Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mississippi Burning (1988)

I miss you, Gene Hackman.

He earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his work in this fine 1988 feature from director Alan Parker (The Road to Wellville, The Commitments). This drama, inspired by real events in the southern United States in the 1960s, was part of a solid string of films Hackman made in the late 1980s (The Package, Bat 21, Class Action). Hackman, who turns 83 in 2013, hasn't made a film since 2004. Gene, please don't let Welcome to Mooseport be your final screen appearance. You deserve better.

His is one of several performances that make Mississippi Burning a powerful film. He's FBI Agent Rupert Anderson, sent with Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) to find three civil rights workers who are missing in Jessop County. Viewers know the trio is dead, killed in the film's opening minutes. Anderson and Ward suspect as much, but have to find their bodies.

The investigators have two very different ways of approaching their work. While Ward is by the book - he'll show up and start asking questions, Anderson plays the angles. He'll drop by for a talk, friendly or not. The veteran agent will use charm, from a bouquet of flowers to noting one's looks, to help a potential source of information feel at ease. Anderson has a nasty edge too, if needed.

Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand) is one potential source Anderson wants to tap. Her husband, Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), is a deputy with Jessop County police. He's also a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Part of his alibi rests on his wife. Anderson and Ward see a weak link in his story. But can they get his better half, a woman who detests the racism in her community, to talk?

Here's McDormand several years after her debut in Blood Simple and more than a decade before Fargo brought her wide attention. Her character is stuck in a marriage with a man she no longer loves, afraid to speak up in a community of whites that largely supports segregation. Stephen Tobolowsky shines in his few scenes as Clayton Townley, a high ranking member of the KKK who warns his followers about the communist forces from the northern United States who want to integrate blacks with whites. He's scary good. Tobolowsky makes an impression, just like he did several years later as Ned, the insurance salesman, in Groundhog Day.

The friction between Anderson and Ward is standard issue for such crime films. Ward is keen to bring in as many bodies as needed to find the activists. Anderson warns him a greater federal presence will only fan the flames between blacks and whites in Mississippi. Dafoe occasionally laments how blacks are treated. He's the weak link in a movie with many standout performances from supporting players such as R. Lee Emery, a really creepy Michael Rooker and Gailard Sartain.

This film is set in 1964, not even 50 years ago. It's sad to know such things as separate water fountains, seating areas and brutal beatings were all too common just several decades ago. Mississippi Burning helps viewers remember.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Mississippi Burning was nominated for seven Oscars, but won just one for cinematography.

R. Lee Emery is the voice of Sarge in the Toy Story films.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frost/Nixon gets my vote for a great film.

Ron Howard's 2008 film centres on two characters who are either all steak or sizzle. American President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) is a smart man, but he knows he'll never be popular or move with the 'in' crowd.

British journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) is the playboy television personality with good looks, a string of beautiful women on his arm and movie premieres to attend. He's a star, but history will judge his long-standing accomplishments to be minimal.

Frost wants to talk with the American president following his resignation because of the Watergate affair. Nixon is looking for a chance to redeem his image and earn a hefty paycheque. His advisors regard Frost as a lightweight who won't ask the tough questions a more experienced political reporter would fire Nixon's way.

Frost recruits some talented advisors, Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell) to help him prepare for the series of interviews, but the big guy is too busy trying to rustle up financing separate from the American networks and making public appearances to get ready for his talks with the disgraced American president.

Frost is easily outclassed for most of the interviews. He lets Nixon drone on. Statements aren't challenged. Frost doesn't know his stuff. Zelnick and Reston are appalled. It's only before a discussion on Watergate that Frost buckles down and does his own research.

Langella shines in this film. His Nixon is smart, cheap, efficient at mind games, prone to furious anger and not able to nail down certain success against Frost with a late-night phone call fueled by booze. I'd love to know if such a phone call took place or if the filmmakers took some artistic licence with the exchange that finally snapped some life into Frost.

Frost/Nixon earned five Academy Award nominations. It offers viewers an absorbing story and many fine performances, especially Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Nixon's former chief of staff. See it.

RATING: 9/10

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

His Girl Friday (1940)

Hold on, folks.

His Girl Friday is a frantic, funny film from Hollywood's Golden Age.

This 1940 release from director Howard Hawks (bringing up baby ) is the second screen version of The Front Page. It's quite the ride for the 92-minute running time. Two, or three, multiple conversations are the norm here. The timing between actors is spot on. Watch for some great scene compositions from Hawks. His actors are placed perfectly in the foreground and background. What a fantastic film to look at - and watch. No wonder it was added to the National Film Registry in 1993.


Reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) returns to Chicago's Morning Post newspaper to bid farewell to editor, and her ex-husband, Walter Burns (Cary Grant). She's met a new better half, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), who can offer her the good income, and consideration, Burns was too busy to direct her way during their marriage. Talk about a rewrite. Bruce sells insurance. The happy couple plan to marry the next day in Albany, N.Y. They'll spend the first year living with his mother (Alma Kruger). Johnson vows to dedicate the rest of her days to bringing up her children and distance herself from life as a reporter. "I'm through," she vows. "I'm going to live like a human being."

Burns refuses to be scooped in his personal life. He wants his wife back. But he doesn't have much time. Johnson and Baldwin plan to leave town in two hours to head to Albany. Burns has just the hook. A meek bookkeper, Earl Williams (John Qualen), is to be executed the next day for shooting a police officer. Killing him, rather than finding him mentally insane, will get votes for the mayor (Clarence Kolb) and Sheriff Hartwell (Gene Lockhart).


Johnson is suspicious of Burns' supposed interest in Baldwin. But she also knows what a good story the Williams' case is. Johnson agrees to interview the accused killer while Burns keeps trying to muck up her planned marriage with Baldwin. When Williams escapes from jail, the action kicks up a notch as The Morning Post strives to get the exclusive story what happened to the accused killer after his jailbreak.

His Girl Friday is filled with solid laughs, plus occasional realistic glimpses of a reporter's life. A good reporter always wants to get the story first. Some people interviewed by reporters will be upset about how they are portrayed when the newspaper hits the streets. Drastic actions could result.

This is a great film. Watch it.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Rosalind Russell was nominated for four Oscars between 1942 and 1958.

Ralph Bellamy's last credit was Pretty Woman in 1990. He died the next year at age 87.

John Qualaen, a native of British Columbia, Canada, also appeared in Casablanca and The Grapes of Wrath. Wow.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sky High (2005)

How fitting.

Superheroes have two identities, so does Sky High (2005).

This 2005 effort from director Mike Mitchell (Shrek: Forever After) appears to be directed at tweens and young teens. But this adventure/comedy can also be watched by their parents, or grandparents, who'll appreciate the nods to heroes of past years and some inspired casting.

Give Sky High marks for putting a unique twist on standard plot devices, such as the start of high school, being picked on by bullies and pining for the drop-dead gorgeous girl. Here, all the students are sons and daughters of superheroes.

Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) begins Grade 9 with huge expectations. His parents, Steve and Josie, are the world's top superheroes, The Commander and JetStream. Just like Superman, they both have a very public career as real estate agents. But, wearing glasses keeps everyone from identifying their evil-fighting roles. Mom and dad can't wait to have their son fight evil with them.


September is here and poor Will sees no signs of personal superpowers. Nurse Spex (hello Cloris Leachman) breaks the bad news that he may be one of the few offspring of superhero parents to not have the royal jelly. Yikes. What to tell dad? He's delegated to the sidekick stream by Coach Boomer (hey, it's horror hero Bruce Campbell) with several others including gal pal, but not girlfriend, Layla (Danielle Panabaker). She thinks the world of Will, but he's distracted by the welcome attention of senior Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

Grayson has plans for Will, and his parents, at homecoming. Layla aims to make Will jealous by getting friendly with his rival, love this name, Warren Peace (Steven Strait). He's sore at Will for his dad putting his pops behind bars for several lifetimes.


Older viewers should get a kick out of seeing Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter, as Principal Powers. It's fun, but also a little depressing, to see two members of Canada's The Kids in the Hall troupe. Kevin McDonald fares better as Mr. Medulla, the big-brained teacher, than David Foley as Mr. Boy. Foley has to do some pretty silly stuff at times, but he scores points as the sidekick The Commander can never remember. He still has a soft spot for JetStream too. For a movie released in 2005, what's with the soundtrack? I'm not complaining, but it was a wee bit odd to hear hits associated with the 1980s.

The adult roles are played pretty broad. It's just the kids who get to show the real emotions. Sky High has some good laughs while exploring well-trod ground about young teens trying to find their way at a new school.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Sky High is the first feature role for Steven Strait.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is probably best known for her appearances in the two most recent Die Hard films.

Wow. Kelly Preston starred alongside Charles Bronson in 10 to Midnight.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Sound the trumpets, The Adventures of Robin Hood (Two-Disc Special Edition) is rousing entertainment.

Backed by a stirring score courtesy of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Captain Blood), this 1938 adventure film has it all. There's a cast stuffed with Hollywood legends, gorgeous Technicolor photography, plenty of sword fights, good humour and some really evil villains.

It's the 12th century in England. King Richard the Lion-Heart is off fighting a war. His crooked brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), sees a chance to seize power for himself. Helping him is henchman Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, looking especially suave). Prince John, a Norman, makes life miserable for the Saxons with high taxes, torture and seizure of property.

Sir Robin of Loxley (Errol Flynn) stands up to Prince John and vows to ensure King Richard returns to the throne. He recruits help including Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), a man of the cloth who's also very talented with a sword, and Little John (Alan Hale, who also was Flynn's sidekick in Dodge City).

Now Robin Hood, Sir Robin ambushes Prince John's soldiers and redistributes his riches to Saxons in need. Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), a royal ward of King Richard's, is initially cool to Robin Hood's actions and obvious interest in her. She soon warms to his cause, and him. Sir Guy wants her hand too, but isn't is handy with his wooing words as he is offing people who won't go along with Prince John. There's going to be a showdown between these two. Watch for the use of shadows as these two finally square off one-on-one.

There's not a lot of plot to try and follow here. The Adventures of Robin Hood jumps from one thrilling scene to the next, including an archery competition and Robin Hood's planned execution. Audiences may never see another film where so many men jump from trees and tackle their opponents.

Flynn soars as the outlaw who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. Rains and Rathbone ooze evil while Melville Cooper is a wuss as High Sheriff of Nottingham. There's no fight he'd rather avoid.

The Adventures of Robin Hood won three Oscars for art direction, editing and score. This fine film was also nominated for best picture.

Kevin Costner, you're no Errol Flynn. See this film.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Claude Rains was King Herod in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Eugene Pallette made his screen debut in a 1913 short, The Fugitive.

Una O'Connor appears as Maid Marian's lady-in-waiting. Her last role was in Witness for the Prosecution.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was shot in California.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

This film is a feast for movie-goers.

The Man Who Came to Dinner serves up a great script from twin brothers Julius Epstein and Philip Epstein (Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace) based on a smash Broadway show of the same name.

Director William Keighley (The Fighting 69th, The Adventures of Robin Hood) assembles a delicious cast with Monty Woolley carving out a standout performance as self-centred, caustic author and critic Sheridan Whiteside.

After a fall, the man praised as "the first man of American letters" takes over the house of industrialist Ernest Stanley (Grant Mitchell) and his wife (Billie Burke) and relegates the couple upstairs. Whiteside starts scheming when he learns his secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) has fallen for a reporter, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), from the midwestern town where he was supposed to speak. "I'll pull you out of this stardust," he vows. But Cutler is ready to settle down.

He recruits bombshell actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) to take the train from sunny Palm Beach to spend Christmas pulling Jefferson away from Cutler. Sheridan's right-hand woman turns to Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardner) to pull Sheldon off the hunt.

Meanwhile, the Stanleys home is filling up with Christmas gifts from Whiteside's admirers. They include an octopus and four penguins. Whiteside doles out life advice to the couple's two children (Elisabeth Fraser, Russell Arms) that quickly has them packing their bags and leaving home with great enthusiasm.

Woolley is a joy to watch in this film. His barbs and disdainful reproaches towards just about every single person he meets are very funny. George Barbier, making one of his last screen appearances before his death in 1945, shines as Dr. Bradley, a family physician who's terribly keen to have Whiteside read his memoirs about being a small-town doctor.

Jimmy Durante's appearance as Banjo, an old friend of Whiteside's, is a bit much. He's over the top in a film that does quite well handling all kinds of craziness in a low-key way.

Movie fans often hear the phrase, "They don't make 'em like they used to." Darn right. The Man Who Came to Dinner is perfect proof.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Billie Burke appeared as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

Reginald Gardiner's last credit was as a butler in an episode of The Monkees.

The Man Who Came to Dinner was a career highlight for both Richard Travis (Missile of the Moon, Mesa of Lost Women) and Richard Arms. The latter actor died in 2012 at age 92.

Jimmy Durante narrated the 1970 Christmas special, Frosty the Snowman. He sang the title tune too.

Mary Wickes, along with Monty Woolley, appeared in the show's Broadway production. Contemporary audiences saw her in Sister Act and its sequel in the early 1990s.