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Thursday, February 26, 2009

THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942)


Billy Wilder’s remarkably assured directing debut was MAUVAISE GRAINE/’34, made in France after he fled Germany. But it took eight years and over a dozen writing credits before Hollywood gave him a gig behind the camera. With his writing partner, Charles Brackett, Wilder found a safe & solid commercial idea, and still had to get Ginger Rogers‘ okay. All this may have soured Wilder on the pic, he rarely spoke about it, or acknowledged Rogers’ leap of faith, but that needn’t keep us from enjoying this sharp & well directed farce. The story puts Rogers in pigtails & a short skirt, disguising herself as a little girl since she only has enough cash for a child’s fare on the train home. She ‘meets cute’ with Ray Milland, then finds herself stuck in the role when his jealous fiance surprises the two of them in his private compartment on their way to a Mid-West military academy. Complications ensue. Setting up one of these farcical plots is tricky enough, but keeping them going without turning stupid, ridiculous or obvious is a rare feat indeed and Wilder & Brackett come up with some wonderfully legitimate situations, turns, variations and suitors. The Academy boys are both endearing and hilarious. It adds up to what used to be called ‘a laff riot.’ And it still is. Wilder may have found it all rather mechanical; the main idea was simply to establish himself as a commercial Hollywood director. Yet, anyone who’s seen his classic SOME LIKE IT HOT/’59 may well be surprised at how much of that film got a trial run right here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

THE TRAIN (1965)


Getting the nuts & bolts right makes all the difference on this WWII actioner, sharply helmed by John Frankenheimer stepping in for Arthur Penn. (There’s an unusually good director’s commentary track on the DVD.) Burt Lancaster is in top form as a railroad managing engineer/resistance fighter who is responsible for keeping Paul Scofield’s retreating German officer from looting most of the paintings held in the Jeu de Palme. The magnificent trains are real, the stupendous crashes are real and Burt’s daunting stunts are real. (Buster Keaton, who knew a thing or two about trains, would be happy with the physical texture of this film, to say nothing of Frankenheimer’s long takes & deep focus lensing which show us things really happening.) It adds up to a level of verisimilitude not found in many better known WWII pics of the era and, along with the unusual sophistication of Scofield’s performance, helps turn a fairly standard story into compelling drama. A seriously undervalued near-precious gem.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965)


Painfully conformist comedy about a nonconformist guy whose personal windmill is a 9-to-5 job. Will he keep up his free-spirited independent ways or buckle down so he can keep raising his all but abandoned nephew? Maybe with the help of that nice kooky lady from the child welfare bureau? Oh, the suspense! Oh, the over-used theme song! (‘Yes, Sir. That’s My Baby.’) Oh, the forced fun of it all! Though fondly remembered, this wasn’t much of a play or a film, but what is special now comes from seeing a big hit B’way dramedy from the mid-‘60s made right in NYC, with most of the original cast intact, even its stage director Fred Coe who has a pleasingly odd manner of shooting and was smart enough to let lenser Arthur Ornitz play nouvelle vague games with the camera.* Jason Robards, Gene Saks, William Daniels & Barry Gordon (as the kid, he sounds as if Jackie Mason, not Robards is raising him) repeat their stage roles, joined by Martin Balsam & the great Barbara Harris, taking over from Larry Haines & Sandy Dennis. respectively.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Surely, this film's Ralph Rosenblum is the only editor ever to have published a non-technical text. His WHEN THE SHOOTING STOPS . . . THE CUTTING BEGINS has lots of out-of-school tales on this film, plus early work from the likes of Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet & Mel Brooks. *Rosenblum splits credit on the considerable post-production shooting & editing, which jazzed up what had originally been a rather conventional stage-to-screen adaptation, with playwright/scripter Herb Gardner & 2nd unit lenser Joe Coffey.

NOTE: Not currently on DVD, but it pops up on PBS stations.

MON MEILLEUR AMI / MY BEST FRIEND (2006)

This recent iteration of the mismatched buddy/buddy pic shows just how sturdy the old forms can be with first-rate execution. While the film is often LOL funny, Daniel Auteuil brings a surprising (and most effective) tinge of melancholy to his antiques dealer, a man with a full schedule of acquaintances, but neither the instinct nor inclination for pursuing friendship. Only a silly bet with his business partner leads him to an unlikely tutelage in friendship after two chance meetings with cabdriver Dany Boon. The irony is that Boon’s over-enthusiasm is as much a sociable turnoff as Autueil’s froid. The beautifully balanced script (by Oliver Dazat, Jérôme Tonnere & Patrice Leconte) manages to reveal Dickensian overtones within this set-up (there’s a lot of Scrooge in Autueil’s personal journey & redemption) and if Leconte as director forces now & then (Blvd comedies thrive on a more non-interventionist technique) he also knows how to back off. After SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, the gameshow finale may look like a bit of a steal, but this film came out two years earlier.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Why hasn’t Hollywood remade this? Dozens of actors come to mind for the leads. Perhaps a protagonist with hundreds of acquaintances, but no actual friends cuts a bit close for all those powerful L.A. producers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

BABY FACE (1933)


The surge of appreciation for 'Pre-Code' Hollywood pics (about 1929 to mid-‘34) is one of the happy off-shoots of the DVD revolution in film preservation. But it’s a pity that this dreary, if amazingly tawdry programmer (with its cop-out ending) has become Exhibit ‘A’ in the Bad Girl genre. Barbara Stanwyck is a small-town gal who dreams of the big city while working in her dad’s tenement SpeakEasy. She puts up with a lot, but when Pop tries to pimp her to keep his police protection, that breaks it. Stanwyck is off to NYC where she rapidly sleeps her way thru the entire executive ranks of a staid bank, leaving wrecked careers, ruined marriages, corpses & even a young John Wayne in her wake. But then George Brent shows up, transfers her to Paris, and she suddenly discovers tru-love & sacrifice. Megger Alfred Green brings little to the party while Stanwyck plays dour in her bad girl phase and only a bit less dour when she warms up. There are scores of better Pre-Code pics (try some of the early Stanwyck/Frank Capra gems) and for something along these lines see Jean Harlow at her best in RED-HEADED WOMAN/’32 or Loretta Young & Warren William in the delirious EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE/’33.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Mick LaSalle has a wonderfully original & knowing ‘take’ on Pre-Code manners & mores in COMPLICATED WOMEN: Sex & Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. I didn’t know he had a follow-up, DANGEROUS MEN, but I’ll be on it ASAP.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

TOUS LES MATINS DU MONDE (1991)

Rubbish. There must be some stupidity gene that’s triggered when otherwise intelligent film makers tackle ‘serious’ music. This howlingly unconvincing look at the life, work & social environment of Saint Colombe & Marin Marais (two actual French composers during the reign of Louis XIV) is all about the razor’s edge between artistic genius & madness (oh, how they rage & suffer!), the compromises made in an age of patronage (oh, the indignities!) & babes (OH!). Fortunately, the great Jordi Savall was hired to take care of the soundtrack which is worth hearing without having to mentally filter out the picturesque dramatic nonsense happening up on the screen. Get the CD, forget the movie.

I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949)

The debut pic of cult megger Samuel Fuller was this little Western about Robert Ford, THE MAN WHO SHOT JESSE JAMES . . . IN THE BACK! John Ireland is the best thing in the film as the surprisingly unconflicted killer. He’s really okay about murdering his best pal, if only they wouldn’t write those stupid ballads about his treachery. But second leads Preston Foster & Barbara Britton can’t make sense of their underwritten characters while everyone else up there comes off as a rank amateur. It’s an exceedingly modest beginning for the extravagant Mr. Fuller with a restricted gray-scale that looks tv-ready and an absurd over-reliance on newspaper headlines to ‘run’ the old-hat story. You can spot a few Fulleresque moments when he cuts to unjustified close-ups in an attempt to juice up his nothing story, but this is pretty dull stuff.

Friday, February 13, 2009

ENCHANTED (2007)

ENCHANTED’s set up (what if Sleeping Beauty or Snow White dropped into modern-day NYC as a real person) sounds like a pitch for the latest SHREK sequel. But the film (helmed by Kevin Lima & scripted by Bill Kelly) is less of a mocking send-up of fairy-tale conventions than a variation on ‘30s ‘screwball’ comedy. When Princess-to-be Amy Adams lands right in the middle of Times Square dressed in a ball-worthy gown, without a cent on her, she’s only following in the indelible footsteps of gorgeous comic heroines like Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers & most particularly Claudette Colbert in films like MIDNIGHT/’39 and THE PALM BEACH STORY/’42. The big difference is that Colbert (and those other gals) found her bliss without a speck of fairy dust or CGI, which made her far more magical because on some level, we believed in her ability to pull off the impossible. And while there's a reasonable amount of fun to be had here (a great computer generated chipmunk, a dense as a doorknob Prince Charming), it pales next to the great animated & ‘screwball’ films it teases.

SCREWY THOUGHT(S) OF THE DAY: Isn’t it a cheat to end the film with one of the ‘real’ characters going off to ‘classic’ animation land? And why hire belter supreme Idina Menzel and leave her with nothing to sing?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

LA VIE EN ROSE / LA MOME (2007)

The only surprise in writer/director Olivier Dahan’s warts & all bio-pic of French chanteuse Edith Piaf is how conventional it is. With a cavalcade of crises, deprivation, drugs, destitution, illnesses & personal loss, it’s hard to miss with ‘the little sparrow,’ but Dahan certainly tries. The camera jumps around along with his out-of-order chronology, but it’s all mere narrative posturing to fold her mess of a life into a standard dramatic arc. We’re not all that far away from Hollywood fare like ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE/’39. I’LL CRY TOMORROW/’55, FUNNY GIRL/’68 or LADY SINGS THE BLUES/’72. Right down to those de rigueur but hopelessly phony standing ovations in NYC nightclubs. Fortunately, most of the period details are better than that and the large supporting cast is often memorable. Better yet, Marion Cotillard is so riveting as Piaf that you even forgive her shoddy lip-synching.

NOTE: The American release has no sub-titles for the song lyrics which makes it hard to follow the dramatic parallels between Piaf’s art & life. ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ is Piaf at her most transcendent if you know the words, but little more than an abysmal Pop song if you don’t.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919)


D. W. Griffith & Lillian Gish released this beguiling comic/romantic idyll only two weeks after their great, overwhelmingly emotional tragic melodrama, BROKEN BLOSSOMS. Together, the pics represent an astonishing display of dramatic range, so it’s a shame that this modest charmer, which profits from the personal resonance a country boy like Griffith gives it, has inevitably been somewhat overlooked. It’s the old story of the small town boy who marries the flashy new-girl-in-town (Clarine Seymore) when his true mate (that’d be Lillian) has been living right across the (unpaved) street his whole life. Bobby Harron is adorable as the gangly boy who doesn’t know it was Gish who secretly paid for his seminary schooling (she sold her cow to raise the money!) while Gish is wonderfully funny and just a bit tough as the cow-eyed girl who suffers & triumphs with equal poise. These two are so delicious as lovesick teens in the prologue that Griffith saves a lovely shot of them as kids in a country lane for his epilogue. And the film has unexpected poignancy for those who know that Harron (and Seymore, his unhappy bride) died unexpectedly the following year.

Monday, February 9, 2009

THE RARE BREED (1966)


Hiding inside this third-rate Western is a wonderful story that’s dying for a better telling. Andrew McLaglen, just off two big hits (McLINTOCK!/’63 and SHENANDOAH/’65), was a hack helmer with a penchant for sloppy camera set-ups, a tin ear for dialogue and a laissez-faire attitude toward aging stars. When in doubt he throws in donnybrooks to liven things up. Maureen O’Hara is a British widow who brings her prized Hereford to Texas for breeding and James Stewart (beginning his bad toupee era) is hired as escort for the lady & her bull. But only Brian Keith, as an unhinged Scottish/Texican rancher who woos the feisty O’Hara, finds just the right balance of OTT fun & sentiment. Some of the second-unit action scenes are quite well handled, they almost make up for the stagelot exteriors that look like Franco Zeffirelli sets for a production of Puccini’s GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST. But this story is so much better than McLaglen’s presentation, your heart sinks at such a missed opportunity.

Friday, February 6, 2009

VALAHOL EUROPABAN/SOMEWHERE IN EUROPE (1947)

Geza von Radvanyi 's heartfelt, but seriously schizophrenic film from Hungary about a ragtag band of homeless boys (and one disguised girl) who roam the countryside scavenging for their survival during the anarchic endgame of WWII. Though they are barely making a go of it, their fierce reputation has terrified the territory and caused the remnants of law & order to hunt them down as if they were rabid animals. The film moves in fits & starts as pitiless scenes of misery alternate with cloying sentimental claptrap & youthful camaraderie. It’s half THE LORD OF THE FLIES and half MAGYAR BOYS TOWN. (The background score is pure M-G-M/Mickey Rooney.) The smeary Facets-DVD transfer does no favors to the impressively harsh look of the film, but this one, as the Hollywood wags would have it, ‘is strictly from Hungary.’

Thursday, February 5, 2009

MARIUS (1931)

The initial installment of Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy about life & love along the Marseilles waterfront looks better than ever as the passing years have turned what once seemed like awkward blemishes (too stagebound, too much extraneous local 'color,' early Talkie technical limitations) into something historic & precious. As the café owner César, Raimu is a tower of eccentric strength, humor & homely wisdom while the famous characters (and characterizations!) who orbit around him make dramatic bouillabaisse out of a simple story of young love, the call of the sea and the reasonable folly of a May/December romance. Pierre Fresnay is a bit too old to play Marius, César’s 23 yr-old son, but he’s as true to the tricky Pagnol dichotomy of stage-heightened realism as the rest of the marvelous cast. Alexander Korda helmed with his usual functionality, but for a 1931 sound film made far from the large Paris-based production houses, it’s remarkably fluid, even lively at times. The KINO DVD set isn’t as sharp as it might be (a PAL transfer?), but it’s more than acceptable. The film itself is essential.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

KILLER OF SHEEP (1973/released in ’77)

Thirteen years before Spike Lee began hyperventilating with SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT/’86 and eighteen years before John Singleton camouflaged his conventionality in BOYZ N THE HOOD/’91, Charles Burnett earned the directorial Great Black Hope label for this striking debut . . . and no one went to see it. Working in a loosely structured form that’s half Neo-Realism and half Blues, this look into the lives of a lower middle-class Afro-American* family struggling to make a go of their lives in the depressed environment of post-riot Watts, CA, is rough & revelatory, yet anything but a downer. Burnett has the insightful eyes of a local, not a visitor, so that he captures the beauty along with the pain. Alas, his superb film remains all but impossible to tout. If only it didn’t sound so worthy, like a Sundance audience Award winner. Worse was to come as Burnett fumbled his follow up pic (see below) and what should have been the beginning of a major film career now seems a footnote.

*And yes, that was the PC terminology in '73.

MY BROTHER’S WEDDING (1983/2007)

Charles Burnett’s original cut on his sophomore effort was so over-extended & unfocused, the film didn't get picked up for distribution, and his career never developed the momentum needed to fulfill its early promise. Returning to it in 2007, Burnett ditched half an hour of chaff, revealing a smart & often funny story about an ambition-free thirty-something son who still lives at home, works at his parents’ small store and spends too much time & energy resenting his older brother, a movin’-on-up lawyer with a socially rising finance. His chip-on-the-shoulder attitude spills out in many ways, especially when he's palling around with his longtime best friend, a classic inner-city dead-ender recidivist who takes the story into tragicomic territory. Burnett keeps his story loose enough to go off on some nicely observed character tangents, which ring true in spite of some amateurish acting, but he's unable to work out the dramatic logistics of his big climax which pits the duties of being a Best Man against the duties of being pall bearer to a Best Friend. Burnett seems afraid of the farcical implications in his set up (where’s his inner ‘I Love Lucy?’) and just lets the whole thing peter out.