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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

LA GUERRE EST FINIE / THE WAR IS OVER (1966)

Yves Montand plays the world-weariest Communist agent, a Spanish exile now based in France, in Alain Resnais’ famous film. He’s constantly on the move; crossing borders under assumed names; arguing arcane ideological points & strategy with aging Party Line stalwarts; bedding radical chic chicks like Geneviève Bujold (while a heavenly choir sings on the soundtrack) and leaving with a case of terrorist explosives; then barely having time to attend to Ingrid Thulin, his long-suffering wife. Resnais gets a chance to stage some unsettling Spy vs Spy surveillance activities in plain sight, but the characters & plotting look terribly threadbare. Yet there’s a certain grim fascination in seeing how Montand’s strict fidelity to a process he no longer believes in gets mirrored in Resnais glum adherence to New Wave stylistic tics that no longer resonate for him.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

THE UPTURNED GLASS (1947)

This romantic psychological thriller from the U.K. aims for the tony tone of Hitchcock’s REBECCA/’40 and SUSPICION/’41. And while it has more than it’s share of narrative hiccoughs, it’s still something of a find. It’s also a family project with James Mason as co-producer/star, and wife Pamela (Kellino) Mason not only co-scripting but also making a dab villain. James is typically suave & sinister as a neurosurgeon who falls for the married mother of one of his patients. And it’s only natural that he grows suspicious when she’s found dead. A suicide? An accident? Or murder? Mason convinces himself that the sister-in-law was responsible and works up an elaborate revenge. But things don’t quite go as planned. The film has a nifty structure, opening with a flashback that hasn’t yet happened and a delightfully deranged last act that manages to include a Shavian dialectic on death & medical ethics (more Hobbes than Hippocrates) between Mason & a General Practitioner he happens to picks up on the road!; while he’s carting a dead body in the car's back seat!; as they drive to an emergency case!; where Mason’s medical expertise is unexpectedly needed to save a life! Whew! Farfetched stuff, but lots of fun. Plus strong tech credits from lenser Reginald Wyer and a stunner of a score from classical composer & teacher Bernard Stevens. With a mere handful of credits, this guy sounds like a British Bernard Herrman in the making. Who dropped the ball on this career? (This is the third pic on a handy DVD from MPI entitled Classic British Thrillers.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Listen closely during the flashback . The voiceover switches from Mason to some unknown third party. Odd.

THE PHANTOM LIGHT (1935)

Another Quota Quickie from Michael Powell’s apprentice years. It’s a goofball dark-and-stormy-night yarn about the new lighthouse keeper in a small Welsh town and the motley crew waiting at his isolated station. Who knew a lonely lighthouse would be such a popular spot? Turns out the last two attendants fell to their death while on duty. Suicide? Accident? Murder? A nefarious plot by a local ‘ship wreckers?’ Hmm. Turns out the lighthouse beam has been going out and a ‘phantom light,’ carefully positioned to mislead heavily insured boats, has been replacing it. And that lunatic who's living at the lighthouse? Maybe not so crazy . . . maybe one of the saboteurs. The idea isn’t half bad, but the script is larded with lame jokes & twee characters and the plot doesn’t kick in until the last two reels. You might give up before you get there. Don’t. The dopey leads (Binnie Hale & Gordon Harker) grow on you and our action hero turns out to be charming Ian Hunter whom many will recall as King Richard in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD/’37. So grit your teeth for 40 minutes to see how Powell pulls this off with wit, pace and enough dynamic editing to hide his impoverished budget. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the print on MPI’s triple-bill DVD Classic British Thrillers is in such good shape.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

633 SQUADRON (1964)

Made during the heyday of WWII ‘impossible mission’ pics (like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61; HEROES OF TELEMARK/’65; WHERE EAGLES DARE/’69), this rare feature from prolific tv megger Walter Grauman tells a heroic, fact-inspired tale of an R.A.F. raid on a top-secret Nazi factory hidden in the Norwegian fiords. (Hey, could this be the same ‘heavy-water’ factory that was the mission target in TELEMARK?) Cliff Robertson, just out of a Navy uniform in yet another WWII mission pic (he was JFK in PT 109/’63), seems weary of battle, or perhaps weary of his disinterested love interest, Maria Perschy. But they’re both more plausible than George Chakiris as her brother, a Norwegian(!) resistance fighter. The film is handsomely shot by Ted Scaife and has a fine pedigree in scripters Howard Koch & James Clavell though it's a paint-by-the-numbers gig. But the effects are variable (even the strafing looks fake) and Ron Goodwin’s over-active score, which sports a catchy, pulsating main theme (a tarantella!), has been given a very odd, up-front acoustic. Still, even second-drawer WWII adventure yarns boast dramatic tropes that just won’t quit.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

TRUE GRIT (1969)

The standard critical line on this first adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel (about an over-the-hill one-eyed marshal & a revenge-seeking 14 year-old girl) holds the film up as a tired remnant of the old Hollywood studio system, and John Wayne’s Oscar’d perf as an entertaining parody on his better self. Well, nuts to that. It was, and remains, a rich entertainment, not that far removed from the recently released Coen Brothers version, though brighter & more buoyant, a sort of Y.A. edition. Made as the old Hollywood guard was rapidly disintegrating, the professional sheen achieved here is nothing to sneer at. The story’s been simplified & reorganized, with clean ‘readable’ action sequences from vet helmer Henry Hathaway who seems charged up in general after making a couple of stinkers. The perfectly staged & edited climactic shootout is a particular treat, and all handsomely shot by the great Lucien Ballard without the ‘tasteful’ desaturated tones that have become a modern default cliché. The supporting cast nicely mixes New Hollywood types like Dennis Hopper & Robert Duvall with old-hands like Strother Martin (rarely hilarious), John Fiedler & an unbilled Hank Worden. Glen Campbell may be nothing to write home about as a Texas lawman (Matt Damon’s role in the remake), but the habitually underrated Kim Darby is very fine as the bluntly stubborn Mattie, played without the Coens’ glint of modern ironic neuroticism. Wayne is often deeply funny here, Hathaway preferred Wayne in slightly comic mode (see NORTH TO ALASKA/’60; SONS OF KATIE ELDER/’65), but his showboating never fully hides the lone wolf who shares a bit of his personal history with this odd young girl who’s hired him to avenge her slain father and suddenly become family.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

COMMENT JE ME SUIS DISPUTE . . . (MA VIE SEXUELLE)

COMMENT JE ME SUIS DISPUTE . . . (MA VIE SEXUELLE) / MY SEX LIFE . . . OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT (1997)

(Note how the title & subtitle switched positions for the Stateside release.)

This early work from the wildly talented French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin must have looked fresher when it came out. Now, it wouldn’t serve as makings for pain perdu. (With CHRISTMAS TALE/08 and KINGS AND QUEEN/’04, Desplechin has moved far beyond this.) It gets off to a promising start as we sort out a fresh cast of handsome late twenty-somethings in cafes, at parties, in bed, at work, as they find out how hard the transition to stable adulthood can be. (And, yes, the tv show FRIENDS does come to mind; there’s even a monkey.) The focus narrows onto Mathieu Amalric, a thesis-shy professor whose puppyish face hides a lot of angst, and the three woman he fears might ‘complete’ him, ergo ‘negate’ him. Desplechin’s technique is a loose, ill-lit grubby realism, very ‘90s and not much missed, though it does match up with the unstructured lives on screen. (Does anyone in France keep regular work hours?) But must all the characters be such pains in the neck, all the time? The girlfriends are bitch psycho-dramas, with Amalric as world champion PMS-enabler. And the case isn't helped by an overindulgent three-hour running time. Actually, the secondary relationships between the boys are better observed. The guys are all shits, but they’re shits in their own special way . . . hilariously so.

NOTE: Fox Lorber’s DVD has a pretty sub-par image, but it’s the only one currently available.

Monday, June 20, 2011

THE RED ENSIGN (aka STRIKE!) (1934)

Hollywood marketplace domination caused many countries to mandate film quotas to boost homegrown product. In Britain, their ‘Quota Quickies’ were notoriously poor. But this QQ was from the young Michael Powell, and even in his twenties he does quite nicely on a restricted budget, finding a good story and proving, yet again, that it doesn’t cost a dime (er . . . a tuppence) to put the camera in the right spot. This fact-inspired pic is about ship builder/architect David Barr whose newfangled designs could revitalize British shipping. But he must fight government indifference; replace existing fleets of idling/inefficient ships; stop a devious rival who wants to buy his plans for foreigner partners; inspire his men to work ‘on account’ and not go out on strike when the money runs short; and fall madly in love with a grand lady who happens to have a large trust fund! All in a little over an hour’s running time. Powell makes good use of some exciting shipyard stock footage and manages to create an illusion of scale along with some nifty fires & explosions. Leslie Banks, who also starred for Hitchcock this year in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, is a dynamic Barr, a man with enough character flaws to keep things interesting. Too bad Powell is so concerned about Banks’ disfigured face that he overdoses on his right profile. Every damn shot! The rest of the cast belie the ultra-low budget, but it does, of course, take its toll. Especially, in the third act where important plot strands get lost in the rush. All in all, it’s quite alright. And that’s high praise for a Quota Quickie. NOTE: This comes in a decent looking edition from MPI on a DVD (mis)entitled CLASSIC BRITISH THRILLERS.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

David Michôd’s debut as megger-scripter is this over-hyped psycho-family crime drama that got kid-glove attention from reviewers & the Sundance crowd (always a bad omen), before quickly (and deservedly) sinking without a trace. It follows the melancholy path of a 17-year old kid (James Frecheville) after his mom O.D.s and he moves in with the criminal gang of Uncles & a Grandmom he hardly knows. Without quite realizing it, he’s soon playing helpmate & go-fer on the family’s scams & vendettas, putting himself and his trusting girlfriend in harm’s way. It’s pretty standard stuff, but Michod can’t make sense out of his tidy set up. What exactly do these career criminals do? He hints at perverse sexual notes: Grams demands big wet kisses from her boys; one Uncle struts around bare-chested. another all but steps into the shower with you.. But it’s all seasoning and no meat. Michod is more comfortable with Guy Pearce’s standard sentimental cop who’s trying to ‘flip’ the boy. The last act tries to shake things up with some nasty dramatic reverses, but Michod can only make these work by having smart characters act dumb or by pulling strings thru inexplicable 'connections.' It all starts to feel like a pitch-presentation for HBO or Showtime on a pilot that didn’t get picked up.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Why not treat yourself to Raoul Walsh's WHITE HEAT/'49 for a classic James Cagney pyschotic gangster with a whopping Mother complex.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL (2009)

Manoel de Olivera, everyone’s favorite centenarian Portugese filmmaker, seems unable to stop making films for the international fest market. And reviewers & committee-members seem pleased to have him in attendance. (Do the films get shown anywhere else?) This one is a short fable on romantic folly. A young accountant espies a lovely creature in the window of the house across the street as he sits at his desk and is hopelessly infatuated at first sight. He suffers his uncle’s ill-will & a jobless stint before reaching his goal. But now that he’s engaged, perhaps the person who now stands so enticingly next to him won’t match his romanticized image? It’s all told in flashback by our sadder-but-wiser lover to another woman, a stranger on a train. These two barely make eye-contact, but look ahead at oblique angles. A comment on the difficulties of human interaction . . . or just looking for the prompter? Indeed, the film, a mere 60 minutes, does play out like a one-act opera with long static compositions, beautifully, if darkly lit, and only brief moments of interaction and camera movement. There’s even a touch of Debussy on the soundtrack to raise thoughts of PELLEAS AND MELISANDE. You look harder than you need to, not because the atmosphere is so involving, but because you’d like something to do. Over there: a bit of foreshadowing in a vanishing poker chip. Out of the blue: a stranger asks about a lost hat on a bridge, but then doesn’t bother to look for it. Birds sitting in a clock, startled into flight when it rings. Masters like Buñuel grew out of this tradition, out of unexplained events, what’s missing in Olivera is the mastery.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

THE DESPERADOES (1943)

This well-handled Western, a TechniColor splurge from Columbia Pictures & helmer Charles Vidor, holds up pretty well. Randolph Scott is the straight-shooting sheriff who’s on the hunt for some bank robbers who found an empty safe but still killed three locals on their way out of town. Meantime, Scott's old riding pal Glenn Ford shows up out of the blue. Seems he was supposed to join the robbers, but got in too late. Now, this stranger in town makes a mighty convenient scapegoat for a crime he had nothing to do with. Why, the only thing he’s been stealing is Scott’s pretty girlfriend Evelyn Keyes! Naturally, there’s a naughty saloon keeper (Claire Trevor with feathers in her hair); a comic sidekick (Guinn ‘ Big Boy’ Williams); a couple of two-timing bankers & post-masters; plus a swell horse stampede for a hair-raising finale. Standard stuff, but a couple of notches above the norm, and with lots of nifty frames-within-frames compositions from Vidor; comic business that comes where you don’t expect it; and dandy riding scenes in handsome locations. Only the third-rate background score keeps this one from getting Recommended.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI (2008)

Roger Spottiswoode’s fact-inspired biopic about George Hogg, a British journalist who found himself making an unlikely switch from war correspondent to nanny in Japan-occupied China, is good, but not good enough. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Malcolm McDowell’s personal Dorian Gray portrait) is very likable, but he can’t quite make sense of Hogg, a veritable Swiss-army knife of a person, with a ready-to-go blade for every situation. Caught by the Japanese, then rescued by the Chinese resistance, he’s dumped at a boy’s orphanage where he has to prove his worth before leading them on an epic march to safety in the East. Spottiswoode gets trapped by a storyline that morphs from EMPIRE OF THE SUN/’87 to THE INN OF SIXTH HAPPINESS/’58, plus a script that’s over-loaded with story beats & uplift. And he can’t keep a contemporary gloss off his cast, especially the boys & Radha Mitchell who’s the local doctor & love interest. Michelle Yeoh is fine in a glorified supporting role, and Chow Yun Fat is even better playing a dashing Communist fighter with a swagger worthy of Rhett Butler. If only the film, which is often thrilling to look at and certainly filled with good intentions, didn’t feel so manipulated. Still, it deserved more of an audience than it got. Try it out with your older school kids. And stick around for the credits to meet some of the real-life survivors of the tale. Very touching stuff. NOTE: Be careful to set the subtitles on the second English Language setting which only comes on for the Japanese & Mandarin dialogue. (Or is it Cantonese? My asian languages are so rusty.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965)

This end-of-the-world sci-fi tale can’t quite decide if it wants to be apocalyptic kiddie-fare or thinking-man’s doomsday log. MOTHRA/’62 or THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE/’62? Working with a tight budget, action specialist Andrew Marton pulls a lot out of his limited production values, and even manages to get a bit of a rhythm going. Dana Andrews is smooth as the aging thermonuclear scientist who hopes to find a new fuel supply by launching an atomic rocket deep inside the earth’s crust. Keiran Moore is his younger colleague, a Cassandra with dire warnings about the possible consequences . . . like maybe cracking the earth in two! Now, there’s only one way to save the world, drop a counter nuclear bomb in a volcano! Atomic bomb mavens will enjoy all the stock explosion footage, and there are runaway toy trains and terrified natives for third-act panic attacks. There’s even a love interest for the men to fight over, Jeanette Scott, who hardly seems worth the effort. But in spite of the reasonably effective effects, the story runs out of satisfying plot twists long before the film wraps things up on a note of unsatisfying ambiguity. Still, you can have a good time just watching Andrews rapidly disintegrate as his terminal illness steadily gains on him with every edit. Like Jeff Goldblum in THE FLY/’86.

WATCH THIS. NOT THAT: GOJIRO/'54, the original Japanese cut of what was released in the States as GODZILLA/'56, is still one of the most effective films about Mother Nature taking her revenge for man's nuclear hubris..

Monday, June 13, 2011

COCO CHANEL AND IGOR STRAVINSKY (2009)

Call it ‘Glamography.’ Jan Kaonen’s plush looking biopic on the Parisian fashionista & the great Russian composer opens with a real coup de théâtre, a meticulous recreation of the riotous 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s THE RITE OF SPRING. (Nijinsky’s weakly conceived dance, the probable cause for most of the pandemonium, is long lost, but the reimagined choreography certainly looks inadequate! Not so the music, which is gorgeously played by Simon Rattle & the Berlin Phil. The premiere’s conductor, Pierre Monteux, would have killed for such a band!) With the crème de la crème of Paris dressed to ‘the nines’ for le scandale, this scene is the sole reason to bother watching. Skipping ahead to 1920, more or less where COCO BEFORE CHANEL/'09 left off, we follow a largely fictitious tale about la grande affaire between Igor & Coco. Him: warm, passionate, obsessed, guilt-ridden. Her: cool, calm, collected, guilt-free. All of it: hooey. Anna Mouglalis’s chilly Coco is probably closer to the notoriously witchy dame than Audrey Tautou’s gamine was in ‘that other’ Coco pic. Alas, she’s no more interesting. And what the heck is handsome, hunky Mads Mikkelsen doing as the decidedly unattractive Igor Stravinsky? At the least, a Beauty & the Beast angle might have juiced up the storyline. Compared to this chic trick, the entirely mediocre COCO AVANT CHANEL is Proust.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: By 1913, the last century had produced its two defining works in music & painting with Stravinsky’s LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS and Picasso’s LES DEMOISELLES D’AVIGNON/’1907. What artistic thunderbolts have come on the scene so far to help define the 21st century?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The only 'choreography' that's come close to living up to Stravinsky's score was provided by the dinosaurs & volcanoes in Disney's original FANTASIA/'40. Stravinsky hated the tweaking Leopold Stokowski made to his score, but it's still a great recording. And imagine Hollywood making a mainstream animated feature all about the theory of evolution today.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

DEAD RECKONING (1947)

Humphrey Bogart segued from his home base @ Warners to Columbia for this largely unnecessary noir, a surprising stinker. He’s a WWII vet, back in the States and on his way to D.C. to pick up some medals with his war bud (William Prince) when the guy suddenly takes a powder. Bogie gives chase, landing in his pal’s hometown where he finds plenty of dirt on all the usual suspects. Before he’s smoked a pack of Luckys, he’s implicated in a murder or two; started to romance his pal’s wife (Lizabeth Scott), a no-good damsel-in-distress type; won a pile of dough at a fancy, but crooked gambling club; hid from some corruptible cops; been knocked out (twice!), gotten shot at; found a priest to tell his troubles to; and God knows what else. All your classic noir ingredients, if only someone knew what to do with them. But helmer John Cromwell and a posse of writers show little feel for the form. Is it supposed to play as a near parody? The fruity dialogue (‘Maybe she was alright, and maybe Christmas comes in July’); the illogical plot; the all-too-convenient clues (Bogie’s hotel room alarm clock is a police band radio). On the plus side, Lizabeth Scott looks less beat up than usual; On the minus, Bogie more. (Maybe new wife Lauren Bacall was keeping him up nights.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Great noirs don’t have to make a lot of sense. Columbia did just fine with GILDA in ‘46. And in the same year, Bogie, Bacall & Howard Hawks triumphed over the famously confusing plot of THE BIG SLEEP.

Friday, June 10, 2011

BEAUFORT (2007)

This highly praised Israeli pic is a tightly focused character study about a small military unit charged with closing down the last outpost in Lebanon 18 years after the 1982 border war. The young soldiers, barely older than the occupation, are well aware that their lives are being used as fodder by various political factions and that their officers have been vamping with contradictory missions & pointless tactical efforts. Suddenly, everyone’s tour is ending, but they’re still dodging incoming mortar attacks and trying not to be careless as they prep the fort for end-game. Joseph Cedar’s script & helming offer a welcome, believable respite from the current testosterone-charged Hollywood battlefield norm, and his measured pacing only accentuates the brief, but terrifying episodes of violence & nail-biting suspense. (The action is strikingly book-ended with the unnervingly calm precision of two opposing demolition experts.) If only the film’s execution matched Cedar’s intentions/ambitions. Made for a mere 2.5 mill, the film belies its budget (the atmosphere is very well caught) and the young cast all turn in memorable characterizations. But Cedar hasn’t quite developed the technical control needed to carry us all the way along with his melancholy outfit. Too often, the film feels worthy rather than compelling, as if Cedar is giving us talking-points for a post-screening discussion at the local Jewish Community Center. But he’s definitely a guy to watch.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

GREEN FIRE (1954)

M-G-M hoped lightning would strike twice when they reteamed Stewart Granger & Andrew Marton, star & co-director of KING SOLOMON’S MINES/’50, for another exotic treasure hunt, now in CinemaScope & Stereophonic Sound! But emerald mines in South American proved less enticing than adventure-at-every-turn in Darkest Africa. And while this film carries an extra twenty minutes, it provides half the thrills, chills & spills. And not a Watusi in sight! Still, once it sorts out all the relationships and starts working the emerald mine (with Paul Douglas as a companionable partner) and the nearby coffee plantation (with Grace Kelly reaping beans in designer duds), some nicely structured plot reversals start to pay off. Cave-ins, worker revolts, the on-coming rainy season, interference from the church, an overly ambitious kid brother, a lawless bandito with a comically bad accent (Murvyn Vye): there’s plenty of incident. And while some of the swell location footage is compromised with studio recreations & ‘50s process work, there’s always that great Miklos Rozsa score which survives a corny title song before blossoming with South-of-the-Border rhythms.* Strict conservationists might want to skip the finale which blows up a mountain & redirects a river in pursuit of a happy ending. Not so happy for Mother Nature! All-in-all, a reasonably fun ride considering the pic’s rotten rep.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The swinging samba Rozsa worked up for the coffee harvest must have caught the ear of Frederick Loewe who found a place for it in his score for THE LITTLE PRINCE/’74.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

GREEN ZONE (2010)

Even with a billion dollar following after a couple of BOURNE pics, Matt Damon & helmer Paul Greengrass couldn’t get much traction on this behind-the-shock-&-awe Iraqi war story. Too bad, since it’s not only an important story, but a fascinating & entertaining one about how the information on those never-to-be-found Weapons of Mass Destruction was knowingly manipulated by the infernal Echo-Chamber that made up the George W. Bush administration. The dramatic trick in the script has the deceit uncovered by the same military team leader who’s working off of the ‘cooked’ info on the chaotic streets of Baghdad. He’s both the brains and the brawn, which helps keep the complex plot tightly focused, (saves time, too). But you need someone like Damon, a ‘thinking man’s’ action hero who can drop the irony & play it straight, to make this work. The rest of the cast is just as good (kudos to Khalid Abdalla as the reluctant translator) and the physical production is convincing. Yet, the film doesn’t quite come off. Partly, it’s from the ending, too pat, and from Damon’s character, too much the plaster saint, but it’s mostly the Greengrass shake, rattle & roll camera technique. In the abstract puzzle of a BOURNE ‘Spy vs Spy’ conundrum, it works wonders, but with Iraq’s real life confusion & moral dilemmas, clarity trumps generic excitement.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As a truth-seeking CIA type, Irish-born Brendan Gleeson pulls off a damn fine Mid-Western accent. Close your eyes when he talks and you may (just) hear his presumed role model, Gene Hackman. BTW, Khalid Abdalla was born in Scotland. So, extra kudos to him on his Iraqi accent.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1973)

Fred Zinnemann’s plus perfect adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel (about the race to stop a hired hitman from killing French President de Gaulle) works in a methodical fashion, holding its pace where other filmmakers might charge ahead. It's a metronomic & economic design of plot points & pieces of information; mesmerizingly effective, the Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ of political assassination thrillers. Edward Fox, as the Jackal; Michael Lonsdale as the detail-obsessed French detective; and Cyril Cusack as an Italian gunsmith are just stand-outs in the eye-popping cast list, and Zinnemann's insistence on taking the long dramatic view gives off a satisfying sense of occasion; as if plush, handsome, civilized entertainments were still possible, still worth doing. The finale, which was largely shot in the middle of the French Liberation Day Parade in Paris, is particularly stunning, but the whole film is a knock-out. (And fun to compare with the current crop of chop-happy, slice-&-dice hyper-edited thrillers.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Like Anthony Mann’s excellent low-budget assassination thriller, THE TALL TARGET/’51, about an attempt on the life of President-Elect Lincoln, JACKAL pulls off its suspense without a lick of underscoring.

VARSITY SHOW (1937)

This formula musical from Warners is like an episode of GLEE, circa 1937. Dick Powell, still young & yeasty, stars as a washed-up B’way director who reluctantly returns to his alma mater when the annual varsity show needs a lift. Too bad the stuffy professors don’t want his help. When the starry-eyed kids find out he’s toast back in NYC, they sneak into town and camp out at a vacant theater until they can open the hit show he had tried to put on. It sounds like goofy fun, and with a big Busby Berkeley finale for a ‘wow’ finale, but no one seems to be trying very hard on this programmer. Even Berkeley seems out of ideas and falls back on too many trick reverse shots. But wait! The original two-hour running time has been axed to a measly 81 minutes on the current DVD edition. No wonder numbers start & stop awkwardly and the admittedly silly plot is all but incomprehensible. At least, the great team of Buck & Bubbles are around for a couple of stand alone spots. The rest is more frustrating than fun.

NOTE: Don’t miss Frank Tashlin’s HAVE YOU GOT ANY CASTLES in the EXTRAs. This Looney Tunes short brings a few dozen book covers to life in tumbling hilarity. DARKIES ALERT!! Yep, the caricatures are on the insensitive side, so be warned. (If you like this, check out Bob Clampett’s BOOK REVIEW/'46 which is the ne plus ultra of all the book-gag cartoons.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: M-G-M's GOOD NEWS/'47 is still the cornball college musical to beat. It was the first film for writers Comden & Green & choreographer-turned-helmer Charles Walters which may explain why June Alyson & Peter Lawford are so unexpectedly Rah-Rah. .

Sunday, June 5, 2011

LA TERRA TREMA / THE EARTH TREMBLES (1947)

Luchino Visconti’s famous film about the hard life in a Sicilian fishing town is more ‘known about’ than seen. It may be his only strict neo-realist work (non-professionals, real locations, story of ‘the people’), but it pales next to OSSESSION/’42 and BELISSIMA/’51, his stunning films before & after this, which only use what they need from the style. The story follows a three-generation family unit of fishermen, women & children living in a single home, who attempt to cut out the middlemen and sell their own catch. But harsh economic reality & nature itself conspire against them. The outcome is as predetermined as a Party Line vote by a politburo, but in spite of a few uncharacteristic speeches from the laconic proletariat, the film’s leftist sympathies look less like the crush of capitalism against labor than as a proactive punishment for coveting the joys of bourgeois entrepreneurship. The film comes without grace notes, but it’s harsh visual beauty is often impressive, in spite of its poor physical condition (try the Image DVD). And there’s no denying this rustic tragedy now feels twice cooked, like ricotta.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Visconti hit the jackpot with Franco Zeffirelli & Francesco Rosi as his assistants. One of these three found the only two near-blonde guys on the island and stuck them into the family. Cola, the boy who leaves town, is also the best actor on screen.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

. . . A TUTTE LE AUTO DELLA POLIZIA / CALLING ALL POLICE CARS (1975)

This low-budget Italian police procedural about a kidnapped teenage girl was designed strictly for local consumption, but a new DVD edition is trying to nab a confused customer or two by calling it WITHOUT TRACE, like the recent tv series (minus a teeny article). It’s a dreary item about the murder of a sexy little thing and a series of cover-up killings that follow. The last act tries to move the film into giallo territory, those gory Italian crime dramas of the era that Dario Argento & Mario Bava specialized in, but this film, coarsely megged by Mario Caiano, hasn’t an ounce of style. It bumps along from one scene to another as family drama becomes police investigation becomes political cover-up becomes . . . well, something else entirely; and none of it any good. The main appeal undoubtedly lies in getting a number of nubile young pretties naked for the camera to ogle, even a crime lab autopsy room is used for titillation on a corpse. There’s a bit of fun in seeing Antonio Sabato, Sr. done up to pass as a sort of Italian Burt Reynolds, and then realizing that this handsome fellow is Dad to that even more handsome model/actor Antonio Sabato, Jr. But the main story, especially the misogynist slant that’s approvingly used to ‘explain’ the crimes, is too nasty to let you sit back & laugh at the inept filmmaking and hideous synthesized soundtrack. With local product like this, no wonder the Italian cinema collapsed in the ‘70s.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW/'62, based on an Ed McBain story, is hard to beat in the kidnapped kid department.