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

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Saturday, July 31, 2010

GERVAISE (1956)

Emile Zola’s L’ASSOMMOIR gets the ‘Cinema of Quality’ treatment from René Clément and a respectful script by Bost & Aurenche. As the hardworking, but luckless laundress with capitalistic dreams of running her own shop, Maria Schell is very blond, but seems unable to express more than one emotion at a time. The three men in her life are superbly characterized (by Zola & the actors), alternately helping & hurting Gervaise’s plans as sex, alcohol, luck & money take their toll. The meticulous production is impressive (there’s a gasp-worthy roofing accident that seems to slow time) and occasionally Clément catches the essence of Parisian mid-19th Century working-class cultural/political boundaries (especially in an abrupt trial sequence & at a birthday celebration). But all too often, Zola’s fatalistic, plot-heavy events are doled out in digestible bits. We’re never asked to discover things on our own since Clément parses everything out like a parent cutting up meat for a child. It needn’t be so. See Jean Renoir’s thrilling, if untidy version of NANA/’26, where Zola continues this very tale with Gervaise’s daughter. But Renoir, like Zola, is struggling to make art, Clément is merely trading in art. There’s a difference.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: First try Jean Renoir's LA BETE HUMAINE/'38 which is a 'straighter' adaptation than his daring NANA.

Friday, July 30, 2010

2010 (1984)


While it’s fun to watch the anachronistic Cold War backstory play patty-cake Armageddon, and a pleasure to revisit some of the staggeringly effective designs from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 original, it’s hard to imagine any Sci-Fi film, even one of the late STAR WARS pics, more completely misrepresenting everything that made 2001 such a milestone. This ham-fisted sequel is closer in spirit, mood & plot to THE BLACK HOLE/’79 or FANTASTIC VOYAGE/’66 than to Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece, and the braggadocio bantering dialogue is merely the worst of the film's many shortcomings. Produced, directed, written & lensed by Peter Hyams; if only the talent equaled the chutzpah.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: 2001/'68. (Of course. But turn off the lights and find the biggest screen you can find.)

SPOILER ALERT: Did Arthur C. Clarke really want HAL 9000 to be resurrected and then die for our sins. Kind of 'bassackwards,' ain't it?

SHUSSHO IWAI / THE WOLVES (1971)


This stunningly well-made Yakuza pic should have opened Stateside doors for Japanese helmer, Hideo Gosha, but its violence turned off the art house crowd while its over-lapping storylines & multiple Points-of-View were inscrutable to action mavens. Forty years on, it’s not a problem. In mid-1920s Japan, a new Emperor means early prison releases for almost 400 hard-core gangsters, including Tatsuya Nakadai in a typically powerful perf. (Look quick to see the eternally dour Nakadai briefly smile. Dimples! Who knew?) Gosha handles the introductory segments like an Asian Sergio Leone, and the comparison holds as the sweeping narrative works itself out among two rival gangs; a forced wedding between the warring crime families; a couple of murderous, free-lancing Geishas; and the futile efforts of a few honorable ex-Yakuzas to stave off the inevitable bloody catharsis. Gosha may or may not have had Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns in mind, but the wildly colorful carnival atmosphere of the climax is surely an intentional homage to Minnelli’s SOME CAME RUNNING/’58, a film Gosha matches in general cinematographic gorgeousness. Don’t fret the odd Miles Davis-inspired ‘cool’ jazz soundtrack or occasionally losing track of the story, you’ll pick it up soon enough and the film is worth the effort.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE (1941)


James Hogan’s play was filmed three times (‘33. ‘41 & ‘48), and this second outing was best, a small-scaled charmer that’s much more than the sum of its parts. The rare pairing of James Cagney & Olivia de Havilland is magical, especially for Cagney who often got stuck with second-tier co-stars. He’s a self-taught dentist with an Irish chip on his shoulder and she’s a nurse with progressive ideas. Cagney really wants to step out with gorgeous Rita Hayworth (in her breakout year), but loses out (as always) to his overly-ambitious friend, Jack Carson. The exceptionally well-made script from Julius & Philip Epstein finds warmth & believable eccentricity in its 1890s NYC landscape & characters, even if helmer Raoul Walsh is stymied by Warners oddly drab, sub-par production. (Lenser James Wong Howe spends a lot energy hiding backdrops & tired cycloramas.) But Walsh gets the sentiment & comedy right, never going overboard, and he certainly gets something special from longtime supporting players like George Tobias & Alan Hale. The finale pulls all the story strands together like a great comic opera: toothsome revenge, a heartfelt/well-earned declaration of love & affection, an off-stage donnybrook, even a sing-along. It really sends you out with a glow.

CONTEST: Raoul Walsh remade this 1941 b&w beauty as a far less effective TechniColor musical in ‘48. And, oddly, another Hollywood director remade his 1941 b&w beauty as a far less effective TechniColor musical, also in ‘48! Weird. Name the other famous director and his two films to win our prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Monday, July 26, 2010

DER UNTERTAN / THE KAISER’S LACKEY [aka MAN OF STRAW] (1951)

Heinrich Mann’s satirical novel from 1914 about German nationalism as seen in the politics & business practices of a small city in the 1890s is appalling, prescient & hilarious, something of a Teutonic BABBITT. Wolfgang Staudte, who made films in East & West Germany, made this for DEFA in the East, where its anti-bourgeois attitudes were no doubt appreciated, and he brought a lot of cinematic style to his task (though the effort often shows). Working from a clever script from his brother, Staudte deftly charts a businessman’s Bildungsroman as he blunders his way toward the German upper-middle-class, briefly touching on his difficult childhood & schooldays, the girl he wronged on the way up, a spell in the peacetime military (and the scar to prove it), and his inevitable homecoming where he reorganizes the family business for profit & social standing on the backs of his oppressed workers. Staudte overplays his themes with a final flourish of WWII devastation, but most of the film is dead-on. The FRF-DVD looks over-processed, but it’s watchable.

DOUBLE-BILL: Try this alongside THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP/’43 or THE WHITE RIBBON/’09 for a mini-tour of the German soul.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

NEVER TOO LATE (1965)

Paul Ford was a crafty character comedian who usually played supporting roles. He broke thru in film at the ripe age of 55, stealing TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON/’56 from Marlon Brando, then proceeded to steal every scene in every movie he ever appeared in. He only played two leading roles; first, in THE MATCHMAKER/’‘58, and then in this adaptation of his smash B’way farce. (Over 1000 perfs and a Tony nom.) The show is something of a relic, what used to be called a ‘commuter’ comedy, fit for the tired businessman. It’s the sort of forced sex farce that gives ‘smart’ B’way comedies a bad rep and, unless the name of George Axelrod is involved, something to steer clear of. But tv writer Sumner Arthur Long came up with a foolproof concept – retirement-aged man finds his fiftyish wife is unexpectedly expecting! – and the film manages to get enough of Ford’s immaculate timing and grumpy hilarity across so that it all seems a good deal funnier than it really is. Most of the other players hit their marks pretty hard, though Jim Hutton makes a noble attempt at channeling the young James Stewart. (Watch for his 5 yr-old kid Tim in a fantasy montage.) Lenser Philip Lathrop shows the bright happy suburbs that MAD MEN and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD think never existed (but they did, they did) and megger Bud Yorkin, who generally keeps out of the way, pulls off a neat trick on one of those telephone scenes where both parties are on screen at once. It's usually done as a split screen, but here he tries a stage solution with one set placed slightly behind and partially to the side of the other. It’s damned effective, even stylish.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

KOROSHI NO RAKUIN / BRANDED TO KILL (1967)


This Japanese noir shows helmer Seijun Suzuki at his most extreme. Storyline & character are all but bypassed to focus on a persistently threatening mood; WideScreen compositions that touch abstraction; a combo platter of nihilism/fatalism; the smell of freshly boiled rice; . . . and an inconvenient butterfly. His studio was apoplectic, the film tanked and, after 42 pics, Nikkatsu Studio fired Suzuki. He didn’t make another film for a decade. It begins in a relatively normal manner as Nikkatsu regular Joe Shishido violently goes thru his paces as Hitman #3. But we enter ‘Existentialville’ when Joe blows a big job (oh, that butterfly!) and finds himself being hunted by Hitman #1. Suzuki throws a couple of nude femme fatales in the mix and spends too much time detailing a wary detente between the two assassins. But the detente between Suzuki & Nikkatsu Studio has obviously broken down, abstract kinetic cinema has just about taken over. And not all for the better. This remains essential viewing, but hardly the best place to start your personal Seijun Suzuki tour. Try YOUTH OF THE BEAST/’63 and then follow your own path into his addictive films.

Friday, July 23, 2010

THE INFORMANT! (2009)

Helmer Steven Soderbergh outsmarts himself in this fact-inspired tale about a whistle-blowing food biz exec. On the one hand, the basic ingredients -- international price-fixing, FBI investigation, blundering insider amateur spy -- are loaded with dramatic & comic possibilities; on the other hand, he distances himself & us from this quintessential 1990s tale of capitalistic greed by kidding the whole sordid affair with the look, sounds & feel of a groovy 1970s pic from a studio hack like Jack Smight. It’s even got the Smothers Brothers! The disconnect in tone is fatal. (At least, Marvin Hamlisch’s score is ‘in’ on the joke.) Matt Damon put on thirty pounds (and took off about four inches?) to play the company man who gets squeezed between good business practices & bad business ethics. While at the same time hiding more secrets, lies & cash than a femme fatale in a film noir. The rest of the cast plays it straight, so if you squint you can imagine how this might have fared with Jack Lemmon & Shirley MacLaine working under Billy Wilder & a script by Ben Hecht; or even in the unintentional parody mode of Jack Webb’s DRAGNET. (Just the facts, Mr. Damon, please!, just the facts!)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938)


Comic-tinged thriller about a society doctor (Edw. G Robinson) who sidelines as a jewel burglar. He’s not out for riches, but for medical research. Soon, he's hanging around with a most attractive ‘fence’ (Claire Trevor) and taking charge of Humphrey Bogart’s motley gang of thieves. (He monitors their vital signs right in the middle of their robberies.) Will he be able to make a clean break once his ‘research’ is done or will he wind up ‘studying’ homicide . . . and liking it? Warner Bros was an unlikely studio for the light touch needed to make this story work, but thanks to Continental helmer Anatole Litvak (who avoids their normal rat-a-tat pace) and co-scripter John Huston (who doesn’t over-milk the comedy), there’s enough wit & sophistication to pull this off. And how it glistens under Tony Gaudio’s rapt lens.


CONTEST: LADYKILLERS/’55 stole a nice gag from here, and Joseph Heller might well have found a mirror-image draft of his CATCH 22 clause in a bit of Shavian wordplay in this script. Find both to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

THE BIRTH OF THE BLUES (1941)


It’s fun to compare Paramount’s loose story structure on this Bing Crosby starrer with the ‘well-made’ twists, turns & romantic rivalry of ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND/’38 made in Darryl Zanuck-Land over @ 20th/Fox. As the similar stories roll out, the earlier, carefully plotted film sinks under its storylines while this bit of tomfoolery grows on you. Perhaps its casual sense of made up fun is a better fit for its subject, New Orleans Dixieland Jazz. Bing’s a clarinet man (and singer, natch), trying to put together a new kind of band, a band of white guys who can play like the black musicians he grew up emulating. He meets-cute with Mary Martin who turns out to be great at smoothing things over with white audiences who can’t pick up on the new rhythms, and then winds up fighting with his cornet player (Brian Donlevy) over her. (Don’t punch him on the lip!) It’s all studio nonsense, in plot & setting; but there’s a lot of great players in the band; a good bit of live singing from Bing & Martin in a few scenes; and some nifty production touches, like the hand-colored slides at the silent movie theatre in this otherwise b&w pic. Nobody pushes the drama or their cleverness at you. And if Victor Schertzinger’s helming is a bit too relaxed, you won’t really mind. Be sure to watch close for Bing’s reaction when he finds a joint on one of his musicians.

ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938)

This pure-hearted, patriotic, historical about the 13th Century Russian Prince who led his countrymen against a German invasion has probably surpassed BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN/'25 as Sergei Eisenstein’s most popular film, and it’s also the best entry point before trying his more demanding works. It was designed that way. Made when Eisenstein and his incomparable collaborator, classical composer Sergei Prokofiev, were in Stalin’s political doghouse, they latched onto this flag-waving project to help rehabilitate their reps. Prokofiev’s first chord is instantly recognizable as the film opens with artfully composed shots of a weathered battlefield before moving on to introduce Nevsky in his peaceful fisherman mode. But he knows what battles lie ahead and avoids any alliance or entanglement in order to begin his great task: gathering his people into a mighty army to meet the invading hordes. Act II is almost entirely taken up by battle scenes, particularly the famous battle on the ice, and Eisenstein takes advantage of the lack of story complications by putting his creative energies into forming great swaths of clashing armies and kinetic battle montage. There's a definite Marvel Comic vibe in the elaborate helmets worn by the enemy Knights (a rising fist, antlers, eagle talons*), and lots of rustic comedy among Nevsky’s warriors. The image looks stunning in the Criterion DVD, but only so much can be done with the original soundtrack, horribly compromised by Soviet sound recording technology. An old LaserDisc came with a fine alternate track featuring Yuri Temirkanov & the St Petersburg Phil. It really bumps everything up a notch, especially for newbies unused to listening thru Soviet sonic crudities.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY:*Heck, in this original poster, Nevsky could be Batman!

Monday, July 19, 2010

BLUE SKIES (1946)


Bing Crosby always got stuck playing character ticks instead of characters in the Irving Berlin songfests he made @ Paramount. In HOLIDAY INN/’42, he only works on national holidays; WHITE CHRISTMAS/’54 makes him a workaholic without time for rest or romance; in BLUE SKIES his mania makes him sell off nightclubs like he’s flipping real estate. None of the ideas make much sense, but the films were all crazy successful. And, inane as they undoubtedly are, damned if they don’t still work. This one features blue skies & blue eyes as Bing croons and Fred Astaire taps in competition for gorgeous Joan Caulfield. Her head says Fred, but her heart says Bing. Weirdly, the film ends with her stepping out with one on each arm! Maybe they’re off together on a tour of Noël Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING. Adding to the oddness is some impossibly fey comic relief from that cross-dressing fullback, Billy De Wolfe. Well, you won’t go to sleep. Meanwhile, there are dozens (no kidding, dozens) of Irving Berlin hits (mostly old, a few new) to chart the passing years. Fred does a drop-dead ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz;’ the boys join for some knock-about comedy on ‘A Couple of Song & Dance Men;’ and Der Bingle scores with a ravishing forgotten Berlin original, ‘Getting Nowhere (Running Around in Circles),’ while the big Oscar nom’d hit was ‘You Keep Coming Back Like a Song.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In a few shots, Bing looks amazingly like Bob Newhart. Wonder if Newhart sings with a stutter?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

QUO VADIS? (2001)

What are all these Polish people doing in ancient Rome? Everyone knows Rome was populated with posh British actors & wildly gesticulating Italian extras? Right? A full century after Pathé Frëres made the first movie version of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s oft-filmed novel*, Poland finally got around to honoring their native son/Nobel Laureate with this five-hour tv version. Pared down for DVD, it adds little to the famously stiff M-G-M epic from 1951. Rome still burns, Nero fiddles, Christians are fed to the lions, the works. Plus, there’s one significant character returned from the novel, Chiolonides, a scheming Greek servant, who comes across like an untrustworthy, stereotypical Wandering Jew. The level of acting is more consistent than @ M-G-M, but it’s no better. What really kills the project is the lack of sweep, narrative or visual, from director Jerzy Kawalerowicz whose brightly lit production comes off as an over-produced daytime soap-opera.

*Our poster is from the second adapattion in 1912.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A.D. / ANNO DOMINI (1985) - This follow up mini-series to JESUS OF NAZARETH was also pared for its DVD release. Four hours gone; mostly Roman Empire stuff with heaps of missing guest stars. (Too bad they couldn’t delete the dreadful Lalo Schifrin score.) It covers much the same territory, but concentrates on the early debates between various Judaic sects and the early Christians. With a script by Anthony Burgess, this is often fascinating religious history, well played, sometimes well argued (Peter & Paul’s decision to widen the ministry to Gentiles is the great sticking point) and set in a plain yet believable ancient world.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

DEZERTIR / DESERTER (1933)

Is this the earliest sound film from the USSR? It’s certainly the first from Vsevolod Pudovkin, the great Soviet director who ranks with Sergei Eisenstein on any list of classic Soviet helmers. Yet somehow, this astonishingly inventive, technically exciting work is rarely shown. The first half is set in pre-Nazi Germany where an independent group of Communist ship builders struggle to organize & maintain a strike action in the face of opposition from management and their own union. Pudovkin revels in his actors and in small, but telling vignettes (watch for a marvelous bit with a girl who hands out the local Daily Worker). But he concentrates on Karl (Moscow Art Player Boris Livanov), a skilled worker whose support wanes as food, money & hope give out. He even thinks of joining the Social Democrats! But the wise, warm-hearted Party leader feels his pain and sends the young man off to Russia where his technical abilities can be of use. The second half details Karl’s response to life in the ‘workers’ paradise’ where the streets are filled with parades, and happy laborers greet him at every corner. Karl’s skills prove invaluable in helping his factory meet their five-year-plan quota, but he still feels unworthy when he’s awarded the top workers’ prize. The thrilling coda shows Karl back in Germany where he leads his comrades in a joyous march against the police that soon devolves into an even more joyous riot. (It’s also a riot of advanced film stylistics.) Many go down, but the red flag can still be seen waving. God knows, the politics now look insanely blind & optimistic to the realities of Stalin’s Russia, but viewed as film qua film, and with a bit of tolerance toward the technical crudities of early sound technology @ MosFilm, this remains a staggering achievement.

Friday, July 16, 2010

THE JOLSON STORY (1946)

Broad in tone, straight-ahead in style, hokey, gleefully inaccurate - everything about this bio-pic seems just right for Al Jolson, that immodest, immoderate, big-voiced, blacked-up minstrel & Talkie pioneer. Appalling as it is, you can see why it was a surprise hit in ‘46, especially during it’s tune-stuffed first half. The 60 yr-old Jolson did the soundtrack, but on-screen, it’s the little remembered Larry Parks* molding Jolson’s overbearing ways into an acceptable/understandable character for post-WWII audiences. For today’s audience, the big hurdle is the blackface, as well it should be. Yet, this is one of few films that demonstrates its residual power as cultural & social release for performer & audience, alike. Evelyn Keyes can’t make much sense out of the masochistic wife (Ruby Keeler in all but name), but William Demerest shows off some unexpected Vaudeville chops as Jolie’s early partner. And while the sets & direction are nothing to brag about, Joseph Walker, Frank Capra’s regular lenser @ Columbia, does some remarkable TechniColor work, especially in his portraits. At the film’s finale, when Jolson returns to his singing ways, there’s a stunning close-up of Parks in a state of self-regarding ecstasy that reveals in an instant the sort of performing pain/pleasure many better films have failed to capture. You can sit thru a lot of crap for a moment like that.

DOUBLE-BILL: *If Parks is remembered at all, it’s for his vanishing act from the screen during the Communist Witch hunt days. He came back just once, for John Huston’s underrated FREUD/’62.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

ONNA GA KAIDAN WO AGARU TOKI / WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (1960)

The 80-plus films of Mikio Naruse went largely unseen in the States before he died in 1969. They still have gained only limited Western exposure, but this relatively late work would be a fine place to start. It’s a chamber-sized story about a 30 yr-old widow (the superb Hideko Takamine) whose life as a bar hostess has just about run its course. Should she raise the money to open her own club (perhaps let a sugar-daddy front her?) or settle down in a proper marriage. But with whom? One of her loyal customers? There seem to be many suitors, but they all have their drawbacks and, perhaps, secrets she’d rather avoid knowing. Yet, she can’t simply go on with things as they are. Her life style uses up most of her money and there’s a mother, a brother & his polio-afflicted kid to support on the other side of town. It’s the stuff of woman’s melodrama, but not under Naruse’s exquisite, quietly memorable handling. He combines something of Yasujiro Ozu’s observational skills with Frank Borzage’s female empathy. And he works just as well with the men. Tatsuya Nakadai is exceptional as the bar manager with an unrequited case on Takamine, he seems to grow up as an actor under Naruse.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES (1938)


They didn’t call it Goldwyn’s Folly for nothing. The first & last of this putative series defangs the normally acerbic Ben Hecht on a tale about a Hollywood Mogul who hires a small-town gal for honest advise on his pics, There’s a satiric idea in there, but it’s lost between the ballets, comedy routines, opera stars, songs and even a dummy act! (That’d be Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy who provide a bit of relief from the dross.) Yet, the film remains essential. George Gershwin died during production and his last two hits are here; George Balanchine choreographed for his (then) wife Vera Zorina; there’s even Gregg Toland’s earliest TechniColor lensing. You can ease the suffering by gasping when Kenny Baker sings those crazy high notes while prepping hash house ’sliders’; or by rethinking the Dada-slapstick of The Ritz Bros. with better material. Why not guess what song Ella Logan left on the cutting room floor? Or have some fun noticing just how closely Disney’s FANTASIA/’40 burlesqued Balanchine’s‘Water Nymph ballet: the Greek colonnade, the dancer rising out of the water, the wind sweeping everything away. So much better with ostriches & elephants.

CONTEST #1: There are touchstone elements from both the 1937 and the 1954 versions of A STAR IS BORN in this film. (Hint: One is a cast member and one is a piece of dramatic business.) Name them both to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

CONTEST #2: One of the cast members has a surprising connection to the original production of George Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS. Name the cast member and the connection to win . . . oh, you know.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

THE DAMNED UNITED (2009)

This bio-pic about a talented British soccer coach who flops when he moves up too quickly is best defined by what’s not in Peter Morgan’s wonderfully inventive script. It’s not about coming from behind to win the big game. It’s not about life being just like sports. It’s not, thank God, about team spirit. In fact, it’s not really about soccer. Nor is it particularly designed to appeal to soccer fans. (Just who the producers hoped their Stateside audience might be is a mystery.) But don’t let this keep you off this smashing character study of class, friendship & loyalty, of learning about strength via failure, and by a humbling acceptance of life’s quixotic journey. The film is largely a two-hander for Michael Sheen, as the nakedly ambitious coach with an immutable chip on his shoulder, and Timothy Spall, as his indispensable, taken-for-granted second. Physically, they could pass for a Laurel & Hardy act, but they’re more like James Cagney & Frank McHugh in an old, insanely entertaining Warner Bros. vehicle. And with supporting roles taken by Colm Meany, Jim Broadbent & Henry Goodman, plus Tom Hooper just off of helming HBO’s John Adams series, you know you’re in good hands. Errr . . . feet. Soccer, you know.

THE BLIND SIDE (2009)

It was great to see Sandra Bullock scoop up all those end-of-the-year acting awards for playing one of her signature crowd-pleasing, tough-minded, sentimental kooks and not for the sort of ill-fitting dramatic roles usually touted as Oscar bait. But little else could be called great here. This tale of a homeless black teen, taken in and eventually adopted by an easy-going upper-class white family may be fact-based, but there’s hardly a believable moment to it. And it’s not much helped by the sit-com level of acting director John Lee Hancock gets from most of his cast. (That twinkling little brother is a particular pain.) It comes off like an uplifting Sunday sermon by one of those toothsome televangelists, right down to the little life lesson attached to every homily & plot turn. And, of course, a reward at the end in the form of an NFL contract. In a feint toward even-handedness, the film asks us to consider whether Big Mike has been unfairly used by his benefactors for their own selfish purposes. Maybe . . . maybe not; but we have.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)


Alfred Hitchcock’s plush thriller hardly needs a boost from this corner, though it’s worth mentioning its unexpected emotional resonance, so often overlooked. (The walk in the birch trees. Bernard Herrmann’s Delius-inspired music cue. Swoon.) But a new 50th Anniversary edition earns a nod for fab restoration from the original VistaVision picture elements.* Sure, it looks great, but the bonus is that in polishing things up (superior grain, color correction) they’ve assuaged the jarring visual inconsistencies that long compromised the integration of location master shots with studio inserts. See the legendary crop-dusting sequence to note the remarkable improvement. When you recall that films shot in the superb VistaVision process were almost never projected in VistaVision prints, it’s possible that NbNW has never looked this good. And that’s worth celebrating.

*VistaVision turned regular 35mm film on it's side, exposing two frames per image, creating a WideScreen picture without CinemaScope’s anamorphic squeezing. Along with 70mm, M-G-M’s Camera 65 & Todd A-O, it delivered the sharpest, richest picture of its era.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (1972)

Broadcast just a year before Jonathan Miller’s controversial (and much debated) version with Laurence Olivier as Shylock, this standard-issue production from BBC Play of the Month is under-valued. Frank Finlay, with little special pleading or textual editing, effectively plays Shylock as the logical mercenary, a Jew trapped by his loathing of the unyielding society he labors in. But it’s Maggie Smith, a born Portia, who keeps the play in proper focus. For once, it doesn’t come off as a tragedy with annoying romantic interruptions. The video transfer is unexpectedly sharp so you can’t but stare at the alarming costumes, especially on the men, all lanky limbs clad in asymmetrical doublets & hose. And then, Dame Maggie shows up in disguise as a male with the lankiest limbs of all! It’s fun to spot Christopher Gable & Edward Petherbridge in the cast, but Charles Gray misses too many character opportunities as the melancholy Merchant, a man as lonely & uncoupled, if for different reasons, then his Jewish antagonist. Jeremy Irons, in the otherwise mediocre Pacino version from 2004, gets a lot more out of the character.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

AVATAR (2009)

Without IMAX, 3-D or state-of-the-art sound; shorn of the hype & news of record-setting grosses; after the pre-sold WOW factor has dimmed; what’s it like to see James Cameron’s AVATAR plain? Pretty un-wow . . . in fact, shockingly un-wow. There’s nothing particularly wrong using the tried-and-true Cavalry vs Indians allegory nor in its DANCING WITH WOLVES/’90 meets TOP GUN/’86 formula, but has such a celebrated film ever gone so stale so fast? You could amuse yourself with a philosophical debate: ‘Which came first, the miserable acting or the miserable dialogue?' Or, perhaps contemplate on why all the native men look like Eric Roberts and the native woman like Eartha Kitt. Discuss. Why not reflect on how a tale celebrating indigenous people still demands a white male Marine to bring them all to the promised land? What’s less expected is how crabbed & unclear the staging looks. (At least, without 3-D to sort out the planes of action.) Or that Cameron would bring out Sigourney Weaver’s mothballed giant robot suit from ALIENS/’86 for the climax. And damned if our hero isn’t left with a mean case of blue balls at the end of the pic.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

ORE WA MATTERU ZE / I AM WAITING (1957)


Koreyoshi Kurahara’s debut pic makes a lesser, but worthwhile entry in Criterion’s eye-opening collection of noir-tinged films from Nikkatsu Studio. Fast-rising Yujiro Ishihara plays the young, but retired boxer-with-a-past who falls for nightclub singer with a past Mie Kitahara. (He killed a guy with his fists out of the ring, and she went from opera to dives.*) Their tangled courtship runs the first two-thirds of the film, but things perk up considerably in the last act when an unsolved murder casts a shadow on the pair, turning Ishihara away from romance and toward cold-blooded revenge. The twisty revelations and bursts of violence really shake up the film, as if BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45 had morphed into GILDA/’46. Kurahara’s direction remains a bit staid & functional, but he moves things along and lets the villains show a bit of pizazz before sorting everything out at the climax.

*In a boneheaded move, they try to foist off a classic CARMEN recording by the instantly identifiable Conchita Supervia as Kitahara’s.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

LE JOUR SE LEVE / DAYBREAK (1939)


French poetic realism was defined cinematically by the films Marcel Carné made from Jacques Prévert’s scripts in the 1930s. In this classic example, Jean Gabin (who else?) plays a decent working stiff who is provoked into murder and then spends a long night trapped in his one-room apartment. While the police organize their assault, he reviews the events that left him no way out. There was the innocent girl he wanted to marry (Jacqueline Laurant); the villain who was either her daddy or her sugar-daddy (Jules Berry); the mistress he kept at arms length . . . when he wasn‘t in her bed (Arletty). Like so much of Carné’s work, the film too often lays out themes that should be playing under the surface (an American equivalent might be THE PETRIFIED FOREST/’36), but the fatalistic mood is very powerful. In spite of this being a signature role for Gabin, it’s Arletty who steals acting honors as the wised-up mistress, and it’s the great set designer Alexander Trauner who achieves a balance between realism & studio artifice that lets the philosophical dialogue & themes flourish.

NOTE: THE LONG NIGHT/’47 is Anatole Litvak’s Hollywood remake. Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price & Ann Dvorak are reasonably effective, but the fatalism has been rejiggered into hope. As if the story was being filtered thru the lens of Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE/’46.

PEUR(S) DU NOIR / FEAR(S) OF THE DARK (2007)


Six graphic novelists supplied the bump-in-the-night stories and the artfully varied b&w drawing styles for this animated omnibus pic. Visually the film is a sophisticated treat, a technical showcase for those who like their drawings to look like drawings (etchings, charcoal, pencil . . . whatever) rather than rounded computer modelings. If only the grisly tales were as involving as the art work. The producers split up two of the episodes for use as a linking devise, but the stories remain stubbornly independent. And even the segments that work best never quite take off the way you want them to. Some of the effects and narrative twists are pleasingly creepy (if too sexually explicit & gory for the wee ones), but you’ve probably experienced bigger chills sitting around the campfire.

Monday, July 5, 2010

KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC (1962 - 68)

While these modest BBC bio-pics from Ken Russell are not without touches of incipient hysteria, the vice that would undo his considerable talents, the consistently high quality of the six docu-dramas in this DVD set make it hard to understand the self-indulgent mess Russell made of his career. The first film, on British composer Edward Elgar (ELGAR/’62), is more of a straight documentary essay than the later films and makes a fine & moving starting point. The next four (DEBUSSY/’65; ALWAYS ON SUNDAY: Henri Rousseau/’‘65; ISADORA/’66; DANTE’S INFERNO: Dante Rossetti/’67) are more like tour-guided biographical dramas with the first three making fine use of Russell’s OTT stylistics and only the fourth suffering from it. The last (and best) is the fiercely effective, terribly moving SONG OF SUMMER/’68 which dramatizes how the young Eric Fenby was able to help the blind & paralyzed Frederick Delius complete his life’s work. Eclipsing scores of other films that try to deal with classical music, SONG features remarkable perfs all around, especially from the late Christopher Gable, winning & immensely sympathetic as Fenby. These wonderfully intelligent films are now four decades old, but they stand as a rebuke to most of the art bios you'll currently find on PBS or cable. And there's more like them in the BBC vault.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

ICE PALACE (1960)


What was left of the old guard @ Warner Bros. bet that this brawny multi-generational Alaskan epic by SHOW BOAT author Edna Ferber would match GIANT/’56, her Texas-set epic. There’s something almost touching in watching them repeat one corny plot-point after another, hoping for the commercial magic to happen all over again. This time around, the two rivals for the girl are Richard Burton & Robert Ryan, with Carolyn Jones (making like a young Bette Davis & getting away with it) as the gal who spends 40 years in a state of indecision. Meantime, babies, industrial empires, marital discord, politics, & personal tragedies ring the changes over three generations. Dramatically, the merits of fishermen vs. fisheries; Statehood vs. territory; marriage-of-convenience vs. tru-love; conservation vs. capitalism; and Eskimo/Caucasian miscegenation ought to have pepped up Vincent Sherman’s mighty stale megging, but a dearth of location shooting narrows the film’s already limited appeal. Still, theater mavens get to spot the young Shirley Knight; STAR TREK fans can watch a young George Takei handle a ‘Coolie’ characterization; and everyone can try to figure out how old Robert Ryan is supposed to be at the end of the story.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Henry Hathaway's SPAWN OF THE NORTH/'38 charts the Alaskan salmon trade w/ George Raft & Henry Fonda vying for Dorothy Lamour (VHS only) and his NORTH TO ALASKA/'60 finds John Wayne & Stewart Granger brawling over Capucine.

Friday, July 2, 2010

GOMORRAH (2008)

You can’t take your eyes off of Matteo Garrone’s raw, dismayingly effective look at today’s Camorra, the thriving Neapolitan Mafia. Based on Roberto Saviano’s ‘factual novel,’ the film focuses on five stories to show just how broad & deep the mob has become. From child runners to tough punks, from grizzled enforcers to natty businessmen; there’s nothing romantic, honorable or inviting about the various drug scams, chemical dumping or turf wars. For most, life will be violent, banal and short. Using a Neo-Realist/Cinéma-Vérité tool box, Garrone sacrifices some visual clarity for verisimilitude, though he has a superb eye for composition when needed (look at that deserted gas station or the terraced truck lanes in the fresh dump site). Garrone credits Roberto Rossellini’s PAISAN/’46 as a main influence, but note how he merges his separate storylines into a single dramatic arc while seamlessly mixing professional & non-professional actors. The sense of craft & lost humanity feels more in line with De Sica . . . and all the better for it.

SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)


Martin Scorsese gives us too much of a good thing on this ‘shaggy-dog’ horror pic. Leonardo Di Caprio & Mark Ruffalo play Fed Marshals who ferry off to Shutter Island (a remarkably lux lock-up facility for the criminally insane) when a patient/prisoner disappears. But, as you might have expected, it’s the guards, the staff & the doctors who make the investigation difficult (and terrifying). Making a high-tech version of a Val Lewton ‘thinking man’s’ fright pic has lots of possibilities, but Scorsese (typically) can’t keep himself from over-loading the pot, so we get stylistic nods toward directors dead (the gaudy grandiosity of Stanley Kubrick) and directors irrelevant (De Palma’s pointless pyrotechnics) as well as some appallingly tasteless sampling from the liberation of Dachau for use as background character seasoning. Really, Marty. Happily, there’s a sumptuous line-up of supporting players (Max Von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, et al.) to yell ‘Booga-booga!’ at us and a tricky coda to keep us from noticing that Di Caprio & Ruffalo should have reversed roles.