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Trying to make sense out of a senseless life...
Ellen Page is excellent as a homeless young woman, cynical, hard-bitten and foul-mouthed, who abducts a toddler from its rich, neglectful mother and makes friends with her ex-boyfriend's estranged mother--under the guise that she's a single mom raising this woman's granddaughter all on her own. A hard movie to like, but also a movie impossible to dismiss, "Tallulah" is an impressive production purchased by Netflix that has many things to recommend it, not the least of which is an array of fabulous performances from the ladies in the cast. Unfortunately, filmmaker Sian Heder is a much better director than she is a writer, and the relationship between Tallulah and her boyfriend--a crucial element in the story--is not convincing (the problem is with his character, who simply does not ring true). Page is reunited with her "Juno" co-star Allison Janney, and the two have a special rapport that is, by turns, angry and bitter and lovely and moving. However, the arc of Janney's character isn't as profound as its meant to be (for instance, she's terrible and nasty to her soon-to-be-ex husband, who left her for another man), and the last portion of the plot is gummy and indecisive.
Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015)
Amusing and observant moments in the service of a dishonest movie...
Sally Field, outfitted like a retro bag lady, plays an elderly data entry operator from Staten Island who lives like a hoarder in her deceased mother's house and has few friends; everything changes, however, once she becomes close with the handsome young man she works with--and secretly loves. Writers Laura Terruso, expanding her short film "Doris & the Intern," and Michael Showalter, who also directed, build the second-half of their movie on the dramatic crux that Doris has inadvertently broken up her crush and his girlfriend after creating a phony Facebook account, and it's not enough. Nor is it convincing when Doris' brother and hateful sister-in-law try to rearrange her life (and, eventually, Doris comes around to see they're right!). There are fantasy interludes which intrude upon the narrative that are a cheat, and also a photo session for a music group that should be a fantasy but isn't. Field is terrific in an unbelievable role; the actress shows us many different sides of Doris and makes her endearing, even though the conception of this character is basically unreal. **1/2 from ****
The Forger (2014)
Art forgery on your lunch hour...
Expert art forger in Boston is released from a stint in jail early with help from the crime syndicate, who want him to pull off one final job. John Travolta plays the single dad who unites his father and teenage son in a scheme to replace a Monet from the art museum with a ringer. Listless, "moody" drama, poorly-written by Richard D'Ovidio, makes art forgery look like a hobby, chemotherapy treatments something that may sideline a cancer-sufferer for an hour or so, and breaking into a museum as easy as spraying a keyboard pad for fingerprints and switching off the electricity. Travolta looks positively lost standing in front of a canvas with a paintbrush in his hand, but his wrung-out appearance here is appropriate and he keeps his star-persona in check. Not so Christopher Plummer as his father, who continually drops f-bombs and tries stealing scenes by being 'wily.' D'Ovidio's idea of providing action in this enervated scenario includes Travolta introducing his son to the drug-addicted mother the kid never knew and, that old standby, taking the boy to a prostitute. We also get two police detectives on the case who seem plucked from a B-movie in the 1990s, plus greasy-haired guys working for the crime boss who don't even flinch when Plummer surprises them with a shotgun. The whole picture is so drab and ordinary, one can't be sure if, perhaps, the screenplay was diluted before or during production or if it was never worth a damn to begin with. *1/2 from ****
Across the Wide Missouri (1951)
Rugged outdoor adventure shot as a series of picture postcards
Fur-trapper in 1829 Colorado marries a Blackfoot Indian chief's beautiful, headstrong daughter, but runs afoul of her people. Adaptation of historian Bernard DeVoto's book was a peculiar choice for both MGM and its resident star, Clark Gable. Gable was probably too old for such an athletic role, although he gazes at María Elena Marqués with convincing adoration and gives the proceedings some charismatic panache. Otherwise, the usual western-genre elements are firmly in place, including a "Skip to My Lou" refrain on the soundtrack and the old jest of men dancing 'round the campfire with other men when the females become scarce (of course this lively, joshing scene breaks out into a fight to show us in the audience that these guys are 'real men'). William A. Wellman directed, and he seems to have been saddled with setting the narrative in quasi-flashback, complete with a narration (by Howard Keel!) of Gable's grown son telling us the story in elemental terms. William Mellor's Technicolor cinematography and the Rocky Mountain locales are stunning--more so than the plot--and yet, after awhile the landscapes begin to resemble color portraits adopted for effect for our benefit. ** from ****
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Validating demonic possession in a court of law
College freshman, a scholarship student living on campus in the dorm, dies after being treated for epileptic-like seizures and violent self-inflicted behavior not medically but spiritually, by a priest who believed she was possessed by a demon and who now stands trial for her death. An awful lot of very talented people worked on this baleful freak-show, all to no avail. Written by Scott Derrickson, who also directed, and Paul Harris Boardman, the story is loosely based on an incident that occurred in Germany, but the usual horror movie clichés are intact: a door opening and closing in a storm, 'scary' shots of feet walking down corridors (to heighten suspense), a pencil case moving by itself, squeaky floors in nearly every house, Emily Rose freaking out during a test in the classroom (complete with a stormy sky outside), the unfortunate girl eating spiders (like Renfield in "Dracula"), as well as a defense lawyer who is 17 minutes late to court because a demonic force shut off her electricity! Embarrassingly silly and derivative stuff that an earlier generation would have roundly dismissed as garbage, yet audiences in 2005 went for it. NO STARS from ****
The Front Page (1974)
Rather crass rewrite of oft-filmed comedy about journalism and ethics...
Director/screenwriter Billy Wilder and his co-scenarist I.A.L. Diamond give Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's lickety-split stage comedy (as well as the two previous film versions) a PG-rated rewrite. This time the story is specifically set in Chicago, 1929, but the squabbles are the same between the newspaper editor and his ace reporter over coverage of the execution of an anarchist who accidentally shot a cop. Though the material has been shaped to benefit the star-leads, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, both uneasily cast, don't seem to have any love for this milieu or, curiously enough, for each other. The insults rain down at top volume, but the laughs are few and far between. The supporting performances are far preferable; the camaraderie between the poker-playing reporters (Allen Garfield, Charles Durning and Herb Edelman among them), awaiting their next scoop, gives the early moments of the picture some bounce, and Carol Burnett does a good job as a luckless tramp (despite reports she hated her own performance). Susan Sarandon also fine in small role as Lemmon's fiancée, though this may be the only time in movies that Jack gets lost in the shuffle. It's mostly Wilder's fault, of course, but Lemmon--not convincing for a second as a crack reporter--is slack-faced and joyless throughout. The production is handsome, and Billy May's adapted ragtime music is infectious, but did we really need this story again--expletives and all? ** from ****
Bad Ronald (1974)
"If he came back, we'd have him picked up." .. "What if he never left?"
Scott Jacoby gives a memorably creepy performance in this popular TV-movie about a young fugitive from the law who lives in the walled-up guest bathroom of his house after his divorced mother dies and a new family moves in. Interesting, if far-fetched premise, adapted by Andrew Peter Marin from a novel by John Holbrook Vance, contains some startling scenes handled well by veteran director Buzz Kulik. Although brief at 72 minutes, the movie utilizes its time well; Kulik was obviously working against the restraints of a low budget and content requirements for television, but he admirably doesn't treat this scenario lightly. Jeered teenager Ronald, who lives in a fantasy world of doomed medieval lovers, isn't simply a misfit--he's seriously touched in the head--and Jacoby doesn't attempt to make him likable. The supporting performances are uneven, ranging from stilted to overly-broad (the nosy neighbor), yet the dark, edgy mood of the piece is conveyed very well.
Road rage...Spielberg and Matheson style!
Early effort from director Steven Spielberg, here working with writer Richard Matheson on this television thriller about an innocent motorist on the southern California mountain highways locked in a cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship with the unseen driver of a gasoline truck. Film is so deftly assured visually--and so brilliantly assembled technically--that Universal rather belatedly gave the movie a much-deserved theatrical run. It is clearly superior to other TV-movies from this era, albeit one which is thinly-derived from its source (Matheson's own short story). Dennis Weaver's Everyman is meant to mirror us in the audience: the not-guilty who sometimes get in over our heads despite our best efforts to do the right thing. Weaver fits the bill, though his twangy voice and paranoid tics (not to mention his nervous hands on the nervous steering wheel) are apt to drive most viewers up the wall even before the character gets fed up. All technical aspects of the film are top-notch, yet it does seem elongated, even at its original 74 minute running time.
Chicken Every Sunday (1949)
Faintly ridiculous piece of nostalgic film-flam concerning newlywed couple in early 1900s Tucson; he's the vice-president of the bank and she's the jovial sort of housewife who prides herself on knowing her husband better than he knows himself. Due to the husband's investments and charity, the twosome are forced to take in boarders immediately following their wedding and, as the years progress, their household turns into the neighborhood room-and-board, complete with children of their own. Nothing more than a contract picture for Fox, cheaply-made and cheaply-felt. Valentine Davies and director George Seaton based their script on both Rosemary Taylor's book and the later play by Julius J. and Philip Epstein, which some critics have since compared to the 1970s television series "The Waltons". But even "The Waltons" had a bit of vinegar underneath its homespun scenario; here, beaming wife Celeste Holm plays mommy to her ne'er-do-well hubby, her children, her boarders...she even plays matchmaker for her high-strung daughter and the bashful kid upstairs who can't dance. Natalie Wood appears briefly as one of the tykes, and William Frawley adds some zip as a potential investor in a copper mine, but otherwise this rosy-hued hokum fails to stay the course. *1/2 from ****
Boy, did Diller dial a wrong number!
Cut-rate yokel comedy from Universal, a star-vehicle for Phyllis Diller cast as a player-piano saleswoman in 1910 Kansas. Diller (in a series of inappropriately 'groovy' outfits) and bumbling inventor Bob Denver enter an auto-race to save the family farm, utilizing a souped-up buggy which is fueled by burning wood. One riotous scene (wherein Phyllis attempts to seduce banker Joe Flynn and both are sprayed with sheep dip) cannot compensate for a wearisome script laden with put-downs and anchored by a cheap, ugly presentation. Vic Mizzy's cartoony score is fun at first but, like most of "Traveling Saleslady", ends up seeming desperate and pushy. Diller's running joke (scaring horses by showing off her legs) epitomizes the pedestrian rest. *1/2 from ****