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

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. **.

LADY OF VENGEANCE


LADY OF VENGEANCE (1957). Director: Burt Balaban.

William Marshall, a tough American publisher in England (Dennis O'Keefe), importunes a criminal mastermind, Karnak (Anton Diffring, pictured) to plan the execution of the man he holds responsible for his pretty young ward Melissa's suicide-by-train. This is on the level of a TV production, with lots of unanswered questions, and a twist that sharp viewers will probably see coming. O'Keefe is well cast, even if he isn't quite up to his more emotional scenes. Ann Sears is lovely as the secretary who has long been in love with him. Anton Diffring is as sneeringly effective as ever as the ever-superior, stamp-collecting Karnak. Vernon Greeves is properly oily as the make out artist and musician who dallies with Melissa. This isn't terrible, just not much to rave about.

Verdict: Flaccid suspenser. **.

LADY GANGSTER


LADY GANGSTER (1942). Director: Robert Florey.

A failed actress, Dot Burton ( Faye Emerson), gets in with a gang of hoods and becomes embroiled in a bank robbery scheme. She winds up doing time with an interesting bunch of lady inmates, and then things get really complicated. This fast-paced, lively and very entertaining "B" movie is so unpredictable for the most part that it would be criminal to give away any more of the plot elements. It has the very casual immorality of most of these kind of movies. Emerson gives a vivid and adept performance as Dot, as does Ruth Ford as "stool pigeon" Lucy, Julie Bishop as inmate Myrtle, Dorothy Adams as "Deaf Annie," and Virginia Brissac as the warden Mrs. Stoner. Hedda Hopper's son William, herein billed as "DeWolf Hopper," has a small role, as does "The Great One" -- Jackie Gleason (billed as Jackie C. Gleason). Hopper is as stiff as ever, but Gleason makes a nice impression as a pleasant member of the robbery gang who has a soft touch for Dot. Roland Drew as gang leader Carey looks surprisingly good in drag. Frank Wilcox is only adequate as Kenneth, the old friend of Dot's who turns her in and then tries to help her.

Verdict: A pleasant surprise. ***.

NEARLY EIGHTEEN


NEARLY EIGHTEEN (1943). Director: Arthur Dreifuss.

Gale Storm, who later went on to fame as the star of My Little Margie, was 21 when she made this Monogram cheapie musical. 17-year-old Jane Stanton (Storm) comes to New York to find work as a singer. She's almost hired by one saloon, until the owner discovers she's still a minor. Then a handsome manager (who's really a bookie), Tony (Rick Vallin), sends her over to a talent school run by Jack Leonard (William Henry). Unfortunately, the school doesn't take anyone over the age of 14, so Jane is forced to masquerade as a child. There were certainly exploitably amusing elements in this picture, but none of them are developed in such a fashion to provide meaty laughs. Storm, however, is poised, very attractive, and already shows signs of the talent for comedy that she'd display years later in two successful sitcoms. The scenes when Jack comes close to nearly kissing a girl he thinks is only 14 are kind of creepy. The best thing about the picture are the snappy musical numbers, such as "The Little Bell Rang," which are more-than-competently delivered by Storm, who sold a few successful records later in her career.

Verdict: A passing storm on the way to better things. Nice songs, though, and Storm and her leading men are easy on the eyes. **.

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. ***.