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Style over substance, 12 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I had a strange feeling, as I watched Kirk Douglas speeding down the highways of L.A. to his own "Zephyr" cigarette ads, that I was watching a movie I had already seen -- even though I've never heard of "the Arrangement" until I found the video last week at the library. The premise of the movie is so familiar as to lead one to speculate that it is, in itself, an ironic reflection on the banal. Douglas plays a middle-aged advertising executive having a midlife crisis, trying to kill himself, saying and doing "crazy" things, having a lot of sex with Faye Dunaway's character, and way too many prolonged bedroom arguments with his wife, played by Deborah Kerr.

Even though the story is dull, it's a somewhat gripping movie because it's so stylish, and because Dunaway and Douglas at least put in some pretty compelling performances. Sometimes I think that they were being too aggressive with the editing. It reminded me of Sergio Leone or something, which isn't necessarily an insult, but this movie didn't have enough action to justify all the cross- cutting. A lot of it just feels manipulative, and kind of cheap, like the scene where he uses editing to "switch" Dunaway with Kerr.

It's also an uneven narrative, because the whole second half of the movie ends up having to do with Douglas' relationship with his father (Richard Boone), who doesn't even show up in the first half. Kerr's stuck in a pretty thankless role ultimately, too.

It's a movie that shouldn't be as good as it is. I don't think I would want to read the novel, but once he got out there on the set with the actors Kazan made a decent film out of it. Boone's performance is particularly surprising, to me anyway.

But it's not a good movie, overall. Kirk Douglas has been on the same terrain too many times. I thought "Two Weeks in Another Town" was a much more compelling film, from about a decade earlier. And we've seen the rapacious and soul-less side of Douglas too, before, in "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Champion" and other films. What's interesting about the film is Dunaway's character, and how she breaks down his persona. I would have enjoyed the film more if it wasn't so hung up on making Douglas the "good guy." We've seen that enough times too.

Slick propaganda with Jimmy Stewart, 18 September 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Jimmy Stewart is artificially aged and then made young again in this ambitious propaganda film from director Mervyn LeRoy and Warner Bros. studios. The story covers a 35 year period of time, and the FBI action scenes are interspersed with an improbable domestic melodrama involving Vera Miles as the long-suffering wife. Interesting that 2 of Hitchcock's favorite actors show up here, and there are also some intriguing small performances from people like Nick Adams (as a man who blows up a jetliner to collect insurance money on his mother!).

I didn't think there was enough glue to hold all the parts together. Actually it bored me enough that I had to watch it in two sittings, which is unusual for me. At least one of the reviews here says that people are being distracted by their dislike of J. Edgar Hoover (whose voice appears often in the film, and who receives a special "thanks" -- in other words, he had script approval), and that the movie itself is actually pretty good. I disagree. The domestic situations with the daughter's love situation and the son going off to war are predictable and not well developed. Vera Miles' whole decision to leave him at one point comes off as very arbitrary. And there's really no attempt to link up the family story with the FBI story, other than a few scenes with Miles' wife character worrying about her husband getting shot.

So is it "good" propaganda? Yes, in the sense that it makes the FBI look a lot better than it deserves to. For example, there's a whole scene showing the FBI fighting against the KKK, but the film obviously ignores Hoover's tendency to harass civil rights activists just as much as he did the KKK. Then right after the film shows the FBI versus the KKK, it goes into a racist sequence that shows Native Americans, who've suddenly become rich from oil, spending their money and behaving like children. Obviously, they need the FBI to protect them because they can't take care of themselves. Later in the film, there's a sequence that justifies the FBI's role in arresting "criminal" Americans of Japanese and German descent during WWII. And the film's final action sequence involves a communist spy (who, the film points out, "looks normal" like all commie rats! They could be anywhere!), about whom Stewart jokes, "since he was a communist, we knew he wasn't going to church...."

Again, just to use one example from the film which to me was just unaccountably sloppy film-making (as opposed to this supposed maligned "good" film that is being dismissed because of its propaganda) -- there's the scene where Mario sacrifices himself to prevent the fascists from following Stewart and the other American across the bridge. But there's no explanation for why Mario couldn't have remained safe and just exploded the bridge from the other side, where Stewart was watching him get killed. It was just contrived to create a situation where they could show Mario sacrificing himself. Right from the scene earlier when he talks about how the river goes down to the sea, I knew he was gonna die, because in a movie from this era they never let a black or brown character say more than two or three words unless he's going to get killed. Ever notice that?

But hey, it's a good movie. Right?

99 Homes (2014)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Solid performances boost mediocre storytelling, 29 August 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I really wanted to like "99 Homes." I didn't hate it, but it is far from perfect. The skinny: Andrew Garfield is a construction worker who loses his home to foreclosure, unable to find work. He has to move with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern) into a hotel on skid row, but through a twist of fate find himself working for the man who evicted him (Michael Shannon). As he gets involved deeper in various real estate scams, his sense of morals has to be balanced against his need to provide for his family.

Some of the action and the plot is very contrived -- there's no reason for this big time con man (Shannon) to bring in a protégé and give him so much access and place so much trust in him. At one point, he's given a crucial assignment, to deliver a forged document, that Shannon obviously could have just as easily done himself. You can always identify dodgy writing when the story has to be manipulated in order to put the characters in dramatic situations. Another problem in the film is that while Shannon's bad guy is quite nuanced, Laura Dern is forced to play the same wise grandmother role she plays in lots of Disney movies. After being kicked out of her home, you'd think she might not be quite so high and mighty about the chance to get ahead in life. The writers of the film can see more than one shade of evil, but only one shade of good.

And that kinda gets at the heart of what's wrong with the film -- it's a film made in 2014, about events that took place in 2010, and yet the film's vision of America matches what Capra put on celluloid in 1946's holiday film "It's a Wonderful Life." According to the film, America is made up of mostly hard working and honest folk who might steal a little water or power from a bank-owned home next door but who would never -- ever -- EVER -- do anything to hurt anybody else in order to get ahead. Whenever the film tries to play at moral ambiguity, it easily betrays it for sentiment. How did we get here, and how do we get out? The film should either present no answers or it should present a better answer than it does. The ending feels like a definite letdown. It's not really earned.

Andrew Garfield continues to show himself as one of the best young actors working, and this really should be sort of a star-making role for Michael Shannon as well. The film is well-directed, but the script is too manufactured.

Courtroom drama with nice emphasis on female characters, 28 August 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Although Humphrey Bogart appears second-billed to Bette Davis, most of the actresses in the supporting cast (including Mayo Methot, who would soon become Bogart's wife) get more to do really than he does. However, it's a great Bette Davis picture; heavy drama, a bit contrived and obvious, but well-played. She's a hostess in a nightclub run by a gangster (Eduardo Ciannelli), who happens to be a pretty ruthless character even by movie gangster standards. After testifying for him in a rigged trial, she ends up going after him through the courts for revenge after her kid sister (the impossibly wholesome Jane Bryan) is killed. Bogart plays a government lawyer who gets taken to the cleaners in the first trial but helps Davis trap the bad guy.

There's not a lot of poetry in the film.... Lloyd Bacon is usually a very straightforward director, but the final shots of the film are very nice with the women going off into the fog together, the real heroes of the story ignored by the media who are chasing after Bogart, the hero male. In the scene with Davis and Bogart where they say goodbyes, she's waiting for him to say something emotional. Her performance here isn't subtle, but it's not that type of movie. All the scenes with her and Bogart have a nice double-edged chemistry to them, where he's trying to downplay his emotions and she's faking all these wild emotions for various reasons. It's quite an interesting movie to look back on from a feminist angle.

Black Moon (1934)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
"King Kong" without the ape...., 28 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Certainly this is an oddball film, worth watching perhaps for a few laughs, but I must have watched another movie than the one that most reviewers here are talking about. First of all, if you're saying that this was ahead of its time, you're just showing your ignorance. It's not a precursor to the Val Lewton films of the 40s, it's a rehash of the bad racist jungle epics of the 1920s. There were tons of these movies, and the only thing that really makes this film notable is the fact that Fay Wray is in it, and that it allows the husband (a visibly embarrassed Jack Holt) to get away with killing his wife (Dorothy Burgess) in order to prevent her murdering their daughter in a voodoo ritual.

Sounds pretty exciting, right? It's really not. The photography and direction are dull, there's no real magic nor any monsters, and the story is just a trifle designed to shock middle-class theater patrons of the early 1930s. It is full of racist imagery and characters, and even the ostensibly noble black character (Clarence Muse), whose presence perhaps was intended to make the film seem less racist, just manages to make things even worse.

Dramatically, the film suffers from a transparent plot, and the lack of any real villain outside of Burgess' bored housewife on a voodoo binge. The black characters are treated as too infantile to do anything without the direction of either their priest or the white woman they inexplicably worship. Whenever a dangerous situation looms, Holt simply fires his gun at whoever is causing the danger and the situation is immediately defused. If only he had fired his pistol at the screenwriter.

3 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
Satisfying but unoriginal reboot, 28 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Everybody seems to either be jumping up and down for joy or chomping at the bit to dissect and destroy this film -- I thought it was just good clean fun, nothing as memorable as the original films but nothing to really complain about if you're a fan of this type of thing. The new characters are pretty well developed, especially John Boyega's "Finn", who has some of the attributes of Han Solo in the original film but who is also amusingly man-childish, which makes sense considering that his character has been locked up in a military academy and mopping floors on the death star in his spare time. It's charming when he flirts with Rey (Daisy Ridley) like a 14 year old with his first crush, and when he's reunited with pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), he thinks Poe is serious when he starts ribbing him ("hey, that's my jacket!").

The big drawback, at least for those of us who are familiar with the original films (which is to say, about 2 billion people on this planet), is that it's basically a remake of the first "Star Wars" film. It begins with an orphan on a desert planet who finds a droid with important data, its emotional climax comes 30 minutes before the end of the movie with the death of a primary character, and its main threat is another "technological terror" capable of destroying entire planets. We even get treated to another dull scene where Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) sits in a room staring at a holograph while the men go off and fight the bad guys. Perhaps with all the fans complaining about Lucas' "prequel" films not being enough like the originals, the screenwriters (including Lawrence Kasdan from the original films) thought that people really just wanted a remake.

It's neither good enough nor bad enough to deserve as much attention as its getting. It possesses neither the highs nor the lows of the prequel films. As he did with "Star Trek", director Abrams has managed to bleed all political meaning out of the series. The film's weakest element is its villains -- Andy Serkis' "Snook" is just a big CGI that looks, feels and sounds like Gollum from the Tolkien movies. Adam Driver's "Kylo Ren" (one thing you can say about the movie is that at least they keep the streak of ridiculous names going, although nothing here is as golden as "Count Dookoo") is a pouty emo-kid whose only interesting element is that he seems to admire "grandfather" Darth Vader but doesn't seem to be quite evil enough to stand a comparison with him. Worst of all is Domhnall Gleason's one-note politician bad guy, who seems to be in the movie simply to fulfill whatever vague role Grand Moff Tarkin had in the original film.

People who like "Star Wars" movies are going to enjoy it. People who think "Star Wars" movies are the greatest thing ever are going to hate it, because nothing is ever good enough for them. Everybody else is just going to forget about most of it a few months from now.

Somewhat enjoyable but truncated, 28 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I had never heard of this movie until a few weeks ago when I read about it in a book about the director, Billy Wilder. Wilder is one of the few directors I can think of who started out as a brilliant writer but nonetheless, for the most part, manages to make films where the images speak louder than the dialog. However, he does seem to be quite enamored of the back-and-forth between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely). Which is not too bad, because it's the main entertainment value here, in a film largely bereft of real "mystery" or discovery.

Apparently the film was intended to be a much longer examination of various cases that were too embarrassing or personal to be told during Holmes' lifetime. That central conceit does go a long ways, as we see Holmes pretending to be a homosexual (and then we are asked: was it pretending?), being fooled by a lovely German spy (Genevieve Page), etc. Christopher Lee appears in a couple scenes as Holmes' brother Microft, in a silly plot involving a fake Loch Ness Monster. Would the extra scenes have added more mystery? We can only hope.

The film is enjoyable but very flimsy and disjointed in its present form. Blakely and Stephens are fine, but not particularly interesting, and perhaps more inspired casting would have made the film more intriguing.

lacking in true delight, but pays off with surface charm, 28 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play a pair of entertainers, who seem to be possessed of the songwriting talent of Rodgers & Hart plus the singing and dancing talent of..... Crosby and Kaye? Rosemary Clooney looks good and sings beautifully, and Vera-Ellen performs at her usual high-energy level (in several scenes she's paired with George Chakiris for dances that are clearly beyond Crosby and Kaye's skill level).

The entire plot of the movie is that the sad-sack Dean Jagger is now sad because he's running a hotel instead of being a general in the army. Crosby and Kaye decide to put on a show to cheer him up, and Rosemary Clooney somehow becomes convinced that they are trying to embarrass him. That's it. Who cares? I guess. The musical numbers are pretty good, mostly dug up from Irving Berlin's endless box of old numbers from his "Music Box Revue" days.

Would be disappointing, if you had any expectations, 28 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Low expectations are the key to enjoying this movie. Keep in mind that the film is anchored by a dubious ballad by Phil Collins, an even more dubious performance by top-billed actress Rachel Ward, and was directed by a man who has the word "hack" in his name (Taylor Hackford). It is a re-make of Jacques Tourneur's equally stylish but infinitely more cynical 1940s classic "Out of the Past." While Tourneur's film took us on a death-trip that proceeds with cold logic to its blazing suicidal finale, this film is too invested in the romance at its core to allow the characters to be truly bad or truly alive.

Let's face it, Jeff Bridges is not a replacement for Robert Mitchum. It says everything about the difference in these two films, that Mictchum's character is a broken-down man who operates a gas station in the high deserts of Nevada, while in this version Bridges plays a football player. That's right, and the plot actually has something to do with football players, coaches (Alex Karras appears prominently), bookies (Dorian Harewood and James Woods), corrupt real estate moguls (Jane Greer, from the original film) and professional fixers (Richard Widmark). The primary weakness of the script is that it spends the first half trying to convince us that Rachel Ward is a femme fatale, and then by the time we're halfway believing it (she deserts Bridges in Mexico after murdering Karras' character), the rest of the movie is spent trying to convince us that she's got a heart of gold. Her character makes no sense, and she doesn't have the screen presence to make us look past that fact.

A high speed chase with sports cars that takes place 10 minutes into the film is the highlight of the entire film. We also get to see Kid Creole do his best Cab Calloway impersonation, and other bits of 80s "nostalgia" for things that weren't worth showing in the first place. The director is mostly concerned with having his characters walk through rooms that are stylishly decorated and architecturally moderne. If he had spent more time working on the script and less time scouting locations, it might be worth something. As it is, this film is not only an embarrassment to anybody who is a fan of the original film, but just a poor effort in and of itself. Widmark is the only actor who comes out looking better than he did going into it. Eminently skip-able.

Dull melodrama elevated by Anna May Wong's performance, 22 November 2015

Lotus Flower (Anna May Wong) finds an American sailor (Kenneth Harlan) washed up on her shores, and quickly succumbs to his amorous advances. After being convinced by his ship-mates that he doesn't want a Chinese wife, he abandons her and the son he doesn't know about. The film goes on to show Lotus Flower pining after him and penning her own letters from him as a pretense to shore up her pride. When the incredibly insensitive sailor returns, he brings his new wife (Beatrice Bentley) along!!! Lotus Flower decides to give her son to the couple so that he can be raised for a better life in America.

This film is mostly notable for two reasons: first, because it is an early and fairly impressive performance by Anna May Wong, who's asked to hold the whole film together practically by herself. Some of the other posters here have voiced respectful reservations about Harlan's performance -- I'll just say that he stinks in the whole film. His performance is so unappealing that it makes the character even more reprehensible than the writers obviously intended him to be. Bentley, a non-actress, fumbles through her scenes with Wong. Let's be frank: half the film is basically Anna May Wong standing around weeping with her hand pressed against her forehead. It's a testament to her talent and beauty that the movie isn't totally insufferable.

The second reason the film is notable is the photography by J.A. Ball, a person who seems to have been a technician with Technicolor and who has no other credits as a photographer. In fact this film was produced by Herbert Kalmus and the Technicolor corporation, which had been incorporated a mere 7 years prior. Finding it difficult to convince any of the major film companies to use their expensive process, the company decided to make a feature film as a demonstration model. This is that feature film. The photography is sometimes nice, certainly interesting to look at, but it's generally not any more inspired than the direction. However I was startled by the obvious lens flares in the final shots of the film -- these could have been re-shot, so perhaps they used the effect deliberately? If so it must be the first time this was ever done on film. Perhaps it was a happy accident.

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