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Torrid Zone (1940)
Trouble in the Tropics
Even in comparison to today, when films shoot on location, Warner Brothers' tropical set looks like the tropics. It's not distracting; I'm thinking of the obvious painted backdrop in the last scene of "Treasure Island." In 1940's "Torrid Zone," Pat O'Brien is Steve Case, who manages the Banana Company in the Caribbean. His life has been no game since his co-worked, Nick Butler (Cagney) left to take a job in Chicago and continually sends him mocking telegrams - collect.
He needs Nick to take over one of the plantations, so he makes a deal with him - just work for two weeks. Nick agrees; the money will be useful.
There are also troubles with the rebel Rosario (George Tobias), who is on a hunger strike. The prison is afraid that he'll die before they can shoot him. Steve says, then just shoot him now. But Rosario escapes.
Then there is Lee Donley, an earthy, sexy nightclub singer whom Steve wants on a ship bound for the U.S. She doesn't want to go and tells Steve "The stork who brought you must have been a vulture." Lee meets Nick, and sparks fly. Nick meanwhile has a flirtation with the wife Gloria (Helen Vinson) of a former manager Bob Anderson (Jerome Cowan). Lee ends up staying at their house and walks in on a kiss between Nick and the wife. There's a lit cigarette on the floor. Lee picks it up. "I believe Chicago fire started in a very similar manner," she says. "The Chicago fire was started by a cow," an aggravated Gloria says. Lee remarks, "History repeats itself." You just can't beat dialogue like that, and that's one of the things that makes "Torrid Zone" so much fun. Cagney, O'Brien, and Sheridan are all known commodities, with Sheridan at the top of her game, sparring with both Cagney and O'Brien, looking great, and doing her own singing. When she has to be serious and heartbroken, she is.
Even Rosario's impending death is handled with some humor.
Very good and recommended, a real treat from Warners.
Runner Runner (2013)
gee, that guy looks like Justin Timberlake
If Justin Timberlake's name was shown at the beginning of this film, I didn't see it. I spent the whole movie impressed by how much this actor looked like him.
Timberlake stars with Ben Affleck and John Heard in "Runner Runner" about Richie (Timberlake), a Princeton grad student who is gambling online and signing up other students to do it as well. He's taken to task by the chancellor (Bob Gunton).
Richie decides to bet what money he has in an online poker game. He loses everything. When he studies the poker program a little bit more and does averages, etc., with a friend, he realizes he's been cheated.
He then travels to Costa Rica to confront the tycoon responsible for these sites, one Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Richie believes Block would want to know about this since it is cheating customers.
Block explains to him that some of his programmers turned out to be unethical, apologizes, comps his room, and credits his gambling account with the money he lost.
Block winds up offering Richie a job rather than returning to school, and Richie, seeing the money he could make, stays on. As time goes on, he finds out that Block is a ruthless swindler who will do anything to get his way.
The FBI approaches Richie for help gathering evidence about Block and initially, he rebuffs them. The web then becomes more tangled; when Richie tries to leave Costa Rica for home, he is stopped.
Block then buys Richie's father's (John Heard) $187,000 gambling debt to keep Richie where he wants him. Block owns everything and everybody. How is he going to get out of this mess?
This movie could have been a lot better than it was, but it falls flat. Richie is the main character, and he and his father are both idiots. I think they were supposed to be likable, so right away we're in trouble. It was very hard to connect with these characters making so many obvious mistakes.
The acting was so-so. I can't agree about Ben Affleck being horrible. He comes off as a real nice guy, and that's just what sleazes do - otherwise, they couldn't rope anyone in. He's relaxed, he has a smile on his face, he offers you the world, when in truth, he's taking you for a big fool. Someone like Al Pacino or Andy Garcia, who look like tough guys, would have been wrong choices.
This is really not worth seeing. Maybe as a rental, that's about it.
The November Man (2014)
I like this genre, and I like Pierce Brosnan, but "November Man" didn't past muster for me. It's a middling spy thriller with enough explosions, car chases, and shootings to make people who like that sort of thing happy. To me, it felt like that's all there was.
Brosnan is Peter Devereaux, an ex-CIA agent asked by his old boss (Bill Smitrovich) to extract a woman undercover in Russia. She is presently very close to a man running for President (Lazar Ristovski), who committed crimes during the Chechen war. She has a connection to the person, Alice Fournier, who can give them the proof they need to bring him down.
They need to extract her before she is found out, but she will only allow Devereaux to do it. Peter travels to Russia, actually just as she's discovered, but she is shot and killed as they are driving away. She does, however, give Peter the name.
Peter goes after the killer, but the leader (Luke Bracey) turns out to be someone he trained, meaning that the CIA is involved.
Peter then searches for Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), whose family were victims of the candidate, realizing that she must be protected. The almost-President is killing everyone who can talk about his past.
Lots of action but not much human connection in this film. The acting is okay, with Kurylenko reminding me a lot of Catherine Zeta-Jones. Brosnan seemed a little tired for this part.
Rasputin and the Empress (1932)
Yikes, how the mighty have fallen
Wow - a chance to see the three Barrymores together.
Kind of underwhelming.
"Rasputin and the Empress" is the amazingly inaccurate story of Rasputin and his influence on the royal family. Lionel is the man himself, John is the man who wants him dead, Prince Chegodieff, and Ethel is the Empress.
This film cost MGM a lot of money in lawsuits even though the names were changed to protect the guilty. The Yusupov family made quite a bit of money thanks to their portrayal in this film, as Prince Chegodieff and Natasha.
The movie doesn't hold up for reasons beyond its plot. Ethel, who was very good as a character actress in films, here does the sort of acting popular in the day, melodramatic and with a quivering voice. She just may not have been used to film acting, I don't know.
Lionel played Rasputin and he was good, except that his Rasputin is apparently a rapist as well as a madman. And John, my favorite, is wasted. He really should have played Rasputin, and this film would have gone up a level or two.
At any rate, seeing the three Barrymores together was a big bust. Also, John and Lionel didn't get along at least at that point, and while on the set, Lionel called the director from a pay phone and told him to tell John to stop touching him. John would put his hand on Lionel's arm in a scene, which was a way of drawing the focus from John.
One big happy family. Skip it.
Birthday Girl (2001)
ultimately doesn't make it
"Birthday Girl" isn't a bad movie at all, it's just not great. That's a shame because it had potential.
A skilled director like Hitchcock or Preston Sturges could start a film as one thing and morph it into another. Psycho and Sullivan's Travels are two examples.
This starts off as a light romantic film, goes to a dark place, and comes back to a light note. But it doesn't really work.
Ben Chaplin plays John, a lonely bank employee who works long hours. He tries to meet women online but finally gives up and orders a mail order bride. She shows up as Nadia (Nicole Kidman) who doesn't speak any English and who smokes. This is not what he asked for, so he wants her to go back. Though she can't understand him, every time he makes a noise about wanting her to go back, she jumps him and they have sex. It's great sex, so John re-evaluates.
One night two Russian friends of Nadia's drop in on them. From there on, it ceases being a romantic film and turns into something more treacherous.
I have to agree with others on this board - I don't think the character of John acted in character when he does what he does. I think he would have gone to the police. It's okay in a comedy to have plot holes, it's even okay if the drama is good enough, but in this case, the incongruities were obvious and took you out of the story. And it's fine if people act out of character if we can see a change in them that causes the change. We don't here.
The acting is very good, with Nicole Kidman extremely convincing as a beautiful Russian girl, Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz do a good job as Nadia's friends.
I would like to have seen this overseen or rewritten by John Cusack or someone of that ilk. As it is, it's just serviceable.
Kidnap and Ransom (2011)
wow, talk about having your heart in your throat
"Kidnap and Ransom" is an exciting series out of Britain.
Trevor Eve plays Dominic King, a war hero who is now a hostage negotiator. Corporations take out insurance policies on their most important people in certain countries in case they are kidnapped.
I'll say right off, I did love these episodes but I don't understand corporations doing this -- doesn't it just invite people in countries like India to kidnap important employees? In fact, that's what it looks like on the show because it seems like these kidnappers all have big paydays.
Dominic King makes a deal with the kidnappers, sometimes for less money, as long as the victim is kept alive and returned.
These two episodes (both in three parts) are negotiations that, let's say, don't go so well. Both are bone-chilling, suspenseful, and thrilling. I wish there were more.
Trevor Eve is wonderful as a solemn, quiet man, not without his own problems in his marriage and with his daughter. When he negotiates, it's with an iron glove rather than a fist -- he remains calm and measured throughout.
All of the acting is very good, with Eve taking top honors. In the second episode, Sharon Small from Inspector Lynley has a role as the daughter of people stuck on a hijacked bus.
Falling Down (1993)
Mama said there'd be days like this
Michael Douglas is a disturbed man who's had it in "Falling Down" from 1993).
After being stuck in traffic, William Foster takes off on his own. Going into a store run by a Korean, he objects to the prices of items, takes the owner's baseball bat, and starts beating him and the merchandise. He's on a roll.
After he beats some gang members, he calls his ex-wife on the phone. The gang goes looking for him, sees him, and starts shooting. People fall left and right. Not Foster. The gang crashes their car. Foster walks over to them, all dead but one, and says to the one alive, "You missed." He shoots him with the guy's gun, steals the bag of guns the gang was carrying and takes off.
Complaints start coming into the police precinct, where it's Prendergast's last day, and he has his own problems. Eventually he puts two and two together and realizes this is the same guy with whom he was in the traffic jam. Over his wife's (Tuesday Weld) objections, he stays late to see if he can find Foster.
I think anyone living an urban life, especially in a big city, can sympathize with the Foster character. We've all felt like he has, life can really get to you. Foster's ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) is terrified of him and has an order of protection on him. It's his daughter's birthday and he's told he can't see her. He lost his job a month ago and his mother still thinks he's working. Life's problems pile up.
The scariest scene takes place in a surplus shop, and it goes to show that times really haven't changed. This movie could have been made yesterday. The Nazi loving redneck running it (Frederic Forrest) who is, admittedly, way out there, objects to having two gay guys in his store and drives them out. "I reserve the right," he yells at them. He hates everyone - Jews, gays, you name it.
Douglas does an excellent job as a man who has had just one too many things go wrong on a boiling hot Los Angeles day. Robert Duvall does a masterful job as Prendergast, a man who suffered a tragedy in his life and understands his aggressive wife better than anyone. Tuesday Weld is amazing in the character role of the wife, moving out of the blond beauty leading lady parts easily.
Most of us plow through to the next day. Foster falls down. Admittedly his world is sadder. "I did everything they told me," he says, speaking of his time serving his country. We all do and somehow, like Foster, it just doesn't turn out as we expected.
fantastic story about holding to what you believe in, despite the odds
"Trumbo" is an amazing documentary about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a man who won an Oscar under another name in 1965 and couldn't go and pick it up.
What a story, told mostly by Trumo himself through his letters, segment of his book "Johnny Got His Gun," and interviews he gave. The letters and book portion are read by a wonderful cast: Michael Douglas, Josh Lucas, Nathan Lane, Paul Giametti, Diane Lane, David Strathairn, Brian Dennehy, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland.
There are also interviews with his children, Mitzi and Christopher, Walter Bernstein, Otto Preminger, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Kate Lardner, and others.
We're shown a brilliant man who is an equally brilliant screenwriter. His career is stopped thanks to the blacklist, because he refused to answer "are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?" - not taking the fifth amendment which would protect him from self-incrimination, but, like the rest of the "Hollywood Ten," the first amendment where the government is prohibited from inhibiting free association, and their right to silence.
Trumbo liked a good fight, and he stuck to his beliefs, even though it meant going broke, having to move to Mexico, and ultimately writing 18 screenplays under other names or being uncredited.
It wasn't until the late '50s, when some producers began hiring blacklisted people and 1960, when Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas broke the blacklist by crediting Trumbo for their films, that the blacklist began to lose its sting. It would take others much longer to regain their reputations, if they ever did. Many lives were ruined in its wake.
This is such a compelling documentary, but if you weren't around in that era, it probably won't have the impact it did on someone like me. When I was growing up, the most terrifying thing in the world was Communism.
In truth, it was a philosophy that sounded good to people during the depression. Philosophies on paper always sound good - unfortunately they don't work when you have human beings involved. Most people became disillusioned with it and, after attending some meetings or even joining, gave it up.
Sadly, if. like Lee Grant, you even went to the funeral of someone who was suspected of being a communist, you were blacklisted.
As Trumbo put it, the Elks were probably as influential in the end. But J. Edgar, McCarthy, and others saw Communists under every chair. It was a furor that caused a lot of damage and denied us the work of some great artists.
Highly recommended for an excellent look at what was going on during that time.
The Pale Horse (1997)
some missing elements
This is a 1997 version of "The Pale Horse," based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie.
Ariadne Oliver is in the book, but she's not in this production.
The story concerns a sculptor, Mark Easterbrook, who finds a priest dying in an alley. The priest has a list of names. When the police arrive, they take the list away from Easterbrook and accuse him of murder.
He and an art restorer, Kate Mercer, work to prove his innocence, using whatever Mark remembers of the list. He's shocked to learn that everyone on the list is dead, save one, and all from natural causes.
Mark and Kate are led to a house called "The Pale Horse," where three women who claim to be witches live. Can their spells actually kill people? What about the booking agent Mark meets? Can he think someone dead, or does he set it up? This could have been a more interesting story, but it isn't, due to the fact that it's somewhat confusing. Also, while some of the women's clothing appears to be from the '60s, nothing else seemed very '60s to me with Easterbrook walking around wearing a leather jacket. The era is amorphous.
The acting was okay. I enjoyed seeing Hermoine Norris in a different kind of role from the one she played on MI-5 and her character on Wire in the Blood. She was very good. Also, Michael Byrne and Leslie Phillips give outstanding performances. The rest of the acting was so-so, as were the production values.
After watching the Hercule Poirot series, it's hard to go back to anything less than the characterizations, production values, and costumes found in them.
Million Dollar Arm (2014)
great inspirational story
Jon Hamm stars in "Million Dollar Arm" from 2014, also with Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, and Darshan Jariwala. This is based on a true story.
A down and nearly out agent, J. B. Bernstein, comes up with the idea of having a reality-show type competition finding Indian cricket players and turning them into pro baseball players in the U.S. He convinces one of his investors to go along with it.
At first, it's hopeless, but eventually they find two young men with great arms, though they don't play cricket, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. They travel to the U.S. to train and then compete.
It turns out to be more than just a competition, particularly for Bernstein, who realizes slowly that he's not doing his job right. He's treating the competition as a business and leaving the emotions of these boys dangling.
Well made if predictable film and a wonderful feel-good story of these young men, far from their country, homesick, trying to adapt to Los Angeles, baseball, American food, and big homes; and it's also the story of a smart but desperate man who loses sight of what's important.
Maybe I'm prejudiced, but I happen to think that Jon Hamm is an excellent actor. Granted, in the beginning, the character is closer to Don Draper in his shallowness; character differences are subtle. He's a little less formal and a little more energetic than Don. But like his Don Draper, his performance is multilayered. He's a very internalized actor, but when his character becomes angry, watch out.
Alan Arkin is hilarious, and Lake Bell is just right as the medical student next door.
The Indian actors do a tremendous job as young men taken out of their village and thrown into a strange world. They are totally convincing.
I actually didn't recognize Bill Pullman as the team coach working with the competitors. He is quite good.