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Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)
Fun, charming, entertaining--mostly because of James Garner
Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)
Starring James Garner on the rise, and riding the new tide of interest in the revised western (along with the great Spaghetti Westerns), this is surpisingly nimble and good. It's vivid and cheerful, and well written with flunny comebacks and a wry sense of absurdity. That's not to say it's a great movie-it isn't "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" at all-but that it's fun like the best television of the time, and with much higher production values. (It reminded me of the slightly earlier "A Big Hand for the Little Lady.") Director Burt Kennedy was a writer more than a director, at first, but he didn't have a hand in the screennplay here (though it is so sharp at times, you wonder if there were some little adjustments as they went). Garner is clearly the star here, and he's handsome with that pleasant smile that made him famous (and carries him through many scenes). Around him are some veteren character actors (including the great Walter Brennan) and they help overall even if they are sometimes caricatured a bit. In truth, the movie might have tipped into greatness with some more subtle direction, getting the irony and silliness to have some style or weight somehow. There's a lot of talent here, a fun idea for a story, and excellent dialog. See it, yes. Good enough that even the sequel ("Support Your Local Gunfighter" with Kennedy and Garner both back in their slots and without an exclamation point) is worth a casual look.
A great movie, in many ways flawless
Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)
A stunning, moving, funny as heck movie. You almost have to compare it to "Fargo" for its depth and wit simultanesouly. Both movies dig into a caricatured America, in this case the South (I'm not sure they ever say where, but it feels like The great character here has to be the woman who pays for ads on the billboards, and who drives the plot-Frances McDormand-and who also happens to be the amazing lead in "Fargo." Here she doesn't quite don a full southern accent the way she became rural Minnesota in a lick, but she's a perfect type, and tough. Around her are the nuanced but funny kinds of people you'd expect, especially a cadre of cops that includes Woody Harrelson, always an asset, this time as an honorable chief of police with cancer. The third big name is Sam Rockwell, who is terrific as a troubled cop. His role grows as the movie twists. Any scene with McDormand and Harrelson, or with her and Rockwell, is really amazing. Good acting is good acting. The script here is amazing-I think it is the screenplay of the year and should get the Oscar, never mind the fun originality of "Get Out" which lacks the subtle insights and natural language here. There are other levels to love this movie on, from the music (Carter Burwell) to the photography (Ben Davis). Almost no one is a famous contributor beyond the actors-including the director and writer, Martin McDonagh. That's partly what makes it all fresh and honest. It's a great movie. Do not miss it.
Slow, sentimentally driven, schlock to the core and a shame, too
An interesting film for any film buff or historian, partly for how badly it conjurs up the style and format of 1927 cinema. The story has sentimental strengths and a pair of characters (and actors) who create a certain amount of empathy, but even here the progress is as plodding as it is pretty. I've come to think that Todd Haynes is a bit of a hack as a director, riding mostly a willingness to take on projects that are dripping with emotional pitfalls. His most famous film is "Far from Heaven," also starring Julianne Moore, and it combined best a combination of visual richness and personal angst. In that case there was the advantage of a theme of being a closeted gay man in a 1950s America that resonates with so many, one way or another, along with powerful issues of race. Here there are children to relate to: a girl who is deaf in 1927 and a boy who is an orphan in 1977. Brian Selznick (yes, a relative of the famous David O.) wrote the book, and it's set in 1977 because the famous New York City blackout is at the climax. For some reason Haynes has created a world that is gorgeously 1970 or 1972 instead (though it's labelled 1977 by necessity). The colors, the cars, the clothes, the hair, every detail is deliciously wrong. (I'm old enough to know, plus just check out the cars.) And his sense of the neighborhoods on the west side of Central Park is wrong, too. It's all really beautiful, but why? Why? Back to 1927, the year of the first sound picture, we have the deaf girl enjoying silent films-but these are projected on the screen in her theater as widescreen (not the standard 4:3 Academy format)! I know, who cares, right? Well, why the heck not get it right? Haynes mentions in interviews that he watched some old movies to get the feel for them right, which is a confession of incompetance. His own filming of 1927 and the girl's path through the city is naturally any format he chooses and it's very nicely photographed. In fact, the star of the movie is not the strained and obvious story, dragged out for two hours, and it's certainly not the director, but it's the cinematographer, Edward Lachman, who also shot "Far from Heaven" and several other notable films with styles drawing heavily from the past but still keeping a contemporary edge. I was able to watch this entire film partly because it looks so good. I think Haynes has a good technical crew in general, and the movie benefits. Haynes has also mentioned that he wanted this to be a film that children could watch, and he might be right in the sense that it's gentle and absorbing, without violence or adult material. I liked that. But I think a kid would as bored as any adult, and more willing to skip to the end, which is a contrived tearjerking inevitability, ponderous and thick.
Insightful writing and oversimplified (if expert) animation
I was drawn to this because of the great writer, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich). Here was a story about an ordinary man who goes to Ohio (an ordinary place) on travel and things go very slightly strange. The fact this is an animated film took me by surprise. And I stayed with it, wondering over and over how it helped to have it animated. Here is a story about a subtle psychological crisis, and the real reactions and facial expressions of the main character (and others) seemed to me to be totally important. And here they were dumbed down to archetypes and simplifications. Oh, I know, the animators tried for subtlety but I'm not going to praise a film for being "really close" to the actual thing. Not with the actual thing would be better. However, there are elements to the film that eventually seem to require animation (though even this isn't convincing, I'll say right away). For one thing, nearly everyone's voice is the same kind of ordinary man's voice, even women. That might have been handled with dubbing. Then there are some cracks in the facade of realism that rely on animation, like people's faces have seams (or in one case coming apart). I think there might be ways to do this otherwise, but it's fine animated, too. But wait-what about this writing that I was so drawn to? Well, it's good. It's like seeing a lesser David Mamet play, knowing it's good but knowing there are some really amazing examples elsewhere. So I watched and listened and the crisis, which is of the most ordinary kind, unfolds and turns out to be something unfinished and unsatisfying. So, lots of hesitations here. A film with great potential. And maybe people who prefer (!) the nature of detached observation that the animation forces on is, and the style of it all, might get deeper in than I could.
Well done but a predictable part of a well trod genre
A prison movie, and a good one. But there are the usual stereotypes—the bad warden and the good warden, the bad convicts and the good convicts. The hopelessness. The feeling of injustice. The one large twist is that ti's a prison for women.
The is a Warner Bros film and fits into a long tradition they have of social justice themes (the most famous early one is "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang"). So the leading woman, played by Eleanor Parker, takes on a kind of martyr role because it's clear she shouldn't have been sent to jail in the first place, and we pity her. She is really good at the innocent young girl (with perfect hair), though if she's trying to channel Joan Fontaine she falls a step short. As she hardens up through the movie (as the parole board does its caricatured best to be idiots) she gets no more convincing, though maybe a little more fun.
It's probably impossible to really pull of a movie like this in 1950 without ditching the censorship rules. But there was no attempt to make the prison actually horrible, which I assume it must have been, and it's completely unintegrated (all white) which may or may not have been the case back then (I don't know). The result is a kind of safe, and sometimes false, version that feels increasingly like Hollywood.
It's good Hollywood, don't get me wrong. The movie is one of the better prison movies from the era (and there are a surprising number of them). Just don't look for insight or even any level of narrative surprise here. Do check out another strong if uninspiring role from Agnes Moorehead, and pay attention to the startling, fresh performance by Jane Darwell (who I knew from the role as the mother in "The Grapes of Wrath" a decade earlier).
Room for One More (1952)
Admirable theme, terrible dialog and screenplay, and a great Grant
Room for One More (1952)
Cary Grant is in his everyman, humorous, relaxed form here, and is great. His counterpart, Betsy Drake (playing his wife) is no Irene Dunne, and as "good" as she is (in every sense of the word), she's just filler. And so that leaves the children, who all play important roles if bit parts overall, filling out the family.
If you can't tell, this is a story about adoption and foster care. It's about having a family of three and finding room for one (or two) more, no matter what the troubled past and difficulties. Everyone's heart is in the right place, and it almost reads like a wonderful public service announcement.
And that's a lot of the trouble here. There is little realism to the troubles the family might face (or even the depths of love they will find, frankly). It's all a bit superficial and glib, and you want to overlook this to give credit to the good intentions, but it's not a way to make a great movie. Add the ongoing theme of the husband feeling neglected (sexually) by his wife, which loses it's humor quickly, and you see a very 1950s movie in scope and depth.
On the other hand, the acting and production are really good overall, and if you just skip the writing on almost every level you can enjoy a lot of what is happening here. It happens to be very well filmed (by the cinematographer favored by Hitchcock in these years, Robert Burks) and the score is a Max Steiner staple (which means very good).
So I laughed, I cried, and I liked Cary Grant a lot (and he has a huge number of great little quips, so many that I wonder if he added many of them). That's not so bad for this kind of movie.
A strained plot with lots of good talent and a little emotional sincerity
The Only Living Boy in New York (2017)
A surprise, from a film I hadn't heard about. It's flawed, it has some gaffes in the writing, and it uses some overused ideas (including the whole world of writers writing about being writers). But the acting is good, and the sentiment is kept in check (most of the time) so that it works overall. Enjoyable if nothing remarkable.
There is a surprising number of known actors here, from Pierce Brosnan to Wallace Shawn (briefly). Callum Turner, the leading man (the only living boy), is likable but a weak link overall. He is meant to be in a crisis on every level, and he kind of shows it but you feel something missing in the performance. And maybe the writing.
Ah, the writing. This is a movie about writers. And there are so many clichés here you can fill a salt shaker with them. Yeah, we love interpersonal drama, and the troubled mom and the troubled dad and the unlikely wise old man next door not to mention the utterly improbably girlfriend who isn't a girlfriend but who hangs on steadily anyway. It's a mashup of heart tugging types, and our star is in the middle navigating it all with really no rudder
Or you might say that Jeff Bridges is his rudder. He's a cliché, too, of course, but his wisdom is good enough to give the movie some depth. I'd say the smarts of Kate Beckinsale's character, the mistress/lover with a troubled past and a surprisingly steady head on her shoulders, rises above the rest. Her performance is spot on, too.
The upshot here is that the movie has a lot of little things to like, and the plot, which is riddled with little annoying emotional tricks, still has some honesty to it and you'll likely enjoy it all for what it is.
Green is Gold (2016)
Tender and unaffected, though still feeling like a low budget first film.
Green Is Gold (2016)
A charming attempt to be real and intimate in a tale of two brother (played by two real brothers) who are growing pot illegally.
There is a lot to like here, mainly the naturalism invoked and the feeling of growing understanding between the brothers. The more obvious plot drives it—growing and eventually having to sell a lot of really good weed. But that is only the device to make you see these two unlikely brothers try to figure out how to get along together.
The writing is imperfect—and sometimes downright implausible—but generally the dialog is carried by the acting, which is natural and believable. There are a couple of other characters involved (the father, maybe the most important, though very briefly), but nothing remarkable happens beyond these two. (In fact, some scenes, like in the school, or the bathroom sex scene, are weak on every level.)
The filming is the kind of natural photography we expect these days—nothing jumps out, and that's just fine. In fact, this is an ordinary movie on most levels. But expect the director (who plays the older brother) to get another try at making a great film.
Mad Love (1935)
A compact semi-thriller with great cast and crew
Mad Love (1935)
Really interesting, slightly campy, beautifully photographed. Far from perfect—mostly because the story is too contrived—it still has a lot going on in just over an hour and you should give it a look.
Some curiosities to start with. The director, Karl Freund, was the cinematographer for "Dracula" as well as scores of other films before that (and a long career ending with some key shooting for "I Love Lucy"). This was his last film, and he's probably the reason this one looks good and isn't quite pulled together in other ways. (He also directed "The Mummy," but little else. "Mad Love" was his last.)
The leading man is none other that Peter Lorre, who should need no introduction ("M" and "Casablanca" should cover that). Second to him is the leading man (the doctor) from "Frankenstein," Colin Clive. He's never a great fit for realistic acting, but he has screen recognition here.
Oh, and one of the two cinematographers is none other than a very young Gregg Toland, of "Citizen Kane" fame.
So there is a lot under the hood here. The story is set in Paris, and there are backstage, onstage, train, drawing room, dark street, and behind curtain situations that keep it intriguing. Lorre is a more complex figure than you expect at first. He's the villain, of course, but also a brilliant doctor who saves lives. And he wants most of all to experience true love, which you can't hold against him.
The object of his affections, played by Frances Drake (famous for a key role in "Les Miserables" shot that same year (but for Twentieth Century, in the last film before it joined with Fox). And she's great at holding the various pieces of the movie together.
Trivia aside, there is a constantly changing quality to the film that's really fun and engaging, and if the overall idea copies some ideas from Frankenstein (acquired traits) and makes them a little gimmicky, you find there are so many other things to enjoy it still works.
So much at stake and it remains superficial and manipulative rather than deeply moving
A dramatic (and sometimes dramatic to the point of parody) telling of one spy and then another, and how they fall in love. The leading actors are great starting points, Brad Pitt as the Canadian dropping into Morocco and Marion Cotillard as his contact after his arrival. And here's the biggest problem right away—they have no real chemistry, and are actually not given much to work with (besides an absurd but fun love scene in a sandstorm).
You get the feeling everyone is trying to outdo "Casablanca" itself, and they even start the movie there, just in case you don't feel the romance in the air. Robert Zemeckis is a storytelling director, so it's surprising this doesn't quite take off (blame the writer, in part?) but he's also not a lyrical film director. He depends on flash and surprise (as in "Back to the Future," which is not a subtle film, whatever else it has that is brilliant).
And in fact, "Allied" is an unsubtle film that needs some nursing along, some ambiance rather than over-the-top drama. (The birth scene will either be astonishing or laughable, depending on how involved in the movie you are. A little of both, maybe.) The story itself I think had great potential, but the actual screenplay dumbs it down.
And if Cotillard is brilliant in her role (which she has to be, as you'll see), Pitt is a little wooden, downplaying the energy he might have brought to it. Here I suspect he's been told to channel Bogart with an understated intensity, and oddly enough, he just can't do it. (Blame the cinematography, a little, because as slick and beautiful as it is, it is also the work of an action flick mentality, rather than an actual romantic drama.)
I watched it with real interest all the way and enjoyed many parts of it. I enjoyed even more anticipating what might be next, because there were a couple of plot twists at work. But each time I was a bit disappointed in what actually took place, the pulling of punches, or the sentimentalizing rather than dramatizing. When it was done, looking back, it seems like a stream of missed opportunities and imperfect scenes sandwiched between other moments that could have take us far.
If the two of them had some actual chemistry in the first place.
A Damsel in Distress (1937)
A dull plot and a struggling Fontaine compensated by some great Astaire dancing
A Damsel in Distress (1937)
What a strange film, comic and stylish, clumsy and inventive. Fred Astaire is key, but it might be the young Joan Fontaine who first caught my attention. She's not the refined actress she became for "Rebecca" but she has the demur naive thing starting. It turns out she can't dance, so that had to be worked around.
The movie is set in London in a kind of fakey way—the London fog is exaggerated to the point of comedy. But that's fair. It's a comedy. And a musical, of course, with Astaire's dance sections being the only real reason to admire an otherwise routine movie.
Not that there isn't an overload of talent here. George Burns and Gracie Allen are at it, in less than stellar form, but fun. We have George and Ira Gerswin for amazing music and lyrics overall. P.G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves fame) is the writer, no less, and it's funny. (It even has Astaire saying, "Right ho!" A famous Jeeves line.) All of this give the movie some panache.
But the story is thin and canned, and the direction bland. There are even painful gaps in editing and photography (the fog suddenly completely disappears in the middle of one of Astaire's wonderful dances, on an open street).
It's not a surprise the movie lost money. But even so, if you like Astaire, you should watch this. His famous dance near the end with the drum kit is great fun (if not the masterpiece others say it is) and in general when the movie breaks into song it's a good thing, an escape from the doldrums of the plot.
They Won't Believe Me (1947)
Fabulous filming and the plot moves and turns and is totally unbelievable by the end--but who cares?
They Won't Believe Me (1947)
What a terrific movie with a convoluted and impossible plot. But that's melodrama, and if you want realism, go elsewhere.
If you do accept the unlikely and convenient twists of plot and traded identities, the rest of the mise-en-scene is, well, realistic-. It's a great series of settings and has excellent filming. The leading characters are all rather good, as well, namely Robert Young, who pulls off a likable guy (Larry) who might (?) land all the women he lands but also has a weak side that explains how he went along with fate. And luck.
The three women are all strong, as they need to be with a weak man. Larry's wife is sharp and kind of fun in her manipulations. The other two women (yes there are three in all) are very similar. On purpose. Jane Greer comes first, then Susan Hayward, and both are great.
Oh, the plot keeps turning. At first it's just a matter of exciting new events, but eventually you will be incredulous. Or I was. I see some other reviewers in the press make no mention of all this, so who knows. I swallowed it eventually and really liked the rest of the film enough to let it fly.
Film noir with three femme fatales? Almost! An offbeat one, well done.
Berlin Express (1948)
Remarkable! The filming, the actual footage in German ruins, all great. The plot? Well...
Berlin Express (1948)
Just after WWII has ended comes this film about getting inside the post-Nazi world for an assassination. It's multi-national and filled with bitter scenes of German ruin.
This actually is an amazing film, starting off (and ending) as beautiful and dramatic. And it's complex but luckily edited with precision. It's filmed with remarkable realism in post-war German (Frankfurt and Berlin), with trains and train stations and lots of darkness and steam and drama. (Later there are huge areas of utter utter devastation.) The first half hour has a stunning film-noir style, lots of angles, deep shadows, moving camera, and so on, all under the hand of master cinematographer Lucien Ballard. It's great to just watch.
It's also a rare imperfect glimpse of what it might actually be like in that era where Germany was an occupied territory. It's almost shocking, even now, or maybe especially now since we have seldom seen anything remotely this vast and awful in a long time. That really is the depth of the movie that was intended and effective.
The plot (trying to save a German diplomat who is out for a peaceful future) you might call a device, and it is the weakness of it all, even though they place much of the best of it on a train where the drama is classic train stuff, car to car. There is also a lot of narration, explaining (rather well, but still having to explain) what is going on. Robert Ryan plays the leading man, an American agriculture expert out to help recovery in Europe.
There is also the expected stereotyping—the casual smart American, the principled and arrogant Soviet, the suspicious and duplicitous Germans, the interested but somewhat victimized French, and the humorous and unflappable Brit. I'm serious—it's here, and it's done well enough you can easily buy into it. Merle Oberon is restrained but wonderful.
Director Jacques Tourneau is always interesting and often compromised ("Out of the Past" is interesting and very uncompromised, for sure.) This movie has so many shifts and complications it is hard to know what they all mean, and this makes it all the more interesting, even as the narration deadens our absorption into events. I admit to liking every minute of it, even the bureaucratic office scenes (which had their own slight believability). By the end, as they all say goodbye and drive in separate directions, the truth of divided Germany was clear—even in 1948.
The very last scene shows a man with one leg and crutches moving through some partly destroyed columns—very symbolic and right on.
Stars in My Crown (1950)
A rich story idea that is made into a range of pasty clichés and stereotypes
Stars in My Crown (1950)
A period drama, though and through. The time is the end of the 1800s in rural America. The small town has all the expected types, especially the kindly preacher (who leads the story through his adopted nephew, a charming and energetic boy). There is the the greedy capitalist, the skeptical doctor, the hardy Swedish family, the pretty wife and the pretty girlfriend, and the old black farmer. The acting is sincere, and the writing honest and filled with homespun wisdom.
So this should be a good movie and it is. It's also very "old-fashioned" (that's the first word that came to mind. I have figured out what that means—not that it's filled with good people striving to do well and be happy in simple times, though that is true. It's more that it feels simple. This makes for a lack of complication, and surprise, and tension.
The worst part of this is that everyone is who they appear to be, without development or complication. Even when the final huge crisis sweeps the town and people are forced to step outside their usual roles, they do so predicatably. It's all very sweet but a bit of a bore—or to be nicer about it, a bit less exciting than the movie had the potential to be.
One last final note—leading man (pastor) Joel McCrea has a mixed role as leading man. Here he is cast perfectly, and he fits the part and holds it up, and holds up his end of the movie. Nice to see him at his best.
Gorgeous beyond expectation, and interesting if not quite gripping and moving
There is a lot to like in this movie, most of all the sets and costumes. And the rich color filming of those sets and costumes.. It is a movie of pageantry and beauty. And stately exposition, where these backdrops and colors unfold.
I repeat—this visual effect is extraordinary. The plot, however, as a mishmash of historical events from around this time. It is often stiff, the admittedly dramatic events being told with a same reverence for beauty over drama. And there was so much drama to be mined. It's a shame that somehow the pronouncements couldn't have been less staged and more naturally fluid.
Director Joseph Mankiewitz is one of my favorites from the 1950s, giving tightly scripted soap opera drama to beautifully filmed events (as in "All About Eve"), but the larger scenes overwhelm any subtle intent. Maybe it is partly that he came into the filming party way through (in a famously troubled production).
Of course, there is Cleoptra herself, played by Elizabeth Taylor with a modern (very 1963) verve. She's terrific. And when Richard Burton finally speaks (over an hour into the film) he brings his known strength to his scenes. Caesar is played with beautifully formal disdain and cleverness by Rex Harrison (Rex meaning king, appropriately). This basic threesome makes the movie.
Above and beyond is the sets and costumes, which is really what the public seemed to eat up in the 1960s. The vivid sharpness of 70mm film, and the saturation of true Technicolor, were far beyond the best color television of the time (or ours, technically speaking). My blu-ray copy on a decent monitor made for mouthwatering visuals. I watched even if I was a bit impatient for things to unfold more meaningfully. The very long pageantry 2/3 the way through—I mean a full half hour of large crowds and ceremonial whatnot—is a sign of why the movie falters beyond the mise-en-scene.
And why it was so expensive to make.
I looked up the history of the time, and found that it was truly amazing stuff, which of course Shakespeare and others knew, too. Cleopatra is a stunning leader, a woman in an age of male leaders. (She was Greek, in Egypt, at the end of centuries of Greek power there.) Antony and Ceaser are of course important, too, in this pivotal time (40 or so years BC), but it is the title character, through Liz Taylor, who rises out of the crowded masses.
See it expecting something a bit dry and dull, even if extremely well made.
Murder She Said (1961)
Well done if a bit tidy and nice, an entertainment through and through
Murder She Said (1961)
Well paced, well made, but also thoroughly "delightful" in a kind of post-war polite British lighthearted way. This is an enjoyable ride, but never with any genuine drama—it is too happily happy all the time.
The actors are first rate, especially the lead playing Miss Marple, Margaret Rutherford. Arthur Kennedy is given big billing, and his role as an American is conspicuous (and strong).
The plot is clever and well constructed of course—this is adapted from an Agathe Christie novel. And to tell truth, the thing that makes this thing hang at all is the terrific writing. The nephew on first appearance says to Miss Marple, "You're not my idea of a maid." And Marple replies, "Quite honestly, you'd not be everybody's idea of a boy." So Marple asserts herself, which is the charming aspect to it all (along the lines of "Murder She Wrote," if that's not obvious already from the title).
There are naturally lots of people who are under suspicion, and you gradually have to try to guess who is likely or not. You play that internal game of thinking who is just too obvious and which unlikely character is actually guilty. There is some confusion about how they might confuse a recent victim with one who died 16 years ago, but we'll ignore that.
The problem for me is that we are not given time to really know or care about anyone. Everyone is a type—a rich family supplying most of the caricatures. The one complex character is Marple herself. And she's terrific. She makes the movie. The whole filming and feeling to the movie is good, too. It's an enjoyable affair—which brings me back to my first word: delightful. Thoroughly.
House of Numbers (1957)
An inside view of San Quentin, two sides of Palance, and a daring plot
House of Numbers (1957)
This starts with a clunky, poorly written rush to fill us in on the situation--a brother in jail who needs help to escape. But hang in there. It gets better.
The premise is clear early on—Jack Palance plays a man whose brother (also played by Palance) needs to get out of San Quentin. So they plan an escape that involves the first brother breaking into the prison. And so on. Cool stuff.
And when it gets going, there is less talk and more action, and frankly Palance is a physically interesting actor (his delivery is always stiff). This is not a great classic by any stretch. Parts are almost filler—scenes from around the real San Quentin (one of the advertised perks of the movie). But there are also good suspenseful aspects watching this plan get underway. Whether it works, I'll not say. Both Palances are good enough to hold it together.
The leading woman, trying painfully hard to be a kind of Marilyn, is a drag on the whole thing. A few side characters spice it up nicely. But mainly we have the plot, and the details as we see the clever and rather nutty idea get underway. The improbable daring of the events continues right to the end, with a final twist and "The End" hitting you quickly.
The director, Russell Rouse, is obscure (he directed "New York Confidential," which is good), and he probably deserves a lot of blame here because the core idea of the movie is great. And Palance could have risen up a notch with some good leading. One aspect of Palance's performance that is great, for sure, is how he made the two brothers really seem like different characters. They aren't twins, and they look and act different.
The music by the soon-to-be well known conductor, Andre Previn, is an example of orchestral excess—it made me even laugh once, with the crash of music for dramatic effect, though the composing has some new qualities that take it musically beyond the great Max Steiner.
By half way through there was no way I was going to quit, so if you get into this for awhile you'll be hooked by at least the "what happens" part of it all, and by the location shooting and some good night stuff.
The Chase (1966)
In same ways it feels like a melodramatic masterpiece that just missed its mark
The Chase (1966)
I give this movie extra credit for ambition, and for richness of story and complexity. It's a torrid soap opera overall, which is a good thing because it is saved by its romanticized excesses. The title is odd, in a way, because the obvious "chase" here is the pursuit of the convict on the run (played by Robert Redford, and not his best performance). But in a way there are all kinds of other chases here—women and men wanting each other with a whole network of adultery and would-be affairs at play.
But never quite shown. This is a movie pushing the end of the censorship code, but the code is still officially in place and so there are still some boundaries, even for a director like Arthur Penn, who would help New Hollywood blossom (notably with "Bonnie and Clyde" the next year). But the steamy background as this small town wrestles with decency, among other things, is great stuff.
Decency, as a core idea, is what the main character is all about—the sheriff played by Marlon Brando. Brando is great. He isn't quite the Texas sheriff intended, of course (he's "Brando"), but he has nuance and strength, and he helps his scenes a lot. But the movie is brimming with talent: Robert Duvall, for one. Two women do their parts—Jane Fonda and Angie Dickinson—though neither is given enough to do besides support their male counterparts (Fonda is a kind of "loose woman" and Dickinson is a girlfriend having affairs).
But Penn is the biggest talent, pulling together a very complicated story in two hours. Photographer Joseph LaShelle is great, too, one of the masters of early widescreen color in the US. Together they make this movie fluid, beautiful, and constantly demanding in the best way.
What holds it back is a little of the superficiality that is so common in early 60s films—it's about sensation and effect, about drama for its own sake. You never quite care about Redford in his run (he's a surprisingly small part of the movie until the end). And even all the other characters working out their prejudices are a bit on the surface.
There is a welcome racial theme here, and a generational one (young people utterly selfish and party hungry in this version, and older folk filled with prejudice and greed). I say see this film. There's a lot going on, and I could watch it a second time just for everything I missed.
What Happened to Monday (2017)
Really good overall, with Rapace impressive and fun in seven roles!
What Happened to Monday
Most futuristic movies seem to push what is possible, and this is no exception. That seven sisters are hiding in a world where everyone is individually tracked and no siblings are allowed makes for a bit of fun implausibility—but it stretches the limits from the get go.
Still, the fact that one actress—Noomi Rapace—plays all seven parts, each deliberately distinctive, is pretty fun and amazing. And sometimes over the top—the seven personalities are radically different in caricatured ways. But so what? It's fiction, and a loose version of a dystopian future that is believable enough to fly in a movie.
And there are enough twists and surprises to keep anyone awake and alert, many of them plausible once the overall setup is accepted. That is, the game of taking on roles, and of deception all around, is interesting and well done. The complications get more and more intriguing, and the surround cast is solid and well chosen. Glenn Close and Willem Dafoe and both great but in limited appearances. This is Rapace's movie.
I say give this a go and let it entertain. And eventually sway you and suck you in. It's a convincing collaborative effort.
A Civil Action (1998)
Quiet, solid, easy to miss, easy to skip, but Travolta is excellent
A Civil Action (1999)
John Travolta holds this decent but routine film up pretty well, acting as the heroic and sacrificing lawyer for an environmental case in Massachusetts. The plot is restrained, not the heart-tugging Erin Brokovich kind of spin on the same idea, and it deserves some credit for taking the reality of it seriously, including the ending.
The photography may not seem notable at first, but in fact there is a quiet stead restraint and beauty to the way the film is seen, as well. A few camera shots, moving around a sculpture, or through a room toward Travolta, are stunning once you realize the trickery going on (moving and zooming at the same time, but subtly). And Connie Hall (the cinematographer) talks about how he found a somber palette for the color that stays consistent all through.
The director, Steven Zaillain, is more of a writer, though he has "Searching for Bobby Fischer" to his great credit. And I think the material and stellar actors involved here could have been twisted into a great, classic movie. But it doesn't make it. The pace and the intensity are sometimes just off. Even the scenes of desperation and anger in the law office have the feeling of imitation and of acting a little too hard.
Look for small roles by Kathy Bates, Harry Dean Stanton, and James Gandolfini. And of course Robert Duvall as the "bad" guy, as well as John Lithgow as the judge. But mostly look for an under-appreciated John Travolta here. Well done.
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
A surprisingly funny wartime romance
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
Well, a Cary Grant movie I haven't seen!
The movie is limited, for sure, but Cary Grant is at his funniest. Watch it for him.
Oh, yes, Ginger Rogers is the female lead, and she's her likable self (minus the dancing). The overall plot is skewed (for good reason) by World War II. A trifle. But we have Nazi nonsense upsetting a hearty American romance in Europe. Including a clock where the hands are a swastika.
This is the same period and historical truth as "Casablanca," which of course takes it all much further—better writing, better photography, more romantic. The backdrop of the war here is often quite tragic, but there is no tragedy for the leads, who are affected but keep going. There is even what looks like some real Hitler footage (not sure how they got it contemporaneously). The humor throughout is pointed but certainly floating above the real awfulness.
The overall plot (the large arc) is an entertaining take with serious overtones on the war and the enemies we were facing, as well as the fate of Jews (already clear by 1942). The movie ends up being largely a series of little scenes and funny gags—many of which are so funny they make it worth it. But overall the movie deserves some slapping down for not trying very hard. And it deserves watching because it's so good and warm and funny in so many parts. Besides, it's a Cary Grant romance out of nowhere. Good!
Miss Sloane (2016)
A fun fast ride through contemporary political lobbying
Miss Sloane (2016)
A hyped up political "thriller" that showcases Jessica Chastain as a lobbiest who is always one step ahead of her peers. And enemies. It becomes a game of wits and tricks, with the viewer led astray by normal gullibility.
It's fun, and it clicks along with increasing drama. Chastain at first might seem a little miscast— not quite hard headed enough to be so cunning and heartless—but it settles in eventually. Her invimcibility (at first) is not credible, I suppose, but this is a fictional wild ride through what is probably a shabby world of bribes and begging between lobbyists and politicians. The underlying points about gun control are feel-good for gun control types, but a bit thin in their development.
We never really learn what drives this woman, though a couple of hints suggest a nasty past. It's probably okay that it avoid sentiment on that score, but it makes all her machinations plot driven instead of motivated from within. Director John Madden has a resume of t.v. productions and a few movies that have an obvious hook to them ("Marigold Hotel") and you get the sense that this is designed to be clever and entertaining above all. No depths here, in psychology, in political critique, or in movie-making.
Which is fine. Well done. It does exactly what it wants to do.
The Locket (1946)
Very solid melodrama, well filmed, great pace
The Locket (1946)
Well, when you have a post-war movie with Robert Mitchum at his young prime, you can't go wrong.
The star (or starlet, as they used to say) is actress Laraine Day playing Nancy, and she pulls off a charming, attentive, smart perfect woman. A bride to be, in fact. The movie starts with people arrive to a high class wedding. Mitchum shows up via flashback (classic film noir stuff). In fact, there is a flashback within a flashback within a flashback (4 levels) and it's sort of fun.
There are some great lines like, "If you'e lucky you can afford to be nice." But some of the dialog, and maybe the plot overall, is a hair stiff at times.
Director John Brahm is not well known, but his "Hangover Square" the year before is really great. And this one shows a consistent sense of storytelling and drama with highs and lows if not always fully developed characters. The key character is Nancy, who uses her charm to win over the audience as well as the men around her in the plot. Day plays her role perfectly—swiveling sweetness against a just perceptible insincerity. She's a terrific liar.
Which brings me back to Mitchum, who is good but seems to be reading rehearsed lines too often. I think there was supposed to be chemistry between Day and Mitchum, but it wasn't there, even though they both look terribly good.
Though it has a noir-like flavor, this strikes me as a straight up melodrama overall, and with soaring music and lots of dramatic lighting there is no way to not get absorbed in it. There are some short but well done scenes of London during the war (bombs and blackouts).
A well done and lesser known good one. And a fun curiosity—the crazed music box music that denotes an uneven state of mind is the same as that used in the "Bad Seed."
Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
Tries to be realistic in a one-on-one American Family way...some good stuff
Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
The Baldwins are on their way camping in the California mountains when they see that L.A. has been hit by atomic bombs. That's the first exciting five minutes of the movie and the whole premise. What does an "ordinary" family do when the Soviets bomb us?
Ray Milland is the dad, and he's good and forceful, taking on a father role with a combination of extreme resolve and civilized goodness. When I say extreme I mean that he's not always to civilized, and that's maybe the crux of the best of this movie—good people going bad. There is very little of what truly good people might do in this situation (I imagine there is a lot of generosity as well as panic and selfish survivalism).
This was a fairly low budget affair, and B-movie king Roger Corman says that director Milland wasn't really up to the job, and it shows. It's often clumsy, and there is some awkward editing that must have come from lacking material in the three week shoot. It is, however, the most direct and sensational of the series of great films made in the early 60s about the coming of nuclear war ("On the Beach" is my favorite, but "Bedord Incident" and "Fail-Safe" are great, too, not to mention the singular "Dr. Strangelove.")
The first third of this film is mostly about the actual panic, and it's not a bad rendition of the small towns and deluge of desperate people (and cars—lots of classics). The rest of the movie is the actual survival camping and the running into dangers in the wilderness (human ones) is a slow building of despair.
Frankie Avalon, the singer, is a young star, and he's fine here. Mostly this is Milland's show, though, showing wisdom and authority in a male-dominant way that a bit tiring, even if the 60s were still a time where men were supposedly making the decisions (the truth was different, we know).
The ending, which I won't give away, is an interesting take on the early 60s, and how our view of the government and the army have changed. At least for some people.
A truly flawed movie with some truly interesting aspects that ill be interesting for decades to come.
The Big Clock (1948)
Never mind the clock--it's the sundial, stupid!
The Big Clock
I'm not a big fan of Ray Milland, the leading man here, but he has energy and pulls off a kind of Jimmy Stewart fellow pretty well. I am, for sure, a big fan of two other actors here, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, who are great, and of the cinematographer, John Seitz. It is Seitz who makes this movie launch and go far, right from the get go, with a really nice establishing shot merging into a moving camera interior scene.
Milland is not bad, of course—he's better in normal dramatic roles like his most famous as an alcoholic in "The Lost Weekend"—but he lacks both the everyman ease of Stewart and the troubled dramatic noir intensity of Bogart or Mitchum. His predicament opens the movie, ominously, in classic noir fashion with voice-over, and within a heartbeat we are in a flashback getting to the backstory.
The little trick of the plot (having the main characters involved in a crime solving magazine) is great fun, actually, and never seems contrived. The title however points to a weird quirk in the whole works, a highly elaborate clock that is sort of forced onto the situation, and really isn't very integral to the plot after all (even if it's used dramatically a couple of times). Mostly this is a noir about a fairly normal guy and a crime he ends up having to solve, a la Hitchcock.
The femme fatale here, Maureen O'Sullivan, is great, and Laughton is his quirky self, with mustache. Look for Harry Morgan ("Dragnet" and "Mash") in a weird fun role.
Mostly just enjoy a well constructed, offbeat noir-ish crime film and the great visuals throughout.