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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

ONE HOUR WITH YOU (1932)

Though much acclaimed in its day (Oscar® nom for Best Pic & a nasty credit fight from demoted original director George Cukor), this typically frothy, typically naughty Ernst Lubitsch musical for Maurice Chevalier & Jeanette MacDonald now looks like a mere sorbet between meatier efforts. Chevalier & Lubitsch had last met on their enchantingly sweet, emotionally resonant THE SMILING LIEUTENANT/’31 and they’d reunite with MacDonald @ M-G-M for their grand finale, THE MERRY WIDOW/’34. But Chevalier & MacDonald would first do LOVE ME TONIGHT/’32 under Rouben Mamoulian, a near-masterpiece made just as Lubitsch was shooting the sublime TROUBLE IN PARADISE/’32. It all puts ONE HOUR somewhat in the shade. But it’s modest fun, if a bit stiff on its feet in the early Talkie manner. A loose adaptation of THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE/’24, the first comedy of manners, marriage & mores to display the full ‘Lubitsch Touch,’ this film got a quick rewrite, via Samson Raphaelson, while Lubitsch finished THE MAN I KILLED (an uneven, if fascinating straight drama). In this one, Chevalier & MacDonald play a happily married pair who still neck in the park & even sleep in the same bed. (Take that, Production Code!) But who’s that flirt going after Maurice? Why it’s Genevieve Tobin, Jeanette’s best friend. And that eunuch hounding Jeanette? It’s Maurice's good pal, Charlie Ruggles in the film’s funniest perf. Is mutual infidelity a sort of sexual double negative? Lubitsch Ethics 101.

NOTE: Our poster is from the French-language version, filmed concurrently on the same sets, but with different supporting players.

DOUBLE-BILL: Just choose from the films mentioned above. Make it a festival!

Monday, August 29, 2011

THE SNIPER (1952)

Edward Dmytryk got right back to work after doing time as one of the Hollywood Ten during the Communist witch hunt. But unlike the writers who at least had the option of working thru ‘fronts’ or under pseudonyms, directors had to be on the set. You either went into exile (like Jules Dassin & Joe Losey) or got off the blacklist by ‘naming names’ (like fellow Party Members Elia Kazan & Jerome Robbins). Dmytryk talked; then landed with Stanley Kramer Productions @ Columbia. And who turned up as his leading player? Adolphe Menjou!, the friendliest of all the ultra-right-wing Friendly Witnesses during the initial HUAC hearings. If only the movie were half as interesting as the backstory!* Instead, it’s a reasonably effective, docu-flavored thriller, with a bleeding-heart liberal agenda, about an unassuming killer, a mentally unstable young man who tries, tries, tries to control his homicidal outbursts, but can’t forget where he hid the key to his trusty carbine. Even a self-inflicted wound can’t stop the madness while his panicky calls to his old prison shrink go unanswered. Guess he’ll just have to kill again. Two of the shootings still retain a nasty kinetic kick to them, and lenser Burnett Guffey gives the real San Francisco locations a good workout, but the film goes awfully flat when no one’s being stalked. *They did tweak the famously dapper Menjou image by shaving off the trademark moustache & losing the snappy suits. And his acting improves by it.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: DIAL 1119/’50, a little M-G-M back-lot number, tackles a lot of the same issues, but works it up in a cleverly stylized form.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

IOLANTHE (1982)

Just as the D’Oyly Carte Opera was closing down after purveying all things Gilbert & Sullivan for 107 years, PBS/BBC began taping most of the famous comic operettas, largely without D’Oyly Carte participation. Bit of a missed opportunity, what? Worse, most of the shows used stunt celebrity casting in a major role (Vincent Price, Joel Grey, etc.) and cuts were made to fit time slots. Not the case with this IOLANTHE. As a production, it’s useful rather than inspired, but it gets enough across to show this series at it’s most valuable. Iolanthe is a beautiful fairy who drifted from her set and had a child with a mortal. Not just any mortal, mind you, but the Lord Chancellor! Now, her grown son has fallen in love with the Chancellor’s young ward, a sweet thing so lovely that all the Members of Parliament want to marry her . . . even the Lord Chancellor. Worse, Iolanthe’s son is ashamed to tell the girl that he’s ‘half a fairy!’ (That is, fairy from the waist up, mortal from the waist down. Thank goodness!) The show is everything you’d want from a G&S classic: tuneful, hilarious, tongue-twisting, cock-eyed patriotic, and terribly topsy-turvy. Some of the comic numbers race by too fast to make their mark, but most of the singing is very good, as is the orchestra & chorus. (The conductor, Alexander Faris, was a D’Oyly Carte holdover.) The production indulges in a bit of technical hocus-pocus which now looks dated, but then the original production in 1882 was technically famous for its use of electricity instead of gas. The fairies even wore electrified tiaras at the finale. Just try not to grin as the House of Lords march about singing: ‘Bow, bow ye tradesmen, bow ye masses; Bow, bow, ye lower middle-classes.’ NOTE: Our poster is from the original LP recording of 1951 which features an incomparable perf of The Nightmare Song by the great Martyn Green. It's on various free web sites and worth a few clicks to find.

CONTEST: A current Supreme Court Justice quoted from IOLANTHE at a press conference after being nominated. Name the Judge, the G&S character referenced & the gist of the quote to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

‘Animated documentary’ sounds oxymoronic, but Ari Folman’s daring piece of creative journalism might be the most exciting leap in the form since Errol Morris redefined documentary technique in THE THIN BLUE LINE in 1988. The niggling difference is that every documentarian since Morris has gained from his work, while absolutely no one else has taken the animation plunge. But even if this film proves sui generis, Folman’s film, with David Polonsky heading the visual realization, counts as a stunning success in its own right. We follow an Israeli vet who is trying to piece together his shattered memory of the ‘80s war & occupation in Lebanon. Specifically, his part in the infamous massacre of Palestinian refugees by the local Christian ‘Falangists.’ Did the Israeli army just let this happen? Did they encourage it? Where had he been at the time? We go along on interviews with men he fought with, commanders who gave the orders and reporters who had their own viewpoint on what was happening. Astonishing stories, and the visual technique lends a kind of mesmerizing, horrible beauty to the face of war. It draws you in & distances you at the same time. And unlike the ghastly rotoscope-based/motion-capture techniques, it doesn’t deaden expressions or emotion. The computer assisted drawings remain jarring & alive, always at the service of the stories. Folman probably makes a mistake at the end when he shifts to actual video footage of the horrific scenes in the Palestinian Camp, but you’ll see why he felt obligated to do it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: No need to be a film purist, use the English track on this one.

LAT DEN RATTE KOMMA IN / LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2005)

From Sweden comes this obsessively sorrowful puppy-love vampire tale about Oskar & Eli. He’s twelve, young & friendless, bullied at middle-school, barely noticed by his divorced parents and unable to ‘solve’ Rubic’s Cube. Eli is also twelve, er . . . a hundred & twelve! She lives next-door with a guardian, is able to ‘solve’ Rubic’s Cube, but can’t eat a thing off the smorgasbord. They’re like Wendy & Peter Pan, but with reversed genders; he’s waiting for puberty to kick in, she’s stuck on the cusp forever. It’s a great set up for the usual vampiric sex-substitution racket, but director Tomas Alfredson smothers everything with so much poetic sensitivity that all the blood is sucked out of the film along with the occasional victim. And the actors are so slow on the up-take, they might as well be zombies. Undead fanciers will appreciate the look of the film, the snow-bound dream landscapes, and some amusing effects (watch for a swift, satisfying cat attack), but there won’t be a lot of converts.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You can see everyone’s frozen breath in the chilly outdoor scenes, but shouldn’t our little vampire exhale without showing any mist? After all, she’s a cold blooded thing. And it would look way cool; a Nordic variation on not being reflected in a mirror.

DOUBLE-BILL: Anybody see the Stateside remake, LET ME IN/’10? Worth a look?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

After 18 years and nearly sixty films at M-G-M, Joan Crawford took two years off before starting @ Warners with this classic MotherLove/Murder Mystery melodrama. Her big career gamble paid off: Raves, Box-Office & Oscar®, a movie-Queen trifecta, and the film is still, within certain parameters, very effective. Michael Curtiz’s swanky helming makes the most of its So-Cal stylings (the beach house, the curvy lines of Mildred and her restaurant, a decade’s worth of hair-dos & shoulder-pads), and his crackling pace & fluid camera help camouflage some unwieldy plot elements that were added to juice up James Cain’s original novel. At heart, it’s still the story of a sacrificing mom who works so hard at pleasing her disdainful, self-centered daughter (Ann Blyth), she can’t see the monster she’s raised. Crawford makes the most of Mildred, such a relief after those WWII adventures & tony B’way adaptations back @ M-G-M, but she also can’t help making a meal of it. And the script does Blyth no favors, giving the game away on her entrance. (Or perhaps it’s just that the plot twists & psychological underpinnings now look threadbare from overuse.) The rest of the cast are just great with exceptional work from the underrated Bruce Bennett as husband #1 and from Eve Arden as the restaurant manager with a wisecrack for every situation. She’s irresistible.

DOUBLE-BILL: Producer Jerry Wald must have liked attempted suicides and flashbacks. He used it first in THE HARD WAY/’42 with Ida Lupino & Joan Leslie as sisters who are a lot like Crawford & Blyth’s mother & daughter. Jack Carson is plenty good in both pics, but he's at his very best in the earlier one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ANSIKTET / THE MAGICIAN (aka THE FACE) (1958)

This major work from Ingmar Bergman remains far less known then THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES, which came out the year before, or THE VIRGIN SPRING, which followed. But FANNY & ALEXANDER/’83 partisans (hands, please) should jump on this early thematic cousin. Max von Sydow & Ingrid Thulin (fetchingly dressed as a young man) lead a ragtag 19th century ‘medicine show,’ a traveling wagon that features magic acts, love potions & ‘magnetic’ cures. They find themselves holed up at a rich man’s estate where their character & skill are put to the test by a houseful of local authorities and learned skeptics. Bergman labeled this a comedy, and there is a fair bit of ribald country larking going on in the parlor, bedroom & beyond (a bit too robustly played), but the main interest lies in the struggle between an entertainer and his audience. Doubly difficult here because Sydow is something of a fraud, but not without a measure of real psychological power in spite of having to play mute while in character. The inconsistent tone of the story takes some getting used to, but by the third act, which climaxes in a tour-de-force funhouse scare scene, everything Bergman touches really is magical. So, hang in there. (Oh, and if you haven’t yet seen FANNY AND ALEXANDER, be sure to get the full European cut, not the shortened Stateside theatrical release.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SARATOGA TRUNK (1945)

Ingrid Bergman & Gary Cooper went directly from the stiff TechniColor prestige of Ernest Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS/’43 to this decidedly odd, if playfully entertaining romantic adventure from Edna Ferber. Sam Wood megged both, though you’d never know it; editing rhythms come & go, huge frame-breaking close-ups startle, and all the characters flirt with neurasthenia. (There may have been post-production hanky-panky in the gap between filming & its post-war release.) With her two loyal servants (Jerry Austin’s remarkable little person and Flora Robson’s equally remarkable mulatto maid), Bergman sails to America hoping to avenge her late mother’s reputation and find a rich husband. She blackmails herself a cash stake in New Orleans, then goes North to Saratoga to find herself a railroad baron. But can she ignore that tall handsome Texan who’s been helping her along the way? He isn’t just bidin’ his time, you know. (In fact, the film is unusually frank about their co-habitation.) Bergman had famously cropped her hair into a sexy boyish bob for the Hemingway pic, so the Warners team felt free to make her up . . . as Hedy Lamarr! Not really a good look for her. Oh well, they tone it down in the second half. Watch for a great supporting turn from Florence Bates, the old bat. She plays a sort of proto-Elsa Maxwell character, that tubbly self-created society hostess whose decades-long influence over the super-rich was nothing more than an elaborate confidence trick. Naturally, she’s the nicest person in the whole show.

Monday, August 22, 2011

HARRY BROWN (2009)

As blunt as its title, HARRY BROWN is a vigilante picture with senior citizen Michael Caine as the avenging angel. That’s the gimmick; and that’s about as far as it goes. His lower-class neighborhood is in decline, friends & relations are under assault, drugs & violence everywhere you look and the police seem unable or unwilling to take on the creeps. Sound familiar? Clint Eastwood had just taken on similar duties to far richer effect in GRAN TORINO/’08 which found Dirty Harry hitting old age as it touched on race bias, family ties, big city isolation and cross-cultural values. Plus, Clint even gets to be funny.* Hell, Charles Bronson was plugging baddies in DEATH WISH V when he was 73. As a gimmick, Grandpa Vigilante is commonplace. That said, the film is reasonably effective on its own terms, and there’s a nice turn from Emily Mortimer as a sympathetic detective who connects with Caine before connecting him to the payback attacks. Newbie helmer Daniel Barber tends to overcook the atmosphere, some drug-addled grotesques are too amusing to be much of a threat, but he holds to a pleasingly measured pace that fits the storyline. At least, until the messy last act which has to stretch to connect all the narrative dots.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Try this with GRAN TORINO and see if you agree.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

WATERMARKS (2004)

Yaron Zilberman’s documentary is a different kind of Holocaust story. It’s a brief remembrance of Hakoah, the Jewish Athletic Club of Vienna that produced champion swimmers before disappearing as the Austrians rushed to embrace Nazi Germany, and it’s a reunion story for a handful of survivors, vital women from England, America & Israel, now in their 80s, who return to the old training pool for a last lap. It’s charming & affectionate, very Viennese, and it sheds a different, softer light on a time, place & story we think we already know. The historical clips are fascinating, who knew this stuff?, and the women such a remarkable group of over-achievers, they make great company. And while Zilberman doesn’t oversell his unlikely story, there are chilling moments that make this more than just a sentimental journey.

  • A story, never before told by a Grandmother to her Granddaughter, about the time she and her Hakoah teammates marched in a city parade and were met with a sudden, threatening silence amidst the cheers for everyone else.
  • Post-dinner entertainment with a young man right out of an Aryan Recruitment poster who sings a final song, a bouncy paean to those jolly times we are all having at Buchenwald. The song, written to order in a Concentration Camp by one of Vienna’s popular Jewish composers is a gutsy offering by the singer, a nod toward his nation’s culpability. But not all the guests see the point.
  • And, riding in from the airport, one of the lady high-divers chats with her cabbie. Oh, he knows all about those horrible times. How bad things were for ‘Non-Natives’ and how the Jews weren’t, after all, Germans.

You could hardly find a better reason for making this lovely, little film.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

FRENZY (1972)

After three commercial & critical disappointments, Alfred Hitchcock got much happier results with this seriously perverse, rousingly amusing Brit-based thriller about a notorious 'necktie' serial killer. From it’s opening shot, as the pomp & circumstance of Ron Goodwin’s score escorts us down the Thames, until Anthony Shaffer’s perfectly pitched tagline nails the landing, the film shows a confident swagger and a pleasing technical polish that Hitch couldn’t reliable get at this home lot in Hollywood.* Made for a tidy 2 mill (less than half his recent costs), the little known cast & atmospheric Covent Garden locations add a welcome note of loamy verisimilitude to its gritty innocent-man-on-the-run storyline. (It’s easy to imagine a big-budget option with Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson & Alec Guinness in the Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Anna Massey & Alec McCowen roles. Plus, Maggie Smith in for Jean Marsh.) There are times when Shaffer’s script pushes the obvious at us (an early explanatory scene on psycho-serial killers, along with an appalling rape joke, are unfortunate). But someone had the inspired idea of turning the detective’s verbal ratiocinations into dinner conversations with his wife as she serves up revolting gourmet meals on blue-patterned Wedgewood. The gastronomic horror is enough to make the famously ovum-phobic Hitchcock lavish praise on an over-easy egg.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Inexcusably, Hitchcock’s follow-up pic, FAMILY PLOT/’76, his unaccountably underrated swan-song, shows Universal’s Hollywood default mode of rotten technical work still in place, especially in some relentlessly retrograde process work.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A VIEW TO A KILL (1985)

Roger Moore’s final turn as 007 is usually rated one of the weaker James Bond outings. And it probably is, if only by degree. It took a couple of these films for Moore to find his groove, but for a while his fresh-from-the-box persona made for a crisply ironed Bond that proved a pleasing throwback in a fast changing ‘Pop’ society. But by the time this film came out, though the packaging is luxer than ever, he‘s not sleek, but wizened; popping his eyes like Jimmy Carter and worried how his middle-aged flesh looks on camera. (He’s more bashful of baring his breast than the Bond babes.) The plot, which has something or other to do with flooding Silicon Valley via designed earthquakes, has a bland batch of villains, led by Christopher Walken, with a standout awful perf from Grace Jones. She’s fiercely exotic and entirely unable to act. In spite of all this, the film bumps along, largely following a GOLDFINGER/’64 template (horse racing, a scale model demo for the big caper, the ‘butch’ villainess who flips for the finale, garage garrottings, etc.) and the big set pieces work up considerable energy and almost make logistical sense. (Oddly, megger John Glen who moved up from the 2nd unit, can’t stage a plain old-fashioned fight scene. Or can’t get his camera set-ups to work.) But the Bond films had long lost the balanced blend of daring stunts & suspense, sex, action & naughty fun they had back in the Sean Connery days. Here, even the pre-title action sequence is fitted out with a jokey musical gag that insults our involvement right from the start. At least the writers came up with a funny gag-line, not the usual double-entendre groaner, for Moore’s exit.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: GOLDFINGER. Why not?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

PEEPER (aka FAT CHANCE) (1975)

Raymond Chandler’s L.A. detective stories can be played straight (a la Bogie) or ‘kidded-on-the-square’ (see Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE/’73), but they never work as parody. They end up sounding like one of those painfully unfunny skits from an old Bob Hope Special. This sorry attempt has Michael Caine rattling off reams of wiseguy narration and playing the dick, which at least lends his odd Cockney rhythm to things. But poor Natalie Wood, in the usual two-faced dame spot, tries to mix Mary Astor mendacity with Lauren Bacall swank, and winds up lost at sea. Literally. (And she knew it, staying off the screen for four years.) But don’t blame the actors, everything is lousy on this show. The story makes no sense (that’s supposed to be funny); the dialogue isn’t clever, but forced & flat; the costumes & sets, garish & overlit. (We do get a quick tour of the Harold Lloyd Estate, but the rest, including a very modern looking ocean liner, looks chintzy.) Pin the blame on Peter Hyams whose typically flatfooted megging never got between his big ambitions and Hollywood’s faith in a hack who stayed on budget.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Why bother with lame parodies when you can watch the real thing? Try a classic like Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP/’46 for a real plot, great characters, lively action & suspense; it's even got three times the laughs.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For all you DIY Michael Caine impersonators (and they seem to be everywhere these days!), here’s a trick for nailing his voice & speaking rhythm. (Courtesy of actor Jim Dale.)

  1. Raise pitch & intensity, slightly.
  2. Put on your standard Cockney accent.
  3. Then (and this is the important bit), ‘You only say – three words at -- a time.’ (Cool, huh?)

Monday, August 15, 2011

THE EXTRA GIRL (1923)

Mabel Normand, the longtime star & sometime romantic interest of comedy producer Mack Sennett, was just 28 when she made this charming programmer, her last feature. She’s a small-town girl who’d rather try her luck in Hollywood than settle down, and she runs off on her wedding day to prove it. But dreams of fast stardom are quickly dashed; she’s lucky to land a supporting gig in wardrobe. Soon, Ralph Graves (a star for Frank Capra in early Talkies) shows up from back home along with her folks. He finds work as a stagehand; they get fleeced by a con man. All the while, Mabel's going thru studio purgatory with props, screen tests & runaway lions. Lesson learned, it’s back to the simple life. Standard stuff, but well worth watching in spite of its ragtag story construction for a winning cast, the handsomely preserved print on the KINO-DVD and especially for its forgotten director, F. Richard Jones. He died young (in 1930, the same year as Mabel), but not before making Doug Fairbanks’ THE GAUCHO/’27 and Ron Colman’s BULLDOG DRUMMOND/’29, one of the best early Talkies. What a natural! The guy doesn’t put a foot wrong. There’s a lot of nice camera movement for the period and he really knows how to make a composition ‘sell’ the gag. He’s good with the dramatic stuff, too. A wheezy idea, like the runaway lion sequence, comes off fresh & funny, but also pretty darn scary, and he nails the big confrontation with the con man in the last act. Mabel’s shadow moves over the man, Graves attacks, there’s a slug-fest, a desperate moment when the money seems lost, and a nice gag ending. And check out the sophisticated use of mise-en-scène in an early scene where Mabel sneaks into her own home to avoid an unwanted suitor in the parlor. In a Sennett programmer!

DOUBLE-BILL: Colleen Moore in ELLA CINDERS/'26 and Marion Davies in SHOW PEOPLE/'28 played the same girl-goes-to-Hollywood rom-com tune, but for bigger studios with bigger budgets.

CONTEST: Normand was a prime suspect in one of Hollywood’s great unsolved murders a year before this film came out. You’d think the filmmakers would have avoided bringing up the subject, but a prominent reminder of the whole sorry mess is quite literally spelled out in the film. Find the unfortunate connection to win your choice of any NetFlix DVD for a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

RHAPSODY (1954)

Pricelessly idiotic romance with Elizabeth Taylor as a spoiled rich girl who runs away from Dad’s boring old luncheon party (Artur Rubinstein, Kate Hepburn & Henri Matisse* are expected) to nibble on the ears of budding violin virtuoso Vittorio Gassman. But he’d rather fondle his fiddle than get distracted with Liz, so she marries promising piano prospect John Ericson on the rebound. Now, she’s out to weaken his . . . er, technique. It’s the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto going toe-to-toe against Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, with an ending apparently stitched together after a bad preview. (Gassman gave up on Hollywood for a couple of decades after this, and you’ll see why.) But there are recompenses in the extended classical excerpts which feature the great, tragic Michael Rabin dubbing the violin parts, and the even greater Chilean master Claudio Arrau, in his young fiery days, on piano. Plus, there’s the absurdly overdressed Liz relieving her boredom during the Tchaikovsky by adjusting her fur to fully expose her left shoulder. (To better balance her decolletage?) Then, just before the end of the pic, lenser Robert Planck finally finds the angle for Liz; slightly elevated, over Gassman’s shoulder. And, for a moment, she truly looks like her own legend.

*Matisse may have been late since he died this year.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Some wiseguy @ M-G-M must have noticed that Liz's character not only is called Lulu, like the infamous vixen of Wedekind’s PANDORA’S BOX, but that she also has the same poisonous effect on the men who love her. So, they bobbed her raven locks, though not in the style Louise Brooks sports as Lulu in the Pabst 1928 classic. Brooks' straight bangs would never have worked on Liz’s heart-shaped face.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

HOUR OF THE GUN (1967)

Ten years after GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, John Sturges made the mistake of double-dipping with this sleepy follow up. The gimmick is that the film starts at that famous shootout, then we tag along as Wyatt Earp (a dyspeptic James Garner) and tubercular pal ‘Doc’ Holliday (Jason Robards) go after what’s left of the devious Clanton gang (Robert Ryan & Co.). And these Clanton guys don’t fight fair, if they can’t shoot you in the back they’re apt to run for political office or drag you into court. No wonder Wyatt shoots first and asks questions later. The talent line up sounds promising: script by Edward Anhalt, lensing from Lucien Ballard, a Jerry Goldsmith score; and there are good supporting players like William Windom & William Schallert alongside rising unknowns like Monte Markham, Frank Converse & even a babyfaced Jon Voight, but the thing never takes off. Robards shuffles off with the remains, and it’s slim pickin’s.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE/’48 is the classic O.K. Corral pic, but adventurous types ought to check out the restored edition of CHEYENNE AUTUMN/’64 for James Stewart’s corrupt middle-aged lawman; or even Blake Edwards’ much-maligned SUNSET/’88, an uneven pic (to put it nicely!), but with James Garner bringing something special to his second go at Wyatt.

Friday, August 12, 2011

L’ENFANCE NUE / NAKED CHILDHOOD (aka ME) (1968)

L’AMOUR EXISTE, Maurice Pialat’s early ‘60s two-reel documentary on commuters & the soul-draining nabe near Paris where they live, quickly caught the attention of François Truffaut. Yet, it took almost a decade for him to godfather Pialat’s feature debut, a film about a troubled adolescent foster-child that plays like a documentary. This makes it sound a bit like Truffaut’s warm-blooded THE 400 BLOWS/’59, but Pialat’s work is much closer to the clear-eyed, pitiless rigor of a late Robert Bresson film. Cast with non-professionals, and even a few people playing themselves, Pialat is as blunt & concise as a war correspondent, using the simplest camera set-ups to get the job done on a tough story. The kid in question isn’t a misunderstood waïf waiting to blossom, but a near-psychopath waiting to blow up. Abandoned by his birth parents, on his second foster home, he’s just lucked into an unusually patient & caring couple in their 60s (the remarkable Thierrys as themselves), but the kid may already be lost for good. In his only feature film, Michel Terrazon is all exposed nerve-endings & outbursts as the boy. At times, a residue of a sweeter nature shows thru his skin like pentimento on an old canvas, but a shift of light can carry it away in a flash. It’s a relief that the film can end honestly with an abrupt question mark.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: L’AMOUR EXISTE, Pialat’s portrait of the life & lodgings of commuters (included on this Criterion DVD) is so handsomely made that you only realize in retrospect how condescending it is. Even so, the juxtaposition of dark, crumbling tenements with blank, ultra-efficient high-rise units make it play like a fascinating run-up to Jacques Tati’s modernist follies in his masterful PLAY TIME/’67.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

MAYERLING (1936)


Charles Boyer helped Fritz Lang get to Hollywood starring in his Paris-based production of Ferenc Molnar’s LILIOM/’34. He did much the same two years later for another helmer-in-exile from Nazi Germany, Anatole Litvak, in this huge international success about the doomed love affair between Rudolph of Hapsburg and a young, beautiful Baroness, Maria Vetsera (Danielle Darrieux). Boyer may have been pushing forty, but he still had the bloom of youth in those big brown eyes (even in b&w) & the purring voice that Pepe Le Pew acquired. As his guileless lover, the 19 yr-old Darrieux is worth every pang. (She still is, an ageless beauty with two new film credits in 2010.) Together, they make a matchless romantic couple. But the whole film is a marvel, filmed with a fluid pace that rivals the great Max Ophüls, who brought similar Hapsburg atmosphere & fatalism to his LIEBELEI in ’32. But MAYERLING gets beyond the stunning balls & concerts, past the orgies of wine, women & song, because Rudolph, heir to the throne, was also one of the great What-Ifs of history. A student & writer, a liberal & anti-clerical radical; what course might The Great War have taken if Rudolph had been the leading voice of German-speaking culture rather than his militaristic cousin Wilhelm II? It’s as much a mystery as the events that took place at a royal hunting lodge in Mayerling, 1889.

DOUBLE-BILL: No wonder Boyer scored as a European exile trying to get out of Mexico and into California in the Billy Wilder scripted HOLD BACK THE DAWN/’41. He knew people who had lived the backstory. But since MAYERLING is a Boyer/Darrieux pic, let’s go with Max Ophül’s sublime THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D . . . /’55 to see them together again.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: And speaking of backstory . . . Frederic Morton’s classic survey of Viennese society in 1888/1889, A NERVOUS SPLENDOR, keyed to the Rudolph/Maria affair, remains tough to beat & highly readable.

BRODERSKAB / BROTHERHOOD (2009)

BROKEBACK NEO-NAZI may sound like a gag, a Hollywood pitch too far, but that’s what we’ve got in this reductio ad absurdum tale about a blooming gay romance inside a Danish fascist cell of right-wing white supremacists. But just how surprised should we be? Heck, how surprised should they be? With all the leather paraphernalia & chrome motorbikes, the nude swims and S&M-tinged male-bonding games, these boys should be grabbing pints at the local gay fetish bar. (‘Lars, do I put my red paperback copy of MEIN KAMPF in my right or left back pocket?’) Thure Lindhardt & David Dencik act very serious as the army washouts who fall in lust between bouts of brick throwing & anti-immigration rallies, but they seem too smart (too nice?) to be so blinded to the consequences of their actions. The director, Nicolo Donato, who also co-scripted, has a good eye for casting, but the film is too conventional, and far too sentimental, for its own good. In Hollywood, it’s the height of dramatic irony when the Neo-Nazi turns out to be a self-loathing/self-denying Jew; here, he’s gay. But any way you slice it, it’s still kvatch.

Monday, August 8, 2011

SOLNTSE / THE SUN (2005)

After meditating on Hitler’s countryside retreat in MOLOCH/’99 and Lenin’s fragile health in TAURUS/’01, Alexander Sokurov looks at Emperor Hirohito’s last days as a God. The Americans are all but knocking on the door when the film opens, but Hirohito sticks to his routine and his formal life style . . . even in a bunker. There are cabinet members to meet with, scientific hobbies to parse, a letter that’s waiting to be written to his eldest son and lunch. All have their proper place in his schedule. But after a dream of destruction, Hirohito is politely, but awkwardly called upon by the Americans to meet with General Douglas MacArthur. Only then, after figuring out how to open a door by one’s self, does Hirohito start to feel an odd sense of relief at the thought of losing his divinity. THE SUN is, apparently (see below), the most conventional of Sokurov’s investigations into the loss of absolute power by three 20th Century rulers, which makes it sound like an obvious entry point into his film world. But it misses the dream-logic of his best work, playing out like the world’s slowest moving History Channel special. And for all its meticulous reconstruction of historical incident, it gives way to easy point-scoring against the occupying American forces. Particularly with its unconvincing portrait of General MacArthur as a rube, even if he never pulls out his iconic corncob pipe. This General smokes Cuban cigars.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Brave souls should try MOLOCH/'99 for Sokurov at full force. And let us know if you can lay your hands on TAURUS which remains on a MAKSQUIBS wish-list.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

At its core, William Friedkin’s popular (and wildly influential) film is just a down-and-dirty police procedural about a narcotics ring. Its two big set pieces (a wild car chase under an elevated subway train & a cat-and-mouse subway fake-out for Gene Hackman’s police detective & drug importer Fernando Rey) are almost too well known. Yet, after launching a thousand films & tv shows, the film retains (or has it regained?) its lively sense of cinematic discovery, especially in how it displays the soiled & sordid nature of its main supporting character, ‘Fun City’ New York. No wonder Friedkin & lenser Owen Roizman ‘stole’ so many street location shots. (Watch for real-life gawkers in the background.) But tacky period flavor and a swell cast (what a kick to see the young Roy Schieder as Hackman’s partner) only partly explain why the sum is so much greater than the film’s fairly ordinary parts, even with an ending that’s a bit of mess. Perhaps it was Friedkin’s faith in his rapport with the public, a faith that held for his follow up pic (THE EXORCIST/’73), then vanished as mysteriously at it had appeared. He never quite found it again.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (aka THE DAMNED) (1963)

Hammer Studios were known for their vividly Eastman-Colored Gothic Horror reboots and for b&w end-of-the-world ‘thinking man’s’ sci-fi fare. That’s what we’ve got here: a top-secret government project; a couple of lovebirds who stumble upon the conspiracy; a high-tech research facility aboveground and a sterile warren underground for the young human guinea pigs; and, of course, a gang of village Teddy Boys whose anti-social behavior precipitates the kerfuffle. (Teddy Boys? You know, British biker blokes like the Hell’s Angels.) Odd components for any pic, and THE DAMNED then added Joseph Losey, the blacklisted Hollywood helmer, to the mix. He brought the same edgy chip-on-his-shoulder attitude that would prove so effective in the series of psychologically threatening Harold Pinter scripts he made right after this, beginning with THE SERVANT/’63. Losey adds a sense of chic modern dread to this low-budget fare, layered between all the angst-ridden dead-end relationships and societal malaise. In particular, the two main couples, Macdonald Carey/Shirley Ann Field & Alexander Knox/Viveca Lindfors are disturbingly ill-matched in age, looks & temperament while the young Oliver Reed is a pretty scary presence all on his own. The whole thing plays out like a DR. WHO episode directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.

DOUBLE-BILL: Don’t confuse this with Luchino Visconti’s Nazi drama of the same name. But do confuse it with VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED/’60 for a good creepy-kids DoubleBill. (Just don’t confuse that film with its lesser sequel, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED/’64, or with John Carpenter's 1995 remake.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Franz Kafka’s A COUNTRY DOCTOR and THE OLD CROCODILE (2005)

Though only 13 minutes long, THE OLD CROCODILE is the main reason (and reason enough) for watching this DVD of Collected Shorts from Japanese animator Koji Yamamura. His early work tends toward abstract experimentation, but the shorts gain interest as he stretches his technique thru a variety of styles & animation techniques, from simple line drawings to Claymation puppetry. At times, Yamamura revives some of the charm, wonder & youthful imagination of John Hubley’s classic indie films from the late ‘50s & early ‘60s (MOONBIRD/’59; OF STARS AND MEN/’61), though not in the two ‘calling cards’ films on the disc. These more recent films, the Oscar® nom’d MT. HEAD/’02 and the longish short which gives the DVD it’s title, KAFUKA: INAKA ISHA / Franz Kafka’s A COUNTRY DOCTOR/'07, share a distorted drawing style that bump up against their source material. (Animation festivals around the world feel otherwise.) But that’s certainly not a problem with THE OLD CROCODILE which perfectly matches style to story. Working from a 1923 French title, this is an odd, even distasteful, fable about a lazy crocodile who won’t let family ties, friendship or worshipful followers keep him from a delicious dining experience . . . THEM! It is, simply put, an astonishment; cool & elegant, with flowing lines & delicate shadings. The croc’s peregrinations eventually take us to a land of African racial stereotypes, but the film’s heavy stylization covers over any objections. It is a small oddity; perhaps a masterpiece.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956)

George Cukor was always a more accomplished visual stylist than his stage-to-screen-specialist reputation got him credit for. That said, his remake of A STAR IS BORN/’54 raised the bar with the addition of four key ingredients: Color; CinemaScope; art director Gene Allen; & fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Heune as visual consultant. The results were ravishing, and, with Freddie Young’s cinematography added to the mix, this film makes a worthy, if totally different, follow up. It remains ludicrously underrated. Filmed in Pakistan, and set during the run-up to Indian independence, it has an epic swagger unlike anything Cukor ever did. (It gives you an idea of what an all-Cukor GONE WITH THE WIND might have been like. Er . . . if Ava Gardner had played Scarlett!) Ava Gardner, in one of her best perfs, is superbly cast as an Anglo-Indian who doesn’t know how she fits into the new India. She has three affairs in the film, not so much trying on lovers (mixed-race, Indian, British) as trying out identities. While out in the streets, the teeming masses strike, riot, murder, & plot revolution. In theory, this lends scale & urgency to Gardner’s personal story, but the lines of action aren’t as well integrated as they might be. In particular, the climax, which involves a politically motivated bomb plot by Communist agitators, feels tacked on to generate suspense and an old-fashioned ride to the rescue. But so much is stunningly caught by Cukor & his team that you barely notice . . . or mind. Alas, you do notice . . . and mind, how much studio post-production interference reshaped the film into a tamer, more conventional framework than had been originally intended.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1941)

Everybody talks a mile-a-minute in this hokey, but entertaining melodrama about a little jazz combo who ride the rails to find gigs and wind up fronting at an illegal roadhouse craps joint. Richard Whorf, Jack Carson & Elia Kazan (very enthusiastic in his final acting gig) are in the band with pretty Priscilla Lane as the white-bread singer while Lloyd Nolan, Betty Field, Wallace Ford & Howard da Silva work the gambling end. Their location is just close enough to NYC for the band to hope for a bit of exposure, but sex, in the available form of Ms. Field, brings the two sides of the house into fatal conflict. It’ll take a break-up or two, a psychiatric meltdown, a few murders and some backstabbing before things settle down. With all the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer music and a mere 96 minute running time . . . no wonder they all talk so fast! But it’s swell talk, thanks to scripter Robert Rossen (half the time, Nolan sounds just like Bugs Bunny) and it has a sleekly compelling look thanks to Ernest Haller’s noirish lensing, Anatole Litvak's smooth helming and smart art direction from Max Parker who makes the tight budget work with the film’s fatalistic atmosphere. Same goes for Don Siegel’s OTT surrealistic montages; watch for the taffy keyboard on that nightmare piano! The DVD comes with a spectacular helping of EXTRAs, including JAMMIN’ THE BLUES/’44 with a great all-star jazz line up and awesome b&w lensing via Robert Burks, plus three smash Looney Tunes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Billy Halop, one of the original DEAD END kids, busts all Hollywood narrative conventions as the band’s drummer. He hacks away like Camille in his first scenes, but it doesn’t lead to a fatal illness or even an early exit to the TB ward. You can almost hear producer Hal Wallis yelling, ‘Rewrite!’

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2009)

There’s more than a comma missing from this fact-inspired comic tall tale. Jim Carrey plays one of those borderline psycho-genius types, a born con-man who uses more time & energy to fake his way thru mad moneymaking schemes than he’d need to do things straight. But straight isn’t the word because Carrey does it all for fellow jailbird Phillip Morris, the eponymous love of his life. (Ewan McGregor in an alarming dye-job.) Tru-love makes Carrey a scam-oholic and the film largely consists of get-rich-quick plans, get-out-of jail feints; and health-crisis cons - each more entertainingly preposterous than the last. (How much of this is true?) Too bad that newbie meggers Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, working off their own promising script, sabotage themselves with a visual template out of the Coen Brothers’ RAISING ARIZONA/’87 (super-saturated palette & self-consciously wacky compositions) coupled to the heavy-handed nudge-nudge/wink-wink tone of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY/’94. And now that he’s approaching middle-age, couldn’t Carrey use those mischievously roving eyes for something other than scanning for the next laugh. Maybe a tutorial in Alec Guinness Ealing Studio comedies would do the trick.

CONTEST: This isn’t the only prison-based pic that uses a bit of opera on the soundtrack. In fact, there’s a prison film that uses the very same operatic selection. Name the composer, opera, excerpt and the other film to win our usual MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD as your prize!