Saturday, May 30, 2015

Stubs - Laura

Laura (1944) Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson. Directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt. Based on the novel Laura by Vera Caspary. Produced by Otto Preminger Run Time: 88 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Film Noir, Mystery

Any time I have a chance to see a classic film noir, I will take it. I had heard a lot about this film, though until recently I had never seen it. Put that down to too many films and too little time. While Otto Preminger is not one of my favorite directors, I do respect his work. Laura was a bit of a watershed film for him, setting him up for his peak years that were to follow its release.

The film opens with narration by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an eccentirc New York columnist who talks about the weekend Laura Hunt died. Police lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) has come to interview him as part of the murder investigation. Waldo is a well-known close friend of the deceased and a bit of an eccentric as he meets with Mark while he’s in the bathtub. Waldo knows Mark from his heroic battles with gangsters. And it is Waldo’s writing that has brought Mark to see him. Seems Waldo once wrote about a murder committed by a shotgun loaded with buckshot, the same way Laura had been killed.

Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is interviewed by detective
Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) while he's taking a bath.

Telling Mark that he’s interest in writing about the murder, he is allowed to tag along on the investigation. First stop is Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). Mark is interested in Treadwell’s relationship with Laura’s fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). While she claims never to have given him money, Mark has evidence that says otherwise.

Lydecker accompanies Mark when he interviews Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson)

Turns out that Shelby, a charming Southern gentleman, is already there, having come to Ann’s to escape the press and police. Shelby says that he and Laura were to be married later that week, but Waldo insists Laura had cancelled their dinner on Friday night so she could go to her country home to decide if she wanted to go through with the wedding.

When Mark asks if Shelby has a key to her country home, he says he doesn’t and accompanies the detective and Waldo to her apartment to look for it. The apartment is dominated by a large portrait of Laura. There Shelby “finds” the key in a drawer that had already been inventoried by the police. Shelby admits he didn’t want to give him the key in front of Waldo, who accuses Shelby of the murder.

Later, Waldo takes Mark to the restaurant he and Laura frequented and recalls how he met her five years earlier. He was having lunch at the Algonquin when he is approached by Laura, an eager young employee of an advertising agency. Laura wants Waldo to endorse a pen for her company, and is hurt and disillusioned when he rudely dismisses her, telling her his lunch was more important than her career. But he wasn’t able to get her out of his mind and goes to see Laura at the agency, where he apologizes and agrees to the endorsement. They become friends, and under Waldo's tutelage, Laura rises in her profession, starting her own successful agency and moving up in society, but always at his side. She became as synonymous with Waldo Lydecker as his cane. Two nights a week, Tuesday and Friday, the two stay in and listen to Waldo’s music and listen to his reports.

Although their relationship is purely platonic, Waldo is jealous of any suitors, and uses both his column and his influence over her to keep any rivals for her affections at bay. One night, at one of Ann's parties, Laura meets Shelby, who confesses that his family has been bankrupt for years. Laura gives him a job at her advertising agency, and next we see them they are romantically involved.

Laura (Gene Tierney) meets Shelby (Vincent Price) at one of Aunt Ann's parties.

Waldo has Shelby investigated and informs Laura that her fiancé is seeing one of her models, Diane Redfern. Laura is furious at Waldo's interference and dismisses the accusations until he produces a gold cigarette case that she gave Shelby, saying he retrieved it after Diane pawned it. He infers that Shelby is also seeing her aunt and she feels compelled to find out. She is furious about seeing them together and gives Shelby back the cigarette case. Back in the restaurant, Waldo tells Mark that Laura had lunch with Diane the day of her death and had planned to go to her country home for a few days, cancelling their usual Friday night together.

In one of the more famous shots in the film, Mark is obviously obsessed with a woman he thinks is dead.

Mark, who is growing obsessed with Laura, returns to the apartment the next night and continues searching through her personal effects. Waldo stops in and says he knows Mark has secretly put in a bid for Laura's portrait, and chides him for falling in love with a corpse. After Waldo leaves, Mark falls asleep under the portrait. He awakens to the sound of someone entering the room, and looks up to see Laura standing before him. Laura, who has been isolated in the country, is stunned when Mark shows her a newspaper story about her "murder." She claims the radio in her country home wasn’t working. Laura then discovers one of Diane's dresses in her closet, and Mark concludes that the murder victim, whose face was damaged beyond recognition, was actually Diane. Mark questions Laura, brightening when she says she had decided not to marry Shelby, and instructs her not to leave the apartment or use the phone.

Laura returns home from the country to find Mark sleeping in her apartment.

But as soon as Mark leaves, Laura calls Shelby, unaware that the police have tapped her phone. Shelby and Laura meet briefly, and Mark follows Shelby to Laura's country home, where he finds him removing a shotgun from a rack. Shelby claims that he had brought Diane to Laura's apartment to talk, but when Diane answered the door and was shot to death, he panicked and fled. As Mark escorts him out, he checks the radio and is disappointed to find that it works.

Lydecker faints when he sees Laura alive.

Waldo, who initially faints when he sees Laura is alive, arranges for a party to celebrate her return. At the party, she asks Shelby why he went to the cottage, and when he replies that he went to hide the shotgun, she realizes with horror that Shelby believes she is the murderer. Mark, who is being pressured by superiors to make an arrest, takes Laura into custody in front of her guests. After she’s been taken away, Ann makes her play for Shelby. After questioning her at the police station, he is convinced of her innocence.

Mark takes Laura in for questioning.

After taking Laura home, Mark searches Waldo's house while he’s not home and discovers a hollow compartment in the grandfather clock, for which there is a duplicate clock in Laura’s apartment. When he kicks it in, he finds that it’s empty, but the discovery sends him back to Laura's apartment. Waldo is still at Laura's when Mark announces that her gun was not the one used in the murder.

Resentful of the growing bond between Laura and the handsome detective, Waldo insults Mark, and Laura coolly sends her old friend away. Mark examines Laura's clock, which is a duplicate of the one in Waldo's home, and finds a shotgun hidden inside with two spent shells. He tells Laura that Waldo killed Diane, thinking it was Laura, and hid the gun in the clock after Shelby ran out.

Mark tells her that he’ll have the clock taken in for evidence in the morning. After kissing Laura goodnight, he locks her in and leaves, and Laura prepares for bed, unaware that Ly has come back into the apartment through the service entrance. When Mark asks who is tailing Waldo, he’s told he hasn’t come out. Mark and his men head back up as Waldo enters Laura's room. He is about to shoot her when Mark and his men break in. Waldo is shot by the police and, as he dies, says good-bye to Laura.

Looking at the production history of this film, it’s amazing to think that it actually got made. Director Otto Preminger’s work on the story predates the film. In 1942, while looking for a stage production to direct, he became aware of a play written by Vera Caspary called Ring Twice for Laura. Preminger liked the setting of the story, but, of course, thought it needed revisions. While Caspary was open to revising the play, she and Preminger disagreed on the direction it should take. She did a rewrite with someone else, George Sklar, but ultimately could not find a producer to back the play.

Director Otto Preminger

Caspary turned the play into a novel, first serialized in Colliers in 1942 as Ring Twice for Laura and then published the following year as Laura. 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to the book. Meanwhile, Preminger, an Austrian born director, had made a return to Hollywood, following his banishment from 20th Century Fox by Darryl Zanuck over creative differences while filming Kidnapped (1938), an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel written by Zanuck himself.

Preminger had gone to Broadway, where he found success directing such plays and stars as Outward Bound with Laurette Taylor and Vincent Price, My Dear Children with John and Elaine Barrymore and Margin for Error. In the latter, Preminger played the part of a Nazi. Preminger also took a position teaching acting and directing at the Yale school of drama. Preminger was offered a part by Nunnally Johnson to play a Nazi in the film The Pied Piper (1942), a 20th Century Fox production. In need of money, Preminger accepted. Zanuck was already in the Army, having joined following the Pearl Harbor attack the previous year.

Thinking he was through with Hollywood, Preminger was offered a chance to reprise his Nazi role in the film version of Margin for Error (1943). But when director Ernst Lubitsch had to withdraw from the film, Preminger managed to persuade interim studio head William Goetz to let him direct. While the film did not do well with critics or movie goers, Preminger tried to line up projects while Zanuck was still on active duty.

One of the projects Preminger had lined up was Laura, which Goetz had let him produce and direct. When Zanuck returned to the studio, he had not given up on his grudge against Preminger and while he would forgive him, Zanuck didn’t want Preminger to direct the film. Rouben Mamoulian, the director of Love Me Tonight (1932) and Golden Boy (1939), was Zanuck’s choice. Mamoulian had previously directed The Mark of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941) and Rings on Her Fingers (1942) for the studio. The latter film starred Gene Tierney, who was cast as Laura.

Mamoulian and Preminger did not work well together. Mamoulian started to rewrite the script and the two clashed over casting. While Preminger had no problems with Tierney or Dana Andrews, he did object to the casting of Waldo Lydecker. Mamoulian had cast Laird Cregar, who had been previously cast as a Jack the Ripper type character in The Lodger (1944). Preminger felt casting him as Lydecker was giving away too much to the audience who already saw him as a villain. Preminger wanted Clifton Webb, who had left Hollywood in 1930 to act on stage. At the time, Webb was starring in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirits in Los Angeles. Zanuck didn’t want Webb because of his homosexuality and effeminate mannerisms. But after viewing a filmed monologue from the play, Zanuck relented.

Filming began on April 27, 1944, but Mamoulian had trouble with the cast and it showed in the dailies. Zanuck let producer Preminger take over the directing duties. But Preminger and the cast had their own rough start. Mamoulian had informed them that Preminger was unhappy with their work, but once they figured out their working relationship they got along fine. Production ended on June 29, but Zanuck was not happy with the first cut of the film. He insisted that an ending be shot revealing that the story was all a dream by Lydecker.

The film was screened with that ending, but columnist Walter Winchell told Zanuck that he didn’t understand it and that Zanuck should change it, so the film ends the way Preminger intended.

Preminger would go onto direct some of the most controversial films of his day, movies that pushed the limits of the production code by depicting drug addiction in the Man With the Golden Arm (1955), rape in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and homosexuality in Advice & Consent (1962).

The motive in the film is interesting in that Lydecker and Laura’s relationship was obviously not romantic. The film does not come out and say Lydecker is gay, but his finicky mannerisms suggest he is, especially given the day and age the film was made. Without romance, his motive is due to the injury to his ego that Laura would choose to be in a romantic (read that physical) relationship with a man, first Shelby and then Mark McPherson, over their intellectual (platonic) one. How could his protégé choose muscle and brawn over his brain and friendship?

I have not seen many Gene Tierney films before. She proves herself to be not only beautiful, but a talented actress. While Laura may be her most famous role, she did receive a nomination for Best Actress for her role as Ellen Brent Harland the following year in Leave Her to Heaven. Laura was not her first time to share the screen with Dana Andrews, they appeared together in Tobacco Road (1941) and would so again in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).

Gene Tierney as Laura.

We touched briefly on Dana Andrews in our review of Ball of Fire (1941), but he was a major star in the 1940’s and 50’s, appearing in such films as The Ox-Box Incident (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), While the City Sleeps (1956), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and Zero Hour! (1957). (Zero Hour! Is probably best remembered as the basis for the comedy spoof Airplane! (1980).) Andrews was a good dramatic actor whose alcoholism derailed his career.

Dana Andrews

Before Laura I believe I had only seen Clifton Webb in a couple of films, Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and Titanic (1953). In both those roles Webb played characters not too terribly different than Waldo Lydecker, except they weren’t murderers. Laura, as mentioned above, marks his return to Hollywood. He had been in very few films in the teens and 20’s and had returned to Broadway in 1930. There he was best known for musical comedies, so his role as a murderer in Laura was casting against type.

Laura was also a big film in the career of Vincent Price, establishing him as a character actor. His association with horror and teen films would come later in his career. He got his start in Hollywood as a contract player for Universal, in Service de Luxe (1938). He would work twice more with Gene Tierney in Dragonwyck and Leave Her to Heaven, both 1946. He also appeared in several film noirs: The Web (1947), The Long Night (1947), Rogues' Regiment (1948) and The Bribe (1949). He also appeared on radio as Simon Templar in The Saint (1947-1951), a role Roger Moore would later play on television. He would appear in the 3D horror film The House of Wax (1953) from director Andre de Toth. He appeared in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps with Dana Andrews and The Ten Commandments (1956) for Cecil B. DeMille.

Vincent Price would go on to have a career in horror films.

Price would become known for horror thanks to films like The Fly (1958) and Fly Returns (1959), as well as a series of films for Roger Corman and American International Pictures (AIP), including House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). During this same time he was also appearing in AIP’s other big genre, beach movies: Beach Party (1963), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). He would appear in numerous other horror movies, but might best be known to some as the narrator on the Michael Jackson music video Thriller (1983), directed by John Landis. He also worked twice for Tim Burton as the narrator in Vincent (1982) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Price would die in 1993.

Judith Anderson, who played Ann Treadwell, is probably best known for her work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), for which she received an Academy nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who torments Joan Fontaine’s character throughout the film. Best known for her dramatic stage work, she won a Tony award for Best Actress in a Play for Medea (1948), she would also appear in a revival of the play in 1982 and was nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance.

All said, Laura is not without its flaws. The biggest to me is the fact that Mark left the murder weapon in place instead of bagging it as evidence and then doesn’t stay with Laura or insure her safety, which seems to be against procedure and an obvious plot device to put Laura in danger, especially when the real killer is not in custody. That seems like a lazy rookie move rather than something a seasoned veteran detective would do.

The others are more relationship based: What’s wrong with Mark’s life that he would fall romantically in love with a woman he thinks is dead? And what sort of lack of judgment does Laura, a smart and successful woman, have to have to be involved with a gold-digger like Shelby?

I’ve seen better film noirs, but I’m glad I saw this one and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it before. There are some very fine performances even if there are a few plot holes to go with them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Tomorrowland (2015) Starring: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy. Directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird. Produced by Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeffrey Chernov  Run Time: 130 minutes. U.S.  Color. Science Fiction, Mystery

Disney continues to mine its amusement park attractions (Pirates of the Caribbean, Country Bear Jamboree, Haunted Mansion) for film ideas, this time out it is Tomorrowland. Unlike other areas of the park that seem to have rigid and never-changing themes, like Tom Sawyer’s Island and the Jungle Cruise, you never supposed to know what you’ll find in Tomorrowland. This is one part of the park that seems to be ever changing, as promises are made about the future that don’t come true and are replaced by new ones. Myself, I’m still waiting for the monorail to take me home to my Monsanto-made house.

From this looseness, a film was crafted starring George Clooney and directed by Brad Bird, who’s previous films have included The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Going into this movie, I had really tried to avoid reading anything about it. I had seen the intriguing trailers before other films, but I wasn’t anxiously anticipating this one.

Time travel is usually a story that gets told when you’ve run out of other ideas, but in this case, Tomorrowland really isn’t so much the future, but rather another existence that is not dependent on our Present. And yes, the connection is made to Disneyland as well as other Disney-owned properties, some still to come. It is a Small World After All.

Some of the film’s high concepts didn’t completely gel for me, chief amongst them being the idea that our thoughts about the future are somehow controlled by the future. There is plenty cinematic mumbo jumbo say-it-fast-and-don’t-think-about-it-too-hard-concepts that we’re fed and supposed to understand. The film sort of stumbles when it tries to explain itself, but that seems to be the expected considering Damon Lindelof, who was the co-showrunner for the overly complicated TV series Lost, had a hand in the writing and production of the film.

Being a summer film, there are a lot of special effects (expect a wall of names if you watch the credits). The film sets out to amaze, and does, though sometimes the reason for them is lost. Fantastical inventions that seem to have both an ill-defined purpose, but also multiple ways it can be used. And that seems to be the problem with Tomorrowland, it seems to overreach, but you’re never sure what it is reaching for.

While most of the “science” may be hard to follow and swallow, this is really a film about relationships and the possibilities of positive thinking about the future. Despite the many special effects that dominate much of the movie, the strength of the film is the relationships and for that it takes actors and not special effects technicians. And this is the best part of the movie.

Clooney has built a fine track record as an actor. Perhaps the closest thing to a modern-day Cary Grant, Clooney is not only an actor, but a director and producer. In this film, he plays Frank Walker, boy genius turned adult outcast. He is a little too prepared for any possibility to be believable. He seems to meet his match with two women in his life.

Athena (Raffey Cassidy) has known Frank since he was a young boy and theirs is a very difficult relationship to define. As an actress, Cassidy seems to be at the beginning of what promises to be a very long and interesting career. Athena is one of those unpredictable characters, whom the writers play a little fast and loose with. They set certain parameters for her and violate them whenever the story requires it.

The other woman to enter Frank’s life is Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), whom Athena has recruited. We see that’s she’s very computer savvy, but that’s not why Athena is interested in her. Unlike Frank, Casey is less an easy to define genius, but more of an optimist about the future. Her power seems to be that she can think things through that you think Frank would have, but hasn’t. While there is no romance between them, their teaming up is crucial to the film.

If you’ve been missing him since the end of his long-running House TV series, Hugh Laurie is back as David Nix. Nix is the governor of Tomorrowland. Like Clooney, Laurie has become one of those actors that can be counted on to make the most of the role he’s given, even though sometimes his talents seem to be wasted. Another in a long line of British-accented movie villains, Nix represents the ill-defined nature of Tomorrowland, which is less a time, but more of a conceptual place.

Even though I was not really drawn into the message the film was preaching, I still felt emotionally involved. Brad Bird manages to pull off a difficult trick, not drawing me into the story, but still giving me a connection to the characters.

Some of the power of the movie is dissipated by the form the storytelling takes. Precarious and dangerous are only momentary, as we know from the beginning that Frank and Casey will make it. Still, towards the end of the film, I found myself near tears about what transpires.

Tomorrowland is not without its flaws, but still it is an interesting. If you like Brad Bird or George Clooney you will no doubt want to see this film. And even though they’ve left the story open-ended, let’s hope they eschew the temptation to make a sequel. A little ill-conceived, once around the track was enough for this passenger. Tomorrowland is not quite an E-ticket ride.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Stubs – Cause For Alarm!

Cause For Alarm! (1951) Starring: Loretta Young, Barry Sullivan, Bruce Cowling. Directed by Tay Garnett. Screenplay by Mel Dinelli, Tom Lewis. Based on a short story by Larry Marcus. Produced by Tom Lewis.  Run Time: 75 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Film Noir, Drama

I have made no secret of the fact that I like film noirs. Their dark plots of murder and conspiracy played out in the shadows have always fascinated me. But not all film noirs take place in the shadows of a cityscape. Case in point, Cause For Alarm! from MGM in 1951. Instead of unfolding at night in some back alley, Cause For Alarm! takes place during the day on a suburban Los Angeles street, showing suspense can happen anywhere and at any time.

But Cause For Alarm! which Ellen (Loretta Young) narrates, begins long before that fateful afternoon back when Ellen and her husband George (Barry Sullivan) met. Like many young couples at the time, they met during World War II. Ellen was dating George’s friend, Lieutenant Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling), at the time, but Ranney, a young military doctor, had little time for her. When George, a pilot, met Ellen, the two fell in love and got married.

Before she meets George, Ellen (Loretta Young) is dating Lr. Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling), a doctor.

Hollywood movies would lead you to believe that they’d live happily ever after, but sadly, that is not always the case. By the time of our movie, George is ill, bedridden with heart problems, and Ellen spends most of her time taking care of him. But George is suspicious of Ellen and thinks she’s having an affair with his doctor, and her ex-boyfriend, Ranney. George thinks his old buddy is not doing all he can and is in fact, conspiring with Ellen to kill him.

George (Barry Sullivan) suffers a heart attack and is bedridden.

The couple is childless, something that Ellen wishes they could change. She finds a surrogate child in a neighborhood boy, Billy (Bradley Mora), who dresses like movie cowboy Hopalong Cassidy and rides the range of his suburban street on his tricycle. Ellen gives him some cookies and he gives her a toy television and asks her to give it to George.

But unbeknownst to Ellen, George is writing a letter to the district attorney outlining how Ellen and Ranney are trying to kill him.

When George suffers an attack, he begs Ellen to call another doctor (yes, doctors used to make house calls), but George has mistreated all of them to the point that only Ranney will come and so Ellen calls him. Ranney dismisses George’s concerns and suggests that perhaps he should seek psychiatric help.

When they're alone, Ranney tells Ellen that George should go to a hospital to prevent his depression from worsening. But Ellen worries that George will be violent if she doesn’t attend to him personally. She promises to talk to George.

After speaking again to Billy outside, Ellen is startled to see George standing at the window. She rushes upstairs, but he denies that he’s even gotten out of bed and accuses her of being in love with Ranney and wanting him dead. Ellen is naturally hurt by her husband’s accusations, but puts it down to his illness making him distrustful. When she goes downstairs to make him lunch, George continues his letter to the DA, adding details to further implicate Ellen.

After lunch, George gives Ellen the letter and asks her to mail it for him. Ellen thinks the thick letter contains insurance papers he’s worked on for his office. Ellen gives the letter to their mailman, Mr. Carston (Irving Bacon). He tells Ellen that he’s just seen George at the window and she hurries upstairs, again, and asks George to stop risking his health and to stay in bed. But George insists the mailman is mistaken.

George then tells Ellen a disturbing story about how as a child he beat a neighbor boy with a rake after the boy tried to touch one of his toys. When his mother made him apologize and give the boy his toy, George deliberately broke it rather than let the boy have it. This story, an obvious allegory for what George will do about Ellen and Ranney, frightens her.

George tells her that the letter she sent was actually to the DA and reveals some of the incriminating information he put in it, such as her re-ordering a prescription too soon. He leaves out that it was because he’d deliberately spilled it the day before. He then threatens to kill her, revealing a gun that he has hidden under the blankets. As she pleads with him, George suffers a heart attack and dies, with the gun still in his grip.

Weak George pulls a gun on Ellen and threatens to kill her.

Ellen is stunned by the sudden turn of events and considers George’s death to be “one of those awful dreams.”  When the pharmacist calls inquiring about the prescription, Ellen doesn’t tell him that George has died. She is now in full panic mode.

Worried that everything she has done will seem incriminating to the DA, she leaves her husband’s dead body on the bed and hurries off to catch the mailman. She manages to catch up to the gregarious Carston, still making his deliveries. She tells him that she had mistakenly given him a letter to mail that was not yet finished and begs for him to give it back. Initially, Carston is willing to do so until she lets it slip that her husband had written the letter. In that case, Carston is compelled to give the letter back to George personally. When she pointedly refuses that offer, he tells her that only the supervisor in the downtown office can give it to her.

Ellen cannot convince postman Carston (Irving Bacon) to give her back the letter.

When Ellen returns to the house, George's indulgent aunt, Clara Edwards (Margalo Gillmore), is already inside, having unlocked the door with a key that she found with a neighbor's, Mrs. Warren (Georgia Backus), help. Ellen is extremely agitated and Clara only agrees to leave without seeing George after Ellen tells her that her visits upset him.

Ellen then changes clothes so she can be presentable at the post office and decides to get the gun out of George's hand. It is stiff and she has to pull it out, discharging a bullet, which gets Billy’s attention. As she is about to leave, Mr. Russell (Don Haggerty), a public notary, arrives and tries to force his way in to see George. He tells Ellen that George had demanded he come see him that day, no matter what his wife said. But Russell does finally leave and Ellen now fears that he will be another witness against her.

In her hurry to get to the main post office, Ellen nearly runs over Billy, who rides his tricycle daredevil like behind her car, which Mrs. Warren observes. (The woman is always outside in her garden.)

At the main post office, the superintendent (Art Baker) says he can give her the letter back, but policies about forms and other types of scrutiny which would require George's signature upset Ellen so much that she is forced to leave empty-handed. When she arrives home, Ellen remembers that Ranney was supposed to stop by again and calls his office to stop him. But because he is out making house calls, his office can’t get a hold of him and he arrives almost immediately.

Ellen tries to make him to leave by saying that another doctor has already been there, but he guesses that George is dead. After Ellen breaks down and tells him everything, Ranney finds the gun and the bullet hole in the floor. He then tries to calm Ellen down and tell her that George's mind was going. When the front door bell rings, Ellen fears that it is the police, but it is only Carston. He has come to return the letter, admonishing her that there was postage due on the thick letter and it could not be delivered.

Ellen cries hysterically after Carston leaves and is comforted by Ranney, who burns the letter. Calm now, Ellen hopes that someday she can forget what has happened.

Even though the film has some great film noir credentials; it is helmed by Tay Garnett, the director of The Post Man Always Rights Twice (1946), and co-stars Barry Sullivan, one of the leads from the excellent Tension (1949), there are real problems with the movie.

Unfortunately, they seem to lie with the main character around which the movie revolves. To begin with, she is not a very sympathetic character. True she is haggard and bullied by George while he is alive, but she is more concerned about a letter than the fact George has just died. She doesn’t behave like a rational person would. No doubt an autopsy would clear her of murder and the prescription issue could be explained away. The fact that she leaves her husband’s dead body hunched over and tries to lie her way into getting back a letter seems like odd behavior to me and seems more suspicious than simply calling the authorities.

As far as getting the letter back, she seems to be her own worst enemy as she messes two chances to get it back. Carston catches her in a lie and her behavior ruins any chance the superintendent will cooperate with her.

When Cause for Alarm! opened, Loretta Young was nearing the end of her film career. She’d been in movies since the age of four, when she appeared, uncredited, in the now lost, The Primerose Ring (1917).  She would also appear four years later, again uncredited, in The Sheik (1921). She is perhaps best known for her Academy Award winning role as Katrin ‘Katy’ Holstrum in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) and as Julia Brougham in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). After retiring from films in 1953, she went on to star in her own TV Series, The Loretta Young Show, which ran for eight seasons on NBC.

Cause for Alarm! lost money during its initial theatrical run which indicates that the story didn’t connect with audiences back then either. Even though the film received decent reviews, the film, which was made in 14 days at the cost of $635,000, recorded a loss of $174,000. MGM must have thought so little of the film that they let the copyright expire and the film fell into public domain.

While I will give the creative team credit of Cause for Alarm! for trying to make a different type of film noir, ultimately, they failed to tell a good story, which is a movie’s job one.

A Celebration of 600 Reviews

From Tron to Ultron

A little over a year ago, we posted our 500th review. Since then the blog has transitioned from one that reviewed video games, video game related comic books and movies into one that is almost exclusively devoted to reviewing films.

Our founder and editor-in-chief has decided to pursue other interests after working to build this blog over the last four and half years. Our other main reviewer has also followed suit. We wish them well in their new endeavors. Their presence will be sorely missed and the door is always open.

In its new form, the blog will continue to review and introduce readers to films, both current and classic. And we hope you'll continue to check us out.

1-300. A Celebration of 300 Reviews
301-400. A Celebration of 400 Reviews
401-500. A Celebration of 500 Reviews

501. Spider-Man 2 (PS2)
502. Gojira
503. Metal Gear Rising Revengeance DLC 01 - Jetstream
504Indianapolis Speedway
505. Metal Gear Rising Revengeance DLC 02 - Blade Wolf
506. Bachelor Mother
507. Lumines: Electronic Symphony
508. Tetris (Game Boy)
509. The Incredibles (Second Opinion)
510. Watch Dogs
511. Wayne's World
512. Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy
513. Gears of War: Judgment
514Little Miss Sunshine
515Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Second Opinion)
516. Killer Is Dead
517Transformers: Age of Extinction
518. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes - Extra Op: Jamais Vu (DLC)
519. Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark
521. Transformers: Age of Extinction (Second Opinion)
522. Defending Your Life
523. American McGee's Grimm
524American McGee's Grimm (Comic)
525. Bringing Up Baby

527. Min and Bill
528. Skylanders #0 (Comic)
529Edge of Tomorrow
530. The Breaking Point
531. Plants vs. Zombies: Lawnmageddon (Full Comic)
532. Guardians of the Galaxy
533. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle
534Gunga Din
535Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
536Sharknado 2: The Second One
537. True Grit (Second Opinion)
538. Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
539. Ultra Street Fighter IV
540. The Oklahoma Kid
541. Dead Rising
542The Roaring Twenties
543Show People
544Dead Rising 2
545. Tillie's Punctured Romance
546Steamboat Bill, Jr.
547. Frip and Froop's Logical Labyrinth
548. Shoulder Arms
549. My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Rainbow Rocks
550. Dracula

551. Knack
552. Frankenstein
553. Freaks
554. Skylanders #1 (Comic)
555. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
556The Mummy
557. Plants vs. Zombies: Timepocalypse (Halloween ComicFest Comic)
558. The Wolf Man
559. The Boxtrolls
560. Mary Poppins
561. Stagecoach
562. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
563. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
564. San Quentin (1937)
565Each Dawn I Die
566. Yankee Doodle Dandy (Blu-ray)
567Remember The Night
568. A Christmas Story
569. Skylanders #2 (Comic)
570Infamous Second Son
571. It Happened on 5th Avenue
572Tetris Ultimate (PS4)
573. The Lego Movie Videogame
574. Team America: World Police
575. Holiday (1938)

576. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
577. Big Hero 6
578. His Girl Friday
579Hotel Transylvania
580. Skylanders: Trap Team
581Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
582Horse Feathers
583. The Plot Thickens
584. It All Came True
585The Birth of a Nation
586. The Story of Temple Drake
587Foreign Correspondent
589. Boyhood
590Star Trek: The Motion Picture
591. Queen of Outer Space
592This Island Earth
593Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie
594. Sinners' Holiday
595Other Men's Women
596. Three on a Match
597. Female
598. Stand-In
599. Blackboard Jungle
600. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Movies: 73 (346 Total)
Video Games: 18 (209 Total)
Comic Books: 6 (27 Total)
DLC: 3 (18 Total)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Joss Whedon. Written by Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers comic book created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Produced by Kevin Feige. U.S.A. 141 minutes. Color. Science Fiction, Fantasy

Talk about your review-proof films. Avengers: Age of Ultron hit U.S. theaters in the past few weeks and along with its international box-office take should top a billion dollars by the time you read this review. Since no review would make much of a difference, least of all mine, there is no reason to rush to publish.

I will start off by saying I was a big fan of the first Avengers film, having written two reviews of the movie for the blog, once after seeing it in 3D IMAX and once after watching it a third time at home prior to the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I even refer in my first review that “bigger does mean better,” something that I often say is quite the opposite in sequels. Too often the sequels are over-the-top follow ups to the original, thinking the only justification for existing is to deliver a bigger story that the first one. The problem is that most of the times, what gets lost in the bigger presentation is the thing that made the first film such an appealing winner. Sadly, Avengers: Age of Ultron does this to its own detriment.

It doesn’t take more than a casual viewing of the MCU to realize that with every success, there has been a bigger budget and more special effects. There is no more building Iron Man in a cave with a bunch of scraps. Everything now is machine-made, computer designed and highly polished. And as in Iron Man 3, when it was decided that multiple Iron Mans were better than the one, now we have a seemingly never-ending supply of Ultrons, the main villain of the piece. More I won’t say, in case, gasp, you haven’t yet seen the film.

To spice things up, Whedon has written a script that throws in a few surprises, some good, and some bad. There is still a lot of humor in the film, which helps offset the tension that builds, but sometimes the story/character motivations seem to be more for off-screen reasons than perhaps the realities of the story.

As an example, there is no Pepper Potts, who has been by Tony Stark’s side for the entire MCU. Not that I really miss her in the film, but her absence is most likely due to contractual reasons and given a throwaway line of explanation. The same with Thor’s earth-bound love, Jane Foster, who seems to only appear in Thor-centric films and is otherwise always away on research. Again, there are enough cameos in this film that another, by Natalie Portman, isn’t needed or missed.

Other than that, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets an unexpected backstory, which almost seems to be a plot convenience more than anything else. And a relationship blooms between two members of team Avengers that I honestly didn’t see coming from the previous films in the MCU.

The main characters seem much more comfortable with each other now, which if they are really a team would be a sign of the comradery that develops in battle tested groups. But there is still an underlining sense of distrust that never quite goes away. And for good reason as it turns out.

There are also some new characters that are added to the mix, a few of which will no doubt return in the next promised edition of the series. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but I think they will definitely make for an interesting mix when the Avengers return in their own film in 2018.

Ultron (James Spader) is a pretty good villain.
For a villain, Ultron seems to be pretty good one and James Spader was a great choice. He has always been an interesting actor to watch and has given some really great performances and still does on The Blacklist TV series. But the plot and Ultron’s motivation seems as old as the Star Trek episode The Changeling (1968).

And there is the new big budget cliché, that Age of Ultron falls victim to, of destroying a city, a trend that dates back to the Transformers going to Chicago in Dark of the Moon (2011) and Superman laying waste to Metropolis in Man of Steel (2013). Here it happens twice, once to a city in Africa and once to a town in Sokovia, a fictional Eastern European country. 

If it seems like we’ve seen this plot and its outcome before, that’s because we have.

Part of the problem with the MCU is that going in we already know that Ultron, no matter how powerful a villain and no matter how fool-proof the plan, will not succeed. How else can Marvel already be planning for Avengers 3, which will be a two-parter, another new big budget cliché in itself? (Thanks Harry Potter). But we kind of knew that going into The Avengers as well, as the second phase was already planned out. So why doesn’t it work as well this time?

First, this is a much slicker film, perhaps too slick when compared to its predecessor. Take for example, the motorcycle sequence shown on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show the week of its release. There is really no danger of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) being hurt as her motorcycle falls from a jet and then maneuvers its way through the thick traffic of Seoul. Everything seems too choreographed and CGI-ed to be believable in the least. Her character is turning into one that possesses whatever talent is required at the moment: Need her to fly a plane, she’s an expert; need her to fight in battle, she’s a good soldier; need stunt motorcycle-riding, she’s your gal. How can we lose if she’s on our side?

Second, is the problem with hype, in that things rarely live up to their own (see also the Fight of the Century: Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao which took place during opening weekend). Leaving The Avengers in 2013 was sort of like leaving Spider-Man 2 when I saw it in 2004. I couldn’t wait to see it again and did so the following weekend. The Avengers was the same way. However, after Spider-Man 3 (2007) I wasn’t in as big of a hurry. In the three years between films I could only imagine having that same rush when the credits kicked in, but that film fell with a certain thud.

Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t land with a thud, but it is not nearly as satisfying as The Avengers had been. After Spider-Man 3, it was clear that it was time for Sam Raimi to move on. He had given his all for the franchise, but for a number of reasons, some out of his control, his best work on the series was behind him. The same is true of Whedon’s work on The Avengers. Maybe he should have quit after the first one. In this case, bigger was not better.