FILM REVIEWS, COLLECTION UPDATES, COMMENTS ON CINEMATIC CULTURE

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

EARLY PUBLICITY FOR BARBARA STEELE

 

Full disclosure: One of my collecting obsessions is old magazines, including the movie magazines that were all over the newsstands back in the days of my lost youth, meaning the 1950s and 1960s. They had names like Modern Screen, Motion Picture, Screen Stories, and TV Radio Mirror. They all seemed to disappear at some point in the 1970s, eventually to be replaced by new publications like People Magazine and Us. They were all gossip mags for the most part, but also existed to gain publicity for new studio films and the stars who played in them. I've also managed to accumulate quite a few issues of Life Magazine and its competitor, Look. Both of these periodicals featured quite a bit of movie news and often had major stars on their covers.

As her film career was getting started, British beauty Barbara Steele was occasionally given the same kind of publicity promotion that other new, hopeful actors and actresses were given in the print media. The photo on the left, which is one of the most beautiful photos ever taken of her, appeared in the December 1, 1958 issue of Life Magazine. She had just completed a small part in her first film, BACHELOR OF HEARTS, and was being promoted by her studio, the Rank Organization. There were two other photos:




The text reads as follows:

"When all stretched out, the girl above measures five feet six inches, weighs eight-and-a-half stone and is pretty proof that, as far as potential movie stars go, England has plenty to offer. Her name is Barbara Steele, a 20-year-old Liverpudlian under contract to the Rank Organization, which feels there is cinematic gold in this provocative miss. Barbara came to London from her native Liverpool to pursue a career in art and antiques. She was painting sets for a theater when the director decided that she would look much better on than backstage. She did repertory in Brighton, a play in Glasgos and now has completed her first film, Bachelor of Hearts. To advance her promising career, she went about London recently, posing her special beauty against the background of the city. But she is happiest on Portobello Road where there is an outdoor market for antiques and junk. There, every Saturday, she sells copper jewelry and old prints from her pushcart, as shrewd a dealer as any there." 

Barbara always believed that director Mario Bava cast her in his debut film, Black Sunday (1960), after seeing this article in Life. Who knows? Certainly, the photo at the top exudes the kind of mystery he was looking for.

Barbara wasn't the only young celebrity being promoted in this issue. A rising rock and roll singer named Ricky Nelson was featured on the cover.



















In the July 4, 1961 issue of Look Magazine, Barbara was featured in a lengthy article entitled Beauty Parlay, where she was shown getting her hair sprayed:


Presumably, this took place when she was in America filming The Pit and the Pendulum for director Roger Corman. The cover of this issue was graced by the new and glamorous First Lady of the United States, Jaqueline Kennedy. Interesting that these two women would both be featured in the same issue of Look, considering that film critic, Pauline Kael, in her review of Black Sunday, said that Barbara looked like "Jaqueline Kennedy in a trance".


Next, in something called Hollywood Secrets Yearbook: All-New Giant Star Directory, Miss Steele is found in the article Tomorrow's Stars: Applause, Please!. There were quite a few names and faces that might be remembered, such as Larry Pennell, Joan Freeman and Ingrid Thulin. But there were also several young hopefuls that apparently had very brief careers.


The picture used in the article is from Barbara's "blonde" period when she was under contract to 20th Century-Fox. This magazine is copyrighted in 1962, and by this time, Barbara had left Fox and was living and working in Italy. But this publicity piece claims she is still a Fox starlet. Her career did much better than the other names on this page. Brian Kelly did fairly well as an actor, and was the executive producer of Blade Runner. But this is the first I've heard of Trax Colton. (Why didn't my parents give me the name Trax Colton??? Oh, what might have been...) One wonders if Barbara and Trax ever ran into each other in the hallways at Fox. If I ever get a chance to see her at another convention, I will definitely ask her. 

In the meantime, this ancient issue of Hollywood Secrets Yearbook promises not only the latest dramatic headlines, but reveals Hollywood's only REAL he-men. 








Saturday, February 24, 2024

THE STAR (1952)

 

Of all the Bette Davis pictures that I love to watch over and over again, and they are legion, THE STAR is close to the top of the list. Not only does it feature one of Miss Davis's most energetic performances, but it's also the first time she played a movie star on film. She had played a stage actress in three previous films. The first time was in DANGEROUS, for which she won her first Oscar for Best Actress of 1935. Then there was her co-starring role opposite Leslie Howard in IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER in 1937. And, of course, in 1950 she triumphed as Margo Channing in the Best Picture of 1950, ALL ABOUT EVE, which garnered Davis her eighth nomination for Best Actress. 

Bette Davis's convincing emotional portrayal of an aging, struggling Broadway actress in ALL ABOUT EVE encouraged many people to wonder how similar the onscreen Margo and the offscreen Bette might actually be, although to the end of her life she would insist that no such similarity existed. When she took on the role of aging, struggling movie actress Margaret Elliot in THE STAR, there was even more speculation that aging, struggling actress Bette Davis was telling her own story in front of the cameras.

When the film opens, Margaret Elliot is walking down a Hollywood street toward an auction house where her possessions are being sold to pay off her considerable debts. Although she had been a successful, popular Oscar-winning star, Margaret is now unable to get a picture and is running out of money. She lives in a small apartment and her daughter, Gretchen, is staying with her father. a successful actor, and stepmother in a luxurious mansion. Margaret's rent is past due, and she is threatened with eviction. She has been supporting her family for years. After a fight with her sister and brother-in-law over money, Margaret throws them out. In a fit of anger and desperation, she grabs her Academy Award and says, "Come on, Oscar. Let's you and me get drunk!" She ends up running from the police, has an accident, and is arrested for drunk driving. She spends the night in jail, but is bailed out the next morning by Jim Johanssen, a former actor who played opposite Margaret in one of her movies. 

Screen star Margaret Elliot (Bette Davis) confronts her younger self as her possessions are being sold off.



A Hollywood diva spends a night in the slammer.

When Margaret is locked out of her apartment, she goes to stay with Jim, who confesses he's always been in love with her. He tries to convince her that being through in the movie business isn't the end of her life and she should try a different kind of work. He suggests she try working in a department store as a sales lady. She tries it for one day and walks out, going straight to her agent's office. She insists that the agent find her a film role, specifically in The Fatal Winter, a story for which she once had an option. The young woman she wanted to play is now going to aspiring actress Barbara Lawrence. But Margaret is offered the role of the older sister, if she agrees to a screen test. When she arrives for the test and is made up to look old and worn out, she changes her makeup, believing that if she looks and acts like a younger woman, she might get the part of the younger sister after all. Margaret believes that one good picture will put her back on top again.

Margaret (Bette Davis) in her ill-fated screen test.

After seeing the test, Margaret realizes her mistake and is devastated. She goes to her agent's home to find rest and seclusion. But the agent has forgotten that he and his wife are hosting a large party that evening. Margaret wakes up to all the noise and activity and tries to leave the house. Her agent's wife convinces her to stay. A young writer tells Margaret that he has a perfect part for her as an aging movie star who has been living in a Hollywood fantasy world for so long that has given up her birthright: just being a woman. Margaret's eyes are opened to her own sad reality. She runs from the house, picks up her daughter, and goes back to Jim to find true fulfillment as a woman.

Well, at least that's what the film would have us believe! Who knows? Maybe it will work out. After all, Jim is being played by tall, handsome, stalwart Sterling Hayden. His function in the movie is to provide a rock-solid wall of refuge and strength for the frantic, self-absorbed screen queen to cling to when she's finally ready to accept that her career is finished. Hayden was born for roles like Jim Johanssen. The chemistry between Hayden and Davis is such that the audience can accept the possibility that movie goddess Margaret can suddenly find bliss and contentment as a housewife. By all indications, the sex will be terrific. Until it isn't. Then it's quite possible that Margaret will once again grab her Oscar and go out drinking.

Margaret goes to a department store to begin a second career as a sales lady.



Sterling Hayden and Natalie Wood

All cynicism aside, this movie is pure soap opera, so it's OK to have fun when discussing it. The fact that the conclusion of the story is more than a little hard to accept doesn't take anything away from the skilled actors doing their best to pull at your heartstrings and provide you with a satisfying ending for these likable characters. Miss Davis was impressive enough in this film to win her ninth Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Indeed, she has some powerful scenes. My favorite scene is when she is watching her screen test. She goes into the viewing room with total confidence. But when she sees how bad she is in the footage, her reaction to her own bad acting is visceral. She screams at her image: "Shut up! You don't know anything!!" Being forced to watch her terrible performance destroys her. In this scene, Davis is as commanding and gripping as she was in her greatest performances during her years as the top star at Warner Brothers.

Apart from the romantic aspects of the plot, THE STAR had a progressive style and a kind of realism that was becoming more common in the 1950s. We see Margaret working behind the counter of a department store in what appears to be an actual location. She drives drunk down a Hollywood street. She goes into a drug store and steals a bottle of perfume. At the auction house, she stands in front of a bigger-than-life portrait of herself (A George Hurrell glamour shot of Davis.) while the auctioneer says of Margaret: 

"She was your favorite movie star. You stood in line to see her latest picture. She made you laugh. She made you cry. You were secretly in love with her. Show Margaret Elliot you haven't forgotten her."

This was the era when the Hollywood star system was beginning to break down and the film industry was turning inward and becoming more critical of itself. THE STAR belongs in the same category with films like SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952). One of Davis's competitors for the Oscar in 1952 was none other than Joan Crawford in the excellent Noir SUDDEN FEAR. Supposedly, Crawford was offered the part of Margaet Elliot and turned it down. It's also believed by many that Crawford was the inspiration for the character. Authoress Charlotte Chandler, who wrote biographies of both Davis and Crawford, has said that if Davis had suspected that THE STAR was based on herself, she never would have played the role. But if she knew it was based on Crawford, she would be more than happy to play it! True story or Tinseltown gossip? Does it even matter? The speculation only adds to the fun of watching the movie.

Marital bliss or stardom? Margaret Elliot has a difficult choice to make.


A few years down the road, Sterling Hayden would try to tame Joan Crawford in Nicholas Ray's quirky Western JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). After surviving that ordeal, he took on yet another diva, Barbara Stanwyck, in CRIME OF PASSION (1957). Natalie Wood is third-billed as Margaret's daughter, Gretchen. The young lady was fourteen, and so lovely and natural, she is a joy to behold, stealing every scene she's in. Wood was one of the most talented and effective child actresses of the 1940s, although never reaching major stardom. In THE STAR, we see the promise of a career that will come a few years later when, at seventeen, she has her breakthrough role in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). Aspiring blonde actress Barbara Lawrence has a nice cameo playing herself.

Stuart Heisler, the director, had been a film editor since 1921 and began directing in 1936. Some of his impressive credits include THE HURRICANE (1937), AMONG THE LIVING (1941), THE GLASS KEY (1942), and STORM WARNING (1951).



Wednesday, January 31, 2024

SNARK 3: COMMENTARIES WITH A SOMEWHAT NEGATIVE (SNARKY) EDGE

LADY IN A CAGE (1964)

This intense, well-acted entry into the Horror Hag genre that began after the success of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? in 1962, is without a doubt one of the most thoroughly unpleasant movies ever made. Olivia de Havilland is trapped in the elevator in her beautiful house when the power goes out. With no way to call for help, she is terrorized by a bizarre group of thieves who break in to rob her blind and then decide to kill her. Another example of the violent cynicism of the 1960s deconstruction of American culture. With James Caan, Ann Sothern, Jeff Corey, Rafael Campos, and Jennifer Billingsley.



COCKTAIL (1988)

I finally got around to watching this very popular 80s Tom Cruise flick. Not a bad way to spend a quiet, mediocre night in front of the TV. The main reason to watch it is to study all of the acting tricks Mr. Cruise has been using since his younger days to ingratiate himself with the moviegoing masses. Like all romcoms, there is an endless onslaught of pop tunes to keep the viewers entertained, distracted, and, quite possibly, awake. Elizabeth Shue functions as a living, breathing reaction to Cruise and the aforementioned acting tricks. Within those particular confines, she does an acceptable job. Bryan Brown threatens to steal the picture and almost succeeds.


MODESTY BLAISE (1966)

The only reason to appreciate this film is the chance to see Monica Vitti lighten up and have a little fun after having starred in four deadly serious films for Michaelangelo Antonioni. Despite the fact that she changes clothes for every scene and has to kill a few people, the film demands zero from her in terms of acting.

True, she is joined by a cast of talented actors (Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Rosella Falk), all of whom play their roles with tongues firmly in cheeks. And there is a lot of color, some exotic sets, and enough 1960s artistic sensibility to make you think you've died and gone to Woodstock. With all of these positive factors going for it, you might think the film would be worth watching.

You would be wrong.

It must take a lot of effort and dedication to make a movie this boring, but noted director Joseph Losey has risen to the occasion admirably. There is a plot. At least I think there is. It's best not to attempt to figure it out. Healthy minds have been known to snap while trying to make sense of stories like this one. Far better to just relax, enjoy the scenery, and gaze at Miss Vitti as you wait for the movie to finish, at which time you can berate yourself for the 119 minutes you have lost forever.


NATURAL BORN KILLERS (994)

This film is conclusive proof that director Oliver Stone is:

(Please choose one of the following.)

1. A potential murderous psychopath who drinks blood for breakfast.

2. An escapee from a mental institution who needs to be sent back.

3. In serious need of extensive drug therapy.

4. A cinematic sadist who should never have been allowed near a movie camera.

5. A singular, courageous, iconoclastic film auteur who possesses (or perhaps is possessed by) a dark, disturbing vision of American society and its celebration of violence.

6. All of the above.


 

Friday, January 26, 2024

MONSTER FILM CLASS: AN OVERVIEW

 

Eight weeks of monsters. Vampires, werewolves, mummies, not to mention Karloff and Lugosi. What kind of a way is that to spend the last glorious days of Summer?

The best kind, obviously. My non-credit course, The Universal Horror Film: The Birth of a Genre, instructed by film critic and scholar Chuck Koplinski, was every bit as informative and enjoyable as I expected it to be. There were about twenty-five people in the class. To my surprise, many of the people hadn't seen several of the eight films we watched, in spite of the fact everyone in the class was over fifty, and most of us much older. Apparently, not every member of my generation was as obsessed with horror films as I was. 

Chuck chose the most classic of the Universal horrors, beginning in 1931 with the two movies that started it all: DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Here are my thoughts on all of the films shown in class.

1. DRACULA  This film is still magic to me. So much unforgettable imagery. That amazingly atmospheric coach ride at the beginning, carrying the doomed Renfield to Castle Dracula. The entrance into the dark, Gothic castle, the silent descent of the Count down the long staircase, the first words from the mouth of Bela Lugosi: "I am...Dracula." Even though I've seen this movie many times and know everything that is going to happen, I still fall under its spell. And I'm grateful for that, because to lose that sense of magic and wonder would be like losing a part of my soul. The first segment of this film would work beautifully as a silent picture, no doubt because of director Tod Browning's experience in the silent era. Some critics and fans consider the rest of the film to be slow and complain about the lack of music. But I think the measured pace and the silence add to the ambience of morbidity and mounting dread. Bela Lugosi is, and will always be, the definitive Count Dracula for me. And Dwight Frye gives a standout performance as Renfield.

2. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)  This second horror triumph from Universal takes us into an entirely different realm of cinematic experience. We emerge from the dark, mystical silence of Dracula's castle and enter into the tension-filled world of an obsessed mad scientist. James Whale's directorial talents and sensibilities were totally different than those of Tod Browning. Whale was definitely rooted in the sound era. He also had a more imaginative, action-oriented style than Browning. FRANKENSTEIN is full of dark, expressionistic sets and quirky camera angles that unsettle the viewer and create an atmosphere of relentless tension. The film also gives us a monster that is both terrifying and sympathetic. Boris Karloff's monster isn't the personification of evil like Bela Lugosi's vampire. The Frankenstein monster is the ultimate tragic figure, and Mr. Karloff portrays him with just the right balance of conflicting emotions. The film introduces the prototype for all movie mad scientists, Dr. Frankenstein, played brilliantly by Colin Clive. And Dwight Frye is back again, this time as the doctor's assistant, once again threatening to steal every scene he's in.

3. THE MUMMY (1932)  Full disclosure: I had to skip this class because of a bad case of the flu. But I've seen this wonderful movie many times. Boris Karloff, by now established as the Number One horror star at Universal, is made up to look even creepier than the Frankenstein monster, if that's possible. In the opening sequence, he plays an ancient mummy named Im-Ho-Tep, excavated from his tomb and accidently brought back to life. The moment when this creature starts moving is one of the most terrifying scenes in film history. The mummy somehow makes his way to London and is using the name Ardeth Bey. His eternal mission is to be reunited with his ancient lost love, an Egyptian princess, who is reincarnated into the body of a lovely young woman played by Zita Johann. This film, directed by Karl Freund, has less action than the two previous Universal hit releases. But there is such an incredible atmosphere of dread and decay brought on by the appearance of Ardeth Bey, who is, literally, walking death. Another amazing Karloff portrayal. This movie has inspired many sequels, but none can compare to the original.

4. THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)  I hadn't seen this film for decades and didn't remember very many details. When I saw it again in the class, my initial reaction was that it isn't really what I would call a "monster" picture. In fact, I'm not sure exactly how to classify it. Maybe science fiction, but maybe just a character study. However, it is a fascinating concept and very well realized on film.  Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin, who has discovered a way to make himself invisible by using a chemical called monocaine. He is driven insane by the chemical and pledges to create havoc by first committing a series of pranks. But he is eventually driven to commit murder. James Whale directed this adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells, and it was another major success for Universal. Rains is sensational in what is largely a vocal performance. As he is wrapped in bandages most of the time, we only see his face at the end of the film. His leading lady is Gloria Stuart. The film features quite a bit of comedy, much of it courtesy of Una O'Conner.

5. THE BLACK CAT (1934)  The first teaming of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff is probably their best work together. Edgar G. Ulmer directed this very loose, and extremely weird adaptation of the short story by Edgar Allen Poe and gave the world a visual masterpiece. Lugosi and Karloff portray mortal enemies with a long history going back to World War One. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a survivor of a prison camp, who is travelling by train to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) to seek revenge for betrayal during the war, and also for stealing Werdegast's wife and daughter. The sets and art direction for this film are fantastically bizarre, as is the cinematography. It's probably best that there is so much to look at, because the convoluted story may have some viewers scratching their heads. Along with revenge, the story also provides morbid sexuality, a suggestion of incest, and weird scenes of devil worship. Lugosi gives one of the most nuanced and sympathetic dramatic performances in his entire career. And Karloff creates one of his most evil, unsympathetic characters, exhibiting eerie restraint and quiet menace throughout. Featuring David Manners and Jacqueline Wells.

6. THE WOLF MAN (1941)  This is without a doubt one of the most beloved films in the Universal canon. Lon Chaney gets so much sympathy from the viewer that the story is as much a tragedy as it is a horror film. I don't recall finding this film scary when I first saw it as a kid, but it's always great fun to watch, even after multiple viewings. Chaney plays Lawrence Talbot, returning to his Welsh home after years of schooling in America, welcomed by his father, played by top-billed Claude Rains. Larry is bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi in a brief but crucial characterization) and becomes a werewolf himself. The scenes of his transformation, the thick fog in the dark forest, and the ferocity of the werewolf attacks all contribute to an exciting cinematic experience. Chaney would reprise the role four more times, always playing the accursed Lawrence Talbot with intensity and sincerity. The film boasts an incredible supporting cast: Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, and the marvelous Evelyn Ankers, who would reign as Universal's #1 scream queen.

7. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)  It's almost a cliche at this point, but so many monster fans have said that this first sequel in the FRANKENSTEIN franchise is superior to the original film. I'm not sure I agree, but BRIDE is so wonderful, and so different from the first movie, that it not only fulfills all expectations for a sequel but stands totally on its own merit as a classic. James Whale returns as director. He is joined by Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, beautifully reprising their roles from the original film, and also by Dwight Frye, who plays the doctor's assistant, but this time as a different character. For me, the main attraction will always be the glorious appearance of Elsa Lanchester as the bride of the monster. Her screen time may be brief, but she is unforgettable. Absolutely weird and wonderful! The film is fast-paced and gives Karloff's monster even more sympathetic moments than in the first movie. Colin Clive reaches new heights of mad scientist mania. The humor is provided by the insinuating Ernest Thesiger and the always frantic Una O'Conner. Also featuring Valerie Hobson, Gavin Gordon, and O.P. Heggie, with brief, uncredited performances by Walter Brennan and John Carradine.

8. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)  Our instructor decided to show a film that was influenced by the success of the Universal horror films but produced at a different studio. He chose this award-winning film made by Paramount Pictures and directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The film won an Oscar for Fredric March for Best Actor. Other nominations were for Best Adaptation Writing and Best Cinematography. This movie is designated as a classic by most critics and fans and is included on lists compiled by the American Film Institute. I hesitate to commit blasphemy here, but I must admit I'm not a fan. While I appreciate parts of March's performance, I find his Mr. Hyde makeup overdone and almost laughable. It's hard for me to believe that the audiences of 1931 were in any way frightened or convinced by the makeup or the overdramatic portrayal of the evil Mr. Hyde. When I look at Hyde, all I can think of is Jerry Lewis in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. I can't remember if I saw this version of Robert Louis Stevenson's story back in the 1960s when I was being introduced to the classic horror flicks via television. But I did see it on the big screen around ten or fifteen years ago, and I was quite disappointed. It wasn't just the Hyde makeup, but also the stilted dialogue and overly mannered performances of most of the actors. The one amazing asset this movie has is Miriam Hopkins. She is incredible in every possible way as the tragic victim of Hyde's cruelty and violence. She alone makes the film worth watching. I was hoping a second watch of the film might help me to appreciate it more, but it didn't happen.

Mr. Hyde notwithstanding, this class was a thoroughly rewarding experience. Another class is beginning in February: Silent Film Classics, with Chuck Koplinski as instructor. Can't wait to get started!! Stay tuned to these pages for a full report!




Wednesday, January 10, 2024

3 SNARKY REVIEWS TO BEGIN THE NEW YEAR!

 

HOOTENANNY A GO-GO aka ONCE UPON A COFFEE HOUSE (1965)

It's shocking to realize just how bad a movie can be. This was no doubt intended to cash in on the hootenanny music craze of the early 1960's. Presumably, that particular cultural trend came to a crashing halt after people saw this movie. The action, if you must describe it as such, takes place in a "cool" coffee house frequented by young college age types who are supposed to behave sort of like beatniks, but not really. The pseudo-Beat crowd is entertained by an endless succession of musical performances, each one more boring than the one before it. And there's a "hip" music/comedy act called Jim, Jake and Joan. The Joan in the group is none other than Joan ("Can we talk?") Rivers. Miss Rivers, young and just beginning her legendary career, is no less irritating and unamusing then when she was old and on her way out. In between all of these artistic events, there is some sort of plot. It has to do with the new owner of the coffee house trying to fit in with the hip crowd and win the attention of an attractive girl singer. The insipid dialogue spoken by the untalented actors almost made me wish the music would start up again. Almost.

That's Joan Rivers of Jim, Jake and Joan fame. A future star is indeed born.



CASE 39 (2009)

Somewhere between BRIDGET JONES' DIARY and JUDY, Renee Zellweger found herself treading water, literally, in this fairly ridiculous thriller. She plays a caseworker for Child Protective Services who rescues a ten-year-old girl from being horribly murdered by her parents. She lets the child come and live with her, only to discover that the kid is the monster, not the parents. This is yet another over-the-top, by-the-numbers horror flick that almost seems like a parody of the Demonic Child genre that began with angelic-looking Patty McCormick in THE BAD SEED, and reached its lamentable zenith, or nadir, depending on your outlook, with creepy Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST. Personally, I intend to avoid any future evil kid movies after surviving this bloody mess. The film's highlight is Bradley Cooper with hornets coming out of his nose. Try and top that trick, Hollywood. Undoubtedly, they will.


NOVITIATE (2017)

This is a lapsed Catholic fever dream masquerading as a motion picture.

 When agnostic single mother Nora Harris enrolls her daughter, Catherine, in a Catholic school, the girl finds herself drawn to the religion and becomes a convert. At age 17, Catherine feels a calling from God to enter a religious order, much to the dismay of her mother. The story takes place in the early 1960's when the Second Vatican Council was beginning the reforms that would forever alter the practice of Catholicism. The film follows Catherine's life in the convent, including her struggles with faith, discipline, and sexual awakening. It also shows how all of the nuns are affected by the changes imposed on them by the Council and the turmoil they're all experiencing.

Writer/director Margaret Betts has managed to make religious life seem so completely miserable and pointless that it's a miracle anyone would ever choose such a life. While the story does, on rare occasion, try to demonstrate some kind of balance and neutrality, it's difficult to trust a film that has AGENDA written all over it.

There are good performances by Margaret Qualley as Catherine and Julianne Nicholson as her mother. Melissa Leo, an actress always worth watching, plays the Mother Superior as a woman so rigid, cruel, and repressed, that she generates as much horror as she does sympathy. Denis O'Hare shows up briefly as possibly the most unlikeable archbishop ever portrayed on film.

All things considered, this is a downbeat, depressing experience.

Somebody hand me the DVD of THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945) and let me reemerge into my Catholic comfort zone.



Monday, November 27, 2023

CISCO PIKE (1972)

 

Kris Kristofferson, in his film debut, stars as the title character, a struggling musician who has been dealing marijuana in order to survive. After getting busted several times by Sgt. Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), Pike has given up dealing and is trying to get his music and song writing career back on track. Then Holland shows up with a huge amount of marijuana and blackmails Pike into selling it for him. Pike is reluctantly drawn back into his former way of life. This very laid-back film records his experiences as he attempts to do the crooked cop's bidding and not get himself into even more trouble along the way. 

CISCO PIKE is a nice, nostalgic time capsule for us Baby Boomer types, and very typical of the films oriented towards the youth culture in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Kristofferson is quite effective and natural, and in this first film establishes himself as one of the iconic images of the cinema during this period. Another iconic actress of the period, Karen Black, gives a warm, believable performance as Pike's girlfriend. Hackman is terrific as the cop-turned-narc who becomes more emotionally unhinged with every scene. Also giving an excellent performance is Harry Dean Stanton, credited here as H. D. Stanton, as Pike's former music partner who has more than enough serious troubles of his own.

Kristofferson does a little singing in the film, but his songs are heard mainly on the film's soundtrack. "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again") and "The Pilgrim" are both featured on his LP "The Silver Tongued Devil And I", released the same year as this film.

Also featuring Viva, Allan Arbus, Roscoe Lee Brown, Joy Bang, Antonio Fargas, and musician Doug Sahm. The director was Bill L. Norton.



Monday, September 18, 2023

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)

 

It's fun to be blindsided by a film you've never seen. With a title like THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, I was expecting another sci-fi extravaganza with lots of cool special effects and enough people screaming that I would be forced to turn down the volume to preserve my hearing. Instead, I got a serious, well-balanced mixture of human drama, fast-paced newspaper office action, and environmental disaster. The film was directed by the prolific Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), CASINO ROYALE (1967), who co-wrote the screenplay with Wolf Mankowitz.

After simultaneous nuclear bomb tests are carried out by The United States and The Soviet Union, unusual weather events begin occurring. In London, the Daily Express sends writer/reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) to the British Meteorological Office to get information about what's happening. Stenning is an accomplished writer who has fallen on hard times after a divorce and is spending most of his time drinking and exhibiting a cynical attitude. At the British Met Office, he becomes acquainted with Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro), who works there. An attraction grows between them as Peter asks Jeannie to help get him information for the story.

The bomb tests have changed the earth's axis by eleven degrees. This is causing the Earth to leave its orbit and move steadily closer to the sun. As more dramatic weather begins to happen, scientists determine that still more nuclear bombs must be detonated in Western Siberia to try and move the Earth back into its proper orbit. In largely evacuated London, the Daily Express has prepared two headline pages, depending on the results of the bombings. One headline reads "Earth Saved!" The other reads "Earth doomed!"

Edward Judd and Janet Munro

The film succeeds admirably in making its point about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and continued hostility between world superpowers. But it's as much a study of the two lead characters, Peter Stenning and Jeannie Craig, as it is a disaster movie. Judd and Muro are wonderful as two people who very quickly fall in love. Since this is 1961, there's no graphic lovemaking, but more than enough suggestions of obvious physical chemistry. Both characters are well-written. Stenning's' struggles are dealt with in a very sensitive way. We see this hardened, cynical man interacting lovingly with his little boy whom he rarely gets to see. His interaction with his best friend, fellow journalist Bill McGuire (Leo McKern), is believable and touching. In fact, all of the human interaction and dialogue are incredibly true to life. The outspoken, intelligent Jeannie Craig is a harbinger of change in the establishment of female characters in the mostly male world of science fiction.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is definitely a continuation of the atomic disaster flicks of the 1950's. But it is in no way typical. It contains no monsters rising from the sea and the special effects are minimal. Still, I think it's a film that genre fans will love. There are some well-done scenes of mist rising off of the Thames that covers London with more fog than it's probably ever seen. There are scenes of high winds causing serious damage to people and property. Stock footage of floods, etc., is used. The film is in Black & White, but there is an orange tinting of many scenes to indicate the scorching heat.

The ambiguous ending is fascinating and will stay in the viewer's mind long after it's over. The narration at the end conveys an important, haunting message to mankind that is even more relevant in 2023 than it was in 1961:

So, man has sown the wind-and reaped the whirlwind. Perhaps in the next few hours, there will be no remembrance of the past, and no hope for the future that might have been. All the works of Man will be consumed in the great fire out of which he was created. But perhaps at the heart of the burning light into which he has thrust his world, there is a heart that cares more for him, than he has ever cared for himself. And if there is a future for Man-insensitive as he is, proud and defiant in his pursuit of power-let him resolve to live it lovingly; for he knows well how to do so. Then he may say once more: Truly the light is sweet; and what a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to see the Sun.