Saturday, February 28, 2009

2/19/09: Forever Young, Forever Free (1976)

With my Disney vacation fast approaching—and a week's worth of Disney films on my schedule for this blog—I picked out this (non-Disney) G-rated movie to get me in the mood for family entertainment. This was exactly the kind of squeaky-clean stuff I would have seen in the '70s; in fact, it has precisely the same outdoorsy flavor of the similarly titled Challenge to Be Free, a movie I'd massively enjoyed from the previous year. So I can't quite explain how I not only missed this one in the theaters, but in fact had never even heard of it before this year. I came across it while searching IMDB for Karen Valentine—one of my first TV crushes, from Room 222—and the recollections from numerous viewers who had enjoyed it as children convinced me to order a copy. It's the story of two young boys in South Africa who bond despite their racial differences, and how a scary accident changes their lives, but not their friendship. The idea is a nice one, but it's so painfully produced on a shoestring that it almost demands to be viewed as a child, when you're young enough to forgive elements like a nonexistent budget and a flimsy script. Rating: 2/5.

2/18/09: Gun Crazy (1950)

My recent viewing of the excellent 1953 British comedy Always a Bride inspired not only a week's worth of black-and-white viewings, but my purchase of several other DVDs starring the lovely Peggy Cummins. This American flick, made a few years earlier, preceded Bonnie and Clyde by 17 years, and though it lacks the style, budget, quality and punch of the Arthur Penn film, it's a very similar story. And I frankly preferred it. A star-crossed young couple (Cummins and John Dall) fall in love, rob banks, develop a taste for killing, go on the lam and ultimately get what's coming to them. An extremely enjoyable study of homicidal lovers getting sucked into the dark side, and the people who get hurt along the way. Alternately known as Deadly Is the Female. Rating: 4/5.

2/17/09: The Big Lebowski (1998)

A beautiful Three Stooges comedy about bowling, ransom, Judaism, marijuana and a urine-stained carpet. Given how much I've always loved Fargo, it's amazing that I've never seen the Coen Brothers' cult-favorite follow-up to their 1996 crime caper. Better late than never. Jeff Bridges is a delight as The Dude, an unemployed stoner who gets himself entangled in a kidnapping story with a mistaken-identity twist, with gun-toting sidekick John Goodman along to add zaniness to an already lunatic plot. This is vintage Coen, a comedy with a dangerous and uncomfortable edge; like their best work, it's utterly littered with oddball characters—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, Julianne Moore and the always engaging David Huddleston—that give the story its unique flavor. Alternately lyrical and surreal, Lebowski is a film I'll be very curious to watch a second time, to try to fit some of the random pieces together (such as the running joke about the Eagles and the hilariously goofball dream sequences). Rating: 5/5.

Monday, February 16, 2009

2/16/09: Child's Play (1972)

The great Robert Preston (most famous for The Music Man) is someone I love to watch, even when the material he's in doesn't quite rise to his level. In Child's Play, he plays a beloved English teacher at a Catholic school for boys, and makes an excellent foil to the older and much-feared Latin teacher, James Mason. Beau Bridges plays a young phys-ed instructor who becomes caught up in their feuding—and by the creepy, almost homicidal behavior of their teenage students, which may have some connection.

Based on a play by Burnt Offerings author Robert Marasco, the film was particularly interesting to me because of its lack of availability—unreleased on video and rarely (if ever) shown on TV, it was recently offered as digital download via Amazon's On Demand. Sadly, the mystique of the movie slowly evaporated as I watched. It's a pretty slow-moving and dull picture that tries to be menacing and fails. Mason and Preston are typically excellent, however. It's just a shame they got caught in this muddled, quasi-Satanic flick about the dangers of putting your trust in the wrong people. This was a misstep for famed director Sidney Lumet, whose previous films included The Pawnbroker and Fail-Safe (both of which are on my to-view list) and who would go on to make Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and well as the godawful The Wiz. Rating: 2/5.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

2/15/09: He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

It's the start of another grab-bag week. Today's selection is the first-run hit He's Just Not That Into You—a title I have despised since the original publication of the self-help book that inspired the movie. Because I am all-too-easily dragged by friends to see practically any film in a theater, I allowed myself to be dragged to this one by my friend Leticia. My expectations for this were somewhat low, and I managed to enjoy it despite its painful predictability—first and foremost because two of its female stars are excruciatingly attractive. On the cute end is Ginnifer Goodwin (paired with Justin Long, her co-star on TV's Ed); on the smoldering end is Scarlett Johansson, who oozes more sexuality with each successive movie. Goodwin plays a girl few men ask out for a second date; in fact, she spends the greater part of the picture waiting for her phone to ring—an almost science-fiction conceit, as she is so cute and charming that by all rights, she should be fighting them off with a tire iron. The trajectory of her story, like all others in the film, is telegraphed so obviously that a blind deaf-mute could see it coming. The rest of the movie concerns the other dating/relationship travails experienced by a cast of magazine cover-worthy performers: Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck spar over his refusal to marry her; Drew Barrymore wrestles with the online dating scene; Bradley Cooper finds himself attracted to Johansson while married to fussy Jennifer Connelly. He's Just Not That Into You is basically an extended version of its own trailer, which I had seen about sixty times already, but it was all acceptably entertaining and worth the longer look to see all of the beautiful performers and their perfect jeans-covered butts. Rating: 3/5.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

2/14/09: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)

Monochrome Week comes to a close with this wartime comedy, written and directed by Preston Sturges. It was touted as one of the 50 greatest comedies by Premiere Magazine, nominated for an Oscar, and such a monster hit when it was released that many showings were standing room only. But my main interest in seeing the film had nothing to do with all that—I happened to see lovely Diana Lynn in a scene while flipping on Turner Classic Movies a few weeks! Luckily, TCM aired it again last week, so I managed to TiVo it and indulge in some Lynn-sanity.

Betty Hutton stars as a small-town girl who attends a going-away party for local soldiers and wakes up the next day to find herself married and pregnant. Problem is, she has no idea who the daddy is. Will she marry her drip of a boyfriend (Eddie Bracken) and risk committing bigamy, or bring shame to her loving sister (Diana Lynn) and bellowing father (William Demarest, who played Uncle Charley on TV's My Three Sons)? Some of the themes were fairly racy for 1944, but it's all done as kind of a slapsticky screwball comedy—there's no pratfall too ludicrous and no comic invention too overblown. The result is still funny today, although terribly over the top at times, at least for my taste. The best moments belong to smart-alecky Lynn, who makes a superb foil for blustery papa Demarest. (In the movie's single greatest line, he admonishes her: "Someday they're just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe someplace. Nothing else! The Mystery of Morgan's Creek!") Lynn, who was 18 at the time but playing a 14-year-old, was the high point; on the debit side, I was not particularly charmed by Hutton, whom I find somewhat unattractive in a Lucille Ball kind of way, nor by Bracken, whose stuttering shtick grows tiresome in a hurry.

Note: The picture involves the birth of sextuplets, which is treated like a big deal, which it would have been in the mid-1940s. But definitely not today, with the birth of the famous California octuplets only a couple of weeks ago. Rating: 3/5.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

2/13/09: Mirage (1965)

Gregory Peck has quite a quandary: He can't remember much about his past from before two years ago—and also, people keep trying to shoot him. The suspense novel Fallen Angel by Howard Fast (author of Spartacus) is the basis of this nail-biter; it's one of those movies with a lot of baffling occurrences, but all of the pieces finally start to fit by the movie's conclusion. Director Edward Dmytryk does a serviceable job, but one can't help lamenting the absence of Hitchcock, who would undoubtedly have turned this into something even better. Intriguing and suspenseful, but could (and should) have been a classic. Walter Matthau, Jack Weston and Kevin McCarthy all contribute memorably. Rating: 4/5.

2/12/09: Ladybug Ladybug (1963)

I bought this DVD because it features one of my favorite actors, William Daniels (he played John Adams in 1776). The idea sounds intriguing: teachers and students at a school react to the news that a nuclear bomb may be imminent. Cold War jitters culminate in a bomb shelter, where a group of nervous young students have sequestered themselves. It's not quite Lord of the Flies, but the story did remind me of the Twilight Zone episode "The Shelter," with the identical scenario, from two years earlier. The movie would undoubtedly have been more effective half a century ago; viewers who write about having seen the film as a child speak of how horrifying it was. I found it reasonably watchable but far from truly terrifying (although there is a troubling scene near the end where a girl hides in an abandoned refrigerator she'll clearly never escape from). The ending is weirdly abrupt and ambiguous, and William Daniels' role amounts to precious little. An interesting curio. Rating: 3/5.

2/11/09: The Incident (1967)

I tend not to have guilty pleasures, as I lack the shamefulness it requires. But The Incident is as close as a movie can get. Two sadistic punks (Tony Musante and Martin Sheen, in their big-screen debuts) enter a subway car and proceed to terrorize everybody on board. Those commuters include a bunch of obvious archetypes—upper-class couple, old couple, black couple, child, young lovers, military men, passed-out drunk. One by one, the antagonists intimidate and molest their prey, and the viewer waits for somebody to do something. Annoyingly, the bravest remark any of the passengers can muster is some variation of "Why don't you just leave him alone?" The punks are clearly sociopathic—Musante and Sheen make them deliciously evil—and we wait patiently for tensions to boil over. The Incident isn't trashy, exactly, but it's provocative for its own sake, the same way Dirty Harry would be scarcely four years later. Donna Mills is pretty as the Pretty Girl; other familar faces on board the subway car—which seems to travel about 20 miles in between stops—include Ruby Dee, Beau Bridges, Jack Gilford and Ed McMahon (hey-ohhh!). It is one of the most perplexing of my movie quirks that I can't seem to get enough of dirty rotten punks. Rating: 4/5.

2/10/09: Laura (1944)

I am forever grateful that I wasn't already privvy to the startling twist that comes about halfway through director Otto Preminger's much-beloved mystery, Laura. I'm not normally a noir enthusiast, but this famous film (based on Vera Caspary's novel) may just convert me. Dana Andrews is a cop investigating the murder of the title character (Gene Tierney), with her former lovers (Clifton Webb and Vincent Price) topping the suspect list. As Andrews probes the life of the dead girl, he starts to fall in love with her memory. It's a terrific setup with some great surprises to follow. Only debit: the haunting theme song, while excellent, is played rather incessantly. Preminger and Webb were nominated for Oscars. Rating: 5/5.

2/9/09: Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951)

The day after my pal Jay Steele and I saw Sitting Pretty at a vintage movie house, we sat at his house and watched one of its sequels on DVD. We were prepared for disappointment, as I had brought him up to speed with the curious lineage of Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell: it's based on a play called The Silver Whistle, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Belvedere—the filmmakers simply wrote him into the existing plot. The result is not, as one critic observed, a bad movie; it's just not a very good Mr. Belvedere movie. That's a real shame, because in retrofitting Clifton Webb's great character to this story, something got lost. The genius of Belvedere is that he's the ultimate narcissist, but in this sappy sequel, he suddenly and inexplicably decides to devote his life to helping the residents of an old-age home. And everybody knows that Mr. Belvedere doesn't actually care about people. It was nice to see Clifton Webb onscreen and making the occasional smartass observation, and it's always a delight to watch Zero Mostel, who has a small role here. But there's little doubt why this proved to be the last Belvedere movie. Rating: 2/5.

2/8/09: Sitting Pretty (1948)

Inspired by last week's viewing of the excellent Always a Bride, we hereby commence Monochrome Week—a seven-day run of movies in beautiful black and white. First up is a charming comedy directed by Walter Lang, who would later go on to team Marilyn Monroe and Ethel Merman in There's No Business Like Show Business. Featuring Clifton Webb as Mr. Belvedere—a character that would later spawn two movie sequels and two TV series—Sitting Pretty is sitcomy but delightful fluff about a couple (Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara) who hire a nanny for their three unruly brats; they think they're getting Mary Poppins, but an older gentleman with the feminine name of Lynn Belvedere answers their newspaper ad. And what a character he is, professing to despise children and making numerous acerbic snappy retorts (they're the best thing in the picture). Belvedere is the perfect man to tame the kids, but the inevitable conflicts eventually do arise, with hilarious results. Webb is quintessentially perfect in what turns out to be the ultimate babysitter flick. I never wanted it to end. Rating: 5/5.

2/7/09: The Chalk Garden (1964)

By all rights, I should have saved up my accumulated Hayley Mills movies and made a special theme week of them. But I'd already used up one of them (Endless Night) for George Sanders Week, and I could no longer stave off my growing curiosity to watch this adaptation of Enid Bagnold's 1955 play. Made nearly a decade later, the film version follows Hayley's earliest family films produced by Disney (Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, Summer Magic) and could be considered her first real film specifically for adults—she was 18 by the time this film was released.

It's incredible to think I was already a big Hayley Mills fan without having seen this masterpiece. Touching, insightful and relevatory, it tells the story of Laurel, a troubled teen with major mommy issues (Mills); her grandmother (Edith Evans), who has family issues of her own; and the mysterious caretaker who has been brought in to tame the girl (Deborah Kerr). There are skeletons hidden in closets and buried emotions that rise to the surface as Bagnold's intriguing tale unfolds—I was drawn in from the get-go, riveted throughout, and frankly lucky to have a handkerchief in reach by the final scene. The entire cast performs flawlessly; Evans was nominated for an Oscar, and Hayley is mesmerizing. Rating: 5/5.

2/6/09: The Wrong Box (1966)

It is difficult to think of another movie with a more promising cast: John Mills, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers and Ralph Richardson, all starring in a demented British comedy. Based on a novel co-written by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Wrong Box is silly without being truly funny and well-executed without being particularly interesting. The plot has to do with an inheritance and the scheming men who want to get their paws on it; along the way there are dead bodies, crazy mixups, and a very sexy but repressed lass played by Nanette Newman—and she was the only thing in this romp that commanded my full attention throughout. I'm not sure what went wrong, because I was prepared to love this film and walked away profoundly disappointed. Rating: 2/5.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

2/5/09: The Little Prince (1974)

I'm a loyal fan of certain actors. Once I find one I really like, I'll make an effort to track down other films they've done, or I'll make a point to see their newest works. And I'll go that extra mile for performers like Dustin Hoffman, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Hayley Mills, George Sanders and a few others. They've got the magic required to make even a lackluster movie a bit brighter.

Even in his worst films, Gene Wilder can make me smile, and especially in his older offerings, I just love the way he looks. Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silver Streak—this was Wilder at his wildest. Beginning in the late '70s, he started churning out a lot of drivel, and I subsequently lost interest in him. So I turned my attention to digging out whatever early '70s Wilder I could find. The Little Prince, a big-screen Lerner and Lowe musical version of the beloved Antoine de Saint-Exupéry children's book, showed promise, as it was produced right in the middle of his Golden Period. I was unfamiliar with the source material, but attracted to the pedigree—how do you go wrong with the composers of "My Fair Lady" and the star of Willy Wonka? Answer: by making this 88-minute pile of excrement. It's about as ill-conceived and impossible to watch as any movie I've ever seen; although a couple of the songs were passably tuneful, it's a crime that they were written for this deservedly forgotten bore. Wilder's part—basically a cameo appearance—is one of the only bright spots. It was also interesting to actually see Bob Fosse act in a movie; I'd only seen a representation of him portrayed by Roy Scheider in All That Jazz. (I gather Little Prince is one of Fosse's only on-camera movie roles.) Finally, special mention must be made of Steven Warner, the 8-year-old moppet who plays the Little Prince; his adorableness is off the charts. Sadly, though, the film itself is devoid of charm and should be avoided at all costs. Rating: 1/5.

2/4/09: Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007)

Several years ago, I caught an indie sci-fi spoof called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, a loving sendup of schlocky Ed Wood-type movies. Made on the cheap, it contained no shortage of laughs, and it has become one of my favorite (virtually) unknown comedies.

Now the same team has reassembled for another low-budget satire, including writer-director Larry Blamire and practically all of the original cast. Completed in 2007, Screaming Forehead has still never been officially released to theaters, but as of this writing it is available via cable TV's "On Demand." This picture is sort of a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob, featuring a bevy of foreheads from outer space that attach themselves to the real foreheads of humans and turn their hosts into zombies. Although not quite as consistently amusing as Skeleton, it does have a lot of the same goofily stilted dialogue, like when boarding-house owner Sarah deals with a customer:

Sarah: It just so happens we have two rooms, and you can have them both each. You're just in time for lunch, and you can have that both each, too.

Big Dan: If you're asking us that as nicely as I think you just did, things that would be better than that have no appeal to us, little lady.

The plot is absurd nonsense (much of it takes place at The Institute for Brain Studying); this is the kind of movie where you just laugh at the intentionally bad writing and intentionally dated Ray Harryhausen special effects. The movie dragged a bit in the middle section, but I'm sure happy these guys are making movies. Cast standouts are Brian Howe, Fay Masterson and Andrew Parks. The talented filmmakers reportedly have a couple more films in the cooker, and if they're making them as nicely as I think they made Forehead, things that would be better than that have no appeal to me, little lady. Rating: 4/5.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

2/3/09: Always a Bride (1953)

No matter how hard I try, I can't escape the Big Lie movie. It's everywhere—versions of the Big Lie story probably date back to the Stone Age. You know the shopworn tale: a couple of lovebirds enter into their romance that is advanced on the basis of a fib told by one to the other. At length, the lie is discovered, which naturally leads to complications, but only as far as the inevitable happy ending. Taking into account subtle variations such as gender reversal, I just described the plot of Bells Are Ringing, Pillow Talk, The Music Man, The Graduate, Tootsie, Just One of the Guys, Coming to America, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, While You Were Sleeping, About a Boy, There’s Something About Mary, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and The Wedding Crashers; the list keeps growing with each passing year. And those are just the ones I've seen—not counting the innumerable times the story has been regurgitated for television. You'd think that audiences would get tired of the Big Lie story, but apparently I'm the only one.

Burned out as I am of this plot, occasionally I see an entertaining version of it, and Always a Bride combines the Big Lie with a confidence-trickster theme, which I usually love. I was very keen to see this 1953 British comedy at a "vintage" movie theater several months ago, but the timing unfortunately didn't work out. Although it's not officially released on DVD, I finagled a copy from somebody online, and it arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago. So it made its way to the top of the list.

Beautiful Clare Hemsley (Peggy Cummins) and her dear old father Victor (Ronald Squire) have a great scam going. They check into a fancy hotel posing as newlyweds, then hubby "skips town," leaving a sobbing bride "destitute." She collects big from sympathetic rich hotel patrons who want to help her. But Clare didn't count on falling for an honest and handsome fellow (Terence Morgan), who's staying at the same French hotel. Consistently amusing and occasionally hilarious, Always a Bride is sort of a nonmusical Music Man (another movie where the Big Lie gets in the way of the Big Con). It's a very likable, well-constructed confection, and Peggy Cummins is drop-dead gorgeous in it. I wish more people knew about this movie. In black and white. Rating 5/5.

2/2/09: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

So taken was I by yesterday's viewing of The Uninvited that I had to check out the original Korean film it's based on: Janghwa, Hongryeon (literally Rose Flower, Red Lotus), or A Tale of Two Sisters, as it is known in the U.S. I was surprised to find that it's appreciably different from the remake; I had expected the American version to be a carbon copy of the original. They do share a number of common elements: there's a dad, a stepmother and two troubled sisters, and there are some ghostly apparitions and a surprise ending. Other than the basic setup, though, the differences seemed to outweigh the commonalities—not only in the plotting, but also the pacing. Two Sisters moves much more slowly; it's far more cerebral and embraces its numerous ambiguities (even by the end, it's not exactly clear what has transpired), whereas the no-nonsense American version never dawdles and is totally unambiguous. Still, both tellings of the tale could only benefit from a repeat viewing. Su-jeong Lim (as sister Soo-mi) and Jung-ah Yum (as stepmother Eun-joo) give excellent performances, and both are very, ahem, easy on the eyes. Rating: 3/5.

Monday, February 02, 2009

2/1/09: The Univited (2009)

My second official 2009 screening is the latest Hollywood remake of an Asian horror movie, like its predecessors The Ring and The Grudge. It would be spoiling the fun to name the movie this particular thriller reminds me of, but I will say that The Uninvited is quite an effective shocker, with plenty of "jump" scenes and the delectable Elizabeth Banks, who alone is worth the price of admission (here playing a version of the wicked-stepmother character). I admired the way the film was plotted from start to finish, and even if I sort of anticipated its main twist, The Uninvited still kept me guessing most of the way through.

Based on a Korean movie called Janghwa, Hongryeon (known here as A Tale of Two Sisters), this remake is a clever, stylish and scary horror flick that almost demands more than one viewing, and by the time the credits roll, you'll know why. Rating: 5/5.

1/31/09: Trouble the Water (2008)

"This is the Lord's work," observes Kimberly Rivers Roberts from the attic of her New Orleans home as she watches it being flooded in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. It is one of the many dozens of times she, or one of the locals she points her camcorder at, evokes the name of God. "He's mad at New Orleans, and I don't blame him," she declares.

Trouble the Water, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (and the final movie in my Oscar Nods week), is a fascinating record of the storm's devastation in late August 2005. Presented in nonlinear fashion, we see aspiring rap star Kimberly's home video footage of her neighborhood before, during and after the levees broke; we get interviews with her friends, husband and other family members as they talk about their ravaged homes and lives. The first third of the movie consists largely of Kimberly's extremely shaky camera work during all phases of the storm; more than once, it brought to mind last year's hit Cloverfield, another kind of disaster movie filmed with an unsteady hand. But where you only occasionally saw the monster in that picture, in Trouble the Water, the monster is everywhere, all the time. It's one of the film's best touches that the victims making the documentary never really lose their sense of humor—even when they're at death's door, they try to keep smiling. Though it does occasionally drag during the final third (chronicling Katrina's aftermath), Trouble the Water shows us the horror and humanity of a city unforgivably ignored by the government. One well-placed scene of George Bush promising that help is on the way drew boos and hisses from audience members, who have just seen the horrifying footage of residents in danger. And I won't soon forget hearing the desperate call to a 911 operator by a man pleading for help for his young children, and his being told that help will not be coming.

On the downside, the innumerable references to God and faith by the film's "cast" hindered my enjoyment of the film. That these people can continue to believe in anything after the horrors wreaked upon them is not inspirational, it's just maddening. Rating: 3/5.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

1/30/09: Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Nominated for Best Animated Film of 2008, Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda may not have all of the grandeur and longevity of Disney's WALL-E (the frontrunner for the award), but it has action, humor, excellent design work and a stellar cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Jack Black and Angelina Jolie, among others. It's a visual masterpiece and the best cartoon movie I've seen from Dreamworks so far, a come-from-behind underdog story that pits a fat panda against a ferocious tiger. (Guess who wins.) Kung Fu Panda is the Dragon Warrior of martial-arts spoofs. Rating: 4/5.