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Sunday, March 26, 2017

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

On his third pic as writer/director, Jeff Nichols comes up against the law of diminishing returns; and it’s not as if his first two (TAKE SHELTER/’11; MUD/’12) were paragonic.* (See Write-Ups below.) Ignored on release*, it’s the curse of overpraised-talent-found-out, here as a pretentious CGI-afflicted muddle. Young Jaeden Lieberher, a Messianic figure to a Waco-like religious cult, but actually a kind of extraterrestrial ‘star-child,’ has been abducted by his own father (Michael Shannon, the good guy for a change), with help from pal Joel Edgerton. The little kid has an appointment in Samarra, or some such axis point, to complete his life mission, but with his confounding powers of divination (and as nuclear light-bulb) both the Feds & a couple of heavy-handed cult operatives are hot on the trail. Needless to say, the film goes heavy on meta-physical hooey and light on logic or follow-thru, though government psychological expert Adam Driver tries his damnedest to play fair and parse the meaning of the boy being on this earthly plane. The film’s real purpose is to mark a move in Nichols’ visual pilfering, exchanging the Kubrick-meets-Mallick meta-physics finale of TAKE SHELTER to a Spielberg-Mallick ├Žsthetic. Deeper and deeper into shallow waters. You get the feeling that Nichols talks a great game at pitch meetings, but knows he’s shooting blanks. Or maybe this was just a package deal with LOVING, his other film of 2016.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Stick with Robert Wise’s classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Exec produced by new Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a cost of 20 mill and a gross of 4. That reps a (tax write-off) loss of like 30. Ah, Hollywood accounting.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *'Paragonic?’ Hey, if you can’t make up words in your own damn BLOG . . .

Saturday, March 25, 2017

BOYS' NIGHT OUT (1962)

Well-cast (frustrated) sex comedy, written for the screen, but much like one of those lightly sanitized Hollywood adaptations of a slightly smuttier B’way original. (It’s something of a transitional piece, as if the leering libido of George Axelrod’s SEVEN YEAR ITCH met Neil Simon’s ODD COUPLE on an apartment hunt.) Four suburban commuters (James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Duff, Howard Morris) meet every Thursday after work, dreaming of debauch, settling for scotch & soda. If only they had a little den of iniquity. Of course, once they get the pad, and, thru a silly misunderstanding, an available girl to meet them there (on separate nights, of course), they do everything but . . . well, you know. The big gag is that Kim Novak’s girl of their wet dreams is really a sociologist writing a grad thesis on guys just like them. Pretty lame; pretty tame. Yet the playing, direction and most especially, the Kennedy/New Frontier-era decor is a hoot, much livelier than the norm for these things. Plus, all the boys are in tip-top form (Randall is a sort of genius at this stuff) while Novak shows unexpected chops playing the comic bait. There’s enough LOL moments to put it ahead of many a better known sex-farce from the period, including some from its director, Michael Gordon, like PILLOW TALK/’59 with whom it also shares cinematographer & scorer.

DOUBLE-BILL: Normally the best of sideman, Randall shines playing a more conventional leading role in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER/’57 which does equally well by director Frank Tashlin & writer George Axelrod.

Friday, March 24, 2017

LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (1962)

This fine, nearly forgotten film, bobbed to the surface in 2005, thanks to the brilliant lyric drama Adam Guettel made from the same novel. (Structurally very close to the film, but for a delayed major character revelation.) And good as the film is (it’s probably director Guy Green’s best), it does seem to be missing emotional subtext; something beautifully supplied in Guettel’s rapturous score. Ironic, since the film is a rare non-musical for producer Arthur Freed, M-G-M’s Master of Musicals, as well as his last completed feature. Taken from Elizabeth Spencer’s well-received book, the unusual story concerns a vacation romance turned serious between young Florentine George Hamilton, caught by the fresh innocence & beauty of American Yvette Mimieux touring Italy with mother Olivia de Havilland. Unnoticed in the babble of half understood Italian & English, is that the girl isn’t merely childlike, but mentally handicapped, stuck with the capacity of a 10-yr-old. For the mother, the relationship promises the fulfillment of an impossible dream (marriage, children, normal life); for the daughter it’s simply unadulterated love. Played out in superbly chosen locations, many not used previously, all looking startlingly open & available, still relatively untouched by today’s mass tourist-riven culture. It’s also a very grown-up pic for the period, right down to the forthright, if unconsummated, flirtation between de Havilland (exceptionally lovely here) and a nicely relaxed Rossano Brazzi as Hamilton’s well-to-do father. Coming in significantly under budget, nicely reviewed and earning more than decent box-office, why Freed never managed to get another project going can best be explained by the musical chairs executive anarchy at the top of the flailing studio. No wonder Freed missed the autocratic decision making of former M-G-M chief Louis B. Mayer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: George Hamilton comes across with a pretty decent, if inconsistent, accent as the lovestruck Italian. Infinitely better than the one Warren Beatty mangled in THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE/’61, or the embarrassing one attempted by Matthew Morrison playing Hamilton's role in the B’way musical.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

THE LODGER (1944)

Everything comes together in this perfect paradigm of a mid-budget/ mid-‘40s Hollywood thriller. Having dipped their toe in Universal style horror w/ UNDYING MONSTER/'42, 20th/Fox & director John Brahm found their own voice superimposing Oscar Wilde sensibility onto the atmospherics of the psychological thrillers Val Lewton was conjuring over @ R.K.O with Jacques Tourneau.* Working off the same Marie Belloc Lowndes novel Hitchcock used in 1927, this Jack-the-Ripper story leans more toward suspense than mystery, and without Hitchcock’s trick ending. But then, with hulking Laird Cregar as the lead, no use trying to hide your hand. He’s fabulous, a strange sort of beast, scary & sympathetic, touching on perverse sexual notes with a revulsion toward pretty Music Hall artistes and a fixation on the miniature portrait of his brilliant lost brother. Merle Oberon has one of her few good roles as the singer/dancer living in the same house while Sir Cedric Hardwicke, as her uncle, revels in playing a lower class type than he usually got a shot at. George Sanders can only do so much with his underwritten inspector, but Sara Allgood brings some effective odd touches as the observant landlady married to Hardwicke. Good as the supporting cast & script are, the real show is Brahm & lighting cameraman Lucien Ballard as they rise to meet the promise of Cregar’s unique villain. What an Oscar Wilde this 6' 3" 300 pounder might have made.

DOUBLE-BILL: Much of the creative team returned next year on the equally superb, and even more original, HANGOVER SQUARE/’45. OR: *Completing the circle, M-G-M's excellent Wilde adaptation of PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY/’45 with Sanders as a Wilde alter-ego.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Look (and listen) during the climax for some really fabulous backstage/strobe-like lighting effects, and then when the soundtrack all but drops out to highlight Cregar’s heavy-breathing terror. Stunning stuff.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

SOSHITE CHICHI NI NARU / LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (2013)

Gifted writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda skirts a cavalcade of squishy issues in this warmly effective family drama using that hoariest of ideas, a Switched-At-Birth mix-up. Open with two adorable 6-yr-olds as subjects/ victims before raising your bid by making one set of parents wealthy over-achieving A-listers with an antiseptic life-style and elite Private School on the horizon for their only son. On the other side, carefree unambitious parents, with a messy lifestyle for three rambunctious independent kids. A set-up that's pure 1950s Psych 101. Did we mention that wealthy Dad is also taller, more handsome, with a fuller head of hair and . . . mother issues! Koreeda doesn’t miss a trick! Yet he gets away with the melodrama & over-simplified class issues not thru embracing & stylizing them, a la Douglas Sirk, but with a spare, elegant visual style that refuses to push obvious buttons. Instead, big teary moments elided by jumping over as many plot beats as possible without losing the thread of the story. By film’s end, as two sets of parents deal with choices they may live to regret (especially in light of ‘rich father’s’ personal/emotional growth), you may feel as teary & conflicted about things as everyone on screen.

DOUBLE-BILL: In the modern era, Switched-At-Birth stories come across as a cheap dramatic gimmick, easier to swallow as comedy. START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME/’70, with priceless perfs from Donald Sutherland & Gene Wilder as mismatched twins, is a mess of a film that works comic magic.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LIFE WITH FATHER (1947)

After a record-setting 8-year run on B’way; endless touring editions; boffo box-office for this film adaptation & multiple Oscar® noms (plus long-term influence on other nostalgic Father Doesn’t Know Best comedies), this once ubiquitous property has seen its cultural footprint shrink to little more than a half-remembered title. Why so? The film remains quite lively under Michael Curtiz’s pacey, if impersonal, direction; the jokes still land, even politically incorrect ones, with a tart freshness true to its 1880s period. (We’ll omit Mother’s muddled ideas on finance.) All smartly trimmed and lightly opened-up by play-to-screen specialist Donald Ogden Stewart. Casting is near perfect with Irene Dunne & William Powell sparking to each other, off each other and magically inside the material. (Powell often alarmingly funny in a role that can come off as simply overbearing.) The four red-headed sons are nicely delineated; one discussion between the youngest two about Father possibly going to Hell a special delight. There’s even a very young, very pretty Elizabeth Taylor as visiting romantic interest in a role Teresa Wright originated on B’way. But the film fell into Public Domain, tossed into the video market with miserable subfusc image & sound. (Faded color or b&w? A reasonably watchable disc, inaccurately listed as ‘Restored’ on Amazon, is available.) Worse, between its B’way opening in 1939 and the 1947 film, its thunder was largely stolen (along with much else in the script) by Vincente Minnelli’s easily superior (and far more personally engaged) MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44. (So much so that when LwF was adapted for a tv series, the role of Father was taken by Leon Ames, just as in ST. LOUIS.) 'Great being the enemy of good,' FATHER now takes a back seat. But even with it’s famous last line sanitized (‘Dammit!’ still too strong for a family pic), the film has much going for it.

DOUBLE-BILL: Both Irene Dunne and Powell were winding down great careers. But where Powell went into a graceful decline, Dunne topped one iconic mother with her another in I REMEMBER MAMA/’48.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Disney also drew heavily from this when structuring characters & story for the narrative shy MARY POPPINS/’64 books, especially in finding their Mr. Banks.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

LA PARTIDA / THE LAST MATCH (2013)

Cuban-based gay-themed pic is nicely played & culturally fascinating, even when it takes a melodramatic wrong turn, blindsiding itself in a cluttered third act. It starts after a pickup, a pickup soccer match, that is, when one of the players comes to the aid of another during a post-game mugging. Two aimless guys, one married/one engaged, each with a young kid to support, one turning to pawn shops for cash, the other turning tricks, mostly with gay male tourists. (The scenes of Havana’s open, gay-for-pay ‘meat market,’ with hundreds of largely straight guys looking to make a quick buck, is eye-popping stuff.) But complications arise when one of the hook-ups, a well-to-do Spanish tourist, looks like a possible long-term relationship. Even more complicated when feelings between the two young men lead them past the soccer field and into uncharted emotional territory. But writer/director Antonio Hens goes off-message with a loan-shark subplot taking over the late action, and when nobody in the story reacts in a believable way to one of the guys being offered a try-out with a semi-pro soccer club. ¿Blowing off a shot at professional soccer? ¿In Cuba?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A Spanish director made this in Cuba. Was it released there?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

MOSKVA SLEZAM NE VERIT / MOSCOW DOES NOT BELIEVE IN TEARS (1980)

Few tears, much schmaltz . . . even more hooey. Is Russian version of typical Amerikanski 3-Girl pic: THREE KOPEKS IN FOUNTAIN. Tricked out with time jump as 20-something gal pals go from idealistic late ‘50s Khrushchev days to compromise & disappointment under Leonid Brezhnev's USSR and deal with hitting the big 4-0. Such girls! Such boyfriends! Such table-talk & meals! Such overacting! Especially early as over-age stars feign peppy youth. So peppy! (If film in English, drek quotient much easier to spot.) From writer/director Vladimir Menshov, stiff, static, unimaginative, like new Moscow housing project. (In smeary SovColor & NonWide Screen.) Plenty forced laughter; plenty weeps; plus one gal gets to have it all! Job, daughter, manly man showing up out of the blue (with plenty hairy chest & plenty sober disposition). If only he can work thru male chauvinist instincts. Perhaps film look dated now, da? Nyet!; always lousy. But, was 1980, USA boycott Moscow Olympics. Good time to see that Ruskies just regular folk with joy, sorrow & nice apartment. Hey, they even make bad chick flick. Nostrovia!

DOUBLE-BILL: Hard to pick a worst scene out of so many, but a picnic pastorale, loaded with colorful characters grilling shish-kebab will do. It’s like the bohemian shindig Rock Hudson takes older, uptight new girl Jane Wyman to in ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS/’55 . . . minus the artistry of Douglas Sirk.

Friday, March 17, 2017

BILL (2015)

Working a little too hard at claiming the sophisticated silliness vibe of MONTY PYTHON or BLACK ADDER, the folks from Britain’s popular HORRIBLE HISTORY series (not seen here) take on the young William Shakespeare of ‘the lost years’ (1589 - 1593) to reasonably good-natured effect.* Though lamed by a couple of bad story ideas (Spain's King Phillip II and Shakespeare’s wife Anne in London?), the general tone of ‘anything goes’ gags & twisted literary references manage to come across with enough comic charge & witless charm to make their mark. The look of the thing is often quite convincing (and fun), more so than in many a serious look at the period. (At least they let some light in.) And the mentor relationship between Shakespeare and dangerous Christopher Marlowe pays off nicely, especially when he shows up a la Banquo’s Ghost. If only director Richard Bracewell and writers Laurence Rickard & Ben Willbond showed a little more faith in the pleasures of good dumb fun, leaving behind more of the goofy anachronisms, tangled plot and de rigeur iconoclastic irreverence.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Coming soon to a cable or streaming service near you: WILL/’17, a new series on the very same ‘lost years.’ (Hey, it can’t be any worse than ANONYMOUS/’11 or SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE/’98, one of the many recent Oscar® Best Pics you’d be wise not to revisit.)