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Noir In the Bright Sunshine...and A Firecracker Of A Film
29 May 2013
Indeed, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is like the burning fuse on a stick of dynamite: a suspenseful, steady progression to a seemingly inevitable outcome, crackling and sparking along the way.

Director Sturges and screenwriters Kaufman and McGuire nicely contrast typical film noir elements - an enigmatic stranger; a dark secret kept by the inhabitants of a hostile town; a strong-arm boss ruling the roost through intimidation (and thugs) - against widescreen, Technicolor vistas, and the thematic one-man-against-a-town/nowhere-to-run claustrophobia is deftly and unexpectedly enhanced by the surrounding open spaces.

Led by Spencer Tracy - for whom the film provides an image so iconic it was echoed years later in "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World - a galaxy of first-rank players delivers punchy dialogue -

"You've got the body of a hippo but the brain of a jackrabbit; don't tax it."

"You're not only wrong, you're wrong at the top of your voice."

"Talking to you is like pulling teeth; you wear me out."

  • the most elegant passages of which are delivered by town doctor/undertaker Walter Brennan:


"I get 'em comin' and going."

"I live a quiet, contemplative life."

"Don't get waspish with me, mister...I feel for ya, but I'm consumed with apathy."

"Do the nice little things...like keepin' yer big, fat nose outta my business."

Sturges' effective pacing is at once deliberate yet tense: a chess-game-like battle of wits and wills punctuated by moments of jeopardy met with daring gambits, after which the squared-off opponents quietly consider each other's next move.

Before urgently barreling toward its climax, very much like the diesel train seen behind the credits, BAD DAT AT BLACK ROCK packs a great deal into its brisk, 81 minute running time, and is a vest pocket tornado.
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An interesting, and even worthwhile, misfire
20 December 2012
CRIME OF PASSION - never mind the generic title - exhibits much that's recommendable, but never quite jells as it might have under more imaginative direction and, much as I hate to fault powerhouse performers such as Stanwyck and Hayden, with different casting.

What we have here is really a sort of suburban "All About Eve:" the portrait of a manipulative schemer who'll stop at nothing in service to ambition, even when that ambition is to be simply the dutiful woman behind the successful man.

Another reviewer aptly calls the film "subversive," and this element could have provided its most interesting facets had it been more fully explored. By the mid-to-late 50's, some films were taking a hard-edged second look at the established conventions and revered institutions of postwar American life, and while this one appears at times to aspire to a similar examination - in this case, of the potentially stifling nature of traditional gender roles - it trips itself up in execution, leaning to heavy-handedness when subtlety is called for, and ultimately surrendering to a too-conventional presentation of a "woman at the breaking point" theme that was such a staple of players like Joan Crawford - and Stanwyck herself - during this period.

The been-around-the-block maturity of Stanwyck at this stage of her career is squeezed into a rather tight fit: that of a career woman who, on the brink of long hoped-for advancement, sacrifices all for love and transfers her personal ambition to the professional betterment of her new husband. Likewise, Hayden's normally brusque and self-assured persona seems uncomfortably constrained in the role of a pedantic police professional who cares little for departmental politics and career success, and is more comfortable with a solicitous passivity toward both his working and personal relationships.

One casting bulls-eye is scored with Raymond Burr as the departmental chief who misses nothing, and immediately spots - and appreciates - Stanwyck for the kind of woman she is. As a sort of counterpart to "Eve's" Addison DeWitt, Burr silkily embodies both graciousness and menace, and his sly underplaying projects true power not only of character but of performer, easily dominating every scene in which he appears. With this approach, he seems the only cast member with a handle on what a rich film CRIME OF PASSION could have been.

If undemanding, it's diverting enough, and would certainly be worth seeing for Burr's multi-dimensional work alone, but it's also worth pondering, while one watches, the fascinating possibilities at which it all too briefly hints.
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L'espion (1966)
Monty's Swan Song
27 August 2011
During the espionage film craze of the 1960's, "spy" movies generally fell into one of two categories: the colorful, just-for-fun spoofs full of whiz-bang gadgetry and exotic sexpots, and the "serious" examinations of the cold war and - most pointedly - its effect on those caught up in it. THE DEFECTOR, which has more than a little in common with Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" from the same year, is of the latter type.

As an American physicist recruited by the CIA for a behind-the-iron-curtain mission, Clift is, as always, fascinating to watch. Of all the screen's best-known method actors, he was the only one who never let the mechanics show. With a performer like Brando, one can often sense what the actor's thinking. With Monty, you sense what the character is thinking. Add to this the high-wire nature of the personal vulnerability he projected in his performances (especially the later ones), and the sum is never less than compelling. He often utilized that quality as an effective element of his characterizations, and as a man of letters whose life appears to consist entirely of his twin devotions to science and art, and who finds himself in dangerous territory (emotional and otherwise), it works well here. Despite Clift's often obvious frailty, he executes some rather demanding physical feats, and this, too, fits within the characterization of a man who discovers, by necessity, strengths he hadn't known he possessed.

As espionage drama, THE DEFECTOR is strictly routine, but it's enlivened by both some unexpected plot twists and the presence of players such as Roddy MacDowall as the genial but oily operative who employs blackmail-with-a-smile to enlist Clift's cooperation, David Opatoshu as a not-to-be-crossed intelligence overseer and - most outstandingly - Hardy Kruger as Clift's equally unwilling eastern bloc counterpart. Kruger was an immensely engaging performer, and his scenes with Clift feature some entertaining sparring (between both the characters and the actors).

Director Raoul Levy (who, only a year younger than Clift, also died during the year of the film's release) unfortunately yields to some now-dated 60's-style psychedelia, but it's fairly brief, and he largely keeps the proceedings on a straightforward and even keel. If the film has one quality which lifts it above the norm for the genre, it's the attention it pays to the humanity of the characters - both major and minor - in all its forms, from the noblest to the basest.

THE DEFECTOR is, overall, an intelligent - if not showy - film, and although not terribly remarkable otherwise, definitely worthwhile for any Montgomery Clift devotee.
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Bombshell (1933)
Harlow Shines
8 December 2009
In the mid '30's, Myrna Loy penned (ostensibly) an article for Photoplay titled, "So You Want To Be A Movie Star," which went into grim detail about the grind that is the real life of a star studio player both on and off the soundstage. BOMBSHELL takes this conceit and runs with it as brilliant and lacerating satire.

Jean Harlow is at her best as Lola Burns, the at-once pampered and put-upon star in question. Depicted are the constant demands for Lola's attention, time, energy and money, and the film has fun with all of it, from fatuous fan-mag interviews and staged photo ops to Hollywood politics and trouble with household and studio staff. Though awakened at the crack of dawn, Lola gets breakfast in bed - but with sauerkraut juice instead of orange juice. "There are are no oranges," apologizes the butler, to which Lola retorts, "No oranges?! This is California, man!" Before she's even out of her boudoir, Lola's had to contend with the pandemonium created by last-minute schedule changes, fussing and bickering from hair and makeup people and the inconvenient attention of her outsized dog. Finally ready to leave the house, she laments, "Well, here goes for another day; 7:00 AM and I'm already dead on my feet!"

Also driving Lola to distraction with his constant headline-grabbing stunts is the scheming studio publicity director played by the irrepressible Lee Tracy, who always gave co-stars a run for their money when it came to on-screen dominance. Harlow more than holds her own with him.

Appearing in able support are reliable players such as Franchot Tone as an apparently blue-blooded suitor unaware of Lola's fame, Pat O'Brien as her understanding director, Una Merkel as a less-than-reliable personal assistant and Louise Beavers as maid Loretta, who is deferential to Lola but takes no prisoners otherwise (responding to Merkel's early-morning crabbiness, she warns, "Don't scald me wit'cher steam, woman...I knows where the bodies is buried!"). As Lola's bombastic father and ne'er-do-well brother, respectively, the usually-lovable Frank Morgan and the never-lovable Ted Healy are ultimately rather tiresome, but that's what their roles require.

In a good-natured way, the film throws in some weirdly biographical elements of Harlow's real life, in which she coped with familial hangers-on in the persons of her domineering stage mother and somewhat sleazy stepfather, and Lola's reference to her palatial home as a "half paid-for car barn" is reported to have been uttered by Harlow herself about her own ostentatious digs. There's even a scene depicting Lola doing retakes on "Red Dust," a hit for Harlow the prior year.

In addition to snappy dialog and a mile-a-minute pace, the picture is enjoyable for its time-capsule look at the Ambassador Hotel and Coconut Grove in their heyday, as well as the grounds of the MGM lot itself, all used as locations.

Although bordering on farce at times (but in a good way), BOMBSHELL gives the impression of an only slightly exaggerated look at what the "real" life of a top-name contract player might have been like at the height of the studio system, with Harlow giving perhaps her most genuine (and least mannered) comic performance.
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Kismet (1944)
A Lightweight Trifle
6 December 2009
Ronald Colman and Edward Arnold (even as a villain) furnish most of the otherwise inadequate charm of this bit of Arabian nights cotton candy that tells of the "King Of the Beggars" who masquerades as a prince each evening while the true local royalty, the Caliph, also roams the streets of Baghdad by night, disguised as a peasant to learn what his subjects really think of him. A premise with promise; full potential unrealized.

Marlene Dietrich, while contributing to the decor, is largely wasted as Colman's love interest, a captive queen amused by his extravagant lies but unaware of his true identity. Her best moments come during her verbal sparring matches with Arnold. Colman, as always, makes the most of his role which, if not tailor made for him, certainly appears that way. James Craig gives it a gallant try, but is sorely miscast as the Caliph. Had wartime not curtailed Hollywood's supply of young leading men, Craig's participation herein would have been unlikely. It was simply too much to ask to bend his corn-fed, all-American, big lug nice guy type to the part, and MGM might better have borrowed Turhan Bey from Universal. The Technicolor camera seems to like Joy Page, appearing as Colman's daughter in her second film, but her role gives her fewer opportunities as an actress than her first appearance (in "Casablanca," as the Bulgarian newlywed whose husband tries to win money for exit visas at the roulette table). An almost unrecognizable Florence Bates has a couple good moments as Colman's household servant (begging pays well), but Hugh Herbert, with his 'woo-hoo' persona unaltered from that so familiar in Warners musicals of the previous decade, is rather incongruous as one of Colman's fellow beggars, even in as whimsical a fantasy as this.

On a recent TCM screening, host Robert Osborne went on and on about the lavish production values - which he reported offended some during wartime - but I must say, for an MGM production, the money doesn't really show on screen. With its fanciful painted backdrops and stylized sets, it instead resembles one of 20th-Fox's more cut-rate (Technicolor notwithstanding) Grable-Miranda features.

All in all, KISMET is an undemanding way to kill a hundred minutes, but aside from the always-welcome presence of Colman and Arnold, not much more can be said of it.
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The Sky's the Limit (I) (1943)
Highs and Lows
27 November 2009
Very much in the Fred Astaire canon of the 30's-40's (Fred meets girl, Fred exasperates girl, Fred wins girl over on the dance floor), THE SKY'S THE LIMIT - although uneven - contains some of Astaire's best and most unusual moments on film. It's worth getting past a few jarring notes to access them.

In almost every one of his musicals, Fred plays some extension of the same character: the lovestruck, earnest but insouciant sophisticate, and for some reason the standard formula required Fred to annoy the object of his affection upon their initial meeting - and often for some time after. This picture frequently carries the gimmick to inexplicable extremes.

The recipient of Fred's love at first sight is magazine photographer Joan Leslie, who although not quite a triple-threat (her singing voice is courtesy of Sally Sweetland, but she could dance and handle both comedy and drama; call her a two-and-a-half threat) is generally up to the task, and projects a maturity far beyond her 18 (yup: 18) years. Supplying able assistance is Robert Benchley as Joan's editor and would-be suitor, who has moments hinting at more depth as an actor than he was usually given an opportunity to display.

With Fred portraying a Flying Tiger ace who skips out on a PR tour to enjoy a few days of fun before returning to duty, there are elements of wartime morale-boosting, but only around the edges, and in what sometimes is an almost subversive vein. After enduring a discourse on "how to win this war" from the man who has given him a lift to town, Astaire's only response is, "What's your classification?" "4-F," the man answers, to which Astaire replies, "That's what I thought."

In an odd bit of casting, Robert Ryan appears as one of Fred's Air Forces buddies, but takes the script's intended mischief a bit too seriously. In scenes that call for him to merely tease, he practically drips with menace. That quality would serve him well in subsequent films, but here it's one of the aforementioned jarring notes.

There's still plenty of fun along the way, and the script is sprinkled with in-jokes, such as references to some of Astaire and Leslie's costars in earlier films, or Benchley's series of celebrated two-reel shorts for MGM in the 30's (Joan tells of a wedding proposal from him that digressed to a lecture about "the sex life of a polyp"). Indeed, Benchley delivers one of his trademark disorganized addresses at a fete honoring an industrialist, and while it brings the story to a halt for a few minutes, you won't really mind if you're a fan.

The crown jewel of THE SKY'S THE LIMIT is one of Astaire's best vocalizations of one of the best songs ever written for him, "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road"), along with one of his most adventurous dance solos, in which a night of bar-hopping after a falling-out with Leslie culminates in an explosive choreographic release of frustration and fury, at the posh nightspot where they first met.

This may not become one of your favorite Astaire pictures, but there are rewards if you can overlook a few rough spots.
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Dust to Glory (2005)
9/10
Deft, Compelling, Engrossing
8 June 2009
Not particularly interested in a 1000-mile Baja road race? Don't worry; doesn't matter. As he did with "Step Into Liquid," writer-director Dana Brown hooks you from the get-go, involving you in the subject, the action and, most importantly, the people who participate.

Aside from coping with the logistics of producing this film (a remarkable achievement in itself), the lively and sometimes poetic assemblage of breathtaking photography is impressive enough, but Brown (son of legendary documentarian Bruce Brown) takes the endeavor a step beyond; he's not only a skilled filmmaker, but an excellent reporter, as well. He seeks out and relates the stories behind the action and images by zeroing in on the personalities involved, supplying not only context, but the drama that the added human dimension provides. The passion and commitment of the participants can't help but grab you, and their camaraderie and sense of personal connection make you feel welcomed as "one of the gang" at a family reunion (even if a little envious of the fun they're having).

Backed by Nathan Furst's rousing original score, DUST TO GLORY is, by turns, thrilling, funny, touching, astonishing and terrifying...and always mesmerizing. Regardless of your personal interest - or lack thereof - it's nigh impossible to resist the enthusiasm behind both the race and the film documenting it. Each, in its own way, is a death-defying feat, and together they provide an experience you'd be hard-pressed to find with many other films. As he's done before with surfing, and now the Baja road race, Mr. Brown turned my "I wonder why I rented THIS?" to an "I'm SO glad I watched this." I begin to get the feeling he could make a documentary about basket weaving fascinating. And if he ever makes one, I'll see it.
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The Mudge Boy (2003)
Sensitive? Be Warned: You May Not Be Up to This
25 December 2006
An earlier commenter deemed THE MUDGE BOY difficult viewing, but "worth it." I'll agree with half of that: difficult it is. To begin with, if you're old enough to be seeing this film in the first place, it's not going to enlighten you about anything you don't already know (or would likely want to dwell upon).

Adolescence is often tough going; check. It's tougher when you're a bit different - not one of the crowd; check again. It's even tougher still when grief over the loss of a loved one is thrown into the mix, complicated by that all-too-typical dynamic of poor parent/child communication (and neither parent nor child is processing his grief very effectively). Check, check and check. And for good measure, in case you needed reminding, people are capable of all sorts of cruelty, especially (apparently) in a small farming town populated with ignorant, frustrated yahoos with little better to do than taunt and abuse anyone they perceive as different, weak or both.

It all adds up to an hour-and-a-half of tension, dread and pain, culminating with a dramatic device which, though intended as cathartic, is instead gratuitous. Like excessive CGI, it's gasp-inducing but, dramatically speaking, a cheap trick, leaving you, for your trouble, with as much emotional benefit as a crack over the head with a baseball bat. I really think, if he'd tried, writer-director Michael Burke might have conjured an ultimately more effective and credible way to bring his story to its resolution.

To give credit where due, THE MUDGE BOY is well-crafted and skillfully acted, often conveying uncommon - if sometimes grotesque - verisimilitude. It's a film that wants to stay with you, but it doesn't care how emotionally brutal it has to be to accomplish this. Maybe Burke has some pain and grief in his own life that he's trying to work through, or maybe he hasn't had enough. Whatever the case, the sense I get is that he wants to leave the viewer troubled and upset. I can take that, if there's a point, or at least some kind of illumination, but as I indicated earlier, the film neither showed nor told me anything about which I wasn't already aware, nor augmented that awareness with anything beneficial.

Yeah, I know, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, it's only a mooooovie. And maybe, like protagonist Duncan, I'm too damn sensitive for the world it depicts, though I don't think that's it. Some of the best films I've seen deal with the darker areas of human experience. I never tire of "The Sweet Smell of Success," for example, and even "Goodfellas," though I don't think I'd care to watch it again, I'm grateful for having seen once. But, all things considered, 94 minutes devoted to THE MUDGE BOY wasn't worth the difficulty of watching it, the pain it evoked or the unpleasant taste it left, and I'd really like to forget it.
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King Kong (2005)
Too Much of a Good Thing
1 May 2006
It should go without saying that Peter Jackson's KING KONG is vastly superior to the 1976 abomination but, there, I said it anyway. It retains and expands upon - sometimes to its own detriment - many key elements from the 1933 original. Naturally, seventy-plus years of advancements in screen special effects benefit this production but, putting each in the context of its times, the KING KONG of today, when so much is possible with CGI, doesn't stand out from its contemporaries as did the first. It's state of the art, but it doesn't really advance the art.

What it does do, it does well enough, but simply too much. Too many prehistoric creatures; too many battles with same; too many chases and credulity-stretching hairbreadth escapes, and way too many closeups requiring Naomi Watts to stare soulfully or goggle-eyed at Kong or something else offscreen.

Several of the characters from the original have been subdivided into multiple ones, and traits, motivations and dialogue are redistributed among them. Dramatic duties assigned to Jack Driscoll, for example (played by Bruce Cabot in the original), are now assumed by no fewer than three additional characters: Hayes, the ship's first mate, Preston, Denham's assistant and Bruce Baxter, the stereotypical movie actor. Indeed, one of the scenes played by Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray in 1933 is recreated here as a scene-within-a-scene - part of the movie that Denham is making - between the characters of Ann and Bruce (whose name, I'm sure, is no coincidence).

Along similar lines, there are several in-jokes and references sprinkled about: Denham's disdainful mention of "Cooper," a producer at RKO (Merian C., producer of the original), a large Universal Pictures neon sign in the film's Times Square and an adaptation of the '33 main title motif at the end crawl. Even portions of the sacrifice scenes from the '33 RKO version are recreated here (complete with original choreography, costumes and Max Steiner scoring), but as part of a stage reenactment of the discovery and capture of Kong.

Aside from overstatement and over-length, a key area in which this film goes wrong is in the presentation of Carl Denham himself. Gone is the gung-ho, go-anywhere-do-anything adventurer played by Robert Armstrong. In his place is Jack Black's mercenary, manipulative and downright dishonest little weasel, one step ahead of the law and not above a little shanghai-ing to serve his ends. Though not without its amusing moments, courtesy of Black, this unfortunate characterization renders this Denham ultimately unsympathetic. Though Armstrong's Denham was certainly guilty of less-than-altruistic motives, he didn't exhibit Black's almost sadistic determination at Kong's capture. And when the final, famous "T'was beauty killed the beast" line is spoken, Armstrong's delivery is both rueful and showmanlike; coming from Black, it only sounds as though he's disgusted at losing a meal ticket.

Perhaps the most conspicuous divergence from the '33 version is Ann Darrow's relationship with Kong. For this, the premise from the '76 remake is used, with Watts' Ann developing sympathy and even fondness for Kong, unlike Wray's, who was pretty much just as terrified by - and eager to be away from - Kong at the end as she was in the beginning. I'd make the argument that the original approach makes Kong a more tragic figure, inasmuch as he goes through so much for Ann without ever having the satisfaction of his affections being returned in any way.

It is perhaps unfair here to rely so much on comparisons to the original, which was not without some hammy acting and ridiculous dialogue ("Say, I think I love you!" and "'What is that?' - 'Something from the dinosaur family.'"). Each film deserves to be judged apart and on its own merits. It is in this spirit that I'll say that this KING KONG is entertaining, but not as good as it could have been, if only they hadn't tried so hard.

I don't remember who it was who said, "Less is more," or "Simplfy, simplify, simplify," but they're sentiments to which Jackson and company should have given some consideration. And, sorry, but 3 hours and 7 minutes is just too damn long for Kong.
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June Bride (1948)
Bright - And Rare - Comedy From Bette Davis
7 January 2006
Davis had devastatingly funny moments in All About Eve and (in a sick kind of way) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but her opportunities to do the kind of romantic comedy that stars such as Irene Dunne or Rosiland Russell made such a staple of their careers in the '30s and '40s were few. The deft and mostly delightful JUNE BRIDE was such an opportunity, and Bette is up to the task.

The picture is a sort of working-class Philadelphia Story, with Davis as the all-business (but dryly witty) editor of a women's magazine who, with entourage in tow, invades and takes over the home of an Indiana family for a feature story on a typical American June bride....in the dead of winter (lead time, you know). Along for the ride is Davis' erstwhile sweetie, Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth), a foreign correspondent between assignments who's tapped by their publisher to punch up the story's copy, providing him the perfect opportunity for an attempt at rekindling his and Davis' failed relationship.

This is the kind of role Montgomery did best: a cynical sophisticate with a hint of mischievous boy under the surface, and he and Davis work together smoothly. It's said she could be a tyrant on the set, but one thing Davis always deserved credit for was knowing when to relinquish the spotlight to other players. Those in doubt should consult The Man Who Came To Dinner or The Great Lie for proof. JUNE BRIDE is really Montgomery's picture more than anyone else's, and Bette graciously lets him walk away with it much of the time. Lending able support are familiar faces such as Fay Bainter, Tom Tully (who has some wonderful moments involving a problem with his wife's bust....of Caesar) and Mary Wickes (always in the right place at the right time for an acerbic remark).

Davis seems right at home behind the desk in her chic (pronounced "chick" by the Indiana family) tailored suits, filling the shoes usually inhabited by someone like the aforementioned Russell. Released a couple of years before All About Eve, JUNE BRIDE is something of a thematic precursor to that film, inasmuch as a good deal of the plot hinges on the conflict between work and love for two professionals, delivered here in the tried and true romantic battle-of-the-sexes formula.

Herein lies JUNE BRIDE's most glaring - I hate to say flaw, since it's the fault not of the picture so much as the era in which it was made - let's say jarring note: an ultimately sexist viewpoint. This is an element that wouldn't have slapped viewers in the face in 1948 as it does today - at least not as hard - and it rears its ugly head only toward the film's end; an unfortunate place for it, as we're left with this bit of "attitude" after it's over. One just has to shrug, and recall that this was the postwar era, when even the U.S. government threw in its two cents by producing little "public service" films encouraging women to give up the jobs they had held during the war because, well, the boys were home, they needed work and it was high time American Womanhood was back in the kitchen (I kid you not).

This bitter little pill is easily overlooked under all that sweet candy coating, so JUNE BRIDE is an enjoyable confection, and a quite amusing way to spend an hour and a half. It's a shame Davis didn't do more like it.
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Da Vinci's Inquest (1998–2006)
The Best One-Hour Dramatic Show On Television. Period.
7 October 2005
DA VINCI'S INQUEST may well be the very best 1-hour television drama ever. If it isn't, there are no more than a handful - from whatever country or era - that can even come close.

It's new to American television (at least as far as I know), and I've only seen a dozen or so episodes, but their promos don't lie: one episode and I was hooked. The writing, the acting; you almost forget that what you're watching is, well, written and acted! 'Verisimilitude' is one of those words one doesn't come across much these days, but it's appropriate to describe this show. The characters are complex, their interactions so 'real life,' that watching them almost gives a feeling of eavesdropping.

Also, as in real life, there is not always a resolution. Some episodes end with matters left hanging and loose ends untied. Life doesn't always supply us with all the why's and wherefore's; neither does DA VINCI'S. This is a show that does not treat the viewer like an idiot. Perhaps a lot of Canadian TV is like that, but it's a novelty down here.

Nicholas Campbell, as Vancouver coroner Dominic Da Vinci, is the on-screen engine that powers this show. The acting of all of the series' regulars - Ian Tracey, Donnelly Rhodes, Sue Mathew, Sarah Strange and others - is of a uniformly high order, but each is even better when playing a scene with Campbell, whose presence, style and energy make everything just crackle with authenticity (oh, hell, I don't know; does authenticity crackle? If it doesn't, it should). If you've been a regular viewer of U.S. shows such as "X-Files" and the "Stargate's" - which were/are produced in Canada - you'll see a number of familiar faces.

Be warned: this show could spoil you for all American television drama. My viewing companion and I watched an episode of "Law & Order" - which we enjoy - immediately after viewing a DA VINCI; big mistake. Anything else is going to suffer by comparison. But here's some good news: if you jump in now, you've got seven seasons worth of episodes to see. That should tide you over for a while, and you'll want to catch each one.
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Wit (2001 TV Movie)
Wow! This is what acting is all about.
5 October 2005
It may be a cliché phrase, but "tour de force" is apt as applied to Emma Thompson's performance in WIT. As literature professor Vivian Bearing, who is coping as best she can with terminal ovarian cancer, Thompson is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking and everything in between, pretty much running the gamut of emotions. At one point, portraying stark terror like nobody I've ever seen on the screen, Thompson had me thinking she might be the greatest living actor in the world. My throat closes up just thinking about it as I write this.

Let it also be noted, though, that she is matched step-for-step by Jonathan M. Woodward, who, as a young internist, gives a nuanced, inventive and utterly convincing performance that sneaks up on you before you realize it. Audra McDonald, as a compassionate nurse, is right there with them, and has her moments to shine, as does Eileen Atkins as Vivian's eloquent mentor.

Equally noteworthy is Mike Nichols sure-footed direction, as is his and Thompson's screen adaptation of Margaret Edson's play. WIT is wrenching and rewarding; thoroughly bravura work from all involved.
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Still-Relevant Social Commentary
5 October 2005
This is one of the earliest examples of the "mad scientist" characterization that would become so much a part of Boris' stock in trade over the following decade. What's most interesting about THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND is that it is not as much science fiction as it is an observation of what we might today call the "PR machine," and it takes some lacerating swipes at journalism, publicity and self-promotion.

Karloff is Dr. Laurience, a reclusive scientist who believes he can transfer the consciousness (or soul?) from one brain to another. Ably assisted by Dr. Clare Wyatt, Laurience draws the interest of newspaper publisher Lord Haslewood (whose son, Dick, is Clare's fiancé). Eager to promote his foundation, Haslewood offers to sponsor Laurience's work - without knowing exactly what it is. Before the dust settles, Haslewood feels swindled, Clare feels suspicious and Laurience feels used, vowing to employ his work to his own ends rather than for the benefit of mankind.

Boris' performance is exuberant, and supporting players Anna Lee, John Loder and Donald Calthrop are effective, but Frank Cellier, as Lord Haslewood, walks away with the picture whenever he is on screen. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Cellier is called upon to portray more than one personality, and provides the film with its most enjoyable scenes.

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND definitely has its moments, along with a little something to say. With its takes on the press and the pitfalls of corporate control, it not only conveys messages to which we can relate today, but illustrates how little some things have changed in 70 years.
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Sparkling and Hilarious Early Sturges
14 August 2005
Don't let the title or director give you the wrong idea; THE GOOD FAIRY is a snappy and sophisticated example of the kind of civilized lunacy for which screenwriter (and later director) Preston Sturges became so well-known. Yes, it's adapted from a Hungarian play, and yes, it's directed by William Wyler, but Sturges' creative influence is evident - even dominant - throughout. Though Wyler did make the occasional foray into lighter material ("Roman Holiday," "How To Steal a Million"), he's mostly associated with intelligent drama, and here one can almost sense idea man Sturges lurking just behind him, whispering, "Hey, Willie, how about this....?" There's so much about this picture that is prototypical of later Sturges classics such as "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Unfaithfully Yours." Indeed, THE GOOD FAIRY utilizes a plot device that was later modified for "The Palm Beach Story," wherein Claudette Colbert tries to get a millionaire to enrich her husband by pretending he's not her husband. Here, Margaret Sullavan tries to get a millionaire to enrich a complete stranger by pretending the stranger IS her husband. Only Sturges could make such near-insanity seem almost logical.

There's not much point in synopsizing the plot; it's rather like a benign little tornado that sweeps the characters - and the viewer - up with it; there's nothing to do but surrender and see where it will touch down next, and what happens when it does. Let it suffice to say that, if you're any kind of Sturges fan, you'll find the ride delightful.

It's no surprise that winsome Sullavan, blustery Reginald Owen and the eminently reliable Alan Hale handle the material so deftly, but even normally serious players such as Herbert Marshall and Beulah Bondi exhibit understated but devastating comedy chops. Special mention must be made of Eric Blore (whose tipsy descent of a brief flight of stairs is nothing short of a miniature comic ballet) and Frank Morgan, at his flustered best, giving a performance of such sustained energy and velocity that (as my viewing companion said) he must have had to lie down for a rest after every take. An odd little sidelight: quintessentially American players Sullavan and Morgan made exactly three pictures together, in two of which they played Hungarians (this one and "Shop Around The Corner"), with the story taking place in Budapest. (In the third - "The Mortal Storm" - they played Germans in a small Alpine town.) Just one of those curious bits of trivia.

As noted in other comments, this gem of a film is apparently little known or remembered. Perhaps its release on DVD will accord it the attention and praise it so richly deserves. Do yourself a huge favor and get your hands on it right away. I saw it just a week ago and am already looking forward to watching it again.
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Charming (If Uneven) Confection With a Cast That Doesn't Quit
30 July 2005
Whatever praise - and criticism - has been directed at this film in other comments here is pretty much right on. But the elements considered by some as flaws need not necessarily be bothersome; they aren't to me. That all of the supporting characters are rather broadly drawn caricatures works, I think, because it leaves Lemmon and Deneuve, at the heart of the story, the only seemingly real people in it, one might say. Isn't that the way love is sometimes? Maybe everyone around you thinks you're nuts (hence the title?), but to the smitten couple, the exact opposite seems the case.

What we really have here is the late-60s equivalent of screwball romantic comedy. As such, it's full of colorful characters and unlikely situations, with a good dose of social satire thrown in - with marriage, in particular, under the microscope. We have high-powered executive Lawford and Deneuve, his neglected trophy wife; put-upon suburbanite Lemmon and Kellerman, his self-absorbed, psychobabble-spouting spouse; Weston trying to be the assertive "man of the house" with his bickering "Mimsy;" Loy and Boyer as the long-married and still very much in love eccentrics. But THE APRIL FOOLS isn't about marriage, of course; it's about love.

If you can find this picture, which is pretty hard to do as of this writing, it will reward with wonderful moments, delivered by a varied cast which pretty much represents the spectrum of players: the just-emerging Kellerman, Dillon and Mars; Lemmon, Lawford and Weston in their prime and old pros Boyer and Loy. Deneuve finds herself in an unfamiliar milieu here, but with her character that works in her favor. It's unexpected - and thoroughly amusing - when she suddenly lashes out at Mars: "Leesen, if you toush me agayne, I'll geev you a sock-in-the-eye!"

My favorite moment: Lemmon's awkward attempt to be suave and "come on" to a sexy blond at Lawford's swanky party. The payoff is priceless.
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A Minor Classic, But Fun
27 May 2005
This film, which was remade as "House Of Wax" 20 years later (as if you didn't know), might not enjoy quite the reputation it does today had it not been the basis for the better-known later film and, more importantly, believed lost for over 30 years, which made it something of a legend for many people who'd never even seen it. Legendary status can be rather difficult to live up to, and unless a viewer is approaching it with no advance knowledge of its history, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM may not be quite what one expects.

It is, nevertheless, an energetic and entertaining amalgam of genres: horror film meets newspaper crime drama. Dropping a rather Gothic tale of body-snatching, a mad sculptor and a museum of wax-covered corpses into the streamline-moderne milieu of fast-talking, wise-cracking reporters on the trail of a hot story makes for interesting contrasts.

Lionel Atwill, as Ivan Igor, the artist driven to insanity and murder by the destruction of his wax "children" in an arson fire, was an immensely enjoyable performer whose best work came a bit later (see "Son Of Frankenstein" for his portrayal of the one-armed Insp. Krogh). His natural screen presence carries him through, though he never quite generates either the pathos or the smooth menace that Vincent Price displayed in the remake. But from the moment of her entrance, it's Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, the reporter out to save her job by bringing in a scoop - barreling onto the screen with a full head of steam - who propels the story all the way to its finish.

There's an awful lot going on here beyond the basic premise; bootlegging, a "dope fiend," a suicide and a falsely implicated millionaire playboy are thrown into the mix, packing quite a lot into the 77 minute running time (the remake improved the story by eliminating extraneous characters and subplots). A pre-"King Kong" Fay Wray (in her naturally red hair sans the "Kong" blond wig) is the damsel in actual distress, but despite her billing, she's basically a supporting player and has little to do - beyond enduring roommate Florence's snide comments about her penniless boyfriend - until the climactic confrontation between all the bad guys and good guys (and girls).

MYSTERY is well-served by the direction of Michael Curtiz ("Adventures Of Robin Hood," "Casablanca"), who was something of a jack-of-all-genres, and there's plenty of snappy dialogue, some of which (Florence asking a cop, "How's your sex life?") wouldn't have made it to the screen a year later under the newly re-written Production Code. Depending on one's point of view, it could be said that the very effective production design either benefits, or suffers, from the pale pastels of the two-strip Technicolor photography. For my part, I'm guessing that the subdued tones we see today result from the lack of first-rate film elements available. Having seen far superior two-strip from years earlier, I'll wager that the original prints were much more vivid.

If you're any kind of a fan of the remake, you do owe it to yourself to see this one, if only once. There are many things to enjoy in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, not the least of which are the fabulous ensembles worn by Farrell. Just how does a newspaper reporter one step away from the breadline afford a wardrobe like that?
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House of Wax (1953)
Is There Anyone Who Doesn't Love This Movie?
26 May 2005
Is there even anyone who hasn't seen this movie? What? You're kidding! Well, alright, then; for the benefit of those 17 people in the entire world who haven't, I won't give anything away. Even those people must know the premise, though: eccentric artistic genius is driven mad when his wax museum is destroyed by an arson fire; opens new one where all the figures happen to resemble recently missing and/or deceased persons....hmmmm, do ya think it could be....? And who's that really awful lookin' guy who hobbles around in a black hat and cape, stealing corpses and terrorizing innocent young women?

This (originally) 3-D remake of Mystery Of the Wax Museum ('33) actually improves on the original which, enjoyable as it is, suffers from some unnecessary storyline clutter and lack of focus. Here, the plot is boiled down to its basic elements, and the transposition of the story to the turn of the (20th) century better suits the eerie goings-on than the modern-day (at the time) setting of the earlier version. This time period also allows the film to make some subtle but interesting commentary on the place of women at the close of the Victorian era.

Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) the "nice" girl whose uncanny resemblance to a now-destroyed figure of Marie Antoinette puts her in danger, is called upon to perform the requisite screaming and fainting required of a heroine in jeopardy, but she's also rather clever and spunky. She happens to room with Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) who, though not really a "loose" woman, has been around a bit and is something of a golddigger. This is a slight twist on the Fay Wray (nice girl)-Glenda Farrell (wisecracking dame) relationship in the original, where the nice girl character was really secondary. Sue is innocent enough to be scandalized by the can-can dancers in a beer hall ("Do nice people come here?") and Cathy's matter-of-fact talk about her dealings with, and feelings about, men. Still, she's the one who's smart enough to figure out the terrible secret of the wax museum, before engaging in a gutsy confrontation with the baddies.

One of the film's wry observations occurs during a scene in which Cathy dresses for a date while dispensing to Sue some blunt advice on handling men; all the while she's donning a half-dozen layers of undergarments - slips, stays, corsets and who-knows-what-all - and when she's fully dressed - completely covered from chin to foot - says "If I don't sizzle 'im tonight, I may as well give up!" While her attitudes are rather daring for those days, her garb demonstrates - symbolically and literally - how women were "restrained" by the times in which they were living.

Along with Kirk and Jones, the rest of the cast is first-rate: Frank Lovejoy and Dabbs Greer (wonderfully dry and understated) as the detectives on the case(s), Charles Buchinsky (later known as Bronson) as a mute henchman, Roy Roberts as the slimy arsonist and Paul Picerni as the nominal hero (who's at least a bit more useful than his counterpart in the original).

Saved for last, and by no means least, the incomparable Vincent Price, giving one of his definitive performances as the alternately sensitive, droll and ruthless proprietor of the wax museum. His patter during the guided tour of the newly-opened museum is priceless (did I just say that?), and toward the climactic moments, his reading of the simple line, "You shouldn't have done that, my dear" invests it with menace that can send chills down your spine. What with the carnival atmosphere generated by some of the set-pieces obviously placed there solely for the 3-D effect (the can-can dancers; the paddle-ball barker), there is a good deal of levity between "scary" moments, and our Vinnie knows exactly when to plant tongue firmly in cheek.

Price had always been a reliable and versatile performer; witness the slow-witted, drunken duke in Tower of London; Shelby, the charming ne'er-do-well in Laura; the tortured, drug-addled husband in Dragonwyck; the autocratic executive in Champagne For Caesar; the at once egocentric and self-deprecating movie star in His Kind Of Woman. Though he would regularly break away from the horror genre for the rest of his life, the success of this picture, for better or worse, played a large part in determining the second half of Price's career trajectory. It also helped define his place in film history as, I daresay, one of the most beloved and fondly remembered actors of the 20th century.

Being one of the best of the 3-D bunch (both artistically and technically) makes seeing HOUSE OF WAX in that format a real treat. Unboubtedly, the technical hurdles involved in perfecting a 3-D process for home video (in whatever form) will be overcome, and we can hope sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, little is added but novelty, and the film stands quite well on its 2-D merits. Remakes are almost always inferior to the originals that inspired them. This is one happy case where the opposite is true, making HOUSE OF WAX, all things considered, a rare delight.
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A Charmer!
14 May 2005
The unlikely pairing of Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason generates surprising on-screen chemistry in this sweet little film depicting the equally unlikely friendship of enlisted man Eustis Clay and his mentor/idol Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter.

Country boy Eustis is counting the days until his hitch is up, while the erudite, knows-all-the-angles Maxwell has made a home of what Eustis calls "this stupid old army." Theirs is a rather symbiotic relationship; Maxwell guides and educates Eustis, as well as helping him out of his little scrapes, while Eustis, with his devil-may-care enthusiasm, coaxes Maxwell from his comfortable cocoon and into various adventures.

McQueen gives an uncharacteristically animated performance, while Gleason displays ample justification for his nickname, The Great One. Indeed, it can be imagined that Master Sargeant Slaughter is exactly the person Gleason would have become had he chosen a career in the military rather than show-business. There is not so much a story here as a series of episodes in the day-to-day lives of the two friends and the colorful characters with whom they interact. There is able support from Tom Poston as a clueless lieutenant ("What's the poop, Sargeant?"), Tony Bill as Eustis' own sort-of protégé and Tuesday Weld, demonstrating the versatility for which she was already coming to be known. A pre-Batman Adam West also shows up, and has one of the film's best lines. Escorting a Batallion Major to Poston's office, he says "This company's in charge of Lt. Magee." "You mean, Lt. Magee's in charge of this company," corrects the officer, to which West replies with an uncertain shrug, "Well....."

SOLDIER IN THE RAIN moves deftly from farce to drama, and at 88 minutes, packs a lot into a small package. One can't help but wonder what the set of this film was like. Both Gleason and McQueen were uncompromising, take-charge kind of guys and, with the possible exceptions of billiards and broads (excuse the terminology), probably found little common ground over which to relate. Maybe that was enough. Whatever the case, they play off of each other beautifully.

Ralph Nelson was a more than capable director who had associated with Gleason the previous year on "Requiem For a Heavyweight." He wisely lets the charisma of his two lead players dominate, and the result is an unusual but thoroughly charming picture. Not available on video except for a years-old VHS release, it may be hard to find, but catch it if you can. "Until that time, Eustis, until that time."

Update: It's now available from TCM (online only) as part of their "From the Vault" collection, at a very affordable price.
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All the Rage (1997)
Don't Hate Him Because He's Beautiful
14 May 2005
There really isn't any reason at all to hate Chris...or is there? He of the strong jaw, sculpted physique, high-paying job and high-rent apartment is wanted by every guy in town, and he knows it. As proof, he has the "little black box" stuffed full of phone numbers. So what if he'll never use any of them? They're just trophies; notches on his belt. That doesn't make him a bad person, does it? It's just that there's always another guy, just waiting to be bumped into, at the gym, in a bar, on the street or who knows where. So when Chris begins falling for Stewart - who's cute but not gorgeous, doesn't work out and is a little bit shy - his friends may be surprised, but no one's more surprised than Chris himself.

Well, that's the premise, and I'm afraid it's all the good news there is. What could have been a sweet, if derivative, story is hobbled by mannered, stagey performances (with the exception of David Vincent as Stewart), uncertain direction and an 11th-hour plot turn that comes out of nowhere.

If this film is sending any message, it seems to be, "We rich, beautiful people experience pain, too - when, for the first time in our lives, something doesn't work out the way we want it to," but it also appears that writer-director Roland Tec is indulging in a little dramatic score-settling. Who among we mortals hasn't wanted to see that full-of-himself "has it all" guy get brought down a peg or two? But the overwrought denouement which seeks to bring this about belongs in another film entirely.

The narrative is punctuated throughout by little "confessionals" in arty black & white (which sometimes go on waaaaaay too long) wherein, addressing the viewer, Chris muses about himself, and what he wants in a man and...well, that's about it. If these interludes are meant to garner sympathy for the character, they fail. If, on the other hand, they're meant to point up his shallowness and self-absorption, they do quite nicely. "I'm not an a**hole," Chris assures us. To paraphrase Bette Davis, but ya ARE, Chris. Ya ARE an a**hole.

Although unsatisfying, ALL THE RAGE is far from the worst gay-themed film you'll ever see (that raspberry still goes, for my money, to "The Last Year"), but there isn't any compelling reason to see it in the first place, either. Of course, you can't know that until you have seen it, but you could just take my word for it.
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Duck Soup (1933)
Still The Best Marx Bros. Movie Ever!!!
8 May 2005
Fans of Marx Brothers films seem to divide themselves into two camps: those who feel their best work was done at MGM (A Night At the Opera, A Day At the Races), and those of us who prefer their earlier, less constrained work at Paramount. As great as the brothers are in Opera & Races, they were somewhat "tamed" by Irving Thalberg and his big-studio machine. "Formula" was injected into their pictures, and they were forced to share screen time with young, romantic "leading" couples who served mostly to interrupt the comedic proceedings from time to time to sing insipid songs to each other. DUCK SOUP (the final of their four Paramount films) is pure, undiluted Marx Brothers anarchy.

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) ascends to the leadership of Freedonia because, in the words of Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), he's "the most able man in all Fredonia." (Groucho: "Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself.") But with Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as spies for rival country Sylvania, there are intrigue and insults, double-dealing and double-entendre galore. As always, the points of the plot are not important, except to set the scene for various high-jinx.

One of the best "bits" in the picture is a precursor to the famous "mirror routine" done later by Lucille Ball and Harpo (better here; sorry, Lucy!). Chicolini and Pinky - both disguised as Firefly - search a mansion for a code and secret plans (Chico: "Sure, I stole a code and two pairs of plans."). Three Grouchos running about results in confusion, a broken mirror and the single funniest sight gag in any of their films. Legend has it that at least one performance of one of their plays had the brothers actually switching roles and, with appropriate makeup and costume, nobody was any the wiser. Indeed, with each made up in Groucho's eyebrows and mustache, they are practically impossible to tell apart.

Everything from politics to war movies to musicals is lampooned (what else to do when you've just declared war on a neighboring country but stage a production number?), and poor Margaret takes her usual share of abuse from Groucho. In addition to Dumont, there is able support from Louis Calhern (as the Ambassador from Sylvania) and Edgar Kennedy (as an unfortunate lemonade vendor tormented by Harpo and Chico).

Sure, there are plenty of great moments in their MGM pictures, but those were rather like the parties you had when the parents were home, while DUCK SOUP (along with the other Paramounts) is the party you had when the parents were out of town.
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Why They're Called "Disaster" Films
2 December 2004
This movie has it all - all the trite situations, hackneyed dialogue and banal clichés you can think of. It reminded me of a National Lampoon magazine cover from the disaster-film-craze days of the mid-'70's: depicting a satiric poster for a non-existent film called "Armageddon '75," it showed an aerial view of a major urban center with a tidal wave (complete with capsizing ship) washing over it, a volcano erupting, a plane crashing...all of it during an earthquake, of course.

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW isn't content with catastrophic global climate change; it has to cover the usual dysfunctional marriage/family ground, visit the hospital ward with the de rigueur kid dying of cancer (with whom the noble doc must stay behind after all others have evacuated) and trot out a pack of ravenous escaped wolves roaming frozen Manhattan (how come they can stay alive when the storm is flash-freezing everybody else who ventures out into it?) for good measure. Characters who are supposed to be smarter than everybody else ignore their own dire warnings and venture out on a mission of (practically) certain death, because (heavy music here), "I made a promise." Did I mention the young lovers who discover they've worshiped each other from afar but were too shy to make a move (what year is this, again?), and find romance only when it's (practically) too late?

One of director Roland Emmerich's earlier efforts in this vein, "Independence Day," tacky as it was, at least had the benefit of not taking itself too seriously; a virtue missing here. It's easy to see why those who realize the gravity of the issue of global climate change felt this silly exercise would do more damage than good to the cause.

Oh, sure, the special effects are well-rendered and impressive, but when they can do so much - so convincingly (like sail an oil tanker down a flooded Fifth Avenue) - these days without leaving the comfort of the computer terminal, one really doesn't expect any less (with a $125 million budget, anyway). It kinda takes the "special" out of "special effects."

All in all, I'd put it down at the bottom of the dramatic dumpster with "Twister," If you absolutely must see how Lady Liberty looks in snow up to her skirts - or are wondering whatever became of Perry King - and have a couple of hours to kill, go for it. But consider yourself warned: been there; done that.
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The Exorcist (1973)
One Of the Milestones
16 September 2004
Like Phantom Of the Opera in the '20's, Frankenstein in the '30's and Psycho in the '60's, THE EXORCIST was one of those must-see, everybody's-talking-about-it rite-of-passage movies (regardless of your age) which, like the earlier ones, actually did send people screaming from the theaters and have them swooning in the aisles (at least the first week it was out). Sure, a lot of it was the hype which approached mass hysteria, but 30-plus years on, this film holds up, due to its sure-footed direction, excellent casting and solid craftsmanship.

THE EXORCIST is something of a textbook on story construction, pacing and the art of audience manipulation (in the best sense of the term). It sometimes relies on tricks, but that's okay, because they work. Director William Friedkin cleverly unnerves and agitates the viewer early on with exaggerated and sudden sound effects (phones that ring extraordinarily loudly; medical equipment that blasts the eardrums), and inoculates against unintended humor in later scenes. For example, streams of obscenities unexpectedly bursting forth from a child who has been shown to be almost sickeningly sweet is just the kind of thing that can set an audience to tittering, but Friedkin defuses its shock value with earlier potty-mouth dialogue from Ellen Burstyn and Jack MacGowran, so the audience can get its initial humorous reaction to such things out of its system.

Just as with Hitchcock's Psycho, THE EXORCIST demonstrates that an out-and-out shocker needn't necessarily be a second-class film. It's intelligently written, it effectively places the implausible squarely in the context of the real world - employing three-dimensional characters who react believably to events that logic tells them shouldn't be taking place - and the first-rate cast (Burstyn, Cobb, Miller and Von Sydow in particular) delivers performances that demand the entire enterprise be taken seriously. Beyond the "pea soup" and "head-twirling" set-pieces, there is much to appreciate; rich and subtle moments such as Lt. Kinderman's (Cobb) interview with Chris (Burstyn). There are so many emotions boiling beneath her controlled exterior - her daughter's "illness," her friend's death and the realization that the tyke may be responsible for it - while she deals with this nosy and starstruck detective. Watch for Burstyn's understated, but dead-on, reaction when, politely offering another cup of coffee and expecting him to just as politely refuse (and get the hell out of her house), Cobb replies, "Yes, thank you." Her 'oh sh--' expression is priceless.

A good portion of today's target demographic, unborn when THE EXORCIST was released, might well find it tame by their standards, even as I, shy of 10 years old, found Frankenstein and The Phantom Of the Opera. I nonetheless loved them and recognized their artistry. Intelligent, sophisticated viewers of today will similarly find themselves appreciative of all this film has to offer (even if they were brought up on ubiquitous CGI and an excess of, well, everything).

THE EXORCIST was a landmark of the '70's, which was arguably the last golden era of American film (think Cabaret-Chinatown-Network). But that's a discussion for another time.
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The Raven (1935)
Boris and Bela At Their Best; Nothing More Is Needed!
15 July 2004
This is the Boris & Bela show all the way. Like its sort-of companion piece "The Black Cat," THE RAVEN involves young lovers held captive by a madman with an odd hobby, in a large house which is elaborately tricked-out with amenities not usually found in even the most exclusive residences. This time out, Boris is the nominal "hero" (as with "The Black Cat," the male half of the young couple proves remarkably useless) and Bela the nut-case: Richard Vollin; doctor, Poe aficionado and do-it-yourself-er without peer. Summoned from retirement to perform life-saving surgery on Jean Thatcher, a lovely young dancer, he subsequently falls head-over-heels for her, and the trouble starts.

Lugosi was a better actor than he usually gets credit for being; his downfall seemed to stem from a lack of selectivity about what projects he accepted, frequently landing him in dreck. THE RAVEN gives him ample opportunities to shine, and he makes the most of them. Some consider his work here over-the-top, but scenery-chewing is entirely appropriate to the character, who is written as an arrogant egomaniac - he refers to himself as "a law unto myself" and even "a god" - and probably the only out-and-out lunatic Lugosi ever played. The desires or welfare of others simply don't enter into the equation for Vollin. After repeated refusals to perform Jean's operation, only an appeal to his ego ("So, they DO say I am the only one!") can induce him; that the object of his affection makes no secret of her love for someone else is of no consequence to him, and for the one "nice" deed he does for someone else - making Jean's fiancé his research assistant - he flatters himself that he's being magnanimous, though his true motivation, keeping the young rival too busy to interfere with his pursuit of Jean, is nonetheless self-serving.

The gloriously unrestrained nature of his performance notwithstanding, he gives us some of his best moments here: when he finds himself in Karloff's clutches, totally helpless and at Boris' mercy, the panic beneath his thin veneer of casual bravado is palpable. Likewise the barely-controlled fury and pain when, ostensibly speaking about Poe, he tells of the madness that grips "a man of genius denied of his great love," and how that madness can drive him to conceive of "torture....torture for those who have tortured him." His perverse glee in inflicting that torture is chilling, and he even displays some unexpectedly dry wit. When Vollin demands of Jean's father, Judge Thatcher, "There are no two ways; send her to me," the Judge gasps an incredulous "Do you know what you're saying?" Lugosi, in a deliberate monotone, answers the question literally; repeating, "There - are - no - two - ways - send - her - to - me!"

If I've put the emphasis here on Lugosi, it's because he truly dominates all around him, including Karloff. That's no reflection on Boris; he just plays a mostly passive character: Edmond Bateman, bank robber and escaped con, who seeks Vollin out for an operation to make him "look different." Given the shady-looking hood who passes Vollin's name and address to Bateman, and the seedy surroundings in which the meeting takes place, one can't help but wonder at Vollin's social contacts, and the kind of services he's previously solicited (or performed). The unfortunate Bateman soon finds himself in over his head, the victim of Vollin's particularly sadistic blackmail.

As with Frankenstein's creation, Boris suffuses Bateman with pathos. "I don't want to do them things no more," he pleads, when Lugosi sets out to enlist his help for some dastardly deeds. Because of his predicament, we can feel sympathy for Bateman, even as he does more of "them things" at Vollin's behest. Under heavy and restricting makeup, as was often the case, Boris is able to communicate a great deal with his eyes (or, in this case, eye). Watch the excitement in them (it?) as Lugosi removes the post-op bandages; your heart fairly breaks because you know the shock that's in store for him.

The supporting cast is filled out with familiar and capable players such as Inez Courtney and Ian Wolfe (who has one of the film's best lines when, as Bela goes on his torture rampage, protests with an oh-so-civilized, "See here, Vollin, things like this can't be done!").

The ever-dependable and versatile Samuel S. Hinds provides us with one of his delightfully stodgy curmudgeons as Judge Thatcher, and he deserves a special nod on general principle. Hinds was one of those "oh, I've seen him a hundred times before" actors (whose face is probably known by far more people than his name) who, during the '30's and '40's, seemed to pop up in every third film released. His persona varied little (and he seemed doomed to rarely being cast as anything besides judge, doctor or lawyer), but he was able to bend it in whatever direction a role required, enabling him to move with ease from the tight-ass Thatcher to Slade, the corrupt, tobacco-spittin' judge in "Destry Rides Again," to the sage and kindly family physician in "The Boy With Green Hair." Too bad he never did a "Huck Finn;" he'd have been great as The King.

Despite the improbability (oh, all right; absurdity) of the plot, the script provides some wonderful dialogue. Hinds has the great good fortune of uttering the catchy phrase, "stark-staring mad" on more than one occasion. But the delivery of even the pithiest exchanges, such as "'You monster, you like to torture.' 'Yes, I like to torture.'" gives them a vitality far beyond what is on the page. When all is said and done, though, THE RAVEN is, above all, B & B's show. Each is at the top of his game, and together, they own it.
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Call It Fable; Call It Fantasy; I Call It Wistful and Magical
14 July 2004
Unusual and definitely not for everyone, THE LEGEND OF 1900 is a magical tale that should have great appeal for those possessed of a certain kind of sensitivity. What kind? I wish I could tell you. I imagine this is a film that will say different things to different people. Is it sad? Could be. Is it triumphant? Yeah, that case could be made. Is it enigmatic? Now you're getting it.

What will a story about a man who, from infancy, has spent his entire life on board a luxury liner (and become a musical prodigy along the way), never having set foot on dry land, say to you?

He has a name (a mouthful), but they call him "1900." Every conceivable segment of society - the world in microcosm - has walked the decks of the Virginia, and he's seen it all, touched it all, but it's a world he's never been a part of. And with the Virginia now scheduled to pass from existence, what choice will he make? Can he choose? Has he already chosen?

Much analysis of various themes has been done in other commentaries about this film, but ultimately, each viewer will decide - or, perhaps, feel - what it's telling them. In any case, I'll wager that for many, this will be one of those beloved movies they'll want to revisit regularly through the years, and from the thought of which, between viewings, they'll feel that little tug in whatever special place it's touched them.
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The Black Cat (1934)
More Enjoyable Than It Has Any Business Being
14 July 2004
Other commentaries will fill you in on the nearly-incomprehensible plot (if that's possible) but, as has been pointed out, you don't watch a film like this for plot.

Despite the story inconsistencies and implausibilities, everything here just seems to "jell:" the fabulous sets, elegant photography, evocative music (drawing heavily from Schubert, among others) and the downright creepy atmosphere woven from the themes of jealousy, lust, revenge, murder, sadism.....all sounds delightfully sick, doesn't it? Truly, it's nowhere near as threatening as it sounds; indeed, if Astaire and Rogers had ever made a spooky thriller, it might have looked and felt something like this one. THE BLACK CAT possesses a lyrical, rhythmic quality, upon which we drift through a sleek, ultra-modern nightmare world.

One of the reasons it all works is its ability to pull us into a sort of parallel universe which, though it looks more or less like reality as we know it, glides along on a barely-concealed undercurrent - an "atmosphere of death," as Lugosi's character puts it - where things happen that "could never actually happen" (an inside reference for those who know the film).

There are some wonderful set-pieces, such as Karloff's tour through a most unusual basement mausoleum/museum memorializing all of his dearly departed earlier "wives." And of course, Boris and Bela deliver, with their restrained but full-bodied performances. Karloff conveys menace just entering a room, and Lugosi has an all-too-rare opportunity to display some tenderness; notice the single tear that rolls down his face as he learns - and sees - what became of the wife that Karloff stole from him years before.

A very stylized - and stylish - film which grants us the unusual treat of seeing Lugosi play a (more or less) "good guy," and the unique one of hearing him pronounce the word "baloney," as only he could.
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