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Saturday, December 31, 2011

PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE (1952)

Clarence Brown ended his long directing career with this poorly received, large-scaled MAYFLOWER bio-pic. It’s easy to see why the film was rejected, it reeks of good intentions & educational value; and while it freights a reasonable load of history, it’s also rigged with a juicy romantic triangle strapped on for show, like a useless jib. Yet, there’s unexpected life to the thing as Brown patiently builds real interest out of the conventional episodes and amorous foibles in Helen Deutsch’s carefully groomed script. Spencer Tracy, in his last romantic lead, is startlingly violent as the dour Captain, almost unfathomably hostile to his passengers & crew. And it’s the same oversized reaction that both draws & unnerves Gene Tierney, the proper, but unfulfilled wife of Pilgrim Leo Genn. (The eruptive passion may have reflected their personal involvement at the time.) A truly frightening attack against his own first mate (Lloyd Bridges) and an outpouring of grief at his own taciturn nature find Tracy making contact with demons he’d long avoided showing on screen, as if we were getting a look under the skin at the Ahab he never got to play. So, perhaps it’s worth putting up with a miscast Van Johnson and a level of British elocution from the supporting cast that would not have been out of place in the Royal Court. Things are less trying ‘below-the-line,’ with a Miklos Rozsa score that tweaks the Quaker ‘Simple Gifts’ hymn to fine effect, superb interior lensing from William Daniels (just watch Garbo’s man photographically hitting up Gene Tierney for a portrait) and a wallapalooza storm at sea from the effects department.* The cast even takes a cinematic curtain-call at the end; maybe they’ve earned it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Back in the days of analogue special effects, ships at sea during a fight or a storm were about the toughest thing to fake. And techniques that barely passed in b&w looked even less convincing in color processing. So, a tip of the hat to M-G-M on this one. Where the heck were these guys when BEN-HUR was being shot in ‘59?

Friday, December 30, 2011

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958)

Boris Karloff didn’t get a lot of legit acting opportunities in the later stages of his career. His many glorified Guest Ghost appearances in over-ripe horror pics earned him top-billing, but scant screen time. So, he must have been pleased with this little British assignment (and its companion pic, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER/’58) which offered a bit of elbow room for his rusty acting chops. Set in Victorian England, which is smartly handled at the cost, Karloff plays a top surgeon desperate to find an effective anaesthetic. But when he winds up addicted to his own formula and in league with a gang of cutthroats, something’s gotta give. The two lines of action (scientific research gone wrong and blackmailing criminal lowlifes) don’t quite add up, but it makes for a kind of geriatric Jekyll & Hyde story, which obviously appealed to Karloff. Robert Day, who helmed most of THE AVENGERS for tv, gets a lot out of his tight budget, and out of a surprisingly good cast, including the young Christopher Lee who does a neat villainous turn. But you only have to compare this with similar cost-conscious efforts Karloff made for Val Lewton’s unit @ RKO to realize how dull & unimaginative it is.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Lewton pics, BODY SNATCHER/’45; ISLE OF THE DEAD/’45 or BEDLAM/’46 are all superior entries in the field. Or, for a different take on Pain-Free surgery, there’s THE GREAT MOMENT/’44, a bit of a lost cause for the great Preston Sturges who wasn’t able to get the film released in its original form. But it’s still a fascinating miss.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE CONSPIRATOR (2010)

Robert Redford’s latest disappointment takes on the case of Mary Surrat, mother to one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot and housekeeper/hostess to the rest. It’s A Few Good Scapegoats for Civil War ‘recreators,’ showing how a panicked administration railroaded civilians to the gallows with a speedy military trial. (Though the proceedings against the men go largely unheard.) It does generate a certain dramatic momentum, what courtroom drama doesn’t, but only the parallels to recent legal jurisdiction decisions in the current War-on-Terrorism briefly enliven Redford’s rote presentation. Habeas Corpus be damned . . . and all that. Obvious or not, it's a legit argument, and a deeply compelling one. But everybody in the fine cast steps so carefully around their characters, nodding soberly at all the historical ramifications, that the film rarely churns up much emotion. Only Kevin Kline, chewing a bit of scenery as the self-justifying Secretary Stanton, goes for broke with Robert Bork whiskers & the righteous conceit of a heartless Dick Cheney. Kline adds a gleeful scare in the midst of Redford’s regrettably tasteful proceedings. Even in the sure-fire prologue, where Redford juxtaposes the assassination plot with dressy end-of-the-war-parties, the clarity & vigor needed to jump-start things is missing. And by the end, when Surrat’s son is pointedly not asked about his mother's complicity, we feel gypped.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Samuel Mudd (the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth) is briefly seen here with the other conspirators, but wasn’t tried with them. John Ford tracked his journey in THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND/’36. Not quite top-drawer Ford, but close enough, even if Mudd’s innocence remains in doubt and the film slanted.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011)

In his megging debut, scripter George Nolfi really scrapes the bottom of the Philip K Dick meta-physical barrel. It’s one of those lame Free-Will fables with a TWILIGHT ZONE twist ending that lets everyone off the hook. Of course, these things can work if you ‘buy’ into the concept, but Nolfi hasn’t the action chops, cast or (sorry Dick fans) story to con his way in & out of the many meta-absurdities. Matt Damon’s a Kennedyesque politico who loses a race for the Senate but gains the love of his life (Emily Blunt) while practicing his concession speech in the Men’s Room. The sequence is so awkwardly written, and the leads have such striking antipathy, you think she must be part of the film’s other-worldly conspiracy. But no, that team is Guys-Only; a cadre of sharp-suited soul handlers who manage our future trajectories without our knowing it. Can Damon outfox his team of life planners? Will tru-love wreck both their futures? Does the grand Pooh-Bah in the sky really believe that Americans would elect a bachelor President? And why can’t a buff young man out-sprint a slow-moving bus in Midtown NYC traffic?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In the opening reel, Nolfi uses cameo appearances of real journalists, news anchors, politicians & celebs to add verisimilitude to this tall tale. But the famous faces actually work in reverse, pushing us out of the story just when we need to be pulled in.

Monday, December 26, 2011

ANNA BOLEYN (1920)

Even with a trail of successful comedies & dramas under his belt, including CARMEN/’18 and THE OYSTER PRINCESS/’19, ANNA BOLEYN was the big cinematic breakthrough for Ernst Lubitsch. Suddenly, a complete film vocabulary is joined to his matchless character analysis, story sense & visual wit. Under Lubitsch, the well-known story of Henry VIII & second wife Anne Boleyn has pomp & show, but also keeps an eye on the human-scaled foibles that turned courtship & the whims of fate into tragedy. (And it daringly makes a knowing villain out of wife #3, the clueless Jane Seymore.) The purposeful editing & natural feel for mise-en-scène are handled with new found confidence, moving us along in a lively fashion between public spectacle & private intimacies; still effective today in spite of the overly-enthusiastic perfs from leads Emil Jannings & Henny Porten. A cast of thousands (well, hundreds) provides extra luxury, as do the striking sets & fine lensing from Theodor Sparkuhl, who came to the States about a decade after Ernst. (Lubitsch undoubtedly helped him land @ Paramount.) Note the consistent use of various framing devices, a Lubitsch speciality, not only via doors, windows & arches, but with various lens masks directly on the camera to help accent & dramatize shots. A master was being born; and Hollywood took note, making him the first big ‘get’ from UFA/Germany when Mary Pickford grabbed him for ROSITA in ‘23.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Mary Pickford never got over the critical & financial success of ROSITA, which she grew to revile and even tried to suppress. (It survives in a compromised Russian print.) Yet, after seeing Chaplin’s A WOMAN OF PARIS/’23, Lubitsch had his anti-epic epiphany and moved to the sophisticated romantic comedies he’s still famous for.

DOUBLE-BILL: Why not try Donizetti’s operatic Tudors instead of another movie version. The gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has made a specialty singing ANNA BOLENA and DG has her with the Vienna State Opera on DVD. Or wait for the up-coming MET version, already seen via HD-broadcast in theaters.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

BON VOYAGE (1962)

There are hints of an attempt to break past the bounds of Family-Friendly-Fare in this Walt Disney Production about solid Midwesterners (Fred MacMurray & Jane Wyman) who take the kids along on a long-planned trip to Paris. But any spark gets smothered by the hangdog, second-hand look that was studio house style under boss Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law. As Disney turned his attention to theme parks (with a few exceptions like MARY POPPINS/’64 and JUNGLE BOOK/’67), cinematic flat-lining set in, especially on films with MacMurray as a bargain-basement James Stewart (and alter-ego Walt). This one dribbles on for over two hours with remarkably little location shooting to buttress the stock footage & coarsely handled studio mock-ups & process transparencies. And what other studio was still shooting in Academy Ratio in 1962? Yet, so many odd events transpire. Mom looks ready to throw a party celebrating daughter Deborah Walley’s budding sexuality. "All stirred up,’ is the terminology. Dad gets drunk not once, as a gag, but three times, just about every time he goes out. Little Kevin Corcoran gets to take a pee touring the Paris sewers in the Paris sewers; and big brother Tommy Kirk does even better, sharing a prostitute with dear old Dad. Okay, it happens consecutively; and things don’t progress past a cafe demitasse, but still . . . in a 1962 Disney pic! But who would notice amid the tone-deaf dialogue, thuddingly obvious character development and appalling technical work?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Vincente Minnelli’s THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE/’58 tackles a lot of the same themes with swank, charm & the elegant comic touch of Rex Harrison & Kay Kendall worrying over the over-taxed hormones of Sandra Dee & John Saxon.

Friday, December 23, 2011

NIKUTAI NO MON / GATE OF FLESH (1964)

The urban chaos of Tokyo in its post-WWII devastation is the teeming backdrop for Seijun Suzuki’s visually extravagant film about an ad-hoc prostitute collective & the macho thief who disrupts their well-run business. Suzuki returned to the subject, in a more soberly realistic b&w style in THE STORY OF A PROSTITUTE/’65, but this film’s gaudy colors & theatrical look emphasize the pinch-penny studio sets in the city (which come off brilliantly) and blasted landscapes (which don’t). The girls keep their end up, working & living in a partially bombed-out warehouse, by holding strictly to their ‘house rules,’ most especially, ‘Never Give Anything Away.’ But when the wounded Jo Shishido turns up, it’s just a matter of time before his schemes & manly charms take their toll. Suzuki was always fighting with his home studio, Nikkatsu, but they must have been pleased by the ample doses of sex & violence with tru-love answered by ritualistic soft-core S&M punishments. Great for the Box-Office! A secondary plot involving Shishido’s mob ties and some stolen penicillin helps to tie everything up, but it’s the bright lights of corruption & revenge that make this one another Suzuki treat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Rather like the prostitutes in this film, once Suzuki got free of the restrictions & genre formats @ Nikkatsu, artistic freedom turned out to be a two-edged career sword. Do any of his later films measure up to his best as galley slave @ Nikkatsu?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942)

After Bette Davis scored on loan-out to Sam Goldwyn in THE LITTLE FOXES/’41, playing ten years older for Lillian Hellman’s dysfunctional Southern-family melodrama, Jack Warner bet on another dysfunctional Southern-family melodrama, a Pulitzer Prize winner, with Bette playing ten years younger. But the sophomore curse was on John Huston’s second directing effort and he seems utterly bewildered by the characters & tone. Davis, trying too hard for youthful zest overplays wildly, but what excuse does everyone else have? (Even Max Steiner’s score goes off the rails.) Davis & Olivia de Havilland play yin & yang sisters Stanley & Roy, and Olivia’s got the mannish coif to go with the name. Davis is the bad seed who steals Olivia’s beaux (Dennis Morgan, George Brent) with a flirtatious glance, and then rues her choice. But this time, Olivia’s patience-act & Davis’s out-of-control id are too transparent to be taken seriously or hold much interest. A pity because there’s loads of red meat in the underdeveloped subplots: Southern race issues (pretty advanced stuff for the day); family business & medical secrets; female empowerment & male emasculation. The film does improve in the third act, with Davis & papa-bear Uncle Charles Coburn turning in some powerfully creepy scenes, but this sort of thing would only come into its own in the ‘50s under the likes of Tennessee Williams, Douglas Sirk . . . and a more mature John Huston.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Sirk’s superb WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56 and William’s CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF/’58 (less than it should be in Richard Brook’s film) show what this film might have been. (Though, if you do rent it, be sure to watch the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in CAPRICCIO ESPANGNOL on the EXTRAs. Jean Negulesco did even better on his follow-up, GAITE PARISIAN, which feels less cramped, but we’re lucky to have them both.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (1945)

A smidgen of truth lurks behind this splashy Rita Hayworth WWII musical: there was a Windmill Theatre in London and it did manage to stay open during the ‘blitz;’ the rest is pure Hollywood. And that’s okay because the tasty package holds up surprisingly well, easily besting the better known Betty Grable competition over @ 20th/Fox. Mastered from a lip-smacking TechniColor print, Hayworth gets strong support from producer/director Victor Saville & from Rudolph Maté, who lensed most of Hayworth’s iconic pics. The opening two reels are particularly fluid, with angles, rhythm & a palette that’s more Powell/Pressburger than Harry Cohn/Columbia. Then the plot, such as it is, shows up in the form of Lee Bowman, an RAF pilot who can’t ‘land’ Rita until he’s sent into action. There’s a lot more chemistry in the secondary storyline with near-sighted dancer Marc Platt who settles for Janet Blair after being rejected by both the military board and by Rita. (Born Marcel Emil LePlat, he’s a Ballets Russe vet fresh off OKLAHOMA! on B’way where he doubled for ‘Curly’ in the Agnes de Mille dream ballet. And, man, can he dance!) No doubt, the film would be better known if the perfectly pleasant Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn score were stronger. But, with the exception of a dud comic specialty number, and a whacky green-trimmed horror that Blair wears on stage, this is a snazzy package that earns its teary wrap-up.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Jack Cole, the film’s unsung (and uncredited) choreographer, is usually remembered as a sort of proto-Bob Fosse. But he’s a Fosse with a lot more range (and steps!) and none of the self-loathing. Both of which make him, alas, the less interesting artist.

DOUBLE-BILL: Judi Dench & Bob Hoskins brought us something closer to the real Windmill Theatre Story in MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS/’05.

Friday, December 16, 2011

VANISHING POINT (1970)

After the game-changing commercial success of EASY RIDER/’69, it suddenly became possible to set up a largely plotless film about hitting the road and speeding past a vanishing American Dream. This one, about a car delivery driver with a haunted past and a reckless spirit, has built a substantial cult following that’s not entirely undeserved. Barry Newman is more sullen than charismatic as the laconic driver who races his DodgeCharger ‘muscle car’ from Denver to California on a bet, outrunning the cops on his way thru the Western plains & deserts. He meets a few eccentrics, scores a one-night stand with hitchhiking Charlotte Rampling (at least, in the U.K. cut, this Angel of Death stuff was snipped Stateside) and runs a host of competitive drivers off the road, pausing after every crash to be sure no one got hurt. Lenser John Alonso gets the most out of the well chosen locations, as do the hell-bent stunt drivers, but Richard C. Sarafian consistently megs to the lowest common denominator. Finding ‘manna’ in the desert is a clever piece of business, but do the cops need to rape & act like racists just to keep us on Newman’s side? And those soggy romantic interludes! Some of the film’s cult following comes from the soundtrack, programmed in the film by ‘soul brother’ radio jock Cleavon Little, but its main appeal probably stems from a nihilistic attitude empty enough to accommodate just about any nonconformist idea that comes to mind.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

TOKYO SONATA (2008)

For the first two acts, this recent film from Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a well-observed family-crisis drama, with low-key perfs, naturally-sourced lighting & artless camerawork. But things go off-the-rails into highly charged melodrama in a third act that’s more Nick Ray than Rossellini. The change in tone never quite convinces, it's a bit of a curate’s egg, but oddly interesting, especially when things teeter out of control. The main storyline follows Dad as he finishes a downsizing/outsourcing project only to find himself a victim of his own success and newly unemployed. Hiding the facts from his wife & sons, he starts acting out, as do his teenage boys. One gets out by joining the military and the youngest uses his school lunch money to pay for secret piano lessons. But things really get strange in the last act when the well-known actor Kôji Yakusho shows up as a luckless burglar. He winds up kidnapping the wife; she winds up driving his stolen getaway car (her first time behind the wheel!); they stop at a mall where she discovers her husband working as a janitor. And what a day he’s had; he's just found a small fortune left in the stall at the Ladies’ Toilet! And that's just the start of it. Whatever possessed Kurosawa to juice things up with all this coincidental dramatic drivel? And how the hell was he able to make us go along with him? By the end, when the youngest son plays Claire de Lune to gain admission to a music academy, you may have rejected the whole film . . . or found yourself oddly moved.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While Kiyoshi shares a name, if not any known lineage with that other Kurosawa, this film looks more in the direction of the great Yasujiro Ozu, specifically his sublime domestic dramedies I WAS BORN BUT . . . /’32 and its loose remake GOOD MORNING/’59.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

WHEN LADIES MEET (1941)

In a sexual roundelay that plays out like a double helix, Robert Taylor is the newly reformed bachelor who proposes to his long-time gal pal Joan Crawford. But she’s cooled down and now only has eyes for her smooth publisher, Herbert Marshall, a man who doesn’t let a wife interfere with his bedside manner. As luck and playwrighting convenience would have it, the wife (Greer Garson) & Taylor meet-cute at a dinner party, and hit it off in a platonic way. She’s even game for playing along with him to make Crawford jealous. Good thing these two ladies don’t know what they’ve got in common. It’s easy to see the possibilities in Rachel Crothers’ play, but the folks @ Warners VOD have opted for the remake of ‘41, rather than the ‘33 original which featured a far more promising cast: Myrna Loy, Ann Harding, Robert Montgomery & Frank Morgan in for Crawford, Garson, Taylor & Marshall. This is especially rough on the first half of the piece which tries for sparkling comedy, but lands with a thud. Nobody here knows how to throw a line away. It’s probably all too dated to work anyway, but the earlier film might at least be an interesting period piece. Here, everyone’s just insufferable. Yet, when Crothers drops the witty repartee and gives the ladies their big nighttime ‘bonding’ scene, opening their hearts to each other before discovering their guilty secret, you can feel how effective this might have been on stage. Rubbishy, but effective .

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Did it seem as obvious at the time as it does now that it’s the two ladies who should be getting together at the end? And was it intentional?

Monday, December 12, 2011

THE TOURIST (2010)

Stupefying. After THE LIVES OF OTHERS/’06, his superb debut on East German ‘Stasi’ mentality, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s sophomore pic is this wan attempt to recreate a witty Hitchcockian thriller. It’s got all the ingredients: Innocent Man On The Run; Beautiful Female Spy; Flirting On A Train; Glam Locations; a McGuffin . . . the works. But it never comes to a boil; heck it never hits sous vide. And the stars seem to know it. As the naif who steps into international intrigue, Johnny Depp looks blurry & out of sorts while Angelina Jolie looks positively spray-painted as a sashaying secret-agent in haute couture & a phony British accent. The film tries to wow us with sweeping Venetian vistas, luxurious hotel suites & a fancy-dress formal ball, but Donnersmarck can hardly get things past a stately walking pace (does he think we might miss something?), and the infamous German sense of humor only makes things worse. In tiny parts, Timothy Dalton & Rufus Sewell show just how to play this sort of thing, but no one else in front or behind the camera has a clue. Then, just when you think the worst is over, they haul out one of those ludicrous switcheroo/’got’cha’ endings. As if this coffin needed another nail.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Stanley Donen’s CHARADE/’63 does Hitchcock-lite to a 'T.' Plus a neat ‘got’cha’ ending.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

THE WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT (1941)

Warners tossed Humphrey Bogart into one last B-picture in ‘41, the year HIGH SIERRA and THE MALTESE FALCON permanently bumped him up to Grade A starring roles. It’s a lumpy rewrite of KID GALAHAD/’37 that swaps boxing out for (wait for it) lion taming! (Even the trailer thought twice about this, hiding the circus element.) In GALAHAD, Eddie G. Robinson accidentally discovered a natural slugger and rode him to the top; here, Bogie finds a local kid who’s a natural cat handler. It sounds pretty silly, literally so with a dismal background score that can’t figure out whether to play things straight or for laughs. Sylvia Sidney, after two years off the screen, dropped in to play the old Bette Davis role, now a Fortune Teller & Girl Friday to Bogie’s circus manager. (She dropped back out for another four years after this one.) As the kid, young Eddie Albert is charming, and looks just like DUMBO’s Timothy Mouse in his spangled outfit. But the only interesting element, an add on to the GALAHAD template, is Bogie’s neurotic over-protection of his little sister, Joan Leslie, when she gets a crush on Albert. Bogie really knew how to throw a crazed fit. Don’t get your hopes up though, one of the lions goes crazy, in a surprisingly scary climax, and sorts everything out for a quick finish.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Of course, there’s KID GALAHAD/’37 with Robinson & Davis; or KID GALAHAD/’62 with Elvis Presley, Gig Young and Charles Bronson. Bronson & Presley. Who knew? But why not stick with the circus milieu and watch the best damn circus film of '41, or any other year, DUMBO.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

MATRIMONIO ALL’ITALIANA / MARRIAGE ITALIAN-STYLE (1964)

There are more than a dozen film & tv adaptations of this Neapolitan dramedy, including one helmed by author/star Eduardo De Filippo. But Vittorio De Sica’s film, with Sophia Loren & Marcello Mastroianni. is the one everyone thinks they know. But do they? It’s not the silly, light-hearted romantic comedy promised on posters or squibbed in review books, but a surprisingly dark, even cruel, tale of lust, lies & a self-centered lothario. For twenty odd years, Marcello serially uses Sophia as a prostitute, as a family nurse, as a mistress, as an employee at one of his shops and finally as manager of his business interests. Marriage isn’t in the picture. The film neatly divides the story in two with Sophia at first tricking Marcello into marriage and then convincing the jerk to do the right thing for the right reasons. De Sica’s work feels hemmed in during the first half, Filippo’s sour comedy doesn’t always give him much breathing room. But everything clicks in the second half when the sentimental drama & the gags feel perfectly integrated, and perfectly calibrated. Modern audiences may be surprised at just how much of a sexist shit Mastroianni’s character is, especially since he doesn’t sweeten the bitter comic pill. (The Berlusconi mindset shows how little some Italian attitudes have changed.) And in a real tour-de-force perf, Loren is outstanding. Has any movie Goddess ever looked so enticingly beautiful in so many different ways as she does in this film? But beyond the va-va-va-voom, what an actress she could be when (and only when) working with De Sica. As Filumena she seems capable of giving everyone from Chaplin to Anna Magnani a run for their money. (WARNING: Beware of Public Domain copies. Look for the new KINO/Lorber DVD which has a fine WideScreen image.)

CONTEST: Name two British Dames who tried on Filumena in stage productions to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

TOAST OF THE TOWN (1937)

The real story of how Jim Fisk all but cornered the gold market, and started the ‘Black Friday’ panic of 1869 in the process, is hiding in plain sight on this routine bio-pic. Edward Arnold, whose big personality worked best in small doses, is the wheeler-dealer who made (and lost) a fortune playing the Yanks against the Rebs before conning his way back on top in New York with partners Cary Grant & Jack Oakie. Naturally, there’s a girl in the picture (Francis Farmer) for Arnold to pine for and Grant to nobly renounce. Stranded between hambones like Arnold & Oakie, Grant overacts alarmingly when he isn’t making cow-eyes at Farmer. But no one seems especially comfortable in this misfire. Arnold had better luck with a similar role in DIAMOND JIM/’35 (courting Jean Arthur to a Preston Sturges script), and a lot more rapport with the unlucky Ms Farmer on COME AND GET IT/’36. Everything’s a little forced here, and the episodes don’t feel complete; the financial doings rattle on and Farmer’s big stage show is all bows & curtains. Yet, it’s quite a lux production from indie producer Edward Small, with a top scripter (Dudley Nichols) and cleverly helmed by Rowland V. Lee, who knew how to squeeze a modest budget. But they all missed a great American morality tale and it's still waiting to be told. Perhaps a modern take on how the Koch Brothers almost cornered the Silver Market?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Switching commodities, step back to 1909 for an early D.W. Griffith two-reeler, A CORNER IN WHEAT, one of his greatest early achievements. Still in lovely physical condition, beautiful & haunting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

TEMPLE GRANDIN (2010)

There’s nothing on Mick Jackson’s CV that seems to lead to this knockout HBO bio-pic on Temple Grandin, a young woman who didn’t so much triumph over her autism as thru it. A leading specialist in livestock handling (don’t get sentimental, she made her mark building a better abattoir), her equally remarkable mother ‘mainstreamed’ her thru high school, university & the employment sector. Building on a stubborn persistence, Grandin corralled her unique abilities at visualization into ‘Moo Science,’ thinking & feeling as a cow. You can pick at the script for telegraphing story points & goals, but cleanly handled time-shifting construction help it maintain a lively pace and freshen up a pretty well-worn story arc; while any small faults are more than compensated for by the emotional completeness of Temple’s phenomenal journey. (The film is much closer to the truth than these things usually are.) The performances couldn’t be better, bouquets to all: the cowboys, good & bad; to Mom & Aunt Ann (Julia Ormond & Catherine O’Hara); to David Strathairn’s teacher-of-the-year; and especially to Claire Danes whose Temple must be the best assumption of this sort of role since Daniel Day Lewis began to write with MY LEFT FOOT/’89. Anyone who can watch this touch-averse freshman let her new blind roommate hold her arm for guidance, or start singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in a key too high and not tear up may now leave the room.

DOUBLE-BILL: Included as an EXTRA on the Criterion DVD of Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE/'59 is his extraordinarily graceful, deadly grim short-subject on a horse slaughterhouse in Paris, LE SANG DES BÊTES/’49 (BLOOD OF THE BEASTS). As mesmerizing as it is unwatchable, it certainly shows you what Ms Grandin was out to change. WARNING!: The Franju short is definitely not Family Friendly material. (Speaking of EXTRAs, watch the one on here to see the real Temple.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: In addition to her own books, there’s a fine portrait of Temple Grandin by Oliver Sacks in his 1995 collection AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS.

Friday, December 2, 2011

ZIFT (2008)

No doubt Bulgarian helmer Javor Gardev overdoes it on his debut pic, dishing out turbo-charged Neo-Noir style like gravy on a Blue-Plate Special. But you can’t help but grin at the fun he has following a convict on his calamitous first day out of prison. Shot in dank WideScreen b&w, the story fills us in on more than a decade lost in prison where Moth (it’s his nickname . . . don’t ask) turned himself into a fierce, heavily tattooed fighting machine. But his release comes at a price as a series of goons & official types chase him down to find out where he stashed that ultra-valuable diamond that helped to send him up in the first place. As the hard-luck convict, Zahary Baharov is physically imposing, and just as convincing playing his younger, more innocent self. A good thing since Gardev runs him thru his places with a mini-series’ worth of violence, sex (pretty graphic), foot chases on slippery surfaces and deadly poisons. The complicated plotting & visual references run the gamut from D.O.A./’50 to GILDA/’46 (with Bulgarian lyrics to ‘Put the Blame on Mame,’ no less), all the way up to EASTERN PROMISES/’06. And, of course, there’s a lying femme fatale who’s either worth killing . . . or dying for. It’ll be interesting to see how Gardev follows this up. He’s worth watching, even when you aren’t sure what the heck is going on.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1927)

Considering the name recognition, historical importance & long-running success as a theatrical property, it’s surprising that this late silent is the only feature-length film of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel. No doubt, Universal hoped for grosses comparable to those two other out-of-fashion ‘barnstormers,’ WAY DOWN EAST/’20 and BEN-HUR/’25, and budgeted accordingly. But lightning didn’t strike thrice. Piece by piece, there are some handsomely developed action sequences from director Harry Pollard: ESCAPE OVER THE ICE FLOES!; KIDNAPPED OFF A RIVERBOAT!; FLOGGED SLAVE REFUSES TO GIVE IN! But the much edited final cut largely reduces Stowe’s complex narrative to the marriage of light-skinned slaves Eliza & George, and their forced separation before baby makes three. Moving the time frame up to the Civil War doesn’t help things either. A Union Army ride to the rescue comes off as overkill while the Emancipation Proclamation only undercuts the horrors of unending slavery. The film does earn points by using lots of actual African-Americans actors, especially James Lowe’s Uncle Tom who’s no obsequious dodderer, but an honest man of strength, restraint & purpose. (He never worked in the industry again.) Still, it’s tough to get past the usual lies of a Southern gentry on the plantation with happy ‘darkies’ dancin’‘, singin’ & scarfin’ down watermelon. Even if you do, there’s still Mona Ray’s blackface Topsy. Not done up in the artificial vaudevillian mask of minstrelsy, but as realistic mimicry. So much worse.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: D.W. Griffith stole the famous ice floe sequence off the stage for the climax on his stupendous 1920 version of WAY DOWN EAST, and it’s never been topped. (The one in here is pretty good until they botch the ending.)