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

Thursday, July 26, 2012

THE LADY GAMBLES

THE LADY GAMBLES (1949). Director: Michael Gordon.

While her husband David (Robert Preston) works on a dam in Nevada, Joan Boothe (Barbara Stanwyck) wiles away her time in a gambling casino. There she meets Corrigan (Stephen McNally), the pit boss who is attracted to her, and uses her in certain schemes and high-stakes card games. But Joan's bigger problem is a growing addiction to gambling, which eventually jeopardizes her marriage and even her life. While today we would simply refer to Joan as a "gamblaholic" and be done with it, The Lady Gambles comes up with some dime store psychology involving Joan's neurotic sister Ruth (Edith Barrett) to explain her addiction. In spite of that, the movie is absorbing, in no large part due to Stanwyck's typically riveting performance. McNally is also excellent as Corrigan, adding some interesting dimension to an underwritten role. Barrett certainly delivers as the tormented, jealous sister. Preston is fine in the least interesting role of the husband. Dyspeptic John Hoyt (Attack of the Puppet People) is his usual acerbic self as a doctor. Tony Curtis has a bit part as a bellboy, and William Hudson also has a bit. At one point in the film Corrigan tells the two sisters that his first name is Horace, which is how McNally was originally known when he appeared in such films as Laurel and Hardy's Air Raid Wardens.

Verdict: Stanwyck is one hell of an actress and this is a very interesting story. ***1/2.

A STAR IS BORN (1976)

Kristofferson and Streisand
A STAR IS BORN (1976). Director: Frank Pierson

Just as the 1954 A Star is Born was re-fashioned for the particular talents of Judy Garland, this 1976 version was a do-over geared for the appeal of Barbra Streisand and her fans, although it is much less successful than the Garland version. Esther Hoffman (Streisand) is working her way up through the club circuit when she meets rock star John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson), who is beginning a long slide due to his booze and drug-addled antics. [A bigger problem is that Howard/Kristofferson has a really awful voice.] Esther sings with two African-American women in a group called the Oreos [these two black singers aren't even given names!], but Howard insists on foisting her off as a soloist at one of his own concerts. It is unlikely that the audience, who'd come to hear a famous hard rocker, would have accepted Esther (who sings a complete piece of pop crap called "I Believe in Love") in the first place, but even more ridiculous is that it is clearly Streisand performing at this concert and not the less experienced Esther. Esther and Howard begin an ill-fated romance that leads to an unconvincing finale. Nasally-voiced Streisand is horrible as a rocker, and her acting performance isn't that great, either. It's hard to say if the laid-back Kristofferson is even acting, but since druggies so often do seem out of it, his listlessness may be appropriate. Gary Busey is good, as usual, as a colleague of Howard's. A funny scene has a young lady reporter who beds Howard asking Esther for an interview when she interrupts the two in the sack. The film ends with a long, long concert sequence sung by Streisand, of course. Streisand has made some good movies -- Yentl comes to mind -- but this isn't one of them. "Evergreen" was a hit song from this movie, and "Go to Hell" is a snappy number.  

Verdict: Barbra's Vanity Project. **.

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954)

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954). Director: Douglas Sirk. Produced by Ross Hunter.

This Technicolor remake of the 1935 Magnificent Obsession  casts Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in the roles originally played by Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne, and they give equally good performances. This picture turned Hudson into a major star and he was later re-teamed with Wyman in the more interesting All That Heaven Allows the following year. This has the exact same story as the 1935 film -- wealthy irresponsible playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) turns over a new leaf after he is, in part, responsible for a beloved doctor's death, and then the accidental blinding [not Merrick's fault] of the doctor's widow (Wyman). The trouble is that this version, while very nice to look at and with fine supporting performances from Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead and others, is just as contrived. Although the age difference between the two leads was addressed in All That Heaven Allows, it is ignored in this picture. In smaller roles you'll find Mae Clarke, Paul Cavanaugh, and Richard Cutting of Attack of the Crab Monsters.

Verdict: Glossy and well-intentioned, but there's nothing really there. **1/2.

TOM THUMB

Russ Tamblyn
TOM THUMB (1958). Director: George Pal.

Honest Jonathan (Bernard Miles) and his wife Anna (Jessie Matthews) have always wanted a child, "no matter how small," and the Forest Queen (June Thorburn) delivers one -- Tom Thumb (Russ Tamblyn), a boy who is only six inches tall. Tom is inveigled into helping two crooks (Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers) into robbing the village treasury, and after his parents are arrested,Tom takes after the real thieves with the help of Woody (Alan Young), who is in love with the Forest Queen. Tom Thumb is colorful and good-looking, and Tamblyn makes a wonderful Tom Thumb, but the picture is basically for your more patient children. Sellers, with an Italian accent and dressed in a fat suit, is marvelous, as is Terry-Thomas as his partner-in-crime. Years before Toy Story this movie presented toys who come alive when no adults are present. These "puppetoons" are brought to life with stop-motion animation. Peggy Lee wrote the songs -- "Talented Shoes" isn't a bad number. Mercifully Alan Young is dubbed when he sings one passable romantic ballad.

Verdict: Half-charming; half-cloying. **1/2.

THE TARNISHED ANGELS

THE TARNISHED ANGELS (1957). Director: Douglas Sirk. Produced by Albert Zugsmith.

Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson), a reporter, becomes involved with an air show troupe consisting of Roger Shumann (Robert Stack), his wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), and their buddy and associate Jiggs (Jack Carson). A WW1 flying hero, Roger can't recapture his glory days and takes it out on his wife and young son, Jack (Chris Olsen) while Jiggs, who loves LaVerne, fumes, and Burke and LaVerne bond out of sympathy. This has the same producer, director and stars of Written on the Wind, but a more prestigious literary source, William Faulkner's "Pylon," but it isn't as entertaining. This is supposed to take place during the 1930's but it has absolutely no period atmosphere [despite the black and white photography]. The four leads are all good, but none are outstanding. Robert Middleton scores as promoter Matt Ord, who has his own plans for pretty LaVerne. The movie is well-intentioned, and tries hard to be a thoughtful piece, but the characters lack dimension and the story never quite comes to a boil, with the climax coming twenty minutes too soon. One of the better sequences has the little boy stuck on a fun ride as disaster strikes at the air show nearby. Troy Donahue has a small role as a doomed young pilot.

Verdict: So so and ho hum, unfortunately. **1/2.

BEGINNING OF THE END

BEGINNING OF THE END (1957). Director: Bert I. Gordon.

Reporter Audrey Aimes (Peggie Castle) is surprised to learn that the town of Ludlow has been wiped out overnight and all of its 150 inhabitants have disappeared. [Nobody ever suggests a tornado might be responsible even though that is what the damage resembles in stock footage.] No, in a grotesque development Audrey learns that irradiated food worked on by entomologist Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves) has been accidentally eaten by grasshoppers and has turned them into humongous giants that have devoured everyone in town [bones included]! Before long General Hanson (Morris Ankrum) and Colonel Sturgeon (Thomas B. Henry) are leading a desperate battle against the ravenous plague of locusts as Wainwright tries to come up with the solution to destroying them. The climax has Wainwright and Aimes working in a skyscraper in Chicago as the grasshoppers converge en masse ... This is a cheap but entertaining entry in the "big bug" cycle, zippily directed by Gordon, and not badly acted by the enthusiastic cast. Beginning of the End is fast-paced fun but it's not a classic a la Them, its obvious model, nor is it as good as Tarantula. [Gordon also directed Earth vs. The Spider, among many others.]

NOTE: There is a scene in this movie when the Army first encounters the giant grasshoppers but find they are more than they can manage. As a truck pulls away from the forest where the mutants are congregated, one grasshopper suddenly rushes after the truck and nearly catches up with it. However, on the only DVD of this picture currently available, there is a fade out just before the monster appears, stripping the movie of one of its more exciting sequences. Reportedly, the DVD has cut three minutes of footage from the movie. This makes absolutely no sense. The whole point of DVDs with their special features and widescreen format is to show the complete movie as it was intended to be seen. It could be argued that some cuts tighten the movie or remove bad FX work, but fans of this genre want to see the whole movie as it was originally presented, no matter how good the video quality. [ For more on this and similar films see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.]

Verdict: Movie: **1/2. DVD: *1/2.


[YOUNG] TOSCANINI

C. Thomas Howell as the great conductor
TOSCANINI (aka Young Toscanini and Il giovane Toscanini/1988). Director: Franco Zeffirelli.

NOTE: As I have only seen the Italian-language version of this film, this post is more of a report on the movie than a review.

It sounds like something that could only happen in a movie, but it really did happen: When he was 19- years-old musician [and chorus master] Arturo Toscanini was working on a production of Verdi's "Aida" in Rio de Janeiro when the conductor proved so inept that the singers threatened to go on strike if the general manager didn't replace him. When two successive conductors couldn't handle the score, Toscanini, who knew the whole opera, was importuned to take over at the podium despite the fact he'd never conducted before. Toscanini did an excellent job, and became one of the world's most famous conductors of operas and classical music.

Okay, you know how the movie ends, but that's history. Toscanini shows the young artist (C. Thomas Howell) being rejected as a cellist at La scala due to his temperament, then follows him as he joins a South American tour and winds up in Brazil. There he romances a young lady, Margherita (Sophie Ward, who has a great face), who ministers to the poor in Rio, and also meets an idol of his, the [probably fictional] soprano Nadina Bulichoff (Elizabeth Taylor), who is coming out of retirement to appear in "Aida." During the opera she enrages the powers-that-be by denouncing the slavery [part of the plot of the opera] that is still being practiced in Brazil.

Toscanini is a handsome picture with beautiful settings and musical backgrounds. Tenor Carlo Bergonzi appears in the film -- and sings! -- and the production of "Aida" looks quite magnificent. An especially charming scene has Arturo playing for the sweet-faced children of Rio; a more somber moment has him discovering that some of these children have died.

As an English-language or sub-titled version of the film is unavailable, it is hard to judge the dramatic viability of the film unless you understand Italian. Howell and Taylor have been dubbed by Italian actors. [The DVD release of the film says that it has both English and Korean sub-titles, but it only has Korean.] The film is certainly good to look at, and appears to have several tense and dramatic sequences.

Some may feel that the non-Italian casting of the leads is rather odd. If Zeffirelli were hoping Howell and Taylor would improve the film's chances of American success he was mistaken. Taylor was no longer box office in 1988, and while Howell had appeared in such successful "teen" films as The Outsiders, his fans probably didn't know who Toscanini was. He seems quite intense and romantic in the part. [Toscanini was a good-looking man, although probably not as Hollywood handsome as Howell.] So in the long run, sadly, the two actors, good as they are, didn't do the picture much good and vice versa.

Definitely worth a look. And let's hope one with English captions or titles comes out one of these days.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

GIANT

Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean
GIANT (1956). Director: George Stevens.

Texas rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) marries the feisty, independent-minded Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) and comes to realize that meek compliance is not in her nature. Meanwhile, the arrogant, slouching ranch hand Jett Rink (James Dean) discovers oil on the property left to him by Benedict's sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) and is soon even wealthier than Jordan, leading to various complications and a couple of fight scenes. This long, sprawling saga is entertaining for the most part, and features one of Taylor's best performances. Hudson isn't the best casting, but he isn't bad, and the odd Dean makes a minor impression as well. Giant is not really a masterpiece, but it does have some good scenes: the Benedict children discovering that their Thanksgiving dinner is their pet turkey; Leslie telling off the men who think women have no place in politics; Angel (Sal Mineo) "coming home" from WW2. The other cast members include Carolyn Craig (House on Haunted Hill) as Leslie's younger sister; Rod[ney] Taylor as her cast-off suitor, who later on marries said sister; Carroll Baker as Leslie's daughter [in her second film and first big role]; Chill Wills as Uncle Bawley; Dennis Hopper as the Benedict son, Jordy, who, like his mother, has a mind of his own; Elsa Cardenas as Jordy's Mexican wife; and Earl Holliman as Bob, the husband of the youngest Benedict daughter, Judy (Fran Bennett). Of the supporting players, Hopper and McCambridge provide the most vivid performances. Giant has an admirable sub-text on the evils of racism -- both Benedict and Rink are prejudiced against the "wetbacks" -- but this might have had more impact if the Mexican characters, such as Angel, were developed a lot more.

Verdict: Long, but generally sustains interest, and -- surprisingly -- Taylor is the glue holding it all together. ***.

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE

Private Williams goes "bare-backing"
REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967). Director: John Huston.

"Any fulfillment at the expense of normality should not be allowed to bring happiness."

On an Army barracks in the South, twisted passions and adulterous affairs are playing havoc with people's lives and emotions. Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) is married to the beautiful Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) but he's much more interested in handsome Private Williams (Robert Forster), who rides a black horse through the woods both bare-backed and bare-assed. Penderton is so obsessed with Williams that he doesn't even turn to look at a car accident behind him so that he can continue to stare at the object of his affection, and he lovingly collects the private's discarded candy wrappers. Meanwhile Leonora is sleeping with next door neighbor Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), whose depressed wife Alison (Julie Harris) cut off her nipples with garden shears and has much more of a connection with her Filipino houseboy Anacleto (Zorro David). Worse news for Penderton is that Private Williams has a crush on Leonora, and sneaks into her room at night to watch her sleep and play with her things, leading to a major [no pun intended] and infuriating climactic disappointment for the Army man. Leonora seems most of all to care about her horse, Firebird. Based on a novel by Carson McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye is fascinating and absorbing but at the same time hard to take entirely seriously, as it tends to be over-baked and soap opera-lurid at times. Brando gives a fairly good performance, but like many of his performances, it comes dangerously close to caricature. Harris and Taylor are fine as very different housewives, light years apart in intelligence and sensitivity; Keith is excellent, as is Zorro David, a painter and beautician who appeared in no other films. Forster makes a definite impression in his first film. Repressed, unhappy Major Penderton shows signs of  wanting to break out of his closet, but he also destroys the career of a man who is suspected of being gay [because of his love of poetry and classical music!] but possibly isn't. The film received some criticism  because it doesn't have any 1940's period atmosphere, but I saw nothing in the movie to indicate that it takes place in any other time period than when it was shot, the late sixties. Handsomely produced and photographed, and quite well-directed by Huston. NOTE: The DVD restores the original muted colors favored by Huston but replaced by the studios with regular color prints one week after the film's release.

Verdict: Kind of silly all told, but more than watchable and with an interesting plot. ***.

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935)

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935). Director: John M. Stahl.

"Through one, all may be reached."

Because a wealthy playboy, Bob Merrick (Robert Taylor), goes sailing while drunk, special equipment is used to save his life, meaning it isn't available elsewhere when a beloved doctor has a stroke while swimming. The doctor dies and the useless playboy lives, infuriating the doctor's widow, Helen (Irene Dunne). But these two individuals are nevertheless drawn to each other, but tragedy strikes when Helen is the victim of a hit and run and loses her sight. This gives Bob a new purpose in life, as does the dead doctor's philosophy of helping people while asking for nothing in return, creating a spiritual connection. This is the first film adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas' novel; a remake was done in 1954. The trouble with the movie isn't its religiosity, which never becomes too overpowering, but the fact that it's contrived from beginning to end. Fine performances from the leads are some compensation, but Magnificent Obsession is pretty predictable and tedious. Sara Haden, Ralph Morgan, and Betty Furness are good in supporting roles, but dippy Charles Butterworth is merely an irritation.

Verdict: Not exactly a classic but the stars are excellent. **.

INTERNES CAN'T TAKE MONEY

INTERNES CAN'T TAKE MONEY (1937). Director: Alfred Santell.

This is the movie that introduced the character of Dr. Kildare (Joel McCrae), who not only starred in a series of films, but his own TV show [starring Richard Chamberlain in the role]. Kildare is concerned over, and attracted to, a pretty patient named Janet (Barbara Stanwyck) who desperately needs money to pay a popcorn-loving heel, Innes (Stanley Ridges), who says he knows where her little girl is. Kildare does an emergency bar room operation on a shady character named Hanlon (Lloyd Nolan), who helps him get the necessary info from Innes. In the meantime, there are a number of misunderstandings between Kildare and Janet, not to mention Kildare and Hanlon, who tries to pay him cash even as Kildare protests that "internes can't take money". [Yet Kildare doesn't report Hanlon's injury to the police!] Irving Bacon is Jeff, a bar owner; Lee Bowman an interne who is unfairly fired for "experimenting" on a patient; and Pierre Watkin is the chief doctor. Well-acted and quite entertaining.

Verdict: Fine introduction for a very long-lived character. ***.

MY HUSBAND, ROCK HUDSON Phyllis Gates



MY HUSBAND, ROCK HUDSON. Phyllis Gates and Bob Thomas. Doubleday; 1987.

Phyllis Gates tries not too successfully to convince us that her marriage to Rock Hudson was not to head off rumors about the actor but a real love match -- at first. Gates and Hudson may have had at one time a compatible friendship and the self-hating Hudson probably went to bed with her, but it is clear from Gates' story that he only made occasional stabs at being a serious husband. What Gates writes is completely at odds with her notion that they had strong romantic feelings for one another. My Husband, Rock Hudson has a dated sensibility even for the 80's -- the word "gay" is never used, for instance. Hudson never returned from Italy, where he was filming A Farewell to Arms, when Gates had to spend weeks in the hospital due to a hepatitis infection. It seems not only impossible that Gates didn't pick up on all the clues about his real interests -- she was assistant to notorious agent Henry Willson, who had Rock in his stable of clients -- but didn't know the score in the beginning. Since Gates' death, it has come out [pun intended] that she was actually a lesbian and that her "marriage" to Rock was more about money and power than anything else. Veteran writer Thomas insures that the book is smoothly written and readable, and there is some insight into what it's like being married to a self-absorbed movie star, but this self-serving memoir does little to illuminate Hudson or even Gates herself. As far as this book is concerned, being gay is still a dirty little secret. This book is an embarrassment for Doubleday.

Verdict: The cover up continues. Sadly, this sort of thing is still going on today despite all the advances in Gay Rights. **.

THE ARTIST

THE ARTIST (2011). Director/writer: Michel Hazanavicius

"It's an honor to meet you. My father is a big fan."

If ever anyone needed proof that winning Oscars often has more to do with pressure from studios and aggressive campaigning than with pure quality, look no further than the fact that this won the Best Picture Academy Award for 2012. Except for a dream sequence and at the very end, The Artist is a black and white silent movie with titles and music [more about that music in a moment]. There have been quite a few classics from the silent movie period -- King Vidor's The Crowd instantly comes to mind -- but The Artist is not on that level. Instead it's yet another variation on A Star is Born with a Valentino-type actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) -- who resists the idea that talkies are taking over -- giving a break to a young female newcomer, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), only to watch her become a big star while he becomes a forgotten has-been. [It is never explained why Valentin won't be hired for sound movies, as no mention is made of any problem with his voice.] However, Peppy doesn't forget her one-time mentor's kindness and comes to his aid. Penelope Ann Miller is Valentin's unloving wife and John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell are movie biz types. There's a cute little dog who nearly steals the picture, but the lead characters are not that sympathetic, and the film is full of show biz cliches without having anything new to add. Yes, The Artist may be an "homage" to motion pictures, but surely it should be as good as the best of the movies it honors before it wins major awards? [Sometimes the Oscars get it right; The King's Speech was a genuinely great picture and deserved to win Best Picture.] Ludovic Bource's music is very good and does a lot of the work, but talented Bource couldn't have been thrilled with the director's decision to score a climactic sequence with, of all things, Bernard Herrmann's love theme from Hitchcock's classic Vertigo! Not only does this pull you out of one movie into another -- as some critics noted -- but it's unfair to Bource, Herrmann, the movie, and the audience. Herrmann [nor Hitchcock] is not alive to protest, but Kim Novak certainly did -- and should have. It was a very bad decision to use such famous music, especially in a scene where it is completely inappropriate.

Verdict: Handsomely produced and well-acted, but we've seen it all before. And the Vertigo steal is disastrous! **1/2.

A STAR IS BORN (1954)

Mason accidentally smacks Garland at the Oscars
A STAR IS BORN (1954). Director: George Cukor.

Re-tailored for the talents of Judy Garland, this version of the venerable story does away with the early scenes of small-town home life and the old grandma in the 1934 original. This version is practically a musical, with production numbers for the star inserted at regular intervals. Some of the dialogue from the first film is used in this one as well. This version also has a lengthy scene [cut after the original release] which shows star Norman Maine (James Mason) searching all over Hollywood for Esther (Garland) after their first encounter; stills are mostly all that survive of this sequence. The "Born in a Trunk" number, which is very well done, has been reincorporated as well. Mason, Garland, Charles Bickford as a studio head and Jack Carson as the publicity man are all quite good, although it could be argued that in her more emotional scenes Garland displays technical virtuosity but is a touch over-rehearsed and mechanical, which may have cost her an Oscar. One scene that should have been left on the cutting room floor has Mason acting as a one-man cheering squad as Garland performs "Someone, Somewhere." On the other hand, Garland sings the pants off the excellent number "The Man That Got Away." Basically this is entertaining despite its length, handsomely produced, and well-edited. Others in the cast include Chick Chandler, Irving Bacon, Percy Helton, Olin Howland, and Grady Sutton.

Verdict: Garland's movie for better or worse. ***.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

GREAT OLD MOVIES -- EXTRA # 2

 THE WAR OF THE WORLDS




H. G. Wells' brilliant novel of interplanetary war, The War of the Worlds, was published in 1898. Decades later, Orson Welles presented a version on radio and panicked everyone in the country who thought it was for real. The two best film versions were made by George Pal in 1953 and Steven Spielberg in 2005. You can read about the novel and some subsequent film versions below.

GREAT OLD NOVEL: THE WAR OF THE WORLDS H. G. WELLS

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. H. G. Wells.

"In another moment the huge wave, well-nigh at the boiling point had washed upon me. I screamed aloud, and scalded, half blinded, agonised [sic], I staggered through the leaping, hissing water towards the shore. Had my foot stumbled, it would have been the end. I fell helplessly, in full sight of the Martians, upon the broad, bare gravelly spit that runs down to mark the angle of the Wey and Thames. I expected nothing but death." 

"Surely if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity -- pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion."

H. G. Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, besides bringing into being the whole genre of invasion from outer space and alien life forms, is a brilliant novel written in a style that is still quite vivid and accessible today despite its being a work of the 19th century. Wells' distinctive and descriptive prose brings to shuddery life a true horror and science fiction story of an invasion by completely inhuman antagonists. The martians themselves are fully described early in the book, and their terrifying rampage across England in giant war machines as they employ devastating heat rays to decimate the population is fully experienced by the reader through the eyes of the narrator, a journalist separated from his wife. [His brother's adventures are also described.] There is so much going on in the book that it could be said that characterization is not its strong point, but Wells manages to get across much of the psychology of the narrator and supporting characters, such as a curate with whom he temporarily hides away from the martians. The War of the Worlds is also a book of ideas, as Wells' explores the alien nature of the would-be conquerors, their uses for the human race, how they feed and build their machines and so on, and possible ways that humanity might react to both being invaded and conquered. The book is suspenseful, action-packed, and genuinely creepy, and superior to all of its cinematic adaptations.

Verdict: Still a great read after all these years. A masterpiece. ****.

H. G. WELLS' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)

The martians run amok!
H. G. WELLS' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Director: Timothy Hines [also co-screenplay/editing].

This long -- way too long -- direct-to-video adaptation of H. G. Wells' masterpiece was rushed -- and I do mean rushed -- into production in order to beat out Steven Spielberg's vastly superior big budget remake of the George Pal classic. While this lugubrious, badly padded  version is perhaps more faithful to the source material -- and takes place in the correct time period --  it is on almost every level a misfire. Whereas Wells gets right into the thick of things in his novel, this takes forever to get going. The whole tone of the production is immediately lowered by the addition of a ponderous old astronomer, atrociously acted, who dominates the first half hour. Lead actor Anthony Piana (who also plays his brother sans mustache) has his moments later in the picture, but seems mostly like a little boy playing dress up. Most of the other actors are similarly miscast. Jamie Hall's theme music isn't bad, but often the score is completely at odds with the activities on screen. The business of the martians' heat ray turning people into skeletons smacks more of the Pal film than the book, in which the ray simply burned people to death. The stop-motion [or similar technique] martians and tripods are not badly designed, but the special effects and really poor matte work make everything resemble a video game. There are few memorable scenes, but one that works has Piana desperately trying to stay out of view of a martian tentacle that enters the wrecked house where he's taken shelter, a scene that also occurred in the two aforementioned Hollywood versions. What one carries way from this are all the scenes of the hero walking, walking and walking ... Too bad.This is almost completely devoid of movie-making nohow.

Verdict: Skip this tedious mess and go with Spielberg and Pal instead. *1/2.

WAR OF THE WORLDS [VIDEO/2005]

WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Director/co-writer: David Michael Latt.

In what is first seen as a terrorist attack, missiles land on  major US cities, and huge crab-like tripods emerge from them, bringing death and destruction. Astronomer Dr. George Herbert (C. Thomas Howell) tries to find his wife and son, but is horrified to learn Washington D.C. has been nearly obliterated. It would have been nice if we had actually gotten to see some of this action and devastation, but this low-budget, direct-to-video movie -- which has little real connection to H. G. Wells' classic novel aside from a couple of sequences and characters -- tries a smaller scale approach, to say the least. In this very talky movie Herbert meets up with his brother, Matt (Peter Greene), a sergeant (Andrew Lauer), a psycho lieutenant (Jake Busey) and a pastor named Victor (Rhett Giles). Instead of action and horror, aside from some quick bits, there's a lot of walking and talking and more walking and talking -- characters even tell their back stories during what might have been tense moments. A bit with a green mist of poison gas is briefly creepy, and the scenes of the ruins of Washington D.C. aren't bad. The screenplay has some sensitive moments, but it seems to have forgotten about everything else. Howell, Giles and the other cast members give good performances, however, and the animated tripods are effective. Followed by War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave three years later. This can hardly compare to the George Pal and Steven Spielberg versions. 

Verdict: Whatever it is, it ain't Wells. **.

WAR OF THE WORLDS 2: THE NEXT WAVE

WAR OF THE WORLDS 2: THE NEXT WAVE (2008). Director: C. Thomas Howell.

C. Thomas Howell both directs and stars in this sequel to the direct-to-video movie War of the Worlds (2005). Dr. George Herbert (Howell) is in the thick of things when the martians return to earth and kidnap humans using zap beams that seem to disintegrate them but actually teleport them into bizarre holding pens. The martian ships, like the creature in Alien, turn out to be a kind of bio-technological living being, and the martians want to homogenize human blood so its microbes won't infect them as before. When Herbert's son is zapped, Herbert gets himself kidnapped and finds himself some unlikely allies in the war against the aliens, not to mention his search for his son. War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave is a little more involving than the first film, has some interesting [if derivative] ideas and sequences, and Howell gives a very good performance, but there seem to be confusing narrative gaps and a little too much talk, especially in the first half. The climax has some real suspense, however.

Verdict: Bleak and tedious at times despite some good moments. **1/2.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

WRITTEN ON THE WIND

Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone
WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956). Director: Douglas Sirk. Producer: Albert Zugsmith.

"Lousy white trash!"

Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), a spoiled rich son of an oil tycoon (Robert Keith), woos and weds Lucy (Lauren Bacall), oblivious to the fact that his best friend Mitch (Rock Hudson), also has feelings for her. Basically raised in the same household, Mitch, unfortunately, only has brotherly feelings for Kyle's "sluttish" sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), who's in love with him, and sleeps around out of self-hatred and frustration. Complications ensue when Kyle learns he might not be able to have children [one senses he wants kids more to "prove his manhood" than out of any great desire for children], yet Lucy gets pregnant. This movie may have seemed daring back in its day, but now it's dated and full of dime-store psychology. Although produced by Albert Zugsmith, it has the same glossy sheen of a Ross Hunter movie, and it looks great, with superior cinematography by Russell Metty, and first-class art direction and set decoration [from, among others, Robert Clatworthy]. The acting is okay -- Stack, with crazy eyes, gives one of his best performances and garnered an Oscar nomination -- although Malone's performance seems to consist of making painfully obvious faces and doing some sexy dancing; she does have some good moments, however. Bacall and Hudson do fine, if neither is outstanding; Robert Keith is better. Ironically, reportedly in the novel by Robert Wilder that was the source material, Stack's character was an old-fashioned "tormented homosexual," which is somewhat suggested in Stack's tortured portrayal, if never stated outright. This blatant, superficial soap opera is like a forerunner of TV's Dallas.

Verdict: Entertaining, handsomely produced junk movie that is great to look at, but there's less here than meets the eye. **1/2.

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950). Director: Felix E. Feist.

Wealthy Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt) shoots the husband she's divorcing right in front of her boyfriend, Lt. Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb). She claims the dead man intended to kill her, and it was only self-defense, but even Cullen doesn't quite seem to buy it [the film sort of drops this angle early on]. Nevertheless, he helps Lois cover up the murder, dump the body, and then gets assigned to the case. Assisting him is his younger brother -- and new cop -- Andy, (John Dall of Atlantis, the Lost Continent), which turns out not to be good news for Cullen. Andy isn't as dumb as he looks. Well ... there are lost gems, and there are movies like The Man Who Cheated Himself, which is in no way a classic like D.O.A. The premise is swell, but the script is superficial, with one-dimensional characters, and the only tense sequence is at the climax. The acting is surprisingly mediocre. At first it's fun to watch Wyatt from Father Knows Best acting like a bitchy murderess, but her performance is ultimately odd. Lee J. Cobb walks through the movie with so little passion and nerves that it's as if his character were drugged with a dozen sedatives. Considering what's at stake -- his entire career and jail time --  his laid-back quality is bizarre to say the least. [If Cobb was hoping to suggest that Cullen was supremely confident and above it all, it just doesn't work -- he's simply unemotional.] Dall is such a laughing lightweight in the first half that it's completely unconvincing when he suddenly accuses his brother [on very little solid evidence] and turns all grim and serious. The movie is watchable but little else.

Verdict: This could have been a classic. **.

A STAR IS BORN (1937)

Norman accidentally smacks Esther at Oscars
A STAR IS BORN (1937). Director: William A. Wellman. Produced by David O. Selznick.

"For every dream of yours that comes true, you'll pay the price in heartbreak."

In this technicolor re-visioning of What Price Hollywood? -- a star on the rise juxtaposed with a star on the wane -- the two main characters are romantically involved and get married, adding some dramatic heft to the basic plot line. Norman Maine (Fredric March) is a heavy-drinking lead actor who is in danger of being cast off as too difficult to work with. [As one wag puts it, "his work is beginning to interfere with his drinking."] He becomes smitten with a sweet little hopeful named Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor of Sunrise), who is taken under his wing and signed to a contract. Rechristened "Vicki Lester," she becomes a big star even as Norman's phone stops ringing, culminating in an embarrassing scene at the Academy Awards when he storms in drunk as she gives an acceptance speech. The film shows much more of Esther's early life than either of the two remakes. Gaynor is fine as Esther, but she seems an unlikely bet for major stardom, although in real life she had already won the first Best Actress Oscar [for two silent films] and was an established name and one-time top box office attraction before the film was made -- her performance in this was also nominated for an Oscar, but ironically she had few film roles afterward. March does the best he can with a severely underwritten role. [It also seems unlikely that Maine would be so completely forgotten in so short a time.] Adolph Menjou, Lionel Stander, and Andy Devine are all notable in important supporting roles, and peppery May Robson is as wonderful as ever as Esther's loving grandmother. Max Steiner's score is one of his least memorable.

Verdict: Entertaining behind-the-scenes look at one of Hollywood's sad stories but not quite a true classic. ***.

THEM

THEM (1954). Director: Gordon Douglas.

"A Horror Horde of Crawl-and-Crush Giants Clawing Out of the Earth from Mile-Deep Catacombs!" -- Ad copy.

"You just found your missing persons."

In the desert near where atomic testing took place, several people have gone missing, and a catatonic little girl screams about "Them!" when exposed to formic acid. There are oddly shaped footprints in the sand, as well as strange noises in the distance. Of course, due to the advertising campaign, the audience knows long before the principals do that there are monsters on the loose, specifically giant ants. Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), FBI agent Bob Graham (James Arness), scientist Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon) are among the people assembled to combat this deadly menace of huge and carnivorous insects. It has to be remembered that Them was the first movie to deal with this subject matter -- not only giant insects, but the mutated results of atomic testing --  and was fresh, original* and frightening for its day. This was the second early fifties "thrill-picture" for Warner Brothers after The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and together the two films, both of which were wildly successful, ushered in what became known as the creature/insect cycle of the fifties. [Oddly the ad campaign for Them is just as lurid as the ones used for subsequent big bug movies like The Black Scorpion and Tarantula.] Although there are moments of humor in the film, the general tone is admirably serious [perhaps making it less" fun" than later films in the genre]. Although they are limited in their mobility, the ants look good and scary, and the sound department has turned them into cackling and chittering horrors. The discovery of the missing persons is still gruesome, and the trip down into the giant ant hole is creepy and memorable. An appropriately eerie musical score by Bronislau Kaper adds to the chilling atmosphere. Smaller roles are taken by the likes of Ann Doran [Meet John Doe] as a child psychologist, Sean McClory [Plunder of the Sun; Valley of the Dragons] as a major, Fess Parker as a man who sees the flying queen ants in his plane, Olin Howland [The Blob's first victim] as a patient in a hospital ward, and, Leonard Nimoy [Zombies of the Stratosphere] as an Air Force sergeant. Joan Weldon had a few movie and TV credits, but was essentially a singer. Gordon Douglas had a long list of credits, but Them was his most memorable film.NOTE: For more about this film and others like it, see CREATURE FEATURES: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies. * The concept of giant insects was first used in fiction by H. G. Wells in his novel "The Food of the Gods," which also had giant rats, chickens, and children!

Verdict: A sci-fi-horror -- and very influential -- classic. ***1/2.


MR. BROOKS

Kevin Costner
MR. BROOKS (2007). Director/co-writer: Bruce A. Evans.

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is Portland's Man of the Year, a respected family man and very successful businessman -- but he is also the serial killer known as the Thumbprint Killer, who shoots couples and arranges their bodies in "romantic" poses. He has an invisible alter ego named Marshall (William Hurt), who encourages him to commit murder even as Earl tries to stay on the straight and narrow. For the first time he makes a mistake by murdering a couple in front of a window, and a man calling himself Smith (Dane Cook) has taken photographs of the crime. But Cook doesn't want money -- he wants to go along on Brooks' next kill! Another complication for Earl is that there just may be another serial killer in his family, and there's a dogged lady detective (Demi Moore) on his trail. While Mr. Brooks has a few interesting twists, it isn't for a moment believable and there's not enough suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat. The performances are quite good -- Costner and Hurt are excellent, while Moore gives a showy if not entirely convincing portrayal of the cop -- and Marg Helgenberger and Danielle Panabaker are fine as Earl's wife and daughter, respectively; Cook also does well as the slimy, repulsive Smith. Morally ambiguous, to say the least. Despite the subject matter, there's very little gore in the film except for a climactic killing.

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

ICE STATION ZEBRA

ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968). Director: John Sturges.

Commander James Ferreday (Rock Hudson) is called in when there is an accident at a research station in the North Pole. He is to take a nuclear sub with a full crew on a rescue mission, only he is told by Admiral Garvey (Lloyd Nolan) that the men at the station aren't the real reason for the trip -- he is to take aboard an enigmatic gentleman named Jones (Patrick McGoohan) who knows what's really going on but won't say. It all winds up with a confrontation with Americans and Russians over a major prize hidden at the station. One has to wonder if Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novel upon which this was based, was a fan of the old TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as this plays like an extended episode of that show with one of their typical plot lines. The film looks good and has some exciting scenes -- an escape from a rapidly closing fissure, for instance, as well as a bit when a sabotaged torpedo tube lets in ice-cold sea water -- but it runs much too long and doesn't sustain suspense or tension. Rock Hudson gives what can charitably be described as a low-energy performance, but other cast members, such as McGoohan and Ernest Borgnine [as a Russian!] are better. The movie resists all attempts at pathos even when heroic or sympathetic characters are killed. Alf Kjellin is vivid as Colonel Ostrovsky. [Although Kjellin had a lot of acting credits, he is perhaps better known as a frequent director of such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.] Released in Cinerama and Super Panavision.

Verdict: Has possibilities but tries too hard to be a "big" movie when it isn't. **1/2.

RESTITUTION

C. Thomas Howell in sinister mode
RESTITUTION (2011). Director: Lance Kawas.

Bryan Spikes (Mark Bierlein), who investigates insurance fraud, meets a pretty bartender named Heather (Mena Suvari), and then gets murdered. Then writer Alex Forrester (also Mark Bierlien), who looks like Bryan without his beard, comes to town and claims he is doing a book about -- Bryan Spikes, who allegedly murdered several people. What's going on here? Since most people will sort of notice that Bryan and Alex resemble one another, the final twist in this picture may not come as much of a surprise, but there's enough confusing stuff to almost hold the attention [in a roundabout way] between the opening and the climax. But the emphasis is on the word confusing, for even when you've figured it all out the movie doesn't make much sense. Mark Bierlein, the star of the movie, also co-wrote the screenplay and served as executive producer. Bierlien is not untalented [as an actor at least] but he isn't the best casting choice and, frankly, could use a little more seasoning. He is not without appeal, but making mediocre vanity projects is probably not the way to go. The whole movie seems like something a small town drama club cobbled together with borrowed equipment -- it looks more or less professional at times but has the veneer of something cheap and fifth-rate. Exceptions to this are the first-rate musical score by Misha Segal, and the performances of C. Thomas Howell and Mena Suvari, who is talented but needs to stay out of movies like this. Tom Arnold is the only other "name" in the cast besides Howell; he's supposed to be funny but isn't. There are some good scenes, but not enough.

 Verdict: Amateur Hour and a half. **.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

DARLING LILI [DIRECTOR'S CUT]

Hudson and Andrews
DARLING LILI (1970). Director: Blake Edwards.

NOTE: This review is of the shortened, more "serious" director's cut put together by Edwards twenty years or so after the film's original release. The DVD also contains nearly an hour of the missing footage.

Lili Smith (Julie Andrews) is a beloved music hall singer who visits injured allied troops during WW1, but she's also a German agent who passes along information that she gets from high-ranking officers. Her latest conquest is Major William Larabee (Rock Hudson), who is up to his neck in something called Operation Crepe Suzette. When Lili, who is falling for the major, discovers that there's a sexy French singer named "Crepe Suzette" (Gloria Paul), she assumes that she is the "operation" and decides to get revenge. Once you accept that Darling Lili is another one of those movies that operates in its own dimension -- there is little sense of time and place, location, or even that there's much of a war on -- and that it is not to be taken seriously, it's decidedly enjoyable on its own terms. Andrews is hardly the best choice for a Mata Hari-type, but she gives a good performance, as does the supporting cast. Hudson is okay, but although he's supposed to be Andrews' co-star, in this version of the film he hasn't much to do. Gloria Paul nearly steals the movie in her turn as Suzette, who has a memorably erotic dance number. The completely unrealistic ending has Hudson and soldiers seemingly ignoring the fact that Lili's spying might have cost the lives of hundreds of their comrades.  Of course, the casting of "Von Trapp" Andrews [combined with the light tone of the film] makes some of her other reprehensible actions -- such as framing an innocent woman out of jealousy  -- more "palatable." "Whistling in the Dark" is a nice number, well-warbled by Andrews.

Verdict: This should have been much darker, but provides modest entertainment as it is. ***.

THE RULING CLASS

Peter O'Toole
THE RULING CLASS (1972). Director: Peter Medak.

When the Earl of Gurnsey (Harry Smith) dies in a grotesque, kinky accident involving a tutu and a hanging, his son Jack (Peter O'Toole) becomes the new Earl. The problem is that Jack has been institutionalized for years and is convinced that he is Jesus and/or God. In spite [or because] of this, his Uncle Charles (William Mervyn) decides to marry him off to Charles' mistress, Grace (Carolyn Seymour) so that they can re-commit him once he's delivered an heir. But Jack, whose persona is definitely becoming darker, has different plans in mind. Coral Browne is Charles' wife, Claire, and the great Alistair Sim (Belles of St. Trinian's) is cast as the befuddled Bishop, "Bertie." The entire cast is splendid, including Michael Bryant as Jack's psychiatrist; Nigel Green [Let's Kill Uncle] as another nutcase; James Villiers as Jack's cousin, Dinsdale; and especially Arthur Lowe, who [along with Sim] nearly steals the picture as the family butler, who has inherited money from the late earl and feels free to tell everybody what he really thinks of them even as he waits on them. The first half of this zany movie, which roasts British class distinctions, religion, conservative values and the like, is very, very funny, with madcap musical numbers, such as "Varsity Drag," interspersed to complete the fun and lunacy. Alas, there's too much of a good thing, the movie goes on way too long, blunting its satiric points, and before long you're just wishing it were over. O'Toole is excellent, but his obnoxious, screeching Jack gives you a headache after a while. Some moments are painfully obvious, such as when Jack addresses the House of Lords and they are depicted in quick cuts as skeletons awash in cobwebs. This was filmed in  Harlaxton Manor, a huge, impressive [but rather ugly] house in Lincolnshire. which is now actually the British campus for the University of Evansville in Indiana.

Verdict: A little too surreal and self-indulgent for its own good. **1/2.

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955). Director: Douglas Sirk.

"As Freud says, when we reach a certain age sex becomes incongruous."

""You were ready for a love affair, but not for love."

Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a small-town widow approaching middle age, finds a second chance for happiness with a somewhat younger gardener named Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Even though Ron has his own successful business, he is seen as a poor choice for Cary, whose first husband was an affluent businessman. While the town busybodies gossip, even wrongly suggesting that something was going on between Cary and Ron even before Mr. Scott's death, Cary's son, Ned (William Reynolds), and daughter, Kay (Gloria Talbott), have strenuous objections to their mother's relationship with Ron. Concerned about her children's feelings, Cary makes a fateful decision, only to discover her children haven't time to give much thought to their mother's feelings. [A great scene has the children giving Cary a television set for Christmas, and the camera pulls in toward her sad reflection in the screen as she realizes this TV is meant to be her "companionship" for the future.] Jane Wyman gives an excellent and sensitive performance that holds up through all of the plot contrivances, and Hudson, if not on his co-star's level, is good and romantic and at the height of his male beauty. This is a typically handsome Ross Hunter production with picture postcard Technicolor cinematography. The screenplay tries [and fails] for added depth by making Kirby a Thoreau addict who tries, along with his friends Mick and Alida (Charles Drake and Virginia Grey), to turn aside from mindless ambition and enjoy life's simpler pleasures. [Only in a Hollywood movie can people who eschew the rat race and Keeping Up With The Jones' live in such utterly sumptuous surroundings. Anyone who lives in a reconverted, refurbished mill house has to have bucks.] That being said, there is some good dialogue and supporting performances from such as Gloria Talbott [as the constantly psychoanalyzing daughter], William Reynolds, Donald Curtis as a lecherous suitor, and Agnes Moorehead as Cary's good friend, Sarah. Jacqueline DeWit is the bitchy Mona, who dishes dirt on everyone, Nestor Paiva is one of Ron's circle of friends, and David Janssen is Kay's boyfriend. Although the film makes some attempt at dealing with ageism, it's also guilty of it in its treatment of Harvey (Conrad Nagel), who is Cary's steady date. Harvey may be twenty years older than Cary, but it's still a bit ludicrous to suggest that a man in his late fifties [as Nagel was] would settle for a sexless marriage with a younger woman, as Harvey more or less suggests. Setting aside these and other quibbles, All That Heaven Allows is not without appeal, although it is nowhere near as good as a similar vehicle with Barbara Stanwyck, My Reputation. Nice Frank Skinner score with classical themes.

Verdict:  Attractive soap opera with compelling leads [if for different reasons]. ***.

IDOL: ROCK HUDSON -- THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMERICAN FILM HERO

IDOL: ROCK HUDSON -- THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMERICAN FILM HERO. Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek. Villard; 1986.

This is a solid look at the life of Rock Hudson from his early years, to being discovered by Hollywood agent Henry Willson to his early film roles, his breakthrough in Magnificent Obsession, his performances in such films as Giant and Seconds, his successful TV series MacMillan and Wife, his stint on Dynasty, and his secret gay life and death from AIDS. The book examines many of his friendships, relationships, and bed partners, as well as his sham marriage to Phyllis Gates. The book also looks into the lawsuit filed by lover Marc Christian, who claimed neither Hudson nor anyone in his camp warned him of Hudson's illness. The book indicates that Hudson may not have wanted to tell the world of his struggles with AIDS, his homosexuality, or to become a poster boy for the disease; others may have made these decisions for him. In any case his plight engendered a new and needed interest in the terrible epidemic. Idol takes a grotesque turn when it relates how idiot Pat Boone and other members of the religious right  tried to get Hudson to "find God" as he lay helplessly dying. The book is a bit dated when it goes into the alleged "promiscuity and irresponsibility" of gay men -- what, there are no promiscuous and irresponsible straight guys? Otherwise, the book is fairly sympathetic to Hudson.

Verdict: Good, informative read. ***.

WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?

Neil Hamilton, Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman
WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (1932). Director: George Cukor. Based on a story by Adela Rogers St. John.

"By midnight you'll have forgiven me."

"By midnight I'll have forgotten you."

Before there was A Star is Born -- all three versions -- there was What Price Hollywood?, which had a similar plot line and was greatly influential on the later films. Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), who works as a waitress at the famous Brown Derby, is a Hollywood hopeful who meets famous, heavy-drinking director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) at the restaurant. Carey takes Mary under his wing, and after a false start or two, gets her started in motion pictures. But as her star rises, alcoholic, unreliable Carey's is on the wane. In the meantime Mary marries wealthy Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton), which leads to rather stupid developments.  Sherman and Bennett are okay -- Hamilton is Hamilton -- but their characters are one-dimensional and not very likable, and Bennett was always a cold fish as an actress, talented but not sympathetic [and portraying innocence is not in her metier]. Gregory Ratoff is cast as Julius Saxe, essentially the same kind of producer part he would essay years later in All About Eve. The picture does have some sharp and on occasion daring dialogue. When Borden sarcastically suggests that Carey would be more comfortable in his bed instead of the guest room, it's as easy to imagine Borden is suggesting Carey wants to sleep with him as it is that he wants to sleep with Mary. Interestingly, there is no hint of a romance between the two main characters -- A Star is Born would fix that problem -- and if Carey has any particular feelings for Mary, Sherman never quite gets it across. George Cukor later directed the second version of A Star is Born with Judy Garland and James Mason.

Verdict: Gets credit for its influence, but much better movies about Hollywood were to come. **.

GET SMART SEASON 2

Don Adams as Maxwell Smart
















GET SMART Season 2. 1966.

Chief: "KAOS may be jamming the frequency."

Agent: "All I can hear is Lawrence Welk music."

Chief: "That KAOS has no mercy."

Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) and the Chief (Ed Platt) are back for a second season of silliness with some solid laughs and clever storylines. Stand-out episodes include "Hoo Done It?" with 86 and 99 trapped on an island resort with detective Harry Hoo and a murderer who's killing off all the guests one by one; "Island of the Darned," which is actually a very exciting derivative of "The Most Dangerous Game" with the two agents being hunted by a madman; and "The Man from Yenta," with an Israeli agent assisting with security for a prince with many wives and much oil. Other notable episodes include: "Strike While the Agent is Hot" [Max threatens a CONTROL strike]; "Maxwell Smart, Alias Jimmy Valentine" [Max poses as a well-known safecracker]; "Bronzefinger" [a KAOS agent commits art forgeries, with a thrilling climax in a vat doom-trap]; 'Perils in a Pet Shop" [parrots are used in a clever KAOS scheme]; "Someone Down Here Hates Me" [KAOS puts a price on Max's head]; "Cutback at Control" [Siegfried offers Max a job with KAOS]; "Smart Fit the Battle of Jericho" {Max vs. a KAOS building contractor]; "How to Succeed in the Spy Business" [Siegfried defects from KAOS -- or does he?]; and "A Man Called Smart" [a special three-parter]. Max and 99 are ably assisted in the laughs by Siegfried (Bernie Kopell), Hymie the robot (Dick Gautier), and Dave Ketchum as Agent 13, who always has to hide in tight places.  And lets not forget the Cone of Silence! A good follow-up to season 1.

Verdict: Amusing and well-acted silliness. ***.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE -- GHOST PROTOCOL

Tom Cruise goes climbing














MISSION IMPOSSIBLE -- GHOST PROTOCOL (2011). Director: Brad Bird.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) of the Impossible Missions Force invades the Kremlin with his associates to obtain a nuclear control device, but a terrorist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) beats him to it and sets off an explosion to cover up the theft to boot. Now Hunt and his group have to get the device back from Nyqvist and his associates before he can use it to set off a missile capable of devastating destruction. The best scene in the movie -- which unfortunately occurs at the midway point and not at the climax -- has Hunt climbing a skyscraper at 130 floors [for some contrived reason] with the seamless special effects making it seem as if Cruise himself is up there with no protective netting [sure!]. Cruise is fine as an action hero; Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner play the team members adeptly; and Lea Seydoux makes an impression as an evil if attractive assassin. [Patton and Deydoux have a rousing cat fight at one point.] Mission Impossible -- Ghost Protocol  is exciting, well-directed and quite well done for the most part, but ultimately it's a fairly standard spy movie with mostly unmemorable characters.

Verdict: Absurd but entertaining. ***.