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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

MR. WARMTH: The Don Rickles Project (2007)

This John Landis documentary on the great insult comedian barely gets the job done. The film never finds its focus, jumping around from his current act (not just insult comedy, but songs, gags, stories and maudlin personal stuff) to his reminiscences and on to informal tributes from his peers and the younger comics he inspired. (But what is Chris Rock doing in here? He seems scarcely able to disguise his contempt.) The best stuff in it, by far, are the unadorned interviews where Rickles talks about his early acting gigs (Rickles was a superb character actor with a lot of range) and the old mob-ruled days of early Las Vegas. (There’s a great Clark Gable story, complete with spot-on Gable impression.) But Landis is simply too fond of the man to sort out the wheat from the chaff. There’s good stuff in here, but keep your thumb near the FF button.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970)


Mel Brooks’ version of this oft-filmed Russian story (the one about the jewels hidden in a lost chair) was probably too gentle a comedy to catch on commercially. It misses the blissed-out vulgarity of his debut pic, THE PRODUCERS/’68, and the built-in gags of his genre parodies, while the humanistic comic touches can’t overcome the lacunae in Brooks’ filmmaking chops. His staging remains, as ever, barely evolved from ‘50s tv variety shows. Does anyone still find under-cranked chase sequences funny? But the sturdy plot mechanics help a lot, as do the charming Yugoslavian locations and the winning cast. The relatively young, relatively lean Dom De Luise is fresh & funny as a fortune hunting Father, "Come on, God!" And can that tall youth with the ripe matinee idol looks really be Frank Langella? But it’s Ron Moody, fresh off his Oscar nom in OLIVER!/’68, playing the rightful heir who hits the tone everyone is trying for. Halfway thru the pic, he stops pushing for laughs and lets the comedy & the emotion play out ‘straight.’ Fitfully, you see what a Lubitsch might have done with this. Brooks can only hint at such accomplishments, and the film remains a-road-not-taken on his CV, but a loveable one.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

EL CID (1961)

The critical rep for this Anthony Mann epic on Spain’s great national hero/martyr has risen dramatically in the past decade. As well it should. The physical production is unusually striking, Robert Krasker’s lensing has interiors that glow like illuminated manuscripts and Miklos Rozsa’s churning Iberian-tinged score is a marvel. (Especially if you have the speakers to do justice to the organ entry at the climax.) Visually, the cast is equally striking, even if some of the dialogue thuds now & then, and if neither Sophia Loren nor Charlton Heston seem capable of much nuance (she needed Vittorio De Sica & he needed William Wyler for such niceties), sometimes looks really are enough. The story structure is deceptively similar to THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56, check out the post-intermission sequence when a grizzled Heston returns to court to see just how close, but helmer Anthony Mann has the moviemaking skills Mr. DeMille had long abandoned. And a decade of superior Westerns had given Mann thrilling power in conjoining location & character in a manner that opens the psychological & moral battles underpinning the sweeping narrative.

10:30 P.M. SUMMER (1966)


Melina Mercouri & Peter Finch are Madrid-bound with their young daughter & best pal Romy Schneider, but life gets complicated in the small, crowded town they overnight in. Not only is Melina binge-drinking, but Peter & Romy only have eyes for each other. Worse yet, a parallel story is the talk of the town: A young husband is being hunted down after murdering his wife & her young lover. It’s all high-flown literary nonsense from author Marguerite (HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR/’59) Duras who co-scripted with helmer Jules Dassin. At least, Dassin makes things visually striking, even sumptuous, but in a manner that cuts completely against any particle of believability coming thru. Still, there’s something fascinating in watching someone as ill-suited as Dassin attempt territory well-tilled at the time by Alain Resnais & Michelangelo Antonioni. (Actually, the film this calls to mind, is Roberto Rossellini’s masterful VIAGGIO IN ITALIA / VOYAGE TO ITALY/’53.) Dassin made this right after his delightful and wildly successful TOPKAPI/’64, yet couldn’t muster a Stateside release. Perhaps the nudity scared off distributors. Melina & Romy even take a shower together. How steamy! Or, maybe not steamy enough!


Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE MYSTERY OF PICASSO (1956)


Pablo Picasso after WWII: Spent force living off past achievements (see Simon Schama; et al.) or Still the most vital artist of the last century (see Tony Richardson; et al.)? Henri-Georges Clouzot’s po-faced documentary, which concentrates on live painting rather than the painter, supplies arguments for each side of the debate. Clouzot, best-known for WAGES OF FEAR/'52 and DIABOLIQUE/'55, is content to stand back as cinematic witness letting Picasso work & rework a score of paintings directly for the camera. And for much of the film, we see a doodler of genius. (Or perhaps a genius doodling.) A man selling his name, not his art. But things change dramatically in the last three reels when a sketch of a goat’s head captures Picasso’s full attention. After this, the screen, which has already shifted from b&w to color, opens up from Academy ration to CinemaScope and the compositions come blazingly to life. There’s a lot of fun in seeing elements of Matisse and (who knew?) Chagall briefly appear only to be swept away as the canvas finds itself; and it’s a joyous treat to see Picasso find himself as he goes along.

DEFIANCE (2008)

In WWII Poland, four brothers run off to join the resistance, but find a greater purpose establishing a forest sanctuary for more than a thousand fellow-Jews fleeing Nazis & Polish collaborators. The basic story is true, and such a ‘natural’ it easily trumps Edward Zwick’s flat-footed megging. The sequences involving an uneasy alliance with the invading Soviet army are of particular interest. As a production job, the physical reconstruction and locations have been meticulously handled, yet the dialogue is strictly ‘B’ movie stuff and the doleful musical score has violin virtuoso Joshua Bell throbbing out endless variations of a faux ‘Kol Nidre’ composition. The acting goes from spirited to cornball with Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie (Billy Elliot) Bell, & George Mackay as exceptionally unlikely brothers. Zwick certainly knows a good story when he hears one, but as director he remains the dutiful film school lad. Character arcs, internal & external conflict, repetitive comic motifs, quick situational reversals, story ‘beats’ at all the right places; leave no narrative trope behind is his motto, his religion, and his Achilles heel. For a story that’s all about surviving on your wits by improvising, Zwick sticks to old habits like a tattered security blanket. He wouldn’t have lasted a day out there.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

HELL TO ETERNITY (1960)


Fact-based story about Guy Gabaldon, an orphaned Mexican-American kid who’s taken in by a Japanese-American family. When WWII breaks out, his step-brothers are gung-ho to enlist, his surrogate parents are forced into internment camps and Gabaldon, now played by Jeffrey Hunter, becomes confused & conflicted about his place in all this. When he does join up and is sent to Saipan, he’s torn between killing & saving the enemy. For its time, the film is unusually ambitious in its progressive treatment of racial attitudes, unusually tough in depicting the horrors of war and unusually large-scaled for a modestly budgeted indie. But helmer Phil Karlson, a ‘King of the Bs,’ knew how to squeeze a buck. He’s best remembered for late reactionary films like WALKING TALL/’73, but earlier credits lean surprisingly liberal. Not everything comes off, to put it nicely (like some of the acting!), but Hunter is effective & moving in the lead. (The Mexican angle is expunged to focus on the ‘Jap’ angle.) As a plus, you get to see George (Sulu) Takei play Hunter’s brother. It’s quite a tale and here’s a link to the NYTimes obit of this heroic marine. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/04/us/04gabaldon.html?scp=1&sq=gabaldon+&st=nyt

Saturday, October 17, 2009

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)


This scorned & ignored pic from that iconoclastic icon, Sam Peckinpah, is close to being a nihilistic masterpiece. It’s the sort of utterly personal, take-no-prisoners production engendered when a big-budget Hollywood film, the disastrous PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID/’72, is mutilated before its release.* The story is simple enough: a powerful Mexican mobster puts up a million bucks to find the man who knocked-up his daughter. Turns out, the guy is already dead, so it’s a race to find a body. Warren Oates, stunningly effective in a rare leading role, has the connections to get there first, but oh!, the fellas he encounters on the way there. Kris Kristofferson appears from out of nowhere to attack Oates' girlfriend, Gig Young & Robert Webber are too close for comfort as a couple of slick hitmen, while a tidal wave of mayhem, killings, mordant absurdity and the bleakest of futures bring us full circle before the film ends. Even the cars are grisly. Peckinpah had four more pics in him, but he never got this personal again.


*The so-called restored/director’s cut hardly improves matters.

UNA MUJER SIN AMOR / A WOMAN WITHOUT LOVE (1950)


A fascinating ‘What If’ film. Though Luis Buñuel is much honored for his early avant garde work and for his later bourgeoisie-busting art-house cinema, he actually spent a number of years toiling for Paramount & Warner Bros., first in Europe and then in the States, before he got a second chance in Mexico and grabbed grande seigneur status back in Europe. This melodramatic pot-boiler shows what he might have made of a Hollywood assignment. It’s like a Douglas Sirk pic, inexpensively made, but plenty slick by Mexican standards, about a young, unhappy wife who’s all set to run off with her new love when her domineering older husband has a heart attack. Years later, her lover has died alone in a foreign country, and left a large inheritance to their out-of-wedlock son. What will happen as the old lies begin to leak out and change the family dynamic? It’s easy to imagine Joan Crawford (@ Warners in the ‘40s) or Jane Wyman (@ Universal in the ‘50s) in this one, though without the brutal character tics Buñuel applies to his cast. It’s always fun to see if such a distinctive talent could flourish in a different milieu. He could, he could. Be warned: the current DVD has a pretty good image, but teeny, tiny subtitles.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

CAPTAIN’S COURAGEOUS (1937)


Among the Golden Age Hollywood masters, Victor Fleming remains largely unheralded and unknown. Apparently, helming THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND (both 1939) isn’t enough to make your rep! But a look at this brawny slice of Hollywood storytelling should help you seal the deal for him. Young Freddie Bartholomew is just great as a bratty rich kid who falls off an ocean liner only to be rescued by Spencer Tracy, a Portuguese-American member of a cod-fishing crew. Tracy doesn’t play the part in a modern realistic manner, but adjusting to this older style of movie-star acting is a pleasure (odd hair, accent and all). By the end, you’d have voted for his Oscar, too. (He also won for next year’s BOYS TOWN, but that’s a vote you might have withheld.) Fleming gets outstanding perfs from all his crew, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, John Carradine, Mickey Rooney; all toned down, yet intensely memorable here. Fleming has a way of allowing the screen to be perfectly shared, the beautiful two-shot conversations between Tracy & Bartholomew are so emotionally intimate, you may catch your breath to keep from tearing up. But nothing, and I mean nothing, will keep you from sobbing away at the climax. But note how beautifully the film holds up right thru the brief, joyous coda. Often thought of as a kid’s pic, this is a family film that isn’t an insult to the term.

CONTEST: The film opens with a quick shot of Bartholomew’s impressive estate. It’s no backlot facade, but a real building with a famous Hollywood history to it. Name that history (careful, there’s not one, but TWO famous connections for you to come up with) to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Thanks to critic Michael Sragow, there’s finally a big, handsome bio of Victor Fleming. Hurrah!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY (1937)


Warner Orland’s penultimate appearance as Charlie Chan rates near the top of the series. There’s only a modest amount of the generic trimmings that drag down so many Chan pics, and regular megger Eugene Forde is uncharacteristically peppy. He even manages to jazz things up visually with some neat camera moves that do double and even triple narrative duty in a twisty tale about a good-time gal who returns to NYC with a secret diary everyone wants to get their hands on. Then, when the solution to the crime comes out, it’s a real trope busting surprise. The supporting cast is better than average, look for a young Leon Ames, and Key Luke’s Number One son even gets to have a legit flirtation. Good fun. And listen close to check out the name of the newspaper publisher in this FOX flick . . . ready, it's Murdock! I kid you, not.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007)

Julian Schnabel split critical opinion as a painter & with BASQUIAT/’96, his debut film. But his second pic, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS/’00, earned well-deserved kudos. Now, he pushes his luck with his third film, again about an artist/writer who dies prematurely. It’s been rapturously received for the extravagant visual palette that uses subjective POV techniques to take us inside the mind of a man paralyzed by ‘locked-in’ syndrome. (He communicates by blinking his left eye.*) But overdosing on subjective POV, as Orson Welles discovered on his aborted HEART OF DARKNESS project, doesn’t so much take us inside a mind as inside a camera. And any tale of the literary triumph of a severely handicapped writer begs comparison to MY LEFT FOOT/’89 (MY LEFT EYE?), a parallel that favors neither this writer nor this film. (On the other hand, the French socialized medical system seen here looks fabulous!) Ultimately, the film’s engine is fueled with the same bludgeoning morbid sentimentality of bestsellers like THE LAST LECTURE or TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, if that’s your bag. Still, Mathieu Amalric does himself proud as the writer, and Max Von Sydow, as his frail papa, goes him one better & does the film proud.

*SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The transcribing technique relies on reading off the alphabet until the right letter is said. BLINK! Wouldn’t it have been easier and far more efficient to teach the poor guy Morse Code?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945)


The airless quality associated with too many overdressed M-G-M pics of the ‘40s works to the advantage of Albert Lewin’s chilly Oscar Wilde adaptation. The great story, a devil’s bargain to remain youthfully beautiful while one’s portrait ages into a monstrous grotesque, is a conceit you can believe in and there’s still a strong jolt of horror when the TechniColor portrait blasts past the monochrome footage. Producer Pandro Berman deserves a lot of credit for giving scripter/helmer Albert Lewin his literary head on this one and in casting the film with so many superb character actors. George Sanders, a standout in Lewin’s underappreciated Maugham adaptation, THE MOON AND SIXPENCE/’42, is brilliant as the Wilde surrogate and the young Angela Lansbury is unforgettable as a sweetly naïve lower-class object of devotion. Those wounded eyes! Hurd Hatfield tips toward waxworks as Dorian (and isn’t quite up to the handsome faux Sargent portrait), but he’s highly effective in the role which is more than can be said for poor Donna Reed who’s simply out of her depth as the spirited upper-class girl blinded by Dorian’s unchanging facade.

CONTEST: Right after the credits, composer Herbert Stothart quotes a famous street song that was prominently featured in a Best Picture Oscar winner. Name the film & the song's title to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS write-up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

SAVING GRACE (2000)

The ‘stoner’ comedy & the eccentric British town fable are trotted out in desultory fashion in this Craig Ferguson project; he scripts, megs & co-stars with Brenda Blethyn. She’s a pennyless widow trying to keep her estate and he’s her trusty handyman/gardener. The gimmick is that she’s got the green thumb and he’s got the ganja to grow as a money crop. And you just know some old townie gals will mistakenly get high. Hilarious! And some comically inept drug dealers will give chase. Tee-hee! It’s all harmless stuff if you like this sort of thing (until the plot utterly collapses in the third act), and the locations make for grand views even if Ferguson has some odd ideas on camera placement, but you’ll find more laughs from a typical Craig Ferguson Late-Late Show monologue than you’ll find in this entire film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While Ferguson gives himself an age-appropriate girlfriend, there’s far more real sexual chemistry bubbling up between Craig & Blethyn. Age, class, culture & the scary loss of economic barriers that keep servant & master apart; it might have made a thoughtful, funny, touching film. Alas.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BIKUR HA-TIZMORET / THE BAND’S VISIT (2007)


On their way to an Islamic cultural center in Israel, a small Egyptian police band gets lost and has to spend the night in a sleepy backwater (back-desert?) town. The locals treat these strangers in a strange land with such good-natured hospitality that by morning friendships & personal confidences have bypassed decades of enmity & suspicion. Megger Eran Kolirin handles this family-of-man stuff in a pleasingly deadpan manner, but the story line is modest to a fault, rarely blossoming to its full potential. Right from the opening credits, which roll out in both Arabic & Hebrew, the film seems afraid of stepping out of line and jeopardizing all those international awards it’s salivating over. You can see a bit of what might have been in the film’s best scene, a one-shot wonder with a shy Israeli nebbish getting a lesson in how to handle a woman (sitting to his right) from the youngest/handsomest band member (sitting to his left). But it's merely a sampler of the mordant Ari Kaurismaki style the film seems to be aiming for.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

LES AMANTS / THE LOVERS (1958)


Jeanne Moreau and Louis Malle quickly followed up on their narrative-driven nouveau vague thriller (FRANTIC / aka ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS/’57) with this scandalous character-driven piece. It’s in the literary tradition of MADAME BOVARY and A DOLL’S HOUSE with Moreau typically superb as a beautifully kept, but bored provincial housewife. She regularly pops off to Paris to see her old school chum and for sexual adventures with a polo-playing playboy. Her officious husband invites them all to what promises to be a perfectly ghastly dinner, but when Moreau’s expensive Peugeot breaks down she’s rescued by a young man in a Citroen, the ultimate French flivver. He’s from her world, but purposefully not of her world, having rejected the charms of the bourgeoisie. The repulsion/attraction gene is undeniable and leads to a night of sexual chemistry portrayed with a frankness new at the time. And while the explicit scenes have long been outstripped, the heat generated remains considerable. Paradoxically, the genre strictures of FRANTIC may have been more stylistically & personally revealing, but then, Malle always reveled in the guise of artistic moving target.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (1967)

With DR ZHIVAGO/’65 completing its theatrical run at the time this came out, critics & moviegoers may have taken this film for granted. It is another plush period piece that finds Julie Christie wooed by three men: a fighter, a rich older man and a poetic soul; Terence Stamp, Peter Finch & Alan Bates, each superb.* But this John Schlesinger film, with ecstatically beautiful lensing from Nicholas Roeg and Frederic Raphael’s superbly structured script** is clearly the better film, a near-masterpiece. The Thomas Hardy novel has its full measure of tragedy, but it’s also a sweeping romantic saga of a strong-willed woman finding her place among the farm owners & sheep raising estates of Wessex. The dramatic pulse is stronger in the first half (those lost sheep; the ‘missed’ wedding ceremony, the intensely erotic sword play in the fields; whew!), but there are moments that make you catch your breath all thru the film. Unforgettable stuff, and more vital & precious now than when it was released 42 years ago.

*The respective slots in ZHIVAGO are filled by Tom Courtenay, Rod Steiger & Omar Sharif.

**1967 was Raphael’s big year with the enchantingly clever & heartfelt TWO FOR THE ROAD also coming out.