The Sundowners is a pleasant and happy film, marked by wonderful set pieces (a tremendous brush fire sequence, a sheep-shearing contest, a gambling scene, a tavern brawl) all set to a jaunty Dimitri Tiomkin score.
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Artemidorus's warnings to Julius Caesar, soon to be given dictatorial powers in Rome, falls upon Caesar's deaf -- and soon dead -- ears and the Roman conqueror trundles off to the Senate to be stabbed to death by his best friends. In Shakespeare's play, the rejection of the warning by Artemidorus is more fodder for Caesar's ballooning ego. In Joseph Mankeiwicz's 1953 film version of Shakespeare's classic, Artemidorus's warning is like a howl in the wilderness. For Mankiewicz, adapting and directing during the height of the period of the blacklist, the warning takes on a different context of a McCarthyesque conspiracy to bring down society, a mass madness so potent that even honorable men become embroiled in the hothouse hysteria.
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Whether or not one should feel concern for Nickie's state of mind is important here, because director and co-writer Leo McCarey seems to have much more on his mind here than a simple romantic soufflé. The first half of the film takes place almost entirely on the ocean liner, and it's here that the film is at its best. Although both Nickie and Terry have significant others waiting for them on the pier in New York, they can't stop from engaging in some sharp romantic badinage, setting the tongues wagging among their entertainment-starved shipmates. The first sign that the film is moving into different territory, though, is when Nickie goes ashore in France to visit his grandmother and brings Terry along. It's a lengthy and overplayed sequence at a sleepy villa in which Terry, who had previously felt impervious to Nickie's attempts at pitching woo, gets a window into his soul via the grandmother and so falls for him. McCarey also introduces an overtly religious theme here (having Terry and Nickie pray briefly in the chapel) that will come back later in an even more heavy-handed fashion.
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The film opens as obviously mega-wealthy advertising executive Eddie (Kirk Douglas) wakes up and, silently, prepares for work. He frequently checks in to listen to his latest creation -- an ad for Zephyr cigarettes -- as he motors along to work. But suddenly, he decides to take his hands off the steering wheel. Then he puts them back on... and slams the car under the wheels of a tractor trailer riding alongside him. What the heck!?
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There's also a limit on the length of a spy spoof one can sit through (the second Austin Powers and Richard Grieco's If Looks Could Kill being the few notable, yet guilty, exceptions). That limit tends to run about 58 minutes.
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In addition to witty, rat-a-tat dialogue and a fun plot that also touches on social issues of the day, the film is a visual spectacle, too. The songs are of course classic, and the sequence wherein a Siamese version of Uncle Tom's Cabin is presented as a play is an amazing work of art. Though it runs well into two hours long, the film is never tiresome, even when Kerr threatens to leave Siam for the umpteenth time. It's funny and touching, an altogether classic movie of the first rank.
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The film is told in flashback and covers the time period from 1902, well before World War I, to 1943, near the end of World War II. In that time the world went through major changes most specifically in the way wars were fought. Clive Candy (played by the hoarse-voiced actor Roger Livesey) is a relic of the past. He is a soldier who defines war by a 19th century paradigm in which war was considered a gentleman's game - an old-fashioned way of thinking about modern combat.
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