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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

PETER IBBETSON (1935)


A fascinating, if not quite successful, dark romantic fantasy about childhood sweethearts (Dickie Moore & Virginia Weidler are the kids who grow up to be Gary Cooper & Ann Harding) who are torn apart only to meet again as adults. But now a sadistic husband (John Halliday) and la forza del destino separate them once again. Only their ability to ‘dream-true’ as one holds them in a mystical bond of metaphysical love. The stage play (adapted by co-star Constance Collier from a once popular George du Maurier novel) was a huge hit for young John Barrymore at his most poetic; the ladies swooned at matinees. Helmer Henry Hathaway worked well with Coop, but was a bit rough & ready for a film that cries out for the quasi-religious romantic fatalism of a Frank Borzage.* But even with the bumps in execution, there’s a lot of chemistry between Coop & the underrated Harding, along with a remarkably effective background score from Ernst Toch and staggering atmospheric lensing from Charles Lang.

*Borzage would come to Paramount the following year to direct Coop & Halliday, along with Marlene Dietrich, in DESIRE/’36. Yet that romantic comedy is more like the work of its producer, Ernst Lubitsch, than of Borzage. That’s Hollywood.

AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962)


Yasujiro Ozu’s final film ranks just below his very best; it’s quietly transcendent rather than utterly transcendent. Inevitably, it’s a modern Japanese family story about a prosperous widower who lives with his 24 yr-old daughter & youngest son. (An older son is already married). It’s a convenient living situation, but a series of tiny social & business epiphanies help him realize that his daughter is becoming a spinster caretaker. Is it too late for her to leave home? Does she even want to marry? Perhaps she has someone in mind? Ozu displays an undiminished mastery of pace, character & composition (those boxy Japanese living quarters are an editor’s dream), along with his signature low-camera positions, contemplative interstitial still-life shots and splashes of red. (In the world of Ozu, the bright red star of Sapporo Beer isn't product placement, it's art.) A perfect cast of mildly eccentric friends (with a lot of alcoholic lubrication) help to clarify the issues, while the superb Criterion DVD restoration clarifies colors and resolution so we can see everything clearly, including the exceedingly handsome family. The girl is lovely and the married son is an Asian ‘ringer’ for Gregory Peck. Since Ozu’s stylistic eccentricities are so calmly presented, you can’t put your finger on what makes these films so great. But the way they hang together emotionally is one of the great miracles (and mysteries) of cinema.

Monday, March 30, 2009

LA BATAILLE DU RAIL / THE BATTLE OF THE RAILS (1945)

French helmer René Clément turned from documentaries to features with this docu-drama made just as WWII was grinding to an end. It has a Neo-Realistic feel to it with actual locations & non-professionals playing the railway saboteurs who did so much to disrupt the Nazi war machine, especially during the panicky final days of the Occupation. Much of the action is impressively staged (how the explosions and derailments were managed is beyond me), but like so much of Clément’s work, he promises more than he delivers; this one has little characterization and less structural coherence. This could be a realistic plus, but the elements feel contrived, especially since just about every French person we meet is either a full or alternate member of the Resistance. A happy falsehood that lived on for decades before Marcel Opüls smashed it for good in THE SORROW AND THE PITY/’69. For a startlingly clear-eyed look at the grubby life, horror and true heroism of the resistance, try Jean-Pierre Melville’s stunning ARMY OF SHADOWS also from 1969, yet (disgracefully) only released Stateside in 2006.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

BLACK LEGION (1936)



Warner Bros. Studios was always eager to hang a film on some incendiary topical issue and this tough, little pic about a factory town supporting a KKK-like secret lodge delivers the goods until the overstuffed third act. Archie Mayo, the dullest of the Warners’ house directors, loosens up considerably under the modest budget and starless cast. (Top-billed Humphrey Bogart was a mere 'featured player' until MALTESE FALCON & HIGH SIERRA in 1941, and fourth-billed Ann Sheridan largely became a star right here, you can see it happening.) Bogie is riveting as a good-natured skilled laborer who joins a pack of xenophobic ultra-patriotic hooded creeps when an expected job promotion goes to a hardworking Polish/American kid. The Black Legion’s retribution is swift, violent and sickeningly unjust. Events soon spin out of control and those who know Bogie’s Fred C. Dobbs from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’‘48 will note similarities; yet seeing it all happen to the handsome, fresh-faced Bogie of 1936 makes it even worse. And though the film elides any reference to KKK violence toward Blacks & Jews (audiences of the time, no doubt, picked up enough clues to get the idea), the story remains unusually unforgiving toward Bogie’s character, offering no redemption, no face saving, no exit. It means to shock and, largely, it still does.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

THE DREAMERS (2003)

Bernardo Bertolucci ticked off a lot of die-hard Baby-Boomers & Left-leaning romantics with his non-political ‘take’ on the youth culture & social demonstrations that morphed into the Paris street riots of 1968. The man who made BEFORE THE REVOLUTION/’64, is too wised-up to buy into the ‘dreams’ of middle-class student revolutionaries, but not too jaded to appreciate the cultural & psychological aspects of rebellion. Especially when a pair of nubile twins (near incestuous brother & sister) and a naïf beach-boy blond American are isolated in a maze-like apartment. They play sexual truth-or-dare games based on obscure film facts and find themselves emotionally in over their heads. They’ll need a revolution to get out of this mess . . . and damned if they don’t get one! Or the semblance of one. It’s all too Henry James, but with films memorized at the Cinémathèque taking the place of objets d’art and a topsy-turvy innocence factor to keep you guessing. With his mastery of fluid staging, Bertolucci works technical wonders thru-out and cleverly references classic film clips to show life lived as reflection. (A dash thru the Louvre is a particular wonder).* As the American, Michael Pitt can’t quite hold his own against Louis Garrel or Eva Green's naughty duo (with backsides to die for). Listen up for a priceless discussion of Pitt’s inadequate nose. All told, it’s the most entertaining film Bertolucci has made in years, and if it’s not the deep-think piece on 1968 a lot of reviewers seemed to have wanted; well, too bad.

*Bertolucci pointedly avoids referencing the Melville-Cocteau/ LES ENFANTS TERRIBLE/’48. Perhaps it's too close for comfort.

Monday, March 23, 2009

REGULAR LOVERS (2005)

The same 1968 Paris riots that cap Bernardo Bertolucci‘s goofy & lyrical THE DREAMERS/’03 are used as the starting point in Philippe Garrel’s doleful look at the same era. The director's son, Louis Garrel, stars in both films but this time he loses rather than finds himself. Filmed with a panoply of Nouvelle Vague tics, Garrel père structures this long film as a series of extended vignettes spread around a loosely knit group of artists, poets, students, competing leftists & dilettantes. When the electric atmosphere that's so much a part of the initial revolutionary furore dissipates, the group settles for a mere similitude of the societal apocalypse they hoped to generate. Friendships fray, undying love waxes & wanes, drugs give off a diminished kick and life/career choices won’t stay on hold forever. It’s a fine set up, but Garrel’s film peters out by its third hour, adding up to something less than the sum of its often exquisite parts. Hmm, just like the ‘60s.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: We all know that life is unfair, but in the ‘60s, so was hair. Check out just how fabu & stylish the guys look with their dirty tresses compared to the poor gals.

Friday, March 20, 2009

REDSKIN (1929)



Of all the features made during the two-strip TechniColor era (1922 to 1932), this is the film that stands out for turning the limitations of the inherently flawed system into something artistically positive. Richard Dix stars as a Native American who gets the chance to go to college in the East (the only part of the film shot in standard b&), but finds that when he returns from the all-White world, he has become a stranger to both cultures. Not, admittedly, the most original storyline, but the familiar contours are amply fleshed out with a tribal feud between Pueblo & Navaho (naturally Dix’s girl is a member of the ‘wrong’ tribe), some irreplaceably beautiful location footage and even a climactic race to register an oil claim for 'his people,' before things wrap up a bit too neatly. And it's all nicely packaged, by Victor Schertzinger, Hollywood’s only director/operetta composer. But what really makes the film stick in your mind is the way the Red/Green TechniColor tints of the combined picture element transmute a good, but unexceptional silent feature into something with the delicate appeal & beauty of a traditional sand painting. What luck to have a decent surviving print!

A THOUSAND CLOUDS OF PEACE (2004)

In what amounts to an apprentice/art-house debut pic, Mexican writer/megger Julián Hernández follows a few days in the life of a young gay drifter as he searches for sex, affection, tru-love, the works in a series of artfully designed vignettes. The film is indebted (that’s the polite word) to debut films like Gus Van Sant’s MALA NOCHE/’85 with a few sideways glances at Pasolini’s nauseating mix of Bach & violence. You can’t miss seeing Hernández’s multiple talents behind the camera, he’s a natural working with his young cast and his eye for apt street locations throb with life & anxiety. But with the exception of a lovely sequence spent looking for an old soundtrack album, Hernández seems oblivious to just how threadbare his modest plot & character lines have become.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

MONSIEUR VINCENT (1947)


Though he helmed forty-plus features, this well-regarded bio-pic about a saintly French priest during the age of Louis XIV is the only credit Maurice Cloche is known for Stateside . . . and barely that nowadays. It’s a solid piece of work, handsomely shot in stark B&W by lenser Claude Renoir, that honors its subject by refusing to play down not only how difficult it is to live the life of a saint, but also how difficult it is to put up with having one around. Pierre Fresnay doesn’t overplay with priestly gravitas, but let’s us see the his spiritual development thru a refusal of comfortable positions and a straightforward manner of confronting the problems of the poor and of ignorance. And even then, as he expands his ministry beyond any ability to sustain his task, he knows that sometimes goodness alone isn’t enough. He’s more Don Quixote than Mother Teresa.


SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As the years go by and the aging make-up goes on, Fresnay seems to morph into Trevor Howard. Or is it the other way ‘round?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES . . . (2007)


. . . BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Heck, even the title’s too long! The umpteenth Jesse James bio-pic takes a painterly & poetic approach to its well-trod themes of lawlessness, psychosis, fraternal loyalty and hero worship. WATCH: as megger Andrew Dominik, in his sophomore outing, drowns the film with majestic landscapes, glowering clouds, fish-eye distortion and a whole pantry of cinematographic overkill from lenser Roger Deakins; LISTEN: as he holds raptly still while painfully micro-managing his terse dialog; GROAN: as he adds a patina of solemnity with wistfully ripe narration right out of a Ken Burns documentary. There’s something terribly depressing in watching a promising newbie like Dominik fall into so much self-indulgence & unearned hollow grandeur, as if Michael Cimino had gotten another shot at the big time. Please, someone, stop this talented man before he destroys himself. Fortunately, the acting choices are not without interest. As the weasely lout who initially worships Jesse James, Casey Affleck affects the raspy, unsettled voice of adolescent sexual confusion. Brad Pitt relaxes into his Jesse James, using his typical self-regarding manner as a key to every personality trait. And if they can’t quite find the depth or variation to withstand Dominik’s extended running-time, leave that to the always amazing Sam Rockwell who, as older brother Charley Ford, shows how it can be done.

NOTE: The poster seen here is from 1927, 80 years before this film, and shows how malleable the idea of Jesse James has been since Fred Thompson was a cowboy star (and husband to the legendary Hollywood scripter Frances Marion) who only played decent men who could serve as role-models for the youth of America.

Friday, March 13, 2009

MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)

Apparently, writer/megger Tony Gilroy saved up a ton of dialogue while writing those laconic scripts for the BOURNE Trilogy. Suddenly, he can’t shut up! This one’s a tricked up, American business morality tale, with corporate killers who really are killers!, and studded with ‘gotcha’ plot hooks meant to pass as dramatic epiphanies. It's like mixing the worst of David Mamet with the worst of Paddy Chayefsky. At least, George Clooney plays it smart and hangs back as the high-powered ‘fixer’ at a top Manhattan law firm, but there’s so much on his plate the script reads like a ‘plot bible’ for an ‘80s NBC drama series. He’s in hock to the mob, his law firm is not so secretly on the selling block, his ex & kid are cause for agita, his firm’s top lawyer is off his ‘meds’ and about to throw his big case over to the ‘little people,’ et al. It sounds like fun and there’s certainly a bevy of acting talent on board, but Gilroy thinks he’s made something serious simply because he hasn’t supplied a laugh in two long hours. He’s too busy slicing & dicing the linear continuity so we can’t see just how simplistic the action is. Or resorting to hoary plot devices (over-explicit, overheard phone messages, bombs that miss their mark when nature calls, taciturn killers-for-hire who are ‘just doing a job’) to sort things out. Yet, when a spark of real dramatic menace stares him in the face (as when Clooney leaves his kid in the car at a critical junction), Gilroy doesn’t seem to notice the possibilities.

ESTHER KAHN (2000)

Add Arnaud Desplechin onto the list of French autuers who have come to grief working in English. An intriguing story about a poor, but quietly headstrong Jewess who opts out of her family’s tailoring business and lands on the London stage circa 1900 is partially refreshed by Desplechin’s concentration on the times, bohemian mores & physical details of living & working conditions, rather than the usual backstage trials & triumphs. Alas someone (nervous producers?) laid on excessive narration to draw our attention to details we ought to be noticing all on our own. And though the film is generally well cast, Summer Phoenix proves hopelessly over-parted as Esther. Oh, she’s handsome enough, especially in the nude, but a lack of push or energy, along with her flat line readings make a mockery of her speedy success, especially when she wins the title role in a daring production of HEDDA GABLER. Talk about lambs to the slaughter. Phoenix’s career all but evaporated after this.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957)


Elia Kazan & Budd Schulberg’s follow-up to ON THE WATERFRONT/’54 was this wildly uneven tale about mass media, Populism & the political ties that join them to Ultra-Capitalist / Proto-Fascist Americanism. The young & shockingly raw Andy Griffith is the guitar picking layabout who catches the public fancy & goes bad while Patricia Neal is the reporter who lives to regret her discovery. But Kazan & Schulberg don’t trust their audience or their instincts in detailing Southern archetypes and provide a safe & sane Northerner (Walter Matthau in a career-making perf) as our guide to all the hysteria. Try this one as a double-bill with Frank Capra’s MEET JOHN DOE/’41 which trods similar terrain but with contradictory impulses. There’s a sense of terrified discovery in the Capra film, he barely seems to fully comprehend all the untidy implications he uncovers whereas Kazan & Schulberg know all too well what they’re up to; shooting clay pigeons.

DICK TRACY VS CUEBALL (1946) / DICK TRACY’S DILEMMA (1947)


RKO never got in gear with their abbreviated Dick Tracy feature series. Morgan Conway, who stars in the first two (CUEBALL was #2; DILEMMA was fourth & last) is a pleasant, but rumpled actor, without the appropriate Dick Tracy profile or dash. Ralph Byrd, who did the last two (he’d been Tracy in serials @ Monogram) has the snappy profile, but little else. CUEBALL tries for a bit of visual flair with some nifty framing devices, odd camera angles & even some cute life-at-home stuff, but is stymied by a dud villain. It’s just the opposite in DILEMMA where the film only comes fitfully alive when ‘The Claw’ is on screen. Maybe entries 1 & 3 marry the best elements seen here. The real surprise is seeing just how nasty the violence is. How’d they get away with it? Comic-book license or sheer indifference from the Breen Censorship Office?