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Saturday, April 21, 2018

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990)

Square and sturdy, like a 4-storey building that could support twenty floors, this residuum of Tom Clancy’s techno-jargon’d Cold War thriller delivers the goods in stately meticulous fashion. No narrative elisions will do! Sean Connery burrs effectively as the renegade Russian Captain of a nuclear-powered ‘stealth’ sub barreling Stateside. Is he attacking or defecting? No matter: Ruskies will take action against him as traitor; Americans against an aggressor. Only Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan, thinking-man CIA action figure, thinks to offer safe harbor. Typically for one of these Clancy doorstops, it’s more blueprint verisimilitude than storyline; tough to get on screen. With characters no deeper than the material of their uniforms, everything depends on pacing, star power & production design; all specialties of producer Mace Neufeld & missing-in-action director John McTiernan.* And if the only real surprise in the pic is a submarine the size of a felled skyscraper cornering underwater like a Maserati, the film does have its pleasures as celluloid comfort food.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Whereas Baldwin blew off the inevitable sequel to play STREETCAR’s Stanley Kowalski on stage, confounding & infuriating Hollywood with what seemed hubristic Movie Franchise-icide (Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine & John Krasinski all smoothly stepped in), action-oriented hit-maker McTiernan found his career stifled after ROLLERBALL/’02 and BASIC/’03 tanked. Eleven credits & out at only 52. Maybe, like Baldwin, he should have refused genre type-casting.

Friday, April 20, 2018

THE TAKE (2016)

Generic terrorist thriller that morphs rather amusingly into a slightly screwy caper pic. And all the better for it; just not better enough. Idris Elba (in something of a James Bond try-out) and a crew of Brits playing Americans in Paris, dash thru their paces in the streets, alleys & rooftops of Paris trying to catch groovy pickpocket Richard Madden (in a confused perf) who’s unknowingly lifted a ‘bag-with-a-bomb’ from clueless terrorist ‘mule’ Charlotte Le Bon. Suddenly, French military & Paris police are also on his tail, but it’s maverick CIA agent Elba who finds him, believes his story, then grabs Le Bon so the trio can hunt down the real bombers (and dirty cops) hoping to create street anarchy to use as cover for . . . well, can’t give it all away! It’s a pretty good set up, largely wasted thru bad acting (other than Elba) and in James Watkins by-the-numbers writing/directing. It does develop a more amiable tone as it goes along, but tosses any goodwill away with a tag ending for a never-gonna-happen buddy/buddy sequel. Titled BASTILLE DAY in most territories, Stateside distributor Universal presumably felt no one would get the reference to French Independence Day, when the main action occurs. Hence the meaningless title THE TAKE which hardly helped matters commercially: Domestic gross $50,000. Yikes!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

THE HANGING TREE (1959)

When Voltaire said, ‘better is the enemy of good,’ he could have had this Delmer Daves Western, a late vehicle for the aging Gary Cooper, in mind. (Voltaire a Western fan?) But it’s true: Daves not long off the ‘better’ 3:10 TO YUMA/’57; Coop’s ‘better,’ his previous film, Anthony Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST/’58; cinematographer Ted McCord just off his ‘better,’ Michael Curtiz’s largely unheralded THE PROUD REBEL/’58, with its unusual yellow-tinged palette. Still, pretty strong work most of the way, only seriously falling off at the climax. It’s Gold Rush Days in wide open, lawless Montana as bitter doctor-with-a-past Gary Cooper shows up in a Pop-Up mining town, quickly blackmailing Ben Piazza’s wounded young thief into being his bond servant. And with only fierce, drunken faith healer George C. Scott on hand to interrupt his doctoring and nighttime poker games by making trouble. (The debuting Scott is mesmerizing, lean as a whippet/scary as Satan.) But then Maria Schell shows up, injured & orphaned in a runaway stagecoach robbery, nursed back to health only to become an unwitting catalyst to a host of deadly sins: greed, lust, jealousy, vicious town gossip, drawing out everyone’s worst nature. Especially longtime prospector Karl Malden, partnering Schell & Piazza on a grubstake claim secretly financed by Cooper. And it's success, not failure which brings on inevitable catastrophe not only for the characters, but also for the film which collapses into forced melodramatic conflicts & personal confrontations Daves is unable to make much sense of. But worth a look, with Coop in exceptional form.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, 3:10 and WEST are classic Western achievements. Alas, PROUD REBEL only available in lousy Pan & Scan Public Domain editions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

BEAUTY FOR THE ASKING (1939)

Early starring vehicle for Lucille Ball is awkwardly directed by Glenn Tryon, but holds a lot of interest not only as career signpost for Lucy, but also for its unusual feminist business slant. An original story by Grace Norton & Adele Buffington, fleshed out by scripters Paul Jarrico & Doris Anderson, it mixes cosmetics & romance with Ball dumped by fiancé/business partner Patric Knowles just before she perfects the beauty cream they planned to market. Sinfully handsome, but weak-willed, the guy loves her, but can’t refuse the easy, clingy charms of millionairess Frieda Inescort. Undaunted, Ball goes out on her own, cornering top ad man Donald Woods, quickly smitten and joining her to find a silent start-up investor . . . Frieda Inescort! Well, it’s that kind of story, and not poorly run, without too many ginned up farcical elements. (At just over an hour, mix-ups are straightened out on the spot.) That leaves Ball to run the company, pine for Knowles, turn down Woods’ regular proposals, and even trying to rebuild the failing Knowles/Inescort marriage. (Knowles really shines at playing a shit; Inescort’s flutey diction is a bit much; Woods quietly charming.) All while R.K.O. tried to figure out how best to use this strange 'near' star with everything at her fingertips: beauty, audience rapport, physical gagging, singing, a natural for straight, comic or character drama . . . the works. Paramount, M-G-M & Columbia would face the same problem. In retrospect, the wide ranging roles make the Pre-I LOVE LUCY days exceptionally interesting whether the films were good, bad or indifferent. This one’s indifferent, though better on reflection.

DOUBLE-BILL: Best of Lucy’s R.K.O. period came in DANCE, GIRL, DANCE/’40 where her burlesque turn completely upstages nominal leads Maureen O’Hara & Louis Hayward, and saves the film for iconic feminist director Dorothy Arzner.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Years later, in I LOVE LUCY days, she & Desi Arnaz’s DESILU company would buy up the R.K.O. lot.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

TEA WITH MUSSOLINI (1999)

Improbably, this lightly autobiographical WWII memoir has become (by default?) the only Franco Zeffirelli film that remains watchable.* A delicious story, if hardly a great film, Zeffirelli found superb collaborators in writer John Mortimer (whose work here is like a precursor to Julian Fellowes, particularly GOSFORD PARK/’01) and cinematographer David Watkin, cleaning up much of Zeffirelli’s colorful excesses. ‘Luca,’ the film’s Zeffirelli character, is an illegitimate kid in ‘30s Florence, a veritable orphan after his married father refuses to take him in, left in the care of British secretary Joan Plowright. But it ‘takes a village’ to raise him, a village of eccentric British ex-pats, all delusionally hanging fast in Florence as World War closes in, leaving them enemy aliens, even Maggie Smith’s stupidly stout-hearted widow of a past ambassador to Italy. By turns idiotic, willful, funny & loving, the crew, which includes Judi Dench & American contingent Lily Tomlin (hopelessly out of her acting league vs. the Brits) and Cher (uneven, but often fascinating as a oft-married, art-collecting rich Jewish-American with a gorgeous, if shady, Italian lover), endure all humiliations. Plot & peregrinations by turns surprising, touching & delightful, with growing theatrics & heroics as war takes its toll. Zeffirelli loses control of his material at times, the scenes with Mussolini don’t really play, and he has trouble organizing simple moves. But it all works out in the end thanks to superb character writing & playing by Mortimer and the Dames. Just hang tough thru the obvious bits.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Brave souls are welcome to revisit Zeffirelli’s once lauded Shakespeare reductions: SHREW/’67; R&J/’68; HAMLET/’90 for confirmation. And naturally, Zeffirelli fouled his own nest, following up this rare success with an irredeemable second personal memoir, CALLAS FOREVER/’02.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

DESIGN FOR SCANDAL (1941)

Aiming for a smart, sophisticated, ‘40s B’way tone, Lionel Houser’s original comedy script for mid-list M-G-M stars Rosalind Russell & Walter Pidgeon gets about halfway there. Or does if you can deal with the surprisingly distasteful gameplan: Blowhard publishing tycoon Edward Arnold schemes to reduce his alimony on a golddigging wife by having top trouble-making reporter Pidgeon romance Judge Russell so a phony fiancée can blackmail her on a charge of alienation of affections. (Ugh.) But then he falls for her. Yet it's so nicely underplayed (well, by all except Arnold who blusters away), with ultra-pro helmer Norman Taurog refusing to oversell the modest laughs. Same goes for Franz Waxman’s score which avoids the usual yuck/yuck/wah/wah Mickey Mouse excesses of the day that turned studio orchestras into quasi-laugh tracks. Plus a really funny, neatly worked out courtroom finale with all parties on hand and a particularly sharp outing from a sly Guy Kibbee as a no-nonsense judge. He’s worth the whole show. Too bad the pot doesn’t come to the bubble sooner.

DOUBLE-BILL: Made between two of Roz Russell’s best known comedies: HIS GIRL FRIDAY/’40 and MY SISTER EILEEN/’42, the latter much improved for her on B’way as the Bernstein, Comden & Green musical WONDERFUL TOWN. And Pidgeon?, he's right between two Oscar’d Best Pics: HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41 and MRS. MINIVER/’42.

Friday, April 13, 2018

HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955)

Alan Ladd’s company produced this little noirish revenge pic with him as an ex-cop just out of prison after being framed for manslaughter. Met by cop pal William Demerest and loyal ex-wife Joanne Dru, all he wants is some space to go after dockyards boss Edward G. Robinson who’s sure to know the score. It’s a good, twisty tale, with excellent support from henchmen like Paul Stewart and his unexpectedly classy girlfriend Fay Wray. They even throw in a kid to interact with Ladd for a bit of SHANE action. But, in a reverse from film noir norm, the material is better than the execution. To his credit, Ladd ignored the era’s ‘Grey List’ of proscribed talent with Leftist leanings, giving Edward G. Robinson his first A-pic in years and hiring Frank Tuttle who directed Ladd’s breakthru THIS GUN FOR HIRE/’42. But where Eddie G comes thru in spades, sadistic & gleefully menacing, Tuttle seems all used up except for some well-staged fights, defeated by CinemaScope’s wide open frame, rarely putting in foreground objects while holding to proscenium centered camera set-ups with an unchanging walking pace.* Still watchable, with the story building as it goes along and the great cinematographer John Seitz turning flat, boldly color-schemed sets into near abstractions. A RED-tiled Men’s Room for a fight; Robinson’s sickly, oppressive GREEN & YELLOW kitchen. A very distinctive look.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, Ladd & Tuttle at their best in THIS GUN FOR HIRE.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Robinson was fully rehabilitated next year, thanks to C. B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but Tuttle only managed two more credits before dying in ‘63.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

With his copper-colored hair, British teeth and angular look, David Bowie makes an arresting physical presence in his first straight acting gig. But it’s not enough to carry this flat, cliché-ridden story past a small cult audience of true-believers. And it’s not that the ideas, effects & style have dated over the years, the film was just as limp (and limply received) upon release. Oddly, cinematographer turned peculiar director Nicolas Roeg was coming off his best work (DON’T LOOK NOW/’73), and with the same lighting cameraman (Anthony Richmond), though neither shows much of their earlier inspiration. Here, story and presentation are not so much arty as pretentious or sleepy with Bowie’s intergalactic alien traveler building money-churning enterprises (helped by vision-challenged businessman Buck Henry) to bring his little alien family to Earth from a drought plagued planet. But the slippery slope of capitalism, alcohol, sloth, ennui & sex pull him down. BTW, lots of sex & nudity for a spacey Sci-Fi mood piece, with Rip Torn’s babe-collecting research scientist giving up a quick peak and generous footage of a bouncing Bowie appendage. (Alas, a ‘willy’-double.) Not that his relationship with Candy Clark makes much sense with or without sex or that it avoids shabby ‘70s misogyny. (That side of the film really is dated.) Originally released with a couple reels lopped off, the film probably played better that way: More mystification/Less explanation. The fuller cut just clarifies a poverty of ideas.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Bowie, who got thru early films with his distinctive look, found real acting chops in showy support on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS/’86 even if the film was fatally hobbled by a miscast, unengaging lead.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Modest programmer from Warners sends young country mouse Eric Linden to big bad NYC with a modest inheritance for a cautionary tale. A gullible lad, Linden will lose it all to scheming older cousin Walter Catlett and his hard-drinking party pals including uncredited Humphrey Bogart still playing upper-crust wastrels in his failed first try at Hollywood. He’d soon head back to B’way and success with THE PETRIFIED FOREST. But the boy also loses his heart to Joan Blondell’s chorine which makes everything worthwhile; or would if not for that showgirl dying in his hotel suite during a drunken brawl while 'the gang's all here' and the lights are out. Yikes!, one night in New York and he’s already on the lam! Tinny stuff, and a bit obvious even for 1932, but Mervyn LeRoy’s rat-a-tat-tat megging keeps things up tempo while playwright Ward Morehouse manages a pair of eyebrow-raising adult sequences for Linden as he hunts for Blondell and gets picked up at a SpeakEasy by Jobyna Howland’s rich, lonely, dowager, looking for company and maybe a bit more. Then taking him on to a fancy nightclub where Clarence Muse shouts the Blues and gaming tables are one flight up. Too bad the rest of the little film isn’t nearly as arresting.

DOUBLE-BILL: Now largely forgotten, Linden can be seen at his best in what is probably his last good role, starring in Clarence Brown’s superb distillation of Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS/’35.