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Saturday, October 29, 2011

BLONDE VENUS (1932)

The ratio of Sublime to Inane swings noticeably in the six Hollywood collaborations of Marlene Dietrich & mentor/helmer Josef von Sternberg. Skeptics to the legend lean toward the earlier films (where Marlene has cheeks as well as cheek bones) while true believers opt for the delirious excess of the final two. So, where does that leave this mid-point entry?* Here, Marlene plays the loyal & loving wife of radium-poisoned Herbert Marshall. To save him, she stoops to conquer, chantuesing in a nightclub where she promptly falls for Cary Grant’s ‘swellegant’ racketeer. Sternberg usually had the older suitor (or husband) as masochist/reject, but VENUS adds button-cute Dickie Moore as a wild card; he’s Dietrich & Marshall’s son, and that changes the equation. The film holds its place in popular culture because of ‘Hot Voodoo,’ the song where Marlene emerges from a gorilla suit, but it’s sacrificial MotherLove that drives the narrative. (Alas, none of the songs are memorable.) With Sternberg, it’s never quite clear how much of this is supposed to be taken seriously. (Dietrich sacrifices, sins, gives up her son, sinks to the depths, rises to stardom, then gets it all back. 'Is that all there is?') But with Jules Furthman on script, the swift transitions move the outrageous story ahead like a graphic novel for the soap opera set, and his kidding-on-the-square dialogue perfectly characterizes while getting healthy laughs. And not only for Dietrich & Grant. Just see what he does for the amazingly assured Hattie McDaniel in an early appearance.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: * With seven films, why is #5 midpoint? Well, THE BLUE ANGEL, made in Germany, is sui generis. DISHONORED/’31 was #3, but gets dropped as their sole misfire. (But keep the great execution finale.) Here’s the full line-up: BLUE ANGEL/’30; MOROCCO/’30; DISHONORED/’31; SHANGHAI EXPRESS/’32; BLONDE VENUS/’32; THE SCARLET EMPRESS/’34; THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN/’35. (Though in America, BLUE ANGEL got released second, after MOROCCO . . . but in an inferior English-language edition.) Note the missing year of 1933 when Paramount untied the Gordian Knot and gave Dietrich to Rouben Mamoulian for the ill-considered SONGS OF SONGS. Then, back to Sternberg for the last two films. Confused yet?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

NIGHT FLIGHT (1933)

Like any long-sought treasure, few ‘lost’ films are able to meet the inflated expectations of unavailability. But this rarely seen David O. Selznick production, from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book, turns out to be a true buried beauty. Hardly a great film (heck, it’s not even a good film!), it’s so handsomely designed & visually inventive, it disarms normal objections. Meant as an all-star follow up to Selznick’s DINNER AT EIGHT/’33, it top-bills John & Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery & Myrna Loy; all that’s missing is a storyline. No matter, helmer Clarence Brown, an avid flyer, seems positively liberated by the assignment, as is his inspired lenser Oliver Marsh. John Barrymore, in another superb perf from his brief glory years (1932-34), agonizes in an office impressive enough for a small-time fascist dictator as the tough-minded boss of a So. American mail service. He’s just instituted night flights and won’t let fog, rain, black-outs, impassable mountains or worried spouses stop him. A commander out of wartime, he sends young pilots like Gable, Montgomery & the likable William Gargan to possible death, all to advance the cause. (Gable’s miscast, but Montgomery has some remarkable scenes.) Hayes, who’s wistfully insufferable, and Loy play the not-so stoic wives, while a fidgety Lionel Barrymore grumps as his kid brother’s second. Selznick tossed in a bit of corny melodrama involving a polio serum to shore-up the film’s episodic structure and damned if he didn’t reuse it on MADE FOR EACH OTHER/’39. But it’s the romance of the air, captured by all the tech departments working on some kind of painterly high, that holds the film togteher. The trick work is unusually fine for its period and the real flying sequences are beautifully caught, quite spectacular. Why even Herbert Stothart’s musical score has its moments. Now that’s unusual. (Be sure to check out the vintage Harman/Ising cartoon for some mint-condition 2-strip TechniColor.)

DOUBLE-BILL: The hard-shelled guy sending flyers into harm’s way may echo Howard Hawks’ THE DAWN PATROL/’30. But then, Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39 strongly echoes this film. And Gable, a fly-boy here, will take on a variant of Jack Barrymore’s role when he makes COMMAND DECISION/’46.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

HEROES OF TELEMARK (1965)


Five years after Kirk Douglas dropped Anthony Mann for Stanley Kubrick on SPARTACUS*, the two tried again with this by-the-numbers WWII ‘impossible mission’ story. Kirk plays a Doubting Thomas professor who’s roped into the resistance when Richard Harris shows him evidence of ‘heavy-water’ production at a mountainside factory. Shut it down or the Nazis get the atom bomb! But when the British commando squad goes kaput, it’s up to a handful of skiing Norwegian patriots to play saboteur, including Professor Kirk. It’s a good premise, there’s even a whiff of truth in the story, and the snowy locations are cool (no pun intended), but everything’s bent to accommodate Kirk’s inflated sense of himself. How much better if this scientist/professor, the ‘indispensable man,’ wasn’t mission-ready at all. Maybe even a bit of a klutz who had to be shown the ropes. Literally. (If nothing else, it’d give poor Michael Redgrave something to do.) And the script skimps on detail, so all we do is tag along. It’s not really a bad pic. Well, except for the ramped up finale which puts a gaggle of tow-headed tykes in harm’s way. But it’s sad to see Mann, on his last completed pic, running on auto-pilot. (Extra demerit points to composer Malcolm Arnold for ripping off his own score to THE BRIDGE OF THE RIVER KWAI/’57.)

*It was a friendly break due to ‘artistic differences.’ Honest! BTW - Co-star Peter Ustinov always insisted that everything good in that pic was shot while Mann was still helming.

DOUBLE-BILL: Why not try MAX MANUS/’08, a WWII Norwegian Resistance pic made by actual Norwegians.  UPDATE: A 6-part Scandinavian series, KAMPEN OM TUNGTVANNET / THE HEAVY WATER WAR/15, though more dutiful than inspired, does nicely sticking to the facts of this story.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

STUPEUR ET TREMBLEMENTS / FEAR AND TREMBLING (2003)

Alain Corneau’s brightly colored film of Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical book (on her year working as an office assistant in Japan) is basically LOST IN TRANSLATION/’03 meets AMÉLIE/’01. A young Belgian woman (named Amélie, of all things!) wangles a job in Japan, hoping to revive the Asian self she remembers from living there as a little girl. But, like that other AMÉLIE, this film has a paralyzing case of the ‘cutes’ and, like LOST IN TRANSLATION, not enough meat on its bones to fill out a feature. What keeps it going are the constant misreadings this Amélie makes of her co-workers and the truly balmy office culture that has been grafted out of Western Capitalism & Japanese etiquette. If only Sylvie Testud’s Amelie weren’t such a nincompoop. It only justifies the staff’s behavior toward her, making the inscrutable East ‘scrutable.’ When Amélie daydreams herself into flights of fancy over the city-scape, the only thing that really flies out the window is our sympathy. But try to hang in there for her final day at the office. (Or fast-forward.) Moving up the office chain of command & offering formal regrets; suddenly, everyone starts acting their parts, toeing a thin line between honesty & face-saving politeness. And the possibilities of the film briefly come into focus.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In Paramount’s delightful omnibus comedy, IF I HAD A MILLION/’32, Charles Laughton, in a segment directed by Ernst Lubitsch, works his way up a similar chain of command and manages to tell us everything we need to know about his office in a neat three minutes. Leaving about 80 minutes for another six succinct stories from other parties.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

GENGHIS KHAN (1965)

Omar Sharif & Stephen Boyd play tit-for-tat Mongolian Warlords in this bizarrely cast Irwin Allen (less-than) historical epic about the founding father of the great Khan dynasty. Filmed on an unexpectedly lux scale, it lumbers along with a cast of thousands hacking away at each to little effect. Meantime, a big international cast (James Mason, Françoise Dorléac, Eli Wallach, Robert Morley, Telly Savalas, Michael Hordern, Woody Strode) collect their checks & try to keep a straight face. (YellowFace in the case of Morley & Mason. PC it ain’t, but Mason is deliciously naughty and they make a funny team. Heck, the rest of the cast are about as Mongol as these two are Chinese.) With films like WHERE THE BOYS ARE/’60 on his CV, and two Dean Martin Matt Helm pics coming up, Henry Levin was just the megger for Irwin Allen. They did manage to get Geoffrey Unsworth as cinematographer, but then went with Dusan Radic’s ludicrously overripe score. Happily, they shave a good 30 years off Khan’s life, so we get out after two hours. But not before seeing Beijing interiors that glisten like a Las Vegas Peking Duck joint and palace grounds that might serve as a Ming Dynasty Miniature Golf course. Sink your shot on the last hole and you get to watch the movie all over again!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Sergei Bodrov’s MONGOL/’07 was supposed to be the first in a Genghis Khan trilogy. Impressive in its physical production, frustratingly opaque in storytelling, the sequels have yet to appear. And now Bodrov’s prepping a film with Jeff Bridges & Julianne Moore! It’s not about the Khans.

MARIA LARSSONS EVIGA OGONBLICK / EVERLASTING MOMENTS (2008)

Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell, who directs, co-writes, shoots & edits most of his work. never recaptured the broad appeal he won Stateside with THE EMIGRANTS/’71 and THE NEW LAND/’72. This recent saga, a true tale from his wife’s family that might have pleased a similar audience, went begging for attention; such is the commercial black hole that passes for foreign-language film distribution in the States these days. Here, in the opening decades of the last century, the hard working family is headed by a violent-prone dad whose flirting eye & taste for ale threaten their precarious hold on room & board. He and the stoically strong mom & seven kids stick it out in Sweden as many of their friends & relatives take off for America. While their lives over the first quarter of the last century are both finely observed and filled with plenty of interest & incident (unions, radical politics & ship dock labor all get a fine workout), the story turns on, of all things, a bourgeois hobby: Mom’s fixation on photography. A camera won at a fair back in her courting days is pulled out for pawning. But the gentlemanly proprietor at the nearest camera shop insists that she try it out before consigning it. The passion for picture-taking comes and goes over the years, but it lends purpose & identify to her life, as if justifying a grueling existence. Troell tends to overdo the autumnal mist of times past, how much more effective the soft focus of the photos would appear against a vividly sharp & naturally colored environment. And the slight, self-congratulatory tone he affixes to this artisan-mom is unnecessary. But her story is never less than appealing or revelatory. No small thing.

DOUBLE-BILL: The complete EMIGRANTS Saga is really too long for Double-Bill material. At 6 hours, it’s a triple bill all on its own! But with Norway in for Sweden, you can compare & contrast family dynamics with George Stevens’ classic I REMEMBER MAMA/’49. Those Scandinavian mothers are an indomitable bunch!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

MAX MANUS: MAN OF WAR (2008)

Don’t look for a post-modern ironic edge or sickly comic ultra-violence in this tru-life tale on the Norwegian resistance heroes of WWII. Joachin Rønning & Espen Sandberg’s film is as square & straightforward as a Baby-Boomer war epic, and with much the same positive charge; more GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61 than INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS/’09. Max Manus was already a vet from fighting Stalin on the Finland front when he returned home to find Norway occupied by the Nazis. He was soon caught in the early days of the resistance, but made a legendary escape crashing thru a third story window. (The actual escape happened from the hospital where he was being treated after the blind jump.) Trained in Scotland, he returned to Norway where he effectively ran the expanding resistance movement even as his tight group started to fall under pressure from Nazis and local collaborators. The film’s story construction occasionally veers from solid to stolid, and the action scenes don’t always hit their full potential, but the story generates so much power & good will, and raw emotion in the last act, that you’ll feel like cheering rather than nit-picking.

DOUBLE-BILL: Errol Flynn & Ann Sheridan joined the Norwegian Resistance (Hollywood Division) in Lewis Milestone’s remarkably tough & effective EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

THE WAY BACK (2011)

After MASTER AND COMMANDER/’03, Peter Weir took eight years to return to the screen with this putatively true prison escape pic. The story is less about a daring escape from a Siberian Gulag in the early 1940s then about the ensuing heroic 4,000 mile trek by the seven escapees and a young Polish woman who joins them later. The film moves along on a Homeric series of impossible physical obstacles (water, weather, victuals, Russians) that have to be met, conquered or finessed, but the characters and story feel underdeveloped, psychologically & dramatically inert. Only in the third act, when the number of survivors has narrowed, do we get the kind of interpersonal dynamics that coax the film to life. Weir probably errs in holding off on the backstories, they’re doled out to provide variety over the course of the long march to freedom. The lack of personal information keeps us from making a full emotional investment in the characters. On its limited terms, it’s hard to find much to pick at (other than Colin Farrell chewing up the scenery as a proletariat tough guy), but the film never justifies its existence and tanked commercially with a near career-stopping thud.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For snowbound Siberian wildness, try Akira Kurosawa’s DERSU UZALA/’75 about an aging man of the forest and his friendship with a modern surveyor.

Monday, October 17, 2011

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)

A young woman revisits the wilderness retreat she & her late father so loved. She’s come for his memorial, to spread his ashes over the paths they once rode together. Galloping hard on the dangerous route they shared, she pushes against her tight leather saddle, nearing an auto-masturbatory climax. She lowers the urn with her father’s ashes and positions it between her legs, the precious metal phallus sacred and upright. Climax is achieved at the crest of the trail; the urn pops open and her father’s ashes triumphantly ejaculate to the right & left of the horse's rearing flanks. Ecstasy, exhaustion . . . relief, release. This scene, surely the most sexually perverse image in cinematic history won’t be found in LAST TANGO IN PARIS, GOING PLACES or SALO, nor should you look for it in the collected work of David Lynch, Russ Meyer or even DEBBIE DOES DALLAS. Astoundingly, it’s in this mainstream studio success made at the very height of Hollywood’s self-censoring Production Code under the watchful eyes of the all-powerful Catholic League. And it’s only the first in a series of outrages committed under the cool gaze of beautiful, balmy Gene Tierney, impassive as a sphinx in sunglasses in John M. Stahl’s TechniColor masterpiece on the evils of over-possessive love. Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price Darryl Hickman and an unborn child are the main victims in this gloriously ripe melodrama, but they couldn’t have done it without the remarkably consistent efforts of technicians & designers who made the locations (fabulous house interiors, abstracted courtroom, shimmering lakes & woods) and costumes (Tierney often changes a wrap just to match the wallpaper) perfectly wed to story & character arcs. (Leon Shamroy’s TechniColor lensing is simply loaded with iconic images.) And even at its most outrageous, when you expect to see Carol Burnett peeking around the corner, taking notes for a parody, you might also find Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray & Vincent Minnelli standing in line to take their shot at the form, with CinemaScope added to the mix.

DOUBLE-BILL: The link between the underappreciated John M. Stahl and deservedly anointed Douglas Sirk is particularly strong since Sirk remade two of Stahl’s best, IMITATION OF LIFE/’34;’59 and MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION/’35;‘54. Sirk didn’t remake this one (though there is a lousy tv version to avoid), but he did make WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56 which shares some of the good girl/bad girl/man-in-the-middle situations and courtroom flavor of LHTH.

Friday, October 14, 2011

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN (1973)

Long before the current craze for Scandinavian murder mystery novels, this Swedish police procedural was transplanted to San Francisco where its serial killer found a home among the changing social fabric of the day. Crudely megged by Stuart Rosenberg who seems to be aiming for frank realism, the story never comes together in a manner we can follow, and the little character vignettes don't add enough to the mix. (The film trots out youth, porn & gay subcultures as if they were circus oddities.) It’s left to the actors to gain our interest, but everyone seems slightly miscast. Walter Matthau lowers his considerable brow, chews gum & works hard to stay in a dour mood (the pic’s title is, er, ironic) while his new cagey partner (Bruce Dern) tries for seedy charm, but can’t get past the alarming hair color he’s been given. Lou Gossett has a bit of life to him, but he gets little screen time, and the baddies are an unpromising lot. If only Rosenberg was able to get some pace & excitement going on in the action set pieces he might have jump-started things. No such luck.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Matthau book-ended this tepid number with Don Siegel's twisty revenge masterpiece, CHARLIE VARRICK/’73 and Joseph Sargent’s solidly-crafted, audience-pleasing THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE/’74, another police procedural that gives off just the sort of tangy NYC vibe & suspense, thanks to Peter Stone’s winning script, we don’t get from San Fran in LAUGHING.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

RAWHIDE (1951)

This chamber-sized Western doesn’t strain for big effects, it's content to be solid & well-crafted, with a vet cast & crew all working near the top of their form. It’s your basic hostage drama: a lonely outpost; four escaped convicts; a stagecoach due to arrive with a load of gold; and a couple of strangers (plus a toddler) trying to survive the ordeal. Tyrone Power & Susan Hayward get roles that are just the right size for them, they make a very sympathetic duo. And the bad guys are unusually intriguing: soft-spoken Hugh Marlowe, kindly Dean Jagger, George Tobias (as a Ukrainian) & the young, wild-eyed Jack Elam as the psychopath. Helmer Henry Hathaway is just nuts about Elam’s OTT features and gives him the sort of showcase treatment he gave Richard Widmark on KISS OF DEATH/’47. Milt Krasner’s lensing & Robert Simpson’s editing are exceptionally sharp, they help Hathaway turn clean logistics into crackling suspense. (A scene where the toddler wanders off into scrub land earns a D. W. Griffith Seal-of-Approval.) Scripter Dudley Nichols tended to wear his intellectualism on his sleeve (note the dramatic unities of time, place & action), but this time his allegiance to classical form loosens everyone up. Only a perfectly dreadful background score (lots of ‘Oh, Susannah’) lets down the team.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I GIRASOLI / SUNFLOWER (1970)

The good news is that KINO-Lorber has put out legit copies of this title, along with two more Carlo Ponti produced pics starring his wife, Sophia Loren, all helmed by Vittorio de Sica. (Ciao, crappy Public Domain DVDs!) The bad news is that we get a fine clear copy of . . . SUNFLOWER, their artistic nadir. Loren knew she was at her best under De Sica, his great gifts with non-pro actors undoubtedly came into play, but she was only right about their comedies.* This alas, is a soapy concoction about a rushed WWII marriage between Loren & Marcello Mastroianni and his subsequent disappearance at the Eastern front. Sophia searches all the Russias until she finds her man . . . and then the complications set in. There’s hardly a believable moment in the whole soggy contraption, even cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno phones it in, while Henry Mancini’s slushy score tries to outdo Maurice Jarre on DR. ZHIVAGO/’65.* Near the end, a couple of atmospheric scenes in & around the Milan train station with a defeated Mastroianni show what the film might have been, but it’s hardly worth hanging around for. Hard to believe that De Sica, scripter Cesare Zavattini & co-producer Arthur Cohn’s next was a film as superb & sophisticated as THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS/’71.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Naturally, Sophia won her Oscar for the heavy dramatics of De Sica’s TWO WOMEN/’61 rather than any of their delectable comedies. **And, wouldn't you just know it, Mancini got Oscar nom’d for this sludge-fest. ***On the other hand, while Holocaust-themed pics tend to earn Oscar’s favor, FINZI-CONTINIS actually deserved its Best Foreign Pic nod.

Monday, October 10, 2011

JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003)

This spy spoof of all things Bondian, James Bondian, left little trace Stateside, but it scored big in Europe, hence the current sequel, JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN/’11. It’s a bit of a silly mess, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. Rowan Atkinson is a mid-level clerk at MI-5 who gets to play secret agent when all the double-0s go down. Naturally, he’s a disaster who somehow manages to win the day with the help of a beautiful femme fatale spy & his trusty assistant. This came out just after the final AUSTIN POWERS and got mis-marketed as a rip-off. But it's more Peter Sellers/Blake Edwards PINK PANTHER than Mike Meyers redo, and infinitely better than Steve Martin’s sorry attempts to revive Clouseau. If only the ‘80s Bond pics weren’t already self-parody. Peter Howitt megs with almost too much pace, he doesn’t properly set up his gags, and the sexual attraction between Atkinson & Natalie Imbruglia’s vampy spy remains inexplicable. (Though the affectionate loyalty of sidekick Ben Miler is just great.) John Malkovich plays the super villain, a Frenchy who wants to be King of England, with the oddest French accent on record. Since Malkovich lives in France & speaks the language, this is . . . an attempt at humor? But it’s hard to care about what misses the mark during the three or four set pieces that really come off. Shriekingly funny stuff, even when you see what’s coming a mile away.* Atkinson’s best work may have been on tv: an early solo gig, Mr. Bean sketches, the glories of Black Adder, but the good bits in here are very welcome.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Is there a Comedy Corollary to Hitchcock’s Rule of Surprise vs Suspense? As he used to explain it, if a bomb explodes under a conference table, you get five seconds of surprise. But, let the audience know there’s a bomb under the table, and you can build up five, even ten minutes of suspense. So, if you see a joke coming, assuming that it’s well played, of course, do we get five extra minutes of anticipatory comic tension before the pay-off? Check out the first deleted scene on this DVD to see if knowledge of a coming joke whets the appetite . . . or dulls it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

FANTASIA (1940)

The latest edition of this classical music cartoon compendium has been visually buffed up for Blu-Ray release with dazzling results, even on a regular DVD. Alas, the original FantaSound tracks, a pioneering 7-channel stereophonic system, were lost decades ago. (Mixed down to 3-track or mono for previous reincarnations, the current multi-directional digital manipulation is a hit or miss affair.) The commercial failure of the pic remained a particular sore point for Walt Disney. Consensus held that it tanked when high brows rejected it as ‘kitschy’ while unwashed masses felt Walt had gone ‘high hat.’ Only the comic relief of Mickey in Dukas’ THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE and the ballet menagerie in Ponchielli’s DANCE OF THE HOURS earned approval. But this explains little. PINOCCHIO/’40 also flopped in its first release. So did BAMBI/’42. Only DUMBO/’41, with its short running time and simplified technical production, held to a financial model that broke Disney’s post-SNOW WHITE losing streak. And FANTASIA’s first-run Road Show expenses only made the nut tougher to crack. So too, the film’s revue format, as Sam Goldwyn & Louis B Mayer discovered with THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES/’38 and ZIEGFELD FOLLIES/’46. The real loss is that Disney bought into the ‘accepted wisdom’ explanations and never put quite so much of himself in a film project again. After this, his deepest personal involvement went toward the war effort and then into theme parks. A shame, since FANTASIA looks better (and more entertaining) than ever. Even the less successful ideas, like those nubile teenage centaurs fresh from Schwab’s make-up counter, have gained a certain period charm. And what modern day focus group would have left Evolutionary Theory, pert breasts, demonic wickedness & nudity in a ‘G-rated’ feature? At its best, which is often, the film is a knockout.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Many theaters in that crucial late-‘60s re-release played the film with short reels with Projector A running all the odd numbered reels thru a ‘Flat’ framing gate, for a screen ration of about 1.77:1, slightly clipping the top & bottom off the picture. Projector B played the even numbered reels with the traditional Academy Ratio framing gate of 1.33:1.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: Look closely during the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony when Bacchus enters at the beginning of the Second Movement. He’s accompanied by two black female servants. These two are all that remains of the black servant characters who once helped the pastel colored centaurs with personal grooming. Note a red carpet that unfurls in front of Bacchus all by itself. The black bearers have been erased! These servant characters were deleted for the ‘60s re-release with edits and some reframing which now seems to have been redone to smoother effect. Watch for some tell-tale 'walking' foliage that’s probably covering up these lost Grecian Blackamoors.

DOUBLE-BILL: The great choreographer George Balanchine visited Disney (with Igor Stravinsky) when he came to Hollywood to work on THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES. Disney must have been paying close attention since he nipped some staging ideas out of that pic for this film’s hilarious DANCE OF THE HOURS ballet travesty.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: While it’s still fashionable in academic film circles to view FANTASIA with condescension, our greatest dance critic, Arlene Croce gives it the sophisticated treatment it well deserves. See her Write-Up in the March 12, 1984 edition of The New Yorker, also collected in her book, WRITING IN THE DARK: Dancing at The New Yorker.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

BOXED (2002)

The twist in this standard-issue IRA hostage tale holds real dramatic promise, but not enough to freshen up the relentlessly ordinary treatment it gets from its cast & debuting writer/director Marion Comer. Apparently, before the recent cessation of hostilities, IRA terrorists had a circuit of so-called ‘tame priests’ who they could call on to administer last rites before killing a prisoner. The priests offered absolution to the vicitm . . . and kept their mouths shut. Then, it's on to the next soul. With a running time of 77 min., Comer might well have stuck with this moral dilemma as her play’s engine. Instead, we get a big fat gimmick as the IRA operatives bring in the wrong priest! A young, questioning pup who’s already in conflict with his superior (the ‘tame’ guy, natch) and with his own ideas on how to serve Jesus . . . blah, blah, blah. The actors attack their lines as if they were still auditioning for their parts and the physical look of the video-to-film (then back to video!) DVD transfer hardly helps. And yet . . . there’s a legit idea hiding in here. Pity.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There are loads of better IRA dramas around, but this film is more in line with a classic hostage pic like THE PETRIFIED FOREST/’36. Our soggy priest would have killed to play the Leslie Howard role.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

WALLENBERG: A HERO’S STORY (1985)

Raoul Wallenberg, one of the most intriguing & admirable characters of the Second World War, was a rich Swedish ne’er-do-well when he reinvented himself at his country’s consulate in Budapest. With little more than personal charm and the creative use of forged documents, he managed to put a large percentage of the local Jewish population under Swedish protection and save thousands from both the occupying Nazis and the Hungarian ‘Arrow Cross" fascists. And, apparently, had a great time doing it. Until the war ended and the new Russian occupiers spirited him away. This well-received mini-series, written by Gerald Green who also wrote the HOLOCAUST mini, is skillfully structured, if on the blunt side, and exceptionally well directed by Lamont Johnson, an undervalued helmer of film & tv. But what really makes it work is Richard Chamberlain’s perf as Wallenberg. While he never quite registered in features, here, his delight at seeing will-o’-the-wisp decrees & strategies taking hold over Nazi generals, Hungarian collaborators & even his own staff, is infectious. Yet, the dire urgency of the situation also comes thru. Not all the characters find similar balance, a romantic subplot never convinces and some of the Jewish characters might have found gainful employment on Manhattan’s Second Avenue, but Kenneth Colley’s Eichmann gets under your skin. (If only he didn’t look like THE PAJAMA GAME’s Eddie Foy, Jr.!)

DOUBLE-BILL: A Swedish telling, GOOD EVENING, MR WALLENBERG/’90, with Stellan Skarsgard, uses a darker pallet to concentrate almost exclusively on the last chaotic days of the Nazi occupation in Budapest.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

FLAWLESS (2007)

It’s best to ignore the jarringly tone-deaf contemporary scenes that bookend this period diamond-heist pic if you want to try the plot twists & suspense in Michael Radford’s smoothly helmed caper. As an elderly maintenance man with a plan, Michael Caine hasn’t been in a film with this many ‘reveals’ since GAMBIT back in ‘66. Now a senior citizen, he works double-duty, adding the amoral string-pulling action John Abbott played in GAMBIT to his normal Michael Caine activities. And with slimy diamond brokers & two-faced insurance executives as adversaries, it’s not too hard to root for some personal payback for him and partner Demi Moore. As the oft passed-over female exec at the diamond exchange, she’s got a grudge of her own. But is she partner or patsy in Caine’s scheme to loot a small cache of gemstones? And why a small handful of rocks when there are millions? As things go awry, you can’t help but notice holes in the story (is Caine the only maintenance guy in the whole building?), but Radford keeps it moving along, even sacrificing suspense when it threatens to leave too much time to think. There’s a typically fine cast of Brit Shits for that clubby grey-suited atmosphere, but American-in-London Moore never picks up on the kidding-on-the-square tone. She plays it all too straight, reveling in the 'serious message' of those phony framing scenes and looking less flawless than clueless.

DOUBLE-BILL: They’re remaking of GAMBIT. Why not catch the 1966 original before they wreck it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962)

It’s not so much the Wild West that’s tamed in the latest remastering of this pic as those disfiguring ‘joins’ between the three interlocked picture-panels of the original CINERAMA format. Just as important, the color scheme on the three separate film negatives have been re-equalized for a much smoother match across-the-frame. (Check out the trailer to see the difference/improvement. Was it re-mastered from the 70mm single image re-release transfer print? See poster, below.) Too bad the DVD producers couldn’t also fix the clichéd plot, corny acting and the technical peculiarities of CINERAMA that made close-ups nearly impossible and all the interiors look like warehouses. Dashing past three pioneering generations and an entire continent in 2 & a half hours leaves only so much time for character development and the plot plays out like a highlight reel with one major ‘WOW’ set piece per section. The All-Star cast makes it easy to follow the various plots, but the acting is right out of a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. Except . . . except for the remarkable reel and a half segment on the Civil War helmed by John Ford. Listen carefully and you’ll immediately hear the tone of the film change as composer Alfred Newman brings back a motif from his own 1940 score for Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. (Ford had just borrowed Newman's 'Ann Rutledge' theme from YOUNG MR. LINCOLN/’39 for THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62.) The actual war scene is fine (John Wayne as Sherman & Harry Morgan as Grant), but it’s the bookend scenes back on the family farm that really sink in. Suddenly, everything on the screen seems to matter. The acting grows in stature; triangular compositions find dramatic possibilities in CINERAMA’s visual oddities; the pacing breathes the song of life; and the late-Fordian tone of melancholia briefly takes over. Then, it’s back to the show.

DOUBLE-BILL: Try this with a WideScreen 70mm Western made all the way back in 1930, Raoul Walsh’s flop epic, THE BIG TRAIL. The format & early Talkie technology make this both stiff & fascinating. Like HTWWW, it’s mighty shy with cutting and close-ups, but it has the real smell of the West on it. And that shockingly handsome, callow youth playing the lead is a kid by the name of John Wayne.