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Monday, May 31, 2010

POKOLENIE / A GENERATION (1955)


Polish film icon Andrzej Wajda made his feature debut on this affecting WWII Polish resistance tale, mixing techniques from Italian Neo-Realism with the bleak stylized look of Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN. The title refers to the young people who came-of-age during the Nazi occupation, but in retrospect it also refers to the post-war generation of film students who got their start here. And not just behind the camera; that’s Roman Polanski debuting on screen as a resistance fighter. The film was obviously made with Soviet minders in mind, the Communist Party Line trumps history where needed, but did no one notice the unblinking fanatical nature of the protagonist’s love interest? She’s almost as frightening as the enemy. Wajda’s natural facility is unmistakable, even when his technical chops come up short, and after KANAL/’57 and ASHES & DIAMONDS/’58 he was launched on a major career. But those who respond to this early work should try Andrzej Munk’s EROICA/’57 which covers similar terrain in a manner Renoir & Lubitsch might recognize.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON (1942)


At his best, Leo McCarey made movies in his signature unforced style that appear to come together of their own volition. You can watch them repeatedly, and still end up scratching your head wondering how he did it. This is not one of those magical films. It’s a painfully tone-deaf WWII romantic-comedy about a social climbing gal from Flatbush (Ginger Rogers) who marries a Baron (Walter Slezak) unaware that he’s a top Nazi agent. Their honeymoon itinerary takes them country-by-country thru the early Blitzkrieg invasions. Cary Grant is a reporter on their trail who opens her eyes and falls for her. The possibilities are obvious, but so are the obstacles . . . and McCarey hits every one of them. The nadir comes as Cary & Ginger pitch woo in a Concentration Camp while cantorial prayers sound behind them. No doubt, the fairy tale title was meant as a sop to ward off criticism, but the bizarre situations grow so appallingly tasteless that no response seems possible. Hard to believe that McCarey’s last pic could have been the superb LOVE AFFAIR/’39 or that his follow-up was GOING MY WAY/’43.

NOTE: Rogers fanciers should study a scene where Cary & Ginger hit the vodka. He gets drunk first, but she grows drunk right on camera. Just as a technical study, it’s pretty amazing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A romantic-comedy in Nazi-occupied Europe made as the events were unfolding? Impossible? Not for Ernst Lubitsch in TO BE OR NOT TO BE/’42.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I TRES VOLTI DELLA PAURA / BLACK SABBATH (1963)


Mario Bava, Italy’s maestro of ‘60s horror, pulls off a hat-trick in this atmospheric tri-parter. (The Anchor Bay DVD edition restores Bava’s preferred Euro-cut.) ‘The Telephone’ is a voyeuristic tale of a young woman besieged by one of her ex-lovers: an escaped psychopathic killer or a recently discarded lesbian? Both? Then Boris Karloff, in one his last good roles, appears in ‘The Wurdalak.’ He’s the patriarch of a family menaced by the titular ‘living dead’ blood-suckers. In fact, he’s just back from dispatching one. Has he also been infected? Last up, and best realized, is ‘A Drop of Water’ about a nurse called one night to prepare a corpse, a medium who died mid-seance. The old dear has a tempting ring on her finger and there’s only a pesky fly in the room to witness this small theft. Fly as avenging angel? Aided by Bava’s outlandish, and outlandishly effective, use of color, the film is less scary than deeply creepy. But it certainly sticks with you. (Watch for a particularly pungent fuchsia backlighting effect in ‘Wurdalak.’) And hold tight for the credits with Karloff returning for a Dada-esque ride into the night.

Friday, May 28, 2010

THE INTERNATIONAL (2009)


Did anyone want to make THE INTERNATIONAL? An attempt at cross-pollinating ‘80s JAMES BOND, THE PARALLAX VIEW/’74 and a BOURNE dazzler, it’s reasonably well made, but no one seems especially involved in playing out the machinations of this globe-trotting thriller. Clive Owen is the Interpol agent who stumbles across the nefarious doings. Too bad he can't lay his hands on a grooming kit. Naomi Watts is plying the same case from another angle, but she has so little to do, she reads her lines as if in protest, hoping her agent will do better next time. The supporting players are mostly faceless Euro-types, except for that old smoothie, Armin Mueller-Stahl, who purrs all his lines. Under Tom Tykwer’s clean megging it’s all posh looking, no slice & dice editing, no jiggly camera work, no multi-screen confusion, but without passion, a job of work. Finally, we reach the big set piece, a full-rigged shoot-out @ The Guggenheim Museum, and the film wakes up . . . for a reel. Then it’s back to the mines for more mind-numbing plot revelations. You’ll be shocked, shocked to learn that the big multi-national bank turns out to be involved in arms trafficing & political gamesmanship. Business as usual, just like this film.


CONTEST: The poster for this film is a cheat. Explain why to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

HEDDA GABLER (1963)

Ingrid Bergman might have been born to play Ibsen’s famously difficult , revenge-minded wife. Who else could keep an audience tucked in her pocket while charting fathoms of (self)destructive behavior? Alas, this ruthlessly cut 75 minute tv version is all we have of her in the role. (Bergman must have known how much was missed here since she quickly worked up a full-length production in Paris.) The shortened text, from Eva Le Gallienne’s blunt English translation, stresses incident, dramatic reversals & melodrama over Ibsen’s larger concerns of character & society; not an entirely bad trade-off, it certainly flies by! And if the entire cast is a good decade or two older than they should be, this is only problematic for Trevor Howard’s alcoholic intellectual who looks too old to seem ruined before his time. (Howard seems ruined right on time.) As Hedda’s underachieving husband, Michael Redgrave uses his height & symmetrical handsomeness to reinforce the facade Hedda hoped might appease her needs. And perhaps if she hadn’t become pregnant, it might have. Best of all is Ralph Richardson as the amoral sexual opportunist, improvidently blessed by Hedda’s predicament. The production isn’t much more than a live tv kinescope, but it’s all we have of this amazing cast in Ibsen’s amazing play. What might we give to have this much of Duse, Nazimova or Irene Worth in the role?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

RED DAWN (1984)

As a movie idea, it’s irresistible: a shock-and-awe style invasion of small-town America by Cuba & the Russkies back in the Cold War days. But scripter/megger John Milius largely ignores the aspects of life under occupation to concentrate on a small batch of youthful insurgents who go thru various Iron Man initiation rites as they play out a fantasy-camp version of WWIII guerrilla warfare. Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen & other teen-dreamy types all manage to keep from breaking up during the emotional bits and there’s a heaven-sent (literally) guest appearance from Powers Boothe, who’s so darn good he takes a bit of the pressure off. The ridiculous thing should be a lot more fun than it is, but Milius barely provides two memorable images over the course of the film (the opening parachute invasion & those cool attack helicopters toward the end), consistently dropping the ball with OTT action scenes he can’t be bothered to properly set up.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a comic Russian invasion try THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!/’66 which holds up surprisingly well and truly captured its moment. Plus, Alan Arkin & Brian Keith are just about perfect.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

THE MERRY GENTLEMAN (2008)

As if he doesn’t have enough trouble rousting up decent acting gigs, Michael Keaton had just as little luck on his helming debut w/ this modest-to-a-fault romantic noir. He plays a ruthlessly efficient hitman (his ‘cover’ job is being a tailor!) who’s spotted by Kelly MacDonald as she leaves her job one night. She sees a guy on the roof across the street and thinks he may be contemplating suicide. And maybe he was. Keaton tracks her down to her apartment and winds up ‘meeting-cute’ over a Christmas tree. Before you can say two-lonely-people, they begin a cautious relationship. But he’s a dangerous hitman/tailor and she’s got some issues, too: a violent ex & an even more violent Irish accent. (If only she was as adorable as the film wants her to be.) Add in a detective who’s suspicious, sympathetic & smitten and there’s more than enough going on to run a decent story line. Keaton has a real visual feel for the tone of the story, but he’s so darn indulgent toward the actors that you could drive a truck thru every other line. Pick up your cues, people. The hem-&-haw pacing is particularly disastrous for MacDonald who comes off as borderline imbecilic. It’s not an uninteresting pic, but its so enervated that it all but disappears as you watch it. Very few people did. Keaton deserves better.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Max Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT/'49 (or it's recent remake, THE DEEP END/02) mixes the gangster & romance genres to far greater effect.

Monday, May 24, 2010

GRAN TORINO (2008)

A crowd-pleasing farewell acting turn for Clint Eastwood as a tough-shelled, rust-belt widower who never left the old neighborhood. His tidy little house is now all but surrounded by Asian immigrants (largely Vietnamese) and, long retired from his production-line job @ Ford Motors, as well as casually estranged from his family, he has little to do but talk to his old dog, maintain his property and mutter vile deprecations or simply snarl at the ‘savages’ next door. Yet, it's winning, even hilarious stuff. Nick Schenk’s savvy, politically incorrect script may be formulaic (Clint gradually finds a surrogate family right next door & saves them from a local gang), but the fun is in how well they split Clint’s personality between a senior citizen Dirty Harry (bowed, but unmellowed) and the misanthropic comedy & world view of a W. C. Fields. Of course, he can now make use of all those cuss words once forbidden to the great curmudgeon, but listen to just how often Clint substitutes some euphonious euphemism. (Don’t feel too bad for the immigrants since they appear to give as good as they get in untranslated slurs.) Even his nicknames are appallingly funny ethnic insults, with a none-too-gentle razz attached to them. Best is a cute girl he picks out as date material for the boy next door. She’s Youa, but Clint insists on calling her Yum-Yum. The film is no more than a sentimental fable, but it’s awfully well put together and, just like any proper farewell tour, the star comes back to warble a final tune.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

QUO VADIS? (1951)

Ancient Rome burns; Early Christians are martyred; Chariots whiz by; Lions dine @ the Coliseum; and the Emperor Nero sings his heart out. C. B. De Mille made an indelible, if typically daft, pre-Production Code version of this in THE SIGN OF THE CROSS/’32 for Paramount. Now, with M-G-M suffering thru the post-WWII fiscal meltdown, they’ve dressed up an awfully similar tale, expensively sourced via Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Polish classic QUO VADIS? It should be plushly entertaining on some level. Alas, whatever visual flare Mervyn Leroy once had is now replaced with a faceless, corporate style. The sets & costumes & thousands of extras are all there, but Leroy is unable to take advantage of the scale of his production. This gargantuan film looks cramped, even cheap. More QUO VEGAS? than QUO VADIS? Robert Taylor, with his stolid presence, loud presentation & hearty Mid-Western twang is expectedly mediocre, but poor Deborah Kerr looks painfully uncomfortable with her leading man & with her breast-defeating costumes. There are a few atmospheric shots of the Appian Way (possibly from an uncredited Anthony Mann) and if you look really fast during the triumphant entry sequence, you may just spot the young Sophia Loren (watch for her big toothy smile). But everything about the film, from Robert Surtees lensing to Miklos Rozsa’s score, feels like a dry run for William Wyler’s infinitely superior BEN-HUR/59.

Friday, May 21, 2010

THAT HAMILTON WOMAN! (aka LADY HAMILTON) (1941)

Certainly the most romantic of the pre-Pearl Harbor WWII propaganda pics, this Alexander Korda project was designed to plead Britain’s case against Nazi Germany. (Even though the plot pits England against France!) Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier are England’s most patriotic adulterers, Lady Emma Hamilton & Lord Horatio Nelson, so devastingly handsome & glamorous, Napoleon doesn’t stand a chance. As a producer, Korda was a rare fellow, the look of the film, the superb Miklos Rozsa score and the luxurious cast, all belie his impossibly tight budget. And he had his moments behind the camera, too. Watch for a stunning parallel shot of Leigh & Gladys Cooper’s Lady Nelson, where you can see what an Edwardian beauty Dame Gladys had been. It's also a kick to see Henry Wilcoxon, a ringer for Olivier in THE CRUSADERS/’35, sharing screen time with the real thing, even the special effects remain impressive. But the Korda's films were always better when someone else directed. The usual Korda defects apply: camera set-ups that don’t quite cut together (even when he hired the best cinematographers), and a slack pace for much of the third act (as if he'd grown tired of the thing). But who cares when Larry & Vivien gaze at each other at the stroke of midnight, January 1, 1800 and he says, ‘I’ve kissed you through two centuries.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Michael Korda, son of art designer Vincent Korda & nephew to Zoltan & Alex, has some grand family stories on the DVD Extras, but beware of anything else he says. To wit:

  • Olivier & Leigh did indeed flop on B’way in ROMEO & JULIET, but not because they were too old. Kit Cornell & Basil Rathbone had just done it, toured the States & then encored on B’way and they were, respectively, 15 years older than the Oliviers.
  • His aunt, Merle Oberon, can hardly be called the star of Korda’s PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII/’33; she’s on screen for less than a minute!
  • Olivier didn’t make WUTHERING HEIGHTS for Selznick, but for Sam Goldwyn, who tried to fire him.
  • And Korda’s favorite Hollywood tale, an alleged affair between Danny Kaye & Olivier, long poo-poo’d by serious biographers of both men, now gets moved back a decade to 1939-40 when Kaye was a little known nightclub performer. Oh well, it is a delicious story.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

TUGBOAT ANNIE (1933)

This immensely successful Marie Dressler vehicle isn't the expected sentimental comedy, but a tragedy-tinged domestic drama hiding in plain sight behind her comically large girth & redoubtable spirit. Dressler, as Annie, runs a tugboat as broken-down as she is, along with her dipsomaniac husband Wallace Beery. Robert Young is their handsome boy, the youngest Captain in port, and a remarkably pretty Maureen O’Sullivan is their new, understanding daughter-in-law. Most of the comedy stems from Beery’s drunken behavior, but the film sees more than easy laughs in the situation. By the fourth reel the drinking has robbed Dressler of her work, her life’s savings and even her son. Forced to choose between a husband unable to survive without her and a 'son who knows best,' Dressler gets the chance to show her instinctual acting chops, landing emotional bombshells with a directness that bordered on genius. A heroic coda sets everything to rights, but it hardly detracts from what we can read between the lines of all the forced merriment. Mervyn Leroy, on loan from Warners to M-G-M, helms in an appropriately rough & ready manner, aided by the great Gregg Toland on camera, but he's not quite able to recreate the remarkable waterfront verisimilitude director George Hill brought to the previous Dressler/Beery match-up, MIN AND BILL/'30, an unsung early Talkie masterpiece once you make it past the opening reel of slapdash slapstick.

CARBINE WILLIAMS (1952)

Low-key bio-pic about a man who managed to design and even construct a newfangled rifle while serving out a manslaughter charge in one of those notorious Deep South prisons. James Stewart is the stubborn convict, a moonshiner held responsible for the death of a Federal Agent; Jean Hagen is the loyal wren-like wife; and Wendell Corey is the prison warden who gives Stewart a chance to redeem himself. It sounds like a fair movie idea, but the execution from megger Richard Thorpe, scripter Art Cohn & lenser William Mellow is drab beyond belief. Thorpe did some of best work the same year in IVANHOE; Cohn was coming off Anthony Mann’s superb Lincoln conspiracy pic, THE TALL TARGET; and Mellor had just turned out his masterpiece, A PLACE IN THE SUN. They all phone it in on this one. Except, perhaps, Wendell Corey. But then, when Corey’s the most dynamic thing you’ve got going, you know you’re in trouble.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

DAI-BOSATSU TOGE / SWORD OF DOOM (1966)

Japanese helmer Kihachi Okamoto added elegance & aimlessness to the usual mix of stylized violence & philosophy in this famous samurai tale. The story is from a serialized novel, previously filmed, stitched together to follow the discomforting saga of a loose-cannon samurai (Tatsuya Nakadai in superb form) who goes from one fighting school to another, picking up new skills in swordmanship and, in similar vein, from one murderous act to another. The bodies pile up quickly as Nakadai cuts thru swaths of less able swordsman, sometimes with reason, sometimes without. He’s menacing, enraged & pathological; a bogey man?, a force of nature?, a renunciation of society? Yet, when he sees a superior master in action (Toshiro Mifune, natch), with levels of martial skills & honor Nakadai cannot fathom, he begins to retreat into a more conventional madness. Okamoto imbues the film with the logic of a living nightmare and keeps the killings as sudden & abrupt as the old gag about the quick-drawing gunfighter, ‘Do you want to see it again?’ (Those who saw Gordie Howe ‘invisibly' check opponents for the Detroit Red Wings back in his prime will know that such things are possible.) But you’ll also see why the popular audience was migrating toward more modern movie mayhem.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

DARBY’S RANGERS (1958)


William Wellman’s big WWII actioners, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE/’45 and BATTLEGROUND/’49 have aged poorly, but they’re immortal classics next to this effort, an appalling item. James Garner stars as the eponymous Darby, a desk-bound lieutenant who gets himself out of the office and into combat by organizing an elite ‘first-strike’ unit. The men are all gung-ho types, coarse & remarkably unlikable, who learn discipline & teamwork in Scotland before facing the enemy in a series of brutal engagements in the Italian sector. Hardly fresh material, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with the basic set-up. It’s the treatment that’s so insulting. Cloying sentimentality, corny dramatics & clownish comedy, filmed on the sort of sound stage exteriors you’d expect in a ‘50s tv series. Occasionally, a clip of actual war footage is thrown into the mix and, at the climax, a weirdly gorgeous, foggy, expressionistic war wasteland straight out of a late silent era movie. Max Steiner’s score is heavy w/ military marches & comic ‘mickey-mousing’ which does little to help the mostly young, painfully amateurish cast. Embarrassments like this probably goaded Sam Fuller into making his flawed, but earnest THE BIG RED ONE/’80.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try a double-bill contrasting John Huston’s sober Italian campaign short SAN PIETRO/’45 w/ Blake Edwards’ brutal absurdist war comedy WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?/’66.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

CHE - Part One: The Argentine; Part Two: Guerrilla (2008)


Steven Soderbergh’s two-part epic on the charismatic communist revolutionary is decent, respectful and so narrowly focused on the logistics of fighting a jungle-based populist uprising that he demurs from giving dramatic shape to 4-1/2 hours of material. Part One is more confidently made while the downward spiral of events in Part Two give it the inevitable pull of history. But without a program or beforehand knowledge, non-believers will end up lost in Bolivia. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara wrote that those who make revolution either win or die. Artistically, that’s what Soderbergh was shooting at. So, the utter indifference that greeted CHE may have been more painful than out & out fiasco. A bit of extra irony for a film about an iconoclastic icon made with a larger budget than Castro & Che had to knock off Battista’s Cuba.

The 3-disc Criterion edition comes with a striking period documentary made in Bolivia, filmed just days after Che’s death, that delivers more in half an hour than the feature it supports.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The young Che is beautifully caught, if thru rose-colored glasses, in THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES/'04.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

WAIKIKI WEDDING (1937)


This amiably nutty Bing Crosby vehicle is a lot of fun. It all happens in Hollywood Hawaii (also known as the Paramount backlot) where Bing works (none too hard) as a pineapple PR man. His latest idea isn’t panning out, the new Miss Pineapple hates Hawaii! So Bing concocts a big romantic adventure - luaus, moonlit sailing, native dancing pageants, a magical black pearl, an erupting volcano - and then screws up by falling for the girl. Cue song. Helmer Frank Tuttle takes this nonsense about as close to Dada-land as he dared and Karl Struss uses his camera to apply plenty of faux glamor. Shirley Ross is no more than pleasant as Bing’s leading lady, and the comedic trawlings of Martha Raye & Bob Burns overstay their welcome (even when they land), but the whole package is so darned good natured it hardly matters. Add in some nice tunes (‘Blue Hawaii,’ ‘Sweet Leilani’), snazzy production numbers with real, not Hollywood Hawaiians, plus a great turn from that lithely, young Hawaiian lad Anthony Quinn.

ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1951)


In his first oater, Kirk Douglas plays a U.S. Marshall who steps in to stop a lynching. The arm of the law is something new in the territory, but from now on everybody gets a fair trial. Walter Brennan is the oddly ungrateful fellow with the rope around his neck. He claims he’s innocent, but Douglas doesn’t care. He’s just doing his job. Viewers may just wish he’d left things alone once they hear Brennan taunt him with umpteen renditions of ‘Down In the Valley.’ Maybe that’s why Virginia Mayo, in deglamourized mode, is so darn eager to help her old man escape. But it’s probably that pesky posse of vigilantes. Veteran helmer Raoul Walsh made his share of sharp & tangy Westerns, but this ain’t one of them. There’s some nice irony in showing how many people die so that Douglas can stop a lynching, but the bones on this story were picked clean long ago. Lenser Sid Hickox lays on the red filter to get those glowering b&w skies, but neither he nor Walsh can vivify those airless studio sound-stage exteriors.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try PURSUED/'47, to see what Walsh can do in this vein.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

HERZ AUS GLAS / HEART OF GLASS (1976)

This dark fable from Werner Herzog was made during the brief commercial & critical heyday of the German New Wave. The story sounds right up his eccentric alley: In medieval days, an isolated Bavarian town goes collectively mad when their sole claim to fame & financial stability, the secret formula of ‘Ruby Glass,’ dies with the town’s master glass maker. But the film is sluggish when it means to be dreamlike, and Herzog is pointlessly abstruse in getting his themes across. Was he just stretching his material with all those brooding landscape shots of unrelated vistas? The film acquired a certain notoriety when Herzog claimed he had hypnotized his cast to get the perfs he wanted. But, like the self-absorbed actor who's so proud that he made himself cry, Herzog mesmerized his players rather than his audience. There are rapt & beautiful things in here, but Herzog was either unwilling or unable to properly organize them. It’s a crying shame.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

THE SINS OF RACHEL CADE (1961)


It’s your typical African missionary drama: Beautiful American missionary nurse finds she is out of her depth & too dogmatic to ‘save’ the simple natives in her assigned village. They view both her and her Western medicine with fear & suspicion. But she wins their trust with a daring operation on a sick child, only to find her own beliefs shattered by personal weakness. But, thru her suffering . . . well, you know. Changing attitudes toward race & religion have made these stories vaguely embarrassing, even when the religious motivation is camouflaged as ‘good works,’ like medical help or education. This film hardly solves the issues, but scripter Edward Anhalt (who’d soon tackle BECKETT/’64) loved a good Shavian debut and this leads to some surprisingly interesting dialogues on ethics, politics & religion. Of course, we never lose sight of the big love triangle playing out between Peter Finch, Angie Dickenson & Roger Moore (hilariously young & pretty). How could we when Max Steiner is ladling out such a misguided, swoon-worthy love theme? Some things have changed. The locals now look like honest-to-goodness Africans, but Hollywood ringers Woody Strode (painted up as a Medicine Man), Juano Hernandez, Scatman Crowthers & Olympic Champ Rafer Johnson show up to put us at ease.

HERE COME THE WAVES (1944)


This harmless military comedy was the last film Mark Sandrich (of the Astaire & Rogers films) completed before dying at 43 during prep for BLUE SKIES/’46. It ought to be a lot better than it is. Bing Crosby plays a cross between himself & Frank Sinatra (note the swooning bobby-soxers & his OTT rendition of ‘That Old Black Magic’) who wants to join the Navy with his big pal Sonny Tufts. Trouble comes by way of twin sisters, a nutty blonde played by Betty Hutton & a sobersided brunette played by . . . Betty Hutton. (The split-screen stuff is nifty, with a couple of tricky crossovers thrown in.) They all wind up putting on a big recruitment show for the WAVES with songs from Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer. ‘Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive’ came out of this one, but they rarely show the clip (even in anthologies) because it’s in blackface! Oy! (Maybe this ain’t so harmless.) Well, at least Bing sounds great (dig those low notes on ‘Accentuate’) and Hutton gets her laughs, come hell or high water. She’s really quite charming as the quiet sis, a lot like Rosemary Clooney in WHITE CHRISTMAS/’54 which stole a good bit from this one.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

GASLIGHT (1944)

George Cukor’s reputation as an actor’s director of tasteful literary adaptions downplays the strong visual flair he kept in reserve. In this grand psychological thriller, the one about the young wife whose husband is trying to drive her mad (‘gaslight’ her), the main set is a posh London row house with a narrow design that forces many scenes to move from floor to floor. Cukor brings fluid staging, unusual camera angles, elaborate tracking shots & long takes to the challenge. Perhaps they aren’t noticed because they always serve the story rather then call attention to themself. Joseph Ruttenberg’s lensing is masterfully lit (and shadowed), and Cukor even manages some believable street atmosphere, avoiding the flat, studio-bound Londontown look typical at M-G-M. (The Italian-set prologue shows the usual lack of care.) Ingrid Bergman actually deserved her Oscar as the blushing bride who naturally grows only more gorgeous as hysteria & illness overtake her. (Getting more beautiful as she got sicker & sicker was a Bergman specialty. See NOTORIOUS/’46 and ARC OF TRIUMPH/’48.) As the obsessed, sadistic husband, Charles Boyer seems a bit OTT, but he’s got an acting strategy, as well. When your audience is already ahead of the plot, why try to hide your character arc? It’s a clever move, and it works. Poor Joseph Cotton has no such option; his nice-guy role sucks. But 17 yr-old Angela Lansbury is hilariously assured as the cheeky parlour maid. What a knock-out debut. M-G-M’s suppression of the earlier British version (ANGEL STREET/’40) has made that film a Cinderella pick for many critics. But that’s no reason to denigrate Hollywood’s deluxe version.

CONTEST: Oddly, the most famous/suspenseful moment in the original play doesn’t appear in either film version. It involved a certain article of clothing. Name the item and who it belongs to to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Monday, May 10, 2010

MUERTE DE UN CICLISTA / DEATH OF A CYCLIST (1955)


Juan Antonio Bardem, one of the early lights of modern Spanish cinema (and uncle to actor Javier), won a Cannes Jury prize with this film. On its surface, this is a melodrama about an adulterous couple who run over a cyclist as they drive back from a tryst. The unsolved death shows up in the next day’s papers, but the chances of these two getting caught looks slim. The dead cyclist was a poor cog, a common laborer from the tenements like so many others. The adulterers come from wealthy families, are well connected and intimate with the corrupt society that writes the rules & protects its own. Only their own sense of guilt could upset things, if they had any guilt. Or a threat of blackmail from a society gadfly. What could he have seen? Could the dead man’s widow know anything? Why are the police asking questions? Just how much trouble are they in? Bardem mixes this burgoo of Italian NeoRealism and traditional tropes out of classic adulterous Hollywood fare like NOTORIOUS and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (both 1946) to reasonable effect, but the film falls uncomfortably between stylistic stools and Bardem gets off on the wrong foot by not letting us know who was at fault for the accident. Over @ Universal in Hollywood, the great Douglas Sirk was doing just this sort of thing (and with a swing to it) . . . he never got a Cannes Jury Prize.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

KISS OF DEATH (1947)

Hollywood put out heaps of filmes noir in the post-war years, but 20th/Fox was the studio that pushed them off the back-lots & onto the (back)streets of America, usually with Elia Kazan, Jules Dassin or Henry Hathaway helming. The format proved so popular, these pioneering crime dramas can now look a bit old-hat. But not this one. While newbie helmers Kazan & Dassin used the genre as a vehicle to go on location, Hathaway treated real locations as if they were studio sets, sturdy scaffolding for his signature set pieces of violence & suspense. He helmed this one in & around NYC (except for the finale*) and it’s mostly remembered for Richard Widmark’s wild debut as a psychopathic killer. (The old lady, the wheelchair, the staircase, the giggle; it’s that one.) But the whole film holds up nicely with a tight script from the great Ben Hecht and superb lensing from longtime ace Herbert Nordine who’d been at it since the ‘teens. Look sharp for a scene where Widmark’s malevolence all but glows thru a curtain slit. Victor Mature is perfectly cast as a hulking, yet oddly delicate, jewel thief who winds up working as an informer for Brian Donlevy’s Asst. D.A. Naturally, the film has atmosphere to spare, and not just from the city. The violence & suspense still hold a nasty kick.

*Some stock footage was a bit out of date, too. A movie marque shows Jeanette MacDonald in THE LOVE PARADE from 1929!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

KORUTO WA ORE NO PASUPOTO / A COLT IS MY PASSPORT (1967)

This sharp little crime film from Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios was made for the local market, but it’s getting a welcome Stateside release as part of Criterion’s mid-‘60s Japanese noirs series. Anyone who’s enjoyed the laconic French gangsters of Jean-Pierre Melville or Sergio Leone’s ‘Spaghetti Western’ anti-heroes will know the terrain. Tough-guy Joe Shishido (of the chipmunk cheeks & Bobby Darin swagger) is the seasoned professional hitman who never misses. But once he ‘removes’ the rival's boss, the gang that hired him is now free to join up with their former enemies. Suddenly, Shishido is the one guy they all want out of the picture, permanently. The hitman is now the target. But you misread Shishido’s stoicism for fatalism at your peril. Helmer Takashi Monura does a beautiful job organizing his scenes & compositions, the film runs like a dream, but he doesn’t quite have the spatial orientation chops to pull off what should be a jaw-dropping finale. Even so, except for the fake Ennio Morricone score from Harumi Ibe, it’s a handsome & satisfying piece of work.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

EUROPA (aka ZENTROPA) (1991)


Scripter/helmer/provocateur Lars von Trier was still fully engaged on all artistic levels in this wildly inventive, thru-a-glass-darkly, post-WWII fable. Technically, the film is ravishing as Trier employs a surging mix of rich color & high contrast b&w (often within the same frame) in combination with a fluid soundstage æsthetic he’s meticulously worked out on storyboards worthy of a graphic novel. The rustle of an unexpected breeze won’t be found here, but there can be art in artifice. The story plays out like a deconstructed ‘take’ on THE THIRD MAN/’49. A ‘good’ American blunders his way into a demoralized, wicked post-war world he’s unable to fathom and falls for the mysterious beauty who turns out to be less Venus than Venus Flytrap. His good intentions unwittingly aid diehard enemy stragglers, and not even the blunt advise of a sympathetic officer can bring this naïf up to speed. Trier’s Europe is no divided Vienna, but a train that's both solid & surrealistic, with discrete carriages holding the past, present & future of Europe. It’s a thrilling ride and a daringly vivid act of imagination that makes Steven Soderbergh’s THIRD MAN pastiche (THE GOOD GERMAN/’06) look hopelessly square.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

SHORTBUS (2006)


John Cameron Mitchell followed up his transsexual punk-rock saga, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH/’01, with this sexually frank tall tail tale. He jump-starts his four inter-connected stories with explicit sex scenes (real, not simulated sex) that are direct, erotic & wildly funny. It’s a great opening with sexual persuasions that cover all the bases; straight to gay, solo to S&M-lite. Filmed without blinkers or bias, Mitchell gets just about everything right that pornography gets wrong. Makes you smile, makes you horny, makes you hot & happy. And then the plots kick in. Well, you can’t have everything. Mitchell & his actors used improv, workshops, deep-dish interviews, and wound up with a cartload of clichés: The sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm; the studly gay who’s open to everything but love; the sad dominatrix who just wants a happy home & family life; the voyeur who learns to jump in the pool . . . literally. Oy. Gay-phobic types should be aware that Mitchell shows his own sexual bias in the scheme of things, but who cares when Paul Dawson is around as James. You gotta go back to the ‘70s when Joe Dallesandro walked around the Warhol factory without a stitch to find the like in easeful male sexuality. Why isn’t this guy making movies? And Mitchell pulls off a grand, corny climax (yes, it’s that kind of climax) using a built-to-scale NYC clay cityscape. It makes up for a lot of missteps.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO / THE MASK OF SATAN (aka BLACK SUNDAY) (1960)


Most of the Mario Bava pics that got distributed in the States were advertised to look like low-budget horror/occult fare out of the Roger Corman shop. But Corman never had the directing chops of this Italian cult fave & any surface similarity fades once you get past the trailers, advertisements & Americanized titles.* Later Bava films made extravagant use of over-ripe color schemes, but this early b&w work is equally effective. It’s a creepy tale of witchcraft, delayed revenge and the redemptive force of love . . . when abetted by a handy crucifix. The opening scene, set a couple of centuries before the main story (adapted from Gogol), is a masterly piece of Grand Guignol as two witches are tortured and held to the stake when a sudden rainstorm douses the consuming flames. The rest of the film falls considerably off this eye-popping start, but in spite of miserable dubbing, a romantic music theme that sounds borrowed from a piano bar in Rome, and the usual absurdities & illogical character motivations needed to get us thru the plot mechanics, the film is legitimately creepy & disturbing. The Anchor Bay DVD edition uses Bava’s preferred international edit restoring score & gore removed by distributor A.I.P. back in 1960.**

*And leading actress, Barbara Steele. **The Italian distributor was JOLLY FILMS!!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

VAMPYR (1932)


Between his unmatched films on witches sacred & profane (LA PASSION DE JOAN D’ARC/’28 and VREDENS DAG / DAY OF WRATH/’43, Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer made this vampire pic. An odd choice for the severe master, but VAMPYR is not your typical horror film. A dream journey, a chase after reality, a film where plot is as porous as shadows on a mist. It cannot really be explained, only experienced. For decades, film-goers had to put up with dupe prints that turned the intentionally misty look of Rudolph Maté’s exquisite sfumato photography into mud. (And with a badly cropped picture.) But the current Criterion DVD (or in Europe - Masters of Cinema) is a great improvement. VAMPYR can now be properly seen, if not fully understood. There are unforgettable moments - a dance of phantom couples spinning down a white corridor, a doppelgänger in a coffin, suffocation by flour: nightmare images as soft & inevitable as the fall of loosed feathers. You’ll discover your own indelible mysteries & horrors. "Shadow-Play’ is an old, poetic term for cinema; never was it so justified.