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Saturday, March 31, 2012

THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956)

The real fun in this tidy police procedural can be told in three words: location, location, location. Helmed by Budd Boetticher before he began making the Randolph Scott Westerns he’s now best-known for, this little thriller finds its palette in the deceptively bland atmosphere of subdivision houses, square front lawns, sidewalks & detached garages that once defined middle-class suburban L.A.; a surprisingly rare sight in films of the day. The story gets off to good start with a quickly solved bank robbery as the cops trap the ‘inside man’ at his apartment where a gun fight leaves his innocent wife dead. The main story begins when the robber escapes and calmly carves, clobbers & shoots his way to a bloody revenge. You won’t swallow all the moves, and sometimes the low-budget defeats Boetticher, but there’s a tasty cast to root for (Joseph Cotten, Rhonda Fleming, Alan Hale Jr. & an unexpectedly effective Wendell Corey whose sedate style grows progressively scary). By the end of the film, in spite of a few missteps that might cause a passing giggle, the climax builds up more tension than it has any right to.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: What a great poster for a little throwaway pic!

CONTEST: Find the piece of business that connects this film to THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE/’62 to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

MEDEA (1969)

Pier Paolo Pasolini really opens things up on this adaptation of Euripides, only reaching the play text halfway out. Instead, we begin with a ritual human sacrifice, an offering in a savage world of primitive culture & superstition, Medea’s homeland. It’s the most sustained sequence in the film, but it has the unfortunate consequence of offering a pat psychological ‘explanation’ to Medea’s lethal revenge when she’s uprooted to a more civilized society. Yet, even here, right at the start, when the striking locations & art direction are at their most effective, Pasolini seems unable (unwilling?) to make decent shot choices. There are fine panoramas of natural, untamed beauty, but whenever he moves in for drama, the camera set-ups refuse to cut together and the film turns into a visual mess. Under the circumstances, Maria Callas, five years off the opera stage, is often a mesmerizing Medea, posing more than acting. But what else could be done against the ludicrous conception of Jason (of Argonaut fame) Pasolini has whipped up. As played by hunky Olympic athlete Giuseppe Gentile, this Jason winks, blows kisses & flashes a Pepsodent smile to shame a Golden Fleece. Gentile stayed off the screen after this debut. Alas, so did Callas. NOTE: Pasolini doesn’t actually mix up his reels in the last act. He’s just playing out Medea’s revenge twice; as imagined, then as it happens.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Looking for an unconventional MEDEA? Try Lars von Trier’s 1988 adaptation (see below), taken from an unfilmed Carl Dreyer script.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Included as an EXTRA on the restored SNC edition of MEDEA is CALLAS/’82, Tony Palmer’s portrait of the diva which, for better & for worse, helped codify a legend that’s now as over-analyzed as that other ‘50s female icon, Marilyn Monroe. But to understand her voice, which is also to understand her, read Will Crutchfield’s New Yorker piece of 11/13/95. Or, to HEAR ALL ABOUT IT: Skip Callas’s operatic MEDEA and go directly to Bellini’s NORMA, her favorite role, with a plot that’s like Medea for Babies. Her later recording from ‘59 has better sound & better colleagues, but the voice could do more back in ‘54. Listen to her curse Pollione (the Jason figure of the opera) just before the dramatic trio that ends the second act. Yikes!, what a woman!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

MAN OF THE WEST (1958)

Of the eleven Westerns helmed by Anthony Mann, the five he made with James Stewart tend to crowd out the others. But you never feel that Gary Cooper is substituting for anyone as a man-with-a-past who gets caught in the middle of a train robbery gone wrong, and then finds himself trapped in the hands of his old gang. There are two other hostages, but only Cooper knows how to play the gang against itself because in many ways, he still is one of them. Coop’s mythic everyman persona is just right for this dark story that’s less elaborately plotted than the Stewart/Mann collaborations. It seems to grow out of the rough terrain, with vet lenser Ernest Haller opening up on his earlier b&w work for Mann (GOD’S LITTLE ACRE/’58 and MEN IN WAR/’57) with CinemaScope color vistas that emphasize the harsh landscape. As the gang leader (and past mentor to Coop before he reformed), Lee J. Cobb shouts to beat the band, but the rest of the cast do well. Royal Dano is especially effective as a mute and a barely recognizable Jack Lord gets a real workout when he jumps Coop from behind. (Cooper uses a nasty looking downward jab that could really sting.) Julie London does what she can as an unemployed saloon singer, wedged in to add sex & jeopardy when she’s forced to put on a striptease, but the film’s main weak link is a by-the-numbers score from Leigh Harline. Largely, the film earns its growing reputation.

DOUBLE-BILL: Budd Boetticher’s THE TALL T/’57 pairs up nicely as a Western hostage drama, but why not go in a different direction with John Huston’s KEY LARGO/’48 to see how Eddie Robinson compares with Cobb as gang leader and how Claire Trevor turns a little song into an emotional striptease that bares a lot more than London pulls off.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

FIRST LOVE (1939) SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947)

Teen singing sensation Deanna Durbin made her best film the second time out with ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL/’37. But she peaked as a ‘pop phenom’ when Robert Stack planted a first screen kiss on her in FIRST LOVE, a contempo take on Cinderella. It sure sounds like a indigestible hunk of sentiment, but someone @ Universal had the clever idea of making this Cinderella an orphan, with horrid step-relatives straight out of ‘screwball-comedy.’ It’s just as much MY MAN GODFREY/’36 as Charles Perrault fairy tale; right down to growly Eugene Pallette repeating his GODFREY role as Papa Bear. Things don’t exactly soar in the prologue (Deanna graduates from a Girls’ Academy, but no one bothers to show), but once she hits the family mansion where her awful aunt, uncle & cousins live, the old plot works like a charm. And note how smartly Henry Koster helms the big ballroom sequence; not just beautifully paced, with a real swing to it, but also psychologically smart, and with some neatly handled special effects. The film lays things on a bit thick right at the end, but it retains much of its original charm.

But by 1947, the Durbin franchise was clearly running out of steam. She’d been playing the ingenue for over a decade and those chubby cheeks which probably helped the voice resonate, also prefigured a more general chubbiness. It was time for a makeover. And how! Suddenly, Deanna’s fetchingly trim, almost chic, singing Verdi (with Jan Peerce!, don’t ask) in a high soprano and swinging ‘pop’ stuff, via Johnny Green & Leo Robin, in an easy lower range; still, a natural. What’s not natural is the lame farce she's stuck in. An uncomfortable John Dall is a rich sot who thinks she was Grandpa’s mistress, and now a fortune hunting floozy. Deanna plays along, to see how the other half lives and teach him a lesson. Naturally, sparks fly . . . but only in the script. On screen, all the chemistry runs between Deanna & a terrific Donald O’Connor, as Dall’s schmo third cousin. Wasn’t anyone looking at the rushes? The whole film comes alive whenever these two share the screen. But there was no follow up. Durbin retired after two more films and O’Connor was paired with Francis the Talking Mule. Still, the film’s worth a look just to see O’Connor’s ‘I Love a Mystery’ numbo, an obvious precursor to his great ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN/’52.

Monday, March 26, 2012

BARNABY RUDGE (1960)

With its perfunctory romance & unlovable eccentrics, Charles Dickens' ‘other’ historical novel, the one that’s not A TALE OF TWO CITIES, has always been a tough sell. But behind the principal relationships, it holds uncommon interest. Centered on the NewGate Prison Riots of 1780, it features some of Dickens’ most terrifying depictions of violence & stupidity, especially in the scenes of London under attack by lawless mobs who literally make the streets run with blood. And for Stateside readers, the anti-Catholic demagoguery of the despicable Lord George Gordon holds striking similarities to the actions of Senator Joe McCarthy & the Communist Witch Hunts in the ‘40s & ‘50s. Inadequate as it is, this tight-budgeted antique from the dusty vaults of the BBC (in 13 half-hour chunks with the visual appeal of a Golden Age tv kinescope) is the only modern picturization. And it's not without value. As Barnaby, the sweet-natured simpleton who plays follow-the-leader into a host of troubles, young John Wood is remarkably successful, even with a canned voice in the role of Grip, his pet raven. About half of the other roles come off reasonably well, though the usually wonderful Joan Hickson, of Miss Marple fame, isn’t one of them. But only Woods truly manages the Dickensian trick of being both larger-than-life and fully human.* Worse, the sweep of the public scenes can barely be suggested under the circumstances. But then . . . Dickens being Dickens, halfway in, the integration of public & private dramatic arcs take off, and you’re swept away on a giant’s imagination. But we really do need something better than this.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Dickens has certainly been outstandingly lucky on film adaptations. (Or is it the foolproof stories?) But no one has bettered the old Selznick/Cukor version of DAVID COPPERFIELD/’35 at ‘managing the trick’ of being fully human & larger-than-life at one & the same time. Just watch W.C. Fields’ swift & funny entrance or listen to Edna May Oliver shouting ‘Donkeys! Donkeys!!’ And a hundred other felicities.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Next time you're in a bookstore (or just at the library), try one of the ‘lesser’ Dickens. It doesn’t have to be BARNABY RUDGE; maybe HARD TIMES, fierce as they come, and so compact, you’ll think you’ve bought an abridgement.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

LES DESTINEES SENTIMENTALES (2000)

Excellent recent projects from French helmer Olivier Assayas (CARLOS/'10, a multi-parter on the political-provocateur/terrorist; and the beautifully-observed family-inheritance drama SUMMER HOURS/’08) only increase the disappointment of this sweeping period piece of the early 1900s. Charles Berling ages nicely over the thirty-year time frame, but his personal conflicts as lapsed Protestant Minister; divorced dad; WWI Captain; & unwilling paterfamilias to a tradition-bound Limoges porcelain factory are far less convincing. And Assayas doesn't make things any better by trying to give this old-fashioned tale a modern feel with nervous/close-in camera work & jerky editing that only make everyone look neurotic & ill-tempered, even as he's working all too hard for that Luchino Visconti/LEOPARD mojo. (Check out the grand ball sequence, right down to the exhausted grand seigneur.) Perhaps it's the fault of the adapted novel, but too many of the plot turns come off as 'imposed on’ the characters rather than ‘lived in.’ Isabelle Huppert is her usual unsettling self as the unstable first wife while Emmanuelle Béart goes all Leslie Caron as wife #2, her pouty-lipped, strong-willed replacement. (There’s a real giggle-inducing Hollywood moment when she switches from not aging a day to instant grey-haired beauty. Calling Greer Garson.) Yet while this dreary personal drama dribbles along (almost three hours!), there’s real dramatic interest on the business side of things. Not only techniques in glazing, firing & design, but in the changing international flow of goods, with a sidebar on the brandy industry from Béart’s family. Assayas missed the real lesson from a master like Visconti; it’s not about scrupulous period detail, but about locating the drama within that scrupulous detail.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, Visconti’s magnificent IL GATTOPARDO/THE LEOPARD/’63. Look for the latest (umpteenth) digital restoration made for the 2010 BLU-RAY release.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

THREE SMART GIRLS (1936)

Deanna Durbin, a teenage kid with a remarkably warm, well-produced coloratura soprano voice, debuted in this fluffy piece of sentimental comedy. It set her up for a decade run of stardom; ‘rescued’ Universal Studios from bankruptcy*; and jump-started major Hollywood careers for emigres producer Joe Pasternak & helmer Henry Koster. But three-quarters-of-a-century on, you’ve got to squint awfully hard to see what all the fuss was about. Durbin’s singing away on Lake Geneva when she hears that dear divorced Dad (Charles Winninger) is about to remarry! So, she hops a boat to New York, along with her two older sisters, and vows to stop it. Cue comic complications. Everything feels pretty forced after this (heck, everything feels pretty forced before this), but a few comic bits still come thru. Oddly, some hoary mistaken identity shtick works quite well thanks to fresh & funny playing from a very young, very handsome Ray Milland and from Universal’s one-man stock company clown Mischa Auer. These boys neatly underplay while everyone around them shouts. All in all, the film is more tiresome, and considerably noisier, then it need be.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Just about everyone in here makes a much better impression in a film shot either just before or just after this one. Winninger, B‘way’s original Capt’n Andy in SHOW BOAT, had just done James Whale’s all-star film version of the musical, while Durbin & Mischa Auer's follow-up with producer Pasternak & director Koster was ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL/’37. An unsung classic that gets everything right this film got wrong. Alas, neither is currently out on a Stateside DVD. Grrr. However, you can get EASY LIVING/’37, Ray Milland’s breakthrough pic with Jean Arthur.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *And over @ Fox & Paramount, it was Shirley Temple & Mae West to the rescue. Funny how powerful women once were in HollywoodLand.

Friday, March 23, 2012

TRON LEGACY (2010)

This long-delayed (much-anticipated?) sequel owes almost as much to Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU or A WRINKLE IN TIME as it does to TRON, its visually groundbreaking, commercially iffy progenitor. And it's pretty miserable stuff, with an impenetrable storyline, action sequences that are all but impossible to follow & visual æsthetics off a ‘90s Screen-Saver. Jeff Bridges returns in the lead, doubling up to play his own ageless game avatar & his real aging self, both stuck in his out-of-control cyber creation. The big gimmick (which passes for a plot) has Bridges’ grown son sucked into the program and trying to save dear deserted dad from the dark side of a system gone rogue. Hey!, that actually sounds okay. Alas, the film is so gussied up with weightless CGI effects & faceless characters (who might as well be CGI effects) that it’s hard to get involved without a personal joystick to toggle. (Down fanboys! No double-entendres!) And the actors! Bridges, of course, can take care of himself, even if the much discussed digital rejuvenation that lets him play his still youthful avatar self turns out to be no more effective than Marlene Dietrich pulling her hair back, tight as a tourniquet, to lift everything in place. But as Bridges’ grown kid, Garrett Hedlund is unbearably amateurish, no doubt all Joseph Kosinki’s attention as megger went into mechanics. But what can possibly explain Michael Sheen’s David Bowie impersonation? Unlike the flop original, this one grossed a cool 400 mill worldwide. Animated & live-action sequels have already been announced.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For all its faults, the original TRON/’82 had a cool, clean look to it, helped by the need to shoot many of the effects in b&w and then colorize. And the little scooter, which happily reappears late in the sequel, was a big, fat-wheeled honey.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Speaking of Disney flops, watch closely during the prologue as the camera sweeps past a poster for THE BLACK HOLE/’79, Disney’s attempt to tap the STAR WARS market. Can THE BLACK HOLE LEGACY be far behind?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

CHI BI XIA: JUE ZHAN TIAN XIA / RED CLIFF II (2009)

The Three Kingdoms of ancient China remain at Civil War in John Woo’s follow up to RED CLIFF/’08. As Part II begins, the warring parties are already in place, which plays right into Woo’s strength for staging fierce, kinetic action sequences; as if the entire film were one long Third Act. There’s a formidable host of characters & allegiances to reacquaint yourself with, but it’s easier than you might imagine thanks to a few well-chosen clips from Part I, and because the actors are so miraculously ‘right’ for their roles. Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro & Wei Zhao are just the stand-outs among the thousands & thousands of good, bad, ugly . . . & ambivalent. And if an element of surprise is less apparent in this second outing, there are more than enough well-staged military strategies, tricks behind enemy lines & imaginative meteorological gamesmanship to feed your rooting interest, and keep you guessing. Woo certainly doesn’t stint on the flames, violence & technical razzle-dazzle, yet there’s more emotional pull then you expect to find in this sort of thing. Rousing stuff. (NOTE: A combined ‘International Cut’ of Parts I & II looks suspiciously short. In the full cut, each film runs about two & a half hours; you won't be bored a minute.)

DOUBLE-BILL: And the answer is - Yes, you will be lost if you don’t watch RED CLIFF first.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

THE YAKUZA (1974)

‘Great color film processing!,’ sounds like a backhanded compliment, but Sydney Pollack’s East-meets-West mob story, made in Japan with a largely local crew, is worth a look . . . just for the look. In the original 35mm prints, the film had the neon-worthy color density of your Grandmother’s Japanoiserie cabinet. And the rest's not bad, either . . . for Pollack. Robert Mitchum, in his last role as a traditional romantic lead, is just great as a seen-it-all American dick, off to Japan when the daughter of his pal Brian Keith gets kidnapped by Yakuza after a gun deal goes bad. Richard Jordan tags along as ‘protection’ while Bob tries to reconnect with some underworld types he knew back in his WWII service days. But the kidnapped girl turns out to be a mere distraction from the real story; and by the time Mitchum figures it out, he’s put his ad-hoc team in real danger. Debts of honor are one thing, but shot guns, samurai swords and twenty-to-one odds are another. The story seems to take place in a vacuum, but within its strict limits, the characters are lively and fun to figure out. (Jordan & Mitchum, just off the downbeat & brilliant FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE/’73, are equally good playing genre stuff together.) If only Pollack had a bit more flair for pulp material or would trust the editing rhythms dictated by Japan interior design. And the big showdown, where Eastern swordplay joins Western shot guns, blasts & slices away in a generalized fashion that never convinces. Sydney ain’t got the action chops to do it justice. Still, it’s one of the few Pollack pics that’s seems to gain, rather than lose, interest over the years.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see what a staggering film stylist does with this sort of story, try Seijun Suzuki’s riotous YOUTH OF THE BEAST/’63, which looks thirty years ahead of its time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

TOPKAPI (1964)

Before everybody else started making comic variations on his classic heist/caper pic RIFIFI/’54, Jules Dassin beat them to the punch with his own comic variation; . . . he beat them in other ways, too. Dassin’s wife Melina Mercouri is a bit much as mistress of the heist (her throaty baritone reduced to a raspy croak), but the rest of the international cast is ripe & delightful. Maximilian Schell, smooth & handsome, gives one of his most relaxed perfs as the brainy organizer; Robert Morley is roly-poly perfection as an eccentric tech-man; Akim Tamiroff gets away with his ‘feelthy’ drunken house servant; & Peter Ustinov is flat-out phenomenal as a small-time con-artist, coerced into playing on two teams when the cops get clued in. Ustinov didn’t always work this hard, but this is one of the great audience-pleasing turns in film; more than that, he touchingly manages to be human-scaled & epic at one & the same time in a manner not seen since Raimu was making his French classics or Will Kempe was working for Shakespeare @ The Globe. It’s all wonderfully shot by Henri Alekan, who gets the most out some great Istanbul locations, and the basic plot, from Eric Ambler’s novel, is unusually neat & clever. In the nail-biting third act, Dassin turns the actual heist into a real time suspense marathon that will have you gasping & crying out loud. Those rooftop camera moves! TOPKAPI is the very definition of ‘civilized entertainment’ and, thanks to Ustinov, even a bit more. (And don’t miss the gorgeous stylized end credits.)

DOUBLE-BILL: So many to choose from! But comparing THE PINK PANTHER films or GAMBIT/’66 or those OCEANS 11; 12; 13 to this is like comparing Abbott & Costello to Laurel & Hardy. So, why not try more of the real thing, Dassin’s original (if still shockingly nasty) RIFIFI.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Peter Ustinov’s decision to bail on Blake Edwards’ THE PINK PANTHER/’64 just before they started shooting makes more sense when you remember that this one was already set up.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A THROW OF THE DICE / PRAPANCHA PASH (1929)

Once upon a time, two neighboring Kings of India fell in love with the lovely daughter of a great man of healing. But the father knew they loved one thing still more: gambling. Even so, the girl ran off with the charming King her father had cured, while the other King, an evil man, did his worst to get the girl, remove the father from the scene and take his rival’s land & riches. But he went too far when he ‘fixed’ the dice. And that’s all German-born director Franz Osten needed for this richly upholstered fairy tale, an enchanting example of the rich visual vocabulary of late silent film. Filmed on a gorgeous canvas of real Indian locations with thousands of extras , it’s a demi-masterpiece of artifice; as a dramatic construct, its romantic piffle with paper-thin characterizations. But there are compensations in views that are both princely & priceless; a lost world of Indian Royalty magically returned to life in this stunning restoration by British Instructional Films (with a superb new score from Nitin Sawhney) on a lovely KINO DVD (Check out more @ http://throwofdice.com)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: We usually put the original/local title in first position, but the actors appear to be speaking English. (Any lip-readers out there?) Plus, the romantic leads are shown kissing which would have ruled out an Indian release. No doubt, some prints were censored for the home market.

DOUBLE-BILL: German fantasists had a weakness for Near Eastern Fairy Tales; see Lotte Reiniger’s ‘shadow-animated’ THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED/’26.

Friday, March 16, 2012

ZARDOZ (1974)

The year is 2293, and somebody’s misplaced the Viagra in John Boorman’s nutcase anti-Utopian fable. Sean Connery, wearing a snug thong, is the outlier barbarian who crashes the on-going party of the impotent ruling class to reintroduce the Joy of Erections. But things may not be quite what they seem since our flaccid lords & nubile ladies, looking like a lost touring cast of HAIR, may also be pawns, controlled by a man we’re not supposed to pay any attention to. You know, the guy standing behind the figurative curtain. Can mankind be saved? Can manly corpuscles be regenerated? Is it worth the trouble? Boorman, a natural filmmaker if there ever was one, may be too talented for his own good. The whole project feels like a purposeful sabotage for hitting it big on DELIVERANCE/’72. But within an absurdly small budget, he pulls off some cool visual treats, much helped by master lenser Geoffrey Unsworth. The 'mod' look helps to offset the deep-dish alienation & intellectual navel-gazing. At its best in a three-minute education/indoctrination for Connery that uses the same simple analogue projection techniques Maurice Binder employed on many a James Bond title sequence. But Boorman, deep in his philosophical bunker, was unlikely to see the connection.

DOUBLE-BILL: Robert Altman’s equally odd BREWSTER MCCLOUD/’70 is another ‘hippy’ era fable on the dangers of sex & flying.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hey! The whole film is a Screwy Thought of the Day!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

TORN CURTAIN (1966)

One-by-one, Alfred Hitchcock’s late films have been undergoing critical reclamation . . . except for TORN CURTAIN. Made as the old studio-system was in fast collapse, Hitch was being squeezed by a deal with the devil (Universal’s super-mogul Lew Wasserman) and by his two expensive, but ill-suited stars (Paul Newman, Julie Andrews). Then, he made a bad situation worse, pinching pennies with tv-sourced replacements after his long-time lenser & editor both died unexpectedly; he even accepted John Addison’s clueless musical score after a final blow-up with the irascible Bernard Herrmann. Hitch was down-and-out before you even factor in Universal’s typically sub-par tech work which reached its nadir on a soundstage hill in East Berlin, Hollywood. Here, on an appallingly artificial set (and its equally awful cyclorama), Paul & Julie get their big romantic moment. But wait!, the studio managed to make things worse, sending out prints with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but meant to be ‘masked’ down to 1.85:1. Screw up the framing, Mister Projectionist, and you can see all the lovely studio lights & electrical rigging hanging above. (Many of these problems were swiftly addressed in TOPAZ/’69, an atypical tale for Hitch, the best-selling book another ‘gift’ from the WasserMan, but with vastly improved tech work and class-A lensing, scoring & editing. And its latest DVD edition redeems a lot by using the best of the three endings Hitch shot.) So, is this Cold War thriller worth a look? Sure. It’s kind of fun seeing Hitch’s technique laid bare, unencumbered by too much involvement in plot, place or character, and being always a couple beats ahead of the story makes for easy study. (PLOT: Newman feigns defection behind the Iron Curtain to steal research; Andrews tags along; they sneak back.) The last two acts have a fair share of quality set pieces (plus more shoddy tech work at odd moments) and it's instructional to guess where Hitch simply took over editing chores. Anyway, there’s something subversive & deeply Hitchcockian in a Cold War thriller that makes our American hero pick the superior brain of a Commie scientist.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fritz Lang didn’t do much better sending Gary Cooper in & out of Nazi-occupied Italy for a nuclear scientist in CLOAK AND DAGGER/’46.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If Universal really wants to give TORN CURTAIN a shot at critical reclamation, it needs to finish synching up the original Bernard Herrmann score. There’s about a reel and a half of it in the Extras, all Herrmann finished recording before getting the heave-ho from Hitch. But you can hear the more-or-less complete score on a brilliant recording from Joel McNeely & The National Philharmonic Orchestra on Varèse Sarabande.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

KÖRKARLEN / THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)

Victor Sjöström wrote, directed & starred in this silent film adaptation of Nobel-laureate Selma Lagerlöf’s once-famous novel. The latest Criterion DVD (2011) from a Swedish restoration, has come up well, a full 107 minute cut, with fine grain & handsome tints, plus a choice of music tracks (slightly weird & very weird). Yet, the film only partially meets its classic status, too careful by half, too weighed down by literary prestige; quite the opposite of Sjöström’s Hollywood work which soars regardless of its source material. The story plays out over a series of New Year’s Eves, a day when the last man to die takes the reins of the ghostly Phantom Carriage and becomes Death’s teamster. Sjöström’s wastrel is the man on deck. But before he can begin, he’s shown how he got there in a series of visions from his New Year’s Eves past. Watching his own life spiral out of control, chasing away his wife, kids, friends, anyone who would help him break the cycle of disease & drunkenness, seems to have little effect . . . until it’s probably too late. Visually, this is often powerful stuff (best at its darkest moments like one with a raggedy coat or when a father attempts to infect his own children), and the double-exposures are rightly acclaimed. But on film it grows uncomfortably close to Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, with Scrooge & Cratchit merged as one. And, with the dour Swedish sensibility squeezing out Dickens’ liveliness & variety, the tread of despair & predestination also squeezes out his humanity, and makes the ending suspect.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

UNKNOWN (2011)

Nothing becomes this twisty thriller as much as its end. No villain reanimates for a final flourish; no triple-reverse plot revelation makes mincemeat of things; no shadowy figure edges into view to signal a possible sequel. Narrative dignity, at last! If only the preceding two hours were equally accomplished. The story, a funhouse of political & corporate skullduggery, gives good weight, as does solid Liam Neeson, who must be surprised to find himself, in his late-50s, taking the action-figure baton from Steve McQueen & Charles Bronson. But megger Jaume Collet-Serra shows little affinity or gamesmanship for the form. He does well enough when he sticks us in the driver’s seat, but the rest of the action set pieces don’t ‘read’ properly. Even a simple fight scene is beyond him, and the mix-master editing more of a cover-up than anything in the plot. Still, there’s reasonable fun watching a gaggle of genres getting mashed-up as we hop from amoral spy rings to identity theft & amnesia; there’s even an old East German STASI spy to sympathize with. That’s new!* And nicely played by Bruno Ganz. Which is more than can be said for the cold-blooded perf from January Jones or the decision to hold back on the Big Reveal until halfway thru the third act.

DOUBLE-BILL: The screenwriters may have had Harrison Ford’s THE FUGITIVE/’93 meets THE BOURNE IDENTITY/’02 in mind as a suspense-thriller template. But MIRAGE/’65, a lesser-known Gregory Peck pic from a Howard Fast novel (helmed by Edward Dmytryk/scripted by Peter Stone), has lots of similar elements in it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Actually, it’s not new, it’s the lead character in the superb THE LIVES OF OTHERS/’06. But that’s not a piece of Pop entertainment.

Monday, March 12, 2012

UNTIL THEY SAIL (1957)

WWII tale from James Michener centers on four lonely sisters in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the local men have all gone to war and the Yanks are here to play . . . until they sail. In Robert Anderson’s smart, economical script, it’s a superior soaper with a big black mark against it, a Scandal-Sheet worthy trial that bookends what’s otherwise an unusually grown-up look at love & sex in the pressure-cooker environment of wartime. (And now, the film also serves as a living scrapbook to the city & Cathedral before the recent earthquake.) At first meeting, the sisters function like the Three Bears: eldest Joan Fontaine is Too Cold; Piper Laurie is Too Hot; Jean Simmons is Just Right; and Sandra Dee, a previously unknown Fourth Bear, is the kid. (She’s sweet, but too American-teen to pass for Kiwi.) They each have their own rite-of-romantic-passage, but the emphasis is largely on Simmons, a recent war-widow, and Paul Newman, cold & cynical from a quickie divorce (and still showing a touch of baby-fat in his face). Robert Wise, who groomed Newman’s screen acting chops in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME/’56, keeps things from turning sticky. And under Joseph Ruttenberg’s glamorizing WideScreen b&w lensing, 40 yr-old Fontaine easily passes as sister to 15 yr-old Dee.

CONTEST: Ruttenberg got Oscar’d the year before & the year after this one. Without looking it up, name the two films and the likely reason this one was ignored to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

HURRY SUNDOWN (1967)

Otto Preminger’s remarkable, if hardly unblemished, run of CinemaScope pics from CARMEN JONES/’54 to IN HARM’S WAY/65, never recovered from this deep-fried Southern meller. It’s a three-pronged look at upward mobility in post-WWII rural Georgia with the gentrified Michael Caine making a land grab for the farmlands of neighboring White & Black sharecroppers John Phillip Law & Robert Hooks. But Preminger, with his eyes firmly on the late-‘60s social/political scene, works too hard to keep up, stay relevant, controversial, commercial; and he winds up miscalculating just about every effect. He still revels in those sweeping (and economical) all-in-one takes, and gets an unusually vivid ‘southern’ palette from lensers Milton Krasner & Loyal Griggs. Plus, the tricky, inter-cut opening exposition scenes show him near his best, as does an OTT third-act trial which manages to be both broadly comic & menacing. But the storyline wanders all over the place while the starry cast, which also includes Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Burgess Meredith, Beah Richards, George Kennedy & Diane Carroll, thrash away at Horton Foote’s atypically gaudy dialogue. Kennedy & Meredith are positively fermented! (NOTE: Family-Friendly pic? Sure, a great pic for bringing up the changing face of Stateside racial attitudes back in 1946, when the story takes place; in '67 when the film was made; and now.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t be surprised by the overblown, faux-Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY had come out in ‘66 and it must have made a big impression on composer Hugo Montenegro who had a hit in 1968 ‘covering’ that film’s memorable theme.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: It was a breakthru year for Fonda, Richards, Kennedy & Dunaway . . . but in other pics! BAREFOOT IN THE PARK; GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER; COOL HAND LUKE and BONNIE & CLYDE.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fonda & Foote were still trying to recover from THE CHASE/’66, another deep-fried Southern fiasco with a big starry cast. Shows how far good intentions will get you.

Friday, March 9, 2012

THE TRIP (2011)

Brit helmer Michael Winterbottom makes a point of alternating heavy dramatics (JUDE/’96; A MIGHTY HEART/’06) with Pirandello-flavored goofs like TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY/’05 & this buddy-buddy ‘Two-Actors-in-Search-of-a-Meal’ road-pic. Goof it may be, but it’s a goof with conviction in its cheery pointlessness. Steve Coogan, playing himself as an amusing, if dour, comic actor, accepts a fluke fine-dining writing assignment in the North Country, and asks his insistently chipper pal Rob Brydon to come along since his current girlfriend has just bailed. The boys are a lot more fun for us then they seem to be for each other, jealously parsing the other’s life & career choices by indirectly teasing out old inequities via competitive voice impersonations (Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, David Frost, Michael Caine, Woody Allen &, of course, Michael Caine); vocal ranges; wine tasting technique (alas, only in the deleted scenes); even coveting the better looking entree. At night, Steve hunts up a proper shag while Rob goes for phone sex with the missed missus. Some of this improvised stuff goes nowhere, some is just too British to travel, some is too inside show-bizzy, but more than enough hits. And, slowly, you start noticing that a living breathing, slightly testy (and testing) relationship is coming alive on screen in a manner that scripted buddy/buddy road-trip pics (SIDEWAYS/’04) or indie-art-house fare (OLD JOY/’06) never seem to. Too bad the over-groomed high-end cuisine looks so joyless on those large artfully arranged plates. Such a relief to watch the boys finally dig into a traditional, if rather up-scale, ‘fried’ British breakfast. NOTE: Be sure to catch the hilarious ‘Cunt’ Song in the Deleted Scenes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For those who keep score, Brydon’s impressive three-octave singing range and his spot-on Hugh Grant impression probably bests Coogan on points. His Grant gets a boost from a faint facial resemblance, but both men . . . ignore Jim Dale’s . . . famous Michael Caine . . . dictum of always . . .speaking three words . . . at a time. It makes all . . . the difference.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

RAPT (2009)

Loosely ‘suggested’ by the 1978 kidnapping of a French Corporate CEO, Lucas Blevaux’s slickly-made thriller only received a token release in the States, but is apparently getting an English-language remake under the translated title ABDUCTION(2013?). Yvan Attal stars as a morally compromised exec whose business & home life come unraveled while he’s being held for ransom. Not too surprising as press & police revelations uncover a secret life of debts, sex & high stakes gambling, the usual Upper-Crust entitlement vices. The crisscross action between the brutal kidnappers, the chilly home life, corporate in-fighting & police investigators puts more narrative & character balls in the air than Blevaux can comfortably handle at once, and the really interesting stuff, the motivations & consequences that only get sorted out after the crime is resolved, are largely shortchanged. But just at the moment, the film gains some unearned resonance from the messy sex scandal currently undoing the life & political career of monetary-fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Though, without a kidnapping element, how sleazy & unsympathetic these economic Masters-of-the-Universe look under tabloid scrutiny.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Watch Akira Kurosawa work his way thru similar elements (corporate exec, company cash, kidnapping, police procedure) in his masterful HIGH AND LOW/’63.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

SORROWFUL JONES (1949)

This version of Damon Runyon’s LITTLE MISS MARKER (the second of four) holds up better than its so-so rep would have you think. The story is just about foolproof: Single dad on a losing streak leaves his little girl as a ‘mark’ with Sorrowful Jones, Gotham’s cheapest bookmaker. When Dad fails to show, the bookie gets stuck with the kid. It was a big early hit for Shirley Temple back in ‘34, and little Mary Jane Saunders doesn’t give Shirley much competition. But the script keeps saving itself with some good wisecracks, and Bob Hope expands nicely from his usual cowardly braggart into Sorrowful’s miserly ways. The role brings a dour tone & a harsh edge out of Hope that scruffs up the sentiment in a good way. (Watch Bob plow his way to the gag lines in a sticky prayer scene; and even little Mary Jane gets off a zinger right at the end.) Lucille Ball is just about perfect as the nightclub singer who’d like to get in on the act; too bad they didn’t let her do her own vocals. And the usual Runyon suspects, the ‘Guys & Dolls’ types, add lots of color without overstaying their welcome. If only megger Sidney Lanfield showed a little moxie behind the camera. Dull, dull, dull. But the film survives his sleepwalking, 'cause the plot is . . . like we said, foolproof.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Hope & Ball both played with a natural stylization that lets them take on these Damon Runyon mugs without having to overdo things. See Ball in THE BIG STREET/’42 or Hope in THE LEMON DROP KID/’52. What a team they’d have made as Nathan Detroit & Miss Adelaide in the unhappy film version of GUYS AND DOLLS/’55.

CONTEST: This film’s opening gag is lifted from a famous silent comedy. Name the gag, the silent comic & the film it’s lifted from to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix pic.

Monday, March 5, 2012

BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (1958)

This film is the odd-man-out in the run of seven Western Moral Fables Randolph Scott made under Budd Boetticher’s steady hand. In general, the films are remarkably well-balanced little dramas that set the broad Western landscape & Scott’s laconic acting style against a festering personal loss he’s riding away from and an unforeseen violent crisis he accidentally rides into. Working out the acute situation helps the chronic one . . . Fade Out. But here, Scott plays, of all things, a happy-go-lucky fellow who rides into Agry City, the West’s least friendly town, owned & operated by the corrupt & corpulent Agry Brothers. Befriending a young Mexican (Manuel Rojas) who claims a revenge for his outraged sister by shooting the youngest of the loathsome Agry clan, Scott finds himself thrown in jail with his new bud on a murder charge. It’s a fine set-up, but the dark, bleakly comic tone the story asks for, seems to be outside Boetticher's range; and the switch from the great outdoors to city streets & stark interiors (along with some seriously sub-par acting) emphasizes a budget that’s two sizes too small for the job. Still, the storyline is a neat bit of work and there’s a tremendous sick gag ending where a series of bad guys can’t stop themselves from trying to grab a bag of loot that’s landed in No-Man’s-Land between warring parties. A decidedly venal construct worthy of early Sergio Leone.

DOUBLE-BILL: This plays much better if you’ve already seen a couple of the stronger entries in the series; try THE TALL T/’57 or RIDE LONESOME/’59.

Friday, March 2, 2012

KINGS OF THE SUN (1963)

This little remembered epic is not only a lost film, but an unexpected one. George Chakiris, in his brief post-WEST SIDE STORY/’61 career surge, is the young Mayan King, leading his hunted tribe across the Gulf of Mexico to unknown land. They’re still building shelters & a pyramid to the Gods when Yul Brynner’s Native American chief spots the new intruders and plans a quick annihilation. But nothing goes to plan . . . on either side: sacrifices to the Gods are scotched; prisoners seduce their keepers; alliances are made, broken, then rejoined to face a common enemy; new friendships are tested; and Max Factor gets rich on ‘dark tan’ #27 for a few thousand warriors. J. Lee Thompson had just bombed, along with Brynner & cameraman Joe MacDonald, on the unfortunate TARAS BULBA/’62, a Cossack epic (based on Gogol!) best recalled for Franz Waxman’s spirited score. But he did learn something about mass staging on that one, and it pays off handsomely here. (The crafty J. Thompson was in his best period with TIGER BAY/’59, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61 and CAPE FEAR/’62 just behind him.) Silly & effective in equal doses, the film is strikingly sexual for its day, with Yul striding about in a well-filled loin cloth and actively bucking away with leading lady Shirley Ann Field atop him while he’s tied up & lit to look nude. How’d they get away with that? The film goes a bit nutty at the end, echoing THE KING & I/’56 with Brynner reprising his dying King shtick and Chakiris giving a near-recreation of Prince Chulalongkorn’s forward-looking speech; there’s even preaches & cream complexioned, English-accented Shirley Ann Field's Mayan Princess standing in Deborah Kerr's old spot. Didn’t anyone notice?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lenser Joseph MacDonald gives the film a spectacular look, even if he does get a little ‘’ZOOM’ happy. But why shoot the Indian Village on an unconvincing SoundStage when everything else is being handled so impressively on real locations?

DOUBLE-BILL: Of course, there’s Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO/’06 for a modern, Ultra-Violent and more realistic look at Mayan culture & decline. (Not seen here.)