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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

NEVADA SMITH (1966)

A prequel (in little more than name) to 1964's top-grossing THE CARPETBAGGERS, director Henry Hathaway trades in that film’s pulpy Hollywood glitz for something considerably darker. Only scripter John Michael Hayes (in one of his last credits) gets held over, fully on board for a switch in tone closer to THE SEARCHERS/’56. Indeed, the prologue is right out the John Ford classic as Steve McQueen races home to find his family savaged, not by Indians, but by a trio of cut-throat thieves (Karl Malden, Marin Landau, Arthur Kennedy). Half-Indian himself, McQueen spends the rest of the film methodically tracking them down, one after the other. Filmed with clear-as-a-bell action & lensing (Lucien Ballard), the eventful storyline starts to feel a bit force-fed (especially when Raf Vallone's priest comes on the scene), but you’ll be too caught up by old-fashioned craftsmanship and new-fangled graphic violence (still shocking at times) to mind.* (McQueen either gets away with, or simply allows a remarkable amount of death & destruction to play out while he single-mindedly seeks his revenge.) But the film is a significant (and influential) achievement that would undoubtedly have a higher critical rep had it not been sired by such a tawdry (if fun) Harold Robbins bodice-ripper.

DOUBLE-BILL: Oh heck, CARPETBAGGERS is just too fun to skip. And note that film's typically glossy, over-lit ‘60s look which Hathaway & Ballard successfully avoid.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *According to IMDb, the initial running time was pared by a full reel, so it’s possible that some motivation & continuity got lost in those ten missing minutes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE (2001)

Flush with confidence (and cash) after renewed success with their animated features in the ‘50s, Disney bet the barn on the hugely ambitious, visually lux, budget-bustin’ SLEEPING BEAUTY/’59 . . . and lost. Jump ahead four decades, and it’s deja vu all over again with Disney doubling down after their rejuvenation in the ‘90s with a pair of largely hand-drawn animated Sci-Fi/action-oriented fare: ATLANTIS/’01 and TREASURE PLANET/’02. The first film’s busy, bewitching look is a wonder, but may have confused some customers. Who was this made for? Too intense for the tykes; ‘kid stuff’ for the Junior High set; and too darn goofy dramatically. The tone works against the Jules Verne-ish story of 1914 hi-tech submarine adventure as a dangerous mission to find the lost underwater civilization of Atlantis goes awry. With a dated checklist of ethnic characters in support (Spanish spitfire; suave Italiano; Polynesian natives discovered & exploited; and a Black/Native-American modeled after Mr. Clean), but three Caucasians to run the show. When did this go thru development hell? 1973? Animation mavens will want to take a look, it’s impressively laid-out. But, along with TREASURE PLANET, the films were so financially disastrous, they pretty much killed off traditional hand-drawn animation for anything but kiddie pics & arty imports. And the film’s directors (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise) have yet to regroup for another feature.

DOUBLE-BILL: Word is TREASURE PLANET (not seen here), equally strong visually, also has better story & character elements in spite of being an even bigger cash catastrophe. While traditional hand-drawn animation from Disney delighted that year on the lighter, kid-friendly (and much less expensive) LILO & STITCH/’02.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s an AVATAR/’09 vibe to the storyline, no?

Monday, August 29, 2016

DEVOTION (1946)

Rarely shown, generally dismissed bio-pic on the Brontë clan turns out to be uncommonly interesting, in spite of (or is it because of?) a load of fictionalized elements. Actually, it’s no more reality-challenged than dozens of similar fact-shy Hollywood biographies, and those Brontës really were a household of fascinating mental cases.* (Looking for dour realism?; try André Téchiné’s LES SOEURS BRONTË/’79.) You do need to accept soundstage exteriors subbing for Yorkshire Moors, but director Cutis Bernhardt builds up considerable interest on a B+ budget, with a fine Erich Wolfgang Korngold score and a first-rate cast tugging the streamlined narrative along. Only two of the sisters do much writing in this version (Ida Lupino’s Emily & Olivia de Havilland’s Charlotte), but many other details are not so much inaccurate as reorganized for dramatic flow. More sins of omission than sins of commission. Only Paul Henreid, as the new curate in town, sinks under the weight of double romantic duty to both sisters. (The real life character didn’t come on the scene till much later in Charlotte’s life.) And, no small thing, the film really does makes you want to go back to the wild, uncharted emotional world of the books. Or, at least, find a film version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS or JANE EYRE to fall into.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Fans of GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 will note that headstrong, full-bosomed Charlotte brings out the Scarlett O’Hara in de Havilland; while, by comparison, Lupino’s emotionally guarded Emily leans toward Melanie Wilkes, the role de Havilland actually played. (Not as crazy as it sounds when you imagine Margaret Mitchell swooning over those Brontë classics.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Claire Harman’s CHARLOTTE BRONTË, covering the whole crazy-brilliant family, is being hailed as the new definitive bio.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Ready for release in 1943, Warners held back while de Havilland’s contract breaking court case (the same case Bette Davis lost in Britain) got under way. De Havilland won; then did the unthinkable by winning an Oscar® over at Paramount(!) for TO EACH HIS OWN/’45. So, when Warners finally released this in 1946 they visually demoted her in their advertising to what looked like a supporting role. Also note on our poster how Warners makes this period piece look like a contemporary meller. (See above)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I SAW THE LIGHT (2015)

Not the first rodeo for a bio-pic on Country Music legend Hank Williams, but after sinking without a trace it could well be the last. As ‘not bad’ films go, this one somehow manages to be entirely unconvincing (from the first shot), bereft of energy (from the first shot) and lacking interpersonal chemistry (from the first shot). Lord!, sounds as depressing as the lyric from a forlorn Hank Williams song. (Was that his secret? Opposing a catchy tune with poetic warnings of doom & gloom?) Tall & morose, Tom Hiddleston’s Williams gets the exterior elements & hits the notes, but his vocals don’t move across the bar-line. And he comes out of the gate already defeated by a hard-scrabble life, poor health & alcoholism, leaving his character no place to go. Similarly, inexperienced director Marc Abraham fails to get below surface detail to Deep South ‘40s attitude. You keep wondering why these 1970s types drive around in WWII era cars. (Or why, in early scenes, so many draftable guys are in town.) Add on poorly faked home-movie footage & mock docu-interviews (narrative bridges for missing continuity); plus a cast & crew who appear to have noticed things weren’t working out; and you get that weird feeling of a movie soldiering on after they've thrown in the towel.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: With Gary Busey at his best (and thinnest), THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY/’78 smartly runs one of these shows using medium accuracy, hearty role-playing & unapologetic corn as needed.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

LA CHIENNE (1931)

After convincing his producers of his ‘Talkie’ bona fides with an efficient little farce (ON PURGE BÉBÉ/’31), Jean Renoir made his second sound film, what might be called the first real Renoir (and first masterpiece) in this remarkably fluid, location besotted pic. Shot in the working-class nabs of Paris, with live street noise adding realism to a seamy melodrama, it helps the interlocking elements acquire a naturalistic bent. At heart, it’s a crime-of-passion story well-stocked with the coincidences and delayed justice you might find in a James Cain novel. Michel Simon, cashier & amateur painter, leaves his gorgon-of-a-wife (to a presumed dead first husband!) to pursue his art & a young mistress. No innocent she, her pimp takes all she gets . . . including Simon’s amateur paintings which wind up sold as her’s. That means the mec is also pimping for Simon! Naturally, things end in murder, miscarried justice, embezzlement and exile from bourgeois society (if not without a bemused twist). The film barely shows it’s age in the 2014 restoration out on Criterion; and not only in its physical condition. It’s strikingly fresh in thought, technique & acting style. Renoir finding his form all at once.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fritz Lang remade two Renoirs: LA BÊTE HUMAINE/’38, disappointing as THE HUMAN BEAST/’54; and LA CHIENNE, triumphantly transmogrified into UFA/German Expressionism-meets-Hollywood as SCARLET STREET/’45. Stylized & artificial where Renoir is naturalistic, Lang is only slightly hampered by censorship issues (sex; prostitution; criminal justice) as he emphasizes suspense elements. Not that character isn’t part of the mix. There’s nothing in CHIENNE to quite equal the vision of Edward G. Robinson at an ironing board, wearing a kitchen apron as he slices calf’s liver before dredging it in flour.

Friday, August 26, 2016

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1937)

Certainly the best adaptation of the Mark Twain classic, this large-scale effort from Warners turned into an accidental trial-run for next year’s ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD/’38 after James Cagney ‘ankled’ that mega-production, leaving this film's fast-rising Errol Flynn to take over. ROBIN HOOD, one of the great Hollywood classics, and one of the first to profit from 3-strip TechniColor, casts a long shadow over this lesser effort, but there’s plenty to enjoy here as well. Director William Keighley tended to the lighter side of things at Warners, it’s why Michael Curtiz took over from him in the middle of the ROBIN HOOD shoot. But that light tone is just right for bringing out the Dickensian narrative drive in Laird Doyle’s script. Twain was more ironic/philosophical. The film gets a big kick out of having real identical twins as beggar boy (Billy) & Prince (& Bobby Mauch). (Playing royalty, Bobby gets the big tear-jerking emotional scenes, like his touching breakdown in front of new pal Flynn on learning his father, the King, has died.) But with their lack of actorly manner, MidWest accents and infectious giggles, both boys are a delight. Naturally, this being Warners, the supporting players are a tasty lot, with Montagu Love a bluntly fascinating King Henry VIII. But once Flynn shows up (and that’s not until the sixth reel) as the boy’s protector (who’d believe the young lad Prince in such dirty rags?), he easily takes over the film with his brash confidence. Good yeasty fun, all the way thru.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Never one to miss a publicity angle, the film goes all out for the pomp, show & suspense of a Kingly Coronation for its ride-to-the-rescue finale. What if the beggar boy is crowned King? After all, the real coronation of King George VI was due May 12, 1937 and the film officially opened on the 8th. Now that’s showmanship!

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Or rather, Hear All About It: The DVD edition looks fine, but the soundtrack, at least the music, is murky. No small thing since it’s one of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s strongest scores. Make up for the loss by listening to his violin concerto where the third movement uses themes out of the movie. Try Gil Shaham w/ Andre Previn on DG. (In the film, listen up when a Lord rides off in the middle of Edward’s coronation to find the Great Seal of England. It’s the intro to the concerto’s coda. And with hardly an alteration.)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

IN NAME ONLY (1939)

Few films rile up an audience so vehemently as this carefully curated romance between Cary Grant (unhappily married to social sociopath Kay Francis) and the winning widow he meets-cute and falls for, Carole Lombard. Audiences work up a positive lather of disgust watching Francis, who married Grant solely for cash & caché, poison the well to keep his family thinking she’s the wronged party and any chance at happiness for the chaste couple at bay. It’s especially tough on Lombard, raising a young daughter, living with her hysterical man-hating sister and waiting, waiting, waiting for the divorce Francis has promised Grant. And things only gets worse when, in a fit of drunken Yuletide misery, Cary catches pneumonia.* It looks bad, says Doc to father Charles Coburn, even dimmer without any hope to give Grant the will to live. Hope!, exactly what Francis shows up to shoot down! Keep in mind you’re in Woman’s Weepie Land, where incidents & plot twists shock, amaze and generally work to keep the next plot absurdity moving along, and you’ll have a dandy time. And should the level of emotional manipulation offend, focus on Lombard as vanity-free Goddess. (Oh, that's what stars used to be.) Or note the alarming number of continuity errors director John Cromwell let pass.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cromwell had just made the bathetic, if better known MADE FOR EACH OTHER/’39 for David O. Selznick, also starring Lombard & Coburn. In that one, they're waiting for an airplane carrying a vial of live-saving serum for Carole’s little boy. The film’s a dog, but it did get James Stewart, playing her young hubby, on Hollywood’s ‘A’ list.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It’s fun watching Grant reverse the sickbed routine he’d play in NOTORIOUS/’46 where Ingrid Bergman does the beautiful expiring act. She’s much better at it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987)

Whereas George Lazenby from the otherwise tasty ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE/’69 is pegged as the James Bond who never was, this film’s Timothy Dalton, suiting up twice for the role, is the forgotten Bond. A shame too, since he’s got just about everything you’d want in the part: power, grace, saturnine looks & high-to-low social mobility. Perhaps a bit shy in the humor department compared to Sean Connery’s unique balancing act, Dalton still manages the lame witticisms without embarrassment. Perhaps it was just the Zeitgeist of the times, the skinny lapels, or the need for a major course correction after Roger Moore’s increasingly mirthless frivolity. (Bond as deflating soufflé.) Yet Dalton didn’t quite catch on. Directed by stunt specialist John Glen, the big set pieces are all bang-up jobs. With big technical improvements and an exceptional compound action-finale featuring interlocked movement between planes, horse-riding Afghan Rebels (a nice turn from Art Malik), Russian defenders & armaments, a rooftop chase in the Casbah and a scramble on an airborne cargo plane. Each step readable, even plausible in an over-the-top way, nicely supporting a human-scaled plot about smuggled guns, diamonds & raw opium. If only Glen were half as good working in tight quarters, or knew how to help his supporting cast. Maryam d’Ado gets nowhere playing the dull femme fatale/love interest. And you’d need to go back to Jimmy Dean in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER/’71 to find a bad guy as underwhelming as the split villainy of this film’s Jeroen Krabbé & Joe Don Baker. Forgotten or not, Dalton easily ranks between Connery & Daniel Craig in the Bond hierarchy.

DOUBLE-BILL: Dalton’s follow-up (LICENSE TO KILL/’89) was darker, grimmer, and not much liked. After a six-year hiatus, only the producers, Desmond Llewelyn’s ‘Q’ and Monty Norman’s James Bond theme music returned for GOLDENEYE/’95.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015)

Back in his art house heyday, it took some time for the latest Peter Greenaway film to reveal itself as philosophically addled art porn for the coffee-table book set. Now, he can be seen plain at first sight. Progress. His latest, barely released Stateside, follows Revolutionary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein thru his post-Hollywood sojourn in Mexico, buggering up an interminable project on The Soul of the People while learning the joys of buggery from his handsome bi-sexual guide. (The ‘Unrated’ film is either ‘Hard-R’ or ‘Soft-X.’) Greenaway shows little interest in the massive filming Eisenstein did (the actual footage has been stitched together to miserable effect more than once), concentrating largely on Eisenstein’s erotic awakening and general dissipation. That, and the usual crap about artist as idiot savant, with buckets of artsy display canceling itself out; think late Federico Felllini meets late Ken Russell. Greenaway, who never met a showy composition he didn’t like, here shows a particular fancy for triptychs. (Give a man a digital camera . . . ) But besides missing the big picture of Eisenstein’s response to a different sort of People’s Revolution (earthy/sensual), Greenaway also mangles plenty of little details, the Jewish Eisenstein is uncircumcised (plenty of chances for foreskin spotting); Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks get placed at Universal Studios instead of self-owned United Artists; Eisenstein lenser Eduard Tisse handcranks at half-speed; Eisenstein even loses a major film (OLD AND NEW) from his C.V. Then, like gravy on a blue-plate special, Greenaway covers up his mess with a soundtrack full of Prokofiev, mostly LOVE OF THREE ORANGES and ROMEO AND JULIET, nothing from the Eisenstein films.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s better Eisenstein in the tale of his aborted Hollywood film @ Paramount, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY/’31. A project taken over by Josef von Sternberg and later famously remade by George Stevens as A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51. Oops! EISENSTEIN IN HOLLYWOOD, just announced as Peter Greenaway next project. Yikes!