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

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. ***.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE SNORKEL


THE SNORKEL (1958). Director: Guy Green.
You learn right at the start of the movie that Jacques Duval (Peter van Eyck) murdered his wife, but the well-made film holds your attention in spite of it. Good acting and tense situations certainly don't hurt. The murdered woman's daughter, Candy (Mandy Miller, a young beauty), alleges that she saw Jacques murder her father some years before, and is convinced that he somehow managed to murder her mother even though her death, which occurred in a locked bedroom, has been ruled a suicide. Betta St. John plays Jean, a relative who is a sort of governess or companion to Candy. One of the best scenes has Jacques making an attempt on Candy's life while she's swimming. A very satisfying wind-up. Peter van Eyck strikes the perfect note as the cold-blooded murderer. Co-written by the prolific Jimmy Sangster but not as gimmicky has some of his stories.
Verdict: Engaging time passer. ***.

THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER


THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER (1933). Director: Roy William Neill.
New York police commissioner Thatcher Colt (Adolphe Menjou) takes his efficient secretary off for a quiet, restful vacation in the bucolic town of Gilliad, but instead of balm he finds murder. There are sexy circus queens, angry husbands, illicit affairs, a troupe of cannibals, not to mention the usual lions, tigers and gorillas, but none of it saves the movie from being dull, dull, dull. Dwight Frye is his usual intense self as the jealous hubby of the high-wire circus queen (Greta Nissen). Ruthelma Stevens is Colt's lip-reading secretary, Miss Kelly. Colt has an admirably modern attitude toward women and even thinks that Miss Kelly would make a great police commissioner when he retires. Alas, the movie has no real snap to it and the plot isn't terribly interesting. The pic only runs 63 minutes but seems much longer. Menjou is fine, however. He played the same role in one other movie.
Verdict: Not as much fun as a barrel of monkeys.

CARY GRANT


CARY GRANT. Marc Eliot. Harmony Books. 2004.

This is a readable if not especially revelatory look at the life of Cary Grant from his troubled early years in England, to his stage career in New York, to his highly successful film career, as well as his involvement with actor Randolph Scott and his four marriages to women. It seems pretty clear to the reader (if not necessarily to Eliot) that Grant was essentially a gay man who, while initially free-spirited and free-thinking and without any special qualms about his sexuality, spent his later years (once stardom came upon him during a much less tolerant period) running from his sexual identity, always eager to preserve his image and the career that gave him so many options, not the least of which was financial. Eliot makes some attempt to explore the man's complexity but despite some details of his long relationship with Scott is less successful keeping an honest tab on his true sexuality. Eliot is not a film historian – most of his previous books were on rock and folk music – so he recycles such ancient canards as John Gilbert not having a voice fit for sound pictures and he classifies Howard Hughes strictly as a heterosexual. At one point he writes that Shirley Temple “had set off a generation of middle-aged men into cold sweats while still a toddler”(!) His descriptions of Grant's looks, appeal and acting ability occasionally border on the poetic but sometimes veer into the pretentious. While the ultimate book on Cary Grant has yet to be written, this is not at all bad for readers who are unfamiliar with previous biographies of the actor.

Verdict: Okay as intro to Grant. **1/2.

THE SNIPER


THE SNIPER (1952). Director: Edward Dmytryk.
Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is a delivery man for a cleaning service and has a problem with women. When one of his customers, a singer named Jean (Marie Windsor) innocently excites him but sends him away when her boyfriend shows up, he begins a spree of shooting women, with Jean the first victim. Franz, who is excellent, is the perfect choice for the title role, with his clean cut features and appealing presence in stark contrast to the terrible crimes he's committing. The movie certainly has an interesting cast. Adolphe Menjou is the head cop on the case, Lt. Frank Kafka, and Richard Kiley, that Man of La Mancha himself, is a police psychologist. He gives disturbing statistics about sexual predators (the situation has obviously gotten much worse since 1952). Frank Faylen and Gerald Mohr are also cast as policemen. Miller's landlady is played by Mabel Paige, who sold Lucy and Ethel her dress shop in a classic I Love Lucy episode. Jay Novello, who also appeared on I Love Lucy, turns up in another amazing characterization as Pete, the owner of the bar where Jean sings for her supper. The movie is well made and completely absorbing, but it does give rather short shrift to the victims.
Verdict: Probably Franz' finest hour. ***.

Friday, October 10, 2008

TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL


TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL (1951). Director: Jean Negulesco.
Jeanne Crain plays Elizabeth, a young woman who goes off to her mother's alma mater and hopes to join her mother's sorority. But she discovers that many of the young ladies are rather heartless when it comes to accepting those who aren't the right type. Jeffrey Hunter plays the archetypal drunken frat boy who wants an easy ride through life; and Dale Robertson is pleasant but mediocre as the older veteran whom Liz prefers. Mitzi Gaynor is fun in a small role as a co-ed who disdains sororities; ditto for Carol Brannon as a misfit member of Liz's sorority who has a sarcastic attitude toward their silly rules and regulations. Jean Peters makes a definite impression as Dallas, the chic, sexy head of the sorority, but Natalie Schafer hasn't enough to do as a den mother. Lenka Peterson is effective as shy Ruth, the "hopeless" girl that gets blackballed. One could easily argue that this presents a very stereotypical view of sororities and fraternities, but that misses the point: this is a surprisingly nice movie that makes a point about accepting those who don't fit in, and rejecting those who reject them. Warning: if you're looking for obligatory hair-pulling cat fights, drunken scenes of rape and debasement and the like, look elsewhere. This is not an exploitation film (although it would probably have been more fun if it were. )
Verdict: Pleasant timepasser. ***.

BOBBY DARIN: A LIFE


BOBBY DARIN: A LIFE. Michael Seth Starr. Taylor.

This is a workmanlike biography of Darin with some excellent interviews with, and insights from, people who worked with him and knew him well. Mercifully Starr doesn't spend too much time on Darin's childhood, and after a few pages takes us into the beginnings of his almost meteoric if short-lived show business career. Darin is essentially portrayed by Starr and others as a man driven to succeed at an early age because of a heart condition that would probably ensure him an early demise – as it did (at age thirty-seven). Of course, many young people with perfectly healthy hearts are driven to succeed – the sooner the better --- but his condition may have added a certain intensity to Darin's ambition. Darin could be prickly and cocky, which didn't endear him to some (Ed Sullivan was certainly no fan), but he eventually mellowed and won people over with his talent. Starr doesn't spend as much time on the ultimately shattered Darin-Sandra Dee marriage, which may disappoint those looking for juicy stories of marital combat, but he does adeptly describe his recording career, film roles, and critical and fan reaction to same. Interestingly enough, at one point Darin decided to almost “drop out,” sold all of his possessions, and moved as far away from everyone as he could get. Bobby Darin: A Life is a good bet for readers who are curious about Darin but don't necessarily want to read a thick tome on the performer; it gives all the basic facts of his life and is a quick read.
Verdict: Not bad! ***.

JEWEL ROBBERY


JEWEL ROBBERY (1932). Director: William Dieterle.
The Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Kay Francis) should be the happiest women in Vienna since her husband has 8.25 million dollars -- and a chronic case of the gout. She has a lover who's begun to bore her and is anxious for some excitement and a new fling. One afternoon when she's at the jewelry store (with both husband and lover!), along comes a nameless robber (William Powell) who steals everything in the shop, including her new diamond, completely sweeping her off her feet. He also passes off drugged cigarettes (joints?) which make the shop owner giddy and do the same for half of the police force. This is an amusing trifle -- emphasis on trifle -- greatly bolstered by sophisticated dialogue and terrific performances. Powell and Francis make a great team. Not exactly a classic but it's worth sitting through just for Kay's wink at the audience at the end. The pretty tune auf wiedersehen plays in the background but sometimes seems to overpower what's happening on the screen.
Verdict: Slight, slightly immoral, and rather charming. **1/2.

ME AND BOBBY D: A MEMOIR


ME AND BOBBY D: A Memoir. Steve Karmen. Hal Leonard.

What happens to the people left behind – the old friends and co-workers -- when someone makes the big time in show business? Steve Karmen attempts to answer that question in this interesting memoir of his early friendship with the singer/actor Bobby Darin. This is by no means a biography of Darin, although the reader will gain some insight into the man's character, which was extremely career-driven (probably why he made it) and expedient at times, although Karmen relates examples of how Darin could also give credit when due and be extremely gracious to old pals. [Although in one obnoxious moment Darin tells Karmen that he is not to ask for anything from him and that “they travel on different levels.”] Most of the book relates a short-term engagement in Detroit where Darin was the solo act and Karmen his guitar and vocal accompanist. Encouraged by his agent, Darin eventually relegated Karmen to the side of the band and didn't allow him to sing any more back ups. Aware that Karmen was, ironically, taller and better-looking than he was, Darin may have allowed jealousy to get the better of him, although it is also true that it was Darin who had just cut a record and had an agent – not Karmen. Karmen split from Darin and had a brief try at his own recording/acting/club career, but eventually found success as the composer of such famous jingles as “I Love New York,” “This Bud's for You,” and many, many others. Perhaps too much of the book is devoted to Karmen's stumbling attempts to get laid in Detroit, which become tiresome and are described in long stretches of dialogue that go on for many pages as if he were writing a forgettable coming-of-age novel. [Karmen describes Darin as getting laid on a regular basis in Detroit, continuously coming back to their hotel room smeared with lipstick, even bedding a mobster's sexy girlfriend.] Much more interesting are the few pages describing his attempts to establish his own successful show biz career, which has that certain ring of pain and truth, Karmen being undone by bad breaks and agents without enough clout. He describes the combination of fascination, envy, and anguish he felt while watching Darin's club act and feature films. Although the book is not without flaws, Me and Bobby D is a reasonably affecting look at show biz survivors and casualties and how they prosper, adapt, and make do. Throughout the book Karmen's love-hate for Darin clearly comes across. [On the back cover Connie Francis, who apparently loved Darin unconditionally, is quoted as saying “the experience of reading Me and Bobby D brought closure from the heartache and emptiness I have lived with for over 40 years...”]
Verdict: Imperfect but absorbing show biz memoir. ***.

AMERICAN GANGSTER


AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007). Director: Ridley Scott.
Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an honest cop, is assigned to head a new narcotics squad that will leave the street punks and small-timers to others and concentrate only on major deals and big arrests. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a drug dealer who's started a pipeline from Vietnam, where thousands of soldiers are getting hooked on junk. Naturally these two come into conflict, although a confrontation never really materializes (the scene when they face each other across a table in jail is kind of flat). The action scenes are standard, and the characterizations, especially Lucas', are thin, even if this was inspired by true events.
Washington seems miscast; Crowe is better, and looks like crap. Some familiar faces bolster the proceedings with flavorful performances: Armand Assante as an Italian gangster; Cuba Gooding Jr. as a drug dealer; Ted Levine as an associate of Crowe's; Josh Brolin as a dirty cop; Ruby Dee as Lucas' mama -- even Clarence Williams III of the Mod Squad (he's actually been pretty busy, if low profile, ever since) shows up briefly as Lucas' mentor.
Verdict: Not enough meat for its length. **.

Monday, October 6, 2008

OUR BETTERS


OUR BETTERS (1933). Director: George Cukor.

"Think of the people who have married for love. After five years do they care for each other any more than those who married for money?"

An American gal named Pearl (Constance Bennett) marries an impoverished British Lord and becomes Lady Grayston, only to learn on her wedding day that all her husband is interested in is her money and that he already has a lover on the side. Thereafter cynical, sophisticated Pearl becomes the giver of some of England's most notorious parties. Her friends include gossipy Thornton (Grant Mitchell, the father in The Man Who Came to Dinner); Duchess Minnie (Violet Kemble Cooper) and the gigolo, Pepi (Gilbert Roland), that she's keeping; and Arthur (Minor Watson), a pleasant middle-aged man who's in love with her. Then there's the dance instructor, Ernest (Tyrell Davis), who shows up at the end and is as ludicrous a gay stereotype as anything in The Producers. Taken from a play by Somerset Maugham, the movie is full of good dialogue and has some funny scenes, especially a rib-tickler involving Pepi. Bennett is arch and hard and very good, Roland is amusing, and Cooper nearly steals the picture as the somewhat unrealistic, addle-pated, but hopelessly romantic Minnie. As Pearl's more upright younger sister, Bessie, Anita Louise gives one of the worst and most affected performances ever seen in a movie.
Verdict: An amusing, occasionally trenchant, trifle. **1/2.

2 SAMMY DAVIS JR. BIOGRAPHIES



In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Wil Haygood. Knopf.
Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Gary Fishgall. Scribner.

Sammy Davis Jr. was far more than just one fifth of “The Rat Pack,” which both of these fine biographies make clear. Starting as a child in the days of vaudeville he worked his way up to become a top club entertainer, Broadway star, movie actor, and TV host. While he was more successful at some things than at others, he always gave 200% and was a literal bundle of talent. Sammy could sing, emote, play the drums, dance (including classic tap-dancing), and do dead-on impressions of a host of celebrities (not just saying the lines most associated with them but singing). These books both detail Sammy's hungry early years when he traveled with his father and “uncle” as part of the Will Mastin Trio. His relationship with Frank Sinatra is analyzed, as well as his relationships with JFK (a bitter disappointment) and Richard Nixon (a bitter disillusionment). Both books do an excellent job of unveiling the demons that drove Sammy, and why he made the decisions – and many mistakes – that he did. His affect on and interaction with the black civil rights movement and its leaders also comes in for scrutiny. Haygood's book perhaps places its subject more in the context of the times as they pertained to black Americans, providing some fascinating details about the attitudes of, and toward, black Americans during the different periods of Sammy's career. On the other hand, Fishgall provides much more information on Sammy's army career, making the point that in all likelihood he would have been segregated from white soldiers and many of the things he wrote about his Army experiences in his memoirs have to be taken with a grain of salt. Haygood provides a highly interesting look at the writing of said memoirs, Yes I Can, although he seems to take Sammy's clearly ghost-written book Hollywood in a Suitcase at face value (Fishgall reveals that the book was actually written by Simon Regan). Sammy was a fascinating, influential character with a fascinating life. These books are both recommended for adult readers.

Verdict: Good stuff. ***1/2 each.

NOTE: For teen readers I immodestly recommend my own I Can Do Anything: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, currently available on ebay.

FOG ISLAND


FOG ISLAND (1945). Director: Terry Morse.
Bitter Leo Grainger (George Zucco), who spent five years in prison, lives on a spooky island with his stepdaughter, Gail (Sharon Douglas), whose mother was murdered on the island. Leo invites a bunch of former associates to the island with a view to discovering who did the deed -- and getting even with those who betrayed him. Guests -- who believe there's a cache of money hidden on the island -- include John Kavanaugh (Jerome Cowan), lady astrologer and seeress Emily (Jacquline DeWit), Sylvia Jordan (Veda Ann Borg), and Jeff Kingsley (John Whitney), the son of a deceased associate. Atmospheric -- and very, very foggy -- this is one of the better PRC poverty row features, with a satisfying wind-up and some very good acting. Zucco and Atwill are as marvelous as ever, Cowan is excellent, and DeWit and Borg are typically vital. The movie isn't as predictable as you might imagine, and has a vivid musical score by Karl Hajos.
Verdict: We can all use some fog now and then. ***.

GARY COOPER: AMERICAN HERO



GARY COOPER: AMERICAN HERO. Jeffrey Meyers. William Morrow. 1998.

This is a fine biography of the late actor from his beginnings in the silent film industry to his painful death by cancer many decades later. The portrait that emerges in this book is less of an American “hero” than a fairly conservative (if not rockbound) icon who lived life the way he wanted to (including numerous affairs which negatively affected his wife and daughter) then later regretted his actions and found Catholicism. Even Cooper didn't think he was much of an actor, although Meyers analyzes his distinct if limited abilities with aplomb, and several of his colleagues offer testament to his deceptive “genius.” Cooper was a star of extremely limited range, but he got better as he got older and played characters who were closer in line with the real Gary Cooper. His best performances were in High Noon, The Naked Edge (his final film), and Ten North Frederick, in which he played a middle-aged man in love with a much younger woman (a situation he was not exactly unfamiliar with). Meyers goes into Cooper's affair with Patricia Neal with depth, although some readers may wish for more details on other, less important affairs, not to mention his youthful relationships with actor Anderson Lawler and other gay males [or the true reasons for his hatred of Cary Grant]. Meyers does not neglect Cooper's films, thank goodness, and perceptively examines both their strengths and weaknesses and how (and whether or not) they advanced Cooper's art. Meyers also goes into Ernest Hemingway's friendship with, and jealousy, of, the handsome actor, as well as Cooper's relationship with HUAC.

Verdict: This is an intelligent, well-written biography. ***1/2.

THE PAGE TURNER aka LA TOURNEUSE DE PAGES


THE PAGE TURNER (aka La Tourneuse de pages/2006). Director: Denis Dercourt.

A young French girl, Melanie, plays a piece at an competition that is extremely important to her. Unfortunately, one of the judges, a well-known concert pianist named Ariane (Catherine Frot) , gives an autograph to someone during the middle of this recital and distracts Melanie, insuring that she loses the competition. It is made clear from something that happens immediately afterward -- Melanie almost slams the piano lid down on another student's fingers -- that this is a young lady with some psychological issues. Years later Melanie, now played by Deborah Francois, winds up becoming nanny, assistant and "page turner" to Ariane herself. There is no denying that in its own quiet way The Page Turner builds up a surprising amount of suspense, as you wonder when and if Melanie will screw up one of Ariane's concerts by failing to turn a page of the piano score at the right time, giving the woman, who suffers from stage fright, some kind of nervous breakdown. A sub-plot has Melanie bringing out lesbian feelings in Ariane, although it is suggested that Melanie has no similar feelings for Ariane and is only trying to ruin her marriage. The trouble with The Page Turner, despite the fact that it's well-acted and absorbing for the most part, is that the characterizations are on the thin side, and it never quite comes to grips with some of the aspects of its storyline. A few reviewers found the movie misogynous. In its suggestion that "coming out" can "ruin" a person's life you could also say that the movie is a bit [perhaps unintentionally] homophobic as well. While this is a far cry from a gay love story, it's ridiculous to assume that Ariane's life is over because she's acknowledged her romantic and sexual feelings for another (even if woefully unworthy) woman. The ending is unsatisying on many different levels and one could argue that ultimately The Page Turner is just a French version of all those deranged evil baby sitter movies-of-the-week, when it could have been a whole lot more.

Verdict: Flawed but unusual suspenser in the quiet mode. **1/2.

Friday, October 3, 2008

CONFESSION


CONFESSION (1937). Director: Joe May.
A young music student, Lisa (Jane Bryan), is pursued by an older, famous --and somewhat seedy -- concert pianist and composer named Michael Michailov (Basil Rathbone). The two are at a nightclub one night when the singer stares at them, faints, and a little while later pursues them with a gun and shoots Michailov to death. This is just the beginning of Confession, a rather grand melodrama and mother-love soap opera that features an excellent performance from Kay Francis as opera star Vera Kowalska. On trial for murdering Michailov, Vera at first refuses to defend herself, but then reveals (in flashbacks) what led up to the murder and her motives for committing it. Absorbing, with fluid camera work, vivid musical backgrounds, and expert performances, Confession is one of Francis' best starring vehicles and she rises to the challenge in every scene. With his acting and star charisma Rathbone makes you forget that he doesn't exactly look like Tyrone Power. Bryan offers another lovely performance as Lisa, and there are many other notable supporting players. Laura Hope Crews plays a lively, likable variation on her Prudance from Camille, and even Veda Ann Borg is memorable as Xenia, a singer who's jealous of Vera. Donald Crisp and Dorothy Peterson are solid, as always, as the judge and Lisa's mother. Once you adjust your thinking to the film's somewhat outdated moral codes, it becomes poignant and effective. NOTE: This was a remake of the German film Mazurka.
Verdict: Possibly Kay's finest hour and a half! ***1/2.

THE GIANT CLAW


THE GIANT CLAW (1957). Director: Fred F. Sears.

"I'll never call my mother-in-law an old crow again!"

A gargantuan bird from outer space with an anti-matter shield shows up on Earth where it attacks planes, lifts cars and trains off of the ground, pops screaming parachutists into its mouth, and knocks over skyscrapers. Not good. Pilot Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow), scientist Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday). Lt. General Considine (Morris Ankrum) and Dr. Karol Noymann (the bizarre Edgar Barrier) team up to destroy "the big bird." As it has some horrific elements and good sequences, this might have amounted to an outstanding monster movie had the FX department come up with a monster (pictured) that didn't look as stupid as the one in The Giant Claw. The actors are more than competent, considering. SHAMELESS PLUG. You can read more about this movie in my new book Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies. Available at amazon.com and at the publisher's website.

Verdict: Despite its deficiencies, this pic is a lot of fun. ***.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3


MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3 (2006). Directed by J. J. Abrahms.

This is a big improvement on the disappointing, lackluster Mission Impossible 2. Tom Cruise is back as an IMF agent who has decided to leave the field on the eve of his wedding. But various events keep taking him away from the lady in his life, and eventually he's forced to disobey orders so that he can go to her rescue. His main adversary in this is a nasty arms dealer named Davian, played with marvelously intense menace by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ving Rhames is likable as a fellow agent, and Laurence Fishburne is excellent as IMF Director Brassel, who may or may not be working with Davian. There are many exciting sequences in the film, which is briskly directed by J.J. Abrahms of Alias fame. Highlights include the snatching of Davian from within Vatican city, and a mission to steal a top secret project from a Shanghai skyscraper. While MI3 is by no means a classic, it is certainly an entertaining time-passer. An amusing aspect of the MI movies is that the scripts borrow from old movie serials such as Hurricane Express in that the characters occasionally employ the use of heavy masks as disguises – Cruise becomes Hoffman at one point via a mask – with the other actor substituting for the one in disguise at an appropriate moment. The thing is that whether it's in Hurricane Express or the much more high-tech Mission Impossible 3 it's never believable that anyone would actually be fooled by the mask!

Verdict: High-energy action. ***.

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1929)


SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1929). Director: Reginald Barker.
Richard Dix (pictured) plays a writer who takers a bet from his publisher that he can complete a new novel in twenty four hours in the seclusion of the publisher's summer resort Baldpate, which is completely empty in the winter. Dix is given "the only key" to the building (why Dix would believe a resort hotel would have just one key is the only real mystery in this turkey) but a dozen or so individuals show up to disturb him, all of them with keys. For once the author is embroiled in the kind of stuff he writes about in his books. There's some business about money being hidden in a safe, a crooked deal, a woman pretending to be somebody's husband, wild gunshots, murder, and a lot of other stuff that is neither amusing nor thrilling -- which is a big problem in an alleged comedy-thriller. Dix doesn't really have the flair for this sort of material although he gives it a good try. There have been seven versions of this dog of a play. This one is especially flat and stage-bound. The twist ending will really make you groan. Verdict: Read a good book instead. *.

EDGE OF MIDNIGHT: THE LIFE OF JOHN SCHLESINGER


EDGE OF MIDNIGHT: The Life of John Schlesinger. An Authorized Biography by William J. Mann.

This excellent biography traces the life and career of director John Schlesinger from his childhood to his early days as an actor to his first directorial efforts and on to the big splash he made with Darling starring Julie Christie. Schlesinger really came into his own with the huge critical and financial success of Midnight Cowboy, a film which helped usher in a new era of frankness in Hollywood. Most of the director's later films were not quite as successful nor as feted. The book reveals that his superb film Sunday, Bloody Sunday was inspired by people and events from Schlesinger's own life, and documents his attempts to get back on top again while accepting screen assignments that may have been beneath him [some of which he championed nevertheless]. Written with the full cooperation of Schlesinger and his lover, the book is bolstered with many interviews from the people who knew the subject best. While looking into Schlesinger's attitude toward his homosexuality, Mann also analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Schlesinger's films, explaining why some were better received and better made than others. A compelling and worthwhile biography of a director who may have been more influential than people realize. The book will make you want to go out and look at DVDs of the director's many features.

Verdict: Top-notch bio. ****.