Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Lucky Me" (1954)

This serviceable musical was Doris Day's followup effort the year following her smash hit "Calamity Jane". It bombed. On paper it should have worked: same studio, same songwriters, great supporting cast, likable leading man. But the shopworn backstage story and ho-hum songs make make it almost forgettable, emphasis on almost. The saving grace, of course, is the indomitable gale force skill of Ms. Day. The woman didn't have a disingenuous acting bone in her body. She believes in the hokey script and bland lyrics, or at least she makes you think she does. She rises so far above the dross material that she single-handedly pulls it across the finish line. And that's called talent, folks.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

"Thieves Like Us" (1974)

The marketing wizards of Hollywood chose to sell this Depression era crime story as a another "Bonne & Clyde". Big mistake. Yes, both are about a young, madly in love bank robbing couple making headlines and fleeing the authorities, but that's where the similarities end. The former was a statement about the intersection of violence, sex, and celebrity in American culture, told with glamorous stars, a whipcrack smart script, and groundbreaking editing. This Robert Altman piece is 180 degrees from that, trying for something completely different. The director has chosen instead to create a visual tone poem, a languid depiction of the simpler, less frenzied life in 1930's rural America. The bank robberies are almost an afterthought. They're shot from afar or not at all, we just see the escape. The movie is long and deliberately paced. Small moments stand out: a game of catch, a Sunday dinner, a sensous bath. And it's the two lovers we remember most. Keith Carradine and Shelley Duval are so perfectly matched. Two beanpoles with big teeth and eyes. Sweet and laconic, sipping Cokes and finding a doomed love that will stick with you well after the story's over.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

"Black Narcissus" (1947)

If you never thought you'd read the words "the sexiest nun movie ever made", then think again. This sui generis work of art has none of the expected nun movie trappings. No noble statements about self-sacrifice to Catholicism or religion. No heartwarming plot involving children, animals, or some wayward soul who needs salvation. No singing. No alps. And NO FLYING. This is a study of human frailty, specifically one's sexual yearnings and desires, despite a vow of fealty to God that can come into question. And it's got more passion than most bodice-ripping romance novels could hope for. Deborah Kerr is a young nun given the task of starting a new missionary high in the remote Himalayas. It's a maharajah's old palace that used to be a love nest for his harem. Along with four other sisters she has to contend with the local native culture but her pesky feelings for a strapping agent (David Farrar), an emissary to the local Indian General, are the real suspense here. Faith or Desire? What wins in the eternal struggle of the heart? Kerr is superb, practically giving a performance with just her eyes alone. Farrar is a walking sex bomb, he exudes testosterone making you wonder why this magnetic performance didn't garner him other notable roles. But the movie is stolen by Kerr's nemesis, Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth. Her creepy portrayal of a fellow nun vying for the attentions of Farrar is feral, hauntingly intense, and unforgettable. When these two face off in the film's famous showdown it's electric. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for his efforts here, it was a no-brainer. He studied the Great Masters like Vermeer and Caravaggio to create the painterly scenes and compositions. It's a stunning looking picure, unlike anything ever filmed. And the jaw-dropping trivia is that the production went nowhere near India, the whole thing was created with backdrops, matte paintings and technical wizardry in the studios of England! Credit to the celebrated British filmmaking team of director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger for one of the undisputed classics of the 2Oth Century film canon. Don't miss this one.

Monday, July 29, 2019

"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974)

This is one of those great, gritty, police dramas from the 1970's that almost constitute a genre onto themselves.  Hard-bitten actioners like "Dirty Harry", "The French Connection", "Serpico", "Dog Day Afternoon". And while this entry is a grade below those illustrious ground breakers it's definitely worthy of their company. The plot is lean and mean: a group of passionless bad guys attempt to kidnap a New York City subway train in the middle of the afternoon and they'll kill one passenger every minute if they don't get the hostage money (don't laugh at the amount, one million dollars was a lot of money back then). Robert Shaw is the taciturn gang leader. Efficient, cold, and scary, Shaw spits out his dialog like he's being forced to. Things turn into a back-and-forth negotiation with him and the head of the Transit cops, Walter Mathau, giving one of his patented world-weary nonchalant performances that fit him like a glove. The script is filled with some good laughs to ease the high tension, usually delivered by a cross section of cops, transit bureaucrats, and city hall officials all enmeshed in the citywide emergency. Director Joseph Sargent juggles all the action and banter with deft touch, it's probably his best directorial effort. The real unsung heroes here are David Shire turning in a jazzy, jangly score and cinematographer Owen Roizman giving the whole piece the right amount of grimy beauty. The Lindsey era Big Apple looks so menacingly scary no wonder President Ford would famously tell it to drop dead the following year, who wouldn't?

Monday, July 22, 2019

"Sudden Fear" (1952)

After a slump, Joan Crawford's career came roaring back with this big fat hit, and justifiably so. Much like her classic "Mildred Pierce", this is one of those mash-up film noirs, equal parts woman's picture and crime thriller. She's a wealthy San Francisco heiress who's also a successful Broadway playwright (only in the movies, folks). When a May/September romance blooms with a opportunistic younger actor, a vulpine Jack Palance with more cheekbones than an ad for Botox, things turn shady. See, Palance is really in love with his girlfriend on the side, she of the bee-stung lips and kazoo-like voice, Gloria Graham. What if they could bump off the old gal and get all her moolah for themselves? But then, what if La Crawford finds out about the seedy scheme and decides to turn the tables with some nefarious shenanigans of her own? The script is so chock-a-block full of plot it's like a Rube Goldberg machine, there are so many set-ups you see coming but like a row of dominoes, it's so satisfying to see them all pay off. There's one famous and wordless suspense setpiece that Joan does wonders's all in the eyes and tormented facial gestures, and it's agonizing. No wonder she pulled off an Oscar nod for it. Kudos to director David Miller, there's not a bad composition or needless shot in the whole picture. And if you dig really deep you might find a message here about single working women of a certain age and whether they really need the love of man to find true happiness. SPOILER: they don't.

Friday, June 7, 2019

"Alfie" (1966)

The 1960's were the apex of British cool... The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Twiggy. Carnaby Street. James Bond. 'The Avengers'. And in his career defining role that would catapult him to worldwide fame, there was Michael Caine as Alfie. The personification of the hip, cheeky, devil-may-care attitude every young man of the day aspired to. Alfie is a working class young man with style to spare who's the bad boy ladies man, flitting from one broken heart to the next with nary a regret. Life is too short for him to be weighed down with something so downer as responsibility. And he gets away with it scott free. Why? Because he's so charmingly lovable. A cad, a bounder, but Caine infuses him with so much likability you forgive it. But a good thing doesn't last forever and things take a dramatic turn when Alfie confronts some of the harsh consequences of the life he's been leading. The movie's famous stylistic schtick is Caine breaking the fourth wall to talk the audience, his stream of conscience philosophies sometimes happen in scenes with other characters but they don't notice it. Probably a holdover from the stage play from which it was adapted, in the hands of a lesser actor it might grate, here it sings. There's also a zoftig Shelley Winters in three short scenes, despite her second billing, as a man hungry cougar who teaches Alfie a cold lesson in love. And let's not forget the title song over the end credits, one of the premier masterpieces of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songbook (it's the composer's personal favorite) sung by that other 60's pop icon Cher!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

"Catch-22" (1970)

Is it possible to make a great film from Joseph Heller's celebrated novel about the evils and hypocrisies of war? The short answer is probably 'no'. The very form of the novel, an elliptical non-sequential series of episodes barely masquerading as plot would be the first hurdle. Then there's the frustrating, nonsensical bureaucratic-ease that pervades much of the dialog. And don't let's forget that most of the characters are charlatans, blowhards, cowards, criminals, or just plain idiots. It's a wonder then that director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry managed to pull together a noble effort, a somewhat more coherent movie out of this knotty source material. The (anti)hero is Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a WWII fighter pilot stationed on an island off the coast of Italy. All he wants is to fly his last bombing mission so he can get the hell out of the war and back home. But like Lucy with the football, his superiors keep snatching away his goal, forcing him to keep flying. The soul sapping futility is the point of the piece, and if it weren't for the all-star fine cast most of the satiric humor wouldn't work, but with pros like Richard Benjamin, Martin Balsam, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Paula Prentiss, and Orson Welles, they pull it off. At least most of the time. It also doesn't hurt that Nichols was given a hefty budget to make the wide-screen production truly handsome. There's one flying sequence with a a full squadron of real   B-52's taking off that is draw dropping, something we'll never see the likes of again sans CGI effects.