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Saturday, May 31, 2008


Famous Stanley Donen/Michael Kidd musical is both celebrated for its rough & tumble dance sequences & trashed for its hormonally charged plotline. (7 brothers kidnap 7 intendeds. The End.) But it gets away with its non-PC story since Howard Keel ’s Adam, who instigates the abduction, gets exiled to a wintry purgatory, while the dancing courtships (to say nothing of the stylized back lot sets) turn the sharp angles of sexual threat into curvy romance. Paradoxically, it's that unsavory subtext (the plot is one big happy rape fantasy) that makes the story so memorably different than the typically insipid musical comedy formula. A bit less successful is Gene de Paul ’s so-so score & Johnny Mercer ’s sub-par lyrics. (Well, sub-par for the great Johnny M.) Michael Kidd 's masterful barn raising challenge dance is one of the all-time great set pieces in any musical, but even the lesser elements show how the consistent style Donen brings to the material makes things add up to more than just the sum of their parts. And dig those orangy "AnscoColor" tints and the color-coded shirts on the brothers. A pox on your tasteful modern earth-tones.

SERPICO (1973)

With uncredited bits from kids like Judd Hirsh, F. Murray Abraham, Kenneth McMillan, Tony Lo Bianco, et al., the NYC talent pool circa ‘73 must have been amazing. And Sidney Lumet’s muckraking pic gives each of them a moment to grab your attention among the superb male supporting cast. Playing the last honest cop in NYC (and the first hip one), Al Pacino tears the room apart and gets to preen in a bewildering series of undercover get-ups. Look for a preppie look in a locker room where he "does" Dustin Hoffman, and thank your lucky stars Dusty didn’t cop this role. If Waldo Salt’s script structure now seems a bit flat-footed, and Serpico’s girlfriends don’t register sharply, it’s a minor glitch on this unusually well-observed, scary/funny fact-based story. Lumet and Co. got it out within a year of the actual events. (No Hollywood development hell on this one.)

Friday, May 30, 2008


With typical wisdom, Hollywood gave Howard Hawks his sole Oscar nom for this verisimilitudinally challenged bio-pic about the country-boy pacificist who became WWI’s greatest war hero. Gary Cooper takes much of the curse off the project (who else is even thinkable in the role?), but little else rings true here. Arthur Edeson who shot the famous battle sequences on ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, was specially brought in just for YORK's war scenes, but his fine work only emphasizes the wild fluctuations in style & tone in the rest of the film. It was a phenomenal commercial success and Coop copped an Oscar, but Henry King, Frank Borzage or King Vidor would each have been better suited than Hawks on this one.


An early work from Aleksandr Sokurov shows him in typically severe mode, but not, as yet, quite able to bring off his highly-charged style. Instead of mesmerizing us (i.e. FATHER & SON or RUSSIAN ARK), we want to shout "hurry up" at the screen. Though made first, the film is like a postscript to MOTHER & SON, only here a young man deals with his father’s remains in a isolated snowbound village. The boy is clueless to all the rituals of death, but amusingly stubborn about small details, which adds an unexpected overlay of absurdist humor to the grim doings. Not for folks put off by experimental/poetic cinema, and not the best place to begin with Sokurov. But unlike his acclaimed mentor, Andrei Tarkovsky, Sokurov never forces his artistic bent, he just can’t help it. And this makes all the difference.


Fred Astaire & Burgess Meredith ‘graduate’ out of their college band and vie for a gig with Artie Shaw and his beautiful manager Paulette Goddard in this musical comedy that’s both charmless and tuneless. No wonder Fred contemplated retirement at the time. The shame of it is that the leads seem to be having a swell time (did real-life couple Meredith & Goddard meet up here?) and there’s good rapport in the comic pairing of Astaire & Burgess. Listen up for a rare instance of Fred doing a ‘live’ intro to one of his numbers before the ‘synch-sound’ kicks in. (And dig this crazy Danish poster.)


With that handsome, big-featured, Rodin-worthy face, Javier Bardem is able to spark gushers of empathy & emotion with the merest wisp of facial movement. He’s an unbeatable choice for this tru-life story about a quadriplegic fighting for the right to end his life with dignity. Alas, there’s little else to hail in this overrated film that preaches to the converted with short-winded debates, flights of visual cliche and never a speck of piss, shit or bed-sores to get in the way of our compassionate feelings. We never even get to meet the cast of characters who carry out his guilt-free Rube Goldberg euthanasia plan.


This WWII drama has an unusually good set up that neither cast, script or director quite capitalize on. John Wayne plays a fiercely anti-Nazi German captain stuck in Australia when war is declared. Rather than be interned for the duration, he slips out of harbor with his crew. Also on board is a miscast Lana Turner as a Mata Hari who just missed marrying Wayne’s Brit pal David Farrar, which gives that gent two reasons to give chase. There’s a stars-of-tomorrow supporting cast in James Arness, Alan Hale, Jr, Claude Akins, plus Richard Davaldos & Tab Hunter as boyfriends (director John Farrow liked his little jokes), but the film though competently made, never develops much momentum. Someone even made the excellent (and rare) decision not to work up German accents since they’re all supposed to be German, ya?

SCOOP (2006)

Woody Allen outsmarted himself when he used the lake drowning scene from Dreiser’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY in this larkish pic. It led to a critical & commercial drubbing as viewers compared this Bob Hope-like amateur sleuth story to MATCH POINT, his recent perceived return-to-form. Playing a magician, rather like Hope in MY FAVORITE BLONDE, he’s shoehorned into a serial killer mystery with a game Scarlett Johansson in the Madeleine Carroll/Betty Hutton/Carole Lombard role. They follow the wrong guy for the first nine reels, only to find out in the tenth they’ve got the right guy after all. Alas, much of Allen’s scripting & plotting are as slipshod as in one of the later Bob Hope atrocities. But the basic idea, jazzed up with a ghostly helper (left over from his ALICE pic?), remains workable, Woody lands enough one-liners and there’s a pleasing no-nonsense shape to Allen’s current film technique. The cast does well, but isn’t Hugh Jackman rather buff for a layabout Brit aristo? He looks like he could bench press Hugh Grant.


Slacker/substitute teacher Jack Black turns his fifth grade Prep school kids into a rock band. It’s a can’t miss set up, and it doesn’t miss . . . barely. With helpful borrowings from every inspirational teacher pic you’ve ever seen, plus hearty dips into THE BAD NEWS BEARS, THE COWBOYS and THE MUSIC MAN (Jack Black as Harold Hill, cool!). Naturally, the script hails youthful rebellion while making every conventional narrative turn in the book. Hey, this is Hollywood. Too bad that the heart of the story, watching as the kids individually find their musical voices, gets played out in a skimpy scene & a half. It’s possible that the script had one polish too many as Black’s character loses his roommate largely to give more space for the Jack Black one-man-show. Good-bye plot & character development. Still, except when poor Joan Cusack tries to make like Maggie Smith in SISTER ACT (the films share a producer), it’s a lot of fun since Jack Black really is quite a show.


With its excellent cast (Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer, John Gielgud, Raf Vallone), classy technical credits (Giuseppe Rotunno/lenser, Ennio Morricone/score), this fact-based WWII tale of Rome’s SS Commandant and the wily Irish Vatican Monsignor who saved/hid thousands of partisans, Jews and enemy combatants within the city, should be better. But Jerry London proves a lummox of a director and manages to miss visual grandeur, suspense and the sheer fun of Peck as a most unlikely master of disguise. Still, quite watchable and Gielgud, soft-pedaling Pius XII’s complicity, is superb.


An unexpectedly involving (and handsome) Western with a strong comic edge that easily survives Sydney Pollack ’s uneven megging thanks to a nifty triple reverse story (single-minded trapper keeps losing his winter’s catch to a new foe, but refuses to let it go) and its cast: Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Telly Savales & Ossie Davis are all in excellent form. Davis, as a runaway slave passing himself off as a Comanche, has to advance a lot of serio-comic racial attitudes of the day, but as played out with a sly, but game Lancaster, they work things out without the expected patina of ‘60s liberal guilt. Instead, there’s a touch of Estragon & Vladimir in these two. (Does that make Shelly Winters Madame Godot?)


The threesome of Pat O’ Brien, Humphrey Bogart & Ann Sheridan (yep, that’s the billing order) made two mid-tier programmers at Warners in 1937, this one’s a formulaic prison drama w/ few sparks to it. Bogie plays Sheridan’s scapegrace brother, fresh to the big house where Captain O’Brien is introducing some newfangled Army-style discipline & motivation. The plot mechanics make O’Brien more criminally irresponsible then heroic , but it barely registers under Lloyd Bacon ’s stolid megging. He shows a lot more dash & polish in that year’s Bette Davis vehicle, MARKED WOMAN, which also co-starred Bogart and did rather better for him.


While you wait for the inevitable earthquake to strike, helmer Woody Van Dyke & scripter Anita Loos manage to keep things relatively lively as nice girl Jeanette MacDonald (stunning under Oliver Marsh ’s lensing) chooses between raffish Clark Gable of the Barbary Coast and Mama’s boy Jack Holt of Nob Hill. (Gable is entering his plush phase and his face has noticeably thickened, but he gets to do more character acting than usual and is unexpectedly touching toward the end.) There’s more opera than you recall (real stuff, too, Gounod & Verdi) though it's Spencer Tracy ’s priest pal who proves to be insufferable. But the production is almost impossibly lux in M-G-M’s grandest manner, and when the catastrophe hits, we’re off to the races. Except for some panoramic miniature shots of the city in flames, the effects hold up amazingly well, with some brilliant fast montage stuff that makes you think you’ve seen more calamity than you actually have.


Modest, but solid, fact-based WWII story about four Yanks & one Brit who find themselves behind enemy lines shortly before the Battle of the Bulge. Helmer/lenser Ryan Little does a nice job detailing action and characters, though the acting is a bit wobbly and the religious parable elements stick out like markers in a treasure hunt, but it’s a pleasure to watch the old tropes taking hold in such honest fashion. Darryl Zanuck in his heyday @ Fox might well have signed on as producer. (see DECISION BEFORE DAWN/’51) And while you're at it, you might also check out Keith Gordon’s finely realized A MIDNIGHT CLEAR/’91 which hits similar notes a bit more confidently. The ‘Good War’/Greatest Generation attitudes have long calcified into cliche, but keeping the scale down to a human size revivifies the genre. A notion Spielberg, Eastwood, Hanks & Howard might well ponder.


Guy Maddin is a Canadian based art-film maker, here sticking his toe into commercial waters with a hot-house flower of a pic set in a cold environment. Rich bitch Isabella Rossellini holds an international contest in the midst of the Great Depression to find the saddest music in the world, but ends up revisiting her own personal demons as her former lover and his family all become finalists. Using a mix of old film techniques, early-Talkie acting styles and digital editing technology, Maddin creates some effectively dreamy visuals, but the silly plot keeps you too distanced from the story to sustain the 100 minute running time. Too bad no one makes two reelers anymore.


Helmer Stanley Donen’s first solo outing is well intentioned and has more ‘goodies’ in it then you may recall, but the story remains in hibernation while the performers do little for each other. This means that Fred Astaire does his best work on his own (the famous dance around the floor, walls & ceiling unknowingly apes Victor Fleming’s directing debut, the Doug Fairbanks charmer WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY/1919, but the gym routine with the hat rack is beyond sublime) while Jane Powell sings the exceptionally lovely Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner song ‘Too Late Now’ as a solo, even though she's out for a walk with her beau. At least, the romantic interests are pleasant &/or innocuous, but Keenan Wynn’s tiresome comic British shtick palls on contact. Everyone here had much better gigs just around the corner, except for Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah (Fred's inamorata) for whom it was over & out after this pic.
CONTEST: Name at least three of those 'better gigs' to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.


Helmer Wolfgang Staudte, who made Germany’s first post-WWII release (THE MURDERERS ARE AMONG US, see above), also made this compact road-to-German-fascism film. Brief vignettes detail the life of a ‘typical’ German couple and expose how political & moral apathy helped smooth the way for the rise of the Nazis. It’s a decent attempt at a tough subject, honorable for its modesty alone, and there’s a real emotional pay-off when the couple’s Nazi indoctrinated son returns home to ask forgiveness. But you can’t avoid the feeling that the film has one eye planted firmly on storming the international film festival circuit with its touching humanity.


Opening up his own play (w/ an assist from Bob Hope specialist Hal Kanter!), Tennessee Williams created a hybrid that leaks dramatic tension and human comedy from his unmatchable sex-hungry, life-affirming farce. Anna Magnani may have been his original B'way choice for self-deluded widow Serafina, but megger Daniel Mann is unable to keep her from erupting like Old Faithful in every damn scene. No major star of his era pushed himself farther off type than Burt Lancaster and if he’s hopelessly miscast as the inept new lover, he’s endearingly winning. (Eli Wallach did the part on stage and his film debut in BABY DOLL offers a close variant on his perf.) James Wong Howe has a blast shooting in the fine grain B&W VistaVision process, but Mann’s directorial choices all come off as either too much and too little.

CONTEST - Be the first to name the Oscar winning actress who triumphed as a most unlikely Serafina in the original B'way cast and win our prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of whatever NetFlix DVD you choose. (Hey! No Googling. We're looking for good guesses. Remember, it's a most unlikely choice.)


TV docudrama, smoothly helmed by Randa Haines, about an idealistic teacher from the South who, afraid of growing stale, picks himself up and drives to NYC where he gets one job waiting tables dressed up as Robin Hood and another where he dresses up as Matthew Perry to teach sixth grade uptown in Harlem. The film only partially convinces us that teaching is the harder gig, but if this be formulaic stuff (TO SIR WITH LOVE is only the most obvious template, but this time the kids are mostly black and Teach is white), it’s still a damn good formula. The key to these things is to make them about the students, not the teacher; a detail flubbed by heavyweights Sam Raimi & Meryl Streep on the recent MUSIC OF THE HEART, but one that this little charmer gets just right. No surprises, but none needed with such sturdy dramatic legs.


‘Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon’ is both the subtitle and the dead giveaway to the sort of clinical aspirations/baggage writer/director John Maybury brings to this project. Drawing parallels between an artist’s life & work may be fallacious (or in the case here, fellatious), but the idea has long proved irresistible to biographers. Fair enough, and not without justification in the case of Bacon and the rough trade/burglar he played Pygmalion with. But Maybury makes the lethal mistake of attempting to render the artist’s visual style in his filmmaking with odd angles and distorted lenses which obscure rather than invoke Bacon’s manner. Derek Jacobi goes farther than you expect into Bacon’s creepy mix of sexual masochism and social dominance while a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig falls all too believably into a drug-addled abyss. The story is too old and pat to resonate, but some brief scenes of casual walks around London let us see what attraction might have gone on between these two, while also documenting that Craig is, quite surprisingly, a couple of inches shorter than Jacobi. A 5'5" James Bond?


This poorly received adaptation of a Tennessee Williams novella (script by Gavin Lambert) doomed any film career for famed stage helmer Jose Quintero. Yet, it’s one of the few non-Elia Kazan TN pics to come off. Sure, there's a bum prologue, dunderheaded narration & subpar technical elements (lenser Harry Waxman can’t get his studio lighting in sync with the Rome location stuff), but Quintero pulls off some nifty staging while bringing out the self-incriminating character aspects of his three preternaturally TN-esque leading players. There's Vivien Leigh, drifting thru middle-age with sex-for-cash companionship & the angel of death as her personal stalker. (No joke, death is a young, handsome & very corporeal tramp). There's Warren Beatty as the ambitious and oddly prideful gigolo. (Though his striking looks are as non-Italian as his amatuerish accent.) And there's the great Lotte Lenya as a putative Countess who pimps young men for rich ladies hungry for a last taste of La Dolce Vita. All you have to do is substitute 'bartered play writing' for 'bartered boys' and you have three terrifying self-reimaginings by our aging author. But Tennessee Williams wasn't alone when it came to looking in the abyss; watch Vivien Leigh as she ditches some old friends she happens to bump into on a street in Rome. Riveting stuff.


Involving French family drama about a single mom ((Emmanuelle Devos) & the men in her life: her fast-fading intellectual dad; the college boy who killed himself before their son was born; a manic/eccentric violist who helped raise him (the remarkable Mathieu Amalric) & the rich fiance she believes is her path to contentment. In spite of his jerky, attention-deficit technique (tiny jump cuts & time shifting abound), helmer Arnaud Desplechin manages his puzzle plot with aplomb for the first half (a sudden appearance of the still young/long dead father is worthy of Mizoguchi), but the convenience of plot machinations in part two comes close to defeating our patience. (Although watch for a perfectly staged Convenience Store robbery attempt.) But with stunt casting like Catherine Deneuve, in a supporting role as a startlingly matter-of-fact psychiatrist during Amalric’s sanatarium stay, interest never sags.


Victor Gaviría ’s bleak look at the disaffected, violent youth culture in Medellin, Columbia (circa 1989) has been overtaken by cultural and political currents that make it play like yesterday’s news. With its large non-pro cast of young delinquents, you can lose track of the narrative even as the loose structure and basic film technique work toward verisimilitude. If the punk rock trappings pin down the period for us, it’s a haunting scene on a bus with the lead adolescent and an elderly, blind neighbor that shows what’s missing from too much of the film. Just before the credits roll, a title lists the death toll on members of the cast even before this film was released. How many have followed since ‘89? A return look, with juxtaposed footage from this film, would make for a far more interesting work. Sad, frightening stuff.


Luis Buñuel makes a simple, straightforward, swift and typically vivid adaptation of the classic tale, with an excellent unmannered perf from Dan O’Herilhy. Without pushing his themes, Buñuel let’s the noblesse oblige elements of the Friday/Master relationship register clearly. In the first half of the story, the abrupt panic dreams and gradations of painful solitude are finessed like a great conductor moving from p to pp to ppp. And when the dog Rex goes, Crusoe isn’t alone in tearing up. The DVD cleans up the colors, but the print remains disappointingly soft. Query: is the film's composer Anthony Collins the same Anthony Collins who was such a great Sibelius conductor?


Some of the grandest sets ever built in Hollywood would have overwhelmed many a swashbuckler, but Douglas Fairbanks & helmer Alan Dwan hold their own against all the pageantry. There’s a lot of backstory in this version (Sherwood Forest doesn’t make an appearance until the Crusades are dealt with) and a bit too much merry-making from those famous ‘Merry Men,' but the basic story seems just about indestructible by now. (Even Kevin Costner couldn’t do it in.) And it’s fun to spot some well remembered types, like Wallace Beery & Alan Hale, in their salad days. Hale played Little John two more times (1938 & 1950). For decades, this film & THE THIEF OF BAGDAD/'24 were considered Doug's best, but restored prints and better availability now show his work just growing stronger right up to the end of the silent period. So, don't stop here.

ROBERTA (1935)

M-G-M’s unfortunate remake of this property (LOVELY TO LOOK AT/'52) once made this title, the third of the Astaire/Rogers pics, a very rare item. Fred & Ginger's old studio, RKO, must have sold off some of the underlying rights along with the best original prints and negative materials so that public domain prints made hash of the film's visual qualities. (No longer a problem.) But as Arlene Croce points out in her classic Fred & Ginger monograph, this underrated film is the key work in their partnership. You can actually see them become a real team in the one-take spontaneity of the dance right after Rogers’ Polish inflected vocal on I’LL BE HARD TO HANDLE. It’s an unmissable thrill. (The nutty accent is in there only because Lyda Roberti, who originated the part on B'way, had a strong Polish accent. And, if it ain't broke . . . ) Note that most of the Fred & Ginger numbers are shot with live sound, including Fred’s super piano solo. Irene Dunne is the real star of the film and has to carry the plot, such as it is, with Randolph Scott, such as he is. But she handles the big sentimental Jerome Kern numbers wonderfully with her firm/rich soprano.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY:  *Dunne didn’t have Renata Tebaldi’s facial structure for nothing! Right down to the famous iron dimples.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: That'd be THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BOOK by Arlene Croce, referenced above.  Undoubtedly, the only great book of cultural criticism with 'flip animation' on the page edges.


It’s ironic that the Sundance Fest gave an audience fave award to just the sort of small foreign pic whose market has been usurped by the navel-gazing 20-something American indie pic they’re known for. And only a bit less ironic that they chose such a pile of sentimental mush. The usually extraordinary Zhang Yimou is (hopefully) just slumming on this story of the city boy who finds a true vocation and true love as a school teacher in a small mountain village, and the illiterate country lass who falls hard for him. Book-ended with arty B&W present day scenes as their son returns home to help his mother arrange a traditional burial (the coffin must be carried all the way home by many hands), Yimou can’t be bothered with events beyond the initial courtship (with our cute as a button heroine) and the funeral sequences (with our stubborn as a mule widow). Bring two hankies & three antacids.


Alice Hoffman ’s novel about a mysterious death at a New England Prep School is just about perfect fodder for a mid-sized indie pic. Accidental death? Suicide? Hazing gone too far? Murder? Is the academy covering up to protect its reputation or to protect one of the wealthy kids? Are the local police complicit, turning away from evidence to protect the dependent town’s cash cow? Add on a dogged cop with a troubled past and a developing affair with one of the teachers and you’ve got a nice mix of P. D. James & BLUE VELVET. Alas, you have to put all the elements together for yourself in this borderline amateur effort. As the pretty teacher, Jennifer Ehle makes for a nicely enigmatic romantic goal, but Edward Burns fails to register under Nick Willing ’s feeble megging.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

THE RIVER (1951)

Jean Renoir’s film about a British family interacting with India & its culture looks better than ever. Literally so in this revelatory restoration via Criterion DVD, but also since Renoir’s loose narrative & mix of actors (amateurs & pro) no longer stands quite so alone against Hollywood formula hegemony. Fittingly, the film moves like a great river, constantly changing, yet staying much the same; happening now & long ago. The voice-over narration looks back to . . . when? The time period is vague, but the images and feelings are specific, highlighted by a quartet of romantically entwined principals (one a Titian-haired beauty right out of an August Renoir canvas), & the tragic loss of a child by a blameless cobra. ("Everyone has their reasons," as Renoir knows, even a snake.) The film, from Rumer Godden’s semi-biographical novel, is moving family drama, stunning socio-cultural document, philosophical enquiry and entirely miraculous. (Don't let some of the awkward, even raw, acting put you off. You get used to it. In fact, it almost becomes endearing.)


Patricia Highsmith ’s literary output was defiantly cold & creepy. (This was a woman who once smuggled snails thru customs hidden under her bosom.) So, casting cold & creepy John Malkovich in her signature role, must have seemed like natural selection. Alas, they cancel each other out, especially under Liliana Cavani ’s tentative direction. She also misses Highsmith’s dollop of sexual tension between the two male leads. Charmers like Robert Walker, Alain Delon & Matt Damon played Highsmith men with surface charm set against buried perversion; Malkovich tries the reverse and comes off as a hitman begging for our understanding. Oops. Great locations help, but any film that uses Goreki on the soundtrack gets what it deserves.

RIO BRAVO (1959)

Howard Hawks' famous character driven Western dawdles a bit more than you recall, but there’s enough individuality in John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickenson, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan to liven up the dialogue (and singing!) scenes between the exceptionally clear action sequences. It's damn good dialogue, too, thanks to Leigh Brackett and the great Jules Furthman in his final credit. Hawks shows less interest in the disappointingly bland villains and his typically efficient camera-style isn't helped by an almost aggressively unattractive palette. But you won't mind since you'll probably be hooked right from the first reel's quadruple whammy of turnabouts Hawks uses to set up his narrative. Be sure to check out Hawk's loose remake of this film EL DORADO/'67. It's critical rep is a lot lower, but it may well be the better pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: See if this pair of films (BRAVO, DORADO), and their relative critical reputations, don't remind you of the relative merits & reps of those two Akira Kurosawa Samurai 'Westerns' from just about the same time, YOJIMBO/'61 and SANJURO/'62.


There’s not a single convincing moment in this mishmash CASABLANCA wannabe from M-G-M with John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Philip Dorn, Reginald Owen & John Carradine fumbling about as ersatz Bogie, Bergman, Henreid, Raines & Veidt, respectively. It would be funny if it wasn’t so appalling. And as sheer visual moviemaking, Warners product leaves M-G-M entirely in the shade. Helmer Jules Dassin would soon get camera savvy, but the films Joe Mankiewicz produced in his M-G-M days held little visual allure. (Midway thru the pic, lenser Robert Planck delivers a stunning close-up of Joan, but that’s just about the single redeeming feature here.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a far better shot at this sort of thing (leaving CASABLANCA aside), try PARIS UNDERGROUND with Constant Bennett.


Peter Sellers & scripter/helmer Blake Edwards reestablished their commercial chops, after a decade of flops (deserved and ‘un’) on separate projects with this good-natured Inspector Clouseau vehicle. At its best in some throwaway comic bits and in Edwards’ crystal-clear action/slapstick sequences (who handles physical comedy as well or as elegantly in WideScreen format?), it lacks the formal design & swank of the original and the nutty consistency of the first sequel, A SHOT IN THE DARK/’64. Still, in this third outing, the slow merging of straight suspense elements with physical gags (it all climaxes with a botched assassination attempt a la Fred Zinnemann’s DAY OF THE JACKAL/’73) played well enough to please millions and revive the franchise. Now, it looks a bit pokey. But there’s plenty of fun to be had, starting with Christopher Plummer’s alarming hairstyling; Catherine Schell cracking up as Sellers blathers on; and that most unexpected of master comedians, Herbert Lom, stealing all his scenes with a twitch.


1939 may be Golden-Age Hollywood’s banner year, but not for Humphrey Bogart who was either miscast or fourth-billed in support of Bette Davis, George Raft, Kay Francis or James Cagney. Here, he’s miscast in a part designed for Boris Karloff(!) as a back-from-the-dead anemic psychotic killer. The jokey musical background score allows little chance for real thrills and with Wayne Morris, the nominal lead, playing a tyro reporter the comic possibilities are dim. As the smooth surgeon who puts the puzzle together, Dennis Morgan comes off reasonably well and got bumped up to starring roles the next year. Bogie had to wait two.


Megger Antoine Fuqua looks all thumbs in this loud & choppy action revenge tale about a soft-hearted assassin who refuses an assignment from the heavyweight who runs the Asian mob. As the killer with a conscience, Chow Yun-Fat was a decade too old to break into the mainstream American market, his sleek kinetic moves poorly faked as Fuqua is shy on technique needed to edit a semblance of Yun-Fat’s past best. (But watch for a nice shot when Yun-Fat preternaturally stops an ashtray that’s flying toward his head.) And as his accidental co-hort, Mira Sorvino seems hellbent to commit career suicide as a laughable tough cookie. All told, the film’s about as mechanical as they come.

RENT (2005)

That most literal of helmers, Chris Columbus, blunted the effectiveness of the first two HARRY POTTER pics with an overabundance of fidelity, and he has now botched his adaptation of RENT with much the same approach. Jonathan Larson’s Pop/Rock ‘take’ on Puccini’s LA BOHEME is too loaded w/ pleasures not to make some effect, and the return of most of the original cast, ten years on, is unexpectedly beneficial. They look late 20s, which works just fine, and they sound better than ever, if a bit too glammed up in the film’s sound mix. But it’s only Adam Pascal, he gets the great solo GLORY (has this been truncated by Columbus?), who manages the acting trick of heightened awareness both in and out of singing mode. That touch of stylization brings its own sense of a larger-than-life poetic truth so rarely brought off by modern, realistic performers in this tricky genre. But more generally (sadly), the freshness & emotional wallop of the stage show have been fatally downgraded. (The final B'way perf was recorded live for cable and may make a better case for the show.)


Rosemary Clooney & Jack Carson make for a mismatched lead couple in this ultra-stylized, but hopelessly unstylish, musical Western. Played on sets fit for a touring B’way musical (a bit like a ‘50s Chuck Jones cartoon w/ washes of background color & skeletal buildings), the pic begs our indulgence in its foreword, but no one here has the talent to bring it off. Paramount’s contract tunesmiths, Jay Livingston & Ray Evans, wrote the generic score (there’s one striking ballad for Rosemary in the third act) which matches George Marshall ’s generic helming and the by-the-numbers choreography; but watch for Buddy Ebsen ’s brief eccentric shuffle. Two bits of weird casting hold some interest: Gene Barry as a dancing Gaucho, & a pleasingly goofy perf from one Guy Mitchell, who did a fast fade after this one. (By all rights, RED GARTERS should easily classify for one of our unique labels, but it works too darn hard at being unique to deserve the appellation.


After a precipitous decline that bottomed when Ted Morgan’s bio came out, Somerset Maugham has made a modest critical recovery. And who hasn’t fallen for this book, one of the all-time great reads. If the film remains studio bound & largely irredeemable, Maugham’s churning story of misdirected love (in Chicago), personal treachery (in Paris), & spiritual awakening (in the Himalayas!!) makes for irresistible entertainment on some level even under Edmund Goulding 's seriously square megging. Tyrone Power gets dramatic mileage out his fading bloom (not yet prematurely dire) & Anne Baxter keeps her teary role relatively sec. But only Clifton Webb, working with all flags flying, lives up to your dreams in parts that beg for role-of-a-life-time casting. How 'bout, Leonardo Di Caprio, Drew Barrymore & Bill Murray as casting for just those three leads? Hard to believe that Murray played the lead in the vanity production he co-wrote in '84.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Generally, RAAI tries to draw attention to a publication not directly connected with the film. Not this time. Do yourself a favor, read Maugham's final masterpiece. You'll be clamoring for a decent film version, too.

RAY (2004)

With so many bases to cover (sharecropper struggles, blind boy’s triumph, Southern bigotry, drug addiction, jazz prodigy’s tru-life Bildungsroman), there’s no way Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles bio could have avoided a few cliches; but did he have to include ‘em all? Presented with this much affection, they get the job done, but it’s a long slog to the end. The early years hold the most interest, and Hackford plumps for the same super-saturated colors he used for the backstory on his underrated DOLORES CLAIBORNE. If only we could have followed Young Ray to his School for the Blind and left it at that. As the grown up Ray, Jamie Foxx ’s acclaimed perf is almost too facile to properly register. (Robert Downey, Jr. had much the same self-canceling effect in CHAPLIN.) The line between mimicry and acting is wafer thin here and the emotional payoff is less than the sum of the story’s many parts.


Zhang Yimou ’s third pic hasn’t aged as gracefully as you may have expected. This rigorously controlled look at the disastrous consequences that ensue when a rich lord takes on a fourth wife (Gong Li), tries to be both a startling window into a lost society and a condemnation of it. Yet it comes off as merely voyeuristic and misogynist as each of the wives tend scrupulously to their character flaws, mutual deceit & petty jealousies. After a while, the lord (whom you never get a good look at), his mistresses & the house staff all seem to deserve each other. (No doubt the point, but still . . . ) What does holds up is the physical grace of the formal camera set ups. (Too bad that Zhang doesn't rigorously hold to the style, copping out with pans & track at the big histrionic extremes just when he needs to be particularly rigorous.) The film is also worth a look just to see the great mansion/estate with its discrete units which are best observed in dream-like walks over the rooftop at night.


Phenomenally effective Hollywood soaper/disaster pic shouldn’t work at all, but does largely because its stylistic absurdities remain ‘all of a piece.’ It’s an Indian epic (Ranchipur) without a native player in sight, just lots of Max Factor #38. But it’s 1939 and the dream factory is working so smoothly that when Myrna Loy describes Tyrone Power as a ‘pale copper Adonis,’ she neither offends nor misstates the essence of the film’s intense appeal. The grand old formula, swells & locals flirt & gossip in an exotic setting until a natural disaster causes everyone to find their special inner strength or succumb, has rarely been so nicely structured and handsomely acted & staged. George Brent, a regular Warners’ stand-by lead, and M-G-M megger Clarence Brown could often be dull dogs on their home lots, but on loan to Fox they’re positively revivified. The special effects hold up remarkably well and the corny interpersonal dynamics are magically distilled into something approaching real drama. With its tasty supporting cast (Maria Ouspenskaya is a standout, as is Nigel Bruce in a rare unsympathetic role) and sujmptious Arthur Miller lensing, RAINS is posh twaddle that’s more satisfying than many a better pic.

CONTEST: Back in the '30s, you'd rarely find three major players under contract at one studio working on a project for the competition. But that's just the case here with M-G-M stalwarts Loy & Brown, in addition to Brent on loan from Warners, propping up Fox Studios' biggest pic of the year. Most of the puzzle is easily solved if you know what Fox contract star had recently been borrowed by M-G-M. Name the star and the M-G-M film involved in the swap to win our usual priceless prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on any NetFlix DVD of your choice. This still doesn't explain Warners letting Brent moonlight for Darryl Zanuck. Any likely guesses?


For those who like their low-budget noirs extra dark, this tasty little crime film delivers. Helmer Anthony Mann knew that under the old Production Code you got away with the most violence possible when you turned down the lights. This is the old story of an inside robbery gone bad, leaving a cop dead and the accomplices turning on each other. If only Mann had a better cast to work with. John Ireland is suitably threatening & vicious, but no one else sparks much interest. Oh well, it won’t stop your enjoyment and you can play amateur casting director. Hmm, Dana Andrews in the Hugh Beaumont detective role? And how ‘bout Ava Gardner & Lana Turner stepping in for Sheila Ryan & Jane Randolph, respectively? Mental recasting . . . it can be habit forming.


This Howard Hughes pic from RKO recycles his 1928 production as a film noir for Robert Mitchum. He’s plays a tough, honest police captain & Robert Ryan is a psychotic, violently self-destructive mob boss. Lizabeth Scott is around, looking freshly abused, as always, to purr out a song and reluctantly inform on the bad guys. But in spite of some effective noir stylings, the film feels pieced together from mismatched ‘takes’ under various directorial hands. John Cromwell gets credit, but Nicholas Ray (and others?) shot much of the film. The fascist methods used by the cops would be more alarming if the plot & exposition made more sense, but the stench of corruption is lost in the fumes of dramatic hooey.


Director Rouben Mamoulian ’s leading ladies in the 1930s were (in order of appearance) Sylvia Sidney, Miriam Hopkins, Jeanette MacDonald, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Anna Sten (Sam Goldwyn 's try for a Garbo/Dietrich of his very own), Miriam Hopkins (again), Ida Lupino, Irene Dunne & finally Barbara Stanwyck. Has another director ever had such a line-up of consecutive female stars? This is Garbo’s first talkie to have pace, humor & compositional sophistication. It also boasts a fitting story for its star: a 'manish' Swedish Queen becomes a flesh & blood human being by finding and then losing love. The production can’t sidestep the usual M-G-M glossy demerits, but everyone’s at their best, especially stalwart supporting regulars C. Aubrey Smith & Lewis Stone. Why even Herbert Stothart ’s score helps things along. The line readings from the fast-fading John Gilbert are a bit too dynamic at times, but he's deeply touching in his death scene, as if he knew his time in the sun was up. It’s a memorable film. Try to see this on the biggest video display you can get your hands on for the famous final shot to make its full effect. On the big screen, it's overwhelming.


Middling entry in Universal ’s updated Sherlock Holmes series finds Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce literally at sea to protect a democracy loving King from a murder plot. (Holmes is, of course, never figuratively at sea.) With an OK plot twist at the end and darn handsome lensing from Paul Ivanov (check out his cool silent film credits), this should be a bit more fun than it is. But the supporting players are contract drudges and the boat is so stuffed with sedate drawing rooms, bedrooms & dining rooms, a walk on the deck is about the only exercise we get.


Well made faux-Hemingway with Gregory Peck reprising his neurotic pilot from 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, but in a mostly British production; the other American involved is Robert Parrish who smartly helmed. Brooding over his wife’s death in the blitz, Peck finds something to live for in a young Burmese beauty. Then a routine flight goes awry and he lands in Jap territory with two men to save. Geoffrey Unsworth provides riveting Technicolor images to go with the painterly action effects work, quite different than the Hollywood norm at the time. And there's solid support from Bernard Lee, Maurice Denham, Lyndon Brook and a beauteous Win Min Than in her one & only film appearance. As a Scottish missionary, Brenda De Banzie is over the top, but the film needs the bit of applied zest she provides.


Lewis Milestone ’s rep peaked with his early Talkies (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30 & THE FRONT PAGE/’31), which may be because (or why) his basic technique held to silent film principles longer than any comparable megger. The arrhythmic use of inserted static close-ups is the dead giveaway. It makes a lot of his films both frustrating & fascinating, but this one is merely dutiful. It’s a 20th/Fox prestige WWII war drama. complete with the Darryl Zanuck imprimatur, about a bomber crew who are captured and put on trial for murder in Japan. Some unhappy pre-echoes of current events make you wish it didn’t play like one big dramatic set-up, but it was 1944, the war was pivoting to the Pacific Front & attitudes were very raw. At least, the motley American crew (Dana Andrews, Sam Levene, 18 yr-old Farley Granger, et al) sport a staggering range of acting styles which gives this courtroom drama a bit of unexpected variety.


With a cheery nod toward Synge ’s PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, Ossie Davis wrote himself (and wife Ruby Dee) a big hit in this comic fable about a Georgia Preacher Man who schemes to claim his rightful inheritance from a bigoted Southern plantation boss-man. This being a product of ‘60s Civil Rights Days, the deus ex machina turns out to be a forward-thinking white boy (Alan Alda, natch). That’s not all that’s dated in this low-budget adaptation that’s filmed like a 'Golden Age of Television' show, but with better lighting thanks to lensing legend Boris Kaufman. It’s a kick to see Ossie Davis in dynamic Sidney Poitier mode & any chance to watch Godfrey Cambridge should be grabbed, but it's mighty heavy going at times.

PROTEUS (2004)

Agit-prop pic wastes an intriguing true tale from the 1700s about two prisoners in the Dutch Colonial system, a white sailor in for sodomy & a native "Hottentot" in on a trumped up assault rap, whose sexual relationship leads to charges and a double execution by drowning. The team of Jack Lewis & John Greyson, working in a flavorless Hi-Def video system, aren’t content with letting us find our way thru the historical shadings so they hype things up with theatrical anachronisms (jeeps, modern uniforms, typing pools) to make sure we can follow the "Queer" party line. The real mystery is why these two got singled out for what must have been common behavior in an island prison. The leads try to deliver the goods, but get little help, while the rest of the cast is amateurish. Fascinating source material, though.

PROOF (2005)

Nothing exposes the mediocrity of an award-winning middlebrow play, especially one with quasi-intellectual leanings, like a faithful movie adaptation and PROOF is a paradigm of the type.* The play’s theme, which is right out of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, teases us to believe that a daughter may have inherited her Dad’s loony gene. It's gimmick is tricking this all up with higher mathematics, a bossy sister & a new beau. Was it more believable on stage? Gwyneth Paltrow sits uncomfortably on the razor’s edge between madness & brilliance while Jake Gyllenhaal just looks tongue-tied. In the hackneyed role of the fast-talking lunatic father, Anthony Hopkins out acts everyone, but can’t authenticate any of the ideas or action.
*DOUBT is an even newer addition to the ranks of over-praised theatrical hooey.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Writer Richard Brooks was pushing 40 when he started to direct his own scripts (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE/'55) and the effort of a late starter always showed in his work. He came closest to relaxing into a visual rhythm when he made his two Westerns; THE PROFESSIONALS and BITE THE BULLET, which actually holds up better than this earlier, better received, pic. With a glam cast (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, Ralph Bellamy) all honing their regular film personae, super location lensing from Conrad Hall & a nifty caper structure that U-turns right in the middle of Act II (kidnapped bride doesn’t want to be rescued), it’s as professional a product as its title exclaims. So why is the climax such a confusing mishmash? Just keep your expectations in line and you'll have a fine time.


Though a big commercial & critical disappointment, the Mel Brooks/Susan Stroman musicalization of his 1968 cult fave typifies his hit-to-miss ratio. What’s been lost is the grubby texture of ‘60s indie film production, the physical dilapidation of ‘Fun City’ (the remake goes back to late ‘50s/early ‘60s glam) and the physical threat that Zero Mostel brought so uncomfortably with him on screen. Nathan Lane, for all his technical abilities, always comes off as harmless in key roles originally played by Walter Matthau, Sam Levene, Mostel & Phil Silvers; the gags aren’t grounded, they don’t wound. On the other hand, Matthew Broderick is so blazingly precise, he manages to find equivalents for Gene Wilder ’s hysteria arias. (Live on stage, Broderick is something of an intuitive genius.) But the songs never feel necessary (the best two are hiding in the deleted area of the DVD) and all the singing dulls the shock effect of "Springtime For Hitler,’ which killed in its original clumsy low-tech absurdity.


Mel Brooks ’ original production has long lost the satisfying edge of taste-defying silliness it had back in more prudish times, and there’s obviously nothing to be done about his crude directorial technique. (His style, or lack thereof, stayed remarkably unchanged thru the years.) But the basic comic idea (has-been B’way producer sells 1000% of a ‘sure flop’ that turns into a surprise hit) trumps a lot of bad filmmaking habits. Zero Mostel is scary & funny & REAL (there’s just no threat attached to Nathan Lane in the remake) while Gene Wilder gives lessons in precision comedy technique as the wormy accountant. And there was something about the pathetic FUN CITY/John Lindsay-era NYC that made the desperation in the comedy set-ups play in a manner that the musical remake missed. Kids like the sheer rudeness in the material, and of course the dancing Nazis, so if the coarse sex jokes aren't a problem for you, see what happens.


This umpteenth dramatization of the infamous Dreyfus Affair purposefully avoids the obvious dramatic moments, but can’t figure out what to substitute. That mad megger Ken Russell is, alas, largely held in check (there’s one great edit straight from a jail cell to a mistress’s naked tummy) and lets his fine British cast chew a lot of scenery (Oliver Reed, Jeremy Kemp, Brian Blessed & director Lindsay Anderson in a scene stealing acting turn), but the script’s odd narrative lacunae defeat him. Richard Dreyfuss, as the sole upstanding French officer spouts various accents from all over the U.K. when he’s not playing Mahler symphonies on wax cylinders. Where’d he ever find them in the 1890s?


Satiric 1967 time-capsule about the Prez’s groovy psychiatrist (gloriously toothy James Coburn) who finds himself hip-deep in espionage follies since everyone presumes he knows "all." Alas, it's barely watchable under writer/director Theodore Flicker ’s fumbling style. Scene after scene promises more than it delivers: drop-out hippie band, CIA/FBI spats, gun-loving suburbanites, etc. Godfrey Cambridge has some fun as an unlikely spy and his USSR counterpart (Severn Darden) gets the single well-structured bit in the whole script, an impromptu analysis at sea by Coburn. Lensman William Fraker cleverly uses real locations for an ultra-sharp futuristic look and throws in zippy zooms for punch line punctuation. But the pickings is mighty slim.


Only wisps of small-town atmosphere & adolescent charm remain in this coarsened & musicalized version of Booth Tarkinton ’s story. (His basic idea must have been a NINETEEN to follow up on his classic SEVENTEEN, but this time from a female POV.) Judy Garland looks particularly lovely as the stagestruck gal who grabs the coattails B’way producer Van Heflin, a local boy made good. Garland comes off more like a stalker than a striver, but then, there’s no consistent tone under Norman Taurog ’s megging, anyway. Glamorous operetta star Martha Eggerth bedeviled Judy the year before in FOR ME AND MY GAL, and it's only worse this time around. The absurd notion of Garland replacing her as a coloratura Russian Countess in a big operetta throws the entire last act out of whack, forcing producer Joe Pasternak to tack on a huge extraneous finale to tip the balance back to Judy. No dice.

NOTE: For more Eggerth, check out her LA BOHEME inspired ZAUBER DER BOHEME/’36 (see below).

CONTEST: Be the first to name the great film director who was a most unlikely lead in a radio adaptation of SEVENTEEN to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD of your choice.


Jack Higgins’ straightforward thriller about a guilt-ridden IRA bomber forced into "one last job" (where have I heard that one before?) gets a snarky treatment from cult director Mike Hodges. Mickey Rourke, with alarming red hair, confesses all to the priest (Bob Hoskins, of all people) who accidentally witnessed the shooting. The rules of the church keep Father Bob from talking, but then Rourke goes and falls in love with the priest’s blind niece. They bond at the church organ. No kiddin', that’s the plot. Alan Bates is around as the top dog mobster who’s calling the shots (literally) and he seems to be the only actor who’s on to the jokey tone Hodges is aiming at. Bates is all set to do a sort of U.K. PRIZZI’S HONOR, but no one else, including an effortlessly charismatic Liam Neeson in a supporting role, got the message.


Joan Crawford was at her very best in POSSESSED . . . just not this POSSESSED. I'm referring to a 1931 production, also entitled POSSESSED. The earlier film, about a wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who moves up, features an utterly magical sequence when a train filled with ‘haves’ stops long enough for a ‘have-not’ like Joan to snare a peek through a window at an unimaginable dream life. This film, on the other hand, is primo psychological pulp, stylishly put together by director Curtis Bernhardt, lenser Joe Valentine, scorer Franz Waxman and Anton Grot on sets in an exceptional late outing. But the story (Joan goes mad, that’s literally mad, when her step-daughter falls for her ex-b’friend) is pretty feeble doings for all the heavy emoting. The only believable schizophrenic moments come from the abrupt shifts from actual locations to studio artifice, though Joan certainly gives those sets a run for the money in the artifice department.


Like a traumatic incident the mind deletes from the memory bank, you forget just how embarrassingly corny the first couple of exposition heavy reels are in this audience favorite. But there’s method in the ham-fisted character & plot contrivances that allow a whole gaggle of actors to make their mark and establish betting favorites on who survives the (just) believable logistics of finding a way out of an upside down cruise ship. Gene Hackman brings a bit too much method actor conviction to his modish angry priest role, but he’s such an unlikely action hero that he holds his own against the big entertaining cast. That is, excepting Shelley Winters who really was some kinda force of nature here. Eventually, producer Irwin Allen also started directing his disaster pics with ludicrous results, but here we’re under the steadying hand of Ronald Neame who knows where to plant his laughs, how to gloss over our sense of disbelief, and when to turn up the suspense.


One of the few Korean War pics was both comeback vehicle & last hurrah for Lewis Milestone, who had little control on his last films (OCEANS 11; MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY). Since the film is one big battle scene, it plays into Milestone’s strong suit, but rather like the war itself, it’s hard to get too enthused. Gregory Peck displays his fine slow burn tantrum, but the real kick comes in watching Rip Torn, Martin Landau, Robert Blake, George Peppard, Norman Fell, Harry Guardino, Woody Strode, etc. in dewy days. And whatever happened to George Shibata, who stands out in the atypical multi-racial cast.


Though not as disgraceful as the recent live-action Dr Seuss adaptations, this expansion of the well known "believe in Santa" picture book is plenty depressing in its own way. Using a creepy CGI animation process that turns the cast into slick corpses, there are some impressive if over elaborated visuals and a brief truly magical moment when a pack of wolves makes a surprise visit. The story lifts more childhood tropes than you thought you knew & when those run out we get fake John Williams music & the waiters from HELLO DOLLY! Writing, directing & pandering in equal measure, Robert Zemeckis earns first place in the "bah, humbug" tournament while Tom Hanks, playing multiple parts, gets second, third, fourth . . .


In John Boorman’s influential thriller, New Wave stylings and a nihilistic edge merge with the dregs of old Hollywood production gloss, turning a middling gangster revenge meller into more than the sum of its parts. Lee Marvin (in a role Mel Gibson revamped) is left for dead at a money drop off (on Alcatraz!), but he keeps popping back up to knock off everyone who won’t cough up the $93,000 due him. With such chump-change at stake, Boorman was emboldened to take a lot of stylistic leeway and he color-codes, time shifts & jump cuts with abandon, rarely pausing to worry about logic or narrative continuity. And the style holds it all together, along with uncommonly strong iconic perfs from Marvin, Angie Dickenson & the great, creepy John Vernon. Best of all is Carroll O’Connor as an exasperated Mr Big.


Freshly widowed, a glamorous lady of a certain age has to face a bankrupt jewelry business, ongoing shady deals, new love, old love & her own alcohol fueled demons. Only by rediscovering a sense of her own worth will she be able to control her new destiny & inherited fortune. It's a great set up for a ‘50s Douglas Sirk meller, and it works nicely for an exceedingly well made French pic w/ an impossibly gorgeous Catherine Deneuve (she was well in her 50s) taking the Jane Wyman/Lana Turner/Susan Hayward/Claudette Colbert role. And what a time she has with it! Megger Nicole Garcia has a bit of a hurdle keeping the large cast & multi-narrative double twists clear, but you won’t mind the few missteps, though the sadder-but-wiser diminuendo ending makes for a poor payoff. Handsomely shot, composed (picrues & score), well paced & superbly cast (with Denueve finding depth in shallow waters), it’s the sort of plush entertainment everyone says they can’t find anymore.


Modest in scale & effect, Edoardo Winspeare’s helming debut is meticulous in detailing the local folk customs & background of a small Southern Italian town in 1943 where an Italian-American flyer is downed not too far from where he & his family lived before emigrating 15 years ago. Passing himself off as a cousin of a resident, he falls hard for the daughter of his protector, even though he’s aware that she’s about to be engaged to a well off local. And, before you can say CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA, there’s a tragic price to be paid. With the exception of some fetid sequences detailing a sort of mad dance fever, Winspeare let’s things play out in a basic Neo-Realistic style, non-pros and all, which adds immeasurably to the verisimitude, but the line between inevitability & the obvious is sometimes crossed.

PINKY (1949)

This is that rare socially conscious "problem" film that looks more rather than less complicated with the passage of time. In school up North, Jeanne Crain ’s Pinky passed as white, but back down South with Grandma Ethel Waters, she no longer knows what she wants to be or what she is. Too many issues & conflicts are either smoothed out (Ethel Barrymore ’s dowager grows nice and dies on cue for the plot mechanics) or finessed (fiance William Lundigan is sent packing to save us from an interracial marriage), but Elia Kazan and writers Philip Dunne & Dudley Nichols acknowledge being plain out of their depth with some intriguingly conflicted black characters. Not exactly a success, but it holds you.

PIN UP GIRL (1944)

Innocuous Fox wartime musical made at the height of Betty Grable ’s career is almost devoid of spark or inspiration in all departments. Betty sings, dances & lies her way into the arms of a tabloid ‘war hero of the day,’ The End. There’s a specialty dance duo (The Condos Bros) worth seeing, Martha Raye demos her alarming combo of swinging pipes & desperation shtick, plus you get a look at one of those pathetic WWII substitute leading men (John Harvey) the studios tried out while their stars were off in uniform somewhere. From today’s perspective, note how much more attractive Grable looks when she's in her deglamorized mode as part of the story. And have a listen to Richard Schickel’s commentary; talk about phoning it in! Hope he at least cashed his check.


Late British silent (with tacked on ‘talkie’ prologue) from famed German megger E. A Dupont is worth seeing just for the releasing company’s tag line on the end credits, "WorldWide Pictures: Photoplays made where the stories laid." Like VAREITY, Dupont’s best claim to cinematic fame, PICADILLY is a sex triangle story among performers (a nightclub rather than the circus) as club dancer Gilda Gray does a fast fade when her partner (Cyril Ritchard) splits on her. She’s screwing the club owner (Jameson Thomas) to keep her position, but business is business and he finds a new sensation right in his very own scullery. Anna May Wong. She's superb here, a veritable Louise Brooks siren. Soon, Wong dumps her boyfriend for Thomas and when she’s killed that leaves us with two likely suspects. Working with a superb lenser, Werner Brandes, and the legendary Alfred Junge on the spectacular sets, Dupont offers some beautifully realized visuals, but the style becomes repetitious. Here the big overused technical gimmick are fast pans to link players in dramatic situations - it’s striking, the first twenty times, but then turns into a mannerism). Meanwhile, the story quickly exhausts its possibilities. Still, it’s quite an eyeful and you get to see Charles Laughton do a masterful bit in his film debut.


What were the studio execs thinking? Or did Andrew Lloyd Webber use his own dime to craft a colossal vanity project? PHANTOM never had much story to lean on, but now there’s none at all. The three leads are bad enough (the girl is pretty but makes a wiry sound ‘in alt’; the boy is pretty but crucified by his haircut; the phantom is also pretty but hopelessly over-parted -- he’s only lightly disfigured & can’t hit the notes), while Minnie Driver & Simon Callow ham away like rank amateurs. Joel Schumacher goes back to his BATMAN style of decor, decor everywhere and hoping it'll all somehow come together in the editing room. (It doesn't.) And the music, the presumed raison d'etre for all this, repeats its few pathetic themes endlessly when not leaning for inspiration on 'little known' tunes like "Blow the Wind Southerly" or Don Jose’s ‘Flower Song’ from CARMEN for an effective ‘wrong chord’ sob on the Phantom’s big romantic solo. And how uncomfortably that song, 'Music of the Night," lies on the voice. The film came and went in a flash. The stage show continues indefinitely.


This granddaddy of hostage dramas is now largely famous for restarting Humphrey Bogart ’s Hollywood career. Odd, because in recreating his big stage success, his every menacing gesture & vocal inflection now looks petrified. Ditto for Leslie Howard ’s fatalistic intellectual, though he remains nonpareil in this kind of role and had a special rapport with Bette Davis in their three pairings. She’s at her freshest as a roadstop waitress who dreams of getting away, and her soft features are lovingly captured by lenser Sol Polito. The whole cast is right on the mark (almost parodistically so) and if megger Archie Mayo gets knocks for the stagebound look of the production, most of the creakiness is built into Robert Sherwood ’s poesy platitudes. But then, so is the inherent theatricality that makes this show so damn effective/affective.

PERSONA (1966)

Ingmar Bergman ’s chef d’oeuvre about two woman (a willfully mute actress recovering from a nervous breakdown & her doppelganger nurse who is tripped into one) remains a riveting free-association visual essay for the great man’s obsessions. The DVD, with the framing returned to his preferred 1:33 to 1 as opposed to the theatrically cropped 1:66 to 1, allows his iconic full face shots to achieve maximum image coverage, no hardship for Liv Ullman or Bibi Andersson at the time. Yet, what’s clearer than ever is how the film isn’t about their relationship, but all about Ingmar who as director is also forced into silence whenever "action" is called as he struggles to place his image/imaginations on another person’s face.


Pace Tim Burton ’s current respectability/bankability, has he made a film worth cheering since 1994's ED WOOD?* Unearned approbation probably helps make his debut seem better than it really is. He’s helped by the modest scale, budget & effects which keep him from over-elaborating, though technically, he can’t handle the simplest action scene. (Ahem. He still can’t.) Paul Reubens ’ Pee-Wee should probably stay clear of scenes involving real life little kids (it’s like seeing Pluto & Goofy in the same animated short), but the picaresque elements in crossing the country to find a lost bike play out like a Deluxe Pop-Up edition of a Jane & Michael Stern guidebook. *SWEENY TODD has since appeared so things may have changed.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Satyajit Ray’s famous first film belongs near the top of what is a surprisingly long list of masterpiece debut pics. (Think OUR HOSPITALITY, CABIN IN THE SKY, CITIZEN KANE, THE 400 BLOWS, CHICAGO.) Ray’s clear-eyed view of a family struggling against poverty & disintegration in rural India clearly stems out of the post-WWII neo-realist style and, of course, the humanism of Jean Renoir, under whom Ray apprenticed on THE RIVER. Ray always maintained a certain distance between himself and that film, but Renoir's quietly assured, subtle technique certainly made its mark. And do those exquisitely held contemplative landscape shots, used as punctuation, show a knowledge of Yasujiro Ozu's manner? No matter, Ray instantly developed a voice of his own that perfectly delved inside his own artistic rivers of life. Here, we meet a tragic dreamer of a father, an embittered yet sympathetic mother, a headstrong daughter to cherish while she's with us and the bright-eyed son who takes in each unforgettable moment for us/with us. And for Ray it was only the beginning.

CONTEST: Name and defend two more debut pics that belong up there with the ones mentioned above. (This is a rare non-factual/opinion-oriented CONTEST, so grab it.) The first convincing answer gets our usual priceless prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on any NetFlix DVD of your choice.


Cult helmer Sam Peckinpah was either selling out for the bucks or had become too self-conscious about his burgeoning critical reputation when he sabotaged his own career with this out-of-control disaster. The film has now been (yet again) restored to some sort of original vision/version that does little to help things. It’s the usual revisionist pablum about Billy the Kid (everyone’s favorite bad boy anarchist) being methodically hunted down by his old pal Garrett (agent for the usual corporate/government types); blah, blah, blah. James Coburn can take care of himself in any situation, but virtually everyone else in the impressive sounding cast embarrass themselves. Though none more than poor Bob Dylan who looks helplessly foolish, as if no one let him in on a joke. Somehow, after failing to have his name taken off this crap, Peckinpah turned right around and made his final masterpiece, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, to little acclaim and less audience. The reception on that one probably did him in. He made a few more films, but he was through.


Third time out for Somerset Maugham’s exceptionally readable novella spells out every motivation and warms up the chilly leads for a big weepy finish. Edward Norton & Naomi Watts sweat to stay in character as the mismatched couple who fight infidelity (a commanding perf from Liev Schreiber) and cholera in China. But the modern taste for film realism largely subverts the echt Maugham tone of calm surface/raging undertow so subtly caught in Greta Garbo’s 1934 version, probably the best of her lesser-known vehicles. In that earlier filming, the posh settings and comfortable clothes for Garbo, cuckolded hubby Herbert Marshall and potent lover-boy George Brent remain nearly as unblemished as Maugham’s measured prose. Thanks, no doubt, to the restrictions of the old Hollywood Production Code, we have to tease out the changing levels of masochism & eroticism in Maugham’s artificially balanced structure on our own; it adds an impression of psychological depth you may find missing from the remake.

DOUBLE-BILL/READ ALL ABOUT IT: In addition to Garbo’s 1934 beauty & this 2006 version, there’s also a 1957 remake with Eleanor Parker renamed THE SEVENTH SIN. They all hold interest, but even Maugham-ophobes might give the book a try.


One of the mega-bomb late ‘60s musicals (even Elvis came to grief that year with CHANGE OF HABIT), this revamped Lerner & Loewe tuner boasts a stunning physical production wonderfully caught by lensers William Fraker & Loyal Griggs. But Paddy Chayefsky ’s all-new book (it's THE GOLD RUSH meets DESIGN FOR LIVING) was too risqué for the family audience while the musical comedy format was too unhip for the burgeoning youth/counter-culture crowd. Within its own lunatic parameters, the first half largely comes off under megger Josh Logan ’s genial hand, but his films never matched his great stage successes. As the grizzled prospector, Lee Marvin is impossibly broad (he's trying to top his turn in CAT BALLOU), Clint Eastwood subdues his jazz instincts to make like Pat Boone as the male ingenue, while Jean Seberg is just awful purty. You sure see all those millions up on the screen, but after intermission, the pic collapses long before the town does. And you still have to get through Ray Walston & a couple of wan Andre Previn tunes that were added to beef up the sturdy but old-fashioned original score. The movie execs of those times weren't just out of touch, they were out to lunch.

OWD BOB (1997)

Third filming for this novel about an orphaned boy who goes to live with his crusty G’dad on the Isle of Man. Anyone who’s ever seen a Hallmark tv presentation can guess the rest, but the film is just peculiar enough to give pause. G’dad comes off as an embittered psychotic (a weird miscalculation from James Cromwell) and his prize-winning herder dog is also the vicious local sheep killer. (The pooch who got the role can barely raise a friendly bark.) The neighbors seem nice enough, befriending our lonely lad, yet they refuse any medical treatment as Mom succumbs to cancer. Talk about stoic. And the story climaxes with a limply staged sheep herding contest followed by yet another sheep killing, which turns the whole town into a community doggie lynch mob. The great Colm Meaney is fine as the nice neighbor and Jemima Rooper, as his daughter, has wonderful off-beat looks, but it adds up to one mighty peculiar family movie. It's HEIDI meet CUJO.


Scabrous, take no prisoners fable (by Petr Lutsik about Russian capitalism) follows six duped ex-collective farmers/landowners on an unpicturesque picaresque to retrieve their hectares with the certificate of land ownership. As they get closer & closer to their goal, they move up in society & their tactics descend from coarse jocular ribbing, to roughing up, and on down through torture, murder, cannibalism & terrorism with a nice dose of arson as chaser. Lutsik shoots this in a dark, contrasty B&W that abstracts & distances us from the action in a Brechtian manner, while honoring the strains of Gogol & Gorki in his low-down cast of comic horrors. Takes a while to gather momentum, but ultimately unique & devastating.


This top-tier "noir" looks better each year, resisting the camp accretions so common to the genre. Even with twice the character load of a typical noir (e.g. GILDA/’46 or DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44), the story twists make sense thanks to a clearheaded script and the way helmer Jacques Tourneur holds to the narrative line. It’s as simple (and as complicated) as a missing moll, an impressionable dick and the mob. Nicholas Musuraca all but invented that moody noir look, so the stylish studio lensing is a given, but his location work is equally fine. And the classic cast all give classics perfs. As the hard-shelled detective, Robert Mitchum is a monument to noir fatalism, while the lesser known Jane Greer’s femme fatale is unusually subtle for the genre. (She’d be better known if Howard Hughes hadn’t sabotaged her career). Kirk Douglas, still in his pleasing early intellectual mode, is ultra-smooth as a smiling gangster trying to find the elusive Ms. Greer. This was long before he started trying too hard. And there’s an intensely empathetic turn from former child-actor Dickie Moore in his first post-teen role. Just great.


Maverick helmer Sam Peckinpah never recovered from the stillborn release of his masterful, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA/‘74. His final releases are all worth a look, but directing is now just a habit (and an income source) he can’t drop. His last is this largely implausible, hopelessly confused CIA double-cross tale. Agent John Hurt takes revenge on boss Burt Lancaster by attacking man’s predilection for video voyeurism, personalized for us in this whopper of a tale by Rutger Hauer, Michael Sarandon, Craig T. Nelson & Dennis Hopper. There’s a nifty highway wreck sequence early on, but only Peckinpah’s misogyny remains fully functioning.

OSAMA (2003)

There’s something bordering on obscene that a film dealing with such violence, appalling socio-politico/ religious situations and hopeless lives should be so strikingly beautiful in form, color, texture & technique, but director Siddiq Barmak knows that beauty may be found in the most hellish of places. Osama is the only child of a widowed mother and grandmother. She’s passing as a boy to secure a pittance of a position when she finds herself forced into a Taliban school for the town’s male children. Found out, she is spared stoning only through the sexual interest of a powerful local mullah. Enthralling and horrifying.

ORDET (1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is certainly more viewer friendly than his last, GERTRUD. But don’t let that fool you, it’s still a film for hardy souls, though this one generates a big emotional release. The dramatic issue centers around a proposed marriage across uncompromising Christian sects, a child birthing gone wrong, an intellectual turned Holy Fool, and how true belief can trump all concerns. But what makes the film so powerful is Dreyer ’s handling of the cast & physical setting. There’s layers of art behind the sparse abstraction while a mastery of ‘mise-en-scene’ and lateral tracking turn even the slowest actions into something dynamic. Possibly more powerful for non-believers who won’t expect the ending, but a must-see for all, especially in this handsome Criterion edition. Patience is its own reward here. For those who don't 'get' ascetic filmmakers (say Bresson or Pialat), this film might help turn the key for you.


Ann Rutherford & George Montgomery are dull newlyweds in this otherwise bracing big-band on tour tuner. She’s a starstruck mid-West gal who impulsively marries his trumpet player man, then finds life on the road with a bunch of nosey, gossipy, jealous ‘orchestra wives’ too much to handle. They split, they get back together; the band splits, the band gets back together. Yet it’s all nicely packaged with snappy dialogue (one of the wives uses Noel Coward as an adjective), while Glenn Miller, The Modernaires, & Tex Beneke sound great. Hold on for a stupendous half reel as the Nicholas Bros take on ‘I Got A Gal In Kalamazoo’ (removable below the Mason/Dixon line). Archie Mayo shows more moxie than usual (lenser Lucien Ballard helps with some real townie atmosphere) and there are nice turns by Cesar Romero, and those youngsters, Jackie Gleason & Harry Morgan. Is that knock-out girl at the far end of the soda fountain an unbilled Ava Gardner? Hubba-hubba! They shoulda given her the lead.


Dismissed from RKO and the direction of GUNGA DIN, Howard Hawks turned in this far more personal work, a fabulist’s tale of professional flyers who cover their manly sentimentality with comradery, sexual bravado and fatalism, the usual Hawksian themes he’d play with for the rest of his career. But never again with a cast of this depth. Jules Furthman ’s script fakes you out since 90% of the scenes could play on stage (he breaks every rule of action cinema), but with what flavorful dialogue!, what delicious characterizations!, what cunning structure and memorable business he hangs on the tale. Yet what truly sets this apart from other Hawks’ adolescent male-bonding yarns comes by way of Jean Arthur. Hawks wasn’t happy having her in the pic, she hardly fell into the boyish, one-of-the-guys category he preferred on film (and in his personal life). She’s a real grown-up woman and she makes everyone else (Cary Grant, Richard Barthelmess, Thomas Mitchell, Sig Rumann, Allan Joslyn, Noah Berry, Jr, even Rita Hayworth before they ‘lifted’ her hairline) vibrate to a broader wavelength than Hawks dared handle before or after. Hawks never forgave her for it.

Monday, May 26, 2008


TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS meets REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in this over-baked Swedish Bildungsroman (Bildungskino?) coming-of-age pic about a troubled teen who responds to his step-dad’s beatings with savage schoolyard thuggery. Given a last chance at a posh private school, he tries to ignore the sadistic traditions of upperclass ‘fagging,’ but ultimately lashes out, turning the tables on his tormentors with his fists. An odd moral lesson, no? Megger Mikael Hafstrom has little gift for channeling the emotional resonance built into Jan Guilou’s novelized memoir (the levels of tit-for-tat bullying & bloody violence are fit for a FIGHT CLUB sequel) and he loses crucial 50's atmosphere in repression & conformity with a cast that looks & acts far too up-to-date. Oddly, there’s not a speck of homoerotic tension amongst the close all-male quarters, testosterone & swim club scenes; a first for a puberty addled boarding school yarn.


This was the third time Fox musicalized this fifth-rate piece of ersatz Molnar (FOLIES BERGERE and THAT NIGHT IN RIO preceded), and, amazingly, all three versions have their charms. Here, we get some dandy Jack Cole choreography (with juicy turns from a young Gwen Verdon, but with a dubbed voice) and a chance to see Danny Kaye in a double role that calls upon his sophisticated international stage persona, rather than the infantile nebbishes he got stuck doing in his early Sam Goldwyn vehicles. This grown up Danny has aged infinitely better, and in a smoothie number like ‘Ballin’ the Jack’ or in one of the better 'numbos' penned by Sylvia (Mrs Danny) Kaye "Rhythm of a New Romance,’ he’s a knock-out. Corinne Calvert makes a fine partner for Kaye, but half her scenes must have landed on the cutting room floor.

CONTEST: Character actor Marcel Dalio was in two famous films that featured a glamorous, record-breaking aviator. One was ON THE RIVIERA and the other was . . . Name it first and get a Write-Up on any NetFlix DVD on your choice.