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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

COCO (2017)

When they're ‘in the zone,’ PIXAR plays a different game then other animators. And COCO’s ‘in the zone’ most of the time. (A loss of narrative focus toward the middle, has them overcompensate with, admittedly, spectacular visuals.) Three years ago, Guillermo del Toro went down a similar path in THE BOOK OF LIFE/’14, which makes COCO’s superiority all the more striking. Story originality, imagination, a big thumping heart, even in Mexican art research. (And sly gags right from the start, like adding a Mariachi kick to ‘Wish Upon A Star’ for the opening Disney logo; or in letting Benjamin Bratt lean into his Ricardo Montalban voice.) Co-directors Adrian Molina (his debut) and Lee Unkrich (who soloed on TOY STORY 3), they also worked on the script, find a great way to guide us thru the Day of the Dead tradition, emphasizing generational connection (and conflict) in a symbiotic spiritual relationship between the living and the dead. In this case, gently elaborated and emotionally lifted by 12-yr-old Miguel, a boy who can’t suppress an inherited gift for music in a house where music has long been taboo. Determined to follow his bliss and compete in a local talent contest, as well as show a bit of teen rebellion, he ends up stuck, possibly for good, in the Land of the Dead with past (make that ‘passed’) ancestors. More than enough framework to hang a film on, especially with its rich ethnic look. Beautifully voiced by a pitch-perfect cast (in both character and song), the film boasts an awesome third act twist, sorting itself out in wonderfully satisfying manner.

DOUBLE-BILL/CONTEST: With Miguel stuck in the Land of the Dead, his physical body starts dissolving into a skeletal ghost figure. No doubt, an intentional echo of PINOCCHIO’s nightmare-inducing donkey metamorphoses on Pleasure Island. But there’s another, harder to spot, ‘borrowing’ at the film’s climax as ‘50s style tv cameras ‘accidentally’ expose our villain by showing his true nature on live studio monitors. Name the likely film source to win a MAKSQUIBS DVD Write-Up of Your Choice.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

EVER IN MY HEART (1933)

Brutally misconceived, disastrously ill-timed, this Barbara Stanwyck romancer, meant as a pivot from her ‘bad girl’ roles @ Warners, fails spectacularly. As an eligible beauty from the best family in town, Stanwyck unexpectedly throws over bland intended Ralph Bellamy when she falls hard for creepy Otto Kruger, the best pal he’s brought back from school in Germany. It’s 1909, and Kruger goes all out to be the good adopted American. But even becoming a citizen doesn’t help once WWI breaks out. Reviled and all but unemployable, he returns to his German roots, taking up arms for the old country. Now, after divorce, and rekindled romance with Bellamy, Babs joins up and is sent overseas where she inevitably winds up meeting Kruger, now spying for the enemy. Will it be love . . . or liebestod! Yikes! Archie Mayo directs, but who approved this wobbly disaster? And why the largely sympathetic tone toward Kruger’s character & motives in a film released half a year after the Nazis took power in 1933? Where’d they show this thing? German-American Bund Rallies?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For an empathetic look at some post-WWI Germans, there’s Frank Borzage’s THREE COMRADES/’38, with the only film credit ever given to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In a rare exception to the Hollywood norm of incompetence in the kitchen, family cook Ruth Donnelly kneads a mean ball of bread dough. And check out her one-handed throwing technique! Showoff.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

DUST BE MY DESTINY (1939)

Three directors-to-be hide in the credits of this standard-issue hard-luck/ working-class Warners meller: scripter Robert Rossen; dialogue-director Irving Rapper; Byron Haskin on F/X. Any one a more interesting choice than journeyman helmer Lewis Seiler proves. Still, he’s competent, and what could anyone have done with this near parody of the chip-on-his-shoulder characters being worked up for new star John Garfield, here reunited with peppy Priscilla Lane from his breakthru debut in FOUR DAUGHTERS/’38. Fresh out of jail after a miscarriage of justice (the real robber just confessed); Garfield’s soon in trouble for hopping freight trains & resisting arrest. Sent to Reformatory, he meets-cute with Lane whose nasty step-dad runs the joint. Catching the canoodling lovebirds, Pop takes a swing at Garfield! Garfield swings back! Then the old man’s bum-ticker gives out! Geez Louise! Now, Garfield’s running from a murder rap! On the lam with Lane (sounds like a song cue, no?), even good luck turns bad: like a freebie wedding that comes with an identifying publicity photo; a diner gig that sets them up with an address the cops can raid; a heroic deed that makes you Front Page News. Yikes! That chip on the shoulder is now a boulder. And the last act turns positively ridiculous with a big courtroom sequence that defies all logic*. (Though Rossen’s left-leaning speeches for defense attorney Moroni Olsen are something to behold.) Alan Hale, looking rather handsome for a change, has a nice turn as a sympathetic newspaper editor, and Frank McHugh gets his laughs as a theatrical wedding organizer. But the film is entirely skippable.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Priscilla Lane probably had her best role (away from her sister act) later this year as the nice girl James Cagney is all wrong for in THE ROARING TWENTIES; *while Garfield gets a better day in court (a doomsday in court) in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE/’46.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

OTHELLO (1952; 1955)

Starting at the end, with a double funeral & a brutal punishment, no Shakespeare film gets off to a grander, more exciting start. In Orson Welles’ savagely edited adaptation (in both text & film), OTHELLO is less a tale told than a tale retold. And best appreciated if you already know your Shakespeare. Heroically raising his budget via mainstream acting gigs between spurts of shooting in various countries, he then put the puzzle together higgledy-piggledly in a triumph of Cubist imaginative editing logic. (It has the feel of a Sergei Eisenstein epic, a filmmaker Welles later found too 'formalist' . . . just like Stalin!) Often, the effort involved shows, but not in a detrimental way. Though the casual merging of post-synch dialogue is initially off-putting for English-speaking audiences. (Does it improve as the film goes on or do we adjust?) Yet the sum effect is too thrilling to mind even the larger problems & missteps. With most of the perfs superb, whomever ‘voiced’ them. Along with his earlier MACBETH/’48 and his later CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT/’65, the three greatest Shakespeare film adaptations ever made . . . or imagined.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: There are three main differences from the original 1952 Euro-cut and the Stateside release of ‘55: Switching from the more Wellesian spoken credits to printed titles with added bits of unnecessary explanatory narration (advantage 1952); redubbing Desdemona with a more forceful British stage actress (advantage 1955); superior visual quality in the 1952 source material (game, set & match to ‘52). On the recent Criterion edition with both cuts, Fran├žois Thomas gives an excellent summary of the changes. (Yet never mentions the difference in visual quality!)

DOUBLE-BILL: As noted above, MACBETH and CHIMES. (Both covered below.) How lucky to have them all so easily available after decades in hiding.

Friday, May 18, 2018

CRASH LANDING (1958)

Hollywood responded to the boom in post-war commercial aviation rider-ship with disaster pics. Emergency Landings; Sabotage; Engine Failure; Overworked Pilots; Metal Fatigue; Crazed Passengers; Mid-Air Collision. An endless parade of catastrophe bringing a Golden Age of Terror at 10,000 Feet (at least in quantity) using the same formula of human-interest dramas with every reclining cabin seat. This Economy Class example of the form touches all the bases, but trimmed to bare essentials. Gary Merrill, hard-nosed pilot with a lamed plane to ditch in the ocean, learns how to ease up on the job and at home where little wife Nancy Davis Reagan gets second-billing but little screen time & little to do. (No wonder it's her last feature.) Up in the sky, the cabin holds the usual suspects: lonely singles looking for love; business partners at loggerheads; romance among the crew; Mother & child; boy & dog. Not a trick or trope missed. The real suspense is wondering how they’ll manage the show with all the cost-cutting. Start with the plane: tinker-toy miniature; a tighter-than-tight pilots’ cabin; an overused static shot of the sole audio speaker; and the big rescue, managed without benefit of either sinking plane or navy destroyer to pick them up. All we see are inflatable life-rafts and a navy dinghy to ferry survivors. Brought to you by prolific lowball producer Sam Katzman & the late Fred F. Sears, a director so quick & efficient, he had five films released after his early death (at 44) in 1957.

DOUBLE-BILL: The big budget HIGH AND THE MIGHTY/’54 (John Wayne/William Wellman dir.) is much plusher air-disaster porn, but just as idiotic. While the bargain basement CROWDED SKY/’60 (Dana Andrews/Joseph Pevney dir.) scores with inadvertent hilarity.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

HOME BEFORE DARK (1958)

Never a director of particular interests (or interest), Mervyn LeRoy rose or fell on whatever scripts & casts were assigned him, especially during his liveliest days @ Warners in the ‘30s. He then went all corporate at M-G-M, now as producer/director (‘39 - ‘54), before returning to Warners for a final dozen largely moribund pics between ‘55 - ‘66. This one, an inadequately worked out mental health meller, does show him at his late best, trying to lick a tricky story into dramatic shape. He fails, but at least still seems to care; something that can’t be said of most of these late efforts. Jean Simmons, fresh from the sanatorium post-breakdown, goes home to a chilly reception from husband, step-sister & step-mother (Dan O’Herlihy, Rhonda Fleming, Mabel Albertson) and a warmer one from surprise guest border Efrem Zimbalist Jr., a professor getting a tryout in O’Herlihy’s department at the local college. (And receiving an equally chilly reception not because he’s ‘mental,’ but because he’s Jewish.) We never get enough info to dope out Simmons’ situation, but it's some sort of manic/depressive condition. (Simmons very fine, very scary in manic phase. A little lithium and there’d be no story.) But the family dynamic never convinces, with O’Herlihy’s possible ‘gaslighting’ (egging Simmons on to fresh doubts about her sanity) coming off as a tease, a sort of psychological ‘red herring.’ The ending also tries splitting the difference on expectations, as if it had checked all the answer boxes on a multiple-choice survey. Still, worth a look for Simmons, Joseph Biroc’s dark b&w lensing and even a few good moves from LeRoy.

DOUBLE-BILL: In these late Warners pics, LeRoy also shows some real involvement on TOWARD THE UNKNOWN/’56, a test pilot story with William Holden. More typical was THE FBI STORY/’59 where James Stewart drifts aimlessly until the last two reels, suspensefully shot on-location . . . but by whom? Better yet, pick any of LeRoy’s ‘30s titles out of a hat. OR: For manic/depressive mental health ‘50s-style, along with the dangers of untested drug therapy, Nicholas Ray’s rich, strange & phenomenal BIGGER THAN LIFE/’56 with James Mason.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

THE FINGER POINTS (1931)

At his peak playing bashful heroes in ‘20s silents, Richard Barthelmess remained enough of a draw to front a series of issue-oriented Early Talkies. Most were stories of moral decline, often without any last-minute/cop-out salvation. Here, he’s a gentlemanly southern reporter moved up north. New to big city ways, but shedding naivety with every assignment, he gets badly worked over by the mob after reporting on an illegal gambling club. Wising up fast, he goes in on a blackmail scam with rising crime boss Clark Gable, grabbing pay-outs from gangsters to keep news out of the paper. While back in the newsroom, he still only has eyes for ‘agony’ columnist Fay Wray, but is now in too deep to get out. Especially when Regis Toomey, a rival in news & love, gets a scoop on a major story Barthelmess already took 100 thou to suppress. Good stuff, but the Early Talkie execution is just deadly, with slo-mo pacing punctured only by the very young, very modern Gable. Wearing a ridiculous homburg, he already has that distinctive vocal rhythm, picking up his cues twice as fast as anyone else. Sound engineers at the time encouraged double beats between cues, Gable instinctively ignored their advice. Director John Francis Dillon, who died young in 1934, never did. (Note our poster, a book cover from the novelization.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Back @ M-G-M for his next pic, Gable was bumped up from thug to reporter in George W. Hill’s THE SECRET 6/’31. Sixth billed, he all but takes over the pic in the second half, even getting the final curtain shot. OR: Barthelmess as a WWI vet fighting drug addiction in William Welman’s fascinating (and less antique) HEROES FOR SALE/’33. (See below)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Mick LaSalle examines Barthelmess as actor & social provocateur in his fascinating, if overstated, DANGEROUS MEN: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

THE KID FROM LEFT FIELD (1953)

Endearing little baseball pic from director Harmon Jones & writer Jack Sher doesn’t swing for the rafters, happy to connect for a solid single. We’re at Whacker Park, where the Bisons are so terrible fans ignore the team on the field and watch kids in a pickup game just past Right Field. That’s where Billy Chapin, 9-yr-old son of retired pro (and current stadium peanut ‘butcher’) Dan Dailey, coaches, using everything he’s learned from Pop, now a bit of a hard-luck case. The story gimmick, and it’s a good one, is that the kid gets hired as a batboy, and starts giving struggling players tips he gets from dad, passing them off as his own. He’s just a little kid, but heck, the advice works and the team’s on a streak. Maybe he could be the new manager? And it works as a film because Jones doesn’t oversell the cute concept. Even the woman in the picture, co-star Anne Bancroft as a female team exec who’s the owner’s niece, sticks to her boyfriend, aging player Lloyd Bridges, rather than being forced into a messy involvement with single-dad Dailey. The whole silly package is just one smart move after another in a genre known for crass jokes, stupidity & overplayed sentiment. For a change, there really is no crying in a baseball pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: 20th/Fox had a knack for funny/sunny baseball programmers: see IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING/’49. OR: Busy (but never showbizzy) child actor Billy Chapin as the older brother in Charles Laughton’s lyrical horror classic THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55. (Not seen here, but a 1979 tv remake of KID, with DIFF’RENT STROKES star Gary Coleman, is long buried.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Jackie Robinson integrated the ‘majors’ in ‘47, but is this the first Hollywood baseball pic from a major studio to include a black ballplayer on the roster? (It’s Ike Jones, in his film debut. We’re excluding indie pic THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY, out in 1950, but not from a major studio.)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

ROMANOFF AND JULIET (1961)

Peter Ustinov’s most successful play, a sub-Shavian Cold War political comedy, now looks hopelessly timid, good-natured, but toothless in his self-directed film adaptation. He’s ‘The General,’ King of Concordia, a make-believe Ruritanian country sitting on a tie-breaking vote at the U.N. Now back home, and offered gifts & bribes from the Soviet Union & the U.S., Ustinov refuses both, the only safe choice. Instead, he plays matchmaker for Romeo & Juliet-like lovebirds, Universal contract players Sandra Dee (peppy daughter of the American ambassador) and John Gavin (accent-challenged son of Russian ambassador Akim Tamiroff). Ustinov probably had something along the lines of Shaw’s THE APPLE CART in mind, but the comedy & politics are warmed over & even handled, too easy/too obvious to leave a mark. There’s still some modest fun: an international roll-call vote with Ustinov voicing all responses in silly voices; an unexpectedly charming scene between Dee and Rik Van Nutter, the nice American guy she turns down; but hardly enough.

DOUBLE-BILL: Peter Sellers’ film breakthrough came in an equally tame Cold War political comedy, THE MOUSE THAT ROARED/’59. OR: Ustinov’s big directorial leap forward on his next gig, a superb adaptation of BILLY BUDD/’62 with Robert Ryan, Terence Stamp, Melvyn Douglas & himself.