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

Friday, January 30, 2009

KAY FRANCIS: I CAN'T WAIT TO BE FORGOTTEN


KAY FRANCIS: I CAN'T WAIT TO BE FORGOTTEN. Her Life on Film and Stage. Scott O'Brien. Bear Manor Media. 2007.

At long last a full-scale, major biography of the almost forgotten major movie star, Kay Francis. Unlike other big female stars like Crawford, Davis, and Hepburn, Francis didn't make any big movies in middle-age (such as, say, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) that would have introduced her to a whole new generation. In addition, few of her films ever showed up on the late show. But now Turner Classic Movies is running many of her films and host Robert Osborne even wrote the excellent foreword to this book.

O'Brien's biography is very well-researched, incisive, and -- lo and behold!-- doesn't stint at analyzing and looking into the many movies that the lady made (the reason for her fame, after all). Quotes from many reviews sprinkled throughout the book also make it clear that Francis' acting abilities were held in higher regard by her peers and critics than was previously thought. O'Brien takes us behind the scenes of such diverse films as Jewel Robbery, Allotment Wives, Trouble in Paradise, Confession, and many, many others, good, bad and indifferent.

[Oddly, despite the fact that the author appears to be openly gay (he mentions his male partner in the prologue) he seems determined to paint Francis as a thoroughly heterosexual woman despite the fact that in her own diary she notes that she told one husband she had slept with three women (at least). This would indicate Francis was at least bisexual, but O’Brien claims this was only due to "experimentation." (Well, once, maybe.) It doesn’t occur to O’Brien that perhaps Francis’s several marriages and many relationships with men all failed because she might have essentially been into women and couldn’t quite come to grips with it. People can be open-minded on the subject of gay relationships when it comes to others, but still repressed and in denial when it comes to themselves and loved ones.]

Whatever the case with Francis' sexuality, it's a treat to finally read about her life and films and the reasons why she couldn't "wait to be forgotten" and nearly got her wish.

Verdict: Excellent bio. ***1/2.

CAPOTE


CAPOTE (2005). Director: Bennett Miller.

If you're looking for a biography of Truman Capote, look elsewhere. Although this does offer some insight into the writer -- but not much -- it focuses primarily on how he came to write the book for which he is most famous: In Cold Blood. If there is a problem with the movie -- among many -- it's that it seems to cut away from certain sequences just as they start to get interesting. Capote asks murderer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) what his first impression of him is, but we never hear the answer (one can imagine!). Except for a brief bit when the subject of whether or not Capote has fallen in love with Smith (a real possibility) comes up, Dan Futterman's somewhat superficial script never really deals with his subject's sexuality, and indeed avoids delving into Capote's questionable objectivity and other matters. Oscar-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a terrific performance, however, and for the most part the rest of the cast is excellent. The film can't avoid a dated quality, however. When In Cold Blood came out it was before the current obsession with and knowledge of serial killers and sociopaths, so Capote's attempt to humanize and sympathize with the callous cretins who slaughtered an entire family fall flat. In fact, the image that stays in the mind isn't of Perry Smith being hanged, but teenage Nancy Clutter being shot by him. The terrified girl's eyes are open; she's awake and knows what's about to happen to her. She undoubtedly heard the shots that took the lives of the rest of the family. And we're supposed to feel sorry for Smith? Bruce Greenwood is cast in the thankless role of Capote's friend Jack Dunphy. The character is so undefined as to be pointless. Catherine Keener is fine as Harper To Kill a Mockingbird Lee. Beautifully photographed by Adam Kimmel.

Verdict: Not at all what it could have been. **1/2.

LORD OF THE RINGS; FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING


LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2002). Director: Peter Jackson.

In the first installment of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, young Frodo (Elijah Wood) takes possession of the all-important ring from Bilbo Baggins, and sets off with a number of comrades – hobbits, dwarfs, and so on, as well as the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) – to deliver the sinister ring (which can bring out the very worst in people) to a place of safety. Along the way he must enter the creepy underground domain of the dwarfs where he's almost snatched away by a tentacled monster in a lake, and then he and his comrades must battle a horde of bloodthirsty Orcs – not to mention the overpowering evil influence of the ring itself (which once belonged to the dark nemesis Sauron, who is about to rise again, plunging all of “middle-earth” into chaos). This film probably brings Tolkien's imaginative and atmospheric story to life better than previous versions, but let's face it – Shakespeare it ain't. Some people will greatly admire the often stunning visual quality of the film – awe-inspiring settings and designs – while others will find it all too silly and trivial for words. Watching the movie it's easy to forget that all this comic book-ish stuff actually pre-dates comic books, and it all seems over-familiar because of all the writers, filmmakers and others who over the decades have “borrowed” Tolkien's basic ideas in their own works of popular culture. Nevertheless, no amount of money or high-class production values can quite do away with its generally juvenile tone. As a director, Jackson is only so so – the battle scenes aren't put together with any great skill and he even relies several times on that hoariest of devices, slow motion. The film is slow starting, but rather entertaining once it gets going. The actors are so good, especially a perfectly cast Elijah Wood and an exemplary McKellan, that they manage to steal attention from the well-done special effects (the aforementioned octopus monster is a pip!]. [And it's a pleasure to see Christopher Lee in a major supporting role as a Sauron advocate.] Howard Shore's musical score is only acceptable. {This review is based on the extended DVD version.}

Verdict: Tolkien fans jump in -- all others beware. ***.

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS


LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2003). Director: Peter Jackson.

As with the first installment, the scenic design, special effects, and sweeping vistas are mighty impressive, but only die-hard Tolkien fans are going to be all that carried up in the story. That said, the actors do a fine job filling their fantasy roles with life, and there are other interesting creatures. Gollum, who mourns the loss of the ring and always speaks of it as his “precious,” is a fascinating computer creation (with the help of an actor's splendid emoting); the "ents" – trees that walk and talk – are similarly inspired; and the spectacular Sauron Dragon puts in an appearance late – very late – in the picture. The scenes leading up to the epic battle with the Orcs as the latter besiege humans who have taken shelter is suspenseful and ominous, although the battle scenes – and many others – are occasionally confusing. There's a marvelous flood that nearly carries away the talking tree-men, and the relationship between Frodo and his buddy Samwise is rather touching. But the story doesn't really have enough substance to sustain over three hours in running time, and no amount of spectacular scenery and effects can make up for an essential hollowness at its core.

Verdict: For Tolkien fans mostly. **1/2.

LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING


LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (2004). Director: Peter Jackson.

At first it may seem that this is a film – like the first two in the series – that can best be appreciated by Tolkien addicts who are familiar with every page of the books and re-read them repeatedly. However, once the movie gets going – and if you pay attention and don't resist its pull – anyone can see that this is quite a cinematic achievement, possibly better than the first two films put together. Some might suggest that it panders too much to the alleged glory of war while others might see it as saluting the nobility of fighting evil against impossible odds. The spectacular battle scenes have enough compelling and fantastic aspects to keep them from becoming tiresome: the attack of the giant elephants crushing everything underfoot; the catapult of massive rock slabs (and an earlier sequence when severed human heads are catapulted over a wall); the great dragons attacking the soldiers on horseback and carrying some of them off; the Army of the Dead enlisted by Aragorn etc. Of course, there are so many players and forces that it's sometimes hard to remember who's fighting whom. The towering rock stairs that lead up to Gandor is a nice touch, but the most horrific bit has to do with the giant spider, Shelub, who nearly makes a meal of Frodo (Elijah Wood). Glistening and beautifully articulated, this gruesome, gray monster creeps up silently on Frodo (in a very chilling sequence) and stabs him with his hook. Then follows a very effective scene with Sean Astin battling the creature to the death. After two earlier attempts Peter Jackson's direction seems more assured, and the effects work is simply outstanding throughout. Some magnificent sets go by too quickly, however, to be fully appreciated. Gollem/Smeagol remains a fascinating creation, and the acting by the entire cast is first-rate. Howard Shore's music is extremely effective this time out. The movie also features some honest sentiment – was there a dry eye in the house when Frodo took his last voyage out of Middle Earth?

Verdict: Despite some problematic aspects, this is very nice indeed. ***1/2.

FRED MACMURRAY: A BIOGRAPHY


FRED MACMURRAY: A BIOGRAPHY. Charles Tranberg. 2007. Bear Manor Media.

The under-rated MacMurray at last gets the major bio treatment in this fine work by Charles Tranberg. Although MacMurray, whose life and career avoided scandal and the sensational for the most part, might stymie most biographers, Tranberg has managed to come up with an interesting book that goes behind the scenes of MacMurray's many movies, such as Double Indemnity, and his long-running TV series My Three Sons. (The show was filmed out of sequence, with MacMurray coming in only for a few days to shoot his sequences with the rest of the cast.) MacMurray had his flaws -- he refused to hire director Mitchell Leisen for My Three Sons because he didn't want the homosexual director around young boys (the old gay man as molester stereotype) but at least this happened way back in the sixties. The book is filled with many friends and co-workers' impressions of the actor. MacMurray himself might have been a bit on the dull side, but this book about him is not.

Verdict: Good show. ***.

THE MAGIC CARPET (1951). Director: Lew Landers.

Caliph Ali (Gregory Gaye) is a malevolent ruler and a phony. The real caliph, Abdullah (John Agar), infiltrates Ali's camp by posing as a doctor and curing Ali's hiccups. He also takes on the identity of "The Scarlet Falcon." And we mustn't forget the flying carpet that Abdullah uses now and then just so this mediocre Arabian nights fantasy can have some special effects. The only fun moments in the movie are provided by Lucille Ball as Ali's sister, Princess Narah. "I've been wracked with pain since my accident," she tells the doctor in the inimitable Lucy style. Raymond Burr plays a colleague of Ali's who's hopelessly in love with Lucy. Lucy's encounters with Patricia Medina, who loves Abdullah (whom Lucy merely lusts for) never erupt into out and out cat fights, although Lucy does give Medina a pretty fair slap at one point. Agar is adequate.

Verdict: Watch 7th Voyage of Sinbad instead. *1/2.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

DOUBLE INDEMNITY


DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). Director: Billy Wilder. Co-screenplay by Raymond Chandler. From a novel by James M. Cain.

Although the voice-over narration is overdone and annoying (as in Sunset Boulevard), you eventually get used to it, caught up in the mesmerizing spell of this great motion picture. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, in a very good performance) meets unhappy wife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and before long they're conspiring to murder her husband and make it look like an accident that will pay double from Neff's insurance company because of a "double indemnity" clause. Stanwyck, in the archetypal portrait of a sultry sociopathic siren, is simply magnificent. Edward G. Robinson is also superb as Barton Keyes, the older man who works with Neff, and who investigates the death of Dietrichson. But Wilder also made smart casting decisions with the supporting cast, such as Tom Powers as the victim, Jean Heather as his daughter, and Byron Barr as her unpleasant boyfriend, Nino.

The scene when Keyes nearly sees Phyllis hiding in the corridor outside of Neff''s apartment is marvelous, although Hitchcock probably would have done more with it. And frankly it makes little sense that Neff would go into Keyes' office instead of bolting away when he sees a man outside who could identify him and blow his whole scheme to smithereens. Of course, it does lead into a suspenseful scene in Keye's office later when you wonder if the witness will recognize Neff.

The ending to the film is strangely moving. Robinson/Keyes seems coldly disgusted with Neff's actions, not willing to give him any out. Then Neff suggests that Keyes couldn't see the solution because he was too close to the perpetrator, who was, as Neff says, right across the desk. "Closer than that," says Robinson. And you realize how much Robinson loved Neff in his own way and how utterly disappointed he is in him.

Although it may or may not have been an Oscar-worthy performance, one has to say that the casting of MacMurray goes a long, long way to enabling you to feel some slight sympathy for the character he plays (although he certainly showed no pity for Dietrichson).

Verdict: A classic in every sense of the word. ****.

TWILIGHT (1998)


TWILIGHT (1998). Director: Robert Benton.

Private eye Harry Ross (Paul Newman) lives with his old friend Jack Ames (Gene Hackman) and Ames' wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon). Ames asks Harry to deliver a package to a man who turns up dead. Before long Harry is embroiled in a decades-old murder case that centers on the disappearance of Catherine's first husband. Others embroiled in the business include Harry's old buddy Raymond (James Garner) and his old gal pal Verna Hollander (Stockard Channing), a police lieutenant. Twilight is basically just a reworking of one of those old Ross Macdonald Lew Archer novels (two of which were filmed with Newman playing "Lew Harper") but it holds the attention, and is well-directed and well-acted by all . Newman even gets a bedroom scene with Sarandon.

Verdict: Pleasant time passer if you don't expect too much. ***.

12 ANGRY MEN


12 ANGRY MEN (1957). Director: Sidney Lumet.

12 men have to decide the fate of a young man who's been accused of murdering his father. One of the jurors (Henry Fonda) is a doubting Thomas when it comes to the defendant's guilt right from the get-go and slowly he encourages the others to take another look at the purported evidence. While well-meaning and very well acted (Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden etc. are also in the cast), the picture is too theatrical, a bit cliched, and rather superficial all told. The implication that a death penalty advocate is a secret sadist is simply dime store psychology at its worst. It's also odd that no one ever brings up the simple notion of self-defense, which of course would make the defendant not guilty.

NOTE: I watched this on TCM with a friend who is hard-of-hearing, so I had the closed captioning turned on. I was appalled at the difference between what was being said by the actors and what I read in the captions. For instance, a line about the "electric chair" was changed to "lethal injection." Another pivotal line had its meaning carelessly reversed. It was as if the person doing the captioning just felt like writing whatever the hell they wanted instead of sticking to the script. I recognize that dialogue is often changed in a caption to make it shorter and more easily and quickly read, but that's not what was going on here. TCM should get another company to do its captions or whoever captioned 12 Angry Men should find work elsewhere.

Verdict: Movie -- **. Captions -- 0 stars.

SUSAN SLADE


SUSAN SLADE (1961). Director: Delmer Daves.

This slick soap opera with a nice, if minor, score by the great Max Steiner presents the saga of young Susan Slade (Connie Stevens), a somewhat sheltered gal who has a shipboard romance (with Grant Incredible Shrinking Man Williams), discovers she's pregnant, and then learns that the father has been killed overseas in the war. But weep not for Susan, because waiting in the wings is handsome wannabee writer Hoyt Brecker, played by Troy Donahue. (It's likely that the women who saw this in the theaters in 1961 probably wondered why the hell Susan spends so much time resisting the guy, who's not only a handsome hunk but nice.) Susan's wise, warm, and womanly mother (Dorothy McGuire), decides that they will all pretend that Susan's baby boy is actually her brother, and the whole family takes off for faraway parts to aid in the deception. But Susan finds it difficult not being able to be a mother to her own child, and it all leads to a rather nice wind-up where she makes a brave and inevitable decision.

Stevens gives a nice performance in this, and Dorothy McGuire is excellent; Lloyd Nolan also has a nice turn as Susan's father, and Burt Convy, Natalie Schafer, Brian Aherne, and Kent Smith also add to the film's appeal, as does the striking cinematography of Lucien Ballard.

And then there's Troy Donahue. Well .... let's just say he's a good-lookin' fellow and leave it at that. He doesn't stink up the picture and he allows the character's sensitivity to sort of come through. Not too awful but not great. Ditto for Grant Williams, another pretty boy with a decidedly limited range.

Verdict: Somehow the stupid thing works. ***.

THE SECRET CODE


THE SECRET CODE 15 chapter Columbia serial (1942). Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet.

Cop Dan Barton (Paul Kelly) pretends to be a rogue so he can join a gang of Nazi saboteurs and destroy them from the inside. Unfortunately the only man who knew of his plan is killed early on, putting him at odds with Nazis and policemen alike. He dresses up in a uniform and mask and calls him The Black Commando, undermining the plans of the saboteurs after he's accepted (more or less) into the gang as Barton. He does have two allies, another detective named Pat (Clancy Cooper) and a newspaper woman named Jean (Anne Nagel). The serial greatly benefits by the casting of Kelly over some pretty-boy non-actor, and Nagel over some sexy bimbo, as they make their characters more believable than usual. Ludwig Donath, Trevor Bardette, and others in the supporting cast are also assets.

Well directed by Bennet, the serial has cinematic and exciting fight scenes in every chapter (often with chairs and the like thrown directly at the camera). One chapter has the bad guys planting radio bombs all over the city -- each one alone can wipe out a city block! Then in chapter fourteen there are the light bulbs that fall, smash, and emit a deadly gas. Lee Zahler's "score" is just a bad bowdlerization of Beethoven's Fifth (which became a "V for Victory" theme during World War 2) but is effective enough. Too bad The Black Commando didn't return for a sequel.

Verdict: More fun than The Dark Knight. ***.

THE BOYS OF PAUL STREET


THE BOYS OF PAUL STREET (1969). Director: Zoltan Fabri.

This Hungarian film was based on the same novel that was the basis of No Greater Glory. I saw the film in the early 70's and penned the following review back then:

"Rival clubs of young boys in early 20th century Budapest decide to have a war in order to decide who gets to keep a local yard as a playground. The parallel between the children and the juvenile antics of real-life armies, as well as the pointed observations of the futility of the battle, make this more meaningful than most children's films. Unfortunately, the movie is still not as effective nor as moving as it could have been. The child actors need discipline, however Anthony Kemp as the brave, impish poor fool who gets so caught up in hero-worship and loyalty that he makes a pointless sacrifice, is marvelous. And William Burleigh as the club president, may emerge a mature screen personality in the future. Having all the bullies eventually metamorphose into good guys further weakens the impact. Photography and music are fine."

NOTE: Kemp made two more movies and Burleigh only one. However, John Moulder-Brown, who was also in the cast, went on to make many more film appearances and was still acting as of 2007.

Verdict: Some good performances and nice moments. **1/2.

SHARKS IN VENICE


SHARKS IN VENICE (2008). Director: Danny Lerner.

This movie, recently shown on the Sci Fi Channel, is a perfect example of how a great idea -- sharks in the canals of Venice indeed! -- can go awry when the talent behind the camera is of the mediocre variety. David Franks (Stephen Baldwin) goes to Venice with his gal pal Laura (Vanessa Johansson) when he learns that his Dad was killed when he got caught in a boat propeller. But the man's wounds more closely resemble shark bites. Seems there's a Great White and other sharks on the loose in Venice! This would all make for a perfectly workable horror thriller but the screenwriter decides to muck it all up by bringing in a sub-plot (that basically takes over the movie) about mafioso searching for a lost Medici treasure and using the sharks to keep other treasure hunters away from the canals. At one point Laura is kidnapped by these guys. There's much more action relating to these bad 'uns then there is to the sharks, who wind up supporting players in their own movie. The sharks are portrayed by real ones and phony-looking computer-generated sharks. The acting is okay, but what a complete waste of a terrific idea.

Verdict: Sharkless in Venice. **.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

NO GREATER GLORY


NO GREATER GLORY (1934). Director: Frank Borzage.

In Germany a group of young boys have laid claim to a vacant lot and call themselves the Paul Street Boys. A group of older boys, bullies, are after the lot for themselves, and the younger lads are determined to defend it at any cost. The smallest boy, Nemecsek (George Breakston), is the only one of the Paul Street gang to be a private, and he is also determined to prove that he is as brave and able as any of the others and win his stripes. It all ends in tragedy, however.

I have a good friend who loves this picture, partly because it reminds him of his youth and his experiences in the Army. I really wanted to like this film -- I had already seen the remake called The Boys of Paul Street (1969) -- but it came off to me as nothing so much as a more serious Little Rascals movie! The movie is obvious from the get-go, simplistic and superficial, and actually rather tedious. The business with the vacant lot being a kind of microcosm of war is beaten to death long before the movie's conclusion. The acting of an uncredited Lois Wilson as Nemecsek's mother at the climax isn't nearly strong enough, although I do have to say that the performances of young Breakston, Jimmy Butler, Frankie Darro, and the other youngsters are exemplary. But I could hardly wait until it was over, and to my great surprise I wasn't much moved by the tragic ending either -- perhaps because I would have admired the pathetic Nemecsek more if he had tried to talk the boys into sharing the damn lot instead of eagerly throwing himself into "warfare." Still, it does have a certain poignancy, and a nice musical score by R. H. Bassett.

Verdict: Not exactly Lord of the Flies. **.

THE SHADOW STRIKES


THE SHADOW STRIKES (1937). Director: Lynn Shores.

Rod La Rocque plays Lamont Cranston/The Shadow in this disappointing adaptation of a Shadow pulp novel by Walter Gibson. Cranston pretends to be the lawyer Chester Randall so that he can investigate the murder of a client of his who was on the verge of changing his will. In the old man's mansion Cranston interacts with various relatives, including a pretty gal, Marcia (Agnes Anderson aka Lynn Anders) who develops a yen for him. James Blakeley is the ne'er-do-well Jasper, Marcia's brother, who has an expensive gambling addiction. Cy Kendall, who plays Barney Grossett in this, played the portly villain Monroe in The Green Hornet serial. He's as unimpressive and rotund as usual. La Rocque briefly dresses up as The Shadow complete with cloak and hood at one point, but it's so short as to be meaningless. NOTE: Click here to read about a Shadow feature directed by James Wong Howe!

Verdict: Watch the far superior Shadow serial instead. **.

CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA


CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945). Director: Gabriel Pascal.

Caesar (Claude Rains) and Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh) meet cute in Egypt in what seems like a black comedy based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, who also did the screenplay and therefore has to take most of the blame. Pseudo-Shakespearean, this minimally holds the attention but never quite becomes totally convincing. Rains is miscast as Caesar -- there's nothing wrong with showing a more vulnerable Caesar but it's hard to see this foppish fellow leading conquering Armies. The carpet scene where Caesar discovers Cleo in a rug was done better in the Elizabeth Taylor version. Leigh is excellent, and so are Flora Robson as her lady-in-waiting, Ernest Thesiger of Bride of Frankenstein fame as Theodotus, and the boy who plays Cleo's younger brother. Georges Auric's musical score has its moments, and the production values are generally excellent. But this is a poor excuse for drama. It has absolutely no climax!

Verdict: Lots of effort to little effect. **.

KNOCK ON ANY DOOR


KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (1949). Director: Nicholas Ray.

"Live fast, die young, have a good-looking corpse."

Against his better judgment lawyer Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart) takes the case of "Pretty Boy"Nick Romano (John Derek), who's been accused of killing a cop. Morton believes that Romano is innocent, but during the trial, he tries to convince the jury that it was society that made Romano -- who is guilty of other crimes -- the angry young man he is. The point is never made, even by the prosecutor, that many others came from the same environment as Romano and were able to rise above it. Knock on Any Door is an entertaining film with two excellent lead performances, but the movie is staggeringly simplistic and one-sided. The dead cop is completely forgotten and his family is never shown. An alternate point of view is never presented. Even when the truth about the murder is revealed at the end of the film, the bleeding heart approach still continues. Absurd. Prosecutor George Macready is given a disfiguring scar as if to imply that he hates the defendant because of his good looks, but the film makes clear that Romano is pretty much a stinker of a human being any way you slice it.

Verdict: Fast-paced but foolish. **1/2.

THE DARK KNIGHT


THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Director: Christopher Nolan.

During the first half of this very long movie I was thinking how much more entertaining the average cliffhanger serial from the forties is than The Dark Knight. With low-budgets and decidedly low-tech, those old serials had better-choreographed fight and action scenes than this movie does. The Dark Knight is slow and disjointed, badly-edited or badly-written or both -- and director Christopher Nolan isn't much help -- but luckily the movie picks up tremendously in the second half and sends the audience home fairly happy. I don't mind that The Dark Knight is intense and serious (if not exactly intellectual) but I wish it had been more fun and had a few more thrilling action sequences. The only thing that comes close is when Batman saves a woman who's been shoved off of a building, but this doesn't last very long. There's nothing in here like the climax of the otherwise moronic Batman and Robin with George Clooney.

Still the movie is saved by two excellent sequences late in the picture. In the first The Joker plants bombs on two ferries -- one with innocent Gotham citizens aboard, the other with criminals -- and tells each ferry that they can save themselves by using a switch to blow up the other ferry before midnight. Diabolical. (Although it seems odd that no one on the non-criminal ferry reminds the other passengers that there are also cops and guards on board the ferry with the crooks.) The other memorable sequence is a suspenseful climax with Two-Face, Batman, Jim Gordon, and his family where Two-Face holds a gun to Gordon's terrified little boy as The Batman waits to make his move.

The most dynamic performance in the film comes not from The Batman's Christian Bale (who's fine) or The Joker's Heath Ledger (who's vastly over-rated) but from the Harvey Dent/Two-Face of Aaron Eckhart. Ledger tries too hard for a more subdued Jim Carrey kind of approach, over-using those flicks of the tongue; he's not bad, just not that memorable. I was more impressed with Michael Caine's Alfred, as well as Morgan Freeman as Lucius, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, and Eric Roberts as hood Moroni. Maggie Gyllenhaal is interesting casting in that she's not the "babe" you would think they'd cast in a movie like this, but she's undeniably effective in her own quiet way.

Although too long and slow, The Dark Knight has some good effects and amusing, even moving and surprising moments, to make it a good, if highly imperfect Batman epic. I have to say that it isn't quite as mindless as those great old serials, or at least it attempts to have a little more on its mind.

Verdict: You can't keep a good bat down. ***.

THE CRIME DOCTOR'S GAMBLE


THE CRIME DOCTOR'S GAMBLE (1947). Director: William Castle.

The Crime Doctor, Dr. Ordway (Warner Baxter), is visiting Paris and touching base with an old friend, the Prefecture of Police (Marcel Journet), when he becomes embroiled in another murder case in which a rich man is supposedly murdered by his estranged, disinherited son, Henri (Roger Dann). Steven Geray plays the family lawyer, and Micheline Cheirel is Henri's wife, Mignon. Eduardo Ciannelli is a welcome presence as Mignon's knife-throwing father, Maurice. There's also a series of paintings, more deaths, and a climax at an auction before the killer is exposed -- it won't be that much of a surprise to anyone. Still, this holds the attention and is generally well acted.

Verdict: Okay time passer. **1/2.

BIGGER THAN LIFE


BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956). Director: Nicholas Ray.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a family man who finally goes to the doctor to see about his painful spells, and learns he will be dead in months unless he takes the new wonder drug, cortisone. Unfortunately the side effect of the drug (which he apparently abuses) is to make him egomaniacal, irrational, paranoid, and eventually homicidal and psychotic. The ending of the film is only moderately hopeful.

Frankly Bigger Than Life is a pretty depressing and completely unpleasant film that is virtually devoid of entertainment value. Mason gives a good enough performance, it's just that this stylish, elegant actor seems completely wasted in a role that could probably have been played just as well by Fred MacMurray (and it might have had more shock value)! Barbara Rush gives a lovely performance as his wife, however. Walter Matthau turns up as Ed's buddy in a more or less dramatic turn and he's fine. The movie is too tedious to be a thriller, it that's what was intended, and not strong enough to be much of a drama, either.

Verdict: Who wants to see James Mason in the suburbs? **.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

PAYMENT ON DEMAND


PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951). Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

"When a woman starts getting old, time can be an avalanche, and loneliness a disaster."

Released after All About Eve, but made just before that film was shot, Payment on Demand has long been considered the "lost" Bette Davis film, although it has been shown on TCM (albeit not recently). Joyce Ramsey (Bette Davis) thinks she runs the perfect household for her husband David (Barry Sullivan) and two daughters, but one day David tells her they've been out of love for years and he wants a divorce. Flashbacks then show how they met, courted, fell in love, and the gradual reasons for their marital disintegration. When the film first begins, Davis' acting is so broad and affected, her line readings so bizarre, that initially you think this is going to be another of her terrible latter-day performances, but there's method to her madness. Davis is fine in the flashbacks when she's playing a much younger woman. Her affected acting in the modern scenes is to give the audience a clue as to why David fell out of love with her. She's become something he can't stand, a callous snob, and her weird delivery of lines in the opening scene makes it clear that she's also so self-absorbed that she really isn't listening to anything anyone says to her -- hence her listless, if arch, replies. One of the best scenes has the now-divorced Joyce encountering an old friend Emily (Jane Cowl), who's taken up with a much-younger gigolo and delivers the line highlighted above. At one point David says "Loneliness is a general feeling of not being part of everything that exists." One of the problems with the marriage is that Joyce feels absolutely no real guilt for sort of stabbing David's business partner Robert (Kent Taylor, whom I didn't recognize without his mustache) in the back. Since this hasn't changed by the end of the film, one can't realistically imagine that she's changed enough for David to want to take her back. Natalie Schafer, Otto Kruger, Peggie Castle, Frances Dee, Richard Anderson and Betty Lynn are also in the cast.

Verdict: A bit dated but often quite arresting. ***.

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE


MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (1999). Director: Luis Mandoki.

A reporter named Theresa (Robin Wright Penn) finds a note inside a bottle and determines to find out which man wrote this romantic missive to the woman he loved. It turns out to be fisherman Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), who penned the note to his dead wife. An awkward romance develops between the two while Garret's salty father, (Paul Newman) kibbitzes. Now and then Illeana Douglas, who also works at Theresa's office, pops her plug-ugly head in. They sure don't make romantic movies like they used to! Director Luis Mandoki moves things at a snail's pace, making the movie an effort to sit through. The acting is not bad at all, but it isn't enough to keep this from being a real snoozer.

Verdict: The kind of movie that gives "chick flick" a bad name. *1/2.

THE CRIMSON GHOST


THE CRIMSON GHOST (1946). 12 chapter Republic serial. Directed by William Witney and Fred C. Brannon.

An evil masked mastermind known as the Crimson Ghost is out to steal a device known as a cyclotrode. To this end he uses a "control collar" around the necks of henchmen and unwilling participants alike. This collar not only saps the will of the individual wearing it, but can also kill them from long distance. Charles Quigley and Linda Stirling are the nominal hero and heroine in this, but the most striking presence is provided by Clayton Moore, this time playing the Ghost's main bad guy. Chapter three has a nifty high wire plunge and there's a dandy gas room death trap in chapter four. Four different composers contributed some excellent music to keep things humming, and the theme that introduces each chapter is swell.

Verdict: You can't beat that ghost! ***.

JUST BEFORE DAWN


JUST BEFORE DAWN (1946). Director: William Castle.

A fairly absorbing"crime doctor" mystery with Warner Baxter (pictured) as the crime-solving Dr. Ordway. Ordway is called to attend a diabetic patient at a party, but the fellow is found dead and it is discovered that someone replaced Ordway's insulin with poison. We know from the first that Martin Kosleck is somehow tied up in the dirty business, but we don't know who's behind it all until the end. Ordway appears to be blinded by his opponent but carries through in spite of it. An interesting aspect of the film is the excellent make up job given to Baxter so that he can masquerade as a scurvy criminal late in the film. Baxter's acting is also on the beam. A man who gives plastic surgery to criminals is also tied up in the plot.

Verdict: Not bad! **1/2.

DECONSTRUCTING SAMMY


DECONSTRUCTING SAMMY. Matt Birkbeck. Amistad; 2008.

I started this book and lapped it up until the wee hours -- what a read! Instead of writing yet another biography of the great and talented Sammy Davis Jr., Birkbeck follows the efforts of African-American lawyer Albert "Sonny" Murray to disentangle Sammy's widow, Altovise Davis, from the IRS and other entanglements and to free up the rights to Sammy's recordings, name and image for her and Sammy's children. Along the way there emerges fascinating portraits of Sammy, Altovise, and Tracey, Sammy's daughter by May Britt, as well as her adopted brothers. After awhile the book takes on the tension of a thriller. Just as Sonny seems on the verge of brokering a terrific deal for Altovise, the chase is on to find the master tapes of Sammy's recordings -- without them, no deal! Suspense is generated over wondering whether or not Sonny will ever untangle all the legal messes left behind by the irresponsible Rat Packer, and if his widow won't ruin it all at the last minute by once again turning into her own worst enemy. Ultimately the book is a sobering study of lost glory, missed opportunities, neglectful parents, and innocent children caught up in a sorry wake that was not of their own making. If that weren't enough, there is also an interesting portrait of Sonny's father, a judge who opened a resort for the African-American community and wanted to keep it that way. Sonny felt the resort would close down if it didn't go after a wider clientele, but his father's Black Pride felt otherwise. Touching. NOTE: To read about other books on Davis, click here.

Verdict: Fantastic! ****.

BLOOD FREAK

BLOOD FREAK (1972). Directed and written by Steve Hawkes and Brad F. Grinter.

"He's not Hershell anymore -- he's changing!"

Hershell (Steve Hawkes, who also co-wrote and co-directed), an Elvis wannabee with a curled lip, eats some contaminated turkey meat and turns into -- you guessed it -- a homicidal monster with a turkey head. Judging from the acting and production values, this looks like it was put together by a very low-budget porn unit. Mentally arrested gorehounds may enjoy the grisly and graphic scene when Hershell cuts off a man's leg with a buzz saw. A narrator talks pretentiously about what's going on and keeps looking down at the script while smoking and choking on a cigarette. There are some attractive cast members but this isn't funny enough to be a parody and not entertaining enough to be anything else. This is the worst movie reviewed on Great Old Movies so far. Admittedly TCM can sometimes be accused of running the same movies over and over and over again, but surely there's better stuff out there than this! IFC would have been more a more appropriate venue.

Verdict: A literal turkey. 0 stars.

CRIME DOCTOR'S MAN HUNT

CRIME DOCTOR'S MAN HUNT (1946). Director: William Castle.

A man is stabbed to death and a woman at a shooting gallery at the carnival seems to know more about it than she's telling. The victim walks into a certain house and then seemingly vanishes. Can Dr. Ordway, the Crime Doctor (Warner Baxter) get to the bottom of it? This is an acceptable mystery (with a somewhat obvious solution) that is greatly abetted by the participation of William "Fred Mertz" Frawley and the ever-delightful and unique -- and uncredited -- Olin Howlin (pictured) as Marcus LeBlaine. Howlin, of course, had interesting roles in Them and The Blob (first victim), among others. Ellen Drew also has an interesting role.

Verdict: Passable minor mystery. **1/2.