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

Thursday, June 28, 2018

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS

Jane Powell rules the roost: 7 brothers instead of dwarves
SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). Director: Stanley Donen.

In the Oregon territory of 1850 rugged farmer Adam (Howard Keel) comes to town and is instantly smitten with a busy waitress named Milly (Jane Powell), and vice versa. The two get hitched and Milly discovers that she now has six brothers-in-law that she has to attend to. The crude brothers, who are taught manners by Milly, go a-courtin', but when things don't proceed as fast as they want, they resort to kidnapping potential brides upon the advice of Adam. Milly is outraged and orders the men into the barn while Adam goes off to a cabin to wait out the winter, unaware that Milly is pregnant ... Seven Brides has been denounced as misogynous in some quarters, but while some of the characters may be misogynous, I don't really think the film is. Sure, it's handy that the brothers all turn out to be gentlemen who never molest the ladies, and even handier that all of the women fall in love with the boys (it might have added some dramatic conflict if one or two of the gals had preferred their old boyfriends or just found none of the brothers appealing), but I don't believe any of this is meant to be taken seriously. In any case, the main thing about the vastly entertaining Seven Brides is not the plot but its sheer enthusiasm, its embrace of life, its excellent performances, and the wonderful singing and dancing throughout. Powell and Keel are perfection and they're nearly matched by the other players, including Ian Wolfe [Dressed to Kill] as Reverend Elcott; and Russ Tamblyn, Jeff Richards [Born Reckless] and the other brothers as well. (Ruta Lee -- billed as Ruta Kilmonis -- and Julie Newmar -- billed as Julie Newmeyer -- are two of the wives.) Seven Brides is also distinguished by the fact that it has one of the best scores for a movie musical that is not based on a Broadway show (although decades later Seven Brides was turned into a musical for the London stage). Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul provided genuinely memorable tunes such as"Lonesome Polecat" "Sobbin' Women;" "Bless Your Beautiful Hide;" "When You're in Love;" and especially the beautiful "Wonderful Day" and infectious "Spring, Spring, Spring."  Wonderfully photographed in CinemaScope and Technicolor by George Folsey. The choreography is by Michael Kidd, who was also an actor [It's Always Fair Weather].

Verdict: Whatever its peculiarities, this is a top-flight musical. ***1/2. 

THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS

Robots -- or humanoids? 
THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS (1962). Director: Wesley Barry.

"Mankind is a state of mind."

"Your sister is in rapport."

In what purports to be a post-apocalyptic time period, many humans can't reproduce and robots are doing most of the work. Captain Kenneth Cragis (Don Megowan of The Werewolf) is distrustful of the "clickers," who have humanoid faces and bodies but are mere mechanical men, according to him. Cragis belongs to the Order of Flesh and Blood, a society which fears that robots may spell the end of mankind. Then he learns that his sister, Esme (Frances McCann), is "in rapport" with her clicker servant, Pax (David Cross) -- who, presumably, is anatomically correct -- a situation that Kenneth finds repugnant. Meanwhile a secret organization of clickers has been able to create robots that are 96% human by transferring memories and consciousness from recently deceased people and putting them in mechanical bodies that resemble them. The only thing left is to create "robots" who can reproduce. Kenneth falls in love with Esme's friend, Maxine (Erica Elliott), and vice versa, but the two are harboring a secret that neither of them is even aware of ... Creation of the Humanoids is talky science fiction with "science" that may be on the level of an old comic book, but the talk is always interesting and there are plenty of fascinating notions in Jay Simms' screenplay. This is an extremely low-budget production but the use of shadows disguises the fact that there are few real sets, although Esme's apartment is strikingly designed. The actors put over the material quite well, and the picture has a fast enough pace, although there's a scarcity of action. The "twist" ending shocked me when I was a little kid, but nowadays I can tell it doesn't make much sense. The weird musical score doesn't hurt.

Verdict: Thought-provoking science fiction if you take it with a very large grain of salt. ***. 

THE PRICE OF VALOR: THE LIFE OF AUDIE MURPHY

THE PRICE OF VALOR: The Life of Audie Murphy, America's Most Decorated Hero of World War II. David A. Smith. Regnery; 2015.

Audie Murphy, a poor farm boy who became the most decorated hero of WW2, beat the odds in combat and then also beat the Hollywood odds by becoming a movie star.  Murphy was never considered any kind of Laurence Olivier, but he gave convincing performances in films that employed his limited range and made good use of his pleasant but often angry and bitter demeanor. Murphy suffered from what today we would call PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), which made it tough on his two wives, the first of which was actress Wanda Hendrix [The Admiral Was a Lady].; he also had a fling with actress Jean Peters [Vicki]. The first half of the book recounts Murphy's adventures as a soldier overseas, the campaigns he was part of, and the bravery he showed which led to him taking, and saving, many lives. At first he was contemptuous of other soldiers who broke down or cried in sheer terror, but he eventually developed some compassion for them. Never anxious to be seen as a "hero," his survivor guilt insured that he thought the real heroes were the men who died overseas.  As an actor Murphy appeared in the film version of his self-effacing memoir To Hell and Back, starred in John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, and in addition to a variety of western films, appeared in everything from Bad Boy to The Unforgiven. Forever seeking the excitement of his early years, he developed a gambling addiction, suffered from perpetual nightmares, and always carried a gun. As he got older, Murphy found that times had changed to such an extent that he was seen as a a mere World War 2 relic; even his beloved westerns had undergone a psychological change. Ironically, after surviving so much during the war, he died in a plane crash at the age of 45. The Price of a Valor is probably not the last word on Murphy, but it is a readable, fast-paced book that gives the reader most of the facts. Not a film historian, author Smith briefly covers the films but the book can't really be considered a career study.

Verdict: Informative look at the life of Audie Murphy. ***.

AROUND THE WORLD WITH THE HONEYMOONERS IN BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR

Jackie Gleason and Art Carney
AROUND THE WORLD WITH THE HONEYMOONERS. IN BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR. The Jackie Gleason Show. The Color Honeymooners. Collection 1. Directed by Frank Bunetta. 1966. Also The Jackie Gleason Show 1956.

"The Honeymooners" began as a series of sketches on Cavalcade of Stars, then on Jackie Gleason's own program. In 1955 the sketches metamorphosed into a half hour series, The Honeymooners, that lasted one season and 39 episodes. Gleason decided to go back to a variety format, The Jackie Gleason Show, and returned again to the Honeymooners. Several of the episodes were turned into a musical story in which Ralph, Alice, Ed and Trixie win a trip around the world. In these Audrey Meadows revealed that she had a lovely singing voice, and Joyce Randolph could carry a tune as well.

About a decade later Gleason revived The Jackie Gleason Show complete with all of his old characters and the June Taylor Dancers, and also decided to do color remakes of the musical trip around the world. While Art Carney came back as Norton, Alice and Trixie were now played by Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean. These remakes essentially used the same scripts and the same songs. When these episodes proved successful, Gleason took a variety of old non-musical scripts (from the "Lost Honeymooners" episodes) and added new tunes to make additional episodes.

This story line has Ralph (Jackie Gleason), Ed (Art Carney), and their wives (Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean) going on an around-the-world tour after the boys win a slogan contest for the Flakey Wakey cereal company. As usual, the boys treat their much smarter wives abominably (you have to wonder why either woman would stay with them, but that's show biz!) Gleason and Carney could do no wrong for the Miami Beach audience, who ate up every double-take, fat joke, and put-down with delight, and much of the material was genuinely funny, although much was also routine. Gleason and Carney make an unbeatable team, and there's good support from the gals, although one misses Audrey Meadows' acerbic delivery in her performance as Alice in the original series. The first episode, as well as the second -- which has the group traveling on a cruise ship when the boys fall overboard -- are excellent, and the rest are hit or miss. There's a very funny segment with Robert Coote [Theater of Blood] in London where the gang do a television commercial (shades of the "Happy Housewife's Handy Helper," or whatever it was called) and the Jackie Gleason show is itself spoofed; and amusing moments when they encounter counterfeiters in France; blackmailers in Spain; a huge gorilla in Africa; a conniving "ghost" in an Irish castle (an especially silly episode); and when Ralph thinks Alice has an Italian lover who turns out to be a little boy (Jomar Cidoni). The songs are by Lyn Dudddy and Jerry Bresler, and they are at least serviceable, and often much better than that. (MacCrae and little Cidoni have a very charming and pretty number in the Italian episode, a new version of the same song from the black and white episode with Audrey Meadows and another talented young boy.) One could easily quibble about some of the things in these shows, but they are undeniably charming and well-acted and often very, very amusing.

All of the black and white musical shows were redone in color except for the episode in Berlin, where Ralph and Ed wander into Russian-controlled territory and wind up in prison. This is not one of the better episodes, but as usual it does have some pleasant tunes and funny material, such as when Ralph does a Russian dance for the assemblage. Overall, the color versions are somewhat better than the black and white originals; all are available on DVD.

Verdict: The Great One, his equally great sidekick, and lots of funny stuff. ***.

TEENAGE CAVEMAN

Robert Vaughn and Jonathan Haze
TEENAGE CAVEMAN (aka Teenage Cave Man/1958). Produced and directed by Roger Corman.

In what seems to be a prehistoric society, the young son (Robert Vaughn) of the symbol maker (Leslie Bradley) questions the laws of the society as embodied by the crusty "Black-Bearded One" (Frank DeKova). No one is permitted to cross the river into the forbidden territory, but Vaughn's curiosity gets the better of him and he discovers dinosaur-like creatures (courtesy of One Million B.C. and others) and a strange "god" in a kind of bear suit who has a death touch. Pursued by the others of his tribe, Vaughn learns the truth of the world that lies beyond his tiny village ... Anyone who has read Steven Vincent Benet's classic 1937 story "By the Waters of Babylon" will figure out the twist in this rip-off/variation of the tale, but on its own terms Teenage Caveman is more entertaining than it has any right to be. Vaughn gives a good, solid, dramatic performance and DeKova nearly steals the show in his turn as the dyspeptic guy who thinks anyone who breaks the law should be killed. The film casts Roger Corman's usual troupe of actors, including Jonathan Haze [The Little Shop of Horrors] as the "Curly-Haired Boy" and a spear-wielding Ed Nelson [Attack of the Crab Monsters]. Albert Glasser's typically brassy and effective score may be better than the picture deserves but it ably punctuates each scene in the film's short running time. Robert Vaughn went on to major success on TV's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Teenage Caveman is similar to Creation of the Humanoids in that both films appear to be post-apocalyptic -- and they are -- but both turn out to take place in the distant past as well. A real film version of "By the Waters of Babylon" might have made a strikingly powerful film, but its ideas have been "borrowed" so often since its publication that it's unlikely it will ever receive an official filming, although a movie with just that title is listed as "in development" on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) website. Who knows?

Verdict: Vaughn and dinosaurs. **1/2. 

STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO.

STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO. Blake Bell. 2008; Fantagraphics.

Steve Ditko is the comic book artist and writer who is most famous for the co-creation of Spider-Man, as well as Dr. Strange, with Stan Lee. Ditko became obsessed with writer Ayn Rand -- especially her novel The Fountainhead -- and its principles, and it had a profound effect on his life and work. Like the architect hero of Fountainhead, Ditko felt he had to remain true to his principles, and was loathe to make money doing what he saw as crap -- anything that didn't smack of Ayn Rand. Unfortunately, most readers did not have the same interest in Rand, and Ditko rejected suggestions to make his stories more readable even as his art suffered, everything becoming subordinate to his "messages." Occasionally Ditko would try more or less mainstream work, such as Marvel's short-lived Speedball comic, as well as Hawk and Dove and Shade, the Changing Man for DC, but these did not necessarily sell in large numbers. Ditko could have made a fortune sticking to Spider-Man, but he wanted to take the strip in a direction that understandably did not sit well with the powers-that-be at Marvel, and he was also proven to be out of touch with the youthful readers of the time. Ditko is nevertheless a talented artist, and much of his work graces this beautifully-produced coffee table book with excellent text by Blake Bell, covering all aspects of his life and art.  Frankly, Ditko was never my favorite comic book artist while I was growing up, but I came to appreciate his work as an adult, and Strange and Stranger explains in detail the man's artistic achievements and innovations. There is also a lot of backstage business about the comics industry. NOTE: Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay for the terrible Love Letters.

Verdict: Not just for obsessive Ditko fans, but they will appreciate this the most. ***1/2. 

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART FOUR

Dr. Strange 
Here are some mini-reviews of films that are less than twenty-five years old:

Deadly Whispers (1995). Director: Bill Norton. An investigation ensues when young Kathy Acton (Heather Tom) goes missing, and suspicion falls upon her father (Tony Danza). There are several good performances in this fact-inspired telefilm, especially from Pamela Reed as the missing girl's mother -- she is outstanding. **1/2.

Lonely Hearts (2006). Writer/Director: Todd Robinson. This is the third version of a true story already told in The Honeymoon Killers and Deep Crimson, only the focus in this version is on two homicide detectives (well-played by John Travolta and James Gandolfino, especially the former) with their own issues who track down the  exploiters and killers of lonely women, Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) and Martha Beck (Salma Hayek). Leto and Hayek make a sexy and deadly duo of sociopaths,but making them share attention with the cops harms the movie. **1/2. .

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). Writer/director: Woody Allen. When Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) walks out on his ding-bat wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), and marries a hooker, his daughter develops her own marital problems with her writer-husband (Josh Brolin). Meanwhile an alleged psychic, Cristal (Pauline Collins), is telling Helena how everyone should live their lives (past and future). This is a very entertaining and very well-acted comedy-drama that just misses being really special. It's typical Woody Allen, with lots of infidelity and screwed-up relationships. One plot point, in which a character steals a dead man's manuscript and presents it to a publisher as his own, has been much better handled elsewhere. **1/2.

Margin Call (2011). Director: J. C. Chandor. In 2008, after the head of their risk department is fired, an investment firm discovers that they are heading for a financial disaster; arguments ensue as to exactly which path the company will take to survive. Top-notch acting from such players as Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Simon Baker, among others, helps keep this suspenseful and riveting, although some may be disappointed at the lack of highly dramatic fireworks. ***.

Honeymoon (2014). Director: Leigh Janiak. A couple (Harry Treadaway of Penny Dreadful and Rose Leslie) go to a cabin on their honeymoon and strange things begin to happen. Are one of both of them having a psychotic breakdown; is another couple nearby causing problems; or is there something odd going on in the woods? The movie is very well-acted and suspenseful but much too slow, and the wind-up borders on the ludicrous because it ultimately makes little sense. Too bad, because it holds the attention for quite awhile. **.

Home Sweet Hell (2015). Director: Anthony Burns. The acting is splendid in a very black comedy in which a man (Patrick Wilson) with a domineering and sociopathic wife (Katherine Heigl) is importuned by her to murder his avaricious and dishonest mistress (Jordana Brewster). Jim Belushi also scores as Wilson's friend and employee, but the movie becomes increasingly over the top and rather ridiculous. **1/2.

The Accountant (2016). Director: Gavin O'Connor. Two Treasury agents try to track down a mysterious CPA (Ben Affleck) with a strange family history who runs his own business but seems to have a number of dangerous sidelines. The picture has interesting twists and turns but ultimately it becomes a little silly. The acting is good, with J. K. Simmons a stand-out. This probably would have worked better as a novel. **1/2.

Dr. Strange (2016). Director: Scott Derrickson. Marvel's "Sorcerer Supreme" reinvented for the movies retains the idea of an arrogant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) who searches for meaning after he loses the medical use of his hands. Tilda Swinton makes her mark as "The Ancient One" (given a sex-change from the comics), Cumberbatch [Star Trek Into Darkness] is okay, and there are some fine special effects, especially a sequence in which Manhattan is seemingly turned topsy turvey during a battle. The depictions of other-dimensions are interesting but there's nothing as bizarre as what artist Steve Ditko came up with in the comic book. The whole project is just kind of blah. Stan Lee's cutesy cameos in these things are getting tiresome. **1/2.

Logan (2017). Director: James Mangold. This tremendously over-rated movie takes a last look at the character of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) -- James Logan of the X-Men -- and his mentor, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), while adding a little girl, possibly Logan's daughter, who runs around beheading people with her claws. Meant to be moving, Logan is instead kind of silly and so restricted by dumb popular tastes that even a certified X-Men fan like myself found it stupid and tedious. The actors, however, are excellent and deserve a better vehicle. **.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017). Director: David France. This documentary follows Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project as she tries to investigate the death of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. Was she murdered, or did she simply fall through the literal cracks in the pier near where her body was found? The movie has no real answers. It also looks at the life of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, who became good friends with Marsha after their initial rivalry. There was criticism of the film because it was made by a white, gay, non-transgender (cisgender) man, but the real problem is that it borders on the superficial. One suspects that despite the very real challenges and discrimination Johnson and Rivera had to face, they had self-destructive streaks that only added to their problems. Johnson and Rivera get points for helping homeless transgender youths of color, but their work as LGBT political activists has been somewhat exaggerated. **1/2.

The Beguiled (2017), Director: Sofia Coppola. This remake of the near-classic Clint Eastwood film mixes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Kirsten Dunst but comes up short. The simple truth is that while Farrell is arguably a better actor than Eastwood -- and he's quite good in the film -- Kidman is no match for Geraldine Page nor Dunst for Elizabeth Hartman from the original. Both of those actresses provided neurotic emotional fireworks that the new ladies lack. Still, it's an entertaining picture but not nearly as good as the earlier version. **1/2.

Batman and Harley Quinn (2017). Director: Sam Liu. Batman and Nightwing team up with reformed villainess Harley Quinn to stop a plot by her old friend Poison Ivy and the Floronic Man. This is the nadir of DC comics animated features, a disgracefully awful, self-indulgent mess that even includes jokes about flatulence. The worst Batman project ever, everyone involved in this should hang their heads in shame. Written by Bruce Timm and Jim Krieg. Why does DC keep foisting the irritating and obnoxious Harley Quinn on everyone? 1/2*.

Bad Match (2017). Written and directed by David Chirchirillo. An Internet stud hits the sheets with the wrong woman, who turns out to have a screw loose, acting like she's his fiancee when they've only had a couple of "dates." Before long he winds up fired from his job and accused of downloading kiddie porn onto his computer. Most men in this situation would stay far, far away from this "psycho bitch" who could easily accuse him of rape if he were ever alone with her, but our hero is so stupid that he goes to her apartment twice -- and worse. The film is not badly acted and has some suspense and a couple of twists, but it lacks the strong characterization and impact that might have made it more memorable. This is a good illustration of the old adage "it isn't what happens to us but how we react to it." **1/2.

Batman vs. Two-Face (2017), Director: Rick Morales. This is another animated film that is inspired by the sixties Batman TV show and which employs the voices of Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin) and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). The dynamic duo's main adversary is Two-Face, who also works with Hugo Strange and at one point auctions off Batman's secret identity to such villains as Bookworm, Joker, Riddler, and Penguin. King Tut also appears. The film is "cute," but the highlight is the closing credits in which the entire cast dance the "Batusi." Aunt Harriet can really shake it! The well-animated picture is dedicated to the late Adam West.**1/2.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). Director: Jon Watts. Marvel has rebooted the Spider-Man franchise by turning him back into a high school kid (in the comics he didn't have much to do with the Avengers until he was an adult). This makes the movie with its 15-year-old hero (an enthusiastic Tom Holland) seem even more like a Disney movie for kids. Scenes of the boy's high school life rapidly become tedious in this very overlong movie which is distinguished strictly by two scenes: a battle on the Staten Island ferry, and a climactic mid-air fight involving a plane and a crash landing at Coney Island. These sequences are fairly spectacular, but there aren't enough of them, and the film goes on for fifteen minutes after the climax! The new supposedly high-tech versions of Spider-foes The Vulture (Michael Keaton) and Shocker aren't half as striking as the originals. In this The Vulture is the father of Spider-Man's crush Liz, and is using stolen alien technology to make weapons. Jacob Batalon makes an impression as Spider-Man's friend, Ned. **.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

GAY PRIDE SPECIAL: GAY-THEMED MOTION PICTURES

Dirk Bogarde in Victim
SEVERAL GAY-THEMED MOVIES FOR GAY PRIDE WEEK.

New York City celebrates Gay/LGBT pride this coming weekend, and in honor of that, Great Old Movies looks at several gay-themed movies and documentaries from different time periods and countries. First we have Victim, the classic 1961 drama about a British lawyer victimized by a blackmail ring (back when it was a crime just to be gay); the more recent film, Jonathan, a German drama in which a young man deals with the fact that his dying father once had a loving relationship with another man; the Israeli short Summer Vacation, in which a closeted man with a wife and children is confronted with his gay past at the beach; the 1974 Butley, with Alan Bates as a teacher who learns that both his estranged wife and boyfriend are moving on to other men; and the documentaries A Bit of Scarlet (gay depictions in British film), Uncle Bob (about the gay activist who streaked the Oscars), and Do I Sound Gay?, which kind of deals with gay stereotyping.

For more gay-themed films just type "gay" or "LGBT" into the search bar on the upper left hand corner of the blog. Thanks for reading!


VICTIM

"Are you sure you weren't feeling too fond of him?"
VICTIM (1961). Director: Basil Dearden.

"I'm not a life bell for you to cling to." -- Laura.

A young man named Jack (Peter McEnery of Tales That Witness Madness) is wanted by the police for embezzlement, but won't tell them what he needed the money for. Jack refuses to admit that he is being blackmailed for being homosexual -- which was still a criminal offense in those days. Although he has tried to get in touch with a friend, the well-known lawyer Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), Farr -- who is married to Laura (Sylvia Sims) -- refuses to talk to him. Laura learns of Jack's suicide and confronts her husband about him. Apparently she knew about a gay fling he had in the past and had hoped that he could change. Melville admits that he had sexual feelings for Jack but rejected him before anything could happen. He knows this may destroy his career and even his life, but decides to go after the blackmailers who, in essence, murdered Jack and are destroying others ... Victim was ahead of its time, and it remains a powerful and completely absorbing movie, with excellent performances from the entire cast. It is by no means a perfect movie, however, and one could not expect it to have nothing but 21st century attitudes when the film was made over fifty years ago. Still it's surprising how much sophisticated stuff managed to get into the picture. When Sgt. Bridie (John Cairney) suggests that Farr can't be homosexual because he has a wife, his superior, the more sympathetic Inspector Harris (John Barrie), immediately says "Famous last words." The notion is put forth more than once that homosexuals can't be converted, as well as the idea that there is nothing wrong in homosexuality and the laws against it are unfair and antiquated.

However, I do have a problem with the ending. The implication is that Melville and Laura may ultimately stay together, which seems unrealistic, although others have seen the ending more as an acknowledgment of deep friendship -- and Jack will certainly need friends when the blackmail trial is over -- along with his career and future. More problematic is the way Melville burns the photograph of himself and Jack in the fireplace. This was used as blackmail evidence, but it can't be used to harm either himself or Jack anymore, and it seems cold that Melville would burn what is probably the only photo of a man who loved him enough to sacrifice himself to save him. True, one can't expect Melville to walk off into the sunset arm and arm with another man (which Dirk Bogarde did in real life) -- this was 1961 after all and it's lucky the film was even made -- but some more self-acceptance on Melville's part would have been welcome. The ending was possibly meant to suggest that Melville would go on suppressing his "unfortunate urges" and retain a semblance of a marriage, supposedly "triumphing" over his homosexuality like one of those delusional "ex-gays" -- a notion that undercuts the more positive statements of the picture.

In fact, one might wonder why this "self-hating homo" would destroy his career and marriage when he doesn't exactly have an activist's bent. Why not just forget it, breath a sigh of relief and move on? It makes his burning of the photo even more senseless. Victim may be trying to show how a glib, dishonest man can summon up inner strength and resolve -- indeed that's surely what the film is suggesting -- but the ending needed to be much stronger. It is also unfortunate that it is the married closet case who takes on the blackmailers, when all the other gay men -- who seem far more accepting of themselves -- all just want to pay them off. (This is completely unfair to the many activists who existed on both sides of the Atlantic even during the sixties.) I also wish more had been made of the confrontation between Melville and the bookseller Harold Doe (Norman Bird), who was previously involved with Jack and blames Melville for his death. Melville's reaction is rather cold, but one could argue that there's a coldness, or at least a coolness, not only to Melville but to the whole movie.

Bogarde was an understandably closeted gay man in real life, and it was brave of him to take on this role, which could have destroyed his own career. As he later noted, it did serve to get him away from the superficial "pretty boy" roles and led to much meatier parts, for which he was grateful. As for his performance in Victim, it's good, but not as great as in other films, perhaps because he was confused as exactly how to play the part, and because of the improbability of his character doing what he does in the first place. Sylvia Sims is first-rate as his loving but disillusioned and heartbroken wife, and there are notable turns from McEnery as Jack; Charles Lloyd Pack [The 3 Worlds of Gulliver] as the tragic barber, Henry; Dennis Price [Dear Murderer] as the actor Calloway; Donald Churchill as Jack's friend, Eddy Stone; Margaret Diamond as the hateful Miss Benham; and others previously mentioned or not. An interesting aspect of the picture is that Victim unfolds as a thriller or suspense film, with much information -- such as the reasons for the blackmail -- being withheld from the audience for quite some time.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws -- and that ending! -- Victim is a memorable film and a landmark in gay cinema. ***.

BUTLEY

Michael Byrne, Richard O Callaghan, Alan Bates
BUTLEY (1974). Director: Harold Pinter. Screenplay by Simon Gray, based on his stage play.  American Film Theater.

"Is there a sub-text to that or can I take it as straight abuse?" -- Joey to Butley.

Ben Butley (Alan Bates of An Unmarried Woman) is a university professor and T. S. Eliot scholar who shares an office, an apartment, and -- until recently -- his life with a young assistant and former student, Joey (Richard O Callaghan). Apparently Butley left Joey at one point to marry Anne (Susan Engel) -- their marriage lasted only a year and resulted in one child. They are now separated and Ben is back with Joey, but the latter wants to move in with gay friend, Reg (Michael Byrne), if only to get away from Butley. For Butley is truly an obnoxious character, a bitter heavy drinker who seems to care little about his students, resents that a colleague, Edna (Jessica Tandy), will have a book published, and plays nasty mind games with everyone, Reg, Joey, and Anne included. Ben discovers that Anne wants a divorce because she wants to marry a man that he thinks is the dullest fellow in England. Neither Anne nor Joey seem to be truly in love with their prospective partners, but both want to get away from Butley ... Butley was a success for playwright Simon Gray and for Alan Bates, who played the role in London and on Broadway, but the play itself is problematic. Not only is Butley completely odious on all levels, but Bates plays him in such a shrill, off-putting style -- strictly in the key of arch -- that he gets on one's nerves almost from the start. You can't understand what any man or woman would see in him! The other performers are fine, however, with especially good work from a likable and sympathetic O'Callaghan. Byrne and Tandy are also notable, and there are nice bits from Georgina Hale and Simon Rouse as students. Gray leaves a lot to the imagination,  however, so we never really learn (although we can guess) how Joey feels about Butley leaving him for Anne, and how Anne feels about his homosexuality (she thinks Joey is creepy, however, which may be jealousy and homophobia on her part), or if the marriage was due to internalized homophobia on Butley's part of if he was genuinely bisexual (the term is never used). A scene between Butley and Reg illustrates how "queers" who have relationships with women can act superior to men who are strictly gay in their behavior. One suspects Gray based much of this on characters he encountered in the halls of academia, as there have certainly been plenty of professors who have both wives and boyfriends. Butley has some very good and funny dialogue but you can't quite call it a comedy, although I imagine when Nathan Lane played the role in 2006 he brought out all the humor in the loathsome character.

Verdict: Interesting enough, but it doesn't quite grip or move you. **1/2.

A BIT OF SCARLET

A BIT OF SCARLET (1997). Director: Andrea Weiss.

Taking its cue from The Celluloid Closet, this documentary looks back at depictions of queer characters in older British movies, with various sections on such subjects as "unrequited love," suicidal characters, and the like. It counts down the rules that gay characters seemed to have to adhere to in the British cinema if they were to appear at all. A Bit of Scarlet takes a while to get going, but eventually it turns into an interesting compilation, consisting primarily of unidentified clips put together in such a way as to create an amusing or thematic juxtaposition. Many of the clips, of course, present faux homosexuality as well as a lot of silly cross-dressing. I recognized clips from such films as Victim, The Family Way, The L-Shaped Room, The Naked Civil Servant, and Staircase, among others, but there's no way to tell what the other films are just because they're all listed at the end. (Flashing the title of each film as the clip is shown would have certainly made sense.) A Bit of Scarlet is entertaining enough, but it's a minor LGBT documentary. Ian McKellen "narrates" the film, but there is actually very little commentary.

Verdict: Okay survey of LGBT images in the British media. **3/4.

UNCLE BOB

Bob Opel
UNCLE BOB (2010). Director: Robert Oppel.

Bob Opel was the man was streaked the academy awards in front of 70 million viewers. He was also an advocate for sexual freedom, a gay activist, a performance artist in the counter-culture San Francisco art scene, and a murder victim at the age of forty. Shortly before his death, he put on a show called "The Execution of Dan White" after the murderer of Harvey Milk and George Moscone got off with only five years due to the infamous "twinkie" defense. An interesting documentary could have been made about Opel (who dropped one "p" from his last name), but instead the director -- Opel's nephew, Robert Oppel -- seems more interested in putting himself in the limelight. Interspersed with some file footage are reenactments starring the younger Oppel standing in for his uncle. Whatever his commitment to sexual freedom or gay rights, Opel was certainly an exhibitionist, not in the sense of someone who exposes himself to schoolgirls, but in his obvious need for attention (a need certainly provided by his streaking stunt). Uncle Bob explores but doesn't confirm the notion that the academy was in on the joke (with David Niven's famous line about the streaker's "shortcomings" being written before the show), and it never even makes clear if Opel was gay, bisexual or what. A woman who is interviewed is referred to as Opel's "girlfriend," but whether this was romantic or if she was merely a "fag Hag" bff is never made clear, and Opel's boyfriends are never mentioned. In any case, Opel opened a gallery of male homoerotic art featuring the work of Tom of Finland and Mapplethorpe, and published a homoerotic magazine as well. Opel is shown talking to Divine, John Waters, and others, as well as appearing on the Mike Douglas show, where the bland host sings a medley of songs putting the word "streak" in the lyrics. Opel was apparently killed by robbers who entered his shop looking for drugs and money, but young Oppel tries to make a case for a conspiracy theory that falls flat.

Verdict: If you can take a colorful subject like this and still make a dull documentary, you're not doing it right. This film probably should not have been made by a relative. *1/2.

SUMMER VACATION

Yiftach Klein
SUMMER VACATION (2012). Directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon. Short.

In this short Isreali drama, Yuval (Yiftach Klein) is vacationing with his pretty wife, Michaela (Hilla Vidor), and their two children, at the beach. After being playfully buried in the sand up to his neck by his offspring, Yuval finds himself trapped as the tide comes rushing in. His rescuer, who pulls him out of the sand, (in both the literal and figurative sense) is Iftach (Odad Leopold), who is at the resort with his casual flame (Ido Bartal). Although Yuval keeps this from his wife, he and Iftach are already acquainted -- in fact, they were lovers for quite awhile and Iftach keeps hoping he can get Yuval back. Things of a sexual nature occur between the two men, and Iftach decides to tell Michaela the truth, almost leading to a tragedy and an unresolved finale. The trouble with this too-short film (23 minutes) is that there isn't enough time for character development nor to answer some important questions. A bigger problem is that Yuval -- be he gay or bisexual -- is clearly dealing with self-hatred issues and is essentially a complete dickhead. At one point he even accuses Iftach of molesting his teenage son. One also loses sympathy for Iftach, who should certainly leave his ex to his closeted life and move on with another, more agreeable man, and he is rather unkind to the man he came to the resort with. Many of the developments in the story are cliched, and have been related often in movies where the lover is female. However, the acting is good, and Shai (Shay) Peleg's cinematography is first-rate.

Verdict: Absorbing but ultimately ho hum tale of closet case trapped in wet sand. **1/4.


DO I SOUND GAY?

David Thorpe
DO I SOUND GAY? (2014). Director: David Thorpe.

David Thorpe, who is -- for lack of a better term -- kind of, shall we say, "queeny," (not that that makes him a bad person) asks people if he "sounds gay" and is pretty much told by everyone that he does. Although he may or may not be dealing with some degree of internalized homophobia, Thorpe is appalled by his "gay"- sounding voice. Thorpe and  his equally "queeny" friends do not seem to know or acknowledge that the gay "bear" community exists, or that there are many different types of gay men; they just assume that most homosexual males have that certain "gay" speech pattern -- overly sibilant "s" sounds, a sing song style, ending each sentence on an "up" note, talking too fast (actually this last is not covered in the film but should have been), and so on -- when most of the gay men I've encountered don't talk that way at all.  Thorpe goes to more than one speech therapist to learn how to talk less "gay", including a man who works with gay actors who are afraid of losing jobs due to their obvious sexual orientation. (Effeminate mannerisms and behavior are largely ignored, which makes this speech therapy seem a bit pointless.)  As the documentary progresses the point finally gets made -- barely -- that not all gay men sound gay and sometimes straight guys do. There are some interesting conclusions made, especially when we meet a masculine gay friend of Thorpe's who spent most of his time with his car-loving brothers, when other gay men were surrounded by women and adapted some of their speech patterns. It is also true that there have been many cases of gay men consciously or unconsciously mimicking the speech and mannerisms of gay "femmes," which might not have happened had they hung out with the average bear.  Thorpe discovers from old friends and relatives that he started acting and sounding (stereotypically) gay after he came out, as if he needed to make a statement. Do I Sound Gay? makes some interesting points, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that if a man sounds gay, he should just own it, because there's nothing wrong in being gay, and therefore nothing wrong in sounding gay or being obviously gay. The film briefly addresses some gay men's disdain for "queens," with columnist Dan Savage wrongly stating that it's due to misogyny (what?) then stating, rather preciously, that it you "take a piece of man cake and put a female gloss on it, it's sexy" -- most gay men would probably disagree, but apparently Savage can sometimes be a little dizzy in his thinking. The most interesting person to be interviewed is Star Trek actor George Takei, who does not sound gay and makes some astute points as well. Included in the documentary is a clip of now-disgraced comic Louis CK doing a riff on "faggots" -- basically saying he can deal with gay men unless they're annoying queens -- but it's one thing for a gay man to criticize his own community and quite another for someone to do it who hasn't paid his dues.

Verdict: There's some interesting stuff in this, and Thorpe is likable, but this documentary might have been better had someone else tackled the subject. **1/2.

JONATHAN

Jannis Niewohner
JONATHAN (2016). Director: Piotr J. Lewandowski.

Jonathan (Jannis Niewohner) lives on a farm in Germany where he takes care of his father, Burghardt (Andre Hennicke), who is dying of skin cancer. Jonathan gets little help from his Aunt Martha (Barbara Auer), a bitter woman who has had something against her brother for years. Then the cause of this tension appears in the form of Ron (Thomas Sarbacher), a handsome old friend of Burghardt's who moves in with the family. Now what's going on here? Yes, this is yet another movie in which a "self-hating homo" makes a decision to marry a woman and it has negative consequences for virtually everyone. Jonathan won't be satisfied until he gets answers from his father about his mother, whom he barely knew before she died, but when he finds out Ron was Burghardt's lover (apparently Martha had a thing for Ron as well), he isn't at all pleased. Jonathan is well-acted and handsomely produced, with excellent photography and a sensitive score, but it is also slow and rather contrived, and the script seems twenty years old. It's another movie in which the characters avoid confrontations and really talking to one another because the filmmakers fear the movie will come off like a soap opera. Frankly, a little dramatic soap opera-ing might have helped this picture, which is a little too low-key. Some viewers were mightily disappointed that Niewohmer, the sexiest German actor to come down the pike since Horst Buchhollz, only gets to do love scenes with the lady caregiver (their relationship is another contrived development); however, the two gay lovers do get it on in a hospital bed at one point.

Verdict: Comes so close to being special but misses the boat. **1/2.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

BLACK WIDOW (1987)

Theresa Russell
BLACK WIDOW (1987). Director: Bob Rafelson.

Catharine (Theresa Russell) has made a career of marrying and murdering a number of wealthy men, and has gotten away with it. However, a Justice Department employee named Alexandra (Debra Winger) thinks she has uncovered Catharine's deadly game and bucks her superiors to go after the woman. People think that Alexandra has become obsessed. Catharine takes on various identities as she pursues her victims, and Alexandra eventually does the same, relocating to Hawaii under an assumed name so she can finally meet and even bond with her prey. Now it's a battle of wits and it's hard to tell who will win out in the end. Black Widow is a very entertaining picture with good performances -- Russell is especially effective -- even if Rafelson's direction is pedestrian and the score mediocre. The movie resembles a somewhat more expensive Lifetime crime thriller. Homoerotic undertones in the "relationship" between the two women go unexplored and seem unnecessary anyway. D. W. Moffett, Terry O'Quinn, Rutyana Alda, Dennis Hopper, Lois Smith, Nicole Williamson, Sami Frey, and Diane Ladd all have supporting parts, but the stand-out in the cast is James Hong as the lazy and amusing private eye, Shin. Cher was offered the role of Catharine but turned it down, which is good because Russell was more suited to the role. One wishes that we got to know a bit more about Alexandra, but perhaps the point was that she had no real life outside of her work. Nowadays the two leading ladies of this film, who are in their sixties, do mostly television work. Not to be confused with The Black Widow serial of 1947 (not that it would be!), or the 1954 Black Widow with Ginger Rogers, among others.

Verdict: This lacks real bite and intensity but it has a good plot and some very good acting. ***.

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY

Hedy Lamarr
BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (2017). Director: Alexandra Dean.

Austrian-born and Jewish, Hedy Lamarr fled the Nazis and emigrated to America, where she was turned into a star after appearing in the controversial Ecstasy in her homeland. Her first American film was Algiers with Charles Boyer. A look at her films reveal an actress whose work could be uneven, but who could also offer effective, sensual, and warm performances in such films as Crossroads and Zeigfeld Girl. She turned to producing later on and worked on Edgar G. Ulmer's The Strange Woman with George Sanders. Bombshell concentrates less on her film career and more on her scientific work, which -- incredible as it may seem -- led to the wi-fi and blue tooth of today. Apparently Lamarr conceived of the idea of radio-controlled torpedoes during WW 2 (after reading of all the deaths at sea caused by German u-boats). Her main contribution was the idea of "frequency-hopping" to keep the Germans from interfering with the Allies' signals. This same frequency-hopping led to the cell phones and other devices that are commonplace today. The Navy rejected Lamarr's ideas (developed with the help of a friend, the American composer Georges Antheil), although they apparently used her technology anyway but never acknowledged it (or paid her for it) until she was an elderly recluse who had lost her beauty. Bombshell features interviews with her children, biographers and film critics, as well as comments from Lamarr herself from a taped interview she did with a magazine writer. If you're looking for an intensive exploration of her film work and/or comments from fellow actors, you won't find them, giving this otherwise excellent documentary a feeling of incompleteness. However, what we do get is undeniably absorbing, and the filmmakers were undoubtedly not interested in doing just another movie star bio. NOTE: This documentary can be viewed on Netflix and on DVD.

Verdict: Who knew Hedy was a genius? ***.

ZOMBIE

Tisa Farrow encounters zombies but no Woody
ZOMBIE (aka Zombi 2/1979). Director: Lucio Fulci.

In some disquieting opening scenes, a seemingly abandoned yacht floats around New York City harbor, where a Coast Guard officer is attacked by a demonic figure. The owner of the ship has disappeared, and his daughter, Anne (Tisa Farrow), goes off with reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to find him. They set sail with Brian (Al Cliver) and his girlfriend, Susan (Auretta Gay), to the mysterious island of Matul, where something strange is happening to the natives. Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), who was working with Anne's father, is dealing with a plague of the recently diseased coming back from the dead. He refuses to believe that this has anything to do with voodoo, but it isn't long before ancient corpses are rising from their graves, turned into flesh-eating ghouls. It's a question if anyone will survive to get off the island. Fulci clearly took his cue from Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, but arguably Zombie is a better horror-thriller than any of them. The performances are professional, but the pic's selling point is decidedly the very grisly FX and make ups, with the gross-out factor as prevalent in this as in more recent movies. The film's "highlights" include an underwater battle between a zombie and a shark, the attack on Menard's wife (Olga Karlatos), featuring a sadistic scene when her head is slowly pulled toward a sharp piece of wood which impales her eye -- she is later feasted on by the ghouls -- and the climax when many zombies attack Renard's jungle hospital. Say what you will about Zombie (which I have no doubt is Fulci's best film), it is creepy, fast-paced and even, at times, suspenseful. Tisa Farrow is the sister of Mia Farrow, but her career certainly took a different direction. She has only a few credits and did a number of Italian thrillers. The best-known actor in the cast, Richard Johnson (ex-husband of Kim Novak), starred in The Haunting, and as Bulldog Drummond in Deadlier Than the Male and its dreadful sequel Some Girls Do.

Verdict: Effective  and very gory Italian horror film. ***.

MADE IN HEAVEN

Sonja Ziemann and Petula Clark 
MADE IN HEAVEN (1952). Director: John Paddy Carstairs.

In a post-war British village, Basil Topham (David Tomlinson) and his wife, Julie (Petula Clark), live with his parents but are hoping to move into a new house -- and get a new cook because grandpa (A. E. Matthews) burns all of their food. They are expecting an elderly maid to arrive, but instead it turns out to be the beautiful Hungarian refugee, Marta (Sonja Ziemann), who sets a lot of hearts and hormones a 'flutter. Julie isn't crazy with this situation and matters aren't helped when she and Basil are chosen to be competitors for a side of bacon if they prove to be the happiest married couple in the village. But then Marta starts coming on to Basil, the bacon is stolen, the Vicar is in an uproar, and Marta's ex-fiance (Ferdy Mayne) shows up with a new marriage proposal. Yes, Made in Heaven has a strange plot, but while it's amiable enough, it has no laugh-out-loud moments. You know a comedy is in trouble when the funniest line is that old gag about "saving your bacon." Watching this, one gets the impression that a memorable film might have been made if MGM had bought the rights, turned this into a musical, hired top stars and some great American character actors, and turned the whole thing into a jolly farce with singing and dancing. The performers are all good, however, including Sophie Stewart and Charles Victor [The Woman in Question] as Basil's parents, Richard Wattis [The Prince and the Showgirl] as the Vicar, and Athene Seyler [I Thank a Fool] as the Vicar's formidable sister, Rosabelle. Most Americans got to know Petula Clark when she had a hit with the record "Downtown" in the sixties, but she'd been performing in England for years, and later appeared in Goodbye, Mr Chips with Peter O'Toole. Ziemann primarily worked in German movies. Tomlinson [War-Gods of the Deep] was a busy actor on both sides of the Atlantic. John Paddy Carstairs also directed He Found a Star with Sarah Churchill.

Verdict: Well, it's certainly different.... **.

GREAT OLD EPISODE: HONEYMOONERS -- KING OF THE CASTLE

Kane, Gleason, Carney and MacRae

The Honeymooners: "KING OF THE CASTLE." The Jackie Gleason Show. January 7th, 1967.

"I always have to sleep in the kitchen. When your mother comes, I sleep in the kitchen. When your Aunt Ethel comes, I sleep in the kitchen. It's a good thing we don't have a cat. Because if we did he'd sleep in the kitchen. And I'd be in a box out in the hall!" -- Ralph Kramden.

In this episode of what has become known as the "Color Honeymooners," Ralph (Jackie Gleason) and Ed (Art Carney) get in trouble with their wives, Alice (Sheila MacRae) and Trixie (Jane Kean) after Ralph tells Ed to ignore a summons from Trixie. Ed should be, like Ralph, "the King of his castle," and the wives are just their subjects, or vassals. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with the women, who move upstairs to Ed's apartment while the boys try to make do with beans for dinner on the floor below. The boys try various subterfuges to get the gals to apologize, which they have no intention of doing. Originally this was a black and white sketch in the "Lost Honeymooners" collection, but this version has color and songs in addition to the cast changes. Ralph and Ed warble the tuneful "King of the Castle" and "Alice, Come Home." All four players are terrific, with Gleason being his usual force of nature. Some years later the whole gang did a few Honeymooners Specials.

Verdict: Highly amusing battle of the sexes, but there's no doubt whatsoever who will win. ***.

THE INNER CIRCLE

Warren Douglas, Adele Mara, William Frawley
THE INNER CIRCLE (1946). Director: Phil Ford.

Johnny Strange (Warren Douglas) is head of a one-man private detective agency called Action, Incorporated. He is about to place a newspaper ad for a secretary when in flounces Geraldine Smith (Adele Mara of Back From Eternity), who declares that the position has been filled -- by her. Johnny's next client is a mysterious Spanish woman who wears a veil and wants him to hide the body of her husband -- only this woman turns out to be Geraldine! Johnny narrowly avoids a murder rap but still has to find out the reason for Geraldine's deception, as well as who murdered the dead man, a blackmailing radio gossip host named Fitch. Suspects include Geraldine's sister, Anne (Martha Montgomery); singer Rhoda Roberts (Virginia Christine) and her boss, a nightclub owner cum hoodlum named Duke York (Ricardo Cortez); not to mention Fitch's housekeeper, Emma (Dorothy Adams) and grumpy gardener, Boggs (Will Wright). Johnny unmasks the killer by getting all of the suspects, along with amiable Lt. Webb (William Frawley), to enact a radio drama about the case live on the air. The Inner Circle is a very minor murder mystery, but Warren Douglas would have made a good hero for a P.I. drama a few years later (he produced such a show, The Files of Jeffrey Jones, but did not appear in it.) Douglas did play Peter Duluth in Homicide for Three. The performances are all good, with Virginia Christine [Judgment at Nuremberg] being especially snappy, and a tip of the hat to I Love Lucy's William Frawley, who eschews the stereotypical grumpy, snarling cop for one who is much more pleasant and much more efficient. This was the one and only appearance of "Johnny Strange" in the movies and on TV.  From Republic studios, the picture was well-shot by Reggie Lanning.

Verdict: Handsome Douglas makes a pretty good private eye. **1/2.

THE BLACK PANTHER

THE BLACK PANTHER (2018). Director: Ryan Coogler.

When his father dies, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) will become the new king of the mysterious African nation of Wakanda, but first he has to face more than one challenger to the throne. M'Baku (Winston Duke) is defeated after a fierce struggle, but T'Challa has a tougher time with Erik "Killmonger" (Michael B. Jordan) -- a mercenary who is also T'Challa's cousin, raised in the states -- and there is a real danger that this peaceful, if isolated nation with its incredibly advanced technology (mostly stemming from its mountain of a metal called vibranium) will try to take over the world under Killmonger's regime. The Black Panther is based on a Marvel Comics character who first appeared in the Fantastic Four comic over fifty years ago. Although the ruler of a nation with its own troubles, he became an on again-off again member of the Avengers, a situation that is repeating itself in these movies. The Black Panther isn't a perfect film by any means, but it is absorbing and fast-paced and very well-acted by the handsome Boseman, Jordan, and Duke, as well as by Letitia Wright as T'Challa's sister Shuri; Angela Bassett as his mother, Ramonda; Lupita Nyong'o as his ex-girlfriend, Nakia, who wants to use her country's advances to help the rest of the world; and Danai Gurira as General Okoye, who leads an army of skin-headed warrior women. Andy Sirkis and Martin Freeman, the only Caucasians in the cast, are also good as the villainous Ulysses Klaue and the CIA agent, Everett Ross, respectively. Some of these characters appeared in the comic books while others are new. The picture has some fairly good action sequences (such as a fight on the edge of a waterfall), and boasts impressive and intriguing settings and costumes. The FX are also top notch, showcasing some remarkable aircraft and other devices. Even the Black Panther's costume is a device.

Of course, we have to contend with the fact that Wakanda is not a democracy, and despite the fact that women have contributed a great deal to this society, they apparently can not challenge the king for the throne, adding a misogynous tone to the proceedings. One also has to wonder how this advanced country can choose who rules the nation by having one challenger beat the crap out of another! Perhaps these very things will be addressed in future movies or at least in the comics!

While I agree that The Black Panther has been over-praised, I was amazed at the sheer hatred it got as well. Some viewers may well have been reacting to the far-fetched concept (Wakanda apparently has an express subway line in the underground), but, sadly, others were undoubtedly bothered because the black characters dared to be intelligent and technologically superior. It's a movie. Get over it!

Verdict: Very good to look at, often exciting, well-acted, and somehow stirring. ***.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

FUNNY FACE

Sexless glamour: Audrey Hepburn (with Fred Astaire)
FUNNY FACE (1957). Director: Stanley Donen.

Fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson of Manhattan Merry-Go-Round) and photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) invade a Greenwich Village bookstore with a dumb model (hoping all the books will make her look intellectual) and a camera crew, overwhelming the bright if pretentious clerk, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn). Later they get the idea of turning Jo into a high-fashion model where she will be the cornerstone of a campaign in Paris and help introduce designer Paul Duval's (Robert Flemying of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) new line. Jo has always wanted to see Paris and meet her idol, Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), the founder of "empathacolism," who preaches empathy but would rather make time with Jo. Almost grudgingly, Dick and Jo fall in love while the others hope that she and the new collection will be a hit. Hepburn, who exudes her famous "sexless glamour" throughout the movie (even before she's made over), had starred in several films by this time, and she gives a superior performance, radiating charm, but her singing is for the birds and she was wisely dubbed by the time My Fair Lady came around. Astaire is Astaire, making everything seem effortless. One can only assume that Eve Arden wasn't available to essay the role of Maggie, because the casting of Kay Thompson -- even though the woman could sing and dance -- is perplexing. Thompson is by no means terrible, but she completely lacks the light tough, and hasn't an ounce of charm; indeed she's rather off-putting. Admittedly, you won't find many close ups in most wide screen productions of the era, but the camera wisely stays as far away from Thompson's face as it can. The songs consist of some Ira and George Gershwin classics and new tunes by producer Roger Edens and collaborators."Bonjour Paris" has Astaire, Hepburn and Thompson extolling the virtues of the great city. Hepburn and Thompson clown around for "How to Be Lovely;" and Astaire warbles the title tune, "He Loves and She Loves" and "S'Wonderful." Ray June's cinematography is first-rate and makes the most of Parisian locations, especially a pastoral forest where Hepburn and Astaire have a dance -- the film's highlight. Funny Face is good to look at and generally well-performed, but for some reason it just doesn't emerge as a real classic, and the script is trite and dated. The score is very jazzy, and at one point Astaire and Thompson (who reportedly did not enjoy working with Astaire) team up for a beatnik number that frankly, doesn't add much to the picture.

Verdict: Attractive fluff. **3/4.

DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK

Marilyn Monroe
DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952). Director: Roy Ward Baker. Based on the novel "Mischief" by Charlotte Armstrong.

Eddie Forbes (Elisha Cook Jr.) is an elevator operator at Manhattan's McKinley Hotel who wishes he had never let his niece, Nell (Marilyn Monroe), babysit for the young daughter of guests Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle of The Manitou). For Nell has been disturbed ever since the man she loved died at sea in a plane crash. It doesn't help that she encounters a pilot named Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), whose girlfriend, Lyn (Anne Bancroft of Gorilla At Large) told him to take a hike because she not only feels they have no future but finds him essentially cold. Confusing Jed with the dead man, Nell becomes increasingly unraveled and things look more and more dangerous for her and the little girl (Donna Corcoran) and possibly Jed as well ... Marilyn Monroe is given a pretty tough assignment to play an emotionally disturbed, indeed mentally ill woman in this, and her performance ranges from some quietly effective moments to the occasionally embarrassing one; but all in all she's good and may even manage to wrangle a tear or two from some viewers. Bancroft and Widmark are excellent, and there is also notable work from young Corcoran, as well as Verna Felton (the stern maid on I Love Lucy) and Don Beddoe, as a nosy hotel guest and her husband. Gloria Blondell is a nightclub photographer, Jeanne Cagney plays a telephone operator, and Michael Ross [Attack of the 50 Foot Woman] is the house dick.  The ending to this is rather moving, and none of the major characters are untouched by the experience. This was released by Twentieth Century Fox with big-name leads, but it's essentially a "B" movie with a short running time. 

Verdict: Sad story of a grieving, neurotic woman disguised as a competent little thriller. ***. 

ARABESQUE

Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck 
ARABESQUE (1966). Produced and directed by Stanley Donen.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, my dear, but Mr. Pollock is as poor as a church mouse." -- Beshraavi

"He was rather strange, even for an American."

Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is drafted by an Arab Prime Minister, Hasson Jena (Carl Duering) to enter the home of the sinister Beshraavi (Alan Badel of Salome) and decode a cipher on a piece of paper with a Hittite inscription that my reveal the man's plans. The house is apparently owned by Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), Beshraavi's mistress, and to Pollock's befuddlement her role keeps changing even as she seems to switch sides with the drop of a hat. Before long he and Yasmin are on the run, dodging bullets and trying to get back the cipher so they can figure out what is happening. But David is never sure if he can fully trust Yasmin. Arabesque was Stanley Donen's follow-up to the more successful Charade, but the film's first big problem is the miscasting of the two leads. Peck tries to approximate but fails to deliver the light touch of a Cary Grant, and Loren is also a bit too heavy-handed, although she tries. Arabesque has a solid plot but the script has too many silly, indeed stupid, detours, and some of the action scenes are completely muffed by Donen, who is no Hitchcock. On the other hand, there is some exciting business near the end, including an attack on the principals at a construction site, an attempt to stop an assassination, and a race across a bridge while a helicopter is firing live ammunition at the couple. Another problem is that Alan Badel looks too much like Peter Sellers impersonating an Indian (which he did more than once in his career, such as in The Millionairess, which he did with Loren) and you keep expecting -- or hoping -- he will suddenly indulge in some hilarious shtick. No such luck. Henry Mancini's score does little to help. A much better thriller for Peck was Mirage.

Verdict: So so comedy-thriller with a few good sequences, but not nearly enough. **1/2.

FRECKLES COMES HOME

Mantan Moreland and Laurence Criner
FRECKLES COMES HOME (1942). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

Summoned by his old pal Danny (Marvin Stephens of Borrowing Trouble), "Freckles" Winslow (Johnny Downs) comes back to Fairfield, Indiana, accompanied on the bus by a stranger named Muggsy Dolan (Water Sande of Blonde Ice). Muggsy pulled off a bank robbery in which a guard was killed, and has taken it on the lam, figuring quiet, isolated Fairfield is as good a place to hide out as any. He gets it into his head to rob the bank and brings in an associate, Quigley (Bradley Page). Danny lost money that he needed to pay bills for his hotel by buying an alleged gold-finding machine, and wants Freckles' help in using old girlfriend Jane Potter (Gale Storm) to convince her banker father, Hiram Potter (John Ince), to build a new highway into town, increasing business. Freckles is irritated because Jane seems to go for Quigley's oily charm. Meanwhile hotel porter Jeff (Mantan Moreland) has fun trying to convince Quigley's chauffeur, Roxbury (Lawrence Criner), to buy his phony machine. Freckles Comes Home has an amiable cast, including Betty Blythe [The Spanish Cape Mystery] as Hiram's wife and Irving Bacon as the ditsy town constable, but the picture is completely stolen by Moreland and Criner, especially in a very funny sequence when the two argue over which of them is to get the more comfortable bed in their hotel room. These are two great comic actors in their prime. Otherwise this is a typical Monogram quickie. Apparently this has nothing to do with the old Freckles newspaper comic strip.

Verdict: Short Monogram flick is fairly easy to take. **3/4.

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (aka 5 Dolls for an August Moon/5 bambole per la luna d'agosto1970). Director: Mario Bava.

George Stark (Teodoro Corra) has invited several friends and associates to his modish estate on an isolated island. George is married to Jill (Edith Meloni), but she is in love with Trudy (Ira von Furstenberg), who is married to Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger). George, Nick (Maurice Poli) and Jack (Howard Ross) each offer Farrell a million dollars for a formula he has created, then decide to team up and offer him the whole three million, but Gerry isn't willing to sell. Things take a dark turn when houseboy Charles (Mauro Bosco), who was carrying on with Nick's wife, Marie (Edwige Fenech of Next!), turns up stabbed to death, and more murders follow. Before you can say Ten Little Indians more and more bodies are wrapped in plastic and deposited in the freezer in scenes that seem increasingly comical. Most of the actors only register the mildest of dismay over this appalling situation, and Piero Umiliani's wretched musical score never seems to have any relationship to what's actually occurring on screen. The movie has virtually no atmosphere, although the house it is played out in is at least a bit interesting. The murders are mostly bloodless and have no style whatsoever. On the plus side, just about everything is explained (if not quite satisfactorily) at the end, and the movie manages to build up some suspense over who the killer is in spite of its shortcomings. "Everybody seems to be waiting for something that's not happening," muses one character. You can say that again! Bava followed this up with Twitch of the Death Nerve, which is better and bloodier. Bava's best shocker was Blood and Black Lace.

Verdict: Has intriguing elements but not one of Bava's best. **1/2.

THE PARTY CRASHERS

Bobby Driscoll
THE PARTY CRASHERS (1958). Director: Bernard Girard.

Teenager Barbara (Connie Stevens) is torn between two boys: her nice, quiet steady Josh (Bobby Driscoll) and the sexy bad boy Twig (Mark Damon of Black Sabbath). Twig enjoys crashing parties and causing trouble, and his home life sucks, as his father (Walter Brooke of Conquest of Space) is a drunk and his mother (Doris Dowling) is always going off to "the movies" dressed to the nines. Everything comes to a head when Josh grudgingly agrees to crash a party at a motel lodge because Barbara insists she'll go with someone else, probably Twig, if he doesn't take her. The teens discover that grown-ups can be just as drunk and nasty as anyone. The Party Crashers is an interesting picture with good performances from the leads, as well as Brooke and Dowling. Frances Farmer [Son of Fury] is cast as Josh's sympathetic mother and Denver Pyle as his father, and Onslow Stevens and Cathy Lewis [The Devil at 4 O'Clock] play Barbara's parents; all are effective. Even with some more character development this low-budget Paramount flick might never have been an East of Eden, but it's not as trashy and dumb as some other "Juvenile delinquent" pictures of the era. Bobby Driscoll was a former child star who won a special Oscar and died tragically at age 31. This was the last film for him and Farmer, although both did TV work afterward. Bernard Girard also directed As Young As We Are and The Mad Room.

Verdict: B movie simmers but never quite comes to a boil. **1/2.

EYES WIDE SHUT

Tom Cruise
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Alice (Nicole Kidman of Birth) and Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise of Jack Reacher) are a moderately wealthy couple living in Manhattan (or what barely passes for same). After an argument, a high-on-grass Alice confesses to Bill that she saw a military man while they were on vacation and had such intense sexual fantasies about him  that she felt she could have walked away from Bill, their young daughter, and her whole life to be with this man. Bill can't get this out of his mind, and the next night he has a series of misadventures. Marion (Marie Richardson), the daughter of a dead elderly patient, tells him shes in love with him despite barely knowing him; some morons who think he's gay taunt him with homophobic slurs in Greenwich Village; he nearly sleeps with a hooker named Domino (Vinessa [sic] Shaw); and he re-encounters an old college friend who has become a musician. This friend, Nick (Todd Field), tells him of a mysterious series of parties he goes to where he plays the piano but isn't allowed to take off his mask. Intrigued, Bill rents a costume and goes off by taxi to an isolated estate where he discovers an elegant orgy where (generally) the women are naked, the men are clothed, and everyone wears a mask. Paranoia sets in when his deception is discovered and he is warned that powerful people will enact vengeance if he dares utter a word about what he's seen ...

Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut got a very mixed reception when it was released. I can't argue with all of the criticisms about it -- that it's slow at times, that it seems a bit stodgy for the nineties, that the orgy scenes are almost silly, and that it hardly develops into an intense thriller (which may not have been what Kubrick was after in the first place) -- and there has been pretentious overpraise for a picture that would hardly classify as a masterpiece. It also pretty much pushes aside any moral complexities for a one word quick-joke finale. However, I have seen Eves Wide Shut three or four times by now, and each time I find the nearly three-hour film completely absorbing and suspenseful. Admittedly, the sequence when Bill goes to buy a costume from a creepy man with a nubile daughter goes on too long, and there are others. One critic declared the picture an "old man's movie," probably because the orgies aren't that energetic and have no pounding rock soundtrack -- and Kubrick may have missed a lot of things he could have done with this film --  but this criticism misses the point that these parties are meant to be "classy" and ritualistic. Whether even the rich and famous would be bothered with secret sex societies is besides the point -- no married Senator, for instance, would want it getting out that he belonged to one.

The direction and the performances help a lot, with Cruise being more than adequate, and his then-wife Kidman out-acting him most of the time. Sydney Pollack, who directed Cruise in the mediocre The Firm,  perhaps proves a better actor [Husbands and Wives] than director in his role of Victor Ziegler, a wealthy man who gets help from Bill and provides counsel in return. The other roles are well cast, including Alan Cumming as a helpful hotel clerk who is obviously smitten with Bill. Although this scene got some criticism when the film first came out, Cumming at least makes the character likably goofy. The score consists of classical music along with some really cheap if sinister piano riffs. Filmed on sets, you never get a sense that this is taking place in New York City. The film is based on a novel that took place in Vienna.

Verdict: There are many, many things wrong with this movie, but I still find it visually and dramatically compelling. ***.