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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS


SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). Director: Alexander Mackendrick.

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."

Powerful newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who seems to have an incestuous yen for his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), is determined to keep her from marrying a musician (Martin Milner), and importunes press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to help him break the couple up. This study of loathsome and immoral characters isn't really about show biz or newspapers or even columnists but it seems almost as hollow at its center as its protagonist. Part of the problem is that you never really believe Lancaster as Hunsecker , although by no means does he give a bad performance. Then the secondary love story isn't that convincing or moving. Barbara Nichols and Harrison have some nice moments -- Milner is okay if a bit stiff -- but the picture is positively stolen by a ferocious, charismatic and altogether splendid performance by Tony Curtis. That's the main reason to watch the film.

Verdict: Curtis' finest hour. **1/2.

ULYSSES (1954)


ULYSSES (aka Ulisse/1954). Director: Mario Camerini.

"There's part of me that's always homesick for the unknown."

Penelope (Silvana Mangano) rebuffs a horde of boorish suitors while she waits for Ulysses (Kirk Douglas) to come home to her, unaware that he has his hands full with bewitching sirens, the cyclops Polyphemus, and Circe, a temptress who has made herself look just like Penelope (also played by Mangano). Anthony Quinn is cast as the most bold and virile of Penelope's suitors. This is a fair-to-middling version of Homer's great epic, including many of the incidents of the story without being completely faithful to its source material. The special effects are definitely low-tech, but Douglas -- who looks great in his beard -- gives a fine performance, and Mangano and Quinn are also creditable. Ulysses manages to put the cyclops to sleep by giving him -- grape juice? [It takes some time for crushed grapes to turn into wine.]

Verdict: Not especially memorable as adventure or fantasy, but not devoid of interest. **1/2.

DELICIOUS LITTLE DEVIL


DELICIOUS LITTLE DEVIL (1919).

Mary (Mae Murray) loses her job as a coat check girl when she lingers too long and lovingly on a beautiful fur piece, so she reinvents herself as the notorious real-life Gloria Du Moine, who was in a scandal with the equally notorious Duke De Sauterne. Through this subterfuge she manages to get a job as a dancer at the Peace Tree Inn roadhouse. There she captivates a frequent patron, Jimmy Calhoun (Rudolph Valentino) who's the son of a millionaire contractor. Hoping she'll prove too crass for the boy, the elder Calhoun throws a party for "Gloria" -- and who should show up? This is a cute if minor comedy with Murray in good form and Valentino, in an early appearance, looking dapper and handsome. The sprightly musical score helps a lot.

Verdict: Not that delicious but definitely appetizing. **1/2.

DEADLY MANTIS


DEADLY MANTIS (1957). Director: Nathan Juran.

A gargantuan prehistoric preying mantis thaws out from its icy prison and makes it way down from the Arctic and toward Washington D.C. and then Manhattan, where it lodges inside a tunnel after popping quite a few people into its mouth. This is one of the few credible mechanical monsters to appear in a creature feature -- its skin is slick, it drips saliva, it's "altogether icky" and its utter lack of personality only makes it creepier. Craig Stevens is the stoic, nearly wooden Colonel Parkman, assigned to destroy the big bug; William Hopper is a helpful paleontologist; and Alix Talton is the nature mag photographer and nominal love interest. The best scenes, aside from the tunnel climax, have the insect climbing the Washington Memorial and flipping over a bus -- not to mention when it creeps up on an Army base and scares the bejeezus out of Talton.

Verdict: A fun creature feature. ***. NOTE: To read more about this film and others like it, see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

CONGO BILL


CONGO BILL 15 chapter Columbia serial (1948). Directors: Spencer Bennet; Thomas Carr.

The heiress to the Culver circus may be a blond queen of a lost tribe in Africa known as Lureen (Cleo Moore). Congo Bill (Don McGuire), who works for the circus, is determined to find out, but he's unaware that the new managers of the circus would prefer that the heir to their business never be found. Congo Bill was actually a strip that appeared in Action Comics along with Superman and other heroes; he later metamorphosed into "Congorilla," who could exchange minds with a big ape. Congo Bill has a somewhat similar plot line to the far superior Tiger Woman, but that's where the resemblance ends. Unlike the Tiger Woman, Lureen basically does nothing for 15 chapters [she doesn't even show up until chapter six], and she's played inadequately by the busty but talentless Moore. McGuire could make an impression as a second lead or supporting player in such films as The Fuller Brush Man, but in this he displays little star charisma. There are some acceptable cliffhangers -- Bill caught in a turning mill stone; descending spikes etc. -- but this is one of Columbia's dullest serials. "Janu the Jungle Boy" from the comic book stories has been replaced with the older "Kohla. "

Verdict: Watch Tiger Woman instead. **

SEX AND THE CITY 2


SEX AND THE CITY 2 (2010). Writer/director: Michael Patrick King.

While the first Sex and the City movie was pretty good, this disappointing sequel is more problematic. For one thing, at over two and half hours long it seems to go on forever. Second, there's no real plot to speak of, except that each of the women seem to be undergoing a kind of minor crisis. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is afraid her marriage with "Big" is going stale; Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has trouble dealing with the stress of motherhood; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is under-valued by her male boss; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is on a steady hormone diet to keep her body as youthful as possible. Then the movie throws in a long sequence in which the gals travel on a junket to the mid-eastern city of Abu Dhabi, and Sex and the City 2 almost turns into a travelogue or tourism short. However, there are some good scenes, including the ladies singing "I am Woman" during karaoke night at an Abu Dhabi night club, and the whole business with Samantha taking on the sexual oppressiveness and sexism of the middle east has some punch to it. Alas, with its gay wedding full of "fag" stereotypes -- and even Liza Minelli! -- the movie seems backward even as it's trying to be hip; in Sex and the City gay men are always depicted as swishy throw backs who exist solely to hold their girlfriends hands and do their hair! Sex in the City 2 is very well-acted by all, but it's only sporadically entertaining and often tedious.

Verdict: Maybe these gals should just retire.

THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW


THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW 1967 - 1969.

It must have looked good on paper. Get the wonderful Eve Arden and the talented Kaye Ballard together to play women whose children are married to one another. On top of that, the two families live next door to each other. And there are all sorts of problems, complications and feuding and fussing. If didn't really matter who played the husbands or the married children [in truth these actors were all competent if forgettable] as long as Arden and Ballard could successfully pull off a new team of Lucy and Ethel. Unfortunately, they don't. Even Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance as they got older and began to repeat themselves became much less fun as the comical couple after I Love Lucy -- a truly memorable sitcom -- went off the air and they dipped in the well once too often on The Lucy Show. [Let's not even talk about Here's Lucy or Life with Lucy.] It was a style of comedy that had its day and is still fun to watch in I Love Lucy reruns, but on The Mothers-in-Law it mostly didn't work. Much was made of the fact that many episodes of this series were written by people who'd done scripts for I Love Lucy, but a.) it was another era and b.) they were not writing for Ball, Vance, Arnaz and Frawley, and c.) even I Love Lucy had the occasional stinker episode. The Mothers-in-Law has the occasional laugh [Ballard does a dead-on impression of Bette Davis at her most affected], but mostly this show is made up of stinker episodes. Yes, Lucille Ball's lovably childish "Lucy" character was brilliantly brought to life by Ball, but in general it's not much fun watching grown-ups acting like eight-year-olds.

Verdict: Watch I Love Lucy instead where they did most of this shtick for the first time. **.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

LADY AND THE TRAMP


LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955). Director: Geronimi, Jackson.

In this wonderful cartoon period piece from Disney a young couple take in a beautiful cocker spaniel puppy that they name Lady. Lady is a bit confused when there's a new arrival in the household -- the patter of little feet -- but things really get out of control when an aunt comes to take care of the baby when the parents are out of town. The aunt doesn't think much of dogs but has two Siamese cats ["We are Siamese if you please"]. Lady is befriended by a scotty and a bloodhound but has real adventure with a tramp dog named Butch, who has no desire to settle down and live life with a collar. The scene when the two romantically share a plate of spaghetti is a real charmer [although the Italian stereotypes are a bit tiresome]. With beautiful drawings and fluid animation, this is a certified Disney masterpiece.

Verdict: Delightful for all ages. ****.

CULT OF THE COBRA


CULT OF THE COBRA (1955). Director: Francis D. Lyon.

In 1945 Asia a group of servicemen observe a secret ceremony of a cult whose women can turn into snakes, and are targeted for death when they return to the states. The architect of their demise is a beautiful woman, Lisa (Faith Domergue, who's not exactly Asian), who seems uncertain if she's doing the right thing -- but does it anyway. The victims are played by such familiar genre actors as Marshall Thompson (Fiend without a Face), Richard Long (House on Haunted Hill), William Reynolds (The Thing that Couldn't Die), as well as David Janssen. Domergue gets across the conflicted feelings of her character even if she's a little too cool at times. Ed Platt of Get Smart appears briefly as one of the cult members. Kathleen Hughes plays Long's love interest, Julia. Cult of the Cobra holds the attention, and while not a horror classic by any means [and not especially horrific in any case], it does have its moments.

Verdict: More entertaining than it has any right to be. ***.

THE SILVER AGE OF COMICS by William Schoell




Ye humble blog owner's latest book is entitled THE SILVER AGE OF COMICS and has just been published by BearManor Media. The book is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and BearManor's web site as well.

Today the silver screen [not to mention the Broadway stage] is full of the exploits of numerous super-heroes but most of these characters have been around for decades. Superman and Batman date back to the 1930's of course, but even Spider-Man, Iron Man and Green Lantern have been around for over forty years. Characters such as the very popular X-Men [four films so far] and Fantastic Four [two movies] were first introduced in the sixties. THE SILVER AGE OF COMICS looks back with affection at those early comic books during the period which became known as the "silver age," when super-heroes -- who had fallen out of favor but for a few -- once again came back into prominence [where they remain to this day].

In this book you can read how DC Comics reinvented golden age heroes Flash and Green Lantern and others for the silver age and found they had gold on their hands, putting many of their heroes together into the super-popular Justice League of America [still going strong today]. Meanwhile Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others tried a new, somewhat more "mature" take on "long-underwear" characters and turned also-ran Marvel Comics into a mighty comic book powerhouse. While DC had Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Marvel had Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, X-Men, and many, many others.

THE SILVER AGE OF COMICS is an entertaining, informative, critical and historical look back at the days when our favorite heroes were either invented or reinvented to thrill readers as they have been doing ever since. You can read about the most memorable stories, influential artists and writers, and how silver age comics began to show the social changes that were even then reverberating across the nation.

ON SALE NOW! More info here.

RODAN


RODAN (1956). Director: Inoshiro [Ishiro] Honda.

"The strongest, swiftest creatures that ever lived."

A shaft inside a mine has gone deeper than ever before, and men working below soon turn up dead and mutilated. The culprits are creepy [if unconvincing] giant worms with big bug-like metallic eyes. But they're nothing compared to what's uncovered by an earthquake inside a gigantic cavern near the mine: two huge flying, carnivorous reptiles of the species rodan that are related to the pternadon. These creatures have 500 foot wingspans and can fly at super-sonic speeds -- in other words, the earth does not need them. Shigeru (Kenji Schora), a young man who first discovered the monsters in the cavern, leads the military to their hiding place but they escape, using huge flapping wings to create cyclonic, city-destroying winds. Rodan is probably the best of the many Japanese giant monster movies, which for most people isn't saying very much. However, the film is well-directed, has suspenseful early scenes in the mines, and while the two Rodan aren't very scary-looking, they are nevertheless formidable giant monsters. Aside from the rubber beasties, Rodan has some very good effects work and good music for the finale. This American version of the movie has a prologue about atomic testing [which really has nothing to do with the movie or its monsters] and has some poetic narration at the end about how one of the monsters willingly dies because it can't save its mate.

Verdict: Probably the best monster movie to come out of Japan. ***.

MADE-FOR-TV MOVIES


Satellitedish.org has published an interesting article on the “Top 10 Made for TV Movies of All Time.” See if any of the ones that made their list are on yours as well.

Here's the link.

Years ago there used to be "Movies of the Week" and now cable shows a steady diet of telefilms. A lot of made-for-TV movies were just rip-offs, imitations and derivations of theatrical movies, but there have also been many telefilms of genuine quality. Recommendations anyone?

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS SEASON FIVE


ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS Season 5.

38 more episodes of this endearing series hosted by the great Alfred Hitchcock. The best: "The Crystal Trench," a somewhat incredible but darkly amusing tale of romantic obsession; "No Pain," in which a man wants his wife murdered quickly and neatly and without her suffering; the bizarre "Specialty of the House" in which the blue plate special at an exclusive club's restaurant is quite unspeakable; "Day of the Bullet," in which a little boy [a wonderful Barry Gordon] feels so betrayed by his father that it influences his entire future life; "Madame Mystery," about a publicity man who wants to take advantage of an actress's death [the ending for this really packs a wallop]; "The Little Man Who was There," in which AHP producer Norman Lloyd seems to play the devil in the wild west; and "Graduating Class,": a very downbeat tale in which teacher Wendy Hiller tries to help a promising student to her ultimate regret. And there are many more memorable episodes as well.

Verdict: One of the series' best seasons. ***1/2.

PREHISTORIC WOMEN


PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1950). Director: Gregory G. Tallas.

Tigri (Laurette Luez) is head of a group of supposedly prehistoric women who hate and hunt men from another tribe, one of whom is Engor (Allan Nixon), who inspires a fairly zesty cat fight among the ladies. There is a nine foot giant who snatches up women and runs off with them, as well as a "giant flying dragon" -- according to the ever-present narrator -- that more resembles an outsized pelican or sea gull. There are no dinosaurs or even lizards, no special effects to speak of, and a budget of about 99 cents. Luez made more of an impression in the TV series The Adventures of Fu Manchu as the Oriental doctor's mistress, and also had a notable role in D.O.A. with Edmond O'Brien. This isn't even a fun "bad movie."

Verdict: Dreadful. 1/2 *.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!


Taking a week off to prepare for the holidays.

Great Old Movies will be back in the New Year, if not before!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE -- and thanks for reading!

William Schoell

Thursday, December 2, 2010

WOMAN OF THE YEAR


WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942). Director: George Stevens.

Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) are columnists for the same newspaper but don't know or care very much for each other. That changes when they actually meet and fall in love -- but can Sam deal with the fact that Tess, eventually named "Woman of the Year," is always on the go and is more celebrated than he is? Frankly, Woman of the Year, while a good and entertaining movie, sort of ducks the question of Sam's ego, making it more about Tess' lack of domesticity and maternalism, and despite some attempt at the end to arrive at a compromise, the movie comes off now as rather dated. For a moment it even turns into one of those "woman with amazing career will give it all up to become a devoted wifey" kind of movies. Still both of the stars, in their first pairing, are excellent, as are Fay Bainter as Tess' Aunt Ellen, Minor Watson as her father, and Edith Evanson as her maid, Alma. [Although she was frequently uncredited, Evanson had a long career, and appeared in such films as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Rope and Marnie.] Little George Kezas has a nice turn as Chris, the boy refugee, as does Sara Haden as the head of the home where he resides. Funniest scene has Kate trying to make coffee!

Verdict: On its own 1940's terms, not bad at all, but boy what it could have been! ***.

THE SEVENTH VEIL


THE SEVENTH VEIL (1945). Director: Compton Bennett.

Francesca (Ann Todd) is a deeply troubled and suicidal concert pianist whose guardian, her older cousin Nicolas (James Mason), a lame woman-hater, dominates her life and has kept her apart from the man she loves, a musician named Peter (Hugh McDermott). Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom), a psychiatrist, treats Francesca and tries to determine what earlier events led her to want to take her own life. The performances in this are excellent, and there's a good use of classical music [and Ben Frankel contributed a memorable theme], although some may feel the "happy" ending is a little suspect. Todd and Mason became involved in real life. Beethoven's "Pathetique" figures in an important sequence.

Verdict: Twisted romance. ***.

HORROR EXPRESS


HORROR EXPRESS (1972). Director: Eugenio Martin.

Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) arranges for an ancient fossil he has discovered to be shipped aboard a train upon which he is traveling, along with a colleague named Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing). However, this "fossil" turns out to be alive, able to emit reddish rays from its eyes that parboil a person's brains and turn their own eyes solid white. [It turns out that the creature's memories are stored not in its brain but in its eyes]. The monster is also able to transfer its consciousness into other people's bodies, as well as revivify its victims for more "fun." This period piece teaming horror great Lee with Cushing is not as memorable as one might have hoped for, but it does have some interesting sequences and concepts. Telly Savalas adds some spice as Captain Kazan who comes aboard the express late in the picture to try to figure out why so many are dying. Made in Spain.

Verdict: An express you might like to take, but not to worry if you miss it. **1/2.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: SEASON FOUR


ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS Season 4.

A whole bunch of ironic, amusing, and suspenseful stories served up by the ever-droll Hitch. "Poison" features Wendell Corey in a tale of a snake in a bed. "Man with a Problem" finds Gary Merrill out on a ledge threatening suicide. "Tea Time" teams Margaret Leighton and Marsha Hunt in a tale of wife vs. mistress. "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" is a delightful tale of a miserly uncle and the two women in his life, Dora Merande and Mary Astor, both of whom are wonderful. Then there's the creepy "Waxwork," and Franchot Tone and Mary Astor again in "The Impossible Dream" about an aging actor. Bette Davis stars in "Out There, Darkness," about a woman who pays the price for her jealous actions, and there's nice work from Fay Wray in "The Morning After."

Other notable episodes include "Murder Me Twice" with Phyllis Thaxter in a tale of reincarnation; "The Desert Shall Blossom," with two cowboys and a gangster; "Kind Waitress," with Olive Deering; "The Diamond Necklace" with the great Claude Rains; Dennis Day in "Cheap is Cheap;" and Robert Morse and Paul Douglas in "Touche."

Verdict: More fun with Hitchcock. ***.

FRANCESCA DA RIMINI


FRANCESCA DA RIMINI. Opera by Riccardo Zandonai. The Metropolitan Opera 1985. Presented on Live from the Met. Stage Director: Piero Faggioni. TV director: Brian Large. Conducted by James Levine.

Francesca's (Renata Scotto) brother knows that she'll never marry Giancetto Malatesta (Cornell MacNeil) if she sees what he looks like, so he arranges a cruel trick. He has Giancetto's handsomer and younger brother Paolo (Placido Domingo) show up on the da Rimini estate, where it becomes love at first sight for the two [in a very passionate moment in which the two principals never sing, only the chorus in the background, and Francesca presents Paolo with a rose). Unfortunately, the scene in which Francesca discovers the truth is not depicted in this version of Gabrielle D'annunzio's play, but there's plenty of fireworks to come in spite of it. Try as they might, Francesca and Paolo can't quell their rising passion for one another, leading to sex and disaster, and a deeply moving, beautifully staged finale. With superior production design by Ezio Frigerio and beautiful costumes by Franca Squarciapino, this presentation by the famed Metropolitan opera is first-class virtually all the way through. Scott is perhaps not in the best voice, although no fault can be found with her acting. Domingo sings the pants off his third-act aria in which he explains how tormented he is by his separation from Francesca, and the two singers vividly display the proper amount of sexual and romantic excitation. Despite a tendency toward shrillness at times, Domingo is excellent, as is Cornell MacNeil as his frightening brother and William Lewis as the nasty Malatestina, a third brother who loses an eye in combat. Among the supporting cast, pretty Isola Jones makes a strong vocal impression as Francesca's devoted servant, Smaragdi.
Zandonai's music is attractive and powerful, intense with passion throughout, and full of forecasting of the terrible events that will transpire. A masterpiece.

Verdict: Perhaps the only time you'll see a severed head batted around the stage of the Met. ****.

STAR TREK 365: THE ORIGINAL SERIES


STAR TREK 365 :THE ORIGINAL SERIES. Paula M. Block with Terry J. Erdmann. Abrahms; 2010.

This out-sized hardcover covers the original Star Trek series with William Shatner, although even fans may wonder if there's anything left to say about the show. Nevertheless, Block does manage to come up with some new and sometimes amusing observations about these original episodes. The book isn't in chronological order, which is a little strange, but a bigger problem is the unwieldy shape and heaviness of the book, not to mention the too small and light typeface, none of which, of course, is the author's fault. The book, however, is packed with big beautiful photographs, which may be the chief appeal to the Star Trek fanatic.

Verdict: If you just can't get enough about Star Trek. ***.

SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE


SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE (2010). Director: Jim Field Smith.

Kirk (Jay Baruchel) works for airport security and Molly (Alice Eve) is a pretty event planner. The more average-looking Kirk thinks he hasn't got a chance with Molly, but to his delight, confusion, and severe apprehension, she seems to go for him. [Actually this is not such a big stretch as Eve is pretty but not "drop dead' gorgeous and Kirk isn't ugly by any means and has an appealing personality to boot]. Kirk's insecurity threatens to unravel everything, but Molly has her own secrets. Poor Kirk is saddled with a family made up of complete morons. The premise of this film isn't bad, the acting is good, and there are a few funny moments [such an an "accident" Kirk has just when he's about to meet Molly's parents] but just not enough to make this memorable. Geoff Stults plays Cam, a straight pilot who thinks Kirk is gay and rates his buddies as to how "hot" they are in a weird but funny sequence.

Verdict: Almost ... but not quite. **.