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The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)
A Man-eating Tiger Chews Her Prey
Manicured and coiffed for battle, man-eater Lana Turner arrives in Ranchipur and spots her prey in the guise of a turbaned bottle-tanned Richard Burton. Turner as the notorious Lady Edwina Esketh takes no prisoners and leaves a trail of broken men wherever she hunts. The noble Dr. Safti played by Burton seems too intelligent to succumb to the obvious wiles of La Turner, but surrender he does. Although both Turner and Burton are warned against the affair by the local Maharani, Eugenie Leontovich, Turner feels that Burton needs instruction in matters of the heart, and love or hormones conquer all. The turgid melodrama, "The Rains of Ranchipur," is played out against the color of a provincial Indian city, where the rain beats incessantly, and the earth occasionally moves. Meanwhile, an alcoholic Fred MacMurray and an irritating ingenue, Joan Caulfield, go through the motions of a secondary, but unconvincing love coupling. A stoic Michael Rennie as the patient Lord Esketh stands by and tolerates his wife's promiscuous behavior; he traded a title for her money in their loveless marriage of convenience.
Fans of Lana Turner will not be disappointed. The Grande Dame plays her part with gusto; hair, makeup, and nails immaculate, except during the requisite dramatic scenes, when she either pursues her man into a raging downpour or lays pale and wan, but definitely gorgeous on a sick bed. Richard Burton is too good an actor to be less than professional, although his role as an Indian doctor raised from the untouchable class is a stretch of credibility; Burton's dark make-up seems to lighten as the romance blooms, perhaps to soften any backlash from foes of inter-racial dating. Although filmed in Pakistan, evidently few local thespians were available, because, besides Burton, casting the Russian actress Leontovich as a Maharani is another amusing stretch. Unfortunately, the usually dependable MacMurray seems to be sleepwalking and never convinces as the drunk that other characters seem to think he is. Perhaps working with Caulfield kept him sober; her character, Fern Simon, is annoying at best and as grating as fingernails on a blackboard at worst.
Based on a 1937 novel by Louis Bromfield, The Rains Came, which was previously filmed in 1939 with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy, "The Rains of Ranchipur" shows signs of a thick 500-page novel having been condensed into a 104-minute film. The motivation for the secondary MacMurray-Caulfield romance is particularly sketchy, and scenes at times jump without explanatory bridges. However, the climactic earthquake and floods are quite good for a 1955 film, and the special effects received a well deserved Oscar nomination that year. Directed by Jean Negulesco, "The Rains of Ranchipur" is a trashy soap opera that may elicit a few giggles from time to time and will definitely entertain those who enjoy 1950's melodrama. However, for fans of Lana Turner, the film is a must; Turner bites into a showy role and chews the scenery with the best. The old adage that "they don't make movies like this anymore" applies here; some may consider that a blessing, while others will see it as a loss.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Visually and Aurally Dazzling Update of the 1930's Serials
Colorful, silly fun, at times campy, Mike Hodges's 1980 "Flash Gordon" is among those movies that are less than the sum of their parts. Made on shoe-string budgets with C-picture performers and crew for young undemanding viewers, the original 1930's Flash Gordon serials are unintentionally funny to adults today. To recapture the innocence and naivete of those movies with a big budget and trained actors is a difficult task, although Hodges's "Flash Gordon" makes a decent attempt. Lorenzo Semple's screenplay tracks the original serials fairly well; Flash and Dale Arden are taken aboard Doctor Hans Zarkov's spacecraft and flown to the planet Mongo, where they battle Emperor Ming the Merciless to save the Earth. Semple's script has enough classic bad dialog to satisfy seekers of camp; "I love you Flash, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth." However, the difference between Semple's script and the original series is that Semple knew he was writing bad dialog, while the writers of the serial were unintentionally hilarious.
That difference in intention also applies to the actors; Buster Crabbe and company played the serials dead-pan straight, and those in the remake who play their parts equally straight come off best. The under-demanding role of Flash requires the skills of a Razzie Award Winning thespian, and, Sam J. Jones won a Razzie nomination for his work herein. Although not a super hero in the modern sense, the blonde hunk, who sports nothing but leather trunks in one scene, physically fills the role, and Jones manages to deliver his lines with a convincing lack of conviction as the dim, but well meaning Flash. However, the movie's scene-stealer is Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless; appropriately garbed and made-up as the evil emperor, Von Sydow plays the role with majesty and menace, which is all the more fun. Unfortunately, Topol as Doctor Zarkov, does not follow Von Sydow's example and winks and smiles as the mad scientist, telegraphing to viewers that he is in on the joke. But Brian Blessed as the winged Prince Vultan, Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, and, especially, the delicious Peter Wyngarde as Klytus deliver their lines as though penned by the Bard himself. Although Mariangela Melato is a memorable Kala, Melody Anderson as Dale Arden should have been in the running for a Razzie alongside Jones, which is intended as a compliment.
Besides Von Sydow, the film's other scene-stealer is designer Danilo Donati, who provided the lavish Fellini-esque costumes and sets. While Donati's work tends to emphasize red and gold, which may not be to everyone's taste, his outlandish designs are as entertaining as anything on display and certainly light years beyond those of the 1930's serials. If Donati or another anonymous designer created the Art-Deco spaceships, he or she too deserves kudos as do the creators of the appropriately tacky and obvious special effects, which beautifully evoke the primitive work of the 1930's serials. As contemporary and important as the art direction is the pulsating score by Queen that punctuates the action and enhances the excitement. While "Flash Gordon" is not the high camp perhaps intended, the film has a cult following and enough outstanding attributes to satisfy main-stream audiences. Led by Max Von Sydow's iconic Ming the Merciless, Queen's pounding music, and Danilo Donati's dazzling designs, "Flash Gordon" may not be to everybody's taste, but should be savored by all at least once, just for the sheer fun of it all.
The Undefeated (1969)
Spectacular Cinematography Lifts Uneven Western
Set in the period just after the Civil War, "The Undefeated" pits ex-Union officer John Wayne against ex-Confederate officer Rock Hudson in an amiable, if uneven, big-budget western. Hudson, as Colonel James Langdon, leaves his ancestral home after the defeat of the Confederacy and leads his family and friends southwards on a trek to find a new home in Emperor Maximilian's Mexico. Meanwhile, Colonel John Henry Thomas, played by Wayne, gathers his ex-army buddies and endeavors to round up and sell horses to the U.S. Army. The two men and their followers meet up in Northern Mexico and find themselves embroiled in the struggle between French-backed supporters of Maximilian and Mexican nationalists who back Benito Juarez. The resulting film, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, is a predictable western with enough action and friendly verbal sparring between the former battlefield enemies to entertain for the two-hour running time.
Besides Wayne and Hudson, the cast benefits from such veteran western stalwarts as Bruce Cabot, Ben Johnson, Paul Fix, Harry Carey Jr., John Agar, and Dub Taylor. However, the film's most outstanding assets are a fine musical score by Hugo Montenegro and exceptional cinematography by William H. Clothier; Clothier captures sweeping vistas of northern Mexico, a herd of galloping horses, mounted cavalry advancing across battlefields, and horse-drawn wagons fording a river that enhance the visual spectacle of "The Undefeated."
Unfortunately, the film falters during a silly mass fist fight between the Northerners and Southerners, and the anachronistic romance between a Native American scout and Langdon's daughter creates a time warp; the pairing of a Southern white woman with a Native American in the days after the fall of the Confederacy is pure fantasy. Well coiffed and made-up ladies in formal French gowns dining on make-shift tables outside their covered wagons is also a stretch of credibility; no dust or grime intrudes on their frontier life. The friendly bonding between the former adversaries Langdon and Thomas and their followers is equally unlikely, and, although Wayne and Hudson make strange bedfellows, they work well together. While not among the landmark westerns of Wayne's career, "The Undefeated," elevated by Clothier's outstanding cinematography, Montenegro's score, and a supporting cast of familiar western faces, is solid entertainment and well worth discovering or re-discovering.
A Glossy Entertaining Fantasy of Airport Life
Ross Hunter's big budget, star laden soap opera, "Airport," is set at a large Chicago airport during a heavy snowstorm; the now-dated film is compulsively watch-able and provides a time-warp view of air travel in a seemingly distant past. Headed by five Oscar winners, Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, and George Kennedy, the glossy movie probes the infidelities and family turmoil that play out in fashionable homes and posh offices, while the airport suffers a blocked runway, local protesters, and an airborne 707 heading for an emergency landing. Jean Seberg and Jacqueline Bisset provide romantic distractions, Barry Nelson and Dean Martin stoically pilot an airplane with multiple crises, while George Kennedy digs an airliner out of snow and Helen Hayes plays a game of stowaway with airline personnel.
Based on a best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey, "Airport" is light fluffy nonsense that still entertains, although perhaps not always as intended. Contemporary viewers will be slack-jawed at the ease of boarding a plane without a ticket or boarding pass, bringing unscreened bags aboard, flying to Rome without a passport, or entering the cockpit with only a knock on the door. The open overhead bins are completely filled with blankets and pillows; passengers seemingly fly with no carry-on luggage; and the pilot strolls the aisle making casual conversation with passengers. Airport management and airplane crew evidently find illegal stowaways funny and wink at the practice, especially when it involves a perky 70-year old woman. Although memories of flying before 9/11 are fading for most, the concept of such casual security practices even in more innocent times seems absurd. Capably directed by veteran George Seaton, "Airport" is solid and old fashioned; the split-screen effects that were popular at the time now seem quaint and almost comic. Ernest Laszlo's cinematography is colorful and sharp, but always brightly lit as though for a made-for-television movie. Alfred Newman's fine score, however, is the film's one major asset that endures.
In the period when Hollywood studios still retained clout with the voting members of the Motion Picture Academy, "Airport" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and received one for Helen Hayes's supporting performance. In retrospect, the film deserved its nods for Newman's score and Stapleton's performance and possibly one more for Van Heflin, but the other nominations are a tribute to box office power and Universal's lobbyists. However, Ross Hunter's colorful fantasy of life at an airport is still fun and entertaining. Leave logic and high expectations behind and wallow in the high-power stars and seasoned supporting players as they face unwanted pregnancies, financial reverses, missed dinners, interrupted trysts, mischievous grandmothers, annoyed neighbors, unloved wives, stranded airplanes, and lots and lots of snow. Now a fascinating period artifact, "Airport" remains fast-moving fun.
The Honey Pot (1967)
A Sly Fox
Loosely based on "Volpone," a play by Ben Johnson, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's literate, yet complex film, "The Honey Pot," is an often overlooked gem from the 1960's. Ensconced in his lavish Venetian palazzo, Cecil Fox devises an elaborately staged game to play on three of his former paramours. Hiring a handsome stage manager named McFly, he writes a letter to each woman telling her that he is on his death bed and she could be heiress to his estate. Needless to say, each arrives in Venice with an expensive gift and a desire to rekindle the fire with Fox. Each woman brings a time piece, and the theme of passing time is woven throughout the film.
The film was the second successful collaboration between Mankiewicz and Rex Harrison, the first producing Harrison's Oscar-nominated performance in "Cleopatra." Harrison is a sly delight as Fox, a devious, manipulative schemer, whose dreams of being a dancer send him flitting flamboyantly around his bed chamber; in keeping with the film's theme, he even cavorts to "The Dance of the Hours." Cliff Robertson is McFly, a man with a checkered past, who stages the deception with ambiguous motives of his own. The three objects of Fox's deceit are played by Susan Hayward, Capucine, and Edie Adams. Hayward's Mrs. Lone Star Crockett Sheridan is the most colorful, and her tough-talking Texan character is missed when she is off-screen. Capucine's Princess Dominque is properly cool and regal, and Adams's Merle McGill is crass and common. In a role that resembles her work in "The V.I.P's," Maggie Smith is the under-estimated brains among the group; as Sarah Watkins, nurse-companion to Mrs. Sheridan, Smith is described by Fox as "the bouncy one," and she is indeed.
"The Honey Pot" may be too slow and wordy for those nursed on Marvel Comics super heroes, but patient viewers have much to relish. Mankiewicz won Oscars for his biting screenplays for "All About Eve" and "A Letter to Three Wives," and also won nominations for writing "Skippy," "No Way Out," and "The Barefoot Contessa." His sharp and witty dialog is deliciously delivered by Harrison and Hayward in particular, who have the best lines; however, the entire cast, which includes four Oscar winners, does well, and each has his or her moments. Gianni Di Venanzo's well rendered cinematography of Venice and of the rich interiors of Fox's palace is colorful, and John Addison's score enhances the proceedings. Boasting excellent technical credits, a sterling cast, and a script and direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, "The Honey Pot" offers solid entertainment for discerning viewers and a few twists and surprises to keep everyone attentive until the end.
Despite the Title, There's Nothing Dirty Going On
Colorful, tuneful, lively, and, above all, good-natured, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" delivers. While certainly not as good as it could have been, director Colin Higgins adaptation of the Broadway musical hit seldom falters and fondly recreates most of what delighted audiences on stage. Casting Dolly Parton as Miss Mona, the madam of an historic Texas bordello, known as the Chicken Ranch for having accepted poultry in trade during the Great Depression, enhanced the film both visually and musically. While not an actress of great depth, Parton looks the part, does fine in the musical numbers, and penned a couple of additional numbers; one of Parton's songs, "I Will Always Love You," later became an enormous hit, when Whitney Houston covered it, although both the song and Parton were mysteriously ignored by the Motion Picture Academy for a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Burt Reynolds lends his charm to the role of Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, a likable guy, who enjoys a long-term relationship with Miss Mona and rides to her aid, when the Chicken Ranch is endangered by a TV muckraker, played by Dom DeLuise. Jim Nabors is "aw shucks" Gomer Pyle as the naive deputy, and Charles Durning turns in an inspired song-and-dance routine, "Dance a Little Sidestep," that won him an Oscar nomination.
The songs by Carol Hall, most of which were carried over from Broadway, are catchy, and the choreography by Tony Stevens is energetic and infectious, although most of the male dancers seem somewhat disinterested in the charms of the young ladies. William A. Fraker's cinematography is crisp and colorful, and director Colin Higgins keeps the song and dance numbers moving along at a brisk pace. Higgins, who also directed Parton in "Nine to Five," showed a flair for glossy comedy and musicals; sadly, he died at age 47, cutting short a promising career. The film only falters badly during one scene between Parton and Reynolds that takes place under the stars; the semi-serious discussion involves religion and feels forced and out of place. Despite the bawdy title, the film suggests more than it shows; only a few flashes of nudity and some implied sexual situations merited the "R" rating. If a movie about a house of prostitution could be made for a family audience, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" is about as close as possible to that. As one of the songs says, "There's lots of good will and maybe one small thrill, but there's nothing dirty going on."
Neither the stage musical nor the film are classics, but both have good music, captivating choreography, and an entertaining story loosely based on true events. Despite losing some songs, the film adaptation benefits from the star power and chemistry of Reynolds and Parton and Higgins's inspired direction. Perhaps most families will pass on any musical with "whorehouse" in the title, but liberal-minded adults will likely have a good time and maybe one small thrill.
Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015)
A Showcase for Sally Field
Norma Rae, Edna Spalding, Mrs. Gump, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Doris Miller. Sally Field's most recent role, Doris Miller, is a worthy addition to her amazing gallery of film performances, given since she emerged as Gidget a half century ago. An eccentric, lonely woman of advancing years, Doris has sacrificed her life to care for her now-deceased mother. Mother and daughter have evidently been hoarders, and Doris's brother and sister-in-law eagerly want her to clean up and clear out, because they want to sell the Staten Island house. Meanwhile, Doris fixates on John Fremont, a much younger man, who is the new art director in her Manhattan office, and, inspired by a motivational speaker named Willy Williams and by countless bodice-busting romance novels, she decides to pursue romantic involvement with the good looking young guy. While "Hello, My Name is Doris" plays out somewhat predictably, the film provides a showcase for Sally Field in yet another Oscar-worthy performance.
In the hands of a less gifted actress, Doris could have been little more than a caricature; a bespectacled woman who wears wigs, has a large bow in her hair, decorates her cubicle with cat calendars, and lives alone in a cluttered house with a cat. However, Fields brings restraint and depth to the character, and she convincingly conveys the shy woman's re-emergence from a decades-long cocoon. Although her pursuit of the young man borders at times on cringe worthy, Fields manages to retain her dignity and audience sympathy. Fremont, played by Max Greenfield, who is about three decades younger than Fields, kindly returns Fields's overtures of friendship, but fails to grasp that she wants more than he is prepared to offer. Doris's "Walter Mitty" like day dreams about Fremont are often amusing, but her foray into Facebook stalking takes a dark, unsavory turn.
The supporting cast is good, although none overshadow Field's star turn. Greenfield is fine as Doris's fantasy-love interest, and Tyne Daly is her usual tough-shell warm-inside self as Doris's best friend and confidante. Peter Gallagher nails the Willy Williams part and actually imparts some helpful, if clichéd advice to Doris. Directed and co-written by Michael Showalter, "Hello, My Name is Doris" may have been intended as a fantasy- exploitation film for older women, who seem to dominate the movie's audiences. Generally, May-December romances involve older men with younger women, and Field herself starred in one such film, "Murphy's Romance" with James Garner, although the age difference in that film disappeared through the stars' chemistry. However, the chemistry fails to develop herein, and Doris and John reverse the gender/age roles, which places them close to Harold and Maude, a possible turn off for some viewers. Nevertheless, the exceptional performance by Sally Field is well worth seeing and the proceedings are often amusing, even if a few scenes between her and Greenfield may make some uncomfortable.
Last Chance Harvey (2008)
Hoffman and Thompson in Fine Form
Enhanced by sensitive performances by two Oscar-winners, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, "Last Chance Harvey" rises above its flaws. An aging, socially awkward American travels to London for the wedding of his only daughter, where he is upstaged by his ex-wife's husband, who has evidently become more father than stepfather. Meanwhile, a socially awkward English woman with an annoying intrusive mother stumbles through blind dates between classes in creative writing and a day job taking airport surveys. Harvey Shine is the American, and Kate Walker is the English woman, and the pair have coincidental, credibility-stretching close encounters at Heathrow and with a London taxi, before the third meeting at a restaurant finally breaks the sugar-glass barrier. The story of unlikely romantic matches is older than movies, and nothing new emerges here; the ending is written at the outset, although getting there provides some distracting fun.
While most of the supporting cast fails to register, Kathy Baker makes the most of her brief scenes as Harvey's ex-wife, and Eileen Atkins is excellent as Kate's addled mother, who thinks her Polish neighbor is a serial killer. However, the film provides a star vehicle for Hoffman and Thompson, who excel in their roles. Hoffman quietly under-plays Harvey, who develops from an unlikeable "ugly" American into a sensitive man seeking affection and companionship; facing an estranged family and the end of his career, Harvey literally reaches for what he sees as his last chance. Although 20 years older than Thompson, Hoffman looks younger than his years, and the age difference quickly fades, as does the height difference. Thompson's Kate has been disappointed in love, and she fears more frustration and pain; she initially rebuffs Harvey, citing mother and job as excuses, but, empathetic to Harvey's situation with daughter and stepfather, she melts and friendship ensues.
Written and directed by Joel Hopkins, "Last Chance Harvey" has many nice touches. Harvey's family relationship is wordlessly spelled out; he is lodged in a hotel, while everyone else is staying at the family home, and his daughter warmly greets and hugs her friends, but stands coolly detached from her father. While silly coincidences and a melodramatic health event undercut, Hoffman's simple toast to his daughter and Thompson's teary revelation of her fears warm the film. With lesser talent above the title, the defects in "Last Chance Harvey" would likely have drowned the proceedings in sentimental clichés. However, with Hoffman and Thompson in fine form, the film becomes worthy, if predictable viewing.
Small Overlooked Film from Early 1980's
Led by Nowak, the only member of the group with minimal English skills, four Polish contractors arrive in London to gut and refurbish a row house that belongs to their boss back in Warsaw. Heavily laden with tools and carrying only enough cash for materials, bare living expenses, and little entertainment, the four face separation from family and an often hostile English environment. However, the money earned will go a long way in Poland, and their boss will have a renovated London flat at a quarter the cost of using English labor.
Written and directed by Polish playwright Jerzy Skolimowski, "Moonlighting" is a low key film that focuses on the interaction among the four isolated men, who live, work, and sleep in the flat. Nowak, Jeremy Irons in a quiet understated performance, is the only one to regularly venture outside to find food and building materials. Faced with dwindling funds, Nowak devises various methods to shoplift goods or outwit store managers and cleverly double his grocery purchases. While sheer luck often aids Nowak with his dodgy schemes, the English shopkeepers seem remarkably dim, and the immigration officer on arrival at Heathrow was unbelievably gullible.
The story takes place in 1981, the year the film was shot, and, while Nowak struggles with finances and an approaching deadline, Poland stumbles into a military coup, and martial law is imposed. With phone lines cut between London and Warsaw and all flights to Poland canceled, Nowak must conceal the events unfolding at home from his compatriots to keep them focused on finishing the flat. Because three of the four principal actors have few lines and those only in Polish, the film concentrates on Irons, who ably carries the film. Although much of the action takes place inside the flat, Skolimowski's direction manages to avoid a claustrophobic feel. However, "Moonlighting's" leisurely pace does require patience. But Nowak's sharp wits and audacity, fueled by his determination to complete the assigned task despite the mounting odds, make for engrossing viewing. Skolimowski's "Moonlighting" is a small, overlooked film with many rewards for discerning viewers to discover.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Stunning Visuals, Fine Harrison, Thin Inaccurate Bio
Already renowned as a master sculptor, Michelangelo is commanded by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of his Sistine Chapel, and he reluctantly accepts the commission. Based on Irving Stone's best-selling novel, "The Agony and the Ecstasy" is a thin retelling of the artist's creative struggle and his verbal sparring with the Pope. Carol Reed's lavish production is shamelessly padded with a documentary prologue about Michelangelo's sculpture, an intermission little more than an hour into the movie, exit music, and numerous atmospheric shots that add little but running time to the story. However, the padding and extras provided enough perceived value to warrant a reserved-seat roadshow presentation at higher ticket prices, which was a popular venue for prestige films in the 1950's and 1960's. Unfortunately, this obviously big-budget production exemplifies the old adage that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Charlton Heston has a granite face and monumental physique that suggests one of Michelangelo's sculptures, and, while he has on-screen presence, his acting range falls short of the demanding role of a tortured artist. Rex Harrison, on the other hand, is outstanding as the warrior pope, a complex man balancing spiritual and worldly ambitions. Fresh from an Academy Award nomination for his Julius Caesar in "Cleopatra" and a second nomination and the Oscar for his Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," Harrison deserved a least a third nod for this film. The rest of the cast is adequate, although Diane Cilento, who does the best she can with a thankless role, is little more than a bone thrown to the female audience in what is essentially a male-centric drama. Michelangelo is among the world's most famous historical gay men, and, while Philip Dunne's screenplay alludes to the artist's sexuality, the script blurs the issue and sidesteps a direct confrontation; Cilento's ambiguous relationship with the artist was likely intended to throw off all but the most knowledgeable viewers.
Aside from Harrison's performance, "The Agony and the Ecstasy" is worthy viewing as a visual feast. Fresh from Oscar-winning work on "Cleopatra," the Twentieth Century Fox design team of John DeCuir and Jack Martin Smith stunningly recreated the ecclesiastical glory of 16th century Rome. Among other Oscar winners for "Cleopatra" were Vittorio Nino Novarese, whose costumes glow in reds, crimsons, and golds; and Leon Shamroy, whose color cinematography gloriously captures the period detail. A fine score by Alex North, another veteran of "Cleopatra," further enhances the visuals. Carol Reed's adaptation of "The Agony and the Ecstasy" is eye, and some times ear, candy, especially for those interested in art history; the scenes that detail the creation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling are particularly fascinating. However, beyond the visuals and an award-worthy performance by Rex Harrison, the film is thin on drama and weak on historical accuracy.