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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

LE FEU FOLLET / THE FIRE WITHIN (1963)

Drunks are boring. Reformed drunks? Even more boring. And French existential, nihilist, suicidal, narcissistic, literary reformed drunks? Don’t ask. It’s only when put thru some dramatic prism, be it comic, grotesque or poetic, that drunks become interesting . . . at least, if you’re not drinking with them. But in Louis Malle’s much admired adaptation from Drieu La Rochelle’s novel, Maurice Ronet fades away from his friends, his life & himself with such intense plainspoken honesty, it creates an unsolvable (or is that insoluble?) dramatic problem. The film is almost too carefully composed, with punctuating close-ups and tricky editing that begs to be noticed at just the wrong moment. Ronet toes a fine line between pathetic & sympathetic, but the rest of the fine cast are reduced to playing backboard to one character flaw after another. Only Jeanne Moreau, in an enchanting bit, is allowed her own wholeness & mysteries. Or, she is until an odd send off leaves her in some sort of opium-infused literary salon out of the '20s. (Something left over from the novel?) Many will feel infinite sadness watching Ronet give it up after turning the last page of GATSBY; and even those who don’t may understand how important it was for Malle to get this out of his system before he could move on.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)

In this Pre-Code Talkie (‘Speaking French’ in our poster), Joan Crawford loses her dad & her fortune to the Stock Market Crash, but finds a new life as a reporter, investigating gangsters in the bootleg booze racket. The role gives her a shot at her three main character types: rich, hedonistic flapper; working-class striver; low-gravity hoofer. Crawford got her start dancing and she made her mark in the silents playing flappers, but sound changed everything. Her attempts at a refined tone made her sound labored, and without the help of silent film ‘undercranking,’ her dancing looked earthbound. But she suddenly became convincing, even touching, playing working stiffs, taking shorthand, peeling potatoes or on a production line.* Here, Crawford gets nice support from 6th billed Clark Gable as a sharp, deadly gangster; Cliff Edwards as an easy-going reporter; and William Bakewell as her weak-willed brother. And if Harry Beaumont wasn’t the liveliest director of the day, he rouses himself for a tough, atmospheric street shooting. (Atmosphere courtesy of lenser Charles Rosher.)
DOUBLE-BILL: *Crawford’s previous pic, PAID/’30, helped locate Joan’s specific wrong-side-of-the-tracks character, and director Clarence Brown made it magical in POSSESSED/’31. You can find the latter thru Warners VOD.
CONTEST: Howard Hawks’s gangster classic SCARFACE was shot around the same time as this film (though it had a delayed release in 1932). The two films couldn’t be more different, but they do share an odd touch. Listen for it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Monday, May 28, 2012

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939)

It’s never been quite clear whether Hollywood soured on director James Whale or he soured on them.* Best known for his work @ Universal (FRANKENSTEIN/’31, a superb WATERLOO BRIDGE/’31, THE INVISIBLE MAN/’33, SHOW BOAT/’36), he seemed to just give up after three final indie pics, of which this was the first. It’s remarkably plush-looking for a budget-conscious swashbuckler, and, after decades in subfusc Public Domain editions, looks it in a fine DVD restoration from Hen’s Tooth. The old Dumas tale is heavily tweaked, reversing the personalities of the ‘real’ King & his secret twin brother, plus two Musketeers get a bit lost, and the story construction wobbles during a miscalculated fourth act, but most of it works pretty damn well. Some of the casting is inspired (Warren William’s aging D’Artagnan; Joseph Schildkraut’s naughty Fouquet; Joan Bennett’s gorgeous Princess; Nigel De Brulier ‘3-peating’ as Richelieu) and Louis Hayward is fine in the double role. Lenser Robert Planck and the tech department add gloss & some neat trick shots, but Whale was no Michael Curtiz swashbuckler behind the camera, and the film desperately misses the passion & glamor of a Korngold score. But it’s a more than decent shot at the genre, and gives nary a clue of Whale’s growing disinterest. Or perhaps, just one. Who could make this story and skip showing the unmasking of its hero?

DOUBLE-BILL: The best version of this oft-filmed Dumas is Douglas Fairbanks’ enchanting (and very moving) final silent, THE IRON MASK/’29. Be sure to get the restored version (103 min.), available on KINO. And more happy news from the folks @ Hen’s Tooth. They’ve also refurbished another, even better, swashbuckler from this film’s indie producer Edward Small, Rowland V. Lee’s THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO/’34 with Robert Donat made just before he did THE 39 STEPS for Hitchcock.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *The usual explanation, nicely dramatized in GODS AND MONSTERS/’98, shows how Whale wearied of the compromises, hypocrisies & Hollywood rules for its gay players. But this is too pat by half and hardly acknowledges similar career arcs for scores of industry talent that may have been straight, foreign or non-white. Look at our previous posting for an example of another highly successful, but non-gay director (George Sidney) who hung it up at just the same age. The wonder is the guys who keep going.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

BATHING BEAUTY (1944)

George Sidney was still in his 20s when he got tagged to make three of the plushest musicals of the WWII era: THOUSANDS CHEER/’43; BATHING BEAUTY/’44; and ANCHORS AWEIGH/’45, one right after the other. Each one plots a light romantic course as an excuse for a series of specialty numbers, but this middle one has advantages over its brethren: it’s two reels shorter than THOUSANDS; five reels shorter than ANCHORS; and it swaps out Kathryn Grayson’s screechy coloratura for Esther Williams’ breast strokes. The plot, such as it is (7 credited writers!), is that old standby, the Runaway Bride. That’d be Esther, who runs back to her job at an all-girls college, closely followed by Red Skelton’s disappointed groom. Red’s quite the charmer here, but when she refuses to see him, he enrolls. Yuck, yuck. Of course, we’re really here for the music & comedy routines, and they’re both better & a good deal lighter than in the other two pics. Xavier Cugat & his Latin gang set a beat; trumpeter Harry James floats around his band; there’s some decidedly odd organ stylings from Ethel Smith*; a bit of clowning & a comic ballet ‘numbo’ for Red in a tutu; and (finally) Esther’s eye-popping water ballet. Poor George Sidney got stuck helming that plot, but what else? The water ballet is largely the work of B’way vet John Murray Anderson in a rare film outing, but who staged the other good stuff? Dance directors John Alton or Jack Donohue? Sidney? It’s well above the norm and worth a nod.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Her delectable billing card reads ‘Ethel Smith - Formerly the Hit Parade Organist.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: You can spot some gags Buster Keaton worked up for Skelton. Watch for Buster’s signature ‘two legs up’ fall. Scary when a big guy like Skelton does it! And just maybe you can also spot Buster’s wonderful wife Eleanor swimming with Esther.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

TEA FOR TWO (1950)

After filming two version of NO, NO, NANETTE (1930 & ‘40), Warners dusted it off for a third go ‘round, only to throw away everything except for a few of the old Vincent Youman songs. And even these were buttressed with some Gershwin & Harry Warren standards. (Note how the writers’ billing card on the DVD release smudges out the ‘adapted from’ credit, and a promised Rodgers & Hart tune, ‘Here In My Heart,’ never materializes.) It doesn’t sound promising, but this typically dopey Doris Day vehicle is lightweight fun most of the way. We jump back to 1929, none too rigorously to judge by the clothes & design, with Doris playing a Trust Fund baby who enjoys singing & dancing lessons . . . and her instructors (Gordon MacRae & Gene Nelson). The story obstacle that passes for a plot is her promise to finance (and star in) the boys’ new B’way show, unaware that she’s lost the family fortune in the Stock Market Crash. Day had initially been teamed with beefy Jack Carson, but now she’s more appropriately partnered with smooth MacRae & athletic Nelson. (The latter puts Doris thru some of the toughest dance routines of her career.) But what lifts this one (slightly) above her norm are the comics: Eve Arden as a wisecracking gal-pal; S. Z. Sakall as her Uncle/Advisor; and Billy De Wolfe as her fey femme-chasing phony fiancé. Arden doesn’t get much help from the script, working on sheer attitude; but De Wolfe shows off some alarmingly funny flexibility; and Sakall actually gets some good gags & funny bits to chew on. Usually, he had nothing but his waddles to shake, though that may have been enough for his German fan base. (Note the poster, above.) And don’t skip the TOM & JERRY cartoon, TEE FOR TWO, in the Extras. Its violent quotient might give ITCHY AND SCRATCHY pause.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You know that gimmicky Piano POV shot; the one that looks out at the player? Director David Butler unwisely adds the piano keyboard to the bottom of the frame. Very odd; and it exposes MacRae's digit fakery.

Friday, May 25, 2012

THE COMPLETE JEAN VIGO (1930-34)

  • À PROPOS NICE/’30

  • TARIS/’31

  • ZÉRO DE CONDUITE/’33

  • L’ATALANTE/’34

Two documentary shorts (one plain, one fancy); Four-reels of adolescent anarchy in a boys’ school; A short feature film about newlyweds adjusting to life on a barge. That’s the Complete Jean Vigo. But it was enough for a legacy, and to anoint him Patron Saint for all forward-thinking French Cineasts. Dying at 29 from chronic lung ailments, Vigo is to film as George Orwell (downed by TB) is to essayists or Dinu Lipatti (downed by leukemia) is to classical pianists. And while these artists’ reps have undoubtedly been burnished by our own dreams of their unfulfilled promise, they each left enough to justify the extravagant claims made for them. The recent Criterion DVD edition comes with some excellent Extras that help set up these wonderful films. There’s a fine 90 minute tv documentary from the ‘60s, loaded with cast & crew interviews (instead of the usual academic bloviators) to get you started. (It features clips from dreadful old prints that give the glistening restorations in this set an extra charge; Boris Kaufman’s great cinematography reborn at last.) Watch the documentary first to give you a taste of Vigo’s distinctive mix of anarchy, realism, surrealism, eroticism & playful delight. On the other hand, it’s probably best to watch the survey on the various cuts/mutilations of L’ATALANTE after seeing the fine new restoration. Vigo followers will note that the superb restoration used on this DVD has dropped the controversial dance montage (added in the ‘90s?) which never fit in with the rest of the film. Essential stuff, and incredibly joyous.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TAKE SHELTER (2011)

This shaggy dog story, from rising indie writer/director Jeff Nichols, takes itself very, very seriously . . . until it collapses with a ‘gotcha’ ending that tries to have its cake and eat it, too. Michael Shannon, who might be David Letterman’s kid brother, stars as a MidWestern drill operator who lives with his nice young wife & their little deaf girl. In a land of big sky & storm clouds that dwarf a man, he finds himself drifting into panic attacks, hallucinatory dreams & a maddening urge to build a bigger, better storm shelter. He’s convinced that the ‘big one’ is coming and he wants to be ready. Then again, having a schizophrenic mom makes him think twice about his obsessions. Is he prophetic . . . or losing it? Nichols eases us into these neuroses with a quiet, but sure technique that balances the madness of Kubrick’s THE SHINING/’80 against Terrence Mallick’s prairie vistas & laconic kinfolk. But it becomes something of a problem when the film starts to feel drawn from the imagination (and even the images) of other films rather than out of its own characters. The textures grows thin and the argument palls as Shannon gives in to his visions. Perhaps that trick ending is a disastrous acknowledgement by Nichols that ‘cures’ the essential dullness of his conception, but kills the pic. Nichols is talented, but he needs better reading material.

DOUBLE-BILL: Those who love the ending, might try Lars von Trier’s stupefying MELANCHOLIA/’11.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

THE TUNNEL OF LOVE (1958)

Barely adapted from one of those ‘smart,’ B’way comedies designed for the ‘tired-businessman,’ it’s a toss-up which is flatter, the wise-cracking, slightly smutty dialogue or the soundstage studio lighting. Tom Ewell starred in the original New York theater production, giving a near-reprise of his 7 YEAR ITCH characterization. In this story, he goes a’straying not with the girl upstairs, but with a lady from the adoption agency who's there to check him & his wife out as possible parents. It's a moral slip his errant, hard-drinking neighbor (Gig Young) strongly approves of. In his first time out directing something he’s not also starring in, Gene Kelly seems terrified to alter any of the set-in-cement stage business,* which leaves an underused Doris Day to overplay wildly as the blindsided wife and Richard Widmark (in the Ewell role) reciting ‘asides’ without quite breaking the fourth wall. Dreary stuff. If you do stick it out, there’s a bit of relief in the third act when Elizabeth Wilson, the sole holdover from the stage cast, shows up. She plays the second adoption agency investigator, and while her timing, energy & slightly heightened acting moxie can’t exactly redeem the script, it does show how this might have lasted for a strong run of 417 perfs.

DOUBLE-BILL: Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH/’55 also looks stifling & stale, but the great man brings a gleeful conviction to the coarse comedy, capturing Tom Ewell (and, of course, Marilyn Monroe) in signature roles.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film was a dreadful bomb, but Kelly must have pleased co-scripter/producer Joseph Fields since he hired Gene on his next B’way show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s FLOWER DRUM SONG. Then the 1961 film gig went to Henry Koster.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)

It’s as if the LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE creative team made their very own version of TITANIC . . . but with flames in for the iceberg and that old luxury-liner standing up as the world’s tallest skyscraper. That’s what you get with this gaseous all-star disaster pic from the mid-‘70s cycle of similar nail-biting atrocities. Producer/co-director Irwin Allen was riding high after THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE/’72 and he got two-studios to pony up for lots o’ cash & an extra-classy cast. But it’s still a ten-ton, three-hour stink-bomb. There’s a bit of fun to had checking out the tricky billing etiquette (click on the poster); listening to the Oscar®-winning song (Oy!); wondering why O.J. Simpson is left holding a cat for most of the pic’s second half; and savoring the tooth-achingly awful clothes, furnishings & colors (the green!, the blue!, the orange!). Most of the wasted cast know how to lean back and ride the situations, but poor Paul Newman keeps trying for a bit of honest emotion. Oops! Steve McQueen gets by (just), even with that haircut. But he must have known something other than the fire had been snuffed out. He stayed off the screen for four years after this big hit, and never really returned. (And if you think the residue of a post-9/11 world gives this brick pile any resonance, think again.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As these things go, POSEIDON ADVENTURE sticks it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

FLANDRES / FLANDERS (2006)

Bruno Dumont got the Grand Jury Prize (Cannes code for Runner-Up) for this bluntly told homefront/warfront story of the post 9/11 ‘war on terrorism,’ NATO-division. And while its unvarnished look at homefront sex & uncompromising battle carnage undoubtedly earned it kudos on the fest circuit, the core story of rural boys leaving home & girlfriends to fight an implacable enemy in an unfathomable conflict is depressingly familiar. Dumont raises the level of graphic realism, but you need only glance at Goya’s war drawings to see their like from centuries past. The filmmaking style is recognizable from the brothers Dardenne and Bresson, non-pro cast, sparse dialogue, simple camerawork, but Dumont’s closes all the exits before we have started, the film is hobbled by predetermination. Only an unexpected shot of soldier boys riding thru the desert (in Tunisia?) on horseback takes us off-course. Who knew the military still had horses. And he makes things even tougher not by the brusque, businesslike savagery of wartime atrocities, or by his clipped jumps in continuity, but by disconnecting us from his cast when they exchange their ‘civies’ for buzz cuts & fatigues. We barely know who’s getting slaughtered. No doubt, his point, but a worn one. And served up with a side of contempt for characters he views as little different than the rutting cattle they lead about.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

ELMER GANTRY (1960)

The insensitive, tough-guy temperament that coarsened so much of writer/director Richard Brooks’ output, works for him in this sharp adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel about an evangelical roadshow in the ‘20s. There are scenes (in newsrooms, in bars, in a brothel) that are about as awkward as big-budget Hollywood filmmaking gets. Then, he’ll pull off a technically demanding fire-breathing climax with a master’s elan. (Or are we seeing a fine second unit in action?) But the casting choices, and the blunt, driving script are all his, and they show Brooks at his best. You won’t find all that drive in the book, Brooks cleverly swapped out the expected battle between Faith & Hucksterism (personified by Jean Simmons’ Sister Sharon & Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry) for the more ambiguous battle of Faith & Sexual Fulfillment (featuring the same twosome); and this electrifies the second half of the pic. Lancaster gives a fearless, OTT perf that’s equally startling and wonderful.* Jean Simmons is even better as the true-believing Preacher; her mid-Atlantic accent is just right here, exactly what a MidWesterner would ‘put on’ to reinvent herself. There’s fine support from Arthur Kennedy (playing the same Menckenesque journalist Gene Kelly fumbled over in INHERIT THE WIND/’60) and from Dean Jaggar as the properly suspicious manager. (Burt’s insanely expressive hair also deserves a nod of its own.) Only Shirley Jones, a blackmailing ‘ex’ from Gantry’s past, rings false. Highly watchable, but a spruced up DVD transfer would be nice.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It’s fun to imagine Luchino Visconti watching this after being told he had to use Lancaster as the contemplative, aging aristo of THE LEOPARD/’63! Happily, it worked out better than either could have guessed. They wound up pals, and later, doubled down on the mysterious, and still unsung, cockeyed marvel of CONVERSATION PIECE/’74. BTW, if you ever wondered what Burt could have done with THE MUSIC MAN, a part he campaigned hard for, this, rather than the near-Harold Hill lead he played in THE RAINMAKER/’56, shows what might have been. Right down to his fine, lusty singing.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

FIVE / aka 5IVE (1951)

Radio drama autuer Arch Oboler made a few indie pics between runs of his signature LIGHTS OUT! radio-thrillers.* BWANA DEVIL/’52 retains a measure of fame for starting the ‘50s 3D craze, but this apocalyptic post-nuclear fable may be his most assured pic. The set up is familiar from batches of similar tales, a small group of stragglers try to sort out the why & wherefore of their unlikely survival and figure out what to do next. Complications pile up as class, jealousy & sex (natch) rear their ugly heads, often, as here, with a sole femme forced to fend off multiple suitors. The setting may be post-atomic, but this plays out less like ON THE BEACH/’59 than like Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT/’44. Note the sympathetic black guy (a surprisingly modern non-stereotypical characterization from Charles Lampkin); the Euro-superman racist (James Anderson); even a bare-chested workingman/proletariat type (William Phipps). Alas, no Tallulah Bankhead in this bunch. Instead, we get shy, pregnant Susan Douglas who can’t accept the loss of her husband. The film takes itself very seriously, far more than Hitch’s naughty wartime parable did. Heck, even a square like C. B. De Mille was kidding the idea back in ‘34 with FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE. But on its own simple terms, the story still churns up conflict, especially with the unexpectedly strong filmmaking instincts shown by Oboler who apparently did everything but brew the morning coffee to put this package together. The occasional skeleton corpses aren’t all that scary, but his shot choice and feel for placing his characters against vast landscapes make you want to take another look at his other stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Follow this link (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC2mNJcYtvw) to hear THE DARK from Arch Oboler’s LIGHTS OUT radio series. It may well be the creepiest 10 minutes in radio history. Turn up the volume, turn down the lights, and get ready to be afraid. Very, very afraid.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

JANE EYRE (2011)

Charlotte Brontë’s chef-d’oeuvre has had an unusually happy second-life on screen, and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s new adaptation continues the tradition. Scripter Moira Buffini adopts the stormy night/flashback structure Ben Hecht used on Emily Brontë’s more intractable WUTHERING HEIGHTS/’39 for William Wyler, and it works even better on this more straightforward story. Pitch-perfect casting (Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench & Jamie Bell) and pin-point location scouting aid the cause; and no one’s trying to reinvent anything: Jane’s still the wronged orphan who’d be too good to be true if she weren’t so obstinately honest; and Rochester’s still the forbidding Lord of the Manor, a disruptive romantic with a secret past he keeps locked up . . . literally. Still, next to the spellbinding panoramas of rough countryside, the realistically played drama comes off a little too safe & gray, disconnected from the real Brontë wildness.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lenser Adriano Goldman turns out a darkly handsome image. Maybe too dark. Ever since Stanley Kubrick & lenser John Alcott used actual candlelight to shoot those BARRY LYNDON/’75 interiors, cinematographers have been having a major peeing contest testing film stocks against dimmer & dimmer light sources. But just how truthful are these period pools of illumination? Light three or four candles in your study, turn off the lamps, wait half a minute and . . . hey!, it doesn’t look at all like what you see in the movies. With film or digital equipment, the camera lens loses mid-range unless you ‘cheat’ with some ‘fill’ light. In this case, ‘honesty’ might do a better job at capturing awards than truth.

DOUBLE-BILL: Just about all the JANE EYRE adaptations have something to recommend them, but only the old, rather brusque Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles version (from ‘43) has a lineup of kids that includes Peggy Ann Garner (of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN/’45) as young Jane, the unbelievably exquisite 11 yr-old Liz Taylor (uncredited!) as her doomed little friend, and Margaret O’Brien as the ward, Adele. Plus a score from Anglophile Bernard Hermann who’d go on to write an operatic WUTHERING HEIGHTS. But, if you’ve had enough real Brontë, you could stay with Joan Fontaine in REBECCA/'40, Daphne du Maurier’s fake Brontë. The connection is particularly clear here since this film’s Michael Fassbender doesn’t play the usual scary, brooding, sardonic or cruel Rochester. He's haughty, remarkably like Larry Olivier as that Rochester rip-off, Max De Winter in . . .REBECCA.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

CASBAH (1948)

Play it again, Pépé. It’s the third time out for the criminal gang who live & work with the infamous PÉPÉ LE MOKO/’37 in the twisty lanes of the CASBAH in the old fortress quarter of ALGIERS/’38. A few tunes were added & the third act’s rejiggered, but most of the familiar story remains. Le Moko is still a ‘wanted’ man, hiding in plain sight with his local squeeze (Yvonne De Carlo), safe as long as he stays in his exotic aerie. But when he meets a beautiful Parisian who’s taking a tour, he loses his heart . . . and his mind. He knows he’ll have to follow her. So does his ‘shadow,’ the patient inspector who’s been waiting to grab Pépé outside the gates of the Casbah. Crooner Tony Martin doesn’t exactly ignite the screen with the stoppered passion that Jean Gabin & Charles Boyer gave to the part, but he’s smooth, handsome and might have been a good deal more if debuting Märta Torén, an Ingrid Bergman wannabe, made more of a connection. The best reason to check this out is to watch Peter Lorre’s wily inspector playing just the sort of role he usually ceded to Sydney Greenstreet. Songsmiths Harold Arlen & Leo Robin came up with a couple of good ballads and a real swinging number, "Hooray For Love,’ which doesn’t seem to belong in here. But where’s the rest of the score? Helmer John Berry hurts the cause with set ups that won’t cut, and a minimal budget that keeps the Casbah from being properly maze-like. But he does grab a neat trick from his Mercury Theatre past, restaging a famous bit from Orson Welles’ legendary JULIUS CAESAR production when a couple of cops get surrounded in the Casbah. And watch for a sweet backtracking shot right at the end that flaunts a cutaway set to board a plane without a cut.

DOUBLE-BILL :Julien Duvivier’s PÉPÉ LE MOKO/’37 stands head & shoulders above its English-language imitators with a fatalistic-romantic pull that's as strong as ever.
NOTE: This title is currently available (at a collector’s price) only on VHS.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

LES TEMOINS / THE WITNESSES (2007)

French writer/director André Téchiné is slightly off his game here, pushing his cast into unconvincing relationships & over-calculating his story points to fit a pre-arranged pattern. But he’s such a whiz at his craft, holding fast to the great French humanist tradition, that he almost brings it off. It’s 1984 and a set of somewhat unlikely friends (children’s book author, vice cop, middle-aged gay doctor, operatic soprano & her hedonistic kid brother) run a gender-variable sexual roundelay, falling in & out with various partners, until the specter of AIDS intrudes on an already complicated situation. Téchiné has to reach too hard setting up his first act, doughy doc Michel Blanc comes within inches of ‘chickenhawk’ territory, Emmanuelle Béart’s aversion to parenthood is too ‘neat’ for a kiddie book writer, and the ‘surprise’ coupling of Sami Bouajila (the vice cop) & Johan Libéreau (the kid) starts up with (wait for it) mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after a near-drowning. (Oy!) But once the health crises begin, the film quickly gains dramatic interest, and not only from the jarringly laissez-faire attitudes the French have toward sex, fidelity & child rearing. Just don’t expect the apologetic, sexless, bathetic tone of a PHILADELPHIA/’93.

DOUBLE-BILL:Téchiné may be best known for WILD REEDS/’94, a superb film that also has a gay coming-of-age theme, but he’s much too fine a director to be ghettoized. His films with Catherine Deneuve & Daniel Auteuil (separately & together) are all worth looking up. SCENE OF THE CRIME/’86 is a particular treat.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

DORA-HEITA (2000)

It took three decades for Japan’s Kon Ichikawa to get this on the screen. Co-scripted by Ichikawa with Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita & Masaki Kobayashi, the project died aborning when their indie production company tanked with the commercial failure of their first release, Kurosawa’s DODE’KA-DEN/'70.* Last of the classicists and sole survivor of the group, Ichikawa was a lively 85 when this got made, and he still turns out one gorgeous product. (Especially so in AnimEigo’s DVD transfer.) Koji Yakusho is delightfully blunt & devious as the new town magistrate, sent from Edo (ancient Tokyo) to clean up a notorious vice district. The problem is that the long-entrenched Council of Elders are all receiving a generous ‘cut’ of the illegal profits on drugs, booze & sex traffic. Others have failed at the task, but Yakusho has worked up a disruptive & highly original plan of attack, rudeness instead of readiness, and he has a couple of inside helpers to shake things up. There’s more talk & strategy than action here (the story winds up being a bit too one-sided for its own good), but it’s good talk, good strategy and, when it does show up, good action. All beautifully laid out by Ichikawa who keeps his storyline, characters & action clear as a bell. And note how he uses a strong-willed gal pal from Edo and a deadpan pair of official record-keepers to make most of the Japanese comic business scrutable to Western eyes. The film’s a treat.

CONTEST: *Hmm, this set up sounds a lot like the one that played out in post-WWII Hollywood when three top directors & a studio production chief opened an independent company that went bust after their first release didn’t live up to financial expectations. Name the company, the ‘disappointing’ film they released (a second title retained the banner-head, but was ‘packaged’ as a studio deal) and the three heavy-weight directors involved to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

LA FAUTE A FIDEL! / BLAME IT ON FIDEL! (2006)

This exceptional Child’s-Point-Of-View charmer was the debut for writer/helmer Julie Gavras (daughter of Costa-Gavras). It did chump-change biz Stateside after the fest circuit and her next, LATE BLOOMERS/’11, hardly showed up at all. This is both perplexing & exasperating. This first film is a near-classic, a lovely, deeply felt & honestly complicated look at a nine yr-old girl, a marvelous Nina Kervel-Bey in her sole credit, who is pulled out of her comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle & the certainties of Catholic School when her folks become political activists. It’s 1970 and Mom’s moving toward a feminist agenda while her Spanish-born Dad is picking up on the anti-Franco/pro-Allende radicalism his late brother-in-law had fought for. While her kid brother bounces along with all the changes, Nina, already something of a spoiled princess, adds a stubborn negativism to her personality. Gavras does a great job in showing how Nina starts to question her assumptions and how she subtly alters her view on friends, grown-ups & her own evolving ideas about just about every big-picture/small-picture issue. It’s a wonderful journey, for Nina and for us. The film hits a visual peak during a big family argument as Nina grabs her brother by the hand and they dash out of the house, striding away thru Paris as matching cuts keep swapping out the background as they storm off. Gavras occasionally misses her set ups, the characters are tricky to sort out at first, and she doesn’t make enough of the move to a new, smaller apartment, but this is pretty damn fine freshman work.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

LE BEAU SERGE (1958)

Thanks to a small, unexpected inheritance, Claude Chabrol got a jump on Truffaut, Godard & the rest of the Cahiers du Cinèma gang, kick-starting the Nouvelle Vague by writing, helming & producing this sharp character piece. Jean-Claude Brialy stars as a young man who returns to his hometown, hoping for a quiet, restful winter after a bout with TB. The rural town itself is one of the main characters and it seems much the same, for better and for worse. But Serge, his best pal from the old days, isn’t the same. He’s drifted into a dead-end marriage, a dead-end job and a deadening drinking habit; and the main theme of the film shows how trying to revive a friend & a friendship is one of those ‘good deeds’ you wind up getting punished for. Especially when old wives & new girlfriends complicate some serious male bonding. Working easily with lenser Henri Decaë, Chabrol shows a quick visual command that makes it look at if he’s been doing this for decades. And the tricky mix of balancing professional actors & local amateurs hardly fazes him; a natural from his first camera set up, a smoothie. (Only a comically maladroit score from Émile Delpierre’ in his only film credit suffers from freshman jitters.) Gérard Blain is electrifying as Serge, the rebellious, handsome, eponymous pal (very French James Dean, ‘Rebel Without A Baguette’). Best of all, you can already feel the nasty edge Chabrol likes to season his characters & plots with. It also exposes his main fault, pushing too hard on a single character flaw/tic to make his stories add up. Often as not, it’s worth the effort.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THEW DAY: Watch for Chabrol & assistant director Philippe de Broca in bit roles playing a couple of locals named ‘Truffe" & Jacques Rivette. Oh, those Cahiers Cut-Ups!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

TEMPEST (1928)

Figuring out what side of the Russian Revolution to root for twisted Hollywood story conventions into knots. The old ruling class had the manners, the balls, the clothes & the palaces, but they were the bad guys; right? Ipso facto, the unwashed proletariat, those revolting communists were the good guys; da? In theory, the strain of figuring out where our ideas & ideals might fit into the Soviet social equation could have heightened the drama, but the favored stories tended to fudge the issues, running from complications of class & ideology. Literally so here, as John Barrymore’s commoner gets a rare officer’s commission, but finds no welcome from his ‘betters’ in his new station. Worse, he falls hard for the Commandant’s haughty daughter, a chilly Camilla Horn, bringing disgrace on all sides. Stuck in solitary as WWI plays out, he reemerges to a New World Order where peasants rule and the old guard face mass executions. That’s when he spots Horn, still beloved, amongst the condemned. The story never quite takes off, Barrymore & Horn would generate more heat under Ernst Lubitsch in their next collaboration, ETERNAL LOVE/’29. Fortunately, the film has more than enough style to make up for it. Sam Taylor helms with plenty of pace, but the real stand out efforts come from William Cameron Menzies art direction, Charles Rosher’s stunning cinematography (he does wonders for the 45 yr-old Barrymore) and from the tasty perfs of the mostly male cast. There’s great support on the left from Boris de Fast’s proto-revolutionary, on the right from Ullrich Haupt’s cruelly sadistic Captain and below from Louis Wolheim as Barrymore’s unlikely BFF, the real love match in the pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: In THE LAST COMMAND/’28, Josef von Sternberg used similar story elements, along with Emil Jannings, William Powell & Evelyn Brent, to create a masterpiece.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A famous Barrymore story has him betting a cameraman that he could well up in both eyes and then produce one perfect tear right on cue. This must be the film. Look closely as he’s being degraded from Officer to Private. Collecting on the bet, Barrymore refused all kudos on his acting. ‘That’s not acting, you fool. That’s crying.’ And he knew the difference. Watch him in the films he made after the one-two punch of playing off Garbo & Kate Hepburn in 1932 . . . and over the next two years until his memory began to give out in 1935. That's acting.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)

Kim Darby & Jim Hutton, in their post-feature tv purgatory days, discover a gaggle of nasty Gremlins hiding in the Fixer-Upper they’ve inherited. The mini-spooks were safely sealed up years ago by handyman William Demarest, trapped behind bricks in the cellar fireplace. But darned if Kim doesn’t want to remodel the room as a study. And darned if those dead little freaks of nature aren’t ka-razy to get their teeny paws on her. Yikes! Seen at the right age (say 8 or 9), this bargain-basement Movie-of-the-Week scare-fest can stick in your head. Cultists include the likes of director Guillermo del Toro who went to the trouble of producing a slick, poorly received remake in 2010. But it’s not the sort of thing you want to make ‘New & Improved!’ Clunky execution and those squeaky little ogre voices account for nine-tenths of whatever spooky charm it’s got. The only thing you might want to add might be period advertisements during the commercial interruption spots, and maybe a bit of subfusc tv reception. That might help.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Boomers may recall that director John Newland was the skeptical, gracious, calm & creepy host of ONE STEP BEYOND/’59-‘61, a sort of diseased TWILIGHT ZONE ripoff. Now, there’s a cult waiting to happen.

Friday, May 4, 2012

MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962)

Though the famous story is too abridged for a general recommendation, what with songs, commercials & a bookend sequence fitted to a one-hour tv time-slot, in many respects this groundbreaking animated Christmas Special is both unexpectedly faithful to its source and unexpectedly memorable. The trick to the thing comes in having Quincy Magoo (impeccably voiced & sung, as always, by Jim Backus) play Scrooge in a manner that’s informed by the traits of his myopic cartoon character, but not overburdened by it. (It’s the same magical balance of character comedy that George Cukor & W. C. Fields so famously managed on Micawber in DAVID COPPERFIELD/’35.) The simplified animation style of UPA, Magoo’s home studio, with its flat washes of color & uncluttered graphics, worked well with the limited television production methods of the time, and the show still looks charming on today’s larger screens. The line-up of Christmas Spirits is reordered: Present; Past; Yet-To-Come; presumably to put more space between the introduction of the big Christmas song and its reprisal at the end. It also holds off the two strong ballads Jules Styne & Bob Merrill cooked up for the Christmas Past sequence so they appear right in the middle of the show.* The two waïfs, Ignorance & Want, have gone missing, as does Ebenezer’s nephew & his crew, and the scarier elements are downplayed. But there’s a knockout background layout for the cemetery scene, done in the manner of Edvard Munch. One of many nice surprises in this unassuming winner.

DOUBLE-BILL: This is, on the whole, the best of the four CHRISTMAS CAROLs done in B’way Musical style. SCROOGE/’70 works too hard at being OLIVER!-II. An amazing cast makes it sound tempting, but take care!, Leslie Bricusse’s annoyingly generic tunes can really get stuck in your head. THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL/’92 feels like an idea no one sparked to, or perhaps a contract that needed to be filled. And Alan Menken’s actual stage version, A CHRISTMAS CAROL: The Musical/’04, which triumphed in its last holiday season with Jim Dale playing Scrooge, was completely miscast for the TeleFilm. Best to stick with the songless Alastair Sims version from 1951 which ‘sings’ pure Dickens.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hard to believe, but a third ballad was discarded by the songsters at the time, only to be repurposed a few years later for FUNNY GIRL as ‘People.’

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

ON BORROWED TIME (1939)

Crotchety Lionel Barrymore catches Death in his apple tree . . . and won’t let him down in this tough-minded bit of whimsy taken from Paul Osborn’s sturdy play. Along with Bobs Watson as his adoring Grandson, Barrymore lays it on pretty thick in the film’s first half as ‘Mr Brink’ (in the alarmingly calm & reasonable form of Cedric Hardwicke) spirits away the boy’s parents, Grandma and then tries for Granddad. That’s when Death gets tricked into that backyard tree and Takes a (forced) Holiday. That’s also when the film, which has threatened to tip over from sentiment, starts to make its case. Not only does Death/Brink find his voice and make a neat defense for himself (very GBS)*, but just as crucially, Henry Travers (Capra’s Clarence the Angel) playing Barrymore’s worried doc, finds just the bone dry sceptical tone needed to make the fable come to life. Barrymore, no slouch when nudged off his hammy tricks, rises to the occasion, pulling back as the story moves toward a series of clever dramatic reversals, ending with a quietly shocking, sobersided finale that would never have made it past a modern focus group. Harold Bucquet megs without resorting to a lot of spectral effects, helped by unusually rich tech work from lenser Joseph Ruttenberg (check out the stream-of-conscience tracking shot he gives mean Aunt Demetria) and from Franz Waxman who supplies heaps of atmosphere with his background score.
DOUBLE-BILL: A 1957 Hallmark Hall of Fame version had Beulah Bondi repeating as Grandma, plus Ed Wynn & Claude Rains in for Barrymore & Hardwicke. It even had the real Margaret Hamilton as mean Aunt Demetria, played here by Hamilton manqué Eily Malyon. Alas, it’s not available. Instead, try Brad Pitt in MEET JOE BLACK/’98 which is an updated version of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY/’34, something of a companion piece to this. (DEATH once came on a deluxe BLACK edition, but is now hard to find.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Fitting, since George Bernard Shaw pegged Hardwicke as his second favorite actor.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

COUP DE GRACE / DER FANGSCHUSS (1976)

It’s tough to be a romantically fatalistic, self-destructive/self-deluded, sexually disturbed Countess in the best of times! Just try playing these psycho-sexual mental games as WWI closes down on your family’s crumbling Baltic estate while the Russian Red/White Civil War spills over your property. Choosing sides & choosing partners barely leaves time to see that the love of your life may be more interested in your handsome officer brother than in you. No wonder Margarethe von Trotta (who stars & co-scripted for her husband/director Volker Schlöndorff) is on edge. It sounds perfectly fascinating, and offers a superb physical look in sharply etched b&w, but it adds up to less than the sum of its ill-fitting parts. And that includes the wildly over-parted von Trotta who comes off as a modern neurotic. The rest of the cast is quite effective, including a fabulous bit of stunt casting in ancient cabaret artist Valeska Gert as a half-mad Aunt. Otherwise, the film's shortcomings in psychological detail and finding simplistic answers to philosophical conundrums are all too typical of Schlöndorff.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT:François Truffaut & Jeanne Moreau set the modern cinematic standard for this sort of thing with JULES ET JIM/’62. But should your interest run toward the military endgame of the Russian Civil War, Miklós Jancsó’s CSILLAGOSOK KATONAK/ THE RED AND THE WHITE/’68 is a tremendous find.