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

Thursday, June 24, 2010

THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST


THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST (1941). Director: Archie Mayo.

A group of earnest performers and others try to bring entertainment to the new radio medium with varying degrees of success. This basic premise is tied to a forgettable triangle plot involving singer Vicki (Alice Faye), her alleged boyfriend, Chuck (Jack Oakie) and handsome Rix Martin (handsome John Payne) -- guess who gets the gal? Cesar Romero also appears as a wealthy man who backs the group in their efforts but is at odds with Rix for a number of reasons. Some of the songs are pleasant [I Take to You; Where You Are; Long Ago Last Night] but Oakie's trashing of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor isn't funny [as were the Three Stooges in their short, "Micro-Phonies] -- you just wish he'd shut up so you can enjoy the music. There's some great tap dancing by the Nicolas Brothers, but otherwise this is a bit dull. There could probably be a great musical about the early days of radio and bringing entertainment to the masses over the airwaves, but the totally standard Great American Broadcast isn't it. The actors, even Oakie, are fine.

Verdict: Predictable and one-dimensional musical with some memorable songs and a lousy script. **.

SCREAM 2


SCREAM 2 (1997). Director: Wes Craven.

This sequel to the hit Scream finds us back in Woodsboro where Sidney (Neve Campbell) finds herself embroiled in a new series of murders. The book that Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox) wrote about the murders in the first film has been made into a movie called Stab, and the first victims are a young African-American couple who are attacked in the theater where it's playing (Jada Pinkett makes an impression as the female victim). [In Scream when her friends talked about the Woodsboro Murders being turned into a movie, Sidney ruefully noted that she would probably be played by Tori Spelling -- Spelling plays Sidney's character in Stab!] Sidney's new boyfriend, who becomes a suspect, is played by Jerry O'Connell, and Liev Shrieber plays Cotton Weary, whom Sidney originally thought murdered her mother and who is now out of jail. Timothy Olyphant and an excellent Laurie Metcalf are the new characters of student Mick and reporter Debbie Salt. While the film certainly has its lighter moments -- a sequence when the characters discuss how sequels are generally worse than the originals -- it is basically a strong thriller that has some scenes [such as a tense bit in a TV studio where the killer stalks Gail and Deputy Dewey (David Arquette)] that are worthy of Dario Argento at his best. Much better than the original actually.

Verdict: Quite entertaining and fast-paced. ***.

SEND YOURSELF ROSES


SEND YOURSELF ROSES: THOUGHTS ON MY LIFE, LOVE, AND LEADING ROLES. Kathleen Turner in collaboration with Gloria Feldt. Springboard Press; 2007. [Hachette Book Group USA].

Like many actors, Kathleen Turner can come off as affected, breathless, and overbearing – and there’s a certain degree of “diva” in this book – but in this frank memoir she also emerges as an intelligent woman with some admirable qualities and a story to tell. Turner came to fame with the thriller Body Heat, made a few other notable movies, then became the Hollywood cliche of the “aging” sex symbol and reinvented herself as an acclaimed stage star of such works as The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She explains how many stars are so used to being fussed over while on a film set that they have a terror of losing that unique position in-between films [thus explaining those actors who surround themselves with hangers-on and sycophants and others who become demanding monsters to virtually everyone around them]. Turner’s show biz story is empowered by two aspects: her feminist perspective, particularly in regards to women as they age in a culture obsessed with youth, and her honest detailing of her struggle with RA [rheumatoid arthritis], the drugs for which affected her personality, behavior and appearance, and the pain of which exacerbated her heavy drinking. There are amusing anecdotes as well, such as the hapless Raquel Welch auditioning to replace Turner on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and running around the stage making feline movements and cat noises!

Verdict: Vivid show biz memoir. ***.

JUNGLE GIRL


JUNGLE GIRL 15 chapter Republic serial (1941). Directors: William Witney; John English.

Nyoka (Frances Gifford), who lives in the jungles of Cairobi with her father Dr. Meredith, doesn't realize that he has been replaced by his evil twin brother Bradley (Trevor Bardette). Nyoka not only has to deal with the sinister machinations of the medicine man, Shamba (Frank Lackteen), but with the deadly wiles of Bradley's confederate, Slick Latimer (Gerald Mohr). At least the brave Nyoka has three allies: the pilot Jack Stanton (Tom Neal of Detour fame), his buddy and co-pilot Curly (Eddie Acuff), and the little native boy Kimbu (Tommy Cook).

Jungle Girl, loosely based on a novel by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, is packed with action and deadly situations that occur within each chapter and not just at the end of each. Nyoka is suspended over a fire and tied to logs by straps, shrinking due to the heat, which are about to snap her into the flames; or is nearly drawn and quartered by the sadistic Shamba. Kimbu falls off a rope bridge and is nearly eaten by a crocodile. Jack gets trapped in a pit with a hungry lion in one chapter and dangles overhead in a trap as another tries to claw him from the ground in another. Nyoka herself battles a lion to the death at one point. And these aren't even the cliffhangers!

The actual cliffhangers present a flood of water that nearly washes the good guys out of a cavern and off of a cliff; a thatch of fiery oil on the river that nearly roasts them alive; a slipping log that traverses a high chasm; and a trap that consists of a room with a floor that moves to reveal what appears to be a bottomless pit! One of the best cliffhangers and action scenes has to do with Jack trapped on a conveyor belt that draws him ever nearer to a huge block of stone that repeatedly mashes downward as his head gets closer and closer. The suspense over this sequence continues into the following chapter where Jack continues to be in danger as Nyoka and the others battle all around him. There is a superb fight to the death between Jack and Slick on an airplane for the memorable and highly satisfying climax.

Curly isn't just comedy relief, although he does figure in the funniest scene, when he throws his voice to make little Kimbu think that his adorable monkey can talk! Later on, when Curly is unjustly accused of murdering the native chief, he realizes that they will kill everyone else just to get to him and is willing to sacrifice his life to save the others -- until the truth comes out.

The actors are fine, with Mohr, in one of his best roles, taking top honors as the slimy Slick. Neal makes a more than adequate two-fisted hero, and Gifford is lively and athletic. Bardette is fine as both the sympathetic doctor and his very unsympathetic brother. Tommy Cook is a charmer as Kimbu, as is his little monkey. There's even a very hammy gorilla in chapter eight. Al Kikume, who played Lothar in Mandrake the Magician, is herein cast as Chief Lutembi. Ken Terrell, who played Mrs. Archer's butler Jess in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, is cast as another native. Gifford also appeared in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamor.

The theme music sounds like something you'd hear for a "safari" act in a nightclub.

NOTE: The Perils of Nyoka, made by Republic the following year, was probably not an "official" sequel. In this Nyoka's dead father [killed in the first chapter of Jungle Girl] somehow turns up alive.

Verdict: One of the best serials ever made! ***1/2.

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME


YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000). Writer/Director: Kenneth Lonergan.

"You showed up!"

Brother and sister Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) have been close since they lost their parents to a car accident when they were children. Sammy has stayed in the small town of their birth with her young son Rudy (Rory Culkin) after his father took off for parts unknown, while Terry is a bit of a vagabond with no fixed address and not much of a future. Sammy has a nice boyfriend who wants to marry her (Jon Tenney) but drifts into a relationship with her married boss (Matthew Broderick) at a bank. Then there's a useless priest who tries to council both brother and sister, the former of whom has no use for religion [although the film isn't necessarily implying that this is the cause of his more free-spirited, irresponsible nature]. You Can Count On Me is well-acted by the entire cast, including little Culkin, but it's under-developed, and seems more the product of a mentality raised on sitcoms than serious film or theater. Some of the developments are not only predictable, but unconvincing, and the supporting characters lack dimension. The admittedly moving wind-up probably made the teary audience and critics think the movie is much better than it actually is. Still, it has its moments. A haunting image is Rudy's little hands clinging to his uncle with the highly uncertain future.

Verdict: Serious drama for the sitcom generation. **1/2.

KONGA


KONGA (1961). Director: John Lemont.

"If there's one thing I can't abide, it's hysterics!"

Producer Herman Cohen and star Michael Gough teamed for three British horror films in the sixties: Black Zoo, Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga, all of which are zesty fun. Konga is probably the weakest of the three, but it's still quite entertaining in its zany way. Gough plays Dr. Decker, who returns from an African expedition with weird plants that he's convinced will provide the link between vegetable and human life! He also develops a serum that turns his adorable pet chimp Konga into -- bizarrely -- a gorilla, and then [at the climax] a giant Kong-like monster that struts through downtown London with Decker in his paw. The vivid Gough is great fun as the gleefully sociopathic Decker, and Margo Johns is almost as vivid as his secretary/assistant/lover Margaret. Jess Conrad scores as the jealous boyfriend of a buxom student (an acceptable Claire Gordon) whom Decker takes a shine to. The effects may be cheesy but the climax is effective enough, and the strange plant life Decker puts in his greenhouse with their eternally snapping mouths look creepy. With its comical illogic and all-over-the-map plot line Konga resembles nothing so much as an old-time cliffhanger serial, and was even turned into a comic book by Charlton Publications in the sixties which ran for a couple of years. Gerard Shurmann's excellent score is probably superior to the material. Read more about this film and others like it in Creature Features.

Verdict: A Big Ape in London! **1/2.

EVER AFTER:THE LAST YEARS OF MUSICAL THEATER AND BEYOND


EVER AFTER: THE LAST YEARS OF MUSICAL THEATER AND BEYOND. Barry Singer. Applause Books; 2004. NOTE: Among the subjects this book covers is the trend to take popular motion pictures and turn them into Broadway mega-shows.

This is a highly readable, entertaining, and informative look at Broadway and Off-Broadway musical works from approximately 1978 up until 2003. [Some sections of the book are expanded from pieces Singer originally did for the New York Times.] Singer expertly looks at all the changes in musical theater that have occurred in the 25 years before Ever After’s publication, from the invasion of the British mega-musical such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz, to the explosion of film-based musicals, generally from Walt Disney, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aida. Singer also examines works by everyone from “old-timers” such as Stephen Sondheim to “young turks” such as the late Jonathan Larson [Rent], Michael John LaChiusa [Marie Christine], Jason Robert Brown [Parade] and Adam Guettel [Floyd Collins].Singer notes that theater fans always talk about and seem to demand new talent but often excoriate said talent when it arrives. People want something different but seem to go crazy for shows like The Producers with its standard, old-fashioned score.

Here’s Singer writing on the success of Weber’s Puccini-inspired and eternally over-rated Phantom of the Opera: “So why the fuss? That answer would seem to reside more within the diminished taste of Broadway audiences than with any intrinsic aesthetic criteria.” Singer notes that Broadway audiences have changed from “theater-going regulars” to tourists whose sensibilities were shaped by “mediocre mass-media entertainment” such as bad sitcoms.

You may not agree with all of Singer’s assessments, but Ever After is a smart, well-written book that examines all the changes, good and bad, to Broadway in the last quarter century or so, and does so in illuminating and page-turning fashion.

Verdict: Compulsive reading for theater and music fans. ***½.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

CRISS CROSS


CRISS CROSS (1949). Director: Robert Siodmak.

Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) begins seeing his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) even though she's now married to racketeer Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). When the two are caught in a compromising position, Steve decides the only way out of it is to pretend he was only hoping Anna would help interest her husband in a plan he had for an armored car robbery. So he's stuck ... even though his own father is one of the other drivers. And thus begins this twisted tale, most of which is told in flashback. Duryea and De Carlo come off best, although Lancaster is no slouch. Stephen McNally is effective as a cop-friend of Steve's and Alan Napier makes an impression as a confederate who likes his liquor. Richard Long appears briefly as Thompson's brother, and if you blink you might miss Tony Curtis in a bit as Anna's dance partner. While Criss Cross is hardly a major picture and is generally too perfunctorily-handled to make the most of its situations, it's also unpredictable, absorbing, and has a dramatic conclusion.

Verdict: Entertaining film noir. ***.

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK


JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (1952). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

"Don't worry, Mrs. Strong. He won't be back."

Jack Strong (Lou Costello) brings his beloved cow Henry [?] to Mr. Dinklepuss (Bud Abbott), the butcher, who gives him some magic beans instead of cash. But the beans really are magical, and soon there's a humongous beanstalk in Jack's backyard. He and Dinklepuss climb up to not only rescue the princess (Shaye Cogan) kidnapped by the giant (Buddy Baer) but to get back the hen that lays the golden eggs which the giant stole from Jack's mother (Barbara Brown). Up in the clouds the boys encounter not only the giant, but also a very tall gal named Polly (Dorothy Ford) and Prince Arthur (James Alexander). Most of the cast members do double-duty in the film, as the main fantasy story is framed by "modern" segments in which A & C become babysitters to a young boy (David Stollery) who wants Lou to read him a fairy tale.

Jack and the Beanstalk is a quaint kid's film that is not without entertainment value. Lou Costello with his winning personality is especially good in the movie. Buddy Bear, who also appeared in Giant from the Unknown, is made up horrifically enough as the giant. The romantic couple, Cogan and Alexander, both seem to have broad, craggy faces like brother and sister. The scene when the fellows climb the beanstalk is effective with some animation and matte paintings showing the ground far, far below. The songs in the film are by Heinz Roemheld, and include the catchy if derivative I Fear Nothing," as well as "Darlene,' "Dreamer's Cloth," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "He Never Looked Better in His Life." Alexander's dubbed singing voice is quite good. The voice of the talking harp was done by Arthur Shields, who could be seen in Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. This was Cogan's last picture of two. Alexander did three more movies and two television episodes, dying only eight years after this film was made at 46.

Verdict: Not exactly Babes in Toyland but fun. **1/2.

A STUDY IN TERROR


A STUDY IN TERROR (1965). Director: James Hill.

Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) and Watson (Donald Houston) get on the trail of the notorious Jack the Ripper when he begins slicing and dicing prostitutes in London. Among the suspects are a sinister tavern keeper named Max Steiner (Peter Carsten); Dr. Murray, who works with the poor (Anthony Quayle); the handsome Lord Carfax (John Fraser); his missing brother, Michael (John Cairney), and others. While one of the posters for this film [pictured] suggested that it was a camp exercise a la the Batman TV series, it is nothing of the kind and is played straight, although Robert Morley has an amusing appearance as Sherlock's brother, Mycroft. Neville and Houston are quite excellent as Holmes and Watson, and the film has some suspense and atmosphere as well. Georgia Brown does a couple of numbers as a pub singer, and Judi Dench ["M" in the James Bond films] has a supporting role as a woman who works with Dr. Murray. Neville has had a very long career with nearly 100 credits.

Verdict: The game's afoot again. ***.

THE TIGER WOMAN


THE TIGER WOMAN 12 Chapter Republic serial (1944). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet; Wallace Grissell. NOTE: The Tiger Woman was reissued as Perils of the Darkest Jungle.

In a location that seems to be South America [although this was undoubtedly shot on Republic's back lot]. Alan Saunders (Allan Lane), the representative of an oil company, discovers that he not only has to deal with thugs from a rival oil firm but with the "Tiger Woman" (Linda Stirling), who rules over the territory where the oil is located, as well as the Indians who live there ["We are a peaceful people" claims the high priest (Robert Frazer)]. The rather ruthless TW, who presides over executions or sacrificial ceremonies where enemies are thrown into a lava pit, "fell from the sky" and is really -- it is revealed quite early on -- an heiress named Rita Arnold. TW wears a fetching leopard print outfit with a skirt and is quite a feisty fighter. While there are some great fight scenes in Tiger Woman, there is also an inordinate amount of gun play. The villains Daggett (Crane Whitley) and Walton (LeRoy Mason) are a touch colorless -- although played by perfectly competent actors -- but the serial still manages to be quite entertaining, with some memorable cliffhangers. There's the cavern of falling stalactites; a boat over a water fall; a runaway mining car that shoots out a hole in the mountain and careens into space; and -- best of all -- a sensational bit with a descending mine elevator that has the Tiger Woman unconscious above while Saunders dangles uncertainly from below. Allan Lane is stalwart and effective as the hero. Stirling is certainly decorative, fights like a wildcat, and is an adequate actress. She was also in The Purple Monster Strikes, The Crimson Ghost and Zorro's Black Whip. Nice theme music.

Verdict: Very entertaining and well-done serial. ***.

SCREAM


SCREAM (1996). Director: Wes Craven.

About a year after her mother was raped and murdered, high school student Sidney (Neve Campbell) discovers that the horror isn't over when there are more murders in the town of Woodsboro, California seemingly tied in with her mother's death. The first victim is a classmate named Casey (Drew Barrymore, pictured) with whom the killer plays mind games about horror movies over the phone. Sidney's boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), becomes the first suspect, and there are other weirdoes, such as the perpetually grinning and obnoxious, spittle-faced Stuart (Matthew Lillard), and horror movie-obsessed Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) is attracted to the aggressive reporter, Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox), who has come to report on the murders and is convinced that Sidney fingered the wrong man for the original crime. Perhaps the most interesting murder sequence involves the deputy's sister Tatum (Rose McGowan) and an inconvenient garage door. This is a reasonably entertaining horror-thriller with an air of tongue-in-cheek flippancy, although it's certainly not an out and out comedy and not quite a spoof of slasher films. Scream is not that well directed or edited, and in fact the energetic musical score [Marco Beltrami] seems to be doing most of the work. Arquette and Cox [who later married] give perhaps the most memorable performances among the leads, although Ulrich and Lillard are also noteworthy. One real problem with the film is that it isn't especially scary nor atmospheric. Followed by Scream 2.

Verdict: At least it's miles ahead of stuff like Prom Night. **1/2.

THE MIRROR CRACK'D FROM SIDE TO SIDE -- MISS MARPLE


MISS MARPLE: THE MIRROR CRACK'D FROM SIDE TO SIDE (2010/Masterpiece Mystery). Director: Tom Shankland.

"I wouldn't hold my breath for a sequel."

This is the third adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1962 Miss Marple novel that was inspired by an incident in the life of actress Gene Tierney [there have been two television adaptations and one theatrical film]. Film star Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan), fresh from a nervous breakdown, is starting a new film in England and has just moved into the former home of Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley). At an elegant affair that Gregg gives in her new home, the comparatively dowdy Heather Badcock (Caroline Quentin) tells her that she left a sick bed just to see her years ago, and a few minutes afterward is dead by poison. Who want want to murder the self-absorbed if inoffensive Mrs. Badcock -- or was the real target Marina Gregg as she insists? Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, who only seems slightly over middle age and not that "elderly") investigates and seems to come up with a solution without hardly ever leaving her home. Despite a clever and entertaining premise, the novel was not necessarily one of Christie's better ones [the writer couldn't resist one last twist that defied credibility and is generally left out of the adaptations, as it is in this one] but this adaptation is much worse, and isn't even especially entertaining. McKenzie makes an acceptable Miss Marple, Duncan is more than acceptable as Marina, and an overblown Lumley acts as if she thinks that she's still appearing in her series Absolutely Fabulous or that she's playing the movie star. [She certainly doesn't come off as Dolly Bantry, who appeared in more than one Christie novel.] Although Marina's husband is described as being ugly and clown-like in the novel, he's played in this by handsome Nigel Harman. Samuel Barnett makes an impression as Sgt. Tiddler, as does Quentin as the unfortunate Heather Badcock. The whole thing seems disjointed and poorly put together.

Verdict: An unfortunate Christie adaptation that won't garner her any more fans. **.

MADOFF WITH THE MONEY


MADOFF WITH THE MONEY. Jerry Oppenheimer. John Wiley and Sons; 2009.

"The Madoffs were a family I thought I could trust. Now I want the man hung, I want the wife hung. I want the kids hung."

You know the story of Bernie Madoff and his incredible Ponzi scheme will eventually become a telefilm or big screen movie, hence the review of this book. [Al Pacino as Bernie?]

Madoff With the Money -- don't you love that title? -- not only goes into detail as to how Madoff bilked hundreds of "investors" of billions of dollars -- financing his and his family's cushy lifestyle -- but looks into his early life, and his parents, and shows how he seemed almost predestined for a life of fraud [not that there's any excuse for it]. What is most disgusting is that Madoff (and others like him, even those who got their money honestly) aren't content to live comfortably but insist upon a lifestyle of "conspicuous consumption" -- not just one beautiful home but four, not just one or two expensive cars, but half a dozen .. and so on.

Madoff's victims weren't just wealthy people or celebrities who might have to pass on an extra yacht due to their losses, but middle-class people who worked all their lives and hoped for some kind of pay off in old age. One couple wanted extra money so that their mentally disabled son could be cared for after they were gone, and now the cash they thought they could count on is kaput, never even invested. And there were hundreds of similar victims. Two men even committed suicide.

Madoff With the Money makes it clear that is is highly unlikely that Madoff acted alone and that other family members and associates at least knew what was going on. His relatives can act all outraged but it's more likely they just didn't want to deal with it as long as those checks kept coming in to pay for the fancy cars and houses. I have zero sympathy for them. Oppenheimer also offers interesting portraits of others in the circle such as Madoff's "entitled" homely niece, Shana.

The fascinating, fast-paced book is bolstered by many interviews, including one with a family insider.


Verdict: A non-fiction page-turner. ***.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

THESE THREE


THESE THREE (1936). Director: William Wyler.

College friends Karen Wright (Merle Oberon) and Martha Dobie (Miriam Hopkins) decide to open a girl's school together. Into their lives comes a handsome doctor, Joe (Joel McCrea), with whom both fall in love. Joe, however, only has eyes for Karen. [A memorable scene has Martha watching him as he sleeps, with the passage of time indicating that she's done this for hours.] This not being a soap opera, Joe and Martha do not get involved and Martha never makes a play for him. Unfortunately, a nasty little girl named Mary (Bonita Granville) implies that the good doctor spent the night in Martha's room, and forces another child (Marcia May Jones) to confirm it. This leads to disastrous complications.

These Three was based on a play by Lillian Hellman called The Children's Hour. It, too, was about the destructiveness of gossip, but the lie was quite different -- that the two women were lovers [It turned out that Martha was a self-hating lesbian]. Naturally Hollywood of the 30's wouldn't tackle such a subject, so it was toned down and changed to alleged pre-marital sex and infidelity. Years later Wyler filmed the play again [as The Children's Hour] with the original story intact. In that version Miriam Hopkins played Martha's Aunt Lily (played by Catherine Doucet in These Three).

Even in its adulterated version These Three is a powerful story, and the film is well directed and very well played by the entire cast. In addition to those already mentioned, Alma Kruger makes an impression as Mary's grandmother, who starts the word-of-mouth campaign against the two women and their school. Margaret Hamilton plays the woman's stern maid, who can see through Mary, and in perhaps the movie's most satisfying scene, gives her a good slap.

Verdict: Superior, thoughtful drama. ***1/2.

MAD MONEY


MAD MONEY (2008). Director: Callie Khouri.

Bridget Cardigan (Diane Keaton) and her husband Don (Ted Danson) are in financial jeopardy after Don loses his job, so Bridget goes to work on the cleaning crew at the Federal reserve in Kansas City. Bridget importunes Nina (Queen Latifah), whose job is to destroy currency that has been taken out of circulation, to join her in a scheme to steal some of this money with the aid of another employee, the somewhat ditsy Jackie (Katie Holmes). To Bridget's way of thinking, they aren't really stealing anything as the money would just have been burned up. Mad Money has winning performances from the three leading ladies -- Keaton is especially delightful throughout -- Danson, and other cast members and is gleefully immoral as a kind of reaction to the recession, an "easy money" fantasy run amok. Roger Cross is fine as Barry, a co-worker who figures out what the ladies are up to. Entertaining picture with some amusing sequences.

Verdict: Fun if you're not in a demanding mood. ***.

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE "DEAD"


In 1968 Pittsburgh filmmaker George Romero came out with the ghoulish horror film Night of the Living Dead. ["Wait until you're dead to see it," quipped William Wolf of Cue magazine.] The low-budget film was not a badly-made movie and it had effective moments, and perhaps more than Psycho it influenced the furthering depiction of gore and graphic gross ghastliness in movies, a dubious honor. There were a number of sequels, made by Romero, and others -- some of these were actually grisly black comedies and not horror films per se -- and the cannibal-zombie movie became a sub-genre of the horror film. Some critics started looking at Romero's dead movies as intellectual items along the lines of Shakespeare [upon this I won't even comment]. With his "dead" movies Romero was really "brilliantly" commenting upon our society. In reality, movies like Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead were just mind-numbing and ultimately dull exercises in gore with delusions of profundity. Now Romero has yet another "dead" movie out called Survival of the Dead. Who cares? Talk about retreading the same material over and over and over again.

The problem I have with Romero is that he's beginning to believe his own publicity. Time magazine [!] recently made him the subject of their "10 Questions" column, referring to him as a "horror master." Please. "If there's something I'd like to criticize, I can bring the zombies out ... so I've been able to express my political views through those films," he says. Now this is a real intellectual -- he uses gore movies about dead people chewing on intestines to get across his political views. It would be funny -- in fact it is funny -- except that Romero has fans who actually believe the guy and his silly dead movies are profound. [These are the same people who think Eugene O'Neill is a comic book writer and read Fangoria religiously but never crack a real book.]

At best I'd say Romero is an okay craftsman, but when people start talking about him as if he's on the level of an artist like Alfred Hitchcock I say "enough already." An artist is supposed to grow, not make the same movie over and over and over.

The question is: What nerd-boy at Time magazine decided it was appropriate to do publicity for another crappy zombie movie?

THE CHINESE RING


THE CHINESE RING (1947). Director: William Beaudine.

"Uh oh, Listen to that old honey and molasses!" -- Birmingham Brown.

Roland Winters took over the role of Charlie Chan for this Monogram mystery that also has Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown and Victor Sen Yung as Tommy Chan [although previously he had played Jimmy Chan]. Princess Mei Ling (Barbara Jean Wong) pays a call on Chan's domicile and is murdered by a blow gun before she even gets a chance to talk to him. The Princess was tied up with Captain Kong (Philip Ahn) of the Shanghai Maid and Captain Kelso (Thayer Roberts), as well as the banker Armstrong ( a very effective Byron Foulger). There's also a cute little mute Chinese boy who has seen too much, and the maid Lilly Mae (Chabing) who's in the same category. There are several murders before the true mastermind is uncovered. Winters makes a younger, more virile and more attractive Chan than usual, and he gives a good performance. Suspenseful story and good cast help a lot. NOTE: This is part of the TCM Spotlight Charlie Chan Collection from Warner Home Video.

Verdict: There's life in old Chan yet. **1/2.

DOUBT


DOUBT (2008). Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, from his play.

Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep) , the principal of the St. Nicholas School in the Bronx in 1964, is convinced -- without solid evidence -- that Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is having an inappropriate relationship with the school's only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). Beauvier is a bit taken aback -- and appalled -- when the boy's mother (Viola Davis) doesn't even seem to care that much, because she also thinks her son is "that way;" apparently she, like many people back then and even today, sees little difference between homosexuality and pedophilia. The question is: is Flynn a child molester (assuming anything inappropriate actually took place between him and the boy) or does the guilty way he acts have more to do with the possibility that he is simply gay and deeply ashamed of it (as a priest today might be, let alone in 1964)? Flynn may have sensed that Donald was also homosexual (although the boy betrays no outwardly stereotypical signs) and been drawn to him out of sympathy -- not sexuality. Of course the irony is that Sister Beauvier would never have appreciated or cared about the difference. It's the acting by Streep, Hoffman and Davis -- as well as Amy Adams as Sister James -- that keep this very absorbing picture humming, but it also has a multi-faceted [if imperfect] screenplay by Shanley, touching upon everything from child molestation and gay [not pedophile] priests to the sexist patriarchy of the church and its condescending attitude toward the sisters and indeed all women. Streep at times seems a little one-dimensionally villainous, but her performance is certainly vivid; Hoffman and Davis are superb.

Verdict: Flawed, perhaps, but also intriguing and worthwhile. ***1/2.

BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949)


BATMAN AND ROBIN 1949 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: Spencer Bennet.

Batman (Robert Lowery) and Robin (John Duncan) cross wits and figurative swords with a criminal mastermind known only as the Wizard. The suspects for his real identity are numerous: the grumpy old Professor Hammil (William Fawcett) who seems to be crippled but can attach himself to a certain energy device; Dunn, the skulking private eye (Michael Whalen); radio announcer Barry Brown (Rick Vallin), who always seems to know what everyone is up to ahead of time; or Carter (Leonard Penn), Hammil's unctuous butler. [The Wizard's voice appears to be dubbed by Gerald Mohr.] The relatively colorless Jane Adams plays photographer Vicki Vale, who has a crooked brother named Jimmy. Lyle Talbot plays Commissioner Gordon. The Wizard employs such devices as a remote control machine that can stop cars and trains in their tracks, and another machine that turns him invisible to wreak more havoc. Robert Lowery makes an okay Batman/Bruce Wayne, and 26-year-old John Duncan is fine and credible as an adult Robin. The near-operatic theme music is also quite memorable.

Verdict: Suspenseful and fun. ***.

V (2009)


V (2009 ABC-TV series -- ongoing). Created by Kenneth Johnson.

V was originally a mini-series and then an ongoing series in the 80's. This is a remake/updating of that original show.

V stands for "visitor," a technologically-advanced alien race that has come to Earth ostensibly to share its knowledge with us and to help humanity. Actually, the visitors, who resemble lizards beneath their human outer shell, are here to take over the planet, but first lull everyone into a false sense of security by doing good works for humans. Not everyone is fooled, however. Working together as a fifth column to overthrow the visitors are a group of humans and aliens who have come to cherish human emotions and despise their own race and their plans for the earth. These include a police officer, Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell), who, ironically, has been assigned to hunt down the fifth columnists; Ryan (Morris Chestnut), the Visitor in drop-dead handsome African-American form who has fallen in love with and impregnated a human; Father Travis (Scott Hylands); and Hobbes (Kyle Mesure), a bearded double-agent who seems to have no true allegiance to anyone. A reporter named Chad Decker (Scott Wolf) sits somewhere on the fence. Ryan's girlfriend Valerie (Lourdes Benedicto) has just given birth to a hybrid baby carried off by the visitors, and Erica's son Tyler (Logan Huffman) has fallen for an alien beauty named Lisa (Laura Vandevoort).

Lisa has developed human emotions, in sharp contrast to her mother, Anna (Morena Baccarin), who is the ruthless leader of the Visitors. Anna mates with a hunky visitor to create soldier aliens, and then devours the guy with her big, needle-like teeth [only seen when she transforms to her true self]. To further her own ends, she has some of her followers break her daughter's legs. What makes it all the more chilling is that Morena Baccarin, who is perfectly cast, is such a pretty, sweet-looking woman -- with a Cheshire cat grin. The actors are all quite good, but Baccarin's portrayal is the glue that holds it all together.

V hasn't quite become "must-see" television -- it certainly isn't as good as the 60's show The Invaders -- but it is an entertaining, suspenseful program with a lot of potential. It has been renewed for a second season and will be back in the fall of 2010. It should be relatively easy for new viewers to get in step with what's going on.

Verdict: Never trust a lizard. ***.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN (1939)


MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN 1939 12 chapter Columbia serial. Directors: Norman Deming; Sam Nelson.

Although probably not the best choice to play Lee Falk's mustachioed magician from the comic strips, Warren Hull -- sans mustache -- is effective enough in this cliffhanger serial. Professor Houston (Forbes Murray) has invented a radium energy machine which he claims will "aid humanity," but it just seems like another destructive ray gun. Houston's daughter Betty (Doris Weston) is sweet on Mandrake and she has a younger brother named Tommy (Rex Downing). A masked character named the Wasp is after the radium energy machine and will stop at nothing to get it. A lot of suspense is worked up over the identity of the Wasp: could he be Dr. Andre Bennett (Edward Earle); engineer James Webster (Kenneth MacDonald); kindly Frank Raymond (Don Beddoe); or someone else? Al Kikume plays Lothar, Mandrake's assistant/servant. The Wasp ruthlessly gasses to death any screw-ups on his team, and blows up Mandrake's house at one point. There are collapsing buildings, flash floods from exploded damns, and danger in a cable car situated high over a chasm. Mandrake and the Wasp have a lively fight and chase in the final chapter. The music is mediocre and adds nothing to the serial. Robert Sterling of Topper TV fame has a small role as one of the Wasp's henchmen. Weston had only nine credits in total, and made only two more films after this appearance.

Verdict: Not exactly "magical." perhaps, but a lot of fun nevertheless. ***.

FRINGE


FRINGE (2008 - current Fox television series). Co-creator: J. J. Abrams.

Fringe, like The X Files and the more recent Eleventh Hour, is about people investigating weird happenings. Fringe has a special hook that reminds me of old comic books: the alternate Earth or parallel universe. Way back in the late fifties and sixties DC Comics re-invented many of its canceled golden age heroes such as The Flash and Green Lantern, and when they became popular, decided to bring back the original versions, saying they lived on a parallel Earth they called Earth-2. Well Fringe has its very own Earth-2, which is more scientifically advanced than our own Earth, but has its own unique problems -- and they're huge. [There are comic book references sprinkled throughout the series.]

Years ago Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) discovered that this alternate universe existed. When his young son Peter died, Bishop took grave risks in traveling to this other-Earth and bringing back the Peter of that universe. Bishop saved Peter-2's life, but never told him [until the most recent episodes] where he really came from. He, in essence, kidnapped the boy from his real family. Worse, by crossing over to and back from the other-Earth, he caused massive disruptions in the space-time continuum -- or something along those lines -- resulting in whole zones and even cities [and all the people in them] in that parallel Earth becoming, well, frozen in time and effectively dead.

Bishop worked with young children who had special qualities or powers [possibly caused by a drug], then wound up in an institution for many years. Now he's out, working with his son (Joshua Jackson) and FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), to investigate odd phenomenon, some of it caused by his messing on the Other-Earth. One episode dealt with a plague on the loose in an office building; another was about a man who passed along a severe form of cancer to everyone he encountered. A particularly good episode guest-starred Peter Weller as a scientist who keeps trying to go back in time to save the life of the woman he loved, causing deaths every time he does so. On one show a building from the alternate dimension merged with one on our own earth and the results were horrendous. Periodically the Other-Earth sends agents who can metamorphose into anyone they choose, and there's another scientist named William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) whose motives are questionable.

In the two-part season finale, the regular cast members traveled to the parallel world where they encountered their own duplicates. Now it appears that the Olivia from the other world has taken the place of the "real" Olivia. We'll have to see what happens next.

Although imperfect, Fringe is an intriguing and quirky series. John Noble is a fine, expressive actor -- even if his character is a little annoying -- and Anna Torv matches him in intensity. [Torv seemed to have fun playing her sexier, more relaxed duplicate on the finale.] Up against these two Joshua Jackson is a bit of a lightweight as Peter, but he's certainly not bad. Blair Brown has a supporting role on the series as Nina and is fine.

Verdict: Keep watching. ***.

DANGEROUS MONEY


DANGEROUS MONEY (1946). Director: Terry Morse.

When treasury agent Scott Pearson (Tristram Coffin, star of King of the Rocket Men), who's on the trail of some "hot" money, is murdered on board ship, Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) steps in to investigate. But Pearson is only the first of several victims of a knife-throwing assailant both on board the ship and in the port of Samoa. Among the suspects are the purser, George Brace (Joe Allen), portly P. T. Burke (an excellent Dick Elliott), Tao Erickson (Rick Vallin) and his wife Laura (Amira Moustafa), Freddie Kirk (John Harmon), Miss Rona Simmonds (Gloria Warren), dishwasher Big Ben (Dudley Dickerson) with the big bank roll, and Mr. and Mrs. Whipple. Now there's something odd about one of those passengers but we won't say what. Instead of Mantan Moreland's Birmingham Brown, we get Chattanooga Brown played winningly by Willie Best [who also appeared in My Little Margie.] Victor Sen Yung plays Chan's No. 2 son, Jimmy. This is another entertaining and suspenseful Monogram Chan picture. You have to see the turtle with the pen light on its back to believe it! NOTE: This is included on the TCM Spotlight Charlie Chan Collection, which also includes Dark Alibi, The Trap and The Chinese Ring.

Verdict: Not bad Chan. **1/2.

SWMMING WITH SHARKS


SWIMMING WITH SHARKS (1994). Director: George Huang.

Guy (Frank Whaley) wants so badly to make it in the movie business that he becomes an assistant to an egomaniacal asshole named Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) and puts up with his mood swings, nastiness, and abusiveness until something finally pushes him over the edge. Most of the movie consists of flashbacks as Guy makes Buddy a prisoner in his own home. Intriguing suspense-drama holds the attention, but what really puts it over is the acting, especially by an amazing Spacey. Whaley is also excellent, as is Michelle Forbes as a producer named Dawn with whom Guy has an affair. Benicio Del Toro also scores as Buddy's last assistant, who tries to teach Guy the ropes. The ending is unrealistic but cynical. This is no Citizen Kane but there's a character named "Foster Kane." Whaley and Forbes have done mostly TV work since this film was released.

Verdict: Quite entertaining with a marvelous Spacey. ***.

THE TRAP


THE TRAP (1946). Director: Howard Bretherton.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is called in when one of a traveling group of show girls is found strangled -- then there are more murders which Chan can't prevent. This was the last time Toler played Chan, but as usual, he does it well. Rita Quigley is the hysterical Clementine [she was to make only one more movie] and Anne Nagel, who plays the bitchy Marcia, was also in The Secret Code and other serials, as well as The Invisible Woman and Man Made Monster. Minerva Urecal of the prune face plays the unpleasant landlady Mrs. Weebles. Mantan Moreland is as wonderful as ever as Birmingham Brown.; Victor Sen Yung reprises the role of Jimmy Chan. Kirk Alyn, who appeared in many serials including Superman, plays Sergeant Reynolds, but I confess I didn't even recognize him. This is another suspenseful and entertaining Monogram Chan pic available as part of the new TCM Spotlight Charlie Chan Collection from Warner Home Video.

Verdict: Toler's farewell appearance. **1/2.





GREAT PERFORMANCES AT THE MET -- TURANDOT


GREAT PERFORMANCES AT THE MET -- TURANDOT. Live Performance 2009. Rebroadcast May 2010.

This Franco Zeffirelli production of Giacomo Puccini's masterpiece Turandot is, in a word, magnificent.

Based on a Chinese fable, Turandot is the story of a princess who is desired by all the eligible and noble bachelors who come in hopes of winning her hand in marriage. But Turandot, under the influence of a female ancestor who was raped and beaten by men, will have none of it. She demands that every suitor answer three riddles, and if he fails -- as they all do -- he is beheaded. A mysterious prince [Calaf] is horrified by the woman's actions, but when he finally sees her it's love -- or at least lust -- at first sight, and to the dismay of his father and the young woman who has always loved him, he decides to try his hand at the riddles. So ends the first act of three.

Maria Guleghina is Turandot and Marcello Giordani is Calaf in this production and both have wonderful moments; for instance, Giordani nails "Nessum Dorma," the great aria in act three. [In a backstage interview during intermission with hostess Patricia Racette, both singers reveal warm and winning personalities.] Marina Poplavskaya makes a highly favorable impression as the tragic figure of Liu, who has dedicated her life to the father of the man she has forever loved from afar. Samuel Ramey is the father, Timur, and Charles Anthony [who also displays a winning personality in an interview] is the Emperor Altoum.

Andris Nelsons is the conductor, and Gary Halvorson the director of the televised program. Zeffirelli not only conceived the production but designed the memorably beautiful and striking sets.

Puccini's music is moving, uplifting, dramatic, and gorgeous.

Verdict: A stunner. ****.

DAYBREAKERS


DAYBREAKERS (2009). Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig.

Taking its cue from such films as The Last Man on Earth, Omega Men [a remake of the first film], comics like Planet of the Vampires and so on, Daybreakers presents an Earth in which a plague of vampirism has erupted through the world and only 5% of the population are human. Although humans are captured and harvested for their blood, there is still a severe shortage, resulting in violent outbreaks by "subsiders," the name for vampires who attack other vampires and drink non-human blood. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a vampire with a social conscience who is trying to come up with a substitute for blood so that the human race he once belonged to won't become extinct. His boss, Bromley (Sam Neill) believes that even if he invents a substitute there will always be vampires who want and can afford the real thing. Dalton's brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) is a hunter who captures humans and the very one who turned his brother into a vampire. Edward hooks up with a band of humans fighting to hold on to their humanity, which include Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and "Elvis" (Willem Dafoe) who's discovered the way to turn a vampire back into a human.

Daybreakers is one of the more intriguing treatments of vampirism. The film has real suspense and is directed with flair and assurance. Hawke, Dafoe, Neill and the others turn in fine performances that help you stay absorbed in what's happening on the screen. There are some powerful moments such as when a bunch of deteriorating "subsiders," including Bromley's daughter Allison (Isabel Lucas), are forced into the sun where they burst into flames and become ashes. Since the film is not afraid to have "humanistic" moments, it seems a shame that its intelligence is blunted by obligatory, over-familiar and dumbed-down moments of extreme gore meant to please the Fangoria crowd but which aren't really necessary in a film of real quality. They prevent Daybreakers from being the outstanding horror drama that for much of its length it is.

Verdict: Comes close to being a very memorable horror film. ***.