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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE


THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE (1945). Director: George Sherman.

Gordon Carson (Stephen Crane) has had two wives die of accidents during the honeymoon. His third wife (Hillary Brooke) calls in the "crime doctor," Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), to find out if her hubby is mad or a murderer. But Ordway instead finds himself investigating Carson's own murder in a locked room. There's also a famous writer (Jerome Cowan), and a brother and sister team of Spanish dancers who are rumored to be vampires. The Crime Doctor's Courage tries to drag in all sorts of stuff to make it interesting, but while it holds the attention it never quite develops into anything that great. Baxter has a lot of charm as Ordway, however.

Verdict: Okay B mystery. **.

TOWER OF EVIL


TOWER OF EVIL (aka Horror on Snape Island aka Beyond the Fog /1972). Writer/director: Jim O'Connolly.

In a creepy, gruesome, and effective prologue, Hamp Gurney (Jack Watson) and his father (George Coulouris) discover several mutilated corpses in and around the lighthouse on the fog-enshrouded Snape Island. When the father is inadvertently killed by a panicking survivor, Hamp takes a party of archaeologists -- and a man investigating the murders -- back to the island. The archaeologists believe that a Phoenician trading ship landed on the island and left behind a treasure. It isn't long before more corpses start turning up, as someone unseen lashes out at members of the party. Tower of Evil has some suspense and a few tense moments, but all the marital infighting and infidelity between the couples on the expedition adds little to the picture, and despite some good moments the ultimate effect is rather unsatisfying. Has certain elements of the stalk-and-slash films that would come in a few short years, although it has a more involved plot and somewhat more dimensional characters. A mostly unimpressive cast.

NOTE: This was based on a novel by Brooklyn-born George Baxt, who created the first gay detective way back in 1966 and years later wrote a series of celebrity-oriented mysteries such as The Bette Davis Murder Case. He also wrote scripts for other British horror films.

Verdict: Severed heads tumbling down the stairs and all that can only do so much. **1/2.

FLIGHT PLAN


FLIGHT PLAN (2005). Director: Robert Schwentke.

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. ***.

THE CRIME DOCTOR'S WARNING


THE CRIME DOCTOR'S WARNING (1945). Director: William Castle.

Clive Lake, an artist (Coulter Irwin), seeks Dr. Robert Ordway's (Warner Baxter, pictured) help for black outs that he's been having since youth. He has a dragon mother named Mrs. Wellington Lake (Alma Kruger), and naturally becomes a suspect when two of his models are murdered. Everything seems centered on a painting by a more famous artist in which the two women -- and a third -- were featured. Mindless yet intriguing -- and somewhat far-fetched -- The Crime Doctor's Warning holds the attention and is a perfectly flavorful "B"movie. John Litel plays the police inspector, but it's an uncredited Eduardo Ciannelli who perks up the film as Nick Petroni, an old sailor model who's angered that all anybody wants to paint is cheesecake. Director Castle keeps things moving swiftly.

Verdict: Minor but reasonably engaging. **1/2.

THE PERILS OF NYOKA


THE PERILS OF NYOKA (1942). 15 chapter Republic serial. Director: William Witney.

This is a rousing, well-done cliffhanger serial that's supposed to take place in a desert land but looks more like sunny California. Who cares -- if you want logic, look elsewhere. Nyoka (Kay Aldridge) is on a search for her father, and for the Tablets of Hippocrates, which are supposed to impart the secrets of banishing all ills from mankind. Looking for the tablets for her own evil purposes is Vultura (Lorna Gray, pictured), whose henchmen include Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton and Tristram "Rocket Man" Coffin. However, Aldridge has hunky Clayton Moore of Lone Ranger on her side so she's not complaining. In the meantime, Gray shows off her shapely legs in her revealing costumes. Vultura has Satan, the dumb, hokey gorilla to aid her, while our heroine has Jitters , an adorable monkey, and Fang, a German shepherd, to help her out. Highlights include Satan literally bringing the house down by smashing at some pillars; Vultura putting Nyoka to the rack; a bit with some descending spikes; Nyoka suspended over a fire pit by her own father; a swinging pendulum that nearly cuts a bloody swathe through Nyoka; and -- best of all -- a thrilling bit with our lass being blown out of a tunnel and off of a cliff by a sudden wind storm! Vultura and Nyoka have some great cat-fights in every other episode. Ken Terrell of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman also has a small part, as he frequently did in these things. Ditto for William Benedict. Highly effective musical score and a great theme. NOTE: This was rereleased as Nyoka and the Tiger Men; it was not a sequel.

Verdict: Great fun! ***.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Hi. If you subscribe to any blogs or get updates from websites, you know how easily you can get overloaded with too much to read if you get emails and updates too often. Lately GREAT OLD MOVIES has been posting new reviews (about seven) just once per week. This schedule may be interrupted for a while this month due to the Holidays, traveling, and the fact that I'm finishing up a new book project. But GREAT OLD MOVIES will resume a regular schedule in January 2009, if not before.

Thanks for reading! Bill


HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS


TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973). Director: Freddie Francis.
An anthology of horror tales tied to a psychiatric clinic presided over by Donald Pleasance, who introduces his patients to visiting doctor Jack Hawkins. In the first a little boy with bickering parents [Donald Houston and Georgia Brown] insists that a tiger comes to visit him in his bedroom. The parents don't believe him -- until the tiger shows up. This story is a complete throwaway. In the second tale a young man travels back in time to the turn of the century, followed by a ghoulish figure who spies upon him and his lady love. This one has some interesting elements but isn't developed very well. Suzy Kendall and Peter McEnery are fine as the young couple, however. In the third story Joan Collins has her hands full with a devilish sculpted tree monster in her living room which her artist lover seems to prefer over her. This one really has a hilarious -- and stupid -- wind-up. Collins as as zesty as ever. In the last and best story Kim Novak -- still gorgeous at forty -- is cast as Auriol Pageant, who's throwing a luau. One of the guests is a client named Kimo (Michael Petrovitch) who has sinister designs on Novak's beautiful daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm). This has a ghoulish touch of cannibalism but seems to be over just as it's getting interesting. Tales that Witness Madness is certainly no world-beater, but it holds the attention and is amusing, including the wind-up at the clinic. Novak is fun.
Verdict: Definitely don't eat the mystery meat. **1/2.

THE HEIRESS


THE HEIRESS (1949). Director: William Wyler.

"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. ****

THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE


THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE. Carolyn Keene. # 2 in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series. Published 1930. NOTE: Occasionally Great Old Movies will look at books, plays, operas and so on that were turned into feature films.

The Hidden Staircase, at least the first version published in 1930, is a pretty darn good juvenile book, and it's easy to see why the series became so incredibly popular. Nancy gets involved with the mysterious case of two sisters who live in a run-down mansion and are afraid that it's either haunted by a malevolent ghost or that some ruthless human agent is somehow gaining entry. Of course the very title alone pretty much gives the game away, but the thing is that the book still manages to be suspenseful and even harrowing at times, especially when our gal is nearly trapped in an underground tunnel with a fading flashlight. Meanwhile Carson Drew is held captive by a nefarious character who has a sinister, tough and rather stereotypical black housekeeper (this gal is a far cry from the typical Hattie McDaniel lovable nanny portrayals of the period). Ned Nickerson, and Nancy's pals Bess and George, do not appear in the book. Carson gives Nancy a gun for protection, and she carries it around with her at all times. Loosely adapted as Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, one of four Nancy Drew movies that starred Bonita Granville.

Verdict: The charms of this series are certainly not hidden. ***.

NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE


NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE (1939). Director: William Clemens.

Loosely based on The Hidden Staircase, this uses many of the elements of the novel but is basically a new story. Two elderly sisters live in a mansion and have had to abide for twenty years with their late father's ridiculous will, which says they will inherit the place if they live in the house that entire time and if at least one of the sisters is present in the mansion every night. There's two weeks to go, after which the women intend to give the home to a charitable medical facility. When their chauffeur is murdered, the women panic and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville) does her best to convince everyone that his death was actually a suicide. She investigates when the old ladies claim items have been stolen from their home even though all the doors and windows were locked. As usual she inveigles the hapless "Ted" Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) into helping her with her schemes. In the books Nancy was brave and occasionally foolhardy but in this she's irresponsible and stupid -- and even screams in fright at a frog! The idiot police chief lets Ted handle the murder weapon. The climax isn't bad, however, and there are some amusing sequences. John Litel is again cast as Carson Drew.

Verdict: The last of Nancy on the big screen [at that time] -- and not a moment too soon! **.

IT'S A GREAT LIFE


IT'S A GREAT LIFE. 1954 TV series. Shown on American Life TV.

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

IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD


IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (1937). Director: Harry Lachman.

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. **.

ROAD TO PERDITION


ROAD TO PERDITION (2002). Director: Sam Mendes.

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. **.

SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY


SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY (2007). Director: Bruce Timm.
A few years ago DC Comics published a long storyline that criss-crossed all the books in which Superman appeared in which the Man of Steel battled to the death and was mortally defeated by an alien warrior known as Doomsday. After a year or so during which other Supermen and similar characters appeared to take up the man of steel's mantle, it was revealed that Superman was still alive. This animated feature takes the same basic storyline and does a new take on it. Adam Baldwin and Anne Heche do a good job voicing the characters of Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and James Marsters is superb as Lex Luthor. Superman finally tells Lois what his secret identity is (in the comics I believe they were already married). While not necessarily a "must-see" this is an exciting feature for comics and super-hero fans, with some fluid animation and interesting sequences.
Verdict: Very credible full-length cartoon. ***.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

TORTURE GARDEN


TORTURE GARDEN (1967). Director: Freddie Francis. Screenplay by Robert Bloch.

Several people go backstage at a sideshow exhibit and are given glimpses of their possible futures by Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith.) The first man has his mind taken over by a cat after he murders his wealthy uncle; a blindly ambitious young actress discovers the secret of a handsome, seemingly ageless actor to her regret; a jealous piano -- no, that's not a misprint -- apparently possessed by the spirit of his dead mother torments a woman who's fallen for a famous classical pianist; and -- in the best of the four stories -- Jack Palance and Peter Cushing -- both of whom are terrific -- trade off as collectors of rare and expensive Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia. But Cushing tells Palance that he has the ultimate Poe collector's item in his basement ... With the exception of this final tale most of Robert Bloch's stories are fairly lame, but the film is enteraining in spite of it.

Verdict: You have to see that piano go on the attack to believe it! **1/2.

EMPIRE FALLS


EMPIRE FALLS (2005). HBO mini-series. Directed by Fred Schepesi. Screenplay by Richard Russo, from his novel.
This must be a pretty dumbed-down adaptation of the novel because otherwise one can't imagine why on earth anyone would think it was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Miles Roby (Ed Harris) lives in the town of Empire Falls, Maine, where he runs a diner for the local matriarch Francine Whiting (Joanne Woodward). While he deals with his ex-wife (Helen Hunt), daughter, half-drunk father (Paul Newman, pictured), and others, Miles also thinks back to when he was a young boy and he spent a summer with his mother and Francine's husband, Charlie (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Frankly, the flashbacks scattered through this meandering two-part movie only make things so confusing that many viewers may not even "get" the big secret about Miles and why Francine seems to delight in making his life miserable. The movie becomes a little more interesting when we're introduced to Francine's lame and emotionally disturbed daughter, who's been unrequitedly in love with Miles for decades, but this sub-plot sort of goes nowhere, which is true with many other situations in the movie. There are too many cliches and stereotyped, "cutesy" characters and the sappy, mediocre musical score seems to be trying to alert us that this is supposed to be something "meaningful' and "significant." Fat chance. It all comes off like superficial Stephen King without the horror except for a Columbine-like shooting scene that is thrown in for good measure. The acting is generally better than the picture deserves. Newman's performance isn't exactly a "great" one but he's not bad at all as Max. Like a soap opera without the sex.
Verdict: Phony and a bit dull all told. **.

COLONEL EFFINGHAM'S RAID


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. *.

THE TWO MR. KISSELS


THE TWO MR. KISSELS (2008). Lifetime cable premiere. Director: Edward Bianchi.
This is based on a book about the true-life murders of two brothers, Andrew and Robert Kissel. [Dateline and other programs have covered these murders extensively.] Robert was murdered in Hong Kong -- it's no secret that his wife is currently serving life there for his murder -- and Andrew in his home in Greenwich (an arrest was recently made in the case). The story is irresistible -- money, sex, greed, infidelity, two brothers who both come to a similar end for different reasons -- but while this telefilm is undeniably fast-paced, entertaining and generally well-acted, it's also on the superficial side. John Stamos (pictured), one of the producers, is not perfect casting as the somewhat weaselly Andrew Kissel, who robbed his own condo board of millions of dollars and probably cheated the wrong people, but his performance is professional, which is true of the rest of the mostly unknown cast. Whatever one thinks of the Kissel brothers, an added tragedy is the effect their deaths had and will have on their young children.
Verdict: Neat time passer. ***.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SUNSET BOULEVARD

"I'm ready for my close-up."
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Director: Billy Wilder.

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. ***.

KNEE DEEP


KNEE DEEP (2007). Director: Michael Chandler. [Shown on PBS' Independent Lens.]
An interesting documentary about a young man who is accused of trying to murder his mother right after she announces that she's selling the farm he worked on all of his life and is evicting him. It's interesting how your sympathies go back and forth in this real-life story. The son was never educated -- his father believed a farmer didn't need an education -- and has presumed for years that eventually the farm will become his. The mother, although generally painted as a borderline monster, realized via the Internet that there was more to life than the tiny farm town she'd been living in and wanted out -- something many of us city folk can certainly relate to. It seems there were mistakes and misunderstandings made on both sides, although one might argue that attempted murder -- no matter what the provocation -- is never a viable option. While worthwhile, Knee Deep meanders a bit and a major flaw is that we never hear from the mother, giving it a rather lopsided perspective.
Verdict: How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm? **1/2.

Friday, November 7, 2008

NANCY DREW -- DETECTIVE


NANCY DREW -- DETECTIVE (1938). Director: William Clemens.
Although the "original" screenplay is attributed to Kenneth Gamet, this was clearly based on one of the original Nancy Drew novels, "Password to Larkspur Lane." A wealthy woman who is on the verge of donating a large sum of money to Nancy's school suddenly disappears, and Nancy (Bonita Granville) tries to find her. In this she is aided or hindered, depending on the situation, by her father Carson (John Litel), her friend Ted Nickerson (it was "Ned" in the books), and the police. Ted is played by Frankie Thomas, and he's basically been turned into comedy relief, even improbably dressing in drag at one point. Hannah Gruen, the housekeeper and mother substitute in the books, has been replaced by the dizzy maid Effie (the oddly-named Renie Riano) in the movie. Granville makes a spirited (perhaps too spirited) Nancy Drew, and the film is decidedly minor but admittedly charming at times.
Verdict: You could do worse. **1/2.

MR. SARDONICUS


MR. SARDONICUS (1961). Director: William Castle.
 In the TV show Wiseguy, an entire story arc centered around a nutty guy who was obsessed with the film Mr. Sardonicus, and who ran screenings of it over and over again. That alone created a kind of mystique around the picture, which is based on a novella by Ray Russell, who also wrote the screenplay. Castle directed this film right after Homicidal, and introduces this movie as well. But the film is quite different, a rather intelligent Gothic horror story that is well-acted and has many fascinatingly macabre and ironic touches. A specialist named Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis of Scream of Fear) is importuned by an old girlfriend to come to her husband's castle with utmost speed. It appears that hubby, who has rechristened himself "Mr. Sardonicus" (Guy Rolfe) after a medical condition, is horribly disfigured and Cargrave is his last hope. Sardonicus is a cruel man, and Cargrave is to discover that his assignment is fraught with peril. Rolfe and Lewis are fine, but Oscar Homolka pretty much steals the picture as the sinister servant Krull, who always carries out Sardonicus' orders. Audrey Dalton as the bride of Sardonicus proves once again that she is a very uneven actress. Verdict: Good show! ***.

ROSEANNA MCCOY



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

MITZI GAYNOR RAZZLE DAZZLE THE SPECIAL YEARS DVD


MITZI GAYNOR RAZZLE DAZZLE THE SPECIAL YEARS DVD.
This DVD devoted to the talents of singer/actress Mitzi Gaynor has been released in honor of the 4oth anniversary of her first televised special and the 50th anniversary of perhaps her most famous film, South Pacific, in which she co-starred with Rosanno Brazzi and John Kerr. Gaynor's annual specials were aired for ten years, and there are song and dance numbers from each of them on this disc. Special features include a look at her Bob Mackie fashions; new interviews with Gaynor, Carl Reiner, Bob Mackie and others; comedy skits from her specials; and other extras. I don't know if Rex Reed was correct when he claimed Gaynor was "one of the colossal talents of our age," but she certainly had looks and ability to spare, and she was quite charming in South Pacific. For more information or to order a copy go to Gaynor's web site or the web site of City Lights Media, which is releasing the DVD.
Verdict: Perfect for Gaynor enthusiasts. ***.

Friday, October 31, 2008

THE EXORCIST


THE EXORCIST (1973). Special Edition DVD with extra footage. Director: William Friedkin.
Although billed as “the scariest movie ever made,” I have never found The Exorcist to be especially chilling (although the novel did give me the creeps). There had been many movies of demonic possession made before The Exorcist, but William Peter Blatty's novel and Friedkin's film version took such stories out of haunted castles and ghostly manors and placed one in prosaic, sun-lit Washington D.C. -- and made the possessed person an innocent little girl who not only acts differently but looks different as well. [In fact, that is one major flaw in this movie among many. Even when we take into account that medical science is at a loss to explain what has happened to Regan (Linda Blair), I can not believe that any mother, seeing her child covered in suppurating sores and turning green and nasty, wouldn't insist she be placed in a hospital with around the clock care!] The reason why the novel worked better than the film is that the movie is simply too literal. It's one thing to read about what happens to Regan, quite another to actually see her ramming a crucifix you-know-where and all the rest. In fact, at times The Exorcist turns into a vulgar burlesque of a horror movie, just as silly as the endless imitations that followed in its wake (such as Abby). At the same time, the story remains fascinating (but only in an unbelievable 'horror' fashion) and some of it is quite well done and generally well-acted (although Jason Miller, who is otherwise fine in the movie, shows absolutely no reaction to Regan's appearance when he enters her bedroom!) The good performances of Ellen Burstyn, Lee J. Cobb, and others certainly help. Jack MacGowran is excellent in the small role of the drunken director, Burke Dennings, whom Regan/Pazuzu throws out her second story window. Kitty Winn, who plays Burstyn's assistant, co-starred with Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park (and was superb), but, sadly, faded out into small parts like this thereafter. Of the new footage included in this edition, Regan's walking down the stairs backward like a scuttling crab is effective but perhaps they thought it looked too comical. The opening sequence with Max von Sydow (rather wasted in this part) seems rather slow. Despite my many quibbles, I have to say that The Exorcist is a good, entertaining flick and was – for better or worse – highly influential. Friedkin continued his examination of the transferal of evil in – of all things -- his film version of Cruising with Al Pacino.
Verdict: A mixed bag but entertaining. ***.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC


EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977). Director: John Boorman.

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.
Verdict: At least it's nice to look at. **1/2.

THE EXORCIST III


THE EXORCIST III (1990). Director: William Peter Blatty.

“[God] goes waltzing through the universe like some kind of cosmic Billie Burke” -- Detective William Kinderman.

Blatty adapted and directed his novel Legion for this second sequel to The Exorcist (although this wisely ignores the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic). Detective Kinderman (now played by George C. Scott) investigates a series of murders that have the same M.O. as atrocities committed by a fiendish serial killer, Gemini (Brad Dourif), who was executed the very night the girl Regan was exorcised. Kinderman ties these events to a mysterious patient in a psycho ward known only as “X” but who looks just like his old friend Father Damian (Jason Miller), who supposedly died fifteen years before on the night of the exorcism. The movie works up its own internal logic but seems to break it and become a little more confusing than it needs to be and there is too much gratuitous humor, but it has a good basic plot and is seriously disturbing at times. There's a long, creepy sequence in a hospital corridor that works up to a quick shock, and Viveca Lindfors figures in a near-climactic kitchen scene that involves a terrifyingly large surgical blade used for amputations. You have to see the old lady crawling across the ceiling to believe it (a wild sequence, but one better left on the cutting room floor?) George C. Scott is as ferociously good as ever as Kinderman, although he might have registered more upsetment at his friend, Father Dyer's, bizarre murder. Ed Flanders is on-the-money as Dyer, and there's excellent support as well from Nicol Williamson (an exorcist), Lee Richardson (university president), Brad Dourif, and Nancy Fish as a very saucy, borderline bitchy nurse. Although she is uncredited, the demon seems to be voiced by Colleen Dewhurst. Dopey Fabio shows up in a purgatory dream sequence. The obligatory exorcism scene is fairly exciting. It's interesting to contemplate what Hitchcock would have done with this material.

Verdict: The movie has its moments but the book is better. **1/2.

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING



EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. (2004). Director: Renny Harlin. NOTE: We are reviewing this more recent film to accompany our critiques of the first three Exorcist films.


In 1949 Cairo a younger Father Merrin (Stellen Skarsgard), who has temporarily given up the cloth due to events of WW 2, investigates the archaeological dig of a church that has been built over a temple of human sacrifice – where sinister things, of course, begin to happen. This is a classy production, well-directed by Harlin, and strikingly photographed by Vittorio Storaro (witness that stunning pulled-back shot of the crosses during the prologue), but despite some exciting moments and powerful images (a dead baby pulled from its mother's womb covered in bugs), it's almost a complete misfire. For one thing, there's too much going on in the screenplay, which incorporates native uprisings, sandstorms, and even Nazis without a clear focus on anything. The actual exorcism, which isn't that well-staged (and looks as silly as ever), is dragged in for the final moments, giving the picture no real climax or pay off. The derivative flashback, showing how Merrin had to choose ten people for the Nazis to kill (a couple of little children are shot in the head to persuade Merrin to choose), overpowers the rest of the story, which seems trivial in comparison. The fixation on hyenas (which tear one poor boy apart in an effective if disturbing sequence) remind one less of The Exorcist and more of The Omen trilogy. Add to all this the fact that Skarsgard is a somewhat bland leading man in this and you have a film that is somewhat boring even at its busiest. Ben Cross shows up for about two minutes in bookending sequences and is completely wasted (he would have been much better as the lead). A lot of hard work and talent went into this; it's a shame it was all for nothing.

Verdict: Unfortunate. **.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

THE BLACK ROOM


THE BLACK ROOM (1935). Director: Roy William Neill.
A dire prophecy hangs over a feudal kingdom: the younger brother will murder the older in the infamous "black room" of the castle. To prevent this from occurring, the black room is sealed up, but the evil twin Gregor finds another way in. When the good twin Anton - both are played by Boris Karloff -- returns to the kingdom he learns that Gregor is suspected of doing away with several women who have completely disappeared. Although the movie doesn't make nearly enough of its horrific sequences, this is a very interesting macabre thriller with Karloff in top form -- both of him! Marian Marsh is lovely as the pretty Thea, who ignites romantic interest in the twins and others, but Robert Allen is pretty bad as her heroic lover, Lt. Lussan. Thor the dog gets high marks for his spirited performance as a hound who harasses Gregor.
Verdict: 2 Karloffs for the price of one! ***.

28 DAYS LATER


28 DAYS LATER ...(2002), Director: Danny Boyle. Screenplay by Alex Garland.
28 days after some animal rights activists stupidly release infected chimpanzees from a laboratory, the world has been decimated by a plague that within seconds turns infected people into raving maniacs. Influenced by everything from Day of the Triffids to On the Beach to Night of the Living Dead, this starts off well, then soon becomes typically “flippant,” and eventually turns into a rather standard, if well-executed, action film. There are striking shots of a deserted London in the beginning [but it's odd that we see no bodies] and there's a scary scene inside a tunnel when a rush of rats precedes an attack by infected maniacs. The tension is undercut, however, by such scenes as when the rag tag group of survivors go jauntily shopping in a supermarket as if they hadn't a care in the world. The biggest problem with the movie is that, despite some humanistic touches and attempts at pathos [of a minor kind] the reactions of the characters don't always ring true. For instance, the main character Jim (Cillian Murphy) is forced to murder an infected boy at one point. He has no choice if he is to save himself, and the boy is beyond hope, but when he walks out of the building where he killed him he shows none of the horrified, disgusted, guilty attitude that a person in that situation would feel. This isn't just weak acting; it's insufficient filmmaking. And there are other moments like this, too, making 28 Days Later just another piece of occasionally entertaining, but overlong schlock. This received a lot of good reviews, but it's no classic despite a certain degree of directorial and visual flair. The climax at the army camp seems to go on forever.
Verdict: Not a must-see by any means. **.

BEFORE I HANG


BEFORE I HANG (1940). Director: Nick Grinde.
Boris Karloff plays a physician who is not only convicted of a mercy killing but improbably gets the death penalty because of it. He has developed a serum which will reverse the aging process, and he uses it on himself some hours before his scheduled execution. But then the governor commutes his sentence to life imprisonment. The serum makes Karloff look a bit younger and gives him vigor, but it also has an unfortunate, violent side effect. Karloff is fine and restrained in the picture, and frankly he deserved a much better script. Before I Hang doesn't do nearly enough with its premise and amounts to very little. Bruce Bennett plays the boyfriend of Karloff's daughter, Martha (Evelyn Keyes).
Verdict: Not much in this cheapie creepy. *1/2.

THE BATMAN VS DRACULA


THE BATMAN VS DRACULA (2005). Director: Michael Goguen.
This is a feature-length animated film using the latest incarnation of The Batman from the WB's recent cartoon series. Bruce Wayne is no longer a pretty boy, but attractive in an average way. Butler Alfred Pennysworth is a bit on the uppity side. Although updated versions of both The Penguin and The Joker take part in the action, Batman's main adversary is no less than Dracula himself, whose remains somehow wound up in an underground cavern of Gotham cemetery. [Dracula is voiced none too well by actor Peter Stormare; Rino Romano is fine as Batman/Bruce.] Reporter Vicky Vale is the love interest and damsel in distress. While this has some exciting scenes and some fluid animation, it's still a fairly standard comic book adventure.
Verdict: For fans of The Batman only. **1/2.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

SPACEFLIGHT IC-1


SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (1965). Director: Bernard Knowles.

A flight to a planet dubbed "earth 2" just outside our solar system, where mankind hopes to have a new beginning, is beset with tension and problems. Dr. Steven Thomas (John Cairney) discovers that his wife (Linda Marlowe) has a serious pancreatic condition, but the stern Captain Ralston (Bill Williams) refuses to turn back so that she can receive medical treatment. This leads to tragic consequences and some dramatic incidents, including what the captain perceives as mutiny. This short, low-budget British production is like a TV show, but Harry Spalding's script and some intense performances make it more interesting than you might imagine. There are no real effects or BEMs [Bug-eyed monsters] or any other trappings of 50s/60s sci fi, but the story and its confrontations sustain interest. There's an android whose head is attached to a life support block, and two couples are kept in suspended animation. John Cairney, who also played Hercules' little friend Hylas in Jason and the Argonauts, is fine and has a bigger role than the nominal lead, former second lead Bill Williams, who isn't bad as Ralston.

Verdict: There have been worse star treks than this one. **1/2.

THE THREE STOOGES GO AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAZE


THE THREE STOOGES GO AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAZE (1963). Director: Norman Maurer.
The Three Stooges are the servants of the great-great-grandson of Phileas Fogg (from Verne's Around the World in 80 Days), who for some reason is called Phileas Fogg the Third instead of the Fourth. But one hardly expects logic in a Three Stooges movie. Phileas III unaccountably accepts a bet that he can go around the world in eighty days without spending a penny. The person who challenges him is a con artist, who also frames him for bank robbery. Accompanied by the stooges, Phileas (Jay Sheffield) has increasingly silly adventures in India, China, New York etc. and meets a pretty gal named Amelia (Joan Freeman). Although this will probably be best enjoyed by young children, it has to be said that the funny-looking stooges have their amusing moments. Curly Joe becomes a wrestler at one point and they do some funny masquerades from time to time. That distinctive old gent, Colin Campbell, who also appeared in The Lost World (1960), plays Willoughby, a bank officer.
Verdict: There have been worse. **.

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN


THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (OF THE HIMALAYAS/1957). Director: Val Guest.
Fairly absorbing story about group of men who climb high into the Himalayas to find the mythical creature, the Yeti. Stars Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker give strong performances, the former as a principled and decent man of science, and the latter as an unprincipled entrepreneur who hopes to exhibit the snowman for profit. The movie has its eerie moments once they encounter the creatures, who are not fully seen until almost the very end. Other good performances are given by Maureen Connell, who plays Cushing's wife, and Arnold Marle as the inscrutable but surprisingly feisty Llama. If there is any problem with the movie it's that it eventually becomes quite talky. Some might also feel that its turning the Yeti from monsters into noble creatures is a tad pretentious. Still, this is not bad at all. Greatly bolstered by Arthur Grant's atmospheric photography and Humphrey Searle's dramatic musical score.
Verdict: Love those Yeti! ***.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER


JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER (2008). Director: Dave Bullock.

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

THE SNORKEL


THE SNORKEL (1958). Director: Guy Green.
You learn right at the start of the movie that Jacques Duval (Peter van Eyck) murdered his wife, but the well-made film holds your attention in spite of it. Good acting and tense situations certainly don't hurt. The murdered woman's daughter, Candy (Mandy Miller, a young beauty), alleges that she saw Jacques murder her father some years before, and is convinced that he somehow managed to murder her mother even though her death, which occurred in a locked bedroom, has been ruled a suicide. Betta St. John plays Jean, a relative who is a sort of governess or companion to Candy. One of the best scenes has Jacques making an attempt on Candy's life while she's swimming. A very satisfying wind-up. Peter van Eyck strikes the perfect note as the cold-blooded murderer. Co-written by the prolific Jimmy Sangster but not as gimmicky has some of his stories.
Verdict: Engaging time passer. ***.

THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER


THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER (1933). Director: Roy William Neill.
New York police commissioner Thatcher Colt (Adolphe Menjou) takes his efficient secretary off for a quiet, restful vacation in the bucolic town of Gilliad, but instead of balm he finds murder. There are sexy circus queens, angry husbands, illicit affairs, a troupe of cannibals, not to mention the usual lions, tigers and gorillas, but none of it saves the movie from being dull, dull, dull. Dwight Frye is his usual intense self as the jealous hubby of the high-wire circus queen (Greta Nissen). Ruthelma Stevens is Colt's lip-reading secretary, Miss Kelly. Colt has an admirably modern attitude toward women and even thinks that Miss Kelly would make a great police commissioner when he retires. Alas, the movie has no real snap to it and the plot isn't terribly interesting. The pic only runs 63 minutes but seems much longer. Menjou is fine, however. He played the same role in one other movie.
Verdict: Not as much fun as a barrel of monkeys.

CARY GRANT


CARY GRANT. Marc Eliot. Harmony Books. 2004.

This is a readable if not especially revelatory look at the life of Cary Grant from his troubled early years in England, to his stage career in New York, to his highly successful film career, as well as his involvement with actor Randolph Scott and his four marriages to women. It seems pretty clear to the reader (if not necessarily to Eliot) that Grant was essentially a gay man who, while initially free-spirited and free-thinking and without any special qualms about his sexuality, spent his later years (once stardom came upon him during a much less tolerant period) running from his sexual identity, always eager to preserve his image and the career that gave him so many options, not the least of which was financial. Eliot makes some attempt to explore the man's complexity but despite some details of his long relationship with Scott is less successful keeping an honest tab on his true sexuality. Eliot is not a film historian – most of his previous books were on rock and folk music – so he recycles such ancient canards as John Gilbert not having a voice fit for sound pictures and he classifies Howard Hughes strictly as a heterosexual. At one point he writes that Shirley Temple “had set off a generation of middle-aged men into cold sweats while still a toddler”(!) His descriptions of Grant's looks, appeal and acting ability occasionally border on the poetic but sometimes veer into the pretentious. While the ultimate book on Cary Grant has yet to be written, this is not at all bad for readers who are unfamiliar with previous biographies of the actor.

Verdict: Okay as intro to Grant. **1/2.

THE SNIPER


THE SNIPER (1952). Director: Edward Dmytryk.
Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is a delivery man for a cleaning service and has a problem with women. When one of his customers, a singer named Jean (Marie Windsor) innocently excites him but sends him away when her boyfriend shows up, he begins a spree of shooting women, with Jean the first victim. Franz, who is excellent, is the perfect choice for the title role, with his clean cut features and appealing presence in stark contrast to the terrible crimes he's committing. The movie certainly has an interesting cast. Adolphe Menjou is the head cop on the case, Lt. Frank Kafka, and Richard Kiley, that Man of La Mancha himself, is a police psychologist. He gives disturbing statistics about sexual predators (the situation has obviously gotten much worse since 1952). Frank Faylen and Gerald Mohr are also cast as policemen. Miller's landlady is played by Mabel Paige, who sold Lucy and Ethel her dress shop in a classic I Love Lucy episode. Jay Novello, who also appeared on I Love Lucy, turns up in another amazing characterization as Pete, the owner of the bar where Jean sings for her supper. The movie is well made and completely absorbing, but it does give rather short shrift to the victims.
Verdict: Probably Franz' finest hour. ***.

Friday, October 10, 2008

TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL


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. ***.

BOBBY DARIN: A LIFE


BOBBY DARIN: A LIFE. Michael Seth Starr. Taylor.

This is a workmanlike biography of Darin with some excellent interviews with, and insights from, people who worked with him and knew him well. Mercifully Starr doesn't spend too much time on Darin's childhood, and after a few pages takes us into the beginnings of his almost meteoric if short-lived show business career. Darin is essentially portrayed by Starr and others as a man driven to succeed at an early age because of a heart condition that would probably ensure him an early demise – as it did (at age thirty-seven). Of course, many young people with perfectly healthy hearts are driven to succeed – the sooner the better --- but his condition may have added a certain intensity to Darin's ambition. Darin could be prickly and cocky, which didn't endear him to some (Ed Sullivan was certainly no fan), but he eventually mellowed and won people over with his talent. Starr doesn't spend as much time on the ultimately shattered Darin-Sandra Dee marriage, which may disappoint those looking for juicy stories of marital combat, but he does adeptly describe his recording career, film roles, and critical and fan reaction to same. Interestingly enough, at one point Darin decided to almost “drop out,” sold all of his possessions, and moved as far away from everyone as he could get. Bobby Darin: A Life is a good bet for readers who are curious about Darin but don't necessarily want to read a thick tome on the performer; it gives all the basic facts of his life and is a quick read.
Verdict: Not bad! ***.

JEWEL ROBBERY


JEWEL ROBBERY (1932). Director: William Dieterle.
The Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Kay Francis) should be the happiest women in Vienna since her husband has 8.25 million dollars -- and a chronic case of the gout. She has a lover who's begun to bore her and is anxious for some excitement and a new fling. One afternoon when she's at the jewelry store (with both husband and lover!), along comes a nameless robber (William Powell) who steals everything in the shop, including her new diamond, completely sweeping her off her feet. He also passes off drugged cigarettes (joints?) which make the shop owner giddy and do the same for half of the police force. This is an amusing trifle -- emphasis on trifle -- greatly bolstered by sophisticated dialogue and terrific performances. Powell and Francis make a great team. Not exactly a classic but it's worth sitting through just for Kay's wink at the audience at the end. The pretty tune auf wiedersehen plays in the background but sometimes seems to overpower what's happening on the screen.
Verdict: Slight, slightly immoral, and rather charming. **1/2.

ME AND BOBBY D: A MEMOIR


ME AND BOBBY D: A Memoir. Steve Karmen. Hal Leonard.

What happens to the people left behind – the old friends and co-workers -- when someone makes the big time in show business? Steve Karmen attempts to answer that question in this interesting memoir of his early friendship with the singer/actor Bobby Darin. This is by no means a biography of Darin, although the reader will gain some insight into the man's character, which was extremely career-driven (probably why he made it) and expedient at times, although Karmen relates examples of how Darin could also give credit when due and be extremely gracious to old pals. [Although in one obnoxious moment Darin tells Karmen that he is not to ask for anything from him and that “they travel on different levels.”] Most of the book relates a short-term engagement in Detroit where Darin was the solo act and Karmen his guitar and vocal accompanist. Encouraged by his agent, Darin eventually relegated Karmen to the side of the band and didn't allow him to sing any more back ups. Aware that Karmen was, ironically, taller and better-looking than he was, Darin may have allowed jealousy to get the better of him, although it is also true that it was Darin who had just cut a record and had an agent – not Karmen. Karmen split from Darin and had a brief try at his own recording/acting/club career, but eventually found success as the composer of such famous jingles as “I Love New York,” “This Bud's for You,” and many, many others. Perhaps too much of the book is devoted to Karmen's stumbling attempts to get laid in Detroit, which become tiresome and are described in long stretches of dialogue that go on for many pages as if he were writing a forgettable coming-of-age novel. [Karmen describes Darin as getting laid on a regular basis in Detroit, continuously coming back to their hotel room smeared with lipstick, even bedding a mobster's sexy girlfriend.] Much more interesting are the few pages describing his attempts to establish his own successful show biz career, which has that certain ring of pain and truth, Karmen being undone by bad breaks and agents without enough clout. He describes the combination of fascination, envy, and anguish he felt while watching Darin's club act and feature films. Although the book is not without flaws, Me and Bobby D is a reasonably affecting look at show biz survivors and casualties and how they prosper, adapt, and make do. Throughout the book Karmen's love-hate for Darin clearly comes across. [On the back cover Connie Francis, who apparently loved Darin unconditionally, is quoted as saying “the experience of reading Me and Bobby D brought closure from the heartache and emptiness I have lived with for over 40 years...”]
Verdict: Imperfect but absorbing show biz memoir. ***.

AMERICAN GANGSTER


AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007). Director: Ridley Scott.
Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an honest cop, is assigned to head a new narcotics squad that will leave the street punks and small-timers to others and concentrate only on major deals and big arrests. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a drug dealer who's started a pipeline from Vietnam, where thousands of soldiers are getting hooked on junk. Naturally these two come into conflict, although a confrontation never really materializes (the scene when they face each other across a table in jail is kind of flat). The action scenes are standard, and the characterizations, especially Lucas', are thin, even if this was inspired by true events.
Washington seems miscast; Crowe is better, and looks like crap. Some familiar faces bolster the proceedings with flavorful performances: Armand Assante as an Italian gangster; Cuba Gooding Jr. as a drug dealer; Ted Levine as an associate of Crowe's; Josh Brolin as a dirty cop; Ruby Dee as Lucas' mama -- even Clarence Williams III of the Mod Squad (he's actually been pretty busy, if low profile, ever since) shows up briefly as Lucas' mentor.
Verdict: Not enough meat for its length. **.

Monday, October 6, 2008

OUR BETTERS


OUR BETTERS (1933). Director: George Cukor.

"Think of the people who have married for love. After five years do they care for each other any more than those who married for money?"

An American gal named Pearl (Constance Bennett) marries an impoverished British Lord and becomes Lady Grayston, only to learn on her wedding day that all her husband is interested in is her money and that he already has a lover on the side. Thereafter cynical, sophisticated Pearl becomes the giver of some of England's most notorious parties. Her friends include gossipy Thornton (Grant Mitchell, the father in The Man Who Came to Dinner); Duchess Minnie (Violet Kemble Cooper) and the gigolo, Pepi (Gilbert Roland), that she's keeping; and Arthur (Minor Watson), a pleasant middle-aged man who's in love with her. Then there's the dance instructor, Ernest (Tyrell Davis), who shows up at the end and is as ludicrous a gay stereotype as anything in The Producers. Taken from a play by Somerset Maugham, the movie is full of good dialogue and has some funny scenes, especially a rib-tickler involving Pepi. Bennett is arch and hard and very good, Roland is amusing, and Cooper nearly steals the picture as the somewhat unrealistic, addle-pated, but hopelessly romantic Minnie. As Pearl's more upright younger sister, Bessie, Anita Louise gives one of the worst and most affected performances ever seen in a movie.
Verdict: An amusing, occasionally trenchant, trifle. **1/2.

2 SAMMY DAVIS JR. BIOGRAPHIES



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.

FOG ISLAND


FOG ISLAND (1945). Director: Terry Morse.
Bitter Leo Grainger (George Zucco), who spent five years in prison, lives on a spooky island with his stepdaughter, Gail (Sharon Douglas), whose mother was murdered on the island. Leo invites a bunch of former associates to the island with a view to discovering who did the deed -- and getting even with those who betrayed him. Guests -- who believe there's a cache of money hidden on the island -- include John Kavanaugh (Jerome Cowan), lady astrologer and seeress Emily (Jacquline DeWit), Sylvia Jordan (Veda Ann Borg), and Jeff Kingsley (John Whitney), the son of a deceased associate. Atmospheric -- and very, very foggy -- this is one of the better PRC poverty row features, with a satisfying wind-up and some very good acting. Zucco and Atwill are as marvelous as ever, Cowan is excellent, and DeWit and Borg are typically vital. The movie isn't as predictable as you might imagine, and has a vivid musical score by Karl Hajos.
Verdict: We can all use some fog now and then. ***.

GARY COOPER: AMERICAN HERO



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.

THE PAGE TURNER aka LA TOURNEUSE DE PAGES


THE PAGE TURNER (aka La Tourneuse de pages/2006). Director: Denis Dercourt.

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.