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Thursday, April 30, 2009

THE VORTEX (1969)

Noël Coward’s first stage success, a veddy Freudian mother/son drama, is remembered, if at all, for Coward’s role as the drug addicted son, a ‘lost boy’ for the 1920s. But the central role and story line really belong to the boy’s mother, a woman who gives her limited stock of love & attention not to her own flesh & blood, but to her current lover, a man barely older than her son. As played by Margaret Leighton in the BBC production, she’s something of a Tennessee Williams gorgon, a proto-Blanche Dubois fighting a losing battle against the ravages of time and clinging to illusions from the past. The form of the play is familiar from the drawing room comedies Coward would soon revitalize, but here it’s effortlessly repurposed into society drama. And, except for some last act speechifying that finds a best friend over-masticating just what’s at stake, it holds up surprisingly well. Though, it certainly gets little help from the formulaic tv shooting technique that turns every edit into an unintentional jump cut.

Monday, April 27, 2009

SMART MONEY (1931)


Odd little programmer from Warners with Edward G. Robinson (and James Cagney in support) as a small town barber with winning ways, who raises a big stake to go the Big City and crash the private gambling scene. At first, he’s taken for a ride by some city slickers, but he rebounds to take another crack. The period flavor is mighty tasty, but Robinson hasn’t quite figured out how to gauge his effects for the camera and faceless megging from Alfred E. Green hardly helps. More interest lies in the buddy/buddy relationship between Robinson & Cagney as these two avoid anything beyond fanciful flirtation with a series of highly available gals while prancing about with each other. A lot of critics have noted a suppressed ‘gay jealousy’ angle between Eddie G. & Doug Fairbanks, Jr. in LITTLE CAESAR/’30, but it’s pretty hard to spot. Not here. And speaking of hard to spot, look fast for Boris Karloff in a bit and even faster for a notions counter salesman who's on the cast list as Wallace McDonald, but who sure looks like the young Preston Sturges.

ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975)



Walt Disney’s son-in-law, Ron Miller, all but ran the Disney brand into the ground in the period between Walt’s death in 1966 and the start of the Eisner/Katzenberg era in 1984. ESCAPE may hold a bit of nostalgic charm for those who saw it ‘back when,’ but without the blinders of childhood matinee Saturdays to color one’s response, all that remains on screen is an almost contemptuous lack of filmmaking craft. And this was one of Miller’s better releases! The story isn’t to blame (two orphaned siblings with super-natural powers search for their family while a rich villain tracks them down in order to use their powers for his own nefarious purposes), you can see why there have been sequels, remakes & spin-offs, but the actual product is both inept & inert with F/X that takes the special out of Special Effects, a narrative structure that goes from one clunky plot point to another, direction that avoids any & every opportunity for magic or suspense, and wooden acting by actors young & old. (Nice trained kitty-cat, though.)  Puerile stuff; ‘70s pablum for the conservative family market in a changing cultural landscape.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

HELLO, FRISCO, HELLO (1943)


Alice Faye’s return as queen of the Fox musical (after two-years off to start a family) was short-lived once this blandly formulaic Barbary Coast romance came out. It’s a loose remake of her own star-making vehicle, THE KING OF BURLESQUE/’35 with a listless John Payne (unappealingly mustached) in the old Warner Baxter role of a social climbing showman who gets burned by High Society before he learns to appreciate loyal little Alice. Jack Oakie also repeats from the earlier film, playing sidekick, this time well-matched with feisty June Havoc. They turn out to be the liveliest elements in a film that’s embalmed with plush TechniColor, too much physical production and flavorless period songs. (Luckily, there’s one new song for Alice and it’s a honey, the WWII classic ‘You’ll Never Know.’) Faye went on to play the nominal lead in Busby Berkeley’s astoundingly weird & wonderful THE GANG’S ALL HERE/’43 and she then tried a straight role in FALLEN ANGELS/’45. But she didn’t seem to care anymore.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

STATE OF PLAY (2003)

This BBC mini-series (the basis for the recent Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck pic) is tremendous stuff for the first three episodes; back-stabbing politics, murder-for-hire, sexy newspaper investigators, unsexy infidelity, spinmeisters & oil profiteers. But the second half is so determined to play ‘got’cha’ with surprise revelations of plot & character that parts 4 thru 6 steadily lose interest. Or perhaps it’s just that the storyline never recovers its momentum once the shadowy hitman leaves the scene. The continuous creepy, crawly, circling camera is a pain (a slow tracking shot on a parked car makes it tough to pay attention to the dialogue; "Hey, guys! Your car is rolling away!"), but there’s lots of good actors working up a storm here; a very young James McAvoy looks positively feral, and Bill Nighy hams deliciously as the wily editor. I haven’t seen so much snorting since Charles Laughton left the scene. Good going, Bill.

Monday, April 20, 2009

LA RONDE (1950)


The great Max Ophüls made a triumphant post-WWII return to Europe with this carnal ‘tastings’ menu of a pic, based on the notorious Arthur Schnitzler play from fin de siécle Vienna. The plot goes thusly; ‘A’ screws ‘B’; ‘B’ screws ‘C’; ‘C’ screws ‘D’; and so on until the tenth match up when ‘J’ screws ‘A.’ We’ve come full circle: La Ronde. In Ophüls’ hands, there’s not a sordid moment to love’s call and the period flavor is wonderfully accented with indelible perfs (Simon Signoret, Daniel Gélin, Simon Simone, Gérard Philipe, Danielle Darrieux, et al, what a cast!!), the surest directorial finesse imaginable & the lightest of Brechtian touches as our guide (Anton Walbrook, a stand-in for Max O. in a role invented for the pic) keeps all the characters moving along at a clip. The difference between a serial cynic like Schnitzler & a serial romantic like Ophüls closely parallels what many commentators have noted in the attitudes of Mozart & his COSÌ FAN TUTTE librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. Da Ponte holds that ultimately all love is false; but Mozart’s music contradicts him, indeed upstages him, by positing all love, no matter how fleeting or misdirected as the real thing. Max Ophüls was the real thing, too. Heavenly stuff, and tremendous fun.

ATONEMENT (2007)

With it’s free-flowing time shifts* and multiple points-of-narrative-view, British megger Joe Wright tries mightily to honor the Ian McEwan source material about an Upstairs/Downstairs love affair that comes to grief via lies, misunderstanding & the demands of WWII. But divorced from its literary prestige, the tale comes off as a weak sibling to THE GO-BETWEEN/’71 and THESE THREE/’36, with an overblown physical production that wreaks of ENGLISH PATIENT envy (1996). A spectacular Dunkirk sequence knocks your socks off and probably busted the budget, but to what purpose? The film is handsome to look at in a sort of Merchant/Ivory manner; it boasts some fine acting from the principals (if only Keira Knightley could put a few pounds on); there’s even a moving coda that lets Vanessa Redgrave turn a plot device into a living, breathing character, but the moviemakers are like a dummy waiting for their ventriloquist to show up . . . and he never does. *My favorite time-shift places the legendary Jussi Bjorling/Victoria de los Angeles 1955 recording of LA BOHEME onto a gramophone as a 78rpm record in the 1930s. Ah, the power of tru-love.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

THE SMALL BACK ROOM (1949)

The Archers (the writing-directing-producing team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) had more strings on their bow then the fantastic films they are most famous for (A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH/’46, THE RED SHOES/’48, THE TALES OF HOFFMANN/’51) and this largely straight-forward work deserves to be better known. Two stars from their delirious BLACK NARCISSUS/’46 are reunited in a WWII story of a one-legged demolitions expert (David Farrar) and his difficult romance with his boss’s assistant (Kathleen Byron). Oddly, the pic’s one false note comes in a visually extravagant nightmare sequence that finds Farrar fighting off his depression & alcoholic demons via surrealistic clocks and engorged brandy bottles. Instead, the Archers thrive on all the ultra-realistic details of bomb defusing & the bureaucratic battles of office politics in a time of war, wonderfully detailed via a tremendous line up of tasty supporting players (Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack, Jack Hawkins, even an unbilled Robert Morley). The riches in the Powell/Pressburger canon are so deep, there’s no dishonor in a silver medal entry; and Farrar in particular scores heavily in a perf that’s part Walter Pidgeon charm & part James Mason brooding sex appeal.

CONTEST: The Archers were rightly proud of this film and let you know in a most original fashion. Spot the coded bit of secret self-criticism and win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS write-up of any NetFlix DVD.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007)

James Gray’s sophomore outing continues his stylistic ode to Francis Coppola & Sidney Lumet, as seen in his debut pic, THE YARD/’00. This time, a leaner story line makes a better fit for a 2-hr pic, but the well worn narrative tracks of Brooklyn cops working to shut down a lethal gang of Russian drug lords misses the originality of the earlier film. James Caan was ‘borrowed’ from THE GODFATHER as THE YARD’s troubled father-figure, here THE GODFATHER’s Robert Duvall makes an unlikely dad to Mark Wahlburg & Joaquin Phoenix, who themselves make unlikely brothers. (They were best pals in THE YARD; the gimmick this time posits Phoenix, in hammy mode, as a nightclub manager from a family of cops who finds himself with conflicting filial & financial ties.) Gray works so hard at making an honest film and getting the details right, you want to respond positively, but he has little of Coppola’s compositional poetry & even less of Lumet’s on-the-wing spontaneity. Worse, he gloms the Coppola pomposity & Lumet’s careless casting. As a megger, Gray seems to have learned everything by rote. He needs to start walking on his own.

Monday, April 13, 2009

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931)


This chamber-sized musical (shot in Astoria, Queens - note the toy trains) is the least known of the early ‘Talkie’ operettas Ernst Lubitsch made @ Paramount between 1929 & 1932. But it’s a total charmer and would be better known if only Oscar Straus had come up with some better tunes. Maurice Chevalier is the lieutenant whose smile, though meant for Claudette Colbert, is intercepted by passing Princess Miriam Hopkins. State honor requires marital satisfaction, but Maurice refuses to consummate the deal. The laugh-lines in the script occasionally hang fire, but the situation turns into something terribly real and tinted with tragic hues in a miraculous scene between the two lovely ladies. Will the needs of the State trump the needs of the heart . . . or is there yet another road to happiness? But happiness for whom? And can a stiff gal learn to ‘Jazz Up Her Lingerie?’ Everyone shines, but Claudette is primus inter pares here and fully deserves the extended exit shot Lubitsch cooked up for her. The Criterion DVD has reclaimed and polished up a near-masterpiece that’s antique in all the best ways.

VALDEZ IS COMING (1971)

Burt Lancaster stars in this David Rayfiel adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, and you even get a double-debut bonus of character actors Richard Jordan & Hector Elizondo. Good names, one & all, too bad they all suck this time out. But there’s no getting around the fact that the pic’s an absolute stinkeroo. An accent-challenged Burt plays a lowly Mexican-American lawman who gets tripped up into killing an innocent black suspect while the man's Native-American wife looks on, silent & helpless. Lancaster spends the rest of the film hunting down the sadistic white men who were responsible. Even crucifixion won't stop Valdez from coming. Debuting megger Edwin Sherin deserves most of the blame for this excruciatingly PC bit of nonsense, but technical ineptitude is only part of the problem on this piece of cheese. Ah, the ‘70s.

LE PLAISIR (1952)


The great Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein famously noted that in his late works 'Mozart's simplest chord progressions become filled with grace, beauty & wisdom.' Much the same might be said of Max Ophuls’ late period; four masterpieces made when he returned to Europe after WWII. LE PLAISIR is the modest charmer of the quartet, but no less worthy for its intimate nature. Three Guy de Maupassant stories, THE MASK, LE MAISON TELLIER and THE MODEL, take us to a ball, a first communion and a love affair gone bad with Ophuls holding everything together with his signature long takes and fluid camera work, to say nothing of the pitch-perfect casting & decor. Less commonly noted is his sobering emphasis on the passage of time, and how it keeps us from getting too firm a hold on things. Working in so many countries & in so many languages as the great political upheavals of the mid-twentieth century buffeted him, it was a theme of great personal import to Ophuls . . . and, when presented in such a manner, to us as well.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE / SECOND BREATH (1966)


French helmer Jean-Pierre Melville successfully brings off an unusually blunt approach in this crime caper pic, but he can’t quite maintain the abstract beauty of the opening prison-break sequence. (It may be a tip of the chapeau toward VERTIGO/'58.) The rest of the film follows the development & execution of a chance-of-a-lifetime robbery. But as we watch a team of ruthless criminal specialists come together, a dogged Parisian detective is on their tail.  He gets closer & closer, but doesn't strike, letting the distrustful nature of these men take its toll on its own. Melville takes much the same course, calmly viewing the inglorious true nature of men who would willingly incorporate the death of a couple of cops into their meticulous plan as an unavoidable necessity. Melville’s final films moved toward more solitary contemplations of the criminal mind and feel more personal, but the texture of group psychology he got out of José Giovanni ’s story & script is no less compelling.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY:  Paul Meurisse, who plays the Paris-based detective, is a bit of an acquired taste. He’s one of those quietly hammy actors and, unfortunately for American Baby-Boomers, looks strikingly like Jack Webb of DRAGNET fame. Just the facts, mamselle, just the facts.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

THE KINGDOM (2007)

A terrorist attack decimates a large American compound in the Middle-East! Now, a crack team of FBI detectives & forensic agents will have to break all the rules of diplomacy to investigate behind the walls of . . . The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia! Next week, on CSI: RIYADH.

Add in some of that trendy slice & dice editing; unwatchable hand-held camerawork for the ADD crowd; three OTT explosive action sequences you can almost decifer; and wind things down with a cynical wrap-up that equates those murderous self-justifying religious fanatics with the role of international law enforcement; oh, and don't forget to have the nice young black guy forfeit his life protecting the white guy who has finally come to trust & value his smarts, his culture, his . . . OOPS! They've swapped that old story trope. Now, it's the cool black guy who plays the lead and the sacrificial minority figure is . . . well, let’s not spoil the latest progressive Hollywood cliche.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Would anyone care to join me in starting a fund dedicated to sending a stationary camera tripod to every director now working in Hollywood? It couldn't hurt.

Monday, April 6, 2009

NIGHT PASSAGE (1957)

The Rocky Mountains look Technirama-cally spectacular in this elaborately produced Western starring James Stewart as a disgraced railroad man who gets a second chance. But when you're responsible for $10,000 in payroll money and your reputation's on the line, it doesn’t help if the gang of robbers standing between you and the end of the line includes your own kid brother (Audie Murphy). Stewart had just ended a series of psychologically complex Westerns under the sure hand of helmer Anthony Mann, and his replacement, newbie director James Neilson, proves a competent, but faceless substitute. He’s unable to ‘run’ the multiple storylines of the final act and lets some solid actors really ham things up. (Maybe Dan Duryea thought he could jolt a reaction out of the placid Mr. Murphy.) And there are odd little goofs all thru the pic, like when Stewart apologizes for having apple pie at breakfast (as common as a doughnut at the time), and you can’t miss spotting that distinctive ‘crosshatched’ Saks Fifth Avenue box . . . in the Colorado territory of 1870? Well, it’s always nice to meet up with Brandon de Wilde, playing a runaway kid Stewart befriends, and it’s a kick to hear Jimmy sing & play the accordion (if only Dmitri Tiomkin‘s score weren’t so reminiscent of his work on GIANT/’56).  But when Neilson tries work Stewart’s musical act into the climax, the giggle factor comes into play.

Friday, April 3, 2009

IL BIDONE / THE SWINDLE (1955)


VARIETY LIGHTS/’50, THE WHITE SHEIK/’51, I VITELLONI/’53, LA STRADA/’54, IL BIDONE/’55, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA/’57, LA DOLCE VITA/’60: Fedrico Fellini had already turned out a decade of masterworks when 1963 found him molting from Fellini to Fellini-esque with 8 ½.  After that, the loss was considerable. But for our purposes, let's look again at the list above. IL BIDONE?, have you even heard of it? What’s it doing among such riches? Is it any good? Why is it forgotten? Broderick Crawford stars with Richard Basehart & Franco Fabrizi as a trio of con men who prey on the least of society, gullible rubes & the unsophisticated rural poor, with far-fetched scams of buried treasure and quick return investments. Giulietta Masina is marvelous as Basehart’s disapproving wife, she makes his faults almost likable, but the other swindlers we meet are truly despicable. The film is unexpectedly naturalistic & damning on these bottom-feeders, with hardly a speck of Fellini fancy or poesy to beguile. It died on release, but it’s anything but negligible. It’s more Jules Dassin than Fedrico, although a stupendously nasty New Year’s Eve party sequence is filled with enough heartless brilliance to presage LA DOLCE VITA’s depiction of ‘Il Boom,’ the big Italian economic post-War resurgence. With extra pluses for the great lens work from Otello Martelli & a typically memorable Nino Rota score, IL BIDONE earns it’s spot on the Fellini C.V.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN (1936)


Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll are the apogee of sexy glamor in this rapturously silly & exciting picaresque adventure about Americans caught in the middle of escalating military conflict between Chinese Warlords. Everything clicks on this one: Lewis Milestone ‘s overly-studied direction, Clifford Odet ‘s purple prose, Hans Dreier ‘s elegant design (China never looked as stylish as it did on the Paramount lot), Victor Milner ‘s impossibly sleek lensing, even the typically awkward mix of real Asians & Caucasians made up as ‘Orientals’ seems to give us permission to accept some of the old narrative tropes we might find difficult to swallow in a production with less artifice and more verisimilitude. (Who wants verisimilitude when you can have Akim Tamiroff as General Yang?) And if it doesn’t transcend the limitations built into the genre the way, say, SHANGHAI EXPRESS/’32 does, it’s still knock out entertainment. (It’s also near the top of my list for all-time great movie titles.)