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Sunday, December 4, 2016

CROSS OF IRON (1977)

Sam Peckinpah’s blunt, often powerful Russian Front/Nazi Retreat film is something of an apolitical cheat with Herr Hitler either unmentioned or heartily loathed by his own army. The sole ideologically-minded soldier, a despised internal spy, winds up with his pecker bitten off. For the rest, violence & near certain death interrupted by personal grudges (rooted in lingering class differences) & the flawed grace of being an honorable warrior during relentless shelling & enemy attacks. Working again with lenser John Coquillon, Peckinpah finds a look & rhythm that lets him intersperse his signature slo-mo action editing with explosions to punctuate dream-like horror on & off the battlefield, and hallucinations at a convalescent hospital. James Coburn, with an indifferent on-and-off German accent, gives a commanding perf as the indispensable insubordinate Sargent with a motley platoon of warring eccentrics under him. James Mason, playing yet another German officer (back to Rommel in ‘53; on to his Nazi enabler in next year’s BOYS FROM BRAZIL/’78) and David Warner hit their marks perfectly in the C.O. office, but Maximilian Schell is a little too ‘Snidely Whiplash” then he needs to be as the vicious, cowardly officer who’ll undercut anyone to get his Iron Cross. Peckinpah, going thru a series of post-GETAWAY/’72 flops at the time, overspent and hacks the ending. Best to celebrate what did get done; a considerable achievement and his last piece of sustained filmmaking.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: With an undeserved rep made after his EXODUS theme became a Pop hit, Ernest Gold became house composer for Stanley Kramer. These two were made for each other, but his over-emphatic score here is nearly as much of an impediment as the botched ending.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

DR. RENAULT'S SECRET (1942)

Close. After CHARLIE CHAN and MR. MOTO ended their runs at 20th/Fox, B-pic producer Sol M. Wurtzel needed an inexpensive replacement. (In 1942 alone, he turned out 15 pics.) One idea, not much favored @ Fox, was Horror. But with Universal coining cash on their monster line-up and Val Lewton’s suggestive fright-fest starting @ RKO (CAT PEOPLE/’42), this (alongside companion pic THE UNDYING MONSTER/’42) was Fox’s attempt at the genre.* It’s a one of those mad scientist things, with George Zucco, very good here, tampering with animal & human genes to produce unhappy sub-human J. Carrol Naish, looking miserable in modified Mr. Hyde make-up, while daughter Lynne Roberts and fiancé Shepperd Strudwick ignore all the obvious clues that something’s gone terribly wrong. Director Harry Lachman, with many a CHARLIE CHAN behind him, pulls off some lively, atmospheric work, especially in a few unexpectedly rough & kinetic action/murder scenes. Plus, the general level of Fox studio polish is a treat for this sort of quickie production. But does the plot have to be quite so obvious and the dialogue so idiotic? And why no French flavor to match the supposed locale? Everyone’s a misplaced Brit, like the inexplicable cast of Martin Scorsese’s HUGO/’11.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Odd to see well-known supporting players like Mike Mazurki and Arthur Shields go uncredited in significant roles.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Write-Up of companion pic THE UNDYING MONSTER to follow. John Brahm, who made the superb HANGOVER SQUARE/’45 directed, so there's hope.

Friday, December 2, 2016

SAUSAGE PARTY (2016)

Going on 80+ minutes, you wonder how Seth Rogen & his writing/directing posse are going to dig up enough raunch to feed their food-based computer animated coitus gags. We’re in a supermarket world where horny wieners try to ‘make’ those soft split buns, supported by produce & vegetables, then wised-up by non-perishable goods who know what happens once you’re been ‘chosen’ to go past the doors. It ain’t pretty! The tight-budget animation grows a little tiring, those shiny plastic surfaces singe the eye, while the storyline & laughs sag even as they shift from vulgar ‘blue’ material to plots out of BABE/’95 (you’re going to get eaten!) and TOY STORY II (how’d we wind up here/how do we get back?). But halfway in, things take a decidedly subversive (anti)religious allegorical turn, with God & faith itself gleefully exposed as fairy tale scams. Intellectually helped by an ejaculate Stephen Hawking, this little film becomes that rarest of birds, a mass market Hollywood paean to atheism. Who knew? That said, the film surely could have been a lot funnier; with too many rude stereotypes cuing undelivered laughs. (Family Friendly? Oh, why not, but let them watch on their own.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How could the filmmakers not include Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies? The tops in sexually suggestive snack food with sweet lickable creamy goodness sandwiched between two pliably soft oatmeal labia . . . er, wafers you gently pull open to get at the . . . Yikes! Maybe if the film had been ‘X’-rated.

DOUBLE-BILL: Woody Allen’s EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX/’72 has a couple of dud sketches, but most remains funny, weird and occasionally wonderful.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

LE GAMIN AU VÉLO / THE KID WITH A BIKE (2011)

Lesser, but still very fine, from the brothers Dardenne (Jean-Pierre & Luc), tackling a modern ‘wild child’ story both tough & tender. Thomas Doret, in his first film, is ‘the kid’ in question, a virtual orphan, abandoned by a single dad who’d rather move on. Unwilling to accept the situation, the boy’s a stubborn terror of unfed sensitivities, striking out at anyone trying to help; including Cécile De France, a woman met by happenstance at a medical clinic. They bond, to wary effect, when she gets his stolen bike back to him and then takes him on as a wknd foster guardian. But he’s still a handful, wrecking her current romance and finding the worst possible surrogate father-figure to impress with misplaced loyalty. Short & episodic, the film has the quality of an twice-told tale, and if some limitations in the Dardenne style of filmmaking show (a robbery that’s a narrative tipping-point fails to convince), their refusal to explain away the foster mother’s tenacious commitment in either psychological terms or thru backstory offer something more, a sense of mystery and the magical benevolence of a fable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Beginnings: The Dardennes forge past their strict Neo-Realist ways to work with well-known actors. Endings: Apparently, the last of their films shot on 35mm.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sounds goofy, but the kid that THE KID most calls to mind is . . . PINOCCHIO/’40! Though it does make Ms. France a combination of the Blue Fairy, Geppetto and Jiminy Cricket.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

WILD, WILD PLANET (1966)

Hack megger Antonio Margheriti (credited as Anthony M. Dawson) made low-budget Sci-Fi in batches. This one, reportedly second of four, will prove enough for most! Released Stateside in ‘67, the distributor must have hoped for a bit of helpful tailwind coming off that new tv series. What was it called? Oh, yes, STAR TREK. Here, Tony Russell (the American ringer in an Italian cast) as Space Station Project Captain, finds his mission threatened by an evil researcher working for ‘The Corporations.’ Turns out they're kidnapping scientists and shrinking them down to the size of dolls (for easy carrying?) when not repurposing extra arms on zombie enforcers. Jeepers! SpaceAge model rockets, still with a whiff of rubber cement about them, pass for F/X here, and the film’s fight director apparently knew one (and only one) Ju-Jitsu move which is used over and over. Best of all are the uniforms & costumes which look like Mom helped out for the High School Musical. (Yes, musical, with a big dance number as part of the plot.) Alas, like too many of these things, it sounds more fun then it actually is, though you do get to see Franco Nero (as a junior officer) just before he leapt from micro-budgeted crap to a small role in John Huston’s macro-budgeted THE BIBLE/’66 and then lead hunk in Joshua Logan’s mega-flop CAMELOT/’67.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: From a year before, Mario Bava shows what a big imagination could make of a small Italian Sci-Fi budget in PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES/’65.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

LE SAMOURAÏ (1967)

With a trench-coat mantle, concealing & revealing sangfroid and undemonstrative threat, Alain Delon is all smooth legato lines under the crisp brim of his fedora as the nearly still, nearly silent contract killer in Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist (or is it reductio ad absurdum?) thriller. His adversary? Chief Detective François Périer, all unfocused staccato energy. But even Delon’s existential cool won’t get you past the finish line in Melville’s fatalistic world view. Instead, an understated, unforgettable frisson to the journey, laid out by the director in impeccably staged chase & release set pieces, caught in gorgeous subdued shades of mottled grey, taupe, pale blue, textured walls (and one shockingly red telephone) via Henri Dacaë’s plus-perfect lensing, visually a good decade and a half ahead of its time.* While on the soundtrack, a more than reasonable facsimile of Miles Davis stoppered jazz stylings between the insistent tweeting of a coal mine canary. Just right. With its grace, precision, inscrutable women, and air-tight illogical logic, the film is to Melville what VERTIGO is to Hitchcock.

DOUBLE-BILL: *See Dacaë bring his French New Wave ‘A’ game to the American commercial cinema in the preposterously enjoyable nonsense of THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL/’78.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)

Considering how influential this film was in kickstarting the ‘Spaghetti’ Western, the careers of director Sergio Leone & composer Ennio Morricone (billed here as Dan Savio), and in pulling Clint Eastwood up from small screen to large, they’ve sure taken their time putting out a decent edition! Bad old versions may still be about, but a proper restoration, made for the 2008 Blu-Ray, set things right all ‘round. The trouble likely stems from the original negative which used a cut-rate WideScreen process called TechniScope that loaded two images onto every frame of 35mm film. (Leone used it for all his Westerns.) The loaded image doubled the width by using only half the space on each negative frame (putting one picture on top of the other). It was then squeezed and printed for projection in full-frame 35mm anamorphic; ‘pushing’ the grain in unpleasant ways that made even new prints look like dupes. So, kudos to whomever returned to the original negative to get the most out of them; and kudos to the film for being worth the effort. Like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN/’60, it’s an Akira Kurosawa remake (YOJIMBO/’61, uncredited), redressed from Samurai Japanese to South-of-the-Border Western (filmed, of course, in Spain). The story gimmick is that Eastwood, an opportunistic stranger in a violently divided town, manages to sell his loyalty & info (sequentially) to both sides, carefully pocketing fees from each faction. Leone’s later films enlarged on the basic model with his considerable talents & personal style intact, but the bigger scale (in the physical production as well as in plots & less abstracted characterizations) could feel a bit calculated in comparison to this succinct beauty.

DOUBLE-BILL: Leone followed up with Eastwood in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE/’65, but it’s not really a sequel. Imagine your own by returning to Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO/’61 before watching that film’s even better actual sequel, SANJURO/’62.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015)

Expanding smoothly from gently anarchic kiddie tv to gently anarchic kiddie feature (written & directed by Mark Burton & Richard Starzak), SHAUN is also delightful for any grown-up in the room. Retaining a near silent-film format (think Jacques Tati: exaggerated sound effects/gibberish dialogue), the story travels from rural slapstick to urban chaos when a runaway caravan trailer takes The Farmer for a ride, crashing in the big city. Recovering, but now with a case of amnesia, The Farmer no longer recognizes his own sheep or even his loyal dog when they come to his rescue. Anyway, who wants to be rescued when your half-remembered sheep-shearing skills turn you into an instant celebrity hair-stylist? And while the animals are trying to jog his memory, the city’s chief of animal control is busy rounding up stray sheep & dogs. (In the ridiculously difficult world of clay-model stop-motion capture, this villain is an amazing piece of character animation.) Great fun, big laughs, the Aardman folks, doubling down on their split with DreamWorks, hold fast to alternating sly & broad eccentric British humor, as well as in their punishing handcrafted artisan technique. (Check out the Extras to see just how insanely labor-intensive the process is.) And if no single character in this pastoral crew can match the soulful empathy level of Gromit (the pooch with the creased brow in the WALLACE AND GROMIT adventures), the characters make a close race of it.

DOUBLE-BILL: The SHAUN tv series is a bit less polished, a bit more kid-oriented, but none the worse for it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

THE OUTFIT (1973)

John Flynn’s tight little crime thriller is a lot like a Don Siegel movie. Not just any Siegel film, mind you, but one of the greatest, CHARLEY VARRICK. Each a tale of dirty money inadvertently stolen from the mob with sympathetic robbers pursued by professional hit men; the films also share Joe Don Baker as co-star, plus Sheree North in sleazy support. And just to make sure no missed the resemblance, each got an October 1973 theatrical release. Who schedules these things? But if OUTFIT never reaches the unheralded masterpiece status of VARRICK, it’s still a dandy piece of modernized knowing noir filmmaking. Robert Duvall is all keyed up as a just released prisoner looking for payback after learning that his brother’s murder came on orders from high class mob chairman Robert Ryan. Partnered with girlfriend Karen Black & trusted sideman Joe Don Baker, they circle back to Ryan in a series of raids on his gambling ops. Flynn, or some clever casting agent, populates each step of the way with a classic noir character type (Elisha Cook Jr., Tim Carey, Henry Jones, Richard Jaeckel and Jane Greer & Marie Windsor in the same film!), all with something real to do, it's no nostalgia parade. Taken from a Donald Westlake novel (writing as Richard Stark and feeling a bit like Elmore Leonard), the downbeat locations are gritty and well-caught by regular Siegel lenser Bruce Surtees. With a shot list as plain & functional as a Siegel pic, though with a few dead compositions Siegel wouldn’t have let go by. It’s a strong little film, but Flynn rarely had a chance to show his best form after this.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, CHARLEY VARRICK/’73.