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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 Hallstr√∂m’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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (1954)


One of the few Korean War pics, this adaptation of James Michener’s bestseller is heavy with prestige it can’t live up to. The biggest problem is Valentine Davies’ script which hits all the philosophical points on Men & War, Families & War, Comradeship & War, Leadership & War with an earnest voice that’s too ‘on point’ to convince as dialogue. Plus, the staggeringly handsome footage at sea & combat flying scenes only make the mock-up studio stuff & backscreen projection stick out all the more. (Odd coming from Paramount where Farciot Edouart ran Hollywood’s best F/X department.) As the conflicted pilot, William Holden shows sorrowful panic while retaining his manly mien in his unique manner, but everyone else (Fredric March, Grace Kelly and an obnoxious Mickey Rooney) only gets a single tune to hum. Right at the end, the big mission shows helmer Mark Robson at his best, with some good tough scenes for a couple of reels, but this just spotlights all that’s been been missing in the previous hour & a half.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

THE BIG STEAL (1949)



Don Siegel, of all people, helmed this fast & funny romantic comedy/picaresque caper which stars Robert Mitchum & Jane Greer, of all people. Bob’s down in Mexico, on the run from William Bendix who’s trying to recover $300,000 in army payroll money. But Mitchum doesn’t have it, he’s chasing Greer’s slick fianc√© to recover the loot & his reputation. Watching these mad Gringos is Ramon Novarro, the great silent film star, delightful in his first Hollywood pic since the mid-‘30s. He’s the town’s police chief who knows what going on, but lets matters run their course. The Mexican background (people & places) are used to wonderful advantage and at a brisk 71 minutes, no one has to start acting stupid to keep the plot running. Between Siegel, Mitchum, Bendix & Greer, there’s enough noir trimmings to season the stew and this modest film is a twisty delight. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

LOST HORIZON (1937)


Well-remembered adaptation of James Hilton’s pacifist Utopian fantasy adventure gets off to a fine start under Frank Capra’s muscular helming. Ronald Colman, with his gentlemanly heroics & decency, rescues a group of Americans & Brits as riots & war break out in China, then finds himself shanghaied on his way to Shanghai. The irony! But once they stumble into Shangra-La, the film goes belly up. The city-state is an odd benign dictatorial commune with European masters and Asian worker-bees, and its isolation from world issues (in 1937 mind you) feels disingenuous, at best. Capra, whose ability to control an audience was second to none, seems unable to activate the philosophical discussions as drama so the deliberate pacing feels deadly. Perhaps if the film elements were in better shape or if the design of Shangra-La didn’t call to mind a mishmash of the Barcelona World Exhibition, M-G-M’s Thalberg Building, the backyard of Buster Keaton’s Hollywood mansion & the sets for the movie SHE.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Read Frank Capra's version of how he saved this film at the last minute by trashing the first two reels in his autobio THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE and then watch Joseph McBride separate fact from fiction (and self-aggrandizement) in his massive & merciless Capra bio THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS.

Friday, July 18, 2008

WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME (1950)

When John Ford walked away from PINKY/’49 (Elia Kazan took over), he owed Fox a quick pic and got assigned this largely uncongenial bit of whimsy. It’s a bland variation on Preston Sturges’s great WWII farce HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, this time with Dan Dailey as a weapons instructor who can’t get into the war. (Shades of Ford’s unhappy version of MISTER ROBERTS/’55.) When Dailey finally gets his big chance, his largely accidental, whirlwind behind-the-lines adventures happen so fast, no one believes his heroic tale. It’s always enlightening to see directors with strong profiles working out of their element, you can see the professional instincts laid bare, but WILLIE is pretty flaccid stuff. Not painful, except for some Fordian alcohol gags, and nicely handled by most of the cast (William Demarest plays Pop for some of that old Sturges spirit), but it doesn't add up to much. The deleted scenes on the current DVD edition show that this film, like Ford’s WHAT PRICE GLORY/’52 misfire, was designed as a mini-musical, but left most of its musical numbers on the cutting-room floor.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

A treat from the early Talkie days, this John Ford prison drama travesty manages to have its cake & eat it too. Spencer Tracy (totally assured in his debut) and the intensely likable Warren Hymer (in comic slo-think mode) play recidivist cons who break out just to help their high-class pal Humphrey Bogart stay out for good. The story’s one big whopper, but it's impossible not to relax with its goof-ball humor and nicely timed gags featuring do-gooder society ladies mixing with the boys, inter-prison baseball tournaments and a women’s prison right over the fence. It all plays like a happy improvisation, and probably was. Bogie’s still the callow, handsome, lisp-free youth here, so don’t be surprised. Save your shock for the amazing range of racial attitudes on display. Everything from subservient slavey to sassy wiseass to casual integrated acceptance right up thru a blackface stage act. You’ll be scratching your head more than once. But the film is an inexplicably successful bit of tomfoolery

ILLEGAL (1955)

Modest Edward G. Robinson vehicle, a remake of THE MOUTHPIECE/’32, about a tough D.A. who switches sides after convicting an innocent man on a murder rap. (StarTrekaphobes can enjoy watching DeForest Kelly walk to the electric chair.) He winds up as a big-time lawyer for the mob, but has to go straight when his favorite girl gets charged with Murder-One for shooting her husband in self-defence. If only Lewis Allen had shown a bit of swagger & style as megger since the script is reasonably shipshape and the cast is willing (Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe, Ellen Corby & Jayne Mansfield in her debut). But everything here, even the great Eddie G., pales next to the 1932 original. Unavailable in any video format, THE MOUTHPIECE is only one of a dozen pre-Code titles with Warren William that are begging for release. Any takers?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

UNCONQUERED (1947)

Cecil B. De Mille’s directing skills grew increasingly stiff after the early ‘20s, and adding Technicolor in the ‘40s just made everything look more arthritic. He retained, as ever, his hold over narrative structure (his saving grace), but the combination of hokey stories, acting, motivation, film technique, studio sets & out-of-touch attitudes skirted with outright derision from all but the naifest of audiences. This tall, tall pre-Revolutionary tale (‘injun’ nations join in war against the white man) is typically ridiculous stuff, yet about halfway thru you may find yourself succumbing to the consistency of its puddingheaded vision. Only Gary Cooper is near his best (though Boris Karloff is weirdly riveting as Top Chief) while you’d never guess that Paulette Goddard would ace the role of a lifetime in Alex Korda’s masterpiece, AN IDEAL HUSBAND/’48, the year after this remarkably poor showing. Weak as it is, it’s probably De Mille’s best work from the decade.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)

Using the Beatles song catalog as an anchor to carry us thru the tumultuous late ‘60s may sound like an untenable, not to say pretentious idea, but the big surprise of Julie Taymor’s ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is that it’s even worse than you imagined. Making the song lyrics concrete (Jo-Jo, Lucy, Prudence, Jude, Sadie are just some of the character names) makes reductio ad absurdum hash of every phrase. You live in fear of the next inevitable song cue. But it’s mainly Taymor’s exhausting imagination that wears you out. She’s like a whole classroom of over-achieving Performing Arts honor kids. The story is not all that different than HAIR (best buds, Pop music, Vietnam, protests), but the soul of the film isn’t too far removed from the ghastly, infamous 1978 SGT. PEPPER film. Surprisingly, taking inflation into account, this film did just as poorly, yet somehow (no doubt because of the great on-stage success of THE LION KING) Taymor has become a critical untouchable. Even when she's the biggest bore in town. Yet at the very end of the film, she discards all the hyper-technical apparatus and pulls off a finale that’s simple & lovely. Where had this sensible person been hiding for the previous 2 hours?

Monday, July 14, 2008

BEFORE I HANG (1940)


Boris Karloff, condemned on a euthanasia charge, uses the weeks before his hanging to perfect his anti-aging serum – on himself! When his punishment is commuted to life-in-prison, he watches as time’s winged warrior backtracks . . . until those nasty side-effects start kicking in. Megger Nick Grinde pulls off a few noirish feints, but most of the film looks as blandly efficient & unstylish as episodic ‘50s tv. Watch for a neat scene where you expect Karloff to lose control as he listens to a friend playing Chopin. (Will he slam down the cover on his old friend’s hands?) And unlike Vincent Price, his successor in the horror genre who grew carelessly hammy over the years, Karloff continued to put a lot of thought & feeling into increasingly routine roles, honoring his craft to the extent circumstances allowed.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

BORN RECKLESS (1930)


This early John Ford ‘Talkie’ has a fair share of knockabout charm to it in between the laborious dialogue-heavy dramatics typical of this transition period. (Dialogue director Andrew Bennison is a likely culprit for the deadly pacing,) Edmund Lowe, who seems unrelated to his ultra-Italian family, is part of a gang of jewelry thieves who get sent to fight in WWI rather than face burglary charges. He comes home a hero and establishes a successful night club/speakeasy, but still loses the girl of his dreams to a WASPy type. Years later, when that girl finds her child kidnapped, Lowe is the man she turns to for help. It’s all faintly ridiculous, but you can see how effective it must have been at the time (and still occasionally is) during a few closely staged shoot-outs, tight car chases thru city streets and in some timeless service comedy stuff (look for Ward Bond) & ethnic gags that still hit their marks. If only the actors would pick up their cues!

Friday, July 11, 2008

THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939)

By the late ‘30s, Boris Karloff had slipped to Grade B programmers @ Columbia. In this one, after a lumpy first act, we touch a level of perversity that might have pleased Lon Chaney & Todd Browning, even under the helm of the justly named Nick Grinde. Karloff is testing a sort of suspended-animation procedure on a willing subject when the police stop him from reviving the man. Arrested for murder and sentenced to death, his own experiment revives him after execution. Now, he lives only to avenge those who done ‘im wrong, killing them off one by one. Alas, the first six victims (members of the jury) are offed off-stage and the rest are herded together in quasi Agatha Christie/TEN LITTLE INDIANS style that leaves too many miserable contract players on their feet at the finale. But the script, by former D. W. Griffith lenser Karl Brown, gives off a pleasingly creepy chill.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

PILGRIMAGE (1933)


John Ford acolytes overrate this title about an obstinate widow (Henrietta Crosman) who sends her only son off to WWI to keep him from marrying the ‘wrong’ girl.’ It’s fascinating to see the warring influences of F. W. Murnau & D. W. Griffith fighting for the great director’s soul (the film is physically stunning with a shockingly blunt death scene in the war trenches), but the inconsistencies in story construction & acting end up begging rather then earning our response. The third act feels entirely contrived. It all might have worked better with an actress less stage-oriented than Henrietta Crosman in the lead. She’s far more comfortable as matriarch of the Barrymore/Drew clan in George Cukor’s THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY/’30. (As a pipe smoking mom who is also taking the 'pilgrimage' to honor lost sons, Lucille LaVerne shows just what Ford hoped to get out of Crosman.) Watch for a European village set that’s left over from Ford’s WWI silent ‘mother-love’ epic (FOUR SONS/'28) and enjoy the acting of a cute kid named Jay Ward who grew up to create Rocky & Bullwinkle.


NOTE: Although it’s relatively stagebound & not currently on DVD, try to see John Cromwell’s THE SILVER CORD (from the same year; w/ Irene Dunne, Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Eric Linden & Laura Hope Crews all giving peak perfs) for a far stronger take on the dangers of ‘Mother-Love.’

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)

House megger Roy William Neill, who churned out those handsome updated Sherlock Holmes pics @ Universal, can’t maintain a consistent visual style in this Boris Karloff thriller made @ Columbia in their Poverty Row days. The production shifts awkwardly from large sets & hordes of extras to cramped sound stages with cycloramas out of a High School drama club. The familiar story involves twin brothers (one Good/one Bad) who are the cursed heirs to a duchy. The story & effects are nicely worked out and it’s tremendous fun watching Karloff attempting to look alternately benign and benighted with the same overenthusiastic smile. If only Columbia had better contract players for him to play with. Watch for the tricky reveal shot which features an extreme zoom lens shot rare for the period. Nice.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

SUPERMAN (1941-43)



The SUPERMAN strip was only a few years old when Paramount started their series of one-reel animated shorts via Max & Dave Fleischer. The gorgeous results can be seen in reasonably good condition in the BOSKO/Image COMPLETE SUPERMAN COLLECTION. The Fleischer Brothers’ inordinately lux production scheme probably got them axed about halfway thru the 17 titles, you’ll easily spot the falloff in detail & characterization, but even the least episode is worth checking out while the famously feuding Fleischers gave us four or five masterpieces. No live-action SUPERMAN comes close to the graphic invention seen in these fast moving adventures while the WWII time frame gave the mini-stories an extra charge. And Clark Kent, with barely a line or two per episode, is almost magically caught.

BEDAZZLED (1967)

Don’t let the flop reputation of the recent remake (unseen here) put you off the lightly deranged and wickedly mordant original. Peter Cook & Dudley Moore are in peak condition under Stanley Donen’s nicely unforced direction in this Faust & the Devil story. Hardly the freshest idea, but it feels both comfy & brand new. There are gracefully paradoxical speeches for Cook’s Shavian Devil and a wonderfully eccentric inamorata (Eleanor Bron) for Moore to stumble toward, all set in early Brit-Mod attire. Naturally, each wish goes gleefully off-course and some of the scenes now look like classics (jumping Nuns, flies on the wall, black & white tv pop stars), but don’t underestimate the tiny joys in catching the Devil doling out japeries. A modest, but true delight. (see NOT ONLY BUT ALWAYS; BEYOND THE FRINGE)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

FOUR SONS (1928)


John Ford’s WWI set tear-jerker about a Bavarian widow & her eponymous boys (army man, blacksmith, farmer & herder) works us hard for its tears. While it prefigures Ford’s later work, especially HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, the sculpted cinematography & expressively mobile camerawork are dead giveaways to the enormous artistic influence German director F. W. Murnau briefly held over mainstream Hollywood. (The magnificent war-front sequence takes place on left-over sets from his SUNRISE.) The first act strenuously sets up the happy little operetta village that will turn dark in wartime and it works because the old sentimental stories made you pay for your tears with devastating losses. Here, sons fight on both sides of the war which was the true life story for cast member Ferdinand Schumann-Heink, son of legendary contralto Ernestine S-H. There’s a structural problem Ford can’t accommodate when Mom emigrates to America after the war, but you’ll see why the film was such a huge success, especially in the current DVD release with its superb new score and generally excellent picture quality.