Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

6/7/09: That Certain Summer (1972)

Nominated for a slew of Emmy Awards (and winner for Supporting Actor Scott Jacoby), That Certain Summer turns out to be a surprisingly boring affair. The theme of homosexuality was still relatively new to movies in general back in 1972, and practically unheard of on TV. But 37 years later, it's understandable that the impact has been somewhat muted. So forgettable is the storyline that halfway through viewing the film, I realized that I had actually seen it—or at least some of it—as recently as last year.

Hal Holbrook, a big favorite of mine, plays a divorced father of a 15-year-old boy (Jacoby) who comes to learn that Dad's good friend Gary (Martin Sheen) is actually his live-in lover. (Memo to closeted dads: if you have an electric razor, hide the bottle of shaving cream.) It's a bitter pill to swallow, regardless of the year or the political climate. But That Certain Summer unfolds at a snail's pace, and the truly great cast (including Hope Lange and Joe Don Maker) don't manage to make much of an impression, at least on me. After looking forward to seeing it for half a lifetime, That Certain Summer proves to be a major letdown from one of my all-time favorite writing teams, Richard Levinson and William Link—who subsequently reteamed with Holbrook for the infinitely superior TV movie Murder by Natural Causes seven years later. Rating: 2/5.

6/6/09: A Taste of Evil (1971)

A Taste of Evil starts with Susan Wilcox, a girl of about 11, being attacked and then raped at her home by an unknown assailant. Flash-forward to several years later, and we learn that the incident left Susan traumatized to the point of catatonia for quite some time. The mental wounds now having been healed, Susan returns home to confront her demons—only to find that the original menace may still be lurking in the shadows. Or is it all in her imagination? As we learn what's really going on in A Taste of Evil, there are some unexpected twists in the tale; farfetched though some of it is, the movie did keep me spellbound throughout—this is precisely the sort of thriller I would have absolutely loved as a kid, and it still keeps me entertained today. The movie is a close cousin to another TV shocker from my youth: A Strange and Deadly Occurrence, made in 1974 by the same director, John Llewellyn Moxey. Evil coaxes good performances from Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall, William Windom and Arthur O'Connell. Nicely written by horror-movie veteran screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. Rating: 4/5.

6/5/09: Hitchhike! (1974)

One frequent setting for 1970s TV suspense flicks was the open highway (e.g., Duel). In fact, actress Cloris Leachman, star of today's crapfest du jour, starred in one (Dying Room Only) only a year earlier. In today's entry, she picks up a hitchhiker, the aloof Michael Brandon, who has just murdered his lover in cold blood. Now, I have a very difficult time sympathizing for anybody who picks up a perfect stranger by the side of the road, so it's a challenge to muster any real sympathy for Cloris in this particular movie. Worse, there are way too many dull stretches on their way from L.A. to San Francisco. The action occasionally perks up when Brandon gets a little psychopathic from time to time, but Hitchhike! ultimately suffers from an anemic script and so-so performances (although Cloris is good, as usual). This is one movie that will really make you appreciate having a cell phone. Rating: 2/5.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

6/4/09: Revenge for a Rape (1976)

Death Wish meets Deliverance in today's howlingly awful, hopelessly schlocky revenge flick. Mike Connors (TV's Mannix) goes on a camping trip with his wife when she is raped by three guys while he's fishing. Unwilling to let the police do their job, he goes hunting for the culprits himself...with disastrous results.

Now, I love revenge stories, which is why I grabbed this DVD from the pile so early on in TV-Movie Month. However, 20 years before this was filmed, the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired an extremely similar story called "Revenge," wherein Ralph Meeker goes after the man he believes raped his wife (Vera Miles), with the twist being that she pointed out an innocent bystander. That's the same basic plot twist (targeting an innocent guy for wife rape) behind Revenge for a Rape; I wouldn't have minded the similarity in the story, except that the acting, direction, soundtrack and script are all irredeemably third-rate. Some unintentional laughs, though. Rating: 1/5.

Monday, June 08, 2009

6/3/09: The Forgotten Man (1971)

Writer Bernard Fein was one of of the creators and writers of Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971), about a group of POWs in World War II. His final TV project was the TV movie The Forgotten Man, about a Vietnam POW played by Dennis Weaver, but the tone is decidedly more dramatic.

Escaping from a POW camp five years after he was presumed killed in the war, he returns to the States—only to find that his wife has remarried, his business sold and the life he once knew a distant memory. Worse yet, he is exhibiting symptoms of what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). He keeps flashing back to his savage captors and his interrogations, and as Weaver's mind begins to unravel, it leads to some unnerving and scary behavior.

The Forgotten Man is extremely typical of the low-budget television movies from the 1970s; familiar TV actors, familiar orchestral score, obvious spots for commercial breaks, etc. For me, that's not a criticism—it adds to the nostalgic flavor. The film kept me absorbed, and surprisingly I couldn't have predicted the direction the story would take. Weaver and co-star Lois Nettleton are very good; even better is young Pamelyn Ferdin (who appeared in countless movies and TV shows during the '60s and '70s), playing Weaver's beloved daughter. Rating: 3/5.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

6/2/09: Baffled! (1973)

Several of the filmmakers of yesterday's offering worked on various incarnations of Star Trek; today's choice stars Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy. Indeed, Nimoy's participation was my sole reason for being interested in Baffled! Regrettably, the movie is fairly weak, cheaply made, horrendously scored and full of bad acting, especially by Nimoy.

He stars as Tom Kovack, a race-car driver who starts having strange psychic visions that take him to a hotel in England, where some curious things are going on. He is aided by psychic-phenomena enthusiast Susan Hampshire, whose attractiveness is one of the very few things that kept me from falling asleep. Together they try to put the pieces of the mystery together, and of course by the end of the movie they have done just that. The formula reminded me of two much later TV series; it's sort of a cross between Medium (a person's visions are connected to a crime) and The X-Files (male and female team up to solve an otherworldly mystery). Both of those series were infinitely better than this dull movie of the week. The opening credits sequence and the very last scene make it painfully obvious that this was a pilot for a show. Why it never happened will definitely not leave you Baffled! Rating: 2/5.

6/1/09: Family Flight (1972)

As of this writing, I am planning to devote the entirety of June to movies made for TV during the 1970s. Growing up in that decade, I loved so many of the "Movies of the Week" that aired in that decade, from critically acclaimed broadcasts (Sybil, Duel) to low-budget thrillers (Trilogy of Terror) and well-written but now-forgotten dramas (A Cry for Help). Over the years, I have built up quite a collection of these Seventies flicks that I missed—enough for two months' worth of viewings at least. They include family dramas (the critically lauded That Certain Summer), horror schlock (Satan's School for Girls), mysteries (Snatched), and assorted romances, dramas, comedies, shockers and sci-fi claptrap. Since none of them were shown in theaters, I obviously won't be able to display a poster to accompany each blog entry; I'll show a VHS or DVD cover if the movie was officially released.

We kick off, for no reason whatsoever, with Family Fight, a 1972 suspenser directed by Marvin Chomsky (who lensed a few of the original Star Trek episodes) and produced by Harve Bennett, who, coincidentally enough, would go on to produce several of the Star Trek feature films. Rod Taylor stars as the head of a dysfunctional family (including an alcoholic wife and a withdrawn son) who pilots a small aircraft over Baja California when the plane is forced down in the desert. The party of four must work together to get out of a very tense and dangerous situation. The film is extremely representative of its type from this era; it reminded me a bit of Ordeal, another survival-themed TV movie (from 1973) that stranded Arthur Hill in the desert. Like most movies from this genre, what it lacks in production values, it makes up for in decent acting and an interesting story. This was one of the first movie roles for Ed Begley Jr., who has a couple of lines as a hitchhiker at the beginning of the film. Rating: 4/5.

5/31/09: A Simple Twist of Fate (1994)

Although it wasn't intentional, the fact that I sequenced two Steve Martin movies back to back turns out to have been a stroke of genius—especially these two particular titles. While both are worth watching, they couldn't be more different. The Lonely Guy is a broad comedy trading on Steve's comic persona, although he didn't write the screenplay; whereas A Simple Twist of Fate is a straight drama, with a script penned by Martin. Separated by exactly one decade, Twist of Fate shows Steve's growth as an actor and spotlights his ambition as a scenarist.

Loosely based on George Eliot's 1861 novel Silas Marner, the movie features Steve as a divorced loner whose life suddenly changes when a toddler literally walks into his life (and his house) one chilly winter's night. The little girl's mother, a heroin addict, has died outside in the snow, and a couple of rather farfetched scenes later, Steve Martin has adopted Mathilda as his own.

The movie's third act becomes a courtroom drama, with the now 12-year-old girl's biological father attempting to gain custody of the child. The heaviness of the drama is lifted by occasional and much-needed flashes of humor, some of it provided by SCTV veteran Catherine O'Hara, whom I've never thought of as particularly attractive, but who is drop-dead gorgeous in this film. (Pity she didn't get the opportunity to play Steve's love interest.) Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, as the biological father, partially succeeds with his Southern accent, and Cliff Eidelman's musical score is perfectly lush and melodic. The acting is all first-rate, and the various children playing Mathilda are amazing, especially Alana Austin as the 12-year-old version. I had only two slight gripes about the film. First, after letting his toddler escape briefly from their house, Steve later allows her to vanish again, and she teeters precariously from a steep cliff. (Bad parenting, Steve, and bad scripting—I lost faith in you as a Dad after that scene.) Second, I wanted to be more touched by the events in the movie, especially the ending. My eyes were entirely too dry by the dénouement; while there was plenty of warmth and emotion, I never got truly verklempt. (Thank God English borrows from so many other languages!) Despite those misgivings, I did enjoy the movie. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

5/30/09: The Lonely Guy (1984)

Since I first saw him perform his stand-up comedy, I have considered Steve Martin a genius. His early TV comedy specials were inspired, and his early film career produced some of my favorite comedies, some of which he scripted himself (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Roxanne) and some written by others (All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors). And although Martin has continued to be funny on TV, and in plays and books he's written, his later films failed to deliver on his early promise, and today he churns out so many warmed-over retreads and remakes of old movies and TV shows that space prohibits me from even listing here. The fact is, I haven't loved a Steve Martin movie since 1989's Parenthood. So I had reason to look forward to The Lonely Guy, filmed well before I totally lost interest in Martin's film career. I think the only reason I missed it in the first place was that I read a bunch of mediocre reviews of it.

The movie turns out to be more more subued than one might expect, given Martin's early "wacky" persona. Many of the jokes fizzle hopelessly, the direction (by the unpredictable Arthur Hiller) is mediocre, and a few times, my intelligence was offended by the script. Martin plays a newly single guy who can't adapt to being alone; at one point he meets another single guy (Charles Grodin) and they have this exchange:

Grodin: I'm Warren Evans.
Martin (shaking his hand): Larry Hubbard.
Grodin: First-time lonely guy?
Martin: What's a lonely guy?

Ummm, are you fucking kidding me? A male adult needs to have that expression defined for him? Dialogue like this doesn't belong in a movie for thinking people. Which brings me to my next point, which is that about half of the movie really is genuinely funny, likeable and satirical. My favorite lines, between Martin and Grodin, are obviously improvised—I wish there had been more of that. I suspect the problem here is one of too many cooks spoiling the broth: the screenplay was the result of several writers, including original book author Bruce Jay Friedman, playwright Neil Simon and Mary Tyler Moore Show collaborators Stan Daniels and Ed Weinberger, as well as any improvised stuff contributed by Martin. Sometimes The Lonely Guy seems genuinely fresh and funny; other times, not so much. The humor is all over the map:

• Black-comedy moments involving the suicides of numerous lonely men;

• Silly moments (like when Steve gets into bed with his girlfriend, oblivious to the fact that she's sleeping with another guy);

• Inspired moments (Steve winds up in bed with some hot models and Dr. Joyce Brothers);

• Surreal moments (Steve goes into a restaurant alone, and literally has a spotlight shone upon him to make him the embarrassed center of attention).

There's also a terrific sight gag involving the pages of a day-by-day wall calendar that made me laugh out loud. As I say, some of it works, some of it doesn't.

There's not much of a plot to the film, and that works to its advantage. When it starts to be about something, it's inevitably the romance between Steve and Judith Ivey, which never quite gels. Every time they hook up, she dumps him on the grounds that he's too nice, or too perfect, or too sexy, or something nonsensical like that. (It's easily the worst part of the movie.) I craved more of the Woody Allenish bits, like the one where Steve consults with a psychiatrist who only interacts through his street-level intercom, and more Steve Martinish bits, like the one where Steve tries to lure potential dates by getting too big of a dog, who drags him along the sidewalk on his belly. A couple of times during the movie, Steve narrates in voice-over or addresses the audience by talking directly into the camera, but this device is never fully realized. The Lonely Guy probably would have been better if it believed more in itself and much less restrained. There are enough funny bits to make it worth seeing, but it could have been a real classic. Rating: 3/5.

5/29/09: Little Fugitive (1953)

Made in 1953 but having the look and feel of a considerably older movie, Little Fugitive tells the story of Joey Norton, a little boy who's tricked into thinking he has accidentally killed his older brother. Sickened and afraid by what he's done, Joey runs off to Coney Island...where he rides horses, plays games, collects the deposits on untold soda bottles, and generally has a great time until the happy and predictable conclusion.

While not a terrible movie, Little Fugitive is terribly made and surprisingly amateurish, perhaps the work of a first-time director, or maybe student filmmakers—students not much older than the protagonists, in fact. (The few quarters that Joey earns by digging up soda bottles might have been the entire budget for this movie.)

Although plagued with ponderously slow stretches and several subpar performances, the movie does succeed in making the viewer care about Joey, and we stick to the end to make sure he finds out he's not really guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Probably the most interesting thing about the film's 90 minutes is watching the parade of hilarious anachronisms, such as the sequence where riders are seen pulling the brass ring as they ride the merry-go-round. Rating: 3/5.

5/28/09: Folks! (1992)

There may be, I suppose, a way to construct a comedy around the subject of dementia. I've never seen it done successfully, but I don't entirely discount the possibility, unlikely as it seems—just as a comedy with jokes about rape would be difficult to imagine. But if there were a man to attempt it, Robert Klane is unquestionably that man.

Klane is the author of various black-comedy films, starting with 1970's Where's Poppa?, about a man torn between taking care of his aging mother and bumping her off. Klane is clearly a man with major parental issues, for the identical theme (with a similarly punctuated title) resurfaces in Folks!, about a man torn between taking care of his aging parents and bumping them off. (Klane also wrote one of the blackest of black comedies, Weekend at Bernie's, about a couple of guys carrying around a corpse.)

Folks! features a tragically mustache-free Tom Selleck as a stockbroker whose life goes directly into the toilet when he starts to care for his elderly parents, who have various physical and mental problems. Nearly all of the humor in the film derives from the series of mishaps that Selleck suffers during his new role as caretaker (he loses his family, his job, even a toe and a testicle, although I missed his mustache the most) and the fact that his father (Don Ameche) has Alzheimer's, which leads to the "hilarious" burning down of his own house.

Whether this material could have been amusing in the hands of a different crew, or whether it was doomed to failure because of the subject matter, I honestly don't know, but Folks! is unbearably excruciating from beginning to end. (I might have chuckled once accidentally.) There's a scene toward the end of the movie where Selleck, hoping that his suicidal parents will die in a horrible car accident, knowingly sends them out on the highway—giving no thought to how this might affect, for example, other drivers carrying small children in their vehicles. And he's the hero of this film! Folks! is mean-spirited and jarringly unfunny—easily among the worst movies I have seen all year, or ever. Rating: 1/5.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

5/27/09: Crossing Delancey (1988)

Interesting but inadvertent sequencing: We followed up two comedy-Westerns with two charming romantic comedies. Peter Riegert (one of the best parts of National Lampoon's Animal House) and Amy Irving play two Jewish singles set up by a modern-day matchmaker in Manhattan and slowly—painfully slowly—start a romance. But the anticipation is mouth-watering.

Irving, looking dreamier than I've ever seen her, initially spurns pickle seller Riegert in favor for a more "intellectual" writer, but ultimately realizes she's thrown back the wrong fish. It's hard to figure out why; the viewer senses that the writer is a first-class creep and that Riegert is the far more sensible choice 20 minutes into the picture.

It's always a delight to come across a genuinely smart, funny and romantic comedy like this one. This was the only screen credit of legendary Yiddish stage actress Reizl Bozyk, who is very amusing as Irving's grandmother. And I wondered if film recommender Merf realizes that the music group The Roches, whom I keep foisting upon her, sang all of the songs in the movie, including the oft-played cover of "Come Softly to Me"—and that vocalist Suzzy Roche plays the friend of Irving's whom she introduces to Riegert, with disastrous results. In any case, Delancey is delicious. Rating: 5/5.

Monday, June 01, 2009

5/26/09: Something's Gotta Give (2003)

Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton are paired up in Something's Gotta Give, a hopelessly contrived, embarrassingly corny, purely by-the-numbers, excruciatingly predictable—and, yes, totally charming—romantic comedy.

The plot couldn't be simpler: Nicholson (66 years old at the time of release) is dating perky young Amanda Peet, then slowly comes to find he's falling in love with her more age-appropriate mother (Keaton, 57). Even though I felt like I'd seen this film a dozen times before—and done better—it's still confoundingly entertaining and nearly impossible to dislike, all thanks to the boundless appeal of its two soon-to-be-crotchety stars. Jack plays his usual horndog character (when he announces that he isn't good at being monogamous, you're not exactly reeling from the shock), but with a dash more heart and soul. And Keaton couldn't be more perfect for her role as a woman who initially resents Jack but, like many a lass before her, winds up succumbing to his devilish grin.

All of the usual romcom elements are present and accounted for, including conflicts and complications you can see coming 20 minutes before they happen...but there's something to be said for predictability, and the movie feels like a comfortable, well-worn pair of shoes. Something's Gotta Give only veers into awfulness once, during an extended sequence that calls for Keaton to sob incessantly and annoyingly (Jesus, was I delighted when that scene ended). Conversely, the scene where Jack and Diane spend their first night together is funny, moving and unforgettable. The question of whether Nicholson would eventually win the girl was moot, as this was Merf's recommendation—I knew it would have the required happy ending. But I can't blame her for shattering any suspense; anybody watching this movie knows exactly how it's going to end about halfway through. The film goes down smooth and easy, like a nice, cold, familiar-tasting mug of root beer, and leaves you thirsty for more. Rating: 4/5.

5/25/09: The Frisco Kid (1979)

I happen to love Gene Wilder movies. I also happen to hate Gene Wilder movies. Let me resolve this apparent contradiction by saying that while many of his early 1970s comedies are pure gold, he stopped being funny sometime after 1976's The Silver Streak. I have seen only a handful of his output after this time, when he started to collaborate full time with his wife, Gilda Radner, and comedian Richard Pryor. Today's turd, released the year I graduated from high school, only confirms for me that whatever greatness Wilder films once had completely evaporated shortly after his efforts with Mel Brooks ended.

Even though Merf raved about this period comedy Western (the second in a row, following yesterday's John Wayne picture), my expectations were relatively low, given how I feel about Wilder's post-Brooksian output. In The Frisco Kid, Wilder is cast as Avram Belinski, an orthodox rabbi from Poland, sporting a full beard, talking in a thick accent and behaving alternately like an innocent naif and a total schlemiel. Arriving in Philadelphia in the mid 1800s, he must trek across the U.S. to San Francisco during the Gold Rush to lead a new congregation. Right off the bat, evil men start to beat him up, rob him and take advantage of his innocence. Eventually, he befriends a bank robber (Harrison Ford), and together they make the journey to Frisco on horseback together. Along the way, they encounter some Indians and, inevitably, the original bad guys who threatened Belinski.

Everything falls flat in this slow-moving and completely uninteresting saga. Wilder himself isn't bad as the beleaguered rabbi—he makes full use of his wide-eyed innocence and amusing accent—but the script is abysmally weak, and all of the characters are unforgivably cartoonish and one-dimensional. One running joke involves Belinski learning and then uttering the word "shit," and the so-called comedy never rises much above that level. Another dumb scene trades on contrived homoerotic humor as Ford must hug Wilder to keep warm as they sleep outside in the snow. Har har.

Admittedly, I have always had an extremely difficult time with movies that ask me to sympathize with crooks, hit men and other bad guys. Ford—who inexplicably took this job between his first two Star Wars hits—is an unapologetic thief who regularly frisks train passengers and banks of their cash. And he's one of the heroes of the film! We're supposed to lose our heart to this ruffian because he acts as Wilder's protector; sorry, I couldn't go there—and it's hard to like a movie where you're praying for the hero to take a bullet. (Ironically, Ford's role was originally supposed to have been played by John Wayne, the star of yesterday's cowboy comedy.)

There are so many aspects of this movie that I found repellent, but the absolute nadir was the moronic miscasting of perennial TV actor Val Bisoglio (an Italian-American) as an Indian chief. Merf, you may consider us even for my forcing The Contender on you. This was just yecccch. Rating: 2/5.

Friday, May 29, 2009

5/24/09: McLintock! (1963)

It's my friend Merf's turn to choose this week's playlist, and we kick off with a grand slam starring John Wayne. While I haven't seen many of his films outside of The Quiet Man and True Grit, I do have considerable admiration for his talent, and McLintock! is the perfect movie to pique one's interest in the Duke.

Although technically a Western, the setting and time (1890-ish) are mostly superfluous, as this is basically a slapstick comedy inspired by The Taming of the Shrew. Re-teaming with Maureen O'Hara (his Quiet Man co-star), Wayne plays a land baron whose estranged wife returns to his mansion to bitch at him and order him around. He takes it all in stride—he practically owns the town, which is named after him...and anyway, he loves the dickens out of her. While they stare each other down, their daughter (delicious Stefanie Powers) plays the same basic game of cat and mouse with hired hand Patrick Wayne (John's real-life son). There are numerous character actors around, including Chill Wills, Yvonne DeCarlo, Jerry Van Dyke and Strother Martin, a ton of rollicking fistfights, two hot spanking scenes, and a famous mudhole brawl that reportedly took a whole week to film. There's also a hilarious sequence where a drunken McLintock can't make his way up the staircase. The movie is enormous fun, with some memorable one-liners and a final double-entendre that will sail over the heads of kiddies and give the adults something to snigger about for days. Rating: 5/5.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

5/23/09: Forever and a Day (1943)

Set and filmed during World War II, Forever and a Day tells the story of a house in London and the various people who lived in it, from 1804 until the German blitzkrieg of 1940. Given the scores of British actors and directors who all contributed their work for free in making the movie (to aid the war propaganda effort), it's fairly astonishing how obscure it is. There's a framing device involving the current sale of the house as its rich history unfolds in a series of vignettes that are variously dramatic, comedic and touching. Among the stars appearing: Claude Rains, Ida Lupino, Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Buster Keaton. All of the stories are entertaining, but Lupino has the best sequence as a maid named Jenny. Rating: 4/5.

5/22/09: Easter Parade (1948)

We were overdue for a musical. Well, there's nothing like a plotless movie—even a musical—to make you appreciate how important a story is. Although it possesses only the barest wisp of a plot, Easter Parade gets by on its dazzling colors, superb costumes, fun songs and terrific dancing. Those elements alone make this Fred Astaire movie worth seeing. As for the storyline, it's your basic A loves B, B loves C and C loves D scenario. After parting ways with his longtime stage-show partner (Ann Miller), Fred hires the first dancer he finds (Judy Garland) to replace her. Cue the orchestra!

This is officially the first non-Wizard of Oz movie I've ever seen to feature Judy Garland. Now 26 and nearly a decade older, she no longer has the same juvenile appeal—I know she was incredibly beloved as an adult and considered very beautiful by the masses, but she's just nothing to look at from where I'm sitting. (Those lips are too plump and pouty, and she tends to scowl.) Ann Miller, on the other hand, is a sexy, sophisticated dish. My favorite bits of Easter Parade were the parade of hats at the beginning and Fred's astonishingly well-rehearsed toy-store dance. The Irving Berlin songs are all lovely, although not one of them serves to advance the plot. Rating: 3/5.

Monday, May 25, 2009

5/21/09: Madame Bovary (1949)

The acclaimed director Vincente Minnelli (Father of the Bride) was my motivation for owning this film version of the famous French novel by Gustave Flaubert. In Northern France, a mediocre doctor (Oklahoma native Van Heflin) flips for Emma, a pretty, starry-eyed ingénue (Oklahoma native Jennifer Jones); their story is told framing-story style by Flaubert himself (British-born James Mason). OK, so there aren't a lot of actual French people in this movie. But at least one of the men Emma Bovary cheats on her husband with is the tres magnifique Louis Jourdan.

The tale is about how the titular wife destroys the lives of various people, including her own, because of how bored she gets with everything and everybody. It's a sad story, well told, although it made me hungry to know some of the novel's details that were obviously carved away to make this 115-minute film. (I'll probably pick up the 1975 British miniseries on DVD, featuring Tom Conti.) As with The Ox-Bow Incident from earlier in Forties Week, it was amusing to see Harry "Colonel Potter" Morgan from TV's M*A*S*H in his earlier days, albeit in a microscopic role. Rating: 4/5.

5/20/09: Sergeant York (1941)

If my Movie-a-Day project has done nothing else, at least it has put a face to the name Gary Cooper—today's feature is the third Cooper movie I've seen this month. An added bonus: I can now differentiate two similarly titled wartime dramas, Mister Roberts (a work of fiction) and Sergeant York (a biography).

The story of Sergeant York is extremely simple. Alvis C. York is a hillbilly with a fondness for drinking and fighting. A freak run-in with a lightning bolt turns him into a religious man, but soon he's drafted to fight in WWI. His expertise at hunting and shooting make him an experts marksman overseas, and soon he's a big war hero. The end. Although not particularly complex, York is an entertaining and inspiring real-life story with outstanding performances (especially by Cooper); it's always fun to hear Walter Brennan talk—that one-of-a-kind voice always makes me think of his 1962 single "Old Rivers." Joan Leslie is attractive as the love interest. Rating: 4/5.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

5/19/09: The Yearling (1946)

The biggest surprise about The Yearling is that it is not, as I'd always assumed, primarily about a boy and his pet deer. Yes, there's a deer, but the yearling of the title is really an allegory in this coming-of-age story of a boy entering his teens and starting to take a more important role in the family unit.

Ezra (Gregory Peck) and Orry Baxter (Jane Wyman) are a hillbilly couple living in the backwoods of Florida in about 1900. After several attempts to start a family (all resulting in infant death), they are raising 12-year-old Jody while growing various crops, including corn and "tobacky." They trade with the locals and occasionally have to fight off maurading bears and other wildlife. As in the source novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Baxters suffer a string of setbacks: a catastrophic rain destroys their crops, some pigs are stolen, Ezra gets bitten by a rattlesnake and later throws his back out. Meanwhile, Jody opens his heart to a young fawn, Flag, to compensate for the love he isn't getting from an emotionally distant Orry, who has trouble showing affection after all her other kids have died. As Flag gets bigger, so does his appetite, and soon he's gobbling the Baxter's precious crops. Something must be done about it, and if you've seen Old Yeller, you know just what that something is.

Children who see The Yearling will no doubt sympathize with Jody and the hungry deer, but because the "critter" poses a massive threat to the Baxters, I tended to identify with the adults. Even so, The Yearling is a masterpiece suitable for the whole family, marvelously filmed, with great wildlife scenes and an array of exquisitely photographed meadows and other scenery. The relationship between Jody and his parents is superb, and it's astounding to see how radiant and beautiful young Jane Wyman (who would go on to play Aunt Polly in Pollyanna 15 years later) was. With the right lighting, she reminded me eerily of Katherine Heigl of TV's Gray's Anatomy. Rating: 5/5.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I'll need to double-check, but I believe this may be the longest string of highly recommended (4/5 and 5/5) movies I've seen since the beginning of the year.

5/18/09: Meet John Doe (1941)

Although I rank director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life as among my very favorite movies, I have inexplicably failed to see many—or any—of his other films. That's why DVDs of It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You and today's feature have been piling up in my movie queue. Capra is one of the most famous and revered directors in American film history.

Meet John Doe is about how some newspaper people conspire to create a fictional story about a supposedly suicidal visionary and propel it to headline status. They draft hobo Gary Cooper to play the part of the would-be suicide, and the public eats up the daily stories about how a working-class everyman lost his faith in America, and his vision of how it must rebound. The ironic twist is that this cynical, fabricated contrivance results in people actually starting to be nice to their neighbors. Cooper finds himself caught between his real (John Willoughby) and fake (John Doe) personas, desperately wanting to play ball as the former and keep delighting the public as the latter. Throw in Barbara Stanwyck as the reporter who created the whole John Doe idea—and who starts to fall in love with Willoughby—and that's the essence of the picture. It's a fascinating story, and it kept me interested almost all the way through, until the letdown of the disappointing ending. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

5/17/09: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Quick! What's the Henry Fonda movie where a bunch of "angry men" must determine the guilt or innocence of another man facing lots of incriminating circumstantial evidence, but whom Fonda insists may actually be innocent? Up until today, I'd have assumed the only film to fit that description was 12 Angry Men, but it's also the exact plot of today's feature. Presumably, Ox-Bow Incident made Fonda a natural choice to play Juror #8 some 14 years later; this is kind of an 1800s Western version of the same story (based on the book by Walter Van Tilburg Clark), and it was a splendid choice to kick off a week of movies made in the 1940s.

Three men stand accused of cattle rustling and murder by a posse who are in a rush to judgment—they've even got the nooses at the ready, and most are itching to use them. Fonda and Harry "Colonel Potter" Morgan (38 and 28 at the time of this film's release, respectively) get caught up in the hunt for the killers, but refuse to give in to the "mob mentality." Despite a fairly predictable resolution, The Ox-Bow Incident is absorbing and fun to watch; I'm glad to finally know the significance of the Ox-Bow of the title—I've always wondered if it literally referred to a bow worn by an ox! Rating: 5/5.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

5/16/09: 17 Again (2009)

Quick! What's the movie featuring Zac Efron as a high-school athlete whose eight-letter basketball team starts with W and ends with S? If you're thinking High School Musical and "Wildcats," you're correct—although we would also have accepted 17 Again, Efron's first big-screen follow-up to his mega-popular Musical franchise. This time around, he's playing for the Warriors...oh, and also, he's the magically age-reduced version of Matthew Perry, in a variation of the adult-trapped-in-a-kid's-body plot plundered by numerous '80s flicks like George Burns's 18 Again! (1988), Judge Reinhold's Vice Versa (1988) and Dudley Moore's Like Father, Like Son (1987). As we all know, in a cinematic universe, it's only a matter of time before everything old is new again—it's no accident that the word Again is in the title of Efron's "new" movie.

17 Again was a spur-of-the-moment film choice—my friend Joan invited me when I decided to bag an altogether different movie plan. Undoubtedly aided by my low expectations, this umpteenth retread of a familiar plot device turned out to be surprisingly and consistently amusing, with laughs and sight gags coming at a brisk clip. Matthew Perry plays Mike O'Donnell, a man who's bored with life; his kids barely care about him and his wife is divorcing him. A janitorial "spirit guide" (gravel-voiced Brian Doyle-Murray, brother of Bill Murray) casts a spell on O'Donnell that renders him young and virile, and the fun begins.

The generous helpings of comedy are welcome distractions from a variety of plot flaws and confounding head-scratchers (Michelle Trachtenberg of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is seven years too old to keep playing 17, and Matthew Perry resembles an older version of Zac Efron the way a goat resembles a chair). Any movie character returning to his teenage years runs the embarrassing risk of his own daughter falling in love with him, and the incest-paranoia jokes are piled on deep—they rightly reminded Joan of Michael J. Fox's same predicament in Back to the Future. Melora Hardin of TV's The Office is brilliantly cast as the school's principal, and Allison Miller as O'Donnell's wife in flashbacks is a hot Jessica Alba lookalike to watch for in the future. If 17 Again is the first of another rash of teenage-reboot pictures, may they be at least as funny as this one. Rating: 4/5.

Monday, May 18, 2009

5/15/09: Top Hat (1935)

In a word...wow! I've never seen a Fred Astaire movie (with or without Ginger Rogers), and Top Hat was clearly the ideal starting point. Like yesterday's movie, The Matchmaker, this one is based on a play with a similarly paper-thin plot—Top Hat boils down to one romance with a mistaken-identity conceit—but the singing and dancing more than make up for any deficiencies in the story. You keep wondering: How long is Ginger going to labor under the misapprehension that Fred is actually her female friend's husband? And when is Fred going to figure out why she keeps slapping him? But then somebody starts singing one of the many terrific Irving Berlin songs, and your heart tells your brain to chill and just go with it. The screenplay is brimming with clever jokes and one-liners—although no single line is as funny as the set representing Venice, Italy, that's clearly in an antiseptic movie studio with waxed floors and prop gondolas! Both leads are in top form, attractive and magnetic as can be. Special thanks to Peter Boulding in the UK for recommending this "frivolous and fluffy treat." Rating: 5/5.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

5/14/09: The Matchmaker (1958)

Based on Thornton Wilder's 1955 play (itself based on several earlier plays, including Wilder's own The Merchant of Yonkers), The Matchmaker is a funny and farcical turn-of-the-century comedy featuring Shirley "Hazel" Booth as Dolly Levi, the character who would go on to be the centerpiece of the stage musical and movie Hello Dolly. Although satisfactorily amusing, it does seem fairly astonishing that this small-scale story has flourished in so many incarnations—especially as transformed into the huge-in-every-way Hello Dolly, one of the world's most famous musicals. (I haven't seen Dolly yet, but it's on my list.)

Dolly Levi is the aging matchmaker who "tries" to find a hot young wife for grumpy store owner Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford, The Music Man's Mayor Shinn), when it's really herself she's trying to sell in that capacity; one of the potential spouses (beautiful Shirley MacLaine) has eyes for Vandergelder's clerk (Anthony Perkins, quite convincing as a heterosexual). That's it in a nutshell. A pre-How to Succeed in Business Robert Morse is around as Perkins' co-worker for the occasional quip—he's the only one of the original Broadway cast to reprise his role for the film. It's cute and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny...but how does this all work with a 27-year-old Barbra Streisand in the lead role? I can't wait to discover that for myself. Rating: 4/5.

Friday, May 15, 2009

5/13/09: Murphy's Romance (1985)

Today's choice is actually a holdover from last week's AFCA marathon, a late recommendation by Huey Callison and Peter Boulding. As a confirmed chick-flick fan, I've always been curious about this romantic comedy, released when Sally Field was nearly 40 (she plays 33) and co-star James Garner was 57 (he plays 60). So in the movie, they are separated by nearly three decades, while in reality, it's 17 years. Given that Sally Field is the only pictured star in the film's original movie poster (shown above), Murphy's Romance is a curious title for this picture—especially considering that there's no actual romancing going on with him until the final couple of minutes. Poster notwithstanding (the DVD cover is a much more accurate representation of the film), Garner is pivotal to the story, and he deserved the Oscar nod for Best Actor he received for his portrayal of the rugged but suave Arizona pharmacist Murphy Jones. It's basically a small-town love-triangle romcom with a modern Western setting, which renders the movie's jazzy, sax-drenched soundtrack (by Carole King) somewhat odd, although not unpleasant. This is a very light but charming tale with two exceptional lead actors and solid direction from Martin Ritt, whose camera seems to be having a love affair with Sally Field's jeans-covered bottom. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

5/12/09: The Wrong Guy (1997)

My ratings tend to be based on my pure enjoyment of the movie in question, so I'll award Gone With the Wind a "1" and Stroker Ace a "5" if the former bores me and the latter amuses and delights me—it's my blog, and I don't care if I'm watching a film that's adored by critics and audiences across the globe.

Even so, my highest rating of The Wrong Guy looks extremely odd. It's not a great film by anyone's definition...and yet, it made me laugh harder and more frequently than any movie in recent memory. That alone earns its reward. Undoubtedly it helps that I'm a huge fan of Dave Foley (and his Kids in the Hall sketch-comedy TV series), and the inclusion of sexy Jennifer Tilly alone is worth the price of a DVD rental. The movie, co-written by Foley and Simpsons scribe Jay Kogen, has Foley running from the law for a murder he didn't commit—and that nobody else believes he committed. His wide-eyed dim-bulb Nelson Hibbert is a variation of some of the characters he's played in Kids in the Hall, and at times the movie (directed by David Steinberg) does feel like an extended version of one of the short films that series used to feature. (According to Wikipedia, the script was, in fact, inspired by an early KITH-era sketch.) The result may feel like a trifle for non-fans, but even though some of the jokes misfire, The Wrong Guy had me in stitches. Rating: 5/5.

5/11/09: State of Play (2009)

Here at my house, we endorse movies that feature hero journalists who solve crimes that leave the police stumped. How disappointing, then, that State of Play's byline-generator Cal McAffrey has to be played by an unkempt Russell Crowe, whose ugly long hair and full beard appears to be a veritable condominium for the insect world. State of Play is a political whodunit in the fashion of Murder at 1600 or Absolute Power—the kind of movie where the Big Lawbreaker invariably turns out to be one of the guys making the laws in the first place. While the cops wring their hands and warn D.C.-based writer Crowe not to do their job, he does their job anyway, and oh, the leads he uncovers! While investigating the mysterious death of a woman in the employ of Congressman Ben Affleck (an old friend of Crowe's! What are the odds?!), Crowe gets tongue-lashed boringly and interminably by his editor, Helen Mirren, with beautiful Rachel McAdams playing Carl Bernstein to his Bob Woodward. The stellar cast is rounded out by Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman, with Crowe tackling the role vacated by both Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. I found the movie to be rather by-the-numbers, feeling like I'd seen it a million times before. The actors are adequate, the script is adequate, the direction is adequate...and State of Play ends up creepily familiar and completely implausible. Rating: 2/5.

5/10/09: The Soloist (2009)

Ever looked at a homeless person and wonder about that person's backstory? What happened to make him lose his way? That's the basic idea behind The Soloist, a reality-based film that starts reasonably well but gradually loses its own way.

Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) is homeless, schizophrenic and enormously talented. He's a wizard with any musical instrument he picks up, especially the cello. L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) meets him on the street and is immediately drawn to his proficiency on the violin, even though it's missing a couple of strings. Ignoring the fact that Ayers is missing a couple of strings himself (he babbles incoherently and pushes a large shopping cart full of junk), Lopez starts writing a column about him and gradually tries to "civilize" him by getting him a room to live in and maybe start taking some medication. But as any idiot knows, you can't civilize people who don't want to be civilized. At first Ayers looks upon his new friend as a kind of God, but when Lopez tries to make too many personal changes in his life, disaster strikes.

The Soloist tries to show us what it's like inside the mind of a schizophrenic (they hear lots of spooky, echoey voices) and, in one interminable sequence, we're even shown what classical music must "look" like inside Ayers' head. (Joan, my constant movie companion, swears it's the screen saver built into Widows Media Player). The best thing about The Soloist is the acting of Robert Downey Jr., who is electrifying in virtually everything he's in; he can be funny and charming and dramatic all at the same time. Unfortunately, the film is excruciatingly long, with more than a couple of dull passages that fail to move the narrative forward. Ultimately, the movie's message seems to be that it's extremely noble to try to help the homeless—providing they possess some otherworldly talent. Otherwise, screw 'em. Rating: 2/5.

5/9/09: Star Trek (2009)

How utterly appropriate that I follow the lame futuristic tripe of The Fifth Element with a genuinely exciting sci-fi confection like Star Trek. I've been following the Trek saga since I was in middle school, and have seen all of the movies in the series so far, enduring the lame ones and embracing the good ones. With the character of Captain Kirk having been killed off (and a couple of the original cast members perishing in real life), it was time for what they call a "reboot"—the kind we've seen with superhero series like Batman. The mastermind at the helm of this Star Trek prequel is J.J. Abrams (the creator of TV's Alias and Lost). Directing a mostly new cast that details how the original characters first came to work together, he has produced what is indisputably the most exciting of all the Trek films. (My sentimental favorite will always be Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.) It's your basic good vs. evil story, with a very evil villain and a couple of twists on the familiar dynamic—Kirk and Spock are rivals in their younger incarnations, and Uhura has a surprising love interest—but all of it works, despite a rather bombastic musical score that my constant movie companion, Joan, wished had been significantly less weighty on the ears. Despite a couple of niggling objections like that, Star Trek turns out to be a very welcome new starting point in the franchise. My tricorder readings suggest an exceptional sequel may be anticipated. Rating: 5/5.

5/8/09: The Fifth Element (1997)

What if the producers of Blade Runner had decided that in addition to making it a sci-fi action story, it should also be a silly musical comedy-romance and look like a colorful comic book? Well, you'd probably have something like The Fifth Element, a visual smorgasbord that that cares not a whit about logic and instead gleefully embraces the kind of archeological and mystical claptrap on display in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where burning an ancient scroll can wreak havoc or pushing the right brick in the wall of a 2,000-year-old shack can unleash a thousand poison darts.

In the futuristic world of The Fifth Element, there's a giant ball of pure evil, aided by (who else?) Gary Oldman, with good guys Bruce Willis and sexy Milla Jovovich the only hope for saving the world. Given that basic setup, this could have actually been a decent space thriller; regrettably, it's been camped and goofed up to inane proportions. I'll protect what little remains of my dignity and not summarize the actual plot, which is superfluous to the numerous sight gags, Bruce Willis's trademark zingers, and random violence. Suffice it to say that there are laser guns, weird aliens and Oldman doing one of his famous crazy characters with an outrageous accent. Meanwhile, comedian Chris Tucker (future star of the Rush Hour franchise) plays a silly fey pop singer with a ridiculous hairdo; he got in the way of my enjoyment of this movie, while Willis was his typical self and an orange-haired Jovovich is total eye candy. Unfortunately, The Fifth Element tries to do way too many things and ends up failing at nearly all of them. I wanted to see the movie advertised in the poster, but it's as misleading as any advertisement ever created—it would be more accurate if Willis were wearing one of those colorful beanies with a spinning propeller. Rating: 2/5.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

5/7/09: The Chain (1984)

It may not help to be British in order to appreciate The Chain, but there's no way in Marylebone it can hurt. The film, recommended by the pseudonymous John Haptin
of AFCA (I believe his real name is Gussie Coxworth-Shufflebottom IV), is a curiously constructed English set piece involving various people "moving on up" to a new flat or house, creating what's known as a circular property chain—each one dependent on the preceding move. This Chain details seven moves in all, with the characters encompassing the moving-van workers as well as the folks who are moving. But there's more to the gimmick: in addition to extracting humor from the full spectrum of classes (lower straight through to upper), each of the dwellers in transit is supposed to represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins. So there's a big cast accompanying the high concept. Even though I've been an Anglophile since middle school, I would have benefited enormously from subtitles—the accents in The Chain are some of the most incomprehensible I've ever heard. I was able to follow the story reasonably well, but a great deal of the humor was lost on me. There's a running joke about the movers discussing philosophy, and I was very pleased to see David Troughton of The Norman Conquests in a small role. But man, I sure would love to see this again with subtitles. Rating: 2/5.

5/6/09: Truly Madly Deeply (1990)

I daresay most people associate Alan Rickman exclusively with his role as the evil Snape in the Harry Potter fantasy series. A fantasy of a much different sort—but a fantasy all the same—Truly Madly Deeply is a reminder of that Rickman can play virtually any role. In this movie, he's Jamie, the ghost of a cellist who returns to the flat of his grieving girlfriend Nina (Juliet Stevenson), who is having an extremely difficult time accepting his death. Nina is delighted and overwhelmed by their reunion, but gradually comes learn that moving forward with life may ultimately be more emotionally healthy for her than living in the past. It's a very touching picture, sort of a companion piece to Ghost from the same year, yet an altogether different kind of story. It's really a showcase for Stevenson, who shows off a full spectrum of emotions and talents. A somewhat less attractive version of Emma Thompson, Stevenson steals the show, the way Sally Hawkins did in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. This is also the first feature of the late Anthony Minghella, who of course would go on to make The English Patient several years after this. I very much enjoy these three-hankie movies, and this one has the added benefit of being both charming and very funny as well. The ending will have you positively blubbering. I actually watched the film a second time to enjoy Minghella's very informative and enlightening commentary. Thanks very much to David Skinner of AFCA for the recommendation! Rating: 5/5.

TYPOGRAPHICAL NOTE: It's interesting that the original poster (seen above) adds commas to the film's title, whereas commas are nowhere to be seen in the title during the movie itself. That's why I didn't use them. (The DVD box also omits the commas.) A small but delicious trivial tidbit of interest only to fellow grammarians.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

5/5/09: Rancho Deluxe (1975)

I was mostly aware of Rancho Deluxe because of the soundtrack by Jimmy Buffett, whose career was just taking off at the time. The movie features a positively youthful Jeff Bridges and Law & Order's Sam Waterston, while Slim Pickens looks like the grizzled old hangdog he was back in '75. Rancho is an oddball comedy-western about two ne'er-do-well cattle rustlers (Bridges and Waterston) who conspire to pull off a big heist in between their whorin' and drinkin'. It offers a healthy dose of unconventional comedy—a stolen steer chews up a motel room, a hottie played by a former Miss California sucks on Harry Dean Stanton's nipple, and an extended game of Pong are some of the kooky highlights of this picture, written by novelist Thomas McGuane. The story is almost secondary to the offbeat characters, quirky dialogue and humorous situations. Buffett's songs offer just the right tone of breezy C&W. Special thanks to Arthur from AFCA for the recommendation! Rating: 3/5.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

5/4/09: Living Out Loud (1998)

Living Out Loud chronicles several months in the life of Judith Moore (Holly Hunter), whose marriage has been derailed because of her husband's infidelity. Newly single, Moore is adrift, trying to figure out what her new purpose in life should be. The film is about making new friends, and how those friends get us through the day when our relatives and spouses let us down. Among our hero's new friends are Pat (Danny Devito), the elevator operator in Moore's apartment building, and Liz (Queen Latifah), a singer in a neighborhood cabaret. It's a small, funny and touching movie, marred only by Holly Hunter's relentless chainsmoking. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese employs a daydreamy, Walter Mitty-type conceit for Hunter's character from time to time that should seem out of place but feels oddly appropriate for this film. Devito plays against type as a sensitive charmer who forms a bond with Hunter, and Queen Latifah gets to show off her wonderful voice and look sexier than ever before. Thanks to AFCA's Jason Quick for the recommendation! Rating: 4/5.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

5/3/09: Where the Lilies Bloom (1974)

If yesterday's movie was The Civil War Waltons, today's movie might as well be called The Orphaned Waltons. Bill and Vera Cleaver's 1969 novel Where the Lilies Bloom inspired this tale of four motherless children living in the Appalachian backwoods who face an unnevering challenge when emphysemic Dad suddenly drops dead. Determined to stay together and not face separation via institutionalization, the kids decide to tell curious visitors that Dad's just sick or sleeping, or both.

The plot is basically the same as the 1967 British film Our Mother's House (based in turn on Julian Gloag's 1964 novel); it's also very similar to a 1972 Disney flick I saw a few weeks ago called Napoleon and Samantha, in which a young Johnny Whitaker keeps his own father's death a secret to the outside world. The Lilies take on the story is just more...well, Waltony. (Little surprise that the screenplay was by Waltons creator Earl Hamner Jr.)

In this version of the Desperate Orphans fable, which is probably the best of the bunch, the brood consists of Devola, the very attractive older daughter; Mary Call, her plain-looking younger sister; Romey, their younger brother; and cute-as-a-button 5-year-old Ima Dean. Yet is is Mary, not Devola, who takes charge of the band of siblings and serves as their protector. The main thing threatening to blow the kids' cover is Harry Dean Stanton, the family's landlord and their father's main nemesis, who is constantly visiting their ramshackle home—partly because he's got a crush on Devola. Mary Call tries hard to follow her father's wishes and pick the family up by its bootstraps, but it may prove to be an impossible task for the long haul. It's an interesting if unoriginal premise, and it's carried off with skill. The child actors are solid if unremarkable, but Stanton is perfectly cast as the interloper whose sympathetic side is key to the film's perfect and heartbreaking finale. Special thanks to AFCA's Hank Gillette for recommending this one. Rating: 4/5.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

5/2/09: Friendly Persuasion (1956)

Day two of AFCA Week brings us the William Wyler film of Jessamyn West's novel The Friendly Persuasion, the recommendation of my Internet acquaintance MC Hamster. Think of it as The Civil War Waltons, with gentle Quakers Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire as the head of the deeply religious Birdwell family, who say "thee" and "thy" a lot. The nation at war is filled with untold temptations—blood lust and sexual lust heading the list. While the South's confederate soldiers begin to invade the valleys of Indiana, Cooper and his family must decide whether to join the good guys and fight to protect their home or stand by their staunch principles of anti-violence. Son Anthony Perkins decides to heed the call to arms, while daughter Phyllis Love flips for a neighborhood Union soldier...and actually kisses him on the lips!

It's a grand old story with a very picturesque backdrop and a lovely musical soundtrack, occasionally slow moving but filled with enough good scenes to ward off boredom. The film features a goose that out-acts half the members of the cast, including Gary Cooper. And Perkins, four years prior to Psycho, actually has a scene in the attic with his mother! My favorite sequence, occurring early in the movie, involved Cooper and McGuire settling a dispute in their barn over the purchase of an organ. I reckon I enjoyed Friendly Persuasion more than its star did; supposedly Cooper hated the film, describing it as a "boring piece of crap." Whatever thee say, Coop. Rating: 4/5.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

5/1/09: Apartment Zero (1988)

A new theme week begins today—one that's been in the planning stages for five years. It was back then that I asked members of an online group called AFCA (alt.fan.cecil-adams) to suggest "underappreciated films" they love but that somehow never captured the widespread acclaim they'd always deserved. Over the years, I have acquired more than a dozen movies from the list they created, and when I launched this One Movie a Day project, I knew that I would have to devote at least one week to their recommendations. And now I have.

The week commences with a movie touted by a woman whose Internet handle is Lesmond. Released in 1988, Apartment Zero tells the story of Adrian (Colin Firth), a prissy, snobbish man with a British accent who is living in Buenos Aires. He is helping care for his mother, who is suffering from dementia, while running a revival movie house that isn't exactly raking in the dough. (I know—the idea that people in Buenos Aires aren't lined up around the block to see movies like Compulsion is a real shocker.) Poor foot traffic at the cinema forces Adrian to look for a roommate—an Oscar to his Felix, and that's his Odd Couple analogy, not mine. After turning down numerous applicants, Adrian takes an instant shine to hunky Jack (Hart Bochner), and without so much as a reference request, accepts him on charm alone. (In his defense, Jack does have exceptional pecs and the world's definitive chin dimple.)

After moving in together, the clearly smitten Adrian begins to dote on Jack and say anything other than what he's really thinking (i.e., "You're adorable!" "Let's make out!" "Where did you get that fabulous top?"). Meanwhile, the mysterious Jack is revealed to be a promiscuous bisexual and very likely a psychopathic murderer, which is frankly the kind of thing that tends to happen when you don't ask your roomie for references. Adrian does a long, slow burn for Jack before finally connecting the dots about the true nature of his companion...but ultimately, both guys are cuckoo for cocoa puffs in their own demented way. Apartment Zero doesn't give the viewer anybody to root for, so who really cares which nutcase gets the upper hand in the final reel? The answer is in the second word of the film title. Rating: 2/5.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

4/30/09: From Here to Eternity (1953)

By all rights, I should have watched this movie last week, when it was all Fifties movies, all the time. It's one of those universally beloved classics I've never seen that I'm very glad to cross off the list. Based on the 1952 award-winning James Jones novel, From Here to Eternity is about soldiers based in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The central character is Private Hewitt (Montgomery Clift), a talented bugler and former boxer whom his superior officers try to pressure to fight again for their club. When he declines, they put the heat on him in various sadistic ways. Meanwhile, Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster) begins an affair with his captain's neglected wife (Deborah Kerr), and another private (Frank Sinatra) gets into a pissing contest with a bigoted sergeant, played by Ernest Borgnine.

The movie is engrossing, with numerous tragic elements; as frequently happens with these older movies, all of the lead characters are chain-smoking, which tends to distract me—it ends up seeming like one giant cigarette advertisement. The movie contains the famous scene of Lancaster and Kerr making out on the beach at twilight as the tide splashes all around them. Overall, it's a very somber and sad story—I can appreciate why people were so enamored of it in 1953, relatively soon after WWII and directly after the Korean war. What made the biggest impression for me (again, as often happens in these older movies) is observing how the gritty events of the book are diluted for movie version. For example, Donna Reed plays a dance-hall hostess, but clearly she must have been a prostitute in the book. Ironically, the climax of the movie involves Reed having to retell her own sanitized version of certain events in the story to Kerr's character! Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

4/29/09: One, Two, Three (1961)

It's hard to go wrong with Billy Wilder. I already raved about him last week, when I blogged about his classic Sunset Boulevard from 1950. Today's screener was his film from 11 years later: One, Two, Three, a farcical cold-war satire featuring Jimmy Cagney as an American Coca-Cola executive working in Western Germany and charged with the task of hosting a superior's visiting daughter for a couple of weeks. The 17-year-old girl turns out to be a real firebrand, and wastes no time hooking up with a rebellious young Communist, a horrifying situation Cagney must somehow defuse at all costs or face getting fired. The movie contains nonstop rapid-fire dialogue peppered with hilarious jokes, Marx Brothers style; the pace is absolutely relentless, and is said to be the reason Cagney didn't make another movie for 20 years. It's a shame, because his comic delivery is priceless. I'll be watching this one again. Rating: 5/5.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

4/28/09: Adventureland (2009)

There's this movie plot, see? It goes something like this: two characters meet and start dating, but there's this terrible lie/secret one is withholding from the other. The romance continues until the terrible secret is exposed, leading to the inevitable breakup, which always lasts 15-20 minutes until the predictable reconciliation, where everybody lives happily ever after. So here's my question: HOW MANY MORE FUCKING TIMES am I going to be subjected to this cinematic retread? There's this feeling I get in the pit of my stomach each time I'm sitting in a darkened movie theater when I realize to my shock and disgust that I've been duped into seeing it again. I've lost count of all the times I have been subjected to regurgitations of the Big Lie movie, usually with slight modifications but always, always with the same basic construct in place. Adventureland is the latest example of how this mind-numbingly overused idea has somehow inspired numerous positive reviews from respectable critics. I freely admit that there is the occasional film that puts some fresh spin on the plot or is otherwise funny enough to warrant seeing it yet again (Tootsie is a great example of the former; About a Boy is an example of the latter), but this ain't it.

Set in the early 1980s, Adeventureland serves up the Big Lie plot in the form of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High-type comedy with characters endlessly puking, porking, toking and, of course, playing Centipede. Two high-school grads (the appealing Jesse Eisenberg and Twilight's Kristen Stewart) meet and start dating while working at a local third-rate amusement park to earn money for college. Stewart's deception is a lie of omission: she's also dating the park's mechanic/heartthrob (Ryan Reynolds), who happens to be married but boinking Stewart on the sly. Yet Stewart is drawn to Eisenberg, because he's cool—he doesn't listen to uncool music embraced by the masses, music by Duran Duran or The Eagles; he gives her mixed tapes with really cool underground tunes by Lou Reed and The Replacements and The New York Dolls. (The movie exists primarily as an advertisement for its own ultracool soundtrack CD.) Here's the main problem: the script works overtime to underscore how cool and nonconformist its leading characters are while simultaneously trapping them in the corniest movie plot in the history of cinema.

Besides the star-crossed lovers, there are various other geeks, bullies and hussies working at and visiting the park to add flavor and color, including one lad who takes glee in giving his friends a sucker punch to the groin. And if you think that's hilarious, brother, you're just going to flip for Adventureland. Kristen Stewart—so much a carbon copy of Ally Sheedy that there were times I was sure it was Ally Sheedy—is very easy on the eyes, but the movie is, to put it charitably, extremely lightweight fare. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live, who have been much funnier elsewhere, provide a few welcome chuckles. Rating: 2/5.