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Hugo (2011) PG

I usually begin my reviews by stating the year of the film and listing the main stars. I briefly describe the plot, perhaps quote a line from the film or describe a scene and emphasize what I believe are some of the high points of the film.

In this case, I decided to write my review as I approached viewing the film. I knew almost nothing about the film. All that I knew was that it won several Oscars, and I had seen a few brief snippets during the Academy Awards ceremony. I chose not to find out anything more about the film, and I would advise anyone who has not seen this film to take the same approach.

If you appreciate art, science, fantasy, a vivid imagination, you will love this film. If you don't appreciate art, if science bores you, if you look at a cloud and that's all you see, you won't like the film.

This film reminded me of what it was like to see a motion picture in a movie theater for the first time. I was amazed and filled with a great sense of wonder. You too can experience this again, if you see this film.

Based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Join us on Friday, May 4 at 7:00 for a screening of Hugo. Doors open at 6:30; fresh popcorn will be served. Register at calendar.ippl.info.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) PG-13

Cowboys & Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde. It is a combination sci-fi/western picture. My initial reaction to the title and to a few previews I saw was, "Give me a break, how silly can you get?" But a few people told me it was a pretty good movie, so I decided to give it a chance. And I am now very glad I did.

This is a fun movie. It works very well as an old fashioned 1950s sci-fi movie set in the "Hollywood West." Daniel Craig gives a wonderful performance as Jake Lonergan, a bad guy turned good who sets out to right past wrongs. It's as though James Bond was sent to the past without a memory of who he was, what his mission is, or any of his special gadgets except one, which he does not know how to use. But he retains his martial arts ability and his ability to "think on his feet."

So sit back and enjoy.

Hollywoodland

Hollywoodland (2006) R
1959 was a very good year for me. I was 11 years old and the White Sox were winning their first pennant in 40 years. But one day in that year was terrible. On the morning of June 17, 1959, my mother had sent me to the corner store for a gallon of milk. While in the store, I looked down at the newspapers and there was a terrible headline and some sickening photos. George Reeves, the actor who had played Superman in the 1950s television show and a hero to millions of kids, had killed himself. I was horrified and sickened by the story, and I could not bring myself to believe it.

In 2006, Hollywoodland was produced starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, and Ben Affleck. The film takes an intriguing look at Reeves' death and considers three possible scenarios: 1) that Reeves was killed at the behest of his former mistress; 2) that he was killed accidentally by his then girlfriend; and 3) that he had deliberately taken his own life.  Brody does an excellent job playing the role of Louis Simo investigating the death at on behalf of Reeves' mother. Lane is superb playing Toni Mannix, Reeves' mistress. And Affleck is outstanding playing "the Man of Steel," George Reeves.

The movie can be depressing, but it is very thought provoking. After viewing the movie, I considered other possibilities besides murder or suicide. Neither the movie nor other reports I have read considered the possibility that Reeves may have accidentally killed himself. Both the official reports and the movie show that Reeves had been drinking heavily at the time of his death. Could he have shot himself with a gun that he thought was unloaded? If he had thought he had previously unloaded the gun, and forgotten that he had reloaded it, or if some other person had reloaded it, that would make it an accident, not suicide or murder. I doubt we will ever know, but for kindness sake, I choose to believe he did not realize the gun was loaded at the time of his death.

Ordinarily I don't like sad movies, but this one is excellent and it opened up a possibility that I had not considered.

Spotlight: Audie Murphy

Spotlight: Audie MurphyAs most of you know, Audie Murphy was America's most decorated soldier of World War II. After the war, Murphy went to Hollywood and began a movie career under the tutelage of James Cagney. Most of the movies he made were westerns.

Indian Prairie has acquired the Audie Murphy Western Collection, which contains four films. Sierra (1950) is the first. Murphy's inexperience as an actor shows in this, his second starring western. And his then wife, Wanda Hendrix, gives him no help due in part to her unusual voice. The film is nevertheless worthwhile because of the spectacular photography, the singing of Burl Ives (who sings a few very beautiful ballads and a very comical song for children), and the appearance in small roles of future superstar, Tony Curtis, and television's most famous western marshal James Arness.

All four films include an introduction by Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz. The special features section of each film includes interesting facts. Also, Sierra includes a mini-biography of Murphy. One of the interesting stories about this film is a mock fast draw gunfight between Murphy and Curtis. If you watch the other films in this collection, you will note how much Murphy grew as an actor.

The other films in the collection are Drums Across the River (1954), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), and Ride a Crooked Trail (1958). They are all solid westerns well worth watching.

In addition, Indian Prairie has three other Audie Murphy films: His autobiographical To Hell and Back (1955); Night Passage (1957), a film I previously reviewed; and No Name on the Bullet (1959). To Hell and Back was Universal Studios' biggest box office hit ever, until it was eclipsed 20 years later by Jaws.
Audie Murphy was good actor, who, unlike most actors, was a genuine hero. He stood 5’5”, had a baby face, but with his genuine humility and his life experiences he brought something special to his films. A friend said at his funeral, "Like the man, the headstone is too small." He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and after John Kennedy, his grave is the most visited gravesite.

Spotlight: True Grit

Spotlight: True GritThis film was made in 1969 and remade in 2010. Both films have much to recommend them, as they followed the 1968 Charles Portis novel closely; the only strong criticism is they both should have stayed truer to book. The 1969 film starred John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, and Robert Duvall. The 2010 film starred Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon.

John Wayne received his only Academy Award for this film and Jeff Bridges received a nomination for his performance. Kim Darby gave a fine performance portraying 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who has hired Marshall Rooster Cogburn to bring her father's murderer, the nefarious Tom Chaney, to justice. But young Hailee Steinfeld gave an outstanding performance in the same role and received an Academy Award nomination.
Campbell played La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger also on the trail of Chaney, in the 1969 film (portrayed by Damon in the remake). Matt Damon's performance is far superior. I will not mention the names of the actors who played Tom Chaney, but I believe the actor from 1969 film gave a better performance and is much truer to the character from the novel.

The photography in both films is beautiful, but I give the edge to the 1969 film. With respect to the music, I give the edge to the 2010 film.

The 1969 film received two Oscar nominations, the 2010 film received 10. Whether or not you like westerns, I strongly recommend both films. There is plenty of action, comedy and pathos in both. And if you have not read the book, you should do so at your earliest convenience. It’s an American classic.

Diary of a Madman

Diary of a Madman (1963)
The DVD cover of this film describes it as "the most terrifying motion picture ever created." While it's true that this film starred Vincent Price at the time of his reign as king of the horror pictures, I could name several motion pictures which were scarier. Nevertheless if you watch the film late at night, with the lights out and the sound up, the
film will give you a bit of a fright.

In 19th century France, Magistrate Simon Cordier (Price) sentences a man to death for committing several murders. The murderer claims that he did not recall the murders and that he is possessed by an evil being called the "Horla." While speaking with the magistrate, the murderer suddenly becomes demented and attacks him. During the struggle, the murderer dies. A short time after this, the horla begins visiting the magistrate.

The horla is an interesting monster. He is invisible, physically quite strong, has the ability to read minds, and can bend the will of his victims. And usually, the Horla wants his victims to kill others.

Nancy Kovack plays the female lead in this film. She appeared mostly on television shows in the 1960s and 70s. Her biggest movie role was in Jason and the Argonauts as Medea. In Diary of a Madman, she plays Odette, a schemer married to a promising but poor artist. Odette wishes to advance her station and pursues the magistrate.

Vincent Price gives a very admirable performance. He is much more restrained in this role than in many of the other films he made at this time, and I felt great empathy for him and found myself rooting for him to defeat his powerful foe.

The photography in this film is beautiful. In addition to the rich color, I loved the sets and the costumes. I recommend this film, which is new to our collection.
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The Big Heat

The Big Heat (1953)
In this crime drama, Glenn Ford plays Detective Sergeant Dave Banion, an honest and tough cop in a city run by criminals. At the beginning of the film, a policeman commits suicide and leaves a letter for the district attorney detailing his involvement with high ranking criminals and dishonest public officials. His widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), finds the letter but instead of turning over to the DA, uses it to blackmail the highest ranking criminals in the city. When Banion investigates the suicide, he notices some inconsistencies in the widow's statements and decides to investigate further.

Eventually the trail leads him to Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) and his girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Stone is one of the high ranking criminals, a vicious and sadistic thug who likes to torture women. Debby is in love with him, but hates it when he abuses her and other women. Debby takes an interest in Banion after he roughs up one of Stone's goons after Stone assaults a woman in a bar.

Ford gives his usual top notch performance. Grahame's performance is excellent as is Jeanette Nolan's as the shrewd and malicious Bertha Duncan. Marvin is also very good as the vicious and sadistic Vince Stone.

This is a fast paced movie and for those who like crime dramas, it is one of the best. For more about the film, check out TCM.

Spotlight: 1956

Spotlight: 1956Almost two years ago I wrote about 1939 being the most celebrated year in American film history. After seeing that Jubal did not receive any academy award nominations, I did a little research on 1956.

1956 was a most spectacular year as well. The Searchers – one of best American films of all time, Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, the classic Moby Dick – all came out in 1956 and none of them received an academy award nomination.

What were some of the films that did receive awards and/or nominations in 1956? Around the World in Eighty Days, Friendly Persuasion, The King and I, Giant, The Ten Commandments, Anastasia, Lust for Life, Richard III, The Rainmaker, The Bad Seed, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Forbidden Planet.

That's quite a list. With one exception, Indian Prairie has all of these fine films in its collection.

Jubal

Jubal (1956)
Rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) saves drifter Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) from freezing to death and takes him to his ranch. Shep is a big happy puppy dog of a man who takes an instant liking to Jubal and hires him on as a ranch hand. Jubal, who has had a troubled past, forms a friendship with Shep and later reveals the only man he ever previously trusted was his father. Eventually Shep promotes Jubal to ranch foreman.

Jubal's immediate future looks good but there are two significant obstacles to his future happiness. One of them is Shep's wife Mae (Valerie French), who has been unfaithful in the past and now sets her sights on Jubal. His other problem is "Pinky" Pinkum (Rod Steiger) a malicious ranch hand who hates everyone (himself included).

Jubal has much to recommend it. The musical score is hauntingly beautiful. The cinematography is gorgeous. And Rod Steiger gives a compelling performance. I was somewhat surprised to discover that this film did not receive any academy award nominations.

I strongly recommend this film. Check back on Friday for our spotlight on other films released in 1956.

The Lone Star Trail

The Lone Star Trail (1943)Indian Prairie recently acquired Johnny Mack Brown: classic westerns collection. Of the four movies, this is the best.

Johnny Mack Brown was a star football player at the University of Alabama in the 1920s. His good looks got him a start in Hollywood in the late 1920s. At first his career appeared to be taking off as he starred with Hollywood heavyweights such as Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable. In the early 1930s though, he began regularly making "B" westerns.

The plot for Lone Star Trail is a fairly standard one. Rancher Blaze Barker returns to the town of Dead Falls to clear his name after spending two years in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit. The actual robbers do what they can to either send him back to prison or to kill him. Comic relief is provided by veteran actor and sidekick Fuzzy Knight.

Of particular interest in this film is that one of the "bad guys" is played by a future Hollywood legend very early in his career. Even if you don't like westerns, it would be fun to watch the first few minutes of the film to see if you can identify him (if you're impatient, just click here).

Hangman’s Knot

Hangman’s Knot (1952)
Around the end of the Civil War, Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott) leads a successful ambush against a Union gold wagon. After wiping out the Union guards, they find out the war is over. Instead of an act of war, Major Stewart and his men will be regarded as murderers and robbers. Their last chance to prove their innocence is destroyed when Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin) kills their liaison, a man who could have informed Major Stewart of the war's end, but chose not to because he wanted the gold for himself.

Things go from bad to worse when a collection of armed riffraff masquerading as peace officers get on their trail and trap them in stagecoach station. Molly Null (Donna Reed) and Lee Kemper (Richard Denning) are stagecoach passengers. Molly is an army nurse with a strong sense of duty. She initially despises Major Stewart as she regards him as a murderer and thief. Kemper has been wooing Molly but she has proved hesitant because she is suspicious of his character.

This is the first movie in which Lee Marvin had a significant role and he does a good job of playing a coldblooded killer, a role he would repeat many times in his film career. There is plenty of action and drama in this movie, numerous plot twists, fine acting, and gorgeous photography. I strongly recommend it.

Appointment with Danger

Appointment with Danger (1950)
This 1950 film noir stars Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, and Paul Stewart. The plot is pretty hokey and the first few minutes of the film seem like an infomercial for the U.S. Post Office, but this film gets very entertaining very fast.

Two thugs murder a U.S. Postal Inspector and then dump his body. A nun (Calvert) inadvertently sees the thugs. Al Goddard (Ladd), another U.S. Postal Inspector, investigates the murder by first locating the nun. After he finds her, he tracks down one of the killers and subsequently infiltrates the killers' gang.

There is plenty of snappy dialogue and a lot of funny lines. Goddard is a hard and determined man and is accused by a fellow officer of being inhuman and without feelings. The fellow officer says to Goddard, "You don't know what a love affair is." Goddard replies, "It's what goes on between a man and a .45 that won't jam."

Ironically, this film stars Jack Webb and Harry Morgan as the killers. Just two years later, Webb would begin starring on television as Detective Joe Friday on Dragnet. And in the late 1960s, Webb would team with Morgan again when Dragnet returned to television – and they dressed in just the same style as they did in the 1950 film.

I saw this film for the first time last summer and I liked it so much that I saw it again this winter. If you like old movies, this is a good one, and if you don't, you may like it anyhow.

The Killers

The Killers (1946)
This 1946 film noir starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O'Brien is based upon the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name. The first several minutes of the movie closely follows the Hemingway story of two hired killers who come to a small town to kill "the Swede" (Lancaster), but where the story ends, the movie continues. The story provided no explanation as to why anyone wants the Swede to be killed, nor does it explain who hired the killers.

The movie provides these answers and more as we follow Jim Reardon (O’Brien), an insurance investigator who is curious as to why Swede did not try to escape after being warned about the killers. Through a series of flashbacks, Swede's story is told by a host of characters.

This movie should be on every "film noir" fan's "A" list. It's a great story with fine acting. The Killers received four Academy Award nominations and probably deserved more. One of the musical themes was subsequently "borrowed" by the television show Dragnet.

In addition, I would like to say a few words about Indian Prairie's copy of the The Killers, which contains two DVDs. The second DVD contains the 1964 version of The Killers starring Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson. This version is not really a remake of the 1946 movie but rather a telling of the story in a different way. In fact, the 1964 version is not film noir at all as it was made for television. It is an excellent film and worth watching as well.

There are also loads of special features including a reading of the actual Hemingway story, a discussion of the making of the films, a discussion of film noir, and much more.

Union Station

Union Station (1950)
In this film noir, secretary Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson) grows suspicious of two men boarding her train. She sees that one of them is carrying a concealed pistol and is referred to Lt. William Calhoun (William Holden), head of the Union Station police. Although initially skeptical, Lt. Calhoun soon discovers that the two men have kidnapped Lorna Murchison, the blind daughter of Joyce's wealthy employer, and are holding Lorna ransom for $100,000. How he goes about pursuing the kidnappers makes for one entertaining movie.

Both William Holden and Lyle Bettger give great performances. During his career, William Holden won an Academy Award and was nominated on two other occasions. One of those nominations came for his performance in Sunset Boulevard (also 1950), which may explain why he was not nominated for Union Station.

Lyle Bettger, who often played villains, plays one of the kidnappers. I don't think he ever gave a better performance. He was one of the nastiest villains you'll ever see in a 1950s film.

The film has two very exciting chase scenes, both of them on foot. While I am not ordinarily a fan of foot chases, the interesting locations will keep you intrigued. The film contains a shocking police interrogation of one the suspects. Also of interest is that part of the film was shot on location in 1950s Chicago. The musical score is well adapted to the film and helps drive the action.

This movie will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat.

Find out more about the film on TCM.com.

The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed (1956)
The Oscar-nominated movie is based on the book and the play with the same title. It follows both fairly closely with the exception of the ending. Most of the actors were performers in the play before doing the movie. I won't describe the plot at all because the movie is much more enjoyable if you don't know what's going to happen – don’t even read the back cover.

Don't be put off by our description of the film as a "horror film." You won't find any monsters or vampires or witches or even the devil in this movie. You won't even see a drop of blood. What you will see is some great acting, a film that will make you cry and make you laugh, some very suspenseful moments, and a very unusual ending.

Although Henry Jones did not get an Oscar nomination, he plays one of the most memorable characters I have ever seen and he has some of the most memorable lines. 10-year-old Patty McCormack gives a brilliant performance. In fact, all of the actors (including Nancy Kelly, Evelyn Varden, and Eileen Heckart) give wonderful performances.

If you haven't seen this film before, do so; and if you can, watch it with someone else as the story is a very thought-provoking as well as entertaining.