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Friday, October 20, 2017

CENTURION (2010)

Pretty lousy, but fun if you’re in the right mood. No surprise that hack writer/director Neil Marshall went on to helm a couple of GAME OF THRONE episodes, as tone, pace & gore level all demonstrate.* (That includes the use of unconvincing digital blood splatter effects that look like animated applique.) Michael Fassbender, lithe & cut as a disco dancer, is the second-in-command Roman centurion who survives after the Picts of Northern Britain massacre his legion. With the handful left, he heads into enemy territory, hoping to rescue captured General Dominic West. It doesn’t quite work out, and soon they are back on the run from a gaggle of handpicked Picts, including Olga Kurylenko, ultra deadly wolf-lady. Yikes! She some scary gal!! Much slash & burn along the way. (The usual sound & fury, signifying the usual nothing.) Fortunately, when rest is needed for the wounded & weary, a blonde bonnie lassie is conveniently stumbled upon. She’s got her own beef with those Picts, so takes them in, feeds them tasty, non-poisonous mushroom stew and even speaks their language . . . with a Scottish accent. It's all coming out as English, of course, but presumably standing in for Latin. (What a missed opportunity! Rome-era Latin with a Scot’s ‘burr!’) And since everyone, savages & invaders, seem to have come straight out of some RSC production, you barely notice that the story makes the local underdogs villains and the occupation force good guys. (But they noticed, tacking on an ironic twist to even things out. All that’s missing is a heap of haggis on the dinner table for a coda fit for a hero.)

DOUBLE-BILL: While this barely opened Stateside, the storyline was picked up the following year in THE EAGLE/’11 (not seen here - w/ Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell/dir.-Kevin Macdonald). It also flopped, but after a proper release.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Indeed, GoT withdrawal might be the best reason to watch this. Then again, GoT without Peter Dinklage is like GoT . . . without Peer Dinklage.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

EXTRAORDINARY TALES (2013)

Raul Garcia’s varied (and variable) animation of five Edgar Allan Poe short stories comes across more portfolio than program; a quick, easy watch, if not an especially memorable one. The contrasting styles, done via CGI, but not always looking it, fit the morbid moods, and the well-known vocal roster even more. For introductions, Poe’s famous Raven debates ‘Death’ in a style that recalls paper cut-outs before Christopher Lee comes in to narrate THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER which apes the look of wooden puppets in faux 3D effect. This is followed by an amazing ancient recording of Bela Lugosi reading TELL-TALE HEART, visually the least effective item, built over live-action filming, digitized into high-contrast (solarized?) b&w images; a technique that works better for architectural detail than for characters. Julian Sands handles more traditional vocal acting in the lesser-known CASE OF M. VALDEMAR. Backed by a graphic/comic book look, this story of death-bed hypnotism is exceptionally creepy. Guillermo Del Toro’s accent adds Spanish Inquisition savor to PIT AND THE PENDULUM which gets much of its force from a restricted, autumnal palette . . . and prison rats. Yikes! While the animation in MASK OF RED DEATH has a more traditional hand-drawn vibe, a vivid watercolor look and an impressive sense of court life bustle with figures suggesting Egon Schiele. (Also, a single line of dialogue read by Roger Corman in homage to his Poe anthologies). It’s the one you can imagine being expanded. Or could if Garcia, with lots of experience in the field of animation, not so much in animation direction, were better able to unlock the narrative potential hiding behind Poe’s elegant prose. Instead, objets d’art with occasional shivers.

DOUBLE-BILL: Disney took a whack at this sort of thing adapting THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, in the first half of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD/’49. Don’t be fooled by Bing Crosby’s folksie manner, the final ride is the real deal. Plus, it comes with an opportunity to see Mr. Toad (& Co.) from THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS. Never pass up a chance to revisit Toad Hall!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

TARGET ZERO (1955)

Set in 1952, this Korean War pic is better than you expect from a programmer, just not better enough. Demerits come with Arizona locations which hardly look foreign, let alone Korean; a lazy sense of logistics in actions sequences (until an excellent climactic big battle probably not from director Harmon Jones, but sterling second-unit work); and a script that stops too often for philosophical speechifying. (What does it all mean? Every man dies alone. You fight to survive. Unconvincing talk at best.) Too bad, since the character mix & basic situation show potential. We open behind enemy lines, not that U. N. Medical aide Peggie Castle knows it. But a trio of Brits in a tank, along with gruff Lt. Richard Conte and his small unit of war-tested men fill her in before heading back to see what might be left of Conte’s base company up in the hills. There are nice touches: a South Korean soldier takes off his boots to enter a Buddhist Shrine; friendship signified by whether you share cigarettes or smoke your own; and rising names like Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors & L. Q. Jones. Just not enough distinctive elements amid boilerplate stuff until they reach Conte’s slaughtered company and try to hold the position by calling in air & sea strikes. Those low-flying jet bombers are something to see. But then they take on hordes of Red Army Regulars as if they were shooting fish in a barrel (or Indians in a serial Western) and the film gets a bit silly.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Instead, try a personal, even eccentric Korean war film like Anthony Mann’s MEN AT WAR/’57.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934)

Famous, fascinating, ultimately unsatisfying, John Cromwell (working from credit-shy Lester Cohen’s lumpy script) tries cramming Somerset Maugham’s 450 page auto-biographical novel into a spare 83 minutes. Cromwell, already an experienced director, seems out of sorts here, with odd positioning on reverse angles & needlessly fussy out-of-focus dissolves between scenes. Even with half the book lopped off, it’s all bare-bone highlights and little connective tissue as Leslie Howard’s cash-poor/club-footed med student gets knocked down in life & love from low self-esteem & even lower expectations. Howard nails the crippling kindness & personal embarrassment of the part, but at 41, the masochism & self-abasement come across as fatigue. To see a real Maugham character come to life, keep your eyes on Reginald Denny as fellow student/ frenemy. And, of course, Bette Davis in her breakout role as the Cockney trollop Howard can’t shake. Much of her work now looks like Hollywood period stuff and may not fly for a modern audience, starting with the wavering accent, but YOU - CAN’T - TAKE - YOUR - EYES - OFF - HER. And when she does lets go, in some brief, intense scenes charting her rapid dissolution, she goes places actresses hadn’t touched since the silent era. Two later attempts at the book fail badly; afraid of an unsympathetic Mildred: with Eleanor Parker in ‘46 & Kim Novak in ‘64, both over-parted. (Though in the latter, Laurence Harvey, in theory, if not quite in practice, is perfectly cast in the Howard role.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Attention to your DVD edition. Lots of dreadful Public Domain discs out there. Best of a bad lot is on KINO, sourced from the Library of Congress archive.

DOUBLE-BILL: Howard & Davis made two more films together, poetically stranded in THE PETRIFIED FOREST/’36 (Humphrey Bogart’s breakthru, thanks to Howard who insisted he repeat his B’way perf - and Bogie does seem to be repeating it) and a delightfully unexpected comic backstager, IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER/’37, with Olivia de Havilland as a junior third wheel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With Maugham’s rep in a well-deserved rebound these days, maybe someone will give this the space demanded via cable/streaming format and not have to skip over so much of the book. Come to think of it, same goes for THE RAZOR’S EDGE.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

THE WHITE DAWN (1974)

Philip Kaufman’s not-quite-good-enough fact-inspired film is a culture clash from the turn-of-the-last-century about a trio of Arctic-stranded whalers saved by a tribe of Inuit Peoples. Often exciting, with a fine documentary favor, the film is hobbled by character attitudes & cinematic tics that smell more of 1974 than 1896. So Timothy Bottoms’ open-hearted hippie kid is the one eager to join in tribal ways; Lou Gossett, an exotic outsider to his mates and the Eskimo, can see both sides; leaving gruff Warren Oates as the unaccepting conservative old guard, twisted by his debt to damn savages. (Note how Oates reacts in disgust to a polar bear hunt when he should find common ground in a simlarity to whaling.) And the inevitable infection of Inuit ways (alternating the pure & honorable with religious superstitions inimical to the whalers’ understanding) with contaminating foreign influences (booze, gambling, ownership) is too commonplace to hold up against the unusual locales. It leaves the film’s better set pieces (igloo construction, tribal dance, hunting) working as stand-alone episodes. Still, the use of real Native Peoples and incredibly difficult Arctic locations is a bump up from Anthony Quinn in THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS/’60 or the soundstage fakery of ICE STATION ZEBRA/’68.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: An old Hollywood maxim has it that films set in cold climates struggle at the box-office. True enough for the films mentioned above.  (Paramount not even bothering to come up with a halfway decent poster on this one.)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

TRIAL (1955)

Appalling. Glenn Ford just off the ‘daring’ social-issues of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (inner-city school violence; racial tension; generation gap), double-dips into 'problem pics' with this courtroom drama, larded with tacked on raw political trimmings (HUAC; Commies; KKK types). A law prof, but a courtroom virgin, his first case in the real world finds him handling front-page/ LOOK Magazine stuff, defending a Hispanic kid on a trumped up death-penalty/murder charge. Seems new partner Arthur Kennedy is off with the boy’s mom, raising cash on the Communist Speaking Circuit, offering up the boy as a fresh ethnic martyr. If only the dead girl hadn’t simply keeled over after flirting with the kid due to a bad heart (rheumatic fever), as testified to by her personal physician was also happens to be the coroner. There’s really no case against the kid, so naturally, they force him onto the stand so John Hodiak’s high-powered D.A. can trip him up. The plot is plenty idiotic, made worse by helmer Mark Robson, who pitches it all way too high, like a Center-Right Stanley Kramer on steroids. At a husky 39, Ford is well past playing this stuttering courtroom novice, and fails to connect with assistant Dorothy McGuire. But why pick on these talents; victims all to Don Mankiewicz, whose novel & screenplay call his famous lineage (son of Herman, nephew of Joseph) into question.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bad as he is here, Ford had yet to hit bottom. See next year’s TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON/’56. Then, major comeback in 3:10 TO YUMA/’57.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Hiding in plain sight is our all-time favorite storyline! The one where an unappreciated guy finally gets a shot at his dream job, unaware he’s only being hired for his supposed incompetence. But he turns the tables, proving he’s got the right stuff after all.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In one of his strongest films before he was effectively BlackListed out of the country, Joseph Losey handles similar issues in the little-known knockout THE LAWLESS/’50.

Friday, October 13, 2017

THREE STRANGERS (1946)

After a fortuitous pairing in THE MALTESE FALCON/’41, Peter Lorre & Sydney Greenstreet became a sort of team @ Warners, co-starring in high quality B-pics & lending support on bigger-budget items. This crackerjack suspense yarn may be the best of the ‘Bs,’ a winner-takes-nil lottery fever tale with Geraldine Fitzgerald holding up her end (and then some) in third position. Jean Negulescu, in one of his nifty early directing gigs, stretches a thin budget for a crepuscular London, where our three strangers interlock on the fate of a lottery ticket & a bit of luck off an exotic statue. There’s Fitzgerald’s furtive, estranged wife, trying to foul her husband’s exit; Greenstreet’s solicitor, playing with a client’s investment money; Lorre’s petty crook, drinking his way into a pal’s murder charge. Beautifully orchestrated, probably by co-scripter Howard Koch working off an initial draft from John Huston which already touches on favorite themes of riches slipping thru fingers.* Fitzgerald, who never quite broke thru to major stardom, may have her best role here, at least as leading lady. And if Greenstreet does little fresh (he gives much the same perf later this year in THE VERDICT), Lorre is a mini-revelation, touching & sweet, as a compromised good guy. But everybody shines on this one.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Note FALCON holdovers lenser Arthur Edeson & composer Adolph Deutsch.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Huston’s first film after war service, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’48, might well be titled THREE STRANGERS; and ends with nearly the same ironic twist.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

WHILE NEW YORK SLEEPS (1938)

With the recent death of CHARLIE CHAN’s Warner Oland (replaced by Sidney Toler) and the Peter Lorre MR. MOTO series facing demise over Japanese war rumblings (and Lorre wanting out), 20th/Fox B-pic production head Sol Wurtzer was hurting for a new series.*  But this try, the second of three NYC crime-reporter yarns featuring newsman Michael Whalen & sidekick photog Chick Chandler (The Roving Reporters) just doesn’t click. Faceless direction from H. Bruce Humberstone can’t clarify a silly plot (practical joking nightclub owner is killed for real soon after one of his dancers plugs him with a blank), but races along so we don’t much notice. The real problem is Whalen. As a character he’s an unmitigated jerk (we’re meant to find him breezy & spontaneous); physically he’s saddled with one of the worst caterpillar mustaches in the biz. Ick! While everybody else tries covering things up with ladles of forced, hearty laughter, like gravy on a Blue Plate Special. Order something else. Currently out on a subfusc DVD from ALPHA.

LINK: As taster, a rival Public Domain print (pretty lousy) on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeWjBI7ez9k

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Wurtzel soon came up with the slightly better MICHAEL SHAYNE series (seven films/’40-‘42) for Lloyd Nolan as a lighthearted Private Dick (see below). They improve as they go along, cutting back on the lame comic tone.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

KRAFTIDIOTEN / IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2014)

Wicked (and wicked funny) revenge tale from Norway sees Stellen Skarsgård’s Citizen-of-the-Year, a Nordic legend in snow clearance, hunting down the men responsible for his son’s death. The police write it off as a drug overdose, but Skarsgård knows better, and with a lead from his dead son’s pal is soon murdering his way up the chain of command in a big-time drug organization with surprising ease . . . and gory violence. But it all becomes much more complicated when the attacked gang mistakenly blames a rival outfit of Serbian drug suppliers for the deaths, inadvertently killing the competitor’s son to get even. That makes two gangs & one revenge-minded father all out for bloody justice; hoods dropping like flies. Director Hans Petter Moland manages the mayhem with grim hilarity & a tip-top cast (that’s Bruno Ganz using a cracked voice as the Serbian Godfather), violent afterbeats often alarmingly funny. You know you shouldn’t laugh, but can’t help it. All in the midst of such magnificent snowy beauty. Copy on the packaging mentions Tarantino & the Coen Bros. for comparison, but the tone & technique (amused, even elegant, with graphic violence waning rather than waxing) is more Don Siegel meets Aki Kaurismäki. (Imagine that pair on a Liam Neeson kickass revenge pic to get the idea.*) A token Stateside release didn’t pan out, but don’t let that stop you.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Sure enough, Moland is announced for an English-language remake next year, retitled HARD POWDER, with (yep) Liam Neeson attached. Don’t let that stop you from watching this first, either.