Now With More Than 3000 Reviews! Go Nuts - Read 'Em All!!

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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

VARJOJA PARATIISISSA / SHADOWS IN PARADISE (1986)

Everyone's favorite Finnish auteur, Ari Kaurismaki, found his voice in this modest, but intensely pleasurable modern fable. It’s a typically mordant romance between a garbage man (in blue) and a supermarket cashier (in red) who’ve had more than their fair share of knocks. Expectations are low, but over the course of a bumpy courtship, their relative strengths and compatibilities keep rising to the surface. As the couple, Matti Pellonpaa & Kati Outinen (Kaurismaki regulars and deadpan artists with terrific comic timing) tote reserves of unexpected emotional baggage that flare into fits of resentment at all the wrong times. Kaurismaki gets us involved without the usual narrative tropes, or by tweaking them, and he composes his oddly beautiful shots of backstreets & dingy apartments with a master’s eye. It may be a starter film, without the gasp inducing moments of THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL/’90 or the perfect balance & completeness of THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST/02, but its aim is true.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009)

People were both excited and up in arms about this make-over of the beloved detective. Making Holmes a brainiac action figure isn’t off the mark at all, he was never a Nero Wolfe armchair detective; and the plot, an unfathomable Da Vinci Code burgoo, works well enough. Better yet are the core characterizations that view Holmes & best pal Dr. Watson as a Victorian Odd Couple. (Jude Law must be the best Watson since James Mason stole MURDER BY DECREE/’79 from Christopher Plummer.) If only producer Joel Silver & megger Guy Ritchie didn’t overload the film with explosions, zap-edited fights & tricked up explanatory CGI. We never get to match wits with the great man. Mark Strong makes an impact as a creepy villain (even if his ‘death’ is a hoary theatrical trick), but no one else makes much impression. Except, of course, for Robert Downey, Jr. whose much-admired Holmes self-destructs. His accent seems perfect . . . until you notice that no one else has one! (Always a bad sign.) And his mad hatter line readings never let up. It’s like watching Anthony Hopkins at his show-offy worst.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Jeremy Brett, especially in the earlier Granada TV episodes, is Sherlock Holmes. But for Holmes on film try Billy Wilder’s mutilated melancholy masterpiece, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES/’71 (note our poster) or, from Herbert Ross & Nicholas Meyer, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION/’76 with its remarkable cast & Robert Duvall having the same ‘perfect accent’ troubles with his Watson that Downey has with his Holmes.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

HER NIGHT OF ROMANCE (1924)

Constance Talmadge clings to a bit of Hollywood fame as the spunky Mountain Girl in D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’‘16. (She’s the girl in the Babylon segment who snacks on scallions so no one will buy her at the brides’ market.) But in the 1920s, she was one of the top stars in light romantic comedies. This typical bit of fluff finds her playing an American millionairess who travels to England and falls for Ronald Colman’s cash-strapped British Lord. There’d really be little problem (and no story) if he were the fortune hunting cad the situation calls for, but his honesty and upstanding morals just keep getting them into farcical troubles. The film holds a bit of historical interest as an example of ‘20s commercial hackery, but the pleasures are modest to a fault. Sidney Franklin megs with little sparkle or invention, just as he did in his M-G-M heyday. At best, it’s . . . unobjectionable.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Anita Loos, who wrote GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and some of Hollywood’s naughtiest Pre-Code dialogue, bio’d the famous Talmadge sisters (Norma, Natalie & Constance) in THE TALMADGE GIRLS. The research & opinions are hardly scholarly, but Loos was there and earned her POV.

Friday, June 25, 2010

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 (1937)

Technically, the penultimate BROADWAY MELODY is a far smoother pic than M-G-M managed on the previous edition two years earlier, but the improvements went only skin deep. Robert Taylor is still a B’way producer & Eleanor Powell is still a tap phenom, only now she sings & dances with . . . George Murphy. Did no one @ M-G-M understand metaphoric sex & the musical? (To his credit, Murphy has more charm than usual, especially in a duet ripped right out of TOP HAT/’35. The rain, the gazebo, ‘Cheek to Cheek.") At least the gags, production numbers & supporting players are better integrated this time out, but such a lackluster batch of songs from Freed & Brown. The only good tunes are ringers; Sophie Tucker spouting ‘Some of These Days’ for old time’s sake, and the young Judy Garland singing ‘You Made Me Love You’ to a picture of Clark Gable in her star-making turn. (Watch Judy closely. She’s so raw, she hasn’t yet learned how to lip-synch. They hide her mouth for part of the song and even reshot the ending to help her out.) The DVD Extras feature an Oscar’d short from newbie director Fred Zinnemann. It’s basically a silent one-reeler about hospital hygiene; corny, but effective.

NAPOLEON (2002)


Did you ever wonder about the unidentified actors in those History Channel bios? Or the men & women who play Presidents, Generals, Famous Writers & Royalty in those artsy documentaries on PBS, TLC or Discovery? They’re signing treaties, ordering in the troops, giving world famous speeches, but when the camera pans up, their faces are obscured by a tree or a spectator; or maybe the focus goes off just when you want a good look. Well, mystery solved! In this 4 part/six-hour French mini-series on Nappy & his gang they all turn out to be . . . really famous actors! Who knew? Isabella Rossellini, Gerard Depardieu, John Malkovitch, Julian Sands and many, many more. And, by golly, they’re all terrible! So’s the film. Thousands of extras, tons of explosives, months of English diction lessons for the French actors, all in the mistaken hope that pulling focus on the principals in the foreground of crappy background re-enactments would make for a compelling epic. Yves Simoneau megs away furiously, but shows little aptitude for battle scenes, pomp, domestic scenes or pacing. As Napoleon, Christian Clavier’s stoutness & age unintentionally(?) abet the idea that the Napoleonic rot set in very near the start. A daring idea for a French production. All in all, such a monumental waste of time, effort & fortune might well have gained Nappy’s approval.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Alas, the Napoleon pics we most need to see are all in some sort of DVD limbo. CONQUEST/'37, with Garbo & Charles Boyer hasn't appeared; DESIREE/'54, with Jean Simmons & Brando(!) hasn't had a legit Stateside release; and Abel Gance's NAPOLEON, his stupendous 1927 silent, has been beautifully restored by Kevin Brownlow, but its release is being legally challenged by Francis Coppola who clings to his own inferior edition. Grrr.

UDOLI VCEL / THE VALLEY OF THE BEES (1967)


Though only a decade older than the leading figures of the Czech New Wave (Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jiri Menzel, et al.), director Frantisek Vlacil is barely known Stateside. And this handsomely made, thoughtful film shows why. In 13th Century Bohemia, a noble son of woeful countenance is forced by his father to take up a strict monastic life after disrupting the celebration of Dad’s new marriage to a much younger bride. The banished son grows to manhood under the special care & tutelage of a brother monk who has only recently returned from The Crusades; the bond between them strengthened by religious, intellectual & fleshly (if nonsexual) intimacy. An unplanned escape from the monastery leads the novice back to his home, and into a marriage with his own step-mother, his father’s widow. But an unexpected guest shows up just in time for their wedding celebration; it's the boy's old mentor, back once more from the Crusades. Can breaking religious vows ever be the right thing to do? Has this brother monk returned in the name of revenge or is it jealousy? And is this Man’s justice . . . or God’s? Vlacil has his champions, but he pushes his big themes at us like a salesman, they don't grow naturally from the film's fabric, but play out like art house hand-me-downs from the Bergman, Bresson & Dreyer crowd. To say nothing of Tarkovsky, whose magnificent ANDREI RUBLEV appeared at just about the same time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 (1935)

Six years after BROADWAY MELODY, M-G-M revived the franchise with this idiotic, but tuneful backstager. Jack Benny is a gossip columnist who tricks B’way producer Robert Taylor with a phantom leading lady who’d be just the thing for his new revue. If only she existed. Eleanor Powell plays an old pal from Taylor’s hometown who wants to try her luck on stage, but can’t get his attention. Why not fob herself off as Jack Benny’s chimerical star? Moss Hart actually got an original story Oscar nom for this nonsense, and it wouldn’t matter much if only the performers sparkled. But Powell reads her lines as stiffly as she holds her body, dancing with her untouchable diamond-hard quality. (Only Fred Astaire would prove able to penetrate her toe-tapping armor.) The specialty acts are wedged in awkwardly and the editing is so disjointed that even Benny’s inimitable comic pacing is compromised. On the plus side, Buddy Ebsen does some winning eccentric dancing with his sister, there are great tunes from Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown and, as a special treat, Roger Edens (Freed’s right-hand man during his glory days as a producer) shows up as a rehearsal pianist.

NOTE: Check out the DVD extras: SUNKIST STARS AT PALM SPRINGS features Hollywood types like Walter Huston, Buster Keaton and newlyweds Betty Grable & Jackie Coogan in early TechniColor while the film’s host, Edmund Lowe, shares the screen with the creepiest puppet ever created, Mike, the talking microphone. Jeepers! And the cartoon TO SPRING, a knock-off Disney Silly Symphony from M-G-M’s Ising/Harman unit, has a sequence Walt may have taken to heart when he plunked his dwarfs & their pick-axes down in the gem mine.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

ETZ LIMON / LEMON TREE (2008)

In the West Bank area of Palestine, an old lemon grove borders the home of the new Israeli Defense Minister. Military security insists on tearing up the grove since the trees could provide easy camouflage for terrorists. But the stubborn Palestinian widow, who inherited the grove from her father, challenges the order and takes her case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. Justice, anyone? Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis manages to keep this real-life incident from playing out like a political set-up (or a Frank Capra-esque David & Goliath allegory) by refusing to overload his situations. (He's fully aware that the handsome widowed grove-owner has us from ‘Salaam.’) He also keeps information to a bare minimum so we don’t get ahead of things, and brings up unexpected personal problems for characters on both sides of the fence. Here, the most powerful & original scenes show the kind of collateral emotional damage that play in the margins of big issue stories. Especially, when some Palestinian elders try to stop the budding friendship between the grove owner (the superb Hiam Abbass) and her young lawyer (a very sympathetic Ali Suliman). Some griefs come along without political entanglements.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

TELEVISION UNDER THE SWASTIKA (1999)

Michael Kloft’s odd little documentary answers a question no one asked. For those who care, the answer is ‘Yes!,’ Nazi Germany started broadcast television back in 1935. Who knew? The technical aspects of the story (cathode ray tubes, frequencies, reception) are only touched on (were there military implications?), but we do learn about viewing parlors for the masses, and home units for a few high ranking Nazis. Since almost no live transmissions were preserved, we make do with an olio of musical acts, sporting events, cooking demos(!), political rallies & public service announcements which were filmed for broadcast and saved in East Germany. Brief moments of interest, like noticing the use of an American Pop tune from a Jewish composer or watching a double amputee cautiously learn to two-step, hardly compensate for the otherwise dreary offerings. It’s valuable as history, but who knew the Nazis could be so dull?

Friday, June 18, 2010

SHUNPU DEN / THE STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (1965)

Seijun Suzuki, that incorrigible artistic thorn in the hide of Nikkatsu Studio, is on fire in this visually audacious WWII drama. The story had been filmed before (with a script by Akira Kurosawa) and this rougher version wasn’t much appreciated at the time. But it’s reputation has rightfully grown and the film now plays as a sober b&w yin to the yang of Suzuki’s extravagantly hopped up color-coded YOUTH OF THE BEAST/’63. The prostitute in question has run off to the Sino-Japanese War to serve as a ‘comfort girl,’ a military whore for the service men & officers. She quickly becomes the adjutant’s favorite, but she grows almost hysterically attached to the officer’s handsome young aide. The fatalistic charge of the story and Suzuki’s stunning visual panache all but overflow the boundaries of the WideScreen format. Even more impressively, the film manages to touch on all the deep dish issues of humanity, war, & military insanity found in better known, award-winning pics like NINGEN NO JOKEN/THE HUMAN CONDITION (1959-1961), which accomplishes far, far less in 9 & a half hours than Suzuki accomplishes in a mere hour & a half. A major work, a phenomenal achievement.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

THE NOEL COWARD TRILOGY (1998)

Adam Low’s three-part documentary on Britain’s sui generis playwright/actor/songwriter/entertainer/self-mythologizer seems to have everything going for it. Coward’s achievements and influence readily fill the extended running time, and he’s lined up all the archival footage, location shots and interviews you could ask for. Critics, biographers & colleagues include John Lahr, Sheridan Morley, John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Elaine Strich, et al. So, why can’t he be bothered to mention so many of Coward’s major works? Anyone watching this without prior knowledge might think Sir Noël was something of an underachiever. Near masterpieces such as HAY FEVER, PRESENT LAUGHTER, THIS HAPPY BREED and BLITHE SPIRIT are not even mentioned. Neither is BITTER SWEET, his remarkably sturdy operetta. His travel books & journals are all but written off or downplayed, like his work as a spy in WWII. (Recent disclosures show him as more active than previously supposed. And what a beating he took for his troubles.) Not even mentioned is the resurrection of his reputation in the mid-‘60s with a now endless series of revivals. Even of plays once written off, like WAITING IN THE WINGS. This is worth seeing for what is in here, but what a missed opportunity.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: THE LETTERS OF NOËL COWARD, recently published by Vintage, are a great read.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

. . . or ONCE UPON A TIME IN NAZI OCCUPIED FRANCE. This WWII daring-mission/revenge pic (imagine if Sergio Leone made THE DIRTY DOZEN/’67) has already been so over-masticated there’s little profit in piling on. (Hey, Quentin, we get the film references, already.) With it’s OTT violence, fact-flaunting history & winking anachronisms, it’s Tarantino’s most entertaining pic since JACKIE BROWN/’97. But has QT ‘jumped the shark?’ He barely individualizes his ‘traife 8'* and hardly bothers to parse their missions. He now relies on his signature over-extended, off-the-point dialogue for tension & suspense; turning the screws until something pops . . . or implodes. Commercially, the film was profitable, but how weary, stale & flat he’s become. The tavern sequence is a particular bust; and do the Brits deserve such insulting treatment? Perhaps QT only knows his characters from watching other films, so they never seem very alive. Compare this to Billy Wilder, who caustically displays more depth, wit, implied savagery and knowledge of Europe, Nazis & soldiering when he takes a moment to show Otto Preminger putting on his boots to take a superior’s phone call in STALAG 17/’53 than you’ll find in this entire film. *'traife,' hebrew for unclean.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: For a real WWII spy story that tops most fiction, try Ben Macintrye's just published amazing tru-life tale OPERATION MINCEMEAT. Hollywood made a censored version of the story, THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS/'56, but it's never been out on DVD.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

KARUTTA KAJITSU / CRAZED FRUIT (1956)


Kô Nakahira was never able to repeat the impact of his second feature which brought Shintarô Ishihara’s cultural game-changing novel to the screen. The story is boilerplate fare about two close & competitive teenage brothers who fall hard for the same unavailable beauty. She’s 20 and married to a middle-aged absentee American. Hmm, maybe she is available. What was so startling at the time (and you can still feel the charge) was the debut of the new generation of post-WWII Japanese teens, a group largely untouched by the war. Aimless, rebellious, monied, independent & a little wild (they flaunt convention, drive thru toll gates, drink, smoke, the works), a lot like Western kids. Oddly, the original book had a strong anti-American theme, but the film ends up equating American-style teen behavior & free spirits with the good life (sun, sailing & sex), something to aspire to. Even if it all ends tragically (and frankly, the tragic ending feels a bit forced), the film is more a celebration than a condemnation. Filmed in a mere 17 days, Nakahira shows natural gifts as a stylist and gets smash iconic perfs out of his all-teen cast. (The boy’s shirts alone are worth a rental.) Watch it with REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE/55 and make yourself a double-bill.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

JOSANGO TAIHI-SEN ORI: SONO GOSHO O NERAE / TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN (1960)

This middling noir from Seijun Suzuki (about a prison cop who tries to find out who attacked him & his busload of prisoners) was made shortly before he broke thru the strictures of Nikkatsu Studio with a more personal voice. Typically, a good set-up forgoes the demands of logical development for a non-forensic grab-bag of intuition, luck & unlikely coincidence. But, that was the house style for these quickly made films, and Suzuki counters with such an abundant display of technical chops and visual pizzazz that you don’t mind the narrative ellipses & manipulation. Sometimes, just watching a screen pulse with slick compositions, razor-sharp editing & an array of witty framing devises carries the day. The opening jangles the nerves with a beautifully realized assault on a police van & there’s mayhem aplenty along the way. Death, destruction, speed, high contrast b&w in WideScreen . . . catnip for noir fans.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944)


While fellow exiled-directors Jean Renoir & Max Ophuls struggled in WWII Hollywood, René Clair made a remarkably smooth transition. And if the passing years have reversed critical opinions on their American films (especially for Ophuls who batted out masterpieces wherever he landed), this gentle farce retains its charm & freshness. Set in the late 1800s (like Clair’s best film, THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT/’28), it’s the story of a young reporter who mysteriously receives a copy of tomorrow’s newspaper today. The obvious advantages of getting a really Early Edition help him find fame, fortune & tru-love. But what to do when your own obit shows up on tomorrow’s front page? Fight it? Go fatalistic? Dick Powell is a bit long in the tooth for a cub reporter, but he helps the much younger Linda Darnell loosen up. Clair downplays her statuesque quality simply by accentuating how much taller Powell is. Clever. Dudley Nichols interlocks his plot without making dumb choices (not so easy in a Hollywood farce) and Clair delights us (and no doubt himself) casting veteran comics in supporting roles (Jack Oakie, Edgar Kennedy, Sig Rumann, & Edward Brophy) somewhat like Preston Sturges, whose CHRISTMAS IN JULY/’40 (also starring Powell) has a similar light, airy & winning tone.

Friday, June 11, 2010

ILS / THEM (2006)


Creep-out horror pic about an isolated couple (young & sexy, natch) who find themselves under siege by a nebulous gang of flashlight-wielding psychos. The film claims to be ‘based on a true story,’ but it feels as tricked up as most modern thrillers, though lacking even a speck of humor and with implied, rather than explicit, gore. Co-meggers David Moreau & Xavier Palud and lenser Axel Cosnefroy were probably hoping to get back to some of the deep-seated fears of SPOORLOOS/’88 (the original version of THE VANISHING), but their trailing camera technique just makes you wonder what sort of scare pic the Dardenne Bros. might fashion.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

TOKYO NAGAREMONO / TOKYO DRIFTER (1966)


At ultra-efficient/ultra-commercial Nikkatsu Studio, Japanese helmer Seijun Suzuki used formula-driven genre scripts as fodder for his highly personal, visually extravagant cinema. The writing is boilerplate stuff -- A semi-retired gangster and his top enforcer (Tetsuya Watari in a star-making turn) try to ‘go straight.’ Then, the loans that financed their new life come due and draw them back in. -- but Suzuki shows little interest in following the storyline. What matters to him are the stylized sets, violence & color-coded look that grow more daringly abstract as the collateral damage accumulates. You may not always be sure of what’s going on, but you won’t take your eyes off the screen. (Even when he missteps badly with a donnybrook in a Western saloon!) By the time the big climax comes, we’ve all but lost contact with surface reality as spatial relationships, settings, compositions & performing style start to resemble ‘THE GIRL HUNT', the famous Mickey Spillane parody ballet from Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON/’53. This is exhilarating work, but possibly mystifying to newcomers. For a better balance between form, style & content, try Suzuki’s YOUTH OF THE BEAST/’63 first.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

RING OF FEAR (1954)


Low-ball circus inanity from John Wayne’s production company, megged by Duke’s favorite script polisher, James Edward Grant. Grant had directed once before (THE ANGEL AND THE BADMAN/’47), but Wayne wisely stayed off-camera this time. The nonsense begins as Sean McCory’s criminal psychopath uses a touch o’ the blarney to murder his way out of prison and back to his old job as Ring Master for the Clyde Beatty Circus. Why, there’s Clyde himself!, with his alarming lion & tiger taming act. (The cages the poor beasts live in are even more alarming.) Pat O’Brien is on hand to run the show, but he has to bring in Mickey Spillane (yep, that Mickey Spillane) to find out who’s trying to sabotage the Big Top. There are a couple of nice scenes showing how the circus sets up in a small town, but everything else (story, plot construction, comic relief, dialogue & acting) is pure amateurville. Wayne must have liked it, though. He had Grant write his own take on the genre, CIRCUS WORLD/’64. That one sabotaged Sam Bronston’s deluxe indie outfit for real.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: You can't beat DUMBO/'41 for the look & feel of a small town circus.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

THE LITTLE MINISTER (1934)


This ‘olde’ fashioned play from PETER PAN author James M. Barrie was supposed to help Kate Hepburn recover from recent catastrophes on film (SPITFIRE/’34) & stage (THE LAKE/’34). It didn’t. You can see the possibilities in its story of a young minister (John Beal) who falls for Kate’s mysterious rabble-rouser. She’s unhappily affianced to the mill owning Laird, but roams the High Lands in ‘gypsy’ disguise to warn his striking laborers of trouble. (The tale’s terrrrribly Scotch, don’cha know?) For the story to work, the tone has to be consistent and the romance enchanting, but Richard Wallace megs without the vision or technical skills to hold it all together. You won’t turn it off though, good things keep popping up amidst the coy, corn & studio crud. Hepburn’s stage idol, Maude Adams, triumphed in a clutch of Barrie plays (PETER PAN, A KISS FOR CINDERELLA, WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS, plus this & QUALITY STREET, which Kate also filmed). But Adams was tiny, tough and apparently played against the sentiment. She let the audience do the weeping. Kate, at this time, was a beautiful, bending willow, and she cried at the drop of a hat. The audience were left dry-eyed.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It doesn't seem to have reached the home market, but 'BBC Play of the Month' did a production of this in 1975 with Helen Mirren. Sounds promising!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

PRINCESS O’ROURKE (1943)

This Royalty/Commoner romance doesn’t try for the melancholy undertones (or directorial finesse) that made Lubitsch’s THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27 and Wyler’s ROMAN HOLIDAY/’53 such bittersweet wonders. It’s merely a wartime farce, a pleasantry. But thanks to a cast that goes for charm over punchy laughs, it all goes down easily. An exceptionally pretty Olivia de Havilland gently handles her bored Princess shtick and she neither condescends nor overplays her disguise as a ‘regular gal.’ Watch her nail the sentiment in a scene where she finds she has no skills worth donating to the war effort. As the airman who falls for her, Robert Cummings, so often over-parted, gets a role that really fits him while Jack Carson & Jane Wyman shine as his married pals. (Career bumps all around.) Norman Krasna’s Oscar’d script features the oddest meet-cute ever: Olivia overdoses on sleeping pills. Good grief. And he lets FDR & his little dog ‘Fala’ wrap everything up for a finale. The guy had chutzpah!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Warners put out that the real White House & the real Fala were used. But isn’t this the White House set from YANKEE DOODLE DANDY/’42? As for it being the real Fala . . . hmm.

Friday, June 4, 2010

THE SEA HAWK (1924)

Warners’ famous 1940 version of THE SEA HAWK (w/ Errol Flynn) only used the title of Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckling story. But this 1924 silent production, from First National which merged with Warners, does the tall-tale proud. Frank Lloyd is remembered for helming prestige items like MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’35, CAVALCADE/’33 & the marvelous IF I WERE KING/’38, with Ronald Colman & its clever Preston Sturges script, but this plot-heavy revenge story shows a bounce & sparkle largely missing from his later work. As the wronged nobleman who becomes the Allah-loving ‘Scourge of Christendom,’ the forgotten Milton Sills is hunky, melancholy, stalwart & phenomenally effective.* As the slightly dense damsel Sills yearns for, Enid Bennett just needs to be rapturously pretty, a task lenser Norbert Brodin can only occasionally pull off. (It’s a plump little face, but see how she’s transformed once she dons Arab dress in Algiers.) The rest of the big supporting cast is just great, with Wallace Beery on good form as an (almost) honorable Pirate King. And what a whirlwind of a story. Once the situation & characters are set up, it’s comes at you with the definition of a good graphic novel and the zip of a proto-RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Tremendous stuff, great fun. *For more Sills see MISS LULU BETT/'21, on DVD & on this site.

CONTEST: The Robert Israel organ score on the excellent Warners Archive DVD is fine, though certainly no match for Korngold’s 1940's masterpiece. It’s mostly Classical ‘Pops’ stuff, but he does pull off a sly joke thanks to Hector Berlioz. Figure it out to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

SABITA NAIFU / RUSTY KNIFE (1958)

This Toshio Masuda film is a weak link in Criterion’s intriguing DVD set of Japanese noir titles from Nikkatsu Studios. Shintarô Ishihara’s story sounds promising: Young, ambitious D.A. can’t get traction against a leading mobster until an anonymous letter shows up with details on an old suicide case. Turns out, the man was murdered and there are three witnesses to the crime. The twist is that the same anonymous letter was also sent to the gangster in a blackmail scheme. So, who will get to the witnesses first, the law or the mob? If only the execution made good on the possibilities. But the story plays out without enough logic, and Masuda doesn’t show much compositional flair for action. (Some of the backscreen projection work is remarkably crude and the staging of the fight scenes make every punch look like a miss.) Oddly, the climax is pretty exciting even if it shows Masuda dealing better with trucks than with people. But in general, this title is best for completists and fans of the lead actor, Yujiro Ishihara who made many films with Masuda after this one.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A tough D.A. who plants an ex-con inside the mob; a giggling pyschopathic gang leader; a flawed, but essentially decent ex-gangster . . . classic noir doings. Why not catch them all in KISS OF DEATH/'47 after seeing this?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

LE MANI SULLA CITTA / HANDS OVER THE CITY (1963)


A major find. This prize-winning effort from Francesco Rosi (Venice Golden Bear) never got the Stateside attention/distribution it deserved. Even with Rod Steiger (who’s very good) in a leading role, it must have seemed too tied to the intrigues of Naples politics to work outside Italy. Steiger plays a city councilman & real estate entrepreneur who uses his political connections to avoid the red-tape purgatory that would customarily stall his massive land deals & deny him building permits. But with elections on tap and the government in a tight three-way split (Right, Center, Left), anything could tip the political scales. Like, maybe, a massive building collapse next-to/caused-by some current unregulated construction? The collapse is brilliantly, terrifyingly staged by Rosi, who is totally in his element here. Look how naturally he particularizes his non-professional players (and their motives) so you’re never confused about who’s screwing whom, even during the fast-shifting political allegiances & gamesmanship of the third act. And while the Italian Communists get the best lines in this post-Il Boom storyline, the situations are less biased than you might expect. The film is a near masterpiece.