Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Monkey Business

Movie Review: Monkey Business

Year of Release: 1952
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe

Plot outline: A scientist's search for the fountain of youth makes him and his wife regress to childhood (IMDb).

Howard Hawks knows his way around screwball comedy, but Monkey Business pales next to his inimitable classics like His Girl Friday. It has plenty of funny moments, but it didn't make me laugh as much as it should have considering its great cast of Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn and Marilyn Monroe - in a scene-stealing supporting role that helped establish her screen persona for all time. The first half of the movie is great. Grant goes from stuffy, absent-minded scientist to hormonal teenager and hilarity ensues. He underplays the part well, making the transition subtle at first, then more pronounced as the segment goes on. Further, his natural chemistry with Monroe makes this part of the story all the more appealing. Right about the time Grant’s character starts reverting to his old self is when you should turn off the movie. Should you stick around, you’ll see the movie’s focus shift from Grant to Rogers. Unfortunately, as with their previous collaboration, Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), Rogers simply isn’t funny. While Grant’s character seems to change into an adolescent, to judge by Rogers’ performance, her character changes into a crazy person. She overacts from the get-go, exhibiting none of Grant’s restraint, and quickly makes the next fifteen to twenty minutes an exercise in patience. Ironically, the script originally only had Grant’s character taking the formula, but Rogers insisted her character do so as well, and Hawks, unfortunately, gave in. He later regretted it, although apparently not in time to save the movie. Compounding matters, Monroe has all but disappeared. (F)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 27 July 2009


Movie Review: Houseboat

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Melville Shavelson
Cast: Cary Grant, Sophia Loren

Plot outline: An Italian socialite on the run signs on as housekeeper for a widower with three children (IMDb).

Houseboat is a bit lame, though it’s hard to say why. Probably because a number of failed elements contribute to it. Cary Grant and Sophia Loren don’t seem to combine well, at least not in this kind of film. The script is weak relying as it does on a number of conventional film situations. And the directing is a bit pedestrian. Individually, none of these elements is particularly poor. They’re just not good. But because all of them are weak, the movie falls flat. Houseboat wants to be an urbane romantic comedy, but the element of children and parenting keeps throwing it off as this lends itself more to slapstick. Or perhaps it’s the opposite: a family film thrown off by the element of adult romantic comedy. Either way, the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be. It treads water between the two. Houseboat seems to rely more on the attractiveness of Grant and Loren to carry the movie, and it just isn’t enough. Despite this, I enjoyed Houseboat but less for the movie itself than for the sight of Grant and Loren on screen together. But the truth is, both actors are so much better than the script allows them to be. Overall, it’s a huge waste of talent. (BW)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Topper Returns

Movie Review: Topper Returns

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Cast: Joan Blondell, Roland Young, Carole Landis, Billie Burke

Plot outline: Topper is once again tormented by a fun-loving spirit. This time, a beautiful ghost enlists him to track down her killer (IMDb).

Unlike the predecessor, Topper Returns is a rather sluggish ghost-hunt. The actors chime in with a will on all the nonsense. Joan Blondell is a slightly more buxom spirit than her predecessor, Constance Bennett (showing that ghosts can put on weight); Roland Young is browbeaten as ever; Billie Burke is as vaporous of mind as before; and Carole Landis is pretty. But for all their efforts they can't conceal that Topper Returns is old stuff. All of which indicates that one may raise a ghost, but hardly the ghost of a ghost. (TS)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Anna Karenina

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Year of Release: 1948
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Julien Duvivier
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, Kieron Moore

Plot outline: Adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic tale of a woman who deserts her family for an illicit love (IMDb).

It is inevitable that this British production of Anna Karenina is compared with its major Hollywood predecessor. That 1935 movie was starred Greta Garbo and had an exceptional supporting cast. The 'Garbo mystique' has made the American version more popular, but the British version is comparable in quality, and is more faithful to the source novel. Vivien Leigh has a childish self-centered personality perhaps more appropriate to the character. Garbo is comparatively worldly and affected, but her passion was equal to the role. Nonetheless, Vivien Leigh is fascinating as well as beautiful, and many viewers will get caught up in her plight. (BK)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Movie Review: Topper

Year of Release: 1937
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Cast: Constance Bennett, Cary Grant, Roland Young, Billie Burke

Plot outline: A fun-loving couple returns from the dead to help a henpecked husband (IMDb).

Fun, light and funny, Topper is a delightful screwball comedy. It shares the style of, and comes a year or two after, the classic My Man Godfrey. Though not as good as that movie, it excels in many ways, not the least of which is a very good cast. While Cary Grant is in it, the real star is Constance Bennett. There are a lot of wonderful moments in the movie, including numerous sexually suggestive jokes that would likely not be allowed in later years. They are not overt, brazen moments (as you would likely get today), but deliciously suggestive - making them funnier and more sexy. Bennett plays her role with delightful coyness and flirtatiousness. The interaction with Roland Young as the henpecked husband is great fun to watch. In Topper, you get to see Cosmo Topper come out of his shell and develop into the man he wants to be. (One of the best scenes, howlingly funny, is a drunk Topper being helped down stairs, through a hotel lobby by invisible ghosts.) You also see his wife develop from icy social climber to a more loving woman. (BW)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 20 July 2009

Royal Wedding

Movie Review: Royal Wedding

Year of Release: 1951
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford

Plot outline:
A brother-and-sister musical team find romance when they tour to London for Queen Elizabeth II''s wedding (IMDb).

Royal Wedding is all about piling on the gimmickry, using everyday situations and objects to make a gray world more fun. Fred Astaire teams up with Jane Powell as a brother-sister act that tours England, falling in love with a pair of already-attached locals. But what everyone remembers about Royal Wedding is Astaire and Powell dancing on a rocking cruise liner, Astaire dancing around a gym with a coat-rack as a partner, and most memorably, Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling. It's a shtick-filled movie, but every number is thought through, telling the story even better than the dialogue. (NM)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Only Angels Have Wings

Movie Review: Only Angels Have Wings

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell

Plot outline: A team of flyers risks their lives to deliver the mail in a mountainous South American country (IMDb).

Only Angels Have Wings is a tribute to a tight-knit community of men living under the constant specter of death, and a woman who tries to forge herself into the kind of person who could love one of these death-courting daredevils. It is a quintessential Howard Hawks subject, filmed in an atmosphere where cigarette smoke and the ever-present fog curl together, a shroud hanging in the black air of a South American town where a team of flyers must risk death daily in order to deliver the mail across treacherous mountain ranges. The movie is one of Hawks' most gorgeously shot, with dark, moody images that capture the romance and bravado of aviation. Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the head pilot of this crew, bearing a heavy burden as night after night he sends his men up in bad weather or good, taking the riskiest missions for himself when he knows no one else could pull it off. Jean Arthur is Bonnie Lee, the woman who arrives on a steamship for a layover and finds herself falling for Geoff, even though she knows he resists sharing his dangerous life with any woman. The movie has a quiet, melancholy tone despite its occasional bursts of wisecracking Hawksian dialogue, and the fiery plane crashes that punctuate the movie give it an uneasy, unstable quality, as though anyone could be snuffed out suddenly at any moment. It's a haunting masterpiece, a fog-shrouded romance - not just between a man and a woman, but between a man and his work, and perhaps most importantly, a grim romance between man and death. (EH)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 17 July 2009


Movie Review: Charade

Year of Release: 1963
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy

Plot outline: Romance and suspense in Paris, as a woman is pursued by several men who want a fortune her murdered husband had stolen (IMDb).

The enduring popularity of Charade makes any criticism of the movie nearly irrelevant. Most people who see the movie will be so charmed that they won't care that it is a sleek star vehicle, that the plot is formulaic, or that the villains are cartoonish. If you are among the great majority that has enjoyed Charade, don't let me spoil your fun. I spent most of the movie frustrated by the movie's familiarity. It especially resembles To Catch a Thief, the Hitchcock romantic comedy/mystery/thriller starring Cary Grant that was also set in France. Add parts of Hitchock's North by Northwest, The 39 Steps, etc., and mix with Audrey Hepburn's familiar 'glamorous girl lost' persona from Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany's, etc. Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors. It's fun watching him take a shower in his suit. The scene with a stern cleaning lady beating the dust from a rug in front of Grant is a classic. Hepburn is lovely and has a marvelous speaking voice. But Grant is pushing sixty, and while he looks good for his age, he seems to be an unlikely target for Hepburn's very forward machinations. The direction seems to be confused as to whether Charade is a comedy or a thriller. It must be the former, because the story is difficult to take seriously. Wrapped up with a blissfully happy ending, Charade is a crowd pleaser whose audience won't care if its all been done before, and better. By no means is it a bad movie, but its charms cannot fully overcome its dubious conventions. (BK)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Monday, 13 July 2009


Movie Review: Scarface

Year of Release: 1932
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon

Plot outline: An ambitious and near insanely violent gangster climbs the ladder of success in the mob, but his weaknesses prove to be his downfall (IMDb).

If Little Caesar and The Public Enemy represent the prototypical amoral and moral takes on gangsterdom, then Scarface is gleefully immoral, its sermonising opening titles representing little more than over-compensation. This is tacitly acknowledged in the media frenzy that surrounds Antonio Camonte's (Paul Muni's) ruthless acts of killing, which both inculcates a connection between criminality and celebrity that the movie itself never really escapes, and brings out the sinister underbelly of the inspirational, musical narrative of fame and glamour, most explicitly in Camonte's confession that his ultimate ambition is to get his name in lights. The voyeuristic aesthetic that results finds equal expression in consumer fetishism, particularly evident in the self-conscious gaudiness of Camonte's apartment, and a preoccupation with shocking violence that radically exceeds any narrative or aesthetic necessity, ultimately construing the machine gun itself as just another glamorous accessory. This is all enhanced by fairly functional cinemtography, which mirrors the gritty newsreels that Hawks ostensibly condemns, as well as Paul Muni's acting which, in diametric opposition to I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, is overwhelmingly hammy, with every line followed by a more or less direct acknowledgment of the audience. That said, Hawks' approach probably comes closer to a sheer embodiment of the 'gangster problem' than the earlier two films, resulting in the haunting appeal of a historical artefact. (BS)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Judgment at Nuremberg

Movie Review: Judgment at Nuremberg

Year of Release: 1961
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift

Plot: In 1948, an American court in occupied Germany tries four Nazi judges for war crimes (IMDb).

Judgment at Nuremberg is a dramatization of a true story. The movie covers the third of thirteen Nuremberg trials wherein four high court judges were accused of participating in war crimes in support of Adolf Hitler's regime. Hitler's mad policies resulted in the deaths of some fifty million people. By 1948, Hitler was long dead, as were most of his high profile cronies. But what about the bureaucrats who carried out his policies? What about the judges who rubberstamped the decisions sending thousands of "enemies of the German state" to horrible deaths in concentration camps? Were those judges guilty of crimes against humanity, or were they "just doing their jobs"? But if the judges were guilty of being Nazi enablers, then who wasn't guilty? What about world powers who had allowed Germany to militarize, and even to occupy Austria and Czechoslovakia? What about all the German citizens, who had looked the other way as Jews and other "undesirables" were stripped of their rights, property, and lives? Aside from these imposing philosophical questions about blame and responsibility, there were practical matters to be considered. By 1948, the Soviet Union had occupied Eastern Europe, and the US badly needed the co-operation of West German to fight the Cold War. Would it be better to save Europe from Communism, than to save Germany from its former fascists? Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, using black and white film, it garnered two Oscars, Maximilian Schell as Best Actor and another for Abby Mann's screenplay. The lead character is Spencer Tracy as Chief Judge of the American Tribunal that tries the Nazi judges. The overzealous Prosecuting Attorney is played by Richard Widmark. The Defense Attorney is played by Maximilian Schell, in a riveting performance. He plays a zealous attorney who transforms the case against his client to an indictment against the whole German people. Schell's performance is really over the top and makes the movie work. Four other characters give notable performances: Werner Klemperer, as one of the defendants, Emil Hahn, gives a convincing display of the arrogance one would associate with a man who had lived above the law for too many years; Marlene Dietrich, as the wife of an executed German general who forms a relationship with Tracy during his time off and tries to convince him that all Germans did not support Hitler; Montgomery Clift, horribly ravaged in appearance and emotions thru acute alcoholism, gave a convincing portrait of a victim of the machinations of the Nazi state whose tools were the judges; Judy Garland also gave a fine performance as a German housewife who befriended a Jewish man and was therefore punished by the Nazi tribunal. This drama kept me on the edge of my seat. The film has a few lagging moments as the scene shifts outside the courtroom to show Tracy's activities after work. Otherwise, it is a stunning movie. The German music adds a nice touch, recalling the power of the Nazi regime and taking the edge off of the all too real subject matter. (BK, GC)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 6 July 2009

Lady in a Cage

Movie Review: Lady in a Cage

Year of Release: 1964
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Walter Grauman
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jeff Corey, Ann Sothern

Plot outline: During a hot summer day, a lady gets trapped inside a home elevator after the electricity goes out. While she presses a button inside the elevator to summon help from the alley, she unknowingly attracts looters who in turn try hurting her and steal all her personal belongings (IMDb).

Based on a novel by Robert Durand, there's not a single redeeming character or characteristic to Lady in a Cage's sensationalistically vulgar screenplay. It is haphazardly constructed, full of holes, sometimes pretentious and in bad taste. Had the basic premise - of an invalid woman trapped in her private home elevator when the power is cut off - been developed simply, neatly and realistically, gripping dramatic entertainment might have ensued. But the screenwriter has chosen to employ his premise as a means to expose all the negative aspects of the human animal. He has infested the caged woman's house with as scummy an assortment of characters as literary imagination might conceive. Among those who greedily invade her abode are a delirious wino (Jeff Corey), a plump prostitute (Ann Sothern) and three vicious young hoodlums (James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley and Rafael Campos). Olivia de Havilland plays the unfortunate woman in the elevator, and gives one of those ranting, raving, wild-eyed performances often thought of as Academy Award oriented. Actually, the role appears to require more emotional stamina than histrionic deftness. Caan, as the sadistic leader of the little ratpack, appears to have been watching too many early Marlon Brando movies. (V)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 5 July 2009


Movie Review: Indiscreet

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman

Plot outline: A tycoon pretends to be married while courting a beautiful actress (IMDb).

Based on Norman Krasna's successful play, "Kind Sir" (with Krasna here supplying his own script adaptation), Indiscreet takes over an hour to move from a hearts-and-flowers romantic piffle to a comedy, with far more subdued results considering the cast and crew involved. The script fills Indiscreet with those fake society matrons and old-world politicians and businessmen that only exist in the movies, but then fails to capitalize on the stereotypes, making Indiscreet a seemingly endless ordeal of pointless blather. Matching the inert script every step of the way, director Stanley Donen plants his camera firmly at a mid-two-shot, and lets the actors recite their lines; it's an exceedingly boring visual design, with an emphasis on close-ups to maximize the film's star power. As for those stars, it's obvious that Grant and Bergman, so memorably paired twelve years before in one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, Notorious!, have a certain chemistry together. But very little in the leaden script allows them to strike sparks together. Bergman, a tad stolid in her take on a world-famous actress, seems in good spirits, which isn't surprising when you consider Indiscreet was a big boost in her campaign to return to the good graces of the American public after the Rossellini scandal. Grant, looking drawn and tired in his early scenes, is tightly controlled as Philip, offering an obvious surface performance that no doubt met the requirements of what audiences expected from "a Cary Grant performance," but which offers little in the way of energy or nuance. A criminally slow start focusing on the patently phony romance (watch both of them literally sigh at each other in one scene) with a less-than-inspired denouement (and with too few genuine chuckles), add up to a whole lot of nothing in Indiscreet, a vapid, boring trifle overmatched by the underutilized skills of its stars. (PM)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars