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Producers' Showcase: The Petrified Forest (1955)
Season 1, Episode 10
9/10
Excellent live television production of a wonderful play
7 January 2014
Robert E. Sherwood's play was very much of its time, when social and political unrest seemed to make the world a completely unpredictable and tenuous place, more so than at any point in modern time. Intellect versus brute strength, romanticism versus cynicism, community versus individualism, all swirling in conflict with no ready resolution. Humphrey Bogart reached a turning point in his career as gangster Duke Mantee in the original stage production and did the same for his film career with the 1936 movie. Now, near the end of his too-short life, he revisits the role in a live TV production, also starring his wife Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda. Condensed but still containing parts of the play that were omitted from the film, this production is staged very much like a theatre production, something that was par for the course in the days of live television. The production suffers less than one might imagine from staginess, and tension and action are scarcely less dramatic than in the movie. The ages of Fonda and Bacall work against complete success, as while Fonda, at fifty, has the proper world weariness for the disillusioned Alan Squier, he seems too old to be just coming to these conclusions about life. And Bacall, while still a young woman, is far too mature for the just-blossoming girl who could inspire Squier to make real for her the dreams he can no longer believe in. But for all that, it is still a fine production, and Bogart retains the menace, style, and irony that made him such a hit in the original versions. Joseph Sweeney is fine as Gramp, the teller of tall tales, and Richard Jaeckel and Jack Klugman give real color to the roles of Mantee's henchmen. This is a quick production, sometimes a little rushed in the dialog, but overall it is a very successful live example of the Golden Age of television.
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Wake (IV) (2011)
Intriguing film about special gifts and the duty to use them
4 June 2011
This is an intriguing independent film that seems for a while destined to be one of those injury-recovery-of-the-week movies like "The Other Side of the Mountain." It's about a champion-grade skate boarder who suffers a devastating injury and hopes to come back not just to walk again, but to skate, as well. But just at about the point where it seems we've seen all this before, the film makes a very interesting left turn into something few of us have seen in a movie before. The shattered skateboarder, Bobby Wake, suddenly discovers he has the power to heal and even raise from the dead.

What follows is a fascinating story of the tug-of-war between duty and desire, as Bobby, who only wants to get well so he can skate again, must face the fact that he has a gift, apparently from God, and that with great gifts come great responsibilities.

The film has a few holes. Bobby and a helpful priest are practically the only two major characters who are non-Latinos, yet there's no explanation or particular attention given to why Bobby is so deeply immersed in a culture other than his own. Bobby is shown to be such a decent fellow, such a mensch, that his reluctance to use his new-found healing powers seems unlike the young man we've watched before this point. And there are questions about the mechanics of the healing process that arise because they are not well explained before we see alterations in them. When one healing plays out completely differently than the ones that came before, we're left wondering why we didn't know about this possibility, when knowing of it would have sharpened its effect. Also, a sequence involving Bobby's girlfriend in a crack house seems a huge digression and a poor substitute for further exploration of a huge change in the relationship between Bobby and the film's antagonist, a vicious thug who is the father of Bobby's girlfriend's son. It would have been wonderful to get more of the juice out of that dramatic shift instead of a confusing and seemingly pointless adventure among dope addicts.

Yet the film asks some interesting questions and poses some intriguing possible answers. Writer-director (and art director!) Steve Garrett (who also plays the priest) obviously knows his Ambrose Bierce, and he films with style and gets some fine performances out of his actors, particularly Renee Victor as the girlfriend's grandmother, who nurses Bobby after his accident.

A very nice film from a promising filmmaker.
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Sea Fury (1958)
8/10
Surprisingly good farewell to a colorful and sometimes great actor
29 April 2011
A tiny handful of people have had the adventurous life Victor McLaglen had. To give you an idea, his rich and rollicking autobiography was published near the *beginning* of his acting career, a career that would later give him a Best Actor Oscar and a Best Supporting Actor nomination almost two decades after *that*. Before becoming an actor, he managed to fight in both the Boer War and World War I, fight (in a different sense) freshly-crowned heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, play vaudeville, mine for gold, and serve as Provost Marshall for the city of Baghdad! McLaglen was neither a grandly handsome actor nor a great one (though he gave a few great performances, most notably the one that won him the Oscar, in John Ford's brilliant 1935 "The Informer.") He was big and broad, both in stature and in performance, and his most famous roles ("The Informer," "The Quiet Man," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," etc.) made use of both aspects. He lived to be 72, and every one of those years showed up on his face. His later films rarely gave him much of interest to do, and he seemed tired and passive in some of them.

Therefore, his very last film, "Sea Fury," came as a surprise to me. In this British film, made only a few months before McLaglen's death, he is actually at one corner of a love triangle and displays much of the roughneck quality that infused so much of his early work. In this British film, McLaglen's first in his native country since silent days, he plays a tugboat captain who is tempted by a young woman's mercenary father into falling in love with her. The father knows that such a husband for his daughter would not live long and would make her wealthy at his death (at least by the standards of her Spanish village). The captain knows he should not be so foolish as to hope for the love of a girl fifty years his junior, yet hearts and minds do not always think alike, and the captain's heart overrules his wisdom.

Lucianna Paluzzi, who would later make a bit of a splash as the bad Bond girl opposite Sean Connery in "Thunderball," is here a deliciously innocent yet wildly tempting young girl, and most of her scenes leave no doubt that any man with a heterosexual heartbeat would have trouble not falling for her. One who does is a sailor played by Stanley Baker, one of Britain's better leading men of the period, albeit one who did not rise to quite the worldwide fame of his contemporaries like Richard Burton and Richard Harris. Baker's sailor signs on as a seaman aboard McLaglen's tug, and trouble of course arises when he and the girl fall hard for each other.

What seems bound to become a rather typical love-triangle movie turns out not to be, due in part to the very age difference between McLaglen and the girl, something that (unlike in many Hollywood films) is not ignored but actually confronted in the drama. Also, the film is a wonderful slice of a life that is at once quite real and quite unfamiliar to most of us. The Spanish village where the sailors live while waiting on news of wrecks they can sail out to salvage, and life aboard the tugboats, are both given a most believable and interesting depiction. They're not mere locations but living, breathing unique situations that seem rooted in reality.

The final portion of the film is a terrifically exciting sequence aboard a wrecked ship in which the actors seem to be in almost as much danger as the characters they portray. The whole movie is much more exciting and affecting than I ever expected it to be, and it is a touching and quite fitting farewell to Victor McLaglen, one of the most remarkable figures in film history.
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The Fall (I) (2008)
1/10
In 55 years of conscientious movie watching, this is probably the worst film I've ever seen.
3 November 2009
At this writing, there are 21 votes on IMDb for this film, with an average vote of 8.7 out of 10. It occurs to me that those 21 people in all likelihood made this movie themselves. That is the only reason I can conjure up for the positive rating. I spent much of my life as a film critic, seeing movies that thrilled me and disgusted me and bored me and moved me, but I have never seen a movie so jaw-droppingly awful as this one. I will say that the cinematography is not bad. I will also admit the possibility that actors Benjamin Ciaramello and Peter Cilella conceivably are capable of good work, given good material and a good director, neither of which they had here. The same applies to Erica Curtis and maybe, just maybe, Erica Shaffer, both of whom are quite attractive and charismatic and are saddled with inane dialog and preposterous character shifts. And of course, William Devane, slumming here, is well known for his brilliance, none of which accompanied him to the set of this film. But none of the other performances are worthy of the benefit of the doubt. Scott Kinworthy, in the leading role as the most unlikely, dim-witted, and slow-talking gubernatorial prospect in the history of politics, leads (drags?) a cast of incompetents through some of the most bizarre and painfully elongated dramatic hysteria you are likely to see in your life. If you have ever stumbled across one of those late-night Cinemax movies about topless alien girls from Venus shagging hunky but stupid lawyers, you have seen far, far better movies than this one. Add to the terrible dialog and oscillating character traits an utter absence of awareness how the U.S. court system and criminal incarceration systems work, and you have a masterpiece of dramatic disaster. One minute into the film, I thought it might be interesting. Two minutes in, I got a little worried that the director didn't know how to cut out of a scene. Three minutes in, my jawed dropped to my collarbone and for the next incredibly long two hours it sank further and further until it came to rest on my lap. I'm not sure how I managed to stay through the entire film, but when I came out, the look on my face was of such utter disbelief that an usher gave me free passes and said, "I'm sorry. Come back and see a good movie," before I even had a chance to complain. But he couldn't figure out how to give me my two hours back. Save yourselves.
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Moonshine (1918)
9/10
One of the best of the Arbuckle-Keatons
1 November 2009
Several people have commented that only fragments remain of this film, which seems completely inaccurate to me. The print I've seen many times (it's my 8-year-olds favorite of all of Keaton's films) has a complete story from beginning to end, runs as long as most 2-reelers, and never seems to jump more than a couple of frames. The print is in bad shape *visually*, but it seems pretty much all there to me.

In any event, it's a lovely film for the time, with Arbuckle and Keaton both simply wonderful. The funniest gag (at least to me and my 8-year-old) is the variation on the old clown car gag, where Keaton opens the door to a standard sedan and 49 guys get out (I counted)! Keaton's famed athleticism is well evident, but I was surprised at how strong Arbuckle was, as well. He tosses Alice Lake into the river as though she weighed twenty pounds. Arbuckle's great foil Al St. John (n mean athlete himself) is prominently figured and has a great chase sequence up and down a tree with Keaton while they both (for unknown but surreal reasons) pretend to be monkeys. The acknowledgment throughout the film that they are making a movie is funny and ices the cake of this primitive but very funny film.
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Black Jesus (1968)
8/10
Underrated, under-seen gem about love, cruelty, and humanity
23 September 2009
Little known but terrifically effective Italian film originally titled "Seduto all sua destra" ("Seated at His Right"), but retitled in the US "Black Jesus" to take advantage of the blaxploitation film trend of the 1970s, this is not remotely a blaxploitation film. Former athlete-turned-wonderful-actor Woody Strode (best known for "Spartacus," "The Professionals," and "Sergeant Rutledge") has the most prominent role of his career as a thinly disguised Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic revolutionary of the Belgian Congo. Generally described and reviewed as a highly political film about the Belgian (and other European) exploitation of Africa, in reality this film has (maybe unintentionally) a simpler meaning at its heart: the contrast between love and cruelty. Yes, the film pits primarily "evil" Europeans against almost exclusively benign Africans. Yes, the Marxist inclinations of the filmmaker (Valerio Zurlini) are quite evident. But taken at face value, there is much less in this film about politics than there is about how casually some men can be cruel--terribly cruel--and how central to the core of what it means to be human love and mercy are. From that viewpoint, what many have pointed out as heavy-handed Christ symbolism (and it is blatant) is not so much a political point as it is a poem about the kindness that can be found in the human heart even in the most degrading circumstances. Woody Strode (even in the dubbed version) is amazing, not only for his stunning physical presence (anyone who saw his gladiator fight with Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus" knows what I'm talking about), but for the humanity that bursts from the screen whenever he is in view. This is not a film without flaws (especially in the version easily available), but it's a wonderfully effective film despite those flaws, and presents far more in a simple way than at first meets the eye.
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8/10
An amazing performance by Henry Fonda in a neglected near-masterpiece.
4 August 2009
I can't believe I've been digging into movies for 45 years without ever finding this gem. It's about as noir as it gets, in my book (taking the great definition from one of the guys over at Rara-Avis that hardboiled = tough, while noir = screwed). Henry Fonda is quite astonishing in a role that takes him from average Joe to suicidal killer. I think it's one of his very best performances, and I'm a GREAT admirer of his other performances. Barbara Bel Geddes is mousy but real as the naïve young woman Fonda falls for. The only problem I had with the movie was Vincent Price's performance of an overwritten role. On one hand, it's exactly the kind of role Price normally excels in, but it's far too florid and phony for this kind of film. Watching his scenes with Fonda, it's like watching two movies at the same time--when the camera's on Price, it's "Forever Amber." When the camera's on Fonda, it's "Out of the Past." For the perfect version of this kind of pseudo-über-sophisticate in a noir setting, one need only look to Clifton Webb in "Laura." Webb made that character live and breath. Price orates. With his fey ways and foppish hairdo, he grated on my nerves. The character should very well do so in this film, but to me it was Price and the scripting of his character that were grating. But that's a mere cavil. This is a splendid film, digging as sort of an ancestor to "Blue Velvet" into the rot beneath the seemingly every day--the difference being that most of the people who populate the edges of this movie seem to be very decent and honorable. Anatole Litvak's direction and Sol Polito's brilliant photography surprised me in scene after scene with their classic yet innovative dark style. And crowning it all is Henry Fonda in yet another performance of a lifetime.
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Ramrod (1947)
8/10
Striking casting, complex script, brilliant cinematography add up to a special, fascinating Western
25 May 2009
I won't comment on what has been written by several others here, regarding the noir-ish qualities of the material. I do want to mention some things that caught me off guard, in a very good way, from the moment the film began. First off, the writers and director de Toth were confident enough in their material not to spoonfeed their audience. Indeed, the first few minutes are so opaque it seems as if we may have come in in the middle of the film. In reality, we've come in in the middle, not of the film, but of the characters' lives, and the filmmakers allow us to figure out what's going on much as a stranger arriving in town would have to figure out what this drama is that's occurring around him. Adding to the intelligent and innovative approach to the story is the cinematography of Russell Harlan. Harlan, who shot Red River, Lust for Life, The Big Sky, and To Kill a Mockingbird, certainly knew how to place a camera and light a scene. For de Toth, Harlan's camera moves almost constantly, innumerable dolly shots (far more than in a typical film of this day) both reveal and obfuscate the settings in such a way as to keep the viewer always a little off-balance as to where the action is moving next. It's a skillful means of unsettling the viewer. The casting as well performs similarly. Joel McCrea is a familiar figure in Western leading roles, but here he's both a reformed drunk and so soft-spoken and comparatively passive as to be almost the antithesis of what we expect. Veronica Lake gets one soft scene with her hair down and almost peekabooing, but for the rest of the film it's up tight on her head, and she's up tight in the role. She's an interesting case, a pitiable femme fatale, a nice girl at first pushed then willingly galloping down the wrong road. Charlie Ruggles, typically a comic father type, here is stern but not heartless, wrongheaded but goodhearted. And the best piece of off-beat casting in the film is light comedian Don DeFore as the rascally, promiscuous, and deadly Bill, a gunman with a seductive smile and the grim good humor that one both fears and wants to protect. DeFore's performance is the best I've ever seen him give, and it made me wish he'd done more like this. Thankfully (and oddly), the script gives him plenty of screen time, much more in fact (toward the end) than one would expect, given that he's not the lead in the picture. There have been bad good-guys like Bill in scores of Westerns before and since, but few with the charisma and style that Don DeFore brings to this one. All in all, I was amazed by the complexity and shades of gray in this film, which I completely expected to be just another good old shoot-em-up. Well worth watching.
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Suspense: The Bomber Command (1950)
Season 2, Episode 19
1/10
Poor example of the show
17 March 2009
This episode of "Suspense" suffers from all the worst failings of the show and the live-television format without having any of the positive qualities. The exigencies of live television made for some supercharged drama, but also left the gate open for mistakes, technical problems, and the occasional disaster. This one has a surfeit of all those, along with some pretty bad performances, some of them from people of actual talent. I'm a huge fan of George Reeves, but this may be the worst performance of his I've ever seen. He fumbles lines, over-dramatizes, does a "New Orleans" accent right out of a minstrel show, and perpetrates a completely phony stage drunk, surpassed in awfulness only by the drunk act of an unbilled fellow in a tuxedo. Most of the other actors are too big in their performances, but a few, Susan Douglas in particular, are well-modulated in their work. The script is an absolute mishmash, with emotional conflicts set up between the friends that are never resolved and a plot that takes half the episode just to make itself even vaguely understandable. Sound effects are off and dialog is sometimes unintelligible.

"Suspense" should not be judged by the standards of modern television, of course. It was an inexpensive and rapidly staged, under-rehearsed show, like much of live television, and errors and glitches were unavoidable. This episode, though, highlights many more of the problems of the era and none of the grandeur.
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8/10
This Moto entry has unexpected pleasures
14 March 2009
This is a fairly typical Mr. Moto film from the superb B-unit at Twentieth Century Fox, but I was quite surprised by certain elements of depth in the film. There are moments of brutality that exceed what was standard in films, especially B-films, of the time. But more interesting was the emotional factor. One scene, the last scene between Peter Lorre's Moto and Philip Ahn's Prince Chung, is really amazing for its humanity and poignant quality, something not readily found in 67-minute programmers of the period. The Moto films, like the Charlie Chans Fox made, are all splendidly made little pictures. This one is better than most.
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Rimfire (1949)
1/10
World's longest 63-minute movie, and a contender for worst Western ever
26 February 2009
With the name B. Reeves Eason in the credits as director, one would not be out of line expecting a fast-paced and action-packed adventure. Eason was widely known and respected for the machine-gun speed of his movies. But upon watching this film, which should be retitled "Misfire," one would not be out of line suspecting that Eason directed it while under anesthesia. James Millican, a not unlikable character player, gets to play the tough guy that all the saloon girls ogle, but he has neither the looks nor the charisma to carry off this kind of Western leading role. There are plenty of fine character actors in this movie, and the plot could conceivably have been used for a tense little programmer. Instead, this one moves like frozen molasses. The actors speak at half speed, the editing is at quarter speed, and there is very little to hold one's attention. The slowness of this movie must be seen to be believed, but please....trust me. It isn't worth that effort.
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War Drums (1957)
1/10
The stupidest Western this side of The Legend of the Lone Ranger
15 February 2009
I'll watch Ben Johnson in just about anything, and I just did. Though I've been a fan of Lex Barker's since his Tarzan days, in this he makes Ben Johnson look like Sir John Gielgud. This is possibly the worst Western I've ever seen, and I've spent my life studying them. This movie takes place in some weird Bizarro-Apache world, where the pseudo-word "Ayee!" is apparently the only word in the Apache language, because it's used for every possible meaning; where the tribe has a central camp, but the people blithely live in isolated single wikiup lodges apparently miles from each other, where the majority of the tribal folk have blue eyes, where Apache wedding gowns are apparently made by Laura Ashley, where a Mexican captive woman suddenly falls in love with her hated captor in the space of a two-minute fight scene, and where in about the same length of time she is transformed into a fierce warlike female co-chief in a beaded tank-top. There's not a moment of believable human behavior in the film. A handful of gold miners deep in Apache territory shoot a little Indian boy and let an Indian girl take him back to the tribe while they unconcernedly go back to panning for gold, despite the fact that even an idiot would know the entire tribe is going to show up in a few minutes looking for scalps...which is just what happens. A good drinking game would be to take a slug every time someone says, "Ayee!" or whenever someone does something stupidly and obviously against his own interests. It's also pretty convenient how often the heroes get devastating wounds yet ride off fairly comfortably after a little rest. Fortunately the photography is so drab and dim that it's hard always to be sure what's happening on screen--except in the day-for-night shots, which are sometimes brighter than the day-for-day shots! The only positive element of the entire film is some good stunt work and watching Ben Johnson gallop on horseback. That's always good to see. I hope he got a big paycheck for this one, though. At least it didn't have a title song.
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Big Ears (1931)
7/10
Quite funny Our Gang comedy, likely to disturb no one but ninnies
14 February 2009
Contrary to what several people have written here, Big Ears played quite frequently on television. I saw it yesterday for the first time in forty years and remembered almost every detail from seeing it on TV as a kid. As is often the case in Our Gang comedies, there's no great acting on hand, but as is also often the case, the worst acting is by the adults. Wheezer's parents fight and threaten divorce, so Wheezer tries to make himself sick so his parents will come together out of concern for him. There's a pretty hysterical sequence where the kids pour every concoction in the medicine cabinet down Wheezer's throat to help him get sick. Of course it's not recommended for kids actually to do something like this, but trust me, if your kids are able to drink all the medicine in your medicine cabinet, it ain't OUR GANG who's at fault. Wheezer's crying is realistic and touching, and his reactions to the taste of various elixirs is a riot. Very funny short--not the best of the Gang's by a long shot, but a good one nonetheless.
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2/10
John Carradine: World's Skinniest Brawler!
18 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
If you've ever wanted to see what the classic brawl at the end of THE SPOILERS would look like if one of the guys weighed 110 pounds, this is your chance. John Carradine, just a couple of years after being robbed of the Oscar for his role as preacher Casy in THE GRAPES OF WRATH, here plays the romantic tough-guy lead in a South Seas adventure film which calls on him to have several fistfights with his partner, the comparatively hulking Frank Fenton, and to win them! Dressed in stereotypical tight sailing man outfits, Carradine looks like the skeleton of Gene Kelly in ANCHORS AWEIGH. It's downright bizarre seeing him play Quirt and Flagg with stolid Fenton. And it's only a little less bizarre seeing Gale Sondergaard as his madam lover. I've always liked Sidney Toler, but after seeing this, I realize he was much, much better suited to play Charlie Chan than anything else. His delivery is flat and his sneering smile pasted on. And the less said about Toler in a bathing suit, the better. All in all, it's an amazingly cheap-looking little tropical blunder, interesting for the sets and props which look like Toys R Us rejects and for the chance to see Carradine do something different, even if it's way outside his range.
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7/10
Not much of a Western, but a pretty good whodunit
29 June 2008
I'll watch anything with Sterling Hayden in it, even the stuff he isn't so good in and the terrible stuff that he's the best thing in, just because when he's good he's wonderful and because he's one of my great heroes, not in the movies, but in life. I expected The Iron Sheriff to be one of the many less than good little pictures Hayden did during the mid-Fifties. As a Western, that's just what it is -- less than good. Cheap look, cheap sets, cheap costumes, poor action sequences (what little there are of them). In a world where Lonesome Dove and Deadwood exist, this is the kind of Western it's really hard to sit through. Except: it's actually got a pretty good plot angle, and the way it works out is interesting and believable (for the most part). It's much more of a murder mystery than a Western, perhaps no surprise coming from the pen of longtime Perry Mason writer Seeleg Lester. Hayden is the titular sheriff, dead set on proving his son innocent of murder. But the more he looks, the more evidence he finds of his son's guilt. Ultimately he has to face the age-old dilemma, choosing between love and honor. The film works out the story well and fairly satisfyingly, plot-wise, though the film-making is nothing to write home about. The script and some performances by people I normally don't care for much in movies (and whom I reevaluated after this) -- people like Mort Mills and Constance Ford -- make this one far more interesting and worth catching than I'd expected. It's one of Hayden's least impressive jobs, no matter how much I admire him. But the picture is sort of okay. Especially if you like a good detective story.
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Kim (1950)
1/10
Flynn sparkles, but can't overcome a stilted, boring, and amateurishly directed dullfest.
16 March 2008
Every moment Errol Flynn is on screen in this film sparkles with his undeniable panache. Every moment he is off screen (which is most of the movie) is either a bore or a puzzlement. Kipling's dialog works just fine on the page, but on screen there is no feel whatsoever that real people would talk in such a manner. What flows on the page is stilted when forced into the mouths of actual people. Dean Stockwell does as well as one can imagine with the title role, but everything he says sounds as written as the Declaration of Independence, not the spontaneous remarks of a boy. (The same applies to every character, actually.) The direction is flat and incredibly unimaginative for a major studio release. Scenes which could have had real dynamism are played in flat tableau. Sequences of physical action are staged as badly as a high-school play. (Was there no experienced stunt coordinator available?) Beautiful footage of India is interspersed through more prevalent scenes of largely cheap-looking soundstage sets. (A walk through an Indian train station shows not one speck of dirt or debris or trash on the floor, no sign of dust or even worn paint!) The rear-projection shots of principles on soundstages in front of Indian scenery are worse than the cheapest serials of the time. And nothing substantial happens! The spy games being played consist mainly of doing things through complicated means that could have been much more effectively done straightforwardly. The dramatic action of this film could have been condensed into a twenty-minute short, and the 113-minute running time of the feature would not have felt like 1,113 minutes. The only saving grace is the splendid work of Errol Flynn, who almost manages the impossible task of making Mahbub Ali a real and realistic person instead of a spout for the pouring out of novelistic and archaic dialog. Flynn seems to me to be at the height of his powers here, if slightly (and only slightly) past the height of his beauty. I rejoiced every time he (far too rarely) returned to the story. The rest of the time, I watched the screen with one eye and the clock with the other.
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10/10
One of the best from Hollywood's greatest year
10 March 2008
Just saw this again. It's been one of my five or six favorite films since I was a teenager, but I hadn't seen it in years.

Wow. It really holds up. And looking at it through the eyes of someone who's been acting for thirty-odd years rather than the eyes of a teenager really makes a difference. There's some really fine work in this movie. I've never quite believed Burgess Meredith did (or could do) a day of hard labor like bucking barley in his life, and it's very tempting to think of what someone else might have done with the part. (Lewis Milestone tried to borrow first James Cagney and then Humphrey Bogart for the part. Neither would have been terribly convincing as guys who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, and I have a hard time thinking of Bogart in the role. Cagney would have been very interesting, even if not quite right.)

This time through, I paid close attention to the acting work of people I'd never given much thought to in that regard, as far as this movie goes. Charles Bickford is really good, and Betty Field is superb. The movie was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture (of 1939!!), but none of the actors was nominated. Of course it was a tough year, one of the toughest ever. But in another year, I suspect Lon Chaney Jr. would have been nominated for the performance of his career. His performance has been so imitated over the years that it might not seem so special nowadays, but I tried to find something to critique about it and I simply can't. He's believable and heartbreaking without seeming, to my eyes, the least bit forced. But the standouts are Leigh Whipper and particularly Roman Bohnen, who play Crooks and Candy, respectively. Whipper had played Crooks on Broadway and his experience with the role shows. Crooks's forthrightness about the burdens of being the only black man in a white community are a little startling for 1939, as is his disdain for the whites who enter his "sanctuary" uninvited. Bohnen is just remarkable, one of the most heart-wrenchingly touching performances I've ever seen. (Not surprisingly, he gave another such performance as Dana Andrews's father in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.)

Aaron Copland's music and scoring were both nominated for Oscars. Copland only composed six feature film scores (the others: OUR TOWN, THE NORTH STAR, THE RED PONY, THE HEIRESS, and SOMETHING WILD). OF MICE AND MEN was his first. Every score of his I've heard is a masterpiece, and it's hard to say which is "best." Suffice it to say that his first is a contender, and one of the best film scores ever written.

Although based on Steinbeck's novel, the film owes much to the play Steinbeck also wrote. Lewis Milestone manages to avoid any sense of being stage-bound, though his wide-open-spaces shots are quite limited. I was really impressed by his staging. There's one really nice shot of Meredith and Bickford talking in a barn. As Meredith leaves, the camera pulls back, keeping both actors in frame, until the entire interior of the barn is revealed and shown to be huge, much larger than it had felt. It's a simple shot made by a clear master.

I'm not a great fan of Gary Sinise's remake, particularly as to how the ending was handled. The one great advantage Sinise had was color. There are shots in the 1939 version where I could imagine the color and where I felt robbed by its absence. It's not a black-and-white film that particularly exults in its black-and-whiteness. Had it had a larger budget, perhaps it could have been made in color, which would have served it very well. But all in all, I'm thrilled that this favorite of mine for decades holds up and actually exceeds my fond memories.
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10/10
Woody Allen -- Master of Suspense
25 January 2008
I'd seen the trailer recently, thinking it looked like an intriguing suspense thriller and then, along with everyone in my audience, being jolted by the credit "Written & Directed by Woody Allen." I went to see it yesterday with no further knowledge of the film or of any critical response from any source. At the end, I turned to my date and said, "I feel like I just held my breath for two hours." Her response was almost identical.

It's a thriller. It's a suspense movie. I suppose there's a laugh or two buried in it somewhere, but this ain't your father's Woody Allen movie. While there are elements of the premise that I found not entirely comfortable buying into, taken as a whole this is one of the best suspense films I've ever seen.

Colin Farrell (whom I've always liked, here in a performance light years better than anything I've seen him do before) and Ewan McGregor are brothers, blue-collar types with high aspirations to something better than their current respective jobs, working in a garage and in their father's failing restaurant. Terry (Farrell) has a gambling problem and Ian (McGregor) is afraid his new girlfriend is going to find out he's not the toff he pretends to be. Both of them suddenly find themselves desperate for money, with no place to turn. That is, until their rich uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) shows up unexpectedly. They lay out their stories to Uncle Howard and beg him to get them off their respective hooks. He seems willing, but he's got a favor to ask in return.

That favor catapults the two brothers into a nightmare, and it launches the audience into a thriller which, for all its stretching of credulity in certain areas, is the most believable one I've ever seen, I think. I kept thinking, "This is probably how real people would act if they found themselves in this situation." The difficulty I have with it is that there are certain decisions that I found highly possible but not necessarily the most likely. But the characters' responses to their situations seemed at times almost documentary in nature.

I cannot compliment too highly Colin Farrell. Far more than McGregor, he made me feel I was watching a real, live person reacting to real, live circumstances. It's one of the most naturalistic and believable performances I've seen in a very long time, and my appreciation of him as an actor has soared. McGregor, on the other hand, while perfectly adequate and able, I suppose, seemed not really to inhabit the world he moved in. It's not a bad performance at all. It's simply that, next to what Farrell was doing, and what John Benfield and Clare Higgins were doing as the boys' parents, it seemed less real to me. I also very much liked Sally Hawkins, a sort of Scarlett Johannsen lookalike, who plays Farrell's girlfriend. Like the others, she seemed to really live the life she was portraying.

Woody Allen. Wow. This is a film I'd never have expected from him. What a revelation. I like this film as much as any of my favorite Hitchcocks (though that's faint praise from me, since Hitchcock leaves me appreciative rather than delirious with pleasure). As an intellectual and emotional experience, Woody Allen's film, I'd have to say, has out-Hitchcocked the "master of suspense."
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2/10
Who could have thought the sequel could be worse?
28 December 2006
Now that I've seen the second of the two Superman serials, I am convinced that Kirk Alyn is the worst actor ever to don Superman's tights. He may be the worst actor to ever don tights, period. George Reeves made Superman and Clark Kent human beings in his television characterization, despite every tendency of the scripts and effects to drag him down to cartoon level. Kirk Alyn's Superman IS a cartoon, even more so than the animated Superman in the flying scenes. He simply has no reality, no thought process, no human believability, and in a fantasy character like Superman, that's fatal. He's not helped, of course, by the terrible dialog inflicted upon the actors, none of whom come within a zillion miles of their best work (and for some of them, that's saying something!). One cannot come to a serial with the expectation of seeing great art or even the believability of a popular art of which Casablanca or Gone With the Wind are examples. But the two Superman serials were complete disappointments to me, even within my limited experience of serials. The Dick Tracy serials, the Batman serials, even the John Wayne serials, seem miles ahead of these two, though I wanted very much to like them. Maybe if George Reeves had been in them.... But poor George had it rough enough. Let's not inflict these on him.
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Haunted Gold (1932)
6/10
Passable B-Western with rousing finish, but painful racial stereotyping
2 December 2006
John Wayne made scores of B-Westerns in the thirties, and in some ways the few he did for Warner Bros. were among the more interesting, having somewhat better production values and execution. There are elements in "Haunted Gold" that would never have been covered by the budget of one of his Monogram programmers, but that's not saying much. It's pretty much the same old thing we'd see from Wayne for the next six or seven years -- good guy helps a sweet young thing outwit nefarious baddies out to cheat her or him out of something. Wayne has physical charm yet is still a callow actor at this time, though no one does much real acting in these. There's no George Hayes to lend true gravitas to the situation, and Erville Alderson, while always an interesting specimen to look at in the movies, is really terrible as a performer in the solid older man part. It's all not really much, until an exciting fight in a cable car between Wayne and an outlaw near the end. What is most notable (and most difficult) about the movie is the sidekick character, Clarence. "Haunted Gold" isn't the first nor would it be the last Hollywood movie to give a black actor bug-eyed terror and clichéd dialect for racial comic effect. But if there can be degrees of acceptability to such stereotyping, this movie seems to take it to a painful degree. For one thing, Blue Washington, who plays Clarence, is a strong, masculine figure of a man -- tall, muscled, intelligent of mien -- yet he scampers about whimpering about spooks and monsters like skinny little Willie Best. It seems immeasurably more degrading (though I'm not suggesting it wasn't degrading for other actors). Perhaps part of the difference is that Willie Best and Mantan Moreland, when they did their frightened "darkie" routine, were funny -- very funny. Watching Blue Washington do this stuff is like watching Sidney Poitier or James Earl Jones do it -- it's difficult not to focus on the humiliation of the actor. The script contains plenty of references to "darkies" and "Smoky" and "that watermelon accent," though Wayne's character treats Clarence more as an amusing comrade than a dimwit or a servant. But none of this makes "Haunted Gold" less uncomfortable an experience, at least if one has any empathy for Blue Washington, an actor who it seems had talent, even if it is sublimated beneath insensitive clichés here.
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Superman (1948)
3/10
This makes the Superman TV series look like Godfather II.
12 November 2006
Despite years of immersion in various aspects of the Superman character, I've only just now seen one of the Kirk Alyn serials. I'm not a huge fan of serials, but I've enjoyed several. This one is shot pretty effectively, but what a chore to get through. Primary culprit: Kirk Alyn. Granted, I'm extremely biased in favor of George Reeves's portrayal of the character. And granted, I think that Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, and Brandon Routh all did fine work in the same role. But I was unprepared for how bad Kirk Alyn was. Much has been made of his "balletic grace," his experience as a dancer, but I found these aspects the most ludicrous when it came to playing Superman. Alyn comes off as unmasculine and sort of child-like, neither of which stands him in good stead as the greatest superhero of all. He kind of bounces around, waving his arms and grinning sort of dopily, coming off more like a horribly miscast Tinkerbell than the Man of Steel. Carol Forman must be the worst actor in the history of serial villains (that's saying something), and she manages to make the actors around her look like the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tommy Bond is a bit tougher and a bit nastier than any subsequent Jimmy Olsen. Noel Neill is cute and perky and easily distinguished from Meryl Streep. Pierre Watkin's Perry White is incredibly one-note (though he does get to have a fistfight and fall out a window!) The story is not complex enough to fill out even one chapter, let alone fifteen. And worst of all, Superman doesn't even do much that's super. Some bullets bounce off him, and he flies (sort of), but even the Fifties TV series, on a fraction of the budget, managed some spectacular effects. This was just boring, and could have been about a big Boy Scout instead of a superhero. Which is kind of the way Alyn plays it.
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5/10
McCrea and the mountains -- spectacular. Everything else -- lousy
1 November 2006
Joel McCrea came out of retirement to do this, and one can only wonder why. It seems likely it was either the chance to spend a lot of time on horseback in astonishing mountain countryside (which one would imagine he'd done plenty of times before this), or he was too nice to turn down a friend. The story is basic and unadorned by nuance or insight. Old cowboy wants wild mustang. Orphaned kid with spunk helps him. Adventures follow. There's no conflict in the story beyond whether the pair will capture the horse. The only two other actors in the movie are nice guys who disappear after one scene. And of the two main actors, Joel McCrea is the only one who can act. (He's not given anything remotely complex to act, though.) The kid is out-acted by McCrea's dog. In fact, the kid is out-acted by McCrea's hat. But it's wonderful to see McCrea in his twilight years, still a consummate pro, still a splendid rider, still a movie star. And the scenery is worth four of the five points I voted the movie.
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1/10
Great Scott! Lousy movie!
11 August 2006
Perhaps the most disjointed, incomprehensible major studio film I've ever seen. I defy anyone to accurately encapsulize the plot in a sentence or even ten. I just watched this film and have no idea what it is about. Now, I love Westerns. I am almost fanatic in my appreciation of Randolph Scott and George 'Gabby' Hayes, and both of them are terrific in this movie. But the script is word spaghetti. The leading lady, Ann Richards, speaks with a British accent for no discernible plot reason, and she gives a performance slightly less believable than might have been obtained from a brick. Outlaw gangs from all over the West and all over the 19th century are thrown together without much apparent purpose other than their name value. Nothing much of interest or accuracy happens with any of them. Nestor Paiva, quite at home playing Italian peasants or gangsters, is bizarrely cast as Texas outlaw Sam Bass, who in real life died at 27, fourteen years younger than Paiva. Chief Thundercloud portrays the Arapaho chief Tahlequah, despite the fact that Tahlequah is a Cherokee name. Geography is tossed about like a piñata; Scott takes a pleasant little day ride on horseback from one end of Oklahoma to the other and back, an actual distance of about 750 miles, and the geographical location is actually referred to officially as "Badman's Territory." As if. None of this would matter if the movie were any good. History, geography, and real-life logic have been tossed willy-nilly into the air quite entertainingly in many movies before and since. But with the entertaining ones, it was possible usually to follow the story. It's great fun to watch Scott, and Hayes gives a particularly enjoyable and offbeat performance. But that's all, brother.
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Hollywoodland (2006)
9/10
Excellent drama, compelling, and about as truthful as drama can be.
9 August 2006
As someone who has spent a number of years preparing the definitive biography of actor George Reeves, I approached this film with great trepidation. I had previously turned down several offers for the film rights to my own book because I felt it unlikely that those projects would result in a film truthful to the essence of the man I had come to know so well. All I can say is that the makers of "Hollywoodland" came as close as is humanly possible in the real world of movie-making to achieving exactly what I would have hoped for -- an examination of George Reeves's life and death that is true to the times he lived in, true to the kind of man I found him to be, and as true as possible to the most likely scenarios that have been projected to explain his death. While this is not a biography nor a documentary, and while adhering to each and every fact of Reeves's life would have resulted in a film exactly as long as his life, the artists here have done a powerful and affecting job of telling Reeves's story, and have framed it in a fictional setting that illuminates rather than obscures the truth.

In any event, in any life, there is what happened and then there is the truth, and the two may not always equally serve our understanding of the event or life in question. It is true that "Hollywoodland" takes occasional liberties with specific facts, in no less way than Shakespeare took liberties with the real life facts of Hamlet or Julius Caesar. But as Alfred Hitchcock said, drama is life with the dull bits left out. What matters is not whether a costume is the right shade of blue or whether there's really a gas station at the intersection of Sunset and Benedict Canyon. What matters is whether the essence of a true story has been faithfully told. And "Hollywoodland" does a superb job of portraying that essence, who George Reeves was, what his world was like, and what impact he had on those who knew him and those who only knew of him. Allen Coulter, the director, has done a splendid job capturing the era and has paid enormous attention both to period detail and to the details of the lives of the real-life characters. Only Reeves's fans (and not even many of them) will notice the pinkie ring on Ben Affleck's finger or the widow's peak in his hairline or the exotic Alvis auto he owns, yet these are all completely authentic to the actual Reeves. More importantly, Coulter has done an exemplary job of making Reeves into a human being, one whose dreams we ache for almost as much as he does in the story.

Adrien Brody, as the fictional detective whose story provides the audience a window into Reeves's life, is solid and manages to bring a little charisma to the comparative low-life he plays. Diane Lane is superb as Reeves's lover, the sexually hungry but aging Toni Mannix. And Ben Affleck does certainly his best dramatic work ever as George Reeves. In makeup, and with his own matching cleft chin, Affleck sometimes looks astonishing like the real Reeves. But more importantly, he captures the haunted quality of the actor on a treadmill to oblivion, as well as the immense charm for which the real Reeves is widely remembered in Hollywood. Although the script does not give any of the actors the kind of deeply meaty scenes that win Oscars, some of the hardest work to do is for an actor to excel in scenes that don't require fireworks. Affleck in particular does so in this film, and I think it does him credit. He is reported to have researched the role intensely, and it shows. The performances of Larry Cedar, Bob Hoskins, and Lois Smith also stand out especially distinctively.

The cinematography is stunning, with the frequent flashbacks clearly distinguishable from the "present day" scenes without the distinction being glaring or even obvious. And the musical score is elegant and very evocative of the time.

It is perhaps inevitable that die-hard Superman fans, for whom George Reeves is not so much a human being as he is a sort of superhero himself, will find things to carp and cavil about in this film. As a researcher with over thirty years of in-depth study of Reeves's life, I can split hairs over details pretty easily myself. And I suspect, too, that some of the complaints will be about the depiction of things that are actually true, but which don't show Reeves in a worshipful light. All I can say is that I have spent my adult life studying, admiring, and trying to understand the man whose story this film tells, and I think George Reeves would be touched and proud of the care these filmmakers have taken. I highly recommend "Hollywoodland."
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1/10
What a bow-wow! May I please have my 87 minutes back?
14 July 2006
I bought this because it was $1.99 and Harry Carey was in it and a friend of mine was in it, and for $1.99, how bad could it be? Then I read some comments here on the film and began to get excited -- maybe this really was a lost gem, one of those terrific little B-movies everyone had forgotten about but which deserved to be resurrected. WRONG! I'm not sure how anyone else can give this thing the praise it got from some quarters here, but I found it one of the most tedious and blatantly bathos-filled movies I've ever seen. And I'm not talking about Richard Carlson's hokey Texas accent (straight from the Georgia part of Texas, I guess). It's just dumb. No one in the film behaves like a real human being. No one. And no one does anything believable or interesting. It's not even a cliché-fest. It's just 80-something minutes of frames going by. It even managed to make Harry Carey, Maria Ouspenskaya, and C. Aubrey Smith boring. Now THAT'S unbelievable.
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