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Friday, June 23, 2017

THE ROOKIE (2002)

Competition is fierce, but Tom Hanks spouting off about ‘No crying in baseball’ (in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN/’92) may top the charts for the most inaccurate, if highly quotable, line in film. And not only at the movies; imagine an All-Star Game without some tear-clogged anniversary salute. This film, a tru-life fairy tale about a high school science teacher/coach, who missed his shot at the Majors, only to find his pitching form at 37, is a veritable three-hankie male weep-athon . . . and pretty much irresistible. Not a lot of surprises, but neither Mike Rich’s script nor John Lee Hancock’s direction push harder than they have to. In fact, the film is improved by the relative lack of film savvy; bigger skill sets might have curdled sentiment. It’s also helped by an unusual, slightly unwieldy structure: double prologue (local legend; childhood-on-the-move); followed by Two Halves in Three-Acts² (high school team makes good; comeback pitcher makes better). All unexpectedly satisfying; and well played, if admittedly a couple of reels longer than it has to be. (A fault uncorrected in later films by this writer or director.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The film wouldn’t work without Dennis Quaid. Believable as a ball player (is he truly a leftie?), it’s the sort of star presence perf that never gets award traction, especially in a ‘light’ entertainment. But when you’ve earned early fame showing your ASSets (ass & shit-ass grin), you pay a price; and Quaid knows it. He’s long demurred gratuitous ass flashing, though he certainly looks fit enough to get away with it. Lately, he's even shut down the full-bore grin, as if withholding it makes him, ipso facto, a serious actor. But wait here till 1'50", when he hits The Majors, for a welcome re-emergence.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

THE DECKS RAN RED (1958)

Writer/director Andrew Stone, with his co-producer/editor wife Virginia, had a knack for pulling off large-scale pics on the proverbial dime. But where at times it felt as if they’d bitten off more than they could chew, this less ambitious project feels just right; lean & mean, emphasis on mean. James Mason is perfectly cast as the new ship’s captain, an emergency transfer from fancy luxury liner to grimy freighter. Expecting resentment from the rough-and-tumble crew, he’s unaware/unprepared for crewmen Broderick Crawford & Stuart Whitman, a couple of malcontent sociopaths with a plan to kill everyone on board, damage the ship, then float in to claim a million bucks salvage. And when sexy Dorothy Dandridge comes aboard with her husband, the replacement cook, she becomes one more opportunity to rile things up. Stone quickly starts turning the screws on this one, setting up one neat suspense piece after another, with stabbing cuts & composition ‘reveals’ that really make you jump. Much helped by his use of a real ship with tight corridors & the relentless chug of the engines. (The only ‘music’ in here.) No-frills tech work also plays its part, efficient & effective, with special kudos going to tv lenser Meredith Nicholson who figured out how to light in mighty tight spaces. The film is nothing fancy, but in a good way; with honest, neatly played action, believable thrills and those extra creepy perfs from Crawford & Whitman, who goes after Dandridge like a man possessed. Who knew this bland leading man had it in him?

DOUBLE-BILL: Another surprise at sea, Richard Lester’s subversive ‘disaster pic,’ JUGGERNAUT/’74 with Omar Sharif & Richard Harris playing mind games as ship’s captain & mad bomber.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

EDGE OF DOOM (1950)

Doomed indeed. Frances Howard Goldwyn, the very Catholic wife of indie producer Samuel Goldwyn, initiated this project, a sort of Catholic Guilt Noir about a troubled young man (Farley Granger) with priestly issues to settle and a mother just past Last Rites. For some inexplicable reason, his tale of woe & semi-redemption is fodder for a flashback/pep-talk, along with a calming cup of tea, from parish priest Dana Andrews (in narcoleptic mode) to his questioning novice. It all turns on the murder of a worn out priest (with his own desk crucifix!); the robbery of a movie theater cash box; a Plain Jane girlfriend tired of waiting; and a roomful of flowers for a first-class funeral service. Credit helmer Mark Robson & cinematographer Harry Stradling for giving it a glistening inner-city tenement menace so dark & atmospheric it cloaks much of the missing narrative logic; so the pic is unexpectedly watchable in spite of its faults. According to Granger’s excellent auto-bio (INCLUDE ME OUT), there were months of reedits, reshoots, even a post-release revamp; though what got added/altered is a mystery. (Maybe just that risible ‘let’s have another cup of tea’ tag line.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hitchcock’s films are brimming with Catholic Guilt, usually served on the side, but as a main course in the underrated I CONFESS/’53.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: As mentioned above, Farley Granger’s INCLUDE ME OUT.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

(LES AMANT DE) VILLA BORGHESE / IT HAPPENED IN THE PARK (1953)

A trifle, though not without nostalgic charm. Less in the film itself than in how it recalls the experience of college-town Art House cinema in the ‘50s: foreign-language omnibus pic; subfusc print (in this TeleVista DVD); spare subtitles; multi-national cast dubbed in French though mostly acting in Italian. Ah, the good old days . . . which were kind of the bad old days. Gianni Franciolini directed a few of these portmanteaux; here, six tales set in Rome’s Villa Borghese park (the short opening sketch is dropped in this U.S. release print), with enough major names (Vittorio De Sica, Gérard Philipe, Eduardo De Filippo) to lend marquee value. Story 1 has a failing student hoping to blackmail her professor with a kiss in the park.; Story 2 finds De Sica ditching his wife for a rendezvous with a young prospective mistress, only to be shadowed by her mom & jealous fiancé. (De Sica may have directed this segment, but not so you’d notice.); Story 3 sits De Filippo’s small-town father at a café in Rome’s famous park to settle an arranged marriage for his charming daughter. (The most stylish & assured piece in here.); Story 4 sends two kids & a nanny off on a boat ride so Mom can meet one last time with departing lover Gérard Philipe.*; Story 5 watches two competing hookers (one a knock-out/one second-choice) run away from the cops, then hiding out at a beauty contest as contestant & judge. Twice as long as the rest, this last story could have supported a feature, especially with Franca Valeri showing off assured comic technique as the girl least likely to. The stories all end with the Italian version of an O’Henry twist, it keeps them from being too obvious. But even without it, they give off a musty charm. And how clean & under-populated the great old park looks.

DOUBLE-BILL: The year before, five stories made up O’HENRY’S FULL HOUSE/’52 (see Write-Up below), but a better bet might be from the following year when De Sica made an omnibus masterpiece in GOLD OF NAPLES/’54. It also lost one of its six stories in the original Stateside release. Look for the complete cut of 2'18". (Worth every minute.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Shortly before he died, Marlene Dietrich told Ernst Lubitsch she’d found the perfect young actor to play Octavian (against her Die Marshallin) for his dream project, a non-operatic version of ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’ It was Gérard Philipe who might well be playing a test-run of the role here, especially in taking his leave. A real might-have-been moment.

Monday, June 19, 2017

THE CHAPMAN REPORT (1962)

Director George Cukor suffered more than his fair share of damaging post-production interference from second-guessing moguls. Half an hour bled from A STAR IS BORN/’54 after its initial release* and ‘clarifying’ voice-over narration & dumbed-down restructuring on BHOWANI JUNCTION/’56 being only the best known examples. And while much the same sort of distortion happens here, courtesy of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s hard to mourn the loss. Anyway you slice it, and DFZ sliced with abandon, the film would still be a dud. With a stylish quartet of Malibu women to sample, we follow their personal crises with stops for participation in a Kinsey-esque sex survey they’ve volunteered for. Amazingly, they all seem shocked!, shocked! when their mystery interlocutor has the temerity to ask about . . . their sex lives! (Did they think it would be Coke?; Pepsi?; or Dr. Pepper?) Jane Fonda, still learning to read lines, is the frigid young widow; Shelley Winters is cheating on her all-too-solid hubby with a commitment-phobic two-timer; Claire Bloom’s the alcoholic-nympho who digs debasement; and Glynis Johns plays comic relief, scared at the brink of ravishment with a hunky beach boy. The script, nearly as desperate as the ladies, wants to be daring, modern, adult, but (again like the ladies) has trouble taking the gloves off. (Those dress gloves! Were they still omnipresent in Cali/’62?) And the big revealing sex interviews? Empty soliloquy workouts for the gals. (But offering a fresh ensemble at every session. Check out Fonda’s stupendous white hat! Just the thing for research.)

Halfway in you realize what Zanuck was up to, trying to sculpt a newfangled version of an old hit, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES/’49, now with psychological trimmings. All better handled by writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz in the earlier pic, and whose nephew, Don Mankiewicz, just happened to co-write this.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, LETTER TO THREE WIVES which actually had FOUR wives until DFZ took a blue pencil to Mank’s first draft.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Lovingly restored in 1983 to something near it’s original condition/length.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972)

‘Too much’ was never enough for Brit filmmaker/ provocateur Ken Russell. But this largely overlooked bio-pic, on the intense, if platonic, relationship between manically gifted young artist Henri Gaudier (1891-1915) and older novelist Sophie Brzeska, finds purpose in excess, and far surpasses his better known/plusher films on Liszt, Tchaikovsky & Mahler.* Not that it’s without major faults of its own, starting at the top with fresh-faced ‘discovery’ Scott Antony, all wrong as Gaudier. (See self-portrait of the real Gaudier.)

Trying for artistic bliss & untamed spirit, he’s merely unfocused, ultimately exhausting. Dorothy Tutin's Brzeska gets closer to the maddening core of their odd partnership, but the real excitement shows up in stellar support from actors playing various avant-garde intellectual types (hilariously pretentious &/or insufferable), particularly young Helen Mirren as militant suffragette, bed partner and full-frontal nude goddess. Some superbly grungy sets from future ‘Queer Cinema’ pioneer Derek Jarman (putting the have-not into hovel) and resourceful lensing from Dick Bush reflect what must have been a real starving artist’s budget in a positive way. Maybe that very lack of funds helped keep Russell more on-track than usual, capturing something normally missed in artist bio-pics between his usual crudities & knee-jerk iconoclasm.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Russell’s at his very best in his early tv films, topped by SONG OF SUMMER/’68 on composer Frederick Delius. (And one on Edward Elgar, not seen here, has a fine rep.)

CONTEST: Spot the anachronistic Beatles reference to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (1956)

Intriguing adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, relocated to the US/Mexico border from France(?), is just good enough to frustrate by not being better. A literal Am-I-My-Brother’s-Keeper story, its Cain/Abel dichotomy is complicated by not quite knowing which role Van Johnson & older brother Joseph Cotten play. (This idea, directly expressed in dialogue, must be straight from the novel.) On a dark & stormy night, escaped convict Johnson, held back by flash floods from reaching his family in Mexico, seeks help from long-estranged brother Cotten. Financially well off, but in a barren marriage to Ruth Roman, Cotten has cut family ties to gain success . . . and buried any guilt for it. Director Henry Hathaway (with cinematographer Lee Garmes, CinemaScope & Deluxe® Color) can’t quite pull this off (let down by on-the-nose writing & playing), but still gets some tremendous effects from the SouthWest ‘Country Club Chic’ look in the well-to-do interiors of Cotten and, in a wicked party scene, their friends Jack Carson & Margaret Hayes. The latter, a tv actress, is particularly fine reveling in the chance to play mischief-maker, goading the worst out of her guests for the entertainment value. A final set piece, as the brothers patch things up trying for the border, is all but flawlessly run by Hathaway . . . which unfortunately exposes the tag ending as something of a cop-out. (Be sure to look for Harry Morgan in a perfect little scene at a roadside diner to see how this great supporting actor pulls the best out of Johnson.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With his M-G-M contract running down, Johnson did some of the best work of his career, often as borderline alcoholics. (In 1954 alone, heavy tippling in BRIGADOON, CAINE MUTINY and LAST TIME I SAW PARIS/’54.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Hathaway & Cotten are even more in their element in the TechniColor suspense of NIAGARA/’53.

Friday, June 16, 2017

ABOVE AND BEYOND (1951)

Visually dull with flatfooted staging, the writing/directing team of Melvin Frank & Norman Panama specialized in leaving the canvas blank for comedians like Bob Hope & Danny Kaye to romp in. Here, they drop the jokes (all but one, involving a low-flying plane & a water tower) for a rare serious outing, while staying visually dull with flatfooted staging. Robert Taylor, least fondly recalled of Hollywood’s top Golden Age stars, takes the lead in this fact-inspired story of the pilot who dropped the first Atomic Bomb. And with a woman’s angle filling half the pic as put-upon wife Eleanor Parker grows increasingly frustrated at being left in the dark.* Dramatically, all highly respectable, even attempting to deal with the difficult issue of innocent war casualties. But it’s a subject that calls for daring. (Unlikely at early ‘50s M-G-M; though not impossible; see John Huston’s RED BADGE OF COURAGE/’51.) This one's neither great nor awful, plodding ahead tastefully . . . which in a way is worse. Frank/Panama do manage a bit of atmosphere on the eve of the mission, and the bomb run lends some tension (how could it not?), but the film is only intense in being intensely unmemorable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Worried about appealing to ‘The Ladies,’ the trailer features encomiums from nearly every major female magazine editor & gossip columnist of the day. Starting with the holy press trinity of Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons & Sheila Graham.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In a brief, tardy appearance, Gen. Curtis LeMay adds his approval to the bombing. (He famously didn’t believe in the concept of innocent civilians and in ‘68 ran for Vice Prez on the George Wallace ticket.) To play him? Who else but Mr. Magoo! Er . . . Thurston Howell of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND!! Oh, it’s Jim Backus.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

THREE BLIND MICE (1938)

Made in 1938, but feeling five years behind the times; a lag that shouldn’t much matter after eight decades. Yet it makes all the diff in this modest romantic comedy since those involved know they’re handling stale goods and, under William Seiter’s routine megging, make a hard sell out of what ought to be light fun. The story is one more variation on the 'Three Girls Looking for Love' storyline, here with Loretta Young & two sisters leaving their Kansas chicken farm to find a millionaire in California. Parked at a swank resort, Loretta goes all La-Di-Da while her siblings act as her social staff. Sure enough, rich types Joel McCrea & David Niven come a’courting . . . but only one is really a millionaire. Young’s comic touch is harsh & overly bright, as if she were bribing us to chuckle, but if you hold on till the third act, the film detours into Screwball territory with a wild perf from Binnie Barnes as Niven’s hedonist sis. She’s not really as funny as she thinks, but her character, a beer guzzling lush in furs & couture, with a taste for hunky men, is so peculiar, you can’t take your eyes off her. Then the script pairs everyone up for a happy ending except her. How graceless.

DOUBLE-BILL: Joel McCrea's next attempt at this sort of thing came charmed with greatness (even wisdom), Preston Sturges’s THE PALM BEACH STORY/’42 with Claudette Colbert & Mary Astor effortlessly giving Young & Barnes a demonstration on how to play brittle sophisticated comedy.