Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Movie Reviews 395 – When a Stranger Calls (1979)

June 8, 2019

I clearly remember the chilling tag line from the TV trailer ad. “Have you checked the children?” Without context, it is a benign question and bears no terror. But as we learn in When a Stranger Calls when told to a lone babysitter, late at night from an anonymous caller, it is a chilling omen of ill tidings.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is the babysitter who first receives the repeating calls, which progresses from ignoring it as a wrong number, mistaking it as a prank from a friend, becoming concerned enough to put in call to police to finally realizing that the caller is watching her every move. When she learns the calls were traced to the house itself, Jill runs to the door to be shocked not by the killer but by season cop John Clifford (Charles Durning).

But this is curdling sequence all that takes place in the first fifteen minutes or so. We learn that, yes, the children were already far gone by the time those phone calls were made and all Clifford and his team can do is console the sitter and family.

We cut to seven years later and hear how the perpetrator that night was Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) a lone English sailor, but that he has now escaped. Clifford has retired from the force and is now a private investigator and upon hearing of the escape, the father of the murdered children that night hires him to find Duncan. But Clifford is way ahead on this one. So troubling was the case that he has decided that should he get his hands on Duncan he intends to end the problem once and for all.

Working with information provided by a sympathetic force commander who was also present that night, Clifford learns that Duncan is prowling around a particular neighborhood and has had an odd encounter with a woman he met in bar (Colleen Dewhurst). With that information he enlists her help to nab Duncan but soon finds out that Duncan has not finished with Jill, now socialite and mother of her own. And once a again, Duncan is dialling up a storm.

The problem with this film is that once it has spent it’s dread in those first few minutes it becomes a mediocre police drama. I actually liked the touch that an actor with the middle age physique of Durning was used instead of the stereotypical young and fit cop but that same realism also shatters the credibility when Durning engages in prolonged chase scenes with Duncan. Even some of best parts of this film are really rethreads. The ‘inside the house caller’ schtick was effective in 1974’s Black Christmas. The psycho killer was already masterfully done in Manhunter (the first true Hannibal Lecter film) and … well Psycho. Even the vigilante cop routine had already been cemented long prior by Dirty Harry.

Sorry to say that I don’t share the love of this film that others have plied on it to the point that even a remake was cobbled together in 2006. So my advice on how to deal with this stranger calling is simply to hang up.

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Movie Reviews 394 – Rashomon (1950)

May 31, 2019

When Rashomon premiered outside Japan in 1950 the world was introduced not only to the great director Akira Kurosawa but also to one of the country’s most distinguished actors, Toshiro Mifune.

The tale of a couple travelling through a forest who meet Tajōmaru, a bandit (Mifune) who ends up raping the woman plays like a case study of human values, or the lack thereof. The narrative is presented as flashbacks while the story is told to a stranger from a village woodcutter who remains dumbfounded by what was proffered during the trial of the events.

The fundamental of the events are not in question. The bandit did rape the woman (Machiko Kyō), and in the end the husband (Masayuki Mori), a Samurai, was murdered. But exactly who murdered the husband and why remains to be determined. The trial recounts the events as told by the bandit, the woman, and even her dead husband (as told through a medium).

Tajōmaru boastingly confesses to the rape after luring the husband away and tying him to a tree, but says that the woman, defensive at first, soon became a more than willing participant in the act. The bandit then simply wanted to free her husband but at the woman’s instance to kill the husband, opted for a duel in which he won fairly and with honour.

The woman’s version has her returning to her husband only to see his accusatory eyes. After pleading with him to then kill her with a dagger, she fainted only to awaken and find the dagger embedded in her dead husband.

The Samurai’s version has Tajōmaru asking the woman to depart with him and to just let her husband free. But he then shockingly hears her tell Tajōmaru to kill her husband. Tajōmaru refuses her ghastly request (which actually has the husband regain respect for the bandit). Angered by the bandit’s refusal to do her bidding she runs away leaving the Samurai to then take his own life.

The woodcutter gives all three accounts to the stranger and a priest as they are holed up the in ruins of a city gate (Rashōmon) as they await the end of a torrential rainfall. But he then surprises them with yet another account, his own, as hidden witness to the events. But he was unwilling become involved and testify at the trial. His version, an amalgam of the other three, is just bad as the others in terms of righteousness.

And this is the crux of the tale. Regardless of whose point of view is the truthful version of events, the one common factor with all is that in the end none of the characters are untainted. It is this pitiful realization that make the woodcutter despondent. But the film ends on an even more surprising note once the tale is told and one last distasteful event addresses the question of whether humanity’s redemption is possible.

Kurosawa’s flair for novel storytelling technique’s is already evident in this, one of his earliest films. While we see and hear all the trial testimony, the judge or panel is neither heard nor seen, merely implied. His knack for creative framing and shooting stances was already well developed as was his tendency to have the weather be part of the story (watch the intensity of the rain as the movie progresses). And as always, underneath his mastery, there is a darn good yarn to enjoy.

Movie Reviews 389 – The Great White Hope (1970)

April 26, 2019

The Great White HopeJack Johnson was probably the greatest heavyweight boxer that ever lived. With all due respect to Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson was ‘The Greatest’ from a fighting statistics point of view with 77 wins (48 of them by knock out), 13 loses, and 14 ties. But as in the case of Ali, what qualifies Johnson as the greatest are not just the ring stats but more so the life battles he fought outside the ring.

Johnson’s biopic The Great White Hope (based on a book of the same name) stars a very young James Earl Jones in the title role (inexplicably renamed Jack Jefferson) which captures Johnson’s struggles after he ascends the ring throne as heavyweight champion in a segregationist Jim Crow America.

While boxers of African American descent not only form the majority but dominate the sport today, back in 1908 this was hardly the case when Johnson won the title. The white powers that be, not only within the sports association but within the US federal government itself, were not happy to say the least. To them, having a brash, outspoken black man imposing superiority over caucasians in any form was considered a potential festering pot for a class rebellion and a rallying point for insurgency. Making matters worse was Johnson penchant for white women, namely his wife Eleanor (Jane Alexander), an indiscretion many considered even worse than his boxing success.

One possible solution envisioned by his foes was to have a white man win the title back – hence “The Great White Hope“- and this resulted in what many people refer as “The Fight of the Century” when the former white champion was coaxed out of retirement for what many considered a sure bet to secure the title. When that fails the government decides to twist the interpretation of The Mann act (a.k.a the White-Slave Traffic Act) to arrest Johnson.

Facing a few years in prison he flees the country and after a few short stops in Europe the couple end up in Mexico, living in dire poverty, a far cry from the lavish lifestyle Johnson once flaunted. But Johnson stubbornly refuses to return to face his sentence and continues to maintain his boxing form despite not having any worthy fights until he is offered a chance to have his sentence reduced, but only if he takes a fall in a fixed match. His stubbornness has already cost him dearly, but will he now throw in the real towel along with the proverbial towel?

I recall seeing this film as a child and even then Jones’ deep and forceful voice made a lasting impression. The performance perfectly captures the bold thundering character of the pugilist taking the world on his shoulders. Bowing to no man (or woman), Johnson is no stooge to anyone, admonishing even those blacks who are only rooting for him because of his color.

Most people have enjoyed many a James Earl Jones performance over the years, but probably haven’t taken in the marvel of the youthful actor in his prime effectively using that booming voice to earn an Oscar best actor nomination (as did Alexander for her performance). You may enjoy the performances, or you may learn a thing or two about history and one particular man, but either way, you can’t lose. Just like Johnson.

Movie Reviews 387 – Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)

April 12, 2019

Back in the silent era of Hollywood films, American audiences began embracing certain actors over others almost as soon as films became popular. As text boxes filled the audio gap, something on those celluloid frames, whether it was pure looks, facial expressions or specific actions, made some screen personalities stand out and “Stars” were born. Charlie Chaplin was the comedy master as “the tramp”, Rudolph Valentino captured the hearts of women, while Lillian Gish was equally effective captivating young men. Among those ranks was one other surprising star that made his mark by completely transforming his looks from one film to the next; Lon Chaney. So imaginative was his ability to create unique caricatures that he quickly became billed as “The Man of a Thousand Faces”.

James Cagney takes on the title role in Chaney’s biopic Man of a Thousand Faces made nearly thirty years after his passing in which the makeup is peeled back to reveal a number of hardships he had to endure as well as his less endearing qualities, all while changing the rules to become the face – well faces – of horror. The film begins with Chaney already living the life of an entertainer as a vaudeville clown with his wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone) a singer. Cleva’s professional setbacks keep Chaney on the road but the couple are overjoyed when they learn they are expecting.

But when Cleva insists that she must finally meet Chaney’s family with the news of a coming child, Lon can barely suppress his horror at the thought. He has kept a dark secret from her. While he and his siblings are all completely normal, both his mother and father are deaf. But Chaney cannot muster the courage to tell her and Cleva only learns the truth upon her arrival. Shocked and unable to contain her fears that her own child may be born impaired, she storms out. Their relationship remains sour and despite reassurances from Lon that all will be fine it is only after the birth of their healthy son Creighton do the couple return to happier times.

But that respite is short lived as Cleva decides to resurrect her career and gains a following of her own, one surpassing even Lon who is still performing as a stage clown. The marriage finally crumbles with Cleva’s infidelity and hints of Lon himself eyeing chorus girl Hazel (Jane Greer). But the split leaves Lon with the only thing he desires, his son. However juggling a performer’s career while raising a child is less than ideal and authorities eventually place Creighton in a foster home until Lon can provide him with a real home.

It is this hell bent need for a steady income that brings Lon to Hollywood, but one there he learns that Vaudeville veterans do not have a leg up and he is one of hundreds seeking work as extras. Noting that extras are chosen on a daily basis according to whatever character types are needed for scenes, he brings along his trusty makeup kit and in minutes of learning what the daily call up sheets require, makes himself suitable. Whether it be scarred pirates, dark toned Asians, or any other character, Chaney is ready. Working tirelessly he inches up his career with bit parts until his big break in a scene in the film The Miracle Man. The scene in which he transforms in front of our very eyes from a hobbled cripple dragging twisted legs to a standing perfect figure earns him accolades and recognition.

After that, there is no looking back.  Now married to Hazel and with Creighton back in their home, Lon works hand in hand with the studio head to tackle one character after another. Film after film, his legend and fame grows. But when Cleva returns one day wanting to see her son, Lon’s darker side is revealed. And when a persistent cough turns out to be much more, only his friends and family can make his last days happy ones.

The film is entertaining as it presents both Lon acting in his most famous roles as it does his real life trials and tribulations. The film highlights a parade of drawings that capture a multitude of famous caricatures that he created over his career which are shown as both on-set, framed art and as scene transitions. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the pointed teeth ghoul in London after Midnight (considered the holy grail of lost films) and of course his most famous role of all, The Phantom of the Opera, with that unforgettable unmasking scene are all revived here.

While those folks who are well aware of Lon Chaney will certainly get a kick out of seeing this biopic, I think there is enough drama in his life story to make this an interesting watch for anyone. Horror fans will certainly pick up on the fact that Creighton later adopted the stage name Lon Chaney Jr. and went on to have a long illustrious career in horror movies himself. Perhaps we’ll see a movie of his life as well some day.

Movie Reviews 385 – Gozu (2003)

March 30, 2019

If there is one consistent attribute that can be applied to director Takashi Miike it is that all his films (well excluding those made specifically for kids) have some aspect extreme violence. So extreme was his episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror TV series that it could not in fact be shown on the cable network. Gozu, a story about a Yakuza member trying to locate a fellow clan ‘brother’ makes that clear in the opening scene as a cute Chihuahua is ripped out of the hands of the owner, is flung onto the sidewalk, stepped on, violently swung in an arc and finally hurled at a restaurant window creating a bloody splatter and all because a mobster thought the dog was suspicious.

Along with his trademark violence Miike also has a penchant for the surreal and bizarre as exemplified by such things as the gill slit face of Ichi the Killer, the human headed cybernetic reformed goon in Full Metal Yakuza or various sexual perversions exhibited in most of his movies (in this case including his kiddie fare Yatterman!). Once again Gozu plods that path as well with bra wearing men waiters, a lactating elderly woman filling in milk bottles for her hotel guests, and a mind bending, physic defying ending featuring the ‘birth’ of a character by essentially the same character who has transformed their body (and sex) earlier on in the film. Virtually every minute of this film presents questionable actions, situations, imagery that will keep viewers in a trance as they attempt to sort reality from dreams (if indeed any of it are dreams).

Minami (Hideki Sone) is the poor, pitiful yakuza that is supposed to drive his good friend and clan brother Ozaki (Show Aikawa) to an ambush set by the boss as Ozaki has grown too big for his own britches. Hesitant to complete the delivery Minami’s driving skills accidentally kill Ozaki (so it would seem) but taking a break in a restaurant while he tries to figure out what to do next, Ozaki’s lifeless body disappears from the car. This begins Minami’s adventures following a set of clues in which he must deal with eccentric hotel staff, a half scab faced man intent on helping him and finally a female incarnation (Kimika Yoshino) of Ozaki himself (herself?).

Honestly, I’m just scratching the surface of the idiosyncratic universe at play in Gozu. Scripted by writer Sakichi Sato (who Quentin Tarantino honoured by casting him as the henpecked “Charlie Brown” restaurant owner in Kill Bill) the film is pure Miike. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing is for you to decide, but I guarantee you will never look at a soup ladle the same way after seeing this film.

Movie Reviews 384 – The Birds (1963)

March 22, 2019

While I consider Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to be his masterpiece among the many great films he directed over the years, The Birds comes in a close second place. Know as the master of the thriller genre, this is Hitch delivering pure horror and gore and if one considers those aspects alone, it is indeed superior to Psycho.

Based on a Daphne du Maurier novella of the same name, it is the story of birds suddenly congregating and then terrorizing a small coastal town close to San Francisco. Melanie (Tippi Hedren), a socialite with tabloid reputation hoping to snag local lawyer Mitch (Rod Taylor) drops in just as the attacks begin and aside from being caught in the melee has to deal with Mitch’s confrontational mother (Jessica Tandy), Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) the local schoolteacher who failed to land Mitch herself yet remains infatuated by him, and even some locals who point the finger at her as the cause of the uprising.

The impressive human cast have to share the limelight with the avians as the manner in which they were filmed in so many sequences are simply captivating. Even after all these years despite the crude special effects available at the time not only do the bird filled sequences still stands out but given that in most scenes actually birds were filmed, I’m still at a loss to how they put those scenes together. In one scene crows shown in the background slowly fill an entire playground ‘monkey bars’ as Melanie and Annie sit on a bench. There are scenes in which power lines have birds lined up side by side as far as the eye can see. And pivotal scenes include both an exterior massive attack in the town center as well as a swarming within Mitch’s house. Even a thwarted house attack is spectacular as the thousands of pecks begin to chip holes in doors and boarded windows. And then there is the famous attack scene in which Melanie gets caught in a closed room, one that rivals Psycho’s shower scene.

While the love triangle aspect and motherly concerns take a backseat in this feathered feature, they do add to the drama of the story. Veronica Cartwright plays Mitch’s little sister and aside from being responsible for Melanie meeting Mitch in the first place, provides the setup for yet another spectacular scene, the attack on the one room schoolhouse.

There are two things viewers should pay attention to while watching this film. The first is the iconic green suit that Hedren wears throughout the film designed by legendary Hollywood costumer Edith Head. Secondly there is the striking sound editing of the cacophony of bird squawks, screeches and cackles that have also become a signature of the film. The credits list Bernard Herrmann (who created the famous ‘violin screams’ in Psycho) as the ‘sound consultant’ so I have to assume he was also responsible for the bird emanations here.

I was shocked to learn that a sequel, The Bird’s II: Land’s End, was made in 1994 but all indications are that they were just winging it and that fowl offering it is nothing more than bird droppings. But do seek out The Birds if you haven’t seen it. It really soars above all other plumed pictures.

Movie Reviews 379 – Black Snake Moan (2006)

February 8, 2019

I intentionally did not look up the movie synopsis on my Black Snake Moan DVD before popping it into my trusty player as the fact that the cover featured both Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson , either one alone being good enough to have me sold on a viewing. The lack of any prior knowledge regarding the plot turned out to be a blessing as this was certainly a film that surprised me. In fact, this one has a lot of surprises.

The story is centered on Lazarus (hey, already a bonus!) a weathered black man (Jackson) who has just been dumped by his wife (who has run off with his own brother to make matters worse). Living in a remote dilapidated home Lazarus wakes up one morning to find a battered and barely clothed young woman unconscious on the side of the road, just steps from his front door. Hesitant at first, he cautiously takes in Rae (Ricci) and tends to her injuries. But when she awakens she is shocked to find a lengthy heavy duty chain tied around her torso with the other end secured to a radiator.

The first surprise is that the chain is not there for what you probably think. Quite the opposite to tell the truth. Turns out that ol’ Lazarus has nothing but the best intentions. In fact, he deems himself Rae’s saviour of sorts. Another surprise is that Rae, chains and all, is a promiscuous woman. I mean really promiscuous and when she offers herself to Lazarus it isn’t even a simple ploy to escape. But Lazarus has issues to deal with besides the woman chained in his house at the moment. There is of course the brother who stole his wife. There’s Lazarus’ best friend who happens to be a preacher and is of course shocked upon learning of the captive Rae. And then there’s the pharmacist Angela who seems to have a soft spot for him, but who Lazarus must lie to in order to keep the whole “I have a woman chained up in my house” thing a secret. And then there’s the music. Yep, while not quite a musical, music plays a large part of the story. Not enough surprises? I haven’t even gotten to Rae’s dark secret regarding her mother and it’s not the fact that her boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) who has mighty serious anxiety issues has left her to join the army in hopes of overcoming his attacks.

The blues, liberal sex, biblical imagery, and booze somehow all blend in this story about a man destined to get both the girl and himself back on the right track of life. Does it even sound like a ‘feel good’ story? And yet it is. There are a few other surprises, but watch it for yourself to discover those.

January Movie Marathon – 2019 Edition

February 1, 2019

My annual tradition of cramming in (at least) 31 movie viewings during the month of January continued this year. It was a closer call getting in the required viewing (only one film over the target this time) mainly due to all that excess snow this year having me out shoveling instead of watching. Here’s a brief review of what I watched this year.

1) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Jimmy Stewart plays the small town lawyer hired to defend what is supposed to be an ‘open and shut’ murder case. Dealing with the evidence and facts isn’t as hard as dealing with the accused’s lovely wife. If all that wasn’t odd enough, consider that this is a comedy by director Otto Preminger.

2) Comic Book Confidential (1988) – A great documentary featuring the radical independent comic creators of the time. Lots of legendary creators (Crumb, Miller, Pekar,  Kurtzman, Eisner) with other not so familiar names. The best part is MAD’s Bill Gaines reminiscing about the pre-code EC days.

3) The Day the Fish Came Out (1967) – (see full review here)

4) Lifeboat (1944) – Only Alfred Hitchcock can get away with an entire movie set on a lifeboat adrift at sea after a Nazi U-boat attack. Of course he also manages to throw in a murder. Dazzling portrayal of the self centered journalist by Tallulah Bankhead (dahling!). It’s Hitch. It’s great.

5) Rock ‘n’ Roll Frankenstein (1999) – Greedy record producer decides he can make the greatest Rock star ever by piecing together the parts of legendary dead artists. The plot sounds a lot better than it is.

6) The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Will Smith plays the ‘down on his luck’ portable bone-density scanner salesman who earns a shot as a stockbroker intern, but has to live on the streets with his son in order to possibly get the job. The usual Smith goody-goody, “live your dreams” stuff.

7) Columbo: Double Exposure (1973) – Hey I’m slowly going through all the Columbo TV movies! Columbo nabs murderer Robert Culp, a motivational researcher, by using the same subliminal image video technique he learned from the perpetrator himself.

8) The Children (2008) – Not as frolicky fun as “Girls Gone Wild” but this horror is basically “Kids Gone Wild”. Lots of bad shooting choices makes one wonder where this movie is going for most of it (not in a good way) and the payoff just isn’t there at the end.

9) Lords of Dogtown (2005) – Docudrama capturing the birth of the competitive skateboarding scene on the beaches of Venice California in the mid 70’s. Don’t let the subject matter deter you if you’re not into that scene. Between all the Ollies and Halfpipes, this one packs a punch. Gnarly!

10) This Gun for Hire (1942) – One of the few Veronica Lake – Hollywood’s peek-a-boo girl – films I’ve seen. Not Film Noir at it’s finest to say the least. Lake is embroiled in a murder mystery centered on a chemical formula and WW2 traitors.

11) The Head (1959) – (see full review here)

12) Dead Poets Society (1989) – Robin Williams is the marquee star but this movie is clearly about the young boys in his class at an Ivy League seeding school who learn to “Seize the Day” against all odds. Carpe Diem!

13) 12 Days of Terror (2004) – Drama depicting the summer of 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that supposedly were and inspiration for Peter Benchley to write Jaws. Enough of a bite to watch, but it is a TV movie so keep those expectations in line.

14) Ice Station Zebra (1968) – The cold war goes frigid when a crucial satellite component ends up in the frozen Arctic and both the East and the West race towards Ice Station Zebra to recover it. The good guys can only get there by submarine but, as expected, not everyone on board are who they appear to be.

15) Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) – This fourth installment in the series of movies in which the story of household spooks activities are conveyed purely via the video feeds of home monitoring systems is the one where they ‘Jumped the Shark’. Really nothing new here despite it being something of a sequel to PA3.

16) Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – (see full review here)

17) Billy Elliot (2000) – Little Billy discovers that his interests lay not in the proud boxing tradition of his family, but in ballet, much to the chagrin of his father who is in the midst of England’s notorious coal miners strike just trying to keep the family together.

18) The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) – What is the secret of Santa Vittoria? Millions of bottles of wine. Anthony Quinn is the bumbling, reluctant mayor of the little Italian town who must hide their horde from the encroaching Nazis during WWII.

19) The Giant Behemoth (1959) – Even Britain was getting in on the Giant Monster kick of the 1950’s. While they did not use rear-projection footage of pet lizards and the stop motion animatronic was not much better.

20) 13 Going on 30 (2004) – Jennifer Garner plays the girl/woman who wakes up one day to discover that she has gone from a pubescent teen to a grown woman overnight. Honestly Tom Hanks did it better in Big in the 80’s.

21) Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964) – Goofy Godzilla goodness in which Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra (larval form as the original Moth died in the previous movie) take on the new bad boy on the block King Ghidorah. In preparation for the return of Ghidorah in this year’s May release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters

22) House of Strangers (1949) – Edward G. Robinson plays the family patriarch who works all his life to build a successful local bank but his overbearing ways has taken a toll on his family, the and nearly costs his favored and most devoted son everything.

23) Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) – This was the first of two Dr Who films made by Amicus which starred the great Peter Cushing and the world’s first chance to see Daleks in color. Who and crew take the TARDIS on its first voyage to a far future post-apocalyptic Earth where the last few remaining Daleks are still fighting the handful of humans.

24) The Bodyguard from Beijing (1994) – Your typical “feds have to bodyguard a witness to a mob murder” plot where Jet Li is the all-business master protector and Christy Chung is the beautiful, rich, overbearing damsel he has to keep alive. And of course at the end they are in love.

25) The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) – (see full review here)

26) The Jerk (1979) –  Steve Martin’s first feature film where he took his brash, daring stand-up comedy and came up with a dimwitted man on a rags-to-riches-to-rags journey to find himself. I still get a kick of him discovering his ‘special purpose’. Silly but still funny.

27) Hellboy (2004) – I hear that there will be another Hellboy movie coming out this year. But without Ron Perlman, John Hurt, or director Guillermo del Toro. No chance in Hell it’s as good as this original.

28) Born to Kill (1947) – Film Noir great Lawrence Tierney in a movie in which the title says it all. He’s a lowly con man who wants it all and doesn’t blink an eye snuffing out anyone who crosses him or just rubs him the wrong way.

29) Black Snake Moan (2006) – Odd film in which a weathered black man (Samuel Jackson) takes in a battered promiscuous young white woman (Christina Ricci) to get both her and himself back on the right track of life.  (I hope to have a full review in the coming days.)

30) Timecop (1994) – Jean Claude Van Damme at his barely comprehensible thespian best. Which isn’t a whole lot. Well at least it’s a Science Fiction time travel story which JCVD mumbles through.

31) The Right Stuff (1983) – I decided to revisit this movie about the original Mercury astronauts on the 50th anniversary of the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Great film but if you have a chance read Tom Wolfe’s book that was the source for the script

32) The Spirit of St-Louis (1957) – I started with Jimmy Stewart and it was only fitting that I ended this month long blitz with another of his films. Aside from the fact that Stewart was nearly twice the age playing Charles Lindbergh, the story of the first solo transatlantic flight remains a classic.

 

 

Movie Reviews 377 – Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

January 19, 2019

Charles Laughton has always been a favorite actor of mine and I consider his portrayal of the relentless barrister in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution as his best role.  But with such a stellar supporting cast that includes Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester director Billy Wilder was sure to have a hit on his hands the moment he said “Action!”

Returning to office from a recent hospitalization due to a heart attack scare Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is being coddled by his torturous personal nurse (Lanchester) and doctors orders instruct him to stay away from any trying cases when he is presented with the odd situation of a lowly inventor (Power) being accused of murder. He fully intends to follow his medical orders as he tries to squirrel away cigars and booze from those hoping he represent the accused when the man’s very wife (Dietrich) gives the most lethargic and unconvincing alibi imaginable.

Now piqued, Robarts takes on the case and by picking apart the prosecution seems to sway the court with the help of some last minute ‘evidence’ . But his keen senses tell him that something wrong which turns out to be an understatement. Contrary to how courtroom dramas usually proceed, the verdict is not the end of the story but in a way the beginning.

This film clicks on many levels. The mystery is suspenseful not only from the point of view of whether the accused is really guilty – although the pendulum certainly begins to sway in one direction – but also the evident inconsistency in the wife’s lack of faith in her own husband. And in this one aspect the final revelation is as shocking as the truth to the murder allegation. More surprisingly, (well perhaps not as much given that this was directed by the great Billy Wilder ) this movie has some of the funniest, butting banter between Laughton and Lanchester regarding his health which begins with the very first scene to a surprising coup de grâce last line in the film.

There is some additional welcome comedy from an elderly cleaning lady (Una O’Connor) and other courtroom antics but the film is not all fun. The underlying story is built upon post war anti-German sentiment among the ruins of a bombed out Berlin tavern and the supposed murder is that of an charming innocent wealthy widow.

Known for it’s astonishing ending, one held in such high regard it warranted secrecy during filming (common today but extraordinary at the time) some have remarked that that secrecy may have even cost Dietrich an Oscar. While it did not win any Oscars it was heavily nominated at numerous ceremonies that year, so really something of a hidden gem for those focused on wins alone.

I was tempted to seek out Christie’s original version but apparently the source material was just a short story and this screened adaptation had a lot of it’s ‘meat’ added. Given the talents involved I suspect that the additions are what made this film so great.

Movie Reviews 374 – The Nanny (1965)

December 29, 2018

If you thought for even a moment that this was a review of the obnoxious sitcom featuring Fran Drescher and her ear splitting, reverberating nasal laugh I ask you to please leave now before anyone gets hurt. And apologies to those who Googled “Davis Nanny” hoping to find “Alice” – Ann B. Davis – ‘nanny’ to The Brady Bunch, because this has nothing to do with her either.

Still with me? Good. This review is for the sixties film The Nanny produced by Hammer studios and that stars Bette Davis and just having put those two together should be enough to know where this is going.  Now this is not a Hammer Gothic horror that we know and love but rather one of their rarer psychological thrillers that can almost be pigeon holed with the few Film Noir movies they produced just a few years earlier.

Riding on the wave of her return of to the top of the Hollywood pecking order with the fortunes of her hits [Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, this was another ‘old biddy’ sub-genre film to take advantage of her now mature personifications. But unlike those other ‘old people’ films this one pits two opposing forces at opposite ends of the age spectrum. Davis is of course the venerable titular ‘nanny’ taking care of a young family that recently has gone through hard times with the passing of their youngest child. Her nemesis is the young son Joey (William Dix), a troubled lad just released from a boarding school for troubled kids. And each of them have a secret.

While the child is clearly a brazen, manipulative, uncontrollable brat he meets his match with the calm, cool, collected nanny who accommodates his every command. But is Joey as evil as he appears, going so far as to stage mock suicides by hanging? Was he somehow responsible for the death of his little sister that so traumatized his mother (Wendy Craig) as to render her the real ‘child’ in need of a nanny? The answer lies in a dark secret held by the nanny that indirectly ties onto the death of the child long ago.

Some standout performances from ‘aunt Pen’ (Jill Bennett) and the upstairs neighbor (Pamela Franklin) round out the performances. While not as recognized as Davis’ other films of its ilk, this is nearly just as good and not to be missed!