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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

NIGHT AND DAY

Cary Grant and Alexis Smith
NIGHT AND DAY (1946). Director: Michael Curtiz.

"Love can be a delight, a dilemma, a disease, or a disaster." -- Monty Woolley.

Over his grandfather's objections, Cole Porter (Cary Grant) decides to leave Yale and pursue a career as a songwriter instead of as a lawyer. Things don't go smoothly at first, with WW1 interrupting things, but eventually he becomes a big success. Unfortunately, his marriage to his neglected wife, Linda (Alexis Smith), hits the rocks, and he has a horse riding accident that requires operations. Will the rather self-centered composer and his wife ever be reunited? Actually, if there was any threat to Porter's marriage, it was because he preferred gentlemen, but the film glosses over this except for one moment when Porter's friend, Monty Woolley, (played by Monty Woolley, who had indeed been a friend of Porter's and was also closeted) tells him he probably shouldn't have gotten married in the first place. The rest of the film is a mix of truths and half-truths and outright fabrication, little of which is very compelling.

Therefore we're left with Porter's music, of which there is quite a lot: "Miss Otis Regrets;" "In the Still of the Night;" 'I've Got You Under My Skin;" "I Get a Kick Our of You;" "You're the Top;" and many, many others. Although she is dubbed, Jane Wyman [All That Heaven Allows] makes a positive impression as performer Gracie Harris, and Ginny Simms [Hit the Ice], who has a lovely voice, made a bid for stardom as another performer, Carole Hill. Mary Martin  plays herself to perform her signature tune "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and there are several lively, TechniColor production numbers, including one on the lawn of Porter's massive estate.

As for the acting, Alexis Smith [The Sleeping Tiger] actually fares better than Grant, who is adequate, but seems oddly listless and unconvincing; Porter himself was still alive when the film was made and died in 1964. Eve Arden shows up as a French chanteuse to warble one number. I didn't even recognize Dorothy Malone as Porter's cousin, Nancy. Years later Kevin Kline played Porter in a film that was franker, but not necessarily better.

Verdict: The music is all that matters. **1/2.

DR. RENAULT'S SECRET

J. Carrol Naish (center) and cast 
DR. RENAULT'S SECRET (1942). Director: Harry Lachman.

Dr. Larry Forbes (John Shepperd aka Shepperd Strudwick of All the King's Men) has come to a small European village to meet up with his fiancee, Madelon (Lynne Roberts) and her Uncle Robert (George Zucco), who is also a scientist. Others on Robert's large estate include the strange Noel (J. Carrol Naish of The Kissing Bandit), who is a manservant; the butler Henri (Jean Del Val); and the gardener, Rogell (Mike Mazurki). These last two have criminal pasts, but neither of them is as weird as Noel, who is hiding a dreadful secret along with the doctor. Then the brutal strangulation murders begin ... Dr. Renault's Secret was clearly inspired in part by H. G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (itself filmed as Island of Lost Souls) just as both properties inspired Captive Wild Woman and its sequels. While Renault hardly gets points for originality, it is distinguished by brisk and adroit direction, a good score (Emil Newman and David Raksin), excellent cinematography (Virgil Miller), and a terrific lead performance by Naish, who is both pitiable and menacing. The other cast members are all more than adequate, and Zucco is, as usual, perfect. Arthur Shields [South Sea Woman] plays a police inspector and Ray Corrigan is seen in flashbacks as a gorilla. 20th Century-Fox gave the pic a handsome production, and despite its inadequacies and unacknowledged debt to Wells, it is an entertaining horror flick. Harry Lachman also directed the Laurel and Hardy masterpiece Our Relations.

Verdict: One more ape-man never hurts. ***.

EVIL UNDER THE SUN

Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith
EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982). Director: Guy Hamilton.

"Even in the old days she would throw her legs up higher than anyone -- and wider." Daphne referring to Arlena.

At a resort run by former showgirl Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), one of the guests is a former colleague and now star, Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg of The Avengers). Although married, Arlena is fooling around with Patrick Redfern (Nicholas Clay), who is also married, to the plain-Jane Christine (Jane Birkin of Seven Deaths in the Cats Eye). When Arlena is strangled in an isolated cove, the suspects also include her wannabee biographer Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall), and the producing team of Myra and Odell Gardener (Sylvia Miles and James Mason). Then there's Arlena's husband, Kenneth (Denis Quilley) and his obnoxious young daughter, Linda (Emily Hone). It is up to the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) to find out who the true murderer is. Evil Under the Sun is another over-produced, not quite "all-star" Agatha Christie adaptation, with a script by Anthony Shaffer that makes some changes but doesn't do too much damage to the novel. Overlong, the movie is very slow-paced and often dull, although some of the actors, especially Maggie Smith [Downton Abbey] and James Mason, do their best to keep things interesting with their performances. Mason and Sylvia Miles certainly make a very odd pair, and Miles is vivid if typically vulgar. McDowall does his usual middle-aged fop act. Ustinov is not the perfect Poirot, but he is amusing at times, and indeed the movie often plays like a parody. The picture only really picks up in the final quarter when Poirot assembles the suspects and reveals the clever solution, which (as usual) works better on the printed page than spelled out in wide screen and TechniColor. Still, it sends the audience out possibly fooled into thinking they've seen a better movie than they actually have. The film has absolutely none of the suspense of the novel, and you probably won't even care who killed Arlena. Rigg is excellent as the victim, and Clay and Birkin also make their mark as her lover and his discarded spouse. Smith's character refers to McDowall's with a stupid comment about "cherchez la fruit." The score consists of adaptations of the songs of Cole Porter. Since Porter's bouncy music is hardly appropriate for an alleged movie of suspense and intrigue, it almost kills the movie, lovely tunes notwithstanding, right there. Ustinov also played Poirot in Dead Man's Folly, which was a better Christie adaptation than this.

Verdict: Read Christie's book instead for a much more entertaining experience. **1/2.

THE HORROR SPOOFS OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO

THE HORROR SPOOFS OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO: A Critical Assessment of the Comedy Team's Monster Films. Jeffrey S. Miller. McFarland; 2000.

A serious fan of the horror spoofs of the famous comedy team, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, author Miller here looks at such films as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy along with other "horror" comedies from the team such as Hold That Ghost. Miller's writing is accessible, although he can't resist giving in to an "academic" approach at times (which borders on the pretentious). Fortunately, his enthusiasm for these films comes through on every page. Chapters consist of lengthy, annotated synopses, as well as critical and background production notes and analysis. Miller notes the changes that occurred in both the boys' pictures and their on-screen characterizations over the years. The book is also bolstered by primary interviews.

Verdict: Good show for Abbott and Costello enthusiasts. ***.

MEN ON HER MIND

Mary Beth Hughes
MEN ON HER MIND (1944). Director: Wallace Fox.

Making her debut on the radio, singer Lily Durrell (Mary Beth Hughes) thinks back on her involvement with several men who fell in love with her on her pathway to success. These include a trucker, Joe (Lyle Lytell); a music teacher and aspiring songwriter named Jim (Ted North); a wealthy socialite named Jeff (Edward Norris of Jungle Queen); and a rich patron of the arts named Roland Palmer (Alan Edwards). Along the way Lily also gets involved in murder, an alleged jewel theft, and poses as a phys ed teacher at an all-girls' school. Breaking a number of hearts along the way, she eventually settles on the right man ... Men On Her Mind is an entertaining, if minor, PRC light drama with a winning performance by Hughes [Dressed to Kill], who managed to amass over a hundred credits in films and on television. The beautiful actress also had an excellent singing voice, and does a nice job with both "Ave Maria" and the movie's one new tune, "Heaven on Earth." Hughes was married to Ted North when the film was made, but their union only lasted three years. Wallace Fox also directed Pillow of Death and a number of cliffhanger serials.

Verdict: By PRC standards this isn't too shabby. **1/2.

AUTOPSY

Mimsy Farmer and Barry Primus
AUTOPSY (aka Macchie solari/1975). Director/co-writer: Armando Crispino.

A doctor named Simona (Mimsy Farmer of Four Flies on Grey Velvet) works in a morgue in Rome. She encounters a woman named Betty (Gaby Wagner), who is apparently involved with Simona's playboy father, Gianni (Massimo Serato of Constantine and the Cross). When Betty is found murdered -- with the unknown killer trying to make it look like a suicide -- Betty's brother, Paul (Barry Primus), a former race car driver who is now a priest, shows up and winds up investigating this and other murders with Simona. Neither the priest nor Simona seem too tightly wrapped, however, with the former given to sudden rages and the latter developing a hankering for the priest (!) even though she has a sexy boyfriend named Riccardo (Ray Lovelock). Despite its title, Autopsy is not as bloody as other Italian horror-mysteries of the period, but it could be considered a nominal giallo film. The movie is absorbing and fast-paced for the most part but it bogs down in the final quarter, with a dragged-out finale, although there is an exciting rooftop confrontation at the very end. Crispino also directed the equally weird The Dead Are Alive, but Autopsy is somewhat better.

Verdict: At least there's the Roman scenery. **1/2.

THE FILMS OF GENE KELLY

THE FILMS OF GENE KELLY: Song and Dance Man. Tony Thomas. Introduction by Fred Astaire. Citadel Press; 1974.

This heavily illustrated tome is an excellent introduction to and authoritative dissection of the career of the man who was best known as a dancer, but who also made his mark with dramatic performances and as a film director of note. Kelly had a different style than that of his "rival," Astaire, one that might be described as more athletic, but both men were tops in their profession. Thomas delves into Kelly's musicals, such as Anchors Aweigh, Brigadoon, and Living in a Big Way; his "straight" performances in non-musicals such as The Black Hand, Christmas Holiday, and Inherit the Wind (in which he was excellent); and his hit-or-miss directorial assignments such as Gigot with Jackie Gleason, A Guide for the Married Man, and Hello Dolly with Barbra Streisand. Along the way we get Kelly's impressions of each film as well as behind-the-scenes details, and lots and lots of photographs. Although I was never an especially big admirer of Kelly's, this book made me look at him differently. Kelly originally made his mark starring in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey on Broadway -- much better casting than Frank Sinatra in the film version -- and it could be argued that he was one of those lucky people who got better-looking as they got older. Also included are Kelly's interesting remarks about gay dancers.

Verdict: Top-notch, informative, and intelligent look at the career of a great hoofer. ***1/2.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

MY FAVORITE BLONDE

Gale Sondergaard and Bob Hope
MY FAVORITE BLONDE (1942). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

Larry Haines (Bob Hope) has an act with a trained penguin named Percy. Larry is about to make his way out to Hollywood from New York -- Percy has gotten a movie contract, but not Larry -- when he encounters a blonde named Karen (Madeleine Carroll of The Prisoner of Zenda), who is secretly a British agent. With the unwitting aid of Larry, Karen tries to keep herself and a scorpion-shaped pin containing secret information, out of the clutches of nasty spies Madame Runick (Gale Sondergaard) and Dr. Streger (George Zucco of Fog Island). Meanwhile Larry and Karen are off on a cross-country chase, trying to get safely to Las Angeles where they can give the pin to a military contact. Along the way they get involved with an Irish picnic and some stubborn Irishmen, encounter Bing Crosby in his first cameo in a Hope film, wind up at a lecture for a baby doctor impersonated by Larry, and confront Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer at his most obnoxious. My Favorite Blonde begins rather grimly with the murder of more than one agent, but it is also consistently amusing, has some great and funny sequences, and Hope and Carroll -- who at first seem an odd team -- are both excellent and play extremely well together. Percy is adorable, but Sondergaard [The Cat Creature] and Zucco, although wonderful, don't get nearly enough to do. There are a host of fine and funny character actors in this as well. A top-notch comedy-thriller. Among the many great scenes in this picture is one in which Sondergaard, Zucco and their henchmen get in a staring contest with Hope!

Verdict: One of Hope's best and most entertaining movies with the comic in fine form. ***1/2.

MR. SCOUTMASTER

Scene-stealers: George "Foghorn" Winslow and Clifton Webb
MR. SCOUTMASTER (aka Mister Scoutmaster/1953). Director: Henry Levin.

Robert Jordan (Clifton Webb) has an intellectual TV show, but the ratings are dropping because it doesn't appeal to children. Jordan decides to correct this by getting to know the little darlings, and when the old scoutmaster flees, he takes over the man's position. At first the boy scouts are mightily unimpressed by Jordan, but he does manage to bond -- sort of -- with the littlest cub scout, Mike (George "Foghorn" Winslow), an adorable kid who doesn't quite have the propensity for telling the truth. As Jordan's lovely wife Helen (Frances Dee) begins falling in love with Mike, Jordan discovers the rather dismal reality of the youngster's home life, but can't get past the fact that he was lied to. Will his much, much wiser and warmer wife be able to break through her husband's stony reserve and get him to admit his feelings for the child? Mr. Scoutmaster boasts several fine performances, from the always-excellent Webb, the delightfully deadpan Winslow, the warm and winning Dee [So Ends Our Night], and Edmund Gwenn [Them] as Dr. Stone, as well as a host of talented youngsters. Veda Ann Borg also scores as little Mike's slattern of an aunt. This is a cute and funny picture, but I have to say. softie that I am, that it also gave me a lump in my throat. Webb and Gwenn also appeared together in For Heaven's Sake.

Verdict: Sentimental, moving, and amusing in equal measure. ***.

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE

Suzy Kendall
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970). Writer/director: Dario Argento. Based on a novel by Fredric Brown.

Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American journalist working in Rome, witnesses a man in a raincoat attacking a woman in the lobby of an art gallery. Sam thinks there is something "off" about what he sees, but he can't put his finger on it. Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) tells Sam that Monica (Eva Renzi), who survived the attack in the gallery, is only the latest in a string of victims who have been slashed to death by an unknown figure. Against the advice of his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall), Sam decides to investigate the case on his own, encountering a hit man colleague (Reggie Nalder) of the real killer, as well as a crazy artist who has a peculiar diet and whose painting of a gruesome murder somehow precipitated the more recent killings. Meanwhile, more women are cornered and slaughtered, and Julia herself becomes a target ... The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was Argento's first film, and it brought him to international attention. With a twisting, clever script, a surplus of interesting details, and good performances and direction -- not to mention photography by Vittorio Storaro and music by Ennio Morricone -- Bird is suspenseful and intriguing, if psychologically dubious. One of the film's chief flaws is that the character of Julia is barely developed; she might as well just be another stick figure victim. There's a terrific climax involving a huge spiked piece of sculpture that is pushed onto our hero. Musante [Nutcracker: Money, Murder, and Madness] makes an appealing protagonist, and Umberto Raho [The Ghost] plays the gallery owner and Monica's husband. Atmospheric and even amusing, the influential film (which was itself influenced by Hitchcock and others) is a prime example of Italian giallo. Argento makes good use of the locations --  the hidden alleys, byways and back doors of Rome.

Verdict: High-class giallo. ***.

SOME ENCHANTED EVENINGS

SOME ENCHANTED EVENINGS: The Glittering Life and Times of MARY MARTIN. David Kaufman. St. Martin's; 2016.

Mary Martin went to Hollywood early in her career, but although she appeared and even starred in a few movies, she was dissatisfied with her film work and had much greater success on Broadway. Like many artists, this very talented woman lived for her work, and had a problematic, but ultimately loving, relationship with at least one child, her son Larry Hagman, famous as "J. R" on Dallas. Martin's marriage to her son's father did not last long, but she had a much longer union to her second husband, the mostly gay Richard Halliday, who guided her career when he wasn't alienating people with his temper and his alcoholism. Her shows included One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, and for my money made the best Annie Oakley when she did Annie Get Your Gun on the road and for television. Some Enchanted Evenings also looks at Martin's work in less successful shows, such as the musical Jennie, and the play Legends, in which Martin was teamed with Carol Channing. The book hints at a "special relationship" between Martin and Janet Gaynor (Gaynor's husband, interestingly enough, is the only person quoted in the book who knocks Martin), as well as Jean Arthur, without ever really elaborating.When a reporter spoke to Martin about Larry Hagman, and asked what it's like having an icon for a son, she responded, "My dear, my son is a star. I am an icon." Although the author mentions his husband in the acknowledgments, the book does on occasion betray a kind of amusingly old-fashioned take on LGBT issues.

Verdict: Exhaustive, well-researched, imperfect, but very readable bio of the venerable entertainer. ***1/2.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY

Robert Armstrong and Gale Robbins
DOUBLE JEOPARDY (1955). Director: R. G. Springsteen.

Marge (Gale Robbins of Three Little Words) is married to the drunken Sam Baggott (Robert Armstrong), who has trouble coming up with the rent money. Marge gets some comfort from the handsome used car salesman, Jeff (Jack Kelly), and when they discover Sam is getting blackmail payoffs, figure they should get themselves some of the loot. Sam's victim is wealthy Emmett Devery (John Litel), whose daughter, Barbara (Allison Hayes), is dating attorney Mark Hill (Rod Cameron) and who can sense something's up with her father. Then somebody dies ... Double Jeopardy is well-acted for the most part, especially by Armstrong [Sky Raiders] and Litel, and Hayes offers a lovely and sympathetic portrayal for a change, but Robbins is just a bit superficial as the femme fatale and Cameron is as stiff as a board. Minerva Urecal [Who's Guilty?] adds some spice in her portrayal of a disapproving landlady. There are a couple of tense sequences but the script lets the audience down in the long run. There's some suspense but no surprises. From Republic studios.

Verdict: Armstrong steals the show. **1/2.

DRAGSTRIP RIOT

Gary Clarke and Fay Wray
DRAGSTRIP RIOT (1958). Director: David Bradley.

Rick Martin (Gary Clarke) was once in trouble with the law and his mother (Fay Wray!) and grandfather (Ted Wedderspoon) are forever afraid he'll do something stupid. Rick innocently ignites the ire of Bart Thorson (Bob Turnbull) because the latter covets the former's girlfriend, Janet (Yvonne Lime of I Was a Teenage Werewolf). To get even with Rick, Bart falls in with a motorcycle gang of toughs who also have a grudge against Rick, leading to a dangerous game of chicken involving two cars and an onrushing train; a death dive off a cliff; and a free-for-all rumble on the beach where the true bad guys are finally routed. None of this is as exciting as it sounds due to a slow pace -- even a race is kind of dull. Affecting a Jean Harlow  "platinum blond" hair color, Clarke makes a sensitive enough hero; Wray, light-years from King Kong, is fine as his mother; and there are more than acceptable performances from Turnbull, Lime, John Garwood as Silva, leader of the gang, and others. Connie Stevens [Hawaiian Eye] plays Marge, one of Janet's pals, who gets in a "cat fight" with Silva's brunette moll at one point; and Steve Inhat is cast as "Dutch," another biker, but is given little to do; he was also in Date Bait with Clarke. Connie also sings a song and there's another musical number as well. In one unintentionally hilarious scene, Rick looks around the beach for Janet as if she's nowhere in sight when a subsequent shot shows her not only just a few yards away but screaming her head off! It's equally humorous that the rumble, which supposedly takes place in an isolated spot, turns out to be happening right near the kids' hot spot, "Mom's."

Verdict: Slightly more entertaining than watching paint dry. *1/2.

NEW AND RECENT HORROR FILMS OF INTEREST

Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis in the lousy Mummy
Here is a round-up of some new and fairly recent films in the horror genre:

The Ruins (2008). Director: Carter Smith. Young tourists in Mexico go to a Mayan temple lost in the jungle and discover that they won't be allowed to leave, as they are apparently meant to be sacrifices to weird vines that can penetrate their flesh. Gruesome and harrowing, this plays like a story out of an EC horror comic. The cast is comprised of first-rate young actors, with an especially good performance from Laura Ramsey. Well-made and chilling. The alternate ending on the DVD works better than the one shown in theaters. ***.

Pandorum (2009). Director: Christian Alvart. Two men wake up seemingly alone on a spaceship with much of their memory missing. Before you can say Aliens or Predator, some albino, flesh-eating monsters show up along with a tough Ellen Ripley-type who helps the crewmen against the creatures. There are some interesting ideas and some exciting scenes in the movie, but it all seems over-familiar and by the numbers. Although Dennis Quaid is the nominal star, the true hero is Ben Foster, who is quite dynamic in his mild-mannered way. "Pandorum" refers to a kind of space-happy syndrome that makes people go nuts. The picture is more confusing than it needs to be. **1/2.

The Uninvited (2009). Directors: The Guard Brothers. A young woman, Emily, comes home from a mental hospital after a suicide attempt not long after her ill mother was incinerated in a fire. Emily and her sister are convinced that their mother's nurse, who is now engaged to their father, was responsible for her patient's fiery death. Are the young ladies next on her list? Spooky and indeed physical visions seem to be sending Emily warnings. The Uninvited may not be especially original, but it still has some interesting twists to it. ***.

Enter Nowhere (2011). Director: Jack Heller. Two woman and one man wake up to find themselves in an isolated cabin and discover their last memory places them in completely different parts of the country -- and worse. Then a handsome soldier (Shaun Sipos) shows up and things get even freakier. Scott Eastwood, Clint's son, may not be a great actor, but he certainly has presence. Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) and Sara Paxton are effective as the ladies. The film is suspenseful and well-made, even if it builds up to a Twilight Zone-type of climax.  **1/2.

Devil's Pass ((2013). Director: Renny Harlin. A documentary team of Colorado students discover weird giant foot prints in the show and a strange door in the side of a mountain in Russia. Inspired by the true story of the mysterious deaths of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains (the Dyatlov Pass incident) in 1959,  Devil's Pass comes up with an "explanation" that blends the military, flesh-eating monsters, alternate dimensions, and even the Philadelphia teleportation experiment! The result is a very entertaining and undeniably creepy movie with an ending that reminds one of an E.C. horror comic. The gay-baiting of a couple of characters is annoying, but generally this is a well-written and competently acted picture. ***.

Most Likely to Die (2015). Director: Anthony DiBlasi. A group of people find themselves beset by a savage killer at a high school reunion where everyone has issues. There is an admirable attempt at characterization, although the cowardly gay guy (Perez Hilton, who should have known better) is a tired old cliche. Some of the acting is quite good, especially Tess Christiansen as a more positively drawn lesbian character. The movie has more than one graphic sequence to satisfy the gore geeks, but its biggest strength is a genuinely tense climax where some of the survivors are put in an untenable situation to say the least. By no means, a classic, but entertaining enough. ***.

The Boy (2016). Director: William Brent Bell. Greta (Lauren Cohan) takes a job minding a little boy who turns out to be a life-sized doll. Skillfully directed by Bell, the movie is surprisingly creepy and suspenseful as it plays around with our expectations of what might really be going on. The improbable tale has loose ends by the score but it is quite entertaining and well-acted. ***.

Phantasm: Ravager (2016). Director: David Hartman. The fifth and final in the long-running Phantasm series stars the now-aged cast in a essentially plot-less rehash of previous films with a man named Reggie (Reggie Banister) not knowing if he's on the run from the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) or recuperating in a nursing home. Only hard-core fans of the series will give a damn. Some good effects, but the movie often resembles a video game and the acting is only so-so. *1/2.

Bachelor Games (2016). Director: Edward McGown. On the eve of his wedding a man takes his friends on a camping trip in the Argentine. where they are warned about a dangerous spirit called the Hunter. Meanwhile old resentments and jealousies flare up, and then the dying begins. The movie is quite well-acted and suspenseful, but the supernatural aspects of the story are pretty lame and the viewer may feel cheated by the conclusion. Otherwise, this is notable. **1/2.

The Great Wall (2016). Director: Yimou Zhang. In ancient times a mercenary (Matt Damon) helps male and female Chinese soldiers fight against an invasion of huge, man-eating lizard monsters that even the Great Wall of China can't keep out. Opulent fantasy film with excellent FX work and some exciting scenes, but most of the time this just seems monumentally silly. Musical sequences add to the camp factor. **1/2.

Rings (2017). Director: F. Javier Gutierrez. This is another in a series of films based on a Japanese movie in which people who watch a certain videocassette wind up dying in seven days, all centering on the ghost of a young girl. The premise doesn't really make much sense, but the movie is creepy and entertaining in spite of it. **1/2.

Get Out (2017), Writer/director: Joran Peele. A young white lady brings her black boyfriend to meet her parents in the suburbs and weird things begin to happen. Is there a racist conspiracy afoot, and exactly what form is it going to take?. Get Out is entertaining and well-acted, and has some suspense, and what might be called a clever twist if only the secret of the plot wasn't a hoary cliche. The social commentary -- how some black people feel about whites and vice versa -- is about on the level of a seventies sitcom, with Caucasian characters making comments about Tiger Woods and Obama to show how hip and non-racist they are. By no means a bad movie, it's just ridiculously over-praised and, all told, rather silly. More a thriller than an out and out horror film despite certain developments, it is never the nail-biter it should have been. **1/2.

Alien: Covenant (2017). Director: Ridley Scott. In this sequel to Prometheus -- itself a prequel to the original Alien -- a ship bearing earth colonizers to a new world is drawn to the same planet of both of those movies, and the crew are soon beset by parasitical aliens. This retread of earlier Alien films isn't as bad as the second Alien vs Predator film, but it doesn't compare to the far superior Prometheus. Michael Fassbender plays two robot versions of himself, one of whom kisses the other on the lips, not as a homoerotic act but to confuse the other and get him off his guard. (There is a genuine gay couple in the movie but if you blink you might miss them.) There are a couple of good action scenes and the usual gruesomely effective FX, but the movie doesn't add much to the Alien legend and there's way. way too much of Fassbender. **1/2.

Eloise (2017). Director: Robert Legato. Eloise is the name of a shuttered mental institution where Jacob (Chace Crawford) comes with some companions to search for his mother's death certificate, which he needs to claim an inheritance. While inside the institution, the searchers are visited by ghosts from the past and there are some surprising revelations. The problem with Eloise is the matter-of-fact quality of the sequences with the murderous ghosts, and they way the characters show little shock or confusion when confronted by them. The picture has intriguing elements, but it just doesn't work. **.

The Mummy (2017). Director: Alex Kurtzman. Tom Cruise is a soldier and would-be "Indiana Jones" who messes with antiquities and gets taken over by the spirit of an Egyptian princess who has gone over to the dark side. This is a real mess of a movie, with 55-year-old Cruise playing the role too "cutesy" by far as if he thought he were still twenty-five. Annabelle Wallis makes a better impression as heroine Jenny, but I'm not sure what to make of poor Russell Crowe as "Dr. Jekyll." This is badly-directed and badly-scripted with one-dimensional characters and FX we have all seen before and better. A plane crash sequence and a bit with Cruise being chased by underwater zombies are exciting, but not enough to save this mega stink bomb.The only other good thing you can say about this movie is that it's not quite as campy as the Brendan Fraser Mummy series. *1/2.


AND we'll add a couple that are over 25 years old:

The Terror Within (1989). Director: Thierry Notz. Andrew Stevens gives a good performance in this Alien-clone set in the future when he and other survivors in a bunker must clash with mutated "gargoyles" who are trying to kill them. There are some suspenseful sequences. **1/2.

Dead Space (1991). Director: Fred Gallo. Scientists at a space station seek a cure for a deadly virus, but only succeed in creating a monster that never quite seems alive. Marc Singer is the star, but the best performance is given by Judith Chapman as the head of research. **.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM

Dick Powell and Mary Martin
STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (1942). Director: George Marshall.

"I just can't make it tonight -- Veronica Lake is going to show me her other eye. " -- Bob Hope.

In this all-star Paramount wartime picture, the main plot has to do with Johnny Webster (Eddie Bracken), a sailor on leave who comes to Hollywood with his buddies. Eddie's father was once "Bronco Billy" Webster (Victor Moore of Carolina Blues), star of silent pictures, but is now reduced to being a guard at the studio gate. Ashamed of this comedown, Billy has lied to his son and told him that he is head of the studio! Eddie's girlfriend, Polly (Betty Hutton of the "craptastic" Betty Hutton Show), helps "Pop" put over the deception but needs some big help from the stars when Pop foolishly promises that his Paramount stars will put on a show for the sailor boys ... Star Spangled Rhythm has some slow stretches -- the whole second half consists almost entirely of acts, including one stop-the-movie-dead skit where four men play poker as if they were women -- but it also has its share of delights, including a hilarious bit when Polly enlists the aid of two men to help her get over the wall of the Paramount studio. Dick Powell and Mary Martin and an uncredited black group (the Mills Brothers?) do an excellent "Dreamtime" number on a train; there's a splendid and rather sexy production number called "Swing Shift" in a factory; and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson stars in another vibrant and all-Black dance number called "Sharp as a Tack." Dorothy Lamour, Veronica Lake, and Paulette Goddard spoof their images in "Sweater, Sarong, and Peekaboo Bang," and Sterling Holloway [Shake, Rattle & Rock], Walter Catlett and Arthur Treacher play the same ladies in drag. William Bendix has a funny shower scene with Bob Hope. Bracken, Hutton, and Moore are all on the money; Walter Abel scores as the real studio head, as does Anne Revere as his secretary; and Cecil B. Demille proves a perfectly adept actor playing himself. Cass Daley does her weird shtick, buck teeth and all. George Marshall keeps the pace fast and makes things visually interesting as well.

Verdict: Enjoyable romp. ***.

THE FOGHORN, THE ADORABLE ONE AND THE BEFUDDLED OLD MAN

THE FOGHORN, THE ADORABLE ONE, AND THE BEFUDDLED OLD MAN. 

In this very amusing sequence from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes we have three very unique, talented and interesting players interacting for comic results. First we have "the adorable one," Marilyn Monroe, doing her "dumb" perky bit with skillful shrewdness; then little George "Foghorn" Winslow whose deep voice and deadpan delivery was always hilarious; and finally, the ever-befuddled Charles Coburn, a wonderful actor who was at home in comedy as he was in drama (In This Our Life, among many, many others). What an amazing trio!

If this video doesn't work, click here to watch it on youtube!

BAD BOY

Johnny Downs
BAD BOY (1939). Director: Herbert Meyer.

"I don't care if your business is shipping fat missionaries to cannibal island, I want a job!"

John Fraser (Johnny Downs) kisses his sweet mother (Helen MacKellar) goodbye and heads for the big city full of hope and promise. Although he lands a good job and impresses his boss, McNeil (Holmes Herbert of The Curtain Falls), he falls in with a co-worker, Steve (Archie Robbins), who introduces him to gambling and a singer named Madelon (Rosalind Keith). Although Madelon is about as sexy as a hat rack, John falls hard for her and spends all of his money on her instead of sending it to his mother. Then he decides to "borrow" a couple of hundred dollars in petty cash so he can pay off his gambling debts, and things get worse from there. Bad Boy presents boyishly handsome Johnny Downs [Adventures of the Flying Cadets]  in an atypical role of a supposedly "nice guy" who becomes a gangster in a stereotypical boy-goes-wrong storyline. He is hardly perfect casting for the latter half of the film but he still manages to acquit himself nicely. MacKellar is excellent as his devoted mother, and the pic is nearly stolen by Spencer Williams as Terry, the black super in Mrs. Fraser's apartment who becomes a good friend to both mother and son and winds up working for John -- Terry has a much better head on his shoulders than John does. Saddled with a hairdo that has to be seen to be believed, Rosalind Keith is okay as a miserable bitch but is simply too homely to be that believable as a femme fatale. She retired after one more film.

Verdict: Entertaining minor melodrama with good performances. **1/2.


FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION

Dagmar Lassander and Pier Paolo Capponi
FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (aka La foto proibite di una signora per bene/1970), Director: Luciano Ercoli.

Minou (Dagmar Lassander of Hatchet for the Honeymoon) is happily married to Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi), whose business has been having problems. One evening Minou is nearly assaulted by an unnamed creepy guy (Simon Andreu) who is some kind of photographer and possible porn star. The creep cooks up a scheme to get Minou in bed with him by telling her he has damaging information about her husband, but the stupid woman never suspects he's taking photos of their sexual encounter. The creep refuses her offer of money to get the negatives, and seems to want to turn Minou into his sex slave. Minou's sympathetic friend, Dominique (Nieves Navarro of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the director's wife), insists that she tell Peter what's going on, and she finally calls the police, only things may be even more complicated than Minou suspects. Forbidden Photos is a minor Italian suspense film without much style, but it has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. Ercoli also directed Navarro and Simon Andreu in Death Walks on High Heels.

Verdict: Minou is a moron. **12.

DON'T GO TO SLEEP

Robin Ignico
DON'T GO TO SLEEP (1982). Director: Richard Lang.

Phillip (Dennis Weaver) and his wife Laura (Valerie Harper) move into a new home with their two children, Mary (Robin Ignico) and Kevin (Oliver Robins of Poltergeist). Strange things begin to happen and Mary seems to be under the spell of her sister, Jennifer (Kristin Cumming), who died in a car accident some time before. Is Mary psychologically disturbed due to the trauma of her sister's death or is Jennifer's ghost out to destroy the family? Don't Go to Sleep shouldn't work, but thanks to excellent acting from the entire cast, taut and suspenseful direction, and a compelling script by Ned Wynn, it emerges as a memorable, creepy, disquieting and very uncompromising horror telefilm. Tragedy keeps piling on tragedy, and Weaver [Duel] and Harper [Stolen: One Husband] excel in difficult roles wherein they have to deal with things that (hopefully) few people would have to endure in real life. A cast stand-out is Robin Ignico, one of the most talented child actors I've ever seen, giving a nuanced, complex, and chilling performance. Ruth Gordon is peppery as the grandmother and Robert Webber is fine as a psychologist.

Verdict: A family tragedy disguised as horror. ***.


MIA AND WOODY: LOVE AND BETRAYAL

MIA AND WOODY: LOVE AND BETRAYAL. Kristi Groteke with Marjorie Rosen. Carroll and Graf; 1994.

Kristi Groteke was Mia Farrow's nanny for several years, and became her friend and confident. Although she tries to suggest that Mia was okay with her writing this book, I seriously doubt if that was the case, for this tell-all tome, while essentially sympathetic to Farrrow, is unsparing and unflinching in its depiction of the actress and her relationship with long-time partner (but not spouse) Woody Allen and her children. As everyone knows, Allen's sexual and romantic relationship with Farrow's daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (adopted by Farrow and her then-husband Andre Previn) is what caused the sensational, lurid and distasteful split with Farrow. The book reveals that Soon-Yi has a very low IQ, but it also goes into intensely personal details about the other children, who should have been spared such scrutiny. The book is well-written and exhaustive, and also examines at length the charges that Allen molested his daughter, Dylan, and several court documents and statements are reproduced. In attempts to have a sensational bestseller, Groteke may have gone a little overboard (especially where the Innocent children are concerned), but this is undeniably a riveting and "juicy" read. This book was one of the sources for the telefilm Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story. Groteke undoubtedly got a bundle of cash for both book and movie, but I don't know if it did anyone else any good.

Verdict: This is why nannies should always sign confidentiality agreements! ***.

THE THREE STOOGES (2012)

Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso
THE THREE STOOGES (2012). Directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly.

"You must be French -- that's a lot of oui oui." One of the Stooges referring to a baby.

If you're expecting a biopic that looks into the lives of the Three Stooges, look elsewhere. This purports to tell the life story of the Stooges, who are left on the doorstep of an orphanage run by nuns, and cause such damage over the years that the place has to close unless they can come up with $800,000. Fat chance! In sub-plots, an avaricious lady (Sofia Verara) hires the Stooges to allegedly murder her "dying" husband (Craig Bierko/Kirby Heyborne) and Moe winds up the star of a reality series set in Jersey! The Stooges are recreated by Sean Hayes (Larry), Will Sasso (Curly), and Chris Diamantopoulos (Moe), and they all do a nearly flawless job. Diamantopoulos really has Moe's voice down pat; Sasso does Curly's shtick to perfection, but Hayes isn't quite there as Larry. As to be expected in a modern movie, there's a gross 21st century sensibility in some sequences -- the boys uses babies to literally piss on each other in a hospital nursery -- and the humor is perhaps more black than it was in the Stooges' day. On the other hand, much of this is laugh-out-loud funny, and it's basically good-natured if at times in questionable taste. The child actors are all excellent, and Stephen Collins [The First Wives Club] scores as the duplicitous Mr. Harter. Other cast stand-outs include Jane Lynch as the Mother Superior and especially the wonderful Larry David as the delightfully dyspeptic Sister Mary-Mengele! A sequel to this film has been announced.

Verdict: Some very funny moments. ***.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

WHEN MARRIAGES GO (MURDEROUSLY) BAD

WHEN MARRIAGES GO (MURDEROUSLY) BAD

Everyone hopes that a wedding is just the beginning of a lifetime of caring, companionship and happiness, but, sadly, it doesn't always work out that way, especially if you've had the misfortune to marry a sociopath. This theme has been explored on such true-crime cable shows as Scorned: Love Kills!, and this week Great Old Movies examines telefilms that also look into really bad marriages. Most of these films are based on true stories, but a couple are fictional.

If there's any lesson to be learned from these dramas, it's to be very, very careful who you get hitched to!

MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES

Katherine Ross and Barry Bostwick
MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES (1979 telefilm). Director: Robert Day.

Arthur Sinclair (Hal Holbrook) is a famous "mentalist" who claims psychic powers that may or may not be real. His younger wife, Alison (Katharine Ross), is having an affair with the struggling actor, Gil Weston (Barry Bostwick), and she urges him to help her carry out a plot to kill Arthur. Of course nothing runs smoothly, but there are other players in the drama who may have their own schemes at work ... Murder By Natural Causes has a typically twisty and satisfying plot by Richard Levinson and William Link, and boasts top performances by Holbook and Bostwick, who really score in a cat and mouse sequence inside Arthur's imposing mansion. Ross [Games] and Richard Anderson [The Night Strangler], who plays the Sinclairs' lawyer, are competent and effective but a cut below the other two. In addition to many other mystery scripts, Levinson and Link also wrote That Certain Summer, which also starred Holbrook.

Verdict: This pic won't make you "mental." ***.

DEADLY INTENTIONS

Michael Biehn and Madolyn Smith Osborne
DEADLY INTENTIONS (1985 telefilm/mini-series). Director: Noel Black.

Charles Raynor (Michael Biehn) is an aspiring doctor who boards with the Livanos family and has a rather neurotic adoptive mother (Cloris Leachman). Charles falls in love with Katherine Livanos (Madolyn Smith Osborne) and the two move to a new town where he gets a job at a hospital. Katherine discovers that her new husband is rather peculiar, giving her lists of things to do each day, treating her like a child, and deliberately frightening her as he takes photos of her distress. When he gives her medicine for their baby boy, and Katherine discovers from a pharmacist (Robert Clarke in a bit) that the stuff could have killed the child, she makes up her mind to get out. This leads to an incredibly suspenseful and scary sequence that ends part one. Part two, while still entertaining, and which details events that occurred after the Raynor's divorce and Charles' plot to murder his wife, should have been compacted to about half an hour. In any case Deadly Intentions, based on a true crime book written by the prosecutor in the attempted murder trial, is quite absorbing, and features two terrific lead performances. With his crazy eyes one could suggest that Biehn [Aliens] is halfway there with his part, but he really does give an outstanding and marvelously intense performance that deserved an Emmy (I don't think he was even nominated). Cloris Leachman, Kevin McCarthy as a defense lawyer, and Cliff De Young [Dr. Giggles] as the prosecutor are also notable. Noel Black also directed the theatrical film Pretty Poison. Followed by Deadly Intentions ... Again?

Verdict: Watch out for those eyes. ***.


SHE WAS MARKED FOR MURDER

Stefanie Powers and Hunt Block 
SHE WAS MARKED FOR MURDER (1988 telefilm). Directors: Charles and Chris Thomson.

Elena Forrester (Stefanie Powers of Crescendo) is the widowed publisher of a women's lifestyle magazine. Her assistant, Claire (Debrah Farentino), suggests it's time for Elena to start dating again, and she hooks up with a younger man named  Eric Chandler (Hunt Block). The two surprise everyone by getting hitched after just a short period. But before you can say Suspicion, Elena starts discovering alarming things about the husband she barely knows. The generic title should give you a clue as to what's going on. Powers, Block and Farentino all give good performances and there is also nice work from Lloyd Bridges [Deadly Dream] as an old friend of Elena's who is carrying a torch for her. Polly Bergen [Death Cruise] adds some spice as a TV talk show host who hopes to get Elena on camera. The movie is smooth and entertaining just as long as you don't expect any real surprises.

Verdict: Older, wealthy woman and younger man with no visible means of support is always a recipe for disaster. **1/2.