Thursday, 28 January 2010

On the Town

Movie Review: On the Town

Year of Release: 1949
Country of Origin: USA
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller

Plot outline: Three sailors have 24 hours to meet girls and see sights of New York City (IMDb).

Instead of getting bogged down in a tired plot, stars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra more or less roam free, chasing girls and having a ball. It’s a fun, airy movie strung together by more than a few memorable song and dance numbers. Betty Garrett, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen all work well as the sailors’ love interests, with Vera-Ellen the weakest of the three and Betty Garrett the best, turning in a fine comedy performance in addition to her singing and dancing. All the girls bring a good amount of charm and match the movie’s easygoing tone. Aside from MGM’s ever-present typecasting of Sinatra as a naive boy next door type that handicaps his natural charm, On the Town doesn’t have many faults. Sure, as a song-and-dance musical comedy, the genre itself doesn’t allow for much depth, and while you may remember a routine or two, the movie’s story really doesn’t stick with you. But really, is it meant to? Before there were summer blockbusters, this was the popcorn staple; a breezy 98 minutes to sit back and enjoy, no thought required. While, sadly, this was Kelly and Sinatra’s final team up, they certainly went out on a high note. (FML)

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

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Run Silent Run Deep

Movie Review: Run Silent Run Deep

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Jack Warden, Brad Dexter

Plot outline: Officers on a WWII submarine clash during a perilous Pacific tour (IMDb).

Run Silent Run Deep is an underwater testosterone in which Burt Lancaster pulls off a stunning upset of Clark Gable. Gable was getting on in years, and the bourbon had taken most of its toll, so while he's intense he never quite smoulders like he could. His performance is good all around, but he's most effective when he's acting ill. While Lancaster plays right with him, through that weird antagonistic/respect/subservient buddy thing that can only occur in military flicks. U-boats, you know, submarines, and a formidable foe before they even start in on each other. I like the shots of exploding water a lot, and Robert Wise manages to sustain an entertaining intensity while refusing to deviate from the reality of a group of men stuck together in a big tin box beneath the surface. (CT)

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

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Barefoot Contessa

Movie Review: The Barefoot Contessa

Year of Release: 1954
Country of Origin: USA, Italy
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien

Plot outline: A Spanish dancer is plucked from obscurity and becomes a star with the help of a washed up director, only to find that happiness is more elusive than she thought (IMDb).

The Barefoot Contessa is simultaneously a scathing look at the Hollywood star system and, by virtue of it’s existence, a celebration of it. One scene has Humphrey Bogart’s character delivering a cynical speech about how acting talent only goes so far in Hollywood, how so much is tied to appearance and knowing how to manipulate the camera and light; all while Ava Gardner’s character is framed perfectly in the moonlight. And make no mistake, this is Gardner’s movie. She handles the role well, believably portraying a flawed but compelling character that could easily come across as unlikeable, were it not for her considerable talent. Bogart, who has top billing, is really just a supporting character but delivers a great performance. Edmond O’Brien turns in perhaps the strongest performance of all as an almost inhuman publicity agent who gradually finds humanity. The movie itself is mostly entertaining, and strongest in it’s first half, when it’s critiquing the Hollywood system. In the second half, the movie focuses on the Cinderella metaphor that had been running throughout, which is a significantly weaker device. Indeed, during the second half, the movie is almost a parody of itself. The first half pokes holes in the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, while the second half executes many of those same conventions. The ending, while not enough to justify the second half, is not a complete loss and keeps you from feeling burned. (FML)

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

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Movie Review: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Year of Release: 1949
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Busby Berkeley
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, Betty Garrett

Plot outline: A beautiful heiress takes over a turn-of-the-century baseball team (IMDb).

Take Me Out to the Ball Game was made during a lull in Frank Sinatra’s career and thus, despite receiving top billing, he’s not really the lead. This is a real shame because while both are good in their roles (Kelly plays a womanizing playboy and Sinatra plays pretty much the opposite) they would play much better reversed. Thankfully, aside from that blunder and Betty Garrett (who comes across pretty flat) the rest of the cast is quite good. Esther Williams acquits herself well out of the pool, and Edward Arnold is solid as ever. The musical numbers are pleasantly brief, and the movie’s 93 minute running time keeps it from wearing out its welcome, although it should be noted that, for a baseball movie, there’s very little actual baseball. (FML)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

You Were Never Lovelier

Movie Review: You Were Never Lovelier

Year of Release: 1942
Country of Origin: USA
Director: William A. Seiter
Cast: Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Adolphe Menjou

Plot outline: An Argentine heiress thinks a penniless American dancer is her secret admirer (IMDb).

Based on the story The Gay Senorita by Carlos A. Olivari and Sixto Pondal Rios, You Were Never Lovelier is a good Fred Astaire romantic musical after life with Ginger Rogers, with a beautiful 24-year-old Rita Hayworth. Hayworth actually lives up to the title and never looked more ravishing in a movie. They were teamed before in You'll Never Get Rich (1941). The movie was a major hit and made Hayworth a superstar. Director William A. Seiter doesn't do much but he keeps the fluffy story gayly moving along, while the Jerome Kern-Johnny Mercer score is top-rate. Kern's theme song and his "I'm Old Fashioned" are the movie's crown jewels and "Dearly Beloved" was recorded by Glenn Miller's orchestra and Dinah Shore and made the hit parade. Other songs include: "Chui Chui," "The Shorty George," "Ding Dong Bell," "Wedding in the Spring" and "On the Beam." (DS)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 18 January 2010

Hitchcock's 50 most memorable moments (slideshow)

Watch the slideshow for Hitchcock's 50 most memorable moments here.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Young Man with a Horn

Movie Review: Young Man with a Horn

Year of Release: 1950
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Hoagy Carmichael

Plot outline: Based on a novel by Dorothy Baker, loosely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke, a trumpeter loves jazz so much he has trouble earning a living and getting along with people (IMDb).

Trying in vain to convince us otherwise, the movie business continually churns out stories about artists who realize they need to be great human beings first and great artists second. If they don't, they perish. Dramatically contrived and thematically feeble, Young Man with a Horn benefits more from its atmosphere of smoky gin joints and posh ballrooms. The trumpet playing is rousing (Douglas's playing is dubbed by the great Harry James), Carmichael gets to shine behind the keyboard, and Day's vocals on songs like "The Very Thought Of You" spin straw into gold. But the non-musical performances are shallow: Douglas is forceful but one-note, Day is as square and wholesome as a glass of milk, and Bacall purrs along in the same faux-bad girl performance she's given for the past 60 years. But I suppose that's fitting for a morality play this black and white, where wild jazz, liquor, and loose women cause the downfall of man. (JK)

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

Friday, 15 January 2010

Hitchcock's 50 most memorable moments

TimesOnline: Hitchcock's 50 most memorable moments

Janet Leigh takes her fatal shower in the Bates Motel

Sir Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar, but is generally accepted as the best film director of all time. Here our film critics have a stab at choosing their 50 most memorable cinematic moments.

Is Alfred Hitchcock the best film director of all time? While Michael Powell was vilified after Peeping Tom, and David Lean fell in love with his own importance, Hitch never lost his bearings. That self-deprecating chink of black humour is evident to the very end.

Like Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch, Hitch survived the invention of sound and the switch from Europe to Hollywood. He made Britain’s first “talkie”, Blackmail (1929). After smash hits such as Rebecca (1940) and Psycho (1960), he became a national icon in America, presenting his own hit TV show. His name on posters started looming as large as the titles.

The irony is that Hitchcock seemed unaware of his influence on film grammar. He was a PostModernist who travelled from German Expressionism to gaudy American Gothic. His true genius was to borrow ripping yarns from John Buchan, Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier and make them his own.

Hitchcock could never be accused of high art. His obsession with buxom blondes in peril coupled with memories of the creepy backstreets of Leytonstone was all the art he ever needed. He is not as complicated as you might think, which for my money is an excellent reason for calling him the greatest. (James Christopher)

50) Jamaica Inn (1939): The kidnap of Mary Yellan
Charles Laughton’s sleazy Justice of the Peace terrifies young Maureen O’Hara in his murky Cornish mansion. The corpulent star, spookily reminiscent of the director himself, steals the picture.

49) The Wrong Man (1956): The arrest
Manny’s growing terror as he is wrongly booked and processed by the police is beautifully synched to a growing cacophony of confusion and noise. The intensity is almost intolerable as Manny is finally locked up in jail where his fellow prisoners are heard, but never seen.

48) Notorious (1946): The wine cellar
Caught by Ingrid Bergman’s husband as they try to discover the secrets hidden in his wine cellar, Cary Grant snatches an illicit kiss from Bergman as an alibi. By the way she melts in his arms, it’s clear that she’s in love, despite his cruelty.

47) I Confess (1953): Opening sequence
Hitchcock, at his most literal and his most mischievous, opens with a montage of Quebec at midnight, deserted, unexceptional, but for a lone distant figure (Hitch himself) and a series of bold signs marked with the word “Direction”. The signs eventually lead to an open window, inside which is a dead body.

46) The Lady Vanishes (1938): The dining car on the train is uncoupled
It’s teatime. Every English traveller on this European express duly turns up in the dining car to eat crumpets. The comedy of Victorian manners is Hitchcock at his scathing best.

45) Suspicion (1941): The glass of “milk”
Fragile heiress Lina (Joan Fontaine) isn’t feeling well. The threat of murder from her money-grabbing husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) is getting her down. Johnnie offers to bring her a glass of milk. He walks slowly up the stairs with the milk, actually poison, on a tray. The milk, famously, is lit from within by a bulb.

44) Marnie (1964): The rape of Marnie
Compulsive thief Marnie (Tippi Hedren) reveals to new playboy husband Mark, on the first night of their honeymoon cruise, that she is chronically frigid. Mark says this is OK. Three minutes later, he bursts into her bedroom and pushes her on to the bed. Marnie freezes, the camera blurs, and Bernard Hermann’s strings go crazy.

43) Secret Agent (1936): Death of a tourist in the Swiss Alps
A ghastly moment between secret agents John Gielgud and Peter Lorre as they quibble over who should push a suspect German spy over the cliff. You can’t slip a cigarette paper between the irony and the sadism. Hitchcock spikes the scene with images of the innocent victim’s dog whining for his master back home. Cruel.

42) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): The Albert Hall
This epic 12-minute scene, entirely sans dialogue, is cut to Australian composer Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds – the very cantata that’s playing in the Albert Hall when family doctor Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and wife Jo (Doris Day) race to stop the assassination of a bigwig European leader in the audience. Thankfully, at the climax, Jo screams, and the assassin misfires.

41) Notorious (1946): The drunk-driving scene
A sloshed Ingrid Bergman takes mysterious party guest Cary Grant for a late-night drive. The subtext is sexual – he’s determined not to lose his cool; she is determined to crack his calm exterior.

40) Rope (1948): Maid and the body
Off camera there is a heated discussion between the dinner party guests; meanwhile the camera rests on the maid as she potters about tidying up around the truck which conceals the body. Discovery of the crime seems inevitable.

39) Psycho (1960): Arbogast interviews Norman Bates
The office walls in the Bates motel are covered with stuffed birds in alarming poses. Norman is being interrogated about Marion Crane with a brilliant shot of Norman’s head stretched out looking like one of his mounted feathered friends.

38) Lifeboat (1944): Starring Alfred Hitchcock . . .
Perhaps the most ingenious of all Hitchcock’s cameo appearances: he appears in a newspaper that one of the rescued passengers is reading. Hitchcock is the “before” photograph in a diet advertisement.

37) Rope (1948): Giveaway guilt
A nervous Farley Granger gives away his guilt with his stricken expression when he sees that John Dall has tied a pile of books with the very rope they used to murder their classmate.

36) Topaz (1969): The blood dress
The killing of Juanita is a stunning and pivotal moment. It is shot from above; as she sinks to ground her purple gown billows out like a pool of blood.

35) Spellbound (1945): Dream sequence
Hitchcock himself was barely involved in the most memorable scene: the dream sequence designed by Salvador DalÍ. Giant eyes float in space, a sinister faceless man in a tuxedo stalks the subconscious.

34) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Concert at the Embassy
James Stewart searches an embassy in London while Doris Day sings for a foreign prime minister. The camera “follows” her voice as the song drifts, weaker and weaker, down empty corridors and stair-wells to the keyhole of the room where her son is kept hostage.

33) Shadow of a Doubt (1943): “Fat, greedy women”
The camera slowly closes in on the face of Joseph Cotton’s serial killer as he launches into a hate-filled rant about wealthy widows. “Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women. Are they human or are they wheezing animals?” Chilling.

32) Foreign Correspondent (1940): The plane crash
Herbert Marshall and Laraine Day are shot down by a German gunboat on a plane to America. In one stunning take, Hitchcock films the crash from inside the cockpit as the plane hits the sea and slowly fills up with water.

31) Suspicion (1941): Johnnie takes Lina for a hair-raising spin
Penniless cad Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) wants to murder new wife Lina (Joan Fontaine) for her cash. He takes her for a clifftop spin and drives at breakneck speed. Suddenly her door flings open. He reaches over. Is he going to push her? The door shuts. Lina is safe.

30) Strangers on a Train (1951): Miriam’s murder in reflection
Bruno begins his brutal strangulation of the promiscuous Miriam Haines (Kasey Rogers). Only here, the entire 25-second murder shot is seen through the reflection on Miriam’s fallen spectacles.

29) Notorious (1946): Cary the hero
Cary Grant rescues Ingrid Bergman from a slow, lingering death by poisoning, carrying her out of the house in front of her husband and the suspicious German agents. It’s a supremely tense climax.

28) Rebecca (1940): Mrs de Winter’s first taste of Manderley
The eerie arrival of a tense Laurence Olivier and the even tenser Joan Fontaine at Manderley for the first time is a blast of broody atmospherics.

27) Strangers on a Train (1951): The crisscross scene
Robert Walker’s psychotic Bruno is one of Hitchcock’s most chilling villains. The scene in which he suggests the “criss cross” murder swap with Guy, Farley Granger’s hapless tennis star, is perfectly staged. “Oh what’s a life or two? Some people are better off dead, Guy.”

26) Saboteur (1942): The Statue of Liberty dangle
A wrongly accused factory worker, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), confronts anarchist agent Frank Frye (Norman Lloyd) on top of the Statue of Liberty. Frye falls, but is saved by Kane’s grip on his sleeve. Unfortunately, Frye’s sleeve rips, stitch by slow sadistic stitch. Bye bye, Frye.

25) Stage Fright (1950): Jonathan’s ghoulish confession
Formerly doe-eyed actor Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), trapped below stage with platonic buddy Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), finally admits to being a homicidal maniac. Long shots show Wyman’s eyes getting bigger, more tear-stained and slightly terrified. Seconds later Jonathan is decapitated by falling scenery.

24) The Birds (1963): The “God” shot
As the town goes up in flames, the camera looks down from on high. A single bird swoops into view, then another and another, until the screen is smothered with them. A demonic Hitchcock moment.

23) The 39 Steps (1935): Hannay’s cleaner finds dead body
A beautiful stranger whom Robert Donat saves from a music-hall brawl ends up with a knife in her back in his apartment. The close-up scream of his horrified cleaner melts into a railway tunnel with a shrieking train steaming out of it.

22) Sabotage (1936): The London bus bombing
Terrorist mastermind Verloc (Oskar Homolka) sends his innocent young brother-in-law Stevie (Desmond Tester) on a bus to Piccadilly Circus with a timed bomb in a parcel. Stevie is delayed, and in a scene of heavily ratcheted tension (and a certain eerie prescience), the bomb explodes, killing Stevie and destroying the bus.

21) The 39 Steps (1935): Richard Hannay’s impromptu speech
Hotly pursued by two hatchet-faced spies for a secret he doesn’t possess, hero Hannay (Robert Donat) nips into a Scottish assembly meeting and is welcomed as the keynote speaker. “I know what it feels to have the whole world against me,” begins his speech which, in a wry Hitchcockian dig, seduces the gullible crowd.

20) Blackmail (1929): Chase through the British Museum
The first movie to display Hitchcock’s penchant for filming iconic landmarks. Here petty criminal and sleazy extortionist Tracy (Donald Calthrop) is chased by the police on to the domed roof of the Museum’s reading room. He falls through the glass and dies.

19) Dial M for Murder (1954): Margot’s murder is badly botched
Oily, avaricious husband Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) has bribed petty criminal Swann (Anthony Dawson) into strangling his wealthy wife, Margot (Grace Kelly). But things go badly awry thanks to an innocuous pair of craftwork scissors that Margot plunges into Swann’s back.

18) Torn Curtain (1969): The fight and murder scene
The savage scene in which Paul Newman kills the communist, who jeers Newman even as the last breath is beaten out of him, is as ruthless and unvarnished as anything in the Bourne series.

17) The 39 Steps (1935): The murder of Mr Memory
A needle match between vanity and self-preservation. Will Mr Memory rise to Robert Donat’s challenge from the stalls of the Palladium theatre – “What are the 39 steps?” – or will the world’s most famous talking encyclopaedia fudge the answer to save his skin?

16) Psycho (1960): Marion Crane’s car journey to the Bates motel
The camera flickers nervously between the rear-view mirror, the increasingly lonely roads, and Janet Leigh clinging to the steering wheel. Bernard Herrmann’s score comes into its own.

15) Strangers on a Train (1951): Opening shot
Two sets of male feet are seen hurrying to catch a train. By looking at their shoes you get to know their personalities before you see them.

14) The Lady Vanishes (1938): The disappearance of Miss Froy
Hitchcock was infatuated with trains. The scene in which Margaret Lockwood wakes to discover that the old spinster in the opposite seat has not only disappeared but may never have existed is a vintage piece of disorientation.

13) Rebecca (1940): Mrs Danvers urges suicide
Judith Anderson is magnetic as the creepy Mrs Danvers who pours persuasive reasons into Joan Fontaine’s ear to commit suicide when Maxim rejects his new wife. A terrific portrait of pure malevolence.

12) Young and Innocent (1937): Tea and jazz at the Grand Hotel
Technically the best travelling camera shot in Hitchcock’s portfolio. We film idlers in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, before being gently ushered into an equally grand tearoom. Still riding the same take, the camera creeps across 50 yards of dancefloor and settles exactly 4in away from the twitchy eyes of the jazz band drummer. Need we ask whodunnit?

11) North by Northwest (1959): The amazing denoument
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are chased across the presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore. They cling by their fingernails to the side of the mountain. Grant stretches out his arm for her to grab on to and as he pulls her up it cuts to them in a Pullman car on a train as he’s pulling her up into the upper bunk. They’ve just got married. It’s a wonderful ending.

10) Rebecca (1940): Maxim de Winter spills the beans
In a cottage on the Manderley estate, icy millionaire Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) reveals to naive new wife Joan Fontaine that he despised the first Mrs de Winter – Rebecca – confessing to his part in her macabre death.

9) The Birds (1963): Climbing frame
Beleaguered heroine Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) takes a cigarette break in the school playground. A lone crow sits on the climbing frame behind her. She lights up, then three, then four, then seven more birds land. Finally Melanie watches a flying bird swoop onto the frame, which is now home to a thousand sinister black crows. She flees.

8) Frenzy (1972): Blaney’s revenge
Jon Finch’s hapless Blaney smashes an iron bar into the skull of the sleeping serial killer who framed him for murder, Rusk (Barry Foster), only to discover that it is the head of a murdered girl. This is Hitch at his most brutal and sadistic.

7) Vertigo (1958): Judy falls from the bell tower
Detective Scottie (James Stewart), realising that lover Judy (Kim Novak) was involved in the murder that ruined his retirement, drags her up a convent bell tower. She confesses. They kiss. He’s about to forgive her when a spooky nun emerges from the shadows, scaring Judy off the tower. Hitch at his most callous.

6) Rear Window (1954): Lisa is caught in Thorwarld’s apartment
Immobilised photographer L. B. Jeffries (James Stewart) sends his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) into the garden of suspected killer Thorwarld (Raymond Burr) to dig for evidence. Lisa, however, sneaks into Thorwald’s flat. Thus, in a scene of nauseating tension, Jeffries can only watch as Thorwald returns, grabs Lisa and turns off the lights.

5) North by Northwest (1959): The crop-dusting scene
Cary Grant is flattened into the dust as the little biplane circles and renews its attack. He finds temporary cover in a field of maize, but then the plane unleashes a cloud of choking chemicals. The explosive conclusion is superb.

4) The Birds (1963): Silent escape from Bodega Bay
After being pecked into a semi-delirious mess, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is carried very, very slowly by her boyfriend Mitch (Rod Taylor) and his icy mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) out of their house and through a sea of cackling, squawking, homicidal birds. They slip into Melanie’s sports car and drive away very, very slowly.

3) Vertigo (1958): Judy is transformed into Madeleine
Bullied by the unhinged former detective Scottie (James Stewart) into new hair, new clothes and new eyebrows, a brittle Judy (Kim Novak) emerges into her green-lit bedroom the spitting image of Scottie’s dead crush Madeleine (also Novak). Scottie, inflamed with morbid desire, gives Judy the creepiest kiss in movie history.

2) Psycho (1960): The discovery of “Mother” in the basement
The most famous “jump moment” in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. We are Vera Miles’s eyeballs as she crosses the room in the basement and finds Mrs Bates sitting in a chair with her back to us. She reaches out her hand to touch the old woman . . . aaaaargh.

1) Psycho (1960): The shower scene
One of the best known (and most influential) of Hitchcock’s scenes. Janet Leigh’s character takes a shower at the Bates motel, unaware that an assassin is creeping up to the curtain. The real horror comes from Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins as a silhouetted figure lunges at poor Leigh, helpless in the throes of the manic stabbing. The white light is blinding, every detail harsh. The dissolved edit between the plughole and Leigh’s eye is a thing of beauty.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Cover Girl

Movie Review: Cover Girl

Year of Release: 1944
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Charles Vidor
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, Eve Arden

Plot outline: A nightclub dancer wins a contest and becomes a celebrated cover girl; this endangers her romance with her dancing mentor (IMDb).

Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly are a wonderful team that brings energy, grace and magic to the musical numbers they perform together, making this a movie to watch out for. They complement each other well on and off the dance floor and have two very competent sidekicks in Phil Silvers and Eve Arden to help keep the laughs coming. Both supporting players are on top of their games here, shooting one-liners straight from the hip. Arden almost steals the show as Coudair's caustic and exasperated assistant. With the help of the lavish production design, Kelly again proves his brilliance as a choreographer. In one of the movie's most breathtaking numbers, he uses the latest technology to dance with his own reflection through the empty, late-night streets of New York. Without the aid of CGI, it's hard to fathom how this amazing feat was accomplished. Kelly had the uncanny ability to be able to perform the same number over and over with exact movements and perfect timing. It's his talent that keeps this often-tired movie afloat. Cover Girl is certainly not one of cinema's best musicals or a high point in either Hayworth or Kelly's careers, yet it's still an entertaining outing that will make you tap your toes and yearn for romance. The script is just too fluffy and obvious to garner much favor. Fortunately, sometimes charisma can overcome mediocrity, especially when it's accompanied by good looks and ample talent. One to watch if you're a fan of either lead ... or just want to see a movie that doesn't force you to think too much. (CC)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 11 January 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

Movie Review: It's a Wonderful Life

Year of Release: 1946
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers

Plot outline: A tale of a selfless man’s reluctant struggle for good against a seemingly overwhelming tide of evil (IMDb).

It’s a Wonderful Life is a funny, heartfelt story buoyed by some wonderful performances, great production values, and near perfect direction. The three principal actors give career-defining performances. James Stewart is George Bailey. His performance is so perfect, it doesn’t feel like a performance at all. He never seems to be acting, but rather simply reacting to the events of the story in a natural fashion. Opposite him, there’s Lionel Barrymore, turning in one of the finest villains ever captured on film. His Mr. Potter is an angry, bitter man out to ruin George Bailey simply because he can’t understand him, and therefore fears him. Despite having relatively few scenes, Barrymore still evokes a powerful presence, embodying all the prejudice, hate, and fear of the world in a single, identifiable, character. Finally there’s Henry Travers, whose oft-imitated, matter-of-fact, performance as Clarence, the second-class Angel provides some of the movie’s funniest, and darkest, moments. Those three provide the rock-solid foundation for director Frank Capra to spin his tale of a selfless man’s reluctant struggle for good against a seemingly overwhelming tide of evil. His script, along with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, hits all the right notes as it builds to a gut-wrenching finale that, against all odds, manages to avoid feeling cheesy. Perhaps this is because of Capra’s decision to allow Mr. Potter to avoid any explicit repercussions for his actions. While this decision was definitely unpopular with fans who wanted to see Potter get his comeuppance, this loose end keeps the movie grounded in a more relatable reality, one where the bad guys don’t always get caught, but one where, hopefully, the good guys can still find a way to win. If the movie has any flaw, it’s in the young George Bailey character. In addition to having no resemblance to James Stewart, Bobby Anderson over-emotes terribly, especially in his scene opposite Lionel Barrymore. Thankfully, his is a small part, and thus a small blemish on an otherwise flawless movie. (FML)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Love Me or Leave Me

Movie Review: Love Me or Leave Me

Year of Release: 1955
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Charles Vidor
Cast: Doris Day, James Cagney, Cameron Mitchell, Robert Keith

Plot outline: A fictionalized account of the career of torch singer Ruth Etting and her tempestuous marriage to gangster Marty Snyder, who helped propel her to stardom (IMDb).

Neither a Doris Day musical nor a ferocious James Cagney gangster movie, Love Me or Leave Me is a fascinating hybrid. It's actually a slow crawl through a hellish relationship: the girl loves her career more than her man, using him as a loyal patron; he inwardly seethes and takes every opportunity to psychically knock her down even as he helps her to fulfill her dreams. Though the scenes between them take on the repetitive cycle of domestic abuse and forgiveness, it's a surprisingly complex portrayal of those twisted feelings. Day gives one of her better performances, not relying on her gorgeous body and cute smile. When playing opposite her generous co-star Cagney, her limited acting ability actually takes on a stoic kind of depth. Ruth is given heaps of abuse and limitations by the Gimp, and never asks for pity. Instead, she accepts this lot in exchange for the ability to shine as a singer, where Day is inherently graceful and sexy. Her 12 musical numbers all light a fire, helped by Cagney's eager intensity on the sidelines. If we don't necessarily want her to stay with this corrupt boor, we at least understand her motivation and see how difficult it is for her to weave her way out. Cagney offers not only unbridled rage but also insecurity, shame, warmth, and encouragement in rapid-fire beats, well deserving his Academy Award nomination that year. Though Love Me or Leave Me has an edge, it does pull punches: When Ruth slips into alcoholism, it never feels ugly enough, Day's crying scenes feel increasingly strained, and the Gimp gets off a little too easy at the end, after attempting violence on the piano player (an indifferent Cameron Mitchell) he believes to be her lover. But the first time the Gimp and Ruth have sex, discreetly off-screen, Love Me or Leave Me shows the chilling moment right before: Ruth falling on the bed, giving in to the inevitable, as the Gimp grins wolfishly before lunging for her. The production values, cinematography, and script are all adequate, the running time too long, and the story too cyclical to rate this one a classic. But it's bold for its time, and the unlikely pairing of Cagney and Day generates bleak chemistry that feels like the worst, most painful kind of love. (JK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Dive Bomber

Movie Review: Dive Bomber

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, Herbert Anderson

Plot outline: A team of flight surgeons fights to prevent bomber pilots from blacking out (IMDb).

Filmed just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dive Bomber is dedicated to flight surgeons who are obsessed with finding the cure for pilot "blackout" and how to deal with altitude sickness. Though well-crafted, it seems more geared for aviation buffs than a general audience. Michael Curtiz helms it as an action pic, adding the obligatory subplot of a military romance. The movie stays on course when dealing with aviation issues, but when it tacks on a tepid romance story involving Linda Fisher (Alexis Smith), who is pursued by both Lee (Errol Flynn) and Blake (Fred MacMurray), the romance story seems to go nowhere. What was even more obnoxious was the lame comic relief offered by Lee's aide-de-camp "Lucky" James (Allen Jenkins) dodging his wife on payday. It all leads to the final test of Lee's high-altitude pressure suit. It remains impressive, even today, for its superior aerial footage (filmed aboard the USS Enterprise, who objected but were overruled by the Secretary of the Navy). Otherwise it takes a nose dive into drab Hollywood melodramatic waters. (DS)

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

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Escape to Athena

Movie Review: Escape to Athena

Year of Release: 1979
Country of Origin: UK
Director: George P. Cosmatos
Cast: Roger Moore, Telly Savalas, David Niven, Claudia Cardinale

Plot outline: During the World War II, the prisoners of a German camp in a greek island are trying to escape. They don't want only their freedom, but they also seek for an ineffable treasure hidden in a monastery at the top of the island's mountain (IMDb).

This movie can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a comedy or an action/adventure, and in the end it largely fails to deliver on either front. Roger Moore is hopelessly miscast as the antiques-loving German (or rather Austrian) POW camp commandant, and a number of the other characters such as Sonny Bono's Italian chef, Michael Sheard's oafish German sergeant and Telly Savalas' Greek resistance leader are extremely caricature-ish. Even Richard Rowntree's POW character comes across merely as Shaft in a GI uniform (coming out with expressions like "he's one cool cat"). The character Charlie (played by Elliot Gould) is a civilian USO entertainer whose plane was shot down over the Mediterranean, with him and his female colleague (played by Stefanie Powers) being captured and placed in the POW camp. However, when these two are introduced early on, we see them looking like a pair of well-heeled American holidaymakers. Both are immaculately groomed and dressed, and they certainly don't look like two people who have just been fished out of the Mediterranean after their plane has been shot out of the sky - the woman is even lugging all her suitcases behind her!!! The action scenes later on were also fairly predictable and boring. The movie is not a classic in any way, shape or form. It oozes mediocrity in all areas. On the plus side, the Greek islands location is wonderful and the camera work is on the whole pretty good. And the beautiful Claudia Cardinale graces any movie that she's in. (SR)

My judgement: *1/2 out of 4 stars

Friday, 1 January 2010

50 Most Unforgettable Leading Men of the Studio Era

Watch the slideshow for TCM's 50 Most Unforgettable Leading Men of the Studio Era here.

50 Most Unforgettable Leading Ladies of the Studio Era

Watch the slideshow for TCM's 50 Most Unforgettable Leading Ladies of the Studio Era here.