Tuesday, May 30, 2017

#2,363. Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Charles Jarrott

Starring: Richard Burton, Geneviève Bujold, Irene Papas

Tagline: "He was King. She was barely 18. And in their thousand days they played out the most passionate and shocking love story in history!"

Trivia: At one point, producer Hal B. Wallis wanted Peter O'Toole and Geraldine Chaplin to star

Some of the finest actors and actresses ever to grace the big screen have taken their turn playing a British monarch, and occasionally a performance comes along that is so good it becomes difficult to separate the historical king or queen from the performer who portrayed them. Thanks to both Becket and The Lion in Winter, Henry II will, in my mind, always be Peter O'Toole; and Cate Blanchett bears a striking resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I thanks to 1998’s Elizabeth and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age

The list goes on and on; George III? He looked just like Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George), and his descendant George VI was the spitting image of Colin Firth (The King’s Speech).

Over the years, a number of thespians have tried their hand at Henry VIII, one of the most influential monarchs in British history. And who better to have played a larger-than-life individual such as this than the late, great Richard Burton?

Directed by Charles Jarrott and based on Maxwell Anderson’s stage play of the same name, 1969’s Anne of the Thousand Days follows the torrid and ultimately tragic romance between Britain’s King Henry VIII (Burton) and Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold), a beautiful maiden who shocked the world by becoming queen. 

Unhappy that his current Queen, Katherine (Irene Papas), hasn’t given him a male heir, Henry turns his attentions elsewhere, and before long is pursuing the lovely Anne, daughter of Thomas Boleyn (Michael Hordern). Yet despite Henry’s best efforts, Anne refuses to sleep with the King until he agrees to make her his queen. 

So, with the help of chief advisor Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle), Henry petitions the Vatican for an annulment, saying his union with Katherine is cursed because she was once the wife of his older brother (who died before the marriage was consummated). To Henry’s annoyance, the Pope, pressured by Katherine’s royal relatives, denies his request. Ignoring the pleas of his own religious community, Henry then breaks away from the Vatican and, as Protector of the newly-formed Church of England, divorces Katherine and marries Anne.

But wedded bliss was not in the cards for these two; Henry’s and Anne’s first child is a girl, Elizabeth, and the second a stillborn son. Without the male heir he so desires, Henry’s eye once again wanders, and in time he seduces one of Anne’s consorts, Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson). 

When Anne protests, Henry, aided by his new advisor Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos), has Anne arrested on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason. Found guilty by the court, Anne is sentenced to death, yet to her final hour she pleads not for her life, but for Henry to recognize Elizabeth as his true heir, telling her husband that their daughter will make “a greater queen than any king of yours”.

Richard Burton bellows and charms his way through Anne of the Thousand Days, giving us a Henry VIII we simultaneously admire and fear. He occasionally displays humor and warmth, especially during the scenes where he’s trying to bed Anne, in which Henry is almost embarrassingly desperate. Yet he also seems to develop genuine feelings for the young maiden who, unlike others, temporarily withholds her sexual favors. And when he’s angry, Burton’s Henry is a force to be reckoned with; many of his subordinates, including Sir Thomas More (William Squire), experience his wrath first-hand, and pay with their lives. 
In every scene, Burton has the bearing and charisma of a king, and his passionate portrayal is what keeps the movie flowing (especially during the film’s midsection, which is chock full of political wranglings that some viewers might find dull).

Genevieve Bujold is equally excellent as the proud and occasionally spiteful Anne, while Anthony Quayle’s Cardinal Wolsey proves to be the film’s most tragic character (I went from despising his arrogance to truly pitying him as events unfolded). Yet as good as these two (and the rest of the cast) are, nobody can wrestle the spotlight away from Richard Burton (at least not for very long).

Others have portrayed Henry VIII with similar gusto: Charles Laughton was brilliant in The Private Life of Henry VIII, as was Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons. But as far as I’m concerned, Richard Burton is Henry VIII, and Anne of the Thousand Days is the reason why.

Monday, May 29, 2017

#2,362. The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974)

Directed By: Jack Hill

Starring: Jo Johnston, Cheryl Smith, Colleen Camp

Tagline: "They live their fantasies on and off the field!"

Trivia: Selected by Quentin Tarantino for the First Quentin Tarantino Film Fest in Austin, Texas, 1996

With The Swinging Cheerleaders, writer/director Jack Hill has crafted a unique motion picture, one that delivers all the nudity and sexcapades that will keep its target audience happy while at the same time weaving a story which aptly reflects the era's socio-political climate.

Mesa State University needs a new cheerleader, and Mary Ann (Colleen Camp), the captain of the squad, and Co-captains Andrea (Cheryl Smith) and Lisa (Rosanne Keaton) are holding tryouts. 

After sitting through a number of pathetic auditions, they’re wowed by Kate (Jo Johnson), a journalism major who displays the spirit they’re looking for. Despite the objections of Mary Ann, who noticed her boyfriend, star quarterback Buck Larsen (Ron Hajek) ogling the new recruit during her tryout, Kate is welcomed to the squad, and with the last piece of the puzzle now in place, the cheerleaders are ready to spur their football team on to an undefeated season.

But the truth is that Kate has no interest in football; she joined the squad to research a paper she’s writing, one that will condemn the entire sport of cheerleading (which Kate considers sexist and demeaning). 

To her surprise, however, Kate finds that she actually likes her fellow cheerleaders, and even falls for Buck, something that doesn’t sit well with either Mary Ann or Kate’s current boyfriend, hippie/activist Ron (Ian Sander).

Besides, if it wasn’t for the cheerleaders, Kate wouldn’t have stumbled upon an even bigger story: a betting scandal involving football coach Turner (Jack Denton), Alumni head (and Mary Ann’s father) Mr. Putnam (George Wallace), and physics professor Frank Thorpe (Jason Sommers). To fix the games in their favor, Putnam convinces Coach Turner to bench his best players late in the game, so that Mesa doesn’t win by a large margin (and the trio can make a small fortune playing the points spread).

Will Lisa blow the whistle on these three powerful men in time to save Mesa State’s season, or will the team be forced to throw their big game?

As with most cheerleader films produced in the ‘70s, The Swinging Cheerleaders doesn’t shy away from nudity; most of the main cast appears, at one point or another, in various stages of undress. 
There’s even a subplot about Andrea’s quest to lose her virginity; when she’s too uptight to go all the way with her football star boyfriend Ross (Ric Carrott), Angela follows the advice given to her by Kate and Lisa, who tell her to sleep with the first stranger she meets (she does so, with decidedly mixed results). 

The movie also has its share of comedy, culminating in a slapstick-fueled final showdown between the good guys and the villains (though it doesn’t fully work as intended, this sequence manages to lighten the mood a bit).

Yet what impressed me most about The Swinging Cheerleaders was how well it merged the comedy and sex with more serious-minded elements, chief among them the gambling scandal that threatens the team’s chances at an undefeated season. With Watergate still fresh on people’s minds, these scenes likely struck a chord with audiences in 1974 (who knew all too well what can happen when a few bigwigs conspire to commit a crime for personal gain). 

Even some of the film’s subplots, such as Lisa’s affair with the married Frank Thorpe, yield their share of thought-provoking drama (the scene in which Lisa is confronted by Thorpe’s wife, played to perfection by Mae Mercer, reminds us, quite effectively, that there are two sides to every story).

It isn’t often that a sex comedy works just as well on a dramatic level, but as Jack Hill and company prove time and again over the course of the movie, The Swinging Cheerleaders is not your average exploitation fare.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

#2,361. Darling (1965)

Directed By: John Schlesinger

Starring: Julie Christie, Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey

Tag line: "Shame, shame, everybody knows your name!"

Trivia: Shirley MacLaine was originally cast as Diana, but dropped out

Julie Christie is one of my all-time favorite actresses. Her “hooker with a heart of gold” was the only character worth a damn in Robert Altman’s brilliant McCabe & Mrs. Miller; and in Dr. Zhivago, despite being surrounded by such legendary actors as Omar Sharif and Rod Steiger, she managed to shine brightly. With her excellent performances in these movies, as well as Shampoo, Don’t Look Now, Fahrenheit 451, and Away From Her, you'd think that Ms. Christie has already amassed a slew of Oscar statuettes. But the sad reality is that she only took home that coveted award once, for her portrayal of Diana Scott in 1965’s Darling.

Truth be told, not many actresses could take a character as morally bankrupt as Diana and make her seem fascinating, but Christie does just that in John Schlesinger’s award-winning, though ultimately flawed motion picture.

Darling follows Diana’s meteoric rise to the top of the fashion industry in 1960’s London, beginning with her days as a young housewife (married to her childhood sweetheart, Tony, played by Trevor Bower) through to the time she met and fell in love with writer / television personality Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde), who eventually abandoned his wife and two kids to be with Diana (she, in turn, left Tony and moved in with Robert). 

Yet despite her feelings for Robert, Diana grew bored of her humdrum life, and while helping out at a charity event one evening she was introduced to Miles Brand (Laurence Harvey), a powerful advertising executive, who swept her off her feet. It was Miles who helped Diana break into modeling, and her ambition soon got the better of her. Shortly after her love affairs with Robert and Miles ended, Diana, while vacationing in Capri, met Italian Prince Cesare della Romita (José Luis de Villalonga), who was so smitten with her that he asked Diana to be his wife. For a girl like Diana, becoming a Princess was a dream come true, but was she ready to throw away her career and settle down?

Whatever affection we feel for Diana early on, when she falls madly in love with Robert, slowly slips away over the course of Darling. By the time she becomes a fixture in the glamorous yet empty world of ‘60s fashion and begins sleeping with Laurence Harvey’s Miles (an affair that, the moment it begins, we know won’t last), I found myself hoping that Robert would discover her tryst and give Diana her walking papers. From her phony demeanor while chatting with the so-called “elite” of London society to the manner in which she leads on the Prince late in the film, Diana grows increasingly more loathsome as the movie progresses.

In the hands of any other actress, Diana’s antics might become tiresome, but Christie keeps us engaged by allowing a glimmer of humanity to occasionally peek its way through her character’s façade. More often than not, this “glimmer” is so slight that it’s barely perceivable. But it’s there, and usually sticks around just long enough to remind us that Diana is, in reality, a lost soul, following her ambitions down whatever path they may lead her. It’s a journey she takes often enough throughout Darling, yet rarely does it produce the result she desires. Diana Scott does some awful things throughout Darling, but Christie somehow fools us, however briefly, into believing there’s more to this young woman than meets the eye, and that alone is enough to keep us watching… and hoping. 

Still, even with Christie’s tour-de-force performance, the excellent supporting work turned in by both Bogarde and Harvey, and the film’s progressive attitude towards such previously taboo subjects as abortion, promiscuity, and homosexuality (some of the movie’s best sequences involve Diana’s holiday in Capri, which she spends in the company of gay photographer Malcolm, portrayed by Roland Currem), Darling is a tough movie to recommend. It’s played far too straight to be a satire (which makes it all the more depressing), and the period it recreates (the swinging ‘60s) may be a bit too archaic for modern audiences.

In fact, I can’t imagine a time when I myself will want to sit through Darling again. Julie Christine has turned in numerous Oscar-worthy performances over the course of her career, and I’d probably choose any one of them over the role that actually netted her the award!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

#2,360. SS Hell Camp (1977)

Directed By: Luigi Batzella

Starring: Macha Magall, Gino Turini, Edilio Kim

Tag line: "Horrifying experiences in the last days of the S.S."

Trivia: The film was listed as one of the DPP's 72 video nasties in the UK and even made the final list of 39 official titles for prosecution

Noted for their scenes of sadistic torture and unspeakable violence, the Nazisploitation films of the ‘70s always found new and exciting ways to shock their audience. Yet as vile and bloody as these movies could sometimes be, 1977’s SS Hell Camp pushed the envelope even further, and ranks as one of the most disturbing Nazisploitation flicks that I’ve ever seen.

SS Officer/scientist Dr. Ellen Kratsch (Macha Magall) has created what she believes to be the perfect man: a dwarf-sized Neanderthal (played by Salvatore Baccaro) whose voracious appetite for sex is never satisfied. To keep him happy, Dr. Kratsch regularly selects one of the Gestapo’s prettiest female prisoners, strips her naked, then has her tossed into the creature’s cage, where the poor girl is violently raped, then beaten to within an inch of her life.

At the same time this is going on, a group of Italian partisans is taking the fight to the Nazis, sabotaging their supply chain and killing every German soldier they come across. In an effort to crush this rebellion, Nazi Capt. Hardinghauser (Edilio Kim) teams up with Dr. Kratsch, whose “interrogation methods” have been known to get results. But while Kratsch and Hardinghauser are busy brutalizing one prisoner after another to obtain information, the remaining Partisans are planning an all-out attack that, if successful, will drive the Germans from their territory once and for all.

SS Hell Camp (also released as The Beast in Heat) is, in essence, two movies in one; a large portion of the film is dedicated to the Partisan army and their battles, and while some of these scenes are, indeed, exciting (especially an early sequence in which the group sabotages a railroad track), this entire section features far too many characters, and the footage lifted from another (bigger) movie to flesh out the fight scenes feels out of place.

In addition to this, we’re treated to what goes on inside Dr. Kratsch’s laboratory and, for better or worse, this is where SS Hell Camp truly distinguishes itself. In the opening minutes, we witness the rape and murder of a beautiful young woman, who is thrown, kicking and screaming, into the creature’s cage. Both she and the monster are naked (unlike most movies of this ilk, SS Hell Camp contains equal amounts of male and female nudity), and by the time it’s over, the girl is dead.

Yet as troubling as this opening is, it’s nowhere near the film’s most outrageous sequence. Later on, there’s a scene where the good doctor interrogates three nude male prisoners (she swats two on the genitals with her riding crop, then takes off her top and rubs her breasts up against the third man, hoping to make him talk). From there, things get downright disgusting: one unfortunate girl has electrodes attached to her vagina, while, just next to her, a naked man is tied upside-down and occasionally dunked into a large tub of water. Yet, for me, the most shocking scene in SS Hell Camp comes when Dr. Kratsch’s creature, after raping yet another woman, tears out his victim’s pubic hairs with his bare hands, then pops them into his mouth!

Macha Magall is both sinister and sexy as Dr. Kratsch, and does a decent enough job in the lead role, but in the end, SS Hell Camp fails to deliver the goods, giving us a war story that isn’t all that interesting and a series of gross-out sequences that falter under the weight of their own excesses.

Friday, May 26, 2017

#2,359. This Sporting Life (1963)

Directed By: Lindsay Anderson

Starring: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel

Line from the film: "Eh love, show us your personality!"

Trivia: Richard Harris was a serious rugby player in real life

This Sporting Life marked the first time that Richard Harris played a lead role in a motion picture, but based on his bravura performance you would never know it. Harris looms heavy over each and every scene in this film, portraying a brute of a man who falls deeply in love with a woman, yet has no idea how to express his feelings for her.

Coal miner Frank Machin (Harris) believes he has the makings of a star rugby player. To prove it, he picks a fight with several guys on the local club, and his tenacity so impresses the team’s co-owner Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel) that Frank is given a chance to prove himself on the playing field. To everyone’s surprise, Frank plays brilliantly, and his performance even earns him a brief mention in the newspaper. His rugged persona is such a perfect fit for the sport that Weaver and his partner, Charles Slomer (Arthur Lowe) agree to Frank’s outrageous terms (he demands a thousand pounds as a signing bonus). 

Game after game, Frank continues to shine, and before long he’s one of the most popular personalities in the entire city.

Unfortunately, the only person not impressed by Frank's on-field antics is the one he cares most about: his widowed landlady Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts). Still recovering from the untimely death of her husband a few years earlier, Margaret resists Frank’s advances, and refuses to accept the expensive gifts he buys her. Over time, Frank manages to wear Margaret down, and she finds that she, too, cares deeply for him. But can a guy like Frank hold onto a woman as delicate as Margaret, or will his rough demeanor push her away for good?

As with Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, much of the story that makes up This Sporting Life is told via flashbacks; Frank recalls episodes from his recent past while undergoing dental surgery (to remove six teeth he broke during a recent match). Harris is a veritable dynamo in the movie’s early scenes, when his character is convinced he has the makings of a star rugby player. Even when the action shifts to the field of play, Harris’s Frank is as ornery as can be; when a teammate named Gower (Tom Glegg) refuses to pass him the ball, Frank punches him in the face, breaking his nose.

Yet as exciting as these scenes are, the film’s most powerful sequences involve Frank’s attempts to first connect with Margaret, and then maintain his relationship with her. The problem is that Frank is a blunt instrument; one day, while she’s changing the linens in his room, Frank grabs Margaret from behind and kisses her; and later, when the two are a couple, she expresses her distaste for his extravagant spending, which makes her feel like a “kept” woman. How does Frank respond to Margaret's concerns? He slaps her across the face, then immediately tries to apologize.

Roberts, who was so good as the married woman dating Albert Finney’s character in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, delivers yet another strong performance in This Sporting Life, and this movie also marked the directorial debut of Lindsey Anderson, one of the formidable forces of the British New Wave movement. But from start to finish, this movie belongs to Richard Harris, whose searing portrayal of Frank Machin is as noteworthy as it is disturbing. 

In fact, I consider Frank Machin one of the all-time great cinematic brutes, right up there with Brando’s Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire) and DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull).

Yes, Harris is that good.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

#2,358. Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Directed By: Marino Girolami

Starring: Ian McCulloch, Alexandra Delli Colli, Sherry Buchanan

Tag line: "Not for the faint-hearted..."

Trivia: Was re-edited for U.S. release as Doctor Butcher, M.D.

Whoever came up with the title Zombie Holocaust for this 1980 film was selling it short; yes, there are zombies, but they don’t appear until well after the movie’s halfway point. Before that, it’s a straight-up cannibal flick, with a group of New Yorkers traveling to an exotic locale to track down the remnants of an ancient tribe of man-eaters. There are even elements of a mad scientist story thrown in for good measure (in the U.S., the movie was re-cut and released as Doctor Butcher, M.D.). Once you get a look at the living dead, though, you realize that Zombie Holocaust was heavily influenced by Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (which was released a year earlier), and clearly the filmmakers were trying to cash in on that movie’s success.

Yet despite its jam-packed storyline and a few intriguing scenes, Zombie Holocaust isn’t quite the film that Fulci’s masterpiece is.

Someone has been stealing body parts from the cadavers at a New York City hospital, and Dr. Lori Ridgeway (Alessandra Delli Colli), a physician and amateur anthropologist, wants to know who is responsible. As it turns out, the guilty party is an orderly named Toran (Turam Quibo), who was born and raised in the Maluka Island region of Southeast Asia. After comparing notes with Dr. Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch), an official with the city’s Health Department, Lori discovers that dozens of corpse mutilations have been reported all over the city in recent weeks, and, in each case, those committing these crimes (Toran included) bear the markings of a cannibal tribe that originated in the Maluka Peninsula.

To get to the bottom of this bizarre turn of events, Lori and Peter head to Southeast Asia, where along with Peter’s assistant George Harper (Peter O’Neal) and reporter Susan Kelly (Sherry Buchanan), who tagged along on the trip, they consult with Dr. Obrero (Donald O’Brien), a scientist and longtime resident of the region. With Dr. Obrero’s trusty sidekick Molotto (Dakar) as their guide, Lori, Peter, and the others set sail for the Maluka Islands, unaware of the dangers that await them once they arrive.

As mentioned above, Zombie Holocaust is, for most of its runtime, a cannibal film; when Lori and her associate Dr. Drydock (Walter Patriarca) catch Toran in the act, he is in the process of eating a heart he’d just removed form a corpse’s chest, and later on, when Lori and the others are making their way across an island, they’re attacked by a primitive tribe that slices open one of the group’s Asian assistants and makes a snack out of his intestines. As for the zombies, they resemble the living dead in Fulci’s Zombie, but unlike their counterparts in that 1979 film, they don’t feast on human flesh (in fact, these zombies don’t do much of anything).

As for the special effects in Zombie Holocaust, they’re a mixed bag. The zombies themselves look good enough (at least in the face; their bodies have no make-up whatsoever), and the gore / splatter effects are above average. Less impressive, though, is the scene in which Toran, after being cornered by Lori and Dr. Drydock, commits suicide by leaping out a window and plunging several stories to his death (the mannequin that stands in for Toran loses an arm when it hits the ground). In addition to the lackluster effects, I also had some issues with the film’s final act (the “mad scientist” portion of its tale), which left me with more questions than answers.

Yet what really annoyed me were the zombies themselves, which were far too docile (they have more in common with the zombies in the ‘30s classic White Zombie than they do the walking dead of the post-Romero period). In a movie titled Zombie Holocaust, you’d think that the zombies would have been a bit more integral to the story. Instead, they’re its weakest element.

Overall, I’d still say that Zombie Holocaust was a good movie, but with a few tweaks here and there, it probably would have been a better one.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

#2,357. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Tony Richardson

Starring: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage

Line from the film: "Look, I'm nobody's favorite"

Trivia: Director Tony Richardson married star Michael Redgrave's daughter, Vanessa Redgrave, shortly after filming ended

Running has always been a big thing in our family. Especially running away from the police

The above quote comes courtesy of the lead character in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a 1962 movie that, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning before it, was produced during the British New Wave movement, which stretched from 1959 to 1963. 

But in addition to the realism that helped define this particular era of UK filmmaking, director Tony Richardson also tosses a few cinematic bells and whistles into the mix, which he uses to enhance the movie’s central theme of isolation while also kicking the energy up a notch.

After stealing money from a local bakery, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is sent to Ruxton Towers, a youth detention center. Though something of a loner, Colin soon impresses the facility’s Governor (played by Michael Redgrave) with his athletic prowess. 

Seeing him as Ruxton’s best chance to win the Challenge Cup in the long-distance race against Renley, a nearby boarding school that caters to the upper-class, the Governor orders that Colin be given special privileges. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his fellow inmates, especially Stacey (Philip Martin), the Governor’s previous favorite. 

But the question remains: has the rebellious Colin actually changed his ways, or is he simply biding his time, training for an event he hopes will help him make his escape?

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner marked the big-screen debut of actor Tom Courtenay, who, like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, makes for a convincing angry young man, disillusioned with the world around him and looking for a way out of it. 

Though definitely strong in those scenes set in Ruxton, where Colin’s increasingly cordial relationship with the Governor makes him something of an outcast among his peers, Courtenay really shines during the movie’s “flashback” sequences, moments where we’re shown his unhappy home life (following his father’s death, Colin’s mother, played by Avis Bunnage, went on a shopping spree with the $500 she got from her husband’s insurance policy) as well as his budding relationship with Audrey (Topsy Jane), who was as anxious as Colin to escape her lower-class lifestyle. 

These glimpses into the recent past reveal a lot about Colin, and Courtenay’s often understated approach to the role prove just enough to gain our sympathy, yet also make Colin something of an enigma, a young man we can relate to even when we’re not sure what’s really on his mind.

Much like Karel Reisz did with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Richardson shot The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner entirely on-location, giving the film a realistic vibe. But it’s those moments where the director allows his creative juices to flow that really stand out. During a “flashback” scene in which Colin and his pal Mike (James Bolam) steal a car, the action speeds up, as if it was lifted straight out of a Mack Sennett/ Keystone Kops comedy short; and an early practice race at Ruxton is presented almost entirely in POV, from Colin’s perspective (we watch as he catches up to, then passes an obviously frustrated Stacey).

With its working-class mentality and cinema verite style, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner still comes across as very realistic, but it’s the added flare Tony Richardson provides from time to time that makes it special.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

#2,356. The Entertainer (1960)

Directed By: Tony Richardson

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Roger Livesey

Tag line: "As the applause grew fainter ... As the spotlight grew dimmer ... His women were younger!"

Trivia: Roger Livesey plays Laurence Olivier's father in this film, yet was less than one year older than Olivier in real-life

The show must go on”. It’s an adage as old as show business itself, yet for Archie Rice, the lead character in the 1960 film The Entertainer, it’s more than a motto. For him, being on-stage is synonymous with being alive. It’s when he steps behind the curtain and faces reality that Archie Rice gets himself into trouble.

Archie (played by Sir Laurence Olivier, reprising the role he made famous on-stage) is a comic well past his prime, telling stale jokes in a dilapidated Lancashire theater to audiences that get smaller by the day. Still, Archie remains optimistic, and is busy trying to put together a new show he’s convinced will be a smash hit. His long-suffering wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) is at her wit’s end; not only is she afraid that Archie, already up to his ears in debt, will end up in jail, but the couple’s son Mick (Albert Finney), a soldier in the army, has just been taken prisoner while fighting in the Suez. Archie’s father, Billy (Roger Livesey), who lives with them in their tiny apartment, was himself a well-known performer in his day, and Archie’s and Phoebe’s other son Frank (Alan Bates) manages things behind-the-scenes for his father, doing his best to ensure the shows, however pitiful, run as smoothly as they possibly can.

Into this domesticated nightmare comes Jean (Joan Plowright), Archie’s daughter from a previous marriage. Leaving her fiance Graham (Daniel Massey) behind in London, Jean travels to Lancashire to spend a weekend with the family, only to discover her father, a notorious womanizer, has cooked up a scheme that threatens to tear their world apart. While serving as emcee for a local beauty pageant, Archie meets, and then seduces the runner-up, 20-year-old beauty Tina Lapford (Shirley Anne Field), by promising to make her the headliner of his next production. He then cozies up to Tina’s well-to-do parents (Thora Hird and Tony Longridge) in the hope they will finance their daughter’s big debut. Archie is so keen on the idea that he actually considers divorcing Phoebe so he can marry the much younger Tina! 

Jean, the only member of the Rice family who knows what’s going on, tries desperately to talk her father out of it, but for Archie, there’s more than love involved; this move could finally make him a star, something that has eluded him his entire life.

Will Archie actually go through with his devious plan, or will fate somehow intervene?

Produced during the early days of the British New Wave, The Entertainer was shot (for the most part) on-location, bringing a sense of realism to many of its scenes (the beauty pageant is set entirely outdoors, and later in the film, Jean and Archie enjoy a picnic while perched on a hill that overlooks a seaside amusement pier). The Entertainer also marked the screen debuts of Albert Finney (he has one brief scene early on), Alan Bates, and Joan Plowright (who, a year later, would become Mrs. Laurence Olivier); and was only the second feature film directed by Tony Richardson (the first being Look Back in Anger, released a year earlier). In addition, Brenda de Banzie delivers a searing performance as Archie’s mostly inebriated, yet dutiful wife Phoebe, while Roger Livesey is superb as Billy, Archie’s lovable father who, back in the day, achieved a level of stardom that his son has never known.

But The Entertainer is Archie Rice’s story, and contains what is, hands down, one of Sir Laurence’s all-time best performances. Even when he isn’t standing in front of a microphone, Olivier’s Archie is always “on”, telling jokes to his family, his friends at the pub, and pretty much anyone who will listen to him. Life does sometimes throw off his timing, like when he receives the telegram informing him that Mick was taken prisoner, but Archie always manages to put his troubles aside, even the ones that he himself creates (having already declared bankruptcy, Archie must now rely on Phoebe to sign the checks that they don’t have the money to cover). Throughout The Entertainer, Archie Leach is a cad of the highest order, a womanizer and a beggar who puts his own needs, his own ambitions, ahead of everybody else’s. 

And yet he’s so damn charismatic that you can’t help but like the guy; whether belting out his signature tune “Why Should I Care?” or cracking jokes that were old twenty years ago, Archie always manages to convince those around him that he’s as adorable in real life as he is on stage. The truth, however, is that Archie Rice is going down for the count, and uses humor to forget his worries. We get the feeling throughout the movie that if Archie ever stopped laughing, he’d probably break down and cry.

As engrossing as it is tragic, The Entertainer is an exceptional motion picture, featuring a world-class actor at the top of his game.

Friday, May 19, 2017

#2,355. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Directed By: Arthur Crabtree

Starring: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow

Tag line: "It Actually Puts YOU In The Picture - Can You Stand It?"

Trivia: This was the first American International release to be in color, and was also their first Cinemascope movie

It starts innocently enough; a delivery man drops off a package for Gail (Dorinda Stevens), a single woman living in a London apartment building. There’s no return address on the box, and no note of any kind to indicate who sent it. Gail’s roommate, Peggy (Malou Pantera), teases her, saying it must be from an anonymous admirer. Inside the box is a pair of binoculars. Excited, Gail rushes to the window to try them out. A few seconds later, she lets out a scream. A horrified Peggy looks on as Gail covers her eyes with her hands, blood pouring through her fingers. Gail then falls over dead, and we notice that the binoculars (lying next to her) now have two large, blood-stained spikes sticking out of the back lenses, which jutted out moments after Gail raised her new gift up to her eyes.

The violence in this opening sequence proved unsettling for a good many people. After seeing the movie in a Times Square theater, photographer Diane Arbus was so shaken by this scene that she snuck a camera into a later showing and snapped a picture of the screen the moment actress Dorinda Stevens covered her eyes (This snapshot is still part of the Diane Arbus collection, and is titled “Screaming Woman with Blood on her Hands”). But as you’ll discover while watching 1959’s Horrors of the Black Museum, this is but one of several gruesome deaths featured throughout the film.

Poor Gail was actually the third young woman murdered in the past two weeks, and Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) of Scotland Yard, who has taken charge of the investigation, still has no idea who the killer is, or what his motives are. As if the case wasn’t difficult enough, a series of sensationalized newspaper articles pertaining to the killings, written by Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough), have whipped the public into a frenzy. What the police don’t realize, though, is that Bancroft is much more than an interested bystander in this sorry state of affairs; he’s the responsible party! To gain publicity for his work, Bancroft has hypnotized his valet, Rick (Graham Curnow), and, arming him with a variety of weapons he’s collected over the years, sends the young man out into the streets with instructions to kill. Thus far, Bancroft’s murderous plan has gone off without a hitch, but with the police doubling their efforts to try and prevent further slayings, it may only be a matter of time before his entire scheme comes crashing down around him.

Michael Gough is at his slimy best as Bancroft, the arrogant writer who not only reports the news but also creates it; and actress June Cunningham has a small but memorable role as Joan, a prostitute that Bancroft visits regularly. Yet what makes Horrors of the Black Museum so… well, horrific, are its murder sequences, with Rick (who, while under hypnosis, undergoes a physical change that makes him look more like a monster than a man) employing a variety of weapons to finish off his victims. While the binoculars from the opening are, without a doubt, the most ghastly of the bunch, there’s also a decapitation that’s pretty shocking (mostly because we don’t see it coming).

As with many older movies, the violence in Horrors of the Black Museum may seem tame by modern standards; we never actually see any of the kills take place, and quite a bit of time passes between each murder (though Michael Gough’s boisterous performance ensures that even the movie’s bloodless scenes are fun to watch). But compared to other films released around the same time, it’s easy to see why Horrors of the Black Museum caused such an uproar.

And don’t be surprised if its opening scene comes rushing back to you the next time you’re holding a pair of binoculars!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

#2,354. Deadlier Than the Male (1967)

Directed By: Ralph Thomas

Starring: Richard Johnson, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina

Tag line: "For Hire: Deadly Weapons! - Blonde, Brunette, Redhead"

Trivia: In a later interview, director Ralph Thomas said that the movie was made with the intention of kicking off a TV series

Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, World War One veteran and self-proclaimed adventurer, is a fictional character created in 1920 by British author H.C. McNelle, and like most popular literary heroes he eventually made his way from the printed page to the big screen (the earliest movie to feature the character, the appropriately titled Bulldog Drummond, was released in 1922). Deadlier Than the Male was the 22nd Bulldog Drummond film, but the first produced in the post-James Bond era. Hoping to duplicate the cinematic success of Ian Fleming’s super spy, the creative minds behind this 1967 movie decided to give ‘ole Hugh Drummond a makeover, taking what had been a rough and rugged adventurer and transforming him into a suave ladies’ man whose skills as an investigator would give 007 himself a run for his money.

Two oil company executives have died under mysterious circumstances, and Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), am Insurance claims investigator for Lloyds of London, wants to know what happened to them. While Drummond is busy piecing together clues, several more businessmen turn up dead, and it isn’t long before he himself becomes a target. 

To Drummond’s surprise, a pair of gorgeous female assassins, Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina), are responsible for all of the murders thus far, and with the help of his nephew Robert (Steve Carlson), Drummond learns that the girls’ next intended victim is King Fedra of Akmatan (Zia Mohyeddin), an old college chum of Robert’s who, at present, is vacationing on his yacht in the Mediterranean Sea. Should Fedra die, the world’s oil supply will be controlled by only a handful of men. The question is: which of these powerful magnates hired Irma and Penelope to do his dirty work for him?

Released less than two years after Thunderball (and a few months before You Only Live Twice), Deadlier Than the Male is a straight-up Bond clone, borrowing many of the elements that made the 007 series popular with its fans. In addition to an exciting pre-title sequence (where we witness the death of the first executive, who is killed on his private jet) and a very “bond-esque” theme song (performed by The Walker Brothers), Deadlier Than the Male has plenty of action, some nifty gadgets (though the coolest, including a bullet-laced cigar and a life-sized computerized chess board, belong not to Drummond, but the criminals), and a highly-skilled hero who never loses his cool (as Drummond, Richard Johnson pulls off the seemingly-impossible task of making an insurance investigator as cunning and debonair as one of her Majesty’s top agents). And like all Bond films, Deadlier Than the Male is chock full of attractive women (Sommer and Koscina may just be the most beautiful assassin team in cinematic history).

The movie does falter a bit in the final act (the chief villain’s identity is revealed far too soon, forcing the filmmakers to put him in more scenes than they should have), but as Bond-inspired pictures go, Deadlier Than the Male is the most entertaining I’ve seen.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#2,353. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Karel Reisz

Starring: Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Rachel Roberts

Tag line: "Saturday night you have your fling at life...and Sunday morning you face up to it!"

Trivia: Albert Finney learned to use a lathe during filming

Around the time that Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were shaking things up in France, the UK film industry was experiencing a “New Wave” of its own. Taking a page from their French counterparts, filmmakers like Tony Richardson, Lindsey Anderson, and a handful of others (many of whom were already movie critics and documentarians) put the focus squarely on working class Britain, a group that had been roundly ignored up to that point. 

Released in 1960, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning stands as a shining example of the British New Wave movement, and is the film that also introduced audiences to a 23-year-old actor by the name of Albert Finney.

Arthur Seaton (Finney) spends his weekdays working as a machinist in a dingy Nottingham factory, and his weekends living life to its fullest. Come Saturday, you’ll usually find him getting drunk at the local pub or fishing in a nearby stream with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington). 

If not there, then you can be sure Arthur is out and about with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), a married woman he has been seeing for some time. The whole situation is a bit dicey; Brenda’s husband, Jack (Bryan Pringle), is a co-worker of Arthur’s, and the two lovers go to great lengths to ensure their illicit affair remains a secret.

Then, at a pub one afternoon, fate throws a monkey wrench into the works when Arthur meets the beautiful Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), with whom he falls instantly in love. 

As if that’s not enough, Brenda drops a bombshell that threatens to tear Arthur's world apart: she’s pregnant with his child! 

Hoping to avoid a scandal, Brenda decides abortion is her best option, and Arthur promises to help her any way he can. But will his continued involvement with Brenda destroy any future he might have with Doreen?

Like many films of the British New Wave, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning boasts an almost documentary-like feel; director Karel Reisz shot the majority of this movie in and around Nottingham (the very first scene is set inside the factory where Arthur works, and the opening credits play over images of him riding his bike through the streets). By relying on actual locations as opposed to a studio soundstage, Reisz infuses the film with a gritty realism that, from start to finish, enhances the story's blue-collar mentality.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is also the film that made Albert Finney a star. “What I’m out for is a good time” Finney's Arthur says during the opening narration, and this is how he approaches life throughout the film. Arthur drinks heavily, stands up to the older generation (his nosy neighbor Mrs. Bull, played by Edna Morris, is a regular target of his aggression), and has no qualms about being seen in public with a married woman (Arthur claims to genuinely care for Brenda, yet we get the feeling it’s the dangerous nature of their relationship that really appeals to him). 

Though he’s clearly an angry young man, we nonetheless identify with Arthur’s desire to break free of the monotony of his working-class existence, and Finney’s lively, heartfelt performance is the reason why.

Upon its release, the BBFC saddled Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with an “X” rating, due mostly to the film’s unapologetic depiction of abortion and extramarital sex. The movie-going public, however, saw things differently; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a box-office hit, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that, like their compatriots in France, UK audiences were ready for a change.

And thanks to Karel Reisz and his pals, a "change" is exactly what they got!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

#2,352. The Working Girls (1974)

Directed By: Stephanie Rothman

Starring: Sarah Kennedy, Laurie Rose, Mark Thomas

Tagline: "They'll do anything for money!"

Trivia: Cassandra Peterson plays a stripper in this film, years before being cast as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

One look at the poster for writer/director Stephanie Rothman’s The Working Girls and you know what you’re getting, right? That’s what I thought, anyway. But the truth of the matter is this 1974 film isn’t jam-packed with nudity and sex, as its promotional material suggests. In fact, aside from a risqué moment or two, it isn’t a sex comedy at all.

So what is it then? Damned if I know. I just finished watching The Working Girls and I’m still trying to figure it out!

The Working Girls follows the exploits of three roommates living in an apartment in Los Angeles. Honey (Sarah Kennedy) recently arrived in town and is desperately looking for a job. Jill (Lynne Guthrie) was lucky enough to find employment working as a waitress at a strip club, a position that will open more doors for her than she ever thought possible. Denise (Laurie Rose), who manages the building where the three of them live, is an artist by trade and paints signs for various customers. Denise’s relationship with Mike (Ken Del Conte), a street guitarist Honey brought home, seems to be going well, but Mike is hiding a dangerous secret, one that could get him and his three new friends in hot water with some very bad people.

At least the tagline for The Working Girls is correct: these ladies will do anything for money! At one point, Honey is contracted by an elderly woman (Mary Beth Hughes) to kill her husband; and later on, she’s hired by Vernon (Solomon Sturges), a millionaire, to be his constant companion (in a non-sexual way). As for Jill, she goes from being a waitress at the strip club to one of its headline performers (Jill’s strip routine makes her the only member of the main cast to appear in the nude). As if this promotion wasn’t enough, Jill is eventually asked to run the place when the club’s owner Sidney (Eugene Elman) decides to take a vacation!

The Working Girls has its share of romance as well; aside from Denise’s and Mike’s relationship, Jill meets, then falls in love with, a mobster named Nick (Mark Thomas).In addition, actress Cassandra Peterson, years away from becoming her alter ego, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, makes an early screen appearance as Katya, the stripper who teaches Jill the ropes. But despite its plethora of characters and a handful of engaging situations, The Working Girls is a movie that, for the most part, just kind of coasts from scene to scene. It’s not particularly funny, and rarely catches our attention long enough to leave an impression.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

#2,351. The Cossacks (1928)

Directed By: George W. Hill

Starring: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Ernest Torrence

Tag line: "Stirring romance, hard riding, desperate fighting with the Cossacks playing their game of war and chivalry"

Trivia: The film was originally to have been directed by Viktor Tourjansky, but it took such a long time getting the script together that he moved on to another project.

The story of actor John Gilbert is a tragic one. A star during the silent era whose popularity rivaled that of Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert had a tempestuous relationship with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (the two allegedly detested one another), and as a result, he was assigned to a series of low-grade pictures. By the time he completed his 6-film contract with MGM, Gilbert was all but forgotten by the movie-going public. Greta Garbo, who was once engaged to Gilbert, tried to rescue his career by getting him a role in 1933’s Queen Christina, but it was too little, too late. Suffering from depression and alcoholism, John Gilbert died of a heart attack at the age of 36 on January 9, 1936.

To see him in 1928’s The Cossacks is to realize just how talented John Gilbert was, and while the movie itself hasn’t aged well, its star shines brightly throughout it.

For the Cossacks of Southern Russia, life hasn’t changed in centuries: the women still stay home and work while the men ride into battle against their enemy, the Turks. It is said that all true Cossack men love the smell of blood, the glory of war, but Lukashka (Gilbert), the son of the Cossack Chieftain Ivan (Ernest Torrence), sees things differently, and would rather stay with the women then fight with the men.

Lukashka’s views make him very unpopular, and even his childhood sweetheart Maryana (Renée Adorée) wants nothing to do with him anymore. A free spirit, Lukashka doesn’t mind the constant barrage of insults. That is, until the night two drunken Cossacks grab him, put him in a ladies dress, and tie him to a pole in the village square. Taunted by the women (including Maryana), an embarrassed Lukashka is eventually set free, and still fuming over the incident he gets into a fistfight with his father, then helps track down a group of Turkish prisoners trying to escape (during the ensuing chase, he kills his first man).

Hailed as a hero for his role in recapturing the prisoners, Lukashka (realizing he does, indeed, enjoy the thrill of battle) goes on to become the bravest warrior of them all. Yet despite his new outlook, he refuses to forgive Maryana for turning against him. Then, fate intervenes; while Lukashka and the other men are off fighting the Turks, Prince Olenin Stieshneff (Nils Asher), the son of the Czar, pays a visit to the Cossack village. Instructed by his father to marry a Cossack girl, the Prince sets his sights on the beautiful Maryana. At first, she rebuffs the Prince’s advances, but when Lukashka once again scorns her, a humiliated Maryana agrees to the marriage, all the while hoping her true love will eventually come to his senses.

Even for a movie made in 1928, The Cossacks seems terribly old-fashioned; as the film opens, Ivan and his men are returning home from war. To celebrate their victory, they head straight to the local bar and drink as much vodka as they can get their hands on. The debauchery is interrupted, however, by the ringing of the church bells, at which point the men stop the party in its tracks and head outside, kneeling down on one knee until the bells stop clanging (because, as we’re reminded several times throughout the movie, “above all, there is God”). In addition, there are aspects of the story, especially early on, that won’t sit well with modern viewers. Lukashka is called a “woman-man” for refusing to fight, and his disgruntled father declares that he doesn’t have a son (“I have a daughter with a fine nose”, he says). Some of the insults tossed at Lukashka don’t even make sense; when he tries to cozy up to Maryana in a field, she pushes him away, calling him a “chewer of sunflower seeds”!

It's questionable dialogue aside, The Cossacks is, at times, a thrilling adventure film, and features a number of memorable scenes (including a torture sequence towards the end that’s hard to watch). Rising above it all, though, is star John Gilbert; whether playing a pacifist or a fierce soldier, Gilbert’s charismatic performance ensures that his Lukashka is always the movie’s most interesting character, and we root for him even when he seems to have lost his way (at one point, Lukashka tries to hurt Maryana, who is anxious to win him back, by kissing a Gypsy woman in front of her).

Without John Gilbert, The Cossacks still would have been a mildly diverting adventure. With him, it became something more substantial, and serves as a reminder of what it was that Hollywood lost when the actor was allowed to fade away.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

#2,350. The Corpse Grinders (1971)

Directed By: Ted V. Mikels

Starring: Sean Kenney, Monika Kelly, Sanford Mitchell

Tagline: "the Corpse Grinders Turn bones and flesh into screaming, savage blood death!"

Trivia: The writer of this film, Joseph Cranston, is the father of Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston

When it came to dreaming up enticing film titles, writer/director Ted V. Mikels was an absolute master. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie called The Black Klansman, Ten Violent Women, or Astro-Zombies? Even if the films themselves weren’t all that impressive (I wasn’t a fan of his 1966 flick Blood Orgy of the She-Devils), Mikels sure as hell knew how to get your attention, and most of the time it worked to his advantage.

Take, for example, The Corpse Grinders; in an interview conducted by author John McCarty for the book The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking, Mikels claimed this 1971 film cost around $47,000 to produce and took in over $3 million at the box office! As for its quality, I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Corpse Grinders a “good” movie, but it definitely kept me entertained.

The Lotus Cat Food Company, owned and operated by Landau (Sanford Mitchell) and his partner Maltby (J, Byron Foster), has found a way to save thousands of dollars in production costs: instead of the typical ingredients, they use nothing but the finest human corpses to make their cat food! Aided by the ill-tempered Caleb (Warren Bell), a cemetery caretaker who provides them with all the dead bodies they can handle; and with the help of their trusty corpse-grinding machine, Landau and Maltby have cornered the pet food market, and are pulling in more money than they ever dreamed possible.

There’s only one problem: their cat food is turning even the most docile kittens into carnivorous beasts with a taste for human flesh! With dozens of attacks reported already, Dr. Howard Glass (Sean Kenney), who was himself nearly mauled to death by a cat belonging to his nurse/girlfriend Angie Robinson (Monika Kelly), begins to wonder if there’s a connection between Lotus’ cat food and the violent behavior of local felines. Together with Angie, Dr. Glass decides to look into the matter. But the closer he gets to uncovering the truth, the more dangerous his investigation becomes.

I’m not sure what percentage of The Corpse Grinders' $47,000 budget was dedicated to building sets and props, but I’m guessing it wasn’t much; the entire Lotus factory looks like a dank basement (including the office that Landau and Maltby share), and the “hospital” where Dr. Glass and Angie work is nothing more than a room in somebody’s house. As for the film’s main attraction, aka the dreaded corpse grinding machine, it may not look like much (according to Mikels, it was made out of plywood), but it gets the job done; bodies (underwear and all) go in one end, and a disgusting meat mixture comes out the other (The Corpse Grinders won’t be the most frightening horror film you’ll ever see, but the image of this ground meat pouring from the machine is sure to turn your stomach).

While most of the acting in The Corpse Grinders is less than stellar, both Sanford Mitchell (as the increasingly maniacal Landau) and Sean Kenney (whose Dr. Glass is the hero of the story) do, on occasion, manage to rise above the others; and there are enough oddball moments scattered throughout the film to keep things interesting (no explanation is given as to why Caleb’s wife, played by Ann Noble, walks around with a baby doll, treating it like it was a real child).

In the end, I didn’t enjoy The Corpse Grinders quite enough to seek out its sequels; the direct-to-video The Corpse Grinders II, released in 2000, was also written and directed by Mikels (an entirely different crew took the reins for 2012’s The Corpse Grinders III). But as “so-bad-its-good” movies go, The Corpse Grinders is, at the very least, unique, and that alone makes it a fun watch.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

#2,349. The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

Directed By: Mary Harron

Starring: Gretchen Mol, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer

Tag line: "The Pin-Up Sensation That Shocked The Nation"

Trivia: Hugh M. Hefner, a good friend of Bettie's, held a private screening of this movie for Bettie Page and a small group of friends

She was called “The Queen of Curves” and “Miss Pinup Girl of the World”. Bettie Page, a Tennessee native who found success as a model in 1950’s New York, appeared in photos that were as scandalous as they were sensational. Though tame today, many of the BDSM pictorials and 16mm films that Page was featured in were deemed pornographic at the time, leading to an investigation by a Senate Committee into the negative effects such photos were having on the youth of America. Yet despite all the controversy surrounding her, Page’s popularity never waned (she was even one of Playboy magazine’s earliest centerfolds).

The Notorious Bettie Page, the exceptional 2005 biopic written and directed by Mary Herron, stylishly delves into the life (both public and private) of Bettie Page while also celebrating the vivacious spirit that turned a God-fearing girl from Nashville into one of the era’s most recognizable sex symbols.

As she waits to testify at a Committee hearing headed up by Sen. Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) reflects on her life, from her early days in Nashville and her failed marriage to college football star Billy Neal (Norman Reedus) to the events that brought her to New York City, where she hoped to make a fresh start.

It was while strolling on the beach at Coney Island one sunny afternoon that Bettie met Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll). An NYPD officer and part-time photographer, Tibbs convinced Bettie to take up modeling, and before long she was posing for Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor), whose bondage-themed photos were pulling in a small fortune. In addition to working for the Klaws, Bettie also posed for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), a Florida-based photographer whose nude pictorials appeared in magazines across the country.

Page and her entire profession came under scrutiny in the late ‘50s when the Feds launched an investigation to determine the legality of bondage photos. But by then she'd already had enough, and in 1959 Bettie Page became a born-again Christian, and would never again take her clothes off in front of a camera.

Along with her striking resemblance to the title character, Gretchen Mol delivers a fantastic performance as Bettie Page, who, despite her unfortunate past (aside from her marriage to the abusive Billy Neal, there are hints that a teenage Bettie was molested by her father), was always upbeat, and in full control of her own image (during one outdoor photo session she wows a novice photographer by happily agreeing to pose for him in the nude). In addition, writer/director Mary Herron’s bold decision to shoot The Notorious Bettie Page in black and white proved a stroke of genius, and gave the finished product the look and feel of a movie from the era in which its story is set (even the brief splashes of color, including all of the film’s Florida sequences, look as if they were shot in ‘50s-era Technicolor).

With its fine supporting cast (especially Jared Harris as the slightly odd John Willie, a business associate of the Klaws’), exceptional sets and costumes, and the often seamless manner in which period stock footage is incorporated into the movie, The Notorious Bettie Page is, without a doubt, an impressive biopic. But it’s the combined talents of Mol and Herron, not to mention the film’s fascinating main subject, that make it unforgettable.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

#2,348. Viva Las Vegas (1964) - Elvis Presley Film Festival

Directed By: George Sidney

Starring: Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova

Tag line: "It's that "go-go" guy and that "bye-bye" gal in the fun capital of the world!"

Trivia: Some theatres chose to bill Ann-Margret above Elvis due to her popularity at the time

The first time I heard the name "Elvis Presley" was on the day he died.

It was August of 1977, and we had just moved into a new house. My father, returning home after running a few errands, told my mother that he heard on the radio Elvis was dead. I had no idea who this person was, yet I could tell by the looks on their faces he was someone pretty important.

My mom dug out her original 45 single of “Hard Headed Woman”, but it was an album she bought a few days later, featuring all of Elvis’s number one hits ("Hound Dog", "Love Me Tender", "Jailhouse Rock", and a slew of others) that finally introduced me to the King of Rock and Roll.

It was also around this time that I saw my first Elvis movie, Love Me Tender, though I only watched half of it. Over the years, I would catch bits and pieces of other Presley vehicles, including Jailhouse Rock and 1969’s Change of Habit (which co-starred Mary Tyler Moore). But it wasn’t until today that I finally sat through an entire Elvis Presley film, and I have to say that Viva Las Vegas was much better than I was expecting it to be.

Race car driver (and part-time singer) Lucky Johnson (Elvis) travels from Los Angeles to Nevada to enter his vehicle in the Las Vegas Grand Prix. There’s only one problem: his car doesn’t have an engine!

To purchase one in time for the race, Lucky wins a small fortune at the Flamingo Casino, only to lose it all a short while later.

Now unable to even pay his hotel bill, Lucky and his chief mechanic Shorty (Nicky Blair) are forced to work as waiters at the Flamingo, giving Lucky plenty of chances to sweep the hotel’s pretty swimming instructor, Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), off her feet.

Unfortunately, Italian Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova), the European racing champion, also has his eye on Rusty. And what’s more, the Count brags non-stop that he will be the one finishing first in the upcoming race.

Will Lucky win the girl and the Grand Prix, or will he be the runner-up in both?

Elvis Presley still ranks as one of the most influential rock and roll artists of all-time, but even his most ardent supporters would agree he was (at best) a mediocre actor. In the 1983 book Rating the Movie Stars, which was published by the folks at Consumer Guide magazine, writer Joel Hirschhorn called Presley’s films “a series of silly, tailor-made vehicles”, adding that his fans didn’t seem to mind “his total lack of talent as an actor”. While I’m certainly no expert on Presley’s movie career (in fact, I’m a novice), Hirschhorn’s statement strikes me as kinda harsh.

It was in regards to Viva Las Vegas, at least, where Elvis occasionally proved himself a competent comedic performer (a late scene in which he intentionally ruins the Count’s dinner date with Rusty has some funny moments). In addition, I thought he and co-star Ann-Margret had great chemistry together (according to the tabloids, their romance continued even when the cameras weren’t rolling). And, of course, Elvis is given several opportunities to do what he did best: belt out memorable tunes like the title number; “Come On, Everybody”; and a spirited cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”.

Ironically, though, I don’t consider Elvis Presley the true star of Viva Las Vegas.  In almost every scene in which they appear together, he is upstaged by Ann-Margret. Fresh off of her career-making turn in Bye Bye Birdie, Ann-Margret lights up the screen as Rusty. Her first scene is as sexy and enticing as they come (she strolls into the garage where Lucky and The Count are hanging out, wearing tight white shorts and an equally sexy red top); and her dance routine at the school auditorium is an absolute show-stopper. In addition, the film’s best song (in my opinion, anyway), is “The Lady Loves Me”, which Elvis and Ann-Margret perform as a duet, and while Elvis does manage to hold his own in the acting department, it’s clear that, even at this early stage of her career, Ann-Margret was a much better actor than the King of Rock and Roll.

Viva Las Vegas is certainly not perfect. The film drags (badly) in the middle, and the tumultuous nature of Lucky’s and Rusty’s relationship is maddening at times (she loves him one moment, can’t stand him the next). But as a lighthearted vehicle for both Elvis and Ann-Margret, Viva Las Vegas is as breezy as they come.