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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE FORMULA (1980)

The real missing formula here is the secret for making a big-budget international thriller. Steve Shagan adapted his own novel about a hard-nosed L.A. detective (George C. Scott) who starts out investigating a murder and winds up on the trail of a Nazi-era recipe for turning coal into synthetic oil. Shagan’s idea of suspense is to bump suspects off as soon as Scott gets his next clue, then he ships him off to scenic spots in Europe where he meets shady lady Marthe Keller and leaves a few more bodies . . . after getting the next clue. Director John Avildsen is at sea here, urban blight was his thing, not skullduggery among the rich & richly upholstered. The only possible reason to watch this is Marlon Brando who comes up with a goofy take on a big, sly oil tycoon/Master-of-the-Universe pussy-cat with Milk Duds to spare. Taking third billing, behind Scott, Keller and the title, Brando plays character actor and seems to be having a fine time, working Scott like a cat with a mouse. And Scott, to his credit, takes pride & pleasure in losing the game. And how come Brando resembles Dick Cheney, circa 2004? (See photo.) Uncanny.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In this 1980 pic, Scott ‘defends’ his new Asian/American partner by ‘correcting’ offensive terms like ‘Sloe’ or ‘Chink,’ insisting on ‘Oriental,’ which, of course, is a rug.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Two years before this, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL made a nice hunk of change using Greg Peck, Larry Olivier, Lilli Palmer & James Mason much as this film uses Scott, Brando, Keller & John Gielgud. While almost as trashy as this pic, it seems to know itself and features a wonderfully naughty score from Jerry Goldsmith, sublime lensing from Henri Decaë, ultra-slick production from helmer Franklin Schaffner, and triple the gross M-G-M got out of this dud.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

ANASTASIA: THE MYSTERY OF ANNA (1986)

Pace this film’s subtitle, there never was much of a mystery. Anna Anderson, a Polish refugee who passed herself off as the only surviving daughter of the last Czar, had neither the Romanov looks nor a plausible story to sell herself as the real Anya; she didn’t even speak Russian. (Why no one bothered to give her a test in comprehension is the only true mystery in here.)* But this relatively lavish tv mini-series (it runs a little over three hours and runs out of steam long before the end) at least holds a passel of fine perfs from some starry acting vets (Olivia De Havilland in her next to last role as the Dowager Empress; Rex Harrison bowing out sharply as the presumptive Romanov head); plus a fine debut from Christian Bale as the young, death-obsessed Alexei. Edward Fox mumbles impressively as a kindly doctor, Claire Bloom is both desperate & resigned as the doomed Czarina & UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS mavens get a chance to see Rachel (Lady Bellamy) Gurney. The leads are just okay, Amy Irving enunciating in Mid-Atlantic mode & Jan Niklas as her main supporter doing a sort of junior-league Dirk Bogarde impression. And note that Susan Lucci looks only slightly older in 1986 than she does today! (No mystery there, either.) No, the interest lies in just how resilient this silly story is. Not even the truth can kill it, a real life case of ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,’ as John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62 famously put it. (Few bother to note that this is precisely what Ford refuses to do.) A decade later, when the old myth had been scientifically demolished, a full-rigged animated version turned up. Maybe those Bolshies should have used silver bullets.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The recently released THE IMPOSTER shows yet one more case where grief-stricken relatives ignore all available evidence so they can believe a loved one is still alive.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Anatole Litvak’s fondly recalled 1956 ANASTASIA may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but the parallels between Anya trying to reclaim her name & title and Ingrid Bergman successfully reclaiming Hollywood stardom after her Italian exile proved irresistible. That version, taken from a French play, also finesses any story arc problems by having a bunch of swindlers start to believe their phony Anya might just be the real thing.

CONTEST: Distinguished elder actresses love playing the Dowager Empress: a grand, delayed entrance, two nice scenes played from a seated position, and special appearance billing for twelve minutes of work. Yum! Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury, Lynn Fontanne & Olivia De Havilland have all taken the plunge onscreen, but only one of them ever co-starred with another legendary actresses who played that part not on screen, but on the stage. Name the mystery actress, the title of the production where she played the Empress Dowager, which of the four listed above was her co-star, and the vehicle the two vets acted together in (it was on tv) to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Friday, July 27, 2012

RIFFRAFF (1936)

Spencer Tracy took featured billing in this ramshackle Jean Harlow pic which had been planned as his M-G-M debut after producer Irving Thalberg brought him over from FOX. It wound up being shot second, and then got released third. So his big debut looked a bit like a demotion from above the title to below. Things could only improve after this . . . and they did. (His next three in this same year were FURY, SAN FRANCISCO & LIBELED LADY!) In the event, this one feels second-hand with fading scripters Anita Loos & Frances Marion phoning in situations from earlier, better efforts. (Professionally, they went all the way back to D. W. Griffith, collaborating on THE NEW YORK HAT/1912.) Tracy & Harlow play bickering waterfront pals, fisherman & canning girl, too stubborn to admit they’re in love. The story jumps around madly with Tracy pushing for, then against, then for a strike against cannery owner Joseph Calleia, who’s also wooing Harlow. She’s just as confused, feuding & making up not only from scene to scene, but within every scene, until she winds up going to jail for love, making a break out of jail for love, then deciding to do the time back in jail for love. It’s all more strenuous than entertaining, barely saved by star power and some good harbor town atmosphere during the early strike sequences. Una Merkel does wonders as Harlow’s no-nonsense sister and young Mickey Rooney is a bit too startling as a cute kid with anarchistic tendencies that put Tracy’s ‘Red’ labor advisor to shame.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Before the Production Code started to draw blood in ‘34, Anita Loos spiced up most of Jean Harlow’s pics with deliciously racy dialogue. Hear the fun commence with RED-HEADED WOMAN/’32. Co-writer Frances Marion covered the waterfront to grand effect in her sweet & salty early Talkie MIN AND BILL /’30, directed with a remarkably fluid touch by George Hill (who she was briefly married to) and with an astonishing perf from Marie Dressler. Don’t be misled by its early comic doings, it’s an apotheosis of sentimental drama.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Larry Swindell’s once standard Tracy bio has been overtaken by a fat, new book from James Curtis. But Swindell makes a telling error when he lists Robert Z Leonard rather than J. Walter Ruben as RIFFRAFF’s director. According to Swindell, it was on this pic that Leonard insisted Tracy watch his own ‘dailies.’ Tracy did it . . . once, then never again. And Swindell may well be right on the director since Irving Thalberg used whomever was available that day for his many reshoots. It’s why so much Thalberg product has a sort of Stop/Start quality with unmatched inserts & zero internal rhythm.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

SASAME-YUKI / THE MAKIOKA SISTERS (1983)

Beyond exquisite. Kon Ichikawa’s domestic drama follows the four lovely Makioka sisters in quietly compelling fashion. A rare look at a rich Japanese subculture, it’s also the most refined ‘chick-flic’ ever made. Daughters of the wealthy Makioka mercantile family, the eldest two are both married with children, but they spend most of their time worrying about the two youngest sisters: the tradition-bound third girl, a great beauty who refuses one arranged marriage after another; and the kid, a rebellious girl who wants to shed family obligations. The film runs on small details of family pride & vanity, set in stately homes and well-tended parks, always gowned in ravishing kimonos that are much more than mere show. It’s a world where style becomes subject, as if Max Ophuls had turned his attention to Japan in the 1930s. And the men are just as well defined: varying ‘modern’ generation boyfriends for the youngest sister; deeply inappropriate formal suitors for sister number 3's arranged meetings. Jûzô Itami, before he began directing (TAMPOPO/’86), is suitably gruff as the eldest’s hot-tempered husband; and there’s an exceptional perf from Kôji Ishizaka as the other husband, the family’s ever-ready peacemaker who’s a bit in love with all the sisters. Ichikawa remains best known Stateside for harrowing anti-war pics like THE BURMESE HARP/’56 and FIRES ON THE PLAIN/’59, but he had an enormous range, and here he finds & maintains the exact right tone for this delicate melodrama.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sounds unlikely, but Vincente Minnelli’s MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44 is an equally well-observed memory piece about four sisters & their extended family with more than a few similar plot threads, even a crisis-inducing proposed move to a big city. But of course played out in TechniColored studio recreations, with song cues & Judy Garland in for Ichikawa’s cherry-blossoms.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

Two years before HALLOWEEN came out, John Carpenter made this crafty low-budget suspenser about a handful of cops & convicts holding out against a nihilistic gang of L.A. cutthroats in a nearly abandoned police station. Self-described as an homage to Howard Hawks’ similarly plotted RIO BRAVO/’59, Carpenter is all thumbs in the first half, dutifully setting up his situation with stiff staging, bad acting & bursts of giggle-worthy violence. But once he locks us inside the station house, and the gang starts bearing down like real-life zombies, the whole little contraption kicks into gear. Even Carpenter’s minimalist music starts thumping to life. Which is more than can be said for his attempt at making a Hawksian gal pal out of Laurie Zimmer who ambles about and talks low & slow to little effect. (Without the censorship restrictions imposed by the old Production Code, this kind of indirect messaging just looks silly.) Better is Darwin Joston who shows real promise (never fulfilled) as the convict whose trip to Death Row gets interrupted for some unexpected heroics. The new IMAGE-DVD transfer has the film looking better than ever, but keep the budget in mind to help explain some of the crudities and story ellipses.

DOUBLE-BILL: Take Carpenter’s advice and watch this along with RIO BRAVO. You can really see how he made Zimmer play her role like Angie Dickinson. Let’s see, that puts Austin Stoker in the Duke Wayne slot (with a touch of Ricky Nelson when he whistles), and Darwin Joston has the Dean Martin part. So who the heck is supposed to be Walter Brennan?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Carpenter does a nice director’s audio track, but they didn’t run the film soundtrack under him which robs many of his comments of their point. Dumb.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL

The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE pics with Tom Cruise have made pots & pots of money, but it’s hard to think of anyone getting too worked up about them, especially after MISSIONs 2 & 3. (The one with a big lift out of Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS/’46 was particularly distressing.) So, it’s a surprise, and a kick, to see what Brad Bird, plucked from the world of animation, brings to the mix. Anyone who saw THE INCREDIBLES/’04 will have some idea of what to expect in the way that film morphed from Super-Hero to James Bond/Spy vs Spy adventure, along with a physical look that drew from 007's signature designer Ken Adam. The controlling gag, then & now, was Bird’s nutty fondness for (of all things) the Roger Moore era Bond pics. (He makes a more convincing case for them then Moore ever did!) You know where he’s going right from the start, when the goofy devil-may-care tone of a doubled-up pre-title sequence is crowned with a full play of the classic Lalo Schifrin M:I theme. (Plus heaps of variations on same all thru the pic.) And Bird doesn’t sneak in the old references, but revels in them. As in INCREDIBLES, he tends to run his action scenes past their sweet spot, and three of the four MIF principals bring little you wouldn’t see on tv’s NCIS. But, rather like THE SPY WHO LOVED ME/’77 (which has a darn similar nuclear terrorism plotline), he doesn’t take things very seriously and gets extra points simply by surpassing expectations.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The sweeping shots that open the big Mumbai party scene might have been shot & directed by Claude Renoir & Lewis Gilbert if those two had taken THE SPY WHO LOVED ME into India. Bird & Co. even throw in a dance routine for some girly retro eye-candy.

DOUBLE-BILL: Brad Bird’s first big screen credit, THE IRON GIANT/’99, is a little seen gem.

Monday, July 23, 2012

CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945)

George Bernard Shaw’s play has never been able to live up to that grand sounding title. But those who can downsize their expectations may well find themselves enjoying this ten-ton turkey in spite of its obvious shortcomings. Gabriel Pascal, the Hungarian charlatan who won the film rights to the GBS catalog with a promise of material fidelity instead of cash, had no business directing street traffic let alone this mammoth production, which became, financially, the HEAVEN’S GATE of its day. Hordes of extras roam around vast sets like a lost chorus in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, and just like THE MIKADO, half the joke is watching all those Brits pretending to be foreigners. Between the acres of scenery & costumes, Claude Rains (over-parted as Caesar) plays a Shaw self-portrait, the wise & wily dictator who mentors, rather than falls for Vivien Leigh’s deliciously mean little vixen of a Cleopatra. With Pascal unable to help, the actors undoubtedly did their own staging while a legendary generation of craftsman took charge of decor (Oliver Messel) & cinematography (Jack Cardiff, Jack Hildyard, Robert Krasker and Freddie Young). Frustratingly, the Criterion DVD isn’t able to get a consistent color resolution from the materials, giving Leigh a particularly hard make-up until she blossoms at the very end. Flora Robson is tremendous as the unfathomable (not to say, unpronounceable) Ftatateeta while a young Stewart Granger makes a handsome, if floatable Sicilian and an equally young Michael Rennie is quite the noble Roman. In fact, with heaps of tasty perfs scattered about, it’s probably best to think of Shaw’s odd little play like the proverbial Curate’s Egg, which was good . . . in parts.

DOUBLE BILL: The second half of the infamous Liz Taylor/Richard Burton CLEOPATRA/’63 is drear, but the first half has Rex Harrison’s superb Caesar which scripter Joe Mankiewicz quite obviously based on Shaw’s model. Harrison did play Shaw’s Caesar on-stage, against Elizabeth Ashley’s Cleopatra, but like most attempts at the play, it sounded so good everyone wound up being a bit disappointed.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

H. M. PULHAM. ESQ. (1941)

After getting Pulitzer’d with THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, John P. Marquand* revisited the theme of stuffy Boston Brahmins vs. progressive New Yorkers via the compromised life choices Mr. H. M. Pulham settles for. Appropriately, King Vidor’s film adaptation plays the same road-not-taken tune, but not to its benefit. The concessions begin with the cast. Robert Young isn’t a bad choice for Pulham, the too-easily led scion of a rich Boston family who leaves his heart in New York with Hedy Lamarr, falling back on a comfortable match of convenience with Ruth Hussey, but he hasn’t the star wattage to make us care about all those missed chances. You certainly could make a fascinating film about a man who wound up living the slightly dulled life he was destined for (see Updike, Cheever, New Englanders in general?), but this isn’t it. Vidor keeps pointing us toward interesting scenes & character turns that never materialize (was the budget trimmed at the last minute?), like Pulham’s troublesome kid sister (Bonita Granville) or his vaguely radical best pal, a young & skinny Van Heflin. Best is Hedy Lamarr who, just this once, gets to play a role not so far from the smart, independent woman she was in real life.** The plot whittles her down for a cop-out ‘happy’ ending, but it’s still her best perf.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Hard to believe this is the same J. P. Marquand who wrote the MR. MOTO books that grew into all those delightfully eccentric little ‘B’ pics with Peter Lorre/’37-‘39. Or, stick with the relucantly happy marriage topic with Ernst Lubitsch's HEAVEN CAN WAIT/'43.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: **Did Hedy Lamarr invent WiFi? Check out the scientific side of the great Hollywood beauty in HEDY’S FOLLY by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Rhodes.

Friday, July 20, 2012

PLATONOV (1971)

Anton Chekhov’s early play exists in various performing editions since the big, messy original is impossibly long & overwritten. Yet, it keeps showing up in one form or another (WILD HONEY and AN UNFINISHED PIECE FOR PLAYER PIANO are two alternate versions) because it lets us see Chekhov in chrysalis. Not only his typical Russian characters, the declining aristos & the cash-and-carry nouveau, but all the petty tiffs, vanities & stupidities that can turn on a dime (er . . . kopek) from satire to tragedy. Platonov is a married teacher who drifts thru various levels of society, drinking his way past a series of lovestruck ladies. He doesn’t exactly pursue, but it’s too much bother not to go along. With so much flesh around, society to navigate, social interruptions, vodka to drink & hunting weapons about, something’s gotta give. Rex Harrison had an unexpected hit with this very British version in the early ‘60s (it sometimes feels like Shaw’s MISALLIANCE) and taped it ten years later as a BBC Play of the Month. It doesn’t really come off, something lost between stage & the screen, and technically it’s tough to get a workable sound level with all the actors dropping their voices for personal confidences. (Subtitles help.) But it’s worth a bit of effort. Harrison was already twenty years too old when he first did the role and is now thirty years off. Yet, rather than hurt his perf, it brings out the comic absurdity of the situations, making Chekhov’s quick turn at the end both jarring & right. But the play, in just about any form, works best as foreshadow to later masterpieces.

DOUBLE-BILL: You can see this basic idea working its way thru Michael Winner’s disappointing film of Alan Ayckbourne’s A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL/’89. Jeremy Irons is hilariously ambivalent about his allure as a sort of modern Platonov character, fending off women at an amateur theatrical club. And Anthony Hopkins is particularly good, and truly Chekovian, in a sort of sub-Uncle Vanya role, a part he played in his self-directed misfire AUGUST/’96.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

U-571 (2000)

Jonathan Mostow’s WWII actioner has gone stale at warp speed. Here’s the nifty, if factually-challenged set up: US Navy unit fakes its way onto a crippled German U-Boat to snatch an ‘Enigma’ Coding Machine, but then must sail the damaged sub back to safety when their home ship gets blown to bits. ‘Hey! Somebody wrote all these instructions in God-Damned German!’ Hailed as good old-fashioned entertainment (by folks who apparently have seen little good old-fashioned entertainment), almost nothing plays out in convincing fashion. Mostow has his cast turning screws & dashing thru narrow corridors, but his incessant camera moves feel imposed and almost everyone in the cast hopelessly contemporary. (The token black character is a real head-scratcher, straight out of a 70s sit-com.) The film was a major early showcase for Matthew McConaughey, but he’s crucified by his military buzzcut and a habit of dropping his jaw and letting his mouth hang open to express emotion, like some cartoon character. And, just in case you're still confused on how to react, tv composer Richard Marvin is around to swamp the scene with patriotic musical goo. Second-rate & second-hand as it is, it’s tough to completely miss with any WWII sub pic; those underwater PINGs generate a Pavlovian response in just about any movie maven. But you may still stand up & boo at the end when the film belatedly acknowledges the actual roll played by the Brits in solving ENIGMA. Maybe it was all part of the Lend-Lease program.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Under Robert Wise, Clark Gable & Burt Lancaster RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP/’58; and many swear by the German DAS BOOT/’81. But the best sub pic of recent times is the Cold War thriller K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER/’02. A major commercial bomb for Kathryn Bigelow, it’s superb once you get past the fake-out opening sequence, with phenomenal perfs from Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford & Peter Sarsgaard. OR: See how the famous Enigma Machine worked for British Intelligence in Michael Apted/Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Robert Harris's ENIGMA/'93. A near success, produced by SNL's Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gaumont Treasures Disc-3 / L'ENFANT DE PARIS (1913)

KINO offers a well-deserved intro to Léonce Perret, a prolific, all but forgotten, French actor/director who retains a whiff of name recognition for helming Gloria Swanson’s lost silent MADAME SANS-GÊNE/’24.* But his heyday appears to have come a decade earlier when he was producing scores of shorts & features, many strikingly advanced for the period. L’ENFANT DE PARIS/CHILD OF PARIS from 1913 is a 2-hr feature, structured in discrete chapters like the serials of fellow Gaumont megger Louis Feuillade. The story follows the trials of a plucky little girl who loses her parents; runs away from her boarding school; is kidnapped & forced to work for a heartless shoe cobbler; becomes a national cause célèbre when her father returns, alive and a national hero; escapes with the help of a sympathetic hunchback . . . You get the idea. Perret himself plays one of the villains and acts in a declamatory style, as do most of the cast, often ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to confide in the audience. The best perf comes from 20 yr-old Maurice Lagrenée as Bosco, the sympathetic hunchback who rescues the girl. And while the flow of the film suffers from Perret’s cavalier attitude toward story logic & continuity, and from running the narrative almost entirely thru letters, notes & pneumatiques, his use of composition, camera angles, mise-en-scène & daring lighting design trump most of his faults. (And the location footage of pre-WWI Paris & Nice is priceless, a lost world come to life.) Perret’s pluses & minuses are the same in LE MYSTÈRE DES ROCHES DE KADOR from 1912. But here, in a stunningly fresh print, a deliciously silly story idea adds to the fun. The fast moving four-reeler has Perret trying to steal a young woman’s fortune by drowning her & her beau, knocking them out on a beach & letting the tide finish the job. They survive, but the girl is now catatonic until her doctor films a recreation of the events, restoring the girl to her senses at a screening! More sloppy storytelling from Perret, but the self-referential use of film is quite an intellectual leap for the day, as advanced as the camera work. (Georges Specht shot both pics and may well have been just as important as Perret.) A useful bio on Perret is on here, too.

DOUBLE-BILL: The KINO Gaumont Treasures Series are eye-popping essentials. Just don’t try to swallow them all at once.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Swanson film may be lost, but that doesn’t stop IMdB readers from giving it a top critical score of 7.1. Lesson: Take ALL ImdB Film Scores with a big grain of salt.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

MAIN STREET (2010)

Like a forgotten bowl of potato salad at a picnic, something’s slightly ‘off’ in John Doyle’s debut pic. He’s the imaginative fellow who made his theatrical bones on downsized musical revivals where all the actors double on instruments, becoming their own orchestra. But working off a final script from Horton Foote, who died at 92 before filming began, Doyle can’t find the right key to play in. Colin Firth, cozying up to an unlikely Texas accent, is the stranger in town, a salesman who wants to revive an economically depressed city by building a spanking new Hazardous Wastes treatment plant. He's promising Jobs, Parks, a Growing Tax Base & a Community Swimming Pool . . . Deadly Spillage optional. But the guy’s such a charmer, he quickly wins over prickly natives like slightly addled Ellen Burstyn, available Patricia Clarkson and members of the city council. Meanwhile, lonely cop Orlando Bloom (excellent in a funny haircut) is pining for Amber Tamblyn (not so excellent). She’s his old high school flame, but now just wants to leave town. The set up is promising, playing out like an Americanized take on THE VISIT, the famous play about a broke little town who can ‘earn’ a million bucks if they’ll just murder their mayor to please the world’s richest woman. But rather than watch his cast stew & capitulate to Firth’s capitalistic siren song, Foote just mozeys along for two acts before tossing in some nakedly motivational melodrama for a quick resolution. It might have worked if Doyle didn’t play everything in strict naturalistic tones. But his view of a genteel decaying South is too tame for its own good.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Director Elia Kazan was never wilder than when he went all Deep-Fried Southern in Tennessee Williams’ comedy of thwarted passion BABY DOLL/’56.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

CHI-HWA-SEON / PAINTED FIRE (2002)

In many ways, this bio-pic on Jang Seung-up, Korea’s great, if irascible painter of the late 1800s, follows a conventional route. There’s a big, bruising perf from Choi Min-sik, suffering for his art in the accepted ‘difficult genius’ manner; the easy mastery & remarkable skills in brushwork & memory right from his youth; then struggles with tradition-minded teachers; leading to a stubborn refusal to coast on his natural gifts, painting easy-to-sell copies or popular erotica. His goal was to find his own path; and it was done largely on his own since relations with women tended to begin at brothels and end abruptly, often violently. Sound familiar? Even the time frame brings Western types like Van Gogh & Gauguin to mind, though here, the financial difficulties are self-inflicted since Seung-up didn’t have to die to become fashionable, famous & collectable. Yet, the film never falls into cliché since helmer Kwon-taek Im knows how to separate his dramatic wheat from the chaff, avoiding or at least finessing most of the usual bio-pic embarrassments. Plus, there’s a fascinating social background in the tumultuous Korean history of the era, with a full blown Peasants’ revolt, horrible religious persecution, and a long-running battle between a tradition-minded Royalist Right (aided by China) and a more forward-looking progressive Left (aided by Japan). Even with its defects, this Cannes Fest winner (for Kwon-taek Im’s direction) deserved to find a bigger audience than its puny Stateside $60 thou gross would indicate. It also deserves a DVD that doesn’t suffer from the fluttering visual artifacts of frame ‘combing’ in its transfer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Surely this is the only film poster for a non-pornographic pic that shows its leads flagrante indelecto as the main image. Yikes!

Friday, July 13, 2012

CRONACA DI UN AMORE / THE STORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR (1950)

Michelangelo Antonioni didn’t start as the Prince of Disconnected Modernism & Existential Ennui, but rather, made his debut helming this effective, if somewhat conventional, love-triangle film noir. Something of a roman-a-clef, it’s a scandal-infused tale of a loveless marriage between a rich Milan industrialist and his lovely young wife whose small town past is being investigated as the film opens. When an unexplained death is uncovered by a Private Detective, the wife’s long lost love shows up in Milan to warn her. Handsome as ever, he sparks their old affair back to life and they dream of running off together. But what chance have they got while her rich husband lives? ‘Toto, I think we’re back in Kansas, after all.’ Actually, it’s James Cain territory, POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE territory. And Antonioni pushes the idea by casting Massimo Girotti in more-or-less the same role he played for Luchino Visconti in his superb, unofficial POSTMAN adaptation, OSSESSIONE/’43. Antonioni moved away from that film’s Neo-Realistic proletariat background to the swank of pre-Il Boom Milano, and the plot has new turns, but the tidy genre packaging doesn’t entirely convince.

DOUBLE-BILL: While there are intimations of the mature Antonioni style in some of this film's empty urban street compositions, IL GRIDO/’57, his last release before his breakout pic L’AVVENTURA/’60, is just as interesting, especially for the continuing influence of Visconti’s OSSESSIONE.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

MESRINE: L'INSTTINCT DE MORT / PUBLIC ENEMY N°1 (2008)

Vincent Cassel is just terrific as Jacques Mesrine, the charismatic & ruthless celebrity outlaw of France in the ‘60s. A delusional hood who fancied himself a revolutionary figure, he stole & fought solely for himself. But for a decade & a half, he robbed banks, kidnapped the rich, bedded beauties & escaped from the toughest prisons; he was Scarface, the Public Enemy, Dillinger, Willie Sutton & Houdini all rolled into one. Even Bonnie & Clyde in this version, but with rotating Bonnies. Part One: KILLER INSTINCT shows how service in the Algerian War started him on his violent amoral path, and how he learned the biz on his return home. Gérard Depardieu, in fine, fat form, makes a meal out of his role as mentor to the young hood, and helmer Jean-François Richet gives a jangly, emotional drive to all the gunplay, gamesmanship, bank jobs & prison atrocities. And he doesn’t swamp us with period flavor, letting the years make their mark naturally. The best parts are when Mesrine (and his ever changing cast of accomplices) bust out of Maximum Security Prisons using crude force & simple tactics. The near comic incompetence of police & prison authorities should be hard to swallow, but you tend to believe it. The rise of Part One always works better in these things than the decline of Part Two: PUBLIC ENEMY #1, especially after the film loses track of new partner Mathieu Amalric. But even as the story settles down to a nearly plotless manhunt, it’s still fun to watch Cassel’s Mesrine trying on a series of new looks & identities a la Al Pacino in SERPICO/’73, but working the wrong side of the fence.

DOUBLE-BILL: MESRINE already is a double-bill, but Wellman/Cagney’s classic THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31 shows how to do this story in 83 minutes rather than 250! And director Richet obviously had Brian De Palma in mind, not so much from SCARFACE/’83, but in his flashy use of split screen multiple camera angles.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

RED (2010)

This deservedly popular Spy-vs-Spy thriller mixes BOURNE IDENTITY/MISSION IMPOSSIBLE action style with a crew of grizzled agents-in-retirement and a wide-eyed ringer straight out of ROMANCING THE STONE. Mostly, it’s a lot of fun. Bruce Willis is the retired CIA spy who pitches woo over the phone with his Kansas City-based case worker, Mary-Louise Parker. But when a decades-old assignment boomerangs in his face, his easeful days are over and she finds herself playing out the action adventure of her dreams. These two are adorable together, and by the time Willis adds the rest of his retired pals (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren & ‘Ruskie’ Brian Cox) a big case of the ‘cutes’ threatens to overrun the movie. But since there’s no call to take either the pyrotechnics or the shaggy dog plot seriously, you can just sit back and enjoy the star turns. Richard Dreyfuss & even Ernest Borgnine eventually show up, but it's Malkovich who trots off with pic, effortlessly caging laughs off his darker edges. By the time the film wraps, you may actually be looking forward to the presumed sequel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Typically, Robert Schwentke shows lots of technical skill megging the chases, blasts & explosions of a modern spy meller. But ask him to stage a slap or a punch in a scene where Richard Dreyfuss is strapped to a chair and the man can’t find the angle that would ‘sell’ the shot.

SPOILER: Back when Woody Strode & Jim Brown took one for whitey in SPARTACUS/’60 and THE DIRTY DOZEN/’67, the sacrifice had a progressive edge to it. But what’s it doing hanging around in 2010? Some sort of post-ironic comment? ‘Trope pulled out of retirement! Audience barely notices!’

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

JUSTE AVANTE LA NUIT / JUST BEFORE NIGHTFALL (1971)

This typically chilly thriller from French filmmaker Claude Chabrol (1930-2010) observes with the clinical detachment of a lab experiment, riffing on CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, but with a bourgeois businessman in for Raskolnikov. Here, it’s Dostoevsky’s theme, not his plot that traps married man Michel Bouquet. He’s killed his mistress, accidentally or purposefully, in an S&M role-playing game. Yet while Bouquet all but offers himself up for punishment, no one wants to hold him to account. Not his wife, not the victim’s husband (a close family friend), not the police. Odd, a bit of office embezzlement gets quick action against his company accounts manager and the man's young mistress, why can’t a murderer find redemptive punishment to match the pleasurable guilt of old infidelities? Chabrol lays this all out on a few well-chosen modernist sets, often arranged to look like little theatre prosceniums (with stage curtains in front of the bedrooms) and he gets some remarkable perfs from his cast (Bouquet, Stéphane Audran as the wife, François Perrier as the nonjudgmental cuckold) that are stylized & realistic at one & the same time. It’s a slight film, but rigorously focused, a conversation piece soufflé that might have collapsed under other hands.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t be surprised by the 1.33:1/Academy Ratio on the DVD. Officially licensed from Corinth Films, it’s likely that the image was cropped via projection framing gates to between 1.66/1.85:1. It certainly doesn’t look like a dreaded Pan&Scan conversion.

DOUBLE-BILL: A famous French version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT was released in 1935, but the greatest of all C&P adaptations is Robert Bresson’s modern take in PICKPOCKET/59.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

CARS (2006)

After two decades of nothing but critical & commercial kudos, you can’t miss the defensive tone, and hurt, from PIXAR honcho John Lasseter on the Backstory Extra of this DVD. It helps explain why he pushed ahead to even less purpose with CARS 2, he needed to prove the naysayers wrong. No doubt losing voice-actors Paul Newman, George Carlin & his long-time Pixar partner Joe Ranft added to his irrational attachment, but the whole concept feels deeply misconceived. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the set-up, cocky race car learns to be a team player after being stranded in a little town the highway passed by, but it’s needs all the visual pizzazz & hokey character comedy PIXAR can muster to avoid a STIX NIX HICKS PIXAR PIX reception. Even so, good as the racing scenes are, the SouthWest terrain looks like penny-postcard stuff next to the imaginative work recently seen in RANGO/’11. A rare case of PIXAR being bested. But the real problem is the cars. (Well, that and the non-starter romance between leads Owen Wilson and Bonnie Hunt.) The big concept of the pic makes the cars the actual personalities. Not that the cars have their own personalities which play off their drivers, but that they exist in and of themselves. In fact, everyone in the pic is a car. (Except, for some odd reason, planes & helicopters. Too bad, a flying car might have made a nice gag.) But we personify action figures toys, not the accessories. Kids would imagine they were driving the car . . . or tank or tow-truck or whatever, not that they were the machine itself. Presumably, Lasseter (working from what’s generously called his original story) didn’t want to remake THE LOVE BUG/’68, but what he’s come up with doesn’t connect with our anthropomorphic fabulist hardwiring. And it leaves him stuck perfecting marvelous, impeccable details that don’t add up to much more than a skeletal framework waiting to be populated. Like the little town of Radiator Springs in the film.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Included on the disc is ONE MAN BAND/’05, one of those typically fine PIXAR shorts they produce every year as both training pics and Short Subject Oscar® fodder. And why not try Hayao Miyazaki’s masterful PORCO ROSSO/’92 to restore your faith in the form.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Three cheers for the PIXAR designer who thought of giving George Carlin’s Hippie Van character a ‘jazz lick’ made from a perfectly placed license plate.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR (3D) CHRISTMAS (2011)

Hiding under the guise of a ‘stoner’ comedy, HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE/’04 was a subversive comic IED for the George Bush Era. But the follow-up, H&K ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY/’08, was too coarse & obvious to do similar damage, the gags all had tags on them. Now the writing team of Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg has wisely stepped back after directing #2, and this new 3D edition is a treat. Maybe even funnier in 2D with the cheesy stereoscopic effects flattened out. This time out, the pals have lost touch, but get together to resurrect their friendship & a torched Christmas tree. The Era of Obama has scotched the old subversive tone, and now the sex, drugs & Rockettes, plus a few scatological jokes, are mere dissemblage from the old homey holiday homilies; the secular trinity of friends, family & fireside. There’s even a new generation promised for the sequel. But if the ideas stay as fresh & funny as this film’s drug-induced claymation scenes or its Neil Patrick Harris Christmas Spectacular, a few corruptible young’uns might just be a blessing in disguise. And maybe we’ll find out if Kumar is also circumcised.

DOUBLE-BILL: Watch H&K GO TO WHITE CASTLE first. GUANTANAMO is strictly for completists.

Friday, July 6, 2012

JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT (1980)

Everybody's terrific in Jay Presson Allen's romantic-comedy for grown-ups, which she adapted from her own novel for director Sidney Lumet. Alan King is staggeringly right as the self-made billionaire who goes 'round-the-bend when his long time mistress, Ali MacGraw, gives him the boot for sexy, young playwright Peter Weller. The schemes, tantrums & back-stabbing ways of New York’s super-rich have rarely looked more dangerously tempting, believable, appalling or entertaining. And a sidetrip to Hollywood to spar with foxy studio chief Keenan Wynn & his fey G’kid Tony Roberts is equally sharp since Lumet & Allen know the territory and aren’t afraid to show how strong its siren call can be. (Designer Tony Walton also gets in some digs with his OTT L.A. interiors.) Best of all, in a neat bit of casting, is Mryna Loy, in her last film role, as King’s long-suffering, loyal secretary-at-arms; a gal who knows where all the bodies are buried, but who’ll never tell. In fact, great supporting types pop up all over the place, and the pleasing unpolished look from lenser Oswald Morris makes the tight story construction look like spontaneous improvisation. MacGraw gives what must be her best perf (heck, it’s just about her only perf) and Weller is charming as hell. Why doesn’t he get some of those Chris Walken gigs? But the film belongs to King, hilarious & terrifying, especially when he blows, without an intermediate gear shift, like a Yiddish-spewing Vesuvius.

DOUBLE-BILL: What a kick to see Loy bow out with a real role and not coasting on nostalgia. Funnily enough, she plays a sort of senior citizen variation on the part Jean Harlow played opposite a young Myrna Loy 44 years ago (!) in the underappreciated WIFE VS. SECRETARY/'36.

CONTEST: Lumet makes a fleeting visual reference to his own past here. Spot it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

MILANO ODIA / ALMOST HUMAN (1974)

Don’t be fooled by the American exploitation poster (to your right), this isn’t a monster pic. And don’t be fooled by the nihilistic fun (gore, boobs & kinetic mayhem) of the film’s trailer. This trashy pic may well have all the ingredients to make an Italian giallo, but it doesn’t add up to much. Tomas Milian sucks in his cheeks & licks his chops as Milan’s dumbest getaway driver, but when he messes up on a bank robbery, he quickly bounces back with a couple of lowlife pals on a kidnapping plot. He’s got it all figured out. The trick lies in not returning the goods. Grab the tennis-playing daughter of a billionaire, take the ransom, kill your prisoner, and walk away. Well, that’s the plan. But when you’ve got Milian as the brains of the operation, things are going to go wrong fast, too fast for Henry Silva’s police dick to stop a lot of killings. NoShame DVD has come out with a bright shiny print, but Umberto Lenzi’s muscular megging can’t redeem the sloppy story construction, choppy continuity or laughable social commentary. Still, there’s a coarse thrill in watching the psychotic Milian mow down a trio of stripped bourgeoisies as they spin on a chandelier. One of the many subtle privileged moments that dot the pic. There’s even an Ennio Morricone score on this, but don’t get your hopes up.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A BOUT PORTANT / POINT BLANK (2010)

This sharp thriller from France didn’t gain much traction in its Stateside theatrical release, but with its fast, glossy look & editing, and writer/director Fred Cavayé’s ultra-clear handling of the quick-step turns in its devious plot, it loses little on DVD. Gilles Lellouche has gritty appeal as the nurse’s aide who becomes an innocent-man-on-the-run after saving the life of an injured murder suspect and then having his pregnant wife kidnapped, while Roschdy Zem is just great as the wounded safe-cracker who alternates as threat & partner to the desperate husband as they try to figure out just who the bad guys are. Cavayé pulls off some great comic reverses & a few plot spins you won’t see coming. And if he doesn’t quite have the directing chops (or budget) to pull off all the action stunts, he gets all the important stuff right and lays on a score of memorable characters before wrapping things up in a dandy hour & a half. There’s even a neat epilogue to cross the ‘T’s and dot the ‘I’s.

DOUBLE-BILL: Roman Polanski’s FRANTIC/’88 plays out a similar Hitchcockian game of suspense with a Paris kidnapping & Harrison Ford as the innocent lamb, though it’s a bit too posh for its own good.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1977)

On stage, this near-operetta, charmingly adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s witty sex farce SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT/’55, was an enchantment. The book by Hugh Wheeler juggled five romances to Stephen Sondheim’s three-quarter time score and the brittle character comedy was lightened when seen thru Boris Aronson’s airy painted-glass panels. Yet, the film version, with Harold Prince moving from stage to screen as director, is a leaden atrocity. It’s true that half the music is gone, and lyrics refitted, but how did the sparkle curdle into pointless cleverness, the counterpoint turn joyless and the plot shrivel into a Farce For Dummies manual? Prince shoots just about everything from the ‘wrong’ angle, so when nothing cuts together properly, he tosses in rhythm killing close-ups and hopes for the best. The cast doesn’t look bad on paper, but only Diana Rigg, as an unhappy Countess, makes something out of her role. Sadder still, the film spelled finis to Liz Taylor’s career as leading lady. A mere 45 at the time, she’s still got the figure for the role, but her face no longer takes light. With blobby cheeks & swollen eyes, she gets zero help from Arthur Ibettson whose work is less cinematography, than sabotage. Someone must have noticed, because they finally pony up for a suitable dress & make-up that give La Liz a fighting chance in the last act. But it’s too little, too late, and capped with one last insult, a poorly lit portrait shot from Ibettson in day-for-night mode for E.T. to go out on.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is the obvious choice, though you might want to try one of those delicious early Paramount musicals starring Jeanette MacDonald in her pre-Nelson Eddy days when she was decidedly naughty and sexy as hell. Or maybe THE SMILING LIEUTENANT/’31; with Miriam Hopkins, Chevalier & Colbert, it's especially nice.

Monday, July 2, 2012

LA RABBIA / THE ANGER (1963)

Italian producer Gastone Ferranti had the perfectly awful idea of asking filmmaker/political provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini & journalist/humorist Giovanni Guareschi to take sides for a Far Left/Far Right essay film on the roots of discontent in the modern world. Each man narrates a documentary mash-up of newsreel footage with Paolo begining in a poetic mode and Giovanni ending the argument on a sardonic note. But the footage of worldwide terror, violence & political conference tables could have served just about any purpose as well as it does Pasolini in his ill-focused look on the hopes of People of Color (mostly Cuban & African) or the Guareschi Follies against Iron Curtain dictatorship & for racially insensitive vaudeville. Guareschi manages a bit of organization, but give Pasolini points for daring Pop non-sequiturs with shots of the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe mixed in with Stalin, Castro & phony Lenins. The film died a quick death, but has been pieced back together with splicing tape & intuition. Your Film Restoration Dollars (er . . . Euros) At Work.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Before Pasolini found cinematic profundity, he actually made a pretty good debut on ACCATONE/’61, a sort of an urban I VITELLONI/’53, which undoubtedly benefitted from having Bernardo Bertolucci as Assistant Director. Guareschi’s international rep consists almost entirely in the delightful DON CAMILLO pics (starting with THE LITTLE WORLD OF DON CAMILLO/’52) charmingly helmed by Julien Duvivier and with far more to say about the political Left, Right & Human Condition then anything in LA RABBIA.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

TENGOKU TO JIGOKU / HIGH AND LOW (1962)

Akira Kurosawa makes his point right at the start of this suspenser, before we reach the main event, the kidnapping that runs the plot. In what must have seemed the largest living room then in Japan, a trio of profit-minded execs make their case against product quality. Too much bother, too expensive, too old-fashioned; why aim for durable when planned obsolescence brings lower production costs & quicker repeat business? The suits are talking about shoes, but Kurosawa sees them as representative of the new post-war Japan. And all he's got to rage against the decline in modern values is his stand-in, the great Toshiro Mifune as their adversary, the last honorable company man. Mifune is poised to risk everything on a leveraged buyout, and symbolically save Japan from short-sighted ways, when the plot kicks in on this thrilling genre pic, taken from, of all things, an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel. The business plan will evaporate when the chauffeur’s son is mistakenly kidnapped in place of Mifune's, yet he still goes thru with the ransom. Kurosawa makes it all a stunning structural piece of work by staying in Mifune's living room for the film’s first part, pivoting in the short second act to detail the ransom drop from a fast moving train, and finally moving to the street for the sharpest police procedural imaginable for act three. The brilliance in the conception is equaled in execution, with a great cast of Kurosawa regulars and newbies. And something prescient in the way Mifune turns the screen over to Tatsuya Nakadai’s detective just as he would give way in Kurosawa’s late films. Though here, a bit of sentiment brings Mifune back for the stark, memorable coda.

DOUBLE-BILL: The young Mifune had the detective role in STRAY DOG/’49, an early Kurosawa classic.