Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Movie Reviews 429 – Mildred Pierce (1945)

March 26, 2020

Film Noir fans are all too familiar with the cliché beginning of a movie in which someone is shot (often in the dark), uttering a name or phrase, and then dying in a pool of (unseen on screen) blood, leaving audiences to figure out the murderer. In the case of Mildred Pierce, the man who dies whispers “Mildred”, is indeed her husband, and we see her fleeing the beach house scene of the crime, even managing to lock in someone who arrived minutes later with the hopes to pin them to the murder. Cliché aside however, nothing is as it seems, or to be precise, nobody is really as they seem in this Noir classic.

Starring in the title role, Mildred Pierce not only revived Joan Crawford’s then flailing career but earned her an Oscar, all later to be undone with the release of her daughter’s book and the film Mommie Dearest. But that’s another story.

Playing largely as one lifelong flashback we see how doting mother Mildred separates from her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) after he loses his job, makes do with a job as a waitress – much to the chagrin of her vain daughter Veta (Ann Blyth) – and with the help of Wally (Jack Carson) her former husband’s business partner, slowly builds a chain of successful restaurants. Eventually falling for and marrying wealthy heir Monte (Zachary Scott), her one driving force was devotion to her daughters Kay and Veta. When Kay sadly dies at a young age, all her attention, and money, go to Veta’s happiness.

Now putting all that into context of the murder. The victim is her husband Monte, Wally is the one Mildred briefly tries to entrap to take the rap, and Bert, her first husband surprisingly and out of nowhere turns himself in and confesses. Mildred is stunned to find that she isn’t even a suspect. In trying to solve the murder mystery none of this makes sense taken at face value. But taken from a different angle, largely hinted at throughout the film as the characters are peeled back to reveal their true dispositions (hint: often the opposite of what we believe at first), in the end everything makes sense as the killer is revealed.

Crawford donning her signature epaulette shouldered dresses is remarkably solid, although I confess I thought she was even better in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. While I can’t say the script was anything stellar, the story itself and the manner in which the mystery is built up does make this a riveting film. Welcome additions include Eve Arden (better known for her sitcom Our Miss Brooks) as a feisty waitress who works up the ranks in Mildred’s enterprise and Butterfly McQueen as Mildred’s servant.

My Warner.- Turner 2005 DVD with remastered transfer also contained the documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star on the flip side, which I would also heartily recommend for those wanting to learn more of this former diva. Almost as long as the movie but well worth it for details on her legendary feud with arch rival Bette Davis alone.

Movie Reviews 424 – Ace in the Hole (1951)

February 14, 2020

ACE IN THE HOLE [US 1951] DIRECTED BY BILLY WILDER WITH KIRK DOUGLAS Date: 1951

When legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away last week at the ripe old age of 103, most of the obituary notices made mention of his most famous titular role in Spartacus, the epic Stanley Kubrick film. While the film was a huge success, Douglas himself never really got the accolades and award recognition for it. At least for his work in front of the lens that is.

His real success and achievement with Spartacus was what he had done behind the scenes. As executive producer and having acquired the rights to the novel, Douglas openly hired blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to pen the script for the film, thus breaking tradition with the studios who adhered to the unwritten code banning those accused in the infamous HUAC proceedings during the McCarthy era Red Scare. This act is generally recognized as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the success of the film forced the studios to formally recognize the blacklisted writers, most of whom were still working but using pseudonyms and ‘fronts’, and being underpaid for those efforts.

A prolific actor in both films and television, one of my favorite movies starring the charismatic dimple-chinned Douglas has always been Ace in the Hole (1951) in which he plays a newspaper reporter that crosses the line in order to advance his career.

Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a former high flying, big city reporter finds himself down on his luck, out of a job and out of money, even enough to pay for gas for his car. Stuck in remote Albuquerque, New Mexico and plumb out of options he basically begs the editor of the local paper for what he believes will be a short term stint until he gets back on his feet. But after a year of writing mundane news filler, he is at wits end, looking for that ‘big break’ that will get him back into the big league papers. As luck would have it on his way to yet another bland assignment (a rattlesnake hunt), a stop at a desert gasoline station brings news that the station owner, also a relic hunter, has just gotten himself stuck in a mountain passage after a cave in. Already smelling a scoop he is the first on the scene to venture the perilous cave path that leads to the half buried man. It is clear that a rescue will take time and equipment. Time, Chuck muses, that he alone will be in a position to scoop the story.

As soon as Chuck leaves the cave he begins scheming to retain his exclusive reporter status and to make sure that the world hears about the human interest story. He first coaxes the equally unscrupulous Sheriff to keep other reporters out of the cave, while peddling the story to all the major newspapers. As news quickly spreads, the mountainside erupts into a veritable roadside carnival – ferris wheel, barkers, treats, the whole zoo – for rubberneckers who want to savor every aspect of the rescue mission. But Chuck hits rock bottom (so to speak) realizing that the crew shoring up the cave will get to the man in a little over a day. Needing more time to raise his profile, he manages to redirect the rescue crew to dig a rescue hole from the top of the mountain instead of proceeding with the simpler approach.This method will take seven days, enough time for Chuck to punch in his ticket back to the majors and even, perhaps a Pulitzer Prize.

Despite initial assurances from the local doctor that the trapped man can last that long, his deteriorating health soon becomes a race against death. A race, Chuck realizes, that will have the eyes of the world clearly focused on him, but for the wrong reason.

A tale of selfishness taken to extremes, Chuck is not the only one looking out for himself. The trapped man’s peroxide blonde of a wife (Jan Sterling), on the cusp of leaving while her husband lay trapped, is lured back by the sudden flow of the cash register ringing at the station and manages to squeeze every last cent she can from the mass of visitors. Chuck even manages sway a budding young photographer down the path of glory over value.

While perhaps not up to par with some of director Billy Wilder greatest films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution being just some examples), Ace in the Hole, initially released unde the title The Big Carnival, remains a noteworthy and a riveting story.

R.I.P Kirk.

January Movie Marathon – 2020 Edition

January 24, 2020

Time for my annual 31 Movies in 31 Days challenge that I’m glad to report was successful with one caveat. In past years these were January challenges where the movies had to be watched during the month alone. Suspecting that I would be a bit busier this year I cheated a bit by shifting the challenge to begin Christmas day,and gave myself 31 days from that point, so ending January 24th (today!), which also made more sense given that those interim days between Christmas and New Years are really prime relaxing viewing days. My suspicions were correct and even with the shift I just made my quota!

Unlike previous years where my movie viewing was across the gamut of genres and eras, my son and I decided to binge rewatch all the Harry Potter movies so the scale is slightly tipped in favour of those eight movies. But I think the others films preent are a nice variety regarding content and quality. In the order in which I watched them, here are my short reviews.

#1 – Dead Snow (2009) My second viewing of this Norwegian Nazi Zombie film was not as memorable as the first time I watched it at the Fantasia film fest years ago. A bunch of young adults shack up in a remote cabin for a few days of skiing the slopes when (surprise!) World War II era SS troops led by recalcitrant commandant disturb their snow bound vacation. Some fairly funny bits and I did love the Nazis popping out of the snow like Whack-a-Moles at and arcade.

#2 – The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)  As are all the Roger Corman Poe adaptations, this one is a very loose interpretation of the source material. But with Vincent Price and Barbara Steele headlining you really can’t go wrong. And damned if there really isn’t a pit and a giant human slicing pendulum in it and other interesting devices in a torture chamber.

#3 – Christmas with the Kranks (2004) Well I had to watch at least one Holiday film for this list, didn’t I? Sadly, there are a lot better than this one. Even Jamie Lee Curtis as the wife of a couple who decided to forego Christmas for a cruise couldn’t really raise my interest above “Meh.” Should have gone with other Christman movie standards like Die Hard, Gremlins, (Yes, those last two are Christmas movies!), A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life. I guess you could say this one left me Kranky.

#4 – Mommie Dearest (1981) The legacy of silver screen diva Joan Crawford is not so much her films as the events described in the tell-all book “Mommie Dearest” (adapted here) by her daughter after her death in which she revealed that her troubled childhood included beatings with coat hangers. It made headlines at the time and I can’t get it out of my mind that arch enemy Bette Davis must have loved every minute of it. Faye Dunaway nails it as Joan. (Disclaimer: No Nails were used in the beating of the children.)

#5 – Ransom (1996) Mel Gibson turns the cards on Gary Sinise, his son’s kidnapper by putting a ransom on his head rather than paying one, much to the surprise of his own wife (Rene Russo). A decent thriller although Mel is over the top at times as is the entire premise. Much better Gibson/Russo chemistry in Lethal Weapon 3 and Gibson is crazier in that one as well.

#6 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) It’s been a long time since I watched the Harry Potter series. The first movie about the boy wizard, introduces us to Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Snape, McGonagall, those other meddling kids (Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley), a few muggles and not to forget: Quidditch!

#7 – The Night Strangler (1973) This was the second Kolchak TV movie before the The Night Stalker TV series. (I already watched The Night Strangler  pilot movie which started it all a month earlier). l Always wanted to watch the proto-X Files series and I’m finally getting around now 47 years later.  This one has Kolchak (Darrin McGavin) being aided by an exotic dancer (Jo Ann Pflug) solve the mystery of a recurring murderer popping up every few decades since the civil war.

#8 – Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber (2002) Harry, with the help of Ron, Hermione, Dobby the elf, Moaning Myrtle (not a porn star as you would be led to believe), and a book previously owned by Voldemont himself rescue Ron’s sister from the titular chamber. And of course more Quidditch!

#9 – Halloween (2019) I was very excited to hear that there would be another Halloween reboot after the dismal last entry in Rob Zombie’s reboot. The fact that Jamie Lee Curtis was returning in her original role sealed the deal. Now I have to admit that this was not as good as I had hoped and the slow, predictable start nearly had me give up on it entirely but stick with it to the end, bear some of the sillier aspects, and it does carve out a place for itself in the Halloween pantheon. At least it’s a lot better than some of the others.

#10 – The Rock (1996) When a bunch of uber-patriot elite Marines feel slighted by their country they take over Alcatraz and threaten to launch missiles they’ve set up on the isle of the former prison. Without any accurate blueprints and layout of the compound they ask a current convict Sean Connery who is also being screwed over to help.The plot is as convincing as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but it’s Bad-Ass Connery so who cares?

#11 – Godzilla VS. Hedorah (1971) Read review here.

#12 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Someone is out to kill Harry, Ron’s rat escapes, and there’s a werewolf. If nothing else, this was an excuse to get Gary Oldman into the storyline. And there’s a game of Quidditch against a team with the unlikely name of Hufflepuff.

#13 – The Thirteenth Floor (1999) Twists and turns galore as character’s jack-into a 1930’s virtual world with mols, cops, murder and mystery. Sure the effects are dated (even for that time) but this is all about plot and plotting and the truth is a doozy!

#14 – Red Eye (2005) Nearly the entire film takes place within the confines of an airplane as a hotel manager is coerced by a terrorist (Cillian Murphy) to make particular arrangements for a special guest.

#15 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) Not just any Quidditch but nothing less than the World Cup of Quidditch. And then a Tri-Wizard tournament! Sounds like a lot of fun except for that Voldemort dude killing folks.

#16 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) Harry Potter gets expelled from Hogwarts! Actually one of the better films in the series but (egads!) no Quidditch! Includes one of the most wasted character names in cinematic history: Nymphadora Tonks. Nuff said.

#17 – The Purge (2013) The Purge series of films set in a not too distant future America in which once a year, for 24 hours, people can kill one another to ‘purge’ pent up frustration (the thinking being that it’s somehow better in the long term). This first movie has an upper scale family being safely locked in their home until one of the kids decides to ‘save’ a stranger being hunted. But the stranger ends up being the least of their problems.

#18 – Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009) The ‘blood’ in the title must be indicative of the many fluids in the plot including love potions, poison, liquid luck, and mead. My least favorite of the series and more a setup for the ending in the next installment.

#19 – Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) Read review here.

#20 – First Strike (1996) Jackie Chan dishes out his usual “Chan-anigans” as a Hong Kong cop helping the CIA nab an arms dealer in Australia and meeting up with some Russians. I think they were going for International appeal.

#21 – The House that Dripped Blood (1971) Read review here

#22 – Dead Reckoning (1947) Humphrey Bogart has to track down his best friend and fellow former paratrooper after he ditches at a train stop just before the to are set to receive prestigious war medals in Washington. Following a byzantine set of clues (including a false name to begin with) he finds that his buddy was an accused murder on the run. But why did he suddenly go back to the scene of the crime and them seem to disappear altogether. Bogey has to rely on his buddy’s former gal (Lizbeth Scott) but can he even trust her? (prosecution witness?)

#23 – Duck Soup (1933) You can never go wrong with The Marx Brothers’ vaudevillian humour. Between Groucho’s fire-a-minute witty one liners, Harpo’s voiceless antics, and Chico’s accented haggling and scheming, who needs a plot? But if things like that are important to you, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is sworn in as the new leader of Freedonia to remedy their cash shortage, while his brothers are bumbling infiltrators sent in from a rival country hoping to start a war. I won’t mention Zeppo.

#24 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) Harry and his friends ‘jump the shark’ with this entry in the series. What began as a fun, interesting saga with great characters has transgressed into a dark, repetitive here as they set up the finale in Part 2. And not even one damn Quidditch game (although a Snitch figures prominently in the plot).

#25 – Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) A greedy cop (Gary Oldman) earns a little extra side income by tipping off the mob on informant hideout information but things start to go wrong when they take out an informant about to spill their secrets but also take a few cops with them in their assault. Not only can he not back out of their little deal, but he is now being forced to take out one of those informants on his own. But Mona (Lena Olin) is no mere informant, but a mob hitwoman who took out the previous informant and a roomful of cops. Intense, action packed, saucy and sentimental.

#26 – Forbidden Planet (1956) Read review next week here!

#27 – The Money Pit (1986) Mid-eighties rom-com where a young couple (Shelley Long and Tom Hanks) are suddenly in need of a place to stay and chance upon a mansion that needs a little work but is surprisingly within their limited means. But as all “too good to be true” parables their fortunate find ends up putting a strain on their relationship as their dream house begins to crumble before their very eyes. Corny but fun.

#28 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) I must admit that my disappointment with part one of this finale was fully redeemed with this satisfying ending. All the questions, some looming since the very beginning, are answered here although not always to fan’s hopes. Which is as is should be. My one complaint was that a lot of scenes seemed to be pilfered directly from other blockbusters including Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. How many times must we see hordes of evil creatures descending on an isolated hamlet backstopping the forces of good? How many times must we see the two most powerful characters, good vs evil, deploy mystical weapons against each other, streaming in mid air (conveniently in different colors), to determine which is stronger?

#29 – Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) One of nearly fifty movies featuring the illustrious pulp-era Chinese sleuth (the first few being silent era films and many of the others now lost). Hard to believe that it’s been nearly 40 years since the last, loosely based on a real life Hawaiian detective of Chinese descent. Scored ten DVDs last week so I’ll be enjoying a few more. This one even has Stepin Fetchit who only adds to negative stereotypes depicted in these films. (The DVDs even include a warning lest some be offended.)

#30 – Watching the Detectives (2007) Not the Elvis Costello song but a film about a versed film buff (Cillian Murphy) who owns and runs a low key video rental store whose life gets turned around when he meets quirky Violet (Lucy Liu) who lives her life on the edge, moment by moment while playing sophisticated, agonizing pranks on him. Some pacing irritants but the characters make up for it. I must confess that I just loved all the movie references bantered between all the video store employees although the message of the film is to abandon viewing and start to live instead. Disingenuous as had I done that I wouldn’t have watched this film.

#31 – Fury (1936) This was Fritz Lang’s first American film after escaping an increasingly Nazi led Germany. Spencer Tracy is a hardworking, honest man saving every penny so that he can get married to the love of his life. But life throws him a curveball just as he has finally saved up enough and is on his way to meet his fiance when he is thrown in jail suspected of being a member of a group of kidnappers that have taken a child. As word of the capture spreads across the grapevine, the overzealous townsfolk have made up their mind and storm the jailhouse which is soon engulfed in flames. Miraculously managing to escape the inferno, the innocent man, now out for blood himself, decides to lay low as a number of the lynch mob are put on trial for his murder having established that they had the wrong man. Great suspense and pathos.

Movie Reviews 419 – Mad Detective (2007)

December 27, 2019

I found Johnnie To’s PTU to be a bit overrated but thought I’d give the director  another chance with Mad Detective, yet another one of his staple cop/detective films, this time co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai. Unlike the enigmatic PTU, in this case the title pretty much says it all. But don’t think that the Mad attribute is one meaning feigned dementia à la Mel “Riggs” Gibson in Lethal Weapon or terror inducing Jack like The Shining. What we have here is insanity in its purest form.

The movie begins with flashbacks of detective Bun (Ching Wan Lau) skillfully solving a number of murders using the most bizarre of sleuthing techniques to puzzle out the whodunits. Slicing a pig carcass to determine slash angles. Repeatedly rolling a colleague down a staircase while zipped in a suitcase only to proclaim that he has solved a murder based on the resulting bruises. And slashing off his own ear at the retirement ceremony of his superior.

But at some point (probably the Van Gogh self mutilation imitation incident) the force has had enough with his strange antics and he is put to pasture. That is until rookie detective Ho Ka-On (Andy On) comes knocking at his door. Professing his admiration for the legendary Bun he asks him to help him solve a baffling case, one involving other cops.

Ho explains that 18 months earlier an officer disappeared after he and his partner Chi-Wai (Lam Ka-Tung) chased a suspect into a forest. Chi-Wai, a cop with a sullied reputation and thus the prime, was interrogated repeatedly but claimed he did not know what had happened to his partner. But the real problem that the authorities have now is that there has been a rash of fatal robberies and the gun used in those belonged to that missing officer.

Bun agrees to help and when asked by Ho what is the secret to his success claims that he has a gift in that he can see the ‘inner selves’ of people and therefore know their true intentions beyond any facade they may be putting on. And that ‘vision’ reveals that Chi-Wai has not one alter ego but seven! Now the clearly insane Bun has to determine which, if any, of Chi-Wai’s alter egos is capable of murder.

This film requires viewers to adjust to not only the insanity induced visions that are only in Bun’s mind – some of which are skillfully filmed so as not to be obvious at first – but also how Bun often interacts with alter egos rather than the characters they represent. Chi-Wai’s alter egos (always shown together in place of Chi-Wai from Bun’s point of view) include a headstrong woman, a chubby weakling and one who is ready to pop a bullet at any opportunity. But is Chi-Wai guilty?

As the movie progresses we begin to comprehend the degree of Bun’s madness and the labyrinthine world he lives in and in which Ho is slowly drawn into. The action sequences are nicely balanced by the sombre revelations of Buns reasons behind his descent into insanity and baring a few of Ho’s inner demons as well.

Crazy film but in a good way.

Movie Reviews 418 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

December 20, 2019

Bogie and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Jolie and Pitt. These were the Hollywood power couples whose romances captured headlines fueled by adoring fan’s fascination for the rich, famous, and lens worthy. Rising above all of those were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whose tantalizing trysts sizzled the tabloids as much for their public battles as for their romances. Twice married to each other and then divorced (among the multiple other trips down the matrimonial aisle), their respective careers had many ups and downs, but without a doubt their pairing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is easily the pinnacle of their collaboration and their best respective career performances.

Martha and George (Taylor and Burton) come home late one night from a party held by her father, the head of a University. Almost as soon as they arrive, the bickering begins. George is a languishing History professor going nowhere and with no real ambition. Martha makes clear her disgust with him not having been able to advance even being the school president’s daughter. As he is about to head to bed she tells him she’s invited over a young couple that was at the earlier party for a few late night drinks. When Nick (George Segal), a newly arrived biology professor and recent bride Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive, they find themselves in the middle of a battlefield of put-downs, candid revelations and accusations.

Based on a play by Edward Albee (more on that later), the four characters ramble through a long night indulgent imbibing as the young couple are used as both weapons and targets for Martha and George. Along the way Nick and Honey discover that they are more like their hosts than they are willing to admit. But some other forces are at work here. There are cryptic references to a child among the flirtation, slurs, denunciations and confessions.

The script is an intricately layered jigsaw that is just as sharp today as it was when this film was getting the accolades. All four cast members where deservingly nominated for Oscars – the women winning theirs. While the knives are wielded throughout the night, the onslaught wavers. While mostly at each other’s throats, their are poignant respites between George and Martha. And like a good puzzle, the last piece is satisfyingly fitting. The lines “You have history on your side. I have biology on mine” is but one of many clever double entendres.

If there could be a fifth character it would have to be the incessantly swirling liquor that flows through both couples to the point that peeling labels of bottles is something of a theme. And that ‘game’ is part of the overall ‘couples playing games’ theme. Everything is a game of sorts including a parlor game called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in reference to the title.

The play was selected by the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but was shamefully rejected by the award committee due to its subject matter and language. Thankfully the film remains for us to enjoy the electrifying performances, the simple but mesmerizing low key theme song, and exceptionally brilliant script.

A timeless classic. No need to be afraid of watching this one.

Movie Reviews 416 – My Name is Nobody (1973)

December 6, 2019

There are almost as many western films that ruminate on the final days of legendary crack shot gunmen as there are ones that have then merely going on killing sprees whether they be samaritan bounty hunters or charcoal wearing villains. My Name is Nobody is the former with Henry Fonda as the aged shooter who just wants to sail off into the sunset – literally in this case.

The plots of these movies basically have wannabe replacements hoping to earn their reputation by besting the veteran in a shootout. But Jack Beauregard (Fonda) has a slightly different problem. Sure he has more than a few eager guns hoping to take him on, but one particular fellow who doesn’t have a name (Terence Hill) isn’t inclined to have a shootout at all. Although he is clearly as good as, even better than Jack, he just turns up at every corner pestering Jack with a steady stream of advice and guidance, whether wanted or not.

As Jack makes his way towards New Orleans (and eventual passage to Europe) his voyage includes making a pit stop in search of his brother The Nevada Kid (an acknowledged scoundrel and outlaw) and shutting down the owner of a dry goldmine (Jean Martin) who is using stolen gold as a replacement for extract. The mine owner doesn’t take to kindly with Jack’s interference and assembles a small army of marauders to hunt him down. All this leads to a finale in which Jack is stranded next to train tracks in the middle of nowhere as the cavalcade of fifty armed horse riders descend on him.

The symbolism of the cherubic Nobody representing Jack’s guardian angel is as plain as the outline of wings projected by the saddle that he carries on his back throughout the film. Able to recite the day and foes of every gun battle Jack ever fought, his guidance proves to be divinely appropriate despite Jack’s reluctance to heed it at times.

If you haven’t picked it up yet there are plenty of homage references to Sam Peckinpaw and The Wild Bunch including that final battle.And just like it’s inspiration, there are plenty of battles and the blood that goes with it. But this is no mere oater bloodfest.

Il mio nome è Nessuno (original Italian title) was directed by Tonino Valerii (with a helping hand from Sergio Leone) and departs from the usual gritty Spaghetti Western in many other ways aside from the heavenly inferences. While maestro Ennio Morricone provided the score his theme is decidedly bubbly to go along with the story, even going so far as playfully adapting Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries. The script straddles the line of comedy and drama and is more like a collection of stringed skill shooting skits than a linear narrative. The comedy does go over the top at times with sped up sequences resembling Keystone Kops or even Stooge-like.

If you want your westerns to be pure spit and dust this is probably not what you’re looking for. To be sure, there is plenty of that but be prepared for a light hearted approach and little fantasy thrown in as well.

Movie Reviews 413 – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

November 8, 2019

Hollywood. The place where dreams are made and just as quickly shattered. Where the mansions are enormous but are easily overshadowed by the cesspools they obscure. Marlon Brando once famously quoted “Most of the successful people in Hollywood are failures as human beings.” This damning assessment of Tinseltown is captured in Sunset Boulevard, a film noir that ends with one of the eras most iconic lines as the camera zooms in on a faded movie star.

Down to his last few dollars and without any hopeful prospects to sell any of his movie scripts, Joe Gillis (William Holden) dodges the repo men after his car by slipping into an empty garage of a run down mansion of the iconic Sunset strip. But what he initially mistakes for an abandoned abode is the home of former silent screen starlet Norma Desmod (Gloria Swanson) who at first mistakes him for the undertaker of her recently deceased pet monkey. Having clarified that idiotic notion Norma reluctantly shows the scribe a script she wrote that she hopes will be the stake for her return to the big screen.

Joe realizes the script is a disastrous mess but gives a calculated response that will ensure he can sponge off the eccentric but wealthy crone with a few days of script cleaning. Hoping for not much more that to get himself out of hock and back to a dreary, but steady job, his temporary one night stay in a room above the garage is soon a move into the plush boudoir next to Norma’s. Initially rebuffing her advances and hysterics, he soon finds himself in an uncomfortable balancing act of lover/writer just as he begins to fall for the fiance of his best friend (Nancy Olson) as she too wants both his love and his writing acumen.

Skillfully narrated by Joe’s voice-over, this brilliantly scripted film (Co-written and directed by Billy Wilder) begins with a body floating in a pool, but so mesmerizing is the underlying story that I forgot what this was slowly driving back to. The excellent performances by the main cast includes Norma’s sympathetic butler, played by former director Erich von Stroheim, who even manages to induce a bit of levity.

While the final act of Swanson swooning into the camera proclaiming “I’m ready for my close-up now Mr. Demille” is probably the most referenced scene, there are plenty of other gems such as Joe exclaiming “You were once big.” upon meeting Desmond who retorts “I AM big. It’s the films that got small.”

The special features that were included on my DVD revealed a fascinating number of parallels between the story and the cast. Swanson, like Desmond was fifty at the time of filming and was indeed a former fading star having made a single film in the preceding 15 years. Ironically, this Oscar nominated performance (as were that of all the other stars – all deserving I might add) did return her to glory. Holden was also a forgotten player whose career was not only revitalized, but was the beginning of a long and prosperous career. I’ll leave the surprise of von Stroheim’s casting to those who have not watched the film as it’s too good to spoil here.

Hollywood at its best by exposing Hollywood at its worst. Only in Tinseltown can such a self-deprecating movie become such a success.

Movie Reviews 412 – Easy Rider (1969)

October 31, 2019

When Peter Fonda passed away this past summer, it was the end of an era of sorts. Never having achieved the stardom of his father Henry or his sister Jane, the black sheep of the family will forever be recognized for his role in Easy Rider, a film he wrote and produced with director and co-star Dennis Hopper released fifty years ago. A defining moment for the rebellious sixties youth movement that many would say reached its apex that year, the film also presented a radical departure from traditional storytelling, with an emphasis on characters, and a minimalist almost inconsequential plot.

The story centers on two bikers who have just scored a small fortune after flipping a load of cocaine from some Mexicans operating from a dust filled pueblo to a rich dealer chauffeured in a Rolls Royce (a cameo role for renown and now reviled music producer Phil Spector). After the score, “Captain America” (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) make their way to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras carnival, picking up a hitchhiker (Antonio Mendoza), an alcoholic small town lawyer (Jack Nicholson), visiting a commune, spending a bit of time in the slammer, before finally pairing up with some hookers (Karen Black and Toni Basil) in The Big Easy.

The film chronicles multiple journeys. On the surface we have the internal journey of flag draped pessimist Captain America. His timid soul searching (between acid trips) a sharp contrast to that of folded brim slouch hat wearing Billy who is optimistic of their fortunes while not trusting anyone. On the other hand the celluloid journey captures the panoramic beauty of the desert vistas across America itself as the boys roll on the highways. Once could easily claim that the vehicles of this journey, the two iconic chopper motorcycles they ride are just as much the stars of the film as any of the human actors.

Capturing the essence of this sixties youth would of course be inconsequential without a fitting the music score, and in that regard Easy Rider delivers from the outset with Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild and The Weight (Robbie Robertson/The Band) with a sprinkling of Hendrix, The Byrds and Roger McGuinn (allegedly the main characters being loosely based on McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds).

Numerous scenes highlight the dichotomy of the hippie, freewheeling lifestyle compared to mainstream America including a small town restaurant scene in which local townsfolk were employed to provide a realistic point of view of the disparity. The symbolism of seeing Captain America hoisting his bike to repair a tire while a farmer re-shoes his horse only a few feet away is unmistakable. The film ominously concludes with a memorable, jarring, perhaps overly harsh statement on that tenuous bridge between those two worlds.

Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those stunning open highway landscapes are now dotted with condos, parking lots and fast food outlets. It’s far from a perfect film, but it does effectively capture a time that is now lost.

Movie Reviews 409 – Memories of Murder (2003)

October 4, 2019

Between the years 1986 and 1991 the South Korean city of Hwaseong experienced that country’s first serial killer. The series of 10 rapes and murders galvanized and terrorized the citizens. Memories of Murder is a dramatization of the investigation as told from the point of view of the two prime detectives who worked on the case.

Detective Park (Song Kang-ho) is the first one the scene when a body is found wedged under ditch crossing in a field. A bumbling cop, he is prone to quickly jumping to incorrect conclusions while eager to be in the spotlight as the case advances. The discovery of a second victim brings detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seoul to help with the investigation. Methodical and quiet spoken he not only sheds light on new evidence but the fact that there has already been a third victim who hasn’t even been found yet. But the third victim is not the last in what becomes an interminable case.

Park and his willing partner and sidekick Cho resort to coercion and beating confessions, leaving Seo to mock their tactics and disprove their findings, which only ratchets up the tension between the two as the case wears on. While some clues including a rather strange modus operandi becomes evident, even crafty traps fail to capture the assailant. The key lies with a most unusual suspect, a retarded young boy who is being ‘trained’ by Park to provide a believable confession.

While the mystery itself if riveting enough, the complex relationships between the officers and the impact of the stress they are put under is just as much a part of the drama. Seo is the perfectionist unaccustomed to dealing with failure especially on such and important case while Park suffers from anxiety and his own ineffectiveness coupled with his wife’s worries for him. But as time goes on a mutual respect develops but not without lingering effects from the prolonged investigation.

Despite the somber circumstances being portrayed, the film also includes a number of strangely comical scenes when it comes to Park and Jo’s antics such as one in which he discerns that since no evident non-victim hair was found on the bodies the perpetrator must be hairless. While I enjoyed this comedy as I watched the film I had no idea that this was based on true events. It was only while watching the DVD special features did I learn that the serial killings were not only real, but not solved at the time of filming, which makes the comic aspect somewhat morbid. Ironically, as did a bit more digging into the story I learned that the crime was solved only this past year.

Writer-director Bong Joon-ho  would call again on actor Song Kang-ho to star in The Host shortly after this outing with equally entertaining results.

Movie Reviews 408 – Laura (1944)

September 28, 2019

I’ve been saving this one for quite a while as I’ve been plowing through tons for Film Noir this past year. While I can’t say Laura is my favorite – that’s still a toss up between All About Eve, Double Indemnity and Leave Her to Heaven – it clearly ranks as one of the best murder mysteries of the the era, which, being the heyday of the genre, makes it one of the best period.

There are so many unique aspects to the plot that I hardly know where to begin. From the very beginning voice over, we know that Laura (Gene Tierney at the top of her game and beauty) has been murdered and detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is already working on the case. The prime suspects are the two men who were very much in love with Laura and fighting for her affections. In one corner we have the cultured and respected Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a newspaper gossip columnist. Older than Laura but appealing from an intellectual point of view he has steered and looked after her for years. His nemesis for her heart is the brash young philanderer Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) whom Laura has had an on again, off again, engagement. But these two contenders loath one another beyond the battle for Laura’s love.

This is no mere whodunnit. While this begins as some love triangle gone too far, the triangle (such as it could be given that the love interest is dead) becomes a square as detective McPherson is clearly falling in love with the object of his inquest.  But the mystery goes one step further when Laura suddenly walks back into her apartment, oblivious to her own headline making murder. Aside from figuring out whose body was really found, Laura must now contend with the exposed events and revelations that have surfaced since her departure. And the victim now becomes a suspect in what was assumed to be her own murder.

Directed by Hollywood rebel Otto Preminger – while he gave us a litany of great films, for myself he will always be foremost remembered as the POW commandant in Stalag 17 – this film is brimming with delightful eccentricities. McPherson’s incessant need to pull out one of those old child toy dexterity puzzles (where you have a number of balls rolling across a flat cardboard with a few shallow holes and by gingerly tilting the toy the player tries to seat each ball into one of the holes). Then you have Lydecker doing all of his writing sitting naked in his bathtub with his typewriter on a platform. While I cannot be sure this could only have been an allusion to famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who had that habit in real life. (While your at it. do yourself a favor and watch Bryan Cranston’s Oscar winning performance in Trumbo.)

The performances are superb with Webb at his best, and a reminder that Price was a distinguished mainstream actor long before he became synonymous with horror. Although you would never know it Tierney was well on her way to mental instability that would soon end her career while filming this.

Film Noir at it’s best.