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Monday, September 29, 2008

WORDS AND MUSIC (1948)

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

LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (2006)

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

Sunday, September 28, 2008

EASTERN PROMISES (2006)

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

Saturday, September 27, 2008

TO JOY (1949)

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006)

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

WOODEN CROSSES (1931)



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

Sunday, September 21, 2008

STOPOVER TOKYO (1957)

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958)

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2008

THE QUEEN (2006)

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

Saturday, September 13, 2008

PINERO (2001)

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

THE RETURN (2003)

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

DUCK YOU SUCKER (1972)


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

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)



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

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)

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

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

Saturday, September 6, 2008

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2008

3:10 TO YUMA (2007)

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE (1947)

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