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Sunday, March 18, 2018

1984 (1984)

Grim, respectful, effective, Michael Radford’s full bore version of the George Orwell classic can’t quite avoid playing out as visualized Cliff Notes; an easy-to-swallow medicinal dosage of dystopia. John Hurt, probably too on-the-nose for Winston Smith, our mid-tier proletariat alter-ego busy with workplace rotary phones & pneumatic tubes, altering history to fit the times. It’s partly a nature of the role, of course, but missing any surprise. Stunt casting might have knocked things off-course in a good way, an arhythmic vibe from a Rock Star (like The Who) or maybe a Monty Python comic. But Radford seems untuned to Orwell’s gallows humor, that nether zone between the puzzling, mirthless illogic of an Edward Lear Nonsense Poem and the yet-to-come existential paradox of Samuel Beckett. Offering lessons instead of dark satire & ‘Party Line’ parody. As O’Brien, Richard Burton, in his last film, gets the dual aspect of confessor & punisher across thru the remains of a dulled surface; and Suzanna Hamilton, Hurt’s sexual muse of resistance, earns the rare distinction of owning up to hairier armpits than her male lover. A cinematic first! Plus Cyril Cusack doing double dystopian duty after appearing in Truffaut’s equally over-modulated FAHRENHEIT 451/’66. (Which makes for a nice DOUBLE-BILL.)

LINK: Ridley Scott’s famous 1984 Super Bowl ad for the new Apple Macintosh Computer must have given this film’s producers a jolt, similar enough in tone & design to bring up thoughts of intellectual property theft.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


Peter Weir’s political thriller/romance looks only better with the passing years. Tense, at times intriguingly opaque, with gathering suspense both personal & political, it’s enthralling moviemaking. Mel Gibson, consolidating his rep after a breakthru in Weir’s GALLIPOLI/’81, is the ‘pup’ foreign correspondent in mid-60s Indonesia, arriving in Jakarta just as President Sukarno’s grip on the country starts to give way to general anarchy & fast-rising Communist factions. A babe-in-the-woods next to the seasoned/cynical reporters lounging at the bar (holdovers from some Somerset Maugham story), Gibson has the luck to get the lay of the land from mysterious Chinese dwarf photographer Linda Hunt (stunning) who both helps & controls him, and the other kind of ‘lay,’ plus inside info, from British Embassy attaché and possible spy-gal Sigourney Weaver, also stunning, but in a different way. (With a jawbone beneath the polished glamour Samson’s ass might have envied.) Spectacular period flavor on convincing recreated locations make for an electric atmosphere even when the narrative turns cloudy & garbled with complication. Gibson, particularly in light of later, coarsened efforts, is a revelation; nearly matching Hunt’s one-of–a-kind gender-bending triumph. It’s a puzzle, and a loss, to note that Weir has only made eight films since this, and none since 2010's little seen THE WAY BACK.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/LINK: While it’s always silly to expect much in the way of discernment from Oscar® noms (especially when a film under-performs commercially), it still comes as a shock to see what was singled out over this. At least, the very deserving Linda Hunt made the cut.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see just how easily this sort of romance/political thriller can go wrong see Richard Lester’s CUBA/’79 (w/ Sean Connery/Brooke Adams) or Sydney Pollack’s HAVANA/’90 (w/ Robert Redford/Lena Olin).

Friday, March 16, 2018


Title great! Film . . . not so much. Everybody’s just going thru the motions on this little crime pic, taken from an Irwin Shaw novel about two ex war pilots (Robert Taylor; Jack Lord) drifting in Madrid. Taylor, all but divorced from Dorothy Malone, figures she’s better off without him, especially after he loses his last stake on a horse race gone crooked. Now, he’ll have to face his fear of flying on a smuggling run for shady character Martin Gabel. Shaw’s Hemingway pastiche has it’s possibilities, at least, it’s pretty to think so*, but the dialogue & character relationships barely scratch the surface in a film that’s short on energy & style until it finally hits the long-haul smuggling operation, neatly handled by vet megger Richard Thorpe (always at his best in what would normally be Second-Unit stuff) with Taylor & his little French pal (Marcel Dalio) showing the only affectionate relationship in here.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Jack Lord looks late 20s; Taylor, tired & worn beyond his years, looks mid-50s. Yet less than a decade stands between them: Lord 37; Taylor 46.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Out earlier the same year, Henry King’s wan try at Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, Shaw’s obvious model here. OR: Also that year, Malone & more fatalistic pilots in Douglas Sirk’s superb adaptation of Faulkner’s PYLON, renamed THE TARNISHED ANGELS.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Where producer David O. Selznick tinkered incessantly with other people’s work (his chapter -length Memos & Telegrams the stuff of Hollywood legend), here he took full ownership with the credit ‘Screenplay by the Producer.’ (And director John Cromwell, a late hire, no lap dog, beautifully holding the story’s many strands together.) In many ways it’s Selznick’s most personal film, uneven, but heart-tugging, mixing likable narrative contrivance with magnificent set pieces to chart how a ‘typical’ American family handled life on the homefront in ‘43 when Dad went off to war. Like a Stateside follow-up to the ‘veddy’ British MRS. MINIVER/’42 and, though based on an epistolary book by Margaret Buell Wilder, not far removed from Selznick’s own LITTLE WOMEN/’33, the George Cukor/Katharine Hepburn classic. Looking like a Domestic Goddess, Claudette Colbert largely maintains a comfortable Pre-War lifestyle for her girls (Jennifer Jones & Shirley Temple), which means letting housekeeper Hattie McDaniel live-in but work elsewhere and taking in irascible lodger Monty Woolley. She’s visited, now & then, by her husband’s best pal Joseph Cotten, a Navy man the girls swoon over, though he flirts hard as he can with Colbert. An unusual relationship for the time, the chemistry is tremendous, though Colbert either doesn’t (or more likely won’t) acknowledge it. Jones winds up falling for Woolley’s just-enlisted West Point drop-out grandson (Robert Walker, charming), while crises large & small pop up between the jaw-dropping showstoppers mostly shot by Stanley Cortez working at full-bliss mode: a dance fund-raiser; a train station farewell; an immigrant’s dream of America the three most famous. The last really shouldn’t work at all, corny, bathetic, yet does because Selznick managed to coax Alla Nazimova out of retirement for the small role of this grateful Russian immigrant. Telling Colbert that she is the embodiment of her dream of America, it's the perfect summation of what the film strives to be; not the real America, but our best dream of that real America.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: By war’s end, this model of ‘real America’ had changed to something less myth-driven & glossy, as seen in William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES/’46, careful to show not only UPPER middle-class, but also MIDDLE-middle; LOWER-middle and just plain low class.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Though wont to rollover & play dead on his Frank Sinatra vehicles (like the just completed ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS), Gordon Douglas could show striking command of action-oriented set pieces when given a chance. A chance he gets in the second half of this brutish Western. Richard Boone, in a particularly nasty turn, is an ex-Confederate seeking revenge on the whole Apache Nation for the murder of his wife & daughter. Anthony Franciosa is a jailed, linguistically nimble Mexican con man forced to join him in aiding a couple of Regular Army soldiers (Stuart Whitman & debuting Jim Brown) on a mission to recover 500 stolen repeating rifles from former Confederate General Edmund O’Brien who plans on selling them to Apaches in Mexico. Douglas’s laissez-faire attitude toward actors allows for excessively broad characterizations out of Boone (underlining every line) and Franciosa (a close second to Dick Van Dyke’s notorious Cockney from MARY POPPINS in the race for 1964's Worst Accent of the Year), but once past the Mexican border, the demands of narrative & action over character bring a healthy improvement to the film. As does Joseph MacDonald’s spectacular cinematography all thru the pic (interiors & exteriors) in CinemaScope & Deluxe Color. So hang in there.

DOUBLE-BILL: Whitman starts on the wrong side of the law (against John Wayne) in THE COMANCHEROS/’61, written by this film’s Clair Huffaker and sporting many similarities.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


While a significant recovery (in quality if not box-office) from recent disappointments (THE MASTER/’12; INHERENT VICE/’14), Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, about a chilly, exacting couture dressmaker in 1950s London, is meticulously made without holding much actual interest. (Like the man’s clothes.) And oddly, our much lauded writer/director seems to agree, folding in ill-fitting thriller elements (poisonous mushrooms; ‘Baron Munchausen By Proxy’ syndrome) to stir things up and give his oxygen-starved yarn a Hitchcockian patina. Very Eau de VERTIGO with gothic notes from REBECCA/’40 and UNDER CAPRICORN/’49. Playing the cool, calm, not-so-collected designer, Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he claims as a final perf, takes his leave offering an immaculate impression of Jeremy Irons. (Very good, too, but still, Jeremy Irons.) As the little wren he picks up and transforms into a worthy object of fashionable fancy (though still treating as staff when royalty calls), Vicky Krieps earns that unfortunate last name. Lesley Manville is far more successful as the controlling older sister, slightly losing control. Best of all, Harriet Harris in a brief but crucial spot as a wealthy, but unworthy client, gone blotto at her own wedding before Day-Lewis & ‘Creeps,’ er . . . Krieps sneak into her room to remove the artful gown she has disgraced. If only Anderson hadn’t missed the comic angle here; much needed relief unrealized . . . or rather, unrecognized. Instead, a typically confounding PTA coda. Something he got away with in THERE WILL BE BLOOD/’07 and MAGNOLIA/’99; not so much recently.

DOUBLE-BILL: For swooningly tactile textiles, Yimou Zhang’s gorgeous period thriller JU DOU/’90.

Monday, March 12, 2018


With her weekly salary reaching $10,000/wk, Paramount was troubled by Mary Pickford’s increasing independence. POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL/’17, with personally chosen scenarist Frances Marion, was due out, and company execs unhappy with it.* But who might take control? So, on orders from production chief Adolph Zukor, it was off to California and top director Cecil B. DeMille. A generally unhappy, if successful meeting of two headstrong bosses, first for the Western ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS/’17, then this eye-opening look at German war atrocities as America’s Sweetheart grows from naiveté to resolve witnessing German brutality. After inheriting an estate in France, Mary, clinging to American neutrality as well as her friendship with French officer Raymond Hatton and a fiancé in his German adversary Jack Holt, barely survives the trip over when her ship (the Lusitania in all but name) is sunk by a German U-Boat. Eventually, her estate overrun by German beasts, she’s caught aiding the French as a spy only to be briefly saved by Holt who comes round in the nick of time to denounce his superiors. But with most of the villagers & her staff already shot by German firing squads, can anything save Mary & Jack from being the next victims? Blunt & often contrived, yet somehow not ridiculous, DeMille, in good form, forcefully stages atrocities while Mary finds whatever subtle acting moments she can amid the melodrama. If only we could properly see it all! Perhaps better prints will come to DVD.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The execs needn’t have worried. RICH GIRL was a big hit, and scenarist Marion went on to write many Pickford classics during Pickford’s moves from Paramount/ArtCraft to First National before co-founding United Artists with Charles Chaplin & husband-to-be Douglas Fairbanks. STELLA MARIS/’18, with Mary’s startling double-act, is usually considered the top Pickford/Marion collaboration, but AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY/’18 is equally fine, both well directed by Marshall Neilan, the latter exceptionally so.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

THE STAR (1952)

Designed as sad, sorry spectacle from a first shot that finds has-been movie star Bette Davis gazing thru a showcase window at her own poorly attended bankruptcy auction*, it’s Hollywood schadenfreude, with the former Queen of the Lot brought down by age, changing taste, bad contracts and self-financed productions. That’s the set up for this post-ALL ABOUT EVE misfire, promising a masochistic field day for Davis, and tsk-tsk voyeurism for the audience. Alas, nothing lives up to the tawdry concept, with a flat script offering diva disapproval and equally flat direction from Stuart Heisler. He does earn some documentary flavor points, especially when a drunk Bette drives off at night (Oscar in hand) not via ‘backscreen projection,’ but on real L.A. streets. Sterling Hayden’s role as the regular guy she once tried to turn into an actor makes little sense while teenage Natalie Wood, a most unlikely daughter, is too bubbly by half. Bette does find a spot to do some good work late in the film, ‘defrumping’ herself for a screen test that goes terribly wrong. But we’re soon back to failing your way up to contentment. Or is it containment?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Davis had far better roles during her tricky career interregnum between the ALL ABOUT EVE/’50 comeback and the ‘Grand Guignol’ BABY JANE/’62 relaunch. (See THE CATERED AFFAIR/'56.) So naturally this was the one to earn an Oscar nom. And, irony of ironies, who should be up against her that year but Joan Crawford, besting Bette for a change in SUDDEN FEAR, then losing alongside her to Shirley Booth for COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, a role producer Hal Wallis had initially offered to Davis.

CONTEST: *A similar auction of has-been movie star goods opens another film the following year. Guess the title to choose any film for a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up.

Friday, March 9, 2018


This, one of the best examples of the bitter Italian comedies of Dino Risi, has unfortunately been buried by Al Pacino’s Oscar-winning 1992 remake; half as good, twice as sentimental, nearly an hour longer. The basic outline remains: young army cadet Alessandro Momo is assigned to accompany Vittorio Gassman’s blind, embittered, possibly suicidal, retired military officer on a trip to Genoa, Rome & Naples. Purposefully arrogant & willfully opinionated in a determined attempt to avoid unwanted contact, slights, condescension or pity, Gassman goes well past the expected model of rude Falstaffian life force, something the boy picks up on, and off to a level of rhapsodic cruelty aimed at whomever is around to take a hit. It keeps the film bracingly uncomfortable at times, vibrating with real-life possibilities glossed over in the equally popular remake. So, the big set piece in ‘92 is a blind man’s tango while here it’s hunting up a proper whore in Genoa. It's probable that Risi hadn’t the heart to follow this tough line of reasoning all the way to the end, and the second half of the third act does wind up feeling like a compromised first draft of what might have been. Not enough to really hurt the film, but still, not quite up to the rest. Gassman is very fine, broad & true as prime James Cagney; and matched step-for-step by the heartbreakingly young Alessandro Momo, dead in a motorcycle accident at 17 shortly before this was released.

DOUBLE-BILL: Gassman plays another impossible arrogant life force, this time accidentally mentoring Jean-Louis Trintignant in Risi’s superb IL SORPASSO/’62.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Dino Risi is often remarkably similar in theme & film technique to Blake Edwards. (Though preferring to work in ‘Flat’ rather than WideScreen formats.) A classic misdirected blind man’s punch in the Rome section of PROFUMO is pure Edwards, reveling in offhand, perfectly timed, shockingly funny bad taste.