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Saturday, September 29, 2012

MICKEY ONE (1965)

Warren Beatty was coming off three flops and megger Arthur Penn had just been fired by Burt Lancaster when they came together on this dark, but soggy tale. It’s a riff on THE HUSTLER/’61, with Beatty playing nightclub comic rather than tortured pool shark. (And don’t think Beatty didn’t spot the similarities; he’d just finished a miserable shoot with HUSTLER’s writer/director Robert Rosson.*) It’s sure looks swanky, glistening with shiny b&w city-scapes & rainy reflections, as it follows a wary Beatty, on the lam from the mob and trying to earn a buck without exposing himself. (He really shouldn’t worry, he must have the least compelling act in town.) What makes the film both fun and aggravating is seeing Penn work like mad to incorporate all those new, cool French New Wave attitudes & film techniques. Truffaut’s the main influence, specifically SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER/’60, but Godard, Malle, et al. also come into play. It’s like a weirdly professional student project. But, in trying to be wildly ‘filmic,’ Penn’s borrowed stylings never rise past applique to organic. So, for example, when he tries something with a bit of comic-tinged slapstick violence, he’s quoting Truffaut & Co. whereas those guys would have been quoting from originals like Mack Sennett & the Lumière Bros. Maybe a less self-conscious approach would have worked. The leads (Beatty & Alexandra Stewart) are certainly gorgeous, and there are nifty, eccentric choices in the supporting cast (Franchot Tone, Hurd Hatfield, Teddy Hart). Oh well, Beatty & Penn would have better luck next time with BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, Truffaut’s SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER is what Penn was aiming at, but see Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s BREATHLESS/’60 for an idea of what Beatty thinks he's up to. Elsewise, if you want to see a mainstream commercial Hollywood director truly engage with the French New Wave, try Stanley Donen’s enchanting, heartfelt dramedy TWO FOR THE ROAD/’67.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Oddly enough, Beatty’s co-star in Rosson’s poorly received LILITH was that muse to the French New Wave, Jean Seberg.

Friday, September 28, 2012

BOMBSHELL (1933)

Everybody talks a mile-a-minute in this behind-the-scenes Hollywood comedy about a big sexy star (Jean Harlow in her prime) and the studio P.R. guy who keeps her constantly in the news (Lee Tracy). Harlow doesn’t get much credit for acting chops, she’s a rank amateur in some early roles, but not here. Under the strong hand of Victor Fleming, who had coaxed an earlier bombshell, Clara Bow, to her best work*, Harlow builds on the sweet, funny tart Fleming helped her create in RED DUST/’32. Changing voices & emotional gears for every occasion, spewing out tour-de-force speeches in one-takes, Fleming exults in her confidence, letting her take down family, staff & studio in a single-shot second act curtain speech that can still bring down the house. Even when the comic doings go wide of the mark, there’s usually enough speed, noise & pseudo-sentiment to carry us along. And when Franchot Tone shows up in the third act as a posh gent who woos Harlow with upper-crust tosh & charm**, true comic bliss breaks out, setting us up for a triple-reverse ending that can still fake you out. (**John Lee Mahin & Norman Krasna each worked on the script, but the quotable stuff shows the hand of the great Jules Furthman.) NOTE: Our poster is taken from an ad for a bio by gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who is lightly skewered in the pic. And below, a shot from the set with Harlow & its handsome-as-a-movie-star director.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Pat O’Brien’s supporting role as director/romantic interest must have lost scenes to the cutting room floor since he drops out in the pic’s second half. Still, there’s enough left to compare the styles of the two original FRONT PAGE Hildy Johnsons, B’way’s Tracy & O’Brien from Lewis Milestone’s 1931 movie.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/DOUBLE-BILL: Hard to believe that the director of THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND didn’t get a proper bio until Michael Sragow’s celebratory VICTOR FLEMING in 2008. *See Fleming getting the best out of Clara Bow in MANTRAP/’26, finally out in fine shape (hurrah!) on a 2011 DVD set, TREASURES 5, from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

THE SCAPEGOAT (1959)

The problem with this Daphne du Maurier doppelgänger murder mystery is less in its preposterous story than in its unbelievably dull execution. Alec Guinness is the British everyman who runs into his exact double while on holiday in France. Drugged and planted at the double’s estate, he can’t get a soul to believe his odd tale (hmm, wonder why?) and soon falls pleasantly into his new role as husband & father, with a mistress on the side. But when someone dies, and Guinness seems the likely suspect, he knows his mysteriously disappearing double has set him up. Robert Hamer seems a spent force on this one, far off his stylish megging on KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS/’49. He does pull off a couple of neat camera tricks for Guinness’s double-act, but the Gore Vidal adaptation can’t make a case for the story or for the all-neurotic cast of characters. Pamela Brown & Bette Davis flail about hopefully, but to little effect, and while it’s always a treat to see a rare appearance from the great Irene Worth, playing Guinness’s unhappy wife, this is quite a drop from T. S. Eliot’s THE COCKTAIL PARTY which they had recently done on B’way!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Guinness had much better luck pulling off a fake double act in THE CAPTAIN’S PARADISE/’53 where’s he’s a single man trying to keep up with two wives, one in each of his regular ports. But for double-trouble, why not give Bette Davis her due with her second shot at the Good Gal/Bad Gal routine in the drekky, but fun DEAD RINGER/’64.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

DIE AUGEN DER MUMIE MA / THE EYES OF THE MUMMY MA (1918)

This German silent, the first (and least) of four collaborations between Ernst Lubitsch & Pola Negri is newly available in reasonable shape, along with three non-Lubitsch titles in POLA NEGRI: THE ICONIC COLLECTION from Bright Shining City. The first two titles, THE POLISH DANCER/’17, made shortly before, and THE DEVIL’S PAWN/’18 (aka THE YELLOW TICKET) made soon after, are mainly of interest for the light they shed in comparison to the remarkably advanced technique Lubitsch shows with dynamic composition, editing within scenes and aptly varied shot distance for psychological impact. All the more striking since Lubitsch really didn’t hit his cinematic stride till ANNA BOLEYN in 1920. And the stories? DANCER has Pola running away from her restrictive parents, using a lover or two on her way to dance stardom, then falling for a married man. (We’re not far off from ZAZA/’10; ‘13; ‘15; ‘23; ‘38; ‘44.) YELLOW TICKET sounds more interesting with Pola as a Jewess who goes to study in St. Peterburg after her father dies. There, anti-Semitic attitudes stop both her promising career & a romance till she discovers her true (non-Jewish) parentage. (Dickens would have blushed at the coincidences . . . and at the cop-out.) EYES OF THE MUMMY MA is equally silly. Pola is cruelly used by her master (a nearly trim Emil Jannings) to run a con in an ancient Egyptian Temple. But when she’s rescued by a brave & kindly German scholar, Jannings vows revenge, following her trail all the way to Berlin! Jannings, Negri & Lubitsch would all quickly top their work here, in scope & sophistication, but the historical interest is compelling.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lubitsch would soon deliver the Egyptian epic this title only promises with THE LOVES OF PHARAOH/’22, his final German production before being called to Hollywood by Mary Pickford.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

MAKE MINE MUSIC (1946)

After countering runaway costs on PINOCCHIO/’40 and BAMBI/’42 with DUMBO/’41 (magical and cost-effective), Disney tried to repeat the trick with this downsized animated potpourri, a sort of low-rent/Pop-oriented FANTASIA/’40. But lightning didn’t strike twice. The sole classical item, in the prestigious second to last spot, is Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF. Running twice the length of the preceding 7-minute segments, it’s unexpectedly dazzling in a faux Folk-Russian picture-book manner, but its story & famous score have been culturally Bowdlerized, neutered in Disney’s post-WWII family manner. (And dumbed-down with a cloying narration from Sterling Holloway to coax the kids along.*) The best piece comes early, as some clever animating pencils, along with Benny Goodman & his Band lead a gang of bobbysoxers & their Jitterbugging dates thru Alec Wilder’s ALL THE CATS JOIN IN. Nothing else in here matches it for style & spirit, not even a second number with Goodman playing in his quartet. The rest is pleasant enough, but tame, sorely missing the awe-inspiring risks & ambitions of Walt giving his full attention.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: You can see the FANTASIA connection most clearly by comparing this film’s wan BLUE BAYOU fantasy with the splendiferous original conception (at double the length) that pairs it with Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ in Leopold Stokowski’s impossibly lush orchestration. (Disney keeps pulling links to this stunner off the internet, but it keeps popping back up. So give it a Google.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: CASEY AT THE BAT and THE WHALE WHO WANTED TO SING AT THE MET should both work better than they do. Swapping the vocal talents of CASEY’s big-mouth comic Jerry Colonna and WHALE’s operetta-inclined Nelson Eddy could have made all the diff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-III: The current DVD edition lops off the original opening short, a goofy hillbilly feud number called THE MARTINS & THE COYS, for elusive reasons. Too violent? Too low-brow? Too HEE-HAW?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-VI: *Giving and Taking Away Department: While the rude original segment has gone missing, the DVD does include a 1935 Disney masterpiece, THE BAND CONCERT with Mickey Mouse in early anarchic mode. This is the Disney that Prokofiev & Sergei Eisenstein were so excited to meet when they visited the studio in the early ‘30s. It’s Walt & Co. without the filters on as musical cues crash into each other like something out of Charles Ives** and gags that retain a crude, rude, lewd barnyard bluntness. Mickey actually takes a ‘dump’ of strawberry ice cream (gross!) and a couple of horny goat musicians accidentally ‘play’ each others’ flutes! Or is it clarinets? Even worse! **Ives would have loved the ‘Turkey in the Straw’ vs Rossini’s Wm. Tell‘ overture routine. And so might have Shostakovich who does something similar in his final Symphony (#15), tossing in bits of Rossini’s overture at odd moments. Dmitri did a fair share of film composition, even an animated feature. Had he seen this?

CONTEST: Nelson Eddy sings all the parts (male & female) in the Singing Whale segment, but there’s something obvious missing in his excerpt from LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR. Spot it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Friday, September 21, 2012

FATHER BROWN (1974)

Before the BBC begins their new series of G. K. Chesterton Father Brown murder mysteries (with DR. WHO’s Mark Williams as the cross-bearing sleuth), you can bone up on the 13 trimly-made episodes from the mid-‘70s. Much in their favor is Kenneth More who plays the title role with a light touch and just the right blend of scepticism & personal reserve. He can’t do much about the tinny production values & the surprisingly hit-and-miss casts (some of the foreign accents are downright alarming), but he was lucky enough to have playwright Hugh Leonard (DA; A LIFE; a fine tv NICHOLAS NICKLEBY/’77) on board for about half of them. The stories work best when the good Father merely clears a path to the solution and then lets others figure things out; and some even dare to end without full resolutions. Two of the most intriguing come right at the end. One, features an American billionaire killed in a fortress-like bunker. Leonard didn’t write this one though, and it’s just too ambitious (and oddly acted) to fulfill the set-up. But Leonard was hired for the finale, which does much better with a similar claustrophobic angle. Set in France, with a beheading or two, it has a dandy resolution and even a nice character arc for a couple of ex-lovers. Throughout the series, there’s some fun in spotting guest stars like James Bond’s M (Bernard Lee) and a young Charles Dance, but after so much dreary lighting & sets, you do start to wish that radio drama was still an option.

THERE BE DRAGONS (2011)

Roland Joffé’s latest directorial overreach may, as advertised, be ‘fact-inspired,’ but there’s not a single believable frame in it. Supposedly the story of the saintly founder of the controversial Catholic Opus Dei institution (the Good Works Priests), it plays out some pretty dusty Hollywood tropes as boyhood ‘frenemies’ grow up to find themselves on opposing sides of (in this case) the Spanish Civil War in the ‘30s. Told in flashback as a son tries to make peace with his aging dad (the one who took a secular path), Joffé overindulges at every turn with lush compositions, romantic melodrama, corny touchstone memories, useless star cameos (Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi, Geraldine Chaplin) and Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’ quivering on the soundtrack of their lives. It’s an appalling suck up/cop out ‘take’ on some of the more important political & religious tides of the last century as Joffé, who also scripted, uses buckets of hair-splitting narration to pardon characters who literally get away with murder. The real miracle on display is how Joffé manages to keep getting projects. You’d have thought that the deadly run of FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY/’89; CITY OF JOY/’92 and THE SCARLET LETTER/’95 would have done the job long ago, but it seems nothing less than a silver bullet or a stake in the heart will do the trick.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ken Loach deserved a bigger Stateside audience for LAND AND FREEDOM/’95, an unusually clear-eyed Spanish Civil War pic, though from a foreign perspective.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

AKASEN CHITAI / STREET OF SHAME (1956)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s final work follows the pattern of life at a legal brothel where cash, not sex or companionship, is the main object of desire. It’s a difficult time for the girls as they poach clients and worry about family issues & debts to the house while the world outside debates a national bill that will shut them down for good. Typically, Mizoguchi finds nothing to be sentimental about. There’s the boss, always giving advise & letting the girls know how lucky they have it; the no-nonsense house manager who keeps them wedded to their jobs with easy loans they’ll never repay; and ‘the house regulars’ the working girls clutch tightly while ripping them off for all they’re worth when they're not lying in comforting tones.. Mizoguchi seems to hold these lives in his hand as he guides us around five complicated women in a mere hour & a half as they toughen up or break in half. Equally tender and merciless, he leads us toward a double climax that features one of his signature harrowing emotional scenes as a sacrificing mother is rejected by her ashamed son and then back to the work house where mental & physical violence seeps thru the cracks of this sexual commodities market. Only 58 when he died, it’s hard to imagine Mizoguchi going much farther than he takes us here.

DOUBLE-BILL: The perfect double-bill would be ADUA E LE COMPAGNE/60, a post-Neo-Realist Italian pic from Antonio Pietrangeli with Simone Signoret & Marcello Mastrioanni staying up late on the last night of legal brothels in Italy. It’s never been out Stateside, but YOUTUBE has the whole thing for those who can stand compressed video and the UK has it on a Region 2 DVD for those who’ve got the right player. (And speaking of things Italian, look at the guy in this Italian poster. Asian-Italian? Whatever he is, you won't find his like in the film.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

JUNGLE BOOK (1942)

Long available in crummy Public Domain editions taken from beat-up prints, or passed over for Disney’s happy animated version from ‘67 (Walt’s last hurrah), this recent Criterion restoration is something of a revelation. First off, it’s flat out gorgeous! The TechniColor is as vivid as a museum lithograph, with animal footage of startling color density & sharpness. Second, where Disney covered Mowgli’s jungle education; here, that’s skipped to focus on Mowgli’s return to civilization after a brief prologue shows him getting lost as a child. At 18, Sabu is about as definitive a Mowgli as you could wish for. (In the ‘94 remake, Jason Scott Lee was nearing 30.) Slight, but well-built, Sabu’s jungle-boy is as naturally graceful as his animal friends. And wonderfully unself-conscious when speaking to them. But what really makes this work, assuming you can swallow its otherwise all-Caucasian cast*, is in how comfortably it keeps one foot in reality and the other foot in storybook land. Of course, Kipling had something to do with that, but TechniColor plays a large role, too. The heightened hues lend themselves to painterly textures and helps the clever matte drawings & trick shots do their part in the lush landscape. (Only the silly stuffed snakes disappoint though they might work dubbed into parseltongue.) Credit Vincent Korda’s art design & cinematographer Lee Garmes’ matchless matching of studio work with W. Howard Greene’s location footage, too. Scripter Laurence Stallings gets into structural troubles with a story that has two last acts, but he never goes soft & cute, and doesn’t turn away from grim doings. Composer Miklos Rosza, now a regular on the Korda team, with producer Alexander, designer Vincent & helmer Zoltan, are all at their outstanding best here. And the film, far less celebrated than it’s cousin, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD/’40, now seems the better project.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Lots of blue eyes in this Indian village! And none bluer than Rosemary DeCamp as Mowgli’s mom. Her next role also had her playing mother, but swapped out Sabu for James Cagney’s George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY! Hey, works for me.

DOUBLE-BILL: While Disney’s JUNGLE BOOK is the obvious pick, why not try another story about a man of the wild who tries to live in the city, Akira Kurosawa’s DERSU UZALA/’75.

Monday, September 17, 2012

THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (1954)

Studios have been churning out 3 Girls On A (Man)Hunt stories almost since they started making movies . . . and tv series. But 20th/Fox was particularly loyal to the form, especially once they introduced CinemaScope with its 2.55:1 picture ratio tailor-made for triptychs. This pop hit, the second of four in the genre from helmer Jean Negulesco, is mostly recalled for its title song* & for some ultra-smooth location shooting (the first half reel is a mini-travelogue of Rome), but the actual storyline now looks just a bit creepy. Jean Peters, Dorothy McGuire & Maggie McNamara hold to convention, working as secretaries & hoping for proposals, while the likely candidates (Rossano Brazzi, Clifton Webb & Louis Jordan), are alternately teased & tricked into submission. Peters & Brazzi, at least, seem well-matched, but it’s painful to watch lovely McGuire settling for ‘companionate marriage,’ and even worse to suffer through the designing stratagems of McNamara who baits her beau and informs on her gal pal at work. McGuire’s situation, at least, holds period interest for the closet-case sexual-politics of Webb’s dilettante expatriate, but how were audiences meant to respond to McNamara’s despicable behavior? And this reaction isn't all hindsight. Shrill & brittle in THE MOON IS BLUE, her debut pic from the previous year, she was finished by THE PRINCE OF PLAYERS which followed this one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hard to fathom how Styne & Cahn’s cutesy title song beat Arlen & Gershwin’s THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY for Mr Oscar®. Ira’s intro lyric alone should have sealed the deal. (The night is bitter/The stars have lost their glitter/The winds grow colder/Suddenly, you're older/And all because of the man that got away.)

DOUBLE-BILL: While Negulesco’s HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE/’53 has more name recognition (and Marilyn Monroe, delightful as a vain, rather than a dumb, blonde), his later 3 Gal Pal pics, WOMAN’S WORLD/’54 and THE BEST OF EVERYTHING/’59, are grand ‘guilty pleasures.’

READ ALL ABOUT IT: You’d never guess the extent of director Jean Negulesco’s rigorous art training or his visual sophistication after watching Webb, Jordan & McNamara discuss modern art at a museum in Rome. But see for yourself (and read how Darryl F. Zanuck tried to wreck this film), in his charming, if frustratingly selective, auto-bio, THINGS I DID . . . AND THINGS I THINK I DID.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

DETOUR (1945)

Everybody’s favorite Grade Z noir seems more important than ever when set against the modern landscape of ultra-low budget digital productions & ‘mumblecore’ disposables. Finding inspiration rather than restrictions on an absurd six-day/six-set sched, helmer Edgar G. Ulmer conjures up a foreboding atmosphere with smoke, mirrors & some wicked piano playing. (The music score is credited to Erdody, but Ulmer had a rare feel for the classics, tossing in some Chopin & ragged-up Brahms to gain breathing room & add a bit of false hope to the noir claustrophobia.*) The story starts at its end, flashing back from a roadside diner (at the end of all roads) where Tom Neal waits for fate to close in. A cross-country trek has saddled this everyman with unintentional robberies, a couple of dead bodies, and no way out. A life sabotaged by the aptly named Ann Savage, a vicious cohort Neal picked up off the road. We’re so deep into the classic film noir universe, only a handful of people seem to exist. How can you not bump into the one soul on earth you most want to avoid. DETOUR doesn’t show us a downward spiral, but a pitiless drop. Ulmer finds just the right tone from his cast of also-rans, simultaneously flat & vivid. And what memorable atmosphere he coaxes out of journeyman lenser Benjamin Kline. It’s part of what raises the convenient narrative coincidences of noir into something nearer inexorable fate. And better production values might well have brought down the whole house of cards. (BUYER BEWARE! Lots of bad DVD editions out there. IMAGE has the best currently available on this essential title.)

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Ulmer rode the UFA bandwagon from Berlin to Hollywood as art director and found himself directing Grade A Universal Horror by the early ‘30s. Rumor has it that he screwed himself out of first-class work, shtupping the wife of a big producer and getting blackballed down to Poverty Row Productions. Well . . . maybe. If all the creative types who fooled around with the boss’s wife were permanently drummed off the lot, Hollywood who have closed up shop. It’s more likely that Ulmer wasn’t permanently banned, but chose to stay in the ultra-low budget world. For creative freedom? For less financial pressure? You can see what he was shooting for in GREEN FIELDS/’37, one of the Yiddish pics he made in New Jersey(!). Or, at least, you should be able to see it since the film has been restored, showing a gentle side of Ulmer rarely encountered, but no DVD, alas. *This being the case, you might dare the utterly ridiculous CARNEGIE HALL/’47 simply for Ulmer’s expert handling of his All-Star line-up of classical musicians. (Who knew dour conductor Fritz Reiner was a natural character comedian?)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE (2011)

Shortly into this new bio of early film pioneer Georges Méliès (made in celebration of a recent restoration of his seminal A TRIP TO THE MOON, sourced from a rare surviving hand-colored print), you start to notice that all the interesting historic footage isn’t from the guest of honor. And, for those with a reasonable background in very early cinema, this comes as no surprise. The great shock of early cinema, from the very first public screening in 1895, is that those little films made & shown by the Brothers Lumière (available on a fine KINO-DVD set) are already real films, real cinema. Méliès claimed to be at that first show. But if he was, what he took home wasn’t so much a cinematic door to open, but a better trap door for his magic act. Not that a better trap door can’t be a part of cinema (it can, it is, it deserves to be), but planting a camera in the middle of Row H to film tricks & trick shots was about as far as Méliès ever got. That’s why we delight in one or two of his films, but find three or four insufferable. And while you can extrapolate a century’s-worth of narrative cinema from the perfect angle the Lumières’ found for THE WATERER WATERED in 1895 (it’s the one where the mischievous boy steps on the water hose), Méliès only gives us diminishing returns. Jean-Luc Godard might have had the Lumières in mind when he called cinema ‘Truth at 24 frames per second.’ What Méliès turned out was an analogue precursor to CGI. And, sacre blue!, a century after he went out of business, the old charlatan seems to have won the war! For the record, the bio-pic is okay, the restoration is well intentioned, but the Techno-Pop music-track from AIR is a mistake. (Note our poster. Not from TRIP, but from a lost Edison pic from 1898.)

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Heck, this whole Write-Up is a STotD! But some may wish to have a look at Martin Scorsese’s recreation of LE VOYAGE in his well-received, but rather dreadful, HUGO/’11. This charmless, ten-ton child’s fable about a dead father who leaves his kid a secret message from beyond, overdoses on CGI ‘magic’ while cramming in a pointless sidebar on Georges Méliès that lets Scorsese convert LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE into 3-D when he’s not converting the characters in this Paris-based tale into eccentric Britishers. How this pic, which lost a minimum $100 mill, got taken seriously and let off the hook for commercial malfeasance is a real head-scratcher. Or is it just the growing cult of St. Marty, the current Patron Saint of Cinema?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

THE PARTY (1968)

After their big success with THE PINK PANTHER/’63 and A SHOT IN THE DARK/’64, Peter Sellers & writer/director Blake Edwards made their only non-Inspector Clouseau project. Something of a low-budget experiment, THE PARTY was a largely improvised, nearly plotless, Jacques Tati-style comedy. (MON ONCLE/’58 appears to be the main influence.) It’s an uneven mix, occasionally hanging on to gags that are painfully embarrassing if not particularly funny, but more often hitting targets no one else would dare. Sellers pulls out his terribly polite Indian character (seen earlier in THE MILLIONAIRESS/’60), now an enthusiastic, if decidedly incompetent actor in Hollywood. After wrecking a big location shoot, he’s accidentally invited to a wild all-night party being given by the wife of the studio boss, and proceeds to wreck that, too. That’s basically it. But when Edwards & Sellers are ‘on,’ that’s plenty. Most of the scenes in this remarkably efficient, nearly abstract construction (the film might have been ‘pitched’ as a vehicle for Harry Langdon in his ‘late-‘20s heyday) are done in daring one-take master shots, so they build comedy and comic suspense with the joy of seeing the thing happen. Though, this being Blake Edwards, he’s too much the professional to put quotation marks around his technical chops and point it out for you. He just gets on with it.* Some of the comic embarrassment goes on longer than it can sustain, but have a look at the camera moves & timing at the extended dinner table scene or the way Steve Franken’s drunken waiter routines grow exponentially hilarious. (Franken, who died a couple of weeks ago, rarely got this kind of screen time. Typically generous of Edwards. He peaks on an out-of-control lurch which sends him up the stairs before sliding down on his bum. This, and much more in here, could have done proud service in a Laurel & Hardy short.) Edwards even sends himself up, twisting a sweet, useless song out of the wan Claudine Longet, but making it do service as the midpoint resting spot for Sellers’ tour-de-force ‘gotta Pee!!’ routine. And give a hand to lenser Lucien Ballard who had to have his lights ready for just about anything, yet manages to maintain Edwards’ usual swanky visual style. At a time when most studio comedies were ugly as sin.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Maybe if Edwards called more attention to his film strategies, and less to nailing laughs, he’d get as much attention as Jerry Lewis does from VSC (Very Serious Critics).

READ ALL ABOUT IT: As recalled by writer/director Paul Mazursky in his auto-bio, SHOW ME THE MAGIC, when he visited the set for this film, Edwards & Sellers were already not speaking to each other. On an improvised film?! Hard to believe? Not for those who know anything about Sellers, a very difficult man, even as comic geniuses go.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, Jacques Tati’s MON ONCLE pairs nicely. Tati brings an internal discipline Edwards never cultivated. But then, Tati only made five pics in his entire career. Or, if you’re feeling daring, try Marlon Brando’s hilarious faux Indian guru in the otherwise highly forgettable CANDY/’68. Rail-thin and spouting hilarious cant, it’s a glorious send-up of everything APOCALYPSE NOW/’79 took so seriously. And only Brando would do the parody first.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel must have been a bit more solid than this doom-laden mush. As it stands, Alex Garland’s fuzzy script & Mark Romanek’s swoony megging have made it the perfect pic for anyone who can’t bear to take Gorecki’s Symphony #3: ‘Sorrowful Songs’ off their playlist. The tale’s jolly conceit, which might do service for Monty Python, holds that decades ago humans were cultivated for their parts . . . like Purdue chickens. Once mature, they’re prepped for organ donation, usually doing three ‘procedures’ before giving up the ghost. (And did the company pack the liver, heart, neck & gizzard in a neat plastic bag for the squeamish? Heck, do we humanoids have a gizzard?) Zounds!, this all sounds like a major global concern, but why worry over ethics when a soulful romantic entanglement quivers into fitful view. Yes, a bitch of a triangle for two woman (fragile/neurotic Keira Knightley; sweet/docile Cary Mulligan) and the skinny male classmate they mist over (skinny/skinny Andrew Garfield*). The opening scenes with the trio as kids at Hogwarts, er . . . Hailsham Academy are good creepy fun (it’s THE STEPFORD KIDS meets COMA), but once the grown ups take over the roles (none well-matched with their youthful selves, not even their hair), the whole set up starts to feel like . . . a set-up. Anyway, the whole gang are so lacking in motivation, so hopelessly lethargic, it’s hard to believe their organs could be of much help to anyone.

DOUBLE-BILL: Pauline Kael blissfully took down an earlier totalitarian Pop fantasy when François Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 541/’66 came out, imagining the poor sucker who had to live their life as the living memory of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. See her review on the NY’er archive.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Check out those skinny legs on Mr. Garfield! No wonder he got cast as Spidey in the Spider-Man reboot.

Monday, September 10, 2012

STRAIT-JACKET (1964)

Bette Davis & Joan Crawford had such an unlikely success with Robert Aldrich’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE/’62, that a re-teaming looked inevitable. But Crawford’s health recused her from HUSH . . . HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE/’64. (Olivia de Havilland stepped in, very nicely, too.) Books have been written on ‘what really happened’ behind the scenes, but the reasons for Joan’s vanishing act grow a lot clearer once this trashy piece of shock schlock is taken into account: Crawford wanted Davis’s role. And damned if she doesn’t get just that in this fast-track release from the very same year. Now, Joan’s the reclusive axe-wielding nutcase in this laughable horror vehicle . . . or is she? And Crawford’s not the only one on this project out to get their due. There’s Robert Bloch, author of the book Hitchcock turned into PSYCHO/’60. He tosses in mother fixation, phantom voices, a murdered investigator, cheap wigs falling off at the climax, even a spic-n-span bathroom with a shower curtain waiting to be flung open. You can easily parody these William Castle productions and the campy intensity of Joan Crawford’s determination to remain a movie star, but what’s the point? (Be sure to check out Columbia's Lady-with-the-Torch logo at the end of this film. She’s lost her head!)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Producer/director William Castle was more marketer than filmmaker. Bloodied cardboard axes were the freebies of choice. But why not a real Carny Campaign?

  • SEE Joan Crawford in her black ‘fright-wig’ after a ‘youth’ make-over!
  • HEAR Joan confess to how she spends her days. ‘Knitting!’
  • WATCH Crawford molest a spinning 78 rpm shellac disc by striking a match on its innocent surface!
  • FEEL the terror as Joan puts the moves on debuting John Anthony Hayes, stopping his career before it ever got going!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

THE DRUM / DRUMS (1938)

The Brothers Korda (producer Alexander, helmer Zoltan & designer Vincent) had a passion for the British Colonies that only comes to Hungarian emigrants. After ELEPHANT BOY/’37, but before THE FOUR FEATHERS/’39, they made this A. E. W. Mason adventure about a brave young Indian Prince (Sabu) whose peace-loving father is murdered by his treacherous uncle (Canadian Raymond Massey in dark ethnic disguise). After warning his British drummer boy pal (hey!, it’s red-headed Desmond Tester, the kid with the bomb on the bus in Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE/'36), Sabu sneaks ahead of the British relief column and manages to beat his ‘tattoo’ on the ceremonial drum to warn his British friends (led by wonderful Roger Livesey) of his uncle’s trap. Raj claptrap, you say? Well, take these things with a grain or two of salt and they can be quite tasty. Zoltan Korda never had the sheer bravura technique of fellow Hungarian helmer Michael Curtiz, nor the ability to call on Errol Flynn & the resources of the Brothers Warner, and this story hasn’t the majestic sweep of FEATHERS (nor the sweeping score by yet another Hungarian, the great Miklos Rosza), but it’s rousing stuff all the same.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Criterion includes this in their 3-pic SABU! package along with ELEPHANT BOY and JUNGLE BOOK/’42. Visually, the restoration is a rare miss for the company with an image that preserves the airy, almost translucent quality of a real nitrate TechniColor print, but suffers from variable color density & a lack of sharpness. Better elements were available not so long ago, perhaps the source is suspect. (From a re-release print?)

Friday, September 7, 2012

CANDLESHOE (1977)

This typically bland/technically shoddy bit of family-fare from the post-Walt doldrums @ Disney Studios should (at least) work. An updated variation on LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, it puts a teenage Jody Foster in as the streetwise kid & unlikely heir, and adds a couple of okay twists. #1: Foster’s working a con game & really on the hunt for buried treasure inside the old mansion; and #2: it turns out that her new ‘grandparent’ is flat broke. It sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, yet a straight 1980 tv adaptation of FAUNTLEROY, with Ricky Schroder & Alec Guinness, was hugely successful.* Like so much Disney product under the reign of Walt’s son-in-law, Ron Miller (and regular megger Norman Tokar), this feels both unnecessary & retrograde. You know something’s seriously off right from the prologue when Foster refers to Rudolph Valentino in a wisecrack. Valentino? As lady of the manor & her butler, Helen Hayes & David Niven twinkle alarmingly once we hit the old sod, while Foster gets to tangle with a quartet of foster kids who happily do all the upkeep on the mansion. (Like those mice in CINDERELLA/’50, but with lower voices.) To his credit, Niven manages to keep his dignity even when the script has him masquerading as the rest of the household staff. Foster, on the other hand, makes (and even looks) like Mickey Rooney in some dim ‘30s vehicle with completely mechanical sit-com reactions for every occasion. To her credit, she stayed off the screen for four years after this, returning all grown up.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *While the Schroder/Guinness FAUNTLEROY hasn’t shown up on DVD, the old Selznick production from 1936, with Freddie Bartholomew & Mickey Rooney, is more than okay. And Mary Pickford’s 1921 silent version is even better.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Of all the towering theater actresses from her generation, Helen Hayes, the ‘Queen of the American Stage,’ left by far the largest sampling of her work on screen. Yet nothing helps us see what all the fuss was about.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

BRIGHTON ROCK (2010)

The original BRIGHTON ROCK/’47, adapted from his own novel by Graham Greene (with Terrence Rattigan), rarely seems to show up. Now, here’s a new version, with the story modishly updated to the early ‘60s. It’s the directing debut of Rowan Joffe, son of turgid helmer Roland Joffé, and while it’s stylishly accomplished on the surface, the story loses rather than gains resonance from the time shift. Sam Riley is too smooth & a decade too mature as ‘Pinkie,’ the young, amoral punk trying to poach territory from a rival gang for his protection racket. When the older, better funded group takes action against him, someone winds up dead and Pinkie needs to babysit a possible witness to the crime. That’s Rose, played by Andrea Riseborough, also a good decade on the wrong side of her role. So when she’s falls for Pinkie, reading his threatening menace as romantic yearnings, she seems more daft than innocent. And Sam Riley, at thirty, isn’t able to mask his own confusion about his conflicted feelings as awkward adolescent behavior. Joffe tries to pull in the changing social world of youth gangs ( Mods & Rockers) as a comparison to the old guard thugs, but the two worlds don’t meaningfully interact, it's just scenery. Plenty of good actors are milling about (Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Andy Serkis), but the connective tissue is missing. And the jokey bit of Catholic mysticism right at the end might even have made Graham Greene blush.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try the original BRIGHTON ROCK/’47 from the Boulting Bros (apparently now out in all regions) and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD (1939)

A couple of legendary scripters, Ben Hecht & Herman J. Mankiewicz, had the neat idea of putting the usual suspects & farcical doings of a ‘Screwball’ comedy inside a Hitchcockian innocent-man-on-the-run story, specifically THE 39 STEPS/’35. Right down to having the bickering leads spend an uncomfortable night handcuffed together.* But while their intentions are right on the money, the execution, as so often with second-tier screwballs, isn’t all it might be. Still, when they aren’t pushing too hard, James Stewart (as a private dick on the lam to prove his client’s innocence) & Claudette Colbert (a poetess hoping for adventure & a bit of notoriety to boost sales) are plenty charming. Watch them interact on a boat where Claudette is briefly turned into a living cameo portrait when seen thru a port hole or earlier when Jimmy grabs Claudette like a bag of potatoes off a rickety fence. In general, the silly detective story works better than the gags, and the funniest scene is all cops & dicks as comic flatfoots Nat Pendleton, Edgar Kennedy & Guy Kibbee get dressed down by a Captain. This guy has the chutzpah to pull a slow burn on Edgar Kennedy, the greatest slow-burn artist in film history! Now, that’s screwy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The reason this more than respectable Screwball is rarely revived becomes all too apparent late in the film when Stewart hides out with a summer stock company and puts on Blackface (and a ‘darkie’ accent) as a disguise. Oy veh!

DOUBLE-BILL: *A true Hitchcock innocent-man-on-the-run wouldn’t be a detective already on the case, but someone who gets accidently pulled in. Yes? No? Maybe? Well, think of NOTORIOUS/’46, the great collaboration from Hitch & Hecht. There, neither Cary Grant nor Ingrid Bergman could be described as an uninvolved accidental bystander. Or, go in the other direction and check out Hitch’s one & only Screwball, and a pretty good one, MR. & MRS. SMITH/’41. A film made at the specific request of Carole Lombard, the Queen of Screwball, whose rep was made by . . . Ben Hecht in Howard Hawks’ TWENTIETH CENTURY/’34.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

BIUTIFUL (2010)

After three projects joined at the hip, scripter Guiilermo Arriago & helmer Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu went their separate (slightly embittered) ways. The films had been both admired & detracted for their elaborately interlaced storylines that casually (or should that read causally?) ricocheted off each other. And while it’s quite a trick to keep so many storylines going at once, it’s even harder to make do with one. Now, working on his own, Iñárritu tries just that, aiming for a bit more depth as he follows the rapid decline of Javier Bardem’s all-around merchandise hustler. But Iñárritu overcompensates, stuffing his sole leading character with the baggage of twenty, as if incident equalled drama, narrative simple arithmetic. He was smart to get Javier Bardem, few actors other than Cate Blanchette ‘take’ light so dramatically. But what a load the guy hauls! Separated from a bi-polar wife; saddled with two troubled pre-teens; keeping rein on a crew of irresponsible Senegalese illegal immigrant hustlers; plus a warehouse of Chinese illegals; even a score of dead immigrants! And there's protection pay-outs to impotent cops; a brother who runs a sex club & fools around with your crazy ex; a father Bardem never met, but gets to rebury . . . oh, and a touch of terminal cancer leaving you a month or so to live. Iñárritu handles much of this stylishly, though the fussy color palette grows tiresome, especially at a self-indulgent two & a half hours. By then, the seams are showing and sympathy is lagging. Still, it’s nice to know that when you get to heaven your hair looks great, you get to smoke and there’s Ravel on the soundtrack.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

This last of the Pre-Code Hollywood Horror classics to appear on DVD in a properly restored edition (via Criterion) is well worth the wait. A free adaptation of H. G. Wells, and much censored over the years, it’s nearly as creepy & unsettling as it must have seemed 80 years ago. In form & setting, it’s cousin to THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME/’32 (isolated island jungle, mad master-race ruler, shipwreck opening, Richard Arlen in for Joel McCrea), while its theme of tampering with human life is a fun-house mirror of FRANKENSTEIN/’31. Charles Laughton, showing plenty of acting discipline as Dr. Moreau, has seen his experiments in surgical eugenics go horribly wrong, populating his island with near-human monstrosities. These unfortunates still have the power to cause some real shivers, especially when Moreau goes to work on them in his ‘House of Pain’ operating room. The whole cast seems caught up in the dreadful atmosphere with Arlen & Bela Lugosi doing some of their best work while supporting stalwart Arthur Hohl, as Moreau’s second-in-command, shows what he could do given a multi-dimensional character. Helmer Erle Kenton spent most of his career on low-budget fare, including some Frankenstein retreads in the ‘40s, but here, with a decent budget & the great cinematographer Karl Struss, he shows a remarkably fluid technique for the day.* Even with a restored running time, the film shortchanges us on exposition & motivation, yet it’s managed not to acquire the antique charm of its horror brethren, still giving off a clammy sense of doom that’s hard to shake off even in our ironic, post-modern times.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *With good production values and the prestigious presence of Charles Laughton, this was a plum assignment for director Erle Kenton. But its general look, especially the atmospheric opening reels, may owe just as much to his deference to Paramount’s great cinematographer Karl Struss. Those fog bound waters with ships passing each other, and the introductory scenes on the island look like the Hollywood horror pic F. W. Murnau might have made. After all, Murnau’s NOSFERATU/’22 may be the first great horror pic, and Struss co-shot SUNRISE/’27 for him @ Fox with Charles Rosher. NOSFERATU remains a problematic title, but is much improved after a major 2007 restoration. Try the latest 2-disc edition from KINO.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

THE CHAIRMAN (1969)

Ludicrous, but not much fun, this political thriller sends Gregory Peck to the People’s Republic of China for a stirring game of Ping-Pong with Chairman Mao (two years before Nixon’s Ping-Pong diplomacy) and a secret formula that could trigger an Agricultural Revolution. That is, if his military pals in the West don’t set off the remote bomb they’ve implanted in the back of his head! Peck had two of iconic hits with helmer J. Lee Thompson (GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61 & CAPE FEAR/’62), but stumbled badly with him on MACKENNA’S GOLD/’69.* That was a big, noisy flop, this one disappeared quietly. (Note should be made of Thompson’s odd au courant cutting style. Trying to be ‘with it,’ he only manages to be distracting.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Peck finally got his late career hit when he took a gamble with a classy horror pic. The risk paid off when THE OMEN/’76 came out, changing the course for many an aging Hollywood leading man just as Bette Davis had stirred the pot for aging Hollywood divas with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE/’62.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Few guilty pleasures are guiltier than MACKENNA’S GOLD. With its all-star cast, immense scale & improbable treasure chest storyline, this Western is stupefying stuff . . . and (though much patience is required) more fun than many a sane pic.