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

Thursday, March 26, 2009

STRAIT-JACKET


STRAIT-JACKET (1964). Director: William Castle.

Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) was sent to an asylum for twenty years after taking the axe to her husband and his pretty bed mate when she arrived home a day too soon. Now she's moving in with her brother Bill (Lief Ericson), her sister-in-law Emily (Rochelle Hudson) and her grown daughter Carol (Diane Baker) -- who witnessed the murders -- -- at Bill's farm. First Lucy's psychiatrist disappears, then a sleazy worker (a vivid George Kennedy) gets beheaded (in a suspenseful, well-handled sequence), and Carol is getting more and more worried about Mommy. And what will her handsome boyfriend (John Anthony Hayes) and his rather stuffy parents think? [Howard St. John and Edith Atwater are swell as the parents.] The script with its clever twists and dubious -- if fascinating -- psychology is by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel "Psycho." Crawford is quite good in the movie, which -- like her -- is quite arresting and entertaining. Diane Baker is simply terrific. Atwater later played Aunt Gertrude in a television version of The Hardy Boys. Like many Castle films it's absurd, simplistic, and yet also a lot of gruesome fun. Some may think the best thing about the film is the gag with the Columbia Pictures logo at the very end of the movie.

Verdict: Christina Crawford's favorite movie. ***.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY


MILLION DOLLAR BABY (1941). Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

When wealthy Cornelia Wheelwright (May Robson) discovers that her late father cheated his partner out of $700,000 she decides to do right by the man's only living heir, a salesgirl named Pam (Priscilla Lane). She moves into the boarding house where the young lady lives to check her out, meets her boyfriend Pete (Ronald Reagan) and the other residents, and winds up giving Pam a check for one million dollars -- and that's when the trouble starts. The movie is charming and entertaining for the most part, bolstered by some fine old character actors, and even Reagan and Lane are quite good (this is more Lane's meat than, say, Saboteur), but .... STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM.

The trouble with the movie is the characterization of Pam's boyfriend, Pete, who is a complete jackass. He can't deal with the windfall -- or rather the fact that his gal has more money than he does (although he claims is has to do with earning something and all that) -- so what does he do? He walks out on her! Packs up, moves out, leaves town with a band, and never gets in touch with her again. So what does she do? She conspires to win him back. Why, for Pete's sake [pun intended]?! Even more ridiculous she gives away all of the money. Yes, she doesn't even set aside any for her possible children's education or for emergencies. And the jackass approves. Sheesh

Lee Patrick and Helen Westley are fun as the ever-battling Miss La Rue and the landlady Mrs. Galloway, and George Barbier scores as Miss Wheelwright's bemused lawyer. Flora Robson, of course, is the best thing in the movie.

Verdict: Cute and entertaining, but oh boy -- what a dumb ending! **1/2.

IRISH EYES ARE SMILING


IRISH EYES ARE SMILING (1944). Director: Gregory Ratoff.

This purports to tell the life story of composer Ernest R. Ball (Dick Haymes) who wrote such popular songs as When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and Mother Macree. However it comes off as just the usual fictionalized schlock in most of these Hollywood musical biopics about subjects who are too dead to protest and whose life story is not well known enough for the audience to care. June Haver is the quick-with-her-fist gal that Ball falls in love with. Veda Ann Borg shows up briefly in a vivid bit as a bitchy performer who fires Haver. Monty Woolley, the real star of the film, gives an excellent performance, but he's completely wasted in this tripe. Haymes makes a pleasant and attractive leading man, and has a nice voice. Haver is as competent as ever; she's just not very distinctive. Famous baritone Leonard Warren sings one of the ballads and steals the show. Clarence Kolb and Anthony Quinn are along for the ride. Nice music. The Bonnie with a Bustle number is high camp. A completely contrived script.

Verdict: Can't beat that bustle! **.

THE LONG NIGHT


THE LONG NIGHT (1947). Director: Anatole Litvak.

Ann Dvorak loves Henry Fonda who loves Barbara Bel Geddes, who is loved by Vincent Price, who is ... and all with a lot of talk, talk, talk. The film begins with a murder, and the perpetrator being cornered by police in his apartment. After what seems like an hour the flashback finally begins that tells us what led up to the murder, but there are two problems: the flashback isn't that interesting, and it keeps getting interrupted by more scenes with the fugitive and the police. Fonda is back from the war, and meets Bel Geddes, who is both fascinated and repulsed by magician Vincent Price, whom was formerly carrying on with his assistant, Dvorak. It all leads to tragedy and a lot of tedium. The Long Night is turgid, pretentious and unconvincing nearly from start to finish; the wind-up takes even longer than the opening. Fonda's performance is too controlled, Price's too phony, but Dvorak is vivid and Bel Geddes is strong and fully committed; she's excellent in a movie that doesn't deserve her. The characterizations are too thin to make any of these people really matter to us -- and all that's left is talk. And when all is said and done this is just another movie about a guy who goes nutso when he discovers his gal isn't quite as "pure" as he thought she was, giving it all a very dated air. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is interesting, but too much -- this ain't exactly Grand Opera.

Verdict: A long night indeed. *1/2.

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 2008


JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008.) Director: Eric Brevig.

NOTE: Not to be confused with the direct-to-video feature, also made in 2008.

Professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) goes off with his young nephew (Josh Hutcherson) to see if they can locate Josh's father, who has been missing since he went under the earth for an investigation into seismic activity. They team up with a young lady guide named Hannah (Anita Briem). The premise of the film is that Jules Verne's novel was factual, and Trevor uses the text as a guideline to descend into the depths. This is not very convincing, of course, but it fits the tone of the movie, which is nice but too "cutesy" by far. There is no suspense or epic quality, and even that black and white cheapie Unknown World had more atmosphere. However, there are some exciting sequences and fine special effects in the movie: a thrilling ride on a runaway mining car; bio-luminescent birds like fire flies that flit around the cast; flying fish with big, nasty choppers; humongous sea monsters; a sequence with floating rocks over a deep chasm. A T-rex shows up at one point but it's only serviceable. The score is forgettable (a fry cry from Bernard Herrmann's wonderful music for the 1959 version) and there's very little directorial panache -- it's all left up to the FX people. Despite some of the silliness of the 1959 version, this is much more of a kiddie movie. The actors are fine; young Hutcherson is especially good.

Verdict: Watchable but the 1959 version is better. **1/2.

PURSUIT


PURSUIT (1935). Director: Edwin L.Marin.

A mean old aunt wants to take a little boy away from his mother (Dorothy Peterson), so a man named Mitch (Chester Morris) is hired to spirit the kid away to Mexico. Involved in the action are a pretty gal (Sally Eilers) who teams up/clashes with Mitch, cops, gangsters, farmers and others who hope to claim the $20,000 reward for the return of the child. All of them take a back seat to the kid, as he is played by the talented and adorable Scotty Beckett (pictured) who positively steals the picture away from everyone else. The picture is very minor but it pulls one along, starting with the scene with a runaway plane wherein Mitch rescues the frightened boy who accidentally hit the gas pedal, until it runs out of steam somewhere along the way. There's a pregnant pooch, and an unfazed Beckett has to pretend to be a girl at one point. A lot of cute moments if little else.

Verdict: There have been worse. **.

CATWOMAN


CATWOMAN (2004). Director: Pitof [sic].

You're just a little girl playing dress up.”

Catwoman was originally introduced decades ago in the pages of the Batman comic book, where she was first known as “the cat” after the cat's head mask she wore. Over the years she's gone through many changes in costume and attitude, and has been both a major villainess as well as an ally of the Caped Crusader. She was eventually given her own comic book. In this film adaptation the word “Batman” is never mentioned, and Catwoman is no longer a stylish cat burglar named Selina Kyle. She has been re-envisioned as a timid artist named Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) who overhears something she shouldn't and is killed by the bad guys. Luckily a cat who personifies the cat god comes along and literally breathes life into Patience; she is reborn as a much stronger woman who is essentially good but plays by her own rules. Tracking down the people who killed her and who ordered the hit (a married couple who run the corporation she works for), Catwoman runs into and romances a likable cop breezily played by Benjamin Bratt. She learns that her bosses are marketing a face cream that will eventually make women addicted to it and which has an extremely toxic effect. Sharon Stone plays the female half of the company chiefs and the climax is a rousing “bitch-fight” between her and Catwoman. While it takes much too long for Berry to finally become Catwoman and for the action to start, once it gets in gear the picture is quite entertaining. The direction is often a little too “rock video” for my taste, but the picture gets points for its striking art direction. The film is well-acted by all the leads, and the fine supporting players include Alex Borstein as Patience's amusing man-crazy friend Sally, and Lambert Wilson as Stone's sinister husband. The DVD features some scenes that were cut. One of them, a sequence of Catwoman being tracked by a killer dog in a junkyard after her re-birth, is excellent and should never have been left on the cutting room floor.

Verdict: Not great but not bad. **1/2.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS


HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS (1947). Director: S. Sylvan Simon.

William Weldon (Franchot Tone) takes a cream invented by Professor Glinka (Mikhail Rasumny) to entrepreneurs Cruikshank (Edward Everett Horton) and
Winterbottom (Gene Lockhart) with high hopes of great success for all. Rubbed on the face, the cream will eliminate the need for shaving. Unfortunately, after a big advertising campaign, the cream doesn't quite work as expected, but Margaret Weldon (Lucille Ball), Williams wife, saves the day by pointing out that the cream still has it uses. An ungrateful, insecure boor, William is more irritated than relieved, and one of the best scenes in the movie has Margaret telling him off in no uncertain terms. The characterization of the husband, and a protracted courtroom scene late in the film, are the main flaws of an otherwise very amusing black comedy, with the unpredictable results of the cream providing much of the hilarity. Ball and Tone aren't a bad team, but Lucy and Horton are even better in a scene when a newly hairy Horton keeps asking Margaret to run her fingers through his tresses. The aforementioned actors are all great, as is Mabel Paige, who owned Hanson's Dress Shop on a classic episode of I Love Lucy, in the smaller role of Mrs. Josper, who's a witness at the trail when William is arrested for -- well, that would be telling.

Verdict: Bizarre but funny -- if flawed -- black comedy. ***.

YOUR PAST IS SHOWING / THE NAKED TRUTH


YOUR PAST IS SHOWING aka THE NAKED TRUTH (1957). Director: Mario Zampi.

A man named Mr. Dennis (Dennis Price) pays a call on several individuals and tells them that they either pay him ten thousand in two weeks or he'll publish an embarrassing expose of their exploits in his new paper The Naked Truth. Some of his victims individually decide that the only way to take care of Mr. Price is to kill him -- with varying but always comical results. Terry-Thomas (pictured) and Peter Sellers are two of the victims, and a very funny team-up they are. Peggy Mount is a scream as writer Flora Ransom (who was "indiscreet" in her youth) and Joan Sims as her daughter Ethel is even funnier. Miles Malleson (Ransom's future husband), Georgina Cookson (Terry-Thomas' wife), and Shirley Eaton (another blackmail victim) add much to the fun. The movie goes in a lot of amusing directions which won't be revealed here. Suffice it to say, it's a lot of macabre fun with some really memorable sequences. And it provides more proof that Sellers was a comic genius.

Verdict: A darkly comic romp indeed. ***.

CRIMINAL LAW (1988)


CRIMINAL LAW (1988). Director: Martin Campbell.

Slick, well-acted nonsense presents a defense lawyer Ben Chase (Gary Oldman) who gets off a nutty serial killer Martin Thiel (Kevin Bacon), then discovers that he really is guilty and decides to risk disbarment by defending him on new charges and bringing him down while secretly working with the police. Surrrrre -- defense lawyers always do that sort of thing! The movie is never believable but a lot of it is dramatically handled and Oldman and Bacon give dynamic and committed performances. Tess Harper and Joe Don Baker are fine as the detectives pursuing Thiel, and Elizabeth Shepherd is wonderful as Martin's doctor mother. Shepherd made this film ten years after she played the crow-pecked Joan Martin in Damian: Omen II, but she looks even more attractive. The picture has some exciting scenes and suspenseful moments, but it's never able to make its central premise remotely believable.

Verdict: Definite suspension of disbelief required. **1/2.

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE


THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962). Director: Joseph Green.

When the arrogant Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) loses his fiancee Jan (Virginia Leith, pictured) to a grisly car accident, he saves her severed head and keeps her alive in his basement laboratory. Then he goes out to find a living woman whose body he can transplant Jan's head onto. Oddly watchable horror flick has some decent performances from both Evers and especially Leith, probably given one of the least dignified leading lady roles of all time! Even in this picture Leslie Daniels overacts a bit as Kurt, Cortner's assistant with a freakish right hand. Adele Lamont is rather vivid as Doris Powell, a disfigured artist's model whose body is chosen by the not-so-good doctor for his fiendish experiment; this was Lamont's third and last credit. Jan telepathically communicates with another victim of her boyfriend's experiments that he keeps locked in a closet. Only three years before this film was shot in 1959 Leith was William Holden's leading lady in Mervyn LeRoy's Toward the Unknown. She had only a handful of credits after Brain, despite her more-than-acceptable performance. Herb Evers changed his name to Jason Evers and became a very busy actor on dozens of television shows.

Verdict: How not to get ahead in show business. **1/2.

THE VILLAGE


THE VILLAGE (2004). Director: M. Night Shyamalan.

This tedious film should have been entitled Hoaxes, for the massive hoax that alleged thriller director Shyamalan keeps playing on his audiences. The Sixth Sense was a fairly credible, if derivative, horror film, and Unbreakable, despite its obvious flaws, was at least unusual. Signs was a big shaggy dog story with some tense moments and a really dumb ending. But The Village takes an interesting premise and gets too clever – or rather not clever enough – for its own good. Never has Shyamalan appeared more over-rated than with this picture.

SPOILER ALERT: We're led to believe that this is a period film and that the action takes place in an early American village. The people in the village are afraid to ever leave because they must walk through a wooded area where monsters (”those we don't speak of”) supposedly dwell. Halfway through the film we learn that the monsters were sort of cooked up just to keep people from leaving. At the end of the film – although to most viewers this will come as no surprise – we learn that the story actually takes place in the 21st century (big whoop – hasn't Shyamalan ever heard of the Amish, for instance?) Apparently a group of people who lost loved ones to big city crime were so disheartened that they decided to “drop out” and go back into the “past” and a simpler era. [The fact that there is not a single Black, Hispanic, or Asian person in the village makes us wonder if this is a satire on white flight or merely inherently racist?] At the end there's some dialogue which tells us that the government prevents planes from flying overhead – but why? None of the original “settlers” seem that rich or influential. If some people want to drop out, fine, but why would the government aid or give a damn about them? Even more peculiar is the fact that the character played by William Hurt lets his – get this – blind daughter go off into the woods to get medicine, never giving the poor girl even a hint of what she's going to find when she gets to the other side. The one person chosen to go through the woods is blind? Supposedly compassionate, Hurt's character must be the worst father in the world. There are some eerie, well-directed, if derivative, scenes in the movie, and many others that are simply awkward. Some of the acting is quite stilted, but heroine Bryce Dallas Howard (the blind Ivy) makes a good impression. She and Joaquin Phoenix have a splendid scene wherein they confess their mutual love on a porch. William Hurt has one big moment succumbing to passion and anger in which he is quite good, but otherwise his acting is unimpressive. Sigourney Weaver is miscast but she, too, has her moments. Adrian Brody is excellent as the mentally deficient Noah. A lot of people found this film to be charming and romantic – it does play like a fairy tale – but there just isn't that much to it. Shyamalan had better come up with something better than bad feature-length Twilight Zone episodes if he wants to keep getting financing from the studios. Even if he had simply made a real period piece with settlers fighting off “those we don't speak of,” it would have made a better film than this.

Verdict: The movie is being hyped as being “like the best of Hitchcock.” Don't you believe it! *1/2.

I WAS FRAMED


I WAS FRAMED (1942). Director: D. Ross Lederman.

Ken Marshall (Tod Andrews) is a newspaper reporter out to get the goods on a corrupt politician when the object of his scrutiny neatly frames him for a murder. Marshall is sent up the river, but manages to escape by using an idea formulated by his cellmate (John Harmon). Circumstances dictate that the cellmate has to be left behind, but later when Marshall (Julie Bishop) and his wife and baby are established in a small town under assumed names, the cellmate shows up with blackmail in mind. There's a small town doctor (Aldrich Bowker) who's so kind and wise and warm that you figure he must have ulterior motives, but in this kind of simplistic movie he doesn't. The little Marshall girl, Penny, is played by the precocious Patty Hale, an undeniably talented child actress who nevertheless borders on the cloying. Pleasant, simple-minded pap with a pleasant, competent cast. Holds the attention if you're in a charitable frame of mind. Andrews also appeared in Outrage and From Hell It Came. Sam McDaniel scores as Uncle Kit, who does a number with Patty. It's all wrapped up very neatly -- too neatly.

Verdict: Eminently forgettable. **.

ANACONDAS: TRAIL OF BLOOD


ANACONDAS: TRAIL OF BLOOD (aka: Anaconda 4/2009 Telefilm). Director: Don E. FauntLeRoy.

A man named Murdock (John Rhys-Davies) hires some men to bring him back a serum derived from a "blood orchid" and to essentially kill off anyone who gets in their way or who knows too much. Adding to the problem is a very big anaconda that snacks on humans, moves very swiftly, and who has apparently grown large due to consuming the serum. The FX work is uneven. At times the snake is a shuddery horror; at other times it's about as convincing as an image in a computer game. In any case, it creates a certain spooky frisson as it swishes silently and at great speed through tall grass on its way to its next meal. Aside from Rhys-Davies, Linden Ashby (Melrose Place, The Young and the Restless) is the best-known actor. He and the rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely, and the pace is fast. Some of the action and attack scenes are well-choreographed as well. You've seen it all before, of course, but it's fun for devotees. Shown on the Sci Fi Channel, of course.

Verdict: More snakes in the grass. **1/2.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

PSYCHO


PSYCHO (1960). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

"I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch." -- Norman Bates.

"If you love someone, you don't do that to them even if you hate them" -- Norman Bates.

You can quibble about Psycho's flaws, but let's talk about the virtues of this incredibly influential motion picture. Anthony Perkins gives an outstanding performance, and his scene when he's questioned by an equally wonderful Martin Balsam as the investigator Arbogast is practically a textbook example of great two-party acting. Janet Leigh has gone up in my estimation. Yes, she delivers some lines that are meant to be ironic in too matter-of-fact a style, but she's quite good in her nervous scenes with the cop and the used car salesman, not to mention Norman. Simon Oakland as the psychiatrist in the epilogue plays the guy as if he's a bit nutty and insensitive, but he makes what could have been a dull scene a lot more interesting. Vera Miles displays an effective intensity and even John Gavin is better than usual. Frank Albertson is great as the wealthy guy with the forty thousand who starts the whole horrific ball rolling. Even the very small roles are well cast.

Joseph Stefano's screenplay is full of wonderful -- and occasionally wicked -- dialogue. [For instance when Janet Leigh's much plainer co-worker Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) says to her : "He was flirting with you -- I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring."] Bernard Herrmann's score is one of the finest ever composed for a motion picture, from the stabbing violins to the German romanticism (heard softly behind the opening hotel room scene) that underscores the doomed love affair between Marion and Sam. His music embellishes every scene, such as the long sequence when Norman cleans up after "mother's" murder and drives Marion's car into the swamp. John L. Russell's crisp black and white photography is of a very high order, as are the sets and art direction. The basic set of the old house and the motel is a wonderful juxtaposition of the Gothic and the modern. There's no sense in saying Psycho isn't Shakespeare; its brilliance is on a cinematic level. In general Hitchcock's direction is assured and masterful. Even when you already know every plot twist, the picture holds your attention.

And then we have the fascinating Norman Bates, inspired by the real-life Ed Gein but with his own unique and formidable facets.

Verdict: Still an absolute masterpiece. ****.

LURED


LURED (1947). Director: Douglas Sirk.

"I am an unmitigated cad."

George Sanders, Boris Karloff, Charles Coburn -- and Lucille Ball -- all in the same movie? Not only that but George Zucco and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, too? Too bad it's such a lousy movie.

Lucy is a show girl of sorts whose friend disappears after answering a romantic personal ad. The police employ her as a decoy who will answer different ads and hopefully bring the murderer of several young women, the friend included, to light. George Sanders is a theatrical agent who takes a shine to Lucy. Boris Karloff is a weird, mentally ill clothing designer, Zucco is a police officer (as is Alan Napier of Batman TV fame), and Joseph Calleia is an even weirder friend of Karloff's. Charles Coburn is miscast as a Scotland Yard inspector -- it's one of the few times this wonderful character actor fails to make much of an impression, although he does have his moments (such as a scene with Hardwicke).

Lucille Ball does make an impression -- but in the wrong way. Although her Lucy characterization was four years in the future, at times the movie resembles "Lucy Meets Jack the Ripper." Her comic gifts and timing are much in evidence, but in the wrong movie. And her whole persona is much too contemporary to be convincing in a period piece. On the other hand, she's the only bright note in the movie, despite solid performances from Sanders and some of the others. However, in no way can it be considered a memorable dramatic performance.

There are some atmospheric shots, but Douglas Sirk is no Hitchcock and the music is all wrong. A hilarious aspect is that early in the film one of the victims describes the [fairly obvious] killer as being "handsome." Well ... wait and see, if you care to.

Verdict: Seems like five hours. *1/2.

IT HAPPENED TOMORROW


IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944). Director: Rene Clair.

A strange old man gives reporter Larry Stevens (Dick Powell) newspapers with tomorrows news before it happens. Stevens uses this to advance his career by being in the right place at the right time -- but it makes the police and others suspicious. Finally he sees a headline that has a very personal impact on his life. This is a light-hearted, superficial treatment of an interesting idea, although it has its amusing moments and there's some genuine suspense at the close. Dick Powell is okay playing a character who is not entirely admirable; Linda Darnell is pretty and pretty swell as his sweetheart, and Jack Oakie; with facial hair that somewhat softens his repulsive, potato-faced countenance, does a fine job as Darnell's father.

Verdict: Minor-league fantasy has its moments. **1/2.

SPLINTER


SPLINTER (2008). Director: Toby Wilkins.

A young couple (Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner) are forced at gunpoint to drive a thug and his girlfriend out of the area but a worse menace appears when they stop at a gas station/convenience store and find a few dead, mutilated bodies. Apparently some parasitic thing of unexplained origin can infest people by jabbing them with spikes or splinters, whereupon if feeds upon them and can even animate severed body parts. At first the fast pace of the movie pulls one along, but Splinter doesn't have enough original ideas and doesn't sustain interest or tension. The performances aren't bad, especially Shea Whigham's as Dennis, the stereotypical hood with a heart of gold.; Rachel Kerbs is fine as his somewhat demented girlfriend. A "highlight" is a cringe-worthy scene when someone's arm has to be amputated. Although highly derivative, the film has potential that goes largely unrealized. Don't expect to get a good look at the monster -- you won't. In fact, it doesn't seem to appear at all. The FX work is competent. A Sci Fi Channel Original that's not that original, but what else is new?

Verdict: Something's out there but what the hell is it? **.

WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND and EVERYBODY DOES IT


WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND (1939). Director: Gregory Ratoff.
EVERYBODY DOES IT (1949). Director: Edmund Goulding.

Ten years apart, these two movies used the exact same characters and script (with minor differences.) Nunnally Johnson adapted a novel by James M. Cain (one hopes it wasn't Serenade, which has to do with opera but has a completely different plot -- it was bowdlerized enough in the official film version with Mario Lanza.)

In both versions Leonard Borland is dismayed to learn that his wife Doris wants to take up singing again, because he doesn't think she's terribly good. His opinion is confirmed by a professional soprano, Cecil Carver, who takes a shine to him, and discovers that he actually has a magnificent baritone voice. So Leonard winds up with a singing career while his wife winds up booed at movie theaters. And worse things happen.

I saw the 1949 remake first, which may give it an edge in my mind, but I think in all fairness that it's the better of the two versions. Mainly it has to do with the cast. Loretta Young is fine in the original, but Celeste Holm really sparkles and has an added bite in the remake. Warner Baxter is not at all bad as the first Leonard, but he has an elegance that makes him seem at home in a classical environment whereas Paul Douglas seems more convincingly ill-at-ease in a monkey suit. Helen Westley and George Barbier are certainly amusing as Doris' parents in the first version, but Lucile Watson and especially Charles Coburn are hilarious in the remake. Although adequate, Binnie Barnes, in my opinion, makes little impression as the diva in version one but Linda Darnell makes a big impression in the remake. The final sequence in the opera house is longer and funner in version two. The same is true of the sequence in which Doris confronts Leonard after finding out he has had a whole singing career behind her back. In the remake Doris practically tries to murder him!

Neither picture is necessarily a huge Laugh Riot a la Night at the Opera, but the story is consistently amusing and cute. Although it may have been necessary to provide some conflict, the anti-music (at least anti-classical/operatic music) tone is a little off-putting, although Coburn's distressed reactions to singing are very funny.

Verdict: Wife, Husband and Friend -- **1/2.
Everybody Does it -- ***.

SHE DEMONS


SHE DEMONS (1958). Director: Richard E. Cunha.

A spoiled heiress, Jerrie (Irish McCalla), is shipwrecked on an island with a small party where she discovers that a mad Nazi, Carl (Rudolph Anders), is conducting terrible experiments. These have to do with "thermal energy" (actually, lava) but Carl seems more obsessed with what he calls "character X" (actually, genes). Seems his wife Mona (Leni Tana) was horribly burned and disfigured in a lab accident, so hubby experiments on beautiful native girls who all turn into big-toothed, scaly horrors that the hero Fred (Tod Griffin) calls "she demons" [to Carl's delight]. The film is reasonably entertaining to start, but the fun eventually peters out. Anders is a bit hammy (even for this kind of film) but he's effective as the slimy Nazi wannabee lover boy. Hopeless Irish McCalla gives a performance like you would expect of an 8-year-old child. Tod Griffin, who did a lot of TV work, is at least professional, as is Victor Sen Yung as Sammy. [Yung is better known as "Number Two Son" of the Charlie Chan films.] The picture picks up in the last few minutes as the good guys try to escape from the island. Stock footage is judiciously blended with some new, credible FX work and there are some reasonably exciting scenes. The she demons themselves don't have much to do.

Verdict: Okay for about 30 minutes but the film runs 80. *1/2.

HYDRA


HYDRA (2009 telefilm). Director: Andrew Prendergast.

Vincent Camdem (Alex McArthur) is an entrepreneur with a novel idea. He takes people who have lost love ones to criminals who eluded the justice system to an island to hunt down some other people who have gotten away with murder. But this isn't a variation of Ten Little Indians because most of the cast -- hunter or hunted -- are actually killed by a voracious giant serpent with three heads (which grows two more each time a head is severed). The computer effects, while hardly top of the line, seem somewhat better than in similar films, and the hydra is a lively, slithering beastie, gruesomely munching on its victims while splattering much blood and many body parts. It is a far cry from the brilliant, artistic hydra of Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts, however. Trapped on the island with the hydra is a lady archaeologist, and one of the hunted men was in special forces. Michael Shamus Wiles is rather vivid as Captain Sweet, who was also in the Army. The younger actors aren't bad but could use some seasoning. When ex-special forces guy Tim Nolan (played by George Stults) explains what happened in the Army and how he wound up in jail, Stults -- who is otherwise a charismatic leading man type -- displays about as much emotion as if he were describing a trip to the supermarket where they were out of his favorite ice cream. There are some exciting moments in the movie, which is slightly above average for the sci fi channel.

Verdict: Maybe one head too many. **1/2.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

HUSH...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE


HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964). Director: Robert Aldrich.

"She's not really crazy. She just acts that way because people expect it of her."

This film seems to get better with the passage of time. Originally this was meant to be a follow up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? re-teaming Bette Davis with Joan Crawford [who would have been great in the picture and should have completed it] but Crawford quit the production and Olivia de Havilland stepped in -- with happy results. As others have noted, watching sweet "Miss Melanie" of Gone With the Wind doing the things that de Havilland does as Miriam gives it all an added kick.

Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) lives alone in a forlorn mansion that is about to be torn down to make way for a bridge. She calls on the only family she has left -- cousin Miriam Deering (de Havilland) -- to come and help her, but Miriam has other things on her mind. For most of her life Charlotte has been the chief suspect in the mutilation murder of her lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a sensitive soul who wrote a love song to Charlotte [the title tune] and put it in a music box. Charlotte is haunted by her lost love and by her feeling that it was her father (Victor Buono in a bravura turn) who killed him.

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte takes a cast of golden age stars and character actors and places them in a classy production with a sop to the teen audience via the graphic, well-executed [pun intended] murder scene that almost opens the picture, and which is actually bloodier than the Psycho murder of 1960 [we never do learn what became of the poor man's head and hand, which were apparently carried off by the murderer]. This alone predisposed many 1964 critics to dismiss the film out of hand, although the rest of the film is entirely tasteful. Not only tasteful, but extremely well done. Aldrich's direction and handling of the suspense scenes is far superior to his work on Baby Jane. Joseph Biroc's cinematography is consistently outstanding and the production values first-rate -- this is one good-looking movie. [Frank] DeVol's musical score is extremely effective. One could argue that Baby Jane had a kind of cheapjack feel to it, but that is definitely not true of Charlotte. The screenplay by Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller, while it may at one point borrow a plot gambit from Diabolique, is suspenseful and full of great dialogue. Most scenes, such as a murder on a staircase and the bitter arguments between the neurotic principals, are handled with great dramatic flair.

And then there's the acting. Davis gives one of her finest latter-day performances, getting across the pathos of the character as well as her mania. [Her pantomime at the end as she reads a letter with tremendously important information in it is marvelous.] As Miriam, Olivia de Havilland is on target from her entrance until the final moments. Witness her wonderful delivery of her rejoinder to Dr. Bayliss. "You were always free with your compliments. It was your ... intentions... that were a little vague." As the charming if reptilian Bayliss Joseph Cotten offers another dead-on characterization. Agnes Moorehead almost walks off with the picture as the unfortunate housekeeper Velma. Mary Astor, Cecil Kellaway, and others offer superior supporting performances.

Hush...Hush deserves to be recognized as a certified classic.

Verdict: Fascinating! ****.

NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART


NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1944). Director: Clifford Odets.

"Love's not for the poor, son. No time for it."

This is one of only two films directed by playwright/screenwriter Clifford Odets, and frankly you expect more from a man with his talent. The first problem is that Odets was adapting someone else's novel, and the second is that Odets the director wasn't a little tougher on Odets the screenwriter. To be blunt, despite a good idea and some nice moments, None But the Lonely Heart is a talky bore.

Ernie Mott (Cary Grant) wants to live free and independent, but when he learns that his Ma (Ethel Barrymore) is dying of cancer, he decides to stick around and help her run her shop. Although there's a nice, uncomplicated girl, Aggie, who loves him unconditionally ["I wouldn't trade it for a box at the opera, the thing I feel for you," she tells him], Ernie gets involved with the much more complicated Ada (June Duprez). Ada is still very much connected to her brutal mobster ex-husband Jim (George Coulouris).

The problem with the plot is that the whole business of a basically nice guy getting involved
with a slick operator (in this case, Jim) to make money was pretty much old hat by 1944. In an earlier decade Mott would have been played by James Cagney and in a later decade Jim would have been enacted by Steve Cochran. In all the directions that the film could have gone, it chooses the most trite one.

The film is never convincing and is sentimental in the wrong way. Grant gives a very good performance, but he isn't exactly believable as a cockney or as someone from the lower classes; he's too old and too sophisticated by far. Barrymore is wonderful as Ma Mott, but even she is a touch too lady-like. Wyatt gives another lovely -- if brief -- performance as Aggie, and June Duprez does okay as Ada. Coulouris is on the money as Jim. An uncredited Queenie Vassar offers a vivid portrait of the larcenous Mrs. Snowden, and Konstantin Shayne and Barry Fitzgerald enact important supporting roles with aplomb.

Verdict: Disjointed disappointment, but with a great theme by Tchaikovsky. **.

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008) DV


JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008). Directors: David Jones; Scott Wheeler.

This direct-to-video feature was, naturally, shown on the Sci Fi channel, the graveyard for all bad direct-to-video movies. A group of soldiers are dematerialized (as in Star Trek) and sent on a mission but somehow things go wrong and they wind up in a prehistoric world located in the middle of the earth -- but which looks more like Southern California. In the meantime, Joseph Harnet (Greg Evigan) and Emily Radford (Dedee Pfeiffer) take a boring machine into the Earth and try to rescue them. The very few computer-generated dinosaurs are unexceptional, but the large black, skittering spiders are a little bit better. Some of the actors are enthusiastic, Pfeiffer and the likable Evigan are good, and the screenplay is perfectly workable. But ultimately this is just another Jules Verne rip-off that proves immensely forgettable.

Verdict: Watch the 1959 version instead. **.

FIVE STAR FINAL


FIVE STAR FINAL (1931). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

To drum up circulation a newspaper does a story on a woman who, twenty years before, murdered a man who knocked her up and refused to marry her. She was acquitted, married someone else, and now has a daughter who is engaged to a society fellow -- the daughter has no idea that her mother murdered her biological father. When the story breaks, there are serious repercussions in the family. This is the kind of dull, self-righteous drama that falls flat on its face due to its superficiality and ludicrous contrivances. Edward G. Robinson is lively as the editor who becomes disgusted with it all, and Aline MacMahon scores as his secretary. Boris Karloff offers an interesting performance as a weirdo reporter. H.B. Warner and Frances Starr are very effective as Mr and Mrs. Townsend, the doomed murderess and her husband, but Marian Marsh overacts as their daughter, Jenny. The picture moves fast but isn't very absorbing.

STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM. No one ever makes the point that, even if the murdered man were a stinker, he didn't deserve to die, nor is the point made that Mrs. Townsend murdered her child's father. It's just accepted that homicide was somehow the only solution to her problem! Mrs. Townsend commits suicide, leaving her daughter, and the man who stood by her all those years, to fend for themselves, and Mr. Townsend, after finding his wife's body, also commits suicide, leaving the daughter he raised to face the music by herself! We're supposed to feel sorry for such utterly self-centered people? Talk about lousy parents! At the end of film Jenny blames the newspaper for the suicides, and even -- a chip off the old block -- pulls out a gun and tries to shoot them -- ridiculous! Five Star Final wants to engage the emotions but it certainly never engages the intellect. A script with much more depth might have helped this to amount to something.

Verdict: Even Eddie can't save this stinker. *.

XIII [Thirteen]


XIII [Thirteen] (2008). NBC two-part four hour mini-series. Director: Duane Clark.

This is a Ludlumesque conspiracy story centering on the assassination of the country's first female president. The killer is identified as a man named Steven Rowland (Stephen Dorff), but Rowland has lost his memory after a fall out of a plane and what's more apparently he isn't even Steven Rowland. Although XIII never has the energy or intensity of 24, it's certainly reminiscent of that series with its white house intrigue and top level traitors who think they can make a better America. The climax has to do with a dirty bomb about to go off in Washington. A post script, in which more questions are raised but go unanswered, suggest that at one time there may have been plans to turn XIII into a series. Stephen Dorff is nearly as intense as Kiefer Sutherland and makes a compelling lead (he looks much better with the close-cropped hair and receding hair line than he does with the shaggy locks in the poster). Caterina Murino, Stephen McHattie, Lucinda Davis, Jonathan Higgins, and Mimi Kuzyk are also notable. Val Kilmer is top billed but doesn't show up that much as The Mongoose.

Verdict: Okay, but no 24. **1/2.

I WONDER WHO'S KISSING HER NOW


I WONDER WHO'S KISSING HER NOW (1947). Director: Lloyd Bacon.

Surely the life of performer and songwriter Joseph E. Howard was more interesting than this? Mark Stevens enacts the role capably and with charm, although he might seem a tad bland to some. June Haver plays his "kid sister," who was raised with him but is actually unrelated, and has an unrequited passion for him. Martha Stewart and Lenore Aubert are two women with whom he gets involved both professionally and romantically.

The movie is pleasant and easy to take, but there is no real drama in it, and no particular comedy, either, despite the presence of William Frawley (Fred Mertz). Gene Nelson is a featured dancer, but has few if any lines. Florence O'Brien makes an impression as the saucy, non-deferential maid, Marie, as does Lewis L. Russell as Milford. Reginald Gardiner is okay as a playwright. Sexy Martha Stewart didn't amass too many credits and Aubert's most famous role was as Sandra in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Besides the title tune, Howard's most famous composition is arguably the snappy "Good-bye, My Lady Love." This was one of the period tunes that Jerome Kern used in Show Boat which was not composed by Kern. A highlight of the film is the "Glowworm" number which, via rich orchestration, turns the simple melody into a veritable symphony.

Verdict: Minor-league musical. **1/2.

WYVERN


WYVERN (2009). Director: Steven R. Monroe. Teleplay by Jason Bourque.

People in a small town in Alaska are attacked and eaten by a flying dragon that supposedly thawed out of the ice and may have a supernatural origin. Nick Chinlund (pictured) stars as a trucker who becomes embroiled in the horror-action. This is an above-average Sci Fi channel monster movie -- admittedly that isn't necessarily saying much-- that makes real attempts at characterization and suspense. It is gruesome and bloody at times, but not quite as ugly as others of its ilk. The dragon is well-designed and the computer generated effects are better than usual for a Sci Fi Channel movie. The actors do a pretty nice job as well. There's a very well-done scene when the monster brings down a helicopter and the climactic chase is exciting as well.

Verdict: Not terrible. **1/2.