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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE CONSTANT NYMPH


THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943). Director: Edmund Goulding.

This is considered a "lost" film because the rights to the novel, play and subsequent film have all been dispersed and lost over the years. While not the masterpiece I was hoping for, The Constant Nymph is still a good picture with much to recommend it. Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) is a modern composer whose work is not very appreciated by the critical establishment. His old friend, the composer Albert Sanger (Montagu Love), thinks that Dodd's music lacks heart and soul and won't become really great until Dodd cries (the old business of the artist must suffer). Sanger has three daughters, one of whom, Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is unrequitedly in love with Lewis. Eventually, after old Sanger's death, Lewis marries Tessa's cousin Florence (Alexis Smith) while Tessa and her sisters are sent to boarding school. But Tessa and her soul mate Lewis won't stay apart for long, leading to painful and romantic complications. The movie is handsomely produced (it uses one of the sets from The Old Maid), well-directed and very well acted, but it's perhaps too talky and soapy for its own good. Some will find it more sappy than moving. Whatever the case, Fontaine gives an exemplary performance; Boyer is fine if a notch below Fontaine. Charles Coburn is his usual excellent self as the sisters' Uncle Charles, and Peter Lorre offers his usual distinctive persona as a man who courts and marries Tessa's sister, Toni, well-played by Brenda Marshall. But the big surprise is that utterly gorgeous Alexis Smith gives perhaps the finest performance of her career as Florence, who's desperately afraid of losing the only man she's ever seriously been in love with. She manages to summon up as much emotional fireworks as Davis and Crawford at their best without quite going over the top.

The movie has an interesting subtext of the war between romantic (melodious and emotional) and modern (dissonant and mathematical) music, and it's even more interesting that the film's excellent score was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who composed operas in Vienna before fleeing the nazis and coming to America to "slum" for Hollywood. Korngold's music could be full of noisy, dissonant chords, but he decidedly composed in the romantic idiom. However, it wasn't realistic that Dodd's modern music would have been decried during the time the film takes place, as that's just when that type of music was becoming popular.

Verdict: A highly interesting curiosity. ***.

THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE


THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE (1945). Director: George Sherman.

Gordon Carson (Stephen Crane) has had two wives die of accidents during the honeymoon. His third wife (Hillary Brooke) calls in the "crime doctor," Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), to find out if her hubby is mad or a murderer. But Ordway instead finds himself investigating Carson's own murder in a locked room. There's also a famous writer (Jerome Cowan), and a brother and sister team of Spanish dancers who are rumored to be vampires. The Crime Doctor's Courage tries to drag in all sorts of stuff to make it interesting, but while it holds the attention it never quite develops into anything that great. Baxter has a lot of charm as Ordway, however.

Verdict: Okay B mystery. **.

THREE BRAVE MEN


THREE BRAVE MEN (1956). Director: Philip Dunne.

Bernie Goldsmith (Ernest Borgnine) is horrified to discover that he's been summarily fired from his government job because he's been deemed a security risk due to an alleged "radical" (i.e. communist) past. He hires lawyer Joe DiMarco (Ray Milland) to defend him. Apparently Goldsmith angered some people because of his activism in minority housing (oddly, the subject of anti-Semitism is never broached). Even after a board presided over by Captain Wingfield (Frank Lovejoy) and Lt. McCoy (Nina Foch) clears Goldsmith, he still can't get his job back or get hired by anyone else. DiMarco takes the case to the Army man, Rogers (Dean Jagger), who had the board's decision reversed. Three Brave Men intelligently examines how gossip and innuendo, jumping to conclusions, and sheer sloppy investigating can ruin someone's life as it did many during the McCarthy anti-communist era. The film also has a nice subtext examining how the whole ordeal has revealed how strong Bernie's marriage to his wife (Virginia Christine) is. Still, it's all a bit matter of fact, with few nuances and shades of gray. Yet the fact that it was even made in 1956 speaks volumes. Dr. No's Joseph Wiseman has a notable cameo as a bigot.

Verdict: Absorbing story of family's ruination and their struggle back. ***.

TOWER OF EVIL


TOWER OF EVIL (aka Horror on Snape Island aka Beyond the Fog /1972). Writer/director: Jim O'Connolly.

In a creepy, gruesome, and effective prologue, Hamp Gurney (Jack Watson) and his father (George Coulouris) discover several mutilated corpses in and around the lighthouse on the fog-enshrouded Snape Island. When the father is inadvertently killed by a panicking survivor, Hamp takes a party of archaeologists -- and a man investigating the murders -- back to the island. The archaeologists believe that a Phoenician trading ship landed on the island and left behind a treasure. It isn't long before more corpses start turning up, as someone unseen lashes out at members of the party. Tower of Evil has some suspense and a few tense moments, but all the marital infighting and infidelity between the couples on the expedition adds little to the picture, and despite some good moments the ultimate effect is rather unsatisfying. Has certain elements of the stalk-and-slash films that would come in a few short years, although it has a more involved plot and somewhat more dimensional characters. A mostly unimpressive cast.

NOTE: This was based on a novel by Brooklyn-born George Baxt, who created the first gay detective way back in 1966 and years later wrote a series of celebrity-oriented mysteries such as The Bette Davis Murder Case. He also wrote scripts for other British horror films.

Verdict: Severed heads tumbling down the stairs and all that can only do so much. **1/2.

FLIGHT PLAN


FLIGHT PLAN (2005). Director: Robert Schwentke.

Jodie Foster is splendid, as usual, as a woman who boards a plane with her young daughter and then spends the rest of the movie trying to convince virtually everyone on board that her daughter actually exists -- this after the girl disappears and a flight attendant says there's no record of her ever having been on the flight. Foster just lost her husband; could she be hallucinating from grief? Is she mentally unstable? Or is there a predator on board who's taken and hidden her daughter somewhere on the plane? This is a good and very suspenseful movie with some very evil antagonists, but despite Foster's fine performance, it's just an entertaining time passer. To think what Hitchcock could have done with this material! The climax is over too quickly and is a little flat as well, and an opportunity for a rousing cat fight is muffed. But this will hold your attention for certain. Peter Sarsgaard also scores as the deputy on the flight.

Verdict: Not too shabby. ***.

THE CRIME DOCTOR'S WARNING


THE CRIME DOCTOR'S WARNING (1945). Director: William Castle.

Clive Lake, an artist (Coulter Irwin), seeks Dr. Robert Ordway's (Warner Baxter, pictured) help for black outs that he's been having since youth. He has a dragon mother named Mrs. Wellington Lake (Alma Kruger), and naturally becomes a suspect when two of his models are murdered. Everything seems centered on a painting by a more famous artist in which the two women -- and a third -- were featured. Mindless yet intriguing -- and somewhat far-fetched -- The Crime Doctor's Warning holds the attention and is a perfectly flavorful "B"movie. John Litel plays the police inspector, but it's an uncredited Eduardo Ciannelli who perks up the film as Nick Petroni, an old sailor model who's angered that all anybody wants to paint is cheesecake. Director Castle keeps things moving swiftly.

Verdict: Minor but reasonably engaging. **1/2.

THE PERILS OF NYOKA


THE PERILS OF NYOKA (1942). 15 chapter Republic serial. Director: William Witney.

This is a rousing, well-done cliffhanger serial that's supposed to take place in a desert land but looks more like sunny California. Who cares -- if you want logic, look elsewhere. Nyoka (Kay Aldridge) is on a search for her father, and for the Tablets of Hippocrates, which are supposed to impart the secrets of banishing all ills from mankind. Looking for the tablets for her own evil purposes is Vultura (Lorna Gray, pictured), whose henchmen include Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton and Tristram "Rocket Man" Coffin. However, Aldridge has hunky Clayton Moore of Lone Ranger on her side so she's not complaining. In the meantime, Gray shows off her shapely legs in her revealing costumes. Vultura has Satan, the dumb, hokey gorilla to aid her, while our heroine has Jitters , an adorable monkey, and Fang, a German shepherd, to help her out. Highlights include Satan literally bringing the house down by smashing at some pillars; Vultura putting Nyoka to the rack; a bit with some descending spikes; Nyoka suspended over a fire pit by her own father; a swinging pendulum that nearly cuts a bloody swathe through Nyoka; and -- best of all -- a thrilling bit with our lass being blown out of a tunnel and off of a cliff by a sudden wind storm! Vultura and Nyoka have some great cat-fights in every other episode. Ken Terrell of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman also has a small part, as he frequently did in these things. Ditto for William Benedict. Highly effective musical score and a great theme. NOTE: This was rereleased as Nyoka and the Tiger Men; it was not a sequel.

Verdict: Great fun! ***.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Hi. If you subscribe to any blogs or get updates from websites, you know how easily you can get overloaded with too much to read if you get emails and updates too often. Lately GREAT OLD MOVIES has been posting new reviews (about seven) just once per week. This schedule may be interrupted for a while this month due to the Holidays, traveling, and the fact that I'm finishing up a new book project. But GREAT OLD MOVIES will resume a regular schedule in January 2009, if not before.

Thanks for reading! Bill


HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

THE OLD MAID


THE OLD MAID (1939). Director: Edmund Goulding.

"Don't you know what happens to you means more to me than anything?"

So says young Charlotte Lovell (Bette Davis) to the man she loves, Clem Spender (George Brent), who has come back to town to discover that the woman he loves, Charlotte's cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins), is that very day marrying someone else. Charlotte consoles Clem, who goes off to war and never returns, leaving Charlotte with a child that she disguises as a civil war orphan. Then Delia, who has a "good" marriage with one of the wealthy Ralston brothers, learns about Charlotte and Clem and is enraged ... with expectedly dramatic results. She eventually takes both mother and illegitimate daughter into her home and usurps the mother position from Charlotte. Yes, this film has some of the elements of soap opera, but it's on a much higher level, and the film is virtually perfect in all departments from Goulding's direction to Max Steiner's evocative score (which incorporates some old songs but also has original music), to the accomplished acting from the entire cast. This is easily one of Davis' best portrayals, years before she became much too affected and artificial in certain projects. Mariam Hopkins is her match in the more flamboyant if less dramatic role. Jane Bryan as the daughter, Tina, Donald Crisp as the wise friend and doctor, Cecelia Loftus as the wily old grandmother, and Louise Fazenda as the maid Dora are all superlative, and while he's not entirely successful at showing us the hurt and trauma beneath his light-hearted, sardonic air, even George Brent isn't bad. Very moving and a genuinely touching finale. A real gem of a tearjerker. Based on a novella by Edith Wharton and a Pulitzer prize-winning play by Zoe Akins.

Verdict: They don't make 'em like this anymore. ****.

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS


TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973). Director: Freddie Francis.
An anthology of horror tales tied to a psychiatric clinic presided over by Donald Pleasance, who introduces his patients to visiting doctor Jack Hawkins. In the first a little boy with bickering parents [Donald Houston and Georgia Brown] insists that a tiger comes to visit him in his bedroom. The parents don't believe him -- until the tiger shows up. This story is a complete throwaway. In the second tale a young man travels back in time to the turn of the century, followed by a ghoulish figure who spies upon him and his lady love. This one has some interesting elements but isn't developed very well. Suzy Kendall and Peter McEnery are fine as the young couple, however. In the third story Joan Collins has her hands full with a devilish sculpted tree monster in her living room which her artist lover seems to prefer over her. This one really has a hilarious -- and stupid -- wind-up. Collins as as zesty as ever. In the last and best story Kim Novak -- still gorgeous at forty -- is cast as Auriol Pageant, who's throwing a luau. One of the guests is a client named Kimo (Michael Petrovitch) who has sinister designs on Novak's beautiful daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm). This has a ghoulish touch of cannibalism but seems to be over just as it's getting interesting. Tales that Witness Madness is certainly no world-beater, but it holds the attention and is amusing, including the wind-up at the clinic. Novak is fun.
Verdict: Definitely don't eat the mystery meat. **1/2.

THE HEIRESS


THE HEIRESS (1949). Director: William Wyler.

"Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters."

In Washington Square in turn of the century New York, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) falls for a fortune hunter, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) over the objections of her wealthy doctor father, Austin (Ralph Richardson). On that framework rests one of the finest films to come out of Hollywood, based loosely on Henry James' Washington Square. It's theme can be summed up in the words of the French song incorporated into the score by Aaron Copland, and which are sung at one point by Clift, to the effect that the joys of love are short but that love's pain lasts a lifetime. Along with pathos, the film has a degree of humor, evidenced by the character of Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (an outstanding Miriam Hopkins) who says "What I say isn't always of the greatest importance but that doesn't stop me from talking." [Much later an ill Austin says of his sister "I don't want [her] in my room at all -- unless I lapse into a coma."] Richardson's performance is simply superb. Clift is wise enough to play with an admirable sincerity that might make first-time viewers wonder if he really does have feelings for Catherine. A lesser actor would have figuratively winked at the audience, letting them in on the game. Although she won an Oscar and is, indeed, very good, de Havilland is, perhaps, a cut below the other three. Her performance is the one that seems most "manufactured" or calculated, a feat of acting -- and very good acting -- as opposed to living the part. In the scene when Catherine finally confronts her father, we can believe her anger and that she would say the things she does, but anger doesn't automatically instill poise in a person, and Catherine, as enacted by de Havilland, suddenly becomes much too confident and formidable. The words should rush out even as Catherine can't quite believe that she is actually saying them to her father. Still, de Havilland has lovely moments, such as when she sits at her tapestry as Morris and Lavinia talk at the door, a dozen different emotions about this man she both loves and hates playing across her face. Wyler's directorial hand is assured, and Copland's score, despite its dissonances and 1940's-style modernity, is simply drenched in a wonderful romanticism.

Verdict: A masterpiece with one of the all-time great endings. ****

THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE


THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE. Carolyn Keene. # 2 in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series. Published 1930. NOTE: Occasionally Great Old Movies will look at books, plays, operas and so on that were turned into feature films.

The Hidden Staircase, at least the first version published in 1930, is a pretty darn good juvenile book, and it's easy to see why the series became so incredibly popular. Nancy gets involved with the mysterious case of two sisters who live in a run-down mansion and are afraid that it's either haunted by a malevolent ghost or that some ruthless human agent is somehow gaining entry. Of course the very title alone pretty much gives the game away, but the thing is that the book still manages to be suspenseful and even harrowing at times, especially when our gal is nearly trapped in an underground tunnel with a fading flashlight. Meanwhile Carson Drew is held captive by a nefarious character who has a sinister, tough and rather stereotypical black housekeeper (this gal is a far cry from the typical Hattie McDaniel lovable nanny portrayals of the period). Ned Nickerson, and Nancy's pals Bess and George, do not appear in the book. Carson gives Nancy a gun for protection, and she carries it around with her at all times. Loosely adapted as Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, one of four Nancy Drew movies that starred Bonita Granville.

Verdict: The charms of this series are certainly not hidden. ***.

NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE


NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE (1939). Director: William Clemens.

Loosely based on The Hidden Staircase, this uses many of the elements of the novel but is basically a new story. Two elderly sisters live in a mansion and have had to abide for twenty years with their late father's ridiculous will, which says they will inherit the place if they live in the house that entire time and if at least one of the sisters is present in the mansion every night. There's two weeks to go, after which the women intend to give the home to a charitable medical facility. When their chauffeur is murdered, the women panic and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville) does her best to convince everyone that his death was actually a suicide. She investigates when the old ladies claim items have been stolen from their home even though all the doors and windows were locked. As usual she inveigles the hapless "Ted" Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) into helping her with her schemes. In the books Nancy was brave and occasionally foolhardy but in this she's irresponsible and stupid -- and even screams in fright at a frog! The idiot police chief lets Ted handle the murder weapon. The climax isn't bad, however, and there are some amusing sequences. John Litel is again cast as Carson Drew.

Verdict: The last of Nancy on the big screen [at that time] -- and not a moment too soon! **.

STORM CENTER


STORM CENTER (1956). Director: Daniel Taradash.

"The ball park isn't the only place someone can be a hero."

Middle-aged librarian Alicia Hull (Bette Davis) is importuned by the town council to remove a book on Communism from the library. While not in any way a communist, Hull is against censorship and also feels that the book only illustrates the foolishness and stupidity of the communist tract -- she refuses to remove it. Before long many in the town are denouncing her, and her relationship with a book-loving boy named Freddie (Kevin Coughlin) is demolished. There is an interesting sub-plot wherein Kevin's father can't relate to his son's interest in reading over sports, and his wife can't relate to her husband's distrust of, and complete disinterest in, culture of any kind. [Unfortunately, the especially melodramatic developments with Freddie seem almost dragged in to add some drama and poignancy.] While Storm Center is intelligent (and a bit heroic considering the year it was made, although it might have been even more daring had Hull actually been a communist) and has some good dialogue and scenes, it's as if a good picture somehow got lost along the way. The main problem with the film is Bette Davis' positively dreadful performance, which has not one ounce of veracity or normalcy to it. She had entered her "grand lady of films" period and struts through the film so affectedly and unnaturally that she virtually stinks up almost every scene she's in. Davis has always been criticized for her performance in King Vidor's under-rated Beyond the Forest, but her acting in that is miles ahead of her work in Storm Center. [Another truth is that, despite her battered appearance, Davis was simply too sexual -- think of her in All About Eve -- to be convincing as some dried up -- if admirable-- old library hag.] Young Kevin Coughlin is better as Freddie, although he over-acts at times. Paul Kelly is excellent as a loyal friend of Hull's and Kim Hunter and Brian Keith are solid as Hull's assistant and her boyfriend, one of Hull's foremost accusers.
Verdict: Admirable failure with a woeful lead performance. **1/2.

IT'S A GREAT LIFE


IT'S A GREAT LIFE. 1954 TV series. Shown on American Life TV.

Before she was Aunt Bee of Mayberry, Frances Bavier was the mainstay (although supposedly a supporting character) of this lively and often amusing -- and virtually forgotten -- sitcom that has been exhumed by American Life TV. Bavier plays Amy Morgan, a widow who lives with her no-account, generally unemployed brother, Earl (James Dunn). Amy takes in two boarders, girl-crazy ex-servicemen named Denny (Michael O'Shea) and Steve (William Bishop) -- who also seem to lose more jobs than they even get hired for. Barbara Bates, who played the young fan of Eve Harrington at the end of All About Eve, played Amy's daughter Cathy for about a third of the episodes. Good-natured and enthusiastically played, It's a Great Life could be silly but there were several funny episodes, particularly one in which the gang buys a tea house, unaware that it's been used as an illegal gambling den. Bavier has a lot of fun squaring off against the tough lady leader of the gang. In the naive fifties, Denny and Steve sleep together in one bed. Michael O'Shea was married to Virginia Mayo and there are occasional in-jokes relating to the sexy actress.

Verdict: Not a terrible time passer. **1/2.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD


IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (1937). Director: Harry Lachman.

Tim Bart (Richard Dix) is a western star in silent pictures who has a real appreciation and love for his young fans. When he does a test for a new sound film, he discovers that he just can't get the lines out right. He's offered a second chance in Hollywood, but he doesn't want to play any part that goes against his essentially good guy image. Frankly, this movie is a little too treacly for my taste, and it doesn't have that many amusing scenes. Dix isn't bad, Faye Wray (as an actress who has a yen for Bart) is as lovely as ever, but the picture is stolen by Bill Burrud as little Billy, a kid who travels miles to see his idol. The best scene is a party in which the guests are all lookalikes of famous movie stars. There's a damn good Garbo imitator, but the Mae West impersonator is none too impressive.

Verdict: Too sappy for some. **.

MONSTER A GO-GO



MONSTER A GO-GO (1965). Director: Bill Rebane.

A space capsule returns to Earth but the astronaut inside has vanished. He later turns up mutated into a ten foot, ghoulish looking man-monster. This bad movie has a perfectly workable premise and a not-too-terrible script, and the astro-creature itself looks pretty gruesome -- we just don't see enough of him. Most of the action seems to occur off-screen aside from a couple of attack scenes where we just see close ups of people screaming. Most of the film consists of scenes with people sitting around talking. These sequences are professionally acted and shot but don't add much excitement to the storyline. There appears to be one shot of the monster and that's it! The cast is entirely unknown. A jangling soundtrack helps a bit but is ultimately all for naught. Watch Giant from the Unknown instead.

Verdict: One you can definitely miss. *.

ROAD TO PERDITION


ROAD TO PERDITION (2002). Director: Sam Mendes.

The graphic novel this film was based on was probably more effective, because Road to Perdition, despite some good elements, isn't a particularly memorable picture. Enforcer Michael Sullivan (a badly miscast Tom Hanks, pictured), goes on the run with his surviving son and namesake after his wife and other son are murdered. This all came about because young Michael witnessed a killing by Connor Rooney (a superb Daniel Craig), the son of Sullivan's mob mentor and father figure, John Rooney (a quietly effective if minor-league Paul Newman). Naturally this leads to an emotional division of loyalties, and eventually a hit man played by Jude Law is called in to hopefully dispense with the surviving Sullivans. While most mob movies are rather operatic, this tries a more understated approach -- which doesn't work. The film generally lacks suspense and tension, although it has a nice wind-up. The total absence of police figures is improbable, and the movie can best be described as a sort of lifeless exercise with only one exciting sequence.

Verdict: One road you needn't follow. **.

LADY OF VENGEANCE


LADY OF VENGEANCE (1957). Director: Burt Balaban.

William Marshall, a tough American publisher in England (Dennis O'Keefe), importunes a criminal mastermind, Karnak (Anton Diffring, pictured) to plan the execution of the man he holds responsible for his pretty young ward Melissa's suicide-by-train. This is on the level of a TV production, with lots of unanswered questions, and a twist that sharp viewers will probably see coming. O'Keefe is well cast, even if he isn't quite up to his more emotional scenes. Ann Sears is lovely as the secretary who has long been in love with him. Anton Diffring is as sneeringly effective as ever as the ever-superior, stamp-collecting Karnak. Vernon Greeves is properly oily as the make out artist and musician who dallies with Melissa. This isn't terrible, just not much to rave about.

Verdict: Flaccid suspenser. **.

LADY GANGSTER


LADY GANGSTER (1942). Director: Robert Florey.

A failed actress, Dot Burton ( Faye Emerson), gets in with a gang of hoods and becomes embroiled in a bank robbery scheme. She winds up doing time with an interesting bunch of lady inmates, and then things get really complicated. This fast-paced, lively and very entertaining "B" movie is so unpredictable for the most part that it would be criminal to give away any more of the plot elements. It has the very casual immorality of most of these kind of movies. Emerson gives a vivid and adept performance as Dot, as does Ruth Ford as "stool pigeon" Lucy, Julie Bishop as inmate Myrtle, Dorothy Adams as "Deaf Annie," and Virginia Brissac as the warden Mrs. Stoner. Hedda Hopper's son William, herein billed as "DeWolf Hopper," has a small role, as does "The Great One" -- Jackie Gleason (billed as Jackie C. Gleason). Hopper is as stiff as ever, but Gleason makes a nice impression as a pleasant member of the robbery gang who has a soft touch for Dot. Roland Drew as gang leader Carey looks surprisingly good in drag. Frank Wilcox is only adequate as Kenneth, the old friend of Dot's who turns her in and then tries to help her.

Verdict: A pleasant surprise. ***.

NEARLY EIGHTEEN


NEARLY EIGHTEEN (1943). Director: Arthur Dreifuss.

Gale Storm, who later went on to fame as the star of My Little Margie, was 21 when she made this Monogram cheapie musical. 17-year-old Jane Stanton (Storm) comes to New York to find work as a singer. She's almost hired by one saloon, until the owner discovers she's still a minor. Then a handsome manager (who's really a bookie), Tony (Rick Vallin), sends her over to a talent school run by Jack Leonard (William Henry). Unfortunately, the school doesn't take anyone over the age of 14, so Jane is forced to masquerade as a child. There were certainly exploitably amusing elements in this picture, but none of them are developed in such a fashion to provide meaty laughs. Storm, however, is poised, very attractive, and already shows signs of the talent for comedy that she'd display years later in two successful sitcoms. The scenes when Jack comes close to nearly kissing a girl he thinks is only 14 are kind of creepy. The best thing about the picture are the snappy musical numbers, such as "The Little Bell Rang," which are more-than-competently delivered by Storm, who sold a few successful records later in her career.

Verdict: A passing storm on the way to better things. Nice songs, though, and Storm and her leading men are easy on the eyes. **.

SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY


SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY (2007). Director: Bruce Timm.
A few years ago DC Comics published a long storyline that criss-crossed all the books in which Superman appeared in which the Man of Steel battled to the death and was mortally defeated by an alien warrior known as Doomsday. After a year or so during which other Supermen and similar characters appeared to take up the man of steel's mantle, it was revealed that Superman was still alive. This animated feature takes the same basic storyline and does a new take on it. Adam Baldwin and Anne Heche do a good job voicing the characters of Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and James Marsters is superb as Lex Luthor. Superman finally tells Lois what his secret identity is (in the comics I believe they were already married). While not necessarily a "must-see" this is an exciting feature for comics and super-hero fans, with some fluid animation and interesting sequences.
Verdict: Very credible full-length cartoon. ***.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT


MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (1959). Director: Delbert Mann.

"A small bubble of middle-aged sanity has been punctured."

Although this adaptation of the play by Paddy Chayefsky (who also did the screenplay) got mixed reviews at the time of its release, it emerges as an excellent, trenchant and uncompromising study of the relationship between a woman in her twenties and a man in his fifties. 56-year-old Jerry Kingsley (Fredric March, who was actually in his sixties) is a widower in the garment business who consoles Betty (Kim Novak, pictured), a woman who works for him one evening, and then finds himself falling for her. She agrees to date him but tells him bluntly that she could never love a man old enough to be her father. Or could she? Both Kingsley's and Betty's families are horrified when they learn that the two are engaged. It's interesting that the film never comes off as wish-fulfillment fantasy for middle-aged men, being on a much higher level. March offers a superb performance that never once hits a false note. Although not on March's level of consummate ability, Novak is nevertheless quite good and appealing as Betty. Edith Meiser, Lee Grant, Glenda Farrell (as Betty's mother), Joan Copeland and Martin Balsam are all on target in their respective roles, and Albert Dekker offers the performance of a lifetime as Walter Lockman, the salesman with the big talk who poignantly pours out his lonely heart to March when he learns the latter plans to marry. The film is full of wonderful and true observations about what it means to get old in our society. As Jerry says to Betty, "I'm scared of things you wouldn't understand because you're just a kid." Chayefsky's dialogue and characterizations are top of the line. Ultimately the movie is about seeking out and holding on to life-affirming experiences no matter what your age. "You can have peace when you're dead," says Jerry. Amen to that!

Verdict: Just beautiful. ****.

TORTURE GARDEN


TORTURE GARDEN (1967). Director: Freddie Francis. Screenplay by Robert Bloch.

Several people go backstage at a sideshow exhibit and are given glimpses of their possible futures by Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith.) The first man has his mind taken over by a cat after he murders his wealthy uncle; a blindly ambitious young actress discovers the secret of a handsome, seemingly ageless actor to her regret; a jealous piano -- no, that's not a misprint -- apparently possessed by the spirit of his dead mother torments a woman who's fallen for a famous classical pianist; and -- in the best of the four stories -- Jack Palance and Peter Cushing -- both of whom are terrific -- trade off as collectors of rare and expensive Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia. But Cushing tells Palance that he has the ultimate Poe collector's item in his basement ... With the exception of this final tale most of Robert Bloch's stories are fairly lame, but the film is enteraining in spite of it.

Verdict: You have to see that piano go on the attack to believe it! **1/2.

EMPIRE FALLS


EMPIRE FALLS (2005). HBO mini-series. Directed by Fred Schepesi. Screenplay by Richard Russo, from his novel.
This must be a pretty dumbed-down adaptation of the novel because otherwise one can't imagine why on earth anyone would think it was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Miles Roby (Ed Harris) lives in the town of Empire Falls, Maine, where he runs a diner for the local matriarch Francine Whiting (Joanne Woodward). While he deals with his ex-wife (Helen Hunt), daughter, half-drunk father (Paul Newman, pictured), and others, Miles also thinks back to when he was a young boy and he spent a summer with his mother and Francine's husband, Charlie (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Frankly, the flashbacks scattered through this meandering two-part movie only make things so confusing that many viewers may not even "get" the big secret about Miles and why Francine seems to delight in making his life miserable. The movie becomes a little more interesting when we're introduced to Francine's lame and emotionally disturbed daughter, who's been unrequitedly in love with Miles for decades, but this sub-plot sort of goes nowhere, which is true with many other situations in the movie. There are too many cliches and stereotyped, "cutesy" characters and the sappy, mediocre musical score seems to be trying to alert us that this is supposed to be something "meaningful' and "significant." Fat chance. It all comes off like superficial Stephen King without the horror except for a Columbine-like shooting scene that is thrown in for good measure. The acting is generally better than the picture deserves. Newman's performance isn't exactly a "great" one but he's not bad at all as Max. Like a soap opera without the sex.
Verdict: Phony and a bit dull all told. **.

THE SHUTTERED ROOM


THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967). Director: David Greene.

This is an oddball adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story that basically removes the supernatural element! Mike Kelton (Gig Young) brings his young bride Susannah (Carol Lynley) back to the island off New England and the mill house she grew up in and inherited. But there's a sinister lurking presence waiting in the house ... Actually more menace is generated by Oliver Reed and his gang of inbred laughing thugs than by anything else. A scene when they tie up Young, leave him on the roadside, and repeatedly race up to his body in their car and stop just short of smashing him is harrowing and well-executed. Reed gives the most vivid performance, but the others are fine, including Flora Robson as Aunt Agatha. This is one of those movies where if everyone just acted logically there would be no danger and no plot. There are eerie scenes and Greene's direction has its good points -- some people found it "arty" -- but this could not be classified as one of the better or more faithful Lovecraft adaptations were it not for the fact that so many others were much worse. The jazzy background score is no help at all.

Verdict: Despite flaws it holds the attention and has its moments but it's only minimal Lovecraft. **1/2.

COLONEL EFFINGHAM'S RAID


COLONEL EFFINGHAM'S RAID (1946). Director: Irving Pichel.

Okay, you'd think that any film with Charles Coburn, Joan Bennett, Donald Meek, Elizabeth Patterson, Allyn Joslyn and Frank Craven (of In This Our Life fame) in it couldn't be all bad, but there's little to recommend in this dull little alleged "comedy" that grossly wastes the talents of all concerned. Coburn is a retired Army colonel in a small town on the eve of U.S. entry into WWII who stirs people up via his column in the local newspaper, where Bennett and William Eythe also work. A particular sore subject is that the town's politicos want to tear down the stately old courthouse. The film makes the point that everyone -- big and small, young and old -- has the right to speak out on issues of importance to them, but it makes this point in the most boring way possible. The 70 minute running time seems like two and a half hours, and the film has not a single laugh. Joan Bennett spiritedly plays a rather likable and independent-minded young lady.

Verdict: Pretty much a total stinker. That cast deserves much better. *.

TWICE-TOLD TALES


TWICE-TOLD TALES (1963). Director: Sidney Salkow.

Star Vincent Price appears in three stories freely adapted from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In Heidegger's Experiment Price and Sebastian Cabot play love rivals who discover the dead woman they both loved has been preserved by a natural chemical like a fountain of youth. As portrayed by Mari Blanchard, however, the lovely Sylvia comes off more like a hard-boiled slattern than anything else, but there's no accounting for taste. In Rappaccini's Daughter a young man (Brett Halsey) falls in love with a woman (Joyce Taylor) who has been raised on poison by a jealous father (Price) and whose very touch means instant death. This is the best of the three stories but it isn't well served by the insufficient playing of the lovers. As an actor, Halsey was good-looking and little else. Primarily a TV actress, Taylor was vivid enough in George Pal's Atlantis the Lost Continent but in this she's simply bad. The weakest segment is a poor and loose adaptation of The House of Seven Gables which is somewhat bolstered by the appearance of Beverly Garland and not at all by the unlikely presence of Richard Denning, although he's not terrible. More derivative of other horror films than of Hawthorne.

Verdict: Has its moments. **1/2.

THE TWO MR. KISSELS


THE TWO MR. KISSELS (2008). Lifetime cable premiere. Director: Edward Bianchi.
This is based on a book about the true-life murders of two brothers, Andrew and Robert Kissel. [Dateline and other programs have covered these murders extensively.] Robert was murdered in Hong Kong -- it's no secret that his wife is currently serving life there for his murder -- and Andrew in his home in Greenwich (an arrest was recently made in the case). The story is irresistible -- money, sex, greed, infidelity, two brothers who both come to a similar end for different reasons -- but while this telefilm is undeniably fast-paced, entertaining and generally well-acted, it's also on the superficial side. John Stamos (pictured), one of the producers, is not perfect casting as the somewhat weaselly Andrew Kissel, who robbed his own condo board of millions of dollars and probably cheated the wrong people, but his performance is professional, which is true of the rest of the mostly unknown cast. Whatever one thinks of the Kissel brothers, an added tragedy is the effect their deaths had and will have on their young children.
Verdict: Neat time passer. ***.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SUNSET BOULEVARD

"I'm ready for my close-up."
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Director: Billy Wilder.

A down-on-his-luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), meets and moves into a mansion with silent screen star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Together the pair intend to fashion a major screenplay that will give Norma an opportunity for her comeback. But Joe eventually feels trapped by Norma and her cobwebs, and figures her project is utterly hopeless in any case. But will Norma let Joe go before she's through with him ...? So how well does Sunset Boulevard hold up after 58 years? Pretty well. Okay, maybe it's not an out and out masterpiece, but it undeniably exudes a certain fascination. If I had one problem with the movie it's that I feel there's way too much narration. Although Joe's narration is well-written, it's describing (albeit poetically) things that we can already see. Swanson gives a terrific performance (her "over-acting" at times is appropriate given the flamboyant, emotionally disturbed nature of Norma Desmond) and Holden isn't bad as Joe, although there's no doubt that the first actor cast in the part, Montgomery Clift. would have brought a lot more to the role. Better than Holden is Nancy Olsen, who gives a lovely and often passionate performance as the young lady who falls in love with him. The scene when Norma returns to her studio to see DeMille is touching. Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton are among the more interesting bit players, as well as an uncredited Yvette Vickers of Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches fame -- yes, that's her as the girl on the telephone during the New Year's Eve party scene. Less a drama than a weird black comedy, Sunset Boulevard always threatens to go over the top but never quite gets there.

Verdict: Certainly unique. ***.

THE GHOUL (1933)


THE GHOUL (1933). Director: T. Hayes Hunter.
Poor Boris Karloff got stuck in another stinker with this very boring, alleged thriller/horror film. Karloff plays an egyptologist who vows to return from the grave to get back at his enemies, and keeps his promise. There's also two cousins -- one male, one female -- who are caught up in a family feud and get involved because Karloff was their uncle. This has an interesting supporting cast, including Ernest Thesiger from Bride of Frankenstein and Cedric Hardwicke. "No doubt you will succeed in making a painful interview intolerable" Hardwicke says to one character. But it's very disorienting to see the likes of Ralph Richardson in a Boris Karloff horror film. He plays a priest and is as excellent as ever. Karloff and the others are fine but wasted.
Verdict: Might help you go to sleep. *1/2.

KNEE DEEP


KNEE DEEP (2007). Director: Michael Chandler. [Shown on PBS' Independent Lens.]
An interesting documentary about a young man who is accused of trying to murder his mother right after she announces that she's selling the farm he worked on all of his life and is evicting him. It's interesting how your sympathies go back and forth in this real-life story. The son was never educated -- his father believed a farmer didn't need an education -- and has presumed for years that eventually the farm will become his. The mother, although generally painted as a borderline monster, realized via the Internet that there was more to life than the tiny farm town she'd been living in and wanted out -- something many of us city folk can certainly relate to. It seems there were mistakes and misunderstandings made on both sides, although one might argue that attempted murder -- no matter what the provocation -- is never a viable option. While worthwhile, Knee Deep meanders a bit and a major flaw is that we never hear from the mother, giving it a rather lopsided perspective.
Verdict: How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm? **1/2.

Friday, November 7, 2008

THE ASTONISHED HEART



THE ASTONISHED HEART (1949). Director: Terence Fisher.

"The capacity to love is stronger in some people than in others and it's dangerous to deny it or to encourage it -- for the wrong reasons."

Put on film four years after Brief Encounter, this play was probably meant to look at infidelity from the husband's point of view instead of the wife's, but it is no way in the league of Brief Encounter. Psychiatrist Christian Faber (Noel Coward, pictured) treats patients who are tormented by affairs then winds up having one himself with an old friend of his wife's. The wife, Barbara, is played by Celia Johnson, who also appeared n Brief Encounter; the other woman, Leonora, is played by Margaret Leighton. Although there are some good scenes and interesting dialogue in the movie, it is generally much too talky and Coward proves (in this at least) a much better writer than actor. His performance as the husband isn't terrible but it's often stilted and passionless, and one can't imagine what on earth the very pretty and vivacious Leonora would have seen in the comparatively boring Christian. Johnson and Leighton are more on the mark. The film's final moments are bolstered by Coward's own heavy scoring, and the last scene is somewhat poignant. Coward's observations about married life and love are often on the money, but the framework is just too insufficient.

Verdict: Watch Brief Encounter instead. **1/2.

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS


THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946). Director: Robert Florey.

Another fascinating -- if familiar -- Peter Lorre characterization is the cornerstone of this highly entertaining mystery/horror film, directed with style and suspense by Robert Florey, who also directed Lorre in The Face Behind the Mask. When crippled pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) dies, relatives descend upon his Italian villa, which is already occupied by his nurse Julie (Andrea King), the scholarly Hilary (Peter Lorre) and mysterious hanger-on Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda). J. Carroll Naish is the police commissioner who investigates when more bodies turn up, the murders strangely attributed to a severed and disembodied hand. Charles Dingle is Ingram's brother-in-law, who is determined to steal the estate away from Julie. An interesting aspect to the movie is that you may find yourself liking the bad guys, and disliking the kind of cold and sleazy romantic couple played by Alda and the strangely sinister King. The film works well and is even eerie for most of its length, although the filmmakers couldn't resist having a last comical wink at the audience at the end.

Verdict: Worth viewing. ***.

NANCY DREW -- DETECTIVE


NANCY DREW -- DETECTIVE (1938). Director: William Clemens.
Although the "original" screenplay is attributed to Kenneth Gamet, this was clearly based on one of the original Nancy Drew novels, "Password to Larkspur Lane." A wealthy woman who is on the verge of donating a large sum of money to Nancy's school suddenly disappears, and Nancy (Bonita Granville) tries to find her. In this she is aided or hindered, depending on the situation, by her father Carson (John Litel), her friend Ted Nickerson (it was "Ned" in the books), and the police. Ted is played by Frankie Thomas, and he's basically been turned into comedy relief, even improbably dressing in drag at one point. Hannah Gruen, the housekeeper and mother substitute in the books, has been replaced by the dizzy maid Effie (the oddly-named Renie Riano) in the movie. Granville makes a spirited (perhaps too spirited) Nancy Drew, and the film is decidedly minor but admittedly charming at times.
Verdict: You could do worse. **1/2.

MR. SARDONICUS


MR. SARDONICUS (1961). Director: William Castle.
 In the TV show Wiseguy, an entire story arc centered around a nutty guy who was obsessed with the film Mr. Sardonicus, and who ran screenings of it over and over again. That alone created a kind of mystique around the picture, which is based on a novella by Ray Russell, who also wrote the screenplay. Castle directed this film right after Homicidal, and introduces this movie as well. But the film is quite different, a rather intelligent Gothic horror story that is well-acted and has many fascinatingly macabre and ironic touches. A specialist named Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis of Scream of Fear) is importuned by an old girlfriend to come to her husband's castle with utmost speed. It appears that hubby, who has rechristened himself "Mr. Sardonicus" (Guy Rolfe) after a medical condition, is horribly disfigured and Cargrave is his last hope. Sardonicus is a cruel man, and Cargrave is to discover that his assignment is fraught with peril. Rolfe and Lewis are fine, but Oscar Homolka pretty much steals the picture as the sinister servant Krull, who always carries out Sardonicus' orders. Audrey Dalton as the bride of Sardonicus proves once again that she is a very uneven actress. Verdict: Good show! ***.

ROSEANNA MCCOY



ROSEANNA MCCOY (1949). Director: Irving Reis.

"Don't talk with your knife in your mouth!"

Hollywood's look at the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys of Kentucky has Roseanna McCoy (Joan Evans) falling in love with Johnse (sic) Hatfield (Farley Granger) while the relatives fuss, fight, sass, and shoot. The main problem with the film, besides a script that's half-baked, is the miscasting of the leads. Granger is no Kentucky mountain man by a long shot, and Evans [pictured with her godmother Joan Crawford], although not totally awful, is too inexperienced and passionless -- not to mention comparatively plain and pudgy-faced -- to amount to much of a heroine. The much more talented supporting cast is certainly interesting, however. Raymond Massey and Aline MacMahon, are Roseanna's parents, while Charles Bickford and Hope Emerson of Caged fame are the Hatfield folk. Arthur Franz, Marshall Thompson and Richard Basehart also have roles, and do fine with them, Basehart in particular. Gertrude Hoffman of My Little Margie and Mabel Paige of I Love Lucy and The Sniper also have small roles. But perhaps the best and most impassioned performance in the film is given by little Peter Miles, who plays "Little Randall" McCoy, and is the brother of Gigi Perreau (who was his sister in real life and in the film). Years later Miles wrote the novel upon which Robert Altman based his film That Cold Day in the Park. While there's some fairly exciting gun play at the climax, the entire project is mostly forgettable.

Verdict: Watch the Beverly Hillbillies instead. **.

Monday, November 3, 2008

MITZI GAYNOR RAZZLE DAZZLE THE SPECIAL YEARS DVD


MITZI GAYNOR RAZZLE DAZZLE THE SPECIAL YEARS DVD.
This DVD devoted to the talents of singer/actress Mitzi Gaynor has been released in honor of the 4oth anniversary of her first televised special and the 50th anniversary of perhaps her most famous film, South Pacific, in which she co-starred with Rosanno Brazzi and John Kerr. Gaynor's annual specials were aired for ten years, and there are song and dance numbers from each of them on this disc. Special features include a look at her Bob Mackie fashions; new interviews with Gaynor, Carl Reiner, Bob Mackie and others; comedy skits from her specials; and other extras. I don't know if Rex Reed was correct when he claimed Gaynor was "one of the colossal talents of our age," but she certainly had looks and ability to spare, and she was quite charming in South Pacific. For more information or to order a copy go to Gaynor's web site or the web site of City Lights Media, which is releasing the DVD.
Verdict: Perfect for Gaynor enthusiasts. ***.

Friday, October 31, 2008

THE EXORCIST


THE EXORCIST (1973). Special Edition DVD with extra footage. Director: William Friedkin.
Although billed as “the scariest movie ever made,” I have never found The Exorcist to be especially chilling (although the novel did give me the creeps). There had been many movies of demonic possession made before The Exorcist, but William Peter Blatty's novel and Friedkin's film version took such stories out of haunted castles and ghostly manors and placed one in prosaic, sun-lit Washington D.C. -- and made the possessed person an innocent little girl who not only acts differently but looks different as well. [In fact, that is one major flaw in this movie among many. Even when we take into account that medical science is at a loss to explain what has happened to Regan (Linda Blair), I can not believe that any mother, seeing her child covered in suppurating sores and turning green and nasty, wouldn't insist she be placed in a hospital with around the clock care!] The reason why the novel worked better than the film is that the movie is simply too literal. It's one thing to read about what happens to Regan, quite another to actually see her ramming a crucifix you-know-where and all the rest. In fact, at times The Exorcist turns into a vulgar burlesque of a horror movie, just as silly as the endless imitations that followed in its wake (such as Abby). At the same time, the story remains fascinating (but only in an unbelievable 'horror' fashion) and some of it is quite well done and generally well-acted (although Jason Miller, who is otherwise fine in the movie, shows absolutely no reaction to Regan's appearance when he enters her bedroom!) The good performances of Ellen Burstyn, Lee J. Cobb, and others certainly help. Jack MacGowran is excellent in the small role of the drunken director, Burke Dennings, whom Regan/Pazuzu throws out her second story window. Kitty Winn, who plays Burstyn's assistant, co-starred with Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park (and was superb), but, sadly, faded out into small parts like this thereafter. Of the new footage included in this edition, Regan's walking down the stairs backward like a scuttling crab is effective but perhaps they thought it looked too comical. The opening sequence with Max von Sydow (rather wasted in this part) seems rather slow. Despite my many quibbles, I have to say that The Exorcist is a good, entertaining flick and was – for better or worse – highly influential. Friedkin continued his examination of the transferal of evil in – of all things -- his film version of Cruising with Al Pacino.
Verdict: A mixed bag but entertaining. ***.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC


EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977). Director: John Boorman.

Richard Burton plays a priest who is assigned by the Vatican to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) in Washington D.C. Little Regan (Linda Blair) is now a teenager who is receiving treatment from a therapist played by Louise Fletcher. During a session, with Burton in attendance, the priest becomes aware that the demon is, apparently, still deep inside Blair and the girl is in danger. He goes to Africa to hook up with the boy, now grown, that Merrin exorcised years before. [The flashbacks of Merrin exorcising this child are contradicted by the recent Exorcist: The Beginning.] Then there's a mad dash back to Washington for reasons that are never made entirely clear. While Exorcist II is not an awful film, it's one that pretty much wastes its potential. It's understandable that Boorman and company didn't want to do a simple retread of the first picture, but there's too much rushing around to little point in this sequel. Regan never really seems in any great danger, and the motives of the demon Pazuzu, who possesses her, are never made clear. The picture isn't boring, and there is some striking photography, but it just doesn't seem to add up to much in the long run. There's a well-done, chilling fall from a cliff, but the climax is just messy instead of exciting. Burton has a couple of good scenes acting with veteran Paul Henreid (as a Cardinal), and is generally okay, if a little preoccupied at times. Linda Blair just isn't much of an actress, and looks ludicrous trying to come on all sexy in the climactic sequence. Louise Fletcher, playing a role very different from the cruel nurse of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that netted her an Oscar, emerges as an attractive and appealing presence. Kitty Winn, who is given a much bigger role in this than she had in The Exorcist, is excellent, although it isn't readily apparent why her Sharon goes nutso at the end. The business with the strobing machine that puts people in trances is silly and unconvincing, and all those close ups of locusts rushing through the sky, while striking, make you think you're seeing a remake of The Beginning of the End with its giant grasshoppers. Regan is supposed to be one of the “good locusts” that evil is trying to wipe out, but this development isn't remotely moving.
Verdict: At least it's nice to look at. **1/2.

THE EXORCIST III


THE EXORCIST III (1990). Director: William Peter Blatty.

“[God] goes waltzing through the universe like some kind of cosmic Billie Burke” -- Detective William Kinderman.

Blatty adapted and directed his novel Legion for this second sequel to The Exorcist (although this wisely ignores the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic). Detective Kinderman (now played by George C. Scott) investigates a series of murders that have the same M.O. as atrocities committed by a fiendish serial killer, Gemini (Brad Dourif), who was executed the very night the girl Regan was exorcised. Kinderman ties these events to a mysterious patient in a psycho ward known only as “X” but who looks just like his old friend Father Damian (Jason Miller), who supposedly died fifteen years before on the night of the exorcism. The movie works up its own internal logic but seems to break it and become a little more confusing than it needs to be and there is too much gratuitous humor, but it has a good basic plot and is seriously disturbing at times. There's a long, creepy sequence in a hospital corridor that works up to a quick shock, and Viveca Lindfors figures in a near-climactic kitchen scene that involves a terrifyingly large surgical blade used for amputations. You have to see the old lady crawling across the ceiling to believe it (a wild sequence, but one better left on the cutting room floor?) George C. Scott is as ferociously good as ever as Kinderman, although he might have registered more upsetment at his friend, Father Dyer's, bizarre murder. Ed Flanders is on-the-money as Dyer, and there's excellent support as well from Nicol Williamson (an exorcist), Lee Richardson (university president), Brad Dourif, and Nancy Fish as a very saucy, borderline bitchy nurse. Although she is uncredited, the demon seems to be voiced by Colleen Dewhurst. Dopey Fabio shows up in a purgatory dream sequence. The obligatory exorcism scene is fairly exciting. It's interesting to contemplate what Hitchcock would have done with this material.

Verdict: The movie has its moments but the book is better. **1/2.

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING



EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. (2004). Director: Renny Harlin. NOTE: We are reviewing this more recent film to accompany our critiques of the first three Exorcist films.


In 1949 Cairo a younger Father Merrin (Stellen Skarsgard), who has temporarily given up the cloth due to events of WW 2, investigates the archaeological dig of a church that has been built over a temple of human sacrifice – where sinister things, of course, begin to happen. This is a classy production, well-directed by Harlin, and strikingly photographed by Vittorio Storaro (witness that stunning pulled-back shot of the crosses during the prologue), but despite some exciting moments and powerful images (a dead baby pulled from its mother's womb covered in bugs), it's almost a complete misfire. For one thing, there's too much going on in the screenplay, which incorporates native uprisings, sandstorms, and even Nazis without a clear focus on anything. The actual exorcism, which isn't that well-staged (and looks as silly as ever), is dragged in for the final moments, giving the picture no real climax or pay off. The derivative flashback, showing how Merrin had to choose ten people for the Nazis to kill (a couple of little children are shot in the head to persuade Merrin to choose), overpowers the rest of the story, which seems trivial in comparison. The fixation on hyenas (which tear one poor boy apart in an effective if disturbing sequence) remind one less of The Exorcist and more of The Omen trilogy. Add to all this the fact that Skarsgard is a somewhat bland leading man in this and you have a film that is somewhat boring even at its busiest. Ben Cross shows up for about two minutes in bookending sequences and is completely wasted (he would have been much better as the lead). A lot of hard work and talent went into this; it's a shame it was all for nothing.

Verdict: Unfortunate. **.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

THE BLACK ROOM


THE BLACK ROOM (1935). Director: Roy William Neill.
A dire prophecy hangs over a feudal kingdom: the younger brother will murder the older in the infamous "black room" of the castle. To prevent this from occurring, the black room is sealed up, but the evil twin Gregor finds another way in. When the good twin Anton - both are played by Boris Karloff -- returns to the kingdom he learns that Gregor is suspected of doing away with several women who have completely disappeared. Although the movie doesn't make nearly enough of its horrific sequences, this is a very interesting macabre thriller with Karloff in top form -- both of him! Marian Marsh is lovely as the pretty Thea, who ignites romantic interest in the twins and others, but Robert Allen is pretty bad as her heroic lover, Lt. Lussan. Thor the dog gets high marks for his spirited performance as a hound who harasses Gregor.
Verdict: 2 Karloffs for the price of one! ***.

28 DAYS LATER


28 DAYS LATER ...(2002), Director: Danny Boyle. Screenplay by Alex Garland.
28 days after some animal rights activists stupidly release infected chimpanzees from a laboratory, the world has been decimated by a plague that within seconds turns infected people into raving maniacs. Influenced by everything from Day of the Triffids to On the Beach to Night of the Living Dead, this starts off well, then soon becomes typically “flippant,” and eventually turns into a rather standard, if well-executed, action film. There are striking shots of a deserted London in the beginning [but it's odd that we see no bodies] and there's a scary scene inside a tunnel when a rush of rats precedes an attack by infected maniacs. The tension is undercut, however, by such scenes as when the rag tag group of survivors go jauntily shopping in a supermarket as if they hadn't a care in the world. The biggest problem with the movie is that, despite some humanistic touches and attempts at pathos [of a minor kind] the reactions of the characters don't always ring true. For instance, the main character Jim (Cillian Murphy) is forced to murder an infected boy at one point. He has no choice if he is to save himself, and the boy is beyond hope, but when he walks out of the building where he killed him he shows none of the horrified, disgusted, guilty attitude that a person in that situation would feel. This isn't just weak acting; it's insufficient filmmaking. And there are other moments like this, too, making 28 Days Later just another piece of occasionally entertaining, but overlong schlock. This received a lot of good reviews, but it's no classic despite a certain degree of directorial and visual flair. The climax at the army camp seems to go on forever.
Verdict: Not a must-see by any means. **.

BEFORE I HANG


BEFORE I HANG (1940). Director: Nick Grinde.
Boris Karloff plays a physician who is not only convicted of a mercy killing but improbably gets the death penalty because of it. He has developed a serum which will reverse the aging process, and he uses it on himself some hours before his scheduled execution. But then the governor commutes his sentence to life imprisonment. The serum makes Karloff look a bit younger and gives him vigor, but it also has an unfortunate, violent side effect. Karloff is fine and restrained in the picture, and frankly he deserved a much better script. Before I Hang doesn't do nearly enough with its premise and amounts to very little. Bruce Bennett plays the boyfriend of Karloff's daughter, Martha (Evelyn Keyes).
Verdict: Not much in this cheapie creepy. *1/2.

THE BATMAN VS DRACULA


THE BATMAN VS DRACULA (2005). Director: Michael Goguen.
This is a feature-length animated film using the latest incarnation of The Batman from the WB's recent cartoon series. Bruce Wayne is no longer a pretty boy, but attractive in an average way. Butler Alfred Pennysworth is a bit on the uppity side. Although updated versions of both The Penguin and The Joker take part in the action, Batman's main adversary is no less than Dracula himself, whose remains somehow wound up in an underground cavern of Gotham cemetery. [Dracula is voiced none too well by actor Peter Stormare; Rino Romano is fine as Batman/Bruce.] Reporter Vicky Vale is the love interest and damsel in distress. While this has some exciting scenes and some fluid animation, it's still a fairly standard comic book adventure.
Verdict: For fans of The Batman only. **1/2.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

SPACEFLIGHT IC-1


SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (1965). Director: Bernard Knowles.

A flight to a planet dubbed "earth 2" just outside our solar system, where mankind hopes to have a new beginning, is beset with tension and problems. Dr. Steven Thomas (John Cairney) discovers that his wife (Linda Marlowe) has a serious pancreatic condition, but the stern Captain Ralston (Bill Williams) refuses to turn back so that she can receive medical treatment. This leads to tragic consequences and some dramatic incidents, including what the captain perceives as mutiny. This short, low-budget British production is like a TV show, but Harry Spalding's script and some intense performances make it more interesting than you might imagine. There are no real effects or BEMs [Bug-eyed monsters] or any other trappings of 50s/60s sci fi, but the story and its confrontations sustain interest. There's an android whose head is attached to a life support block, and two couples are kept in suspended animation. John Cairney, who also played Hercules' little friend Hylas in Jason and the Argonauts, is fine and has a bigger role than the nominal lead, former second lead Bill Williams, who isn't bad as Ralston.

Verdict: There have been worse star treks than this one. **1/2.

THE THREE STOOGES GO AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAZE


THE THREE STOOGES GO AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAZE (1963). Director: Norman Maurer.
The Three Stooges are the servants of the great-great-grandson of Phileas Fogg (from Verne's Around the World in 80 Days), who for some reason is called Phileas Fogg the Third instead of the Fourth. But one hardly expects logic in a Three Stooges movie. Phileas III unaccountably accepts a bet that he can go around the world in eighty days without spending a penny. The person who challenges him is a con artist, who also frames him for bank robbery. Accompanied by the stooges, Phileas (Jay Sheffield) has increasingly silly adventures in India, China, New York etc. and meets a pretty gal named Amelia (Joan Freeman). Although this will probably be best enjoyed by young children, it has to be said that the funny-looking stooges have their amusing moments. Curly Joe becomes a wrestler at one point and they do some funny masquerades from time to time. That distinctive old gent, Colin Campbell, who also appeared in The Lost World (1960), plays Willoughby, a bank officer.
Verdict: There have been worse. **.

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN


THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (OF THE HIMALAYAS/1957). Director: Val Guest.
Fairly absorbing story about group of men who climb high into the Himalayas to find the mythical creature, the Yeti. Stars Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker give strong performances, the former as a principled and decent man of science, and the latter as an unprincipled entrepreneur who hopes to exhibit the snowman for profit. The movie has its eerie moments once they encounter the creatures, who are not fully seen until almost the very end. Other good performances are given by Maureen Connell, who plays Cushing's wife, and Arnold Marle as the inscrutable but surprisingly feisty Llama. If there is any problem with the movie it's that it eventually becomes quite talky. Some might also feel that its turning the Yeti from monsters into noble creatures is a tad pretentious. Still, this is not bad at all. Greatly bolstered by Arthur Grant's atmospheric photography and Humphrey Searle's dramatic musical score.
Verdict: Love those Yeti! ***.

THE CORPSE VANISHES


THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942). Director: Wallace Fox.
A series of young brides collapse and apparently die in front of the altar on their wedding days, and then their bodies -- taken away by a hearse -- completely disappear. Could Dr. Lorenz (Bela Lugosi) be the culprit? A reporter named Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) discovers that each woman was wearing a special kind of orchid at their wedding. Her editor is so stupid that he doesn't seem to think this is any kind of a clue! Tristram Coffin (billed as Tris Coffin), the King of the Rocket Men himself, plays the Lorenz' family doctor, while Elizabeth Russell from The Seventh Victim, Weird Woman, and others plays Lorenz' aged wife who needs, shall we say, frequent beauty treatments. This holds the attention but it isn't one of Bela's better latter-day features. An interesting idea isn't well developed. Lugosi is good, as usual.
Verdict: Hold the orchids if you dare. **.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER


JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER (2008). Director: Dave Bullock.

Based on the mini-series by Darwyn Cooke, this is one of many alternate "takes" on the heroes of the Justice League of America (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman etc.; the last two are pictured confronting one another). This takes place in the fifties, when in our real world Justice League of America comic books first began being published. The government has become paranoid about and suspicious of super-beings, and into this atmosphere drops J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter (actually a martian cop). J'onzz disguises himself as an Earth police officer, but although he makes some officials nervous (Superman reminds them that he is an alien, too), the real problem is a grotesque super-powerful being called The Centre, which is determined to completely exterminate the human race. Superman, Wonder Woman, The Batman, The Flash have active roles, while Ray (Atom) Palmer puts in an appearance, and Hal Jordan becomes Green Lantern for the first time. (There are also appearances by the Blackhawks, Ace of the Challengers of the Unknown, Larry Trainor -- Negative Man of Doom Patrol -- Green Arrow, and others.)

Frankly, if you haven't read the mini-series, this animated feature is pretty confusing and a mite dull at first, but eventually it begins to coalesce into a recognizable (if still confusing) storyline. In the impressively rendered climax, The Centre materializes as a humongous floating island with tentacles and orifices from which come forth hideous monstrosities. The efforts of the super-heroes to destroy this formidable creature before it can destroy the earth are dramatic and even, at times, thrilling. But make no mistake, this is for super-hero/comic book fans -- albeit of all ages -- only.

Verdict: Watch out for that Centre. ***.