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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

PAPA'S DELICATE CONDITION (1963)

Orson Welles famously dubbed Jackie Gleason ‘The Great One,’ but not for his comedy. Welles was referring to Gleason as serious actor. Yet finding film evidence to support the claim is tough. The Chaplinesque mime of GIGOT/’62' proves bathetic; the failing, irascible Dad of NOTHING IN COMMON/’86 doesn’t stand a chance under Garry Marshall’s alternately coarse & inept megging. There’s always the cool, grace-under-pressure Minnesota Fats in THE HUSTLER/’61, but where else to look? Television anthology shows? Surely not this lazy piece of soft-soap nostalgia, with vet helmer George Marshall sleeping-walking thru a pastel colored turn-of-the-last-century family drama about an irresponsible, irrepressible soft-hearted daddy with a weakness for the bottle? Glynis Johns & Charles Ruggles, as long-suffering wife & skeptical Father-in-Law, find the dark shadows behind the bonhomie, but no one else, certainly not the two unmemorable daughters, help matters. But it lies in stealth behind every rote comic move Gleason makes in what is more-or-less a reprise of his Tony Award-winning perf as Uncle Sid in TAKE ME ALONG, a 1959 B’way musical of Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS. 

No small figure of the American stage, Uncle Sid. He’s O’Neill’s first sketch for the tortured alcoholic souls of his final masterpieces, the roles long owned by Jason Robards: Hickey in THE ICEMAN COMETH; James in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY and MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. The connection is particularly noticeable when you hear all the talk about Hickey in ICEMAN before he shows up. Hickey was Sid. Just how Gleason might have gone about playing this guy is pure conjecture. Even Orson Welles couldn’t have found a way to discipline Gleason into getting thru it. But as a second-way of thinking about what may be the greatest roles of the American stage, this film mediocrity is all we’ve got to go on.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: PAPA may have been conceived as a semi-musical, but only a few choruses of ‘Bill Bailey’ and the Oscar-winning original ‘Call Me Irresponsible’ remain. And is Gleason doing it ‘live’ on set? Most unusual for the time.

DOUBLE-BILL: O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS comes off wonderfully in its 1935 filming, mercifully trimmed & winningly atmospheric under Clarence Brown’s affectionate helming even if Wallace Beery is over-parted as Uncle Sid. A musical version, SUMMER HOLIDAY/’48 (unrelated to Gleason’s TAKE ME ALONG) has Frank Morgan as a pitch-perfect Sid, but the part is cut to nothing. The film is phenomenally well directed by Rouben Mamoulian, but its raison d’etre, restarting Mickey Rooney’s post-WWII career, sinks everything. And he was so good in the earlier film as the kid brother.

A LIFE OF HER OWN (1950)

Lana Turner & Ray Milland star in this largely forgotten women’s drama that serves up that old standby: the single girl who comes to New York, finds a guy & career, but no happiness because Mr. Right is already married. But in 1950, films were trying to be ‘daring,’ ‘adult,’ so Lana’s character knows from the start that her guy is unavailable, and still gets to play sympathetic lead. Tag on a glamorous occupation (fashion model) and George Cukor’s smooth direction and you’ve got to wonder why this one doesn’t add up. Part of the trouble is that the role is outside Turner’s comfort range, being neither perky nor sultry, and equally outside her physical range. (Short neck, round face: next. Ava Gardner must have been busy elsewhere on the M-G-M lot.) A couple of undeveloped subplots look more promising, like the unexplored rapport between Turner & Louis Calhern who plays pal to everyone. Asexual? Gay? Cukor also gets some riveting tragic vibes out of Margaret Phillips as Milland’s wife & from Ann Dvorak as a model whose future is all used up. All topped off with a fascinating, if inexplicable turn from Barry Sullivan as a snide angel-of-death type. What an odd concoction hides in plain sight here.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Check out Lana’s smooth dancing partner at her birthday party for Milland. It’s Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s assistant. The guy who danced as Ginger, Rita or Cyd when those classic routines were being worked up.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

BUT NOT FOR ME (1959)

Samson Raphaelson’s sturdy & wise little play, ACCENT ON YOUTH (winningly revived on stage with David Hyde Pierce in ‘09), had its third cinematic outing as a late vehicle for Clark Gable . . . sort of. The original serendipitous May/December romance between boss & secretary still runs the plot, but the leading role has now been split in half with Gable playing hard-nosed B’way producer and Lee J. Cobb, in a pleasingly mild turn, as dipsomaniac playwright. More damaging, the wrap-up all but negates Raphaelson’s lovingly finessed ending. But the package, designed specifically for Gable @ 57 (see ad above), works reasonably well on its own terms, with Gable using his personal life as a guide for rewrite before the obvious chemistry between him and Lili Palmer, playing his well-balanced ex, helps carry us thru a few too many plot reversals than any film should try. Vet helmer Walter Lang, on a rare loan-out from 20th/Fox, pulls off some believable B’way atmosphere, but Paramount’s backlot Long Island is strictly from Encino.

DOUBLE-BILL: Kim Novak & Fredric March also played May/December that year in MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT/’59, an unsung reunion for ‘Team MARTY/’55' (Delbert Mann/Paddy Chayefsky) convincingly set about ten blocks south of the Theater District in the NYC rag trade.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER (1953)

Most of writer/director Andrew Stone’s work, even the pics released by the major studios, play like B+ indies. There’s a awkward homemade quality in the overall look, as well as in the acting, even from Hollywood vets. Call the result ‘heightened flatness.’ Evolving methods in film production allowed Stone to cut his costs by shooting in real locations, but any gains from quasi-documentary techniques just clashed all the more strongly against cheap studio sets. Add in a tendency to telegraph action & motivation and it’s no wonder to find his characters looking a tad slow on the uptake. That’s certainly the case here, yet it paradoxically adds an intriguing ‘off’ tone to an otherwise obvious murder case that sees doting uncle Joseph Cotten numbly resisting any suggestion that sister-in-law Jean Peters might be thinking of poisoning his adorable niece & nephew. Egged on to think the worst by family friends Gary Merrill & Catherine McLeod, Cotten does a full reverse, only to be held in check by the cops, the D.A. and a judge who all let him know that poisoning is a tough charge to prove. Ploughing ahead, Stone builds some real cumulative creepiness with dogged tread and a fresh bottle of poison, but it's not quite enough.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Peters & Cotten spent a lot of ‘53 working thru murder angles. Try them in Henry Hathaway’s excellent, TechniColored fever-dream, NIAGARA/’53, with Marilyn Monroe in good early form.

Friday, December 27, 2013

THE GOLDEN ARROW (1936)

The one-two punch of this piddling Screwball Romance followed by SATAN MET A LADY/’36, a lame comedy-slanted remake of THE MALTESE FALCON/’31, finally drove Bette Davis to the London courts where she tried (but failed) to break her contract with Warner Bros. She should have just shown this film, lousy enough to break any contract!* Bette’s a phony heiress, hired on the QT by a cosmetics firm as a publicity dodge. But she’s grown tired of the society circuit and the constant glam life. A mistaken-identity meet-cute on her yacht with regular guy reporter George Brent offers her a way out. He seems a nice enough guy, why not try a marriage of convenience? Brent gets six months to finish his novel; Bette gets a ‘cover’ while she scans about for a decent spouse? Not such an awful an idea for a gagged-up comedy pic, but everyone working on this one (scripter, lenser, actors, director, studio) feels completely out of their fach. Maybe over at Paramount . . . with a rewrite . . . and Claudette Colbert. Maybe.**

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Of course, if Davis had won the case, she’d have missed her legendary run @ Warners, and a decade of top-notch pics.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: **Paramount did make something like this in ‘36, but with Carole Lombard, THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS. Goodish film . . . great title!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

DEUX HOMMES DANS MANHATTAN / TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (1959)

Before Jean-Pierre Melville started making those influential ‘60s pics about impossibly cool thieves & assassins, he made an NYC pit stop (his promised land) to write, direct & even play one of the leads in this noir-infatuated pic. Melville plays a reporter for a foreign news agency* who teams with Pierre Grasset, an all but amoral, opportunistic photog for ‘Paris Match,’ on a dusk-to-dawn hunt thru the city for a missing United Nations delegate. Their nighttime hunt centers on three shady ladies, ‘friends’ of the missing man, each only too happy to misdirect them. We tag along on this Gotham underbelly tour, mostly Manhattan with a touch of Brooklyn thrown in, a strip club and a great all-night Kosher diner. (Gefilte Fish........50¢) Budget constraints forced Melville into using a few unconvincing mock-up sets to finish the shooting back in France (mostly interiors with the shades drawn to hide any phony views), but the grubby tone rings true all the way down the line; and the last few twists memorably handled.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two years before, Alexander Mackendrick’s SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS/’57 also nailed that overnight sewer’s-eye-view of Manhattan. Born in Boston, but entirely Scottish raised, his film was also a first Stateside project. Guess it helps to have an outsiders POV.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The sublime bas-relief of journalistic activity briefly seen right below the French News Bureau office window early in the film remains just as it's seen here in Rockefeller Center, due north of the Skating Ring, a dynamic Art Deco homage to the Associated Press.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

KOKURIKO-ZAZA KARA / FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (2011)

Co-written by anime great Hayao Miyazaki; lovingly helmed by his son, Goro; featuring an all-star voice cast on its English track; you’ve got to figure this animated film from Studio Ghibli, a big hit back in Japan, was originally headed for a major Stateside Disney release that never happened. Was the story too domestic, too small & intimate, too unmagically quotidian? So, distribution fell to little ‘Gkid,’ who barely got it in the marketplace. But don’t let that stop you from watching this total charmer, a star-crossed high school romance that turns out all right in the end. Recent efforts from Ghibli have felt over-stuffed with busyness, metaphor & grisly conflict, hardly the case here. Instead, we get a neat dose of ‘63 Japanese nostalgia, just before the 1964 Olympics certified their post-war comeback. And with the usual ‘more innocent times’ clichés replaced with sharp recollections of a time that felt loaded with real possibility. (In the States, Kennedy called it the New Frontier.) And this attitude helps a bantam-weight story about two high school kids who discover a block to their budding relationship gain a real emotional kick. There’s also a pitch perfect subplot about fixing up a dilapidated, but comfy-cozy Student Union building that neatly binds contemporary social issues into the story. And if some of the characterizations come off a bit flat, a fault less noticeable on the Japanese track, the basic story quickly pulls you in.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

DAY OF THE FALCON (aka BLACK GOLD) (2011)

This big budget BIRTH OF AN (unnamed) ARAB NATION story raised about €40 mill to hire some major international talents, but it still feels like a vanity project. (Did it even get a Stateside theatrical release?) With a paint-by-the-numbers plot to match its literal paint-by-the-numbers CGI effects, it’s a slick, barely felt, techno-update of old Hollywood epic tropes. The sort of thing Darryl F. Zanuck would ‘personally produce’ in his Fox heyday. As we open, two Arab Princes take opposite sides on the idea of Western investment & oil production: stick with a closed society and traditional religious values or leap into the modern world of Global Commerce and all the goodies money can buy? Zanuck would have put Tyrone Power in as the princely son (by blood and by adoption) of the two old leaders, the young man destined to unite Old & New! Don Ameche gets stuck playing martyr as the comically frustrated half-brother. Loretta Young’s the good girl Ty can only dream about while Annabella’s the tomboy who really deserves him. Wait, that’s SUEZ/’38, but with Joseph Schildkraut in the usual Ameche spot. Oh well, once we get to the desert battles, helmer Jean-Jacques Annaud gets to play war with camels, horses, single-prop planes and all those acres of CGI-friendly, obstacle-free desert. At least, Antonio Banderas gets off a great line when he discovers that the newly acclaimed ‘Mahdi’ is his bespectacled adopted son. Too bad Tahar Rahim who plays the part, so fascinating & unreadable as the mobster-in-training in A PROPHET/’09, can’t get worked up to do anything but pout ten different ways all thru the pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Once he announces a prince’s death midway thru the pic, our eponymous bird is seen no more. How’d he keep top billing? (See alternate title on our poster.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: What an odd career Annaud has had. Major technical chops, yet barely a dozen pics over four decades. Try his intense Siege-of-Stalingrad epic, ENEMY AT THE GATES/’01 which seemed to have slipped past most viewers.

Monday, December 23, 2013

BETRAYED (1954)

Clark Gable ended three decades @ M-G-M with this unsatisfying, though not uninteresting WWII love triangle/espionage drama. Rescued from the Nazis by Victor Mature’s free-lance resistance outfit, he’s whisked to London where he recruits Lana Turner as a lookalike spy to plant back in Denmark. Shot largely in England where M-G-M had a lot of money parked, Gottfried Reinhardt helms with clarity but little distinction while the subfusc DVD transfer from Warners Archive does no favors to Freddie Young’s rich location lensing. It all sounds pretty dire, yet the film picks up interest when Turner & Mature start a relationship. What? Gable cuckolded? That’s when internal leaks start to expose the secret anti-Nazi missions. Mature & Wilfred Hyde-White, Gable’s British boss, give almost alarmingly eccentric perfs that unexpectedly pay off while Gable & Turner, in their fourth & final teaming over a bit more than a decade both seem much the worse for wear. The weight of mortality adds something grim to Gable, while Turner responds by slightly lightening her brunette bob halfway in.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As noted, the DVD transfer is less than stellar, but don’t be put off by the squarish 1.33:1 frame aspect ratio. Yes, our poster says MetroScope, but the original suggested projection ratio of 1.66:1 isn't particularly WideScreen anyway. Chances are the image was simply cropped down from the Academy Ratio format seen here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1978)

The poster to the right tells the tale on this near-miss Michael Crichton pseudo-historical caper pic. Based on his own fact-inspired novel, it’s got Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down attempting what amounts to a moving bank robbery on a speeding train. But in trying for the larky tone & got’cha twists of THE STING/’74, Crichton fails to make us believe in the stakes, leaving a poisonous residue of the incurable cutes. At least, it’s elegant to look at under lenser Geoffrey Unsworth, a past master of train stations and Connery hairpieces (see MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74). But the first two acts go nowhere which feels like a cheat since Crichton hasn’t the action chops to make all the circular motion much fun. Fortunately, the plot switches gears for a seemingly improvised third act that boils down to a single extended stunt sequence as Connery risks life & limb on the roof of a train. And, yes, that’s really Sean up there, doing major death-defying stuff and forcing Crichton into the best ‘shot choices’ in the pic. Nothing like ‘planned improvisation.’ Then back to too cute for words for the epilogue.

DOUBLE-BILL: Crichton was an even clunkier director in his debut pic, WESTWORLD/’73, but it works for that revenge-of-the-robots comic horror.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

LLOYD'S OF LONDON (1936)

With his lush eyebrows trimmed down to match co-star’s Madeleine Carroll’s, Tyrone Power moved up to Hollywood’s 'A' list with this energetic piece of historical hooey. They even got Freddie Bartholomew to play his character as a kid in the winning prologue which sets up his life-long bond with the young Horatio Nelson. Once he’s grown into Tyrone Power, keeping the future Lord Admiral free to fight the French and wooing lovely Ms. Carroll from her dastardly titled husband (a sneeringly witty George Sanders) keeps the plot running when we’re not getting a pain-free course in the symbiotic relationship between British Commerce & the Lloyd’s Insurance Syndicate: it’s Anglophilia Capitalism 101. Wonderfully shot by Bert Glennon and beautifully paced by underrated helmer Henry King, the film looks plenty lux, but without the over-polished, standardized gloss of later similar productions.

DOUBLE-BILL: Warners pulled off a similar trick the year before when they gave bit player Errol Flynn the swashbuckling lead in CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35 against Olivia de Havilland. But with Michael Curtiz helming & an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, it’s far more stirring, more exciting, more touching than this is. And Flynn’s early follow-ups kept getting better, not necessarily the case for Power & Co. Though they did let Ty's eyebrows grow back in.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A MAN BETRAYED (1941)

John Wayne hit the A-list with STAGECOACH in ’39, but he also kept making ‘B’ pics over @ Republic. In this one, some nameless college boy stumbles out of a low-down joint only to get hit by a bolt of lightning. Tough luck? Not quite, turns out he was shot before he even left the nightclub. And now the town’s powerful mayor gets the local rag to label it suicide. Cue Wayne, a freshly minted lawyer from the boy’s small town, new to big city ways . He’s there to get at the truth for the kid’s mom, only to fall hard for the mayor’s independent-minded daughter (Frances Dee). That’s a workable set-up, and the prologue comes off with a decent amount of atmosphere & polish. But after that, no one on the Republic lot seems able to develop anything: illogical story construction, witless dialogue, inconsistent characters; the thing hasn’t a chance. And what’s with Ward Bond’s characterization? He’s the first and only village idiot baddass bar bouncer . . . and laughable playing it.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Wayne stretch as an actor around this time, there’s John Ford’s under-rated, little-seen Eugene O’Neill adaptation, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME/’40 with the Duke trying on a Swedish accent. Good Wayne; great film.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

BORDERTOWN (1935)

Even the non-stellar talent gives off heat in this Warners meller about a striving Mexican-American (a Max Factor’d Paul Muni) who makes a fast rise from flop L.A. barrio lawyer to (just) South-of-the-Border casino entrepreneur. Along the way, he attracts the attentions of his partner’s discontented wife (Bette Davis) and a high society gal (Margaret Lindsey) out for a daring sexcapade. Turns out he’s misread them both: one could kill for him; the other could drop him on a moment’s notice. The story plays off the class & racial attitudes of its time, but the prejudices, if anything, only add to the interest. (All but the final moral, a bit too much to swallow even in hindsight.) Muni tends to overplay, but still makes his mark while Bette Davis is really starting to show her stuff, going off her rocker to scarifying effect after she gets gross hubby Eugene Pallette out of the way. The real surprise here is seeing stolid Archie Mayo meg with such pace & dynamic visuals. Kudos to D. P. Tony Gaudio. And who was responsible for getting the normally business-like second-lead Margaret Lindsay up and running? Not the go-to girl for hot-to-trot sybarites, but she sure delivers.

DOUBLE-BILL: Halfway in, Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT/’40 turns into a near remake with George Raft, Ida Lupino & Alan Hale in for Muni, Davis & Pallette. It’s a smoother, but less memorable ride.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954)

You can get a taste of just how square Eisenhower’s America had become when ‘pop’ singing sensation Johnnie Ray, in his only film role, sings ‘If You Believe’ before leaving the family act to join the priesthood. This Irving Berlin number, written in ‘32 for the stage musical FACE THE MUSIC, originally gave Mary Boland a ripe opportunity to send-up cult evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. (She sang it atop an elephant.*) But in ‘54, it’s sung ‘straight,’ a truly felt spiritual for Ray’s spastic performing style. But then, this thru-the-decades ShowBiz family saga, about the Five Donahues (Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor, Donald O’Connor & Ray), is about as square, wholesome & corny as they come. (It makes De Mille’s GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH/’52 look experimental.) Hokey as it is, it’s rather entertaining, with a mix of performers & Berlin tunes that works surprisingly well. Marilyn Monroe is the sexy outlier who winds up, somewhat preposterously, with O’Connor, but at least it’s still early Monroe, before Josh Logan, the Strasbergs & The Method made her so damn self-conscious. Mitzi Gaynor is generically bland & perky, as usual, but Merman’s honest coarseness helps humanize her. (According to Gaynor, they were instant buds, grousing together over Monroe’s constant delaying tactics.) If only the arrangements of songs, sets & story construction weren’t so darn clunky. O’Connor’s big solo comes with a chorus of creepy ‘undead’ statues. Yikes! And even with a score of Berlin standards on display, plus a dozen used willy-nilly in the background, they still manage to serve up ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ a half dozen times. Is that why Merman and Monroe don’t have a duet? What a missed opportunity!

DOUBLE-BILL: *(Okay, this is an Audio Only Double-Bill.) Alas, Mary Boland left no memento of her role in FACE THE MUSIC, though she can be heard warbling to hilarious effect in a few films. Fortunately, the complete score was recorded on a 2007 ENCORES! Cast Album with Judy Kaye doing Boland proud.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Merman’s legendary Mama Rose in GYPSY on B’way was lost when Roz Russell got the role in Mervyn Leroy’s 1962 film embalming. But you can see what might have been watching BUSINESS. An early scene with the kids in a train station and a late backstage confrontation with Monroe match up closely with bits of GYPSY and tell the tale. It could have really been something . . . but not with Leroy.

CONTEST: A billed but unseen artist in this film is also billed but unseen in a Buster Keaton silent. Name the artist & the Keaton movie to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Monday, December 16, 2013

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934)

This Warners programmer tries for that ripped-from-the-headlines mojo, but comes off half-baked. Bette Davis and Charles Farrell (on loan from Fox and slipping) run a little drug store that’s being squeezed on one side by a big chain operation that wants to buy them out and on the other by a mob-owned beer company that doesn’t have the quality product needed to survive in the post-Prohibition marketplace. What a headache for its wise guy entrepreneur Ricardo Cortez! But when he gets fast relief from one of Farrell’s mock-up headache powders, he lures the mug to sign on as his chemical counterfeiter. Farrell can make the goods while Cortez & his gang flood the market with his knock-off cosmetics & drugs, labeled just like the real McCoy. That’s a swell set up for an early ‘30s pic (heck, it’s still a good idea), but no one does much with it. Nicely shot by Sid Hickox, if only the script didn’t pretty much drop Davis after the first act (Glenda Farrell, as Cortez's moll, gets more to do), leaving that other Farrell to whine about his bad decisions before getting off scot-free at the finish. Still, it’s worth watching just to see Davis react to a bashful customer too timid to buy what was once called a ‘French Envelope.’

Sunday, December 15, 2013

JITTERBUGS (1943)

A truly terrible script by the prolific Scott Darling keeps this late Stan Laurel/Oliver Hardy feature from making good on its promise. The boys run out of gas (just like the film!), but get help from con man Robert Bailey who’s scamming rolls of ‘gas pills’ that turn water into fuel. Once in town, the three work together on a new scam, helping singer Vivian Blaine recover 10 grand lost to a couple of mobbed-up wise guys. There’s little rhyme, reason or motivation here, and don’t hold your breath for the sort of Dadaist illogic W. C. Fields was creating over @ Universal. Instead, we get three generic tunes for Blaine, and complete narrative inconsistency. Yet, the film is reasonably good fun thanks to vet comedy helmer Malcolm St Clair who knows how to sit back and let Stan & Ollie banter to no particular purpose. With a couple decent set pieces, plus a non-sequitur ending John Huston swiped for THE AFRICAN QUEEN/’51, this might even pass as entertainment. And if they’d added a signature L&H bit of pointless, escalating slo-mo, tit-for-tat violence, the film might be of interest to a non-completest.

DOUBLE-BILL: The Laurel & Hardy gold standard remains the early 2-reelers, especially the silents from 1928 and the 1932 Talkies. No surprise that their features were directed by comedy hacks, while the silent shorts had the likes of Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey & George Stevens barking in the megaphone.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

THE GOOD COMPANIONS (1933)

J. B. Priestly’s novel about an unlikely trio of runaway adults finding common cause in support of a second-rate touring company of musical entertainers has been adapted as a play; a musical (with an Andre Previn score); a couple of feature films; and on tv in various lengths & formats. But it’s hard to imagine a more winning version, or one that equals the charm & pitch-perfect cast of this early Talkie. The temptation to turn this into a Little-Musical-That-Could fable is wisely avoided since the revue is provincial Music Hall stuff at best, allowing Jessie Matthews to shine all the brighter as the breakout star in the troop. Priestly’s main concern isn’t backstage drama, but mobility. Not even class-conscious British social mobility, but actual physical mobility; as in leaving your home & village, even at middle-age, for a second chance. So we have John Gielgud’s teaching master; Edmund Gwenn’s factory drudge; and Mary Glynne’s drab spinster all daring to restart their lives from scratch. The first act, which largely charts their separate progressions toward the cash strapped players, offers the most imaginative parts of the film, then show-biz tropes kick in. But those are also nicely handled by director Victor Saville who refuses to over-sell the players talents, eccentricities or lovability quotients. (No doubt, inadvertently helped by the teething-pains of unpolished 1933 British Talkie technology.) It’s a rare treat to see John Gielgud still in his 20s, even if the camera doesn’t exactly ‘take’ to him. (He’d recently triumphed as Hamlet on stage, but looks more like Yorick.) Lenser Bernard Knowles licked the problem in the last act, look for the scene between Gielgud at the piano and a fast-talking song scout. Ah, much better. And if Matthews never does live up to her publicity rep as ‘the female Fred Astaire,’ the film’s semi-musical format shows her off at her best. (Note: VCI’s DVD, officially sourced from Rank, lists a short 93 minute cut on the box, but actually runs about 108 minutes and certainly looks complete.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: When Jessie Matthews gets called back on stage at the film's climax to finish her wistful, star-making song after a theatre riot, she suddenly looks like Judy Garland’s older sister.

Friday, December 13, 2013

WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012)

A clever, largely successful updating of Henry James’ devastating little child custody novel by scripters Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright and directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel. The tone is slightly flattened, the timeline compressed and the ending sentimentalized, but the story feels right at home in its new place & time. Maisie, our small heroine, is a little girl forced to play shuttlecock between her insufferably self-centered, divorcing parents. The gimmick that drives the story is that when they each remarry younger prettier people, the new step-parents become the loving care-givers Maisie’s never had. The hurdle for the filmmakers is that the Leisure Class world of James, where no one seems to work and children are sent off to boarding school at the first opportunity, and then rarely seen, has to be completely rethought for NYC-2012. It makes for a different, but accomplished work on its own terms with exceptional perfs from Julianne Moore, merciless as an aging egoist rock star; Steve Coogan as a schedule-driven international business sort; and Alexander Skarsgård & Joanna Vanderham (both crazy attractive) as earthbound step-parents, each out of their depth in their respective new marriages. Directors McGehee (what a fun name to type!) & Siegel tend to leave something on the table (a laugh, an emotion, crucial info!!), but at least they don’t dawdle. And young Onata Aprile is just great as Maisie, finding the perfect grace note for one difficult situation after another.

DOUBLE-BILL: Vittorio De Sica just about started Italian Neo-Realism looking thru a child’s eyes at his parents’ failing marriage in THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US/’44; or check out Maisie’s worst-possible future in Ingmar Bergman’s AUTUMN SONATA/’77 where Liv Ullman’s reproachful daughter puts all the blame on her neglectful, gallivanting concert-pianist mother Ingrid Bergman.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

THE SINGING NUN (1965)

With THE SOUND OF MUSIC/’65 making millions with its story of a singing nun who leaves the convent, a tuneful tale about a singing nun who struggles to stay must have looked foolproof. Heck, there was even a real Singing Nun (Soeur Sourire) to front a not-so-true story, made from drips & drabs of those heartwarming Hollywood tales of unconventional nuns & kindly priests. But M-G-M loaded its production with dead-enders, almost everyone in front & behind the camera is either winding up a career, a contract or simply headed off to TV Land. At least we get to hear that ear-catching tune. ‘Dominique, nique, nique . . . ‘ But there’s something faintly embarrassing to the whole enterprise. All those over-lit sets, over-lit emotions, over-lit uplift, over-lit religiosity (it’s a very bright film), it’s all as phony as M-G-M’s lousy backscreen projection shots.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The real Singing Nun story would make a fascinating cautionary tale. World tours, tax troubles and a double suicide pact. But I don’t see Debbie Reynolds in it.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74, Ingrid Bergman sends up the whole missionary life with a single, pricelessly funny, politically incorrect line. Or, for a great conflicted nun story, there’s Fred Zinnemann’s THE NUN’S STORY/’59 with Audrey Hepburn.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

SUMURUN / ONE ARABIAN NIGHT (1920)

Ernst Lubitsch already had five years of successful comedies (many starring himself) & trail-blazing ‘intimate’ historical dramas to his credit when he had a filmmaking breakthru in 1920. CARMEN/’18, MADAME DU BARRY and THE OYSTER PRINCESS/’19, successful as they are, still 'speak' film as a second language, but in SUMURUN (and ANNE BOLEYN/’20), cinema becomes Lubitschian native tongue. A bit of a paradox for a breaththru, since SUMURUN was adapted from a Max Reinhardt stage production Lubitsch had starred in, playing the sort of role Lon Chaney would soon make his own, the ugly, broken-hearted Pagliacci, scheming for the love of a girl he’ll never win. In his final film role, Lubitsch gives a broad, but very effective perf, suffering the pangs (and violence) of unrequited love for the alluring dancer in his traveling troupe, Pola Negri, easily stealing the film. Equal screen time goes to the royal court where the Grand Sheikh’s favorite (lovely Sumurun) refuses his entreaties because she loves a man of the cloth. Bolts of cloth, that is, he’s a lowly fabric merchant. The story has a tricky structure that uses the Sheikh’s son, also in love with Sumurun, as a ruse to affect an escape. It proves one storyline too many for Lubitsch who fumbles a bit at the climax. (Or is the print incomplete?) But there’s loads of funny supporting bits, especially for a couple of twin schemers and the not-so-loyal Court Eunuchs. (The harem’s top girl tells their leader to ‘act like a man.’) The whole production is a visual treat, with clever use of perspective, trompe l’oeil effects and multiple heads popping up thru multiple framing devices. Reinhardt would have approved, but it’s doubtful he’d have made it all so deliciously funny. The original Stateside release, retitled ONE ARABIAN NIGHT, dropped more than a reel of footage, but the current KINO DVD, with a fine piano accompaniment, seems reasonably complete even if the image quality suffers from blasting.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

CARLOS (2010)

French writer/director Olivier Assayas stepped out of his comfort zone for this blistering three-part bio-pic on self-styled terrorist-liberator Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka ‘Carlos.’ The film, released theatrically in various cuts, easily justifies its fullest running time of about 5½ hours in three easily digestible parts, no scorecard needed. Mostly playing out in the ‘70s, when Carlos was at his most active & reckless, we tag along on a series of escalating political attacks, police shootouts and plenty of collateral damage as Carlos and his unit attack whatever power they feel stands in the way of their anti-capitalistic, pro-Palestinian goals . . . whatever that might be. And that’s the question, since they wind up being against pretty much everything & everybody, and for . . . what? Carlos certainly shows no concrete idealism after he gains a measure of fame. It’s all Carlos (brilliantly played in a dazzling turn with confounding weight fluctuation & facial hair by Édgar Ramírez), or rather, all about Carlos & his ‘Carlo-istas.’ With Assayas keeping the action and politics triumphantly clear, the constantly shifting Middle Eastern alliances have rarely been navigated so well. But the film is also pure pulse-pounding thriller, beautifully paced with great perfs all around. The group’s high water mark has them taking hostage of an entire OPEC Council membership meeting. The lack of security now looks bizarre, but the film holds more closely to the facts than is usual in these things. (A fourth disc holds an hour-long documentary.) But perhaps most breathtaking of all is the group’s all but complete lack of self-awareness in joining forces exclusively with repressive governments in the Communist Block, partnering with the KGB, STASI and a variety of Arab dictatorships. (Megalomaniacs apparently lack the irony gene.) The wonder is less in Carlos’s success, being perfectly comfortable with murder takes you pretty far, but in how such a self-aggrandizing publicity whore was able to avoid arrest for decades. Maybe it was because he started out thinking he’d be the next Che Guevara and ended up closer to Scarface. The film is fabulous.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jean-François Richet’s MESRINE/’08 (a mere two-parter) with Vincent Cassel as France’s top ‘60s outlaw is like an apolitical companion piece.

Monday, December 9, 2013

THE RED PONY (1949)

Casting is destiny, so pairing Myrna Loy with Robert Mitchum in John Steinbeck’s fine self-adaptation purports an unspoken romantic connection that shadows this boy-and-his-pony story. It proves a good thing, adding a note of prairie rue to the sub-text of Lewis Milestone’s handsome, slightly static film. Shepperd Strudwick, as the husband with one foot back in the city, plays reluctant outsider, even to his own son who’s drawn to Mitchum’s natural authority as the ranch-hand with all the answers. Hence, Dad’s gift of the pony which, this being Steinbeck country, leads to tough-love/life-and-death family lessons. Loy’s restraint as Mom, burying herself in chores, is a coping mechanism; her old dad (Lewis Calhern) gets by on his frontier memories, boring everyone with tales of ‘Westering.’ (And it helped Calhern in the real world with an offer to take over the role of Buffalo Bill in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN/’50 when Frank Morgan died.) Milestone also does nicely with the non-pro school pals of Peter Miles, the day-dreaming son. Miles himself has a few awkward line readings, but his look of constant expectation makes up for a lot. So does the look of the film in general. Tony Gaudio, the great Warners D.P., on his final credit, gives the production the supra-realism of a Norman Rockwell magazine cover come to life. (Excellent color & picture quality on the 'Olive' DVD.) Quite a change from our current fashion for no-holds-barred grubbiness. And it pays off excitingly in a climactic fight between the boy & a deadly turkey vulture, bringing out the silent film montage theorist in Milestone, a fast-edit bit of violence Hitchcock may have remembered when making PSYCHO/’60 and THE BIRDS/’63. Finally, there’s composer Aaron Copland, on his third film with Milestone, tying it all together with his great original score. (Said to be his personal favorite, it’s well served by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony on an RCA disc of Copland film music.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Mitchum did a near practice run for this in RACHEL AND THE STRANGER/’48 with William Holden, Loretta Young . . . and his guitar. The man had a real set of pipes on him. For another boy-and-his-horse pic, it’s tough to beat WHITE MANE/’53, a five-reel masterpiece from Albert Lamorisse of RED BALLOON fame.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

NEOTPRAVLENNOYE PISMO / LETTER NEVER SENT (1959)

(To be read with stagy, Ruskie accent, please.) After CRANES ARE FLYING/’57* win international prize (during Cold War, yet), with sweet, but sad tale of young Soviet love during Great Patriotic War, director Mikhail Kalatozov and ace cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky make fantasy ‘dokumentary’ I AM CUBA/’64. First film, sentimental tripe everyone love; second film, movie geek porn unseen for decades, now famous for impossible cantilevered tracking shots. Very boring, but . . . hoo, boy, some show! Forgotten in middle is here, noble three-hankie tale of four intrepid geologists (three menski, one womanski) searching, searching, searching for diamond lode in not so cheery Siberia. Will love triangle tear them apart? Will radio hold up? Will dancing for joy cause broken toe? Much noble sacrifice; much handsome images & artful silhouette; many stupendous tracking shots thru forests. Why? Who care! And score? Nikolai Kryukov make music dramatics worthy of Bolshoi; Aram Khachaturian drooling with envy, consigns SPARTACUS ballet score to flames! (Lucky have back up copy.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Fatal mission pics are not so rare, think SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC/’48, NORTHWEST PASSAGE/’40 or Kalatozov’s final pic, THE RED TENT/’69, an international dud with Sean Connery, Peter Finch & 70mm. (Sergey Bondarchuk had a similar international wreck when he followed his huge production of WAR AND PEACE/’66* with Rod Steiger(!) playing Napoleon in WATERLOO/’70.) Best to pop this pretentious bubble with Buster Keaton’s THE BOAT/21, his two-reel existential masterpiece (with laughs) as Buster & family get permanently lost at sea . . . or some absurdist no man’s land. Damn if I know.

*Reviewed on this site.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

DESIRE (1937)

(That should read DÉSIRÉ, but my Title Posting Editor resists all attempts at accents.)

This is one of the strongest play-to-film transfers from author/actor/director/bon vivant Sacha Guitry’s wildly productive mid-1930s, when he seemed to be filming his effervescent boulevard comedies in batches. DÉSIRÉ sits neatly between the ironic social commentary of a Shavian exercise and a classic Ernst Lubitsch gloss on how sexual attraction effects every action. And if Guitry’s gifts in technique, structure and dialectic drama never go too deep, he’s perfectly delightful within his limits. Here, he’s an irresistible valet, that is, irresistible to his mistresses. And it’s happening again. At the same time, Guitry runs a sort of Upstairs/Downstairs dialogue on politics, manners, mores, house-service rituals and sex. Well, mostly sex, and with a blushing frankness that can still send out ripples. Adding to the fun is that his employer, and the object he denies himself, is Guitry’s actual wife at the time, Jacqueline Delubac. Desirable as she is, another beauty works below stairs, Arletty as Madame’s chambermaid, a servant who knows the proper tip for everything. Add in Madame’s longtime lover, a highly placed minister; a tetchy cook; and a well-placed, but slightly appalling, older couple for a climactic, hilarious, politically-incorrect dinner. (She’s deaf as a post; he’s both politically & sexually expedient.) As director, Guitry goes his own way, with a handmade quality to staging & editing that bumps along. You get used to it, and it pays off in a couple of tour de force soliloquies Guitry wrote for himself which might not work at all under more conventional terms.

DOUBLE-BILL: Might as well go for the matching pair and try Hollywood’s take on French manners, mores & sexual attraction in DESIRE/’36. That’s a non-accented DESIRE from one year earlier.) Frank Borzage directs this yummy Ernst Lubitsch production with Marlene Dietrich & Gary Cooper.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BLANCANIEVES (2012)

It took Spanish helmer Pablo Berger a decade to get his second feature made; and no wonder, since it’s a highly stylized modern silent-film retelling of SNOW WHITE. No surprise it turns out to be just the sort of prize-worthy, over-cooked, artsy film-fest entry you feared it’d be. BIG surprise that shortly past the halfway mark, six bullfighting dwarfs show up to help make the film everything you hoped it might be. How’d that happen? Simply put, Berger overloads his first act with one precious shot after another, you ‘oo’ and ‘ah,’ but worry about the cost of the frame. Couldn't we just move along? With so little filmmaking experience, he’s no whiz at setting up situations or clarifying action; and risibly kick-starting FATE with an ill-timed, but obviously needless flash photo at a bullfight when its Andalusian high noon. Meantime, silent film buffs will scoff at his unending use of ‘clever’ camera placements, optical tricks and lens choices. But once those gentlemanly little bullfighters come to Damsel’s rescue, the panting & flourishes recede and the narrative drive takes off. The film stops trying to revive Expressionist manners and runs more along the lines of classic Hollywood adventure pics, not so far from Rouben Mamoulian’s kinetic, nearly danceable MARK OF ZORRO/’40. And Berger tops it all off with a terrific coda that threads the needle between enigmatic and sentimental.

DOUBLE-BILL: While Mamoulian’s ZORRO strikes a similar tone, his luscious, TechniColored BLOOD AND SAND/’41 is the more obvious pairing, even as it reverses BLANCANIEVES by working best in its first half. For a silent film pairing, there's the superb grotesquerie of Paul Leni's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS/'28.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944)

Oscar Wilde’s oft-filmed story was pummeled into a WWII pep talk for U.S. soldier boy Robert Young in this glossy, studio-bound wartime version from M-G-M. Stationed with his squad in England, Young discovers he’s the latest inheritor of the Canterville curse of cowardice. What’ll happen when he’s sent off to battle? Charles Laughton hams things up as the ghost who begat the jinx 300 years ago, still prancing about the joint now run by his descendant, 6 yr-old Margaret O’Brien, quivery of lip, loose of tear duct. Lapped up back in the day, its little lessons, forced comedy & sentiment now feel awful thick, though the prologue does offer a chance to see young Peter Lawford as Laughton’s kid brother. That’s a stretch! Jules Dassin took over the film when Laughton nixed original director Norman McLeod, but the film’s need for whimsy, and lots of it, was something neither of them specialized in.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *At M-G-M, Norman Taurog was the obvious choice as helmer, but with no credits between ‘43 and ‘46, he was presumably in service at the time.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ian Richardson, Patrick Stewart, John Gielgud, Richard Kiley, Michael Redgrave & David Niven have all played the ghost, but a recently announced remake lists Hugh Laurie & Stephen Fry in its cast. (Who’ll be playing play the ghost?) Sounds promising, especially if they do it straight and unmodernized.

Monday, December 2, 2013

THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966)

Harold Pinter didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature for his commercial screenplays. They’re unhappy compromises that find his vaguely menacing signature dialogue, pregnant pauses and absurdist free-association (often weirdly comic) fancies fighting against the demands of whatever genre he’s tickling. Here, it’s the international spy game with Alec Guinness as George Segal’s ‘controller,’ tossing him into a tangled web of Berlin Neo-Nazis twenty years after the war. Max von Sydow is the main target, but Segal can only find his headquarters with the help of Senta Berger who holds a key to the underground world and becomes Segal’s latest conquest. If only something happened along the way or was being planned! Perhaps we’d take less notice of what’s missing if director Michael Anderson took charge on the spare action sequences, but not much happens in those either. (Or even looks convincing.) Meanwhile, Guinness, along with George Sanders, Robert Helpmann, Robert Flemyng and other supporting espionage players get almost nothing to do. No doubt, a sly, Pinteresque joke on the useless nature of the spy game, but dramatically unsatisfying. Much like the non-surprising, twisted-allegiance grace note finale.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The ending seems to have THE THIRD MAN/’49 on its brain. Vienna instead of Berlin, but still a good idea.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

DANGEROUS (1935)

Doubling down on her no-holds-barred perf in R.K.O.’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE/’34, Warner Bros. gave Bette Davis plenty to chew on, swallow and spit right back at you in every reel of this trashy tale. She’s a jinxed actress, down on her luck when society architect Franchot Tone takes her on as a charity project. Naturally, they capitulate, screw up his engagement with unexciting Margaret Lindsay and nearly destroy each other. Real-life doomed actress Jeanne Eagles (prominently mentioned in the storyline*) was the likely inspiration for these melodramatic doings, but there’s little resemblance to anything real under Alfred E. Green’s mechanical megging. (Second-unit man Russell Saunders is likely responsible for the famous third-act smash-up.) It still remains intensely watchable, in spite of some unintended giggles, thanks to lots of chemistry between Tone & Davis, plus a few lifelike moments, as when Davis tells off housekeeper Alison Skipworth. Yikes! Few actress worried less about playing the sympathy card, compare with Kate Hepburn’s actress in MORNING GLORY/’33, yet they each got Oscar’d for them.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Davis always claimed to have dubbed the nameless Academy Award statue ‘Oscar’ after she brought the award home and noted a resemblance to her then-husband’s (Harmon Oscar Nelson) backside. Hmm.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The astonishing Jeanne Eagles survives in one film, a stage-bound, but utterly fascinating early Talkie adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s THE LETTER/’29, handsomely remade by Davis with William Wyler directing in 1940.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

SMILEY'S PEOPLE (1982)

Alec Guinness returned as George Smiley, John LeCarré’s impeccable, noiseless master spy in what is generally considered a slightly lesser follow-up to TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, the game-changing mini-series of 1979. Well, perhaps, but who would forgo six more chances to see Guinness cogitate, polish his extra-large eye-glasses & strategically withhold emotion, wasted action & information on his careful route to capturing Karla, his Soviet spy-master counterpart. A few actors come back from TINKER, and the replacements and new characters have no trouble fitting in under helming from Simon Langton that purposefully holds to a bare simmer, yet grows increasingly suspenseful over its six episodes. This is one of the few mini-series that makes you wish you could stretch out the end, the way you slow your reading pace to savor the last few pages of a favorite book.

DOUBLE-BILL/READ ALL ABOUT IT: Smiley was introduced in LeCarre’s debut novel CALL FOR THE DEAD/’61, filmed as THE DEADLY AFFAIR/’66, a Sidney Lumet film with James Mason as one Charles Dobbs, a renamed & largely reimagined George Smiley. LeCarre’s follow-up novel, A MURDER OF QUALITY/’62 (filmed for tv with Denholm Elliot in ‘91), misused Smiley as a sort of Agatha Christie amateur detective. Oops. Yet THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY, which finds Smiley rewarded as MI-6 caretaker-in-chief in the period between TINKER and PEOPLE, awaits dramatization.

Friday, November 29, 2013

BONSAI (2011)

Except for its cinematographer, none of the creative principals in front or behind the camera on this bewitching little art film has more than a handful of credits. Yet, it’s the ‘find’ you long to stumble upon in the corner of some film fest. Chilean writer/director Cristián Jimenez has a wonderfully unobtrusive eye for handsome, narrative-charged compositions, even his choice for the background of the chapter titles radiates with visual pleasure. Here, he balances grace & emotion with an easy touch in a story that unfolds on two timelines, set eight years apart. Diego Noguera is the young, struggling writer who’s just been underbid for a job typing up a famous author’s latest hand-written novel. Rather than admit to the disappointment, he starts a charade for his girlfriend, buying four notebooks that match the author’s and handwriting a novel of his own to type up. For a story, he dives into the recent past, his own romantic life eight years back when he was still in college. The set up is somewhat farcical, and the film has much warm humor to it, but the tone is more romantic than comic, eventually darkly so. The cast is attractive (in and out of clothes) and the situations grow intensely involving, even though Jimenez does let everyone take their time more than he ought to. Chances for a major career working out of Chile is anyone’s guess, but original voices that dazzle quietly, speaking rather than yelling, voices worthy of comparison with an Aki Kaurismäki, are too rare to ignore.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

UNE AFFAIRE DE GOUT / A MATTER OF TASTE (2000)

Bernard Rapp’s psychological co-dependency thriller doesn’t quite add up (or come off), but the basic idea holds your attention even as it reminds you of something better, say, Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter’s THE SERVANT/’63. Bernard Giraudeau plays a master-of-the-universe business type who hires Jean-Pierre Lorit, a boyishly handsome waiter, as his ‘taster’ . . . but there's more than food involved. Not sex, exactly, something closer. He's taking over his life for companionship, blood-brotherhood, a doppelgänger made from scratch. But for the concept of the story to work, we need to be as readily seduced as Lorit is; and Giraudeau comes across as little more than a rich, controlling, narcissistic asshole. Actually, the most intriguing character, and the film’s best perf, comes from Charles Berling as the personal chef. Playing Mosca to Giraudeau’s Volpone, he’s on to everything that goes on, and knows how to manipulate all parties. But instead of working off of Berling’s POV, Rapp tries to camouflage the film’s thin texture with a flashback structure that finds an elderly Jean-Pierre Léaud (Truffaut’s famous film alter ego) playing investigating jurist to most of the principals, killing off any possible suspense.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In addition to THE SERVANT (see above), Orson Welles’ fascinating, if hard to love, MR. ARKADIN/’55 also keeps coming to mind.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)

After hitting up Barcelona, London & Paris for inspiration (and cheaper production costs), Woody Allen took his cinematic Cook’s Tour off to Rome . . . for rest & relaxation. While intersecting four or five regrettably pat tales-of-the-city comes easily to Allen, getting them up & running proves too much trouble. That generic title is the first clue that we’re on auto-pilot. And not even his; Neil Simon’s!, with a stale gag for every situation. But hang on, once past a comically arthritic Act One, with characters dumbed down to a tenth their normal IQ to facilitate the set up, the film comes up to a slow boil, turning pleasingly silly, even if it never makes contact with its location as Allen’s previous Euro-pics did. Depending on your taste & mood, about two-thirds of the sketches ‘land,’ with the locals coming off best: the tenor who only sings well in the shower (a wet recital is a hoot); Roberto Benigni getting 15 minutes of fame; a sexually charming hotel thief. The most daring idea has Alec Baldwin playing a sort of sometimes real/sometimes ectoplasmic mentor to Jesse Eisenberg.* A bewitching idea if you can tolerate Eisenberg, plenty annoying on his own, twice so filling in as a young Woody Allen. In fact, there’s a Woody Allen part in each of the sketches! Turns out, Roberto Benigni now makes a better Woody Allen than Woody Allen.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Baldwin’s role isn’t far removed from the ghostly Humphrey Bogart mentor of Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM/’72. But since we’re in Rome, pair this with THE WHITE SHEIK/’52, an early Fellini that’s an obvious inspiration.

Monday, November 25, 2013

OSLO, 31. AUGUST / OSLO, AUGUST 31st (2011)

From Norway, Joachim Trier’s low-key downer uses DOGMA’s barebones filmmaking style to track a day in the life of a suicidal 30-something as he leaves his anti-addiction clinic for a job interview in Oslo, along with a series of ad-hoc reunions with past friends. Brutally honest without being in any way revelatory, the film degenerates from situations to set-ups, with one encounter after another used as an excuse to trigger escalating negative reactions. It comes off as too impressed with itself, pleading for attention that ought to be reserved for its fast-falling protagonist, a still young man with too many chips on his shoulder. Hard to see how someone in such fragile condition got approved for a day pass in the first place, but the film is as determinist as a Calvinist after a missed train connection. On the positive side, credit Trier with not making too much of a meal out of every step down the rung: the first drink, some swiped cash, finding an old drug supplier, all handled as casually as grabbing the bus on a familiar route.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The downbeat cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Hubbert & Gabriel Byrne all signed on for Trier’s English-language debut, but the film was scuttled when investors got cold feet. Maybe the shock of disappointment will cause Trier to lighten up.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

BRAVE (2012)

Something obviously went very wrong @ Pixar on this one; and it went wrong at conception. You can feel all those creative minds (and multiple directors) trying to coax it to life, but the narrative stubbornly plays out like a series of second-guesses that could improve, but never quite fix the basic problem. Our lead, Princess Merida, a modern-thinking tomboy rebel type (a concept that must seem tired even to pre-teens), refuses to choose from three possible suitors. Instead, she finds a witch, buys a potion, and winds up turning Mom into a monstrous bear, just like the one who cost Dad his leg back in the day. This isn’t a story; it’s a Freudian castration substitution nightmare! Dark as this is, the film fights off all implications with modestly successful comic busyness, but the underdeveloped characters and unwieldy animation designs are equally problematic. Only the impeccable background design team lives up to expectations. (Along with Merida’s springy red tresses.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: That’s Kelly Macdonald, the gangster’s wife from BOARDWALK EMPIRE, behind the vocals for Princess Merida. But she also might be behind the visuals for Queen Elinor. Emma Thompson does the voice, but the face is all Macdonald.

Friday, November 22, 2013

FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH (1933)

It’s raining cats & dogs out there, you can hardly see a thing, and a London bus swerves too late to avoid a collapsing construction crane. CRASH! Two passengers are killed in the accident, but which two? Ahh! . . . there’s the gimmick. And you won’t find out which two die till we flashback (courtesy of Big Ben running counterclockwise) on the six or seven stories that put a dozen riders, along with a driver & conductor, on that doomed double-decker. This clever British pic, loaded with talent in front & behind the camera, and neatly directed by Victor Saville, lets each of its funny or sentimental vignettes make their mark, and you won’t need a scorecard to keep things straight. That’s musical-comedy star Jessie Matthews squabbling with Ralph Richardson, her unlikely school-teacher/fiancé; Edmund Gwenn takes a hilarious Turkish Bath and just might lose a fortune on a bad stock tip; little-remembered comedy actor Max Miller really stands out as a slippery, fast-talking Cockney antique dealer with dubious goods to barter; plus, a couple of two-timing middle-aged love scenes, one humorous, one pathetic; and Emlyn Williams (who also wrote the film’s tasty dialogue) as an opportunistic blackguard out to blackmail nice Frank Lawton. It’s something of an All-Star cast, and a few technical crudities caused by a modest budget & the inevitable substandard British production values of the period shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the heck out of this. Plus, as a historical extra, it’s serves up a fine gloss on the variety of British acting styles still intact, just before the Talkies and the mass media homogenized everything.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a good Hollywood take on the form, with an even starrier cast, try PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER/’52.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

NASANUNAKA / NO BLOOD RELATION (1932)

The two films included on this disk in Criterion’s silent film 3-pack from Japanese director Mikio Naruse (the feature-length women’s drama NO BLOOD RELATION and the largely comic three-reeler KOSHIBEN GANBARE/FLUNKY, WORK HARD!/’31 [excellent title!]), are his earliest surviving efforts, and still have the feel of apprentice work. In both film technique & story construction, there’s a show-offy, 20-something quality Naruse would soon leave behind. (At least, judging by STREET WITHOUT END/’34, also included in the set.) The short, a neat piece of comedy about two struggling insurance salesmen who’ll do anything to make a sale, uses the financial pressures of depression era Japanese suburban life to underpin the gags, but just barely survives a jumpy editing style and a Soviet-style montage-of-attraction flourish that appears out of the blue at the climax. It's fun to watch, but it sticks out in quite the wrong way.

Mikio Naruse - circa '32

There are similar missteps in the feature-length film, especially in Naruse’s addiction to fast tracking shots that push in to the action. Effective when used sparingly, here they never stop coming. Still, what an interesting piece of women’s magazine fiction this is. A Japanese actress returns from Hollywood, rich and hoping to find the child she deserted six years ago. Her kid’s doing well with a beloved step-mother, but the father's business is headed toward bankruptcy and his cold-hearted mother is more than willing to grant child custody to the rich actress if she’ll save the business . . . as well as her plush life style. Sounds plenty lively, but even better is a sidebar plot involving the actress’s venal brother, a con man with a wily assistant, who makes his living running swindles. It’s a disappointment when we find out, after the lively prologue, that these two are secondary figures in the drama. And its odd to see both the short & the feature toss a kid in harms way to facilitate dramatic endings. Fascinating stuff, though. And there's so much more Naruse left that has yet to show up Stateside, even with half his output now considered lost.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It seems ungrateful to complain about Criterion's release of these rarities, who else would bother? But the new music scores accompanying these films are disappointing. Too sober for the short subject; too stolid for the feature. With the feature, you can always play & repeat Manuel De Falla’s NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN as background music; mysteriously, it works on every non-comic silent film ever made, though no one knows why. But the short needs something jazzy going on to support the slightly desperate comedy, before switching gears for the dramatic ending. You’re on your own for this one.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

HENRY AND JUNE (1990)

Under Philippe Rousselot’s honeyed lensing, the artists, writers & professional sex trade workers of ‘30s Paris, look impossibly alluring, lit from within in Philip Kaufman’s glamorized version of the sexual life, times & infamous diary of Anaïs Nin. In hindsight, the cast looks even stronger than it must have on release with early credits for Uma Thurman, Richard E. Grant & Kevin Spacey as friends & lovers to Maria de Medeiros’ Nin, whose old-fashioned heart-shaped face & petite form have something of Merle Oberon to them.* While Fred Ward, thicker & certainly balder than everyone else, is charged up, unexpectedly charming and far more convincing than the usual cinematic writer figure as TROPIC OF CANCER author Henry Miller. In so many aspects, the film is an exemplary model for a literary biography. And yet, except for a brief montage where we join Brassaï on a nighttime round of flash photography, the situations & personalities turn out to be less interesting than we imagined, shrinking rather than expanding as Kaufman nails them down in perfectly lit, fluid-free sexcapades.** Nin & Miller were writing about many things, and sex may have been the most important, but they certainly weren’t writing about a photoshoot, which is what we too often settle for here.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Speaking of Merle Oberon, her best work is in THESE THREE/’36, William Wyler’s superb first adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR. The relationships, if not the plot, have a lot in common with HENRY AND JUNE, though the lesbian relationship was dropped in 1936 and needs to be inferred. Alas, this remarkable film has yet to get a Stateside DVD release. But it’s out in Europe so it should show up eventually.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: **The sex scenes are, oddly, hot, but tidy, perhaps in a failed attempt to curry favor with the ratings board which, in any event, refused an R rating, instead, christening the new NC-17 on it. Today, it’d rate an easy R, even with a bit of sweat added to the rutting.

Friday, November 15, 2013

IMPARDONNABLES / UNFORGIVABLE (2011)

André Téchiné, probably the last classicist of French cinema, was pushing 70 when he made this character study that promises more than it delivers. That's especially so in the first half which toys with the menacing pattern of a deconstructed genre pic like Téchiné's own SCENE OF THE CRIME/’86. Alas, his interests here lie elsewhere in a story populated with unforgivably self-centered jerks we don’t feel nearly as generous toward as we're asked to. André Dussollier plays a popular crime novelist who moves to Venice for his work and unexpectedly finds himself marrying real estate agent Carole Bouquet, almost on sight. But when his absurdly selfish, puffy-lipped daughter goes AWOL on a visit, heartlessly leaving a husband & kid in the lurch, he hires his new wife’s ex-lover to investigate; and then secretly hires the investigator’s son (fresh out of prison) to follow his wife. Well, Bouquet is acting mysteriously. Could she be involved in the disappearance? Having an affair? More likely, they’re all just acting like shits for no discernible reason. Téchiné orchestrates the multiple storylines, and sexual attractions (straight, gay & bi-curious), with typical elegance, aplomb & economy (who else jumps two steps ahead so seamlessly, without wrecking the narrative line?), but once you realize that there’s no mystery or conspiracy going on, no genre thriller aspects to the thing, it all starts to feel pointless; a series of Eurotrash pas de deux relationship dances going nowhere. NOTE: There’s a frighteningly believable act of animal cruelty in here, a strange & violent reaction by a gang of gay street toughs, as unnecessary as it is unbelievable . . . even impardonnable. Whatever was Téchiné thinking?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Sounds odd, but in profile, Carole Bouquet is an absolute ringer for Julie Andrews. Now, imagine Luis Buñuel casting Mary Poppins instead of Bouquet in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE/’77. What a delicious idea!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The gay-themed drama WILD REEDS/’94 is generally considered Téchiné’s masterpiece, but almost anything of his with Catherine Denueve (SCENE OF THE CRIME; MY FAVORITE SEASON/’93 or the recent GIRL ON THE TRAIN/’09, not seen here) would be a better place to start.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

THE GIRL FROM IOth AVENUE (1935)

After Bette Davis’s career took off with OF HUMAN BONDAGE/’34 @ RKO, she returned to Warners, her home studio, and was promptly hustled thru nine pics in two years. Six of them programmers, like this slapped together adaptation of a forgotten twenty yr-old play (OUTCAST/Hubert Henry Davies) that finds her blue-collar gal falling into a tipsy surprise marriage with Ian Hunter, a recently dumped society swell out on a bender. The script & production are straight off the rack and Davis must have been bored to tears playing one of those supportive, good wife parts. There’s more creativity in the film’s striking poster than in a barely updated script that’s equal parts cliché & holes. Can they make a go of an accidental marriage? Will he stop pining for the dame that got away? Can Bette tone up her act to fit in with the Upper Crust? In spite of her antipathy, Davis could be awfully good in these things, and she looks quite fetching in Orry-Kelly’s tightly tailored outfits. One of her hats is a peach. There’s also some neat, goofy support from a couple of Hunter’s bachelor pals and a brief, nakedly masochistic perf from Dr. Frankenstein, himself, Colin Clive, as Hunter’s past rival. Maybe the play might show a bit of life if megger Alfred E. Green wasn’t phoning it in, making this 1935 film look as if it had sat on the shelf while styles in film making & sound technology passed it by.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It was films like this that made Davis try to break her contract. She lost her case in court, but won the war back on the lot with a triumphant return to Warners in ‘37 where she was met with the greatest run of parts ever: 25 films in a decade, more than half classics. Yet there’s plenty of good pickin’s even in some lesser known titles from her galley years: THREE ON A MATCH/’32; 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING/’32; JIMMY THE GENT/’34; BORDERTOWN/’35; that’s a career’s worth of roles for many a Hollywood star.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: In Whitney Stine’s MOTHER GODDAM, one of the better film-by-film looks @ Davis (and with a great running commentary by Davis herself), this film is so little thought of, they screw up the title as THE GIRLS FROM 10TH AVENUE.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

HELL'S HALF ACRE (1954)

Not every film boasts Don the Beachcomber as Technical Advisor!, but when you’re making one of the first shot-on-location Hawaiian films noir, you want that real tropical atmosphere. And, for about a reel & a half, that’s what you get as soft island music plays, and wounded war vet Wendell Corey lets himself take the rap for a murder he doesn’t commit. But don’t get your hopes up, this little crime drama from Republic Pictures goes to pot right after that promising prologue. Turns out, Corey’s hiding from his past; specifically, deserted wife Evelyn Keyes, just landed in Honolulu and hoping to track him down with the serendipitous help of local cabbie Elsa Lanchester. “Underworld info, dearie? I know just the place.’ And we’re off to Honolulu’s ultra-seedy district, Hell’s Half Acre, where Keyes goes to work as a Taxi Dancer, waltzing with lowlifes and hoping to catch a clue. But do the bad guys like to dance? And what if they’ve already got a date? Key Luke, Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, is fine as the local ‘oriental’ police chief*, but no one else comes thru, not even Elsa, normally a dependable loony bird. Only lenser John L. Russell, who’d shoot PSYCHO/’60, does much with the cool Hawaiian opportunities, though patient viewers are rewarded with a late appearance by noir standby Marie Windsor, apparently married to tough guy Jesse White, the old Magtag Repairman!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *No one calls anyone Asian in this film. ‘Oriental,’ now only used for rugs, seems to have been the preferred race designation. At least, in movies at the time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR (1952)

An uncommonly interesting idea gets wasted in this halfhearted ‘Problem Pic’ on alcoholism. A shame, since the basic idea of an AA guy getting emotionally involved on a mentoring assignment, then cheating on his wife and his sobriety is a good one. We see how finding someone who understands what he’s going thru in a way his ‘normal’ wife never could might tempt him. And Ray Milland is particularly good as the sober, but weakening ad exec, almost happily married with kids after surviving some epic benders, like a best case follow-up to his character in THE LOST WEEKEND/’45. Joan Fontaine is lightly deglamorized as the struggling actress Milland helps get off the bottle, but poor Teresa Wright has little to do but be bland, pregnant & loyal as the wife & mother. An unfocused script with an abrupt ending is the main problem here, but director George Stevens, just off A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51, hardly helps matters. He seems to have lost all touch with a conversational tone, overcompensating the film’s modest requirements with odd, jarring edits & pointlessly arty dissolves. Meantime, the plot advances by desperation, like having a lovers’ rendezvous in the Egyptian wing of the museum interrupted when Milland’s kid shows up with his school class. All the while, composer Victor Young mercilessly plugs his big, fat, slushy romantic tune, no doubt, hoping for a hit record.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: That B’way production Fontaine supposedly stars in might be AIDA @ the Old Met. Did theatrical dramas really look anything like this in the ‘50s?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While not the landmark film once thought, THE LOST WEEKEND (see above) has lots of great, seedy NYC atmosphere to go along with Milland’s still impressive drunk act.

Monday, November 11, 2013

HOTARU NO HAKA / GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

Along with his better-known partner, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata is the still active co-founder of Japan’s Ghibili Animation Studios. And while his films have never acquired the Stateside profile of his partner’s work, this horrors-of-war story, about an orphaned teenage boy & his kid sister trying to scrape by during the chaotic WWII endgame in Japan, has a fierce following and now a new DVD remastering. It’s one of those films that says all the right things (whose side can one be on when innocent children suffer?), yet winds up pulling more tears out of its principals than out of an audience. As the inseparable siblings slide toward a desperate end: mother lost to firebombs; father presumably lost to the navy; distant relatives giving little comfort; and a prideful attempt to live alone in a deserted shelter turning the boy into a scavenging thief and the girl into a malnutritioned shadow of her spirited self; the tragic events start to feel mechanical, with the two children corralled into big issue topics. And Takahata, at least in this film, doesn’t have the sheer visual command of his more famous animation partner, while the use of ghostly flashbacks & those glowing fireflies that live but a day begins to feel awfully calculated.

NOTE: The on-going popularity of this film in Japan appears to have inspired a live-action remake (see poster). Its hard to think this would be an improvement.

DOUBLE-BILL: Takahata must have taken some of his inspiration from René Clément’s equally honored, equally acclaimed, equally overpraised FORBIDDEN GAMES/’52, another film that looks at WWII from a child’s POV. François Truffaut’s minority view was that it failed because the kids weren’t believable, too solemn & thoughtful, and, perhaps, that’s the underlying problem with FIREFLIES, as well.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The children’s WWII wartime experience in John Boorman’s HOPE AND GLORY/’87 can’t be compared with the horrors Takahata has to deal with, but the film remains breathtakingly original.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A STOLEN FACE (1952)

This little thriller from HAMMER FILMS, made in the years before their signature horror pics, has lots of good ideas in it . . . all easily found in better movies. The main lift is from A WOMAN’S FACE/’41, a Joan Crawford remake of a Swedish Ingrid Bergman film, the one about a badly scarred woman whose criminal life is tied to her maimed features. Might a spot of plastic surgery ‘cure’ her inside and out? Here, Paul Henreid plays the doctor and Lizabeth Scott’s the bad-seed character. That is, it’s Lizabeth Scott in the part after the surgery. That’s because Henreid falls hard for the real Lizabeth Scott character, a concert pianist he can’t have since she’s already engaged. And when you can’t possess the woman you love, you surgically alter a prison patient to look just like her. Of course! Too bad she’s the same bad seed under that new face. He’ll just have to teach this lowlife criminal how to act like a lady. That’s when the original Scott returns on the scene, having dumped her fiancé! What’s a successful plastic surgeon to do? Murder his failed experiment? I count major plot borrowings from A STOLEN LIFE/’46, VERTIGO/’58, EYES WITHOUT A FACE/’60; PYGMALION/’38 and AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY/’31; in addition to A WOMAN’S FACE. Some of these films were already made, some hadn’t yet been thought of, but all are improvements. Too bad the script is so clumsy & silly since director Terence Fisher manages a pretty slick look under the circumstances and the actors aren’t phoning it in. Noir babe Lizabeth Scott even looks fresh & happy, quite a change from her steamy/recently-abused default mode.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: All the pics referenced above are well worth watching. Try AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, Josef von Sternberg’s lesser-known take on the Dreiser classic that also became George Steven’s A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51.

Friday, November 8, 2013

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949)

Cecil B. DeMille ended the 1940s, his most ludicrous decade, with this ridiculously popular, not to say ridiculous, Biblical number. Shot largely on airless soundstage sets, to match the clunky airless dialogue, the film spends most of its energy trying to redeem Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah from deepest villainy. But in the recent, whoppingly bright DVD restoration, Hedy looks so damn pleased to be back on an A-list movie project, the real redemption isn’t for her character, but for her career. (She’s like a slightly less deluded Norma Desmond in a return to the limelight nearly as brief.) Victor Mature’s Samson, as beefy & thick of neck as a linebacker in the off-season, got scant help from his director after he nixed wrestling with a live lion. The stuffed replacement DeMille gave him is infamous in Hollywood, but then, the rest of the action staging is just as weak. Flat as this all is, and with acting straight out of a local bible pageant, DeMille’s storytelling instincts remain in place and he manages to carry you along, even if you giggle on the way there. Things liven up for the third act, with a couple of darkly lit scenes for a blinded Samson at the grindstone to add some much needed vivant to the tableaux before we head off for that big temple finish. It’s all something of a trial run for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56, with many a similar role & situation, except everyone keeps saying ‘Oh, Samson, Samson’ instead of ‘Oh, Moses, Moses.

DOUBLE-BILL: As the Saran of Gaza, a King who can never possess Delilah’s love as Samson does, George Sanders has the role Yul Brynner would get in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56. But Sanders, who’s the best thing in here, would reprise nearly the same role in IVANHOE/’52, now pining for a young Elizabeth Taylor.