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

Thursday, May 28, 2009


HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). Director: William Castle.

"Would you like to see one of those heads? Well come and see!"

Perverse Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) and his pretty, unloving wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) throw a party in a supposedly haunted house where several murders took place. Instead of inviting friends as Annabelle wanted, Loren instead invites several people who are in need of money and agrees to pay them $10,000 apiece if they spend -- and survive -- the night locked in the house. Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook) was the brother of one of the victims and explains how his sister-in-law hacked up his brother and her sister and that the police found many body parts but never found their heads. Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) has a large family to support, and Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum, sister of Robert Mitchum) has gambling debts. The group is completed with Lance Schroder (Richard Long) and Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshall), not to mention the spooky caretakers, especially Mrs. Slydes (Leona Anderson), who makes a sudden, very creepy if hilarious appearance in a dark basement room [see photo]. The dialogue by screenwriter Robb White is amusing, especially the bitchy banter between Loren and his wife. It's interesting that the house is not some Gothic structure a la Psycho, but a modern bit of architecture that resembles a museum. There are several "impossible" moments in the story, but the whole thing is still a lot of fun, with Price seemingly enjoying himself immensely. Carolyn Craig did a lot of TV work, as did Carol Ohmart. Marshall appeared in a few notable films, but this was the last of Julie Mitchum's seven credits.

Verdict: Much, much better than the remake. ***.


THE FULL MONTY (1997) Director: Peter Cattaneo.

It's easy to see why this likable movie with some semi-serious undertones became a big hit. Admittedly, it gets off to an inauspicious debut, introducing us to a couple of losers in a small British town, one of whom has a small boy he's in danger of losing contact with. To make extra money – and having noticed how big a sell-out the Chippendale's male strippers were at the local club -- he comes up with the idea of taking a bunch of ordinary fellows in this impoverished working class hamlet and putting on their own strip-tease act, going the Chippendale's boys one better by doing “the full monty” -- showing what they got in full. The picture borders on losing all credibility – don't these guys realize that the Chippendale's dancers with their muscular bodies and handsome faces are fantasy objects for women who want to see something different from their husbands' pot bellies? – but somehow their struggle to pull together an unlikely dance troupe and overcome their individual insecurities begins to interest and take hold of the viewer. In its own way the film deals with the fact that this generation, like no other before, has turned men into full-fledged “sex objects,” that ordinary men now have to compare themselves with these “hunks” the way women have had to deal with airbrushed playboy bunnies and Kewpie doll images for decades. And it isn't that unrealistic that the women in town would be good sports and show up to root for these fellows in their oddball moment of “triumph.” No, this isn't a “great” movie nor is it a true classic, but it is unusual and quite entertaining. Very well-acted by a terrific ensemble cast.

Verdict: Fun and different. ***.


THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE (1959). Director: Edward L. Cahn.

This gleefully and surprisingly gruesome old movie is a melange of boiled heads, sandals made of human skin, fingertips that have skulls branded on them, ancient Jivaro Indian curses, and 200 year-old men whose blood is mixed with the poison curare. Ever since an ancestor wiped out a tribe of Jivaro Indians after they beheaded an associate (the witch doctor escaped, however) the men in the Drake family have been dropping dead around their 60th birthday. Although their deaths are attributed to heart failure, their heads are always missing when they go into the family crypt. Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) is the last surviving male member of the family, and his daughter Alison (Valerie French) and policeman Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards) try to find out what's going on, as does the family doctor, Bradford (Howard Wendell). Meanwhile Dr. Emil Zurich (an absolutely splendid Henry Daniell), a family friend, offers tea and sympathy -- and more? You might wonder why the curse lets its victims live 60 long years instead of killing the men off in their twenties. Orville H. Hampton, who wrote the screenplay, also did the script for Atomic Submarine and many others. French co-starred with Glenn Ford in Jubal and with Gene Barry in The 27th Day. She also had a smaller role in The Garment Jungle. Paul Cavanagh appears briefly as Drake's brother. The effectively blaring score is by Paul Dunlap.

Verdict: Heads you'll like it. ***.


CRUSH (2002/British). Director/screenwriter: John McKay.

Andie MacDowell is a headmistress in a small town who is friends with two women (Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor) who are appalled when she takes up with a young hunk who plays the organ at her church. [This leads to many jokes about his “organs” and a lot of out-in-public sex scenes.] The two go to almost pathological attempts to break them up and then tragedy strikes. We're supposed to believe that a headmistress, sober, will have sex in a park with this guy with hardly any prelude, but this movie is hardly about romance. Even when MacDowell comes to the conclusion that she loves the guy, she flashes back not to a tender moment between the two but to one of their sexual encounters, making it clear exactly what it is that exists between the two. The movie feigns sophistication, but it remains on a sitcom level, never penetrating below the surface in its situations and characterizations, despite an occasional nice touch [MacDowell collapsing on the grass as a crowd gathers]. A potentially strong story is completely undermined by the limitations of John McKay as a writer. The movie tries to be hip by involving one of the women in an affair with another woman, but then shows its true colors when said woman insists that she's basically straight and – heavens, no! -- not a lesbian. A really hip movie would have made her gay – throughout the picture she seems obsessed with MacDowell, for instance -- and been done with it. In true sitcom style the film resolves conflicts in a pat style: the humiliated, jilted suitor of MacDowell's just happens to marry another woman we've never even seen before to give his part of the story a fake happy ending. There are good moments and some nice acting, but this is mostly a bad, unmemorable parody of the “women's pictures” of the forties.

Verdict: Watch I Love Lucy instead. **.


MARNIE (1964). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Bizarre romance about two odd ducks in what would seem to be an impossible marriage. Widower Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) is the well-to-do head of a publishing concern, and Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) is a frigid thief who comes to work for him, He is immediately intrigued by and attracted to her, and when he catches up with her after she absconds with the firm's money, he makes her a deal. He won't go to the police if she marries him! The honeymoon is uncomfortable to say the least and married life isn't much better, especially when Marnie's old victims come out of the woodwork. Mark determines to find out what happened in his wife's past to turn her into the tormented woman she's become. Sean Connery plays the material in just the right note, and Tippi Hedren, despite a few false moments, acquits herself better than you would expect given her lack of experience. Diane Baker is her usual sterling self as Mark's jealous sister-in-law, and Louise Latham is simply outstanding as Marnie's mother. This is a strange movie, not for every taste, but if it grabs you you'll find it very entertaining. Jay Presson Allen's script crackles with good dialogue and has both humor and suspense. This is a handsome and classy production, very well photographed by Robert Burks, and adroitly directed by Hitchcock. Bernard Herrmann's score is decidedly rich. Some may feel the psychology comes dangerously close to the dime store variety, but it's still all rather fascinating. One interesting question: When Mark has sex with Marnie during the honeymoon, could it be considered an act of rape? The best scene: Marnie on the runaway horse.

Verdict: Highly interesting latter-day Hitchcock. ***1/2.


CHANGELING (2008). Director: Clint Eastwood.

In 1928 Los Angeles Christine Collins' (Angelina Jolie) young son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears and a corrupt police force tries to palm off another boy on the mother. When she protests that the boy is not her son, people either think she's confused or wacky. Afraid that Christine will make the police department look bad, Capt Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) has the bewildered, devastated woman locked in the city's psycho ward, which outrages the Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb (John Malkovich), who comes to her aid. Meanwhile another cop, Les Ybarra (Michael Kelly), comes across a young runaway (Eddie Alderson) who tells him a horrifying story of a man, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), who has been capturing, penning, and murdering many young boys. Could Walter be among them?

Changeling should have been a devastating movie, and while it does have some powerful scenes (considering the storyline, how could it not?) there's just something missing. Director Eastwood covers the action and keeps things moving, but the film seems better edited than directed; the material just isn't handled in as dramatic a fashion as it could have been. The screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski has a few contrived scenes, such as when the parents of another missing child call Christine to come to the police station. Why? So she can feel even worse that her son is still missing? No -- because it's the only way she could hear the other boy talking about the bravery of her son. Jolie's performance is good, but not really Oscar-worthy, despite her nomination. Malkovich, hopefully made up to look quite elderly, is sufficient but otherwise makes little impression. Very nice work by Harner and Alderson, and the other child actors are excellent. Whatever it's flaws, the movie is absorbing and has a good story based on fact. An anachronism is the use of the term "serial killer" decades before the term came into vogue.

Verdict: Intriguing if somewhat disappointing. ***.


THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE (1930). Director: James Parrott.

-- "He fell through a trapdoor and died."
-- "Was he building a house?
-- "No. They were hanging him."

In this short the boys go the home of Uncle Ebenezer Laurel for the reading of his will, only to learn that he was murdered and all of the suspects have been gathered in his creepy old house. There are sinister relatives and possibly a ghost -- or at least something flying about in a sheet. Every Laurel and Hardy feature or featurette has some laughs in it, and this is no exception, but it's also kind of slow and until the end rather uneventful. Not one of their best.

Watch A-Haunting We Will Go or Hold That Ghost with Abbott and Costello instead. **.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


A CHILD IS WAITING (1963). Director: John Cassavetes.

Jean Hansen (Judy Garland) gets a job as music teacher at an institution for mentally-disabled youngsters, hoping to find some meaning in her life. Dr. Ben Clark (Burt Lancaster), the head of the school, clashes with her, warning her that if she gets too close to one child the other children will get jealous. Lancaster feels the children shouldn't be coddled too much if they are to be helped. Still, when Jean learns that one small boy, Reuben (Bruce Ritchie, pictured), waits every Wednesday in his best clothes for his parents to come -- and they never do -- she decides to take it upon herself to get in touch with them, leading to complications. This is a beautiful -- and absolutely heart-breaking -- movie that tugs at your emotions practically from the first frame to the last. While attitudes toward the mentally-disabled and teaching methods for same may have changed since the film was made -- it doesn't seem as if every child, especially the mildly-retarded, must be institutionalized, for one thing -- and despite the fact that producer Stanley Kramer and director John Cassavetes reportedly clashed while filming and during post-production, A Child is Waiting does get across that these young people [most of the children are mentally-disabled in real life] are just people deserving of love and support and a fighting chance to make a place in society, or at least to come to peace with themselves. So while the movie is undeniably a powerful tearjerker -- I'm not ashamed to confess that I blubbered all the way through it -- it also has a message of hope and is therefore uplifting. Call it manipulative at times if you will, but it is certainly effective and poignant.

Burt Lancaster gives one of his best performances as Dr. Clark. He is not lacking in compassion but you also suspect he thinks of his little charges in part as experiments. Judy Garland gives an excellent, restrained performance (and if ever there were a movie where she could have been forgiven for going over the top, this is it) and is so loving and kind to a new little boy at the ending that it's readily apparent that she was deeply moved to be among these children. She also has a nice scene leading the children in a singalong where it's clear -- that while she's supposed to be reacting to the disappointment in the little boy sitting beside her -- that she's holding back tears because of her general feelings for the children. This is more Lancaster's film than Garland's, however, as she's given no big scenes (just well-done smaller moments) and her character is never explored in any depth. Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill score as the confused and tortured parents of young Reuben -- Hill is certainly much better than he was in The Goddess. There are also fine supporting performances from Elizabeth Wilson, Paul Stewart, and others. Child actor Bruce Ritchie certainly makes an impression as the lonely little Reuben. He appeared in one other movie, The Silencers, in 1966.

Verdict: If this one doesn't give you a lump in the throat, check your pulse -- you're dead! ****.


THE COMPLETE KAY FRANCIS CAREER RECORD. All Film, Stage, Radio and Television Appearances. Lynn Kear and John Rossman. McFarland; 2008.

This book is the companion volume to the authors' fine Francis biography Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career. This is an exhaustive, very well-researched look at the long and fascinating career of Kay Francis, who is now being rediscovered and reappraised by film buffs thanks to TCM and books like this one. This hardcover tome with lots and lots of photos is not just a dry reference book of lists, but has synopses and reactions to all of her movies, including background notes about each film, as well as a sampling of often contradictory reviews. [The strangest one is when a Mick LaSalle compares Allotment Wives to Mildred Pierce and is quoted thusly: "But Allotment Wives is tougher, harder, and stronger, and Francis' performance outshines anything Crawford ever did." Actually while I was watching Allotment Wives I kept thinking how much better and more appropriate Crawford would have been in the part! Different strokes ... ] These essays are written with humor and intelligence. The authors unearth some interesting and bizarre things about Confession, which was a shot-for-shot remake of Mazurka (much like Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho). The reviews of both her movies and stage appearances [the latter section also has lengthy background notes] make clear that many critics did not dismiss her as an actress as some have wrongly believed. The authors clearly admire and enjoy Francis but if they think she's not at her best in a particular vehicle, they say so. The lengthy appendix listing many of the players who worked with Francis also has a lot of often surprising information in it. For more about the actress' personal life [although there's quite a bit on that in this book] see the authors' Francis bio. NOTE: Both books can be ordered at the McFarland web site or call 800-253-2187 to order.

Verdict: For every Francis fan's bookshelf. ***.


MOMMY (1995). Written and directed by Max Allan Collins.

The idea is so good that you can understand why the film has become better known than many similar low-budget productions. Collins cast Patty McCormack, who played the little girl sociopath in The Bad Seed, as a character who is sort of like that little girl grown up. She's an affluent housewife who has apparently murdered her first two husbands and offs anyone who keeps her or her young, normal daughter from getting what they want. [In The Bad Seed it was a good penmanship medal; in Mommy it's an Outstanding Student Award.] Jason Miller of The Exorcist plays a detective and Mickey Spillane even puts in a brief appearance as a lawyer. Unfortunately, despite the bizarre stunt casting, the movie is not as much fun as it sounds. Everything is played pretty much straight, which would be okay if the movie were better acted and directed, but given the general mediocrity of the project it might have been much more entertaining as a campy black comedy. There have been low-budget horror films that get attention due to a certain cinematic flair or grotesque unusual storyline [Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead come to mind] but Mommy is generally slow and unimaginative and even the murders lack panache and invention. Just as bad, the movie looks like it was shot with a Super 8mm movie camera. Much of the acting can best be described as overly earnest in the way that marks the amateur.

Verdict: People may want to see this for the premise and the cast, but it's unlikely many of them will want to check out Mommy 2, which followed. **.


MYSTERY LINER (1034) Director: William Nigh.

A dull, flat Monogram cheapie set on an ocean liner in which a device called an "S 505" is being tested and people are either strangled or have their necks broken with ropes. Zeffie Tilbury plays a very unpleasant old lady who treats her grandson, Edgar (Jerry Stewart), the way you shouldn't treat a dog. Noah Beery is Captain Holling; Edwin Maxwell is Major Pope; and Gustav von Seyffertitz is the sinister Von Kessling with a secret. 62 minutes seems like two hours, and nothing remotely interesting ever seems to happen, despite a couple of murders. Inspired by an Edgar Wallace story that had to be immeasurably better.

Verdict: Like watching paint dry. 1/2 *.


WALLANDER: SIDETRACKED. Masterpiece Mystery/ PBS. 2008.

A frightened young girl commits suicide by setting fire to herself, and Swedish detective Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) wonders what horrible things did the poor child experience to drive her to do that? Then there's a series of ax murders of some prominent citizens -- could they be connected to the young girl's death? (And do you even have to ask?) This is a fairly absorbing mystery, the first in a 2008 series of British Wallander telefilms, currently being shown in the US on Masterpiece Mystery. Branagh gives a good performance, although the Irish actor is not exactly perfect casting as a Swedish detective. David Warner is excellent as the detective's artist father, who has Alzheimer's. A good cast and nice music help a lot. Based on a series of Swedish detective novels.

Verdict: Holds the attention but not very original. **1/2.


TEENAGE MILLIONAIRE (1961). Director: Lawrence Doheny.

Bobby (Jimmy Clanton) is a nice boy with a pleasant singing voice who only wants to have fun, go to parties, do a little singing, swing with the chicks, y'know? Unfortunately Bobby is a rich kid and his aunt (Zasu Pitts) doesn't want him doing much of anything for fear he might come to harm or be kidnapped. She hires Rocky (Rocky Graziano) to be Bobby's bodyguard. That's about all the plot there is in this musical which consists mostly of acts by Chubby Checker, Jackie Wilson, Dion, and others. Oh yes, Bobby gets a girlfriend at one point -- they fight, but make up. The movie is in black and white; the musical numbers are sepia. Clanton has a pleasant personality; he only made one other movie, two years previously, Go, Johnny, Go! Zasu Pitts is her usual dithery self. Graziano is no actor, but he's likable. Also with pretty Diane Jergens.

Verdict: You can sleep through this and not miss a thing. *.


TADPOLE (2002) Director: Gary Winick. Screenplay by Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller.

An intelligent fifteen-year-old who fancies himself more sophisticated than he really is develops an infatuation on his middle-aged stepmother (Sigourney Weaver, pictured) and has little interest in girls his own age. At one point he has sex with his stepmother's forty-ish friend, played by Bebe Neuwirth. When the parents, including father John Ritter, find out about this, they hardly react the way they would in real life, although at least Weaver seems a little bit appalled. She, too, winds up kissing her stepson, although this – fortunately – does not lead to another bedroom scene. In the way of the immature, the boy gets over his crush pretty fast, and the movie is left without a climax or any real resolution. The only point of Tadpole seems to be to present pedophilia – and make no mistake, that's what this is – as an acceptable option to women who can't find sensitive boyfriends their own age. Neuwirth's choice to molest the boy seems determined by the fact that her current beau is not attractive to her [then why is she bothering with the man at all?]. The scene where she rationalizes her actions to Weaver takes place in Central Park near the statues of Alice in Wonderland characters – a rather heavy-handed reference if ever there were one. One can only imagine the outcry this film would have gotten had the youngster been a girl instead of a boy, and if the molester were male. [Or if both adult and child were males!] Despite some good acting [by adult performers who should have known better] and an excellent performance by Aaron Stanford as the boy, this is pseudo-sophisticated pedophilic junk and not memorable at all.

Verdict: Forget it. 1/2*.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


THE SIGN OF THE RAM (1948). Director: John Sturges.

In Cornwall Leah St. Aubyn (Susan Peters, pictured) became wheelchair-bound after a swimming accident in which she saved her stepchildren but was bashed against some rocks. Now she has a pathological fear of being abandoned, and those feelings are exacerbated by the arrival of a pretty secretary, Sherida (Phyllis Thaxter), whom she's afraid might stimulate the interest of her husband, Mallory (an unlikely Alexander Knox). Eventually Leah resorts to blatant and cruel falsehoods to manipulate the relationships of those around her (though it's a touch disingenuous that she gets blamed for one disturbed character's poisoning of another). Susan Peters, who was actually in a wheelchair after a freak hunting accident -- this was both her come back and her final film -- does her best and has her moments, but her performance is a little too obvious and director Sturges gives her no help at all. Ron Randell (the handsome doctor), Dame May Whitty (a busybody neighbor) and Peggy Ann Garner (one of the stepchildren) are also in the cast. Despite some interesting aspects, and partly because of its dimestore psychology, this is an unconvincing potboiler from start to finish. The tragic story of Peters' real life [dead at thirty-one!] would have made a more engrossing drama to be sure. The title refers to Leah's astrological sign.

Verdict: Watch Queen Bee with Joan Crawford instead. *1/2.


NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957). Director: Roger Corman. Screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna.

The inhabitants of the planet Davanna are dying from a blood disease due to nuclear war so an emissary is sent to Earth to see if human blood will be suitable for inter-species transfusions. Paul Birch is perfect as the emissary who calls himself Paul Johnson, even affecting a kind of otherworldly accent as if English is not his natural language. Beverly Garland is also top-notch as a nurse who comes to work for Johnson when he offers her an unusually high salary. Jonathan Haze of Little Shop of Horrors is Johnson's human assistant. Johnson walks around in dark shades with a suitcase in which he puts a person's blood after he has removed it all. He also has hypnotic powers and a cosmic death stare. The movie is at times a black comedy -- funny Dick Miller of Bucket of Blood is one of the victims -- but it's also creepy and disturbing, particularly the scene when one poor guy is sent through a teleporter to be dissected but winds up crushed instead [off-screen]. A flying bat-like monster that attacks and kills one cast member is not that convincing but it's still shuddery in spite of it. Exciting climax. Hanna also scripted Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Griffith scripted Attack of the Crab Monsters.

Verdict: Effective B movie with many nice moments and good acting. ***.


BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Mark Wahlberg is excellent as an academically disinclined young man who does have one enormous asset, and uses it to become a famous porn star named Dirk Diggler. This is clearly inspired by the story of John Holmes [aka Johnny Wadd], who was also the subject of a far superior biopic a few years later. Although it's hard to dislike the movie, the lack of a moral focus, while initially refreshing, eventually becomes a problem, but even worse is the fact that the movie meanders along for too long a length and doesn't do enough to develop any of its characters. The film is essentially a comedy that throws in moments of violence and then erupts into brutality in the film's true climax – three incidents at once – but ultimately offers no true drama. Along the way there are some nice bits – such as a scene when Dirk's friend Scotty expresses unrequited love for him [this, too, goes nowhere] – but the movie is poorly edited, with tedious tracking shots and uneventful scenes that go on for too long. This could only be considered powerful stuff by the unsophisticated. Along with Wahlberg, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Don Cheadle are stand-outs in a fine cast, but Burt Reynolds is given no real character to play. He's just the porn maker and is never developed beyond that; the limited Reynolds isn't able to add anything to his portrayal. Wahlberg, however, is quite impressive, unafraid to show emotion and vulnerability along with angst and anger. This is a good showcase for the actor; if only it were a better movie. Some viewers may overdose on the picture's disco soundtrack long before it's over.

Verdict: Interesting failure. **.

ANGEL OF DEATH [Semana Santa]

ANGEL OF DEATH (Semana Santa/2002). Director: Pepe Darquart. Screenplay by Ray Mitchell.

In modern-day Seville, Mira Sorvino is a cop who has just been transferred from Madrid. Her new partner (Olivier Martinez) is a rather obnoxious guy who thinks she's a “dyke.” These two are called in to investigate the grisly murders of two gay male twins who were into art and sadism. Before long it becomes apparent that a serial killer in a red cloak and hood is on the loose, and it may all be tied in with family secrets and political events that happened in Spain decades before. The storyline reminds one of a Dario Argento giallo film, but this picture is much too tasteful, the murders are not done with any flair, and the pace is draggy. Darquart betrays little style as a director but the film, made on location, is certainly atmospheric and has some interesting elements. One of the suspects is a bullfighter known as El Quapo, and another is a man who carried out rapes and murders years ago before eventually becoming mayor – but if he isn't dead he'd be too old to commit the crimes. Could he have a son – or many – from the many rapes he perpetrated so many years before? Alida Valli [the same Valli who starred with Gregory Peck in Hitchcock's The Paradine Case] shows up as a woman who lived through the terrible events and may be the mother of the murderer. The screenplay doesn't always jell or make sense, which may be indicative of post-production tampering. Sorvino is a very appealing actress, but Martinez, who was so excellent in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone remake with Helen Mirren, is pretty much wasted in this. Valli is nearly unrecognizable but her performance is credible.

Verdict: Not all bad, but it cries out for tightness and more energetic treatment. **.


THE GAY DESPERADO (1936). Director: Rouben Mamoulian.

The story is some stuff and nonsense about Mexican bandits being influenced by Hollywood movies, kidnapping a young couple, while one of their number, Chivo (Nino Martini) , happens to have a major operatic voice. This is one of only a half dozen movies done by Martini, and he's really the only reason to tune in. He was not at all a bad actor for this kind of stuff, but boy what a voice! He sings the pants off "Celeste, Aida!" from Verdi's Aida, proving that he is no poser like Andrea Bocelli, but the genuine article -- an outstanding dramatic tenor. Whenever he's not singing the movie is kind of tiresome, despite the snappy presence of Ida Lupino as the love interest. Leo Carrillo and Mischa Auer are also in the cast.

Verdict: Sing, fellow, sing! **1/2.


THE SKELETON KEY (2005). Director: Iain Softley. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger.

A young woman (Kate Hudson) applies for a position as nurse to a dying man in a Southern mansion and becomes embroiled in a mystery allegedly involving voodoo curses and a black servant couple who were murdered by a mob many years before. Hudson seems to suspect the dying man's wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) of being responsible for his condition, but she never bothers to take a sample of his blood to the police for analysis. The “twist” ending to this may be a surprise but it will not seem especially original to anyone who's seen The Mephisto Waltz and other films with a similar theme. The movie looks good and holds your attention, but the script is superficial and rather silly at times; the characters barely developed. An unrecognizable John Hurt is fine as the mostly mute old man. Gena Rowlands is simply splendid; next to her Kate Hudson seems a tame kitten coming up against a tigress. But neither Hudson nor her character are very appealing in this.

Verdict: Passable, but you've seen better. **.


THUNDERBIRD 6 (1968). Director: David Lane.

Those darn puppet Tracys from International Rescue are back in action -- limited action -- when an airship or fancy dirigible built by scientist "Brains" is taken over in an effort to lead the Tracys into a trap. Lady Penelope and Parker are also on board as the airship sails across the world. Headman Tracy wants Brains to build a sixth Thunderbird machine, but rejects the scientist's concept, making him angry. Brains uses an old style WW1 plane to rescue his colleagues at the end. The climax is fairly exciting, but it goes on way too long. Brains wears over-sized eyeglasses and resembles Elton John.

Verdict: For Thunderbird fanatics only. **.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


THE VERDICT (1946). Director: Don Siegel.

Scotland Yard superintendent George Grodman (Sydney Greenstreet) loses his job to a rival, Buckley (George Coulouris), when it is discovered that a man he sent to the gallows for a murder was actually innocent. Then another murder occurs in the same family as before, and Buckley sets out to find the killer as Grodman does what he can to help him. Peter Lorre is cast as Victor Emmric, an artist friend of Grodman's, and Paul Cavanagh is Russell, who becomes a major suspect in the second murder. Rosalind Ivan is the hysterical landlady, and Joan Lorring is Lottie, a nightclub singer who was involved with the dead man. The picture at first seems to go in many different directions, but it eventually builds up quite a bit of suspense as to the identity of the murderer. The acting all around is excellent, although at times it may seem as if that wonderful team of Greenstreet and Lorre are just going through the motions (although it may just be some consummate underplaying). Terrific ending, and the film is fascinating on many different levels. Very well-directed for maximum tension by Donald Siegel, who also directed the science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This was his third directorial assignment. Lorring also appeared with Lorre and Greenstreet in Three Strangers.

Verdict: Greenstreet and Lorre are always fun! ***1/2.


SHE COULDN'T SAY NO (1940). Director: William Clemens.
Alice Hinsdale (Eve Arden) is the fiancee of a lawyer, Wally Turnbull (Roger Pryor), who doesn't have much business. When an opportunity for a case with an important pay-off comes in when Wally is out of town, Alice poses as the non-existent partner (the one who "handles" all the bills) and travels to a small town to defend an elderly man, Eli Potter (Clem Bevans) against a breach of promise suit. Unfortunately, it turns out that Wally has already decided to represent the woman, Pansy Hawkins (Vera Lewis) who is suing Eli, making for an uncomfortable situation, to say the least. This is a very cute picture with amusing performances and many funny lines (although some might find it a bit much that Alice gets rid of Pansy's tippling lawyer by exposing him to alcohol.) Other stand-out cast members include Zeffie Tilbury as Pansy's mother; Cliff Edwards as Turnbull's associate Banjo Page; Chester Clute as Ezra Pine; and Irving Bacon (Ethel's father on I Love Lucy) as Abner Prestler. One senses that smart and sassy Alice can do a lot better than Turnbull. Funniest moment: Pansy says she's 26!
Verdict: Lots of fun. ***.


BANNERLINE (1951). Director: Don Weis.

Mike Perrivale (Keefe Braselle) is a brash cub reporter who is itching to tackle hard news. After interviewing a dying old professor, Hugo Trimble (Lionel Barrymore), who despairs that the town and the paper has allowed corruption to persist, he gets the idea of a fake front page that will indicate something is about to be done regarding those problems. At first this is intended to be one fake paper to please the dying man, but Perrivale and old-timer Josh (Lewis Stone) decide to put it in every paper for real. This brings Perrivale into conflict with the town's head crook Scarbine (J. Carrol Naish).

Bannerline holds the attention but its premise makes little sense. Why would any newspaperman think it's okay, under any circumstances, to print fake headlines in a paper that's supposed to record the truth? Why would Perrivale throw away his career when he's on the verge of getting married?The story doesn't work but at least there's some good acting. Barrymore could have acted his role in his sleep but he's fine, and Braselle makes an appealing leading man. Sally Forrest is his pretty girlfriend and Spring Byington her mother. [She offers her cheek to Perrivle for a kiss, but he kisses the old gal on the mouth instead. She says to her daughter: "You've got something here!"] Naish is as solid as ever.The best performance comes from Elisabeth Risdon as Barrymore's wise and devoted wife of many years.

Verdict: Pleasant cast; mediocre story. **.


THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO (1966). Director: David Lane. This is a feature-length version of a British TV show about a father and several sons who form a group called International Rescue. There is also a female associate named Lady Penelope who participates in some adventures along with her major domo, Parker. Zero-X, a new flight craft, is sabotaged and destroyed on its first mission, and the Tracy boys are called in. The movie has very little plot and consists mostly of dull scenes of various aircraft docking, lifting off, etc. etc. -- a lot of padding which along with the dramatic music doesn't disguise the fact that this has a lousy script. The actors are puppets with moving lips and other limited motions. You get awfully sick of hearing Parker call Penelope "Milady." The miniatures and other effects are well done, but this needs a more interesting story line.

Verdict: Even Attack of the Puppet People was more fun. *.


WATCH IT, SAILOR! (1961). Director: Wolf Rilla.

A sailor named Albert (John Meillon) is late for his own wedding, but a bigger problem occurs when he gets a message from the Navy saying he can't marry for certain legal reasons. Everyone jumps to conclusions and thinks there's another woman out there with a claim of some kind. Although Dennis Price is top-billed -- he plays the Lt. Commander who follows up the message with a visit -- the real star is Marjorie Rhodes, who plays Emma Hornet (and well-named she is), the take charge and take no prisoners mother of the bride-to-be. Cyril Smith and Irene Handl are also excellent as Emma's husband and sweet if vague sister-in-law, Edie. Liz Fraser and Graham Stark are fine as a neighbor and Albert's Navy buddy. Watch It, Sailor is an amusing, good-natured romp with wonderful comic actors bringing it all to vivid life.

Verdict: Watch It Indeed! ***.


HIDE AND SEEK. (2005). Director: John Polson. Screenplay: Ari Schlossberg.

After his wife commits suicide, Robert De Niro takes his young daughter (Dakota Fanning) to a new home in the country where she seems to be beset by figurative or literal demons. She has an imaginary friend named Charlie who's soon up to some dirty tricks – or is he imaginary? The picture holds the attention but doesn't really become gripping or suspenseful until it's nearly over, when the mystery over who and what “Charlie” is and who he'll kill next, begins to give you the willies – and then – the mystery is solved practically the next moment and what results is a prosaic chase. [I won't spoil the film by revealing the revelation; let's just say it's been done before – over and over and over again.] Hide and Seek is well-directed, has a couple of tense moments, and is very well acted by De Niro and Fanning, although the girl's character is perhaps a little too creepy for her to be entirely sympathetic. Amy Irving is written off at the beginning, and Elisabeth (Leaving Las Vegas) Shue has virtually nothing to do as De Niro's friend. Famke Janssen gets a little more screen time as his colleague and former pupil.

Verdict: Okay, but nothing special. **.


YOUNG WIDOW (1946). Director: Edwin L. Marin.

The very American hotsy totsy Jane Russell teamed in a romantic pairing with the veddy British and veddy cultured Louis Hayward? You wouldn't think of these two together, but somehow it works. Part of the reason is that this film features a more subdued, much less hard-bitten Russell, who gives a very nice performance as Joan Kenwood, who is dealing with her grief over losing her beloved husband in the war. She and an equally effective Hayward play quite well together, despite their obvious differences. But there are even more cast surprises in this film. Penny Singleton of Blondie fame plays a friend and roommate's of Joan's, but she's not the dingbat -- her other roommate Marie Wilson (My Friend Irma) takes that role, and Singleton is sensible! Kent Taylor of The Day Mars Invaded Earth is Joan's boss and Faith Domergue of It Came from Beneath the Sea is another colleague who is afraid to marry a serviceman. Norman Lloyd of Hitchcock's Saboteur [he falls from the Statue of Liberty at the end] is another serviceman, and Gerald Mohr of Angry Red Planet and Funny Girl is another reporter. Also in the cast are Louise Beavers, Connie Gilchrist, Cora Witherspoon, and James Burke, who plays a motorcycle cop in a funny sequence and was also in the classic "The Diner" episode of I Love Lucy. A bizarre moment occurs in a hospital room full of expectant dads where a middle-aged man tells of how he and his wife were trying for twenty years to have a baby. Their luck finally changed when a young serviceman took a room in their place. Hmmm.

Verdict: Entertaining drama has laughs and poignancy in equal measure. ***.