Tuesday, April 13, 2021

#2,552. The Grey Fox (1982)


Director Phillip Borsos’ subtle, gorgeous western stars Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, the real-life stagecoach bandit who, after serving 33 years in San Quentin, was released in 1901.

At first determined to live a normal life, Miner has a change of heart when he screens the silent classic The Great Train Robbery, and before long is himself holding up trains, first in the Pacific Northwest, then in Canada.

Miner eventually settles in a small town in British Columbia, where he meets and falls in love with photographer Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs). But with the law hot on his trail, he and his partner Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson) decide to pull off one more heist before calling it quits for good.

Farnsworth is brilliant as the understated Miner, a man who usually keeps his emotions in check (save the scene where he’s watching The Great Train Robbery, when you can see the excitement in his eyes), and Frank Tidy’s cinematography is often breathtaking (even the mundane - like a rainy day or oyster farming by the side of the water - looks picturesque in his hands).

Winner of seven Canadian Genie Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Original Screenplay (penned by John Hunter), The Grey Fox is a movie to treasure.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Sunday, April 11, 2021

#2,551. No Such Thing (2001)


A dark yet surprisingly sweet fantasy, writer / director Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing tells the story of Beatrice (Sarah Polley), a wannabe reporter who travels to a remote region of Iceland to search for her missing boyfriend. Eventually, she discovers that he and two other people were killed by a monster (Robert John Burke) that claims to have been around since the dawn of time.

Taking pity on the Monster, Beatrice agrees to help him end his miserable life, though it seems the only person on earth capable of accomplishing this feat is Dr. Artaud (Balthasar Kormakur), whose whereabouts are unknown.

Beatrice’s former boss (Helen Mirren), a media powerhouse, agrees to help them track down Artaud in exchange for the exclusive rights to their story. Beatrice and the Monster agree, only to find themselves unwitting pawns in something much bigger than either of them anticipated.

No Such Thing is as much Beatrice’s film as it is the Monster’s; Sarah Polley is delightfully understated in the lead role, and her adventures before meeting the monster are memorable, to say the least (at one point, she undergoes an intense operation on her spine, arguably the most terrifying sequence in the entire film).

Equal to her is Burke as the Monster, whose hatred of the modern world has turned him into an alcoholic. His dialogue is often quite funny, yet the lion’s share of the laughs are generated by Mirren, portraying a character so committed to dredging up bad news that she’s willing to risk anything – even the lives of innocent people - if it will generate headlines.

No Such Thing does occasionally lose its way, especially late in the movie, when it tries (and fails) to make a grand statement about the media, government, and society’s declining values, but that aside, I found it an entertaining watch. And keep an eye out for Julie Christie, who has a small role as Beatrice’s surgeon.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Friday, April 9, 2021

#2,550. Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)


Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood turned me on to a number of great Aussie exploitation (known as “ozploitation”) films, but over the years I’ve also discovered a handful of excellent period dramas that were produced "Down Under", including My Brilliant Career, The Getting of Wisdom, and Newsfront, just to name a few.

Now I can add director Carl Schultz’s 1983 movie Careful, He Might Hear You to that already impressive list.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Sumner Locke Elliott, Careful, He Might Hear You transports us back to the Great Depression. Two sisters: working-class Lila (Robyn Nevin) and socialite Vanessa (Wendy Hughes), are locked in a custody battle, each vying for the right to raise their young Nephew PS (Nicholas Gledhill). Lila and her husband George (Peter Whitford) have been PS’s legal guardians since he was an infant, while Vanessa, who only recently returned from England, was named co-guardian by their late sister, PS’s mother.

Believing it’s in the child’s best interest, Vanessa wants to bring PS to England with her, giving him a life of luxury and privilege, while Lila fights tooth and nail to ensure the boy remains with her in Sydney.

Both Hughes and Nevin are pitch-perfect as the feuding siblings, each with their own ideas regarding their nephew’s upbringing, and John Hargreaves (The Long Weekend, Don’s Party) is superb in a brief appearance as Logan, PS’s father (the scene where Logan offers his son some practical advice is arguably the movie’s most poignant).

The performances, coupled with John Seale’s gorgeous cinematography (PS’s first glimpse of Vanessa is shot in such a way that she appears almost dreamlike), do their part to ensure this Australian melodrama is engaging from start to finish.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

#2,549. Incident in a Ghostland (2018)

Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, 2018’s Incident in a Ghostland grabs you by the throat in its very first scene. 

While moving in to their late Aunt’s dilapidated house, single mother Pauline (Mylene Farmer) and her two teenage daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) are attacked by an oafish mute (Rob Archer) and his companion (Kevin Power). Though taken by surprise, Pauline manages to get the upper hand on the invaders, ending this nightmarish experience once and for all.

Cut to 16 years later. Beth (now played by Crystal Reed) is a best-selling author of horror novels. She has the perfect husband (Adam Hurtig), the perfect son (Denis Cozzi), and the perfect life. 

Unfortunately, Vera (Anastasia Phillips) has never recovered from the terrifying home invasion, and begs Beth to help her. Hoping to end her sister’s torment, Beth returns to the scene of the crime, only to realize there’s more going on in this house than meets the eye.

To go any deeper into the story would constitute a spoiler, and Incident in a Ghostland is a film that relies on its surprises. 

What I can tell you is that this is a very dark motion picture, and never once does it lose its edge; you are on pins and needles throughout. The performances (Reed, Phillips, Jones and Hickson, as well as Mylene Farmer as the girls’ mother)  are outstanding, and the film’s penchant for mystery (like Beth, we can’t quite get a grasp on what’s happening to Vera) as well as the solid direction of Pascal Laugier keep things moving along at a brisk pace.

To coincide with its darker elements (and there are plenty of them), at the heart of Incident in a Ghostland lies the touching story of two estranged sisters reconnecting, brought together by an unspeakable tragedy. In the end, Incident in a Ghostland also works on that level, and is an effective family drama.

But it’s the horror that will stay with you for a long, long time.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (strongly recommended)

Sunday, April 4, 2021

#2,548. The Single Standard (1929)


Greta Garbo is one of my favorite actresses, yet I had never seen this movie before.

Socialite Arden Stuart (Garbo) refuses to settle down, choosing instead to have a series of love affairs, first with her chauffeur Anthony (Fred Solm), then with jet-setter and sometimes artist Packy Cannon (Nils Asther).

During their time together - sailing the South Seas on his yacht - Arden falls deeply in love with Packy, who ultimately rejects her so that he can concentrate on his work.

Heartbroken, Arden returns home, where longtime admirer Tommy (Johnny Mack Brown) once again proposes marriage. Arden accepts, knowing full well that she’s still in love with Packy, and always will be.

Garbo’s next-to-last silent feature (The Kiss, released the same year, was her last), this 1929 movie tackles the old double-standard of how society views promiscuity: a man who sleeps around is shrugged off, while a woman with more than one beau is considered loose and immoral. Over the course of the film, Arden becomes the subject of much gossip and innuendo, while Packy remains a favorite among the elite, despite the fact his behavior has been every bit as “scandalous” as Arden’s.

It’s a brave topic for this time period, and though occasionally a bit too melodramatic, The Single Standard is nonetheless an engaging motion picture.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Thursday, April 1, 2021

#2,547. Skatetown, U.S.A. (1979)

I never got into roller skating growing up; it was a fad that passed me by completely. And based on what I saw in the comedy / musical Skatetown, U.S.A. I don’t think I missed very much.

The roller disco palace Skatetown is one of L.A.’s hottest spots, and their weekly dancing competition draws the best skaters in town. Young hopeful Stan Nelson (Greg Bradford), with the help of his best friend / manager Richie (Scott Baio), might just be good enough to win this week’s dance-off, but gang leader and current champ Ace Johnson (Patrick Swayze) is willing to do anything and everything to ensure he comes out on top again.

The cast gives this 1979 film what little appeal it has, with a bunch of ‘70s Television stars (Scott Baio from Happy Days, Maureen McCormick of Brady Bunch fame, Ron Pallilo, aka Horshack in Welcome Back Kotter, and even the unknown comic, Murray Langston, a regular on The Gong Show, turns up for a scene or two) and some veteran comic actors as well, including Flip Wilson, Ruth Buzzi, and Billy Barty. Nowadays, though, Skatetown, U.S.A. is notable because it marked the screen debut of Patrick Swayze, delivering not what I would deem his finest performance, but playing the role of the heavy with enough charisma to at least keep things interesting.

Yet despite the excitement generated by its cast, Skatetown, U.S.A. comes up considerably short in the comedy department. The jokes, though earnest, are rarely funny (I would call them dated, but that might imply they were funny in 1979). I think I chuckled once, during a scene in which Skatetown’s deranged doctor (Bill Kirchenbauer) is talking to Geraldine, Flip Wilson’s alter-ego (it’s a moment involving a lightbulb that tickled my funny bone). In addition to its lack of laughs, I discovered that watching people roller skate does absolutely nothing for me; not even Patrick Swayze’s smooth moves were enough to hold my attention. As the movie progressed, I actually found myself itching for the contest at the center of it all to begin (it takes the movie an hour to get around to it, shambling aimlessly for the first 60 minutes from one badly timed comedic scene to the next, with no rhyme or reason).

Alas, the anxiety I experienced waiting for the contest to start ultimately had no payoff. When the roller dancing finally started, the film’s already-faltering energy level came crashing down. There are two good musical numbers by Dave Mason, and as a time capsule of late ‘70s disco-mania, the film has its charms, but don’t feel bad if you never get around to watching Skatetown, U.S.A.
Rating: 4 out of 10 (don't bother)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

#2,546. 55 Days at Peking (1963) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Like most of Samuel Bronston’s movies, his 1963 production of 55 Days at Peking was designed to be an epic, a grand, overpowering spectacle about China’s Boxer Uprising of 1900. To this end, enormous sets were constructed at Bronston’s studio in Spain, in essence a period recreation of Peking in its entirety “Unhappily”, star Charlton Heston would write in his journal, “we never turned a camera on two/thirds of this incredible city”.

That sums up the major issue I had with 55 Days at Peking, Nicholas Ray’s last major film: it is an epic shot, at most times, as if it was a drama.

Major Matt Lewis (Heston) of the U.S. Marines has just arrived in Peking. Once there, he strikes up a romance with Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner). Alas, their time together will be limited, because the Boxers – a secret society intent on ridding their country of European rule – have been busy as of late, executing Christian missionaries and attacking anyone who opposes them.

Loyal to China’s Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) and controlled by her next-in-command, Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann), the Boxers prepare for a major assault on Peking, and it falls to Major Lewis, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), and a small allied military force to protect the European residents of Peking until help arrives.

There are moments throughout 55 Days at Peking that have an epic feel to them, including a battle in the shadow of the city’s wall (with hundreds of extras and a fairly powerful cannon) as well as a late scene where Lewis, Robertson, and a few others attempt to sabotage the Chinese military’s ammo bunker. Alas, with a runtime of over two and a half hours, that’s not nearly enough (a handful of minor skirmishes are scattered throughout, but with Ray shooting most of the action in close-up, they just don’t feel very exciting).

Instead, 55 Days at Peking features a slew of dialogue-heavy sequences, some of which bring the pace of the movie to a grinding halt. The romance between Lewis and the Baroness is especially feeble (due in large part to the mediocre performances delivered by Heston and Gardner), while several political debates - where the city’s European leaders are trying to decide the best course of action - run on far too long (director Ray even turns up at one point as the U.S. envoy). The lone exception are the scenes involving Lewis and a half Chinese / half American girl (Lynne Sue Moon) whose father, also a Marine, was killed in battle (Heston does a fair job conveying his character’s discomfort when informing the girl of her father’s death).

As for the rest of the cast, Niven is admirable as the UK representative who must put the interests of his country above all else, as is John Ireland, who portrays Lewis’s subordinate, Sgt. Harry. Also good are Paul Lukas as the ornery Dr, Steinfeldt and Harry Andrews as a Catholic priest who knows a little something about cannons. And while Robson, Helpmann, and Leo Genn (who plays Chinese General Jung-Lu) deliver fine performances, their make-up (designed to make them appear Asian) is distracting and more than a little offensive.

As with Wind Across the Everglades, Nicholas Ray wouldn’t finish 55 Days at Peking; he suffered a minor heart attack on-set (brought on, some believe by exhaustion) and was rushed to the hospital. Bronston, who wasn’t happy that Ray had fallen behind schedule, decided to finish the movie without him, and turned the reins over to second unit director Andrew Marton.

Unfortunately, Nicholas Ray would never direct a major motion picture again, and while 55 Days at Peking isn’t terrible, the director of They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause and so many others deserved a much better send-off.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10