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Monday, November 29, 2010

DAMA S SOBACHKOJ / THE LADY WITH THE DOG (1960)


Anton Chekhov’s short story is given a faithful, meticulously detailed & carefully observed spin in this prestigious Soviet production. But it’s dead to the touch. We open in Yalta by the sea where vacationing men flirt with the young, pretty & unaccompanied married thing who walks her dog every day by the shore. Finally, one aristo, a typically bored member of the species, breaks thru her reserve. But what starts as a superficial resort town affair becomes an obsession when they part for homes hundreds of miles apart. Brief, infrequent rendezvous are ghastly; and all they live for. It’s no life; it’s their only life. Director Iosih Kheifits nails everything down ‘just so,’ sets, costumes, emotions, but the leads remain cold & humorless (intentionally?) and there’s no ‘swing’ to the thing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Max Ophuls was the master of this sort of romantic fatalism, as in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D . . ./’53. Though you’d hardly call it Chekhovian! The closest film has gotten to the great Russian may well be THE MUSIC ROOM/’58 by India’s Satyajit Ray from a T. S. Bannerjee story. Go figure.

VIRIDIANA (1961)

Luis Buñuel made many great films in Mexico, but he only rejoined the international crowd when this pic, made under Franco’s nose in Spain, won @ Cannes, showing his undiminished power to disrupt. ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ Silvia Pinal stars as Viridiana, a troubled novice nun who leaves the convent to visit the sick uncle she barely knows. He’s drawn to the classic Hitchcockian blond under the wimple, but her close resemblance to his late wife leads to tragedy. Viridiana abandons convent life and now shares the estate with her uncle’s handsome bastard son. He works to bring the estate back to life while she plays Mother Teresa, giving care to the needy, beggars, gimps & dwarfs. Buñuel’s sharp eye is pitiless; he’s an equal opportunity iconoclast, but don’t confuse his conflicted attitudes with his direct gaze. Famously so when the undeserving poor pose at a purloined feast a la Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Just one in a grand series of audacious visual treats that keep pulling you up short all thru the film. Often, appallingly so. If Voltaire had been a 20th century filmmaker, he’d have been Buñuel.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

MAN HUNT (1941)

This Fritz Lang thriller is on the short roll-call of tough anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood before Pearl Harbor. It’s also rates as the first Stateside release from Lang that looks & feels like a real Fritz Lang film. FURY/’36 and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE/’37 may well be better movies, but if you turn the sound off anywhere in MAN HUNT, you’ll find yourself in the visual world of his stupendous DR. MABUSE films. Walter Pidgeon plays a British sportsman who gets Hitler in his sights, but doesn’t shoot. He’s then chased all the way back to London where he gets help from his diplomat brother and from Joan Bennett in a breakthru perf as a good-natured tart. She’s ravishingly shot to look a bit like Vivien Leigh and her scenes with Pidgeon show a rare tenderness from Lang. They balance out the showdown between Pidgeon & George Sander’s Nazi which is unusually gruesome. You don’t see the ghastly end, but you’ll feel it! Dudley Nichols' script doesn’t quite carry you past the jumps in logic & plot (Hitchcock’s 39 STEPS is the obvious model), but Lang has such control on all the technical elements, and creates such a compelling noir look of geometric intrigue (great teamwork from lenser Arthur Miller & designer Richard Day) that you’ll enjoy the ride even when things don’t add up. Watch for a great scene-stealing turn by the young Roddy McDowall right before he (and half the cast & crew) started production on John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

Friday, November 26, 2010

THE HASTY HEART (1949)


This orgy of manly sentiment wheezes noticeably, and Vincent Sherman’s stagebound megging only makes things worse by letting his British supporting cast play to the rafters. Yet somehow, in the leading role of a doomed Scottish soldier, Richard Todd pulls a living, breathing character out of a collection of ethnic cliches. It’s 1945 and the war has just ended. But for a small group of recovering soldiers too ill to go home, life dribbles on at a nearly deserted hospital in Burma. Patricia Neal, very simpatico in an early role, is the nurse who gets everyone to play nice with the stricken Scots boy who has just moved in, unaware of his terminal condition. And though he’s too proud to bend at first, he soon warms up. That is, until he finds out that he’s dying. The whole treacly thing is more of a set up than a storyline or character study, and it’s a near thing whether our Scotsman or the childlike African soldier in his ward will wind up more condescended to. Either way, you might not make it thru a second act largely concerned with finding out what a Scotsman wears under his kilt. Oy, Laddie! But Todd plays fair, never winking at us when his character acts like a prick, and bringing a bit of stoic wonderment when his true condition is revealed to him. Too bad that ‘The Yank,’ top-billed Ronald Reagan, is so over-parted as Todd’s new best pal. The glistening shine of his youthful supporting days has turned sour, without his developing the acting chops to compensate. He's obviously on his way out @ Warners, and he looks like he knows it. BEDTIME FOR BONZO/’51 was just around the corner.

CONTEST: Check out the Joe Doakes comedy short "So You Want To Be In Pictures’ on the DVD Extras. Find what connects this to the Judy Garland/James Mason A STAR IS BORN/’54 (a gag & a performer) to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS WriteUp of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

KAIJU DAISENSO / INVASION OF THE ASTRO MONSTER (aka MONSTER ZERO) (1965)


The popular series of Godzilla pics from Japan’s Toho Studios, with their tinker-toy special effects & goofy puppet monsters, supplied regular paychecks for all the people who made them, but only modest use of their talents. Who were these films being made for? Model train mavens? Certainly anyone over the age of seven was past being frightened, and the acting & plotting had become witless. Here, a space voyage to Planet X finds humanoid aliens who need to borrow Godzilla & Rodan (an economy-sized pterodactyl) to fight the 3-headed Ghidrah terrorizing their planet. They offer a cure for cancer as payment for the loaned monsters, but then come down to Earth with all three and try to take over the joint. The anti-militaristic/anti-nuclear elements of the original GODZILLA (GOJIRA/’56) gave off an unsettling and occasionally powerful undertone (they were edited out of the reshot American release), but whatever reverberation they once held had worn off by now.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original Japanese cut of Ishirô Honda’s GOJIRO/’56 has been restored on DVD and try another Honda nuclear thriller, THE H-MAN/’58, to see what he could do.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007)

Banking on the inexplicable critical & commercial success of CRASH/’05, Paul Haggis had the clout to get this tough, dour Iraqi war/homefront drama made. But he had no more luck finding an audience than a dozen other high-profile Iraqi-themed projects, including THE HURT LOCKER/’09 with its gaggle of Oscars. Apparently, the conversation has moved on. Haggis makes a decent stab at parsing the social issues that came home with some of the physically & psychologically brutalized vets, but halfway thru you realize this is a pretty standard police procedural, tricked up with unearned war significance. It’s not so different from one of those cold & dank WALLANDERs on Masterpiece Theatre, or a sedately somber JESSE STONE with Tom Selleck. As the retired military investigator who insists on uncovering the grim facts that led to the death of his soldier son, Tommy Lee Jones is more animated than we’ve seen in a while (though his face has collapsed into an odd reflection of the elderly Elisha Cook. Jr) and Haggis called in a lot of favors to cast even the small roles from strength. James Brolin, Susan Saradon, James Franco, all worth the trouble. But why Jason Patric, that black hole of the screen? He sucks the energy out of anything he touches. And does Haggis really believe that out-of-control sadistic behavior and inside-the-ranks military atrocities only occur as a sick reflection of combat in ‘bad’ wars?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It works too hard, right from the start, but THE HURT LOCKER gets closer to the grist of the matter.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The comment about Elisha Cook, Jr. qualifies . . . no? (see above)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959)

This first-rate WWII service comedy about a hobbled sub limping its way to port with a cargo of female officers, refugee kids & a coat of barely dry pink paint still looks fresh & funny. It’s no more than a pleasant lark of a film, but it deftly avoids the witless gags and over-played shtick of others in its genre. In his first big-time directing assignment, Blake Edwards holds the reins lightly, almost impersonally, on the Stanley Shapiro/Maurice Richlin script. (He’s not even shooting in his customary CinemaScope format.) Just don’t come in expecting the comic savagery seen in Edward’s other WWII farce, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?/’‘66, also taken from a Richlin story, but far more personal. Playing in his late, refined comic mode, Cary Grant still lets out the occasional whoop & whinny, now trimmed down to their essence. And if you notice Tony Curtis grining like the cat who’s just swallowed the canary, well, he’s just off filming SOME LIKE IT HOT/'69 with his wickedly funny Cary Grant impersonation.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959)


This deluxe indie entry in the WideScreen craze for biblical epics is largely known for three things: it was the last film helmed by King Vidor; Tyrone Power died during production; and Yul Brynner took over the role with a snazzy rug on his famous shaved head. This has always made the film sound a bit cheesy, but viewed alongside similar titanic efforts in the form by Vidor’s peers (Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Henry King, Henry Koster, Robert Rossen, Howard Hawks, et al.), it’s tastier than expected. Oh, there are plenty of howlers in the script, Solomon almost cuts that famous baby in half, the interiors look like a Las Vegas synagogue, the costumes are Kodachrome colorful and there’s even an orgy to ogle. But Yul, George Sanders & Gina Lollabrigida and the rest of the cast are all better than you expect, and the story has a fast-moving swing to it. But what really makes this one stand out is Freddie Young’s spectacular location lensing, especially of the battle scenes. Shot in Super Technirama 70, the crystal clear sharpness of the warring hordes and the trick shot catastrophe for Pharaoh’s army are jawdroppers. Young’s legendary work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA/’62 is prophesied right here. But the timing couldn’t have been worse for S&S since 1959 was also the year of William Wyler’s BEN-HUR which was a game-changer for the genre.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

UN PROPHETE / A PROPHET (2009)


Last year’s Grand Prix at Cannes was this pulsating prison pic from Jacques Audiard about an Arab newbie (Tahar Rahim) who’s forced to murder a fellow inmate to gain protection. And initially, this well-made film looks & sounds like a typical prison drama as the kid learns the ropes; starts to work for the Corsican drug lord (Niels Arestrup) who runs the joint from his cell; oversteps; and eventually rises to a height from which he must fall. Maybe, maybe not. We follow the template only so far as Audiard is far more audacious and moves past the prison walls to show how criminal communication makes the rounds in the real world, cross-contaminating everything they touch. It’s fascinating stuff and watching how Rahim plays his role as odd-man-out (or is he the ultimate insider?), crossing cultural lines as he works out where he stands in the line of command is stunningly handled. And it’s not all mind-games since Audiard delivers a steady stream of beautifully executed action sequences all thru the story. The film bears comparison with the Robert De Niro sections of GODFATHER II/’74 or Al Pacino’s SCARFACE/’83, though happily without the De Palma excesses or the self-aggrandizing perfs in either film. It's a major achievement.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

JOY OF LIVING (1938)

Exclude Preston Sturges and you barely need all your fingers & a set of toes to count the great Screwball Comedies. Irene Dunne had just starred in one (THE AWFUL TRUTH/’37) when she made this decidedly second-tier effort. She’s a B’way star with a new hit & a dysfunctional family to support when Boston scapegrace Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. sweeps her off her feet (literally) in spite of her protestations and asks her to join him on his island paradise. Is he for real? Is walking away from it all the path to happiness? There’s a lot that’s right about this one: Tay Garnett helms like the pro he was; a willing cast of eccentrics are on hand (Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn, Billy Gilbert, a young Lucille Ball & a blissed out pair of twin girls); Doug & Irene for a dazzling toothsome twosome; we even get to visit a roller skating rink for ‘crack the whip.’ But the set ups & gags all seem pretty forced, especially after the smash opening reel. DISSOLVE TO OPENING: A B’way Marque; a phalanx of men in tuxedos; a Van Nest Polglase set worthy of Fred Astaire in TOP HAT; Irene Dunne up front, basking in Joseph Walker’s molten monochrome lensing; songs from Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields (including ‘You Couldn’t Be Sweeter’). But then the meet-cute comes on like a case of criminal stalking, the boozy jokes grow flat as last night’s beer, and the comic repetitions begin to feel like desperation. Oh well, enjoy the tasty bits.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SHUBUN / SCANDAL (1950)


The influence of American Westerns on Akira Kurosawa’s films is often noted, especially on the Samurai pics, but who expects to find him channeling his inner Frank Capra? That’s what’s going on in this up-to-date dramedy about an idealistic landscape painter (Toshiro Mifune, in the Gary Cooper/James Stewart role) who falls for a lovely well-known singer, Shirley Yamaguchi singing snatches from MIGNON. They meet-cute in the mountains when she misses her bus and he politely offers her a lift on the back of his motorcycle. Spotted by some wiseguy reporters, an innocent, but seemingly incriminating photo makes their ‘affair’ the talk of the town. Mifune hires a has-been lawyer (Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura in the Thomas Mitchell part) who’s not above taking bribes from the opposition even though his wise daughter, beatified by her tubercular suffering, can see right thru him. Add in a boozy, lost-souls sing-along of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ a trio of pixilated surprise witnesses (like the old biddies in MR. DEEDS/’36), a midnight dash thru town yelling ‘Merry Christmas, Everyone’ in English and a final thought on witnessing the birth of a new star in heaven. What? No tinkling bell, Capra-san? Kurosawa doesn’t pace like Capra, overindulging his actors, especially Shimura, but there’s a great final shot that’s worth waiting for. Still, hard to imagine that he’d follow this up with RASHOMON.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hey, this whole Write-Up is a STotD!

Monday, November 15, 2010

THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY (1953)

The producer & director of THE JOLSON STORY/’46 (an unexpected commercial smash) tried to recapture that success with a similar pic about Al Jolson’s great stage & screen rival, Eddie Cantor. The structure is repeated right from the opening where a kid discovers the power in his voice, to the finale where the warmly remembered entertainer is ‘reluctantly’ coaxed out of early retirement. There’s not much dramatic meat on these bones, the big contentious issue is that Eddie won’t slow down to take a family vacation. But it’s less the plot than the repellent cast & changing times that did this one in. Keefe Brasselle’s pop-eyed Cantor, with an angry scar in the middle of his forehead, may be a cringe-worthy ‘Banjo Eyes’ in or out of blackface, but nothing can prepare you for the Jimmy Durante impersonator. Yowsa! The JOLSON STORY really wasn’t all that much better, though it did have the real Jolson on the soundtrack, but it came out just as the country was taking a big breath after winning the war and giving Hollywood it’s biggest year ever . . . right before the deluge.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The only way to see Cantor before Sam Goldwyn neutered him for Hollywood consumption is by wading thru Florence Ziegfeld's GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL/'29 which has yet to show up on DVD. The film is a bust, but there are morsels of real Follies magic scattered in it. You-Tube has some clips.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

MARTIN LUTHER (1953)

The Lutheran Council made a clever choice when they hired Louis de Rochemont to produce this straight-forward bio-pic of the great religious reformer. De Rochemont had gone from producing ‘The March of Time’ newsreels to docu-dramas @ 20th/Fox, like THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET/’45 and 13 RUE MADELEINE/’46. He, in turn, cleverly hired the blacklisted Irving Pichel (a remarkably competent jack-of-all-trades film man) to direct. Niall MacGinnis makes a forceful, if nuance-free Luther, and the cast & production are all the more effective for their workman-like lack of polish. In some respects, the film prefigures (and betters) the much-acclaimed, but frankly unwatchable, series of ‘teaching films’ that Roberto Rossellini started making in the mid- 60s. (To give Roberto his due, his 1950 film on Francis of Assisi may have influenced this production.) The film glosses over some of Luther’s less admirable qualities, but the basic tenets come across not just clearly, but with a real feel for the passion behind the ideas. Catholics may feel . . . otherwise. There are some dreadful Public Domain editions out there, but the 50th Anniversary DVD from Vision Video has a decent image that gives some indication of the Oscar nom’d cinematography.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t forget to follow this up with a little do-it-yourself DAVY AND GOLIATH stop-motion animation festival!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

HEROES FOR SALE (1933)

This unusually well-realized William Wellman pic from the depths of the Depression remains powerful & bleak, even when its dramatic reversals feel a bit contrived. Richard Barthelmess, in good form, plays a severely injured WWI vet who comes home hooked on morphine, and with his war heroism swiped by a rich pal. He touches bottom before getting clean and making a fresh start with gal pal Aline MacMahon & gorgeous hall-mate Loretta Young whom he marries. Barthelmess also makes good at work, moving up from driving a route to ‘idea man.’ He modernizes the place only to watch helplessly as automation decimates his workforce. (The film is a Luddite horror story.) On the outs with labor & management, and in trouble with the law who think he could be a ‘red’ sympathizer, only the road ahead beckons. This modern Job story, a feature-length dramatization of ‘Remember My Forgotten Man,’ the musical finale to GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 just released by Warners, doesn’t have the fact-based grounding that ennobled I AM A FUGITIVE FROM THE CHAIN GANG/’32, but it sure touches on a smorgasbord of up-to-the-minute issues. Its 71 incident-filled minutes are somewhat over-stuffed & simplistic, but riveting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A MAJORITY OF ONE (1962)

In this cross-cultural romantic/comedy, Alec Guinness’s Nipponese business tycoon stands out as possibly the least credible impersonation in his long & varied career. Yet he’s a monument of believability next to Rosalind Russell’s klezmer-inflected Yiddisher mama. This ersatz quality must have been contagious since the actors playing Russell’s daughter & son-in-law barely seem human. The Leonard Spigelgass play was a big critical & commercial success on B’way (with Gertrude Berg & Sir Cedric Hardwicke*) , but like other warm-hearted, sympathetic, wryly comic looks at Asian ways & American bigotry in the post-WWII environment (say, THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON/’56), it hasn’t exactly aged well. Longtime megger Mervyn Leroy had been tamed into well-upholstered civility by his years at M-G-M and was now winding up his long career at Warners, his old studio, as a soundstage embalmer of hit plays. In this one, our Bkln widow & a Japanese gent meet-cute & clash on a cruise to Tokyo before discovering how much they really have in common. Working out the complications of cultural misunderstandings & geriatric romance doesn’t provide enough sparkling moments to offset our discomfort with the dated stereotyping. (The very thing that the play tries to tackle.) Especially with La Russell dropping Judaic aperçu as if she were on a bombing run. But the two leads weren’t great stars for nothing, and given a leisurely two & a half hour running time (Leroy liked to shoot every damn line of dialogue he’d paid for), they just about win you over in spite of yourself. While you wait, spot a young George Takei in a bit.

DOUBLE-BILL: To understand how this might have worked on stage, check out the docu on actress/writer Gertrude Berg, YOO HOO, MRS GOLDBERG/'09. As to Sir Cedric in YellowFace . . . you're on your own.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

THE YANKEE CLIPPER (1927)


Cecil B. De Mille produced, but didn’t direct, this hearty slab of Americana. (C.B. was busy directing Jesus in KING OF KINGS/’27) It’s a genial bit of hooey about the 19th century shipping trade as England & the U.S. vie for the Chinese tea franchise by racing their cargo ships to Boston. The Yankee Captain is William Boyd, long before he was Hop-along Cassidy. He’s quick with the fists, quick with a smile, and in love with his rival’s beautiful daughter. Alas, the girl’s engaged to dastardly John Miljan, a blackguard who’s keeping a secret Chinese mistress! (Miljan's also the best thing in the pic.) Can Boyd stop the wedding? Will that tousled-haired stowaway brat affect the plot? Do the Yankees win the pennant? Well, it’s corny enough for De Mille! The handsome production, splendidly shot by John Mescall, uses real ships on a real sea, except for the typhoon scenes & such, but we don’t get much help from vet megger Rupert Julian whose technique hasn’t kept up with the times. His partial efforts on Lon Chaney’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA/’25 and his salvage job on von Stroheim’s MERRY-GO-ROUND give him a stature he hardly deserves. Still, the film is modest fun and the print looks swell on a DVD set called UNDER FULL SAIL.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: James Cruze’s OLD IRONSIDES/’26 hits a lot of the same buttons with a great cast and a lot more verve.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DAS WEISSE BAND / THE WHITE RIBBON (2009)


Michael Haneke earned his Palme d’Or @ Cannes with this mesmerizing look into the haunted soul of a small German village. It’s a Grimm fairy tale without resolution or moral; a parable that ends not in a whimper, but with the bang of WWI. Haneke unpeels the usual layers of small town society: the parson & his family; the aristocratic landowners; the bachelor school teacher & the servant girl he gently courts; the peasants & skilled laborers who bring in the harvest and sharpen the tools. But this German OUR TOWN is seen THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY. Haneke does a brilliant job handling multiple storylines & characters, and he paces for the long view. (The film runs about two & a half hours, but he could have gone ten.) Initially, we’re drawn in by the spasms of unexplained violence: a doctor unhorsed by a trip wire; a barn set ablaze; a handicapped child senselessly attacked; abductions; a suicide; and dozens of small personal acts of cruelty. Even a cabbage patch can become victimized. Acts of tenderness & good will stand out from the rhythm of their lives, an echo to the pastoral beauty of the fields which open before us in stunning b&w WideScreen images. Is the interpersonal chill a defense against the horror . . . or the cause of it? Ultimately, the rapt tone Haneke holds on to is the human fascination with itself, even at its worst. And we sense that the German catastrophe of the last century, the path from Caligari to Hitler, wasn’t brought on by the leaders, but by the led.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933)

The current ‘Great Recession’ has made this famous Great Depression era pic newly relevant. The story centers on a couple of small-town high school pals who run off to find work in the city and to keep from being a burden back at home. All the scenes set on the freight trains and around the rail-yards, where massed teen hobos idle about, remain heartbreaking & eye-popping (in the typical Warners muckraking house style), even when the acting looks more OUR GANG than DEAD END. (The best perf comes from second lead Edwin Philips who left acting to be an asst. director.) But good as it is, the film doesn’t live up to its best instincts, compromising its material with stock gags & characters, typical faults from helmer William Wellman. But the film hits so many hot-button issues, and the set pieces are so strongly brought off, that the slips don’t matter so much. The Pre-Code toughness helps, too. Watch for an unbilled Ward Bond as a railway rapist, and listen to the plummy accent used by the judge who ties thing up for a hopeful ending. Pure FDR vowels.

CONTEST: When the cops chase Frankie Darro into a bijou, what film is being shown? Name it to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Monday, November 8, 2010

DAMN THE DEFIANT (aka H.M.S. DEFIANT) (1962)


Looking for a cinematic tour of French/English naval battles in the Napoleonic Wars?; with a bonus lecture on changing production methods and acting styles over six decades? Start with THAT HAMILTON WOMAN/’41 for classic b&w with WWII trimmings; then CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER/’51 for that TechniColored soundstage æsthetic; proceed to this British production, cast with real WWII naval officers, and F/X that combines studio artifice with real ships at sea; finish off with MASTER AND COMMANDER/’03 for convincing CGI & a shipshape (rather than ship-shaped) Russell Crowe. DEFIANT finds Alec Guinness & Anthony Qualye (on a brief hiatus from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA/’62) co-starring as a benevolent Captain & an agitating crewman; but it's Dirk Bogarde as a sadistic flog-happy officer who gets all the fun. The film wasn’t well received when released, the ending remains too tidy & convenient, and stuffed with sentiments straight out of Gilbert & Sullivan’s PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Yet, the acting is expectedly fine, and Lewis Gilbert keeps the pace up while helming the battle scenes with uncommon verve & clear lines of action. It all feels smart and looks good. (Even better if you tone down the blu-ish tint on the Columbia Classics DVD.) Guinness played the sadistic military bully on his last pic, TUNES OF GLORY/’60, and he hated playing this blandly competent man. But who else could have found BILLY BUDD’s Captain Vere in this ordinary material? (Look close at this poster and you'll see the U.S. title bleeding thru the British paste-over.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

LES MISTONS (1957)


François Truffaut’s first release was this sly two-reeler about a group of ‘tween’ mischiefs who moon over the local beauty and doggedly follow her around their village. Alas, the girl spends most of her free time with her fiancé, a coach from a nearby town, so the boys’ collective passion turns to adolescent pranks against the couple. That is, when they aren’t horsing around by themselves. This beautifully observed and perfectly paced pic is like the student film of your dreams*, but without a whiff of ironic distancing. It’s sweetly nostalgic, funny, unexpectedly erotic, unsentimental and stuffed with a sense of play that both tweaks & celebrates film. (Truffaut runs a shot backwards to liven up a bit of roughhouse and he quotes from the famous early Lumiere, THE WATERER WATERED/’95. That’s 1895.) Right from the start, Truffaut was, paradoxically, a master of the art that conceals art and a director who flaunted the nuts & bolts of cinema as another visual element. His apprenticeship days as a critic were over. (Mysteriously, supplemental material on this Criterion DVD reveal clips from scenes not in the finished film. Is there a longer cut?)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Or a student film to crib from if you’re Rob Reiner whose STAND BY ME/’86 looks redundant next to this little wonder.

Friday, November 5, 2010

LIONHEART: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE (1987)


The only film ever produced by Talia Shire (sis to exec-producer Francis Coppola, wife to Rocky Balboa) was this ramshackle affair about a young knight errant (wispy Eric Stoltz) who longs to crusade alongside Richard the Lionheart. But a series of picaresque adventures puts a pack of orphans in his care which attracts the attention of the dastardly Black Knight (a dreadfully hammy Gabriel Byrne), who has designs on the brood. There’s a pleasingly human scale to the film and the analogue effects don’t try to overwhelm us, but the story refuses to hang together. Franklin J. Schaffner was able to ground the fantastic elements of PLANET OF THE APES/’68 by squaring all the corners (exactly the qualities missing in Tim Burton’s remake), but his earth-bound craftsmanship misses whatever tone this film might have been aiming at. Even the action set pieces which should be his strong suit, don’t ‘read’ properly. (And borrowing a whole scene from Victor Hugo’s Court of Thieves in NOTRE DAME is a low blow.) You get the feeling that everyone gave up on this one before filming wrapped. A shame, since the basic story is not without promise. The poster tried to hook in the STAR WARS crowd. That failed, too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

THE MAN I LOVE (1947)


There’s enough plot for three films in this handsomely turned meller from vet helmer Raoul Walsh. Ida Lupino is a torchy jazz singer who takes a break from her regular NYC gig to visit the family out West. And what a mess she finds! One sister’s hubby is a shell-shocked vet in a sanatorium; another sits home all day and pines for the married man across the hall. Her kid brother hangs with a bad crowd; and the peroxide blond across the hall two-times her easy-going-hubby with the thuggish club-owner who hires Lupino to sing at his swanky joint when he’s not trying to paw her. Whew! And then she meets the man of her dreams, Bruce Bennett, a gifted jazz pianist so depressed by a flop marriage that he’s run off to a life at sea. Now add in a murder or two for relief. Amazingly, Lupino solves all these issues without breaking a sweat, then heads back to NYC when the winds change, like some jazz-baby Mary Poppins. It should all be ridiculous. Yet the concise script, Walsh’s moviemaking moxie & the black pools in Sid Hickox’s lensing make this tasty & almost believable. As the club-owner, Robert Alda is really too goonish (you can see why he never quite clicked in Hollywood), but Bruce Bennett shows tremendous chemistry with Lupino. Add in a stack of swinging jazz standards and you’ve got a real find.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Watch close at the end as Walsh nips from NOW, VOYAGER, CASABLANCA and STELLA DALLAS.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

THE FALLEN SPARROW (1943)


John Garfield works hard as a shell-shocked Spanish Civil War volunteer who’s back on-the-town in NYC after a stint in rehab. He’s out to prove that his best pal didn’t commit suicide and winds up mixing it up with a gang of hiding-in-plain-sight Nazis. Maureen O’Hara, Patricia Morrison & Martha O’Driscoll make a tasty trio of lovely liars for John to pursue, but the bad guys, including Walter Slezak & Hugh Beaumont (Beaver Cleaver’s dad with a German accent?) don’t offer a lot of menace. There’s more fun in watching solid character actor John Miljan pull off a tricky part as an ambivalent police inspector. Helmer Richard Wallace & lenser Nicholas Musuraca also aren’t phoning it in, laying out a foreboding atmosphere while Robert Wise's editing adds a sharp, jangly edge. But the story never adds up or draws us in, and the main interest comes from watching Garfield play the sort of role Humphrey Bogart would have nabbed back @ Warners, home studio to both.

Monday, November 1, 2010

EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS / THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009)

Right in the middle of this Argentine film about murder & delayed justice, there’s a wallapalooza of a shot that flies, with no visible edit, right into a soccer stadium, swoops down to the stands and then picks up two men who start chasing the main suspect. Thru the stands, down the aisles, around the ramps, over a ledge, even onto the playing field. It’s a five-minute cinematic tour de force. But then it’s back to the second-rate crime procedural we’ve been watching, the third-rate psychological thriller we’ve seen many times before, and the wispy late middle-aged romance that makes up the rest of this Oscar’d Best Foreign pic. The script adds a bit of political camouflage to add unearned resonance to this one; the murderer was sent to jail, but then freed by the corrupt government. Now, decades have passed and the freed man has disappeared. The big revelations are all too easy to bother guessing, the acting is larded with undigested romantic melancholy (you keep expecting the leads to start mooing at each other) and the ‘shocking’ twist that must remain buried holds all the charge of wool socks generating static electricity on a dry winter’s day. Oscar strikes again.