Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Jodie Foster is splendid, as usual, as a woman who boards a plane with her young daughter and then spends the rest of the movie trying to convince virtually everyone on board that her daughter actually exists -- this after the girl disappears and a flight attendant says there's no record of her ever having been on the flight. Foster just lost her husband; could she be hallucinating from grief? Is she mentally unstable? Or is there a predator on board who's taken and hidden her daughter somewhere on the plane? This is a good and very suspenseful movie with some very evil antagonists, but despite Foster's fine performance, it's just an entertaining time passer. To think what Hitchcock could have done with this material! The climax is over too quickly and is a little flat as well, and an opportunity for a rousing cat fight is muffed. But this will hold your attention for certain. Peter Sarsgaard also scores as the deputy on the flight.
Verdict: Not too shabby. ***.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Thanks for reading! Bill
HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!!
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
"Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters."
In Washington Square in turn of the century New York, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) falls for a fortune hunter, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) over the objections of her wealthy doctor father, Austin (Ralph Richardson). On that framework rests one of the finest films to come out of Hollywood, based loosely on Henry James' Washington Square. It's theme can be summed up in the words of the French song incorporated into the score by Aaron Copland, and which are sung at one point by Clift, to the effect that the joys of love are short but that love's pain lasts a lifetime. Along with pathos, the film has a degree of humor, evidenced by the character of Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (an outstanding Miriam Hopkins) who says "What I say isn't always of the greatest importance but that doesn't stop me from talking." [Much later an ill Austin says of his sister "I don't want [her] in my room at all -- unless I lapse into a coma."] Richardson's performance is simply superb. Clift is wise enough to play with an admirable sincerity that might make first-time viewers wonder if he really does have feelings for Catherine. A lesser actor would have figuratively winked at the audience, letting them in on the game. Although she won an Oscar and is, indeed, very good, de Havilland is, perhaps, a cut below the other three. Her performance is the one that seems most "manufactured" or calculated, a feat of acting -- and very good acting -- as opposed to living the part. In the scene when Catherine finally confronts her father, we can believe her anger and that she would say the things she does, but anger doesn't automatically instill poise in a person, and Catherine, as enacted by de Havilland, suddenly becomes much too confident and formidable. The words should rush out even as Catherine can't quite believe that she is actually saying them to her father. Still, de Havilland has lovely moments, such as when she sits at her tapestry as Morris and Lavinia talk at the door, a dozen different emotions about this man she both loves and hates playing across her face. Wyler's directorial hand is assured, and Copland's score, despite its dissonances and 1940's-style modernity, is simply drenched in a wonderful romanticism.
Verdict: A masterpiece with one of the all-time great endings. ****
Before she was Aunt Bee of Mayberry, Frances Bavier was the mainstay (although supposedly a supporting character) of this lively and often amusing -- and virtually forgotten -- sitcom that has been exhumed by American Life TV. Bavier plays Amy Morgan, a widow who lives with her no-account, generally unemployed brother, Earl (James Dunn). Amy takes in two boarders, girl-crazy ex-servicemen named Denny (Michael O'Shea) and Steve (William Bishop) -- who also seem to lose more jobs than they even get hired for. Barbara Bates, who played the young fan of Eve Harrington at the end of All About Eve, played Amy's daughter Cathy for about a third of the episodes. Good-natured and enthusiastically played, It's a Great Life could be silly but there were several funny episodes, particularly one in which the gang buys a tea house, unaware that it's been used as an illegal gambling den. Bavier has a lot of fun squaring off against the tough lady leader of the gang. In the naive fifties, Denny and Steve sleep together in one bed. Michael O'Shea was married to Virginia Mayo and there are occasional in-jokes relating to the sexy actress.
Verdict: Not a terrible time passer. **1/2.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Tim Bart (Richard Dix) is a western star in silent pictures who has a real appreciation and love for his young fans. When he does a test for a new sound film, he discovers that he just can't get the lines out right. He's offered a second chance in Hollywood, but he doesn't want to play any part that goes against his essentially good guy image. Frankly, this movie is a little too treacly for my taste, and it doesn't have that many amusing scenes. Dix isn't bad, Faye Wray (as an actress who has a yen for Bart) is as lovely as ever, but the picture is stolen by Bill Burrud as little Billy, a kid who travels miles to see his idol. The best scene is a party in which the guests are all lookalikes of famous movie stars. There's a damn good Garbo imitator, but the Mae West impersonator is none too impressive.
Verdict: Too sappy for some. **.
The graphic novel this film was based on was probably more effective, because Road to Perdition, despite some good elements, isn't a particularly memorable picture. Enforcer Michael Sullivan (a badly miscast Tom Hanks, pictured), goes on the run with his surviving son and namesake after his wife and other son are murdered. This all came about because young Michael witnessed a killing by Connor Rooney (a superb Daniel Craig), the son of Sullivan's mob mentor and father figure, John Rooney (a quietly effective if minor-league Paul Newman). Naturally this leads to an emotional division of loyalties, and eventually a hit man played by Jude Law is called in to hopefully dispense with the surviving Sullivans. While most mob movies are rather operatic, this tries a more understated approach -- which doesn't work. The film generally lacks suspense and tension, although it has a nice wind-up. The total absence of police figures is improbable, and the movie can best be described as a sort of lifeless exercise with only one exciting sequence.
Verdict: One road you needn't follow. **.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
COLONEL EFFINGHAM'S RAID (1946). Director: Irving Pichel.
Okay, you'd think that any film with Charles Coburn, Joan Bennett, Donald Meek, Elizabeth Patterson, Allyn Joslyn and Frank Craven (of In This Our Life fame) in it couldn't be all bad, but there's little to recommend in this dull little alleged "comedy" that grossly wastes the talents of all concerned. Coburn is a retired Army colonel in a small town on the eve of U.S. entry into WWII who stirs people up via his column in the local newspaper, where Bennett and William Eythe also work. A particular sore subject is that the town's politicos want to tear down the stately old courthouse. The film makes the point that everyone -- big and small, young and old -- has the right to speak out on issues of importance to them, but it makes this point in the most boring way possible. The 70 minute running time seems like two and a half hours, and the film has not a single laugh. Joan Bennett spiritedly plays a rather likable and independent-minded young lady.
Verdict: Pretty much a total stinker. That cast deserves much better. *.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
|"I'm ready for my close-up."|
A down-on-his-luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), meets and moves into a mansion with silent screen star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Together the pair intend to fashion a major screenplay that will give Norma an opportunity for her comeback. But Joe eventually feels trapped by Norma and her cobwebs, and figures her project is utterly hopeless in any case. But will Norma let Joe go before she's through with him ...? So how well does Sunset Boulevard hold up after 58 years? Pretty well. Okay, maybe it's not an out and out masterpiece, but it undeniably exudes a certain fascination. If I had one problem with the movie it's that I feel there's way too much narration. Although Joe's narration is well-written, it's describing (albeit poetically) things that we can already see. Swanson gives a terrific performance (her "over-acting" at times is appropriate given the flamboyant, emotionally disturbed nature of Norma Desmond) and Holden isn't bad as Joe, although there's no doubt that the first actor cast in the part, Montgomery Clift. would have brought a lot more to the role. Better than Holden is Nancy Olsen, who gives a lovely and often passionate performance as the young lady who falls in love with him. The scene when Norma returns to her studio to see DeMille is touching. Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton are among the more interesting bit players, as well as an uncredited Yvette Vickers of Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches fame -- yes, that's her as the girl on the telephone during the New Year's Eve party scene. Less a drama than a weird black comedy, Sunset Boulevard always threatens to go over the top but never quite gets there.
Verdict: Certainly unique. ***.
Friday, November 7, 2008
ROSEANNA MCCOY (1949). Director: Irving Reis.
"Don't talk with your knife in your mouth!"
Hollywood's look at the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys of Kentucky has Roseanna McCoy (Joan Evans) falling in love with Johnse (sic) Hatfield (Farley Granger) while the relatives fuss, fight, sass, and shoot. The main problem with the film, besides a script that's half-baked, is the miscasting of the leads. Granger is no Kentucky mountain man by a long shot, and Evans [pictured with her godmother Joan Crawford], although not totally awful, is too inexperienced and passionless -- not to mention comparatively plain and pudgy-faced -- to amount to much of a heroine. The much more talented supporting cast is certainly interesting, however. Raymond Massey and Aline MacMahon, are Roseanna's parents, while Charles Bickford and Hope Emerson of Caged fame are the Hatfield folk. Arthur Franz, Marshall Thompson and Richard Basehart also have roles, and do fine with them, Basehart in particular. Gertrude Hoffman of My Little Margie and Mabel Paige of I Love Lucy and The Sniper also have small roles. But perhaps the best and most impassioned performance in the film is given by little Peter Miles, who plays "Little Randall" McCoy, and is the brother of Gigi Perreau (who was his sister in real life and in the film). Years later Miles wrote the novel upon which Robert Altman based his film That Cold Day in the Park. While there's some fairly exciting gun play at the climax, the entire project is mostly forgettable.
Verdict: Watch the Beverly Hillbillies instead. **.
Monday, November 3, 2008
Friday, October 31, 2008
Richard Burton plays a priest who is assigned by the Vatican to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) in Washington D.C. Little Regan (Linda Blair) is now a teenager who is receiving treatment from a therapist played by Louise Fletcher. During a session, with Burton in attendance, the priest becomes aware that the demon is, apparently, still deep inside Blair and the girl is in danger. He goes to Africa to hook up with the boy, now grown, that Merrin exorcised years before. [The flashbacks of Merrin exorcising this child are contradicted by the recent Exorcist: The Beginning.] Then there's a mad dash back to Washington for reasons that are never made entirely clear. While Exorcist II is not an awful film, it's one that pretty much wastes its potential. It's understandable that Boorman and company didn't want to do a simple retread of the first picture, but there's too much rushing around to little point in this sequel. Regan never really seems in any great danger, and the motives of the demon Pazuzu, who possesses her, are never made clear. The picture isn't boring, and there is some striking photography, but it just doesn't seem to add up to much in the long run. There's a well-done, chilling fall from a cliff, but the climax is just messy instead of exciting. Burton has a couple of good scenes acting with veteran Paul Henreid (as a Cardinal), and is generally okay, if a little preoccupied at times. Linda Blair just isn't much of an actress, and looks ludicrous trying to come on all sexy in the climactic sequence. Louise Fletcher, playing a role very different from the cruel nurse of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that netted her an Oscar, emerges as an attractive and appealing presence. Kitty Winn, who is given a much bigger role in this than she had in The Exorcist, is excellent, although it isn't readily apparent why her Sharon goes nutso at the end. The business with the strobing machine that puts people in trances is silly and unconvincing, and all those close ups of locusts rushing through the sky, while striking, make you think you're seeing a remake of The Beginning of the End with its giant grasshoppers. Regan is supposed to be one of the “good locusts” that evil is trying to wipe out, but this development isn't remotely moving.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Based on the mini-series by Darwyn Cooke, this is one of many alternate "takes" on the heroes of the Justice League of America (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman etc.; the last two are pictured confronting one another). This takes place in the fifties, when in our real world Justice League of America comic books first began being published. The government has become paranoid about and suspicious of super-beings, and into this atmosphere drops J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter (actually a martian cop). J'onzz disguises himself as an Earth police officer, but although he makes some officials nervous (Superman reminds them that he is an alien, too), the real problem is a grotesque super-powerful being called The Centre, which is determined to completely exterminate the human race. Superman, Wonder Woman, The Batman, The Flash have active roles, while Ray (Atom) Palmer puts in an appearance, and Hal Jordan becomes Green Lantern for the first time. (There are also appearances by the Blackhawks, Ace of the Challengers of the Unknown, Larry Trainor -- Negative Man of Doom Patrol -- Green Arrow, and others.)
Frankly, if you haven't read the mini-series, this animated feature is pretty confusing and a mite dull at first, but eventually it begins to coalesce into a recognizable (if still confusing) storyline. In the impressively rendered climax, The Centre materializes as a humongous floating island with tentacles and orifices from which come forth hideous monstrosities. The efforts of the super-heroes to destroy this formidable creature before it can destroy the earth are dramatic and even, at times, thrilling. But make no mistake, this is for super-hero/comic book fans -- albeit of all ages -- only.
Verdict: Watch out for that Centre. ***.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Verdict: Okay as intro to Grant. **1/2.
Friday, October 10, 2008
TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL (1951). Director: Jean Negulesco.
Jeanne Crain plays Elizabeth, a young woman who goes off to her mother'salma mater and hopes to join her mother's sorority. But she discovers that many of the young ladies are rather heartless when it comes to accepting those who aren't the right type. Jeffrey Hunter plays the archetypal drunken frat boy who wants an easy ride through life; and Dale Robertson is pleasant but mediocre as the older veteran whom Liz prefers. Mitzi Gaynor is fun in a small role as a co-ed who disdains sororities; ditto for Carol Brannon as a misfit member of Liz's sorority who has a sarcastic attitude toward their silly rules and regulations. Jean Peters makes a definite impression as Dallas, the chic, sexy head of the sorority, but Natalie Schafer hasn't enough to do as a den mother. Lenka Peterson is effective as shy Ruth, the "hopeless" girl that gets blackballed. One could easily argue that this presents a very stereotypical view of sororities and fraternities, but that misses the point: this is a surprisingly nice movie that makes a point about accepting those who don't fit in, and rejecting those who reject them. Warning: if you're looking for obligatory hair-pulling cat fights, drunken scenes of rape and debasement and the like, look elsewhere. This is not an exploitation film (although it would probably have been more fun if it were. )
Verdict: Pleasant timepasser. ***.
Monday, October 6, 2008
In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Wil Haygood. Knopf.
Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Gary Fishgall. Scribner.
Sammy Davis Jr. was far more than just one fifth of “The Rat Pack,” which both of these fine biographies make clear. Starting as a child in the days of vaudeville he worked his way up to become a top club entertainer, Broadway star, movie actor, and TV host. While he was more successful at some things than at others, he always gave 200% and was a literal bundle of talent. Sammy could sing, emote, play the drums, dance (including classic tap-dancing), and do dead-on impressions of a host of celebrities (not just saying the lines most associated with them but singing). These books both detail Sammy's hungry early years when he traveled with his father and “uncle” as part of the Will Mastin Trio. His relationship with Frank Sinatra is analyzed, as well as his relationships with JFK (a bitter disappointment) and Richard Nixon (a bitter disillusionment). Both books do an excellent job of unveiling the demons that drove Sammy, and why he made the decisions – and many mistakes – that he did. His affect on and interaction with the black civil rights movement and its leaders also comes in for scrutiny. Haygood's book perhaps places its subject more in the context of the times as they pertained to black Americans, providing some fascinating details about the attitudes of, and toward, black Americans during the different periods of Sammy's career. On the other hand, Fishgall provides much more information on Sammy's army career, making the point that in all likelihood he would have been segregated from white soldiers and many of the things he wrote about his Army experiences in his memoirs have to be taken with a grain of salt. Haygood provides a highly interesting look at the writing of said memoirs, Yes I Can, although he seems to take Sammy's clearly ghost-written book Hollywood in a Suitcase at face value (Fishgall reveals that the book was actually written by Simon Regan). Sammy was a fascinating, influential character with a fascinating life. These books are both recommended for adult readers.
Verdict: Good stuff. ***1/2 each.
NOTE: For teen readers I immodestly recommend my own I Can Do Anything: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, currently available on ebay.
GARY COOPER: AMERICAN HERO. Jeffrey Meyers. William Morrow. 1998.
This is a fine biography of the late actor from his beginnings in the silent film industry to his painful death by cancer many decades later. The portrait that emerges in this book is less of an American “hero” than a fairly conservative (if not rockbound) icon who lived life the way he wanted to (including numerous affairs which negatively affected his wife and daughter) then later regretted his actions and found Catholicism. Even Cooper didn't think he was much of an actor, although Meyers analyzes his distinct if limited abilities with aplomb, and several of his colleagues offer testament to his deceptive “genius.” Cooper was a star of extremely limited range, but he got better as he got older and played characters who were closer in line with the real Gary Cooper. His best performances were in High Noon, The Naked Edge (his final film), and Ten North Frederick, in which he played a middle-aged man in love with a much younger woman (a situation he was not exactly unfamiliar with). Meyers goes into Cooper's affair with Patricia Neal with depth, although some readers may wish for more details on other, less important affairs, not to mention his youthful relationships with actor Anderson Lawler and other gay males [or the true reasons for his hatred of Cary Grant]. Meyers does not neglect Cooper's films, thank goodness, and perceptively examines both their strengths and weaknesses and how (and whether or not) they advanced Cooper's art. Meyers also goes into Ernest Hemingway's friendship with, and jealousy, of, the handsome actor, as well as Cooper's relationship with HUAC.
Verdict: This is an intelligent, well-written biography. ***1/2.
A young French girl, Melanie, plays a piece at an competition that is extremely important to her. Unfortunately, one of the judges, a well-known concert pianist named Ariane (Catherine Frot) , gives an autograph to someone during the middle of this recital and distracts Melanie, insuring that she loses the competition. It is made clear from something that happens immediately afterward -- Melanie almost slams the piano lid down on another student's fingers -- that this is a young lady with some psychological issues. Years later Melanie, now played by Deborah Francois, winds up becoming nanny, assistant and "page turner" to Ariane herself. There is no denying that in its own quiet way The Page Turner builds up a surprising amount of suspense, as you wonder when and if Melanie will screw up one of Ariane's concerts by failing to turn a page of the piano score at the right time, giving the woman, who suffers from stage fright, some kind of nervous breakdown. A sub-plot has Melanie bringing out lesbian feelings in Ariane, although it is suggested that Melanie has no similar feelings for Ariane and is only trying to ruin her marriage. The trouble with The Page Turner, despite the fact that it's well-acted and absorbing for the most part, is that the characterizations are on the thin side, and it never quite comes to grips with some of the aspects of its storyline. A few reviewers found the movie misogynous. In its suggestion that "coming out" can "ruin" a person's life you could also say that the movie is a bit [perhaps unintentionally] homophobic as well. While this is a far cry from a gay love story, it's ridiculous to assume that Ariane's life is over because she's acknowledged her romantic and sexual feelings for another (even if woefully unworthy) woman. The ending is unsatisying on many different levels and one could argue that ultimately The Page Turner is just a French version of all those deranged evil baby sitter movies-of-the-week, when it could have been a whole lot more.
Verdict: Flawed but unusual suspenser in the quiet mode. **1/2.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Verdict: High-energy action. ***.