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The Rounder (1930)
Early look at Benny's short, snappy comedy method
This 1930 comedy short is a good example of films during the transition period from silent to sound. The early films of this period were shot with stationary microphones. The actors couldn't move about as freely and naturally. So, they often stood around in scenes that give them a "wooden" feel to audiences.
Jack Benny and the rest of the cast do a good job in this setting. His exchanges with Dorothy Sebastian are samples of the witty, clever and snappy comic routine he would develop and use throughout his career. It was as true of his Hollywood films as of his radio and then TV shows.
This 20-minute short has some very funny sequences. But Benny's Mr. Bartlett doesn't come across as too tipsy, which he is supposed to be. It's a fine film extra that accompanied feature films back in the early days of cinema.
A broken radiator leads to a Christmas whodunit for Poirot
As with all of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries, this one is full of intrigue and packed with mystery. It starts off with scenes from 40 years before the main story - 1896, in South Africa. This is one of those films that show incidents well before the main plot. They are to help the audience understand something about one or more characters later. In this case, its distaste for Simeon Lee. Vernon Dobtcheff does a superb job in playing Lee as the despotic, lecherous, spiteful and mean man that he is.
Poirot gets involved with the super wealthy Lee and his family quite by chance. The radiator in his home and office building is on the blink and maintenance can't repair it until after Christmas. So, wanting to spend Christmas with the warmth of indoors, Poirot takes a call and accepts an invitation to spend the holiday at Simeon Lee's mansion.
Thus is the unfolding of "Hercule Poirot's Christmas." The only regular character who joins Poirot in this adventure is Chief Inspector Japp. It's mostly a distasteful time for the super sleuth because the majority of characters and suspects are so nasty and distasteful themselves. So, Japp's presence, besides helping with the murder mystery, is a morale booster for Poirot.
While this story has all the intrigue one expects from the pen of Agatha Christie, it also provides some hint to the audience for suspects. That's from the opening scenes and Lee's past in South Africa where he amassed his fortune in diamonds.
As with all Christie and Poirot stories, this one won't disappoint viewers but will keep one interested to the very end. It did leave me thinking that it was too bad a couple of other characters didn't get some sort of comeuppance.
Here are a couple favorite lines from the movie. For more dialog, see the Quotes section under this IMDb Web page of the film.
Hercule Poirot, "Ah, chief inspector. You have been thinking again. I have warned you of this before." Chief Inspector Japp, "Oh, well."
Chief Inspector Japp, "You've seen a ghost or something, Poirot?" Hercule Poirot, "Chief inspector, I might just have done precisely that."
French Kiss (1995)
Kline's Frenchman is the only reason to see this film
"French Kiss" is a light comedy caper and romance. The humor is sparse and the caper is two-fold. The idea for the plot is good, but the screenplay is very weak and pitiful in places. A good script could have made this a rollicking comedy or a much better comedy-romance. As it is, the romantic aspect is far out and too hard to believe.
Meg Ryan plays Kate, who takes off for Europe in pursuit of her fiancé who has gone astray. On a business trip, he meets a French girl, supposedly falls in love and sets a wedding date with her. Yes, far out.
The saving aspect of the film comes totally from Kevin Kline who plays Luc Teyssier. One suspects that Kline took the role in such an otherwise poor screenplay solely for the chance to play the Frenchman, with solid French accent in his English. Kline is one of the best actors at being able to play various languages and their accents in English. And, his character is the only one with any substance in this film - and not that much at that.
It's a light comedy romance with some good scenery in France. Otherwise, it's soon forgettable after viewing.
Terrorist threat thriller set in London
"Unlocked" is a crime, mystery and action thriller set in Europe. Most of the story takes place in London where a terrorist group plans to release a biological hazard to kill thousands of people. This is one of a slowly growing genre of movies about terrorism.
The plot is okay, but the screenplay bounces all over the place. The resulting action at times can be confusing. This isn't a movie in which one gets out of his or her seat for a snack. It takes some close watching to make a little sense out of what's taking place.
The film has a mix of once big name actors and new people. No roles stand out. It's an okay film for those who enjoy action of this type. There's a lot of rough stuff, violence and mayhem.
Fairly good comedy and sci-fi spoof
"Innerspace" is a fun comedy and sci-fi film, with a good cast. The plot isn't the first to deal with miniaturizing people, but this one has the dressing of lots of scientific know-how. It's also clearly a spoof of sci-fi, or this type of film at least. That's evident in the scenes of the lab with all the advanced scientific equipment. The place is a mess, papers are lying and flying all over the place, people spill drinks, etc.
The cast does a good job. Dennis Quaid's Lt. Tuck Pendleton is overly crass. He's a boozer, womanizer, belligerent, and egotist. Martin Short's Jack Putter is very good, mixing his mental instability with comedy, heroics, and intelligence. Meg Ryan's Lydia Maxwell is okay.
Fiona Lewis is a sex-crazed Dr. Margaret Canker. Perhaps there is symbolism in some the names. She could be a canker sore. Tuck and Putter and some other names (Igoe and Wormwood) can tweak the imagination. The film isn't for children.
It's not a laugh a minute, or even a solid plot. But, it has enough humor, some crazy antics, and good chase and action scenes to entertain adults.
Here are a couple favorite lines. For more dialog, see the Quotes section on this IMDb Web page of the film.
Woman in doctor's office, "Are you feeling all right?" Jack Putter, "Would I be in a doctor's office if I was feeling all right?"
Dr. Greenbush, "Good news, Jack. I think we can rule out demonic possession right off the bat." Jack Putter, "But this little voice is talking to me." Dr. Greenbush, "See, that proves it. Demons talk through you, not to you."
Poirot: Dumb Witness (1996)
Intrigue to the end in this superb Poirot whodunit
The only frequent "other" person in this Agatha Christie mystery besides Hercule Poirot is Captain Hastings. Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon got a holiday from this entry in the TV film series. But, Poirot does get other help in "Dumb Witness." It comes from Monsieur Bob, a wire Fox Terrier that is the pet of Emily Arundel. The clever, cute and curious dog is the dumb witness to the first attempt on the life of his mistress.
This mystery is among the very best of an excellent collection of some 70 Poirot stories that Christie wrote. Up to the very last, I had no idea who the villain might be. I had exhausted the list of suspects as, one by one, they were plainly eliminated. Even then, the ending caught me by surprise. And, I could see how it took Poirot the time it did to solve this one. The mystery of Madam Arundel's death with the circumstances about her will would throw even the world's greatest detective off the trail. At least for a while, as here.
Still, Poirot eventually pieces it all together - with the help of Bob, and surprises everyone when he reveals the murderer. This story has the usual outstanding qualities one comes to expect of the Poirot series produced for BBC (U.K.) and PBS (U.S.A.) airing. The scenery, camera work, costuming, technical production and direction and acting are superb.
A host of top actors join David Suchet and Hugh Fraser in bringing this intriguing tale to life. Patrick Ryecart and Kate Buffery are particularly good as Charles and Theresa. They play the snobbish and selfish nephew and niece to perfection. And, Pauline Jameson and Muriel Pavlow are very good as the giddy, superstitious but kind Tripp sisters, Isabel and Julia.
Here are some favorite lines from the film. For more dialog lines, see the Quotes section under this IMDb web page of the movie.
Captain Hastings, "I just wondered if you were having trouble sleeping." Hercule Poirot, "So you awaken me to inquire? That is friendship indeed, Hastings."
Captain Hastings, "Marvelous view over here, Poirot. Come and take a look." Hercule Poirot, "No. We will take your word for it."
Hercule Poirot, "Hastings, a favor. Whatever I should say, you are not in agreement." Captain Hastings, "Did I ever do otherwise, Poirot?"
Poirot: Peril at End House (1990)
Poirot is stumped for the longest time
"Peril at End House" is a superb mystery and entry in the catalog of Agatha Christie books made into movies. A rare aspect of this Hercule Poirot TV film is the great detective's befuddlement so far into the story. Poirot doesn't crack the case until very near the end. And, unlike most of his adventures, he never shows hints that he is able to unravel the mystery. In other words, in spite of all the digging and checking and interviewing, he becomes more confused and less able to make sense of the case. And, he says so to Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp.
It's really little wonder, considering the breadth of this screenplay. In following Poirot's exploits, one gets used to being on the lookout for red herrings. So, I found myself thinking that one, two or three little side stories might be such. Yet, only one actually touched the surface of the real plot. That meant a lot of extraneous information - material not at all crucial to the solving of the case. One shares Poirot's angst at seemingly getting nowhere, although an audience is much more accustomed to such than is Poirot himself.
David Suchet's Poirot is joined by Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) for the whole film. Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) comes into the picture about halfway through the story. And, even Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) gets involved in the End House case - in the last quarter of the film. The rest of the cast all do very well. Polly Walker is especially good as Magdala Buckley and Alison Sterling is superb as Freddie Rice. This Poirot-Christie mystery has a larger than normal coterie of possible suspects.
I noticed one other thing that was out of the normal. Poirot seemed unusually and frequently annoyed with Hastings, especially in the first half of the film. And this film provides a new piece of information about the main characters. Miss Lemon asks Chief Inspector Japp what his first name is, and he obliges. He is James Japp.
As with all of this series, the technical qualities of production are excellent. The scenery along the Cornish Coast and sets overall are outstanding.
Here are some favorite lines from the film. For more dialog see the Quotes section under this IMDb Web page of the film.
Captain Hastings, "I don't think you've got any imagination at all, Poirot." Hercule Poirot, "That is true, mon ami. But fortunately, you have enough for both of us. It is extremely valuable to me."
Captain Hastings, "Makes you proud to be an Englishman, though... Oh, I'm sorry." Hercule Poirot, "Do not be sorry, Hastings. It is not a tragedy for me that I was born on the wrong side of the channel."
Hercule Poirot, "You know, Hastings. You have the most extraordinary effect on me." Captain Hastings, "Really?" Poirot, "Yes. You have so strongly the flair in the wrong direction that I am almost tempted to doubt the commander."
Hercule Poirot, "And the miserable one that I am, I saw nothing."
The Lady Has Plans (1942)
A light WW II espionage thriller set in Lisbon
"The Lady Has Plans" is interesting for its content and timing alone. It's an American film that premiered on January 20, 1942. The U.S. had been in World War II just six weeks. That was two years after the start of WW II in Europe. Which means that this movie had been in the making since early in the war. Yet, some or much of its filming was done after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
While there's no indication that America was yet at war, this clearly is a WW II espionage film. It's part thriller and part comedy. A band of thieves steals military secrets to sell to the highest bidder. Nazi Germany is interested. So too is Great Britain. And, Japan is mentioned.
There is no presence of armed forces and no battles or military operations here. Rather, the action takes place mostly in neutral Portugal. Lisbon truly did become a city of spies and intrigue during WW II. This film gives an early peek at what Lisbon would become during the war. Several films during and after the war show the city as a hotbed of intrigue and espionage. It also was the great escape hatch for many who fled Nazi Europe for the Americas. That point is made in "Casablanca" and other films during and after the war.
The plot seems a little hokey - the smuggling of a secret plan drawn with invisible ink on a woman's back. But, it was certainly possible. A number of older movies were made about the use of invisible ink. In this case, the design of a secret American weapon is drawn with invisible ink on the back of an attractive woman spy. She has taken the identity of an American newswoman, Sidney Royce, who is being sent to Lisbon. The story doesn't divulge how the thieves knew about a reporter's transfer in time to hatch their plan and make fake passports and documents. But, the story unfolds with intrigue, occasional doses of humor, and some action when the real Royce gets to Lisbon ahead of the spy.
The cast all give fine performances. Ray Milland plays Kenneth Harper, head of the American news outfit. Paulette Goddard is Royce, the new reporter sent to help him. Roland Young is the British embassy intelligence officer and Albert Dekker plays the German embassy gestapo leader, Baron von Kemp. Margaret Hayes plays the female spy, Rita Lenox, and Addison Richards is the chief of the espionage thieves, Paul Baker.
Most viewers should enjoy this film. Collectors of war films and those interested in espionage films may want to add it to their film collections.
Silent Movie (1976)
Very little humor left in this dated comedy
"Silent Movie" has its moments with some chuckles. But, overall, much of the humor is dated or tied to the actors. For most movie buffs in the 21st century, the latter won't be funny because they won't be able to make the connection.
Mel Brooks usually pushed the humor envelope to poke fun at something. But when characters are tied to humor, the result is most often in the realm of inside jokes. Those work only to the extent that audiences know the character or background and can catch on. That's why that type of humor is dated and won't cause laughs with later generations
Brooks and co-stars Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise do okay here with their acting and occasional antics. As I noted already, a few funny instances remain so because they aren't tied down to the time, place and situation. The few other small roles are near-cameo appearances of some Hollywood stars just for fodder.
The silent aspect of the film is okay, but there just isn't enough real humor to make this film last.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Miniscule monsters can be the most deadly
"The Andromeda Strain" is among a handful of sci-fi films that have suspense and angst not based on an ugly creature or frightening alien being. The culprit in this film does indeed come from outer space. But, it's miniscule in size. And that's the basis for this whole story. It's about a nation or humanity dealing with unknown life forms that may appear on earth as a result of human ventures into space.
This is a high tech thriller about an alien germ that comes to earth on a fallen satellite. It grips one with intrigue. It shows myriad technologies and the steps a team of scientists take to unravel the mystery. Just what killed all the people of a remote Southwest town in America? Viewers are fixed upon one scene after another as the players probe, scan, discuss and theorize. It's an entertaining and thought-provoking sci-fi story. Most people should enjoy it tremendously.
The movie is based on a 1969 novel of the same title by Michael Crichton. Crichton excelled in sci-fi space and medical stories. More than a dozen of his books have been made into movies. "Jurassic Park" of 1990 alone assures that Crichton will be remembered way into the future. The cast of this film all are superb in their roles. The movie was nominated for two Oscars and received a Golden Globe nomination as well.
The Glass Menagerie (1950)
Lawrence nails her southern accent in this Tennessee Williams film
Gertrude Lawrence only made 13 films in her career, but she was beloved for her stage performances in England and on Broadway. The English-born actress does a fantastic job with her southern accent as Amanda Wingfield. She plays the perfect nagging yet doting mother in "The Glass Menagerie."
Jane Wyman plays her daughter, Laura, and Arthur Kennedy is her son, Tom. The cast of this first film of the play is rounded out with Kirk Douglas as Jim O'Connor and Ralph Sanford as Mendoza. With this superb cast, this may be the best film rendition of the Tennessee Williams story on which the film is based.
One drawback is its revised ending that leaves a question in the viewers mind. So, what eventually happened to Amanda and Laura? And, I agree with observations by some that the effort to make Lawrence appear younger is a negative. Especially when she gets dolled up for the dinner evening with their guest, Jim O'Connor.
Lawrence was well liked by audiences as a dramatic and comedy performer. Besides the stage and films, she played nightclubs and sang. She won a Tony for her starring role in the original Broadway production of "The King and I" opposite Yul Brynner.
But, Lawrence made so few films, that there aren't many examples of her acting talent available otherwise. This version of "The Glass Menagerie" may be the best example for movie buffs to see a performance by this fine British star of stage and screen.
Lawrence died at age 52 of cancer. She lived a high life, well beyond her substantial means, and was deeply in debt most of her life.
Here's a favorite line from the film. Jim O'Connor, Ah, when you first meet Mendoza, you don't like him. But, when you get to know him, you hate him."
TV, not theaters, made "The Wizard of Oz" a classic film
This documentary short focuses on the rise of "The Wizard of Oz" to the level of a classic film. When the movie came out in 1939, it barely covered its costs at the box office. That was a year of great competition among more than two dozen films. The 10 nominated for best film all are considered great films many decades later.
"Because of the Wonderful Things it Does: The Legacy of Oz" tells how the movie has become a classic, after a mediocre debut year. MGM rereleased it in 1949 to much greater success. Still, it didn't catch on as a lasting favorite until TV aired the movie. The first time was in 1956 and then again in 1959.
Some 45 million people watched the movie on mostly black and white TV sets in 1959, but from then on, it became a holiday classic. Of course, by the late 20th century, it was recognized as a classic fantasy film for family viewing any time of the year.
A history of troubles and time before becoming a film classic
This documentary about the making of a movie is unusual in its length. "The Making of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz" runs 68 minutes. While most such film are shorts, this film gives full documentary treatment to the background of the 1939 classic movie.
Because it was made more than 70 years after "The Wizard of Oz," there are no actors or crew members from the original film. Instead, it has film historians, music composers, and modern film technicians. They talk about various aspects of the movie and quality of production.
Martin Sheen narrates this special that was made for DVD release. It has the usual movie clips. The film background is especially interesting. Considering the difficulties MGM had, it's a wonder that the movie ever came out. Even then, it barely covered its budget at the box office. But 1939 was "the" year of so many great films, and "The Wizard of Oz" was up against great competition. It won two of eight Oscar nominations.
Still, the film didn't achieve recognition as a classic until much later. MGM rereleased it to theaters in 1949. Then, CBS aired it on TV for the first time in 1956. And, after another broadcast in 1959, it was soon to become an annual holiday favorite. This special tells about the struggles MGM overcame - including five different directors and cast changes, to make a film that has become a family classic.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A classic fable fantasy for generations to come
But for several other great films in 1939, "The Wizard of Oz" likely would have garnered more than two Oscars of it six nominations. Yet, even against giants like "Gone With the Wind," which won eight Oscars from 13 nominations, "Oz" has won certain bragging rights. For, although all of the nominees for best picture that year continue to be shown on TV and watched decades later, none can match "The Wizard of Oz" for its growing audience.
The film wasn't a smashing success in its debut year. It barely covered its budget, where "Gone With the Wind" and others had huge box offices. But, its re-release in 1949, and then subsequent showings on television soon catapulted "Oz" to classic status.
The technical, costuming, sets, casting and glorious color of this film are fantastic. The special effects, music, makeup and all aspects of production were at the peak of the arts in 1939. With this cast, crew and huge production - it was MGM's most expensive film when it was released, it's no wonder that Hollywood would never again try a new live cast production of this story.
This is a wonderful fable, fantasy and adventure movie. It's a classic that families will enjoy for many decades to come.
Back-Room Boy (1942)
A WW II comedy film that is and isn't the pips
"Back-Room Boy" is a light British comedy of World War II. It also is a mild satire and propaganda film that pokes some fun at the BBC, Germany's navy and some others. The star of the film is Arthur Askey, a long-time comedian and stand-up entertainer whose venues included radio, TV and films. His career wound down by the 1970s. Most Brits, old film buffs, and enthusiasts of British comedy would know of Askey. But most English-speakers on the West side of the pond since the last half of the 20th century wouldn't know of him.
In his films that I've seen and enjoyed, Askey reminds me of Harold Lloyd. Besides looking a little like Lloyd, Askey's lively manner closely resembled Lloyd's. But Askey didn't get into the cliffhanger or perilous positions that Lloyd was known for. In this film, Askey does make a risky rope bridge crossing from one ocean rock to another.
Askey's character, Arthur Philbeam, longs for solitude away from women and a demanding job. So, he takes his wartime BBC job to a remote lighthouse on a rock off the North coast of Scotland. From there, he's to transmit weather reports to the BBC.
Things go all wrong, and the fun happens when he first is joined by a young girl who stows away on the boat that takes him to the island. Then they are joined by several women and two old tars who survived a shipwreck. After some strange disappearances, they discover that German agents are hidden on the rock and have planned some skullduggery.
This is the only film I know of that shows or has any mention of a backroom boy, as such. And, surely the only film that calls attention to the renowned BBC radio broadcast of the exact Greenwich Time. This was done using a "backroom boy" (man or woman) who would push the button or key the pip that made the sound. For those of us on the West side of the pond, those were the pip signals that the BBC broadcasts for exact Greenwich time.
The pips originated in 1924, and since 1990 the BBC has broadcast them to mark the exact hour. People would use the radio signals to set and adjust clocks and watches. Americans had something similar in the early days of television, when an announcer would say something to mark the exact hour at different times. For instance, "At the sound of the tone, the exact time will be 10 p.m. Central Standard Time."
Unfortunately, since digital broadcasting has time lags, the reliance on the pips for calibrating clocks and watches has waned. But that shouldn't dim one's enjoyment of this light comedy.
'Pimpernel' Smith (1941)
Superb plot, WW II thriller and propaganda movie
"Pimpernel Smith" is a superb wartime film about rescuing scientists from Nazi Germany. It's a fictional story that takes its cues from the earlier books and films about "The Scarlet Pimpernel." Leslie Howard plays Professor Horatio Smith. He is an archaeologist from Cambridge University who says he's on a quest to find evidence of the Aryan civilization. But, in reality, he "digs" the Allied cause. The setting for the film is just before September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland to start World War II.
Francis Sullivan is General von Graum, the head of the gestapo. He's not a dumb Nazi, but cunning and committed. The large cast includes college students, scientists, underground characters, German soldiers, gestapo men and others. All of the cast are very good in their roles.
Other reviewers discuss the story and actors. Those who are interested in the background of the film and its significance for the time may like more information. The following is a brief overview.
Baroness Emma Orczy de Orci was still alive in 1941 when Leslie Howard and British National Films made this movie. "Pimpernel Smith" borrows its plot, and part of its name, from de Orci's 1903 play and 1905 book. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" was a big hit. In 1934, Howard played Sir Percy Blakeney in the movie of the same title that set the standard for all film versions to follow. Indeed, all but the 1982 TV film with Anthony Andrews in the role, pale in comparison.
In 1940, De Orci had just written the last of a dozen sequels to her original. In the meantime, Scottish author A.G. Macdonell had written a story, "'Pimpernel' Smith," that brought the famous rescuer up to the time of World War II. One wonders if Macdonell, Howard or others consulted de Orci about the 1941 film. Did Howard correspond with her about it? Would she have approved and been pleased?
Howard was interested in a rescue type film against Nazi Germany as early as 1938. After Macdonell's modern "Pimpernel Smith" came out, Howard made this film his project, from start to finish. He co-produced, directed and starred in it. Besides being a first-rate wartime thriller, "Pimpernel Smith" is one of the best propaganda films ever made. It was highly regarded as such from its opening early in WW II.
The movie was released in Great Britain on July 28, 1941, and around the rest of the U.K. in the days that followed. It wasn't released in the U.S. until February 12, 1942, after America had entered the war. But it was a big success there as well as in the U.K. It was the third most popular movie in England in 1941. In the U.S. it was released under the title, "Mister V."
"Pimpernel Smith" may have inspired Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg, whose efforts in 1944 saved many thousand Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps. Wallenberg's story has been told in several documentaries and two movies. "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story" was a 1985 Paramount movie made for TV. "Good Morning, Mr. Wallenberg" is a Swedish film from 1990.
When "Pimpernel Smith" reached Sweden in November 1943, it was banned by the Swedish Film Censorship Board. The Swedes feared for their continued neutrality during the war because of the portrayal of the Germans in the movie. But, Wallenberg and his sister saw the film at a private screening. She later said that he was impressed by the movie and said he would like to do something like that. Since 1941, he had been traveling frequently to Hungary as a businessman. By 1944, he would be a special envoy for Sweden to Hungary, as well as a contact for the American OSS. He made it his mission to help save Hungarian Jews.
Wallenberg did save many thousand Austrian Jews by giving them Swedish passports and secured housing. But, his fate is unknown. After the Soviet Army took Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg disappeared. He was summoned to Soviet headquarters and was never heard from again. The later movies, books and articles conjecture about his final end. While no one can be sure, and actual evidence has never surfaced as to when or how he died, there's no doubt that he died or was killed while a prisoner of the Soviet Union.
And, Leslie Howard himself would not survive World War II. Howard was too old for military service - he was 46 at the start of WW II in 1939. But, he worked feverishly in his trade against the Nazis. He made several documentaries and starred in a number of World War II films. His other films included "49th Parallel of 1941, "Spitfire" (aka, "First of the Few") of 1942, and "The Gentle Sex" of 1943.
After his last film in America - "Gone With the Wind" of 1939 (in which he plays Ashley Wilkes), Howard returned to England to help with the war effort. But, he was killed on June 1, 1943. He was one of 17 passengers on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777. It was enroute from Lisbon, Portugal, to Bristol, England, when German fighters shot down the DC-3 over the Bay of Biscay. The plane was off the coast of France, 500 miles West of Bordeaux.
Leslie Howard is one of the great film and stage actors of all time.
Light dialog, far out plot, and wild mayhem don't make a good movie
"Leon: The Professional" is a French-made film with a story that takes place in New York City. The simple plot for this film is a good one. It's a variation on any number of stories in which a woman or man take in a child who has lost her or his parents. This one has some unusual variations that set it apart from the others. Mostly, they make it a far out film and unbelievable film.
The acting is good by most of the cast, but nothing exceptional. There is minimal dialog, especially between the two main characters, Leon and Mathilda. Jean Reno plays Leon, and Natalie Portman is Mathilda.
Leon is a sociopath who makes a living killing people. He doesn't have a thread of conscience. He is antisocial throughout. Mathilda is 12 years old. She was abused by her parents and their various live-in friends. Her family was highly dysfunctional. Indeed, it doesn't resemble a traditional family at all. The only person she felt close to was her four-year-old brother.
After drug dealers kill her family, Mathilda has a sense of hurt and loss for her brother. That festers into a desire for revenge.
Leon was taken in as a teenager when he came to America as a refugee after his parents were killed in Italy. Tony is a mafia boss who took Leon under his wing and started him on the road to killing as a professional hit man. Leon is illiterate, and Tony arranges special hits for him and keeps his money.
The story takes place in New York City, around the neighborhood of Little Italy. Leon and Mathilda lived in the same building. He takes her in reluctantly after her family is killed. When she discovers that he is a professional killer, she prods him to teach her tricks of the trade.
One other far out aspect of the plot is that the head drug dealer is also a major leader of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It appears that his whole staff are in on the deal and nothing but a bunch of wanton killers. Add to that what seems to be a completely corrupt New York police force, and this is a wildly unbelievable scenario.
The director and writer expects the audience to believe that the entire law enforcement body in the New York area was crooked, and unconscionable drug handlers and killers. And that no one else in law enforcement would be wise to that fact. The way these guys move around, wildly wield their weapons, and push people around makes it seem like mob mayhem.
This film flies in the face of more realistic films about the underworld of drugs. The one performance that stands out is Gary Oldman as Stansfield, the DEA boss. Yet, his character is so unbelievably narcissistic, that it's inconceivable that he wouldn't be noticed by others.
This film closely resembles the mayhem madness of sci-fi or fantasy films set in the future when society is mostly lawless. For the portrayal of Leon's clever techniques and the small affection and friendship that blossoms between Leon and Mathilda, this film scores five stars. With a better and more realistic scripting of the DEA and law raids, and a better screenplay overall, it might have reached a level worthy of seven stars.
There is nothing artistic about this film. It has no outstanding performances. The screenplay isn't that good. It seems to be little more than a tribute to violence and promoter of revenge - hardly noteworthy attributes of the silver screen.
Pretty Poison (1968)
A crime drama with little energy
The plot for "Pretty Poison" is a simple one, but it has a couple of surprise twists. Those are what make this film at all interesting. Without that, and the character of Sue Ann Stepanek, this film would lead to many unintended naps.
Anthony Perkins in a fine actor, but his character is mostly lifeless throughout this film. For all the fantasy, make believe and cuckoo ideas and things that Dennis Pitt conjures up, one would think he would emote some excitement. But Perkins plays the character flat and deadpan, which makes him not quite so easy to believe.
The only spark of energy in the plot comes from Tuesday Weld, who plays Sue Ann. Even at that, her role is just above mediocre. As are most of the roles throughout the film. The one exception is John Randolph as Morton Azenauer. He manages to show a spark of genuine concern for Pitt and his welfare.
The movie is based on a 1968 novel, "She Let Him Continue," by Stephen Geller. The interesting plot twist and ending earn the five stars I give this film.
One has to chuckle that some reviewers try to compare this movie with another Anthony Perkins film of a mentally disturbed person. But, to even consider this simple crime drama alongside the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "Psycho," is preposterous.
The Black Windmill (1974)
Weak script and direction dull a potentially griping spy thriller
Michael Caine was 23 years old when he began making films in 1956. Within a decade he had reached star status with such films as "Zulu" of 1964, "The Ipcress File" of 1965 and "Alfie" of 1966. He would continue to have big hit films for the next two decades, and several beyond that. But, his hits were interspersed with some lesser films. A number were average and some even below average.
"Black Windmill" is one of the first of his so-so movies. The film is based on a 1973 novel, "Seven Days to a Killing," by British novelist Clive Egleton.
The idea of the plot is a good one, and the film has a cast of fine actors. But the screenplay is poor. The film direction and editing are weak and appear to leave holes in places. The story is very slow and Caine's, character, Maj. John Tarant, is weak and poorly scripted. His performance is even less than mediocre, at least through the first two-thirds of the film.
This movie had the potential to be a griping spy and crime thriller. But, the poorly written story and lack of energy among most of the cast quickly tire an audience. It's a strain to rate this film even six stars, which I give on the strength of two performances. Donald Pleasance is very good as the hypersensitive, nearly schizoid MI-6 chief, Cedric Harper. And John Vernon is very good as the hardened criminal plot leader.
Blind Alley (1939)
An interesting "Freudian" crime mystery
Chester Morris had a long career in Hollywood and on television, but he never made it as a leading man. In "Blind Alley," he plays Hal Wilson, a hardened criminal and killer. His performance seems overdone on the one hand, and not convincing on the other. But as the object of the wiles of Dr. Shelby, Wilson is interesting, even though his background is very familiar and predictable for such characters. This is a fine role for Ralph Bellamy who plays a very good Dr. Shelby.
Similar plots to this one have made it into films, with criminals taking up temporary residence in a home. But, this is the only one I can think of that has a psychiatrist-psychologist as one of the captives. And, Shelby's clever way to get Wilson to unravel is the heart of this crime mystery. He whips his Freudian psychology on Wilson
All the rest of the cast give good performances. Ann Dvorak is especially good as Mary, the moll of Wilson.
Calamity Jane (1963)
Carol Burnett's first starring TV role
This rendition of "Calamity Jane" is an okay comedy musical made for TV. As with so many TV movies that were shot on stages for later showing, this one hasn't been issued on DVD as of 2018. I watched it from a taping of the 1963 show.
Carol Burnett was 30 years old at the time of this show, and she had been around TV since 1955. She had starred in the 1959 Broadway musical, "Once Upon a Mattress." She had played roles in some TV series before. But this was her first TV movie, and her first role as the leading star. She is a fine singer with a normal voice. But, she can carry a tune well. And, with her comedy, she is able to carry this production.
Art Lund is good and sings a couple songs as Wild Bill Hickok. Lund's singing and acting career was mostly on Broadway. Most of the rest of the cast are little known other than on Broadway. They do okay here. Besides the few songs and comedy, the show has a couple of dance numbers with some fine choreography.
The video recording quality of the show isn't very good. If one enjoys musicals and comedy, this is worth watching if it can be found in a library or a friend's video collection. But otherwise, it's not something to spend more than a couple dollars on to buy or watch.
Here are some favorite lines form this film.
Calamity Jane, "Well, lemme tell you somethin' right here and now. Whatever I lie about I can prove."
Lt. Danny Gilmartin, "Calamity Jane? The one and only Calamity Jane?" Calamity Jane, "Miss Calamity Jane."
Lt. Danny Gilmartin, "May I have the privilege of calling on you?" Calamity Jane, "I was just going to ask you that same thing."
Lt. Danny Gilmartin, "I know this may sound a little forward..." Calamity Jane, "Out with it." Lt. Gilmartin, "Well, would you..." Calamity, "Yes!" Lt. Gilmartin, "Would you show me everything you know about scouting and dirty Indian fighting?" Calamity, "Well, uh, the scouting shouldn't take too long, and as to the dirty Indian fightin,' we could kinda work that out together on the sofa."
Calamity Jane, "You know, when I thought Danny loved me, I was happy as a butcher's dog."
The Great Impostor (1961)
The man of many IDs, careers, and escapades
"The Great Imposter" is one of the most unusual stories ever put on film. Based on a 1959 book by the same title, it's a true story about a man of many identities and many professions. Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. lived from 1921 to 1982. From the time he was a teenager, he lived the lives of some 30 different people. Most of them were "borrowed" IDs from real persons living. And, in most cases, he assumed their careers or credentials which enabled him to pursue another career.
This movie is a fictionalized account of Demara's many IDs and positions before he was 38 years old. Tony Curtis gives a good performance of Demara, who was a physically large man. But Curtis portrays well the character of Demara who was an extrovert with a very upbeat personality. The movie shows many of the real escapades that Demara had -- all that are shown here actually happened. And, there were many more.
This movie is billed as a comedy and drama, but it also ranks as an adventure and maybe even a mystery of sorts. It's not a crime story, but lingers around the edge. Demara is close to a con man, yet he doesn't do anything to rob, steal or gain money from someone else. He doesn't really have victims, but his guises are a type of caper in which he fools an entity or institution in order to get a position.
With all of this, I think Demara's story itself, and this film, also are something of a satire. They get in jabs at the government, education system, institutions and various professions where they build on credentials. Here was a man who had the Ph.Ds. and accolades behind his assumed names, but who hadn't earned those honors and yet could do the job or hold down the position, whatever it was.
This is a fine film and one that everyone should enjoy. The full story about Demara makes great reading. For those who would like just a condensed version of more of his background, I provide the following.
Demara did spend 18 months in a U.S. Navy disciplinary barracks for desertion, but otherwise never was tried or convicted of any crime or wrongdoing. That probably was due to the nature of his forged or faked IDs. He never took on a new position for money, or stole or robbed from anyone. He lived on the money he was paid for the various jobs he had under the various IDs. In several of his assumed IDs, he made significant contributions.
But how could he take on so many diverse careers successfully? He had a photographic memory and could quickly read and easily memorize textbooks. He supposedly had an exceptionally high IQ. Asked later in life why he didn't just use his skills to advance as himself, Demara said that he was just being a rascal. He left school and ran away because it was too slow. He liked the adventure and challenge of each new thing. He was interested in many things. None of it ever was harmful. Much of it was in helpful and in humanitarian fields.
Among the many careers or positions he worked in, most under his fake (assumed) IDs, were several in the medical field, education, and social welfare. Before his Canadian Royal Navy service as a surgeon, he was trained as a Navy corpsman (medic), was a sanitarium orderly, and a psychologist. He was an elementary school teacher, taught at two different colleges, and founded a college that today is Walsh University in Canton, Ohio. He entered and tried Catholic religious orders, including time as a Trappist monk, a Benedictine monk, and a member of the Christian Brothers that run schools.
Demara worked as a counsellor at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. He received a graduate certificate from Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon and for a time was pastor of a Baptist parish in that state. In his last years, he was a visiting chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital of Orange County in Anaheim California. He befriended many people over his life, including the owners of the hospital. He was allowed to live there and died of heart failure due to diabetes.
Demara served as a prison deputy warden, as a sheriff's deputy, and as a lawyer. Other guises and jobs he had were as a civil engineer, an editor, a cancer researcher and a childcare expert. His is almost a fairy tale story of many escapades.
It's only natural to compare this story and film with that of Frank Abagnale Jr., and the 2002 movie, "Catch Me if You Can." But there is a big difference between the two characters. Abagnale was a true con artist who set out to make millions of dollars, by dishonest means. Demara was a genius who wasn't driven for money but by curiosity, many interests and a sense of adventure that led him to try many fields. As I noted, he was on the edge but he never pursued a scam operation to cheat or steal from, or hurt anyone else.
I don't understand why one might see this film as a bad influence for children. With proper discussion, one can point out the good things Demara tried to do. And then tell children they should try them the right way. Or, does anyone think that there are thousands, hundreds or even dozens of such genius personalities and with such abilities among the young today? If there have been up to the late 20-teens, they haven't gotten very far. Or, there surely would be more than one such story.
Interesting "How to" of submarine filming in the deep
This documentary about the making of the 1990 movie, "The Hunt for Red October" has comments from most of the production heads. "Beneath the Surface: The Making of 'The Hunt for Red October'" looks at the technical challenges and methods used to make the movie, as well as acquiring the film rights from the book.
Some of the actors are interviewed in this 29-minute short. But of most interest are the details of the filmmakers and technical people. Among those interviewed are producer Mace Neufeld, executive producer Larry DeWaay, director John Tiernan, and Jan de Bont, director of photography. Other craftsmen comment on aspects of the movie. Film editors, artists, model makers and others weigh in on the techniques.
De Bont says, "We had to look at real submarines first, and see what they look like." The crew rode a submarine out of San Diego to get a sense of life on a sub with all its space constraints. That also proved to be the problem when building a set for shooting inside a sub. The moviemakers praised Capt. Tom Fargo (later, an admiral), skipper of the San Diego, that they rode. He provided good advice and help.
Most movie mavens will be interested in how they filmed the exteriors of the submarines under water. Using models against blue screens, they then added screens and various things to imitate water movement, bubbles, etc. And models and sets were built to exact specifications.
Larry DeWaay says, "We built the interior of a Los Angeles class attack submarine... and it was accurate to the smallest detail. It's amazing. The gauges worked." He says, "It was on a gimbal and it was up in the air, and it was just this interior shell; but the gauges inside worked, and they were hooked to a computer so, as the sub started to descend, the gauges would descend." Sean Connery says, "It was gimbaled to do 45 degree fronts, behinds, sideways - which, in itself, is sea-sickening."
Keith London and Kim Smith worked on the models and talked about their use. Scott Squires was supervisor of visual effects and discussed that work. The photography units had several directors and cameramen. They tell how they created the appearance of subs under water. Marty Rosenberg, Patrick Shelly, Carl Miller, Bob Hull and Vance Piper described various techniques.
Alec Baldwin makes a strange comment, referring to the popularity of author Tom Clancy who wrote the novel on which the movie is based. Baldwin says, "You'd be in the first class cabin of a plane, and eight of the ten people on the plane were reading a Tom Clancy novel." Was it eight out of 10 in first class only? Or did Baldwin wander out of first class into the "public" sector of the plane?
Anyway, those interested in the craft and businesses of moviemaking should find this short film of interest.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Just in time for the end of the Cold War and the USSR
"The Hunt for Red October" is a superb thriller that's just in time for the end of the Cold War and the USSR.
When Tom Clancy wrote his first novel, "The Hunt for Red October," in 1984, no one could foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union. Certainly not within just seven years. But, when this movie by the same title and based on Clancy's best-seller was made in March 1990, the demise of the USSR had just begun.
Talk about fortunate and opportunistic timing. Had the movie been delayed another year or two, it would have been after the collapse and likely would not have drawn as much interest. But one could not find a period of more attention and higher interest for a film such as this than during the first months that the Iron Curtain began to crumble.
The Berlin Wall collapsed in November of 1989. Soviet bloc countries began to seek their independence. Within three months of this film's release (May 1990), the first free election of the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic took place.
By Dec. 25, 1991, all the former member states of the USSR had gained independence. And, on that day, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the USSR, thus ending its existence. The recently elected Boris Yeltsin was now the sole leader of the new republic of Russia.
It's worth recounting these events from history for considering the significance of this movie. Because a few decades down the road, when there will be little memory left of the Soviet Union, there should always be a reminder of what it was. And beyond that time, when only the history books will have accounts of the USSR, this movie will remain as a testament of the time and the world threat of global warfare that existed because of the USSR. Perhaps it may have a future role in helping to divert major warfare between nations.
This is a superb film, based on a superb book. It's a tremendous military thriller of the Cold War period. The craft put into the movie is outstanding -- from a first-rate cast to sets, props, submarine design and reconstructions of the Neptune class Soviet sub, photography, direction, etc.
Here are a couple of favorite lines from the film. For more dialog, see the Quotes section under this IMDb Web page of the movie.
Marko Ramius, "A little revolution now and then is a healthy thing, don't you think?"
Jeffrey Pelt, "Listen, I'm a politician, which means I'm a cheat and a liar, and when I'm not kissing babies I'm stealing their lollipops. But it also means that I keep my options open."
Poirot: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1992)
For Poirot, a visit to the dentist can be murder
Chief Inspector Japp is all over the murder case in "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe." At first, it appears to be suicide, although Hercule Poirot quickly convinces him otherwise. Then a second murder occurs that is linked. Japp watches as Poirot looks for clues. Then, when a third related murder turns up, Japp is all but beaten. Now, he pays close attention as Poirot pieces it together.
This film provides a couple of early clues that are very obvious, and not red herrings. If one sticks with them, part of the sinister plot will become clear. Still, it's a complex one, and only Poirot is able to come up with the precise scenario and why there are three murders. The story opens in 1925 India with some old newsreel film of the visit to that country by Prince George. After the opening scenes, it moves to London in 1937.
This Poirot mystery is one of just a few that have multiple murders. Here are some favorite lines.
Mrs. (Julia) Olivera, "I've never heard of a dentist committing suicide before. Wouldn't happen in the States, you can be sure of that. They're too damn rich to kill themselves."
Chief Inspector Japp, "Cheer up, Poirot. We can't have a nice juicy murder every time."
Hercule Poirot, after Japp suggests tea in his home, "Do you have, perhaps, a tisane?" Chief Inspector Japp: "Oh, come off of it, Poirot. This is ...."
Mrs. (Julia) Olivera, "I hope this is a matter of importance, Alistair. That Belgian detective sent a most insolent message to us."