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Sunday, February 28, 2010

MURDER BY DEATH (1976)


Neil Simon’s pastiche Murder-Mystery has a top-flight cast to parody a gaggle of great detectives, a nifty dark old house production design, a newbie director (Robert Moore) who lets things play at their own pace, and far more laughs than these things usually generate. (See CLUE/’85, SCAVENGER HUNT/’89 or even Simon’s own follow-up THE CHEAP DETECTIVE/’78, to see how lame these things can be.) It recalls the winning silliness Simon mastered in his Sid Caesar/YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS days, churning out spoof skits week after week. Plus, it doesn’t out-stay its welcome . . . well, not by much. Stand-outs in the luxe cast include Peter Falk, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Sellers, James Coco, a deliriously funny Alec Guinness doing a sort of tribute to Ralph Richardson, the great Elsa Lanchester with a worthy role for once, and a comic find in the debuting James Cromwell, only 36 at the time. They even got Charles Addams to do caricatures for the credit sequence. A class touch. Not everything hits the mark (it wouldn’t hurt if the underlying mystery actually added up), but the film is LOL funny which is all it wants to be.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961)

This typically cheesy Irwin Allen production sounds like a rip-off of Disney’s first-rate adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA/’54, with dollops of THE CAINE MUTINY/’54 and FORBIDDEN PLANET/’56 added to the mix. But it’s more like a sly, if possibly unintentional, goof on Stanley Kramer’s nuclear annihilation soaper, ON THE BEACH/’59. Both films feature motley crews in high-tech subs that roam the sea as the world above burns up. But in VOYAGE, the atomic missiles that destroyed the Earth in ON THE BEACH are now used to save it. Hurrah for atomic weapons! The slightly worn cast (Walter Pigeon, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre and tiny Frankie Avalon) don’t take things too seriously which helps the fun, but these Irwin Allen entertainments are a lot better when he lets someone else do the megging. Listen up to hear Robert Easton, ‘dialogue coach to the stars’, mangle a southern accent so deep-fried you’ll want to shout ‘Hush puppy!’

Friday, February 26, 2010

CRIN-BLANC: LE CHEVAL SAUVAGE / WHITE MANE (1953)


This is the lesser-known mate to Albert Lamorisse’s THE RED BALLOON/’56, the famous boy-and-his-balloon tale. Here, the setting is rural rather than urban; the photography museum-worthy b&w rather than KodaChromatic color; the co-star a wild horse rather than a mischievous balloon; but it’s equally wonderful, possibly the greater achievement. The story is basically the same: a young boy meets a free spirit which he tames and befriends. But he’s attacked by a society that won’t accept this unconventional pair, so the boy has no choice but to fly away toward some undefined NeverLand to find happiness. It’s a child’s tale, and much beloved, but with obvious tragic undertones that are only clearer in this less fanciful rendering. The new Criterion DVD edition does full justice to Lamorisse’s great achievement with a gorgeous, restored visual image and a cleaned-up soundtrack that has Peter Strauss nicely handling the spare narration. Lamorisse shot the film without synch sound and the slightly stylized post-production sound & effects heighten the sense that we’re watching a fable. A good thing, too, since a completely realistic telling would be almost unbearable. The young fisherman is played by the extraordinary Alain Emery, as natural a photographic subject as a tree or a bird or Jean Shrimpton. Lamorisse soon returned to documentaries and died at the age of 48 while shooting in Iran. But not before inventing the board game RISK! Not even Jean Vigo invented a great board game!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

GIGI (1949)

It’s always a jolt to see just how unsentimental an education lies at the core of Colette’s famous story. Unexpectedly, this modest French adaptation finesses the more unseemly aspects of sexual barter just as smoothly as the stunningly adept Lerner & Loewe/Vincente Minnelli musical does in ‘58. But if the story is structured around Gigi’s home-schooled courtesanship, the drama comes from its rejection, and the rise of bourgeois marriage & morality. Anyway, why can't a musical be concerned with adult themes & manners, even if rigidly coded for ‘50s sensibilities. They were coded in La Belle Epoque, too. This early version, available as an extra on the new GIGI restoration, has been put together with the only surviving elements which have sadly subfusc image & subtitles, but fans of the remake will enjoy seeing how the musical numbers can be ‘spotted’ in the earlier film. Unlike the classic film of PYGMALION/’38, which Lerner used as template for MY FAIR LADY, this is no cinematic masterpiece though it does have some extra historic interest as it’s director, Jacqueline Audry, was one of the rare female helmers of the era. She runs a tight pic and deals nicely with her mezza-mezza cast and small budget. It’s worth a look.

A glance at the restoration of the Minnelli GIGI reveals a cleaned up picture element (the previous DVD edition was awfully smudgy), but also an over-saturated palette that’s more ‘30s TechniColor than ‘50s MetroColor. Try taming your color level and adjusting the tint & contrast. At least, they’ve permanently buried the portrait-of-Gigi montage that once disfigured the film’s climax. And hold tight for that glorious jump-cut to Maurice Chevalier right at the end. It’s up there with Lawrence of Arabia blowing out that match.

Monday, February 22, 2010

NINGEN NO JOKEN / THE HUMAN CONDITION (1959-1961)


Masaki Kobayashi’s famous Japanese anti-war epic (three 2-part films/9½ hours) follows Kaji, it’s left-leaning hero (Tatsuya Nakadai), as he delays his military service by taking a job as labor supervisor at a squalid mining operation (part one - NO GREATER LOVE); becomes a reluctant private in Manchuria as WWII winds down, fending off the stupid rigidity of his officers and the sadistic bullying of the vets (part two - THE ROAD TO ETERNITY); then roams the countryside with a diminishing group of army & civilian stragglers, only to wind up in a Russian POW camp where he loses the last of his political illusions (part three - A SOLDIER’S PRAYER). As Kaji’s humanistic instincts are slowly ground down (none of his good deeds goes unpunished), his soldiering improves and the film loses its way. The visual style turns generic with WideScreen vistas that dwarf man’s puny efforts and long takes to signify depth. In the end, the idiocies of military culture feel pretty generic, too. Ultimately, the film is monumental, yet relentlessly mediocre in both ideas & execution. Just don’t try convincing one of its many acolytes.


SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Though it was made later, there’s a lot of Dr Zhivago in the story, attitude & especially in Tatsuya Nakadai, who was a lot more comfortable the previous year in Kon Ichikawa’s superb ENJO/’58 and who is best known for his work with Akira Kurosawa after Toshiro Mifune was banished. Check out the tousled hair, the moist wounded eyes, the initial political enthusiasm for socialism, the reluctant but honorable military service, et al. Yet, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO was made years later. (Even odder, Kobayashi & ZHIVAGO helmer David Lean share just as many visual mannerisms.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY (2008)

This sequel to the infinitely superior HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE/’04 (a demented ‘stoner’ comedy that played politically subversive possum while disguised as a buddy-buddy/road pic), manages to blunt almost everything that made the first film such giddy, unexpected fun. It’s hard to believe that the co-scripters of WHITE CASTLE had even more control here, hiring themselves to co-meg. Yet, the film plays like an impersonal studio-bred sequel, made without (or even against) imput from the original creative team. From the title on, everything is dumbed-down for lowest-common-denominator consumption, and the loopy tone of the first film is replaced by flop-sweat desperation that spells everything out, coarsening the mischievous, indirect commentary of WHITE CASTLE. Comically speaking, they're preaching to the converted, and it's all too scatologically political (in)correct to shock or amuse. As 30-something collegians, John Cho & Kal Penn manage to retain enough comic camaraderie to generate a few good laughs, but everyone else dies of comic overkill. The pic’s a dispiriting dud.

Friday, February 12, 2010

THE BIG KNIFE (1955)

Clifford Odets’ purple-prose poison-pen letter to Hollywood was a quick flop on B’way in ‘49 with John Garfield, yet helmer Robert Aldrich barely touched the script when he filmed it. The juicy plot shows the dire consequences that follow when a big movie star tries to opt out of his new 7-year contract. He thinks his show of independence might fix his crumbling marriage, rejuvenate his artistic ideals, decalcify his dormant talent & salve his immortal soul. What has life in Bel Air done to this boy? Of course, we know he’ll capitulate since his tantrum-wielding studio boss (and just about everyone else) knows all about that felony-sized skeleton hanging in the star’s closet. And that includes the women who can’t help but throw their lovely bodies in his . . . er, face. Early Odets is getting a welcome second-look these days, but this over-scaled late work is just out to settle scores, and comes off like a parody of his best work. (It's even lost the kick it once had as an inside job since Hollywood had changed so radically since the play first opened.) Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Everett Sloane, Jean Hagen & Wendell Corey lead the starry cast, but they all carry on as if they’re at a Method Acting workshop. Physically, Palance is mighty imposing, he simply towers over everyone which lends a certain distinction, but not when Odets stinks up the joint with choice aphorisms like, ‘Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul.’ And he’s got dozens of ‘em.

CONTEST: Shelley Winters would repeat her flamboyant (if off-screen) exit in another film role. Name the role & the film to receive our prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

GWOEMUL / THE HOST (2006)


This exceptionally entertaining monster-on-the-loose pic from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho reinvigorates some pretty old tropes about the consequences of poisoning the waters of the earth. This time, it’s Seoul’s Han River that gives birth to the slippery, speedy gigantic thing (part dolphin, part lizard, part fish, all id & all hungry) that’s terrorizing the city. Plus, survivors of the initial attacks are now coming down with an Ebola-like virus. Or are they? The smart mix of social commentary, along with mocking looks at American military types, unquestioning tv news anchors & overzealous police officers all add pizzaz to the mix. But the film gets its unexpectedly rich emotional texture from its concentration on one divinely dysfunctional family who’ll do anything, even come together, to find their youngest, a pre-teen girl who may have survived an attack. Didn’t she just call them on a cell phone? If only the authorities would believe them, or at least let them try and find her rather than keep them quarantined with that damned virus. The monster is a little cartoony in Joon-Ho’s mix of CGI & puppetry, but this works for the mixed tone of comedy & grue he gets with his fast-moving, wonderfully clear technique. Better yet, he shows a special bond with his actors who all give unexpectedly witty characterizations. A bit intense for some, but good gloppy fun for anyone with a taste for the genre.

ALL THE KING’S MEN (1999)

Not the Robert Penn Warren novel about Louisiana politics, but a BBC production about a doomed WWI regiment made up largely of young men in the King’s employ @ Sandringham, his country estate. All the Masterpiece Theatre trappings that can be so satisfying & so insufferable (the period detail; the emphasis on class, caste & Royalty; the groomed grounds, gorgeous place settings & fussy costumes) are used in a Janus-faced manner here, as scaffolding to waste & tragedy. It’s apt and effective, grounding the drama in verisimilitude. David Jason, as the middle-aged Captain who’s encouraged by Queen Mother Alexandra (Maggie Smith) to put the troop together, expects a quick campaign, but when he arrives in Gallipoli, he finds a lack of proper support & supplies, dubious military intelligence and a meaningless suicidal mission. So, when he & his men bravely take to the battlefield, only to disappear in a mist, they gain a kind of immortality. Scripter Alma Cullen and helmer Julian Jarrold use a clarifying flashback structure and multiple POVs to show the battle-weary banality of what actually happened. With Ian McDiarmid as the investigating officer who learns that ‘when the truth becomes legend, print the legend,’ as John Ford put it in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

MAD MEN: Season One (2007)


A critical & cult fave that’s finally gathering mainstream viewers, the addictive qualities of Matthew Weiner’s AMC cable series aren’t hard to spot. The ‘60s milieu of a Madison Avenue ad agency are both familiar & foreign: the politics & intrigues in suburban homes & at the office; the shark-like behavior of the execs; the strivers & the slackers; the waspish secretarial pool; the smokes, sex & sexism; the free-flowing booze & ethnic biases; white gloves for the ladies & blue suits for the men. For blindly nostalgic boomers it’s like heading off to work with The Beaver’s Dad. And for a younger crowd it’s a tempting map of a life with clearly drawn, if hardly fair, lines of social demarcation. Season One is a bit of a grab bag, with more dramatically convenient crises than you can shake a swizzle stick at. The actors play out their ‘humours’ with a vengeance, like characters in a Ben Jonson play: Malice, Avarice, Jealousy, Regret, Philosophy, Baby-Maker, Drunkenness; these are supporting roles to get your teeth into. But the Zeitgeist feels a bit modern, perhaps too ‘80s WALL STREET. Hell, even in an Eastside NYC atmosphere, wouldn’t a few of the girls hanker after Jackie Kennedy’s class, youth & allure? Where’s the sense of optimism as JFK’s ‘New Frontier’ pushed the WWI generation out for the vets of WWII? Ultimately, what really makes the show hum is it’s leading man, Jon Hamm. After a long preponderance of boyish male stars (Cruise, DiCaprio, Depp, Damon, Reeves, Wahlberg, Downey, Law, et al.), he’s a throwback to gravitas, to the tortured & tested world of Cooper, Holden, Peck & Mitchum. A grown up.

CONTEST: Everyone tries to spot anachronistic goofs in this series, here’s one from Episode 8: ‘The Hobo Code.’ When Don Draper takes a Polaroid of Midge, his artsy mistress. and one of her beatnik friends, he neither waits the 45 seconds needed for the photo image to develop nor does he pass the sealing wand over the print to keep the picture from quickly fading from exposure to direct light. Find your own gaffe (one that’s not already listed on some web bulletin board) and win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

THE BIRDS (1963)


When Alfred Hitchcock left Paramount and moved to Lew Wasserman’s thriftshop operation @ Universal, he got a great contract, but also standardized operating procedures that sacrificed quality & pride in product to a cost control management style. So paradoxically, while much of the challenging technical FX work on his initial Universal pic remains startlingly convincing (the inexplicable avian attacks are scary, funny, creepy, cringe-inducing), bread-and-butter stuff (like transitions from location work to studio mock-ups; believable set dressing; and even color processing that doesn’t turn sets into museum issue dioramas) betray a distressing decline from the recent Hitchcockian standard. When the birds aren’t around, the film often turns visually inert. And while the basic structure recalls REAR WINDOW/’54, with romantic comedy convention morphing into nail-biting suspense, Evan Hunter’s lumbering meet-cutes hardly match up with the caustic wit & playability of the earlier John Michael Hayes script. To say nothing of the touring cast replacements of ‘Tippi’ Hedren & Rod Taylor for Grace Kelly & James Stewart. (Sadly, Hedren’s tone-deaf perf, so off-putting here, is strikingly apt for Hitch’s oddly fascinating flop follow-up, MARNIE/’64.) The film is unmissable, yet also something of a miss.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

CHUNG HING SAM IAM / CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994)


Wong Kar-Wai found his distinctive modern romantic voice (urban, fleeting, richly textured, brightly colored, closely observed, touched with serendipitous meetings & misses) in this two-part film, an instant classic. And while his recent releases have become swooningly stylish with cinematic onanism, here everything still feels fresh. The two stories are unequally weighted, an appetizer and a main course. The women are kooks, cooks, assassins & stewardesses. All wildly attractive & desirable. The men are cops. All wildly attractive & adorably vulnerable. The course of true love never did run smooth. It’s Quentin Tarantino meets Ernst Lubitsch and altogether irresistible.

Monday, February 1, 2010

ARSENAL (1928)

ARSENAL is the ‘other’ masterpiece from Alexander Dovzhenko, the great Soviet/Ukrainian filmmaker best known for EARTH/’30. The film opens with a series of vivid, seemingly disconnected scenes portraying the miserable conditions at home & at the front as Russia’s involvement in WWI grows intolerable. These bleak scenes are followed by the chaos of Civil War as splintered factions of Ukrainian Nationals fight against the swelling tide of Bolsheviks. (The film was, of course, made in Stalinist days so the Bolshie's are the victims, natch.) You’ve got to be up on your uniforms to keep your partisans straight and even if you do, there’s still Dovzhenko’s nonlinear narrative style, along with the occasional talking horse, to deal with. Fortunately, the Image DVD edition has an excellent secondary audio track where Dovzhenko expert Vance Kepler, Jr clears things up for us without getting in the way or over-masticating Dovzhenko’s style & technique. And it’s worth a bit of effort as Dovzhenko’s unique visual & storytelling gifts become self-evident once you’ve primed the information pipe. The use of space and composition rival Fritz Lang in his UFA glory days and the classic Soviet montage episodes can sear themselves on your brain.