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Saturday, December 31, 2011

PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE (1952)

Clarence Brown ended his long directing career with this poorly received, large-scaled MAYFLOWER bio-pic. It’s easy to see why the film was rejected, it reeks of good intentions & educational value; and while it freights a reasonable load of history, it’s also rigged with a juicy romantic triangle strapped on for show, like a useless jib. Yet, there’s unexpected life to the thing as Brown patiently builds real interest out of the conventional episodes and amorous foibles in Helen Deutsch’s carefully groomed script. Spencer Tracy, in his last romantic lead, is startlingly violent as the dour Captain, almost unfathomably hostile to his passengers & crew. And it’s the same oversized reaction that both draws & unnerves Gene Tierney, the proper, but unfulfilled wife of Pilgrim Leo Genn. (The eruptive passion may have reflected their personal involvement at the time.) A truly frightening attack against his own first mate (Lloyd Bridges) and an outpouring of grief at his own taciturn nature find Tracy making contact with demons he’d long avoided showing on screen, as if we were getting a look under the skin at the Ahab he never got to play. So, perhaps it’s worth putting up with a miscast Van Johnson and a level of British elocution from the supporting cast that would not have been out of place in the Royal Court. Things are less trying ‘below-the-line,’ with a Miklos Rozsa score that tweaks the Quaker ‘Simple Gifts’ hymn to fine effect, superb interior lensing from William Daniels (just watch Garbo’s man photographically hitting up Gene Tierney for a portrait) and a wallapalooza storm at sea from the effects department.* The cast even takes a cinematic curtain-call at the end; maybe they’ve earned it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Back in the days of analogue special effects, ships at sea during a fight or a storm were about the toughest thing to fake. And techniques that barely passed in b&w looked even less convincing in color processing. So, a tip of the hat to M-G-M on this one. Where the heck were these guys when BEN-HUR was being shot in ‘59?

Friday, December 30, 2011

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958)

Boris Karloff didn’t get a lot of legit acting opportunities in the later stages of his career. His many glorified Guest Ghost appearances in over-ripe horror pics earned him top-billing, but scant screen time. So, he must have been pleased with this little British assignment (and its companion pic, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER/’58) which offered a bit of elbow room for his rusty acting chops. Set in Victorian England, which is smartly handled at the cost, Karloff plays a top surgeon desperate to find an effective anaesthetic. But when he winds up addicted to his own formula and in league with a gang of cutthroats, something’s gotta give. The two lines of action (scientific research gone wrong and blackmailing criminal lowlifes) don’t quite add up, but it makes for a kind of geriatric Jekyll & Hyde story, which obviously appealed to Karloff. Robert Day, who helmed most of THE AVENGERS for tv, gets a lot out of his tight budget, and out of a surprisingly good cast, including the young Christopher Lee who does a neat villainous turn. But you only have to compare this with similar cost-conscious efforts Karloff made for Val Lewton’s unit @ RKO to realize how dull & unimaginative it is.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Lewton pics, BODY SNATCHER/’45; ISLE OF THE DEAD/’45 or BEDLAM/’46 are all superior entries in the field. Or, for a different take on Pain-Free surgery, there’s THE GREAT MOMENT/’44, a bit of a lost cause for the great Preston Sturges who wasn’t able to get the film released in its original form. But it’s still a fascinating miss.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE CONSPIRATOR (2010)

Robert Redford’s latest disappointment takes on the case of Mary Surrat, mother to one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot and housekeeper/hostess to the rest. It’s A Few Good Scapegoats for Civil War ‘recreators,’ showing how a panicked administration railroaded civilians to the gallows with a speedy military trial. (Though the proceedings against the men go largely unheard.) It does generate a certain dramatic momentum, what courtroom drama doesn’t, but only the parallels to recent legal jurisdiction decisions in the current War-on-Terrorism briefly enliven Redford’s rote presentation. Habeas Corpus be damned . . . and all that. Obvious or not, it's a legit argument, and a deeply compelling one. But everybody in the fine cast steps so carefully around their characters, nodding soberly at all the historical ramifications, that the film rarely churns up much emotion. Only Kevin Kline, chewing a bit of scenery as the self-justifying Secretary Stanton, goes for broke with Robert Bork whiskers & the righteous conceit of a heartless Dick Cheney. Kline adds a gleeful scare in the midst of Redford’s regrettably tasteful proceedings. Even in the sure-fire prologue, where Redford juxtaposes the assassination plot with dressy end-of-the-war-parties, the clarity & vigor needed to jump-start things is missing. And by the end, when Surrat’s son is pointedly not asked about his mother's complicity, we feel gypped.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Samuel Mudd (the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth) is briefly seen here with the other conspirators, but wasn’t tried with them. John Ford tracked his journey in THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND/’36. Not quite top-drawer Ford, but close enough, even if Mudd’s innocence remains in doubt and the film slanted.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011)

In his megging debut, scripter George Nolfi really scrapes the bottom of the Philip K Dick meta-physical barrel. It’s one of those lame Free-Will fables with a TWILIGHT ZONE twist ending that lets everyone off the hook. Of course, these things can work if you ‘buy’ into the concept, but Nolfi hasn’t the action chops, cast or (sorry Dick fans) story to con his way in & out of the many meta-absurdities. Matt Damon’s a Kennedyesque politico who loses a race for the Senate but gains the love of his life (Emily Blunt) while practicing his concession speech in the Men’s Room. The sequence is so awkwardly written, and the leads have such striking antipathy, you think she must be part of the film’s other-worldly conspiracy. But no, that team is Guys-Only; a cadre of sharp-suited soul handlers who manage our future trajectories without our knowing it. Can Damon outfox his team of life planners? Will tru-love wreck both their futures? Does the grand Pooh-Bah in the sky really believe that Americans would elect a bachelor President? And why can’t a buff young man out-sprint a slow-moving bus in Midtown NYC traffic?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In the opening reel, Nolfi uses cameo appearances of real journalists, news anchors, politicians & celebs to add verisimilitude to this tall tale. But the famous faces actually work in reverse, pushing us out of the story just when we need to be pulled in.

Monday, December 26, 2011

ANNA BOLEYN (1920)

Even with a trail of successful comedies & dramas under his belt, including CARMEN/’18 and THE OYSTER PRINCESS/’19, ANNA BOLEYN was the big cinematic breakthrough for Ernst Lubitsch. Suddenly, a complete film vocabulary is joined to his matchless character analysis, story sense & visual wit. Under Lubitsch, the well-known story of Henry VIII & second wife Anne Boleyn has pomp & show, but also keeps an eye on the human-scaled foibles that turned courtship & the whims of fate into tragedy. (And it daringly makes a knowing villain out of wife #3, the clueless Jane Seymore.) The purposeful editing & natural feel for mise-en-scène are handled with new found confidence, moving us along in a lively fashion between public spectacle & private intimacies; still effective today in spite of the overly-enthusiastic perfs from leads Emil Jannings & Henny Porten. A cast of thousands (well, hundreds) provides extra luxury, as do the striking sets & fine lensing from Theodor Sparkuhl, who came to the States about a decade after Ernst. (Lubitsch undoubtedly helped him land @ Paramount.) Note the consistent use of various framing devices, a Lubitsch speciality, not only via doors, windows & arches, but with various lens masks directly on the camera to help accent & dramatize shots. A master was being born; and Hollywood took note, making him the first big ‘get’ from UFA/Germany when Mary Pickford grabbed him for ROSITA in ‘23.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Mary Pickford never got over the critical & financial success of ROSITA, which she grew to revile and even tried to suppress. (It survives in a compromised Russian print.) Yet, after seeing Chaplin’s A WOMAN OF PARIS/’23, Lubitsch had his anti-epic epiphany and moved to the sophisticated romantic comedies he’s still famous for.

DOUBLE-BILL: Why not try Donizetti’s operatic Tudors instead of another movie version. The gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has made a specialty singing ANNA BOLENA and DG has her with the Vienna State Opera on DVD. Or wait for the up-coming MET version, already seen via HD-broadcast in theaters.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

BON VOYAGE (1962)

There are hints of an attempt to break past the bounds of Family-Friendly-Fare in this Walt Disney Production about solid Midwesterners (Fred MacMurray & Jane Wyman) who take the kids along on a long-planned trip to Paris. But any spark gets smothered by the hangdog, second-hand look that was studio house style under boss Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law. As Disney turned his attention to theme parks (with a few exceptions like MARY POPPINS/’64 and JUNGLE BOOK/’67), cinematic flat-lining set in, especially on films with MacMurray as a bargain-basement James Stewart (and alter-ego Walt). This one dribbles on for over two hours with remarkably little location shooting to buttress the stock footage & coarsely handled studio mock-ups & process transparencies. And what other studio was still shooting in Academy Ratio in 1962? Yet, so many odd events transpire. Mom looks ready to throw a party celebrating daughter Deborah Walley’s budding sexuality. "All stirred up,’ is the terminology. Dad gets drunk not once, as a gag, but three times, just about every time he goes out. Little Kevin Corcoran gets to take a pee touring the Paris sewers in the Paris sewers; and big brother Tommy Kirk does even better, sharing a prostitute with dear old Dad. Okay, it happens consecutively; and things don’t progress past a cafe demitasse, but still . . . in a 1962 Disney pic! But who would notice amid the tone-deaf dialogue, thuddingly obvious character development and appalling technical work?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Vincente Minnelli’s THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE/’58 tackles a lot of the same themes with swank, charm & the elegant comic touch of Rex Harrison & Kay Kendall worrying over the over-taxed hormones of Sandra Dee & John Saxon.

Friday, December 23, 2011

NIKUTAI NO MON / GATE OF FLESH (1964)

The urban chaos of Tokyo in its post-WWII devastation is the teeming backdrop for Seijun Suzuki’s visually extravagant film about an ad-hoc prostitute collective & the macho thief who disrupts their well-run business. Suzuki returned to the subject, in a more soberly realistic b&w style in THE STORY OF A PROSTITUTE/’65, but this film’s gaudy colors & theatrical look emphasize the pinch-penny studio sets in the city (which come off brilliantly) and blasted landscapes (which don’t). The girls keep their end up, working & living in a partially bombed-out warehouse, by holding strictly to their ‘house rules,’ most especially, ‘Never Give Anything Away.’ But when the wounded Jo Shishido turns up, it’s just a matter of time before his schemes & manly charms take their toll. Suzuki was always fighting with his home studio, Nikkatsu, but they must have been pleased by the ample doses of sex & violence with tru-love answered by ritualistic soft-core S&M punishments. Great for the Box-Office! A secondary plot involving Shishido’s mob ties and some stolen penicillin helps to tie everything up, but it’s the bright lights of corruption & revenge that make this one another Suzuki treat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Rather like the prostitutes in this film, once Suzuki got free of the restrictions & genre formats @ Nikkatsu, artistic freedom turned out to be a two-edged career sword. Do any of his later films measure up to his best as galley slave @ Nikkatsu?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942)

After Bette Davis scored on loan-out to Sam Goldwyn in THE LITTLE FOXES/’41, playing ten years older for Lillian Hellman’s dysfunctional Southern-family melodrama, Jack Warner bet on another dysfunctional Southern-family melodrama, a Pulitzer Prize winner, with Bette playing ten years younger. But the sophomore curse was on John Huston’s second directing effort and he seems utterly bewildered by the characters & tone. Davis, trying too hard for youthful zest overplays wildly, but what excuse does everyone else have? (Even Max Steiner’s score goes off the rails.) Davis & Olivia de Havilland play yin & yang sisters Stanley & Roy, and Olivia’s got the mannish coif to go with the name. Davis is the bad seed who steals Olivia’s beaux (Dennis Morgan, George Brent) with a flirtatious glance, and then rues her choice. But this time, Olivia’s patience-act & Davis’s out-of-control id are too transparent to be taken seriously or hold much interest. A pity because there’s loads of red meat in the underdeveloped subplots: Southern race issues (pretty advanced stuff for the day); family business & medical secrets; female empowerment & male emasculation. The film does improve in the third act, with Davis & papa-bear Uncle Charles Coburn turning in some powerfully creepy scenes, but this sort of thing would only come into its own in the ‘50s under the likes of Tennessee Williams, Douglas Sirk . . . and a more mature John Huston.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Sirk’s superb WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56 and William’s CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF/’58 (less than it should be in Richard Brook’s film) show what this film might have been. (Though, if you do rent it, be sure to watch the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in CAPRICCIO ESPANGNOL on the EXTRAs. Jean Negulesco did even better on his follow-up, GAITE PARISIAN, which feels less cramped, but we’re lucky to have them both.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (1945)

A smidgen of truth lurks behind this splashy Rita Hayworth WWII musical: there was a Windmill Theatre in London and it did manage to stay open during the ‘blitz;’ the rest is pure Hollywood. And that’s okay because the tasty package holds up surprisingly well, easily besting the better known Betty Grable competition over @ 20th/Fox. Mastered from a lip-smacking TechniColor print, Hayworth gets strong support from producer/director Victor Saville & from Rudolph Maté, who lensed most of Hayworth’s iconic pics. The opening two reels are particularly fluid, with angles, rhythm & a palette that’s more Powell/Pressburger than Harry Cohn/Columbia. Then the plot, such as it is, shows up in the form of Lee Bowman, an RAF pilot who can’t ‘land’ Rita until he’s sent into action. There’s a lot more chemistry in the secondary storyline with near-sighted dancer Marc Platt who settles for Janet Blair after being rejected by both the military board and by Rita. (Born Marcel Emil LePlat, he’s a Ballets Russe vet fresh off OKLAHOMA! on B’way where he doubled for ‘Curly’ in the Agnes de Mille dream ballet. And, man, can he dance!) No doubt, the film would be better known if the perfectly pleasant Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn score were stronger. But, with the exception of a dud comic specialty number, and a whacky green-trimmed horror that Blair wears on stage, this is a snazzy package that earns its teary wrap-up.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Jack Cole, the film’s unsung (and uncredited) choreographer, is usually remembered as a sort of proto-Bob Fosse. But he’s a Fosse with a lot more range (and steps!) and none of the self-loathing. Both of which make him, alas, the less interesting artist.

DOUBLE-BILL: Judi Dench & Bob Hoskins brought us something closer to the real Windmill Theatre Story in MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS/’05.

Friday, December 16, 2011

VANISHING POINT (1970)

After the game-changing commercial success of EASY RIDER/’69, it suddenly became possible to set up a largely plotless film about hitting the road and speeding past a vanishing American Dream. This one, about a car delivery driver with a haunted past and a reckless spirit, has built a substantial cult following that’s not entirely undeserved. Barry Newman is more sullen than charismatic as the laconic driver who races his DodgeCharger ‘muscle car’ from Denver to California on a bet, outrunning the cops on his way thru the Western plains & deserts. He meets a few eccentrics, scores a one-night stand with hitchhiking Charlotte Rampling (at least, in the U.K. cut, this Angel of Death stuff was snipped Stateside) and runs a host of competitive drivers off the road, pausing after every crash to be sure no one got hurt. Lenser John Alonso gets the most out of the well chosen locations, as do the hell-bent stunt drivers, but Richard C. Sarafian consistently megs to the lowest common denominator. Finding ‘manna’ in the desert is a clever piece of business, but do the cops need to rape & act like racists just to keep us on Newman’s side? And those soggy romantic interludes! Some of the film’s cult following comes from the soundtrack, programmed in the film by ‘soul brother’ radio jock Cleavon Little, but its main appeal probably stems from a nihilistic attitude empty enough to accommodate just about any nonconformist idea that comes to mind.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

TOKYO SONATA (2008)

For the first two acts, this recent film from Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a well-observed family-crisis drama, with low-key perfs, naturally-sourced lighting & artless camerawork. But things go off-the-rails into highly charged melodrama in a third act that’s more Nick Ray than Rossellini. The change in tone never quite convinces, it's a bit of a curate’s egg, but oddly interesting, especially when things teeter out of control. The main storyline follows Dad as he finishes a downsizing/outsourcing project only to find himself a victim of his own success and newly unemployed. Hiding the facts from his wife & sons, he starts acting out, as do his teenage boys. One gets out by joining the military and the youngest uses his school lunch money to pay for secret piano lessons. But things really get strange in the last act when the well-known actor Kôji Yakusho shows up as a luckless burglar. He winds up kidnapping the wife; she winds up driving his stolen getaway car (her first time behind the wheel!); they stop at a mall where she discovers her husband working as a janitor. And what a day he’s had; he's just found a small fortune left in the stall at the Ladies’ Toilet! And that's just the start of it. Whatever possessed Kurosawa to juice things up with all this coincidental dramatic drivel? And how the hell was he able to make us go along with him? By the end, when the youngest son plays Claire de Lune to gain admission to a music academy, you may have rejected the whole film . . . or found yourself oddly moved.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While Kiyoshi shares a name, if not any known lineage with that other Kurosawa, this film looks more in the direction of the great Yasujiro Ozu, specifically his sublime domestic dramedies I WAS BORN BUT . . . /’32 and its loose remake GOOD MORNING/’59.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

WHEN LADIES MEET (1941)

In a sexual roundelay that plays out like a double helix, Robert Taylor is the newly reformed bachelor who proposes to his long-time gal pal Joan Crawford. But she’s cooled down and now only has eyes for her smooth publisher, Herbert Marshall, a man who doesn’t let a wife interfere with his bedside manner. As luck and playwrighting convenience would have it, the wife (Greer Garson) & Taylor meet-cute at a dinner party, and hit it off in a platonic way. She’s even game for playing along with him to make Crawford jealous. Good thing these two ladies don’t know what they’ve got in common. It’s easy to see the possibilities in Rachel Crothers’ play, but the folks @ Warners VOD have opted for the remake of ‘41, rather than the ‘33 original which featured a far more promising cast: Myrna Loy, Ann Harding, Robert Montgomery & Frank Morgan in for Crawford, Garson, Taylor & Marshall. This is especially rough on the first half of the piece which tries for sparkling comedy, but lands with a thud. Nobody here knows how to throw a line away. It’s probably all too dated to work anyway, but the earlier film might at least be an interesting period piece. Here, everyone’s just insufferable. Yet, when Crothers drops the witty repartee and gives the ladies their big nighttime ‘bonding’ scene, opening their hearts to each other before discovering their guilty secret, you can feel how effective this might have been on stage. Rubbishy, but effective .

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Did it seem as obvious at the time as it does now that it’s the two ladies who should be getting together at the end? And was it intentional?

Monday, December 12, 2011

THE TOURIST (2010)

Stupefying. After THE LIVES OF OTHERS/’06, his superb debut on East German ‘Stasi’ mentality, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s sophomore pic is this wan attempt to recreate a witty Hitchcockian thriller. It’s got all the ingredients: Innocent Man On The Run; Beautiful Female Spy; Flirting On A Train; Glam Locations; a McGuffin . . . the works. But it never comes to a boil; heck it never hits sous vide. And the stars seem to know it. As the naif who steps into international intrigue, Johnny Depp looks blurry & out of sorts while Angelina Jolie looks positively spray-painted as a sashaying secret-agent in haute couture & a phony British accent. The film tries to wow us with sweeping Venetian vistas, luxurious hotel suites & a fancy-dress formal ball, but Donnersmarck can hardly get things past a stately walking pace (does he think we might miss something?), and the infamous German sense of humor only makes things worse. In tiny parts, Timothy Dalton & Rufus Sewell show just how to play this sort of thing, but no one else in front or behind the camera has a clue. Then, just when you think the worst is over, they haul out one of those ludicrous switcheroo/’got’cha’ endings. As if this coffin needed another nail.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Stanley Donen’s CHARADE/’63 does Hitchcock-lite to a 'T.' Plus a neat ‘got’cha’ ending.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

THE WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT (1941)

Warners tossed Humphrey Bogart into one last B-picture in ‘41, the year HIGH SIERRA and THE MALTESE FALCON permanently bumped him up to Grade A starring roles. It’s a lumpy rewrite of KID GALAHAD/’37 that swaps boxing out for (wait for it) lion taming! (Even the trailer thought twice about this, hiding the circus element.) In GALAHAD, Eddie G. Robinson accidentally discovered a natural slugger and rode him to the top; here, Bogie finds a local kid who’s a natural cat handler. It sounds pretty silly, literally so with a dismal background score that can’t figure out whether to play things straight or for laughs. Sylvia Sidney, after two years off the screen, dropped in to play the old Bette Davis role, now a Fortune Teller & Girl Friday to Bogie’s circus manager. (She dropped back out for another four years after this one.) As the kid, young Eddie Albert is charming, and looks just like DUMBO’s Timothy Mouse in his spangled outfit. But the only interesting element, an add on to the GALAHAD template, is Bogie’s neurotic over-protection of his little sister, Joan Leslie, when she gets a crush on Albert. Bogie really knew how to throw a crazed fit. Don’t get your hopes up though, one of the lions goes crazy, in a surprisingly scary climax, and sorts everything out for a quick finish.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Of course, there’s KID GALAHAD/’37 with Robinson & Davis; or KID GALAHAD/’62 with Elvis Presley, Gig Young and Charles Bronson. Bronson & Presley. Who knew? But why not stick with the circus milieu and watch the best damn circus film of '41, or any other year, DUMBO.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

MATRIMONIO ALL’ITALIANA / MARRIAGE ITALIAN-STYLE (1964)

There are more than a dozen film & tv adaptations of this Neapolitan dramedy, including one helmed by author/star Eduardo De Filippo. But Vittorio De Sica’s film, with Sophia Loren & Marcello Mastroianni. is the one everyone thinks they know. But do they? It’s not the silly, light-hearted romantic comedy promised on posters or squibbed in review books, but a surprisingly dark, even cruel, tale of lust, lies & a self-centered lothario. For twenty odd years, Marcello serially uses Sophia as a prostitute, as a family nurse, as a mistress, as an employee at one of his shops and finally as manager of his business interests. Marriage isn’t in the picture. The film neatly divides the story in two with Sophia at first tricking Marcello into marriage and then convincing the jerk to do the right thing for the right reasons. De Sica’s work feels hemmed in during the first half, Filippo’s sour comedy doesn’t always give him much breathing room. But everything clicks in the second half when the sentimental drama & the gags feel perfectly integrated, and perfectly calibrated. Modern audiences may be surprised at just how much of a sexist shit Mastroianni’s character is, especially since he doesn’t sweeten the bitter comic pill. (The Berlusconi mindset shows how little some Italian attitudes have changed.) And in a real tour-de-force perf, Loren is outstanding. Has any movie Goddess ever looked so enticingly beautiful in so many different ways as she does in this film? But beyond the va-va-va-voom, what an actress she could be when (and only when) working with De Sica. As Filumena she seems capable of giving everyone from Chaplin to Anna Magnani a run for their money. (WARNING: Beware of Public Domain copies. Look for the new KINO/Lorber DVD which has a fine WideScreen image.)

CONTEST: Name two British Dames who tried on Filumena in stage productions to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

TOAST OF THE TOWN (1937)

The real story of how Jim Fisk all but cornered the gold market, and started the ‘Black Friday’ panic of 1869 in the process, is hiding in plain sight on this routine bio-pic. Edward Arnold, whose big personality worked best in small doses, is the wheeler-dealer who made (and lost) a fortune playing the Yanks against the Rebs before conning his way back on top in New York with partners Cary Grant & Jack Oakie. Naturally, there’s a girl in the picture (Francis Farmer) for Arnold to pine for and Grant to nobly renounce. Stranded between hambones like Arnold & Oakie, Grant overacts alarmingly when he isn’t making cow-eyes at Farmer. But no one seems especially comfortable in this misfire. Arnold had better luck with a similar role in DIAMOND JIM/’35 (courting Jean Arthur to a Preston Sturges script), and a lot more rapport with the unlucky Ms Farmer on COME AND GET IT/’36. Everything’s a little forced here, and the episodes don’t feel complete; the financial doings rattle on and Farmer’s big stage show is all bows & curtains. Yet, it’s quite a lux production from indie producer Edward Small, with a top scripter (Dudley Nichols) and cleverly helmed by Rowland V. Lee, who knew how to squeeze a modest budget. But they all missed a great American morality tale and it's still waiting to be told. Perhaps a modern take on how the Koch Brothers almost cornered the Silver Market?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Switching commodities, step back to 1909 for an early D.W. Griffith two-reeler, A CORNER IN WHEAT, one of his greatest early achievements. Still in lovely physical condition, beautiful & haunting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

TEMPLE GRANDIN (2010)

There’s nothing on Mick Jackson’s CV that seems to lead to this knockout HBO bio-pic on Temple Grandin, a young woman who didn’t so much triumph over her autism as thru it. A leading specialist in livestock handling (don’t get sentimental, she made her mark building a better abattoir), her equally remarkable mother ‘mainstreamed’ her thru high school, university & the employment sector. Building on a stubborn persistence, Grandin corralled her unique abilities at visualization into ‘Moo Science,’ thinking & feeling as a cow. You can pick at the script for telegraphing story points & goals, but cleanly handled time-shifting construction help it maintain a lively pace and freshen up a pretty well-worn story arc; while any small faults are more than compensated for by the emotional completeness of Temple’s phenomenal journey. (The film is much closer to the truth than these things usually are.) The performances couldn’t be better, bouquets to all: the cowboys, good & bad; to Mom & Aunt Ann (Julia Ormond & Catherine O’Hara); to David Strathairn’s teacher-of-the-year; and especially to Claire Danes whose Temple must be the best assumption of this sort of role since Daniel Day Lewis began to write with MY LEFT FOOT/’89. Anyone who can watch this touch-averse freshman let her new blind roommate hold her arm for guidance, or start singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in a key too high and not tear up may now leave the room.

DOUBLE-BILL: Included as an EXTRA on the Criterion DVD of Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE/'59 is his extraordinarily graceful, deadly grim short-subject on a horse slaughterhouse in Paris, LE SANG DES BÊTES/’49 (BLOOD OF THE BEASTS). As mesmerizing as it is unwatchable, it certainly shows you what Ms Grandin was out to change. WARNING!: The Franju short is definitely not Family Friendly material. (Speaking of EXTRAs, watch the one on here to see the real Temple.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: In addition to her own books, there’s a fine portrait of Temple Grandin by Oliver Sacks in his 1995 collection AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS.

Friday, December 2, 2011

ZIFT (2008)

No doubt Bulgarian helmer Javor Gardev overdoes it on his debut pic, dishing out turbo-charged Neo-Noir style like gravy on a Blue-Plate Special. But you can’t help but grin at the fun he has following a convict on his calamitous first day out of prison. Shot in dank WideScreen b&w, the story fills us in on more than a decade lost in prison where Moth (it’s his nickname . . . don’t ask) turned himself into a fierce, heavily tattooed fighting machine. But his release comes at a price as a series of goons & official types chase him down to find out where he stashed that ultra-valuable diamond that helped to send him up in the first place. As the hard-luck convict, Zahary Baharov is physically imposing, and just as convincing playing his younger, more innocent self. A good thing since Gardev runs him thru his places with a mini-series’ worth of violence, sex (pretty graphic), foot chases on slippery surfaces and deadly poisons. The complicated plotting & visual references run the gamut from D.O.A./’50 to GILDA/’46 (with Bulgarian lyrics to ‘Put the Blame on Mame,’ no less), all the way up to EASTERN PROMISES/’06. And, of course, there’s a lying femme fatale who’s either worth killing . . . or dying for. It’ll be interesting to see how Gardev follows this up. He’s worth watching, even when you aren’t sure what the heck is going on.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1927)

Considering the name recognition, historical importance & long-running success as a theatrical property, it’s surprising that this late silent is the only feature-length film of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel. No doubt, Universal hoped for grosses comparable to those two other out-of-fashion ‘barnstormers,’ WAY DOWN EAST/’20 and BEN-HUR/’25, and budgeted accordingly. But lightning didn’t strike thrice. Piece by piece, there are some handsomely developed action sequences from director Harry Pollard: ESCAPE OVER THE ICE FLOES!; KIDNAPPED OFF A RIVERBOAT!; FLOGGED SLAVE REFUSES TO GIVE IN! But the much edited final cut largely reduces Stowe’s complex narrative to the marriage of light-skinned slaves Eliza & George, and their forced separation before baby makes three. Moving the time frame up to the Civil War doesn’t help things either. A Union Army ride to the rescue comes off as overkill while the Emancipation Proclamation only undercuts the horrors of unending slavery. The film does earn points by using lots of actual African-Americans actors, especially James Lowe’s Uncle Tom who’s no obsequious dodderer, but an honest man of strength, restraint & purpose. (He never worked in the industry again.) Still, it’s tough to get past the usual lies of a Southern gentry on the plantation with happy ‘darkies’ dancin’‘, singin’ & scarfin’ down watermelon. Even if you do, there’s still Mona Ray’s blackface Topsy. Not done up in the artificial vaudevillian mask of minstrelsy, but as realistic mimicry. So much worse.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: D.W. Griffith stole the famous ice floe sequence off the stage for the climax on his stupendous 1920 version of WAY DOWN EAST, and it’s never been topped. (The one in here is pretty good until they botch the ending.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967)

Everybody’s hiding some kind of love that dare not speak its name in John Huston’s expansion of Carson McCuller’s novella. Set at an Army base way down south, Major Marlon Brando is married to Liz Taylor, but only has eyes for soldier-boy Robert Forster. He’s got a thing for horses, rides ‘em barebacked & bareass, but will stand at attention to watch La Liz sleep the night away. Not that she knows, she’s too tired from love-in-the-afternoon with Brian Keith, the Colonel next door who’s devoted, in a chaste way, to Julie Harris, his neurasthenic wife. She, in turn, despises him, preferring to gossip with their fey, Philippino houseboy. Whew, that’s a burgoo & a half! The film is usually considered one of Huston many misfires from this period, and he does lose control of the material at times, but there are extraordinary things in here. Certainly, no one in the cast is phoning it in. Taylor is a perfect fit for a change, even her squally voice doesn’t hurt; broad of bust, broad of beam & more than a tad mean, she’s wicked funny. Brando, in a role meant for Monty Clift, plays as if on a dare, beating himself up in a vanity-free mode that prefigures LAST TANGO/’73, though the accent is close to impenetrable. These two might be Brick & Maggie the Cat a few years down the road. With all it’s faults, you can’t keep your eyes off this one. NOTE: Huston desaturated the original prints, leaving a golden tone and pale hues on a nearly b&w image. But when the film flopped, the studio switched back to full color. The current DVD offers Huston’s ‘golden’ look, but the accompanying trailer gives a good idea of what the fully loaded TechniColor prints must have looked like. The difference is startling.

Monday, November 28, 2011

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)

The penultimate release in the six canonical James Bond pics* is heavy on big sets and light on storyline. Based largely in Japan, it’s the one with kidnapped space capsules and our first good look at Super Villain Blofeld. Why it’s Donald Pleasence with a monocle shaped scar!; he’s trying to start a shooting war between the US and the USSR! And there’s Sean Connery’s 007, undergoing a new form of torture as five Asian vixens doll him up to ‘pass’ as a humble Japanese fisherman! (With that nose?) Lewis Gilbert, fresh from helming ALFIE/’66, nips the incipient bloat of THUNDERBALL/’65 while lenser Freddie Young gives it all a classy look, plus better-than-usual process work and a visually memorable poisoning. If only it were more involving. Blame Roald Dahl’s script which comes up short on the narrative thru line. Then again, it’s not so much the action scenes & stunts, nor the evil plots & hi-tech gadgets that separate the better Bonds from the lesser, it’s (of all things) his level of rapport with the leading ladies. And there ain’t no heat between Bond and his babes in this one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The last of the ‘first cycle’ Bonds, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE/’69, is famously spoiled by its grotesquely inadequate (and grotesque) Connery replacement, George Lazenby. Even so, it’s got the best female lead of them all in Diana Rigg and retains the balanced blend of playfulness, action & villainous sadism that made these early entries work. Connery’s one-shot return in #7, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER/’71, swapped playfulness with self-referential mockery, a misfiring mistake that continued in even the best of the Roger Moore pics. The films have been in reaction mode ever since; currently the pendulum is stuck in an ‘overcorrected’ position, perhaps permanently.

StotDII: Note our posters - On the Left - Britain, where girls come first; On the Right - the States, where the preference is for action. This explains too much!

Friday, November 25, 2011

KATYN (2007)

Poland’s ‘Man-of-Cinema,’ Andrzej Wajda, was a vital 81 when he made this film about the WWII Katyn Forest massacre, a national tragedy for Poland, where 20,000 POW officers were taken out of their detention cells and shot like cattle. It was made all the worse when the occupying Germans used the incident as propaganda against the Russian Army and then, after the war, when the Russians moved in, rewritten as a Nazi atrocity. Wajda wants to do more than point the finger at those responsible, the Russians have long been held as the perpetrators, he wants to show, thru a series of loosely related personal stories, mostly on the homefront, how this open wound refracted thru Polish society; the noble, the ignoble, the stupid. It’s a great topic, an important one. But, as so often with Wajda, the film is considerably less than the sum of its parts. The opening is just right as masses of displaced Poles approach a bridge in the country. There are thousands on foot, fleeing the Germans. Ahead, two boys come running with news, the Russians are coming! It’s no fanciful metaphor; it’s the Polish dilemma in a nutshell. An equally telling sequence shows one of the POWs’ father, a professor whose university is summarily closed by the SS as a hotbed of free-thinkers. The entire staff is forced into vans and taken on a one-way trip to a Concentration Camp. Terrifying stuff, superbly staged, the finest thing in the film. And there are other impressive moments, but also too many that are jumbled or merely judgmental. Those noble, ignoble & stupid people again. Perhaps it’s all true, but Wajda never convinces us. And by the end, when the film jumps back to show the nuts & bolts of the massacre, we’re prompted to feel the devastation, the inhumanity, the sheer waste. You may not respond.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pawel Komorowski’s STAJNIA NA SALWATORZE /’67 is a WWII Polish-Resistance tale worth tracking down. (See below)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

THE LONGEST YARD (1974)

This classic football fable looks more cheerfully Politically Incorrect than ever, and the years have added a nostalgic charm to its many virtues. Burt Reynolds, at the start of his decade-long run at the top of the heap and already looking the worse for wear, is just right as the don’t-give-a-damn ex-pro who gets stuck in a segregated Southern prison after tearing up his rich wife, her rich car & a short cop. Under orders to whip up a sacrificial team of prisoners for a tune-up game against the Semi-Pro prison guards, he doesn’t just find a team, he also finds himself. Robert Aldrich and regular lenser Joseph Biroc shoot from the hip, trying to catch as much spontaneity as they can, letting function dictate the compositions. Even fans will admit that the comedy & drama fall into the crude, rude & lewd department, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But perhaps 'savagely blunt' gets closer to the mark. That’s what triggers the comedy, excessive bluntness, which bubbles up not only from the physical mayhem & comic reversals, but goes a bit deeper from the detailed character set-ups in the pic’s first half. Aldrich certainly takes his time doing this. At one point he lets a whole Laurel & Hardy routine play out in a swamp between Reynolds & another chain-gang convict. But that’s why he can afford to let the big game carry the entire third act. (M*A*S*H*/’70 is an obvious point of reference.) As chief bad guy, Eddie Albert lets his tailoring do much of the work, this prison warden looks like the Chamber of Commerce, and a super strong cast of up and coming character actors all get their moment. The only downside is seeing Burt Reynolds in the ugliest pair of pants in film history, noting the odd resemblance to Marlon Brando, and knowing what miserable career choices he would soon start to make.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The cheesy singing cheerleaders (a sort of lowdown MOTOWN act) are a lot more entertaining than most SuperBowl halftime spectaculars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A CHRISTMAS CAROL / SCROOGE (1935; 1938; 1951)

M-G-M hoped to continue their winning ways with Dickens adaptations following DAVID COPPERFIELD/’35 and A TALE OF TWO CITIES/’35) with this Christmas classic. Initially planned for Lionel Barrymore who was under contract & already established on radio as America’s Scrooge, his severe arthritis put him out of the running. (Of course, he played a ‘near’ Scrooge for Frank Capra in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE/’46. But try to hear one of his annual outings of the real thing on radio, especially the ones he did with Orson Welles & the Mercury Players on the Campbell Playhouse.) Reginald Owen wound up playing Ebenezer, and he’s perfectly fine, but the project was demoted to a glorified ‘programmer,’ with all departments going thru the motions under hack megger Edwin Marin. With the storyline already squeezed to fit on a measly six reels, the half dozen ‘improvements’ are particularly wasteful and unfortunate. And where are Ignorance & Want; the kids who hide by the feet of Christmas Present? It is kind of fun to see Gene, Kathleen & young June Lockhart as Crachets, and Leo G Carroll hollers splendidly as Jacob Marley, but everything else is bland, bland, bland. The best reason to watch this may be as a comparison with the marvelously efficient story construction of the much-loved 1951 British version. Alastair Sims’ stupendously effective, perfectly judged Scrooge has always been its calling-card, but a recent restoration from VCI (on a 2007 two-disc edition) makes it easier to appreciate the craftsmanship of Noel Langley’s script & Brian Desmond-Hurst’s helming. Moving, funny, and damned scary at times, it’s only two reels longer than the M-G-M film, yet manages nearly twice the story. And the cleaner visuals show how well the lensing & art design serve Dickens’ tricky mix of exaggeration, sentiment & toughness, keeping everything in balance. It’s also the only version to include a devastating (and motivationally important) deathbed scene for Scrooge’s sister. (A fine addition Dickens missed.) And there's a worthy EXTRA on the deluxe VCI edition, an interesting, if occasionally crude, British version from 1935 that shows, even thru a poor print and some savage story editing, some nice visual style. Those willing to squint, will find some neat moments, including a nice bit when the shadow of Christmas Future seems to drape itself over Scrooge’s face. Very creepy! (The Recommendation below is just for the 1951 film.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Clive Donner who edited the Sims pic directed a notable tv version (in color) with George C. Scott in excellent form/’84; and don’t forget the sui generis magic of MISTER MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL/’62 with a score by Jule Styne who repurposed a discarded song for use in FUNNY GIRL. You know the tune as 'People.’


Monday, November 21, 2011

THE FIGHTER (2010)

Micky Ward’s championship career as a welterweight boxer in the ‘90s proves as generic as the title on his bio-pic, though not in a bad way. It’s his life outside the ring with an emasculating mother/manager, an older crack-addled brother/trainer & a strong-willed girlfriend with contagious self-confidence that puts a fresh pair of legs on those winded dramatic tropes. David O Russell helms in a fast-and-loose style, playing up the comedy (and comic horror) in Ward’s large, female-tilted Irish-Catholic family; and he makes this 1990s story feel more like Rocky Balboa’s ‘70s. (Lowell, Mass. tends to run behind the trends, anyway.) Even better, he pulls back from the cinematic boxing pyrotechnics that have dominated the screen since Martin Scorsese overfed the beast in RAGING BULL/’80. As, respectively, controlling mom & scapegrace brother, Melissa Leo & Christian Bale got lots of attention for their fierce, noisy perfs. They’re awfully good, but it’s hard to think of anyone missing with these juicy roles. (Bale is especially fine right at the end, adding a graceful exit that leaves the spotlight on his talented brother. Really moving stuff.) And Amy Adams is just-right as the new girlfriend with excellent film taste. But the film gets its footing from Mark Wahlberg’s stoic decency & body mass, a masterclass in selfless believability. He also nails the accent with more conviction (and less fuss) than anyone since Robert Mitchum ordered a cup of coffee in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE/’73.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY / DOUBLE-BILL: How come so many boxing pics feature brothers or brothers-in-law in their story lines? CITY FOR CONQUEST/’40; ROCKY/’76; RAGING BULL, even that post-boxing pic, ON THE WATERFRONT/’54.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

KEEPING MUM (2005)

Imagine one of the darker Ealing Comedies, say KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS/’49, & that old American standby about those murdering biddies, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE/’44, merging with MARY POPPINS/’64. That’s the idea behind this blackly comic tale of a dysfunctional family and their new, sweetly sensible, if criminally insane housekeeper. American writer Richard Russo (NOBODY’S FOOL/’94; EMPIRE STATE/’05) brings a mordant tone & Old Testament sensibilities to a picturesque English village where Rowan Atkinson, nicely playing things straight, is the absent-minded Vicar who’s lost control of his life at home & work. His lovely wife Kristin Scott Thomas is all but throwing herself at the sleazy local golf pro (Patrick Swayze) for comfort & attention while their clinging son is getting trashed by bullies at school and their daughter is busy screwing trash. Enter new housekeeper Maggie Smith, practically perfect in every way, to sort things out . . . with a blunt instrument. You know the filmmakers are playing for keeps when a barking dog gets ‘offed’ in the night, and those taunting classmates are deliberately placed in harm’s way. What a jolly lot of accidents! Once you adjust to the down-and-dirty playing level, the wickedly sharp acting and neatly rhymed story win you over. But it's not the slightly eccentric, but friendly, little town farce you were expecting. (Be sure to run the Deleted Scenes with director Niall Johnson’s commentary track to see the bad choices & structural mistakes that kept this film from hitting its full potential.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Dame Maggie made quite a few of these dark site-specific British comedies. Try the Yorkshire-based A PRIVATE FUNCTION/’85, with pigs & Michael Palin, which Alan Bennett wrote for her before their tour-de-force one-woman monologue BED AMONG THE LENTILS/’88.

Friday, November 18, 2011

THE INVISIBLE BOY (1957)

M-G-M scraped the bowl to find a second-helping of Robbie the Robot, the breakout ‘personality’ from FORBIDDEN PLANET/’56, in this cheaply made (and very weird) Kiddie Matinee pic. (Originally shown in sepia-tinted prints!) No longer set far in the future, this present day Cold War story has Robbie in storage, sitting in pieces till an under-achieving boy screws him back together. The son of a brilliant scientist, the kid’s been turned into an instant genius after being left alone with his dad’s Top-Secret ‘electronic brain.’ This rebel computer has started to think on its own, and it plans to use Robbie & this newly invisible boy to take over the world! Will the nerdy father hand over the coded control numbers; or stoically watch as Robbie the Robot dismembers his disobedient boy? Er, once the kid returns to his normal ‘visible’ state. As a study in parental indifference, lax military security, God-like sacrifices a la Abraham & Isaac, and eavesdropping computers who only pretend to be asleep, there’s a lot of odd ideas bubbling just below the surface of this shoddy little pic. Too bad it’s in such a lousy production. Even the kid, Richard Eyer, a standout brat in William Wyler’s FRIENDLY PERSUASION/’54, stinks up the joint.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rent a set of LOST IN SPACE tv episodes and have a Robbie the Robot fest.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

THREE FOR THE SHOW (1954)

Betty Grable, the top-grossing female star of her era, is something of a lost cause to modern audiences. (Then again, imagine trying to explain Madonna to future generations.) In this, her penultimate film and last musical, made on loan-out to Columbia from 20th/Fox, she’s been given a breathy singing voice (to sound more like Marilyn Monroe?), but is in good company on a trim little musical about a B’way star who finds herself simultaneously, if innocently, married to both halves of her writing team, Jack Lemmon & Gower Champion. (Yep, it’s another variation on ENOCH ARDEN, by way of Somerset Maugham & an earlier Jean Arthur pic.) Happily, no one presses the ‘dumb farce’ button too hard. Instead, choreographer Jack Cole conjures a neat routine for these three to barely miss each other while dashing around their shared apartment. Since the fourth co-star is Gower’s real-life wife & dancing partner, Marge Champion, there’s not a lot of suspense in how things will work out, but this let’s everyone concentrate on some unexpectedly well-staged musical numbers. In addition to some Gershwin & a few pop songs, Jack Cole goofs around with some Borodin (he’d just done the all-Borodin KISMET on B’way), Tchaikovsky, Liszt & Rossini to good effect. Helmer H. C. Potter and lenser Arthur Arling aid the theatricality with some spotlighting effects that rarely work this well on film. Grable's famous legs hold up nicely, and she looks swell if you remember to tame the color (the make-up is fierce), plus it’s always a kick to watch Lemmon sing & dance in these early credits. But the real surprise are those Champions. Always neat as a pin and efficient in their every move, here, especially in a big duo that closes the second act, they supply the missing element in their quiver: heat. And what a difference it makes! What a shame that musicals have gotten so expensive that they can’t be modest little charmers anymore.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Everybody knows that Marge Champion was filmed playing some of Snow White’s scenes as an aid to the Disney artists. But the cartoon character she actually looks like is . . . Wilma Flintstone!

DOUBLE-BILL: Blake Edward’s deliciously deranged MICKI + MAUDE/’84 where it’s the guy (Dudley Moore) who finds happiness with two wives.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

DARLING (1965)

An emblematic peek under the covers of London’s ‘Mod ‘60s’ (and Britain’s cinematic New Wave), Jon Schlesinger’s acclaimed film now looks as studied & hollow as its hedonistic heroine, Julie Christie. (1965 was her breakout year, with this & DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.) Frederic Raphael’s script has a real sense of place & dialogue, but he scores too many easy points and opts for a stilted structural device with Christie dictating memoirs to some unseen party. (A late addition mandated by a nervous producer?) As Christie evolves from fresh young thing to rich, EuroTrash misery, we go along past lovers and a modeling career, with little satisfaction from either. Intellectuals & minor royalty, sybarites of all persuasions, an abortion, an orgy, booze, pills, furs & a yacht, but alas, no repose. If only Christie’s emptiness were met with something stronger than ‘clever’ juxtapositions of rich people and their clueless behavior . Laurence Harvey is perfectly cast as a smooth operator, and Dirk Borgarde manages to make his writer an oddly sympathetic heel. (It helps to be the scripter's alter-ego.) Too bad second-tier lenser Ken Higgins had so much trouble figuring out how to shoot Christie to her advantage. He only unlocks the magic toward the end when we’ve lost all patience.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A couple of years after this, Frederic Raphael came back with two near-classic screenplays. A more benign look at the glamorous rich in the adored dramedy/romance TWO FOR THE ROAD, with Hollywood helmer Stanley Donen cleverly adopting French New Wave techniques; and a fabulous reteaming with John Schlesinger & Julie Christie in an adaption of Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. Christie still goes thru men like tissue paper (Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp), and she still can’t act, but under the rapturous gaze of lenser Nicolas Roeg, you’d be crazy to care. One of the great underseen literary epics.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

STAZIONE TERMINI / TERMINAL STATION (aka INDISCRETIONS OF AN AMERICAN WIFE) (1953)

Producer David O Selznick must have been hoping for an Italian BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45 when he ‘silently’ produced this small-scale end-of-the-affair story. He cast his wife, Jennifer Jones, as the married half, and Montgomery Clift, just off FROM HERE TO ETERNITY/’53, as illicit lovers trying to find a bit of privacy in the middle of Rome’s brand new, bustling, ultra-modern Stazione Termini which added prestige & size to a slender plot. When director Roberto Rossellini turned him down*, Selznick went with Vittorio De Sica & his collaborators who, no doubt, hoped for a Hollywood-sized payout between making the devastating UMBERTO D/’52 & the delightful GOLD OF NAPLES/’54. Selznick was even a De Sica fan, he had briefly considered a remake of BICYCLE THIEVES for Cary Grant. (Really!) But he rebuffed De Sica’s 90 min. cut which used the public spaces & open design of the station as a third main character while adding lively vignettes from passers-by to constantly interrupt the lovers. Selznick wanted to concentrate on the uncomfortably neurotic interplay between Jones & Clift, and slashed three reels of atmosphere out of the pic for the American release; adding an exceedingly odd musical short (with Patti Page) to bump up the shrunken running time. The original cut, which unfortunately has a technical problem with its music track on the Criterion DVD, is still a miss . . . but, it’s an interesting miss. And it lets you see what De Sica was aiming for.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: De Sica cast the train station’s Commissioner with a Selznick look–a-like. A subtle dig at the man who makes everybody wait for his say-so before anything can happen.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Selznick may have been on to something with Rossellini. The same year, Ingrid Bergman & George Sanders starred in his remarkable VOYAGE TO ITALY, playing just the sort of unhappily married couple Jennifer Jones and her unseen husband might have been in this film.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

IDIOTS AND ANGELS (2008)

Bill Plympton’s distinctive artisanal style of hand-drawn animation is well-suited to this fable on man’s infinite capacity to ignore his own best instincts, his ‘better angels;’ even when they’re as plain as the nose on his face . . . or a set of wings growing out of his back. There’s no dialogue, but grunts & groans tell us all we need to know about the grumpy gun dealer who sells illegal weapons at a dive bar where a small but loyal group of oddball losers congregate. They each have their ‘pipe dreams,’ visualized for us as if Eugene O’Neill had written a pantomime, but then reality brings them back to their drab lives. And that’s when the unwanted wings start to sprout. Fought against, then fought for and fought over (some of the action is pretty grotesque), they annihilate everyone’s plans and turn inertia into ambition before blowing up in everyone’s face. It’s a wild, exhilarating, anarchistic ride. Plympton is especially gifted in clever visual transitions & substitutions, though, on the down side, his storyline & visuals can turn repetitive. But adventurous types won’t want to miss this. At its best, it’s a considerable achievement from an artsy animator best known for one-reel absurdities. NOTE: This feature-length cartoon is not for the kiddies! On the other hand, your teenage son just might flip over it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (1945)

No one has ever been able to explain how Leo McCarey held his loose-limbed pics together, especially the phenomenally popular Bing Crosby/Father O’Malley duo of GOING MY WAY/’44 and THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S. With their wise, twinkly priests & benevolent, good-humored nuns, they might be taking place on another planet: roughhousing city kids turn into angelic choirboys; cloying subplots reunite families; and weepy finales get boosted with miraculous displays of generosity in true faith & hard cash. Yet, with only slight indulgence, they remain irresistible. Part of the secret may be McCarey’s background in silent film comedy. Present at creation to Laurel & Hardy, he developed a relaxed feel for the rhythms of comic pacing & the patience to let episodic structures bloom. In this one, Crosby’s padre is sent to give Sister Ingrid Bergman’s rundown parochial school the once over. Will its doors close forever? If anything, we’re less connected to the real world than in the first film. Maybe a good thing. Lesser story materials & less memorable songs hardly matter since these films don’t rise & fall on the usual pluses & minuses. It’s all in the way McCarey riffs on his gags & sentiment, as if he’s playing jazz. It’s also why Ingrid Bergman, given a rapturous close-up from lenser George Barnes, reaches a level of spirituality far beyond anything she achieved when playing Joan of Arc in ‘48.

DOUBLE-BILL: Instead of GOING MY WAY, try McCarey’s decidedly odd final pic, SATAN NEVER SLEEPS/’62 which manages to relocate GOING MY WAY to ‘Red’ China! William Holden & Clifton Webb get the young priest/old priest roles played in GOING by Crosby & Barry Fitzgerald.

CONTEST: Listen as this Catholic school recites the Pledge of Allegiance. Notice something missing? Name and explain the gap to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

MAN BAIT / (aka) THE LAST PAGE (1952)

Hammer Studios made this tidy sexual-blackmail thriller a few years before they started rebooting horror pics in ultra-saturated color with Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee. And while it only reaches about 60% of its potential, it’s (just) odd enough to warrant a look. George Brent is appropriately gray as an unassuming bookshop manager with an invalid wife and an assistant who’s long pined for this nice unavailable man. But he’s also got a live wire in the shop, the young, sexy (and slightly slutty) accounts girl, Diana Dors. She's being chatted up by a lout who gets her to initiate a blackmail scheme against Brent after a reckless kiss. But when things go too far, people start to die, and Brent becomes the likely suspect. Terence Fisher, Hammer’s house helmer, gets some moody atmosphere out of actual London locations, and the bookshop is a claustrophobic marvel. (Is it a real place?) If only the blackmail scheme and the intimations of psychotic behavior had been fully exploited. With that in mind, note the credit for adaptation. Why it’s Frederick Knott of DIAL M FOR MURDER fame. Too bad they didn’t really let him run with this, the last act shows glimmers of something much stronger. But hold on for a great ‘thrill shot’ during some amateur sleuthing near the end. It’s worth the whole movie.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The classic read on quaint old London bookshops is 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff. You can read it in less time than it takes to watch the so-so movie they made of it in 1987.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)

Ray Milland is the terminally ill transplant specialist who needs a fresh body to graft his healthy head on. ‘Rosie’ Grier is the death row inmate who volunteers in the hope of gaining a little extra time to prove his innocence. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, did I mention that the good doctor is a horrible racist? If only the movie were as outrageous as its set up. Alas, this goofball release from Grade B film marketeers American International Pictures has the heart, soul & look of ‘70s a tv Movie-of-the-Week, with a few car & motorcycle chase scenes thrown in. A big fandango with 14 police cars is impressively destructive, but megger Lee Frost hasn’t a clue on how to put cause-and-effect into an action scene, random mayhem is his limit. Still, in its tactless way, the film is not without social/political interest as a blunt bigotry litmus test.. But it does go awfully flat whenever it tries to be funny. If it simply let its absurdist tendencies play out, it might have been nearly entertaining. That is, if someone other than Milland knew how to act.

DOUBLE-BILL: The idea of a white bigot trapped inside the body of a black man had recently appeared in Francis Coppola’s disastrous attempt at FINIAN’S RAINBOW/’68, made twenty years after the stage show opened & twenty years before it might have worked as a period piece. And don’t forget WATERMELON MAN/’70. Still a better pairing might come from another double-headed film fiasco, HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING/’89, the career-cratering follow up pic for helmer Bruce Robinson & Richard E. Grant just off their indispensable WITHNAIL AND I/’87

Monday, November 7, 2011

L’AFFAIRE FAREWELL (2009)

This mesmerizing Cold War endgame pic is a tru-life spy story that might have been written by John Le Carré.* It’s largely about Sergei Gregoriev (well played by Emir Kusturica), a highly placed Russian official who proves his trustworthiness not by leaking Soviet secrets, but by showing how many contacts & how much intelligence has leeched from the U.S. to the U.S.S.R. President Reagan (a delighted Fred Ward) & his staff, especially the CIA (Willem Dafoe), are gobsmacked. Now that he has their attention, Gregoriev hopes to leak enough info to decimate Soviet intelligence operations. Not for money or revenge or a ticket to freedom, but because he believes it can get his beloved, but moribund country out of deadlock; basically, he’s doing it for his son. And he pulls this off, not thru the usual Spy vs Spy channels, but with the terrified assistance of a mid-level French official living in Moscow with his family (Guillaume Canet). It may look like domestic intrigue, but the stakes are as high as they come. Christian Carion, who helmed & co-scripted, does a beautiful job keeping the operations clear and ratcheting up the tension. Even better is how the film incorporates the complicated family lives of these men, and in showing how their heroic actions may have done more in bringing down the Iron Curtain than all the Reagan White House military defense spending could muster. A superb film, and a bit shocking to note that this exciting & important work didn’t rate a theatrical run in the States.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *A barely recognizable David Soul plays an aide to Reagan named Hatton, but he’s made up to look just like Lyn Nofzinger. He gets to sit with the Prez and watch THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62. SPOILER ALERT!: They show who shot him!

DOUBLE-BILL: Why not try John Le Carré’s RUSSIA HOUSE/’90, Fred Schepisi helms Sean Connery & Michelle Pfieffer in a Tom Stoppard script. It’s an underrated film with similarities to this story. How much did Le Carré know?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

IERI, OGGI, DOMANI / YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW (1963)

KINO/Lorber’s much-appreciated DVD upgrade restores Vittorio De Sica’s tri-part comedy to its gorgeous, sexy, hilarious self. The tour of Italy starts in Naples where poor women can only keep out of jail by staying pregnant. But even when your wife is Sophia Loren, seven squalling kids are enough to make Marcello Mastroianni too pooped to pop. Then we’re off to Milan where a chic Sophia tries to drive away ennui with a new Rolls-Royce & a new romantic prospect. But can Marcello’s bookish intellectual handle a luxury car & a luxury woman? Now, to Rome where Marcello’s businessman is stopping in town to pay a few bribes and spend some quality time with his favorite call-girl. Guess who. But there’s a distraction on the neighboring terrace, a young seminary student who’s thinking of ditching God for Sophia. (There’s a difference?) De Sica’s broad comic tone is wonderfully assured here, combining smooth film technique with warm-hearted perfs from his irreplaceable stars. It’s not only that he gets the details right, he makes them specific, The film is a tourist's dream, but not a tourist’s trap. A big difference. It’s often forgotten (and bizarrely held against him by film academic types) that De Sica, the great Neo-Realist humanist, was also one film’s greatest entertainers. Working beautifully with Giuseppe Rotunno on magnificent locations (and cunningly matched studio interiors, what editing!), he generates huge laughs just on the camera set ups. The middle segment, an adagio between allegros, is a bit thin, Antonioni & Visconti appear to be the targets, but it shares in the remarkable use of space & composition. Five decades on, the film remains the most civilized of racy entertainments imaginable.

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939)

One of the first straight-ahead anti-Nazi pics, CONFESSIONS is so cleverly pieced together & excitingly paced, you hardly notice how thin this episodic FBI procedural actually is. The first act is all Germans & German-Americans plotting, spying, beer drinking, sneaking in on the S.S. Bismarck & congregating at the local German-American Bund. Finally, the F.B.I. comes into the frame when Edward G. Robinson shows up in the fourth reel, something of a late-entry record for a top-billed star. But Eddie’s always worth the wait, and with his paradoxically calm/staccato professorial manner, he teases out the conspiracy, picking off suspects and playing them against each other. No rough stuff from a country that’s still officially neutral, Eddie finesses confessions out of them. On paper, it doesn’t sound like much, but Anatole Litvak helms with an energy level that moves too fast to feel didactic as we go on a Stateside tour of pro-Nazi rallies for kids; a political riot in a NYC rathskellar & watch Gestapo enforcers operating in midtown. And the film is loaded with clever visual touches like the crisscrossing waiters who the camera follows from one conspirator to another or the florid expository montages (probably from Don Siegel) with swastika ‘wipes’ and just about every ‘optical printer’ trick in the book. The courtroom scenes are a bit of an anticlimax, Henry O’Neill is an underwhelming prosecutor, and the film loses dramatic density when George Sanders’s conflicted Nazi agent goes missing. But Francis Lederer is just right as a thickheaded, overconfident immigrant who buys the Nazi propaganda Paul Lukas spews out in the style of Hitler playing an East-Side Manhattan beer garden.

DOUBLE-BILL: Warners made a comic variant in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT/’42. It’s pretty lame stuff, even with Bogie, Conrad Veidt & Peter Lorre in the cast. But the change in tone from the jittery pre-Pearl Harbor days to the laughing-in-the-dark atmosphere of early war losses is fascinating.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

HAMSUN (1996)

Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell uncovers a family drama right out of August Strindberg in the last act of the life of Norwegian author/Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun, and his wife & family. Max von Sydow & Ghita Norby are simply magnificent as a mutually dependent husband & wife who can’t bear the sight of each other. And, more than just the story of an aging literary lion who terrorizes his family as his talent recedes, there’s extra historical interest in the enthusiastic support they gave to the Nazi occupation. Troell only lets us see the paths that brought them to their appalling (and highly unpopular) positions peripherally. The roots of Hamsun’s long festering hatred of the British apparently dated back to WWI, but are never spelled out. This has the advantage of avoiding simplistic ‘cause-and-effect’ answers on motivation, and lends unusual complexity to the portrait of willful political ignorance so often seen in brilliant, but congenitally stubborn people. Happily, that’s a condition which seems to have bypassed Troell who helms, writes, edits & shoots his work and who took a great risk in letting Sydow act in Swedish, Norby in Danish and everyone else in Norwegian. (Heck, it was Greek to me.) Er, except, that is, for Hitler & his gang who speak German in the devastating meeting Hamsun has with the Fuhrer. One of many highlights in this remarkable, under-seen film.

DEEP IN MY HEART (1954)

Hollywood calculus on Broadway composer bio-pics runs in direct disproportion to their talent. Hence, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and Cole Porter get ridiculous pics, while George M. Cohan, Kalmar & Ruby & Sigmund Romberg ‘win, place & show.’ Maybe it’s just lower expectations.* Whatever the cause, this film’s a breezy, unexpected charmer for anyone not completely allergic to operetta. Stanley Donen, who couldn’t have been thrilled with the assignment, strips down the usual fusty M-G-M look for speed & forward momentum, while Roger Edens, long-time second to M-G-M master-of-musicals Arthur Freed, called in every favor he had on the lot to stuff his first solo credit with fab specialty numbers. José Ferrer, skewered in THE BAND WAGON/’53 as a credit hog, was always a bit of a cold fish . . . so he’s just right for Romberg, a man who put all his passion into big slurpy melodies. Ferrer’s real life wife, Rosemary Clooney, stops by to share a verse, but José really scores acting out an entire B’way show in an eight minute marathon ‘numbo.’ (The fictitious show, JAZZ-A-DOO, is presumably BOMBO, a big hit for Al Jolson in 1921 which means BLACKFACE ALERT!) Gene Kelly does a nifty duo with brother Fred; Cyd Charisse is incredibly sexy in DESERT SONG and, a bit later, her husband, Tony Martin, incredibly virile on Oscar Hammerstein’s God-given lyric for ‘LOVER COME BACK; Jane Powell & Vic Damone aim for the fences in full operetta mode; Ann Miller looks, for once, like a complete dancer; and producer Edens, in a casting coup, has an Isolde up his sleeve, the great, rather matronly Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel. She pours out the goods as Romberg’s mentor, then brings it down to a fine thread for a frankly gorgeous ‘SOFTLY, AS IN MORNING SUNRISE.’ Lots of opera stars tried to make the move from The Met to Hollywood, but few took so naturally to it. No wonder Edens immediately worked up a smash Las Vegas act for her, that Jerry Lewis & Blake Edwards cast her in films or that she co-starred with Groucho Marx in THE MIKADO on tv.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Naturally, the one guy the studios really wanted was the one guy they could never get: Irving Berlin. Not only the biggest catalog of hits, he had, by far, the most dramatic life story; Dickens couldn’t have dreamed it up. But Berlin was too smart to sell. A tough & savvy salesman, he preferred quasi-bio-pics which let him dip into his catalog over & over & over.
DOUBLE-BILL: Romberg’s shows were considered old-fashioned even when they were new, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from turning them into hit films, even in the silent days. Ernst Lubitsch’s THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27 is bittersweet perfection, with Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer & a naughty dachshund all giving the performances of their lives. (But it needs a better musical soundtrack then it has on the current DVD.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

THE MOUNTAIN (1956)

At a paunchy 56, Spencer Tracy is a tough sell as either a skilled mountaineer or as the big brother of 26 yr-old Robert Wagner in this handsome, but empty Edward Dmytryk film. A plane crash in the Alps, near the brothers’ village, has brought outsiders to town: state officials, mail inspectors, newsman, insurance agents. But when the sanctioned rescue party fails to reach the crash site, Wagner presses his retired brother to help him make the dangerous climb for plunder. Tracy reluctantly goes along as protector & guide, but when they find a survivor among the wreckage, their mission has to change . . . or does it? Edward Dmytryk, trying for the calm authority of Fred Zinnemann or William Wyler, shows effective patience during the climbing sequences, but Ranald MacDougall’s script paints the contrasting brothers with too broad a brush. Tracy’s good/noble peasant vs Wagner’s venal/callow youth. How much stronger the drama would play if we could at least partially sympathize with the young man’s desperation to get away from cows, sheep & simple souls. But only the superb cinematography of Franz Planer rises to the dramatic level Dmytryk is aiming at. And what a show Planer makes of it! Shooting on location in the enviable VistaVision format, there’s so much depth & clarity to the images, even the special effects & process shots go far above the norm. No small consideration when you’ve got to fake every mountain climbing scene for the physically restricted Tracy.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Okay, how ‘bout: HEAR THIS, NOT THAT? Get a real taste of mountain air with Richard Strauss’s ultra-humongous AN ALPINE SYMPHONY/ EINE ALPENSINFONIE. What version? Well, Christian Thielemann conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on DG is pretty tough to beat.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

BLONDE VENUS (1932)

The ratio of Sublime to Inane swings noticeably in the six Hollywood collaborations of Marlene Dietrich & mentor/helmer Josef von Sternberg. Skeptics to the legend lean toward the earlier films (where Marlene has cheeks as well as cheek bones) while true believers opt for the delirious excess of the final two. So, where does that leave this mid-point entry?* Here, Marlene plays the loyal & loving wife of radium-poisoned Herbert Marshall. To save him, she stoops to conquer, chantuesing in a nightclub where she promptly falls for Cary Grant’s ‘swellegant’ racketeer. Sternberg usually had the older suitor (or husband) as masochist/reject, but VENUS adds button-cute Dickie Moore as a wild card; he’s Dietrich & Marshall’s son, and that changes the equation. The film holds its place in popular culture because of ‘Hot Voodoo,’ the song where Marlene emerges from a gorilla suit, but it’s sacrificial MotherLove that drives the narrative. (Alas, none of the songs are memorable.) With Sternberg, it’s never quite clear how much of this is supposed to be taken seriously. (Dietrich sacrifices, sins, gives up her son, sinks to the depths, rises to stardom, then gets it all back. 'Is that all there is?') But with Jules Furthman on script, the swift transitions move the outrageous story ahead like a graphic novel for the soap opera set, and his kidding-on-the-square dialogue perfectly characterizes while getting healthy laughs. And not only for Dietrich & Grant. Just see what he does for the amazingly assured Hattie McDaniel in an early appearance.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: * With seven films, why is #5 midpoint? Well, THE BLUE ANGEL, made in Germany, is sui generis. DISHONORED/’31 was #3, but gets dropped as their sole misfire. (But keep the great execution finale.) Here’s the full line-up: BLUE ANGEL/’30; MOROCCO/’30; DISHONORED/’31; SHANGHAI EXPRESS/’32; BLONDE VENUS/’32; THE SCARLET EMPRESS/’34; THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN/’35. (Though in America, BLUE ANGEL got released second, after MOROCCO . . . but in an inferior English-language edition.) Note the missing year of 1933 when Paramount untied the Gordian Knot and gave Dietrich to Rouben Mamoulian for the ill-considered SONGS OF SONGS. Then, back to Sternberg for the last two films. Confused yet?