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Jack the Ripper (1988)
Nice try, but....
When I first saw this telemovie back in the late 1980s, I found myself wondering if the film makers actually believed the theory they were peddling. The DVD commentary makes it clear that they take it very seriously indeed, which somehow reduces the impact of the piece.
Taken as a blood and thunder melodrama, this is good fun. But as a recreation of London's East End in the 1880s, it leaves a great deal deal to be desired. The depiction of prostitution is particularly inaccurate. The Ripper's victims were not, on the whole, the good hearted floozies depicted here. They were alcoholic, washed out drabs, homeless and aimless. And the depiction of George Lusk as a left wing agitator is way off base.
No matter, its diverting entertainment. But its only real historical value lies in its depiction of the hysteria that the Ripper murders engendered in the population. If you believe the denouement, and the explanation of the Ripper's identity, drop me a line. I'd like to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Stepford Wives (2004)
Scary - for all the wrong reasons
The original version of The Stepford Wives may have been no masterpiece, but it was Citizen Kane compared with this drek!
Unsure of whether to play it safe or go out on a limb, to play up the anachronisms of a badly outdated concept or bring it into line with the 21st century, director Frank Oz has fumbled around incoherently. And he actually manages to include something to offend everyone - not in a Michael Moore, politically pointed way, but in a monstrously inept display of sheer excess.
The film is ugly, pointless, humourless and in the final washup, completely worthless. There is something seriously wrong with your movie when Bette Midler is your most restrained cast member. Indeed, Nicole Kidman offers what may very well be the most appalling performance she has ever offered in a (to say the least) bumpy career. She makes no attempt at all to find a recognisably human foundation for her character, playing it instead as a broad caricature.
And since the film's thesis is that the loss of humanity for a 'perfect society' the film virtually crumples into dust amidst Kidman's embarrassing mugging. I know there are people out there who maintain she is some sort of goddess, but sorry guys, you are worshipping the wrong diva.
Bette Midler provides a few smiles along the way, but she is way below par. At least she seems to know how wretched the material is, which is more than we can say for Glenn Close. She actually makes Kidman look subdued.
The film's finale is muddled and unclear. Are the Stepford Wives robots or women with computer chips in their brains? Do men in America really desire overdressed zombies for wives? Do men even think about repressing women any more? Undoubtedly some do, but the notion that an entire community would launch itself into this bizarre scheme is ridiculous, even by this film's modest standards.
There must be some virtue in this film. How about a triumph of style over content. Alas no. The film rambles along in sub-par Tim Burton style. How about making a few bucks at the box office? Alas yes, though at least the public has belatedly seen the light.
Awful film making. I don't mind if I never see anybody connected with it ever again - Midler excepted.
Cold Mountain (2003)
Two words best sum up this resplendent bore of a movie - "Oscar Bait." Everything about it seems to be a conspicuous grab for prestige and Academy Award consideration. But more often than not things go horribly awry.
Its a splendid looking film, but the design more correctly evokes Trannsylvania than the Old South. More than once I awaited gypsy caravans and torch bearing villagers.
In homage we have Jude Law dressing up as the Wolf Man for much of the running time, stumbling through thickets in search of Nicole Kidman. He has the good sense to keep his mouth shut most of the time - his accent being so studied that it lacks all credibility - adopting a generally pained expression that suffices for most emotions.
Nicole Kidman is simply woeful. Much too old for the part, she lapses between Australian twang and Southern drawl to basically nil effect. We simply don't care about Ada as portrayed by the now familiar Kidman twitches.
Renee Zellweger makes amends for Kidman stealing the Oscar that should have been hers for Chicago by stealing Kidman's film from under her. Its not much of an achievement, given that La Kidman seems to be asleep for most of the film.
Amongst the mugging supporting cast, Giovanni Ribisi stands out, incomprehensibly decked out as Theda Bara with a beard.
It may go on to triumph at the Oscars, but that will be small consolation to people suckered into seeing a sterile, boring film.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Improves with age
Many short sighted critics dismissed Vanilla Sky as the ultimate vanity project, a plea for acceptance by a middle aged superstar. That they underrated the film in the process is not necessarily their fault. Vanilla Sky gains immeasurably from repeat viewings, and what at first seems incoherent and muddled emerges as stylish and frequently very moving.
In a way its a companion piece to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, and all that is missing is a director of Lynch's bravado. Cameron Crowe tries hard, but his approach is just a shade too literal for the abstract goings on with this film. Reticence is also on show in the denoument which is too drawn out and overdone - every loose thread has to be sewn up, which is a pity.
But the good vastly outweighs the bad. The performances are outstanding. Cameron Diaz is a creepily effective villain/victim, and Penelope Cruz carries off the idealised and waifish Sofia with a rare skill. (I have read that the role was intended for Nicole Kidman, but she would have lacked the straight forward simplicity of Cruz.)
And carrying the whole thing effortlessly as ever is Tom Cruise. What a star he is! He rarely rests on his laurels, and throughout there is a pronounced intellect at work in his performances. People who sneered at the film as a vehicle for Cruise to emote and vent his demons are missing the point. The film indeed has much to tell us, both pro and con, about celebrity and its attendant baggage - and frankly I can think of far worse ways of killing a few hours than watching Mr Cruise work his way through those issues. There are few people as qualified to do so.
If its a vanity project, that's not to its detriment. Would that all vanity projects were as good as this one.
Worth a look
In spite of its notoriety amongst Mary Pickford fans, "Kiki" is far from the disaster it is reputed to be.
Legend has it that this film was an attempt to sex up the Pickford image, with results so catastrophic that she appeared in only one more film. That "Kiki" was a resounding box office flop is irrefutable. But it proves to be an entertaining, fast moving comedy with a dazzling tour de force from its star.
There is nothing at all embarrassing about Pickford's performance. She may not be at her most subtle, and there is notable absence of pathos, but she gives a credible performance and seems much younger than her 39 years. Her French accent may not be all that authentic, but it is consistent.
And she has clearly not lost her knack for physical comedy. Indeed her entrance - being hurled into a room flat on her posterior - is as memorable as anything in the Pickford body of work.
The supporting cast is not up to much, and the direction flags at the mid point - though Sam Taylor does offer a fine opening backstage sequence. "Kiki" may not be the best comedy of its type, but its very far from a write off.
As we are now removed from the Pickford mystique, its much easier to see her performance for what it is, rather than as a violation of a hallowed image. Its far too late for "Kiki" to find a popular audience, of course, but it is certainly due for a reevaluation.
The Hours (2002)
Beautiful, but what's that Oscar all about?
This is a stunning beautiful, haunting and moving film which proves conclusively that an actress's career need not end at 40. Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore offer illuminating, insightful, wondrous performances.
But what on earth was Ms Kidman doing in the winner's circle on Oscar night? Not that it matters of course, for it is the performance and not the award that should say it all. Kidman strikes me as competent but no more. She postures in the best diva style, but the role is so small it barely ranks as a supporting stint.
Sorry Oscar, I just don't get it!
Movin' with Nancy (1967)
Short of taking "King Kong" and renaming it "The Understated Tale of a Tiny Primate Who Was Shy Around Women and Was Scared of Heights", this 1967 televisual feast may be the greatest misnomer on entertainment history.
Whatever Nancy Sinatra can be said to be doing in the course of one hour, 'Moving' of any description is not amongst her feats. Throughout she remains icy cool - her trademark persona - with that petulant little pout occasionally breaking into a half hearted smile. She remains rigidly still while dozens of dancers churn furiously around her in a most unsuccessful simulation of activity. On the whole, she has the wooden personality of a stewardess on a bargain airline and makes Nicole Kidman look like Bette Midler.
Which is not to deny the voice, which, even entrapped in these late sixties pastiches, is something to behold. The woman could sing. Even when wandering through the deep and meaningful set pieces - a whole lot of store dummies posing in evening gear on a wintry night leaving Nancy all alone for instance - cannot rob that voice of its power.
But the camp element is what really makes "Movin' With Nancy", not the least a clearly disinterested Dean Martin popping up as Nan's "Fairy God-Uncle." The producers were no doubt congratulating themselves on their monumental restraint in not giving the role to Paul Lynde or Rock Hudson. "I just sang a sad song and now I'm depressed" whines Nancy to Dino, who obviously couldn't care less. Still he duets with her, a happy little ditty which apparently does the trick and cheers her up, though you'd never know it from the facial expression.
Then we have Nancy as a supermodel doing great work for Sammy Davis Jr. She is the most rigid model in history, with all the animation of Marlene Dietrich in one of her comeback tours. She moves her shoulders from side to side and wears a big hat, which sends Sammy into paroxysms.
You may be tempted to dismiss "Movin' With Nancy" after a few minutes as dated camp, but stick with it. Certainly don't miss the grand finale when she jumps into a balloon, flies away and pretty much tells us that she's sick of the sight of us.
Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
Jaws: The Revenge
Can you imagine the board meeting when they pitched this one?
"Okay we've got the sets. We've got some spare shark parts hanging around. Lets make another Jaws movie where the shark settles the score." Imagine all the suits sitting there, thinking 'This will WORK!!!"
Which it patently doesn't. Sharks have many virtues, but they aren't big on personality. And this one is no exception, in spite of the efforts of the film makers to turn the fish into the Esther Williams of the eighties. Like its predecessor it rises majestically out of the water and grins endlessly into the camera during extended underwater shots. Many have criticised the shark for roaring, but its vocal efforts are not so far removed from La Williams and at least it doesn't wear a floral bathing cap. (Conversely Esther Williams did not have a hole in her stomach with bits of wood and wire hanging out. At least, not to the best of my knowledge.)
The plot concerns a haggard Ellen Brody, now matronly and sporting a dreadful coiffure, coping with the death of her son from a (yawn) shark attack, and slowly coming to the realisation that the Great White is picking off members of her family. Whilst relocation to say, Arizona, would have been an obvious solution, with impeccable logic she moves to the Bahamas. Before long the shark turns up and pretty much swims around in circles minding its own business, occasionally launching into shark song.
Markedly less bloodthirsty than its predecessors, sharkie meets a very odd death when Ellen plays dodgem cars with him. Sharks being well known for their sensitivity, it conveniently blows up for the happy ending which pairs Ellen and Michael Caine. I can only imagine the phone calls Caine made to his agent from the set.
Jessica Lange commenced her career by following in the (admittedly light) footsteps of Fay Wray. She seems determined to end it by stomping in the heavier footfalls of middle-period Joan Crawford. As the cyclonic star of this film, Lange runs the gamut. She flings her arms around, tugs at her hair, reverts to that coy, sideways glance that implies she's only about, oh, forty five, bellows out in growling chest tones, sobs hysterically - she does, to state it simply, the lot.
Which leaves her co-stars understandably bewildered. Gwyneth Paltrow manages to look more annoyed than frightened, and when, in the best Scooby Doo manner, she neatly ties up the loose threads of the plot, annoyance gives way to abject boredom. With her dead fish eyes and droning monotone, Gwyn obviously wants the whole thing over with more than we do. Quite an achievement.
And few could blame her. Of all the silly premises that have been put on film, the monster mother is surely the silliest. Its mighty hard to believe that Jessica's Ken doll son has managed to go thirty years without once telling the old cow to put a sock in it. Perhaps I'm a bit obtuse but I still don't quite get the bit about the murder with the suction pump (or whatever it was.) At any rate if some post natal, gormless drip can figure it out surely it shouldn't be taxing the police too much to make an arrest.
That would imply real life of course, and Hush has nothing to do with that. If you're in the market for an aged, raging southern belle then you can't go past this, but have a look at the genuine article - Joan Crawford in "Queen Bee" - first.
Erratic but good
Okay, it was rude of the film makers not to consult Florence Stoker about the use of her late husband's book to make this film. She was entirely within her rights to have the whole thing consigned to the flames, though even a cursory look at the worst prints in circulation reveal what posterity would have lost had she succeeded. At its best this is an extraordinary achievement, and its a pity that its many fine qualities went largely unappreciated in 1922 - and for some time thereafter.
However there is no point getting bogged down in false veneration. Nosferatu has some glaring flaws which reduce its status from the towering masterpiece it is purported to be. The cinematography is often crude, even by 1922 standards. The script robs Stoker's story of its grandeur and blatant eroticism - there is a brief nod to the latter only in the final scenes. In place of sex the director has placed pestilence, which may or may not be an asset, depending upon your stance. Of much of the acting, well, the less said the better, and some of the special effects are frankly risible. Compare the journey from the Borgo Pass to that in Tod Browning's Dracula, made only nine years later, to see how inept parts of Nosferatu can be.
On the plus side one has to applaud a film that maintains its terror and stark imagery almost eighty years after its release. At its best Nosferatu is that rare creature, a truly frightening and disturbing horror epic. It is a triumph of design, and the attention to detail is overwhelmingly impressive. Max Schreck manages to deliver a performance that is aided and abetted by makeup, but whose real impact derives from its sinister restraint.
A mixed bag, then, something it has in common with its 1931 Hollywood remake. I know I swim against the critical tide when I say I prefer the latter, but that is not to deny the power of this film.
What is it about American astronauts? No sooner do they lock into some time warp than they crash their spaceship! NASA seems to have perfected time travel, but even a bumpy landing seems beyond them.
More's the pity for James Franciscus, who has lucklessly ventured after Charlton Heston from film #1 and, you guessed it, written off his vehicle. So with rescue out of the question, Franciscus follows along the same path as Heston, trapped by talking apes, nearly shot as target practice, before stumbling upon the remains of New York City. All the while he grits his teeth, flexes his impressive abdominals and does some murderously good William Shatner impressions.
Not that this second film in the cycle is without merit. Au contraire, it is, after the first, the most effective in the series and can boast some fine moments. Budget restrictions are in evidence throughout; extras wear badly fitting ape masks and the whole thing is just that little bit less polished than two years earlier. Imagination is not stinted on however. Few sequels are as honourable as this in that particular department.
But its a gloomy, depressing and confused film redeemed by some fine moments. Watch by all means, but bear in mind that the three further sequels never reached the heights of this one at its best.
Peeved rather than Homicidal
If Alfred Hitchcock and Ed Wood had borne a love child, it would have been something like William Castle. In "Homicidal" we have all the elements of both auteurs; an admittedly suspenseful opening with an ice cold blonde teetering precariously on spiky heels and clearly up to no good, a seemingly pointless murder, a small country town, a spooky old house and so on.
Sadly its not long before the Ed Wood kicks in. Bad, bad acting, a denouement that is positively telegraphed, the worst dubbing this side of "Mothra", ugly (and cheap) sets and a basic problem with the premise. This person is not "Homicidal" at all - we are talking cold blooded murder here folks, with monetary gain being the primary objective.
Taken in the right spirit its terribly good fun, with Ms Arless having apparently learned her craft by watching a couple of Joan Crawford movies. This film was originally issued with a "Fright Break", so if you couldn't take the heart stopping action you could always leave early and get your money back. An "Idiot Break" would be more appropriate for those sorry clods who can't guess the final outcome, but I imagine they'll be few and far between.
Nothing like the Dame
Lewis Milestone said this film should have been called "Melba" like he should have been called "Napoleon". And he wasn't kidding. This 'biopic' has absolutely nothing to do with Dame Nellie Melba; people who complained about historical inaccuracies in "Amadeus" and "Topsy Turvy" should get a load of this!
For those who don't know, Nellie Melba was one of the most vigorous, dominating figures in the Arts at the turn of the twentieth century. Through her awesome talents and sheer determintaion she went from an obscure farmer's wife in Queensland to the reigning prima donna of her generation.
She was emphatically not the twittering soubrette that Patrice Munsel and company would have us believe, and its hard to find a single point where this film corresponds to reality. Madame Munsel's shrill, piercing tones also bear little resemblance to Melba's sublime and bewitching voice.
Taken on its own terms, "Melba" is a dead bore, a technicoloured and garish pastiche of what fame does to destroy love. Its quite ghastly and not even good camp.
It cost 20th Century-Fox millions to prove that Gertrude Lawrence was a bit of a bore and that too much Julie Andrews can be really annoying.
One can readily see the reasoning behind this epic. Musicals were doing big business and nobody was doing better than Andrews. Reuniting her with her "Sound of Music" director in this lavish biopic must have seemed a sure fire bet.
Sadly La Andrews - devoted as I am to her - has neither the range nor the intensity to bring off this thoroughly self centered and irritating character. Andrews starts with a cockney accent and manner so artificial that one doubts how well she may have fared as Eliza in the film version of "My Fair Lady". As she transforms herself into an upper crust theatrical diva, Andrews punctuates every sentence with about a dozen "Daaaaaaarlings" so that she come over as an Anglophile Auntie Mame.
Which leaves Daniel Massey as her Vera Charles, or rather Noel Coward. The film implies that Lawrence had only one friend, and based on the evidence given here I can believe it. Its a fine impersonation that likewise starts to grate after a while. Especially after one has noticed that for every "Darling" from Andrews there are about a dozen "dear boy"s from Massey.
The film is rich in period detail, but this sort of glamour hardly suits Julie Andrews. The costumes are ridiculously unflattering, and more often than not when they were aiming for chic they get a boney legged soprano with big feet.
Its the songs that save "Star!". Thank heaven for the fast forward button, so one can enjoy "Burlington Bertie" and "He Never Said He Loved Me" and a host of others. The high standard of these make the film worth having in the collection, but best skip the grand finale, which is the only production number I know of that incorporates a trapeze, sequined devils and exploding dwarves. It rivals anything that Wes Craven could offer.
I know I'm not alone in finding Tod Browning's film of "Dracula" heavy going. It has never had a particularly high critical reputation; most scholars find it a laboured and static attempt at Grand Guignol which bypasses the more gothic elements of Bram Stoker's novel in favour of winding sheet melodrama. One doesn't have to accept that verdict to see that they have a point. "Dracula" survives better as a museum piece than as a horror film. Bearing in mind that it was this film which gave the horror film mass acceptance in the English speaking world, it has a certain significance. But one can sense Tod Browning treading lightly, as if uncertain about what sort of film he wanted to make.
My main concern about the film is its lack of pace. Their is little flow to it. Individual scenes stand out as set pieces, but they rarely seem to relate to each other. It is not really the fault of the actors, who even at their hammiest deliver surprisingly strong and committed performances. Lugosi is a standout of course, but equally good are Helen Chandler as Mina and Dwight Frye as Renfield. Karl Freund's cinematography is miraculous, if erratic.
The new Phillip Glass score is a matter of controversy judging by other reviews, but I for one found it to be the missing link that restores "Dracula" to its full powers. Glass picks up the pace in a film that badly needs it. He underlines the characterisations in a fashion that is perceptive and compelling. The mournful yet sinister motif that accompanies Lugosi adds a whole new dimension; Renfield's pizzicato motif likewise delineates the character.
Since I am no great fan of Maestro Glass, nobody is more surprised than myself at this assessment. I frankly approached this newly scored version with a certain amount of dread. But I watched the film in one sitting this afternoon, something that I have never been able to do before, and for the first time found it to be rivetting cinema throughout, and not just in snatches.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
I know that I'm probably swimming against the critical tide when I write this, but am I the only one who thought this movie was a tad, well, derivative? Not to mention predictable?
Picture this. Its 1962, and in wide screen, stark black-and-white, we have an ageing Bette Davis - or better yet Lana Turner - acting out some potboiler about counterfeit artists and murder and mistaken identities. For preference there are two Lanas, one good and one bad. Its a little hard to tell them apart but that's not the point. When good Lana knocks off bad Lana and assumes her identity, pausing only long enough to bump off anyone who's caught wind of the deception (or seems likely to)we're in tacky movie heaven. Add to the broth Saul Bass credits, lots and lots of glam outfits and some Continental scenery and what you have may not be art but its pretty darned watchable.
Now, substitute Matt Damon and Jude Law for Lana Marks I and II. Put it in colour, because the sixties are over, sloooooooow down the Saul Bass credits and throw in Gwyneth Paltrow - who would have been Sandra Dee in the earlier version - and you pretty much have "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
"You can be very boring" snips Jude Law to Matt Damon at the point where this movie, after reels of padding, finally kicks into gear. He should talk. Law never really does more than scratch the surface of a woefully underwritten part. In the best Lana Turner tradition the character of Dickie is mostly defined by his wardrobe. We know he's a swinger because he wears cool clothes, a stupid hat and he doesn't bother to co-ordinate his colours. And he listens to Chet Baker. Otherwise what we know of his character we know because all the other characters have told us.
And told us and told us! My these people can talk, and exclusively (and endlessly) about each other. Damon is admittedly twenty times the actor than Lana Turner ever was, but he completely lacks the one thing that stars of that calibre could bring to the part - charisma. Which is what it badly needs. Cate Blanchett is on hand to look dorky and to blow the cover in the most predictable denoument imaginable.
And that leaves Gwyneth Paltrow, shedding enough tears to flood the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as the angst ridden girlfriend. Boy she's annoying!
Not that this is a bad film. Well it is, but in the time honoured overblown melodramatic style that have made actors and producers rich for years. Its a potboiler, and an entertaining one. And at its best its tons of fun. I just happen to think that "Dead Ringer" and "Portrait in Black" were better, because they never attempted to hide their silliness.
Queen Bee (1955)
Long Live the Queen.
"This won't do at all" sniffs Joan Crawford, surveying a particularly glum cocktail party in her mouldering Southern mansion. "I like my admirers to be gay and laughing."
I strongly suspect that they're both, Joan, but you don't have to be gay to find this one a riot. Here is a film so camp that even Anita Bryant would have a hard time suppressing a smirk.
The plot reads like a bad parody of the sort of thing used to do the thirties, which in itself was a bad parody of the better stuff that Garbo and Shearer did. Mega bitch Crawford stomps around her l'il ol' plantation with more petticoats and more starch than was expended on the entire cast of "Gone With the Wind." She tosses off faux-bitchy comments to anyone who'll listen - "My you look nice, even in those tacky riding clothes" - yet nobody tells the old cow to put a sock in it. Enter a sweet young thing, recently orphaned, and Crawford kicks into high gear, plotting, plotting, plotting.
Since Crawford's character exists for no other reason than to make everybody else feel atrocious, its just as well that the rest of the cast are such a gormless bunch. When Crawford asks "Do I look fairly human?" nobody offers the obvious rejoinder. When she pushes a younger rival to suicide, nobody dobs her in to the inevitable inquest. Its left to her long suffering husband to polish her off in a car accident in a gender reversed scene from Bette Davis' "Dangerous", and not a minute too soon.
All of the actors seem too awestruck by the antics of the star to register much on screen. Fay Wray has a nice cameo early in the piece as a Blanche du Bois wannabe, a faded victim of Joan's treachery. But we all know its Joan who's really bonkers.
A special mention to Joan's gowns, which are a show in themselves. I particularly liked the hang glider affair that she wears at the afore mentioned cocktail party. But my hat really goes off to the one that looks a bit like a moulting Christmas tree.
Queen of Outer Space (1958)
Queen of more than Outer Space
"Vimmen cannot be happy vizout man!"
Thus spake Zsa Zsa Gabor, the most unlikely sci-fi heroine of the fifties. And I guess she'd know. Swanning around the Venutian landscape trailing yards of tulle - she has apparently learned nothing from Isadora Duncan's grisly demise - its up to Zsa Zsa to save the earth from obliteration from what appears to be a ready-to-assemble treehouse.
If logic were the order of the day here it would be patently obvious from this that we're all a-goner. Happily, logic has nothing to do with it; the Venus La Gabor inhabits bears no resemblance to anything in our solar system.
Not for the first time in movie history - I'm thinking "Fire Maidens from Outer Space" here - Venus turns out to be the province of buxom, slightly past their prime showgirls, and there's nary a man in sight. Why? Well, once upon a time the men folk started a nuclear war which caused many of the women, including the planet's ruler, to suffer hideous facial scars. Suitably stung, the men were banished to a nearby satellite; meanwhile the queen wears a stupid mask and the women evidently pass their time doing their hair. In each coif there's never a strand out of place, and somewhere on Venus somebody's doing a roaring trade on fire-engine red lipstick.
Things get sticky when a whole lot of Earth astronauts land on Venus, bringing with them the sets and props for "Forbidden Planet". (Even Anne Francis' gowns get a second outing from the #2 Venus babe. No hand me downs for Zsa Zsa though!) The women are at first hostile, but the natural order is restored when Zsa Zsa takes the helm, and long before the fadeout all is goo eyes and closed mouth kissing. The men are asserting their superiority, the women are all "dames", no doubt scuttling back to the kitchen, and those who showed even the smallest trace of backbone - ie the baddies - are all safely dead.
Its hard to say whether Zsa Zsa thought this was her big break or whether she knew how hilarious the whole thing is. At any rate she dominates the proceedings, which is no mean feat seeing as she has some of the silliest sets, dialogue and special effects to compete with. People who claim that Marilyn Monroe was never given a chance to extend her dramatic range might consider taking up Zsa Zsa's cause as well. I can see her now in a 1956 remake of "Mildred Pierce" in bright, bright Technicolor.
For the time being, enjoy what's on offer. "I hate zat qveen!" snaps our star.
Ah, but how the queens love you Zsa Zsa.
Lost Horizon (1973)
Those Dancing Fools
As Bette Midler used to say, "I never miss a Liv Ullman musical". Here is a film which attempts to inspire and uplift, and I guess it succeeds, if for reasons quite different from those intended.
Unless they attempt a musical version of "Schindler's List" this will probably be the all time champion in the "Play it straight" stakes. James Hilton's novella, heaven knows, was a piece of fluff which tantalised rather than explored its themes. The 1937 film was a winner because, hey, what Frank Capra film in the '30s wasn't?
But if we had to have a musical version, wouldn't it have been a good idea to hire a couple of musical stars?! Okay, at a push Bobby Van passes muster, and thank God that he's meant to be that annoying, because after five minutes the idea of him being lost in a snowdrift seemed eminently satisfying. But as for the rest - George Kennedy, Peter Finch, Sally Kellermann, John Gielgud, Olivia Hussey - well we aren't going to see them in a revival of "42nd Street" now are we? My favourite definitely has to be Kellermann and Hussey thumping around a library, the former looking bored, the latter very pregnant, singing what seems to be a 70s New Age version of the "Green Acres" theme.
But its Liv who suffers most. Swinging those bovine limbs of hers, singing some nonsense about the world being a circle which never ends - an apt description of the song - she seems light years away from Bergman. Actually she bears a striking resemblance to Bill Clinton in some of her long shots.
Only Michael York emerges with any credibilty. And that's mainly because his character keeps nagging everybody to run away. And who could blame him?
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
An honourable failure
There was a time when this film was ranked amongst the worst ever made. I doubt that it would make that list now; what once seemed outrageous and obscene now seems childish and smutty. In fact most of our perceptions of "Myra" need to be reassessed.
Many pointed to Mae West as the film's salvation (including the lady herself.) Quite the contrary, she is cringe material. Looking like a wax figure, she struts around for no purpose that one can imagine, snapping out some silly lines that throw the film off balance.
On the other hand, Raquel Welch does very nicely in the title role. She is not at all the wooden actress that many have insisted, and its a great pity that in the general outcry against this film her genuine flair for light comedy was not noted. Alone she gives the film the flippancy it badly needs. (Michael Sarne's leaden touch is everywhere apparent - and what's with all that intercutting of old films?!)
Not good by any means, and I doubt that Gore Vidal would recognise his novel, but not the disaster so often written about.
Princess Ida (1982)
Some people do not like this television adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's esoteric opera, but I certainly do! It is one of the rare occasions when I have seen this opera performed with the correct spirit. Less satiric than the other Savoy Operas, it has in my humble opinion Arthur Sullivan's greatest score. Nan Christie is a wonderful protagonist. Ditto Anne Collins as Lady Blanche. The score is complete save for the traditional cut "Come Mighty Must". Frank Gorshin is a poor choice for King Gama - he strains for laughs, and seems in need of an audience. Taken as a whole, a great effort.
The Divorcee (1930)
Not one of Norma's Best
In one of those supreme ironies that plague the Academy Awards, Norma Shearer contrived to win an Oscar for one of her least interesting performances and one of her most negligible films. For a lady who did such sterling work as Juliet, Elizabeth Barrett and Marie Antoinette, how odd that she should have taken home the award for the tawdry goings on of Jerry, the dull philanderer.
The film itself is a potboiler star vehicle that probably shocked in 1930. Its a long slug to watch it now. One can only hope that Shearer's reputation isn't harmed by it, as this film is definitely not representative of her work.
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
Not enough mystery
Did the powers that be at Warners lose their nerve while making this film? The splendidly grisly concept of corpses covered in wax to simulate statues is so frequently by-passed for the stock-in-trade banter of Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh, one must truly wonder about the creative decisions that were made.
When the action focuses on the splendidly crazed Lionel Atwill and his pursuit of Fay Wray - who else? - the film jolts back to life. The decor by Anton Grot is first rate, the early color adds a frission and tension that is praiseworthy. But these do not completely overcome the deficiencies of the script and the scenery chewing of Farrell and McHugh. Isolated scenes stand out - the fire in the wax museum, the corpse sitting up in the morgue, the monster's silent, straightforward entrances, and the final confrontation between Atwill and Wray. But these enliven a film that too often lapses into the ordinary.
Worthwhile for its stronger elements, and generally gutsier than the 1953 remake. But it should have been better.
King Kong (1976)
'A' for effort
Though generally regarded as inferior to the 1933 classic - which it unquestionably is - this remake of "King Kong" can at least boast the virtue of trying to be different. No mere rehash of the older film, the story has been reinterpreted, and very occasionally the effort pays off.
I rather like the notion of the explorers arriving at Kong's island with no idea of what they are going to find. The discovery of the wall - telegraphed in the original, and thus less powerful - the natives, the overall look of the island works very well.
Sadly its downhill from there. The highly touted special effects are poor. Kong is so obviously a man in an ape suit that it seems astonishing that anyone was duped by tales of giant robots. (That much publicised automaton, when it briefly appears, is ragingly bogus.) Toning down Kong's ferocity was another huge mistake. In this version he is a cross eyed lover, with little menace. In the original he was a possessive and protective lover, with a real mean streak. It worked better. And Jessica Lange lacks Fay Wray's unique blend of innocence and sex appeal. She aims at ditziness, and is merely irritating. How you'll pray that Kong makes a meal of her!
Its hard to dismiss memories of the 1933 film when it was so much more engaging. But this isn't too bad in a kiddie matinee fashion.
My Best Girl (1927)
One of Pickford's Best
There is a bittersweet quality to "My Best Girl" which has nothing to do with the on-screen action. This was Pickford's last silent film, and as such heralds the end of an era. Though she would continue with her career until 1933, sound and its early limitations really knocked her off her exalted pedestal.
It is also the film in which she co-starred with Buddy Rogers who became her husband for over forty years. (In the process she had to divorce Douglas Fairbanks, and anyone who cares even vaguely about silent film will have certain pangs of regret about that.)
In itself it is a beautifully constructed, engaging romance. Unusual for a Pickford feature, it tends to outstay its welcome towards the end, where Mary's histrionics are laid on a little thick. Buddy I find irritatingly enthusiastic - can't the man just laugh without slapping his knees?
But let's not nit pick. "My Best Girl" is a totally engaging piece of fluff; not up to the standards that Mary set in "Sparrows" and "Stella Maris", but still amongst her most accessible features today. See it if you can with the Gaylord Carter organ track.