jump to navigation

Watching the Detectives: William Powell and Myrna Loy are Nick and Nora Charles in Shadow of the Thin Man April 24, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Comedy, Thriller , add a comment

This is my favourite of the series so far, with William Powell as Nick Charles not only having to get to the bottom of the usual murder mystery but also deal with the demands of fatherhood. The opening few minutes set the tone for the film, with the laughs coming thick and fast as Nick and Nick Jr. go for a walk in the park before the elder Charles mystically hears the siren song of a cocktail shaker in his wife’s hands, the mystical element arising because she’s way out of earshot in their penthouse apartment.

This time it’s a crooked betting racket that Nick and Nora uncover but it really is incidental, what’s important is the repartee between the characters, particularly that of the pickled detective and his spouse.  There’s a timeless quality to the humour that makes it as fresh and funny today as it was in the forties.

But the real star of the show is of course is Asta the dog, having started the series uncredited he’s now got his name in larger type than his two legged co-stars.

Comic Tales: Superman III April 10, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 1 comment so far

With Superman II we got a blend of two visions - Richards Donner and Lester - and while the finished article wasn’t perfect it was certainly an entertaining ride. With Superman III we got the full undiluted Richard Lester and oh boy, was it bad.

Lester must have misunderstood when Ilya Salkind asked him to make a comic movie and made a comedy movie instead. How else do you explain Richard Pryor as one of the films villains? Or a credit sequence that’s akin to Benny Hill (and even features Bob Todd!)? The juvenile comedy runs throughout the film but the laughs are few and far between.

Of course Lester isn’t completely to blame, he was after all hired by Ilya Salkind, and it’s Salkind who’s responsible for the lower budget which doesn’t just mean special effects that are a lot less special, but a cut price cast as well. Why pay Gene Hackman a small fortune when you can get Robert Vaughn to play virtually the same part for a fraction of the cost? And while you’re at it why not do away with Valerie Perrine in favour of Pamela Stephenson? Margot Kidder not happy as Lois? Cut her part down to a cameo and introduce Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang to provide another love interest for Clark Kent, that’ll show Kidder she’s not indispensible. In every sense this is a budget Superman, an attempt to milk a little more money out of the Superman cash-cow.

Richard Pryor is painfully unfunny throughout the film; he’s so bad I almost wanted to stop watching to save him further embarrassment. Pryor was always a bit hit and miss though, so it’s perhaps not too surprising how bad he is here. Robert Vaughn does Luthor-lite, accentuating the silliness and cutting back on the menace (which is a shame as he could have made a good villain). Stephenson may as well have been grown from Perrine’s cells and any hint that there may be more to her character stays undeveloped.

Still there is one bright spot in the shape of Annette O’Toole. Her Lana Lang is a breath of fresh air after the bossy, rude and self-centred Lois. Here we have someone we can believe Clark could fall for. If the film had focused a little more on them and less on Pryor it would have been a better movie (not a good one, but better).

Instead we have Superman facing off against a super-computer for a tension free exercise in cheap special effects and panto-villany. Could things get any worse for The Man of Steel?  Well Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was only a few years away.

Literally Speaking: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? March 26, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Drama, Thriller , add a comment

There isn’t really a lot to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, two ageing sisters, a crippled former Hollywood icon, Blanche Hudson, and a child star gone to seed, ‘Baby’ Jane, live together in a rundown house. ‘Baby’ Jane is slowly going off her rocker and when she learns of Blanche’s plans to sell the house and put her into care her mental breakdown goes into overdrive with disastrous results.

What makes the film work isn’t the plot but the performances, with the inspired casting of fading stars Joan Crawford as Blanche and Bette Davis as the grotesquely comical ‘Baby’ Jane giving the film a far greater resonance than it would otherwise have. The two stars detested each other in real life and, while that must have made director Robert Aldrich’s task far from easy, it adds greatly to the performances, particularly Davis’s.

Davis’s ‘Baby’ Jane is a childlike version of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, resentful of time and an industry that thrives on youth and the presence of her invalid, and vastly more talented,  sister gives her someone to take out that resentment on. Davis it seems decided on the method approach for the scene where she brutally kicks Blanche unconscious, actually landing a kick to Crawford’s head that required stitches (Crawford allegedly retaliated by putting weights in her pockets for the scene where Davis drags her across the floor).

This isn’t a film to watch for the story, its potboiler plot holds few surprises, but rather for perhaps the last great turns from two of Hollywood’s grand dames. There are few actresses who would take on such unglamorous and in the case of ‘Baby’ Jane downright ugly, parts but it paid of,  both for the film and the stars concerned (both received award nominations and more work off the back of the film)

And Davis’s make-up is as scary as any William Shatner Halloween mask.

I Spy: The Silencers March 25, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Action , add a comment

Dean Martin’s first outing as Matt Helm is less a movie and more an extended comedy sketch. I’ve never read Donald Hamilton’s Helm novels but I’d say it’s a fair bet that they bare little relation to what we have here.

Dean doesn’t so much play Helm as he does himself, or at least his Mr Smooth public persona, with an eye for the ladies or a bottle of booze, whichever comes first. It’s sporadically amusing, although time hasn’t been kind. What seemed cool to me as a kid doesn’t have the same charm now – a station wagon driving superspy? – but Dino oozes charisma and Stella Stevens shows off her ample charms as the comedy love interest. Add in some reworked Martin songs, a cameo by Cyd Charisse and the obligatory Frank Sinatra joke and you’ve got a painless way to spend a hundred minutes.

Like the superior spy spoof Our Man Flint that came out the same year, a trick gun has a major role to play in the climax (both films milk the idea a little too long) with Helm’s firing backwards while Flint’s had a time delay. On the music front Flint wins hands down, Elmer Bernstein’s score no match for Jerry Goldsmith‘s super cool Flint theme.

Producer Irving Allen, when partnered with ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, turned his nose up at Fleming’s Bond books but subsequently went in search of his own superspy franchise. The Helm series lasted four movies while Mr Bond is still going strong. Says it all really…

I Spy: Our Man Flint January 22, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Action , add a comment

By 1966 the Bond series was firmly established and ripe for spoofing. TV had offered up the semi-serious The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964) and the out and out comedy Get Smart (1965) but ’66 gave us two of the best big screen pretenders in Dean Martin’s Matt Helm and James Coburn’s Derek Flint.

Our Man Flint didn’t just send up the super spy genre but told an entertaining, if completely bonkers, tale of weather manipulation by the evil Galaxy organisation. All the Bond series trademarks are here – the beautiful girls, the criminal mastermind (actually there are three and they’re arguably well intentioned), the gadgets (Flint’s multi purpose cigarette lighter) the exotic locations (even if they are only studio bound sets) and the cool theme tune.

One thing is very different though and that’s Flint. As portrayed by James Coburn, Flint is a much cooler dude than Connery’s 007. A master of everything from cookery to ballet (which he teaches), a snappy dresser and all round hip cat, Flint is in many ways the anti-Bond, but then he does come from the private sector whereas Bond is a public servant so that’s perhaps to be expected.

Of course for a spy to be really cool he’s got to have the right theme and nobody does it better than Jerry Goldsmith, who not only gave Flint music to kick ass to but also provided the theme tune to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Without Goldsmith and Coburn Our Man Flint just wouldn’t be worth watching.

When I first watched this as a boy the fact that it was a send-up escaped my attention, it was just another action packed spy story. It got a whole new lease of life when I grew up a bit and could appreciate the sly jibes at Bond (like Flint’s jetting around the world in search of a Bouillabaisse that can only be found in this one place…) but it’s dated badly; while the Bond films have a timeless quality Flint is stuck firmly in the sixties. Coburn’s still entertaining though and that theme is always going to be cool…

The Weekend Western: The Scalphunters January 12, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Westerns , 1 comment so far

Sydney Pollack isn’t a director I associate with westerns, when I think of Pollack I think of films like The Yakuza, Absence of Malice or Tootsie, films with a contemporary setting. Yet Pollack directed the excellent Jeremiah Johnson as well as this hugely enjoyable comedy western so it’s perhaps a shame he hasn’t made a few more oaters.

Most successful comedy westerns tend to spoof the genre, sending up the characters and situations that are familiar to genre fans. The Scalphunters is one of the few that manages to be funny without playing the whole thing for laughs. That it’s so funny is down to William Norton’s witty script and the fine playing of the leads, in particular Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.

It’s this Burt/Ossie double act that generates the bulk of the comedic moments, as the cantankerous trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) and ex-slave/would-be-Indian Joseph Lee (Davis) are thrown together when Bass is forced into trading his hard earned pelts for the black man. The banter between the two is a delight with Lancaster getting more laughs in the first twenty minutes than he did in the whole of The Hallelujah Trail.

Once the pair are parted the laughs don’t dry up completely but the film does become more of a straight action western as Lancaster goes after Telly Savalas and his band of scalphunters (including Shelley Winters). He picks off the gang gorilla style, slowly witling their numbers down and Pollack delivers some fine action scenes. For a director who got his start in television and had only made the jump to the big screen a few years prior to this, he makes remarkably good use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The final showdown is a satisfying one, the film culminating with a memorable brawl between Lancaster and Davis. If fact there’s hardly a bum note in the whole film, we get laughs, action and even a little social commentary thrown in for good measure. You can’t really ask for much more than that.

Watching the Detectives: William Powell and Myrna Loy are Nick and Nora Charles in Another Thin Man January 10, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Thriller , add a comment

This third entry in the series is an improvement over the second film and comes close to matching the original. This time out it’s not just the banter between Mr and Mrs Charles that provides the fun, the addition of Nicky Jr. adds something new and gives William Powell plenty of extra ammunition. The murder mystery itself is also far more intriguing than the previous film’s.

The Powell/Loy double act is still the main attraction though and the writers give the pair some great jibes. Their delivery is effortless and yet so perfectly timed that almost all the gags hit home. In fact Powell doesn’t even need dialogue to elicit a chuckle from this viewer, a raised eyebrow or a double take at just the right moment is all it takes.

Plus Asta the dog has a bit more to do this time out.

Watching the Detectives: Robert Downey Jr. is Harry Lockhart and Val Kilmer is “Gay” Perry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang January 3, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Action, Thriller , 4 comments

Petty thief Harry Lockhart stumbles into an audition while trying to evade the police and finds himself jetting off to L.A. where he shows his face at a Hollywood party, meets gay P.I. Perry van Shrike aka “Gay” Perry and gets caught up in a murder plot.

I’d bought this on my younger brother’s recommendation but, truth be told, wasn’t really expecting much, just your average dumb Hollywood buddy movie. How wrong I was! This is a gem of a film that manages to work as a detective movie, a comedy and an insightful jab at the fakeness of Tinsel Town. It’s also got some politically incorrect humour which scores it another plus point.

Michelle Monaghan does well as Downey’s love interest come femme fatale while Val Kilmer has a ball as the tough as nails gay detective. This is Downey’s film though and he knows it, from the comical voice over to some gross out comedy, he’s perfect. Lockhart’s a nice guy whose heart is in the right place even if the rest of him usually isn’t and thanks to Downey we’re rooting for him to make good.

Shane Black disappeared for about 10 years after The Long Kiss Goodnight and, whatever he was doing, it was obviously time well spent as this is by far the best thing he’s ever put his name to. Some scenes quite simply left me in awe at the deranged mind that could think this stuff up, the final shoot-out being a case in point. It’s also the first thing he’s directed but hopefully not the last as it’s as visually inventive as the script is literally, with plenty of sight gags as well as Lockhart’s quick fire jibes.

I’d say this does for the detective genre what Scream did for the slasher movie except that really doesn’t do the film justice. I can’t recommend this highly enough, it really is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

If only the UK DVD contained the Downey, Kilmer, Black commentary! That’s one extra I really want to listen to. Damn you Warner’s for short-changing the British film fan!

Animonday: The Jungle Book January 1, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Comedy, Musical , 2 comments

I’ve never been a big Disney fan, Mickey, Donald and Co do nothing for me and while I’ve enjoyed several of the animated films I wouldn’t call them favourites. Like everything though there is an exception and The Jungle Book’s it.

I first saw the film in the cinema, not on its original release (I’d have only been three at the time), but exactly when I couldn’t say. IMDb lists a UK rerelease in 1983 but it was definitely before that and probably around the min-seventies, so I was ten or so. Regardless of when I first watched it, it left a lasting impression, and the fact that my younger brother had the soundtrack album certainly helped to keep it fresh in my mind.

Over the years I’ve watched it several times (it’s playing again now as I write this) and I’d go so far as to say it’s my favourite animated film. That’s not to say it’s the best, just my personal favourite. So why do I love it so? Well I don’t think it’s ever been bettered for matching its voice cast to their characters, something listening to the soundtrack album just made even more obvious. Sebastian Cabot always seemed a bit dull as Bagheera, but that’s the point, it’s what makes the shiftless jungle bum Baloo so appealing, and Phil Harris’ Baloo is certainly that. But it’s not just the leads who fit, everyone from Sterling Holloway as the sneaky snake Kaa to the inspired casting of George Sanders as Shere Kha, the jungles deadliest inhabitant, are spot on.

Then there’s the songs. Most people’s favourite is probably “The Bare Necessities” but for me it’s always been “I Wan’na Be Like You” with Louis Prima stealing the film as the King Louie. While it’s the best scene it’s also the films biggest failing; it peaks too soon, with the high point coming before the film is even half over. It’s not like there’s nothing to enjoy in the second half though (Kaa singing “Trust in Me” for one) and at only 75 minutes it’ not what you’d call a long film either.

This is the last Animonday, at least for the foreseeable future, and what better way to finish than with a true animation classic. There’ll be something different next Monday and a few other changes to Mine Was Taller as well.

The Weekend Western: The Hallelujah Trail December 17, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Westerns , 2 comments

Denver has run dry of whiskey and, with a predicted hard winter ahead, things look bad for the miners. The town purchases 40 wagonloads of the stuff, more than enough to survive the winter, from Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) but can the wagon train make it through treacherous country that not only holds Indians but also Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) and her Women’s Temperance League? Colonel Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) tries to keep the peace but finds his hands full with Cora, a woman of forceful conviction and obvious feminine charm.

I’m a big fan of John Sturges, he made some true classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, and even some of his lesser known films like Last Train from Gun Hill and Hour of the Gun are personal favourites of mine. Someone should have told him though that “epic” and “comedy” don’t go together.

And Epic comedy is just what The Hallelujah Trail tries to be, and with a running time of 150 minutes (complete with entrance, intermission and exit music) it certainly has the length of an epic. Robert Surtees’ gorgeous cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score ensure it also looks and sounds the part but it falls down when it comes to the script.

There aren’t many laugh out loud moments in John Gay’s screenplay, at its best it manages to elicit a feeling of mild amusement, but spread across such a inflated running time it’s stretched too thin. The film could easily loose a third of its running time and be all the better for it. Instead it sprawls across two and a half hours seemingly because Sturges wanted to make a BIG picture.

The actors do well with what they have to work with. Lancaster is fine as the beleaguered Colonel but he got to show off his gift for comedy in a western setting far better a couple of years later in Sydney Pollack’s The Scalphunters. Lee Remick looks stunning and probably gives the films best performance, while talented actors like Donald Pleasence and Brian Keith are wasted in underwritten parts (a real sin given the bloated running time). Jim Hutton doesn’t really have much to do but at least he looks more at home here than he did in Major Dundee and Martin Landau probably comes out top if you work out the laughs/screen time ratio, as Chief Walks-Stooped-Over.

The Hallelujah Trail is a bit of a misfire by one of Hollywood’s most reliable directors, it’s not without some charm but it is overindulgent and under written.

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 4/5 (9)