Saturday, November 9, 2013


Anthony Mann has definitely done some terrific films. Winchester 73, T-Men, Side Street, Men In War, The Furies and Border Incident are just some of the great films on his resume. Most are familiar with his film noir and westerns. But one film that I rarely hear mentioned when people discuss the films of Anthony Mann is the 1951 suspense thriller The Tall Target. I happened upon this movie about a year ago and from beginning to end I was on the edge of my seat.

The opening credits drew me in immediately, much the same way as I enjoyed the opening credits for Aldrich‘s Kiss Me Deadly. We get that same upward scrolling credit shot. There is no musical score and that works very much to the films advantage as the constant sounds of the train heightens the level of suspense. Especially in the credits sequence when all we see is the train station and it's various sounds. The clanging bell, the steam, people milling about, it all feels like a metronome of impending doom.

William Powell desperately tries to prevent an assassination on board the Night Flyer
Powell is a police detective who once worked briefly with Abe Lincoln and realized immediately what a great man he was. So he is extremely worried about and motivated to prevent a plot that he’s uncovered to assassinate Lincoln. Powell boards the Night Flyer departing from Jersey and arriving in Baltimore where Abe is to give his inaugural address. The movie has a great cast of suspects. There’s the good natured officer, the young hot tempered Annapolis grad, his haughty southern bell sister and the servant girl with whom she has a very complex relationship, the boorish loudmouth who thinks Lincoln is a war monger that should be shot and the nosey novelist. Then there is the mysterious woman who demands that she and her party not be disturbed under any circumstances.

William Powell and Adolphe Menjou try to find an assassin on a train full of suspects in The Tall Target
The brains behind the conspiracy is revealed about halfway into the movie. I thought this might be a mistake at first, thinking that the suspense would start to wane with the enemy's reveal but I was wrong. The enemy, like their plot, is layered and complex and their exposure is just the beginning of the real meat of the films suspense. The enemy proves to be a difficult one for Powell to beat. Powell’s job is made harder by the fact that his own credentials have been stolen(sort of) and his vocal concern about a possible assassination plots make him out to sound crazy to some, including his own superiors, all of which makes the game of cat and mouse all the more entertaining.

There's a nail biting scene with Powell in a fight underneath a train that is about to depart, surrounded by the engines steam. The climax is also great as we get a terrific twist near the end. Just a very, very enjoyable movie. There's also a neat scene with a shot through the train window of the capital dome being built. There’s also some great camera work and beautifully photographed scenes rich with texture, a trademark of many Anthony Mann films.

Just about the entire movie takes place on the train. I’ve always been partial to films that take place on trains. Murder On The Orient Express, North By Northwest, Silver Streak, Strangers On A Train, Terror By Night and The Great Train Robbery are among some of my favorites. The Tall Target belongs near the top of the list of fun train films and great movies in general and is definitely one of Mann’s more lesser known and underrated films.  Perhaps The Tall Target falls into a category all it's own.  Period Train Noir, perhaps?  Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Tall Target on November 15 at 1:00 AM Eastern. Don’t miss it!

Friday, October 25, 2013


I might not have always enjoyed all the films of Vincent Price but without a doubt, without hesitation, I have always enjoyed watching the performances of Vincent Price. He’s one of those film legends that made a huge impression on me as a child and, like Planet of the Apes, like the films of James Bond, like the Hope and Crosby “Road” films, like the Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes films, Vincent Price helped send me on my journey to developing a great passion for film. There are two Vincent Price films that had a big impact on me. Two films that I saw at two different points in my life. One as a kid, one as an adult.

The dream team: Karloff, Lorre and Price in the comedy horror classic The Raven

The first film was the horror/comedy classic The Raven. For me, this is unequivocally Vincent Price’s finest and most entertaining hour. This movie always makes me happy. Every moment that Price is on screen, which is practically every frame, is pure entertainment, pure enjoyment. I can’t remember the exact age I was when I first saw The Raven but it had to around 7 or 8 years old. I was young enough for it to scare me. It had everything a young boy would want: talking corpses, dungeons, attempted ax murder, grade A Peter Lorre snark, a sexy Hazel Court, the voice and the villainy of Boris Karloff facing off in an epic, hilarious sorcerers duel against Vincent Price. Using all available recall, I can’t remember seeing Price in anything before The Raven and I’m certain that I hadn’t seen him in anything where he was the villain. I do remember seeing The Pit And The Pendulum at a young age as well but after I had seen The Raven. I think this is important because it made my introduction to Price more along the lines of a kid being introduced to a cool Uncle, as opposed to if my first Price film would have been say Conqueror Worm.

 In The Raven, Price plays a character who is very insecure. He’s basically cut himself off from the community of sorcerers that his late father was very much a part of. He’s lonely and spends most of his time practicing magic and pining for his dead wife Lenore. He has a loving daughter who takes a back seat to her father’s mourning. Over the course of the film, he is scared, depressed, betrayed and nearly at the end of his rope, but he is never a coward and never without Price’s trademark manners and wit. He rises to the occasion and faces off against Karloff in a duel which captures what Price was all about for a kid my age. During the final confrontation between Price and Karloff, neither speaks hardly a word to each other and we only see facial expressions and, given that we’re talking about Karloff and Price, we don’t really need any more than that.

Jack Nicholson, Olive Sturgess, Hazel Court and Price in The Raven
Today, with almost 40 years of film watching behind me, I still enjoy watching and studying Price in The Raven. He plays such a sympathetic, likable, fun character that, even as a kid and without being able to articulate it, I identified with Price. I wanted to know him and be friends with him. Even though it was hard to match the pure enjoyment of The Raven, I continued to be entertained by the many Vincent Price films that followed. Even in films where he was the villain, he seemed to infuse his characters with the vulnerability of someone on the outside looking in which always made him likable on some level. I’m almost certain I would have been a fan of Vincent Price had The Raven not been my first exposure to him, but I can’t say for sure that the film or Price would have had as long lasting an impact on me.
About 20 years later I had become a full fledged fanatic for classic films. I had seen the best: Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind, Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Grand Illusion, etc. I was just beginning to get into film noir during this period. The AMC channel had just come out and was showing classic movies non stop and commercial free and I was in heaven. One of the first films I saw on the channel was the Vincent Price film noir The Web. While The Web might not rank up there with Murder My Sweet or Out Of The Past, it‘s still a really fun movie. At the time I wasn’t much aware of Price’s non period/non horror work and I found this movie highly entertaining. In The Web, Price plays a high powered businessman who commits a complex murder and then frames his bodyguard/lawyer(Edmond O’Brian) and personal assistant(Ella Rains)for the crime. Again, he was charismatic, witty, debonair and, of course, politely villainous.

Vincent Price lures Ella Raines into "The Web"
 What I’ve always found fascinating about Vincent Price is that you rarely see Price LOOKING mean or evil. He rarely gives you a scowl or angry look. That is to say, he’s not obvious about his villainy. He often has a look that says “am I really being all that evil? I’m not that bad, am I?” When his evil plans are foiled, Price usually has a look of mild concern or annoyance. When he’s about to kill someone, he often looks sorry about it. And you believe he just might be. Even when he’s trying to summon Satan or framing you for murder or has you strapped to a table with a giant razor edged pendulum above you. What makes Price so disarming in The Web is his chemistry with both O’Brien. There’s a great scene with O’Brien and Price playing poker and taking hypothetical jabs at each other. You really want them to be friends and hang out with each other and you’re kind of shocked at how easily he’s willing to destroy him as well as Raines. That’s the genius of Vincent Price.

After watching The Web I developed a renewed interest in Price and attended a film retrospective and book signing for Lucy Chase Williams essential and informative resource The Films Of Vincent Price. Hazel Court was also there and it was a grand time listening to stories about Price and watching House On Haunted Hill, Return Of The Fly and The Masque Of The Red Death. The book only served to make me even more of a fan once I had read all those synopsis of Vincent Price films I had never seen and that, once discovered, went on to become favorites of mine such as Dragonwyck, The Baron Of Arizona and His Kind Of Woman.

Over the years, the more I learned about Price the more I liked him. There are still some Vincent Price films out there that I have never seen and continue to be on the lookout for. The knowledge that I have not seen all of his films, that I have more Vincent Price performances yet to discover thrills me just about as much as The Raven did 40 some years ago.


Friday, August 16, 2013


I have to struggle to remember the last high concept sci-fi film that was any good.  They really are hard to come by these days. The ones that come immediately to mind are Gattaca, Moon, Primer and District 9. Good sci-fi films really are a lost art.  Failing to make it into that last catagory is Elysium. This is the newest film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. I very much enjoyed District 9. Elysium--not so much. It's a pretty obvious movie with a none too subtle message about the have's and have not's. It has a couple of fun action sequences and great effects, but we know where the movie is going at all times.

4 guys tinkering in the garage in Primer(2004) ends up being far more chilling than anything in Elysium  
There are literally no surprises here so by the time we get to the films end, ultimately, it's a complete waste of time. There is a good cast but they don't really look like their hearts are in it. Except, that is, for Sharlto Copley who I think is terrifically entertaining in everything I've seen him in. Foster is really a wet blanket in this which is a shame because her performance in Spike Lee's Inside Man was brilliant and showed that she could play a devious, mercenary character with charm, wit and complexity. Here she plays a one dimensional security guard with delusions of grandeur. Badly. She tries to hide it by speaking in French but it doesn’t work.

Matt Damon in Elysium

In the future, Earth is a cesspool and all the rich folks live on the luxury satellite Elysium. Jodie Foster is the satellites security chief who doesn't have time for any niceties or criticism of her tactics. But say what you want, she keeps all those pesky poor and, in some cases, dying immigrants off the rich folks lawns. Matt Damon is a worker bee with a criminal past who is exposed to lethal radiation on the job thanks to a jerk of a boss (who isn’t completely dissimilar to one I had in the late 80s) and has five days to live.

Jodie Foster and a glass of water in Elysium
With nothing to lose, he goes to his old crime boss pal to try and score a ticket to Elysium where they have these cool healing machines that can cure just about everything short of death itself. Part of the price for that ticket is to kidnap a wealthy businessman and steal the information in his brain which includes codes to get into Elysium and other stuff that I didn‘t care about. To help Damon in his efforts, he is given an exoskeleton that enhances his strength that is literally screwed to his body. And not even with self tapping screws!  Just regular old machine screws!  Seriously?!

Sharlto Copley, angry at his two flunkies in Elysium
Unknown to Damon, the businessman they choose to kidnap has been hired by Foster to help her stage a coup of Elysium. When the info is downloaded into Damon's head, Foster is determined to capture him and get the rather embarrassing info back and, after that, kill him. To accomplish this she needs the help of savage trouble shooter Sharlto Copley. But when Copley finds out what Damon has in his head, he decides that he also wants to use the info to take over Elysium. Meanwhile, in order to get some leverage against Damon, Copley has kidnapped Damon's former love played by Alice Braga(here playing a character that is almost indistinguishable from her character in I Am Legend and every other part she‘s ever played). Turns out Braga also needs to get to Elysium so that she can get her dying daughter healed. It all ends in a climactic battle between Copley and Damon on Elysium.

Thurman and Hawke in Gattaca(1997). Scenes from films that are better than the one I'm actually reviewing are fun to look at, aren't they?
Elysium is the second disappointing big budget sci fi film I've seen this year, the first being Oblivion. This movie is much better than Oblivion, mainly because Elysium doesn't have Tom Cruise and does have Sharlto Copley. Copley’s over the top psycho mercenary "Kruger" is the highlight of the film. Whether he’s filled with panic while turning into a “Prawn” or playing the lunatic pilot Madman Murdock in The A-Team, Copley never fails to entertain. Unfortunately, even his exuberance can’t save the mundane Elysium.

You got a problem with that?

Saturday, July 13, 2013



It’s been a relatively disappointing season for blockbusters this year. So far at least. Iron Man was a bloated, incoherent mess that wasn't nearly as clever as it thought it was. Lone Ranger had good intentions and tried really hard to be fun but never quite got there. Man Of Steel was bleak, languid, humorless and wallowed in the 911 imagery like it was a “money shot.” Star Trek: Into Darkness seemed obligatory, tired and played out. Oblivion, well, that was just plain dumb. Yup, it was looking pretty bad for blockbusters this year. The critics have been circling this years summer movie fare like hungry sharks waiting for a bucket of chum(or at the very least, a sacrificial lamb they can point to when it’s time to trot out the usual series of “are summer blockbusters an endangered species?” articles). Yes, I was getting pretty tired of this years blockbuster offerings. And so it was that I went in to see Pacific Rim, fully prepared to be nonplussed and disappointed at best and angry at yet another disappointment at worst. Yet I found myself smiling in spite of my preconceived notions. Even laughed a few times and eventually, marveled at a series of spectacular battles between giant robots and giant monsters.

One of the many giant creatures that plague humanity in Pacific Rim
And that’s basically what Pacific Rim is about. Giant monsters vs. giant robots. A simple idea padded with humor, fun and a lot of heart. Giant monsters or “Kaiju”(think of a much more angry Cloverfield) have invaded earth through a fissure in the ocean floor and have done their darndest to destroy the world. The nations have put aside their differences and joined forces to build a bunch of giant robots or “Jaegers”(Iron Man meets Giant Robo meets Ultra Man) to destroy these creatures. The problem is that the creatures keep coming and each time they seem to get bigger and stronger and smarter. The Jaegers are controlled by a two person team of pilots who must join minds to operate the giant robots. Raleigh Becket(Charlie Hunnam) is a former Jaeger pilot whose career was ended after losing his co pilot in a battle with a Kaiju.

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi lead the "Jaeger" pilots in battle against the Kaiju in Pacific Rim
Stacker Pentecost(Idris “Luther” Elba) is the commander in charge of the Jaeger program which is about to be de-funded by the world governments who favor building a giant wall to ward off the Kaiju. Mako Mori(Rinko Kikuchi) is Pentecost's protégé who, as a little girl, was almost killed by a Kaiju and saved by Pentecost when the Jaeger program was still in its infancy and still had some dangerous kinks to work out. Then we have Charlie Day and Burn Gorman playing the comedy relief. Day and Gorman give us two types of “nutty professor.” Day is the young, green, nerdy scientist with the crazy ideas who thinks the Kaiju’s are cool. Gorman is the buttoned down tweed wearing Brit mathematician, certain that he’s right about everything. When the giant wall proves completely ineffectual, Pentecost pressures Raleigh to return to the Jaeger program for a last ditch effort to destroy the Kaiju. Raleigh’s new partner is Mako and both have demons and thoughts of revenge to overcome(or exploit) if they are to meld minds and control Raleigh’s old Jaeger, now restored and fully loaded.

Giant Robot battles a bad case of pink eye and inspires del Toro's monster film Pacific Rim
The film is clearly del Toro’s nostalgic tribute to all those old Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, Voyage Into Space and Gamera. The films characters are fairly one dimensional archetypes that seem pulled from all the endless sci-fi/fantasy anime films. Even things like Speed Racer came to mind. The battles between the Kaiju and Jaegers are straight out of Voyage Into Space aka Tokusatsu, aka Giant Robo, aka Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. We even get a new version of Giant Robot’s “Atomic Punch”(although “rocket elbow” just doesn’t sound as catchy). But there are problems with the film. Talent like Elba, Ron Perlman(hilarious as the head of the Kaiju black market) and Kikuchi(who steals every scene she's in) make the bad actors stand out like sore thumbs. And there are some pretty bad actors in this. Luckily they aren’t called upon to do the heavy lifting here. That honor belongs to the epic Jaeger/Kaiju fist fights, the terrific special effects and del Toro’s unmistakable joy over the material which infuses the film with a sense of humor about itself and a big heart.

Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah just working some things out.  It's a monster thing.
Pacific Rim isn’t the greatest movie ever made. It’s not even the best mindless summer blockbuster ever made. But unlike most of the big budget blockbusters we’ve gotten so far this year, Pacific Rim is one that I might actually go back and see a second time because it‘s just fun. It’s a sappy, silly film with elements of Starship Troopers and Real Steel and Transformers and it’s not nearly as inventive or as imaginative as del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.  Still, it’s an entertaining, popcorn crunching, monster/robot slugfest with a sense of humor and in a summer filled with blockbusters devoid of humor or heart, Pacific Rim makes for a nice change of pace.

Monday, July 8, 2013


There isn't a single scene in John Ford’s Wagon Master(1950) that I don’t enjoy.  It’s said that John Ford purposely avoided casting longtime collaborator John Wayne in the film for fear that his presence would overwhelm the story, and I couldn't agree more. I enjoy the majority of Wayne’s films but he would have been a terrible distraction in this quiet, subtle masterpiece about the odyssey of a wagon train full of Mormons, a huckster, a couple of fallen women and an evil bank robber (Charles Kemper) and his psychopathic sons.

Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson in John Ford's Wagon Master
Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are the unlikely and reluctant heroes who rise to the challenge in the most spectacular fashion. Ford’s genius here is that neither are quick draws or killers. They're just a couple of young guys who only wanted to trade some horses and make a little cash. But they're nice guys and when Ward Bond and his band of ostracized Mormons fail to heed warnings about the treacherous journey Bond is embarking on, Johnson and Carey do the right thing and help them out.

Ward Bond (center) is the leader of lost Mormons in Wagon Master
The movie is full of moments that make me smile. There's a wonderful bit where the group is dancing and having a little celebration. It's a sweet moment and one of the best dance scenes that I've ever seen in film. Full of joy and warmth and fun. And then there's Kemper and his sons. Shown at the very beginning of the film robbing a bank (my favorite shot in the movie). What is so scary about them is that they seem like not so threatening amateurs who become frighteningly homicidal at the drop of a hat.

Ben Johnson and Joanne Dru fall for each other in Wagon Master

Another great moment is the introduction of huckster Alan Mowbray and his traveling companions Francis Ford and Joanne Dru. All of them drunk when Johnson stumbles upon them, having run out of water and forced to drink the alcoholic elixir that Mowbray was run out of town for selling. One of the greatest moments in the film is when Mowbray volunteers to ride his wagon over a treacherous trail. It's a grand and poignant moment of self sacrifice as Mowbray realizes that he is nothing and the success of the journey is everything. The movie is about moments like that. The exhilaration and joy of finding water. The fusing of different kinds of people into a family. The relationship between Dru and Johnson is nicely underplayed and subtle. We see they love each other and Ford knows that we don't need to be hit on the head with obvious scenes full of overwrought dialogue.

I also love Ben Johnsons character here. When the evil Kemper takes over the wagon train, hot head Carey is angry that Johnson doesn't act to prevent it. Johnson wisely tells him that they need to live because if they get killed, the group of people will be lost and will probably die. He's responsible for them, and waits to act until they're safe. Johnson is a true hero in this. The scene reminds me of an old Spider-Man comic from the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era when Peter Parker finds himself in a similar position to that of Ben Johnson when Spider-Man must let himself be seen by others as afraid or as a coward by running from a fight with the Sandman in order to stay alive for the welfare of his sickly Aunt May. It’s a type of heroism that is not often seen in film or in the black and white style of heroism seen in comic books for that matter. When the hero must sacrifice his ego and let the villain have his small victory in order to live and save the lives of others, to fight for something bigger than yourself. Ford gives us that kind of transcendent heroism in Wagon Master.

Peter Parker has much in common with Ben Johnsons western hero of Wagon Master

Johnson’s character is also smart enough to be scared. There’s a scene where Ward Bond asks him if he's afraid of Kemper and Johnson says yes. Then Bond asks Carey, who doesn't want to admit his fear and is about to make a posturing remark when Bond cuts him off and says "that makes three of us.” It's a wonderfully honest moment. There are also some great moments of suspense. When the group is treated to Navajo hospitality and one of Kempers sons attempts to rape an Indian girl. Bond has him strapped to a wagon wheel and whipped to placate the Indians. Kemper is silently outraged and it sets up a strong tone of suspense that carries through the rest of the film until we see the violent finale.

Some of Bert Glennon's stunning photography in Wagon Master
Wagon Master reminds me of movies such as Outlaw Josie Wales and Unforgiven. There is that examination of morality and violence handled with a level of subtlety, realism and sensitivity that we often only see in some of Eastwood's films and in some of the best Western films. There's also some lovely photography by Bert Glennon. This film just looks great and is shot almost entirely on location. There’s also an enjoyable musical score by Richard Hageman. Terrific movie from top to bottom with top notch performances by all.  Plus, you just know that when John Ford and Merian Cooper get together it's going to be great.  I’ve seen Wagon Master probably a dozen times at least and every time I enjoy it more than I did the last.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Wagon Master on Friday July 12, at 12:15 PM Eastern. Don’t miss it!




Monday, June 17, 2013


This week Turner Classic Movies is showing Devotion(1948), a highly fictionalized yet very entertaining story of literary legends, sisters Emily and Charlotte Brontë. The story begins with the Bronte siblings, Emily (Ida Lupino) Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) Anne (Nancy Coleman) and Branwell (Arthur Kennedy) spending a day out on the moors. Kennedy's Branwell Bronte is a tortured, darkly cynical, self defeating alcoholic, living in the shadow of his more driven sisters. Lupino plays Emily as stoic, practical and shy about her work. She is haunted by dreams of a dark, mysterious stranger on horseback riding the moors. De Havilland plays Charlotte as the driven, ambitious romantic who dreams of literary success for her and Emily. Younger sister Anne is the perky sister played by perky Nancy Coleman.

L to R: Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino and Nancy Coleman as the Bronte Sisters in Devotion
Enter Paul Henried as Reverend Nicholls. Emily and Nicholls strike up a friendship but to Emily it's more than that. They roam the moors and she takes him to the foot of a hillside where stands a dark, abandoned house. Emily is haunted, yet attracted to the site, which she has named "Wuthering Heights". Over time, she becomes more infatuated with Nicholls. Not long after, Emily's siblings return home. One night, Nicholls escorts the three sisters to a party thrown by one of the town elites. Nicholls is immediately attracted to Charlotte, but the feelings are not reciprocated. There is a wonderful scene where the three sisters, all in a row, pull out their fans, flip them open, smile, (all in unison) and enter a huge ballroom, chomping at the bit to do some dancing.  Charlotte is not deterred by Nicholls' advances. She is trying to save money for her and Emily to go to Brussels to teach English in return for an education at the school.

Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy and Nancy Coleman out on the Moors in Devotion
Once in Brussels, a lovesick Emily pines for Nicholls and the moors. Charlotte meanwhile has become swept off her feet by a married professor. During this time, both sisters work on their novels....Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. After a bout of disillusionment, Charlotte returns home and reevaluates Nicholls as Emily helplessly watches. There is a great scene between Emily and Kennedy when he deduces from his sisters novels that they are both in love with the same man. To one Nicholls is Rochester, to the other, he is Heathcliff. Eventually, Nicholls realizes that the developing triangle can not continue and their relationship ends badly.  Charlotte, in a great scene, looks at her manuscript for Jane Eyre and says to Emily--"I know nothing. I understand nothing. Yet I have dared to write two hundred thousand words about life."

Bedtime for the Brontë's

This is a great, moody, gothic love story as well as being one of my favorite Ida Lupino films(coming in just a few films below The Hard Way). The film is enjoyable enough that you really don't care about the staggering amount of historical inaccuracies. It starts off with rather disjointed pacing but it suddenly gels about a quarter of the way in and really takes off. It has a wonderfully complex musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The films photography looks great. My only nitpick is that the scenes on the moors are done on soundstage. These scenes would have benefited nicely from some location shooting.

Ida Lupino and Arthur Kennedy in Devotion

While I enjoyed the love story elements, the thing that I enjoyed the most was the relationship between the sisters and between Kennedy and Lupino. Lupino understands the brother in a way that none of the other family does. Kennedy is great as the drunk, dark, brooding and tortured artist. He knows he's doomed and so does Lupino. But it’s that understanding and acceptance of each other and their fates that only they share that I found fascinating. Also adding to the enjoyment is Sidney Greenstreet as William Makepeace Thackeray. There is a funny scene when Greenstreet comes out of a book signing with De Havilland. A man says "Hello Thackeray" and Greenstreet replies "Hello Dickens". De Havilland is upset that Greenstreet doesn't introduce her. Greenstreet responds...."I shouldn't like you to get involved with that kind of riff raff my dear".
The Brontë nightshirt competition.  My money's on Ida.
Devotion was actually filmed in 43. However, De Havilland was in a contract dispute with Warners that lasted three years. During the dispute, Warners shelved the film, not wanting to give De Havilland any positive press. De Havilland won her case and was released from her contract with Warners. She then went on to do To Each His Own (1946) for Paramount for which she won a best actress Oscar. Wanting to cash in on that success, Warners then released Devotion.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Devotion on Wednesday at 2:45 pm Eastern. Don’t miss it!

Friday, June 14, 2013


As I sat in the theater watching Man Of Steel, witnessing all of the all too real looking devastation taking place in the wake of the battle between Superman and General Zod, all I could think about was how it was going to take decades for that city to recover and rebuild. I guess that comes from living in a post 911 world. The destruction was so thorough and complete and so effectively portrayed with terrific effects that all I could think of was how these people were ever going to recover from this. I think to best sum up my feelings about Man Of Steel, I’d have to quote from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s film Team America: World Police. There’s a scene when the puppet version of Kim Jong Il tells one of the Team America agents “It will be 911 times a thousand.” The point being that Man of Steel is serious. Really, really serious.

Henry Cavill as Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka Superman

The problem is that it maintains that tone throughout the film, never letting up once to give us a quiet moment of humor or to let us take a breath long enough to get to know the characters in this newest film version of the Superman mythos. Even when we get to the Smallville moments, it’s still so, so earnest! One good example of that is when we see how Clark Kent loses his father. Remember in the original film when the brilliant Glenn Ford gave us that terrific death scene when he quietly clutches his arm and has his heart attack? It was a tragic, touching and incredibly poignant moment. In Man Of Steel however, Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent doesn’t go out so quietly (nor with as much emotional impact). No, he is killed by a monstrously gargantuan and deafeningly loud tornado. And on it goes.

Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Jor-El and Lara
Superman is the last survivor of Krypton, a planet whose core is about to implode. Jor-El warns them all of course but everyone is too busy fending off General Zod who is trying to take over the planet. Jor-El, in an attempt to save his species and his newborn son, imbues the child with the genetic code of the Kryptonian race by zapping the genetic information stored in an old broken skull into Kal-El’s tummy before the child is sent off into space. Ok. Zod is eventually stopped and, along with his fellow traitors, frozen and shipped off to the Phantom Zone.

Michael Shannon as a very angry General Zod
Meanwhile, on Earth, we are given a muddled series of flashbacks showing a young Clark Kent trying to cope with his powers and occasionally saving people, much to Pa Kent’s dismay. He fears that if his adopted son’s powers are exposed that Clark will be feared and hunted. He’s even willing to needlessly sacrifice himself to a gigantic tornado and force Clark not to save him in order to keep Clark’s secret (although one supposes that there might have been any number of easier ways to make his point). Oddly, the film borrows more than a little from Peter Parker and Uncle Ben with regards to Clark’s growth as a hero.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Superman movie without Lois Lane. I have been on record as saying that Amy Adams was miscast as Lois and after seeing the film I stand by that. I have nothing against Adams. I think she’s a talented actor. However, as Adam’s plays her, she’s subdued, subtle and has the annoying habit of over enunciating her words. I was reminded of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady reciting “The Rain In Spain” for Rex Harrison. Adams has none of the moxy of Kidder or Hatcher or Noel Neill or even cartoon Lois Dana Delany. There’s no real explanation for why Lois makes her first appearance in the Arctic. She seems at first to be some sort of military or scientific consultant rather than a reporter trying to get a story. All we know is that she had to get a court order to get there and makes a “dick measuring“ comment to the officer in charge but does it with all the forcefulness and wit of a librarian on Xanax. She is fascinated by Superman (as a good Lois Lane should be) and he by her even though the film doesn’t‘ give them much choice as they are thrown together in a harrowing series of events almost from the moment the two meet until the films end. But, in the immortal words of Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom “No time for love, Dr. Jones!” There isn’t much of a relationship between Superman and Lois because there’s no time for one. Too much death and destruction and desperate battles going on. The film makers seem to realize this so even though there’s no time to actually develop their relationship in any way what so ever, they still have the two look dreamily into each others eyes when they get a breather. Fair enough.
Ayelet Zurer as Superman's mother Lara
It’s an interesting experiment to recall the Superman vs. Zod scenes from Superman 2 and then watch this new film. There are a lot of similarities, even down to Zod’s two sidekicks, both knock offs of Superman 2’s Ursa and Non and both doing basically the same thing, only this time it’s less comic booky and much more serious. For example, we don’t get any interesting character quirks like Superman 2’s Ursa collecting buttons and patches from the men she had killed. Faora just kills people--with earnest. We don’t really get much of anything with regards to scenes at the Daily Planet even though Laurence Fishburne does what he can to make his limited screen time as Perry White count. There are nods to The Matrix, why I don’t know. There are scenes on Krypton that remind me of Avatar, what with all the flying creatures and things. Russell Crowe is watchable as Jor-El. Costner and Diane Lane are, well, earnest. For my money, the most quietly intriguing and interesting performance of the film was given by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as baby Superman’s mother Lara. In fact, I want to put her name up now as a possible contender for the role of Princess Diana if and when DC/Warner Bros ever make a Wonder Woman film. When it was all over, I found myself thinking of Ayelet’s performance the most. Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod is great(even though I kept having flashbacks of him as Kim Fowley from The Runaways). But he overshadows everything and everyone much like Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s first Batman film.

Lois and Clark: Not Fun
During the occasional 15 to 30 seconds when the action briefly lets up, Hans Zimmer’s score keeps the relentlessly serious and desperate tone of the film consistent. There is no doubt that director Zack Snyder has a flair for the visual if not the coherent. He proved that in Watchmen and 300. But both of those films had a sense of humor in spite of their bleak stories where Man of Steel does not. There is literally no sense of humor or a single ounce of wit to be found in this film. Anywhere. At all. Zip. After the film ended, I watched as the audience filed out of the theater, looking dazed and exhausted and expressionless. There was no “How about that scene when Superman did X or Y.”

Lois and Clark: Fun
  There was no laughter or cheering. I thought of how stark a difference this reaction was to when I saw the first Superman film where the audience virtually leapt to their feet and cheered or laughed. I was also reminded of Marvel/Disney’s The Avengers where the audience was much more invested and the audience experience seemed much more interactive. Here the audience seemed dumfounded. And with good cause. The collapsing buildings and death and destruction that takes place in Metropolis as General Zod terraforms the planet and fights with Superman is wholesale and complete and might make some feel kind of raw when it’s all over.

The winner and undefeated champ since 1978.  Christopher Reeve is Superman

I wouldn’t’ take a young child to see this film and that speaks to the main problem of Man Of Steel. It’s Superman. You know? Superman! Superman is the one comic book character where I can forgive a certain amount of sappiness and copious amounts of idealism and even a little bit of camp. You need a little bit of each in order to sell an audience on a flying alien in blue long johns and a cape. If Man Of Steel accomplishes anything it is to remind us how amazing Christopher Reeve was in the role. Christopher Reeve once said that, when it came to his portrayal of Superman, he let the costume, that silly, iconic costume, do all the talking while he just played it straight, just played a nice guy. That was the genius of his performance and that‘s why, in spite of all the silly things about that first movie, it continues to be the gold standard of Superhero films because it had heart, a sense of humor and a hero we cared about. Henry Cavill definitely looks the part and, with a script that lets him do more than brood and frown and simmer, he could potentially be a pretty good Superman. He’s no worse or better than Brandon Routh. But he’s no Christopher Reeve and Man Of Steel is no Superman The Movie. Superman the Movie made me smile, made me laugh, made me cheer. I left Superman The Movie feeling happy. As I did with Avengers and some of the other Marvel films. There was absolutely no joy in Man Of Steel and that’s a real problem when you’re doing a Superman movie. And I think that is DC’s problem when it comes to their Superhero films. A lack of humor, too much of an investment in shoehorning a comic book character into the real world. Or, at the very least, a really, really serious world.