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Sunday, May 21, 2017

YOU GOTTA STAY HAPPY (1948)

1948 was pretty late in the day for a Screwball Comedy featuring a flighty runaway bride heiress. But here’s Joan Fontaine as a marriage-phobic rich girl who meets Mr. Right on her wedding night . . . to someone else. Mr. Right? That’d be James Stewart, an entrepreneurial war vet struggling to get his air-freight operation off the ground. Naturally, he misreads the situation in the hotel suite next door, but still comes to the rescue with a secret lift out of town on his freight plane. Anyway you slice it, this is all comic leftovers, made worse by one of those music scores that does the chuckling for you. Happily, the film quickly drops the forced gagging to find a lightly romantic comic rhythm for its mutually attracted (and attractive) leads under journeyman director H. C. Potter. (At his best later this year with even better call-and-response playing from Cary Grant & Myrna Loy in MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE.) The film builds a lot of goodwill as it flies NYC to L.A. with plenty of warm, funny support from Eddie Albert, Percy Kilbride & a clean-shaven Porter Hall among others. The forced comedy returns right at the end, but at least the music cues calm down . . . most of the way.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Mirroring the film plot, Stewart in real life was working for Fontaine (and then husband William Dozier) since it was her company, Rampart Productions, producing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rampart made its one & only other film this year, LETTER TO AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, a Max Ophüls masterpiece.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

PATERSON (2016)

Jim Jarmusch has been stealthily releasing a film every three or four years for decades; a dozen since 1980. But it’s been a while since one has seemed to matter this much. (Along with a welcome reduction in hipster quotient.) Simply shot, and beautiful in Jarmusch's minimalist style, it tackles an unusual topic (poetry & the mystery of creation) from an unusual proletariat angle. Traversing a week in the life of Paterson, N.J. bus driver Adam Driver (a bus driver named ‘Driver,’ and his film character named Paterson), the film closely observes his life habits with its small variations of regular hours, daily chores & duties of domesticity; a very routine routine. Yet, rather than dull artistic spirit, quotidian repetition feeds creative process, opening mind & thoughts experientially. A pretty tough concept to verbalize, let alone organize & pull off as film where time moves at the same pace for every viewer. Driver, a nearly perfect vessel here, fascinating in repose, is cinematically blessed with a forehead that ‘reads’ as thought. (Something of a Native American cast to his profile, though apparently not in his bloodline.) As his wife, Golshifteh Farahani (a name to stymie SpellCheck) is spacey & sweet, an eccentric homemaker, but a fine receptacle for his literary longings (the poems are charming & believably his). While the rest of a smallish cast, largely bar & work acquaintances, work gracefully as backstop to his still forming ideas. Jarmusch can’t quite maintain his design, giving in to questionable dramatic incidents to pump up the third act. And though you can see why he does it, the film has to land somewhere, you may wish he hadn’t. Still, a lovely piece.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Frederick Elmes’ cinematography really brings out a found bleak beauty in the streets & buildings of Paterson’s on-its-heels working-class town, even without the forested train trestle that pictorially bridges a ravine, a waterfall & the film.

Friday, May 19, 2017

DEATH ON THE NILE

After putting Agatha Christie back on the cinematic A-list with their well-appointed MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74, producers John Brabourne & Richard Goodwin double-dipped on a second All-Star whodunit with a whole new team. And while there’s a distinct drop in glamor (as in EXPRESS headline lovers Sean Connery & Vanessa Redgrave downsized here to Simon MacCorkindale & Lois Chiles), the results are more swings & roundabouts then losses. Our lead, Christie’s famously fatuous empty-vessel of a Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, flips from stiff, padded, stunt-cast Albert Finney to the more naturally appropriate Peter Ustinov, making small work of the task at hand without missing a trick or a self-reflexive laugh. Elsewhere, with the exception of bickering travelers Bette Davis & distressed paid-companion Maggie Smith, along with soused novelist Angela Lansbury (all three in high comic heaven), the other suspects (you can hardly call them characters) have neither the wit nor wattage so prodigally wasted in EXPRESS. (The surfeit in talent part & parcel of its enduring louche charm.) Yet isn’t NILE the better structured, better plotted murder mystery? (Hat tip to scripter Anthony Shaffer.) What fun director John Guillermin has gruesomely murdering our main victim over & over again as Ustinov proposes the next likely solution. (Surely the only murder mystery ever solved by recognizing the use of ‘conditional tense.’) And if Mia Farrow, as the jilted & vengeful fiancée, looks even thinner & paler than she did during her ROSEMARY’S BABY pregnancy, there’s still an unusual amount of blood spilled for the typically bloodless Ms. Christie.

DOUBLE-BILL: The producers eventually tapped the Christie well too often with a lousy Miss Marple for Ms. Lansbury in THE MIRROR CRACK’D/’80 and a diminished Poirot finding EVIL UNDER THE SUN/’82..

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Normally, it’s the ladies’ hair styling that goes wrong in period pieces. But here, the men look too contemporarily coiffed. Bring in the shears!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT / aka FALSTAFF (1965)

Even those who first saw CHIMES in rare screenings 30, 40 years ago, had little trouble looking past battered prints and subfusc sound to recognize a masterpiece. Now that’s it’s out in Criterion’s stunning restoration, it should be putting the lie to all the rot you still read about Welles’ post-CITIZEN KANE decline. Of course, it’s not. And Welles would no doubt be amused to see that when it comes to his Stateside reputation, John Ford’s famous line from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, ‘When the legend becomes fact . . . print the legend,’ still holds. (Ford wasn’t his favorite American film director for nothing.) The film, his own remarkable distillation of decades of thought & productions on Shakespeare’s ‘War of the Roses’ plays, is now condensed, concentrated on Falstaff, the fat knight he was born to play. It’s a physically stunning film, made on the usual Welles’ slim dime, with cascading brilliance on all sides. Standouts include John Gielgud’s guilt-ridden Henry IV; Keith Baxter as an open-faced/ secretly hard Prince Hal (later Henry V), torn between a chilly father and the warm mass (and mess) of Falstaff’s humane anarchy; Margaret Rutherford’s doughty Mistress Quickly (you have to go back to Marie Dressler to find the like, though even Dressler couldn’t have topped the ‘cold as stone’ eulogy). Really, too many character gems to list, held aloft by the unified look Welles gives to every detail (click on the charming costume/action sketch below),

with the now legendary Battle of Shrewsbury (still looking technically advanced) positioned dead-center, as the world pivots to darkness & melancholy. Only Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s lively score, the flip side to his doom-laden music for Welles’ OTHELLO/’51, tries to keep contact with happier times, while cinematographer Edmund Richard brings a chiseled, contrasty b&w in place of the refined grey scale he gave Welles on THE TRIAL/’62. As a boy, Welles worked on a series of books called ‘EVERYBODY’S SHAKESPEARE.’ but only delivered on the promise 25 years after CITIZEN KANE. He never made a better film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Back in radio days, Welles often played multiple parts. Not so easy in a film. But he could still dub vocals as needed . . . or even just for sport. Listen up here as he has a bit of fun voicing a sheriff who comes to Quickly’s inn looking to collect a debt from Sir John. Welles hiding from ‘Welles.’ Considering how he financed these things, it’s an apt gag.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Keith Baxter, such a wonderful, moving Hal (physically he’s like a more robust Anthony Perkins, Welles’ lead in THE TRIAL/’62) never got the film opportunities he deserved once CHIMES more or less disappeared. But he thrived on stage, even making something out of Shakespeare’s notoriously unplayable Marc Antony against Maggie Smith’s Cleopatra in Stratford, Canada.

DOUBLE-BILL: We’ve mentioned this before, but in a striking coincidence (if it is coincidence), Welles not only chose the same three Shakespearean subjects as Giuseppe Verdi for adaptation (MACBETH/’48, OTHELLO/’51, FALSTAFF), but made them in the same order.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

LA LOI DU MARCHÉ / THE MEASURE OF A MAN (2015)

Simply made in the old cinéma-verité/ documentary style, and all the more effective for it, Stéphane Brizé’s topical/award-winning film finds its drama following skilled-laborer Vincent Lindon as he looks for a new job. Middle-aged & downsized out of a well-paid tool-and-die union position, he does all the right things to get back on track. Retraining, deportment classes, Skype interviews, refinancing; each new humiliation quietly suffered. He’s lucky in his family with a sympathetic wife (though Brizé misses a trick in not letting us know if she works) and a great teenage kid, thriving in spite of various physical problems from cerebral palsy. (A scene with his school counselor is equally heartbreaking & wonderful.) Finally, Lindon (a professional actor surrounded by well-cast amateurs, he deservedly cleaned up on the award circuit) gets a decent, if depressing security gig at one of those huge faceless all-in-one superstores. He’s good at it, too. Note how Brizé jolts the drama ahead by skipping the steps that got him the position. And we’re so drawn in to Lindon’s improved fortunes that we’re relieved (to our shame) when a staff meeting is called, not as we suppose to announce a closing, but to deal with a tragic event. At the end, after overseeing one too many soul-draining, ego-bruising cashiered cashier incidents, Brizé offers a bit of prideful folly that doesn’t fully ring true. We’ve earned it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

GOD IS MY CO-PILOT (1945)

With the war nearing an end, Warners rolled out the ‘B’-team for this fact-inspired fancy on the famed China-based Flying Tigers fighter pilots. Dennis Morgan is his usual blandly pleasant self as real-life Col. Robert Scott, advancing from supply runs to bombing missions only to face a ‘what’s-it-all-about-God?’ personal moment. Thankfully, Alan Hale’s on hand as a missionary priest to let him know that . . . well, see the title. With personal backstory & group camaraderie but lightly sketched, the main focus goes to the action stuff; standard issue, like the rest of the film. But between process work, stock shots & newsreel combat footage, some airborne take-downs retain impact. And, in the film’s best sequence, Scott’s one-man attack on a Burma Road Japanese military convoy is exceptional. But who did it? Journeyman helmer Robert Florey? Asst. Lester Guthrie? Unlikely. Maybe Robert Burks & Roy Davidson, credited on the exploding aircraft F/X, were in charge? Elsewise, enjoy the good Franz Waxman score; be mildly appalled by an unusually high level of verbal Jap-bashing*; note a third-billed Dane Clark with only eight minutes screen time; and check out the tropical make-up on Raymond Massey’s Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, a Louisiana native of French stock. What ethnicity was Perc Westmore going for?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *As ‘Tokyo Joe,’ the Flying Tigers’ arch-enemy in the sky, Richard Loo earns credit for giving as good as gets in the trash-talk department . . . the buck-toothed heathen! (Actually, he has excellent teeth.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Warners spent more time & energy considering God’s position on warfare in SERGEANT YORK/’41. But then, that came out a couple of months before Pearl Harbor

Monday, May 15, 2017

BIANCO, ROSSO E . . . / THE SIN (aka WHITE SISTER) (1972)

Pretty dreadful. The post-war glory days of Italian cinema came to a screeching halt in the mid-to-late ‘60s. Most of the big names weren’t much affected, but standard commercial fare went into fast decline. Regardless of political leanings, producers & directors, terrified of seeming old-fashioned/out-of-touch, discarded old verities in cinematic grammar & craft, tossed aside in the hustle to survive. So a fine journeyman helmer like Alberto Lattuada, who’d given Fellini a leg up in VARIETY LIGHTS/’51, made sharp, near perfect dramedies both romantic (LA SPIAGGIA/’54) and cynical (MAFIOSO/’62), now looks hopelessly ill at ease in the lumbering sentiment & political sparring of this comic-tragedy. Sophia Loren is just as uncomfortable as a saintly, irreplaceable nun riding out the latest crisis at an overrun strike-happy hospital. Adriano Celentano is the comical communist orderly, leading the revolt (and he’s plenty revolting), but falling hard for the unavailable Sister Sophia. It’s one of those hospital-as-metaphor-for-society films popular at the time, but too lazy to stick with the conceit, jumping into backstory for Loren (pre-nunnery lost love) and street protests for schlubby Celentano. (A big star in Italy whose appeal didn’t cross over.) Kudos to Alfio Contini for some polished cinematography, but it hardly matters.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Lattuada films mentioned above are all great, with MAFIOSO (out on Criterion) easiest to find.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

HOSHI O OU KODOMO / CHILDREN WHO CHASE LOST VOICES (2011)

Now in his 40s, anime master Makoto Shinkai awaits a Stateside breakout. YOUR NAME/’16, a huge hit in Japan, caused barely a ripple here while this ambitious feature (aka JOURNEY TO AGARTHA, his second as solo director) didn’t get a proper theatrical release. Good as it is, you’ll see why. Neatly divided in half, it begins as a girl’s coming-of-age tale, then switches gears (and a few principals) for something of an Orpheus/Eurydice journey to the UnderWorld. That should make sense, the girl’s father died when she was a kid, and her unexpected expedition partner, her new teacher, is desperately seeking his late wife. Yet, the girl's father isn’t mentioned again, yet alone looked for. Odd. And those voices the girl heard in the mountains back in the opening half? Not space aliens, but souls from the netherworld, something confirmed with help from a rogue kitty-cat and a dreamboat boy, each visiting topside. It's how she discovers the secret portal that goes below, leading to a series of action adventures, dangerous flesh eating beasts, weird religious rites and the breaking of a few social taboos. ALICE IN HADES? All very Japanese in tone, especially compared to the first half. Plenty scary, too. (So, this one’s Kid-Friendly with Warning Lights.) Yet what an eye for landscape, spectacle, movement and architectural detail from Shinkai. Perhaps YOUR NAME, a teenage personality-swap tale, finds the sweet spot.

DOUBLE-BILL: Shinkai’s considerable gifts are better displayed in the gorgeous, concentrated final segment of 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND/’07.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

OPEN WINDOW (2014)

Something of a visual tour de force, a pointless one. Nacho Vigalondo’s over-twisted thriller builds little suspense, too busy exhausting itself in techno-onanism. Elijah Wood (no pun intended) is the laptop obsessed blogger who seeks digital revenge after a dinner with cult-film vixen Sasha Grey is canceled. Not that he’s initiated the computer hack of her life, he merely follows instructions from some unseen cyber-wiz who’s taken control of his system and won’t let him go. Suddenly finding himself in over his head in some nefarious murder plot (aided by a third party of camouflaged ‘helpers’), Wood is at the mercy of . . . . whom? And why? All happening in Pop-Up Windows cascading o’er his laptop without an edit in sight until, two-thirds of the way in, a car crash pushes us intermittently off the screen. By then, you’ll either have lost patience, the plot thread or just grown past caring about the next character reveal/plot reversal. Vigalondo, a natural filmmaker, keeps this airborne far beyond its natural expiration date. (No small thing considering porn-star Sasha Grey’s acting abilities.) But the mystery elements devolve into silliness, more like a detective drama parody from an old vinyl Firesign Theater L.P. where the lack of visuals made its brain teasing vagaries more fun to unravel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Since the film largely takes place on a laptop screen, maybe it would work better viewed on one. Nah.