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Friday, September 30, 2016

THE FRISCO KID (1979)

Gene Wilder’s a Polish rabbi who needs to cross an ocean & a continent to reach his new position in San Francisco; Harrison Ford’s the cowboy bandit who reluctantly helps get him there after they cross paths: let the misadventures & mismatched friendship begin. A nice set-up, and a nice film. And if Ford’s still a bit raw, Wilder brings a sort of blissed-out contentment to his stranger-in-a-strange-land shtick that’s both touching & authentic. If only the script were less of a hit-and-miss affair; or if director Robert Aldrich had more of a light touch to go along with the action staging; or if lenser Robert Hauser’s soundstage lighting wasn’t as bright & unattractive as a Mel Brooks comedy (good out on location though); or if the Native American segment weren’t cringe-inducing. Ah well, sometimes you takes what you gets. And what does work here, mostly Wilder holding to his faith and taking just as much delight in misfortune as in good luck, is pretty special.

DOUBLE-BILL: Going a little left of field, there’s the French slapstick of THE MAD ADVENTURES OF ‘RABBI’ JACOB/’73. Too bad that film’s writer/director (Gérard Oury) wasn’t in charge here.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: There’s a lovely gag in here, a nice bit of real Americana, when Wilder loses all to a trio of con-men and is rescued by a community of what he thinks are fellow Jews. Turns out, the lookalike tribe is Amish and speak a German his Polish-inflected Yiddish can’t quite handle. Still, they manage to figure it out.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1956)

Steven Spielberg’s feature debut didn’t find much of a general audience on release (it still hasn’t).*  But just about everyone in the biz soon knew all about it; and that a new, assured voice had arrived. Sheer technical control gives off an almost fizzy delight in the constant multi-plane staging, a necessity in a story that’s basically one long car chase . . . with about fifty cars. Even better, he seemed able to get warmly funny perfs out of just about anyone: newbie stars like Goldie Hawn; old-hands like Ben Johnson; even toddlers. (Check out the wail when the little tyke gets hauled in front of reporters.) Dramatic balance in a story that moves from goofball to suspense to tragic is another issue, but it gets by, much helped by Vilmos Zsigmond’s handsome Americana lensing. (Watch for a spectacular sunset as two Louisiana cops drive down a highway; and a neat precursor to Spielberg’s signature zoom-in/pull back trick shot made famous in JAWS, seen here in a try-out shot from behind a sniper.) All in service of a sweetly appalling, fact-inspired story about a slightly dense young mom who cons her husband out of a Pre-Release Jail Facility after state authorities take away her little boy. The poor guy (exceptionally well played by William Atherton) would have been out in four months, but possible consequences don’t register to Hawn’s squirrel-brained character. Spielberg pushes the BONNIE AND CLYDE meets SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT aspects harder than he has to, the real couple were more White Trash than Folk Hero, but the kinetic rush of the action scenes is so precisely staged (and readable) that the cars, traffic & crashes take on a near human personality. The next film for Spielberg and producers David Brown & Richard D. Zanuck, the one with a fish called Bruce, had a lot less trouble finding an audience.

DOUBLE-BILL: Clint Eastwood’s A PERFECT WORLD/’93, with a surprising Kevin Costner, tells a similar story with a more consistent, downbeat tone. OR: See what Jonathan Demme gleaned from this for MELVIN AND HOWARD/’80.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: And yes, right from the start, Spielberg has John Williams on music.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Truly, one of the all-time worst ad campaigns. Just look at that poster.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

THE YOUNGER BROTHERS (1949)

This eminently missable B-Western from the Brothers Warner somehow gained TechniColor treatment. (From one ‘Brothers’ to another?) Whatever the case, those Younger Brothers prove no match for the Jameses in the Western Outlaw Brotherhood.* There’s a decent enough idea for development with the boys trying to keep their noses clean long enough to win full pardons while ex-Pinkerton agent Fred Clark attempts to trip them up (revenge for injuries he blames on them), and Bandit Queen Janis Paige (yep, Janis Paige!) busy setting them up as patsies on a big bank robbery. But everyone’s just going thru the motions here. Well, everyone but leading man Wayne Morris who must have been going thru the lunch wagon. Was he trying to eat his way off the pic? Even the TechniColor looks out of sorts in a studio print so dark you can barely make out the nighttime action. Maybe that’s for the best.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Check out the Youngers and the Jameses (amongst other brothers) in Walter Hill’s near-classic All-Star/All-Brothers Western THE LONG RIDERS/’80.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939)

Raoul Walsh, after a quarter century directing, started his great Warners run with this big, confident gangster saga. Often cited as the acme in the Warners Gangster Cycle, it’s certainly the plushest, with a strong cast working behind James Cagney’s fast-rising/fast-sinking (Prohibition/Stock Market Crash) WWI vet turned mob-chief. Priscilla Lane never connects as the sweet gal he improbably pines for, but everyone else (from Frank McHugh’s cabbie pal & Humphrey Bogart’s sadistic weak-cored thug, to Paul Kelly’s spaghetti twirling mob rival & Gladys George’s over-the-hill club hostess) give unforgettable turns. George all but steals the pic (she gets the famous last line), while Bogie’s weaselly rub-out is so vanity-free, it’s almost embarrassing to watch. Cagney, still lean, almost gaunt-looking, does one amazing thing after another, mostly in quiet moments or with his eyes. An unbelievably resourceful actor. Yet, as a whole, the film misses the raw & memorably näif dramatics of the early ‘30s classics. Like a lot of late-‘30s Hollywood product, it’s too polished for its own good, nothing sticks. Technically it may dwarf the primitive Talkies, but something precious is lost in smoothing out the rough edges. Freshness? Style? Verisimilitude? Attitude? Perhaps just too knowing. Still pretty great.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney’s mob beginnings are on display in THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31, or watch him & helmer Michael Curtiz keep things edgy the year before in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES/’38.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Parental Units!  There’s a veritable Between-the-Wars high school history lesson embedded in the dramatic structure.

Monday, September 26, 2016

THE MEDDLER (2015)

Susan Sarandon is more disturbing than delightful as a widowed mom with a near pathological need to be needed who moves to California to invade the life of her 30-something, unmarried, screenwriter daughter. The real writer/director, Lorene Scafaria, turns in a remarkably unbecoming passive-aggressive portrait of a challenging relationship, but seems to be under the impression she’s made a feel-good pic. Mom’s really more of an out-of-control controlling menace, yet the film has her bumbling her way into reuniting father & daughter; mother & son; brother & brother; gathering two romantic possibilities; even paying thousands for a near-stranger’s dream wedding. Something objectionable in every storyline, even as the film ticks off every structural ‘beat’ UCLA Film School has to offer. All shot with such glare-inducing brightness it makes the opening credits hard to read. Maybe to protect the innocent.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Hollywood never gets the simplest cooking scene right. Yet here, the one honest moment in the entire pic comes via a properly made Toad-in-the-Hole.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: If you have to have a feel-good pic about a busybody who can’t help but poke her nose into everyone’s life (for the better), you could at least turn it into a delightful goof-fest of a musical like BELLS ARE RINGING/’60 with the inimitable Judy Holliday. (BTW, the Pop song cuts in THE MEDDLER are tooth-achingly bad.)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

DURAK / THE FOOL (2014)

Utilitarian, but effective muckraking Russian film about a young plumber who tries to do the right thing after an emergency call on a burst hot water pipe uncovers the imminent collapse of a nine storey apartment building housing 800+ people. And since no good deed goes unpunished (especially in today’s Russia), his honest report uncovers a town’s worth of systemic corruption where everyone, from the mayor on down, has taken their cut by literally painting over structural problems to pocket allocated funds. Now, while it’s too late to fix the problem, there still might be time to find a scapegoat or two to pin the blame on. Caught in the crossfire, an idealist like our young plumber, can either get with the program or get out of town. Writer/director Yuriy Bykov knows his small town ethics and, with a couple of exceptions for old-school Soviet scenery-chewers, gets really striking perfs from a wide ranging cast that finds villains and decency in unexpected places. A touch more resolution at the end wouldn’t have hurt, but this is strong, honest work. How he got it thru film board committees is a mystery . . . but an encouraging one.

DOUBLE-BILL: For city contract corruption on a bigger scale (and a stupendous building collapse), try Francesco Rosi’s HANDS OVER THE CITY/LE MANI SULLA CITTÀ/’63 with Rod Steiger.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

Woody Allen tries on German Expressionism to little effect in a film that might have worked better as one of his New Yorker literary pieces. Largely drawn from Fritz Lang’s M/’31 (criminal city-gangs hunt down serial killer) and Kafka’s THE TRIAL (innocent putz caught in bureaucratic nightmare of assumed guilt), the film never finds the unified tone needed to make this nighttime house-crawl flippantly suspenseful. And the all-star cast feels wasted in glorified cameos when they’re not simply wrong for the part. Good work, however, from John Cusack who brings a touch of Russian intellectual despair as a wealthy whore-house habitué, like something out of Pushkin. Woody apes the style of studio-bound UFA (forced-perspective sets, damp surfaces, like G. W. Pabst with a Kurt Weill soundtrack), but cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, trying to distinguish this from the polished surfaces of film noir, hits on grainy low-contrast b&w and too much panning, as if Woody wanted to recreate the reduced grey-scale he remembered from faded prints first encountered at some West Side revival house in the ‘50s.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In their very different ways, Orson Welles and Béla Tarr offer far more engaged (and entertaining) responses to similar fare in THE TRIAL/’62 (difficult, but it grows on you) and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES/’00 (inexplicable and great).

Friday, September 23, 2016

IVANOVO DETSTVO / IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962)

One of the great feature debuts, Andrei Tarkovsky brought striking vision & elliptical story technique to what might have been just another heroic Soviet-Realist dip into the ‘Great Patriotic War’ Laid out in heightened realism for scenes at the front (where a river separates Soviet & German forces), and a more stylized dreamworld to capture a lost Pastoral past, the film mainly focuses on the unit’s top scout, 12 year-old Ivan. Stubborn & revenge-minded after losing his entire family, he’d only run away from a group home or military school. Plus, he’s the best reconnaissance man they’ve got. (A romantic sidebar between two officers & a young nurse has some trouble fitting in.) For the most part, Tarkovsky hits uncanny tones & rhythms that feel exactly right, pulling off a fable-like quality and epic sweep to this intimate war story. Uncredited story editor Andrei Konchalovsky probably deserves a nod for tamping down the Tarkovsky navel-gazing instincts that sunk so many of his acclaimed later projects, giving the film a narrative drive that carries us over the missing story beats of a more traditional film. (Tarkovsky mavens resent the note of conventionality, but this film, and his next, ANDREI RUBLEV/’66, gain grounding from Konchalovsky’s input, finding a happy medium between Tarkovsky mystical & Konchalovsky mundane.) Original in many ways, IVAN is still a first feature and the list of influences is long, from the Soviet CRANES ARE FLYING/’57 to Mizoguchi’s UGETSU/’53. Though the real touchstone may have been Albert Lamorisse’s WHITE MANE/’53.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Unexpectedly, after winning the Golden Bear @ Venice, the Italian Communist Press denounced the film! Ah, the ways of Party Line are mysterious. So too the reprieves , as the attack was soon ‘corrected.’

DOUBLE-BILL: *Try one of the ‘influences’ listed above (though CRANES now plays as unintentional parody).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)

John Huston’s much-admired, doom-laden caper pic may be too neatly plotted for its own good, too much the ‘well-made’ play. But it has pace, action, great character acting from its leading players, and captures substrata inner-city crime with less studio stylization, more Neo-Realistic grit than commonly seen at the time. Very well caught by lenser Harold Rosson in grainy, deglamorized style. (Elia Kazan went even farther that year in real inner-city locations with PANIC IN THE STREETS/’50.) Everybody gives standout perfs: jewel-heist mastermind Sam Jaffe fruity & straightforward; enforcer Sterling Hayden psychotic & stoic; safe cracker Antony Caruso chilly pro/tender family guy. The rest of the crew all get the same yin/yang treatment, a curse of the ‘well-made’ play. (There’s also a Production Code sop with a late-innings speech to let us know they've pinched the story’s corrupt cop. Delivered & shot with little conviction.) But even when the story turns mechanical, and the gears show, it’s so involving (and fun!), you may not notice that we never leave the shallow end of this melodramatic pool.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film gave a big break to Marilyn Monroe as shady attorney Louis Calhern’s sweetly dumb mistress. She’s good, too, though her chin looks different here than later and she needs the right angle to look her best. Something cinematographer Harold Rosson knew about, having been married to Jean Harlow.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The trailer is positively loaded with SPOILERS, so beware.

DOUBLE-BILL: Five years later, Jules Dassin would burn all the fat off the caper genre with the brutally honest, game-changing RIFIFI/’55.