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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Come Back To the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

September 30, 1975 is the 20th anniversary of actor James Dean's death and a group of hardcore fans called the Disciples Of James Dean reunite in a forlorn small Texas town at the Woolworth's where it all began: the head of the group (Sandy Dennis) claims that James Dean fathered her son, then there's the foul mouthed big breasted town tart (Cher), the brassy wife (Kathy Bates) of a wealthy oilman, a not too bright beautician (Marta Heflin) pregnant with her 7th child and the Bible thumping store owner (Sudie Bond). But when a stranger (Karen Black) arrives in a yellow Porsche, illusions and delusions fall apart as ugly truths come uncovered. Robert Altman had directed Ed Graczyk's 1976 play on Broadway in 1982 and filmed it with same cast. Shot in 16 millimeter, Altman makes no attempt to disguise its theatrical roots, it's a filmed play shot on a single set. While Graczyk's source material may be second rate, Altman and his actresses treat the material with perhaps more respect than it deserves. Altman's love of theater comes through and the cast manages to overcome the cliches of the script and bring an honesty and integrity to their performances. With Mark Patton, the only male in the cast.

Rooster Cogburn (1975)

A hard drinking boozer and often trigger happy U.S. Marshal (John Wayne) is stripped of his badge. But when a cutthroat gang of killers attack a settlement and kill several Indians as well as a pastor (Jon Lormer), a judge (John McIntire) restores his deputy authority. The pastor's daughter (Katharine Hepburn) insists on accompanying the Marshal to see her father's murderers are caught. Directed by Stuart Miller without any discernment, this is not officially a sequel to the Oscar winning TRUE GRIT. The film utilizes the character of Rooster Cogburn (again played by Wayne) in an unconnected story. The narrative is hardly fresh, the plot itself is an unsubtle reworking of THE AFRICAN QUEEN with a bit of RIVER OF NO RETURN tossed in. The mundane screenplay was written by the producer Hal B. Wallis' wife, the actress Martha Hyer, under the pseudonym of Martin Julien. The cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. (THE WAY WE WERE) does a wonderful job of capturing the stunning Oregon vistas, its mountains, meadows and rivers with his Panavision lens. But it's the pure Star power teaming of Wayne and Hepburn that carries the film and gives it whatever worth it may have as cinema. Their chemistry isn't great but they play off each other well but one can't help but looking at this as a missed opportunity, if only the material had been worthy of them. With Richard Jordan, Anthony Zerbe and Strother Martin.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Operation Petticoat (1959)

During WWII, the commander (Cary Grant) of a barely navigable submarine heading for a port to undergo repairs is forced to evacuate five Army nurses from a Pacific island. From then on, he must deal with finding necessary supplies, avoiding any Japanese attack and the sexual tension between his crew and the female nurses. I'm a huge fan of director Blake Edwards' comedies but this one hasn't aged well at all. It plays like a typical TV sitcom (think MCHALE'S NAVY) and its often sexist, snickery humor would be borderline offensive if they weren't so juvenile. It's the era when just uttering the word girdle would get a giggle. We're also supposed to find it amusing when Tony Curtis as a Lieutenant in charge of scavenging for supplies steals a pig from a poor Filipino farmer for the ship's New Years dinner. Grant and Curtis and the other actors all give it their best and their professionalism overrides a multitude of sins. That its screenplay (by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin) actually received an Oscar nomination for its script indicates how far we've come in the cinematic sense. Also in the cast: Dina Merrill, Arthur O'Connell, Joan O'Brien, Gene Evans, Madlyn Rhue, Gavin MacLeod, Virginia Gregg, Dick Sargent, Marion Ross and Robert Gist.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Into The Woods (2014)

In a small kingdom, a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are childless, a young girl (Anna Kendrick) is treated as a servant by her cruel stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch), a boy (Daniel Huttlestone) sells the family cow for a handful of "magic" beans, a girl (Mackenzie Mauzy) with long blonde hair lives in a tower and a precocious girl (Lilla Crawford) in a red riding hood sets out to visit her grandmother (Annette Crosbie). Meanwhile a witch (Meryl Streep) promises to remove the curse of being childless for the baker and his wife if they go into the woods and obtain for her: a cape as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, a golden slipper and hair as yellow as corn. After the film's opening number Into The Woods, I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew then the film was in good hands and that everything would be okay. I was a bit nervous about the director Rob Marshall whose rat-a-tat-tat style seemed wrong for the project but I needn't have worried. Stephen Sondheim's superb darkly inventive adult fairy tale musical has reached the screen as a real movie, not a filmed adaptation of a stage play and even the purists should be pleased. Whatever "faults" the film may have are inherent in the original play's book by James Lapine (who adapted his own work for the screen). Among the highlights: the clever staging of the Agony duet with Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen and the sock-it-to-'em Last Midnight by Streep. Also in the cast: Johnny Depp as the wolf and Tracey Ullman as Jack's mother.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Logan's Run (1976)

In the post apocalyptic world in the year 2274, civilization lives under a massive dome. At the age of 30, all citizens must submit to the Carrousel where they are either terminated or allegedly "renewed" and born again anew. Some of the population doubt the logic of the Carrousel and attempt to escape to a place called Sanctuary. They are called runners. A "Sandman" (Michael York) pursues and eliminates the runners but when his time is up, he sees things differently. Based on the novel of the same name by William F. Nolan and George Clayton, the film takes the central idea of the novel but gives it a more upbeat spin to the character's motivations. The screenplay has also fashioned a much better ending. The premise is so fascinating that it's near impossible not to be on the movie's side. Luckily, there's much to like about it from the likable leads (York and Jenny Agutter) to the handsome Oscar nominated production design (much of the film utilizes contemporary Dallas and Houston structures for its futuristic look) to Jerry Goldsmith's fine underscore. Some of the film's Oscar winning special effects are pretty weak by today's standards but not enough to damage the overall effect. Directed by Michael Anderson (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS). With Peter Ustinov, Farrah Fawcett, Richard Jordan and Michael Anderson Jr.

The Lost Moment (1947)

An American publisher (Robert Cummings) travels to Venice in the hopes of obtaining the love letters of the long deceased poet Jeffrey Ashton which are held by his surviving mistress (Agnes Moorehead), still living at the ripe old age of 105. However, he hides his true identity as the old woman's ward (Susan Hayward) is suspicious of him and very protective of the letters. Based on the 1888 Henry James novella THE ASPERN PAPERS, the film alters the James narrative in order to make the two leads more romantic and sympathetic than their more calculating literary counterparts. No surprise, there's no chemistry between the bland Cummings (did anyone ever have chemistry with him?) and the miscast Hayward. Moorehead is covered with so much old age make up that she's virtually unrecognizable. How do we even know that's her under all the gunk? Fortunately, the moody B&W cinematography by Hal Mohr (THE JAZZ SINGER) and the atmospheric art direction of Alexander Golitzen do a lot to cover up the film's deficiencies. Directed by actor turned director Martin Gabel (MARNIE). With Joan Lorring, Eduardo Ciannelli and John Archer.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Strange Lady In Town (1955)

In 1880 New Mexico, a woman doctor (Greer Garson) arrives from Boston to practice medicine in the West after dealing with male bigotry toward female doctors in the East. She immediately clashes with the chauvinist doctor (Dana Andrews) practicing in Santa Fe but there's also an underlying attraction between the two. Directed with a heavy fist by Mervyn LeRoy (QUO VADIS), this is a pedestrian western made somewhat interesting by its unusual (for its time) moderately feminist bent. I kept waiting for Garson's character to cave in (like Hepburn often did in her films with Tracy) and ride off into the sunset with Andrews while letting him do the doctoring but the script stays true to its feisty heroine. Aside from that angle, it's a pretty predictable western right down to Frankie Laine singing the title song written by Dimitri Tiomkin, of course. This is a fifties western after all. Along for the ride are Cameron Mitchell as Garson's no good brother and Lois Smith (FIVE EASY PIECES) as Andrews' tomboy daughter. With Walter Hampden, Adele Jergens, Frank DeKova, Robert J. Wilke, Russell Johnson and Nick Adams as Billy The Kid.

Foxcatcher (2014)

The eccentric multi-millionaire and heir (Steve Carell) to the vast Du Pont fortune takes it upon himself to sponsor a wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics and provide training facilities on his massive estate. To this end, he enlists an Olympic gold medal winning wrestler (Channing Tatum) to assist him with the training but what begins as a well intentioned idea soon turns dark and leads to tragedy. Based on the events leading to the murder of Olympic winning gold medalist Dave Schultz by his "mentor", the director Bennett Miller (MONEYBALL) adjusts the facts to suit the story but it remains fairly faithful to the actual events. It some ways, it's a hard film to like and I can see why some people are turned off by it as Miller's quietly methodical execution leaves a chill. While we never understand Du Pont's pathology to the point where his actions make any kind of sense (no motive was ever established), Carell gives us an unsettling portrait of an egomaniac so removed from the real world that it never occurs to him that people can say no or have feelings or thoughts outside his ken. The acting is first rate right down the line. It's Tatum's best work to date and matched by Mark Ruffalo as his older brother. One of the best American films of the year. With Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller and Anthony Michael Hall (totally unrecognizable from his BREAKFAST CLUB days.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Magnificent Doll (1946)

In Philadelphia, a young widow (Ginger Rogers) and her mother (Peggy Wood, THE SOUND OF MUSIC) take in boarders to make ends meet. Two of their boarders are James Madison (Burgess Meredith) and Aaron Burr (David Niven) and the young widow's involvement with them will change American history. What starts out as an entertaining highly fictionalized historical romance becomes increasingly absurd. Historically, there's no evidence whatsoever that Dolly Madison was ever Aaron Burr's lover before her marriage to James Madison. One can accept that as a piece of dramatic license but when Rogers as Dolly Madison gives a rousing speech on the courthouse steps to prevent the angry crowd from lynching Burr, historical accuracy be damned and it just becomes too ludicrous. The screenplay is by Irving Stone, who would go on to write two well documented biographies LUST FOR LIFE on Vincent Van Gogh and AGONY AND THE ECSTASY on Michelangelo but his writing here is pure fiction, neatly eliminating Madison's son from her first marriage completely. The director Frank Borzage does well enough with the material at hand though without any particular commitment. With Stephen McNally and Frances E. Williams.

The Neptune Factor (1973)

An earthquake traps an underwater ocean laboratory and the three men in it. A miniature submarine is sent down to make a rescue attempt but the lab has sunk to such a great depth that it may be impossible. One would think that at its most basic level, even a derivative "B" undersea adventure would be mindless fun ... one would think. Wrong! It's near incredible how dull this VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA knock off is. There's zero characterization and the cast, all of whom have done good work in the past (Ben Gazzara, Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon), is left adrift spouting the most inane dialog. The special effects consist of a miniature toy submarine floating amongst exotic fish and sea horses giving the effect of giant sea creatures! The film has the feel of a television movie but even if it actually were made for TV, it still wouldn't cut the mustard. Not even Lalo Schifrin can whip up much excitement with his sluggish underscore. It's flabby without any real tension or suspense. Directed by Daniel Petrie (A RAISIN IN THE SUN). With Donnelly Rhodes and Michael J. Reynolds.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Macao (1952)

A drifter (Robert Mitchum) arrives in the Portuguese colony of Macao (about 35 miles off the shore of Hong Kong) and becomes involved with a nightclub singer (Jane Russell) who works for a smuggler (Brad Dexter) wanted by the American police. Although the legendary Josef von Sternberg gets the directorial credit, he was fired midway into production and the film was finished by Nicholas Ray. The film feels more like a Nick Ray film than a von Sternberg movie. The plot itself doesn't seem all that important. It's all about style, it seems to wink at you. As cinema, it's a breezy piece of noir-ish entertainment with some sharp dialog and heated chemistry between Mitchum and Russell. It could have been better, sure but I'm more than pleased with what we got. Also in the cast: William Bendix, Thomas Gomez, Philip Ahn, Vladimir Sokoloff and in one of her four roles in 1952 that collectively won her a supporting actress Oscar (though officially it was for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL), Gloria Grahame seductively doing her femme fatale bit as Dexter's mistress.

The Cossacks (1928)

A peace loving young Cossack (John Gilbert, QUEEN CHRISTINA) is chastised by the people of his village for not wanting to fight and wage war against the Turks. But when his father (Ernest Torrence) beats him, he fights back and becomes a great Cossack warrior. On a technical level, this is a very well made film. There's a nice mix of action, romance, humor and even dancing. But I couldn't help but bristle at the film's obvious subtext. These Cossacks are ignorant barbarians who make their women toil in the field while they go off pillaging and killing the "unbelievers" (aka Turks). Gilbert's character before he turns brute is referred to as a "woman man" and ridiculed and the Russian Prince (Nils Asther, BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN) is made fun of because of his elegant manners and the film seems to implicitly condone the behavior. The film's rousing finale with the Cossacks returning in victory with Turks and their women tied in bondage seems to be asking for cheers! I won't even go into the scene where Renee Adoree (reunited with her BIG PARADE leading man) crawls on her hands and knees declaring her love for Gilbert! If one can get over that, it's an entertaining piece of hokum. Loosely based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy and directed by George W. Hill. The newly composed spirited underscore is by Robert Israel.

La Legge (aka The Law) (1959)

In a small Italian fishing village, several stories unfold: a free spirited if amoral girl (Gina Lollobrigida) sets her sights on the handsome engineer (Marcello Mastroianni) sent to clean up the marshes, an unhappily married woman (Melina Mercouri) plots to leave her husband for a younger man (Raf Mattioli), the sadistic crime boss (Yves Montand) fights to hold on to his power while the town's patriarch (Pierre Brasseur) finds his health failing him. An Italian/French co-production directed by Jules Dassin (NIGHT AND THE CITY), this tale of passions running wild, hypocritical facades and power struggles is a riveting melodrama where the tension slowly builds, eventually paying big dividends. Lollobrigida and Mastroianni provide the sex appeal while Mercouri and Montand provide the acting and Dassin firmly holds everything together with a sharp and focused eye toward its satisfying denouement. With its powerhouse cast, you'd think the film would be better known but too few have seen it. Released in the U.S. with cuts as WHERE THE HOT WIND BLOWS. With Paolo Stoppa and Vittorio Caprioli.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gypsy (1962)

An ambitious and ruthless stage mother (Rosalind Russell) is determined to make her little girl (Morgan Brittany, later Ann Jillian) a big vaudeville star and won't let anything stand in her way. Her focus on the girl has her ignoring the needs of her other daughter (Diane Pace, later Natalie Wood). Based on the smash 1959 Broadway musical that starred Ethel Merman in what many consider her greatest role, the film version has been much maligned and no one more so than Russell for stepping into Merman's shoes. Russell is not a singer and she's dubbed by Broadway star Lisa Kirk (KISS ME KATE) but Merman wasn't much of an actress. I'm in the minority that thinks Russell does a very good job as Mama Rose and in fact, she does most of her big number Rose's Turn in her own voice with Kirk taking over toward the very end. It's that rarity in musicals in that it has a very substantial book with complex characters and isn't totally dependent on its songs for its strength. But thankfully the songs are there and what terrific songs Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) gave us. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. With Karl Malden, Paul Wallace, Jean Willes, Harvey Korman, Jack Benny, Parley Baer and as the three scene stealing strippers with a "gimmick": Betty Bruce, Roxanne Arlen and Faith Dane.

The Kingfisher (1983)

An aging novelist and womanizer (Rex Harrison) reads an obituary of an old rival who married the woman (Wendy Hiller) he loved. He invites the widow to tea in the hopes of rekindling a fifty year old romance. Based on the play by William Douglas-Home (THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE), this is a three character piece that doesn't bother (or can't) hide its theatrical origins. Fortunately, instead of a film set, the film was shot in a gorgeous old renovated mill house in the English countryside which gives a less stage bound feeling to the proceedings. It's the sort of film that depends heavily on its cast and here it shines. Harrison elegantly navigates his way around a quip easily, Hiller brings her no nonsense graciousness and Cyril Cusack as Harrison's servant turns a pout into a master acting class. It's a chatty little piece but with enough agreeableness to keep one grinning. Directed by James Cellan Jones.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"10" (1979)

A 42 year old songwriter (Dudley Moore) is having a mid life crisis. Although in a monogamous relationship with an actress (Julie Andrews), while driving he spots a young bride (Bo Derek) on her way to her wedding and becomes obsessed with her. Obsessed to the point of following the young woman on her honeymoon in Mexico! This sex comedy was a huge hit in 1979 and made Moore a bankable box office name and Derek one of the most talked about sex stars for several years. The director Blake Edwards is one of those rare directors who genuinely has a knack for both sophisticated comedy (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) and physical comedy (THE PARTY), often balancing them within the same structure. While this doesn't rank with the best of his work, it's a solid second tier effort. The film isn't entirely without substance, Edwards touches on some salient points about aging, the generation gap and male chauvinism. Since Moore plays a songwriter, music is a very important element in the film and Henry Mancini's Oscar nominated underscore mixes love songs, disco, jazz and of course, classical music. This is the film that made Ravel's BOLERO a best selling record! With Robert Webber, Brian Dennehy, Dee Wallace, Max Showalter and Sam J. Jones (FLASH GORDON).

Another Dawn (1937)

When her one true love is killed and believing she can never love again, a woman (Kay Francis) agrees to marry a Colonel (Ian Hunter) in the British army even though she doesn't love him and travel with him to his outpost in the Sahara desert. It is there that she discovers that she can love again ... only it's not her husband but a handsome Captain (Errol Flynn) working under her husband's command. Based on the Somerset Maugham short story CAESAR'S WIFE, this romantic melodrama lays it on pretty thick with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's underscore heaving with passion as Francis and Flynn fight the inevitable. But it does it with style and the two leads are quite appealing and there's even a moment or two that manages to tug at the heartstrings. It's the kind of film that flourished in the 1930s, titillating us with the idea of adultery without actually committing it. At an hour and 14 minutes, it's brief enough not to wear out its welcome and there's even some action (Flynn fighting marauding Arabs in the desert) to give us some momentary relief from the swooning romanticism. Directed by William Dieterle. With Frieda Inescort as Flynn's sister and Herbert Mundin as a soldier seeking to redeem an act of cowardice on the battlefront.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The 300 Spartans (1962)

The King of Persia (David Farrar, BLACK NARCISSUS) marches his armies into Greece with the intention of making Greece part of his empire. While the Greeks delay any action against the Persian King until after a religious festival, the King of Sparta (Richard Egan) takes 300 of his personal guard to hold the Thermopylae pass until the rest of the Greek army can join them. They will never come. One of the lesser known sword and sandal epics of its era, 300 SPARTANS is actually one of the better efforts. While it lacks the star power of SPARTACUS or BEN-HUR (or their budgets), its an effectively made action film that benefits from the authentic Greek locations, beautifully shot by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). The acting ranges from decent to poor, notably David Farrar and not surprisingly Barry Coe but it's not the kind of film where the acting is a vital element. The first rate underscore is by Manos Hadjidakis (NEVER ON SUNDAY). Neatly directed by Rudolph Mate. This was the inspiration for Frank Miller's graphic novel 300. Also in the cast: Ralph Richardson, Diane Baker, Kieron Moore, Ivan Triesault and Laurence Naismith.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Slander (1957)

A sleazy scandal tabloid run by a ruthless publisher (Steve Cochran) plans to publish a story about a secret in the past of the puppeteer star (Van Johnson) of a children's television show. As a teenager, he stabbed and robbed a store owner and went to prison for four years. The publisher promises not to publish the story if the puppeteer spills the goods on a famous film actress. He tries to do the right thing but tragedy comes to everyone involved. While a minor B&W effort from the MGM factory, the film packs a punch and sadly is more timely than ever. Today, with social media, supermarket rags and tabloid TV's insatiable appetite for dirt on celebrities, nothing has changed. It's worse than ever and what's even more terrible is that somehow it is now a part of our culture and we feed on it. It doesn't matter who it hurts as long as it sells and gives us our daily dose of scandal. To the film's credit, it pulls no punches and there's no happy ending ... everybody loses. I don't want to oversell it but it's a film that resonates. Directed by Roy Rowland. With Ann Blyth as Johnson's wife, Harold J. Stone, Richard Eyer (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD), Lurene Tuttle and in a strong performance, Marjorie Rambeau as Cochran's mother.

Wild (2014)

After the death of her mother (Laura Dern), a young woman (Reese Witherspoon) finds her life unraveling around her as she descends into a life of drugs and promiscuous sex which eventually costs her her marriage. Trying to find herself, she embarks on a thousand mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Oregon ... alone. Based on Cheryl Stray's biographical book WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, this is essentially a one woman show with Witherspoon in practically every frame of the film and very often, the only person in the film. It may be Witherspoon's finest hour on screen, yes even more impressive than her Oscar winning performance in WALK THE LINE. The director Jean Marc Vallee (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB) keeps a tight rein on the film and a focus on Whiterspoon's character though I wish we had been given more of Laura Dern, so good that we just want to see more of her. We could have used a little more back story on the mother-daughter dynamic which is important to the film's structure. Beautifully shot in wide screen by Yves Belanger who makes great use of the stunning locations. With Gaby Hoffman, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae and Cliff De Young.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)

The Russian and U.S. governments combine forces in a joint venture that would send a ship into space to recover data information from the spaceship Discovery whose computer Hal 9000 mysteriously malfunctioned and caused the deaths of four astronauts. This sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in no way comes close to matching that legendary film. One simply shouldn't expect the dactylic rhythms or enigmatic secrets of 2001. That being said, as sequels go it's not bad at all though it fails to deliver the goods in its promised "something wonderful is going to happen" finale. Instead of "something wonderful", we get the idealistic drivel of a Shangri-La philosophy, sci-fi style. Technically, the picture is a marvel as attested by its five Oscar nominations in the technical categories. The acting is solid if unspectacular. Efficiently directed by Peter Hyams, who wrote the screenplay based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel. The cast includes Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Elya Baskin, Mary Jo Deschanel, Douglas Rains returns as HAL 9000 and Candice Bergen voices his female counterpart, SAL 9000.

White Zombie (1932)

A young couple (Madge Bellamy, John Harron) arrive in Haiti where they will be married. They arrive at the mansion of a plantation owner (Robert Frazer) who is in love with the girl and will do anything to take her away from her fiance, even if it means turning her into a zombie. Apparently the first feature film that used zombies as its narrative, this super low budget effort has one strong thing going for it and which likely is responsible for the film's large cult following. It's dripping with atmosphere, the air is thick with voodoo menace and a disturbing ambience. That in itself is enough to carry the film which is a good thing because it really has nothing else to offer. The acting (particularly that of Harron) is hideous beyond words, so wooden that it soon becomes difficult to tell who's a zombie and who isn't. Directed (if you can call it that) by Victor Halperin. With Bela Lugosi as the evil overseer of the zombie community.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Duffy Of San Quentin (1954)

The newly appointed warden (Paul Kelly, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY) of San Quentin prison has progressive ideas on how to treat and rehabilitate prisoners. He sets his sight on one particular hardened prisoner (Louis Hayward) and is determined to reach him. But the prison's first female nurse (Joanne Dru) may have a better chance of getting there first. Although based on the memoirs of Clinton Truman Duffy who was a warden at San Quentin for 12 years, the screenplay by the director Walter Doniger and Berman Swartiz doesn't ring true. It comes across as melodramatic as any of those 1930s Warner Brothers prison dramas and with a lot less vigor and style. BRUTE FORCE it ain't! It tries to balance being a "message" picture with a standard prison life movie and fails at both. It doesn't help that Hayward is sorely miscast. Hayward can be impressive in swashbucklers or as an elegant villain but as a bitter hard bitten criminal, he snarls and snaps to no avail and he looks quite aged. Even that ace wizard of cinematography John Alton (THE BIG COMBO) can't seem to find a visual style. With Maureen O'Sullivan as Kelly's wife (and stuck with the film's dull domestic scenes), George Macready, Horace McMahon and DeForest Kelley.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

John And Mary (1969)

A young woman (Mia Farrow) wakes up in a man's (Dustin Hoffman) apartment on a Saturday morning having met him the night before in a bar. When JOHN AND MARY opened in December of 1969, it was eagerly anticipated. After all, Hoffman had just come off MIDNIGHT COWBOY, this was Farrow's follow up to ROSEMARY'S BABY and director Peter Yates' last film was BULLITT. The film was not a success either critically or at the box office. It deserved a better fate as I happen to feel it's one of the best films made about the first 24 hours (the entire film takes place in 24 hours) of a budding relationship: the inquisitiveness, the uncertainty, the nervousness, the tentative exploratory first steps in deciding if this one night stand could develop into something more or remain just that ... a one night stand. The film moves back and forth in a non-linear fashion between the couple and their back stories. A small part of it seems mildly dated like the whole 60s college student protest thing and the "decadent" LA DOLCE VITA style party but for the most part, it still feels relevant. Hoffman and Farrow have a pleasing chemistry and their low key performances bring a naturalness to the situation. Quincy Jones provides the muted underscore. With Tyne Daly, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Tolan, Kristoffer Tabori, Cleavon Little, Marian Mercer and Sunny Griffin.

Life With Father (1947)

In New York City of the the 1890s, a stockbroker (William Powell) rules (or tries) his household with an iron fist. His wife (Irene Dunne) adores him but her inability to manage the household accounts irritates her husband. But when she finds out he has never been baptized, it becomes her mission to do so if it's the very last thing she'll do. Based on the play (by way of the autobiography of Clarence Day Jr.) by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, the book was turned into a hit Broadway play that ran for 3,234 performances making it the longest running (non-musical) Broadway play in history. As directed by Michael Curtiz, the film version is decent enough with a quaint sort of charm to it. But the sexist and patriarchal attitudes displayed in the film, while no doubt culturally accurate for its time, makes the film a bit irritating to watch at times. In the 40s, lines like "women can't think" might have seemed cute but today, one just groans. Powell is normally an actor of great subtlety but he plays to the rafters here while Dunne, normally an actress who exudes intelligence, has to play the ditzy wife. Also in the cast: Elizabeth Taylor (whose beauty is sabotaged by her ugly costumes), Edmund Gwenn, Martin Milner and Jimmy Lydon.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Desert Song (1953)

In Morocco, an anthropology teacher (Gordon MacRae) has a secret identity. That of El Khobar, a masked leader of the Riffs fighting against both French colonial rule and the tyrannical Sheik (Raymond Massey) who exploits the Riffs. But when the beautiful but spoiled daughter (Kathryn Grayson) of the Foreign Legion General (Ray Collins) arrives, he balances romance with fighting. This is the third film version of the musty old Sigmund Romberg operetta and judging from the dialog, they didn't remove all the cobwebs. It's all implausible and hokey but then, aren't most operettas? The songs by Romberg (with words by several lyricists including Oscar Hammerstein) are actually quite pretty but the bellowing and trilling from MacRae and Grayson don't do the songs any favors. The one number that gave me the most pleasure was an exotic dance by Allyn Ann McLerie (CALAMITY JANE) nicely choreographed by Leroy Prinz. I could have done without the irritating comic relief of Dick Wesson as a news reporter, he just seems too forced. But it is colorful and there's a certain charm in the hoary innocence of the whole thing. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. With Steve Cochran, William Conrad, Frank DeKova and Paul Picerni.

Bachelor Flat (1962)

An expatriate Englishman (Terry-Thomas) teaches anthropology at a Southern California university. Although he's engaged to be married, women can't help but throw themselves at him. What he doesn't know is that his fiancee (Celeste Holm) has a teen age daughter (Tuesday Weld) from a previous marriage. This wildly uneven sex comedy is the brainchild of cartoonist turned director Frank Tashlin by way of a play by Budd Grossman though the narrative is suspiciously similar to Tashlin's own 1954 film, SUSAN SLEPT HERE. The film continues Tashlin's breast fetish as displayed in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? and THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT, even to a sight gag of Terry-Thomas holding two cups to his chest! One has to take an enormous leap of faith to accept the gap toothed Terry-Thomas as a chick magnet however. Still, when Tashlin hits his mark it can be laugh out loud funny as when sexy Francesca Bellini attempts to eat a slice of cake while on an exercise machine. Even when Tashlin does the old slamming doors, people hiding in closets/under beds routine, it's done so well that you have to grin even if you've seen it all before. The spirited score is by Johnny Williams as he was credited before he became the John Williams. With Richard Beymer, Stephen Bekassy, Margo Moore, Howard McNear, Roxanne Arlen and a scene stealing Dachshund called Jessica (who gets star billing with the rest of the leads).

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Soldaat Van Oranje (aka Soldier Of Orange) (1977)

A group of university students in the Netherlands lead a carefree life even though the clouds of Hitler's Germany and WWII hover over their future. When the Nazis invade Holland, their lives take different paths. There have been countless films about WWII seen through the eyes of the Americans, British, Germans, Japanese, Italians and French. But this is one of the few that examine the Dutch experience. The director Paul Verhoeven (ROBOCOP) does it up in a grand "epic" scale (the film even has an intermission) and the scope of the film is fairly ambitious. Though the film begins with the interactions and fate of the five students, the second half of the movie focuses on just two (Rutger Hauer, Jeroen Krabbe). Though the actors are clearly too old for their parts, the actors acquit themselves nicely though this isn't a film where the acting need be much more than adequate. As far as WWII films go, this is certainly one of the better ones. It keeps it real without any unnecessary jingoism or sentimentality. With Edward Fox, Susan Penhaligon, Huib Rooymans, Lex Van Delden, Eddy Habbema and Belinda Meuldijk.

The Imitation Game (2014)

During WWII, a British mathematician (Benedict Cumberbatch), with very limited social skills, is selected by the government to be part of a team to break the Nazi's "unbreakable" Enigma code which is costing thousands of lives and prolonging the war. Soon, he becomes not only the head of the program but its only hope. Based on the true story of Alan Turing, the key leader who broke the Enigma code which very likely shortened the war by two years, this is more than just a WWII thriller. Turing was a homosexual when it was still a crime in England and what happened to him after the war is the stuff horror stories are made of. I'm not familiar with the work of the Norwegian director Morten Tyldum but based on this film, he has the assured hand of a crackerjack storyteller. I'm not particularly a fan of Cumberbatch but his work here blew me away. It's not easy playing an essentially unlikable character but Cumberbatch totally commits himself to the part, never once winking to the audience to give Turing some charm. It's not what I'd call a work of "Art" in the cinematic sense but it's the kind of movie that makes you appreciate how superb movies can be when all the elements fall into place for a good solid piece of craftsmanship. The excellent (all the way down the line) cast includes Keira Knightley (a lovely performance), Matthew Goode (so memorable in STOKER), Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Rory Kinnear.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Streets Of Fire (1984)

In an urban city seemingly populated by no one but young people, a rock star (Diane Lane) is kidnapped during a live performance by a biker gang lead by a thug called Raven (Willem Dafoe). The manager (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) of a local diner writes to her drifter brother (Michael Pare, EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS), the rock star's ex-boyfriend, to come and save her. Referred to as a "Rock & Roll Fable" in the film's poster, the film makes no pretense to realism. It's a fantasy city where there are no people over 40 (LOGAN'S RUN without the sci-fi) in night rain drenched streets and fluorescent day-glo colors with a constant rock 'n roll beat. The director Walter Hill had played around with this territory before, notably in his wonderful inner city nightmare yarn THE WARRIORS. STREETS OF FIRE was expected to be a major hit but it got the cold shoulder from both critics and audiences but the ensuing years has seen it grow a large cult following. Though Hill considered the film a musical, I wouldn't go that far. I'd call it a semi-musical and some of the songs (written by Stevie Nicks, Jim Steinman and Dan Hartman) are pretty good as is the pulsating underscore by Ry Cooder. With Amy Madigan (who just about steals the film), Rick Moranis, Bill Paxton, Lee Ving and Richard Lawson.

Music Box (1989)

When a Hungarian emigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen (Armin Mueller Stahl) is charged with WWII war crimes by the U.S. Office Of Special Investigation, his attorney daughter (Jessica Lange) decides to represent him against the advice of her attorney father in law (Donald Moffat). Costa-Gavras specializes in political thrillers, films that often incorporate the ordinary person fighting the oppressive fascist state or the dissemination of evil ideology: MISSING, BETRAYED and, of course, his masterpiece Z. Based on an original screenplay by Joe Eszterhas (BASIC INSTINCT), the film fits neatly into the courtroom drama genre rather than political thriller even though the emphasis is on is he or isn't he a war criminal. There are no surprises, perhaps not even the somber last 15 minutes or so. The question the film raises ("is blood thicker than spilled blood") deserves a more complex examination. Still, it's a more than decent movie with a superb performance by Lange that justifiably earned her an Oscar nomination and Armin Mueller Stahl is top notch too. With Frederic Forrest, Lukas Haas and Michael Rooker.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Soldier Of Fortune (1955)

When her photographer husband (Gene Barry) goes missing in China, his wife (Susan Hayward) travels to Hong Kong in an attempt to locate him. When the local police are of no help, she contacts a businessman (Clark Gable) with a dubious reputation who may be the only man who can help her. Based on the novel by Ernest K. Gann (THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY), this is a rather formulaic adventure movie that benefits from the appealing Hong Kong locations invitingly shot in CinemaScope by Leo Tover (DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), a lovely underscore by Hugo Friedhofer (BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) and the powerhouse duo of Gable and Hayward in the two leads. There's really not much action in the film, the film's escape finale is almost ludicrous in how easy our heroes rescue the prisoner held by Red Chinese. But it's easy to get caught up in the glamour of it all. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. With Michael Rennie, Tom Tully, Alexander D'Arcy, Richard Loo (effectively used), Jack Kruschen and Anna Sten (Samuel Goldwyn's 1930's failed discovery) as an aging Russian hooker.

Raffles (1930)

After falling in love with a member of the aristocracy (Kay Francis), an upper class thief (Ronald Colman) decides to retire. But when a friend (Bramwell Fletcher) finds himself in debt for a thousand pounds, the gentleman thief decides to pull one more job to help his pal out. In spite of some genuine charm, this is a static film. Based on the novel by E.W. Hornung by way of Eugene Wiley Presbrey's stage adaptation, the film does little to disguise its stage bound roots. I'm not a particular admirer of Mr. Colman who often seems to confuse acting with enunciation but he's appropriately cast here and bring his particular brand of gravitas to the part. Since this is a pre-code film, there's little proselytizing or recrimination about Colman's criminal offenses. Even the film's Scotland Yard detective (David Torrence) can't help but like the thieving rogue. The film seems like a rough draft of the Blake Edwards' far superior gentleman thief caper THE PINK PANTHER. Remade in 1939. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. With Frederick Kerr and Alison Skipworth in the film's best performance as an aging deaf dowager with eyes for Colman.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

An alcoholic writer (Ray Milland) is due to visit the country with his brother (Phillip Terry) but instead he goes on a drunken binge that eventually lands him in the drunk ward of a hospital. In 1945, this was hair raising stuff, potent enough to win the best film, best director (Billy Wilder) and best actor (Milland) at the Academy Awards. While there are still a few powerful scenes depicting the harrowing effects of alcoholism, much of the film feels simplistic especially in its near laughable neat little ending. We've come a long way since 1945 in understanding alcoholism and one has merely to compare Milland's work here with Nicolas Cage's performance in LEAVING LAS VEGAS to see the difference. While Milland is effective in his sober scenes, even as he's ready to jump out of his skin for a drink, his drunk scenes don't ring true. His Oscar notwithstanding, he's simply not a good enough actor to make for a convincing drunk. Two of the scenes still stand out: the bat and mouse hallucination and the drunk tank sequence with Frank Faylen's nasty male nurse. Miklos Rozsa's theremin wailing score seems more appropriate for a horror film, it sounds too "one step beyond". With Jane Wyman as Milland's faithful girlfriend, Howard Da Silva and Doris Dowling.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Passionate Stranger (1957)

A handsome young Italian (Carlo Giustini) gets a job as a chauffeur to an invalid (Ralph Richardson) in a wheelchair and his wife (Margaret Leighton). The wife is a novelist and decides to use the chauffeur as a character in her book. When the chauffeur reads the manuscript, he gets the wrong idea and sets forth to make fiction a reality. The concept is quite intriguing actually. The film is split into two parts, a film within a film. The film is in B&W and a comedy but when the novel is acted out (about a third of the film), it's in color and quite very dramatic. The execution isn't all it should be however. Perhaps it's too subtle and there should be more of a difference between the two halves. Yes, the B&W segment is a comedy but it should have been even more satiric to contrast with the high melodrama of the novel section. The director Muriel Box, who co-wrote the screenplay with husband Sydney, needed a lighter touch both as a writer and a director. With the exception of Giustini who seems limited by his command of the English language, the cast does surprisingly well with the material as everybody gets to play two roles, each quite different from the other. For example, Patricia Dainton as the maid is quite sweet and wholesome in the B&W section but quite the flirty tart in the color section. This is one film that could definitely use a remake. With Marjorie Rhodes and Allan Cuthbertson.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Topkapi (1964)

A larcenous woman (Melina Mercouri) recruits her former lover (Maximilian Schell) to help her steal a priceless emerald encrusted dagger from the Topkapi palace. His team includes a mechanical wizard (Robert Morley), an acrobat (Gilles Segal) and a strongman (Jess Hahn). But they also need a dupe and to this end, they approach a small time con man (Peter Ustinov) whose inclusion leads to a myriad of problems. Based on Eric Ambler's novel LIGHT OF DAY, this heist film was quite popular when first released but its charms have dimmed considerably in the ensuing years. As a crime caper, it's too far fetched to be much fun and the cast works overtime to make something of their characters but to no avail. Mercouri's femme fatale for example, we never get to know anything about her except she's a nymphomaniac but we never get to know her or her back story. She remains as enigmatic at the film's conclusion as she was at the film's opening. Pretty much the same for all the others. I don't want to be too hard on it. It goes through its paces diligently and with a certain style. Directed by Jules Dassin with an overactive underscore by Manos Hadjidakis. Inexplicably, Ustinov won an Oscar for his work here which is merely adequate. With Akim Tamiroff, Titos Vandis and Despo Diamantidou.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Restless Years (1958)

A 16 year old girl (Sandra Dee) with an emotionally unstable single mother (Teresa Wright) who keeps her sheltered and a misfit (John Saxon) whose salesman father (James Whitmore) keeps moving from town to town are attracted to each other. But small town gossip may prove to be their undoing. Films about small town hypocrisy like KINGS ROW and PEYTON PLACE and their effect on innocent people are almost a genre unto their own. This modest B&W CinemaScope effort isn't in those films' league but it's a moderately engaging effort. One of two films that the German director Helmut Kautner made in Hollywood, it's based on a play by Patricia Joudry called TEACH ME HOW TO CRY. It's rather simplistic in its execution with its characters black and white rather than gray shadings. Dee and Saxon make for an attractive pair which compensates for their still unrefined acting skills but the adults take care of the histrionics. The lush underscore is recognizably by Frank Skinner. With Virginia Grey, Margaret Lindsay, Jody McCrea, Hayden Roarke, Dorothy Green and Luana Patten as the treacherous high school bitch.

Murder With Mirrors (1985)

A man (John Woodvine) believes his stepmother (Bette Davis) might be in trouble so he asks her best friend Jane Marple (Helen Hayes) to invite herself to her friend's large country estate. But before he is able to tell Miss Marple what his suspicions are, he is murdered. With the assistance of the local police inspector (Leo McKern), Miss Marple does some sleuthing to ferret out the murderer. Based on the Agatha Christie novel THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS, this is one of three Miss Marple films that Helen Hayes did for television. While she doesn't come across as remotely English, Hayes brings her own pixie-ish charm to Christie's old maid amateur detective. It's not one of Christie's better mysteries, it's fairly easy to figure out who the killer is and how they did it. The suspects aren't a particularly interesting lot either. Some of the actors like Dorothy Tutin as Davis's widowed daughter and Tim Roth as a wayward cosh boy flesh out their thinly written parts by their strong talent but most of the others are rather colorless. This was made after Davis's stroke and though the effects of the stroke were still obvious, she seems more sturdy than frail. Directed by Dick Lowry with a forgettable score by the usually reliable Richard Rodney Bennett. With John Mills, Frances De La Tour, Anton Rodgers and John Laughlin.