Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
"The prospect of waking up to an unexpected arousal of passion at my age is as disturbing as it is miraculous." -- John Shadwell.
In Rome the unmarried Miss Francis (Dorothy McGuire) is secretary to confirmed bachelor-author John Shadwell (Clifton Webb). Her friend and fellow American Anita (Jean Peters), who also works as a secretary, is leaving for home, ostensibly to get married. Her replacement is the similarly single Maria (Maggie McNamara). While Miss Francis pines for Shadwell, Maria sets her cap on handsome Prince Dino (Louis Jourdan) and Anita dallies with her equally handsome co-worker Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi). There are the usual romantic complications. Frankly there isn't a heck of a lot to this movie except some good performances -- Webb is as marvelous as ever and gets the best lines -- beautiful Italian scenery and very nice photography. Despite that, the picture is smooth and reasonably entertaining. Jean Peters is very attractive and saucy; McNamara is a bit on the bland side; and McGuire is hampered by having to feign a yen for the aging "bachelor" Webb. Cathleen Nesbitt probably makes the best impression among the ladies as Jourdan's lovely old mother. Vincent Padula of The Cyclops plays a doctor and Norma Varden [Witness for the Prosecution] is a party guest who has an amusing exchange with Webb.The title tune is warbled by Frank Sinatra and the score is by Victor Young.
Verdict: At the very least it's a pretty travelogue. ***.
Charley (John Garfield) seeks a way out of his hopeless poverty and decides to become a professional boxer. His mother (Anne Revere) is against the whole notion, and she watches helplessly as his success goes to his head. He has a very supportive girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer), but dallies with the more overtly sexy gold digger, Alice (Hazel Brooks). A turning point comes when Charley has a fight with Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee), unaware that the man has a blood clot in his brain. One could argue that the film is at times simplistic and employs the usual boxer cliches, but it's so well done on every level that it scarcely seems to matter. Garfield, Palmer, and Anne Revere [one of her best roles] are simply excellent, and there is also some fine work from Canada Lee, Joseph Pevney (as Charley's friend and manager), James Burke as Ben's manager, William Conrad as fight promoter Quinn, and Lloyd Goff/Gough as Roberts, a much more loathsome version of Quinn. Introduced in this film after having bit parts in several movies, Hazel Brooks is quite arresting, but although she lived for many years afterward, she retired from acting in the mid-fifties after having only a very few credits. James Wong Howe is cinematographer and Hugo Friedhofer provides a very interesting score.
Verdict: Forget Raging Bull -- this is the real deal. ***1/2.
Michael Douglas, son of movie star Kirk Douglas, was under a formidable shadow until he found success as a producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and later even bigger success as a major star of such films as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Wall Street. His father had coveted the role played by Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo and was not thrilled when his own son didn't give it to him [Michael was pressured by others] and the two had a rather distant relationship until a life-changing event had Kirk take stock of his life and come to realize what was truly important. This book provides an overview of Michael's career, his failed first marriage, relationship with son Cameron and his second marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as his battle with throat cancer. Eliot seems to have had trouble getting interviews with true insiders, so this mostly comes off as a well-done cut-and-paste effort, but it's not without interest. Eliot also wrote a book on Cary Grant.
Verdict: Acceptable standard movie star biography. ***.
Abel (Anthony Perkins) comes to South American looking for treasure, and learns that a certain forbidden area in the jungle is home to a mysterious bird-girl, Rima (Audrey Hepburn), whom the natives see as a kind of witch and wish to destroy. Abel finds the real woman behind the legend and the two fall in love to face danger and tragedy together. This adaptation of the novel by William Henry Hudson has always had the reputation of being a stinker [by people who have never seen it] primarily due to the miscasting of the leads. Sensitive Tony Perkins as a fortune-hunting adventurer? Sophisticated Audrey Hepburn as a South American native girl? The casting is slightly ridiculous, but both actors manage to rise above it and give not only decent but effective performances, as do Lee J. Cobb (the old man who raised Rima), Nehemiah Persoff, Sessue Hayakawa (king of the natives), and especially Henry Silva, in perhaps his most memorable role, as the rather malevolent Kua-Ko. Joseph Ruttenberg's cinematography is stunning, as is the art direction by E. Preston Ames and William Horning. [Although the credits boast that this was filmed in South America, most of the sequences were shot on colorfully dressed sound stages.] Bronislau Kaper did the score, with some additional music from Heitor Villa-Lobos. Perkins sings "Green Grow the Mansions" not too badly. One particularly memorable scene details the natives' trial-by-insect! Director Mel Ferrer, better known as an actor, was married to Hepburn at the time of filming, and crafted a creditable showcase for his lovely wife.
Verdict: Incurable romantics will probably love the movie; others approach with caution. ***1/2.
Inspired by real events, this film takes a serio-comic (mostly comic) look at the Gilbreth family, which consists of father Frank (Clifton Webb), wife Lillian (Myrna Loy), and eleven children with a twelfth on the way. Ann (Jeanne Crain), the oldest, wants to join her peers in wearing modern fashions and make up, which her father, a bit of an old poop at times, rails against. The film misrepresents Planned Parenthood with a dumb scene in which Mildred Natwick plays a representative of the organization who finds Gilbreth and his brood "disgusting" -- although the sequence when he has all the children (and his own) tonsils removed in the living room is a little strange as well. Webb is fine as the virile husband, but Loy gives an odd, once-removed performance, as if telling the world that this drab, matronly character is definitely not the real Myrna Loy. Crain and Betty Lynn as Deborah are better, but the picture is nearly stolen by talented little Jimmy Hunt as their mischievous brother, Billy. Cheaper by the Dozen is pleasant and entertaining. Steve Martin did a farcical remake many years later. Followed by Belles on Their Toes.
Verdict: Anything with Webb in it ... ***.
HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS (12 chapter Republic serial/1938). Directors: John English; William Witney.
Lincoln Rand (Lane Chandler) and his wife and baby set sail in hopes of finding a lost race from which the American Indians may have descended on an island north of the Arctic circle. Land and his wife are lost during a storm while their baby boy is raised on the aforementioned island by a faithful retainer. Decades later Dr. Munro (Tom Chatterton), his daughter Beth (Jill Martin AKA Harley Wood), and others -- including a gang of cutthroat sailors hoping to find treasure -- mount a new voyage to the island wherein they discover that the son of Lincoln Rand is a strapping loin-clothed man named Kioga (Herman Brix AKA Bruce Bennett). The natives on the island aren't too crazy about Kioga or his handsome buddy Kias (Mala), and the sailors prove to be treacherous at every turn as well. As serials go, Hawk of the Wilderness is mediocre, with mostly unexceptional cliffhangers, colorless villains, and a fairly bland cast. Harley Wood is so plain (by Hollywood standards) that when you first see her you think she's the middle-aged Dr. Munro's wife and not his daughter, and her acting isn't so hot, either. Brix is a touch stiff as Kioga; he appeared in a number of serials -- Daredevils of the Red Circle is one of the better ones -- but made more of a mark as "Bruce Bennett" in more prestigious Hollywood productions such as Mildred Pierce. Fred Toones, AKA "Snowflake" is hard to watch as he plays the stereotypical stupid and cowardly "negro" of the past., but "Tuffy" turns in a good performance as Tawnee the courageous dog. The final chapter, set in credible caverns inside the Valley of Skulls, is exciting, but a serial needs more than one good chapter to succeed.
Verdict: Even Republic studios is allowed an occasional stinker. **.
Author Green makes it clear at the outset that this is less a traditional biography of Jones than it is a study of her films. So while you might have to go elsewhere to read more intimate details of, say, her first marriage to Robert Walker, Green nevertheless provides most of the important facts of Jones' life story in a compelling fashion. Green examines all of Jones' movies -- including her early Republic period as Phylis Isley when she appeared in such cliffhangers as Dick Tracy's G-Men and made little impression -- from The Song of Bernadette to Carrie [in which she gave one of her all-time best performances] to The Towering Inferno, providing critical and audience reaction, behind-the-scenes notes, and a discussion of how effective Jones may or may not have been in a particular role. Green also includes chapters on her stage work, TV appearances, and parts that she nearly played but didn't, as well as abortive film projects. This is packed with info, intelligently presented, for the Jones fan. Foreword by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies.
Verdict: Excellent, very readable book on a somewhat neglected movie star. ***1/2.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
|Red Skelton succumbs to the charms of Adele Jergens|
Red Jones (Red Skelton), who has trouble holding on to a job, to put it mildly, is told by his girlfriend Ann (Janet Blair) that if he doesn't make good at something they're through. He decides to try for a job at the Fuller Brush company where Ann works, but a romantic rival, Mr. Wallick (Don McGuire), who's a top salesman, makes it his business to screw up Red's chances at every turn. Things take a turn for the worse when Red becomes the suspect in the mysterious murder of Commissioner Trist (Nicholas Joy), who fired him from his last assignment. Skelton is in top form in one of his funniest movies, with an inventive script by Frank Tashlin [and Devery Freeman] that is full of so many great sight-gags that the movie is at times a live-action cartoon [typical of Tashlin's work]. A bit in a garden involving bug spray, pruning shears, and legs in weird positions is nearly classic, as is a hilarious sequence wherein Red tries to sell a shower brush to the man-hungry starlet Miss Sharmley (Adele Jergens), who's "brushed off more men than the porter at the Waldorf." In this brief bit sexy Jergens almost walks off with the movie, but there are also very good performances from the rest of the cast, which includes Hillary Brooke as Trist's wife, Sara Franzen as his protege, and Arthur Space as a police lieutenant. Don McGuire scores as the wolfish cad Wallick and Blair is attractive and capable as Skelton's girl.The ending in a factory is also full of clever physical action, all well-handled by director Simon and a variety of stunt people. Verna Felton and Jimmy Hunt [Invaders from Mars] have a funny scene wherein Red tries to sell the former one of his brushes and her not-so-adorable grandson interferes.
Verdict: One of Skelton's best! ***.
|Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati|
To do research for his next book, writer Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) and his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) invite well-known psychic Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to dinner and a seance. Everyone at the dinner party thinks the madame is slightly nuts, and definitely a phony, but to Charles and Ruth's surprise she inadvertently manages to call back the spirit of Elvira (Kay Hammond) -- Charles' first wife, leading to expected -- and a few unexpected -- complications! One critic called the source material for the movie, the play of the same title by Noel Coward, "a wearying exhibition of bad taste" and indeed it is the sort of dark comedy/farce in which tragic situations are milked for laughs and characters sort of suppress natural human emotions for the sake of the story. Many will feel there's a definite streak of [probably benign and possibly unintended] misogyny running through the movie as well. Harrison and Cummings are fine as the husband and his second wife, but Kay Hammond -- although her performance isn't bad -- has so affected and unnatural a voice, with its jutting lower lip and distasteful inflections, that she becomes positively repulsive as Elvira. Margaret Rutherford, on the other hand, is as delightful as ever as the medium and steals the movie from everyone else. Blithe Spirit is not exactly a laugh-riot [although any pathos the situations might have had goes unexplored] but it is amusing and entertaining. A bonus on the remastered DVD of the film is an interview with Coward scholar Barry Day, who provides much interesting information on the background both of the play and movie, and also explores the many differences between the two -- and Coward's reaction to the film as well; Day is marvelous.
Verdict: Certainly worth a look. ***.
|Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as Batman|
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012). Director: Christopher Nolan.
"You're not living. You're just waiting -- waiting for things to go bad again."
This is the sequel to The Dark Knight and the third in a trilogy of films made by Christopher Nolan about Batman, and probably the worst of the three. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has been laying low since the events of The Dark Knight but has to come out of retirement to take on the threat of Bane (Tom Hardy), a grotesque killer that he thinks is the son of old enemy Ras Al Ghul. Bane not only manages to kidnap and imprison Batman in a hole called the Pit, but takes over Manhattan Island -- uh, I mean Gotham -- and holds everyone hostage with a nuclear bomb that is going to go off eventually whether he detonates it or not. [This leads to a mini-revolution that makes Occupy Wall Street look like a walk in the park.] This a perfectly workable plot and this might have amounted to a thrilling movie if Nolan was content to make a satisfying and exciting action film with good characterizations and acting [which this has for the most part]. Instead Nolan drags his meandering movie out for nearly three hours, has lots and lots of talking and brooding, and fails to craft one single memorable set piece throughout the entire movie -- yes, there is not one really memorable sequence. The Dark Knight, which started out very badly, eventually became compelling and entertaining, but The Dark Knight Rises never really amounts to much despite all the busyness and the pretentious stabs at profundity. Even the Batman comic books have had more meaningful stories than this. Worse, The Dark Knight Rises isn't especially well directed, edited or photographed, and at times you get the impression that the music [Hans Zimmer], as is often the case, is doing most of the work [at keeping the audience awake, for one thing], although even the score is nothing special.
There are some good things, however. There is an unexpected development late in the picture regarding one of the characters which I found to be a genuine surprise [and which I should have seen coming]. The acting is quite good, with Bale making an effective caped crusader, and Michael Caine a strong and sympathetic Alfred. I don't know what to make of the weird voice Tom Hardy uses in his turn as Bane [which could be his normal voice, of course] but it doesn't seem to suit the character. Anne Hathaway is good as Selina Kyle [never referred to as the Catwoman, although that's who she is], although her character is pretty unlikable, and Marion Cotillard [Nine] really scores as Miranda, who is involved in Wayne industries and dallies with Brucie Boy in the bedroom. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine as the cop, Blake, who sort of functions as an uncostumed Robin, and there are satisfactory turns from Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, and others.
Verdict: Pick up a good Batman comic book instead. **.
Clifton Webb wrote several chapters of his memoirs, but never completed the project. In this excellent book those chapters are published for the first time, with annotations by David L. Smith, who not only fleshes out [and occasionally corrects] Webb's memories but adds the biography that forms the bulk of the book [with comments from Webb's notes included]. Far from being an overnight sensation, Webb had a long career as a dancer and actor before he hit it big in motion pictures and became a most unlikely movie star in middle age after appearing in Laura. He created the character of Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty and its two sequels, was Barbara Stanwyck's husband and gave one of his all-time best performances in Titanic, played an aging silent movie star turned professor in Dreamboat with Ginger Rogers, and did many other movies, some more memorable than others [but he was always excellent]. Whatever his private life [Smith doesn't make any revelations in that regard or uncover a single relationship the man might have had except with his mother, Mabelle], people have always assumed Webb was (stereotypically) gay, and Smith perhaps tries too hard to refute that -- and is, frankly, unconvincing. But for Pete's sake, this is the 21st century -- would Smith think less of Webb if he were gay?! That is the only real flaw in an otherwise noteworthy tome. Whether you're reading Webb's own words, or Smith's, the actor comes across as a combination of a charming, urbane, sophisticated and cultured man and a precious, occasionally snooty "old queen," but in any case makes a witty and welcome companion for a couple of hours of reading pleasure.
Verdict: Gives Webb his due as an actor and entertainer. ***1/2.
When the wrong man with a similar name is released from an institution, Dr, Joan Gilmore (Belinda Montgomery) realizes that a dangerous paranoid schizophrenic is on the loose -- although the administrators at Cresthaven mental hospital in Manhattan prefer to cover it up rather than deal with it. Meanwhile the deranged man heads back to a campus at the Barrington College for Women in upstate New York where he committed several murders years before with mayhem on his mind, and Gilmore follows, unaware that two sadistic security men from the hospital are following her and hoping to catch up with the maniac, Howard Johns (Solly Marx). Viveca Lindfors plays den mother Mrs. Collins, who turns out to be Johns' mother and who's been keeping some other secrets as well. David Greenan is the reporter Mark McGowan, who bonds with Joan, and Sydney Lassick is the fairly befuddled small town sheriff. The acting in this isn't bad, with professional turns from Montgomery, Lindfors, and others, and Roderick Cook is also notable as Dr. Kruger of the Cresthaven hospital. The film has some creatively ghoulish moments and a fairly exciting climax. Originally released in 3-D, which the film doesn't seem to have taken much advantage of.
Verdict: Creditable mad slasher film holds the attention. ***.
|A giant scientist goes after Seaview in "Leviathan"|
The second season of the popular science fiction-adventure show was shot in living color. The character of Curley -- Henry Kulky had passed away -- was replaced by Chief Sharkey (Terry Becker), and the second episode marked the debut of the flying sub, which was destroyed more than once on subsequent episodes. Cute crewman Riley (Allan Hunt) was given a lot more to do. The show was set in the "future" with episode tags declaring that the date of the story was 1976 or 1978. The first episode had new, inferior theme music, but the original theme was brought back for the very next episode [the new theme -- stately, dark, but less exciting -- was used in the background of some episodes]. While perhaps not as good overall as the first season, the second season still had its share of memorable episodes. The suspenseful "Left-Handed Man" wondered if a potential secretary of state posed a danger, while "Leviathan" -- which introduced a new opening for the show -- featured a fissure that caused gigantism in animals. "The Machines Strike Back" had drones with bombs attacking the U.S. under the direction of an unknown individual. Alfred Ryder was the ghost of a Nazi U-boat captain in "The Phantom Strikes" [wherein the show entered supernatural territory, not really a good fit for it] and "The Sky's on Fire" was basically a mini-adaptation of Irwin Allen's original motion picture. "Graveyard of Fear" featured Robert Loggia as a scientist with a 200-year-old assistant (Marian Moses) and threw in a giant Man-of-War for good measure. "The Shape of Doom" [directed by Nathan Juran] involves a whale that comes dangerously close to a presidential carrier from which crazy scientist Kevin Hagen hopes to extract important scientific equipment. The three best episodes were the opener, "Jonah and the Whale," with Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) and Gia Scala inside a diving bell that is swallowed by a whale; "The Death Ship," a highly-suspenseful "Ten Little Indians"-type plot that takes place aboard the Seaview with an unknown killer decimating other important passengers; and "... And Five of Us Are Left," about WW 2 sailors trapped in a cave for 28 years!. Basehart and David Hedison still play their roles with conviction, although sometimes it seems as if their relationship changes to support the contortions of the storyline. The show would occasionally aspire to be a spy series, with generally dismal results, and more stock footage from Allen's The Lost World showed up in "Terror on Dinosaur Island."
Verdict: Slipping, but still a lot of fun. ***.
|Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins|
DARK SHADOWS (2012). Director: Tim Burton.
"I don't think people take meetings at the bottom of the ocean."
If you were hoping that Tim Burton's big screen retake of the old horror soap opera Dark Shadows would be another entertaining horror-dark comedy romp like Sleepy Hollow, or just entertaining like Ed Wood, be advised that Dark Shadows, unlike those two films, is a real stinker. A prologue that takes place in 1760 is promising as it details what happens when witch Angelique (Eva Green) puts a curse of vampirism on Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) because he spurned her love. The action then switches to 1971 Collinsport where Barnabas is accidentally disinterred from his grave and rejoins the family, consisting of Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the handyman Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), among others, and new arrival Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who is governess to little David (Gulliver McGrath) and the spitting image of Barnabas' old love, Josette. Who cares? Even fans of the old show will be disappointed in this very silly updating that consists mostly of empty [if well-done] pyrotechnics. There is the occasional funny line and clever moment -- Barnabas and Angelique have disco sex and a bit with laughing portraits-come-alive -- but all that really holds this together is Bruno Delbonnel's stunning cinematography, which deserves a better script to showcase. Depp also gives a very good performance, as do Pfeiffer, Carter and especially Eva Green [Casino Royale], but they all take a back seat to the formidable Christopher Lee in a cameo as a sea captain. [Some of the original cast members of the TV show supposedly appear in a party scene but they are impossible to spot.] This is a blatant misfire -- too bad.
Verdict: Is this Dark Shadows -- or The Munsters?" **.
Jeanne Cooper has appeared in films and many television programs [including Highway Patrol, Thriller, Perry Mason, and a very notable turn on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.] but has become most famous for her very long stint on the popular CBS soap The Young and the Restless as matriarch Katherine Chancellor. Naturally, most of her memoir focuses on the show and her cast-mates [as well as her children and grandchildren], so if you're hoping for anecdotes about Cooper working on Black Zoo with Michael Gough you'll be disappointed. [Similarly, while she mentions her friendship with Barbara Hale -- and Raymond Burr -- of Perry Mason, you won't find any notes about her working on The Houston Story with Hale, Gene Barry and William Castle.] However, there is a lot about her upbringing in a liberal household, her lovers and some co-stars, and a lot about her marriage to her handsome but otherwise unsatisfactory husband. Cooper allows herself a few diva moments, and in some of her write ups about her Y&R co-stars seems to be offering as much a slap as a hug, but why not? Cooper is a very talented actress, and in this book emerges as a likable lady as well. Great title!
Verdict: A good read about an interesting woman. ***.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
|Garfield and Turner|
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946). Director: Tay Garnett.
Cora Smith (Lana Turner) and her husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) run a combination gas station and cafe, but their placid lives become unsettled when Nick hires a drifter named Frank (John Garfield) to help around the place. Cora and Frank are attracted to one another, and suddenly she can't see herself spending the rest of her life with her much older and unattractive husband, especially when he abruptly tells her that they're selling the restaurant [for which Cora had a lot of plans], moving in with his sister, and Cora will have to be nursemaid for the paralyzed woman for the rest of her life. [In other words, Nick is almost begging to be killed. His complete disregard for his wife's feelings makes him quite unsympathetic]. What happens next is a black comedy of errors, accusations, recriminations -- and murder. Although Lana Turner gave some good performances in later years, such as in A Life of Her Own, she's a little too unseasoned to make the most of Cora, although she isn't terrible. Garfield and Kellaway come off much better, of course [although they're hardly as pretty!] and they have some solid support from the likes of Leon Ames as a D.A., Hume Cronyn as a lawyer, and Audrey Totter as a gal who briefly dallies with Frank. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a good, entertaining picture -- much better than the dreadful remake with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson -- but somehow it's not quite a classic like the superior Double Indemnity, which was also taken from a James M. Cain novel. This Hollywood version takes a lot of liberties with the plot and characters, the usual case with Cain. For instance, in the novel the lovers were practically kids.
Verdict: Not the best adaptation of a Cain novel, but certainly not without merit. ***.
|Dracula (Christopher Lee) in attack mode|
DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966). Director: Terence Fisher.
Two couples are touring Europe -- Helen and Alan (Barbara Shelley, Charles Tingwell) and Alan's brother Charles (Francis Matthews) and his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) -- when they are warned to stay away from Carlsbad by Father Sandor (Andrew Kier). Naturally, they go directly to Carlsbad despite Helen's sensible misgivings. There they wind up "guests" in Dracula's castle (which is not musty and full of cobwebs but quite beautiful and handsomely appointed) and given every courtesy by the late count's helpful manservant, Klove (Philip Latham). It isn't long before Dracula is no longer dead, however, and a cat and mouse game ensues between him and Klove and the two horrified couples. With top notch photography [Michael Reed], direction and acting -- Christopher Lee makes quite an impression as Dracula despite the fact he hasn't a line of dialogue -- this is one classy horror film, superior to its predecessor Horror of Dracula, good as that was. (Neither Lee nor Dracula actually appeared in the first follow-up, The Brides of Dracula.) Creepy and suspenseful, this one works every step of the way. As usual, James Bernard's music is a bonus. Peter Cushing's brief appearance at the opening is taken from a previous film.
Verdict: One you can really sink your teeth into. ***1/2.
|Kate Winslet as Mildred|
"I am never coming back to this hovel as long as I live!" --Veda Pierce.
This mini-series is adapted from the same James M. Cain novel that was the basis of the Joan Crawford movie of the same title. This version is much more faithful to the novel, as the Crawford version added a murder sequence that was not in the book and turned the original Mildred Pierce into a classic piece of film noir, which this version is definitely not. In the mini-series Mildred is played by Kate Winslet, who doesn't have Crawford's presence but gives a good performance, although it lacks spontaneity. The story begins in 1931 California where Mildred splits from her husband and is left to take care of their two daughters. As in the original movie, the proud Mildred gets a job as a waitress, bakes pies, opens her own restaurant -- and has to contend with her haughty older daughter, Veda [first played as a child -- and quite well -- by Morgan Turner, who might even have been able to handle the later sequences]. As in the novel Veda is studying piano, but discovers she lacks distinction. In the book she becomes an opera singer in a rather ludicrous fashion, so the mini-series wisely has her talking about it instead of showing it. The other major character is gigolo Monty Beragon, played by a credible Guy Pearce. Mildred Pierce has some fine performances and memorable sequences, such as a tragic death scene for a young character; an interview for a housekeeping job that Mildred has with rich bitch Mrs. Lenhardt [uncredited but very good]; Mildred's reaction when she first hears Veda's singing voice on the radio; and an explosive climax in a bedroom when Mildred sees her daughter's true colors in the cruelest way possible. The adult Veda is played by Evan Rachel Wood, who isn't bad in the part, but she just can't compare to the vicious brilliance of Ann Blyth in the original version [and Pearce can't quite erase memories of smarmy Zachary Scott as Monty]. Mare Winningham, James LeGros, Melissa Leo, Brian F. O'Byrne, and Quinn McColgan are all notable in important supporting roles. Nice music from Carter Burwell. Veda's gorgeous soprano singing voice is supplied by the very talented Sumi Jo.
Verdict: Pretty classy cable mini-series. ***1/2.
This is a solid biography of the actor who became most famous for the role of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and who regretted it until embracing it and doing three sequels to the film, one of which he directed [Psycho 3]. There are details on Perkin's stage and film career, his recordings [he had a passable if uninspiring singing voice and appeared in more than one Broadway musical], his romantic parts which were nothing like Norman, and his follow-up "twitchy" psychotic roles in such films as Edge of Madness and others. Perkins was actively homosexual but never accepted himself as such, becoming what today we would call an "ex-gay." In middle age he married the apparently clueless Berry Berenson [who tragically died on 9/11 years after her husband's death from AIDS], who was boyishly built, resembled one of Perkin's ex-lovers, and lived with him in the same house with Perkin's boyfriend Grover Dale and Dale's new beard/wife! Still, unlike other "ex-gays," Perkins never made any public negative pronouncements on the gay lifestyle. The author quotes numerous "friends" of Perkins -- possibly closet cases themselves -- who applaud Perkin's sham marriage and homophobically cite it as proof of his new maturity when it may have been the most immature thing the actor ever did [of course he continued sleeping with men after his marriage, which his wife claimed to know absolutely nothing about]. Two children resulted from the marriage, which was probably more of a loving friendship than anything else. Like the marriage, Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life is not completely satisfying, but it is not without merit.
Verdict: Interesting study of the life and career of a talented if troubled and delusional actor. ***.
While on a camping trip in Germany Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall) comes across Helen (Marlene Dietrich) swimming with other pretty chorus girls and it's love at first sight. In one of the swiftest transitions I've ever seen in any movie, practically the next second the two are married, living in the U.S., and have a cute little boy named Johnny (Dickie Moore). [I mean there isn't even a two-second shot of their wedding let alone any scenes of courtship.] It develops early on that Ned has a serious illness and needs a lot of money to travel to get treatment, so Helen goes back to work [billed as the "Blonde Venus" in a campy "African" night club number in which she first appears in a gorilla suit] and gets the money from playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). What follows is a series of misunderstandings and recriminations, with Helen on the run with Johnny and Ned in pursuit and so on. This is neither one of Dietrich's best performances nor one of her better movies, and Grant, Marshall and even little Dickie Moore come off better than Dietrich. Blonde Venus is the kind of dopey movie in which even while on the run and hungry for food Dietrich can somehow manage to afford a maid [the always-wonderful Hattie McDaniel]! The "Hot Voodoo" number, while utterly impossible to take seriously, is a hoot, and Dietrich's flat singing as delightfully awful as ever. Sidney Toler plays a police detective hunting Helen, and Sterling Holloway has a small role as a friend of Ned's in the early scenes in Germany.
Verdict: At least Dietrich looks beautiful no matter what her tribulations. **.
|Mrs. Davis (Fran Franklin) hurls a curse|
This picture posits the theory that all paranormal activities center around people who are buried in 23 specific cemeteries. Okay. Then the movie pretty much forgets about that and focuses on three stories of the occult. In the first tale three college men play a prank on a fourth, who accidentally dies, and his mother (Fran Franklin) puts a curse on them after her son's burial; each one dies a horrible death during the next three weeks. The second story takes place in the mountains in 1906, and concerns a man who searches for his son's missing dog in a pit from which issues strange noises and steam, and which drastically transforms him when he descends into it. The third story, "The Girl on the Bridge," is that hoary business of a ghost appearing to travelers and wanting to be taken home, only for the good Samaritans to discover that she died years before. Although Encounter with the Unknown is narrated by Rod Serling, it consists of Twilight Zone rejects. The production values are below television level, but the acting is surprisingly good at times. The ending is padded to extend the running time, and there is lots of stock music that adds little to the movie.
Verdict: Encounters you can do without. **.
|Lucy and Viv try to get the "world famous Thunderbolt" to move|
The first season of The Lucy Show had its moments but was certainly no I Love Lucy. The second season also has some laughs, but there isn't a single really outstanding episode. The more memorable ones feature Jay Novello as a safe cracker; Robert Alda and John Carradine as art student and instructor [and a very clever bit involving the Mona Lisa]; Lucy's all-woman fire department putting out a fire at the bank; Lucy and Viv opening a restaurant [though it can't compare to "The Diner" episode on I Love Lucy]; Lucy working with Mr. Mooney [Gale Gordon, who is introduced on the fourth episode of the season] at the same bank; the gals competing in a bake-off; and the frenetic couple organizing kiddie parties [the funniest bit has the gals trying to get a recalcitrant dog, "the world-famous Thunderbolt" -- see photo -- to just get up and move]. The problem with The Lucy Show is that everyone thinks that all Ball needs is a little shtick to be hilarious, but the episode with her conducting an orchestra is just plain bad, and there are other overly silly and unfunny episodes with labored and poor material that even the talents of Ball and Vance can't save. However, the gals get some good support from Gale Gordon, Mary Jane Croft, Kathleen Freeman, and others. Ball's second husband, comic Gary Morton, appears in one episode and is quite good. Season three was slightly better. In the introduction to the show, there are nuermous photos of Lucy, and only one of Vivian Vance, who is still billed only as a "co-star."
Verdict: "Ethel Mertz" is one thing, but you can really miss her teaming up with Ethel Merman. **.
|Al Pacino as Shelly Levene on Broadway|
When Al Pacino appeared in the film version of David Mamet's play in 1992, he played the role of hot shot Ricky Roma. Twenty years later he's now playing the role of Shelly Levene [played by Jack Lemmon in the movie] in this new Broadway production of the play. Although it won a Pulitzer Prize, the somewhat old-fashioned Glengarry [taking its cue from previous plays and films about competitive salesmen and the like] is basically a play that sinks or swims on its acting. The film succeeded mostly because of a stellar cast giving their all. Shelly, afraid he may be washed up in the real estate business, is desperate for "leads" [the names of prospective buyers] even as younger Ricky Roma (Bobby Cannavale) is sewing up a deal that will put him on top in the office. The next day it develops that all of the leads have been stolen, and there's more than one suspect in the robbery.
Much of the audience I saw this with reacted to every utterance of "mother fucker" and the like with roaring laughter as if they were clever punchlines in a sitcom. People close to the stage may have felt like they were in a private party with the actors and felt they had to laugh at every obscenity. The language isn't the problem, but that much of the play's characterizations and observations are over-familiar and superficial. It probably goes without saying that anyone expecting a theatrical masterpiece like Death of a Salesman or Long Day's Journey Into Night had better look elsewhere. [I admit that I am not a big Mamet admirer.] The movie was relatively cinematic and therefore faster- paced, but the play -- especially the two scenes comprising the first act -- here seems very slow.
Pacino and the other actors [including David Harbour, John C. McGinley, Richard Schiff, Jeremy Shamos, and Murphy Guyer] all give good, even very good, performances. Pacino has a problem in that despite the added years he's playing a role that was much better suited to Jack Lemmon [comparisons may be odious, but Lemmon was better], but he has gotten more than respectable reviews, and his basic talent and that certain mesmerizing quality he has, almost always carries him through, as it has done here.
So, is this worth the exorbitant ticket prices this is getting on the strength of Pacino's name? It's not even worth what you'll pay for the mezzanine.
Verdict: Fine actors; mediocre vehicle. Rent the movie instead. **1/2.