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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER


THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942). Director: William Keighley.

Why are you standing there like the kiss of death?"

The irascible man of letters Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) breaks his hip while attempting to enter a home for a dinner engagement in Mesalia, Ohio, settles into the library, and stays for weeks, interfering in everybody's lives. This is my second favorite comedy of all time (after A Night at the Opera). Each time I see the picture I realize that there's a quip or joke that got past me on previous viewings. This is a wonderful film version of the Kaufman and Hart play, with superior performances by everyone involved. Woolley makes the most of his acerbic part, and is also completely convincing during his occasional forays into sentimentality. While Bette Davis is a bit mannered, she never over-shadows Woolley (which probably wouldn't have been an easy feat even for her). Ann Sheridan really scores and is very funny as the affected movie star Lorraine Sheldon. Jimmy Durante is great just playing himself, more or less. [He refers to Sheldon as the "umphh" girl; Sheridan was known as the "oomph girl." For one of her dramatic turns, see Nora Prentiss.] George Barbier makes the most of his role as the somewhat vague Dr. Bradley, who's written a lengthy memoir of his life as a doctor. And let's not forget the great Mary Wickes as Miss Preen, the poor put-upon nurse hired to look after Whiteside. Grant Mitchell has perhaps the defining role of his career as Whiteside's unwilling and horrified host Mr. Stanley. [There's also nice work by Reginald Gardner, Billie Burke, and others.] Richard Travis may not have been much of an actor but he has a certain naive quality that fits his character, although one can't imagine "Bert Jefferson" having the intelligence to write a great play "perfect for Cornell." [Travis later wound up in stuff like Missile to the Moon.] One could argue that the whole "Lizzie Bordon" business at the end is a bit tasteless, even cruel, if you take it too seriously. Otherwise this is a consistently entertaining and highly amusing motion picture.

Verdict: A Great Old Movie indeed. ****.

A FORTUNATE LIFE: ROBERT VAUGHN


A FORTUNATE LIFE: ROBERT VAUGHN. 2008. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press.

An interesting and highly readable account of the life of actor Robert Vaughn, as told and written by Vaughn himself. We learn about his childhood and his theatrical family; his interests in politics [one senses a certain conservatism under the liberal veneer]; his early movie roles; his work on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which made him a household name; and his feelings about who really might have murdered Robert Kennedy. In other words, this is certainly a mixed bag, but it's never boring. Most of the book is in chronological order, while a section in back includes many more anecdotes that for one reason or another were never mentioned in the proper order. No matter. Being told that a certain actor was bisexual, Vaughn thought that meant he took on two women at once. The same guy came to his wedding and told him he ought to appear in A Streetcar Named Desire -- as Blanche Dubois. Vaughn writes of being held hostage in two different countries [for very different reasons] and his harrowing escapes. He's a bit hard on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. , finding the pilot creaky and wondering why anyone would want to watch it. Although the book is dedicated to Vaughn's wife and two children, you learn almost nothing about them, not even how he met his wife. [You can practically hear him saying "Sorry honey, sorry kids, but this book is about me." I mean, we don't even learn what the kids do for a living!] Vaughn is cultured and erudite, but underneath it all he's a typical self-absorbed actor. For more on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. click here. Related posts: The Spy with My Face; The Spy in the Green Hat; The Helicopter Spies.

Verdict: Good read, good book. ***.

TERROR IS A MAN


TERROR IS A MAN (1959). Director: Gerry De Leon.

In what is essentially an uncredited version of H. G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau, William Fitzgerald (Richard Derr) survives a shipwreck and winds up on an isolated island where Dr. Girard (Francis Lederer) and his wife Frances (Greta Thyssen) are experimenting on animals. They have created a panther-man (an effective Flory Carlos) who breaks loose periodically and causes death and havoc. Meanwhile William and Frances find themselves drawn to one another. Filmed in the Philippines, this is actually a fairly decent horror flick with not-bad performances, and a brooding atmosphere, although perhaps not enough is made of the terrible presence in their midst. Competently scored and directed as well. Danish Greta Thyssen had very few credits. Richard Derr had a much longer list of credits, including playing The Shadow in The Invisible Avenger and starring in the Broadway musical Plain and Fancy [about the Amish] with Barbara Cook. Peyton Keesee is charming as the little native boy, Tiago, and Oscar Keesee (presumably a relative) is vivid as the leering Walter, who also has a lech for Frances.

Verdict: Holds the attention. ***.

DICK TRACY (1942)


DICK TRACY (1945). Director: William Berke.

The first of four Dick Tracy features stars Morgan Conway as a more-than-acceptable Tracy investigating a series of murders committed by "Splitface" (referring to a scar), played by Mike Mazurki. [One of the problems with the film, although it's entertaining, is that the suspense is minimized because we know all along who the killer is, a serious mistake, frankly.] Anne Jeffreys makes a pretty sexy Tess Trueheart. Equally pretty Jane Greer plays the saucy daughter of one of the potential victims; she's always making a jealous Tess nervous. The cadaverous Milton Parsons is well cast (as usual) as the undertaker, Deathridge. Mazurki is fine as the villain of the piece. A fast pace helps smooth over the flaws. Followed by Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. Also known as Dick Tracy, Detective.

Verdict: You can't keep a good Dick down. **1/2.

POIROT: MRS. MCGINTY'S DEAD



POIROT: MRS MCGINTY'S DEAD (2008). Director: Ashley Pearce. Masterpiece Mystery/PBS.

David Suchet is again marvelous in the role of Agatha Christie's Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in this fair-to-middling adaptation of one of Christie's best novels. Poirot investigates when a policeman friend confides in him that he doesn't think a man about to be hanged is guilty of the murder he was convicted of, even though the evidence against him seems overwhelming. The case ties in with famous murderesses of the past, and centers on several couples living in the small town where Mrs. McGinty was murdered. Sort of helping Poirot in his efforts is Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer who was meant to be a parody of Christie herself, only her fictional detective is a Finn. Oliver is played by Zoe Wanamaker, who is kind of gross, at least in this part. Paul Rhys acquits himself nicely as one of the suspects, Robin Upward. This is much more faithful to the novel than the British film Murder Most Foul, but it still can't compare to the book.

Verdict: Mediocre adaptation. **.

THE SECRET PARTNER


THE SECRET PARTNER (1961). Director: Basil Dearden.

John Brent (Stewart Granger) isn't having a good year. His wife has left him because she thinks he's spending money on another dame; his dentist is blackmailing him for some unknown malfeasance; and then he's framed for robbery to boot. Bernard Lee ("M" of the 007 films) is the investigator on the case, hoping to leave a clean slate before he retires. The oddly named Haya Harareet is Nicole, Brent's wife. The picture is smooth and reasonably absorbing, if not entirely convincing. At one point a masked figure shows up to manipulate some characters, and he reminds one of a villain in a cliffhanger serial or comic book. The twists may work for some viewers. Granger is professional but perhaps a little too slick.

Verdict: Who was that masked man? **.

THE FIREBIRD


THE FIREBIRD (1934). Director: William Dieterle.

"It's modern youth trying to grope its way through the moral chaos that's all around us!"

In Vienna Carola Pointer (the always vivid Verree Teasdale) is happily married to John (that fine actor Lionel Atwill) but she's a bit stuffy, and troubled by their daughter Mariette's (Anita Louise) fascination with modern, erotic music such as Stravinksy's Firebird (which plays over the credits and sporadically thereafter), which Carola thinks is "for savages." Carola is shocked when a neighbor, the licentious Herman Brandt (Ricardo Cortez), confesses that, in modern parlance, he has always had a thing for her. Later on, Brandt is found murdered, and there's gossip about a woman being seen sneaking into his apartment at night on a regular basis. Suspicion falls upon household staff, John's sister, Carola -- there's suspense over exactly which woman was presumably succumbing to Brandt's charms and may have dispatched him. As a mystery this may not be great shakes, but it's the excellent acting from the entire cast that puts it over. This includes C. Aubrey Smith, who plays the wise, understanding policeman assigned to the case.

Verdict: More quaint than "savage" by today's standards, but an interesting curio. **1/2.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

NORA PRENTISS


NORA PRENTISS (1947). Director: Vincent Sherman.

Dr. Talbot: "I'm writing a paper on an ailment of the heart."

Nora Prentiss: "A paper? I could write a book!"

Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith, in perhaps his most memorable performance) is a decent man with a disinterested wife, two children, and a dull routine. And then into his life comes an accident victim named Nora Prentiss (the saucy Ann Sheridan, doing nicely in a dramatic turn) and suddenly everything changes and his life heads in a completely different direction. This is a fascinating study of romantic obsession with a lot of great twists and a wind-up that may seem absurd at first but sort of works when you think about it. Franz Waxman contributes a great, near-operatic theme. Robert Alda, Rosemary DeCamp and Bruce Bennett also have important roles. It's interesting that while Nora is not a woman without flaws, Sheridan does not play her like a heartless siren or femme fatale -- an approach that other actresses may have taken -- but a real and genuinely warm human being. In their first encounter Dr. Talbot shows little humor or personality, but Smith is handsome enough --especially in this film -- for us to understand Sheridan's interest. The first half of the film is interesting enough as a straight romance, but the second half with the intrigue is also quite compelling. Not quite a classic, but good.

Verdict: A really twisted romance. ***1/2.

MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S BABY


MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S BABY (1941). Directed by Leslie Goodwins.

Carmelita (Lupe Velez) and Dennis Lindsay (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) are celebrating their first anniversary when Uncle Matt (Leon Errol) suggests they have a baby -- a war orphan, which he gets from Paris. Unfortunately the war orphan "baby" turns out to be a full-grown beautiful blond named Fifi (Marion Martin)! And that's just the beginning of all the misunderstandings in this zany comedy that has all the principals interacting in an inn where the nosy manager, Miss Pepper (Zazu Pitts), is determined to get evidence of infidelity and more. Leon Errol also plays the half-shot Lord Epping, as usual. Fritz Feld is a riot as a count who thinks Fifi has run off with Uncle Matt and wants to fight a duel with him. Some might feel the film is more busy than funny, and that the very accomplished cast is straining for laughs with formulaic material, and they might be right, but at the same time there are a lot of very amusing moments.

Verdict: Love that Lord Epping! **1/2.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)


THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008). Director: Louis Leterrier.

The second big-screen Hulk movie is better than the first, although it's still no world-beater. The film begins in Portugal, with Bruce Banner (Ed Norton) -- the alter ego of the Hulk -- on the run from government agents. Frankly, I have no idea what people who wandered into the movie theater with friends and aren't familiar with the character would make of it, as only ambiguous flashbacks ever really tell who Banner is or how he turned into a giant green monster with muscles. [I watched this with a friend, who is not a comic book fan, who turned to me and said "I've been watching this for two hours and I still don't know what it's about." For the record, back in 1963 in the first issue of The Incredible Hulk comic book, Bruce Banner was mutated when he was caught in the explosion of a gamma bomb. He turns into the Hulk whenever he gets angry or agitated.] Banner's girlfriend, Betty Ross, is played by Liv Tyler [another pretty Hollywood actress who has deformed her face with misshapen collagen lips]. Banner eventually comes to blows with an old comic book adversary, the even-more-hideous Abomination, a former soldier well-played by Tim Roth. William Hurt is fine as General Ross, who is out to capture or kill Banner/Hulk at any cost. Unlike in the old comics, Banner has absolutely no concern for any innocents who might get killed when he's on a rampage -- he's utterly self-centered. Good FX, but it all becomes rather wearisome long before the conclusion. Tyler and Norton give good performances.

Verdict: Enough with the Hulk already! **1/2.

BUNCO SQUAD


BUNCO SQUAD (1950). Director: Herbert I. Leeds.

Detective Steve Johnson (Robert Sterling, who gives a good performance) goes after a gang of con artists who are running a cult called the Rama Society who hold seances for wealthy people. Their ultimate goal is to get in the will of very rich Mrs. Royce (Elisabeth Risdon) and then bump her off. Mrs. Royce comes to the society to hear the voice of her late son, who died in the war. Tony, the ruthless head of the gang, is played by a middle-aged Ricardo Cortez. Princess Lian, who fronts for the cult, is played by Bernadene Hayes. Like a well-heeled TV episode with a couple of exciting scenes.

Verdict: Professional, well-acted, and fast-moving if decidedly minor-league. **½.

FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG


FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG (1955). Director: Arthur Lubin.

"When she tried to make herself look young, for the first time I realized how old she really was."

In 19th century London Stephen Lowry (Stewart Granger) poisons his demanding, nagging wife but a young maid, Lily (Jean Simmons), figures out what happened and starts to make demands. And then the fun begins. Lots of interesting twists in this unpredictable suspense tale that is very well acted by the leads and supporting cast. Belinda Lee plays a beautiful woman that Stephen has set his cap for; Bill Travers is a lawyer and love rival. Well-directed and handsomely produced, with a nice score by Benjamin Frankel. Crisply photographed by Christopher Challis. A particularly good sequence is set in London's nighttime fog. Marjorie Rhodes scores as the unpleasant housekeeper Mrs. Park.

Verdict: A very bizarre romance indeed. ***.

THE SHAFT


THE SHAFT (aka Down/2001). Written and directed by Dick Maas.

Writer/director Dick Maas has taken his 1983 dutch thriller The Lift and remade it for the frat boy generation. The premise of the film has one of the elevators in New York's Millennium building acting funny, causing mayhem and then hideous deaths. A repairman, Mark (James Marshall) and a reporter, Jennifer (Naomi Watts) investigate the weird goings-on. More familiar faces in the cast include Dan Hedaya, Ron Perlman, Michael Ironside (as a sort of mad scientist), and Ed Herrmann, who lends some distinction to a film that doesn't deserve him. The film does have some interesting concepts, such as the idea of computer chips reproducing themselves and becoming, in essence, a living thing, but otherwise the script is fashioned not for logic but for coming up with increasingly gross sequences. One scene, when the floor of a high-rise elevator drops out, spilling the passengers into space, is horrifying. The movie will hold your attention, but the characters are unlikable (no one ever expresses the slightest sympathy for all of the innocent victims) and the film is distinctly unpleasant.

Verdict: Slick and cold-blooded moron movie. **1/2.

THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE


THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959). Director: Roy Del Ruth.

Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland) is happily beginning her honeymoon with her handsome new husband Paul (Richard Crane), when he opens and reads a letter, tells her good-bye, and runs off the train to disappear. Joyce's search for the man leads her to a mansion in the swamps which is occupied by the imperious Mrs. Hawthorne (Freida Inescort, at her most imperious), a couple of cowered servants, and a weird man who sneaks in at night and plays the piano. George Macready plays a doctor who is experimenting with reptile hormones to heal mortal wounds in humans -- but the best laid plans .... Lon Chaney Jr. is a crazy guy who lives in a shack and goes on and on about how an alligator bit off his hand. The Alligator People actually has an interesting premise, a certain amount of suspense, a genuinely tragic air, and is very well acted by the entire cast, although Inescort's Southern-British accent is kind of odd. Even Richard Crane gives a much better performance than usual as a very tortured man. The make up in the film isn't bad, but a certain mask late in the picture creates unfortunate giggles. You''ll find yourself rooting for the characters to find happiness.

Verdict: Unusual monster flick with pathos. ***.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

SPACE MASTER X-7


SPACE MASTER X-7 (1958). Director: Edward Bernds.

Dr. Pommer (Paul Frees) experiments with a piece of "blood rust," his name for the red fungus that covers the planet Mars and was brought back by a ship called "Space Master X-7,", and discovers to his regret that it's even more dangerous than he imagined. Laura (Lyn Green), the mother of his son, comes to visit and walks off unaware that she's carrying fungal spores. Agents John Hand (Bill Williams) and Joe Rattigan (Robert Ellis) begin a desperate search for the woman, finding traces of the fungus -- which sort of resembles a glistening, moving carpet -- wherever she's been. The climax occurs on a plane where the fungus begins to break out of the cargo hold. An amusing scene has the passengers reacting to the fungus as it covers the plane windows. Thomas Browne Henry of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Blood of Dracula, and many others, is in the cast as a Professor, and Moe Howard of the 3 Stooges is a helpful cab driver! The acting is more than adequate, and Frees has a better and bigger role than usual; he's excellent. This might have amounted to more if it had a bigger budget and more imaginative direction, but it has its moments.

Verdict: Creepy in spite of itself. **1/2.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS


MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945). Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

Julia Ross (Nina Foch), who is three weeks behind on her rent, takes a job as a secretary to old Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty) and her son Ralph (George Macready) at a house in London, then wakes up in a manor by the sea in Cornwall and is told that her name is Marian and she is supposedly married to Ralph! Maddeningly, everyone in the household and indeed the town either goes along with -- or actually believes -- the deception. The more Julia protests, the more people think she's crazy. While the plot may not stand up to too close scrutiny, this is a well-made and well-acted suspenser. Whitty gives a fine portrait of understated evil. Joy Harington is vivid in the role of Bertha, the bitter maid in the boarding house where Julia owes rent. Roland Varno makes an acceptable romantic lead, although he has little to do in the film. Very well photographed by Burnett Guffey. Remade as Dead of Winter.

Verdict: Nifty B thriller with a very satisfying conclusion and a sheen that belies its budget. ***.

MURDER MOST FOUL


MURDER MOST FOUL (1964). Director: George Pollock.

Although Agatha Christie's excellent mystery novel Mrs. McGinty's Dead featured her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, for some reason it was decided to turn it into a Miss Marple mystery for the films. Christie herself was not happy with the casting of Margaret Rutherford as the slender Miss Marple [Christie also hated the title], but as a comic variation on the character the lovable Rutherford -- a true original if ever there were one -- is excellent. The film takes only the barest premise from the novel and pretty much comes up with a new -- but not a better -- storyline. Miss Marple is the one hold out on the jury when a man is put on trial for the murder of Mrs. McGinty, who was apparently up to a bit of blackmail. Marple decides to investigate on her own while the police just wish she'd disappear. Instead she joins a small theatrical company where there are a couple more murders. Eventually she reveals the dastardly plot while nearly coming to an end more than once. Charles Tingwell is the handsome and exasperated Inspector Craddock, and Marple's friend and assistant Jim Stringer is played by Stringer (sic) Davis. Ron Moody is the single-minded head of the Cosgood Players. This was the third out of four Rutherford/Marple features.

Verdict: Pleasant but a far cry from -- and much less interesting than -- the novel. **1/2.

SPOOKS RUN WILD


SPOOKS RUN WILD (1941). Director: Phil Rosen.

"A white spider! That must be the ghost of the black widdah!"

The Eastside Kids/Bowery Boys/whoever-the-hell-they-are go off to a summer camp near where a maniac killer is supposed to be on the loose. On an outing, one of them, Pee Wee (David Gorcey), is injured, and his pals take him to a gothic mansion inhabited by Bela Lugosi and his assistant, who happens to be a dwarf. But if Bela is the bad guy, then who is that bearded stranger who's walking off with the nominal heroine, Linda (Dorothy Short)? Skeletons and chains of armor walk about in the ghostly estate.

This isn't as much fun as it sounds; in fact, it isn't any fun at all. There are only two good things about it: Bela Lugosi has as much presence as ever, gives a good performance that the film doesn't deserve, and is even convincing when he plays at being scared at one point. Also, African-American Ernest Morrison seems to have been given more to do than usual, and does it well, even if it's the usual thing given to black actors in comedies of the period, especially those with "haunted" houses in them. I suppose the film should also be given points for showing that one can't always judge by appearances. Otherwise, this hasn't got a single laugh, except for the "gay" twist at the end when Muggs (Leo Gorcey) goes into a magician's cabinet after a sexy blond and winds up practically necking with one of the fellas!

Muggs is as irritating as ever, while Huntz Hall does his usual simpering routine. Bobby Jordan, David Gorcey (Leo's better-looking brother), and Morrison have much more appealing personalities. Dave O'Brien plays Jeff, Linda's boyfriend.

Verdict: Low-brow, low-class, and for the most part, low entertainment. *.

NIGHT SCHOOL


NIGHT SCHOOL (1981). Director: Kenneth Hughes.

"I'm not a traveling salesman. I'm a police officer, and I have a badge that says I can disturb anybody, anytime."

In Boston a series of beheadings of women are tied to a girls' college and to anthropology professor Millett (Drew Snyder), who hits on virtually all of his pretty students. Lt. Austin (Leonard Mann) is assigned to the case, and wonders why the killer puts all of the severed heads under water. The maniac rides around on a motorcycle and wears a helmet that hides his face. Eleanor (Rachel Ward) is the professor's assistant and live-in lover, who might know more than what she's telling. This has an atmospheric use of Boston locations, including the Boston aquarium and assorted crooked streets, and the film is eerie and occasionally suspenseful. One bit has the owner of a restaurant fussing around in the kitchen while the audience wonders when the head of the murdered waitress will finally pop into view. This is yet another film that has a faux shower scene and a bit with the head-in-the-toilet-bowl. As sick as most "mad slasher" movies, at least it's relatively well-made and well-acted. Night School was written by the film's producer, Ruth Avergon, who never had another film credit. Wonder why? Leonard Mann(zella) was born in Italy and had many Italian credits. Snyder has been a busy actor on TV.

Verdict: Nice Boston locales and some chills. **1/2.

THE HELICOPTER SPIES


THE HELICOPTER SPIES (1968). Director: Boris Sagal.

"Never trust a woman who's always on time. It always indicates a -- much deeper -- problem."

Originally shown on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television program as Parts 1 and 2 of "The Prince of Darkness Affair," this was turned into a theatrical feature for overseas release. While it has a few too many campy moments, basically it's an entertaining flick with Robert Vaughn in top form, as usual, as super-spy Napoleon Solo. UNCLE makes a deal with the nefarious Luther Sebastian (Bradford Dillman) to help them get a new weapon, a thermal prism, away from its mad inventor, Dr. Karmusi (John Dehner), who is holed up in a desert bunker -- which will self-destruct if his heart stops. But once Sebastian gets his hands on the device, he has no intention of turning it over to UNCLE. There's also a weird cult called The Third Way, a gang of men who all have white hair, the always-amusing Kathleen Freeman as a short order cook, and John Carradine as a guru who hasn't said a word in forty years. Carol Lynley is the feminine innocent caught up in the melodrama, Lola Albright is the bad girl, and Julie London has a nice turn as Sebastian's wife, who seems to bed a different hot guy every night. The film is well-edited and has some exciting scenes and interesting doom-traps. Dillman's performance is odd. H. M. Wynant is fun as all of the handsome Aksoy brothers. This busy actor is still working at eighty-two.

Verdict: Entertaining hokum. **1/2.

THE SPIRIT (2008)


THE SPIRIT (2008). Written and directed by Frank Miller.

The Spirit was basically a parody of a comic book hero written and drawn by comics great Will Eisner back in the forties. Denny Colt, a cop, is shot and believed killed, but he continues to work for the law from his HQ in Wildwood cemetery. The Spirit appeared in both comic books and in the newspapers, and while Eisner's work was often cinematic and clever, I've always thought The Spirit was somewhat over-rated. Since this new feature film based on the character comes off a bit like a parody, one would have to say it's in "the spirit" of the strip, but what works (or doesn't) in a comic strip may seem disastrously overblown and stupid up on the big screen in a big budget motion picture. The only thing that really works in this movie is the star, Gabriel Macht, who hits just the right note in the title role [no easy feat in this movie]. Everything else ... ?

Even the makers of the old cliffhanger serials were smart enough to know that there had to be something at stake, some grand danger to the world or the city (or at least the hero) to keep the audience's attention and keep them in suspense. All we're told in The Spirit is that his old enemy the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) is up to something, but there's no sense of immediate danger or even of impending doom. Besides, who can take The Octopus seriously? As played by dead-common Jackson, the character radiates zero menace, command, or even believability. Dr. Doom in the Fantastic Four movies has undeniable presence; Jackson/Octopus is merely a lousy joke. The villainesses in the movie (always sultry, hot babes in the strip) do their best, but while Eva Mendes may have a great body she's borderline homely, and Scarlett Johansson's appeal is muted in this as well. Miller's script is full of cliches.
But what difference does it make? One can't point to a single memorable sequence in the movie. It's all striking scenic design and cinematography, but none of the visual gloss -- and it is very glossy -- can defeat the essential emptiness and dullness at its core. Macht deserves a better vehicle.

Verdict: Don't expect a franchise. **.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A SCANDAL IN PARIS


A SCANDAL IN PARIS (1946). Director: George Sanders.

The life story of Eugéne François Vidocq (George Sanders) who was born in a prison, becomes a crook and reprobate with women, and manages to wind up the Prefect of Police in Paris -- with plans concerning the Paris bank. Along the way he is assisted by Emile Vernet (Akim Tamiroff, in one of his best roles), who is even less moral than Vidocq is. Among the women in Vidocq's life are Therese (Signe Hasso), daughter of the Minister of Police, and sexy Loretta (Carole Landis), who is married to the former Prefect of Police (Gene Lockhart). While A Scandal in Paris has an exasperating and hypocritical moral incongruity to it, it is also unpredictable for the most part and is certainly never boring. Sanders is as splendid as ever in a role he was born for, Landis and Lockhart are terrific as a battling married couple, and the rest of the cast is in fine form as well. Jo Ann Marlowe is adorable as the self-assured little Mimi, younger sister of Therese.

Verdict: Sometimes crime does pay. ***.

MY LITTLE MARGIE


MY LITTLE MARGIE (1952 - 1955).

Vivacious Gale Storm, who passed away this past June, was the star of this popular fifties sitcom that presented the comedic trials and tribulations of 21-year-old Margie Albright (Storm was actually around 30) and her late forties father Vern (Charles Farrell, who was actually in the mid-fifties). Vern wants Margie to literally stay out of his business at Honeywell and Todd, an investment firm, and Margie wants Vern to let her date whomsoever she wants, and to stay home like the "old man" he is and be a "nice, old father." Others in the cast included Clarence Kolb, as Vern's boss, Mr. Honeywell; Hillary Brooke as his girlfriend, Roberta; Don Hayden as Margie's steady, Freddie (although Margie practically dated a different man every episode); and Willie Best, as Charlie the elevator boy. Everyone on the show was excellent [except Brooke, who never really had much flair for this sort of thing], but Gertrude Hoffman, an actress in her eighties, stole every episode she was in as Mrs. Odets, who was also in her eighties, and was almost as man-crazy as Margie was.

With over a hundred episodes, you have to expect a few clinkers, and in truth, some episodes of the series are so monumentally silly (without being funny) that they are painful to watch. On the other hand, when the script clicks, it clicks. Some of the funniest include a wild business involving a boxing kangaroo; and an episode with Margie impersonating a fat, male opera singer. As noted, any episode with Mrs. Odets teaming up with Margie generally had more than its share of laughs. Vern made an excellent foil for the effervescent Storm, Hayden was appealing, Best was delightfully daffy, and Kolb was perfection as the contrary Honeywell, who seemed to fire Vern on every other episode. The scripts generally revolved around Vern and Honeywell trying to keep Margie away from some client of theirs, not realizing that she has probably already met the person and fouled things up. Margie often screwed things up for her father, but generally worked everything out before the wind-up.

NOTE: Another popular 50's sitcom was I Married Joan with Joan Davis.

Verdict: Appealing cast and quite a few funny moments. ***.

POIROT: CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS


POIROT: CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS (2008). Director: James Kent. Shown on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS.

The brilliant David Suchet is back as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie's excellent mystery Cat Among the Pigeons. In the novel Poirot doesn't show up until the story is practically over, but in this teleplay he turns out to be a friend of one of the major characters and is in for the whole show. The story takes place at a famous British school for girls, where a series of teachers are being brutally murdered. (A javelin is substituted for a gun in one instance.) Harriet Walter is the head of the venerable institution, Miss Bulstrode, and Susan Wooldridge is her able assistant, Miss Chadwick. One of the students comes from a country where there was a revolution and fears she may be a target of assassination, but it's the adults who seem to be dropping like flies all around her. Like most Christie adaptations, this isn't nearly as good as the book, but it does have its moments. Whereas the book had some shuddery sequences, this makes no attempt at creating an eerie atmosphere.

Verdict: Who let the cat out? ***.

TO TRAP A SPY


TO TRAP A SPY (1964). Director: Don Medford.

"What's that got to do with me? I'm just a housewife with two children."

Before the sixties spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. hit the airwaves, a pilot episode was filmed under the name Solo. When the show became a big hit, it was decided to increase the coffers a bit by expanding the first episode into feature-length and releasing it to theaters in color instead of black and white as it was shown on TV. To further make it a little different, it was decided to use the Solo pilot instead of the subsequent U.N.C.L.E. episode [Both of which were "The Vulcan Affair" with some changes]. Therefore the sinister organization in To Trap a Spy isn't Thrush but Wasp, and Solo's boss isn't Alexander Waverly but Mr. Allison (Will Kuluva). Sexy Luciana Paluzzi, who was a hit woman in Thunderball, figures in the added footage, which includes an after-bedroom scene with Solo. [Actually Paluzzi gives a good and more nuanced performance than she did in the Bond film.]

The plot has Solo (an excellent Robert Vaughn as a very classy spy) importuning a pretty housewife, Elaine May Bender (an equally good Patricia Crowley) to distract old boyfriend Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), who is planning an assassination of African dignitary Ashumen (William Marshall). But things are never as they seem, and complications arise, leading to desperate circumstances for Solo and the fish-out-of-water Elaine. Weaver and Marshall are both in good form, and Kuluva, frankly, makes a more realistic head of a super-spy agency than the lovable but rather dithery Leo G. Carroll. Some very good scenes and Vaughn and Paluzzi especially play well together. NOTE: David McCallum/Ilya doesn't have much to do in this.

Click here for more on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Verdict: The Birth of UNCLE. ***.

A PLACE OF ONE'S OWN


A PLACE OF ONE'S OWN (1945). Director: Bernard Knowles.

"There are other worlds."

James Mason often wound up in strange movies and in weird roles, and while the character he plays isn't especially weird, it's a wonder why he bothered to take the part. On the other hand, Mason is a fine actor and is generally up to any challenge, such as, in this case, playing a much older man. Henry Smedhurst (Mason) and his wife move into a house (an all too obvious model) that is supposed to be haunted. A pretty young woman, Annette (Margaret Lockwood), comes to live with them as the wife's companion, but soon she seems to fall under the spell of another woman who either committed suicide, or was murdered, in the house. Is she going loco or do spirits that can influence the living really exist? It all builds up -- if that's the word for such a dull picture -- to a real shaggy dog (or shaggy ghost) ending that may have some viewers groaning. Dulcie Gray, an Una O'Connor sound-alike, perks up the film as Sarah the maid, and Ernest Thesiger of Bride of Frankenstein makes a welcome, if all too brief, entrance late in the picture. Mason is quite good, but he was much more fun in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Verdict: Watch House on Haunted Hill instead. **.

INCUBUS


INCUBUS (1981). Director: John Hough.

In the small town of Galen a series of women are being attacked, sexually assaulted, and murdered -- along with some male friends and relatives -- by an unknown assailant. Dr. Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes) notices some very inexplicable things about the condition of the bodies, while reporter Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane) wants to find out what, if anything, the authorities may be hiding. Then there's Tim Galen (Duncan McIntosh), the boyfriend of Cordell's daughter Jennie (Erin Flannery), who has visions of the murders and thinks he's going crazy, and his grandmother Agatha (Helen Hughes), who is one weird old lady. This is based on Ray Russell's ingenious and creepy horror novel, but it doesn't do the novel justice. There appears to be a lot of post-production tampering and a lot of stuff has probably been left on the cutting room floor. If you haven't read the novel, you may be scratching your head at the conclusion -- huh? Still, this is an eerie, strangely compelling picture, and some of the gruesome assault scenes are well done. Well-acted by all, especially Cassavetes, who is excellent. John Ireland plays the sheriff, Hank. Mr. Sardonicus is a better film based on the work of Ray Russell. A better film directed by John Hough is Legend of Hell House.

Verdict: Not in the best taste, but creepy. **1/2.

SEED OF CHUCKY


SEED OF CHUCKY (2004). Written and directed by Don Mancini.

Tiffany: "Jennifer Tilly is playing me in a movie! What perfect casting!"

Chucky: "But that voice!"

Tiffany: "I think she sounds like an angel."

The offspring of the killer doll Chucky and his equally psychotic mate Tiffany makes his way to Hollywood where they're making a movie about his folks, but -- in a nod to Ed Wood -- there's some confusion as to whether his name should be Glen or Glenda. Used as mechanized props in the movie, Chucky and Tiffany come back to life and try to bond with their little son or daughter, who is appalled by the way they slaughter people indiscriminately. Meanwhile the real Jennifer Tilly (who plays herself and is -- Lord save us -- the voice of Tiffany), a freak of nature if ever there were one, is hoping that the blubber-lipped rapper-director Redman (played by Redman) will cast her in his next picture, a biblical epic. "You're prostituting yourself so you can play the Virgin Mary!" argues Tilly's assistant when she learns her boss has "plans" for Redman. You get the picture ... Initially entertaining, this very, very black and grossly gruesome comedy eventually becomes way too silly and rather tedious. It serves chiefly as a vehicle for actress Tilly to spoof herself and prove she's a good sport. At the end Tilly says "I'm a star!" Well, if you're starring in movies like Seed of Chucky you're probably not a star. Anyway, Tilly is amusing but she needs a better script. Brad Dourif is fine as the voice of Chucky.

Verdict: A real moron movie. *1/2.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

EVENT HORIZON


EVENT HORIZON (1997). Director: Paul Anderson.

It's the year 2047 and the spaceship Lewis and Clark has gone off to find out what happened to the deep space research vessel, the Event Horizon, which disappeared seven years before, past Neptune. Now they are receiving signals from the ship, which turns out not to have been a research vessel, but the site of a secret government project attempting a kind of faster-than-light speed which employs gravity cores and manufactured black holes. What really matters to the fascinated viewer of course is the fact that the Event Horizon went somewhere and has come back with its crew missing and the ship turned into some kind of hateful living organism. As the crew of the Lewis and Clark try to find out what became of the Event Horizon crew, they experience terrible hallucinations, and one poor fellow (Jack Noseworthy) has a harrowing experience in an airlock. Laurence Fishburne is Captain Miller; Sam Neill is Dr. Miller, who is taken over by the evil of the ship; and Kathleen Quinlan (who is terrific) is medical technician Peters. The movie has perhaps too many climaxes, but it is a very interesting and creepy combination of science fiction and the supernatural with an excellent premise. Good special effects.

Verdict: Stay out of the airlock! ***.

THE DEVIL COMMANDS


THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is a kindly scientist who is devastated when his wife Helen (Shirley Warde) is hit by a car and killed. He becomes obsessed with the notion of speaking to her past the veil of death, and creates machines and odd electronic helmets that will, hopefully, enable him to do so. He teams up with Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere) , a phony medium whom he suspects has some actual powers of some kind. Meanwhile he neglects his concerned daughter Anne (Amanda Duff) and goes to an isolated area with Walters to continue his weird work in private. There the townspeople react as if he were Dr. Frankenstein himself ... This movie is mostly amusing gobbledygook -- there isn't even an attempt to explain exactly how Blair's devices meant to be used to speak to the dead are supposed to work. Karloff and Revere make a highly interesting team, however, and the picture is entertaining. There's a wild climax, and you have to see Revere in her helmet with psychic waves radiating all around her to believe it.

Verdict: There have been worse. **1/2.

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET


FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1972). Written and directed by Dario Argento.

Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a rock musician in Italy, accidentally kills someone in self-defense, but the dope doesn't go to the police, opening himself up to blackmail and worse. We learn fairly early that someone is out to get Tobias, by framing him and making his life miserable. A series of murders occur when others learn who the person is behind the plot, or if they come too close to learning the truth. An early film by Italian horror specialist Argento, Four Flies holds the attention but is never quite satisfying. Mimsy Farmer plays Tobias' wife. Calisto Calisti plays Carlo, a gay private eye that Tobias hires to find out who's behind his torment. "What do you think -- that this fag is going to jump on a chair when he sees a mouse?" Carlo asks Tobias, although the point would have been better served had Carlo not been so stereotypical. There is some moderate inventiveness -- and a certain hoariness -- to the murder scenes. The title refers to the image seen on a murder victim's retina after death, supposedly captured by a photographic device. There's a lot of foreshadowing throughout the movie of the film's climactic and gruesome death. There's a certain over-the-top ugliness to the theme and tone of the movie, which is true of many of Argento's productions. After an career in the U.S. in the sixties, Farmer has worked mostly in Italy, with many more roles after Four Flies. This was Brandon's fourth film; he has exclusively appeared on television ever since.

Verdict: Not Argento's best but probably not his worst. **1/2.

STREET SCENE [OPERA]


STREET SCENE (1994). Director: José Montes-Baquer.

The original Broadway production of Street Scene -- based on Elmer Rice's play and with a score by Kurt Weill -- bridged the gap between musical and opera and did a fine job of it. This is a well-directed and filmed video/DVD [originally shown on television] of the outstanding production mounted by Houston Grand Opera. The storyline concerns the unhappy Maurant family -- the mother seeks tenderness in another man's arms; the daughter wants a better life but isn't willing to pay the price she might have to pay to get it; etc. It builds up inexorably to tragedy and a bittersweet but inevitable finale. Ashley Putnam and Teri Hansen are superb as, respectively, Mrs. Maurant and her daughter, Rose; Marc Embree also scores as Frank Maurant, as does Kip Wilborn as intellectual Sam (who loves Rose) -- but then the entire cast is of a high order. The many memorable songs/arias include Lonely Town, Wrapped in a Ribbon, What Good Will the Moon Be?, Somebody's Going to Be So Handsome, which Mrs. Maurant sings to young son Willie; her song about life and her husband's bitter lament about new-fangled notions; and especially the stunning love duet We'll Go Away Together. A very, very memorable and moving experience.

Verdict: Outstanding on every level. ****.

THE SPY IN THE GREEN HAT



THE SPY IN THE GREEN HAT (1966). Director: Joseph Sargent.

The Spy in the Green Hat was the European theatrical version of the two part Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Concrete Overcoat Affair." Thrush has decided upon a crazy plan to turn Greenland into "Thrushland" and is planning to use deadly missiles in their scheme. Louis Strago (Jack Palance) is the person Thrush has assigned to this plan and he is assisted by a sadistic secretary/assassin played by Janet Leigh. While investigating the operation, UNCLE agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) is caught in the bedroom of a pretty young Italian girl , Pia (Leticia Roman). Her relatives, prohibition mobsters who are now elderly men (Eduardo Ciannelli; Allen Jenkins), go after Solo to force him to marry her, but wind up teaming up with him when they learn that Pia has been taken captive by Strago. Jack Palance's performance is just a little over the top even for this kind of material, but Janet Leigh strikes just the right note as the psychotic hit woman and she has a nifty (if too brief) cat-fight with Letitia Roman. Ludwig Donath is the ex-Nazi who is working with Thrush and even Elisha Cook shows up as another petty, aging mobster. This is an entertaining UNCLE movie, with the usual quota of excitement and humor. "The Spy in the Green Hat" turns out to be Mr. Thaler, an emissary from Thrush Central, who comes to see Strago carry out the operation successfully. Thaler is well played by Will Kuluva, the actor who was first chosen to play the head of UNCLE [Mr. Allison] before it was decided to go with the better known Leo G. Carroll. [Kuluva also appears in the first UNCLE film To Trap a Spy.] Vaughn and David MaCallum are in good form as Solo and his fellow agent Illya Kuryakin.

Verdict: As theatrical telefilms go, this isn't bad -- if you're an UNCLE fan. ***.

THE BROOD


THE BROOD (1979). Director: David Cronenberg.

Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) has a young daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) and a wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar) who is getting a bizarre form of therapy from a psychological wunderkind named Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) who runs an outfit called Psychoplasmics. Carveth has no idea that Nola's treatment has some odd side effects. First her mother is killed, and then her father, by what appears to be a little boy in a hood but actually turns out to be an odd creature with no naval -- meaning it wasn't born in the usual sense ... what's going on? There are some interesting concepts and dialogue in this movie as there generally are in Cronenberg's films, but the film is awfully draggy and talks itself out long, long before the not-very-thrilling wind-up. Even the murder sequences aren't handled with that much flair. Busy actor Henry Beckman gives a terrific performance as Nola's father, Barton. Eggar is fine in a thankless, somewhat embarrassing role. Hindle and Reed are also good, as are some of the supporting players, but this picture just doesn't move.

Verdict: If you need a good night's sleep ... *1/2.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE (2009)


MY BLOODY VALENTINE (2009). Director: Patrick Lussier.

This remake of the 1981 My Bloody Valentine seems to begin with a reenactment of the original film's climactic slaughter. Then ten years go by and the town is again celebrating Valentine's Day (whoever heard of an entire town celebrating Valentine's Day?), the same day that maniac Harry Warden went on his rampage. Now the murders are starting again, and everyone is wondering if Warden is really dead. The best performance in the film is by Jaime King as Sarah Palmer, the sheriff's wife, who plays throughout the picture and its every situation with utter conviction. An interesting triangle develops between her, her husband (Kerr Smith) and old flame Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles) -- intensified by the fact that she can't be sure if either one might be the mass murderer as they both accuse the other. The film has more gross outs than the original picture, pandering to the frat boy crowd, even though it's unnecessary as the film has enough suspense and excitement to make it a creditable thriller without the excess gore. However, the climax of the remake is not nearly as good as the original's, which featured a battle in a moving mining train. Smith and Ackles also give good performances, and the rest of the cast is solid. Fast-paced. This was released in 3-D, which is obvious from the way that things are periodically thrust out at the viewer.

Verdict: Slasher movie fans will enjoy this one. ***.