The first of five Westerns from director Anthony Mann & James Stewart not only reinvigorated the genre (on screens big & small), but also paved the way for big-time profit-participation by movie stars. If only the film were as interesting as it was influential. It’s a fairly standard revenge tale with the eponymous rifle setting up a portmanteau of episodes as we follow a doomed line-up of temporary rifle owners. Meanwhile, Stewart (who opened the film by winning the prized Winchester fair & square) moves ever onward in his obsessive hunt for a killer, and the accumulating pressure is relieved at regular intervals thanks to the Winchester ‘73 trickle-down theory. The secret behind Stewart’s quest is conveniently held for the last two reels, but you’ll be neither satisfied nor surprised. You will get to see a set of youthful turns from rising stars like Shelley Winters, Tony Curtis & Rock Hudson (all seriously miscast), and a grandly scaled perf from slimy Dan Duryea as a scaldingly amoral killer. He’s worth all the fuss.
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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
SLINGS AND ARROWS is just about the best tv to come across our Northern border since Hockey Night in Canada. If you’ve ever been a regular at a major theatre fest (especially Stratford in Canada), the three series (6 episodes each) will prove irresistible. But you don't need even a nodding acquaintance with Shakespeare or backstage politics to get hooked. Year One, which is keyed to a production of HAMLET, is the most balanced of the series (with a pre-Hollywood Rachel McAdams acting out her future career arc), but years Two (MACBETH) & Three (LEAR) aren’t far behind. (Year Two takes a couple episodes to get in gear, but the final season gets a grand emotional charge from its guest-star, longtime Stratford alum William Hutt who is alternatingly terrifying & tender as Lear.) Paul Gross is enormously appealing as the new artistic director who's hounded by the ghost of his late predecessor/mentor. And he even gets to have an age appropriate romance with the festival’s leading tragedienne. If your kids are old enough to handle the sex & language, have them watch along with you. You can bet they'll want to see the next available production of HAMLET, ROMEO & JULIET, MACBETH and LEAR after seeing how much sheer fun, drama & devotion these works engender.
Monday, January 26, 2009
This penultimate of eight collaborations between James Stewart & helmer Anthony Mann was their fourth Western. And if it pales next to their final work (THE MAN FROM LARAMIE/'55, Western #5), it’s still a strong film on its own terms, with particularly fine location shooting. Stewart, in atypically uningratiating mode, is a calculating loner who brings a herd of cattle up to Gold Rush territory for a big payoff. But the life-is-cheap/lawless frontier he finds along the way knocks a dent into the surface charm he’s long maintained as armor against real human contact. Stewart doesn’t have much rapport with his ambivalent leading lady Ruth Roman (who did?), but spars nicely with Walter Brennan, Corinne Calvert & J. C. Flippen, and against a convincingly amoral John McIntire. But the climax of the pic belongs entirely to Stewart’s longtime equine co-star, Pie, who proved a one-take wonder at taking direction.
Everyone talks a poetic blue streak in this famously fatalistic collaboration between writer Jacques Prévert & helmer Marcel Carné. Jean Gabin stars as a man on the run from the law who would rather see his love one more time than make his getaway by sea. Wait! Wasn’t that PÉPÉ LE MOKO/’37? A bit of a flip-flop, actually, but PÉPÉ holds up better than SHADOWS, as do a host of Gabin pics from the same period. Still, there’s a tasty cast of French ‘types’ to enjoy, Michèle Morgan is heavenly and the great Michel Simon can make your flesh crawl, plus the astounding look of the film thanks to the legendary designer Alexander Trauner. Prévert & Carné would be back soon enough with DAYBREAK and CHILDREN OF PARADISE to brag about, and, in its own happily derivative way, this one’s most watchable, too.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Stanley Kubrick kept his earliest work out of circulation, but he may have had a bit of affection toward this little noir which he lensed, wrote & megged. It’s a modest thriller, made for a pittance, about a mid-weight boxer who misses his shot at the bigtime, but finds love. No kidding! Kubrick! Love! The film is mostly a technical exercise, and he stumbles a bit shooting & editing some of the action stuff, but the use of both famous and out-of-the-way NYC locations is fabulous, obviously the work of a natural. What an eye! And what a shame that he ended up cocooning himself in studio-bound work in his late works. The big climax, an extended (all right, over-extended) fight to the finish in a mannequin warehouse, shows a surprisingly strong influence from Orson Welles (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI/’48 and (double surprise) Vincente Minnelli (THE BANDWAGON/’53). Whodda thunk?
This spry political parable about the eponymous hard-partying Texas Congressman who got Afghanistan the funds & weapons needed to fight the Russians in the ‘80s, is just the sort of sophisticated, yet ultimately shallow thinking-person’s entertainment that’s perfect for helmer Mike Nichols. His previous pass at D.C. politics, PRIMARY COLORS/’98, was 40 minutes longer and took on just the sort of misplaced seriousness scripter Aaron Sorkin sidesteps here. They're both having too much fun detailing the complications & odd-couple partnerships in Wilson’s unlikely international network. (A brief moralistic coda let’s too many players off the hook and is best ignored.) Tom Hanks has recently been working out his characterizations thru homage and he makes the obvious choice to go all Larry Hagman here, to good effect. (Hagman himself, that is the real Larry Hagman, gave a knock-out perf in PRIMARY COLORS.) Julia Roberts gets a mighty pay check and mighty billing for little screen time, but Philip Seymour Hoffman gives good weight, as always, and surely dumbfounds anyone who’s just seen his Truman Capote. And, as the President of Afghanistan, Om Puri is his typically sublime self.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The late Claude Berri was a true Jacques-of-all movie trades, an omnipresent figure in French cinema. But since most of the projects he had fingers in never opened Stateside, we only know him from his early and (from years later) his more prestigous pics as director. It’s a mixed blessing since so many of these pics don’t live up to their promise. His well regarded Marcel Pagnol adaptations are scenic, but stiff. His mighty attempt at Zola’s stupendous GERMINAL is buried under its own prestige.* And his Jewish-life-in-France comedies tend to be too damn cute. So, it’s a relief to see that his famous debut feature looks both tougher & funnier than you might recall, almost Truffaut worthy. The autobiographical story takes us to 1943 when Berri, a hard-to-handle 9 year-old Jewish kid, was sent to hide in the country with fake Grandparents as a good Catholic boy. Fortunately, Grandpa is played by that great shaggy dog of an actor, Michel Simon, a true force of nature. In many ways, he’s the nonconformist gramps of your dreams, unless you happen to be Jewish since just past his endearing ways is a dyed-in-the-wool Anti-Semite. Berri gets a natural swing going between these two (it’s very Charlie Chaplin/Jackie Coogan) and doesn’t push the emotional buttons too hard at any point, settling to show how tough it is for any city kid to survive rural hazing and acknowledging the gray areas that allow a sweet, caring old man to also be a bigot of the first order. It’s a very grown-up kind of sentimental pic. (Be sure to watch the hilarious short subject, THE CHICKEN, included on the Criterion DVD edition.)
*READ ALL ABOUT IT: GERMINAL, Emile Zola’s epic of coal mining, early communist organizers, company towns and social revolt, is truly a hair-raising read. Berri turned it into an expensive dud. Get a good translation and read yourself a great movie. Then try to see THE ORGANIZER (I COMPAGNI)/'63, Mario Monicelli 's magnificent work with Marcello Mastrioanni in one of his greatest roles. It shows just the sort of film GERMINAL could have been.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The Quentin Tarantino half of GRINDHOUSE, a faux double-feature ‘70s exploitation B-pic (originally paired with Robert Rodriguez ‘s PLANET TERROR) is now an expanded stand-alone release. Kurt Russell has a grand time as Stuntman Mike, a psychotic has-been stunt-driver who gets his kicks by chatting up nubile ladies half his age and then plowing them down with his customized ‘death proof’ car. Tarantino uses a simple mirror-image structure, with Russell as the only link, for a win one/lose one morality tale. Alas, the same success ratio applies to the film. The first encounter is nicely realized, especially the extended bar sequence that’s all hilarious talk about guys, gals, sex, booze & philosophy. It’s as if William Saroyan had written for American International Pictures. (It’s this part of the film that’s lovingly etched with mock dents & bruises such as you might have found on a battered Drive-In movie print. My favorite bit shows just the sort of color-value tone variation you’d often get on reel changes.) But the second half of the pic fritters away our good will & interest with some of the worst writing & acting ever seen in a Tarantino pic. No doubt this was intentional, but the phony camaraderie and ‘You go, girl’ attitude of the revenge-minded gals is hard to swallow.
Monday, January 19, 2009
The Korda brothers (producer Alex, director Zoltan & designer Vincent) got just about everything right in this tremendous version of the oft-filmed British Empire tale. John Clements is the seemingly weak scion of a long line of British officers who redeems his valour (Anglophiles, note the spelling) after he resigns his commission and receives four white feathers of cowardice. There’s a late silent version from 1929 that sounds pretty marvelous, but certainly none of the many sound versions comes within shouting distance of this Technicolor gem. Love, honour, derring-do, native disguises, Fuzzy-Wuzzies, a grand score from Miklos Rozsa & stunning studio lensing from Georges Perinal & Jack Cardiff, plus legendary location footage from Osmond Barradaile that was pilfered for years after. Ralph Richardson is a standout as the officer who loses his heart and his sight, and character actor supreme, C. Aubrey Smith is at his most iconic. The story is cleverly designed so that it comes down on all sides of the usual debates on British colonialism & the military, but no one takes sides against this classic telling, yet another 1939 winner.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Lillian Hellman’s plays are largely dismissed today, and WATCH ON THE RHINE is hardly free of her clunky devices: hidden packets of cash; a jimmied briefcase lock; a crumbling marriage to help move the plot; speechifying tots to cover any stray talking points; and that Hellman specialty, the metaphorical blindness of the blindingly rich. The WWII story follows an anti-fascist agent who brings his wife & kids to her family manse in D.C., then must rejoin the fight in Europe on his own. Ah, but not before he takes care of an informer who would, for a price, stop him. Matters are hardly improved by the all-thumbs megging from debuting B'way director Herman Shumlin. (His stiff follow-up, CONFIDENTIAL AGENT/'45 ended his brief Hollywood sojourn). So, why am I always so moved? It's true that Bette Davis. playing demur & looking uncommonly lovely, brings a deep emotional charge to what is essentially a generous supporting role and that Paul Lucas recreates his stage triumph without looking stale or over-rehearsed. (His showstopper, singing a defiant resistance song is riveting stuff.) Hell, even the creepy robotic kids grow on you. Helman was no artist, but a working playwright (note the spelling) who built dramatic boxes that only held tight when the actors were both bigger-than-life & true-to-life. No wonder it worked so well with Golden Age Hollywood stars.
CONTEST: Name the Hollywood Production Code violation that is strikingly, almost defiantly, flaunted in this film to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix pic of your choice.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
That bad boy of Danish cinema, Lars von Trier, based this version of the Euripides play on an unrealized script by his great predecessor, the uncompromising Carl Dreyer. Recently, Trier has emphasized his role as political/cultural provocateur to such an extent that we may have forgotten his great & utterly natural filmmaking talents. This haunting work stands as a daunting corrective. It’s shot in a strange manner with a desaturated color scheme and a pointedly non-Hi-Def, almost distressed, video style,* but Trier's every shot choice perfectly serves the harrowing old tale. Rarely has Medea’s revenge on her unfaithful lover made more sense or come across so directly. *Has the FACETS DVD transfer (from a PAL format) emphasized the degraded visual look or is it intentional?
It can be fun (and instructive) to see what could be done within the minuscule budgets of Hollywood’s Poverty Row. This one takes place in Daphne du Maurier territory (think REBECCA/’40: flashback structure, burning house & all, even Florence Bates) with Robert Young as a troubled widower architect (he lives in a knock-off of Falling Water!) who comes out of his shell when Betsy Drake moves next door. If only the unresolved 'accidental' death of his first wife wasn’t muddying the romance. Young gives a subtle and affecting perf in classic 'will-he-kiss-me-or-kill-me' mode and there’s a pretty good supporting cast, but Drake clearly shows why her career was so brief. Try to ignore the ludicrous background score assembled from Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits and the dreadful Public Domain copies that smear Hal Mohr’s handsome noir lensing.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
After this Hong Kong actioner, helmer John Woo came to Hollywood, even went Hollywood, but never quite lived up to all the hype. You can see both what excited everyone and what was so painfully missing in this empty-headed policier. Chow Yun-Fat is a detective and Tony Leung is an undercover cop who come close to killing each other before they discover they are working for the same team on the same case. You really can’t tell your gangsters without a scorecard here, but Woo smashes on with ever more elaborate gun battles, constantly raising the firepower, as the film moves to its overblown climax. The model for Woo’s pyrotechnics are more like arcade shoot-em-ups than today’s video game aesthetic, which gives a bit of period flavor to all the sound & fury, but you only have to compare this to a dramatic kissing-cousin like INFERNAL AFFAIRS/’02 (also starring Leung & the source of Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED/’06) to see Woo’s limitations.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Mira Nair hasn’t been able to maintain her MONSOON WEDDING/’01 mojo. Now, she revisits some of the themes of family ties & Indian heritage, but the magic is gone. Perhaps this story is simply too worn to carry us along: son of immigrant parents falls from the old ways only to return when mortality closes in. What ethnic group hasn’t told this story on film, from THE JAZZ SINGER/’27 on? Perhaps, paradoxically, Nair is too well suited to the material. The well worn tropes need the fresh eyes of an outsider to revivify them. The film does get aloft toward the end when life gives one extra twist to our journeyman hero, but by then it’s too little, too late. Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh. But MONSOON WEDDING was just too good to let Nair off the hook. Her latter projects seem to alternately see her trying to find herself or lose herself in her work when what she needs to do is find herself by losing herself.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Kal Penn, who seems a bit too old as the film’s prodigal son, looks from certain angles like Johnny Mathis. It’s distracting!
More like THE BARELY WATCHABLE DORSEYS. This expectedly dopey bio-pic about those feudin' big band brothers has just enough musical interludes to keep you from tuning out (Paul Whiteman, Art Tatum, a nifty turn from Helen O'Connell), and it's fun to see the boys play themselves in dramatic situations and not merely fronting their bands (Jimmy can't act a lick, but Tommy's not too bad), but there’s not a lot going on here. Janet Blair co-stars as peacemaker to the boys, saving the romance for the blandly handsome William Lundigan. He’s pianist/composer for the band and wouldn’t you just know he’s got a concerto in his trunk with solo licks just right the brothers. (These things always seem to end in semi-classical garb @ Carnegie Hall.) Will the guys reunite. Will anyone care? Hack megger Alfred Green was just off THE JOLSON STORY/’46, the surprise hit of the year, but surprises are just what you won’t find here.
Friday, January 2, 2009
This first-rate wartime comedy was released in '43, but filmed in '42 when the tide of WWII still looked very grim and laughing at the enemy was at a premium. The needs of the country and timing were all but perfect for Bob Hope, then at his peak. Here, he's nicely teamed with his 'Road Pic" co-star Dorothy Lamour as well as regular helmer David Butler who shows surprisingly nice chops working through a sort of slaphappy 39 STEPS story-structure. Bob’s a reporter who lands the scoop of the year when John Abbott sells him all the details on a big Nazi organization, headed by a bewigged Otto Preminger. These Fifth Columnists are operating a sabotage ring right inside the Washington beltway. If a few wisecracks tend to serve Bob the radio comedian rather than the story, most of the film holds up better than you'd expect. It's no TO BE OR NOT TO BE, Hope never was willing to give himself up to a real director, but it retains most of its laughs compared to similar period fare and, largely thanks to Rudolph Mate's exceptionally refined noirish lensing, even gives off a bit of dramatic kick.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Doesn't Otto look oddly like Howard De Silva in that hairpiece?)
Perhaps because it’s based on a well known folk tale (a noble family is destroyed when a commitment to modern humanistic ideas result in a father's exile and virtual slavery for his wife & children), this late work by the great Kenji Mizoguchi keeps its themes and concerns right on the surface, rather than buried in the texture of his narrative. SANSHO comes off as magnificent, but somewhat pre-processed; neat & tidy enough for the international award circuit. (And it deserves every single one; it’s a very great film.) It doesn’t puzzle or linger on your brain and under your skin the way his greatest work does. On the other hand, as a Mizoguchi entry point, it may be easier for a non-Japanese audience to get a handle on.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The restrained camera work and meticulously balanced compositions, which play against the sickening brutality of some the action (a crucial early scene of separation is almost unbearable), is surprisingly similar in style to the clean craft of Hollywood master William Wyler. Sure enough, his working methods, according to some of the interviews included on the disc, were remarkably like Wyler's. No comments, no help, no suggestions about what you were doing wrong or what was missing from the scene; just do it one more time.