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Capsule Reviews (February 2006)

Murder Takes All (1989) John Nicolella

Another Stacy Keach Mike Hammer, this time round the name guests include Lynda Carter (TV's Wonder Woman) and Michelle Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas). The future name is Jim Carrey, here five years before Ace Ventura and The Mask, but still a few films in for me. I knew him anyway from Earth Girls are Easy and Once Bitten. All the Stacy Keach Mike Hammers are fun. I grew up watching the show and the movies are really just hour and a half episodes. The plots aren't as important as the style, but this one has Hammer kidnapped and dumped out of a plane over Las Vegas, where he soon gets framed for a couple of murders. There are lots of beautiful young ladies in bikinis and a few big tough guys and a bunch of corpses and what else do you want out of a Mike Hammer movie anyway?

The Thin Man (1934) W S Van Dyke

This is my second time through after reviewing this early on in the IMDb Project. That time round was my first Thin Man, my first Myrna Loy and very possibly my first William Powell. Now I've seen all six, along with a bunch of other Powell/Loy team-ups and a whole slew more of each with others. How does it stand up now? Well it started a little slowly to build up the plot but then Asta hauls Myrna Loy into the bar and it doesn't let up for a second. This may be the pinnacle of their partnerships and the wit really sparkles, and on both sides too. This time round I recognise a lot of the supporting cast too, which I didn't before: Nat Pendleton in a brighter role than usual, as well as Edward Brophy, Cesar Romero, Maureen O'Hara and of course Asta the dog. I've now seen his entire illustrious career: seven films and not a dud among them, yet once again this is the cream of the crop.

North By Northwest (1959) Alfred Hitchcock

Second time around for this one too for a film I first saw for the IMDb Project. I still have problems with it but still really enjoyed it. I watched it this time round over three lunchtimes and this really highlighted how it splits easily into three sections of about three quarters of an hour each. The first one is a classic but I have problems buying into the rest. For more see my forthcoming review in the IMDb Project.

The Amityville Horror (1979) Stuart Rosenberg

OK, so the first thing I wasn't supposed to see was that the house looks like the Iron Giant's head, but other than that... we've got a decent haunted house story. There's James Brolin who my wife thinks was a stud this far back. I just think he looks like the psycho wrestler Mick Foley. There's Margot Kidder from Superman in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, which can't be bad. There's also a bunch of clergy, many of whom spend a good deal of their time vomiting, including such heavyweight actors as Rod Steiger, who never fails to stun but has little to do here. Don Stroud is a surprising priest, who I know mostly from all those Stacy Keach Mike Hammers. I don't buy into Brolin's acting, or Stroud's for that matter, but the film is reasonably solid and probably would seem a lot better had I not seen beforehand a whole slew of inferior sequels, remakes and unrelated movies obviously inspired by this one. That comes with being a horror fan growing up the straight to video revolution, I guess. There's a lot unexplained that makes a lot more sense in the book and that can't entirely be explained away by a two hour running time. At the end of the day, it doesn't hold a candle to The Exorcist though.

Pickup on South Street (1953) Samuel Fuller

I've heard a lot about Sam Fuller, mostly because people like Alex Cox reference him all the time, but I've only ever seen one of his movies, the refreshingly different western Run of the Arrow. Here's my chance to catch a second. We open in a strange way: with many people, too many to distinguish them easily as we're on a packed commuter train without Fuller's favourite closeups, but nobody speaks. There's a pickpocket in action stealing a wallet from of a girl's purse, but there are other people obviously interested in her too. Pretty quickly we discover that she's unwittingly involved in the trafficking of government secrets and the small time pickpocket is caught up in something really big, with everyone involved trying to get back the stolen microfilm.

The movie is a peach, and shot in only twenty days too. Richard Widmark is the pickpocket and he's a tough fast-talking street hood. The girl is Jean Peters who would become Mrs Howard Hughes four years later and she's suitably beautiful in an low budget exotic way. The best acting comes from Thelma Ritter who plays an elderly stool pigeon trying to earn enough money to keep out of Potter's Field. I've seen her a few times and while her voice is always recognisable, her acting is notably different in each film. Like Agnes Moorehead, she finds her role and exudes it, whether it be in Rear Window, The Misfits or here in Pickup on South Street. No wonder she was nominated for six Oscars, though sadly never won. Fuller's script and direction is razor sharp: there is literally not a single dull moment, it never holds back and theses could be written about the depths of social comment in there. The bleak jazz soundtrack really helps to build the hard boiled atmosphere. The cinematography, so much of it in closeup, is masterclass, using the claustrophobic city as a member of the cast. That's two Sam Fullers for me now, and two classics. Gimme more.

Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks

On the face of it this one was a guaranteed success. The cast isn't just led by Gary Cooper and an Oscar-nominated Barbara Stanwyck, along with Dana Andrews; but is full of a slew of great character actors like Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers and Tully Marshall, as well as one of my favourites, Allen Jenkins. It's directed by no less of a talent than Howard Hawks; the cinematography is by Gregg Toland, possibly the best the industry ever saw; and the script was co-written by Billy Wilder, both as a source story and as a screenplay. That screenplay was Oscar-nominated too, along with a couple of other facets of the production. Finally, it appears on the AFI's list of the hundred best comedies. Surely it's got to be good. So, is it?

Well if there was an Oscar for the best cinematic use of a matchbox, it would win hands down. Gary Cooper is superb as a straight laced language expert working with a group of writers compiling an encyclopaedia. He's just finished a 23 page article on slang when garbageman Allen Jenkins shakes him up completely with a stunning display of modern slang that Cooper has never heard of. He heads out into the real world to discover just how out of date his own examples of slang are. He ends up working with Barbara Stanwyck, a sparkling club singer called Sugarpuss O'Shea, who has to hole up somewhere to avoid the DA. She becomes the Snow White to their Eight Dwarfs, and she's a gem. So is the film. It gets better and better and is richly deserving of all its accolades.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) Rex Ingram

This cost a million bucks to make, back at a time when most films only cost $25,000, but Rex Ingram made sure that it's all up there on the screen, including an intriguing patriotic sequence that he tinted in turns the three colours of the French flag. I knew of course that this was the film that launched the career of cinema's first heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino, but I was still surprised when I saw the credits at the beginning. There's Alan Hale and Wallace Beery and, after looking the film up in IMDb to see who else might be hiding uncredited, I noticed Jean Hersholt and even Ramon Novarro too. Valentino certainly acquits himself well and the early dance scene that had women fainting in the aisles stands up today. I'd never have picked up for a romantic icon though on the basis of this, but I'm hardly a young lady in the thrill of youth in the early 1920s. I had even misidentified him in the TCM 'Silent Sunday Night' montage as some silent cowboy. Go figure.

This is very much a women's picture, for all that we get a decent look at a naked white female breast, way way way pre-code, and descend into war. The Four Horsemen is a true melodramatic epic following the lives and loves of a whole slew of members of a rich family from country to country and continent to continent, and sometimes it's hard to keep track of who's who. It isn't hard at all to see the grandeur and the terror and the purple prose of the titles fits their overblown backgrounds well. Even though I've watched so many silent films over the last couple of years I'm not used to seeing titles laid over film footage. Ingram goes even further: we get to see the four horsemen ride, literally, and in a couple of scenes they ride across the sky. The fourth horseman is particularly impressive: Death riding his pale horse with a scythe and some great makeup. In fact all the special effects, for there are many here, are superb, especially for 1921!

As for the names, Alan Hale looks a lot older than I was expecting this far back, Wallace Beery turns out to be a great villain and I couldn't even find Ramon Novarro in the ball sequence that he appeared in. Probably the best acting came from Alice Terry as Valentino's love interest (soon to become director Rex Ingram's wife) and the worst has to be from Josef Swickard as his father. There's a common belief that all silent film actors overacted to make up for not being able to speak, but this isn't entirely true. Some of the greatest acting of the silent era came from understated masterclass performances. Even here in a melodrama only Swickard stands out in the wrong way with his chewing every piece of scenery that he could find. As he is a key part of much of the film this does spoil it a little, but it remains a powerful extravaganza right down to the final tearjerking scenes. Just as overblown and over the top as the later Gone with the Wind, this could even be the better film, especially when accompanied by Carl Davis's superb new score.

Murder Me, Murder You (1983) Gary Nelson

It's hard to get too much of Stacy Keach as Mike Hammer. I grew up watching the show and coming back for me every week. The films are just longer episodes really and while none of it is particularly stunning, the general quality was consistently high. Now I can look back at pre-Keach Hammers, I can easily say that Ralph Meeker was the best noir Hammer in the superb Kiss Me Deadly and Mickey Spillane himself may have done an OK job in The Girl Hunters, but there wasn't much to write home about. He could write like nobody else but he wasn't that great an actor. Keach brought his own take to the role and while it's definitely a TV take, it's a fun one. This time round it's personal for Hammer, so it's a lot tougher, darker and grittier than the last two I've rated, both of which came later, and it does give it an edge.

There's another edge, of course: this is the one with Tanya Roberts as Velda, and I would be happy to watch wallpaper for an hour and a half if it had even 2006 Tanya on it. This is 1983 Tanya and that's even better. She's beautiful but not plastic (like many of the other girls in the film) and she's very capable. Michelle Phillips looks damn fine too, though she's only in this particular Hammer for a very short time indeed. She must get better with age because she looks even better in Murder Takes All six years later and she has much more of a part then too. Don Stroud is great as always and Tom Atkins is fun as a rich industrialist with a speech impediment.

Detour (1945) Edgar G Ulmer

A massively influential low budget film noir, this isn't as good as its reputation but it's amazing for something that obviously had about twenty bucks spent on it. Tom Neal is over the top but not so much as Anne Savage, the hitchhiker he picks up after taking on a dead man's identity. The script is great but it's the sheer energy that matters here. Low budget filmmaking at its best.

The Road Warrior (1981) George Miller

So how many films did Mel Gibson actually eat dog food in? Inquiring minds want to know. This has to be the ultimate guy movie: there's cars, dirt, more cars, dogs, bikes, trucks, chains, leather, spikes, mohicans, guns, knives, fists, fire, explosions, bondage costumes... There's the coolest kid to ever appear in film and his razor sharp boomerang. There's a gyrocopter. There are a bunch of weird characters and a bunch of cool death scenes. There's the best over the top scifi chase scenes ever with stunts you wouldn't believe.

Mystery Liner (1934) William Nigh

Early Monogram picture based on an Edgar Wallace novel. This one officially stars Wallace Beery's brother Noah but he's not really the focus. Most of the rest of the cast don't have much of a clue so the acting comes off as very stagy. The exceptions are the detective and the granny. The script is interesting at least and it really keeps us guessing, but it can't make up for the cast.

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938) Louis King

This is my first Bulldog Drummond, but I'm not surprised at how totally English this is. The film itself is pretty inconsequential but it's very nicely acted, from the top down to the bottom. I don't know if I've seen the lead actor in anything before, but he comes across like the TV version of Gomez Addams. There's Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, J Carroll Naish, even Anthony Quinn in a small early role. Everyone was highly professional and made the film zip by, even more than would be expected for its 58 minute running time. It's just a shame they didn't have better material to work with.

The Music Box (1932) James Parrott

I've seen a lot of Laurel & Hardy in my time, but this is the one that won them an Oscar. It was voted the Best Short Film of 1932-3 and it is a real peach. Whether it's the best they ever made is open for debate but it's certainly up there. Put the two of them at the bottom of a long set of stairs and give them a piano to get up to the top and they could hardly go wrong, even when improvising half the script. It's certainly worth its place in the Home Theater Forum's list of the top hundred films of the 1930s because its such a defining example of a couple of the biggest stars of the decade doing what they did best.

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937) Louis King

This one's a year earlier than my previous Bulldog Drummond. It's more nonsense that would work fine as a warmup for a main picture in 1937 but really can't do much on its own. John Barrymore gets the lead credit here even though he's playing Drummond's boss, the Colonel, not Drummond himself. He's good but to my mind not as good as H B Warner, who I'm finding rather interesting of late. He was one of the silent bridge partners in Sunset Boulevard and played the lead in the silent film King of Kings, totally against the overplaying trend of the time. What else? Algy Walgy is getting more and more annoying as time goes by and now he has a girlfriend who's as annoying as he is.

Way Out West (1937) James W Horne

The other Laurel and Hardy film in the Home Theater Forum's 1930s list, this is a feature, over an hour in length and very varied. Quite apart from being a slapstick comedy in Laurel and Hardy's usual vein, it's also a western, a musical and a whole bunch of other things. It's also a very busy film in the exact way that The Music Box wasn't. The Music Box was truly wonderful but it was a very low key production: there's Laurel, there's Hardy, there's a piano and not a lot else except sheer talent. Here there's a whole slew of characters, situations, sets, music and a real plot with twists with all sorts of things going on behind the action. There's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and I always wondered where that one fitted in. There's even James Finlayson letting out the original Dohs that led to Homer Simpson's famous catchphrase. I particularly loved the scene where Stan gets tickled crazy by Sharon Lynn as a barroom singer trying very hard not to split her own sides, but there are a whole bunch of potential favourites, like the hat eating or the rope pulling or the mule flying or the head stretching or the piano scene or even the Laurel and Hardy dance routine. Some of them don't stand up as well today as I'm sure they did in 1937 but it's still very much a winner.

She Done Him Wrong (1933) Lowell Sherman

Here's Mae West's second film that launched her into stardom, naturally back in the pre-code era. It's hard to imagine Mae West following any code let along one of censorship. This is the movie that served as one of the key reasons for the formation of the National Legion of Decency. It's my first Mae West, and it definitely introduces me to her talent. She's on fire here. I could so see her jousting wits with W C Fields, Groucho Marx or even Rodney Dangerfield. She has his delivery and if this wasn't 1933 she could be the bastard daughter of Dangerfield and Bette Midler with a good dollop of Jean Harlow to boot. Almost every line that comes out of her mouth is quotable, up to and including her classic catchphrase, 'why don't you come up and see me sometime.' Her co-star is a very young Cary Grant who does his best to compete, but there's no doubt that this is Mae West's show, especially as she wrote the thing too.

Grant is a baby here, a full two years before I've seen him before and a whole 26 years before North By Northwest. He looks strange in his plain black Salvation Army costume. I kept expecting him to slip on his clawed metal hand and take on Bruce Lee in a room full of mirrors. He can't keep up with Mae West but he shows a lot of promise. Watching Cary Grant in 1933 felt like watching Clark Gable in 1931 with that so obvious imminent promise. There's also Noah Beery again and Louise Beavers, sadly as a maid as always. She was so great in Imitation of Life, proving that black women could act and act well five years before Hattie McDaniel should have won her Oscar.

High Sierra (1941) Raoul Walsh

Humphrey Bogart couldn't manage to get out of San Quentin properly in the film of the same title but he gets a pardon from Moosmoor Prison in the opening minutes of this one. This is almost as late as we can see Bogart without him being the star. Ida Lupino with her fluttering eyebrows is the name in front of his this time but two films later is The Maltese Falcon, a year later Casablanca, and he never went back. Anyway, he may be pardoned here but he's still a professional thief and the title comes in when things go wrong and he ends up on the run in the Sierra mountains.

It's strange looking at Bogart do the nostalgia trip before he actually became a star, but that's what this is all about: it's the end of the gangster era and he's all that's left. From here on out it was hard boiled dicks and film noir, until director Raoul Walsh, who knew the gangster genre well, having directed The Roaring Twenties, came back for another nostalgia trip in White Heat eight years later.

Private Resort (1985) George Bowers

Very firmly placed in the mid eighties, here you can find a very young Johnny Depp (he's 22 but looks like 15) and a very young Rob Morrow (from Numb3rs, in his film debut), both with butts on full and frequent show, Hector Elizondo with hair (or at least a wig) and a very revealing Leslie Easterbrook doing this in place of the second Police Academy film (she was in the rest of films one to seven). Mostly though there's a resort whose guests seem to be 98% gorgeous young ladies in bikinis, 1.9% dorky guys and one little kid who spends his entire time trying to remove the bikinis of those gorgeous young ladies. Oh, and a couple of crooks trying to steal a diamond from an old woman who does kung fu. If you think that's what makes great filmmaking, then this film rocks; if you're a fan of the teenage sex comedies of the eighties, then it's funny in that embarrassing sort of eighties teenage sex comedy way; if you don't have a lot of tolerance for that sort of thing, then avoid it the plague. Rob Morrow and Johnny Depp are probably still trying to live it down.

A Hole in the Head (1959) Frank Capra

I set this one to record because it's an Edward G Robinson, and a late one at that. I love the early dynamic Eddie G's but I love the late ones too when he's old and showing the young'uns how it all works. Here the young'un is Frank Sinatra, so there's a little less teaching to be done, but even when films fail, Eddie G doesn't. I was also pleasantly surprised a few times. The credits surprised me by telling me it's both a Frank Capra film, almost at the end of his career with only one more to go; and a Thelma Ritter film, and she's never been anything less than awesome. Then the introduction surprised me by bringing out the delectable Carolyn Jones from TV's The Addams Family in a green swimming costume. After that, how could it be anything else but great?

Well, as it turns out, Sinatra is not bad at all and Robinson and Ritter shine as a wonderful mildly bickering Jewish couple. Even Eddie Hodges, the kid playing Sinatra's son, is a joy to watch. Unfortunately none of them have any real material to work with. The best I can say is that it was great fun to watch Carolyn Jones play bongo drums and flounce around in skimpy outfits; and to experience Eddie G keep calling Frank Sinatra a bum. Somehow only Eddie G could get away with something like that, and only Thelma Ritter could get away with doing the same to Eddie G.

The only other good scenes are ones between Sinatra and Hodges, especially when they're talking about Marilyn Monroe or duetting on the Oscar winning song, High Hopes. You know the one, about ants and rubber plants and hiiiiiiigh hopes. Unfortunately that's about it. Any film with this amount of talent involved (there's Eleanor Parker and Keenan Wynn too) should be something special, but it just isn't. In all fairness, it would have really helped had Encore shown the movie in widescreen, especially as a bunch of scenes rely on it but even seeing the film as it should be seen wouldn't have saved it.

Chopping Mall (1986) Jim Wynorski

When someone says 'absolutely nothing can go wrong' at the beginning of a horror movie, especially a 1980s Jim Wynorski horror movie with a pun title that lasts about 70 minutes, you know you're in for a dubious treat. This one has no recognisable lead names but a bunch of recognisable faces; it has a host of cool support from people like Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel; and, last but certainly not least, it has a bunch of cut price Robocops called Killbots. So it's fun, inconsequential, but definitely fun. And yes, I wrote this review by the time the credits ended and still didn't needed to rewrite by the end of the film. But I'll add that it's pretty damn funny and there are some very cool death scenes.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Woody Allen

As I write, Woody Allen has directed 38 movies and I've been catching up over the last two years to the degree that this makes exactly half of them. It should be a good one to fit such a mark for two reasons. Firstly, it was one of his biggest successes, winning three Oscars, one for himself as screenwriter and two acting awards for the supporting cast. Secondly, the film is all about relationships and many of the actors cast were really in such relationships in real life. Mia Farrow would later become Woody Allen's ex-wife and she was already Maureen O'Sullivan's daughter, both of which she plays in the film.

Needless to say, the cast is incredible because the cast is always incredible in Woody Allen films. Here we have not just Allen himself, Farrow and O'Sullivan, but Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, John Turturro... I remember the whole concept of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon and wonder if it should really be the one degree of Woody Allen, because everyone who's ever worked in Hollywood seems to have been in one of his movies. Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won the supporting Oscars here, but they're don't have any more screen time than a bunch of other excellent supporting actors. I thought both were superb but so was Max von Sydow and Mia Farrow. In fact it's almost like there are no leads in the film: everyone is a supporting actor. Maybe that's the only way that he could cram so many stars into a single film.

The good news for me is that this is a serious comedy. While there's always social comment and depth in Woody Allen films, the ones I don't appreciate are the ones that have nothing else. His comedies are often great but the best of his films are the ones that are both serious and funny. It has a lot of serious scenes but it has a lot of funny ones too, and none of it clashes. If anything there's just too much of everything, so that it's easy to get lost in one plot strand and forget about another one. All of them have merit and this adds up to one of the very best of his movies, from the perspective of someone who's now seen exactly half of them.

Office Killer (1997) Cindy Sherman

So what have we here, because this is really strange. Well we have Carol Kane, at her bizarre best as an office misfit with social problems who ends up wiping out much of the office. She is truly astounding here. I don't know if it's great acting or great freakiness but whatever it is, it's hard to take our eyes off her. The freakiness is enhanced by some quirky cinematography and music and a great sense of frame composition. Other than that, there's not really much at all. The plot exists only to give Carol Kane opportunity to strut her freaky stuff.

Freaks (1932) Tod Browning

I know Freaks well. I've seen it many times and I still count it amongst my top ten of all time. It was such a departure from anything else Hollywood (or anyone else) was doing at the time and nobody has done anything like it since. There are very few films that stand unique in the history of cinema and this is one of them. I love everything about it, from the acting (which was not always awesome) to the general tone of the film. Browning didn't just talk the talk when crafting his film about sideshow freaks being real people too, he walked the walk and cast real freaks in his movie. He also didn't relegate them to the background either, but gave them prominent lead roles.

Anyway, I know Freaks well and love it. What I hadn't seen until I picked up this superb DVD edition were the alternative endings and the history that went along with them. It also came with a long documentary that filled me in on the lives of a lot of the freaks that I didn't know about previously. I've read plenty about Johnny Eck, for instance, and I've also seen Harry Earles in both versions of The Unholy Three, but I didn't know much about their co-stars. Now I can not only highly recommend the film but the DVD too.

Saw II (2005) Darren Lynn Bousman

I was very pleasantly surprised by Saw which I feel is the best horror film I've seen in at least a decade (closely nudging out other superb films like The Eye). When Saw II came out half of me was eagerly wanting to watch another great horror film that bucked the Hollywood trend of crappy teen movies and the other half didn't want to see what was so obviously going to suck in comparison to its predecessor. So which is it?

Well I was again highly impressed. I don't think this one is quite as great as the first one but it's close. Perhaps part of that is inevitable because the first one relied on a couple of seriously great plot twists and obviously being forewarned by Saw we're going to be watching closely for the same sort of thing second time around. The good news, though, is that while I saw one twist coming (though only just before it came), I was still stunned by the other one. Definitely one to watch again, and I'll be eagerly devouring the DVD extras too.

Pom Poko (1994) Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata is the other director of anime who made it into the IMDb Top 250. Hayao Miyazaki is there twice, and keeps popping in and out with other films too, but that's it for anime except for Grave of the Fireflies, another Studio Ghibli film but directed by Isao Takahata. This is my first Takahata and it's hilarious. We follow a bunch of magical shape shifting raccoons fighting to save their land from the ravages of urban sprawl. It's quick and funny and very astute, and like all the best animated films tells us more about the human condition through the antics of animals than in a hundred live action movies. There's also a huge amount of trickery going on to the degree that I'm sure it'll take a few viewings to catch it all. I've watched a lot of anime and other Japanese culture in my time, so I get a few of the references here, but there are masses that I don't, and I'm sure there are plenty more that I don't even realise are cultural references. The inspired weirdness at points reminded me of some of the better Urusei Yatsura movies, and that's a massive compliment. You'd never believe how many uses there are for raccoon testicles.

Born Yesterday (1950) George Cukor

Here's the film that stands out nowadays for its very anonymity. In 1950 both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actress were won by Judy Holliday for a film called Born Yesterday, that I hadn't even heard of. And this in the year that set her up against both Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. So either she slept with every voter in the Academy or she turned in a performance that was truly awesome indeed. She plays Billie Dawn, the rough girlfriend of the equally rough Harry Brock, a self-made millionaire in the scrap metal business. Brock is played with strong brashness by Broderick Crawford, and he's what's instantly noteable about the film, along with a William Holden as a writer very different from the writer he played the same year in Sunset Boulevard. He ends up like Gregory Peck playing a Professor Higgins to Judy Holliday's Eliza Doolittle. She comes off, at least initially, as a dumb blonde in the Marilyn Monroe vein but with with a little less confidence. In fact as Monroe's first notable performances were in 1950, maybe Monroe based herself on Judy Holliday. She'd done another big George Cukor movie the year before, Adam's Rib, and it seems like every film she did of note was also directed by Cukor. She sounds more and more like Thelma Ritter as the film goes by, as done by Marilyn. Definitely a great performance, but better than Gloria Swanson? Good question. And why is this film not better known?

Watch on the Rhine (1943) Herman Shumlin

And here's another acting win for a lesser known performance over what has become an perennial favourite: Paul Lukas won the Best Actor Oscar over Humphrey Bogart's role in Casablanca. He plays a German underground leader fighting the Nazis and it's a strong performance for sure. Some of the best scenes are ones of superb tension between Lukas and George Coulouris, playing a Yugoslavian ex-pat who is working for the Nazis. Bette Davis is good as Lukas's wife, though she is melodramatic and failed to get a Best Actress nomination for the first time in six years, but Lucile Watson is even better as her mother. Most of the film takes place at her large and comfortable house in Washington, to which Lukas and Davis have come after many years of hardship in their work. She is no fool but she doesn't really understand what is going on in Europe, and her combination of sure strength and confusion is a powerful one. Unfortunately the rest of the film crosses over from power to sentimentality a little too often to be as classic as it could have been.

Mrs Miniver (1942) William Wyler

Here's the Best Picture winner from 1942 that also won a bunch of other important awards, not least Best Director but also Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, along with Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay too. It takes a glimpse at English life and how it was fundamentally changed by the Second World War. It must have had a massive impact on a wide scale, not just to win those six Oscars but because it apparently helped to wake up the US to what was really going on and why they should do something about it.

Richard Ney is the young Fred Astaire lookalike who plays Greer Garson's son, which works quite nicely as he's 27 to her 38, but they still got married after the film wrapped. Garson's Oscar win was a notable one: it brought the longest acceptance speech of them all (at five and a half minutes) and it came from one of five consecutive nominations, which tied Bette Davis's record. Many of these films, for both ladies, were William Wyler pictures, including this one.

Statistics aside, it's still pretty solid today even though it seems a little dated today. The much later Hope and Glory covers a lot of the same sort of ground, without as much of the class issue underneath it all, and it's much better to my way of thinking. It told the story of a war magnificently without us actually seeing the war proper. Here we feel detached from it, except for a couple of strong scenes that attempt the connection and do it well, such as the one at Ramsgate, the one with the downed German flyer and the one in the air raid shelter. It's the tiny things that make the most impact: the front door that won't close, the kid and the cat's tail in the shelter, the sound of the doodlebugs, Lady Belham crumpling her results paper, Henry Travers not being able to stand up.

I'm also not going to say that those acting Oscars weren't deserved, because many of the performances are seriously good, but I prefer most of the actors elsewhere: Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr Chips, Walter Pidgeon in Forbidden Planet, Dame May Whitty in The Lady Vanishes, Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives. I'm surprised that Wright won for this film, not because she gave a poor show as she didn't, but because she was so overshone by Dame May Whitty who was merely nominated. Henry Travers who was always a great character actor, later becoming truly beloved by millions in It's a Wonderful Life, gave many great performances before that one and not least here.

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) Garth Jennings

Well colour me surprised. I'm a Hitch-Hiker fan from way back. I've heard the original radio series so much I know most of it by heart; I have multiple copies of the books and have read all of them aloud to my lass; I watched the TV series live on the BBC when it came out; I worked my way through the PC game back when PC games were text based adventures; I even joined ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the official Hitch-Hiker's Guide fan club and met some of the other guiders at Leeds train station. In short I'm exactly the sort of person who is supposed to hate this heretical and Americanised version of the story. And I really enjoyed it. It's no classic and it doesn't touch the radio series as the best version yet, but it's far from awful. In fact, heresy of heresies, it even improves on certain previous versions in some respects. I always had a problem seeing Marvin as the beat up robot of the TV series. He was supposed to be a beat up robot on the inside, but brand spanking gleaming new on the outside. Here that's what we get. Trillian looks like Trillian should look like, something that Sandra Dickinson failed miserably at in the TV series. We also get a lot of little details that non-fans wouldn't have noticed. I caught the old Marvin in a queue, the deer with a broken back on the Vogon spaceship and the scintillating jewelled crabs. At the end of the day it's a success. And I'm still surprised.

The Public Enemy (1931) William A Wellman

I've been so looking forward to this one. It's the film that launched Cagney's career and with Little Caesar blistered in the new era of the gangster film. He doesn't dominate like I thought he would, like Edward G Robinson did in Little Caesar, but he still had some great scenes and does exactly what he needed to. Everything that made Cagney great was already there in 1931 and he just built on it as the years went by. Jean Harlow was frankly terrible, though it's very early in her career too. She really had to work hard to be special on film as she was certainly no natural actress but I think she matured superbly and gave some great performances of her own over the next few years. And now I'm fifty per cent for Jimmy Cagney: I've seen 33 out of 66 and counting this one, I have all the great ones behind me.

Life Stinks (1991) Mel Brooks

Here's one of those comedies where someone gets to see how the other half of the world lives. In this case, it's Mel Brooks as an incredibly rich man with no conscience who, to win a bet, lives as a bum for thirty days. It's not a small bet either: two billion dollars worth of property either way, but of course, as to be expected in films like this, the reward isn't the prize after all. Life Stinks works in the same way as most of the latter day Mel Brooks movies, in that it's more a string of gags than an actual film. I haven't seen every one of his films yet, but I'm close, enough to see that there are two distinct types of Mel Brooks movies. The first bunch are just absolute classics, but the second bunch aren't in the same class. This could well be the best of that second bunch though, especially as it really warms up about half way through. The second half isn't up to the standards of Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, but it's as close as he's come since 1974.

Only Yesterday (1991) Isao Takahata

It's hard to imagine enjoying the heck out of a two hour coming of age anime about a 27 year old woman who isn't sure what she wants to do with her life, but I did. It's not perfect by any means and I thought some sections were a little too slow, but it's still a real gem of a movie and certainly points the way to Grave of the Fireflies which I'm really looking forward to reviewing for the IMDb Project. What's more, while I have a real problem with movies that throw in sappy songs, the end of Only Yesterday is perfection and yes, there's a sappy song in there. I'm amazed at the skill involved in putting that sequence together, with multiple characters working both individually and as a crowd, and while adding a Japanese language version of The Rose might sound like pure idiocy, it really adds to the scene. It's a textbook example of how to use a song properly, and right now it's hard to think of a better example.

Stage Door (1937) Gregory La Cava

In years gone by, when I thought about Ginger Rogers (as much as I ever did think about Ginger Rogers) it was as a dancer. She was the main partner of Fred Astaire, who of course was also a dancer. They did dancing films where they danced and danced and well, that was about it. I wasn't really into dancing films so didn't look any deeper. Nowadays if I think about Ginger Rogers it's as a comedian. Sure, she could dance, as could Fred Astaire who floated on air, and as has been famously said she did everything he did, in heels and backwards. But she's hilarious, and naturally hilarious at that.

I used to think of Katharine Hepburn as a serious actress but of course she's a comedian too, and nearly as hilarious as Ginger Rogers. Putting the two together sounds like a great plan as long as there's enough chemistry between them to make it special, and there is. I wish there had been more scenes of just the two of them. Most of the rest of the film, certainly the beginning, plays like a play, complete with a large cast of women (and one cat). For a while we think that there aren't going to be any men in the film at all, unless you count the young lady who looks (and sounds) like Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. Then we meet a couple of lumberjacks and fully believe that there really aren't any men in the film. They're just props. It's all about the women, many of who are deliberately hard to keep track of and some of whom are very clearly defined, just as they would be in real life.

Stage Door also marks a milestone in my thirties education. I've now seen three quarters of the films in the Home Theater Forum's list of the greatest films of the decade, and I'm running out of American entries on that list to watch. It's definitely time to acquire some of the foreign entries.

Arrowsmith (1931) John Ford

It's great to watch films from so far back that people like Myrna Loy only feature on the second page of credits. That's the second page of credits after the title credits with the lead stars on them. This is back in her days of being an exotic attraction, of course, so it's bound to be interesting. The fact that it's a John Ford film that starts in a covered wagon doesn't mean that it's a western. It's a medical drama with Ronald Colman in the lead, a number of years before I've seen him swashing buckles in things like The Prisoner of Zenda and A Tale of Two Cities. He gets quickly married to the great stage actress Helen Hayes, in the year that she won her Oscar. She's far more accomplished than he is here but he shows a good amount of future promise as a doctor who quests for scientific discovery.

The film itself looks pretty good but doesn't carry the sort of weight that really ought to be there for a Pulitzer Prize winning story adapted for the screen by another Pulitzer Prize winning writer. Part of the problem is the flagrant overacting of Richard Bennett as a Swedish scientist but most of it is that there's just no life in it. Of course the world of scientific research may be emotionally rewarding for those working in the field but it's not meant to be emotionally rewarding for anyone watching it. The first time John Ford manages to inject any real substance is when we get to the plague outbreak in the West Indies two thirds of the way through the movie. Only then do we see some quality filmmaking and coincidentally that's about when Myrna Loy turns up, but it doesn't last long and neither does she, more's the pity. Definitely the worst film I've yet seen that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

All About My Mother (1999) Pedro Almodovar

It's almost redundant to say that a film by Pedro Almodovar is interesting, because they're all interesting. He has a way of making films that are entirely and uniquely his, and he has a way of totally shaking up our expectations. We start off watching Esteban and his mother. His mother is a nurse, coordinating organ transplants, but he is a writer and he's writing about her. Whether it's All About Eve on TV or A Streetcar Named Desire at the theatre, she's watching what she's supposed to be watching but he's watching her. And then a mere quarter of an hour in, he gets killed in a car accident, and of course his organs are thus available for transplant. Suddenly everything we think we know about what we're going to see changes utterly. Suddenly we realise that while we're still going to be watching a film about Esteban's mother, he isn't going to be telling the story. And Almodovar keeps at it. I won't tell you any more but like every other Almodovar film I've ever seen, it's not dull, boring or expectable for a second.

What I will say is that the acting is incredible and I recognise a decent amount of the Barcelona architecture that Almodovar is more than happy to film. Gaudi fits well in his work. Cecilia Roth is simply spectacular as Manuela, the mother of the title, and the rest of the almost entirely female cast are stunning too: Antonia San Juan as a transsexual prostitute, Penelope Cruz as a pregnant nun and Marisa Paredes as a stage actress.

I'm really not surprised it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, along with a slew of other major awards from around the globe. I'm just surprised it didn't win more awards for its acting. Now I want to see The Flower of My Secret, released four years earlier that featured Manuela as a supporting character. Along with every other Almodovar, naturally.

200 Motels (1971) Tony Palmer

Anything featuring Frank Zappa is not likely to be run of the mill material, but when it's a rockumentary made in 1971 to demonstrate how touring can make you crazy it's really going to be strange. And then it starts off with Ringo Starr dressed up as Zappa talking about stuffing Aladdin's lamp up the reproductive orifice of the girl playing the harp. So you get the picture and I don't need to describe anything else. This is basically exactly what you'd expect a Frank Zappa picture to be. It's psychedelic, it's surreal, it's bizarre, it's borderline obscene at points, it's Zappa. Some of it works, much of it doesn't, but the music is at least often cool. Zappa had a lot of very fine moments but unfortunately this isn't one of them.

Adam's Rib (1949) George Cukor

Another George Cukor comedy about women, this one has a trio of very talented ones leading the way. Katharine Hepburn is a lawyer who defends ditzy Judy Holliday who has shot her husband who has been cheating on her with Jean Hagen. He didn't die so it's only attempted murder, and Hepburn's husband Spencer Tracy is prosecuting her. All is set for a battle of the sexes.

I've been a Hepburn/Tracy fan for a long while and it's really not surprising that they don't disappoint at all, but the rest of the cast are perhaps even better. I've only just discovered Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, and she's just as great here, even though there was no Oscar heading her way. This is a year earlier and she's still a dumb blonde who sounds like Thelma Ritter, but she's a great dumb blonde who sounds like Thelma Ritter. I only know Jean Hagen from Singin' in the Rain, but she's solid here too. Keeping up the side of the men is Tom Ewell, the errant husband who was also good opposite the all time great blonde ditz Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. He looks even more like Alex Cox here than usual and his testimony is nearly as funny as his wife's. Unfortunately the film loses its way after the court case finishes.


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