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

Thursday, July 28, 2011


BLUEBEARD'S TEN HONEYMOONS (1960). Director: W. Lee Wilder.

"One round trip. The other one way." -- Landru to ticket agent while taking victim to his cottage. 

Loosely based on the murderous career of Henri Landru [also the basis for Chaplins' Monsieur Verdoux] -- although it follows the basic facts accurately enough -- this stars the estimable George Sanders as a man who woos wealthy widows and then murders them. In real life, Landru's motivation was essentially profit, but in this film he needs money so he can shower his trampy girlfriend Odette (Corinne Calvet) with gifts. Although in real life most of Landru's victims were elderly, in  this movie the shame is that they are very attractive and warm middle-aged women who would have made Landru a much better and more loving mate than Odette. As in real life, the sister of one of the victims helps the police track Landru down. Sanders is terrific as Landru, backed by a highly able supporting cast, including George Coulouris [Citizen Kane; Womaneater; many others] as a furniture dealer. Fast-paced, darkly amusing, and memorable. Wilder also directed Killers from Space and Manfish, but this is vastly superior to both.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws, the picture  -- and Sanders -- are damned entertaining. ***1/2.


Kelly and Grant in To Catch a Thief
TO CATCH A THIEF (1955). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

John Robie (Cary Grant), who used to be a thief known as the Cat before becoming a hero in the resistance, is suspected of a new series of burglaries on the Riviera, especially by his former comrades. Annoyed by the whole situation, he decides to track down the real culprit by getting close to potential victims, such as wealthy American Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful daughter Frances (Grace Kelly), with whom he gets very close. While this may lack the intensity of other Hitchcock, movies, it is also smooth, well-made, and full of fine acting and wonderful dialogue [courtesy of John Michael Hayes]. Grant and Kelly are as wonderful as ever, as is Landis, and John Williams -- one of Hitch's favorites -- is as usual on the money as insurance man Hughson. Playing the daughter of one of Robie's old associates, Brigitte Auber may have been younger than Kelly but the latter pretty much blows the former out of the water. All this and a nifty car chase sequence, too.

Verdict: Hitchcock treading water maybe, but who treads water with more -- pun intended -- grace? ***


LE CORBEAU (The Raven/1943). Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot. 

In a small French town an unknown individual is mailing poison pen letters to many residents, inciting suspicion and paranoia. Suspects include the old nurse Marie Corbin (Helena Mason), the new doctor in town, Germaine (Pierre Fresnay), the elderly Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), his younger wife, Laura (Micheline Francey), and pretty Denise (Ginette Leclerc), who has a yen for Dr. Germaine. As the town gossips have a field day with all the alleged information vomited from the letters, one man is driven to suicide. This is an intriguing, well-acted movie, with an especially memorable sequence when one of the suspects runs through the narrow streets with an angry crowd in pursuit. This was the basis for a very creditable American remake made eight years letter, Otto Preminger's The 13th Letter, which arguably might have a slight edge on the original, making more out of certain key sequences. In any language, however, the story is fascinating.

Verdict: Absorbing foreign film ***.


VOODOO WOMAN (1957). Director: Edward L. Cahn.

"We're going into the jungle to bring back a secret recipe for borscht -- there's millions in it, ha, ha, ha!"

For reasons that are never quite delineated, Dr. Roland Gerard (Tom Conway) is trying to make a grotesque, super-strong gorilla-like monster (Paul Blaisdell) out of a pretty native girl, Zuranda (Jean Davis) in the jungle; his wife, Susan (Mary Ellen Kay), has come to realize that her husband is seriously disturbed. In the meantime, a cold-blooded woman named Marilyn (Marla English) has enlisted a guide, Ted (Mike Connors) to take her deep into the jungle looking for treasure -- and a fateful meeting with Dr. Gerard. This is an utterly absurd, but highly entertaining horror flick featuring a vivid Marla English, who also starred in Cahn's The She-Creature and the Bel-Air production Three Bad Sisters. This would be a perfect double-bill with Voodoo Island.

Verdict: Lively, fast-paced, and a lot of fun. ***.


The St. Trinian's girls leave their mark on the Eton boys
ST. TRINIAN'S (2007). Directors: Oliver Parker; Barnaby Thompson.

Carnaby Fritton (Rupert Everett) brings his daughter Annabelle (Talulah Riley) to the girl's school run by his sister Camilla (Everett again, impersonating a more famous British Camilla), where Annabelle is at first dismayed by her classmates and then accepted by them. In this remake of The Belles of St. Trinian's, Colin Firth plays an educational minister, Thwaites, who wants to shut down the school with its unruly students and uncouth headmistress for good. In truth, the school, is about to be shuttered due to major debts, so the girls come up with a wild scheme to steal a famous painting during a quiz show. (They manage to win by seducing the boys from Eton and other tricks.) Everett continues the tradition begun by Alistair Sim in playing the headmistress in drag, but while amusing enough, he's neither as good nor as funny as Sim. It's been years since I saw the original movie, but as I recall it had charm, and this new version has no charm whatsoever. The movie is only sporadically amusing, such as when Camilla and Thwaites, who were once lovers, remark about "another time, another country" in an in-joke: Everett and Firth played best friends in the film Another Country. Gemma Arterton makes an impression as Kelly.  St. Trinian's was followed by a sequel in 2009.

Verdict: Might have looked good on paper. **.


CARTE BLANCHE THE NEW JAMES BOND NOVEL. Jeffery Deaver. Simon and Schuster; 20ll.

In the first new James Bond novel since Sebastian Faulke's disappointing Devil May Care  in 2008, top American thriller writer Jeffery Deaver [The Bone Collector] takes over the franchise and doesn't do a half-bad job. Bond has learned from intel that thousands of people are going to be killed in an attack, but the trick is in tracking down the details and saving all of those lives. The chief suspects are waste management man Severan Hydt and his right-hand man Niall Dunne, and Bond's allies include two beautiful ladies, an African police chief and a woman who raises money to feed the hungry. Deaver keeps the pages moving adeptly and suspensefully and has a couple of clever twists. However, while Carte Blanche is a good read and a good book, it doesn't have the sheer richness of the best of Ian Fleming [Man with the Golden Gun, among others] and also lacks that nail-biting tension, explosive violence, memorable antagonists, and wild paranoia of the best of John Gardner's 007 novels [Scorpius; Win, Lose or Die; Nobody Lives Forever.]  Still Bond fans should rejoice that 007 remains a very interesting and viable character. Bond and his writers have had to make some adjustments to the character as he goes from decade to decade and have generally done a good job in updating some of his attitudes. Meanwhile, work on the latest Bond movie seems to have come to a halt. We'll see.

Verdict: Not a bad bet for 007 fans if not without flaws. ***.


PREDATORS (2010). Director: Nimrod Antal.

In this latest film in the Predator series  -- the original film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger -- a group of men and one woman wake up to find themselves falling with parachutes from an unknown aircraft. It also turns out to be an unknown world they're on. The kidnapped humans all seem to have one thing in common: good guy or bad they are tough characters [or "predators"] who are used to killing, and now they find themselves hunted by the same alien species that bedeviled Schwarzenegger and crew in an Earth jungle in the first film. Predeators has superior scenic design, photography and effects work and moves at a fast, suspenseful pace, but it is especially bolstered by the acting and incisive characterizations. Adrien Brody is better than you would expect as the nominal hero, Royce, a mercenary with no sentimental streak, but then Brody seems to be one of those actors who can play just about anything. Alice Braga is fine as Isabelle, a tough soldier who is not without compassion, and Topher Grace scores as the doctor, Edwin, who at first seems out of place with the rest of the group. The supporting cast is also good. Laurence Fishburne plays such an interesting character that it's a shame he gets killed off so quickly. This is slick filmmaking; the only problem is that it all seems a little over-familiar and somewhat predictable.

Verdict: Mostly for Predators fans, who should enjoy. **1/2.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1960). Director: Vincent J. Donehue.

Based on the play by Dore Schary, Sunrise at Campobello takes place in the 1920's in the days when future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) was stricken with polio. With the help of his wife Eleanor (Greer Garson), his mother (Ann Shoemaker), children and close friends, Roosevelt not only comes to terms with his affliction, but rises ever higher in the political arena. Bellamy first played the role on the stage, and he's fine, if a bit artificial at times. Garson is quite good as Eleanor, although at first her prominent buck teeth are a distraction. But as good as the leads are, the film is practically stolen by Ann Shoemaker, superb as Roosevelt's concerned if somewhat domineering mother, and Hume Cronyn as Roosevelt's friend and associate Louis Howe. These two fine actors play characters who don't especially like each other [at least Mrs. Roosevelt finds Howe vulgar], and their crackling scenes together are the highlights of the movie. Serial king Lyle Talbot shows up briefly as another politician. Sunrise at Campobello is overlong, but it's moving and generally effective.

Verdict: Worth seeing for Shoemaker if nothing else. ***1/2.


BLACK SWAN (2010). Director: Darren Aronofsky.

This psychological thriller [or whatever you want to call it] with a ballet backdrop features all the usual elements of such movies: a dancer falling for her teacher; jealous rivalries among dancers; and so on, then adds a twist in that the lead character, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who is dancing the role of the swan in a new production of Swan Lake, is mentally unraveling as the date of her debut in the role rapidly approaches. She begins to have strange, sometimes sexual, and often violent hallucinations. Just as the character she portrays in the ballet has a light and dark side, so does Nina, with tragic results. Portman deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal, and she is the glue that makes the film the riveting twaddle that it is. But despite its good points -- including the fact that it is absorbing and very well acted [Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and Winona Ryder are also excellent in important supporting roles] -- Black Swan is a bit overwrought and occasionally silly, threatening to collapse into [literal] hysterics at any moment. A girl-on-girl sex scene seems to have been thrown in for all the wrong reasons, and does nothing to delineate character. [If the implication is that this is one more indication of Nina embracing her "dark" side, it's a bit regressive, but I suppose it could also suggest she's shedding her inhibitions. But why have a gay sex scene, even a fantasy, without real gay characters? It's like the filmmakers said, "guys won't want to take their girlfriends to a film about ballet, but when they find out it has two chicks gettin' it on...!"] Ultimately, Black Swan holds the attention but its chief appeal is Portman's and the other performances. It's undeniably arresting, but doesn't hold up under close scrutiny.

Verdict: Portman and the rest of the cast deserve kudos. ***.


GOING MY OWN WAY Gary Crosby and Ross Firestone. Doubleday; 1983.

If you ever wanted to learn what it's like growing up in the shadow of a famous father, Going My Own Way provides a very raw and sharply observed [if highly personal] answer. Gary Crosby [A Private's Affair], who had his own comparatively minor career in show biz that was curtailed and nearly derailed by alcoholism, was the first of four sons born to crooner and movie star Bing Crosby with his first wife, Dixie Lee. [Bing had other children with his second wife, Kathryn Grant.] In this absorbing book, which isn't just a "daddy dearest," Gary writes that the home life for him and his three younger brothers wasn't the idyllic picture that his father and alcoholic mother presented to the public. Today Bing might probably be considered a kind of child abuser, although corporal punishment was fairly standard for the day. Much of the book, however fascinating, must be taken with a grain of salt, as Gary -- with the help of Ross Firestone, an excellent writer -- of course tells a very subjective story, strictly his side of things, relating how he felt when he was a child and younger man. Was Bing simply a poor father who saved his good will and pleasant nature for his fans and co-workers, or was Gary an utterly impossible child who needed more discipline than most? You can decide for yourself. The late Gary Crosby [he died of cancer at 62] spares us nothing, from how he made out with an [unknown to him] drag queen whom he later beat up, and also beat his black girlfriend up while under the influence of alcohol. Whatever you think of the book, it isn't easy being the child of a celebrity, especially one who's so busy, so popular, and so distant. Two of Gary's younger brothers committed suicide. While Mommie Dearest was mostly made-up crap, Going My Own Way has the ring of truth, albeit it's understandably one-sided. One of the first tell-all Hollywood memoirs.

Verdict: Absorbing, very well-written, and in some ways horrifying. ***1/2.

THE OMEN (2006)

THE OMEN (2006). Director: John Moore.

This remake of the 1976 Omen suffers in comparison in large part because the somewhat odd-looking lead actors can't match the original leads (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick), who had more experience and more authority. Liev Schreiber plays a younger Robert Thorne, and his wife Katherine is played by Julia Stiles, who somewhat resembles a cabbage patch doll. As in the original -- this pretty much follows the 1976 movie almost scene for scene, with some differences -- Thorn unknowingly replaces his own murdered baby son with the son of a jackal, the demon spawn of Hell. Mia Farrow [interesting casting!] is not bad as the nasty nanny, Mrs. Baylock, but she isn't nearly as memorable as Billie Whitelaw in the original. The scene with the little devil boy in the zoo falls flat, but the impalement of the priest is well done, and there's a clever variation of the beheading of the photographer. The remake adds another violent death early on, as Thorn replaces the man initially chosen to be ambassador after the latter is parboiled when his car catches fire. Marco Beltrami's music is okay, but doesn't stay in the memory like Jerry Goldsmith's eerie strains for the original. Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick makes an adorable little devil, and David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite are effective as, respectively, the aforementioned doomed photographer and priest.

Verdict: See the original. **1/2.


THE WISTFUL WIDOW OF WAGON GAP (1947). Director: Charles Barton.

"Marriage is a three ring circus. First there's the engagement ring. Then the wedding ring. And then comes the suffering!"  

Duke Egan (Bud Abbott) and Chester Wooley (Lou Costello) are out in the wild west when the latter is accused of murdering drunken gambler Hawkins. Chester is told that he's now responsible for the Widow Hawkins (Marjorie Main) and her brood of several children of varying ages. Bud and Lou move onto the widow's farm, where Mrs. Hawkins tries to sweet talk Chester into marrying her. Because no one else wants to be responsible for the widow and her kids, Chester discovers that no desperado will shoot him -- and is therefore made the sheriff! It's fun seeing Lou Costello and the great Marjorie Main teamed together, though considering the pairing one would have hoped for a more side-splitting movie. Still, Wistful Widow is generally amusing and boasts one classic bit, wherein Lou is bedeviled by a frog in his soup! Abbott and Costello are both at the top of their game and Main is just marvelous. William Ching plays a good guy, and Gordon Jones, star of the first Green Hornet serial, is a saloon owner and stage coach robber.

Verdict: Cute picture for fans. **1/2.

THE DEMON (1981)

THE DEMON (1981). Writer/director: Percival Rubens.

When a young woman is kidnapped by a masked maniac, the parents call in a supposedly psychic investigator (Cameron Mitchell) to find out what happened to her and track down her abductor. In the meantime, two pretty young roommates with boyfriends are being stalked by [presumably] the same person. For quite awhile The Demon seems like two movies with different plot lines spliced together. In any case, the film was clearly influenced by Halloween with its ambiguous killer whose face is hidden and who wears a brown leather jacket and gloves with razors on them. Some of the characters and actors, including Jennifer Holmes, Zoli Markey and Craig Gardner, among others, are appealing. There's at least one unexpected development in the movie, but most of it is over-familiar. That's too bad, because The Demon isn't badly directed and has some good scenes, although the ending is a mite dragged out.

Verdict: Intriguing elements but ultimately a time-waster. **1/2.


THE VIGILANTE (15 chapter Columbia serial/1947.) Director: Wallace Fox.

"These days all you've got to do is take a good-looking guy, give him a hat, black boots and a white horse and you've got a star."

The Vigilante, a super-hero who appeared in Action Comics in the 1940's, gets the serial treatment in this cliffhanger from Columbia. Greg Sanders (Ralph Byrd of the Dick Tracy movies and serials) is a cowboy hero in the movies by day, and the roving action hero Vigilante by night. The plot has to do with a herd of beautiful horses and the curse of the "tears of blood" -- referring to pearls that are secreted in their horseshoes.The mysterious "X-1," whose identity is no surprise and who operates out of a nightclub, wants the horses and the pearls and will kill anyone who gets in his way. Byrd is good, Lyle Talbot is Lyle Talbot, Ramsay Ames (The Mummy's Ghost; Calling Dr. Death) is better than usual as the nominal heroine, and George Offerman Jr. makes for a very amiable sidekick, Stuff. Offerman had small roles in the serials The Master Key and Batman and Robin, and appeared in a great many movies, mostly uncredited. The Vigilante even has a couple of pleasant song numbers but, unfortunately, most of its cliffhangers are very prosaic.

Verdict: Entertaining in spite of itself. **1/2.