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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

BALLADA O SOLDATE / BALLAD OF A SOLDIER (1959)

Grigoriy Chukhray’s award-winning humanistic wartime romance has dated badly; a Soviet love story that’s curdled into LOVE STORY/’70 (and just as uncritically beloved). We follow a brave, honest, noble, sweet-natured, tall, blond youth from the ranks who’s been granted a brief furlough after his panic-stricken shots take out a couple of enemy tanks. But the trip home to Mom (he’s hoping to fix the roof) is jerry-rigged with too much uplift from the great Soviet Peoples & a puppy-love meet-cute with a brave, noble, sweet-natured, short, blond young civilian which becomes strong & true when tested on the journey. How many times can you almost miss a train? It’s certainly handsome to look at, but as one beautifully lit, over-composed shot follows another, it’s hard to find many believable moments. We’re uncomfortably close to those WWII Hollywood romances with Private Robert Walker, like SINCE YOU WENT AWAY/’44 or THE CLOCK/’45, right down to the heart-rending train departures. Those films, made in the moment with studio-built environments on backlot sets are stylistically all-of-a-piece. Here, the real locations turn legitimate sentiment coy, even cloying, with every emotional surge getting a plush music cue & a glowering sky. And when a real shard of sorrow & terror comes thru, like the unforced sobs from a mother separated from her son, it feels like a slap in the face, a refreshing one.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Soviet-Block films like Poland’s KANAL/’57 or the Czech Republic’s CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS/’66 offer a lot more on similar subjects.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

FRISCO JENNIE (1932)

Ruth Chatterton was still wrenching tears from her fans playing one more sacrificing mother in this variation on MADAME X/’29, the early-Talkie that (briefly) made her a star. There, her own secret son defends her on a murder rap. Here, her own secret son prosecutes her on a murder rap. Plus ça change! It all get a bit convoluted & silly, but there’s lots of tasty character support as megger William Wellman keeps the pace hopping thru 30 odd years of Barbary Coast politics & vice. During the big trial scene at the end, he shows off by sweeping the camera around instead of cutting, but the best part of the film is in the prologue. Here, a fresh-faced Chatterton runs a clip joint with her pop and tries to get his blessing for a quick wedding just as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits town. The quake is fine, but the atmosphere in the club is even better. Plus, we get a chance to see the great, tragic James Murray, the lead in King Vidor’s THE CROWD/’28, in one of his last decent roles as Chatterton’s prospective husband/lover. After that, it’s boilerplate Mother-Love stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: Wellman’s MIDNIGHT MARY with Loretta Young, Franchot Tone & Ricardo Cortez, which comes on the same DVD in this Pre-Code ‘Forbidden Hollywood’ set, is a far better pic . . . with more sacrificial courtroom drama. This little film from M-G-M shows Wellman at his best with a rattling pace, a clever time-shifting structure & even more technical razzmatazz as lovely Loretta waits out an all-but-certain Guilty Verdict on yet another murder rap. (And don’t miss the pristine 2-strip TechniColor ‘Bosko’ cartoon in the disc’s EXTRAs.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

CHUGOKO NO CHOJIN / THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA (1998)

Japanese helmer Takashi Miike has built a substantial cult following in the West with his taboo-busting ultra-violent fare, but he shows a kinder, gentler (but still alarmingly rude & funny) side in this outstanding modern Shangra-La fable. Masahiro Motoki, recently seen in DEPARTURES/’08, is equally good here as an untested Japanese exec sent to investigate a rumored Jade deposit way off the beaten track in China. But he’s picked up an unwanted partner along the way, a seriously unhinged Yakuza (Renji Ishibashi) with a grudge against his company. Their guide (Mako) isn’t much more help, but somehow, after Miike puts them thru every possible traveling nightmare, they arrive. And find an enchantment; a lost utopian world that holds many secrets . . . and all the Jade they could wish for. Oddest of all is the local tradition of teaching their children how to fly like a bird. Allegory on civilization’s loss of innocence? Or the real deal? Miike’s not tipping his hand till the very end, if then. He’s too busy stirring things up with kicks in the face, a mysterious Scottish ballad, turtle-powered river rafts and sputtering doorless motor vans. The DVD doesn’t do full justice to the cinematography, but don’t let that hold you back.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Miike must have been tickled to have Mako in his cast, placing him (via THE SAND PEBBLES/’66) a mere two degrees away from Steve McQueen.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two more eccentric Shangra-Las in need of special protection - LOST HORIZON/’37; LOCAL HERO/’83.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

S.O.S. EISBERG / S.O.S. ICEBERG (1933)

Switching gears from their ‘Mountain Films,’ those snow-clogged Alpine romantic thrillers, director Arnold Fanck & star Leni Reifenstahl found new frozen terrain to explore in their last dramatic vehicle: icebergs! Now, Leni’s a daring pilot who takes to the air in an attempt to the rescue her explorer husband, adrift on an iceberg off Greenland. And he’s not alone, an earlier rescue effort is also stranded on the icy float. Unsure if their position was transmitted before the radio gave out, they wait with dwindling supplies while one brave soul attempts to reach the nearest Eskimo encampment. As with their earlier films, the real locations & documentary shooting style (largely shot silent) create an awe-inspiring visual spectacular, but the dramatic thru-line suffers from Leni’s stable position as true-blue wife. And it's even weaker, if oddly fascinating, in the simultaneously-made English-language version (pieced together by Tay Garnett) which opens with some stuffy exposition instead of throwing us right into the action. To a surprising extent, it pretty much goes its own way, often using completely different location footage to fit its reconfigured story, along with a bit more studio fakery and Hollywood’s Rod La Rocque as the injured explorer-husband. (Leni’s few lines of English dialogue appear to be dubbed.) After this, Reifenstahl became even more famous/infamous as Hitler’s favorite documentarian with TRIUMPH OF THE WILL/’35 and OLYMPIA/’38. Now, that’s switching gears.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Yes, that’s Gibson Gowland, the unforgettable McTeague in Erich von Stroheim’s GREED/’24, as one of the would-be rescuers. What a surprise to hear his own voice in the English-language version, sounding rather like Edmund Gwenn, of all people.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Everybody should see one of Fanck’s Mountain Films - try THE HOLY MOUNTAIN/’ 26 or THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU/’29.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

KARHOZAT / DAMNATION (1987)

Béla Tarr, Hungary’s best known helmer, made his move to the arthouse market/fest circuit with this probing slo-mo depiction of an end-of-the-line town with its end-of-the-line inhabitants & endless end-of-the-line iron ore cable buckets. It even climaxes with a joyless end-of-the-line line dance. The oblique storyline follows a despondent alcoholic ‘ex’ of the town’s glamour girl, such as they have one, a chanteuse with moveable morals & a dye job. She’s remarried, but not unswayable; not with a third guy already in the picture. Meantime, the owner of the ‘Titanik’ Bar is offering an ill-defined smuggling job to our risk-adverse ‘ex’ which gets passed off to a pal, possibly the previously mentioned third guy. (Tarr doesn’t like too much clarity, holding back on narrative detail & purposefully mucking up what info we do get with battering rain & mud.) Technically, the Tarr style could be described as slow creep, imperceptibly tracking his camera sideways or back. Just once, near the end, we get a diagonal move and you think all hell is going to break loose. (Don’t get your hopes up.) Most of his set ups begin as museum-worthy monochrome compositions (and with so few separate shots, they’d better), then, as we slowly drift, small apertures open between buildings allowing us to see something otherwise hidden or, reversing the pattern, hiding something from us. There’s certainly method in the madness, even a fascination. But Tarr makes Antonioni, Tarkovsky & Jarmusch look like speed demons. Perhaps there’s more meat on the bones in one of his later pics.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ONE WAY PASSAGE (1932)

He’s fated to die on a bum rap. She’s fated to die from a bum ticker. But it’s love at first sight for William Powell & Kay Francis as the exquisite(ly) doomed couple in this heavenly piece of romantic nonsense. Oh, it’s easy enough for smooth William Powell to get around Warren Hymer’s San Francisco flatfoot, but when this ‘wanted man’ spots Francis, the ravishing creature who bumped him ‘mid-cocktail,’ on the very ship that’s supposed to carry him off (and please note the early use of a zoom-lens), he gallantly gives himself up. Once on board, phony Countess Aline MacMahon, an old pal, helps distract attention by making a play for the cop. And Frank McHugh, another crooked old pal, picks a few wealthy pockets & plays cupid to both couples. (Designer Orry-Kelly does her own kind of distracting with some daring decolletage that turns the Francis chest into a heart.) Director Tay Garnett doesn’t waste a shot on this one, keeping the sentiment brisk & getting stellar perfs out of his cast, including uncredited scene-stealers like Hugh Mundin & Roscoe Karns. With a French soundtrack, you’d swear it was a precursor to those classic Jean Gabin poetic-realism pics. Maybe that’s why Parlez-Moi d’Amour plays in the background.

DOUBLE-BILL: Barely remembered these days, and largely for her ‘twouble’ pronouncing ‘R,’ 1932 was Kay Francis’s big year. Seven titles, including two under William Dieterle & one each for King Vidor (CYNARA) & Ernst Lubitsch (TROUBLE IN PARADISE).

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If the film’s gifted cinematographer Robert Kurrle isn’t as well known as Warners stalwarts Sol Polito, Arthur Edson, Tony Gaudio or Ernest Haller, he should be. And not just for the cool zoom shot. But he died the year this came out (he was only 42) and few of his 69 sound or silent titles are available or extant.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: Did Howard Hawks spot/swipe the swell opening gag with the coin dropping into the spittoon? He had Dean Martin use it in RIO BRAVO/’59.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

ANYTHING GOES (1954)

The goofball plot that supports Cole Porter’s great score in ANYTHING GOES is sturdier than it’s usually given credit for. Boy Chases Engaged Girl. (Right onto an ocean liner!) Boy tells all to the Lovesick Evangelist who’s also sailing. Evangelist swallows her pride & helps Boy Get Girl. All under the watchful eye of harmless Public Enemy #13, who’s disguised as a minister! (Don’t ask.) A hit on B’way in ‘34; ‘87 & ‘11 (see Playbills), it died on-screen in ‘36; ‘54 & ’56. The B’way revivals largely kept the book & songs intact; the films & this tv version threw out three-fourths of the music, plot & characters. Hmm. Wonder why they suck? This one at least sounds like fun. It’s got Ethel Merman from the original production & the first film; plus Bert Lahr who co-starred with the Merm in Cole Porter’s DUBARRY WAS A LADY; even Frank Sinatra as the guy. In this chopped up version, Boy Gets Evangelist . . . and that’s about it. They cut out so much, the measly 53 minute broadcast runs five minutes short! So, they ad-lib a fourth (4th!) reprise of the title tune. (And just when we’d gotten that horrible musical arrangement out of our heads.) Oh well, try spotting the bowdlerizations of Porter’s lyrics: ‘Perfume from Spain’ in for ‘Cocaine’; ‘2-letter words’ instead of ‘4-letter words.' Or you could focus on what the fierce lighting & crude camera lenses do to Sinatra’s skin tone. Ah, the Golden Age of Television.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Cole Porter had much better luck in ‘58 when Hallmark hired much of the original B’way cast for a 90-minute production of KISS ME KATE that beat the pants off M-G-M‘s big screen version.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

THE CARDINAL (1963)

Producer/director Otto Preminger’s red-jacket Bildungsroman is all downhill after Saul Bass’s sublime credit sequence. What wouldn’t be? There’s nothing fancy to Bass’s modest gem: Cardinal-in-waiting Tom Tryon goes for a walk. But what a walk! And over what grounds! The patterned pavement & monumental columns, the endless fights of stairs & public spaces of Vatican City. It’s mesmerizing stuff, beautifully composed: visually by Bass; musically by Jerome Moross. (The whole film is stunningly shot by Leon Shamroy, but it’s unclear if he did the opening.) Of the film proper, little more is remembered than John Huston’s wily turn as a no-nonsense Boston Cardinal in the first half. But that does the film few favors since it's only in the second half, when we move past Father Tryon’s personal struggles and start dealing with the Catholic response to issues like Civil Rights in the South or Nazis in Austria that the film gains interest. (Tryon is dutiful, but simply lacks the presence to hold our attention the way Paul Newman did for Preminger in EXODUS/’60. And painfully, both he & Preminger knew it.) Two scenes in the second half really stand out, showing just what’s been missing. A meeting between a black priest (Ossie Davis) and two Cardinals (idealistic Raf Vallone & realistic Tullio Carminati) on race relations & the Catholic Church in America brings out an intellectual debate that lifts the film as much as the magnificent pseudo-Vatican settings where the discussion takes place. And later, a terrifying street riot in Vienna between a Catholic youth group and a crowd of Nazi Brown Shirts & thugish sympathizers might have been worked up by Preminger’s old boss, the great master of massed stage movement, Max Reinhardt. And how bitterly ironic to be staging the very sort of demonstration that forced them both to leave the country they had given so much to. Little else rises to these levels, but a lot is worth seeing especially in the second half of this undervalued pic. And now that so many homes have decent-sized WideScreen monitors, it’s possible to get a sense of how Preminger’s reticence with close-ups & editing served his unusual style.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Shamroy, who got inside the Vatican for real on THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY/’65, was up for 1963 Oscars on both this film and CLEOPATRA. Called up, he whispered to presenter James Stewart, "Which one did I win for?’ That’s from OSCAR 'A' TO 'Z'/Charles Matthews, a great reference book by a film expert who brings knowledge, critical faculties & taste to a subject that rarely gets any of them.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Beginning with THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM/'55 Preminger & Bass revolutionized graphic design for film posters, but apparently the message never got thru in Spain & Italy as per this gussied-up version.

Friday, February 17, 2012

LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS / BROKEN EMBRACES (2009)

Pulling back from recent dips into philosophy & metaphysics, Pedro Almodovar treats himself (and us) to a cinematic reverie, piecing together this melodramatic tale of a blinded filmmaker who can’t move forward until he figures out, reclaims & makes peace with his past. Lluís Homar is the wary writer who fell for a rich man’s mistress (Penélope Cruz) 16 years ago, and never got over it. But neither did the obsessed, revenge-seeking tycoon (in the past) nor, apparently, the man’s unstable son (in the present). But leaving behind the emotional residue of the romantic Liebestod-mystery his life turned into means integrating what he remembers of the past with what he can learn in the present. It's just the sort of tricky timeline structure Almodovar revels in; re-editing a life the way the movie re-edits a film-within-the-film. The story is probably too perfectly rounded to be taken seriously, but as a newfangled old-fashioned family drama, it’s more or less irresistible. And the locations! Check out those black landscapes on the drive to Golfo Beach. What a view!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Perhaps because Homar works in the biz, Almodovar uses more cinematic reference points than he has in decades, from Rossellini to Kubrick; Hitchcock to . . . Almodovar! Yep, at the climax, he gets to self-reference himself, giddily recreating the look of his own international breakthrough, WOMEN ON THE VERGE/’88.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

OKURIBITO / DEPARTURES (2008)

A feel-good pic about a mortician? This award-winner from Japan (including Mr. Oscar®), proves the point in an honestly likable, life-affirming manner. Masahiro Motoki is just great as the classical ‘cellist who needs to find a whole new profession after his orchestra goes broke. He and his wife move to his old hometown where he accidentally falls into a new line of work: assistant to an old-school Japanese mortician/body preparer. The subject matter sounds like a total non-starter, and the film is perhaps too scared of its touchy subject matter, adding some easy black humor & awkward/funny situations to get us past any initial discomfort level. But once it begins to trust in our natural interest, the Japanese customs of preparing the dead for cremation, which take place in front of relatives during the funeral ceremony, are shown in fascinating non-invasive, non-gruesome detail. With its stately rhythms & unexpected theatricality, the gentle ritual almost looks like a magician’s levitation act. The supporting players are all wonderfully flavorsome types, especially Motoki’s elderly mentor who holds to a sly deadpan manner Walter Matthau & Jack Soo might have envied. It’s a quiet film, a nice film, perhaps a little too neat for its own good. But its final sequence of personal reclamation & forgiveness easily earns the display of honest sentiment. Yôjirô Takita stages everything simply and keeps the pace from bogging down (no small thing considering the subject matter), and the tech elements are stylishly handled. A pity that Joe Hisaishi’s original theme has such an echo of "Danny Boy’ to it, but this is nitpicking. NOTE: This film rates a ‘Family Friendly’ tab, so here's a quick reminder that this does not necessarily designate a ‘kiddie’ pic. It’s meant to point out a film the whole family could profitably watch together. Assuming, of course, that the described subject matter is considered age appropriate. Just be sure everyone is aware that the dead bodies in this film are NOT love-struck vampires.

DOUBLE-BILL: A subplot about an elderly woman who runs a public bathhouse in a fast changing neighborhood is reminiscent of XIZAO/SHOWER/’99, an even better family drama pic (from Hong Kong) about a father who also runs a traditional bathhouse with his retarded son, and the out-of-town son who wants to sell the old place.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

THE DEVIL AT 4 O’CLOCK (1961)

Over a long directing career that began in the silent era, Mervyn LeRoy went from dynamic & confrontational@ Warners in the ‘30s to plush & sedate @ M-G-M in the 40s, then calcified & studio-bound in his late pics @ various studios. But a fair amount of location shooting on this island-set adventure pic seems to have perked him up considerably. In fact, it gives everyone a nice jolt. Spencer Tracy is the aging priest who’s lost his faith and is now getting ready to hand over the reins to his younger replacement (Kerwin Matthews). But not before getting a final bit of construction work out of a trio of prison laborers, including skinny Frank Sinatra. Too bad the island’s active volcano choose that day for a big blowout party. Yikes! Okay, not the most believable set up, and the script over-lards the action by having Father Tracy & his gang of prisoners dashing up a lava-strewn mountain to rescue all the patients & staff from his personal kiddie leper hospital! . . . plus having Sinatra fall in love with a poor blind waif who’s never been kissed. Oy! Everybody gets their chance at a big heroic gesture (even the prisoners in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION/’94 aren’t quite this sweet-natured), so don’t expect to buy into the big sacrificial ending. But its more fun than expected, and LeRoy keeps things moving along between the nifty explosions.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: There’s a big new Tracy bio from James Curtis with more than you'll ever need to know about the guy. (It’s worth it for the cover photo alone, an unblinking masterpiece from Irving Penn.) Apparently, Spence’s fragile health only allowed him to work mornings while Frankie’s carousing ways usually got him to the set post-meridian. By the end of the shoot, these two pals were hardly speaking.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

THE TEMPEST (2010)

Julie Taymor was in the middle of her noisy, not to say calamitous, stewardship of SPIDER MAN: The Musical when this Shakespeare adaptation quietly sank. (With domestic grosses topping at $250,000 against a 20 mill budget, only her on-going B’way fiasco kept this release from gaining HEAVEN’S GATE/’80 notoriety.) Whatever attention it did get came from altering the gender of Shakespeare’s alter-ego character, Prospero, to ‘Prospera’ for Helen Mirren; a swap that makes surprisingly little difference. Taymor had done the play before, there was even a PBS showing of her minimalist take on it. Now, with a decent budget & a starry cast, but unbound by the commercial straitjacket of Disney’s THE LION KING, Taymor risks turning into an over-enthusiastic bore, piling up concepts & ideas like a first-time shopper of canned goods @ COSTCO. Happily, THE TEMPEST is unexpectedly resilient, sloughing off all sorts of bad ideas while retaining its core of power & decency. Oddly, this tale of a wronged exile who reigns on an enchanted isle and learns to soften his/her revenge with acceptance for the limitations of life has never been filmed ‘straight.’ Previous attempts have been as varied in texture, intent, tone & authenticity as Greenaway’s PROSPERO’S BOOKS/’91; Jarman’s TEMPEST/’79 & Mazursky’s in ‘82; even FORBIDDEN PLANET/’56 with Robbie the Robot as Ariel. Taymor holds reasonably close to the original text, but only makes real contact when she calms down enough to let us see how Shakespeare repurposed past efforts for this last fully-rigged work before retiring to Stratford. And if the acting, like the over-used special effects, are all over the place, Mirren makes it worth seeing. Not that anyone bothered to look.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938)

On his first collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch, his filmmaking idol, Billy Wilder came up with the ‘meet-cute’ of a lifetime: Gary Cooper is shopping for pajamas . . . but he only wears the tops. Cue Claudette Colbert: she only wants the bottoms! If only the rest of this tale of sexual frustration were equally inspired. Coop plays a rich American who finds a bartered bride in Colbert’s sou-less French aristo, and she’s happy to get her dad (Edward Everett Horton) back on his feet. But when she learns how quickly Coop goes thru wives, she holds off on any lovemaking until he’s thoroughly broken. The first half gets by on lux production values, the stars' swank looks and enough funny bits to carry you along. But the film grows increasingly off-key (too mean-spirited by half) and out of touch with the times (more early ‘30s than late ‘30s), and Lubitsch seemed to know it. (This may stem from the source material, a lost Gloria Swanson silent from ‘23.) It was the end of the line for Lubitsch @ Paramount and his next two (self-produced @ M-G-M, of all places) were highly personal masterpieces, NINOTCHKA/’38 (again with Wilder) and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER/’40 (with fave scripter Samson Raphelson.) In fact, of the six films he’d make before his tragic early death in ‘47, five were typically unmatchable. Maybe we’d value this one more highly if Lubitsch hadn't raised the bar so high on himself.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: (Actually, a Screwy Thought from Lubitsch.) As a gag, someone @ Paramount stuck a shot of a sleeping Gary Cooper in with the dailies. But to Lubitsch, who had yet to work with Coop, the shot was a revelation. ‘That man should play Hamlet.’ This from the man who also thought Coop & Greta Garbo were quite possibly the same person. ‘Did you ever see them together?’ Coop was no hayseed Westerner for Lubitsch, check out the sophisticated swell rattling off French in the Lubitsch/Ben Hecht DESIGN FOR LIVING/’33, or making an honest woman out of Marlene Dietrich’s jewel thief in the Lubitsch/Borzage DESIRE/’36. They never did get to HAMLET.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

LA CIUDAD DE LOS PRODIGIOS (1999)

A big, churning potboiler about a country kid (Olivier Martinez) who comes to Barcelona in the late-1800s to work hard & seek his fortune. But all he finds is closed doors & injustice. Squeezed on all sides, he hands out illegal pamphlets for Anarchists; narrowly escapes a firing squad; turns apolitical as an enforcer for corrupt/reactionary city politicos; consolidates the underworld factions under his own command & winds up marrying the beautiful daughter of his ex-boss. But is he content? No. He still pines for the only girl he ever loved . . . and lost. Raping her on the very night she was planning to give herself up to him! Now, she hates him almost as much as the politically powerful rivals who are trying to gun him down, or her revenge-seeking/cross-dressing papa!! It’s as if Jackie Collins had written the three GODFATHER scripts on a commission from TeleMundo. Ludicrous as it undoubtedly is, it’s also rather fun once you get a handle on who’s who & what’s what. Not so easy to do under the hand of megger Mario Camus who’s more interested in following the stylistic tics of Coppola & Leone rather than following the storyline.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943)

Warner Bros. stars Bette Davis & John Garfield were the driving force behind the Hollywood Canteen, the WWII nightclub where actors ‘bussed table’ for enlisted men. But the film HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN/’44 probably isn’t the patriotic All-Star Warner Bros. revue you vaguely recall, it’s this one. Here, Garfield sings ‘Blues in the Night,’ a bit flat, but recorded live, not synch’d; and Davis sings ‘They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,’ equally flat but who cares. Most of the speciality numbers from Arthur Schwartz (music) & Frank Loesser (lyrics) are dandy (Hattie McDaniel, Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Jack Carson & Alan Hale; all standouts) and carry you thru the needlessly tiresome plot with Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, Joan Leslie & Dennis Morgan. Cantor gets a double role; and that’s a lot of Cantor! A shame since he shines in a solo spot and, in a panicky hospital scene, still shows the immaculate vaudeville technique of his palmy Ziegfeld Follies days.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hattie McDaniel really tears the place apart in ICE COLD KATIE. Wonder if they snipped it out down South the way M-G-M did when a Lena Horne number threw off too much heat? Or did McDaniel’s heft make black sexiness (or is it sexy blackness?) safe below the Mason-Dixon line?

DOUBLE-BILL: Rather than HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN or the East Coast STAGE DOOR CANTEEN/’43, take a step up to the Restored Edition of Irving Berlin’s THIS IS THE ARMY/’43 out on Warners. Even with the addition of a cornpone story, it remains a whopping good show. But beware of any leftover Public Domain issues. They may be cheap, but they’re no bargain.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

BUCK (2011)

With his painful past as an abused child performer and his peaceful present as an acclaimed ‘horse whisperer,’ it’s easy to see the documentary potential in the life & ‘aw-shucks’ cowboy philosophy of Buck Brannaman. But as he travels around America’s photogenic landscapes, sometimes accompanied by his charming wife, daughter & feisty foster Mother, giving his 4-day horse clinics, the obvious the draw of the man & his profession gets scuppered by inept execution in this debut from producer/director Cindy Meehl. She, and her crew, seem to miss every shot, then fill in with backlit vistas or oddly framed personal interviews. We never do get much of a feeling for whatever it is Buck does, and the traveling format doesn’t give us much time to get ‘personal’ with any of the horses. And when she does cull one from the herd, the horse turns out to be an unteachable scary mental case. Surely, there's a better film hiding somewhere in Meehl’s mass of footage.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With its heart in the right place, its nice protagonists and even a cameo from that fictional horse whisperer, Robert Redford, BUCK won an Audience Choice Award @ Sundance. Tells you more about Sundance than the film tells you about Buck.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I MET HIM IN PARIS (1937)

‘Even light little comedies with her have never made under a million & a half domestic.’ That’s David O Selznick, convincing himself to cough up the bucks needed to get Claudette Colbert to star in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY/’44, his first production since GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 and REBECCA/’40. And here’s what he was talking about. Colbert’s a department store clerk who’s treating herself to a long-delayed trip to Paree. And she’s specifically leaving her dull steady, Lee Bowman, a real butter-and-egg man, behind. Off on her own, she’s an easy target for the surface charms of bachelor pals Robert Young (deeply insincere) & Melvyn Douglas (tart & supercilious). It’s a workable set-up (they all might start playing DESIGN FOR LIVING/'33!), but the jokes & situations are awfully forced & formulaic. And some dope @ Paramount decided that the French born Colbert shouldn’t be able to speak French. Halfway along, things pick up when they all take off for a ski resort in Switzerland. Megger Wesley Ruggles seems happier as the tone relaxes from farce to romance, and even the gags start to work better. Going on location may have a lot to do with it, too. The real sunlight, snow & breath clouds really help to set the scene, and though much of the skiing is the usual ‘process’ stuff, that’s a real bobsled heading toward Claudette. And the film throws off some real sparkle when Douglas & Colbert discover something to like in each other while skating in tandem. It hardly saves the pic, but they sure can skate.

Friday, February 3, 2012

BANDE A PART / BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)

Before Jean-Luc Godard became didactically inscrutable, he made his international rep being entertainingly inscrutable. And rarely more so then here. Anna Karina is the needy girlfriend who helps the two guys in her life (active Claude Brasseur & inactive Sami Frey) design what they hope will be a neat little robbery in her own rooming house. But naturally, when they get down to it, things don’t go exactly as planned. The pulpy material is given a playful treatment with all sorts of sidebars & riffs adding texture & critical commentary, yet never quite losing contact with the narrative tropes of a classic caper plot. (The various interruptions constitute a veritable ‘olio’ of vaudeville turns with a spirited dance routine, a pantomime shoot-out & some whistling while you work between the nods toward ‘Pop’ culture & favorite poets.) It’s always a bit of a surprise to find Godard, a WideScreen personality if there ever was one, composing in Academy ratio (1.33:1), but, whatever the reasons, it fits the film’s off-the-cuff noir sensibility. But enjoy this one while you can, by the end of the decade, Jean-Luc had moved on to weightier affairs.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

This animated pic from DreamWorks doubles up on can’t-miss plotlines, seasoning a classic Underachiever-Makes-Good story with the heartfelt sentiment of a boy-and-his-dog tale . . . but with a dragon. Yet the pic’s main pleasure comes simply from seeing what DreamWorks animation can do when they rein in the incessant jokey tone & unrelenting ‘Pop’ references that swamp too many of their recent pics. The Viking Village of the story feels closer to Scotland than Scandinavia, and the dragons have been given the personalities of pussy cats for some reason, but the basic idea of warring parties (townspeople & dragons) who battle each other without ever realizing they just might have a common enemy, plays out with some of the wit & charm of a Dr Seuss fable. And the brave lad who’’d rather make peace than fight, makes a winning & companionable hero. The DVD has come up sharp & bright in spite of losing its theatrical 3-D effects, but John Powell’s music score has been pushed so far back in the SoundScape, it might be Muzak at the mall.

DOUBLE-BILL: The daydreaming wimp who takes on the bullies with his wits as well as his fists was a well-deserved smash in the Henry King/Richard Barthelmess pic TOL’ABLE DAVID/’21. It later served as the ‘straight’ template for many of Buster Keaton & Harold Lloyd’s best comedies. Buster makes his dad proud, even taking on a hurricane in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR/’28 & Lloyd more or less remade TOL’ABLE (with laughs) in his masterpiece, THE KID BROTHER/’27.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

THE OTHER (1972)

It’s as if the director of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD/’62 filmed a script by M. Night Shyamalan, but it was the former actor Tom Tryon, adapting his own Penny-Dreadful novel & exec-producing, who came up with the Scary Tale & (probably) the idea of hiring Robert Mulligan to helm. Together they made the American Gothic/Bad Seed material lyrical & disturbing, a child’s garden of mortality. As the twin boys whose games disrupt life on a Depression-Era farm, Chris & Martin Udvarnoky, in their sole film credit, are a memorable double act of Good & Evil. And they’re surrounded by a host of loamy performances; look for John Ritter in a nice early credit. But it’s the great Uta Hagen, a theatrical legend in her belated screen debut as the twins sympathetic (and guilt-ridden) Grandmother, who makes you believe it. The tech credits belie the pic’s modest budget with lenser Robert Surtees turning the rural landscape into a leading (and willful) character, alternately welcoming & deadly; abetted by music man Jerry Goldsmith who’d soon consolidate his horror bona fides with THE OMEN/’76.