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Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Black Orchid (1959)

A lonely widower (Anthony Quinn) and a recently widowed woman (Sophia Loren) find each other and a romance begins. But there's a major impediment when the man's adult daughter (Ina Balin) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the thought of her father remarrying. Directed by Martin Ritt (HUD), this is a lovely romance drama. The ending seems rushed and contrived though I suppose any other ending would have been a bummer. I just wish they had taken their time at arriving there. It usually seems some movies feel padded out but this one could have gone on another 15 or 20 minutes so the ending would be more organic and not so rushed. When Loren did TWO WOMEN two years later, everyone gushed about her emergence as a great dramatic actress but her work here (she won 2 acting awards for it) was already a sign that she wasn't just a sexy comedienne, this was an actress! Quinn is also excellent. He gets a lot of flak for his overacting (often justified) but here, he's restrained and quite endearing. Ritt has always been an actor's director, so I'll give him the credit for keeping Quinn low keyed. With Peter Mark Richmond, Virginia Vincent, Naomi Stevens and Whit Bissell. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Siege (1998)

After the man (Ahmed Ben Larby) believed to be the mastermind of a terrorist attack is kidnapped by U.S. military, a series of terrorist attacks occur in New York City and begin to escalate. Eventually, the city is put under martial law as the city's Arab population are interned. Filmed three years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the film received mixed reviews when it opened but it is one of those films which viewed today seems all too timely and relevant. Indeed, a possible vision of Trump's America as if we didn't learn anything by the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Directed by Edward Zwick (GLORY), the film raises a lot of complex and pertinent questions which it doesn't answer. It is after all, a piece of mainstream entertainment with big Hollywood stars (Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Annette Bening) and backed by a major studio and entertaining it is. It would be too much I suppose to ask for less cliches and more artistry but for what it is, it's pretty good and eerily somewhat visionary. Willis can't do much with his stolid military patriot but Washington brings a nice fire to his FBI agent and Bening, who has the film's most complex role, does what she can with the poorly written ambiguous CIA agent. With Tony Shalhoub, Sami Bouajila, Chip Zien and E. Katherine Kerr.  

Fantomas (1964)

A master of disguise (Jean Marais) by the name of Fantomas is the talk of Paris because of his daring crimes and the inability for the police to catch him. He becomes enraged when a journalist (Jean Marais) fabricates an interview with him for a newspaper and kidnaps him with the intent of making the police think the journalist is the notorious Fantomas. Directed by Andre Hunebelle and based on the series of novels (a total of 32) by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre which began in 1911. Its best known film incarnation is the six chapter serial by Louis Feuillade from 1913. This version was a huge hit in Europe and spawned two sequels. It's much lighter in tone than the original books. It's more of a spoof of the spy genre though not as good as the same year's THAT MAN IN RIO which did the same thing. The aging Marais (Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST)  was over 50 when he did FANTOMAS and doesn't quite cut the swashbuckling image of an action hero though to his credit, it appears he did a lot of his own stunts. The film's most amusing moments belong to Louis De Funes as the frustrated police commissioner. The film's last half hour or so is an elongated chase by auto, train, helicopter, boat and motorcycle which while visually attractive loses its steam quite quickly. With the lovely Mylene Demongeot as the romantic interest but under utilized. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

St. Martin's Lane (aka Sidewalks Of London) (1938)

A 40ish street performer (Charles Laughton) takes pity on a thieving teenage street urchin (Vivien Leigh) and recognizing her talent, he mentors her and falls in love with her. But it won't be long before her ambition leads her to success on the London stage. In Great Britain, street performers were known as buskers and often entertained theater queues waiting to enter the theater and made their living by donations from the crowd. Directed by Tim Whelan (1940's THIEF OF BAGDAD), this may sound like a British variation of A STAR IS BORN but it's not really. It's a charming but heartfelt platonic romance, the homely older man without social skills in love with the much younger ambitious snippet who grasps the first opportunity to further her career. Yet she's so guileless that you can't really resent her. Laughton really was one of the most extraordinary talents of the 20th century and Leigh demonstrates the qualities that would make her a perfect fit for Scarlett O'Hara the following year. Reputedly Laughton and Leigh didn't get along when the cameras weren't rolling but you'd never know it from their solid work here. With Rex Harrison and Tyrone Guthrie.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Major Dundee (1965)

In 1864 as the Civil War is nearing its end, a Union cavalry officer (Charlton Heston) leads a motley crew of soldiers including Confederate prisoners and civilian mercenaries into Mexico to pursue Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his men in retaliation for the massacre of civilians and soldiers. Originally 2 hours and 26 minutes long before being cut by the studio (Columbia), Sam Peckinpah's ambitious sprawling epic western seemed cursed from the beginning. Peckinpah reworked the original script by Harry Julian Fink into a more complex western than it originally was with a conscious nod to Melville's MOBY DICK. Reputedly, Peckinpah drank heavily during the filming and was abusive to both cast and crew and Columbia wanted to replace him until Heston gave up his salary to keep him on the picture. When the initial reaction was negative, the studio cut the film against Peckinpah's objections. Would it ever have been a great picture if it had stuck to Peckinpah's vision? Who knows? But what remains (and I saw the extended cut which restores 14 minutes to the film) is more than good enough to suggest it might have been. As it stands, it's an engrossing look at a military martinet whose obsession and single mindedness result in a costly and unnecessary loss. The large cast includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Senta Berger, Warren Oates, Mario Adorf, Ben Johnson, Brock Peters and Michael Anderson Jr.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Hollars (2016)

A struggling graphic novelist and artist (John Krasinski, who also directed) is in a relationship with a wealthy girl (Anna Kendrick) who is expecting his baby and fatherhood and marriage isn't something he's ready for. But a major crisis pushes this dilemma on the back burner when his mother (Margo Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumor and he flies to Mississippi to be by her side. Despite the grim sounding synopsis, this is a comedy! It's yet another dysfunctional family comedy where everyone is united by a family tragedy but it's a good one. The script is strong and the ensemble cast is impeccable. For fans of the wonderful Martindale, it's a treat to see her in a major role. My only complaint is that there's very little spontaneity, everything including every laugh seems planned right down to the inch. And that's what keeps it from being something special instead of another riff on movies like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Also, I'm not a fan of Josh Ritter whose songs provide the film's underscore which didn't help. But it's a more than decent movie and if your eyes water more than once, you can either resent the manipulation or give in. I gave in. The terrific cast includes Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day, Mary Kay Place and Josh Groban (don't snicker, he's good).

Undercurrent (1946)

With spinsterhood soon approaching, a woman (Katharine Hepburn) is swept off her feet by a rich manufacturer (Robert Taylor). After a quick wedding, she's whisked off to Washington DC where her husband is part of the social set. But it isn't long before she sees the dark side underneath the charm and begins to suspect he may be mentally unstable. An unusual entry from director Vincente Minnelli, a director not known for thrillers. He does well enough, the flaws in the film come from the screenplay which seems cobbled together from bits and pieces of films like REBECCA and GASLIGHT. While Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum are both successfully cast against type, Hepburn doesn't fare as well. Actresses like Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman in their respective films had a fragility that made it seem like they would crack if enough pressure were applied. Hepburn seems to have an innate resourcefulness that we're never quite in fear for her life as she seems to be able to take care of herself, however tremulous she may act. After a sluggish exposition, it's entertaining but it's not the kind of film that resonates. There's a nice underscore by Herbert Stothart that helps push it along. With Edmund Gwenn, Marjorie Main, Jayne Meadows and Clinton Sundberg.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Strangerland (2015)

When their sexually promiscuous 15 year old daughter (Maddison Brown) is involved in a scandal, her family relocates to a small dusty town in the Australian outback hoping to start over. But the daughter continues her sexually promiscuous ways and when she and her brother (Nicholas Hamilton) disappear in the middle of the night, the town suspects their parents (Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes) may be responsible. Directed by Kim Farrant in her feature film debut, the film starts off very well but after awhile it goes off the tracks and never finds its way back. One has to admire Nicole Kidman once again. Has any contemporary actress taken such risk taking roles in interesting films that almost no one sees? It's another first rate performance but the screenplay and direction leave her adrift, a diamond looking for the proper setting that just isn't there. Other than the son, there's no character that we can invest in. The parents are crappy parents and not without complicity in their daughter's behavior, the daughter is a slut, the policeman (Hugo Weaving) investigating the case is inept and the townspeople in general are cretins. The film gives us no closure and I have no problem with that but it doesn't give us anything else either. See it for Kidman's performance and P.J. Dillon's super cinematography (a sand storm is a corker) but go in with low expectations. With Lisa Flanagan and Meyne Wyatt.    

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)

On the 65th birthday of the family patriarch (Burl Ives), a wife (Elizabeth Taylor) must not only deal with the alcoholic apathy of her husband (Paul Newman) but the machinations of her brother in law (Jack Carson) and his wife (Madeleine Sherwood) to wrest control of the family estate. Based on the Pulitzer prize winning 1955 play by Tennessee Williams and directed by Richard Brooks (ELMER GANTRY). This being 1958, the play's homosexual content was white washed though the suggestion is still there albeit buried under rewritten dialog which softens the potency of Williams' play. Still, while it does compromise the film but it doesn't ruin it. It's still an excellent rendition of Williams' work with a superb cast. Reputedly, Williams was unhappy with the film version but to be fair, he himself had altered the original play at Eliza Kazan's (the play's director) request but restored it for subsequent revivals. All that aside, Taylor and Newman both look impossibly gorgeous but fortunately they can also act which is important as Newman has to convince us he's not interested in bedding Taylor which he somehow manages to do. Not the definitive filmed version of Williams' popular play but still the best all in all. With Judith Anderson, Larry Gates and Vaughn Taylor.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Flashdance (1983)

An 18 year old girl (Jennifer Beals) works as a welder by day and at night works as an exotic dancer in a working class bar. But she has dreams of being a legitimate professional dancer even though she has no formal training. Directed by Adrian Lyne (FATAL ATTRACTION), this was one of the first movies to utilize the styles of MTV music videos for the big screen. At the time, it was fresh and invigorating and its influence was felt through out the rest of the 80s decade. It benefits greatly from the stylish cinematography of Donald Peterman (MEN IN BLACK), a catchy song soundtrack (the title song won an Oscar) and an appealing central performance by Beals (not quite yet an actress at this stage of her career). Ironically, for a film about a dancer, Beals can't dance so she has a dance double (Marine Jahan) doing her dancing. It's essentially a Cinderella story and one can't help but root for the likable Beals but the script is pretty bad. Written by Thomas Hedley Jr. and Joe Eszterhas, it's a string of cliches and I suspect the worst scenes in the film (like the lobster dinner) were written by Eszterhas, the man who gave us the hideous SHOWGIRLS. Definitely a case of style over (lack of) substance. With Michael Nouri, Lilia Skala, Cynthia Rhodes, Belinda Bauer, Kyle T. Heffner and Micole Mercurio. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Goodbye Lover (1998)

A psychotic real estate agent (Patricia Arquette) is having an affair with her brother in law (Don Johnson). When he spurns her for another woman (Mary Louise Parker), she plots her revenge but that's only the tip of the iceberg of murders, double crosses and four million dollars. A missed opportunity. This neo noir black comedy needed a smoother and more efficient touch than director Roland Joffe is able to give it. Whoever thought Joffe, the director of such heavy films as THE KILLING FIELDS and THE MISSION was the man to for a darkly humorous thriller was misguided. It needed the hand of someone like Brian De Palma who proved with BODY DOUBLE and DRESSED TO KILL that he was the ideal man for the job. There's also a major blunder in the casting. Ellen DeGeneres is a terrific comedienne but a lousy actress and she has a pivotal role as the police detective investigating the murders and her line readings are flat to put it mildly. The ending doesn't feel right either and that's because it was changed because of those damn test screenings. A major character is killed but in the new ending, they're allowed to survive. Still, it's worth watching for what might have been rather than what it is. With Dermot Mulroney, Vincent Gallo, Barry Newman, Lisa Eichhorn, Ray McKinnon, Alex Rocco, Andre Gregory and John Neville.

Adventures Of Marco Polo (1938)

A merchant traveler (Gary Cooper) from Italy travels to China where he hopes to negotiate a deal for trade with the Chinese people. But at the court of the great Kublai Khan (George Barbier), he finds romance in the form of Khan's daughter (Sigrid Gurie) and political intrigue in the form of Khan's treacherous aide (Basil Rathbone) who has plans of his own for the throne. Anyone watching this film for any glint of historical accuracy needn't bother. A film about trade negotiations would no doubt be too dull so instead Marco Polo is re-invented as an action hero and lover. The Chinese introduce him to pasta and gunpowder and in return, he teaches them how to kiss! Oh, Hollywood! Lavishly produced by Samuel Goldwyn, the ads boasted "and a cast of 5,000" and visually, the film is indeed impressive. It's an enjoyable slice of hokum even as the preposterousness of it all can't help but bring a snicker now and then. Directed by Archie Mayo. The cast includes Lana Turner, Binnie Barnes, Alan Hale, Ernest Truex and H.B. Warner.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Le Diable Au Corps (aka The Devil In The Flesh) (1947)

In a small French village during WWI, a 16 year old schoolboy (Gerard Philipe) and a married woman (Micheline Presle), whose husband is off fighting in the war, openly engage in an affair that scandals the town. Based on the novel by Raymond Radiguet (published at 17, hung out with Hemingway and Cocteau, dead at 20) and directed by Claude Autant Lara. This is one of those intense love stories where the lovers are so obsessed with each other that nothing else matters. Not family, not friends, not work, not school and they live only for each other, not caring who they might hurt. Inevitably it ends unhappily with either the passion burning itself out or someone dying. It's a compelling film, there's no denying but I found the agonizing passion exhausting after awhile. Gerard Philipe is such a powerful screen presence that he holds the screen even when he's still so one can easily see why Presle is taken by him. I'm not familiar with Autant-Lara's work but I'm certainly intrigued enough by this effort to want to explore his filmography further. With Denise Grey, Jean Debucourt and Jean Lara. 

Doppelganger (aka Journey To Far Side Of The Sun) (1969)

When a planet is discovered on the other side of the sun, the director (Patrick Wymark) of EUROSEC mans a spaceship with an American astronaut (Roy Thinnes) and a British astrophysicist (Ian Hendry) to travel to the new planet. However, when the spaceship returns three weeks earlier than it was supposed to, a startling discovery is made. Directed by Robert Parrish (CRY DANGER) and written and produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. The Andersons are best known for their cult puppet series THUNDERBIRDS and this film is their first live action feature film. While its budget and special effects are quite modest (a lot of miniature work), this is still an intelligent piece of science fiction. Certainly compared to the previous years 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, it's almost a throwback but it has a fascinating premise and the emphasis is on the conceptual possibilities rather than action or aliens. The downbeat ending only accentuates the film maker's intention to make a more complex entry in the genre than the usual juvenile offerings. Not a great film by any means but deserving a better reputation than it currently holds. With Herbert Lom, Lynn Loring and Loni Von Friedl (THE BLUE MAX). 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Two For The Road (1967)

During a present day trip to the south of France, a married British couple (Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney) with marital problems reminisce about their marriage via their other travels through France including their first meeting. Directed by Stanley Donen from Frederic Raphael's original screenplay. I can't help but love this movie! Rapahel's Oscar nominated screenplay is literate, witty and adult and rather than give us a linear narrative, he jumps back and forth from the present to their first meeting and at various points in their marriage. The film is a hybrid between those European examinations of marital apathy (think LA NOTTE) and Hollywood marital comedies (think THE AWFUL TRUTH). An odd mixture to be sure but it mostly works here. The downside of the film is that it gets a case of the "cutes" more often than necessary and it demeans the film. Hepburn and Finney have a nice chemistry together and although Hepburn is a mere 7 years older than Finney, they seem generations apart. That's because Finney had only been a star for 4 years since TOM JONES (1963) but Hepburn had a full 10 years of movie stardom before that in ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) so that she seems from the "golden age" of Hollywood whereas Finney seems part of the newer emerging British "kitchen sink" breed. But it's a potent look at contemporary marriage and the shifting cultural attitudes toward marriage. There's a lovely Henry Mancini score. With Jacqueline Bisset, Claude Dauphin, Nadia Gray, William Daniels and Eleanor Bron. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

My Sister Eileen (1942)

Two sisters from Ohio, one a writer (Rosalind Russell) and the other an actress (Janet Blair), move from Ohio to Greenwich Village in New York to further their careers. They rent a basement apartment and their very lives become an adventure as they struggle to get a foot in the door. Based on the 1940 Broadway play by way of Ruth McKenney's short stories published in the New Yorker magazine and directed by Alexander Hall (HERE COMES MR. JORDAN). This is a delightful screwball farce, quickly paced and full of interesting quirky characters. Russell really was a crackerjack comedienne, the kind of actress who could take the simplest line and twist it into a biting wisecrack. The pretty Blair doesn't have much to do but look pretty which she does effortlessly but the supporting cast is full of ace character actors doing what they did best. Bouncy and lively, it's a comic treat. Russell would play the same role in a 1953 Broadway musical version of the story called WONDERFUL TOWN. With Brian Aherne, June Havoc, George Tobias, Allyn Joslyn, Elizabeth Patterson, Jeff Donnell, Donald MacBride and Richard Quine, who would direct the 1955 film version. 

Avanti! (1972)

An uptight industrialist (Jack Lemmon) has to make a sudden trip to Italy when his father is killed in an auto accident. It comes as a shock to him to find that there was a female passenger in the car with him.  When he meets the woman's daughter (Juliet Mills), there comes another shock. His father and her mother had been lovers for ten years! Directed by Billy Wilder who co-wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond but it's not an original screenplay, it's based on a play by Samuel Taylor which lasted all of 21 performances on Broadway. From the late 60s on, Wilder's output was erratic. He gave us one good film (PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) but most of his output was poor (FRONT PAGE, FEDORA). This is one of his weaker efforts. First off, it's way too long. 2 1/2 hours for a romantic comedy? Really? The film is crammed with cartoon Italian stereotypes. They're lazy (those long siestas!), blackmailers, criminals deported from the USA, women with mustaches and generally "quaint" as if they were performing for tourists like trained monkeys. Then there's Jack Lemmon at his manic worst, he barks all his lines. Thankfully there's Juliet Mills whose understated performance is a welcome contrast though the "fat" jokes fall flat especially since she's not fat at all. With Clive Revill, Edward Andrews and Ty Hardin.

Monday, August 15, 2016

99 River Street (1953)

A former boxer (John Payne) had his career sidelined because of an eye injury and is now working as a cab driver. His nagging wife (Peggie Castle) is bitter about their current financial status and plans on running off with a thug (Brad Dexter). But there's a double cross and then a double double cross and soon the cabbie finds himself on the run trying to prove his innocence. Directed by Phil Karlson (THE SILENCERS), this is one of those lesser known  film noirs that have slowly acquired a small cult among noir aficionados in the ensuing years. It's a tight economical piece of film making with an array of unpleasant characters. Even the hero (Payne) has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Grand Canyon and the heroine (Evelyn Keyes) commits an unconscionable betrayal but that's part of the appeal of the film. These complicated disorderly characters, even the villains, desperately trying to find a way out of the chaos they find themselves thrust in. The nicely rendered B&W cinematography is by Franz Planer (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S). With Frank Faylen, Jay Adler, Jack Lambert, Glenn Langan, Ian Wolfe and Claire Carleton.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Don't Think Twice (2016)

An improvisational group in Manhattan is struggling to survive and the six members all have day jobs they hate to support themselves. But when representatives from a popular late night sketch comedy called Weekend Live (obviously patterned after SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE) sees the improv company, two of them are asked to audition for the show and at that point, their lives will be changed forever. Directed by Mike Birbiglia who also plays one of the improv group. While the film is never less than interesting and I really liked the film's message that you don't have to be famous to do what you love and even if you're acting in anonymity, you're still an actor. Success shouldn't be measured by fame. But I had a lot of problems with the movie. First, the improv we see isn't very good and my first thought was, "Poor guys, they'll never make it!" So when one of them (Keegan Michael Key) becomes a breakout star, you go "Huh?". Worse, there's no difference between the characters doing improv on stage and the "real" characters off stage. In other words, they're the same on stage and off stage. Is that the point the movie is trying to make? You're always improvising, even in real life? Only Mike Birbiglia manages to give a semblance of a real person away from the improv stage. With Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, Richard Masur, Lena Dunham and Ben Stiller.

L'Automobile (1971)

A retired ex-prostitute (Anna Magnani) is something of a beloved figure in Rome's night life. But with her hooker days behind her, even though she's saved money and bought property, she's lonely. She decides that learning to drive and buying a car will give her a new freedom. Directed by screenwriter Alfredo Giannetti (he won an Oscar for DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE), this is a rather poignant look at a woman who's lived her life the way she chose to and without apology who must now come to terms with the consequences of no family, no longtime companion and very few real friends. Magnani is as magnificent as ever and she inhabits her character like a familiar garment. The film is generously laced with humor and she's a force of nature so it irritated me when toward the very end the narrative made her do something foolish, something that she would never do given her character and the picture ends with a rather cruel coda. The cinematography is by Pasqualino De Santis (Zeffirelli's ROMEO AND JULIET) and the score unmistakably Ennio Morricone. With Christian Hay and Vittorio Caprioli. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hart To Hart (1979)

When his best friend (Paul Napier) dies under mysterious circumstances, the wealthy CEO (Robert Wagner) of a major corporation goes undercover to a health spa run by two rather shady doctors (Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowall) where his friend was being treated. Directed by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) from a screenplay by Sidney Sheldon (EASTER PARADE). Back in the day, the networks would do TV movies for potential series and if the movie did well, the networks would greenlight the series. This was the feature length movie which served as a "pilot" for the series HART TO HART. If today it looks like an extended episode of the show, it still stands on its own as a pleasant diversion. It's an updated variation on THE THIN MAN with the Harts (Stefanie Powers is Mrs. Hart) as a modern day Nick and Nora Charles. They're rich, lead glamorous lives, banter sarcasms back and forth and have a circle of friends who are constantly being murdered. Wagner was never a major film star, not really but he came into his own on TV (this would be his third series) where his Cary Grant lite persona fit in very well and he and Powers have a nice chemistry. With Natalie Wood (the current Mrs. Wagner), Jill St. John (the future Mrs. Wagner), Lionel Stander and Michael Lerner. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957)

In 1944, a Marine (Robert Mitchum) and a nun (Deborah Kerr) are stranded on a desert island in the South Pacific. When the Japanese invade the island, they are forced to hide in a cave together and the inevitable attraction (at least on his side) is unavoidable. Based on the novel by Charles Shaw and directed and co-written by John Huston, this is a strong dramatic piece. Comparisons to Huston's THE AFRICAN QUEEN are superficial because there's very little similarity between the two films. The 1951 film is a romp rich in humor but there's no humor (if there was I missed it) in ALLISON. It's a rather sweet film really about a rough Marine who has no identity outside of his calling and in her way, the same can be said of the nun. The differences between them are many but the most important is that he's lonely and she's not. In interviews, Mitchum was always dismissive of his acting ability (and acting in general) but he was being disingenuously modest. He was an excellent actor and no more so than here. The vulnerability hidden behind the coarseness and his romantic awkwardness toward Kerr displays a true actor at the top of his craft. Beautifully shot in CinemaScope on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago by Oswald Morris (LOLITA).

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Bad Sister (1931)

A self centered small town girl (Sidney Fox) is tired of the dull routine of her daily existence. When a smart talking con artist (Humphrey Bogart) comes to town and romances her, she's ready to dump her boyfriend (Conrad Nagel) and elope. Her selfishness combined with her naivete and inability to see through him will bring unhappiness to her family. Based on the novel THE FLIRT by Booth Tarkington (MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) and directed without any style by Hobart Henley, this pre-code melodrama is mercifully brief (running slightly over an hour). It's middling, not bad but not particularly good either, a generic piece of early sound movie making. Today, this Universal production is most notable for two supporting players who would both go on to big careers at Warners: Bogart in only his 4th film and Bette Davis in her film debut. Neither displaying the talent or charisma here that would make them Hollywood legends. As for the film itself, it would play better without the ridiculous happy ending tacked on when everything that came before it indicated a darker inevitable end. With Zasu Pitts, Charles Winninger, Emma Dunn and Slim Summerville.

By The Sea (2015)

Set in the 1970s, a writer (Brad Pitt) with writers block and his depressed pill taking wife (Angelina Jolie) travel to a small coastal town in France, ostensibly for inspiration for his fiction. But unspoken, it seems just as likely an attempt to save their crumbling marriage. Written, directed and starring Jolie, when BY THE SEA was released last November in the U.S., the reviews were savage and the box office nil. I think they missed the boat. Is a great movie? No, the seams (which threaten to unravel at any given moment) are too obvious for that. But what I love about the film is its ambitious integrity however derivative. This is the kind of personal film making that harkens back to the European films of the 1960s specifically Antonioni (Jolie is even done up like Monica Vitti although she looks more like Sophia Loren) and the indie American films of the 1970s specifically John Cassavetes (Jolie has gone on record that he was an inspiration). This is a film about something! Jolie as a director is specific and methodical and the film's languid pace allows for a detailed character study although it's not hard to guess what the source of their problem is. If ultimately it's not a success (I won't call it a failure), one has to admire Jolie who at this stage of her career can probably do anything she wants to try something daunting and challenging and not signing up for some big action movie franchise to fatten her bank account. With Melanie Laurent, Niels Arestrup, Richard Bohringer and Melvil Poupaud.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Lady Eve (1941)

On a ship traveling from South America to New York, a rather naive ophidologist (Henry Fonda) who also happens to be the wealthy heir to an ale fortune meets up with a beautiful con artist (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn). They plot to swindle him out of thousands of dollars but she didn't count on love entering the picture. But love's path isn't so easy. This delightful screwball comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges is a highpoint in classic American film comedy. It ranks right up there with BRINGING UP BABY and THE AWFUL TRUTH. Sturges' screenplay provides both verbal witticisms as well as physical comedy and the appealing combination of Stanwyck and Fonda makes this a joyful watch. Fonda is my least favorite (very least) leading man of the classic era but I've always been fair to him when he's good and he's flawless here. The qualities that irritate me in some of his other performances match his character perfectly. A sparkling entertainment. With William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper and Martha O'Driscoll.

Bright Lights Big City (1988)

A wannabe writer (Michael J. Fox) works as a fact checker for a prestigious New York magazine during the day. But he spends his nights partying and clubbing, snorting coke, drinking booze and wallowing in self pity in Manhattan's trendy nightlife. Adapted for the screen by Jay McInerney from his best selling novel and directed by James Bridges (THE CHINA SYNDROME). Most of the film is quite fun as we get an insider's peek at the lifestyle of what used to be referred to as a "yuppie", a (somewhat) prestigious job and a glam lifestyle. But McInerney spoils the fun when he gets all sentimental and serious on us and some things just don't work. Like the mother (Dianne Wiest) dying of cancer in flashbacks or the kid brother (Charlie Schlatter) who seems left over from some Brandon De Wilde movie (think ALL FALL DOWN or HUD). While it never descends into "camp", at its core, it's not all that different from something like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. But Fox is very good and there's some nice support from Jason Robards and Frances Sternhagen. Also in the cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Swoosie Kurtz, John Houseman, Tracy Pollan, Sam Robards, Kelly Lynch, Alec Mapa, William Hickey and David Hyde Pierce.    

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Moon For The Misbegotten (1975)

Set in 1923 on a small Connecticut farm, a conniving farmer (Ed Flanders) plots to compromise his domineering daughter (Colleen Dewhurst) with their alcoholic landlord (Jason Robards) and thus blackmail him into selling the farm to them at a price less than the farm's value. I don't think this is one of Eugene O'Neill's strongest plays and it has had a rocky road. First performed in 1947, it wasn't produced on Broadway until 1957 where it only ran for two months in spite of a cast that included Wendy Hiller and Franchot Tone. Its most successful revival was in 1973 which ran for almost a year and won a best actress Tony for Dewhurst and it's this production that was filmed for television 2 years later. Co-directed by Jose Quintero (who directed the 1973 production) and Gordon Rigsby, it's a simple piece of filmed theater with no concession to the TV medium. It takes awhile to get its rhythm going what with O'Neill's dialog having a tendency toward overemphasis and repetition. But the second half more than makes up for the long exposition. Robards had already proved himself with O'Neill's material having already done both THE ICEMAN COMETH and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and he's superb here as is Dewhurst. Dewhurst was one of those great actresses, as powerful as Davis or Magnani, who never got a fair shake in the movies. This filmed production serves a testament to her burning talent. With John O'Leary and Edwin McDonough.   

Ercole E La Regina Di Lidia (aka Hercules Unchained) (1959)

Hercules (Steve Reeves) is asked to intervene between two warring brothers who are each supposed to rule Thebes in turn every other year. When one (Sergio Fantoni) refuses to accede to his brother (Mimmo Palmara) when the year is up, a civil war threatens. But Hercules' mission is impeded when he is seduced by an enchantress (Sylvia Lopez) after losing his memory. This is the sequel to the 1958 HERCULES which unexpectedly became a huge hit and opened the floodgates to dubbed sword and sandal peplum (mostly from Italy) for release in the U.S. and made a star of bodybuilder Reeves, a former Mr. America. For fans of peplum, it doesn't get any better than this. Directed by Pietro Francisci with future director Mario Bava as cinematographer, the film is cobbled together from Greek myths as well as taking some bits from plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus. The film benefits from its two leading ladies: Sylva Koscina returning as Reeves' love interest and now wife and the extremely sexy Lopez who unfortunately died the year the movie came out at the age of 26 from leukemia. With Primo Carnera and Gabriele Antonini.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Three Bites Of The Apple (1967)

A reserved Englishman (David McCallum) is a guide for a bus tour through Italy. When he accidentally wins a bundle of money at a casino, a scheming beauty (Sylva Koscina) concocts a plan to swindle him out of his money. But when romance enters the picture, the question is what will win out, love or money? In the 1960s, MGM did several lightweight romantic comedies filmed in Europe like FOLLOW THE BOYS, COME FLY WITH ME and this one. The plots are flimsy and the films are an excuse to tour Europe without leaving your theater seat. Here we get Rome, Venice, the Italian Riviera and the Swiss Alps. It's all very glamorous and the stories not too painful to sit through. McCallum was a teen heartthrob at this time because of the MAN FROM UNCLE television series and this was an attempt to jump start a movie career but it never happened. This was also the movie debut of the Broadway star Tammy Grimes (playing a nymphomaniac) but like McCallum, movie stardom was never in the cards for her which was a pity because there was a Joan Greenwood quality about her that films never took advantage of. Directed by Alvin Ganzer. With Harvey Korman and Domenico Modugno.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Nine Lives (2016)

A wealthy business tycoon (Kevin Spacey) puts his family a far second to his company. Although he hates cats, he gives in and buys his daughter (Malina Weisman) a cat for her birthday but a fall from a high rise building puts his body in a coma in a hospital while his brain enters the cat! This is your typical body switch movie, think FREAKY FRIDAY and its spawn, only this time it's the feline version. A friend commented that this was the kind of thing that Bob Crane would do in the 70s and the movie definitely has that 70s Disney live action movie vibe. If you're a cat lover, there's every chance you might find this modestly entertaining but if you're not ..... avoid at all costs, it can get pretty sappy. It's not the kind of movie that requires much acting and Spacey and Christopher Walken as a cat store proprietor are overqualified for stuff like this though it was probably an easy paycheck for Spacey. It's mostly voiceover work for him as his body lies in a coma in the hospital. The best performance comes from Cheryl Hines as Spacey's bitchy ex-wife but the performer I felt the sorriest for was Jennifer Garner as Spacey's current wife. Somebody give this actress a decent part! Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (MEN IN BLACK). With Mark Consuelos and Robbie Amell.

The Entity (1982)

In 1976, a single mother (Barbara Hershey) of three is raped by an invisible entity. After an auto accident caused by the entity, she is placed under the care of a psychiatrist (Ron Silver) who is convinced the activity is psychological and that the seeds are buried in her childhood years. But a chance encounter with two parapsychologists (Richard Brestoff, Raymond Singer) who investigate her home indicates that paranormal activity is real and not a product of her hallucinations. Based on the novel by Frank De Felitta which in turn is very loosely based on the case of Doris Bither. The film (like the novel) is a highly fictionalized account of the case with much dramatic license. Dealing with the subject of rape (even by a poltergeist) is always uncomfortable and the film can't help but feel slightly exploitative. But the director Sidney J. Furie (LADY SINGS THE BLUES) keeps a tight rein on the film and stays focused on the ramifications of the supposed paranormal activity by Silver's doubting psychiatrist who makes a good argument for it being psychological. The actual case is far less exciting but with definite unexplained paranormal activity. But the film succeeds because of Hershey's gutsy performance. Her commitment makes you believe in her situation even if only while you're watching it. With Margaret Blye, Alex Rocco, Jacqueline Brookes, George Coe and David Labiosa.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Iphigenia (1977)

The Greek armies and their thousand ships wait in the heat for the winds to come so they can sail to Troy and retrieve Helen who has run away with her lover Paris. But an oracle (Dimitri Aronis) announces that the winds will not come unless Agamemnon (Kostas Kazakos) sacrifices his first born daughter (Tatiana Papamoschou) to the goddess Artemis. To this end, he sends for his daughter under the pretext of a marriage to Achilles (Panos Mihalopoulos). I'm a great admirer of Michael Cacoyannis's film adaptations of Greek tragedy. This is his third (based on Euripides' IPHIGENIA AT AULIS) following ELECTRA (1962) and THE TROJAN WOMEN (1971). Not coincidentally, the great Irene Papas is prominently featured in all three films. She brings a fiery intensity to Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife and Iphigenia's mother which contrasts nicely to the quiet delicacy of Papamoschou and holds up strongly against Kazakos' powerful Agamemnon. Cacoyannis films the play against a stark and colorless rocky background near the sea with the actors costumed in neutral browns, beiges and off white to give the film a realistic look as oppose to the glossiness Hollywood usually gave to such ancient epics. Two terrific close ups are featured at the very end: Kazakos ambiguous look of shock at his daughter's sacrifice (in some versions of the story, she's saved at the last minute by Artemis) and the last shot of Papas, the expression on her face displaying the revenge she will have. With Kostas Karras as Menelaus.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

A wealthy New York society woman (Meryl Streep) has a passion for music and aspires to a career on the concert stage as an opera singer. But there's a small problem ..... she can't sing! Based on the true story of the heiress Florence Foster Jenkins who was apparently clueless as to her lack of talent but with money enough to subsidize a career and a loving husband (Hugh Grant) who made sure she got what she wanted. Directed by Stephen Frears (PHILOMENA), it's charming and so likable that I can't imagine anyone holding out, not even the Streep haters. It's lightweight stuff and sure it has a semblance of a message, "follow your dream" and all that but it's basically an entertainment. At its heart is the tender platonic love story of Jenkins and her second husband and you can throw in Simon Helberg's aspiring concert pianist into the mix and it's a three way love fest. In her best performance since THE IRON LADY, Streep is excellent. She never condescends to her Florence and doesn't encourage us to laugh at her but if we do, it's an affectionate laughter, not a mean spirited one. Streep's 20th Oscar nomination is not only inevitable but deserving. The period detail of 1944 New York is beautifully rendered by production designer Alan MacDonald and all the more remarkable for being filmed in England! With Rebecca Ferguson and Nina Arianda.  

Pacific Heights (1990)

A young couple (Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine) buy an old Victorian home in San Francisco and renovate it with the object of living on the top floor and renting the two units on the first floor to supplement their income. But their dream becomes a nightmare when they rent to the tenant from Hell (Michael Keaton) who is intent on destroying their lives. It's hard to believe that the man who gave us SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, DAY OF THE LOCUST and DARLING had been reduced to directing pulp like this by 1990. For what it is, John Schlesinger takes a decent stab at a Hitchcockian thriller (he even makes a Hitchcock like cameo in an elevator) but Daniel Pyne's often silly screenplay doesn't give him much to work with. Keaton makes for an effective if slimy villain but it's hard to find much sympathy for Modine who seems like the dumbest landlord on record and the screenplay doesn't give him an iota of common sense. At times, you feel like he deserves everything he's getting because he's so stupid. But it's not a movie to take seriously or it falls apart rapidly. A disposable entertainment, it serves its purpose. With Tippi Hedren, Mako, Beverly D'Angelo, Laurie Metcalf, Dorian Harewood, Dan Hedaya, Nobu McCarthy, Carl Lumbly and Miriam Margolyes. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

These Three (1936)

After graduating from college, two friends (Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon) decide to renovate a broken down farmhouse and turn it into a private girls school. Things are going very well until a spoiled malicious brat (Bonita Granville) spreads a vicious lie that Hopkins is having sex with Oberon's fiance (Joel McCrea) late at night in her room. The lie escalates until the three lives are destroyed. Based on Lillian Hellman's 1934 play THE CHILDREN'S HOUR and directed by William Wyler. This being 1936 and the production code in full swing, Hellman had to change the nature of the lie. In the play, the lie is that the two teachers were lesbian lovers. Normally, such concessions weaken the material but in this case, it doesn't hurt it at all since it's about the lie, not sexual orientation. Hellman's screenplay is solid as is Wyler's assured direction and the performances are strong especially Hopkins and by Alma Kruger as Granville's grandmother. The film only falters in the last 10 minutes or so as the tragic ending of Hellman's play gives way to a mawkish "happy" ending as a sop to 1936 audiences. Wyler would remake the film in 1961 staying true to Hellman's original play and Hopkins would play the silly Aunt (played by Catherine Doucet here). With Walter Brennan, Margaret Hamilton and Marcia Mae Jones.

A Blueprint For Murder (1953)

When his young niece dies under mysterious circumstances, her uncle (Joseph Cotten) insists on an autopsy which proves the child was poisoned. All the evidence points to her stepmother (Jean Peters) and now the uncle fears for the life of the surviving child (Freddy Ridgeway). But is the stepmother a cold blooded murderess? Or the innocent victim of circumstantial evidence? This well executed thriller is a nice tight piece of suspense. Its brief running time (1 hour, 16 minutes) is filled with tension and keeps the viewer on his toes. I kept vacillating between "yes, she's guilty" and "no, she's not" several times and the movie's last 15 minutes are pretty intense. It was yet another Fox programmer when released and didn't exactly set the box office or critics afire but the film has slowly acquired a modest reputation among film fans. Directed by Andrew Stone (THE LAST VOYAGE) who knows a thing or two about suspense. With Gary Merrill, Jack Kruschen, Catherine McLeod and Mae Marsh.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Hud (1963)

A rancher (Melvyn Douglas) finds out his cattle is infected with hoof and mouth disease which would mean devastation to his life's work. His unprincipled son (Paul Newman) is all in favor of selling the diseased stock before the word gets out but he insists on doing the right thing. Based on the novel HORSEMAN PASS BY by Larry McMurtry (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) and adapted for the screen by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. The screenplay makes some changes to the book. It shifts the focus away from the rancher's grandson (Brandon De Wilde) to the immoral younger son played by Newman. The rancher's wife is eliminated altogether and the black housekeeper is now Caucasian (Patricia Neal). As directed by Martin Ritt, this is a fine modern day western. Newman (in one of his best performances) is such an attractive screen presence that his cold hearted bastard was looked upon many as "cool" in spite of his being morally reprehensible. But the film belongs to Douglas in the best performance of his career. Who would have thought the lightweight actor of 1930s comedies would turn into such a great character actor. Neal brings a lifetime of living to her slovenly housekeeper, her expressive face and voice hinting at a lifetime of disappointment. James Wong Howe's stunning B&W cinematography is a thing of beauty. With Whit Bissell, Val Avery and Yvette Vickers.

Orchestra Wives (1942)

A small town girl (Ann Rutherford) falls hard for a trumpet player (George Montgomery) in a swing band. They marry quickly but she finds it difficult to adjust to the traveling life of an orchestra wife and it doesn't help that her husband's ex-flame (Lynn Bari) is the band's vocalist. Directed by Archie Mayo (THE PETRIFIED FOREST), this musical has a stronger plot than most of these big band musicals of the 1940s but it's still the musical numbers that are the reason for watching. The songs are by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon and for fans of that big band sound of Glenn Miller (who actually plays a character other than himself for a change), the film is a treat. Sure we have to sit through the sappy marriage problems of Rutherford and Montgomery but when we're rewarded by the great Nicholas Brothers and their dazzling foot work on I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo it's well worth it. There's also some nice supporting work by Bari as the devious band singer and Carole Landis as a bitchy orchestra wife. With Jackie Gleason, Cesar Romero, Mary Beth Hughes, Virginia Gilmore, Grant Mitchell, Marion Hutton (Betty's sister), Edith Evanson, Iris Adrian and Dale Evans (without Roy Rogers).

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Wild Geese (1978)

A wealthy international banker (Stewart Granger) hires a mercenary (Richard Burton) to put together a team and rescue an African leader (Winston Ntshona) being held captive by the dictator who deposed him. The mission will be a risky undertaking but nothing will prepare them for the ultimate betrayal. Based on an unpublished novel by Daniel Carney and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen (MCLINTOCK). Although not based on a book by Alistair MacLean, the film is similar in structure to war movies like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and WHERE EAGLES DARE. It's a good solid action/adventure movie that unfortunately finds a conscience about halfway through the movie and suddenly we get a lot of rhetoric about how we all need each other (in the form of Hardy Kruger's racist mercenary and Ntshona's black leader) and the movie stops cold. Not that there's anything wrong with a film having a political conscience, far from it, it just seems shoehorned in since that's not what the film is really about. But when it focuses on excitement and action, it's on firmer turf. The film is forward in that one of the mercenaries is an openly gay character but I wish he weren't such a stereotype (the other mercenaries call him "Auntie"). Some of the set up of the characters is too predictable. I was able to pinpoint quite accurately who would die and who would survive. With Roger Moore, Richard Harris, Barry Foster, Frank Finlay, Patrick Allen, Jeff Corey and Ronald Fraser. 

The African Queen (1951)

Set in 1914 German East Africa at the beginning of WWII, a missionary (Robert Morley) and his sister (Katharine Hepburn) run a small Methodist mission. But when German soldiers burn the village and her brother dies, she is rescued by the captain (Humphrey Bogart) of a beat up tramp steamer. Together, they navigate their way down the river to a fateful encounter with a German gunboat. Directed by John Huston, this is a grand entertainment! I don't think I've met anyone who didn't like THE AFRICAN QUEEN (though I'm sure they exist). In addition to being an exciting adventure, it's also a great romance between two unlikely people. Bogart and Hepburn have a great rapport in roles that seem tailor made for them. Beautifully shot in the (then) Belgian Congo by Jack Cardiff as well as sound stages in London, some of the rear projection shots are hopeless but easy to overlook when a movie is this good. There's not much I can say about this movie that hasn't been said by far more eloquent people. With Theodore Bikel and Peter Bull.