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Thursday, September 21, 2017

THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (2003)

It’s a case of swings & roundabouts between the underrated 1961 original and the cable tv movie of Tennessee Williams’ novella about a recently widowed actress ‘of a certain age,’ financially well off, drifting in Rome with a much younger ‘kept’ lover. 2003 is smoother, more naturalistic, bringing out unexpected affinities to Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE that go missing in 1961.* It also has a believable stud-from-old-world-stock in Italian lover Olivier Martinez’s cash-poor Count. (Young Warren Beatty’s Italian accent in 1961 is a constant distraction.) But the more important difference is that Helen Mirren superbly acts the role of a lost, self-destructive soul caught in a downward spiral/spiritual vacuum, while Vivien Leigh in ‘61 simply was this character; frighteningly so. Even embarrassingly so. (And her best scene, early in the film telling off some old friends she bumps into on the streets of Rome, is all but tossed away in 2003.) There’s also startling Lotte Lenya as a termagant Contessa, fixing up ‘dates’ for the well-heeled (and getting a cut of the action) which out-points anything a non-Brechtian actress can offer . . . or dare, including the remake’s game Anne Bancroft. On the other hand, Advantage 2003 for Roger Allam’s Tennessee Williams inspired character. (He takes over from 1961's Coral Browne. Quite the switch!) 1961 probably holds more keys to the book’s mysteries, but 2003 is more than an addendum of corrections. (Please see separate Write-Up for ‘61.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Alas, there’s no getting ‘round Williams’ tramp/stalker/angel-of-death figure in both films. But must the 2003 wastrel look more like a high fashion model than the princely gigolos La Contessa digs up for her clients?

DOUBLE-BILL: *The 1961 film was pilloried, and the only feature from master stage director José Quintero. But any technical bumps are worth looking past for Leigh, a great beauty ravaged by mental & physical ailments at only 48. That’s ten years younger than Mirren was, and it also possibly helps explain why she was spared a last act ‘youth’ treatment/make-over that adds a good decade to the fearless Ms. Mirren, and brings out those DEATH IN VENICE echoes.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

TWO SMART PEOPLE (1946)

Alternate title: One Dumb Script. M-G-M had the devil of a time finding good vehicles for Lucille Ball during her mid-‘40s stay. (Per Ball, she spent a lot of ‘down time’ hanging out with an equally underused Buster Keaton, talking comedy technique.) The studio didn’t do much better with co-star John Hodiak, either; each would shine brighter on other lots. And this hopelessly wan comic/ romantic noir certainly wasn’t the answer. Director Jules Dassin, another misused contract talent*, tries to follow the playbook about confidence man Hodiak scamming to deal half a mill in stolen bonds; Ball’s confidence gal (playing her own angles while falling for the guy); easy-going detective Lloyd Nolan (letting Hodiak take the scenic route back to NYC & a ‘doable’ prison term); and weaselly Elisha Cook Jr (claiming half the loot), but it's a logic-free mess. Though as it winds thru Mexico & New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, a studio-bound picaresque, you can see faint outlines of the glam adventure they were shooting for. That and a nickle would buy a phone call in 1946.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: One of the film’s scripters never earned another credit, the other had a seven year drought. The producer made one more feature for a grand total of two. Who says there’s no justice in Hollywood?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The sole takeaway is a ludicrous one: Elisha Cook Jr sporting a Harlequin unitard for Mardi Gras. Yikes!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Don Siegel’s THE BIG STEAL/’49 (a little known delight with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix) gets this sort of thing just right. OR: *Ill-used at M-G-M, Dassin broke thru at Universal on his next pic, BRUTE FORCE/’47, an ultra-tough prison drama for Burt Lancaster & Hume Cronyn.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

AMEN. (2002)

Apparently, Costa-Gavras waited decades to get this fact-based, conscience-stricken WWII story made. Perhaps he waited too long. The film feels leftover from the ‘60s or ‘70s, less Costa-Gavras then Fred Zinnemann. Which might have been fine . . . with Zinnemann.* But the two filmmakers have diametrically opposed qualities: One, master of the dramatic slow fuse; the other, master of eruption. So the film satisfies neither manner charting the dangerous path of a Jesuit Priest and an SS officer whose early knowledge of Nazi atrocities needs public amplification, approbation & an irrefutable voice. Something they hope to get from Pope Pius XXII, whose Church allows its fear of Soviet Communism to trump feelings about Hitler’s Germany. Relentlessly tasteful in the telling, the film ends up starved of consequence, with the essential moral crisis of an SS officer participating in horrors to act as witness, presented rather than dramatized. And the Costa-Gavras inclination toward sensationalism stymied thru deference. The story remains fascinating, with undoubted heft to it, a handsome production and an excellent cast. (Look for Sebastian Koch soon to star in OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES/’04.) But you’ll know why it was overlooked.

(NOTE: Another 'Family Friendly' label on a film that's definitely not for the kiddies. But good, complicated issues for Junior High and up.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Released in various languages but an all-English affair here. (And with matching English lip movements in spite of being heavily ‘looped.’) But the film would certainly play far better in German & Italian. Normally this stylistic language-swap convention is easy to accept (though less so then 40 years ago), but here, the accompanying loss in verisimilitude really hurts.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Zinnemann’s own WWII film from the ‘70s was JULIA/’77. It has its flaws, but also holds together being ‘all-of-a-piece.’

Monday, September 18, 2017

THE ATOMIC KID (1954)

Mickey Rooney was just off a major mid-career uptick (showy support in the pricey BRIDGES OF TOKO-RI/’54; outstanding lead in the excellent B-pic DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD /’54*) when he tossed any residual goodwill away in this radioactive farce. There’s nothing wrong with the basic story idea (from Blake Edwards who scripted CROOKED) which puts Rooney & dominating partner Robert Strauss on a desert uranium hunt, unaware they’ve strayed into a nuclear test site on countdown lock. Yikes! And when Strauss goes into town to make a land claim (his Geiger counter is going nuts), Mickey’s left guarding the site as the bomb blows. Miraculously, he survives: suddenly a radioactive scientific curiosity & monetizable commodity. With rich possibilities for comic development, Leslie H. Martinson, Benedict Freedman & John Fenton Murray (direction & scripters) seem in a contest to do as little as possible with the situation. And what they do come up with are standard gags that could fit just about any situation. A shame since both Rooney & Strauss play well together, largely cut back on the usual forced mugging and we even get a chance to see Mick’s very attraction wife #4 (of 7), Elaine Devry, charming as his playfully sympathetic nurse. (Plus, one very good joke that sure sounds like echt Blake Edwards: Mickey’s eating a peanut-butter, banana & pickle sandwich as the blast hits . . . and still eating it when rescued, now toasted.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Too little known, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD is a psychologically sharp bank heist pic with Rooney leading an unusually fine B-list cast. Don’t be put off by an early bit of subpar rear-projection racing footage, the rest of Richard Quine’s direction is uncommonly fine. (And note how they dramatically use that cool below ground-level car garage. Too weird not to have been a real place.)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

MACSKAJÁTÉK / CAT’S PLAY (1974)

A real slog. Recently deceased Hungarian writer/director Károly Makk loads on impenetrable imagery in this memory piece about a pair of estranged sisters (they exchange letters, but have no physical contact) sharing reveries of a close past, signified with near subliminal flashes of younger days glimpsed as faded, slightly distorted images. Reference is made to a romantic rivalry; there's disagreement over their father’s death (political execution or defeatist’s suicide?); and the younger of the two is seen losing her position as a music teacher and dealing with the possible return to her life of a once famous singer, but not much comes of these sidebar incidents. Come to think of it, not much comes of anything in here, the film proudly offering itself as a particularly woeful example of a once common opaque film festival æsthetic not much missed and little mourned. (What a tedious entry for that year’s Foreign Language Oscar® run.) An earlier film from Makk, LOVE/’71, about an old mother who’s kept from learning the truth about her political prisoner son, sounds more promising. But this film hardly whets the appetite.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For an art house style memory film of the period, try Alain Resnais’s ultra-refined PROVIDENCE/’77.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016)

Surprisingly disappointing. It starts well enough, if heavily indebted to TOY STORY/’95, with the idea of showing what happens at home while master is away, but pets in for toys. And if its bright digital animation looks a generation & a half behind the curve (note the dry doggie noses & lack of detail in hair & water effects), further weakened by iffy character design (who approved the animal teeth?), a general level of adorableness still comes thru in the interdependence & misunderstandings of owners & pets. But once the story leaves home for a wild adventure in the city (even with some pleasingly painterly cityscape backgrounds), the wilder-is-better plotting never comes into focus or adds up. It’s just one darn set piece after another, as busy & unpleasant as that Richard Scarry picture book you had to read to a niece twenty-five times, with rock bottom coming in an over-produced hot dog musicale.* Three shorts come on the DVD, two linked to the feature (and no better), plus a hilarious (and decidedly rude) MINIONS Lawn Service item. Something about those verbally-challenged pill-shaped creatures brings out the best from the Illumination animators.

DOUBLE-BILL: *That hot dog number is quite put in the shade by SAUSAGE PARTY, out the same year and also featuring less than state-of-the-art digital works. Not for the kiddies, it’s one of the more subversive mainstream pics of the past few years. (From Seth Rogen . . . but you don’t have to look at him.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD (1952)

Excruciating. Slipping fast from their ‘40s peak and tv-bound this year, A&C brought their MEET Series of genre parodies over to Warners (from home studio Universal) for this laugh-free one-off. Quite a drop from the reasonably funny/frightful MEET FRANKENSTEIN/’48 to this botch, with dumbed-downed physical business aimed strictly at the 7-and-under set, and Charles Laughton’s Captain Kidd yelling all his lines to steal focus. Worse, it’s also a quasi-musical, with tuneless ditties for a pair of insipid ingenues (Fran Warren, never seen again; Bill Shirley, major pipes/zero personality) who wind up in the middle of an island treasure hunt. (His love letter and Laughton’s treasure map keep getting mixed up.) Shot cheap in ‘SuperCineColor’ (an improved single-pac sub-rival to TechniColor), its compromised tonal palette not so far off the outmoded 2-strip TechniColor process. Ironically, a process now largely recalled from Douglas Fairbanks’ comic pirate adventure THE BLACK PIRATE/’26. And yet, the best things in here come via lenser Stanley Cortez in some handsome, static shots of four-masted ships under a moonlit sky.* (Or did the special effects unit get them?) Charles Lamont, who made fistfuls of A&C when not megging fistfuls of MA AND PA KETTLE, no doubt in his sleep, seems reluctant to engage with the action in any way at all. ‘Plant camera/let boys play.’ And what a nasty edge Abbott now brings to his comic exasperation. Not an ounce of joy left anywhere you look.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, best of the series: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Somehow, Laughton took note of Stanley Cortez in the midst of this, hiring him as cinematographer for the dreamlike terror & wonder in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

IM LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS / LABYRINTH OF LIES (2014)

Out a year before THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER/’15, and telling much the same story of Germans in the late '50s finally starting to prosecute their own Nazi war criminals living just down the street as butcher, baker or friendly neighbor, LIES takes in a wider angle and a younger generation's POV. It’s certainly the more polished work, though perhaps not for the better, with writer/director Giulio Ricciarelli (his first & only film) showing a technique slick enough for a Stateside film school. But does this story want that approach? Opening with a meet-cute for our young prosecutor & his future fiancée? Charting their up & down relationship as mirror to success & frustration at the monumental task he’s been given by boss Fritz Bauer? And if the later film sports an academic dryness that curbs its potential, better that than this film’s manipulated story beats & prosecutorial gym-sculpted abs. (Bauer’s dangerous illegal steps into international espionage also go missing.) Even over-processed, there’s enough emotional power to the issues so that you are pulled along. (An early scene with fellow workers coming up blank on Auschwitz is plenty chilling.) And there are unusually fine supporting players back at the office on both sides of the controversy: Prosecute or Move-On. But perhaps inevitably, following the formula of legal underdog bio-pic cheapens this touchiest of subjects.

DOUBLE-BILL: You rarely get a chance to see two films tackle the same topic at the same time in such a different manner. And with each seriously flawed, it’s less contest of quality than chance to spot the right style. Advantage: THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER. (Write-Up below.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956)

After being kidnapped by an Apache in THE SEARCHERS, Natalie Wood found herself, later that year in her first adult role, kidnapped again, now by a mentally & emotionally stunted Raymond Burr. A slightly ridiculous, but rather entertaining (below) B-budgeted derangement from Alan Ladd’s Jaguar Productions (he narrates), at 75" it looks designed for quickie double-bills, but with an exceptional line-up of character actors on hand: hard-driving cop Edmond O’Brien, Wood’s overprotective father; chief-detective Brian Donlevy; Richard Anderson as the fiancé who gets conked on the head; and Raymond Burr as the creepy perv at ‘Lover’s Loop’ who carts her off after an altercation. (Even more ‘familiars’ in bit parts.) As producer, Ladd surely stuck his neck out offering this to ‘gray-listed’ helmer Frank Tuttle, director of Ladd’s breakout THIS GUN FOR HIRE/’42; and Tuttle does what he can. But a very uneven, often laughable, script is overloaded with ‘Pop’ Freudian psychology: Daddy-issues for O’Brien & Wood; Mommy-issues for Burr’s psycho. (Burr also gets a big dose of Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN, with dead puppy in for dead rabbit.) Makes for a lot of scenery chewing; no one more so than O’Brien, determined to make Father-issues paramount. (Astute observation or actor’s jealousy?) John Seitz, Ladd’s regular lenser at the time, can do little on the cheap soundstage sets (an L.A. nighttime cyclorama is a particular horror), but also manages some impressive noir stylings when given the chance.* Same could be said for the pic as a whole.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Two years later, again with Ladd as ‘silent’ producer, Tuttle & Seitz all but ended their careers with one of the all-time goofball Sci-Fi guilty-pleasures, ISLAND OF LOST WOMEN, loaded with quotable dialogue & business that can make you shake with laughter merely recalling it decades later.