Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Dario Argento

Why do I like many of the films of Italian horrormeister Dario Argento, and dislike others just as much? Part of this is Argento's over-reliance on gore (although this can be very effective in some movies) and his acceptance of screenplays that, to be charitable, need a lot of polishing that they don't always get.

On the other hand, if you study Argento's films, especially his great ones, you can easily see that the Italian giallo filmmaker is miles ahead of the hack (no pun intended) directors of "mad slasher" schlock like, say, most of the Friday the 13th films and their ilk. His films generally have plenty of style, and his best movies are undeniably creepy and suspenseful and have some kind of (slightly demented) mind behind them, as well as some bravura sequences.

Argento never got mainstream respectability, like Hitchcock, but Argento is not in Hitchcock's league as a filmmaker. Some of his fans are simply interested in the gory shock scenes (Argento tends to cater to them too much) even though there are those of us who also enjoy the twisting plots and tense moments that are virtually in all of his movies. As Argento got older, he perhaps tried too hard to capture the young American mad slasher/splatter movie crowd even though he was capable of far greater things. Argento has never quite fulfilled his potential despite such memorable films as Deep Red and Trauma. (Argento's first film was the creditable The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970).

Argento's other films are of varying quality. Great: Sleepless. Good: Phenomena; The Card Player; Cat O'Nine Tails. Mediocre: Four Flies on Grey VelvetBad: Do You Like Hitchcock?; Giallo. And there are others.

Argento's films were clearly influential on such diverse movies as The Eyes of Laura Mars and 88 Minutes, among others. Argento, who is now seventy-five, last directed Dracula 3D, and his next film will be the serial killer thriller The Sandman.

Below you will find reviews of some of Argento's other movies, as well as a write-up on a book about the director and his work.


An example of the colorful art direction of Suspiria
SUSPIRIA (1977). Director: Dario Argento.

When Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at the exclusive Tam dance academy in Germany, a series of odd events occur. First a young woman who was expelled from the school, and her friend, are savagely murdered in town. Suzy's roommate Sara (Stefania Casini) is convinced that the unseen, heavy-breathing directress is still living in the building and that none of the teachers ever go home at night -- what are they up to? More murders occur, some of them apparently due to supernatural means, such as the death of blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) at the teeth of his once-friendly dog. Suzy learns that the school was founded decades before by the late Helena Marcos, the "Black Queen," who was rumored to be a witch, but after her death all activities of witchcraft in the academy were eradicated -- or were they? Suspiria is a creepy and suspenseful film that is certainly not without its flaws but is very entertaining. Jessica Harper is fine as the heroine, as is Alida Valli [The Paradine Case] as the stern Miss Tanner, and Joan Bennett [Secret Beyond the Door] as nominal headmistress Madame Blanc. The colorful art deco art direction is another plus, but the music by Goblin [which was used rather effectively in Deep Red] is too often just a lot of noisy pounding and vocal screaming that does nothing for the picture. This is the first of what became known as Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy. Like most of Argento's films, this is not for all tastes.

Verdict: Watch out for those maggots! ***.

INFERNO (1980)

The sinister Manhattan apartment house of Inferno
INFERNO (1980). Director: Dario Argento.

In the second of his supernatural "three mothers" films -- a sequel to Suspiria -- it develops that an architect named Varelli built three dwellings for each of these three sinister and powerful witches: the Mothers of Tears, Sighs, and Darkness. One of those dwellings is an apartment house in Manhattan [another dwelling is the German dance academy featured in Suspiria], wherein a young lady, Rose (Irene Miracle), becomes fascinated by a book about the mothers written many years ago by Varelli. Her investigations prove her undoing, and after she disappears, her brother, Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, returns to New York to find out what happened to her. Inferno proceeds like a nightmare, which may have been the intention, meaning that the film has little internal logic, and a poor narrative structure, and which also makes it off-putting to certain viewers. Like Suspiria, Inferno betrays a slasher sensibility even if the films are quite different from Deep Red. Murders occur both in New York and in Rome, where Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), one of Mark's fellow students, opens a letter from Rose, learns about the Three Mothers, and is butchered along with a friendly male neighbor, Carlos (Gabriele Lavia from Deep Red), to the strains of Verdi's "Va pensiero" chorus from Nabucco. [Nabucco just happens to be on Carlos' record player after Sara listens to it in class!] One assumes Rose and Mark are independently wealthy considering he's a student, she's a poet, and the apartment Rose lives in is positively gigantic. There are more murders, an attack by rats on a bookseller drowning cats, and appearances by Alida Valli (this time as the apartment building's caretaker), Daria Nicolodi as a wealthy neighbor, and Feodor Chaliapin Jr., the son of the famous operatic bass, as Varelli/Professor Arnold. There's an odd variation of different musical styles throughout the picture, and it features Mario Bava-like lighting effects. All in all, Inferno holds the attention, has several creepy scenes (such as Rose exploring a flooded basement under the building), but it's perhaps too weird and confusing for its own good.

Verdict: Argento treading water. **1/2.


TENEBRAE (aka Tenebre/1982). Director: Dario Argento.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), an American who writes bestselling crime thrillers, is in Rome on a tour when murders occur which seem to have something to do with his latest book. After several bloody killing of women, Neal gets the idea that he's figured out who the maniac is and pursues this lead, but things don't quite work out the way he intended. Tenebrae is another twisty psycho-shocker from Argento, with a clever plot and interesting ending, and even more gore than usual. Franciosa [Wild is the Wind] gives a good performance, as do John Saxon [Queen of Blood] as his agent, and Daria Nicolodi as Neal's secretary. Unlike Deep Red, Tenebrae is not especially stylish, and the murder sequences have little elan, but the picture is genuinely suspenseful. The murders seem to be of women who have somehow "sinned" in the eye of the conservative psycho, his targets being a shoplifter, a prostitute, gay/bi ladies, and so on. After awhile the killer starts targeting men as well as women, until near the climax there seems no one left who could be the murderer! But there's one final trick in store.

Verdict: Far-fetched and grisly fun. ***.


OPERA (aka Terror at the Opera/1987). Director: Dario

"Birds on stage! Back projection! Laser beams! This isn't an opera, it's an amusement park!'

An unseen soprano named Mara is trying to sing during a rehearsal of Verdi's MacBeth, when she is unnerved by the lousy "modern" production, as well as by a raven -- "it never takes its beady eyes off of me," she screams, "it's deliberately destroying my performance!" This is entirely possible in this strange movie in which Mara gets hit by a car and must be replaced by a younger soprano, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), a prospect she finds daunting. Worse Betty is tied up more than once by a maniac, has needles put under her eyes so she can't close them [supposedly, although this really wouldn't work], and is forced to watch as the stage manager, Stefano (William McNamara) and later the wardrobe mistress, Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni), are savagely butchered. After the first disgusting murder, one would think Betty would screech for police protection, but all she does is make an anonymous phone call to the police. Most people would be terrified basket cases after their ordeal, but Marsillach only makes Betty seem somewhat upset, which is as much a problem of the script as it is of Marsillach's insufficient acting. Following the first murder, Betty talks calmly to the untalented director Marco (Ian Charleson) about her disappointing sex life and doesn't finally get around to, like, the assault and murder until later -- in other words, this is one of those movies in which the characters' actions make little sense. Other potential victims are the handsome Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini), and Betty's agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi); Barberini seems more like a male model in outsized glasses than a cop. Somebody who's just been given her first leading role as Betty has would probably not be able to afford such a gigantic apartment, but a bigger problem is the poor script, the lack of suspense, and the lack of any convincing motivation for the killings. True, there are some good scenes, such as when Betty and Mira are in the former's apartment and are not certain which cop is the real one, and which an impostor, and there's a clever murder in the middle of it, and the climax involving the aforementioned raven is interesting even if it goes on way too long. There are people who think Opera is some kind of art film, a masterpiece (probably people who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare's play or Verdi's opera), but despite some good scenes and touches, this really borders on schlock. Argento's best films have suspenseful and intriguing storylines, which Opera lacks. The operatic music in the background is a plus, but it only reminds one that what you're seeing is pretty much junk in comparison with Grand Opera. With its similarities to Phantom of the Opera, it's not surprising that Argento made a film of the same name later on.

Verdict: There are enough good things in this to make you wish Argento hadn't ultimately muffed it, but he would do worse. **1/2.


Nadia Rinaldi and Asia Argento
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (aka Il fantasma dell'opera/1998). Director: Dario Argento.

"You will not sing Romeo and Juliet. If you defy me, you will suffer, you fat cow." -- the Phantom to Carlotta.

Early in this version of Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera" a workman in a shaft in the opera house begins to scream, and when his body is pulled up by the others, the top half of it is missing. Yep, this is "Phantom of the Opera" as filtered through the mind of Italian goremeister Dario Argento. Frankly the performances, script, and production values reveal a not bad film that doesn't need the gratuitous mayhem, but Argento was a slave to some of his fans -- not to mention the gore geeks who loved the Friday the 13th series and their extreme splatter effects [hence we have the Phantom unnecessarily biting and pulling the tongue out of a screaming victim]. In this version there is nothing about composers and greedy music publishers, but instead our phantom (Julian Sands) floats into the Paris underground as a baby and is raised and nurtured -- by rats! [In one scene the unlucky Sands has the little darlings crawling all over him as he fondles and kisses them.] As in most versions we have the obnoxious older soprano, Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi), and the young understudy, Christine (Asia Argento, the director's daughter), who takes her place when disaster strikes. Unlike earlier versions, the Phantom is not disfigured, but this attempt to turn it into a love story is a mistake. There are handsome settings in the Paris of 1877, interesting art direction of assorted underground chambers, and some striking images, such as the Phantom imagining his naked enemies shrunken in size and caught in a rat trap. Unfortunately, the chandelier scene lacks real suspense, and what happens to Carlotta is treated like a black comedy (but is undeniably amusing). One sequence takes place in a 19th century Plato's Retreat-type sex club, and there's a zany bit with two weird hobos who build a rat-killing contraption that backfires on them. The ending is dragged out and this could have used a stronger script, but Ennio Morricone's music is quite effective and there are some good performances. Previous versions of the film include the clasic silent with Lon Chaney, the 1943 version with Claude Rains, and the 1962 version with Herbert Lom.

Verdict: Take it on its own terms and this is entertaining if a little too gross at times. **1/2.


MOTHER OF TEARS (aka La terza madre/2007). Director: Dario Argento.

"The city is 2700 years old, and we are standing on five layers of graves."

There was twenty-seven years between Inferno, the second of Argento's Three Mothers trilogy, and the third and final installment, Mother of Tears -- it wasn't worth the wait. The problem begins when certain artifacts are removed from a chest that is consistently referred to as an "urn" and immediately weird things begin happening. Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), the daughter of a woman killed by another witch in Suspiria (the first part), discovers that her mother's spirit (Daria Nicolodi) is protecting her when the Mother of Tears reawakens and throws all Rome into chaos -- witches from all over the world are descending upon the city and there are many more murders and suicides. Some of these witches seem like "mean girls" with attitude, while the head mother, supposedly the embodiment of evil, looks like a sleazy hostess in a topless bar. Mother of Tears could have been a great and exciting horror film, but instead it's an often silly and mindless gorefest for the "gore geeks" in the audience. Some of Argento's better movies are less offensive because there's an intriguing storyline and some inventive directorial touches to go along with the graphic mayhem, but that isn't the case with Mother. Some of the gore is so over the top that it becomes almost comically unrealistic. We have the woman strangled with her own intestines, and in a mind-numbingly offensive and sick scene a gay woman has a metal rod thrust into her vagina and out of her mouth. Again, because of the lack of other positive attributes, Argento's sickening violence against women appears positively misogynous [although, to be fair, there are male victims as well]. There are a couple of interesting scenes: people pursuing Sarah can't see her due to her mother's spell; and those too-clean-but-creepy catacombs that are the lair of the bitchy witches. The Omen-like musical score only reminds one that the three Omen movies made up a much slicker and more memorable trilogy. It's as if Argento, desperate to expand a youthful audience, decided to concentrate on grisliness and to hell with the script. The performances of the leads -- Argento's daughter Asia, and Adam James as her boyfriend, Michael -- border on the amateurish, although Ms. Argento has her moments.

Verdict: Sad actually. *1/2.


BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS: The Dark Dreams of DARIO ARGENTO. Maitland McDonagh. University  of Minnesota Press; 2010 -- expanded edition.

McDonagh takes an interesting look at the Italian maker of horror films with an academic approach. Dario Argento has garnered many fans of his work, although he's never been taken that seriously by U.S. mainstream critics. Some of that is due to what may be seen as over-the-top violence, a few weak screenplays, an adherence to visual effect over logic, and so on. Despite this, some of his films are quite creepy, exhilarating, and yes, artistic in their way. McDonaugh won me over with her fond [?] look at the Times Square movie houses of yesterday [where she first saw Argento's early films], where often there was more drama going on in the audience than in the picture, writing of one theater that it was "a shoebox of a grindhouse, so dirty, claustrophobic and relentlessly seamy that I remember it more vividly than the movie." Broken Mirrors looks at several of Argento's films, and includes an interview with the director. There are analyses and behind-the-scenes details. Although an admirer of Argento, McDonagh doesn't shy away from sharp criticisms of certain aspects of his work, as well as awkward and lame moments in each film. She's also pretty rough on Trauma, which I've always considered one of Argento's best movies. Still, to each his own.

Verdict: Argento fans will enjoy this although some may find it a bit heavy going at times. ***.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Far From Heaven
Here's our annual round-up of gay/LGBT films in honor of the Gay Pride celebration in New York City. Its a really mixed bag this year, with everything from the William Wyler classic The Children's Hour to a silly documentary about two self-hating gay men who live with a woman, Three of Hearts. Then we've got Tom Hanks in his Oscar-winning turn in Philadelphia; Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven; and a couple of ersatz "gay" movies such as the telefilm Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn, Coffee Date, and the highly interesting -- and somewhat ambiguous -- Family Way.

Over the decades gay portrayals and how society sees homosexuality has greatly changed, although sometimes it may seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In any case, positive portraits of LGBT individuals are always welcome, but that doesn't always add up to a successful movie.

Anyway, here are a few films to ponder.


Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn
THE CHILDREN'S HOUR (1961). Producer/director: William Wyler. Note: some plot points are revealed in this review.

William Wyler had already directed These Three, a sanitized film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour, when he decided it was time to tackle the play and its sub-theme head on. Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) co-own a young girls' boarding school in a small but wealthy community. Karen has held off her marriage to Joe Cardin (James Garner of They Only Kill Their Masters) because she wants to make sure the school is a success before she leaves. With the unwitting aid of Karen's miserable Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a hateful child named Mary (Karen Balkin) tells a malicious lie about the two women. Her grandmother, Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), believes the lie and spreads it around that Karen and Martha are lovers, with the result that all of the parents take their daughters out of school. Does Martha have deeper feelings for Karen than she wants to admit? Hellman's play was certainly ahead of its time, and some of the dialogue that may have seemed "politically correct" in the sixties was actually already in the play, produced about thirty years earlier. Martha goes on about people "who believe in it, who want it, who've chosen it for themselves," but this is something she just can't do. (Of course today it's more accurate to say gay people choose to accept themselves.) The dated, but not unrealistic for the period, line is Martha saying "I feel so sick and dirty I just can't stand it anymore," which is roughly equivalent to "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse" from The Boys in the Band. However, I've never felt Children's Hour was as offensive as Boys, because the latter is a mostly negative depiction of acknowledged gay characters while the former not only looks at the devastating results of gossip and innuendo but functions, whether intended or not, as a trenchant study of both external and internalized homophobia. These women's lives are ruined simply because people think they're lesbians, a revelation which Martha only acknowledges at the very end. The suicide in the film may strike modern-viewers as horribly dated but it's also quite moving, as is the conflicted character of Karen. John Michael Hayes' [Rear Window] script is excellent, William Wyler's direction is sensitive and splendid, and the acting from virtually the entire cast is simply incredible. Hepburn and MacLaine are perfection, Bainter and Hopkins come close to stealing the show, James Garner (whom I've never much cared for) gives probably the best performance of his career, and the little girls, including Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie, are so good it's almost scary. Add a lovely score by Alex North, fine cinematography by Franz Planer (who also shot Wyler's The Big Country), and expert editing from Robert Swink and you've got a near-masterpiece.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws, this picture plays. ***1/2.


Tom Hanks
PHILADELPHIA (1993). Director: Jonathan Demme.

"Everyone in this room is your friend, more than your friend -- family." -- Wheeler to Beckett.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a young lawyer in Philadelphia who is going places -- until he gets AIDS. Although he tries to hide it from the partners, he is fired (just as much for being gay as for his illness) on a trumped up charge of incompetence. Turned down by most lawyers for a wrongful dismissal lawsuit, he is finally represented by ambulance chaser and part-time homophobe Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Although Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards), the head of the firm, is importuned to settle with Beckett, the crusty old lawyer is not about to give in ... Philadelphia, the first major American movie to deal with AIDS and homophobia, is an admirable if flawed motion picture. It doesn't shy away from stark realities such as depicting the illness and its effect on other people; the way that gay partners are not considered "family" in the hospital; invisible gays and closet cases; and difficult questions about so-called "risky" behavior. On the other hand, with so many points to be made on such an issue, the characters sort of get lost, and the viewer probably gets to know Joe Miller better than it does Andrew Beckett. Andrew's partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) is only given a couple of scenes, remains a distant figure, and worse, the two men seem more like friends than partners -- it's almost as if Banderas was afraid to ruin his "macho" image by kissing Hanks. Hanks [Road to Perdition] won a Best Actor Oscar, and is quite good, even if he's perhaps a bit too "fluttery" on certain occasions [the film seems to show the diversity of the gay male community, and even indulges in some stereotype-busting at times]. Washington [American Gangster], Robards [You Can't Take It With You], and Mary Steenburgen as opposing counsel are excellent, and there's an effective cameo by director Roger Corman as one of Beckett's former clients. As for the music (the main score is by Howard Shore), the soundtrack makes effective use of Maria Callas singing "La mamma morta" from Giordano's Andrea Chenier, although one wonders if either Bruce Springsteen (Oscar winner for the title tune) and Neil Young (composer of the haunting end-title piece "City of Brotherly Love") knew the subject matter before they wrote the songs.

Verdict: Whatever its imperfections this is an often powerful and very affecting picture. ***1/2.


Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore
FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002). Writer/director: Todd Haynes.

"I've fallen in love with someone who wants to be with me."

Todd Haynes, who has obviously seen the Douglas Sirk-directed All That Heaven Allows (produced by Ross Hunter) more than once, came up with this new take 43 years after the original. In Heaven Allows Jane Wyman causes a scandal in a small town because she starts seeing a younger man, Rock Hudson. In Far From Heaven, the scandal occurs when Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) develops a romantic friendship with her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) in 1950s Connecticut. If that didn't create enough problems for her, she brings supper to her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid) in the office one night and catches him kissing another man. Can husband and wife each find happiness -- with someone else? Far From Heaven deliberately has the style of prime Ross Hunter, as well as a lush romantic score by Elmer Bernstein, and it is quite well-acted by the leads. Haynes avoids the trap of making all of these people too nice -- Frank is initially tormented by his sexuality, but one senses he's not the most pleasant person in the world to begin with and certainly not much of a father. One can quibble with a lot of things about the movie -- there are times when it approaches parody, the characters aren't as dimensional as they might have been, and Cathy seems a little unreal at first -- but it eventually becomes quite compelling and moving. Among the supporting cast, Patricia Clarkson scores as Cathy's friend, as does the authoritative Viola Davis (of Doubt and later star of that absurd but entertaining show How to Get Away With Murder) as Cathy's maid Cynthia. Some viewers thought Raymond was just a token character, which sort of misses the point. Haynes recognizes that a movie set in the fifties can't be too politically correct as it might seem unrealistic.  While Far From Heaven is like a Ross Hunter movie with added depth and dimension, the screenplay still seems like something from the fifties and the picture may be too glossy for its own good. Still, it's a lovely movie. Haynes also wrote and directed the 2011 cable remake of Mildred Pierce. Both Moore and Clarkson played batty mothers in two remakes of Carrie, Moore in 2013 and Clarkson in 2002.

Verdict: Viewers who go with the flow may find this quite rewarding. ***1/2.


Sisters: Sam Cagnina, Samantha Singh, Steven Margolin
THREE OF HEARTS: A POSTMODERN FAMILY (2004). Director: Susan Kaplan.

In this documentary two delusional homosexual men, Sam Cagnina and Steven Margolin, have been in a relationship seven years when the former importunes the latter to bring a woman, Samantha Singh, into the mix. Sam, the "queenier" of the two, admits years later that he was ashamed of his sexuality, and wanted to have a "normal" life and be "part of society" -- the typical reason most closeted gay men get married to women. [In an interview he also said he wanted children, which is also, of course, a way for men to "prove their manhood."] Most women would certainly shy away from being in a relationship with two gay men in a committed relationship, but because they sleep with her she apparently sees them as legitimately bisexual, which turns out not to be the case. The trouble with this trio is that we have three very immature (both chronologically and emotionally) people who decide to "play house" and make babies, indulging in the kind of polygamy that may work great in college during an experimental stage, but hardly flies in the long run. "I stayed with my experimentation and made it my life," says Samantha. Some people see this as a study of unconventional people trying to be themselves, but it comes off more as a loving gay couple being destroyed by bad decisions and the insertion of an unnecessary third party. The guys' desire to be in some kind of ersatz hetero relationship hardly makes them "unconventional" in any case. Steven says late in the film that "I was never very comfortable with my homosexuality" and it is probably his increased awareness in that regard, dealing with his internalized homophobia, that leads him to finally ditch the other two and make his own life with a male partner. [The two Sams stay together and raise two children but no longer have sex.] Samantha says of Steven, "you never expressed that you were gay," which makes her seem so clueless as to be laughable; she's the ultimate "fag hag." One senses that Steven is furious at the other two for getting him involved in a situation he probably never really wanted to be a part of, but he still has to bear some of the responsibility. Three of Hearts is not without its interesting aspects or entertainment value, but the outcome of this silly "experiment" is obvious from the first. The filmmakers never ask the tough questions, such as what other motives Samantha might have had for hooking up with these guys (that all three participants are exhibitionists goes without saying) and so much else goes completely unexplored. Ultimately, the whole movie, while well-produced, seems like a bad LOGO flick or a really lousy idea for a sitcom. One critic even suggested that the picture was contrived and phony from the get-go.

Verdict: Thank goodness gay couples can now adopt! **.


COFFEE DATE (2006). Writer/director: Stuart Wade. Note: This review reveals certain plot points.

Todd (Jonathan Bray) is anxiously awaiting a date at a coffee shop where he runs into Kelly (Wilson Cruz), who is also awaiting a date. It turns out that they are each waiting for the other, which is awkward because Kelly is a man and Todd is straight. Apparently Todd's brother, Barry (Jonathan Silverman), has played a mean trick on him, but Todd gets even with him by bringing Kelly home and taking him into his bedroom as a joke. Barry spreads the word to their mother, Mrs. Muller (Sally Kirkland), and before long everyone seems to know that Todd is gay, even though he keeps protesting that he isn't. As they continue to go out together as friends, Kelly begins to fall for Todd even as Todd wonders if he might be gay after all, leading to rather ridiculous developments. Coffee Date is one of those mediocre independent "gay" movies that was LGBT cable channel LOGO's bread and butter in the early days (and maybe still is). It actually starts out well, with likable characters and attractive actors, but it becomes increasingly stupid as it proceeds. Todd can't figure out if he's gay or not unless he goes to bed with Kelly -- what, at 35 he can't just tell if he's attracted to men or not?! -- but decides that he's really straight after all. Todd's flamingly gay associate Clayton (Jason Stuart) suggests that a "stiff dick knows no conscience," especially when there's alcohol involved, and it doesn't mean anything, but Todd suggests that he and Kelly get it on when he's sober, and he doesn't just lie there to be serviced -- it's a full-on bedroom sex scene (even if it's played mostly in the dark). What seems especially weird in these modern days of alleged "sexual fluidity" is that no one ever suggests that Todd might be bisexual, which would explain his (supposed) interest in women and his attraction to Kelly, and certainly makes more sense than his being "straight." [For another thing, maybe Kelly just isn't Todd's type.] For a movie that possibly was supposed to smash stereotyping on both sides, it does just the opposite, and virtually every gay character with a speaking role is swishy; even Kelly is a self-described queen and some of his lines suggest a degree of self-hatred. Like The Boys in the Band decades before, it's almost as if Coffee Date is assuring conflicted men in the audience that only campy guys are gay and everyone else is safe. What makes it more confusing is that Todd, without being a raging queen, pretty much comes off as gay from his first appearance. Both of the lead actors are good, although one suspects they may have played gay a bit too much; Sally Kirkland, even if her character is stupid, nearly steals the movie as Todd's mother. Jonathan Silverman is given a thankless role and can do very little with it. Even a silly comedy shouldn't have this many gay cliches. In fact with its narrow view of gay life, gay men, and LGBT realities, Coffee Date almost comes off as homophobic. 

Verdict: Some amusing moments of one man's dilemma, but it goes in all the wrong directions. **.


Wife and son comfort Ezra
THE FAMILY WAY (1966). Producer/Directors: John and Roy Boulting. Note: This review reveals plot elements.

"I can cry if I want, can't I? It's life, lad, life. It might make you laugh at your age, but one day it'll make you bloody cry." -- Ezra Fitton

Arthur Fitton (Hywel Bennett) has married his sweetheart Jenny (Hayley Mills), but the two are ripped off by a travel agency and can't afford a honeymoon. Worse, Arthur and Jenny must stay in his father's house and the lack of privacy and the resulting tension leads to the marriage not being consummated. When father Ezra (John Mills, playing his daughter's father-in-law) says that he thinks there's something "queer" about it, his wife, Lucy (Marjorie Rhodes), reminds him that Ezra actually took his beloved buddy Billy with them on their honeymoon! Situations aren't always what they seem -- or are they? The Family Way is a charming, beautifully-acted movie that has sparked a debate about its true sub-text, not only because of the honeymoon business but because of the ending, when Ezra breaks down in front of his wife and his other son. People either believe that Ezra was in love with Billy, who vanished, or that Billy is actually Arthur's father, but the solution may be even more complex than that.

The Family Way was based on a 1964 play entitled "All in Good Time" by Bill Naughton, who also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation. I went back to the original source for some clues to the true meaning of the movie and while probably only the late Irish playwright knows for sure, one can make some surmises. Some reviewers have argued that men can form very close friendships without being gay (in truth, there are heterosexual men who much more enjoy the company of other heterosexual men than their own wives), but the whole business with the honeymoon, plus the rhapsodic expression on Ezra's face whenever he talks about the vanished Billy, says volumes. As for Arthur being Billy's son, there are certain unconfirmed hints at this, although this aspect doesn't really come across in the actors' performances. Then there's the question, would both Ezra and Lucy have been unaware of the boy's parentage for all these years when, let's face it, children tend to look like their parents long before they hit twenty-five? Still, "All in Good Time" is called "a comedy," and that alone can make the absurd seem -- no pun intended -- conceivable (including the honeymoon business). Still there's no getting around a certain romantic despair in Ezra at the end and Naughton writes that "he is a more complex person than he would have anyone know."

So what's the answer? There's a good chance it's both. Imagine how Ezra would feel if the boy he raised was actually the son of the man he'd been in love with (although it's unlikely this relationship was ever consummated). Hence the tears at the end. Some have argued that the whole Ezra-Billy business was dragged in just to make a point -- that just because Arthur is impotent with his wife doesn't make him -- nor Ezra or Billy -- gay (and the film doesn't suggest Arthur is), which Lucy basically says at one point -- but it's dwelt upon quite a bit. One bit of lovely dialogue has Lucy saying "It's a father's duty to help an' protect a lad like that -- not turn on him like the mob would, an' tear his self-respect to ribbons, all over somethin' he had no say in." The play has dialogue in which Lucy explains that having a child took Ezra's mind off of Billy, which could be taken as a man (unsuccessfully) shedding his homosexual past and making the best of a married, heterosexual future. In any case, John Mills [The Wrong Box] gives one of the best performances of his career, Marjorie Rhodes [Hands of the Ripper] is sheer perfection, Bennett and Hayley Mills are wonderful, and there's nice work from Murray Head, who later appeared in Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, as Arthur's younger brother, and Barry Foster [Frenzy] as a co-worker who rides Arthur a bit too much.

The Family Way is more of a comedy-drama than an out and out comedy, and that's probably due to the strong performances, as much as the not-always comical situations. Hywell Benett and Hayley Mills also appeared together in Boulting's Twisted Nerve. NOTE: Naughton's play was filmed in 2012 under the original title. Like Family Way, it is an English film but with an East Indian cast, and appears to be an out and out comedy or farce.

Verdict: The vagaries and heartbreak of love indeed. ***.


Leigh McCloskey
ALEXANDER: THE OTHER SIDE OF DAWN (1977 telefilm). Director: John Erman.

Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, a telefilm aired in 1976, was a ratings success, so it was decided to come out with a sequel. Alexander Duncan (Leigh McCloskey), who was introduced in the first film as young prostitute Dawn's (Eve Plumb) boyfriend, is thrown out by his family (who can't afford to feed him) and winds up in L.A., where he, too, sells his body. Then he meets a closeted football player, Chuck Selby (Alan Feinstein), and begins to bond with him. But are they only just using one another? ... Alexander is a dishonest, superficial, ersatz "gay" movie where the lead character has sex with men but is supposedly straight. The scenes with him getting into cars with men, and his exact relationship with Chuck, are glossed over, and the "happy" ending doesn't seem to resolve Alexander's conflicts over his sexuality. Made for television in the seventies, it would have been a surprise that so much of the gay content made it to broadcast were it not for the fact that the far superior and much gayer That Certain Summer aired five years earlier. In this Alexander attends a rap session in a gay center, and goes to gay bars with Chuck (ever dreaming of sweet if drippy Dawn). Eric Holliman portrays a sympathetic gay counselor, and there are nice vignettes from Larry Rosenberg and Jonathan Banks [Wiseguy], among others, as young men at the center. Holliman's character says that he believes in people making their own choices, although nowadays it is not being gay that is considered a choice, but accepting oneself. McCloskey was actually twenty-two when he played this seventeen-year-old character, and while at times he seems a little too sophisticated, he gives a good performance. Holliman [The Power] is fine, as is Feinstein, although Chuck's dallying with a seventeen-year-old and getting him to go off and buy drugs for him, is problematic. Jean Hagen [No Questions Asked] scores as a landlady who's seen better days and has a picture of herself as "Miss Newcomer" of the Year on her wall, and Asher Brauner is also notable as a friend of Alexander's who gets him into hustling wealthy women, such as  Juliet Mills (these scenes have little veracity, frankly). Lonnie Chapman and Diana Douglas are effective as Alexander's parents. Miss Frances Faye plays herself and is apparently female, although in the film she comes off like a drag queen.

Verdict: The sequel, "Alexander Moves to New York and Comes Out," never materialized. **.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Edmund Purdom
THE EGYPTIAN (1954). Director: Michael Curtiz.

"You are mad, sire, but your madness is more beautiful than the visions of other men."

Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom) is a doctor to the poor who gets an appointment as royal physician when he saves the life of Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding), whose mother Taia (Judith Evelyn) knows much more about the orphaned doctor's true history than she's letting on. Sinuhe comes under the spell of the Babylonian bitch Nefer (Bella Darvi), who essentially steals everything away from Sinuhe, including his adoptive parents' home and burial tomb [for this Sinuhe bears as much responsibility as Nefer, if not more]. Apparently not learning his lesson, Sinuhe becomes a physician only for the rich, but eventually comes into conflict with his old friend, Horemheb (Victor Mature), when the Hittites threaten an attack. Pharaoh is against violence, but doesn't understand that Egypt still must be defended. When both Horemheb and Akhnaton's cold sister, Baketemon (Gene Tierney) importune Sinuhe to poison Pharaoh, will he comply, especially after he learns the truth about his heritage ...? The Egyptian tells a good story, and mostly tells it well, even if the drawn-out ending, and Sinuhe himself, become oppressively and tediously pious. In the lead role, Edmund Purdom [The Strange Intruder] has a commanding presence, and is not a bad actor, even if there are times you wished he showed just a little more passion. Jean Simmons [Angel Face] is excellent as the woman who loves him throughout good times and bad, and Bella Darvi offers a sophisticated and mesmerizing portrait of a woman who could easily be called the "whore of Babylon." Wilding and Tierney are fine as the brother and sister, as are Victor Mature [Kiss of Death]; Peter Ustinov as the slave Kaptah; little Tommy Rettig as Sinuhe's son; and Judith Evelyn, who nearly walks off with the movie in her one scene with Purdom. The picture has impressive sets and also boasts a wonderful score composed by both Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann (and yes, you can tell who composed which section).

Verdict: Flawed but highly interesting look at ancient Egyptian culture -- with a little Hollywood soap opera thrown in. ***.


June Storey and Kenneth Howell
GIRLS' TOWN (1942). Director: Victor Halperin.

Myra Norman (June Storey) wins the "Miss Ohio Valley" beauty contest and is sent to Hollywood with her plainer sister, Sue (Edith Fellows) as her chaperon. The girls live in a boarding house run by wheel-chair bound Mother Lorraine (Anna Q. Nilsson). Myra is an opportunist who latches onto Kenny Lane (Kenneth Howell), an agent for animal acts who wants to try his luck with humans for a change. But when director Lionel Fontaine (Paul Dubov) sees Sue act, he thinks she may have a lot more on the ball than her haughty sister. Which sister will become the movie star? Kenny, who's been dumped as hooker-hard Myra's agent, assures Sue that double-crossers don't get far in Hollywood -- who's he kidding? Hollywood is made up of double-crossers! In any case, Girls Town is a typical low budget PRC production with little to recommend it, although the acting isn't bad and Kenneth Howell, looking especially good in a mustache, is as charming as he was in all those Jones Family Movies such as Back to Nature for Twentieth Century-Fox. Edith Fellows was also in the 1934 version of Jane Eyre. One gal who makes an impression in this picture is Peggy Ryan [Chip Off the Old Block], who does a very good imitation of Bette Davis in Dark Victory. Talented and tragic Howell made his last film in 1951 and committed suicide 15 years later.

Verdict: "Jack Jones" to the rescue. **.


Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons
WHIPLASH (2014). Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Note: This review reveals certain key plot points

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a young student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music. His teacher, Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), is a monster who deliberately humiliates his students, subjecting them to both verbal and physical abuse. It's unlikely that such an instructor, who acts more like a drill sergeant at boot camp than anything else, would last very long at the conservatory, but that's only the first of the unrealistic things that happen in this contrived movie. The acting is good, and an interesting aspect to the picture is that Andrew is in his own way also an arrogant prick; therefore we have two unlikable lead characters. Whiplash not only suggests that one must ignore everything else if one is to achieve greatness -- which may well be true -- but it also suggests that the only way a teacher can bring out the best in his students is to subject them to every possible kind of emotional abuse. Fletcher would have it that this molds great artists, but he really comes off as an emotionally stunted sadist. The trouble with Whiplash is that the two main characters are more types than real people; Fletcher is especially one-dimensional, as we learn absolutely nothing about his private life. Worse is that the movie throws out all logic for what might be termed a feel-good conclusion. Blaming Andrew for getting him fired, Fletcher hires him for his band but deliberately neglects to give him the sheet music for a song that he's completely unfamiliar with. Why on earth would the egotistical Fletcher risk ruining the band's performance and making himself look bad? Fletcher may be an asshole, but he isn't that stupid, and could easily have gotten revenge in another manner. Andrew manages to deliver an outstanding drum solo in spite of everything, and the movie audience, ignoring all the problems with Whiplash, cheers both onscreen and off; now these two pricks have bonded. Simmons, who appeared on Law and Order but has mostly done voice-over work for cartoons, won a Best Supporting Oscar for Whiplash, but one could argue that Fletcher is just another cartoon character. On the plus side the movie is never boring, moves fast, and is well-edited, but the nasty instructor who debases his charges is pretty much a tired old stereotype. Because there are no dinosaurs or car chases some people overpraised the movie as a masterpiece, which it definitely isn't. I also have to say, all of this agony for a drummer -- you'd think he was Enrico Caruso!

Verdict: Disappointing study of obsessed and unpleasant people. **1/2.


Kim Novak
THE THIRD GIRL FROM THE LEFT (1973 telefilm). Director: Peter Medak.

"If he cried for anyone, it was himself" -- Gloria

"Of course. Who else does anyone cry for?" -- Zimmy.

Gloria (Kim Novak) at 36 is known as the last of the New York City showgirls (Novak was actually forty). For thirteen years she has been involved with a frankly terrible but popular singer named Joey Jordan (Tony Curtis). Their marriage keeps being "postponed" for one reason or another. Even though Gloria is easily the most beautiful of the "girls," for the first time in her career she is told to stand in the back row instead of in front. She has an affair with a 24-year-old delivery boy named David (Michael Brandon of Four Flies on Grey Velvet), then Joey comes back from Las Vegas where he's been poking Melanie (Barbi Benton) ... The material was there for a decent picture, but The Third Girl from the Left doesn't quite work. Novak isn't terrible, but she's miscast in this, and while Curtis is more appropriate as a Las Vegas reptile, his character is also a cliche. Dory Previn, who wrote the script, was responsible for a number of sensitive songs with excellent music and lyrics on her albums -- although the theme song for this picture is not memorable --  but aside from some good dialogue now and then, this never really goes below the surface. The relationship between Gloria and David is never believable, with the latter coming off like some creepy witless stalker. The best impression is made by George Furth as Joey's manager, Zimmy. When Zimmy learns that the not-quite-bright Gloria was trying to commit suicide, he says "With an electric stove?" That old vulgarian Hugh Hefner was the executive producer of this, which is probably how his squeeze Barbi Benton wound up in the movie -- she's actually not bad although Kate Hepburn had nothing to worry about. Dory Previn was dumped by her husband Andre for the undernourished Mia Farrow, and wrote several songs about it. Judging from her lyrics, one would have hoped for a much better picture. Peter Medak also directed The Ruling Class and By the Pricking of My Thumbs.

Verdict: A nice idea that goes nowhere. **.


Henry Brandon, Catherine Craig, William Stelling
DOOMED TO DIE (1940). Director: William Nigh.

Cyrus Wentworth (Melvin Lang) is bitterly opposed to his daughter Cynthia's (Catherine Craig) marriage to Dick Fleming (William Stelling) because he is the son of his shipping rival, Paul Fleming (Guy Usher). Paul is hoping to consolidate both firms, especially after there's an accident at sea which claims many lives. Naturally the Flemings are the top suspects when Cyrus is murdered, but Cynthia sticks by her fiance. Of course Captain Street (Grant Withers) is convinced Dick is guilty, but reporter "Bobbi" Logan (Marjorie Reynolds) gets James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff) on the case. Other characters embroiled in the mystery include Matthews (Wilbur Mack), who works for Wentworth; attorney Victor Martin (Henry Brandon); and insurance adjuster Baldwin (Tristram Coffin). Doomed to Die is not awful and moves fast, but it's just blah; it's a series that ran out of gas early on. One of the problems is that the blustery character of Captain Street and his prickly relationship with Bobbi wore thin. The considerable talents of Henry Brandon [Captain Sindbad] are completely wasted in this movie. This was the penultimate Mr. Wong movie, and the last to star Boris Karloff. Keye Luke replaced him for Phantom of Chinatown. Catherine Craig is much better in this than she was in Spy Train.

Verdict: One last gasp for Karloff's Mr. Wong. **.


BOURBON STREET BEAT (1959). ABC television series. 38 episodes.

Producer William Orr [77 Sunset Strip] hoped lightning would strike twice with this private detective series set in New Orleans, but it only lasted one season. Rex Randolph (Richard Long) is a PI who meets police lieutenant Cal Calhoun (Andrew Duggan) during the premiere episode. The two decide to form a partnership and Cal takes a leave of absence from the police. Rex is a gourmet cook who delights in making spectacular meals, and Cal is a lover of old movies who can do dead-on impressions of Charles Boyer and the like. The two men are assisted by Kenny Madison (Van Williams), a law student, and secretary Melody Lee Mercer (Arlene Howell). Just as the offices at 77 Sunset Strip were located next to a real dining/drinking establishment in LA (Dino's Lodge, owned by Dean Martin), the offices for Randolph and Calhoun were in a courtyard right next to the historic Old Absinthe House (which unlike Dino's still exists today). Each episode had at least one scene that took place inside the Absinthe House, although these were undoubtedly filmed on a sound stage in Hollywood. The outside of the building was used in exterior shots and apparently a facsimile was built for scenes that take place in the courtyard. Melody went off to Europe halfway through the series, and Howell never returned. Another disappearance was of the Baron (Eddie Cole), a black musician who worked in the Absinthe House and often commented on the cases or imparted info. Character of strip tease artiste Lusti Weather (Nita Talbot) appeared in four episodes, but thankfully never became a regular as she was kind of irritating. When Bourbon Street Beat was canceled, Rex Randolph, still played by Long [House on Haunted Hill], joined the firm of Bailey and Spencer on 77 Sunset Strip, while Kenny Madison, still played by Williams, signed up with a trio of private eyes on Surfside 6 in Miami Beach. Duggan [Seven Days in May] wound up on the sitcom Room for One More and did a lot of television and movie work.

Among the more memorable episodes of the series: the suspenseful "Woman in the River," in which a young man claims his wife is missing, and which features fine performances from Ray Stricklyn, Henry Brandon, Mary Tyler Moore, and especially Jeanette Nolan. "Portrait of Lenore" features a famous painting that is ransomed by a mysterious masked woman and boasts excellent work from Andrea King and Madlyn Rhue. Marie Windsor, Tristram Coffin and Harry Jackson star in "The 10% Blues," an absorbing tale of a corrupt talent agency that uses strong-arm tactics to gain clients. "Six Hours to Midnight," perhaps the best episode, features that old plot of a man on death row with only hours to live, but is well-written and well-acted by George Wallace, Victor Buono, and Duggan in top form. In "Suitable for Framing" with Barbara Lord, Rita Moreno, and Craig Hill, Rex is accused of murdering a wealthy woman's husband. Most of the episodes of this entertaining series were solid "b"s or better.

Verdict: Good old private detective show with an interesting setting should have lasted longer. ***


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014). Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo.

The spy organization SHIELD is compromised, and the chief, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), attacked. Captain America (Chris Evans) discovers that the evil group HYDRA has been hidden inside SHIELD all the time. With the assistance of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap takes on HYDRA, the Swiss scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), and a character from his past known only as the Winter Soldier, (Sebastian Stan) who is actually Cap's old partner, Bucky Barnes, now turned assassin. Evans [Fantastic Four] and Johansson [Marvel's The Avengers] give good performances, and there's a nice, well-played part for Robert Redford [Lions for Lambs] as the corrupt Alexander Pierce. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is busy, has some good action scenes and stunt work, but overall is second rate. It is a slight improvement over Captain America: The First Avenger however.

Verdict: Maybe the next one will get it right. **1/2.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Connie Francis sings and swings!
LOOKING FOR LOVE (1964). Director: Don Weis.

Libby Caruso (Connie Francis) isn't making it as a singer, so she decides she'll become a housewife instead -- all she needs is the right man. She sets her cap for a standoffish fellow named Paul (Jim Hutton), but he's more interested in her invention, a "lady valet." This somehow gets Libby on the Tonight show where she wows everyone with her singing and winds up with a spectacular career. On the verge of going off on a grand tour, Libby has one last chance to get Paul to marry her ... Looking for Love is utterly ridiculous but quite entertaining, bolstered by a fine lead performance by the highly charismatic Francis. Francis proves to be an outstanding singer as well, doing jazz numbers, ballads, and even "Be My Love" with equal aplomb. In spite of this, Francis only did four real movies. Joby Baker plays a friend who is carrying a torch for Libby, and Susan Oliver really scores as her roommate, Jan. The most intriguing cameo is by Joan Marshall (Jean Arliss of Homicidal) who looks gorgeous and is a lot of fun as one of the women interviewed for a spokeswoman job for the Lady Valet. Jay C. Flippen [Carnival Story] is fine as the manufacturer of Libby's invention -- Flippen's wife wrote the screenplay for this --  and there are guest appearances by Danny Thomas and Johnny Carson. Barbara Nichols [The George Raft Story] has a nice bit as another potential spokesperson until she learns that Libby is taking over her spot on the Thomas show. The snappy songs help a lot and Francis is delightful.

Verdict: Amiable nonsense with some great singing. **1/2.


The imposing pyramid-tomb
LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955). Producer/director: Howard Hawks.

"Strange religion to deny a future to those who failed in the past."

Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) has one main goal, and that is to see that his tomb will be completely safe from violation so he can enjoy his treasures in the after-life. Learning that many other tombs have been broken into, Khufu has the slave and architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) design and build an impregnable -- and clever -- burying place for him. In the meantime foreign Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins), herself turned into a slave, manages to make herself one of Khufu's wives, and is determined to become Queen of All Egypt no matter whom she has to kill; obviously power has gone to her head. But will she achieve her goal, or succumb to a much more ironic fate ... ? Land of the Pharaohs is a very entertaining movie, with a splendid lead performance from the authoritative and commanding Jack Hawkins [Ben-Hur]. Joan Collins is also very effective, especially in her early confrontations with Hawkins -- as are Sydney Chaplin as Nellifer's lover, Treneh, the captain of the guard, and Alexis Minotis as Hamar, the Pharaoh's good right hand. There's some odd casting in this, however, with Justice (who usually plays blustery characters in such films as Doctor in Love) adequate as Vashtar and Dewey Martin [The Thing from Another World] handsome and acceptable as Vashtar's grown son, Senta. (Hawks used Martin in other movies as well.) At times the brassy musical score [Dimitri Tiomkin] reminds one of a Broadway musical, and Hawks' direction is not as assured or inspired as it might have been, although the settings are always colorful and the movie has an elaborate production. There's a scene when some who have displeased Pharaoh are thrown to the gators. Believe it or not, William Faulkner was one of the screenwriters! Great ending! Oddly, the movie was a commercial failure.

Verdict: Perhaps not as fictional as one might imagine, although this is still Hollywood. ***.