The title tells the tale in this low-budget vehicle for master-monster animator Ray Harryhausen. It’s sort of a reactionary warmongering bargain-basement response to the peace-loving elite-liberal morality of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51: Laser vaporizers, impotent military bluster, discus-shaped space vehicles, aliens in floppy aluminum suits, the works. But the well-established iconography of the genre confines Harryhausen’s stop-motion magic to exploding government buildings and articulated U.F.O.s, there’s not a monster in sight. And most of the film plays out like a Sci-Fi episode of Jack Webb’s DRAGNET: Bad acting, unintentionally hilarious dialogue & dopey plot turns, the works. (But credit to Curt Siodmak’s story construction which has served for rip-offs & parodies for decades.) Still, you’ll want to stick around for the goofball destructive fun of watching all those Harryhausen Flying Saucers destroy various Washington, D.C. monuments. (Best subversive joke: the George Washington obelisk getting the cherry tree treatment.) Don’t expect the acting, emotion, elegant design, clever plotting, thoughtful ideas or magnificent score of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and you’ll have a reasonable good time.
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Friday, April 30, 2010
In his first sound film, writer/helmer René Clair turned the limitations of early-Talkie technology to his artistic advantage. It’s one of a handful of Part-Talkies that feel perfectly realized in this bastardized format. From the magnificent opening crane shot that glides across the eponymous roofs and continues down to the backstreets of Paris, Clair welds the romantic inevitability of his modest story with a fluid technique that was miles ahead of what others were settling for. (You’ve got to go back to Murnau flying over the cityscape in FAUST/’26 or forward to Disney’s extravagant use of multi-plane animation in PINOCCHIO/’40 to find its equal.) We’ve hardly hit pavement when we’re plunged into our tale of a song barker, the foreign girl he’s mad about and the pickpocket whose actions will both complicate and reveal the course of true love. Albert Prejean (Mackie in the French version of THE 3-PENNY OPERA/’31) doesn’t have the manly charisma that Jean Gabin soon brought to these parts, but everyone else is just about perfect. Edmond Greville, who switched to directing after this single acting gig, is particularly good as the best pal who shares everything with Prejean. But there are memorable crooks & cops, barkeeps, call girls & the slumming rich; an entire Parisian underworld that would nicely serve the dramatic needs of French ‘poetic realism’ for decades. Fabulous support from lenser George Périnal & art designer Lazare Meerson, make Clair’s melancholy charm, character empathy & sense of fun bloom with delight.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
This fact-inspired WWII drama about a conspiracy of senior German officers to assassinate Hitler is big, handsome and slightly dull; an honest attempt at the craftsmanlike, old-fashioned, impersonal filmmaking of early ‘60s pros like Robert Wise & John Sturges. (No doubt megger Bryan Singer & star Tom Cruise did some serious pre-production male-bonding over THE GREAT ESCAPE/’63.) A deep-dish line-up of British talent (Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terrence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, et al.) does Cruise no favors, his tight, toneless whisper only exposes his technical limitations & undercuts his authority, but he keeps your attention with a raft of physical handicaps (glass eye, missing digits, missing hand) and a great hair cut. Luft-styling. But the film never quite delivers on its promise, shortchanging suspense & emotional involvement. Back when, Wise & Sturges would have risked a logy opening reel or two to get their characters & story lines situated. They paced with the long view in mind, knowing that the third act payoffs would ‘tell’ all the better if properly set up. VALKYRIE’s script has plenty of big dramatic opportunities (one featuring a roomful of female communication attendants is, conceptually, a knock-out), but Singer hasn’t the patience (or perhaps wasn’t allowed the elbow room) to till his dramatic soil and get the big moments to ‘land.’ Still, the history is plenty fascinating and it’s been a while since Cruise successfully subdued his cringe-inducing grin and scary over-enthusiasm.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Louise Brooks' guileless carnality as Lulu is the stuff of legend. With thoughtless beauty & sensualist joy, she brings calamity to every man (and woman) she beds. Her wandering eye & short attention span take her up from the clubs of Berlin to the heights of Weimar society; then down from a murder rap to the back-streets of London. With her signature black bangs & striking athleticism, Brooks is like a shiny art moderne trophy and helmer G. W. Pabst assembled a worthy team of worshipers in front & behind the camera. Stand-outs include lenser Gunther Krampf, Francis Lederer (as Lulu’s youngest admirer) & Gustav Diessl as Jack the Ripper. Yes, as Jack the Ripper. Pabst remains a tricky creative figure, never quite breaking thru to top-tier standards, the sum always a bit less than the glittering parts. But only a fool would hold his faults against his achievement on this late-Expressionistic classic. The current Criterion DVD is outstanding, with excellent image, a fully restored running time & four music tracks to choose from. Try the ‘modern’ orchestral track which has the smell of Weimar & Kurt Weill.
Remember those Displaced Persons in CASABLANCA/’42? In this little seen French film, a trainload of detainees are in a life & death race to join them. Jean-Pierre Marielle stars as Cmnd. Perrochon, a WWI officer recalled to run a makeshift detention camp in Les Milles, France. Refugee Germans, Jews, Leftists and other ‘enemy aliens’ are being held like cattle as the German invasion begins. A man who goes by the book, Perrochon is determined to follow regulations, but France’s swift collapse changes his ideas. He knows his ‘protection’ is a death sentence for most of his charges. When is disobeying orders one’s duty? It’s an exciting story, and a largely true one, with a strong cast (Philippe Noiret, Kristin Scott Thomas) and a remarkable list of actual detainees (artist Max Ernst, writer Lion Feuchtwanger). If only scripter/megger Sébastien Grall had a better hold on his craft. He certainly gets no help from the crappy image on this SKD DVD, it looks like an amateur transfer from a VHS copy. But worth a look for WWII history mavens.
About three reels into J. J. Abrams’ paint-by-the-numbers STAR TREK reboot (the Clearasil® Edition), a young Jim Kirk & a young Nyota Uhura are ‘meeting-cute’ at a bar when some large, over-protective goons from the local space academy misinterpret their coy bantering and, before you know it, a big ol’ bar fight erupts. ‘Stop it! Just stop it,’ Uhura yells. Good advise.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Endearing, hilarious & smart, GALAXY QUEST/'99 was the 'real' STAR TREK reboot.
Friday, April 23, 2010
This immensely entertaining film from Japanese helmer Shohei Imamura was originally hailed for its scathing look at life around an American naval base in Japan. But time has tamed its fangs and it now plays less as an indictment of warring gangs of Yakuza, seedy neighborhoods, brothels, booze & boys-on-leave, then like the flip-side of a pitch-black service comedy. In American cinematic terms, it merges the bleak nighttime milieu of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS/’57 with the spirit of a Blake Edwards/Richard Quine SNAFU-military comedy with Jack Lemmon or Ernie Kovacs gaming the system. But here, the POV is on the locals. Hiroyuki Nagato, in a rather overdrawn perf, stars as the main weasel, a fledgling gangster up to his neck in a scam to use scraps from those big battleships as fodder for a mob run pig farm. But his girl (a superb Jitsuko Yoshimura) is pressuring him to leave the biz, his boss is dying of stomach cancer, a dead body refuses to stay underwater and the pigs need to be brought to market. Imamura melds the dramatic & comic elements like a sensei, the fluid staging, pacing & CinemaScope compositions are phenomenal, and the pigs-in-port finale is a masterpiece. A great intro to Imamura.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
The trio of pics Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly made @ M-G-M haven’t aged very well. ANCHORS AWAY/’45 was 140 minutes of war-time uplift (plus Kathryn Grayson); ON THE TOWN/’49 is fondly remembered, but only for its fab NYC opening. This one’s the middle child and it suffers from forgettable tunes by its associate producer Roger Edens and a hopeless plot that tries to mix professional baseball & vaudeville. Esther Williams & Betty Garrett are around for romance, Edward Arnold gets to play villain, and Jules Munchin hams things up when Kelly lets him, all to little avail. Yet, the film holds real interest as the last directing credit for past master Busby Berkeley (he decamped after shooting the dialogue scenes) and as the first for Kelly & young Stanley Donen (who appear to have taken over most of the musical numbers). It’s hard to know who did what, but you can’t mistake Donen’s signature camera boom shots. Some numbers look like trial runs for their masterpiece, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN/’52, and in the Garrett/Sinatra ‘It’s Fate’ number, Donen shoots on location, without the usual studio lenses, lighting & sets. How’d he get away with that?* Be sure to check out Sinatra’s stellar perf of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s stunningly beautiful "Boys and Girls Like You and Me’ which shows up on the DVD Extras. It outclasses everything else here. But when Kelly’s signature comedy number with Williams tanked, it had to go. (Tip: Zoom in to read the scale @ Frankie’s baseball weigh-in: 122 lbs!)
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *If you want to see Stanley Donen cut loose on a baseball diamond, try DAMN YANKEES!/'58. Lots of fun, great score, sexy Gwen Verdon and a weirdly flat ending.
Monday, April 19, 2010
This existential corporate thriller is both maddening & engrossing. (It’s French.) It’s a handsome piece of filmmaking that uses it’s multi-layered plot and richly textured characters to commingle dark thoughts about company downsizing & genocide that never convince. The ideas can’t support the last act revelations or the attempt to cross-pollinate LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD/’61, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/’65, EXECUTIVE SUITE/’54 and MAD MEN/’08. But then, those who aren’t up for the mind meld helmer Nicolas Klotz & scripter Elisabeth Perceval are aiming at will have long dropped out. Matthieu Almaric is superb as the company psychologist who’s failing to deal with his own personal crises when he’s confidentially assigned to make out a report on his CEO. Played by Michael Lonsdale as a powerful, phlegmatic tortoise of a man, this CEO is either going thru a nervous breakdown or being set up to take a fall by the new company owners. Maybe both. The artsy style is never going to satisfy those looking for solid evidence & narrative closure, but the melancholy tone is very compelling, as is the unusually imaginative use of source music to lend emotional weight. An odd duck of a film, but rewarding.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Agatha Christie’s redoubtable spinster sleuth has not lacked for interpreters. Margaret Rutherford’s eccentric blunderbuss was good fun on its own terms and certainly better than Helen Hayes’ treacly busybody. Angela Lansbury’s no-nonsense Marple was more like a warm-up for her role as tv’s Jessica Fletcher, but that great bawd, Elsa Lancaster, earns a half-credit for her well-observed near-Marple turn in Neil Simon’s pastiche/parody MURDER BY DEATH. She got a lot closer to the mark than the current ITV series! This is a flat-out botch with rejiggered storylines and two clueless Marples (twinkly Geraldine McEwen & tweedy Julia McKenzie). No, in the end, there’s only one Jane Marple on film, that deceptively modest character actress Joan Hickson who brought impeccable comic timing, Zen-like concentration, Old Testament severity & believable knitting skills to her assumption. The stories are taken just seriously enough to resonant with surprising force in the well-chosen ‘50s environment where murder seems abetted by the social upheaval of post-WWII England. It goes too far to say that Hickson’s Marple looks forward to these crimes, but she is pleased to find her opinion of human nature confirmed. Other Marples solve cases, Hickson’s Marple uncovers human foibles. SLEEPING MURDER is the rare episode that largely misses the mark, and a few tend to be on the poky side, but most are delectable (more so as you get to know Jane), and there are lots of fine guests. The best include A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED, MURDER AT THE VICARAGE, AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL and Christie's moving finale, NEMESIS.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
A flop at home, but a cult hit abroad, Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto made this ‘70s counter-culture FANTASIA/’40 using short concert favorites by Debussy, Ravel, Dvorak, Sibelius, Vivaldi & Stravinsky. (Disney’s FANTASIA 2000 mangled the same Stravinsky cut.) When it came out, Bozzetto’s ribald touch & simple technique seemed much freer than classic Disney house style, but time has taken a heavy toll on Bozzetto’s modest work. More than a third of the running time is given over to insufferable ‘funny’ live action (cheaper than animation) and the shorts, frankly, disappoint. With one exception, the stories aren’t well-matched to the scores, and the Bozzetto style soon grows tiresome. Even the most successful number (‘Valse Triste’ by Sibelius), where a depressed cat remembers happier times, is visually compromised with ghostly live-action double exposures disrupting stylistic unity. There’s simply nothing in here that compares with what’s best in the Disney classic. (And the passing years have supplied period charm to FANTASIA's less successful sections. Even for those nubile ‘40s teen girl centaurs.) ALLEGRO now feels like a lost cause to all but Baby Boomer’ nostalgists. The Home Vision DVD includes extra Bozzetto, and the first (‘Baby Story’) & the third (‘Grasshoppers’) are both brilliant & hilarious. (NOTE to Parents: There’s a touch of live-action nudity & lots of Italian breast-fixation.)
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Barry Avrich’s well-reviewed, but decidedly amateurish documentary about Lew Wasserman, the coldest of the great Hollywood power-brokers, never gets a handle on its slippery subject. Wasserman’s rise as über-agent @ MCA in the ‘40s & ‘50s is hardly illuminated by the use of generic archival footage & corny narration, and the faux ‘50s hipster muzak is embarrassing. While his glory days as boss @ Universal and de facto Godfather to all things Hollywood aren’t made clear by the unfocused interviews Avrich culls from a motley assortment of Hollywood types . . . and Jimmy Carter! (Producer David Brown & talkster Larry King come off best.) Does Wasserman deserve the unintentional 'Emperor’s new clothes’ treatment? Is "He Wrote a Great Contract’ a fitting epitaph for the man? Was a tv-packaged Movie-of-the-Week the height of his æsthetic reach? Surely, there’s more to the story? Cool opening titles though.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Dennis McDougal’s unaffiliated THE LAST MOGUL: Lew Wasserman, MCA and the Hidden History of Hollywood is a far stronger look at the subject. Probably the best Wasserman bio available.
Monday, April 12, 2010
16 years after playing Elizabeth Tudor in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH & ESSEX/’39, Bette Davis had a second go. Time & tide, Hollywood ups-and-downs & hard living may have made it easier for her to don the mask of the mature Queen, but everything else – script, megging, decor, score, co-stars, even her own presentational acting style – had coarsened. It might all be less noticeable if the story didn’t follow the earlier film so closely, with Richard Todd’s Walter Raleigh running almost the same course as Errol Flynn’s Essex. A pity since, on its own terms, it’s all quite watchable. Helmer Henry Koster tended to sit tight on his CinemaScope compositions (he was far better in modest earlier pics like the adorable 100 MEN AND A GIRL/’37), but he gets it all across. Todd & the young Joan Collins are a fine pair of lovers (Davis gets to tear up the joint when Collins hoists her pregnancy at the jealous Queen. "Beee . . . Verrrry . . . Proud!,’ Davis spews), and the supporting cast are fine. But compare this crew with the feast of character actor types Warners had on hand for Bette in the earlier film. To say nothing of helmer Curtiz, lenser Polito, designer Grot, costumer Orry-Kelly & Erich Wolfgng Korngold with as great (and romantic) a score as he ever wrote. All that, plus Olivia de Havilland looking as flat out gorgeous as she ever did.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
The combination of Nick Hornsby’s savvy script, the relaxed use of an early ‘60s (pre-Swinging) London, plus a gaggle of pitch-perfect perfs go a long way in freshening up this coming-of-age story. Carey Mulligan is just great as the Oxford-bound striver who falls for a older, sophisticated conman (Peter Sarsgaard) and the exciting life he offers. The strength in the story (at least until the banal ‘reveals’ in act three) comes in watching just how far this young, intelligent girl and her hovering parents collude in making so many obviously bad choices; such willful blindness in the hunger to achieve a bit of upperclass glamour. Danish megger, Lone Scherfig, isn’t much of a technician (some of her shot choices confuse some pretty basic logistics), but she (or someone) certain lets all the actors get their bats in. And what hitters! Alfred Molina & Cara Seymore as the parents, Olivia Williams as a sympathetic teacher (note the expert art decoration on her flat), Emma Thompson as the school’s severe headmistress and Dominic Cooper as Sarsgaard’s sporty partner. Then there’s the continually amazing Mr. Sarsgaard as the charming scoundrel who unintentionally shows Mulligan that the easy path to luxury may come with hidden consequences. (But just how unintentional is it?) There seems to be little Sarsgaard can’t do on screen. And, unlike some similarly talented actors of his type & age, he can ‘carry’ a film. He may be playing a fraud, but he’s the real deal.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
This waterlogged anime fable is a welcome throwback to the clean narrative lines & spare storybook visuals that first introduced Hayao Miyazaki to American audiences. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO/’88 and KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE/’89 had the economy of great cinema, while the lesser-known PORCO ROSSO/’92 may be his masterpiece, a perfectly shaped work. By comparison, recent releases which have garnered so much critical attention & awards, feel over-elaborated and exhausting. PONYO is also his most kid-friendly film in some time, combining elements of THE LITTLE MERMAID and PINOCCHIO in its tale of a fish, who falls in love with the little boy who saves her. But giving up the ocean to become a real girl throws nature out of whack, the moon moves toward Earth and the waters rise. Something’s gotta give! As usual, Miyazaki gets into trouble with his characterizations of wizards & sorceresses (is Ponyo’s mom supposed to be an homage to Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy?), but most of the film is a treat to look at. The English dub is as successful as it is starry (Cate Blanchette, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachmen, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, plus Noah Cyrus & Frankie Jonas!) and the manner in which the waters of the Earth are variously characterized is wicked fun . . . and smart.
In many ways, this is a typical example of episodic tv anime. The technical limits are largely determined by budget (modest) & subject (High School baseball), but the stylish look is quite handsome. There’s plenty of personality & suspense just following the kids, coaches & games, and by now we’re used to seeing a more-or-less Caucasian look applied to socio-cultural customs that are more-or-less Japanese. (No blacks though. Is that also typical for the format?) The mix of explosive crying and stoic teammates is a little weird, and wait till you hear their idea of a deep-fried Southern accent. But what’s most striking here is just how serious the show is about baseball. The first practice game is shown in something like actual playing time, and there are little technical lectures on ball flight or pitching psychology. Or we might gather round for some team meditation sessions. And all the while a host of teenage phobias play out with the occasional scatological & onanistic comment. (This may give some parents pause.) As anime this is fine, but nothing special; as baseball, it achieves an unprecedented level of serious purpose.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
This visually extravagant slice of romantic fatalism from Hong Kong helmer Wong Kar Wai is a near sequel to IN THE MOOD/’00. Tony Leung reprises as Chow Mo-Wan, journalist, pulp fiction writer and the prince of missed opportunities. No longer content with one brief unhappy encounter, he navigates a series of unsustainable relationships with femmes (fatale & otherwise) many living just down the hall. So many desirable neighbors!, a raft of lovelies for him to prove unworthy of (Gong Li, Faye Wong, Ziyi Zhang, Maggie Cheung). All this, plus his current writing project, a futuristic sci-fi novel entitled 2046 (he lives in room 2047) that he’s fantasized himself into. Wong uses an elastic timeline almost as repetitive & deterministic as GROUNDHOG DAY/’93, with each new encounter beginning on a Christmas Eve as Nat King Cole sings Mel Tormé’s ‘Christmas Song’ on the radio. It’s Leung’s cue to once more find (and lose) that eternal love, like some latter day TALES OF HOFFMAN/’51. Compared to IN THE MOOD, the palette & narrative conceit have swapped brush strokes for impasto, but it’s still pretty wonderful.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Laurent Cantet captures what amounts to The François Bégaudeau Show (he wrote it, he stars, it's based on his experiences & book) in this oddly ineffective though wildly acclaimed, award-winning pic. It’s a bit more (and a bit less) than one of those year-in-the-life teacher/student tales (recent example: THE RON CLARK STORY/’06) but with a new gimmick: rather than being traditionally structured to follow the dramatic arc of a pivotal school year (ending on an uplifting note), it’s designed to play like a documentary (more HOOP DREAMS/’94 than BLACKBOARD JUNGLE/’55) using improv acting & story building techniques similar to a Mike Leigh film and the directorial stratagems of the Brothers Dardennes. But even with its untidy stories and unresolved inter-personal relationships, the situations feel old-hat and often frustratingly opaque. It’s always an eye-opener to watch a film set in one of the tourist-phobic Paris arrondissements, but the Benetton-ready ethnic mix of kids, coupled with the peculiarities of the French school system force more provocations at us than a David Mamet diatribe. Is it supposed to feel this manipulative?
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While it feels a world away in place & time, François Trufaut’s SMALL CHANGE/’76 (L’ARGENT DU POCHE) keeps it focus on the school kids, and looks fresher than ever.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
It took two tries before the Wolf Man gained full membership in the Universal monster club. The first attempt, WEREWOLF OF LONDON/’35, didn’t leave much of a mark, but this version laid the template for just about everything ‘lycanthropic’ that followed thanks to the memorable faux folklore from scripter Curt Siodmak. (He was just as successful on the voodoo-tinged I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE/’43 for Jacques Tourneur @ Val Lewton’s RKO unit.) Megger George Waggner was no stylist, but his flat interiors help the eerie atmospherics tell on Universal’s well-trod/fog-heavy exterior sets. The ensemble cast is plusher than you’d expect (Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patrick Knowles, Bela Lugosi & wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya as the old gypsy) while Lon Chaney, Jr. found a natural outlet for his limited acting chops as the depressed, guilt-ridden eponymous hairy guy. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone preferring this ‘well-made’ product to the awkward, yet poetically touched, early-Talkie horror classics from Universal like the original DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY.
Friday, April 2, 2010
This Texas-sized fable about a stubborn NASA dropout who builds a rocket ship in his barn must have held special resonance for those filmmaking twins, Michael & Mark Polish. It’s pretty much how they got started in film; lots of homemade ‘indie’ gumption. This may explain why they seem unable to gauge just how reckless, irresponsible & downright contemptible Billy Bob Thornton comes off as the DIY astronaut. It’s less an uplifting follow-your-dream saga than THE MOSQUITO COAST with pixie dust. The film plays out like an unintentional parody of itself, overloaded with epic prairie vistas, golden lighting effects, heroic silhouette figures that stride across our field of vision and plain-spoken men with an utter disregard for facts or the feelings of others. It’s the heartwarming family drama Ayn Rand never got around to writing. The eccentric, if talented Polish brothers really took it on the chin when this tanked, and their last two films (MANURE/’09 & STAY COOL/’09) were barely released.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a classic American Dreamer story, try Francis Coppola’s TUCKER/’88.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
This is probably the most poised of the films Pedro Almodovar made before his commercial breakthru with WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN/’88. It’s a slightly deranged psychological meller about a young bullfighter-in-training who faints at the sight of blood. Women prove just as difficult and an attempted rape (with a Swiss-Army knife as a weapon) leads to a series of confessions to rape & murder. The crimes are actually the work of his maimed mentor & his female attorney and when these two get together, after sizing each other up during a showing of that over-heated Western, DUEL IN THE SUN/’46, you know there’s a liebestod in their future. Almodovar’s technique isn’t quite equal to his often hilariously politically incorrect script, but the talent is already all in place. The pacing & story structure are wickedly entertaining and the cast (with young Antonio Banderas wonderfully empathetic as the virginal would-be rapist) is pitch-perfect. And that includes Pedro himself as a fashionista Isaac Mizrahi might used as a personal template.