While it’s never held the iconic status of GOLDFINGER/’64 (nor that film’s ultra-clean narrative line), the second James Bond pic anchored the series with most of the signature elements that continue to prop up the increasingly arthritic franchise. This early outing has an unusually strong cast with Sean Connery, still lithe & dangerous as Bond, playing hardball with Robert Shaw (an actual actor as the menacing goon), and footsies with the gloriously eccentric baddie Lotte Lenya. A good thing, too, because Bond’s romance with Soviet spy Daniela Bianchi never heats up. The first half of the film plays out as a picturesque vamp (in photogenic Istanbul) before turning into a picaresque chase, a bit too closely modeled on Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59. (A ‘Making-Of’ short details some of the plot contortions.) GOLDFINGER took things one step farther away from a realistic spy yarn (for better & for worse) and even managed to set Connery up with an age-appropriate love-interest. After that it was all bloat, gadgets & self-mockery. Recent entries have kept up-to-date with ultra-violence & buckets of CGI. Whoopee.
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Saturday, April 30, 2011
Artificial? Yes. Intelligence? No. Steven Spielberg took up a story idea that had apparently caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick at his most misanthropic. But if Kubrick’s films grew ever more loathsome after he entered his English hermitage, Spielberg one ups the master with a film that is both loathsome and idiotic. It’s basically a futuristic variation on PINOCCHIO/’40, something of an idée fixe for Spielberg who even had composer John Williams put a slice of ‘Wish Upon A Star’ into CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/’77, the only other film where he claimed sole script credit. In A.I., the kid is no puppet, but a super-realistic automaton, tossed into a real-life family where his creepy overdose of loving devotion isn’t able to handle actual human complications. Fine, well and dandy. What makes it all revolting, and typically Kubrickian, is that this mechanized loyalty is presented as something better than the flawed human variety. Kubrick, at his long-lost best (he went ‘round-the-bend toward the end of 2001/’68), would have revealed (and reveled) the black humor in how humankind undervalues this simulacrum; Spielberg takes it all at face value. The little known D.A.R.Y.L./’85 covered much the same ground, but Spielberg isn’t done with us and spins out an extra hour to fill us in on the end of mankind, the return of his aliens from ENCOUNTERS (thinner than ever!) and, in the only emotional jolt of the pic, the still standing towers of the World Trade Center in the watery grave of future NYC. The film looks wildly expensive, but the effects just weigh things down with too much smoke, fog, mirrors & arty silhouette shots. It’s exhausting. We’re supposed to cringe with disgust at the tasteless Fun Fair scenes (sex, gambling, sadistic demolition sideshows & junk food), it’s Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island and, look!, there’s Brendan Gleeson making like Stromboli, the puppet show master. Jude Law is (somehow) very good as a smoothie robot gigolo, but he lets us down by not showing us his secret technique for a good time. Everyone else makes like zombies (very Kubrickian), except for Haley Joel Osment as the creepy kid who wants to be real. You gotta go back to old Luise Rainer films to find an actor who spent so much time looking up hopefully.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Robin Williams, who does a voice-over in this, last worked for Spielberg in HOOK/’91. Can we keep these two away from each other?
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Duh, PINOCCHIO/’40.
Friday, April 29, 2011
Herman Melville’s mordant novella about Bartleby the Scrivener (a sort of copyist/accountant) has such a strikingly modern tone, you turn the pages expecting to bump into Kafka, Camus or Beckett. The story could hardly be simpler; Bartleby, a young man, reserved to the point of near inertia, applies for a dead-end job at a small accounting firm. At first, he’s odd, if productive, but as the weeks pass, he ‘prefers not to’ do anything. He becomes something of an immovable object, both tolerated & resented. Melville offers no easy explanation or solution for what happens, it’s part of what makes the book so modern, but then he goes much farther, making it funny, off-putting & tragic, all at the same time. This version (like the one from 2001 w/ David Paymer, Crispin Glover & Joe Piscopo!!) moves the story up to the present, paradoxically decreasing its startling modernity. Still, if this version makes the story too consistently somber, barring a fine quick outburst of muderous black humor, at least it avoids the ‘wacky’ tone of the 2001 adaptation. (Which, in any event, is so poorly directed it’s hard to sit thru.) John McEnery makes a memorably gentle mystery out of Bartleby, but the film belongs to Paul Scofield as the boss who can’t quite give up on the lad. (He apparently turned down the Robert Mitchum role in David Lean’s RYAN’S DAUGHTER/’70 to make this tiny indie.) Director Anthony Friedman locates the strangeness in Melville’s story, yet never over-milks it, and he uses the milling crowds of ‘70s London to fine impersonal effect.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t hold your breath for a straight visualization with its original narration and proper 19th century setting, but has anyone ever thought about turning this into an opera? If ever a phrase was made for a leitmotif, it was ‘I would prefer not to.’
READ ALL ABOUT IT: You guessed it, Herman Melville’s BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER. You can read the entire novella in the time it takes to watch this film. Don’t let MOBY DICK scare you off.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
It’s clear, right from the opening shots of his seventh film, that Akira Kurosawa has suddenly become a master. This may be a small, intimate film, but Kurosawa gives a bravura performance. He shows a new confidence, a ‘rightness’ in each shot, in the editing & pacing, in the writing & acting; and such a lovely heartfelt story of its times, it’s hard not to fall for it. There are echoes from romantics like Frank Borzage & F. W. Murnau in their films with Janet Gaynor, and even a huge swipe from James M. Barrie’s PETER PAN at the climax after we've spent a Sunday with Isao Numasaki & Chieko Nakakita roaming thru post-war Tokyo. The young couple are too poor to set up a home & marry, but they meet once a week to walk around their still devastated city, to dream of buying a house or renting a place of their own. Maybe they’ll splurge on a dreary cup of coffee or try to grab a pair of popular-priced symphony tickets. Kurosawa has to make do with a bit of poverty himself, unconvincing studio sets, the scrawniest string section ever to play Schubert’s ‘Unfinished,’ a few marvelous 'stolen' shots on real city streets filled with real city people. And while the narrative largely consists of these two lovebirds getting doors slammed in their face or struggling with their own unconsummated passions, Kurosawa tempers the hard knocks with glimmers of hope. At least, for those who can still believe in Tinkerbell's magic.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Frank Sinatra hit the director’s chair for this standard-issue WWII film about a Japanese unit left behind on a nameless Pacific Island until they get crashed by a planeload of American troops. It’s a gimmick, but a useful one: how does war play out in a vacuum?; can an ad-hoc truce hold once the men restore communications?; who wants to be the asshole on the atoll? A neat premise for a helmer like Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich or Don Siegel, but not, alas, Sinatra whose attention wanders alarmingly. He gives himself the showy role (he’s Francis the Medic!) and he also gives himself the big dramatico scene (an anesthesia-free leg amputation on a wounded Japanese). And damned if he doesn't handle it effectively, largely in a carefully composed mastershot. But too much of the staging is perfunctory, with action sequences that don’t ‘read’ and lazy line-ups straight across the screen. The Japanese actors come across well enough, but the American contingent is plumb awful. By the time we hit the big insanity-of-war climax, it all feels like one big set up.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If you turn the subtitles on for the Japanese dialogue, it gives you subtitles for everything, Japanese and English. Annoying. Why not watch it without them for that Mystery-of-the-Orient effect like in the old SHOGUN mini-series.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Clint Eastword's WWII two-fer, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS/'06 and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA/'06 tackles the WWII East/West POV in epic fashion.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Even the opening credits are swoon-worthy in Luca Guadagnino’s ultra-lux pic about a wealthy Milanese family (the Recchis) who seem unaware that they are entering a two-fold crisis. On the business side, Grandfather is passing on the family textile concern to his son (Tancredi) & eldest grandson (Edoardo). Thoughts of Lear splitting his kingdom spring to mind, but it’s the brave new world of global economics that will take charge of events. On the personal side, with Granddad gone & his wife suitably moved to a chic apartment, the estate is now run by Tancredi & his beautiful Russian-born wife, Tilda Swinton. But a life changing meal, prepared by her son’s friend & business partner, ignites an inexplicable romantic folly (right out of a Tolstoy novel), and her meticulously designed & organized life suddenly palls. Tragedy may loom around the corner, but at least everyone will be properly dressed. The film is often successful in reviving tropes out of a ‘50s romantic drama (imagine a collaboration between Visconti & Douglas Sirk) with a pulsating John Adams’ score to ‘mod’ things up. (‘The Chairman Dances’ gets a workout.) But halfway thru, Guadagnino begins to mistake fashionable with fashion, dropping the ball on simple plot points, and asking too much from what he’s got to offer. It's like one of those exquisite, but tiny plates of food. The film remains a treat to look at, though less so when we hit the placid countryside where we could have done without the flowers & insects seconding the illicit lovemaking. Meanwhile, the business angle, which might have helped balance the film’s relationships & storylines, gets terribly short shrift.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Otto Preminger's BONJOUR TRISTESSE/'58 is a masterful example of the form.
Pedro Costa’s hypnotic and hypnotically depressing film about the somnambulistic residents of a poverty stricken neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal is more a contemplation than a narrative, fittingly so. The cast of cast-offs struggle to raise their eyelids as they move thru the day. One ‘borrows’ an infant as a tool for begging . . . or perhaps as barter? Another is more ambitious, vacuuming the homes of absent middle-class employers while a relative comes along to sleep on the sofa. Perhaps the garbage will yield a meal or two? The air of defeat is suffocating. Yet, the film, with its still camera set ups & heavy atmosphere has the bewitching tone of ‘found beauty’ in its warm colors and the frames-within-frames composition style, even as a vague rumble of threatening violence & loss smothers any possibility of social or economic movement. The poetry of poverty is a dangerous conceit for those who have to live the life, but it may be Costa’s great subject. (The film is part of a loose trilogy not yet seen.)
Friday, April 22, 2011
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story may take place in 2056, but it already feels dated. A fable about fate & freewill, it imagines a crime-free city that arrests perpetrators before the fact, thanks to a trio of floating soothsayers. Tom Cruise is chief dick on the program, a divorced dad who lost his son years back, now hoist on his own petard when the seers point his way. That’s when the film tips from ‘manhunt’ to ‘man-hunted,’ a high-tech Innocent-Man-On-The-Run much like Harrison Ford in THE FUGITIVE/’93. [SPOILER!!: You’ll recognize Colin Farrell & Max Von Sydow in roles played by Tommy Lee Jones & Jeroen Krabbé in the Ford pic.] Spielberg is so relieved to get the heck out of that crime lab, a blue-toned cocoon of I-PAD projectiles you play with your hands like a Theremin, he celebrates with some goofy gags. There's a yucky pair of detached, roll-away eyeballs, and he even pulls off his own variation on a conveyor-belt set piece Alfred Hitchcock spoke of but never found a spot for. But all too soon we return to unearned solemnity and those suffering saint-like seers. Very Stanley Kubrick meets Ron Howard.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Cruise literally has to drag one of those seers along for the rest of the pic. No doubt, just how Spielberg felt about having to finish this one.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Ever since NO WAY OUT/’87 was allegedly ‘saved’ with a final twist that made mincemeat of the whole plot, political-thrillers have been wrapping things up with one revelation too many. So it goes with this generally involving remake of a six-part British mini-series. The story has moved to D.C., and the subject now centers on corrupt military contracts, but the most intriguing element in the film is only glanced at, the newly evolving pecking order between print & on-line journalism. It gets lost in the inexperienced hands of megger Kevin Macdonald who’s busy enough keeping all the plot-lines straight between chases, hitmen, rub-outs and various journalism tropes ripped less from today’s headlines than from ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN/’76. Sporting an unwashed pageboy as the ink-stained reporter, Russell Crowe gives one of his better recent perfs, but Rachel McAdams makes little contact with her ‘Junior Miss’ on-line reporter. Helen Mirren’s tough-guy editor hasn’t enough screen time to compete with Bill Nighy’s priceless perf in the mini-series. (Hey, who cast an Aussie, a Canadian & a Brit in these key roles?) As married politicos, Robin Wright & Ben Affleck do little for themselves or each other, but Jeff Daniels makes a meal out of his few scenes as a power-broker Congressman. Sounds like a lot of demerits, but it does hold you . . . right up to that double-helix trick ending.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
This 1986 animé is an early feature from Hayao Miyazaki, right before MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO/’88 and PORCO ROSSO/’92. It never received a theatrical Stateside release, but here’s a fully-rigged Disney DVD edition with a starry English dub. (It also comes with the original Japanese and a French track from a 2003 release.) The plot concerns a couple of sweet-faced adolescents who meet-cute when the girl floats down from the sky. (She wears a gem with great powers.) After initially being chased by some dastardly pirates, they wind up joining them (in a flying ship) on a race to find the eponymous castle before an evil army finds the island’s treasure & secret power source. It’s a bit of a mishmash with bits of Jules Verne, Swift, R.L. Stevenson, even a grab from the Jewish ghetto in Prague, THE GOLEM. But it doesn’t feel as overburdened, dark or impenetrable as some recent Miyazaki; it’s a mess, but a jolly, friendly mess, and very likable. The palette is cheerful & wonderfully bright, the characterizations are winning (within the limits of animé facial styling) and there are fabulous set pieces scattered along the journey. An early chase in the first act between a track-bound train and the pirates madly driving on a curving mountain road is a real standout. (Did Spielberg have this scene in the back of his head making TIN TIN?) And some of the airborne flights, especially when the kids take flight in a high flying kite-lookout, are rapturous. What a treat this would have been on the big screen.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t know why, but the French track really fits the action. Sounds silly, but turn the subtitles on and give it a try.
Monday, April 18, 2011
Fans of that Dragon Tattoo gal will be satisfied with the gleanings in episode two. Others can give it a pass. This time, the main mystery (something or other about ‘white slave’ trafficking) plays more directly into Ms Tattoo’s personal backstory which thins the texture of the storyline, and not to the film’s advantage. (Like the first film, the theatrical release trims the running time of the Swedish tv edition.) Daniel Alfredson takes over helming from Niels Arden Oplev and he turns out a smaller scaled product that is significantly less kinky & more linear. Is it him or the script? There aren’t a lot of surprises here, and some of the sidebar episodes feel shoe-horned in. (Boxing, anyone?) And did no one care that the film’s resolution lands with a thud as it conveniently sets up a final episode/confrontation? The film does boast a fabulous sick joke involving a taser-resistant foe. Maybe the final release will have two jokes in it.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Superb. Writer/director Arnaud Desplechin pulled in a stellar cast for this home-for-the-holidays drama which uses a medical crisis to bait a richly textured exploration of how parents & their children (and their children’s children) find infinite ways to get along, get mad, get together, get on with it and get out of each others’ way. Between the parents, the kids, a few cousins, in-laws, friends & grandkids, you won’t find a false note from anyone, but Catherine Deneuve (Mom/Grandmom), Mathieu Amalric (the wayward middle son) & Emmanuelle Devos (as Amalric’s latest flame) are simply beyond praise. The set up may sound a bit soapy (Deneuve comes down with a blood cancer & needs a bone-marrow match), but the execution handles it with the asymmetrical honesty of real family life. Desplechin paces this longish film beautifully, nicely filling in background detail when needed,* and manages to ‘see plain’ some of the mystery of family relationships in a manner rarely encountered on screen.
*There is, at least for English-speaking audiences, a bit of confusion getting all the characters straight. It stems from Deneuve’s husband, who's so much older, you think you’ve missed a generation. You can avoid this problem by first watching the American trailer which neatly parses all the main relationships. But be warned! It also has the disadvantage of making this film look like a French version of Ron Howard’s PARENTHOOD/’89. If anything, this film is the antitheses of that commercially savvy tummy-rub.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Desplechin displays quite an eclectic film palette with clips from A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM/’35; THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56 and FUNNY FACE/’57 showing up. And he had the whole cast watch ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39 before the shoot. Yet, the film this most calls to mind is Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER/’‘83; the original Swedish tv cut, please, not the U.S. theatrical release.
The first film Akira Kurosawa initiated after WWII was this sweeping woman’s story. (His only film with a female in the leading role?) Setsuko Hara is Yukie, a professor’s daughter who all the students trail after. Yet she’s too much a contrarian to follow her heart to Noge (Susumu Fujita), a radical intellectual type. But it’s 1933 and the rapid rise of the political right changes the culture & social landscape of Yukie’s life: Noge is arrested; her Pop loses his university position; she moves to Tokyo and begins a series of dead end jobs; reunites with Noge who has found success in the capital after a stint in jail & work in China; loses him again; but then bonds with his rice farming parents . . . what? Good grief, is this Akira Kurosawa or Edna Ferber? Well, it’s unexpected terrain, but largely, the melodramatic woman’s issues are effectively handled. And if some of Kurosawa’s showy editing tricks don’t really fit the moment, the consistently fine perfs smooth things over. If only Kurosawa seemed more convinced about Yukie’s self-sacrifice & stubborn fidelity to the principled thing to do. Kurosawa grumbled in his auto-bio about having to shoot a rewritten script (the last act is stuffed with enough grit & uplift to please a Soviet film commissar), so perhaps other chefs over-egged this pudding. Great title, though.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Rudolph Maté helmed this tidy noir @ Paramount the same year he made his cult classic D.O.A. Same goes for co-stars William Holden & Nancy Olson; they made SUNSET BLVD this year! No wonder this exemplary programmer gets lost in the shuffle. Holden plays the tough police chief at a big city railroad station who reluctantly follows up on Olson’s ‘suspicious persons’ report. Turns out, she’s spotted the opening gambit of a kidnaping scheme. Barry Fitzgerald, repeating his characterization from THE NAKED CITY/’48, comes on board as the city’s Chief of Police. This sort of thing should be old hat, but Maté makes the most of it. There’s a surprising level of thuggish violence for the time, and some swell location stuff which Maté takes good advantage of: stockyards, subway tunnels, boiler rooms, etc. And those smooth lobby floors in the station give lenser Daniel Fapp lots of elbow room for great tracking shots. It can’t match the underlying story gimmick of D.O.A. (‘poisoned man hunts down his own killers’), but what amazingly clean direction! You could teach a film course off it. With just the right amount of studio polish from Paramount’s tech departments, this 80 minute throwaway is something special.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Author Stieg Larsson didn’t live to see the enormous international success of his mystery/thriller trilogy, but it’s hard to imagine him not approving Niels Arden Opley’s faithful adaptation. Yet, watching this two-pronged tale of amateur sleuthing sets up an even greater mystery; what’s all the fuss about? Noomi Rapace is the tattooed Goth girl, a troubled soul with a gift for computer hacking. She’s on the e-trail of disgraced investigative journalist Michael Nyqvist who’s just been hired by a super-rich industrial family. They, or rather, the elder head of the family, wants to find out what happened to one of their own, a girl who vanished over forty years ago. But the more the reporter uncovers, the less the family wants him to dig. Larsson gets his two leads working together too early in the story, a bit more personal antipathy or professional rivalry might have covered up the dreary computer screen research and some less than baffling clues. It also causes problems with story construction since we’ve got to get thru an extended epilogue after dealing with a series of third-act plot revelations. (And it’s even longer in MILLENIUM, the tv version of the complete trilogy, which adds a half-hour to a two & a half hour running time.) There’s certainly no lulls between the ultra-violence. Not only as part of the central case; not just for penetrating into the screwed up psyche of Ms Tattoo; but needlessly added to the main event like extra side dishes to fill out a platter . . . for our delectation. Maybe that explains why a dream team of Hollywood A-listers are signing up for a remake.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Nick Hornsby’s surefire novel about a commitment-phobic, serial-dating cad who gets a life-changing wake-up call from a 12 yr-old boy who's looking for a father-figure, barely survives the hard-sell of Peter Hedges’ earnest script, as reworked by co-directors Chris & Paul Weitz. Playing the rake in this Rake’s Progress, Hugh Grant delays the onset of his character’s better angels with constant stream-of-wiseguy narration, but the filmmakers get too cute and have the kid work the same angle, moving the emotional bar from drama to plea bargaining. As directors, the Weitz sibs are big on tricky visual transition devises, which only emphasizes how scrappy everything else is. Especially, when they try to stage a scene with more than two or three people. Those with long memories may be reminded of the old Jason Robards’ vehicle, A THOUSAND CLOWNS/’65 (currently unavailable in any home video format). Like BOY, its many fans are unswayed by its basic mediocrity, but at least CLOWNS has the decency to make its 'happy' ending play out like a defeat. In this one, Hugh Grant’s sentimental Don Giovanni hedonist would have answered ‘Yes’ when the Commandatore came a'calling.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Rex Harrison is a Cad For All Seasons in Gilliat/Launder’s THE NOTORIOUS GENTLEMAN (aka THE RAKE’S PROGRESS)/’45.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
When an 18 yr-old half-brother shows up on an Argentine doorstep, two siblings find they are separated by more than just their twenty year age difference . . . and that some long-buried family secrets they’ve been hiding from each other can heal as well as harm. That’s the set up for this visually extravagant pic from Francis Ford Coppola, shot in handsome, if over-studied b&w Scope, with flashbacks, fantasy sequences & a bit of Powell/Pressburger’s TALES OF HOFFMAN appearing in blazing color. Coming from a family of artistic over-achievers, this story of writers, performers & musicians undoubtedly has personal resonance for Coppola. (His own father was a classical music conductor/composer and everyone else in the clan seems either in front or behind the camera.) But the story quickly devolves into a gerryrigged collection of emotional cliches, and the lux visuals don’t feel specifically connected to this particular story. Perhaps if the acting were stronger, or consistently heightened. But the nice characters are unmemorable while Vincent Gallo, as the noxious artistic genius, hardly seems human, let alone related to anyone. The film, as a whole, isn’t as self-defeating as Coppola’s previous bit of pretentious navel-gazing nonsense (YOUTH FOR YOUTH/’07), but the only haunting image comes at the end of the opening credits when Francis Ford Coppola’s name as producer, writer & director fails to properly register before being obliterated by a beam of light from a passing bus. A prophetic moment.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Brandon de Wilde specialized in playing kid brother to scapegrace dazzlers. HUD/’63 w/ Paul Newman is the best (and best known), but ALL FALL DOWN/’62 lets us see a side of Warren Beatty he rarely allowed to show thru the glamorous facade.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
We’re nearer Mascagni than Moscow in Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s short story; not necessarily a bad thing. The terribly young, terribly handsome Marcello Mastroianni (check out those test shots on the Criterion DVD) is the lonely soul, new in town, who falls for shy, fresh-faced Maria Schell. She’s been faithfully waiting a whole year for Jean Marais, her handsome tenant, to return; perhaps she’ll give up on the cause. The outcome is no more important than the mood & atmosphere as Visconti turns this romantically fatalistic fable into a masterpiece of poetic-realism on an ultra-realistic, yet frankly studio-bound set. You’d need to go back to the glory days of Frank Borzage’s late silents @ Fox to find its rapturous visual equal. Off the main set, watch for two stunning musical episodes as Schell, in a flashback, goes with Marais & Grandmama to the opera; and back in the present at a local boîte where Mastroianni asserts his manhood jiving to Bill Haley & his Comets’ ‘Thirteen Women.’ Schell works her innocent waïf routine pretty hard (so did Janet Gaynor in those Borzage classics), gazing up to catch the light, but you’d put up with far more to reach the film’s snowy apotheosis.
Friday, April 8, 2011
This modestly-scaled musical with Danny Kaye as a British prep school teacher, the only film helmed by famed choreographer Michael Kidd, is an unsung charmer. Why it never caught on is a mystery; and a shame since it holds up much better than Kaye’s better known early successes for Sam Goldwyn. The story puts Kaye in England (with a spot on British accent) where an archeological dig for a long sought statue of the God Pan lands Danny face-to-face with a lion. He’s dug himself right into a circus tent! Soon, he’s also fallen for the lovely daughter of the proprietor, winningly played by a game Pier Angeli & the great operatic basso-buffo Salvatore Baccaloni. There are only five or six songs in the film, but each is a delight (check out that counterpoint melody Danny sings against his brothers), with remarkably sophisticated lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer to accompany Saul Chaplin’s catchy tunes. And, yes, the script is by the same I.A.L. Diamond whose next project was SOME LIKE IT HOT/'59. (You thought there were two I.A.L. Diamonds?) You’d never guess this was Kidd’s first pic, even with the dances for BAND WAGON, GUYS AND DOLLS and SEVEN BRIDES under his belt. What a kick to watch him shoot so much stuff in a carefree out-of-doors manner rarely seen at the time. (Did the French New Wave ever see this?) These are some of the most delightfully unstylized musical numbers ever filmed. Yet they never look awkward or out of place. Alas, the days of human-scaled musicals were all but over. And they’ve yet to return.
NOTE: This film has just come out on Warners' VOD service. But this Write-Up is drawn from a theatrical showing during the film’s initial release . . . and not seen since. You do the math.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
The good folks @ Pixar Animation, led by helmer/co-writer Pete Docter, built themselves something of a stylistic trap on this one. UP gets off to a lovely start with a prologue detailing the ‘meet-cute,’ courtship, marriage & bittersweet life of the mated-for-life Fredricksons. Then we pick up the main storyline with Fredrickson, now a curmudgeonly widower, living by himself in his old house. Enter Stage Left: A very round, very pesky boy scout who insists on helping the old man . . . whether he wants help or not. It’s a relatively realistic storyline so far, and the animation style lets us ‘buy into’ the characters, settings & events. Then the balloons go up, the house lifts off, and we’re heading toward a wild adventure in South American! But our belief in what we see crumbles. Suddenly, we’re in cartoon-land where dogs talk & fly planes, logic comes & goes as needed to move the plot along, and character motivation gets trumped by the demands of the story arc. This really trips up Charles Muntz, the famous explorer we find in the Pampas. He was Fredrickson’s hero as a lad and now something of a Captain Nemo figure. His actions don’t add up; and neither does his age. He must be 100. UP remains an enjoyable romp, loaded with striking vistas, but even taken on its own terms, it starts to feel like a cheat. And the emotional investment made in the first couple of reels pays little dividend. Pity.
(The DVD comes with two shorts: DUG’S SPECIAL MISSION, a leftover from the main event, and the funny & adorable PARTLY CLOUDY, about a stork who has to deliver all the nasty baby beasts of the world.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Ed Asner does Fredrickson’s voice, but the look is pure Spencer Tracy; circa DESK SET/’57. That’s Christopher Plummer doing the vocals for the villainous Charles Muntz who looks a lot like Kirk Douglas when he did THE VILLAIN/’79., a sort of Live-Action Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote pic? Kirk was also in Disney’s excellent 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA/’54, but it was James Mason who got to play Nemo.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Actress Jennifer Jones & helmer King Vidor had been down this road before in DUEL IN THE SUN.’46. Here’s the chamber version, in b&w and running a much shorter 80 minutes. It’s the old story of the sexy girl who loses her man to a safer, saner, better-connected society gal. She marries on the rebound, becomes a rich widow and takes her revenge. Vidor, a brilliant, but uneven director, pushes everything so hard that the film is both compelling and ridiculous. Jones, a decade too old for her role, doesn’t come off as a wild spirit, dying to be tamed by the right man, but as borderline psychotic. A shame, because she’s unusually well matched with a young Charlton Heston whose face hadn’t yet turned to granite. The best scene shows them driving recklessly into the surf, too filled with each other to care. (It’s a steal from Vidor’s little seen masterpiece, THE STRANGER’S RETURN/’33, where Miriam Hopkins & Franchot Tone drive straight into a field of wheat.) But Jones & company soon return to their neurotic ways as the story wends its way toward an unearned tragic finish.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Jennifer Jones is an acquired taste not everyone acquires. But she was far better in her other 1952 film, William Wyler's superb Dreiser adaptation CARRIE with Laurence Olivier in magnificent form, and fine tough support from Miriam Hopkins of STRANGER'S RETURN.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Even in an era loaded with classic films, the late-silents of Josef von Sternberg stand out. This famous film, the only survivor of the six films German actor Emil Jannings made in Hollywood, is a masterpiece of mood, melodrama & masochism. He plays a once great general of the Czar’s Imperial Army, now a shabby movie extra, grateful for a day’s work as a make-believe general in a costume. He doesn’t know that his director (William Powell) knew him from those revolutionary days of 1917, or that he’s out for revenge. In the long flashback that takes up most of the film, we see how they first crossed paths. And we meet the beautiful, morally indifferent woman who was fated never to leave Russia (Evelyn Brent). Sternberg’s distinctive way with studio artifice creates a dreamlike vision of Russia, WWI and the Revolution in Bert Glennon’s ravishing b&w lensing, carefully reproduced on the current Criterion DVD which includes an unusually interesting visual essay in Tag Gallagher’s overview of Sternberg’s silent film career. Of the two musical scores on the disc, the fuller symphonic one arranged by Robert Israel is preferable until the final sequence, back in Hollywood, where the Alloy Orchestra track bests it. (04/04/11)
Here are Emil Jannings’ missing Hollywood films:
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH/’27 - directed by Victor Fleming - LOST
STREET OF SIN/’28 - Mauritz Stiller; co-starring Fay Wray - LOST
THE PATRIOT/’28 - Ernst Lubitsch - LOST
SINS OF THE FATHERS/’28 - Ludwig Berger; co-starring Ruth Chatterton & Jean Arthur - LOST
BETRAYAL/’29 - Lewis Milestone; co-starring Gary Cooper - LOST
Monday, April 4, 2011
Akira Kurosawa’s first post-war project was a Noh/Kabuki standard that hid a surprisingly topical theme: when is it right to break with tradition in order to save tradition? It’s the underlying point of this period piece about a lord on the run from his powerful brother. Traveling in disguise, along with a few loyal retainers, he needs to cross a border without being discovered. But for his disguise to work, he must lose face, drop centuries of proper protocol, and allow his position (actually his person) to be debased. It’s a situation not so far removed from what the current Emperor, and much of the country, was struggling with. It sounds intriguing, but the film doesn’t come to life. Kurosawa is not yet able to balance the various styles of acting & visual representation. Painted mountains on cycloramas are followed by hikes thru real landscapes; a realistic perf from Susumu Fujita (Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata) plays alongside highly stylized theatrics & off-screen choruses. And a wild comic turn from Kenichi Enomoto, as the porter, doesn’t fit in with anything. (According to Kurosawa, the Japanese film board found the comedy insulting and held back the film’s release for years. They may have been on to something.)
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While Kurosawa mavens will want to see this, non-completists should check out his first film as director, SANSHIRO SUGATA/’43.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
This forgotten pic holds considerable interest for Marlon Brando fanciers. Not because it’s an undiscovered gem; it’s not, merely a variable WWII espionage tale that falls apart in the third act. (The big character epiphanies fall flat and director Bernhard Wicki can’t make sense of the action climax.) Yet, it’s fascinating just to watch Brando deliver the sort of generic movie star acting you’d have expected to see from, say, William Holden or Robert Mitchum in some well-paid assignment they’d lost faith in. There’s no challenge to it, even the German accent is a leftover from THE YOUNG LIONS/58, now more refined & relaxed. And he makes it look so ridiculously easy, still solid, handsome & moving like a cat, he swamps everything around him even in neutral . . . no wonder it sickened him. Brando plays a German ex-pat who’s blackmailed by Trevor Howard into posing as an SS officer on Captain Yul Brynner’s Nazi cargo ship. Marlon’s supposed to save its valuable rubber for the Allies. The best gimmick in Daniel Taradash’s script has Brynner loathing the Nazis as much as Brando; the worst gimmick is a subplot with Janet Margolin as a Jewess prisoner who’s really onboard to add sex & unearned moral seriousness. Everyone must have known this was turning into a stinker, note the two titles, but nothing could stop the critical & financial drubbing. (Certainly not Brando’s script rewrites. He added serious issues to the mix.) Now, it’s just a curiosity, but curiously fascinating.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Peter Manso’s Brando bio covers the disastrous production beautifully. Not a pretty picture.
Saturday, April 2, 2011
The intense identification readers developed with the rabbit characters in Richard Adams’ phenomenally popular book is only fleetingly caught in Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation. But that was enough for a big international audience who had already bought into Adams’ cleverly developed rabbity creation myth, lapin theology & hare-brained exodus story. The look was pleasing & painterly (very watercolor/Lake District) and the abrupt stylistic shift away from Disney’s smooth corporate style (in generic doldrums at the time) read as sincerity. This handmade quality, even the slightly shabby earmarks of a reduced frame rate in individual drawings, worked for the film, especially in the rune-like prologue, wonderfully narrated by Michael Hordern, where Adams’ writing has the cadence of a true myth, "all the world will be your enemy, and when they catch you, they will kill you . . . but first they must catch you.’ Little that follows touches that level of imagination, but the basic Moses allegory plays out in a generally satisfying manner, much helped by a remarkable vocal cast that includes John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews & Denholm Elliott. Would the book still enchant? BTW: Don’t believe what they say about the film being too intense for the kiddies. The wee ones know all about blood, gore, death & violence in the wild and will be caught up in no time.
Friday, April 1, 2011
This Sundance award-winner, stocked with more coincidences than early Dickens, is something of an embarrassment. Written & megged by Christopher Zalla, it’s as earnest as they come, a tall-tale about two cute young Mexican illegals come to Brooklyn. The naïf (think Oliver Twist @ 17) is looking for the Papa he never met and his brand new friend turns out to be a weasel (think Artful Dodger), a con artist who steals his pal’s satchel & identity, hoping to find & fleece ‘Dad.’ There’s even a drug-addled/tough-love prostie (think Nancy) for them to moon over. Shot & acted in a faceless gonzo style (‘blocked-view’ close ups & dark interiors that don’t make spatial sense), the film seems designed for the captive sensibilities of fest audiences and the wallet of misled distributors. Sure enough, the ski-loving cineasts in Utah honored it and the recently reconstituted Weinstein Bros., temporarily flush with start-up cash, tenderly coaxed a pathetic total U.S. gross of $58,000. And so another fine film from Europe or Asia goes begging for distribution, it’s release slot usurped by a useless mediocrity from the good folks @ Sundance.