Saturday, 28 March 2015

Movie Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

A satirical humans-versus-bugs science fiction action epic, Starship Troopers is ridiculous fun.

In the distant future, the entire world is governed by The Federation. Citizenship and voting rights are bestowed on those who serve the government, preferably in the military. The rest of the population are merely civilians. Earth is under threat from massive bugs who reside in the distant world Klendathu and its surrounding planets. With the war heating up, high school lovers Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) graduate and join the military. She is smart and joins the starship pilot training program, where she is paired with fellow trainee Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon). Johnny is athletic and joins the Mobile Infantry, where he reconnects with classmate Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer). Dizzy has a crush on Johnny, but his heart is set on Carmen. Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) is another friend of Johnny's, and he joins Military Intelligence.

The humans woefully underestimate their enemy, the war against the bugs takes a bad turn, an entire Earth city is destroyed, and Johnny's Mobile Infantry unit loses a lot of soldiers. A new aggressive battle plan is formulated, and Johnny is re-assigned to the Roughnecks, a battle-hardened division under the command of the tough-as-nails Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside). The humans drive towards the heart of Klendathu to try and understand the intelligence behind the bugs and annihilate their threat.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven with an A-budget of over $100 million but occasionally donning a saucy B-movie ethos, Starship Troopers fluctuates between wildly enjoyable and cringe-worthy creakiness. Vaguely based on the Robert A. Heinlein book of the same name that Verhoeven claimed to have never read, the film carries a mean satirical streak that celebrates unifying neo-Fascism with a friendly face as a natural destiny for an Earth embarking on interstellar battles. Verhoeven litters the movie with public service announcements that evolve Orwellian domination into the corporate culture of good-for-you information, all ending with the itchy friendliness of a "would you like to know more?" question.

The scenes that attempt to develop the characters, and therefore require acting, are cheesy and sometimes step into dreadful territory. The one thing Verhoeven did not spend money on was acting talent. The young actors were selected to look good in a multi-ethnic society that only breeds beautiful and athletic offspring, but their lack of ability in front of a camera is almost painful, matched only by often inane dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Edward Neumeier.

The film's ending appears rushed, the gory war seemingly coming to a sudden pause with an unexplained capture. Either the budget was exhausted or sequels were being planned, but in any case the conclusion is unsatisfying, other than the enduring image of Neil Patrick Harris in on overcoat straight out of the Nazi SS closet. No serious sequels were forthcoming, other than straight-to-DVD level low budget knock-offs.

But it's the second half of Starship Troopers that really shines. Most of the clunky romances are set aside as Verhoeven focusses on the war, and the film excels as a humans against bugs action extravaganza with expert special effects deployment. Verhoeven loves his gore, and within the high-adrenaline combat action he lets loose with numerous scenes of broken bodies, the huge arachnids impaling and decapitating en-mass, and even engaging in old fashioned brain sucking. None of it is for the faint of heart, but the slick visuals and elevated levels of excitement are quite thrilling.

Starship Troopers falters when the humans have to talk to each other, but soars on the killing fields of insane interplanetary wars.

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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Movie review: Charade (1963)

A stylish spy thriller with a dash of humour, Charade thrives on a hip vibe generated by a crackling mystery, a stellar cast, and a cool Parisian setting.

Regina "Reggie" Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is trapped in a loveless marriage with a husband she barely knows. While she is on vacation, suave stranger Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) seems to make it a point to meet her. Reggie returns to her Paris apartment and is startled to learn that her husband Charles is dead, having been thrown from a train, and has left her next to nothing. At Charles' funeral service, three grim strangers show up: Tex (James Coburn), Scobie (George Kennedy) and Gideon (Ned Glass). They all seem eager to confirm that Charles is indeed dead.

Joshua reappears and befriends Reggie, while in the following few days Tex, Scobie and Gideon start to make their menacing presence felt with veiled and obvious threats. American Embassy official Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) connects with Reggie to warn her that Charles was illegally in possession of $250,000 that belonged to the United States government, and that the three henchmen are his former crime accomplices and likely won't stop at anything to find the missing money. Reggie has no idea where her ex-husband has stashed the loot, but soon realizes that even with Joshua's help her life is in grave danger, she can trust no one, and nothing is at it seems.

The premise is simple: a plucky damsel in distress is surrounded by a throng of potentially dangerous men. The bad guys are chasing a classic MacGuffin in the form of a missing cache of World War Two money stolen by four soldiers while on a mission behind enemy lines. Elegantly directed by Stanley Donen, Charade is often referred to as the best Hitchcockian film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This is a engaging thriller handled with a light touch, Donen translating the Peter Stone screenplay (based on the 1961 short story The Unsuspecting Wife) into a romp through Paris, with romance and humour injected in just the right amounts to brighten the mood.

The Henry Mancini music score and title song, as well as the animated opening credit sequence by Maurice Binder, announce Charade as a slick example of 1960s film making. Donen aims for chic smoothness, and achieves it through personality and pacing. Even during the more serious action and danger scenes Donen leaves no doubt that Reggie will emerge unscathed, and there is a steady stream of hints pointing to the many plot twists. Charade unfolds like a fun trip through a handsomely-trimmed maze; there are a few surprises around some corners, but never any doubt about the final destination.

On closer examination there are plot holes to be sure, as well as some incongruous character reactions as Reggie demonstrates remarkable composure and finds a steady steam of clever quips in the face of sudden danger. The flame of romance between Joshua and Reggie also has the potential to flounder on the jagged rocks of a 25 year difference between Grant and Hepburn. That hurdle is mostly cleared by making Reggie the romantic instigator, a stance that fits in with her relief and liberation at the end of a loveless marriage. Hepburn and Grant develop an easy chemistry and glide over the rough patches on a large dose of star charisma.

The supporting cast is deep in talent. George Kennedy waves a steel claw to good effect, James Coburn does the same with a Texan accent, and Walter Matthau adds bureaucratic oiliness. Filled with unscrupulous villains chasing a cheeky heroine, Charade wins on charm.

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Sunday, 22 March 2015

Movie Review: Circus World (1964)

A dull and bloated drama, Circus World (also known as The Magnificent Showman) is a seemingly endless visit to the big tent, where the human interaction is lifeless and the characters uniformly uninteresting.

It's early in the 1900s, and Matt Masters (John Wane) and his sidekick Cap Carson (Lloyd Nolan) run a circus operation. Steve McCabe (John Smith) is one of the handsome stars of the show, while young Toni (Claudia Cardinale) has a bit-part. Toni is being raised by Matt, after her father, the famous aerial acrobat Alfredo Alberto, died while performing and her mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) ran off. Matt and Lili were in love at the time, and Matt has never gotten over the great love of his life.

Matt decides to take the circus on a tour of Europe, potentially because he is still looking for Lili. Disaster strikes at the first stop in Barcelona, when the transport ship capsizes and all of the circus equipment is lost. Matt, Cap, Steve and Toni have to start anew, and they accept work with a rival touring circus company with Matt maintaining his search for Lili while saving money to restart his own show. He connects with Toni's uncle Aldo Alfredo (Richard Conte), who may still blame Matt for his brother's death. Finally Matt and Lili do meet, with Lili living a destitute and nomadic life in Europe. Matt gives her the chance to restart her career, but both of them are unsure how to reintroduce Toni to her long-missing mother.

Directed by Henry Hathaway and co-written by Ben Hecht, Circus World was an ambitious but troubled Samuel Bronston production. Originally slated to be directed by Frank Capra, the film attempted to safeguard the John Wayne persona within an entirely different milieu. It just does not work. Wayne struts around issuing orders and wanting badly for the circus to represent the wild west, but all around him the script is littered with cringe-inducing moments, witless drama, laughable dialogue and inconceivable character motivations.

The problems are too many to overcome. Cardinale was 26 years old at the time of filming, and although she is game, she just can't pretend to be the teenager demanded by the script. The slow-burning, decades-spanning love that is supposed to simmer between Matt and Lili takes forever to materialize on the screen. Lili makes her appearance halfway through the 135 minutes of running time, and is then reduced to a few hesitant scenes. Hayworth was reportedly a horror to work with on the set, potentially suffering from both alcoholism and early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, and she is neither convincing as a love interest nor as a trapeze artist making a comeback.

John Smith as Steve McCabe is simply bland, and the attempts to spark a romance between McCabe and Toni falter. Worst of all, some of the film's key moments are simply flubbed: the causes of the incredibly sudden ship disaster are never even discussed, and the evil intent supposedly residing within Aldo Alfredo, who may have been behind scary threats against Toni as well as a damaging fire, is left completely unresolved.

Hathaway at least makes the film look gorgeous, filmed in something called  Super Technirama 70 (but promoted as Cinerama), Circus World is visually rich and saturated in colours, with an admirable level of kinetic energy sweeping across the screen, particularly in the numerous circus show segments. And Hathaway finally finds a pulse in the late catastrophic fire scene that injects some much needed momentum into the film. But Circus World is more circus show than real world, and it's ultimately down to the big animals and silly clowns to provide desperate relief from the turgid drama.

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Saturday, 21 March 2015

Movie Review: You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

A romantic comedy musical with screwball elements, You Were Never Lovelier strikes the perfect balance between humour, romance and elegant musical numbers.

Famous American dancer Bob Davis (Fred Astaire) is in Buenos Aires, where he proceeds to lose all his money on his horse racing gambling addiction. Desperate for a job, he approaches gruff tycoon and hotel owner Eduardo Acuña (Adolphe Menjou), seeking a dancing gig at the hotel's swanky restaurant. Acuña, the father of four grown daughters, believes that Davis is a useless opportunist and wants nothing to do with him. Acuña also has problems of his own. With his eldest daughter now married, his second daughter Maria (Rita Hayworth) is not passionate about any man, and is therefore holding up the marriage prospects of daughters three and four.

Acuña concocts a harebrained plot to manufacture a secret admirer for Maria, to get her romantic juices flowing. He starts sending her unsigned love notes and orchids on a daily basis. The plan initially works, but through a series of misunderstanding, Maria arrives at the conclusion that Davis is her secret lover, and passion ignites between them much to Acuña's horror.

Directed by William A. Seiter with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, You Were Never Lovelier is the second and final screen teaming of Astaire and Hayworth. This is a breezy, character-rich comedy with three fine central performances. Astaire is at his elegant best, Hayworth looks ravishing and simply glows in a series of stunning gowns, and Menjou has a substantial supporting role as the meddlesome patriarch. The dialogue is witty, the pace is brisk, and there is plenty going on in every scene. Hayworth's voice is unnecessarily dubbed (by Nan Wynn) and not enough is made of the supposed Buenos Aires setting and Argentinian culture, but You Were Never Lovelier gets everything else right.

Astaire would later name Hayworth his favourite dance partner, while she considered her two collaborations with Astaire as the pinnacle of her career. It's easy to see why. There is an effortless chemistry between the two that simply materializes as soon as they share the screen, a spark of romance and respect that Astaire rarely generated with other leading ladies. Hayworth does not try to match Astaire in their dances; she does her own thing to complement him, and does it with undisguised happiness, resulting in a cheerfully comfortable pairing. The two highlight dance scenes are simply perfect, the classic and elegant I'm Old Fashioned signalling the start of the romance, and the more exuberant The Shorty George confirming just how compatible Davis and Maria are.

The film works well precisely because of the measured approach to the musical interludes. The songs and dances are there to punctuate the story's key moments, and otherwise do not get in the way or slow down the madcap story. Seiter and his editors deliver the package at an economical 97 minutes, add no padding, and if anything, leave the audience wanting more. In other words, the perfect approach to lighthearted entertainment.

You Were Never Lovelier is rounded out with secondary characters who do much to liven up the film. The script (co-written by Delmer Daves) takes the time to create screwball-like fun involving Acuña's family and acquaintances getting in each other's way and injecting texture and humour into the manic proceedings. Assistant Fernando (Gus Schilling), wife Delfina (Barbara Brown), Maria's godmother also called Maria (Isobel Elsom) and her husband Juan (Douglas Leavitt) and the two youngest daughters all do their part to generate and maintain momentum. Band leader Xavier Cugat also enjoys an extended role and adds to the musical flavour.

You Were Never Lovelier is a gem of a musical, a rare example of all the genre elements coming together in just the right doses.

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Friday, 20 March 2015

Movie Review: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

A romantic comedy set in the world of a divorce lawyer and his clients, Intolerable Cruelty rides the glowing charisma of stars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but flounders after a bright start.

Miles Massey (Clooney) is a slick divorce attorney who specializes in either securing or escaping large settlements for well-heeled clients, and rarely loses a case. When the stunningly beautiful Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) captures her husband Rex (Edward Herrman) with his lover on video, she thinks that she has an open and shut case to claim at least half of his considerable fortune. Working for Rex, Miles is able to prove that Marylin is a gold digger who only ever married Rex for his money, and she gets nothing. But despite humiliating her, Miles is smitten by Marylin, and the attraction is mutual.

Marylin pretends that she wants to rehabilitate herself, starts planning for her next marriage, and claims to have fallen deeply in love with oil tycoon Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton). She even seeks Miles' help to draft an iron clad prenuptial agreement to prove that she in not after Howard's money. However, Miles is suspicious of her motives and he is proven right, although even he does not know how far Marylin will go to achieve financial independence.

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (with only Joel credited), Intolerable Cruelty is one of the relatively weaker Coen efforts. A romance with just the slightest of edges, the film rides on a predictable rail, and even the supposedly big twist is easy to foresee. Which is not to say that the stars don't shine, because Clooney and Zeta-Jones are worthy adversaries. Both play characters who are sexy, smart and single-minded about getting what they want, and watching them circle each other before pouncing to either kill or kiss is rarely dull.

Although conceivably a romance, the romantic elements are the most poorly developed elements of the film. Miles' emotions are more about lust and conquest, Marylin has grander agendas linked to financial freedom, and the two are attracted to each other abruptly and mostly out of animal magnetism rather than warm enchantment. The movie works better when the two are competing rather than courting, and some good humour is provided by eccentric supporting characters including Cedric the Entertainer as a private detective and Jonathan Hadary as an unforgettable Baron Krauss von Espy.

But the film takes a sharp turn towards cretinism in its final third, and what was a reasonably enjoyable sparring match for adults turns to poorly conceived farce. An assassin by the name of Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes) is introduced, and while the character is admittedly funny, he takes the film far from its grounded premise and towards juvenile humour. The film deflates and never reclaims its good will.

Intolerable Cruelty is flighty entertainment, tolerable but not all that enduring.

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Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Movie Review: Captain Blood (1935)

One of the original swashbuckling epics, Captain Blood offers an absorbing story about an English doctor turned pirate in the late 1600s.

It's the 1680s in England, and a revolution against King James II is underway. Doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is sitting out the rebellion, but is anyway arrested for treason while performing his humanitarian duty and tending to the injuries of a rebel. Blood is spared the death penalty and dispatched as a slave to Port Royal, Jamaica. He is purchased by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the niece of local military commander Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill). Blood puts his medical skills to use and earns some level of freedom by helping to treat the gout condition of the island's governor.

Blood and some of the other slaves including his friends Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander) and Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee) start to plan an escape from the island, but their scheming is disrupted when a Spanish war ship attacks the port. Blood and his cohorts are able to take command of the ship and set sail into the Caribbean, becoming the most feared pirates in the region. Blood accumulates wealth by sacking merchant ships, and tangles with French pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), but with the winds of change blowing through England, he has to again face his destiny in Port Royal.

Warner Bros. plonked virtual unknowns Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland into the starring roles of a $1 million epic, teamed them with director Michael Curtiz, and emerged with a timeless classic and one of Hollywood's most enduring screen couples. Captain Blood offers a rich story, patient build-ups, witty dialogue, an impressive scale, some gripping action and combat scenes, and plenty of heart.

The Casey Robinson script (an adaptation of a Rafael Sabatini novel) creates a charismatic and compelling central character who easily sustains the two hours of running time. In a remarkable display of mature film making, the first hour is invested in Blood's story before he became a pirate. This is time well spent, and Blood emerges as a rounded character, his background, motivations and beliefs carrying through to his days terrorizing the waters of the Caribbean.

Blood allows his mouth to frequently get him into trouble, a case of principle triumphing over convenience. His outspokenness also helps to get him noticed, which works for and against him in various situations. Blood helps to confirm that history is shaped by the brave, but they only earn their rewards after suffering as a result of their courage to stand for what is right.

Captain Blood excels at sub-plots and secondary themes to supplement the main protagonist. The relationship between Blood and Arabella is immediately electric, and the plot arcs beautifully to allow each to own the other. There are examples of camaraderie among Blood's men, a strong moral code even within the pirate community, and Blood takes to the sword to defend the virtues of women.

The film ends with a stunning naval battle, as Blood and his shipmates throw caution to the wind to reclaim their pride as citizens of a nation. Curtiz choreographs a spectacular 25 minute sequence of large war ships charging and trading fire at close quarters, resulting in mayhem, destruction and glory.

Flynn commands the screen with unconstrained charisma. Always a better actor than he was given credit for, Flynn has relatively few swashbuckling scenes and spends most of the film as a slave and a captive maintaining his dignity in the face of injustice. Once transformed into a pirate Flynn turns on his leadership wattage and it proves simply irresistible. De Havilland quickly establishes herself  a worthy screen partner, her chin-up determination a perfect fit with Flynn's bravado.

Flynn and de Havilland would go on to co-star in a total of eight films, seven of them directed by Curtiz. It all started at the docks in Port Royal, with de Havilland offering $10 and buying herself a man.

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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Movie Review: America's Sweethearts (2001)

A romantic comedy and a satire on the business of marketing movies, America's Sweethearts has enough talent to amble along, but not enough zest to rise above genre conventions.

Publicist Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal) is tasked by studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) to organize and host a successful junket for the latest film starring Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack). Frequent co-stars, married to each other, and fan favourites, Gwen and Eddie can longer stand each other, the relationship ruptured by Gwen taking on the hunky Hector (Hank Azaria) as a lover, leaving Eddie an emotional wreck. Lee connects with Gwen's sister and main handler Kiki (Julia Roberts) to try and stage a reconciliation to salvage the film.

Matters are not helped by eccentric director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken) refusing to submit a copy of the new movie until the last minute, meaning that Lee has to organize the junket and occupy the press with no certainty of having a product to show them. With Kiki's help Lee uses every trick in the book to revive interest in the Gwen and Eddie collaboration. Both attend the media launch at a hotel in the Nevada desert, leading to unexpected romantic complications that threaten to derail Lee's intentions, while Weidmann's late appearance adds an unexpected dose of chaos.

Directed by Joe Roth with Billy Crystal co-producing and co-writing, America's Sweethearts offers a steady level of enjoyment, an excellent cast and many good laughs. It is also broadly predictable, offers little depth and hardly any meaningful character evolution. There is a vague old fashioned whiff about the film, a sense of throwback to the screwball era when banter trumped irony.

The film's brightest moments are courtesy of the secondary characters. Some of the best laughs come courtesy of Gwen's dog, who effortlessly steals the three scenes that he's in. In a brief role, Christopher Walken as the conceited Hal Weidmann, a throwback to the mad genius era of directors, is also delicious. The character of Hector is over-the-top funny, and borders on something out of a cartoon.

Less interesting and much more familiar are the battles of the heart between Eddie, Gwen and Kiki, and overall there is more satire and comedy than romance in America's Sweethearts. Crystal gives his own Lee Phillips some good lines, the film offering a barrage of zingers targeting the depths to which publicists will go to promote a movie or obfuscate its lack of relevance. Outright lies, stroking star egos, and strategic leaks to the press are all in a day's work for Lee, as all publicity is good publicity to generate the necessary buzz. With no movie to offer, Lee puts the junk in junket and feeds the media a diet of celebrity gossip involving Eddie and Gwen. Hardly anyone notices that the movie event has no movie.

Meanwhile Cusack and Zeta-Jones play up stereotypes about celebrities primarily concerned with nursing their egos. Eddie is deeply damaged by Gwen's betrayal, spending months in recovery with faux wellness guru (Alan Arkin) serving up useless platitudes. Zeta-Jones is perfect as the star who genuinely, deeply, understands that the world and the sun revolve around her. Julia Roberts delivers the most engaging performance, Kiki having recently lost a lot of weight, growing tired of being bossed by her sister, and feeling empowered to pursue a long-term crush on the one man she thought she could never have.

America's Sweethearts is lighthearted fun sparked by pointed commentary about the film industry, with a stellar cast providing an attractive gloss of quality.

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Monday, 16 March 2015

Movie Review: Serenade (1956)

A comeback showcase for tenor Mario Lanza, Serenade is a galumphing story of music melding into complicated romances, enlivened by many interludes of extraordinary operatic singing.

In California, Damon Vincenti (Lanza) is a humble field worker with a remarkable talent for singing. Through family connections he gets an opportunity to perform at Lardelli's, a San Francisco restaurant, where he is quickly spotted by the well-connected Charles Winthrop (Vincent Price) and rich society girl and arts patron Kendall Hale (Joan Fontaine). Winthrop introduces Damon to legendary vocal coach Maestro Marcatello (Joseph Calleia), who hones Damon's talent and sets him on the course to stardom. Meanwhile, Damon is very much falling in love with Kendall and uses her as his inspiration, but she remains aloof.

On Damon's grand debut with the New York Opera, all goes wrong, and his career appears to be finished before it starts. Damon retreats to Mexico in a depressed state, where he meets Juana Montes (Sara Montiel), the feisty daughter of a deceased bullfighter. She revives his spirits, but Damon has unfinished business back in the United States, including a reputation to repair and the relationship with Kendall to resolve.

Directed by Anthony Mann as an adaptation of a steamy James M. Cain novel (but excluding most of the sexual escapades that would have been too complicated for a 1950s film audience), Serenade amplifies the melodrama and layers on emotional catastrophes. The film about an opera singer takes on the grand airs of an on-screen opera, with themes of infatuation, betrayal, depression, confrontation and redemption all played at the highest possible volume and in the most vivid colours. The overflowing broth is both the film's charm and limitation. It's impossible to take any of it too seriously, and it's equally easy to surrender to its husky spell.

While the passion and fervour are consistently engrossing, Mann is unable to achieve an even tone, and the film's resonance fluctuates wildly. The singing interludes are packed into bunches, and there are long stretches devoid of Lanza doing what Lanza does best. The two halves of the film almost play out as two separate stories. The first US-based portion is all about the rural boy doing good, while the second Mexico-based segment is an arduous journey of recovery. The final 15 minutes, with the two women in Damon's life finally confronting each other, oscillate recklessly and feature rampant cattiness and pointy swordplay before collapsing into an unsatisfactory heap.

Lanza is much better as a singer than an actor, and he unsuccessfully struggles to convince that he can carry off dramatic scenes. His line delivery is stiff and hesitate, his lack of comfort when not singing painfully apparent. Joan Fontaine is adequate, but she is not a natural self-centered vamp. Fontaine does not disgrace herself as Kendall Hale, but neither is she fully convincing. She also disappears for a long stretch once Damian relocates to Mexico. Sara Montiel and Vincent Price emerge with the best performances. Montiel gives Juana is genuine passion for life, while Price gets the snappiest lines and best attitude as the worldly Charles Winthrop.

Serenade is never dull; it's just smothered with the thick sauce of operatic excess.

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Sunday, 15 March 2015

Movie Review: This Above All (1942)

A World War Two propaganda romance set in England, This Above All is a more heavy-handed companion piece to Mrs. Miniver.

The war is raging, France has surrendered, and England stands alone, subjected to daily German bombing raids. The rich Cathaway family is part of English aristocracy, suffering through the war through the prism of moaning about the inconvenience of it all. But daughter Prudence (Joan Fontaine) is more connected to the common people, and she breaks ranks to enlist with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a lowly recruit rather than using family connections to join as an officer.

Through a friend, Pru meets and starts a romance with the mysterious Clive Briggs (Tyrone Power). He is rugged, handsome, but also appears to be harbouring a deep dark secret. When Pru gets a week's leave, she decides to spend it with Clive at a seaside resort. She discovers that Clive used to be a soldier and was evacuated at Dunkirk. But it is only when Clive's army buddy Monty (Thomas Mitchell) shows up that Clive's true predicament is revealed.

Directed by Anatole Litvak and based on a book by Eric Knight, This Above All is designed to elicit sympathy for the British, at a time when the Unites States was still uncertain about joining the war. The film delivers its message effectively but also tilts towards the crude side. This is a talk fest that lays bare the schisms in Britain's class system, but then issues a loud and emotional rallying call that England is a wonderful place and well worth saving, warts and all. Everything from the cliffs of Dover to the rolling countryside hills and the magic of Shakespeare are pressed into service, with the simple message of save the country now, and fix its society later.

The film moves slowly but steadily, and Litvak conjures up several magical moments. Pru unloading on her stuffy family's attitude at dinner time is a cathartic highlight. The first meeting between Pru and Clive occurs fully in the dark as a blacked-out England tries to avoid the German bombers, the faces of the would-be lovers only occasionally visible in the light of matches. And when Pru and Clive settle down for a week at a quaint seaside town, they eventually land at a pub and inn straight out of Dickens, a perfectly executed manipulative trick to drench the romance in old world charm.

Less impressive is the brooding Clive Briggs as played by a stiff Tyrone Power, not even trying to be English. Power sticks to the one note of passive anger with intermittent flare-ups, derailing the romance into a rescue mission for Pru. She appears to stick by her man as a mission of mercy to save his soul and make him better, and because she admits to being tired of being surrounded by nothing but women at WAAF, rather due to any obvious reasons to actually fall in love.

Joan Fontaine emerges as the main reason to watch the film. She does manage to keep all her make-up on despite WAAF regulations, and Fontaine captures the tender heart of the film, the bridge between classes, a woman in touch with her country's urgent needs and willing to make any sacrifice to survive and support the men who need to fight. In addition to Thomas Mitchell as a salt-of-the-earth soldier, the cast of characters includes small roles for Nigel Bruce as the innkeeper, Philip Merivale as Pru's father and Gladys Cooper as the haughty aunt.

This Above All may lack some subtlety, but in desperate times, some calls to action are best delivered bluntly.

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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Movie Review: The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953)

A children's musical fantasy with some creepy elements, The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T preys on every child's mistrust of the domineering piano teacher, but only partially succeeds as entertainment.

In a typical suburban home, Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) is about 10 years old, and struggling to cope with the practice, practice, practice demands of his pompous piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried). Bart believes that his widowed mother Heloise (Mary Healy) has fallen under Terwilliker's spell. The local neighbourhood plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) appears to be a decent man, but unwilling to intervene and save Bart.

Bart dozes off at the piano and has a nightmare. He is held prisoner at the surreal Terwilliker Institute, where Dr. T intends to gather 500 children to play continuously on a massive piano. Heloise is Dr. T's main assistant, and kept under control by his hypnotic powers. Zabladowski is the institute's plumber, but is initially reluctant to help Bart and his mom to escape. With an army of henchmen chasing after Bart at every turn, he has to find a way to end Dr. T's evil plot.

Conceived and written by Dr. Seuss, directed by Roy Rowland and produced by none other than Stanley Kramer, Dr. T was a seemingly ambitious project that floundered on the rocks of production difficulties, limited talent and less than impressive musical numbers. Seuss' first script apparently ran to 1,200 pages, and in a ruthless editing job, close to a dozen songs were cut to try and create a cohesive 90 minute narrative.

The main set design is an impressive achievement: colourful, curvy and instantly recognizable as a creation from Seuss' imagination, filled with sinewy staircases, ladders to nowhere, signs pointing to the obvious, secret dungeons and subterranean chambers. The costumes are equally bright and flashy. And while there are a few scary moments (the operator of the dungeon elevator can instigate nightmares for years among the young), the film mostly rides a vibe of candy-coloured adventure, as young Bart never displays fear, just a determination to break out of his imprisonment.

But the film suffers from a distinctive sparsity. Just the four main characters get meaningful speaking parts, with the rest of the cast made up of indistinct extras. The song and dance numbers are sometimes painfully bland, and with no stars to liven up the show, they tend to just wither in place. There is also a missed opportunity to make use of the mammoth piano, the centrepiece set never put to use as the film rushes to chaotic climax.

In addition to affirming children's animosity towards practicing the piano, there are some adult themes at play. The World War Two metaphor is the most obvious, with Terwilliker at Hitler, Heloise representing those under his spell, and Zabladowski as the US initially reluctant to get involved. The film also touches on 1950s paranoia of the atom bomb, as Bart ends up disrupting Dr. T's plans with a dangerously unstable scientific device.

More of a quirky curiosity than an outright success, The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T is packed with idea fragments, but can never quite assemble the right tune.

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