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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

OSS:117: RIO NE REPOND PLUS / OSS 117: LOST IN RIO (2009)

Much of the fun has leeched out in the second installment of Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS spy spoof series. Jean Dujardin, who’d soon star for Hazanavicius in THE ARTIST/’11, repeats as the impossibly vain, impossibly dense, impossibly inept international spy who this time is being targeted by a Chinese cabal while hunting down an ex-Nazi with a microfiche listing of French collaborators. But he’s not alone, there’s the old CIA pal who alternately saves him, then sets him up; plus a sexy Israeli Mossad agent for Dujardin to hit on, and spy with. The running gag is that Dujardin is still the same politically incorrect Frenchman he was when the first film took place, more than a decade ago, a mid-1950s guy dropped into the fast-changing social milieu of the mid-1960s. Every time he opens his mouth, sexist, racist or anti-Semitic bon mots tumble out. They all land like lead balloons to the knowing characters on screen. Alas, they also land like lead balloons on the audience. (At least, on a Stateside audience.) Worse, Hazanavicius plays around with the colors & graphics of ‘60s filmmaking, but never responds or connects to the ‘60s style the way the first pic did with the ‘50s. There are laughs here and there, but the film only starts to build some real comic momentum in the last act when Hazanavicius stages a delicious slow-motion chase in a hospital, complete with a series of slapstick ‘toppers.’ Watch out for that elevator; and an emergency phone call that spirals into a screen-splitting fugue. Soon, he’s pretty much ditched the ‘60s and started foraging late ‘50s Hitchcock for inspiration. The big climax (a combo platter of VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and SABOTAGE) brings back some of the visual elegance that made the first OSS spoof such a treat. But it was obviously time for everyone to move on.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT/DOUBLE-BILL: Stick with the first film, OSS: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES/’06 and double up with one of Rowan Atkinson’s JOHNNY ENGLISH spy spoofs, big hits everywhere but in the States.

Monday, January 30, 2012

MADAME CURIE (1943)

Greer Garson’s didn’t just accumulate mannerisms, she hoarded them. No surprise then that the modulated tones & gracious-lady grandeur, the fits of sparkling laughter & light-catching head poses soon grew insufferable. (And it still echoes in the cultivated tones of Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep & Diane Sawyer.) But in a few early pics (like GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS/39; RANDOM HARVEST/’42; and this one), the effect is less practiced and much easier to take. Mervyn LeRoy, who (unintentionally?) brought a triumphant all-of-a-piece italicized style to RANDOM HARVEST, falls back on his usual plush megging in this studio-bound bio-pic. But, with a sharper than expected script from Paul Osborn, it’s still effective. Osborn sticks closer to the facts than normal in these things, and he doesn’t push our buttons too hard at the big emotional moments. As you’d expect from the author of MORNING’S AT SEVEN, some of the family scenes are particularly lively, and the chemical reaction of science & romance often charming. Herbert Stothart phones in a typically unimpressive music score, but lenser Joseph Ruttenberg got an atypically dark & expressive look for M-G-M. And check out that whopping bit of studio artifice for the Science Academy right at the end. Margaret O’Brien, Robert Walker & Van Johnson turn up in small roles and there’s a pip of a pep-talk from wise old Albert Bassermann that might have come straight out of A STAR IS BORN/’54. No doubt, there’s a better film in the Curies (a fine new bio appeared in the ‘90s), but this old-fashioned piece holds up rather well.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: German refugee Albert Bassermann barely spoke English and had to learn all his lines phonetically from his wife. That’s her, playing his wife at a party. Guess who had the stronger accent? Yep, the missus.

Friday, January 27, 2012

ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS (1969) \ MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS (1971)

After legendary stints @ Warners (‘31-‘45) & Paramount (‘45-‘70), producer Hal Wallis took his unit over to Universal for a final handful of hit-&-miss pics (‘69-‘75). First out was ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS with Richard Burton & Geneviève Bujold, a solid Tudor historical that was both a critical & commercial success. Two years later, much the same creative crew re-upped for MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, a less well-received follow-up with Vanessa Redgrave & Glenda Jackson. Seen now, the film’s respective reps seem flip-flopped; ANNE’s a bit of a stiff and MARY’s a pip. Go figure. Some of the change stems from director Charles Jarrott, who’s a good deal looser in the later pic. (A faceless megger at the best of times, he’d self-destruct right after MARY on the disastrous LOST HORIZON musical remake.) He also gets a huge boost from lenser Christopher Challis who completely outclasses Arthur Ibbetson’s dutiful work on ANNE. (Dark glowering skies & dynamic angles help, but just have a look at the Old Master lighting he achieves in the chamber scene right after MARY’s Intermission Break.) John Hale did both scripts, but where ANNE never quite shakes off the poetic goo of the Maxwell Anderson lyric drama it's adapted from, MARY uses a freer dramatic structure and, of course, has the ultimate Wild Card in Glenda Jackson’s phenomenal Elizabeth Tudor. They add two meetings for the Queens who never met, which turn out to be one too many, but you hardly need to see them together to cast your lot against a sanctimonious hypocrite like Mary. The supporting casts of both pics look equally good on paper, but again, MARY gets the edge with undervalued scene-stealers like Patrick McGoohan, Timothy Dalton, Ian Holm & Daniel Massey harking back to the unmatchable character roster of Warners in the ‘30, where the young Hal Wallis got his start.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Vanessa Redgrave always made the controversial political headlines, but it was Jackson who gave up acting to serve as a British M.P. Redgrave is generally considered the actress of her generation, but sometimes it seems like cinema might have been better off if these two had reversed their career choices.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Hal Wallis was usually considered one of the coldest executives in Hollywood. But he comes off as a reasonable, if frustratingly terse, character in STARMAKER, his auto-bio. Worth it for the Jerry Lewis stuff alone. (And don’t forget, Wallis also did all those early Elvis pics.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Well, naturally.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

MARGIN CALL (2011)

J. C. Chandor’s debut as scripter/megger is a sort of upper-echelon GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS/’92 , less the David Mamet windy flourishes, but still Guys in Suits Selling Junk. The suits are more tasteful, the office is high-rise and the worthless properties are now those mystery-meat pies known as ‘derivatives’ that helped bring down the Wall Street investment banks in ‘08. But the kill or be killed ethos remains. The dramatic structure is beautifully handled, and Chandor gets buckets of great perfs out of his starry cast even when he fumbles his set ups. (For some reason, he’s stymied by boardroom logistics.) But even while holding our attention as the firm discovers their unsustainable position and preps a crassly self-serving junk sale, we don’t quite buy in. Perhaps because no one can quite explain what these loan packages are. (In the film, everyone asks for explanations a child could understand.) But with so little to connect the dots (or is it so few dots to connect?), the doomsday scenario remains computer-bound, bouncing around internally, like a thriller set in an Escher Box . . . or the justification for a Wall Street Year-End bonus.

DOUBLE-BILL: Maybe a documentary overview could help particularize & personalize the subject? Try INSIDE JOB/’10 to get a handle on things.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s a load of fine acting in here. (Chandor casts like a whiz.) And while Jeremy Irons, playing a master of the universe type, proves yet again that no one acts as well while chewing his food, the ultimate ‘find’ is Kevin Spacey. Sure he’s hardly been off the screen for twenty-plus years, but not since L. A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97, when he surprised those who had pegged him as a classic supporting actor, has he shown such screen-filing star magnitude.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

TORCH SINGER (1933)

Poor Claudette Colbert has to navigate a dramatic U-turn in every reel of this ‘Women’s Weepie.’ First, she’s ‘expecting’ but unmarried; then, a single mom in a tenement with the similarly fixed Lyda Roberti. Blink and she’s back on her own, begging for help from the rich relatives of putative Pop David Manners. Nothing doing. So, she gives up the girl and sinks to singing the blues in lowdown joints. Spotted by club promoter Ricardo Cortez, she gets a quick costume change and hits the heights, a featured singer with a band & three swanky pianos. That’s when she backs herself into a radio gig, playing sob-sister to the kiddie set. And that’s just the half of it, dearie, blues! It’s fun to watch Colbert molt thru five looks and a passel of slinky Travis Banton outfits, even though she looks her very best when they just leave her alone. (Check out the makeup-free entrance; lighting courtesy of lenser Karl Struss, bone-structure courtesy of Mom & Dad.) Colbert sang in a few pics (THE SMILING LIEUTENANT/’32; ZAZA/’37) and easily pulls off her solos. The tremolo isn’t to modern tastes, but her phrasing & pitch are spot on. But that plot! It’s so over-cooked even levelheaded Colbert starts overacting . . . probably in self-defense.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The slightly bathetic last act shows Colbert using her radio show to look for her lost girl. One lead turns up an adorable little black child. Nope, not Colbert’s. But instead of the cringe-worthy gag you’re expecting, their little scene is played out with natural ease & simple affection on both sides. Perhaps this helped Colbert get cast in John Stahl’s adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s IMITATION OF LIFE/’34. A real groundbreaker, it came out the same year Colbert made CLEOPATRA for DeMille & IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT for Capra. IMITATION took on single moms, business & race relations in a manner that makes TORCH SINGER look hopelessly contrived; and it was far more progressive for its day than Douglas Sirk’s remake of IMITATION with Lana Turner in ‘59.

Monday, January 23, 2012

MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

The two main competitors to the Ziegfeld Follies both got the Hollywood treatment in 1934: GEORGE WHITE’S SCANDALS out via Fox in March 1934 & Paramount responding with this Earl Carroll’s VANITIES themed pic in May. (Ziegfeld got his posthumous last laugh in M-G-M’s THE GREAT ZIEGFELD/’36.) Carroll’s revues were little more than dressed up burlesque shows, but this clever little film spends most of its running time backstage on opening night, unraveling a murder plot. Mitchell Leisen had only recently been bumped up from art director to helmer, and he shows off with complicated set-ups that keep the cast & crew in constant motion behind the scenes, pausing only for occasional dressing-room interrogations, and choosing off-beat camera placements for the on-going show. Lots of fun from every angle. Jack Oakie steals the pic as a Stage Manager who insists that the show must go on while Victor McLaglen, a cop in a snazzy tux, attempts to solve the case. Kitty Carlisle makes her modest debut in film with Carl Brisson, one of the murder suspects. His Continental charm doesn’t quite work on film, but watch him in the Liszt Rhapsody ‘numbo’ where he goes proto-Liberace with white tux, white piano, white candelabra, curly hair & dimples. Then watch as a young, glamorous Duke Ellington (& Co.) gets that tune to swing. Add in a couple of new songs like ‘Cocktails For Two’ & ‘Marijuana’ and you’ve got some good, silly stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: Like McLaglen, Carl Brisson stared out as a professional boxer. Check him out in Hitchcock’s THE RING/’27.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: It’s worth noting that when Ellington & his band get to work, a line of sexy black chorines are allowed to be just as provocative as their white counterparts. In fact, the stage briefly fills up with an semi-integrated line up. A rare event at the time.

THE GREEN HORNET (1939-40)

Long available only as a smeary Public Domain dub on VHS, this well-worn 13-part Universal serial has received a significant visual upgrade in a new DVD edition from VCI. (Only Chapter 9 retains the familiar subfusc look.) Alas, nothing could be done with the actual films; they’re still the same cheap-O Kiddie-Matinee fare you may recall, fondly or not. The fun stuff comes right at the opening when Rimsky-Korsakov’s Bumblebee takes musical flight and the story recap scrolls (a la STAR WARS) over a flavorsome miniature of Times Square. Why Times Sq? Then we get two full reels of bad acting, telephone conversations (usually at a desk), stock footage and a minimum of either action or ratiocination. At last, with just a minute or two to spare, we reach the big cliffhanger. The writers obviously had fun thinking these up, but come next week, they’re always solved with a previously unseen cutaway shot of Kato and/or the Hornet jumping off the doomed train/bus/boat/car/horse/airplane just before disaster strikes. It’s hard to imagine today’s kids getting caught up, but there are fanboys for everything, so who knows. They’ll never look better, that’s for sure.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Funny to think that Comic Book & Radio Serial adaptations, once commercial throwaway fodder for Hollywood, now come with budgets in the hundreds of millions. Ah, progress!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Can serials be high art? They can when Fritz Lang leads us thru four glorious hours of DR. MABUSE: The Gambler/’22. Try the restored KINO edition.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2010)

Werner Herzog takes us on an art tour/meditation/travelogue inside the Chauvet Cave in Southern France. Here, more than 30,000 years ago, early man decorated the stone walls with portraits of the horses they revered, the wild beasts they feared & hunted, and their own hand prints (as if to announce their presence). Severe restrictions on cameras, lighting & Herzog’s crew mean that we have to work a bit to see everything, especially since the prehistoric artisans incorporated the undulating stone surfaces into their compositions. But the miraculous freshness in the drawings, paradoxically simple & sophisticated, is almost overwhelming. Drawn by our Homo-sapien ancestors when they still shared the world with Neanderthals, it begs the question of how Art and the need to leave one’s mark factored into our survival? (Yeah, sure. Go tell the school board.) The film was shown theatrically in 3D and, for once, the loss is felt on 2D. Not only do we miss the near tactile feel of seeming to enter the cave (and the need to dodge a veritable stone ‘forest’ of stalagmites & stalactites), but the contoured etchings & drawings that hug the curves in the wall’s surface are harder to ‘read’ without the depth effect. But, unless the film is scheduled to be shown at your local Natural History Museum in its original format, don’t hold back from seeing this one.

DOUBLE-BILL: Try this with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s THE MYSTERY OF PICASSO/’56 to see how closely a span of 30,000 years can be bridged thru the art of drawing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932)

Dorothy Arzner, the only female director to work at any of the major Hollywood studios in the ‘30s, doesn’t have enough film credits to pass up one of her lesser-known works, especially when it turns out to be something of a find. Championed (or at least, remembered) for the fatalist/feminist orientation of her best known pic, CHRISTOPHER STRONG/’33, the one with aviatrix Kate Hepburn in the moth-themed gown, MERRILY manages something even rarer, a close cinematic rendering of the sexually open tone & alcohol-fueled spirit of an F. Scott Fitzgerald Lost Generation short story. Or does until things swerve toward bathos in the last act. In a warm-up to A STAR IS BORN/’37, young Fredric March plays a charming, but alcoholic reporter with a half-finished play in his desk drawer. Sylvia Sidney, at her prettiest, is the rich heiress who falls for him in spite of the warning signs. Tough times give way to success; the one thing they can’t handle. You expect lenser Leo Tover & the Paramount art department to ace the rooftop glamor of a Chicago penthouse, but the believable New York apartments are even trickier to pull off, as is the fuss-free sketch of the ‘speak-easy’ lifestyle. Skeets Gallagher is a stand-out as a good-natured pal with an ever-ready time-step, and there’s a nice early cameo for the already assured Cary Grant. Even when the story turns conventional, Arzner captured something unusual on this one.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

DER HEILIGE BERG / THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1926)

Before Leni Riefenstahl became Hitler’s pet documentarian, she debuted as an actress in this classic Mountain Film from the genre’s master, Arnold Fanck. The films were designed as visual poems, near-abstract musings on life, fate & nature, set in barely accessible Alpine locales amid raging blizzards & spring thaws, with simple storylines adding narrative traction to the inspiring scenery. Here, Riefenstahl, who was something of a scenic wonder herself, is a professional dancer (very Isadora Duncan), who awakens the passions of two dissimilar men. With skiing master Luis Trenker, she shares a deep spiritual bond; with young Ernst Petersen, a more playful attachment. Perhaps if she knew these two were inseparable friends, mountain climbing partners closer than brothers, she might have quit her role as catalyst to their ‘bromantic’ liebestod on the South Face. Or was it all inevitable? In a film that relies so heavily on surface appeal, we’re lucky to have the lovingly restored print from Germany’s F.W. Murnau Stiftung’s out on KINO. Ravishing snowstorms in the Alps, torchlit skiers reflected as they glide past frozen waters and, of course, a ridiculously handsome cast. Fanck was a whiz at getting impossible concepts like nature's regard toward philosophy or the wisdom of eternal friendship on film. But ask him for a ski race where you can follow the contestants, a dance performance that builds to a finish, or just about anything simple & straightforward, and he was all thumbs. Still, everyone should give one of these loopy tableau dramas a shot. This one gets a skiing difficulty rating of - Safe for Intermediates.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

THE CHEAT (1931)

The story’s the same, but the thrill is gone in this third iteration of Cecil B DeMille’s 1915 upper-crust shocker, a tale of sexual blackmail that merges tasty bits from Somerset Maugham’s THE LETTER with THE SCARLET LETTER. Tallulah Bankhead should be just right as the self-centered society wife who gets over her head in debt and sells herself to a rich ‘Oriental.’ Alas, except for her one-off in Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT/’44, Tallulah was never able to make friends with the camera. Not that it would have made much difference in this watered down telling. In DeMille’s galvanizing original, the suave predator flaunts a racist edge of barbarism that drove audiences wild, and made Sessue Hayakawa America’s first (and only?) Asian matinee idol. Even Pola Negri, who made her Hollywood debut in the 1923 remake, got manhandled by an Indian Prince. And who puts the moves on Tallulah? Irving Pichel, a Paul Muni lookalike with the cultivated tones of an English gentleman. Just what is he supposed to be? Decadent Caucasian with a suspect taste in Asian houseboys & home decor? Talk about throwing a wet blanket on things. And speaking of wet blankets . . . Harvey Stephens, debuting as Bankhead’s mannerly cuckold, cold-cocked his shot at leading man status right from the start. This was also the end of the line for legendary B’way helmer George Abbott. Brought out during the early Talkie craze for theater talent, and with some decent work to show for it, he apparently had had enough and largely stuck to the Great White Way for the next seven decades! (NOTE: Our poster is the cover from the 1931 novelization.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A French remake from 1937, FORFAITURE, has Sussue Hayakawa back in his old role after 22 years. With Marcel L’Herbier helming a cast that includes Victor Francen & Louis Jouvet, where is this curio hiding? Until that shows up you can see DeMille’s 1915 original, one of his early triumphs, on either KINO or IMAGE. Or, to see what Bankhead was aiming for, but unable to pull off, try to see the astonishing, doomed Jeanne Eagles in her only surviving sound film, the recently restored THE LETTER/’29.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

OSS 117: LE CAIRE, NID D’ESPIONS / OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES (2005)

The creative trio from THE ARTIST/’11, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius, his actress-wife Bérénice Bejo & Jean Dujardin, first worked together on this good-natured send-up of classic late-‘50s/early-‘60s Spy vs Spy pics. Think DR. NO meets PINK PANTHER with Dujardin supplying both Sean Connery mojo & Peter Sellers fatuousness, while Hazanavicius fields the old story tropes & filming techniques, falling a bit in love with them in the process. As THE ARTIST demonstrated, these two are quick learners in matters of period style, and Bejo shares equally in the fun as the foreign Girl Friday with a secret agenda. While the plot is probably more of a joke than it need be, OSS is also more than the sum of its silly parts, thanks to a consistent period look (and outlook) & pitch-perfect tone. It’s paradoxically accurate & goofy, respectful & iconoclastic fun; far more effective than similar attempts at reviving the genre forms in parody pics like the AUSTIN POWERS series, GET SMART or those godawful Steve Martin Pink Panther reboots. It gets under the surface with a swank compositional style & ‘swellegant’ slapstick timing that recalls the late Blake Edwards at his best. So, while there's a generous share of howlingly funny high points, the confident filmmaking makes the whole package a real pleasure to watch all along the way.

DOUBLE-BILL: A sequel, OSS 117: LOST IN RIO/’09, sounds like a tip of the hat to Phillipe de Broca/Jean-Paul Belmondo’s THAT MAN IN RIO/’64, but maybe one of the ‘straight’ adaptations of the OSS 117 books from the ‘50s & ‘60s will show up on DVD. (see poster)

Monday, January 16, 2012

LAO JING / OLD WELL (1986)

Even avid followers of Mainland Chinese cinema may be surprised to find Yimou Zhang as both co-star & cinematographer in this rural drama made a year before RED SORGHUM, his first film as director. Helmed by Tian-Ming Wu in a more naturalistic style than Yimou’s, the film retains some of the old communist ‘group think’ dramatics even when it tweaks a couple of Party Line officials who try to stop a night’s entertainment from a group of blind musicians. The public storyline deals with the restoration of the local well in a water-starved town. (The water supply is so bad that neighboring villages riot over dry wells.) And the private story is all about sexual jealousy between Yimou, who has married, and his assistant, who’s an ex-girlfriend. A cave-in during the dig tests everyone to the max, but Tian-Ming doesn’t wallow in the possibilities. In fact, the script leapfrogs over expected climaxes to spend more time showing life in town. It’s not always dramatically satisfying, but it’s consistently interesting even in a sub-par DVD edition that tends to lose detail in dark quarters . . . like when you’re down in a well!

DOUBLE-BILL: A more recent Chinese film, MANG JING (BLIND SHAFT)/’03, also takes us below ground. Not in search of water, but for coal, minerals & a deadly con game of murder & insurance scams. It’s Crony Capitalism run amuck in Communist China.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

NO MAN OF HER OWN (1932)

Clark Gable was on a rare loan-out from M-G-M when he co-starred with Carole Lombard in this Paramount programmer, their only film together. While they wouldn’t get together as Hollywood’s most famous couple for a few years, the sexual tension is already striking. In truth, it's the only striking thing in here, director Wesley Ruggles doesn't much enter into things. Gable’s a big city card sharp, fleecing the rich with a pair of well-dressed pals & sexy/available Dorothy Mackaill as bait. But when the cops come sniffing, Gable takes a powder and heads out of town until things cool down. That’s where he meets-cute with Lombard’s surprisingly liberated hick-town librarian. The flirtation is brief, but intense. And it’s marriage-on-a-dare, deception in the big city, redemption, tru-love . . . the usual. Gable is still figuring out his look & style, but Lombard gives one of her best early perfs; she finds a core of decency, personal balance & smarts in her small-town dreamer that promises a lot more than the script manages to deliver.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lombard’s small-town gal apotheosis comes in the blistering satire of NOTHING SACRED/’37, at long last available in a properly restored DVD from KINO.

Friday, January 13, 2012

FATHER IS A BACHELOR (1950)

The last time William Holden worked for Norman Foster (of MR MOTO fame) he won the heart of Loretta Young, but his rival, Bob Mitchum, got to sing all the songs in the charming near-musical RACHEL AND THE STRANGER/’48. In this one, Holden ‘adopts’ five cute-as-a-button orphans and gets to sing all the tunes as a Medicine Show entertainer-at-large. But it’s a poor trade off, since the songs are blah and he lip-synchs to some mystery voice. (Mitchum did his own singing, and very well.) This is a sentimental small-town tale (and made for the small-town market), but less sappy than it might be with Holden playing the mush as briskly as possible. Of the five siblings, the four boys go for the rough-and-tumble, but Mary Jane Saunders as the kid sister is a Shirley Temple wannabe who gazes sadly at the camera. (She’d just debuted in SORROWFUL JONES/’49 playing Temple’s old role.) No surprises here, other than the misleading title (Holden’s not even related to the tots), but it’s less painful than it sounds. Hard to believe that Holden’s next was Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD/’50 which would completely change his career trajectory.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: BLACKFACE WARNING!! In the opening scene, Charles Winninger, who owns the Medicine Show wagon, is shilling his potion while Holden, in blackface, sings for the crowd. But who’s the wagon driver, seated next to Holden? Why, it’s an unbilled Dooley Wilson of CASABLANCA/’42 fame! What could have been going thru his head as he watched this white guy, caricatured in cork, singing his heart out to the voice of a stranger? The vagaries of American entertainment truly know no bounds. Wilson’s role wound up on the cutting-room floor, but you can make up for it by doing a Song Search to hear his classic ‘The Eagle and Me,’ a great Arlen/Harburg number from their undervalued musical BLOOMER GIRL.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

THE BEST LISTS of 2011

With so many end-of-the-year studio screenings, the number of MAKSQUIBS posts has suffered. So, as recompense, a small offering: a quick (if partial*) Check List on the best reviewed titles of last year. (TITLES listed alphabetically within their Category.)

WORTH ALL THE HYPE:

THE ARTIST - Michel Hazanavicius

LE HAVRE - Aki Kaurismäki

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS - Woody Allen

MONEYBALL - Bennett Miller

A SEPARATION - Asghar Farhadi

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY - Tomas Alfredson

WORTH SOME OF THE HYPE:

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN - Steven Spielberg (a character challenged RAIDERS sequel)

A DANGEROUS METHOD - David Cronenberg

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN - Simon Curtis (though you won’t believe a moment)

RANGO - Gore Verbinski (a visual treat with an ADD plotline)

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES - Rupert Wyatt

HARDLY WORTH THE HYPE:

THE DESCENDANTS - Alexander Payne (Ron Howard goes to Hawaii)

J. EDGAR - Clint Eastwood (a tepid response to a lip-smacking opportunity)

NOT WORTH THE HYPE:

HUGO - Martin Scorsese (it’s official, St. Marty is now critically untouchable, but the film is a bore & a lie)

MELANCHOLIA - Lars von Trier (for those who find late Tarkovsky too unpretentious)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *"Partial’ in both its meanings, since our list is ‘partial,’ as in biased; and ‘partial,’ as in incomplete, missing such well-received pics as BRIDESMAIDS, TREE OF LIFE, THE HELP, DRIVER, et al. for various reasons of choice & opportunity. Some of them may appear in full MAKSQUIBS Write-Ups when they go to DVD. (Now, get off the couch and head to your favorite Bijou!)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

DARK CITY (1950)

Charlton Heston got top-billing right from his debut in this tasty little noir that finds William Dieterle recharging his UFA/German-Expressionist DNA in some dynamically claustrophobic compositions & lots of shadowy style. It’s a cautionary tale about three con men (Heston, Jack Webb & Ed Begley) who lose their bookie joint, but find an out-of-town sap with a fat company check in his wallet. A ‘friendly’ game of poker should put them back on their feet, but the ‘mark’ suicides which leaves the boys stuck with a countersigned check they can’t cash without pointing the finger . . . at themselves. Worse, Webb & Begley pulled a fast one on Heston and played a rigged game; worser, the dead man’s psychopathic brother has hit town, read the suicide note and is now hunting them down one-by-one. Toss in a bit of romance with a hard-luck chanteuse (Lizabeth Scott) & a flirtation with the dead man’s widow (Viveca Lindfors), plus a sweet turn from Henry Morgan as a slow-thinking pal, and you’ve got a story that will run courses. Almost. The romance gets fudged, but at least it keeps you guessing. We don’t get too far off the studio lot, but Dieterle’s background at the UFA funhouse, along with atmospheric lensing from the soon to retire Victor Milner, make the sets work better than the real thing. (Dig that cozy Las Vegas casino interior.) There’s even the luxury of a score from Franz Waxman written between SUNSET BOULEVARD/’50 and A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51. Where’s this one been hiding? (It's yet another orphaned pic from Paramount that's been picked up by those clever folks @ OLIVE DVD. Thanks guys!)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Odd to spend four full-length songs-worth of screen time for a dubbed leading lady. But that’s Trudy Stevens making those throaty sounds for Lizabeth Scott. No doubt, producer Hal Wallis was still trying to mold Scott into his own Lauren Bacall.

Monday, January 9, 2012

MIRACLE OF THE WHITE STALLIONS (1963)

This fact-inspired pic on how the famous Lipizzaner horses of Vienna were brought to safety during the last, chaotic months of WWII ought to be a slam-dunk. After all, it starts like THE SOUND OF MUSIC/’65 (with horses instead of singing Von Trapps) and wraps like THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS/’58 (with horses instead of adorable singing Chinese orphans). Alas, as the head of the Spanish Riding Academy of Vienna, Robert Taylor looks stiff & spent, with an alarming dye job, and shows little rapport with either his two or four-footed cast. Worse, Curt Jergens, in support as a sympathetic Austrian officer, shows just how the part should have been played. Actually, for a Walt Disney Production in ‘63, there’s a decent supporting cast (Lili Palmer, Eddie Albert, James Franciscus), nice location stuff and some impressive military gear to go with the battle scenes & miles of horseflesh. But the script just moseys along, moving calmly from one mild incident to the another; no dramatic swing, no pace to the thing, a perfect storm of suspense elements and no one to piece it together. Certainly not Arthur Hiller, a routine Hollywood megger at best who can't even make contact with the horses. And there’s something downright insulting in the kiddie-cues that pass for a music score from Disney house composer Philip J. Smith, to say nothing of the ode to Vienna cooked up by the Brothers Sherman when some of the riding staff gets called to the Front to do their bit for the failing Nazi cause. Positively tone-deaf.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Did Disney have funds stuck in Vienna at the time? ALMOST ANGELS/’62, a fondly remembered film about the Vienna Boys’ Choir, was made just before this, also on location. It’s never been out on DVD. (Or VHS?) Does it hold up? Helmed by Andre Previn’s brother, Steve, and blessedly without a Philip Smith score, it has one of the all-time great plot hooks: one of the scholarship choirboys discovers that his voice is changing. Pure genius.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

Paul Leni’s comic-thriller, the granddaddy of all those chillers where a group of nervous Nells & Nellies are forced to spend a night in an Old Dark House, looks fabulous in the PhotoPlay 2004 restoration out on KINO-DVD. Sourced from original nitrate elements and strongly supported by a new Neil Brand score, the film now plays better than it has in decades. The story’s an old wheeze about a dying man in a spooky old mansion, his eccentric will, and the night all the relatives show up to hear it read. Ghosts, secret wall panels, hidden doors, a couple of dead bodies . . . the works. It was dumb corny fun when it was new, but this new edition really helps the gags & chills pop. It’s why the restored visual quality is so crucial, it really shows off the superb atmospheric effects Leni got, with a big assist from lenser Gilbert Warrenton. (What a team. They’d top themselves next year with a true masterpiece, Victor Hugo’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.) There’s even a good cast from Universal’s contract players with a surprisingly modern perf from leading lady Laura La Plante and creepy stylized comic stuff from the rest of the grasping fortune hunters. Martha Mattox is a particular standout as a hatchet-faced housekeeper straight out of a Georges de la Tour painting. Now, if we could only get a similar upgrade on THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, especially on the dim 1928 synch-track score which robs the film of half its magic, romance & fatalistic power. What might Leni have given us if he hadn’t died suddenly in 1929 at the age of 44?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

ARIZONA RAIDERS (1965)

War-hero turned actor, Audie Murphy, rode with Quantrill’s men in KANSAS RAIDERS/’50, one of his first Westerns; here, in one of his last, he’s re-upped with the renegade gang of Civil War Southern sympathizers. The earlier film had Brian Donlevy, Tony Curtis, Richard Arlen, Dewey Martin & Richard Egan in support; the best this can offer is Buster (‘Flash Gordon’) Crabbe in his last (pre-Camp) credit. Still, for a little B-pic, it’s not half bad. This time around, Murphy gets caught in a raid that kills Quantrill and is serving hard labor when he’s ‘turned’ by Crabbe’s Arizona Raider. Together, they fake an escape so Murphy can infiltrate what’s left of his old gang. The pinch-penny budget doesn’t cramp things too much out on location and the serviceable acting style is fine. But the best thing in here may be a bit of sweet revenge from some justifiably savage Native Americans. When they ride off with a bad guy, you may want to give a cheer. And even Buster Crabbe comes off pretty well. The third act complications don’t exactly reach their potential, but you can pretty much fill in the missing pieces. What you can’t do is erase the full-reel lecture on Quantrill & his raiders that starts the film. (Well, you could toggle to the next film chapter.) What dunderhead Columbia Studios’ exec tacked this on? Especially since right after this deadening prologue, another narrator comes on to tell us the same damn stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned, you can catch a younger Murphy with Quantrill in KANSAS RAIDERS. He plays a fresh-faced Jesse James in it, a role he returned to in his last film, A TIME FOR DYING/’69, but without the fresh face.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1960)

Unexpected fare from Criterion DVD, a bargain-basement Kiddie Matinee pic about an under-water UFO that’s causing havoc in the Polar Cap sea-lanes. Mankind’s only hope is to find the thing with a nuclear sub and blast it to kingdom come before it can take off for its home planet and return with an armada of UFOs! Hey, not such a bad idea for a cheap Sci-Fi/Monster flick. Alas, nobody involved on this one seems to give a hoot. Even if you accept the extreme limits of a tiny budget & a six-day shoot, the lack of drive & imagination kill off most of the fun. Except for those who find the no-frills staging of B-pic vet Spencer Bennet and the look of defeat & occasional contempt from some of the actors worth a grim chuckle or two. But a bit of a surprise comes at the climax as the crewmen enter the mother-ship to confront the slimy one-eyed beast. There’s no interior! That is, no interior set. Just a bit of stark lighting, bare walkways and pools of blackness. Without quite registering the shift, we automatically begin to imagine the scene for ourselves. And, for a couple of minutes, the dumb thing comes briefly comes to life.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Funny that the one thing this pic gets right (not showing the interior of the space ship) is the very thing Steven Spielberg got wrong on the ‘Special Edition’ 1980 re-release of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND/’77.

Monday, January 2, 2012

JINRUIGAKU NYUMON / THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966)

A stunner. This exhilarating work from Shohei Imamura may be largely free of anything resembling actual pornography, but it’s got heaps of perversity, devilishly clever plot turns, some phenomenal acting, cinematic style to spare . . . and a dead husband reincarnated as a pet carp. At this point in his career, was there anything Imamura couldn’t get away with? As advertised, our middle-aged protagonist is indeed a pornographer, and proud of the service he offers, shooting zero-budget ‘sex loops’ with an imposing rack of multiple 8mm cameras. Always short on cash, he works as many angles as he can: selling reupholstered ‘virgins’ to elderly businessmen, borrowing against the mortgage on the house & barbershop of his common-law wife or supplicating the greedy Yakuza Protection racket. And his personal affairs are equally messy: his common-law wife avoids sexual contact; and when he gets something going, that darn reincarnated carp starts acting up. Truth is, she’d rather cuddle provocatively with her wastrel, college-aged son. Fair enough since the hubby’s all eyes for his 15 yr-old step-daughter, a budding relationship fully endorsed by the wife on her death bed. No wonder Mr Pornographer is unfazed when a Father/Daughter duo (make that Father/Retarded Daughter duo) shows up to shoot some action. Imamura ties this all together with a bravura technique of frames and masked camera shots, punctuated by the natural editing of those sliding Japanese doors, with multiple window panes and wall panels carving out mise-en-scène to die for. Plus hallucinatory jumps in time continuity, topped with a breathtaking rock & roll music cue during a fit of hysteria. This isn’t a film for the cinematically squeamish. Just be warned that Imamura rarely gives his characters identifying close-ups, so you may need to rewatch a scene or two to get your bearings straight. But this darkly comic tale is worth a bit of extra effort.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

ATLAS SHRUGGED: Part 1 (2011)

Even readers who reject the basic themes of Ayn Rand’s didactic novels; or who see the psychological & government obstacles in her plots as little more than convenient strawmen; or who simply resist wading into thickets of turgid dialogue unequaled by any best-selling author with the possible exception of Leon (EXODUS) Uris . . . even these folks will have to admit that her magnum opus deserves something a little better than a film that barely rises to the level of a LIFETIME cable movie. With a cast of charisma-free, zero wattage actors (the leading lady pauses between clauses at every climax); dark interiors that imply power shortages rather than power; and the oddly dated plot about replacing an old railroad track with an untested, experimental metal one for a new bullet-train; the only narrative interest lies in wondering if the pic’s producers, after licking their financial wounds from this fiasco, will make like the novel’s heroine (Dagny Taggart!) and successfully beg up the capital for Parts 2 & 3.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Rand hands might hate to admit it, but there’s no little irony in the fact that all the world’s bullet trains (China, Japan, Europe’s TGV) are heavily funded/subsidized by their various governments. Or is the mysterious John Galt behind this?