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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? I wish I knew..."
On a Mississippi plantation, a dying patriarch spars with his boozing son Brick, who has lost interest in his wife. Watered-down screen treatment of Tennessee Williams' play nevertheless has vitality and energy to start (although it dribbles away), beautiful leads in Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, and a fine ensemble cast. Still, all the suspicions and questions tend to circle a gaping void--the removal of Brick's homosexuality. Not a watershed moment in adult cinema, but for star-watchers it's quite a feast. Nominated for six Oscars, including Newman as Best Actor, Taylor as Best Actress, Richard Brooks as Best Director, Brooks and James Poe for their screenplay-adaptation, William H. Daniels for his cinematography, and for Best Picture. Three BAFTA nominations: Best Foreign Actor (Newman), Best Foreign Actress (Taylor) and Best Film From any Source. Brooks received a DGA nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, and was nominated with Poe by the WGA for Best Written American Drama. **1/2 from ****
Nothing new for longtime fans, but young admirers may get a clearer picture of events here
Irish author Tony Summers, having accumulated over 600 hours of taped telephone interviews with various associates, friends and witnesses of the the late Marilyn Monroe, has compiled the most vital bits of information into this documentary for Netflix. There's also bits and pieces of the actual Monroe talking, though we're not sure of the source for these conversations (she mostly sounds tired, fed up, and dryly pithy). Actors lip-synch to the tapes to give us a visual perspective, and there are many clips of Marilyn's movies and newsreel footage of her in and out of hospitals and courtrooms, but what do we learn about her demise? Not much. Marilyn was being bugged--as was friend Peter Lawford at his beach house in Malibu--by the FBI after Monroe had gotten herself involved with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Marilyn had extra-marital affairs with both--and was mostly smitten with Bobby--before realizing they were using her "like a piece of meat". When the police were called early in the am on August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead in her bedroom, the phone in her hand, surrounded by pill bottles. However, Summers shows that she was actually found "comatose" around 11pm the previous night, and that her psychiatrist had her transferred by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, Monroe didn't make it, dying in the ambulance of a drug overdose (either intentional or accidental). The decision was made to turn the ambulance around and return her to her bed. Meanwhile, "someone higher up than Hoover" demanded that her bedroom be searched and stripped of any evidence connecting Marilyn with the Kennedys (this is presumed to be Bobby's doing, as he was in Los Angeles at this time before quickly beating it out of town). I always felt sorry for Monroe's elderly housekeeper, Eunice Murray, who never seemed to get her story right (and for good reason!). Is this a great document of Monroe's life and final days? No, but it has been put together in a fairly concise manner so as to be easily understood by viewers who may not know much about the star. Director Emma Cooper gets a little arty with her fill-in footage of street scenes at night (taken mostly around 1985, when Monroe's death was reopened by the courts), including inscrutable black-and-white footage of train yards and old houses. Still, for those who are curious, this delivers a timeline of events told by voices on a cassette player that helps us to digest what happened that fateful night, concluding with a quote from Marilyn herself: "I just want to be a good actress."
Big Night (1996)
An audience favorite...must be all that delicious food!
Congenial comedy (overrated by its loyal fan base) is nicely set on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s. Two Italian immigrants, brothers named Primo and Secondo (not funny), run an unsuccessful Italian restaurant; they plan a special evening, a benefit night of incredible food and music, to financially save their business. Stanley Tucci (who plays Secondo) also co-wrote the screenplay with Joseph Tropiano and co-directed with co-star Campbell Scott; he's a wonderful character actor with a great deal of charm and charisma, and he almost saves the day here. Critically-acclaimed film was a modest hit at the box office, but seems to bring great joy to its admirers. Must be all that delicious-looking food...the movie itself being extremely minor. Winner of the Special Recognition prize by the National Board of Review for excellence in filmmaking. National Society of Film Critics awarded Tony Shalhoub its Best Supporting Actor prize (in a tie with Martin Donovan for "The Portrait of a Lady"), while Tucci and Tropiano received a nomination for their screenplay. Tucci and Scott won the Best Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle, while Shalhoub was a nominee for Best Supporting Actor. ** from ****
Family: Change of Heart (1977)
Replaced in the bedroom!
S03-E04 finally gives Meredith Baxter Birney's Nancy a good, involving plotline (if a soap opera-ish one). Her ex Jeff (John Rubinstein) is about to tie-the-knot again with a ski shop cashier (Veronica Hamel, looking like a million bucks--or, all the merchandise and then some!). Meanwhile, Buddy 's main rival for boyfriend's T. J.'s affections has a "sexy" act cooked up for the talent show, and she proceeds to put together a similar number: doing Liza from "Cabaret"! Lots of tart, witty lines in this script from writer Audrey Davis Levin, though director Edward Parone makes the unfortunate choice of beginning teenager Stacy Swor's musical number "I'm a Woman" with a close-up of her gyrating rear-end. Excellent acting by all, with some choices asides saved for Sada Thompson's Kate, pithy as ever.
A Doll's House (1973)
So plastic and enervated, one can't even get a read on the filmmakers' intent...
Director Joseph Losey and screenwriter David Mercer's adaptation of Ibsen's symbolism-heavy play "A Doll's House"--an independent co-production between the UK and France--premiered in the US at the New York Film Festival in October 1973, but a month later was already making its debut on American television. One can see right away why no one was duly impressed: squarely-filmed on-location in Roros, Norway, it's a pasty-looking enterprise, unconvincing and unevenly performed. The story of marriage, morals and money matters in 1890s Norway is an interesting one, but here the central character doesn't come off. As played by Jane Fonda (during her "box office poison" years following her protest of the Vietnam War), Nora, the bank manager's wife who secretly owes money to another man, is fluttery-dull and one-dimensional. Feminists in the '70s gravitated towards Nora because of her third-act decision to leave her husband and children in order to find herself; however, when Fonda gives her big speech at the end, she doesn't sound assured, she sounds muddled in her thinking and wifey-foolish. Stage actresses for decades have longed for a part like Nora, but Fonda does nothing special with her. In support, dying doctor Trevor Howard seems chilled by the location's climate (he's always bundled up and walking woodenly), while David Warner is way over-the-top as Nora's spouse (he bellows, capitulates, and then falls into a condescending whisper). Delphine Seyrig upstages all three of the "star names" playing Nora's widowed girlfriend (consequently, the bank manager's put-down of her in private sounds particularly ugly). This is quite a comedown for Losey, who tries disguising the material's stage origins by giving us intermittent shots of the snowy streets and bustling crowds, but the whole thing looks tatty and rings false. Losey was beaten to the punch, anyway, by a competing British production starring Claire Bloom, which opened four months prior and garnered positive reviews. *1/2 from ****
Crime-of-passion served as a stuffy dish
The beautiful, naïve daughter of a costume seamstress in New York City falls for an older, already-married architect; his rival in society circles, a young multi-millionaire, hopes to woo the girl away, talking her into marriage, but her unwavering affections for his competitor drive him to murder. True life crime case from 1906--Hollywoodized but not energized by 20th Century Fox--comes to the screen a stilted roundelay that may have proved delicious. As part-time model and showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, Joan Collins (stepping in for Marilyn Monroe, who turned down the role) is lovely and touching at times, but seems to have been wiped clean of a personality; only at the very end does she get to show a self-satisfied sparkle. As the two men obsessed with her, Ray Milland and Farley Granger are dull (Granger, pancaked to a fare-thee-well, more so). The supporting players tend to show up the stars, particularly Frances Fuller playing Milland's very patient wife and Glenda Farrell as Collins' mother, a wise old bird. The censors likely curtailed the more sensational aspects of the triangle--and what we have left is unhappy soap opera. The picture looks good in CinemaScope, and has a camp montage of Collins suffering a nervous breakdown while ocean waves and laughing dancers roll across the screen, but it is neither exceptional nor exciting. The story was partially revisited in the 1981 film "Ragtime". ** from ****
The Girl in a Swing (1988)
Accepting a new love without question...but this girl is quite the dramatic handful!
Antiques dealer in London, a bachelor who appears to be hesitant of becoming involved with a woman (particularly one with a child), meets a beautiful, enigmatic German girl while on business in Copenhagen. They have a whirlwind courtship and are soon married, but a tragic event in her recent past threatens to tear the lovers apart. Tale of obsessive love and guilt is reticent about revealing its secrets--and, when the climax arrives, it's obscure and troubling, and viewers are left puzzled and rather put off. Dreamily essayed and shot by writer-director Gordon Hessler, via Richard Adams' novel, the film's mercurial nature and heavy-handed psychological overtures may try some viewers' patience long before the climax. Even more frustrating is Meg Tilly's German accent; the actress, glamorous for really the first time, is as dazed and fuzzy-of-thought as ever, and often she's impossible to understand. It's easy to see how a long-time bachelor would become obsessed with her--she's like one of those fragile porcelain figures in his shop--but Hessler dotes on her and dotes on her. Leading man Rupert Frazer is convincingly haunted by the dangerous beauty, though he seems to understand her long before we do. If one responds to the couple's emotional journey, there is hope that the passion and eroticism and heartbreak will all piece together satisfyingly by the end. That doesn't really happen in Hessler's treatment--we're left to ponder the conclusions drawn--yet the high drama at hand is often quite intriguing. **1/2 from ****
God's Own Country (2017)
Admirable, professional...but an emotional near-miss
Because same-sex affairs on the screen are so rare (even with the advent of the highly successful "Brokeback Mountain", which curiously broke very little cinematic ground), one is apt to grant a wide berth to any drama attempting to seriously depict gay relationships. "God's Own Country" from the UK, while well-made and acted, just misses; it isn't absorbing enough either dramatically or emotionally to pack the wallop one may be waiting for. Rough-hewn, belligerent young man named Johnny, the son of sheep farmers in Yorkshire, parties all night and is often brought home stinking drunk; his classmates have all moved on to college, and he resents the farm, the hard work and his small-minded parents. But this thick kid with the plain, blank face has a surprising secret: he occasionally picks up young men in town for quick, anonymous sex. When a handsome Romanian, currently employed at a potato mill in Scotland, is temporarily hired to help herd the sheep and build a stone border wall, the two men barely seem to take notice of one another until an angry confrontation breaks the ice (Johnny gets on the new worker's bad side by calling him derogatory names, such as "gypsy"). I wasn't convinced that a sexual relationship could develop between these two stubborn, non-verbal men, but that's the scenario writer-director Francis Lee and his actors have delivered. The milieu (too close to "Brokeback Mountain" for comfort) is vividly depicted--if filthy, exhausting work on a Yorkshire farm happens to be your field of study. The dramatic story arc comes rather belatedly, when Johnny realizes he is capable of actually feeling something for another man besides lust. That's a terrific lesson to teach--and it seems it must be taught again and again to each new generation--but these verbose characters (in their freezing cold, muddy surroundings) literally never warm up. Lee comes close to getting a bloom on his rose at the very end--consequently the strongest portion of the picture. **1/2 from ****
Vanishing Point (1971)
Anyone looking or hoping for substance should probably pull over...
Auto delivery driver in Denver--a war veteran and former police officer, motorcycle racer and racecar driver--is assigned to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum to San Francisco in three days. He buys some speed from a drug dealer to stay awake, casually betting the cost of the pills on his trip, claiming he can make it to his destination by 3 p.m. The next day--a total of 1200 miles. His buddy takes him up on it, laughing, probably thinking it can never be done. Almost immediately, two motorcycle cops try pulling the driver over. He outwits them with some very ballsy maneuvering behind the wheel and the chase is on! For auto aficionados, this one's a no-brainer; for the rest of us, a laconic, often brilliantly cinematic microcosm of America's Southwest in the '70s as seen from the front seat of a white Dodge Challenger. Barry Newman gets top billing, but the Dodge is the real star, as well as cinematographer John A. Alonzo (doing astoundingly fluid work). Dean Jagger is also impressive as a desert dweller and rattlesnake wrangler. Newman's driver is an unintentional rebel: he cares about the well-being of the guys he runs off the road, he doesn't smoke pot, he loves playing the radio. It's entirely plausible he would become a folk hero to the listeners of a broadcast wherein a blind disc jockey is engaged in reporting his progress on the highways. From a technical standpoint, the movie is an eyeful. **1/2 from ****
Barbara Eden undercover in the cleanest X-rated movie theater in Los Angeles!
Barbara Eden as a widowed ex-cop-turned-private detective in Los Angeles (with the improbable name of Liz Stonestreet) who goes undercover as a cashier at an erotic movie theater to find the missing 26-year-old manager whose locker turns up antique jewelry and clippings on a missing socialite. Would-be pilot for a nonexistent series, which may explain why everyone plays it so coy (particularly Eden, who gets giddy when her boss gives her the go-ahead to buy a new outfit). Supporting cast exceptional (including Joan Hackett, Louise Latham, Richard Basehart, Sally Kirkland and Elaine Giftos), but TV cop shows of the era were already successfully mining this milieu.
Dead of Night (1974)
Creepy early effort from director Bob Clark
Middle-class family is informed by the military that their soldier son was killed overseas; the mother is adamant her son is still alive and will return to them...and so he does, to everyone's eventual dismay. Shuddery low-budget horrors given a stark simplicity by a pre-"Black Christmas" Bob Clark. The cast (including John Marley and Lynn Carlin from John Cassavetes' "Faces") is solid, and Alan Ormsby's script, loosely based on the uncredited short story "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs, is compact and taut. Not a pleasant moment to be had, but aficionados of the genre should enjoy having their nerves jangled. ** from ****
Tourist Trap (1979)
That "Twilight Zone" episode with the mannequins was a lot more fun...
Group of older teens on a mountain road run afoul of the owner of a defunct tourist spot now overrun by suspiciously lifelike mannequins. Ridiculous, lethargic horror piece certainly gets no points for originality. Screenwriters David Schmoeller (who also directed) and J. Larry Carroll (who also produced) have come up with an outrageous and inept hybrid of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "House of Wax" and "Psycho" (with a bit of "Carrie"-like telekinesis added to the mix, apparently a demand handed down from executive producer Charles Band). The kids escape and are brought back, escape and are brought back, while Schmoeller keeps the ladies crawling across floors, scaling wire fences and running through misty forests at night. "Tourist Trap" may work for those creeped-out by mannequins in general; the dummies on-display here (both living and dead) have a fleshy texture and roving eyes, but Vincent Price is sorely missed when it comes down to dipping the girls in goop. * from ****
Swan Song (2021)
Bathetic, 'wistful' character portrait with a somewhat disoriented camp undermining.
Udo Kier gives an oddly muffled performance as a retired hairdresser in Ohio--once called "the Liberace of Sandusky"--who is now wasting away in a nursing home; he's offered the opportunity to do the hair of a wealthy former client (and former friend) who recently passed away and requested his services in her will. When writer-director Todd Stephens isn't being 'artistic' with the occasional slow-motion effect, he delights in being facetious in a most annoying way with his narrative (as with a long conversation between the hairdresser and a friend from the good old days that turns out to be a daydream). Almost all the performances are uneven or overworked, while Stephens' dialogue is dotted with sadly ironic little truths meant to get us in the gut. Kier has a lovely moment hugging the gravestone of his lover, and one more talking to the deceased woman's grandson about the parties she gave that he never came to, but that's it. The characters on Mr. Pat's journey (particularly a group of women in an all-black beauty shop and a young gay bartender in a backwards baseball hat) are an unreal lot, while the humor and most of the sentiment feels fraudulent. Those shots of Kier shuffling down the sidewalk in a mint-green pantsuit and velvet chapeau are great for trailers and teasers, but there's nothing going on underneath these images for us to attach our emotions to. Mr. Pat, who has a fetish for folding napkins and packets--and is, at best, lethargically snappy when the spirit moves him--is meant to be a leftover from the old school, but he's more like a refugee from another country. I don't know whether Stephens' depiction of a nursing home as a deathtrap is meant to trigger our collective fears of growing old and useless or to serve as a springboard for hope once our protagonist walks out the door. It may be neither: the whole old folks' home opener is a con-job, anyway, with Stephens using it merely to press our buttons. A mess! * from ****
Being the Ricardos (2021)
"It might have been Lucy in 'All About Eve'...and she would have blown the doors off the place!"
As TV's "I Love Lucy" reaches 20 million households a week in the US in the early 1950s, it's star, Lucille Ball, is fighting Communist affiliation rumors started by columnist Walter Winchell; she's also fighting with husband and co-star Desi Arnaz about his lack of marital attention and is about to reveal to the television audience that both she and her TV-counterpart, Lucy Ricardo, are "expecting". Although this handsomely-produced portrait of the legendary actress is an entertaining one, there are a myriad of timeline issues and anachronisms within the film which "I Love Lucy" purists are bound to be troubled by. There's also a hurdle in buying Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz (Bardem has Desi's Cuban-accented voice--and his flirtatious charms--down, but he's too old for the role). Kidman fares better as Lucy, proving her naysayers wrong and giving a wry, tough, courageous performance. Lucy's off-camera relationship with Vivian Vance (played by Nina Arianda) is curiously edgy despite reports throughout the years these two were the best of friends; meanwhile, codger William Frawley (J. K. Simmons) is shown to be irascible yet cogent and sharp in place of the heavy drinker Arnaz went out on a limb to have cast. I didn't care for the documentary-like framing device of the show's creators discussing the series in the present day (there's enough flashbacks and flash-forwards happening here); however, when writer-director Aaron Sorkin gets down to business, he delivers some terrifically tasty behind-the-scenes action. **1/2 from ****
Don't Look Up (2021)
It's the end of the world as we know it...and "everything's fine!"
Two American astronomers are met with skepticism and indifference from the media and the internet-at-large to their devastating discovery that a humongous comet will hit and decimate Earth in just 6mos. Director and co-writer Adam McKay, working from an original treatment by himself and David Sirota, owes a little something to Paddy Chayefsky and "Network"--but I believe Chayefsky would be proud of the broadly absurdist, acidic satire here. The performances are sharp and knowing, although McKay's various asides don't always have the sting they're meant to (often they cheapen the film's overall impact). After mulling it over, of course, the picture is really quite sad and depressing, if exceptionally accomplished. **1/2 from ****
Nightmare Alley (2021)
The Great American Tragedy...an existential portrait of a man in crisis...or just a rags-to-riches-to-rags story?
William Lindsay Gresham's novel gets a second noir screen treatment following the 1947-Tyrone Power version about a self-described hustler in the 1930s who drifts into a traveling freak-show carnival after literally setting his past ablaze. The film has been crafted with style by director Guillermo del Toro (who also co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay-adaptation with Kim Morgan), but it is in no way a profound work--it's all flash. Many will no doubt add their lofty labels to the picture, but I saw it more simply: a rags-to-riches-to-rags melodrama, with a circular finish that didn't sneak up on me or shock me (it plays flatly). Bradley Cooper is solid in the lead role; it isn't a knockout performance, but then I'm not sure either del Toro or Cooper (who also co-produced) meant it to be. Cooper's Stanton Carlisle is, basically, a jerk--an opportunist who seems oblivious of his actions (which is just how Tyrone Power played him in the original). When one of the carnies dies of wood alcohol poisoning--from a bottle given to him by Carlisle, who had to sneak around to get it--we're not sure if this was intentional or a mistake or an act of mercy (the screenplay tries to have it all three ways). Carlisle is haunted--but is it by guilt...remorse...regret? He's an enigma, and a lot of moviegoers will have fun trying to figure him out. Two years after leaving the carnival, wherein he took a hopeful young woman he had emboldened with him, Carlisle has come up with a mind-reading act that he performs with his wife in fancy supper clubs; this is where he comes across Cate Blanchett as a poison-beauty psychologist (and we hardly needed to see Stanton's treacherous tarot card reading to understand she will lead to his downfall). "Nightmare Alley" has a striking Art Deco and snow-swept design that is giddily beautiful--you can enjoy the film purely on visual terms--but the story gives up on itself at a crucial point in the picture. Yes, everything has to go wrong--that's the trap of the "Nightmare"--but the actions of the characters (particularly Rooney Mara's good-girl, Molly) are infuriatingly stupid. Why everyone suddenly has to become hysterical and the plot to lose its logic to get us to that ending is beyond me. It felt like a slap in the face to see the house of cards come down this way. I'm sure all the talents involved thought they were giving us a delicious, twisty plot that would also make us think, but when the people we've been watching and have become absorbed by start acting foolish just to push things along, I sense a calculated and mechanical process behind the imagery. Is the film worth-watching? I would say yes, it's above-average, but it leaves one feeling bitter and used, and I'm not sure if or why del Toro was aiming for such a response. It's a fever dream, but the details don't add up and the action stops making sense. I wanted to feel exhilarated by the protagonist's comeuppance, but the filmmaker apparently wants our sympathies too and it doesn't wash. **1/2 from ****
Licorice Pizza (2021)
Slight-seeming but intermittently captivating...
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's paean to the 1970s California teenager fidgets around so much--what with stop-and-start episodes that don't really go anywhere in particular but, instead, "build momentum" as they say--some viewers may start wondering around the one-hour mark what the movie is going to be about. Cooper Hoffman (the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a real find as a 15-year-old go-getter; rushing around on pure youthful adrenaline, he's a sweet kid who hustles himself first before delivering product, parlaying his schemes into reality. Before she knows it, Alana Haim's "older woman", a kids' photographer in her twenties, is meeting this kid for a soda. She's dazzled by his self-assurance but keeps her awe somewhat in check. This seems an unlikely match--what 20-year-old girl hangs around with a teenage boy?--but with Anderson guiding us through their many assorted misadventures, it's easy to buy into this relationship. "Licorice Pizza" is slight, but admirers of Anderson's style will likely be captivated and won't care. Initially, the dialogue between Hoffman and Haim is unreal (she's at his school for Picture Day); however, once Hoffman demonstrates to her that he's a doer--a teenage actor, an entrepreneur, a businessman--she becomes his partner, his driver...but not his girlfriend! It's an amusingly simple movie with complicated emotions running all the way through it. I don't feel Anderson brought the film to a satisfactory close (the editing seems a little lax and the staging is disappointing), but these kids are quite extraordinary to watch and the eclectic supporting cast is full of interesting oddballs. *** from ****
Rifkin's Festival (2020)
"Despite all my talk about existential freedom and Dionysius...I'm a middle-class Jew from the Bronx."
The latest comedy from writer-director Woody Allen is an odd one from the get-go: Wallace Shawn stands in for the leading man (in what would normally be the typical Allen role) of an essay writer/film history teacher/would-be novelist who must accompany his press agent wife to Spain for the San Sebastian Festival. There, she becomes smitten with a "pretentious film director" from France while disparaging her husband's neuroses, while he harbors chest pains and harks back to his past disappointments by dreaming himself into various scenarios which emulate Welles, Fellini, Truffaut, et al. Despite his age (he was 75 or 76 when this film was shot), Shawn is more than capable at carrying a comedy--his instantly identifiable voice is a pleasure to listen to. However, this type of comedy--one centering on the relationship of a married couple (one wherein the husband is busy pondering the Meaning of Life and the wife is played by glamorous Gina Gershon)--is not a proper fit for Shawn. The actor's ultra-casual clothes and balding head are probably meant to be endearing, but when his character expresses the same old Woody Allen hang-ups (such as the eternal "Why are we here?"), one can't help questioning this man's agenda...has he been asking "Why are we here?" all this time? The lack of really sharp one-liners makes itself felt, but the supporting cast is fine, the production is handsome, and Allen keeps a smooth, jaunty pace. ** from ****
Baba Yaga (1973)
An outrageous disaster...
Female photographer (the sulky, rail-thin Isabelle De Funès, coiffed with Louise Brooks' hairdo) is bewitched and cursed by the title-named sorceress, a predatory lesbian with kinky inclinations. Of all the sexploitation films Carroll Baker made overseas once her fortunes ran dry in Hollywood, this may be the strangest. Baker stepped into the role of chalky-white, cool-to-the-touch Baba Yaga after actress Anne Heywood dropped out at the 11th hour. Although she looks spookily tantalizing in her black mink ensembles, Baker's intensity goes wasted in this dubbed, choppy Italian-French co-production with a breast fixation. The pop art flourishes in De Funès' studio--complete with a see-through clear rotary phone--are amusing, as is composer Piero Umiliani's throbbing/sensual score. Director Corrado Farina nearly took his name off the credits when he discovered the negative had been reedited against his wishes (this review is based on the 89mn print, which seems comprised of already-existing and previously excised footage). *1/2 from ****
The French Connection (1971)
"All right, Popeye's here!"
Hammering, combative, often confusing box-office giant from director William Friedkin, who won the Oscar for helming this adaptation of Robin Moore's nonfiction book set in New York City. Detectives in the Narcotics Division, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman, also an Oscar winner) and his partner, "Cloudy" (Roy Scheider), shake down modern-day mobsters and a high-ranking lawyer involved in drug-smuggling operation. The grit is vivid and real--you can practically feel it on your fingertips. Friedkin is so in control of the camera, his kinetic energy becomes the movie's motor (he's as much of a star in the picture as is Hackman). The prologue in Marseille--which is supposed to set up the story--is stagnant, however, and nobody in the picture is at all likable (which of course was the idea: a new-fangled crime-drama wherein everybody and everything is scum). Also won Oscars for editing, Ernest Tidyman for his screenplay-adaptation, and for Best Picture. Followed in 1975 by a sequel.
Halloween Kills (2021)
Well, the music score is nice...
Follow-up to, among other films in the canon, 2018's "Halloween", again directed by David Gordon Green, rather adroitly ties in flashbacks to--and new events from--that film and John Carpenter's original "Halloween" from 1978 (with Donald Pleasence lookalike Tom Jones Jr playing Dr. Loomis). Haddonfield survivors from '78's rampage band together with the 2018 characters to take down boogeyman Michael Myers, who somehow escaped the fire set by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the last installment. But what begins as an interesting concept soon turns into yet another illogical hack-'em-up, with Michael's victims acting like foolish sitting ducks (in a ridiculous sequence, Michael eliminates each member of a firefighting team--one at a time, because that's the way they do things in these movies--leaving the whole crew decimated). Curtis, recovering from surgery at Haddonfield Hospital, consoles a wounded police officer who blames himself for Michael's killing spree (seems he stopped Loomis from shooting Michael in the head in 1978--but, since Myers "isn't flesh and blood like the rest of us", the conversation isn't useful or productive). When an angry mob finally encircles Michael and has him on the ground, one might think executive producers Curtis and Carpenter would be happy to call it a night...not in Haddonfield, it seems, nor in sequel-hungry Hollywood. *1/2 from ****
Gunman's Walk (1958)
Odd casting pays off, though script is on the outlandish side...
Powerful rancher dotes on his eldest son while his younger boy fails to assert himself; all that changes, however, after the older kid is accused of murder. Columbia western photographed in CinemaScope is engrossing and surprisingly well-acted, if curiously cast. Tab Hunter may pass muster as Van Heflin's son, but he and James Darren are unlikely brothers. Nevertheless, all three actors are solid, even as Frank S. Nugent's screenplay gets more outlandish with each new turn, leading to a preposterous finale. While it is unique to see a father and son squaring off, the scene makes no sense in the context of this story (and neither does Heflin's dialogue at this point). Hunter is to be commended for taking on this unlikable role--that of a cocky, scurrilous bully with no conscience--and yet the character's behavior as written is unbelievable. Director Phil Karlson, shooting on both sets and on various Arizona locations, delivers a tough, mercurial picture, though it isn't one that leaves positive feelings behind. **1/2 from ****
The Slugger's Wife (1985)
One might call this a foul ball...
Right fielder for the Atlanta Braves falls for an aspiring rock singer with big dreams; she becomes his good luck charm and marries him, but also wants him to succeed on his own without holding her hand. The combination of director Hal Ashby with screenwriter Neil Simon should've been more interesting than this! The picture has no rhythm: Ashby's timing is shot, he can't build any momentum with the love story, and his actors appear desperate. Tepid leads Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca & De Mornay give ruinous performances (she sings nondescript versions of Prince and Bruce Springsteen songs that wouldn't have garnered applause on Star Search). Supporting cast including Martin Ritt (the director going back to acting) and Randy Quaid fares no better (Ritt's coach decides the best medicine for a heartbroken O'Keefe is to "get him laid", and three girls in a nightclub are rounded up like cattle). A handful of highly-acclaimed filmmakers from the 1970s seemed to bottom-out in the '80s--the decade just left them behind. Ashby is unfortunately one of these casualties, but what was Neil Simon's excuse? * from ****
Uncle Frank (2020)
Not an audience grabber...
In 1973, perky, pretty New York City student (by way of Creekville, SC) is anxious for her new boyfriend to meet her Uncle Frank, an English professor at their college whom she's adored for years; dropping in unexpectedly during a party at his apartment, she's surprised to discover her favorite uncle has a male lover. Something of a disappointment coming from writer-director Alan Ball, who also co-produced the film for Amazon Studios with his partner, Peter Macdissi, who plays boyfriend Wally. Obviously a project made with taste and style, yet the film is lumpy with exposition (everything is spelled out, either verbally or visually) and the character of Wally never becomes real for us. Macdissi has proven to be an actor of marvelous capabilities, but he's overeager here and off-putting (and this appears to be entirely intentional). Paul Bettany's far-away Frank isn't appealing, either; however, young Sophia Lillis, despite a penchant for overdoing her slow-starting crooked smile, is a charmer. Scene after scene feels half-finished and aloof, though the period flavor is kept subtle and some of the dialogue exchanges have a nice, easy flow. Although the film was initially screened at Sundance, it debuted as an Amazon Prime Video selection and thus garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Television Movie.
A Separate Peace (1972)
"With you, it's different..."
Many years after graduating college in New Hampshire in 1942, a nostalgic man revisits the campus of his alma mater in the off-season and reminisces about his roommate, a gregarious and reckless lad who goaded his friends into living for the day, breaking the rules and--most especially--jumping out of a tall tree in into the lake below. Overlooked film version of John Knowles' semi-autobiographical novel (which, in turn, was expanded from his short story "Phineas") has a deeply personal feel even on the screen. While Knowles denied any homoerotic undercurrents in the text, those who do sense an attraction between the roommates, played here by John Heyl and Parker Stevenson, are bound to be the film's biggest admirers (when the novel is discussed in schools, it is said that homosexuality is never brought up in class, yet that hasn't stopped some schools from banning the book). There's a lovely simplicity--and, conversely, an unspoken complexity--in the friendship between the young men, which screenwriter Fred Segal cautiously, carefully tiptoes through (which is better than being tiptoed around). Director Larry Peerce works well with his actors, most of them non-professionals, and shows a keen, stylish eye for the period (surprising, since Peerce at this point had not shown much sensitivity). Not a hit with audiences, the picture grossed just under $1M at the US box office and was promptly forgotten, but it has a special sort of gleam. **1/2 from ****