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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

COCO AVANT CHANEL / COCO BEFORE CHANEL (2009)

Anne Fontaine’s bio-pic on the early (pre-couture) years of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel is too composed for its own good. Audrey Tautou seems just right for Coco, but her independent mindset and iconoclastic disposition toward clothes, corsets, make-up, class distinctions & social conventions are all signified with a dour attitude that make her appeal & fascination hard to fathom. Without hindsight, who would have put up with her? Of course, the fun (and the trap) of these pre-fame bios is to watch intimations of great things to come from this penniless (oops! sous-less) waïf, once she leaves the orphanage. And, to her credit, Fontaine doesn’t make a ‘meal’ out of the big moments: the first hat, the first little black dress, the first shop, the first affair. No, she errs on the other side, giving equal emphasis to just about everything so that nothing registers with much impact. It’s like one of those ultra-chic French accents that purr along without rhythm or emphasis. It’s all lovely to look at, in its pretty generic manner, but surely there’s more to this story than meets our eye in this pleasant, but insubstantial film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: People always compare Ms Tautou with that other Audrey, Hepburn. But the star she often resembles here is the young Jean Simmons. BTW, where’s the famous Chanel suntan that probably did more than all her dresses & perfumes in shaking up our idea of feminine beauty? Did that come later? Perhaps the other recent Coco bio-pic, the one about Chanel & Stravinsky has an answer.

Monday, May 30, 2011

THE STATEMENT (2003)

Norman Jewison put together a phenomenal cast for this Brian Moore tale of an aging Vichy collaborator on the run in France from some mysterious Nazi-avenging group. Michael Caine is the man on the run, and his various pursuers & conspirators include Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Northam, Alan Bates, Charlotte Rampling, John Neville, Frank Finlay, Edward Petherbridge & Ciarán Hinds. They’re all working from a well-structured, if rather blunt, script from Ronald Harwood, written just before his work on THE PIANIST/’02. Yet, the resultant film is utterly unconvincing, and utterly unconvincing on almost every level. What happened here? It’s true that the plot, some nefarious Nazi-Catholic Church-anti-Communist canoodling fandango by men still clinging to power never makes much sense, but it’s more than that. For some reason, the standard dramatic convention of accepting English-speaking Frenchmen (or Frenchwomen or people of whatever country we happen to be in) doesn’t fly. The cast comes off as almost defiantly British. (Except for that old Canadian trouper, William Hutt, who shows a bit of sass doing a kind of John Huston homage.) Every time they correctly pronounce something in French, we want to congratulate them.. Well done, mate! Odd. Nevertheless, it completely kills the film which has proved (so far) to be Jewison’s last. Pity.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It sounds peculiar . . . heck, it is peculiar, but Alan Bates looks weirdly like a late middle-aged Jerry Lewis in a lot of shots. Distressing!

BANDOLERO! (1968)

James Stewart & Dean Martin are unlikely brothers in this unpleasant Western that comes with an inexplicable comic edge. Perhaps Stewart felt he had to add something to liven up the proceedings, but his wry winks & nudges only highlight a storyline that’s less mean-spirited than sour. The set up has Martin botching a bank robbery with his thuggish gang. They’re all caught, and a rope is already around their necks, when Dean recognizes the new hangman in town . . . Stewart. Off they go with the freshly widowed Rachel Welch as hostage; hard-driving sheriff George Kennedy (& posse) in pursuit; and, once over the border, a gang of Mexican ‘bandoleroes’ preparing to attack the lot of them. The scenery has its charms, thanks to William Clothier’s painterly outdoor lensing, but Andrew McLaglen megs in his usual coarse style, bringing out the hammy side of Stewart; the lazy side of Martin; the dull side of Kennedy; and giving Welch little help with her Sophia Loren impersonation. To his credit, McLaglen works harder than usual at staging his action sequences, he even manages to get thru the entire film without throwing in one of his signature, pointless donnybrooks; but honestly, the guy was a terrible hack.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For old-line stars testing the waters of Hollywood’s newfangled amoral Western territory, try Hank Fonda & Kirk Douglas in the Joe Mankiewicz/Newman/Benton THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN/’70.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

SUMMER STOCK (1950)

This pleasingly small-scaled musical from M-G-M’s Joe Pasternak unit was planned for Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney as a grown-up let’s-put-on-a-show reunion pic. But Rooney had been demoted to ‘B-pics’ after SUMMER HOLIDAY/’48 tanked and Gene Kelly was brought in. It turned out to be inspired recasting with Kelly’s obvious concern for his troubled co-star adding unexpected warmth to their scenes. (Garland wasn’t well for much of the shoot, yet her noticeable weight gain certainly helps her look well, and darn pretty.) This time out, Judy plays the solid-citizen, a farm gal whose kid sister (Gloria DeHaven) turns up with a gaggle of showfolk led by Kelly. Out with the geese, in with the musical revue! Under Charles Walters’ smooth helming, the film has a relaxed quality, and while the Harry Warren/Mack Gordon songs didn’t turn into classics, they’re all charming &/or funny. Phil Silvers & Eddie Bracken don’t have a lot to work with as the bespectacled comics, but Bracken manages to make his stuffy role as Judy’s hopeless intended an actual person while Silvers is both appalling & appallingly funny as Kelly’s assistant, especially in their comic duet.* Famously, Garland returned a month after the film had wrapped to shoot Harold Arlen’s ‘Get Happy’ as a speciality ‘numbo.’ With Judy looking trim & fabulous in short formal attire, Walters shoots & choreographs in a sophisticated style that raises it triumphantly above anything else in the pic. Check out those gorgeous edits & the classy camera moves! It may not fit in, but who cares!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Well, a couple of notes and one screwy thought. The current Warners DVD has been mastered with wildly over-saturated colors. Check out the nice featurette about the film which comes closer to the mark and tame your color intensity accordingly. And while you’re visiting the EXTRAs, don’t skip Tex Avery’s THE CUCKOO CLOCK, an astonishment, even by Avery cartoon standards. Now, here’s our screwy thought (see asterisk) *No doubt, this LOL hillbilly routine (‘Heavenly Music’) was meant for Gene & Judy as a follow up to their ‘Be A Clown’ knockabout comedy duo from THE PIRATE/’48 & her ‘Couple of Swells’ tramp number w/ Fred Astaire in EASTER PARADE/’48.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

QUARTET (1981)

The best thing about this film adaptation of Jean Rhys’s novel lies in its unfussy recreation of 1920s Paris, kept in check, no doubt, by a tight budget. If only the characters & story were equally convincing. But this time, those book-loving musketeers of art-house cinema, helmer James Ivory, scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala & producer Ismail Merchant, are defeated by a recalcitrant literary source. Isabelle Adjani stars as a forlorn young wife, left on her own with zero prospects after her dashing Polish husband is thrown in jail for art theft. Enter Maggie Smith & Alan Bates, rich married masochists locked in a co-dependent marriage of ill convenience; she encourages his roving eye to keep him happy, and then hates herself in the morning; he needs her support at picking up the pieces when its time to move on. Even when you don’t ‘buy’ the situations, the acting is mostly superb, especially from Maggie Smith & Anthony Higgins who plays the jailed husband with a note of wronged nobility.* And if James Ivory’s directorial mise-en-scène remains page-bound, the cultural & social mise-en-scène keeps you watching.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Adjani is the weak link in her ill-fitting lamb-to-the-slaughter role, so naturally she won the Cannes Fest acting award. BTW, you’ll recognize Higgins from his villainous role in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK/’81.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG (2009)

Aviva Kempner’s standard-issue bio-doc on Gertrude Berg & her alter-ego Molly Goldberg, one of the great pioneers of early radio & television sit-coms, is nothing fancy (and a bit padded with stock footage), but it gets the job done. Producing, penning & playing her signature character for over three decades, Berg not only put together a remarkable career for herself, she also managed to reignite a post-Molly second-act that got her a B’way Tony Award. (She already had an Emmy.) Surprisingly, the Molly Goldberg character isn’t the expected Yiddisher Mama, but a transitional woman with modern ideas and a couple of all-American kids to raise. (The actors who played the kids weren’t even Jewish.) And the behind-the-scenes story moves beyond the confines of tv history when the Communist Witch-Hunts take their toll, first on a cast member and then, by reflection, on Gertrude/Molly. Her honorable response, and her eventual professional triumph on stage, is movie-ready material. A talented lady . . . and a mensch. She's even got Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a character witness.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

MEET JOHN DOE (1941)

Frank Capra’s first pic after leaving Columbia Pictures was something like a mash-up of his Greatest Hits. Favorite writer Robert Riskin returned for this tale of an average Joe (Gary Cooper) who gains a big radio following with a spiel of neighborly pablum only to learn he’s in danger of selling his soul to the fascist capitalist devils who are sponsoring him; it’s MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN THRU A GLASS DARKLY! The gal reporter who hitches her by-line to the rube, and then falls for the mug, has Barbara Stanwyck pinch-hitting in the Jean Arthur role; James Gleason gets the hard-nosed sentimentalist Walter Connolly, Lionel Stander & Thomas Mitchell limned going back to Capra/Riskin’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34; Edward Arnold repeats as the politically connected news baron seen in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON/’39, and he’s still got his private police force. But something’s gone ‘off’ for Capra, as if he doesn’t believe in his stuff anymore. Take the centerpiece moment, the big ‘mission-statement’ where Cooper belatedly discovers what it’s all about. In DEEDS, it’s a moving vignette played out in near-silence between Coop & a desperate, and desperately hungry, gun-toting out-of-work man, a pantomime epiphany. Now, we get Regis Toomey, in a spiffy soda-jerk uniform, blathering on about neighborly goodness. In fact, the whole film blathers & dribbles along, sorely missing the old Capra speed & moxie. For the first time in his career, Capra feels politically and technically behind the times. And yet, in spite of the falling-off (maybe because of the falling off?), it’s all rather fascinating, politically & dramatically. Famously, Capra didn’t know how to finish the damn thing, writing & shooting four or five endings. But the real problem was all those John Doe’ers, all those ‘good’ little people. They’re as scary as the fat-cats and the Party-Line types! And Capra knows it, feels it; he just doesn’t know, dramatically, what to do with it. And a Christ parable without a sacrifice is, in the end, a cheat. Partner this up with two similarly flawed looks at power politics, the mob & the press, A FACE IN THE CROWD/’57 and NETWORK/’76 for a great debatable triple-bill.

NOTE; Lots of horrid Public Domain DVDs out there, so buyer beware. Image once had a decent edition, but it may not still be around.

Friday, May 20, 2011

THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951)

At a mere 68 minutes (about twenty minutes shy of its original cut), John Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic is more sketch than fully formed work, but it’s a great sketch. As two soldiers-in-blue rookies, real-life war hero Audie Murphy & war journalist/cartoonist Bill Mauldin are unexpectedly fine leading a no-star cast of off-beat supporting actors thru the drills, marches & battles that make up Crane’s quick-step coming-of-age character piece. Working from his own script, Huston is inspired, as is lenser Hal Rosson who finds a visual touchstone in Matthew Brady’s period photography without making a fetish of it. Few Civil War films feel closer to the source, perhaps only D. W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION/’15 and Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL/’27. In particular, Huston’s use of landscape in the big battle scenes, with serried ranks in long shot, cutting thru dales & rolling over hillocks before breaking out in a charge, show the long influential arm of Griffith at his finest. But the more intimate scenes, with close-up action & awkward camera set-ups seemingly ‘caught’ on the run, benefit enormously from lessons Huston learned on the battlefield, shooting and assembling his documentary footage during the devastating Italian campaign of WWII. The film bursts with memorable moments, but a death away from the battlefield and a meeting between North & South right at the end stand out. And what of the missing two reels? Alas, no directors' cuts back in the day. Studio execs knew enough to keep history from second-guessing them.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Lillian Ross's PICTURE, the original behind-the-scenes-tell-all-Hollywood book, artfully spills the true tortured history of this film with novelistic sweep.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

GOLDEN EARRINGS (1947)

In her first pic since being sawed in half by Orson Welles (FOLLOW THE BOYS/’‘44), Marlene Dietrich made a post-war landing @ Paramount, her old studio, for this nonsensical romantic adventure with Ray Milland.* He’s an escaped British officer in Germany on the eve of WWII, trying to find a top-secret poison-gas formula from a pacifist professor. Marlene plays the free-spirited gypsy (earth mother rather than femme-fatale for a change) who helps him hide and gets him from pillar to post. And what a pillar!, what a post!, especially in her outrageous costumes & make-up. Lenser Daniel Fapp really goes to town lighting Ms. D for that special gypsy glow. Roma songs, campfires, wicked Nazis, fish stew, torture, a no-holds-barred fight to win Marlene’s favors, suspicious professors; there’s not one believable moment in the whole film. (Well, maybe that fish stew which Dietrich happily slobbers away at.) Mitchell Leisen keeps up the pace on the particularly transparent fake studio sets and Victor Young scores with alternating chunks of Wagner (for the nasty Nazis) and George Enescu (for the dancing Gypsies). In the right mood, it’s pretty irresistible.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Dietrich got second billing for her troubles which may partly explain why she took such a quick disliking to her top-billed co-star.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972)

It’s tempting to imagine that decades of hard-nosed t.v. cop shows have dulled the originality & appeal of the films made in the ‘70s & ‘80s from cop-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh. Truth is, they were plenty over-cooked & obvious back when they came out. This one, shot & directed in the coarsely unattractive, unmourned style of ‘70s Hollywood (zooms, garish lighting, funked up soundtrack*) tells a downbeat tale of street-wise vet George C. Scott (nicely underplayed) mentoring young pup Stacy Keach (more relaxed than usual). The gimmick is that these two get so hooked on the camaraderie & action of working the night beat that nothing off the job can match it. Scott knows it’s time to get out, but he’s got nothing to retire to; Keach sees himself falling under Scott’s spell and repeating his personal mistakes. The various episodes (hookers, hold-ups, slum lords) realize less than the sum of their parts, but individually, they have enough going on to hold your interest. And when they don’t, you can sit back and enjoy watching a veritable casting call of future cop shows. Plus the amazingly colorful shirts sported by the Vice Squad. The pic earns points for some reasonably advanced positions on social issues (gay entrapment shown as a farce & an interracial romance that plays out without comment or back-patting), but not even a few tragic turns move this one past boilerplate fare.

*Blame Richard Fleischer-director; Ralph Woolsey-D.P.; Quincy Jones-score.

Monday, May 16, 2011

DADDY LONG LEGS (1955)

This fourth adaptation of the old Jean Webster tale, the one about the orphan girl (Leslie Caron) whose much older secret sponsor becomes her secret admirer, is the weak link in Fred Astaire’s Indian Summer series of musicals. Even when the film was originally released, the story must have looked sticky & even a bit unsavory, and the decision to highlight rather than hide the Lolita-like aspects for comic embarrassment put scripters Henry & Phoebe Ephron in a bind. Especially when your two comics (the great Thelma Ritter & Fred Clark) show more rapport than your two leads. We might not care if the Johnny Mercer score were better, but only 'Something's Gotta Give' stands out. (He has to reach back to his 1945 hit ‘Dream’ for cover.) Helmer Jean Negulesco made some musical shorts over @ Warners (a great ‘tab’ version of Gaité Parisienne with Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo is hiding on the current MALTESE FALCON/’41 DVD), but this, his only feature musical, was made in the early stiff CinemaScope style which kept everything at quite a distance. (It has more life on a big, big theater screen.) Leslie Caron is a bit manic in teenage mode, but she does get a chance to show her ballet chops in the spectacular (if over-extended) dream sequences. These also give Negulesco a chance to show off his visual panache. The final segment, set in a surreal Rio, is a real stunner. But it comes so late, we’re ready to wrap things up; by which time film mavens may have noticed a serious case of creeping Minnelli envy with visual lifts from AMERICAN IN PARIS/’50, THE BAND WAGON/’53, even YOLANDA & THE THIEF/’45!)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The story retains considerable charm in Mary Pickford's fine 1919 version, directed by her fave, Marshall Neilan. Plus, she and Doug Fairbanks had just fallen in love and her radiant happiness seems to have infected the whole cast & crew.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

CHUN FENG CHEN ZUI DE YE WAN / SPRING FEVER (2009)

Ye Lou follows up on his well received (not here) SUMMER PALACE/’06 with another ‘hard-R-rated’ story about sexual wanderlust in the ‘new’ China. The earlier film played up a spurious connection with the Tianeman Square demonstrations to add weight to a couple of decades of heterosexual entanglements. This one takes place in the here & now, with a complicated mix of gay/bi-sexual partners that proves just as spurious. Ye’s female characters don’t offer much comfort, they’re all sullen moods & outbursts of hysteria, no wonder the men turn away. But the new relationships also fall apart, with most of the men turning out to be equally unsympathetic, just quieter. At its occasional best, the film does haphazardly catch a modern disconnect; a new cell-phone generation, and its handheld camera & murky natural light plays into the concept. Especially so amid the forced frivolity Ye uncovers in the demimonde nightclub scene which looked oddly anachronistic in SUMMER PALACE, but perfectly apt here. It’s the rest of the film that doesn’t convince.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

THE AMERICAN (2010)

George Clooney is a naive & sentimental hitman in this arty, almost abstract, thriller set in a small, scenic Italian town. A recent ‘snow job’ left three dead and Clooney on the run. Now, he needs cover and a fresh assignment. His mysterious handler sends him out to an isolated village in the Italian countryside on a weapons gig, with no lethal entanglements. The scenery is spectacular, including a local tart he falls for. But sometimes, even for an international hitman, payback comes looking for you. The inexperienced Anton Corbijn pushes the mythic elements of this modern morality fable at us, even trotting out a clip from Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST/’68. (By golly, that film also opened with three people getting shot!) But Corbijn is better at setting things up and contemplating the view then in running the ball, more Terrence Malick than Sergio Leone. The pacing never leaves the station, so to speak, and the climax is completely fudged. At times, even at the beginning, the tone grows so glossy & glacial, you get the giggles, as if Blake Edwards & Peter Sellers had taken over. Oh, if only!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Fred Zinnemann’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL/’73, the plus-perfect hitman narrative.

Monday, May 9, 2011

SHERLOCK HOLMES (1922)

John Barrymore stars in this early Sherlock Holmes silent feature, but don’t get your hopes up. Stitched together from ‘lost’ remnants found in the ‘70s, and given a clean up & score more recently, it’s a painfully stiff ‘filmization’ of William Gillette’s once popular Sherlock Holmes play. Filmed partially in England, there’s a remarkably fine cast (William Powell, Roland Young, Reginald Denny, Hedda Hopper, Louis Wolheim, Gustav von Seyffertitz and Carol Dempster, a favorite of D. W. Griffith whom Barrymore detested), but they all sink like stones under Albert Parker’s inert megging. Even with a constant flow of intertitles, notes & formal letters, you can barely make out a story. Perhaps the close-ups & inserts were lost in some other film can. But if you ever wanted to know what Barrymore looked like in his Hamlet glory days, look no further, it was his very next project. (And Louis Wolheim fans can see what he looked like as O’Neill’s THE HAIRY APE. Yikes, what a profile!) Truth is, Barrymore looks quite stunning and gives a unusually restrained perf. He’s 40, yet he almost gets away with a prologue set in his college days. Roland Young, who plays Watson, was close to a decade younger, yet looks almost decade older.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It’s hard to believe that Fritz Lang’s phenomenal DR. MABUSE, another criminal mastermind story very much influenced by Conan Doyle, was made the very same year. As a quick lesson in the highs & lows of film history, film technique, film preservation & film restoration, circa 1922, these two films are tough to beat.

GASLIGHT / ANGEL STREET (1940)

Four years after releasing this British film of the famous Patrick Hamilton play (w/ Diana Wynyard & Anton Walbrook), M-G-M tried to bury it (prints & all) to clear the field for their shiny new version with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton & debuting Angela Lansbury. But it survived and now comes on the flip DVD side of its deluxe 1944 sibling. Critics have long championed it, but, except for Walbrook, who’s as fine in his way as Boyer is, the plush remake improves on almost every point. The basic story remains: devious husband tries to make his fragile wife think she is losing her mind; and the tone of swank terror is similar, but the structure, character development & flow of information is far more cunningly handled in the later pic. This one opens with a grisly murder; the remake starts with a terrified young girl leaving a house of death. So much more mysterious & intriguing right off the bat. And while a second prologue, set in Italy, is neatly elided in 1940, much of the first act also goes missing, leaving a lot of the suspense ungrounded. Director Thorold Dickinson & lenser Bernard Knowles were major talents, but they got far less out of the material than George Cukor & Joseph Ruttenberg did @ M-G-M. Their deft camera moves & chiaroscuro lighting in 1944 aren’t just there to show off the Hollywood studio system (though they do!, they do!), but in this sort of story atmosphere is content, and vice versa. Add in Cukor’s special knack with actors, including his supporting players, and you’ve made your case. After you’ve watched, check out the two opening sequences, side-by-side, and then the final 15 or 20 minutes of each. It tells the tale.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Dickinson & Walbrook at their best together, try their marvelous version of Pushkin’s THE QUEEN OF SPADES/’49. (There are bad Public Domain prints around, but a new British edition, with an intro from Martin Scorsese, is bound to show up Stateside.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

NEAR DARK (1987)

Perhaps being ‘odd gal out’ at the all-boys’ action-filmmakers’ club makes helmer Kathryn Bigelow overcompensate on her hardware & fights, working us over so hard she undercuts the drama. But in this early horror pic, her first mainstream release, a miserly budget steadies her. There’s a tasty beginning as the twang of a ‘modern’ Western (like HUD/’63 or THE LAST PICTURE SHOW/’71) meets up with some outlaw vampires, on the lam & roamin’ the range. The great plains of Oklahoma & Texas may be big, but they ain’t far or wide enough to keep the usual bloodsuckers, victims & hunters from bumping into each other at perfectly inconvenient moments. That’s how things play out in the night world. But problems show up when the plot starts ignoring the time-tested tropes of vampire etiquette, particularly when they find a way to reverse the condition, leaving little at stake. And though Bigelow is a whiz at explosions & car chases, the staging & camera set ups for the undead donnybrooks are much less effective. Flawed as it is, this artsy vampire film, along with the same year’s unintentionally hilarious THE LOST BOYS, helped relaunch/reposition vampire mythology as youthful rebellion, replacing its outmoded use as undercover sexual metaphor. Bigelow, as we know, went on to better things, but oddly, the cast didn’t fare quite as well, though Bill Paxton’s deranged baddie is a swivel-hipped treat.

Friday, May 6, 2011

MAJOR BARBARA (1941)

When a penniless Hungarian named Gabriel Pascal wangled permission from a bemused George Bernard Shaw to film his plays, he struck gold the first time out with PYGMALION/’38. Three more followed, to diminishing acclaim. But if this second production has the feel of filmed theater, it’s great filmed theater; a magnificent play with an unbeatable line-up of natural Shavians. Wendy Hiller & Rex Harrison are the Salvation Army couple who fight poverty, ignorance & the contrarian logic of her father, Robert Morley, a titan of cannon & gunpowder. Emlyn Williams & Robert Newton are rabble waiting to be saved (or, at least, working the system) while Sybil Thorndyke and the debuting Deborah Kerr are pragmatic Christian Soldiers in uniform. Everyone gets their say, this being Shaw, and it’s delicious talk, thought-provoking & entertaining; he even comes up with a dandy plot, not always the case with GBS. The film moves along in its eccentric manner, and it’s pretty obvious that no one’s in charge of the production. Pascal optimistically took credit as producer/director, but he knew his limitations and hired stage director Harold French & film editor David Lean as his assistants. And look, there’s Ronald Neame as D.P. and Charles Frend as the editor. That’s a total of five once & future directors . . . well, four if you subtract Pascal. Don’t worry about this one being ‘filmic,’ whatever that is. Enjoy the clever sets by Vincent Korda; the chance to watch Rex Harrison & Stanley Holloway working together ages before MY FAIR LADY; the masterful way Shaw builds the first half of the story (that is, right up to when Barbara leaves the mission); and the utter perfection of Hiller & Harrison in these parts in 1941. Will we ever see Shaw played more beautifully?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You might not think of Shaw as 'Family Friendly' fare, but high school kids with a bent for debate really pick up on his paradoxical moral dilemmas, and how he turns logic on the head of a pin. Try this one after PYGMALION, and perhaps THE MILLIONAIRESS after. (The BBC production from 1972 w/ Maggie Smith.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

STATE OF THE UNION (1948)

Frank Capra would have been just the guy to adapt this slick B’way hit to the screen . . . once upon a time. Spencer Tracy stars as a self-made captain of industry who reluctantly starts a run for the White House at the instigation of his mistress, right-wing news baron Angela Lansbury. (Only 22 at the time and damn convincing.) But when his estranged wife (Katharine Hepburn) joins the campaign, politics gets complicated with rekindled romance. The plot mechanics are impeccable, and Capra gins up considerable steam for his overcooked finale, a national broadcast that turns into a group catharsis, but too much of the film is just going thru the motions. Scenes have a stagebound rhythm, even with the cast encouraged to talk fast & loud, and the few original sequences (one in front of the White House and a joy-ride in a plane) are embarrassments. And how to explain all the mismatched edits in the first act? Capra in the ‘30s was the most confident of filmmakers, now he second-guesses every shot. He still put his name over the title, but he’d never be in charge again.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Wait’ll you hear what constituted a Republican philosophy in 1948! They all sound like Teddy Roosevelt Bull Moose Progressives. Fox News would tear them to pieces.

CONTEST: Two important creative names are misspelled in the opening credits. Name them both to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice. (Earn an added point by pointing out the famous bit Ronald Reagan stole from Spencer Tracy in here.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

LUFTSLOTTER SOM SPRANGDES / THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST (2009)

All the usual suspects are back for the third (and final?) installment of this Stieg Larsson mystery/thriller series. In the opening scenes, this one looks like it’s going to successfully connect all the dots, starting with the personal history of our tattooed heroine (sadistic dad, psycho half-brother); the conspiracy to frame her; and the shadow-government that’s working to suppress the truth from the press & from her trial. But even at two & a half hours, the story lines collapse from lack of information and a lot of smart characters have to make stupid decisions to keep everything moving forward. Important documents are left out so they can be stolen; Cell phones are ‘conveniently’ turned off to miss emergency calls; A dark, lonely building is investigated by an unarmed party of one when something fishy is heard going on inside. And when we finally glean a few details on that big conspiracy we've been waiting to hear about . . . well, let's just say that Swedes are easily shocked. Then, when Ms. Tattoo finally dons her full Goth regalia, and we're cued to stand and cheer, it feels like we're playing by rote. In the States, each entry dropped 30% at the box-office from its predecessor. Now we’re gearing up for a lux American remake of the trilogy. As Sam Goldwyn once remarked, ‘Include me out.’

Monday, May 2, 2011

JOAN THE WOMAN (1916)

Joan of Arc wouldn’t be canonized until 1920, but Cecil B. DeMille was already treating her like a saint in this grand production. And while Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar may have been two decades too old to play Joan, she’s remarkably convincing within the presentational acting style De Mille favored. (Note regulars like Raymond Hatton as the Dauphin & Theodore Roberts as the villainous Cauchon to gauge that pure DeMille thespianship. He’d still be coaxing it out of actors for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1956.) This show was his largest yet, too big to earn out, with hundreds of battle-extras, costumes & horses, as well as multiple castles, courtyards & cathedrals; it’s still exciting stuff. De Mille was at his most creative from 1915 to 1923*, and we’re lucky to have the stunning print that’s available on the Image DVD edition. Lenser Alvin Wyckoff pulls off some daring multiple-exposure effects, real nighttime shooting, unusually dynamic angles and, right at the end, an early stencil-coloring process that adds a terrifying touch of fire to Joan’s burning at the stake. (There’s also a terrifying accident with a horse during a big battle scene. Not for the feint-hearted.) Anyone expecting this early silent feature to equal the artistry seen in Carl Dreyer’s late silent classic, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC/’28 with Maria Falconetti & Antonin Artaud, is bound to be disappointed. But in its own way, it's damn impressive filmmaking. Even the WWI framing story, with handsome Wallace Reid, just a few years before Paramount got him addicted to morphine, as a British officer who dreams his way back into Joan’s story and then makes the ultimate sacrifice to help fight off the Germans on French soil, comes off just as C.B. must have hoped.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There’s a famous scene in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD/’50 where Erich von Stroheim, as Norma Desmond’s butler, tells William Holden about the three great directors of early Hollywood, ‘D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille & me.’ The inclusion of DeMille always gets a laugh because his best known films got so stiff & corny. But, in context, it’s really not such an outrageous statement.