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.