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Friday, December 15, 2017

ABSOLUTE POWER (1997)

Over-produced political conspiracy thriller, from a trash novel by David Baldacci, is good fun . . . up to a point, sort of Richard (MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) Condon for Dummies.*  Clint Eastwood megs & stars as a classy thief who hits museum drawing classes between upscale robberies. But he gets in over his head after accidentally witnessing U.S. President Gene Hackman roughing up his mistress from behind a two-way mirror in the midst of a haul. (At times, you wonder how much of the cast are in on the film's comic angles.) Anyway, the sex turns into a nasty murder scene, followed by a major cover up by Secret Service guys Scott Glenn & Dennis Haysbert who are themselves taking orders from White House Chief of Staff Judy Davis. (A tarantella between lovestruck Davis & Prez Hackman at a White House reception ought to be a major highlight; alas, it’s outside Eastwood’s range and falls flat.) Meanwhile, police dick Ed Harris is closing in on Eastwood for the crime (and romantically for estranged daughter Laura Linney), but unable to make logistical sense of the complex murder scene. Eastwood lends everything polish when it needs edge, but still delivers an entertaining empty-calorie smoothy you forget as you watch.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: He’d never have gone for it, but what if Eastwood played compromised Prez and Hackman the second-story man. Instant dramatic bump up.

DOUBLE-BILL: *While Condon’s MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE/’62 and PRIZZI’S HONOR/85 are rightly prized, the spirited lunacy of William Richert’s attempt at Condon’s WINTER KILLS/’79 (a Kennedy Assassination Shaggy Dog Story w/ Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Tony Perkins, et al.) is sui generis paranoid crazy shit.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)

Orson Welles had a real feel for Booth Tarkinton, and especially this elegant & elegiac chronicle of a horse-drawn, genteel America drawing to a close, lost to a revolution of speed & the combustible engine. He played the lead on radio, as he had in Tarkinton’s SEVENTEEN (twice*), but stuck to writing, directing & producing this second film, his follow up to CITIZEN KANE/’41. Infamously butchered in his absence (he was in So. America, filming IT’S ALL TRUE to benefit the ‘Good Neighbor’ policy), the film lives as a masterpiece maudit, with his effort standing out the more so in relief against later cuts & the imposition of added footage. The first three reels seem largely intact, and about as good as anything in the American cinema as Welles sets up the last great days of the Amberson family thru a failed courtship for Joseph Cotten & Dolores Costello, the impermanent rise of a spoiled Amberson scion (Tim Holt*) and his immediate attachment to Cotten’s assured daughter (Anne Baxter) upon their return. As one subtly stupendous set piece after another is deployed, the pattern & style for Welles' commentary on what’s been gained & lost in culture & society is crowned with an astonishment: the last great formal ball at the old Amberson mansion. Stunning in its fluid visual orchestration, it would make Max Ophüls swoon. (The Visconti of IL GATTOPARDO/’63 & Coppola of THE GODFATHER/’72, as well.) The middle three reels aren’t far behind (with character acting of legend from Agnes Moorehead & Ray Collins as Aunt & Uncle), but you do notice gaps in narrative continuity before the last act comes along with added footage (three major scenes, including the finale) that neither look nor sound like the rest of the film. Yet these blunders by the studio aren’t enough to spoil the spell cast by Welles & his team. We should all have such ‘failures.’

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Indulged in his first film by the ultra-efficient lensing of Gregg Toland, Welles grew impatient with the meticulous, time-consuming Stanley Cortez. But, oh!, the results.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Hard to imagine Welles playing the teenage lead of SEVENTEEN with that voice. But then, that’s the voice Welles had at 17! PENROD is probably Tarkinton’s best known title (the character now seeming more child delinquent than scamp), AMBERSONS, his Pulitzer Prize winner, holds up beautifully and finds Welles adaptation shockingly faithful to the text.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Is there another actor with as low a profile as Tim Holt who appeared in so many classic pics? STELLA DALLAS/’37; STAGECOACH/’39; THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS/42; HITLER’S CHILDREN/’43; MY DARLING CLEMENTINE/’46 and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’48. It’s quite a list.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

BRIDGE TO THE SUN (1961)

Belgium director Etienne Périer & scripter Charles Kaufman must have left half the drama on the table in what remains of Gwendolen Terasaki’s fascinating tru-life story of life in Japan during WWII. As strongly played by Carroll Baker, she’s a classic Southern Belle with rebel streak who falls for independent-minded Japanese embassy attaché James Shigeta. Leaving D.C. for Japan as newlyweds, the gauche but charming bride blunders thru all the expected cultural adjustments while Shigeta is confronted with rising military belligerence from his colleagues. Labeled as a peace-monger and married to a blonde girl from Tennessee, their path of honorable resistance all but impossibly narrow, and only growing worse as the war effort turns desperate. Then, when the war does end, and Shigeta’s character is needed as liaison between the Emperor & General MacArthur (titanic events largely skipped on screen), he finds his health broken. A tremendous story opportunity, visually alive simply in watching blonde Baker maneuver as a stranger in a strange land, let alone the trials of being a suspected foreign enemy. If only someone had the moviemaking skills to take advantage of the dramatic situations. Mini-series, anyone?

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For three years (CRIMSON KIMONO/’59 to FLOWER DRUM SONG/’61), Hawaiian-born James Shigeta looked set to become Hollywood’s first mainstream Asian leading man. Hollywood wasn’t ready. Instead, four active decades as a tv ‘guest star.’ It’s a living.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

Bouncy Early Talkie has young James Cagney as a hotel bellhop running small town cons with platonic partner Joan Blondell. And while it’s not chump change (horny Guy Kibbee is taken for a few thou), Cagney’s an ambitious boy and jumps to a bigger town (and bigger fish) only to fall for a fake counterfeiting scam run by Louis Calhern.* Licking his wounds and covering his loses (so Blondell won’t know), he finally hits NYC, wins big, but loses Joan to smooth banker Ray Milland who turns out to be not much of a catch. Typically zippy and fun, in the slaphappy Warners manner (lots of real slapping, too!), Cagney sells harder than he needs to, but is so irresistible you won’t mind. Blondell’s at her most attractive and there’s a nifty action sequence near the end so Jimmy can have a bit of gunplay. A programmer, but a good one.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Jack-of-all-genres director Roy Del Ruth sets up the weirdest backscreen projection shot covering nothing but the back bench of one of those open ‘30s roadsters. With no car elements in the frame, it looks like a ride on a traveling sofa.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney perfected this guy in JIMMY THE GENT/’34. Pitch-perfect in all departments, with a better plot, Bette Davis, loads of tasty supporting characters & general hilarity.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Calhern simply towers over all the Warners contract players in here. Jack Warner had a positive mania for hiring guys as short as he was.

Monday, December 11, 2017

WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Much as Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER/’11 turned to WWII for its origin story, giving unexpected textural elements to standard SuperHero tropes in an era half-familiar to modern audiences; so too DC’s WONDER WOMAN conceives its Isle-cocooned Amazon Princess Warrior by tossing her into WWI-era England to search out her nemesis; then at The Front with her motley all-male gang. A striking (and welcome) move away from the dank, dark, dour tone DC & Warners have been using elsewhere, and with the bull’s-eye casting of Gal Gadot as WW, a smash mix of looks, fighting spirit & unfazable attitude. Plus, a change in directors from humor-resistant Zack Synder to female empowering Patty Jenkins. (Note the early billing on our collectable poster - click to expand.) Jenkins manages to keep the tone light, and usually stops short of the dreaded irony button. (Alas, not the case for romantic lead/action partner Chris Pine who piles irony onto every other line.*) If only Jenkins were equally good at period tableaux: London’s streets are out of a toy train gift box, Amazon Isle a hideous floral mess, and she completely misses what should be the film’s ‘topper’ after WW blows up a church tower to take out a German sniper. Those ground floor church doors are still waiting to be flung open for a triumphant entrance. Still, generally good fun, with a super smart & sneaky perf from David Thewlis.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *After a breakthru in HELL OR HIGH WATER/'16, Pine, back in a tent-pole franchise, resumes putting quotation marks on all his dialogue. Maybe it’s just those eyebrows.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

COUNT THE HOURS (1953)

With only nine days of shooting and the tightest of budgets, Don Siegel and ace lenser John Alton almost make this ‘hopeless’ murder case defense story work. If only Karen DeWolf’s script had a bit more surprise & nuance. After an elderly farm owner & his housekeeper are murdered during a nighttime robbery, married caretakers Teresa Wright & John Craven living in the cottage next door are quickly pinned with the crime. He did the shooting; she panicked and got rid of the gun. Only he didn’t do it and the gun that would have proved his innocence is now lost. Court appointed attorney Macdonald Carey reluctantly takes the case, then goes on to wreck his personal & professional life by bankrolling their defense and hunting the real killer. The film takes too many obvious/simplistic turns working its way thru this, and the occasional slapdash look often exposes threadbare working conditions. But there’s good atmosphere & clever use of real locations mixed in, especially when Alton gets a chance to work his ‘Prince of Darkness’ magic. And what telling characterizations Siegel finagled out of his mongrel cast, including a tasty early turn from wild-eyed Jack Elam.

DOUBLE-BILL: Carey brings similar commonsense purpose & courage (as newspaper editor rather than lawyer) to Joseph Losey’s harrowing migrant injustice story, THE LAWLESS/’50.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

BLOODY MAMA (1970)

Made fast & cheap, in the receding wake of game-changer BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67, Roger Corman’s take on a less photogenic Depression-era crime-spree family has aged beyond exploitation to honest tawdry. There’s little concern for period niceties or unified style in technique & acting (the Corman form rarely rose above klutzy, part of his charm), the film becomes both BONNIE AND CLYDE retort in its refusal to glamorize (no fashion trends here), and something of a Southern-Fried evil American doppelgänger to Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE. And warming to that task, none other than Shelley Winters as amoral, incestuous pack leader to a family of degenerate sadists who rob & kill with spontaneous abandon. With the bonus of seeing her scrubbing buck-naked son Robert De Niro in one of those portable zinc tubs. Actually, she takes on all the boys (4 or 5; you can lose track of this well-built clothing-optional crew) in bed, bath & beyond, though Robert Walden seems to prefer former cell-mate Bruce Dern, soon adopted as new family member. The script goes light on robberies to concentrate on two abductions, a pretty girl who learns too much (Pamela Dunlap) and wealthy family-man Pat Hingle who manages to service Ma when requested. It’s really quite an audacious work, though awfully rough-and-ready, with lenser John Alonzo very uneven on his first feature. Actually, some of his mismatched shots give off an inadvertent kinetic charge. It exemplifies what’s right and what’s wrong in here.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, BONNIE AND CLYDE which looks pretty arch these days.

Friday, December 8, 2017

CHURCHILL (2017)

This year, Winston Churchill is busier than ever. Award-bait turns from Gary Oldman & John Lithgow (DARKEST HOUR; THE CROWN), a constant, if unseen presence in DUNKIRK, plus this, for the Booby Prize. Woefully unconvincing, it was mercifully lost in the shuffle. Brian Cox blusters his way thru a Winston petrified into political paralysis as a lone, hysterical voice against the Normandy Invasion; unable to see past memories of his WWI fiasco at Gallipoli. All well and good, but his constant hectoring and out of control behavior, held back to some extent by Miranda Richardson’s Clemmie Churchill, offer Cox little variety, he’s all huff & puff (literally), then given a bow for unearned credit. Director Jonathan Teplitzky hardly helps his cause, unable to work around his tight budget (a pre-invasion gathering of soldiers would hardly fill a single boat) and he’s not much help to a cast largely unequal to their famous characters.* Of all the Churchill bio-pics made after Albert Finney opened the floodgates with THE GATHERING STORM/’02, this seems quite the worst.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Like John Slattery, who makes no connection to General Eisenhower at all. And he should be a dream of a role to play what with that balding pate & a voice barely half a step away from Clark Gable. Those who recall the elections of ‘52 & ‘56 will know that Adlai Stevenson’s speaking voice was remarkably close to Ronald Colman. Gable & Colman, what a casting coup!

WATCH THIS NOT THAT: As mentioned above, GATHERING STORM is fine (if no better) and should make for neat comparisons with Oldman’s new bio-pic, DARKEST HOUR, covering nearly the same Pre-War events.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

SPLIT (2016)

Facing increasing budgets & diminishing returns, M. Night Shyamalan went back-to-basics on his last two films, with production costs in line with ‘craft services’ on critical write-offs like THE LAST AIRBENDER/’10. Perhaps too much back-to-basics since SPLIT turns out to be that old standby, the split-personality thriller. An actor’s delight for James McAvoy, gleefully sashaying about as 23 (plus one) personalities; and that extra one, pure violent, controlling ‘id,’ with a plan to kidnap two teenage girls that goes off course when a third girl, a misfit outsider type, comes along for the ride. Guess who makes it out alive? Meant to be scary, creepy, suspenseful, Shyamalan never gets much past unpleasant, before adding a risible self-referential twist tag as his curtain. Those who liked his early pics (or didn’t reject their surprise ‘reveals’), may still enjoy his odd habit of framing shots about 20% too close, or how he covers his tracking shots with generic ominous music cues. Others may be satisfied with just the trailer.

DOUBLE-BILL: Shyamalan’s little-known first film (a film school graduation project?), PRAYING WITH ANGER/’92, is a fascinating embrace of commercial filmmaking tropes & technique. The raw talent is astonishing, in spite of a story that has him playing an ultra-Americanized kid visiting India and single-handedly solving caste discrimination issues. The shining technical ability is jawdropping; the starry-eyed self-serving self-absorption maddening.