Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie review - "Nowhere to Run" (1993) **

Made during Jean Claude Van Damme's great period of stardom (okay maybe you shouldn't call it "great" but at his peak) - this one isn't as well remembered as others today. Partly, I think, because the concept is so generic and bland: he's an escaped con who winds up at the farm of a widowed mother of two (Rosanna Arquette) who is fighting off evil property developers (less by Joss Ackland). Property developers were getting tired in the 1980s on TV; in 90s action cinema they were comatose.

The relationship between Van Damme and Rosanna Arquette is quite sleep; Arquette is a good actor, really helping lift those scenes. Everyone knows Van Damme's limitations, but he is sensitive and has a good look. Arquette does a surprising amount of nude scenes - a sex scene too where she's topless and Jean Claude has his hands on her boobs and his nuzzling away. Was she forced to do this? Was she into it? I kind of felt sorry for her.

The relationship between Van Damme and the kids felt a little undercooked, though Kieran Culkin isn't bad as the boy. Ted Levine is a strong villain sidekick. Ackland is good too - it's just the nature of his villainy is so tired. The character of the cop in love with Arquette looks as though he's about to do something interesting but never does. There's a few decent action scenes - probably not enough.

It's an odd film. A bit of action, a bit of drama, some Western homage. They probably would've been better off making it more of an Van Damme film. Joe Eszterhaus co wrote it. I'd love to know how the project developed and changed. It's not a dog. Just average.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Movie review - "The Big Country" (1958) *** (warning: spoilers)

A good, solid Western story is perhaps given over-reverential treatment. This seemed to happen sometime with epic Westerns - I'm thinking of Duel in the Sun and The Outlaw - they were given all this weight.

Gregory Peck is ideally cast as the former sailor who goes out west to marry sexy little minx Carroll Baker, only to discover that Baker's dad Charles Bickford is engaged in a feud with rival owner Burl Ives; Bickford's overseer Charlton Heston loves Baker and thus hates Peck; Burl Ives' son Chuck Connors doesn't really want to be involved in the feud; Baker's friend Jean Simmons falls for Peck.

Those are juicy roles - characters with clearly defined, contrasting objectives, and for the most part this is strong drama. It's got a decent theme - Peck doesn't want to get dragged into a pointless feud, and Baker thinks she's cowardly.

The ending doesn't quite work, full of contrived moments (Ives shooting Connors, Bickford and Ives shooting each other with duelling pistols). It also has unsatisfactory moments: we never find out what happened to Baker, the romance between Peck and Simmons is undercooked.

Strong performances from Bickford and Ives; Heston makes an effective villain. I like Baker - her throaty voice and blonde looks gives intensity to the part. Jean Simmons is a winsome "whatever"; some writers like William Goldman adore Simmons but honestly I could take her or leave her. Much of the action is filmed in long shot. The photography and music are stirring.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Movie review - "The Glass Slipper" (1955) ***

MGM had a big hit with Leslie Caron in Lili so the same team (star, writer, producer, director) got together for a version of Cinderella. There's bright colour and some top character actors and a healthy budget. The sets and tone felt right, there are enjoyable ballets. I liked the production values and some of the support cast - like Elsa Lanchester and Estelle Windwood.

Michael Wilding isn't very good as Prince Charming - I don't care if he was married to the much younger Liz Taylor at the time he seems too old, and not really dashing. He's uncomfortable dancing too. The film felt as though it lacked a villain - the wicked step mother and sisters are hardly in it.

I'd count it as a half success. Charles Walter was a good director and Leslie Caron is ideal as Cinderella. I get the feeling if this was one of those films more widely seen on TV it would have a big legion of girls who love it.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Movie review - "Hit the Deck" (1955) **

MGM star power at it's most second rate: for men you've got Russ Tambyn, Tony Martin and Vic Damone, for women you've got Jane Powell, Ann Miller and okay yes Debbie Reynolds, the one genuine A rank star. They throw in Walter Pidgeon and Gene Raymond and a story that feels ripped off On the Town - three sailors having adventures on shore leave.

Russ Tamblyn falls for dancer Debbie Reynolds and worries about his sister Jane Powell, who is pursued by lecherous actor Gene Raymond (their dad is admiral Walter Pidgeon); Tony Martin pursues old flame Ann Miller.

No one is really up to their roles - the camraderie between the three friends feels forced. Martin and Damone can sing well. Martin is a bit too old. Tamblyn is okay - he's such a good dancer with an interesting look I want to like him more than I do but he's not a very good actor.

There's an uncomfortable plot where the sailors rescue Powell from being seduced by Raymond - she wants to sleep with him, so they beat him up and Damone literally drags her away; then when she tries to run away she grabs him, a cop comes along and he kisses her. He holds onto her arm and won't let a go - it's rapey.

The rest of it is derivative - Miller nags Martin about the fact he never married her; Damone and Powell fall in love; Tamblyn and Reynolds fall in love (I'm not sure what their conflict it); the sailors are pursued by some unfunny shore patrol.

There are some excellent dance numbers - Miller does a top tap dance at the end. Reynolds and Powell both get song a dance numbers. The just-singing bits are less impressive. Roy Rowland wasn't much of a director. This is one of Joe Pasternak's weaker musicals - the cast feels weak, the book is weak, the characters aren't delineated, it harks back to earlier better films (like many "commercial" entertainments in Schary's MGM.) It does have professional gloss - dancers, production values, photography, etc.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Movie review - "The Wind and the Lion" (1975) ***1/2

John Milius the director never matched Milius the writer - he lacked with the camera the vision he had with the pen, the sense of grandeur and flamboyance - but he surrounded himself with a good team on this one and the result is one of his best films.

It kind of sends up old fashioned adventure tales in a way reminiscent of George MacDonald Fraser's historical fiction and screenplays of the 1970s - a loving embrace of the form but also a satirical twist, playing up the less pleasing aspects. (Like Fraser Milius' work was full of this satirical edge in the 70s but it ebbed with time and both men wound up taking themselves way too seriously as they got older.)

The Teddy Roosevelt era even now is not often depicted by filmmakers - I'm not sure why, I think they are uncomfortable with Roosevelt's naked imperialism and jingoism.  Not Milius, who loves not just Roosevelt but also the soldiers (all the diplomats and soldiers are as gung ho as anyone) and the Raisuli.

This means the film has tremendous freshness. It's helped immeasurably by the locations (Spain), photography, costumes and Jerry Goldsmith score. Sean Connery is also entirely apt as the Raisuli - sure he's Scottish, but he's got the perfect combination of charisma, skill, sensitivity, toughness and ability to speak Milius' dialogue.

I understand the need for a third act but I didn't quite buy Steve Kanaly's American officer doing such an about face. The female lead is a pretty crap character compared to the two male leads - she's pretty and spirited and that's it (Bergen doesn't bring much else to the part apart from that). I didn't but her about face either (the film doesn't go the full romance, more respect). They toy with the kids going all High Wind in Jamaica but don't go there. The story is a bit wonky - there's an escape and recapture sequence which seems put in there mostly for Connery to gallop along a beach with a sword.

There's plenty of great sequences (everything involving Brian Keith as Roosevelt) - the tone is just right. I enjoyed this a lot.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Peter Finch Top Ten

1) Network (1976) - easy choice
2) Dad and Dave Go to Town (1938) - he's only in a few scenes but so funny
3) The Nun's Story (1959) - Finch is superb as a Congo doctor
4) The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960)
5) The Shiralee (1957)
6) A Town Like Alice (1956)
7) No Love for Johnnie (1961)
8) The Pumpkin Eater (1964)
9) Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
10) The Legend of Lylah Clark (1968)

Top Ten Woody Allen

In no particular order
1) Annie Hall (1977) - masterpiece, still brilliant even now
2) Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - better than any Chekhov
3) Manhattan (1979) - major influence on TV relationship drama from 90s onwards
4) Blue Jasmine (2013) - sure, a rip off of Streetcar Named Desire but extremely well done
5) Shadows and Fog (1991) - I'm the only person I know who loves this film - it's magical
6) Play it Again Sam (1971) - not considered one of his best but I've always considered it one of his best written works
7) Another Woman (1988) - an unfashionable choice I know but I really like this
8) Crimes and Misdemeanors (1993) - Allen keeps ripping off this film and you can't blame him
9) Manhattan Murder Mystery (1992) - for sheer fun, one of his best 
10) Husbands and Wives (1992) - powerful drama, incredibly good film