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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!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

SADIE MCKEE (1934)

In this standard M-G-M vehicle, Joan Crawford may be a cook’s daughter, but that doesn’t stop three men (a wastrel & two millionaires) from chasing her right from the opening credits. It’s the usual shopgirl’s fantasy, and damned if the old formula doesn’t still work. Gene Raymond is the weakling who sings ‘All I Do The Whole Day Thru Is Dream Of You;’ Edward Arnold is the dipsomaniac fat-cat whom she marries out of spite (and then cures); and Franchot Tone is the ‘right’ man for her if she’d only let her guard down. Clarence Brown helms smoothly and gets an unusually natural perf out of Joan, she certainly looks her best here, even if the story plays out with all the depth & believability of the slick magazine fiction it’s adapted from. In two or three years, this sort of product would inevitably harden and become lacquered & lifeless (especially @ M-G-M), but try and get a copy of POSSESSED/’31* to see Crawford, Brown & lenser Oliver Marsh make a 14 carat beauty of this sort of thing.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, POSSESSED.  But be careful, Joan made two films called POSSESSED - 1931 & 1947.  As is always the case with Crawford, go early!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

PERFUME (2006)

Wispy Ben Whishaw, who stars as the young man with a genius for all things olfactory, just hasn’t the nose for this horror-filled fairy tale. (The young Gerard Depardieu would be more like it. Now, there’s a nose.) It’s the story of an orphan boy who grows up to be the world’s greatest perfumier, striving to capture an essence that will literally conquer wills at a waft. And if he must murder a few lovely girls in his quest, so be it. The look of Pre-Revolutionary France is extravagantly captured, but the story, so rapturous on the page, feels a bit preposterous under the realistic helming of Tom Twyker whose inability to find a visual equivalent for SCENT hobbles the marvelous conceit so wonderfully captured in Patrick Süskind’s novel. Playing the young sniffer’s mentor, Dustin Hoffman flails away in the style of eccentric British acting royalty that everyone else here (from Alan Rickman on down) wears as second nature. Did anyone bother to notice that the story takes place in France? Oh well, the gruesome fantasy of the basic material manages to hold your attention and the film improves even if it goes on too long, faithful to a fault. Author Patrick Süskind waited two decades to sell the much coveted rights to his acclaimed novel . . . maybe he should have waited a decade or two longer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

OFFICE SPACE (1999)

After three feature films (OFFICE SPACE, IDIOCRACY/’06, EXTRACT/’09), Mike Judge has yet to approach the success of his animated series (KING OF THE HILL, BEAVIS & BUTT-HEAD). And while this uninspired office-life comic caper has acquired a sizable cult following on DVD, Judge’s script & megging lag far behind the rich comedy veins mined by THE OFFICE and it’s international iterations or earlier shows like the scabrous duo of the Australian FRONTLINE or the astonishingly nasty THE NEWSROOM from Canada. Judge makes the safe commercial decision of asking us to identify with the blandly likable Ron Livingston as his lead which turns all the office politics into a game of ‘us’ vs ‘them.’ The original British version of THE OFFICE made you squirm as well as laugh at the ghastly commonplace horrors of dead-end office jobs largely by forcing the viewer to identify with the mortifyingly horrible boss, Ricky Gervaise. Some scenes were so laughably painful to sit thru that you had to turn away from the screen. By comparison, OFFICE SPACE, especially with its cop-out ending, plays like an after-thought, a writing exercise, a contract perk. Disappointing stuff.

Monday, September 21, 2009

WAY DOWN EAST (1920)


It’s the mother-of-all melodramas, and wiseguys have been scoffing at its old-fashioned ways & means since before it was released. Even its star, Lillian Gish, ‘What? That ol’ thing?’ But D. W. Griffith pulled it off with a combination of showmanship (particularly in the use of real & very dangerous locations); film technique (especially in the clear editing of parallel storylines); and his complete belief in seemingly inert material. Gish is just about perfect as the naive girl who’s tricked into a mock marriage and then loses her newborn child. Friendless & wandering, she stumbles into a new life at a country estate (with a handsome son, natch) when her old nemesis shows up. So close to redemption, so close to finding love, so close to a chance at happiness! And then, the man who got her into all this trouble turns out to be the well-liked gentleman neighbor. Cue the Ice Storm! As the farmer’s son who quickly falls in love with Gish, young Richard Barthelmess is disarmingly open-hearted & intimate which brings out a new sensuous note from Gish while Lowell Sherman makes his seducer villain almost shockingly nonchalant. There’s an awful lot of rural comedy in the supporting roles, far too much in the case of Martha, the town gossip, but it gets a surprising amount of laughs (there’s a hilarious Post Office porch tableaux), and it works as mortar to help shore up the melodramatic bricks. The last three reels play out as a thrilling series of climaxes, including the legendary/gasp-worthy rescue on the ice floes sequence. The superb restoration on KINO from the MoMA archives is tinted too darkly, but it’s by far the most complete edition since . . . well, since 1920, and the varying print quality (from very good to pretty rough) makes for a nice little history lesson in film preservation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

MOON OVER MIAMI (1941)


All the Hollywood studios made three-girls-on-the-make pics, but 20th/Fox had an absolute mania for the formula. This iteration finds Betty Grable, Carole Landis & Charlotte Greenwood moving from Texas to Miami to grab a millionaire. Grable poses as an heiress and lands two suckers, Don Ameche & Robert Cummings while Landis & Greenwood give support. Fortunately, when Jack Haley uncovers the scam, the scheme’s collapse releases everyone to pair up romantically. Dance director Hermes Pan really puts Grable thru her paces on this one (she's more than up to the challenge) and he worked out a bright routine for Greenwood & Haley; even Ameche & Cummings show some charm under Walter Lang’s sympathetic megging. But the Ralph Rainger/Leo Robin songs fall flat and nothing sticks in your memory.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

VOLVER (2006)

After his breakthru with WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN/’88, Pedro Almodóvar lost his stride by overindulging the very character, stylistic & narrative eccentricities that had ‘made’ his rep. So, it’s a relief to see him pull back from the heavy metaphysics of his stellar recent work with this relatively ‘straight’ story that could easily be titled ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER II. And how nice that Carmen Maura, his early muse, is back after twenty years to pull it off so movingly. Penelope Cruz leads a great cast in a twisty murder/revenge/redemption tale that any MILDRED PIERCE/’46 fan should respond to. Female empowerment, second chances, patricide, second sight; all the expected Almodóvar themes wrapped in his highly colored visual scheme and immaculate craftsmanship. The editing is quite exceptional. And from the opening shot of women tending their cemetery plots, you feel the confident hands of a master filmmaker with the wisdom & maturity to know when to trim his sail.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (1936)

David O Selznick’s second film as an independent producer, one of the early triumphs of the still new three-strip TechniColor process, remains breathtakingly beautiful as artifact and breathtakingly silly as drama. But who would want it otherwise? Dressed appropriately in a series of glamorous, flowing pastel chiffon outfits, Marlene Dietrich heads to the desert to purity her unhappy soul. There, she falls for dewy, doe-eyed Charles Boyer and they marry before she discovers his terrible secret; he’s a monk on the lam. Will the secret of the monastery’s famous liqueur be lost forever to secular passion? Will Basil Rathbone’s romantic arab prince reveal all? Will Tilly Losch’s lap dance unnerve Boyer? Will Joseph Schildkraut lose Dietrich’s luggage? There’s so much at stake! You really can’t make fun of kitsch this pure. And don’t kid yourself, underrated helmer Richard Boleslawski, originally a member of Stanislawski’s Moscow Art Players, knows the score. Just let it roll over you like the Max Steiner music that looks toward Sigmund Romberg’s THE DESERT SONG for it’s own brand of Golden Age Hollywood authenticity.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

PRETTY POISON (1968)


Anthony Perkins gives one of his best post-PSYCHO/’60 perfs as a paroled felon with lingering mental problems who finds relief from his mind-numbing factory job (and his violent past) by indulging in a dangerously active fantasy life. He meets cute/impressionable/underage Tuesday Weld and finds a romantic partner willing to play along with his fictionally constructed secret life as a CIA agent. (Just how much of this fantasy she believes is open to question.) At first, Lorenzo Semple’s script plays like an off-kilter WALTER MITTY tale or perhaps an Americanized BILLY LIAR, where doses of illusion help to break the monotony of an average life. But the story swerves into darker territories as nihilistic actions allow Weld to force Perkins into dramatic corners he either can’t or doesn’t wish to get out of. The film just gets weirder and better as it goes along, even if the brief visual feints toward New Wave editing from megger Noel Black don’t quite come off. He’d soon settle into routine tv work. But the film deserves its growing cult following as does that cute blue Sunbeam that Tuesday Weld gets to drive. Yum, what a sweet car!

Monday, September 14, 2009

UMARETTE WA MITA KEREDO / I WAS BORN BUT . . . (1932)

Just before Talkies reached Japan, Yasujiro Ozu won three consecutive Best Picture awards beginning with this startlingly funny domestic comedy, taken from the same source material he would reconfigure as GOOD MORNING/’59 late in his career. It’s about two young brothers who’d rather play hooky than face all those bullies at their new suburban school. Naturally, their dad finds out what’s going on and sees that they return to class. Soon, the brothers have managed to turn the tide of peer pressure in their favor with their schoolmates, but at the same time they’ve become increasingly aware of how their father bows & scrapes, rather than confronts, similar obstacles at his workplace. What’s the point of gaining neighborhood bragging rights when you know your father is a wuss? While largely focusing on the fights, friendships & shifting allegiances of the kids, Ozu touches on broader issues, all within a story line & comic sequences that could have come from an OUR GANG short. Though the dramatic balance of GOOD MORNING, along with much of the distinctive Ozu directorial style has yet to crystalize, and his use of parallel editing between kids at play & Dad at work is too simplistic, the film remains a breezy delight with a thoughtful third act that enriches all the hijinks without seeming to change gears.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)


It turns out that neither helmer Steven Spielberg nor producer George Lucas have much affection for the joyless, over-produced prequel they made three years after the infinitely superior RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK/’81. Their distaste, as seen on the DVD-Extras, is unusually frank, but it’s hard to disagree with them. The passing years have only emphasized the film’s faults. Harrison Ford is still pitch-perfect as Indiana, but nothing else matches the kind of kidding-on-the-square attitude that defined the original. The GUNGA DIN style plot feels like small potatoes after taking on the Nazis; the stunts and gross-out humor are all bark & no bite; and poor Kate Capshaw fails to delight as the romantic feminine nuisance. Worse yet, you can’t properly ‘read’ any plausibility into the big action sequences which is what made the death-defying escapes in RAIDERS so much fun to watch. No wonder those boys bad-mouth this one.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (1952)


After four years as Mrs. Aly Khan, Rita Hayworth returned to Columbia Studios and was hustled into this GILDA/’46 retread. Well, half GILDA and half shameless rip-off of Hitchcock’s infinitely greater ‘46 noir NOTORIOUS . Charles Vidor, who made GILDA, was working @ Goldwyn, so Vincent Sherman megged. Sherman specialized in handling stars with career troubles, but he tended to make things worse. Bette Davis, Errol Flynn & Joan Crawford had all stumbled under him, now it was Rita’s turn. And that was a shame because Rita came back in good shape and eager to play. She’s a nightclub performer who finds herself up to her neck in an international arms conspiracy when her husband turns up dead. Thank God, this gal can still toss her hair back and swing like crazy with the band on a number or two. Glenn Ford, all smoldering sex in GILDA, is stuck in a chump role as the clueless brother of Rita’s murdered husband. B’way actress Valerie Bettis, who’s a bit like Gena Rowlands, stands out among the conspirators as a good-time gal with a weakness for liquor. She’s an obvious talent, but proved tough to photograph and beat a quick retreat from L.A.. Rita kept at it, but the glory days were gone.

DON KIKHOT / DON QUIXOTE (1957)

Knowing how directors like G. W. Pabst, Orson Welles, Terry Gilliam & Arthur Hiller(!) all failed (in one way or another) at getting Cervantes’ epic up on the screen does give this Grigori Kozintsev prestige pic the advantage of lowered expectations. The Soviet helmer, best known for weighty adaptations of HAMLET/'66 and KING LEAR/'71, turned out a handsome product, well-paced, with a clear-eyed take on the story. He maintains enough complications to keep the woeful knight from becoming a ‘wise’ madman cliché and had the hefty budget and generally fine cast to back him up. The Sancho Panza hams things up (don't they all), but Nikolai Cherkassov, Sergei Eisenstein’s Nevsky & Ivan, makes an exceptional, absurdly elongated 'Kikhot.' If only Kozintsev weren't so bi-polar behind the camera, with beautifully rendered location shooting wedding landscape to character & action, then staging his busy interiors with all the finesse of a third-rate touring opera company. Still, it may well be the best feature-length Quixote out there, and the Ruscico-DVD is more than acceptable. By the way, don’t worry that you missed the windmill sequence, it’s been moved toward the end and to their credit, they don't overmilk it. Along with the court scenes, where the formal behavior of the grandees and 'Kikhot's' humiliation are perfectly matched with Kozintsev's stiff WideScreen compositions, it's the best realized sequence in here. (Set the audio on the mono track to improve the echo-chamber sound.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

BLACK WIDOW (1954)


After two decades as a favored writer/producer @ 20th/Fox, Nunnally Johnson began directing his own stuff. NIGHT PEOPLE/’54 with Greg Peck & a fast-talking Broderick Crawford came first and then this odd conflation of a swanky/bitchy NYC murder mystery like LAURA/’44 with a swanky/bitchy NYC backstager like ALL ABOUT EVE/’50. The attempt at high-style falls flat, even laughable, yet it’s quite watchable in a weird artificial way. Ginger Rogers, in B’way diva mode, is married to the weak, but likeable Reginald Gardiner and they live one floor above her producer, Van Heflin & his heiress wife Gene Tierney. Life gets complicated when scheming vixen Peggy Ann Garner is found dead in Heflin’s apartment. Then, when the investigating detective turns up, it’s a phlegmatic George Raft! That's more acting styles than even CinemaScope can hold, even on those football-sized drawing room sets designed for the depth-of-field problems inherent in those early CinemaScope lenses. The film is catnip for parodists, but why settle for a 'camp' knock-off when you can enjoy the real McCoy?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

L’IMBALSAMATORE / THE EMBALMER (2002)

A creepy taxidermist (a ringer for Rumpelstiltskin) mentors a handsome young stud, overpays him with money borrowed from the Mafioso and plies him with wine, women & song. But the hunk is too dense & too straight to tumble into sex or enlightenment. It’s a neat set up for a perverse/erotic thriller, but megger Matteo Garrone doesn’t bother to connect the dots in his story. And, trained as a painter, he’s so busy ladling on his visual palette that he smothers everything in super-saturated color, posterized imaging and high contrast lighting.* No doubt, he’s trying to cover all the holes in his narrative, but noirs that can only move from plot point to plot point via character stupidity & contrivance quickly lose their power to take us over to the dark side. *Damned if it wasn't arty enough to earn a handful of Italian Film Awards & Nominations.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

OHAYO / GOOD MORNING (1959)

Jasujiro Ozu, Japanese master of the quietly devastating domestic drama, is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think fart jokes. But this deliciously funny sit-com (about kid brothers who refuse to speak until Dad buys a tv set) revels in them, getting insightful laughs from the very same themes Ozu typically treats with respectful melancholy. (It’s not unlike the relationship between Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS, with it’s proto-‘Father Know Best’ format and his devastating reworking of the same basic materials in his masterful LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.) Set in the suburban tracts of tight single-unit homes, gossipy neighbors, and impossibly stubborn modern kids; all the narrative & stylistic ingredients you’d expect to find in late Ozu are here. Low camera position, splashes of red in every shot, those mysterious contemplative interstitial shots, glancing movement within the stillness of boxed compositions: now all subtly re-timed into comic mode. A formal etiquette designed to create misunderstandings, men who escape home to drink a bit too much in bars, disrespectful kids, fathers worried about their unmarried daughters, perfectly matched couples who won’t admit they’ve fallen in love: all repositioned for rueful comedy. But don’t hold in the laughs, the film is also LOL funny with lovely perfs from many Ozu regulars and exceptional kid performers. And, yes, farts; lots & lots of farts. (This just has to be Eddie Murphy’s favorite Ozu.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN (1934)


Douglas Fairbanks ' last film should work better than it does. The story idea is sound and well-suited for a middle-aged swashbuckler: Riddled with debt, Don Juan goes incognito when an impostor dies in a duel. For a while, he enjoys the peace & quiet, but when he attempts to resume his true identity as the great lover, no one believes this aging fellow is the real Don Juan . . . and maybe that’s all for the best. The production designer, Vincent Korda, and lighting cameraman, Georges Perinal, turn in stellar work, and playwright Frederick Lonsdale’s script is literate & fun. Best of all, Doug appears comfortable acting his age in a Talkie. If only producer Alex Korda had let someone with a bit of directorial panache take over the reins on the set. Still, it’s a pleasant & graceful final bow for Doug and, in its stiff way, it looks pretty gorgeous in the Criterion DVD edition.


NOTE: That’s Australian baritone John Brownlee who sings the opening number in the pic. He’d play Don Juan just a year later, the Mozart/Da Ponte Don Giovanni in a legendary production @ the brand new Glyndebourne Opera and make a recording that’s never gone out of the classical catalogues.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

NE LE DIS A PERSONNE / TELL NO ONE (2006)


In only his second film as director, French actor Guillaume Canet scores, weaving an innocent-man-on-the-run thriller with an ultra-twisty murder mystery detective story in a manner not seen since THE FUGITIVE/’93. It begins like this: Eight years after his wife’s violent disappearance, a still mournful husband receives an e-mail . . . from his ‘dead’ wife. Working from his own adaptation of Harlan Coben’s novel, Canet’s emphasis is less on the chase than on solving the multiple mysteries, which lends a more intellectual (perhaps French?) tone to the story line, especially in the film’s second half. Multiple layers of deceit necessitate an extended confessional finale to clear everything up, but it’s a small price to pay for all the beautifully handled episodes as deftly planted characters reappear for a turn in the plot. It’s beautifully structured stuff. As the husband on the run, François Cluzet heads a superb cast which deservedly won ensemble acing awards. But it’s Canet, who gives himself a small role, who’s the real hero here. Classic narrative cinema lives . . . at least, in France.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

THE PEARL OF DEATH (1944)


There’s a pleasant zip to this Sherlock Holmes pic, one of twelve made during WWII @ Universal w/ Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce, which makes it a particularly good entry point for newbies. The Holmes/Watson relationship is particularly well-balanced here with Bruce getting a neat solo comic turn that also works as a plot point in the story line. And, this time out, that story line is taken from an actual Conan Doyle Holmes tale, THE SIX NAPOLEONS, the one about the fabulous stolen pearl with a deadly curse on it. As usual, the lack of depth in Universal contract players is regrettable, but the strong narrative elements and Roy William Neill ‘s efficient, yet atmospheric helming, make it less noticeable. So does the truly startling presence of Rondo Hattan as ‘The Creeper.’ Just for the record, this guy is not wearing any fright make-up. Yikes!

Friday, September 4, 2009

SOMETHING OF VALUE (1956)


No doubt, the relentlessly grim news out of Africa adds dramatic weight to Richard Brooks’ typically ham-fisted adaptation of Robert Ruark’s novel on Kenya & the Mau Mau uprising. But on its own terms, the film holds a fair amount of interest. Rock Hudson, with his California physique & accent, is surprisingly convincing as the scion of white Kenyan settlers. He and Sidney Poitier were raised like brothers, but now they are grown men and Poitier, rebelling at his reduced status in a colonial state, joins the Mau Mau terrorist revolutionaries. Brooks isn’t able to pull off the big emotional & action sequences, but he does nicely working the middle ground and in handling the domestic dramas. It doesn’t hurt to have Wendy Hiller in your cast, even if she’s playing Rock Hudson’s sister! With excellent tech work and a suitably African score overseen by the great Miklos Rozsa, this must have been a tough sell for producer Pandro Berman*, but the film outstrips many better known African films from the time.

*Note the the title change on the Re-release poster. Always a sign of commercial desperation.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Brooks made CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF the following year and watching this film it's hard not to imagine what a great role Brick would have made for Hudson . . . and (pace Paul Newman) how good he might have been.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

THE STRATTON STORY (1949)


This well-liked baseball bio (a tru-life tale of the Chicago pitcher who lost a leg in a hunting accident, but returned to play again) is boilerplate inspirational stuff that only comes fitfully to life in the overloaded last act. No doubt, megger Sam Wood got the gig because he had made THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES back in ’42, but the film feels & looks tired & routine; even the grey scale is compressed on the print and the studio lot exteriors haven’t a breath of air to them. Perhaps Wood was too ill to follow thru and get what he wanted; he died in ‘49 and the film was his penultimate release. James Stewart & June Allyson may have picked up on the general sense of lethargy since they overcompensate, laying on their worst mannerisms with a trowel. They’d do better together for Anthony Mann in THE GLENN MILLER STORY/’54. What James should have been working on was his pitching. He’s no major leaguer! But, as the has-been professional who stumbles upon Stratton & coaches him up to the majors, Frank Morgan, like Wood making his penultimate film, but still at the top of his scene-stealing form, shows how you do it with some nice snap-of-the-wrist motion on the ball. It’s the only believable thing in the pic.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

EXCELLENT CADAVERS (2005)

An excellent, largely straightforward documentary into the workings of the Sicilian Mafia, focusing on the city of Palermo where so many bodies accumulated in the 1970s & 80s. The film, helmed by Marco Turco with a bit more embellishment than needed, is based on the investigative journalism of Alexander Stille who managed to sort out the three-sided war between rival Mafia families; the colluding political parties (local & national); and the twisted response from prosecuting magistrates who were not always fighting for the cause of truth & justice. Two who were, Giovanni Falcone & Paolo Borsellino, are the doomed heroes of the story, men who gave the government all the pieces needed to shut down the mob, but didn’t live to see the way in which indifference & a more subtle manner of influence peddling would erode the progress they had fought so hard for.

NOTE: Don’t confuse this FRF-DVD with the HBO docu-drama, also called EXCELLENT CADAVERS, which stars Chazz Palmenteri & F. Murray Abraham.