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Friday, September 30, 2011

KNOCK ON WOOD (1954)

Danny Kaye plays a touring American ventriloquist who unknowing smuggles some Top Secret military documents across Europe in this farcical Spy vs Spy caper. (The diagrams have been hidden in his two dummies.) That’s the set up on this Melvin Frank/Norman Panama comedy which isn’t all that different from some of their previous vehicles for Bob Hope. (They’d find a more Kaye-specific tone on THE COURT JESTER/’56 though Danny always held this London-based pic as his personal favorite.) The plot works up two sets of foreign spies with Danny as innocent man-in-the-middle. Once the body count starts to rise, Kaye looks like the new London Ripper. Now on the lam from spies, cops and even the general public (only his g'friend/shrink Mai Zetterling believes him), Kaye has to assume a series of identities to stay undercover: stuffy car salesman, Irish pub mate, Russian Ballet dancer; all to solid comic results. (The ballet pastiche sounds cringe-inducing, but as staged & helmed by choreographer Michael Kidd, it’s sharp, accurate & unexpectedly hilarious.) But whatever happened to those dummies? After an opening scat duet & a startling moment as Danny loses control of his jealous wooden pal, that’s it. Couldn’t they have played some part in the chase or, at least, shown up for the finale? Kind of a wasted opportunity.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a classic portrait of a psychologically poisoned pair of puppet & puppeteer, see Michael Redgrave and his mahogany alter-ego in DEAD OF NIGHT/’45. Others swear by Anthony Hopkins’ work in MAGIC.’78, but its awfully gimmicky.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

VOINA I MIR / WAR AND PEACE (1966-67)

Ever wanted to see what a billion dollar movie would look like? Not in today’s billions, where a CGI-laden comic book pic costs up to a quarter bill. No, a billion bucks back when a billion really was a billion. Made in the high-flying days of Breznev’s Soviet Union, there’s no way of knowing just what this USSR-approved version of the Tolstoy novel cost. The rumored figure was $100,000,000, but even Hollywood bookkeeping could never top the account ledger shenanigans of a Kremlin cultural slush-fund. Initially shown in an 8 hour cut, it now weighs in at 6 & ½ and boasts a cast in the tens of thousands. (That’s an entire Russian Army on the home team and a second Russian Army dressed as the invading French.) Plus ballrooms, Moscow mansions, country estates, 70mm SovColor, endless speaking roles, gowns, cannons . . . and precious little modern fakery. It’s an amazing achievement . . . but is it any good? Well , er . . . Nyet. They gave the project to Sergei Bondarchuk, a politically acceptable hack of some talent who knew how to play the government funding game. And then he also took on the leading role of Pierre, that sadly romantic, illegitimate intellectual. (It’s as if Bill Clinton gave Rob Reiner a couple of billion to make MOBY DICK and Reiner not only directed but also cast himself as the whale.) Bondarchuk must have been doing the festival circuit back then since the film is a stylistic magpie of misused up-to-the-minute techniques. There's lots of acting in the big Russian declarative style, Prince Andrei comes off as a sort of Darcy via Jane Austen, and the Natasha grows on you once she stops trying to outdo Audrey Hepburn.* But when you get past the fine costumes & art direction, only composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s stunningly effective score seems Tolstoy-worthy. The film is both a must-see, and a miss. WARNING: The 5-DVD edition on RusCICO/Image gives a decent idea of the film, but an older 3-DVD set on Kultur (a tv sourced PAL conversion?) is a savagely cropped, visually smeared travesty.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Speaking of Audrey . . . she makes a perfectly enchanting Natasha in King Vidor’s 1956 version. And in about half the running time, you get almost as much of the story as you get here. There are lots of good things in that film, but what were they thinking when they got Henry Fonda for Pierre? Especially when Peter Ustinov, born to play that role, was available and even working for Paramount which released the film. Those who’d like to get almost all of the story without picking up the book might check out the 20 episode BBC version with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. It’s horribly compromised by its budget, but, if you can adjust, worth seeing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

THE SCARECROW (1920)

The latest KINO ReMastering of their BUSTER KEATON - SHORT FILM COLLECTION, 1920 - 1923 is (with one notable exception*) essential viewing. Only three (of nineteen) titles remain seriously compromised in either completeness or visual quality, and four come in both digitally-polished & ‘plain’ versions. (Visual ‘noise’ vs. crisper image, you decide.) The best additions are 14 newly produced Visual Essays by an enthusiastic assortment of scholars, accompanists & programmers (none of the usual bloviating suspects) who bring fresh voices & ideas, neatly illustrated with clips & stills. Some offer a spirited defense of a less acclaimed title, but the best may be the DIY Keaton compilation feature proposed by SCARECROW essayist Ken Gordon. Virginia Fox was the regular female lead in the series, but Keaton had a uniquely easy, even sexy rapport with the delightful Sybil Seely who partnered on the three shorts that make up this putative feature. Act One would be their second film, THE SCARECROW, which covers the courtship. It’s in Keaton’s less rigorous knockabout style. Hilariously so. It tends to be remembered for a fanciful opening sequence between Buster & roommate Joe Roberts who live out a sort of child’s dream of grown up life in a house filled with trick devices. And there are also some phenomenal gags between Buster & Luke the Dog. But it’s really all about pursuing, proposing and wedding Sybil. Act Two, the honeymoon act, would be ONE WEEK/’20, which was actually filmed first, and Act Three, the tour de force slapstick existentialism of THE BOAT/’21. It’s like having another feature-length masterpiece for the Keaton canon.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *As for that notable exception . . . For some reason (contractual?), KINO has chosen an early reconstruction of HARD LUCK/’21 which was pieced together from inferior elements and is, crucially, missing the famous final gag. You can find a better edition on KINO’s ‘KEATON PLUS’ DVD. Go figure.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

ASSIGNMENT-PARIS (1952)

It’s a kick to see a film set in the Paris bureau of the old International Herald Tribune, the paper of choice for every American traveler in pre-internet days. But this reasonably sound East/West-Commie-Spy tale comes over like an assignment no one wanted. Even the title gets it wrong; it should be posted to Paris, assigned to Budapest. That’s where the previous Hungarian correspondent has gone missing and where Marta Toren (a largely forgotten Ingrid Bergman type) has just returned from, with hush-hush info on the anti-communist underground movement. And she wants to go right back. But it’s that hot new reporter, Dana Andrews, the smoothie making a play for her, who gets the dangerous gig from their suave editor George Sanders. Office politics? Sanders also likes the lovely Ms Toren. Did he give Andrews the job just to get rid of the competition? It’s a good set-up, and lenser Burnett Guffey makes the back streets of real Paris & fake Budapest pulse with foggy menace. But that’s as far as it goes. Robert Parrish megs in a flat, paceless style, and there’s zero European flavor in the plywood interiors. Worse, the story doesn’t really go anywhere, quickly growing as tired as Dana Andrews looks. He seems to be suffering from sleep depravation long before the Budapest Reds lock him up & work him over.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try Nunnally Johnson’s NIGHT PEOPLE/’54 for a similar Cold War thriller from this era. Greg Peck stars, but it’s Broderick Crawford, talking a mile a minute, and the early ‘Scope lensing that make it pop.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A LADY TAKES A CHANCE (1943)

Jean Arthur’s big film for 1943 was George Stevens’ THE MORE THE MERRIER, but she also got roped into making this modest city-gal-meets-cowboy indie. And why not? It’s a relaxed charmer; it co-stars John Wayne in his first romantic-comedy; and her husband was the producer. Jean’s on a bus trip out West when she stops to see the rodeo. Wayne’s a contestant who gets bronco-busted right on top of her. How’s that for a meet-cute? They get on right from the start, but he wants to rush into bed and she wants to rush into domesticity. Something’s gotta give, especially since Jean’s just missed her bus. Most of the gags still come off and director William Seiter doesn’t worry the ones that don’t. (Wayne does, though. He’s still a newbie at these things.) Hardly the most fluid of meggers, Seiter knows enough to give Arthur plenty of elbow room and she sure knows how to use it. Whether cracking that unmatchable voice or finding that you can’t jump on a truck bed when you’re wearing a tight skirt, the lady had more technique (and heart) than a dozen of today’s rom-com queens.Note the new title and reversed billing positions for this re-release poster when Arthur had stopped making films and Wayne had become Hollywood's top cowboy.

DOUBLE-BILL: Stevens' THE MORE THE MERRIER/’43 is the logical paring, but why not try this with Joshua Logan’s Marilyn Monroe pic, the heartfelt, if slightly obvious BUS STOP/’56 as a chaser. Don Murray & Arthur O’Connell have roles just like the ones Wayne and his bud Charles Winninger play here. But who in their right mind (other than Norman Mailer) would choose Marilyn Monroe over Jean Arthur?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

ON THE DOUBLE (1961)

This was the third time Danny Kaye got double-exposed to play screen lookalikes. WONDER MAN/’45 had id & ego twins; ON THE RIVIERA/’54 had Danny the nightclub entertainer impersonate Danny the famous aviator; and this WWII farce finds him going toe-to-toe with himself as a Yank Private who ‘volunteers’ as body-double for a targeted British General. RIVIERA is the smoothest of the three, the backstage atmosphere helps sell the concept and the construction had been twice-tested via Maurice Chevalier’s FOLIES BERGÊRE/’35 and Don Ameche’s THAT NIGHT IN RIO/’41. But this lesser (and lesser known) film is the most interesting. Writer/helmer Melville Shavelson, who had also worked on WONDER MAN, tried for a darker, edgier tone, with real wartime ambience, real inter-personal relationships & real deaths on every other corner, but then he pulled back from all the implications. Jokey voice-over narration got slapped on and more of the usual Kaye tomfoolery. At least, that’s how it plays. Did Shavelson have Roberto Rossellini’s GENERALE DELLA ROVERE/’59 in mind? There, Vittorio De Sica plays a second-rate con man who impersonates a resistance hero . . . all the way to the firing squad. Even as it stands, there’s good-natured tumult to be had, until things collapse in the messy third act. Danny works very well with Dana Wynter as the General’s long-suffering wife, and he has an alarmingly odd, hilarious scene with Margaret Rutherford at her battiest. Kaye also earns points for tackling Welsh double-talk. A double-talk first! Lensers Harry Stradling & Geoffrey Unsworth make it all look unusually handsome & elegant for a ‘60s comedy, and the double-exposure tricks hold some nifty surprises. (Watch that cane on the General’s desk.) But it would take the military quagmire that was Vietnam to make WWII fit for the black comedies of Richard Lester & Blake Edwards later in the decade.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

APPALOOSA (2008)

The Western is the default genre of choice for a surprisingly long & starry list of actors who occasionally direct. Now, Ed Harris joins Robert Redford, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Costner & Tommy Lee Jones out on the trail. This is a chamber-sized morality tale, a throwback in theme & style to the ‘50s Westerns Randolph Scott made with helmer Budd Boeticher. But Scott’s blunt authority is swapped for a harmonious duet, Harris & Viggo Mortensen as lawmen for hire. They ‘fix’ towns in trouble, shooting first & asking questions later. And there’s double-trouble in Appaloosa: Jeremy Irons’ law-defying rancher and Renée Zellweger’s moral-denying new-girl-in-town. Harris works too hard at keeping a deliberate pace, the restrained editing & reliance on two-shots starts to feel self-conscious, even self-congratulatory. (‘Look Ma, no reverse over-the-shoulder close-ups!) But his adherence to the rules of filmmakers past grows more organic (and largely pays off) as the plot starts to twist in the late-innings. But probably nothing could have been done to help Ms Zellweger. She looks like she’s having an anaphylaxis reaction to something. Real bee-stung lips? And might she lay off on the Shirley MacLaine vocal tics? Concentrate instead on Viggo M who grew a perfectly awful patch of facial hair for the role. He’s great.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1996)

We set the bar ‘limbo low’ on biblical epics. Just keep down the giggle factor and we’ll watch the old tales again & again. That must have been the reasoning behind the series of oft-filmed Bible stories remade for TNT back in the mid-‘90s. On paper, the casts & creative teams look tempting, but the films are dull, faintly tasteful things; and they don’t stick in your mind the way a truly terribly version might. Helmer Nicolas Roeg was winding up his career, but he doesn’t phone it in, he’s really trying . . . he’s just no good at this sort of thing. He lined up a favorite scripter, Allan Scott from DON’T LOOK NOW/’73 and THE WITCHES/’90, but the big gestures, physical mayhem, primitive plots of revenge, pseudo-poetic talk, even the famous hair cut; they seem a bit embarrassed of the material. (So embarrassed, someone made a tiny 'jump-cut' just as Samson reveals the big secret to Delilah.) . As Samson, Eric Thal tries on grief-stricken dignity toward the end, but since his early athletic feats didn’t convince, it’s hard to feel much pity. Still, he’s a paragon of historically-informed behavioral acting next to the contemporary stylings of Dennis Hopper’s conflicted Philistine general and Elizabeth Hurley’s ‘Cover Girl’ Delilah. Anyway, who hires Diana Rigg for a SAMSON & DELILAH project and then casts her as Samson’s mother? Who cares if she’s 60 years old, it's still Emma Peel fer G_d's sake!

Friday, September 16, 2011

MATIR MOINA / THE CLAY BIRD (2002)

This largely autobiographical film was the debut and best known work of Bangladesh helmer Tareque Masud, who co-scripted with his American-born wife. Now, since his tragic, early death this past August, it also serves as his legacy. It’s an often lovely & affecting work, set in the unsettled years when East Pakistan was becoming independent Bangladesh. Tareque’s ten yr-old alter-ego leaves his mother, adorable kid sister & village when his strict religious father, a homeopathic physician, sends him to a madrasa in the city. Difficult & distant, this unlovable man holds to out-dated beliefs in the face of family crises both medical & political. He’s all but replaced in the boy’s affection by his forward-looking, politically engaged uncle. The tone & pattern of the film is (purposefully?) reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s masterful debut, PATHER PANCHALI/’55, but with much more going on: new friendships at school & difficult teachers,, a threatening military situation at home, martial discord, mysterious childhood illnesses, wonderful public performances from traveling actors & musicians, the film becomes over-loaded and the characterizations can’t support the depth Masud is looking for. Even so, the filmmaking talent was obvious. Hopefully, some of his later work will make it Stateside. (Check out the EXTRAs to see how fast some of the kids have grown.)

DOUBLE-BILL: As noted above, Ray's PATHER PANCHALI . . . and don't forget the two wonderful sequels that complete Ray's APU Trilogy. Heartbreakers all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD (1971; 2006)

Thanks to TCM & the deluxe FORD AT FOX DVD package, Peter Bogdanovich got the rare opportunity to revisit & improve on his much admired 1971 documentary of the iconic director. It’s always been famous for a much excerpted interview with a comically unhelpful Ford. Now there are fresh interviews, mainly with directors (Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill) and more movie clips. Plus, everything’s been freshly sourced from restored prints not available in ‘71. (Alas, the silent clips still look pretty drab.) There’s less boilerplate blather than these retrospectives usual have, but Bogdanovich’s choices from Ford’s rich C.V. is selective to the point of disingenuousness.* Too much is glossed over or simply missed. Best are the older (1971) interview clips with James Stewart, John Wayne & Henry Fonda, great storytellers all. Of the new interviews, the standout is Spielberg who takes us along on a memorably terrifying meeting with the old man. Then, near the end, a special prize, a bit of ‘stolen’ audio between Ford & Kate Hepburn, sharing stories and confidences shortly before his death. Less special is Martin Scorsese, huffing & puffing about Ward Bond blustering thru some phony business in THE SEARCHERS.** (No one doubts the Scorsese enthusiasm & knowledge, but the Scorsese discrimination is another matter.) And who put in the graveside scene from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE/’46? It’s post-production pick-up work ordered by Darryl Zanuck and helmed by Lloyd Bacon! (The scene gets by, but seen out of context, surrounded by real Ford graveside clips, it really sticks out.) Bogdanovich does earn a few demerit points for the camera set-up on his Ford interview. As the teenaged Spielberg learned from Ford, never place the horizon line plumb-center.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *We don’t see what a solid commercial Hollywood craftsman Ford was across many genres. More than 30 films between 1926's THREE BAD MEN and 1939's STAGECOACH, none of them Westerns. THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING/’35; WEE WILLIE WINKIE/’37; MOGAMBO/’53; THE HURRICANE/’37; all superb films of their type, all ‘jobs of work.' Plus, not a peep on race issues, a regular post-WWII subject for Ford.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAYII: **Check out the scenes in the kitchen or in the adjoining dining room from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62 for some tasty late Ford mise-en scène Scorsese might have referenced.

CONTEST: Name the films that match the directing credit title-cards in our poster to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD. (Shh, we’re stuck on a couple ourselves.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

OSTATNI ETAP / THE LAST STAGE (1948)

Simply finding a Holocaust film from Poland so soon after WWII is remarkable; finding such a strong one, and directed by a woman, a former prisoner of the camps, is completely unexpected. Partially filmed on the grounds of Auschwitz less than two years after the war, Wanda Jakubowski was undoubtedly the first female director to make a film on the subject, and surely the only Auschwitz survivor ever to do so. So, as Arthur Miller once said, ‘attention must be paid.’ More important is the unexpectedly blunt & realistic treatment of life at the camps she was able to achieve. Saved by her abilities as a translator (the rest of her family met a swift end), Jakubowski's film is at its considerable best recreating the big picture of getting thru the days amid pointless drills, starvation rations and mass assemblies before every new atrocity. It’s less convincing as the war nears an end and we see prisoners plotting escape & sabotage; prisoner-of-war escape film stuff. It's well handled, except for a last minute surprise reprieve, but somehow less specific than what's come before. Jakubowski also can’t avoid turning her Nazi commanders into one-note villains (no doubt many were), but the ‘kapos’ & collaborators are given real human dimensions even at their most despicable. There’s an overly large dose of noble sacrifice from the Russian Communist contingent (this is a Polish film from 1948), but there are also prominent roles for brave Jews & Gypsies. The only available edition is a rather smeary Polart/Facets DVD, but don’t let that put you off. Where has this been hiding?

Monday, September 12, 2011

THE SHOOTING PARTY (1984)

Isabel Colgate’s novella covers a long weekend of civilized conversation & bird shooting at a country estate during the last Edwardian autumn of pre-WWI England. It’s a deft take on a Masterpiece Theatre format, a whole season of DOWNTON ABBY or UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS not condensed, but suggested. This has the advantage of letting the audience bring their own intuitions to the party, and the filmmakers help by not slamming all the elegant period details at us. Instead, we stroll along with a truly remarkable cast, sans the snark and ironic detachment of something like Bob Altman’s GOSFORD PARK/’01. James Mason, in his final perf, is quietly devastating as the civilized host, watching his comfortable world pass out of existence amid quashed romantic dalliances & ungentlemanly competitive shooting. Good as it is, the material can’t help but recall Jean Renoir’s masterful THE RULES OF THE GAME/’39: the country estate, a climactic shoot, accidental death, a philosophical poacher, romantic misdirection, a costume party, even a rich Jew to salve any financial troubles. We also aren’t too far from Luchino Visconti’s THE LEOPARD/’63, another melancholy look at the end of a cultured society seen thru the eyes of a grand seigneur. That’s a lot of gentlemanly competition for helmer Alan Bridges to keep up with. In its modest way, the film is a worthy junior companion to those classics.

DOUBLE-BILL: Any of the films mentioned above, including GOSFORD PARK; sometimes a little snark is a good thing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

SHE’S WORKING HER WAY THROUGH COLLEGE (1952)

A musical gloss on THE MALE ANIMAL, Elliot Nugent & James Thurber’s once popular, if toothless, satire of college politics, tenure & football, sounds like a pretty good idea. Virginia Mayo gets the tone just right as a burlesque star who ditches the runway to hit the books, and she sure looks great as a low-down Madame DuBarry in the big finale. As her campus mentor, Professor Ronald Reagan (on his way out @ Warners) earns a ‘C-‘ on his delivery of the script’s pseudo-Shavian dialogue (a long drunk scene completely defeats him*), but the rest of the cast is lively. Phyllis Thaxter underplays charmingly as Ronnie’s disappointed spouse & Don DeFore, who played a footballer in the 1942 filming, is suitably thick as a gridiron alumni. Best is Hollywood’s ‘regular guy’ song & dance man, Gene Nelson, who gets a big athletic showcase number. What biceps! If only the songs were less dreary and the near-rhymes less painful. And the sets! Where did these cheap looking things come from? Acme Amateur Theatrical Rental Co.? LeRoy Prinz, who staged all the musical numbers, plays around with the bargain-basement budget, but the over-all direction of H. Bruce Humberstone only confirms his hack status. (And check out this super creepy French poster.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Reagan’s big climactic speech sounds suspiciously like a coded plea for a liberal agenda against McCarthyism! A great clip for political ironists.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1942)

Like Elia Kazan’s SEA OF GRASS/’47, this earlier pairing of Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn (the second of nine) sidesteps sexual politics & romantic comedy for dark, brooding Gothic-tinged melodrama. It’s not exactly better than Kazan’s eminently forgettable pic, in fact, this George Cukor film is faintly ludicrous, but it’s also fascinating; an up-to-the-minute cautionary tale on the pitfalls of hero worship, false patriots and the ever-present appeal of bromides, self-proclaimed leaders & fascism. Hepburn plays the great man’s recent widow, a teary specter of woe & mystery, she holds the key (literally) to the truth behind the legend. Tracy’s a renowned, world-weary reporter, back from a rapidly darkening Europe (it’s just before Pearl Harbor) and startled to spot feet of clay supporting the dead man's monumental reputation. Except for a couple of sharpies in the press pool, the rest of the fabulous cast (Richard Whorf, Frank Craven, Margaret Wycherly, Howard da Silva, Percy Kilbride, Forrest Tucker, Donald Meek, even Darryl Hickman as an hysterical boy) might have stepped right out of a Universal horror pic. But the main influence, visually & thematically, was undoubtedly CITIZEN KANE/’41, though scripter Donald Ogden Stewart may have been spending his nights rereading Sinclair Lewis’s IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE. The pace lifts off in the final reels, but there’s so much business to wrap up, the ominous tone gets lost amid long explanations & rides to the rescue. It all a bit ridiculous, yet the film’s concerns aren’t easily sloughed off.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Until she pulls herself together in the last reel, this is uncongenial material for Hepburn. Greta Garbo would have been the likely candidate, but she & Cukor had just made an embarrassing flop (TWO-FACED WOMAN/’41) after which she never worked again. (Hepburn also took over on Tracy’s Frank Capra pic, STATE OF THE UNION/’48, when Claudette Colbert walked.) This helps explain why Garbo’s regular cinematographer, William Daniels was on the film and it surely explains why stage legend Pauline Lord originally filmed all of the scenes that Margaret Wycherly reshot as Hepburn’s mother-in-law. Cukor was always trying to work with the great stage divas of his youth. But Pauline Lord had an even better reason for playing what she thought would be Garbo's mother-in-law. Back in 1921 she was B’way’s original Anna Christie, the same role Garbo took on as her first Talkie. What a missed opportunity! . . . if it really played out this way. And whatever happened to that missing Pauline Lord footage?

Friday, September 9, 2011

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1948)

Painfully cheerful, and about as convincing as a Renaissance Fair, this over-stuffed version of the Dumas perennial, from producer Pandro Berman & megger George Sidney, shows the rapid post-war decline in just about every department @ M-G-M. With his whippet frame & athletic panache, Gene Kelly should be a fine D’Artagnan, and at 36, he’s a tad younger than Doug Fairbanks was in the 1921 version. But he piles on so much youthful zest & enthusiasm, you want to give him a sedative instead of a sword. (Kelly’s equally manic in THE PIRATE this same year. It’s his default swashbuckle mode.) As the musketeering trio, Van Heflin, Gig Young & Robert Coote may be oddly cast, but they’re to the manner born next to the ladies! Lana Turner is Milady of the Streets; June Allyson, the drabbest of sacrificing virgins; Angela Lansbury, clueless as Queen of France; and two truly bizarre turns from a silent Marie Windsor and a shrieking Patricia Medina in support. As the villainous Richelieu, Vincent Price looks positively subtle in comparison. Now & then, Robert Planck (who lensed the indie MAN IN THE IRON MASK/’39) pulls off an atmospheric shot, but Walter Plunkett’s risible costumes & Herbert Stothart’s kitschy-Tchaikovsky score are shockingly bad. And wait till you see what passes for a Parisian park!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A 1993 version with Chris O’Donnell, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt & Charlie Sheen was mockingly dubbed YOUNG SWORDS. But the boys are good company and there are nice turns from bad-girl Rebecca De Mornay & good-girl Julie Delpy, plus a delicious villain in Tim Curry’s Richelieu. (For Dumas' sequel, THE IRON MASK, stick with Douglas Fairbanks’ dashing & melancholy masterpiece of 1929. Best on KINO’s restored 103 min. cut.)

THE GORGON (1964)

This Hammer Studios Horror pic sounds like one of the good ones. Peter Cushing is a mysterious surgeon, Christopher Lee plays an eccentric investigator & Barbara Shelley is the love interest/victim. Plus, there’s a Gorgon: the witch with the heinous head, snakes for hair and a paralyzing look that turns men to stone! So convenient for a ready-made graveside monument! Alas, even with Hammer’s mainstay megger Terence Fisher calling the shots, this is an exceptionally tedious offering that moves at a stone’s pace. Oh well, the Hammer color-processing is always a treat, the trailer is worth a look and the snakes are adorable. (NOTE: Now coupled with SCREAM OF FEAR, this got an accidental second Write-Up. It's just that memorable!)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: One of the episodes in Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH/63 tells a similar tale in a third the time to twice the effect.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

ICHIBAN UTSUKUSHIKU / THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944)

It’s wartime!, and the Lady Volunteers at Nippon Kogaku Optical are in a funk. Production quotas for the men have just been doubled, but the women are only being asked to boost output by 50%! How insulting! That’s the set-up for this early Akira Kurosawa pic, a straightforward bit of propaganda he remained oddly fond of. Maybe it was the camaraderie that cast & crew developed shooting on real factory locations, living & eating dormitory-style with the workers. Maybe it was because Kurosawa met his future wife in the cast. It couldn’t have been the banal little story about shared sacrifice & ‘can-do’ spirit. It’s more dreary than uplifting, and noble as a Soviet Union motivation lecture. A lens grinder skips her mother’s funeral to stay at her station. Another dear soul, a guilt-ridden section leader, pulls an all-nighter to find a miscalibrated lens that’s gone missing. That sort of thing. Sacrifices, made in secret, but resented for not being adequately acknowledged. What a busy beehive of passive/aggressive victimization! Technically, it’s well made and not too painfully jingoistic, but who wouldn’t prefer to see Bettys Hutton & Grable do their Hollywood homefront routines with jivey musical numbers & solid laughs added in to lighten the patriotic twaddle.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

TASTE OF FEAR (aka SCREAM OF FEAR) (1961)

Jimmy Sangster, who wrote some of the best Hammer Studios horror pics, was rightly pleased with this chamber-sized psychological shocker. Shot by Douglas Slocombe in moody monochrome that might have served Ingmar Bergman, the story recalls DIABOLIQUE/’55 and GASLIGHT/’40,’44, but stirs them up to its own design while adding new devilish twists. Under Seth Holt's steady-paced helming, Susan Strasberg is really good (no kidding!) as a wheel-chair bound prodigal daughter, home after ten years to find her father unexpectedly away on business and her step-mother unexpectedly nice. Ann Todd oozes concern as the step-mom, especially when the poor girl starts seeing her father all over the house . . . DEAD. Christopher Lee is also all over the house, but very much alive. He’s the local doctor who gives Strasberg sedatives and spends entirely too much time with step-mom. Something’s up, but the only person the girl can trust is the hunky chauffeur. At least, he believes her . . . doesn’t he? You’ll guess some of the plot turns, but probably not all of them; and there are a couple of real scream-worthy moments amid the ghostly gloom.

DOUBLE-BILL: British films had a productive case of the creeps in 1961, try THE INNOCENTS, adapted from Henry James’ classic ghost story THE TURN OF THE SCREW, for a literary bump-in-the-night.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

THE TOWN (2010)

Ben Affleck megs & stars as the brainy member of a Boston-based brotherly band of bank robbers. The main twist in the story brings Affleck into contact with a pretty witness to their last heist, and then falling for her. Now, he’s getting squeezed on all sides: from the investigating cops & F.B.I.; from his hotheaded pal who wants another quick score; from the big boss who won’t let him quit; from his old girlfriend who wants him back; and even from the new girl who’s getting suspicious. While the violence, swearing & bared skin all hit modern thresholds (and the camera roams about in current default mode), this is decidedly old-fashioned filmmaking in its construction, in its carefully ‘rhymed’ pay-offs and in the neat action sequences that put plausibility (and character) ahead of CGI effects. It’s not hard to see why this caught on. But like that neighborhood joint that’s still dishing up the same old hash, the drama feels both comforting & pre-digested. Maybe if Affleck were a more resourceful actor, we might not notice. But steely looks & a dropped voice for sensitivity are all he’s got. (Not counting the showy muscle-bound exercise montage he indulges himself in as director.) The girlfriends, Rebecca Hall & Blake Lively, look ready for anything, even in their largely reflexive roles, but what’s with Jeremy Renner’s award-mongering as the trigger-happy pal? Anyway, they’re all blown off the screen whenever Jon Hamm’s G-man shows up. He puts out so much natural screen presence it throws the story resolution out of whack.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a real whiff of Boston mob lowlife, try Peter Yates’ fine (and still little seen) THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE/’73 with masterful perfs from Bob Mitchum & Richard Jordan.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

TELMISSEOMDING / TELL ME SOMETHING (1999)

Inexplicably popular serial killer pic from So Korea is dark, dank, bloody and almost as senseless as the crimes on display. The gimmick has a batch of dismembered victims turning up in bags around town, but with mismatched parts. (Just like chicken at the SuperMarket!) But there’s a link between the three victims, the same ex-girlfriend. So, when the cop on the case starts falling for her, that makes him the next likely target. It’s a perfectly workable premise, but director Youn-Hyun Chang is so busy pouring on the spooky atmosphere, bumps in the night and misdirection that he can’t be bothered with clues or police work. The method is all icing and no cake. The leading players are handsome in a blank sort of way, and there’s a nice character turn from the detective’s partner, but everybody is so slow on the up-take, you’re happy to get out after two long hours. Even with a twist ending that makes mincemeat of everything we’ve seen.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: David Fincher’s creepy SE7EN/’95 was an obvious influence, but there’s more than a pinch of JAGGED EDGE/’85 in here, too. Mixed blessings all.

Friday, September 2, 2011

ALLIGATOR (1980)

This monster pic should be a lot more fun than it is. It’s a half-comic/half-scary version of the old Urban Legend about a baby alligator who gets flushed down the toilet only to grow to epic proportion before reemerging to terrify the populace. John Sayles dashed off the workable script, just before starting his own RETURN OF THE SECAUCAS 7/’80, and he keeps things from getting too jokey even when alligator logistics get in the way of moving the plot along. A bigger problem comes from megger Lewis Teague who doesn’t do much for the suspense or action scenes, even when Mr Alligator isn’t involved. (The crummy effects are part of the fun in these things.) As the lead cop on the case, Robert Forster is the best thing in here with some neat character touches and a believable note of resigned weariness. Everybody else sinks, especially the vet actors who try kidding their roles. Worst is the background score which yuks it up with near-quotes from John Williams’ JAWS theme.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Two years before this, Sayles got his first writing credit on Joe Dante’s PIRANHA which mined similar territory to better effect.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1942)

This is one of those genteel melodramatic thrillers that lost its chills in the move from stage-to-screen. It's not alone. Barnstorming examples of the genre like PAYMENT DEFERRED/’32; NIGHT MUST FALL/’37; KIND LADY/’51; DEATHTRAP/’82; even the musical PHANTOM OF THE OPERA/’05 survived Ladies’ Matinees, theater parties, summer stock revivals & aging performers, only to come up short as movies. This one’s not bad, but where’s the oomph? Ida Lupino is housekeeper/companion to retired Music Hall actress Isobel Elsom (a holdover from the stage cast). Why, there’s even a maid in their isolated country home. (Evelyn Keyes with a darn good British accent.) And then came the storm . . . in the form of Lupino’s relatives: two loony sisters with no place to go (Edith Barrett and Elsa Lancaster in a truly disturbing perf), plus that scapegrace nephew who’s always broke and always up to no good (Louis Hayward, married to Lupino at the time). Resentment, blackmail, murder, a bricked up vault, all the ingredients for a fine bit of skullduggery. But helmer Charles Vidor can’t get the pot to boil on a play with so many dangling set-ups. Lenser George Barnes works hard for a bit of painterly ambiance on the purposefully stage-bound sets (the cyclorama looks like it came straight from the touring production), but Lupino apparently missed his memo and has to take some of the blame for a grimly realistic perf that works against the general tone of dark-and-stormy-night theatrics.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: GASLIGHT (aka ANGEL STREET), in the lean 1940 British version or the deluxe 1944 Hollywood edition, is the exemplar in this genre, but you might want to try the lesser known THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE/’46 to see how much easier it is to adapt one of these things out of a novel.