My first professionally published movie review (of The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella) was in a 1976 issue of the Columbia Spectator). But the year before I had started keeping a journal of movies I had seen. In the following section are some of those reviews.
TWO-FACED WOMAN (1941), directed by George Cukor, was Greta Garbo's second comedy and last picture. Although she lived another half-century, the sultry Swede never went before the cameras again, living out her famous statement from Grand Hotel, "I want to be alone." It was not a planned retirement; Garbo had one of her major box office and critical successes with Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939), a joyous comedy co-written by Billy Wilder. Two-Faced Woman was the run-of-the-mill sequel. Whereas the earlier film sparkled like champagne, this movie is a drink gone flat. Re-unitted with her Ninotchka co-star Melvyn Douglas, Garbo dances, laughs, and mugs it up as s chilly ski instructor who is warmed up by playboy magazine editor Douglas. While you could make a whole film on the defrosting of Garbo (hey, they did; it's called Ninotchka), Two-Faced Woman jumps over the defrosting and posits the idea: What happens after the initial romance? The story lacks the sophistication of Lubitsch and the wit of Wilder; it simply presents us with intelligent people doing silly things. Why does Douglas' magazine editor switch on and off to Garbo? Can he really prefer Constance Bennett? Garbo playing her own sister may have seemed inspired on paper but feels contrived and absurd on screen. And having Douglas recognizing the deception almost immediately takes away the naughty side of the story; imagine if he didn't know he was trying to have an affair with his own wife! Now that would have been something.
SMART WOMAN (1931), from director Gregory La Cava (Stage Door, My Man Godfrey), which originated as a stage production, looks stagy but is entertaining nonetheless. Mary Astor, long before she was the duplicitous femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon), here plays Nancy, a wronged innocent. Returning from a boat trip abroad, Nancy finds her husband, Don (Robert Ames), has been philandering and wants to leave him for a pretty golddigger, Peggy (Noel Francis). Rather than play the outraged wife, Nancy pretends to accept it all and presents a lover of her own. Naturally, she makes her husband jealous and reveals Peggy as a scamp in the process. It's all a load of predictable nonsense, but it's got Astor and the great Edward Everett Horton as well, so it's worth a tumble.
September 21, 2012
DOUBLE WEDDING (1937) Director: Richard Thorpe. Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy. One of the Powell-Loy non-Thin Man combos shows that the pair has chemistry, even when the script is at the programmer level. This one, by frequent Capra collaborator Jo Swerling, has Powell as a free-spirited bohemian type (a bit of miscasting there) and Loy as the woman who hates him, a hoity-toity control freak who thinks Powell wants to marry her sister (he's really using that as a ploy to get hooked up with Loy). The story is predictable, with more farcical elements than The Thin Man series, but Powell and Loy's comic timing is as impeccable as ever. She also gets to play an even more intelligent and capable character (shades of Emma Peel) than she does as Nora. Sidney Toler appears as a bumbling detective-butler in his pre-Charlie Chan days; and Mary Gordon is a housekeeper before she became Holmes' landlady. 1/13/00
J. EDGAR (2011) Directed by Clint Eastwood,[written by Dustin Lance Black, this engrossing film focuses on the career of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover from the Palmer Raids onwards, including his private life purportedly as a homosexual. The film features a remarkable performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as the FBI chief, at turns vain, forceful, dedicated, petty, hateful, and sympathetic. This is no cardboard cutout, but a flesh and blood person. With Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench and Ed Westwick.
ANOTHER YEAR (2010) is another low-key drama from writer/director Mike Leigh, who uses improvisation to develop the back stories of his characters and then writes a story that avoids cliché and reflects life in all its messiness. Loose ends are rarely tied up, characters disappear or develop, and relationships sometimes endure. Starring Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent as an easygoing couple who have been together 30 years or more and their interactions with various friends and family members over the course of a year.It premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival in competition for the Palme d'Or. It played at the 54th London Film Festival before its general British release date on 5 November 2010. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay.
HEREAFTER (2010), directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Peter Morgan and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, tells three parallel stories about three people who communicate with the dead; Matt Damon plays a clairvoyant but no longer wants to communicate with the dead; Cécile de France is a French television journalist who survives a near-death experience during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; and twins Marcus and Jason (played by Frankie and George McLaren) seem to communicate with each other after Jason dies. The movie is a strange, moody piece, quite unlike anything Eastwood has previously attempted. Although it seems disjointed at first, it ties the plot points up effectively at the finish. Morgan sold the script on spec to DreamWorks in 2008, but it transferred to Warner Bros. by the time Eastwood (who has a long-standing relationship with Warner Bros.) had signed on to direct in 2009. Principal photography ran from October 2009 to February 2010 on locations in London, San Francisco, Paris, and Hawaii.
FALL GUY (1982). A strange comedy-drama, which veers from wild overacting to subtle, moving performances, this Japanese film chronicles the relationship of an insecure stunt man and a former movie star who has fallen on hard times, and the ego-maniacal leading man who brings them together – and stands in their way. Touching at times, but also a bit over the top. Among many awards, it was chosen as the Best Film at the Japan Academy Prize ceremony.
WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY (2000) The title only hints at the creepy nature of this film and its lead character Harry (Sergi López) who is obsessed with his old high school chum, Michel (Laurent Lucas), and especially with his aborted writing career (Michel had written bad poetry and fiction then)l; they meet again by accident, and Harry decides he has to remove the "distractions" that are preventing him from writing. That starts with his purchasing Michel and his wife a new car, and extends to eliminating anyone who get in the way of his creativity – like family members. Director/co-scenarist Dominik Moll builds the suspense brilliantly makes the bizarre story believable, avoiding a clichéd Hollywood thriller ending (which will probably turn up in the planned Hollywood remake).
October 27, 2012
THE STRANGER (1946) Not the Camus novel, with its images of desert sand and life-and-death profundities, but a nourish thriller in which one-time screen heavy Edward G. Robinson makes it to the side of the angels as he tries to determine whether Loretta Young’s suave fiancé, Orson Welles – history teacher in small town America – is really an escaped Nazi (the giveaway clue comes when he says Karl Marx wasn’t a German, he was a Jew). Gripping tale, with a good script and performances, and a bang-up conclusion.
THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER (1947) The amusing story of Katie Holstrom (Loretta Young), a Swedish-American, who begins her professional life working for U.S. Representative Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), impresses everyone with her refreshing, down-to-earth common sense, and ends up running for Congress herself. This charming comedy, which was ahead of its time in its push for women’s rights, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Loretta Young. It was later remade as a TV series.
THE NAKED CITY (1948) There may be eight million stories in The Naked City, as the narrator says at the conclusion of this crime drama, but the one here is good enough. The basis for the television series, this movie takes a Dragnet-style approach to solving crimes, using actual locations in The Big Apple to give the tale verimisilitude. It works. The film is as much a documentary record of 1940s New York as it is police procedural. Directed by Jules Dassin, with Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Don Taylor, Dorothy Hart, Ted de Corsia, House Jameson, Frank Conroy, and David Opatoshu.
THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT (1936) It’s still not Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason (see previous review), but at least Ricardo Cortez’s interpretation of the role takes whole business seriously, and is not just interested in eating, drinking, and “witty” exchanges with Della Street. Based on Gardner’s complex The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat, the story is fairly faithful to its source novel. But the novels – and TV series – are still the preferred form of media.
THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES (1941) A terrific comedy (not to be confused with the infamous porn film, The Devil In Miss Jones), this movie features Charles Coburn (the devil) and Jean Arthur (Miss Jones) at the top of their games. Coburn plays a rich businessman who goes undercover to find out who the agitators are at his department store; Arthur is one of the employees. In the course of the tale both learn a few lessons about life.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969) The first and final performance of George Lazenby as James Bond, about whom one critic famously asserted: “He fills the role, the way concrete fills a hole.” Lazenby is pretty bad in a good film that attempts to give a little more shading to Agent 007, doing away with gadgets and increasing the relationship moments as well as the action sequences. It more or less works, though why – when Bond impersonates Sir Hillary Bray, who is looking into family lineage for Blofeld – does he feel it’s important to do a vocal impression of Sir Hillary? Does Blofeld know Sir Hillary’s voice? (And how does Bond not recognize Blofeld? Didn’t he meet him face to face at the climax of You Only Live Twice? Well, yes, but that was different actors you see, Sean Connery and Donald Pleasance, and the sequence of the books has been switched, so by being faithful to the novel, Bond has not met Blofeld, which makes a bizarre kind of sense…)
TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) It really is. Forget the nonsense about Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) being the definitive Tarzan movie because it follows a great deal of the plot from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 novel (it gets the details right, but the spirit of Tarzan is lost – he becomes more lost child than “Lord of the Apes”). And forget all the Tarzans (including Johnny Weissmuller and Ron Ely) who have worn the ape man’s loin cloth before and since this movie premiered. Gordon Scott (dubbed “Tarzan the Best” by Gabe Essoe in the great Tarzan of the Movies) is Tarzan as we always imagined he could be: laconic, practical, savage when he has to be, a man of action, with great jungle skills, and articulate to boot (no “Me Tarzan, You Jane” stuff here; in fact, no Jane at all). This adult action story has the ape man pursuing a quartet of rogues (Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery among them), who have committed robbery and theft and must now be caught and punished. It is a high-caliber cast that went on to greater things (Quayle appeared in Lawrence of Arabia; Connery – well, whatever happened to him?) but there is no greater Tarzan movie than this, ably directed by John Guillerman.
May 7, 2013
TIGER BAY (1959)
Engrossing thriller introduced Hayley Mills as a young girl who witnesses a murder but lies about it. Based on the short story "Rodolphe et le Revolver" by Noel Calef directed by J. Lee Thompson and produced and co-written by John Hawkesworth, the film features John Mills, her real-life father, as a police detective who tries to get her to tell the truth, and Horst Buchholz as a young sailor who commits the murder in a moment of passion. The movie was shot on location in Wales.
THE FLAME AND THE ARROW (1950)
Burt Lancaster, showing off his circus performer background, as an athletic eratz Robin Hood named Dardo Bartoli in a silly swashbuckler from early in his career. Virginia Mayo and Nick Cravat co-star in a Jacques Tourneur-directed adventure that is long on breathtaking stunts (many performed by Lancaster) and short on logic. If Dardo was much smarter, however, you wouldn’t have a story.
EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973) Ineptly made conspiracy theory film, offering plausible scenarios for the assassination of President John Kennedy by right-wing zealots with a lot of business money behind them. Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan head up the shadowy black ops team that masterminds the operation, but even though Lancaster’s presence is strong, this is no Seven Days in May. There is no suspense in this so-called thriller, which intercuts archival black-and-white footage with newly shot color scenes. If the filmmakers really wanted to make their point they would have more skillfully blended the footage by shooting everything in B&W and creating some kind of subplot in which someone discovers the conspiracy bit by bit (as was done in the excellent Gene Hackman conspiracy thriller The Package) and not laying it out for us in by-the-numbers didactic speeches from Lancaster (“What does that mean?” says one character. “We have to take action. Executive action.”) The X-Files this isn’t.
THE PACKAGE (1989) Excellent conspiracy theory thriller, with Gene Hackman top-notch (as usual) as a career military man who stumbles on wide-ranging plan to kill the Russian premier at a peace conference. There are clever parallels to the JFK assassination, showing how easy it would have been for plotters to set up a patsy for the killing of the president. The story hits all the paranoid buttons except the final one: Hackman’s character survives the ordeal. It’s satisfying, though unbelievable; such a powerful conspiracy would probably have taken him down, in Parralex View fashion. Otherwise, a terrific thriller. With a nice supporting turn by Dennis Franz as (what else?) a cop.
BABES ON BROADWAY (1941) Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland star in this rousing fantasy about kids who put on their own show, and, against all odds, are a big success. Directed by Busby Berkeley, with Vincente Minnelli directing Garland's big solo numbers, the film, which features Fay Bainter and Virginia Weidler, followed Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up the Band (1940).
December 27, 2012
LAUGH AND GET RICH (1931) is another charming comedy from the neglected Depression era director Gregory La Cava. It again touches on the director's favorite themes: the common man vs the greedy rich. This tale focuses on Joe Austin (Hugh Herbert), the nominal head of a family of three: himself, his wife, Sarah (Edna May Oliver), and his daughter, Alice (Dorothy Lee). Sarah is the practical one: having married Joe for love, she has had years to regret her decision, since Joe is a failed inventor, a dreamer, and an impractical big talker. In Sarah's view, Alice is about to repeat her mother's mistake: she is involved with Ralph (Russell Gleason), a young inventor/dreamer in her father's mold. Sarah would rather Alice date the smarmy Bill Hepburn (John Harron), a shady character who charms the unsuspecting mother. Herbert and Oliver make a believable couple, who bicker but have an enduring love for each other. Through various ups and downs, everything comes out alright in the end, and this charming antique is worth a look.
BUCK PRIVATES (1941) is the first starring vehicle for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (they had previously appeared in A Night in the Tropics in supporting roles). They are funny and fresh, bringing some of their radio routines to this story of two penny ante schemers who accidentally join the army. The Andrews Sisters are on hand to lend their legs and their voices to the festivities ("Boogy Woogie Bugle Boy" is a show-stopper), and although the plot is predictable, the fast-paced film never gives you a chance to think about it too much. Directed by Arthur Lubin, who went on to create Francis the Talking Mule for films and Mr. Ed, the talking horse, for TV. The inferior service comedy, Great Guns (1941), starring the great Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, was supposedly influenced by this.
TAKE ME HOME (2011) A charming, modern-day screwball comedy, directed by Sam Jaeger, starring Jaeger and his wife Amber Jaeger. (She received Best Actor award at the Napa Valley Film Festival for her performance in this film.) The movie follows the misadventures of a would-be-photographer, part-time cab driver who gets roped into driving cross-country with a young business exec who is fleeing a bad marriage. It's a plot as old as films (most obviously seen in It Happened One Night, 1934) as the odd couple start off as antagonists and, slowly, through a whirlwind trip of discovery, they fall in love. Predictable but engaging, the cast almost makes the material seem fresh.
THE AGE OF CONSENT (1932) Dated drama, directed by Gregory La Cava, that is most interesting now not for its message attacking rigid public mores concerning sex ("Let the kids follow their natural inclinations") but for the picture of co-ed college life in the early '30s. The guys wear suits and ties, the women are in nice skirts and dresses, and the men ("the gorillas") are all after one thing, and it isn't ice cream. (Not to be confused with Michael Powell's penultimate film, from 1969, with the same name.)
September 30, 2012
BABY FACE (1933) Director: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, John Wayne. Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top in this amusing pre-Code sex romp, although she finds things are lonely up there. Brent is the man she finally realizes she loves, only after he's attempted to kill himself. Breezy, speedy, and I love the way they show her career-climbing by panning up the windows (from department to department) of the bank she works in. July 20, 1991.
GIRL CRAZY (1943)
Based on the stage musical of the same name, Girl Crazy stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in their ninth of ten pairings. He plays college playboy Danny Churchill, who is sent to Cody College, a university populated by singing cowboys, to learn the error of his ways (the cowboy way = responsibility, apparently). He finds the will to reform when he falls for Ginger (Garland), who delivers mail and can’t see him for Adam. But, as is the case in most films of this type, bad feelings always lead to true love. Diverting fluff with some great Gershwin tunes. Production began with Busby Berkeley as director, but Berkeley was fired after continued run-ins with Garland.
A CHILD IS WAITING (1963)
Written by Abby Mann and directed by John Cassavetes, this sober drama features Burt Lancaster as the director of a state institution for mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children and Judy Garland as Jean Hansen, a new teacher who challenges his methods. The film uses real-life mentally-handicapped kids, which adds to the overall effect. Producer Stanley Kramer modeled the film's school on the Vineland Training School in New Jersey. Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor were considered for the role that went to Judy Garland, who previously had worked with Lancaster and Kramer on the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. When original director Jack Clayton withdrew, he was replaced by John Cassavetes, who liked to use improvisation, which led to clashes with Kramer. The problems extended to philosophy. Cassavetes said, "The difference in the two versions is that Stanley's picture said that retarded children belong in institutions and the picture I shot said retarded children are better in their own way than supposedly healthy adults. The philosophy of his film was that retarded children are separate and alone and therefore should be in institutions with others of their kind. My film said that retarded children could be anywhere, any time, and that the problem is that we're a bunch of dopes, that it's our problem more than the kids'. The point of the original picture that we made was that there was no fault, that there was nothing wrong with these children except that their mentality was lower." Cassavetes disowned the film, calling it “sentimental.”
Skyfall is the twenty-fifth James Bond film, features Daniel Craig's third (and best) performance as James Bond, and Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva, the film's antagonist. The film was directed by Sam Mendes, who brings a somber, Graham Greene-like tone to much of the action. This is a serious Bond, with a back story (we learn about his parents) and an emotional depth that previous Bonds lacked, but still has great action sequences. The film centres on Bond investigating an attack on MI6; part of a plot by former a MI6 operative against M (Judi Dench). The film sees the return of two recurring characters: Q, played by Ben Whishaw, and Eve Moneypenny, played by Naomie Harris. The film's release coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 007 series, which began with Dr. No in 1962. Skyfall is the highest-grossing film in the series.
VENGEANCE VALLEY (1951)
Diverting, though rather run-of-the-mill western, only redeemed by Burt Lancaster’s presence as the upright foreman. With the great Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train) as a two-time cowpoke, looking decidedly uncomfortable in western duds on a horse.
December 24, 2012
MY FAKE FIANCE This by-the-numbers romantic comedy was a very popular TV film in 2009 and led to a sitcom for stars Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence. The two leads play characters who can’t stand each other but join forces when she has all her furniture stolen (in one of the most improbable moments among many improbable moments) and he has a debt collector threatening to break his legs. The pair devises a scheme to stage a phony wedding so they can collect the dough and gifts. While waiting for the wedding, however, they meet each others' families and get to know each other -- seeing what sensitive souls lurk beneath the acerbic surfaces -- and they, naturally enough in a film like this, fall in love. It’s a not-very-demanding sitcom-style story as predictable as a Republican at a gun control hearing. But less destructive. (Curiously, like all Disney-ABC Family Channel movies, this is rated 4 out of 5 possibe stars. Curious because many better, non-Disney/AFC films are rated less highly. Is the fix in?
CASTLE ON THE HUDSON (1940), directed by Anatole Litvak, this exciting melodrama features John Garfield as a tough guy who gets sent to prison for robbery. He leaves behind devoted girlfriend Ann Sheridan and meets reformer warden Pat O'Brien. The film is based on the book Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, written by Lewis E. Lawes, the warden of the Sing Sing prison warden who actually did improve conditions for the inmates. It's not bad, as prison pictures go, with Garfield delivering a portrait of a swaggering anti-hero who has his own code of honor.
PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945) At various times funny, touching, and exciting, this film tells the true story U.S. Marine Al Schmid in World War II, whose heroic stand against a Japanese attack during the Battle of Guadalcanal, left him blinded by a grenade. The film was based on the Roger Butterfield book, Al Schmid, Marine. John Garfield is great as Scmid, and he has wonderful chemistry with Eleanor Parker as the woman he loves. Their early courtship scenes are as charming as their post-war relationship is moving. It teeters on the edge of being sugary, but the acting and writing by a top-notch cast and crew keep it afloat.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (1944) Silly melodrama about a group of boat passengers on route to New York who discover that threy’re dead and are on the way to heaven…or hell. Edmund Gwenn is their steward, Sydney Greenstreet is the inquisitor; and John Garfield, Paul Henreid, and Eleanor Parker are among the hapless passengers. It is a remake of the 1930 film, Outward Bound, itself based on the 1924 play of the same name, and it’s all hokey nonsense, a kind of Grand Hotel of death.
BOND REDUX About three months ago, my brother told me he had taken his daughters, Xanthe, age 12, and Helena, age 8, to see SKYFALL, the latest James Bond movie. They had never seen a Bond movie before, he told me, and they were blown away by it. Never seen a Bond, I thought, what could that be like? It just so happened that on Christmas I had gotten a nice present: the 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray collection of all the "official" 007 epics (excluding the final Sean Connery installment, Never Say Never Again, and the comic caper Casino Royale). It was fate. Not having spent a lot of time with my nieces lately, I thought, "This is a good way to bond with them" (if you'll pardon the appropriate pun) and also give me an excuse to revisit the movies in their new Blu-Ray incarnations (they look terrific, as my father might have said). Since then, we've watched four Connery 007s (not in order), with the common consensus among us being that Goldfinger has been the best so far (it was educational, too: Helena learned not to paint her body gold -- unless she left a small bare patch at the base of the spine to allow the body to breathe), with You Only Live Twice a close second (they loved the volcano headquarters of the bald villain – whom they think resembles Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series). We all agreed that Doctor No looked the cheapest, though Connery was lean and mean (and Xanthe wouldn't agree that there was anything wrong with Bond shooting a bad guy in cold blood), and that the best moment in Thunderball was when Bond leaves the dance floor with a newly minted corpse, deposits her at a table of guests, and explains: "Do you mind if my partner sits this one out? She's just dead."
March 16, 2013
LOVE'S KITCHEN (2011) is a by-the-numbers romantic comedy about a chef who is reamed by a food critic, loses his job (and, coincidentally, his wife, in a car accident), and begins a new life as chef of a remote country kitchen. Directed by James Hacking and starring Dougray Scott, Claire Forlani, Michelle Ryan, the movie features celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in his first acting role. Hacking also wrote the script for the film, and it was the director's first feature length film. It was also a major bomb, taking £121 on its opening weekend from five screens in London. That said, it's not as bad as some of the stuff out there, and is enjoyable on a sitcom level.
CHAINED (1934) finds Clark Gable in yet another love triangle with Joan Crawford, who suffers (as in long-suffering) almost as well as Greta Garbo. Crawford plays Diane Lovering, the mistress of Richard Field (Otto Kruger). It is a dignified love but it is stymied by Field's wife, won't agree to a divorce because she likes her position in society. Diane says she'll stand by her man, scandalous as that may be, but Feld persuades her to go on a cruise to Buenos Aires to see if their love survives a separation (this happened a lot in 1930s tear-jerkers like this). While on the cruise, Diane meets Mike Bradley, a rich rancher from Argentina (Clark Gable), and the two definitely have a spark that, eventually, despite Diane's best intentions, bursts into a passionate flame (and who wouldn't prefer man's man Gable to the courtly Kruger?). Complications ensue when Field actually gets a divorce from his wife... It's engrossing, romantic nonsense, served on an elegant platter as only MGM could.
DANCING LADY (1933) is an odd one. Clark Gable plays a tough, no-nonsense theatrical stage director named Patch Gallagher who crosses paths with Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford), a young dancer who is reduced to stripping in a burlesque show. Arrested for indecent exposure, she's bailed out by millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). When she tries to get a part in a Broadway musical, Tod intercedes with Gallagher to get her the job. Janie proves her worth (even though her actual dancing is fairly rudimentary), going toe-to-toe and cheek-to-cheek with none other than Fred Astaire, who made his film debut here ("I was cast as myself," Astaire said in his autobiography. "To have Clark Gable call me out by my own name and to play a scene with him and Joan Crawford was, I thought, a great way to be presented to the vast movie public"). Astaire does a few steps in rehearsal with her and then returns for a big Busby Berkeley-style number at the climax, "The Gang's All Here." Patch had earlier made a speech about wanting to make a tough, hard-hitting human drama, but what we see of the show is mindless fluff; oh well, he and Diane are in a romantic triangle (the third point is Tone), and even though you know how it's going to turn out, it's very satisfying. The movie also features he first credited film appearance of Nelson Eddy, and an early feature film appearance of the Three Stooges – Moe Howard, Curly Howard, and Larry Fine – in support of the leader of their act at the time, Ted Healy (the quartet is billed as "Ted Healy and His Stooges"). Cultured Algonquin Round Table humorist Robert Benchley plays a supporting role.
THE HUCKSTERS (1947) A great cast – Sydney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou, Keenan Wynn, Edward Arnold and Ava Gardner co-star with Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr in this engaging film version of the novel The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman. Gable plays Victor Norman, a radio advertising executive back from World War II and looking for a job in his old field. He is the same no-nonsense Gable we've come to expect, and although he says he is unscrupulous, we know better. The 26-year-old Kerr is the love interest for the aging King of Hollywood (who still looks great), though you'd think he'd be better matched with Gardner, who has an easy, sassy rapport with the actor that is nowhere present with Kerr.
October 7, 2012
WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956) is a big, histrionic melodrama from director Douglas Sirk. And no one did big, histrionic melodramas better than Sirk. Its soap opera plot finds rock-like leading man Rock Hudson in love with practical Lauren Bacall. Problem is that Hudson's best friend (rock-like Robert Stack, who is less rock-like than usual and gets to emote doing his Academy Award-nominated "Best Drunk Performance" -- actually "Best Supporting Actor" performance) is also in love with her. He happens to be a multi-million-dollar oilman when he’s not drinking, and promises to stop drinking if she marries him. She does and poor Rock is left to suffer in silence (the role he was made for). But don’t worry, there is another woman for Rock: Dorothy Malone, as Stack's drunken sister, who suffers quite loudly at Rock’s platonic treatment of her. It all gets tangled up with questions of manhood (does excessive drinking cause low sperm count?) and murder, which is always a nifty way to end a film. The screenplay by George Zuckerman was based on Robert Wildser's 1945 novel, a thinly veiled account of the real-life scandal involving torch singer Libby Holman and her husband, tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds. Zuckerman shifted the locale from North Carolina to Texas, made the source of the family wealth oil rather than tobacco, and changed all the character names.
YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW (1963), a comic anthology film is a far cry from Italian director Vittorio de Sica's groundbreaking (and heartbreaking) The Bicycle Thieves (1947). It stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni as three different pairs of lovers (at three different social class levels) in three short movies. The first, and most farcical, is about a woman who avoids jail by having her husband constantly impregnate her; the second is about a bored rich woman who wants to use a former lover as a plaything; and the third finds Loren (in a short tale that could have been more aptly titled, "The Prostitute and the Priest") as a friendly hooker who turns the head of a cleric-in-training, while her mama's boy lover looks on aghast. Entertaining if a bit simple-minded, the film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 37th Academy Awards.
TIMER (2009) is a science-fiction romantic comedy film by Jac Schaeffer about a device that counts down to the moment you meet your soul mate. The movie seems to be saying that if you know who your soul mate is at the time you meet him/her, there is less pressure on the relationship – and this is a bad thing. However, even though most of the events seem to back up this idea, the conclusion of the movie seems to endorse the opposite view. Is messiness necessary for relationships? Or is there a perfect mate waiting for you out there? The movie tries to have it both ways and ends up a muddled mess.
BERNIE (2011) tells the story of Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede, a charming mortician who one days gets pushed too far and murders an 81-year-old woman (Shirley MacLaine) who employs him. The most unsual twist in this true story is that the townspeople in Bernie's southern down so liked Bernie and disliked her, that it was hard to get a local jury to convict the self-confessed killer. The movie is a dark comedy, with the actual townspeople playing themselves, and the hitherto unnoteworthy Jack Black turning in a phenomenal performance as Bernie.
October 21, 2012
TORTILLA FLAT (1942) is racist claptrap from a John Steinbeck novel. The book is almost as offensive as the film, offering the same insulting stereotypes of shiftless Mexicans who try to avoid work. They live by their (half) wits, cheating each other out of money that they use to buy wine, which in turn gets them drunk. The movie has an added layer of insult (although this was typical of the time), with white actors playing the Mexicans. The cast includes Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, John Garfield, Frank Morgan, Akim Tamiroff, and Sheldon Leonard. Directed by Victor Fleming.
A precursor (in a minor way) to the disaster films of the 1970s, SAN FRANCISCO (1936) features Clark Gable as "Blackie" Norton, a saloonkeeper and gambler in the notorious Barbary Coast, who owns the Paradise Club on Pacific Street. He hires and falls in love with soprano Jeanette MacDonald, an elegant lady from the east. There are all sorts of soap opera machinations, which all seem quite petty after the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Internet Movie Database reports that famous silent film directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim contributed to the screenplay without screen credit. Griffith also helped direct the famous earthquake sequence. Spencer Tracy once again plays Gable’s longtime buddy, this time a priest of all things.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) is a moody, suspenseful spy film from the great Billy Wilder. It features Franchot Tone as a British soldier (sans British accent) who gets stuck behind enemy lines in a hotel that is being used as field headquarters for Field Marshal Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) and his staff. Will Tone be discovered in his disguise as a waiter? The dialogue is sharp and the pace is crisp. With Anne Baxter as the love interest.
WESTBOUND (1959) Directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, Virginia Mayo, and Karen Steele, this is the sixth of seven films directed by Boetticher and starring Scott, and it is by far the weakest, lacking the film noirish qualities that make the other six movies compelling. In previous Boetticher-Scott westerns, the story generally focused on an obsessive loner, who operates outside of society, with a touch of sadism in his character. In this one, he’s a more conventional hero, and he does seem to charm the ladies.
THE ST. LOUIS BANK ROBBERY (1959) is an early, low-budget crime caper, with a surprisingly large role for Steve McQueen, as a confused young man who agrees to act as a getaway driver for three obvious losers. The ending is a foregone conclusion, especially when they give the driver’s seat to someone else. McQueen is the only reason anyone would want to watch this claptrap, which is no Riffifi or even The Thomas Crown Affair.
ARGO (2012) is a Hollywood version of historical rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Directed by Ben Affleck and based loosely on Tony Mendez's account, the film stars Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman. It is well-done and exciting, but has obviously been jazzed up for the movies, including the addition of Arkin as a cranky film director and a hair's breath escape that comes right out of a Bond movie.
October 24, 2012
Here are my thoughts on a couple of movies I've just seen.
KILLER SHARK (1950) is a hokey melodrama from director Budd Boetticher, who would make some great, gritty, noirish westerns with Randolph Scott a few years after this (Seven Men from Now, Buchanan Rides Alone) and who was still getting his feet wet (quite literally) in this Monogram cheapie. Still going by the name of Oscar Boetticher, the director seems to bring little to this tale of a young snob (Roddy McDowall, later Cornelius in Planet of the Apes) who joins his father on a shark fishing expedition and nearly gets the old man killed. Needless to say, he learns his lesson and saves his father's failing fishing business as well. Roland Winters, who was Charlie Chan just three years before, plays the dad and he is as forgettable as the rest of the cast. Not to be confused with the much-better Tiger Shark.
THE SECRET HEART, opened on Christmas day, 1946, and is a good melodrama for the holiday season. Compelling in a soap-operaish kind of way, the movie stars the great Claudette Colbert as the stepmom to two more-or-less adult stepchildren: the male is just out of the army (and is played by Robert Sterling, who played ghost George Kirby in the 1950s TV series Topper) and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. The female stepchild (June Allyson) is more problematic: she just likes to sit at home annd play the haunting piano melodies her late father played for her as a small child. She won't finish school, date boys, or do anything productive because she can't forget her father, the only man she ever loved. Even though he died when she was four years old, she won't – can't – let go of his memory. Like many movies from the '40s (the shrinks as heroes era of psychiatry era in films; see also Spellbound), The Secret Heart is textbook pop Freud on parade. Even as the worshipful daughter falls in love with her father's best friend and her mother's current lover (Walter Pidgeon), old Dr. Gillespie himself (Lionel Barrymore in a brief cameo) is warning stepmom Claudette that the child most re-experience the locales of her youth in order to cure herself. The truth will set her free, never mind that she might not be able to handle the truth: that her loving dad was an embezzling alcoholic who did himself in. Never mind, too, that this film is a lot of nonsense; it is an engrossing bit of nonsense, predictable but entertaining nonetheless, thanks to the charm of its leads.
September 16, 2012
Review from my MOVIE JOURNAL:
DAVID AND LISA (1962) Director: Frank Perry. Cast: Keir Dullea, Janet Margolin, Howard Da Silva. Shrink as friend – Howard da Silva plays the easy-going, fatherly therapist who runs a home for mentally disturbed teenagers. David (Dullea), an intelligent, angry young man who hates to be touched, and his cure begins when he starts to reach out to Lisa, a pretty schizophrenic (Margolin) who talks in rhyme. The movie posits the idea that care and understanding – and respect for an individual's rights – is key to a cure, with the avuncular, unscientific Da Silva a pefect foil for that. The talking cure is briefly depicted ("Tell me about it," is Da Silva's most common response), but the cure comes more from love than anything else.
TWO DAYS IN NEW YORK (2012) Marion (Julie Delpy) and Mingus (Chris Rock) go from harmony to nightmare when her eccentric father and bitchy sister (with a drug-smoking boyfriend in tow) visit for the weekend. The French visitors try the couple's relationship in what is essentially a Woody Allen wannabe. It has its moments, but the movie is essentially a dud. Delpy wrote and directed this movie, though Rock gets the most laughs with what seems to be improvised material.
WE WERE STRANGERS a 1949 adventure–drama film directed by John Huston and starring Jennifer Jones and John Garfield. The film, set in 1933, concerns a group of revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the Cuban regime. Based loosely on Robert Sylvester's novel Rough Sketch, the film finds Garfield, as an American-educated Cuban exile, who conspires with Cuban (!) beauty Jennifer Jones and the guitar-strummung Gilbert Roland to kill the president. Standing in there way is the charming Pedro Armendariz, as the corrupt police chief. Directed by John Huston, right after The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Asphalt Jungle, two infinitely superior films.
DOCTOR NO (1962) The first James Bond film (but not the first appearance of Bond; Barry Nelson gets that honor in 1954 CBS-TV version of Casino Royale). Sean Connery is terrific as Bond in the first of seven appearances as the spy: lean, mean, and sexy, with a raw animal magnetism that makes him menacing and alluring at the same time. The story is much more conventional than later Bonds, and its plot-line would be remade as You Only Live Twice (1967), but the movie has a charm that most of the later films lack. With John Barry’s reworking (some would say rewriting) of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.”
WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950) finds Robert Mitchum as a not-so-bright doctor, Jeff Cameron who ditches the sensible girl, Julie (Maureen O'Sullivan), and falls in love with an amnesia patient (Faith Domergue in her film debut), which is never a good idea in any situation, but especially not if you’re in a film noir. He doesn’t heed the warning signs – Claude Rains saying to him, “Let me warn you about her” moments before he attacks Jeff with a poker – and takes it on the lam with the amnesia girl (while suffering from a concussion himself). Unlike many noirs, however, this one ends happily, though it’s a bit touch-and-go for a while. Domergue was a Howard Hughes discovery.
THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE/THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS If you think you know attorney Perry Mason – either from the 82 mystery novels by Erle Stanley Gardner or from the 271 episodes of TV’s Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr – guess again. Here are two of the earliest screen appearances, both from 1935, of the crusading lawyer, but this Mason is more interested in ladies and liquor than justice. Warren William is a kind of ersatz Nick Charles (the William Powell sleuth from The Thin Man and its sequels), who is constantly going on about cooking, huge fees he’s going to charge, and why he’s the best lawyer in town. Della Street is sort of a bargain-basement Nora Chales (also from The Thin Man), and Paul Drake – he’s been turned into comic relief as the henpecked, slightly daffy gumshoe “Spudsy” Drake. Although the producers use Gardner’s clever plots, they are played for laughs. Gardner, who worked hard to create believable fast-paced mysteries, could not have been pleased.
CRIME WAVE (also known as The City Is Dark), directed by André De Toth, is a gritty, shot-on-location film noir, from 1954, with tough cop Sterling Hayden in pursuit of a gas station stick-up gang who shot a cop. Gene Nelson is quite good as the ex-con who gets caught between the cops and the bad guysI, and the L.A. location work is smashing. Adapted from a short story that originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post - Criminal Mark by John and Ward Hawkins.
March 29, 2013
THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, directed by Gregory La Cava, features fast-talking Lee Tracy as carnival pitchman Jimmy Bates who finagles his girlfriend, fiery hoochie dancer Teresita (Lupe Vélez), into a major Broadway revue under the direction of a befuddled impresario (Frank Morgan). It's the kind of fast-paced nonsense that La Cava (My Man Godfrey) did best: Jimmy is a carnival barker aspiring for grander things -- but he's a whiz at improvisation, taking any situation and turning it to his advantage. Early on, when the jealous Teresita confronts him with a gun over an affair with a blonde, he brushes it off as he is inspired by an idea: he pretends to have been shot wrestling the gun from her. His story to the crowds gathering outside? She was trying to kill herself after having learned that the town the carny is in is the same town where her father abandoned her as illegitimate – and she'll reveal his name at the show. Later, Jimmy jumps in and saves her Broadway debut, which is not doing her hot "hootchie" number, but a staid, stately boring piece that the powers that be imposed on her. When she does the "common man" number, it is a toe-tapping success; the band gets into the swinging nature of the number and Jimmy's instincts are shown to be the correct ones. And when Terresita forgets her roots and tries to become hoity-doity, Jimmy abandons her, and she flops soon after. La Cava's work is always great to watch because he is always for the common man, not the hoity-toity (what would today be called "the one percent"). He skewers the nouveau rich, as well, and anyone who is pretentious, self-involved, or selfish. He would have had a ball taking apart. Romney-Ryan.
MANNIX (1967-75) is not your typical private eye show, but Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) is not your typical private eye. In the first season of this popular series, Mannix worked for a big detective agency called Intertech. In the first episode, "The Name Is Mannix," it was quickly established that Joe was an old-fashioned dick: he preferred following hunches not paper printouts from Intertech's huge bank of computers. He often squabbled with his computer-loving boss (Joseph Campanella), and the concept (created by the Columbo team of Richard Levinson and William Link and developed by executive producer Bruce Geller) had potential. But it was dropped in the series' second season, when Mannix set himself up in an office of his own. Although this made it a tad more conventional, the plots are usually well-constructed, the action scenes well-staged (Mannix has a great right hook), and the music (theme by Lalo Schifrin; scores by Schifrin, Jerry Fielding, and Robert Drasnin) is evocative and effective. At its core is the charasmatic Conners, who is worth watching even when the scripts are conventional.
September 26, 2012
ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) Director: Billy Wilder. Cast: Kirk Douglas. Grim, relentless story about how a reporter (Douglas) exploits an accident for his own purposes. Douglas is excellent as the cynical, hard-bitten reporter and it's no wonder that the movie was a commercial flop: he is completely unlikable, nasty to the end, even when he is overcome by his conscience for what he's done. The story is amazingly prescient: the callousness and exploitation that seem so shocking in Douglas (and the other characters, as well) is now commonplace among members of the media. (Also known as The Big Carnival. ) February 5, 1998.
ACROSS THE PACIFIC (1942) Director: John Huston (and Vincent Sherman, uncredited). Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Follow-up to The Maltese Falcon, using some of the same cast and keeping the original movie's fast pace. The story finds disgraced Army captain Rick Leyland (Bogart) getting involved with spies and saboteurs in pre-Pearl Harbor Panama and on shipboard. Fast-paced and highly enjoyable, with good repartee between Bogart and Astor and Bogart and Greenstreet. August 19, 2006
WITHOUT RESERVATIONS (1946), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, features the unlikely pairing of sophisticate Claudette Colbert (Oscar winner as the spoiled runaway heiress in It Happened One Night) and hunky John Wayne. She plays Chris "Kit" Madden, author of a best-selling novel that tells the story of a virtuous soldier who puts so-called "progressive" beliefs above "reactionary" ones; i.e., he doesn't let his base emotions dominate his life; he treats a woman with respect and gets to know her before he romances her. The movie is a comic attempt to mock those beliefs, essentially saying that a woman's place is in the home and her most important job is producing babies. This reactionary film is nonetheless entertaining, thanks to the expert playing of the cast, who make the most of a predictable scenario. The first two-thirds of the story move at a rapid clip, but the last third is tedious; we know Wayne, as a conservative marine who loves Kit and has taught her how to "live" as a real woman (not the bookworm theoritician she was before) is going to get Kit in the end; it's just a matter of time. Cary Grant, Jack Benny, and the film's director, Mervyn LeRoy, all make amusing cameo appearances (as does the RKO backlot, which doubles as the movie studio that is planning to film Kit's book).
I've been breezing through the second season of THE UNTOUCHABLES (1960-61), purportedly based on the life of T-man Eliot Ness (Robert Stack), who was the special treasury department investigator who brought down mobster Al Capone in 1931. Those who only know Ness from the big-screen interpretation by Kevin Costner in the Brian De Palma feature from 1988 will be surprised by the TV version. Stack, who was an Oscar nominee for his role as the drunken playboy in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, is a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense hero, who sees everything in black and white (you're either with me or with the mob) and who usually ends up blasting the bad guys in a hail of bullets (Ness usually shoots straighter than the bad guys who, though they are often armed with machine guns, generally lose to the pistol-packing Ness). There is a samenss to the plots, which have the appeal of Grand Opera – good vs bad, evil vanquished, innocence triumphs but at a cost – all given a veneer of documentary-like realism through the stentorian narration of 1930s newspaper columnist Walter Winchel, forgotten now but the Rush Limbaugh of his day. In real life, however, Ness never put away as many criminals as his television counterpart: his main claim to fame was nailing Capone – not with a gun but with a tax audit. Capone was sent to prison for tax evasion.
September 19, 2012
DEAD SILENCE (1997) Director: Daniel Petrie Jr. Cast: James Garner, Marlee Matlin.Well-made hostage thriller, with Garner as discredited FBI crisis negotiator who must prove his mettle in the face of skeptical authorities. The plot finds three escaped convicts holding a busload of deaf children hostage and the FBI's tense efforts over 25 hours to get them out alive. Tightly directed and well-paced, the movie is a engaging thriller, with just enough surprises and character to reinvigorate what has become a tired formula. Garner is solid, charming and charismaric as always. 6/26/98.
BED OF ROSES (1933), a pre-Code film from director Gregory La Cava (who also co-wrote it), stars Constance Bennett and Pert Kelton (the original Alice in The Honeymooners) as a pair of ladies of the night just out of jail. The two sound a lot like Mae West impersonators, and share West's sharp wit and swaying hips. But the movie is pure La Cava: witty and intelligent, with Bennett terrific as Lorry Evans, a hooker who wants to play it smart and settle down with a wealthy husband. She instead sets herself up with a wealthy corporate type (John Halliday), who puts her up in a posh apartment as his mistress. But Lorry finds that she longs for the love of a real man (Joel McCrea), a poor but honest riverboat captain. Bed of Roses may not be as well known or as good as La Cava's My Man Godfrey or Stage Door, but it's worth seeing.
DESIGNING WOMAN (1957) features a clever gimmick – multiple voice-overs giving multiple perspectives on the story – but its cleverness ends there. A miscast Gregory Peck (in a role made for Cary Grant) plays sports reporter Mike Hagen who meets and quickly marries fashion designer Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall). The two butt heads over friends, professional duties, and former lovers with all the sophistication of two TV sitcom characters. In fact, that's what this ponderous flick most resembles: a typical sitcom in which the main characters squabble over trivialities (who was that girl you were with before we even met?), shouting and mugging their way through the inane story. Maybe someone thought this movie would echo the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, but it lacks the sophistication and delicate grace of those movies, and comes across as a sort of 1950s Bringing Up Baby. Except director Vincent Minnelli is no Howard Hawks.
CHANGELING (2008) is based on a fascinating true story. Set in Los Angeles in 1928, the movie tells the tale of single mom Christine Colins (Angelina Jolie), whose son disappears without a trace. Five months later, the police claim to have found her son, but it isn't. In a compelling tale that would seem incredible if it wasn't true, Collins seeks out the truth, battling a corrupt police force and charges of insanity in the process. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling is a moving experience, well-performed by Jollie, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, and Amy Ryan. Eastwood should stop talking to chairs and continue doing what he does best: directing films like this.
September 23, 2012
ABSOLUTE POWER (1996), Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris. Improbable but entertaining thriller in which Eastwood plays master thief Luther Whitney who witnesses a murder committed by the president (Hackman). In the course of avoiding the police (Harris), who suspect him of the murder and the secret service agents who know he was a witness, Whitney finds a middle way to avoid punishment. Eastwood is fine as the thief, and he has some good exchanges with Harris as the honest cop. Better on television than on the big-screen; maybe it's subject matter is more TV, simplistically tapping into paranoid fears. 6/14/99
AMERICA, AMERICA (1963) An autobiographical film about the immigration of writer-director Elia Kazan's father from Greece to America in the early 1900s. There are some striking angles and impessive photography, but the movie suffers from an unappealing lead (who scowls through much of the nearly three-hour film), and from terrible post-sync sound. Everyone was obviously redubbed (by other actors) and it's quite distracting. Tedious.
[[wysiwyg_imageupload:979:]]TINY FURNITURE (2012) A frustrating examination of a collection of 20-something teenagers, who complain, insult, and get wrapped up in the petty concerns of youth. It tells the story of a recent college grad who has come home to live with her short-tempered mother and argumentative sisters. She wants to be a video artist. She is socially awkward. She makes the mistakes of youth. Such an irritating group of kids: can you spell self-involved? Can you also spell, "Who cares?"
March 3, 2013
THE RETURN OF
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
Color. 1983. Robert Vaughn, David McCallum; Patrick Macnee, Anthony Zerbe; dir.Ray Austin. 96 min. Beta, VHS. $69.95. Trans World Entertainment
"It's a reflection of what's happening in our times," sighs the grey-haired man (Anthony Zerbe) wistfully. "It is difficult for men of flair to survive in our society."' lf they had nothing else, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, the men from U.N.C.LE., had flair. Arid so did the 1964-68 series; a cult show that went through an "U.N.C.L.E.-mania".period in 1965-66 when Solo's amused eyebrows appeared on lunchboxes, Illya's blonde locks graced ''action dolls," and the stars themselves we're mobbed in personal appearances throughout the country.
As part of TV's remembrance (and exhumation) of successes past, producer/writer Michael Sloan, a longtime fan of the original show, created The Return of the Man-from U.N.C.L.E.: The 15 Years Later Affair, an affectionate updating that always stays well above the lows of such
recent revivals as The Wild Wild West Revisited and Escape from Gilligan's Island. With the help of such talented '60s TV series luminaries as director Ray Austin (The Saint), composer Gerald Fried (Star Trek, U.N.C.L.E.), arid guest star Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), Sloan has captured the panache of the original show
"How many times did we save the world?" asks Illya. "Constantly," says Solo. And Sloan gets some sly jokes out of the heroes' ages and the changing times they face: "What happened, to the special U.N.C.L.E. gun?" asks Solo. 'It's in the special U.N.C.L.E. wing of the Smithsonian," quips a, beautiful weapons expert.
But Sloan never humiliates or sentimentalizes his protagonists. He fondly recalls their past antics to produce a good adventure epic which – while not up to the series’s greatest moments offers much. Among the best touches: stylish nut Anthony Zerbe, who has a vendetta against Solo and a guest shot by former James Bond George Lazenby as a spy in an Aston Martin known only as “JB.”
Vaughn and McCallum still make a great team, even if age has added an element of doubt to their characters' handling of the quips, girls" and gadgets (Vaughn looks the older of the two). If nothing else, the, TV movie is worth watching for the best remembered flourishes of the old show: the jazzy Jerry Goldsmith theme, the "swish pails" with title eards announcing “Somewhere in…" and those crazy acronym: U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) and T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Expression of Undesirables for the Subjugation ofHumanity). It's enough to make one teary-eyed with relief. I mean, there should be some constants in the world.
The bad news about this tape is the reproduction: the, colors are flat, and there are tears in the film, as well as scratches, dirt, and color bursts.
Color. 1984. Jobeth Williams, Tom Conti, Giancarlo Giannini: dir. Rick Rosenthal. 105 min. Beta, VHS. $79.98. CBS/Fox. Reproduction: A
If' you crossed James Bond with Desperately Seeking Susan, you might come up with this movie – a silly "dreams can come true" story featuring Jobeth Williams as a bored housewife who becomes, through amnesia, her favorite mystery heroine, a swinger named Rebecca Ryan. Tom Conti is her unwilling partner in intrigue; if only the movie were as winning as his performance. He makes more of his part (the author of the Ryan novels) than anyone else probably could but is essentially wasted in a series of spy-spoof cliches as old as Ronald Reagan. The VHS transfer is excellent.
[[wysiwyg_imageupload:1150:]]THE LAST STARFIGHTER
Color. 1984. Lance Guest, RobertPreston; dir. Nick Castle. 100 min. Beta, VHS. $79.95. MCA. Reproduction: B
This warmed-over Star Wars has two pluses: an engaging appearance by Robert Preston as an interstellar conman (a la The Music- Man) and wonderful computer-generated special effects. But there are also tepid performances from most everyone (especially the wooden-faced lead ( Lance Guest) and a rambling, too-fast script. After a while you feel like you're watching a video game or an episode of Lost in Space. Reproduction is fine except for bad color contrast at the beginning. The titles are dark blue on a lack background-not the best choice for clarity.
THE THIN MAN
B& W. 1934. William Powell, Myrna Loy; dir. W.S. Van Dyke. 89 min. Beta, VHS. $29.95. MGM/UA. Reproduction: A
The Thin Man was a surprise hit in its day. Filmed in two weeks, it paired witty William Powell with ravishing Myrna Loy in' what became the first of six "Thin Man" entries. It was also a first for American cinema: a screwball comedy/mystery that introduced Nick and Nora Charles, Dashiell Hammett's boozing, wisecracking husband-and-wife sleuths, who were supposedly based on the author and Lillian Hellman. The script and dialogue are as fast as W.S. Van Dyke's streamlined direction. (She: "Go ahead, see if I care. But I think it's a dirty trick to bring me all the way to New York just to make a widow of me." He: "You wouldn't be a widow long." She: "You bet I wouldn't." He: "Not with all your money.") The movie, excellently transferred, is a pure delight. Hurry up with the other five, MGM/UA
ON THE COMET
Color. 1985. Yagda Vasaryoua, Emil Horvath, F. Filifosky; dir. Karel Zeman. 76 min. Beta, VHS. $39.95. BestFilm & Video (98 Cutter Mill Rd., Great Neck, N. Y. 11021).
Billed as a "celestial journey," this foreign version of Iules Verne's On the Comet is an oddball trip to nowhere, mixing animated dinosaurs, sea serpents, and lightning bolts with an incomprehensible plot. inept acting and direction, and dubbing that sounds like a Monty Python parody. There are some howlers in the dialogue ("It's probably just another planet heading towards us at a fantastic speed") and the story itself-about the adventures of a collection of 19th-century sheiks, soldiers, and sailors on a comet that has splintered off the earth-doesn't bear much scrutiny. The Eastern' European production was never released theatrically in. the U.S.
Video Magazine, 1985/86/87
BOTTLE SHOCK (2008), based on the 1976 wine competition termed the "Judgment of Paris" when California wine defeated French wine in a blind taste test, is an entertaining comedy with Alan Rickman as a snobby Parisian wine shop owner named Steven Spurrier who arranges the contest. Spurrier travels to Napa Valley in search of contestants for his contest and gets involved with struggling vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) of Chateau Montelena. The story moves at a brisk pace, with entertaining secondary characters and a come-from-behind win that is as entertaining as it is predictable.
THE BIGAMIST (1953) was written by Collier Young, who went on to create TV’s wheelchair-bound detective Robert Ironside, as a vehicle (of sorts) for his wife Joan Fontaine, who plays Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine), wife of Harry (Edmond O'Brien). Problem is Harry has another wife in another town. This strange tale, from a story by Larry Marcusand Lou Schor, could have been called “The Sympathetic Bigamist,” or “Bigamists Are People, Too,” was directed by Ida Lupino, who curiously enough was previously married to the director Ida Lupino, which presumably gave him experience in handling two wives. Edmund Gwenn appears as a social worker, and there are a few in-joke references to Gwenn’s most famous role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
RAT RACE (2001), directed by Jerry Zucker, features Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jon Lovitz, Lanai Chapman, Seth Green, Kathy Najimy, Dave Thomas, Vince Vieluf, John Cleese, Breckin Meyer, Kathy Bates, Wayne Knight, Dean Cain, and Amy Smart in a dumb, unofficial remake of 1963’s all-star farce, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The main plot revolves around six teams of people who are given the task of racing 563 miles from a Las Vegas casino to a Silver City, New Mexico train station, where a storage locker contains two million dollars. A few laughs, but it wasn’t too funny as a premise in 1963 and it’s not too funny now (with a lame, unbelievable ending). Gordon Gekko to the contrary, greed is not good, and here it is not a pleasant site.
EAST OF THE RIVER (1940) features John Garfield in another bad boy role as a gangster – but one who does the right thing in the end. Troubled youths Joe Lorenzo (Garfield) and his adopted brother Nick (William Luncdigan) grow into very different types: Joe a small-time hoodlum and Nick a well-regarded college graduate. Nick falls for Joe's girl Laurie (Brenda Marshall), and trouble erupts. Average, enlivened only by Garfield’s presence.
JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) Uninspired drama about the politics and personalities who appeared at the trial of Nazi war criminals, redeemed mostly by the stars, who appear primarily in cameos. Spencer Tracy heads the cast (which includes Marlene Dietrich as a sympathetic German; Burt Lancaster as a repentant Nazi; Judy Garland (!) as a nervous Jew; Montgomery Clift as a burnt-out victim) in a story that takes the most horrendous crimes of the century and makes them part of a high-toned soap opera. With future TV stars William Shatner (Star Trek) and Werner Klemperer (Hogan’s Heroes).
December 14, 2012
I MARRIED A WITCH (1942) is a whimsical fantasy (from whimsical fantasist René Clair) featuring Veronica Lake as a witch who falls in love with and marries straight-laced Fredric March. If that sounds like TV's Bewitched, guess again: Bewitched may have had a similar premise but it never featured the light touch and wry humor of Lake, March, and co-stars Robert Benchley, Susan Hayward, and Cecil Kellaway. The screenplay is by Robert Pirosh (later a writer for TV's Combat!), Marc Connelly, and uncredited other writers, including Dalton Trumbo. It is based on the novel The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith (of Topper fame). Delightful.
Another in the John Garfield-as-innocent-fugitive-from-justice series, DUST BE MY DESTINY (1939) offers Garfield as Joe Bell embittered after he is jailed for 16 months for something he did not do. Later, he gets into a fight and is sentenced to a work farm for 90 days. Poor Joe can't seem to get a break, even when he falls in love with Mabel Alden (Priscilla Lane), stepdaughter of the sadistic work farm overseer (Stanley Ridges). When stepdad has a heart attack, naturally Sad Sack Joe gets blamed. The picture follows Joe and Mabel on the lam and married as they face the pressures of a new marriage and the threat of arrest at any moment. A bit contrived, but engaging.
John Garfield is on the run again in FLOWING GOLD (1940), this time as oilfield worker John Alexander. He is befriended by fellow oilman "Hap" O'Connor (Pat O'Brien) and they both end up vying for the affections of an oilman's daughter (Frances Farmer). It's tough and gritty Warner Brothers stuff, though Garfield must have been getting tired of the fugitive game.
THE BREAKING POINT (1950) finds John Garfield as Harry Morgan, a fishing-boat-for-hire proprietor who's hard up for cash and can't seem to get a break. Based on Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, the film, directed by Michael Curtiz, is more faithful to the original novel (but a lot less fun) than the 1944 Howard Hawks version starring Humphrey Bogart. One of Garfield's last films, it isn't very good, but it is worth watching, if only to see what pitfalls Hawks avoided when he did the first adaptation (he reportedly told Hemingway that he could make a good film out of the author's worst novel; he did, by junking much of Hemingway's story, adding Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and remaking the plot of Casablanca).
Fans of TV's delightful Doc Martin series from Britain, will want to check out SAVING GRACE (2000), directed by Nigel Cole and based on a screenplay by Mark Crowdy and Craig Ferguson, which introduces a character called "Doc Martin" – played, as he is in the TV series by Martin Clunes – but he is as different from the TV Doc as Republicans are from sane people. Nonetheless, the movie has some of the whimsical charm of the series as Grace (Brenda Blethyn) tries to save her home by harvesting hemp. The Cornwall locations are stunning,
October 14, 2012
ABIGAIL'S PARTY (1977) Director: Mike Leigh. Cast: Alison Steadman. An early Mike Leigh TV-movie. It's amazing how the characters drive the story in such a non-linear, subtextual way. It's all about lower-class people gathering together for a party. The ringleader (Steadman) is a horrendously pushy, tasteless character, woman without a clue who, at the party, pushes people to their extremes. Not a lot happens, plot-wise, but a hell of a lot happens under the surface. Excellent, involving character study of sad, angry, non-communicative people. 8/16/00
ABOUT A BOY (2002) Director: Chris Weitz. Cast: Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Nicholas Hoult, Victoria Smurfit, Rachel Weisz, Isabel Brook. Charming comedy with Grant as a cad who loves 'em and leaves 'em and refuses to get involved...until he meets a fatherless boy who teaches him the meaning of responsibility. Good cast, good script, well-done. 7/3/03; reseen: 8/9/04
ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002) Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis. Terrific movie about an unlikely subject: an insurance actuary named Walter Schmidt (Nicholson) who is suddenly castadrift when retirement and personal tragedy strike. Nicholson is superb as the middlewestern everyman, never mocking his character, playing him with beautiful reality. The movie is funny, sad, dramatic – in short, much like life, as Schmidt comes to terms with the meaning of life. 12/21/0
ABSOLUTE POWER (1996) Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Clint Eastwood, GeneHackman, Ed Harris. Improbable but entertaining thriller in which Eastwood plays master thief Luther Whitney who witnesses a murder committed by the president (Hackman). In the course of avoiding the police (Harris), who suspect him of the murder and the secret service agents who know he was a witness, Whitney finds a middle way to avoid punishment. Eastwood is fine as the thief, and he has some good exchanges with Harris as the honest cop. Better on television than on the big-screen; maybe it's subject matter is more TV, simplistically tapping into paranoid fears. 6/14/99
ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) Director: Billy Wilder. Cast: Kirk Douglas. Grim, relentless story about how a reporter (Douglas) exploits an accident for his own purposes. Douglas is excellent as the cynical, hard-bitten reporter and it's no wonder that the movie was a commercial flop: he is completely unlikable, nasty to the end, even when he is overcome by his conscience for what he's done. The story is amazingly presient: the callousness and exploitation that seem so shocking in Douglas (and the other characters, as well) is now commonplace among members of the media. (Also known as The Big Carnival. ) February 5, 1998.
ACROSS THE PACIFIC (1942) Director: John Huston (and Vincent Sherman, uncredited). cast:: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Follow-up to The Maltese Falcon, using some of the same cast and keeping the original movie's fast pace. The story finds disgraced Armmy captain Rick Leyland (Bogart) getting involved with spies and saboteurs in pre-Pearl Harbor Panama and on shipboard. Fast-paced and highly enjoyable, with good repartee between Bogart and Astor and Bogart and Greenstreet.. 8/19/06
THE ACCUSED (1948) Director: William Dieterle. Cast: Loretta Young, Robert Cummings, Wendell Corey, Sam Jaffe. Columbo-style murder drama, in which how the murderer is caught becomes more important than who the murderer is. That's because we know from the outset that it's prim college psychology professor Loretta Young who, when trapped in the clutches of an amorous, off-kilter student, accidentally does him in. She's then cold-bloodedly conceals the crime, and the rest of the movie deals with how love interest Bob Cummings and cranky detective Wendell Corey examine the case from all the wrong angles – until the end. The movie goes on too long, and the ending is unsatisfactory, but Young and Corey are fine as the antagonists. 7/16/98
ADAPTATION (2002) Director: Spike Jonze. Cast: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper. Another weird headtrip from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, author of the bizarre take on identity, Being John Malkovich. This one also deals with the struggles of forging identity, as Kaufman paints himself, in the guise of Cage, as a writer's blocked screenwriter, stymied by his latest task: adapting the non-linear New Yorker piece, The Orchid Thief, into a screenplay. How the real Kaufman adapted it was by cheating and making himself, his insecurities, and the success of his shallow twin brother (also played by Cage) the centerpiece of the bizarre tale. Kaufman pokes fun at the movie industry, and its obsession with sex and violence (even including a parody of a screenwriter-help guru) but in the end relies on the same tricks to give his film a bangup finish: sex and violence. 12/26/02
ADDAMS FAMILY (1991) Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Cast: Raul Julia, Angelica Huston. Terrible. I laughed once. One of the dumbest movies I've seen in a while – it makes the old TV series look like genius material. At least that didn't have pretensions to being something more. This is sitcom stuff drawn out to unwatachable lengths. Overcooked, underwritten. December 1991.
ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993) Director: Barry Sonnefeld. Cast: Raul Julia, Angelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd. Not as bad as the first one, with good performances holding together the thin script. There's more plot in this one – tied to the idea of family – as Uncle Fester marries a murderess. The gags are mostly on the sitcom level, but the story moves along at a rapid clip. The children are funny, the stunts well-executed, and Raul Julia's over-the-top, yet somehow affecting Gomez is endearing. December 29, 1993.
AFTER HOURS (1985) Director: Martin Scorcese. Cast: Griffin Dunn, Roseanne Arquette, John Heard. Dark comedy about a computer programmer, Paul (Dunn), who meets a girl (Aruette) in a diner and is lured into a wild adventure downtown. Like a perverse Wizard of Oz, all Paul wants to do is go home, but he keeps getting wayalid by the strange inhabitnats of Soho, who ultimately try to kill him. Bizarre, and compelling -- like a nightmare. Re-seen: 7/1, 7/8/04
AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936) Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart. Second of The Thin Man series, with Powell and Loy almost as sparkly as they were in the initial entry. Once again, Powell is the reluctant gumshoe, Nick Charles, egged into a case by his worldly wise yet innocent wife, Nora. This time, the case involves Nora's snooty family – her cousin's ne'r-do-well husband Robert has disappeared for days. A lot of comedy is made out of the contrast between Nick's low-brow but decent friends and Nora's high-brow but dull family, and the early portion of the movie operates on a full tank of gas. The plot and suspects get more tangled after the murder (naturally), but Nick unravels it all in his patented "I'm drinking and I can't be bothered now" style. Nora is flip and knowing, and Nick defers to her in everything except letting her get involved in the case (doesn't want her to get injured). The murderer is a surprise, although he is the only one whom no suspicion is cast upon, so that should be a giveaway. Some very funny dialogue exchanges. 10/7-8/99; 2/23/06
AGAINST ALL FLAGS (1952) Director: George Sherman. Cast: Errol Flynn, Maureen O'Hara, Anthony Quinn. Pirate programmer, with a slightly long-in-the-tooth Flynn doing his best to swashbuckle as he did in his youth. That said, and accepted on its own terms, the movie is entertaining fluff, a boy's picture for a non-discriminating viewer. Flynn still has vestiges of the bon vivant, tongue-in-cheek qualities that made him a star and O'Hara is rightly named "Spitfire." Okay, not top-grade. Seven years later, Flynn would be dead. 8/10/99
AGNES OF GOD (1985) Director: Norman Jewison. Cast: Meg Tilley, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft. Heavy-handed, didactic spiritualism vs intellectualism flick, with Jane Fonda as shrink Dr. Martha Livingstone, a lapsed Catholic, ignored by her own religious mother and bitter about the death of her own sister in a convent. What is she to make of spirtual Sister Agnes, the ultimate innocent who has apparently murdered her own baby? Agnes is an enigma: although she has a past – her alcoholic mother abused her – it is her spiritual present that Dr. Jane has trouble comprehending. Who was the father? Why do bleeding stigmata appear on her hands at odd times only to disappear again later? Will the doc destroy the nun's faith or become converted herself? Fonda plays Livingstone as a chain–smoking obsessive with no other patients or interest outside of Agnes. She is accused of seeking revenge, of destroying the faith on which innocence and religion is based, and the movie more or less sides with the spiritualism over the intellectuals. In the end, Fonda is shown to be impotent – that the rational solution she sought is illusory, that the truth was there from the beginning. Agnes was the recipient of a miracle. The movie is loaded with speeches, and essentially says shrinks no nothing, and are more destructive than constructive, with their own foibles and hangups that they load down on others. Physician, heal thyself, before you destroy the innocence of others. Livingstone is a mess, much less together than the pure Agnes. The movie is turgid, a lot of talking heads, and the message is obvious within 30 minutes. The acting is okay, but those speeches! Seen on tape, Thursday, 12/19 & Friday, 12/20/91.
A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001) Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Haley Joel Osmont, Jude Law, William Hurt. Spielberg does Stanley Kubrick doing Pinocchio. Well-made though the script is tediuous, veering between sentimentality and cynicism with the former winning out. As the robot boy who wants to be human, Osmont has the single-minded innocence of his puppet forbear, but the movie only comes to life when Law appears as a jaunty sex machine, Joe the Gigolo, who has all the personality Osmont lacks. The early portions, stark and dehumanized, are like a homage/parody of Kubrick's style in 2001; the second half is more like Mad Max meets Jaws, action and decadence combined. The movie ends twice: the more effective finale finds the robot boy vainly wishing on an undersea fairy (and why didn't Hurt and his buddies retrieve the robo-boy?); the second is the tedious, more prosaic happy ending. From a Brian Aldiss story. 11/30/02
ALIEN (1979) Director: Ridley Scott. Cast: Tom Skerritt, Signourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphett Kotto. Elaborate, expensively made pulp s.f. of the "we must get the alien before it gets us variety," Alien is essentially acreature in the cellar film; a lot of stalking, a bit of death, and a lot of unpleasantness. Unpleasant is actually too mild a word, for Alien can be a very disgusting movie: for the squeamish and the not so squeamish, the excellence of the special effects and the very nature of the alien can make for some very rough moments. The actors are all fine, there are a number of surprises, and the suspense is fairly well–handled. The movie leaves you numb, however: there is little sympathy for the characters (and it just becomes a "who's next?" game) and the movie, for all its grotesquery (or perhaps because of it) is cold. Not pleasant, or very entertaining, for that matter: it's more like a rollercoaster – an experience, and good if you like that sort of thing. Seen with Alan Saly at the Criterion on Tuesday, May 12, 1979. Seen again: It's slow-paced, except for the climax. The characters are not terribly sympathetic and the dialogue is bland. Alien is an old dark house movie that is topped by its first–rate and much more exciting sequel, Aliens, released seven years later. Good Jerry Goldsmith score. Reseen on tape, October 21, 1990. Seen again: This time, saw the director's cut. Not noticeably different, except for a scene in which Ripley discovers Dallas and Brett cocooned and alive. 4/14/04
ALIENS (1986) Director: James Cameron. Cast: Signourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser. Terrific sequel to Alien, just as creepy but more viewer friendly than the first one with terrific action sequences. Watchable again and again. Great dialogue, characters, effects, as Weaver's Ripley returns to the scene of the acidic slime from the first adventure. Simple story, sort of an Alamo/Old Dark House that never grows tired (I must have seen it at least a dozen times.) The special edition adds 17 minutes of footage that deepen the characters a bit. 6/28/99
ALIEN 3 (SPECIAL EDITION) (1992) Director: David Fincher. Cast: Signourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton. Ripley (Weaver) crash-lands on a prison planet and brings an alien with her. Dark and gloomy, but much more watchable and engrossing in this recut, earlier version of the film than it was in the dreadful original release version. It still suffers from the same problem, though: it is more graphic and grisly than scary. 6/15/04
ALIEN RESURRECTION (SPECIAL EDITION) (1997) Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Cast: Signourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Brad Dourif. Fourth in the Alien series, this one rehashes elements from the previous three movies without adding anything particularly original. This time, Ripley is a clone, 200 years further in the future than she was in No. 3. She is stronger (she's got alien blood in her veins) and more like the kick-ass sversion of No. 2 than the defeatist victim of No. 3. There is a motley crew of space travelers (shades of No. 1) and a lot of violenct gun play against pursuing aliens (shades of No. 2), and a final alien out the airock (Nos. 1 and 2!). Ryder plays a human-like robot who becomes a surrogate daughter to Ripley the clone. In the end, they return to a devastaed but recognizable by the decayed Eifel Tower earth (shades of Planet of the Apes!). Good for some cheap -- er expensive thrills, nonetheless. 7/22/04
ALICE (1990) Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Mia Farrow, William Hurt, Joe Mantega, Keye Luke. Woody Allen's slight fable is about a woman (Farrow) who gave up her hopes and dreams of helping others to become a "shopping/gossiping" wife of a wealthy man (Hurt). Through the help of a wise Oriental (Luke, in one of his last roles) and his magic herbs/insights, she becomes a self-fulfilled person and returns to her original dream. It's a diverting piece of fluff, lacking any great insight or clever gags (the funniest bit is when a love potion is inadvertantly given to a party-full of guests who all fall in love with Alice). Farrow is a fairly unappealing central character – an irritatingly innocent waif, while Luke's wise Chinese is almost offensive. 8/8/99
ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (1999) Director: Pedro Almodovar. Cast: Celia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz. The story of a mother, Manuela (Roth), who loses her 17-year-old son in a car accident and then heads to Barcelona to find the father of her son – a transexual – and tell him. The movie is rarely sentimental but is very moving, funny, and unorthodox as it follows the months-long experience of Manuela as she acquires a new family – and new loss – to supplant the old one. Writer/director Almodovar constantly confounds expectations: Manuela is never bitter, merely forgiving, but she is still full of passion and grief over the loss of her son. The characters are varied: transsexuals, an AIDS-infected pregnant nun, an Alzheimer's victim, an angry mother – yet none are caricatures, all come across as real people beneath the surface stereotype. Look beyond the appearance, says the movie, look for truth. 3/30/00 ALL OR NOTHING (2002) Director: Mike Leigh. Leigh's well-known improvised screenwriting techniques here serve him in good stead, creating portraits of three British working class families who are in various degrees of dysfunctionality. Two of tghe three are headed up by car service drivers while the third is a single mom. Almost all the offspring in these families -- teenagers -- are boiling over with anger, and one has a heart attack after sprouting off with rage. But the story is not plot-based as much as character-based, about the small efforts one makes to survive. "I can take it if you still love me," says one character. In a grim, post-Thatcher world of deprivation, love is all some people have, and when that goes... A grim, disturbing work. 2/5/05
ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949) Director: Robert Rossen. Cast: Broderick Crawford, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, John Derek. Well-done, if dated, adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitizer Prize-winning novel about the rise and fall of Huey Long-like figure, the governor of a poor southern state. Crawford won an Oscar for his performance which gets less subtle as the movie moves into more predictable areas: the corruption of innocence as the politician becomes the thing that he hates. Engrossing, but it's been done so many times since this movie was made that the film lacks freshness. The cast is fine, the script a bit predictable. 6/27/02
ALMOST FAMOUS (2000) Director: Cameron Crowe. Cast: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson. Delightful coming-of-age film, autobiographical, based on early career of writer-director Crowe who apparently cut his eyeteeth being seduced by rock stars as a youthful rock critic. The picaresque tale, set in 1973, focuses on 15-year-old William Miller (the excellent Fugit) who lucks into a dream assignment: going on the road for Rolling Stone covering a mid-level rock and roll band about to be famous. Along the way, Campbell becomes disillusioned with the band leader Russell Hammond (Crudup) and falls in love with Penny Lane (Hudson), a young groupie whom Hammond is sleeping with. The story is about the perils of success and the search for love and truth, and Crowe has a nice knack for light character insights delivered with commercial comic punch. The performances are excellent, topped by Crudup and Hudson, who is remarkable – and remarkably like her mom, Goldie Hawn. 10/5/00
ALONG CAME JONES (1945) Director: Stuart Heisler. Cast: Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, William Demarest, Dan Duryea. Comic western with Cooper mistaken for notorious gunfighter (Duryea). The movie is a charming, predictable throwaway, made engaging by the performance of the ever-reliable Cooper as the none-too-bright but honorable Melody Jones, who falls into a series of problems because he's fallen for the real gunslinger's gal (Young). Demarest is dependable, as always, and Young is quite beautiful. TV, 6/7/95.
AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) Director: Sam Mendes. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley. Engrossing drama about the hollowness of suburban life, with a brilliant performance by Spacey as a middle-aged man who has found the dreams and aspirations – his life – sucked out of him by the emptiness of things, the restriction of feelings, the dullness of everyday life. That is, until he is inspired by the cheerleader beauty of a teenage friend of his daughter's. The movie shows how Spacey, and others, find the truth behind the facades that hide feelings. It is a wonderfully layered and sympathetic look at people trapped in the dullness of existence, aching to find satisfaction. 9/23/99
ANALYZE THAT (2003) Director: Harold Ramis. Cast: Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal. Dradfully unfunny comedy about mobster (De Niro) who goes to a shrink (Crystal) again, a sequel to slightly superior but equally commercial Analyze This. While the first one was hardly inspired, it looks like high art compared to this schloccky contirvance, a terribly writtn, overacted formula piece of the worst kind. I hope De Niro was well paid. 6/18/03
ANALYZE THIS (1998) Director: Harold Ramis. Cast: Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal. Goofy comedy about mobster (De Niro) who goes to a shrink (Crystal). It's not as clever as it hopes to be, but the movie is entertaining, carried mostly by the performers (especially De Niro and Crystal), who are all having fun with the premise. 5/7/99
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) Director: Otto Premingrt. Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra, George C. Scott. Effective, engrossing, atmospheric story of a murder trial in a small town. Stewart plays Polly, a jazz-loving, grand-standing lawyer and former prosecutor who takes on an unsympathetic soldier (Gazarra) who has killed a man who reportedly raped his wife (Remick), a loose woman. Based on a best-selling novel, the film turns traditional courtroom cliches on their head: the client is guilty and his lawyer manipulates the system to get him off – even though he is a bad, manipulative man. But as Polly says to the dead man's daughter: not all people are black or white, all-good or all-bad and it is the role of the lawyer to give a man the benefit of the doubt and the best chance he can. The film shows the world as a dark place full of ungrateful people who do the best they can to muddle through. Great performances, script, and music by Duke Ellington. 9/14-9/15/01.
THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971) Director: Sidney Lumet. Cast: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken, Alan King. Caper movie, with a bald-headed, bitter, foul-mouthed Connery playing Duke Anderson, the anti-Bond undone by Bondian gadgetry. The movie is a convoluted mess, but it has pace and amusing dialogue and characters. The story finds Anderson, fresh out of a ten-year stretch in prison planning and executing the robbery of a posh East Side Manhattan apartment building. Like Kubrick's The Killing, things do not go smoothly, and the robbery – so cleverly executed – ends up a major fiasco. Anderson, a tough character who – as his sometime girlfriend (Cannon) puts it – is "always knocking on closed doors" is a smart-ass low-life who hates the hypocrisy of society and knows all the rationalizations. He believes it's a dog-eat-dog world – and only the biggest dog gets to eat. The New York locations and the Quincy Jones music give the movie great appeal, as do the actors, but it's really just a B-picture with pretensions. Haven't seen it in nearly 30 years; it's better than I remembered, but still not so great. 10/11/99
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945) Director: Rene Clair. Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, Roland Young, June Duprez. Ten guests invited to a remote island mansion, each killed off by their mysterious host (Mr. U.N. Owen – "unknown") – that's the well-known plot of this low-budget version of the Agatha Christie whodunnit, Ten Litttle Indians. In the Christie original, no one gets away, but this one has a twist of its own, making the last two characters both sympathetic and innocent. The plot has the madman sentencing to death 12 people who were responsible for the wrongful deaths of innocent people, and whom the law can't touch. They are all killed in accordance with the nursery rhyme, "Ten Little Indians." Visually, the movie is fluid and interesting, thanks to the touches by French director Rene Clair. It moves at a fast pace, carried along by the Dudley Nichols script and good performances by a collection of great character actors. 6/1/01
ANGELA'S ASHES (1999) Director: Alan Parker. Dreary story of what it's like to grow up Catholic. Unleavened by humor, the story is relentlessly bleak, saved only by the good performances and the realistic locations. Much too long, episodic, and cliched. It's all been done before, and better. A more interesting take on similar material is The Butcher Boy. January 9, 2000
ANGEL FACE (1953) Director: Otto Preminger. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Hebert Marshall.. Film noir about girl (Simmons) obsessed with guy (Mitchum), who should know better but, this being a noir, doesn't. Predictable, but well worth watching, especially with the wild ending. 11/16/06
ANNIE HALL (1977) Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton. The pinacle of the Woody Allen oevre, the story of Alvy Singer ("a real Jew") and Annie Hall, a whitebread neurotic who learns, loves, and leaves Alvy. Allen's film is a meditation on the impermanence of life and love, how everything changes, but the memory lingers on. It is brilliantly constructed as a comic memory piece, starting off with Allen's to-the-camera statement, "I broke up with Annie this week," and leading, by degrees from the middle to the beginning (and before the beginning) of the relationship. Along the way, we learn about Alvy's obsseassions, about his kindness and his cruelty, his selfishness, and his sexuality. The difference between this and romantic comedies of another era is the obsession with me, myself, and I. Everything is reflected from the prism of Alvy's experience – which is appropriate – which gives the movie a point-of-view, which is at times romantic, at times comic, at times selfishly melancholy in the way people are. At all times, it is terribly insightful and entertaining. 2/28/00
ANOTHER DAWN (1937) Director: William Dieterle. Cast: Errol Flynn, Kay Francis, Ian Hunter. Francis is torn between love (for Flynn) and duty to husband (Hunter), two soldiers in a war-torn African desert base. Well-paced, entertaining sudser with good performances all around. Predictable, but well done. 3/2/02
ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939) Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, C. Aubrey Smith, Sheldon Leonard. Third Thin Man entry is fast-paced and entertaining, with the Charleses entering the parenthood phase of their relationship. As in Another Thin Man, Nora's relations draw Nick into another case; similarly, the least suspected figure turns out to be the murderer. Formula is falling into place, although Powell and Loy's intelligent bantering and obvious affection for each other, more than make up for any holes in the story. This one involves a phony psychic (Leonard) who dreams of the deaths of his enemy (Smith). The sleuthing is fine. The Steed-Peel connection is most obvious in the duo's intelligent, witty exchanges – wherein they make more out of the lines than is already there. 10/22/99
ANTOINE AND COLETTE (1962) Director: Francois Truffaut. Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Marie-France Pisier. Truffaut's contribution to the anthology film, Love At Twenty, the 30-minute movie is the second in the Antoine Doinel series, showing how Doinel (Leaud) futilely pursues his first love, Colette (Pisier), a woman who enjoys his company but only sees him as a "pal." Warm and quirky, with a bittersweet edge. 5/27/00
ANTWONE FISHER (2002) Director: Denzel Washington. Cast: Derek Luke, Denzel Washington. Inspiring, fact-based story about sailor Fisher (Luke) who overcomes emotional scars of childhood with help of dedicated psychiatrist (Washington). Engrossing, if formulaic. Although true, Fisher's story could just as easily be fit into a "movie-of-the-week" slot about child abuse among black children. Upliftifting and sentimental, saved by believable performances from the leads. 2/8/03
ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980) Director: Buddy Van Horn. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis, William Smith. Amusing sequel to Eastwood's surprise hit, Every Which Way But Loose, about the tongue-in-cheek adventures of Philo Beddoe, a bare-knucke boxer, and his pet orangutan Clyde. The territory's been covered before in the original, but the movie has a goofy chatm that carries you along. Beddoe is a no-nonsense, straight-speaking guy, who never gives up. In the end, both fighters are shown to be men of honor. Fluff with a message: good wins out. February 3, February 5, 1998.
THE APPALOOSA (1966) Director: Sidney J. Furie Cast: Marlon Brando, Anjanette Comer, John Saxon. Offbeat western with Brando as Matt, a drifter who wants to settle down, and Saxon as the Mexican bandit who forces him to put on his guns again. As always, an intriguing performance by Brando is more intriguing than the movie. Although it holds your attention with good performances, nice cinematography, and lovely locations, the total is not equal to the sum of the parts. It's a formula western gussied up for a '60s crowd. 11/26/99
THE APARTMENT (1960) Director: Billy Wilder. Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray. Terrific, bittersweet comedy-drama about poor schnook, C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) and how he sacrifices self-respect, integrity, and – almost, love – to get to the top of the corporate world. He lets other married executives use his apartment as a tryst for their affairs. Things get complicated with his boss (MacMurray) wants to use it as a meeting place for the woman Baxter secretly loves (MacLaine). Maclaine is winner as an elevator operator in love with the wrong guy, while Lemmon and MacMurray are fine as the schnook and the operator. Delightful, bitter, sentimental, charming. 9/3/00
APOLLO 13 (1995) Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Tom Hanks, Ed Harris. The true story of the Apollo 13 mishap makes for exciting drama, even if it weren't as well done as this epic taltale. The story unfolds slowly, showing the meticulous preparation for another moon landing. It also shows how blase the public had become by that point (1970, one year after the first landing on the moon), and how they woke up when it looked like the three Apollo 13 astronauts were through. How NASA and the astronauts worked together to save themselves is an amazing story, touching, exciting, dramatic. The cast is strong (the use of Hanks' family, especially his kid, is very effective), with Ed Harris a standout as the NASA control director. Seen: Monday, July 17, 1995.
THE APOSTLE (1998) Director: Robert Duvall. Cast: Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Ruth Carter Cash, Billy Bob Thornton. Story of "The Apostle," aka Sonny (Duvall), a wildly successful Texas preacher who comes apart when his wife (Fawcett) leaves him and he loses his church. In a drunken rage, he kills his wife's lover and then, after fleeing, is reborn as The Apostle, a man seeking redemption (and partially finding it) for his sins. Duvall's script explores the duality of a preacher's life: seeking salvation through the forgiveness of God, but still being ruled by the violence and sexual passions of man (the preaching and call-and-response sessions illustrate this, becoming downright orgasmatic). Well done, with the two highlights being the Thornton scenes and the climactic sermon. Duvall gives a remarkable performance. 3/5/03
ARROWSMITH (1931) Director: John Ford. Cast: Ronald Coleman, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy. Fast-paced but fairly lifeless movie, from a Sinclair lewis novel, about a virtuous doctor who craves to be a researcher but ends up as a life-saver instead. Colman is fine as the crusader, but not great on the doubting aspects of his character. Loy has a small part as the also-ran. Some nice camera compositions. 2/23/06
ARTEMESIA (1998) Director: Agnes Merlet. Cast: Valentina Cervi, Michel Serrault. Italy, 1610: Artemisia Gentileschi is a 17-year-old painter wannabe. The problem: in 17th Century Italy, women don’t become painters. Nor do they sketch naked male bodies. But Artemisia is like no other 17-year-old of the the period: she is the brilliant daughter of Orazio, a celebrated artist, and Agnes Merlet’s Artemesia tells the story of the young woman who is called the first female artist. It is a tale that should have been penned by Emily Bronte or Thomas Hardy. As depicted by Merlet, Artemesia is a young woman of passion and power who follows wherever her inspiration and imagination lead her. In this case, it is forbidden romance with an older artist, a rape trial, and torture in which she almost loses her hands. Merlet paints her own filmed portrait with a sure hand, using a constantly moving camera to capture the swirling senses of the young heroine. The movie itself is a fascinating look at a lesser known historical figure, and although its message and outcome are predictable, it is a passionate enterprise. (1/22/98)
AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1998) Director: James L. Brooks. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt. Engaging light comedy with Nicholson as curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Nice performances and funny dialogue enliven a predictablely agreeable comedy, in which Nicholson and Hunt go through an up-and-down courtship. Brooks' timing is excellent, honed from his years as a TV writer. 2/28/98 A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER (1938) Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Jane Bryan, Allen Jenkins. Broad farce, based on Damon Runyon-Howard Lindsay play, with Robinson as gangster/bootlegger who tries to go straight with the lifting of prohibition. Arch, with that distinctive Runyon dialogue. 9/11, 9/15/04
ATTILA: THE RAPE OF CYPRUS (1975) Director: Michael Cacoyannis. Meandering propaganda piece about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the aftermath. Countless tragic tales of people uprooted from their homes, of children killed, familes divided etc. lose their power to move you after a while. Cacoyannis hits you over the head constantly with the too-long footage, providing little context or perspective. The sad thing is that the tragedy ends up becoming dull. 4/6/01
AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997) Director: Jay Roach. Cast: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Mimi Rogers, Michael York, Robert Wagner. Juvenile spoof of the James Bond movies and the swinging sixties, with Myers as both top spy Austin Powers and his nemesis, the bald-headed Dr. Evil. There are some funny takes on Bond conventions, but as Casino Royale found out in 1967, how do you spoof a spoof? As Powers, Myers is a cross between Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, a not-so-bright hipster whom women apparently find irresistable. The movie plays like a series of extended Saturday Night Live bits – Dr. Evil in therapy, trying to connect with his son, what happens to the family and friends of henchmen killed by the villain (those scenes were deleted) – and, storywise it holds together about as well as a typical Bond film. The first portion, set in 1967, actually parodies both The Avengers and Bond. 3/19/99
THE AVENGERS (1998) Director: Jeremiah Chechik. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery. An update of the British TV series. Not as bad as it could have been, but certainly not worth the effort. Fiennes replaces Patrick Macnee (who has a cameo as an invisible spy) and Thurman imitates Diana Rigg, and both actors fall far short of their predecessors. Fiennes fares better as the dry Brit, but Thurman doesn't register as either brainy or very beautiful (though she's got a great body). The plot is nonsensical, as though someone took all the elements they remembered from the series and mashed them in a blender. The roving ministry HQ on a double-decker bus; double-entendres; a male boss called Mother who is crippled and a female superior called Father who is blind, silly acronyms (BROLLY for a weather organization), dry understatement following violence, and a mad genius (Connery) with a plan to rule the world. The premise is primarily lifted from the episode "A Surfeit of H20," by way of any number of Bond movies. The madman controls the weather, which leads to some ho-hum special effects. The movie was apparently severely edited, since it's very short (only 90 minutes) and seems to be missing a middle section. We jump into climax mode awfully fast. The music is okay, but Laurie Johnson's "Avengers Theme" is used only sparfingly (and is greatly missed). The whole affair is arch, capturing the sense of the show, but none of its spirit. Why bother? Let The Avengers alone. 8/14/98
THE AVIATOR'S WIFE (1981) Director: Eric Rohmer. Cast: Philippe Marlaud, Marie Riviere, Anne-Laure Meury, Mathieu Carriere. Slight comedy about young man (Carriere) in a tempestuous relationship with slightly older woman (Riviere). She, in turn, is involved with an older, married man (Marlaud), an aviator who has decided to remain faithful to his wife. The movie deals with the up-and-down nature of relationships, and the idea of trust (or lack therof) that unerlies them (there is a lot of spying going on in the story; a good portion of the story finds the young man spying on his lover's ex, who, after telling his ex he is leaving town that day stays in town with a woman who is not his wife). Proverb? Trust no one. 9/3/04
MOVIE REVIEW JOURNAL: B
BABY FACE (1933)
Director: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, John Wayne.
Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top in this amusing pre-Code sex romp, although she finds things are lonely up there. Brent is the man she finally realizes she loves, only after he's attempted to kill himself. Breezy, speedy, and I love the way they show her career-climbing by panning up the windows (from department to department) of the bank she works in. Seen on tape, Saturday, July 20, 1991.
BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND (1985)
Director: B.W.L. Norton. Cast: William Katt, Sean Young, Patrick McGoohan. Why McGoohan makes trash like this is beyond me. It's a disposable kids' flick about some lost dinosaurs. McGoohan is the evil professor who kills people right and left; Katt and Young are the hero and heroine who try to keep the dinosaurs out of his clutches. The F/X are okay, but the best effects couldn't turn this sow's ear into a you-know-what. I guess Pat needed the paycheck. Seen on tape, June 7, 1988.
THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)
Director: Vincent Minelli. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Walter Pidgeon.
Hollywood behind-the-scenes soap about obsessive, David O. Selznick or Irving Thalberg-style movie producer (Douglas) and the people he betrayed on the way to the top. There's the B-film director he nurtured along (Sullivan); the actress he created, by letting her fall in love with him (Turner); and the writer (Powell) whose wife died because of him. The premise finds the producer down on his luck and his old partner/boss (Pidgeon) calling together his former friends to help him out. We learn why they hate him through 30- to 35-minute flashbacks. It's all enjoyable melodrama, quite well-made and hokey. 1/10/02
BAD BEHAVIOR (1993)
Director: Les Blair. Cast: Stephen Rea, Sinead Cusack, Philip Jackson, Claire Higgins, Phil Daniels.
Wonderful comedy/drama which follows the believable characters over plot (characters are plot). Loose story follows the daily ups and downs of the 30-something marriage of Gerry and Ellie McAllister (Rea and Cusack), two transplanted Dubliners who are facing career crises. Their story overlaps with that of a recently divorced mom (Higgins), a sleazy landlord (Jackson), and two twins who do contracting work (Daniels). The story is all about making choices, making connections, and communicating – and it's marvelously done. The characters are low-key, believable, humorous, touching – I could watch them for hours. Life is like this move, not all good, or all bad. The movie is about choices people make, love they offer, and the lives they live. Like a Mike Leigh movie. Holds up well on re-viewing. 3/11/99
THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960)
Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Toshiro Mifune.
Akira Kurosawa explores the contradictions of man and obsessions of revenge. Mifune is a good man who must be bad to destroy evil; yet even the evil industrialist is a good father to his children, loving and supportive. It is the tragedy of the good that they cannot be bad enough to destroy evil. The bad sleep well – the bad guys win – because they have no guilty consciences for what they do; they are bad through and through. Kurosawa's tale of corrupting power builds slowly – first as a Hamlet-like mystery: who is trying to destroy the evil empire from within, and then asa love triangle: Mifune married the bad guy's daughter to get revenge but ended up loving her instead. And it is her love that is his weakness, which ultimately destroys him. He doesn't run away when he has the chance – and although he is on the verge of destroying the evil, by trusting her, he destroys himself. And by trusting her father, and not trusting her lover enough, her love is destroyed. In this film, mercy is a weakness – "I cannot hate enough," says Mifune at one point; at another: "You can't catch evil men by lawful means." It is a dark, dark parable about the twisting, intimidating times we live in, in which to destroy the bad you must become even worse. Kurosawa holds out little hope for love, for goodness, for any of the charitable feelings to win out. Mifune's obsession for revenge makes him almost a monster – but not enough of one to win. Kurosawa looks at the corruption of tradition, the facade of gentility, manners, and respectability, and says that beneath it all is horror, decay, evil. Even the boss is controlled by someone else. No one controls his own destiny.
BALL OF FIRE (1941)
Director: Howard Hawks. Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck.
Screwball comedy about singer who moves in with a house-load of dusty old professors and the havoc that ensues. Fairly predictable concoction, but Stanwyck is excellent and, although miscast as a Harvard-educated linguistics professor, Cooper handles his role with touching aplomb. The movie has pace and some nice touches. Reseen, 2006: A terrific concoction, Hawks directs from Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett script, and there are a lot of funny moments, especially with the slang used by most of the characters. Seen on TV, June 12, 1995. Reseen: February 4, 2006.
THE BALLOONATIC (1923)
Director: Buster Keaton. Cast: Buster Keaton, Phyllis Haver.
Keaton flies into the wilderness on the top of a balloon. He has various adventures in what is perhaps the most shapeless of all his comedies. He brains a bair with a gun and accidentally shoots another at the same time. In the city, there’s a nice visual gag: a woman is trying to get across a puddle (or so it seems) at the curb, and Keaton, ever the gentleman, places his coat down. A car pulls up and she gets into it! Buster is constantly trying to do good but is misunderstood – and unfazed by it all. Seen: March 29, 1995.
Director: Barry Levinson. Cast: Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchard.
Engaging buddy caper comedy with Willis and Thornton as two escaped cons who become known as "The Sleepover Bandits" because of their m.o. of sleeping over at a bank manager's home the night before they rob his bank. The two become a trio when they get involved with an unhappily married woman (Blanchard) who falls in love with both men. Quirky, cute, not quite as clever as it imagines, but entertaining nonetheless. 10/16/02
THE BARBARIAN (1933)
Director: Sam Wood. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Myrna Loy.
Silly though engrossing story of Arab (Novarro) who courts a white woamn (Loy) while she is vacationing with her fiance in Egypt. Novarro's character is a stereotypical Arab:: exotic, deceitful, abusive of women – but Loy somehow finds this attractive. But compared with the stuffy English family she is about to marry into, Novarro's exotic Arabs are an oasis of sanity. Loy looks quite beautful and, in pre-code fashion, spends much of the movie scantily clothed (and even takes a revealinng bath). 9/22/06
BARBARIANS AT THE GATE (1993)
Director: Glenn Jordan. Cast: James Garner, Jonathan Pryce, Peter Riegert.
TV–movie about the leveraged buyout of RJ Nabisco. Although it is a financial story, screenwriter Larry Gelbert of M*A*S*H fame weaves a fascinating tale, using dollops of humor and satire mixed in with unexpected suspense (will the accountants reach Nabisco headquarters with their bid in time, or will they be stuck in traffic?). The whole exercise benefits from the winning performance by James Garner as Ross Johnson, the flamboyant yet charming head of Nabisco, who tries to save the company and his lifestyle by buying both. December 27, 1993.
THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003)
Director: Denys Arcand. Cast: Remy Girard, Stephane Rousseau.
Touching story of successful son, Sebastian (Rousseau), called to the deathbed of his estranged father (Girard), and how both come to appreicate and learn to love the other. It's all about learning to live when you're on the verge of dying. 3/11/04
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1965)
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo. Cast: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin.
Documentary-style approach is a highlight to this gritty drama about the Algerian rebels' guerilla warfare against the occupying French army. The tale has echoes of later conflcits, like Vietnam and Iraq, where an entrenched larger, occupying powe is ultimately defeated by a smaller, dedicated group with a startegic plan to undermine the enemy. Terrorism works, but the danger is that the methods of the terrorists -- bombs, torture -- can corrupt the morality of both sides. War itself is corrupting and immoral, says the film, which should be an object lesson for the Bush administartion. 1/29/04
THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE (1996)
Director: Thomas Lennon, Michael Epstein. Narrated by Richard Ben Cramer.
Absorbing documentary about the lives and careers of William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles and how the two of them clashed over Citizen Kane, which used Hearst's life as a template for a scathing portrait of a newspaper tycoon. Using clips, still photos, and contemporary interviews, the filmmakers do an excellent job of getting to the roots of the conflict, examining how the battle damaged both men's careers. The only flaw in this film is the dreadfully read voiceover narration, monotonously read by one of the writers, Richard Ben Kramer. For God's sake, couldn't they have gotten someone better? Or did Kramer have the ego of Kane? 1/4-1/5/02
BEAU GESTE (1939)
Director: William Wellman. Cast: Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward.
Rousing boy's adventure story, with Cooper, Milland, and Preston as an improbable trio of brothers who join the Foreign Legion because of a scandal at home. The movie has a dynamite opening – mysterious and eye-catching – and never quite comes up to that level again. Nevertheless, the movie is an entertaining bit of hokum, with a nice message about family honor. Donlevy is excellent as the psycho fort commander who may be nuts but, as Cooper says, "is a great soldier." Tape, 5/30/95.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
Director: Eugene Lourie. Cast: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey.
A blueprint for Godzilla. A monster from the deep is awakened by nuclear testing and wreaks havoc on a major city (here, New York). Lacking the Hiroshima subtext of Godzilla, The Beast is just a big monster, well-animated by Ray Harryhausen in his first major effort. The love story-plot is pretty hokey. 9/24/99
A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)
Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer.
Engrossing story of genius mathematician John Nash (Crowe) who eventually discovers he has schizophrenia and has been talking to people who don't exist. The film is effective in depicting the reality of Nash's unreality by not cluing the viewer into the fantasies until an hour into the story. It is a shocking moment, and you are as disoriented and unbelieving as Nash when you discover that his best friend and his government contact are fantasies. The second half takes the story from the realm of a potboiler thriller to a moving story of one man's battle with illness. Excellent performances all around, especially by Crowe as the tormented genius who uses the power of his reason to cope with the madness. 11/30/02
BED AND BOARD (1970)
Director: Francois Truffaut. Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claude Jade.
Light, breezy fourth entry in the Antoine Doinel series finds Antoine (Leaud) married with a child, still finding it hard to be responsible. He is like a perpetual adolescent, which is part of his charm, flitting from job to job, and – even with a child – becoming obsessed with a Japanese woman with whom he starts an affair. The movie seems to be a reflection of Truffaut's own philosophy about the difficulty of commitment. He falls into things, including his job, which he gets by a fluke, and his affairs, which seem to happen to him. Funny, entertaining, touching. 5/28/01
THE BEDROOM WINDOW (1988)
Director: Curtis Hanson. Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Elizabeth McGovern, Isabelle Huppert.
The movie is like a film student's version of Hitchcock – the plot is like one of his – an innocent man gets wrapped up in a crime and soon has the police after him – but it lacks his virtuoso technique. In this case, a man (Guttenberg) lies to the police about seeing an assault from his bedroom window; the idea is to protect his mistress, who is the actual witness. There are echoes of Rear Window in the end when the heroine volunteers to bait a trap for the killer and Guttenberg opposes it. The story is engrossing, but leaves you with a feeling of, "So what?" The loose ends – the murder of his boss's wife, his boss's threatening treatment of him (red herring) – are all left loose. Seen: TV, October 19, 1991.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)
Director: Spike Jonze. Cast: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich.
Odd, dark absurdist comedy about the perils of being a celebrity and how your life is ultimately not your own. You become the property of others. Cusack plays a darkly romantic, moody and unsuccessful puppeteer, Craig Schwartz, who gets an office job at the urging of Lotte (Diaz), his ditzy wife who takes care of monkeys, dogs, cats, and other wildlife and has turned their home into a menagerie. Both of them are liberated after Craig discovers secret passage in his new office that leads into the head of actor John Malkovich. Soon, Craig and his hard-as-nails partner, Maxine (Keener) – with whom he has fallen madly in love – are selling tickets for people to "become" Malkovich for 15 minutes. When Lotte does it, she and have sex through Malkovich in the strangest menage-a-tois ever filmed. Although the movie cannot sustain its level of invention throughout (there is a bizarre subplot about the office on the 7 1/2 floor where Craig works; since it's between floors, everyone has to stoop because of the low ceilings; there are equally bizarre characters: his boss and the boss's secretary, a woman who mishears everything). In the end, the film is so dark that you lose interest in the characters, who are much too vicious and selfish – inhuman – to hold your attention. It's a movie of concepts, not people, and the concepts are strikingly well done. 11/24/99
THE BEGUILED (1971)
Director: Don Siegel. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman.
Creepy, Gothic tale about the evil that lurks beneath the innocent exertiors of Civil War Southern belles. Eastwood plays a wounded Yankee, who falls in among some horny women in a girl's school. At first, the charming, amoral Yank seems to be in like flynn: a veritable Bond, he has made dates to bed down at least three of the girls (including the headmistress) and has also made playful sexual overtures to an eight-year-old. Things go horribly awry, however, when the incest-practicing headmistress (Page) wreaks her vengeance on Eastwood's hapless soldier. It's a horror story that gets under your skin: creepy, unpleasant, and quite unlike any other film Siegel and Eastwood have done. None of the characters are laudable or even likable, and the message it offers about the evil that lurks inside people is relentlessly downbeat. The Beguiled is hauntingly horrible. 5/26 and 5/30/98.
BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948)
Director Oscar "Budd" Boetticher.. Cast: Richard Carlson, Lucille Bremer.
Tightly paced noir drama about detective going undercover in mental asylum to find wanted man. Creepy, well-done, and taught, at 62 minutes. 1/6/07
BELLE DE JOUR (1967)
Director: Luis Bunel. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli.
Intriguing story of young bride, Severine (Deneuve), who refuses to have sex with her husband and instead becomes a prostitute by day, known as Belle de Jour. She feels closer to her husband when she comes from having sex with strangers all afternoon -- but he feels a distance. Communication and sexuality -- two of the greatest challenges of life. Deneuve's icy beauty works well for her tormented character. With some typically bizarre dream sequences. 4/7/04
Director: Fred Niblo. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Betty Bronson, Francis X. Bushman.
The original, silent version, with original tints and two-strip Technicolor sections. This could be called the unthinking man's epic – the story seems a lot hokier, and shows what it could have been without the literate treatment Wyler gave it. The story is essentially the same: Judah Ben-Hur (Novarro) is betrayed by arrogant Roman and former pal Messala (Novarro), who sends him to die in the galleys. Through a series of lucky accidents, Judah is requested and ends up – incredibly enough – as the finest charieteer in Rome. That leads to his bitterly fought chariot race in which Messala is killed (many of the camera angles are still impressive – and some were even copied in the 1959 version). Judah's life once again parallels and occasionally intersects Christ's, but the Christ/religious aspect is much more heavy-handed in this version, with whole sequences and title cards lifted right out of the Bible. As Judah, Novarro is frantic and more or less wimpish – unlike Heston, he does not make the character real or believable. Bushman is a stock villain, while the rest of the characters are unmemorable. This Ben-Hur is memorable only in its chariot race, battle scenes, and some of the beautifully composed shots of Christ at work. 1/2, 1/4, 1/5/98.
Director: William Wyler. Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd.
The thinking man's epic, with Heston as the pacificist Jew Judah Ben-Hur, who is framed for a crime he didn't commit by his boyhood friend Messala (Boyd). The story is about friendship betrayed and his driven by Judah's passion for revenge, counterbalanced by the healing power of love, as personified by Christ. The story says that Messala became a hateful person, an arrogant, vengeful person because of the corrupting power of Rome (although he also seems to be something of a born fanatic, a true believer). The story shows how Judah, driven by hate and a passion for revenge, is on the verge of becoming Massala, becoming the thing that you hate. He loses his family, his position, his freedom, but the hate keeps him alive. Until he learns that love is stronger, and more healing, and only then do miracles happen. The movie is a well-written soap opera with a message, and it keepsa you involved through its spectacle, its multi-layered lead characters, and Wyler's sense of pace. Wyler handles characters well: both The Big Country and The Best Years of Our Lives were equally sprawling – soap operas with a message – and both kept you involved through its driven characters who are tempted by the dark sides of their personalities. Tempted, but not persuaded. Heston is fine as Judah, and probably few others could have done him as well. He is big enough, hammy enough, for the part, and also good in the small touches. His Judah is more interesting than his priggish Moses; he is a flawed hero – the best kind. The supporting actors are well-cast, right down to the races for the astounding chariot race. It's breathtaking. First time I've seen it letterboxed; last time I saw this was 14 or 15 years ago. It's still engrossing. 12/29/98, 1/2/99.
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (2003)
Director: Gurinder Chadha. Cast: Parminder K. Nagra.
A more realistic (albeit just as sentimental) Indian take on My Big Fat Greek Wedding genre: the cross-cultural romance/success story. This time, it's the tale of Jess (Nagra), a London teenager who is a wiz at soccer but whose parents want her to follow the traditional Indian path of education (lawyer or doctor) and marriage (to an Indian, of course). Jess turns all these hopes upside down by aspiring to become a professional soccer player – and falling in love with her Caucasian coach! It follows a predictable path, but is enjoyable nonetheless, with winning performances by a cast of unknowns. 5/10/03
BEND OF THE RIVER (1952)
Director: Anthony Mann. Cast: James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy,Julia Adams, Rock Hudson.
Terrific psychological western, one of the Arthur Mann noirish westerns starring James Stewart. Stewart plays a former gunslinger who is trying to go straight, herding homesteaders over the mountains. He saves Arthur Kennedy from a hanging and the two pal up -- until the last act, when Kennedy betrays him for the promise of cash. A curious footnote is the similarity between the plotline of this and the Daniel Boone two-parter, "The High Cumberland." In both film and TV episode these events occur: the hero (Jimmy Stewart in Bend of the River, Fess Parker in Daniel Boone) is leading a wagon train of settlers to a new land, across the mountains; he rescues a man who is about to be hanged/killed and the man -- a rougish character -- joins the hero on the trail. The rogue meets the pretty woman who has a playful love/hate relationship with the hero and is obviously attracted to her. The wagon train is attacked by Indians and the woman is injured. The wagon train reaches a settlement where they buy supplies for the winter, which the storekeeper promises to send on in a month. The wagon train leaves; the woman stays behind to recover; the rogue stays behind, too. A month or more goes by, and the settlers have reached their spot and settled in, but no supplies have arrived. The hero goes back with a friend to inquire. They find that their supplies are still there but have been sold to someone else for a h igher price. The hero also finds the rogue is engaged to the pretty woman. The hero takes his supplies by force, aided by the rogue. A chase follows. They get away (killing the trader in the process). On their journey back, they encounter other settlers who offer to buy their supplies for double the price. The hero turns them down. Along the way, one of the wagons breaks a wheel. While changing it, the men -- hired in town -- let the wagon drop on the hero's friend, injuring him. The hero punches them out, and is backed up by the rogue. The next day, however, the rogue backs up the men when they grab the hero and start beating him. He stops them from killing the hero. The hero says that was a mistake and that he'll get even. In the wagon, the friend and the beautiful woman have an exchange about what one man can do on foot. The hero even tually wins out, beating the odds -- and the rogue in the process. He also wins the hand of the pretty woman. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the producer of both the movie and the TV show was Aaron Rosenberg. 8/5/06
THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1930)
Director: Frank Tuttle. Cast: William Powell, Natalie Moorhead, Eugene Pallette, Paul Lukas.
A good cast in a terribly dated antique, with Powell as gifted amateur sleuth Philo Vance, who investigates murders as a hobby. Powell is about the only reason to watch this talky melodrama, staged and static, with everyone speaking oh-so-precisely for the microphones. The plot involves a murder at a country estate and the solution is ingenious – but that's about the only thing that is. Poor. 5/26/02
BERTH MARKS (1929)
Director: Lewis R. Foster. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy.
Stan andOllie's second talkie has some laughs – primarily in the opening sequence – but the main bit, the two getting undressed in a cramped berth, goes on too long and is fairly tedious. Not top-grade L & H. Reseen: 1/23/03
THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 (1938)
Director: Mitchell Leisen. Cast: W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Martha Raye.
Dreadful picture, an all-star extraganza that is tedious but historically noteworthy for the first teaming of Hope and Lamour, and for Hope's introduction of the song, "Thanks for the Memories." Otherwise, it's a big vaudeville show, with some so-so bits by Fields, but otherwise nothing to hold your interest: a little dancing, some singing (opera, no less), a lot of nonsense, including the plot about a trans-Atlantic race between two ocean liners. Yawn. 3/4/02
THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)
Director: William Wyler. Cast: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford.
Lengthy western about a dude from the east (Peck) who helps settle a bitter feud between two rival landowners (Ives and Bickford). What makes the story compelling is not the struggle, but the character of Peck, a man who needs to prove nothing to anyone but himself. The movie examines the bravado and violence of the western hero, saying that much of it is just a collection of fireworks that proves nothing; that real courage should be in the cause f something significant, like saving an innocent woman from the consequences of the feud. The cast is fine, especially Ives, who gives his grimy, unpleasant character a great of deal of integrity – in contrast to the smooth Bickford, who is all bile and deceit underneath. Seen TV, July 21, 1995. Seen again: 2/22/04
BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (1958)
Director: Mario Monicelli. Cast: Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Marcello Mastroianni.
Amusing, broadly done parody of caper pictures like Rififi, in which a group of low-life thieves attempt a major theft. The caper goes awry, naturally, with the thieves arguing among themselves. Their ineptitude is massive: they break into the apartment next to a vault, and then break through the wrong wall – into the bathroom of the apartment they're already in! Braggarts, romantics, idiots – that's the group. Very entertaining, if broadly done. 1/20/02
BIG FISH (2003)
Director: Tim Burton. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crud-up, Jessica Lange.
When fiction is more comforting than fact, take the fiction -- at least that's the message of this ode to tall tales, with Finney as Cruddup's dying father who has lived a life telling whoppers. The whoppers are enertaining if a bit heavy-handed (and McGregor is fine as the young Finney), but the father-son coming-to-terms through-line is tedious and tired. 11/10/04
THE BIG HEAT (1954)
Director: Fritz Lang. Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin.
Tough film noir, tight and fast-paced, with Ford as an incorruptible cop who nearly goes over the edge when he investigates corruption in the police force. He's happily married, but becomes a widower when he runs afoul of the local crime boss, a Mafia type who has the police commissioner in his pocket and employs a tough goon (Marvin) who enjoys torturing people. The most shocking moment comes when the goon's girlfriend (Grahame) gets a pot of hot coffee thrown in her face. With great dialogue, pacing, and performances, The Big Heat is a top-notch effort from Lang, perhaps his best American film. 9/20/02
THE BIG ONE (1998)
Director: Michael Moore
Satirical documentary filmmaker Michael Moore (Roger and Me) is at it again, once more confronting corporate types with their hypocrisy and greed. The Big One finds the director traveling to 47 cities on a promotional tour for his New York Times bestseller, Downsize This! Moore can’t just sign books and bask in celebrity, however; he uses the expenses paid trip as a vehicle for his crusade against corporate America. He turns up at business lobbies, offices, and bookstores with a camera that never sleeps. The results are both hilarious and heartbreaking, as stuffed shirt executives and lower-level employees try to explain why, with record profits, they are are setting other records by closing factories. But it’s not all politics; much of the movie can be simply bizarre, like the scenes of Moore, on guitar, trading Bob Dylan riffs with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, followed by a restaurant meeting with an ex-con who worked for TWA Reservations while in prison. The movie’s climax comes when Moore confronts a nervously smiling Phil Knight, chairman of Nike (whom Moore had labeled a “corporate crook” in his book), with Nike’s use of child labor in Indonesia. Knight continues to insist “Americans don’t want to manufacture shoes” – even after the director brings him video evidence that they do. The crusading Moore, part angry stand-up comedian, part-satirist, and 100 percent missionary, may look like a clown but his smile has fangs. 2/10/98
THE BIG STREET (1942)
Director: Irving Reis. Cast: Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball.
Disturbing Damon Runyon story in which Fonda plays an obsesssed lover, a busboy named Pinks, of a self-centered showgirl (Ball, in an atypiical turn) who stands by her after she becomes crippled in an accident. Amusing in places, but dark and sentmental at the same time. ne weird flick. 11/15//06
BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967)
Director: Ken Russell. Cast: Michael Caine, Kar Malden..
Third and least (until the TV-movie sequels of the 1990s, which apparently used this film as a template) of the Harry Palmer movies. This one starts promisingly, with Palmer (Caine) retired from MI5 and working as a seedy private eye. But he is soon back in business in a job more suited to James Bond than the realistic anti-spy antics of Palmer's world. The confusing plot has something to do with viruses and a mad anti-communist Texas billionaire – and it ends with explosions and dying soldiers that seem a long way from the downbeat heroics of The Ipcress File, made only two years before. 9/8/06
BILLY ELLIOT (2000)
Director: Stephen Daldry. Cast: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Julie Walters.
Charming story of working class boy who wants to be a ballet dancer. Set in 1984 against the backdrop of a British coal-miner's strike, the story contrasts the ephemeral, dream-like wishes of young Billy with the brutal reality of the strike. Bell is terrific as Billy, and the script gives him many moments to shine, especially when he is interacting with the teacher who believes in him (Walters) and the father who initially opposes him but then comes to support him (Lewis). Lewis is excellent as a man trying to keep his family together after the recent loss of his wife. A weeper with substance. 11/22/00
BILLY LIAR (1963)
Director: John Schesinger. Cast:Tom Courtney, Julie Christie.
The story of Billy Fisher (Courtney), known to his friends as Billy Liar because of the wild stories he constantly makes up as a way of escaping his dreary, small-town existence. The film actually shows us some of Billy's fantasies – as the popular leader of the mythical kingdom of Ambrosia, as a politician, as a soldier, as a sexual athlete – and also shows us the consequences of his avoidance of reality and responsibility. The only ray of hope in it all is the young woman (Christie) who loves him for who he is and urges him to go with her to London. That he can't do it, shows he's more comfortable with his fantasies than with the possibility of making them real. Courtney delivers a terrific performance and Christie is charming and quite believable as the woman who sees Billy for what he is, and appreciates him for who he is. 11/22/01
THE BIRDS (1963)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy.
Hitch's saga of what would happen if our feathered friends ran amuk. Hedren and Taylor are adequate as the leads (a bit wooden at times), but who cares? The cinematic scares – pure cinema – are what make this film memorable. The slow build-up is classic, as are the mise-en-scene that Hitch employs so brilliantly. Sound design by Bernard Herrmann. The last truly great Hitchcock film, seen here in nice widescreen version. 4/14/00
THE BISHOP MURDER CASE (1930)
Director: Nick Grindle, David Burton. Cast: Basil Rathbone, Leila Hyams, Roland Young.
Antique mystery, from the S.S. Van Dyne novel about dilettante detective Philo Vance (Rathbone), called in by the police to investigate the death by arrow of a man named Cock Robin. The death matches the nursery rhyme, and at the scene is a note signed, "The Bishop." A series of other nursery rhyme murders follow, and though the story is intriguing, the pacing is leaden and the acting wooden. Rathbone is humorless and uninteresting as Vance, inferior to his predecessor William Powell. Ironically, one character makes fun of him by calling him Sherlock Holmes, a role he made his own nine years later. 4/23/01
BLACK ANGEL (1946)
Director: Roy William Neill. Cast: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford.
Stylish film noir about Catheriner Bennett (Vincent) and Martin Blair (Duryea) investigating the murder of Blair's ex-wife, who was blackmailing Bennett's husband. The duo try to uncover evidence that Bennett's husband didn't kill Mrs. Blair -- and in the process find themselves growing attracted to each other. Excellent, low-key performances by Lorre as a shady nightclub operator and Crawford as a tough cop highlight this well-made melodrama, the last from Holmes director Neill. 7/21/04
THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955)
Director: Richard Brooks. Cast: Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, Vic Morrow, Sidney Poitier, Paul Mazursky.
Teacher Ford takes on rebellious youth in a troubled high school. Ford is fine as the teacher, and Morrow and Poitier make excellent rebels, although the movie seems a bit linear at times and also preachy. One of the problems is that we never get into the reason why the kids are rebellious; there's some talk of being beat up at home, but nothing is really clear. Why they finally take to Ford and turn against Morrow is also unclear; it's as though the movie is saying, most kids are good, it's usually a bad egg that spoils them. This is a parent's movie, not a kid's film, not trying to get into the kids' heads, but trying to make teenage rebellion understandable to parents. It's okay and the drama is watchable, if predictable, but I think it was done better 12 years later in To Sir With Love. TV, June 2-3, 1995.
THE BLACK BOOK (THE REIGN OF TERROR) (1949)
Director: Anthony Mann. Cast: Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl..
Lw-budget, taught period piece about the search by counter-French Revolutionafries for Robespierre's "black book" of targeted men -- the key to unseating him. Cummings is the dashing (both literally and figuratively), and though he lacks the complexity of later Mann heroes, he is a noirish man on the run. Taut, well done, if a little pokey. Some nice visuals. Best sequence: the book on the bed. 8/14/06
THE BLACK CAMEL (1931)
Director: Hamilton MacFadden. Cast: Warner Oland, Bela Lugosi, Robert Young, Dwight Frye.
Oland's second Charlie Chan picture, with extensive location work in Honolulu. The movie establishes the pattern for Chan and other mystery movies of this type: the early portion introduces the characters (the suspects in the murder-to-come, all with shady pasts). It also introduces the detective (Chan) and his less-than-brilliant assistant (in this case, Japanese detective Kashimo). There is some humor from the assistant and some wit from the detective's sayings, but the movie is generally all-business: tracking clues, avoiding assassination attempts, turning up more bodies. It took The Thin Man to add real comedy – and character-based comedy at that – to the proceedings of the murder mystery. (Hitchcock also did it somewhat with The Man Who Knew Too Much and even more so with the post-Thin Man flicks 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes). Oland is fine, a little more acerbic than his later polite persona. 1/29/00
Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
The first British talking picture and a tour-de-force for Hitchcock. The director experiments with sound by cleverly playing with how characters hear things. A woman who has stabbed a man repeatedly notices the word “knife” in a breakfast conversation, and to show her growing sense of guilt, that is the only intelligible word Hitchcock ultimately lets the viewer hear, as the dialogue gradually turns into gibberish.
The movie us remarkable fresh and innovative in its visual and sound effects. The story is about a girl who murders a would-be-rapist and the aftermath, when her detective boyfriend must confront the truth. The movie's morality is a little lax – in essence a blackmailer gets capital punishment and the murderer goes free – but the technical trickery makes up for it. Not an actor's movie, however. 10/2-10/4/98
BLACK ORPHEUS (1959)
Director: Marcel Camus. Cast: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes De Oliveira.
The Orpheus-Eurydice Greek myth, retold in 1950s Rio. In this version, Orpheus (Mello) is a street car conductor and Eurydice (Dawn) is a poor girl just arrived in dawn, pursued by a man who wants to kill her. There isn't much to the story, but the film is magical: its colors, locations, dancing, and especially music (Jobim and Bossa Nova came to the public consciousness with this film) are quite unlike anything else I've seen. The story unfolds with the inevitability of the tragedy that is, with characters unable to escape their destinies. But it ends hopefully, focusing on the children who carry on the hope of the world, dancing to the rising sun. 9/22-9/23/01.
BLADERUNNER: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT (1982/1991)
Director: Ridley Scott. Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah.
Ridley Scott's grim vision of a nasty future, a sci-fi noir. The story follows hard-boiled detective Deckard (Harrison Ford) as a searches for four runaway replicants – androids – in a kill or be killed scenario. The movie is moody, hi-tech grimy, and fascinating. Ford has just the right world-weariness, and there are some lovely touches of poetry in the movie – Hauer's death is obvious, but also his mourning Daryl Hannah – the point being that the androids love life as much as humans, and appreciate it more because their lifespan is shorter. Engrossing – though the one element missing is humor. The picture is so bleak, so depressing, and the view of humanity so grungy –– there is not much hope in this world, which is why Deckard seizes it when and where he can. He realizes that the androids have more humanity than the humans, and falls in love with one (Sean Young) – and runs off with her. December 27/28, 1993.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Directors: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard.
A big bore, the triumph of hype over horror. Supposedly a documentary put together from the footage left by three teenagers who mysteriously disappeared, this low-budget flick has been grandly proclaimed as terrifyingly innovative. What's innovative is how little actually goes on to justify the talk and the crowds – the suckers – who have been drawn into it. The hand-held camerawork gets dizzying after a while, and the whole exercise seems ludicrous: when these lost kids, in search of information about the mysterious, murderous Blair Witch coven in Maryland, keep running across strange things – they keep filming. Even down to their last moments, when two of them are searching for their lost friend, they run into a house with cameras rolling! What defies belief, too, is how dumb and irritating these kids are; they may be typical teenagers, but the more you get to know them the less you care about them: obnoxious, inarticulate, irritating, the three are dopey, led by a bitch of a woman who, as Andrew Sarris points out, is a bitch on wheels and perhaps the reason for the movie's success: men love to see a pushy woman get hers. And to have them screaming, yelling, and shouting to cue us how terrified they are is more irritating than frightening (and still, they keep filming; what dedication; or is that a comment on the video generation?) The movie is a cynical, uninteresting, film students' game. I hated it. 8/14/99
BLEAK MOMENTS (1971)
Director: Mike Leigh.
First film from Britain's Leigh, who creates his scripts with improvised input from the cast. That technique leads to an eerie, documentary-style realism in the film, but can also make for some tedious moments, especially in this one. It's the story of young woman who works in a mundane job as a secretary who is trying to find love -- or at least make a connection -- with a man. There are two in her life: a repressed teacher whom she meets every day on her walk to work, and a young hippie who rents out her garage. Her life is complicated by her having to care for a mentally retarded, 29-year-old sister. The structure is unusual -- very unlike a Hollywood film -- and the repressedd characters, with their tormented, unexpressed inner lives seem very real. Leigh doesn't tell you about people; he shows them to you. Good, with some bleak humor, but at times hard to take. 2/19/05
THE BLOB (1958)
Director: Irvin Yeaworth. Cast: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corseaut.
Camp classic about teenagers (led by a 20-something McQueen) trying to convince the authorities that a slimy mass of alien protoplasm is devouring residents of a small California town. Dumb, and about as scary a plate of jello, but McQueen demonstrates the charisma that would make him world-famous less than a decade later. 6/15/02
Director: John G. Blystone. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Billy Gilbert.
Quintessential L & H movie about two WWI vets (Stan and Ollie) meeting again after 20 years. Really just a collection of very funny bits, the movie (which clocks in at only 57 minutes) is held together by the lovely chemistry and innate sweetness of the "boys." Re-seen: 11/25/04
THE BLOOD OF THE POET (1930)
Director: Jean Cocteau. Cast: Lee Miller, Enrique Rivero
Bizarre, avante-garde film about the struggles of an artist to realize his art. More like a dream than a film, it is interesting in a boring kind of way (or boring in an interesting kind of way). A lot of great images and intriguing special effects. 11/16/02
BLOOD SIMPLE (1983)
Director: Joel Cohen. Cast: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh.
Film noir thriller from director Joel Cohen and producer Ethan Cohen about a murder and its consequences. The movie is artfully directed and cleverly constructed, painting a portrait of a husband (Hedaya) betrayed by his clueless wife (McDormand). Well done, and a bit gruesome. A good over-the-top performance by Walsh as a murdeous detective. Best scene: the bullet holes in the wall. 11/9/02
BLOOD WORK (2002)
Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Daniels, Wanda De Jesus.
Eastwood as retired FBI profiler Terry McCaleb, a kind of mellow Dirty Harry. In this one, his life is saved by a heart transplant of a murdered woman; he is enlisted by the victim's sister (De Jesus) to track down the killer. Engaging, though Eastwood has been to this well before, with a predictable "surprise" killer. 1/2/03
Director Michelangelo Antonioni. Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles.
Did David, a posh Lond on photographer in swinging London, unknowingly photograph a murder? That becomes the central – but ultimately irrelevant – question-without-an-answer in Antonioni's dark tale of modern nihilism. Life, death, photogrpahs, reality – nothing really matters, nothing can make a difference in the cold, sterile world of modern times. Intriguing, but ultimately a little too full of itslef and its deep message of shallow profundity. 10/14, 10/15/06
THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953)
Director: Fritz Lang. Anne Baxter, Ann Southern, Richard Conte, Raymond Burr, George Reeves.
A "who's who" of TV actors is the highlight of this middling B-picture from former German great Lang (M, Metropolis). Like M, this film involves the hunt for a murderer, but that's where the similarities end. The story is as predictable as it is mundane. Baxter plays Norah, a girl jilted by her lover who goes out on a date with a noted lothario (Burr, at his most charmingly sinister). He gets her drunk; when he attempts to have his way with her at his apartment, she goes after him with a poker. Four years later, Burr would be defending her on Perry Mason; here, he's the reason for her dilemma. Did she kill him? It's hazy to her but not to the audience -- there's another suspect set up early on. Reeves (pre-Superman) plays a detective -- pretty badly, I might add (and he's joined by an unbilled Robert "Inspector Henderson" Shayne as a doctor), Southern plays a wise-cracking roomate, and Conte is a crusading muck-raker. As Norah, Baxter is over-the-top and fairly obvious. Burr delivers the most nuanced performance of the bunch. He is almost too nice to be a cad. Lang is concerned with tying guilt to sex and murder, even in a hokey melodrama like this. 6/29/02
BODY HEAT (1981)
Director: Lawrence Kasdan. Cast: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna.
Lawrence Kasdan remakes Double Indemnity, without crediting it – and without its clever dialogue. Hurt is the dumb sap drawn into a murder plot by the sultry wife (Turner) of a wealthy husband (Crenna). The difference between his character's and Cain's is he's dumber than a post. But the movie hits all the Cain touchstones: the accidental meeting, the uncontrollable sexual attraction, the ambition, the greed, the plot, the self-destruction. The difference is very '80s: the girl gets away with it and the dumb sap goes to jail (in Cain, they both would have died). I liked the original better. Great John Barry score. 12/21/00.
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)
Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniel, Bela Lugosi.
Daniell as a dedicated doctor haunted by a secret in his past. His chief tormenter is Karloff as a cabman who does double duty as a body snatcher -- from the graves and/or the streets (taking from the living when the graves can't provide). The story isn't much -- it's based on one by Robert Louis Stevenson -- but, as in most Val Lewton productions, the atmosphere is everything. Creepy, with wnderfully layered performancs by Karloff as conscious evil and Daniell as accidental evil. 8/27/06
BODY SNATCHERS (1993)
Director: Abel Ferrara. Cast: Gabrielle Anwar, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth, Forest Whitaker, Meg Tilley.
A second remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this atmospheric tale hits all the same hot buttons as the 1956 and 1978 versions, with pod people replacing their emotional brethren and social commentary about the dehumanization of society. This version has a teenager as the heroine, which adds an alienation/coming of age subtext to the story, but otherwise it's the same story. It's very effective, with haunting images and a slightly more upbeat (just barely) ending than the other two versions. 1/12/00
BOILER ROOM (2000)
Director: Ben Younger. Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Nia Long, Nicky Katt, Ben Affleck.
A jazzed-up reworking of Wall Street, about hot shot young brokers in the high-pressure world of selling stocks (the young turks are even seeing watching Wall Street and repeating dialogue from that film). The hero is Seth Davis (Ribisi), a young man who, like the character in Wall Street, has a tortured relationship with his father and does everything to seek his dad's approval. He gets into a jam when he realizes that the brokerage firm he's involved with is a scam. The characters are pretty much types, but the movie, stylized and pumped up, is curiously affecting. Terrible score. 1/25/01.
Director: Victor Fleming. Cast: Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan.
Fast-paced, if somewhat shrill screwball comedy about superstar Lola Barnes (Harlow) and the fast-talking studio PR man (Tracy) who is her nemesis and would-be lover (a part which Tracy is good at but lacks the subtlety a William Powell would have brought to the part). Barnes is apparently based on "it' girl Clara Bow, although she may have something in common with Harlow herself -- certainly she shares her roles. Barnes is seen doing retakes on Red Dust, a picture Harlow had actually made with Clark Gable. A few studio in-jokes, such as C. Aubrey Smith sniping that Lewis Stone gets all the good parts. Entertaining, with nice twist ending. (AKA Blonde Bombshell.) 10/19, 10/20/07
BON VOYAGE (2003)
Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Gerard Depardieu, Gregori Derangere.
Well done farce with dramatic undertones (or drama with farcical elements, depending on your point of view). Derangere plays a would-be-novelist in WWII Paris who is drawn into intrigues becuase of his love of a manipulative movie starlet (Adjani). The movie speeds along at a rapid clip, with surprising twists and turns as the writer ties to avoid the police (she's framed him for murder), Nazis, and his own moth-tot-the-flame amorous leanings towards the starlet. Rem-iniscent of Truffaut, the movie has enjoyable supporting characters, good performances, and a well-constructed plot. 4/4/04
BORDER INCIDENT (1949)
Director: Antnhony Mann. Cast: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard da Silva.
Semi-documentary crime drama about illegal immigrants, the kind of format popular with director Anthony Mann, who used it in T-Men and He Walked By Night. This one follows the infiltration of a gang of people importers by Mexican agent Montalban, assisted by U.S. agent Murphy. It has the moody atmospherics of film noir, but lacks the dark characters of Mann's best work. Da Silva's smooth, naturalistic villain is the best thing in the picture. 8/20/06
THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002)
Director: Doug Liman. Cast: Matt Damon., Franka Potente.
First of the Jason Bourne films finds the killing machine super agent floating in the Mediterrrenean Seam with two bullets in his back and no memory of how he got that way. The movie is a fast-paced thriller that keeps the action pounding along as Bourne tries to uncover his identityw hile staying one step ahead of the CIA, which is trying to kill him. 1/21/08
BOWLING AT COLUMBINE (2002)
Director: Michael Moore. Cast: Moore, Marilyn Mason, Charlton Heston.
Moore brings his "smart ass" docu-mentary approach to the gun control issue, examining, in his irreverent way, why the shootings at Columbine, in Colorado, and Flint (his hometown) in Michigan, occurred. He uses history, anecdotal evidence, and comparisons with Canada (which has an equally large gun-carrying population) to come to a simple conclusion: Americans are conditioned by the media to live in fear. It is fear of crime, fear of black people, fear of war that motivates citizens to arm themselves and shoot first, ask questions later. There are funny moments (a gun nut saying, "There are a lot of crazy people out there"), touching moments (a security salesman, breaking down from his patter when he starts talking about the deaths at Columbine), upsetting moments (Moore's sandbagging of the NRA's Heston is both disturbing, for how inarticulate Heston is, and for how Moore tricks him into seeming foolish), and rewarding moments (Moore, with the help of two Columbine survivors, getting K-mart to give up bullet sales). Throughout, Moore uses his patented provocateur-with-a-camera approach to get some amusing, sometimes infuriating footage. Though he is a tad too smug sometimes, Moore should be applauded for getting people to talk about a subject that often is ignored: fear and the media, and how politicians exploit both. 10/11/02
THE BOXER (1998)
Director: Jim Sheridan. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis.
The Boxer isn’t a movie about the old Simon and Garfunkel tune or even a boxing picture – it’s a story about standing up for yourself and your beliefs even when everyone seems to be against you. Set in Northern Ireland, it offers Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis), a former up-and-coming local boxer who has just finished 14 years in prison. His crime: not fingering people he knew were in an IRA action in which he was involved and caught. His punishment: his career, the woman he loves – but not his principles. Using the brutal sport as a metaphor for Flynn’s life and those of other innocent people in the civil war, writer-director Jim Sheridan paints an ever-more-engrossing story of the absurdity of the Catholic-Protestant dispute and the punishment it inflicts on everyone. Where the movie errs is in simplifying the story enough to create “good” IRA folk and a “bad” IRA leader, who causes most of the trouble for Flynn and those in the IRA who want peace. If only life were that straightforward. Nonetheless, Sheridan puts a human face on the suffering of the Irish – and creates a bittersweet romance, as well.1/16/98
BOYFRIENDS AND GIRLFRIENDS (1987)
Director: Eric Rohmer. Cast: Emmanuelle Chaulet, Sophie Renoir, Anne-Laure Meury, Eric Viellard, Francois-Eric Gendron.
Sweet character comedy, part of Rohmer's "Comedies and Proverbs" series. It follows the friendship of Blanche (Chaulet) and Lea (Renoir) who have boyfriend troubles. Blanche longs for an unattainable businessman; Lea is bored with her easy-going hunk. Inevitably, as they try to help each other, they begin to get emotionally attached to the other's love object (hence, the French title: "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend"). Charming, insightful, and very diverting, showing we sometimes don't get what we want, but what we need. 1/19/02
Director: Mel Gibson. Cast: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan.
Exciting but completely predictable story of Scottish folk hero (Gibson) who led Scots rebels against the tyrannical English, repped by cruel, ammoral king (McGoohan). The battles and action scenes are well-played, as are the romance and occasional flashes of humor, but the ending and death of Gibson is drawn out to a ridiculous extreme (do we really have to see every step of his torture? ). The movie is a variation of Robin Hood as Gibson and his merry men (he even has a Little John figure) sally forth against impossible odds and oh-so-evil figures. "Robin" himself is a reluctant hero, but daring, dashing, and brave, who uses his brains over his brawn to defeat his foes. It is only betrayal by the greedy that ultimately trips him up. Beautiful scenery – but that's predictable, too. June 17, 1995.
Director: Jonathan Mostow. Cast: Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan.
Taut thriller, with Russell and Quinlan as eastern couple on trip west who get caught up in a Hitchcockian nightmare. Their car breaks down and the two split up, with wife going with helpful trucker (Walsh) for help. She disappears and the rest of the film chronicles hubby's attempts to get her back. Director/scenarist Mostow sets a creepy mood from the outset, going against convention with the Hitchcock sunlit terror approach. Movie has no fat, moving at rapid clip – quickly enough so you overlook any implausibilities. Good score, great action sequences, and satisfying climax. 8/24/01
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961)
Director: Blake Edwards. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Mickey Rooney, Martin Balsam.
Romantic comedy from the Truman Capote novel about Holly Golightly, the backwoods girl who becomes an urban sophisticate trapped in a cage of fear: fear of commitment, fear of being owned, fear of loss. Hepburn is charming as Holly – fragile and erotic, a sophisticated little girl playing at being a grown-up. Peppard is equally fine as "Fred," the novelist neighbor who meets, is charmed, and finally, falls in love with her. Although it starts off in an irritatingly affected manner, it becomes up heart and soul as it moves along, aided by its charming cast, the wonderful New York locations, and the evocative Henry Mancini score (which includes the Oscar winner, "Moon River," sung movingly on guitar by Hepburn – encompassing all the hopes and dreams of a lost soul). The only sour note is the terrible racial stereotype played by Mickey Rooney. 9/6/99
BREAKHEART PASS (1976)
Director: Tom Gries. Cast: Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland.
Intriguing western which combines murder mystery, western, and train genres into engaging plot. Bronson is fine as the mysterious stranger who gets involved in the odd doings on a military train. The solution doesn't quite hold up, but there's enough action to keep you involved almost to the climax. Seen on TV (cable) November 23, 1994. Reseen: 10/12/01
THE BREAKING POINT (1950)
Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter.
Second, inferior (but reportedly more faithful) version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. In this one, Garfield is in the Bogey role of the fishing boat captain drawn into illegal activities. Garfield is tortured, rebellious, a kind of anti-Bogart, drawn to bad girl Neal (miscast) but in love with dull wife Thaxter. The script is rambling, badly constructed, with a VO narration popping in and out at odd moments. Only 97 minutes, but it seems endless, driving one's patience to the breaking point. Stick with Bogey. 2/10/03
Director: Jean Luc-Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg.
Godard's seminal French new wave picture about a petty thief on the run for murdering a cop. Michel (Belmondo) is completely amoral, shooting a man, robbing another, then talking about a girl's dress. He hasn't a pang of guilt – and Goddard emphasizes the emptiness of his life by the speed at which everything happens. Michel flits from scene to scene, the camera jump-cuts, uses overlapping (Hawksian) dialogue, and keeps the audience breathless as Michel careens to his ultimate destiny. True love means commitment and when he thinks he finds it – commiting to a girl (Seberg, in a bad performance) – she can't commit to him and betrays him. Love is the ultimate betrayal? 12/10-12/11/01
THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968)
Director: Francois Truffaut. Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Bouquet.
Truffaut's homage to Hitchcock is a bizarre, dark story, from a novel by William Irish, about a vegeneance-crazed widow whose husband was accidentally killed on their wedding day. Five men were responsible, and the bride (Moreau) methodically hunts them down, seduces them, and then kills them in bizarre ways. It's the ultimate misogynist fantasy, with woman as predator and man, helpless victim. Truffaut doesn't emulate Hitchcock's style; the French director is much more lyrical than the Master of Suspense. Bride is more like a fevered dream – or nightmare – than a plausible story. Intriguing, but not top-grade. Effective Bernard Herrmann score. 2/12/01
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995)
Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep.
Sentimental but low-key romance about an Iowa housewife, c. 1965, and her four-day affair with a magazine photographer who happens by. It's a nothing story in outline, but it's rescued by the performances of Eastwood and Streep as the couple. She respects her husband, a dedicated farmer; he respects her marriage; nonetheless, they believably fall in love. The movie is made up of little moments, little details and effectively recounts the happenstance of early courtship: the awkward moments, the attraction, the minor misunderstandings, the fights – it's a relationship telescoped into four days. Eastwood is painted as an all-around nice guy; honest, caring, supportive of whatever anyone does; a free spirit. He's almost too good to be true. Streep is a woman who's given up her dreams – but still thinks, sometimes, that they were good dreams. She almost realizes them with Eastwood's character, but ends up staying behind because she feels the guilt would tear them apart. But it's the one true love of their lives. Most poignant moment: his hanging the medallion on his rear view mirror. Silliest dialogue: Everything said between Streep's grown children as they discover their mother's affair. Their dialogue is written with sledge-hammers. 5/16/98
BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY (2001)
Director: Susan McGuire. Cast: Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth.
Yank Zellweger does a flawless impersonation of Brit secretary Bridget Jones, whose hapless misadventures are the subject of this entertaining romantic comedy. Jones is a klutzy, slightly overweight 32-year-old in search of love in all the wrong places. The movie is about her romance with her suave boss (Grant) and a man who doesn' seem to like her (Firth). Well-done, sweet comedy of the old school. Predictable but entertaining nonetheless. Zellweger is adorable. 3/2/02; reseen: 9/1/06
BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON (2004)
Director: Beeban Kidron. Cast: Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth.
Entertaining sequel to Bridget Jones's Diary, which shows hw the rmance of Bridget and Marc does not run smoothly (does anything in Bridget's life?). The plot is servicable, if not as fresh as the original (which, after all, borrowed its pliot from Pride and Prejudice). But the cast is excellent, especially Zellweger, who is remarkable: charming and quite sexy in her fatness (she seems even more robust than in the first film). 9/2/06
BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE (2002)
Director: Adam Shankman. Cast: Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Joan Plowright.
Formulaic comedy with Martin as Peter, an uptight lawyer too obsessed with work to spend time with his kids or his estranged wife whom he secretly still loves. Into this scenario comes Queen Latifah as Charlene, an escaped convict who threatens his relationship with a wealthy but arch-conservative client (Plowright). Predictable, sitcom-like fare. Negligible Lalo Schifrin score. 7/3/03
BROTHER ORCHID (1940)
Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Edward G.
Robinson, Ann Sothern, Humprey Bogart, Ralph Bellamy, Allen Jenkins.
Comedy-drama about gangster (Robinson) who tries to find "class" by traveling the world, only to find it in a monastery of self-effacing monks. Bogart appears as Robinson's nemesis; Sothern is the love interest; and Bellamy the comic relief. A strange, sentimental and touching film. 9/15/04
THE BROTHERS McMULLEN (1995)
Director: Edward Burns. Cast: Jack Mulcahy, Mike McGlone, Edward Burns.
First film from star-director Burns is semi-autobiographical tale of three Irish-American brothers and their adventures/feelings about the opposite sex, coming to terms with Catholicism, changing times, and relationship commitments. Engaging, low-key, with a quirky, low-budget charm. Good ensemble piece, marred only by the actress who plays Burns' girlfriend (was she his real-life GF, I wonder?) 5/20/02
THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999)
Director: Wim Wenders.
A remarkable story about forgotten Cuba singers rediscovered made into a less-than-remarkable movie. The power of the story and the singing carries it, but Wenders' touch is sleep-inducing (I still nod off thinking about Wings of Desire). His technique of cross-cutting chronology is intriguing but sometimes works against the material; some of the people are not that interesting; and some of the music is repetitive. There are many charming moments, however, especially when the Cuba singers encounter the wonders of New York City for the first time. 11/27/99
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992)
Director: Fran Rubel Kuzui. Cast: Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry.
Teen comedy meets horror movie with mixed results. Buffy (Swanson) is just typical California high school teenager: she wants to make out, get to cheerleader practice and – oh, yes – kill vampires. Swanson is initially iritating as the reluctant heroine, but you warm to her as the picture proceeds along its formulaic path – from hesistant heroine to commanding kung-fu expert – guided along the way by a wise sage (Sutherland) and a helpful boyfriend (Perry). Cute, if done before (see The Lost Boys, etc.). Basis for the popular TV series. 9/27-9/28/01.
BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (1934)
Director: Roy del Ruth. Cast: Ronald Colman, Warner Oland, Loretta Young, Charles Butterworth.
Entertaining nonsense – the second of Colman's two Drummond movies – features the amateur sleuth set on retirement but drawn into the case of a missing corpse. The plot is convoluted but simple-minded – why would the villain let Drummond see the corpse at all? – yet the movie is carried by the fine cast (Colman is delightful, at his hammiest using mannerisms mocked years later by Don Adams), with Oland taking a break from Charlie Chan to practice some pretty nasty villainy. Young, at the start of her career, is beautiful. 8/10/02
BULLET TO BEIJING (1995)
Director: George Mihalka. Cast: Michael Caine, Jason Connery, Mia Sara.
The return of Len Deighton's spy Harry Palmer (Caine), nearly 30 years after his last appearance in Billion Dollar Brain (1967). In one respect, Harry hasn't changed: he's still insolent and cynical. But, otherwise, the character has changed a lot since he was introduced as the anti-Bond in The Ipcress File (1965). In that film, the approach was low-key, realistic spy work: more brains than brawn. But Bullet is brainless brawn. Through ridiculous plot contrivances, Harry is sacked from the British secret service and becomes a free agent. Miraculously, MI5 lets him leave the country and go work for a Russian financier, delivering some sort of Anthrax-style chemical weapon to the Chinese. It's all silly, full of car chases, machine guns, and the kind of mindless action that the first film studiously (and stylishly) avoided. Why revive Harry to make him into what he never was? Caine is fine but the script is dreadful. And what's Sean Connery's son doing here? 7/6, 7/12/02
Director: Peter Yates. Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bissett.
Fabulous. I saw this on the big screen for the first time since I was 12 (when I first saw it) and the movie weas a revelation, like a new movie. (I had seen it as recently as six months ago on video, and it didn't have nearly the same impact). More than a thriller, Bullitt is driven by the deadpan McQueen who does more with a look or silence than most actors do with a page of dialogue. He plays Lt. Frank Bullitt, a man who believes that someone has to do the dirty jobs and who does his with an intense dedication that has no room for games-playing politicians like the self-agrandizing Walter Chalmers (Vaughn). The assignment he is on seems routine: guarding a witness against the mob. But when the witness lets in his own assassins (and seems to be expecting them) things get complicated. Like other, later cop heroes, Bullitt follows his own path, regardless of orders. He has a girlfriend (Bissett) who doesn't understand his job can't make him callous; what she doesn't understand is his very involvement in the dirty side of the job is what keeps him alive; he cares so much about justice that he pursues it wherever it leads. In this case, it's into a twisty plot and a justly famous chase up and down the hills and highway of San Francisco. Compared to the explosive, effects-driven movies that pass for action these days, Bullitt is a action flick with a head, a heart, and surprisingly low-key action. It's a terrific adult drama, with a wonderful score by Lalo Schifrin. 4/9/98.
Director: Warren Beatty. Cast: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry.
What if politicians spoke the truth? What if a politician stood up and said what everyone knows? That family values are a farce, that elected officials do what their corporate contributors dictate and not what the people want? That all the homilies about truth, justice, and the democratic way are so much blather? In Bulworth, a politician does just that. Depressed and worn out by the compromises he has had to make, once-liberal Senator Bulworth (Warren Beatty) takes out a life insurance policy on himself and then orders a hit man to assassinate him. Liberated by his upcoming demise, Bulworth begins speaking his mind and doing what he wants, shocking the fat cats who had been manipulating him – and gaining support from the common people whom he had been ignoring. Beatty, who both wrote and directed this fast-paced and daring farce, is amusing as the befuddled senator who learns about living in a whirlwind few days among the impoverished. The movie makes its points broadly but effectively, poking fun at itself along with its main targets: pontificating politicians, self-important media types, and greedy corporations. (When the senator discovers rap music, he begins delivering campaign speeches in awkwardly rhyming couplets, leading one black child to ask, “Is that how white people rap?”) Bulworth, which hearkens back to the farcical political comedies of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, moves at a rapid clip towards its inevitable conclusion (hint: in message movies like this one, those who take on the power system are not likely to succeed for long). Beatty delivers a wonderfully off-kilter performance, and is to be applauded for bucking Hollywood’s current trend of offering viewers dumber and dumbest movies. 5/25/98
BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965)
Director: Otto Preminger. Cast: Laurence Olivier, Carl Lynley, Keir Dullea.
Engrossing mystery with Lynley as woman whse child goes missng on her first day at a new school. Lynley is fine as the hysterical, possibly crazy, mom, and Olivier is delightfully low key as the police detective who begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. A fine cast of British actors lends support, including two from Great Expectations: Finlay Currie and Marita Hunt. 8/23/06
BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN (1965)
Director: John Spotton. Cast: Buster Keaton, Eleanor Keaton.
A documentary about the making of the Keaton short The Railrodder, demonstrating how Keaton works up and then executes gag. A fascinating look at a silent clown in old age, but hardly out to pasture. He's as sharp as ever. And delighting in the challenge of the work. 12/18/98
THE BUTCHER BOY (1998)
Director: Neil Jordan. Cast: Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Eamonn Owens.
Wonderfully rich and unusual movie, a darkly comic examination of a troubled youth and how he copes. The Butcher Boy of the title is Francie Brady (Owens), and the story is told from his perspective, in voiceover. That's a marvelous choice because it allows director/screenwriter Jordan to capture the right tone: freewheeling exuberance and defiance of authority, in the tradition of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But this Irish youth is a twisted character: a Huck Finn with deep emotional problems that he covers up by his jolly manner. Set in the early '60s, the movie shows the gradual disintegration of Francie's life – from childish pranks to a brutal murder – and how he copes by escaping into his own fantasy world. His father is an abusive drunk; his mother a manic-depressive. No one helps, no one understands, and the boy spirals out of control. Since the tale is told from Francie's perspective, however, that spiralling becomes more like a rollercoaster ride; amorality on parade – but what would you expect of a child whose main influence is gossipy neighbors and a spate of American TV programs? This could be a clinically dry movie, depressing or uplifting – it is neither. It is a disturbing joke about the way society copes with madness. Good score. 4/22/98.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919)
Director: Robert Weine. Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veit, Lil Dagover.
What goes on inside the mind of a crazy man? One of the earliest shrink-wrapped films, this one tells the story of Dr. Caligari and his Circus Act – a somnabulist named Cesare, who has slept for 25 years, can predict your future ("At dawn you die!"), and even makes the prediction true by murdering his clients. But there's more to Caligari than a straightforward horror story. Told in flashback by "the student" protagonist, Francis, there is no explanation given for the weirdly expressionist sets – bizarre, theatrical, two-dimensional streets, stark light and shadow, and houses – nor for the wild turns in the plot. Tracking the murders to Caligari's tent, it turns out the somnabulist is a dummy and Caligari, after fleeing to a sanitarium, is revealed not to be a patient but the head of the insane asylum! Further revelations: the mad Caligari is actually carrying out his "theories" – seeing if a somnabulist can be forced to commit murder. Once the truth is out, the doctor is put in a straightjacket, raving wildly – "and he is there still," says the student concluding his story. But – surprise, surprise, it turns out the student is really the mad one, an inmate of an asylum and that he has cast his fellow patients in his narrative as Cesare, as his fiance Jane, even the asylum director as Caligari. The movie is fascinating for its stylized decor, actually trying to show what it is like to get inside the mind of a lunatic, and it also embodies both sides of the popular beliefs about psychiatrists – that they are crazier than the patients (the Dr. Caligari of the flashback) and that they are miracle workers (at the conclusion, the real Caligari claims he now understands the young man's psychosis and can cure him). No talking cure here – in fact, we are never told what the problemis, just that knowledge is power and once the doc knows, he can fix you. Kino Video: German expressionism, movement developing in all arts since turn of century; advent of Demoniac film, The Golem, Dr, Mabuse, Nosferatu, Metropolis. Producer: Erich Pommer. Script: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer. Sets: Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig, Walter Reimann. Bosley Crowther, NY Times: "The most original and exciting film to come from any country after World War I." Seen again on TV (tape), Sunday, January 19, 1992.
CACHE (HIDDEN) (2005)
Director: Michael Haneke. Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche.
Engrossing French thriller which on the face of it seems to be about a family of three -- father, mother, and teenage son -- being vaguely threatened by a voyeur: someone is videotaping the front of the family's Parisian home and sending them the tapes wrapped in papers containing disturbing, child-like drawings.But this is anything but a conventional thriller.. To begin with, from the opening shot, the viewer is disoriented -- it is a static shot of the front of an apartment building, with little going on; then voices are heard talking about it; and soon we are shown that we are watching a videotape sent to, Georges (Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Binoche). Georges is a talk show host who is not always straightforward with his wife and, as we discover, has doneome unpleasant things in his past. He also has a temper. The movie is about the nature of truth -- making us all voyeuurs, wondering about what we see, what can be believed, and that reality is often open to subjective interpretations. There are no concrete answers given in Cache, the filmmaker is as slippery as Georges is in responding to his wife, but there is a lot to digest. Seen 1/7/06
THE CANARY MURDER CASE (1929)
Director: Malcolm St. Clair. Cast: William Powell, Louise Brooks, Jean Arthur, Eugene Pallette.
Dull, soporific talkie, originally shot as a silent, noteworthy for Powell's debut as urbane sleuth Philo Vance and for early appearances of Brooks (before her G.W. Pabst period) and Arthur (before her Capra hits). Talk, talk, talk, with the murderer obvious from the moment of the killing. Some obvious dubbing, especially in the Brooks part (she plays a singing vamp called "The Canary" who is going to sing a blackmail tune for her former, high-society lover); Brooks was dubbed by Margaret Livingston. 9/30, 10/3, 10/4/02.
THE CAPTAIN'S PARADISE (1953)
Director: Anthony Kimmins. Cast: Alec Guinness, Yvonne De Carlo, Celia Johnson, Charles Goldner, Miles Malleson.
Cynical comedy, done in the Ealing style, about Henry St. James (Guinness), the captain of The Golden Fleece, a ferryboat that shuttles between Gibraltor and Tangier. The premise: he has found the perfect solution to the problems of relationships. He has a different wife in each port: one to satisfy each set of needs. In Gibraltor, he has a proper British wife (Johnson), who sows, cooks, and cares for his domestic needs. In Tangier, he has a Spanish spitfire (DeCarlo) whom he nightclubs the night away, dancing and drinking with abandon. The situation, naturally, gets complicated. Contrived, amusing, but not quite as clever as it thinks it is. 10/4/02
Director: William Wyler.. Cast: Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones, Miriam Hopkins, Eddie Albert.
Compelling if dreary tale of wealthy man (Olivier) brought down by obsessive love for much-younger woman (Jones). Performances are fine (Albert is especially good as the charming first lover of Jones) but the movie is relentlessly grim. Well-directed. 10/20/06
THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE (1935)
Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Warren William, Margaret Lindsay.
One of the four Perry Mason programmers starring William as the defense attorney. But this version is a far cry from Raymond Burr's straight-arrow interpretation. Williams' Mason is a gourmet chef, a smart-aleck sophisticate a la William Powell in The Thin Man movies. Della Street is here, so is the client in distress – a young woman whose husband seems to have returned from the grave – but in place of Paul Drake, we have the semi-comic antics of "Spudsy" Drake, a partner/gumshoe to the swashbuckling attorney. No courtroom antics, just a big gathering of suspects – like The Thin Man – where Mason lays it all on the line. Errol Flynn appears as a corpse. 6/20/02
THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS (1935)
Director: Archie Mayo. Cast: Warren William, Lyle Talbot
One of the four Perry Mason programmers starring William as the defense attorney. A far cry from Raymond Burr's straight-arrow television interpretation. Williams' Mason is a smart-aleck hard-drinking sophisticate a la William Powell in The Thin Man movies. In this one, mason investigates the murder of a phony beauty contest promoter. Tthe plot is pure Gardner, but the characters – especially the zany Mason – are pure hokum. ESG was reportedly not pleased. The murderer is obvious. 9/24/06
THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1936)
Director: Willliam Clemons. Cast: Warren William, Claire Dodd, Winifred Shaw.
The last of the Warren William Perry Masons takes the plot of the first Mason book (so the first does come last), with Mason fighting off a cold as he tries to go on a honeymoon with Della Street (Dodd) while slolving the murder of a gossip magazine piublisher. This is the closest the series came to aping The Thin Man series: Mason and Mrs. Mason are heavy drinkers and have a quip-heavy marriage; he;s trying to quit the business (difference: she wants him to) but the business won't quit him. It's not ES Gardner's character, but it's an enttertaining picture nonetheless. (silliest element in the series: turning gumshoe Paul Drake into comic foil Spudsy Drake, who apparently -- and inexplicably -- lives qith Mason!) 10/7/06.
THE CASE OF THE WHITECHAPEL VAMPIRE (2002)
Director: Rodney Gibbons. Cast: Matt Frewer, Kenneth Welsh.
Fourth in a series of Frewer-Welsh Holmes-Watson TV films. This pastiche echoes The Scarlet Claw in its focus on the supernatural and its murder weapon, with Holmes and Watson investigating what appears to be a murderous vampire. It is atmospheric and engaging, with Frewer making a surprisingly effective Holmes. 10/22-10/23/04
CASH McCALL (1959)
Director: Joseph Pevney. Cast: James Garner, Natalie Wood.
Thirty-three years after this movie, Garner returned to the subject of business and buyouts with Barbarians at the Gate, although by then the subject had turned sour and the subject was ripe for parody. In Cash McCall, the takeover king is a charming, straightforward fellow who gets the girl, the businesses, and morality by the last reel. Garner is engaging but the movie is a stolid affair, worhshipful of business and businessmen and simple-minded (in a soap opera way) about love and marriage. Natalie Wood is the object of Garner's affection, but the two have little chemistry. 2/7/98.
CASINO ROYALE (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell. Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench.
Introducing new Bond Daniel Craig as the new/old 007 in his first case as a "double 0." The producers want to have it both ways -- making 007 gritty and "realistic" -- prick him and doesn't he bleed? -- but also jujst as indestructible as ever. Fairly faithful to the Ian Fleming original, though much more action has been added. Craig is more like the Bond of the books (sans the smoking) a d"blunt-edged" hilling machine, but he is fairly unsympathetic and boring, lacking original Bond Sean Connery's panache and sense of humor. Engrossing, exciting, and gruesome, and it even includes the book's original torture scene. The stunts are, as usual, quite breathtaking. 11/22/06.
CAST AWAY (2000)
Director: Robert Zemekis. Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt.
An updated version of Robinson Crusoe, with Hanks as a Fed Ex supervisor who lives by time schedules and then – after his plane crashes near a South Sea island – has nothing but time on his hands as he attempts to survive. The crash is brilliantly handled – subjective and very vivid – and the early attempts at survival – mostly silent without so much as a note of underscore – are equally engaging. It is the surrounding "civilization" sections – in which Hanks is first shown to be a workaholic and then, when he returns, found to be a man who has lost his one true love – that border on the cliche. Hanks is superb, however, a personable actor who is belieavable in everything he does. (The title has a couple of means – he is both literally and emotionally "cast away" from life.) 12/26/00
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)
Director: Steve Spielberg. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken.
Entertaining chase story with DiCaprio as real-life con man Frank Abagnale Jr., who while still a teenager, successfully forged checks that netted him millions of dollars. Impersonating a pilot, a doctor, and, finally, a lawyer, the flamboyant Abagnale stays one step ahead of the dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) for years. Abagnale's capture and the denouement provide a fittingly strange finale to a tale so unbelievable it has to be true. Spielberg keeps things moving at a light-hearted, fast clip, so you don't have time to think much about the goings-on. The two leads are excellent, as is Walken in the poignant role of Frank's defeated dreamer of a father. 12/27/02
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)
Director: Richard Brooks. Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Judith Anderson.
Involving, even over-theatrical drama, from the Tennessee Williams play. The story takes place in one evening, but covers a multitude of lies, sins, and secrets. The central question is why won't Brick (Newman) sleep with his lucious wife Maggie (Taylor)? And what happened that fateful night hwhen Brick's best friend killed himself? The story is about love, trust, and latent homsexuality, as well as the constraining bonds of family. Everyone makes speeches, everyone explains things, and the movie is a wonderful exercise in dramatic construction. Ives, as Big Daddy, gives the most moving performance, as a man who faces death, but the film is too pat. I didn't believe these people for an instant. They were all caricatures in a drama, not flesh and blood people. TV/June 24, 1995.
CAT PEOPLE (1943)
Director: Jacques Tournier. Simone Simon, Tom Conway
Creepy thriller with Simon as woman who thinks she is a cat. The movie is a personification of the terrors of the ID, as jealousy and hate turn Simon into a panther that destroys her enemies. Scary, effective, with Conway as a shrink who hypnotizes her, offers her sage advice, and then is killed when he disbelieves her and tries to seduce her. To kiss her is to die – that's why she never makes love to her husband. So much for rationality. The shrink in this one is depicted, in the end, as a fool who pays for his beliefs with his life. Great use of shadow and suggestion; terrifically scary scene in swimming pool and the first stalking sequence, where the blowing wind suggests more terror than you'd think possible. Seen on television (AMC), Friday, January 17, 1992. Also: 7/2/00 (laserdisc)
CAUSE FOR ALARM (1951)
Director Tay Garnet. Cast: Loretta Young,, Barry Sullivan.
Well-done if implausible and slightly dopet suspense film about woman (Young) whose invalid husband (Sullivan) suspects her of plotting to kill him. Hhe writes the authorities about it and when he dies trying to kill her she makes frantic attempts to retrieve the incriminating letter. Silly but engrossing, and Young is lovely to look at. 12/31/06
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Famke Janssen, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Story of celebrity-driven culture and the things people do to be famous. The focus is on a nebbishy writer (Branagh, doing a dead-on Woody imitation), who desperately tries to make it with women, stars, etc. and who buys into the whole15minutes of fame idea. The twist is he was a promising novelist but is intoxicated by fame into giving it all up. His ex-wife, ironically, becomes a huge success, simply by not looking for it. Dark, engrossing, but facile. 2/25/00
CENTRAL STATION (1998)
Director: Walter Salles Jr. Cast: Fernanda Montenegro, Vincinius de Oliveira.
Central Station is a wonderfully acted Brazilian fairy tale about how an orphaned boy, Jose (Vincinius de Oliveira), touches and then transforms a nasty old woman (Fernanda Montenegro) into a near-saint. Set in Rio and the surrounding countryside, the movie charts as unlikely a partnership as you’re ever going to see. Dora is a bitter woman who writes letters for illiterates. Although she promises to mail the finished work immediately, she instead keeps the postage money and destroys the letters. Jose is a sharp-tongued boy whose mother hires Dora to write a note to her reclaim her estranged husband. When the woman is killed by a bus, however, a series of believable plot contrivances find Dora and Jose setting off on a bittersweet, funny, and heartfelt quest for the boy's father. Avoiding cliches and emphasizing realistic characters, Central Station is a brilliantly depicted journey of spiritual awakening as Dora realizes that she needs Jose as much he needs a father – and that the old woman and child are more alike than either realized. Not to be missed. 12/5/98
CHARLEY VARRICK (1973)
Director: Don Siegel. Cast: Walter Matthew, Joe Don Baker.
An Eastwood movie without Eastwood. It has all the ingredients: a bank heist that goes wrong, a motley crew of bank robbers, Don Siegel directing, a Lalo Schifrin score, a hero who is a loner, "the last of the independents." The only catch is it's Walter Matthau as the lead, not Eastwood. Matthau is fine, bringing a wily hang-dog quality to the part (though seeing him called "handsome" and acting like a stud is a bit much). The movie is well-paced, ingenious, but lacks a heart: it seems much more calculated than other Siegel/Eastwood flicks. Great score. Seen (again after 20 years): 1/21-1/22/98
CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS (1936)
Director: Warner Oland, Keye Luke, J. Carrol Naish, Drue Leyton.
Vastly entertaining Chan entry, with a rare appearance by the entire Chan clan (including the Mrs.) An invitation to the Big Top spells trouble when the tough circus owner is found murdered, apparently killed by a runaway ape. Enter Chan (Oland), who is persuaded by his kids to find the killer and save the circus. The mystery is clever if contrived, but the real pleasure in the film comes from the interactions between Chan and his family members, especially the over-eager No. 1 son (Luke). Oland, who is terrific as the Oriental detective, and Luke have a lovely rapport. For a Chan entry, the pacing is very fast. Reseen: 5/3/03
CHARLIE CHAN: BLACK MAGIC (1944)
Director: Phil Rosen. Cast: Sidney Toler, Frances Chan, Mantan Moreland.
Fairly fast-paced programmer, Toler's third as Chan for Monogram. It's cheap but the plot is intricate enough to keep you awake for the 67-minute running time. Not many wise and witty aphorisms in this one, and Frances Chan plays Chan's daughter Frances. Thankfully, Moreland's Birmingham Brown is downplayed. Re-issued as Meeting at Midnight. 6/22/98.
CHARLIE CHAN: THE CHINESE PARROT (1944)
Director: Phil Rosen. Cast: Sidney Toler, Benson Fong.
Fairly fast-paced (for Chan) mystery entry, with enough twists and turns to almost hold your interest until the last reel. Toler's Chan is particularly mean to his No. 3 son (Fong) and the rapport between them lacks the Warner Oland-Keye Luke warmth. A passable programmer, second of Toler's Monogram cheapies. 4/4/98.
CHARLIE CHAN: CITY IN DARKNESS (1939)
Director: Herbert I. Leeds. Cast: Sidney Toler, Harold Huber, Leo G. Carroll, Lon Chaney Jr.
Dull Chan entry that features one too many scenes of hysterical "Frenchman" Harold Huber trying to solve a murder case set in WWII-darkened Paris. Chan (Toler) makes a number of deductions, but he is generally at sea, thanks to the meandering, weak script. Toler is adequate, but lacks the charm of his predecessor, Warner Oland, and doesn't have a No. 2 son to play off, which hurts. The big surprise is seeing Leo G. Carroll as a Frenchman. He's pretty good! 1/20/98
CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT (1935)
Director: Luis King. Cast: Warner Oland, Pat Paterson, Thomas Beck, Rita Cansino (Hayworth), Stepin Fetchit.
Chan (Oland) in Egypt, on a mission for the French Archaelogical Society (!) – a contrived reason to get the Honolulu-based detective in the land of mummies and murder. There are some ingenious plot devices (a violin that murders the person who plays it) and some nice atmosphere (marred only by the offensive comic behavior of Stepin Fetchit), but the pacing is fairly leaden. Oland is excellent, once again, as Chan, his eyes twinkling at the discovery of new clues – he obviously delights in the role of his lifetime. Reseen: 2/9-2/10/02
CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON (1934)
Director: Eugene Forde. Cast: Warner Oland, Drue Leyton, Ray Milland.
Chan (Oland) races against time to prove the innocence of a convicted killer sitting on death row. Chan is more physically active than he would be in later entries, but otherwise it is business as usual for the Oriental detective. Okay, but not top-grade. Reseen: 4/23-4/24/03
CHARLIE CHAN IN PANAMA (1940)
Director: Norman Foster. Cast: Sidney Toler, Jean Rogers, Lionel Atwill.
Entertaining Chan entry with the detective (Toler) making like a secret agent as he seeks out spies and saboteurs in the Panama Canal zone. "Bad alibi like dead fish, cannot stand test of time" makes an appearance here, and Toler, who is more acerbic than Warner Oland, is fine as Chan, with Sen Yung as No. 2 son Jimmy Chan. The usual suspicious characters turn up and the least obvious one was my choice for murderer and saboteur – and I was right! Moves at a nice pace. (Seen: 1/29/98)
CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS (1935)
Director: Lewis Seiler. Cast: Warner Oland, Keye Luke, Erik Rhodes.
Long considered a lost film, this entry is seminal since it introducs Keye Luke as Lee Chan, Charlie's eager, Americanized No.1 son, who doubles as man of action and comic relief. Chan's bond with Lee is warm and genuine-seeming; it is the highlight of a film that has many highs, including a nice mystery, clever aphorisms, and a suitably mysterious atmosphere as Chan tangles with murderous counterfeiters. Seen again: 1/26, 1/27/08
CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO (1935)
Director: Norman Foster. Cast: Sidney Toler, Victor Sen Yung.
Diverting Chan entry (Toler's second) with a complicated plot and no shortgage of suspects. Toler lacks Warner Oland's charm, but he is a servicable Chan. I wish I could say the same about Slim Summerville as the comic relief sheriff. His schtick gets pretty tiring after a while. This one involves murder among would-be-divorcees staying at a hotel in Reno, Nevada. Fast-paced, for a Chan movie. 4/25/98
CHARLIE CHAN IN THE SECRET SERVICE (1944)
Director: Phil Rosen. Cast: Sidney Toler, Manton Moreland.
First of the Monogram Studios entries in the Charlie Chan series. Dull, plodding, and uninteresting, even by Chan standards. There is a ludicrous sequence of Chan walking from a building to a car, from the car to a gate, and to a mansion – all done without sound except for a ludicrously overdone musical accompaniment. Introduces the black chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Moreland), who helped lower the level of the series with his racist antics. 3/6-3/7/99.
CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI (1935)
Director: James Tinling. Cast: Warner Oland, Irene Hervey, Keye Luke.
Chan (Oland) returns to the land of his ancestors in a charming, well-plotted entry. In this one, he's after drug-smugglers who have murdered an old friend, but the real interest lies in Oland's delightfully low-key, mannered performance, and the interplay between Oland and Luke, both affectionate and bantering. Reseen: 3/29/03, 1/17/08
CHARLIE CHAN'S MURDER CRUISE (1940)
Director: Eugene Forde. Cast: Sidney Toler, Lionel Atwill, Leo G. Carroll, Charles Middleton, Sen Yung.
Engaging remake of Warner Oland's first Chan, Charlie Chan Carries On, itself a "remake" of Earl Derr Biggers' novel. With such good pedigree, how could it not be entertaining? Toler is fine as Chan, with some charming family scenes. The murderer is almost undetactable, and there are enough twists and turns to keep the pace up. This time, Chan takes over for his old friend Inspector Duff, murdered by the man he is hunting down. The personal stake is a good touch, humanizing Chan even more. 2/9/98.
CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET (1936)
Director: Gordon Wiles. Cast: Warner Oland, Rosina Lawrence.
Atmospheric Chan mystery, with the detective in San Francisco investigating the death of a long-missing heir. Secret panels, seances, and a complicated plot make this an enjoyable entry in the long-running series. Oland is wonderful to watch. Re-seen: 4/5/03
CHARLIE CHAN: THE SCARLET CLUE (1945)
Director: Phil Karlson. Cast: Sidney Tolder, Benson Fong.
Fast-paced Chan entry, marred only by the silly antics of No. 3 son (Fong), and Manton Moreland as the cowardly black assistant of Chan. Why he keeps them around is the biggest mystery of the series. This one involves murder by cigarette, certainly a prescient idea. 10/24-10/25/98.
CHARLIE CHAN: THE SHANGHAI COBRA (1945)
Director: Phil Karlson. Cast: Sidney Toler, Benson Fong.
Atmospheric Chan entry, well-directed by Karlson. In this one, Toler an acerbic and affable Chan, who uses an ingenious (and improbable) method to communicate with the police; he is also assisted by No. 3 son (Fong) and the black chauffeur – though they are both awkwardly worked into the story, since they do very little but sit around and wait for instructions. (At least in the other Chans, there was an excuse made for their presence.) Entertaining programmer. 7/30-7/31/98.
CHARLIE: THE LIFE AND ART OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN (2004)
Director: Richard Schickel. Cast: Charlie Chaplin.
By-the-numbers documentary of cinema great Chaplin, which looks at the highs and lows of the silent movie star with a fairly uncritical eye. Schickel is obviously a fan of Chaplin, but fans don't often make the best bographers. Okay, of its type. 3/3/04
CHARMING SINNERS (1929)
Director: Robert Milton. Cast: Clive Brook, Ruth Chatterton, William Powell.
Stiff adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham play The Constant Wife, with Powell in supporting role as a would-be-lover of Chatterton. Brook is as stiff as a board as philandering husband. 3/19, 3/21/08
CHASING FREEDOM (2004)
Director: Cast: Juliette Lewis, Layla Alizada.
Excellent, fact-inspired story about a young Afghan woman (Alizada) who escapes persecution in her country, only to find herself in troube here. Without papers and without an identity, she finds herself at the mercy of a cruel bureacracy, which imprisons her in a holding area which might as well be an Afghan prison. Lewis plays her initially reluctant pro bono attorney who slowly becomes committed to her client's cause after hearing her story and seeing films of public executions, Engrossing and educational, though not in a pedantic way. 1/15/04
Director: Rob Marshall. Cast: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere.
Impressive version of Bob Fosse stage musical, with fantasy numbers seamlessly blended into realistically shot tale. Film recounts the media circus and surrounding 1930s Chicago cabaret singer (Zeta-Jones) and cabaret singer wannabe (Zellweger), and the slick lawyer (Gere) who manipulates the media to get them off. Simple story, elaborately told, with a great deal of acting and musical pyrotechnics. Gere can actually sing, and everyone is terrific. 1/18/03
CHILDREN OF HEAVEN (1998)
Director: Majid Majidi. Cast: Mohammad Amir Naji, Mir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqui.
Winner of the Montreal World Film Festival Grand Prix of the Americas Award, The Children of Heaven is a lovely, sensitive film about childhood joys and sorrows. Set in director Ajid Majiidi’s native Tehran, the movie depicts the relationship between an impoverished brother and sister, Ali (Mohammad Amir Naji) and Zahra (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) as they attempt to cope with a crisis of Ali’s making. Ali has lost his sister’s shoes. Scared of telling his father since they are so poor that everyone has only one pair of shoes, Ali spends the movie circumventing childhood disasters that stem from the incident. How the movie goes from a quiet conversation in a courtyard to a Rocky-style, sit-up-and-cheer sports climax is only one of the many pleasures of this remarkable movie. The tale – which has echoes of such great Italian neo-realist classics as The Bicycle Thief – is both moving and charming, with enchanting performances by Naji and Hashemian. 10/15/98
THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (2001)
Director: Lasse Hallstrom. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Paul Rudd, Michael Caine.
Affecting adaptation of John Irving novel about orphan coming of age in 1943 New England. Raised to be a doctor by the eccentric Dr. Larch (Caine), Homer Wells (Macguire) searches for meaning in the world outside of Dr. Larch's enclave. The movie is about responsibility, about Homer's responsibility to his "family" -- Dr. Larch and the orphans they care for at St. Cloud's Orphanage -- and about his responsibility to the world as a doctor. Dr. Larch performs abortions, giving women a choice at a time when none was available. Homer is against abortions as morally wrong, but, by the end, he comes to see Dr. Larch's view: life is a gift and an unwanted life can be a tragedy. It is more complex than that, however, for, as Homer argues, the unwanted orphans have developed into a family of their own, leading a sheltered, loving life, watching one movie (King Kong, about an unrequited love) over and over again. It is the safety of predictability, a kind of innocence Kong represents the same kind of innocence Homer has when he goes out into the world seeking experience. Only by experiencing life fully can you make choices and take responsibility for life. Maquire -- whose Homer finds love with Candy (Theron), only to lose it -- is excellent, capturing the matter-of-fact, wide-eyed innocence perfectly, and Caine is perfect as the cynical idealist. Touching. 9/20/02
THE CINCINNATI KID (1965)
Director: Norman Jewison. Cast: Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margaret, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn.
The Hustler with poker. McQueen is the confident upstart, Robinson is the veteran, and the story, set in 1930s New Orleans, details the pre-game intrigues that surround the characters involved in the game. Some romance, a lot of deceit, a lot of style. McQueen and Robinson are excellent, smooth and confident. Good supporting cast, excellent Lalo Schifrin score. Enjoyable, if a tad predictable. 6/15/02
CITY LIGHTS (1931)
Director: Charles Chaplin. Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers.
Touching story about a tramp (Chaplin) and two people he helps: a suicidal drunken millionaire (Myers) and a blind flower girl (Cherrill). The movie has a great opening -- the tramp asleep on a statue as it is unveiled for the first time -- and a truly poignant finish. Charlie has sacrificed much so that the blind girl he loves can see; when she finally realizes that her benefactor is a tramp and not a millionaire, the scene is so wonderfully underplayed taht tears came to my eyes. Great comic bits, too: the boxing match is a whole film of wonderful invention itself. 3/20/04
A CIVIL ACTION (1999)
Director: Steven Zaillian. Cast: John Travolta, Robert Duvall.
Dull version of thrilling best-selling true story about long lawsuit over toxic waste. Perhaps it's expecting too much to hope that a movie could capture the nuances and complexities of this epic tale. But what a bunch of cliches. The greedy lawyer who finds redemption in the case. The grieving parents. The unscrupulous adversaries. It hits all the cliches except for the boffo happy ending. By trying to stay true to the facts of the case the movie betrayed itself (if you're going to simplify, why not go all the way). Probably, this should only have been attempted as a mini-series on TV. Law & Order handles complexities like this all the time, with a lot more fire. 6/30/99, 7/13/99.
CLASH BY NIGHT (1952)
Director: Fritz Lang. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, Marilyn Monroe.
Clifford Odets play about bitter woman with a past (Stanwyck) who marries nice guy sailor (Douglas) but is drawn like moth to flame to bad guy friend of her husband (Ryan). Gritty, good dialogue and performances, but nothing new. Ends happily: it's all about not running away from commitments. A bit stagy. Monroe has a supporting role as a young good girl. 5/19/01.
THE CLOSET (2001)
Director: Francis Veber. Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu.
Entertaining, although slight, French farce about a boring dedicated nobody named Francois Pignon (Auteuil) who becomes somebody by declaring – falsely – that he is gay. Pignon is about to lose his job – just as he has lost his wife (divorced) and teenage son (estranged). But then his neighbor gives him the idea to declare he is gay. His employers, condom manufacturers, refuse to fire him for fear of offending their chief clientele, gay men. Amusing complications ensue, involving reversals of stereotypes, with Pignon becoming more assertive as he sees how perception affects reality. Depardieu, looking old, contributes an amusing portrait of a dense bigot who falls in love with Pignon. 7/13/01.
Director: Michael Mann Cast: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx.
Cruise in fine form as a charming hitman, who commandeers a taxi driven by Foxx to take him to his five victims. Atmospheric, good action sequences, nice performances, but a letdown of an ending. 8/15/06
Director: James Horne. Cast: Buster Keaton.
Keaton goes to college. The stone face plays an intellectual who scorns athletic activities, until a pretty co-ed scorns him for not being a real man. The movie is a series of bits, some very well done, in which Keaton demonstrates his lack of prowess and/or understanding of baseball, football, and other collegiate sports. The movie has some great routines (the best may be the sequence in which Keaton tries to be a soda jerk, trying to live up to the rep of a great soda jerk he's replaced), but it goes over the line into nastiness at times. Keaton's character doesn't deserve such abuse -- unless it's because he's an intellectual snob. Seen on March 4, 1995.
COMANCHE STATION (1960)
Director: BuddBoeticcher. Cast: Randolph Scott, Claude Akins, Nancy Gates.
Well-written western, once again with Scott as laconic cowpoke out to find/avenge his wife (see Seven Men from Now, Decision at Sundown). Nice characters, with friendly villain Akins foolishly taking reluctant-to-kill-him Scott in the end. Vigorous, well done, taut. 7/7/07
THE COMANCHEROS (1961)
Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Ina Balin, Nehemiah Persoff, Lee Marvin.
Entertaining western, Curtiz's last film. Wayne plays a Texas Ranger and Whitman is his quarry. The episodic, good-natured film features a jaunty Elmer Bernstein score, his first for Wayne, who delivers a winning, relaxed performance. Marvin is on hand, briefly, as a lunatic gun-runner. 8/31/00
COME ANND GET IT (1936)
Director: Howard Hawks and William Wyler. Cast: Edward Arnold, Joel McCrea, Frances Farmer, Walter Brennan.
Intergenerational roamce about ambitious lumber jack (Arnold) who gives up his first true love (Farmer) and triesto recapture the past years later with her daughter (Farmer again). Well done story of compulsion, terrifically played by Arnold and Farmer. 8/24/06
Director: Richard Fleischer. Cast: Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, E.G. Marshall.
Not-very-compelling version of the Leopold and Loeb murder case, fictionalized here as an indictment against capital punishment. Stockwell and Dillman are the two young geniuses who murder for the scientific challenge of it; they are vaguely homosexual and fairly two-dimensional. Welles turns up an hour into the movie as a defender of civil liberties and wins his case through an impassioned, windy speech. The movie is a curiosity; not bad but not very good, either. The earlier Rope, on the same subject, is better. 3/20/98.
CONDEMNED WOMEN (1938)
Director: Lew Landers. Cast: Sally Eilers, Louis Hayward.
Ho-hum women-in-prison drama in which prison psychoanalyst-doctor (he handles both chores) falls in love with one of the prisoners. Louis Hayward is the suave analyst, and outside of administering a few intelligence tests, he does very little analyzing. Seen on AMC, January 24/26, 1992.
CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS (1984)
Director: Francois Truffaut. Cast: Fanny Ardant, Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Truffaut's last film, a murder mystery involving a female amateur detective, Barbara (Ardant), who investigates the deaths of the wife and the lover of her boss (Trintignant). The killer becomes fairly obvious about halfway through the story, but it is entertaining for is technique and the novelty of a female detective. Atmospheric B&W photography and effective Georges Delerue score. Ardant is charming. 6/28/01
THE CONTENDER (2000)
Director: Rod Lurie. Cast: Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges.
Superficial tale of political machinations over a vice presidential appointment, a kind of remake of The Best Man. Purporting to show politics in all its ugly glory, the movie paints a satirical picture of how principles can get lost in pettiness, morality lost in self-righteousness. The good guys are the liberals, the bad guys the conservatives, and there is very little middle ground. Everyone uses the same tactics, except the liberals are shown to be out for principle, the conservatives for sleaze. The movie means well, but it's a little too pat for my tastes. 10/16/00
CONVICT 13 (1920)
Directed by and with Buster Keaton.
Clever formula piece involving mistaken identity. Many nice sight gags as Keaton is mistaken for an escaped convict and unjustly imprisoned (and also hanged – unsuccessfully). Seen: February 13, 1995.
COOKIE'S FORTUNE (1998)
Director: Robert Altman Cast: Glen Close, Charles Dutton, Ned Beatty, Liv Tyler, Patrica Neal.
Entertaining character drama about eccentrics in a Mississippi town who get mixed up in the supposed murder of the elderly widow, Cookie (Neal). Dutton and Tyler play relatives of Cookie, among the only ones who really care for the old woman; Close is Cookie's scheming, over-the-top daughter. Entertaining because of the characters, more than the plot. Altman handles the action deftly and seems to have a belief in divine justice. Or at least an ironic twist of fate. 4/19/02
THE COOLER (2003)
Director: Wayne Kramer. Cast: William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin.
Contemporary film noir, with Macy as Bernie Lootz, a sad sack loser who magically brings bad luck to whomever he comes into contact with. As such, he is employed by Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin), a ruthless Las Vegas casino owner, to work as a "cooler," i.e., a person who cools down a person's winning streak. Complications ensue when Bernie falls in love with Natalie (Bello), and a happy cooler is a contradiction in terms; instead, he turns bad luck good. The movie is about the transforming power of love and the nature of friendship (Bernie considers Shelly his friend, even though he hobbled him by breaking his knee cap once; he contiues to work for him out of debt; Shelly ultimately gives up all out of friendship for Bernie). It is intriguing, well-crafted, if a bit heavy-handed. Good performances, smooth direction. 9/5/04
COOL RUNNINGS (1993)
Director: . Cast: John Candy.
Delightful – a by-the-numbers (formulaic) kids' film that is entertaining nonetheless. It's based on a true story about the first Jamaican bobsled team, and although it's predictable – reluctant coach with a problem past who comes around in the end, team faces early dissension, skepticism and own stumbles, one member against own father who forbids him, heavy odds, etc. etc. – the enthusiasm of the cast and the easy humor (plus the inspiring message) make it a winner. Seen on 11/28/93.
THE COPPER BEECHES (1923)
Director: Cast: Ellie Norwood.
Bizarre silent Sherlock Holmes film in which the mystery is unveiled in the opening minutes. By telling the story chronologically, there is very little surprise or mystery for the audience. Norwood's Holmes is over-the-top. 3/31/98.
Directed by and with Buster Keaton.
A bizarre and almost plotless free association adventure, in which Keaton gets into all sorts of adventures, simply through miscommunication. Like a live action cartoon, and although it's clever, it seem more silent film formulaic than other Keatons. Seen: February 13, 1995.
THE COUCH TRIP (1987)
Director: Michael Ritchie. Cast: Dan Ackroyd, Walter Matthau, Charles Grodin.
Another in the therapists are crazier than the patients school of comic farce. Ackroyd is the smart ass escapee from a mental institution, a malcontent from the fringes of society who stays one step ahead of it by his wit and his sarcastic honesty. Most of the therapists in the film are shown as dumb or greedy or neurotic – or all three – and Ackroyd comes out ahead because he is smart and he cares. In the end, he gives up his freedom andhis escape plans because he feels responsible for mental case Matthau, who is going to kill himself because he feels Ackroyd betrayed him. The big scene demonstrates a key therapeutic principle: trust. Ackroyd reveals who he is, gives it all up, to gain Matthau's trust. And Matthau rescues him in the last moments – while the therapists are locked up in the looney bin. Really little more than an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, the movie has it in for asylums, showing that they are little more than prisons; for shrinks, saying they are greedy; and for L.A. patients, parodying them as egotists and fools, ready to be taken advantage of for the newest fad – "There's nothing that can be cured in a short time that can't be cured just as well in a long time," says Ackroyd, whose glib pop psychology advice on a radio call–in show makes him a four–day wonder, a sensation, offered a TV contract, a chance to sing the National Anthem, and fans, fans, fans. A broad, fast–paced parody of the cult of confession. Seen again on TV/tape, Saturday, December 28, 1991.
Director: William Wyler. Cast: John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas,
Episodic, well-done version of stage play showing the fast-paced world of hard-hitting, unscrupulous lawyer. Barrymore is fine as tough lawyer who has come up from the slums and has one weakness: an over-fondnness for his uper-crust wife. Good performances. 8/23/06
THE COURT-MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1957)
Director: Otto Preminger. Cast: Gary Cooper, Ralph Bellamy, Rod Steiger.
Well-made, informative, and respectful film version oof real-life court-martial of Air Force colonel Mitchell (Cooper), who in 1922 dared to criticie the Army in publicc. Cooper is virtuous, Steiger is nasty as a prosecutor, and Bellamy is wily as Mitchell's attorney. It is so well-meaning you want to like it, but the story is ho-hum, a far cry from Preminger's great film noirs of the '40s. 11/11/06
THE CRADLE WILL ROCK (1999)
Director: Tim Robbins Cast: Susan Sarandon, Bill Murray, John Cussack, Joan Cussack, John Turturro.
Message-heavy story about the ill-fated production of Orson Welles' 1937 WPA play The Cradle Will Rock, and all the posturing that surrounded it by politicians and the wealthy. The characters are not real people but points in a didactic essay about how capitalism works. The scenes are kept short and the pace is kept up, but everyone is playing cariacatures of real people. It supposedly is about a heady time, but the movie is overwhelmed by its own sense of pomposity and irony, especially in a final montage in which the WPA production's words are contrasted with capitalism's heavy hand (the destruction of a socialist mural; a modern view of Times Square with all its capitalist advertising = hey, the capitalists one!) Well shot, but it's a movie preaching to the converted, the naive, or the simple-minded. 1/28/00
CRISS CROSS (1949)
Director: Robert Siodmak. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea.
Film noir about a man torn apart/destroyed by love. Lancaster is fine as the sucker and the movie is a well–paced B picture, with some fine voice over bits, and two great sequences: the armored car robbery and Lancaster in the hospital room, when he may or may not be menaced by a shy visitor. TV, October 14, 1991.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAFON (2000)
Director: Ang Lee. Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Cheng Pei Pei.
Arty martial arts film from acclaimed director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility) features an involved plot and some terrific action sequences. The fighting is balletic. But the story and performances between the battles are by-the-numbers comic book stuff and boringly complex to boot. But who comes to one of these types of films for the story, anyway? 10/9/00
Director: Mike Hodges.
Story of a down-on-his-luck writer who lands a job as a croupier at a posh London casino and hits it big. The movie is narrated, like a novel, in the third person, and it is a very effective technique; it allows us to get inside the head of the chilly, impassive protagonist, Jack, and also allows exposition and explanations about the game to be offered with ease. The story itself shows how Jack, who never gambles, essentially becomes the character "Jake" of his novel, the dispassionate observer of human life who controls the game, in effect, controls his life, by never getting involved emotionally with the customers. The movie is engaging because of its technique and the unusual world of the croupier; Jack himself remains a cipher, unknown and unknowable, keeping to himself, rarely opening up, rarely taking the conventional course. 8/18/00
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)
Director: Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise. Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph.
Gentle sequel to The Cat People, more a psychological drama than horror film, featuring the lonely child of the the cat woman's husband, Amy. Amy leads a life of imaginative fantasies, which concerns her father (Smith) because Irena (Simon) had "fantasies" about being a cat. The movie finallly says that having a healthy fantasy life is good for a child – and it is her fantasy life which saves Amy int he end.. Unusual sequel, lacking the hauting power of the original – although the ethereal Simon, as the ghostly Irena, is lovely. 1/30/06
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)
Director: Terence Fisher. Cast: Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Urqhart, Christopher Lee.
First of the Hammer horror flicks, offers another portrait of the obsessed scientist as he attempts to defy the law of God and create a man. Cushing is good as the suave man of science who is slowly corrupted by his obsession, and Urqhart is one-note as his moralistic friend. When compared with the Universal monster, Lee's is a pale thing; he doesn't do much but shuffle around and try to strangle people. The focus is more on the corrupt Frankenstein, who is a fairly low specimen of humanity himself: he murders an elderly scientist to get a brain, impregnates his maid and then lets the monster kill her when she threatens to reveal all, and finally sets his own creation on fire when he himself is threatened by it. In the end, he is reduced to a sniveling madman, begging for his life. Not a pretty picture of a scientist; he is corrupted and becomes evil – everything for his goal. 7/19/00
DANCE WITH A STRANGER (1985)
Director: Mike Newell. Cast: Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett, Ian Holm.
The true story of Ruth Ellis (Richardson), the last woman executed in Britain. The tale is one of self-destructive love/obsession between Ellis and the wealthy race car driver who beats her and makes love to her, too (Everett). Atmospheric, stylish, affecting, especially in the performance of the solid British businessman who loves her but whom she merely uses (Holm). 7/23/01
DANGEROUS FEMALE (1931)
Director: Roy Del Ruth. Cast: Bebe Daniels, Ricardo Cortez.
Sluggishly paced original version of The Maltese Falcon (1941), retitled for TV. Plot is the same but the acting and casting are subpar. Cortez is a smirking, gigolo version of Sam Spade, lacking Bogart's toughness and staccato delivery. 12/13/02
DANIEL BOONE: FRONTIER TRAIL-RIDER (1966)
Director: George Sherman. Cast: Fess Parker, Ed Ames, Patrica Blair.
Entertaining although not very accurate retelling of how Dnaiel Boone (Parker) led settlers into Kentucky and helped settle it. With well-paced action and good characters, this movie (culled from a two-parter from the 1964-70 TV series) is entertaining family fare. Re-seen: 12/1/04
Director: Mark Steven Johnson. Cast: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner.
Dark, dreary, pretentious version of Marvel Comics superhero about blind lawyer Matt Murdock, who through a quirk of fate, becomes radar-sensing superhero, "the man without fear." As portrayed here, hornhead is a second-rate Batman, a dark avenger who keeps crime out of his turf, Hell's Kitchen. He faces three foes: Bullseye, The Kingpin, and Electra, the last of whom he loves as Murdock. Some fairly unbelieavable, Matrix-like stunts (kicking and jumping and flipping around), many ho-hum performances, and fairly unpleasant violence. As a franchise, this is a flop. 3/29/03
THE DARK CORNER (1946)
Director: Henry Hathaway. Cast: Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix.
Film noir about not-so-bright detective (Stevens) who gets framed for murder. The movie travels at a rapid clip, with some genre-typical dialogue. Ball, as the wisecracking secretary and love interest, is the best thing about it, Webb is okay in what is essentially a tepid rehash of his character from Laura. Bendix's exit is dramatic. 3/23/98.
DAS BOOT (1981)
Director: Wolfgang Peterson.
At times harrowing tale of German submarine crew in action during World War II. Eschewing politics for human drama, Das Boot is an effective portrait of men under stress, although the characters are little more than archetypes (the determined captain, the personally troubled young sailor). They survive some tough times, only to be mowed down in the end, in a fairly heavy-handed use of irony. 6/10/99
DAVID AND LISA (1962)
Director: Frank Perry. Cast: Keir Dullea, Janet Margolin, Howard Da Silva.
Shrink as friend – Howard da Silva plays the easy-going, fatherly therapist who runs a home for mentally disturbed teenagers. David (Dullea), an intelligent, angry young man who hates to be touched – "I'll die!" – is thrown into this mix, and his cure begins when he starts to reach out to Lisa, a pretty schizophrenic (Margolin) who talks in rhyme. The movie posits the idea that care and understanding – and respect for an individual's rights – is key to a cure, with the avuncular, unscientific Da Silva a pefect foil for that. David also has recurring dreams about killing his enemies in a vicious clock he has built, which the doctor (never seen in a white smock or with a pipe) claims is a metaphor for David's fear of death – time's running out – and desire to control life. A turning point comes when David doesn't behead Lisa in a clock dream, and when he runs away from home to seek sanctuary with Da Silva (being himself, finding a home for himself). The talking cure is briefly depicted ("Tell me about it," is Da Silva's most common response), but the cure comes more from love than anything else. The catharctic moment comes when Lisa runs away and David, who has allowed himself to be emotionally "touched" by her, feels responsible, finds her, and lets her take his hand. No talk of drugs or miracle cures in this sensitive, touching tale. A little on the idealistic side, however. The cast is first-rate. The phobias are things the ill people use to protect themselves from harm; whenthey drop them, that means they are coming to terms with life and their problems. Seen on tape, Tuesday, January 28, 1992.
THE DA VINCI CODE (2006)
Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan.
Unpleasant thriller, with lots of gore, few thrills, and an ugly message: a s ect of the Catholic Church runs its operations like the Mob (or at least Dick Cheney), murderously and in secret. Dumb. 7/15/07
THE DAWN PATROL (1938)
Director: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, David Niven.
Engrossing anti-war film about the insaniity of sending young flyers to certain death in World War I France. Flynn and Niven are two veteran flyers, whose devil-may-care attitudes mask a disgust at what is happening. Rathbone (in a fine performance) is their commanding officer who is cracking up because he doesn't have the release of going into battle and instead must send young people to their deaths. It being a war film, it has its exciting moments, but the real emphasis is on the insanity and pointlessness of war (particularly touching scene: Rathbone and Flynn toasting Niven, and Flynn making nice with the German prisoner who killed his buddy). 11/4/06
Director: Marcel Carne. Cast: Jean Gabin, Jules Berry, Arletty.
Moody film noir, told in flashback, about doomed love life of tough factory worker and orphan. Dowbeat, moody, well done, and superior to the later, miscast Henry Fonda American version. 7/5/06
DAY FOR NIGHT (1973)
Director: Francois Truffaut. Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Valentina Cortese, Jean-Pierre Leaud.
Affectionate, amusing look at the business of movie-making, with Truffaut himself playing a director coping with childish actors, death, sex, and budgetary woes as he tries to finish his movie. Oscar-winner as best foreign language film of 1973. Re-seen: 3/28/03
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)
Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe.
Sci-fi Christ parable with Rennie as alien visitor Klaatu, coming with a message of peace – only to be met with violence and fear from those on earth. Klaatu walks among men, disguised as Mr. Carpenter (get it?), and is killed by an angry mob, only to rise again. Thoughtful tract on peace and understanding, enhanced by excellent performances by Rennie and Neal, and also by atmospheric Bernard Herrmann score. Re-seen: 3/12/03
DEAD CALM (1989)
Director: Philip Noyce. Cast: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane
Haunting, gripping tale of woman (Kidman) trapped on a boat with madman (Zane) who has already murdered six other people. Sparse, moody, with effective performances by all, excellent photography, and score. Terrific, with amusing Hollywood-style finale. Re-seen: 4/4/03
DEAD END (1937)
Director: William Wyler. Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart.
Wyler directs a Lillian Hellman adaptation of the Broadway play, which introduced the Dead End Kids (eventually to morph into The Bowery Boys). Stagy, full of actor-like speeches, the movie is full of socialist humanity but even Wyler's deft touch can't keep the movie from seeming contrived and stage bound. Bogart is fine as the evil gangster, who has returned to his "dead end" to die, and Sidney is quite a looker. 3/8/98 On reseeing it:I was perhaps a little harsh; the movie is stagy, but Wyler keeps the action moving, and the characters are interesting. But it is stagy and still a bit preachy. Reseen: 8/22/06
DEAD SILENCE (1996)
Director: Daniel Petrie Jr. Cast: James Garner, Marlee Matlin.
Well-made hostage thriller, with Garner as discredited FBI crisis negotiator who must prove his mettle in the face of skeptical authorities. The plot finds three escaped convicts holding a busload of deaf children hostage and the FBI's tense efforts over 25 hours to get them out alive. Tightly directed and well-paced, the movie is a engaging thriller, with just enough surprises and character to reinvigorate what has become a tired formula. Garner is solid, charming and charismaric as always. 6/26/98.
THE DEAR HUNTER (1978)
Director: Michael Cimino. Cast:Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep.
Dreadful. The "Best Picture" Oscar-winner of 1978 is a drawn-out, tedious mess: a rambling narrative about rambunctious Pennyslvania steel town buddies who are changed by the devastating experiences of the Vietnam War. The movie is incoherent and self-indulgent: the first hour is spent in establishing the camaraderie of the good ole boys and also sets up the metaphor of the Deer Hunter. You see, Michael (De Niro – named after the director, I guess, to make the POV even clearer) is an expert deer hunter, who takes his work very seriously (kill them precisely, with only one shot). After his war-time experiences, he goes hunting and – naturally – he can't kill anymore. He lets the deer go, even after he had it in his sights. Life is too precious, hunting seems trivial, you name it. Michael (perhaps also named for an archangel?) is also the superhuman savior of his pals: in the most famous sequence, the Russian Roulette game with the Vietcong, he saves the day by not losing his head and rescues his two pals. Later, he doesn't give up on either: retrieving one from the VA hospital where he sits in self-pity having lost his legs; and then goes back to Vietnam to track down Nick (Walken), a man who has gone over the edge, AWOL, and plays Russian Roulette for money. It is all wildly improbable, the stuff of Grand Opera, and the characters are all types who are hard to relate to; as such, the movie rambles on inteminably. The performances are all equally obtuse: all about inarticulate people doing their best to communicate. 11/24/01
DEAR JESSE (1998)
Director: Tim Kirkman.
Set for a Gay Pride Month opening in New York City, Dear Jesse preaches to the converted. The documentary ostensibly is an “open letter” to right-right U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, an avowed homophobe, penned by filmmaker Tim Kirkman, a homosexual from Helms’ hometown of Monroe, North Carolina. Besides going to the same school and being raised as Southern Baptists, the two men, claims Kirkman, have “a more significant similarity: for most of your 24 years in the U.S. Senate, you’ve been obsessed with homosexual men; for most of my adult life, so have I.” The movie’s gimmick is to follow Kirkman home as he chats with his own family and friends, as well as supporters and detractors of Helms, all about politics and homosexuality. In voiceover, Kirkman talks a lot about his life, showing how ordinary and normal it is to be gay, and by implication, how bizarre and outlandish Helms’ positions against the homosexual life style are. The movie is preaching to the converted, however: gays and liberals will aplaud but the filmmaker doesn’t work very hard to make his case for others. Although there are some good speakers and some poignant moments, the story lacks bite, wit, or original insight. Helms, spewing bile thoughout the movie, is clearly a hateful man. Kirkman’s bizarre achievement is to make him seem dull. 4/6/98
DECISION AT SUNDOWN (1957)
Director: Budd Boetticher. Cast: Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, John Carroll.
Another revenge story from Boetticher and Scott, again involving the hero's late wife, who killed herself following an affair with the villain (Carroll). Scott is at his most obsessive, but the story isn't really about him -- it's about the corruppt town. It's also the most verbose of the Boetticher-Scott westerns – and the least interesting. (IIt's also the most bizarre: Scott announces he's going to kill Carroll at the man's wedding and then spends the rest of the movie pinned down by the sherriff's men in a staable.) Not bad, not top-grade. 7/5/07
DEEP RISING (1998)
Director: Stephen Sommers. Cast: Treat Williams, Famke Janssen.
A by-the-numbers B movie about a group of mercenaries caught on a luxury liner with a collection of computer-generated sea monsters that have eaten the passengers. Think Aliens crossed with any other action flick of recent vintage and you've got this movie's number. Not that it's not well-made and entertaining, it's just so obviously a cash-in, a predictable mish-mash of heroics and horror that will keep you entertained if your standards and/or expectations are fairly low. Williams is a good-looking, gone-to-seed kind of hero. There's a pounding Jerry Goldsmith score to keep you awake. 2/6/98
THE DEFENDER (1957)
Director: Robert Butler. Cast: William Shatner, Steve McQueen, Martin Balsam.
Engaging live TV-broadcast about father-son legal defense team that disagrees on the defense strategy for their client, a young man who may or may not have strangled a woman to death. We never find out whether he did, and unlike other TV laswyer dramas, who did it isn't the point, a man's right to a fair trial is the issue, meaning the best defense he can get, whether's innocent or guilty. Good performances, good Reginald Rose script, if a little preachy. Pilot for The Defenders TV series. 8/19/00
THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)
Director: Stanley Kramer. Cast: Sidney Poitier. Tony Curtis, Claude Akins, Lon Chaney.
Two escaped convicts, one black, the other white, on the run from the law and the demons of hate that keep them apart: hatred of the white man, the black man, the system that keeps them down – you name it. Kramer's in-your-face style is more subdued, and the characters are compelling. Predictable (except for the ending) but still powerful. The pair learn to care about each other, and their hatred is only skin deep. Reseen: 7/25/02
Director:Irwin Winkler. Cast: Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce.
The Cole Porter story -- as seen through the eyes of Porter (Kline) as he prepares to die. Kline gives a marvelous performance as Porter at differnt stages of his life, and Judd is equally fine as his near-saintly wife, who puts up with his homosexual affairs and his irresponsible ways all for the sake of his talent. Brilliantly staged -- stylized, surreal dance numbers in the Pennies from Heaven tradition -- and, of course, great music, interpreted by, among others, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Cole, and Elivs Costello. 7/30/04
Director: John Boorman. Cast: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox.
Boorman's beautiful, disturbing essay on manhood, based on the James Dickey novel (Dickey appears in the end as a sheriff). The story is simple: four Atlanta businessmen ride the rapids in two canoes, trying to get a last taste of nature before a dam causes the area to be flooded forever. In the course of their adventure, one man dies, another is raped, one breaks his leg, and two strangers are killed – all presented in a nightmarishly beautiful manner. Voight is excellent as Ed, the tortured family man who both admires and fears his macho friend, Lewis (Reynolds), and who rises to the challenge of defending the group after Lewis is incapcitated. "Now you can pleay the game," Lewis says. It is a life-and-death game in which Ed can take no prisoners. But there is also doubt and fear: do they kill the right man? Was Drew shot or did he faint? One can never know. The last image is haunting, as is the remarkable "Duelling Banjos" sequence. 9/3/99
THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1936)
Director: George King. Cast: Tod Slaughter, Stella Rho, Johnny Singer.
This low–budget oddity tells the story of Sweeney Todd, without the music or the grand operatic flourishes of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Tod Slaughter (no kidding), England's B-film horror king of the '30s and '40s, overacts prodigiously as Sweeney, the barber who cut his clients' throats, robbed them, and then sold their bodies as meat pies. The killings and the pie-making are all done discreetly offstage, but there's enough silliness to satisfy even the most demanding bad movie fan. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street certainly ranks with Color Me Blood Red, Robot Monster, and Maniac as a camp curiosity. The transfer is okay; the film itself is scratched and dirty and the sound of variable quality.
THE DENTIST (1932)
Director: Jack Pearce (?). Cast: W.C. Fields.
Short comedy with Fields as a dentist who's rather play golf or go shooting. Gets a bit gruesome at times, but has some funny physical bits. 6/12/01.
Director: Robert Rodriguez. Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin.
Stylized violence, in the Sam Peckinpah mode, as a mysterious stranger (Rodriguez) comes into a small Mexican town seeking revenge. Style is about all the picture has going for it; the performances are tongue-in-cheek over-the-top, and the movie is sheer nonsense, with a dopey script. Rousing Los Lobos score. 12/18/02
THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955)
Director: William Wyler. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Frederic March.
Tense drama, from a novel and stage play, with March as a father and family man who's house is taken over by three escaped convicts, led by the brutal but canny Bogart. Well-played, well-constructed, from beginning to end. A nail-biter. 6/20-6/21/98.
DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939)
Director: George Marshall. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy.
Terrific comic western, with Stewart as Destry, the deputy sheriff who doesn't wear a gun yet uses his wits and his low-key manner to clean up a corrupt town. Dietrich plays the saloon hall gal who mocks him but comes to admire and love him. Their first encounter is classic. Seen many times, but still holds up. 1/3/02
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer. Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage.
Contrived film noir, about hitchhiker (Neal) caught in an accidental web of violence and murder. The plot and coincidences defy credulity and the movie has the quality of a bad dream as the hapless protagonist travels, relentless, to his doom. Classic noir characters, though Neal's hitchhiker is a fairly weak sister. 12/19/02
THE DEVIL'S BROTHER (1933)
Director: Hal Roach, Charley Rogers. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Dennis King.
Pleasant comic opera set in the 16th or 17th century, with Laurel and Hardy excellent as the two bumbling associates (Ollio and Stanlio) of the notorious highwayman Fra Diovolo (Dennis King). Comic highlights include Laurel's attempts to hang Hardy, and the various games Stan plays which Babe can't master. As always, the pair's child-like innocence is indescribably appealing. They are like babes in the woods, who think they know how to get ahead, but really don't have a clue. 5/12/98
THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE (1960)
Director: Guy Hamilton. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier.
Amusing version of the Shaw play set during the Revolutionary War, with Lancaster as the minister who becomes a swashbuckler and Douglas as the man who turns him. Olivier has all the bon mots as Shaw's mouthpiece, a British general who looks at the revolution with all the cynicism of a true Shavian. Amusing but lightweight. 7/17/99
DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Bob Cummings, John Williams.
Ingenious drawing room murder, very clearly an inspiration in structure and villain (if not the detective) for TV's Columbo. Ray Milland is the suave husband plotting his wife's murder while offering cherry to the assassin; Grace Kelly and Bob Cummings are the innocent dupes; John Williams, the very proper English detective. It's all very staid and theatrical, although Hitchcock brings some nice film flourishes to the story. The characters are paper thin, but then, this isn't Henry James. Very entertaining, even after repeated viewings. Remade (very poorly) as A Perfect Murder. 6/13/98
DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)
Director: Lee Tamahori. Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Judi Dench, John Cleese, Samantha Bond.
Average Bond flick, no better or worse than the recent crop of 007 adventures. This one starts off with an unusual twist: following a terrific action sequence pre-credits teaser, Bond (Brosnan) is actually captured by the North Koreans and tortured for 14 months. When he is finally released in a prisoner exchange, he is stripped of his license to kill because he seems to have talked while a captive. This intriguing opening goes nowhere, however: Bond quickly escapes from his British captors and is soon jetting around the world in search of revenge (shades of Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill!) He hooks up with an American agent named Jinx (Berry) who is after the same killer he is stalking, and then it is pretty much non-stop, video game-like action. The only difference is the predominance of CGI effects in place of real stunts. The old Bonds were preposterous but the stunts were stunning because someone actually did them (and not just on a computer). This one feels like a cheat. There are a number of homages to the old Bonds (Berry apes Ursula Andress' bikini-clad entrance in Dr. No; Bond fools around with a Thunderball jet pack; Q [Cleese] quotes his predecessor's line about never joking about his work from Goldfinger, etc.) but the movie hasa been-there, done-that feel. The dialogue is banal, the title song (by Madonna) dreadful. Best sequences: Q's encounter with Bond and the fencing fight. Both have more juice than anything else in the rest of the movie, which I almost completely forgot a half hour after it was over. 11/22/02
DIE HARD (1988)
Director: John McTiernan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia.
Well-crafted action film with Willis as tough NYPD cop John McClane caught in a battle against nine supposed terrorists who take over the top floors of an L.A. hi-rise office building. Willis is a blue collar regular joe, who uses quips and his wits to thwart chief villain Rickman, a smooth Germanic type. The movie chugs along at a rapid clip, with lone wolf McClane not only fighting the villains, but the L.A. bureaucracy as well. It's the little guy versus the man. Well done. Reseen: 5/29/04
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995)
Director: John McTiernan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Samuel T. Jackson, Jeremy Irons.
Third and most humorless of the "Die Hard" movies. Willis plays his smart-ass tough detective again, with the odds stacked against him in a plot lifted, in part, from Goldfinger. Jackson is Willis' reluctant partner (why they didn't make him a cop is beyond me; it's hokey the way they hook the two guys up – and then keep them together at the villain's request). Irons is fine as the German villain, and the movie has its share of unbelievable thrills: explosions, shootings, knifings, car chases, helicopter shootings, etc. It's one big hardware show, not very realistic (most of the falls Willis takes would probably have killed lesser men) and fairy forgettable. A formula piece, lacking the mystery and suspense of the earlier installments. Seen: June 12, 1995.
Director: Barry Levinson. Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin.
The first of Levinson's "Baltimore films" (Tin Men was the next), recalling people and times in the director's home town. The story is a formless tale of a group of high school buddies, now in their 20s, who are now embarking on life. The focus is on the events surrounding the wedding of one (Guttenberg). Finely onserved behavior film, with great dialogue, lovely moments. A testament to friendship. 4/5/01
DINNER AT EIGHT (1933)
Director: George Cukor. Cast: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Billie Burke.
Ridiculous soap opera, with good cast wasted in tired soap opera-like script. John Barrymore is the washed-up actor who finds suicide is the way out; Harlow is a social-climbing tramp. Lionel B. is a doomed fianancier who doesn't want his family to know about his heart condition. And so on. Stick figures going through their stodgy, stage-trod paces. 9/6/04; 12/2/05
THE DINNER GAME (1998)
Director: Francis Veber. Cast: Jacques Villerey, Thierry Lhermitte.
Brilliant farce about a group of Parisian snobs who arrange weekly dinners in which each person is supposed to bring a dumb person, an idiot, of whom they'll all make fun. The plot gimmick is that one of these snobs (Lhermitte) gets stuck at home with his idiot (Villerey), a humble accountant who makes models of monuments out of matchsticks. The farce is ingeniously and smoothly constructed, building in tempo until the idiot (inadvertently) has his revenge on the snob, by – through his well-meaning but oafish help – destroying the snob's. In the end, there is a surprisingly sweet twist, which reveals people will surprise you (and there's another great comic twist that undoes it). Veber has a keen satirical eye and the setpieces are marvelous. It's like a more sophisticated Laurel & Hardy set-up. 9/10/99; 1/9/02
DINNER WITH FRIENDS (2001)
Director: Norman Jewison. Cast: Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, Andie McDowell, Toni Collette.
TV-film version of Off-Broadway play about two couples (Quaid and McDowell, Kinnear and Collette) who deal with the question of divorce. Friends for 20 years, the foursome are torn apart and question their values when one (Kinnear) announces he is leaving his wife for another woman. Effective, touching, perceptive, the movie finally comes apart at the end with pat solutions and analyses. But for the first two-thirds, it is an insightful look at what makes couples tick. 8/27/01.
DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD (1971)
Director:: Peter Bogdanovich.
Laudatory documentary, narrated by Orson Weles, about the legendary, six-time Oscar winnner/ Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Henry Fonda are on hand to sing Ford's praises, and the old curmudgeon talks as well. Not as much a critical documentary as a hymn to him. Fairly dull. 10/7/06
DIRTY DANCING (1987)
Director: Emile Ardolino. Cast: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Jerry Orbach, Cyntha Rhodes, Jane Brucker.
Enchanting coming-of-age drama, with Jennifer Grey well-cast as the aptly named "Baby," a young girl who learns about life in a Catskills resort in the early '60s. The story is nothing special – she learns about life but also teaches lessons about hope and perseverance to others – but the dancing and music is spectacular. As the dancer who inspires and is inspired by her, Patrick Swayze has the role of his career. Jane Brucker plays Grey's goofy sister. 7/10/98
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)
Director: Luis Bunel. Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig.
Bunel's surreal sature follows the journeys of an upper-class trio of couples who keep getting interrupted at dinner. It is usually surreal: they find themselves on stage, as actors not knowing their lines (that's a dream), or interrupted by soldiers on maneuver (that's reality). People relate dreams of death, an archbishop works as a gardener and kills the murderer of his parents, whom he discovers accidentally when hearing a deathbed confession. It's an odd collection of vignettes, strung together by the idea that life is absurd, and no one more upsurd than the upper classes. 8/1/01
Director: Josef von Sternberg. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Victor McLaglen, Warner Oland.
Spy romance, with Dietrich as a top spy who falls in love with her quarry and betrays her country in the end to save his life. Atmospheric but hokey. 6/1/02
THE DOCTOR (1991)
Director: Randa Haines. Cast: William Hurt, Christine Lahti, Elizabeth Perkins, Nicole Orth-Pallavicini.
Well-made soap opera about arrogant doctor (Hurt) who contracts cancer and learns life lessons and humility from a dying, beautiful patient (Perkins). Engrossing, touching, and entirely predictable. Based on true story by doctor called A Taste of My Own Medicine. Nikki's role was cut down to almost nothing. 12/7/98
DR. STRANGELOVE (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB) (1964)
Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens.
Dark comedy about the dangers of the nuclear arms race. Sellers is excellent in three very different roles, including the title character, and the message is as scary today as it was in the early '60s: beware of those who can destroy you because they will. Re-seen: 2/20/03
DR. SYN ALIAS THE SCARECROW (1964)
Director: James Neilson. Cast: Patrick McGoohan, George Cole, Tony Britton, Michael Jordern, Geoffrey Keen.
Compilation of three-part Disney TV Scarecrow of Romney Marsh finds McGoohan as the vicar, Dr. Syn, who by night is the cackling rebel leader the Scarecrow, who robs from the rich to give to the poor in 18th century England. There are three separate tales, all well-told. Rousing adventure for kids; McGoohan is fine in both parts. 9/30, 10/1/00.
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)
Director: David Lean. Cast: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger.
Overlong, meandering soap opera from the Boris Pasternak novel about love and death during the Russian revolution. Sharif is Zhivago, an idealistic doctor who writes poetry and falls in love with Lara (Christie). Unfortunately, both are married to others and have children and are constantly being separated by war and peace. The story has sweep and passion but Sharif is a listless Zhivago, lacking the charisma Peter O'Toole brought to a similarly enigmatic hero in Lean's previous epic Lawrence of Arabia. Christie is beautiful, and Part I has enough dramatic moments to satisfy even the most hardened soap opera fan. But let's face it, Zhivago is nothing more than an epic soap. What's it really about? The characters are such will 'o' the wisps: it's hard to understand or get involved much in them. Even Zhivago's wife (Chaplin) is so understanding when she finds out about his affair; no recriminarions; and Zhivago is such a stoic sort; he takes whatever is dished out to him and is buffetted mercilessly by events. Who can care about such a passive hero? And as a poet, well, everyone talks about how wonderful his poetry is, but we never actually see it...June 5 (Part I) & June 10, 1995 (Part II).
Director: Akira Kurosawa.
Episodic, colorful film, in which Kurosawa looks at the fantasy lives of slum dwellers. If they didn't have the fantasies, the implication is they wouldn't be able to survive their miserable existences. It's quite a collection: a crazy boy who spends his days imagining he is driving a trolley around a dump; a derelict and his small son, who discuss the fantastic designs of a mansion on a hill and a swimming pool they build in their minds; a girl who makes paper flowers for her aunt's husband and is raped by him –– and then stabs the only one who offered her kindness, a delivery boy; a husband who is driven to stony silence by his wife's one–time infidelity; a limping, loving worker whose wife tyrannizes over him; and two drunken workers who keep switching wives. Above it all is quiet, understanding Mr. Tamba, the most Kurosawa–like character, who reasons with the irrational, gives money to a thief, offers poison to a would-be-suicide and then confesses it was stomach medicine when the man regrets his choice, and understands that people need their fantasies to get through the horrors of life. The movie is heavy going at times since there is no story, per se, but it has some wonderful moments of comedy: the thief, breaking into Mr. Tamba's, is surprised by Tamba, who tells him not to take his tools and gives him money, adding, "It's all I have. I'll save some for you and next time use the window" (later, when the police apprehend the thief, Tamba denies it all); there are also the scenes with the rude wife and the husband's workers fighting with him over telling her off. Infuriating moments: the child dying of poisoning and the father not acknowledging it. Kurosawa says you can deny reality – but only up to a point; then it intrudes on you and can be dangerous. Reality vs illusion, one of Kurosawa's favorite themes.
DO DETECTIVES THINK? (1927)
Director: Fred Guiol. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson.
Laurel and Hardy curiosity, in which the pair play a couple of dumb and dumber detectives. Silent. Amusing; said to be one of the first films in which the pair played the characters for which they became famous. 12/95. Interesting the way their characters were so developed (they do the hat routine) even at this early stage. Hardy bosses Laurel around; Laurel cries; there is a lot of slapstick. You can even picture their tone of voice. As for the genre: it mixes comedy and slapstick with the detective/murder genre, albeit in a silly fashion. Laurel and Hardy aren't really detecting anything; they're more like high-class bodyguards. But it shows how the genre was ripe for parody, taking characters who are supposed to know it all and actually know less than even a non-detective would (when they see a photo of the escaped killer in the newspaper, Ollie asks Stan, "Where have we seen that face before?" not recognizing the butler who just said goodnight to them moments before and who is actually the killer in disguise). Very clever. 1/29/00
Director: William Wyler. Cast: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor.
Charming tale of industrialist (Huston) who retires to see the world but who must endure silly behavior of his fearful-of-growing-old wife (Chatterton). From the Sinclair Lewis novel. Re-seen: 7/20/06
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson.
The classic film noir with MacMurray and Stanwyck as the lovers plotting to kill Stanwyck's husband. Great dialogue, terrific pacing, and a wonderful relationship between MacMurray and Robinson (who gives a bravura performance), showing the differnce between true love and true lust. 9/2/00
DOUBLE WEDDING (1937)
Director: Richard Thorpe. Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy.
One of the Powell-Loy non-Thin Man combos shows that the pair has chemistry, even when the script is at the programmer level. This one, by frequent Capra collaborator Jo Swerling, has Powell as a free-spirited bohemian type (a bit of miscasting there) and Loy as the woman who hates him, a hoity-toity control freak who thinks Powell wants to marry her sister (he's really using that as a ploy to get hooked up with Loy). The story is predictable, with more farcical elements than The Thin Man series, but Powell and Loy's comic timing is as impeccable as ever. She also gets to play an even more intelligent and capable character (shades of Emma Peel) than she does as Nora. Sidney Toler appears as a bumbling detective-butler in his pre-Charlie Chan days; and Mary Gordon is a housekeeper before she became Holmes' landlady. 1/13/00
Director: Todd Browning. Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye.
The old chestnut, newly scored by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet. The music helps in some sequences but is generally too omnipresent – you notice it much too much and it is often inappropriate for the scene. It's as though Glass wrote a score irrespective of the images and then matched them up. It's like an avante-garde exercise. As for the movie, it's still paced in a deadly dull fashion, with Lugosi as Dracula delivering his lines as though he were just learning or he was speaking for the hearing impaired. "I... am... Dracula... I... bid... you... welcome." Boring! The whole story is so ludicrous, too. Why did Dracula kill all those crewmen on a ship in a storm? Didn't he need someone to steer it? And how did his coffins get to the abbey in England? Why didn't anyone open them to see what was in them? Wouldn't you open coffins in a shipful of deadmen? It's riddled with plot holes you could drive a truck through. Give me Frankenstein any day. 9/11/99
DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)
Director: Terence Fisher. Cast: Chris-topher Lee, Barbara Shelley.
Lame sequel to Dracula (1958), the first Hammer installment in the venerable vampire series. There had been a number of Hammer vampire flicks in between, but nothing with Lee. In this one, an unwitting quartet of tourists come upon the late count's castle, where his faithful servant still tends shop, waiting for the day when he can revive his master. He does, using the blood of one of the four. The most nervous woman of the group (Shelley) becomes the first victim of the revived count (Lee) becoming one of the undead. The story is short on ideas, and Lee has nary a word of dialogue (apparently if he spoke, he got paid more). There are a number of plot holes – Why does the revived count let the other couple survive the night? How come the crosses in the coffins didn't stop the count from returning to his coffin? - and nary a connection to The Avengers that I can see. Fairly lame, though it is moody and atmospheric at times. 6/8/00
Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Martin Scorcese.
This could also be called Kurosawa's Nightmares – a colorful, disturbing collection of short tales about death, disobedience, stupidity, nuclear destruction, mutation, and obsession. Scorcese appears in a pretty pastoral section as the artist Vincent Van Gogh. Kurosawa probably chose him because of his intense, manic manner in delivering lines. He says things like, "The sun drives me like a locomotive" as he paints furiously to capture a moment before the sun is gone. Scorcese's Van Gogh is a Kurosawa (and perhaps Scorcese) self–portrait: the portrait of an artist as an obsessive perfectionist who cuts off his own ear because he doesn't like the way it looks in a painting. It is no coincidence that he was chosen as the driven artist; he is Kuroswawa's stand–in. He is fine with a smoldering intensity perfect for the part. In colors and tone, however, it is unlike anything Kurosawa has done before.
DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948)
Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune.
Excellent story about alcoholic doctor (Shimura) who tries to save the life – and the soul – of a brutal young gangster (Mifune) in the post-war slums of Tokyo. The story is slight – but the characterizations and attemtion to human detail, are vivid. Mifune's performance is gripping: intense, dynamic, complex. Shimura is equally fine as the doctor. What's great about Kurosawa's technique is his focus on the contradictions and the humanity of the characters. They make speeches, sure; but they tell a lot more through their behavior. 7/4, 7/5/00
Director: Renny Harlin. Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds.
Dreadful. Rocky on the race track, with Stallone as ex-champion racing car driver acting as mentor to young turks on the world racing scene and Reynolds as wheelchair-bound boss. Dialogue, directing, special effects all hackneyed, as is the romance between young driver and beautiful blonde who is torn between attractions for competing world champ drivers. Terrible score, too. 8/25/01
DUCK SOUP (1933)
Director: Leo McCarey. Cast: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern.
The height of zaniness, as the Marx Brothers wreak havoc on mythical kingdom of Freedonia. There are songs, silliness, wordplay, pratfalls, and non-sequitors that obviously influed Monty Python's Flying Circus and a host of other later comedians. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, ruler of Freedonia; Chico and Harpo are two spies trying to bring him down. Zeppo sings. It's insane – as the brothers do what they do best: poke fun at everything and everyone (Groucho would have a blast with George W. Bush, who seems to have the same carefree abandon toward government as Frefly does). 12/31/01
Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Dennis Weaver.
Before the imposing dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or the cute alien in E.T., there was Duel, director Steven Spielberg's first feature-length movie. Shot in 16 days in California's Soledad Canyon, the $450,000 TV-movie shows Spielberg at his stripped-down best: 90 minutes of well-crafted suspense as an everyman hero confronts a deadly killer. The novelty is that the villain is an unseen truck driver, who for reasons unknown is trying to kill suburban commuter David Mann (Dennis Weaver) on an isolated desert highway. An existential B-movie, with the car culture man coming up against a nightmare foe, the unstoppable truck, the tale shows Spielberg's influences – Hitchcock by way of The Twilight Zone (Zone scripter Richard Matheson even penned the screenplay for Duel). But the director handles the camera like an old pro, milking the thin plotline brilliantly with skewed angles, warped lenses, quick cutting, and just enough characterization to make the whole thing believable. The movie was Spielberg's ticket to the big screen, too: rave reviews, a 1973 European theatrical release (adding 15 minutes of footage, included here), and a couple of awards led to the director's first feature, The Sugarland Express. Duel may be pulp stuff, but it works remarkably well. January 23, 1994.
DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)
Director: King Vidor. Cast: Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Herbert Marshall.
Dubbed "Lust in the Dust," this soap opera-ish western from Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick finds Peck in an atypical bad guy role as Loot, one of two sons (the other is Cotten) of a rancher (Barrymore) whose wife (Gish) has taken in a half-breed girl, Pearl, (Jones). Good and evil are rather obviously represented by the Cain and Abel brothers, with both men vying for the heart of Pearl. Loot gets her body but his brother gets her soul, as Pearl struggles between being proper and being promiscuous ("I want to be a good girl" vs "Am I your girl, Loot?") In the end, Pearl is so passionate about Loot that she shoots him to save the good brother, he shoots her in return, and the two die in each other's arms in a perverse Wuthering Heights-style coda, as though rewritten by Sam Peckinpah. Barrymore is overblown as the father, Gish is sentimental, and Huston has a cameo as a hell-and-brimstone preacher. The photography is lovely. The movie is a hoot; a big soap opera with grand pretensions. 6/22/00
THE DYING DETECTIVE (1921)
Director: Maurice Elvey. Cast: Eille Norwood.
Faithful silent version of the Sherlock Holmes story. Not much interest outside of curiosity value. The acting is fairly over-the-top. 6/13/98
EARTHLY POSSESSIONS (1999)
Director: James Lapine. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Stephen Dorff.
Well-make interpretation of Anne Tyler novel about (typically) a woman searchig for identity in the oddest ways. Charlotte Emery (Sarandon), on route to walking out on her controlling, stuffy husband, is abducted by a bankrobber named Jake (Dorff). From hostage, she becomes advisor, confidante, and lover, as an unlikely relationship develops as they take off on the lam from the police and responsibility. Tyler characters start off as passive victims and eventually evolve into fully rounded characters. Sarandon and Dorff are wonderful as the mismatched pair, and screenwriter Steven Rogers has just about captured Tyler's comic tone. 1/4/02
EASY VIRTUE (1927)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Isabel Jean, Franklin Dyall, Ian Hunter.
Before Alfred Hitchcock was "Hitchcock," he was a journeyman director, handling melodramas like this one, based on a popular Noel Coward play. The sensational (for 1927) plot involved a woman with a secret in her past – in this case that she was a divorcee whose husband had been a drunkard and whose lover killed himself. Her new husband doesn't know that – but drops her when he does. "Shoot, there's nothing left to kill," the heroine says to a group of photographers after her second divorce. There is little of the experimentation Hitch tried in some of his other silents, although the storyline does feature his patented strong-willed moms (as in Notorious and, of course, Psycho), as well assome howlers among the title cards ("Something's happened, John! But whatever it is, you must stand by Larita!") as well as some Cowardesque quips ("Now that you've quite exhausted your venom, I will go to my room"). You can see where Hitch developed his later technique: he cuts from one scene to another by using the same gesture (a man kissing a woman on the hand) and offers many plot points simply through visuals. "An interesting scene in this picture," noted Hitchcock in 1967, "is when John is proposing marriage to Larita, and instead of giving him an answer, she says, 'I'll call you from my house around midnight.' Next, we show a little watch indicating it is midnight; it's the wrist watch of a switchboard operator who is reading a book. A small light goes on on the board. She puts the plug in and is about to go back to her reading but automatically listens into the earphones. Then, she puts the book down, obviously fascinated by the phone conversation. In other words, I never show either of the two people. You follow what is happening by watching the switchboard operator." Seen on tape on October 13/14, 1990.
Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Matthew Broderick, Reese Wither-spoon.
Black comedy about Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), a high school junior determined to be elected class president. Standing in her way is Jim McAllister (Broderick), a popular teacher with sexual hang-ups (he is attacted to the prissy Flick, who brought down another teacher, his best friend, in a sex scandal). Flick is a wound-up, neurotic go-getter, a young Liddy Dole: scary and pathetic at the same time. Scary because she is the one who succeeds, pathetic because winning means so much to her, appearance and surface mean more than contnt. McAllister is brought down when he tries to stop her, and is life is wrecked. He, like all the characters, operates in a state of continuous denial, as demonstrated by the very funny voice-and flashbacks. The movie wickedly skewers high school, morals, the midwest, and the games – both sexual and otherwise – that people play to get ahead. 3/29/00
Director: Michael Cacoyannis. Cast: Irene Papas.
An effective retelling of the Euripides tragedy about Electra (Papas), daughter of the slain Agamemnon seeks vengeance against her mother and the usurper to her father's throne. Stylized, with a lot of striking photography and a powerful performance by Papas. Cacoyannis wrote the script and went o to direct Zorba the Greek. 4/21, 4/23, 4/24/04.
THE ELECTRIC HOUSE (1922)
Director: Buster Keaton. Cast: Buster, Joe, Myra, and Louise Keaton.
Wacky attack on modern gadgets, showing how they can go wrong. Keaton loved gadgets himself, and here he creates a house of the future: toy trains deliver food on the table, an escalator takes tenants upstairs, a pool can be emptied and re-filled at the touch of a lever, books remove themselves from the shelf. Of course, everything goes wrong when Keaton’s rival re-wires the house and the escalator goes too fast (or the wrong way), a Murphy bed closes into the wall with an occupant in it, and a wall panel comes down from the wall and brains someone. It’s all absurd, but done at a quick tempo, so one gag flows seamlessly into the other. Not much story, though; it’s all on the level of a high-tech cartoon. Seen: March 29, 1995.
Director: Diarmuid Lawrence. Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong.
Faithful if somewhat bland TV-movie interpretation of wonderful Jane Austen novel. Beckinsale (who appears in the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility) is fine as the smug Emma Wodehouse who thinks she knows everything but knows nothing. Script has some regrettable lapses in which it underlines points it wants to make by having Emma fantasize about marriages she is trying to arrange. 7/24/04
THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1999)
Director: Neil Jordan. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea.
Fairly faithful rendition of the Graham Greene novel about a forbidden love affair and its aftermath. The bizarre triangle is not with Bendrix (Fiennes), Sarah (Moore), and her husband (Rea), but Bendrix, Sarah – and God. The movie has faithfully recreated the paradox of faith, of loving something you never see, and talking about that in terms of love – loving a person you swear never to see, and successfully piles up Greene's coincidences and paradoxes: is it God's work or happenstance? Jordan, unfortunately, weighs the deck too early in favor of the former choice, taking the tale into the realm of the supernatural too early. There are some moving passages – especially when Sarah says that love continues even when you're not there – and only a few missteps. The reunion of Sarah and Bendrix is a mistake and makes her death seem like God's punishment for her breaking her promise, something Greene never intended. But the overall message – along with a lot of the great Greene writing – remains. God is unknowbable and he works his way in spite of your best efforts to fight him. 12/18/99
ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
Director: Tony Scott. Cast: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight.
The early 1970s was the last big era of paranoia in movies: The Conversation, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor all posited worlds in which Big Brother was not only watching, but was out to get the protagonists, as well. The movies were about a grim world and usually ended up with the hero losing to the forces of evil. Flash-forward to the 1990s: paranoia is in vogue again, thanks to TV's X-Files and its brethren, and the latest evidence of the retro trend is Enemy of the State, a paranoid thriller about a government run amuck, using cameras, satellites, and recording to not only pry into your life, but destroy it, as well. Will Smith plays the labor lawyer who is inadvertently drawn into an electronic web of deceit and murder, and Gene Hackman (the electronic spymaster of The Conversation) is the man who can save him. The story is fast-paced and complicatedm full of fancy visuals, breakneck chases, and engaging characters. It includes all the cliches of the genre, but jazzes them up with fancy imagery and pump-up-the-volume energy. Smith and Hackman are good, and the ending – unlike the downbeat finales of this movie's '70s predecessors – is unbelieavably happy. But the movie at least tries to say something about government intrusion in everyone's lives. 11/28/98, 4/21/99.
THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN (1995)
Director: Christopher Monger. Cast: Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Colm Meany.
Charming story, set in WWI Wales about local pride and what people can do if they band together. The tale is simple: a South Wales village is visited by two Englishmen on a surveying team. Their job: put mountains on the maps; hills don't count. The village is known for its mountain but the team ultimately determines it is a hill not a mountain. The movie depicts how the villagers successfully changed that verdict, in a lovely series of vignettes involving farce, romance, and sly wit. The cast is excellent, the romance delightful, and the movie's point, that anything is possible if you believe, inspiring. 5/26/95.
ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
Director: Robert Clouse. Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly.
Great score, terrific kung fu stunts, fairly dreadful movie. Lee is a great athlete and a middling actor. He brings very little humor to the role of a kung-fu detective, but a great deal of physical energy. His ballet of violence is remarkable. The plot is roadshow James Bond crossed with Shaft, about a deadly organization trafficking in crime and drugs from an island base off Hong Kong. Lalo Schifrin's soundtrack is the best thing about this low-budget flick. I remembered very little from 25 years ago, when I first saw it. No wonder. 7/30/98
Director: Jon Amiel. Cast: Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Over-complicated caper movie, with Connery fine if overage as the retired thief who comes out of retirement for the job of the century (quite literarally; it has to do with the millenium and banks). There's illogical twist after illogical twist, and the story isn't helped by Connery's love interest (Zeta-Jones), who is supposedly a cool insurance investigator and/or master thief, but comes across more like a hysterical teenager – crying, pouting, screaming, and acting out in ways that make you wonder why the Connery character has any interest in here at all. Then, again, you wonder why about a lot of things in this over-plotted, lushly photographed mess. And the story is just about money. Not about skill, or love, or anything important. It's about rich people becoming richer. It would be objectionable if it had any weight to it. 7/17/99
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
Director: Michael Gondry. Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst.
Brilliant exploration of relationships, via the twisted, non-linear mind of screenwriter Chalie Kaufman. Coming out of a bad breakup, the hero (Carrey) of this bittersweet tale fidns taht his ex (Winslet) has had her memories of him, both good and bad, erased. He does the same. But it's not easy. The movie explores the nature of relationships, that people are imperfect, and that you must accept their foibles with their virtues. Carrey has never been better, as a tortured, shy average joe. Moving. 3/28/04
EVELYN PRENTICE (1934)
Director: William K. Howard. Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Una Merkel, Rosalind Russell.
Engrossing but predictable potboiler, the sort of melodrama that Powell and Loy mocked so well in many of their other films, including The Thin Man, made in the same year. The soap opera plot finds Powell as a dedicated, hard-working lawyer, John Prentice, who neglects his wife, Evelyn. When she thinks he's having an affair, she puts herself in a compromising position with another man – who ends up dead. She thinks she killed him, but any fool could see that isn't the case. John defends another woman accused of the crime – and uses the most unorthodox strategy to get her off. A curiosity. 8/2/02
Director: Peter Yates. Cast: William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, James Woods, Christopher Plummer.
Quirky, improable thriller about a janitor (Hurt!) who gets involved in a murder investigation because of his obsession with a TV newswoman (Weaver). The story moves at such a brisk pace, hiding the holes, and the characters are rich, realistic, and unusual for a thriller. The resolution involves horses and murderous Jews – certainly a twist on the thriller cliches. 4/8/00
THE EXORCIST (1973)
Director: William Friedkin. Cast: Max Von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller.
Scary, thoughtful horror movie that is fairly tame – gore-wise – compared to '90s horror flicks. The well-known story follows the posession of a young girl by Satan and the attempts by those around her to understand and then cope. It's all done in a fairly realistic style, with an emphasis on character over horror – making the horror, when it comes, more horrifying. Jason Miller is the priest who has lost his faith and must regain it to defeat the devil; Max Von Sydow is the true believer. Ellen Burstyn, widely praised for her role, overacts terribly. The effects are amazingly well-done, and the story ends on a somber note – the devil is down but not out. 3/1/99.
FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)
Director: Francois Truffaut. Cast: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie.
English-language version of the Ray Bradbury novel from great French director Truffaut. The movie, about a future in which books are banned and burned, is almost clinical in its sterility, which may be the point. Staid, with Werner as the "fireman" (a book-burner) named Montag who comes to appreciate the value of books. Christie plays his vacuous wife Linda and the book-collecting rebel Clarisse. Some interesting ideas, though nothing terribly radical. Tepid stuff, but good Bernard Herrmann score. 12/30/00
FAHRENHEIT 911 (2004)
Director: Michael Moore. Cast: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney.
Scathing, well-crafted attack onBush, Cheney and the policies of fear and hatred that led the country into war. Bush comes across as a clueless dunce (probably not completely accurate) and is shown at his worst in footage taken on September 11, 2001, when he first heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and sat, clueless and vacant, in a Texas classroom, listening to the children reading from My Pet Goat. The most devastating sequences, however, are the ones involving a conservative mother who turns against the war and Bush after her son is killed in Iraq. If anything does Bush and his evil crew in, it will be those images of the weeping mom, asking, "Why?" Powerful. 6/26/04
FALLEN ANGEL (1947)
Director: Otto Preminger. Cast: Alice Faye, Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell.
Preminger's follow-up to Laura features two holdovers -- Andrews and composer David Raksin -- and some of the samr bite as smooth-talking con man Andrews gets caught up with bad news Darnell instead of good girl Faye. Solid pacing, strong dialogye and atmosphere, and rewarding payoff with heel redeemed by love of a good woman. Good opening theme. 5/14/06
FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002)
Director: Todd Haynes. Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid.
A tribute to the films of director Douglas Sirk, those lush tear jerkers, usually involving Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as lovers who are kept apart by circumstance and society. In this version, the characters – 1950s Connecticut suburban types – confront issues that Sirk never dealt with overtly but which were always under the surface: homosexuality and racial prejudice. The first is treated as a sickness by the main male character, a successful TV set executive (Quaid). The movie more or less sees things from the point of view of the pretty, naive wife of the ex (Moore), who is the only one to break out of her mold and grow, thanks to the affection and attentions she feels for a black gardener, an outsider in "paradise." Touching, affecting, with a great Elmer Bernstein score. 11/21/02
FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1991)
Director: Charles Shyer. Cast: Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short.
Dated, period piece – a remake (with much of the same script and sensibility) of the Spencer Tracy-Elizabeth Taylor flick. It survives, barely, because of Martin's performance, but the whole affair is tired, withoout a point of view: are the filmmakers poking fun at the million-dollar wedding plans? At times, they seem to agree with Martin that it's silly. Other times, they seem to think it's the thing to do. They want to have it both ways – and they're cruel, too. After Martin pays for it all, they forbid him the moments he craves: dancing with his daughter, watching her throw the bouquet, a goodbye kiss. And, finally, who can really get worked up about a million-dollar wedding? I just thought the girl was a spoiled brat to insist on it. She is generally unsympathetic, and, as written, immature and simple-minded, hardly the clever architect the script makes her out as. I agreed with Martin: she did seem too young to marry; especially when she insisted on hiring idiotic Martin Short to plan it. Seen at the Olympia, December 25, 1991.
FEAR STRIKES OUT (1957)
Director: Robert Mulligan. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Karl Malden.
The true story of Boston Red Fox outfielder Jimmy Piersall, a ballplayer who went mad because of his father's pressures for him to win. Piersall, perhaps the first of Perkins' memorable madman, is an amiable guy, slightly nervous, and like Norman Bates and his mom, completely dominated by his overbearing father (Malden). Seems dad was a fair ballplayer down at the plant but the old man has bigger dreams for the kid: pro-ball, fast, furious, and his way. Director Mulligan (who later handled To Kill a Mockingbird) keeps the pace up and Perkins' mental breakdown is well-handled, hinted at very nicely before the final, shocking breakdown in the middle of a game. There are suggestions that Piersall's mother suffered from a similar ailment, but not much is made of that; most of the blame is laid – in Freud-like fashion– at the door of the overbearing, unforgiving father who wants the son to win at any cost. Good Elmer Bernstein score. 1/19/98.
FELLINI: I'M A BORN LIAR (2003)
Director: Damian Pettigrew. Cast: Federico Fellini, Donald Sutherland, Terence Stamp.
Tedious documentary, for Fellini-philes only. The master director is seen working on some of his movies and talks incessantly (and obliquely) about his films, much as if he were a character in one of his movies. It's a rambling, impressionistic mess, with unidentifed clips (mostly from Fellini's later movies) lasting anywhere from 10 seconds to 1 minute or two. The anecdotes told by cast and crew paint the director as everything from a genius to a monster. You get a sense of the man from this piece, but very little facts. It's Fellini as Fellini might have manufactured him. 4/20/03
15 MINUTES (2001)
Director: . Cast: Robert DeNiro, Kelsey Grammer.
Intense, action-oriented crime caper about two foreigners – a Russian and a Czech – who go on a crime spree, videotaping it as they go with the hopes of becoming both famous and rich (rich by selling their story after pleading insanity). Brutal, engrossing, simple-minded, full of gratuitous violence, with tired argument about the lure of fame. Good performances, predictable. 8/20/01
THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)
Director: Luc Besson. Cast: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm.
Comic-strip sci-fi adventure, set 300 years in the future. Willis plays a former military man who drives a cab and is swept into an fantastic attempt to save the earth from the ultimate evil. The plot makes sense in a pulpy way, and mixes comedy, mysticism, and violence in a satisfying blend (but once again, Eric Serra's music often doesn't match the action, and Besson allows the script to go off on one too many tangents). The effects are good and the style is off-kilter enough to make the old story seem almost fresh. Holm plays an absent-minded priest and Oldman plays the villain, a not-very-menancing-seeming industrialist who kills people. 5/13/00
FINDING FORRESTER (2000)
Director: Gus Van Sant. Cast: Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Rob Brown.
Touching story of reclusive writer (Connery), a one-hit novel writer, who befriends and mentors a young ghetto kid in the Bronx (Brown), a basketball star and literary genius. Although the story is improbable, the actors carry the predictable plot permutations off with aplomb. Connery and Brown are excellent. 1/10/00
THE FIREMEN'S BALL (1967)
Director: Milos Foreman.
Foreman's first color film chronicles the misadventures of some well-intentioned, small-town volunteer firemen at their annual ball. Not a lot happens and the story is a whimsical parable about life in a totalitarian regime. Soporific at times because the firemen come across as types not people. 4/15, 4/19/02.
FIRST KNIGHT (1995)
Director: Jerry Zucker. Cast: Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Julia Ormond.
The Arthur legend, Camelot, Lancelot, the whole ball of wax, given a regal, at times exciting, and certainly romantic treatment by director Zucker (Ghost). This follows Braveheart and Rob Roy as period sword films, and it has the same sort of sword-clanging, bloody action. The story is familiar: how Arthur (Connery) loves not wisely but too well and is betrayed by his lady love (Ormond) who loves Lancelot (Gere). The discovery of the betrayal shatters the values of Arthur and all but wrecks Camelot, which is founded on truth and trust. Zucker and his screenwriters have deepened the role of Lancelot, making him a wandering commoner, great with a sword but purposeless and without values. He finds them, finally, in Camelot, only to be the instrument that brings it down (he realizes that and tries to leave, and thus sets in motion the engine of Arthur's destruction). Ormond is wonderful as the tortured Guenevere, and Connery is perfectly cast as the kindly, forceful, truthful king. Gere overcomes his miscasting as Lancelot by sheer charisma (and great stuntwork with his sword); only thing: he could have tried an English accent, or was that the point? The different accent meant he was an outsider? Also fine: Ben Cross as the villain. Beautiful Welsh countryside, and an exciting, satisfying climax, topped by a moving finish. Nice work. Seen at the Olympia, July 10, 1995.
THE FISHER KING (1991)
Director: Terry Gilliam. Cast: Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges.
At times pretentious but generally enaging story of unlikely friendship between swashbuckling homeless man (Williams) and angry, guilt-ridden ex-radio personality (Bridges). Hits all the predictable notes, but done with style. 1/29/05
FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967)
Director: Roy Ward Baker. Cast: Andrew Kier, Barbara Shelley.
Sci-fi horror from Britain, far-fetched but effectivce, with Dr. Quartermass (Kier) as almost the lone voice of reason in a world about to go bad. The plot involves the discovery of a mysterious cylinder in a London tube station. It may or may not be a space vehicle from five million years ago – but it soon becomes very, very dangerous. Done with intelligence, this low-key horror film has a bang-up – if slightly implausible – finish. Also known as Quatermass and the Pit. 6/29/98
Director: Frank Capra. Cast: Jack Holt, Lila Lee, Ralph Graves.
Dumb Capra action/romance picture with Graves (who co-wrote the infantile script with Capra) as a dumb football player who becomes a dumb pilot and who finally succeds in life through pure dumb luck. The story follows the career of Lefty Phelps (Graves), who runs the wrong way in a football game and gives the winning point to his opponents. Shamed, he joins the marine air corps, where he promptly crashes his plane, disappointing his pal and teacher Panama Williams (Holt). He disappoints him further by falling in love with Elinor (Lee), the pretty nurse that Panama is sweet on. Etc. etc. The love triangle gets pretty tangled before the ridiculously good-natured happy ending. There are some good stunts for the time and the photography is fluid, but the character of Lefty is such a big dope, whining and self-pitying throughout, that it's hard to get very interested in him. And the political thinking – in which the marines use planes to slaughter the South American banditos – is excreable. Not one of Capra's greats. 2/16/98.
THE FLIRTING WIDOW (1930)
Director: William Seiter. Cast: Dorothy Mackaill, Basil Rathbone.
Tired comedy with Rathbone as a Captain John Smith who is mistaken for a young woman's (Mackaill) fiance, a fictious Captain John Smith. It's all terribly contrived, although Rathbone and Mackaill have a good chemistry. An antique, based on a stage play. 5/14/01
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996)
Director: David O. Russell. Cast: Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, Alan Alda, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Lily Tomlin.
David O. Russell's farce about Mel Caplin's (Stiller) quest to find his biological parents is a witty farce that could have been penned by Preston Sturges. Madcap, cerebral, and very clever, Flirting with Disaster shows a keen understanding of the absurdities of the human condition. Holds up well. 12/5/98
THE FLOORWALKER (1916)
Director: Charles Chaplin. Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance.
Early Chaplin entry, set in a department story, with the Tramp substituting for a lookalike criminal employee of the store. It moves fast, but there's that extraordinary about any of it. 7/3/98
FLYING ELEPHANTS (1927)
Director: Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy.
Laurel and Hardy as cavemen fighting each other. Of historical value only. Silent. 12/95
FLYING FORTRESS (1942)
Director: Walter Forde. Cast: Richard Greene, Donald Stewart.
British B-film, with Greene and Stewart as a Gable-Tracy pair of WWII pilots, competitive and distrustful of each other at first, but respectful of each other by the end. It has the virtue of speed and brevity, and the movie contains one harrowing sequence, where Greene goes out on the wing of a flying plane to repair damage in flight. Otherwise, it's all fairly routine but enjoyable. 1/20/08
THE FOG OF WAR (2003)
Director: Errol Morris. Cast: Robert McNamara.
A mea culpa from former Defense Secretary McNamara over his role in the prosecution of the Vietnam War from 1962-68. Morris uses old clips, Oval Office recordings, a haunting Philip Glass score, and -- at the film's core -- an extensive interview with th 85-year-old McNamara to paint an ambiguous portrait of a man at war over his response to the war. Did he try to stop it? Or was he just a yes man to JFK and LBJ? You find no answers here, jsut a slippery look at the nature of truth, Morris' favorite theme. 12/30/03
Director: Frank Capra. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Bellamy.
Frank Capra plotted this sudser, in which Stanwyck plays a woman who lies, cheats, even kills for the love of a weak man. Menjou plays the weak man, a rising political figure who gets involved with Stanwyck, despite the fact that he also has an invalid wife back home. They have an affair and a child, and although he constantly wants to do "the right thing" and leave his wife, Stanwyck won't let him. She even gives up her baby for his sake (letting him and his wife raise it). Not that Babs doesn't have suitors: there is the strong-willed, tough-talking newspaper editor (Bellamy) who pines away for her, refusing to marry anyone but her. The movie is a picture of obsessives who are all self-destructive. It's an endlessly fascinating mixture of drama, pathos, and melodrama, with the cast giving a collection of multi-layered per-formances. Ultimately, though, it's a lurid soap opera. 4/21/98
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
Director: Fred McLeod Wilcox. Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Jack Kelly.
I can never warm to this picture, no matter how hard I try. It's a boy's adventure, with impressive special effects and not much else to reccomend it (the electronic score is creepy but just a gimmick). Nielsen is solid as the starship commander, a Captain Kirk without the humor, and the WASP crew is a collection of faceless stereotypes, right out of a '50s Navy picture (the comic cook is embarrassing). It is interesting, conceptually, since the plot is lifted from The Tempest and the story is about the enemy within (the ID) – but the dialogue and pacing are so flat. 5/16/98.
FORCE OF EVIL (1948)
Director: Abraham Polonsky. John Garfield, Beatrice Pearson, Thomas Gomez.
Well-made crime thriller about a crooked lawyer (Garfield) trying to do right by his brother. Not quite full film noir (it ends more or less happily), it has a gritty feel, with the web closing tighter over the protagonist, who wanders through a world of dark shadows, shallow trust, and unhappy people. There are some great camera angles and a few stunning location shots, especially one at the foot of the George Washington Bridge. The ending is a letdown, however. 2/14/98
A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948)
Director: Billy Wilder. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, John Lund.
Terrific comedy with Lund as serviceman in post-war Berlin who is romancing visiting congresswoman Arthur to keep her from discovering his affair with ex-Nazi Dietrich. Lund, a Gable stand=in, is fine, but the show is stolen by the two ladies and the crackling dialogue. Much of it was shot on location in Berlin. Re-seen: 2/4/06
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Joel McCrea, Larraine Day, George Sanders, Herbert Mashall, Edmund Gwenn.
Fast-paced, exciting Hitchcock thriller, very much in the style of The 39 Steps, involving action, intrigue, romance, and a number of wonderful setpieces. The most memorable are the umbrellas in the rain and the windmills turning against the wind, while the plane crash in the end is still exciting. McCrea is fine as the somewhat thick reporter (a cousin to his characters in Preston Sturges movies), and the rest of the cast is very good, including Marshall as a sympathetic traitor. Many of Hitch's favorite themes turn up, including the man on the run, the hate-love relationship between the hero and the heroine, and the MacGuffin that is used to drive the story but which means nothing, really. Holds up on repeated viewings. 9/22/98
FORT APACHE (1948)
Director: John Ford. Cast: Henry Fonda, John Wayne, John Agar, Ward Bond, Shirley Temple.
The first of John Ford's "cavalry trilogy," this one featuring Fonda as an arrogant, by-the-books military commander in the post-Cvil War era who has been relegated to the isolated Fort Apache. The story is a series of vignettes showing the military as a kind of family, with Fonda as the dysfunctional father who doesn't understand what makes the army click. His arrogance and ignorance leads to an unnecessary and fatal confrontation with the Indans the movie consciously echoes Custer's Last Stand, and foreshadows Bush and the war in Iraq. Beautifully photographed and acted by a terrific cast. 9/28/06
14 HOURS (1951)
Director: Henry Hathaway. Cast: Paul Douglas, Ricard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes, Grace Kelly, Howard da Silva, Jeffrey Hunter, Debra Paget, Agnes Moorehead.
Gripping – pun intended – thriller about man (Basehart) on the edge and on the ledge. Douglas is the traffic cop who unexpectedly forms a bond with the disturbed would-be jumper, and the movie criss-crosses their saga with minor mini-dramas of people on the scene: from a young couple (Hunter, Paget) who meet in the crowd to a woman who (Kelly, in her film debut) who realizes that life is too short to go through with a divorce. Moorehead plays Baseheart's birtter mother. But the focus – and suspense – sit with the Douglas-Basehart dynamic, and both are terrific, the former as a straight-talking, meat-and-potatoes cop and the latter as a nice, polite, but slightly cracked young man. Shot on location in New York, the film uses the locales quite well. 11/26/06
42 UP (1998)
Director: Michael Apted.
The latest in Michael Apted's every-seven-years documentary series in which he visits 11 children (adults now) and sees where they are in their lives. Some of it is quite poignant. All of it very real. The most affecting tale is that of Neil, who seemed on his way downhill seven years ago, but is now an elected member of a local council. Inspiring. 12/4/99
THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1948)
Director: King Vidor. Cast: Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey.
An essay on the right of the "creator" to go his own way. This ode to indiviualism would be more convincing if the characters spoke in believable dialogue; instead they are forced to mouth stilted dialogue that reflects their position: either conform to the mass public opinion (the mob) or go your own way and be destroyed (the individual)> Gary Cooper plays Howard Roarke, a stubborn individualist who refuses to compromise on any priinciple -- everyone else (except for Patricia Neal as his one true love) follows mass taste. Here., the mob is not to be trusted; they need a leader like Roarke, who can dynamite his building and get away with it because he is a man of principle (and can deliver a practical five-minute speech to the jury that easily sways theml they recognize the truth when they hear it)> O'Neal and Raymond Massey, as a newspaper tycoon, don't have the courage of their convictions that Roarke has – she is frightened of what will happen to Roarke if he doesn't compromise and Massey is destroyed by his lack of conviction. This cla ptrap is based on an Ayn Rand screed – a best-selling novel – and the author was much like Roarke: she apparently insisted that not a word of dialogue from hder novel be altered, which explains why the characters deliver speeches that sound like essay points not real conversation. King Vidor's direction is fine – nice shots of buildings – and the phallic imagery is over the top (especially Neal's first sight of Cooper who is using a huge drill at the time...5/9/06
FOUR-SIDED TRIANGLE (1952)
Director: Terence Fisher. Cast: Barbara Payton, James Hayter, Stephen Murray.
Variation on Frankenstein story, with scientist creating life where none existed before. Story involves two scientists who build a device called a Duplicator, which, naturally, can duplicate anything – even a rabbit. Story gets complicated when both men are in love with the same woman; when she picks one as her beloved, the rejected suitor seeks to have it both ways by duplicating her. Silly story is played straight and is interesting in a plodding sort of way. 12/3/01
Director: James Whale. Cast: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff.
First of the Frankenstein monster movies, the film is a somber, moody evovaction of a scientist's obsession to create life from death. As Henry Frankenstein, Clive brings the right manic intensity ("Crazy? You think I'm crazy?"), but the true star is Karloff who makes the monster both menancing and poignant, a child in a mighty body. The make-up is terrific and the movie has pace. Certainly it moves quickly by early '30s standards. 4/10/98
FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1991)
Director: Gary Marshall. Al Pacino, Michelle Pfieffer.
Funny, in a sitcom kind of way. An expansion of Terrence McNally's Off-Broadway play, Frankie & Johnnie & The Clare De La Lune, the film adds characters, quips, and a lot of action, but in the end, the jokes and the secondary folks disappear and the movie becomes a two-character speechfest, collapsing on itself. There just wasn't enough there: the story is about loneliness and obsession, about dying alone and dying to be with someone – anyone, even if he/she abuses you (a number of characters suffer that). Frankly, though, I thought Frankie's reluctance to be involved with Johnny is completely believable – he is smothering; overwhelming; and he wants to marry her after only one date. Does he really see her for what she is? That issue is never addressed; nor is the failure of his first marriage. To me,that would be key. It's a storytbook/sitcom kind of tale. Funny, touching, sentimental – and completely unbelievable. Good acting, though. Seen at Loew's Astor Plaza, Saturday, October 26, 1991.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
Director: William Friedkin. Cast: Gene Hackman, Roy Schneider, Fernando Rey.
"Best Picture" of 1971 is a grim, downbeat affair, a police procedural with new heroes, plenty of villains, and a lot of in-your-face grit. Hackman is "Popeye" Doyle, an obsessive cop out to break a drug ring. Effectively showing the nitty-gritty of police work, the movie also shows that cops are abusive, racist, and violent – not much better than the people they pursue morally, and considerably beneath them socially (Rey is a suave French drug dealer, as elegantly dressed as Hackman is sloppy). The movie is ironic, I suppose, showing how all the police's efforts go for naught, since most of the bad guys get off. Great car chase. 3/13-3/14/98. Re-seen: 12/24/01
THE FRENCH THEY ARE A FUNNY RACE (1957)
Director: Preston Sturges. Cast: Jack Buchanan, Martine Carole.
Sturges' last film – a lame affair, based on a bestseller in France called The Notebooks of Major Thompson. The episode story is really just a series of amusing observations of the foibles of the French. They are some amusing bits – a Frenchman trying to deal with the bureacracy, or the meaning of handshakes – but overall, there's of Sturges' genius on display. Seen at the Film Forum on October 10, 1990.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Alec McCowen.
Late Hitchcock, still with a few tricks, but basically revisiting ground he’s covered before: there’s the man who may or may not be a killer (Finch) who then becomes the innocent man on the run; there’s the charming villain (Foster) who’s actually a psychopath who strangles women; and the dogged John Williams-like inspector (McCowen) who in best Dial M for Murder style continues investigating even after he gets a conviction. There are some nice camera moves – there is a superb long tracking shot down the steps and out the door, showing how no one can hear the rape/murder – and some witty scenes – the detective tells his wife about the case in order to avoid having to eat her dreadful gourmet food – but mostly we’ve been there, done that before. The movie hearkens back to the best of Hitchcock but adds a coarse touch: the abuse of women is distasteful (the rape/murder is graphically unpleasant in a way the Psycho shower murder never was) and the nominal hero is a boorish, hot-headed, self-pitying loser. You almost feel he gets what he deserves. 10/1/98
FRIENDLY PERSUASION (1956)
Director: William Wyler. Cast: Gregory Peck, Dorothy Macguire, Anthony Perkins.
Wholesome film about 1862 Quaker family whose pacifist beliefs are challenged by the Civil War. The movie is episodic, but most of the incidents center around strong-willed mother figure (Macquire) and playful, iconoclastic father (Cooper). Their relationship is at the center of the story. Perkins plays their eldest son, who must decide whether to fight or not. Wyler did family stories well (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur), but this one is a little too wholesome for my tastes. Well-done, and Cooper is excellent as the skepitical believer: a man who truly lives by his beliefs but bends them when necessary. (The scene where he spares the life of the man who tried to kill him is excellent.) 2/11/02
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
Director: Fred Zinnemann. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine.
Moving story of individuals and the army, particularly Private Robert E. Lee Pruett (Clift), a "hard-head" who doesn't do things the simple way, but his way, a man of determination and principle who loves the army, even though it doesn't seem to love him ("Just because you love something, doesn't mean it has to love you back," he explains"). Pruett is just one of the misfits depicted in this engrossing, multi-layered soap opera: there's Sgt. Warden (Lancaster), a tough career military man who believes in doing the "smart" thing – covering up for his CO's foibles – until Pruett's hard-headedness shows him the way. He romances his captain's woman (Kerr) in the most memorable encounter in the movie: love-making in the surf. The story is a collection of characters going their own way in defiance of the army's role of conformity: all of them end up unhappy or dead, foolishly, like Maggio (Sinatra), Pruett's buddy who's beaten to death, or like Pruett himself, shot because he won't listen to a sentry. The movie is about the pointlessless of it all – and yet there's a lot to admire in these defenders of lost causes, of principles. The writing, acting, and directing are all superb. 12/31/99-1/1/00
THE FROZEN NORTH (1922)
Director: Buster Keaton. Cast: Buster Keaton, Virgina Fox, Joe Roberts.
One of the more absurdist Buster flicks, a precursor to Sherlock Jr. This one parodies the wild adventure movies set in cold climes. There’s one wild touch after another: the movie opens with the last stop on the subway -- a subway kiosk in a frozen tundra; Buster holds up a bar by cutting out the figure of a dangerous criminal from a wanted poster and propping it in a window; arriving home he finds his wife in the arms of another man and shoots them both, then realizes he’s in the wrong building; he hails a “cab” of huskies in the snow; a fishing expedition right out of a cartoon with two men fishing out of two holes but obviously connecting to each other; and another wild chase through a house. Keaton likes being pursued. He is impish and a trouble-maker in this one, more like a cartoon character than in others -- there are few consequences for his actions. And why not? It’s all a dream. Seen: March 28, 1995.
THE FUGITIVE (1947)
Director: John Ford. Cast: Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio, Pedro Armendariz Jr.
Dull, sanitized version of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, which is only redeemed by the beautiful compositions, shot on location in Mexico. Fonda plays Greene's persecuted "whiskey priest," who in the book is the father of an illegitmate child but who is here guilty of nothing more than the sin of pride. He becomes saint-like in Ford's version, scared but still defying the Mexican authorities – who have banned organized religion – by offering the sacrament in secret. Fonda seems to be lost in the role. 10/11/06
FULL MOON IN PARIS (1984)
Director: Eric Rohmer. Cast: Pascale Ogier, Tcheky Karvo, Fabrice Luchini.
The fourth in Eric Rohmer's "Comedies and Proverbs" series, this installment tells the story of Louise (Ogier), a young woman who yearns for both the stability of a relationship – which she has – and the freedom to be independent. In the end, she chooses the relationship, but too late. Affecting, well-played. Rohmer has a low-key approach and seems very concerned with the way men and women interact – or don't – and the idiosyncacies of men and women. 10/13/01
FULL TILT BOOGIE (1998)
Director: Sarah Kelly. Cast: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney, Fred Williamson.
A feature-length documentary about the making of the horror-action flick From Dusk Till Dawn. It's a professional job – but there's more than you ever wanted to know about the making of a quickie horror flick. There's a great deal of care and attention lavished on the cinema verite project, but after a while, it seems like overkill. After all, how much do you really want to know about these people? Quentin Tarantino, who wrote and produced the vampire flick, comes across as the most dweebish. George Clooney, who co-stars with him, appears as a good-natured hunk. It's interesting to see the special effects work; also there's a Michael Moore-like sequence as the documentary crew tries to track down a union president who has been threatening to close down the non-union Dusk Till Dawn shoot (they corner him in his hotel at a union convention). It's amusing, well-made, and detailed, but it could almost be a Monty Python parody, what with the serious talk everyone offers about the making of this film. For God's sake, it's only a cheapie horror flick. It's not even Psycho! 6/23/98
GARDEN OF EVIL (1954)
Director: Henry Hathaway. Cast: Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark.
Haunting, if slightly lethargic, western, a kind of film noir of the west, although it was shot in color and cinemascope. Cooper and Widmark are two wanderers in Mexico who get hooked up with Hayward, who offers them $2,000 apiece to rescue her partner from a gold mine. The catch: the mine is in Apache country, in an area that was dubbed "The Garden of Evil" by a priest who saw his flock butchered by the Indians. The movie is an attempt to draw a portrait of what men will do for greed and/or lust, and Hayward is meant to be a standard fim noir female: attractive, mysterious, a siren luring men on to their doom. The problem is she lacks the charisma to make it work, leaving a big hole in the center of the plot. You keep wondering why three of the four Americans on the trip – there's a greedy Mexican along as well – are so torn up by her. Nonetheless, the movie holds your interest, partly because of the beautiful cinematography and the vivid Bernard Herrmann score, but mostly because of Gary Cooper's stolid presence. He is a laconic loner, the quintessential hero, a man of courage and mystery who acts when others talk. Cooper has the charisma Hayward lacks, and although his actions are never as clear as they should be, his presence makes the movie watachable. TV; 5/29/95.
GARDEN STATE (2004)
Director: Zach Braff. Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm.
Disposable comedy that tries hard for meaning, but comes up short. Twenty-somethings may find the kooky adventures of catatonic hero (Braff) as he comes home for funeral of estranged mom enlightening, but The Graduate and Dustin Hoffman it's not. Has some moments, but tries too hard to be quirky. Best sequence: S&G song. 8/28/04
Director: Thorold Dickenson. Cast: Anton Walbrook, Diana Wunyard, Frank Pettingell.
Original, British version of more famous Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer-Joseph Cotten 1944 remake. The plot is the same, as is much of the dialogue: a Victorian bride begins to fear that she is going mad; it's all a plot by her husband, who accuses her of losing his mother's brooch. The chief differences are in the atmosphere – this one is darker – and in the casting of the detective. Here it is an overweight, former police officer (Pettingell), old enough to be the heroine's father. In the remake, it was dashing leading man Cotten in the part, with hints of a romantic interest. 6/20/02
GATE OF HELL (1953)
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa. Cast: Machiko Kyo, Kazuo Hasegawa, Isao Yamagata.
Striking colors and dopey story are the main features of this Japanese film, which depicts the tragic, obsessive love of a 12th Century Japanese war hero for a married woman. Histrionic acting. Some great battle scenes. Winner of first Oscar in Best Foreign Film category. 4/22/06
A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS, AND A DUPE (1975)
Directed by Damiano Damian.. Cast: Terence Hill, Patrick McGoohan, Klaus Kinski.
Dopey, tongue-in-cheek Spaghetti Western, with Terence Hill as Joe Chance,, a charming gunslinger with a winning smile and a plan to steal $300,000 in cash from a cooked army officer (Patrick McGoohan, with a terribly dubbed voice). The tongue is so firmly in cheek that you could choke to death on this farce. Beautifully photographed, however, with a whimsical Ennio Morricone score. 4/23, 4/24, 4/25/06.
GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT (1947)
Director: Elia Kazan. Cast: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm.
Effective message picture about the prevalence of anti-semitism in society, not just among conservatives but among liberals and even Jews themselves. Peck plays a crusading reporter who passes for Jewish and faces prejudice from everyone you'd expect – and even some you wouldn't. His liberal, uppercrust fiance (McGuire) is shown to be a closet "fellow traveler," not because she promotes anti-semitism but because she doesn't stand up to it. The acting, writing, and message are laudable, and though message-wise it makes sense, dramatically and romantically it would have been more satisfying for Peck to end up with his witty colleague (Holm) than with the priggish fiance. 7/13, 7/15/98.
GET CARTER (1971)
Director: Mike Hodges. Cast: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, John Osborne, Britt Ekland.
Atmospheric gangster picture in which the well-dressed mobster Jack Carter (Caine) returns from London to his home of Newcastle to find out why his brother was murdered. There's not much to the movie except for the melancholy atmosphere, the edgy camerawork, and the sporadic explosions of violence lying under the surface of the well-dressed characters. Caine is terrific as a more-or-less amoral gangster who has one principle: family ties are important. 1/18/01
GET CARTER (2000)
Director: Stephen Kay. Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Miranda Richardson, Mickey Rourke, Rachel Leigh Cook, Michael Caine.
Pointless remake of the 1971 gangster drama in which the ruthless enforcer, Carter (Stallone) comes home to Seattle to investigate his estranged brother's death. Where the original was a Graham Greene-like hymn to sinners, unredeemed and unredeemable, the remake plays like a Hollywood song of redemption through violence, tempered by mercy. The original Carter (played by Caine, who has a central role in this version, and who still turns in the best, most understated work in either version) was a ruthless, amoral killer who murdered suddenly, violently, without compunction. He had slept with his brother's wife, cared little for his family, and sought out the killers of his brother more for his own pride than out of any need to make amends. The new Carter is a soulful man, who befriends his niece, and punches people out like Rocky Balboa (often tossing off a comic quip at the time). He spares the lives of a central figure involved in his brother's death, and is not shown killing people as mercilessly as his predecessor. The edge has been taken off of Carter; he is now a conventional thug-turned-good-guy. Caine's Carter was unredeemable to the end, and even then, he was destroyed by the mob system. In this one, Carter beats the system, gives up his gangland ways, talks back to his boss, kills people (in dull car chases) and gets away with it. No mob hit, no police hit, nothing. Director Kay also tries jazzing things up with fancy film tricks (slo- and fast-motion, quick-cutting) but it's all flash that calls attention to the hollowness of the movie. The original was no great shakes, but it had a brutality and honesty that this movie ignores. The great Roy Budd theme is still here, though he gets a tiny credit for it in the end. Caine gets killed in both movies. 3/4/01
GET SHORTY (1995)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Cast: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito.
Amusing, offbeat crime comedy with Travolta as a hood who goes Hollywood. Chili Palmer (Travolta) is a loan shark who gets hooked up with cheapo filmmaker Harry Zimm (Hackman) and his sometime girlfriend/star Karen (Russo) and her ex-husband actor (DeVito). The pace is terrific, the acting fine, and the script hip without winking. It's a sweetly entertaining and very clever take on the absurdities of Hollywood today and movies of yesterday. Holds up well. 12/3/98
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1948)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cast: Rex Harrison, Gene Tierney, George Sanders.
Touching, at times amusing, story of a real May–December romance, between a widow and a ghost. First class Bernard Herrmann score underlines the mood – not spooky, but strangely sentimental, about the impermanenance of life and relationships, and the difficulty in finding true love. Tierney is fine as the strong-willed widow, Mrs. Muir, who liked but did not love her late husband, and almost makes a bad mistake with a cad (George Sanders). The crusty seaman, Captain Gregg, seems blustery and off-putting at first, but beneath it all he has a loyal and true heart and a keen perception of others. Harrison is excellent as the captain, and Mankiewicz uses just the right touch to make this gossamer bird fly. The last sequence – the death of Mrs. Muir and her rejoining with the Captain – brought tears to my eyes. Is it because it holds out hope for a life to come, where forgotten true loves wait for you? Saturday, December 4, 1993.
Director: George Stevens. Cast: Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean.
Sprawling epic soap opera about three generations of a Texas rancher's family. The early portion, in which Taylor stirs things up among the two men in her life husband Hudson and rebel Dean is by far the more interesting and character-driven. Once Dean's character strikes oil and the characters start getting older, the movie becomes ludicrous, like a big-screen version of Dallas. The movie wants to say something about families and individuality, but it all gets pretty muddled. The actors are fine, the script, fairly pokey. 9/23/00
A GIRL IN BLACK (1956)
Director: Michael Cacoyannis. Cast: Ellie Lambetti, Dimitri Horn, George Foundas.
Simple story about prejudice and ignorance on the Greek island of Hydra. The story involves a young writer (Horn) who comes to the isle for vacation and finds a modern Greek tragedy in the making: he falls for his widowed housekeeper's daughter Marina (Lambetti) which leads to death and rebirth of his character and her's. She is timid and afraid of what people say; he is timid and afraid of his mother; both are drifting. Each gives the other strength. The story is less interesting than the location and the beautifully shot (with one camera) camerawork. 8/26/00
Director: Ridley Scott. Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi.
A 21st century return to the sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s, with a particular nod to Ben-Hur, the "intelligent" epic about a good man who is betrayed and lives only for revenge, first as a slave and then as a warrior (charioteer in Ben-Hur's case, gladiator here). Crowe gives the part intelligence, and the rest of the cast makes the most of an over-long script: Reed is particularly good in his last role as the owner of the gladiators, a former gladiator himself, a Jacobi, formerly the Emperor Claudius, is back in the toga again. The action sequences are staged in a stylistically interesting way, but the movie itself is old hat: about a good man who is reunited with his family in death. 5/12/00
THE GLASS KEY (1942)
Director: Stuart Heisler. Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, William Bendix.
Faithful rendition of the Dashiell Hammett novel, with Donlevy as a political boss facing murder rap unless pal Alan Ladd can get him off. Veronica Lake is the love interest and William Bendix the muscle that beats up Ladd (pretty brutally, too). Overall, the movie is a passable B–flick, with Ladd OK as the pal, though I kept wondering how Bogart might have handled it and given the story a harder edge. The tale seems less confusing than the original novel, but it's still lame. It lacks the power of the best noir flicks. Monday, December 27, 1993.
THE GLEN MILLER STORY (1984)
Director: Anthony Mann. Cast: James Stewart, June Allyson, Harry Morgan.
Charming, atypical Mann entry about the innovate big band leader Glen Miller. Stewart and Allyson have great chemistry together, overcoming th standard biopic (rags to riches because a man follows his dream) format of the film. Great music. 10/13/06
THE GOAT (1921)
Director: Cast: Buster Keaton.
Keaton mistaken for a wanted criminal "Sure Shot Dan." Again, some great comic chases, with almost balletic dance steps. Wonderfully fast-paced, with some great absurdist touches (Keaton controlling an elevator by stopping the floor indicator). Keaton is once again a put-upon figure, battling authority figures who don't understand or appreciate him. Seen: March 4, 1995.
GOD SAID, “HA!” (1998)
Director/cast: Julia Sweeney.
Saturday Night Live veteran Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show God Said, “Ha!” doesn’t seem like the best candidate for popular success. As filmed monologues go, it’s pretty unusual stuff for a commercial venture: there is neither the foul-mouthed humor of an Eddie Murphy nor the dry wit of a Jerry Seinfeld. There is just Sweeney, a slight woman with a Midwestern twang, talking about nine months in her life when her brother and ultimately Sweeney herself were diagnosed with cancer. The “Big C” is not a surefire comedy topic, but the comedienne makes the most of it. The story starts with happier times: Sweeney had just ended a successful four-year run on Saturday Night Live, she had been amicably divorced from her husband; and she had purchased a tiny dream house where she looked forward to living alone. “And then,” she notes wryly, “God said, ‘Ha!’” Her brother Michael was diagnosed with cancer. He moved in so that she could take care of him. Worried, her parents also moved in. And then, for nine months, Sweeney had to once again cope with people she had spent years trying to escape. The actress, best known for her androgynous character Pat, began her career with The Groundlings, an improv troupe in California, where she showed great facility at creating comic characters. That skill hasn’t deserted her. Her observations and portrayals of parents, siblings, lovers, and other oddballs rival the best stand-up work of Bill Cosby in his prime. And Sweeney, who wrote and directed this well-photographed version of her successful 1996 stage show, goes beyond the comic to make poignant observations about how tragedy can bring out the best in everyone. God Said, “Ha!” may not be the most riveting of films as a film, but it is still a touching, amusing, and heartfelt experience. 9/10/98
GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)
Director: Bill Condon. Cast: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave.
A marvelous fiction about the last days of eccentric Hollywood director James Whale. Long a pariah in Hollywood for his open homosexuality in a time when it was repressed, Whale became a financial pariah when his post-Frankenstein films failed at the box office. Gods and Monsters (the phrase is taken from The Bride of Frankenstein) examines the wistful longings of a fiercely proud and independent man, who, while enjoying his "freedom" from convention longs for love – both emotional and the kind he gets from making a movie, where he is in control and among friends. For Whale, as deliciously played by Ian McKellan, feels very much alone and lost, as he realizes after he has had a stroke, that his control and dignity are going from him. The movie depicts his last, brief friendship with the handsome, naive hetereosexual Clayton Boone, played in a lovely, innocent style by Brendan Fraser. Gods and Monsters is a terrific character piece, that depicts a man reaching out for his past – only to find that it cannot be recovered. It is a touching, well-crafted drama, a marvelous curio about a quirky talent. 11/13/98.
GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1957)
Director: Anthony Mann. Cast: Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Tina Louise, Jack Lord, Vic Morrow, Buddy Hackett.
A comic piece, with dark undertones, from Erskine Caldwell's novel. Ryan is the folksy father of four – three sons and a daughter – who is obsessed with his 15-year search for gold on his property (prompted by dying words from his grandfather). The movie is about obsessions and family – the father's obsession with gold, his son's obsession with his wife's fidelity, his son-in-law's obsession with re-openinng the cotton mill. Some overcome their manias,, others are overcome by themm. Okay, but a little too much like Tennesee Williams lite. 9/24/06.
Director: Ishiro Honda. Cast: Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi.
Kurosawawa collaborators Honda (writer) and Shimura (actor) appear in this monster flick, first and best of the long series of Godzilla pictures. The original version, sans Raymond Burr (who was added to the 1956 American re-edit), is much more somber and its anti-nuke message much more pointed. Not a great film, though it can be surprisingly moving at times. With an affecting score by Ikfube. 5/19/04
THE GOLF SPECIALIST (1930)
Director: Monte Brice. Cast: W.C. Fields.
First talkie from Fields has his character in place: nasty to kids, avaricious, and bumbling. Amusing, if slight; best moments: Fields and the shrilled-voiced little girl. 7/24/02
GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING (1958)
Director: Natan Juran. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Maggie Hayes, Robert Vaughn, Joan Blackman.
Offbeat, psychological western about a man (MacMurray) who witnesses a killing but is not believed because he has a beef against the killer (Vaughn): his daughter is in love with the young man.. MacMurray is fine, and although it comes to a predictable conclusion, there are enough twists and turns i its brief running time to keep it interesting. Fast-paced, well done, and MacMurray and Vaughn are quite good. 5/26/07
Director: Martin Scorcese. Cast: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta.
The movie left me cold. I sat there, watching the story, appreciating the characters, but never once feeling emotionally involved with them. They were believable, but I didn't care about them. What I ended up caring about was the technique – the fabulous tracking shot that introduces all the characters – andthe cinematagrophy, and the period rock music on the soundtrack. But no one changed: the protagonist never learned anything. He went from being a cheap punk, seduced by money and power, to a cheap rat, selling out his killer–friends –– nailing them before they "whacked" him.
The performances are uniformly good, and there are many funny moments. There are also some scary scenes –– especially the "What's so funny?" scene and another in which the hero's wife is subtly menaced by Robert De Niro, who may or may not be sending her into a trap. Also, the shooting in the foot scene.
Goodfellas is an intellectual exercise: a look at the seduction of power, the corruption of youth, but there is no emotional center to the movie. I agree with Pauline Kael on this: the movie has breadth –– the story covers 25 years –– but no depth. You never really get inside the characters or learn what makes them tick. They never have doubts, or concerns other than superficial ones. They're shallow characters alright, but not even interesting shallow characters. Seen on September 21, 1990.
THE GOOD GIRL (2002)
Director: Miguel Arteta. Cast: Jennifer Aniston, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal.
A quirky drama about a Texas housewife (Aniston) who finds escape from her homedrum existence though an affair with co-worker, Holden (Gyllenhaal) at the local convenience story where she works. (Significantly, he is a would-be-writer who has named himself after the rebellious character in Catcher in the Rye.) The movie is painted in short scenes, some poignant, some ironic, some narrative, all pointed. The movie shows a culture dead to true feelings, mesmerized by television programs that help them escape their drab existence. Aniston's Justine recognizes the emptiness of her life and the powerlessness of her ability to do anything about it. Significantly, when she is given a choice between spontaneously escaping and the predictable humdrum of existence, she chooses the latter. Funny, touching, absorbing, and very perceptive. 9/21/02
A GOOD MARRIAGE (1981)
Director: Eric Rohmer. Cast: Beatrice Romand, Andre Dussollier.
Entertaining French romantic comedy, the second in Rohmer's "Comedies & Proverbs" series. It tells the story of a 25-year-old (Romand) who is tired of affairs with married men and decides to get married herself – she just hasn't picked out the man yet. When she does, he seems interested, but then the course of love does not run smoothly, and our heroine becomes a bit obsessive. Charming, with a dark edge. 10/8/01
GOSFORD PARK (2001)
Director: Robert Altman. Cast: Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Bob Balaban.
A confusing, episodic Upstairs Downstairs-style drama about the bitchiness of the upper classes and the abuse of the servant lower classes in a 1932 English country estate. As he did in Nashville, Altman runs a huge collection of characters through their paces. Unlike Upstairs Downstairs, however, the characters are not as finely etched or as interesting so, with the exception of Smith's crusty dowager, most of the characters blend together. There is a murder mystery which is ultimately solved by servant and has to do with the lechery of the upper classes. Maybe this is more true to the servant experience than Updown, but it's a lot less fun. July 7, 8, 2002.
GO WEST (1925)
Director: Buster Keaton (assisted by Lex Neal). Cast: Buster Keaton.
Keaton, as a cowboy named Friendless, suffers countless misfortunes to save his true love from destruction: a Jersey cow named Brown Eyes. The sentimental comedy of Chaplin is turned inside out in this fast-moving farce, full of the usual Keaton stunts. In-joke moment: cowboy aiming gun at Keaton says, "Smile when you say that!" The old stone face, of course, can't, and gets out of the predicament in classic style. 8/14/99
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
Director: John Ford. Cast: Henry Fonda, John Caradine.
Dark, grim adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel about migrant workers in the Depression. Authority is seen as the enemy to the family unit, which is falling apart as a result of the faltering economy. Fonda is Tom Joad, who rejoins his family after four years in prison, spent there for killing a man. Unlike his later upright characters, Fonda's Joad is a mixture of humility and hot-headed anger, angry at what the topsy-turvy world has come to. It is a place where cops are worse than criminals, where strike-breakers are applauded, and no one looks out for his fellow man. The grim tale is darkly photographed by Greg Toland (later to lense Citizen Kane), and ends on a falsely optimistic note (presumably not in the novel, an indictment of capitalism, like most of the movie. 1/24/04
THE GREAT DICATOR (1940)
Director: Charles Chaplin. Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner.
Well-done satire of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Nazi movement, with Chaplin terrific as the Hitler-like Adenoid Hynkel and a shy Jewish barber who could be the dicator's twin. There is slapstick, social commentary, and drama as Chaplin takes a stand against the Nazis in particular and war in general. Funny bit: the meeting in the office with Mussolini stand-in Oakie. Most famous moment: Hynkel dancing around the office with a globe balloon. Funny, but not as great as it's cracked up to be. 3/13/04
THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (1956)
Director: Francis D. Lyon. Cast: Fess Parker, Jeffrey Hunter.
Well-made Disney movie, a Yankee version of the same Civil War incident that inspired Keaton's The General, about Yankee spies who capture a Confederate train and wreak havoc on the south. Parker is fine as the Yankee leader, but lacks the folksiness of Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone; Hunter is passionate as his rebel nemesis. 5/7/06
THE GREAT McGINTY (1940)
Director: Preston Sturges. Cast: Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest.
Sturges' first writer–director effort lacks the pace and invention of his later masterpieces, but has a lot of zing nonetheless. The flashback structure is clever, making you think it's going to be about a would–be–suicide but instead focusing on the bartender instead. The story itself has the hard-boiled – yet slightly sentimental – cynism that Sturges would later make his trademark and although the Sturges stock company is still in a nascent stage, there are some great performances: Demarest is terrific, Tamiroff superb, and Donlevy fine (if a little flat at times). One commentator pointed out that it is unclear whether the story is true or if McGinty is just a spinner of tall tales; it doesn't matter and in fact is a comment on movies in general and Sturges in particular. He's certainly a master of tall tales, none taller than those drawn from his imagination and his life. Reseen in 9/90, 9/28/00.
THE GREAT MOMENT (1944)
Director: Preston Sturges. Cast: Joel McCrea, Betty Field, William Demarest.
Sturges' first great misfire, in which the master of cynicism and slapstick goes sentimental. A longtime pet project, The Great Moment (original title: Triumph Over Pain) is the director's account of 19th Century dentist J.W.T. Morton's discovery of anestia. Intented as a serious story with comic moments, the film was re–edited by the studio to emphasize the comedy. There's not much of it: only William Demarest's patented pratfalls and even they fail to raise the humor or interest level. Much of the film is given over to pedantic speeches about serving humanity ("It won't hurt anymore, now or ever again!") as the virtuous Morton (Joel McCrea) faces greedy colleagues who want part of the action but won't take any risks, and conservative establishment figures (the Massachusetts MedicalSociety) who'd rather see people suffer than try out something new and effective that they didn't discover. You'd think the man who so savagely skewered politics in The Great McGinty and hero worship in Hail the Conquering Hero would have a field day with pompous doctors, but Sturges, a would-be-inventor himself, seems to taken by his hero to see clearly. What others might call complexity or faults – that Morton didn't want to share credit for his discovery or his patent on it out of greed – are explained away facilely; others are at fault, not the shining hero. As Morton, McCrea fits Sturges' interpretation to a tee: he is priggish, self-righteous, and humorless – which is probably a good way to describe to movie, as well. It was a box office flop, and one wonders how Sturges might have skewered it if he were not the director (he reportedly hated the new title and the re-editing, but it's hard to see how anything could have saved this misconceived Moment). Seen on tape, September 28, 1990.
THE GYPSY AND THE GENTLEMAN (1958)
Director: Joseph Losey. Cast: Melina Mercouri, Keith Michell, Patrick McGoohan, Flora Robson.
Early McGoohan flicks finds the future spy as the gypsy lover of fellow gypsy Mercouri as the two plot to bilk smitten nobleman Michell. A big melodrama, enlivened by Mercouri's zest for life. A curiosity because the normal platonic McGoohan engages in some heavy kissing action. A potboiler. 12/4/02
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944)
Director: Preston Sturges. Cast: Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, Ella Raines, Raymond Walburn, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin, Franklin Pangborn, Harry Hayden.
There is no director like Sturges alive or dead in his unusual combination of the comic and the dramatic, the verbal and the physical, the sentimental and the cynical, the naive and the knowing. He is a one-of--a-kind, a writer who directed when such a move was unheard of in an industry of writers or directors (but never both). He was a man who flopped more than he succeeded, but whose successes and failures are unique because they are so grand. Sturges never did anything halfway – from marriages (he had several) to mistresses, stage shows to restaurants, writing to directing – Sturges did everything on a grand, lunatic scale, probably because his life started and ended that way.
He was the son of a romantic Irishwoman, who believed she was a Princess and actually was a close traveling companion of Isadora Duncan. Mom married many times, and Sturges crazy adventures began as a child dressed in a toga (mother was into Bohemian living), and ended with him broke and alone, scribbling away at his memoirs (tentatively, typically titled The Events Leading Up to My Death). In between came more successess and failures than anyone could expect in one lifetime.
Hail the Conquering Hero is, like many of Sturges' best films, about an innocent victim, a man who tries to do the right thing, and gets caught up in fast–paced events that he can't control. In this ccase, it's the story of nebbish Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), a well–meaning sort with a hero father killed in WWI. Woodrow tells one white lie and finds it snowballing into a series of grander lies with even grander repercussions. It's a funny thing about Sturges: he has an unerring eye for the cant and dishonesty of politicians –– and although he understands it enough to poke fun at it, and accept it as the normal course of events, he also seems to believe in the basic goodness of people. In this case, the lie comes out of people trying to do good for others: Woodrow for his mom, the marines for Woodrow. And the underlying message is uplifting:have the courage to be honest with others and yourself and you will be rewarded. Message aside, the movie works as a wonderful farce, with many pointed (and prescient, considering our current jaded times) jabs at the gullibility and maleability of voters and candidates. "Politics is a very peculiar thing," says one character. "If they want you, they want you. They don't need reasons anymore. They find their own. Just like when a girl finds a man..." It's like Sturges to go from the political to the personal, because people is what Sturges' farces are about –– their is an undercurrent of tragedy (the marine saying "at least you don't have [nightmares] all the time") to the comedy; of the bittersweet to the comic.
And all of it is wonderfully played by Sturges' stock company, the collection of familiar faces led by Demarest that the writer-director constantly employed because he felt loyal to them since they had been in his first pictures. He also probably realized how much they added: the blustery Demarest, saavy and straightforward with his own tortured, independent logic for things; the windbag Walburn, whose long-winded, mangled speeches had begun in Christmas in July; the ever-flustered Franklin Pangborn; the slightly addled Jimmy Conlin; and the cynical stand–in for Sturges Al Bridge, who here plays the political boss with all the saavy of his shifty lawyers (Miracle) and no–nonsense conductors (Palm Beach). Character is what a Sturges comedy is about; character and witty dialogue and pratfalls, cynicism, and heart. It's a strange mixture, quite unlike comedies anywhere, and quite wonderful. You get swept away. And watch it – over and over again, to appreciate some of the subtle throwaway lines and great visual, verbal gags (in the latter category, the terrific writing of a speech by the windbag politician). And watch it with a crowd of people – that's the best way to enjoy Sturges. He's a party director. Reseen on tape, the week of September 24, 1990. Reseen on DVD: 11/30/06