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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

REMEMBER? (1939)

Famous as the Golden Year of Golden Age Hollywood, 1939 also had it’s share of stinkers. Few stinkier than this brutally misconceived cuckold comedy that finds best pals Robert Taylor & Lew Ayres flipping Greer Garson as if she were housing property. Actually, she was property, property of M-G-M; hence this rush job after GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS made her an instant star at the alarming age of 35. Journeyman comedy specialist Norman Z. McLeod co-wrote & megged so give him most of the blame*, but Robert Taylor deserves credit for making an already unlikable character a positive paragon of self-centered upperclass entitlement. Lew Ayres does what he can as a slightly soused third-wheel, but Garson murders every line with her fluted tones and oddly unflattering look. (The fluted tones remained; the look triumphantly revised.) Perhaps nobody on the lot was second-guessing the dailies since producer, writers & director had turned out a big popular hit with TOPPER/’37, a Post-Mortem Screwball Comedy, of all things. Not this time. The film wraps with a bit of chemically induced amnesia. We should all be so lucky.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While the set-up isn’t all that different from the Lubitsch/Hecht adaptation of Noël Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING/’33, that film's execution was far beyond the reach of these hack filmmakers. M-G-M was probably hoping for something along the lines of Joan Crawford in either LOVE ON THE RUN (w/ Gable & Franchot Tone) or THE BRIDE WORE RED/’37 (w/ Robert Young & Tone). Either way, they were aiming low.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Of course, the upside to being a journeyman comedy director like McLeod is that you’re apt to stay out of the way when you’ve got W. C. Fields or the Marx Bros.

Monday, April 24, 2017

I PADRONI DELLA CITTÀ / RULERS OF THE CITY (1976)

Italian writer/director Fernando Di Leo has a modest cult for his bluntly effective, brightly colored urban crime pics. With more crude energy than finesse, his mob stories keep your attention even as they miss on style & technique. Here, his usual qualities (or lack thereof) are reversed, with smartly handled, even swaggering action/chase sequences in & around Rome(?) showing hard-nosed filmmaking savvy in support of a pretty thin story. Progress? (He still can’t stage, shoot or edit a fight to save his soul.) The story pits top mobster Jack Palance against Edmund Purdom’s two-bit loan shark operator, but the real action follows a couple of low echelon enforcers (Al Cliver; Harry Baer) who work up an inside scam that should leave them holding the assets of both sides, and with a cold dish of revenge on the side. Di Leo works up plenty of twists & turns in his street chases, not so much in his plot. Only the unexpected homoerotic angle between the boys surprises. Mostly, this is breezy fun and looks good in the non-anamorphic DVD from RARO-Video.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: An earlier Stateside release (slightly trimmed) came out as MISTER SCARFACE even if Palance looks about the same as usual. And playing Luigi, the loan shark boss, that's the very same Edmund Purdom who took over THE EGYPTIAN/’54 for Marlon Brando and who stood in (and lip-synched) for a too fat Marion Lanza as THE STUDENT PRINCE/’54.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

JIMMY P. (2013)

Full Title: JIMMY P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. And so it is, doubtless to the frustration of anyone expecting a more conventional, plot-driven recovery story. French director Arnaud Desplechin, working comfortably in his second English-language pic, doesn’t spell everything out detailing the case of a WWII Native American vet (Benicio Del Toro) crippled by debilitating episodes of blindness & migraines. Sent to a special clinic in Topeka, Kansas run by Karl Menninger (yes, that Menninger), the staff doctors are unable to diagnose the cause and send to New York for Mathieu Amalric, an uncertified French psychiatrist (well, he tells everyone he’s from France) with a bent for analysis using an anthropological lens. If the wounds aren’t physical, and only triggered, not induced by war memories, might the underlying cause be cultural or genetic? Playing out in opaque, yet fascinating moments of partial revelation, this exceptionally well-acted piece is taken largely from session notes. (Desplechin adds a pleasant, if fictional, romance for Amalric & the visiting Gina McKee for the sake of variety and to help fill in the doctor’s backstory.) With a deep-textured palette punching up period detail (none of that faded photograph crap), the film is often startlingly convincing even if the a la carte narrative choices, which exclude as much as they include, won’t be statisfying to all.

DOUBLE-BILL: Desplechin is at his best in A CHRISTMAS TALE/’08 with a big all-star French cast, including Amalric, a Desplechin regular.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

RISEN (2016)

From ‘Affirm,’ a new division of SONY Pictures’ releasing modern stories for the ‘Christian Values’ market, an old-fashioned throwback; a modestly budgeted Biblical Epic that plays as a Judaean police procedural. Joseph Fiennes, beefed up from SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE/’98 days, is the Roman Tribune assigned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth, beefed up from EQUUS/’77 days) to find out what’s happened to the body of ‘Yeshua’ post-crucifixion. He’s gone missing! You know the rest: Tribune investigates; meets disciples; questions his own beliefs; fights off old Roman pals; sees the Light; joins the Tribe. Kevin Reynolds, who partnered Kevin Costner on Christ-Lite allegories (ROBIN HOOD/’91; WATERWORLD/’95), runs a decent show, but can’t get past boilerplate History Channel/PBS production values; or a Jesus who’s more friendly Camp Counselor than Christ. And while the film is never despicable, like last year’s abomination remake of BEN-HUR, it’s hard to imagine this preaching to the non-converted. Which is pretty much the whole point, no?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Another largely Anglo-Saxon gang of disciples in here.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Reynolds is responsible for one of filmdom’s true oddities, the Easter Island drama RAPA NUI/’94, a film as distinctive as RISEN is anodyne.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

Maybe a film can be too imaginative? How else to explain the disappointing commercial response to this wondrous terror-of-childhood dreamscape pic? Or was it doomed by an undeserved/ misguided PG-13 rating? Or simply lost in a tide of similar stories of young kids coping in unique ways with a terminal illness in the family? Whatever the case, the film is too good to miss, even with a couple of miscues that leave the film with an unexpected emotional reserve. (Maybe not a bad thing, that.) Young Lewis MacDougall is outstanding as the inward-looking, artistically talented 9-yr-old, acting out at home & bullied at school as he deals with his increasingly sick mom. Raging against the inevitable, he’s equally hurt by his divorced dad’s wayward attention (living in the States with a new family) and fighting tooth-and-nail against moving in with Grandma Sigourney Weaver (treading warily on a light British accent). Into this emotional mess, the boy, thru dreams & drawings, conjures up a living tree-monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), an alternating messenger of terror, comfort & confounding teaching-fables. Three fables, to be exact, appearing with the inevitability of the Dickensian spirits Marley told Scrooge of, but shown as enticingly beautiful animation. (A digital process with the look of a living watercolor, a marvel to behold.) This leads up to a fourth fable, told not by the imaginary tree-beast, but by the boy; a tale of uncompromising (and devastating) honesty, topped by a final revelation that both closes and expands the circle of life. It leaves you not in tears, but in dry-eyed wonder.

DOUBLE-BILL: Director J. A. Bayona is Spanish, though he’s been working internationally for a few years, now. This may explain why the film brings Guillermo del Toro (with an English accent) to mind. Less the hyperventilating fantasy world of PAN’S LABYRINTH/’06, than the under-appreciated youthful terrors of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE/’01.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Listen up during the second tale when Fernando Velázquez’s fine score tips its hat with a brief allusion to Mussorgsky’s NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN in honor of its debt toward FANTASIA’s satanic mountain monster.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

THE WIZ (1978)

Four months after emptying theaters with a stultifying film adaptation of SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, Universal Studios released another ten-ton musical turkey, pretty much killing the genre for a generation or two. The conceit seems doable: retell THE WIZARD OF OZ as an All-Black Urban Fable, but flailing execution from director Sidney (what-am-I-doing-here) Lumet; scripter Joel Schumacher (and you thought BATMAN & ROBIN was my worst credit); lenser Oswald Morris (I think I’ve misplaced my lights!) are painful. And the cast? Diana Ross, miscast as a grown-up Dorothy (her Auntie Em suggests she teach High School to find young men!); Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, charming but unable to act (with fast spins in place of actual dance routines); and Lena Horne uncomfortably hanging from the Heavens. None of them ever made another feature film. Most shocking of all is how technically crude it looks compared to the 1939 classic, as if film technology had been receding for the last 40 years. Even the sound (from MOTOWN & Quincy Jones) seems disconnected from the image . . . how appropriate.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While no official credit is given to the 1939 M-G-M film, just the B’way musical and to L. Frank Baum’s original novels, anyone who’s read one of the many OZ books can see that Schumacher’s script gets structure, incident, even some slightly altered dialogue straight from the earlier film. Legally, how’d they get away with it?

DOUBLE-BILL: As noted above, SGT. PEPPER’S. Too bizarrely misconceived to loathe. George Burns as Mr. Kite and an embarrassed Steve Martin in his film debut among the many victims.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

ANTHROPOID (2016)

Fact-based WWII Czech resistance story on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, chief administrator of the Nazi occupation, is well handled, but too Standard Issue.* The killing of SS General Heydrich, third in the Reich chain of command, was certain to cause major reprisals, but too important to pass on. The film largely follows two (out of a handful of) Czech & Slovakian agents (Cillian Murphy; Jamie Dornan) on assignment from London who parachute back in to bolster the decimated local resistance units. A fascinating, exciting war story, but writer/director Sean Ellis makes it hard to get a handle on characters & action by leaning too heavily on hand-held close-ups & busy editing (it also robs the technique of effect when he finds better use for it later); while uncomfortable dips into melodrama with a pair of romances and ‘rhymed’ plot elements might have worked in a different sort of film. A shame since much of this true, tragic history is handsomely caught, as if on the run. Of the leads, Jamie Dornan brings something less than 50 shades of personality with him (he’s easily outflanked by heroic confederates with far less screen time), while the fortunate Mr. Murphy was born with a camera-ready face just waiting to take the light.

DOUBLE-BILL: *You’d hardly accuse Fritz Lang of anything Standard Issue in his version of the same story. Made soon after events as HANGMEN ALSO DIE!/’43 (Bertolt Brecht’s sole Hollywood credit), the tone goes a bit bizarre at times and the acting uneven, but it builds relentlessly. On a smaller scale, Douglas Sirk gives a different side of the same story in HITLER’S MADMAN/’43.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

OCTOPUSSY (1983)

In stark contrast to recent James Bond pics (aiming at serious/ settling for dour), Roger Moore’s penultimate turn as 007 must be the most lighthearted of the series. And none the worse for it. The ridiculous plot has a rogue Russian General trying to pin a nuclear explosion on the US with help from Louis Jordan’s mysterious Fabergé Egg collector. With a plot more picaresque than political, and stunts more human-scaled than usual (the traditional pre-credit action sequence is a particular treat), the film develops relaxed glamor & what-the-hell swank. (Though art direction & color design are hideous enough to notice.) Politically correct it ain’t: Jourdan as Indian Prince? Moore weaponizing snake charmers; walks on burning coal; a borrowed sword from a sword swallower; and using a bed of nails to 'nail' a villain? Yikes! Still, Jourdan & Moore make a bemused pair of rivals. (As if they’d just come from a croquet match off the set.) If only the femmes fatales were better. One of them earns a pass for being crowned Miss Sweden (watch her confuse kissing with lunch), but what to make of Maud Adams’ Octopussy? She’s been Bonded in MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN/’73 (one of the weakest entries), but here she can barely read a line of dialogue or share a look with the still charming Mr. Moore. Whatever the case, the film, while a hit, was considered poor enough for a toughened up reboot on A VIEW TO A KILL/’85, with Moore suddenly out of his comfort zone then out of the series.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How did Jourdan keep a straight face while saying ‘Octopussy, Octopussy” to the doubting Maud Adams? Oscars® have been won for less.

Monday, April 17, 2017

EXTRATERRESTRE / EXTRATERRESTRIAL (2011)

From the decidedly warped mind of Nacho Vigalondo, currently confounding indie audiences with COLOSSAL/’16 (not seen here, but apparently a remix of his debut pic TIMECRIMES/’07, see below), comes a comic variation on Denis Villeneuve’s excruciatingly lofty ARRIVAL/’16, played out as if the cast of FRIENDS or SEINFELD lived a block or two down the street from the alien space ships. (And five years before its progenitor! Must be a sign.) In truth, Vigalondo’s goof is a hit-and-miss affair, but also mucho fun. It opens the morning after, after a hook-up, that is, as an attractive, hungover 30-something couple react thru yawns to the huge UFO in the sky. Neighborhood? Largely deserted. Utilities? Off-and on. Plump needy/nerdy/next-door pest? Knocking on the door. Girl’s trusting, longtime boyfriend? Coming up the walk, gullible as ever. Turns out there’s plenty of comic opportunities working out these relationships while trying to open a giant, indestructible jar of peaches and wondering if the person you’re speaking to has turned into a humanoid alien presence. And plain silliness when Vigalondo needs to shake things up. (Or runs out of good ideas.) The talent is obvious, so even when he falls flat on his face the camera's in just the right spot.

DOUBLE-BILL: Probably best to start with Vigalondo’s TIMECRIMES. It’s also on the messy side, but with more meat on its bones.