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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939)


THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

"Oh, Watson, the needle."

This is the first of two Sherlock Holmes films made by Twentieth Century-Fox and the first in which the wonderful Basil Rathbone created perhaps the definitive movie portrayal of the famous detective -- he is simply outstanding. The plot has to do with Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce) trying to save the life of an heir (Richard Greene) while dealing with rumors of the huge title beast roaming the foggy moors where the story takes place. John Carradine has a small role as a servant, and Wendy Barrie is the love interest. Lionel Atwill, who played Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty in a later film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, is excellent in the more sympathetic role of Dr. Mortimer. Mary Gordon played Mrs. Hudson for the first time in this picture. Barlowe Borland scores as the cranky, litigious old Frankland. Morton Lowry is fine as John Stapleton. The 1959 color remake is also quite creditable, and some may feel it has the slight edge. Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Verdict: Fine introduction to the Rathbone portrayal. ***.

ONE FATAL HOUR AKA TWO AGAINST THE WORLD


ONE FATAL HOUR (aka Two Against the World/1936). Director: William C. McGann.

This is a superior remake of Five Star Final, which starred Edward G. Robinson. In the original, a newspaper began running articles on a twenty year old murder case. In this version, a radio network decides to do a nightly dramatization of the incident. In the first version, the murder was morally ambiguous, but in this version, it is made clear that the woman, who was acquitted, killed in self-defense, and the victim was not her daughter's father. This removes two of the more irritating elements of Five Star Final. Humphrey Bogart plays the Robinson role in this version and it's a major understatement to say he's not in the same league as the great Robinson. Helen McKellar is superb as Martha Carstairs, who was once the notorious "murderess" Gloria Pembrook. Beverly Roberts makes a snappy, bitter secretary for Bogart, and Harry Hayden is properly loathsome as Dr. Leavenworth, who exposes Mrs. Carstair's true identity. Not a great movie, but it is absorbing, generally well-acted, and is a big improvement over the first version.

Verdict: Sometimes the remake is better. **1/2.

SMART GIRLS DON'T TALK



SMART GIRLS DON'T TALK (1948). Director: Richard L. Bare.

Linda Vickers (Virginia Mayo, pictured) gets involved with gambling bigwig and shady character Marty Fain (Bruce Bennett) -- but so does her brother, "Doc" (Robert Hutton), who patches Fain up when he's shot and pays the ultimate price. This seems like a remake of an old Bette Davis movie that wasn't all that great in its original incarnation. Tom D'Andrea as Sparky Lynch adds a little spice, but not enough to save the movie. Mayo is competent enough but she seems to play everything in one note, although the script hardly gives her many opportunities to shine. Richard L. Bare also directed the much more interesting Wicked, Wicked many years later.

Verdict: Smart people stay away from movies like this. *1/2.

SEVEN DAYS ASHORE


SEVEN DAYS ASHORE (1944). Director: John H. Auer.

Daniel Arland (Alan Dinehart) goes to sea engaged to two different women -- Carol (Virginia Mayo) and Lucy (Amelita Ward) -- but his heart really belongs to Annabelle (Elaine Shepard). He has two buddies played by the strikingly mediocre team of dull Wally Brown and the thick-lipped, especially repellent Alan Carney. There's a midget-like girl singer named Dot Diamond (Marcy McGuire) who sings a snappy number now and then. But the most memorable scene in this mostly unmemorable movie is when Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers' favorite foil, warbles "Far Over the Waves" and is deliberately awful.

Verdict: Seven days too many. **.

AND NEVER LET HER GO


AND NEVER LET HER GO (2001 telefilm/2 part, 4 hour mini-series). Director: Peter Levin.

Based on Queen Ghoul Ann Rule's true-crime book, this is the story of Thomas Capano (Mark Harmon) and his lover Anne Marie Fahey (Kathryn Morris of Cold Case), who disappeared one night after an argument with Capano. Rachel Ward of The Thornbirds and Night School plays a mistress that the married Capano had for twenty years; both she and Capano's wife were unaware at first of his involvement with Fahey. Olympia Dukakis is Capano's mother, who gets angrier at her other sons for telling on Capano than she is with the son who committed murder. Paul Michael Glaser is the detective on the case. Morris is excellent, Harmon is much better than usual, and the large supporting cast is mostly on the money. They probably didn't need four hours to tell this sad and sordid story, however.

Verdict: Reasonably absorbing true crime drama. ***.

BOSTON BLACKIE GOES HOLLYWOOD


BOSTON BLACKIE GOES HOLLYWOOD (1942). Director: Michael Gordon.

Reformed thief Boston Blackie (Chester Morris) is suspected of stealing a valuable item and winds up going into disguise, with his buddy "The Runt" (George E. Stone), pretending to be a child. A very young Forrest Tucker plays a thug and Lloyd Bridges has a bit. Constance Worth is the dame. The film is well performed, for what it is, but even for a "B" movie it's decidedly on the minor side. Some mildly amusing vignettes and very little real action add up to a programmer that you practically forget even while you're watching it.

Verdict: At least it doesn't last very long. **.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

BEYOND TOMORROW


BEYOND TOMORROW (1940). Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

Three elderly millionaires (Charles Winninger, Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith) get involved in the life of a handsome young singer, James (Richard Carlson), whom they meet on Christmas Eve, even after all three are killed in a plane crash. This rather silly, occasionally touching, movie presents the after-life as a misty limbo with voices calling you either up or down to you-know-where. There is a big difference between honest sentiment and sappiness, which this movie doesn't seem to realize. Jean Parker and Helen Vinson are the two women who get involved with Carlson. Frankly, it's irritating watching these ghosts trying to influence what a grown man should do, just as it's somewhat misogynous to suggest that the supposedly "bad" [or sexier] woman in the story is responsible for every terrible thing that happens. It's a pleasure to see Maria Ouspenskaya being warm, pleasant and grandmotherly instead of muttering gypsy curses.

Verdict: This is no It's a Wonderful Life but it has its moments, however rare. **.

THE LOST WORLD (1960)


THE LOST WORLD (1960). Director: Irwin Allen.

"Eaten alive! Horrible! Horrible!"

Colorful and loose adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel has a motley group trapped on a South American plateau with a variety of prehistoric monsters and cannibalistic natives. Fitted with bibs, horns and the like, the "dinosaurs" are actually rather majestic lizards, and the sets during the climax are redressed from Journey to the Center to the Earth [especially the Atlantis scenes). The peppery exchanges between Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) and Summerlee (Richard Haydn) are amusing, and Jill St. John as the only woman in the group is as saucy as ever. The climactic scenes as the party is chased by natives through the foggy Caves of Fire -- and encounter the monstrous Fire God -- are suspenseful and exciting. David Hedison, Michael Rennie, and Fernando Lamas don't do that much more than walk through the picture, but Jay Novello is as splendid as ever as the weasel-like Costas who winds up a blue plate special. Uneven effects. You have to see the pink poodle Frosty come up against a leaf-munching dinosaur to believe it. NOTE: For more on this film and others like it see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies. FURTHER NOTE: It is best to see this in wide-screen and high definition.

Verdict: Silly but entertaining creature feature. ***.

THE CAPTAIN'S KID


THE CAPTAIN'S KID (1936). Director: Nick Grinde.

Aunt Marcia Prentiss (May Robson) doesn't want little Abigail (Sybil Jason) hanging around with disreputable Uncle Asa Plunkett (Guy Kibbee) because he drinks too much, among other things. Little Abigail, who sings the title song at one point, importunes kindly Asa to go look for a treasure that he's been talking about for years. A wicked brother and sister team try to take it away from him and Asa winds up getting in trouble with the law. None of it is as serious as it sounds, as this is a light-hearted, overly "cute" film with a couple of mild chuckles now and then. Kibbee and Robson are as good as ever. Jane Bryan of The Old Maid plays Betsy Ann. Mary Treen is the housekeeper, Libby. Sybil Jason is a talented little monkey-face, although some might find that her appeal runs out about halfway through the movie.

Verdict: Paging Shirley Temple! **.

EASTWICK (2009)


EASTWICK (ABC TV series/2009).

Based on the film The Witches of Eastwick, this has three women in the same town encountering the mysterious Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross, who starred in the TV show Due South about ten years ago), and discovering that they've suddenly become empowered with a kind of magic. The suspense of the series is not only what will happen to them with these new abilities -- and their new-found strength -- but if they will ever discover the true identity of the oddly likable Van Horne. By the time you read this Eastwick will most likely be off the air due to low ratings. While it has its entertaining moments and some good performances, it hasn't quite become a "must-see." Gross isn't bad, although at first he seemed to be trying too hard to imitate Jack Nicholson [who played the same role in the movie]. Lindsay Price ( a decade after The Bold and the Beautiful) and Jaime Ray Newman are fine as Jennifer and Kat, respectively, but Rebecca Romijn [Mystique in the X-Men movies] was probably not the best casting choice as Roxie. Sara Rue probably makes the best impression as Jennifer's friend, Penny. Veronica Cartwright, who also appeared in the theatrical film, is fun but hasn't much to do as the put-upon "Bun." A real problem with the series is that the very likable Jennifer and the weak-gal-seeking-strength Kat both became just a little too obnoxious, especially the former.

Verdict: It was here but now it's gone. Magic! **1/2.

STUDIO ONE: THE ROCKINGHAM TEA SET


STUDIO ONE: THE ROCKINGHAM TEA SET (1950). Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.

"You''ll never be rid of me! Never!"

For curiosity's sake since it stars Grace Kelly, Turner Classic Movies resuscitated this utterly forgettable melodrama from the golden age of live television. The Rockingham Tea Set is an episode of Studio One. A young nurse (Grace Kelly) tells the story of her last employer, a neurotic woman, Celia Arden (Louise Allbritton), who became crippled after a car accident. Her fiance, David (Richard McMurray), was driving the car at the time and has been doing penance ever since. Celia is convinced that the nurse and David are falling in love with one another and it all leads to alleged tragedy. Kelly is quite good; Allbritton chews the scenery but is effective. [For a much more interesting Allbritton performance see Son of Dracula.] This is a riot of unreal characters, lousy dialogue, and some stilted acting as well.

Verdict: Not everything in the golden age was golden. *1/2.

RIVER'S END


RIVER'S END (1940). Director: Ray Enright.

Sgt Derry Connison (Dennis Morgan) of the mounties takes off after escaped convicted murderer John Keith (also Dennis Morgan), who happens to look quite a bit like him. When the former lies dying of exposure, he suggests that Keith, whom he believes to be innocent, take his place in the mounties and solve the murder for which he was accused. When Connison's sister (Elizabeth Earl) shows up thinking Keith is her brother, he finds himself falling for her. Talk about a sticky situation! Georgie Tobias is Keith's Pal, Andy, and Steffi Duna is Cheeta, who has an unaccountable yen for him. Victor Jory is wasted as a witness at the trial who comes back into the scene. Although the premise is intriguing, this is not a very good picture.

Verdict: Two Dennis Morgans for the price of one! **.

THE PRISONER (2009)


THE PRISONER (2009 Television 6 hour/3 part mini-series on AMC.) Written by Bill Gallagher.

This is a remake of the cult British TV show The Prisoner, which aired in the sixties and starred Patrick McGoohan as an ex-agent imprisoned in a place known only as "The Village." In this update James Caviezel is cast as "number 6," who wakes up in the village and is told that it is the only civilization that exists or has ever existed, even though he remembers his former life, as do many of the other residents. His nemesis is the village's leader, "Number 2" (Ian McKellen), who knows much more than he's saying. The first installment of this mini-series was intriguing, using a more naturalistic approach than the kind of pop art, vaguely campy approach of the original. Unfortunately, as the series proceeds, if anything it becomes even more obtuse than the original -- and deadly boring. The whole business with Number 2's possibly gay and sociopathic son only adds to the confusion. There are too many characters, few of which are memorable. By the time this mini-series is over you won't really care what the hell it's all about, where the village is, or much of anything else. Caviezel is okay, but this is probably the worst vehicle Ian McKellen ever had and even his performance becomes tiresome.

Verdict: Six hours of your life you can never get back. *1/2.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

VIOLENT SATURDAY


VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955). Director: Richard Fleischer.

While a group of criminals gather in Bradenville to plan and commit a robbery, we are treated to vignettes about some of the townspeople. The problem with this caper movie is that it wants to be something else, a small town drama, with the robbery almost being incidental [it fact it takes place in only a couple of minutes]. The soap opera gets in the way of the caper story, and the look at small town life -- a man (Richard Egan) with a philandering wife, a librarian (Sylvia Sidney) with debts, a mousy bank manager (Tommy Noonan) who's sort of a peeping tom -- isn't all that interesting. There are so many actors hardly any of them really get a chance to shine. Victor Mature is the nominal hero; Stephen McNally is the head of the crooks; Ernest Borgnine is an Amish farmer [!]. J. Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin are as flavorful as ever as two members of the gang. Virgina Leith is a pretty nurse who arouses passions before becoming The Brain That Wouldn't Die. A much better Richard Fleischer film was Fantastic Voyage.

Verdict: Not worth the time it takes to tell. **.

WHO NEEDS SLEEP?


WHO NEEDS SLEEP? (2006 documentary). Director: Haskell Wexler.

The famous cinematographer Haskell Wexler [pictured] put together this film which looks at the problem of sleep-deprived workers in the film industry. Wexler and others were especially galvanized after one man fell asleep at the wheel driving home to his family and was killed. As is said, this covers the film industry, but it could be about "any group of industrial workers fighting to have a fourteen hour day." Workers in the movie business typically put in 19 hour days without the commensurate salaries of the stars and [generally] the directors -- hardly a "glamorous" business. After the man's death petitions were signed and circulated insisting on a 14 (!) hour work day but it didn't stick. There has been "no real appreciable change." The trouble is that the movie makers are on a deadline to finish a film and there are variable factors at play. Still, this is a very interesting documentary showing an aspect of the movie business that few people outside the industry ever really think about. There are brief moments of celebrities being interviewed, but mostly its people working behind the scenes.

Verdict: Sobering. ***.

THE SECRET OF THE WHISTLER


THE SECRET OF THE WHISTLER (1946). Director: George Sherman.

Artist Ralph Harrison (Richard Dix) is married to a wealthy, ill woman (Mary Currier) but his heart belongs to his very sexy model Kay (Leslie Brooks). The prognosis for Mrs. Harrison isn't very good, but when she makes a full recovery poor Ralph finds himself in quite a dilemma: How to enjoy the woman's money but have sweet Kay for his wife. Entertaining mystery is fairly predictable but it does have a memorably ironic conclusion. Michael Duane, who plays handsome painter Jim, was the star of The Return of the Whistler. Claire Du Brey is Laura, Mrs. Harrison's loyal servant and husband-hater. Good acting doesn't hurt. Narrated, as such, by the shadowy Whistler character, as usual.

Verdict: Okay Whistler entry. **1/2.

A JOB TO KILL FOR


A JOB TO KILL FOR (2006 telefilm). Director: Bill Corcoran.

Jennifer Kamplan (Sean Young) has been brought in to bring an advertising agency up to speed and she's determined to do just that, even if her husband Patrick (Ari Cohen) feels neglected most of the time. Jennifer hires a go-getter, Stacy Sherman (Georgia Craig), to whip the crew into shape, and while she's no charm girl, half the time her opinions are correct. But Stacy is perhaps a little too zealous when it comes to her job and making things easier for Jennifer. Yes, this is another psycho-bitch movie with the usual homoerotic undertones. Sean Young gives a good performance, Georgia Craig is terrific, and the movie holds the attention, even if it's something you'll forget five minutes later. The two cops following a trail of bodies are annoying -- and alleged -- comedy relief. Clever wind-up, though.

Verdict: Not a movie to kill for, but what the hey? **1/2.

THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG


THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939). Director: Nick Grinde.

A young assistant agrees to become part of an experiment with a doctor he works with, Savaard (Boris Karloff), even though the assistant's fiancee, Betty (Ann Doran), begs him not to do it. In essence the young man has to be killed so that Savaard can bring him back to life. Horrified, Betty gets the authorities, who shut Savaard down just before he can revive his assistant, dooming the young man to an early death. Savaard is put on trial for murder, and vows revenge on all those who put him away. The fascinating climax has him trapping everyone in an old house and swearing that every fifteen minutes someone will die! Karloff, not exactly looking fetching with blond, wavy hair, gives one of his best performances in this entertaining and interesting thriller.

Verdict: One of the better Karloff vehicles. ***.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

THE MONEY TRAP


THE MONEY TRAP (1965). Director: Burt Kennedy.

Cop Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) is married to Lisa (Elke Sommer), and they have serious money troubles. When Dr. Horace Van Tilden (Joseph Cotten) shoots a burglar in his house, it turns out that the burglar's wife is Baron's old girlfriend, Rosalie (Rita Hayworth). Then there's Baron's partner, Pete (Ricardo Montalban), who would also like to get his hands on some green. I won't give away any of the twists or plot developments because that's about all this picture has going for it. Despite the gun play, love scenes, and so on, this is remarkably dull. Elke Sommer is as inadequate as ever, but the rest of the cast, especially Hayworth, is fine. This just never really comes to life.

Verdict: A waste of money. *1/2.

EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958)


EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958). Director: Bert I. Gordon.

A gigantic spider who's been snacking on luckless folk who wander into his cavern or environs is apparently killed, but revives in the high school auditorium when the band starts rehearsing. The spider appears to suffer from gastritis, as it is always squealing like a pig. The movie has many unintentionally funny scenes and cheesy effects, but much of it plays perfectly well and, like most of Mr. BIG's [Bert I. Gordon] films it's entertaining for fans of creature features. Gene Persson and June Kenney are perfectly swell as the teen couple who get trapped in the cavern with the spider at the climax; Ed Kemmer is only adequate as their teacher. Gene Roth as Sheriff Cagle nearly steals the movie away from the spider. Gordon also directed The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People and many others. To read more about this film see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: A lowercase Tarantula but fun. **1/2.

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE


THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005). Director: Mary Harron.

Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) travels from Nashville to New York City in the 1940's and becomes a pin-up queen, also appearing in naughty soft-core movies [mostly on bondage and discipline] made by Irving and Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor] of the Movie Star News shop. Rediscovered years later, Page became a cult figure in the seventies and after, especially among male comics fans. Mol has a great body and gives a fine performance as Page, and there are other professional performances, but ultimately one wonders if she was really a worthy subject for the biopic treatment. The whole project, co-written by director Harron, is rather lightweight. Page's healthy, open-minded attitude toward her work is refreshing, but she "finds God" at the end. John Cullum and Austin Pendleton are also in the cast.

Verdict: More a little naughty than notorious. **1/2.

SNOWBOUND


SNOWBOUND (2001). Director: Ruben Preuss.

After she is attacked by a man in a parking garage, Liz (Monika Schnarre) tells her best friend, Barb (Erika Eleniak) that her abusive ex-husband, Dale, is out to get her. Showing little common sense, the two take off for an isolated cabin when a serious storm is coming on. Although the basic premise of two women alone fighting off who-knows-what is workable, the script is stupid and the movie is badly-acted by the two female leads, who show as much emotion as department store dummies. The film sustains some suspense due to its twists, and there's an exciting climax, but the ending isn't much of a surprise. Peter Dobson turns in a solid performance as Barb's boyfriend, Gunner, but the leading ladies simply aren't actresses. Canadian.

Verdict: Get these women into fashion shoots -- quick! **.

THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES


THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES (1940). Director: Nick Grinde.

Dr. Leon Kravall (Boris Karloff) was a leader in the field of "frozen therapy" in which cells and people are frozen for allegedly beneficial results, but he disappeared ten years ago. Aha -- it turns out that the good doctor and several others were actually accidentally frozen in a cavern in his basement. Thawed out, the megalomaniacal Kravall insists on doing things his way whether everyone agrees with him or not. Karloff is fun, Jo Ann Sayers is fine as the nurse Judith, and there are some okay ideas and moments in the movie, but overall this doesn't add up to all that much. Still, Karloff is always watchable and so is the film.

Verdict: Just don't expect too much. **1/2.

JUST ASK MY CHILDREN


JUST ASK MY CHILDREN (2001 telefilm). Director: Arvin Brown.

Brenda and Scott Kniffen (Virginia Madsen; Jeffrey Nordling) get caught up in every person's worst nightmare when they are accused of molesting their own children and wind up convicted and sentenced to jail due to overzealous prosecutors caught up in witch hunt fever and influenced by over-coached children who merely say what they think everyone wants them to say. Based on a true story that happened in the 80's, this is both heartbreaking and horrifying. The innocent couple spend years separated from their children, struggling to vindicate themselves. The chilling post script suggests that victims of this witch hunt are still sitting in prison. Very well-acted by Madsen and Nordling and the entire cast.

Verdict: Now this is one scary movie. ***.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

PRETTY POISON (1996)


PRETTY POISON (1996 telefilm). Director: David Burton Morris.

If you're going to remake a movie, at least make pretty certain that it's going to be better than the original. The 1968 Pretty Poison was hardly a masterpiece, but it was better than this fairly dull psycho-drama. Dennis Pitt (Grant Show, who is at least adequate as an actor but not really up to some of the challenges of this role) is released from an institute for the criminally-disturbed and winds up in a small town where he encounters pretty Sue Ann Stepanek (Wendy Benson-Landes), who he is much more psychotic than he is. The well-cast Benson-Landes is a good actress who gets across the angelic sociopathology of her character. Michelle Phillips is fine as her mother, as is Lynne Thigpen [one of the worst show biz names ever] as Pitt's concerned counselor. The havoc that ensues is presented without much flair or excitement and the suspense is decidedly minimal. It must be said for his fans that even with a bad haircut Show [of Melrose Place fame] is still sexy, as is Benson-Landes.

Verdict: Good-looking stars do not a great thriller make. **.

EVERYTHING SHE EVER WANTED


EVERYTHING SHE EVER WANTED (2009 Lifetime telefilm/4 hour, 2 part mini-series). Director: Peter Svatek.

Based on a true-crime book by Ann Rule, this is the sordid and pathetic story of Pat Allanson (Gina Gershon), who always wanted to live a genteel life on an estate modeled after Gone With the Wind's Tara. To that end she becomes a mistress of manipulation, and tries to poison as many people as Lucretia Borgia, including her own sister! Naturally the main characters are made far more glamorous, attractive, and dynamic than they were in real life. While no one could argue that Gershon is a great actress, she's more than acceptable as the sociopathic Pat. Gershon is backed up by a large, talented cast including Victor Garber as her father-in-law and Martin Donovan as a crippled patient who falls in love with her. "Pretty-boy" Ryan McPartlin as Tom Allanson gives a credible performance but he certainly looks and sounds nothing like the double-chinned "good ol' boy" he's portraying. Whatever its flaws, Everything She Ever Wanted is completely absorbing, fascinating, chilling, suspenseful, and ultimately disgusting.

Verdict: Solid true crime thriller illustrating the "banality of evil." All it needed was a stronger central performance. ***.

MURDERS IN THE ZOO


MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933). Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

Zesty little horror thriller is certainly enlivened not just by a variety of animals, but by the superb performance of Lionel Atwill as a man so pathological jealous of his wife that he'll do anything to eliminate any rival -- and her. Although Charlie Ruggles supposedly has the lead as a nervous publicist for a zoo, he and everyone else are pretty much wiped out (figuratively -- and in some cases literally -speaking) by the excellent Atwill. Kathleen Burke is the wife with the roving eye who has a date with some alligators. Randolph Scott is a veterinarian. Great climax has a variety of hungry felines on the loose -- guess who's on the menu? There are other creepy crawlies as well.

Verdict: This would make a great double bill with Black Zoo. ***.

TOO LATE TO SAY GOODBYE


TOO LATE TO SAY GOODBYE (2009). Director: Norma Bailey.

Rob Lowe [pictured] stars as Rob Corbin, accused of murdering his wife, Jenn (Stefanie von Pfetten), in this telefilm based on the true-crime book by the mistress of ghoul, Ann Rule. This was the case where the wife supposedly committed suicide and where her Internet lover, unbeknownst to her, turned out to be female. The deceased woman's sister, Heather (Lauren Holly), nags at the cops to get at the truth, but she discovers that a woman Corbin dated in college years ago also committed suicide the same way. Michelle Hurd is Detective Ann Roche. This is a pretty superficial treatment of the story and is frankly nowhere near as riveting as accounts of the case on non-fiction television programs. Lowe gives another low-key, rather dull performance that he seems to specialize in.

Verdict: Watch The Staircase Murders instead. **1/2.

KIRBY FIVE-OH!


KIRBY FIVE-OH! Celebrating 50 Years of the "King" of Comics. TwoMorrows Publishing; 2008.

Essentially a special issue of The Kirby Collector, devoted to the works of comics giant Jack "King" Kirby, this is a huge trade paperback chock full of info and drawings, including rare sketches and comic book covers done by Kirby. Kirby's cinematic style on Captain America and other titles from the golden age and onward is always dynamic and vivid. Kirby worked on and co-created such characters as The Fantastic Four, Avengers, and X-Men for Marvel Comics, and at DC Comics he created the New Gods, Forever People, and Mr. Miracle as part of his "Fourth World" saga. Some of the written tributes to Kirby by other comics professionals become a bit pretentious and self-serving, but there's a lot of great material in this book -- and lots of great stuff to look at. Chapters include 50 People Influenced by Kirby; 50 best Kirby Covers; and so on, all with the "50" theme. Kirby occasionally drew Superman when he worked on Jimmy Olsen and when the Man of Steel guest-starred in his Fourth World titles.

Verdict: Illustrates why Kirby is one of the greats! ***.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

THE CRASH


THE CRASH (1932). Director: William Dieterle.

Linda Gault (Ruth Chatterton, pictured) grew up very poor and is determined that she'll never be poverty-stricken again. Her husband Geoffrey (George Brent) drinks and importunes her to get stock tips from a man (Henry Kolker) who's smitten with her. When Geoffrey goes broke after the Wall Street crash of 1929, Linda takes what money she can gather and goes off to a sun and fun retreat where she meets millionaire Ronald Sanderson (Paul Cavanagh). Should she go for the loot or settle for love? Who cares? This is a minor film with Chatterton giving a surprisingly stiff and obvious performance. A secondary love story concerns Linda's French maid Celeste (Barbara Leonard) and her lover Arthur (Hardie Albright).

Verdict: Watch Dodsworth [with Chatterton in fine form] instead. **.

REPUBLIC STUDIOS: BETWEEN POVERTY ROW AND THE MAJORS


REPUBLIC STUDIOS: BETWEEN POVERTY ROW AND THE MAJORS. Richard M. Hurst. Scarecrow Press. Updated 2007.

This book looks at Republic studios, which was most famous for cliffhanger serials and westerns, but also turned out the occasional "A" feature. It has chapters providing an overview of the studio and its work and influence; a look at sound serials of Republic's golden age; Republic's cowboy movies; their series films such as The Higgins Family and films starring hillbilly comedienne Judy Canova; etc. Although some chapters have been added, including an in-depth look at the Captain America serial, it is obvious that this was basically a dissertation, and indeed its academic tone is occasionally quite dry and pretentious, with the same themes stated over and over again. [The book does not appear to have been edited.] On the plus side, despite his prose style [or lack of same -- Hurst was a museum administrator for many years and not a professional writer] Hurst's enthusiasm for these films comes through, and the book is full of a lot of solid information although it certainly does not go into detail on all Republic films or even the famous ones. Still it has value as a reference book for those interested in the history and output of a famous "second-tier" Hollywood studio which issued some of the finest cliffhanger serials ever made. Other books that deal with Republic serials include The Great Movie Serials and In the Nick of Time.

Verdict: Some good stuff about the old serials. **1/2.

JUDGE JEANINE PIRRO


JUDGE JEANINE PIRRO (Fox 2008).

Last year with little fanfare this new court-TV show slipped into the line-up with allegedly tough New York prosecutor Jeanine Pirro in the role of judge, a role that, frankly, doesn't suit her very well. There are two kinds of reality court TV programs. The first kind -- Judge Judy and The People's Court with Judge Milian are good examples -- features an actual experienced judge who absolutely controls his or her courtroom and won't brook any nonsense. The second kind -- Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, and now Judge Pirro are good examples -- are cut from the "Jerry Springer" cloth and have a judge -- real or imagined -- who allows the litigants to run off at the mouth, take over the court, and publicly disgrace their fool selves for the sake of the audience. Their selling point is sleaze and humiliation. [The fact that Judge Judy, who does not allow this nonsense, leads the pack in the ratings doesn't seem to have impressed itself upon the producers of these other shows. Judge Pirro comes from the same camp as Judge Mathis. ] "Judge" Pirro not only doesn't display much courtroom savy -- she sllows people to talk over her all the time [imagine Judy doing that!] -- but doesn't seem to have the intellectual depth to really see what's going on in certain cases. One case of harrassment between two women clearly had intimations of homophobia and self-hatred, but it was all above the head of Pirro. On one episode she had two drug dealers in front of her, and while she expressed amazement at the situation, she never made any mention of "unclean hands." She actually awarded one of these scuzzbags $1500 for mental distress because the other one claimed he stole both money and drugs from him at gunpoint when he didn't. Who cares? Not only does this call into question Pirro's competency as a "judge," it calls into question her competency as a prosecutor or anything else. Hopefully this will come back to bite her in the ass should she ever decide to run for public office when her five minutes of fame are over. One senses that as long as the occasional male litigant tells Pirro that she's "hot" and the checks roll in, Pirro doesn't give a damn.

Verdict: Disgraceful and scuzzy! Watch Judge Judy instead. *.

THE WALKING DEAD


THE WALKING DEAD (1936). Director: Michael Curtiz.

After John Ellman (Boris Karloff) is framed for murder by criminals and executed, he's brought back to life by Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) via the use of assorted electrical devices. This Frankenstein-inspired horror film has Ellman going after the gangsters who framed him one by one and bringing about their deaths. Ricardo Cortez plays Karloff's crooked lawyer. The movie isn't bad -- neither is Karloff nor Marguerite Churchill as his daughter -- but the mix of horror with gangland doesn't quite work and the story is certainly predictable. Warren Hull, who starred in several cliffhanger serials, is also in the cast, as are Barton MacLane and Joe Sawyer. Churchill was also in Dracula's Daughter. Warner Brothers.

Verdict: Karloff always gets his man! **1/2.

THE STAIRCASE MURDERS


THE STAIRCASE MURDERS (2007 telefilm). Director: Tom McLoughlin.

Real-life novelist Michael Peterson (supposedly successful and supposedly bisexual) was put on trial for the murder of his wife, who was found bloodied and dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home in Durham, North Carolina. During the trial it turned out that another woman in Peterson's past also died in the exact same manner. This case was covered by Dateline, on a two hour ABC special and other programs, and was also the subject of a foreign documentary called The Staircase. In this fictionalized version of the story -- which includes the documentary filmmakers -- Peterson is played by Treat Williams. Although he gives a good performance, the more down-to-Earth Williams is an odd choice to play the glib, superior, vaguely epicene sociopath, Peterson. Based on the book "A Perfect Husband" by Aphrodite Jones, this is an absorbing and fairly fascinating study of a murder case that apparently a great many people found riveting. Whether it increased the sales of Peterson's books is another matter.

Verdict: If only he'd just come happily out of the closet and left these poor women alone! ***.

HUNT THE MAN DOWN


HUNT THE MAN DOWN (1950). Director: George Archainbaud.

A busboy named Kincaid (James Anderson) becomes a hero during an attempted robbery, but it turns out that he's an accused murderer on the lam. Supposedly he murdered a jealous man who accused him of having an affair with his wife. Paul Bennett (Gig Young, pictured) is the public defender who hunts down witnesses and tries to figure out who actually committed the killing. Hunt the Man Down is like a slightly longer episode of the Perry Mason TV show with just a little more action in it. Gerald Mohr and Cleo Moore are also in the cast.

Verdict: Worth missing. *1/2.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

THE PATSY (1929)


THE PATSY (1928). Director: King Vidor.

Pat Harrington (Marion Davies) lives with her loving father (Dell Henderson) and a mother (Marie Dressler), who clearly favors her snotty sister, Grace (Jane Winton) over her. To make matters worse, Pat has an unrequited longing for Tony (Orville Caldwell), her sister's boyfriend, although Grace apparently prefers the company of that sexy scalawag Billy (Lawrence Gray). This reasonably entertaining comedy-drama is in no way in the league of Vidor's classic silent The Crowd, but the actors are all appealing. One wishes the film had a little more depth, and there are tiresome detours (such as Pat coming out with allegedly witty sayings in an attempt to develop a "personality"). The new original score by Vivek Maddala adds a lot to the picture, however. Davies is quite good and it's always a pleasure to see Dressler, here in a mostly unsympathetic role.

Verdict: Interesting if unspectacular silent. **1/2.

BEHIND THE MASK


BEHIND THE MASK (1932). Director: John Francis Dillon.

Jack Quinn (Jack Holt) is a secret service agent who goes undercover as a crook, even taking part in a jail break, to expose the identity of a sinister figure, "Mr. X," who heads a criminal organization. If only this were half as much fun as it sounds. Quinn is one of the stupidest Fedeal agents ever put on film. Boris Karloff enlivens things just a bit as one of X's henchmen, and Edward Van Sloan is a cackling doctor also in the employ of X [whose identity comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone]. Constance Cummings isn't bad as the frightened daughter of a doctor (Claude King) who is victimized by the evil mastermind. Bertha Mann is the evil Nurse Edwards, who is always reporting to X.

Verdict: Any X movie would be better than this! *.

THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS


THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS (1972). Director: James Goldstone.

Chief of Police Marsh (James Garner) investigates when a woman is found dead and it is at first assumed that she was the victim of a Doberman Pinscher. But it turns out that she was murdered by a much more human adversary. Her husband (Peter Lawford) says she told him she was going to leave him for another woman. Interestingly enough, she was also pregnant at the time of her death. Suspects include a vet (Hal Holbrook), his assistant (Katherine Ross), who becomes involved with Marsh, and the vet's wife (June Allyson, who is quite good in a brief sequence). Edmond O'Brien plays the owner of a liquor store, and Tom Ewell and Ann Rutherford are in here as well. Harry Guardino is another cop. This is typical of slick TV-like movies released theatrically in the seventies that try to be "hip" by adding homoerotic elements, but Lane Slate's script is pretty dated when it comes to the subject of homo and bisexuality and swinging. Garner is Garner; Ross is pretty. The best scene has the doberman going a little nutty when Garner and Ross are in bed.

Verdict: If you're a swinger you gotta die. **.

CIRCLE OF FRIENDS (2006)


CIRCLE OF FRIENDS (2006 telefilm). Director: Stefan Pleszczynski.

Maggie (Julie Benz, pictured) returns to the town where she grew up for a funeral, and discovers that several of her old high school class mates have recently died in accidents. Or were they accidents? One of the victims is her late husband. She renews a relationship with old boyfriend Harry (Chris Kramer) and tries to get a detective (Peter Dillion) to seriously investigate the situation. Does it all have something to do with a photograph of a picnic years before? This is a suspenseful mystery that doesn't telegraph its conclusion too obviously, and is well-acted by [almost] all; Nicolas Wright leaves no stereotype unturned in his dreadful portrayal of Rodney, an obviously gay fashion designer. The murderer-unmasking scene is a bit abrupt and unreal.

Verdict: A pleasant, somewhat intriguing time passer. **1/2.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)


THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Director: Byron Haskin.

The first Hollywood version of H. G. Wells' wonderful novel of a Martian invasion is still great entertainment. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is called in when strange meteors begin falling to Earth. At one site, he encounters Sylvia (Ann Robinson), her uncle, Pastor Collins (Lewis Martin), and General Mann (Les Tremayne). But neither prayers nor weaponry seem a match for the sleek alien vehicles with their devastating death rays that emerge from the meteors. Edgar Barrier of The Giant Claw is a professor; Gertrude Hoffman of My Little Margie is a news vendor; Paul Frees of Space Master X-7 is a radio announcer; and Paul Birch of Not of This Earth is an early victim. The early scenes are very suspenseful, and the sequence wherein Barry and Robinson are holed up in a farmhouse when the martians come a'callin' is harrowing. Very entertaining, with fine special effects. Produced by George Pal. This clearly inspired many movies, especially Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Verdict; An absorbing and colorful science fiction classic. ***1/2.

HOLD THAT KISS


HOLD THAT KISS (1938). Director: Edwin L. Marin.

June Evans (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tom Bradford (Dennis O'Keefe) meet at a society function and both believe the other one is well-to-do. Tom actually works for a travel agency and June is a model for a couturier, but they do their best to keep up the deception, afraid the other would dump them if they knew they weren't wealthy. The leads are swell, and the picture is bolstered by a fine supporting cast: Mickey Rooney, Frank Albertson and Phillip Terry as June's brothers; Fay Holden as her mother; Jessie Ralph as her Aunt Lucy; Edward Brophy as Tom's roommate; and George Barbier as the father of a bride in the opening sequence. A definite scene stealer is the St. Bernard with soulful eyes who plays Blotto. No world-beater, perhaps, but a cute and amusing trifle.

Verdict: Fun picture with appealing cast. ***.

THE EX (1997)


THE EX (1997). Director: Mark L. Lester. Screenplay by Larry Cohen.

Nutty Deidre (Yancy Butler) has never gotten over her ex-husband David (Nick Mancuso) so she befriends his new wife Molly (Suzy Amis), and pretends to be her own psychiatrist, Lillian (Babs Chula), so she can bond with the couple's adorable youngster, Michael (Hamish Tildesley), who has anger issues. Talk about anger issues! Deidre convinces nearly everyone that she's having an affair with David and that he tried to kill her. Reasonably entertaining entry in the "psycho bitch" film sweepstakes isn't badly acted and has an exciting finale, even if it seems a little over-familiar. The bit with the possibly lesbian shrink Lillian is awkwardly, even offensively, handled.

Verdict: Another devious sociopath on the loose. **1/2.

WITHIN THE LAW


WITHIN THE LAW (1939). Director: Gustav Machaty.

This is a remake of Paid, which really put Joan Crawford on the map. In this version Ruth Hussey acquits herself nicely in the same role, Mary Turner, who's wrongly convicted of stealing jewelry from her employer, Gilder (Samuel S. Hinds), and winds up the big house for three years. She vows to get even with Gilder when she gets out. Studying law books she realizes that there's a way to earn quick cash unethically while still staying "within the law." As part of her revenge scheme, she romances Gilder's son Richard (Tom Neal of Detour fame). This is a snappy, entertaining picture with a good cast: Paul Kelly, Paul Cavanagh, James Burke, and Rita Johnson are among the thieves Mary falls in with; William Gargan is the cop who's out to get them.

Verdict: Not a lost classic from 1939 but creditable enough. ***.

THE DUNWICH HORROR


THE DUNWICH HORROR (2009). Written and directed by Leigh Scott.

This telefilm makes the 1970 version of The Dunwich Horror seem like a masterpiece in comparison. Based on the famous story by the great [and ill-served by Hollywood] H. P. Lovecraft, this concerns a woman from the Whateley family who consorts with a demon and gives birth to twins, one human, and one a monster. Dean Stockwell, who played Wilbur Whateley in the aforementioned theatrical version, plays a doctor in this film while Jeffrey Coombs (pictured) of The Reanimator fame plays Wilbur in this [if not very well]. Griff Furst plays Dr. Walter Rice, a teacher who has trouble believing that any of this stuff is real [and this film doesn't help]. The climactic rampage of the demonic twin is even more disappointing than in the 1970 version. The great film based on this fascinating and seminal novella has yet to be made. NOTE: For a book about Lovecraft's life click here.

Verdict: Poor Lovecraft deserves much better. *1/2.

THE BRUTAL TRUTH AKA THE GIVING TREE


THE BRUTAL TRUTH (aka The Giving Tree/2000). Director: Cameron Thor.

A group of high school friends now in their twenties have a reunion at a cabin and one of them, Emily (Christina Applegate, who has little to do), winds up committing suicide. Yes, this is another fucked-up-friends-from-high school-with-secrets stinker, a bit duller than others. It all seems like an excuse to hear wailing "sensitive" singers do mediocre songs on the soundtrack. The guys seem to be a-holes; there's a gal with a little girl voice named "Vanilla;" the token lesbian who's come out; and even a game of charades. This awkward blend of dumb comedy with "serious" drama throws in an ugly rape or two just to make it seem profound and meaningful, which it certainly isn't. Justin Lazard appeared on the TV show CPW [Central Park West] and in Species 2 and is given a truly thankless role in this. Molly Ringwald, who plays the wife of one of the pals, was a teen star who isn't likely to have much of an adult acting career as she's pretty bad here. Some of the other actors are okay, however.

Verdict: Pretty terrible. *.

HANK

HANK (2009 ABC TV show.) Director: James Burrows.

Kelsey Grammer stars in this new sitcom in which he plays a New York City executive who got laid off due to the economy and has moved back to Virginia with his wife and two children. One can't expect Grammer to play Frasier for the rest of his life, but one can't help but compare every other sitcom the actor does to that jewel he did a few years ago. Grammer is at his best playing sophisticated characters, not middle-class family men, and some of those old Frasier vaguely epicene mannerisms keep creeping in. Grammer is fine in Hank -- in fact, with all due respect to the other actors, he's basically the whole show. One pleasant enough episode had him encouraging his teenage daughter to go to work, and he of the big mouth wound up beside her selling ice cream in a shop with an obnoxious manager. Still, this had none of the bite or wit of the best -- or even the least -- of the Frasier episodes. I like Grammer but I can't see Hank sticking around for long. Someone should put Grammer in a more intelligent and sophisticated program -- Hank isn't it.

Verdict: Hurry up or this will be gone. **/2.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

THE SHAGGY DOG (1959)


THE SHAGGY DOG (1959). Director: Charles Barton.

Fred MacMurray's career was given a new lease on life when he signed to do this silly comedy for Disney Studios and it became a tremendous hit. Wilson Daniels (MacMurray) is a mailman who hates dogs. A magic spell turns his older son Wilby (Tommy Kirk) into a sheepdog -- or rather he takes over the body of a neighbor's sheepdog -- and he turns back at awkward moments. This charming and amusing comedy for children is a bit dragged out by a heavy-handed spy plot that develops late in the picture -- it also has a rather slow pace -- but it has enough laughs to keep you interested if you're game and MacMurray is splendid. There are also good performances from Kirk; Kevin Corcoran as his brother, Moochie; Tim Considine as his girl-crazy pal, Buzz; Jean Hagen as his mother; Cecil Kellaway as a professor; and especially that amazing dog who plays Chiffon. [Watching the animal go through its paces, you sometimes have to remind yourself that it hasn't a human brain but is just a dog.] Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore are the young ladies; Alexander Scourby is head of the spies. NOTE: To read about a fine biography of Fred MacMurray, click here.

Verdict: Watch Chiffon go for a drive! ***.

THE LAW AND THE LADY


THE LAW AND THE LADY (1951). Director: Edwin H. Knopf.

"At my age a good cook is more important than a husband." --Marjorie Main

Another version of The Last of Mrs. Cheney -- Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford did the others -- with Greer Garson and Michael Wilding as a lovable team of jewel thieves and rogues at the turn of the century. Jane Hoskins (Garson), with the help of Wilding, the brother of her former employer, reinvents herself as "Lady Jane Loverly" and becomes welcomed in American society, especially the home of wealthy old Julia Wortin (Marjorie Main), who has a fabulously valuable necklace. Fernando Lamas, Margalo Gillmore, Hayden Rorke, and Natalie Schafer all add to the fun as various guests and suitors. The movie gets kind of silly and unreal toward the end, to say the least, but it never quite loses its sense of humor. Speaking of which, it's definitely fun to see Marjorie Main as a lady in society! Soledad Jimenez scores as Lamas' peppery grandmother. This is arguably the best screen version of Frederick Lonsdale's play.

Verdict: Light and snappy for the most part. ***.

THE FORGOTTEN


THE FORGOTTEN ABC-TV series 2009.

The somewhat shaky premise of this show has a group of men and women, headed by an ex-cop whose own daughter disappeared, investigate John and Jane Does, trying to find out who they are, and -- with the help of a female detective -- figure out how they died and who, if anybody, killed them. This is in the same mold as Cold Case and Without a Trace, and is reasonably effective and entertaining. The members of the squad often go way out of bounds in their investigating, considering they aren't cops, and this has been dealt with on at least one episode. The trouble is, once the person has been identified, you would think their job is through, but they continue to interview suspects and the like as if they were cops [of course, what would the show be without a murder and its solution]. This is similar to the way the members of the CSI squad go far beyond their specialties on each episode. Christian Slater is the only recognizable face on The Forgotten, which is full of perfectly competent actors. So far the back stories of the regular characters haven't gotten in the way of the mysteries. Like the other shows mentioned, there's a certain amount of welcome pathos, such as in one episode about a shamefully forgotten football player. Time will tell if this will develop into a must-watch, but for now it's a creditable entry. Future episodes should probably not have the victims being identified too early in the show.

Verdict: Okay non-cop drama with distinct possibilities. **1/2.

THE KILLER IS LOOSE


THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). Director: Budd Boetticher.

When Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) goes after Leon Poole (Wendell Corey), who held up a bank, he accidentally shoots the man's wife. When Poole breaks out of jail, he murders everyone in his way as he makes his way to Wagner-- so that he can kill Wagner's wife (Rhonda Fleming). This is a decidedly minor film for all concerned, but it does manage to work up a certain degree of suspense, in large part due to Lionel Newman's taut musical score. Filmed by Lucien Ballard. Alan Hale Jr. of Gilligan's Island is more subdued as another cop. Fleming is okay, but the female acting honors go to Virginia Christine as another cop's wife and friend, and Dee J. Thompson as the wife of Poole's old sergeant (John Larch). Some other familiar faces scattered throughout the movie in bit roles. Not always logical. Cotten is solid although this is not one of his more memorable credits.

Verdict: a respectable if forgettable 73 minutes. **1/2.