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Monday, December 31, 2012

KNYAZ IGOR / PRINCE IGOR (1969)

There were quite a few of these filmed operas made back in the USSR days of cultural proselytization. First we give them Opera, then Communism! The form shouldn’t work at all with realistic locations working against the highly stylized format, and when you add on handsome actors lip-synching to pre-recorded operatic voices . . . it’s not exactly a recipe for success. Yet, many work like a charm, and feel much more like real movies than the currently fashionable HD-live stage productions with their odd Concept Driven directorial conceits and ironic modernizations. Nothing ironic about Brezhnev’s Russia. Anyway, opera already comes with ‘QUOTES’ around everything. The best of the lot is still the old BORIS GODONOV film from ‘54. Weirdly compelling, with stunning visuals of vast hordes playing out the drama on sets that manage to be paradoxically ultra-realistic & highly stylized. (It helps that it’s a work of genius, too.) But later films of lesser operas, like the unusually handsome b&w version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s THE TSAR’S BRIDE/’66, work almost as well within a more naturalistic manner. This one, from a heavily cut edition of the Alexander Borodin opera that was originally cobbled into a performing edition by Glazanov & Rimsky, shouldn’t hold together at all. But under its recklessly tuneful surface, director Roman Tikhommirfov successfully locates a narrative thread to work with. The basic story finds Prince Igor ignoring bad omens before defending his land against the Polovtsian Invaders. Back at home, his wife pines and Prince Galitsky revels in debauchery. Meanwhile, Igor’s captor, the great Polovtsi Khan, gets a major bromance on his Prince of a Prisoner, offering to make him a partner and rule all the Russias together. This is further complicated because Igor’s handsome boy is also enslaved, but by love for the Khan’s alluring daughter. The whole thing plays out like some sort of sung-thru Spaghetti Western, alternating vast landscapes, hordes of soldiers with loudly intimate operatic soliloquies, often sung in the character's head. (Nice way to avoid bad lip-synch.) The Corinth DVD is taken from a weary print that improves a bit in the last reel, but don’t let that worry you. Here, the sum is very much greater than the occasional mismatched parts. Oddly, the one can’t-miss element, the famous Polovtsian Dances don’t come off. The focus & energy they acquire in a restricted stage space dissipate out in the Steppes. NOTE: The 1972 date listed by IMDb likely reflects the film’s Stateside release.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Four or five of the Borodin melodies in here went from IGOR to B’way’s KISMET. More came from Borodin’s Sym. #2 and his great D Major String Quartet. (Stranger In Paradise; This Is My Beloved; Baubles, Bangles & Beads.) The show remains tuneful, corny and irresistible. Alas, the 1955 M-G-M film version is resistible. But it’s still fun to pick out the tunes.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)

Good fun, though not quite so much as that poster promises! (Click to enlarge it.) The template was Disney’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA/’54 which revealed untapped profit in first-class Sci-Fi family adventure pics. James Mason again plays an eccentric genius type, but a nicer one (the film had been planned for the ailing Clifton Webb). He discovers a tunnel leading 20,000 leagues into the Earth, bringing along Grad Student Pat Boone who systematically sheds his clothes all thru the film until his original outfit resembles a pair of Bermuda shorts . . . and nothing else. And there’s blond beefcake, too, in the pleasing form of Icelandic athlete Peter Ronson in his one & only film role. Also present for the descent is Arlene Dahl as the comely widow of a rival explorer. She offers good company, a bit of turn-of-the-last-century sexual politics and yet another striptease. (Don’t worry, it’s just her corset.) Henry Levin megs in a lively fashion unknown from his later work and there’s a better than expected script from Walter Reisch & film producer Charles Brackett that finds room for comic relief from a duck named Gertrude between the scary underworld culs-de-sac. Most of the effects remain spritely & imaginative, though unconvincing process work fails yet again to turn small reptiles into fierce pre-historic creatures. But a bit of posh location shooting back at the University bookends the pic with some real pomp & circumstance for a handsome finish. Especially in the fine restoration now available. Check out the pre-restoration comparison in the Extras to see just how bad things had gotten.

DOUBLE-BILL: There’s plenty of good-to-awful Jules Verne adaptations to pick from, but why not go for a CD of Bernard Herrmann’s phenomenal score. Heard on its own, it’s an unexpectedly somber, powerful affair that points to a far more serious film, yet works great in this more lighthearted context. Listen toward the end when a huge serpent wakes up and Herrmann references a touch of Fafner the Dragon from Wagner’s SIEGFRIED. Decca once had a suite from this score on a Phase 4 re-release CD called Great Film Music with Herrmann conducting a selection from his own fantasy films.

Friday, December 28, 2012

LIBERTE / KORKOROO (2009)

One of the great under-reported stories out of WWII Europe involves the treatment of the Gypsies (‘Roma’ in the current terminology). This really isn’t too surprising, nationless & nomadic, who’s around to tell their story; what country would co-fund the film? With French citizenship and a mixed Algerian/Gypsy background, writer/director Tony Gatlif certainly brings the right cultural baggage . . . but he brings too much. This story of an extended Gypsy family rolling thru the French countryside, then suddenly asked to go against their nature, settle down or face some sort of exile (prison, concentration camp, extermination) plays up their wild nature in picturesque, as well as picaresque fashion. They don’t just travel, they gambol; they aren’t just natural musicians, they can fiddle the birds down from the trees. And their numbers include a sweetly crazed wildman, a regular violinistic Django Reinhardt; along with a pale French orphan boy who tags along, a gypsy at heart. But Gatlif doesn’t trust us with his set up, pointing out good guys and bad guys when we’re already on board, as if we were as childlike as his superstitious clan.* And he can’t stop himself from making the two sympathetic French townies the most interesting people in the film, showing when all is said and done that he knows exactly where his pain is buttered. Still, it’s a fascinating (and terrifying) period and Gatlif runs a smooth, visually sophisticated tour of the situation for us. If only he didn’t also make everything right down to the cow dung smell quite so worthwhile.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Then again, back in France, where kicking out Roma is still part of the political landscape, pointing out the Good Guys and the Bad Guys may not be quite so redundant.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

SILVER CITY / HIGH VERMILION (1951)

Oscar’d for his publicity hack in THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA/’54; famous for informing the cops that he’s just been murdered at the beginning of D.O.A.; Edmund O’Brien was a good utility player, best known for playing stocky, sweaty urban men in crisis. But he also made a fistful of Westerns, including the lead in this neatly plotted story of a mining expert with a bad rep that keeps him on the move. Yvonne De Carlo is the sweet young thing (hey!, De Carlo was never a sweet young thing) who gives him a second chance running her pop’s silver claim before their lease runs out. But Barry Fitzgerald, remarkably menacing as the greedy owner, doesn’t want to lose that good silver vein and pulls off a series of dirty tricks to stop the digging. Meanwhile . . . O’Brien’s past is catching up to him and he’s got to stop the mine sabotage without being sidetracked by having to prove his innocence. It should be a swell little ‘B-pic,’ but Byron Haskins’ megging is frankly lousy with poorly staged action work and a sense of desperation in every undercranked chase. (Undercranking: the flop-sweat of action scenes.) Worse, TechniColor pioneer Ray Rennahan shoots as if it’s still 1935 and he’s got to show off his levels of color saturation. Still, the story plays out reasonably well, there’s a deft, scary chase thru a wood cutting mill (careful, boys!) and a nice range of supporting players like Richard Arlen, Gladys George & a tall, drink o’ water named Michael Moore. Michael Moore?

DOUBLE-BILL: O’Brien plays support in two Western Classics, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62 and THE WILD BUNCH/’69. But why not give yourself the pleasant shock of seeing his film debut as a sweetly handsome, slim & cute poetic stripling in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME/’39.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

STAR WARS (1977)

And now it's a heartbreaker. Between dissing George Lucas for his recent pet project (RED TAILS/’12) and the current buzz over Disney acquiring rights to the STAR WARS series (and all related properties?), it seemed right to check-up on the original, last seen here during its original engagement. (Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . . at Grauman’s Chinese!) LucasFilm took so much grief over the tweaking done to the film on its last theatrical release (refined F/X, reinforced saber light and a pointless new scene for Jabba the Hutt with some repeated dialogue from Hans Solo) that a recent DVD issued both the massaged print and the original cut which is a few minutes shorter. So, after all this time and all those copycat Sci-Fi/effects-heavy fantasy pics, how does it look and play? Pretty gosh darn wonderful. And in either version. (Lucas hasn’t exactly played fair with the two prints, giving the latest incarnation a spiffy polish and the expected ‘enhanced for 16X9 screens’ feature for optimum picture quality. The original, a bit blasted here and there, gets no such boost, but looks well enough, anyway.) Oddly, both prints have synch problems in the first reel. You can’t tell at first since there’s make up and masks hiding so many mouths out there, but when Princess Leia shows up, the synch is an annoying two or three frames off. (Sloppy, sloppy 20th/Fox.) No matter, the thrill remains, as does the wit, speed, fun, sense of imagination, beauty and quick-time storytelling which is, if anything, stronger than you recall. What a relief after the encrusted mythology, effects for the sake of effects, grandiosity and toy-selling priorities that soon submerged the original larky spirit of this grand adventure. And, heavens to Betsy, what marvelous perfs! Well, except for Carrie Fisher who comes off as a bit of a lummox. That odd Mid-Atlantic accent and the white outfit; was Lucas aiming for a sort of Olivia de Havilland/Maid Marian thing? Well, never mind, everything else is just super. Most especially Alec Guinness, who needs only to open his mouth, or to contemplate the scene, and you feel honored to be in the presence. And, while it’s always fun to spot the ‘inspirations’ (read rip-offs) by John Williams in his scores (his latest, LINCOLN, takes more than a fair share out of the sound world of Aaron Copland’s famous A LINCOLN PORTRAIT), who remembers the nods in here toward Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING in the early desert scenes, in addition to the well-known nips of Korngold & Tchaikovsky? And all that precision editing, the kind that brings a rush with simple cuts when Han Solo makes his ‘surprise’ return to the action. It sets up some naughty giggles when Lucas goes all Leni Riefenstahl TRIUMPH OF THE WILL for his triumphal ending. NOTE: Started watching to check on differences between the two editions, then just couldn’t stop. It’s really a wonderful pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Please note this post’s title, not Episode IV: A NEW HOPE Episode IV, but simply STAR WARS. The way Lucas spins his own legend, I’m surprised he never found a way to layer Hans Solo onto all the original posters after the fact.

Monday, December 24, 2012

RED TAILS (2012)

A ‘passion project’ for STAR WARS mogul George Lucas, this fact-inspired tale of the pioneering all-black Tuskegee Airmen of WWII and their fight to get into ’the fight,’ comes off like a vanity project. From the opening shot, a tone of gung-ho trivialization and self-defeating CGI overkill bollixes things up. And while the facts behind the fiction are rich enough to hold your attention, you wind up feeling you’ve just seen the African-American experience in WWII as told by Up With People. Maybe we’d buy in if the no-name cast of actors had enough talent to match all the forced enthusiasm. (Star-billed Terrence Howard & Cuba Gooding, Jr. are just window dressing, thespian ‘loss-leaders.’) The handsome lead with the drinking problem is particularly colorless, and his nerveless ‘wingman’ hasn’t the charisma or looks needed to pull off this macho flyboy smoothie. (But a modest tip of the hat to Ne-Yo’s ‘Smokey,’ who manages his entire role as if he had a gumball in his mouth.) Weak as they are, bland as Anthony Hemingway’s direction is, weightless & uninvolving as the air battles are, the real problem undoubtedly stems from Lucas. For all his technical savvy, he’s been culturally clueless for decades, unwilling to acknowledge how those STAR WARS prequels would have fared without the original trilogy to buck them up. This glitzy film is probably more in line with his INDIANA JONES tv spin-off, and just as disposable.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Highlights from the Tuskegee Airmen documentary DOUBLE VICTORY are included as an Extra on this DVD. The full program doesn’t seem to be available, but this 15 minute edit is both moving & exciting in a way the film isn’t.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

THE BUCCANEER (1938)

Cecil B. DeMille’s final motion picture credit was as producer for this film’s 1958 remake, directed by his son-in-law Anthony Quinn. The film was not a success; worse, it largely put the original production out of sight. You could find it in various poor editions, but nothing like the newly released, sharp looking Olive-DVD edition taken from a pristine print. It even includes a brief color-tinted sequence probably made for early RoadShow engagements. And, wouldn’t you just know, this lesser-known DeMille turns out to be the yeastiest, meatiest, least studio-bound, most energetic work he made in the ‘30s. Possibly, the only DeMille since the early ‘20s that adds to his filmmaking capital rather than living off the dwindling interest. And the ‘real life’ story even has a bit of history grounding it. Jean Lafitte (vigorously played by Fredric March with zee French accenté) really was a privateer who ran the swamp-lands near New Orleans and he really did give assist to Andrew Jackson in defending the city in the War of 1812 against the Brits. Take the rest with a grain of salt. Paramount had a new feisty foreign femme under contract, but DeMille lets Franciska Gaal push too hard as the lovestruck stowaway and she only made two more Hollywood pics. (But check out her cute little doggy. It’s Toto!) The rest of the cast is just about perfect, walking a line between corny & memorable in the best DeMille fashion. But the filmmaking is so unexpectedly dynamic. There’s a thrust, a beauty (super lensing from Victor Milner & excellent trick work) and a refreshed DeMille style that’s lighter than expected. There’s even good comic relief not only from expected sources like Akim Tamiroff (with a magnificent nose), Walter Brennan (sans shoes), an hilarious Spring Byington as Dolly Madison rushing a White House dinner as the British Are Coming, but also, for a change, from a heroic character in Hugh Sothern’s Andrew Jackson. Even DeMille detractors (and they are legion) give him credit for his use of mass movement & spectacle, and they’re right to do so. But DeMille’s true gift, the one that never left him no matter how stiff & silly his films became, was his story sense. He always knew what we wanted and needed to see next . . . and he delivered. Here, the story construction gives him two reels to fill after the big climactic battle. It’s a problem that has defeated many a better filmmaker. But watch how DeMille paces the final scenes leading up to the victory ball, with its escalating public & private revelations of love, honor, regret & responsibility. Then ending his film with the quietest diminuendo of his career.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Mentioned before, but worth another plug is Scott Eyman’s fine 2010 DeMille bio EMPIRE OF DREAMS.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942)

Winston Churchill thought Noël Coward could best serve his country during WWII by singing ‘Mad Dogs and Englishman’ to the troops. But Coward had a better idea after his close friend Lord Mountbatten told him about the ship he had commanded and lost early in the fighting. Like John Ford in his WWII masterpiece, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE/’45*, Coward instinctively knew that a story of determination & defiance in the face of defeat was exactly what he had been searching for. The fact that he’d never made a film before (others had adapted his plays and he’d acted in a mere handful) didn’t stop him from writing, co-directing, starring & composing the score for what would turn out to be one of the largest productions ever made in Britain. David Lean got bumped up from crack editor, to co-director, and future directors like Ronald Neame, Michael Anderson & Guy Green were also behind the camera. The cast is similarly filled with future stars including John Mills, Michael Wilding, Kay Walsh, James Donald, Richard Attenborough,  Celia Johnson, even Juliet Mills & Daniel Massey as kids. (Massey would get to portray his godfather in STAR/’69). Critical & academic esteem toward Coward & Lean have known their ups & downs over the past decades, but in general, the film just looks better than ever. And the old canard about Coward’s condescending views toward lower-middle-class types seems more than ever a shibboleth of outdated academic thinking.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Coward declined the Alec Guinness role in Lean’s BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57, but you can see what might have been in a scene here which shows Coward coming aboard a rescue ship. He’d have been veddy, veddy good.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, Ford’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE has an American story of defeat from the early part of the war. Alas, Ford’s film came out just after the war ended, flopped at the box-office and has never gotten the attention it deserves.

Friday, December 21, 2012

12 TO THE MOON (1960)

Dopey Kiddie Matinee space adventure about an international mission to claim the moon for all mankind is now available without a jokey comment track from the Mystery Science Theater guys. Feel free to make your wisecracks. Much more fun. Even on its own lowbrow/low-budget terms, it’s plenty awful, but even more weird. The moon turns out to be inhabited by aliens (unseen thanks to the minuscule budget) who grab a couple of over passionate scientists/astronauts to learn all about mankind & sex. They also get a pair of space cats to learn about . . . cats. Later, when the survivors on the spaceship head back to Earth, they find their home planet frozen. Time for a big sacrificial bombing run with an atomic weapon, piloted by the hot-headed Israeli and the guilt-ridden son of a Nazi scientist. By then, the film has more or less given up explaining these strange events. (Or why only the French character has his dialogue looped.) Fortunately, the moon-beings stay in touch via calligraphic writings, translated with ease by our female Japanese astronaut. (The only other thing she does is take a water-free shower.) Some of the ultra-low-grade effects are fun to watch, sort of like a backyard space epic made as a school project. And who’d want to miss man’s first words on the moon, ‘No air detected, no sound . . . soil seems to be pumice dust.’ Stirring stuff!  Don’t skip the trailer which promises One FREE Ticket to the Moon with every ticket bought to see 12 TO THE MOON! Wonder if anyone tried to redeem one in '69?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY:The real mystery of the film is how the great cinematographer, and noir super star, John Alton got stuck on the project. He certainly brings an unexpected gloss to things, but sandwiched between ELMER GANTRY/’60 and an assist on THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ/’62, the assignment must have given him pause. Only sixty years old, this legend never shot another film.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

JESSE JAMES (1938)

Nunnaly Johnson had to twist his script like a pretzel to turn the outlaw Jesse James into the sort of wrong-headed, decent, mother-loving fellow Tyrone Power might play. And we’ve been paying for it ever since with scores of True-to-Life portraits just as phony. Nicholas Ray’s little seen THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES/’59 even lifted some of the stunt footage, including a jaw-dropping cliff dive that killed some horses. (There’s more spectacular horse chases, but apparently no other fatalities.) Henry King was usually at his best helming Americana stories, he understands the pace of the things, and he gets a good, sympathetic perf from Ty, with just enough of an edge for Jesse James. Unfortunately, Henry Fonda shows up as big brother Frank, and he puts out so much contained energy, he blows Ty off the screen. Lenser George Barnes kept the TechniColor as muted as possible @ 20thFox, home of the neon reds & greens, plus there’s a darn funny bit from Slim Summerville at the jailhouse and an irritating one from newspaper editor Henry Hull. The love interest, Nancy Kelly, had been a child star (collectors of camp treasure her OTT mother in THE BAD SEED/’56), but she’s awfully tame here. There’s an unusually strong supporting cast with Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy & blue-eyed John Carradine as that famously, cowardly killer, but Randolph Scott is the guy to watch. Playing the sheriff who waits for Kelly’s misguided passion to cool, he’s so darn natural in the Western genre, you can miss seeing just how good is. But the studio execs must noted what was going on since he and Fonda both get shuttled to the side to let Ty take the spotlight.

DOUBLE-BILL: A sequel, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES/’40, has Fritz Lang, of all people, calling the shots. But Philip Kaufman’s THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID/’72 and Walter Hill’s THE LONG RIDERS/’80 give the grandest look at this era of bank-robbing outlaw brothers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

MUA LEN TRAU / BUFFALO BOY (2004)

An exceptional coming-of-age story from Nguyên Võ Nghiêm-Minh (Minh Nguyen-Vo per IMDb) which takes place in the flooded grass plains of a 1940s Vietnam. On this strange & difficult land mass, the sparse homes are set on stilts and the main family assets are water buffalo. But with the arrival of the flood season, the local grasslands are covered and the animals must journey off with young herders in a yearly search to find grazing land. That is, if rival herding gangs or corrupt government officials don’t get to them. We follow the son of one such family thru a five-year time span, with his story told in a lyrical, elliptical fashion that takes some getting used to. The plot points we expect to latch onto get a hop, skip & jump narrative treatment that flings us past anything we can fill in for ourselves. The social dynamics and customs of the time & place float as freely as the rising waters, but the quiet revelations of character & family history build up a lot of emotional force. And the beautiful look of the film (as well as its beautiful people) make the film easy to watch. Unlike their life and the choices they make to survive, which look impossibly hard.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A remarkable first film from Nguyen-Vo. Alas, it also appears to be his only film. Sad. (The DVD is part of the Global Film Initiative which highlights about a dozen international releases each year, with a track record far above the usual festival offerings.) The film also makes a useful Neo-Realist companion piece to LIFE OF PI/’12 which touches on many similar themes. Though it does that much-hyped film few favors, and does so with a budget that was probably less than the price of LIFE OF PI's lunch truck.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

LICENCE TO KILL (1989)

Timothy Dalton got a bit of a raw deal with his abbreviated two-film stint as 007. Brought in to toughen up the increasing silliness (and creases) of Roger Moore’s aging agent, he had the looks, the physicality & the acting chops. What he didn’t get was the support. Instead, unmemorable storylines, flavorless super-villains and the flat megging of John Glen, a second-unit whiz who got promoted past his abilities. This title provides some of the worst acting in the series (though there’s a nice bit from a baby-faced Benicio Del Toro) and a mystifying lack of coordination between the lax staging and camera placement. The loss of some old regulars in front & behind the camera is also keenly felt, especially on that Michael Kamen score that only makes you miss John Barry’s circling motifs. The big villain, Robert Davi, and his plans to control drug distribution aren’t all that far from SCARFACE/’83, and his tricky ordering gambit, using a phone-in code via Wayne Newton’s phony tv preacher, is actually swiped from (wait for it) the Vincente Minnelli/Judy Holliday musical BELLS ARE RINGING/’60. Good grief! And yet, the film has a decent rep thanks to the final action sequence, a truly spectacular, jaw-dropping chase down a twisty road with gasoline tankers doing tricks that would be improbable on a motorcycle. All honestly performed by some deeply insane stunt drivers and captured on film in a pre-CGI era. It pastes a grin on your face that won’t quit.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Dalton’s two BOND pics did well enough for him to continue with the series, but the combination of the financial/contractual travails of the United Artists/M-G-M partnership delayed the next BOND for six years, the longest wait yet. By the time GOLDENEYE/’95 got going, Cubby Broccoli’s daughter Barbara had taken up the production reins and she wanted a clean talent sweep except for production designer Peter Lamont who stayed on for the next three, taking time out for a little thing called TITANIC/’98.

Monday, December 17, 2012

NIGHT MUST FALL (1937)

Robert Montgomery put away his usual tux and tony romantic patter for the chance to play the young psychopathic charmer in this film adaptation of Emlyn Willams’ stage shocker. Playing a bit of a drifter, Montgomery’s a revelation, a purring menace of calibrated madness, with the Irish cadence of a ‘darling boy.’ His new mark is Dame May Whitty, a crotchety old bird who lords it over two service women at her isolated country home, and her repressed live-in niece (Rosalind Russell). Whitty falls right away for Montgomery’s raffish charm & playful compliments, happy to have a young man about, especially after hearing about that corpse the police just found near her property . . . a headless corpse. There’s nothing particularly subtle about Williams’ play, clues & incriminating information are dropped with stagy thuds and ‘whodunit’ is never in question. It’s how everyone reacts to the obvious that pulls you in, and that can still give you the creeps. Watching Russell lowering her defenses, even when she knows better, still cuts pretty deep. Whitty, the sole holdover from the original stage production, is just about perfect, with a startling bit of hysteria that must have brought down the house on stage. The film isn’t exactly a triumph, Richard Thorpe was an odd choice as director, oriented toward action rather than nuance. But you quickly adjust to the period conventions, helped along by some atypically poetic tech work out of the M-G-M trick photography department. Neat miniatures, guys! Even the background score is a treat, with Edward Ward getting a rare prestige assignment instead of William Axt or Herbert Stothart, the usual M-G-M hacks. Hunt Stromberg is the producer of record, but the whole thing was a pet project for Montgomery who deserves credit for sweating the details to fine effect.

DOUBLE-BILL: Albert Finney did a forgotten remake in the ‘60s and Matthew Broderick played against type in a well-received stage revival in the ‘90s, but Patrick Hamilton got the most out of it, using Williams' play as a near template for his famous stage thriller ANGEL STREET, filmed as GASLIGHT in England in 1940 & then in Hollywood 1944, and a treat both times.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

MAN TRAP (1961)

A decent set up for a tight film noir goes nowhere in this story of a Korean War vet (Jeffrey Hunter) who’s dragged into a robbery-gone-wrong by the Marine Corp bud he rescued back in the day (David Janssen). But it’s lovely Stella Stevens, as Jeff’s dipsomaniac wife (and the daughter of his sleazy business partner), who gets the worst of it. She’s all over the place as a castrating shrew who digs her claws (literally) into Hunter’s weak-kneed co-dependent spouse. Trapped between Stevens high-wattage emoting and Janssen’s signature clenched-teeth mumbling, Hunter’s clean-cut personality all but makes him invisible when he should look tortured.* In theory, this doesn’t sound all that bad, but character actor Edmund O’Brien, in a rare gig directing, hasn’t a clue what to do . . . or even how to do it. Action sequences go limp (the staging for the film’s centerpiece airport robbery is particularly inept), the actors either give too much or too little (look for Bob Crane, of HOGAN’S HEROES infamy, laughing it up at the BBQ grill), and the flatly lit interiors all look like screen tests shot in model homes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hunter had much the same problem playing Jesus in Nick Ray’s huge production of KING OF KINGS/’61 the very same year.

Friday, December 14, 2012

THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS (1967)

Producer Sam Spiegel loaded this WWII-flavored whodunit with a classy international cast & top tech elements, but nothing could camouflage its general crumminess. Peter O’Toole is wildly off his game as a neurasthenic Nazi general under investigation, along with fellow generals Donald Pleasance & Charles Gray, when a prostitute is found stabbed to death in Warsaw. Omar Sharif is the mild-mannered, but determined military investigator who gets a second chance at finding the culprit when all three generals turn up in occupied Paris along with another dead prostitute. Meanwhile . . . the Allies are getting closer to the city, art masterpieces are being prepped for a transfer to Germany, and half the cast is involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler! The perfect moment for O’Toole to take a couple of days off for some Paris sightseeing with his driver, Tom Courtenay. (Hey, no lines at the Louvre!) Physically, it’s a treat to look at, what with Henri Decaë on camera & production design from the great Alexandre Trauner, but helmer Anatole Litvak, in his penultimate pic, seems past caring, letting a lux cast (including Harry Andrews, Philippe Noiret, Christopher Plummer & Coral Browne) get away with (thespian) murder. The whole ridiculous thing feels more like a contract being worked off than a motion picture.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: *Indeed, O’Toole & Sharif ‘owed’ Spiegel a picture post-LAWRENCE OF ARABIA/’62 which may partially explain O’Toole’s outlandish perf.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: It was talk show host Dick Cavett who, in a revelatory flash, first noted that Peter O’Toole was the only movie star whose first and last names each refer to the male genitalia.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It’s tempting to list IS PARIS BURNING?/’66 which told a similar endgame story of Occupied Paris. But it’s nearly as useless. Why not THE TRAIN/’64? Paul Scofield is the Nazi general trying to steal French art; Burt Lancaster’s the wily train station manager trying to stop him. Yes, much better.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

NANJING! NANJING! / CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (2009)

Chuan Lu’s harrowing look at the massacre, subjugation and occupation of Nanking, China in 1937 by the Japanese on the eve of WWII is impressive on almost every level. It's startling from the first images, where city officials & much of the local military battle past their own defensive lines to flee the collapsing city. Early scenes focus on the ragtag holdovers who remain, falling back building by building against the onslaught. What follows are numbing war atrocities, even now under-examined in Japan, shown with an almost casual sense of their savagery. But in the midst of so much horror, Lu focuses as much as is possible on personal stories, finding traces of grace & humanity in unexpected places: A Japanese soldier sickened by his own involvement & actions; a German businessman* who uses his Nazi status as an ally to create a Safe Zone in the city, saving thousands before he is forced to leave; a prostitute who volunteers as a ‘comfort girl’ to the Japanese forces to save others. Stunningly shot in WideScreen b&w, with stately rhythms working against fierce episodes of violence & action (some quite heroic), the film is filled with compelling & unexpected moments of bravery and character development. Yet, fine as most of it is, it doesn’t quite connect emotionally. Only Lu’s third film, he doesn’t show the confidence to let the mess of reality into his tightly controlled compositions. So, even as we get a handle on the large cast, we also feel kept at a distance. Considering the 300,000 killed, perhaps not a bad thing.

DOUBLE-BILL: *This remarkable German businessman got his own bio-pic, JOHN RABE/’09. Alas, neither of these films got more than a token Stateside release; and less than that in Japan where the subject matter remains verboten, so to speak.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note the Chinese poster (above right) which wants to sell this as some sort of Martial Arts Action Pic (and in color!). Difficult subject matter for the home crowd, too, but worth the effort.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

HOMELAND (2011)

Last year’s breakout cable series seems to be having a sophomore slump. (Or so goes the buzz on Season Two, not seen here.) But it may just be a delayed reaction/consequence to Season One which ain’t all its cracked up to be. The basic idea, borrowed from an Israeli series called PRISONERS OF WAR (look for it on HULU), is dandy: Iraq war vet (Damien Lewis) returns home after eight years in captivity and is crowned hero of the day. But Claire Danes’ CIA agent thinks the guy’s been ‘turned,’ a terrorist in suburbia, hiding in uniform. There’s a load of good performances in here (heck, even Mandy Patinkin is a treat) and lots of believable Wash, DC atmosphere, but the triple-twist plotting & turnabout character revelations start to grow wearisome long before the first season teases us with a faintly ridiculous explosive (non)ending. You can spot exactly where things start to go wrong about a third of the way in when Lewis’s vet takes a lie-detector test and needlessly lies about a roll in the hay he’s just had with Danes. There’s no reason for him to lie about his infidelity except to allow Danes to see how he might be lying about more important questions on the test. It keeps the plot mechanics going, but confuses the creation of situations with the creation of drama, a common mistake/misstep on more than a few of these open-run cable shows. Soon, you’re noticing three or four similar dodges in just about every episode. Guess HOMELAND doesn’t share a couple of producers with 24 for nothing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: That could be Steve McQueen on the poster with Claire Danes . . . if Steve had red hair.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

SUCH GOOD FRIENDS (1971)

Dyan Cannon hits every note she can think of trying to make sense of the upper-crust NYC society type she plays in this slightly desperate late work from Otto Preminger. First, her talented husband (author, magazine editor) goes off to hospital to have a mole removed; next day, he’s in a coma. Confronted with mortality, and far too many thoughtless visitors, Cannon starts questioning everything she thought she had going for her: love & marriage, financial stability, friends, medical advisers, kids, the domestic help, even if she wants him to recover. It’s MANHATTAN/’79 meets THE HOSPITAL/’71, but without the charm, wit, superior acting, pace, laughs or observational smarts.* (Plus, infinitely worse costume design. Yikes!) Scripter Elaine May, smelling a rat, and with her own debut (A NEW LEAF/’71) just out, pseudonym’d out as ‘Esther Dale’ and let Preminger take the rap. After all, brittle comedy was never Otto’s thing. But it’s still a bit of a shock to watch him humiliate his cast for a cheap laugh or two. Burgess Meredith & James Coco in the flesh! Ken Howard impotent in tight briefs. A Polaroid ‘centerfold’ shot for Cannon. (Is it her?) And why use brief fantasy hallucinations early in the film only to drop the whole idea later? Even Otto’s usual immaculate staging stratagems turn stiff under the unaccommodating lensing of Gayne Resher. Switching from his usual WideSceen format (2.35:1) to ‘flat’ (1.77:1), and then freezing his compositions as his cast hovers into frame. It’s not just the picture ratio that was shrinking for Otto.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: * As mentioned, THE HOSPITAL/’71, from an unusually disciplined Paddy Chayefsky script, and Woody Allen’s touchy romance, MANHATTAN/’79. Or try Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical COMPANY, same era (1970)/same crowd. A recent semi-staged concert version with Neil Patrick Harris was unfortunate, but there’s a classic documentary (COMPANY: Original Cast Album/’70) that’s a rare treat.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

MILDRED PIERCE (2011)

This five-part HBO mini-series of the James Cain novel looks to the book, rather than the old Michael Curtiz/Joan Crawford classic noir for its source material. No murder-mystery in this one, no police detectives, no flashback structure, instead writer/director Todd Haynes brings in his thoughtful style of suburban melodrama and the same smoldering, sensual pace he used in FAR FROM HEAVEN/’02, his shot at ‘50s domestic melodrama, a la Douglas Sirk. And, for about half its running length, it all comes together as neatly as one of Mildred’s famous pie crusts. The 1930s-era production values are particularly well observed (great period clothes!) as Mildred (Kate Winslet) watches a husband, lovers & friends, even her daughters leave for various reasons. Clinging blindly to the restaurant business she at first stumbled into, along with a pathologically self-centered child & a scapegrace lover, Mildred is continually blind-sided by life’s turns even when looking straight at them. But while Mildred may not see what’s coming, the film isn’t nearly so lucky, going wildly off-course right before our eyes at midpoint. Maybe the filmmakers were too faithful to Cain, a writer unable to resist a double-twist surprise even when it pulls his characters & plot out of whack or serves up unintentional giggles. Perhaps the jolt comes when Evan Rachel Wood replaces Samantha Morgan as the growing Veda, and this selfish, self-dramatizing child makes a switch from piano prodigy to coloratura soprano, learning half the available repertoire & all the technique in a matter of months. Or is it just that Haynes thinks he’s being serious about Pop Culture when he's really just turning ponderous? Hollywood once knew better. Speed past the dramatic deadwood, or cut it out. Don’t worry the absurdities. And, when needed, toss in a murder or two. It comes with the meal.

DOUBLE-BILL: At one-third the length, the original MILDRED PIERCE/’45 (see below) gave Joan Crawford her Oscar®, and, even better, gives us Eve Arden, cracking wise on the side.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY (1936)

David O. Selznick started his independent production company with the same child star (Freddie Bartholomew) and British author (Hugh Walpole) he used back at M-G-M on his wildly successful adaptation of DAVID COPPERFIELD/’35. This book was no COPPERFIELD, but it’s mix of character & sentiment has been remarkably lucky on screen. John Cromwell was a new director for Selznick, and the film has little of the stylized flair George Cukor brought to the Dickens work, but he was a solid craftsman and had the insurance of lenser Charles Rosher backing him up. (Rosher had made his rep on Mary Pickford’s famous 1921 silent version, the one where Mary played the little Lord and the boy’s mother. Talk about a Freudian nightmare!) The story, considered slight & old-fashioned, even in ‘36, tells what happens when an American kid goes to England as the new Lord Fauntleroy and meets up with his curmudgeonly Granddad. Hearts melt, forgiveness, sweetness & light . . . until someone else shows up as the rightful claimant! Sentiment threatens to sink the ship, but Bartholomew was truly an enchanting little gentleman (the Audrey Hepburn of child actors), getting huge effects without stepping over the line. And his restraint proves contagious. Mickey Rooney & Guy Kibbee (in full stage Irish get up) are swell as his American pals and all the British archetypes (including more COPPERFIELD alums) are buffed up in the true Hollywood meets ex-pat fashion. C. Aubrey Smith has a field day as the crusty old Lord and shows off his tone-deaf singing in Church. Of course, the class condescension is something fierce, but with Selznick, Anglophilia was more like Anglo-lust. NOTE: Long available in indifferent Public Domain DVDs, the new Selznick Estate Approved edition out on KINO has a better image of the complete 102 minute cut, but the audio remains subfusc.

DOUBLE-BILL: The Pickford version comes on a good DVD from Milestone, but the unexpectedly fine tv adaptation of 1980 with Ricky Schroeder & Alec Guinness is only available in Italy. Gluttons for punishment can watch a young Jody Foster play a modernized variant of Fauntleroy in CANDLESHOE, a typical Disney pacifier from 1977.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

BOARDWALK EMPIRE (2010)

Atlantic City in the 1920s, Prohibition, the Mob, the new Mass Media, this lux series from HBO is loaded with pretty irresistible stuff. ‘Created By’ Terence Winter, and ‘godfathered’ (pardon the pun) by Martin Scorsese, the construction of the sets and story is meticulous, the characterizations and general attitudes less so. Too often, the behavior feels out of place, as if the cast were auditioning for a GOODFELLAS sequel, blowing our chance to see the Birth of the Mob in all its ethnic variety, before the hard shell of self-promotion & myth-making media glare took over. And where did the peppy quick-step tempo of the era go? (Maybe they're tuckered out from all the sex on display?) Just as problematic is how arbitrarily the women's characterizations change to meet each week’s plotline, and in how they've made our lonely Fed Agent such a murdering psychotic religious basket case. But when the narrative drive is this strong, it hardly seems to matter. Especially with such a wonderfully eccentric choice as Steve Buscemi for the lead. Watching him pull the strings of power behind the curtain is more than enough to make up for a production staff that took three episodes to find a shade of lip gloss that worked for him.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Someone had the sweet idea to score much of the film with period songs (not so unlikely) using real period recordings of the time (very unlikely). It represents a larger sampling of acoustically recorded music than most HBO subscribers would normally hear in a lifetime. It’s such a good idea we can forgive them for slipping in a bit of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder decades before anyone had recorded it. (Less forgivable is degrading the sound quality of a famous Kathleen Ferrier recording for the task.)