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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935)


DAVID COPPERFIELD (aka The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger/1935). Director: George Cukor.

" They seem rather obstinate oysters!" -- Aunt Betsey.

After his beloved mother's death, little David Copperfield (a wonderful Freddie Bartholomew) finds himself at the mercy of his hated stepfather, Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) and his equally loathsome sister, then sent off to work in a factory where he is befriended by the benevolent Micawber (W. C. Fields, pictured). Then the poor boy has to make his way on foot, penniless, to the home of his peppery Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver). The problem is that when David grows to manhood and is played by the relatively colorless Frank Lawton, he becomes a supporting character in his own story, which on the whole is full of too many characters that you just don't care about. For the most part, the acting is excellent, however, with Oliver and Rathbone as good as ever -- not to mention Jessie Ralph as nurse Peggotty -- and Roland Young making a striking Uriah Heep. Lewis Stone, Elsa Lanchester, Lionel Barrymore, Una O'Conner and others are lost in the episodic and sometimes dull picture, but Fields and Bartholomew make an engaging pair. Even at 130 minutes' running time there's simply too much plot crammed into the movie, and the second half is not nearly as good as the first. I generally like honest sentiment, but in David Copperfield the sentiment is often treacly, the characters' affection for one another bordering on the cloying. Everyone is just too "cutesy." However, the movie certainly has its admirers.

Verdict: Has its moments, but it's no Tale of Two Cities. **1/2.

KING KONG (1933) ON BLU-RAY


KING KONG (1933) on Blu-Ray. Released September 28th, 2010.

This is a newly remastered print of the wonderful original King Kong with lots of extras. In addition to the film, there is a documentary on Merian C. Cooper, commentary by such as Ray Harryhausen, another seven-part documentary that explores all aspects of the making of the film, and a 32-page illustrated booklet about the movie written by Rudy Behlmer. This is a beautiful package that presents the film with every sequence intact. This also includes the theatrical trailer and the lost spider pit sequence. You can get this special Blu-Ray box set at Warner Brother's official site.

Verdict: Now's the time to take another look at King Kong. ****.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG


THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2008). Directors: Ron Clements; John Musker. Disney Studios.

Tiana, a black waitress in New Orleans who is hoping to save up enough money to open her own eatery, is friends with the spoiled rich, if essentially likable, Lottie. Lottie has set her cap for the handsome, conceited Prince Naveen, who has come for a visit from India, and who -- unbeknownst to Lottie -- is cash-poor and desirous of an opportune marriage. But the sinister Shadow Man uses magic to turn Naveen into a frog, and Nadeen's corpulent, jealous assistant into Nadeen. Thinking Tiana is a princess because of her party costume, frog-Nadeen asks for a kiss, but all that happens is that poor Tiana turns into a frog, too. This leads into a scary, amusing romp in the bayou as the frog couple seek out a woman who has the magic to turn them back and Nadeen learns that nothing is more important than true love. This beautiful feature-length cartoon boasts an excellent script and direction, fluid, attractive animation, wonderful vocal acting from the unseen cast, an extremely appealing heroine, and a tuneful score to boot. Among an interesting supporting cast of both human and animal characters, the most memorable is Louis, an alligator whose biggest dream is to play in a band. Full of warmth and honest sentiment, humor and whimsy, The Princess and the Frog is simply a splendid movie by any standard.

Verdict: A lovely, lovely film. ***1/2.

ZOTZ


ZOTZ (1962). Producer/director: William Castle.

A college professor, Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston), discovers that an ancient coin gives him magical powers, such as the ability to "zap" people with his finger, slow down time, and other things according to the screenwriter's wishes. This awful -- and awfully unfunny movie with exactly one laugh [the mouse with the wig on it] -- was scripted by Ray Russell, who wrote the source material for the films Mr. Sardonicus [one of Castle's better films] and Incubus. Jones is a complete idiot who reads a book as he bicycles to work. It doesn't help that he is portrayed by the utterly bland and dull actor Tom Poston. [Poston later wound up as a panelist on game shows, which made better use of his "talents."] The only good thing about the movie is that Cecil Kellaway and Margaret Dumont of Marx Brothers fame have all-too-brief supporting roles. Leading lady Julia Meade is attractive and more than competent, but her appearance in Zotz did her little good. Although it gets some stiff competition from 13 Frightened Girls, Zotz is probably the worst film William Castle ever made.

Verdict: Atrocious. 1/2* for the presence of Kellaway and Dumont only.

PARTY ANIMALS


PARTY ANIMALS: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll starring the fabulous Alan Carr. Robert Hofler. Da Capo Press; 2010.

Although the title barely seems to acknowledge it -- probably because his name was never exactly a household word -- this is the story of producer Allan Carr, and his involvement with everything from the Village People group to La Cage Aux Folles the musical, the abysmal film version of Tommy, Can't Stop the Music, Grease, and a disastrous Oscar telecast with a singing Rob Lowe. Flamboyantly and openly gay, Carr conversely seemed to be full of self-hatred, something Hofler briefly touches upon as he looks into the behind-the scenes details of Carr's various projects -- including parties/orgies/drug fests at his home and gargantuan movie premieres set in the subways and elsewhere -- and traces his rise and fall on Broadway and in Hollywood. Very well-done and readable biography with an interesting cast of characters and many quotes from those who both loved and hated the subject or both.

Verdict: An interesting little slice of Broadway and Hollywood history. ***.

MOUSEHUNT


MOUSEHUNT (1997). Director: Gore Verbinski.

Two brothers (Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, both of whom are excellent) inherit a ramshackle mansion from their father, who owned a string factory. The boys discover that the house is actually a lost manor by a famous architect, and may well be worth millions, so they set about renovating it. The only trouble is the manse's sole resident, a cute, abnormally intelligent, and amazingly aggressive mouse who is not about to be put out or deprived of his supper and cozy bedroom. Eventually the fellows become obsessed with getting rid of the mouse and try everything from pest controllers (a very amusing Christopher Walken) to a nasty feline known as "Catzilla " -- with ironic and devastating results. This dark comedy is not for every taste -- I watched it with a friend who did not laugh once while I found it hilarious -- but those who are game will find it inventive and very, very funny. The mouse -- played by a real mouse and what appears to be an animatronic version -- is delightful. Good supporting cast [William Hickey, Eric Christmas, Vicki Lewis etc.] and a lively musical score by Alan Silvestri add to the fun.

Verdict: Even if you "hate meeses to pieces" you may enjoy this. ***1/2.

THE WOLFMAN (2010)


THE WOLFMAN (2010). Director: Joe Johnston.

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), an acclaimed stage actor, comes back to his ancestral home of Blackmoor and gets caught up in a nightmare when he's bitten by a werewolf and begins to transform into a flesh-tearing monster at night. This is a credible remake of the 1941 original, handsomely produced, fast-paced, and with a good lead performance from Del Toro. Danny Elfman's musical score and Shelly Johnson's cinematography are definite assets as well. The best scene has Talbot transforming in front of everyone in an operating theater in an asylum. Anthony Hopkins gives a somewhat odd performance as Talbot Sr., possibly because the character [literally] has been changed a great deal from Claude Rains' superb portrayal in the original.

Verdict: The movie is fun. ***.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

SORRY, WRONG NUMBER


SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948). Director: Anatole Litvak.

"Henry! There's someone at the top of the stairs!"

Barbara Stanwyck gives an outstanding, Oscar-nominated performance as the highly neurotic Leona Stevenson, who overhears a murder plot on a crossed telephone wire and tries to save the victim's life -- only to discover the life she's trying to save is her own. Long before the end of the movie you may want to strangle the self-absorbed Leona with her air of entitlement yourself, but Stanwyck also manages to work up some sympathy for the character. Burt Lancaster is also on the money as Leona's husband, Henry. A lot of suspense is worked up in trying to figure out what kind of dark business Henry has got himself cooked up in. While some may feel there's way too many flashbacks and telephone conversations in the picture, Sorry, Wrong Number is quite absorbing and has a terrific, scary finale. Screenwriter Lucille Fletcher opened up her radio play in convoluted but entertaining fashion. Top-notch photography by Sol Polito; fine score by Franz Waxman; well-directed by Litvak. Ed Begley (as Leona's father), Harold Vermilyea, Ann Richards and others offer solid supporting portrayals.

Verdict: Stanwyck in top form! ***1/2.

YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG


YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG (2009). Written, produced, and directed by Aviva Kempner.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is primarily a biography of Gertrude Berg, who played the much-beloved character of Molly Goldberg on the long-running radio/TV series The Goldbergs. [Her neighbor would yell out of her window, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg."] But it is also an evocation of a particular time in history, and a look back at the radio, television and motion picture industries as they were in a different era. In addition, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg also covers everything from WW2, the holocaust and anti-Semitism to the often tragic consequences of the blacklist in the fifties and its effect on many careers in show business. Berg, born Tilly Edelstein, became "the first woman to build a media empire." She wrote but originally had not intended to act on the radio show The Rise of the Goldbergs, but she was so suited for the lead role that she got it, and continued to play the part when it debuted as the TV series The Goldbergs on 1/10/49. Philip Loeb was excellent as her husband, but due to his liberal and labor causes he was branded a communist and CBS dropped the show when Berg refused to drop Loeb. However, Loeb finally had to leave the series when it became apparent that no other network would air the program as long as he was a part of it [he later committed suicide]. The Goldbergs continued with first Harold Stone, and then Robert Harris, as Mr. Goldberg, but it lost much of its audience when the family moved from the Bronx to the suburbs. Although focusing on a Jewish family, it was the universal themes on the program that made it a hit with so many. Berg later wound up doing more than one project with, of all people, Sir Cedric Hardwicke! The movie is bolstered by interviews with the late Berg's relations, co-workers, and many people both in and out of the industry who were greatly influenced by her. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is charming, sad, and altogether excellent. NOTE: The DVD release of Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg contains many extras, including a few episodes of the series itself. NOTE: This film is available on itunes and on amazon VOD.

Verdict: This is a superb documentary on every possible level. ****

X-MEN


X-MEN (2000). Director: Bryan Singer.

This is an excellent filmic realization of the long-running Marvel Comics series that first began publishing in 1963. A prologue shows us a young Polish boy, Eric Lensherr, being separated from his parents by Nazis, the stress of which makes him exhibit his amazing magnetic powers for the first time. Decades later this boy has become the evil mutant terrorist Magneto (Ian McKellen), opposed by his old friend Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has formed a school to teach mutants how to use their powers and to hopefully prevent a war between humans and [evil] mutants that might decimate the planet. Into this school come two new X-Men, the young Marie or "Rogue" (Anna Paquin) and the enigmatic Logan or "Wolverine" (Hugh Jackman), who knows little about his past. Magneto wants to use Rogue [who can absorb other people's energy and powers] in a plan to turn world leaders into artificial mutants, thus preventing the passage of a mutant registration act that might lead to dire consequences for all of these people who are "different." Caught up in this battle royal are X-Men Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Magneto's allies Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and the Toad -- much improved from his comic version -- with his tremendously long and snapping tongue (Ray Park). Bruce Davison is Senator Kelly, who has introduced the bill and becomes a pawn between the two opposing groups. The highlight of X-Men is the climactic battle on Liberty Island and in and around the Statue of Liberty. The film is very good at getting across the sheer effort that it takes these heroes to use their powers [they are not all-powerful like Superman]. The music, the special effects, the solid direction and acting [especially from Stewart and the magnificent McKellen] and generally well-choreographed action scenes all combine to make one of the very best comic book adaptations. [However, if comic books and super-heroes leave you cold, X-Men probably will as well.] NOTE: Although the character of Sabretooth figured very heavily in the prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in this film Sabretooth and Wolverine don't even seem to know one another.

Verdict: All Systems Go! ***1/2.

JAMES MASON: ODD MAN OUT


JAMES MASON: ODD MAN OUT. Sheridan Morley. Harper & Row; 1989.

A biography of the enigmatic actor James Mason written by the son of actor Robert Morley. Odd Man Out covers the actor's life and career in workmanlike if not terribly riveting fashion. Mason was torn between a career as an actor or an architect, and angered his family and fellow countrymen by being a pacifist during WW2. He made critical statements about the British film industry to the press that didn't help matters much, and left for America. While there he was frustrated by the parts he got, thinking most of his movies were rubbish. But what really stuck in his craw was that he never developed a reputation as a great Shakespearean [or even stage] actor along the lines of Gielgud and Olivier. He had a long-lasting marriage to Pamela Mason which fell apart when they developed different attitudes and goals, then married a minor and much younger actress late in life. Along the way he made a variety of films -- some memorable, many not -- including Hitchcock's great North By Northwest [Mason also made a notable appearance on one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour]; They Were Sisters [one of many villainous-to-the-women roles he would play]; A Place of One's Own [a role which Mason, oddly enough, "fought long and hard for"]; Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life [in which he was wasted]; and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Late in his career Mason got some terrific roles in such films as The Verdict, and never disappointed.

Verdict: Not a bad book about a highly private man with very long quotes from a few friends and co-workers, but hopefully not the last word on Mason. ***.

THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR SEASON 2


THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR Season 2. 1963.

Although Hitchcock continued to give his usual droll introductions, the opening of the series was different from the first season, and composer Bernard Herrmann did a new arrangement of the theme music, Charles Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette. [While this made the theme sound a little more sinister, it was vastly inferior to Gounod's own arrangement. Herrmann, however, did do some wonderful scores for individual episodes.]

Highlights of the second season include: "a Nice Touch," with actor George Segal taking advantage of casting agent Anne Baxter in a reverse role from her Eve Harrington in All About Eve; "Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale" with Phyllis Thaxter suspecting her neighbor Gary Merrill of doing away with his wife; "Beyond the Sea of Death," which sort of illustrates Shakespeare's saying of "don't kill the messenger;" "Beast in View," with Joan Hackett pursued by a vengeful Kathleen Nolan [marred by a terribly dragged-out ending]; and "The Body in the Barn" with Lillian Gish in a fascinating, twisting tale of murder and revenge.

Arguably the three best episodes of season two are: "Good-bye George," which has one of the best -- and funniest -- endings of the entire series; "Final Escape," a prison shocker featuring top performances by Edd Byrnes [77 Sunset Strip], William Keith, and Stephen McNally, and which has one of the most horrifying conclusions of any story ever; and the grotesque "Jar," based on a Ray Bradbury story, which resembles a kind of poetically gruesome E.C. comics horror tale. Directed by series producer Norman Lloyd, it features fine performances from Pat Buttram, William Marshall, and Jane Darwell, among others. And a great ending.

Verdict: Despite a few clunkers this remains a great series. ***1/2. NOTE: Click here to read about season 1.

SUPERMAN VS. HOLLYWOOD


SUPERMAN VS. HOLLYWOOD: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon. Jake Rossen. Chicago Review Press; 2008.

This is a very entertaining book that goes behind the scenes of the Superman comic book and all of the adaptations for films, television, serials, cartoons, and radio, as well as the struggles to gain rights, assorted lawsuits, and other internecine battles. The cast of characters includes everyone from George Reeves to Marlon Brando, Richard Donner and Richard Lester, Bud Collyer and Nicolas Cage [a big comic book fan who wanted to play the Man of Steel] to the Salkind Brothers, who produced the big-screen movies. You'll discover who really directed what on the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and read about Superman projects that ultimately never materialized, such as Superman vs. Batman. Rossen also writes about Lois and Clark, Smallville, and Superboy TV programs, and the Broadway show It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman. Immensely readable, well-researched, and very informative.

Verdict: As much fun as a Superman comic book. ***1/2.

THE WOMEN (2008)


THE WOMEN (2008). Director/writer [from play by Clare Boothe Luce]: Diane English.

"You want to see a bad face lift? -- she looks like she's re-entering Earth's atmosphere!"

This remake of The Women (1939) is moderately amusing, updating the original story line with modern-day gags and references. Jada Pickett-Smith covers two minority groups by playing a black lesbian, but it seems quite -- indeed, very -- regressive to make her a bit of a man-hater. [What was English thinking? It's a perfect example of a filmmaker trying to be liberal and include gay characters while not understanding them at all!] Meg Ryan is okay as Mary, the gal whose husband has taken up with the man-eating Crystal [the sexy but still kind of gross Eva Mendes]. Candace Bergen makes comparatively little impression as Mary's mother, a role perfectly nailed -- and owned -- by Lucile Watson. Cloris Leachman as Maggie, Carrie Fisher as Bailey, and Annette Bening as Sylvia come off best. Debra Messing of Will and Grace still seems like a sitcom lightweight, and Debbie Mazar, though very credible as the manicurist who opens her big dead-common mouth, is as irritating as ever. Don't blink or you'll miss Bette Midler, but maybe you might want to. The biggest problem is that the 1939 version featured some of Hollywood's best actresses and legends [Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell etc.] and that's hardly the case with this version. Mazar? Fisher? Bergan? Even Bening, while good, is hardly in the same category.

Verdict: Not completely terrible, but watch the original instead. **1/2.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

FAMILY PLOT


FAMILY PLOT (1976). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock's final film out of fifty-four may not be a masterpiece, but it is a very entertaining, under-rated movie with some clever twists and an interesting plot. Elderly and wealthy Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbit) wants the [phony] medium, Blanche (Barbara Harris) to locate the illegitimate child, now forty, whom her sister gave up at birth so she can make him her heir. Blanche enlists her cab-driving boyfriend, George (Bruce Dern) to help with the search, but is unaware that the heir, now known as Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and his girlfriend, Fran (Karen Black) are behind a series of big-ticket kidnappings -- we learn this early on -- and think Blanche and George are after them for their crimes. Ernest Lehman's excellent script brings both couples and all four main characters to vivid life, and all four actors deliver superlative performances. Nesbit and Ed Lauter as an associate of Arthur's are also splendid. The relationship and banter between Blanche and George is particularly amusing. As this is a light-hearted thriller, even the scene when the couple are nearly killed driving down a winding mountain road when the brakes fail is played as much for laughs as for scares. Handsome production, well-photographed by Leonard J. South. Fran and Arthur live in a very beautiful, exquisitely decorated townhouse. It's interesting to note that only Lehman's and Hitchcock's names are shown durng the opening credits; the actors' names aren't seen until the cast list scrawl at the very end!

Verdict: A swell way to end a long and distinguished career, although the actors may not have been amused. ***.

ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS


ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS [aka 101 Dalmatians/1961. Directors: Several. Walt Disney Studios.

This wonderful Walt Disney animated movie is timeless. The dalmatian Pongo (voice of Rod Taylor) arranges for his "pet," the songwriter Roger (Ben Wright) and for himself to find mates: Anita (Lisa Davis) and lady dalmatian Perdito (Cate Bauer). Unfortunately Anita's old school mate Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), a witchy, hideous apparition with no love for animals, wants to buy Pongo and Perdito's 15 puppies, and when Roger and Anita refuse, decides to kidnap them -- along with dozens of others. Her goal: several dalmatian fur coats. Tom Conway [brother of George Sanders] does the voices of the collie and of the quizmaster who appears on the funny "What"s My Crime?" TV show parody watched by the puppies. You don't have to be a child to enjoy this movie, which is charming and well-done on all levels. There are even quite a few harrowing and suspenseful sequences. Cruella De Vil remains a fascinating Disney creation, and the image of her tooling about in her out-sized automobile looking for puppies to kill and skin stays with you.

Verdict: A certified Disney masterpiece. ***1/2.

AMOS BURKE SECRET AGENT


AMOS BURKE SECRET AGENT 1965 - 1966.

After Burke's Law wrapped up its second season, it was decided to turn the show into a spy series. All of the cast members were let go except for star Gene Barry, who was no longer on the L.A. police force but now reported to someone only known as "The Man" (Carl Benton Reid) on his airplane. [The "high tech" aspects of the show had Burke using a kind of pen-like device to unfold the stairs into the airplane!] Burke still drives his Rolls Royce sans driver [talk about keeping a low profile!] but otherwise the production values for the show were very low. Although Burke traveled in virtually every episode to foreign shores, you never got any feeling of being outside Hollywood. Barry played the new version of Amos Burke much as he had the first incarnation. Barry was a master of the withering look, too well-bred to express his contempt in a more obvious manner. The show lasted for seventeen installments.

Despite its flaws, the series was basically entertaining and there were a few memorable episodes. "The Prisoners of Mr. Sin" guest-starred Michael Dunn (so wonderful as Dr. Loveless on The Wild, Wild West) as an Indian bad guy who auctioned off scientists to the highest bidder. "Balance of Terror" had Burke substituting for a courier working for a criminal dictator, and "Peace, It's a Gasser" had peaceniks manipulated by spies who used a gas to make people child-like. The final two-part episode of the series, "Terror in a Tiny Town," was not only the best Amos Burke episode, but was one of the best episodes on series television in the sixties. In this taut and suspenseful story by Marc Brandel, Burke comes to a town where a man (the excellent Robert Middleton) is using mind-control on the citizens -- who at one point come after Amos en masse -- and has also planted a bomb in a radioactive statue, leading to a nail-biting conclusion. The body revolving around and around in the drying machine also packs a small wallop.

Verdict: Super-smooth Barry makes an interesting super-spy. ***.

KING KONG THE HISTORY OF A MOVIE ICON FROM FAY WRAY TO PETER JACKSON


KING KONG: THE HISTORY OF A MOVIE ICON FROM FAY WRAY TO PETER JACKSON. Ray Morton. Applause Books; 2005.

Even though this is a trade paperback, it's still a heavy tome as it has over 300 pages on thick paper stock -- but more importantly contains just about everything you would ever want to know about the making of the original King Kong, the sequel Son of Kong, the 1976 remake [which Morton examines fairly, revealing that it really wasn't the mega-bomb people seem to think it was -- although most agree it can't compare with the original], the sequel King Kong Lives, and the Japanese Kong films King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes. Morton has not only packed the book with loads of illustrations, but all sorts of details about shooting schedules, behind-the-scenes conflicts, legal disagreements, and incisive notes about each film's special effects -- often scene by scene and shot by shot. Morton is enthusiastic enough to make me want to take another look at the 1976 King Kong, which I've always pretty much hated. There is also a chapter regarding the pre-production of Peter Jackson's King Kong, as well as chapters on King Kong films that were never made, and imitations and rip-offs of the Big Ape Movie. This book is a real labor of love. Note: You can read more about these films and other monster movies in Creature Features.

Verdict: For the Kong fanatic and others interested in fascinating cinema. ***1/2.

SHUTTER ISLAND


SHUTTER ISLAND (2010). Director: Martin Scorsese.

Widower Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his associate Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) travel to an island near Boston which has become an institution for the mentally disturbed. One of the inmates has disappeared, but before long Daniels -- who is there with Aule to find her -- is convinced that either a massive cover-up is in place, or the missing woman never even existed. Is the island the site of sinister experimentation, and is everyone who knows of it being eliminated? DiCaprio isn't bad, but Ben Kinsgley and Max von Sydow certainly add stature with their portrayals of two of the island's doctors. Pictorially striking and well-directed -- one of Scorsese's best in fact -- Shutter Island has many memorable moments, such as a cliff-side scene involving hundreds of rats, and a flashback in which Daniels learns that his young children are dead [DiCaprio nails this scene beautifully]. The film has a kind of open-ended quality, but this doesn't detract from the entertainment value of the picture; viewers can decide for themselves the "true" story behind Shutter Island. John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine, Michelle Williams, and Jackie Earle Haley, among others in a large cast, have highly effective supporting roles. I have never cared all that much for Scorsese's thrillers/macabre films, but Shutter Island is a pleasant surprise. I liked this much, much better than The Departed and also think it's a much better film. Of course people who like gangster/cop films better than psychological suspense-dramas might tend to disagree.

Verdict: Scorsese knocks one out of the ball park. ***1/2.

STAR TREK MEMORIES: WILLIAM SHATNER


STAR TREK MEMORIES. William Shatner with Chris Kreski. HarperCollins; 1993.

William Shatner looks back at his days making the original Star Trek series in this 1993 combo memoir and behind-the-scenes journal. He relates the origins of the series, how he got hired for the role, the network’s attitude toward the show, the characters, and creator Gene Roddenberry, and the problems shooting some episodes and making the comparatively cheap FX work look adequate. We learn that those bald, pointy-headed old male aliens on "The Menagerie" two-part episode [a reworking of the first, rejected pilot show] were actually played by women, and that the actress playing Yeoman Rand disappeared after a few episodes due to personal addictions and even wound up as a prostitute for a time. Shatner relates being taken to task by cast member Nichelle Nichols, who was hurt when he suggested a line [of hers] be cut to save time when in many episodes all she had was a line or two, and also tells how he was genuinely frightened during a sword fight in "The Naked Time" that George Takei was going to run him through. There's Shatner's friendship/rivalry with Leonard Nimoy, and reactions of cast members to his writing this book. Overall, this is a good, informative, sometimes gossipy read for fans of the show. NOTE: You can also read about the new Star Trek movie as well as the old animated series.

Verdict: Good show, Shatner! ***

SURROGATES


SURROGATES (2009). Director: Jonathan Mostow.

Fascinating science fiction film, based on a graphic novel, deals with a future world in which people stay home in bed and live out their lives with their minds inside more attractive -- and comparatively invulnerable -- robot bodies called surrogates. Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) investigates when surrogates begin to get murdered and their human hosts die along with them. Surrogates is a natural progression from such stories as "Marionettes Inc." and certain Twilight Zone episodes and other science fiction stories -- not to mention The Picture of Dorian Gray! The film is well-acted and very well-directed by Mostow, and has several well-crafted action sequences to go along with its nifty premise. Ironically, Bruce Willis looks better as his real self than he does as the blond-haired surrogate. Surrogates may be derivative, as some have charged, but it also introduces some interesting situations and sub-texts of its own.

Verdict: One of the better science fiction films of recent years. ***1/2.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

GO WEST YOUNG MAN



GO WEST YOUNG MAN (1936). Director: Henry Hathaway.

"A thrill a day keeps the chill away!"

Film star Mavis Arden (Mae West) is on her way to a rendezvous in Washington D.C. when her limo breaks down and she must spend some time in a small-town boarding house. But there she sets her cap for a handsome gas station owner and inventor, Bud (Randolph Scott). However, things are complicated by the fact that Bud already has a girl, and that Mavis' press agent Morgan (Warren William) is paid to keep her away from men because her contract won't allow her to marry for five years. Then there are the other assorted townspeople and boarders and their varying reactions to Mavis. Well, this sure sound like it would make a hilarious movie, and while it's cute and easy to take for the most part, it certainly isn't a classic. Sort of given an actual role to play, West "acts" as if she's doing a sketch on television. When she approaches Bud in a black outfit to seduce him, she looks about as sexy as a dead skunk. [The really funny thing about West's movies -- which I doubt she would ever have admitted to -- was the idea that the chubby, not exactly beautiful West would be the object of desire for so many men.] Elizabeth Patterson nearly steals the picture as Aunt Kate. When asked by her grand-niece if they had "it" in her day, she replies: "They had 'it' all right. But they didn't photograph it and set it to music."

Verdict: Hardly what you're hoping it will be, but not exactly awful. **1/2.

ALL ABOUT "ALL ABOUT EVE"


ALL ABOUT "ALL ABOUT EVE:" The Complete Behind the Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made. Sam Staggs. St. Martin's; 2001.

There have been many books that focus on one single movie, but at first I thought it might be difficult to write an entire book on All About Eve, but Sam Staggs has pulled it off. This is a very thorough, well-researched, and well-written film book that will be sure to delight all the fans of the movie. He has interviewed everyone from Mary Orr, who wrote the original story upon which the film was based, to the very woman who claims to have been the inspiration for Eve Harrington, not to mention the sons of director Joseph Mankiewicz and other people actually involved with the production. He not only goes behind the scenes of the movie, but the musical Applause, which was based upon All About Eve. Dealing with the alleged homoerotic aspects of the film, it might be said that Staggs employs a kind of -- for lack of a better word -- old-fashioned gay sensibility [which is not without its charms]. At one point he writes: "In gay San Francisco, where nine out of ten men claim to do the best Bette Davis imitation you've ever heard" -- Frankly, this sort of stuff was a little dated even nine years ago when this book was first published. [The vast majority of gay men probably couldn't care less about Bette Davis and young gay men probably don't even know who she is!] But aside from that this book is obviously a labor of love, which comes through every page. And Stagg's recounting his difficulties with the ever-difficult [if talented] Celeste Holm makes for amusing reading. This book is just as entertaining as the movie.

Verdict: The last word -- one wonders -- on All About Eve. ***1/2.

THRILLER SEASON 2


THRILLER Season 2. 1961.

Boris Karloff was back as the dignified but figuratively winking host of the hour-long Thriller during its second season. Some of the "black comedy" introductions resembled the sort of thing Hitchcock did over on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Highlights of the second season include: "The Return of Andrew Bentley," based on a tale by August Derleth; "Waxworks," a Robert Bloch tale with Martin Kosleck and Oscar Homolka; "La Strega," a tale of a witch starring Ursula Andress which is notable primarily for Morton Stevens' scoring; "the grotesque "A Wig for Miss DeVore," also based on a tale by Derleth; and "An Attractive Family" featuring a group of charming sociopaths.

"Cousin Tundifer" is a delicious black comedy with Edward Andrews going back in time to try to get rid of a wealthy uncle. "The Incredible Doktor Markeson," another Derleth story, stars Karloff as a doctor who successfully brings people back from the dead. "Flowers of Evil" presents Luciana Palazzi as a kind of black widow murderess whose husband worked in a morgue. "Kill My Love" features Richard Carlson giving possibly his most memorable performance as a man driven to murder until his actions even horrify himself. "Lethal Ladies" is a two-part tale [based on stories by Joseph Payne Brennan] in which Howard Morris and Rosemary Murphy -- who play different characters in each episode -- so lose themselves in their roles that the viewer is completely unaware that it's the same actors in each story [wife vs. philandering husband; mousy librarian vs. new boss]. "A Third for Pinochle" is another amusing tale with Edward Andrews' plans to murder his wife stymied by the two biddies who live across the street.

Perhaps the best season 2 episode is "Guillotine," directed by Ida Lupino from a story by Cornell Woolrich, in which a woman poisons a headsman to prevent him from lopping off her lover's head -- but will he drop dead before he can do the deed? Clever -- and very, very suspenseful.

Verdict: Really a great old series. ***1/2. NOTE: Click here to read about season 1.

FOLLOW THE BOYS


FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944). Director/co-writer: A. Edward Sutherland.

"Little things that one man may not even notice can be irresistibly alluring to another."

Ex-vaudevillian Tony West (George Raft) hooks up with a movie star Gloria Vance (Vera Zorina) and becomes her partner in movies and life, but trouble ensues when he's judged 4-F when war breaks out and decides to do his bit by organizing camp shows full of celebrities entertaining "the boys." He can't understand why Gloria won't join him on his travels and the two nearly break up, all of which could have been avoided had Gloria only told the fellow she was pregnant. Obviously the framing story for this variety propaganda film is piss poor, but there are some entertaining moments in its nearly two hour running time: an amazing canine trapeze act; Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich doing a comical magic act; the Andrews Sisters; Louis Jordan and his band; the all-black Delta Rhythm Boys singing "The House I Live In." When Jeanette MacDonald does "Beyond the Blue Horizon" the line "my life has only begun" has a certain irony when many of the very young soldiers she's singing to won't make it back from the war. The film's low-point is Peggy Ryan and Donald O'Connor doing a lousy hep cat number. As usual, star George Raft makes little impression, although he does do a creditable dance number to "Sweet Georgia Brown" in a rainstorm. Vera Zorina means so little today -- she also makes little impression in the film -- that it's Marlene Dietrich who's featured on the VHS cover and not Zorina. It's significant -- and admirable -- that the film includes black entertainers, although these sequences were probably deleted in prints sent to southern theaters. What doesn't make sense is why a film that's meant to boost wartime morale should have such a downbeat ending. Other cast members/entertainers include W. C. Fields, Dinah Shore, Ted Lewis of Hold That Ghost, George MacReady of Gilda, and Elizabeth Patterson, Mrs. Trimble of I Love Lucy.
Verdict: Hit or miss, but well-meaning one supposes. **1/2.

HOLLYWOODLAND


HOLLYWOODLAND (2006). Director: Allen Coulter.

When actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who played Superman on a TV series, is found dead of a gunshot wound, private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves' mother -- who is convinced it was homicide and not suicide -- to investigate his death. The problem with Hollywoodland is that it doesn't respect Reeves even in death. There was certainly enough drama in the actor's off-screen life and death to make him the focus of the movie, but Hollywoodland makes Reeves a supporting character in his own story and makes Simo the main character. While this doesn't completely sink the movie -- largely because of Brody's excellent performance -- it does at times give it a kind of schizoid feeling. If only the filmmakers had trusted in the mythic aura of Reeves/Superman and the mystery over his demise instead of fashioning a somewhat stereotypical private dick melodrama with Reeves as the backdrop. That being said, Hollywoodland is well-acted and absorbing, but ultimately quite disappointing. Affleck offers an okay semi-impersonation of Reeves. Bob Hoskins as Eddie Mannix, Zach Mills as Simo's son, Evan, and Lois Smith as Reeves' mother, among others, are all on the money.

Verdict: Entertaining despite its all-too-obvious flaws. ***.

THE COMIC BOOK MAKERS


THE COMIC BOOK MAKERS. Joe Simon with Jim Simon. Crestwood; 1990.

NOTE: Due to the link between cinema and comics -- not to mention all the Hollywood adaptations of comic books -- Great Old Movies often reviews books about comics.

Comics writer and illustrator Joe Simon, who created Captain America, breezily and informatively recalls those early days of the golden age and silver age and afterward working in the comic book industry, and many of the other writers, artists, editors, publishers, and other assorted characters and personalities who inhabited the terrain. Some of the anecdotes may be familiar, but they're being told by someone who was actually there, and is of the era. There are a great many illustrations, including a full color insert, as well as a couple of complete stories, such as the disturbing "Beautiful Freak" from Black Magic 29 [1954]. Simon sets the record straight on a few things, but basically this is a good-natured book from a comics' giant. The cast of real characters includes Charles Biro, C. C. Beck, Stan Lee, and of course Jack Kirby. The book also relates how Simon and Kirby invented the romance comic [which became incredibly popular] and goes into their work on Archie Comics' Adventures of the Fly. Although the book is somewhat episodic and seems haphazardly organized, it is still a very interesting volume.

Verdict: Recommended for the serious comic book fan. ***.

THE FOURTH KIND


THE FOURTH KIND (2009). Director: Olatunde Osunsamni.

Supposedly inspired by true events, this deals with weird disappearances and happenings in Nome, Alaska, focusing on a Dr. Tyler (Milla Jovovich) who is caught up in and investigating the phenomenon of possible alien abduction. The film tries to come off as a partial documentary, contrasting dramatized scenes with "actual" footage of the participants, but in these "real" scenes the characters are also played by actors. Although the movie does have a few creepy moments, ultimately it isn't very convincing. It not only deals with aliens, but brings in God [!] and the Sumerians for good measure. Will Patton plays a sheriff.

Verdict: Okay for what it is. **1/2.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

ALL ABOUT EVE


ALL ABOUT EVE (1950). Writer/Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

"You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent." -- Addison DeWitt.

"Neither you nor your performance ever entered the conversation." -- Likewise.

A young woman named Eve (Anne Baxter), who claims to be a fan, insinuates herself into the life of star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and proves to be an ambitious viper underneath the treacly exterior. All About Eve may not necessarily be the last word on the theater, monster-actors, or ambitious wannabee backstabbers, but it remains a very entertaining and snappy picture. Davis gives one of her all-time best performances [you might say she was almost born to play Margo Channing]; George Sanders is at the height of his asp-like charm; Celeste Holm is perfection as the likable if somewhat naive Karen; and Anne Baxter could not have been bettered as the oily -- if highly gifted -- Eve. Kudos also to Gregory Ratoff as producer Max Fabian; Marilyn Monroe, who is very saucy and adept as the equally saucy Miss Caswell; and the wonderful Thelma Ritter as the wisecracking ex-vaudevillian, Birdie. The picture sinks just a bit when Gary Merrill [who later married Davis] walks into the movie, as initially his acting is woefully below the standard set by the others, but afterward he's certainly competent. Hugh Marlowe, who generally toiled in "B" sci fi movies after this, gives his most notable performance and is quite good as Margo's favorite playwright. [Marlowe was also in 13 Frightened Girls and Monkey Business.] Even Barbara Bates makes an impression with her brief scene at the end of the movie.

Not that All About Eve is perfect by any means. Margo's speech about how a woman isn't a woman without a man and so on and so on seems pretty dated today, and her statement that she doesn't "have to play parts I'm too old for just because I've got nothing to do with my nights" [after agreeing to marry her long-time beau] can be contrasted with Eve's almost ruthless desire to have a career [and undoubtedly a more positive attitude about having one]. The much-discussed alleged gay aspects of the film -- does Eve's climbing the stairs with her arms tenderly around her female roommate indicate lesbianism and so on? -- are pretty vague and muddled, and it's distasteful to think of Eve as an "evil lesbian" stereotype. [By the way, DeWitt's seemingly sexless obsession with Eve reminds one of Waldo Lydecker's "feelings" for Laura Hunt in Laura made seven years earlier.] It's a bit ludicrous that it is suggested by more than one character that Eve be made Margo's understudy when no one has yet seen her perform.

Another problem with the movie is that it's sort of stacked against wannabees, those talented people without connections who often are at their wit's end as to how to break into the business. True, Eve Harrington goes to extremes, and is even nasty to those who have been nice to her, but at least she had the talent and drive to achieve success. And whatever you may think of Bette Davis, most of us would find the affected "Margo Channing" a trial to deal with after the first 15 minutes. All About Eve is a terrific movie, but in some regards it lacks depth and complete veracity. But what dialogue! And a very memorable score by Alfred Newman.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws -- and it has them -- All About Eve is a real pleasure. ***1/2.

SON OF KONG


SON OF KONG (1933). Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack.

"Next time leave the big monkey alone!" -- Charlie the cook

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) and Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) from King Kong flee Manhattan and numerous creditors and process servers and set sail once more, coming across the man, Helstrom (John Marston), who first told Denham about Kong's island. Now Helstrom claims there's a treasure on the island just waiting to be found. Taking off with a singer named Helene (Helen Mack) as a stowaway, they sail off again to find a fortune. But what they find first is "little Kong," the big ape's much more benevolent son, who bonds with them after they rescue him from a quicksand bog on the island. There are some good effects and fluid stop-motion animation in this [although the model work is nowhere near as good as in the original] , as well as an exciting climax with an earthquake and tidal wave, but this is pretty much a pale shadow of King Kong. Passably entertaining, however.

Verdict: Not a chip off the old block. **1/2.

THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR SEASON 1


THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR [1962 - 1965]. First season.

The half hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents expanded into an hour with a name change to match but with the same droll introductions by the inimitable Alfred Hitchcock. As usual the stories ran the gamut from chillers to crime dramas to suspense stories to murder mysteries. Surprisingly, many of them lacked a final twist or other clever aspect, but were more matter-of-fact, rescued by a good plot or excellent performances.

Most of the episodes of the first season were in the "B" or "C" category -- with a couple of "D's" -- but there were also several outstanding "A" episodes. These include: "Captive Audience," with a superb James Mason as a writer losing his grip on reality over a beautiful woman (Angie Dickinson); "Hangover," with Tony Randall trying to piece together the past few days with the help of Jayne Mansfield [whose appearance and solid non-sex kitten performance are a very pleasant surprise]; "Paragon," a strange story about a completely self-absorbed woman played winningly by Joan Fontaine; the very moving "Lonely Heart," in which Nancy Kelly is convinced that Gena Rowlands was accidentally given her own baby [both actresses are excellent]; and the completely unpredictable "Death and the Joyful Woman," in which Gilbert Roland ferociously plays a monster father and Lorraine Day is equally good as the secretary who is in love with him.

Even the less interesting shows are quite entertaining and well-acted.

Verdict: Good show, Hitch! ***.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL: HOLLYWOOD IN THE FIFTIES


THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL: Hollywood in the Fifties. Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair. W. W. Norton; 2002.

This is a very entertaining and readable account of Hollywood trends, important movies, and notable performers, writers and directors during the very end of the film capitol's golden age. The Bad and the Beautiful has chapters on the scandals both in and surrounding the controversial publication Confidential; the troubled offspring of certain movie stars [such as Edward G. Robinson and his son Manny]; James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause; Rock Hudson, Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter; Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter; Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr.; Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster and Walter Winchell; rival Hollywood "news hens" Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Sheila Graham; the life and plays [Picnic; Come Back, Little Sheba] of William Inge and the film versions thereof; and Gloria Swanson and Sunset Boulevard. The book also details how Hollywood was completely changing in this decade, what with the inroads of television, the breakdown of the studio system, and the increasing use of location filming over shooting strictly on sound stages. Some of this material may be familiar to the film enthusiast, but there is much that is new and interesting as well, all told in compelling prose that keeps the pages turning.

Verdict: Excellent look at the foibles and triumphs of 1950's Hollywood. ***1/2.

THE PHENIX CITY STORY


THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955). Director: Phil Karlson.

"Where do you want us to send the body?"

Based on a true story, this movie begins with some of the real-life participants being interviewed on camera. No actors' names are presented during the credits so it's a surprise to see such familiar figures pop up as Edward Anderson, Kathryn Grant, and, especially, Richard Kiley. The story has to do with corruption in Phenix City, Alabama, where anyone who disagrees with or tries to fight against the mob boss Tanner (an effective Andrews) winds up beaten up or murdered. Grant works for Tanner in his gambling den, and Kiley is the son of the solid citizen Al Patterson (John McIntire) who decides to run for state D.A. and take on his old friend Tanner. At the beginning of the film, interviewer/announcer Clete Roberts promises some shocking stuff, and even though the film was made 55 years ago, his promise is fulfilled, especially in a scene when a little black girl is horribly murdered. The lead performers are all quite good, and there's also excellent work from Lenka Peterson as Kiley's wife and James Edwards as Zeke, whose daughter is killed. While Phenix City is pretty unknown today, many years later Karlson directed a very popular -- and somewhat similar -- film, Walking Tall. Hard-hitting. NOTE: The Phenix City Story can be found on the Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5.

Verdict: Powerful stuff. ***1/2.

THE GOOD FAIRY


THE GOOD FAIRY (1935). Director: William Wyler.

Luisa (Margaret Sullavan), a young girl from an orphanage just entering womanhood, is chosen to be an usherette in a big city movie theater in Hungary, and embarks on assorted misadventures with a number of men. She lies to an aggressive, much older admirer, Konrad (Frank Morgan) and tells him she's married, whereupon he decides to enrich the life of her non-existent husband so that he can buy her the furs and jewels Konrad had wished to give her as his mistress. Wanting to be a "good fairy" -- that is, do good deeds for people -- Luisa picks a lawyer, Dr. Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), whom she hopes is struggling, out of the phone book, then tries to keep Konrad from realizing her deception after he gives Sporum a high-paying position in his firm. Complicating matters is a waiter named Detlaff (Reginald Owen), who befriends and becomes over-protective of Luisa. The plot may be a little ridiculous, but Wyler has turned in a brisk and amusing directorial job and the cast is outstanding. Although the superb Sullavan was 26 at the time of filming, she gets across the spirit and naivety of a woman almost a decade younger. Herbert Marshall proves he's as adept in lighter parts as he is in more intense dramas such as The Letter. Frank Morgan is also marvelous, as is Reginald Owen, as well as Alan Hale, Cesar Romero, and Beulah Bondi in smaller parts. The movie is funny, whimsically charming, and intensely romantic.

Verdict: The Good Fairy is a very good picture. ***1/2.

SORORITY ROW


SORORITY ROW (2009). Director: Stewart Hendler.

As has happened in other slasher flicks, a practical joke badly misfires, somebody dies, and someone seems out for revenge by slaughtering most of the cast -- whether they were in on the "joke" or not. There's some good acting in the movie, especially by Julian Morris as valedictorian Andy, and Rumer Ellis as the geeky Ellie, and a scary Carrie Fisher shows up as a den mother halfway through the movie. Sorority Row -- apparently a remake of The House on Sorority Row -- is over-familiar, to say the least, but it holds the attention and is effective enough as a minor-league horror/action film.

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