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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

HUD

Three generations: Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon De Wilde
HUD (1963). Director: Martin Ritt.

"You live just for yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with." -- Homer regarding Hud.

Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas) has been a cattle rancher all of his life, but a crisis develops when he learns that his stock may have hoof and mouth disease and could have to be destroyed. His surviving son, Hud (Paul Newman) is an immoral cad who suggests they sell off the cattle to an unsuspecting buyer. Hud's young nephew, Lon (Brandon De Wilde), looks up to his uncle in a way, but his values are more in line with his grandfather's. Hud has always assumed his father hated him because he blamed him for his brother's death, but it runs deeper than that. As stubborn as his son is irresponsible, Homer is bound to butt heads with Hud. Then there's the housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal) -- an underwritten role --  and the sexual tension that exists between her and Hud. All these factors will come to a boil ... Hud is an interesting picture that casts a certain spell, but one suspects it is due less to the story and actors than to the superb cinematography of James Wong Howe, who seems to imbue every shot with added resonance. Hud is also well-directed by Martin Ritt, although he is perhaps less successful in getting his cast to completely cross over that fourth wall that leads to total veracity -- the emoting is technically proficient but all on the surface. This is not to say that the acting is bad -- Newman, Douglas, and Neal all won Oscars (as did Howe and Ritt, the two most deserving) -- but Newman is miscast despite the fact that he manages to work up some effective swagger for an actor who was never that good at swaggering. One has to remember that these aren't the most communicative or openly emotional of people, so there really aren't any dramatic fireworks as such, But the strikingly moody film, a study of a dying way of life and all that it implies, has its own quiet power and is well worth watching. Yvette Vickers [Attack of the Giant Leeches] gets one line as a married woman who dallies with Hud in a coffee shop sequence, and John Ashley [Frankenstein's Daughter] is a cowboy. I have not read the Larry McMurtry novel this is based on, but I have a feeling the film is a rather sanitized version. Amoral characters like Hud are very, very commonplace today in movies and on television. Martin Ritt also worked with Newman and Howe on The Outrage.

Verdict: One imagines that Hud eventually turned into J. R. Ewing. ***1/2.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT

Lauren Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944). Director: Howard Hawks.

Charter boat captain Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) meets up with adventuress Marie (Lauren Bacall) in Martinique just after France has fallen. Needing money, Harry agrees to bring two members of the French resistance, De Bursac (Walter Szurovy) and his wife (Delores Moran of Old Acquaintance), into Martinique, but he comes afoul of the corpulent Captain Renard once they arrive. Renard wants their whereabouts, and captures Harry's old sot friend, Eddie (Walter Brennan) to achieve his ends. But Harry may have a trick  or two up his sleeve ...  If you're expecting a serious or faithful version of Ernest Hemingway's novel of the same name, look elsewhere, for this movie is pure Hollywood and little else. Bogart and Bacall, who fell for each other while making this movie -- they were married the following year -- certainly had a unique chemistry despite the difference in ages and attractiveness. This was Bacall's first picture, and she's fine, probably due in no small measure to Hawks' special tutoring . Dan Seymour [Return of the Fly] is just plain strange as Renard, but amusing, speaking in musical cadences as he makes silent threats with his eyes and belly. Walter Brennan is Walter Brennan. The presence of real-life songwriter Hoagy Carmichael as Crickett, the piano player in a club, almost turns this into a semi-musical. The best thing about the movie is the ending, with both Bacall and Brennan boogieing their way out of the club, albeit in entirely different manners. As a thriller, if that's what it is, To Have and Have Not is almost a complete failure, as scenes that should crackle with tension are flat (if well-acted). The movie holds the attention for the most part, but it's a little too odd and Hollywood-ish to be effective. This was remade as The Breaking Point, which is a much better and much more serious picture.

Verdict: Not much to do with Ernest Hemingway. **1/2.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?

Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE? (1969). Director: Lee H. Katzin. 

Newly widowed Claire Marrabel (Geraldine Page) discovers that her husband left her with virtually no assets and a lot of debts, so what's a poor woman to do? She kills her housekeepers (we learn this even before the opening credits) at her Arizona dwelling and takes their assets for herself. But she has a formidable adversary in her new companion and potential victim, Alice (Ruth Gordon), who is there, unbeknownst to her employer, to find out what happened to a friend of hers who disappeared. With adept and amusing performances from the two leads, as well as a lively physical fight between the two, it's a shame that they are wasted in a movie as mediocre as Aunt Alice? The film was produced by Robert Aldrich, co-produced by his company, and was filmed at the Aldrich studios, but the role Aldrich most needed to play was as director, as Lee H. Katzin fails to imbue the film with much tension or suspense. The climax occurs nearly fifteen minutes before the comparatively flat wind-up. A dull sub-plot concerning a burgeoning relationship between duller characters played by Robert Fuller [The Brain from Planet Arous] and Rosemary Forsyth only pads out the running time. Anyone expecting another What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  or Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte will be sorely disappointed.

Verdict: Even "aging actresses" deserve better than this. **.

"CAT FIGHT:" HERE COMES THE GROOM

video
In my opinion, one of the funnier "cat fights" that I've seen in the movies. This is from Here Comes the Groom (1951).

The combatants: Jane Wyman (!) and "Sexy Alexis" Smith. (We have to remember that the normally demure Wyman later got out her claws in Falcon Crest -- albeit she never wrestled anyone on that show. Anyway, both ladies are in top form.

The bystanders: Bing Crosby, Franchot Tone, a host of character actors, and a funny old lady.

Enjoy!

SCREAMS AND NIGHTMARES: THE FILMS OF WES CRAVEN

SCREAMS AND NIGHTMARES: The Films of WES CRAVEN. Brian J. Robb. Overlook Press; 1998.

This well-written and heavily illustrated coffee table tome looks at the life, career and work of director Wes Craven, most famous, as the title suggests, for A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. Never in the top rank of film directors, Craven nevertheless amassed a number of credits and did some very influential movies. Craven first came to attention with the graphic thriller The Last House on the Left, a low-budget homage or rip-off of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, then suffered poverty and anonymity for many years until he hit the big time with Nightmare and Freddy Krueger. Craven never really wanted to be a horror director, but the field kept calling him back when he needed a paycheck and when fans began to appreciate his movies. Craven's work outside the horror field was limited, however, with one example being the Meryl Streep starrer Music of the Heart. Craven also produced several genre films, and directed telefilms and episodic television, such as the remake of The Twilight Zone. Screams and Nightmares doesn't delve much into Craven's personal life, which would probably be of minor interest to most readers anyway. Even if you're not a tremendous Craven fan, this book is engaging and Robb doesn't make the mistake of deifying the director and not finding fault with his work, which he seems to appreciate more than I do. Perhaps Craven's best directed film, of the ones I've seen so far, was Scream 2.

Verdict: Handsome horror tome with lots of photos. ***.

A TRIP TO THE MOON

A TRIP TO THE MOON (aka Le voyage dans la lune/1902). Director: Georges Melies.

Considered the first science fiction movie ever made, this short silent film presents a group of scientists flying to the moon, encountering some hostile natives, and making a triumphant return to earth.The tone is comical, with one famous scene showing the rocket lodging in the eye of the Man in the Moon (Georges Melies, who also plays a professor). Clever and charming, A Trip to the Moon makes use of painted back drops and large props, and employs such special effects as superimposition, and considering when it is made is quite marvelous. A group of what can only be described as bathing beauties push the rocket into the chamber or cannon from which it is fired at the moon! Melies was an extremely inventive early filmmaker who pointed the path for many film artists to come. [The new score for this remastered film includes strains from what sounds like Massenet's opera Manon.]

Verdict: A short silent classic. ***.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Jake Gyllenhaal
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016). Director: Tom Ford.

Unhappily re-married Susan (Amy Adams), who works for an art gallery specializing in "junk," hears from her first husband, Ed (Jake Gyllenhaal) when he sends her a copy of his novel, "Nocturnal Animals." As Susan reads the book we see scenes from it played out, depicting how the wife and daughter of "Tony" (also played by Gyllenhaal) are kidnapped off of a highway by three threatening predators, and the awful aftermath of this event. Interspersed with these sequences are flashbacks to Susan's relationship with Ed both before their marriage and after their divorce, as well as present-day sequences involving her second husband and her co-workers. Is Ed's successful novel and its violent plot meant to be his revenge on Susan for leaving him for a more ambitious fellow and aborting their child? Will you care by the time the movie is over? If you can get past the credit sequence, which shows the "junk" art Susan works with and which features jaw-droppingly repellent, obscenely obese naked women, you may discover a movie that is only sporadically interesting at best. What we have here is a perfectly average "thriller" that borrows elements from countless other movies, tricked up with the flashbacks and flash forwards and the device of most of it being a novel, an idea that is itself not that original. Too many modern-day movies eschew linear story-telling and go in for a low-key approach that is the antithesis of drama. When this ends, you may wonder "is that all there is?" Over-praised, as usual, by some critics, and foolishly called Hitchcockian (which it is not), by others, it serves to prove that Tom Ford is no Hitchcock, (For one thing Hitch would never have let that opening highway scene, which is initially tense and well-done, go on for so damn long). Amy Adams' [Julie and Julia] performance is nothing special; Gyllenhaal [Source Code] is much better, and there are several flavorful supporting performances, especially from Michael Shannon [Man of Steel] as a dying lawman. This probably worked better on the printed page than as a movie. I would call this style over substance, but it's not even that stylish despite director Ford's background as a fashion designer.

Verdict: Like the exhibits in Susan's art gallery, this is pure kitsch. **.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

PATRICIA NEAL

Patricia Neal as she appeared in The Breaking Point 1950
PATRICIA NEAL (1926 - 2010).

Patricia Neal was an attractive and very gifted actress who had a kind of roller coaster life. She shot to prominence with The Fountainhead, had a long love affair with co-star Gary Cooper, married writer Roald Dahl, recovered from a stroke, had a comeback and won an Oscar for Hud, and won even more acclaim for her performance in The Subject Was Roses. Neal successfully went from movie star and sex symbol to accomplished and admired working actress. One of her favorite films -- and one of her best performances -- was in Three Secrets. This week we look at that film, as well as The Breaking Point, Happy Mother's Day, Love George, and The Hasty Heart. Oddly, Neal also wound up in a 99 cent item called Stranger From Venus, a rip-off of her The Day the Earth Stood Still -- we take a look at that film, too. There's also a review of an excellent biography of the actress.

THE HASTY HEART

Patricia Neal and Richard Todd
THE HASTY HEART (1949). Director: Vincent Sherman.

In Burma at the very end of WW2, a Scots soldier named Lachie (Richard Todd) is shot in the kidney. That one kidney is destroyed and the other is defective, meaning he only has a short time to live. In the hospital, the other patients are told to make what time he has left as convivial as possible, but it won't be easy because Lachie has a massive chip on his shoulder and is extremely unpleasant. But can they and the sympathetic nurse, Sister Parker (Patricia Neal), be able to get through to the man? Based on a play by John Patrick, The Hasty Heart presents a sad and intriguing situation and makes the most of it, bolstered by an outstanding lead performance from Richard Todd [Lightning Strikes Twice]. Patricia Neal is lovely in the movie, and there are also fine jobs from Ronald Reagan [Bedtime for Bonzo] as the American, and  from Ralph Michael, Howard Marion-Crawford, and John Sherman as the other patients in the ward. Orlando Martins is given the thankless role of the near-silent tribesman, Blossom, but he, too, is effective. An amusing if odd sub-plot has to do with the fellows trying to find out if Lachie wears anything under his kilt -- their attempts to peek underneath it get a little obsessive at times. Todd's best scene is his reaction when he learns the truth about his medical condition, but, while he's perhaps a bit older than the character, he is on top of his game throughout. Todd played the role on Broadway after Richard Basehart left the cast. Aside from Neal and Reagan, the supporting characters aren't that well developed, and in truth, we don't learn all that much about those two, either. But somehow it doesn't matter, as the film is completely absorbing and deeply moving. This was remade as a telefilm with Gregory Harrison and Cheryl Ladd (!) and it gets a higher rating on imdb.com than the original, but I can't imagine it's better than this. Vincent Sherman also directed The Damned Don't Cry and many, many others.

Verdict: When dramas were dramas and not sitcoms. ***1/2 out of 4.

THREE SECRETS

Eleanor Parker and Patricia Neal
THREE SECRETS (1950). Director: Robert Wise.

"Is he going to be surprised! You know what his grounds [for divorce] were? He said I wasn't a woman!" -- Phyllis, on learning that she's pregnant.

A plane crashes on a mountain and the only survivor is a little boy. As rescue workers prepare for the dangerous two mile ascent, three women arrive on the scene, all of them wondering if the child is the one they gave up for adoption. The little boy was born on the same day as their child, and came from the same orphanage. Susan (Eleanor Parker) is afraid her marriage may not survive if her husband (Leif Ericson) learns she had a child out of wedlock. Phyllis (Patricia Neal) was a war correspondent whose husband (Frank Lovejoy) left her because she was never home and wouldn't conform to being a traditional wife; she learns she is pregnant after he remarries. Ann (Ruth Roman) gave birth to a boy fathered by a conscienceless wealthy man who paid the ultimate price for his callousness. Three Secrets concentrates on the emotional turmoil of the women's lives and not on the harrowing details of the rescue of the boy, which would have been a completely different picture. The three leading ladies all give fine performances, with Parker and Neal being especially notable. Katherine Warren is also good as Susan's mother, and Kenneth Tobey appears briefly as an army officer who catches Susan with her soldier boyfriend (Arthur Franz). The film's premise is contrived but irresistible, but some of it has to be taken with a grain of salt. An orphanage might acquire three baby boys on the same day in a big city, but all three women basically arrive there at the same time, and how likely is it that Phyllis will remember Susan, who she barely speaks to, five years later, reporter or no. But these are minor concerns: the picture plays beautifully, is very well-acted and well-directed, and has a very moving conclusion. David Buttolph's score disconcertingly reworks the melody of "I Get a Kick Out of You." Although it's been unfairly compared to it, this is completely different from A Letter to Three Wives. This was remade for television in 1999.

Verdict: Oh a higher plateau than the usual soap opera. ***1/2.

THE BREAKING POINT

Patricia Neal and John Garfield
THE BREAKING POINT (1950). Director: Michael Curtiz.

"A man alone ain't got no chance."

NOTE: Some plot points are revealed in this review.

Harry Morgan (John Garfield) is married to a loving wife named Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and has two adorable little girls. Harry is trying his best to keep his charter fishing business afloat, but it doesn't help when one client takes off and stiffs him, leaving behind his girlfriend of the moment, Leona (Patricia Neal). Harry resists Leona's charms, but he can't resist getting into criminal activity to pay his bills, and after an interlude with some smuggled Chinese, winds up using his boat as a getaway in a robbery. But will anybody get away with anything? The Breaking Point is the second (and apparently more faithful) version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, and for much of its length plays like gritty if meandering film noir. Patricia Neal makes the most of her few scenes, but she seems thrown in for little purpose except to test the anti-hero's resolve -- at least one scene seems completely contrived. Garfield is good, while Thaxter perhaps underplays too much as his wife. Wallace Ford [The Mummy's Hand] is memorable as a slimy lawyer who offers Harry less kosher jobs when he needs the money, and Victor Sen Yung [Charlie Chan in Honolulu], formerly one of Charlie Chan's sons, scores in a sinister role as a man smuggling his fellow Chinese but who doesn't give a damn about them. One of the most notable performances comes from William Campbell [Dementia 13] as a smart-talkin' hood with an itchy trigger finger. Juano Hernandez is also fine as Wes, Harry's ill-fated deck hand who tries to keep his boss and friend out of trouble to his ultimate regret. The final shot of the film, showing Wes's little boy all alone on the dock wondering where his father is, is absolutely heart-breaking, reminding the audience of the tragic cost of  Harry's actions. It is an unusual way to end the film, as generally the lives and deaths of supporting (especially minority) characters were forgotten by the closing credits. The Breaking Point is imperfect, but it may be the best adaptation of Hemingway ever. Superior cinematography from Ted D. McCord. Composer Max Steiner was clearly not allowed to break out all the stops but he should have been.

Verdict: Absorbing, generally well-acted melodrama with an extra layer of depth. ***.

STRANGER FROM VENUS

Patricia Neal and Helmut Dantine
STRANGER FROM VENUS (aka Immediate Disaster/1954). Director: Burt Balaban.

A spaceship lands on earth, in England, and a weird if handsome man comes out who tells people in an inn that he is from Venus. He has a message he wishes to give to representatives of the world's governments, and is annoyed when only the British reps show up. The stranger (Helmut Dantine) saves the life of Susan North (Patricia Neal) after his landing causes her car to crash; she is engaged to undersecretary Arthur Walker (Derek Bond), who is uncooperative with the alien to say the least. The Venusian can heal people, and is afraid that the use of hydrogen bombs will move earth out of its orbit and endanger the other planets in the solar system. While one can understand why the producers of this cheap movie wanted Patricia Neal to star in this blatant rip-off of The Day the Earth Stood Still, it's hard to fathom why she signed for this picture once she read the script -- if she did. For most of its length the movie is dull, with a TV-like production, but it has some suspense in the final moments when the Venusian warns that if the military tries to ensnare the ship bringing the "higher officers" to earth, the mother ship will retaliate by incinerating the whole area. The movie actually has a sad conclusion as well as a nice score by Eric Spear. The actors, including Dantine [Call Me Madam] and Martigold Russell as Gretchen, a bar maid, are professional; Neal is fine but utterly wasted in this. Neal was obviously in the middle of a career slump. Balaban, who handles at least one sequence in this with some flair, also directed Lady of Vengeance.

Verdict: Gets better as it goes along but never quite hits the mark despite a good conclusion. **.

THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES

Martin Sheen and Patricia Neal
THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES (1968). Director: Ulu Grosbard.

"He was magnificent -- as long as the situation was impersonal." Nettie describing John.

Timmy Cleary (Martin Sheen of That Certain Summer) is back from the war and finds himself in the midst of a quieter battle: his parents' lousy marriage. Father John (Jack Albertson) is unfaithful, frustrated, and not the most romantic of souls, while mother Nettie (Patricia Neal of Psyche 59) is bitter and vituperative, a touchy and neurotic middle-aged woman disappointed with both life and marriage. Both parents, growing older, continue to see the sensitive Timmy as the boy he used to be and not the man he's become. Timmy buys roses for his mother, but tells his father to say they were from him ...  The Subject was Roses is based on Frank D. Gilroy's Pulitzer prize-winning play (comparisons to Long Day's Journey into Night are completely off the mark however), and Gilroy also wrote the screenplay. Sheen and Albertson repeat their Broadway performances, and the film was directed by the play's (and movie's) first-time director, Ulu Grosbard. This is a good, absorbing picture, but there's also something "off" about it, with the actors seeming over-rehearsed (Sheen and Albertson had played the roles many times) -- and sometimes the underplaying (especially by Neal) makes it seem, conversely, more like a rehearsal than the real thing. Judy Collins performs two songs, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" and "Albatross" -- the last of which she also composed -- which work quite well during sequences that "open up" the play. One odd thing about the movie is that Timmy is supposed to be back from WW2, but the picture has absolutely no period atmosphere whatsoever -- you'd think he was back from Viet Nam!

Verdict: Interesting and rather depressing marital drama. ***.

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, LOVE GEORGE

Ron Howard, Tessa Dahl, and Patricia Neal
HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, LOVE GEORGE (aka Run, Stranger, Run/1973). Director: Darren McGavin.

"All this togetherness and love makes me want to puke." -- Cara.

Now here's a weird one. Johnny (Ron Howard) comes to a dreary fishing village to look for his birth mother, Rhonda (Cloris Leachman). Rhonda and her sister, Cara (Patricia Neal), have not spoken for many years, and Rhonda refuses to tell Johnny who his father is, only that he's dead. Meanwhile, the town has always wondered who disposed of George, Cara's murdered husband. Cara has a strange daughter named Celia (Tessa Dahl, the real daughter of Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl), who makes an awkward play for Johnny. Nothing much happens for over an hour until the body of Eddie (Bobby Darin), Rhonda's boyfriend (who works as a cook in her restaurant) is pulled up out of the bay. Meanwhile, Cara's neighbor, Piccolo (Joseph Mascolo), has a girlfriend named Crystal (Kathie Browne, the wife of Darren McGavin), who in the movie's liveliest scene discovers more than one body in a shuttered old house. Despite some interesting characters, performances, and elements, Happy Mother's Day, Love George is one of those forgettable nominal "psycho-shockers" that just doesn't give the viewer enough jolts or thrills to wake them up out of their lethargy. Post Opie and Happy Days, Howard is fine as the confused young "stranger." Two Oscar-winning ladies, Leachman [Young Frankenstein] and Neal, are also good (although Neal borders on the grotesque), and it is needless to say that both deserved a much better vehicle, as did Darin [State Fair], who is given little to do in his last picture. The somewhat ungainly Tessa Dahl is effective, although she's obviously so off her rocker that the film holds few surprises; she had only a few credits afterward. McGavin's direction keeps things moving along well enough, but little else. Simon Oakland of Psycho fame plays the sheriff.

Verdict:  Maybe it's better not to look up your relatives. **.

PATRICIA NEAL: AN UNQUIET LIFE

PATRICIA NEAL: AN UNQUIET LIFE. Stephen Michael Shearer, University Press of Kentucky; 2006.

This well-researched and well-written biography looks at the life and career of unusual movie star, Patricia Neal. Unusual, in that, while her career was important to her, it wasn't necessarily the end-all and be-all of her life. Neal shot to stardom with The Fountainhead, and she had a painful affair with her married leading man, Gary Cooper. Going from one extreme to another, Neal married the plug-ugly author Roald Dahl, almost as if she wanted to get as far away from a Cooper-type as she could. Neal's marriage to the arrogant and unsympathetic Dahl managed to last for thirty years, although it wasn't really a happy union, and he eventually left Neal for a younger woman. Just as big a challenge was Neal having a stroke, due to an aneurysm, when she was only in her thirties (during this difficult time, Dahl stood by her). Periodically returning to the stage, Neal became a highly respected actress even after her relatively brief period of Hollywood stardom was over. During her long career she appeared on the stage in everything from The Children's Hour revival to Another Park of the Forest, where she originated the role of the younger Regina from The Little Foxes. Neal's movies include The Day the Earth Stood Still (which the author wildly overpraises), The Breaking Point, Bright Leaf (also with Gary Cooper), Three Secrets (one of her favorite films), The Hasty Heart, and A Face in the Crowd; she won an Oscar for her performance in Hud with Paul Newman. Along the way the book goes behind the scenes of many of Neal's movies as well as her other romantic entanglements, such as with the actor Peter Cookson.

Verdict: Thorough, engaging look at the life of Patricia Neal. ***1/2.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

MIDNIGHT LACE (1960)

Natasha Parry and Doris Day
MIDNIGHT LACE (1960). Director: David Miller.

Wealthy Kit Preston (Doris Day) lives in a beautiful London townhouse with her husband, businessman Anthony Preston (Rex Harrison). She hears creepy voices in the pea-soup fog threatening to kill her, and gets obscene phone calls that Inspector Byrnes (John Williams) thinks may be imaginary. Is Kit overly anxious for her busy husband's attention, or is somebody actually out to get her? If so, there are numerous suspects: Malcolm (Roddy McDowall), the maid's son, who is shiftless and threatening; Brian (John Gavin), who supervises the construction site next to the townhouse and may be overly solicitous; a weird stranger who follows Kit about (Anthony Dawson); and Tony's business associates, Charles (Herbert Marshall) and Daniel (Richard Ney). Doris Day gives one of her best performances in Midnight Lace, convincingly getting across her character's terror and nervousness throughout the movie. Okay, there are times Day rather rabidly masticates the scenery a bit -- especially when she has a meltdown on a staircase -- but her hysteria fits the character, who is so wimpy and helpless at times that you want to slap some sense into her. The other performers are all excellent as well, including Natasha Parry as Kit's friend, Peggy, and Myrna Loy, who adds some class as Kit's Aunt Bea. John Gavin, incredibly handsome in this picture, uses a British accent and is better than usual. Russell Metty's cinematography is first-rate and Frank Skinner's score certainly adds immeasurably to the tension of certain sequences. When Kit asks for bus directions to a London neighborhood, leading to her near-death, you have to wonder why such a fabulously wealthy woman would bother taking a bus in the first place! Williams and Dawson both appeared in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. David Miller directed Joan Crawford in an even better woman-in-jeopardy film, Sudden Fear.

Verdict: Smooth, solid, well-acted suspense film. ***.

MIDNIGHT LACE (1981)

Gary Frank and Mary Crosby
MIDNIGHT LACE (1981 telefilm). Director: Ivan Nagy.

TV reporter Cathy Preston (Mary Crosby) is haunted by the fact that her mother, who heard voices and committed suicide, may have passed on her madness to her daughter. Cathy gets especially hysterical when she hears weird voices in the fog and on the telephone, and it seems as if someone is trying to kill her. This is a mediocre remake of the similarly-titled Doris Day thriller, with Gray Frank offering his usual sensitive performance as Cathy's supportive husband, Brian. Celeste Holm [Cinderella] is on hand as Cathy's aunt, along with brief turns from Carolyn Jones [The Man in the Net] as a nightclub psychic and Susan Tyrrell [From a Whisper to a Scream] as Cathy's boss, who thinks she's just a rich dilettante. Joanne Nail makes an impression as a crazy rock star named Luana, and Robin Clarke is fine as Craig, the family lawyer who's holding a few secrets too many. A miscast Shecky Greene isn't very good as the police lieutenant on the case.

Verdict: Stick with the original. **.

FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP

Martha Raye, Carole Landis, Kay Francis, Mitzi Mayfair
FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944). Director: William A. Seiter.

Loosely based on the wartime experiences of the four leading ladies, this has them playing themselves as they go on an entertainment tour for the fighting GI's. Kay Francis, who can't sing or dance, acts as the mistress of ceremonies, while Carole Landis sings, Mitzi Mayfair dances, and Martha Raye (who was not a bad singer herself) mugs and makes the usual jokes about her appearance. John Harvey [The Man with My Face]  plays Landis' love interest, who marries her during the film (Landis did marry an Army man during the war but the union only lasted two years). Phil Silvers plays the Army jeep driver who escorts the ladies everywhere and tries to get a date with Raye. Dick Haymes [Irish Eyes are Smiling] is cast as Mayfield's love interest and he offers a smooth delivery of a couple of romantic ballads. Bandleader Jimmy Dorsey [Lost in a Harem] is pleasant playing himself. Landis' apprehension when Harvey, a flier, is late in coming back from a mission is well delineated, but it leads to an odd sequence. One of the other pilots crashes off-screen and literally a second later Harvey shows up for a clinch., but neither of them ever say a word about the flier who was presumably killed, making them seem cold-blooded to say the least. The film's highlights include Mayfair's scintillating dance numbers; Betty Grable singing "Cuddle Up a Little Closer;" the drag queen-like Carmen Miranda dancing and warbling in her inimitable manner; and especially Alice Faye's moving rendition of  her haunting signature tune, "You''ll Never Know." Another terrific number, Rayes' "With a Wing and a Prayer," was left on the cutting room floor but can be seen on the DVD along with Miranda's rendition of "Mama yo quero." The songs were by McHugh and Adamson. Mayfair was essentially a Broadway tap dancer and made few films. She's cute, perky, and talented, and could have had a nice career playing second leads in romantic musicals.

Verdict: For what it is, a kind of time capsule with good performances from all. ***.

CRUISING / INTERIOR: LEATHER BAR

Al boogies in  the gay bar 
CRUISING (1980). Director: William Friedkin.

INTERIOR: LEATHER BAR (2013). Director: James Franco; Travis Mathews.


Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is assigned to go undercover in the gay leather milieu to see if he can get leads on whoever is murdering the patrons of these bars. Burns feels uncomfortable in his assignment, but his superior (Paul Sorvino) talks him into continuing. Burns seems to have caught the killer when another murder occurs .... Modern-day viewers may wonder what the fuss was about when they look at this through 21st century eyes. But in 1980, decades before LBGT sections on Hulu and Netflix, there weren't that many films about the gay lifestyle, and it was enraging that the best that two major filmmakers (Pacino of The Godfather and Friedkin of The Exorcist)  could come up with was this mediocre slasher film that exploited the gay community, presenting one-dimensional characters to be slaughtered. Most of the film's opponents (which included this critic and activist) didn't object to the movie exploring the gay s & m scene (which was always more about role-playing than anything else) but to its complete failure in any way to positively illuminate that scene aside from sexual activity. While Cruising is well-produced, with a lot of atmosphere due to James Contner's cinematography, and Pacino's performance is okay, it is a much less effective* "slasher" film than, say, the original Friday the 13th,which came out the same year. (Fridaty the 13th was also much more influential, and while also excoriated by critics, made a lot more money than Cruising.)

Seen today, how is the movie? Well, it's still mediocre, not only due to its exploitation of gay men but to its penny dreadful script. Its use of multiple maniacs (which is apparent once you try to figure out who the killer is) only makes the pic much more confusing than it needs to be. Then there's that ridiculous early sequence where we see two men clad half in leather and half in drag -- like that ever happens (except maybe on Halloween)! At one point Burns expresses sympathy for a gay suspect beaten by police (in an utterly ludicrous sequence that was supposedly based on fact), which makes the implied ending more ridiculous. (This suggests that Burns murdered his friendly gay neighbor as the character did in the crappy source novel)  There's no point in trying to figure out who the different murderers are in that its clear that while Friedkin today tries to make it sound like he had some master plan all along, the movie is just badly structured and edited, a sloppy hack job in every sense of the word. Friedkin and company could have made a much more positive (and coherent and fascinating) film while remaining true to its thriller/slasher origins. [NOTE: I have more to say about Cruising in my book Al Pacino In Films and On Stage.

One of the cast members of Interior: Leather Bar
And now we come to Interior: Leather Bar, a silly documentary made by actor James Franco and Travis Mathews. The idea was to recreate the supposedly lost forty minutes cut from Cruising that presented more raw footage from the backroom gay bar scenes. The reality is that only a few minutes have been recreated; most of the film is about actor Val Lauren's discomfort in being associated with the project. In some sequences he looks like he'd rather be anywhere else than in this movie. There's at least one gay sex scene, and James Franco admirably talks about why it's unfair that such scenes are often suppressed in major theatrical movies, which is not the case with straight sex scenes. The whole idea of this movie seems to be to get a group of both gay and straight actors in a room and have them interacting in a homoerotic manner, but I get the impression this is more about the filmmakers' fantasies than anything else. One can imagine this is one way the recognizable Franco can be in a gay bar without actually being in a gay bar!


[*Friday's shock/murder scenes are better handled, the film has more suspense, as much atmosphere, and its characters are no less dimensional than Cruising's. In addition, the movie's victims aren't members of a persecuted and marginalized community, unless you think camp counselors are a minority group.]

Verdict: Cruising: **1/2.
              Interior: Leather Bar *1/2.

THE BLACK HOLE

Yvette Mimieux and Anthony Perkins
THE BLACK HOLE (1979). Director: Gary Nelson.

On an exploratory trip in space, a ship discovers what at first appears to be a derelict vessel floating near a deadly black hole. But inside this huge ship, the Cygnus, the crew come across Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell of Return From the Ashes), who claims to be the only survivor. Reinhardt is determined to actually take the Cygnus inside the black hole and hopefully discover some of the secrets of the universe. Dr. Durant (Anthony Perkins) is anxious to go with Reinhardt on the trip, but psychic Dr. MacCrae (Yvette Mimieux)  and the others -- Captain Holland (Robert Forster), Lt. Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), and Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) -- desperately try to talk him out of it. The Black Hole features some fine scenic design and FX, but its schizoid script, tediously stretched-out climax, unfortunate comedy relief involving cute robots playing video games and the like, and a disappointing finale (reportedly the Disney studio ran out of either time, money, or both to create the Black Hole sequence in the intended manner), make this a disappointing effort to say the least. Slim Pickens [Night Gallery] and Roddy McDowall [Fright Night] voice the two overly precious robots who help the team and seem modeled on R2D2 from Star Wars. A lot more could have been made of the fact that some of Reinhardt's "robots" actually turn out to be sort-of lobotomized crew members. Some of the more exciting scenes involve an asteroid shower and a harrowing journey through a tunnel. The acting is generally good (even if Perkins is doing his usual "spooky" routine), with Schell taking top honors.

Verdict: Good idea just misses. **1/2.

TERROR STREET

Dan Duryea
TERROR STREET (1953). Director: Montgomery Tully.

At the end of WW2 American Major Bill Rogers (Dan Duryea) falls in love with pretty Katie (Elsie Albiin). They get married, but shortly afterward Bill takes off for the U.S. to teach a course that will last three months; for some reason he can't take her with him. Three months stretches into a year, and Katie quite sensibly moves out and into her own apartment, where she falls in with the wrong crowd. When she is murdered, Bill goes on the run, getting help from a rather stupid mission lady named Jenny (Gudrun Ure). Then there's this business with smuggled diamonds and blackmail, none of which is very interesting. There is no suspense whatsoever since the real killer is revealed right during the scene when Katie is murdered. The  mis-titled Terror Street features an utterly unsympathetic lead character, and the script is quite poor, even for a Hammer film noir. Duryea [Chicago Calling] gives a comparatively indifferent performance, although he does have a nice moment when he goes over the mementos of their brief married life that Katie kept in a safety deposit box. The supporting performances are okay, with Kenneth Griffith a stand out as the very nervous Henry Slosson, whose uncle (Eric Pohlmann of The Gambler and the Lady) is an antique dealer with a decidedly dubious sideline. John Chandos is cast as Orville Hart, a crook who masquerades as a customs official. Harold Lang (not to be confused with the American actor) makes his mark as a room clerk who loves to listen in to other people's phone conversations.  Montgomery Tully also directed Battle Beneath the Earth.

Verdict: Dull, dull, dull with only a couple of bright spots. *1/2.

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART THREE

Blown Away: Nicole Eggert, Corey Haim
Here we are again, with reviews-in-brief of movies that are less than twenty-five years old.


Blown Away (1997). Director: Brenton Spencer. Predictable thriller about a young man (Corey Haim) caught in the spell of a young woman (Nicole Eggert) who wants to kill her father. Corey Feldman makes more of an impression as the man's older brother. There's a fairly good final twist. The Canadian film almost approaches porn at times. **.

Red Eye (2005). Director: Wes Craven. A young Miami hotel manager (Rachel McAdams) meets a seemingly nice guy (Cillian Murphy) at the airport only he turns out to be a creep involved in a terrorist plot, and threatens her father's life during the flight unless she does as he demands. The two leads give notably effective performances and the film is suspenseful and exciting. Oddly, the last third of the movie and the climax itself take place on the ground. ***.

Scoop (2006). Writer/director: Woody Allen. In this whimsical black comedy a magician (Allen) and an aspiring reporter (Scarlett Johansson) are contacted by a dead journalist (Ian McShane) and team up to find out if a prominent Britisher (Hugh Jackman), son of a lord, is the notorious Tarot card serial killer. Cute and suspenseful, with some very funny dialogue and good performances, the movie is basically just an entertaining throwaway for Allen. ***.

State of Play (2009). Director: Kevin Macdonald. Based on a BBC mini-series, this follows a reporter (Russell Crowe, looking like something the cockroaches dragged in) who teams up with a blogger (Rachel McAdams) to investigate the death of a congressional aide who was also the mistress of his friend (Ben Affleck), and butts heads with his editor (Helen Mirren) as more murders occur. The leads all give very good performances, as do Robin Wright, Jeff Daniels, and Jason Bateman in smaller roles. Suspenseful, but somewhat predictable. ***.

The Social Network (2010). Director: David Fincher. The movie tells the more-or-less true story of the founding of Facebook and the behind-the-scenes legal battles that went on when the social media site promised to turn into a real money-maker. The movie is well-acted by a mostly youthful cast, and it certainly gets points for making an entertaining film out of something that (in certain instances) can be as dull as Facebook. ***.

Thin Ice (aka The Convincer/2011). Director; Jill Sprecher. An insurance salesman (Greg Kinnear) and a psychotic locksmith (Billy Crudup) wind up in a deadly situation together when the former decides to cheat an elderly client (Alan Arkin) out of a valuable violin. This black comedy is quite entertaining and unpredictable, although it turns out to be quite far-fetched as well. Bob Balaban scores as a violin dealer. ***.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012). Director: Brad Peyton. This sequel to the less effective Journey to the Center of the Earth  (2008) suggests that Jules Verne's books are actually non-fiction, so a young man and his stepfather manage to journey to the island of Verne's Mysterious Island. This in no way compares to the 1961 version, but it has its own charms, including good performances (especially from Michael Caine), excellent special effects featuring an assortment of colorful creatures, and superb scenic design. If only it didn't have that "cutesy" tone throughout. This has even less to do with Verne's book than the 1961 film. ***.

Jersey Boys (2014). Director: Clint Eastwood. Based on the Broadway show, this traces the rise and fall of the singing group The Four Seasons. Initially the sound these young actors reproduce sounds much like the originals, but then you realize (especially when you hear the real group over the closing credits) that the Four Seasons can't really be duplicated. The acting in this is okay; producer- lyricist Bob Crewe is played as a gay stereotype, and there are tiresome Italian-American cliches as well. The best scene in this long movie happens just as the closing credits begin: a terrific production number with great dancing set to "Oh, what a night!" Not a great movie, but entertaining enough. ***.

Before I Go to Sleep (2014). Director: Rowan Joffe. As in Memento, a young woman (Nicole Kidman) has a condition in which her memories disappear overnight and she has to be reminded of her own life every morning. She has a loving husband (Colin Firth) and a caring doctor (Mark Strong), but is frightened to learn that she was nearly beaten to death some years earlier and that she had a son who died. Things get more sinister and twisty after that. Well-acted by all, this is a rarity: a poignant thriller. ***.

Meadowland (2015). Director: Reed Morano. A couple's little boy completely disappears at a gas station. The movie isn't concerned with an investigation into the crime or even what happened to the child, but rather reveals the emotional unraveling of the two parents as they try to deal with their grief. By trying too hard not to be a "mere" thriller or suspense film, Meadowland -- another of these "minimalist" pictures -- doesn't become much of anything, and while well-acted, is never as moving nor as riveting as it should have been. **1/2.

Self/Less (2015). Director: Tarsem Singh. In a variation of the vastly superior Seconds, a billionaire (Ben Kingsley) buys himself what he thinks is a new young body that was grown in a lab. But complications ensue when it turns out said body actually belongs to a soldier (Ryan Reynolds) with a wife and child, and whose memories are slowly returning. Nice conclusion, and some interesting developments, but the movie tries too hard to be an action movie with a high body count and isn't all that it could have been. **1/2.

Hello, My Name is Doris (2015). Director: Michael Showalter. Doris (Sally Field), a woman of a certain age (Field was about 70), falls for a much, much younger colleague (Max Greenfield) and hopes for a real relationship with him, to the consternation of her best friend (Tyne Daly) and the delight of said friend's grand-daughter. Frankly, you have to take this likable comedy-drama with a grain of salt, as a lot of it doesn't ring true, but Field gives an outstanding performance and the others are all terrific. The film does explore the fact that seniors can fall hard for much younger people and still hope to find that certain someone. ***.

The Program (2015). Director: Stephen Frears. The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, seven time winner of the Tour de France, and a complete phony and cheat who used drugs (and pressured his teammates into same) to help him win. This operates on the level of a TV movie, with little depth or psychological probing, but Ben Foster is quite effective in the lead. ***.

Confirmation (2016). Director: Rick Famuyiwa. Fictionalized film about the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for conservative Judge Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) and the charges of harassment made by former co-worker Anita Hill (Kerry Washington). This whole she said/he said scenario remains fascinating and controversial after all of these years. The movie suggests objectivity, but seems slanted in favor of Hill. 50% of the American public thought that both Thomas and Hill weren't telling the whole truth, and that's the impression I got as well. In any case, the film is well-acted and completely absorbing. ***.

Sacrifice (2016). Director: Peter A. Dowling. Tora, an American doctor (Radha Mitchell), moves back to her husband's childhood home, an isolated island, where she discovers a corpse on their property and new ties to an ancient sect with murderous capabilities. This nominal horror film/thriller is well-produced and acted, even if it's plot is fairly obvious and TV-movie like. However, it does have a suspenseful and exciting climax. **1/2.

Inferno (2016). Director: Ron Howard. This second sequel to Da Vince Code has Tom Hanks rather wasted in a thriller that has him hopping around Europe to some admittedly interesting and colorful locations in order to stop a deadly plague from being unleashed by a psychotic billionaire (Ben Foster). The picture has some exciting sequences, but it just misses being a really excellent suspense film. **1/2.

The Girl on the Train (2016). Director: Tate Taylor. Rachel, an alcoholic (an excellent Emily Blunt) who can't deal with her ex-husband dumping her for a new wife, begins to bond with another woman she sees from a train window. When this woman -- who resembles the ex's new wife -- disappears, Rachel wonders if she herself may have been somehow responsible. The bouncing around in time may have worked in the source novel, but it doesn't work that well in the movie, which eventually becomes tedious. The only halfway likable character is a lady detective played by Allison Janney. The "sisterhood is powerful" sub-text doesn't quite work considering how unsympathetic most of the characters are. **.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

DAMN YANKEES

Whatever Lola Wants: Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon
DAMN YANKEES (1958). Produced and directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen.

"I was the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island." -- Lola, remarking upon her origins

Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) is a manic fan of the Washington Senators baseball team. The Devil -- in the form of a man named Applegate (Ray Walston) offers him a chance to become young and play for his favorite team against the "damned Yankees," even offering him an out. As "Joe Hardy" (Tab Hunter), Boyd becomes a star player with many fans, but he can't quite forget the wife, Meg (Shannon Bolin), he left behind. But will 172-year-old vamp Lola (Gwen Verdon) be able to keep Hardy in line? With its highly theatrical premise, this Broadway hit should not have worked as a movie but it does, mostly due to its performances and its recreation of some excellent production numbers. With the exception of Tab Hunter, most of the Broadway cast was transplanted to the big screen, a wise decision, especially in the case of Verdon. Although Verdon may not have been seen as a truly formidable sexpot, she is a highly talented performer with great dancing and acting skills and a really killer figure. Walston is as delightful as ever, and Hunter [Island of Desire] -- while not in the same class as the others -- does an okay job as the rather shy Hardy who wants to stay faithful to his wife. He briefly attempts some dancing as well and manages to pull it off. Rae Allen and Jean Stapleton [Dead Man's Folly], both of whom also appeared in the Broadway show, are snappy as, respectively, the inquiring reporter, Gloria Thorpe, and the likable neighbor, Sister Miller. Shafer and Bolin were primarily stage performers, and the former appeared in just this one picture. The score by Adler and Ross boasts some tunes that have become standards: "Whatever Lola Wants:" and the spirited "You Gotta Have Heart," but there's also Joe's nice farewell to his sleeping wife ("Goodbye Old Girl"); a snappy Mambo number; and the knock-out production number for Verdon and Hunter's "Two Lost Souls." Bob Fosse [Cabaret] did the choreography for both show and film; he and Verdon were married two years later. There's lots of dark humor and a poignant conclusion.

Verdict: One of the very best of the hit Broadway show film adaptations. ***1/2.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961). Director: Blake Edwards.

Paul Varjak (George Peppard) is an author being kept by the married Mrs. Fallenson (Patricia Neal). Paul meets his slightly kooky neighbor, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), who has no desire to talk about her past. Holly makes her living accepting gifts from men. Will these two hustlers triumph over their demons and find true love? Breakfast at Tiffany's is the kind of utterly artificial movie that only Hollywood could churn out, not dealing with reality on any particular level. Part of the problem, of course, is that the film is a complete bowdlerization of Truman Capote's novella, on which this was very loosely based. (In turn, Holly was inspired by Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles). Hollywood needed to "straighten" out the Paul character so a romance between the two main characters was fabricated. Hepburn's performance is more than adequate for this, but Holly never seems like a real person. Often through the movie Hepburn is self-consciously "cute" and seems over-rehearsed without a moment of spontaneity. Peppard [The Carpetbaggers] does the best he can with his own underwritten and dishonest role. Patricia Neal [Diplomatic Courier] adds a degree of class in the thankless role of the "cougar" (as we would say today) with a hankering for Paul. To say she is one-dimensional is a major understatement. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good in his way as Holly's excitable upstairs neighbor, but others have also noted that he is an hysterical Japanese caricature. The movie does have some nice moments, such as an excellent scene between Holly and her ex-husband, Doc (Buddy Ebsen, who would star in The Beverly Hillbillies one year later), when they say farewell at a bus station. And cat fanciers will go "ahh" over the shot of Holly's poor cat sadly looking after her after she (temporarily) sets her free. Mercer and Mancini's "Moon River" is possibly the best thing about the movie.

Verdict: Bohemians strictly from Hollywood. **1/2.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953). Director: Jack Arnold.

Astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) sees what he thinks is a meteorite crash to earth, but discovers it is actually a spaceship. When a rock slide covers up the entrance to a cave inside which the ship is hidden, Putnam finds that few people will believe what he saw. His girlfriend, Ellen (Barbara Rush) stands by him, but the local sheriff (Charles Drake), who also seems to have a yen for Ellen, is adamant that Putnam is nuts. Before too long the aliens, who can resemble humans, make their presence known in frightening ways. It Came from Outer Space is a creepy, very well-directed sci-fi thriller that also has a thoughtful sub-text of small-town conformity versus open-minded imagination, with Putnam and Drake representing the opposite poles. Director Arnold, as he often did, makes good use of the desert milieu. The performances are fine, and the fifties-type effects more than serviceable. There are some confusing aspects to the movie, however, such as Putnam's reaction when the alien reveals his true form to him, even though it appears that both he and Ellen have already seen the space beings in their natural form (which may have influenced the nastier aliens in The Crawling Eye). There is no on-screen credit for the composers, but the effective score was obviously influenced by Herrmann's work on The Day the Earth Stood Still.  A scene when Ellen is frightened by what is obviously a little boy dressed as a space cadet makes her seem mildly demented. Jack Arnold also directed the desert-oriented Tarantula.

Years ago I read an analysis of this film in which the author asserts that one sequence shows how the aliens aren't really that familiar with our species, citing an alleged sequence when two line men (Joe Sawyer; Russell Johnson) walk down the street holding hands. While this is certainly intriguing, this scene does not appear in the movie, and never did.

Verdict: I had forgotten how entertaining the darn thing is! ***.


THINGS I'VE SAID, BUT PROBABLY SHOULDN'T HAVE Bruce Dern

THINGS I'VE SAID, BUT PROBABLY SHOULDN'T HAVE: An Unrepentant Memoir. Bruce Dern with Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane. John Wiley and Sons; 2007.

Bruce Dern has had a long career as a working actor, mostly in films, with occasional television work, and sometimes he's given the lead role, as in Silent Running. He was married to actress Diane Ladd (who directed him in a movie where she apparently hurled out her bitterness over a bad marriage which he admits was all his fault) and is the father of Laura Dern. He apparently had a weird relationship with his wealthy family. The films Dern covers the most include John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday, Coming Home (in which he was especially excellent), The King of Marvin Gardens, The Great Gatsby (with Robert Redford), Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot, and Monster, but he doesn't neglect more embarrassing assignments such as The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, more power to him. I also admire him for coming out in support of Elia Kazan, because "three quarters of the room did not stand up" when the director received an honorary Oscar. Appalled by this, Dern asks "What were Kazan's choices?" (One can only imagine what Kazan's detractors would have done were they in the same situation). Of course, Dern can be as guilty of egomania and diva behavior as anyone. In an unintentionally comical anecdote Dern writes how he and very beautiful co-star Maud Adams supposedly had to fight to keep their hands off of each other off-set during filming of the erotic film Tattoo, but one senses Adams wasn't really that interested in the first place. While Dern does talk about the changes in the movie business, different approaches to acting, and other things of interest, the book isn't well-edited, and even two other writers can't make Things I've Said especially coherent. There is no linear, chronological progression; Dern bounces all over the lot. Long, long conversations from decades in the past are reproduced verbatim (either Dern has an encyclopedic memory or he is merely capturing the gist of these conversations -- even so), and some of his memories seem a little suspicious. (I simply can't believe some of the comments he attributes to Alfred Hitchcock.)  Most criminally, Dern mentions Bette Davis with admiration more than once, but says virtually nothing about Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, or about Joan Crawford's participation before she walked off the movie. Inquiring minds want to know! Dern can be forgiven his "name-dropping," however, because these were all people that he knew and worked with.

Verdict: Good actor, mediocre book. **1/2.


WINGS OF DANGER / HAPPY ACTUAL 35OOTH POST

Zachary Scott and  Naomi Chance
WINGS OF DANGER (aka Dead on Course/1952). Director: Terence Fisher.

Pilot Richard Van Ness (Zachary Scott of The Unfaithful) has a secret: he gets black outs that come on without warning. For this reason he has delayed in marrying Avril (Naomi Chance of The Gambler and the Lady) but keeps on flying. Avril's brother, Nick (Robert Beatty) flies off one afternoon and is presumed dead after his plane crashes into the drink. Richard discovers that Nick may or may not have been involved with a gang who cleverly smuggle gold that has been disguised as tools. Nick has a girlfriend, Alexia (Kay Kendall), who may also be involved with the dangerous smugglers, and there is more than one murder. Zachary Scott was one of a number of American leading men who went to England to make "B" movies where their names still had marquee value. Scott deserves better than this TV-type "thriller" that is rather dull despite Terence Fisher's very brisk and efficient direction. The performances by all the named actors are fine, and there is good work from the supporting cast as well, but despite a positive conclusion relating to Richard's condition and his relationship with Avril, the movie is strictly ho hum. This was another of Lippert's Hammer studio "film noir" non-classics. Diane Cilento [Stop Me Before I Kill!] has a small role as a woman who gets involved with Nick. Malcolm Arnold's music helps a bit.

Verdict: You can't say it's awful but it just doesn't excite despite the occasional car chase and crash. **.

NOTE: A while ago I erroneously reported that Great Old Movies had reached its 3500th post. Well, I was never good at math! This is the real 3500th post for GREAT OLD MOVIES (wish it had been about a better picture)! 

TOTAL RECALL (1990)

Arnold Schwarzenegger
TOTAL RECALL (1990). Director: Paul Verhoeven.

In the future Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes to a firm that specializes in implanting memories so you can "remember" the perfect vacation -- a stupid idea* if you ask me --  but when they begin the process on Quaid it develops that he has already undergone a memory-altering process -- he is actually a completely different person from whom he thinks he is. When people try to kill him, he winds up on a mining colony on Mars where in his former identity he was involved in a rebellion against Cohaagen (Ronny Cox of The Car), the sinister master of Mars. Total Recall is what might best be called "schlock sci fi" in that it takes many different elements from science fiction stories, films, and comics, and throws them all together to make little more than an Arnold Schwarzenegger Action Flick. On that level the film is entertaining, and it certainly worked for Arnold. He had appeared in action flicks before but Total Recall is the film that really put him over the top.  This was true, too, of European director Verhoeven [Showgirls], who had previously directed Robocop. Some saw this as an interesting filmmaker "selling out" to Hollywood to make crap, a notion that is pretty much born out by his later film projects. (He eventually left Hollywood to make films more along the lines of his earlier work.)

At one point in Total Recall the running Quaid dodges bullets and a perfectly innocent bystander gets shot, with Quaid using the man's body as a shield and then just throwing him at his attackers. Sure, this may be an act of desperation, but can you imagine Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks or even Audie Murphy (a real-life hero as opposed to a Hollywood one) not having any reaction to this? There had always been hard-boiled anti-heroes in movies, but by the time of Total Recall the heroes lost any trace of sensitivity and became not ordinary men up against extraordinary odds, but super-heroes (without the costumes) whose success seemed preordained. Compare that to Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci trilogy -- not great films, perhaps, but the hero is strong, intelligent, and recognizably human.

That said, the last quarter of Total Recall is quite exciting and amusing and has some good FX work, but it's never more than a moron movie. Cox is excellent, Sharon Stone (who later appeared in Verhoeven's Basic Instinct) is suitably sexy, Rachel Ticotin is adept, and Schwarzenegger is Schwarzenegger, which was enough for his fans. Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of his least interesting. Remade in 2012.

* If you know your memories are just implanted and never really happened, doesn't it sort of make it all pointless? What makes memories so wonderful is that they were real. Besides, memories can't compare to the actual experience.

Verdict: Arnold builds up the body count along with his muscles. **1/2.

MOONLIGHT

Trevante Rhodes
MOONLIGHT (2016). Written and directed by Barry Jenkins.

Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is a little boy living in a depressed black neighborhood where his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is a "crack whore." Chiron is befriended by a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). Shy, withdrawn and spindly, Chiron is thought to be gay and is bullied, although he is treated more kindly by his friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner). Later, when the boys are teenagers (now played by Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome), they have a sexual encounter. After Chiron strikes back against a homophobic bully who forces Kevin to beat Chiron, the latter does a stretch in juvie. Ten years later, now a buff and handsome grown man (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron gets an unexpected call from Kevin (Andre Holland) ... Oh, how I wanted to love Moonlight, as I was delighted that a film whose lead character was both black and gay could win an Academy Award for Best Picture in today's climate. Unfortunately, an astute critic has to separate a film as political statement from a film as art. I realize the film's problem for me was not so much its subtlety -- as it's not that subtle -- but an overly low-key approach that almost completely strips it of dramatic intensity. Fully half the movie deals with Chiron as a boy (although the death of his father surrogate, Juan, is only mentioned in passing), with a good forty minutes showing Chiron as a teen. That doesn't leave much time for Chiron as an adult, and the film ends abruptly, making many in the audience wonder "is that all there is?"

True, the lead character -- who has been so uncommunicative and disaffected for most of his life -- finally reaches out to someone, revealing the sensitivity that remains under the surface, in the last few minutes of the film, but while this has internal importance, it is not exactly "dramatic," The ending hints at things for Chiron and Kevin that may never materialize. Frankly, there are quite a few gay independent films (which have never gotten the attention that Moonlight has) that have much stronger story lines. In fact, it could be argued that Moonlight doesn't so much have a plot as a premise, and one that is never fully realized.

While a film should be judged by what it is and not what it isn't, one can't help but notice that the movie, aside from the bullying aspects which are universal, never really deals with homophobia within the African-American community -- even Juan seems nominally pro-gay. (In fact, it never really deals with Chiron's feelings about being gay or if he even identifies as such.) Aside from the adult Kevin registering disapproval over the adult Chiron's criminal career choice, the film doesn't even deal with black attitudes towards drug dealers who help decimate their own communities. In fact, it troubles me that drug dealers are portrayed sympathetically in this picture. And that there are so many black stereotypes. (To judge from Hollywood movies, including those made by black filmmakers, 90% of the black community consists of drug dealers and crack whores.)  Then there's the fact that the ending, with its intimate but non-sexual encounter, could be considered a cop-out. But far worse is the fact that virtually every character, including Chiron, is basically one-dimensional.

This last may not be apparent to the casual viewer because the acting in the film is uniformly excellent. There isn't a bad performance, and there's especially notable work from Sanders and Rhodes, and young Hibbert is amazing. While it's not at all unrealistic that a spindly gay kid could reinvent himself as a burly, macho-type, the casting of drop-dead gorgeous Rhodes could be considered pure Hollywood. Rhodes is great, but did the character have to be a kind of fantasy hunk -- as if Billy Batson had transformed himself into Captain Marvel?  And while kids do still, unfortunately, call each other, including straight kids, "faggot," everyone's insistence that Chiron is gay seems strange as he is not blatantly effeminate in his deportment. Of course a movie about a "queen" would have been a very different movie.

The low-key, "minimalist" approach of the movie obviously worked for a great many people, but I wonder if as the years pass, when the political climate may have changed, if Moonlight will still be held in quite such high regard. I have a feeling that people who normally wouldn't be caught dead seeing such a film, but who went because of its Oscar, have seen few if any LGBT movies and have little to compare it to.

Verdict: Not a bad movie by any means, with some lovely things in it and excellent performances, but for me a major disappointment. **1/2.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

VOICE IN THE MIRROR

Bar mates: Richard Egan and Arthur O'Connell
VOICE IN THE MIRROR (1958). Director: Harry Keller.

"We're all in the same boat, none of us more than one drink away from the gutter for the rest of our lives."

"I spilled more whiskey than you ever drank."

Commercial artist Jim Burton (Richard Egan) claims to have started drinking since the death of his little girl, but his doctor, Leon (Walter Matthau), reminds him that he was drinking before that and would probably have used any excuse. Jim's patient wife, Ellen (Julie London of The Helicopter Spies), is forced to put up with broken promises and wondering if and when he'll come home and what condition he'll be in. Now Leon tells him that his alcoholism may have created serious nerve damage. A fellow drunk named Harry (Harry Bartell) tells him that he thinks the solution to their problem may be through spiritualism, but Jim discovers that the secret may be to help other drunks --  alcoholics can help other alcoholics stay sober. Although set twenty years later, Voice in the Mirror basically appears to be the story of the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous (although the term is never used and there's not as much emphasis on religiosity; AA's famous slogan is used at the end, however.) In any case, the picture is absorbing and generally well-acted, with a moving conclusion. Egan and London are not exactly perfect casting for this film (stolid Egan never quite seems desperate enough for one thing), but both of them have their moments; oddly, London is better in her more emotional and difficult scenes than in her quieter ones. Harry Bartell and Doris Singleton, who plays Jim's sympathetic co-worker, have nice bits; both of them appeared several times on I Love Lucy. Arthur O'Connell nearly steals the picture as one of Jim's sad friends, and Matthau, in an unexpected role as the no-nonsense doctor, is also excellent. Ann Doran and Peggy Converse make their marks, respectively, as a landlady and the mother of a suicidal young drunk played by Troy Donahue. Eleanor Audley [Sleeping Beauty] is fine as a woman at a soup kitchen, and I believe that's Mae Clarke [Frankenstein] playing the first woman member of Jim's group. One of the best scenes depicts Jim's frightening nightmare in which he is caught in a train tunnel as a rushing train threatens to run him down.

Verdict: Imperfect but interesting and affecting drama. ***.