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Saturday, June 30, 2012

THE PRODIGAL (1955)

This minor entry from the glut of mid-‘50s WideScreen Biblical epics is a mash-up of the Prodigal Son parable & Elijah. Released under the insulting rubric ‘Cult Camp Classics,’ it’s none of the above, but merely Dull, Dull, Dull. Richard Thorpe, a vet M-G-M routiner, had recently surprised everyone with his unexpectedly lively megging of IVANHOE/’52, shot on location in the U.K. But back on his home turf, working on big, airless studio soundstages, he barely phones it in. At least Lana Turner looks yummy, a true High Priestess . . . of Burlesque. One look at those curves and the carefree Prodigal, Edmund Purdom, is ready to go the distance for her, unaware that Louis Calhern, Francis L Sullivan & Neville Brand (!) are all plotting to plunder his fortune, enslave him & make him renounce Jehovah. Purdom, who took over when Marlon Brando walked on THE EGYPTIAN/’54 and then replaced a fat Mario Lanza as THE STUDENT PRINCE/’54, isn’t bad at all as the heroic, if deluded Hebrew, if only he didn’t look so much like James Franco. (Check him out once he gets a shave.) Doomed to always be second choice. James Mitchell has fun as a mute who apparently learned to communicate from Harpo Marx and there’s actually a good perf from Joseph Wiseman as a conniving fair-weather ally. Plus, a great stuffed vulture for Purdom to fight! There’s even a big, bombastic Bronislau Kaper score! Sounds like goofy fun, but except for the busy last two reels, it’s kind of a drag.

DOUBLE-BILL: Instead of another bible story, why not stick with the M-G-M Middle-East tour of 1955 which continues from this film’s Culver City Damascus to Culver City Bagdad in KISMET.

Friday, June 29, 2012

NOTHING SACRED (1937)

William A. Wellman was the wrong man to helm a Ben Hecht newspaper comedy, but he bullied his way thru two: ROXIE HART/’42 (which grew into the musical CHICAGO/’02) and this one about the small-town gal dying of radium-poisoning who briefly becomes the Toast of NYC. Too bad she’s perfectly healthy. It’s certainly breathtaking cynical, Hecht was an equal opportunity skewerer, but alas not breathtakingly funny. Everyone’s in there trying . . . too hard: reporter Fredric March, editor Walter Connolly, doctor Charles Winninger & Carole Lombard as the suffering patient. The first half of the film works best, especially the famous scenes in small town New England (where a little kid dashes out from behind a fence to bite March on the leg!) or during the show-biz tributes to Lombard’s fortitude (horseflesh & strippers @ a nightclub and a bell-tolling moment of silence @ the pro-wrestling match). But Wellman’s films rarely live up to their potential*, plus you can feel the hand of producer David O Selznick weighing things down with showmanship & TechniColor. And a botched ending that feels like a failed rewrite because it is a failed rewrite. And not by Hecht. At least, it’s now possible to see a decent copy since KINO has trumped the faded old Public Domain ‘dupes’ with an edition sourced from the Selznick Estate copy.

DOUBLE-BILL: The number of first-rate Screwball Comedies can be toted up on the digits (fingers & toes) of a single human being. Even Lombard, the Queen of the Genre, only got a few great ones. MY MAN GODFREY/’36 shows her at her enchanting best.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Irene Mayer Selznick (daughter of Louis B., wife of David O. & by general consensus the smartest gal in town) thought Wellman the biggest phony in the biz. And while he does have some convincing early credits, it’s hard to work up much of an argument with her, though some might point to THE OX-BOW INCIDENT/’43.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (2010)

Like a jogger who keeps running in place when stopped by a red light, Woody Allen’s lesser pics only exist to keep the creative motor in tune. No fallow season for the Woodman! This extra dark comedy is set in Britain, though it barely partakes of the place, and it’s the usual roundelay of sex & recoupling. An old marriage (Anthony Hopkins/Gemma Jones) and their daughter’s newer marriage (Josh Brolin/Naomi Watts) are each breaking up. New partners appear for all (Antonio Banderas/Freida Pinto/Lucy Punch/Roger Ashton-Griffiths), but just bring new problems to replace the old. Life goes on . . . miserably. Only the slightly delusional get some sort of shot at happiness. It’s Woody’s most Hobbesian comedy (oh, that’s the English part), and even a jaunty narrator pointing out life’s absurdities can‘t lighten the mood. It’s a legit POV, but Woody makes his characters too foolish to buy into (the old goat/hooker bride is a particular embarrassment) and compounds the problem by saving his biggest narrative blunder for a final ‘got’cha’ moment.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Surely, the Donizetti opera Woody uses @ Covent Garden shouldn't be LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, but DON PASQUALE with a plot that mirrors the Anthony Hopkins story line 'to a tee.'

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

LOS CHRONOCRIMENES / TIMECRIMES (2007)

In this well-received debut pic, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo helms, scripts & even takes a major supporting role in a twisty time-travel fable. (He also earned a possible Stateside remake with some snazzy talent already attached.) The story follows an ordinary Joe who slowly comes to realize that the phantom figure he’s been following (or is it following him?) just might be . . . himself, a doppelgänger living on a slightly delayed parallel time line. The plot unwinds forward & back in a manner that’s pleasing & puzzling, cresting with a great moment-of-recognition cue that’s visually keyed to the (re)appearance of a blood-stained bandage. But after achieving this midpoint peak, the cat’s-cradle metaphysics begin to collapse. And by the finale, Vigalondo gives in with a tacit admission of defeat that ignores too many of the story’s implications.

DOUBLE-BILL: While Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO/’00 doesn’t involve time travel, he does find better answers to some similarly daunting time-weave continuity hurdles.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see how much difference a little bit of time travel can make in a story, try the brilliantly funny, deliriously silly goof on everything STAR TREK, GALAXY QUEST/’99. Why scripter David Howard hasn’t found more work in Hollywood is something of a sad mystery.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

THE GREEN HORNET (2011)

A smarty-pants dud that juggles the usual Super Hero tropes (mostly from BATMAN and IRON MAN) to little effect, comic or otherwise. Arrogant & inept in equal measure, it seems to have disenfranchised itself on entry. But if you do see a GREEN HORNET II on the horizon, scat!

Monday, June 25, 2012

THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958)

This Saturday Matinee B-pic from Paramount is a ‘thinking boy’s’ monster movie. It’s loaded with nice provocative ideas, but, oh!, that execution. A Nobel Scientist with grand plans on feeding the world dies just as he gets back from Sweden, but secretly his detached brain is revived inside the metal body of a giant robot by his slightly crazed father & his mechanically gifted older brother. But there’s trouble brewing (really?) since Dad always liked the dead son best and didn’t suspect his other son was now in love with the grieving ‘widow.’ She’s being kept in the dark about the monstrous resurrection, but can’t help but notice when her father-in-law goes rabid after the local clergyman (who also has the hots for the ‘widow’) blathers on about mortality & morality during the eulogy. Meanwhile, the scientist’s young son is guilt-ridden because Dad was killed chasing after his toy plane. So, when this kid bumps into the monster at his dad’s grave, he finds himself a large, metallic father figure. Now things really get strange! Suddenly, inexplicably, Mr Monster can see the future; he can see your thoughts; he’s even waterproof! And when he sees his older brother putting the make on his wife, he decides he was a chump to try and help humanity. Feed the World? Better to Destroy the World! Helped by its nonexistent budget, the film boasts a neat clean look (helmer Eugene Lourie’s day job was art director) and someone in the sound department worked up some creepy Geiger-counter noises for the robot-monster and really loud crashes for various breakable objects. Even the main titles and a solo piano background score show some imagination. If only the dialogue weren’t so painfully idiotic or the acting so thuddingly dismal. Otto Kruger is pleasingly mad as the scientist's father, but the wife (Mala Powers) really deserves some sort of booby prize. Just the same, low-budget sci-fi mavens will want to suffer thru it.

DOUBLE-BILL: Robbie the Robot also puts a scientist’s cute kid in harm's way in THE INVISIBLE BOY/’57.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While its all too easy to read pedophiliac tendencies into the most innocuous of actions, especially in films from the ‘50s, the level of discomfort goes pretty high here. Bad enough that the uncle gives gifts to the boy by having the kid reach into his pockets, but then Dad, in his monster form, first warns the child to never, never, never touch that little handle that’s hidden under his cape. And then, at the climax, when he needs the tyke to help him pull off his noble self-sacrifice, he orders the boy to reach in, find the ‘handle’ and push, push, push hard, Billy, push hard! Yikes!

BEZHIN LUG/BEZHIN MEADOW (1937)


It’s dangerous to make extravagant claims for a lost film (the damn thing might turn up!), but the scraps that remain from Sergei Eisenstein’s never-released BEZHIN MEADOW really do look like the residue of a masterpiece, a lyrical tragedy such as he never attempted before or after. After failed sojourns in Hollywood & Mexico, Eisenstein returned to the USSR having not completed a film since OLD AND NEW/’29 (aka THE GENERAL LINE). Oddly, he opts for another story on the struggle between the tradition-bound land-owning ‘Kulaks’ and the principled collective farmers. But in his first Talkie, the focus would narrow down to a father & son conflict, a drunken, murderous, God-fearing beast vs. his brave ten yr-old son, with the bright Soviet future on the line. Why this story earned the dreaded tag of ‘formalism’ is something of a mystery. The big set piece, a community desecration of the town church, must have pleased the authorities; and there’s little left to indicate a difficult story construction or arty use of Eisenstein’s preferred ‘montage of attraction’ theories. Perhaps the portrayal of the Kulaks left them looking too similar to the proletariat. Where were the upper-class airs & lording it over the masses? Perhaps. But there’s only so much you can dig out of the half-hour graphic story material that still exists. It was put together in the ‘60s from editing ‘trims’ Eisenstein kept as a record of the shoot. Inter-titles were created from the complete script & a background score was culled from Prokofiev cues. The bare bones that remain are both compositionally beautiful and unexpectedly moving. But are we reacting to the film . . . or to our own ideas, filling in on what has been lost? Three years later, the film’s producer was executed after the debacle while Eisenstein worked himself out of the doghouse, even won the Order of Lenin Prize, with the straightforward patriotism of ALEXANDER NEVSKY/’38. And then that film got buried for a few years in the wake of a Non-Aggression Pact fling with Hitler. Thus art under Stalin.

SCREWY THOUGH OF THE DAY: It’s hardly a state secret that Stalin’s policy of collective farming, particularly as it was applied in the Ukraine, was responsible for wide spread famine that killed millions. So, how are we supposed to respond to a film that justifies & celebrates what amounted to a state-supported death march? Maybe someone could start a blog to deal with this issue.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979)

The recent big screen adaptation of John le Carré’s novel (2011) turned out so well, you may wonder if the old BBC mini-series deserves a look, if it’s as good as you remember, if it merits nearly six hours of your time. Yes³! There’s plenty of material to justify the length, and the extra space helps fix the main weakness of the big screen version, not having the time to properly consider each of the four suspects. Secretly brought out of forced retirement to find the Russian ‘mole’ at the top of ‘the Circus,’ Alec Guinness's George Smiley gives a master class in the sheer force of listening. In this version, we feel as if we are playing this deadly game inside Guinness’s head, behind those crucifying eyeglasses instead of just watching it unfold. So, while the gasp-worthy moments in the new film version come off the beautifully choreographed action sequences, here, they come on a hush as Guinness puzzles things out for himself. And the effect is thrilling. The producers got lucky, going into production just as the BBC switched from shooting exteriors on film & interiors on video tape (a penny wise/pound foolish policy if ever there was one) to shooting everything on film. And they also got smart, hiring Tony Pierce-Roberts, years before he revivified the Merchant/Ivory films with A ROOM WITH A VIEW/’85, to shoot this in the underrated Super 16mm format. The original British broadcast ran 7 episodes. Stateside, PBS nipped it down to six, removing nearly 30 minutes. A new Acorn DVD edition keeps the six part format, but puts all the missing footage back in. Look for a running time of about 320 minutes. John Irvin’s helming; Arthur Hopcraft’s script; and a plus-perfect cast make this just about as good as these things get.

DOUBLE-BILL: Have a comparison party, check out the film version of TTSS.  In fact, you could watch it first and then watch this after a spell.  Watching it after this might just seem redundant.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965)

This big adaptation of Irving Stone’s big bestseller about Michelangelo, Pope Julius II and that big Sistine Chapel was a big fiasco for all concerned. But in spite of its miserable rep, it’s actually quite the big, fat entertainment. Charlton Heston’s acting range is all clenched teeth & dirty fingernails as Michelangelo, but he’s also a ringer for Mickey’s marble Moses (as De Mille noted when casting THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56) and that makes up for a lot. Rex Harrison’s got the bearing & voice for a Pope, plus he’s lit like a Titian portrait (courtesy of lenser Leon Shamroy) and given a characterization that looks back to his King of Siam (courtesy of scripter Philip Dunne). (Pope Julius & Michelangelo banter on about finishing the ceiling like Anna & the King arguing over her private house.) As director Carol Reed must have been aware, the film is not without its giggle-worthy moments, windy philosophical asides and that dreamy visualization of the Sistine Chapel in the clouds, but he does get over a sense of how precarious life in Rome had become. (Anyway, Reed had recently ‘walked’ on another mega-disaster, Brando’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’62, and had to see this thru.) They even do an intelligent job finessing Michelangelo’s ambiguous sexuality. No small thing in ‘65* And, in the superb 2004 restoration, you get to see another idea of what the frescos looked like when they were new. Tonally quite different than the real thing back in ‘65 or how they currently look after the recent major cleaning. (BTW, the film is just a little over two hours since the opening reel & a half are taken up by a potted tour of Michelangelo’s career as sculptor, closely modeled on the Oscar winning documentary, THE TITAN/’50.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Robert Hughes’ new historical tour of ROME, a great (if rather depressing) read, covers this period nicely.

DOUBLE-BILL: The best art direction for any film set during the Italian Renaissance goes north to a recreated Florence where the Gish sisters, along with Ronald Colman & William Powell made ROMOLA/’24 for Henry King. The available DVDs were all mastered from 16mm ‘dupe’ prints that barely reveal the astonishing urban sets and needle-sharp photography which include some divine color tinting effects. (That’s literally Divine, as in the Hand of God.) Since excellent materials exist for a proper restoration, perhaps the Gish estate will award its annual prize to itself and give this film the full restoration/musical score treatment it deserves/needs. It’s one of those films that dies a slow death on screen unless it’s shown at its full length (120 min) and with the best possible visual image.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Heston used to get all huffy when the subject of Michelangelo’s sexual orientation came up in interviews. But then, he also refused to see the gay sub-text Gore Vidal had slipped into the relationship between his Ben-Hur & Stephen Boyd’s Messala.

Friday, June 22, 2012

THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971)

The secret word on this NYC caper pic is SURVEILLANCE, but Sidney Lumet & scripter Frank Pierson don’t do enough with the idea. Sean Connery, fresh out of jail, moves in with gal-pal Dyan Cannon, a pricey tart who’s landed a lux flat on the Upper East Side. He figures he can rob everyone in the whole ultra-exclusive building with a gang of his prison buds and a start-up stake from his old mob pal Alan King. The gimmick is that his every move is being video taped or heard via wire-tap on various unrelated investigations already in place. Yet, he’s protected since any response from the cops or the Feds would screw up all the on-going cases. It’s a neat angle for a caper pic; if only Lumet & Pierson followed up on it. Instead, we get a series of meet-cutes as Connery puts his gang together and scopes out the victims. Even this might work if Lumet wasn’t still wedded to his coarse tv style, punctuating his laughs with gross close-ups designed to play on a small telly screen along with some alarmingly stagy character acting. (Two years later, Lumet would finally break out of his tv mind-set with SERPICO/’73.) At least, we can enjoy all the NYC location stuff, not so common at the time, a toupee-less Connery and a smiley Christopher Walken in his dewy debut. (And cringe at a couple of stereotypical gay types.) Plus, Lumet fanciers will want to stick it out to see a preview of better things to come starting with a smash ‘reveal’ in the third act (you’ll have no trouble spotting it) which sets up a suspenseful finale using sharp parallel cuts between the on-going robbery and the on-coming cops. They even manage to get one of those surveillance cameras involved with the plot.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

SKIDOO (1968)

After the issue-oriented ‘race’ drama HURRY SUNDOWN/’67 abruptly ended his winning streak, aging auteur Otto Preminger surprised everyone (including himself), producing & directing a ‘Mod,’ madcap, all-star comedy. The humorless Stanley Kramer had recently made a big success of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD/’63, and some people still think that’s a hoot. Why not Otto? So, with a hip young writer hired on his son’s recommendation*, and the likes of Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Fred Clark, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Peter Lawford, George Raft, Burgess Meredith, John Phillip Law, Austin Pendleton, Richard Kiel, Arnold Stang, Slim Pickens, Mickey Rooney & Groucho Marx in his old greasepaint mustache, it already sounded hilarious, right? (Cineasts will be shocked to learn that Mickey Rooney gives the pic's subtlest perf.) The two-tiered plot has retired hitman Jackie Gleason taking on one last assignment just as his curvaceous daughter takes up with a busload of free-loving hippy PeaceNics. With its Day-Glo costumes & berserk plotting, the film is so odd, such a calamitous collection of groovy attitudes & execution interruptus, that it acquires a kind of (painful) fascination. The few funny ideas get pummeled to death thru repetition and the film’s climax, a mass LSD-induced ‘trip’ on Alcatraz, could pass for one of Maurice Binder’s James Bond credit sequences. At last, the end credits come up, sung for us by Harry Nilsson. And, it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s adorable. Go figure.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Scripter Doran William Cannon managed one more credit, another quirky comedy with free-love, ‘hippy’ overtones, Robert Altman’s BREWSTER MCCLOUD/’70. That gets much closer to the mark and may be the only pro-virginity ‘youth film’ of its era.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

LUDWIG (1972)

Luchino Visconti’s LUDWIG is a hard-luck case. Cobbled together as a replacement for a canceled Proust project; the stress of production helped precipitate a heart-attack Visconti never fully recovered from; his ‘original cut’ was slashed by nearly an hour & a half; and it had to follow Visconti’s much acclaimed DEATH IN VENICE/’71. (Plus, in hindsight, find itself followed by his unjustly maligned CONVERSATION PIECE/’74, a sort of DEATH IN VENICE-Lite, that has now gained special status as a connoisseur’s piece.) Now, that we can see all 235 minutes of it, the film is much improved, and feels paradoxically shorter, but still problematic. Ludwig, King of Bavaria, was mad for castles, mad for Wagner operas, mad for pretty boys and just plain mad. Not far off from Visconti, yet the film feels staid & stale. A matter of taste? You can just about feel Visconti's disdain toward the heavy Bavarian hunting motifs that adorn the walls as he compensates by adding fussy edits to the stuffy interior scenes while lenser Armando Nannuzzi puts in hopeful, but useless little zooms. It’s only in the third act, as Ludwig starts to lose control that Visconti begins to find some. (No small matter in a film this length!) Alas, by then, we’ve lost the horrid Wagners, so entertaining played by Trevor Howard & Silvana Mangano, and are left with the Queen Mother, a Princess marked return-to-sender, an orgy’s-worth of Aryan boys with shaggy hair, and the voice of Giancarlo Giannini’s emanating from Helmut Berger’s Ludwig in the preferred Italian-language version. It’s all a bit daunting.

Monday, June 18, 2012

BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA / THE LAST CIRCUS (2010)

Writer/director Alex de la Iglesia is way over-the-top in this under-the-big-top tale, yet winds up singing the same old circus tune about the leading lady who can’t quit her brutish strongman lover, and the melancholy clown with the painted teardrop who pines for her in vain. In this iteration, everyone’s a clown and the gruesome disfigurements don’t come off with cold-cream, but the rise in temperature has barely changed things. Iglesia revels in the visual possibilities, taking advantage of miscues, misunderstandings & misadventures to prop up extravagant doses of gore, violence & sex, but to diminishing effect. Usually, there’s little point in bemoaning the film that didn’t get made, but BALLAD OF THE SAD TRUMPET is something of an exception to the rule since Iglesia did make that other pic . . . it’s the prologue to this film! And its something of a triumph . . . for a couple or three reels. Set three & a half decades back from the main story, in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, we open as a show is in progress. The clowns are on, the children are in hysterics, then the war marches down the street in all its insanity. The partisans forcibly recruit the circus staff (clowns, animal handlers, animals!, acrobats, the works) to beef up numbers for a suicide stand against a surge of fascist forces. We meet the son of the top clown, a chipper, bespectacled lad who bears little resemblance to the miscast lardass the film has him grow into. And while the frenetic style & Fellini-esque tone threatens to go off-balance, Iglesia is still able to make sense of things. Stunningly so. Then we leap ahead to the '70s, and find we’re working without a net . . . splat!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The ultimate in clown masochism & revenge remains Victor Seatrom’s/Sjöström’s magnificent Lon Chaney starrer HE WHO GETS SLAPPED/’24 - the first release from the newly combined M-G-M.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

KURONEKO / BLACK CAT (1968)

Kaneto Shindô’s influential ghost story is wildly theatrical & impossibly elegant; it’s also so far gone into Eastern custom, lore & attitude that it’s tough for a Western audience to keep from cracking-wise at the screen. In feudal Japan, a mother & her son’s wife are attacked by roaming samurai and left for dead in their burning home. Soon, their spirits, apparently preserved by their black house cat, brings them back as avenging ghost ladies. Then, when the husband returns from the war as a heroic samurai warrior, he’s assigned to eliminate the deadly ghosts before they kill again. Is love stronger than immortal revenge? Is killing your already dead wife & mother double jeopardy? Is he really having erotic sex with his wife . . . did he actually ask her if he should ‘come again?’ And did Henry James subtitle this THE RETURN FROM A SCREW? Shindô, on some level, seems aware of that screwiness, he makes the samurai’s commander an oddly hirsute comic vaudevillian; and some of the martial-arts tricks now look more than a bit dated; but there are too many bewitchingly lovely compositions to allow you to totally give in to the giggles. One magnificent sun-drenched silhouette shot of the husband galloping toward us on horseback is enough to justify the entire film. How was this shot accomplished?

DOUBLE-BILL: Shindô’s ONIBABA/’64 is considered something of a companion piece to this. But what a lot of Shindô films exist; 45 as director & scripts for 159!! His final release came out in 2010, and he was 100 when he died last month (05/12).

Friday, June 15, 2012

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (1962)

Jeffrey Hunter stars in this by-the-numbers WWII story about five navy men who run off to the hills of Guam rather than surrender when the Japanese occupy the island. One by one, they go down, until sole-survivor Hunter, with the help of some loyal locals, is able to get important info out to the U.S. fleet and himself saved. There’s a neat fact-inspired story in here (a bit like the secondary story in SOUTH PACIFIC) and the film, shot in the Philippines, often has a strikingly clear look to its photography as well as having its heart in the right place. Heck, not only does Hunter stick up for the islanders, he even pitches in at the local leper colony where he briefly takes refuge. And there’s some extra cool day-for-night panoramas across some cultivated fields during a race to the shore late in the pic. But far too much of the film is almost laughably amateurish, thanks to inept megging from producer Richard Goldstone & scripter John Monks, Jr. in their sole shot at directing. They’re really terrible, and the cornpone editing only adds to the inadvertent merriment. You’ll see why they both went back to their day jobs.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Just a couple of years later, FATHER GOOSE/’64 had Cary Grant & Leslie Caron teasing a pretty good comedy out of this situation.

ILUMINADOS POR EL FUEGO / BLESSED BY FIRE (2005)

This Argentinian pic from Tristán Bauer shows how the humiliating loss of the Falkland Islands (the Malvinas had Argentine prevailed over Britain) continues to resonant. The memories come flooding back to one vet, now a reporter, when he visits a psychologically troubled soldier-pal, now in a coma after a suicide attempt. The film then jumps back to 1982 to give witness to the ineptly conducted war, the horrible conditions & the sadistic military discipline that made a bad situation hopeless. The film has a lot going for it technically, the recreations are often harrowing, but Bauer neglects to vividly personalize his three main grunts, reducing them, and hundreds of other conscripts, to bland ‘everymen.' He does better at particularizing a few incompetent officers, but can’t maintain a lot of tension to one-sided battles that are all routs & retreat. (Oddly, the ultimate responsibility of the military leaders at home is hardly touched on.) At the close, Bauer stumbles badly, bringing a survivor back to the Malvinas for a bit of easy, unearned sentimentality in his old fox-hole. Much better is an earlier scene that shows a pick-up soccer game breaking out spontaneously after the army’s final retreat. Loosely scripted & unforced, it shows what missing from the rest of the film.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (1934)

Warner Bros reset the template for swashbucklers by adding three key ingredients to their production of CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35: Michael Curtiz’s kinetic helming; the impossibly lush scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold; and the youthful dash of a barely known Errol Flynn. But their success didn’t come out of a vacuum, and this sturdy indie production, from producer Edward Small & helmer Rowland V Lee, was the likely budget template that helped Warners finally regain the old Doug Fairbanks’ mojo for the sound era. Because of his perf in this, Robert Donat was offered the lead in BLOOD*, and he could hardly be bettered as the wronged man who escapes from a prison dungeon to find fortune & revenge in Dumas’ oft-filmed tale. (As in most adaptations, he also finds tru-love, though the book holds to the same French romantic fatalism found in CYRANO DE BERGERAC.) And how tenderly Donat speaks the play's famous catch-phrase, 'The world is mine.' Imagine Eugene O'Neill's dad, James, bellowing the line on those endless tours that robbed him of his natural gifts; as his son's LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT would have it. The limited budget occasionally shows on screen here, but this is generally quite a show, with a rip-snorting pace and a second echelon cast that only occasionally let their flat Mid-Western vowels detract from a proper Continental flavor. Look for the Hen’s Tooth DVD which, though hardly pristine, represents a significant improvement (in image quality and completeness) over past editions.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Donat, who never worked in the States again, skipped BLOOD to play yet another ‘wronged man’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS/’35. Not a bad trade-off. And he’d play modern swashbucklers in KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR/’37 and in THE ADVENTURES OF TARTU/’43, a little seen gem that’s a bit of a precursor to James Bond.

DOUBLE-BILL: Those who can accept the absurdly docile fellows who pass for hardened prisoners in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION/’94 can enjoy seeing how closely it follows Dumas.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

LA MUJER SIN CABEZA / THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008)

Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel tries for the untouchable in this enigmatic film about a middle-class/middle-aged woman who hits something more than a bump while driving home. Pulling over, she’s too dazed & upset to check on things, so continues on her way. Later, after being checked for concussion, she seems not quite herself, barely responding to friends or relatives and sloughing off at work. But now she’s fixated on the event, convinced she’s killed someone, an idea buttressed when a lower-class teen is discovered drowned in the canal near the incident. Martel is careful to only indicate possibilities or likelihoods, keeping everything slightly off-kilter with purposefully misframed shots (usually a bit too close) designed to miss a key piece of info; or with fog-like inadequate lighting. At times, she’ll play out an entire scene from the reverse-angle without letting us see the opposing primary shot we expect to begin with. It’s often effective, she’s an obvious talent, but the story might work better as a half-hour anthology show episode, at feature length, it palls. Intriguing suppositions and mild reverberations of class entitlement carry us only so far. And did Martel really think it was a good idea to burden her film with a misleading horror pic title or to literally shoot the final scene Thru A Glass Darkly?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

L'INNOCENTE / THE INNOCENT (1976)

Italian cultural/political icon Gabriele D’Annunzio is better remembered for his affairs with actresses Sarah Bernhardt & Eleanora Duse than for his own over-heated writing. And his two famous mistresses might well have faced off as the rivals in this novel that became Luchino Visconti’s last film. Apparently, D’Annunzio had ANNA KARENINA in mind writing the novel, but it’s Ibsen’s HEDDA GABLER that hovers over the story. Giancarlo Giannini plays a rich aristo who ignores his quiet wife for more passionate partners. But when a fashionable writer briefly takes up with the missus, the husband's interest returns with a vengeance; now complicated by her pregnancy. The delicate, beautifully bosomed Laura Antonelli plays the wren-like wife (the Duse role) while Jennifer O’Neill gets Bernhardt’s putative role as the sophisticated, free-loving mistress. But it's Giancarlo, in a gender reversal, whose part follows and/or reflects the lines of Ibsen’s anti-heroine: stuffy, mismatched marriage; literary lover; unwanted pregnancy; near-comic reversals in the third act; even a climactic suicide by hand gun. The parallels are striking. But could D’Annuzio have even been aware of a play just two years old? Already a famous playwright at the time, writing for Bernhardt (his affair with Duse came later), perhaps he read the Ibsen in translation. Or just read about it. We’ll never know. And we’ll never know if this film could have been improved since Visconti died before post-production. Yet the film is, if anything, more vital than his other late works, with the expected beautiful finish waiting to be broken. It’s a strange, uncomfortable film (and a strange, uncomfortable story), cruel & vicious, a tragic comedy of manners. And while Visconti no longer evinces his former control, it’s a film no one else could have made.

DOUBLE-BILL: Martin Scorsese’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE/’93 shows how you can get all the exteriors right on these things, and still miss the target.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999)

Istanbul must be a lucky location for James Bond pics. Back in ‘63, the series found its footing by the Bosphorus with FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE/’63. 17 entries later, #19 pays a return visit and comes up better than its rep would suggest. Sure, the action sequences are painfully bloated and lame double entendres clutter up the script, but the film actually has a story that builds, makes sense, and features some neat reversals.* We also get some sweet new characters including Robbie Coltrane’s fine Turkish Pooh-Bah, Denise Richards’ smart, sexy, funny sidekick, and Robert Carlyle’s pain-immune villain. Helmer Michael Apted, a talented non-specialist, is a dab hand at suspense and deals out the big action stuff to the second-unit so as to concentrate on getting a bit of detailed work from the Bond regulars. Plus, there’s a swell Tyrannosaurus Rex of a Tree-Trimmer that almost tops seeing James Bond out on a date with the long-suffering Miss Moneypenny! (It’s just a funeral, but still.) So, keep your expectations under control, let the pre-credit action sequence play out (almost two reels long!), and you’ll have a pretty decent time of it. And don’t forget to wave ta-ta to ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewelyn) who gets a swell send off.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY I: Maurice Binder is no longer around to make those goofy/sexy title sequences, but must we stoop to the ghastly mess we get from Daniel Kleinman? (See our poster to get the flavor of the thing.) And while the producers had dropped John Barry years back to pursue more modish music meisters, Michael Apted tried to amend this diss by assigning Barry to score his next film, ENIGMA/’01. The film, which grossed about one hundredth (!) of what this one made, turned out to be Barry’s swansong.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: *You don’t really notice it until the film is over, especially since the first half of the story is something of a feint, but with the substitution of oil for ingots, GOLDFINGER/’64 is the underlying template on this one.

Friday, June 8, 2012

EXODUS (1960)

Producer/director Otto Preminger didn’t exactly shy away from the clunky dialogue & even clunkier exposition of Leon Uris’s wildly successful novel on the founding of Israel, so you’re never quite sure if the film is working in spite of or because of its blunt design. Dalton Trumbo’s script uses those grinding gears as a dramatic response to the intractable political history of the region, and the simplifications are comforting, dragging you in as it manipulates. Playing the angry leader of the underground army, Paul Newman gives one of his best early perfs, maybe because Preminger doesn’t let him linger. The rest of the huge cast are also kept on an emotional leash (Lee J. Cobb only shouts once), though Eva Marie Saint looks faintly ill from the heat. The biggest surprise is that the story isn’t completely whitewashed, there’s plenty of good & bad deeds & will on all sides. But for film mavens, the real prize comes in seeing the strengths & weaknesses of Otto laid bare. Watch an early fight scene where Sal Mineo struggles with a few British soldiers. Mr. P. seems all thumbs. Yet later, when Mineo is tracked & trapped on his way to a terrorist cell, a score of complicated narrative details are covered with a few handsomely composed master shots. Preminger’s preference for long takes leaves some scenes begging for rhythm & air, but it sure helps this four-hour behemoth go down easy. (Though pulling this off on 4 mill also means you print lots of ‘mike’ shadows & camera gaffes.) But now that homes have larger WideScreen sets, Preminger’s technique finally ‘reads’ properly. Alas, the current DVD edition needs a major upgrade.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Two films from 1960 claim bragging rights for breaking the blacklist with an on-screen credit to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Technically, SPARTACUS wins with its October release. But even with a December debut, Preminger scored points by announcing his intention to give credit first. One of the many Production Code taboos Otto delighted in breaking . . . and publicizing.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

THE PAGEMASTER (1994)

The year before TOY STORY/’95 renounced animation’s mission reduction to babysitter and jump-started its return to form, the rear-guard guys tried to cash in on the fast-fleeting popularity of HOME ALONE star Macaulay Culkin with this dreadful piece of cartoony ‘family-friendly’ uplift.* (Too late!, Culkin retired for a decade after his wan ‘94 film crop.) In the live-action bookends, Culkin plays a nerdy scaredy-cat who stumbles into Christopher Lloyd’s magical library. (HARRY POTTER fans who feared what that film franchise might have looked like without real Brits can get an idea of the horror happily avoided by watching these two ham it up, with Culkin in Potterish eye-wear & Lloyd in wizard wardrobe.) Before our lad can find his way out, the library books come alive, the pic switches to animation, and we’re off on a big find-your-way-home adventure, with cameo appearances from varied childhood classics at every plot reversal. Lame doings at best. No one brings anything fresh to the party, but Whoppi Goldberg is a particular disgrace as ‘Fantasy,’ one of the three chattering tomes who serve as comic sidekicks. They help Culkin discover that both books & boys need spines . . . or need to find an EXIT . . . or need only pay half price at matinees. Well, the kid learns something! Which is more than you or your kids will get out of this.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *Family-Friendly, that’s code for any harmless film stuffed with phony wonderment that will bore parents & kids equally . . . and count on no one mentioning it to the other party. Martin Scorsese’s HUGO/’11 was a super classy/expensive/floppo example of the form.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

GOODBYE AGAIN / AIMEZ-VOUS BRAHMS? (1961)

The rapid changes in social mores (ta-ta Hollywood Production Code) & filmmaking styles (hello New Wave) are nicely integrated in Anatole Litvak’s first Paris-based pic after three decades in Hollywood. Handsomely shot on location by Armand Thirard & superbly designed by the legendary Alexandre Trauner, it’s adapted from a very French Françoise Sagan novel. But, crucially, it’s ‘pitched’ just a few degrees too high, with too many actors ‘selling’ their characterizations rather than playing them. This is particularly the case for Anthony Perkins as a rich, spoiled young man who falls hard for an age-conscious Ingrid Bergman.* She’s susceptible though, right in the middle of a crisis with long-time steady Yves Montand who’s constantly playing around with cute young things. Step by step, Litvak keeps putting his foot wrong, but the film, perhaps because of our attachment to Bergman, who at 46 has acquired a tragic beauty that can take your breath away, grows on you, becoming emotionally engaging in spite of itself.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY I: French businessman/politician Dominque Strauss- Kahn could play the Montand character in a remake.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: *Perkins' perf may appear too jejune & ridiculous to swallow these days, but it must have played very well at the time since he won Best Actor @ Cannes. Some things go out of fashion . . . but not his smoking little Triumph sports car!

DOUBLE-BILL: Françoise Sagan’s beginner’s luck on her first novel BONJOUR TRISTESSE transferred to its 1958 film adaptation, a masterpiece from Otto Preminger.

Monday, June 4, 2012

SPARTACUS (1960)

The one-two punch of breaking the Commie-Conspiracy/Hollywood blacklist with a proper screen credit for scripter Dalton Trumbo, and the latter-day esteem of co-megger Stanley Kubrick has helped earn this pet Kirk Douglas project a rep as the ‘thinking man’s’ Sword & Sandal pic. It’s certainly an entertaining package, but, now more than ever, the sum looks to be less than the parts. The biggest problem is a simple one of balance, the Brits (that is the Brits playing the noble Romans), wipe the screen from the hapless Hollywood thesps. (Although John Gavin, of all people, is remarkably good as a young Julius Caesar.) So, while the film tries to inspire us with the doomed, but heroic revolt of Spartacus & his army of freed slaves, the first half is taken whole by Peter Ustinov, stupendously funny & eventually touching as the gladiatorial entrepreneur. Part Two is, if anything, even less of a contest, with Laurence Olivier working at full throttle as Crassus, First Consul of Rome. And it’s a sight to behold! (Especially with the noble Roman profile he worked up on the bridge of his nose.) And then there’s that sly pussy-cat, Charles Laughton, nabbing everything that’s left as savvy populist Senator Gracchus. These three also trampled all over Trumbo’s script. Olivier tweaked his part mercilessly (to fabulous result) while Ustinov got hired (off the books) to rewrite his scenes with Laughton. (His own stuff, too, to judge by the sound of things.) The flat, earnest voice of the real Trumbo can be heard everywhere else, as in the deadly love scenes between Kirk and his slavey mate, lovely Jean Simmons who seems to have dropped in from Mayfair, Britannia. And who was responsible for dressing those sound-stage exteriors where these two bill & coo? Or for the night-before-the-battle evening stroll as Spartacus makes like HENRY V with Trumbo & Kubrick lifting a ‘touch of Harry in the night’ from Olivier’s famous 1944 film. (Naughty, naughty, boys.) But then, most of the estates & locations positively smell of California. Even the impressively organized battles are over before they begin. Kubrick, who came in after Anthony Mann had shot enough for about four reels, always kept this one off his C.V. And it wasn’t out of a false sense of modesty.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Was Peter Ustinov the greatest of all movie raconteurs? Most DVD editions of SPARTACUS come with his pricelessly funny 1992 interview on the film, peppered with hilarious impersonations of Laughton (those lips!); Olivier (the hauteur!); dimwit American visitors; and even a touch of sentiment & pride. Endearing stuff.

CONTEST: Alex North’s score opens in brilliant fashion, using a dissonant mode that perfectly fits Saul Bass’s stunning credit sequence. And, of course, there’s the big love theme everyone knows. But in between, a disheartening amount of repetitious ‘filler’ and whole reels where he barely seems to be taking in the action at all. Then again, if you’re really in need of a big slurpy Spartacus theme, you must try out Khachaturian’s Lenin Prize winning ballet version from ‘54. So slurpy was this Spartacus love theme, it got repurposed for another fatalistic period romance shot in the ‘60s. And with no Romans in sight. Name the film to win a DVD Write-Up of your choice. As always, no Googling, please.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

THE GIRL FROM MISSOURI (1934)

Irresistible. Thanks to scripter Anita Loos, Jean Harlow owned the funny, sexy broad department @ M-G-M in the mid-‘30s. Loos defined the type for Harlow’s studio debut in RED-HEADED WOMAN/’32 and, of course, years before in her signature creation, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES’ Lorelei Lee, the Little Girl from Little Rock. This film is, for all intents & purposes, The Further Adventures of Lorelei Lee, now a Little Girl from Missouri named Eadie. This platinum blonde even has a matching brunette sidekick in man-hungry Patsy Kelly. And, just like the novel, Harlow’s character is out to nab a millionaire while Kelly goes for the hunky doorman or the flatfoot. But the main story has Jean smoothly segueing from middle-aged Lewis Stone after he suicides to his business rival Lionel Barrymore. If only she wasn’t so attracted to that handsome wise-ass kid in the old man’s office. That’s Franchot Tone in a wonderfully likable perf. (Imagine Jon Hamm doing rom-com in the ‘30s.) And what luck!, he turns out to be Barrymore’s up-and-coming son. But marriage? Barrymore goes to extravagant ends to put the kibosh on things, but the plot has some sharp edges to go with the funny lines. Heck, even Jack Conway’s megging is up to speed on this zippy delight.

DOUBLE-BILL: Howard Hawks’ GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES/’53 made Loos’ creation far too coarse & obvious, with a leering, male adolescent tone that all but subverts Loos. But Jack Cole’s choreography & Travilla’s costumes undoubtedly stamped Marilyn Monroe’s form on Lorelei Lee . . . or was it vice versa?

Friday, June 1, 2012

DANGEROUS WHEN WET (1953)

Esther Williams only had a couple of pools left to conquer when she made this frustrating chamber-sized musical. Frustrating because it comes so close to being really good. Esther plays the eldest daughter of a health-crazed farming clan who get a shot at swimming the English Channel as a publicity stunt for Jack Carson’s ‘Power Beverage’ company. Along the way, everyone but Esther gets disqualified, Carson ‘settles’ for the charms of sexy French contestant Denise Darcel and Continental smoothie Fernando Lamas successfully puts the moves on Williams. Helmer Charles Walters keeps everyone from pushing too hard, with unusually relaxed playing from natural vaudevillians like Carson, William Demerest & dear Charlotte Greenwood who gets to shine with a moment of eccentric dancing. But not much else is quite as good as it should be. The Arthur Schwartz/Johnny Mercer score is painless, but hit-free; the scenes in France have no atmosphere; Lamas is a handsome devil, but emotionally onanistic; even the much excerpted Tom & Jerry meet Esther animated underwater dream adds little. With its spirit of good, breezy fun; a nail-biting race; and a fast & funny wrap-up; it’s a shame that just as Williams was finding a personality sans water-ballet spectaculars, her studio was getting ready to pull the plug.