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My Son John (1952)
3/10
An interesting movie torpedoed by its political pretensions
28 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Since most of the political bellyaching about this movie seems to be coming from the self-righteous right, I'm going to ignore it and just talk about the film itself. What starts out as a well-acted exploration of family tensions - especially those between a relatively uneducated set of middle-class parents and their college-educated son - gives way to the clumsy, overwrought melodramatics of the second half of the film. The death of Robert Walker during filming doesn't really excuse or explain the awfulness of the last hour. There's an early scene between John and his mother in which he explains that his goals are the same as those of the Catholic Church in which they were both raised but that his methods are different. The fact that he is a Communist (McCarey and some of his apologists seem to suggest) means that those goals must be evil because the methods are evil. Just stop thinking for yourself; trust in God and the FBI. It's a dangerous message, and not all that far off from the one that the Communists drilled into their victims (for "God and the FBI" substitute "the Party"). Oh, well . . . I guess I couldn't avoid the political bellyaching.

The sad thing is that the lead actors are all so good. McCarey was brilliant at getting excellent naturalistic performances from his actors, and Helen Hayes, Robert Walker, Van Heflin and Dean Jagger are all extremely convincing until the film collapses into right-wing agitprop at the halfway mark. Even Hayes couldn't do much (except overact) with her climactic scene in which her character tries to use a football analogy to get her son to see the light.
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6/10
Almost too sophisticated for its own good
9 April 2009
This is one of the films Stanley Donen directed during his long sojourn in England. His previous one with Cary Grant, "Indiscreet," also starred Ingrid Bergman, and the two of them repeated their impeccable chemistry from "Notorious" ten years earlier in a very romantic and yet sophisticated comedy. "The Grass Is Greener" is, if anything, more sophisticated, almost stultifyingly so. It's obviously based on a stage play, fitted out with a handful of cinematic tricks that stick out like sore thumbs.

This cast could do no wrong, as far as I'm concerned, and they just about manage to make it work. Robert Mitchum is probably miscast, but he doesn't let it show, and his scenes with Deborah Kerr (the two of them made many films together and enjoyed one another's company) work beautifully. Cary Grant is impeccable, as always, although I can't help thinking that this really is Rex Harrison territory. And Jean Simmons is delightful - she really is a fairly underrated actress. Moray Watson also shines as the butler.

One question: why didn't the doctor every show up? (You have to watch the movie to the end to find out what I mean.)
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Help! (1965)
6/10
Uninspired silliness
6 March 2009
The Beatles' sequel to "A Hard Day's Night" is a relentlessly silly spoof of spy thrillers, with an Indian cult headed by a manic Leo McKern (his character's name is Clang) pursuing Ringo, who is wearing their sacred ring and therefore must become a human sacrifice. Also in on the chase are an inept mad scientist (Victor Spinetti) and his even more incompetent assistant (Roy Kinnear), as well as Ahme (Eleanor Bron), a renegade member of the cult who is trying to protect the Beatles. Some of the gags are fun, David Watkin's cinematography is highly evocative (especially when the cast converges, for no good reason, on an Alpine slope), and the film contains some of the Beatles' best songs. But, unfair as it may be to compare it to "A Hard Day's Night," the fact is that "Help!" is more elaborate, more expensive, and less charming.
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5/10
Half of a decent movie
6 September 2008
"The Prime Minister" is Benjamin Disraeli, one of the most determinedly interesting figures of nineteenth-century England. This film is very obviously a piece of wartime propaganda, with a few bits of Socialist speechmaking tossed in as well. Many of Disraeli's famous witty quotes are included (to add authenticity, of course), the costumes and sets are reasonably lavish for a moderately-budgeted film, and the performances are more than adequate. The biggest problem is that the first half of the film is pretty bad, and it's Gielgud's fault. A great actor with a great voice, he had absolutely no idea how to play an ardently romantic young man in love and, given no help from the dialogue, comes off as stiff as a board. About halfway through the film, though, about 25 years in Disraeli's (and England's) life are passed over in a few explanatory titles, and Gielgud suddenly appears as a much older Disraeli, sporting a kind of inverted grin and made up to look remarkably like Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln. From this point on, Gielgud is in his glory - he's exciting to listen to, and his facial expressions are pricelessly funny. From this point on, the film picks up steam and doesn't lose impetus until the final frames.
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10/10
Better every time you watch it
9 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
My father served in the Navy during the Korean War. He told me that one night on the ship they showed "The Thing from Another World," and at the scene where a door is opened to reveal the monster standing on the threshold, an entire roomful of hardbitten American sailors screamed like teenaged girls. I'm not sure that would happen today, although the scene still provides a good shock if you're not expecting it, but Howard Hawks' film of "The Thing" is still one of the first and easily one of the best of the 1950s monster movies. Smart dialogue and good acting lift it above all the others (except perhaps "Them!").

Hawks (and the consensus is that the film was principally directed by Hawks himself, not by Christian Nyby, an editor who needed a director's credit on his resume) maintains suspense in the most simple and effective way: instead of constantly cutting away to show us what the monster is up to or where it is, Hawks keeps us with the band of soldiers and scientists trying to find it and destroy it, so that we don't know any more than they do. John Carpenter in his remake over a quarter-century later provides more special effects, but he doesn't hold the suspense as well.

The characters are well-fleshed-out stereotypes, and the film is as fine a display of good ensemble acting as you'll see in any film, let alone a monster film. For me, that's what makes the movie watchable many time over. And it's what makes "The Thing from Another World" a good film rather than a guilty pleasure.
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Scrooge (1935)
5/10
Halfway down the list of "Scrooges"
29 December 2007
This is a very odd film version of "A Christmas Carol," mostly worth watching, I suppose, for Sir Seymour Hicks's performance (he was a renowned stage actor, and renowned for this particular role). There is a long interpolated scene of the Lord Mayor giving a Christmas feast while poor children watch through the window that doesn't exist in the book, or in any other film version that I know of, and which seems to have eaten up the budget for the rest of the movie. The invisible Marley's ghost may have worked well on stage but is simply peculiar on celluloid. Most of the performances are acceptable, and this is by no means the worst of the seemingly billions of "Scrooges" available to film lovers, but I wouldn't put it in the same rank as the versions starring Alastair Sim or George C. Scott.
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2/10
How not to make a science fiction film
1 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
"Four Sided Triangle" manages to do almost everything wrong. The story had possibilities: two childhood friends who have created a replicating machine fall in love with the same woman; she marries the first; the second decides to duplicate her, forgetting that the duplicate will have the same feelings as the original. It's a fairly simple story, and one that could have been handled nicely in a half-hour segment of "Twilight Zone." Here the writer and director managed to pad it out to 80 tedious minutes, beginning with a completely irrelevant description of the village in which the film takes place (sure, it seems a lovely village, but it plays absolutely no part in the plot, and after the first few minutes of travelogue, the film may just as well be taking place in New Jersey). The doctor (played inertly by James Hayter) is given a lot of narration, much of which is punctuated by platitudinous quotations from poetry. We watch the two scientists raise the money for the machine; we watch them gazing intensely at bubbling test tubes; we watch as they and the woman manipulate the machine, trying to drum up some suspense as to whether it will really duplicate the doctor's watch or not. It goes on forever. The story itself, apart from the cheesy window-dressing, doesn't begin until about the film is half over. The acting gets stagier, the pace gets choppier, the script gets clumsier. The scenes of the village at the beginning are nicely photographed. Otherwise, not one of Hammer's better offerings.
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1/10
Even color wouldn't help this turkey
28 October 2007
I have to disagree with the poster who suggested that "Horror of It All" is neglected because it was filmed in black and white. "Dr. Strangelove" and "A Hard Day's Night," two black and white films which came out the following year, didn't seem to suffer from the lack of color. "Horror of It All" is neglected because it's a stinker. Pat Boone was never a threat to Olivier, and here he is encouraged (or allowed) to overact embarrassingly. The sets are cheap, the costumes are cheesy and the script is awful. And Terence Fisher, a first-rate director of horror films, seemed to have no flair for comedy (and got no help from the script). Neglect in this case is benign.
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Mary Poppins (1964)
10/10
A Great Film Even When You're Older
22 May 2003
I saw this when it first appeared (I was about nine) and was completely swept away by it. I didn't see it again for about twenty-five years, but when I did I was completely swept away by it. I've now seen it at least ten times and am completely swept away by it every time. The combination of live action and animation is still awe-inspiring, as is Dick Van Dyke's Cockney accent, although in a different sense. Still, Van Dyke is superb, as is Julie Andrews. The set design is wonderful - everything looks the way an Anglophile would hope London might have looked in the Edwardian era, even if the reality was very different. The songs are some of the best ever written for the screen, and the dance of the chimney sweeps is still one of the most exciting things ever filmed. This film, unlike some of us viewers, actually improves with age.
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A Long, Long Fall
22 May 2003
I had a hard time making it to the end of this film. Maybe there's just something inherently enervating about watching an empire fall. Anyway, Sophia Loren is at the height of her beauty but isn't given much to do, and Stephen Boyd is hopeless. Plummer is wonderfully villainous, and Alec Guinness and James Mason steal every scene they're in. (In fact, Guinness has what is certainly the [intentionally] funniest line ever uttered in an epic. When Boyd says that he will bring back the head of his enemy and give it to Guinness, Guinness replies, "Oh, don't give me his head. I wouldn't know what to do with it.") The sets are impressive, but it's just all too long.
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10/10
The Best of the Scrooges
22 May 2003
I remember first seeing this film on the "Million Dollar Movie" on Channel 9 in New York in the early 1960's. The "Million Dollar Movie" ran in the late afternoon, and showed the same movie, with the same breaks for the same commercials, every day for a week. It also made several cuts to fit the film into its time slot, so it wasn't for many years that I discovered that this "Scrooge" did not begin with Scrooge shooing away the carolers from his office door. Anyway, given its obviously low budget, it's a very well-made film (although watch the scene where the reformed Scrooge, cavorting around his bedroom, talks to himself in the mirror - in the reflection you can see a technician's head popping out once or twice from behind a curtain). The atmosphere is suitable dark (brightened up deplorably in the colorized version, which should be avoided), and most of the acting is at least good and at best excellent. Alistair Sim, an actor who was incapable of giving a bad performance, is extraordinarily fine in the title role. The George C. Scott is a very close runner-up to this one in the "Christmas Carol" stakes, and don't overlook Mr. Magoo's musical version, which has a superb score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Still, this is the one that my family has watched every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember.
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10/10
The Last Great Movie Musical until "Chicago"
21 May 2003
I saw "Victor/Victoria" when it first came out (so to speak), and have seen it many times since. I've always been a Blake Edwards fan, and this is probably his second best film, after "The Great Race." Henry Mancini's music is let down a bit by Leslie Bricusse's flatfooted lyrics, but the production numbers are terrific, and the leading actors are all at their considerable best (particularly Robert Preston, who was apparently incapable of giving a dull performance).
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The Party (1968)
8/10
Almost a Classic
21 May 2003
It's a shame this movie falls apart so badly in the last 20 minutes or so, because up until then it has some of the funniest, most inventive, most brilliantly staged comic routines ever filmed. The endlessly rolling toilet paper had me convulsed with laughter for about five minutes after the scene was over (that may say more about me than the scene, but see for yourself). Claudine Longet is blander than one might have thought possible, but most of the other performances are perfectly timed.
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8/10
Three Thoughts about "The Pink Panther"
21 May 2003
1) This is probably the most beautiful LOOKING slapstick comedy ever filmed. The sets, the scenery, the costumes, the photography - everything looks elegant and expensive.

2) For those of us who actually like the cultural atmosphere of the early sixties at least as much as that of the late sixties, this is a goldmine, ranking right up there with the early Bond films.

3) For insecure actors fixated on billing (i.e., where their names go on the credits): just remember that Peter Sellers got third billing on this film, and yet he's the one everyone thinks of when they think of "The Pink Panther." And not just because of the sequels - this was the movie that made him an American movie star. Billing can't compensate for genius.
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8/10
Not Your Typical Christmas Movie
21 May 2003
This is a woefully underrated film, if for no other reason than that it's the only film I've ever seen in which Peter Ustinov is upstaged by another actor - in this case, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart isn't exactly famous for his comedy, but he's magnificently funny in this, and while Ustinov is one of my favorite people (as actor, writer, director and raconteur), and while he's in good form in this film, he's outclassed by Bogart. Basil Rathbone and Leo J. Carroll are also first-rate, as usual, and the whole movie has a kind of black charm that makes this a far better film than its reputation (such as it is) would have you believe.
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10/10
A Highly Underrated Holiday Film
21 May 2003
Years ago I read somewhere (a film encyclopedia, I think) someone's opinion that Cary Grant was the best film actor of all time. At the time I thought that was ignorant hyperbole. The older I get, and the more Grant film I see, the easier that opinion is to believe. He's superb in this film, as are Loretta Young, Monty Woolley and David Niven. The best acting in the film, in fact, happens whenever Grant and Niven are in the same scene - their chemistry is extraordinary!

Although I saw this film on television when I was a teenager, I never gave it another thought until I saw it again about five years ago. Since then it's become one of my favorite Christmas films - schmaltzy, God knows, but that's what Christmas films are supposed to be, and this one is wiser and better made than most. (And the remake was abysmal.)
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7/10
Better than some of the reviews would lead you to believe.
10 June 2002
Not a masterpiece, but a much better film than some of the reviews would lead you to believe. It goes on a bit too long, and Ernest Borgnine chews up every bit of scenery he can find, but Rock Hudson (not normally one of my favorite actors) is extremely convincing as the sub commander, and he and Patrick McGoohan (one of my all-time favorite actors) have unusually good acting chemistry. I first saw this in Cinerama, and it works very well on a huge screen, less so on TV.
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10/10
Still funny after all these years
10 June 2002
I'm old enough to have seen this movie when it first came out, so I'm entitled to be a little curmudgeonly when I watch contemporary "moron" comedies and wonder where Hollywood went wrong. This one has elegance (not merely visual, although this and "The Pink Panther" are probably the two most beautiful slapstick comedies ever made), intelligence, sophistication and lots of laughs. All the performances are first-rate (Lemmon and Falk made a wonderful team), and although the film runs out of steam in the last twenty minutes or so (and it's a LONG movie - I remember it having an intermission, in the days when long movies had intermissions), it's still more authentically funny than more than a handful of comedies that have been made since the end of the '60's.
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Ben-Hur (1959)
10/10
Still a first-class epic
10 June 2002
This was the first movie I ever saw (what persuaded my father to take his five-year-old son into New York to see a four-hour Biblical epic is beyond me, although I do remember there was plenty of hype about it - I even had a Ben-Hur coloring book), and although some of the special effects look a little cheesy these days, and Charlton Heston's performance is so strained and over-the-top that it's sometimes unwatchable, this is still a first-class epic. And whereas much of the visual grandeur in "Gladiator" is computer-generated, the sets in "Ben-Hur" are all demonstrably real, making this the most expensive (and most lucrative) film of its time.
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