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

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.

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

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.

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. Virginia Leith is a pretty nurse who arouses passions before becoming The Brain That Wouldn't Die. A much better Richard Fleischer film is 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.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

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! **.

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 pathologically 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! ***.