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Thursday, December 31, 2009

THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936)


Six years after his death, M-G-M was still keeping that Lon Chaney mojo going in this fantastical tale of revenge. Lionel Barrymore (in the putative Chaney role) makes an escape from Devil’s Island with a mad scientist who specializes in reducing animals who remain alive though no bigger than a toy. Hmm. Soon, back in Paris, he disguises himself as a kindly doll-making madame and is able to plant murderous ‘living dolls’ in the homes of the men who framed her (er . . . him) for embezzlement. Thanks to some remarkably fine trick camera work and the cleverly wound plot, the story manages to stay just this side of ridiculous, and some of it is seriously creepy. It’s helped by an unusually fine cast for this sort of film; Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton & Rafaela Ottiano were fresh off the superb adaptation of DAVID COPPERFIELD/’35 and Robert Grieg, Arthur Hohl & Henry B Walthall, all expert scene stealers, provide tasty turns. Connecting the dots is Lon Chaney’s favorite helmer, Tod Browning, in his last major release, who finally makes a sound film that compares favorably with the best of his silent work. Check out THE UNKNOWN/’27 to see the Chaney-Browning team at its greatest . . . and sickest.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

DOV’E LA LIBERTA . . . ? / WHERE IS FREEDOM? (1952)

For a director with the intellectual rigor of Roberto Rossellini, only a comedy with serious undertones could be worthy of interest. Thus, DOV’E, the story of a paroled prisoner who finds life on the outside more confining, more dangerous, lonelier and more untenable then the certain comforts of life in the Big House. In fact, he's trying to break back in! There’s little wrong with this set up, and the great Italian comedian Totó brings his sad-faced resignation to the role. But Rossellini seems to think that this basic idea is all the work he need do. With an idea so deep, so original, so trenchant, why complicate things with inventive comic ideas? Could he possibly have been unaware of how shopworn the bare ideas were, that Chaplin was pulling variations on this theme as far back as the ‘teens, with particularly brilliant results in THE PILGRIM/‘23? You need only go back a single year to find Totó working much the same terrain to far greater effect in Mario Monicelli’s deliciously funny COPS AND ROBBERS/GUARDIE E LADRI/’51. There’s a scene in that film, where Totó & comic actor Fabrizi chase each other on foot to the point of slo-mo, middle-aged exhaustion that has more humor & wisdom then you’ll find in this entire film. Yet, there are dozens of monographs on Rossellini, while I have yet to read a serious appraisal or appreciation of GUARDIE & LADRI.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

MAD LOVE (1935)

Until the day he died, M-G-M’s legendary head-of-production Irving Thalberg never gave up his search for the next Lon Chaney. The horror racket was saving his old studio, Universal, from bankruptcy, but his stabs at the form since Chaney’s death in 1930, never clicked. This version of THE HANDS OF ORLAC (the one about the concert pianist whose wrecked hands are swapped for the malicious hands of a freshly executed murderer) is probably as close as he got to his goal. Peter Lorre, in a creepy Stateside debut, is the maniacal doctor who operates to win the favors of the pianist’s loyal wife, an actress at Le Grand Guignol he’s obsessed with. Frances Drake is exceptional as the actress/wife who’s repulsed by the mad doctor, and Colin Clive, who reprised his famous Dr. Frankenstein in THE BRIDE OF . . . this same year, is artistic & tormented as the pianist/husband. While Karl Freund’s remarkable career as D.P. took him from CALIGARI to THE LUCY SHOW, he also had a nice little run as helmer (this was his final directing credit) and another legend, Gregg Toland, does the expressionistic lensing. In fact, except for some stale comic relief via Ted Healy, the film surpasses many better known horror pics.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A MAN CALLED PETER (1955)


Close to plotless bio-pic about Peter Marshall, a maverick Presbyterian minister with a strong voice and a bum ticker. Hollywood prefers to have its Men-of-the-Cloth solve secular problems, Leo McCarey’s GOING MY WAY/’44 is the template, but rather than use Christ as seasoning for its main dramatic issues, PETER is structured to lead us thru a series of Christian specific sermons (boiled down into manageable five-minute units). It’s a tough nut to crack as dramatic fodder, but Richard Todd is so charming & inspired as Peter, you hardly feel the pew hitting you in the small of your back. If only the other film elements met him halfway this might have been something quite special. Jean Peters is no more than pleasant as his loyal wife (they ‘meet-cute’ through a sermon, which must be a Hollywood first, but her little speech is too Phyllis Schlafly for comfort, even for the 1910s) and the rest of the cast is second-drawer. Like many of the early CinemaScope pics, the stagebound interiors (by megger Henry Koster in non-interventionist mode) are bookended with postcard worthy vistas (Scotland, Georgia, Washington, D.C., Anapolis) handsomely lensed by Harold Lipstein. Without a large screen, you may feel you're watching a film that's playing in your neighbor's window.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960)

This forgotten film from Roberto Rossellini combines many of the themes & story elements of his best known Neo-Realist work in OPEN CITY/’45 and PAISAN/’46. It was made after his split with Ingrid Bergman, but before starting his unclassifiable ‘teaching’ films; one of a series of conventional narratives Rossellini tried to make in a style that never spoke to him. It’s the story of three WWII P.O.W.s (a Brit, a Yank & a Ruskie) hiding in an attic in Rome while they wait for the Allies to break the German occupation. The film feels uncomfortable in its own skin, unwilling (or unable) to meet the demands of commercial cinema, yet afraid of dropping the expected tropes of personal courage, tested loyalties and suspenseful raids. We’re kept off-balance by the slow-motion reactions of the soldiers and their protectors, only to then lunge ahead with an attempt at some heightened dramatic pay-off that Rossellini picks at like an unappetizing entree. It’s fascinating, but not exactly successful.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

DUPLICITY (2009)

Writer/director Tony Gilroy tries to revive some old-time glamour with a cat & mouse/romantic comedy-caper; think GAMBIT/’66, HOW TO STEAL A MILLION DOLLARS/’66 and especially THE THOMAS-CROWN AFFAIR/’68. (Is this going to be worth the effort?) The set up is solid enough: two international spooks fall for each other in the middle of an espionage job, but can’t be sure if this is the ‘real thing’ or merely part of a plan? Years later, they meet again (we think) as industrial spies for competing cosmetics firms. Some of the quick reverses in our perception of who is conning whom are fun and Gilroy jazzes up his backstory using some nifty time-shifts to lay out the exposition. But the only suspense generated comes from worrying about face-saving lighting and camera angles on our two glum looking stars, Julia Roberts & Clive Owen. (Hell, Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson in middle-age had more sparkle doing this sort of thing in the mediocre HOPSCOTCH/’80.) But do check out the fight scene between Paul Giamatti & Tom Wilkinson that opens the film, they look like Francis Bacon portraits come to life.

Monday, December 21, 2009

THE KILLER ELITE (1975)


Sam Peckinpah never quite recovered from the critical & commercial dismissal of his masterful BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA/’74. But if he could no longer take his work seriously, he could still whip up a heady brew of gleeful nihilism. This whopper follows James Caan & Robert Duvall as two lethal operatives who partner for a company that subcontracts stuff that’s too dirty for the C.I.A. to handle. But Duvall goes rogue, leaving Caan crippled and bent on revenge. When that opportunity arises, Caan discovers that he and his ex-pal may still be working for the same side. The tricky plot doesn’t really add up or dovetail with the sidebar characters in Stirling Silliphant’s choppy script and Peckinpah can’t (or won’t) rouse himself to properly stage the big martial arts climax; the absurdist ending is very John Huston. An intriguing path not taken by Peckinpah or merely a sign of fatigue? Along the way, there’s great support from a cadre of cool customers like Arthur Hill, Gig Young, Bo Hopkins, Burt Young and Mako. Think of it as Peckinpah lite.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

GESCHLECHT IN FESSELN / SEX IN CHAINS (1928)

In this late silent German film, the story line lives up to the provocative title, but the director, Wilhelm Dieterle early in his career, isn’t able to integrate the stylistic flourishes he attempts. There’s enthusiasm, but not much control. Even so, the subject matter is so surprising for 1928, that you can’t help but be drawn in. Dieterle, who would go to Hollywood and become an Oscar winning William, stars as an over-protective husband who punches a drunk who is flirting with his wife at a nightclub. The man dies of his fall and during a three-year manslaughter sentence, the couple each succumb to their pent-up sexual needs. She gives in to her insistent boss while Dieterle finds not just sex, but a deep, affectionate love with a prison-mate. The film is largely a cri de coeur advocating conjugal visits, but it’s still pretty unexpected material, even for Weimar Germany. The restored print is in good shape, but you can significantly reduce ‘blasting’ on the faces if you dial down your brightness & contrast levels. Improving the sub-par piano score is not so easily resolved.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935)


The best adaptation of Charles Dickens’ French Revolution story was David O Selznick’s final M-G-M production before he started up his own company. Big & handsome, it moves along with unimaginative efficiency under Jack Conway’s hand (Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur did imposing work on the big action sequences), but there’s little of the special Dickensian flavor that Selznick & George Cukor got out of DAVID COPPERFIELD earlier that year.* But 23 minutes in, Ronald Colman shows up as Sydney Carton, and any shortcomings pale next to his inspired characterization. The wistful, fading vocal cadence; the ruined sense of purpose reflected in his ‘sadder-but-wiser’ eyes; the glamor of a failed romantic who finds redemption in one glorious gesture; all realized without physical strain or overstatement. Colman seems timeless and intriguingly modern, especially amid the trappings of mid-30s studio formulae. Yet, how can even adventurous filmgoers get to know the man? Silent beauties like STELLA DALLAS/’25 and BEAU GESTE/’26 may have limited takers, but what’s holding back mainstream releases like IF I WERE KING/’38 and THE LIGHT THAT FAILED/’39?


*Selznick’s three other films from 1935 starred Helen Hayes, Jean Harlow & Greta Garbo!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

HAMMETT (1983)


You only get fleeting glimpses of the pastiche detective film Wim Wenders was attempting here since exec producer Francis Coppola put the film on hold and (apparently) reshot much of it after the colossal failure of ONE FROM THE HEART/’82 threatened to sink his dream project, Zoetrope Studios. (It sunk, anyway.) The resulting film is a mess, but not an unpleasant one. The nifty idea pulls Dashiell Hammett (author of THE MALTESE FALCON & THE THIN MAN) back from his writing desk and into a San Francisco-Chinatown mystery with enough bodies, crooked cops & capitalists, sexy dames, noir atmosphere and double-dealing partners to confound any gumshoe. Marilu Henner is pretty awful as Hammett’s sexy gal-pal/neighbor, but everyone else gets into the spirit of the thing. Stick with it and you will, too. Look sharp for cult director Sam Fuller. Maybe that’s who should have helmed this one.

36 HOURS (1964)


After his atypically stylish work on THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR/’62, writer/director George Seaton returned to WWII with this jerry-built espionage tale. Unfortunately, it also returned Seaton to his typically flat dramatic & visual style. (No doubt, shooting TRAITOR in Europe with lenser Jean Bourgoin shook Seaton out of his usual form.) James Garner is awfully subdued as a kidnapped American spy who is tricked into believing that he’s got a bad case of amnesia & the war is long over. Why not chat with his doctor (Rod Taylor) and tell him everything he knows about D-Day and the Normandy invasion? The idea is too goofy to take seriously, but under Seaton’s tired hand, there’s not much tension and not much fun to be had. Patient viewers can relish a lively turn from the great Sig Rumann who shows up as a delightfully venal border patrolman toward the end, and also scratch their collective heads when composer Dmitri Tiomkin rolls out a faux-Rachmaninoff piano concerto as background score.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

DECEPTION (1946)


Bette Davis effectively ended her contiguous run as Hollywood’s greatest leading lady (going back to '37) on this pic, reunited with Paul Henreid, Claude Rains & Irving Rapper, the co-stars & helmer of NOW, VOYAGER/’42. And if DECEPTION is hardly great drama (or even great melodrama, with its goofy OTT theatrics and shopworn manner), it does make for a smash-up finale. In the magnificently realized opening (Anton Grot’s set design & Ernest Haller’s lensing are spectacular thru-out), Henreid shows up in NYC after the war, alive, if not particularly well. That’s where Davis, his old flame, catches him mid-cadenza in the Haydn concerto. (Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote that cadenza as well as the bravura cello piece featured in the climax.*) These two soon wed, much to the annoyance of Claude Rains, the brilliant, if caustically arrogant composer who has ‘kept’ Davis (in no small way) during the war years. Rains is amusing, willfully cruel & eccentric as the vain composer, but he never feels threatening in a role that calls for the sexual attraction & sadism of a James Mason. While Henreid, who now & then looks like the young Herbert von Karajan, lacks the weakened constitution & mental imbalance of a neurasthenic wreck. Gérard Philipe would have been perfect, or perhaps Jean-Pierre Aumont who was working in Hollywood at the time. Then again, with proper casting, the whole improbable scenario might well have collapsed. This way, with Eleanor Aller dubbing the cello for Henreid and Shura Cherkassky doing Beethoven’s Appassionata under Davis’s fingers, we believe just as much are we need to . . . no more. Davis would take a year off before finishing her Warners contract and then make a spectacular comeback in ALL ABOUT EVE/’50. But that’s another story.

*Sadly, the concerto is heavily abridged in the film, but there must be half a dozen modern recordings of it currently available.

Friday, December 11, 2009

THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006)

For most of its 3-hr running time, you can’t be sure if CIA operations or Robert De Niro’s megging will end up looking more inept. (The story is presumably a fictionalized version of James Jesus Angleton’s disastrous pilgrim’s progress inside the walls of the agency.) Why did De Niro, who could barely handle the rigors of a modest family drama on his last directing gig (A BRONX TALE/’93) think he’d be able to handle this epic tale? His idea of pacing stumbles from one quietly somber, under-lit scene to the next, never quite making contact with the plot element needn’t to vivify Eric Roth’s ultra-suave script. Compared to this, John Le Carré plots like Agatha Christie. De Niro must have really called in the favors to land so many fine actors in roles so ill-suited or under-written. Joe Pesci, Tim Hutton, Keir Dullea are window dressing, while poor Billy Crudup embarrasses himself with a Looney Tunes British accent. ‘Pip, pip, cheerio, my good man.’ Oy! Only the great Michael Gambon, playing a professor with a yen for poesy, spying & handsome juniors, earns points (the man is indestructible). As for the leads, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro & Alec Baldwin have rarely been less effective while William Hurt has. De Niro gives himself a plum little part so he can dress himself up as . . . Marty Scorsese! How this vanity project received decent reviews is something of a mystery. Maybe the CIA should look into it?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

GREENWICH VILLAGE (1944)


Brazilian Bombshell Carmen Miranda was top-billed in this Fox musical, but she’s still peripheral to the plot. It’s the old wheeze about a classical composer whose music is mangled into pop tunes for a big revue featuring the girl he’s just fallen in love with. But nobody’s told him they’re using his music!. It sounds pretty grim, but it’s neither as dumb, nor as dreary as expected as the cast (Don Ameche, William Bendix, Vivian Blaine) show more sense & sass than you expect, and there are some tasty specialty acts along the way. Watch for a great all-Black number featuring ‘The Step Brothers,’ and look sharp to catch a glimpse ‘The Revuers’ (Betty Comden, Adolph Green & Judy Holliday). Walter Lang moves things along in a garish NeverLand version of 1922 Greenwich Village, but it’s dance director Seymore Felix who deserves kudos for staging a phenomenal final numbo for Miranda.

Monday, December 7, 2009

WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950)


Tight RKO film noir is helmed by John Farrow who brings out an abstract detachment that nicely serves the film’s remarkably unsympathetic leading characters and its logic-defying twists. It doesn’t plumb the existential depths like Edgar Ulmer’s Grade Z classic DETOUR/’45, but it’s pretty far out there. Particularly the lensing from Nicholas Musuraca which all but drowns us in oblique angles, severe contrast lighting & daringly long takes. Robert Mitchum plays the chump doctor who falls hard for his suicidal patient (Faith Domergue), unaware that she’s the wife and not the daughter of rich, old Claude Rains. Before you can blink, there’s a murder and the lovers are on the lam. Mitchum (typically superb) is wounded & weak, but that’s the least of his problems. Domergue is little remembered & wasn’t much of an actress, but she was Howard Hughes’ latest, so she got the showcase part. Well, she looks alright holding a gun which is half the battle in these things.


CONTEST: Scripter Charles Bennett did a lot of writing for Alfred Hitchcock and this film contains two striking prefigurations of story elements later found in PSYCHO/’60. Name them and win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

TENSION (1949)


With his small frame & fine features, Richard Basehart is just right as a Milquetoast husband who plots a ‘perfect murder’ for the burly lover who’s taken his wife. Then again, since the wife is Audrey Totter, the supreme sultry slattern of Grade B noirs, you might think he’d be grateful. Sure enough, just when he’s about to kill the guy, he sees the light. But this is film noir, so the guy turns up dead anyway and now Basehart’s clever plan leads the cops right back to him. It’s a neat set-up for classic noir, but M-G-M was the wrong studio for such nasty doings so we get corny narrative hints from the investigating cop (Barry Sullivan) and even Cyd Charisse, in a rare non-musical role, loyal & loving as the good girl. At least, megger John Berry moves things along and there’s a jazzy score from a 20 yr old Andre Previn, but you can make a better noir in your head as you watch this one. (How ‘bout we start the film when the cops arrest Basehart and then go to flashback. Hey, what’s a noir without a flashback?) Try CRIME WAVE/’54 to see how much more you can get out of this sort of thing.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI (1936)


This entry in the long-running series gets bonus points for getting Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan to sing a traditional diatonic Chinese tune (w/ English lyrics) and even to speak a bit of Mandarin. Add in a murder mystery that’s twistier than usual (diplomats, opium smuggling, crooked cops) and some physical action for Lee Chan (the endearing & spirited Key Luke as Chan’s #1 Son) and you should have the makings for top-tier Chan. Alas, under the inert megging of James Tinling who’s also responsible for the sole weak link in the superior MR. MOTO series, the story never kicks into gear. Even solid supporting players like Halliwell Hobbes & Russell Hicks just walk thru their parts as if they were still rehearsing. But check out a true oddity on the DVD’s Extras: A handsome print of a recast Spanish language version of the long lost CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON/’31; Spanish title-ERAN TRECE. Chan shows up very late in this one, so you may want to zoom ahead just to see how the great detective fares in Spanish.

Monday, November 30, 2009

REBECCA (1940)

Left to his own devises, Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood pic might have shared the odd, disquieting tone of SUSPICION/’41, which also involves a troubled marriage set amongst the British gentry. But REBECCA was a David O Selznick ‘Cinema of Quality’ project (a ‘Picturization,’ as the credits have it), so its source material had to be respected. Compared to Hitch’s other early work in the States, it looks old-fashioned, what with George Barnes' extra creamy lensing & Franz Waxman’s soaring score. But on its own terms, this modern Gothic (about a paid companion who finds herself mistress of a great estate, but unable to compete with the shadow of her glamorous late predecessor) is splendid fare. Selznick tried to recapture the refined tone with Hitch on THE PARADINE CASE/’48, but all the principals were miscast in that one. The cast for REBECCA is miraculously ‘right,’ with Judith Anderson & Florence Bates making stellar debuts in juicy supporting roles while Joan Fontaine gives the perf of her life and Laurence Olivier plays against the easy charm Ronald Colman or Robert Donat might have brought to the part. It’s off-putting, at first, but it pays off.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

FA YEUNG NIN WA / IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)


Masterful moviemaking from Kai War-Wong who finds & maintains a potent dramatic & visual balance using his signature painterly palette to detail the quietly devastating effects of a thwarted romance . The time is 1960s Hong Kong and a 30-something wife is renting rooms for herself & her absent husband just as another husband does the same for himself & his absent wife, right next door. In a brilliant move, Kar War-Wong keeps the absent spouses off-screen while showing parallels in the lives of his superb leads, Tony Leung & Maggie Cheung, as they take tantalizingly small steps toward friendship . . . and perhaps more? But the mood deepens/shatters as they jointly begin to see the obvious: their respective spouses are absent together, in the midst of an affair. Left alone, but together, so to speak, Leung & Cheung find comfort not in an affair of their own, but in role-playing the passions & rationalizations of their absent spouses. The film owes some of its tortured restraint to BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45 and the similarities & differences in the respective cultures only adds to the richness in Kai War-Wong’s conception. But it’s the period flavor, the superb art direction & the oblique storytelling technique that make this so special. That, and the stunning high collars on Maggie Cheung’s outfits.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

THE YELLOW ROLLS-ROYCE (1964)


Though it was made by the same studio, producer, director, D.P. & writer as THE V.I.P.S/’63, this portmanteau pic about three owners of the posh eponymous car barely comes off. It’s not that the earlier film was better (it may well be worse), but it’s elements were ‘all-of-a-piece’ in a manner that can sometimes turn Pop banality into dramatic building blocks. This one only works in bits & pieces. Story One swoons with swank as Rex Harrison finds himself rich, lordly and cuckolded by Jeanne Moreau. Down in the depths on the 90th floor, as Cole Porter once said. Just at the end, Terrence Rattigan favors Rex with a grand scena, which he nails, but it’s small recompense. Story Two tries to combine Americans abroad gaucherie with droll mob stylings (a la Damon Runyon) as George C. Scott & Shirley MacLaine play gangster & moll in L’Italia. It’s hard to know what’s more blatantly phony, the comic dialogue or the studio mock ups that lenser Jack Hildyard over-lights in typical mid-‘60s fashion. At least Art Carney gets his laughs as a wiseguy bodyguard & Alain Delon is ridiculously handsome as a local tourist hustler. Things improve significantly when an imperious Ingrid Bergman smuggles Yugoslavian freedom-fighter Omar Sharif across the border in the car’s boot. Thirty years after her big screen debut, Bergman remains astonishingly beautiful, especially when her character drops the aristocratic airs and fine clothes. The film was a swan song for it’s producer, Anatole de Grunwald & helmer Anthony Asquith, but Riz Ortolani, who wrote the excruciating score, is still going strong, 200 credits and counting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)


Howard Hawks’ THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD)/’51 was the likely ‘inspiration’ for this goofy Sci-Fi/Monster pic about a long frozen dinosaur who is ‘accidentally’ thawed when an atomic bomb is tested in the Arctic. Naturally, Dino’s kinda hungry after a millennium or two hibernating and he follows the warm ocean currents down the East Coast, popping up in NYC for some much appreciated havoc; care of Ray Harryhausen’s maliciously-staged stop-motion magic. In theory, you should be able to skip the stiff dramatics & drably staged exposition to head straight for the mayhem, but you really need to suffer thru the clunky parts to release the relief factor and get the most out of these analogue antiques.

ALEKSANDRA (2007)


Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov (FATHER AND SON/’03, RUSSIAN ARK/’02) splits his commercial & experimental modes in combining two of his favored themes, Men-at-War & Mother Love. Make that Grandmother Love. Galina Vishnevskaya, the great Russian soprano of the ‘50s & ‘60s (she’s also the widow of ‘cellist Mstislav Rostropovich) is magnificent as a stubborn Mother Russian who visits her G’son at his military camp on the outskirts of a ruined Chechnya city only to find shards of humanity everywhere she goes. Verbally spare, the film is both visually sophisticated and as plain as a plate of buckwheat kasha, showing how political realities can trump instinctual human commonalities; juxtaposing manly domination against feminine sisterhood; and revealing the scary extremes of scale between men & their artillery. In the hands of Sokurov, there’s a terrible beauty in hopelessness, but the emphasis is on terrible.


READ ALL ABOUT IT: Few opera divas have led lives as book-worthy as Vishnevskaya, and in GALINA she settles scores with Soviet authorities in the worlds of music, theater & politics who did her & Rostropovich wrong. It’s hair-rasing, often heroic stuff. And then get her recordings of EUGENE ONEGIN (the early one with Boris Khaikin conducting) & LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK under Rostropovich.

Monday, November 23, 2009

THEM! (1954)


A combination of radioactive fallout & Cold War anxiety has worked like steroids on some Southwest ants, causing giant genetic mutations in this archetypal ‘50s Sci-Fi pic. And, paradoxically, it works better than most thanks to the lack of imagination in the blunt prosaic functionality of Gordon Douglas’s megging. It plays like a deluxe DRAGNET show with humongous on-the-lam ants as perps. (‘Just the ants, ma’am. Just the ants.’) Edmund Gwenn is a standout as the professorial expert and the rest of the cast (including James Whitmore and James Arness, who looks as big as the monsters) hit just the right flat, laconic tone. These films are more fun than scary (the wobbly antennae really give the game up), but check out those hideous two-toned police uniforms worn by James Whitmore & Co. Now, that’s scary!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS (1935)


While it’s not exactly loaded with Gallic flavor (there's an apache dance routine, but not a French accent in sight) & the paceless megging from Lewis Seiler is all too typical for the series, this CHAN pic is one of Warner Oland’s best outings as the famous Chinese detective and it wins you over. The parallel storylines (romantic blackmail & counterfeit banknotes) are smartly structured and topped by the debut appearance of Charlie’s eldest, Key Luke as Lee Chan (not yet dubbed Number One Son), adding charm, fun, a bit of danger and nice sentiment to the usual mix. Their affectionate banter is a delightful surprise & oddly touching, quite special from non-white performers at the time.* MR MOTO fans will note that Eric Rhodes encores his characterization & his character’s gimmick from here in MYSTERIOUS MR MOTO/’38. They’ll also note the general superiority of MOTO moviemaking.

*I know, I know, Warner Oland was Swedish. On the other hand, Key Luke was born in Canton, China. Guess which one uses the heavy Chinese accent?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN (1959)

Budd Schulberg’s tale of Hollywood skullduggery (naturally it’s all about a credit swiping studio exec) never got the big screen treatment, but came to the small screen as a 2-part color spectacular which only survives as a b&w kinescope. Don’t worry, the crummy picture quality just adds period patina to the once shiny production. Larry Blyden is remarkably effective as the mother-of-all machers, Sammy Glick*, while John Forsythe, Dina Merrill, Barbara Rush & Norman Fell have medium luck turning Schulberg’s dramatic ciphers into believable characters. Sidney Blackmer, as the grandiloquently clueless East Coast owner, does considerably better, anticipating the likes of Rupert Murdock & Sumner Redstone long before their reigns. It’s sobering to note that Glick, who’s not a bit overdrawn to those who’ve worked inside studio gates (Glicks to the right; Glicks to the left) is no longer held up as a cautionary type, but as a role model.

*Amazingly, he was currently on B’way starring as Sammy Fong in FLOWER DRUM SONG.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

THE HITCH-HIKER (1952)


Actress Ida Lupino bucked the Hollywood code by helming a series of modestly effective low-budget features in the early’50s with ex-hubby Collier Young producing. (Now, there’s a movie idea.) This tight & nasty noir, about a psychopathic hitch-hiker who grabs a ride with a couple of middle-aged guys, holds up pretty well. William Talman is plenty creepy as the sleepy-eyed serial killer while Edmund O’Brien & Frank Lovejoy play yin & yang as the hostages. As long as we stay with these three, Lupino manages to keep the tension high, there’s hardly an ounce of narrative fat, nothing but sinew & bones. But whenever the film cuts away to show the police getting organized or collecting info, the film dies a little. Still, in it’s crummy manner, emphasized by the murky condition of the surviving materials, Lupino delivers the dread.

Monday, November 16, 2009

FORT APACHE (1948)


The first in the great John Ford cavalry trilogy (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON/’49 and the undervalued RIO GRANDE/’50 followed) has the expected Fordian faults (coy ingenues, boozy Irish humor) and strengths (everything else, too many to enumerate). Taken all in all, this pseudonymous version of the Custer massacre is simply indispensable cinema. The cast are almost all Ford regulars with Henry Fonda especially strong in the vainglorious Custer role of Lt. Col. Thursday. The famous quote from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ really begins with the coda of this film. Listen closely as John Wayne threads the needle for some myth-seeking reporters in a carefully worded encomium about Thursday, his onetime commanding officer and a man he could barely tolerate. He doesn’t exactly lie, but he hardly tells the tale. In fact, he’s come to appreciate, even to give honor & credence to the metastasizing fiction. Ford’s great trick, unequaled in American cinema, was in his ability to live as an artist within that fissure, particularly in his post-WWII pics which printed the facts knowing full well audiences would opt for the legend as takeaway. Watching this time around, the parallels between Fonda’s stubbornly proud know-nothing confidence about a little understood land & people brought up prescient & horrifyingly images of George W & Iraq/Afghanistan. And it’s likely to feel just as prescient, tragic & challenging in some new context fifty years on.

HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951)

Hard to believe that helmer Robert Wise was assigned this modest-to-a-fault noir @ FOX the same year as his seminal sci-fi thriller THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. It’s largely a by-the-numbers suspenser with heaping helpings of Hitchcock (REBECCA/’40, SUSPICION/’42*, SHADOW OF A DOUBT/’43) and a weirdly unsympathetic cast of characters. That lack of rooting interest is the lone spark here and was probably unintentional. Valentina Cortese is a WWII refugee who gets to San Francisco under false papers. She finds herself with a mansion, a big inheritance and a child who never knew his real mother. And she’s the film’s sympathetic figure! The three other characters are a rich lush who falls for her, a resentful housekeeper and a controlling guardian who sweeps her off her feet and marries her, played by Richard Basehart who really did marry Cortese. One of these folks is also a psychopath. Wise pulls off some nice scary surprises in the second act, but the big climax is so talky & over-extended that it’s hard to hold back the giggles.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Instead of a possibly poisoned glass of milk, we get a possibly poisoned glass of orange juice!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

DOLL FACE (1945)


This ‘B’ musical from FOX isn’t half bad. Gypsy Rose Lee came up with a dandy basic idea: a talented burlesque stripper needs to gain a bit of class if she's ever going to get a legit job on B’way. How’d she ever think that one up? Vivian Blaine as the Queen of ‘Burleecue’ and Dennis O’Keefe as her mug of a manager are just dandy here, a great team. He tries to stuff her with class & culture and gets some unexpected romantic results from his handpicked tutor. In support, Perry Como is a bit more animated than elsewhere and Carmen Miranda a bit less, which is also just fine. The problem is that producer Bryan Foy & megger Lewis Seiler were content with a package that only hints at the obvious possibilities. But FOX was economizing (last year Blaine & Miranda got the full TechniColor treatment on SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS, now they've gone monochromatic on us) and sent this one out half baked.

Friday, November 13, 2009

OCEAN’S THIRTEEN (2007)

Apparently, George Clooney only agreed to star once more as the eponymous O. to purge the franchise of any lingering odors after O. TWELVE stank up the joint. But THIRTEEN is just more of the same, a big, pointlessly confusing Las Vegas caper with too many stars without enough to do. The leads, Brad Pitt & Clooney might as well be playing pinochle off to the side on a folding table. Overcompensating, Steven Soderbergh rolls out more needless technical bravura than Brian De Palma having a wet-dream, while real opportunities get ignored. Andy Garcia, who played a sort of low-rent Al Pacino in the first episode, doesn’t even get near the real Al Pacino who’s the main villain this time out. Imagine if these boys made like Groucho & Harpo in a mirror routine? Or maybe Andy could find out the secret of Al’s hair color? SOMETHING! Fortunately, the whole entire enterprise is so gosh darn tired that even Clooney is unlikely to okay another edition.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)


The pickings are mighty slim in this well-remembered romantic-farce. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a food columnist whose elaborate magazine persona (happy wife, country home, kids) is complete fiction. Hell, she can’t even cook. But when her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) decides to visit over the Christmas holidays along with a wounded serviceman (Dennis Morgan), she has to whip up a reasonable facsimile of her alter ego. There’s nothing wrong with the basic set up (yet one more Hollywood swipe from the great Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar), but the execution wavers between tolerable & tiresome. Worse yet, Babs shows zero rapport with any of her co-stars. But get the DVD for STAR IN THE NIGHT, an early two-reeler from Don Siegel with Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, Robert Burks lensing. It’s a cornball modernization of the Christmas eve Nativity story with three not so wise cowboys, a pregnant gal named Maria, no room at the inn . . . the works. The right half of your brain will be appalled, but the left half will note just how beautifully the whole little package hangs together. Damned if you don’t follow the lead of it’s star, J. Carroll Naish, and go from grump to believer as this little fable ends.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

IT’S A PLEASURE (1945)


Two years after leaving FOX, Sonja Henie, Hollywood’s one & only skating movie star, made this indie comeback pic. It’s not the expected low-budget Poverty Row vehicle, nor one of those star turns in a British pic from a fading diva (the war, ya know). Nope, it’s a big, expensive, homegrown TechniColor extravaganza with a veteran hack (William A. Seiter) megging. They even got a legit release with a pickup from RKO. It’s got everything! Sonja skates! Sonja jumps . . . a bit. Sonja spins like a whirlwind, still damned impressive! And Sonja is more pert than ever in color! What it hasn’t got is a story to tell or sensible dialogue or decent gags or characters that make a lick of sense. The supporting cast are barely functional and the leading male is the underwhelming Michael O’Shea. He’s a hockey player with a fierce Irish temper and their on-again/off-again relationship is what passes for a plot. It’s hard to see why she’s so gosh darn loyal to this mug. Yet, the print is in such spectacular condition (you can actually see the thin sheet of water covering the performance ice which is how they got that crystal clear mirror effect) and the entire package is so peculiar, that’s it’s worth a look. Once.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

PRICK UP YOUR EARS (1987)

The Short Happy Life of Joe Orton left us three semi-classic farces (ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE; WHAT THE BUTLER SAW; LOOT) which may have lost their power to shock, but retain the larky spirit that bursts out of their boulevard farce trappings. But Orton's slim output is permanently skewed by the undeserved celebrity infamy of a violent death at the hands of his longtime roommate & sometime lover Kenneth Halliwell, a mentally unstable would-be novelist who suicided after the act. While you really can’t miss the dramatic possibilities, and neither Alan Bennett’s mordantly funny script nor Stephen Frears typically fluent helming put a foot wrong, the personal life inherently misrepresents, even undermines, the nature of Orton’s blazing talent, turning his life into a cautionary tale. So, even though Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina are superb as Orton & Halliwell, respectively, only Vanessa Redgrave, as Orton’s famously eccentric literary agent Peggy Ramsay, strikes just the right tone of impudent gall & humor. What a pleasure to see her being fast, loose & funny! Check out Orton’s audition sequence at RADA to see what’s missing from the rest of this film.

Monday, November 9, 2009

MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1940)


People are still surprised that Alfred Hitchcock helmed this first-rate Carole Lombard ‘Screwball’ romantic-comedy. But it’s less of a surprise if you know RICH AND STRANGE/’32, Hitch’s odd-duck British release which is also all about a troubled marriage that’s saved only when the couple try separating. Call it a Screwball Romantic-Adventure. The gimmick in the Norman Krasna script involves a technicality that nullifies Lombard’s bumpy marriage to Robert Montgomery. Given a second chance, would you do it over again? The gap between theory and practice makes for good situations and good fun for about two-thirds of the running time. Then the strain starts to show as it does in all but the very best Screwballs. But the filming is wonderfully posh (lensing by Harry Stradling); the supporting cast dandy (Jack Carson is a standout as Montgomery’s bachelor pal); and two set pieces at contrasting restaurants, one down-at-the-heels and one swanky, are just outstanding with Montgomery functioning on some sort of comic high. Especially when he tries to give himself a bloody nose.


READ ALL ABOUT IT: A tip of the cap to Jack Sullivan’s HITCHCOCK’S MUSIC. Not only did he spot the ties with RICH AND STRANGE, but he intriguing posits Roy Webb and not Edward Ward as this film’s composer in his fascinating book on . . . er . . . Hitchcock’s music.

ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940)


This first of the Bing Crosby/Dorothy Lamour/Bob Hope ‘Road’ pics has a different vibe then the sequels. Oh, it’s filled with silly gags & goofy songs (plus a romantic number for Der Bingle), but the initial outing isn’t driven by the usual external forces (i.e. boys & Dot on the run from bad guys), instead, motivation is internal with Bing on the lam from a fiancé he doesn’t want to marry and Bob fleeing any & all commitments. They’re loyal only to each other . . . until the beauteous Dorothy sarongs in to show how nice domesticity could be. Under Victor Schertzinger’s genial megging, they even drop the constant joking for much of the third act to concentrate (quite nicely) on charm & sentiment. The film remains far less known than later entries, possibly due to a ‘near’ blackface scene when the boys go tropical to grab some chow, but even with modest tunes (mostly by its director!) and less wild humor (except for the heaven-sent lunacy of the great Jerry Colonna) , it’s a sweetie-pie of a pic.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

FALLEN ANGEL (1945)


Dana Andrews & Otto Preminger, the star & producer/director of LAURA/’44, followed up that classic upper-crust murder mystery with this grubby small town variation. Andrews is a drifter on the make who marries local spinster Alice Faye for her bucks so he can move in on sexy waitress Linda Darnell. Faye knows he’s a risk, but she’s desperate to get her hands on something more exciting than the church organ while Darnell wants to leave the diner where the likes of Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot & Percy Kilbride take turns ogling her between coffee refills. It sounds like classic noir material, but the tasty parts don’t quite add up. It makes you wonder about those rumors that helmer Rouben Mamoulian was responsible for much of what made LAURA special, before its producer, that’d be Preminger, fired him. Worth a look for Charles Bickford as an ex-cop who knows the value of kid gloves.

Friday, November 6, 2009

JERICHO / aka: DARK SANDS (1937)

Paul Robeson always claimed JERICHO as the favorite of his films . . . and you’ll see why. It’s a third-rate adventure tale somewhat in the mode of an Errol Flynn pic: wronged soldier escapes a death sentence and reinvents himself as a beloved Arab Prince. But where CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35 was helmed by the great Michael Curtiz, this slapdash affair had has-been Thornton Freeland megging. Yet, the film is both fun & fascinating with a bold, black man reversing one stereotype after another. He’s heroic; he’s wronged by his superiors, but wins out in the end; he’s even got a white sidekick to play comic prop and to take a bullet meant for him!; he finds a lovely black princess (with white/Arabic brother & father) to wed; his white mentor takes the rap for his escape, becomes his nemesis, until they reunite to save each other. The end product may be hopelessly second-rate, but in attitude it’s miles ahead of the pack. Watch for a scene where Robeson has to restrain himself from reacting to some jazz records. He dashes out into the desert where he can secretly burst out in song. Here, briefly, conception trumps execution.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NATIVE LAND (1941)

This barely released piece of Left-Wing cinematic Op-Ed journalism fully lives up to its storied rep. Half documentary/half vignette-sized realizations on Capitalist & vigilante abuse against the Bill of Rights (with an emphasis on Union busting), it’s remarkably effective as agitprop and remarkably advanced as sheer filmmaking. After co-lensing THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS/’36, Leo Hurwutz & Paul Strand spent five years putting this together which would have robbed the stories of their immediacy if Pearl Harbor & WWII hadn’t already muted so many political controversies ‘for the duration.’ But modern viewers will appreciate the remarkably up-to-date documentary techniques and the recreations which anticipate movie styles later developed by Elia Kazan & Boris Kaufman in films like ON THE WATERFRONT/’54. Paul Robeson beautifully handles the exceptional narration, and watch for noted NYC blacklisted actors like Howard de Silva & Art Smith. But the real champ here is undoubtedly Paul Strand, a great photographer whose eye is unmistakable in three museum-worthy montage sequences showing Americans going about their daily lives and celebrating holidays on the street.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

THE PROUD VALLEY / aka: THE TUNNEL (1940)


As one of the first prominent Negro stars, singer/athlete/actor/activist Paul Robeson typically got stuck playing noble archetypes or ignoble stereotypes . . . and that was when he got a part at all. But in this modestly effective British effort, he’s a ‘Regular Joe.’ Well . . . a Regular Joe with a big bass voice. He’s a sailor just off his ship and bumming thru Wales when his singing lands him a job in a colliery and a spot on the local men’s choir. (No small thing in a Welsh town.) Robeson’s skin color only comes up in a single scene (nicely handled, with half the cast sooted-faced from the mines) and he’s charmingly natural in a story that could have served Sidney Poitier in his LILIES OF THE FIELD/’63 days. SPOILER ALERT!! Alas, at the end there’s a mine accident (chillingly brought off by megger Pen Tennyson) and, once again, the black guy goes down to save his white brothers. Some archetypal tropes just won’t fade away.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

SWORD OF HONOUR (2001)

This British ‘mini’ (from the Evelyn Waugh novel) is an ironic WWII epic stuck with a misleading non-ironic title. Daniel Craig battles bravely with a positively disfiguring hair style as a not quite wised-up divorcee who pulls strings to get on a gung-ho ‘special forces’ unit. The huge cast of characters is tough to get a handle on, those strong regional accents don’t help, but you’ll catch on soon enough and it’s worth the effort. The first half is particularly successful in detailing the absurdity of war story line (it’s not dissimilar to a lot of those SNAFU WWII pics from the ‘60s), but as the tone shifts toward darker themes and deadly consequences in Part Two, neither the script (William Boyd) nor the direction (Bill Anderson) manages the fast turns from comedy to horror. And the homefront backstory (basically the travails of Craig’s hedonistic ‘ex’) can’t finesse Waugh at his most misogynist. But two-thirds of this is very good indeed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

MR. WARMTH: The Don Rickles Project (2007)

This John Landis documentary on the great insult comedian barely gets the job done. The film never finds its focus, jumping around from his current act (not just insult comedy, but songs, gags, stories and maudlin personal stuff) to his reminiscences and on to informal tributes from his peers and the younger comics he inspired. (But what is Chris Rock doing in here? He seems scarcely able to disguise his contempt.) The best stuff in it, by far, are the unadorned interviews where Rickles talks about his early acting gigs (Rickles was a superb character actor with a lot of range) and the old mob-ruled days of early Las Vegas. (There’s a great Clark Gable story, complete with spot-on Gable impression.) But Landis is simply too fond of the man to sort out the wheat from the chaff. There’s good stuff in here, but keep your thumb near the FF button.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970)


Mel Brooks’ version of this oft-filmed Russian story (the one about the jewels hidden in a lost chair) was probably too gentle a comedy to catch on commercially. It misses the blissed-out vulgarity of his debut pic, THE PRODUCERS/’68, and the built-in gags of his genre parodies, while the humanistic comic touches can’t overcome the lacunae in Brooks’ filmmaking chops. His staging remains, as ever, barely evolved from ‘50s tv variety shows. Does anyone still find under-cranked chase sequences funny? But the sturdy plot mechanics help a lot, as do the charming Yugoslavian locations and the winning cast. The relatively young, relatively lean Dom De Luise is fresh & funny as a fortune hunting Father, "Come on, God!" And can that tall youth with the ripe matinee idol looks really be Frank Langella? But it’s Ron Moody, fresh off his Oscar nom in OLIVER!/’68, playing the rightful heir who hits the tone everyone is trying for. Halfway thru the pic, he stops pushing for laughs and lets the comedy & the emotion play out ‘straight.’ Fitfully, you see what a Lubitsch might have done with this. Brooks can only hint at such accomplishments, and the film remains a-road-not-taken on his CV, but a loveable one.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

EL CID (1961)

The critical rep for this Anthony Mann epic on Spain’s great national hero/martyr has risen dramatically in the past decade. As well it should. The physical production is unusually striking, Robert Krasker’s lensing has interiors that glow like illuminated manuscripts and Miklos Rozsa’s churning Iberian-tinged score is a marvel. (Especially if you have the speakers to do justice to the organ entry at the climax.) Visually, the cast is equally striking, even if some of the dialogue thuds now & then, and if neither Sophia Loren nor Charlton Heston seem capable of much nuance (she needed Vittorio De Sica & he needed William Wyler for such niceties), sometimes looks really are enough. The story structure is deceptively similar to THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56, check out the post-intermission sequence when a grizzled Heston returns to court to see just how close, but helmer Anthony Mann has the moviemaking skills Mr. DeMille had long abandoned. And a decade of superior Westerns had given Mann thrilling power in conjoining location & character in a manner that opens the psychological & moral battles underpinning the sweeping narrative.

10:30 P.M. SUMMER (1966)


Melina Mercouri & Peter Finch are Madrid-bound with their young daughter & best pal Romy Schneider, but life gets complicated in the small, crowded town they overnight in. Not only is Melina binge-drinking, but Peter & Romy only have eyes for each other. Worse yet, a parallel story is the talk of the town: A young husband is being hunted down after murdering his wife & her young lover. It’s all high-flown literary nonsense from author Marguerite (HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR/’59) Duras who co-scripted with helmer Jules Dassin. At least, Dassin makes things visually striking, even sumptuous, but in a manner that cuts completely against any particle of believability coming thru. Still, there’s something fascinating in watching someone as ill-suited as Dassin attempt territory well-tilled at the time by Alain Resnais & Michelangelo Antonioni. (Actually, the film this calls to mind, is Roberto Rossellini’s masterful VIAGGIO IN ITALIA / VOYAGE TO ITALY/’53.) Dassin made this right after his delightful and wildly successful TOPKAPI/’64, yet couldn’t muster a Stateside release. Perhaps the nudity scared off distributors. Melina & Romy even take a shower together. How steamy! Or, maybe not steamy enough!


Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE MYSTERY OF PICASSO (1956)


Pablo Picasso after WWII: Spent force living off past achievements (see Simon Schama; et al.) or Still the most vital artist of the last century (see Tony Richardson; et al.)? Henri-Georges Clouzot’s po-faced documentary, which concentrates on live painting rather than the painter, supplies arguments for each side of the debate. Clouzot, best-known for WAGES OF FEAR/'52 and DIABOLIQUE/'55, is content to stand back as cinematic witness letting Picasso work & rework a score of paintings directly for the camera. And for much of the film, we see a doodler of genius. (Or perhaps a genius doodling.) A man selling his name, not his art. But things change dramatically in the last three reels when a sketch of a goat’s head captures Picasso’s full attention. After this, the screen, which has already shifted from b&w to color, opens up from Academy ration to CinemaScope and the compositions come blazingly to life. There’s a lot of fun in seeing elements of Matisse and (who knew?) Chagall briefly appear only to be swept away as the canvas finds itself; and it’s a joyous treat to see Picasso find himself as he goes along.

DEFIANCE (2008)

In WWII Poland, four brothers run off to join the resistance, but find a greater purpose establishing a forest sanctuary for more than a thousand fellow-Jews fleeing Nazis & Polish collaborators. The basic story is true, and such a ‘natural’ it easily trumps Edward Zwick’s flat-footed megging. The sequences involving an uneasy alliance with the invading Soviet army are of particular interest. As a production job, the physical reconstruction and locations have been meticulously handled, yet the dialogue is strictly ‘B’ movie stuff and the doleful musical score has violin virtuoso Joshua Bell throbbing out endless variations of a faux ‘Kol Nidre’ composition. The acting goes from spirited to cornball with Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie (Billy Elliot) Bell, & George Mackay as exceptionally unlikely brothers. Zwick certainly knows a good story when he hears one, but as director he remains the dutiful film school lad. Character arcs, internal & external conflict, repetitive comic motifs, quick situational reversals, story ‘beats’ at all the right places; leave no narrative trope behind is his motto, his religion, and his Achilles heel. For a story that’s all about surviving on your wits by improvising, Zwick sticks to old habits like a tattered security blanket. He wouldn’t have lasted a day out there.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

HELL TO ETERNITY (1960)


Fact-based story about Guy Gabaldon, an orphaned Mexican-American kid who’s taken in by a Japanese-American family. When WWII breaks out, his step-brothers are gung-ho to enlist, his surrogate parents are forced into internment camps and Gabaldon, now played by Jeffrey Hunter, becomes confused & conflicted about his place in all this. When he does join up and is sent to Saipan, he’s torn between killing & saving the enemy. For its time, the film is unusually ambitious in its progressive treatment of racial attitudes, unusually tough in depicting the horrors of war and unusually large-scaled for a modestly budgeted indie. But helmer Phil Karlson, a ‘King of the Bs,’ knew how to squeeze a buck. He’s best remembered for late reactionary films like WALKING TALL/’73, but earlier credits lean surprisingly liberal. Not everything comes off, to put it nicely (like some of the acting!), but Hunter is effective & moving in the lead. (The Mexican angle is expunged to focus on the ‘Jap’ angle.) As a plus, you get to see George (Sulu) Takei play Hunter’s brother. It’s quite a tale and here’s a link to the NYTimes obit of this heroic marine. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/04/us/04gabaldon.html?scp=1&sq=gabaldon+&st=nyt

Saturday, October 17, 2009

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)


This scorned & ignored pic from that iconoclastic icon, Sam Peckinpah, is close to being a nihilistic masterpiece. It’s the sort of utterly personal, take-no-prisoners production engendered when a big-budget Hollywood film, the disastrous PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID/’72, is mutilated before its release.* The story is simple enough: a powerful Mexican mobster puts up a million bucks to find the man who knocked-up his daughter. Turns out, the guy is already dead, so it’s a race to find a body. Warren Oates, stunningly effective in a rare leading role, has the connections to get there first, but oh!, the fellas he encounters on the way there. Kris Kristofferson appears from out of nowhere to attack Oates' girlfriend, Gig Young & Robert Webber are too close for comfort as a couple of slick hitmen, while a tidal wave of mayhem, killings, mordant absurdity and the bleakest of futures bring us full circle before the film ends. Even the cars are grisly. Peckinpah had four more pics in him, but he never got this personal again.


*The so-called restored/director’s cut hardly improves matters.

UNA MUJER SIN AMOR / A WOMAN WITHOUT LOVE (1950)


A fascinating ‘What If’ film. Though Luis Buñuel is much honored for his early avant garde work and for his later bourgeoisie-busting art-house cinema, he actually spent a number of years toiling for Paramount & Warner Bros., first in Europe and then in the States, before he got a second chance in Mexico and grabbed grande seigneur status back in Europe. This melodramatic pot-boiler shows what he might have made of a Hollywood assignment. It’s like a Douglas Sirk pic, inexpensively made, but plenty slick by Mexican standards, about a young, unhappy wife who’s all set to run off with her new love when her domineering older husband has a heart attack. Years later, her lover has died alone in a foreign country, and left a large inheritance to their out-of-wedlock son. What will happen as the old lies begin to leak out and change the family dynamic? It’s easy to imagine Joan Crawford (@ Warners in the ‘40s) or Jane Wyman (@ Universal in the ‘50s) in this one, though without the brutal character tics Buñuel applies to his cast. It’s always fun to see if such a distinctive talent could flourish in a different milieu. He could, he could. Be warned: the current DVD has a pretty good image, but teeny, tiny subtitles.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

CAPTAIN’S COURAGEOUS (1937)


Among the Golden Age Hollywood masters, Victor Fleming remains largely unheralded and unknown. Apparently, helming THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND (both 1939) isn’t enough to make your rep! But a look at this brawny slice of Hollywood storytelling should help you seal the deal for him. Young Freddie Bartholomew is just great as a bratty rich kid who falls off an ocean liner only to be rescued by Spencer Tracy, a Portuguese-American member of a cod-fishing crew. Tracy doesn’t play the part in a modern realistic manner, but adjusting to this older style of movie-star acting is a pleasure (odd hair, accent and all). By the end, you’d have voted for his Oscar, too. (He also won for next year’s BOYS TOWN, but that’s a vote you might have withheld.) Fleming gets outstanding perfs from all his crew, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, John Carradine, Mickey Rooney; all toned down, yet intensely memorable here. Fleming has a way of allowing the screen to be perfectly shared, the beautiful two-shot conversations between Tracy & Bartholomew are so emotionally intimate, you may catch your breath to keep from tearing up. But nothing, and I mean nothing, will keep you from sobbing away at the climax. But note how beautifully the film holds up right thru the brief, joyous coda. Often thought of as a kid’s pic, this is a family film that isn’t an insult to the term.

CONTEST: The film opens with a quick shot of Bartholomew’s impressive estate. It’s no backlot facade, but a real building with a famous Hollywood history to it. Name that history (careful, there’s not one, but TWO famous connections for you to come up with) to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Thanks to critic Michael Sragow, there’s finally a big, handsome bio of Victor Fleming. Hurrah!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY (1937)


Warner Orland’s penultimate appearance as Charlie Chan rates near the top of the series. There’s only a modest amount of the generic trimmings that drag down so many Chan pics, and regular megger Eugene Forde is uncharacteristically peppy. He even manages to jazz things up visually with some neat camera moves that do double and even triple narrative duty in a twisty tale about a good-time gal who returns to NYC with a secret diary everyone wants to get their hands on. Then, when the solution to the crime comes out, it’s a real trope busting surprise. The supporting cast is better than average, look for a young Leon Ames, and Key Luke’s Number One son even gets to have a legit flirtation. Good fun. And listen close to check out the name of the newspaper publisher in this FOX flick . . . ready, it's Murdock! I kid you, not.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007)

Julian Schnabel split critical opinion as a painter & with BASQUIAT/’96, his debut film. But his second pic, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS/’00, earned well-deserved kudos. Now, he pushes his luck with his third film, again about an artist/writer who dies prematurely. It’s been rapturously received for the extravagant visual palette that uses subjective POV techniques to take us inside the mind of a man paralyzed by ‘locked-in’ syndrome. (He communicates by blinking his left eye.*) But overdosing on subjective POV, as Orson Welles discovered on his aborted HEART OF DARKNESS project, doesn’t so much take us inside a mind as inside a camera. And any tale of the literary triumph of a severely handicapped writer begs comparison to MY LEFT FOOT/’89 (MY LEFT EYE?), a parallel that favors neither this writer nor this film. (On the other hand, the French socialized medical system seen here looks fabulous!) Ultimately, the film’s engine is fueled with the same bludgeoning morbid sentimentality of bestsellers like THE LAST LECTURE or TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, if that’s your bag. Still, Mathieu Amalric does himself proud as the writer, and Max Von Sydow, as his frail papa, goes him one better & does the film proud.

*SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The transcribing technique relies on reading off the alphabet until the right letter is said. BLINK! Wouldn’t it have been easier and far more efficient to teach the poor guy Morse Code?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945)


The airless quality associated with too many overdressed M-G-M pics of the ‘40s works to the advantage of Albert Lewin’s chilly Oscar Wilde adaptation. The great story, a devil’s bargain to remain youthfully beautiful while one’s portrait ages into a monstrous grotesque, is a conceit you can believe in and there’s still a strong jolt of horror when the TechniColor portrait blasts past the monochrome footage. Producer Pandro Berman deserves a lot of credit for giving scripter/helmer Albert Lewin his literary head on this one and in casting the film with so many superb character actors. George Sanders, a standout in Lewin’s underappreciated Maugham adaptation, THE MOON AND SIXPENCE/’42, is brilliant as the Wilde surrogate and the young Angela Lansbury is unforgettable as a sweetly naïve lower-class object of devotion. Those wounded eyes! Hurd Hatfield tips toward waxworks as Dorian (and isn’t quite up to the handsome faux Sargent portrait), but he’s highly effective in the role which is more than can be said for poor Donna Reed who’s simply out of her depth as the spirited upper-class girl blinded by Dorian’s unchanging facade.

CONTEST: Right after the credits, composer Herbert Stothart quotes a famous street song that was prominently featured in a Best Picture Oscar winner. Name the film & the song's title to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS write-up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

SAVING GRACE (2000)

The ‘stoner’ comedy & the eccentric British town fable are trotted out in desultory fashion in this Craig Ferguson project; he scripts, megs & co-stars with Brenda Blethyn. She’s a pennyless widow trying to keep her estate and he’s her trusty handyman/gardener. The gimmick is that she’s got the green thumb and he’s got the ganja to grow as a money crop. And you just know some old townie gals will mistakenly get high. Hilarious! And some comically inept drug dealers will give chase. Tee-hee! It’s all harmless stuff if you like this sort of thing (until the plot utterly collapses in the third act), and the locations make for grand views even if Ferguson has some odd ideas on camera placement, but you’ll find more laughs from a typical Craig Ferguson Late-Late Show monologue than you’ll find in this entire film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While Ferguson gives himself an age-appropriate girlfriend, there’s far more real sexual chemistry bubbling up between Craig & Blethyn. Age, class, culture & the scary loss of economic barriers that keep servant & master apart; it might have made a thoughtful, funny, touching film. Alas.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BIKUR HA-TIZMORET / THE BAND’S VISIT (2007)


On their way to an Islamic cultural center in Israel, a small Egyptian police band gets lost and has to spend the night in a sleepy backwater (back-desert?) town. The locals treat these strangers in a strange land with such good-natured hospitality that by morning friendships & personal confidences have bypassed decades of enmity & suspicion. Megger Eran Kolirin handles this family-of-man stuff in a pleasingly deadpan manner, but the story line is modest to a fault, rarely blossoming to its full potential. Right from the opening credits, which roll out in both Arabic & Hebrew, the film seems afraid of stepping out of line and jeopardizing all those international awards it’s salivating over. You can see a bit of what might have been in the film’s best scene, a one-shot wonder with a shy Israeli nebbish getting a lesson in how to handle a woman (sitting to his right) from the youngest/handsomest band member (sitting to his left). But it's merely a sampler of the mordant Ari Kaurismaki style the film seems to be aiming for.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

LES AMANTS / THE LOVERS (1958)


Jeanne Moreau and Louis Malle quickly followed up on their narrative-driven nouveau vague thriller (FRANTIC / aka ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS/’57) with this scandalous character-driven piece. It’s in the literary tradition of MADAME BOVARY and A DOLL’S HOUSE with Moreau typically superb as a beautifully kept, but bored provincial housewife. She regularly pops off to Paris to see her old school chum and for sexual adventures with a polo-playing playboy. Her officious husband invites them all to what promises to be a perfectly ghastly dinner, but when Moreau’s expensive Peugeot breaks down she’s rescued by a young man in a Citroen, the ultimate French flivver. He’s from her world, but purposefully not of her world, having rejected the charms of the bourgeoisie. The repulsion/attraction gene is undeniable and leads to a night of sexual chemistry portrayed with a frankness new at the time. And while the explicit scenes have long been outstripped, the heat generated remains considerable. Paradoxically, the genre strictures of FRANTIC may have been more stylistically & personally revealing, but then, Malle always reveled in the guise of artistic moving target.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (1967)

With DR ZHIVAGO/’65 completing its theatrical run at the time this came out, critics & moviegoers may have taken this film for granted. It is another plush period piece that finds Julie Christie wooed by three men: a fighter, a rich older man and a poetic soul; Terence Stamp, Peter Finch & Alan Bates, each superb.* But this John Schlesinger film, with ecstatically beautiful lensing from Nicholas Roeg and Frederic Raphael’s superbly structured script** is clearly the better film, a near-masterpiece. The Thomas Hardy novel has its full measure of tragedy, but it’s also a sweeping romantic saga of a strong-willed woman finding her place among the farm owners & sheep raising estates of Wessex. The dramatic pulse is stronger in the first half (those lost sheep; the ‘missed’ wedding ceremony, the intensely erotic sword play in the fields; whew!), but there are moments that make you catch your breath all thru the film. Unforgettable stuff, and more vital & precious now than when it was released 42 years ago.

*The respective slots in ZHIVAGO are filled by Tom Courtenay, Rod Steiger & Omar Sharif.

**1967 was Raphael’s big year with the enchantingly clever & heartfelt TWO FOR THE ROAD also coming out.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE HUNTING PARTY (1971)


In this once trendy (now cluelessly dated) Western, Gene Hackman is on a happy hunting spree with a gaggle of millionaire pals when he hears that his wife has been kidnapped. Switching from bear & bison to badmen, they lay waste with the help of some newfangled telescopic rifles. This repellent mess of a movie opens by juxtaposing Oliver Reed’s outlaw slaughtering a cow while Hackman brutishly screws his young wife, Candice Bergen. So, ah, who’s the cow? Later, Reed forces his loving attentions on the beautiful Bergen, but since he also gives her a first orgasm & jarred peaches, all is forgiven. And it just goes downhill from there as Don Medford cribs undigested style tics from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah & (honest to Pete) Erich Von Stroheim, while fake Ennio Morricone riffs glaze o’er the soundtrack. The film is useful as a gauge to the lows of Hollywood’s SOP in the late-60s/early 70s, but that hardly lets Hackman off the hook. He’s never been worse while, unbelievably, Reed & Bergen have.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

THE TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR (2002)


This dual biography of Charles Chaplin and Adolph Hitler, focusing on the production of THE GREAT DICTATOR/’40, doesn’t have to force the fascinating parallels between these two icons. It steps back to simply organize and display them, brilliantly. It’s no surprise to find film maven Kevin Brownlow was in charge of the material . . . and what material he has found! Color footage of Chaplin at work taken by Charlie’s beloved older brother, Sydney, and some youthful shots of Hitler you’ve probably not seen. One crowd detail is a dilly. And, for a change, the interviews really add something. The DVD comes on a separate EXTRAs disc included in the M2K edition of THE GREAT DICTATOR and in this case watching the supplementary disc before seeing the feature presentation is the smart move.

THE GORGON (1964)


Better than average Hammer Studios horror pic about the last surviving Gorgon gal. You remember, the look that freezes, the snakes in the hair? Her spirit appears to have settled (if that’s the word) in one of those Mittel-Europa towns, taking possession of some unfortunate local whenever the moon is full. Wait, ain’t that werewolf lore? Peter Cushing stars as (what else?) a secretive man of science (he’s also the world’s most incurious coroner) while Christopher Lee actually gets to be the good guy. Terrence Fisher megs with lots of atmosphere, reasonable action work and disjointed transitions. But there’s rich lensing from Michael Reed, an oddly effective score from James Bernard and a pretty weird get-up for victims before they turn completely to stone. But these Hammer titles rarely live up to their potential; check out the remarkably scary trailer to see for yourself

CITY OF VICE (2008)

The idea is inspired, but the execution is only mezza-mezza in this 5-part British historical mini-series. Who knew that Henry Fielding (of TOM JONES fame) started a police force in crime plagued 18th century London? Who knew his blind step-brother seconded, took over for three decades & earned a knighthood after Henry’s death the following year? And who knew that London once made DEADWOOD look like a quiet paradise of justice? (The sex, language & violence are graphic, so beware.) The production beautifully navigates around a limited budget via inventive 3-D digital maps of the city and strikingly spare sets, but the scripts show wobbly story construction and, as the series progresses, a general sense of creative burn-out from the participants. Though not from the cast, especially Ian Glen, who’s particularly fine as the blind John Fielding. Still, anyone disappointed when Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST got lost to the vagaries of movie development hell could do worse than give this the once over.

Monday, September 28, 2009

SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)

Luis Buñuel takes a mordant view of Saint Simon & his pillar, distilling the usual Buñuelian themes (sex, religion, modern mores & culture, food) into forty minutes of intellectual clarity and bewilderment. The film opens with Simon literally reaching the heights as he moves stations from his old pillar perch to a new, improved and significantly taller pillar. All the better to look down on all the souls who come for philosophical, moral, spiritual or physical fixes, accepted with po-faced certitude by the clerical & secular pilgrims who come & go. Meanwhile, Simon finds his own trials in dealing with a devil who keeps turning up in various tempting guises. Meant to take its place as one third of an unmade omnibus pic, the time restriction turns this into Buñuel’s most efficient major work while a production budget crunch necessitated a finale set in the hippest purgatory imaginable. A must-see.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

CONTRABAND / aka: BLACKOUT (1940)


Just before they began working for themselves as ‘The Archers,’ Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger reteamed w/ Conrad Veidt & Valerie Hobson from THE SPY IN BLACK/’39 on a second twisty espionage tale. With its lighter tone & more fantastical plot (the war news was terribly grim in 1940), the film already shows much of the confidence, independence & eccentricities of later Powell/Pressburger pics. Veidt is great as the aggrieved Danish ship’s captain, forced to wait for his sailing papers while spoiled passenger Valerie Hobson sneaks off for a mysterious rendezvous on land. What begins as pursuit soon turns into admiration and shared adventure as these two uncover a spy ring right in the heart of London. Once it gets going, the plot moves at a fast & furious pace, aided by some of Powell’s typically abrupt editing, so precisely timed it can make you LOL. The film is certainly looser than SPY, for better & worse, but it rates awfully high as WWII propaganda entertainments go. And when the patriotic Danes come thru in the clutch & bid Veidt hail & farewell, the quick swell of emotion feels completely earned.

Friday, September 25, 2009

THE GREAT MAN VOTES (1939)


John Barrymore is charming in this modest political comedy, helmed by Garson Kanin before he switched to scripting, about the last registered voter in a swing district. He’s a widower gone to seed after his wife’s death, fallen from the heights of academia to night watchman. Now, his in-laws are after his two kids (in swell perfs from Virginia Weilder & Peter Holden) just as the party bosses discover his unlikely importance. It’s the sort of set up Preston Sturges might have taken on a wild spin, but this breezy, lightly sentimental ‘take’ on the material brings its own small pleasures. Especially, in watching how Barrymore moves from high dungeon, to fruity elocutionist, to defeated worker, to loving/proud father. Kanin was fairly inventive with his cameraman (Russell Metty), and if the film doesn’t have the consistent bloom of his best outings (BACHELOR MOTHER/’39 and TOM. DICK & HARRY/’41), it’s still a sweet 70 minutes. (And check out the name & logo on the dairy truck of this 1939 RKO film: ROSEBUD. Two years later, another RKO pic would find better use for it.)

NOTE: This title, seen here on VHS, is currently available only on a Public Domain DVD edition, so beware!