Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Princess Bride part of director's reign

Oh, Rob Reiner. What went wrong?

You had a fantastic decade-long run as director starting with the brilliant mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, in 1984.

A string of great films followed including The Sure Thing (1985), Stand By Me (1986), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and ending with The American President (1995). You keep making films (The Story of Us, Alex and Emma), but the buzz pretty much disappeared. Where did that extra something that made your early efforts so good go?

The Princess Bride, released in 1987, was part of his admirable string of hits.

Watching it again 23 years after its original release, this fairy tale with a wry twist resembles more a series of set pieces than a free-flowing film. That's still OK. There's enough here for a fun night's viewing.

Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright) fall in love. Tragedy supposedly claims Westley. Years pass.

Buttercup ends up with Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). The last syllable of the surname is fitting. We never really learn why she ends up as his potential much-better half.

The bad prince is more interested in starting his plans for world domination than providing Buttercup with a loving home. He has more dastardly schemes that will make her reign a very, very short one.

Westley returns. He encounters ne'er-do-wells Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). Challenges ensue with a constant stream of witty banter exchanged. Not all of it works, but when it does there's some big laughs to enjoy.

Westley reunites with Buttercup. Prince Humperdinck wants him dead. Watch for a very effective, and surprisingly good, turn by Christopher Guest as the prince's henchman, Count Rugen. His cool, calm delivery as he does numerous nasty deeds is a treat. He even gets a big laugh near the film's climax.

The Princess Bride introduced Wright in her first major acting role. Billy Crystal, who had a small role in Spinal Tap, shines brilliantly in a 'special appearance' as Miracle Max.

In a new documentary included with a DVD release, Crystal describes how he wanted his character to look like a cross between his grandmother and baseball legend Casey Stengel.

Carol Kane, as Max's wife Valerie, gets one of the film's best lines: "I'm not a witch. I'm your wife."

Shot in England and Ireland, The Princess Bride mostly passes for family fare except for some violence and some disturbingly large-sized rats. Oh, the numerous kisses Westley and Buttercup exchange may nauseate some younger male viewers.

Rob Reiner, please come back to the fun-filled movie-making kingdom. We miss you.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Princess Bride. 1987. 99 minutes. Director Rob Reiner. Starring: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant, Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Robin Wright.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Laura (1944)

Here's a few different ways to have fun watching this great American film noir from 1944.

Count how many times Dana Andrews lights up a smoke.

Keep track of the snippets of the film's theme that pop up during its 88-minute running time.

Jot down whenever a scene happens at night, in the rain, or in the shadows. This is film noir, after all.

Or, make a checkmark every time a character delivers a zinger of a line in director Otto Preminger's classic tale shot in gorgeous black and white.

Let's give credit where it's largely due.

Laura, based on a novel by Vera Caspary, was penned by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhart and Ring Lardner, Jr. This team has done a fine job with this crime film.

Several participated in other major Hollywood films.

Dratler penned Call Northside 777 with James Stewart.

Hoffenstein was a contributing writer on The Wizard of Oz.

Lardner helped craft M*A*S*H, the film, and many episodes of the long-running television series.

Laura is a great showcase for Clifton Webb, who deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his role as Waldo Lydecker. It's Lydecker who falls for Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) after initially snubbing her in a great restaurant scene. Webb gets the lion's share of great lines and he delivers an incredible performance.

Lydecker is a well-known radio columnist loaded with cash and connections. He doesn't take kindly to his young love when she starts to make time with Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Carpenter is making time with another woman and appears to have disturbed
Laura is murdered, but who's responsible?

Andrews (The Ox-Bow Incident) is solid as Det. Lieut. Mark McPherson, a no-nonsense homicide investigator who appears to be falling in with a deceased Laura.

Price is so well-known for his long resume of horror film that it's a pleasure to see him a dramatic role -- and doing a fine job too. "I'm a natural born suspect," Carpenter notes shortly after Laura's death. He had long relied on his family's estate to survive, but Laura recently gave him a job at her firm. Lydecker is quick to point out to Laura how Carpenter is not being faithful to her.

Laura is a benchmark in Tierney's career. It's one of the biggest roles in Andrews' career as well. He appeared in The Ox-Bow Incident a year before. Judith Anderson, who appears as Carpenter's love interest Ann Treadwell, appeared in Star Trek III 40 years later.

Great dialogue, strong production values, fantastic characters and a good whodunit make Laura well worth watching.

The version I watched included two A&E documentaries on Tierney and Price, a deleted scene, an extended version and commentary.

Here's a last little bit of trivia for you. Grant Mitchell (Arsenic and Old Lace and The Grapes of Wrath) had his scenes cut from the film.

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Explore Forbidden Planet

When he died in November 2010, Leslie Nielsen was largely feted for the comedies he made in the latter part of his career (Airplane, The Naked Gun!).

But don't forget the Canadian-born actor also appeared in one of the best science-fiction films ever made, the 1956 MGM release, Forbidden Planet.

The story, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, is solid. The special effects are still impressive more than 50 years after Forbidden Planet's release. Electronic music by Louis and Bebe Baron is eerie and adds to the film's mood. The Soundtrack is light years ahead what viewers of They Came From Beyond Space had to suffer through (see my earlier posting).

Commander Adams (Nielsen) heads a spaceship crew on a mission to Altair-IV. A scientific party landed on the star, more than a year away from Earth, 20 years earlier. Now in 2257, the mission of the United Planets crew is to check for survivors.

Professor Edward Morbius (Walter Pigeon) is the only person still alive. He definitely doesn't want to be rescued.

His colleagues were killed by an invisible beast. Others died when their spaceship was destroyed trying to leave Altair-IV.

Morbius has a daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). She's a looker. There's just a hint of tension of 19 very smart, and young, men spending more than a year in space and stumbling upon a blond beauty in this otherwise barren planet. The romantic triangle between Adams, Lieut. Jerry Forman (Jack Kelly) and Altaira is the film's weakest point. Handled better, this could have added to the film's tension.

Adams is convinced Morbius knows more about what happened to the rest of his scientific party years earlier and now acts of sabotage and murder on his ship. Just how much does Morbius know about an ancient civilization on Altair-IV that was a million years ahead of mankind in intellectual development? His research skills have helped him tap the civilization's language.

There's some comedic relief with Cook (Earl Holliman) which is mildly funny, but doesn't really fit in with the rest of Forbidden Planet.

This film's strength is its intelligent script touching on power, possessiveness and the potential for violence. Pigeon is well cast as Morbius. He's a towering presence and commands the screen. Nielsen plays it earnestly straight as the ship's commander. Some of his dialogue could have been ripe for spoofing in those later comedies he made. Still, he is believable in the role.

Forbidden Planet is the second-last film directed by Fred M. Wilcox. He died in 1960. His other credits include The Secret Garden and two Lassie films.

The public library in my community only had a VHS copy of Forbidden Planet. Viewers who've seen the special edition on DVD are encouraged to leave their comments about that release and the quality of the extras.

Rating: 9/10

Forbidden Planet (1956, 99 minutes, CinemaScope).
Cast: Walter Pigeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Earl Hollman.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010

Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen died in Florida on Nov. 28, 2010. He was 84.

Nielsen's career stretched back to 1950. The Saskatchewan native worked extensively in television and film. The wacky comedy, Airplane!, released in 1980, gave a huge boost to the second half of his career.

The television series, Police Squad!, from the same creative time, followed in 1982. It only lasted six episodes. The show's brief, and very funny, run can be enjoyed on DVD. Buy it. The first Naked Gun movie, from 1988, is the best. Don't bother with the sequels.

Even after those comedic turns, Nielsen still delivered a powerful dramatic performance in 1986 with Nuts starring Barbara Streisand.

Nielsen also starred in one of the great all-time science fiction films, Forbidden Planet, released in 1956. The movie adapted Shakespeare's The Tempest and set it in outer space. There's a two-disc special edition marking the film's 50th anniversary.

They Came From Beyond Space and should have stayed there

There are worse films than They Came From Beyond Space. But stupider?

The aliens in this 1967 British film crow about being the "highest life order in the cosmos."


Then why do their plans keep getting mucked up by astrophysicist Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton) and his buddy, Farge (Zia Mohyeddin)? Farge may be one filmdom's few heroes who save the day wearing a cardigan and a tie.

Warning signs appear early in They Came From Beyond Space. The musical score, composed by James Stevens, is atrocious, not to mention irritating. The first special effect about five minutes in is laughable. They don't get better.

Meteors land in a farmer's field. Temple is forbidden to check out the scene because of a recent automobile collision that left him badly injured. Not that you can tell by how he beats up aliens later on in the film.

The alien race takes over the minds of really smart, well smart by Earth's standards, scientists including Temple's squeeze Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne). Temple can't be touched because doctors put a silver plate in his head after a serious automobile collision. We never see the aliens try and figure out how they can get to Temple before he ruins their mission to Earth.

The plot is hard to describe because it's hard to understand. The aliens made the mistake of evolving too far. Living without bodies isn't working for them. What happened to their superior intellect?

They unleash a supposed plague that wipes out at least 10 people. A large budget does not appear to be part of They Came From Beyond Space's production. These folks are brought to the moon. They are slaves. Doing what? Not sure.

Aliens sometimes use ray guns that quite effectively stop Temple. Their superior intellect results in their handing machine guns to their security guards which never hit Temple. The ray gun always hits Temple. Do the math, people.

Poor special effects can be forgiven if there's an interesting story. Sometimes laughable dialogue can be excused if there's a sign of intelligent filmmaking happening. When Temple goes to the crash site and sees Lee, now under the control of the alien race, he tells her, "I wanted to find out what was happening. I also happen to be in love with you." Yikes. Their chemistry is non-existent.

The menu for the St. Clair Vision copy I watched lists They Came From Beyond Space as a sci-fi classic. That's just wrong. It's terrible. This was one of three (!) films Freddie Francis directed in 1967. Torture Garden and The Deadly Bees were the others. Fourteen years later, he was the director of photography for the critically acclaimed The French Lieutenant's Woman with Meryl Streep. How's that for range? He died in 2007 at age 89.

Hutton, who also appeared in Trog, The Slime People and The Man Without a Body, made his last film in 1975. He died in 1994.

Jayne's career ran from 1949 to 1985. Her other credits included The Black Widow and A Woman of Mystery. She died in 2006. She was 74.

Hutton's buddy, Zia Mohyeddin, also appeared in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. This is a big step down for him.

Not bad enough to qualify as entertaining schlock, They Came From Beyond Space is just a waste of time. Viewer beware.

Rating 3/10

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much: chills and laughs combine for great thriller

Director Alfred Hitchcock does an awful lot with this film's brief 75-minute running time.

There's about a dozen shots that either just look great or build suspense. This is a great early film from the British filmmaker's first decade of moviemaking and is highly recommended.

Lawrence and Jill (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), are in Switzerland on vacation.

When a friend is shot when dancing, he shares a secret with Jill in his dying moments. He's an agent with the British government and has learned about a plot to kill a European diplomat about to visit England.

Realizing Lawrence and Jill know about the assassination plot, the conspirators kidnap Betty.
She will be killed, they are told, if they reveal what they know to authorities. British investigators warn the couple if they don't talk, the politician's death could trigger violence on a scale equivalent to the First World War.

Lawrence and Betty's uncle, Clive (Hugh Wakefield), decide to find Betty on their own.
There's a couple of great shots in the office of dentist George Barber (Henry Oscar). Is Barber part of the plot? Does he mean to harm Lawrence? Two early, great shots take place in his office.

Hitchcock repeatedly cuts away from scenes where a character's fate, usually Betty's, is being discussed. This jars the audience and keeps them off-base. Hitchcock makes great use of silence too to build suspense or create a sense something particularly nasty is about to happen.

Hitchcock was known for having a standout scene or two in each film, such as Janet Leigh's demise in the shower in Psycho or Cary Grant being chased by a crop-dusting plane in North By Northwest.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Betty is pursued on a roof when she tries to escape. Silence is used here again to great effect.

Peter Lorre (Abbott) is the ringleader of the conspirators in his first English-language film. He drifts between menacing, check out his facial scar and hair, and charming. He gets some great lines too. The diplomat is to be killed during a concert's climatic moment at a major English venue. The assassin is told no one will hear his gunshot. "I think the composer would have appreciated that," Abbott says.

British police are portrayed as bumbling, unaware and unorganized in The Man Who Knew Too Much, a theme Hitchcock would repeat in other films. During a final confrontation with the conspirators, police must wait for weapons to arrive before they can return fire.

The first five minutes of The Man Who Knew Too Much were daunting. It was difficult to make out what the actors were saying. That, thankfully, stopped early on. If you can spot Hitchcock's cameo, well done! I had to rely on a cameo feature included in the Madacy release I watched.

This film, released in 1934, would be remade by Hitchcock in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day. It's been a few years since I watched the second film, but the original The Man Who Knew Too Much is solid viewing.

As of this writing, Nova Pilbeam is still alive. She turned 91 on Nov. 15, 2010. Pilbeam, who also appeared in Hitchcock's Young and Innocent, made her last film (The Three Weird Sisters) in 1948.

Screenwriter Charles Bennett worked on several other scripts for Hitchcock including Foreign Correspondent, Sabotage and Secret Agent.

Rating for The Man Who Knew Too Much: 9/10

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Quiet Earth makes some noise

Vincent Price wakes up to another day fighting the undead.

Bruno Lawrence starts his morning discovering everyone else is gone.

My blog began with a review of the last man on earth vincent price.

Twenty-one years after that Italian release hit the screens, The Quiet Earth from New Zealand was released in 1985. How fitting it's my second review.

It's neat to compare how the two films handle the same scenario. What does the last man on Earth do?

Price's character, Robert Morgan, has battled vampires/zombies since a plague wiped out mankind.

Zac Hobson (Lawrence) can't find anybody as he prepares to start another day as a government research scientist. He fills up his car at the gas station, but there's no attendant. A kettle boils. There's a magazine on the washroom floor.

Hobson finds abandoned vehicles on the streets, but no humans.

He visits a home, presumably of someone he knows, and discovers a breakfast tray in a bed, but no residents.

"Hello, is anybody out there?" he pleads over a transport's CB radio.

A hint of Price's Morgan going mad was suggested after three years of battling the undead. Hobson begins his descent into insanity a week after the rest of the world disappears.

While Morgan had nothing to do with humanity's demise, Hobson knows he played a role in wiping out mankind.

His research department, and many others, were working together on Project Flashlight. There's a few details given about this operation, including the powering of jet planes without needing to refuel.

There's a neat plot development about Hobson's reaction to the project in the film's final third.

The Quiet Earth, just like The Last Man on Earth, adds another character or two as the film progresses. You might think a handful of surviving humans could get along when the rest of mankind is gone. You'd be wrong.

Hobson learns Project Flashlight could be responsible for another disaster. Maori trucker Api (Pete Smith) takes a fancy to Joanne (Alison Routledge), who was first to meet with Hobson and begin a romantic relationship.

There's several references to characters thinking they are now the Almighty. Hobson destroys a church's crucifix with several shotgun blasts and proclaims, "Now I am God."

What Hobson, Api and Joanne have in common adds an interesting twist in the film's final 30 minutes. Are they dreaming? Have they entered a parallel universe? "The end of the world is just the beginning," suggests the film's trailer.

The Quiet Earth ends with a powerful image of Hobson on a beach. Keep watching through the credits for a final image of the scientist reacting to what he has helped create.

The Quiet Earth earned eight New Zealand Academy Awards including best film, actor, director and screenplay. Director Geoff Murphy's later credits included Freejack with the unlikely pairing of Mick Jagger and Emilio Estevez and Young Guns II.

Lawrence (Smash Palace, Warlords of the 21st Century) died of lung cancer in 1995. He was 54. Routledge has only appeared in a handful of films in the last 25 years. The Last Man on Earth was Smith's film debut. His other credits include Once Were Warriors and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Hollywood take note. The Quiet Earth cost about $1 million to make. Big dollars and plenty of explosions does not always equal a critically-praised film that, gasp, makes audiences think.

Rating: 7/10