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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Die Puppe (aka The Doll) (1919)

In order to preserve the family line, a wealthy Baron (Max Kronert) insists his nephew (Hermann Thimig) take a wife. Since the nephew isn't fond of women and doesn't want to get married, he goes to a famous dollmaker (Victor Janson) who has created a life like doll (Ossi Oswalda) with mechanisms that imbue her with human qualities. He plans on passing the doll off as his fiancee to his Uncle. But there's something the nephew doesn't know about the "doll". Very loosely based on the short story by E.T.A. Hoffman (the inspiration for Michael Powell's TALES OF HOFFMAN) which also inspired the ballet COPPELIA. This comedic fantasy courtesy of Ernst Lubitsch is a pleasant charmer with some genuine wit (someone literally falls from the sky and quips "It's a good thing I dropped in!"). The look of the film is that of a very stylized fairy tale, even the horses are played by actors dressed in a horse costume. Oswalda makes for an adorable doll but the real scene stealer is 15 year old Gerhard Ritterband as the dollmaker's apprentice. With Jacob Tiedtke and Marga Kohler.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery (1997)

In 1967, Dr. Evil (Mike Myers), who is intent on world domination, escapes from the clutches of British spy Austin Powers (Mike Myers) by freezing himself and being sent into outer space. Powers volunteers to be frozen so that he can be thawed out when Dr. Evil returns to Earth. 30 years later, both men are thawed out and must adjust to life in the 1990s. Written by Myers and directed by Jay Roach (TRUMBO), this is a hilarious but affectionate satire of the Bond films and the 1960s in general including THE AVENGERS, LAUGH IN, the Matt Helm series, swinging London and 60s pop music. The comedy is broad and silly but Myers' Austin Powers is such a clueless, lecherous goofball that you can't help but laugh at his antics. The two sequels that followed couldn't quite compensate for their lack of inventiveness. The movie spawned countless catchphrases like "Do I Make You Horny?", "Oh, Behave!", "Shaggalicious".  I watched the American cut which is 5 minutes shorter than the international cut and eliminates Lois Chiles, Rob Lowe and Christian Slater from the film. With Elizabeth Hurley, Robert Wagner, Michael York, Mimi Rogers, Will Ferrell, Carrie Fisher, Seth Green and Mindy Sterling.

The Wrong Man (1956)

A musician (Henry Fonda) at New York's swanky Stork Club is having financial difficulties. When he attempts to borrow on his wife's (Vera Miles) insurance policy, the clerk (Peggy Webber) is sure he is the same man who robbed them several months earlier. Thus begins a Kafkaesque nightmare as he protests his innocence and is put through Hell by the legal system. The theme of an innocent man accused of something he did not do is a recurring motif in Alfred Hitchcock's films including THE 39 STEPS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, FRENZY among others. But this film is based on an actual case history and Hitchcock adopts a documentary approach to the film. It's in B&W, shot on the actual locations where the story happened and there are no thrilling set pieces. It's a dark and unsettling film and Hitchcock would never attempt anything like it again. Perhaps because it's an atypical Hitchcock film, it doesn't get the attention it deserves but it's an intense and compelling piece of cinema. The two central performances are first rate. Henry Fonda (possibly my least favorite actor) is excellent here, his placid exterior displaying a bewilderment of confusion as his world collapses around him and the film contains Vera Miles' best performance too as she slowly unravels and descends into a dark abyss. The score is by Bernard Herrmann. With Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, Doreen Lang, Nehemiah Persoff and Esther Minciotti (MARTY).

State Fair (1945)

A small farm family consisting of father (Charles Winninger), mother (Fay Bainter), son (Dick Haymes) and daughter (Jeanne Crain) are headed to the Iowa State Fair where the father hopes to win a blue ribbon for his prize hog and the mother a ribbon for her pickles and mincemeat. The kids are looking to just have fun. Previously made in 1933 as a straight B&W film, this version was turned into a Technicolor musical featuring the only score written directly for the screen by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The narrative may be flimsy but the Rodgers & Hammerstein score is not, it's very good and includes the haunting Oscar winning classic It Might As Well Be Spring. There's an Americana charm to it and one would have to be a curmudgeon to actively dislike it. Bainter and Winninger are vets at this kind of stuff and the lovely Crain shows why she rapidly became an audience favorite. Haymes is on the dull side but his singing voice is okay. Fortunately, he's paired with the saucy Vivian Blaine while Crain is paired with Dana Andrews showing the agreeableness he didn't often show in his tough guy noir roles. Directed by Walter Lang. With Donald Meek, Percy Kilbride, Frank McHugh, Jane Nigh and John Dehner. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ghost Story (1981)

In a small Vermont town, four elderly men (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) form a group called The Chowder Society where they meet weekly and exchange horror stories. But when the son (Craig Wasson) of one of the members dies under mysterious circumstances, it brings forth a dark secret from their past that the men have buried ..... or so they thought. Based on the best seller by Peter Straub and directed by John Irvin. I've not read Straub's novel but the majority of those who've read the book dislike the film because it jettisons much of the novel. Since I haven't read the novel, I enjoyed it for what it is even though not all of it works. The chief treat of the film is having three classic actors of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood and one producer of that era turned actor late in his career in the leading roles. As a horror film, it's fairly predictable (the novel's complexities have been simplified) but the screenplay punches all the right moves. Two of the characters seem superfluous: a thug (Miguel Fernandes) and his child accomplice (Lance Holcomb) and their elimination wouldn't have been noticed. The first rate score is by Philippe Sarde. With Patricia Neal, Brad Sullivan, Ken Olin and in the film's best performance, Alice Krige. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

First Men In The Moon (1964)

In 1899 Victorian England, an inventor (Lionel Jeffries) has created a substance that defies the force of gravity. He partners up with a failed writer (Edward Judd) to use the substance on a craft that will take them to the moon! Based on the 1901 H.G. Wells novel and directed by Nathan Juran (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) with the special effects of that stop motion wizard Ray Harryhausen. While it lacks the magic of Harryhausen's best movies, the film is still a visual treat, both on Earth and on the moon. Harryhausen had nothing to do with the charming Surrey, England locations but Cherry Cottage along the canal is the kind of home and location one dreams about! Where the film stumbles is in its "hero", Edward Judd. It's bad enough that he's a bland and unappealing actor but his character is an unpleasant jerk. He's going to the moon yet leaving his fiancee (Martha Hyer) in the lurch with his creditors and a lawsuit pending and on the moon, he shows man at his worst! What a charmer! So while it's lesser Harryhausen, it's still a clever adventure. There's a nice score by Laurie Johnson. With Peter Finch, Hugh McDermott and Miles Malleson.  

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Hateful Eight (2015)

While a horrendous blizzard rages outside, eight people are trapped together at a stagecoach stopover station in Wyoming: a black bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson), a white bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a Mexican (Demian Bichir), a cow puncher (Michael Madsen), a sheriff (Walton Goggins), a hangman (Tim Roth) and an ex-Confederate General (Bruce Dern). And there's a reason they're called the Hateful Eight ... a nastier bunch of people you'd never want to meet. Quentin Tarantino continues to surprise and if you're expecting another INGLORIOUS BASTERDS or DJANGO UNCHAINED, forget it! If you told me it was based on a play, I'd believe it. The first half is talk, talk and more talk but no one writes better dialogue than Tarantino at his best. After the intermission, we're in more familiar Tarantino territory as the blood flows like a river. It's an ensemble piece and the eight actors are pitch perfect. Tarantino shot the film in Ultra Panavision 70 millimeter, the first film since KHARTOUM to be shot in the format and only about 100 cities in the U.S. are showing it that way so if you get the opportunity, see it the way Tarantino intended. The 70 millimeter version is a Roadshow so there's an overture, intermission and entr'acte as well as glossy souvenir programs. It features a new Ennio Morricone score, reputedly the first he's composed for a western in 40 years. With Channing Tatum, James Parks, Zoe Bell, Lee Horsley and Dana Gourrier.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Welcome To New York (2014)

A wealthy and powerful French financier (Gerard Depardieu) on business in New York is arrested for the rape of a hotel maid (Pamela Afesi). Abel Ferrera's film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair of 2011. While the film is inspired by a true story, the film itself is not a factual account of that case. Names are changed and the many scenes of of private lives behind closed doors are entirely fictional. The film gets off to a rough start with the necessary but uninteresting exposition to provide background. The film picks up steam after the arrest but Depardieu's character is so repulsive that one doesn't care about his guilt or not. Still, one must admire Depardieu's lack of vanity. His wheezing, grunting, fleshy, flabby obese sex addict seems all too real and one must admire his lack of vanity in his many nude scenes (his strip search is pretty gross). But I don't think it was Ferrera's intent to gather sympathy for Depardieu's lech. The big surprise here is the fierce performance by Jacqueline Bisset as Depardieu's ambitious second wife. It's the kind of performance that if the film had been a big hit or garnered critical approval that might put her in awards contention. With Marie Moute and Joe Lawless.

The Brides Of Dracula (1960)

A young French teacher (Yvonne Monlaur) on her way to a teaching position at a girls school is abandoned by her carriage driver. An older woman (Martita Hunt) invites her to spend the evening at her castle. She discovers the woman's son (David Peel) chained to his room and attempting to do a good deed unlocks his chains. Sometimes it's better to leave well enough alone! Despite some of the lesser effects (the flying bats look pretty cheesy) or perhaps because of them, this remains one of the high points of the Hammer horrors. Its players take it all very seriously and the director Terence Fisher imbues the entire proceedings with a demonstrable atmosphere of stylish dread. Of course, compared to today's graphic horror films, this is pretty tame stuff but if you prefer style and suggestion over gore, there's a genuine glamour and grace to the film. With Peter Cushing as Van Helsing naturally, Mona Washbourne and Freda Jackson.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Twilight (1998)

An aging private detective (Paul Newman) is accidentally shot by the daughter (Reese Witherspoon) of his wealthy clients (Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon). Since he was shot while trying to bring her back from Mexico where she ran off with a guy (Liev Schreiber), friendship and guilt cause them to give him a place to live rent free. But he will soon find out that there's more to it than that when blackmail and a 20 year old "suicide" enter the picture. Surprisingly, this was both a box office and critical failure when first released, a fate it didn't deserve. This is an excellent example of what is referred to as neo noir. The mood, the deliberate pacing, the lighting and the sense of fatalism are all there skillfully sculpted by the director Robert Benton. He showed a flair for the genre in his quasi comic noir THE LATE SHOW back in 1977 and he fulfills that promise here. But alas, there were no takers. But the great thing about a movie that flopped is that it's always there to be rediscovered and reevaluated. Maybe someday TWILIGHT will find its audience. The perfect atmospheric underscore is by Elmer Bernstein. With James Garner, Stockard Channing, Giancarlo Esposito and in a scene stealing turn, Margo Martindale.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Scaramouche (1952)

When his childhood friend (Richard Anderson) is killed in a duel by a Marquis (Mel Ferrer), an adventurer (Stewart Granger) vows to avenge his best friend. But soon he finds out that not only do he and the woman (Janet Leigh) he loves share the same father but that she is engaged to the Marquis! Based on the 1921 novel by Rafael Sabatini (CAPTAIN BLOOD), this was previously filmed in 1923. As directed by George Sidney, this lush and lively Technicolor adventure is one of the best swashbucklers to come out of Hollywood. The screenplay by Ronald Miller and George Froeschel is witty without winking at the audience and the swordplay is exquisite. Indeed, the final duel between Granger and Ferrer lasting almost 10 minutes is spectacular! The film also benefits from its two luscious leading ladies, Eleanor Parker as the fiery redheaded hellion and Janet Leigh as the delicate fair haired lady. The rousing underscore is by Victor Young. With Nina Foch as Marie Antoinette (wearing Norma Shearer's old costumes from the 1938 film), Henry Wilcoxon, Robert Coote, John Dehner, Elisabeth Risdon and Lewis Stone, who played Ferrer's role in the 1923 version.

Per Un Pugno Di Dollari (aka A Fistful Of Dollars) (1964)

A drifter (Clint Eastwood) arrives at a small border town where two feuding families are in a fight for control of the town. The drifter decides a good way to make some easy money is to play the families against each other. But he's too clever for his own good and the body count piles up. If the plot sounds familiar, that's because it's Kurosawa's YOJIMBO in a western setting. Although released in Europe in 1964, it didn't reach American shores until three years later. The film was a hit and its two "sequels" (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY which form a trilogy) made an international star out of Eastwood, previously known for the TV series RAWHIDE. Sergio Leone's film coined the phrase spaghetti westerns which became very popular in the 60s and 70s. Leone's trilogy changed the western forever. More violent and audacious than its American counterpart, it wasn't long before American westerns followed suit. A unique western that may not seem as startling as it did in 1967 but a landmark film nonetheless. With a stunning score by Ennio Morricone. Also in the cast are Gian Maria Volonte and Marianne Koch (Sirk's INTERLUDE).  

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Gruppo Di Famiglia In Un Interno (aka Conversation Piece) (1974)

An American professor (Burt Lancaster) living in quiet retirement in Rome finds himself coerced into renting the apartment above him to a spoiled wealthy woman (Silvana Mangano) who wants the apartment for her young lover (Helmut Berger). He finds his life turned into turmoil as the young man and his friends invade his former quiet existence. While Luchino Visconti is one of my favorite film makers, I'm not a fan of his later films like DEATH IN VENICE and THE DAMNED so I was quite surprised that I enjoyed this one so much. While there's a thin veil of politics brushed over the film, it's half hearted. The film is more about living and not taking chances. Lancaster's professor has led a "safe" life but has it been a happy one? The young people, irritating at first, bring him to the realization that he has missed out on the vitality that he should have had in his early life, leaving him with sour memories. Apparently Lancaster's professor wasn't all that different than Visconti and there's a sense of regret that imposes itself on the film. With Claudia Cardinale, Dominique Sanda, Romolo Valli, Claudia Marsani and Stefano Patrizi. 

Sisters (2015)

When two 40ish sisters (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler) find out their parents (James Brolin, Dianne Wiest) are selling the family home and moving into a condominium, they decide to throw one last big party and invite all the "kids" from their high school years. Big mistake! The writing is pretty lame and the many of the jokes are dumb but I wasn't expecting Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges! But I still laughed a lot. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two of the most talented comedy actresses working today and their chemistry and comic timing are second to no one. Maybe you can't squeeze blood out of a stone but they can wring a laugh out of one. You're laughing even as you're groaning and the gags come left, right and so fast that you don't have the time to think about it. They didn't write the movie but it's crammed with a lot of their comic alumni from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and other comic talents like John Leguizamo. Unexceptionally directed by Jason Moore. With Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, John Cena, Rachel Dratch and Chris Parnell. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Eliza Fraser (1976)

In 1836, a sea captain (Noel Ferrier) and his wife (Susannah York) are shipwrecked along with his ship's crew off the coast of Australia. When the crew members attempt to take control, he and his wife flee into the wilderness where they are captured by an Aboriginal tribe. There was an actual Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked off the Queensland coast (Fraser island is named after her) but this is not a serious historical drama. The film's emphasis is on sex and comedy and director Tim Burstall attempts to do a TOM JONES type of romp except with a female lead. The film is quite enjoyable with a pert performance by York in the title role. The New South Wales and Queensland locations are handsomely shot by Robin Copping but I could have done without Bruce Smeaton's trite underscore. With Trevor Howard, John Castle (THE LION IN WINTER), John Waters (no, not the director) and Bruce Spence.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Catch My Soul (1974)

After being passed over as deacon, a spiteful and vengeful man (Lance LeGault) plots the downfall of the black preacher (Richie Havens) by causing him to suspect the fidelity of his new bride (Season Hubley). This rock musical set in a New Mexico hippie commune is based on Shakespeare's OTHELLO. While the concept is intriguing and in the right hands it might have worked, the film is a misfire. A couple of the tunes aren't bad at all but after awhile, the songs are monotonous. Some are sung as voice overs over the action, some are sung on camera. But the songs aren't the only problem. Much of Shakespeare's dialogue is kept intact and with one exception (Susan Tyrrell as Emilia), the singer/actors are inadequate to the task. Worst of all is LeGault whose portrayal of Iago resembles Linda Blair's possessed Regan in THE EXORCIST! The year before Norman Jewison had filmed JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR in a similar desert setting and CATCH MY SOUL feels like a dim wannabe. Still, it's a one of a kind artifact. Directed by the actor Patrick McGoohan, who wanted his name removed from the film after the producer recut it. Some prints are retitled SANTA FE SATAN. With Tony Joe White as Cassio, Delaney Bramlett and Bonnie Bramlett. 

House Of Bamboo (1955)

A U.S. Army investigator (Robert Stack) working in Tokyo goes undercover and joins a gang of American racketeers with the aim of trapping them while committing a robbery. The head (Robert Ryan) of the gang takes a liking to the newcomer. Perhaps too much as it upsets his number one man (Cameron Mitchell). A remake of the 1948 film noir STREET WITH NO NAME but set in Japan. In fact, that film's screenwriter Harry Klein reworked the screenplay with an assist from the film's director, Samuel Fuller. This may be Fuller's best looking movie. Watching the film I was reminded of why I fell in love with the CinemaScope frame. Fuller and his ace cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (who also shot STREET WITH NO NAME) fill up the wide screen with carefully composed images and colors and not an inch wasted. The narrative is tight and allows for some nice performances, in particular Mitchell's jealous thug and a lovely performance by Shirley Yamaguchi as the widow of one of the gang members. With Sessue Hayakawa, Brad Dexter and Biff Elliot.

The Gingerbread Man (1998)

A rather seedy attorney (Kenneth Branagh) with a dubious reputation takes on a client (Embeth Davidtz) that he's also sleeping with. Her homeless father (Robert Duvall) has mental issues and she wants him institutionalized. But what, at first, would seem to be a simple case spirals into kidnapping and murder. The great director Robert Altman had had an unfortunate run of critical and commercial failures recently so this "director for hire" commercial thriller based on an unpublished John Grisham story probably seemed like a good idea. But Altman was never a "commercial" director and he has no feel for pulp material like this. A Polanski or a De Palma might have better served the material and given it the polish and style it needs. But there's a major problem that's inherent in the writing. Branagh's character is unlikable, a total jerk, an unethical lawyer and a lousy father and worst of all, not too bright. As the story unfolded, I could sense something just wasn't right, things didn't make sense. Now, if I could figure that out, surely he could too but no, he just walks right through the door. I couldn't feel sorry for him, he deserved what he got. With Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger and Famke Janssen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Maverick Queen (1956)

A saloon owner (Barbara Stanwyck) works with "The Wild Bunch" which includes Butch Cassidy (Howard Petrie) and the Sundance Kid (Scott Brady) in rustling cattle and robbing trains. But when a handsome stranger (Barry Sullivan) enters her life, her world goes topsy turvy. Barbara Stanwyck made no secret that she loved doing westerns, they were her favorite genre to make. That might explain why she did so many of them, seven in the 1950s alone. But perhaps her fondness for the western might have clouded her judgment over the scripts or why else would she do a routine Republic oater which signals where it's going every step of the way? It's not a bad western, just mediocre and a waste of her talent. That being said, if you're a fan of the genre, it's an amiable if forgettable entry. The kind of movie where a few years later, you can't remember if you've seen it. Directed by Joseph Kane with a generic Victor Young underscore. With Mary Murphy, Wallace Ford, Jim Davis and Emile Meyer.  

Johnny Belinda (1948)

On a small island off the coast of Canada, a young doctor (Lew Ayres) befriends a deaf mute girl (Jane Wyman). He teaches her sign language as well as reading and writing. But when the girl is raped by a drunken villager (Stephen McNally) and bears his child, gossip and lies begin to destroy lives. Based on the 1940 play by Elmer Blaney Harris, this was provocative adult entertainment for its day. Indeed, the rape sequence remains as singularly unpleasant today as it was in 1948. The only sour note is the seeming indifference, particularly by Ayres' character, to hold the rapist accountable for his actions and bring him to justice. Jane Wyman's performance earned her a best actress Oscar and she's terrific here, never overplaying the "deaf and dumb" but underplaying it quietly and organically. Max Steiner restrains himself and delivers one of his better scores. The bulk of the credit should go to the director Jean Negulesco who brings an assured touch that keeps the movie from falling into bathos. With Charles Bickford, Jan Sterling, Agnes Moorehead and Dan Seymour. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Brood (1979)

After visiting her mother (Samantha Eggar) in an institution for psychologically disturbed patients, a father (Art Hindle) finds bruises and scratches on his daughter's (Cindy Hinds) body. But the woman's psychotherapist (Oliver Reed) insists the girl still be allowed to see her mother on weekends. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, this could be called his breakthrough film. It's a horror film to be sure but it isn't Cronenberg's intention to merely frighten. The film is full of ideas: the power of repressed rage, the venom that passes from generation to generation unless the cycle is broken, the danger of unscrupulous psychotherapists who do more harm than good etc. The film is still rather crude in its execution (the killing of a teacher is bungled) and the special effects aren't all they could have been (the film's budget was $1,500,000) but it's an ambitious film full of thrilling concepts and ideas that overcome its demerits. The acting is of a higher caliber than you find in horror films, indeed this is one of Eggar's very best performances. The highly effective score is by Howard Shore. With Henry Beckman and Nicholas Campbell.  

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Model And The Marriage Broker (1951)

A marriage broker (Thelma Ritter) struggling to get out of debt takes a young model (Jeanne Crain) under her wing and unbeknownst to her, tries to set her up with a radiologic technologist (Scott Brady). This deception causes problems all around. Although she gets above the title billing all to herself, it's not Crain but the below the title third billed Ritter that is the focus of the film. I'll be upfront and confess I'm not a big fan of Ritter's "Here comes another wisecrack" persona that everyone seems to love. But this a role that keeps Ritter's quips to a minimum and allows her to show off her acting range and lets us see her vulnerability and loneliness. As directed by George Cukor, it's a perfectly charming comedy and the adjective that comes to mind is heartwarming. Crain is very good too (this is one of her best performances) but the rugged Brady seems a bit out of his element in romantic comedy. Cyril J. Mockridge is credited as the film's composer but it sounds suspiciously like the score Alfred Newman would do 4 years later for THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. With Zero Mostel, Michael O'Shea, Nancy Kulp, Jay C. Flippen and Helen Ford.

Hello Dolly! (1969)

In 1890's New York, a widow (Barbra Streisand) makes a living by matchmaking among other things. While she sets up a Yonkers businessman (Walter Matthau) with a young milliner (Marianne McAndrew), she really has her cap set on him herself. When HELLO DOLLY! opened in 1969, it was declared, gasp ..... old fashioned! This was the year of EASY RIDER and MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Well, nothing dates faster than topicality and DOLLY looks better with each passing year. Based on the smash Jerry Herman Broadway musical, there were also charges of bloat and a miscast Streisand. Streisand may have been 30 years too early to do the part justice but she is Streisand and takes on the role like a thoroughbred. In a way, it's the musical equivalent of the epic. Like the chariot race in BEN-HUR, the When The Parade Passes By number is an astonishing "cast of thousands" down to the mark choreographed piece of movie marvel. No, it's not among the greatest musicals ever made but far from the disaster it has been portrayed. Michael Kidd's energetic choreography, Irene Sharaff's costumes, John DeCuir's Oscar winning art direction and Herman A. Blumenthal and Jack Martin Smith's set direction all contributing to the fun. Directed by Gene Kelly. With Michael Crawford, E.J. Peaker, Danny Lockin, Tommy Tune and in a few moments of genuine movie magic, Louis Armstrong duets with Streisand. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Crime And Punishment (1935)

An impoverished student (Peter Lorre) of criminology kills an old woman (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) by beating her to death with a poker. While he at first feels no guilt over the murder, when a police inspector (Edward Arnold) plays a cat and mouse game with him, he begins to unravel. Based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, considered one of the greatest pieces of world literature, this is a Reader's Digest version of the Russian masterpiece and not even that. Not unexpectedly, the movie lacks the psychological complexities and subtleties of the novel. At an 89 minute running time, how could it possibly be expected to do the book justice. What we get is a gross simplification of the novel. As directed by Josef von Sternberg, the film looks quite good and his cinematographer Lucien Ballard does some nice things with shadows and light. But perhaps best of all is Peter Lorre in one of his few great roles. He can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse but he's on the right track. With Edward Arnold, the lovely Marian Marsh, Elisabeth Risdon, Douglass Dumbrille and Tala Birell.

The Tender Trap (1955)

A New York theatrical agent (Frank Sinatra) enjoys playing the field with the bevy of beauties available to him. But when he meets an aspiring young actress (Debbie Reynolds) who wants to settle down and do the marriage bit ..... he may have met his match! Based on the hit Broadway comedy by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith, this is a film very much of its decade. For the women in this movie, careers are just something to kill time till Mr. Right comes along. Gallons of alcohol are consumed, cartons of cigarettes are smoked and the guys lech after the women who all want a ring on it! Yet there's do denying the film's charms and yes, wit. To celebrate Old Blue Eyes' 100th birthday, this was the movie that came to mind. He only sings one song in the movie, the Oscar nominated title song but he's never been more lovable or amiable and even if he weren't the greatest male vocalist of the 20th century, he still could have been a true movie star without singing a note. Directed by Charles Walters. With Celeste Holm, David Wayne, Carolyn Jones, Lola Albright, Jarma Lewis and Tom Helmore.

Hombre (1967)

A white man (Paul Newman) raised by Apaches from a child returns to the white man's world to sell the lodging house he inherited from the white man who tried to raise him before he returned to live among the Apaches. But a stagecoach ride with a varied group of passengers proves fateful. Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard (3:10 TO YUMA) and directed by Martin Ritt in his sixth film with Newman. This is a beauty of a western. Newman's star presence has never been put to better use. His character doesn't talk much at all but you can just feel his presence in every scene he's in and with the most passive of gestures, he's able to communicate all we need to know about this man. The film is pro-Native American but the screenplay by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch keeps the lecturing to a minimum. The sparse Arizona locations are given the James Wong Howe treatment (and what movie could ask for more?) and there's a minimalist score by David Rose that's every effective. The excellent cast includes Fredric March, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento, Barbara Rush, Martin Balsam, Cameron Mitchell, Margaret Blye, Frank Silvera and Peter Lazer. 

In The Heart Of The Sea (2015)

In 1850, the writer Herman Melville (the ubiquitous Ben Whishaw) visits the sole living survivor (Brendan Gleeson) of the whaling ship Essex. The survivor's story will take form in Melville's next novel ..... MOBY DICK. Based on Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction book and directed by Ron Howard. But Howard isn't interested in making a movie sticking to the facts nor is he really interested in the actual incident that inspired Melville's book. What we get is a conventional sea adventure with a CGI ocean, CGI whales and trite dialogue. The Essex's captain, played here by Benjamin Walker, was at the focus of Philbrick's book but Howard switches it around and makes the ship's first mate, played by the photogenic Chris Hemsworth, the film's hero. In reality, Melville interviewed the ship's captain but Howard has Melville interviewing the ship's cabin boy (Tom Holland, THE IMPOSSIBLE grown up into Gleeson). But who goes to the movies for historical facts? None of this would matter if the film were any good but it's a forgettable film, already fading rapidly away as I'm typing! I did like Roque Banos' underscore. With Cillian Murphy, Michelle Fairley and Frank Dillane.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Crossing Guard (1995)

A man (Jack Nicholson) whose life and marriage fell apart when his 7 year old daughter was killed by a hit and run driver (David Morse) has gone to seed. When the driver is released from prison after serving 5 years for manslaughter, the father plots his vengeance and plans to kill him. Written and directed by actor Sean Penn, there is a lot to admire in the film so it's a pity that Penn the writer isn't as strong as Penn the director. He has a nice visual sense (or maybe it's Vilmos Zsigmond, his cinematographer) and Nicholson gives a strong performance but Penn can't seem to find an ending that feels true and what we get is embarrassingly mawkish. Robin Wright's character is underwritten and seems to be there just to let us see another side of Morse's character as well as a scene where the incident that started it all is explained in detail. But in the long run, its assets outweigh its liabilities. With Anjelica Huston (in the film's best performance), Piper Laurie, John Savage, Priscilla Barnes, Richard Bradford and Robbie Robertson.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Siesta (1987)

A young woman (Ellen Barkin) wakes up in a field near an airport in Spain, covered in blood. She can't remember the last few days and as she tries to piece together what transpired during that time, she encounters a strange group of characters who engage in aberrant behavior. Based on the novel by Patrice Chaplin, this was the feature film debut of director Mary Lambert (PET SEMATARY). The film was not a success either critically or box office wise when released but I think it deserved a better fate. Three years later, a very similar but inferior movie JACOB'S LADDER did rather well, go figure! One of the characters shouts in the film, "I hate irrational behavior!". But almost everyone in the film engages in irrational behavior and if one insists on everything making sense then this film will be tough going. It's not particularly difficult to guess where the movie is heading but, along with Barkin's fine performance, it's how the odyssey is executed that makes it worthwhile. With Jodie Foster, Isabella Rossellini, Gabriel Byrne, Martin Sheen, Grace Jones and Julian Sands.  

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

A retired government assassin (Clint Eastwood) now teaches art history at a small college. The head (Thayer David) of the secret government agency blackmails the ex-assassin into performing one last job ..... but will it really end there? Based on the best selling novel by Rod Whitaker (under the pseudonym Trevanian) and directed by Eastwood, the movie is pretty much a career low for everyone involved. Not even the great John Williams can offer up anything more than a generic TV action underscore! I can't remember when a major film was so badly acted by all involved. Add to that, gay and black stereotyping, sexism and rape jokes, even albinos aren't spared. Well ..... you get the picture. Did it really take three writers to whip up the cringe worthy dialogue? Poor Vonetta McGee gets the brunt of it. The film picks up somewhat when it gets to the mountain climbing sequence in Switzerland but by then the damage is irreparable.  With George Kennedy, Jack Cassidy, Gregory Walcott and Heidi Bruhl.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Les Amants De Montparnasse (1958)

The final year in the life of the painter Amedeo Modigliani (Gerard Philipe). Impoverished and continually drunk, he finally meets the love (Anouk Aimee) of his life but it's too late. Begun by Max Ophuls (to whom the film is dedicated), he died early in the filming and was replaced by Jacques Becker (CASQUE D'OR). As with most film biographies, great license is taken and the film is not to be taken as a "true" story. The movie doesn't give us much insight into Modigliani's art nor any insight into why he was such a tortured soul. For much of the film, it seems to be one of those "I'm a great artist so I have the right to behave like a jerk to everyone" movies but the screenplay does have some marvelous moments. The meeting with the rich, gauche American (Frank Edwards) for example. The soulful eyed Philipe makes for an attractive if ill fated artiste and Anouk Aimee looks like she stepped right out of a Modigliani painting. I wish the narrative had given more time to Lilli Palmer (as Beatrice Hastings) whose character suggests all kinds of debauchery. With Lino Ventura (whose character defines despicable), Lila Kedrova, Gerard Sety, Lea Padovani and Jacques Marin.

Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946)

A grifter and gambler (Van Heflin) has an auto accident near the small town he grew up in. When he looks up an old friend (Kirk Douglas in his film debut), now a District Attorney married to the town's richest woman (Barbara Stanwyck), they suspect he returned to town for a specific reason ..... blackmail. Based on a short story by John Patrick and adapted for the screen by Robert Rossen (ALL THE KING'S MEN). As directed by Lewis Milestone, this is a nice slice of film noir that is marred by an excessive amount of time wasted on the uninteresting relationship between Heflin and Lizabeth Scott's character. It doesn't help that Scott gives an awful performance. Fortunately the trio of Stanwyck, Heflin and Douglas (in one of his rare weakling roles) give first rate performances. If the film's ending is slightly reminiscent of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, it can be excused. After all, it's Stanwyck in the female lead again as Miklos Rozsa's underscore pounds away in the background so the deja vu can't be helped. With Judith Anderson, Darryl Hickman, Janis Wilson and Ann Doran. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sombrero (1953)

Three intertwining love stories set in two feuding Mexican villages and Mexico City: a cheesemaker (Ricardo Montalban) falls in love with the daughter (Pier Angeli) of the mayor (Thomas Gomez) of a neighboring town but in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, the towns rivalry keeps them apart. A terminally ill aristocrat (Vittorio Gassman) marries a selfish "good" woman (Nina Foch) instead of the socially unacceptable girl (Yvonne De Carlo) he truly loves. A matador (Jose Greco) with near incestuous feelings for his sister (Cyd Charisse) keeps her a prisoner but when she falls in love with a vendor (Rick Jason), she realizes only her brother's death will free her. The lightweight Romeo and Juliet story is played for comedy while the other two are dramas. The most interesting tale is the bullfighter and his sister story which has disturbing psychological implications that are only superficially explored but provides a dark contrast to the other two stories. Charisse and Greco are dancers but are used principally as actors here. While the film is not a musical, there are several songs and one dance number (Charisse). An oddity to be sure but a pleasant enough way to while away the time. Directed by Norman Foster. With Kurt Kasznar, Walter Hampden and John Abbott.

The Time Machine (1960)

At the turn of the century, an inventor (Rod Taylor) tells his dinner guests that he has just arrived back from the future and relates his tale of a world divided into two species: the effete fair haired Eloi and the grotesque Morlocks who live underground. Loosely based on the novel by H.G. Wells and directed by George Pal, this is one of the most entertaining and inventive science fiction fantasies ever made. It's not actually a very complex story which in this case works in its favor. It works perfectly for both kids (though the Morlocks may be too frightening to very young children) and adults. Still, its leisurely pace let my mind wander and wonder how the Eloi propagated as they were no children in the film. Were they literally the end of their race? And if they were, wasn't that also the end of the Morlocks? But such concerns  are puny when contrasted with the entertainment value. This is fantasy, not realism. With the fetching Yvette Mimieux proving the future has some advantages, Alan Young, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, Doris Lloyd and Whit Bissell.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Les Orgueilleux (aka The Proud And The Beautiful) (1953)

Traveling on the coast of Mexico, a Frenchman (Andre Toffel) becomes seriously ill and dies. When the cause of death is found out to be meningitis, it isn't long before the small village is quarantined and the disease spreads. In the meantime, the man's widow (Michele Morgan) and the town's drunk (Gerard Philipe) find a slow growing attraction brewing. Based on Jean Paul Sartre's short story L'AMOUR REDEMPTEUR, the film is an oddity. The relationship between the two protagonists doesn't seem natural but rather contrived but as they are played by the elegant Michele Morgan and the handsome Gerard Philipe (has any drunk ever looked so attractive?), it's easy to overlook. What does work is the steamy and grimy atmosphere of a dusty hot Mexican coastal town which the director Yves Allegret encapsulates perfectly. It gives the film a reality that the narrative doesn't. Curiously although he didn't write the screenplay, Jean Paul Sartre was nominated for an Oscar for best writing of a motion picture story. With Carlos Lopez Moctezuma, Michele Cordoue and Roberto Manuel Mendoza. 

The Lady In The Van (2015)

An eccentric homeless woman (Maggie Smith) who lives in a van moves into the driveway of a playwright (Alex Jennings) and stays there for fifteen years! A "mostly true" story based on Alan Bennett's play first produced in the West End in 1999 and directed by Nicholas Hytner (MADNESS OF KING GEORGE) who directed that production. This truth is stranger than fiction tale is a marvelous vehicle for Maggie Smith who gets to show off her polished comedic skills as well as the opportunity to display a more vulnerable side all in the same movie. To his credit, Bennett's screenplay is fluid and doesn't feel theatrical but the segue from comedy to the film's final poignant moments isn't smooth and doesn't sit well. But it's all a tour de force for Smith who milks every piece of wit out of each and every line and doesn't let a facial expression go by that won't kick the comedy up a notch or two. It's refreshing to see her do something different than her usual spinsters or high collar aristocrats. I can't of another actress that could have held the film together as well as she did. The supporting cast include James Corden, Jim Broadbent, Dominic Cooper, Frances De La Tour and Deborah Findlay. 

Youth (2015)

A retired composer (Michael Caine) and a film director (Harvey Keitel) are vacationing at a luxury spa in the Swiss Alps. An emissary from Queen Elizabeth II (Alex Macqueen) approaches him to come out of retirement which he refuses. Meanwhile the director is desperately trying to complete the screenplay of what he imagines is his final film. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, this ranks with his superb LA GRANDE BELLEZZA. I can't think of a director working today who has such a consistent and superb eye (with the assistance of his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi) with each frame looking like it's ready to be hung on a museum wall. But it's not just a case of pretty pictures, Sorrentino's compositions are integral to his setting and his characters. The film also serves as a reminder of why Michael Caine is considered one of the best actors of his generation. It's both emotionally perceptive and abundant in acumen and a coda that will have tears running down your cheek. As 2015 nears its end, I'm ready to declare it my favorite film of 2015! With Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Robert Seethaler and a kick ass cameo by Jane Fonda.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Becket (1964)

In a political move, Henry II (Peter O'Toole) appoints his beloved friend and fellow hedonist Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) to the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury as a means of keeping control over the church in England. But what he didn't count on was Becket developing a conscience and a commitment to the Church. Based on the play by Jean Anouilh and directed by Peter Glenville who directed BECKET on the New York stage in 1959. Anouilh's play is a historical drama and not to be taken as a history lesson. He uses actual historical personages to his own dramatic ends and they don't always fit with the historical facts. That being said, for most of its running time it's an entertaining historical spectacle with excellent acting. Burton is relatively restrained here, leaving the histrionics to O'Toole. It's a handsome looking film though it's easy to tell from the overly talkative screenplay (which won Edward Anhalt an Oscar) that it hasn't strayed far from its theatrical roots. But the end is bungled and it's sort of overstayed its welcome by that point anyway. With  John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit, Pamela Brown, Martita Hunt, Sian Phillips, Felix Aylmer and Veronique Vendell.

Carol (2015)

Set in the early 1950s, a young shopgirl (Rooney Mara) in a Manhattan department store finds herself attracted to an older housewife (Cate Blanchett) from New Jersey. I'm partial to Todd Haynes' films, both FAR FROM HEAVEN and SAFE are two of my all time favorites. But this retro lesbian romance didn't work for me. The honesty and rawness of a film like BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR has rendered this pale piece of forbidden love useless. If you told me I was watching a Merchant/Ivory film from the mid 1980s, I'd believe you. It's like the 1982 film MAKING LOVE but with lesbians instead of homosexuals. It worked with Haynes' FAR FROM HEAVEN because he usurped the style of Douglas Sirk and made a 1950s melodrama with a 2002 sensibility, one foot in the Hollywood past and the other foot in the new millennium. The film is too "tasteful" to show real passion and the love scene with Blanchett and Mara is chilly. Blanchett's artificial and mannered performance clashes with the naturalism of Mara and the wonderful Sarah Paulson (now she should have played Carol). Blanchett has a speech near the film's end that should be devastating and even have us in tears but it's so meticulously over controlled that it falls flat. Based on the novel THE PRICE OF SALT by Patricia Highsmith. With Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

A detective (William Powell) and his wife (Myrna Loy) are visiting his parents (Lucile Watson, Harry Davenport) in a small New England town. All the townspeople are sure he's working on a case which he isn't. But when a young man (Ralph Brooke) is shot on his parents' doorstep, he's expected to solve the crime. This may be my favorite of the THIN MAN sequels. It was a smart move to transfer the action from a large metropolis like New York or San Francisco (where previous entries in the franchise were set) and set it up in a small town. The lack of sophistication of the townspeople contrasts nicely to the urban worldliness of Nick and Nora Charles. Though an unpleasant sequence of Powell spanking Loy dates the film, their chemistry is unparalleled and it's a true pleasure to see them play off each other. Directed by Richard Thorpe taking over the directorial reins from W.S. Van Dyke (who passed since the last THIN MAN film in 1941). With Gloria DeHaven, Anne Revere, Leon Ames, Helen Vinson, Donald Meek, Lloyd Corrigan and, of course, the great Asta.

Blade Runner (1982)

It's 2019 in the city of Los Angeles. A blade runner is a job to hunt down replicants (artificial humans) and terminate them. Replicants are used for slave labor in the colonized regions of space and are forbidden on Earth. One such blade runner (Harrison Ford) is given the job to track down and terminate four replicants who have escaped to Earth. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, Ridley Scott's film is an art director's and production designer's movie. Visually, it is one of the most creative and stunning films made and is very often compared to Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS. Its weaknesses lie in its iffy screenplay which can't match the audacity of its visuals. It's full of interesting ideas that aren't satisfactorily developed. The replicants are far more interesting and vital than the film's hero (Ford at his dullest) but I suppose that's exactly the film's point, that the artificial humans have become more human than their makers. The four actors (Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James) playing the replicants have a spirit and vigor in their performances that make them the true "heroes" of the film. A flawed film to be sure but a memorable piece of film making. But some of that dialogue ... ouch! With Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh and James Hong.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sumurun (1920)

In an exotic Arabian city, a romantic roundelay plays out: an old hag (Margarete Kupfer) loves a hunchback (Ernst Lubitsch) who loves a dancer (Pola Negri) who is loved by an old sheik (Paul Wegener) but she loves his son (Carl Clewing) who use to love the old sheik's wife (Jenny Hasselqvist) who loves a cloth merchant (Harry Liedtke). Got it? Ernst Lubitsch's colorful fantasy is based on a pantomime by Friedrich Freksa. What's curious is that for the majority of its running time it plays as a comedy with broad slapstick and farcical situations but suddenly in the film's last few minutes it turns into a tragedy with three murders and an unrequited love. The shift in tone is disconcerting. The film is overly long and could have been shorn by a good fifteen minutes. Despite the film's title, which is the name of Jenny Hasselqvist's character, the film belongs to Pola Negri who is pert and lively and so appealing that one can easily overlook the fact that for someone playing a dancer, she's an awfully clunky dancer! 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

MacBeth (2015)

On his way home after victory in the decisive battle of Scotland's civil war, MacBeth (Michael Fassbender) is told by the "weird sisters" that he will be the future King of Scotland. His ambitious wife (Marion Cotillard) urges him to the throne by suggesting he murder the current King (David Thewlis). Justin Kurzel's freely adapted film of Shakespeare's Scottish play is a stripped down MACBETH. While Kurzel makes a few cinematic concessions, this is a fairly straightforward rendering whose strengths are based on the actors' performances. Fassbender (who's having a good year with this and STEVE JOBS) gives us a forceful MacBeth but it's Marion Cotillard who gives us a slightly different spin on Lady MacBeth. Cotillard doesn't give us the usual scheming hellion but a more layered human being. With enough humanity in her that one can see why she goes off the deep end from guilt. The production as a whole is weighty but I appreciate Kurzel's audacity and his confident direction even though some of the beauty of Shakespeare's dialog is sacrificed. With Paddy Considine, Sean Harris and Jack Reynor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Love Letter (1998)

A young man (Campbell Scott) is shopping with his fiancee (Daphne Ashbrook) when he finds an antique desk from the Civil War era that attracts him and he purchases it. In a secret compartment, he finds a letter written by the desk's previous owner (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It is a love letter to a man she's never met. And thus begins a romance that spans a 100 years. Based on a 1959 short story by Jack Finney (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) and directed by Dan Curtis (TV'S DARK SHADOWS), the movie is reminiscent of SOMEWHERE IN TIME (1980). While it lacks the dreamy romanticism (driven by John Barry's gorgeous score) of that film, it has the same loopy illogical inclination that makes it so fascinating. I kept waiting for the inevitable and predictable "twist" at the end and sure enough, just like clockwork it came. Scott and Leigh make for an attractive coupling which puts us on their side right away. With Estelle Parsons, David Dukes, Irma P. Hall and Kali Rocha.