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Monday, December 29, 2008

WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN (1916)

Although Lois Weber, the most important & successful of the early female helmers, tied many of her pics to social issues, surely none was as daring as this bifurcated look at birth control & eugenics in American society. Here, a world of drunken lower-class wastrels populate the tenements with unwanted brats while upper-crust ladies are so concerned with club life & high society that they routinely have abortions. Even using a disreputable doctor known for slip-ups. The two sides of this story merge when D.A. Tyrone Power, Sr brings an outspoken eugenics supporter to court just as he discovers his own wife’s immersion in the shadow world of illegal abortions. Much of the Social Darwinism approvingly shown here is faintly terrifying and Weber’s picturization of congregations of unborn souls may give pause*, but the general arguments remain timely & fascinating, to say nothing of her remarkably advanced narrative technique and the naturalistic acting. The film remains highly watchable and truly thought provoking.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Did Hugo Hoffmannsthal see this before writing the libretto of DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN for R. Strauss in 1919?  Or they both grab the basic idea from Maurice Maeterlinck’s THE BLUE BIRD?

Monday, December 22, 2008

STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1946)


Ultra low-budget noir from Republic Studios has a ludicrous storyline, but is moderate fun thanks to an evenly matched cast of mid-level names (Brenda Marshall, William Gargan, Lyle Talbot, H. B. Warner) and more than a modicum of style from rising helmer Anthony Mann, who frames & chiaroscuros to beat the band. Marshall plays a research scientist more interested in her new anaesthetic than in fiancé Gargan. (Smart girl!) But when she's out cold, testing her new serum on herself, her spunky assistant (Ruth Ford) reveals her true colors by ruining her boss's looks and usurping her life. Fortunately, a transparent sub-plot allows the scripters to rig a swapped identity revenge twist . . . and that goes wrong, too! LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN/'45 is the obvious ‘inspiration’ here, but there's only so much Mann can do with this material which also features a lame cop-out ending. Try 1949's delirious IMPACT to see how this formula can be plotted to far better effect even without Mann’s stylish moves behind the camera.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

GOOD NEWS (1947)

M-G-M musical producer supreme Arthur Freed baptized those ON THE TOWN New York wiseguys, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, with an unlikely assignment; revamp this corny mother-of-all college musicals. The 1927 show is only remembered for two songs, ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free’ & ‘The Varsity Drag,’ plus the usual football game theatrics, but the new script puts all irony on hold allowing us to smile with (rather than at) the well-calibrated conventions of musical comedy from ‘27 & ‘47. Charles Walters helms smoothly in his debut, keeping everything human-scaled (with a nice expansion for the big finale), while the modest talents and challenged intonation of leads June Allyson & especially the young Peter Lawford seem just right in this low-pressure entertainment. Even if this sort of thing isn’t your sort of thing, search out ‘The French Lesson,’ the one original number Comden & Green added with Roger Edens supplying the music, it’s a true delight.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935)


Shakespeare in Hollywood took a near-fatal double hit when this big-budget pic from Warners along with M-G-M’s ROMEO & JULIET/’36 (a vanity project for Irving Thalberg & Norma Shearer) tanked. The latter is a stiff, but this adaptation of Max Reinhardt's legendary Hollywood Bowl production is not only visually luscious (thanks to Hal Mohr's ravishing lensing), but often charming & funny. Casting from the Warners stock company generally works out and is a lot of fun just to see. (No doubt The Globe used similar ‘types’ over & over again.) A few unsure line readings from some players can’t mar Joe E. Brown's inspired clowning, Victor Jory's billowing nightride or Olivia de Havilland's enchanting romantic fancy. Mickey Rooney hasn’t the technical variety to pull off Reinhardt’s wild-child conception of Puck, but he certainly looks amazing. And if some of the big set pieces hang fire, the adaptation is smartly done (though a lot of poetry gets the ax), easy to follow (thanks to some fine narrative tips in the editing) and quite respectful. Plus, using all that Mendelssohn on the soundtrack was a clever bit of nose-thumbing at the Nazis who had just banned his music in Austria & Germany.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937)

Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood film is paradoxically more Langian and more idiomatically American than his initial Stateside pic, FURY/’36 . Henry Fonda & Sylvia Sidney are exceptional & heartbreaking as a doomed ex-con & the Public Defender’s asst who stubbornly believes in him as fate inexorably grinds away. Classics like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT/’49, BONNIE & CLYDE/’67, THIEVES LIKE US/’74 and scores of lesser ‘Wanted’-lovers on-the-run pics are unimaginable without this film that in many ways (certainly in its devious fatalistic plotting & in capturing the spirit of Depression era times) holds up better than the later films. (If only the original film materials were in better shape, alas!) Watch for a bank robbery sequence that could have come straight out of a Fritz Lang MABUSE pic and for his distinctively formal composition style (Leon Shamroy lensed) which only reemerged this consistently for Lang in SCARLET STREET/’45, WOMAN IN THE WIDOW/’44 and THE BIG HEAT/’53.

CONTEST: A film that often tops critics' lists as the all-time best lifted one of its iconic moments right out of this film. Name that famous film and the 'borrowed' iconic moment to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS write-up of any NetFlix DVD.

Monday, November 24, 2008

BUCCANEER’S GIRL (1950)



Unexpected fun. Hiding in a set of mediocre early 1950s pirate DVDs from Universal is this winning bit of nonsense starring that fetching non-actress Yvonne De Carlo as a stowaway who lands in the middle of a New Orleans trade war. The little remembered Philip Friend, with a tad of the old Ronald Colman charm, pulls off his faux pirate character (he’s really out to avenge a wronged father) while Elsa Lancaster, Henry Daniell & especially an alarmingly coiffed Norman Lloyd make up a tasty supporting trio. With better than routine megging from Frederick de Cordova, spirited musical interludes for Yvonne, neat miniature F/X on the seafaring battles and a pleasingly preposterous switchback/turnaround plot, producer Robert Arthur deserves kudos for not treating this as a routine programmer but as an opportunity to show off a bit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

AGAINST ALL FLAGS (1952)

Late swashbuckler for Errol Flynn has an undeservedly good rep. Megger George Marshall turned out a boilerplate pirate adventure w/ poorly integrated painted matte backgrounds canceling out a better than usual cast for Universal. (Maureen O’Hara, Anthony Quinn, Mildred Natwick, even character vet Robert Warwick shows up for auld lang syne, though nothing quite makes up for the appalling Alice Kelley as an Indian Princess). But the story is old as the hills (Flynn poses as a pirate to take down a safe haven for buccaneers); the dialogue flat (Flynn’s comic retorts are sad precursors for Roger Moore’s 007 asides); and the plot poorly structured (none of the incidents seem to add up to any sort of plan of action). Plus, Flynn looks fairly exhausted, out of breath and is poorly doubled in much of the action footage. (He still managed to break a leg.) Next year’s follow-up, THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, which brought him briefly back to Warners, allows Flynn a far more graceful adieu to the world of derring-do.

YANKEE BUCCANEER (1952)

Ho-hum pirate fare from Universal was rushed into production on the sets of AGAINST ALL FLAGS when Errol Flynn broke his leg. It has a perfectly acceptable set-up (young David Farragut boards his new ship carrying orders for it to go undercover as a pirate ship and expose a seafaring conspiracy), but there’s not much fun in the pinch-penny production, static staging or dull cast. Jeff Chandler & Scott Brady hardly light up the sky with charisma, but they’re veritable Oliviers next to dud leading lady, Suzan Ball. The ‘z’ is for zzzzzzz. Frederick de Cordova, who did the routine megging, became the longtime producer for Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW. And if you’ve ever wondered who okayed Carson’s astonishingly unattractive sets, have a look here. Those pirate outfits!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

LIAM (2000)

Stephen Frears, the most unassuming of master directors, brings intelligence & technical fluidity to this overly-familiar family drama set in a fading British industrial town during the depth of the ‘30s depression and the rise of radical political ‘isms.’ Told largely, but not exclusively, through the eyes of the entirely winning seven yr-old son who’s afflicted with a terrible stutter, the story first hits the expected warm & fuzzy notes (booze, sex, tough-love parents, the absurdity of a strict Catholic schooling), before turning remarkably dark and compelling when Dad (Ian Hart) loses his job, his pride and his bearings. In a lacerating perf, Hart disappears inside rantings and xenophobic violence as the quicksand of historical movements unhinge his better nature. But neither he nor Frears can do anything with the disastrous twist ending which all too conveniently turns to cheap & tidy theatrical tricks to round things up. It sours the entire film.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)



The three films Jacques Tourneur directed on the cheap to start up Val Lewton’s brief independent run @ RKO are among the most memorable of all B pics. ZOMBIE came second and it may be the most original of the lot as it’s so far removed from the well established horror tropes so effectively refreshed in CAT PEOPLE/’42 and THE LEOPARD MAN/’43. Instead, it’s a Gothic Romance with a calypso beat, a bit of a knock-off of JANE EYRE, but here the looney wife isn’t hidden away, she’s the zombie! Working with a stronger cast than Lewton had in his later pics, Tourneur lets the plot run in straightforward fashion while ladling on the tropical isle atmosphere, the triangular romance (two brothers, one nurse) and the voodoo theatrics, all abstracted by financial necessity to bare minimums . . and all the more effective for it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)



The steadily rising critical tides for writer Noël Coward, helmer David Lean & especially composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in the last decade have largely eliminated the old knee-jerk apologies or pleadings of guilty pleasure once used by defenders of this classic romance of stifled emotions. Even back in the ‘60s & ‘70s, no one gainsaid the performances (superb all around and transcendent in the case of Celia Johnson) or Robert Krasker’s steely-beautiful cinematography. Now, the old taunts of condescension & failed realism so often held against Coward seem not only self-serving, but incomprehensible. The Master knew exactly what he was after and what he was doing while Lean, happily serving the chamber-sized material, gives every character & plot turn the precision of a chronometer.

INDISCREET (1931)



Gloria Swanson was far more comfortable than most of her silent film colleagues in making the switch to Talkies, yet she had little more staying power than the rest of the silent glamor girls on the ‘wrong side’ of 30. (Even her big comeback pic, SUNSET BLVD/'50, couldn't revive a film career.) This rickety antique (about a grown-up gal who finds tru-love after giving her all to an unworthy beau) tries awfully hard to be modern & daring (a lot like those wildly successful Norma Shearer vehicles over @ M-G-M), but helmer Leo McCarey is not yet able to get his cast up to sound speed or to pick up his own pacing. (Hard to believe he’d make the great DUCK SOUP just two years on.) McCarey fanciers may enjoy seeing some of his standard themes of infidelity, trust & forgiveness (as seen in later classics like THE AWFUL TRUTH and LOVE AFFAIR) already in place & it’s a kick to discover that Swanson had a fully-trained, beautifully produced soprano voice (the songs were all filmed live). But even though she makes a better impression than her stage-bound romantic rivals, the film itself is a stiff.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)



The series of atmospheric shockers made at Val Lewton’s budget boutique never quite held to its best form after RKO reassigned director Jacques Tourneur elsewhere, but this early Robert Wise work comes close. It was the final pairing for horror icons Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi, but it’s the remarkable verbal sparring between Karloff and saturnine character actor Henry Daniell that gives this chiller its unusually intelligent tone. The title tells the tale, Karloff is a grave robber who grows too entrepreneurial, but even when the plot turns in obvious directions, the frighteningly dark look of the film (thanks to lenser Robert de Grasse who did such fine work for Lewton/Tourneur in THE LEOPARD MAN) retains a creepy edge. Watch everything come together in the remarkably simple & effective killing of a street singer whose death is abstracted into darkness and a stifled sound cue. Memorable stuff.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948)


Before finding his niche in a superb series of concise Randolph Scott budget-Westerns, Budd Boetticher ground out formula ‘Bs’ like this little detective story. Lucille Bremer stars as a reporter who thinks she’s found a corrupt judge who’s hiding in a posh local sanitarium. She bats her eyes just enough to get Richard Carlson’s appealing gumshoe to play psycho for her, get himself committed and find out what’s going on. (Just like Samuel Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR/’63!) Boetticher’s best work relied on real outdoor locations to reveal character traits & motivation. He was a natural for the wide CinemaScope frame. In this studio-bound piece, he’s cramped, unable to trigger the claustrophobic elements in the plot. Still, it’s fun to see Bremer in crisp B&W lensing without all the M-G-M fuss & glamour. The story goes that her ‘mentor’ @ M-G-M, producer Arthur Freed, had ‘moved on.’ She would too as this was her last picture. Under the circumstances, she’s darn good.

Monday, November 3, 2008

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)



After three successful pairings with Jacques Tourneur, producer Val Lewton continued his atmospheric horror pics @ RKO, promoting Mark Robson, his top editor, to director. And while Robson soon became a solid director, he never turned the minuscule budgets and crummy contract actors into a credible unified style as Tourneur had. Kim Hunter, in her film debut, leaves a cloistered school when her sister, the only relative she has, disappears somewhere in NYC. Just as she is beginning to find a set of friends and contacts in the city, as well as a job, she locates her sister’s trail and follows it right into a den of witches. Six have already died, pressured into suicide to protect the coven. Will her sister become the 7th victim? It all sounds promising, but only the opening and closing reels really come off, especially the tragic final coda.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

PITTSBURGH (2006)

This modest charmer stars that Frog Prince of movie stars, Jeff Goldblum, & a host of character actors all playing themselves. Goldblum needs a plan to keep his 20-something Canadian girlfriend in the States. Should he marry her or co-star in a stock production of THE MUSIC MAN? This eccentric idea sounds like a set-up for one of those Christopher Guest docu-style satires, but the tone is far gentler; Goldblum, on what was obviously a pet project, never pushes the characterizations or the concept toward cheap laughs at anyone’s expense. Unfortunately, the direction is routine t.v. stuff, the storylines peter out & Goldblum has zero screen rapport with his (real life?) girlfriend. Still, the whole idea of Goldblum as Professor Harold Hill is goofy enough to hold our attention. (If only we got to see a complete staged number.) Listen to his closed-mouth, jazz-inflected read-thru of ‘Gary, Indiana’ with Moby & Illeana Douglas to hear the possibilities. Harold Hill goes chill.

TIEFLAND (1940-‘41 - released 1954)

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite female filmmaker*, made this slightly mad romantic fable in Spain while the war raged back in the Fatherland. In theme, style & visualization, it’s very close to one of those fatalistic, ultra-romantic late silents Frank Borzage made with Charles Farrell & Janet Gaynor. Riefenstahl, looking both stunning & motherly, stars as a gypsy dancer who drives men crazy with a tilt of her head, a twist of the wrist & a smoldering glance. A bankrupt baron lusts for her, but needs to marry for money. He recruits a mountain shepherd to act as an in-name-only husband. Alas, our guileless peasant also falls for Leni. Only a fight to the finish will settle things. With its superb Spanish locations, atmospheric lensing and an odd but effective editing technique for the action scenes, there’s a lot to look at even when the film feels deranged or hopelessly dated. The weirdly artificial sets, so precise as to seem like scale models inflated to actual size, nicely mimic the operatic dramatics. Less acceptable is Riefenstahl’s culpability in using real gypsies ‘borrowed’ from concentration camps as film extras. Naturally, all were returned in good condition to face whatever hell was ahead of them. That Leni. Eyes wide shut till the end.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Apparently, Fritz Lang was Adolph's #1 choice . . . until Lang found out and fled the country.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A COTTAGE IN DARTMOOR (1929)

Anthony Asquith is best known for straightforward filmmaking in the so-called British literary tradition which served him particularly well in stage-to-screen adaptations of G. B. Shaw & Terrence Rattigan. Letting the writer function as auteur doesn’t win you critical kudos, but films as fine as PYGMALION/’38 and THE BROWNING VERSION/’51 don’t just ‘happen.’ Even so, it’s fun to watch the young Asquith show off, even needlessly, on late silents like this & UNDERGROUND/’28, also out on DVD. You can all but hear him parsing the latest Russian or German import just screened at his CineClub. There’s some strikingly fast montage work and psychological P.O.V. stuff (even a shock flash of red tinting like in the original prints of Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND/’45), but the main influence is UFA studios with their posh camera moves, rich visual texture, expressionist acting, shadowy lighting & diagonal slashes. The opening works best as Swedish actor Uno Henning (in his only British role, he’s an intriguing mix of Buster Keaton & Conrad Veidt) breaks out of prison in search of revenge. The story flashes back to detail a rather commonplace love triangle that gives Asquith plenty of space for his set pieces (a visit to the cinema, a very close shave, et al.) which tend to run on a bit too long. But no matter, it’s all ravishing to watch and if the characterizations never quite add up, the visual touches are worth the stretch.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

WHIRLPOOL (1949)

Gene Tierney, Otto Preminger & David Raksin, star, helmer & composer of LAURA/’44, had little luck on this return engagement. There’s a lot of hocus-pocus in the mix (hypnosis, kleptomania, Hollywood psychiatry), but the plot remains an unengaging blackmail/murder scam at heart. Scripter supreme Ben Hecht wrote too much purple prose for Jose Ferrer’s conman/mesmerizer and poor Richard Conte, as Tierney’s loyal, but baffled husband, has to work too far behind the beat just to keep the plot functioning. The climax, which is played in front of a portrait of the dead woman in question (just in case you had stopped thinking of LAURA), is borderline ludicrous and shows Preminger's staging techniques at their worst. Only Charles Bickford manages to keep some dignity as the exasperated homicide dick. You'll know just how he feels.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Might as well check out LAURA and see what the model was like.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BIG BROWN EYES (1936)


Behind the generic title, this snappy Raoul Walsh film is a real find. Where has it been hiding? Joan Bennett only hit her stride when she opted for sultry brunette over sassy blonde, but she's a peroxided knock-out here, playing a manicurist with a nose for news and lots of notorious clients with tales to tell. Cary Grant, also in super form, is her on-again/off-again boyfriend, a police dick who’s bucking to make captain. With her inside info & his knowledge of how to work the system, they make a great team running down a motley gang of jewel thieves. Lloyd Nolan, in an early outing, is a mug with a floral fetish(!), and the young & debonaire Walter Pigeon plays an amoral insurance investigator who’s working both sides of the fence. (No pun intended.) The plotting gets a bit sloppy in the third act, but Walsh keeps it all moving along. You’ll be having too much fun to mind the slap-happy contrivances.

CONTEST: Bennett & Grant reteamed for the strained screwball comedy WEDDING PRESENT/’36 which finished off Grant’s Paramount contract. It’s main interest lies in a trick shot that neatly circumvents the old Hollywood ‘Production Code’ and which would be famously re-used in a later Grant pic. Name the camera trick, the Production Code violation, as well as the later film and Grant’s co-star to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on any NetFlix pic of your choice.

Monday, October 20, 2008

WINGS IN THE DARK (1935)


It took three years & a dozen films, but in 1935 Cary Grant begat ‘Cary Grant.’ The adjustments and refinements in form, attitude & delivery are individually slight, but the cumulative effect is devastating. To compare the Grant persona of 1934 with the man seen in this modest weepie is to sit in on a master-class in film acting & presentation. It’s an astonishing transformation, yet it looks not just effortless, but almost invisible. Smartly helmed by the forgotten James Flood & handsomely shot by William Mellor, the opening two reels are dandy, like some lost Howard Hawks pic with Myrna Loy as an also-ran stunt pilot who’s got an entirely understandable crush on glamorous experimental pilot Grant. Things go from soapy to soggy mighty fast when Grant loses his sight, but it works surprisingly well with the chemistry between these two champs. And if, in the end, the teary plot mechanics are a bunch of hooey, just watch Grant go thru his paces with the seeing eye dog he initially disdains. We get three months worth of conflicting emotional progress in about three minutes of screen time . . . and we believe it. Gladly.

DEKALOG : I-X (1989)

Krzystof Kieslowski gets the Gold, Silver & Bronze medals on this wonderfully involving series of ten short films loosely inspired by the ten commandments. (Half of the stories deal with coveting something or somebody.) It sounds like heavy lifting, but is anything but. In general, KK likes to set up the themes & moral dilemmas of his compact stories in broad strokes, and then confound our expectations with sly reversals of logic, fortune or character identification. Major themes such as illness, fidelity, love & death, are delineated in microcosm, but resonate beyond the confines of the modern Warsaw housing complex where these lives intersect. Careful attention reveals characters & bits of plot breaking in and out of episodes that don’t directly concern them. The least of the stories are no more than pleasant moral diversions with O’Henry-like twists at the end, but the best of the films go topsy-turvy halfway in and leave us panting from alternating sympathies. You’ll find your own hits & misses (a philately caper overdoses on whimsy), but you may wish to skip Episode 6 which Kieslowski expanded slightly into A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE. It’s available separately and is worth every extra minute.

Friday, October 17, 2008

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961)

Sergio Leone got his first solo directing credit on this Italian swords & sandals epic, but you’ll have to squint hard to find evidence of the Spaghetti Western master soon to emerge. Rory Calhoun, of all people, is the token American marque name, and if his acting is no worse than the dubbed Italians surrounding him, at least the latter match up stylistically. The Colossus has already been erected when the film starts, but it’s no normal eight-story statue. It’s a hideout, a research lab, a prison, a dungeon, even a weapon; talk about your Seven Wonders! It’s all very silly stuff. To be fair, Leone does stage a few horse chases in Spanish landscapes that prefigure better movies to come (if only an Ennio Morricone score were in place).  And watch for a couple of spectacular shots of massed soldiers on the march, plus a few knowing visual winks at films Leone admired. But the basic story, dialogue & acting remain clunky beyond belief.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

THIRTY DAY PRINCESS (1934)


This better than average formula pic from Paramount stars Sylvia Sidney as a mittel-Europa Princess who gets the mumps on an official visit to NYC. Financial wheeler-dealer Edward Arnold (in likable mode, not like his later Capra villains) needs some royal glamour to put over her country’s big bond issue, a scheme opposed by sharpie newsman Cary Grant, so a lookalike is needed. When a perfect double is found (Sylvia Sidney, natch, as a struggling actress), complications ensue. Fortunately, no one pushes the gags too hard and the hand of co-scripter Preston Sturges is not only happily felt thru-out, but thematic & structural intimations of THE LADY EVE/’41 add an extra kick to this film’s quiet charms. Grant is still working out his screen persona, but he’s already quite the dashing presence and under Marion Gering, Sidney’s house director, the scene where the two Sidney’s finally meet makes for wonderfully grown-up character comedy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

IL SOSIA / PARTNER (1968)

Bernardo Bertolucci had the luck to be filming his one nouvelle vague piece of leftist political theater, using a band of socialist student activists, no less, just as thousands of socialist student activists were hatching the Paris riots of 1968. Talk about perfect timing! The film, which is like a genial cousin to one of Jean-Luc Godard’s didactic screeds, seems perfectly content to play loosely with threads of ideas about sanity, entitlement, politics, art and a nagging doppelgänger without adding up to much of anything. Though it’s equally possible that the pic’s charismatic star, Pierre Clementi at his most Mick Jaggarish, had little but gibberish to offer in the largely improvised script; he yells and repeats to diminishing effect. But Bertolucci, in a sort of adolescent fare-thee-well, displays such an embarrassment of visual pizzaz you hardly mind the barrage of dated sloganeering and jejune intellectualism.

NOTE: In an unusually absorbing Extra, Bertolucci goes into a few technical details. He bemoans the cut-rate Italian CinemaScope knockoff which is not an anamorphic process, but a bifuircated 35mm frame. And that may explain why he took the trouble, on the trick shots for Clementi & his double, to reach all the way back to the silent cinema days and precisely rewind the negative for all the double-exposures. Properly handled, this can still produce astoundingly believable alter-ego stuff, and the ones in PARTNER look great.

Friday, October 10, 2008

LES MISERABLES (1933)

Raymond Bernard needed a suitably grand subject after WOODEN CROSSES/’31, his fine and sorrowful WWI epic, but Victor Hugo’s extravagant plotting and romantic fatalism ill suit his strengths. It’s all handsomely produced and easily fills the three part/five-hour structure, but the characterizations have been flattened out in comparison to so many other versions. The 1935 Hollywood version has its appeal, but sadly two superb French silents, one from 1913 (at nearly the same length) and 1925 (at a full seven hours with heaps of narrative missing elsewhere) are all but impossible to get hold of. (Don’t forget Orson Welles’ fine 3.5 hour radio spectacular which is out in a CD edition.) Scene by scene, there are many fine things here, especially in the Paris riots in Part Three, but Bernard doesn’t seem to be one of those directors who can hold a convoluted, combustible plot in one hand while pulling off filigree work with the other. The film is worthy, but tame.

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

The fifth Harry Potter pic was the first without ‘Quidditch,’ the sport of Wizards which is something like a free-for-all game of polo on broomsticks that comes to nought since snatching the 'snitch' wins it all. The game never did make much sense, but under David Yates megging it’s the whole picture that doesn’t make much sense . . . and he’s already signed up to make the last three entries. Quick, somebody, snatch the snitch!  (Just for the record, Imelda Staunton makes a plus-perfect Dolores Umbridge.)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST (1936)


It took over a decade for Carole Lombard to fully hit her stride in the superb MY MAN, GODFREY/’36. And you can actually feel her reveling in her new found cinematic command even in this routine screwball romance from the same year. Suddenly, she can’t put a foot wrong. Hell, she can’t put an eyelash wrong. If only the film were a more worthy vehicle. The man in question, Preston Foster, simply hasn’t the star wattage to get away with his character’s creepy behavior, he comes off as a rich, manipulative stalker. Even taking into account the changing mores of sexual pursuit, there’s not much fun in watching these two trade humiliation gags before the eventual capitulation. Try Lombard's third pic from this year, THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS/'36.  It's no MY MAN, GODFREY, but it's almost worthy of her.

WE’RE NOT DRESSING (1934)



This loosey, goosey adaptation of THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON, the old standby socio-political dramedy about shipwrecked Brits where the servants & the masters trade roles, works pretty nicely as a coverlet for a Bing Crosby songfest that nears Dadaist lunacy. Hey, this is Paramount, home to W. C. Fields & the Marx Bros., so it’s hardly a surprise to find George Burns & Gracie Allen working (as scientists!) on the other side of the isle. Carole Lombard is the spoiled heiress Crosby aspires to, and somehow megger Norman Taurog managed to cram in eight Revel/Gordon songs for him in the zippy 77 minute running time; plus a couple more for a young, hot-to-trot Ethel Merman, with a face like a flat disc. You'd never think that a conventional romantic beach scene could work its way in here, but Bing & Carole pull it off without a strain. Nice going.

THIRST (1949)

Hard to take early Ingmar Bergman pic features the sort of simplistic Freudian dramatics he would refine and eventually (thrillingly) outgrow. It’s right after WWII, and both Europe and the couples we meet need to heal themselves. Alas, in Bergman’s spin the women are all hysterics and the men are self-centered bastards. The theme may be how can love survive, but the question feels irrelevant with a cast of characters you’d flee from. (Our lead is a ballerina too injured to dance. 'Nuff said.) A ‘daring’ for its time lesbian seduction adds nice period flavor (she’s the film’s one possible temptation) and a technically dazzling sequence through the aisles of a train stand out amongst all the neurasthenia, but it's hardly enough to offset the company you’re asked to keep.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

MAN OF THE WORLD (1931)

William Powell & Carole Lombard made two mediocre films during their brief marriage, and a classic after their amicable divorce, MY MAN GODFREY/’36. Go figure. This early effort enjoys the tart romanticism of writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and has reasonably lively direction for 1931 from Richard Wallace, but few surprises. Powell is a Paris-based conman who dupes naive Yankee tourists by keeping scandalous personal tidbits out of the press. Easy for him, he’s also the publisher. Then he falls for the niece of one of his victims (Lombard, natch) and vows to ‘fess up’ and go straight. But Wynne Gibson, once his main squeeze, and still his partner in putting on the squeeze, wises Powell up to himself. Will he make the big sacrifice? Will Lombard believe his new act. (These plot mechanics are right out of LA TRAVIATA: Act Two!) Lombard wasn’t much of an actress in ‘31, and Powell hasn’t purged himself of his stage diction, but it’s easy enough to watch and has a pleasing share of Paramount’s continental manner.

Monday, September 29, 2008

WORDS AND MUSIC (1948)

The quality of bio-pics on musicians from Hollywood’s Golden-Age grow proportionately worse in direct relation to the quality of their subjects. And those films don't get much worse than this nonsense on the great team of lyricist Lorenz Hart & composer Richard Rodgers. Poor Tom Drake, who plays Rodgers, gets eighth billing, go figure. And the musical numbers, which can save these things, rarely hit their mark. (Gene Kelly gets the booby prize for tossing out George Balanchine's choreography for his own ideas on an abridged SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE.) It was common practice to ignore proper song chronology, but M-G-M also manages to send Rodgers off to see Garbo’s CAMILLE/’37 as a silent movie circa 1927! They even show a clip with the sound turned off before a stage show troops on to perform songs from ON YOUR TOES which actually was on B’way . . . in 1937! The finale features Perry Como, handsome, but bland playing a fellow named Eddie Anders. That is, during the film story he had been Eddie Anders, now he’s suddenly being intro’d as . . . Perry Como! Earlier, Judy Garland shows up to sing at an early ‘30s Hollywood party, not as a character, but as her 1948 self. Wha? Maybe it’s all some Brechtian distancing device. In the film, Hart drinks himself to death because he’s too short to get laid. (Forget that the notoriously priapic Mickey Rooney’s ‘ex’ was Ava Gardner!) The true story of Rodgers & Hart is one of the great heartbreakers of backstage Broadway and could make a superb film. Yet even in this mishmash, Hart’s true fault-line can be seen ever so briefly during an early scene between Rooney & Drake as they play "Manhattan" at the piano. It happens fast, but watch as Rooney makes a quick pass at his young colleague (more than a pass, it's love) and then for Drake’s delicate, but complete rejection. The times wouldn’t let them go into the real story behind the story, but they knew the score.

LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (2006)

This Ari Kaurismäki fable on loneliness, stoicism, betrayal & redemption is typically fine, but a couple of cuts below its superb predecessor, THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST/’02. The pic boasts Kaurismäki’s usual mix of the sad, the comic & the pathetic and allows a full display of his mastery of composition & color (largely on ‘found’ sets) while letting him run rings around the Hollywood editing demons with pacing that’s as deliberate as it is mesmerizing. But the fable -- about a listless & largely friendless security guard who can’t allow himself to believe that the attractive woman dating him up is using him to set up a robbery – doesn’t acquire the weight needed to set off the emotional notes that make his best pics more than the sums of their parts. At 80 minutes, there isn’t an ounce of fat on it, but a bit more flesh might not hurt.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

EASTERN PROMISES (2006)

Viggo Mortensen & David Cronenberg, the star & helmer of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE/’05 , reunited for this Russian mob in London tale, but didn’t get the critical or commercial acclaim they deserved. Too violent, too ambitious, too many plot tangents, too many impenetrable foreign accents. True enough, yet this is a rare recent release that suffers from being two sizes too small for its own good. The main story revamps Max Ophuls’ masterful THE RECKLESS MOMENT/’49 (remade as THE DEEP END/’02) with Mortensen playing the mob man who turns gentlemanly protector when Naomi Watts finds herself incomprehensibly drawn inside gang warfare. But the intricacies of internecine mob conflict, police investigations, ‘made-men’ and moles, White Slave traffic and a smashing turn from Vincent Cassel as a sexually ambiguous mob scion simply can’t be serviced within the 100 minute running time. Where’s the Director’s Cut when we really need one? Or is Cronenberg afraid of the epic story that’s staring him in the face? Surprisingly, the big set piece with a nude Mortensen under deadly assault in a steamy bathhouse is pretty rotten action filmmaking. Great ass on Viggo, though!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

TO JOY (1949)

This early effort from Ingmar Bergman already shows his sure technical grasp, but what a conventional story it tells . . . or does it? An orchestra rehearsal is interrupted by an emergency phone call for one of the players. The news is grim and we flash back seven years, charting the marital ups & down of this husband & his wife, both violinists in the orchestra. He owns a difficult artistic personality, but not, alas, the talent to break past his modest success. The wife accepts it, but he can’t. But what makes this all proto-Bergmanesque is the sexual gamesmanship and casual acceptance of infidelity. You can almost feel the full Bergman persona (no pun intended) about to burst out. It’s also worth watching just to see Victor Sjöström make like Lionel Barrymore as the crusty, but benign conductor and for the stunningly fluid final shot which raises the beautifully realized musical sequences into a full-fledged emotional catharsis. Oh, and the leading actor, Stig Olin; he's Lena Olin’s dad.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006)

KING goes too far past the fact-inspired story of Giles Foden’s novel about the Odd Couple relationship between African dictator Idi Amin and the remarkably un-idealistic young Scottish physician who became his confidant & minister. Moving rapidly from one unlikely situation to another, the film tries to walk a fine line between farce & tragedy, but we're asked to ‘buy into’ too many hard-to-swallow plot turns. And it hardly helps that megger Kevin MacDonald employs such a pointlessly busy camera style. (He once made a Howard Hawks docu, but apparently learned nothing from it.) Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin swept the awards, but who couldn’t have aced this guy? As the politically naïf doctor, James McAvoy never condescends to temper the hubristic arrogance of his out-of-his-depth civilian, but he can’t make a viable drama out of his irresponsibility. There’s a better story and certainly a better film hiding in here; maybe it’s buried in something a bit closer to the facts.

NOTE: Those in need of a primer on the insidious brand of genteel anti-Semitism so pervasive amongst the type of uppercrust Brits who wrote & directed this pic can sample the technique during the Entebbe hostage crisis sequence that's tastelessly used to juice up the finale. In this film's telling, the Palestinian airplane hijackers separate all the passengers into Israelis & non-Israelis, but the real-life hijackers (German led Palestinians) were far less particular (or PC) and simply separated Jews from non-Jews.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

WOODEN CROSSES (1931)



The international literary & cinematic success of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30 which humanized and even sympathized with the German soldier of WWI redounded in this French response. Raymond Bernard, a largely forgotten exemplar of the ‘cinema of quality’ despised by le nouvelle vague succumbs at first to character & situational exposition that does have an officially sanctioned smell to it. But soon enough, his use of archetypal soldiers works to not only accentuate the universality of war & its losses, but in terrifyingly locating the mind-set of commanding officers who sacrifice abstract numbers of men for meters of ground. Once we reach the front, the accumulation of realistic detail and the technical audacity of Bernard’s war scenes overwhelm any nitpicking. The handheld camera work is particularly unexpected as are some of the truly dangerous looking explosions and general savagery, to say nothing of the painfully nihilistic outlook. A remarkable find and remarkably modern.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

STOPOVER TOKYO (1957)

A real dog. Edmund O’Brien runs a phony coal company in Japan as a front for Commie buds who are planning on bombing the dedication ceremony of a Nippon/American peace pavilion. Robert Wagner and Ken Scott are undercover CIA agents who are trying to stop the carnage and get undercover with airline agent Joan Collins . . . if they don’t get steam-sauna’d to death! Will Joan choose the guy who’s taller than she is or the guy who’s prettier than she is? Will that relentlessly cheerful orphan girl change her tune when she is told her father was gunned down? Will the technicians match the studio interiors with the location footage? Novelist John P. Marquand of Mr. Moto fame can’t be held responsible for this hopelessly stiff adaptation of his work which mercifully reps the one & only directing gig of hack writer Richard L. Breen.

A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995)

Unlike the similar troll Martin Scorsese took thru Italian cinema, this earlier docu isn’t as mainstream (or obvious). That’s all to the good, as the quirky, out-of-the-way, half-forgotten titles play nicely with more established classics in this overview of the American cinema. But Scorsese’s choices are so selective in putting forth sweeping ideas about the shifts in the American cinema, that he could have ‘proven’ just about anything that caught his fancy. He’s trying to have it both ways, general studies and personal quirks, and it turns all his arguments to mush. Film students would get more insights thumbing thru David Thomson’s BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, but that doesn't come with film clips. It’s telling that in his comparison between two films that look at the industry, the smooth, but overrated THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL/’52 and the awkward, but undervalued TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN/’62, Scorsese mentions their common Producer, Director & Star, but not their common scripter.* Even on more congenial territory, he discusses Douglas Sirk’s themes in isolation from his extraordinary stylistics in composition, color, pace, mise-en-scène, and use of indicative rather than Method acting thereby missing both the point and the greatness of Sirk's work. At least, his reaction to Kubrick’s embalmed BARRY LYNDON/’75 helps to explain his own misconceived THE AGE OF INNOCENCE/’93.

*CONTEST: Name that writer and the two other films he wrote that are referenced in this survey to win our usual prize, a Write-Up on any NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958)

Akira Kurosawa’s film about a Princess on-the-run, her noble protector and the two venal peasants who are more interested in gold than glory, has been overanalyzed and overrated because George Lucas used some of the film’s key elements in the original STAR WARS film.  (You’d barely know it without a plot & character guide in hand.*) Compared to his two preceding pics, THRONE OF BLOOD/’57 and THE LOWER DEPTHS/’57, this is something of a lark, yet the scale of the film hardly suggests comedy. Kurosawa may have been overly concerned in filling the frame on his first WideScreen effort, hitting a low point with a lumpen effort during a Dionysian fire festival, but he shows off his best form in two smashing action sequences (a horse chase & a duel with spears) for perennial lead, Toshiro Mufune. It’s an entertaining work, but Kurosawa would easily best this in YOJIMBO/’61 (which more directly inspired A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) and it’s wildly underrated sequel SUNJURO/’62.

*One element that really does reflect STAR WARS is the laughably inadequate female lead, Misa Uehara, who soon left the biz.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

THE QUEEN (2006)

It’s hard to think of a helmer, certainly of another British helmer, who brings Stephen Frears’ comfort zone to such a wide range of pics. DANGEROUS LIAISONS/’88, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE/’85, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS/’02, THE SNAPPER (a personal favorite)/’93, HIGH FIDELITY/2000, THE GRIFTERS/’90; a display of genre crossing ease and consistency unheard of these days. While Helen Mirren received the lion’s share of critical praise (rightly so, her perf must have been the despair of other actresses out with a showy project in ‘06), Frears, working from Peter Morgan’s sharp & funny script, turns what might have been mere gossipy fun into something smart, touching and even thoughtful. The now famous sequence between the Queen and a magnificent stag is flat out breathtaking moviemaking. The basic idea -- how the death of Princess Di forced Queen Elizabeth II and the untested Prime Minister Blair to bring out the best in each other -- reaps considerably more rewards than the sum of its parts. Special points to Roger Allam as Robin, the Queen’s main aide, who’s such a comfort he makes you want to say, "I’ll take one of those."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

PINERO (2001)

Even at a bare hour & a half, writer/megger Leon Ichaso has to pad like crazy with a blistering array of useless stylistics (off-center handheld camera feints, a time-shifting narrative, pointless flip-flops from color to B&W), to camouflage the paucity of material in the life & times of writer/provocateur Miguel Piñero. This modestly gifted conman, thief & playwright is presented as a sort of Puerto Rican/American ‘Beat’ artist, but the comparison wilts. Jack Kerouac, for all his faults, caught the Zeitgeist of a whole generation, Piñero was more like a flavor-of-the-month. Benjamin Bratt makes all the right moves to capture the dark soul of a shallow talent, but he never gets under the skin of the man. If that was their aim, showing that no one, not even Piñero himself, could find a path to a man with no center-of-gravity, they missed. To see what’s not happening in this film, try the superb BEFORE NIGHT FALLS.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

THE RETURN (2003)

This devastating Russian film delivers the sort of shock you get from a first encounter with a terrifying short story, something by Poe or perhaps Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY. It’s a remarkable debut for helmer Andrei (Andrey) Zvyagintsev, and it deserved it’s Silver Bear from that year’s Venice Film Festival. Yet, he’s made only one film since. We’re in one of those miserable backwater Russian towns when a long absent father returns to his wife and two sons. The boys have so little memory of their dad, they barely know if he really is who he says he is. So, when father & sons go off on some ill-defined camping trip, we can’t be sure if this is an ill-conceived attempt at family re-bonding or if the sinister tone of Dad’s barely submerged violence will turn tragic. Chillingly, any idea you may come up with will prove inadequate to the shocking revelations that play out in a story with elements of religious mythology and long buried family secrets. The acting, formal use of space and tautly held pace play out in relentless, and bleakly ironic, fashion. The film is a masterpiece.

DUCK YOU SUCKER (1972)


Sergio Leone’s penultimate film has long played odd-man-out on his short C.V., but the DVD restoration earns it a place alongside the master’s Spaghetti Westerns. (It easily bests the problematic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA/’84.) Don’t be put off by the dreadful title or by Leone’s apparent disinterest in the pic’s opening reels which detail Rod Steiger’s painfully inauthentic Mexican peasant whose band of family & ‘have-nots’ rob the ‘haves’ while political revolutions roil about them. The film comes together with the appearance of James Coburn’s disillusioned Irish revolutionary. He’s a demolitions expert out to ply the silver mines, but he quickly forms a wary partnership with Steiger’s bandito. Then, when a botched bank heist unexpectedly makes Steiger a reluctant revolutionary hero, the tone of the film darkens and Leone’s theme comes into focus: ‘Revolution? Phooey!’ Leone didn’t plan on directing this one, but he smartly navigates a mix of legend, commerce & political expedience like a third Taviani brother. The scale of the film escalates to epic proportions, with mind-numbing feats of directorial logistics which play in uneasy equilibrium with more intimate scenes. Leone can’t quite parse Coburn’s complicated Irish backstory, part JULES AND JIM and part MICHAEL COLLINS, but it’s a small price to pay for so much magnificence.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)



This Billy Wilder/Harry Kurnitz adaptation of Agatha Christie’s sturdy courtroom suspenser serves up a slew of stale comeback lines, and the expository flashback sequences are carelessly directed, but it’s also a terrific, crowd-pleasing entertainment. As the indifferent wife of a likely murderer, Marlene Dietrich gets one of her few first-rate post-WWII roles while Charles Laughton rises to spectacular form as an aging barrister. His attack from the bench on Marlene Dietrich’s veracity is a pure bit of vocal coup de théâtre. The rest of the cast consistently deliver a level of heightened stage dramatics which perfectly suits the material, including first-billed Tyrone Power, who looks sadly worn in his final completed role. By film’s end, even the shticky horseplay between Laughton & his nurse (played by his wife, Elsa Lancaster) leaves you grinning.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)

Can’t someone start a fund to stop Ron Howard from turning great film ideas into piles of mush? As John Nash, a Nobel Prize worthy, schizophrenic Princeton mathematician, Russell Crowe shines, particularly in the early scenes where his youthful makeup is startlingly effective. But Akiva Goldsman’s script turns distressingly obvious, following the hackneyed tropes of a classic addiction pic* after teasing us with an imaginative, if hard to swallow, middle act that plays like an M. Night Shyamalan reject. Howard’s cast may have looked fine on paper, but Jennifer Connelly makes zero impact as the dutiful wife while the crew of college buds might as well be auditioning for a Lite beer commercial. Christopher Plummer has fun taking a mighty sock to the jaw, but nothing can make up for the sappy ending (a standing ‘O’ at the Nobel Prize ceremony?) or for James Horner’s appalling music score, heavy on the uplifting harp glissandi.

*It's not that those 'addiction tropes' don't work, they always work. It's that they're being asked to support a deeper and far more ambitious dramatic goal then they can sustain. It's one of the main reasons the big teary pay-off feels so distressingly cheap.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

DIE NIBELUNGEN: SIEGRIED / KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE (1924)

The Fritz Lang version of this indigestible, logic-starved national German epic takes 5 hours (in two parts) and weighs a ton. Compared to the undiluted pleasures of MABUSE/'22 or SPIONE/'28, it's a long pull. The script, by his then wife Thea Von Harbou, is her usual mix of proto-fascism and misogyny, with enough pageantry, violence & nihilism to last a Reich. And yet . . . amid the insanity and over-encrusted designs (Klimt for Part One: SIEGFRIED; and Ali Baba for Part Two: KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE), there’s a jaw-dropping mix of intensity & rigorous artistic conception that’s been nearly as influential to the epic film (from Sergei Eisenstein to Peter Jackson) as Lang’s METROPOLIS/'27 has been to futuristic sci-fi. Just keep in mind that many of the old critical raptures over this very unmatched pair of films are based largely on heavily cut 3-hour versions that move far more quickly than this restored edition. That means you now get two extra hours of Expressionistic eye-ball rolling, though it does give you a shot at catching Kriemhild blink once or twice. Lang must have hypnotized her.

NOTE: As is often the case with DVD transfers of silent films, you can significantly improve/boost the grey scale by tamping down a bit on your brightness levels and more than a bit on your contrast level. The improvement is particularly noticeable in reducing 'blasting' on the actors faces so that you can better 'read' their expressions. No complaints on the superb reconstruction or performance of the original 1924 Gottfried Huppertz symphonic score. Turn up the volume and enjoy. (NOTE: A newer restoration using better elements came out on a KINO DVD on 2012.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

3:10 TO YUMA (2007)

For most of its running time, Delmer Daves’ original 3:10 TO YUMA/’57 was a taut two-hander with Van Heflin and Glenn Ford playing psychological cat & mouse in a tense hostage meller. The action, when it finally happened as Heflin escorted his prisoner to the train station through a gauntlet of firepower, was both tremendously exciting and believable. James Mangold’s ruinously expanded version adds too many plotlines and plenty of action at regular intervals in an attempt to raise the stakes (and violence quotient) for a modern audience. With Christian Bale & Russell Crowe flattening out Heflin & Ford’s tasty characterizations, sub-textual flavorings get placed front & center, and the script’s tragic emendations feel unearned. Daves’ original, a sharp little morality tale that’s probably his best piece of direction, now groomed into the usual bloated Western gun-fest.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Mangold might have helped his cause with a role swap for Bale & Crowe.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Our poster is the tipoff, it’s for original 3:10 from 1957.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE (1947)

The trio from that fine mordant murder mystery GREEN FOR DANGER/’46 (see below), Trevor Howard, Griffth Jones & Sally Gray, co-star in this considerably bleaker Brit-noir about an ex-WWII pilot who’s framed for murder by his pal in the black market trade. It’s certainly the darkest thing Noel Langley ever scripted (he was the lead writer on THE WIZARD OF OZ/’39) and it’s well directed (in pieces) by Alberto Calvalcanti, a Brazilian émigré whose films (the few available) never quite add up. (He’s really only known for the portmanteau pic DEAD OF NIGHT/’45 and for his tasty, but awkwardly abridged NICHOLAS NICKLEBY/’47) In addition to the well caught underworld atmosphere (deeply textured chiaroscuro lensing from Otto Heller), there are a few superb Music Hall sequences (dig those footlight accents) which make one yearn for a chance to see Calvalcanti’s backstager, CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE/’44.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)

A bargain-basement & painfully sobersides version of Richard Matheson’s influential novel. (Matheson disowned his own screenplay after it was largely reworked.) Re-filmed as THE OMEGA MAN/'71 and recently under the original title of I AM LEGEND/'07, the viral epidemic/end-of-the-world scenario needs a lot more style then megger Sidney Salkow brings to the mix. The budget & narrative structure might have served for a half-hour TWILIGHT ZONE episode, but spread over an hour & a half, with a restrained Vincent Price taking the lead as well as narrating, it’s as draggy as the all Living Dead supporting cast.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

MIDNIGHT (1939)

Inspired screwball comedy (co-written by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett) strands Claudette Colbert on the streets of Paris in a satin gown with only 25 centimes in her matching bag. But that’s enough. Don Ameche is the soft-hearted cabbie who wants to rescue her, Francis Lederer is the soigné playboy who wants to carry her off, Mary Astor is his jealous mistress and a wonderfully sly John Barrymore (in one of his best late perfs) is the wise cuckolded hubby who pulls the strings to get all the pieces back in place. Wilder (and for that matter, Preston Sturges, who put Colbert to similar use in his classic THE PALM BEACH STORY/'42) hated Mitchell Leisen’s helming, but he’s at his best here with a gently rolling pace and some wonderful set-ups from lenser Charles Lang. Check out the low angle shot with the suitcase & a nude Colbert blanketed in a hotel bed. Nice.

Friday, August 29, 2008

CASINO ROYALE (2006)

This overpraised entry in the James Bond canon scores big with its new leading man, Daniel Craig, who stokes a hefty dose of bruising masculinity.  (Think Steve McQueen, but Land's End rather than MidWest.)  Like Sean Connery, his ballsy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks nature works as ballast against the posh displays of worldly perks & pin-ups. This Bond isn't merely entitled to the good stuff, he's earned them.  But megger Martin Campbell, who nicely intro’d Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in GOLDENEYE, can’t do much with the starved narrative (poker & terrorism?) and rarely bothers to properly lay out the action stunts. He skips too many set-up shots so we miss out on the fun of playing along when Bond pulls off his impossible escapes. It’s all crash, blast & bludge, plus the ho-hum addition of overused, underwhelming digital effects. As the latest Bond girl, Eva Green upholds the long tradition of blah acting & little chemistry with her man.  But check out the early sparks between Craig & Catherina Murino, who shines in the antediluvian role of first lay/first slay. Some things never change.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007)

Veteran megger Sidney Lumet can’t get a break. After decades of flops on pics good & bad (okay, mostly bad), he does his best work in years only to see a similarly-themed pic nab the good reviews & Box-Office right before his opens. DEVIL is hardly a fresh idea, two estranged brothers come together to rob the family store and find that the best laid plans . . . , well you know. The echoes of Mamet & Shepard and the shifting narrative time-line are distractingly clever, but Lumet attacks the myriad twists, tropes & violence with relish and at long last manages to properly cast an entire movie. (No small thing from a mug who once had Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman & Matthew Broderick star as Grandpa, Dad & Son.) As the ‘successful’ son, Philip Seymour Hoffman does a sort of scary Beau Bridges thing that plays beautifully while Ethan Hawke, with a few crucial pounds back on his frame, is better than he’s been in years as the sad-sack kid brother. Lumet takes the last act awfully seriously, but the tragic events play out with a brio that’s anything but a downer. It’s all tremendously alive. And so is Lumet after all these years.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

SPIDER (2002)

All the hip stylistics David Cronenberg uses to season his pics can’t hide the basically old-fashioned nature of this heavy dose of reheated Freudian character revelation. Ralph Fiennes mumbles incoherently (using the subtitles clears things up, but surely we’re supposed to miss half the words, no?) as a mentally disturbed patient in a halfway house working thru some extremely dense childhood memories. He literally walks around his flashbacks, playing an occasional stand-in role as he removes veil after veil covering a long-buried secret about the death of a parent (Miranda Richardson & Gabriel Byrne are Mom & Dad) and the culpability of . . . whom? Patrick McGrath’s self-adapted novel must have read better than it plays on screen.

ROMANCE (1999)

Catherine Breillat’s disquisition on the search to find love & sex in a single package comes with de rigueur NC-17 trimmings (pubes/erections/actual oral/simulated copulation/modest S&M bondage) which neither titillate, arouse nor inform. (They do engender a bit of ribald amusement for non-French speakers who must peep thru subtitles placed, naughtily, right in front of the action, so to speak.) A comic tone seems implied (the sick joke finale certainly leans to farce), but the screenplay’s fatuous philosophical blathering kills off any response, comic or erotic. Perhaps if the girl in question weren’t so boyishly flat-chested or deigned to comb the hair off her face? Or if she noticed that her putative lover was probably gay. Or maybe if she cracked a smile when her new, unattractive lover (Mr Bondage) claimed not to remember each of his 10,000 lovers. (What, forgot Mme. 845?) Even the glossy magazine look of the film turns into overkill with one over-composed scene canceling out the last while we wait for the next excruciating character revealing apercu to land with a thud. And once Jack the Ripper is referenced, we know that Breillat has LULU/PANDORA’S BOX in mind. It’s a bit of a reach.

MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006)

As anyone who’s visited Versailles knows, it’s one big, beautiful bore. Acres and acres of mind-numbing order & ostentation. Much the same fate awaits attempts at dramatizing this eponymous ill-fated Queen and megger Sofia Coppola seems to know it. Hence the anachronistic music, behavior & dialogue she uses as ineffective ammunition to blast out of the Fragonard mural we’re trapped in. You hit the same wall over at that other revolution, where vivifying Nicholas & Alexandra brings up the same damn`problem; these rulers don’t seem to do anything. All the action is going on around them while Coppola is laying out the September issue of Paris Vogue. Alas, you can’t thumb thru a movie. (Actually, with Fast-Forwarding, I guess you can!)

THE KITE RUNNER (2007)

Marc Forster, who over-egged the sentimental pudding on FINDING NEVERLAND (see below), falls into the same tar pit on this adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s much loved book. Scene by scene, there’s real emotional pull in this story of boyhood friends from Afghanistan (scion & servant) who are torn apart by class, violence, guilt & war, but it doesn’t add up. Forster’s style might play better if there were some consistency in the performances (we seem to be watching three competing acting companies), and he’s technically unequal to the demands of the final act when the story lurches into suspense mode. Even at those moments when the film does get to you, it all feels pasteurized, like a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.

FIXED BAYONETS! (1951)


Hard-boiled writer/director Samuel Fuller was still working ‘under the radar’ @ Fox when he made a pair of starless low-budget Korean War pics. (THE STEEL HELMET was the mate.) This one’s a Thermopylae inspired tale (think ‘The 300') of warriors coming of age during a Rear Guard action. A small platoon of 48 men are left to hold a narrow pass so that 15,000 soldiers can stage a successful retreat. A typically fierce Korean winter is claustrophobically staged on a few woebegone studio sets with unconvincing cycloramas & special effect miniatures making do for landscapes & explosions. But as the film goes on, with gallons of over-articulated Fulleresque philosophy-of-war dialogue, the sets take on a stylized qualify reminiscent of some long lost Frank Borgaze silent film from the late ‘20s. The whole effect is odd . . . and oddly compelling.

THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)


Blake Edwards often needs a reel or two to get his films up & running, but this earnest study of a marriage tumbling into alcoholism takes a full hour to find its footing. The problem is partly in tone (J. P. Miller’s klunky adaptation of his own tv script), and partly in Jack Lemmon. Post-THE APARTMENT/’60, Lemmon accumulated a veritable actor’s armor of tics & mannerisms, a security blanket he was unwilling to lose. In his very first film, the delightful IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU/’54, George Cukor advised him to stop acting, but it didn’t take. Once the arc of the film demands showy scenes (DTs & such), Lemmon is able to focus his scattershot technique powerfully, but you’ll hang in there for Lee Remick’s uncommon grace in capturing a debased soul unwilling to take a chance on recovery. There’s nice support from Charles Bickford as her sorrowful dad and from Jack Klugman’s AA sponsor, who finds a bit of character in an unactable role.

ANIMATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA (1924-1980)

Although the bluntly functional title suggests buried treasure, this massive 4 DVD compendium of anti-capitalist & anti-fascist animation & mixed media from the good ol’/bad ol’ days of the USSR is an enormous disappointment. Any hopes for the visual flair & compositional achievements of those dynamic posters and advertisements from the early days of the Soviet Republic and the N.E.P. experiment with limited entrepreneurial activity are only fleetingly seen. And the films released after WWII all have the depressing air of officially vetted World’s Fair exhibitions. The collective socio-politico-cultural thinking & artistic style is numbing.

Monday, August 4, 2008

THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1973)

John Huston trims this espionage/sting operation thriller to the bone in a classy attempt to add a bit of flavorful abstraction to its well trod tropes. Paul Newman, with a come-and-go Aussie accent, plays an undercover agent who goes to jail (and breaks out) in order to expose a network of bad guys. There’s real pleasure in just sitting back and reveling in the sheer professionalism of everyone involved. Huston and lenser Oswald Morris make magic with the Irish landscape in the sixth of their seven collaborations and there’s a fine cast of eccentric Brits on display (James Mason, Ian Bannen, Michael Hordern, Harry Andrews, et al.). Plus, loads of fun in trying to untangle Dominique Sanda’s English. But it sure don’t add up to much, new or otherwise.

HOLIDAY (1938)

Just before fleeing to B’way for a quick career rejuvenation via Philip Barry’s THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Katherine Hepburn freelanced @ Columbia in this earlier (and even better) Barry play. Unlike PHILY (also helmed by George Cukor), which is all about taming Kate the Great to make her safe for the hoi polloi, HOLIDAY sticks to its meritocratic P.O.V. right to the end, and still feels completely modern & uncompromised. Cary Grant, unmatchable in his final turn as a tousled youth, plays a rising ‘comer’ in financial circles who wants to get off the fast track. (He’s something of a precursor to Somerset Maugham’s Larry Darrell in THE RAZOR’S EDGE, so we get a chance to savor what Grant and helmer George Cukor might have made of that.) Surprisingly, the rest of the cast (Kate included) get a run for their money from the 1930 version of HOLIDAY. As early talkies go, director Edward Griffith keeps it pretty fluid, Ann Harding matches up quite nicely in the Hepburn role of an unconventional girl in a Rockefeller-rich family, and Mary Astor makes a far more formidable rival as her just engaged kid sister. Edward Everett Horton is delightful as a bohemian Professor in both versions while Lew Ayers (only in the ‘38 film) is infinitely touching & sad as the alcoholic kid brother who lacks the spirit to stand up for himself. The '38 version, which is beautifully shot by Franz Planer, also benefits from not having PHILY’s suffocating M-G-M polish and holds an unexpected emotional charge, particularly with college age audiences.

DOUBLE-BILL: In addition to the earlier version of HOLIDAY?'30. another fine Barry work, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM/'32, is something of a follow-up/’what if’ take on HOLIDAY. It imagines what might have happened if someone rather like the Cary Grant character had married the ‘wrong’ girl after all. Ann Harding & director Edward Griffith, of the earlier HOLIDAY film, join Myrna Loy & Leslie Howard on this one.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER (2002)

Rife with Big Name cameos and pee-pee jokes, Mike Myers' third go-round with his ‘Mod’ alter-ego has a reasonably effective ratio of laughs to pointless mayhem. The opening reels play best with an elaborate parody of a 70s James Bond action sequence that’s revealed as Coming Attractions for an Austin Powers inspired movie starring Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey & Danny De Vito. (The multiple guest appearances begin to feel like Hollywood name dropping.) This is topped by a ‘swinging’ musical number that’s half M-G-M classic and half UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG nouvelle vague. After this, it’s hit & miss with little time for the old regulars or anything resembling a story to follow. That’s part of the joke, of course, but with no narrative to lean on, the jokes have to hit or you’re in trouble fast. Michael Caine was an inspired idea to play Dad, but Myers' new character, the eponymous Goldmember, doesn’t raise a single laugh and, in hindsight, plays like a foreboding omen of Myer’s disastrous follow-up flop, THE LOVE GURU.

Friday, August 1, 2008

HIS MAJESTY O’KEEFE (1953)

Burt Lancaster ended his series of swashbucklers @ Warners with this South Sea adventure that hides an unlikely anti-capitalism fable under the usual derring-do & horseplay. A brave bit of subversive subtext for mainstream Hollywood in the mid-‘50s. Lancaster, set adrift after a mutiny, lands on a tiny tropical isle where the natives refuse to gather more coconut oil than they need to just get by. But Burt dreams of bigger things and has to learn to respect the natural order of things thru hard knocks & a couple of insurrections. Naturally, he figures it all out just in time to save the dark skin natives from a slavery racket, find a white gal to wed and be acclaimed as King of his happy fief. If only the execution came within striking distance of what Lancaster & his regular producing/writing team of Harold Hecht & James Hill must have seen in the material. Alas, his co-stars are personality-free non-entities (except for Archie Savage’s dangerously ambivalent islander, Boogulroo) and not even the smooth & colorful lensing from Otto Heller can disguise incompetent megging from Byron Haskin.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

VENGEANCE IS MINE (1979)

Shohei Imamura’s sensual and horrendous study of a conman/serial killer, played in steely fashion by Ken Ogata, is a cool-eyed study of a psychotic madman. Using a fictionalized account of real events as source material, the pic is structured in a series of semi-sequential flashbacks. While too many dysfunctional family issues are used to ‘explain’ Ogata’s portrait of a nihilistic killing machine, the film is highly effective within these dated psychological limitations. Imamura handles a variety of techniques with nary a stylistic bump and keeps us both fascinated and appalled without milking the natural urge to identify with any lead character. It's at quite a remove from even the toughest Hollywood film covering similar terrain. Certainly not for all tastes, but not easy to shake off.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934)


William Powell & Clark Gable are best pals. Myrna Loy’s the only gal they’ve ever loved and they’re the only guys she’s ever . . . oh, you know. DESIGN FOR LIVING? Nope, that was @ Paramount the previous year. This one finds the guys, who grew up together in a tough neighborhood, now on opposite sides of the law. It all comes to a head when D. A. Powell has to prosecute mobster Gable on a murder charge, and just when Powell’s running for governor! But the kicker is that Loy unintentionally ordered up the hit! It all plays out with tremendous swank (did Loy ever look better?) with Gable at his best (watch him during the trial) and Powell showing a level of conflicting emotional involvement he usually held in check. There’s a snap & dramatic charge to this one. It doesn’t hurt that producer David Selznick, helmer W. S. Van Dyke & especially lenser James Wong Howe put out a strikingly dark & handsome product @ M-G-M where chiaroscuro was a dirty word. You have to put up with a cornball prologue (Mickey Rooney is hopeless as a pre-teen Gable) and Loy turns grandly noble for the coda, but it’s still a plum.

NOTE: This is the film that real life gangster Charles Dillinger just had to see. The cops got him coming out of the theater. And listen to that catchy nightclub tune from Rodgers & Hart. Sound familiar? With a new lyric it became BLUE MOON.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

FOYLE’S WAR (2002-07)

This British set WWII homefront drama turned out exemplary tv for a remarkable 19 episodes over five seasons. A deceptively quiet show about a chief detective whose local investigations get entangled with the war effort, it constantly worked thru morally grey areas bringing a sharp focus to the skewed priorities endemic, possibly necessary, in wartime. The regular cast and guest stars were uniformly superb with Michael Kitchen’s Foyle reaching Alec Guinness levels of subtle revelation. Over the run, his two aides, the delicious & deliciously named Honeysuckle Weeks and the gallantly handsome Anthony Howell, endearingly started to pick up some of Kitchen’s mannerisms. Modern films about WWII can be far more realistic than the old classics, but they miss so much of the essential spirit of the times which many of the films made on the spot often caught. At it’s best FOYLE’S WAR, especially in the first two seasons, honestly balanced the old & new values.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

DOUBLE WEDDING (1937)

William Powell & Myrna Loy had their best paired outings when W. S. (One-Take Woody) Van Dyke was calling the shots. But this strenuous screwball comedy was megged by M-G-M’s ultra-faceless house-hack Richard Thorpe. Powell plays an artsy free-spirit who falls for Loy’s Miss Prim ‘n’ Proper. Unable to get her to loosen up, Powell feigns interest in Loy’s kid sister (the forgettable Florence Rice) hoping to make Loy jealous and also put a little passion into Rice’s phlegmatic beau (a likable John Beal). ("YUMPH!" is the term used here . . . it didn’t catch on.) It’s all too cute for words in the strained manner of second-rate screwballs, but halfway along the script stops trying so hard and the tremendous natural charm the leads find in each other proves contagious enough to carry us along.

SAWDUST AND TINSEL (1953)

Ingmar Bergman found his distinctive voice and style in this story about a traveling circus. We always hear about people who run away to join the circus, but here it’s the circus owner and his much younger mistress who'd like to run away from their treadmill lives and stay in town. The owner hopes to reconnect with the wife and sons he deserted years ago, while his mistress falls for the matinee idol at the local theater. But getting off the road isn't as easy as it sounds, and maybe they don't really want to. Structurally, the film is a series of revelations, some direct, some oblique, all pitch-perfect and memorable, thanks in no small part to Bergman’s new cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. It's their first collaboration and he's already searching out visual landscapes in faces and bringing a daringly varied approach to lighting. (Bergman would alternate between Nykvist & his previous lenser, Gunnar Fischer, thru the '50s.) From our perspective, the film is overly clinical, even a bit obvious, in its depictions of egos & ids, but refinements in action & image are already in sight. (And watch for an amazing bit of psychological cinematic legerdemain with a cat.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

THE HOAX (2006)

The story of how a struggling fiction author named Clifford Irving almost got away with his fabricated "as told to" Autobiography of Howard Hughes is so rife with dramatic & satiric possibilities that it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for Lasse Hallström’s reasonably effective film. A remarkably worn Richard Gere opts for a dynamic quality that misses the seductive mode Irving displayed at the time. He’s certainly no match for Alfred Molina as his respect-challenged researcher. Molina invests his part with more facets than a diamond, hitting notes of satire, panic, bullying & empathy to effect both hilarious & pathetic. Everyone else in the fine cast struggles to balance farcical notes with realistic ones and you can’t help but wish Preston Sturges were around, along with his stock company of comic character actors, to turn this all into a sort of literary GREAT MCGINTY.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

EVELYN PRENTICE (1934)


After MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, Myrna Loy & William Powell co-starred in 12 more pics, but this third outing ill suits them. Powell’s a high-powered defense attorney with no time for his wife (Loy) or child (an insufferable Cora Sue Collins), but he does have time for glam defendants like the debuting Rosalind Russell. Loy finds out and flirts with a smoothie conman who is really out to trap her in a blackmail scam. Loy accidentally shoots the creep and then his old flame takes the rap! Naturally, Powell takes on the hopeless case and manages enough somersaults in ethics & logic to get everyone off the hook. Loy certainly looks swell, but you feel her discomfort assaying Norma Shearer/Joan Crawford turf. William K. Howard had just helmed the elegant & imaginative Jerome Kern musical, THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE @ M-G-M, but he can’t do much with this one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

THE GOOD GERMAN (2007)

In contrast to his recent skirmishes with avant garde filmmaking (FULL FRONTAL, BUBBLE), Steven Soderbergh goes boldly devant here, with results that are equally desultory. The idea was to shoot a Berlin-based/post-WWII murder mystery in period style (think A FOREIGN AFFAIR or THE THIRD MAN), but Soderbergh gets the look all wrong (deliberately?) with a contrasty, over-exposed glare that’s half GERMANY YEAR ZERO & half MILDRED PIERCE. In any event, the Berlin setting is only a cover for yet one more trip to Raymond Chandler-Land, with George Clooney going all Phillip Marlowe on us. (He gets beaten to a pulp for each clue just like Dick Powell.) Meanwhile Clooney & the whole cast struggle to find a consistent acting style (larger-than-life, yet realistic) that matches Soderbergh’s aims. (Only Beau Bridges handles the vibe naturally.) Then, right at the end, Soderbergh has the chutzpah to try to recreate the final scene from CASABLANCA! Clooney & the great Cate Blanchett have never looked so dim-witted & foolish. Warner Bros. must have wanted OCEANS 13 awful, awful, awful bad to ‘green light’ this one.*

*On the other hand, the numbskulls who put out the DVD slap on the ‘altered format’ warning for mastering the frame in the old Academy Ratio of 1:33-to-1 which Soderbergh fought to use.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Obviously, THE THIRD MAN/'49, but adventurous types should also have a look at Lars von Trier's EUROPA/'91.

THE DAY THE SUN TURNED COLD/TIAN GUO NI ZO (1994)

Hong Kong based writer/director Ho Yim made this consistently involving murder story in the remote Northern regions of the PRC. It’s a tale of deferred justice that begins when a 24 year old man reports his long held suspicions about his mother to the police ten years after his father unexpectedly died. The film jumps back and forth between the current investigation and the events of a decade ago, and though the crime is straightforward and easy to solve (love triangle, ‘nuff said), the lines of familial duty and honorable intentions combine with the unusual tundra-like environment to easily hold our attention. The last scenes between mother & son are rarely caught and this simple film inhabits a larger emotional scale than is at first apparent. A classic example of a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts.