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Great Performances

Greatest revival of Kaufman & Hart masterpiece needs to be on DVD & Bluray!
This 1983 Broadway revival of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, which played 312 performances (and 7 previews) at the Plymouth and Royale Theatres may not have even been filmed originally for the Great Performances series which to our great benefit frequently (aways?) rebroadcasts distinguished productions initially aired elsewhere. The opening credits clearly indicate that this document was initially a Showtime (cable network) presentation. For those who SHOULD be searching out the copyright holders to get the property back out to the public with the relatively excellent film and hoards of second tier productions, this production (which reunited the amazing cast of the award winning 1972 production of Eugene O'Neill's MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst) was first put out on VHS by Vestron Video based in Stamford Ct. and later (at least on my copy on inferior tape stock which did not hold the sound well) by Video Treasures, Inc. based in Hauppauge, NY.. The copyright notice on both packages says the rights were held by the Broadway Producer, Ellen M. Krass Productions. I fully agree with the earlier poster, please, please, PLEASE get this back into print! I'll be first in line to purchase a copy for my personal collection and my university's library.

Rent: Live

Artistically satisfying even if not live - but apparently a commercial bust
What was intended as a live TV production of RENT came across as one of the best of these TV desecrations of famous shows despite the unfortunate injury to its leading man and the apparent inability of Fox Network to sell massive portions of the scheduled break time leaving unprofessional stretches of "dead air" rather than condensing the three hour time slot to something nearer the show's ACTUAL running time.

The cast - especially Brennin Hunt as Roger (whose injury the night before necessitated the airing of the filmed dress rehearsal up until the actually live final scene and finale including the Original Broadway Cast), Keala Settle as the un-named actress who leads the "Seasons of Love" number, Jordan Fisher as Marc and Kiersey Clemons as Joanne - are outstanding and, despite the arena style staging which (perhaps more appropriate for a revue-like show like GODSPELL) drained much of the "theatre" feel from Jonathan Larsen's great posthumous hit, let you understand every lyric - something not always possible in the original despite the career-making performances from the likes of Idina Menzel, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal.

In re-imagining Michael Greif's staging of the piece for a non-theatre setting following the questionable but over-all successful precedent of the televised JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, TV director Alex Rudzinski has apparently seen the dazzling stage production a few seasons ago of NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET of 1812 and learned to hold the narrative together far better than the unfortunate TV GREASE while spreading it out over multiple stages (judging by the well bundled audience members at the filmed dress rehearsal) in some sort of roofless warehouse. While this enlarging of the setting contributed to a certain diminution of the tightness of the MELODIES in Larsen's classic score coming across, the superlative cast delivered on getting the words there, and when allowed to stay in one place, even punched home the melodies through the diffuse direction. Many may differ, but I even preferred Hunt's Roger to Pascal's less believable (for me) rock star original. I'm anxious to see him in other work once recovered from the broken foot which confined him to sitting on a table center stage for the finale.

The unexpected (and expected) problems which through monkey wrenches from every angle into this "intended to be" live RENT were over-all surmounted so well I hope they don't prevent the eventual release of this production on DVD. Shorn of the planned but botched (non)commercial breaks, it should play even better and present an interesting alternative to the two EXISTING documentations of the original (the fairly faithful "movie-movie" and the filmed closing performance on Broadway). Those who love the final Larsen work should want all three.

Pope vs. Hitler

Solid combination of newsreel & reenactment but little new
As aired on the National Geographic channel, this pop-umentary is undercut by the usual high percentage of airtime given over to commercials (the 87 minute program is in a two hour time slot), but while containing little material not well known before, the film makers have blended period newsreels and solid re-enactments for an eminently watchable re-telling of the story of European resistance to Hitler and his National Socialists. Only near the end does the film's subtext - the effort to rehabilitate the image of the controversial Pope Pius XII (1876 - 1958) in the midst of a somewhat bizarre campaign to elevate him to sainthood - he has been elevated to "Venerable" - come clearly to the fore. For the most part the pontiff is depicted very much as supporting player who tries to have it, not both ways, but all ways rather than taking a leadership position for any cause. Like many modern right wing politicians, his staunch anti-communist beliefs trumping (you should pardon the expression) his support for persecuted ethnic minorities or real resistance to dictators is quietly passed over. Having simply survived the era - very much like Spanish dictator Fransisco Franco - with his "estate" intact, one could argue he succeeded - as does this film by holding the watcher's interest for its full length despite commercial interruptions and the lack of new material.

Call Me by Your Name

A remarkable revelatory "coming of age" story - not for the overly shallow
While I can almost guarantee that CALL ME BY YOUR NAME will *not* win this year's Oscar as Best Picture (despite the well earned nomination), by my lights it is head and shoulders the most deserving of this year's nominees. Proceeding at a stately pace to best appreciate the subtlety of the story and beauty of the settings, this is not a film for the overly shallow or those unable to appreciate adult films in the Merchant/Ivory tradition, but for those emotionally prepared to meet it on its own terms there will not be a more satisfying revelatory exploration of a male coming of age and first love this year. The films greatest achievement may be that while, as many "first love" stories, it can be painful, it is grown up enough that (unlike a film that attempted to treat this territory a decade or to ago and forced to pander to the bigot audience that didn't realize its own bigotry) no one has to die. The "object of desire" is a wise, highly moral graduate assistant who (contrary to the few IMDb reviewers sniffling that the film ignores the potential ethical or moral problems of the seven year age difference of the protagonists) spends a considerable part of the film avoiding the deeper relationship his academic sponsor's eldest - and almost adult - child so obviously desires in large part for that very reason. This implied danger actually gives the film an impressive edge of tension. Setting the film in Europe is probably the film's (and book's) master stroke, freeing the parties from the stultifying 50's repression of too much of what is remembered by those of us who lived through it in the U.S. - the surface cultural homogenization that the current Administration in Washington imagines as a "happy time" to be returned to and which explains the melancholy coda to the film when the older student does have to return to it. Yes, the father's knowing, loving discussion with his son late in the film (which perfectly captures the relationships the luckiest among us HAD with our parents) is a high point that should be required viewing for every American or anyone who expects to be a parent - but the set up for that discussion is what makes CALL ME BY YOUR NAME a masterpiece of American cinema.

A Waste of Shame: The Mystery of Shakespeare and His Sonnets

A Groats-worth of research, sold for with a million of production
The tiny amount of commonly accepted speculation on the glorious Sonnets of William Shakespeare (given dubious structure in their initial collected published form leading to centuries of speculation as to what they may or may not have revealed about Shakespeare's own life) are thrown at the viewer in the first 15 minutes of this unfunny 85 minute TV fantasy from "The Open University/BBC" and shown in one of their less demanding time slots on BBC America in 2005.

It certainly is not essential that an actor portraying a famous personage actually resemble that personage, and Rupert Graves certainly bears little resemblance to William Shakespeare, so we don't have to worry over long as to whether or not the glorious Zoe Wanamaker (in her tiny role as the mother of the beautiful but unwed young Earl whose estates are in fee-tail, making his producing a male heir essential for the family) also resembles her original. In fact, almost none of the historical characters portrayed bear any resemblance to their known portraits which, in turn, leads one to question everything ELSE stated in the film, and indeed, such skepticism is warranted. Shakespeare is shown as an established playwrite and poet, yet he says his "current" play is his early collaboration, the COMEDY OF ERRORS! Out the Bard's window, the carts are calling for families to "bring out their dead" (which they certainly *did* for mass burials a century earlier at the height of the "black death," but if the plague were raging in London at the time shown, Shakespeare would have HAD no "current play" for the playhouses would have been closed down and his company touring the still plague-free provinces! In such circumstances, Shakespeare might actually have been able to see his dying son in his last days - which most historians say he did not, but then Shakespeare's contemporaries and virtually all writers who followed would have been astounded at the depiction of W.S. as the London whore-monger depicted here! The bits of production from Shakespeare's actual plays (especially the "Clowns'" Gravediggers' scene from HAMLET) are so scrimped on as to bear NO relationship to any conceivable actual performance.

Take it for what it's worth (I paid $1.99 for a DVD in a second-hand shop which was about right) and there is enough to find one can enjoy, but don't take ANY of it at face value and expect to learn anything about the Bard or Tudor/Stewart England.

Were the World Mine

Promises so much; delivers a lot - but less than expected
Taking the concept of a "love potion" (the elixir which, painted on the eyes of a sleeper, will cause the "victim" to become enamored with the first he or she sees on awakening) from Shakespeare's MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (being done in a high school production at the behest of a strangely "arty" teacher), but eschewing all the other substance of the play, WERE ALL THE WORLD MINE is a semi-musical whose healthy but overly optimistic premise is that bigotry will not survive experiencing the object of the bigotry first hand. It is only a semi-musical although it would seem to like to be more. Nearly all Shakespeare's plays had music in them, but seldom more than the two or three passing songs that the play-within-a-play in WERE THE WORLD... indulges in, and more to the pity, none of these are set to the Bard's lyrics. While somewhat shaky in construction, the cast and physical production of WERE THE WORLD... make it a mild pleasure, but it would be far *more* pleasurable had the author/director incorporated more of Shakespeare and less of well meaning contemporary farce.

Calamity Jane

Carol Burnett and cast of Broadway stalwarts almost save silly show
The 1953 Doris Day movie CALAMITY JANE with its essentially second rate Sammy Fain/Frances Webster score is one of the most famous "closeted" westerns around - with many feeling Day was pretending not to play a lesbian heroine thanks to a non-credible "love interest" tacked on with Howard Keel for the 50's middle America audience.

A decade later (12November1963) CBS television capitalized on the popularity of singing comedienne Carol Burnett with a 90 minute remake stocked with strong Broadway performers (a slightly over-the-hill Art Lund from Frank Loesser's MOST HAPPY FELLA as Bill Hickock, comedian Bernie West of Julie Styne's BELLS ARE RINGING as saloon keeper Henry Miller, Don Chastain of Richard Rodgers' NO STRINGS as secondary love interest Lt. Gilmartin and Cathryn Damon of John Kander's A FAMILY AFFAIR and soon to be in his FLORA THE RED MENACE - probably best known for the Off-Broadway revival of Rodgers' THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE as the illusive feminine ideal, Adelaide Adams). Those who enjoyed them here should check out their Cast Albums in better shows! The excellent Katie Brown as the comic maid mistaken for Ms. Adams does not have significant Broadway credits but her voice is indistinguishable from ANNIE's great "Miss Hannigan" (a role Ms. Burnett would play in films) Dorothy Loudon!

This TV movie essentially tracks the earlier color film and shoehorns in most of the songs - including a couple ("Whip Crack-a-Way" and "Once I Had A Secret Love") which had passing popularity when first exposed in the film. The TV kinescope making the rounds (to my knowledge it has never been formally issued on home video) has the commercials from sponsors Lipton Tea and Monsanto, and only credits for the score's composer or lyricist in the crawl at the very end - apparently supplying a few songs for popular Disney animated films like PETER PAN and others didn't rate with the TV producers like Broadway "names" with bigger hits. It's a pity because, while undeniably second tier, the score is consistently enjoyable. The silly "Woman's Touch" sounds like something written for that Disney PETER PAN! It's also interesting in that final crawl that the TV production was based on a "Stage Adaptation" by Charles K. Freeman and orchestrations by the great Philip L. Lang! Both apparently are still available through Tams-Witmark. It gets done from time to time.

Ironically, Carol Burnett's broad comedy as the "tomboy" Calamity - even with her breast-emphasizing costumes - removes any sex or even any closeted sexual innuendo from the production. This despite the pass made at a clueless Calamity by a chorus girl back stage in Chicago where she is looking for Adelaide Adams and the hysterical fit thrown by the undressed maid when she mistakes Calamity for a man (or even the maid deciding to move IN with Calamity when they get back to their western town!).

The musical show remains less than top tier entertainment, but worth the time for stage-star gazing and die hard Carol Burnett fans. The production values are high for a 60's TV musical and this was the main musical offering Burnett was involved in between her star-making triumph in Mary Rodgers' ONCE UPON A MATTRESS and the initially smash star turn in Julie Styne's FADE OUT FADE IN (which ended her initial Broadway career when she walked away from it for her TV career - leading to threatened suits and a lost arbitration with her own union).

The romantic denouements in CALAMITY JANE remain totally 60's sexist and foolishly unbelievable, but suspend disbelief and you'll have fun. In many ways it's more enjoyable than the original film.

Old English

A master class in an earlier generation's stage craft
OLD English and especially the tour de force performance of George Arliss in his final original role for the Broadway stage, is here meticulously preserved, if in slightly truncated form, for a grateful nation (the film was a major hit in its day, confirming a distinguished film career for the aging Arliss) by Warner Brothers' Vitaphone film department as the movies started to talk in earnest.

Of course Arliss' transition from stage to film can be accused by 21st Century "know-it-alls" as being too much a filmed stage play as Arliss, playing a shipping magnate nearing the end of his life cuts questionable deals to make sure the family of an illegitimate son from earlier in his life is left well provided for (and some folk claim this story is somehow "dated"?!?). That very faithfulness to the origins in Galsworthy's stage play was one of the film's major virtues when made, and whatever performance technique Arliss displays that children today may find "arch," in 1930 was a virtual masterclass in carefully crafted subtlety compared to the acting style which dominated the time on stage and screen - hence Arliss' major, well earned - and well remembered even today among the genuinely knowledgeable - film stardom from 1921 to 1937 when he deigned to commute in from his London home.

While Arliss' 25 films are today not particularly well distributed because of the changing tastes of the times, there are three PAGES of them listed on DVD on Amazon at this writing, every one of them worth considering! Galsworthy's "The Forsythe Saga" would be a massive hit twice for the BBC and PBS television many years later trading on the same cultural values - but it was free on TV and the remake was in color, yet it never achieved the classic status that OLD English on stage and film held for over a decade in the 20's and 30's.

This beautiful document in a must-see for any serious student of the modern stage and early film; while probably not for the pseudo-film fan or latter day dilettante who expects car chases, sex and explosions as their "entertainment," it is required viewing for those who thus far only know Mr. Arliss for his justly famous (and Oscar winning) interpretation of DISRAELI the year before, repeating one of his most famous stage roles for the SECOND time on screen!


One of the most important "lost" films to seek out!
This last year (2015-16) has been a remarkable year for finding films previously thought "lost": not only have the original William Gillette SHERLOCK HOLMES (a 1916 masterpiece) and the 70's Othello rock opera CATCH MY SOUL resurfaced and been issued on Bluray, but the long ignored kinescope of the original broadcast of Mary Martin in PETER PAN (SO much more exciting than the 1960 videotape) has seen formal issue! In that atmosphere, the October 1915 SAPHO has to rank as one of the top two or three "lost" films historians long to see re-discovered (along with the 1932 G. Bernard Shaw ARMS AND THE MAN - lost when GBS declined to renew the 5 year license on the underlying play because sound technology in film had advanced so far by 1937 that it felt "archaic" - and the 1912 short on the TITANIC filmed with one of the survivors a month after the tragedy).

SAPHO was clearly a subject which resonated with film makers at the start of the last century; no less than six films in the last years of silent film and the earliest years of sound were built around the legend of the Greek poetess who continues to inspire despite the vast majority of her work having been effectively purged by a combination of time and censorious early Popes.

The value of and desire for THIS rediscovered SAPHO is hardly limited to the desire to see the leading lady, Florence Roberts, a diva of the touring stage and pioneer woman manager as another reviewer suggests - but even more so as one of only two records (the other was a 1919 short, AN HONORABLE CAD, made for the Stage Women's War Relief Fund shortly before his death) of one of Broadway's great leading men at the beginning of the last century, Shelley Hull (brother of Henry TOBACCO ROAD Hull and husband of Josephine ARSENIC AND OLD LACE/SOLID GOLD CADILLAC Hull!) who not only starred in the first play to win a Pulitzer Prize (WHY MARRY?) but at only 34 ended his bountiful, hit laden and all too brief career in the middle of another major hit run (UNDER ORDERS) when he died suddenly in the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic!

Here's hoping SOMEONE can find a print of this work. It was important work from people film aficionados and historians need to see.

The Sea Ghost

Worth while "B" movie from early sound era
There certainly was a fascination with submarine films between the wars! Even such distinguished actors as the great Charles Laughton made his U.S. film debut in one of them (THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP) opposite Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant set in one of those ubiquitous North African submarine bases!

This effort with the great Laura LaPlante (here with a remarkably modern look - the basic hairstyle Angela Lansbury assumed for MAME - but probably best known for her role as "Magnolia" in the first film of SHOW BOAT in 1929) and Alan Hale (the spitting image of his son, the skipper of the Minnow wrecked on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) is the somewhat silly tale of a crooked attorney in the old fashioned melodramatic mustache twirling villainous person of Clarence Wilson (you'll recognize him in dozens of films from THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER CASE to THE FRONT PAGE!) trying to either cheat Ms. LaPlante out of what may be her legitimate inheritance or marry her, but in a bid for a remarkably sophisticated approach for 1931, everyone including Ms. LaPlante is given a dark underside or at least more than a single motive or back-story! The director keeps the action swirling at a highly pleasant pace once the crew gets back to shore after retrieving the two conflicting wills which may or may not disinherit Ms. LaPlante, but getting there, with the only actual submarine involvement in the picture - early on the actual U-67 is shown in real life WWI footage (possibly added for the 1939 re-release?) and is supposed to have sunk the "Altania" on which the wills were - the going can be a bit slow.

Also on board are another attorney - a British chap (Claude Allister, a refuge from BULLDOG DRUMMOND who hung around long enough to play the butler, Paul, in KISS ME KATE!) not representing anyone but somewhat strained comic relief, but handy to throw Mr. Hale a life line or two when he needs one - and the German u-boat commander who sank the Altania (Peter Erkelenz, who may actually give the best performance in the film) who turns out not to be the villain Hale expects. The film lays this on a bit thick - not being content to show him as a professional doing his wartime job, but adding yet one more final piece of irony to the film - but over all, whether screened as THE SEA GHOST or U67, this minor studio effort (Peerless Pictures - distributed by at least a dozen different companies including Astor Pictures for the 1939 re-release) tries to be more than your average "B" picture and occasionally succeeds.

Maybe It's Love

Charming Slice of 1930's life from early Maxwell Anderson Play
MAYBE IT'S LOVE, a 1935 programmer, was taken from Maxwell Anderson's early success SATURDAY'S CHILDREN which starred Ruth Gordon and (late in the run) Humphrey Bogart at the Booth and Forrest Theatres for 326 performances from 26Jan1927 to April1928. The resemblance of the film's "Rims," Ross Alexander, to the very young Bogart is a delightful plus to a film possibly best remembered today as a vehicle for the young Gloria Stuart - of TITANIC fame late in life as Alexander's love interest.

Given the play's success - establishing Maxwell Anderson's reputation on Broadway - it is remarkable that it took this many years into the sound era for Warner Brothers to get around to using it as grist for their mill (changing the title and the character names along the way as if to disguise the origins). For a plot (up and coming boy and boss's handsome son wrangle over the affections of boss's secretary set against the background of the secretary's parents and meddling sister) which remains mild even after the ministrations of the usual crew of three Hollywood screenwriters, there are a bountiful hour (and three minute)'s charm, banter and surprises.

Don't expect a 21st Century comedy, but as a fairly honest portrait of a bygone era when Saturday wasn't a day off but a standard half day, with classic performances from the Warner Brothers' stock company (comedians like Frank McHugh and Henry Travers) and the ghost of a pre-Hollywood Bogart performance, MAYBE IT'S LOVE is hard to beat.

Love Begins at 20

Bette Davis B'way vehicle (BROKEN DISHES) survives Hollywood
Say the name Bumpsted to movie goers today and they'll almost certainly think of Blondie and Dagwood BUMSTEAD of comic strip (and 1930's and 40's movie) fame. That may, in part explain the character name change in the central family ("Gillingwater" in the film) at the heart of the charming comedy expanded (and contracted) from Marvin Flavin's Broadway comedy BROKEN DISHES (178p., 5Nov29-April1930 at the Ritz and Masque Theatres) best remembered today as the show Bette Davis opened the same night Noel Coward's BITTERSWEET opened elsewhere on Broadway dividing the critics' attention.

The story is otherwise well preserved of the henpecked father (a wonderful Hugh Herbert) and his loyal daughter (Patricia Ellis in the Bette Davis role) overcoming the ghost of a past favored suitor of MRS. Gillingwater and marrying the daughter to her beloved (a handsome Warren Hull - not favored by her mother) for a generally predictable but happy ending. For a "programmer" - hour long film cranked out to fill studio owned movie houses - the piece is surprisingly well filmed and never lags. There's even a brief but exciting car chase scene in the middle of the well observed family comedy! All the touches which no one thought about at the time but made for what movie audiences accepted as NORMAL home life of the period make LOVE BEGINS AT TWENTY a fascinating glimpse of life in America in 1936. The film title is difficult to explain except that it must have sounded appealingly commercial in 1936 (and BROKEN DISHES, which was more plot related, sounded too much like a drama!).

Anyone looking for a 21st Century comedy will find themselves somewhat at sea watching LOVE BEGINS AT TWENTY, but for expert performances by the kind of repertory players and writers (the pre-blacklist Dalton Trumbo script is close to flawless) which made the height of the studio system such a reliable source of middle brow universal entertainment before being destroyed by right wing politics and well meaning anti-trust actions after WWII. One of star Hugh Herbert's best performances alone makes LOVE BEGINS AT TWENTY well worth giving a watch.

Starship Troopers

Is to Heinlein what film of I Robot is to Asimov
"Tweens" who thirst more for bright colored if shallow action/battle scenes and the occasional (you should pardon the expression) flashes of skin in their sci-fi rather than actual battles of wits and ideas should have a bright shallow good time at Paul Verhoeven's attempt to make Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile page-turner into a 90's genre action satire.

STARSHIP TROOPERS was one of Heinlein's few pieces of speculative fiction in which he let his 1920's naval officer persona (a promising engineering career was cut short by medical problems - TB? - more than a decade before Pearl Harbor) with its predictably pre-fascist presumptions creep through his usually more disciplined analytical facilities. The "red scare" years of the 1950's and the wave of early xenophobic science fiction that it engendered spawned the novel but couldn't make it filmable, at least then, but the more cynical (not to mention sexually open) 1990's made the idea of treating it as an enormous satire seem tempting. The only problem being the utter uncertainty what it was the film maker was attempting to satirize; Reagan era "might makes right" national policy? Overzealous military apologists, recruiters and trainers? It's difficult to tell from the film director Verhoeven made if he was satirizing or promoting these ideas, which may have limited the film's commercial success. It's pretty clear that in his original novel, Heinlein was promoting them.

Perhaps Verhoeven was aiming at the then recent wave of Jean-Claude Van Damme exploitation films. Pretty boy Casper Van Dien as the high school football hero incompetent in any other role who miraculously becomes a successful military leader bears more than a passing resemblance to Van Damme's 1992 UNIVERSAL SOLDIER...right down to the requisitely kinky stripped-to-the-waist flogging scene. That really may be the only way this big budget CGI extravaganza makes sense. The ridiculously imposed "happy ending" certainly doesn't. The film might have been a bit more believable had it been told from the "Bugs'" perspective (as presented, can anyone really believe they could be defeated short of an inter-galactic "Raid" commercial?).

Whatever its other virtues, STARSHIP troopers provided an interesting training ground for Neil Patrick Harris, the best actor in the cast, giving a performance as the "smart" classmate who winds up in a command position in military intelligence indistinguishable from that he would give years later in TV's "How I Met Your Mother."

All this lack of respect for Heinlien's novel and the film Verhoeven came up with notwithstanding, anyone not familiar with the later science fiction novels of the Nebula and Grand Master Award winning author should not be put off by this "one swallow" anymore than viewers of the spectacularly unfaithful film of Isaac Asimov's definitive "I Robot" compendium should be put off from that master's robot novels and short stories. The films simply are not representative. As Heinlein got older and he was less and less constricted by the right wing ethos he had grown up in - and his earliest publishers demanded - he posited some of the most challenging and forward thinking ideas of the science fiction and social universe, unburdened with the sexism, mindless racism and imperialism which one would have expected from a retired 1920's naval officer.

Even in its worst shallows, this brightly filmed, excruciatingly silly STARSHIP TROOPERS has hints of the challenges Heinlein would later toss up for readers. It makes one wish a first tier director would tackle some of the writer's later, greater works.

Hints of Heinlein's lack of sexism were at least honored by director Verhoeven in his insisting on a universe where men and women serve and shower together in a military which accepts that disciplined soldiers seeing each other naked will not automatically result in their raping each other. Viewers familiar with Heinlein's work (especially his "Time Enough For Love" and "Friday") may be amused that this film of STARSHIP TROOPERS, in order to create some "romantic interests," has transmuted one or two of the characters in Heinlein's all male cast into women. The entirely straight but imminently rational Heinlein might not have bothered to make the sex-change.

Lord Camber's Ladies

Fine performances by all but rare chance to see Lawrence
Gertrude Lawrence made all too few appearances on film despite her overwhelming stage stardom, and far too few comedies where she excelled (rather like America's great Tallulah Bankhead, perhaps best remembered today in one of her last roles, Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT). This was Lawrence's one time working with Hitchcock, but not as director, merely as producer. Lawrence, master of the light comedy and musical (the very young may know her thanks to cast albums as the original "Mrs. Anna" in Rodgers & Hammerstein's KING AND I at the end of her life), may best be remembered on film for her serious dramatic performance in Tennessee Williams' GLASS MENAGERIE.

The film, not formally released on home video, is well worth tracking down for her lighter performance as the doomed ex-vaudevillian wife of a Lord as well as those of top billed Gerald Du Maurier as her doctor, Benita Hume as the nurse accused of her murder and Nigel Bruce as her wayward husband. Possibly even more worth seeking out is the film made four years later which showed Lawrence at her glamorous best as the wife of an actor sharing the London stage with her as the title character and Desdimona in Shakespeare's Othello (MEN ARE NOT GODS also starring top billed Miriam Hopkins). Lawrence gets to sing in both films.

One can only hope that *someone* finds a print of the next film Lawrence made after this one - 1933's light comedy NO FUNNY BUSINESS - which co-starred a very young Laurence Olivier and Jill Esmond who had co-starred with Lawrence and Noel Coward two years earlier in Coward's PRIVATE LIVES in both London and New York! Wouldn't that be something to see!!

LORD CAMBER'S LADIES is drawn from H.A. Vachelli's 1915 London hit THE CASE OF LADY CAMBER which starred Mary Bolard in the disappointing 1917 Broadway run (48perf. at the Lyceum, 26March-19May), and that extra level of background may peak mystery fans' interest - seeing in this early depression era filming what a hit murder mystery looked like at the height of WWI. This is something of a must for serious theatre aficionados.

Angora Ranch

Surprisingly observant "indie"/amateur film
The comments of a number of other reviewers on this site on ANGORA RANCH are worth noting for the issues they raise with some accuracy while missing the greater point of this film which achieves a surprising amount of credibility and satisfaction if you're willing to go with it despite obvious technical shortcomings.

Yes, the fact that it is set in a small town in the state which these days sends the more outrageous bigots to Congress (and presidential primaries) than any other, yet which is unexpectedly accepting of the "exotics" (read gays) in its midst might be presumed to be a fantasy, yet in my experience it DOES happen (and the smaller the town the more likely).

Similarly, the appeal of a thin, fit, handsome older man for another man young enough to be his son would ALSO likely be presumed to be a fantasy to those of limited experience, but the best marriage I know of (although admittedly between two straight people) was a second marriage of 30+ years duration where the bride was younger than her husband's youngest daughter. I've been with my own partner of 33 years (husband of 3) for all these years despite his being 7 years younger than I (we're BOTH woefully out of shape). He still claims I was standing in the way of the man he was really cruising that first night, but he did make the first move.

These presumed fantasies reflect the real world better than many children composing other reviews might suppose and the writing in this film sets these and other issues (the handling of the possible onset of Alzheimer's in a parent or the revelation of a distant parent's own personal secrets) with surprising sophistication and even grace.

As has been noted elsewhere, this film is an early (first?) effort of a group of Texas film makers with a modicum of talent, a high degree of ambition and a remarkable amount of drive. It was shot and marketed digitally on a literal shoestring with a budget smaller than many first rate urban film schools might be able to provide. The budget and lack of experience does show, but if one goes into viewing it understanding that, it may even add to the surprise of the film's ultimate emotional success.

The level of acting from the available cast (the writer/director Paul Bright as the owner of the titular ranch, and his partner/screen father Tim Jones, excepted - they are good by any standard) is not going to be breaking down agent doors for most of those involved, but it should be acknowledged that the actual lead of the film, Thomas Romano as the young advertising agent, gives a performance of considerable more polish than several eventual stars in their first professional outings (does the line "Yonder lies de house of me fadder" ring any bells?).

By the standards of a film intended for merely Festival release and then "straight to video," my "Four Stars" may even be on the conservative side. ANGORA RANCH is not a polished professional release, but it is a decent story remarkably well told under the circumstances and worth checking out if there's nothing more pressing on your schedule. I'd even like to see more from Mr. Bright.

Harbinger Down

Effective but unfulfilling remake of classic B-movie thriller
If people must keep remaking the iconic 1951 THE THING (...From Another World, from the John W. Campbell short story "Who Goes There?")- and people do seem to insist on doing that - the only effective way to do it is the way the RKO original did: to remove all the close-ups of the "monster" or their modern day CGI equivalents and let the viewers' imaginations supply the chills in classic B-movie fashion.

Writer/Director Alec Gillis seems to have understood this perfectly in his low budget but effective HARBINGER DOWN, which cuts right to the chase with his ANDROMEDA STRAIN inspired premise, setting up the origin if his particular "Thing" and then leaps forward 50 years in time to the ice bound body of his creepy tragedy. Cinematicly, Gillis gets maximum "bang for his buck," and the film's dark colors wrap the viewer in the desired cocoon of depression, mistrust and fear from the moment we board the crumbling "crabbing trawler" which has agreed to take on board a gaggle of graduate students (the team includes the daughter of a former partner of the boat's master) seeking to explore the effect of climate change on marine life - to give the film some modern validity - until the inevitable final rescue of a survivor "to tell the tale." The atmosphere is so strong that we ignore the incongruity of a martinet master allowing his ship to become so far from the "spit and polish" state which would keep it at peak efficiency (it wouldn't help the requisite creepy spirit of the film any more than brighter lighting would have). This kind of film is ALL about atmosphere.

Your rating may be higher than the five stars I give HARBINGER DOWN if you don't ask a horror film to do more than scare you with predictable regularity, but I'm inclined to feel that a good film of any genre has to justify its story on some deeper level. The audience should come away with something more than just the memory of some effective but passing chills. This HARBINGER DOWN, while effective at what it apparently sets out to do, offers nothing of value beyond temporary stimulation of a few lesser glands (isn't that one judicial definition of pornography?). No message of ecological ideals or scientific responsibility. No couching of scientific fact for broader consumption. Nothing, in fact, to make the film as memorable as the quality of the film making makes one wish it was, hence my lower rating.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Not an ideal double feature with ALL ABOUT EVE...maybe A DOUBLE LIFE
A passel of better than average performances - not excluding Edward Norton as a stereotype of the kind of "method" actor too undisciplined to be a real actor or survive two shows in the real commercial theatre (Dustin Hoffman pulled this off far more amusingly - and surprisingly, more BELIEVABLY in TOOTSIE!) are the chief glories of BIRDMAN. Top billed Michael Keaton goes Oscar fishing with a predictably against type depiction of aging insecurity, but ultimately the cast cannot overcome a script which is at best excellent imitation Mamet, at worst pretentious claptrap.

The film strives for artistic credibility - given the nine Oscar nominations, with some success - by Hitchcockian long tracking shots and self conscious close-ups (in part necessitated by the incorporation of the back stage areas of a Broadway house as the set and a kind of third lead) and commercial success by having its leading men in their under shorts or less as often as possible, but as back-stage drama or comedy (it tries to be somewhere in between when not flirting with attempts at soaring fantasy) it struck this viewer as one of the least successful yet put on film.

The Mexican writer/director Alejandro Inarritu and the fervent followers he has developed, should have a look at MEETING VENUS (1991), A DOUBLE LIFE (1947) or even, God help us, ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) to see how this sort of thing can actually be done with a sense of reality. It isn't just that the play under consideration pretends to open (as it might have 35 years ago) with less than a week of previews and no "out-of-town" tryouts, or that actors walk in the lobby of one theatre and into the auditorium of another (one of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie for a theatre person is the street views of the Broadway theatre district circa 2014 - including the homeless man's over-emoting a soliloquy from HAMLET at the start of Keaton's manic depressive hallucination which nearly saves the film) or its depiction of a hate filled Broadway critic which was dated when Cary Grant did it hilariously in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) or even the old Hollywood trope of an audience member chatting backstage in his dressing room with the lead of a show JUST before he has to make his final entrance in the last scene of the play on Opening Night!

Inarritu's model here seems to have been the bizarrely surreal BLACK SWAN (2010) - the first out-loud laugh at the performance I saw followed the most unfortunate parallel to the earlier film near the end. More power to them. If you liked that template (I loathed it), you will probably have a wonderful time at BIRDMAN.

One side note: that crack from the daughter about the source story for the play Keaton's character has written and stars in being "50 years old" is a JOKE typical of the film aimed at her immaturity! The story was first published 38 years ago in 1977. For those who were aware of Raymond Carver, his all too brief career (mainly in his last decade) ended with his death AT only 50 in 1980.

Into the Woods

A not flawless but generally wonderful film version of INTO THE WOODS
A group of us went to the approximately 80% full 6pm screening of INTO THE WOODS at the Ziegfeld in Manhattan (most people at Christmas dinner? The 2pm show was apparently sold out) with a very mixed audience of theatre folk and families who applauded (more than justified - one of the joys of seeing a film musical in its first weekend; no one ever applauds later) three of the numbers and the film itself at the end. I'd have applauded four or five.

I don't consider myself an INTO THE WOODS fanatic, but I did miss two of the cuts (the reprise of AGONY with its capping joke "ah well, back to my wife!", and the the Baker's final moving "No More" which almost certainly was filmed since they left in the set-up and lead out) but so much of the rest was so well done that I couldn't honestly complain, and I could understand the practical necessity of the cuts to keep the film close to a two hour event for the benefit of *exhibitors* who want as many showings as possible in a day. I do hope however, that at least the "No More" is restored for the DVD release as they restored the similarly essential "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" to the DVD of 1776.

My main reaction was that "the curse is finally off films of Sondheim musicals!" This was by far the most satisfying "movie"/film version of any of the Sondheim musicals - and I include WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY. Director Rob Marshall seems back on the track he was with his marvelous CHICAGO after his botch of NINE.

As for INTO THE WOODS for the "uninitiated," it will probably not be for *every* audience - there was one family down front which walked out when the show got momentarily very dark near the end, and anyone insufficiently sophisticated to accept individuals singing in moments of high emotion (what a sad life they must live!) will probably be better entertained elsewhere - but between the award-worthy stellar performances of Streep's "Witch" and Corden's "Baker" (with the possible exception of Johnny Depp's "Wolf," probably cast because of his role in the film of Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD, there wasn't a weak link in the cast; the unexpectedly big voices of Lilla Crawford's "Red Riding Hood" and Daniel Huttlestone's "Jack" were a special plus! Even Tug as "Milky-White" and her doppelgänger gives a fine performance!), Jonathan Tunick's lush orchestrations, the handsome LOOK of the film (the little touch of a collapsing tower significantly improves on the time spent on stage showing the destruction wrought by Frances de la Tour's Giantess) and even the touch of near-camp (I normally loathe camp) with the Princes' (Chris Pine & Billy Magnussen) literally bodice-ripping "Agony," this is a film a lot of us will see a LOT of times with great pleasure.

The Marshall film of INTO THE WOODS is not flawless - the two afore-mentioned trims to the score are, in the end acceptable, and Johnny Depp's "Wolf," while not horrible (it looks like something left over from ZOOT SUIT) made me understand for the first time how clever it was in the original to have one of the Princes double as the Wolf! 20 hours later though, I can't honestly recall any serious problems worth mentioning. (One minor "spoiler" here if you don't already know the show:) Director Marshall may have dithered over whether or not to actually kill off Tracy Ullman's excellent "Jack's Mother" in "Act II" and didn't get the shot to show her die - and didn't understand or "get" the ironic humor in the horror there; she's still moving when last we see her, even if the Baker later tells Jack she's gone! It's a nit which, even if picked, is quickly forgotten in a blissful adult evening about how, ultimately, "no one is alone" that's good enough for kids too.

If it doesn't prove to be one of the TOP grossers of 2015, I trust it will do well enough to prove to the Hollywood "masterminds" that you can still have a successful movie-movie of a stage show which has been faithfully preserved *first* in its original stage version - just as those filmed Sondheim stage musicals themselves (and the MTV broadcasts of LEGALLY BLONDE!) proved to producers wise enough to notice that audiences are MORE likely to flock to something they already know they like!

One last, but relatively important point: I'm mildly shocked at the number of posts on IMDb who A) complained that none of the advertising for one of the more famous MUSICALS in the last quarter century (that toured all over the country and has been aired on national television several times) "warned" people that it was a musical (I rather think that the Disney ads for their Cinderella should warn people that it *isn't*!) and B) warned people not to take children! As a 66 year old university lecturer, uncle and former elected member of a Connecticut Board of Education, I'd seriously question the fitness to *BE* a parent of anyone who "sheltered" their children (over about age 3 - any child old enough to sit through a church service) from a film like this rather than *talking* with them about it!

I can certainly understand anyone not sophisticated enough to understand the idea behind musicals - that people sing when the emotions are too great for mere words - OR not caring for the length and subtlety of Sondheim's melodic lines and variations (different strokes for different folks) but this INTO THE WOODS is, perhaps, the greatest teaching opportunity I've seen in years for a *good parent*; you owe it to your kids. Don't miss it!

Horrible Bosses 2

The exception which may prove an essential Hollywood Rule
Two essential Hollywood Rules for considering HORRIBLE BOSSES 2: 1) Sequels are never equals and 2) Absolutes are never entirely accurate.

HORRIBLE BOSSES 2, as the title makes painfully obvious, is a sequel to the ultra-broad 2011 (three year old) comedy HORRIBLE BOSSES out of the HAROLD & KUMAR / HANGOVER / DUMB AND DUMBER school. The original was somewhat scattershot with three friends attempting a comedic three-way variation on Hitchcock's classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN plot and doing in each others' outrageous eponymous employers. OF COURSE it doesn't go as planned - only one of the bosses doesn't make it to the final credit roll and our heroes are free for the sequel under consideration here.

This time the writing is rather more focused (only one crime motivated by one spectacular rip-off the three pals suffer in their first independent business venture together). The film being riffed on is technically every kidnap flick you've ever seen, but hews remarkably close to another superior comedy, RUTHLESS PEOPLE (the 1986 Danny DeVito/Bette Midler opus).

OF COURSE the plan(s) "gang aft agley." Particularly aft...and in ways calculated to set up yet another sequel (what's a franchise without a trilogy?), but if the writing and acting maintains this basically funny a level with Jason Bateman a slightly dim voice of reason to ground the dithering of his clueless cohorts, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, few will be seriously complaining.

The surviving bosses of the first film, the now jailed Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston as the libidinous therapist, return here in more peripheral roles (and promise to be around for the remainder of the franchise), as does the "deus ex criminal machina," Jamie Fox. It is the new STARTREK's "Kirk," Chris Pine (playing off his "all surface" image to indicate some real acting ability here), as "Rex" and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS' Chrisoph Waltz as his nefarious industrialist father "Burt Hanson" who take center stage this time as the "horribles" with deliciously wicked two faced performances - sometimes more - although it is more of an open question who the BOSSES are in this case. What the heck?! We had six marvelous THIN MAN films and the titular thin man was only in the first.

As the double entendre ads for the film trumpet: "new crime, same tools." Sean Anders (who also directed) and John Morris' screenplay dangerously quotes from the specifics of the failed plans from the uneven first film, but keep the comic drive on target and a good time is had by all - seemingly even those who ultimately get shot. The "R" rating is basically tied to several over the top rude speeches and general sexual references which are, in context, surprisingly innocent - although one of our heroes does "get some" in a clever turnabout of circumstances.

Hardly the high comedy of those THIN MAN films, but a better structured and actually funnier film than the original; HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 is a perfectly fine way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.


A must for Sci-Fi fans; first class Heinlein from the Spierig Brothers
PREDESTINATION isn't scheduled for U.S. release until January of 2015, and I strongly prefer to see films for the first time in a movie theatre, but the chance to see an advance copy of what was reputed to be a first class adaptation of a famous Robert A. Heinlein story ("All You Zombies" although this is not another voguish "zombie" film) was far too good to ignore. "Far too good" the film certainly is, with great performances, cinematography and adaptation, but commercially it will probably do best with those already predisposed to the best speculative fiction of Robert A. Heinlein (The Past Through Tomorrow and To Sail Beyond The Sunset) or Isaac Asimov (The Foundation and Robot Series).

Ethan Hawke, in a performance reminiscent of his career landmark in GATTACA, plays an agent of a secret agency charged with preventing disasters after the fact with the aid of a limited time travel "McGuffin," nearing the end of his career. That is the basic idea underlying what becomes an exceedingly simple variation on the classic "snake eating its own tail" story (which is, in fact, alluded to in the story). The story is simple - an intelligent audience familiar with classic time travel fiction with its limitations and paradoxes will guess the gimmick of the story - how the Hawke character came to be and what he will become - easily by half way through the story, but the execution is so beautiful and feels so true that taking the rest of the journey to enjoy the details of the execution remains a delight.

Hawke is matched every step of the way by Sarah Snook as a relatively androgynous young man Hawke appears to meet in a bar where he works as cover for his real job. If there is a weak point in the story, it's probably the supposed "revelation" that the young man had started life as a woman. Most of us had guessed from the first words out of his/her mouth, but as the story progresses, the very androgyny helps us suspend our disbelief and go with the different aspects of the story as the Spierig brothers reveal the layers of their onion without clinging to chronological order.

As third billed Noah Taylor repeatedly assures Hawke that he's the *only* person so uniquely qualified to do the required job, he lets the audience in on a key to the ultimate solution - as well as perhaps inadvertently dropping a hint at a solution to the identity of the mysterious bomber frequently flirted with in time travel detective stories, but seldom pulled off successfully. The fine cool emotional balance between the Hawke and Snook characters adds to the ultimate satisfaction with which this film's final solution and aftermath are handled.

The prosaically titled PREDESTINATION is definitely a must see for serious Heinlein and other science fiction fans; an important if relatively minor film worthy of consideration by ANY serious film buff. I doubt that it will be found among the year end list of top grossing films of 2015 or Academy Award nominees in 2016, but it brings enormous credit to both the Spierig Brothers and the industry itself and WILL bring long term satisfaction to the fans who find it. Do try to be in that number!

Charlie McCarthy, Detective

Delightful period programmer for those who know the era.
I picked a slightly fuzzy DVD of this pre-war comedy because of a course I teach on the mystery format and a curiosity as to how Edgar Bergen and his character Charlie McCarthy would fit into the genre (loosely). Others have observed that Bergen wasn't much of a ventriloquist technically (in close ups in movies and television where he was extremely popular in later years it was never hard to see his lips move), but his short comings were never a problem in the large vaudeville theatres and radio programs where he established his fame, and by the time his audience got to see him close up, the ventriloquist's chief tool, the willing suspension of disbelief based on characters the viewer WANTS to watch and effective comedy material far outweighed any minor flaws in his technique.

CHARLIE McCARTHY DETECTIVE, at barely over an hour in length, is a delightful piece of genre fluff made on something of an assembly line by the studios when they still owned chains of movie theatres and had to stock them with fresh product every week; "programmers." Many of these were better than all right and developed real followings on their own - the wonderful and long running Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series from 20th Century Fox were prime examples of the popularity mystery programmers mixing healthy touches of comedy with mystery could achieve - so why not a mystery with the popular specialty act? Basically no reason at all - except that creating an effective mystery with Poe's "five elements" (something to solve, clues, red herrings, atmosphere and a satisfying solution) is not as simple as some might suppose. In addition to diverting cues and red herrings just obvious enough for the audience to guess along, but obscure enough to keep them at least slightly mystified until the solution is revealed, you have to leave them happy with the final reveal.

CHARLEY McCARTHY, DETECTIVE starts promisingly enough with the easiest part, acknowledging the artificiality of the concept and the leads - Bergen and McCarthy are delightful "atmosphere" as entertainers in a night club performing a bit (and a title song for the film!) with McCarthy dressed as a puppet version of Sherlock Holmes and comic lyric references to other popular detectives of the day. For fans of period mystery movies, this opening scene is reason enough to see the film. It also introduces the film's main characters: a villainous magazine editor smoothly played by the always suave Louis Calhern, with ties to an equally oily mobster played by Harold Huber (moving up a step from the well remembered snitch, Nunheim, he had played three years before in THE THIN MAN), a girl singer played (and sung) charmingly enough by Constance Moore (possibly best remembered in her long career for her Wilma Deering in FLASH GORDON films) and her stalwart reporter beaus, Robert Cummings (later an inexplicable favorite Hitchcock hero in several feature films and a sitcom star in his own show) and John Sutton (much later "Col. Tarleton" in Disney's "Swamp Fox" series - here missing for the first part of the film trying to evade assassination by our evil editor while getting back from South America with evidence against said editor).

Naturally, one of the main characters - three guesses who and the first two don't count (it's not anyone billed above the title) is killed. It isn't Mortimer Snerd who is also above the title, although many in the audience wouldn't have minded; he's a self confessed clueless character dropped into the film as an extra comic relief mainly because he was then one of Bergen's most famous characters, after McCarthy, on radio. Almost everyone except Bergen and those he is literally attached to comes under suspicion and before the hour is quite up Bergen himself solves the fast paced problem forcing a confession from the killer.

Therein lies the film's main problem, if it has one (in fairness, as a real mystery it never develops strong enough cases against alternate suspects). The clue Bergen hangs his solution on and the killer's motivation on (he's "a sentimentalist"), while very well written and played in the actual scene, may not strike the viewer as satisfying. There was much the same problem with the pilot episode of Angela Lansbury's "Murder She Wrote" TV series, but that didn't preclude a seven year run for the Lansbury series on CBS-TV.

CHARLIE McCARTHIE, DETECTIVE didn't spark a series, or even a sequel, but if you're curious for what the 30's phenomenon of Edgar Bergen was all about, it's an enjoyable sampling with a fair pastiche of shoot-'em-up 30's murder mystery mixed in and a diverting afternoon's viewing. Recommended as such, if not much more.

Sunshine Susie

A late operetta trifle marks a turning point in European entertainment on many levels
This early British musical (a 1931 "Gainsborough Pictures" release as SUNSHINE SUSIE) was one of those made simultaneously in English, German and probably other languages rather than re-dubbing or subtitling one filming. Major German star, Renate Muller (many argued that after Marlene Dietrich and probably before Zarah Leander she was the German film ideal in the 30's - she will remind many of American Marilyn Miller without the major dancing) puts in a delightful period performance as the "Sunshine Susie" of the title in the last film she was able to make abroad before her death six years later under suspicious circumstances while still at the top of her career.

The piece of entertaining fluff that the film is (it's about a talented private secretary - the Austrian operetta it was cut down from was called DIE PRIVATSECKRETARIN and the entire piece is set in Vienna - rising from the typing pool to marry the boss with the aid of a fun loving musical corporate gatekeeper who is also a slyly presumptuous acquaintance of said boss who assists the boss in passing himself as a mere fellow worker. There are some surprising parallels not obvious in this bare bones synopsis to the Pulitzer Prize winning HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING thirty years later!), it stands as a stark example of the contrast between the light tuneful entertainment so popular as a relief from the first years of the great Depression and the reality that the world around it was descending into.

The starkest contrast comes from the fate of the lead herself - jumping or being thrown from an upper floor window in October of 1937 shortly after Gestapo agents were seen entering the building. Muller, a star heavily courted by the Nazis, was probably doomed by refusing to give up her Jewish lover or make propaganda films, but one can watch this film for pure entertainment alone if one wishes. Muller's singing and comedy still hold a world of charm, and Jack Hulbert as the wily underling, in one of his rare films apart from his wife Cecily Courtneidge, gives a delightfully restrained performance made up in a mustache and German brush cut. His musical number, "I've Got A Rich Aunt" with his eccentric dancing is a real highlight. Owen Nares as the boss, Herr Arvray, makes a nice pairing with Muller in an era where the male ideals were Conrad Nagel and Leslie Howard, and sings pleasantly enough. His long career (he also died relatively young at only 53 during the war) belied the stereotype that the coming of sound doomed silent film actors - the final third of his successful career blossomed in the sound era where he may be best remembered for the film versions of AREN'T WE ALL and THE SHOW GOES ON with Gracie Fields.

Virtually forgotten today, SUNSHINE SUSIE (I saw it in a print of the original release recorded from BBC One a few years ago) was issued in the U.S. the spring after its London Premiere as THE OFFICE GIRL. Trifle 'though it remains, it deserves to be more broadly available. It's a quality trifle.

The Cool Mikado

Definitely bizarre, but worth a look for British farce tastes, Frankie Howerd and Stubby Kaye fans
Gilbert and Sullivan's MIKADO is one of those classic works which seem to work almost as well in the most bizarre settings. The original satire on British mores was introduced just as the first ambassadors from the relatively newly "re-opened" island empire were arriving on English shores and the Foreign Office nearly closed it for fear of offending the Emperor's representatives, but when showed the work, the Mikado's representatives thought it hilarious and that it had next to nothing to do with their country and everything to do with the country they were coming to. The work was allowed to go on.

Since then it's been done hundreds of times in settings from the original supposed Japanese to Caribbean Island with an all black cast (save one white colonial office "Poobah" - THE BLACK MIKADO and a personal favorite) and has generally delighted; but some obviously work better than others.

This 1963 Frankie Howerd farce "version" (the popular English comedian - probably best remembered for the equally "special" CARRY ON films' first venture into film musical about the time he was taking on the lead in the Original London Cast of the stage FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) has only the loosest ties to the sublime original W.S. Gilbert book, but in telling the basic story of the run-away son (Kevin Scott) of the Mikado (here American ex-patriot musical star Stubby Kaye as a 1960's corporate executive) wanting to marry the ward (Jill Mai Meredith) and intended of "the Lord High Executioner" (here a corporate "hatchet man" - Howerd), adapter Maurice Browning and director Michael Winner have hewed closer to the style of Howerd's broad (bordering on camp) comedy than Gilbert's carefully structured satire. The film's credits are perfectly honest in warning that any resemblance to the original is purely accidental. A few may even be reminded (especially given Howerd's connection with the latter show) of the travesty filming the great American musical A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM got itself three years later in 1966.

Giving the story a framing device of the tale being told in flashback among business men on an international flight to New York (as nearly as can be determined, the film was never released over here and only reached these shores on a few copies of a PAL DVD put out in 2009 by "Strike Force Entertainment") helps justify the surreal unreality of the farce both in sets, costumes and the sublime occasional outbreaks of the original G&S score. Some of these numbers work better than others as when WWII tension between allies is exploited for a brigade of American soldiers in the dream-like flashback breaking into the well known "Gentlemen of Japan" chorus - explained as "having been here so long they've 'gone native!'" as opposed to an overture in a (in 1963 very timely) calypso beat or the "Willow Tit Willow" melody used as "The Mikado Twist".

The film is certainly not for Gilbert and Sullivan purists (Katisha with the highly praised left elbow is here Katie Shaw - Jacqueline Jones - with far more broad based charms!) but the bottom line for many American viewers may well be how much they miss the immortal Stubby Kaye who spent too many years away from our shores. Any chance to see him clowning on film is to be grabbed - and the Mikado's entrance song, "My Object All Sublime," whose lyrics are traditionally altered and updated for almost every production, is as sublime a take on the number as I have seen. His all too brief "Flowers That Bloom In The Spring" (outrageously appropriated from Howerd's Koko - but who's complaining) will remind more than a few wonderfully of his wedding ceremony as "Marryin' Sam" in LI'L ABNER! 'Worth a look.

The 2009 DVD release is "fleshed out" with contemporary bonus featurettes GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS and IT'S MAGIC by the same director plus an "Image Gallery" of shots from the main film.

The Giver

Solid philosophical science fiction for the Elementary School set
Gifted with excellent production design and top flight star casting, the only thing really wrong with this eminently watchable dissection of a prototypical dystopian society is the overwhelming sense of "de ja vu" it carries with it for all those who have seen the many recent films on the same topic.

When viewing the trailers for director Phillip Noyce's mini-epic (a mere 94 minutes, feeling far shorter) I remarked to my friends how much it sounded like yet another go-round of the story twice told already recently in THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, only to be told that the "young adult" novel by Lois Lowry (inspired, according to a recent interview, by growing up on the bland "sameness" of an army base across a wall from the dazzlingly colorful Tokyo!) actually got there first - even if the Harry Potter-like success of the copies on page and screen are only now inspiring a big screen version of the original. HAD it come first, I suspect my rating would have been several stars higher, because the story telling, cinematography and acting are hard to fault but for the original now resembling a fairly pale copy.

Of course the core story, while laying out the classic dilemma of all attempted "utopian" societies, that the trade-offs for security and stability, of necessity, involve things most people regard as essential. The idea goes all the way back to Ben Franklin's pronouncement that "Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither" . . . if not the Garden of Eden. ...but in this telling, the dilemma doesn't bear serious thought even five minutes after the credits roll. In addition to banning all emotion and even literal COLORS in this post-apocalyptic world, they obviously have had to ban all entertainment (old movies) as well. If you're over 15, 30 seconds after the film's first reference to the elderly or rebels being "released to 'Elsewhere'" you'll be screaming "Soylent Green is people!" It's that basic de ja vu problem, only with a longer frame of reference.

If you're UNDER 15, or have precocious pre-teens, I do recommend the film as a good introduction to the ideas contained. The leads, from Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites as the new "Receiver" for the Giver's trove of memories to grand dame Meryl Streep as the chief elder of the repressive society (is she trying for a more accessible evil female version of Richard Nixon or does she really believe what she says? The subtle distinction makes it a great performance and she even manages a layered complexity to the final resolution of the the film's story - does she see the error of her ways or not!?) and Jeff Bridges in the title role (made up to look as much like Stephen Sondheim as humanly possible - a great touch for a collector and transmitter of collective wisdom) could hardly be improved upon, and the canny casting of minor roles (Taylor Swift as an earlier failed candidate to replace Bridges and Alexander Skarsgård as the blissfully bland "father figure" for the lead, brainwashed into horrible actions) adds immeasurably to the way the film holds the interest and gets its points across.

The only real failing (and it is a relatively minor failing) in the film, taken on its own terms, is the colorful but extremely generic film montages as Bridges pours the societal memories into Thwaites (in some kind of ESP downloading we are generally willing to suspend disbelief for). It's just that the montages are painfully generic and unimaginative - the rest of the film is far better crafted.

At the same time, as the half full Sunday matinée audience (mostly in their mid-teens) I saw the film with today (17 Aug 14) was filing out of the theatre, the muted comments were about evenly divided between whining that "there really wasn't much plot" (I was impressed with their sophistication - there really wasn't) and quiet enthusiasm for the slightly larger than cameo performance from Taylor Swift (also well deserved). I was only a little surprised no one mentioned what a great performance Noyce got out of the unbilled babies Alexander Jillings, James Jillings, Jordan Nicholas and Saige Fernandes as "Gabriel" (ages 6 to 12 months)!

If it's still possible, see this elementary level look at dystopia before any of the HUNGER GAMES films or DIVERGENT series, but if you already HAVE already bought into those, expect something a lot less fully developed, but equally serious and surprisingly enjoyable. I liked it, but wished there were more to it. If your local elementary school or Sunday school class wants a literate special event for the Elementary School set, this GIVER would be an unusually good bet . . . and, for heavens' sake, don't let their older brothers and sisters turn up their noses at something too "juvenile" for them! Point out the great cast which makes even this elementary examination of the classic topic fit for adults. How many other recent films can you honestly say that about?

The Leavenworth Case

Plot elements cherry picked from original, still an interesting curio
Tastes have changed significantly since 1891 to 1893, when Broadway star Joseph Haworth (QUO VADIS, JULIUS CAESAR and dozens of others) tried out a stage version of Anna Katharine Green's then wildly popular 1878 first novel, THE LEAVENWORTH CASE, about the murder of the wealthy Horatio Leavenworth who so objects to one of his niece's marrying an Englishman that he is on the verge of disinheriting her. The play did not make it to Broadway (programs survive from the engagements in London, Ontario and Columbus, Ohio, but critics seemed to feel that Haworth was "lowering himself" from playing the classics!), but other plays premiering on the Broadway of 1893 (Oscar Wilde's LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN and A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, Brandon Thomas' CHARLEY'S AUNT or Pinero's THE SECOND MRS. TANQUERAY!) are still regularly done to this day, so it is not just the somewhat stilted language (one of the major factors in relegating the author's once enormously popular mysteries - 22 major mystery novels and countless short stories from 1878 to her death at 88 in 1935 - to modern obscurity) which may have denied us one of the potentially important "Ur" theatrical mysteries. Given Green's still strong, if somewhat "over packed" plotting however, perhaps it could be an interesting rediscovery.

Hollywood took a halting step in that direction with a 1923 silent version of the novel, and Green's name still meant enough nine months after her death that the ads for this second film version in 1936 touted "Most famous of American Mystery Novels . . . the mystery that led the parade of all modern mystery movies!" ("The Leavenworth Case" may have followed the three Edgar Allen Poe short stories generally credited with founding the modern mystery genre - "Murders In The Rue Morgue" was written five years before Anna Katharine Green was born - but it predated the first Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story by nine years!). So was it as advertised in 1936? Well, perhaps not in this version.

This LEAVENWORTH CASE really isn't a bad mystery movie taken on its own by the standards of its day (the casting and direction are a step above what one normally got from second tier Republic Pictures), but the plot elements are very much cherry picked from a bare bones synopsis of the original novel and mixed with other contemporary elements. One cannot object to the omission of a major clue in the original novel that no one "could conceive of a woman dirtying her hands by oiling and cleaning a gun" (the original murder was by gunshot - only the omitted secondary murder was by poison!) but then neither the chief "red herring" suspect nor the eventually revealed - and fairly satisfying if slightly stereotypical - killer are even IN the original and there was no MONKEY! Between the first film of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) and KING KONG (1933), monkeys - OK, gorillas (upgraded from an orangutan for Hollywood's ...RUE MORGUE) - were big in Hollywood at the start of the Great Depression - the 7th billed little spider monkey, Jojo, in this remake of THE LEAVENWORTH CASE must have seemed a real step down for Republic!

Bottom line: not really a fair representation of the source, but a fairly entertaining programmer and worth seeking out for its back story as much as its actual surviving and acceptably entertaining plot. Students of the mystery genre should at least KNOW about THE LEAVENWORTH CASE.

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