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Tales of Tomorrow: The Window (1952)
"The Window": one of television's finest thirty minutes ever.
This is the creative and surprising "War of the Worlds"-like episode where a "Tales of Tomorrow" story begins normally but suddenly we see that the live telecast is being interrupted by outside forces that halt the drama-within-a-drama and throw the entire production into chaos. Crew, actors and bystanders are in turmoil as the panicked, confused and set-upon production personnel attempt to comprehend the nature of the disastrous broadcast which is collapsing all around them. Interestingly there were no national incidents this time around, but the network and local switchboards must have fielded a few calls nonetheless. This was masterful television, and a great example of why the period is called the Golden Age.
The House Next Door (2006)
There goes the neighborhood! A good psychological thriller based on the famous novel.
After too many years of waiting, Anne Rivers Siddons' noted 1979 book "The House Next Door" has finally been filmed. The result veers a bit from the novel which, especially in the first story of the trilogy is understandable if unsatisfying as it's a TV film, the whole of which is absorbing and actually very good, just not as great as the book, one of Stephen King's favorites and one of mine as well.
With more running time and fewer constraints as a theatrical release, all the richness inherent in the original three-part story of the ominous ultramodern house could have been explored and nurtured, especially the climactic revelation near the very end.
Still, the whole cast does well in this thoughtful tale of mindless malevolence. There are a few unnecessary cheap shocks but the growing atmosphere of dread is well developed. Actually, one of the most disturbing scenes involves an abstract painting of the house by its next-door amateur-artist neighbor who is trying to visualize its corruption on canvas.
Be sure to read the great novel.
Stand By All Networks (1942)
A warning for the 21st Century
Just before America's involvement in World War II, Ben Fallon, a popular newscaster for radio station WECA of the United Broadcasting System, thinks he might be beginning to unravel the growing story behind mysterious attacks on American infrastructure. Suspecting fifth-columnists, he begins to mix personal opinion into his newscasts, saying that stronger official steps need to be taken to halt the growing danger. But broadcast management (fearing censure by the Federal Communications Commission) confronts Fallon, saying he's overstepping his journalistic bounds and becoming inflammatory by opinionizing during his newscasts.
As friction mounts, revelations come forth from a tipster that a famous American might be connected to the destructive episodes. But the informant is found murdered, and when Pearl Harbor is attacked the reporter's investigations intensify, much to the consternation of his employers who keep insisting on only straightforward reporting of known facts, not conjecture.
'Stand By All Networks' wastes no words or actions painting a concise portrait of complacent isolationist America just before and after the sudden Pearl Harbor attacks and, as the story progresses, you'll be reminded of another attack on America nearly sixty years later.
Runaway Car (1997)
Baby on board: a magnificent, sweeping tale of love and romance, with a minor subplot.
This 1997 film-blanc classic tale of smoldering passion has achieved its well-deserved legendary status as one of the screen's greatest sagas of a doomed and hopeless love. The pervasive, ongoing and progressive magnetism between Judge Reinhold and what's-her-name is sure to set many a viewer's heart a-flutter with memories of one's own first crush. The brilliant screenplay dangles this embryonic affair-to-be in front of the enraptured audience, sitting transfixed as the abstract, almost-expressionist cinematography deep-focuses on the just-under-the-surface desires that ebb and flow between the principals. You can cut the sexual tension with a dull tire iron.
A tiny drop of perspiration on the end of a nose catches the bright sunshine, and leaves no doubt as to its significance. Scenes like this abound and bear watching again and again. As with "Jane Eyre" and "Rebecca" (to which this masterpiece is so often compared), the closeups of the actors' faces as they experience the slow dawning of the great love-that-is-not-to-be will haunt you forever.
The now-classic RC soundtrack score, with its creative and unique use of solo synthesizer, emphasizes the emotion that drips throughout like a leaky crankcase.
If I had any criticisms at all by mentioning what I consider a minor flaw (and dared to risk the wrath of the millions of fans who hold this classic so dear to their hearts), I would say that the hallmark of "Runaway Car" - its sense of mounting sexual tension - is briefly broken by the highway scene, which now after repeated viewings seems just a bit overlong (and probably even unnecessary?) to the eternal, bittersweet tale of Love Interrupted.
Dare I advance what I perceive as the tiniest of flaws in this critically-acclaimed triumph of modern cinema? 'Citizen Kane' had its 'Rosebud' . . . 'Runaway Car' should have its catchword as well. Perhaps the film could have opened with an extreme closeup of Judge Reinhold saying something such as "A car is an extension of its owner!", and the rest of the storyline could then be dedicated to parsing every syllable, subtlety and nuance of that phrase. Had that plot line been done, this film could have topped "Titanic" at the Golden Globes that year, I'm convinced.
My one regret? That I didn't read the novel first.
Wedding Crashers (2005)
I felt my IQ dropping as this dreck progressed . . .
So you want to know why film attendance is dropping, and what's wrong with the Hollywood product today? This film could offer some answers in any serious study on the topic.
Oh, sure, it's still drawing crowds, but I believe it's doing that at the cost of serious filmgoers swearing off any further such efforts towards seeing what Hollywood thinks is funny nowadays. In short, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra this is not.
There is some quick-and-snappy frat-boy dialog, okay. Not okay is that it's delivered to Henry Gibson, get it? You know, the stereotypical old guy with a befuddled expression at all the oh-so-hip talk from these modern whippersnappers, or so we're supposed to think? Let's see ... oh, yeah, the brutal beating outside the wedding. Fun-NY! Then there's the Plot 217-B ending, the Big Scene In Church Where Everything Changes. Ho-hum; it was old when "The Graduate" did it, and much better.
Ah, Hollywood, Hollywood, we hardly knew ye ...
A House on a Hill (2003)
A house of memories.
Who hasn't seen the burnt ruins of a once-proud house and wondered at the old secrets that might lie within?
This particular house, however, has the chance to live again when a couple secures the property and searches out the now-retired architect to draw blueprints for a new structure on the old foundations.
The initial reticence he feels is soon replaced with a growing excitement in the possibility of raising the lost structure once again, though it becomes apparent that the wishes and goals of the couple vary from his renewed exercise in architectural creativity. Actually the couple seems to be on separate paths themselves, and they each begin to display a shallowness that injects a growing unease within the architect, dampening his reborn spirit in what might be the last project of his life.
This is a profound tale of disappointments. We learn more about the house's past, and the architect's broken dreams, and the personal hollowness of the husband and wife who had initially recalled him from inactivity.
These are great performances all around. Shirley Knight and James Karen illuminate the screen as usual in supporting roles.
A Perfect Murder (1998)
An almost-perfect murder film.
Ignore the few minor dangling threads in the script and direction, and you'll enjoy this classic yarn of marital disharmony and intrigue.
The biggest flaw is in the casting of slackjawed Gwyneth Paltrow, who glides mannequinlike through nearly all the proceedings with such a deadpan expression that the sympathy we need to make her character work just doesn't click. Worse, her early-on relationship with her charismatic, flawed artist friend seems to fly in the face of the devotion we see from Steven, her husband. That she would consider sacrificing her position for the penniless David is possible, sure, but hardly believable. Considering her husband's seeming early attentions and what we learn of her secret life, we find ourselves less indignant than we should have a right to at the point when Steven makes his proposal to David.
Snow Dogs (2002)
The theatre was nearly full, including many children. Yet we laughed only once, at a comment by James Coburn, whose considerable talents are wasted here. This is formulaic pap, with cardboard characters. It left us all cold.
A welcome portrait of the innovative American radio, automobile and appliance pioneer.
Powel Crosley Jr. was an innovator who made radio, electric refrigeration, compact automobiles and appliances available and affordable to millions of Americans.
The list of achievements attributed to Crosley and his companies is impressive. Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Ohio pioneered night baseball in 1936. His hometown radio station WLW ("The Nation's Station") transmitted with 500,000 watts of power. Crosley automobiles pioneered in efficient and direct design, overhead-cam engines, four-wheel disc brakes, envelope bodies, all-steel station wagons, and the first modern American sports cars: the HotShot and Super Sports.
Bill Nimmo holds the proceedings together well, and there are occasional almost-dreamlike dramatizations that portray legendary vignettes such as the development of the Shelvador refrigerator.
Interviews with Crosley associates, owners and family members give a qualified and at times humorous perspective to the life, dreams and aspirations of "the Baron in homespun", as he was thought of by admirers.
Still, his goals were not always met, as in the case of his longtime dream, the Crosley automobile project which, after a brief success, began a downhill slide that Powel Crosley's mightiest efforts could not reverse, and the saga is well-documented here. When that lifelong dream finally ended in July 1952, Powel Crosley was heartbroken, and lived but four more years.
As this bio-documentary story unwinds, you may wonder as I did where the Powel Crosleys of the 21st Century are, all the stick-to-it dreamers and innovators who made the last century so vibrant.
This film is a must-see for students of American industrial history, and a fond tribute to Powel Crosley, Jr., Cincinnati's favorite son.
Rock Rock Rock! (1956)
Yet another mid-'50s exploitation cheapie-quickie ...
... and typically, it looks like it was shot with a home-movie camera. It's the usual 1950s hoo-hah about "misunderstood youths" who only find "acceptance" and "true understanding" under the oh-so-benevolent mid-Fifties rock-and-roll promoters ... three years before their cover was blown in the Payola scandals.
In retrospect, however, with what we now know about the recording industry at that time, this film has historical value. You'll gather some insight into the values of the era, and a form of music - doo-wop - that has completely vanished. (So much for "rock and roll will never die", right?)
One act, though - the quartet Cirino and the Bowties - is terrific, and easily the equivalent of their contemporaries the Preps, Freshmen, Aces, Lettermen and Lads. One wonders why their popularity was so brief. I hope it wasn't because of their exposure in this film, though they do elevate the goings-on during their on-screen moments with their wonderful and memorable "Ever Since I Can Remember".
Chattanooga Choo Choo (1984)
Derailed at the station.
Even rail buffs will be turned off by this waste of celluloid. A non-connected, early-'80s "Porky"-style adolescent string of puns and bathroom humor that is an insult to anyone who has rented this expecting some railroad action. In fact, the train itself is hardly seen. Get "Silver Streak" instead.
I saw this theatrically ...
... and there are unforgettable images which have stayed with me, especially the horrific scene as Dr. Hubertus (Michael Fox, perfectly cast) finds himself trapped within the test chamber with the slowly oscillating window wiper, and the growing panic that follows with the grim realization that his screams for help cannot be heard. And then that stare through the glass as his spectacles ice over ...
Look for "Gog". There have to be copies out there somewhere.
Gulliver's Travels (1939)
Solid gold, from animation's Golden Age.
Talk about unforgettable music! I saw "Gulliver's Travels" forty years ago on Saturday-afternoon television, and I can STILL hum much of the Ralph Rainger/Leo Robin score, especially "Faithful", "Forever", "Faithful Forever", "We're All Together Now", and "Orchids in the Moonlight". What a songwriting team they were.
It's impossible to not compare "Gulliver's Travels", and its songs, to today's animated product, and it's sad when I try. The knack seems to be lost in all regards.
Lanny Ross and Jessica Dragonette, top radio stars of the period, actually enunciate the lyrics, and in tune, and with varying dynamics. What a relief to remember a time when that was mandatory in film music.
And we can also luxuriate in the well-drawn visuals, which allows the audience time to wallow in the rich colors and narrative (without the slam-bang short-attention-span cutting that sea-sickened me during "Atlantis" and similar Y2K material).
Give the youngsters a taste of the Golden Age of animation, songwriting and storytelling with "Gulliver's Travels", and take the time to enjoy it with them.
Highest recommendation. ****
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Another landmark film to mark the decline of Disney.
See it once to satisfy your curiosity, and then go rent "Bambi", "Cinderella", "Sleeping Beauty" and all the rest from Disney's Golden Age.
Here we have a few good moments (averything with Don Novello) and lots of pap ... unconnected, too-short sequences that will frustrate anyone with an attention-span longer than that of a flea. The film looks like it was edited with a hedge-clipper.
And parents, beware: the character of Mrs. Packard smokes endlessly. (Disney couldn't create her without a cigarette? That shows how the creativity-process runs throughout this film.)
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
A see-it-again-and-again classic.
'5,000 Fingers' deserves all the accolades you see here and elsewhere.
It's a sumptuous visual banquet, including top-notch music with wry lyrics. (One tune, 'Dream Stuff', slows things down somewhat but, like "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" in "The Wizard of Oz", I'm glad it's there, though today's kids will squirm.)
Hans Conried is a hoot, as always. Mary Healy is gorgeous, the epitome of feminine class, and this is an all-too-rare chance to witness her flawless diction and singing/dancing grace. Peter Lind Hayes' talents likewise should have been seen more during his prime. Tommy Rettig seems a bit uncomfortable at times, but it all comes off well.
The ongoing Daliesque surrealism is a knockout. You'll replay the film just to wallow in the expressionistic sets and to memorize the Dr. Seuss lyrics.
"5,000 Fingers" should have been a multiple Award winner; it's that great.
A creative musical short.
Creative imagery and great Thirties-style jazz and torch songs! This one-reel 12-minute short is seen on occasion over the classic-film networks. Mirrors are the theme in this high-production-value Vitaphone orchestra feature, reflecting the large musical cast in surreal scenes. The Rich band is quite large, includes strings, and 'Mirrors' has great nonstop instrumental and solo/group music. The 12-minute running time goes quickly indeed.
The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
This is a wonderfully well-done feature with top marks for its value in sheer fun.
If you're not into fantasy, see this anyway as a great swashbuckler a la the Errol Flynn-as-hero genre. (And Lee Horsley even resembles Errol throughout this film, which I was fortunate enough to see theatrically at time of release.)
There are terrific villains galore, rip-roaring adventure, great castles and dungeons, complicated skullduggery, and comeuppance aplenty, all done with delicate humor.
This is great screen entertainment with a '40s-'50s look to it, and that's a compliment. There are no wasted moments. The fast-moving story relies much more on quality writing, acting and expert direction rather than copping out with the sort of elaborate special-effects that producers/directors of such films seem to lean on so heavily now, nearly two decades later.
I think it's a classic, and a model, of its type.
Highly recommended to all except small children.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The last of the great Disney romantic films.
I saw this theatrically, twice at time-of-release, and then decades later in re-release. The rich tapestry of animation, plot, and marvelous Tschiakovsky music make this mandatory viewing and listening for all except the very young.
I recall at the time missing the original and lush Disney-style animation I had grown up with. Having seen "Snow White", "Pinocchio", "Fantasia", "Dumbo", "Cinderella", "Alice in Wonderland", and all the other Thirties-Forties Disney Studios classics, "Sleeping Beauty" uses a somewhat more sparse and flat look then in vogue with avant-garde animators. In retrospect, however, I think the 'look' of "Sleeping Beauty" has held up well, unlike many of the experimental super-minimalist animation efforts of that time. Background artist Eyvind Earle had said he was attempting a 'primitive' look, with emphasis on vertical and horizontal lines, in the manner of Botticelli but with Persian and Japanese influences. (Notice that the trees are squared.) Looking back, this creativity does lend a mood of fantasy and surrealism, in order with the theme.
If I missed the "Bambi" look in 1959, however, today I miss the "Sleeping Beauty" look, and sound, among all the recent Disney efforts!
This really was the end of an era at Disney, a 'serious' and romantic story with glorious songs and music. Here Disney once again elevated his audience, giving us immortal music with a full chorus and the incomparable voice of Mary Costa (and compare to the feeble, forgettable tunes and 'pop'-style singers of recent Disney offerings).
See and hear "Sleeping Beauty" and remember how it was before the 'knack' was seemingly lost.
Highly recommended. ****
Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
All that was bad in '70s cinema, and worse.
Okay, let's see ... on weekdays, our anti-heroine is a touchy-feely educator of hearing-impaired children, but all other times is a shallow, giggling, hedonistic airhead, and all because mean old Daddy keeps talking to her as if ... well, as if she's a shallow, giggling, hedonistic airhead. Do people like this really exist?
This may be one of the first and best-known "sure I'm a wacko but it's not my fault" films. More a series of impressions than an actual story, we have impossibly-young Richard Gere (who provides some of the funniest lines, though unintentionally) and Tom Berenger, both trying hard to do Marlon Brando impersonations. And Tuesday Weld's hair-tossing frenzies are so overacted that I wished she'd just stand still for a moment so we could remember what she looks like.
Watch for Brian Dennehy in a funny fantasy sequence.
The film is not without merit, but be prepared for a parade of unlikeable characters. 'Double Indemnity' pulled that off, and still managed greatness.
LFMG could have been a memorable classic, instead of just the title. Too many cardboard characters; too little substance; too many excuses. It's as shallow as the lead character.
Band of Angels (1957)
Waaal, shucks, Ma'am, this here moo'm pitcher plays out like a tent-show drama, only with better sets and costumes.
This is embarrassingly bad cinema, even worse for taking itself so seriously. The good cast is thoroughly wasted in laughable hamminess, with dialogue that you'd expect in penny-dreadful plays like "The Drunkard".
Some of the memorable moments:
Clark Gable spends much time staring off into space, chewing a huge stogie in silence. Yvonne de Carlo, with much panting and eye-rolling, fights off the leering slave-trader (who may have some of the worst lines any actor has ever had to struggle with). I almost expected her to gaze heavenward with wrist pressed to forehead.
And you can spot all the bad guys right off by their stubbly, unshaven faces.
Other characters walk onstage, recite inane dialogue, then vanish without a trace.
Music blares when emphasis is needed to punctuate spoken revelations, in case we missed something.
When Gable finally grabs de Carlo, he does it with a silent-movie-type clinch, as the camera swings coyly away.
de Carlo can't quite close the French windows in a windstorm, so she rolls around on the floor instead. (Really.)
Torin Thatcher, as the grizzled sea captain, would be perfect as the host of a Saturday cartoon show. He did every cliche except break into a sailor's hornpipe.
Gable mainly just puts in his time by sitting around, watching the non sequiturs fall where they may. No wonder the theatres were empty by the late Fifties.
Film teachers, this is the ultimate how-not-to example of sloppy cinematic pretentiousness you've been looking to show to your class.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
Almost perfect, but still terrific.
There's so much that's great in WLB. The moody noir photography, and Alan Silvestri's appropriate musical score with those ethereal choral touches ... greatness.
But there's really no room in quality film for that cheap, ages-old adolescent shock device of a disembodied hand emerging from offscreen onto the unsuspecting shoulder of our heroine who gasps and does a 180° whirl only to see ... her loving-but-worried husband. Come ON, okay?
Likewise, the climax used some recycled chichés that should have been retired decades ago.
Otherwise, this film is finely-finished, with well-drawn characterizations, and with strong reminiscences of the plotline and mood within the excellent "Ghost Story" (1981) and a tip of the hat to "Rear Window" (1954).
The rating is nine, but I could have given it a ten had the wornout Grade-C shoulder-touching business and similar childishness been omitted. See it anyway, because it's well worth your time.
Stuart Saves His Family (1995)
Forget the SNL tie-ins, and see this.
Yes, it's a 'message' film, and that's not what the NatLampers or SNLers want to see. So, some of them have been disappointed with the reality-based goings-on within this film, judging from comments herein.
Personally, I think it's absorbing. I wasn't exposed to alcoholism, but I've been around, and once the viewer puts away the preconceived notions toward 1990s Saturday Night Live humor (note that I bravely resisted using quote-marks around the word humor as it applies to recent SNL), the film plays out wonderfully.
Franken avoids heavy-handedness in delivering the goods. And the bads. The oafs who make up the Smalley family have their niche of dysfunctionality all carved out in advance, and Franken treads lightly and with humor, making television's near-repulsive Stuart into a Woody Allen-like hero. In the end, Stuart saves his family. If only he could save Saturday Night Live...
But that's the onus this film will always bear, and that's unfair. See it on its merits instead. I recommend it highly.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Familiar themes; innovative treatment.
Those who lived through the Cold War fears of infiltration, brainwashing, domino-theories and the like will more easily comprehend the paranoia that Americans lived with in the otherwise-Fabulous Fifties. Those born after this period may not fully comprehend the 'Communist Threat' paranoia of the time that led us to pay special heed to films on such themes. And this is one of the best. (For one of the worst, see "My Son John".)
A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary in "The Manchurian Candidate", which will forgive some plot holes here and there. The most serious flaw is James Gregory's cartoonishly-overacted, overdrawn performance as Senator Iselin. I could never believe that an oaf such as Iselin, as Gregory portrays him, could rise to such heights of political power. Furthermore it's clear that the character of Iselin had precious little respect from his fictional colleagues to begin with, and suddenly there he is, a sitcom-like clown, up for the office of vice-president. The small part of Iselin could have been given great sensitivity, even pathos, by an understated performance. (I think Gig Young could have pulled it off well.)
As for Janet Leigh: any excuse to include her in any film is acceptible, in my book. Her two main scenes lit up the screen, whether directly-relevant to the plot or not. The Sinatra-Leigh and Harvey-Parrish love scenes added welcome contrast to the self-serving harshness within the Gregory-Lansbury pairing.
Highly recommended to all but the very sensitive, and especially recommended to all students of film.
Blues Busters (1950)
Huntz Hall shines as a Crosbyesque crooner! The Bowery Boys at their best!
Huntz gets a rare chance to show his serious side, and the result is an absorbing study into how much latent talent there always was within the Bowery Boys troupe.
Bernard and Leo Gorcey along with Huntz make a great comic film trio indeed. But in 'Blues Busters', Huntz becomes a teen singing idol following a tonsillectomy which changes his voice to a rich baritone a la Bing Crosby. (There's flawless dubbing to the real voice of John Lorenz.) Louie's Sweet Shoppe is transformed into a nightclub, as Louis Dumbrowsky and the Boys attempt to capitalize on Sach's newly-developed gift of song.
The great title tune "Bluebirds Keep Singing in the Rain" and other ditties make 'Blues Busters' a rare and offbeat must-see entry in the Bowery Boys saga, and will be a reminder of the great old moviegoing days when you left the theatre humming.
Highly recommended to all.
Bud and Lou (1978)
A dramatization of the on-and-offstage successes, and problems, of the immortal comic duo.
I saw 'Bud and Lou' the night of its initial prime-time television release. It is certainly a loving look at these two legendary comics and takes the expected look at their showbiz origins and their close family lives. I was struck by the apparent desire to feature 'name' late-'70s stars in the title roles (most likely to assure better ratings, I'd guess), and the film's major flaw is that we are constantly distracted by the almost-competing performances of the two other very talented clowns, Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett, who are sadly miscast in the title roles.
The stretch of imagination is too much to make, and try though I might, I kept seeing Korman and Hackett, whose resemblances to A&C, both physical and in mannerism, were nonexistent. (Better they had starred K&H in an original story, and left the A&C biopic to be done right, as was the masterful 'The Three Stooges' of 2000.) But to their professional credit, K&H soldier on in the roles.
The conclusion is unnecessarily downbeat, and doesn't correllate with our memories of those two great men, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the legendary partners in comedy who entertained millions and dedicated so much of their personal resources and private efforts to charitable causes and the public good, not the least of which were the War Bond drives.
Though it's not a successful portrait of the team, I believe all concerned did do what they could with the material, and at times the film does have its moments. See it and satisfy your curiosity.