Tuesday, December 30, 2014

American Graffiti (1973)

George Lucas did just fine with a movie "no one wanted to do."

The soon-to-be creative force behind Star Wars had a tough time lining up financing for American Graffiti: Special Edition, his ode to cruising, cars and the American teen experience in the early 1960s.

It wasn't until Francis Ford Coppola, who recently wrapped up the first Godfather film, that Lucas was able to get financing for his follow-up to THX 1138.

I love American Graffiti soundtrack - a double album set I picked up, if memory serves, at Sam the Record Man in Barrie in 1991 or 1992. If you're a fan of American rock and roll from that period - songs such as The Great Pretender (The Drifters), Runaway (Del Shannon) and Party Doll (Buddy Know), get the disc.

The movie, marking early career appearances by a slew of stars including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford and Charles Martin Smith, is OK, but not stellar.

The film is set over one night in a California community in the early 1960s. Curt (Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) leave for college the next morning. Curt is starting to doubt whether he'll head east to study. Steve can't wait to pull up stakes for greener pastures.

Curt's final night in town is largely focused on trying to track down a beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) driving a T-Bird. "I just saw a vision," he proclaims after seeing this beauty for the first time. Steve's girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Wiliams) wants her beau to stay in town and is cool to his suggestion that they should both date others while they're separated.

Terry, or The Toad (Martin Smith) is elated to finally get a car of his own to drive, at least for awhile, and enjoy the company of Debbie (Candy Clark), a fine-looking lady he meets that night.

Rounding out the high school gang is John (Paul Le Mat), the champion dragster who cruises the strip with the very young Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). He is, depending on the moment, interested or infuriated to have her along for company. He's sought out for a race by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). Harrison, I think you're an awesome actor, but this may be the worst performance I've ever seen you give. The cowboy hat and Texas accent just don't work.

Give American Graffiti credit for centring so much action in, and around, cars. Given how much time characters talk to others while behind the wheel, it's amazing more drivers didn't drive through red lights or rear-end other vehicles.

There's some laughs, but no real drama. The cars look great. The music is fantastic, but the story is just OK.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: See if you can spot Kathleen Quinlan and Joe Spano. I couldn't.

This is the first film appearance by legendary American disc jockey Wolfman Jack.

Another beef with this film - old actors playing teens. Bo Hopkins, a gang leader, was in his early thirties when he made this film. Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams and Candy Clark were all in their mid-twenties.

Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., son of Tarzan, is billed as Badass #1.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Conversation (1974)

Harry Caul makes a good living by not asking questions about what his clients want.

Based in San Francisco, Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert, revered by others in the business for the quality of his work and the equipment he creates to do his job.

Trouble is, Caul has a conscience that is starting to interfere with his work. He's already bothered by an earlier assignment that resulted in two people being murdered.

A job to record a conversation between a young couple in a public square causes him to cross a line and get involved with what he hears.

Caul is convinced something will happen to Mark and Ann (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) if he doesn't intervene.

The stress he's facing on the job isn't helped by what's happening in his personal life.

His girlfriend, Amy (Teri Garr) is frustrated by how she little she knows about Harry's life. She appears to be a bit of a ditz, but Amy notices how Harry likes to watch her.

Another big name in the surveillance world, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), is eager to join forces with Harry, get access to the tools he has conjured up, while also reminding him of that earlier incident that led to lives being lost.

Harry makes a point - as Amy notes - of not letting others know about his personal life. Birthday wishes from other tenants, and signs colleagues and foes are watching him causes his life to start falling apart.

Director Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation between the first and second Godfather films. This drama from 1974 features a much smaller world and cast of characters. Hackman stands out in a film that can be uncomfortable to watch. Harry is on the edge and The Conversation's final moments are disturbing to see.

Harrison Ford makes an early screen appearance as Martin Stett, a right-hand man to the director of, well I think it's a business. His name doesn't appear in the credits, but this veteran of other Coppola films including Apocalypse Now should be identifiable.

See this film - and give a listen to Coppola's commentary.

RATING: 9/10

The Conversation was nominated for three Academy Awards - best picture, screenplay and sound.

Elizabeth MacRae was Lou-Ann Poovie, girlfriend of Gomer Pyle, USMC.

The Conversation marks the film debut of Mark Wheeler.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Air Force One (1997)

Watching Air Force One now is a whole other story.

This thriller from director Wolfgang Petersen was released in 1997, four years before a series of terrorist attacks killed 3,000 Americans in September 2001.

It's chilling to see this fictional story set on board Air Force One, used to transport the President of the United States, when planes were used in the 9/11 attacks.

Air Force One is a good, not great, thriller with its share of implausible moments. Here's one, how could so many bullets be fired with no damage to the plane's shell or windows? Two, just how many shells are in weapons used by the American president?

The story is one Hollywood keeps exploring because it's an exciting concept. Bad guys are thwarted by a hero who evades them and mucks up their plans. Think Die Hard and Passenger 57.

But, boy, there's some whoppers in this film. How does terrorist Ivan Korshunov and his henchman get on board? They wipe out a Russian television crew and assume their identities. But how does Korshunov's thumb pass a scan test? The tight security on Air Force One really looks like a joke with such easy access for the villains.

Give marks to Air Force One for a plot with a bit of an edge. President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) rouses a crowd in Russia with his decision, not vetted with this advisers beforehand, that there will be no negotiating with terrorists. "It's your turn to be afraid," he says. This declaration follows the capture of General Alexander Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), a Russian nationalist tied to all kinds of violence. Marshall's vow is put to the test when his wife, Grace (Wendy Crewson) and daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews) are taken hostage on board Air Force One.

Marshall is supposedly safe after an escape pod is expelled from his aircraft. But, the American president is an American Vietnam veteran, not a coward. He's stayed on board, unknown to the terrorists who want him captured, and works to retake Air Force One.

Back in Washington, Marshall's cabinet tries to figure out what to do. Poor Glenn Close. As Vice President Kathryn Bennett, she doesn't look all that decisive. She's also taking flack from Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell) who's itching to have Marshall declared incapacitated so he can be removed as America's leader. This subplot really drags down the film. Dean foams at the mouth with his actions.

Oldman is a good villain, but his occasional shrieks either suggest madness or a guy who just can't contain his emotions. It strikes me as a little overblown. Korshunov continues the Hollywood villain tradition of keeping hostages alive rather than killing them to prove a point, ie. Don't mess with me and give me what I want.

There's a few laughs, mostly from Harrison Ford. William H. Macy, such a great actor, is largely wasted here as Major Caldwell.

Korshunov suggests Marshall isn't unlike Radek, opting to kill people who don't fit in with the American way. "That's what you do in the White House. You play God." Discuss.

I've ordered Passenger 57 from an Amazon associate. I haven't seen that movie in years. It'll be reviewed in early 2015. I'll be curious to see what I think of it compared to Air Force One.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Prochnow starred in what is likely Petersen's best film, Das Boot. See it if you can. Petersen has not directed a film since Poseidon in 2006. Has he retired?

Liesel Matthews appeared in just three films. Air Force One was the second. n

Wow. William H. Macy was a critic in Somewhere in Time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Great fun. Great dancing. Singin' in the Rain is a great movie.

Too bad it's taken this movie fan so many years to finally see this wonderful dance film co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

This is a must-see movie that, strangely, only garnered two Academy Award nominations - and no wins.

Singin' in the Rain gives an affectionate nod to Hollywood's silent era and the publicity machine that built up its stars, acknowledges studio politics, celebrity worship - love how the fans react to the stars arriving at a film premiere at the movie's start and how a movie can either captivate an audience's interest or send them disgusted to the exits.

It's the late 1920s in Hollywood. The first talkie, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, is released. The stars and bosses at Monumental Pictures aren't worried - initially. Novelty. Flash in the pan. That is until Jolson's movie starts doing boffo business at the box office. Suddenly, the silent screen pairings of supposed real-life couple Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) now provoke roars of laughter from movie-goers. It doesn't help that Lamont, a beauty on the screen, has a voice that can crack glass.

Lockwood needs a Plan B, pronto, or he figures his run on the big screen is kaput. Buddy Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and the girl he's really sweet on, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), decide to take his latest project and turn it into a musical. Lockwood can sing. He can dance. Substitute Kathy's voice for the irritating tones of Lina and all should be well.

Lina has other plans.

Kelly's dance sequence, in the rain, after he bids Kathy a good night is impressive, but so are many other scenes in this wonderful film. Check out Kelly's work with Cyd Charisse. I felt like I was in a Salvador Dali painting. Donald O'Connor's Make 'em Laugh dance. Fantastic.

There's some great dialogue too - especially between Lockwood and his supposed girl, Lina. He calls it a "cooked up romance." The sparks are real with Cathy though, despite a less-than-promising introduction.


Lockwood to Lina: "I don't like her half as much as I hate you."

Lina: "I gave an exclusive interview to every paper in town."

Nice touch at the end. Movie is shot in "Hollywood, USA."

RATING: 9/10

NOTES: Millard Mitchell is always fun to watch. Here, he's studio boss R.F. Simpson. Mitchell died in 1953 at age 50. He'd appear in two other films after Singin' in the Rain.

Friday, November 28, 2014

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

Love sure is complicated in You Were Never Lovelier.

Robert Davis (Fred Astaire) heads to Buenes Aires. A gambling man, he puts his cash on a horse that barely shows up to race.

Wanting work, he tries to meet hotel owner Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou). Davis already has an in. He knows hotel band leader Xavier Cugat (playing himself). The hoofer finds a friendly face with Acuna's secretary, Fernando (Gus Schilling), but can't stir Eduardo's interest.

The businessman has his own troubles. One daughter is married, but the next, Maria (Rita Hayworth), isn't interested in any suitors. That distresses sisters Cecy (Leslie Brooks) and Lita (Adele Mara) who are eager to tie the knot. Pops decides to pique Maria's interest by writing a series of notes from a secret admirer. Davis, still looking for work, gets himself involved in the masquerade. The aura of mystery from her would-be suitor intrigues Maria. She gave Davis the brush off before because of some poor choices on his part ("I opened my mouth too wide and kept it open too long."), but is now interested when it looks like he's the one who's pitching woo. "I'm beginning to wonder what he's like," she suggests.

Davis warms to his assignment, but finds himself at the mercy of Eduardo who's less than keen to see his daughter pair off with him.

Hayworth looks divine. Fred works his magic on the dance floor. Menjou gets plenty of great lines dissing others, mainly Davis and the often fired Fernando. "You're as beautiful as ever," he tells his wife Delfina (Barbara Brown). "It just takes longer now."

You Were Never Lovelier is light, pleasant fare.

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: William Seiter also directed Astaire in 1935's Roberta.

Leslie Brooks was a chorus girl in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Gus Schilling was also in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

You Were Never Lovelier was nominated for three Oscars - best song, recording and score.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Funny Face (1957)

Audrey Hepburn dazzles.

Fred Astaire shines.

But the romance that's at the heart of Funny Face
is a joke.

This 1957 feature from American director Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) earned four Oscar nominations. Three make absolute sense - cinematography, art direction and costume design. The writing award makes no sense.

Funny Face
stands out because of its impressive cinematography. Kudos to Ray June (Horse Feathers, Houseboat), who died a year after this film was released.

Hepburn is radiant as bookstore employee Jo Stockton who becomes the new face of Quality magazine for women. Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) is the photographer who discovers her for editor Maggie Prescott (a very good Kay Thompson).

Maggie and Dick fall in love. Ewww. There's a 30-year difference between the stars. That's an issue for this film fan.

Plus, Funny Face spends too much time on a really dumb subplot that has Maggie trying to talk philosophy with a professor, Emile Floste (Michael Auclair). Dick, besides not being keen on seeing another man vie for Maggie's attention, figures the academic really wants to make a move on her rather than share intellectual thoughts. "He's more man than philosopher," Dick suggests.

Watch Funny Face for June's work, especially scenes shot outside a church and some great song and dance numbers. Pardon lines such as "You're a cutie with more than beauty." Shot in high fidelity in VistaVision.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Kay Thompson only made four films. She's the godmother of Liza Minelli and created the Eloise series for young readers.

Director Stanley Donen helmed several musicals in the 1950s including Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He's still alive at the time of this writing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Yes Men (2003)

Yes, The Yes Men is worth a look.

Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaun take a slightly different approach than American filmmaker Michael Moore when it comes to their social activist approach to filmmaking.

Moore often shows up with a camera in tow to confront people he may disagree with. A security guard usually shows up or a hand is put in front of the camera.

Bonanno and Bichlbaun pretend they're representatives of the World Trade Organization and make outlandish statements that would never be spoken by the international group.

Their goal is to highlight what they argue are imbalances in trade between nations. Developed countries get the spoils, they say, and underdeveloped counterparts get the shaft.

Bonanno and Bichlbaun set up a faux WTO-like site and wait for business interests who don't notice they're a bogus entity. The boys start this documentary with a presentation in Finland. They argue the northern states were wrong to interfere with slavery during the American Civil War. Posing as WTO reps, they suggest slavery - repositioned as "remote labour" still offers lucrative boosts to the bottom line in the 21st century. The selling of votes for elections is pitched. Their crowning achievement - a gold coloured suit with a phallic-like attachment that allows corporate brass to monitor what their cheaply paid workers are doing thousands of miles away. Oh, receptors are implanted in the bodies of labourers so the boss, with the aid of transmitters, can feel what they're feeling.

No one asks any questions. No one in the audience is outraged. Media later pick up the story and their appearance gets covered in Fortune Magazine and The New York Times.

The Yes Men continues with a visit to an American college campus, where the younger set are a little more attentive to their pair's message - this time suggesting human waste from America be sold as meat in poorer countries.

Bonanno and Bichlbuan's final appearance is in Australia where it's suggested the World Trade Organization will reinvent itself because, given its current model, poor nations are not being helped.

Audience members are surprised to learn of WTO's plans, but welcome a chance for workers who need a hand up to get one with the trade group's reorientation.

The Yes Men won't win marks for its photography, but its message will make audiences think and ask questions. That's a good thing.

RATING: 8/10

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

There's definitely a few surprises in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Watching Bruce Dern getting his right hand cut off with a butcher knife in a 1964 film was definitely unexpected. Blood spattering on a wall caught me off-guard.

Seeing a major character fall down a flight of stairs, in rather convincing fashion, wasn't anticipated.

How about a brief cameo from screen icon Mary Astor, in her final film role? That's pretty cool.

Some twists in this horror/suspense effort from director Robert Aldrich are fairly easy to see, but one major plot point definitely isn't anticipated and packs a punch near the film's finale.

This seven-time Oscar nominated film starts in the past. It's 1927 and Big Sam (Victor Buono) is reading the riot act to John Mayhew (Dern). The married Mayhew is having an affair with Sam's daughter, Charlotte (Bette Davis). The relationship must end, dad decrees. Charlotte is devastated when John calls off the relationship. The same night, at a party hosted at Sam's mansion, Mayhew is murdered. Charlotte appears to be the likely suspect. She spends the next 30-plus years largely alone in her childhood home. Only her maid, Velma (Agnes Moorehead), sticks it out alongside the woman townsfolk brand insane. "She's not really crazy," Velma suggests.

Charlotte taps her cousin, Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) for help when a highway development threatens her home with demolition. Miriam looks like she's loaded up on sedatives, staying extraordinarily calm while Charlotte has visions of her long-dead beau coming back to be with her. Velma is suspicious of Miriam's intentions. Harry (Cecil Kellaway) rolls into town from England wanting to meet with Charlotte and hear her story. Drew (Joseph Cotten) is a local doctor who has a connection to Miriam and Charlotte. But is he looking out for the best interests of this patient?

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte has its creepy moments. The setting just invites a good case of the heebie jeebies - an old home in the middle of nowhere with lots of shadows. What's up with that unseen dog who can be heard barking at night? Davis is often hysterical through its two-hour running time. We never learn why she remained so devoted to John years after his untimely demise. These points get a little frustrating. Harry's travelled a long way to get Charlotte's story, but he doesn't press as often as he needs too. I can't see his editor back in England being very happy with his so-so efforts. An American tabloid shooter has less tact, but gets the job done much more effectively.

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte would work better if it was a little shorter and some of its plot points made a little more sense once the full story is known.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Agnes Moorehead made her debut in Citizen Kane. She also appeared in a classic Twilight Zone episode, The Invaders.

John Megna makes a brief appearance at the film's start. He was Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Al Martino sings the title song. The American signer's hits included Spanish Eyes and I Love You Because.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

Mamma mia, Three Coins In the Fountain is a great looking movie with a shabby story.

Three American women work in Rome. They live in a palatial apartment, complete with maid and expansive balcony overlooking the city. Who knew working in an American government office as a secretary paid so well? Maybe the currency exchange rate was really favorable 60 years ago.

Maria Williams (Maggie McNamara) is the new kid in town. She's looking for romance. Maria's cupid radar is so finely tuned that she realizes within moments that co-worker Giorgio Bianchi (Rossano Brazzi) is in love with fellow secretary, and roommate, Anita Hutchins (Jean Peters). The boss, Mr. Burgoyne (Howard St. John) frowns on the local workers mingling with the American talent.

Miss Francis (Dorothy McGuire) has resigned herself to spending the rest of her days in Rome as an old maid. She's a secretary to expat American writer John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb). He appreciates her worth as his assistant, but not as a romantic partner.

Despite warnings, Maria sets her sights on local playboy Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jordan). Maria warns her of his string of romantic quests. The prince suggests he wants love, but is sought out by women who want the money and prestige that comes with his title. Maria doesn't do much to set herself apart from the pack. She schemes to win his heart by finding out all he likes and dislikes. But, hey, she really does love him at the same time.

Three Coins In the Fountain, shot in CinemaScope, looks absolutely fantastic. The fashions are beautiful. The settings are impressive.

But boy, it's hard to get excited about any of these romances. Francis and Anita, for the professional women they are, sure cry a lot. I wonder what their contemporaries in 2014 would make of that behaviour. There's zero romantic chemistry between Webb and McGuire. If Francis wanted love that badly, why did she keep waiting for Shadwell to smarten up?

Frank Sinatra croons the theme song. The film opens with several minutes of stunning scenes from around Rome. Maybe this movie is best watched with the volume down - after Old Blue Eyes is done singing.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Yikes. Three Coins in the Fountain was nominated for best picture, but lost to On the Waterfront. The film did win, deservedly, for best cinematography and song.

Louis Jordan, still alive at this writing, was Dr. Arcane in Swamp Thing and Return of the Swamp Thing based on a DC comic book.

Jean Negulesco, director of Three Coins In the Fountain, was also at the helm of How to Marry a Millionaire and Titanic (1953).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Red River (1948)

It's great to take another dip in the Red River (1948) after nearly 30 years.

This fine western by Howard Hawks was part of my first-year film class at Brock University. Several westerns, including Stagecoach, were screened.

There's at least two iconic scenes in this 1948 effort new audiences might have seen in movie books or compilations of western scenes. Sidekick Walter Brennan throws a knife to John Wayne while he fights another man in the water. The second is a montage of cowboys yelling out to start a massive cattle drive.

Thomas Dunson (Wayne) found his piece of heaven in Texas in 1851. He and Nadine Groot (Brennan) break away from a wagon train and head for ideal land for a cattle ranch. His goal is to offer "good beef for hungry people."

The decision comes with a heavy price. The wagon train is attacked by Indians just hours after Dunson's departure. His girl, who he didn't want to join him, dies.

Matt Garth (Montgomery Cliff) survives the attack. Dunson adopts him. Both men prove quick to draw their guns. While Dunson is cold when it comes to killing, Garth takes a kinder approach to who he'll dispatch. That distinction stirs up some friction between father and adopted son, with Dunson accusing him of being soft.

Dunson builds up his beef empire, but times are tough in the American south in 1865. He has lots of cattle, but no market. Dunson decides to launch a massive drive of 10,000 cattle to Missouri. The stakes are high. Attacks by raiders and Indians are likely.

Dunson drives the men hard. Where Garth sees chances to ease off and given the crew rest, Dunson demands more continued action. Morale nosedives. Defections start. There's a suggestion that Dunson's mental health may be impacted as he ignores sleep and keeps focused on his goal. "I don't like quitters," he says. The relationship between father and son strains, leaving Dunson determined go get revenge.

There's lots to like in Red River. The cast, with supporting characters such as John Ireland, Harry Carey, Jr., and his dad, Harry Carey, is very fine.

Clift is impressive in his film debut.

Joanne Dru shines as the feisty Tess Millay, who loves Garth and tries to talk sense into Dunson. But the first meeting of the sweethearts, during an Indian attack on a wagon train, seems awfully unbelievable. These two young kids are making eyes at each other while bullets and arrows are flying. That really seems unlikely.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Red River (1948) earned Oscar nods for best writing and editing.

That's Mickey Kuhn as a young Matt. Born in 1932, he's still alive as of this writing. His acting resume isn't long - 32 credits on Internet Movie Database. But his credits include A Streetcar Named Desire and Gone with the Wind!

Chief Yowlachie offers comic relief as Walter Brennan's sidekick, Quo. Yowlachie was King of the Rock People in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Noah Beery, Jr., appearing here as cowboy Buster McGee, played James Garner's father on television's The Rockford Files.

Red River was Joanne Dru's second film credit.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

State of Play (2009)

One of State of Play's biggest thrills comes during the end credits.

Please appreciate this review is penned by a newspaper reporter - an occupation that's under siege in 2014 as readers move towards news consumption online.

What a thrill, then, to see this 2009 thriller end with the front page of a Washington daily being produced for publication and, once off the printing press, being loaded into waiting trucks.

For reporters, it's a real treat to see a story you've written, especially on a major story, coming off the press and wondering how the public will react to your work.

State of Play finds Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) working on a major story that will rattle Washington's ruling class.

But, boy, does it sure test our patience with some incredible coincidences and iffy reporting practices.

Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is taking part in hearings regarding Pointcorp, a private security contractor. When his lead researcher dies, Sonya Baker, at a subway station, questions surround her true relationship with the up-and-coming politician. She and Collins, having trouble at home with his wife Anne (Robin Wright), were having an affair. Collins is under siege from the media. He seeks refuge from his old college roommate, Cal. A politician seeking advice from a veteran reporter. Really? That seems a little unusual.

Cal wants the story and help his friend at the same time. I'm thinking Cal, given his close relationship with Collins, should have steered well clear of the story. Paper blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) is teamed up to work with Cal. Here's another strange development. She's supposed to be blogging about the researcher's death, but doesn't turn out much copy after an initial posting. Della's young, put on point along with Cal, while other senior writers do background work. Might this not cause some tension at the newspaper? Not in this film.

The questions keep coming. A man shot early in the film is in a coma in a hospital. He's in a room with blinds open. So, there's a police officer outside in the hallway, but the blinds are left up so the person who shot him, an expert shot, could potentially kill him from another building. What's up with that? I'd call that pretty lousy police security.

There's at least three door open scenes in State of Play that also raise an eyebrow, or two. Why are these doors open, given what's happening? Hard to believe, again.

Justin Bateman, who I didn't even recognize until seeing his name on Internet Movie Database, is great as public relations man Dominic Foy. On the flip side, Helen Mirren, as editor Cameron Lyne, just didn't ring true for me. Too bad. She's a great actor.

It's fun to hear Crowe's character listening to Great Big Sea in his car early in the film. The Australian actor is friends with the Newfoundland group. The Night Pat Murphy Died appears on the band's 1997 album, Play.

I watched State of Play because of its newspaper angle, but there's just too much distracting me from really enjoying this film.

RATING: 6/10

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Finally, Indy, we meet.

I've seen all of the sequels, but never the original that launched the Indiana Jones series in 1981. Thanks to an old VHS copy found at Value Village last weekend, I finally watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Special Edition), one of Harrison Ford's most well-known characters come to life.

The experience was disappointing.

As a huge fan of Buster Crabbe's Flash Gordon, I'm all for contemporary movies that are inspired by serials made in the 1930s.

But, boy, I wished I laughed more and found the action scenes more jaw dropping.

University archeology professor Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is tapped to find the Ark of the Covenant, a repository for the Ten Commandments.

It's 1936 and the American government learns Nazi Germany is keen to scoop up all kinds of religious relics. Jones is up against rival Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), a fellow archeologist who has opted to trade principles for profit.

Jones flies off to Nepal where he meets up with old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Her spirited performance is the film's highlight. Cairo is next, where Belloq and company are not quite in the right place to find said ark. Jones makes the right call. But the bad guys always seem to find out what he's up to.

Darts, rolling huge stones, fighter planes, snakes and a German sub (there's more), director Spielberg throws all kinds of obstacles in Indy's way. It's amazing what a little American ingenuity, a bullwhip and a handgun can do.

I'd advise not letting young ones watch this movie. The film's climax is awfully gruesome.

Internet Movie Database reports a fifth film featuring Indy is in the works. Ford is 72 now. I wonder how good that film will be.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Special Edition) won four Oscars, including visual effects and editing.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Harper (1966)

I'll take The Hustler and Hud over Harper.

American actor Paul Newman made the three films between 1961 and 1966.

Hustler offers a great cast and some fine dialogue, but its tone ranges from comedy to sadistic torture, action and romance.

Los Angeles-based private investigator Lew Harper (Newman) is hired to find a missing rich man, Ralph Sampson. Harper can thank old buddy, and Sampson's lawyer, Albert (Arthur Hill) for the recommendation. Sampson fools around on his wife (Lauren Bacall) and runs with some rough company in the City of Angels. "Water seeks its own level and that should leave Ralph bathing happily somewhere in a sewer," his wife observes. Right, so the relationship between husband and wife is strained. "I only intend to outlive him," Mrs. Sampson suggests. "I don't like him drunk on the loose."

Her relationship with her stepdaughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) is lousy too. Miranda is keen to chase after whatever good looking fella crosses her path. There's Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), Sampson's private pilot, for one. She is also drawn to Harper. The dysfunctional relationships continue. His wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), wants a divorce. Pronto. Miranda doesn't pay much attention to the middle-aged Albert. He pines for the young lady.

Harper figures Sampson is kidnapped. He tries to figure out who has a hand in his disappearance. Harper soon finds out there's a team of perpetrators who have a hand in his absence. Possible suspects include past-prime Hollywood starlet Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), now eager to dance and down as much booze as she can.

Newman doesn't strike me as the private eye type. Harper is cynical, smart and, with regards to his soon to be ex, cold. Leigh's character doesn't get to do much. Miranda is nowhere to be found near the film's end.

Movie special effects have come a long way since 1966. Those fake backdrops when Newman is driving his sports car are really, really distracting.

This is good, not great, Newman.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Frank Sinatra was going to star as Harper.

Director Jack Smight also directed Midway, Airport 1975 and four episodes of the original Twilight Zone series including The Night of the Meek.

Lauren Bacall wouldn't make another movie until Murder on the Orient Express in 1974.

Arthur Hill was the narrator of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The Drowning Pool was Harper's sequel.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Reel Popcorn Junkie occasionally reviews more recent fare. This is one of those films.

I remember hearing rave reviews about Cave of Forgotten Dreams when this documentary was released four years ago. This title was quickly snapped up when I happened upon it on the shelf at my public library last week.

This film from German director Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, The Wrath of God) is essential viewing.

A cave, sealed off for 20,000 years following a rock slide, is found by a trio of French explorers in 1994. They find the earliest known paintings, in this case wall drawings of animals, made by man. There's images of horses, bison, rhinoceros and a bird in flight.

The thought behind the art is incredible. Cave of Forgotten Dreams suggests ideas these artists had are represented in works by 20th century man, including animation. The artists from years ago considered the contours of the cave walls in the presentation of their art. Two overlapping drawings were made 5,000 years apart. Incredible.

There's related explorations of weapons used by our forefathers and early musical instruments, including a flute that can do a very nice rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. A spear launcher is an impressive example of early engineering, giving added oomph to efforts to bring home the day's dinner.

The questions raised about early man's creative efforts are thought provoking.

The crystal formations, made over hundreds of years after the cave was sealed, are spellbinding too.

Part history, art and evolution lesson, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a great film.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nobody's Fool (1994)

There's a lot of big problems in this small town.

Sully (Paul Newman) is cheesed off at Tip Top Construction owner Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis) for not paying compensation after he fell from scaffolding and wrecked his left knee.

Roebuck cheats on his wife, Toby (Melanie Griffith), with a string of bimbos who work in his office.

Going back a few years, Sully walked out on his wife and son , Peter (Dylan Walsh). His offspring is still hurting from his desertion when he comes back home with his family to spend time with his mother and stepfather for Thanksgiving. Peter's relationship with his better half isn't sparkling either, with tight finances putting a strain on their relationship.

Sully rents an apartment from Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy), his Grade 8 teacher. She misses her late husband, expects the Grim Reaper is closing in on her and is embarrassed by her son, Clive, Jr. (Josef Summer). He's keen on making money, not much else. Sully calls him The Bank.

But the dysfunction doesn't end there.

When Peter's wife leaves him, Sully's son starts working odd jobs with the old man. That rubs Sully's usual partner, Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the wrong way. He wants things to be the way they were before.

Sully still seethes at how his father treated his mother. He's let the home he inherited fall into disrepair and back taxes.

Sully isn't on good terms with Officer Raymer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) either. His glove compartment is stuffed with driving infractions.

With all these scenarios in play, Nobody's Fool is at times funny, touching and frustrating look at life in a small town. I could accept director Robert Benton's celebration of the community's eccentricities for about three-quarters of the film, but boy do things start to get a little weird around the 75-minute mark. Sully's reaction to Rub getting upset over work conditions, his clash with Raymer and strange behaviour at a strip poker game test my patience.

For great dialogue like this:

"You know what mom's worst fear is?" Peter asks his dad. "That your life has been fun."

Sully: "Tell her not to worry."

Peter: "Sometimes I think you did the smart thing just running away."

Sully: "I only got about five blocks."

Audiences have to put up with this:

Sully's often saccharine efforts to make a connection with his grandson, Will (Alexander Goodwin). A scene with Will carrying an artificial limb to its rightful owner just feels phony.

Carl, for all his philandering, still has some sharp insights into Sully's life. He's still fighting the memory of his father. The rundown condition of his home may very well mirror his physical, and mental condition, after skipping out on his family.

Newman is soft-spoken as Sully, a man approaching retirement age who gets a chance to turn his life around. Tandy waits patiently for Sully's rebirth, despite her son's pleas to have the ne'er do well turfed from her home.

Nobody's Fool is pleasant, but not essential Newman.

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: Nobody's Fool is dedicated to Tandy's memory. She died several months before the film's release.

Hoffman was in five films in 1994 including When a Man Loves a Woman.

Josef Sommer made his debut in Dirty Hary.

Alexander Goodwin's film and TV career was brief with six credits between 1994 and 1998.

Other actors making their film debuts in Nobody's Fool are Catherine Dent, as Peter's wife, and Angelica Page, one of Carl's floozies.

Newman and Benton teamed up again for Twilight in 1998.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Winning (1969)

Winning ends up losing when it comes to must-see Paul Newman films.

Reel Popcorn Junkie has featured reviews of the several movies by the late American actor in recent weeks.

The Hustler, The Verdict and Hud are all essential viewing.

Winning doesn't come close to driving its way into the championship circle.

Race car driver Frank Capua (Paul Newman) lives his life in motels as he travels to different competitions. He happens upon Elora (Joanne Woodward) working at an Avis Rent a Car agency after he wins a competition. I'm not sure how many woman would drive off with an intoxicated man they've just met late at night, but Elora does. They're smitten with each other. Elora and Frank high tail it out of town. Frank proposes. Talk about a fast courtship.

Elora's teenage son, Charley (Richard Thomas), joins the couple. He and Frank hit it off. But the wheels fall off the honeymoon period pretty quick. Elora grows weary of just how much time hubby Frank spends on his vehicle. Well, he did say he'd be really busy at the track. "He just wants to win," she laments. "He doesn't care what the stakes are." His racing partner, Lou (Robert Wanger) has an eye for the ladies. "Waking up to somebody you recognize can be too much of a good thing," Lou suggests. Not even Elora is exempt from his bed-hopping escapades. This dalliance makes Frank's life tricky. He's caught his closest racing buddy fooling around with his new wife.

Frank glares a lot, and looks intense, but doesn't say a lot about being cheated on. But he does want to beat Lou in Indianapolis. Bad.

Director James Goldstone embraces plenty of quick cuts during the film's race scenes. I found his most effective work was when hordes of well-wishers descend on Capua after he wins a race. Everyone wants his attention. The scene is crowded with many people and lots of noise. That helps make up for another scene where Newman pulls into the pit during a race and experiences a montage of crash scenes. Odd.

What's most interesting about Winning is what happened off-screen.

Newman was already a race fan prior to filming this 1969 release. But he embraced the chance to learn more about the sport and proved to be a quick learner behind the wheel, Lawrence Quirk writes in his biography of King Cool.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Richard Thomas started work in television in 1956, but Winning was his first film role.

Maxine Stuart appears as Miss Redburne's mother. She appeared in a classic Twilight Zone episode, Eye of the Beholder.

Look for several race stars in Winning including Bobby Hunser, Dan Gurney and Roger McCluskey.

Director James Goldstone directed two episodes of Star Trek, What Are Little Girls Made Of? and Where No Man Has Gone Before.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Verdict (1982)

The Verdict is in.

This courtroom drama from director Sidney Lumet boasts one of Paul Newman's finest performances.

He's brilliant as washed up Boston lawyer Frank Galvin. This member of the bar has only tried four cases in the last three years and lost all of them. His secretary is long gone. His office is a mess. Galvin spends a lot of time in bars. He smokes a lot. Galvin makes cold calls to funeral homes during wakes trying to drum up business.

Friend Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) sends a case his way to help him out. Sally and Kevin Doneghy (Roxanne Hart, James Hardy) want to sue the Archdiocese of Boston. Sally's sister went into cardiac arrest while giving birth. She is unresponsive in hospital. The Doneghys contend the woman's doctors are responsible for the life-altering incident.

Morrissey figures Galvin can't lose. "I got you a good case," he tells him. "It's a moneymaker." He'll cut a settlement with the archdiocese, get a nice chunk of cash for his efforts and use the proceeds to help him in retirement.

But Galvin is struck by just how drastic his client's injuries are. He decides he'll take the case to court, even though he's offered a hefty cheque to settle. "I came here to take your money," Galvin admits during his meeting with the archdiocese. "I can't take it. If I take the money, I'm lost. I'll just be a rich ambulance chaser." The Doneghys are outraged. They want to start a new life after several years of caring for Sally's sister. Galvin struggles to find witnesses who can help him win his case. Dr. Gruber (Lewis Stadlen) is initially eager to help Galvin out, but he skips town when it's crunch time.

Galvin, working only with Morrissey, is up against a formidable opponent. His legal adversary, Ed Concannon (James Mason), has a small army of lawyers to help him win his case. Morrissey calls Concannon "the prince of f------ darkness." His firm doesn't fight fair either. Ethics is an interesting part of The Verdict. Galvin and Morrissey repeatedly lie to get the information they need. At what point is such dishonesty wrong? Is it OK for Galvin because he's trying to help a woman who's in such rough shape?

Newman is very convincing depicting Galvin's desperation, especially when Gruber disappears. The Verdict scored five Oscar nominations, but not one for Julie Bovasso. As nurse Maureen Rooney, she knows what happened to Doneghy's sister. The screen crackles with tension when Galvin confronts her. There's some good clashes between Galvin and Judge Hoyle (Milo O'Shea). Hoyle doesn't mince words when it comes to what he thinks about Galvin's performance in the courtroom. But Galvin knows a few things about Hoyle's past too.

Readers, let me know what you think about the jury's decision. It seemed hard to believe to me. But maybe that closing speech by Galvin had an impact.

Reel Popcorn Junkie has reviewed several of Newman's films in recent weeks. The Verdict is tops. See this film.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Edward Binns, who appears as Bishop Brophy, also appeared in Patton, North By Northwest and Fail-Safe. Mason was in North By Northwest too.

Look closely for Bruce Willis as a courtroom observer. I missed him, but I thought I saw John Goodman. Internet Movie Database does not back up what I thought my eyes saw.

The Verdict was nominated for best picture, actor, supporting actor, director and screenplay. This fine drama didn't win one Oscar. Gandhi, Ben Kingsley, Louis Gossett, Jr., Richard Attenborough and Missing won.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

Chance Wayne never gets a break in Sweet Bird of Youth.

Wayne (Paul Newman) dreams of making it big in Hollywood. But sure things he's confident will lead, he thinks, to something big always fizzle out. He talks about scaling the wall into the moviemaking, castle. But there's no ladder to help him on the way up and over.

His latest meal ticket is washed up actress Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page). While Chance dreams of stardom, Alexandra's days of glory are long past. "The camera doesn't know how to lie," Del Lago laments. She's a drunk and drug addict. With an oxygen bottle nearby, she also appears to be a hypochondriac.

But Del Lago is also the closest thing to a break Chance has. A prospect of a contract for a film role through Del Lago has Chance motivated. And desperate. "All my life I've been on the outside and time is running out," he notes. Del Lago is more interested in his good looks. "Let's comfort each other," she suggests.

With the former star crashed out in the back of his convertible, Chance heads home. He wants to reunite with Heavenly Finely (Shirley Knight). She's still sweet on him, even though Wayne has essentially worked as a male escort to survive.

His return doesn't sit well with local politician 'Boss' Finley (Ed Begley). He's your typical political heavy, using whatever tricks he can to get what he wants. Finley has long had a mistress, Miss Lucy (Madeleine Sherwood), who he puts up in a fine hotel suite.

Finely is prepared to use a little muscle to keep Wayne away from his little girl. That's where his son, and henchman, Thomas (Rip Torn) steps in.

Political opponents eager to take 'Boss' Finley down, an ultimatum for Wayne to clear out of town and the young hopeful's crumbling relationship with Del Lago all come to a boil at a political rally.

Sweet Bird of Youth earned three Oscar nominations, with Begley taking home an Academy Award as best supporting actor.

Newman's character here as a few things in common with Hud, reviewed on this site last week. Both have numerous female lovers, but neither is happy. Hud, drowning in drink, doesn't have the brains, or the wisdom, to manage a cattle spread like his dad can. Chance's window of opportunity to making his mark in Hollywood is over. His good looks won't help him with ladies who can support him much longer.

Sweet Bird of Youth boasts a fine cast with some nice support work from Canadian Sherwood as 'Boss' Finley's lover. Her showdown with him over public comments about his, uh, poll performance is a memorable one.

Paul Newman, you rock. Hud and The Hustler rock. The Color of Money, not so much. But a copy of The Verdict arrived in the mail. I haven't seen this 1982 drama from director Sidney Lumet since I saw it on the big screen 32 years ago. That review is coming up.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Richard Brooks, director of Sweet Bird of Youth, also directed Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood.

Geraldine Page was nominated for eight Oscars. She didn't win until that last nod, for The Trip to Bountiful.

Ed Begley was Juror No. 10 in 12 Angry Men.

Mildred Dunnock, the kindly Aunt Nonnie who supports Chance, starred in the stage and film versions of Death of a Salesman. Her last role was with Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey, Jr., in The Pick-up Artist.