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Saturday, April 28, 2012

HORS LA LOI / OUTSIDE THE LAW (2010)

Writer/director Rachid Bouchareb tackles the next chapter of the Algerian Independence Movement (French Division) after his INDIGÈNES/DAYS OF GLORY/’06. That film focused on the Algerian Nationals who fought with the French in WWII. Now we watch three displaced Algerian brothers reunite in France after being separately radicalized in jail for political crimes; serving with the French army in Vietnam; or thru hustling/pimping in the streets outside shantytown. The drama rises & falls as the brothers respond (enthusiastically, reluctantly, guiltily) to the demands of the FLN political terrorist movement and to the grim tactics taken by the police to stop the violence. Bouchareb aims for something on the order of ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS/’60 meets THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS/’66 and it largely plays out like a gangster pic (note the poster). But the film has much the same strengths & weaknesses of his previous look at the period, with an odd weightless quality to the tragic collateral damage while he’s busy force-feeding us potted history. The mix is both impressive . . . and indigestible.
DOUBLE-BILL: As noted above, you may want to watch DAYS OF GLORY first.

Friday, April 27, 2012

WALK DON'T RUN ((1966)

Cary Grant made a graceful career exit playing matchmaker to Jim Hutton & Samantha Eggar in this pleasant nonentity, a posh remake of THE MORE THE MERRIER/’43 with the setting moved from WWII housing-crisis D.C. to 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The original saw Jean Arthur talked into doubling up in her small flat with grandfatherly Charles Coburn and then tripling with the addition of hunky Joel McCrea. A tremendous hit in its day, the film has aged oddly with Coburn’s mischievous turn as an addled cupid now looking more creepy than altruistic. What does hold up is the significant heat generated between Arthur & McCrea. In this remake, the relationships all go topsy-turvy since Grant retains an edge of sexual promise unknown to cuddly-bear Coburn, while Hutton’s Jimmy Stewart drawling & Eggar’s Mary Poppins primness implodes too politely. Meanwhile, the farcical elements feel more forced than funny and the plot mechanics are as crude as the ‘hilarious’ Russian dim-wit agent who files misleading espionage reports. Credit helmer Charles Walters, in his last film, for playing things as lightly as possible. Like Grant, he knows when to push & when to pull back, making this minor outing more appealing than it has any right to be. (He even lets Grant & Hutton move in and out of available light as they walk along a real Tokyo sidewalk. The studio must have given him hell over it.) Grant was known to whistle on set when he was enjoying himself. So it’s a treat to hear him having a go at the theme from CHARADE/’63 as he puts together an alarmingly strong cup of coffee. He’d earned it.
DOUBLE-BILL: Grant played middle-man before, bringing Loretta Young & David Niven together in THE BISHOP’S WIFE/’47. And, for more on the Olympics, by all means, get the full three-hours cut of Kon Ichikawa’s TOKYO OLYMPIAD/’65. This film never got the circulation it deserved. (Possibly because the original idea was to shoot enough material so that different cuts could play in different countries.) Yet, technically, it may be the most influential film ‘never’ seen, at least from the standpoint of sports coverage. Everything involving modern sports presentation started right here, and that most certainly includes all those Bud Greenspan docus.

PROTEKTOR (2009)

Marek Najbrt chooses style over clarity in this often fascinating WWII story set largely in Prague during the Nazi occupation. Built as a long flashback from the assassination of Nazi Chief Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, which led to a huge round-up of ‘usual suspects’ and a wave of revenge executions, the story centers on a married couple’s progress going back to 1938. When first seen, she’s a rising film actress and he’s a second-tier radio announcer & executive. But as the German’s gain control, her Jewish background and his mellifluous voice reverse their career arcs; soon, she’s down & out while he’s become famous as the Voice of a Nation. The stress of an emotional separation escalates from professional to personal, until a mix-up with the assassination brings about a new kind of bond between them. Najbrt (surely this name is missing a vowel?) uses a gorgeous mix of palettes in showing the different levels of life between their art, their work and their lives. But he tends to gloss over a level of reckless behavior that’s hard to accept given the life-or-death circumstances. Were the Czechs really this blind/cavalier about the consequences of their political provocations? He also drops an interesting line of action that has Marek Daniel, playing the star announcer, hoping to work against the Nazis from within the system. No doubt, he found this impossible, but it’s never properly dramatized for us. Perhaps it’s all more apparent to a local audience. What’s apparent over here is that Marek Daniel is an absolute ‘ringer’ for Christopher Hitchens. It’s a visual touch that adds rather than subtracts from the verisimilitude of this worthwhile, if flawed political thriller.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Laurent Biner's recently translated HHhH is a well-reviewed 'faction' that charts the career of the infamous Reinhard Heydrich.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a period film that deals with the Heydrich assassination and was made soon after the real-life events, there’s Fritz Lang’s terribly uneven, but often effective HANGMEN ALSO DIE/’43 which has superbly suspenseful story construction from playwright Bertold Brecht in his sole Hollywood screenwriting credit.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

THE MAN FROM LONDON (2007)

The crepuscular cinema of Hungarian Bela Tarr, with his distinctive slow-crawling camera shots & long, long takes, works unexpectedly well in this adaptation of a typically succinct, character-driven Georges Simenon novel. There’s a real kick in watching Tarr’s art-house æsthetic tethered to the genre elements of a detective story; here, the ensuing bad karma that attaches itself to a misappropriated attaché that's naturally stuffed with illegal cash. Grimly beautiful, as if Dante had reserved a Circle of Purgatory for monochrome cinematography, the film doesn’t haunt you the way other Tarr films can, the closure of finding a solution works against the resonance of staring inside something unknowable. But it's good to see Tarr trying on a different mask.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If the dubbed English voice of the Inspector sounds familiar, that’s because Edward Fox does the vocal honors. And don’t be fooled by Tilda Swinton’s billing, she’s only in a few scenes. Probably for the best, since her meticulous specificity as an actor doesn’t quite align with Tarr’s need for a broad brush dipped in thin grey wash.
DOUBLE-BILL: Don Siegel’s scandalously underrated CHARLEY VARRICK/’73 is tops in detailing the karmic conniptions caused by a cash-loaded briefcase.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

3 SAILORS AND A GIRL (1953)

This pocket-sized musical from Warners, a mash-up of ON THE TOWN/’49 and the recently released THE BAND WAGON/’53, isn’t very good . . . but it sure is peculiar. Gordon MacRea, Gene Nelson & Jack E. Leonard are three sailors on leave who bump into producer Sam Levene & his putative B’way star, ultra-petite Jane Powell. Naturally, the boys have a duffle bag of cash they’re hoping to invest and Levene’s got an unfunded show to hustle. The show flops out of town, gets fixed with the help of B’way legends Moss Hart, George Abbott & Ira Gershwin, and becomes a big hit with the boys doing specialty spots before they have to get back to their sub. Even by the standards of a let’s-put-on-a-show fable, this one’s hard to swallow; the Sammy Fain/Sammy Cahn score is forgettable; the four stars end their big group ‘numbo’ in pseudo-BlackFace; Messrs. Hart, Abbott & Gershwin are played by lookalike ‘ringers;’ poor Gene Nelson seems to disappear halfway in; and then there’s obese/fey ‘insult’ comedian Jack E. Leonard as one of the guys, singing, dancing and generally threatening to tip over. Peculiar.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The obvious choices are mentioned above: ON THE TOWN, mostly for the great shot-on-location opening, or THE BAND WAGON, wildly overmatched for the task. Why not give the old Eleanor Powell/James Stewart BORN TO DANCE/’36 a shot. It’s got just about the same silly plot (submarine sailors help out a B’way bound show) and even the same director, Roy Del Ruth, in palmier days. Plus, you get to hear Stewart introduce an honest-to-goodness Cole Porter standard, ‘Easy To Love.’

Monday, April 23, 2012

SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

For out-and-out laughs, the last two reels of SEVEN CHANCES must be the funniest sustained sequence in the Buster Keaton canon, maybe in all film. It’s no secret that the project was bought for/forced on Keaton, who found the misunderstandings of farce more tiresome than comic. Yet even in the exposition-heavy first half, he shows what graceful underplaying and clean story construction could bring to the ritual misunderstandings of the form. The gimmick is that Buster has to be married by 7 o’clock to get a 7 million dollar inheritance. When he blows the proposal to his longtime g’friend, he heads to his country club (look!, there’s Jean Arthur operating the phone switchboard) where he sequentially fails at proposing to 7 utterly indifferent girls. (And one hilariously deadpan hatcheck girl.) Formula stuff, but Keaton manages to find solid laughs in the situations, all while playing in his remarkably modern, ‘straight’ naturalistic manner. It’s still fresh & funny; and the simple narrative design gives him time for some charming throwaway visual gags. Watch for an amazing ‘invisible’ trick shot where he sits in his car while the background ‘dissolves’ to a new location.* But the film truly hits its stride (literally) when he leaves the club in disgrace to hunt up a bride (any bride!) while his pals advertise in the paper for a backup. SENSITIVITY ALERT: The next sequence has Buster proposing to various inappropriate women in a series of escalating politically incorrect gags: Blacks, Jews, Transvestism, Child Bride; it’s Equal Opportunity Offending.** Exhausted from his failures, Buster heads for the Church of Last Hope where he promptly falls asleep in the front pew, unaware that the newspaper ad has brought out every battle-hardened spinster in town. And so we come to those last two reels. The ladies are told that the newspaper proposal is just a joke. What follows is not, as often reported, a chase to marry Buster, but a chase to kill him! It’s Revenge of the Women.* The jilted brides take over every all-male activity, bricklaying to football, crane operator to train conductor. And, in a climax that is both technically & conceptually stunning, Keaton must choose between an avalanche of crushing boulders chasing him down a mountainside and the on-coming horde of jilted femininity at the bottom of the hill, waiting to tear him apart limb from limb. Farce rarely gave so much food for thought. The latest visual upgrade from KINO is a marvel, but we sure could use an aural upgrade with a full orchestral score. No?

DOUBLE-BILL/CONTEST: Two intriguing shorts are included on the DVD. Note that the 1904 Edison short, HOW THE FRENCH NOBLEMAN GOT A WIFE THROUGH THE NEW YORK HERALD PERSONAL COLUMN (catchy title!) is transferred slightly below natural speed which means that this very early film must have been shot at something over 24 fps. So much for all you’ve read about silent pics being shot under modern cranking speed. And the DVD also has a typically laugh-free THREE STOOGES short that uses the same basic plot from SEVEN CHANCES. And why not, since Keaton regular Clyde Bruckman co-wrote both films. But he also grabs a very specific gag from another Keaton pic he worked on. Naturally, the Stooges ruin the execution, but you can still spot that gag and name the other film to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY I: *In CASABLANCA, director Michael Curtiz uses the same background dissolve trick shot while Bogart & Bergman drive in the French countryside. But Curtiz did it with help from an optical printer and backscreen projection. And also take note of how similar the construction is between Buster asleep in the pew while the brides flit in and Hitchcock’s famous scene in THE BIRDS/’63 where Melanie Daniels sits on a bench smoking while the jungle-gym behind her starts to fill up with our fine feathered friends.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: **Note that while the inappropriate brides (Black, Jew, Transvestite, Child) are all played by appropriately cast performers, the slo-thinking ‘colored’ character is specifically, and quite obviously, played by a white guy in BlackFace. The distinction says much about what at the time was considered Racial Humor and what was considered Racist Humor.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Can't miss another opportunity to plug Walter Kerr's magnificent THE SILENT CLOWNS.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

LA LOI / THE LAW / LA LEGGE / WHERE THE HOT WIND BLOWS (1959)

Jules Dassin let this Southern-Italian meller boil way past al dente. Set in a stifling little coastal town where the aging Don (Pierre Brasseur) dictates ‘the law’ to everyone, from the mayor to the priest, from the chief of police & on down, while his sharp-dressed heir apparent (Yves Montaud) works from the bottom up. But a couple of free-spirited women (Gina Lollobrigida & Melina Mercouri) threaten the established order with respective fixations on an educated outsider (Marcello Mastroianni) & Montaud’s lawyer son (Raf Mattioli). But these personal dramas play alongside a strange, sadistic truth-or-dare drinking game called ‘the law,’ a nasty piece of one-upmanship meant to keep everyone in their place. Dassin gets heaps of atmosphere & tension from this set up, but the storyline was hamstrung when his producers insisted on La Lollobrigida in a role designed for a hormonally-charged teenager. Actions that need to play out with the unthinking self-interest of youth come across with cruel calculation from a stunningly beautiful Gina at 32. And this effects the entire cast who respond with heightened playing on the verge of hysteria. You eventually adjust, ‘50s melodrama and all that, but it takes a dramatic toll. While you wait for the emotional blinders to kick in, enjoy the local detail, a great fishing sequence, and the fabulous cinematography from Otello Martelli, best known for shooting early Fellini.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Except for Marcello, the principals all appear to speak their own (dubbed) French dialogue on the only audio track of this excellent Oscilloscope DVD. But this international production must have originally been issued in many languages. Stateside it came out as WHERE THE HOT WIND BLOWS, and you can hear Jerry Jackson (?) sing the title song via SPOTIFY.

DB: Try a classic Neo-Realist look at another poor Italian fishing village in Visconti’s LA TERRA TREMA/’47.

Friday, April 20, 2012

CAOS CALMO / QUIET CHAOS (2008)

Italian hyphenate Nanni Moretti settles for co-scripting & starring in this superior family dramedy that falls just shy of expectations. Blame megger Antonello Grimaldi who stiffens on action scenes (even a runaway dog defeats her), but rises to the inter-personal relationships that form the story’s core. The bumpy opening finds Moretti & his glamorous kid brother (a delightful Alessandro Gassman) jumping in to rescue a couple struggling swimmers, then being all but ignored for the effort. That’s life. But an even worse lesson awaits them back home where Moretti’s wife has unexpectedly died, leaving him a single dad with a young daughter. This is where the film proper begins as Moretti goes thru a unique grieving process, taking his girl to school and spending all his time in the lovely neighboring park. Oddly, with his company in the midst of a disruptive international merger, his distancing works to everyone’s advantage. As an outsider, he’s sounding board, sage & best pal. He’s also a welcoming presence to all the park regulars and even something of a food critic at the local café, elucidating the divide between French & Italian cuisine with a bite of broccoli. It all sounds a bit twee, but it plays in a natural, unforced style as long as Grimaldi stays within her rather narrow range; a bit of reckless driving & reckless sex don’t really convince. But identification runs high elsewhere as Moretti lightly carries the heavy subject matter, leavening this unique mourning period with more laugh-out-loud comedy than you’d think appropriate or possible. He’s a remarkable elegant performer, effortlessly pulling off impossibly fast changes in tone. And there’s a great surprise cameo near the end to wrap things up without making too neat a package or too pat an ending.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

ULYSSES (1954)

Fun! This Italian production isn‘t the sword-and-sandals campfest you might expect, but a reasonably faithful, reasonably effective telling of the great warrior’s journey home to Ithaca where his wife & son have been waiting and waiting. The Hollywood ringers include Kirk Douglas, unexpectedly relaxed and even charming as Ulysses, and Anthony Quinn as his main rival for Penelope in the bookend sequences set in Ithaca. More Hollywood is on board, including vet lenser Harold Rosson (whose rich palette comes & goes in the acceptable, but unrestored print on the LionsGate DVD - beware of cheap Public Domain editions), and from scripters Irwin Shaw & Ben Hecht* who presumably wrote most of the crudely dubbed English dialogue. The effects are simply accomplished and usually effective, and the tricky flashback structure is immediately involving. It’s also a kick to see Franco Interlenghi (the older kid in SHOESHINE/’46 & fresh from playing Fellini’s alter ego in I VITTELONI/’53 as Kirk’s loyal boy and, of course, the magnificent Silvana Mangano (wife of co-producer Dino De Laurentis) as Penelope. (Is that Eleanor Parker doing her voice on the English track?) The film remains a guilty pleasure, at best, but not a joke like the latter HERCULES pics.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Kirk Douglas returned to CineCitta Studios to play the director of one of these big international productions in Vincente Minnelli’s deeply flawed, but fascinating, 2 WEEKS IN ANOTHER OWN/’62, based on a novel by ULYSSES’ co-scripter Irwin Shaw.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Ben Hecht famously rewrote the script for GONE WITH THE WIND without ever reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. You have to wonder how much Homer he had under his belt.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CAN’T HELP SINGING (1944)

This large-scale Musical Western was the only TechniColor project for Deanna Durbin; and just as well since the process tended to accentuate the inner dumpling in her facial structure. A hurdle that the shadings & gradations of tone in b&w studio photography more easily finessed. But that’s only half the problem on this full-rigged project, impressively shot on some spectacular locations, but with neither the story nor the score to make it worth all the bother. Durbin, the headstrong daughter of a Washington Senator, runs off to marry a handsome fortune hunting soldier, but winds up posing as the wife of a comic Russian (Akim Tamiroff) and possibly affianced to a California gold baron (Thomas Gomez). Naturally, she winds up singing her way to tru-love with reformed con-man Robert Paige. It sounds like a lot of action to squeeze into 90 minutes; plus a passel of Jerome Kern/’Yip’ Harburg songs. Alas, the songs are no more than pleasant; the comedy is laborious; and the leading man was quickly demoted back to B pics. Durbin’s hunt for suitable grown up material would continue for a few more years.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Durbin's previous pic, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY/’44, sounds much more interesting; a dark tale from noir specialist Robert Siodmak with Deanna playing a shady chanteuse & Gene Kelly a rich wastrel. But, as with ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL/’37, the best of her early pics, it’s not currently available in any format.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lyricist ‘Yip’ Harburg used a more personal voice when he revisited the West (with composer Earl Robinson) in CALIFORNIA/’47.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MY DOG TULIP (2009)

The trick of J.R. Ackerley’s classic literary memoir to Man’s Best Friend is the juxtaposition between his belles lettres style and the blunt coarseness of all the particulars beyond the poetry of canine companionship as the maddeningly perfect prose settles in to profile poop, pee & procreation. This lovingly animated film, a true artisan project from Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, raises the stakes by washing everything in charmingly varied illustrative techniques that run the gamut from Lake District watercolor to sketch-pad doodling & Thurberesque whimsy. It proves, perhaps, too much. Christopher Plummer probably errs in voicing Ackerley as an old codger, a debatable choice that's accentuated by close miking which emphasizes his every percussive, wheeze & spittle spray. Still, those who love the book can hardly complain, since the British eccentricities of doggie love are captured in all their mid-‘50s extremity. By current standards, the behavior of man & beast (well, mostly man) comes off as bizarre, funny, irresponsible & more than a little sad.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941)

Teen vocal sensation Deanna Durbin is grown-up & fetching in this modest romantic farce that’s both harmless and too-cute-for-words. She’s a hat-check girl at a fancy NYC hotel who pitches in (for a hefty tip) when young scion Robert Cummings asks her to pose as his fiancée. Seems the real girl is out shopping, and Dad’s dying request is to meet the lady. Cue Charles Laughton, whispering his last in his sickbed, and generally making a meal out of it. The trouble begins when he’s not only charmed by Deanna’s substitute fiancée, but starts to recover. Fill in the blanks. Considering the circumstances, Norman Krasna’s script is less sticky than you might fear (even if Deanna does sing Laughton back to health) and Henry Koster gets some boyish charm out of Cummings while generally helming with brisk efficiency. More than that, there’s a crackerjack opening sequence set in a newsroom as the city editor holds back the deadline, hoping to scoop Laughton’s imminent death. For a moment, we might be watching lesser Frank Capra. Alas, there’s no follow up once Laughton recovers; maybe it’s the newspaper that croaks?

CONTEST: Make the connection between this film and a classic Disney animated feature to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

FRYKTELLIG LYKKELIG / TERRIBLY HAPPY (2008)

Danish tv director Henrik Ruben Genz hits the big screen with this rural police thriller which tries to bend the circular logic & minimalist stylings of Ari Kaurismaki to the creepy-crawly moral vacuum world view of David Lynch. He earns points for atmosphere, but the story proves impossible to swallow. Jakob Cedergren (a ringer for Ben Affleck) is the big city cop who messes up his life and gets sent to small town purgatory as the new police chief. But this seemingly quiet town hides a lot of secrets, many of them buried in the local bog. Talk about sticking your foot in it. The main story has the chief getting too involved in a domestic dispute between the town bully, his troubled wife & their sad little girl. But, in a prime example of the pitfalls of adapting a novel, the character development & plot twists that worked on the page prove faintly ridiculous on the screen. You can’t buy in. And Genz doesn’t help the cause with idiotic POV shots like an early stumble that looks UP thru the water in a toilet bowl. Too bad, a lot of good stuff goes to waste here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

INDIGENES / DAYS OF GLORY (2006)

. . . and just as generic as the translated title sounds. There’s not much wrong, and quite a bit right, with this ‘Band of Algerian Brothers’ tale, but Rachid Bouchareb's well-built fact-inspired/WWII story can’t get past its textbook mentality. With France under Nazi occupation, waves of Algerian patriots rush to enlist in the French infantry. Ironically for many, their first look at the ‘homeland’ will be as liberators. But they wind up facing all the horrors, stupidities, friendships & high mortality rates of grunt soldiers as uncomprehending/condescending French officers use them as cannon fodder. Eventually, we focus on four men who volunteer for a dangerous ‘forward assignment,’ hoping to prove their worth & gain their due. It’s all convincingly presented, with individual stories & group relationships that ring true, but not as involving as it should be. Perhaps if the Algerian backstories were more fleshed out we’d feel how dual national-identities forged under the systematic indignities of French colonial justice tore at them. The only thing the film moves you to do is take notes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Included in the EXTRAs is Bouchareb’s animated/rotoscoped short L’AMI Y’A BON /THE COLONIAL FRIEND/’05 which tells a similar wartime tale from French Colonial Senegal. Abstracted to its essentials, we follow another volunteer French colonial army who demand their rights and get massacred for the asking. Simple, forceful, and building more emotional force in eight little minutes than its big brother feature.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

SUPER 8 (2011)

The rap on J.J. Abrams’ filmic ode to All Things Spielbergian is that a sweetly-observed, naturalistic story about a gang of pubescent high school misfits in the late ‘70s loses its focus when it shifts from substitute family drama & amateur moviemaking to government conspiracies & alien monsters. But the film is meant as a mash-up, teasing out memories from THE GOONIES/’85, STAND BY ME/’86 and WAR OF THE WORLDS/’05, along with winks toward CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/’77; E.T./’82; even BLOW UP/’66! It’s a lot of fun, endearing, a bit too sloppy for its own good (especially in the desperately plotted third act), and just about the best thing Abrams has done on the big screen. The basic idea has the kids stealing some nighttime shots for their goofy homemade zombie pic when they accidentally film a mysterious train crash. As their town falls apart and various personal dramas play out for each of the kids (a delightfully motley crew of losers & eccentrics), they wait for the ‘super-8' film to come back from the lab. And what they’ve captured is no special effect! Spielberg himself ‘godfathered’ the pic as producer and he must have been grinning ear-to-ear with the results. Not only from the big-bang stuff & all the affectionate nods at his own legacy, but at the wonderful perfs Abrams got out of all the kids. The film’s good; the kids are great.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In addition to this, Abrams has only helmed STAR TREK, its upcoming sequel & MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III. Born in 1966, isn’t it time he moved past his own adolescence?

DOUBLE-BILL: Any of the influencing titles mentioned above would do nicely, including the two non-Spielberg items.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011)

Everything about this L.A. based legal thriller feels intentionally retro, as if PRIMAL FEAR/’96 and JAGGED EDGE/’85 were the hot new films, and Hollywood was all abuzz for the latest Scott Turow. Well, why not? Roman Polanski showed how those old plot hooks could be repurposed by changing professions for THE GHOST WRITER/’10; with a template so familiar it shares a climactic ‘reveal’ with this film. But unless you fall for the characters or discover new angles in the familiar terrain, the plot twists can all be seen tailing you in the rear-view mirror. Sophomore megger Brad Furman knows it and tries playing the old L.A. noir games in sun-drenched locales, but he smooths off too many edges, wastes energy on fussy visual transitions and winds up dulling much of the threat. We jog along pleasantly enough, wasting time with a host of over-qualified actors looking for character hooks to play. (At times, everyone seems to be auditioning for some putative Elmore Leonard pic.) It would matter less if Matthew McConaughey, as a slick lawyer who doesn’t know he’s playing out of his league, could make good on the Paul Newman shtick. But keeping your shirt on and letting the camera highlight a few lines on a pretty face only helps the cause if you’ve got something new to show once the polish is removed.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Paul Newman most famously played the ‘smart’ guy who doesn’t know he’s getting ‘played’ as the rising pool shark in THE HUSTLER/’61 and as a fading lawyer in THE VERDICT/’82. But he’s even better at the game as the smoothie businessman in the less acclaimed ABSENCE OF MALICE/’81.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

CAPTAIN AMERICA (2011)

More derring-do from the Marvel Comics catalogue, but without the usual self-referential snark, hip attitude or pointless CGI overkill. Instead we get, of all things, a ton of charm. It has to be squeezed in, between all the fights & explosions, but still . . . such a pleasant surprise. The prologue in particular is a dandy piece of pop entertainment, with Chris Evans proving the most winning superhero since Chris Reeve donned a Superman suit. As Steve Rogers, a patriotic 90-lb weakling who needs to pass the army physical before he can fight the Nazis, he ‘wears’ a remarkably convincing stunt body (with computer assistance) before getting pumped up permanently as Captain America. But the performance is all his. This early section is beautifully designed; layered with respect & affection for period style and even some old style filmmaking. (Are they really shooting such a big ticket item on Paramount's 'standing' backlot NYC set? Good for them!) There’s little chance of maintaining this level of innocence & heartfelt sentiment once our boy gets super-charged (the basic set up is completely tone-deaf with the ‘good guys’ beating the Nazis thru genetic engineering!), but everyone in the big cast is pitch-perfect, ‘kidding on the square’ to fine effect. (Kudos to Sebastian Stan as the best bud, he scores in a thankless part.) No doubt it’s helmer Joe Johnston who keeps things from overloading and, even more importantly, relocates the sense of visual fun he had way back on THE ROCKETEER/’91. NOTE: Our poster is from a 1944 15-part serial you can see on YouTube. The graphic style matches up with the cool period posters used in the film's nifty End Credits.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Watch for a ‘lift’ from Powell/Pressburger’s great WWII fantasy A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH/’46. It’s the scene where the plane’s going down, but the pilot keeps talking to the girl over the radio. The whole creative crew pitches in to make it sound just right and look just right, with deliciously rich color saturation levels that mimic TechniColor.

DOUBLE-BILL: Alas, this film is a big set-up for an upcoming super-colossal All-In-One Super Hero mega-pic, THE AVENGERS. Talk about overkill. Why not see how Johnston’s THE ROCKETEER holds up. Or check out A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH for the ‘lifted’ scene. (It’s near the opening.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

HAK GAM / ISLAND OF GREED (1997)

Stateside followers of Asian actors like Andy Lau & Tony Leung Ka Fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu Wai) naturally associate them with the small percentage of their work that finds U.S. distribution. But with well over 100 titles for each, baskets of local product (mostly Taiwanese/Hong Kong) never gets over here. At least, not on legit DVDs with intelligible English subtitles. This one, from the brothers Mak, producer Johnny & megger Michael, helps fill the gap, but with a truckload of empty action calories. There seems to be a decent budget on it, but this typical actioner remains disposable stuff, loaded with guns & broads, explosions, flying attacks & lots of ‘yuck-yuck’ comic relief. In fact, it’s sillier than it has to be since the basic story of gangs & political corruption reaching all the way to the top of the Taiwanese police & government isn’t so far-fetched. (Just at the moment, it’s a big story over in Mainland China.) In this one, Leung is the fast-rising mob man who's running for political office while Lau plays the incorruptible investigator. They're both fine, but the Maks can’t be bothered to put two and two together for a readable action sequence. They’d rather just throw disconnected shots of mayhem around. (There is, however, one inspired bit involving hundreds of guard dogs running thru acres of cultivated farm land.) Still, the levels of destruction are impressive and the film is never less than watchable even if the actual DVD transfer isn’t as good as it might be. All told, a bit of a waste considering the production values and story potential. The Mak Brothers haven’t made a pic since.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Tony Leung Ka Fai gets a lot more out of similar situations in ELECTION/’05 and Andy Lau, though best known over here for historical epics, really shows his stuff in INFERNAL AFFAIRS/’02, a tightly plotted Cop vs Mob tale that Martin Scorsese puffed up into THE DEPARTED/’06.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000)

In a small, isolated village in Hungary, one of the town’s leading citizens fixates on the superiority of musical scales before they became ‘well-tempered.’ His ex-wife (Hanna Schygulla, of Fasssbinder fame) vows to return home unless he agrees to head a better government panel. His nephew/caretaker (a very fine Lars Rudolph) leads tavern habitués in a dance that demonstrates the lunar eclipse, before heading off to play general factotum & holy fool to the community at large. Then the circus comes to town. Not with the usual clowns & acts, but with a decayed whale as sole attraction. From such unexpected, even unrelated parts, Hungarian master Béla Tarr shows how thin a membrane civilization lives by, and how the moral equilibrium that holds a social order in place can rupture. Shot in uncomfortably long takes, Tarr’s slow-crawl tracking shots & phenomenal eye for monochrome composition help this challenging film fest fare live up to the hype. A compelling, mysterious fable of dread & escalating violence, it’s both inexplicable and unforgettable, as if Samuel Beckett had gone to film school in Pest . . . or perhaps Buda.

Friday, April 6, 2012

ANTON CHEKHOV’S THE DUEL (2010)

This adaptation is more National Theater than Moscow Art Players; taken from a novella that feels more Pushkin than Chekhov; and topped with a fumbled climax. But this ensemble piece about drifting Russians trying to sort out romance, friendship & entanglements at a Baltic coastal town is lively & involving all the way thru. Something of a companion piece to Chekhov’s THE LADY WITH THE DOG/’60, which got an all-Russian film treatment that nails tone & carriage without ever quite springing to life; here, the pluses & misses of that production are neatly reversed. Not a bad tradeoff. As the dreaming layabout who quaffs, bets and wants to abandon his mistress (now that her husband has died and made her all too available), Andrew Scott’s shlubby attire & careless grooming, can’t alter a performance that’s too tidy by half. As his nemesis, Tobias Menzies works too hard to prove that his arrogant scientist is a decent sort of chap. His rational outlook needs to be maddeningly sane. Yet, you wind up caring for them both. (Chekhov, ya know.) Fiona Glascott, as the lady in question, who’s equally wronged and wrong, is mesmerizingly right, with a malleable look that surges & ebbs to fit every situation. The ending, which is crucial since it reshuffles the cards for just about all the major players, is a serious miss by Israeli director Dover Koshashvili, but you can always read the novella to clear up any confusion. Better yet, read it first.

DOUBLE-BILL: As noted above, THE LADY WITH THE DOG to see all the particulars done ‘just so.’

READ ALL ABOUT IT: As mentioned, the Chekhov original.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

SECOND HONEYMOON (1937)

In the middle of your second honeymoon, the last person you want to run into on your hotel balcony is your Ex. Especially when Hubby #2 is too much the solid citizen and Hubby #1 still sets off the old chemical reactions. It’s kisses & spats until you succumb to the inevitable. Noël Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES? No such luck; it’s a misbegotten lunge at sophisticated marital comedy for Tyrone Power & Loretta Young and a cast of not-so-funny farceurs in this Fox programmer. (Poor Claire Trevor gets featured-billing, but nothing, nothing to do.) The stars revel in their dewy youthful beauty, but can’t do a thing with ersatz ‘rom-com’ zingers & quick reversals that are more WILL AND GRACE than NOËL AND GERTIE.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: You can hear the real thing with Noël Coward & Gertrude Lawrence in extended excerpts from PRIVATE LIVES, including the scene where they sing ‘Someday I’ll Find You,’ with Gertie wandering off pitch in her usual alarming manner. (Imagine Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Kurt Weill & Coward all writing classics for that wayward instrument. Amazing.) Or try M-G-M’s PRIVATE LIVES/’31, an early Talkie smash with Norma Shearer (pretty good) & Robert Montgomery (very good).

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)

Critical darling Kelly Reichardt (OLD JOY/’06; WENDY AND LUCY/’08) moves as deliberately as ever in this quiet annoyance. She’s still wandering into the wilderness, but this time in period setting directing a tiny band of wagoneering pioneers as they follow their increasingly unreliable guide. Running low on supplies & beginning to harbor mutinous thoughts, they come across a lone (lost?) Native American. Could this stranger in a strange land know a better route? Or will he lead them to slaughter? That is, if their miffed braggadocio-of-a-guide doesn’t shoot the man from race hatred, spite or jealousy. Reichardt starts right in the middle of the story, but even moving at a snail’s pace, you never get much of a handle on the characters. Or perhaps it's just that the fine cast (Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Will Patton) promise more than her one-note creations can deliver. There’s something fusty in the laconic dialogue, unreadably dark night-time shooting & even in the use of Academy Ratio framing. It's an artistic discipline that functions more like a hair-shirt than a spur to creativity, before she pulls the plug with a Lady-or-the-Tiger tease ending.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: John Ford’s WAGON MASTER/’50-meets-Nicolas Roeg’s WALKABOUT’71 sums up and improves on this. But if it’s 'Westward-Ho' pioneering you’re a’hankering for, there’s James Cruze’s hit silent THE COVERED WAGON/’23 or Raoul Walsh’s stiff early Talkie flop THE BIG TRAIL/’30, physical touchstones to the past in spite of much melodrama.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

THIS ABOVE ALL (1942)

Eric Knight’s ‘daring’ British-based WWII novel must have been tamed considerably for this plush, moody romancer between upper-crust beauty Joan Fontaine & chip-on-his-socialist-shoulder soldier boy Tyrone Power. The story has Joan ditching her stuffy family to join the WAAFs as a Private while Ty, who’s fending off an incipient nervous breakdown after heroic service in France, goes AWOL. In their only pic together, Power & Fontaine make quite the handsome couple (she’s just spectacularly lovely), but helmer Anatole Litvak isn’t able to help much on her crucial uplift speeches; too busy fighting a losing battle against the airless soundstage exteriors that undercut her hearth & homeland theme. Maybe that’s why the film is at its best during the blackout scenes where master lenser Arthur Miller, fresh off of John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41, gets to shoot darker than ever. The following year, Knight’s LASSIE COME HOME became a sensation, but the author died in a fighter plane which makes this one even more of a missed opportunity.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For that ‘sceptered isle’ patriotic glow, grab Laurence Olivier’s classic HENRY V/’45. That’s the message Fontaine is trying to get across here even though the film’s title is from HAMLET.

Monday, April 2, 2012

THEY MET IN BOMBAY (1941)

Before Pearl Harbor redefined the political landscape, Hollywood tended to tiptoe into the troubled international scene by bending the formulas of genre pics, twisting tropes like pretzels to serve new purposes. It helped give protective ‘cover’ against non-neutrality charges, but also made for odd bedfellows, as in this pic where near-schizophrenic plot-turns become both dramatically ridiculous & politically fascinating. Act One, finds Clark Gable & Rosalind Russell meeting-cute & ‘scoping-out’ the Bombay scene as rival jewel thieves. By Act Two, they’re joined at the hip and on the run in unchartered political waters. Act Three lands them in China where Gable, disguised as a British officer, winds up fighting in the real war & taking real casualties while Roz frets for her soldier boy. Vet helmer Clarence Brown can’t pull the separate pieces together (who could?), but he seems happiest in the middle section, upping the level of romantic fatalism between Gable & Russell with atmospheric lensing from William Daniels. Check out the composition & lighting in a cramped ship cabin scene where an open port window keeps catching a bit of Russell’s face as she & Gable fall in love. It’s the sort of visual movie-making magic Brown & Daniels once gave Garbo. (On a less happy note, the film uses full Yellow-Face make-up for Peter Lorre’s venal ship’s captain. He did better in the MR. MOTO pics with just a pair of glasses.) Once it gets going, this likable film does manage to show off the famed M-G-M polish, the faked Eastern locations are particularly impressive, just don’t expect to find much substance (or even structure) under the hard shiny gloss.

DOUBLE-BILL: Leo McCarey had Cary Grant & Ginger Rogers goose-step thru equally strange hoops in ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON/’42.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You really can see the making of George Clooney at times in Gable on this one. And fans of John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING/’75 can get a good idea of what Gable might have been like in the Sean Connery role by watching this. (Gable & Bogart were Huston’s original casting ideas when he first dreamed of making the Kipling story.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

MY DEAR SECRETARY (1949)

Indie producer Harry Popkin turned out some impressive low-budget dramas (D.O.A./’50; AND THEN THERE WERE NONE/’45), but he hasn’t a clue on this romantic screwball comedy. It’s painfully unfunny, a boulevard farce from (rightfully) unsung scripter/megger Charles Martin about best-selling author Kirk Douglas & best-bud Keenan Wynn auditioning a series of secretaries for sport. But when Laraine Day takes the position, romance gets the upper hand. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the set-up, they even use the built-in sexism to highlight a pre-feminist plot turn when Day turns out the better manuscript. If only the execution wasn’t so gruesomely labored. Helen Walker maintains some dignity as Kirk’s Ex, but everyone else overplays madly, trying to squeeze laughs between the moldering dialogue & mismatched close-ups. Day looks positively rattled and the more than decent supporting cast (Rudy Vallee, Alan Mowbray, Irene Ryan!, Florence Bates, Grady Sutton) can barely generate a chuckle. (Special mention to the art director, Rudi Feld, who designed the ugliest nightclub in romantic-comedy history.) NOTE: Lots of subfusc Public Domain DVDs on this one. If you must, try IMAGE/Corinth which looks fine if you tamp down the brightness level.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The classic Battle-of-the-Sexes comedy from the period is George Cukor’s ADAM’S RIB with Tracy & Hepburn sparking off the Gordon/Kanin script.