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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Curse Of The Crimson Altar (1968)

When his brother (Denys Peek) disappears, an antiques dealer (Mark Eden) visits the remote country house where the brother was last heard from. While the mansion's owner (Christopher Lee) is welcoming, the dealer senses something very wrong in the household. Loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE, this is a rather predictable and sluggish horror effort. This was also one of the last films of horror legend Boris Karloff, who retains his dignity and powerful screen presence throughout. But despite their top billing, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele (horror icons all) have supporting roles which leaves the dull Eden to carry the picture. The film was cut by about 6 minutes for its U.S. release but I watched the European cut which restores the gratuitous nudity, sex scenes and some of the kinkier S&M atmosphere. For fans of the genre only and even then, don't expect anything special. Directed by Vernon Sewell. With Michael Gough and Virginia Wetherell. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Nicholas And Alexandra (1971)

In 1904 Russia, the Tsar (Michael Jayston) celebrates the birth of a son after four daughters. But he and the Tsarina (Janet Suzman) lead an insulated life and are oblivious to the poverty and suffering of their people. Or the brewing revolution that will soon topple the Romanov dynasty. Based on Robert K. Massie's biography of Russia's last Tsar, Franklin J. Schaffner's three hour epic is an intelligent piece of film making. Though not without its flaws (and some are major), the film takes an unsentimental view of Nicholas and Alexandra. Whether out of a misguided sense of their place in history or perhaps merely out of sheer stupidity, the film acknowledges that they were clearly complicit in the tragic fate that befell them. Schaffner and his screenwriter James Goldman (LION IN WINTER) effectively contrast the elegance of the Royals' lifestyle and the horrifying poverty of a downtrodden people who have no choice but to fight back. In the title roles, both Jayston and Suzman are pefectly cast but among the huge supporting cast, there are several standouts. Notably Tom Baker as Rasputin, Irene Worth as the Queen Mother and Alan Webb as a weary revolutionary. The beautiful Oscar nominated score is by Richard Rodney Bennett. With Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Brian Cox, John Wood, Fiona Fullerton, Timothy West, Lynne Frederick and John McEnery.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Torrid Zone (1940)

In an unnamed Central American country, the manager (Pat O'Brien) of a banana exporting company lures his ex-foreman (James Cagney) back to run the failing business. Meanwhile, there are some serious distractions like a sultry redhead (Ann Sheridan) and a revolutionary (George Tobias) intent on taking back the land! The old Hollywood studio system at its very best! Take a trio of likable contract players, back them up with ace character actors and give them rapid fire clever dialogue and you've got a winner! This expert farce whizzes along tossing barbs and quips so quickly that you're practically hanging on every word lest you miss a laugh. It plays out a little differently today perhaps in that we're much more sympathetic to the Latin revolutionaries rather than the American exploiters and capitalists but it's all good fun. Directed by William Keighley. With Andy Devine, Helen Vinson, Jerome Cowan and George Reeves.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Storm Fear (1955)

A wounded bank robber (Cornel Wilde) and his two accomplices (Lee Grant, Steven Hill) hold his brother's (Dan Duryea) family hostage in a remote farmhouse until a raging snowstorm passes. Based on the novel by Clinton Seeley from a screenplay by Horton Foote (TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL) and directed by Wilde, this is a tight economical little thriller. Wilde does a taut job of constructing the claustrophobic tension of people at odds with each other trapped in a confined space with nowhere to run. The scene stealers are Hill as a creepy loose cannon (in the kind of part Duryea would normally play) and Grant as a brassy blonde moll. Favorite moment: Grant pours whiskey into her milk and Hill yells "What are you doing?" to which she snaps "You know I can't drink my milk straight". Ah, a girl after my own heart. On the downside, there's David Stollery who gives one of those fake performances too often given by child actors of the era. The film features an early Elmer Bernstein score. With Jean Wallace and Dennis Weaver.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

American Ultra (2015)

A 20 something stoner (Jesse Eisenberg) is what is commonly referred to as a "loser". He has a dead end job at a convenience store and spends his nights smoking weed. He doesn't appear to have any ambition and seems content to just survive. But his loving girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) adores him anyway. But when we are suddenly taken to CIA headquarters and an agent (Connie Britton, TV's NASHVILLE) picks up the phone we're suddenly aware nothing is what it seems to be. Nima Nourizadeh's live action cartoon comedy is one of the more inventive films I've seen this year. An orgy of violence laced with wit, it feeds into our (justified) paranoia of the government. The film may be a cartoon but the violence isn't so beware. Eisenberg and Stewart are two of my least favorite actors but I don't think I've ever enjoyed Eisenberg more, not even in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Eisenberg and Stewart's characters provide the movie's soul, otherwise it would be just another mindless violent thriller. If it's a film you might be interested in seeing, avoid reviews because many contain spoilers that compromise the film's surprise factor. With John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins and Tony Hale.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

F/X (1986)

A movie special effects wizard (Bryan Brown) is hired by the Justice Department to stage a fake assassination of a mobster (Jerry Orbach) before he goes into the witness protection program. But he soon finds himself a wanted man when the "fake" assassination turns out to be very real. This smooth fast moving thriller is quite agreeable if one is willing to suspend belief for its running time. Its complicated plot is far fetched and at times too obvious. One wonders how a sophisticated F/X specialist doesn't get at all suspicious when he's first approached by a federal agent (Cliff De Young) especially since De Young's oily performance practically screams out, "Don't trust me!". But its script problems aside, the film is so well crafted as an action piece that one can easily forget its weaknesses when caught up in the action. Directed by Robert Mandel. With Diane Venora, Mason Adams, Martha Gehman, Joe Grifasi and Trey Wilson.   

Friday, August 21, 2015

La Sirene Du Mississippi (aka Mississippi Mermaid) (1969)

A wealthy tobacco plantation owner (Jean Paul Belmondo) residing on a small island in the Indian Ocean sends away for a mail order bride. But when she (Catherine Deneuve) arrives, she looks nothing like the photograph she has sent him. They marry but it isn't long before he discovers her true motives. Based on the Cornell Woolrich (writing under William Irish) novel WALTZ INTO DARKNESS, Francois Truffaut dedicates the film to Jean Renoir. But the film is more successfully Hitchcockian than his previous homage THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. In fact, VERTIGO comes to mind more than once. This was the European cut which is some 15 minutes longer than the version that was released in the U.S. What was cut adds nothing to the narrative but it fleshes out the characters more. Though it's hard to get beyond Deneuve's stunning beauty (gorgeously dressed by Yves St. Laurent), this is really one of her better performances that allows her to move beyond the glacial beauty. Not only a fine film noir but a darkly intricate romance. With Michel Bouquet, Nelly Borgeaud and Marcel Berbert. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Like Mother Like Son (2001)

An amoral sociopath (Mary Tyler Moore) has devoted her adult life to crime from forgery to murder. She has even trained her son (Gabriel Olds) to follow in her footsteps. Now she plans to commit perhaps their biggest crime of all. To usurp the identity of a wealthy woman (Jean Stapleton) in order to obtain her properties but, of course, that means they have to kill her first. The most shocking thing about this horrific tale of twisted mother love is that it's all true. Based on the story of Sante and Kenneth Kimes who were convicted in 1998 of the murder of Irene Silverman along with 117 (sic) other crimes. Perhaps Mary Tyler Moore would be the last actress one would think of for a role like this but as she proved in ORDINARY PEOPLE, she can play dark characters very well. She goes all the way here and boy does she make your skin crawl. The movie fudges a bit in making the father (Robert Forster) more innocent than he actually was. If you're partial to true crime dramas, this will be to your liking. In 2006, another telefilm was made, this time with Judy Davis as the mother. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. 

Mrs. Dalloway (1997)

In 1923 London, an aristocratic society matron (Vanessa Redgrave) goes about with preparations for a party she is giving that evening. While doing so she reflects on her younger self (Natascha McElhone). Unrelated to her story, a young shell shocked WWI veteran (Rupert Graves) is dealing with the trauma of his war experience. But before the day is over, what happens to him will have an effect on her. Based on Virginia Woolf's celebrated novel (TIME magazine listed it as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century), the film has a feminist bent. Directed by a woman (Marleen Gorris), written by women (screenplay by the actress Eileen Atkins from Woolf's novel), filmed by a woman (Sue Gibson), scored by a woman (Ilona Sekacz), set direction and costumes too. Woolf's novel is one of those books that are difficult to transition to film since most of its style is stream of consciousness, interior monologue etc. That being said, Atkins has done as good a job of adapting it to film as could be expected. Woolf's art may be lost but this is a movie, isn't it and what we get works well enough as cinema. And what Redgrave does with the part is thrilling! She so often (unfairly) gets accused of overacting but her quiet nuanced performance here should shut those naysayers up. A superb supporting cast including Michael Kitchen, John Standing, Margaret Tyzack, Sarah Badel, Alan Cox, Lena Headey and Amelia  Bullmore.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ski Party (1965)

Two college students (Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman) aren't having any luck with the two girls (Deborah Walley, lovely Yvonne Craig who passed away this week) they want to make their girlfriends. So they follow the girls to a ski lodge and go undercover as two English girls in order to find out what it is they want from boys. A wan variation of SOME LIKE IT HOT and Avalon and Hickman are no Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon! This installment of the Beach Party franchise moves to the snow but it's the same old hijinks. Annette Funicello passes the baton to Walley but makes a cameo appearance as a college professor. The jokes are lame, the dialog flat and the music with one exception, inconsequential. The movie comes alive when James Brown heats things up with I Got You (I Feel Good) and suddenly the blandness of the film is even more apparent. Somehow it works better on the beach rather than in the snow. Directed by Alan Rifkin. With Robert Q. Lewis, Bobbi Shaw and Aron Kincaid. 

The Joker Is Wild (1957)

In the Chicago of 1927, a singer (Frank Sinatra) with a promising career refuses to renew his contract with the mob owner (Ted De Corsia) of a nightclub. In revenge, he has the singer brutally beaten and his vocal cords slashed so he can never sing again. He re-invents himself as a nightclub comic but though his physical wounds are healed, the psychological wounds will never heal. Based on the life of Joe E. Lewis. Today, I doubt many (if any) know who Joe E. Lewis was but he was a popular entertainer in the 30s, 40s and 50s, mostly in nightclubs but he did movies and TV too. In the 1950s, Sinatra was still taking his acting seriously and did some formidable work in films like MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM and SOME CAME RUNNING and his performance here can't be faulted. The film's biggest fault is that it doesn't have an ending, Lewis was still alive and well, and it seems to just stop which is just as well as it was getting to wear out its welcome (it's over 2 hours long). But as movie bios go, it's pretty decent (which is weak praise I know). The two women in his life are played by Jeanne Crain and Mitzi Gaynor. Directed by Charles Vidor (LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME). The film introduces the song All The Way which became a standard and won the best song Oscar. With Eddie Albert, Beverly Garland, Jackie Coogan, Barry Kelley and Sophie Tucker.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Collector (1965)

A withdrawn young man (Terence Stamp) with awkward social skills wins a great deal of money in a football pool. He uses the money to purchase an old house in the country. He then kidnaps a pretty art student (Samantha Eggar) with the delusion that he can make her fall in love with him. Based on the novel by John Fowles (FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN) and directed by William Wyler, this is still a deeply disturbing film some 50 years later. While Fowles' novel told the story twice, once from the boy's view and then the girl's view, Wyler and his screenwriters (Stanley Mann, John Kohn) rightly decided that wouldn't work cinematically. Essentially a two character film, both Stamp and Eggar are superb. Stamp actually makes his creepy sociopath sympathetic while Eggar (in an Oscar nominated performance) lets us feel the girl's terror and growing fear that she'll never survive. Certainly not intended as a horror film, there's more genuine "horror" in this film than most films designated as such. A classic of psychological intensity. The underscore by Maurice Jarre is one of his very best. With Mona Washbourne and Maurice Dallimore.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

Thunder In The East (1953)

Set in 1947 India shortly after its independence from British rule. An American gun runner (Alan Ladd) arrives in the small province of Gandahar to sell guns to the local Maharajah (Charles Lung) to fight back against the guerrillas who are planning to raid the town and most likely massacre its inhabitants. But the Raj's prime minister (Charles Boyer) adheres to the non violent principals of Gandhi and refuses to resort to violence against his own people. Based on the novel THE RAGE OF THE VULTURE by Alan Moorehead. This is a real sleeper that should be better known. Filmed in 1951 but not released until 1953, the film begs the question: while it's fine to die for your beliefs, do you have the right to make others die for your beliefs? As directed by Charles Vidor (GILDA), the tensions builds ever so slowly so when the final attack comes, it's such a relief to have what we've been dreading finally happen. Surprisingly for an action film, it allows for some good performances. Ladd is Ladd but Deborah Kerr as a blind girl, Corinne Calvet as a Frenchwoman of dubious reputation and Boyer as the committed pacifist all have an opportunity to breathe some real life into their characters. A fine score by Hugo Friedhofer. With Cecil Kellaway, John Williams and John Abbott.

A Star Is Born (1937)

A star struck farm girl (Janet Gaynor) travels to Hollywood with a dream to become a film actress. She doesn't have much luck until she meets the movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March) who takes a fancy to her and arranges for a screen test. The first film version (it was remade in 1954 and 1976) of A STAR IS BORN remains surprisingly effective. The story by now of a rising star married to a washed up star isn't as fresh as it was then (I'm not sure it was "fresh" in 1937) but it's just one of those plot lines that are near irresistible and the director William A. Wellman manages to keep the pathos in check as much as he can but lets it out when necessary. Gaynor is charming but the film belongs to Fredric March (an actor I'm normally not fond of) in possibly his best performance. Max Steiner's score overdoes it but the film has a solid supporting cast notably Adolphe Menjou as a studio head and Lionel Stander, very good as a studio publicist. Also in the cast: May Robson, Andy Devine, Peggy Wood, Franklin Pangborn and Elizabeth Jenns.

Caught (1949)

When a young model (Barbara Bel Geddes) is swept off her feet by a millionaire (Robert Ryan), she expects her marriage to be the fulfillment of all her girlish dreams. But she soon finds out that she's married to a psychotic and a sadist. Based on the novel WILD CALENDAR by Libbie Block (though apparently very little of the book found its way to the screen) and directed by Max Ophuls, it wasn't very well received in 1949 but the passage of time has shown that it's a darkly complex piece of cinema. Bel Geddes (in one of her few good film roles) may at first seem like an innocent but clearly she's partly complicit in the situation she finds herself in. As an actor, Ryan has such an intimidating presence that one truly fears for the poor girl. Even the film's conclusion won't let us off the hook. People smile and the music rises but is the death of a child really a happy ending? With James Mason, Natalie Schafer, Sonia Darrin (THE BIG SLEEP) and a nifty performance by Curt Bois as Ryan's lackey. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Irrational Man (2015)

At a small town college, the new philosophy professor (Joaquin Phoenix) seems to have the life sucked out of him. This is partially remedied when one of his students (Emma Stone) becomes infatuated with him. But he becomes totally revitalized when a murder plot enters the scenario. I was surprised at how much I liked the new Woody Allen considering how mediocre the reviews were. It belongs with Allen's darker films like CRIME AND MISDEMEANORS and CASSANDRA'S DREAM. But damn, it takes forever to get its rhythm going. It's nothing fresh especially if you've seen CRIMES, CASSANDRA and MATCH POINT then you pretty much know where it's going. The ending is a little too obvious but the three leads (Parker Posey is the third player) bring some nice shadings to their characters. If you're a fan of Allen, Phoenix or Stone then you should be kept intrigued but others may have a tougher time of it. Nicely shot by Darius Khondji. With Jamie Blackley.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Miami Blues (1990)

A criminal psychopath (Alec Baldwin) just out of prison arrives in Florida. He's barely off the plane before he begins his crime spree including murder. But when he robs a police detective (Fred Ward) of his gun and badge, he uses it to pose as a police officer which makes things easier for him. Based on the novel by Charles Willeford, it is one of several novels featuring the detective Hoke Moseley played here by Ward. As directed by George Armitage (who also wrote the screenplay), this black comedy of a crime thriller is unique. You're never quite sure where it's going so your interest is piqued right from the beginning. But Armitage's script allows for detailed characterizations and the three leads (Jennifer Jason Leigh is the third) step up to the plate giving expert performances. If the film belongs to anyone, it's Jason Leigh who gives a sensational performance as a not too bright hooker. What's especially satisfying is how she doesn't condescend to her character for a minute (like say, Karen Black in FIVE EASY PIECES), she just inhabits her truthfully. Tak Fujimoto's colorful lensing is rich with Miami atmosphere. With Obba Babatunde, Paul Gleason, Nora Dunn, Shirley Stoler, Charles Napier, Bobo Lewis and Martine Beswick. 

South Pacific (1958)

During WWII on an unnamed South Pacific island, a young American nurse (Mitzi Gaynor) from Arkansas falls in love with a transplanted Frenchman (Rossano Brazzi). Also, a young marine lieutenant (John Kerr) falls in love with a native girl (France Nuyen). But both Americans must come to terms with their racial prejudices. I've never been a big fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC. It's probably my least favorite of their hit musicals. The majority of the songs are wonderful, of course but so much of the dialog is awkward and the film's message, while noble, is presented with a heavy hand. The whole thing seems rather ponderous. This isn't restricted to the film, I've similar feelings about it as a stage work. The film is further damaged by director Joshua Logan's use of colored filters through out the film which he intended to show slight changes but end up being irritating instead. Gaynor is a terrific dancer, one of the best, but she doesn't get to strut her stuff here and as an actress and singer, she's merely okay. I watched the original Roadshow presentation which was cut by about 20 to 30 minutes for the general release and while I normally prefer my films uncut, in this case I can understand the need for shears. With Ray Walston, Juanita Hall, Russ Brown and Tom Laughlin.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Dragonwyck (1946)

In mid 18th century Connecticut, a young farm girl (Gene Tierney) is summoned by her wealthy distant cousin (Vincent Price) to act as governess to his small daughter (Connie Marshall) in upstate New York. At first, she is thrilled but as time passes, the atmosphere turns dark and oppressive. Based on the novel by Anya Seton and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this gothic romance has the superficial feel of a Bronte novel but it lacks any perceptive insight though its lack of a romantic hero is rather noteworthy. Price at first suggests the brooding romanticism of a Heathcliff or Rochester but it becomes clear early on that he will be a villain. It's still Price's movie all the way and though Tierney frets nicely, her character is too uncomplicated to be of much interest. The film's resolution is unmemorable. The art and set direction (Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler, Thomas Little) is superb and there's a wonderfully ominous score by Alfred Newman. With Walter Huston, Jessica Tandy, Anne Revere, Spring Byington, Harry Morgan, Vivienne Osborne and the innocuous Glenn Langan. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Deadlier Than The Male (1967)

When some top oil executives are murdered by a pair of beautiful assassins (Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina) who make the killings look like accidents, an insurance underwriter (Richard Johnson, THE HAUNTING) isn't buying it. It isn't long before he becomes the hunted. The success of the James Bond films in the 1960s caused several imitators (like the Matt Helm or Flint movies) hoping to start their own franchise. This British film usurps H.C. McNeile's Bulldog Drummond detective character although it's not based on any of his books. There was even a sequel, SOME GIRLS DO which did a quick fade. But MALE is an enjoyable potboiler notable for its use of sexy women who get their thrills torturing and killing men. There are several "nice" girls in the movie but the wicked "bad" girls are so much more fun! The icy Sommer and the warm Koscina (who practically apologizes while torturing her male victims) make for an amusing pair. Add the gorgeous Northern Italian coastal location and it's a pleasant diversion. Directed by Ralph Thomas. With Nigel Green, Suzanna Leigh, Steve Carlson, Laurence Naismith, Leonard Rossiter and Lee Montague.

Sommarnattens Leende (aka Smiles Of A Summer Night) (1955)

In turn of the (20th) century Sweden, a lawyer (Gunnar Bjornstrand) still hasn't consummated his marriage to his virginal bride (Ulla Jacobsson). But when he pays a visit to his ex-mistress, an actress (Eva Dahlbeck), it sets forth in motion a series of events that ends with a weekend at the actress's mother's (Naima Wifstrand) country estate where all the characters' romantic problems will be sorted out. One of the greatest sex comedies ever made, it is one of Ingmar Bergman's rare forays into romantic comedy. When I use the term "sex" comedy or "romantic" comedy, don't confuse it with a leering piece of wholesome family smut like Wilder's IRMA LA DOUCE or a Meg Ryan date movie. Bergman's elegant film is full of wit and insight into the romantic foibles of mortals floundering in the labyrinth that is "love". Absolutely flawless! Bergman's film served as the basis of the Stephen Sondheim musical A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Impeccably acted by an ensemble cast that also includes Harriet Andersson, Margit Carlqvist, Jarl Kulle, Bjorn Bjelfvenstam, Ake Fridell and Bibi Andersson.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Soapdish (1991)

An aging soap opera diva (Sally Field) must contend with the backstabbing by her show's producer (Robert Downey Jr.) and her conniving co-stars (Cathy Moriarty, Teri Hatcher) and to make matters worse, her lover has left her to go back to his wife. Just when she thinks things couldn't get any worse ..... they do! An over the top spoof of daytime soap operas, this colorful comedy is quite amusing. It's like a MAD magazine parody and the script by Robert Harling (STEEL MAGNOLIAS) and Andrew Bergman (BLAZING SADDLES) takes no prisoners in its outrageous attempt to skewer soap operas, their crazy plot lines and their dedicated fans. The acting is pitched at a near hysterical level which is perfect for the characters, notably Field's self absorbed neurotic diva. Ueli Steiger's lush color cinematography and Nolan Miller's eye popping costumes evoke those 1950s' wide screen comedies like DESIGNING WOMAN. However, times change and what was funny in 1991 sometimes doesn't work anymore. When a transgender character is the butt of a joke, it just seems cruel. We're more enlightened today. Directed by Michael Hoffman. With Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, Kathy Najimy and Finola Hughes.

Sail A Crooked Ship (1961)

A young man (Robert Wagner) wants to save a broken down ship from being destroyed so he hires a company to restore the ship so it can be used for cargo. But the man (Ernie Kovacs in his last film) he hires to to do the work is really the head of a gang of bumbling thieves that plan to use the ship as a getaway in a bank robbery. The script isn't half bad, some of the situations and lines are quite funny and the cast all seems game. So why doesn't it work? I'll chalk it up to lousy direction. The director is Irving Brecher who's a screenwriter, he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay to MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. He's only directed two other films. The actors aren't directed very well, they seem to be overcompensating as if pushing too hard for the laughs. I kept thinking how much better Blake Edwards could do with this kind of material. Perhaps the funniest moment is unintentional: Dolores Hart takes off her bra and gives it to Wagner to use as a sling shot but after she removes her bra, it can be clearly seen that she's wearing a bra under her sweater! There's a hurricane sequence that very well done. With Carolyn Jones, Frankie Avalon, Frank Gorshin, Jesse White and Harvey Lembeck. 

Smash Up: The Story Of A Woman (1947)

A nightclub singer (Susan Hayward) with a promising career sets it aside to marry a struggling singer/songwriter (Lee Bowman). But soon, his career skyrockets and although the money starts rolling in, she feels neglected and suspicious of his relationship with another woman (Marsha Hunt). So she turns to alcohol. After the critical and commercial success of THE LOST WEEKEND, it was perhaps inevitable that a distaff version would follow in its tracks. Susan Hayward had been acting in films since 1938 (she even tested for Scarlett O'Hara), usually as the second female lead (as in I MARRIED A WITCH and REAP THE WILD WIND) without that one role that would push her to the A list. This overheated melodrama did the trick, even though it lost money, and she got her first Oscar nomination and started carrying movies on her own. But it's not very good and though she tries hard, she's not a strong enough actress (yet) to overcome the screenplay's soap opera weaknesses. It doesn't help that she has the dull Lee Bowman as a leading man but Marsha Hunt and Eddie Albert give strong support. Directed by Stuart Heisler. With Carl Esmond and Carleton Young.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Clash Of The Titans (1981)

After she has given birth to the son of Zeus (Laurence Olivier), a vengeful father (Donald Houston) casts his daughter (Vida Taylor) and her infant son out to sea to restore his family "honor". Against the wishes of his wife Hera (Claire Bloom), Zeus saves the girl and his son. But when he grows to manhood, the boy (Harry Hamlin) must seek out his destiny. This was the last feature film of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While it lacks the imagination and execution of his best work like 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD or JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, there's still much to like. The Medusa sequence ranks with some of the best of his work although I could have done without the annoying Bubo, the mechanical owl. Of course, for those of us who love classic Greek mythology, the film has a special place in our movie hearts. Directed by Desmond Davis (GIRL WITH GREEN EYES). For a film where the acting doesn't matter much, the cast is filled with heavyweights. In addition to Olivier and Bloom, there's Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith, Ursula Andress, Flora Robson and Sian Phillips. With Judi Bowker and Tim Piggott Smith. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

An American Tragedy (1931)

Raised in poverty, an ambitious young man (Phillips Holmes) takes a job at a factory owned by his wealthy uncle (Frederick Burton). He romances a girl (Sylvia Sidney) who also works at the factory but when he meets a wealthy heiress (Frances Dee), he sees an opportunity to move up in society. But fate has other ideas. Based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser, this original film version isn't as well known as the second film version re-titled A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951). I've never been a fan of the 1951 George Stevens film, it's too romanticized and it makes its protagonist's (played by Montgomery Clift) motivations too ambiguous. Josef Von Sternberg's film isn't nearly as sympathetic towards the young man. He's lean and hungry and clearly willing to do what it takes to get to the top and more obviously a moral coward. Unfortunately, the film's lengthy trial sequence is poorly done and poorly acted and the film's implication that it was poverty that was responsible, not the boy, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Holmes never rises above adequate but both Dee and especially Sidney are very strong. With Irving Pichel and Lucille La Verne. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ricki And The Flash (2015)

An aging rocker (Meryl Streep) who heads a cover band that plays small dives in L.A. (her day job is a grocery clerk) is summoned back to Indiana by her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) to deal with her daughter's (Mamie Gummer) breakdown. This may well be Streep's worst film since THE IRON LADY but that film was (partially) redeemed by a superb Streep performance, one of her very best. She's good here but it's not among her best work. The film starts off promisingly and then keels over and dies right in the middle and try as she might, Streep can't bring it back to life. Diablo Cody's screenplay has some nice touches like making Streep's Ricki a Bush voting, anti-Obama Republican but there are no real surprises here as the cliches pop up on a regular basis. Nice performances by Gummer (clearly inheriting her mother's talent) and Audra McDonald in the first half.  Routinely directed by Jonathan Demme. With Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt and Charlotte Rae.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Byzantium (2013)

A 200 year old vampire (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter (Saoirse Ronan) move from town to town as they are pursued by members of a vampire brotherhood. They find solace at a rundown hotel no longer in business. But that solace is only temporary because the daughter reveals the truth about themselves to a young boy (Caleb Landry Jones) but she doesn't take into account the consequences of her action which has a disastrous domino effect. Based on a play VAMPIRE STORY by Moira Buffini (who also did the screenplay), director Neil Jordan returns to the vampire genre that he had previously visited with INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. Only this time, the protagonists are female rather than male. Like INTERVIEW, Jordan isn't interested in a typical horror film but rather the incredible loneliness of "immortals" whose way of life (not always by their choice) eventually becomes a living hell. The two lead actresses are very good though Ronan's character though physically 16 shows a slightly unbelievable naivete for someone who is actually 200 years old. Arterton on the other hand displays a survivor's street smart instinct doing what she has to do to stay safe. Good stuff. With Daniel Mays, Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Death Watch (aka La Mort En Direct) (1980)

Set in an unspecified future, death because of illness is quite rare. A television reality program films dying people for entertainment, a soap opera for the masses that gets high ratings. But one dying woman (Romy Schneider) refuses to be a part of the degrading process and flees. But she doesn't know her traveling companion (Harvey Keitel) actually works for the TV program and is secretly filming her last days. Based on the novel THE UNSLEEPING EYE by David G. Compton, the film is no longer science fiction. Today, reality television is the norm and we're used to cameras following people around in their most troubled and intimate moments, recording each teary breakdown and screaming match for the famished public. That being said, Bertrand Tavernier's film is still a disturbing look at humans being robbed of their dignity and offered up as a sacrifice to the lowest common denominator. Schneider is quite good and it's interesting to see the contrast in acting styles between her and Keitel. She's simple and direct and he's busy, busy, busy. With Max Von Sydow, Harry Dean Stanton and Therese Liotard.  

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Against his wife's (Maureen Connell) wishes, a British scientist (Peter Cushing) joins up with a Himalayan expedition headed by an American fortune seeker (Forrest Tucker) to find the mysterious Yeti or Abominable Snowman. Based on a television play THE CREATURE by Nigel Kneale (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT), who also did the screenplay and directed by Val Guest. This is a well constructed intelligent Hammer horror handsomely shot in B&W wide screen (HammerScope) credited to Arthur Grant that takes a cue from 1940s horror master Val Lewton. Kneale and Guest know that if were to see the actual Yeti, it would be a disappointment. Instead, we see a hand, its eyes or its full body in shadow, never the complete creature. They concentrate on atmosphere and tension rather than blood and gore and the end result is a first rate horror flick. The subtle underscore is by Humphrey Searle. With Richard Wattis and Arnold Marle.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Treasure Of Monte Cristo (aka The Secret Of Monte Cristo) (1961)

An ex-Army officer (Rory Calhoun) in His Majesty's service becomes embroiled in intrigue when he agrees to escort a Colonel (Ian Hunter) and his daughter (Patricia Bredin) on a quest for the hidden treasure of Monte Cristo. But there are three other partners in the treasure hunt and not all of them are to be trusted. This unpretentious adventure film never pretends to be more than it is, a "B" level swashbuckler. As such, it's amiable fun. While it may be a "B" movie, it has the look of an "A" film principally because of the film's production design, costumes and location shooting (shot in Dyaliscope). Calhoun makes no attempt to hide his American origins although he's playing a British solider of fortune but the rest of the cast fit right in. It's not the kind of film that requires much in the way of acting but John Gregson as an island bandit and the beautiful Gianna Maria Canale as a femme fatale stand apart from the rest of the cast. Directed by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman. With Peter Arne and Sam Kydd and Francis Matthews.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Straw Dogs (1971)

In the rural English countryside, an American mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) has just moved into an old farmhouse with his English wife (Susan George). The local villagers appear to have a contempt for him and the local thugs blatantly make passes at his wife. In fact, the ruffians push him to his limits and eventually, the worm turns. Based on the novel THE SIEGE AT TRENCHER'S FARM by Gordon M. Williams, this is a film that intellectually you want to hate. Sam Peckinpah doesn't even attempt to conceal the film's blatant misogyny. There are only two women in the film and one is raped and the other is murdered as if being punished for their sexuality. The film's thematic elements are also troubling. Hoffman's mild mannered intellectual is looked upon with contempt for not being quite a "man" not only by the villagers but by Peckinpah himself. But the film is so brilliantly made that one can't help but eventually give oneself over to it (Pauline Kael called it a "fascist work of art"). Hoffman is superb, one of his 2 or 3 best performances. He plays it so close to the vest that we're never quite sure of his motivations. The final siege of the farmhouse is a classic of editing and tension. The excellent Oscar nominated score (the film's only nomination) is by Jerry Fielding.  With David Warner, Ken Hutchison, Peter Vaughan, Sally Thomsett and T.P. McKenna. 

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

A wealthy spoiled invalid (Barbara Stanwyck) overhears a murder plot over the telephone when the wires get crossed. All alone in her mansion, she attempts to contact the police as well as her husband (Burt Lancaster) who should have been home hours ago but no one takes her seriously. Based on a 1943 radio play by Lucille Fletcher, the radio play was a half hour long and had a tour de force performance by Agnes Moorehead as the invalid in what was essentially a one woman show (it's available for listening on youtube). Well, a movie can't be a half hour long so the screenplay (also written by Fletcher) has been has been expanded to a feature length 90 minutes. Unfortunately, what this does is pad out the screenplay with lots of backstory flashbacks which dilute the suspense that was carefully built up in the radio play. The director Anatole Litvak and Stanwyck do manage to whip up the necessary tension in her present day scenes but every time they cut away to a flashback, the suspense dissipates. With Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, William Conrad and Ann Richards.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sins Of Jezebel (1953)

In 9th century B.C. Israel, its King (Eduard Franz) is marrying the Phonecian Princess Jezebel (Paulette Goddard) against the advice of his prophet Elijah (John Hoyt). The evil Jezebel takes a lover (George Nader), the captain of the King's guards, upon her arrival and soon plots to install her pagan gods in Israel. Part of the pleasures of watching the biblical or Roman epics of the 1950s is the extravagance of the sets and costumes and exotic locations. Those that aren't legitimately good films (BEN-HUR, SPARTACUS) can often be kitschy fun (SAMSON AND DELILAH). Alas, this low budget "epic" plays like a Sunday school pageant. Garbed in cheap looking threads, we're begrudged the minor pleasure of even Goddard in glamorous costumes. Ghastly and not even ludicrous enough to be "camp". The film makers even deny us the spectacular Biblical death of Jezebel who according to scripture was gobbled up by wild dogs (instead she's run over by a chariot)! Directed by Reginald Le Borg, it was filmed in a TV station on Sunset Boulevard with the exteriors shot in Simi Valley, California. With Margia Dean and John Shelton.

Of Human Bondage (1934)

A medical student (Leslie Howard) becomes infatuated with a tawdry manipulative guttersnipe (Bette Davis). But as cruel as she is to him, he can't help but take her back each time she comes into his life. The actress Gena Rowlands once recalled in an interview, when as a young girl, how astonished she was the first time she saw Davis's performance. That she'd never seen anything so raw and visceral before. One can only imagine the impact of Davis's performance on 1934 audiences used to the ladylike acting of Norma Shearer, Janet Gaynor and Kay Francis. Davis let it all hang out, exposing the very rot of her mean spirited viper. After all the mediocre parts Warners was giving her, it took this loan out to RKO to show them what they were doing wrong though it would take a few more years before Warners wised up. Based on the 1915 W. Somerset Maugham novel (which was filmed again in 1946 and 1964), it also contains one of Howard's better film performances. There are still those who question why he keeps taking her back after her continuous mistreatment but haven't we all seen those inequitable relationships in real life? The film indicates his embarrassment over his club foot and self doubt leave him with a sense of inferiority that perhaps he feels he's not good enough for anyone else. Neatly directed by John Cromwell. With pretty Frances Dee, Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Jackie Brown (1997)

A flight attendant (Pam Grier) is detained by two government ATF agents (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) who discover cocaine in her carry on bag which she swears she did not know about. But the ATF agents actually have bigger fish to fry ..... namely the gun runner (Samuel L. Jackson) for whom she delivers money from Mexico to L.A. Based on RUM PUNCH by Elmore Leonard, the third film from Quentin Tarantino is possibly his best. While the film has all the familiar Tarantino touches, at heart it's a valentine to Pam Grier. The Queen of blaxploitation films in the 1970s, it's the role of a lifetime for Grier who takes the opportunity and runs with it. The part allows her to go from hard to vulnerable to resourceful to frightened, in other words, the gamut and she does it easily without going all actress-y on us. But she's not the whole show. In addition to Jackson, she gets excellent support from Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda and a beautiful performance by Robert Forster that earned him an Oscar nomination. The film is clever yet never falls into the trap of thinking it's more clever than it is. One of the best opening title credit shots (a homage to THE GRADUATE) I've seen. As with any Tarantino film, it has an irresistible soundtrack.

Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen (aka The Living Skeleton) (1968)

A gang of contemporary pirates hijack a ship, kill all the crew and passengers and steal the ship's gold cargo. Three years later, the identical twin sister (Kikko Matsuoka) of one of the murdered passengers sets a plot for revenge in motion. Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno, this supernatural ghost story has a near ingenious plot but it's so poorly constructed and executed that it comes off as a slightly cheesy potboiler. Parts of the film look gorgeous thanks to Masayuki Kato's crisp and atmospheric lensing but some of the effects are embarrassing. I can give the miniature ship in a bathtub a pass but those cheap paper flying bats? Really? There is one clever "twist" near the end that's a shocker even though I guessed it just minutes before it was revealed. But this film really could use a remake by some talented people. In the right hands, this could be a corker of a ghost thriller. With Masumi Okada and Yasunori Irikawa.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

When a satellite crashes in a small New Mexico town, it kills all the inhabitants except two: a baby and an old man (George Mitchell). It seems the satellite picked up some sort of space virus and that virus is responsible for the deaths. How did these two survive? A crackerjack team of scientists (Arthur Hill, David Wayne, Kate Reid, James Olson) in a sterilized underground laboratory race against time in an attempt to analyze the virus so it can be destroyed before it spreads. Based on the best seller by Michael Crichton (JURASSIC PARK), director Robert Wise returns to the science fiction genre where he made one of his best films, DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. While ANDROMEDA STRAIN doesn't attain the iconic status of that film, it's still a thrilling well made piece of sci-fi. Wise goes for a sort of documentary approach to the film's subject matter so it takes awhile in getting set up as the meticulous exposition plays out. He also wisely cast relatively unfamiliar (mostly) theater actors for the central roles rather than big name movie stars thus furthering the realism of the film. While some may find it slow going, I applaud Wise for not turning it into action piece (until the very end anyway). With Paula Kelly, Ken Swofford and Ramon Bieri. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Murder At The Gallop (1963)

When Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford) discovers the body of an elderly curmudgeon (Finlay Currie) in his home, she suspects foul play but the local police inspector (Charles Tingwell) will have none of it. The coroner's report states he died of a heart attack. Naturally, she decides to do some sleuthing on her own. For fans of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books, the robust Rutherford is nothing like the genteel birdlike spinster of the novels. Of all the many actresses who have played her, perhaps Joan Hickson came closest to the books' Marple in the English TV versions of the 1980s. Indeed, MURDER AT THE GALLOP isn't even based on a Miss Marple book, it's adapted from Christie's AFTER THE FUNERAL in which the sleuth is her other great creation, Hercule Poirot! The film also has Miss Marple on horseback and dancing the Twist, something Miss Marple would never do. Okay, enough of the bitching. As for the film, it plays like a good episode of MURDER SHE WROTE but as usual, Margaret Rutherford is irresistible (even Christie thought so, she dedicated her book THE MIRROR CRACK'D to her) and while she may not be the book's Miss Marple, to many cinema goers of a certain age, she is Miss Marple. Directed by George Pollock. With Robert Morley, Flora Robson, James Villiers, Katya Douglas and Stringer Davis (Rutherford's real life husband). 

Pane, Amore E Fantasia (aka Bread, Love And Dreams) (1953)

In a small Italian village up in the mountains, a marshal (Vittorio De Sica) becomes infatuated with the prettiest girl (Gina Lollobrigida) in town but she has her heart set on the marshal's subordinate (Roberto Risso). This comedy was extremely admired in its day and spawned two sequels. Luigi Comencini won the best director award at the Berlin film festival and the film's screenplay by Ettore Maria Margadonna was nominated for an Oscar. Seen today, it's an innocuous enough romantic comedy but the bubbles have evaporated. After awhile, it becomes rather tedious as De Sica leches after Lollobrigida while she dodges him at every turn. Although De Sica is top billed, the film belongs to Lollobrigida who is more earthy and natural here than her later glamorous film image. With Marisa Merlini, Virgilio Riento, Tina Pica and Maria Pia Casilio (UMBERTO D).