilderness (1952)

Set in the Georgia swamps of the early 1900s, a young man (Jeffrey Hunter) gets lost in the swamps looking for his dog. He's captured by a long time fugitive (Walter Brennan) from the law and his young daughter (Jean Peters) who have been hiding in the swamps for years. Eventually, he feels a bond with the two and promises to find a good lawyer to reopen the fugitive's case. If the story sounds familiar, it's a remake of Jean Renoir's 1941 SWAMP WATER, this time in Technicolor but with Brennan playing the same role he played in the 1941 film. While enjoyable, it's simply not as good as the Renoir film although the screenplay and Jean Negulesco's direction follow the original quite closely. While Technicolor enhances the film's Okefenokee Swamp locations, most of the actors (Hunter in particular) give rather enervated performances though Constance Smith as Hunter's spiteful fiancee is good and Brennan, no surprise, is just fine. There's a decent score by Franz Waxman. With Tom Tully, Jack Elam and Will Wright.

The Killing Of Sister George (1968)

A popular TV soap opera actress (Beryl Reid) discovers her character is going to be killed off the show. The anxiety of the situation causes dissension in her domestic life with her younger lover (Susannah York) and she becomes more abusive and neurotic. I'm not sure that the 1964 Frank Marcus play would ever have transitioned successfully to film but who on Earth thought Robert Aldrich (THE DIRTY DOZEN) was the right man to direct a film about an alcoholic lesbian actress trying to save her career and hold on to her girlfriend? Aldrich doesn't display much sensitivity toward his three lesbian protagonists (Coral Browne as a predatory BBC executive is the third one) and indeed the domestic scenes are directed in the style of his WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? with Reid and York standing in for Davis and Crawford. Browne's seduction of York (which is not in the original play) is filmed like a horror movie with the viperish Browne and the trembling York looking more like a vampire and her victim than any sort of mutual sexual attraction. The best parts of the film deal with Reid's (who's very good) apprehension at losing her standing as an actress rather than the clunky gay bits (the all girl bar sequence is laughable though not for the reasons intended). With Patricia Medina and Ronald Fraser.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Black Torment (1964)

After three months away in London, an English lord (John Turner) returns to his estates with a new bride (Heather Sears, ROOM AT THE TOP). However, the townspeople are hostile toward him as they suspect him of raping and murdering a local village girl. Clearly he was in London but reliable witnesses say they saw him in the area more than once. This Gothic horror appears to be a Hammer horror wannabe filtered through Daphne Du Maurier (elements of REBECCA). The setting is appropriately atmospheric, the characters look right out of Hammer and the lasses fill out their bodices quite nicely. But the plot borders on the ludicrous and characters behave irrationally and Turner is truly awful, barking his lines like a seal. It doesn't help that clues given to us early in the film allows us to figure it all out way before we get to the "surprise" ending. Still, for fans of the genre, it's agreeable enough and there seems to be a minor cult following. Directed by Robert Hartford Davis. With Ann Lynn and Peter Arne.

Fair Game (2010)

An undercover CIA agent (Naomi Watts) married to a former U.S. diplomat (Sean Penn) is working covertly with a group of Iraqi scientists while gleaning information and getting them out of Iraq when her identity is spilled to the media. With her cover blown, not only is she no longer of use to the CIA but the spotlight and accusations leveled at her and her husband causes a major rift in their marriage. Based on the true story of Valerie Plame whose CIA status was leaked by White House sources in retribution for her husband's allegations of false information being distributed in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. This is a well made political thriller that while fastidiously aiming its arrows and accurately hitting its targets is not above manipulating the "facts" (not unlike the recent ARGO or ZERO DARK THIRTY) to make for better drama. Since cinema should not be a substitute for an actual history lesson, I have no problem with that. They get the major points correct. Penn does some really good work here, restraining his tendencies to go over the top but it's Watts who really shimmers here. Surprisingly, the film did rather poorly at the box office. Directed by Doug Liman (THE BOURNE IDENTITY) who also did his own cinematography. With Sam Shepard, Noah Emmerich, Ty Burrell, Brooke Smith, Polly Holliday and Bruce McGill.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Julia (1977)

While the young playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is struggling with writing her first play (which would be THE CHILDREN'S HOUR), her best friend since childhood Julia (Vanessa Redgrave in her Oscar winning performance) studies medicine in Vienna. The rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe draws Julia into the resistance movement. But the friends will meet once more under extraordinary circumstances. Based on Hellman's "memoir" called PENTIMENTO, it's generally now believed that the character of Julia and the incidents in the book are entirely fictional. Why Hellman placed herself in a fictionalized WWII adventure is anybody's guess but it's irrelevant whether it's true or not because it makes for a great tale. It's traditional old fashioned film making (it could have come out of 1940s Warners with Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland), certainly out of step with what American cinema was about at the time with film makers like Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg emerging but director Fred Zinnemann's solid craftsmanship is what the film needs. The anticipation of seeing two of the greatest actresses of their generation acting together is muted for most of the film because there's nothing to play until their final scene in a restaurant and Fonda is excellent but Redgrave is positively luminous. Douglas Slocombe's cinematography is quite elegant (almost too elegant) while George Delerue's underscore is a bit of a disappointment. With Jason Robards as the writer Dashiell Hammett, Maximilian Schell, Hal Holbrook, Rosemary Murphy, Cathleen Nesbitt, Dora Doll, John Glover and in her film debut, Meryl Streep.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sadie McKee (1934)

A cook's daughter (Joan Crawford) runs off to New York City with her boyfriend (Gene Raymond) after he's fired under suspicious circumstances. After he abandons her, she's left to make her own way and when an alcoholic millionaire (Edward Arnold) proposes marriage, she snaps at the chance even though she's still in love with the ne'er-do-well. The female audiences of the 1930s lapped up this poor girl rags to riches stuff and it's easy to see why. It's more entertaining than it has any right to be. Crawford is enormously appealing here and her moxie drives this double bonbon potboiler pleasingly forward until the last 15 minutes or so go all sappy on us. Her unrequited love for Raymond is a bit hard to swallow, not just because he's not worthy of her but ... well, who'd pine away for Gene Raymond? Directed by the undervalued Clarence Brown (NATIONAL VELVET). With Franchot Tone (who Crawford would marry the following year), Akim Tamiroff, Leo G. Carroll, Esther Ralston and Jean Dixon as Crawford's brassy wise cracking chum.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Criminal Lawyer (1951)

A clever criminal attorney (Pat O'Brien), who has a serious drinking problem, has a reputation for representing scum and other dubious clients. His ethics and courtroom tactics cost him a judicial appointment that he wanted very much. But when his loyal man Friday (Mike Mazurki) is charged with murder, he is determined to redeem himself. This low budget unpretentious "B" has humble aspirations. Clocking in at an hour and 14 minutes, the film plays out like an extended PERRY MASON episode. On that level, it's modestly entertaining. The aging O'Brien was well past his leading man status and as his loyal secretary, Jane Wyatt was already looking motherly (FATHER KNOWS BEST was just three years away). The film does give a nice part to Mazurki who gets a chance at playing a character with more shading than the brawny thugs he usually ended up playing. Directed by Seymour Friedman. With Amanda Blake, Darryl Hickman, Carl Benton Reid, Mary Castle, Douglas Fowley and Marvin Kaplan.