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Sunday, August 31, 2008

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)

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

Saturday, August 30, 2008

MIDNIGHT (1939)

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

Friday, August 29, 2008

CASINO ROYALE (2006)

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007)

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

SPIDER (2002)

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

ROMANCE (1999)

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

MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006)

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

THE KITE RUNNER (2007)

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

FIXED BAYONETS! (1951)


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

THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)


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

ANIMATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA (1924-1980)

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

Monday, August 4, 2008

THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1973)

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

HOLIDAY (1938)

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

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

Saturday, August 2, 2008

AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER (2002)

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

Friday, August 1, 2008

HIS MAJESTY O’KEEFE (1953)

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