Monday, 31 August 2009

The Caine Mutiny

Movie Review: The Caine Mutiny

Year of Release: 1954
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Robert Francis

Plot outline: When a US Naval captain shows signs of mental instability that jeopardizes the ship, the first officer relieves him of command and faces court martial for mutiny (IMDb).

Humphrey Bogart really shows his range as an actor, playing against type as the compulsive, paranoid, Captain Queeg. From the speech patters, to the darting eyes, and nervous habits, Bogart creates the foundation that scores of actors would build on in years to come. Fred MacMurray, despite relatively little screen time, turns in a particularly nuanced performance that plays in perfect counterpoint to Bogart’s, while José Ferrer resists the urge to overact in what could be a showy role and instead effectively punches home the movie’s very sober message. The only real problem with the movie is the length. There’s an entire sub-plot featuring Robert Francis and May Wynn that doesn’t really pay off, but shows promise. Interestingly, according to the IMDb, there initially were two scripts for the movie, one with the romance and one without. Both scripts ran over three hours and fleshed out many more of the characters, but the studio head insisted the movie run two hours and thus much of the material was cut, but, surprisingly, the romance stayed. Despite the dull romance, the characters are all credible and well defined. (FML)

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

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Young Lions

Movie Review: The Young Lions

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Cast: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, Hope Lange

Plot outline: The destiny of three soldiers: one German and two Americans, paralleling their experiences in World War II until they meet up at the end for a confrontation (IMDb).

The Young Lions tells in great detail how each of these soldiers comes to view the war, as it makes its appeal as an anti-war movie. Marlon Brando turns into a conflicted Nazi, who has become disillusioned by the war but can't escape from it. Dean Martin is shamed into volunteering by his girlfriend, Margaret, and riddled with guilt that Montgomery Clift is fighting and he's got a soft gig. Clift intensely plays his role as the anguished Jewish outsider filled with a mixture of pathos and optimism. Brando might have the showy German accent but Clift's sensitive performance brings out greater depth than Brando did in his character. The two shared no scenes together, so we can only judge them separately. Martin takes on his first serious role after breaking up with comedian partner Jerry Lewis. All three stars shine and give this movie a luster despite periodic breakdowns in the way the episodic story was told. Besides being overlong, there were too many scenes where the action seemed forced, as if only used to make a plot point. It should also be noted that Swedish actress May Britt, Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, French actress Dora Doll and Italian actress Liliane Montevecchi all made their US film debuts here. (DS)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Roman Holiday

Movie Review: Roman Holiday

Year of Release: 1953
Country of Origin: USA
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert

Plot outline: A bored and sheltered princess escapes her guardians and falls in love with an American newsman (IMDb).

Roman Holiday was the movie that made Audrey Hepburn a star. Hepburn radiates youth, innocence and vitality. She wins the sympathy of the audience from the earliest scenes. The biggest surprise was provided by Eddie Albert - later known as a competent but unengaging straight man - here his character is excitable and bohemian, and even sports a beard suitable for a temperamental artist. Albert plays this character perfectly, and it is a shame that middle age led to his casting in less challenging roles. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hepburn was frequently cast with much older leading men, such as Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. But Gregory Peck was closer to her in age, making him less of a father figure and more convincing as a love interest. Still, Peck has an air of moral rectitude - that he will do "the right thing" with her is never really in doubt. His character matches well with Hepburn's, as his advantages in experience and cynicism are offset by Hepburn's appealing innocence and vulnerability. But, there are a few scenes that don't fully work. We are to believe that Bradley can convince his elderly Italian landlord to play soldier. At the press conference, Bradley and Irving have managed to be front and center of a large contingent of an extremely well-behaved press. It is difficult to believe that Bradley (much less Irving) wouldn't publish a financially rewarding, career-making story. Ann, after acting like a child throughout, suddenly gains maturity at the end. Nevertheless, Roman Holiday is well directed, well written, and very well cast. 1953 was the year of From Here to Eternity, a blockbuster that would dominate the Academy Awards. Despite its ten nominations, Roman Holiday won only three Oscars: Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Story, and Best Costume Design (Edith Head). (BK)

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

Friday, 28 August 2009

The Swarm

Movie Review: The Swarm

Year of Release: 1978
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Irwin Allen
Cast: Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland

Plot outline: A huge swarm of deadly African bees spreads terror over American cities by killing thousands of people (IMDb).

The Swarm is the type of movie that dares to include such laughable dialogue as "General, you should know that the enemy is always expected to do the unexpected." As the swarm of bees invade and sting their victims, the symptoms include sweating, rapid heartbeat, and visions of a giant bee! The cast is made up of many famous faces from the 1970s. Some of them seem right at home, while others seem to be around for marquee value (Henry Fonda, what on earth are you doing in here?). While it's fun to see all the different actors from eras past trampling on stage, we never invest any emotional stock in them. As for the evil insects, it's somewhat refreshing to see actual bees on the screen instead of computer generated effects (as would be the case if the movie was made today). I have no idea how the filmmakers managed to coerce the actors into working with the bees, but God bless them for their perseverance. Of course, many of the shots involving the actual swarm are just matte shots or fancy effects. Some are sufficient, while others appear downright cheesy. It's too bad there wasn't any extra footage letting us know how many stings each actor received in the course of the filming. If you enjoyed The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno, chances are you'll have a few laughs at The Swarm's expense. While the movie may not have heavy "buzz" around it among moviegoers, it's still a fun little flick filled with thousands of bees and Michael Caine. (PN)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Mutiny on the Bounty

Movie Review: Mutiny on the Bounty

Year of Release: 1935
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Frank Lloyd
Cast: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone

Plot outline: On the HMS Bounty, Fletcher Christian leads a revolt against the ruthless Captain Bligh (IMDb).

Based on the true story of HMS Bounty in 1788, Mutiny on the Bounty has been remade twice, in 1962 and 1984, and neither can hold a candle to the original production. Director Frank Lloyd had a hard time getting MGM to back the story, getting a resounding “no” from Louis B. Mayer but finally getting producer Irving Thalberg to convince Mayer the story was marketable. The movie cost $2,000,000 depression-era dollars so you can imagine what it would cost today. Two full scale ships were built and sailed to Tahiti and back. Two of the biggest stars of the day were given the leading roles, Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, first officer on the Bounty. Both stars had to be persuaded to take their roles: Laughton because he feared the implacable character of Bligh would typecast him; it did - and Gable because he felt the knee breeches and pigtail would make his millions of fans think he was a pansy; it didn’t. Adding to the cast, Franchot Tone played the idealistic young officer, Mr. Byam, and the crew was handpicked from the legendary MGM stable of supporting actors. Laughton as the tyrannical Captain Bligh makes one of the greatest screen villains of all time. He is competent and wicked and there is hardly a shred of weakness in him. He is the type of monster you have nightmares about. Of course, Gable is manly and his scenes with Tehani are heart throbbing. Both Laughton and costars Clark Gable and Franchot Tone were nominated for Best Actor, the only time that three actors from a single movie were nominated. Mutiny on the Bounty is a bona fide masterpiece; it contains the right mix of action, character development, and humor and makes the 132 minute running time see short. (GC)

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

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Dodge City

Movie Review: Dodge City

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan

Plot outline: A soldier of fortune takes on the corrupt boss of a Western town (IMDb).

Swashbuckler Errol Flynn stars in his first western along with pals Olivia de Havilland, Bruce Cabot, Alan Hale, and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Flynn and de Havilland make the perfect screen couple and were paired probably a dozen times by Warner Bros. Michael Curtiz, one of the best directors of the 1930s and 1940s, keeps the sets busy and the story moving. He also compensates for the shallowness of characters and story with activity. There are some nice action set pieces including possibly the biggest saloon brawl ever filmed, sparked by Yankees and Rebels singing their old army tunes in a contest reminiscent of the one in Curtiz' Casablanca. A thrilling gunfight aboard a hurtling, burning train, and a cattle stampede afford much absorption for the popcorn masticator. Alan Hale provides some broad comic relief, as he always does. (GC)

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

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Flight of the Phoenix

Movie Review: The Flight of the Phoenix

Year of Release: 1965
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy

Plot outline: After a plane crash in the Sahara, with no chance of rescue, one of the survivors says he's an airplane designer and they can make a flyable plane from the wreckage (IMDb).

In a gripping tale of courage, resourcefulness and determination, The Flight of the Phoenix strips bare the morals of the survivors. Robert Aldrich has fashioned a tense, boys-own-adventure type story from nothing more than dust, great acting and impressive stunt flying. The script is strong enough to gradually build to successive, heart-stopping moments without dawdling or resorting to cliche (particularly impressive when you remember that the movie began with a bang). Standing out from the crowd with excellent performances, James Stewart and Richard Attenborough provide a central axis around which the other characters revolve and interact. Attenborough's character, Lew, is particularly interesting since he provides the glue which holds everything together, a pivotal role. The scenery is impressive, in the sense of the mindless force of nature and endless sand dunes, even though the film crew went nowhere near Arabia. It's interesting to speculate on how you would cope in these circumstances but, of course, the $64,000 question is whether you would even think of constructing a plane out of the wreckage of the first? I'm not sure that I would have done, but I will now! (DC)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 24 August 2009

Pulp Fiction

Movie Review: Pulp Fiction

Year of Release: 1994
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman

Plot outline: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster's wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption (IMDb).

Quentin Tarantino pulls out all of the stops with Pulp Fiction: stupendous dialogue, discourses on the meaning of life, flash-backs, weird camera angles, brutal torture and fascinating people. These extended sequences of talking are like a trademark, providing insights into the characters and lulls between the bouts of frenetic violence, which occur in everything that this director touches. However, true to the theme of pulp magazines, these linked stories have no connection with reality and the actors, realizing this, play their parts with gusto (except for Tarantino himself, who should stay behind the camera). Samuel L. Jackson probably gives the best performance, but it was Travolta who revived his career and received a Best Actor nomination. There is much comic relief to break the tension, which is most intense during Uma Thurman's overdose. Combined with Tarantino trademarks of using forgotten pop oldies as a soundtrack, which both fits into the action and provides a setting for it, the effect is akin to a 154-minute roller-coaster ride; exhilarating but exhausting. Although you'd think that the movie would be too controversial for the staid Academy, it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Tarantino was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, while Jackson and Thurman picked up supporting nominations. (BK, DC)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Jackie Brown

Movie Review: Jackie Brown

Year of Release: 1997
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro

Plot outline: A female flight attendant becomes a key figure in a plot between the police and an arms dealer (IMDb).

Jackie Brown is fast, clever and deliriously hilarious. The mood is deliciously set from the opening sequence, in which a funky, long-haired Samuel L. Jackson, as gun-dealer Ordell, shows buddy crim Louis a video on the best guns that money can buy. Tarantino developed the movie as a homage to 70s black star Pam Grier and she doesn’t disappoint. Grier’s aged to perfection, and playing this tough but vulnerable character seems perfect for her. She is surrounded by major talent. Robert De Niro is at his driest as the somewhat slow ex-con whose face expresses a range of emotions, and is often hilarious. Jackson shines as Ordell, while Bridget Fonda lights up the screen as the drugged-out Melanie. Also impressive, so different from the others, is Robert Forster, quietly touching as the bail bondsman whose feelings for Jackie change his life in unexpected ways. Unlike his earlier work, Tarantino’s direction is less self-conscious, and there are some original touches, such as a memorable sequence in which we see three different perspectives during the climactic conclusion. The dialogue is sharp and intelligently written, if filled with the usual profanity. Despite its length, Tarantino keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Jackie Brown is an inventive, exhilarating piece of snappy entertainment, and while not as ground-breaking as its predecessors, it’s still a compelling movie to watch. (PF)

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

Miracle on 34th Street

Movie Review: Miracle on 34th Street

Year of Release: 1947
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Seaton
Cast: Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood

Plot outline: When a friendly old man who claims to be Santa Claus is institutionalized as insane, a young lawyer decides to defend him by arguing in court that he is the real thing (IMDb).

One of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time, the original Miracle on 34th Street has been remade on multiple occasions, but has yet to be exceeded. The plot is quite elaborate, but it develops nicely as it works its way to the inevitable happy ending. One of the pleasures of the movie is the rising actors and actresses in the supporting cast. Natalie Wood, of course, went on to become one of the most successful actresses of the 1960s. Jack Albertson has a cameo as an imaginative postal clerk, and plain spoken Thelma Ritter makes her debut as a holiday shopper. Gene Lockhart is amusing as a judge who is far more interested in his upcoming election than in balancing the scales of justice, while I Love Lucy's William Frawley is a cigar chomping political boss. Lovely Maureen O'Hara sees plenty of screen time, but her character is somewhat shallow. John Payne is dull and predictable as the perfect man and requisite love interest. The movie's plum role goes to Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus. He is engaging with those who share the spirit of Christmas, but he is a stern taskmaster to all of the Grinches and Scrooges that violate his principles. This 'dark turn' of his character makes it all the more interesting. Gwenn won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. The movie also won Oscars for Best Original Story and Best Screenplay. The movie was nominated for Best Picture. (BK)

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

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Movie Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (silent)

Year of Release: 1923
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Wallace Worsley
Cast: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry

Plot outline: Film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic about a deformed bell-ringer who gives sanctuary to a beautiful gypsy accused of witchcraft and murder (IMDb).

The Hunchback of Notre Dame ranks among the most famous silent movies. The colossal sets and huge cast will impress the experienced movie fans. The story includes a whipping, an attempted kidnapping, an attempted hanging, a stabbing, torture, an attempted rape, and a murder, not to mention the crowd control methods of the Hunchback, consisting of molten lead and thrown stone blocks and beams. It's a violent movie! But, most people who come across this movie are unlikely to watch it, simply because most small screen viewers avoid black and white movies, and especially lack patience for silent movies. They want to see good looking people in difficulty. Esmeralda is pretty, and she's often in peril, but it's not enough to satisfy modern audiences, who are spoiled by an abundance of colour hotties in hot water. This movie reminds me of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney's other famous big budget movie, where he also plays a tormented and disfigured man obsessed with a beautiful young woman who cannot return his love. The 1939 remake, of course, also comes to mind. That version is superior, partly because of its quality of cast, but mostly because it is was made during the glory years of the Hollywood studio system. Story improvements of the present silent version include Quasimodo swinging across the courtyard to rescue Esmeralda, rather than merely shimmying down a rope to get to her. The RKO Radio version also disposes of unnecessary characters, such as the madwoman who turns out to be Esmeralda's mother, and elevates the Hunchback into the principal character instead of Esmeralda. The irony of the 1923 version of Esmeralda is that she presses for peace and mercy for others at every turn, yet always is the cause of violence. People commit serious crimes in order to possess her. No wonder she wants to become a nun, instead of her current status as a Medieval Helen of Troy. (BK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


Movie Review: Dragonwyck

Year of Release: 1946
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price

Plot outline: A farm girl signs on as governess in a gloomy mansion (IMDb).

Based upon the bestselling novel “Dragonwyck” by Anya Seton, this is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ directorial debut. Originally to be directed by Ernest Lubitsch, he fell ill and Mankiewicz, who wrote the adaptation, was offered the director's chair. The chemistry between Gene Tierney and Vincent Price had already been proven solid twice before in Laura by Otto Preminger in 1944 and in Leave Her to Heaven by John Stahl in 1945, for which Tierney got an Oscar nomination. It is not really a Mankiewicz, or for that matter a Lubitsch, type of movie, being a somewhat ordinary gothic romantic drama, but Mankiewicz takes full advantage of his leading actors, even though one can argue, that Tierney perhaps is miscast, even though she plays her naivety brilliantly. On the other hand, Price is superb as the mad Dutch aristocrat, who hates his wife for not giving him a son, and blames Miranda for the death of his newborn son. The result is a haunting classic gothic tale and a must-see for all lovers of Tierney, Price and Mankiewicz. (HS)

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

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Born Yesterday

Movie Review: Born Yesterday

Year of Release: 1950
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden

Plot outline: A wealthy junk dealer hires a newspaper reporter to "educate" his sassy girlfriend (IMDb).

Born Yesterday satirizes the corruption of Washington politics that allows wealthy businessmen to buy favours from Congressmen while showing that an ignorant woman is not necessarily stupid after all. I found all three main characters tiresome. The "menace" businessman, who is all bluster, boasting, and brutality. Real menaces are far more crafty. Then there's the incorruptible reporter, who thinks Judy Holliday is wonderful even though her speaking voice reminds me of an old criticism of Crosby, Stills, and Nash: "Their harmonies are like needle pricks upon the brain." Holliday was a good actress. The problem is her character. She is forced to talk like the stereotype of a dumb blonde. And if she's not really a dumb blonde, then why offend our ears with the screeching lingo? The basic themes of the movie are valid. Also, the movie is made with the best of intentions, and the production quality is suitable. The problem is, the characters are caricatures. The bossman is too strident, the heroine too shrill, and Eliza Doolittle's Professor Higgins is far too smug. The best characters are drawn in shades of gray. I say start over, without Mussolini, Betty Boop, and Geraldo Rivera as role models. (BK)

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

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Roaring Twenties

Movie Review: The Roaring Twenties

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George

Plot outline: Three WWI army buddies get mixed up with the mob in peacetime (IMDb).

The Roaring Twenties is an ambitious gangster movie buoyed by James Cagney’s strong performance. Initially, the movie fires on all cylinders. The opening battlefield scenes are great and do a wonderful job of efficiently introducing the characters. As the setting shifts to post-war New York the script compensates for disappearance of Humphrey Bogart’s character with the introduction of Frank McHugh and Priscilla Lane’s, as Cagney’s character begins his rise to prominence. Everything’s working now, and Cagney’s chewing up the scenery, but then, it begins to stumble. Starting with the introduction of a far-fetched love triangle between Cagney, Lane, and Jeffrey Lynn and culminating in a ludicrous finale, the script abandons any sense of gritty realism, and instead wallows in clichés. It drags in the middle and, much like its protagonist, is finished long before the end credits. Nevertheless, there’s some good stuff here. (FML)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 16 August 2009

I Want to Live!

Movie Review: I Want to Live!

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent, Theodore Bikel

Plot outline: The true story of small-time lady crook, Barbara Graham, who fought to escape the gas chamber (IMDb).

The movie plays like a hard-boiled trashy B-movie to me - I suppose a lot of it has to do with Susan Hayward (she seems overdramatic to me). Nevertheless, she won a Best Actress Oscar, an award given regularly for playing against type. She acts like a Hollywood dame of the old days - kind of like watching Bette Davis in All About Eve instead of an actual troubled woman falsely accused of a capital crime. Nevertheless, still, the story's quite good. The script is quite fatalistic about the main character's fate. The way the criminal system works in this movie is, if you're guilty once, you're guilty always. The police do everything in their power to trap her into making a confession, including a brilliant scheme involving a friend of an inmate who turns out to be a police informant. The last part of the movie is pretty graphic. What the movie does share with In Cold Blood is the ugliness of capital punishment. This is one of those movies which, as with In Cold Blood, wanted to show us the horrors of the death penalty, and, since the movie claims this person was innocent, a lot of viewers would have been more appalled at the prospect. It is also interesting to see how nice the prison guards are to the condemned woman. They light her cigarettes, entertain her lies, let her choose the radio station, let her dress like a cover girl, and express sorrow for her plight. They even let her wear high heels for her final walk to the gas chamber. But they'll push her in there if they have to. So sorry, just doing my job. The Nazis had the same excuse. The media also get a pasting. A media circus erupts, and a newspaper reporter follows her around, writing exploitive reports and feeling she is very much guilty. He does have a change of heart, however, and soon becomes one of her biggest supporters. Overall, I Want to Live! is an interesting movie. I kind of wish this was a more recent movie, if only so they could find a better, more realistic lead. (DM)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 14 August 2009

The Bells of St. Mary's

Movie Review: The Bells of St. Mary's

Year of Release: 1945
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman

Plot outline: A liberal priest tries to soften the strict nun running St. Mary's school (IMDb).

The Bells of St. Mary's is sentimental hokum shrewdly put together where songs are sung, heartstrings are tugged and everyone walks away feeling good about these caring church people. Not that viewers will care. Bing Crosby is young, unfailingly pleasant, and has a booming deep voice, which he uses on several occasions: "Adeste Fidelis," "In the Land of Beginning Again," and the uplifting "Aren't You Glad You're You." Ingrid Bergman is lovely and nice, exactly as her audiences wish to see her. The performances by the two stars are seamless. The kids are ridiculously well-behaved, save for the bully kid with few speaking lines, and a brief appearance by a mean-spirited schoolgirl who is actually jealous of sad-sack Patsy. In short, the movie is a family movie made to warm the hearts of its viewers. The good news is that it does so with such skill that even the occasional cold-hearted critic that takes a swipe at it has to admit that it is a pretty good movie at that. Leo McCarey's aunt was the nun who was the inspiration for Sister Benedict, and the one that inspired Bergman when she met with her to research her role. (BK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Big Clock

Movie Review: The Big Clock

Year of Release: 1948
Country of Origin: USA
Director: John Farrow
Cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, Elsa Lanchester

Plot outline: A crime magazine editor finds himself on the run when he discovers his boss is framing him for murder (IMDb).

The Big Clock is film noir: the flashback, the narration, the crime, the shadows. But the movie doesn't live in a world of sinners. There are good people here: Stroud's wife, his loyal bar friends, and the comic painter (played with glee by Elsa Lanchester). These are all characters from outside the company. The evil in the movie is the capitalist corporation. It is the big clock which counts out the hours of men's lives. Those who embrace it are corrupted by it, and none more so than those at the top, like Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). It was stealing Stroud's soul, ever so slowly, tick by tick. The movie breaks the film noir philosophy by being extremely positive. Yes, there is evil in the world and villains all around us, but the reason is identified, and if we can just break away from that big clock, everything will work out. Ray Milland is excellent as the desperate man searching for a way out and Laughton makes for an enjoyably oily villain, if perhaps a bit overplayed. The Big Clock was remade in 1987 as No Way Out, with Kevin Costner taking over Milland's role. In an amusing twist, this version has our hero searching not for a murderer (though the murder does take place), but for an invented Russian spy. All of the film noir influences, as well as the social theme, was removed leaving a satisfying, if meaningless, spy thriller. (FF)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Haunting

Movie Review: The Haunting

Year of Release: 1963
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn

Plot outline: Dr. Markway, doing research to prove the existence of ghosts, investigates Hill House, a large, eerie mansion with a lurid history of violent death and insanity (IMDb).

The best part of The Haunting isn't the ghost scenes, which promise more than they deliver, but the characters, who behave with consistency and are well developed. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) is torn by conflicting motives: he wants to study Hill House, but is also protective of his inexperienced team members. Theodora (Claire Bloom) is icy cool and predatory, helping to drive hapless Eleanor (Julie Harris) over the edge. Harris plays her bundle of nerves character without making her overly sympathetic. While nonbeliever Luke (Russ Tamblyn) considers his adventure in Hill House to be one big joke, until ... well, you'll have to see it. The biggest weakness of the movie is that it teases the audience with the presence of ghosts without ever revealing them. Why not have the door fly open, and have an enormous green ghost sweep around the panic-stricken guests, swirling books and chairs? Subtlety is all well and good, but the movie's climax can still be a real horror show. (BK)

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

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Pride and the Passion

Movie Review: The Pride and the Passion

Year of Release: 1957
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren

Plot outline: A British naval officer helps Spanish peasants haul a large cannon cross-country to battle Napoleon (IMDb).

The Pride and the Passion is spectacularly produced featuring hundreds of extras, beautiful Spanish scenery, and several awesome sequences: including an attempt to transport massive cannon up and down a mountain, and the climactic assault on the fortified city of Avila. That said, it also suffers from some of the worst miscasting in history. Cary Grant is ill suited for costume dramas and it shows. Even worse is Frank Sinatra, who’s just ridiculous as a Spanish guerrilla. At least Sophia Loren is passable as object of both men’s desires. Compounding the miscasting is the length: 132 minutes is a long time to endure Sinatra’s Spanish-by-way-of-Hoboken accent and after awhile the sheer spectacle, the movie’s strongest suit, begins to wear thin. Nevertheless, the movie is worth seeing, if only once, because when it does work, such as the sequence involving an attempt to float the cannon over a river, it’s truly awesome. Who would have thought it would be a movie that falters most whenever Grant or Sinatra is on the screen? If top-notch production could trump bad miscasting, The Pride and the Passion would be spectacular, but, unfortunately for Grant and Sinatra, it can’t. (FML)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Monday, 3 August 2009


Movie Review: Chinatown

Year of Release: 1974
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

Plot outline: A private detective investigating an adultery case stumbles on to a scheme of murder that has something to do with water (IMDb).

Chinatown may be Roman Polanski's best movie. It may be Jack Nicholson's best movie as well, better than Five Easy Pieces or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It starts out seemingly an ordinary detective story and murder mystery. However, the plot gets thicker and thicker as Nicholson unravels a massive real estate scheme and learns who is behind it. Nothing is as it appears, not the wife, the affair, or the suicide. Nicholson knows he has been duped, and is determined to learn the full story, which involves murder, real estate fraud, and an artificial water shortage. His investigation also uncovers terrible family secrets involving the murder victim's wife (Faye Dunaway) and her cantankerous, powerful father (John Huston). Nicholson is well cast as the cynical and hard-working private eye. His character has similarities to Humphrey Bogart's in The Maltese Falcon, but Nicholson's is not as sharp, and is more willing to con his way into gaining information. Likewise, Dunaway's character is similar to that of Mary Astor's in The Maltese Falcon. Both characters seem unwilling to tell the full truth, and claim to love their hired detective, but Dunaway's is much softer and better intentioned. John Huston, more noted as a director than as an actor, gives a great performance as the grasping schemer who also wants the daughter he doesn't deserve to have. Roman Polanski has a great cameo as the enforcer with a knife. He will always be known more for his off-camera life than for the movies that he has directed, but perhaps that isn't as it should be. Chinatown is an outstanding movie, perhaps even the best movie of the 1970s. (BK)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Caesar and Cleopatra

Movie Review: Caesar and Cleopatra

Year of Release: 1945
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Gabriel Pascal
Cast: Claude Rains, Vivien Leigh, Stewart Granger, Flora Robson

Plot outline: Julius Caesar gives the famed Egyptian queen lessons in government (IMDb).

Caesar and Cleopatra is a little part history, a considerable part George Bernard Shaw, and a big part Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. Rains is Shaw's vision of Julius Caesar: wise but jocular, clear-eyed even though amused by Cleopatra's transparent maneuvers and lies, and eager to avoid shedding any more blood than is necessary to secure control of Egypt (a major source of grain for imperial Rome). "Murder begets murder," Shaw's Caesar points out to the impetuous Egyptian queen. (The historical Caesar recurrently offered clemency - at least to Romans who had fought against him.) Leigh is Shaw's vision of Cleopatra: kittenish and uninhibited, especially not inhibited by any commitment to telling the truth. Rains is delightful as Caesar, manifesting with arch and polished grace all of the humour and tolerance and understanding that Shaw saw in the man. He also handles with sympathy and moving delicacy the poignant and fleeting intimations of a middle-aged man's yearn toward youth. Leigh gives what must be termed a perfect picture of the youthful Egyptian queen - at least, as Shaw perceived her. She is timid and electric as a girl and drenched with a hot, aggressive nature as the woman whom Caesar inspires. Slim and elastic in rare costumes, she looks every bit the one to catch the fateful fancy of a man with a cultivated taste. Fine, too, are other performances. Basil Sydney is robust and blunt as Rufio, Caesar's old lieutenant; Stewart Granger is handsome and suave as the dandy, Apollodorous, and Flora Robson is dour and hard as Cleopatra's maid. Francis L. Sullivan and Raymond Lovell play court intriguers with shrewd finesse and Cecil Parker gets much sly amusement out of Shaw's satirized British slave. (SM, BC)

My judgment: *** out of 4 stars

Barefoot in the Park

Movie Review: Barefoot in the Park

Year of Release: 1967
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Gene Saks
Cast: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Charles Boyer, Mildred Natwick

Plot outline: A free-thinking bride and her conservative groom have trouble adjusting to married life (IMDb).

Neil Simon wrote primarily for the stage, but his plays have been successfully adapted to film many times. Barefoot in the Park is a worthy member of a club that includes The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys, though not quite up to their marks. The movie takes a comic look at the early stages of marriage and how quickly young lovers can become disillusioned. The challenge of starting a life together brings them quickly back to reality and exposes the potential down side of their rather impulsive nuptials. A ramshackle apartment, wacky neighbours, pressures at work and a lonely mother-in-law only add to the stress of blending two rather different personalities and life philosophies into one happy couple. Barefoot in the Park is a gentler movie that takes an honest look at life after the wedding bliss fades away, less cynical, but not without a razor sharp wit in the dialogue. The stars, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, neither known for comedies, turn in impeccably timed performances.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Easter Parade

Movie Review: Easter Parade

Year of Release: 1948
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Charles Walters
Cast: Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Ann Miller

Plot outline: On the day before Easter, Don Hewes is crushed when his dancing partner (and object of affection) Nadine Hale refuses to start a new contract with him. To prove she is not important to him, he acquires innocent new protegee Hannah Brown, vowing to make her a star in time for next year's Easter parade (IMDb).

Easter Parade is a decent musical that is winsome only in its many Irving Berlin numbers. Fred Astaire was a replacement for Gene Kelly, who broke his ankle playing ball with his family while the movie was in production. Astaire uneasily teams with Judy Garland (they seemed awkward together, though the much older Astaire said he enjoyed working with her). The music is not great but it's spirited and agreeable, with such lively numbers as the curious show stopper "A couple of Swells." The others include Astaire's "Steppin' Out with My Baby," his engaging opening number "Happy Easter" which is followed by his inventive "Drum Crazy," and finally there's Ann Miller's flashy "Shakin' the Blues Away." Even Peter Lawford sneaks by with his barely acceptable attempt at singing in tune "A Fella with an Umbrella." The title song is gloriously sung by Garland in the finale, and presents a nostalgic picture of a New York back in 1912 when the wealthy carriage-crowd paraded up and down 5th Avenue in their finest outfits. (DS)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna

Movie Review: Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna

Year of Release: 1986
Country of Origin: USA, Austria, Italy
Director: Marvin J. Chomsky
Cast: Amy Irving, Olivia de Havilland, Jan Niklas, Nicolas Surovy

Plot outline: Story of Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov, the only surviving daughter of the Czar and Czarina of Russia (IMDb).

Though the film is entertaining (in a soap-opera sort of way), the fact that it's loosely based on the story of Anastasia and the book by Peter Kurth, means it doesn't really live up to it's potential. The real characters of the Romanovs, the uprisal of the Bolsheviks, imprisonment and execution, royal conspiracies, and in general, an accurate portrait of Anna Anderson's life, all take secondary place to beautiful setting, pretty costumes, an attractive cast (most of the acting is quite good) and an unfortunate 80's tinge (too many perms). The film goes off on a tangent, eventually delving into the realms of fantasy and sickly Mills & Boon-style romance. It's a fun film to watch, but had it been more intelligent, more accurate and more sinister and mysterious, it would have been so much more captivating and entertaining. (A)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars