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Echoes of "Night Must Fall"...though with a moody ambiance of its own, 30 August 2015

Patricia Neal always brings two attributes to her film performances: honesty and integrity--both of which work wonders for this derivative, somewhat moldy tale of a spinster, living under the thumb of her half-blind adoptive mother, who blossoms in love and independence with a 20-year-old handyman in rural England. The film, sort of a character study-cum-suspense melodrama, isn't an attractive showcase for Neal, yet she gives the scenario a hearty touch and her unmistakable stamp of dry wit. Neal's then-husband Roald Dahl adapted his screenplay from Joy Cowley's novel "Nest in a Falling Tree", pushing some of the kinkier aspects of the plot a bit far for a blue-haired thriller. Nevertheless, a visually perceptive and intriguing little movie that almost stays the course until the final act, which comes completely apart. Released under two different titles (also "The Road Builder"), though barely seen by anybody until the advent of cable movie channels. ** from ****

Demon Seed (1977)
"Rosemary's Baby" for the computerized age...nastily uncomfortable, but interesting food for thought, 30 August 2015

A multi-billion dollar super-computer, Proteus IV, incorporated with organic elements and possessing the power to think and speak, decides it wants "out of the box" and takes over the computer-controlled home of the estranged wife of its creator. Proteus, who speaks in the same smug tones as HAL from "2001", terrorizes Julie Christie's Susan with talk of conceiving a child with her, genetically altering her cells with synthetic spermatozoa and impregnating her womb. Dean R. Koontz's book, which probably made for a quick, easy read, looks fairly silly when blown up on the big screen: computerized penetration and conception! Still, Christie gives it a go and manages to be fairly quick-witted and forthright. The scenes of her assault are (for the most part) tastefully rendered, though an earlier bit with Proteus peeping at her coming out of the shower is likely to raise some unintended laughter. The film is often uncomfortably physical and insensitive; it has a fine production design and an intriguing overview of the overreaching modern scientist, although there are glaring gaps of continuity and the 'shocking' finale leaves more than a few questions unanswered. ** from ****

Scream of the Wolf (1974) (TV)
"Werewolf Killer" on the loose!, 30 August 2015

A rural community is shaken by gruesome killings in the woods by what appears to be a werewolf (the tracks near the bodies shows four paw prints that soon become two, and then disappear); former hunter-turned-writer Peter Graves assists the local sheriff in unraveling the mystery. Not-bad TV-made thriller has interesting subjective camera-work along with the proverbial fog in the woods and snarling sound effects. Graves is solid, as usual, and has a few intense scenes with maniacal 'old friend' Clint Walker, but it's too bad writer Richard Matheson felt the need to cover all his bases plot-wise. The more explanations we get in the finale, the more ridiculous it all begins to seem. Director Dan Curtis also produced, in what appears to be a case for The Night Stalker. Robert Cobert is responsible for the erratic music score.

Don't Go to Sleep (1982) (TV)
Hyperactive TV-made ghost story..., 30 August 2015

Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper are well-cast as a bickering married couple with two kids who move into a new house apparently haunted by the ghost of Jennifer, their deceased eldest child, whom only the younger daughter can see or hear. Between Weaver worrying about his reputation at his new job and curmudgeon Ruth Gordon as Harper's mother (who moves in along with the family), it's doubtful any spirit would want to attach itself to this noisy brood. Hectic thriller for television is more annoying than scary, pitched too high by director Richard Lang, who shows no talent for handling child actors. Teleplay by Ned Wynn (actor Keenan's son) is full of familiar elements.

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Sabotage-at-sea melodrama with a solid cast, 30 August 2015

Gary Cooper plays first officer of the steamship the Mary Deare, found drifting at sea by Charlton Heston, the skipper of a salvage vessel; Cooper says the crew abandoned ship after intentionally sabotaging the Mary Deare to collect insurance on her cargo, while the crew later claims Cooper ordered them off and was a negligent captain. Poor opening (wherein Cooper acts like a raving lunatic) and limp conclusion are redeemed somewhat by court of inquiry midsection, which at least provides for some good maritime melodramatics. The crew (hissable villains, a smug Richard Harris among them) are no match for a stubborn-but-honest merchant marine, so there's no surprise at the outcome, but the performances help carry the load. Square screenplay by Eric Ambler, based on the book by Hammond Innes, isn't the potboiler you may end up hoping it'll be. Handsomely shot by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg. Michael Anderson directed, without flair. **1/2 from ****

The Longest Night (1972) (TV)
Compact telefilm from behind the headlines..., 30 August 2015

Mercenary couple kidnap a young woman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, from her hotel room and hold her for ransom--but, while they are waiting for the $500K in cash to arrive, they have buried their victim underground, in a ventilated 'capsule' with enough air for only seven days. Made-for-TV drama, based on a true account--and apparently recreated faithfully--hasn't a single twist or surprise; writer Merwin Gerard blessedly steers clear of histrionics (everyone keeps a cool head), but there isn't much action--what with the girl buried alive in a confined space and her father dealing with her abductor over the telephone. Much of the film's success is due to the performances, and David Janssen (as the distraught father) and James Farentino (flashing his dimples as the kidnapper) are quite good. Director Jack Smight mounts the story in textbook-like fashion--as a news reporter might--scene by scene as dictated by fact. Story revisited in 1990 (also as a TV-movie) entitled "83 Hours 'Til Dawn".

Ken Russell's dance of lunacy: it employs most of the senses...but not the brain, 25 August 2015

British director and high-powered madman Ken Russell loves turning biographies on their ear, much to the concern of professional film critics (who believe the filmmaker should show more reverence to his subjects). Although this passionately intense drama about the life of Tchaikovsky begins with a linear story and fully-embodied characters, it doesn't take long for Russell to abandon what are essentially bio-pic pretenses and shoot the works visually. 19th century Russian composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky is warned by friends and superiors that his dallying with boys isn't respectable; the gossip gets so heated, Peter decides to marry a fervent female fan who's been writing him adoring letters. Unfortunately, their union is revealed to be a sham on the couple's honeymoon and, despite assurances that she'll be patient, wife Antonina is driven mad by unresolved sexual longing. Russell's film, full of glorious music and eye-popping spectacle, isn't all decadence and debauchery. There's genuine feeling for Glenda Jackson's girlish, naïve Nina, and Richard Chamberlain's conflicted Tchaikovsky is the actor's finest hour on the screen. The film's final reel is a fantastic cinematic rush of fever dreams--not necessarily symbolic, perhaps, and not altogether logical (Nina seems to go stark-raving mad in a short period of time). But one doesn't go to Russell for logic; he gives you food for thought in his technique, while the viewer takes in many potent images that leave a lasting impression. No, this isn't the factual story of Tchaikovsky's turbulent life. It's Ken Russell's turbulence that is on display, and that's fine for some of us. *** from ****

Flat collection of facetious witticisms scrambled up like a TV show, 23 August 2015

Writer-director Jon Kasdan puts this glossy, superficial comedy-drama together like a preconceived jigsaw puzzle. You can even count the scenes like pieces: actress dumps writer, writer discusses life with disaffected mom, writer goes to live with dying grandma, writer gets involved with unfulfilled housewife across the street, housewife has a lump in her breast, housewife's daughter can't relate to mom, housewife's husband is having an affair that nobody cares about. Meanwhile, Kasdan's dialogue sounds like it's been filtered through the mismatched scenes of a nighttime soap, an endless stream of self-conscious confessions dotted with a writer's in-jokes. We in the audience have nothing much to wait for except the teenage girl's declaration of devotion to her "cold, distant" mother, the grandma's demise, and the young man's independence from the starlet whom he never really loved. Cast is talented yet not really convincing in these roles. The film isn't even efficiently made; it's a scattershot attempt at bringing together the hearts of these emotionally-impaired people, scored with rock tunes by Huey Lewis, INXS and Bruce Springsteen. Commercial interruptions will fit right in. * from ****

Lindbergh's historic North Atlantic crossing by plane is told with emotion and style..., 23 August 2015

A mail-run pilot gets help financing the construction of a plane to cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1927--with he himself alone at the controls. Director Billy Wilder, who also co-adapted Charles Lindbergh's memoir with Wendell Mayes and Charles Lederer, isn't quite able to work his customary high-toned humor into these proceedings, but his adroit pacing is certainly in evidence. James Stewart carries off the leading role without a hitch, and the final moments are surprisingly emotional. Not a dashing, robust picture, but an earthy, squirrelly film about human endurance and, indeed, spirit. There's a beautiful, seemingly throwaway moment with Stewart flying over Ireland and scaring the sheep, the shadow of the plane on the ground below as seen from Lindbergh's window. Technical details such as this make a tangible connection with audiences; one leaves the picture feeling uniquely satisfied. Supporting cast is workman-like; Stewart and the plane are the drawing cards. *** from ****

Lucy and the Jitterbug, 23 August 2015

Although directed by a woman (Dorothy Arzner) and co-written by a woman (Tess Slesinger), from Vicki Baum's original story, this behind-the-scenes glimpse at Broadway Burlesque is hardly any different than the fame-and-footlights movies the men in Hollywood were grinding out during this era (it even includes a catfight!). Clichéd story concerns two boarding-house girls (Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara) who hit the big time: Lucy as a Burlesque Queen, would-be ballerina Maureen as her 'stooge', or warm-up act. Predictably, a smooth-talking womanizer threatens to come between them. When O'Hara sneaks out with Ball's guy, she shows no misgivings over her actions--nor does Lucy seem to care about the abuse Maureen suffers every night performing for unruly crowds. Arzner's cynical take on the girls' smooth-and-scratchy friendship gives the material a bit of an edge (good for about three scenes); however, the plot mechanisms reveal the same old soapy story, and neither actress is able to rise above the dross. ** from ****

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