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

Thursday, February 26, 2009


CHEERS FOR MISS BISHOP (1941). Director: Tay Garnett.

Ella Bishop (Martha Scott) graduates from a small town college and becomes a teacher there. Chances for love pass her by as the years roll on. This may sound like a dull, sappy movie, but it's actually an engrossing, warmly sentimental drama about small-town life and values, but it doesn't have a puritanical streak: at one point Miss Bishop becomes involved with a married man (Sidney Blackmer) whose wife refuses to divorce him. Donald Douglas plays Del, the man she nearly marries before her bitchy cousin Amy (Mary Anderson) steals him away, and William Gargan is the loyal Sam, who probably loves her better than anybody. There are memorable performances from the aforementioned as well as Edmund Gwenn, as president of Midwestern, Dorothy Peterson as Ella's mother, Rosemary DeCamp as Minna, Marsha Hunt as Amy's daughter, and the always-odd Sterling Holloway as the campus janitor. Martha Scott offers a simply outstanding performance as Ella; she's on top of the part whether she's playing the young student or the old lady retiring at seventy.

Verdict: A lovely movie. ****.


CAREFREE (1938). Director: Mark Sandrich.

Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy) is in love with Amanda Cooper (Ginger Rogers) but she keeps postponing the wedding, so he thinks his buddy Tony Flagg (Fred Astaire), who is a psychiatrist, may be able to find out why she's dragging her feet. Unfortunately Amanda hears Tony making a condescending remark about another female patient, and takes an instant dislike to him. But it isn't long before she's changing her attitude, creating complications. This is a slight but amusing musical trifle bolstered by winning performances, some pleasant Irving Berlin tunes ("Change Partners"), and the great dancing of Rogers and Astaire. One big number, "Do the Yam," in which virtually the entire cast joins in, is a sheer delight. Astaire's skill and joy in dancing is a wonder to behold. Jack Carson, Luella Gear, and especially Clarence Kolb ("Mr. Honeywell" of My Little Margie fame) as Judge Joe add to the fun.

Verdict: Great fun and light as a feather. ***.


TWISTED. 2004. Director: Philip Kaufman.

Ashley Judd plays a homicide detective who is understandably freaked when a series of men with whom she had intimate relations turn up brutally murdered. A series of blackouts makes her wonder if she has a subconscious dark side that is committing terrible deeds in the night. Andy Garcia is her new partner, and Samuel L. Jackson is a superior who was a good friend of her dead parents (Ashley's father went on a killing spree whose victims included her mother) and has been her mentor ever since. Twisted holds the attention but it's a little too gimmicky for its own good. Ashley Judd – an actress better suited for light romantic fare such as Someone Like You – wouldn't have been my choice for the role, but she isn't as bad as you might expect. Garcia seems largely befuddled, and Jackson plays with assurance – but nobody expected any Oscar nominations for any of the three. Kaufman's direction is professional but uninspired.

Verdict: An okay time waster but nothing very memorable. **.


RAINTREE COUNTY (1957). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) lives in a Northern county which has the legend of a mysterious, magical raintree in the swamps, which he tries to find but fails. He is loved by Nell (Eva Marie Saint) but winds up married to a neurotic Southern gal named Susanna (Elizabeth Taylor), who fears that her true mother was a Cuban black woman with whom her father supposedly had an affair. What's worse -- for essentially racist Susanna -- John is an abolitionist ... and then the Civil War breaks out. If this all sounds interesting be warned that it's stretched out to a tedious 2 hours and 48 minutes and the movie never really jells. Part of the problem is a meandering script without any major focus, but director Dmytryk isn't much help, either. Clift gives a good performance, but it was clearly affected by the shattering car accident he was in that occurred during filming. Elizabeth Taylor deserves an A for effort but she's not really up to playing a character that has so many different facets and psychological problems. Rod Taylor is good as a swaggering rival of John's, and Lee Marvin certainly scores as the charismatic Flash, with whom John has a race and who winds up in the Army with him. But the best performance is from Eva Marie Saint, who stands by John through thick and thin, and who is better than the picture deserves. DeForest Kelley shows up briefly as a rebel soldier. Fine cinematography by Robert Surtees and a good score by Johnny Green, but this is mostly a bore.

Verdict: Three hours of your life you can never get back. **.


LOVE, ACTUALLY (2004). Writer/Director: Richard Curtis.

Curtis wrote the screenplay for the more successful (if unspectacular) Four Weddings and a Funeral; directing his own screenplay this time he's much too self-indulgent, with no one to rein him in. There have been many fine films over the years that mix a variety of characters and try somehow to pull them all together, but despite some memorable moments of charm and humor this one doesn't quite work. Some of the interlocking story lines include a widower (Liam Neeson) who encourages his very young stepson to pursue the girl of his dreams; a new prime minister (Hugh Grant) who has a personal assistant removed from his office because he's simply too attracted to her; and a married woman, Grant's sister (Emma Thompson), who discovers that her husband is falling for a woman at his office; and so on. There's also an aging rock star who has one last hit and realizes the only person he really loves (platonically) is his obese manager; and a handsome young man at a wedding who is obsessed not with the groom, as we're sort of led to believe, but with the very lovely bride. (Although Curtis included a long-term gay couple in Funeral, in this picture they are conspicuous by their total absence.) Curtis was obviously attempting a labor of love [pun intended], making a film that illustrates the point that there's an awful lot of love in the world despite all the ugliness in the headlines, but some of his ideas should have been jettisoned before they left the printed page. The bit with two porn actors who fall for each other never quite jells, and the sub-plot about the frustrated London lad who finally gets laid in America is handled in a ridiculous “frat boy” fashion. Neeson encouraging his eleven-year-old son to dash past airport security just so he can say good-bye to a little girl he's never even spoken to before borders on the utterly ludicrous – and dumb. Some viewers will suspend disbelief and enjoy this movie thoroughly, but a more thoughtful, if equally romantic, viewer may find that the overlong film offers much less “love” than it ought to.

Verdict: It will hold your attention but you won't necessarily be happy that you sat through it. **.


CHAD HANNA (1940). Director: Henry King.

"Why don't you go back to your pigs -- and stay there!"

In 1841 young Chad Hanna (Henry Fonda) runs off with a small, struggling circus to avoid a sheriff and to court pretty bare back rider Albany Yates (Dorothy Lamour). Caroline (Linda Darnell) also joins the circus to get away from her hateful father (Olin Howlin in a bigger role than usual) and winds up falling for Chad. However, this isn't the usual triangle as both women seem to like and respect one another and there is no stereotypical "bitchiness" between them. Chad Hanna is an amiable comedy-drama detailing the assorted tribulations of the circus as Chad tries to figure out whom he's in love with. Guy Kibbee and Jane Darwell are amusing and excellent as the owner and his wife. Lamour is solid, Darnell gives a lovely performance, and Fonda plays Chad as if the young man were slightly "touched" in the head. Ted North, John Carradine, and Frank Conlon are also notable. Charles Middleton isn't given enough to do as the barely-seen sheriff. Very pleasant and absorbing, and with a memorable score by David Buttolph. Funniest bit has a very hefty Darwell sizing up an elephant and saying "If he ever develops a taste for meat ..."

Verdict: Charming and different. ***.


DEUCE BIGELOW, EUROPEAN GIGOLO (2005). Director: Mike Bigelow [sic].

In this sequel to the amiable, essentially good-natured Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo, star/co-writer Rob Schneider tries to do something similar but the results are less than felicitous. Fleeing the country after a stupid accident involving senior citizens, Schneider runs into an old pimp buddy who's aghast when he's suspected of being the male-whore murderer who's been bumping off male prostitutes in Europe. [In a supposed spoof of Holes the dead men are marked with a lipstick kiss.] And even more aghast that people think he's gay [a truly tiresome plot device if ever there were one]. Jeroen Krabbé is the police inspector on the case, and Schneider becomes involved with his lovely niece. [The average-looking stars of movies like this never wind up with passably attractive women who might be realistic partners for them; they always wind up with beauties.] While good taste is hardly the point of movies like this, the fact is that the script is generally too preoccupied with topping each gross out with something even more disgusting instead of being genuinely funny. Parts of the movie come off like the efforts of frat boys who forgot that it's often wise to put your more self-indulgent sequences away in a drawer after getting them out of your system. The movie holds your attention, maybe, but it's hardly anything you'd ever want to sit through again. Schneider's schnook character remains quite likable, however.

Verdict: If you're in a gross enough mood. **.

Monday, February 23, 2009


2009 OSCARS Sunday February 22nd, 2009. 81st Annual Academy Awards.

Usually I find watching the boring, ad-choked Oscars about as appealing as getting root canal surgery. A friend of mine told me that tonight they were trying something completely different -- the Oscars would be presented as part of a story or film -- so we decided to give it a look see. The TV was turned on a bit early and let me tell you that 15 minutes of fawning "journalists" interviewing the "stars" as they arrived was more than enough. The Oscars began at 9PM but by 9:30 it seemed as if they'd already been on for an hour and a half. The ads, the introductions, the mostly tedious speeches as endless relatives and co-workers are thanked and thanked ...

Worse, the show was no different than it was in the past. Except for one thing: the deletion of clips. Yes, instead of showing clips from each nominated film and performance, past winners were presented on stage to tell each nominee how wonderful he or she was. It was at times maudlin and even insincere. But it also didn't make any sense. Does the Academy imagine that everyone has seen every film? Frankly, I've seen few of the nominated films and I would have loved to see clips of a few of the performances (and I've no doubt the actors feel the same way!). Didn't it occur to the Academy that some of the millions of people watching might see something they liked so much in one of the clips that they'd buy a movie theater ticket or DVD. I mean, isn't that what it's all about -- getting people into theaters? (The Oscars have less and less to do with art.)

Hugh Jackman made a pleasant and competent host, but his big "musicals are back" production number was pure kitsch. Some of the awards were duller than ditch water and should have been covered in a separate ceremony. I didn't think much of the songs that were nominated for "Best Song," although they had a good beat and instrumentation. I liked Best Actor Sean Penn's speech for the most part, and I especially liked the heart-felt speech given by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. I thought Queen Latifah did a nice job singing "I'll Be Seeing You" as photos of recently departed Hollywood folk flashed across the screen (you could hardly see the first, Cyd Charisse, however).

The Oscars were actually over by 11:55, which I didn't think would be possible.

Verdict: **. Not enough highlights-- and no clips!

Thursday, February 19, 2009


ROOM AT THE TOP (1959). Director: Jack Clayton.

"What were you doing fifty years ago during the Great War?"

Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) is an embittered WW2 veteran who hates the way that people with money treat him and others like him as if they were inferior. He makes a play for a young woman, Susan (Heather Sears) from a wealthy family, but things get complicated when he falls for an older married woman named Alice (Simone Signoret). Despite the sub-text of class struggle and ambition, Room at the Top is essentially a romantic story, and on that level it certainly delivers. One could quibble that the story is a touch predictable, and that certain sequences could have had more impact, but basically this is an absorbing, adult drama with wonderful dialogue and sympathetic characters. Joe Lampton is not just a heartless or ruthless gigolo, although he makes mistakes. In one powerful scene Alice tells him with consummate understatement, "You're a timid soul, aren't you?" One fight scene between Joe and Alice ends with Joe shouting out the hurtful line highlighted above, a mean reference to Alice's being older than him. Harvey is quite good; Signoret won an Oscar and deserved it. Heather Sears, Donald Wolfit and Hemione Baddeley also offer top-notch performances. Crisply photographed by Freddie Francis, who would direct many horror films in the future.

Verdict: Another British masterpiece. ****.

FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), Director: Sean S. Cunningham. 

Can it really be nearly thirty years since the seminal stalk-and-slash/mad slasher film debuted in movie theaters [a remake has just opened]. One studio executive said he didn't worry about the reviews the film might get because, to paraphrase, the people who go to see movies like this can't even read. Well ... not quite. Actually this story of a summer camp beset by a series of murders of counselors and others isn't exactly Psycho, but on its own terms it isn't at all bad. There are moments of real suspense, some genuine shocks and surprises, and a consistently rich and eerie atmosphere [largely due to very well-chosen locations]. The cast is professional, with a lot of appealing young people as the counselors, and a host of flavorful if unknown character actors as the older townspeople. Betsy Palmer probably has the most distinctive role of her career as Mrs. Voorhees (she's good, too), whose son Jason drowned in the lake twenty-three years earlier. [In subsequent films, the supernaturally evil Jason would turn out to be alive.] Admittedly, there are times when the film threatens to turn into a burlesque, especially when the heroine keeps popping into one corpse after another near the end, but mostly the tone is horrific. It's a monumental understatement to say that the film's composer Harry Manfredini is a far cry from Bernard Herrmann, but his score is nevertheless effective. Despite the movie's popularity and fame, appearing in it didn't do much good for most of the cast, with the exceptions of Mark Nelson (Ned), who went on to other appearances, and of course Kevin Bacon, who's had for the most part a high-profile career. Some cast members made no other movies, and heroine Alice (Adrienne King) subsequently did only voice-over work. The curse of Jason Voorhees? 

Verdict: Heavens to Betsy! ***.


DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film. Peter Biskind. Simon and Schuster. 2004.

This mostly absorbing book looks at how the business of making independent films grew from small change operations to multi-million dollar deal-making mostly because of the efforts of Miramax, headed by the brother team of Bob and Harvey Weinstein. [Biskind recounts how Nathan Lane joked that he thought the film Monsters Inc. was about the Weinsteins.] Pulp Fiction was the indie that changed the way the world viewed independent films, which once were small and personal and grainy and now became slick, huge, star-driven items with budgets almost as big as a film from the major studios. Biskind also looks at the other independent distributors and producers as well as the independent arms of the big studios, but mostly he focuses on the Sundance Festival, which presented many of these movies and became their first port of call, and on Harvey Weinstein, a colorful, horrible character who seems determined to make people see him like Harry Cohen or Daryl Zanuck or one of the other famous movie moguls of times gone by. The book goes behind the scenes to show how deals are made and discarded, lies are told, fortunes won, careers destroyed, and movies chopped up and ruined by careless distributors and Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein. Robert Redford is portrayed as being too busy with his own concerns to make an effective manager of the Sundance Institute and all of its divisions, but most of the quotes about him come from disgruntled ex-employees. Another important part of this book is that it really explains why so many unworthy films and actors are nominated for Oscars, as it's all part of the pressure and wheeling and dealing (and wining and dining) that goes on inside the studios and distribution companies, all of whom use all of their clout to make sure their people better win. Most people watching the Academy Awards couldn't care less which company produced which picture and are unaware that some Oscar nights are merely battles between two or three giant companies trying not to boost art but only to increase their coffers.

Verdict: Quite an eyeful! ***1/2.


VAN HELSING (2004). Director/writer: Stephen Sommers.

The church employs an amnesiac named Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) to hunt down and kill all spirits and monsters of darkness, and after defeating an inexplicably giant-sized Mr. Hyde, he is assigned to destroy Dracula and his sexy brides. Helping him with his task is a Transylvanian lovely (Kate Beckinsale, in very contemporary bustier), and a geeky friar. Although this film was released by Universal, it plays much more like a parody of Hammer Horror Films of the sixties and seventies than of the Universal monster flicks of the forties. Unfortunately the campy approach – as it so often does – means that it's impossible to really care about what happens to the one-dimensional characters, and the film falls flat on its feet. [True, James Whale's classic Bride of Frankenstein was itself a parody of Frankenstein, but at least it recreated a period atmosphere; Van Helsing, like Xena and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, has a very 21st century approach.] The movie's main strength is some striking scenic design, some very effective action scenes, and first-rate special effects, which include winged vampire-women who fly around a town square picking up struggling victims [these vampires are incredibly strong it seems]. There are some interesting concepts in the movie – Dracula wants to use the life energy inside the Frankenstein monster's body to resuscitate thousands of his vampire bat-like children (remember those brides?) -- but after awhile it simply gets too silly and busy for its own good. Jackman and Beckinsale manage to hold on to their dignity, but Richard Roxburgh's over-the-top and perfectly dreadful performance makes him the all-time worst Dracula of the cinema. This is House of Dracula for the “frat boy” generation.

Verdict: If you really love these old movies, forget about this and watch the Universal –or Hammer – films on DVD again. *1/2.


THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945). Directed by Albert Lewin. 

"I adore simple pleasures. They're the last refuge of the complex." 

This adaptation of Oscar Wilde's brilliant novel of fantasy and manners may have made some changes from the book -- it's been awhile since I read it -- but it's still a fascinating story and an excellent movie. Hurd Hatfield gives a memorable performance as the young Dorian Gray, who wishes a bit too fervently that he would always stay young while his portrait ages, which is just what happens. His life becomes increasingly wicked (although some of the stuff he's up to surely wouldn't raise an eyebrow in 2009!) but the severity of his crimes intensifies as his portrait becomes increasingly hideous. George Sanders gets to deliver in his inimitable style some of Wilde's wittiest ripostes, such as "When her third husband died her hair turned quite gold from grief" and "To get back my youth I'd do anything except get up early, exercise, and be respectable." Angela Lansbury, Richard Fraser, and Lowell Gilmore are also noteworthy, as are many of the other supporting performers. The various technicolor shots of Dorian's portrait are striking and eventually quite horrific. Completely absorbing, handsomely produced, and adroitly directed. Top-notch! 

Verdict: "To regain one's youth, one most only repeat one's follies." ***1/2.


BOOMERANG (1947). Director: Elia Kazan.

A minister in a small town in Connecticut is shot in the back of the head and killed in broad daylight. A lot of pressure is put on the police chief (Lee J. Cobb) to make an arrest, but suspects are in short supply until witnesses identify a serviceman named John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy). Complicating matters is the fact that there are unethical political forces in town, some of which need for Waldron to be convicted, and others who want him to get off even if he's guilty. Prosecuting attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) is prepared to try the case, but he has nagging doubts about the man's guilt. In a bizarre twist in the courtroom during a preliminary hearing, Harvey tears apart his own arguments and re-interviews the witnesses. But is Waldron really innocent?

Boomerang begins slowly, with the documentary approach being a mite talky and dull, but eventually it becomes quite absorbing. There are some highly interesting situations in the film, but it's probably the acting that puts it over. Under Kazan's guidance, Dana Andrews gives one of his best performances. Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Jane Wyatt, (as Mrs. Harvey) and Sam Levene, are all solid. Ed Begley nearly steals the picture as the chicanerous Paul Harris, and Cara Williams has a notable small role as a waitress who insists she saw Waldron not far from where the minister was murdered. George Petrie, who appeared with Jackie Gleason in many episodes of The Honeymooners, scores as the pubic defender, Harry O'Shea.

Verdict: Suspenseful and intriguing. ***.


DOWN WITH LOVE (2003). Director: Peyton Reed.

Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor star in this imitation of old Doris Day/Rock Hudson “sex comedies” directed by Peyton Reed. Although the munchkin-like, quirky, acquired taste Zellweger has turned my stomach in other movies, in this she seems well-cast and is quite good as the author of a book which urges women to forget all about love and concentrate on careers and equality. She actually wrote the book for a quite different reason, however, in a twist that temporarily makes nonsense of her feminist viewpoint. McGregor is also quite good as a playboy/stud/magazine writer who refuses to take Zellweger and her book seriously until it becomes a big hit and all of his babes are too busy with job advancement to pay any attention to him. He pretends to be someone else to get close to her and expose her as a fake, but Zellweger has the last laugh. This is a good-natured, often amusing, never quite hilarious, very light comedy that slavishly imitates the tone and interiors of the Day-Hudson-Ross Hunter movies of the sixties (during which Down with Love wisely takes place).

Verdict: Not bad, but borrow the DVD from the library. **1/2.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


BREWSTER'S MILLIONS (1945). Director: Allan Dwan.

"Turkey?! If it had kept on running we'd have had to pay the actors off in cranberries!"

Monty Brewster (Dennis O'Keefe, pictured) comes home to his girl Peggy (Helen Walker) from the war and learns that he has inherited 8 million dollars from an uncle. But the will has a (frankly ridiculous and possibly unenforceable) stipulation: Monty must spend a million dollars before his thirtieth birthday (about two months), be left with absolutely no assets (which means he can't buy such things as jets and yachts) or he will forfeit all the rest of the money (he can only give 5% to charity). There doesn't seem to be any reason why he can't simply give $100,000 to ten friends, but instead he sets up a business, rents expensive offices, pays inflated salaries -- and keeps making money no matter how hard he tries not to. The old old idea (this was filmed several times before) is a cute one, but this version, despite all the running around and mugging and so on, just seems lifeless, and it's never very funny. Part of the problem is that Dennis O'Keefe is not exactly a skilled comedian a la Bob Hope, although he does do his best. Helen Walker, who was excellent as the sinister Lilith in Nightmare Alley, makes a competent if unamusing leading lady. The supporting cast does their best, but a few genuinely amusing lines are sort of thrown away and lost in the general hysteria/tedium. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson adds to the limited fun.

Verdict: Highly forgettable. *1/2.


THREE LITTLE WORDS (1950). Director: Richard Thorpe.

A perfectly pleasant and completely undistinguished biopic about the not terribly distinguished song writing team of Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) and Harry Ruby (Red Skelton). The casting pretty much insures that there won't be a heck of a lot of drama in this movie, and there certainly isn't, although the two men spend a lot of time bickering and having misunderstandings [although the humor is not of the laugh-out-loud variety]. Vera-Ellen is Kalmar's spouse and a warmer-than-usual Arlene Dahl is Ruby's better half, Eileen. Gloria DeHaven, Keenan Wynn, Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter have smaller roles (walk-ons in the case of the last two). Gale Robbins is sexsational as Terry, the singer that Ruby initially falls for. Astaire's fans will enjoy his smooth and fancy foot work. As for the songs, well ... they're pleasant enough, tuneful, but Kalmar and Ruby were not exactly Rodgers and Hammerstein or Rodgers and Hart. They spend the whole movie trying to make a song out of a tune Ruby keeps playing and when they finally do at the climax it's only the utterly mediocre title number!

Verdict: If you don't expect much ... **1/2.


THE MAN WHO INVENTED ROCK HUDSON: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. Robert Hofler. Carroll and Graf; 2005.

Henry Willson was the top Hollywood agent who represented many stars, including a plethora of “pretty boys,” and came up with names like Rock Hudson [his major client], Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, and others who weren't quite as successful. When the studios collapsed and ethnic stars took over, Willson and his blond hunks were seen as passé and Willson, who spent his money on his clients instead of saving it, discovered who his real friends were. Although there is some attempt at balance, this emerges as an arch and mostly negative [if fascinating] look at Willson, although the point is made that Willson wasn't alone in hitting on attractive young actors – Hollywood has always had its share of male producers and agents who bed pretty aspiring actresses in exchange for services -- and the actors themselves could be pretty aggressive. Hofler seems to accept one Willson client's story -- that Willson told mob connections to “take care” of two gay men blackmailing Hudson while on the phone in front of this client – at face value. Even if we were to believe that Willson would have hit men “rub out” these two men, would he implicate himself in front of a witness? [It's possible that Willson was only giving a warning to this particular client in case he decided to do the same thing.]

Verdict: Despite its flaws, this is a good read and a highly entertaining look inside a certain aspect of Hollywood. ***.


STARSHIP TROOPERS 2: Hero of the Federation. Director: Phil Tippett. Screenplay by Ed Neumeier. Tristar DVD.

“No wonder we're losin' this war,” says a tough female officer (the aptly-named Brenda Strong, who is also the suicide/narrator on Desperate Housewives), “everyone's fuckin' instead of fightin'!” Well – not quite, although there are a couple of sexy scenes in this fairly unnecessary but somewhat entertaining direct-to-video sequel to Starship Troopers. The co-ed troops have taken the battle down to one of the insect planets where they are besieged by a humongous battalion of scorpion-like big bugs (the other bugs from the first film are not seen in the sequel). Most of the story takes place in an abandoned bunker where the troops rest and try to hold off the enemy. Unfortunately, smaller bugs have crawled through the mouths of some soldiers, infesting them and taking over their minds, making them quite literally “the enemy within.”The inauspicious opening looks like outtakes from the first movie, but the pace soon improves and the story holds the attention in a limited way. Ed Neumeier's screenplay recycles ideas from Mimic, The Hidden, Alien (as most modern horror/sci-fi movies do) and other films, but doesn't explore the psychological consequences of discovering that a trusted comrade or lover or friend is actually a “bug” in disguise. With the exception of a couple of framing sequences, the narrative is more “traditional” than in the first film, and most of the “satire” -- if that's what it was – has been dropped. Richard Burgi is stalwart as the hyper-macho former soldier who is released from captivity to aid in the fight against the bugs. It's a pleasure to see veteran actor Ed Lauter as General Shepherd, who succumbs to the nasty internal bugs and becomes one of the enemy. In fact, virtually all of the actors in this film play with absolute conviction and veracity, which makes you wish they had been cast in a much better movie. Although there are plenty of gruesome and slimy, nauseating sequences, this is not quite as disturbingly gory as the original. The special effects are quite good, which is no surprise as director Phil Tippett is also an FX expert. But everything, including those FX and gore scenes, look like moments you've seen many, many times before.

Verdict: Retread, recycled, repeated - but has its good points. **.

NOTE: Read about the original Starship Troopers and many other monster movies in William Schoell's book Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.


DREAMBOAT (1952). Director: Claude Binyon.

Carol Sayre (Anne Francis) is horrified to learn that her distinguished educator father Thornton (Clifton Webb) was once the silent film "dreamboat" Bruce Blair. Thornton is equally horrified, as he fears the showing of his films on television (hosted by his old leading lady Gloria Marlowe, played with expert panache by Ginger Rogers) will undermine his efficacy as a teacher. Therefore Thornton sues to prevent any more of his films from being shown. While it's unlikely that college kids in the fifties would bother to watch silent movies on television, and Webb at sixty-four makes an unlikely romantic swashbuckler in the movie-within-a-movie "flash backs," this is still a very cute, amusing picture -- with a hilarious post script. Webb is as wonderful as ever and Anne Francis is very sweet as Carol. Elsa Lanchester is a riot as Thornton's boss, who has a crush on him, and Jeffrey Hunter is a TV associate who develops a crush on Francis --and vice versa. Rogers and Webb have a very funny bar scene being bitchy with each other.

Verdict: You can't beat Clifton Webb! ***.


LET'S KILL UNCLE (1966). Director: William Castle. 

Young Barnaby Harrison (Pat Cardi) goes to stay with his Uncle Kevin (Nigel Green) after his father is killed, and learns that the man fully intends to kill him -- as he even tells him -- for the five million dollars he inherited. Barnaby and his friend Chrissie (Mary Badham) decide it might be a good idea to kill Uncle Kevin first. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse as the kids try to outwit and murder the adult and vice versa. Unfortunately, the rather light, almost comic, tone of the picture works against the suspense and strips the film of needed tension. Cardi makes an appealing protagonist, Badham is a little creepy, Green is okay in an impossible part but radiates little menace. Robert Pickering and Linda Lawson are, respectively, a sergeant who accompanies Barnaby to his uncle's island home, and Chrissie's pretty Aunt Justine. At one point Barnaby gets into a small plane with his uncle, which makes no sense at all. A ramshackle, abandoned hotel and a shark in a swimming pool also figure in the action. Poor musical score and an incredibly flat ending. Castle directs by the numbers. 

Verdict: Despite an intriguing situation, this is pretty boring. *1/2.


OPEN WATER (2005). Writer/Director: Chris Kentis.

A young couple go out with a charter to go scuba diving, but are accidentally left behind when the supervisor doesn't do an accurate head count. Left alone in the middle of nowhere, they must deal with their growing apprehension, feelings of guilt and recrimination, and sharks that keep hovering around and threatening to come too close. Hours go by as they squabble, cry, and panic as the sharks begin to nibble... [Oddly, every time they see a boat in the distance they wave their arms but never cry out despite the fact that sound carries over the water.] It's all well and good to support independent filmmaking, but the overpraising of this utterly mediocre movie by supposedly major critics will have any objective critic scratching his head in confusion. The movie begins like a bad travelogue, and takes quite awhile to become mildly interesting. Supposedly based on a true story, it's certainly a tragic situation, but it's hard to care for two people who seem likable and pleasant but are strictly one-dimensional. [The filmmakers choose not to tell us the legal and other repercussions of this incident.] This might have made an acceptable telefilm, but it is hardly well-written or dramatic enough to cut it as a feature. It doesn't help that the actress (Blanchard Ryan) playing the distaff half of the couple is amateurish; Daniel Travis is better as her boyfriend. There is some nice underwater photography, and the picture is nice to look at, but this is certainly not another Jaws, and it isn't well-made or intense enough to be a strong drama, either. [This is so slipshod and low-key that I had to reverse the DVD just to figure out if a character actually died or not; this important moment is just frittered away.] When the critics praise movies like this and Kill Bill you have to wonder if critical standards of movie reviewing have sunk to a new all-time low. Because the film will make money due to the critic's harping, writer-director Kentis will be seen in Hollywood as some kind of wunderkind, get major contracts, and probably make a whole slew of bad pictures over the next few years. [In my opinion, Kentis should stick to travelogues.]

Verdict: And we wonder why so many movies are lousy these days! *1/2.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


THE APARTMENT (1960) Director: Billy Wilder.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) hopes to advance in his insurance company by letting many of the married male executives use his apartment for illicit trysts. He has a crush on the pretty elevator operator Fran (Shirley MacLaine), who, unbeknownst to him, is involved with his boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Lemmon muggs a bit too much, MacMurray is fine as a slick aging Lothario, MacLaine is effective as the young lady, and there are some small flavorful character performances. Some good dialogue, although the film leans towards the superficial and its characters lack dimension. Although the film won awards and certainly has its admirers, the general effect is one of tedium. It's not funny enough to be a strong comedy, and the dramatic possibilities of a woman involved with a married man have been milked for better results in countless other movies. We won't even get into the illogical moments, or the fact that the film misses real opportunities for both laughs and poignancy. It's also hard to like a movie with a lead character who for most of the film's running time is a complete door mat. Composer Adolph Deutsch's theme music is memorable, although some might say it rips off Rachmaninoff, whose music was used for Brief Encounter. Billy Wilder was inspired by a scene from that movie to make The Apartment. Incredibly this won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. This is a perfect example of a mediocre movie that makes a lot of money (due to its frank subject matter and the publicity it engenders), wins awards because of the publicity and money, and decades later becomes a supposed "classic."

Verdict: Watch Brief Encounter instead. Phony and predictable, this is not in its league. *1/2.


IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU (1954). Director: George Cukor. Screenplay by Garson Kanin.

Recently fired from her job, Gladys Clover (Judy Holliday), who wants to be somebody, decides to use her limited resources to put her name in big letters on a billboard in Herald Square. Her new friend Peter (Jack Lemmon, who was introduced in this film) is appalled that she's wasting her money on an idea that has no real purpose. Indeed, Gladys is not only a moron, but she is so untalented that she can't even read off cue [or "idiot"] cards without sounding mentally deficient. Peter Lawford plays a Madison Avenue man who tries to romance Gladys even as he wants to buy away her advertising space. After much tedium and not a single real laugh, we finally arrive at the movie's obvious point, when Gladys turns down an offer for the Army to name a plane after her. "It isn't just making a name," she says, "it's making a name stand for something." (Wise words for Paris Hilton and her ilk.) I don't believe for one minute that Gladys is really bright enough to come to such a conclusion (anymore than Paris Hilton is). Honestly, although I sat through this entire dull, annoying film I could have left the room at any point, shaved, cut my nails, made a few phone calls, had dinner and shopped, and come back and not missed a single moment of value. Lemmon occasionally overacts; Lawford is as pleasantly bland as ever. The problem with the casting of Holliday is that when you have a dopey-looking person playing a dope, it makes them twice as irritating. Possibly the worst film that Cukor and Kanin ever worked on.

Verdict: It Should NOT happen to you. *.


ELEKTRA (2004). Director: Rob Bowman.

Elektra (Jennifer Garner) from Daredevil (both the comic book and the movie) stars in her own feature film, which begins in a stylish and arresting fashion but quickly goes downhill from there. Elektra is a contract killer whose latest assignment is to murder a man and his young daughter whom she has recently met. Unable to do the dirty deed, she decides to help them against the assassins of the criminal organization The Hand. These super-powered assassins include Typhoid and Tattoo, who can make the tattoos on his body come to life (like Green Lantern's old foe The Tattooed Man). The girl, Abby, turns out to have powers of her own but is otherwise just an annoyance. The film consists of empty special effects, way too much slow motion, and a lot of running around to little purpose and virtually no entertainment value. Jennifer Garner looks hot in her red outfit but the movie wastes her less obvious talents. Terrence Stamp turns up as her teacher. Some of Christopher Black's music is nice. A major disappointment.

Verdict: Don't expect a sequel to this one. *1/2.


HELLO, HE LIED and other truths from the Hollywood Trenches. Lynda Obst. Little, Brown and Company; 1996.

Obst is a producer of some successful (Sleepless in Seattle) if somewhat undistinguished films who has put together a book detailing her adventures in Hollywood with advice for prospective producers, especially of the female gender. The book is not without value for such readers, and has an intrinsic interest as an insider's view of Hollywood, but anyone expecting gossip about the stars or a really “good read” (although the book is rather well written) should look elsewhere. The average movie buff may get tired of the tome long before the final pages. Obst describes a Hollywood that most people are already familiar with, where staying on top matters much more than friendship or anything else, a world unto itself full of self-absorbed people that Obst describes as smart but sound rather stupid. Obst, who first got a position at the New York Times through connections, worked her way west to switch from journalism to motion pictures. She comes off as someone trying to be nice even as she tries to find herself and gain as much personal "power" as possible. Her book is intelligent in its way, but also a little sad. Obst seems to be too close to it all to really see it for the crap it is. Her book may be of some value to would-be female executives, as she gives wise advice on what to do and what to avoid to get to and stay on the top.

Verdict: Not bad if not quite a must-read. **1/2.


TAKING LIVES (2004). Director: D. J. Caruso.

Angelina Jolie is an FBI profiler brought in to help track down a serial killer who repeatedly takes the lives – figuratively and literally – of a succession of victims whose identities he assumes until the next poor fellow comes along. Ethan Hawke is the witness to the latest horrific homicide. When Jolie finds herself drawn to Hawke, resulting in an intense if uncomfortable-looking sex scene, there at least seem to be consequences to her actions. Taking Lives holds the attention until it falls apart in the final quarter and becomes increasingly predictable and ridiculous. D. J. Caruso helms the film with professional vigor, but a Hitchcock he ain't. Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland (in a brief turn), Gena Rowlands (wasted as the mother of the killer), and others in the cast acquit themselves nicely for the most part, but Jolie, acting with her lips, wears one expression and one expression only throughout the entire film. (You have to see her blank – as opposed to numb -- reaction to a beheading in an elevator to believe it. Otherwise this grisly scene is well-handled.) Cobbled together from elements of many different thrillers, Taking Lives generally looks good but probably worked a lot better as a novel; the film version is a major disappointment. Philip Glass' score is hackneyed and entirely forgettable.

Verdict: You've seen it all before and you'll see it again. **.


LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (2006). Director: Aki Kaurismäki.

Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) is a sullen, friendless night watchman in Helsinki who meets a woman (Maria Järvenhelmi) who dates him but who's really only interested in getting him to show her the security codes for the store where he works. This doesn't lead to anything good of course. Although the film holds the attention -- it's only 78 minutes long -- it's never exactly what you could call gripping. The low-key "minimalist" style has all the actors walking through the film with one expression -- on all of them. It's like an American "B" movie if you edited all of the emotion and energy out of it. Actor Janne Hyytiäinen is really too handsome and sexy an actor to be convincing as a schlemiel. The soundtrack is punctuated with operatic arias, mostly by Puccini (and sung by Jussi Bjorling) that don't seem to bear much, if any, relationship to what's going on onscreen. Although the movie is well-photographed by Timo Salminen, those arias are far more artistic than they film that they're showcased in.

Verdict: From Finland and not quite from hunger. **.


LUV (1967). Director: Clive Donner.

One night on the Brooklyn Bridge Harry Berlin (Jack Lemmon) meets up with an old classmate Milt Manville (Peter Falk), who doesn't seem to notice that Harry is trying to commit suicide. Milt wants his wife, Ellen (Elaine May) to divorce him so that he can marry the bimbo Linda (Nina Wayne) and he importunes Harry to romance Ellen for his sake. This all leads to some complicated and frequently amusing couplings. Based on a play by Murray Schisgal, Luv is often very silly and it isn't helped by Jack Lemmon's constant mugging. Falk and May are excellent however. Nina Wayne is no actress but she's well-cast as Linda. Some very funny lines and the Niagara Falls "do you still love me?" scene is hilarious. Ellen and her charts of sexual intimicy are also a scream.

Verdict: If you're in a silly mood. ***.