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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SYNANON (1965)

This sordid little film tries to make the case for the long defunct Synanon Organization, a kind of self-help communal living experiment of the ‘60s & ‘70s for addicts trying to get clean. It always smelled more like a cult than a recovery program and is now gone the way of EST and other L.A.-based crackpot fads. (Could SCIENTOLOGY go next?) Edward O’Brien plays the founder, under financial & legal pressure to measure up and keep his gang on the straight & narrow. But the main drama is played out between three recovering heroin users (Stella Stevens, Chuck Connors & Alex Cord) in a series of conflicts that will leave one dead. Director Richard Quine has trouble establishing a tone and the script forces him to fake his way thru too many basic questions about the program. Like . . . how is the money raised? What do these people do all day? Why is Synanon structured as a Corporation? What’s the point of the signature ‘synanon’ straight-talk group sessions? On the other hand, Quine does pick up a nice, specific feel for the lingo, customs, clubs and jazzy sound of L.A.’s down-at-the-heels beach scene of the time with some great location shooting from lenser Harry Stradling, Jr. on his first film credit. And there’s a swell perf from tv actor Richard Evans as Alex Cord’s weaselly little pal, Hopper.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Richard Quine, whose career was on a similar career trajectory to Blake Edwards (this film isn’t so far from Edwards’ fine alcoholic tale DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES/’62), suddenly found himself out of favor after this one. Unlike Edwards, Quine never clawed his way back on top.

Monday, April 29, 2013

MANPOWER (1941)

Director Raoul Walsh had been playing to his strengths since moving to Warners for THE ROARING TWENTIES/’39, but on his sixth release he rested. It’s the umpteenth iteration of a Warner’s staple, the one about Mutt & Jeff working pals and the dame who marries the ‘Mutt’ out of pity, then falls hard for ‘Jeff.’* This time out, the boys (Eddie G. Robinson & George Raft) are linemen for the electric company; BFF who fall out when SEX, in the form of a slightly deglamorized Marlene Dietrich, enters the picture. (No bromance on the set though, where the fisticuffs between Raft & Robinson were real. Raft never got back on the A-list.) Producer Mark Hellinger had his writers pad out the old formula with too much corny comic relief for Alan Hale, Frank McHugh & crew, but landed some legit laughs with a diner counterman who spits out short-order slang to beat the band. And, naturally, Eve Arden, who works with Dietrich at a clip-joint, gets off a couple of zingers. The film still comes across on some level and the nifty model shots during the storm scenes are fun to spot. (And work pretty well, too.) Walsh rouses himself in a few action sequences, with every fake punch impeccably staged. And there’s a smashing bit of psychological action mise-en-scène that conjoins an illicit smooch, a crash of thunder & a ‘guilty’ door that flies open. A master’s touch, that.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The same basic story looks much fresher in Howard Hawks TIGER SHARK/’32 which has Eddie G. in more-or-less the same role. By ‘41, the professional polish of Golden Age Hollywood Studio-Style was starting to embalm the product. It’s what Ford, Welles & Lubitsch were beginning to rebel against in GRAPES OF WRATH/’40; CITIZEN KANE/’41 and TO BE OR NOT TO BE/’42 before the war put everything on hold ‘for the duration.’

Saturday, April 27, 2013

HABEMUS PAPAM / WE HAVE A POPE (2011)

Italian hyphenate Nanni Moretti (writer-director-actor-producer) has never quite had the Stateside breakthru he deserves, though THE SON’S ROOM/’01 came close, and this sketchy piece about a newly elected, doubt-ridden Pope did little to tip the scales. It starts well with lots of Vatican activity as red-robed Cardinals struggle to find the new Pope. There’s gentle, but pointed satire on the wall-to-wall media coverage and Moretti shows off a classicist’s film technique with beautifully designed & paced pomp as Vatican tradition unfurls with grand inevitability . . . and seamless editing. But then, new Pope Michel Piccoli throws a panic-attack, refuses to appear for the masses, and desperate Vatican administrators call in psychiatrist Moretti to handle his Holiness’s nervous breakdown. End of Act One. Quite a set-up. Only now, Moretti makes a wrong turn, one the film never recovers from. The Pope goes ‘walkabout’ in Rome trying to find himself (and it’s no ROMAN HOLIDAY/’53, alas), while back at the Vatican, unaware that the Pope is loose, everyone’s under a well-tended house arrest, killing time with cards & impromptu volleyball tournaments. No doubt, Moretti hoped to avoid the expected doctor/patient chats over religious, philosophical & cultural disputes; the sacred & profane boilerplate from an old DON CAMILLO ‘50s parable contrasting Catholicism vs. Communism. But his substitutions are no improvement as the Pope falls in with a theatrical troupe of Chekhov players and finds a new shrink who turns out to be Moretti’s wife (Margherite Buy). Maybe Moretti would be better off dropping a hyphenate or two.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT:: Some of Moretti’s best work has never gotten Stateside video release. (Admittedly, his political films probably don't travel.) But keep an eye out for LA MESSA È FINITA (THE MASS IS OVER)/’85 which shows him at his considerable best.

CONTEST: Hiding in plain sight, this Write-Up contains a MAKSQUIBS first.  Name it to win a Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

THE MILL AND THE CROSS (2011)

Lech Majewski’s arty contemplation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s THE WAY TO CALVARY isn’t content to simply walk & talk us thru the painting, it wants to take us inside it, and inside the world it came out of. In place of a traditional narrative, Majewski creates a multi-layered mix of digital imaging, along with dollops of historical references to Flanders’ unhappy life under Spanish rule, spooned out to us by Bruegel’s patron (Michael York). This sets the tone while we observe the morning rituals of rural peasants at their table or follow a procession of soldiers & townspeople leading to an epic tableau vivant Bruegel will put on canvas. Europe’s master stage manager, Max Reinhardt, couldn’t have bettered the mise-en-scène or the variety of contemporaneous & biblical costuming. They even got Charlotte Rampling to play dress-up as the Virgin Mary and speak mournful voice-over while Rutger Hauer, who’s pushing 70, as Bruegel, who only made it to 44, compares his task with that of a spider spinning his web. All well and good, with a few startling images dense with volume, especially inside the eponymous mill, or under a strange sort of wooden aerie punishment tower. But it’s all too studied by half, with Bruegel’s lively sense of detail nailed down, as if we were collecting butterflies. It’s like a companion piece/reverse image to one of those deadly didactic ‘lesson’ films Rossellini made in his latter years.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Peter Webber added a not wholly convincing story to bring Vermeer’s THE GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING/’03 to life. But to see what is possible in this sort of thing, there’s really only Tarkovsky’s stupifyingly great ANDREI RUBLEV/’66. A film that, alas, needs the big screen to make its full mark.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

THOR (2011)

There are two kinds of ComicBook-sourced Super Hero pics: ones for Fan Boys & Others, and ones for Fan Boys Only. Quality, originality, story, effects all take a back seat to that basic appeal; especially on the start-up films which get all the origin myth goodies. (It’s why these series constantly get ‘rebooted’ back to Episode One.) Happily, THOR falls into the ‘Others-friendly’ camp, with a bifurcated story that moves back & forth between Wagnerian family squabbles in space and a lighter Earthly tale of exile that tacks on a mortal family for extra audience-identification. Natalie Portman as Thor’s scientifically-inclined mortal gal-pal and Anthony Hopkins as his aging father, King Odin, apparently cashed their paychecks before filming began, but the rest of the big cast put out. (Well, all but poor Rene Russo, lost in the background as Thor’s mom.) Maybe they got character coaching from Kenneth Branagh whose Pop-oriented Shakespeare adaptations still leave him an odd choice as director on this. He leans too heavily on skewed camera angles & CGI dazzle, trying to cover up a serious lack of action chops. At least the techno-fights don’t go on endlessly. And of course Branagh spots how the sibling rivalry between the overly impulsive Thor & the strategizing Loki for a father’s approval (and the right of succession) mirrors the rift between Prince Hal, Hotspur & Henry IV, the backstory to Branagh’s acclaimed debut pic, HENRY V/’89.*  (The reason he got the directing gig?)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is easily the most interesting character in here, but in a new version of the HENRY plays/’12, he gets Branagh’s old role of Hal rather than Hotspur.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

LEPKE (1975)

Producing partners Yoram Globus & Menahem Golan were in their heyday during the ‘70s & ‘80s, with scores of pics, mostly aimed at the international action market . . . and mostly terrible. While the boys aimed low, at least they hit their target. It was only when they tried for quality, or when Golan put on his directing hat, that their films went from ignorable to unbearable. Poor Tony Curtis, in his first big screen outing in half a decade, really tries to take things seriously, and he’s not half bad as the Murder, Inc. mob boss of the ‘20s & ‘30s. But under Menahem’s slapdash megging, there’s literally not a single believable moment in the whole crappy production. Even a can’t-miss shootout in an amusement park becomes a time-period destroying hoot, like everything else in here. The supporting cast is largely faceless, but attention must be paid to Anjanette Comer, jaw-droppingly terrible as Lepke’s inamorata. Where did she come from?  And who could ever imagine Milton Berle as her father?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE hasn’t quite reached the Lepke era, and is not without missteps of its own, but it’s bound to be a huge improvement over this when it gets there.

Monday, April 22, 2013

THE HOODLUM (1919)

Ever the businesswoman, Mary Pickford repurposed plot & character elements from two of her greatest ArtCraft successes (STELLA MARIS/’18 and AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY/’18*) when she left that Paramount releasing arm to start her own company. STELLA’s Unity Blake became Amanda Afflick in SUDS (and even got a happy ending), while the Irish tenement world of Amarilly morphed into multi-ethnicity for THE HOODLUM’s Amy Burke, a spoiled 5th Avenue rich girl who gets a well-deserved comeuppance when she goes slumming in the Lower East Side while her dad studies ‘how the other half live.’ Charming & funny at its best, and unexpectedly/unapologetically integrated, the ramshackle plotting keeps it from hitting its potential as director Sydney Franklin struggles with half his cast working under assumed identities. The story has Mary’s ultra-rich Capitalist G’pa (a ringer for Thom Edison) spying on Mary’s Lower East Side adventures, her good social deeds and her romance with a young man out to clear his name from a trumped up conviction arranged by . . . Capitalist G’pa! Pickford had only recently lost the writing talents of her long-time collaborator Frances Marion, and it shows. But, with Charles Rosher lensing, it sure looks great on this restored Mary Pickford Foundation-Milestone DVD and is, like the curate’s egg, good . . . in pieces.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The disc comes with a fascinating D. W. Griffith short, RAMONA (one of the 44 Mary made in 1910!), that finds her shaming her community by marrying a Native American. There’s a good deal of arm-waving from the actors in this early work, but the treatment of Henry B. Walthall’s Indian character is, if slightly condescending, extremely sympathetic. The idea that Indians were routinely shown as savage killers is one of those myths that just won’t die. Here, things end tragically with an abrupt gunshot to the head that still shocks.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Mary’s favorite director, Marshall Neilan, and her own Irish tenement background help make something special out of AMARILLY. Especially, in a sequence where she takes her plain Irish family uptown to meet the society swells. Instead of being embarrassed by them, she’s at a loss to see how the snobs can’t see what treasures they are. It’s one of her films that help us understand why Griffith needed to hire both Gish sisters (dramatic Lillian & comedic Dorothy) when Pickford left the company.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

ALL PASSION SPENT (1986)

The Vita Sackville-West novel gets a lush, leisurely treatment in this BBC/Masterpiece Theatre adaptation. (Designed in three long acts, you can help yourself to refreshments during the intervals.) Wendy Hiller is unmatchable as the elderly Lady Slane, newly widowed after a contented marriage to a former Prime Minister. But while she’s been happy, her husband’s perfect companion and loved her children, she never felt the life she led was truly hers. So, in the time remaining, leading a life of her own, not one that was chosen for her, is precisely what she plans to do. And since Sackville-West had such unexpected ideas about the pleasures of quiet routine, companionship & acceptance of limitations, this talkative film grows more interesting as you adjust to its pace, concerns & themes. While her children split between fretful & approving, Lady Slane finds three devoted, if eccentric, friends in her new landlord (Maurice Denham); a middle-class contractor (David Waller in a dream of a perf from this solid supporting actor); and even courtship from Harry Andrews’ brusque millionaire art collector, a man who spent his life in closeted thrall to the Lady after a brief encounter decades back. (Reference song: PASSING BY.) A subplot involving her Great-Granddaughter and an unwanted marriage proposal hits its points too neatly, but it also provides some narrative energy that doesn’t involve an elderly death. Don’t be put off by the poky, seemingly pointless, blather in those first two acts, it’s necessary scaffolding for the emotional third, ending in a remarkable tribute from the least likely source. Plus, a final tableau that’s ‘spot on,’ and helps compensate for some of the BBC boilerplate technical deficiencies of the era. (That's the young V S-W above & to the right; but what is she reading?)

DOUBLE-BILL: The same basic idea gets a sentimental outing in George Cukor’s LOVE AMONG THE RUINS/’75, with Laurence Olivier & Kate Hepburn in fussy old age form. (Hiller & Andrews play tart, and keep ‘the cutes’ at bay.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

GAMLET / HAMLET (1964)

Grigori Kozintsev’s esteemed USSR version of the famous play (it’s Shakespeare via Boris Pasternak) is handsome, brooding & big (make that bolshoi), but too tasteful by half, safe when it needs to be wild. (Only the statuesque Ghost and the Shostakovich music score do anything daring.) And don’t be fooled by the long running time, deduct the silent scene setting, and the film’s 2 hours & twenty minutes leaves about an hour & a half of text. Shot in WideScreen monochrome*, Kozintsev must have liked the Laurence Olivier 1948 version which shares architectural ideas, atmospheric fog and those damn interior monologues on the famous soliloquies. (The Olivier text is also heavily trimmed (largely reflecting the Freudian ideas the young Olivier had seen in the legendary John Barrymore production), but it doesn’t feel it.) Except for Stepan Oleksenko’s Laertes, none of the players make much of a camera connection, and the Hamlet (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy) suffers from the same platinum dye job Olivier gave himself. No doubt, the film made a better impression when it came out (Kozintsev followed up with KING LEAR). But as HAMLETs go, the effect is more in line with a ballet or opera (say, Ambroise Thomas’s French operatic HAMLET, with it’s happy ending), than the one Will wrote. (*NOTE: The FACETS DVD doesn’t have the 16x9 feature, so be careful setting the 2.35:1 screen ratio.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: New HAMLETs pop up all the time, but most of the modern ‘takes’ date with alarming speed. For the complete text, there’s Kenneth Branagh’s Jumbo-sized effort (as broad as it is shallow) or you can stick with the critically unfashionable Olivier. He does get off on a wrong foot, ‘This is a story of a man who could . . . not . . . make . . . up . . . his . . . mind,’ but soon rights things with a grand cast, a grand score, the greatest/funniest Gravedigger ever (Stanley Holloway), and the sheer glamour of Larry circa ‘late-‘40s. BTW - his amazing leap in the final sword fight must be straight out of Barrymore’s 1925 production; and you can see Barrymore himself perform it at the climax of DON JUAN/’26.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oddly, having subtitles in place of actors speaking Elizabethan English actually makes the plot easier for newbies to follow. So, struggling High School students may get the most out of this.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

PROMETHEUS (2012)

The rap on Ridley Scott is that with all his visual gloss, technical command & sophisticated design, he’s not so hot at simply telling the tale. (Five cuts of BLADE RUNNER/’82 and counting.) But no one’s going to complain about the storytelling in PROMETHEUS; no one’s going to care. This much anticipated return to Sci-Fi is a dog, and a something of a retread with big, empty winks at David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and . . . yep, Ridley Scott, though the template is H. Rider Haggard’s SHE/’35 where a group of explorers look for immortality deep inside a cave-dwelling alien culture. A few gags lighten the path: an alien abortion that uses one of those coin-operated treasure cranes and, an old fave, the talking disembodied head. They even pull out the breathable atmosphere gag from those old ‘50s B-pic space epics so the astronauts don’t have to wear helmets. (So much easier to light!) Not that we care much about a supporting cast who appear to be auditioning for CSI: NEPTUNE, with eyes glazing over as they recite meaningless technical jargon. The leads fair no better, though Michael Fassbender has naughty fun aping Peter O’Toole's Lawrence of Arabia . . . as played by Julian Sands. And is that really Guy Pearce underneath Keir Dullea’s ancient man-of-the-future make-up from 2001/’68? The screenwriters probably got Scott involved with a tricked up coda that works as a shameless plug for a 3-D conversion re-release of ALIEN/’79, but couldn’t be bothered to work up enough character traits so we could, at the least, enjoy guessing what order everyone would get knocked off.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The real question is why, at the age of 75, Ridley Scott would bother with such tripe? All he really wants at this stage is to win a directing Oscar®. Check out his expression when GLADIATOR/’00, a Best Pic Winner, lost the directing award to see just how hungry this guy is for that kind of meaningless respect.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Even if you’re not a huge fan, ALIEN/’79 looks like a masterpiece next to this. And what a difference in character development & writing! Or wallow in the silliness of the original SHE/’35, from the folks who brought you KING KONG/’33.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

HOME (2008)

A nuclear family of five lives an off-beat, but contented life in their home next to a major highway that never opened. For years, the paved expanse was just a big, long playground and the safety rail an eccentric border to be crossed each morning. The ghost road defined them as much as dad’s blue collar job, mom’s laundry chores, the elder daughter’s tanning routine, a younger daughter’s science experiments and Junior’s wolf cub naturalism. But when trucks appear one morn, tarring the road surface & painting car lanes, the family idyll is over, displaced by an endless rush of traffic, noise pollution & soot. This first feature from Ursula Meier seems a perfect set-up for slapstick gags loaded with cultural implications & philosophic musings behind every laugh, something for Jacques Tati or a modern Laurel & Hardy to play at.* No such luck, instead we’ve landed in deep-dish Euro-fest territory where everything serious gets spelled out for us . . . and for the finance committees that approve film funding. Isabelle Huppert & Oliver Gourmet give terribly fussy perfs as the parents while the three kids spend too much time stripping off their clothes & putting on psychic traumas. Surely that’s got things the wrong way ‘round.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Try Buster Keaton’s astonishing first two-reel release, ONE WEEK/’22, or Harold Lloyd’s tri-part feature HOT WATER/24 to see how a couple of comic geniuses play with these formal elements. Or, as noted above, Tati’s slightly poky, deceptively savage, TRAFFIC/’71.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SHOCKPROOF (1949)

Just before Sam Fuller’s debut as writer/director on I SHOT JESSE JAMES/’49, cult helmer Douglas Sirk displayed his distinctive style & pacing on this Fuller script, giving the film a fluidity Fuller could never have managed then . . . . or, come to think of it, later. The mix works well for the first half of the pic, but goes off the rails in the addlebrained second half. No doubt, the neat set-up sold Sirk on the project with Cornel Wilde’s parole officer finding a soft spot for his new client (Patricia Knight), a tough cookie just out after murdering a thug for the handsome mug who both loves and uses her. At first, she plays the parole officer for a sucker, but ends up screwing things up when she (wouldn’t you know it) falls for the sap. So far, so good, but when an accidental shooting puts the newlyweds on the lam, the film can’t pull off the complete reboot of plot & characters. Maybe the problem is Mrs. Cornel Wilde as the moll. That’d be Patricia Knight whose uninflected line readings kill all her scenes, even when it should be something of an advantage not to know what she’s thinking. Sirk and lenser Charles Lawton still manage a few tasty bits in the opening scenes in a cool L.A. office building Joseph Losey later used to great effect as a huge warehouse for his remake of M/’51, and around some grimy oil rigs toward the end.*

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT (Putative) / CONTEST: *This whole oil rig sequence, with its temp workers and lousy cabins, gets copied in another film with two lovers on the lam made around this time. But what is it? When we come up with the title (currently on the tip of our tongue!) we’ll get it listed.  Or, dear reader . . . come up with that movie title to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Who came up with the completely meaningless title?

Monday, April 15, 2013

POWER OF THE PRESS (1943)

The pungent odor of a good Samuel Fuller pic comes steeped with his formative years as a punk crime reporter for the tabloid press. But paradoxically, when tabloids themselves are the subject matter, that bracing wiseguy manner shrivels into corny sentiment, with platitudes & speechifying in place of action. It all but kills his ‘passion project’ about the ‘rags’ of turn-of-the-century NYC, PARK ROW/’52, which he wrote & directed. And it sinks this earlier story credit, a ham-fisted Frank Capra-esque fable about a decent small-town newspaper publisher who winds up running a mass circulation daily with Fascist/Right-Wing leanings after its duped owner is murdered. Lew Landers megs like he’s in a hurry to get home, with his cast front-and-center and his angles squared. Without much budget, the big set piece gets phoned-in by a reporter who describes a thrilling street riot to us. A radio adaptation would have more visual interest. Capra vet Guy Kibbee looks exhausted as the aging editor while Otto Kruger & Victor Jory, with some unfathomable plan to overthrow the government, are slightly less subtle than Snidley Whiplash as the baddies. At least, we get to see (and hear) Lee Tracy, THE FRONT PAGE’s original Hildy Johnson spewing out orders and ‘copy.’ Fuller gets him on the side of the angels with an improbable, not to say, unethical twist ending that all but negates the main ideas of the story. But for a touch of real life irony, there’s an uncredited Larry Parks playing a left-wing agitator who’s framed on a murder charge. Before the decade was out, Parks would be blacklisted for real for his left wing Commie sympathies on charges hyped up by (wait for it) . . . the tabloid press.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Press junkies can worry over possible Fascist takeovers in a couple of highly uneven pics with news-ink on their hands. There’s Cukor’s glossy & melodramatic KEEPER OF THE FLAME/’42 with Hepburn & Tracy, or, for confused intensity, Capra’s MEET JOHN DOE/’41 with Stanwyck & Cooper. (There actually is a Capra pic called POWER OF THE PRESS/’28, but with a totally different story.)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934)

After nearly four years of missteps, Alfred Hitchcock found his once & future voice reteaming with producer Michael Balcon on this smash international thriller.* The well-known story, of a married couple forced to keep silent about a planned political assassination after their child is kidnapped, should feel old hat after so many copycat versions & its general influence, yet the film still feels fresh, as witty & exciting as it must have seemed in ‘34. Hitchcock manages to pack everything into 75 quickstep minutes as one suspenseful delight follows another leading up to double whammy set-pieces at the Albert Hall concert shooting and an inner-city gun-battle siege between cops & conspirators. Peter Lorre makes his exceptional English-language debut as a bemused, but deadly villain and Pierre Fresnay makes a real impression in his brief role as the early victim with the info. (His death dance with an unspooling web of yarn makes for an astonishing bit of visual sophistication.) Everyone loves young Nova Pilbeam as the nabbed kid (including Hitch, who gave her the lead in YOUNG AND INNOCENT/’37), but the secret to the film’s continuing kick may be the lively relationship between Leslie Banks & Edna Best as the well-matched parents. Coming out the same year as THE THIN MAN/’34, both films had revolutionary ideas about marriage as bantering romantic fun, a sexually charged courtship that continued after the vows.

DOUBLE-BILL: Even if you’ve seen this before, the recent Criterion restoration is a treat . . . and a wonder for those who only know it from Public Domain issues. Hitch famously remade this during his great mid-‘50s run @ Paramount (with James Stewart & Doris Day/’56) and it remains the most undervalued of all his American masterworks. The light tone of '34 is replaced by a sobersided look at a troubled marriage. (The film appears to have been something of a love letter to Hitch’s wife Alma during a troubled period in their marriage.) It’s less fun, but deeper than the original, only falling short in a failed bit of comic relief at a taxidermy shop. Think of it as the Hitchcock pic Ingmar Bergman never got around to making.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *While the film was an international success, it earned little coin in Britain because the head of British Gaumont’s theater chain disliked the pic so much he refused to give it decent bookings. His token release allowed him to claim it as a Box-Office failure . . . and a place for himself in the ‘I’d Rather Be Right’ movie exec Hall of Fame.

Friday, April 12, 2013

ADVENTURE IN SAHARA (1938)

Not much call for Foreign Legion pics these days. But a biggy was due @ Paramount in ‘39, a new BEAU GESTE*, the likely prompt for Columbia topper Harry Cohn to rush out this sandy programmer. The not-so 'original' story was an early screen credit for young Samuel Fuller, and Fuller mavens will enjoy watching him plop BEAU GESTE’s characters, settings & circular revenge into a narrative template lifted from MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’35. He even manages to graft on a love interest with a doughty female pilot who must be the most disastrous helpmate ever seen on screen. With love interest like this, who needs enemies? Running a bit under an hour, the acting is plenty blunt, but megger D. Ross Lederman gets what he needs from his B-list cast. (Everyone is very fit, unlike those pampered A-listers.) And he gets a bit more from C. Henry Gordon as the sadistic commander. The real standout element is Franz Planer’s lensing. Fresh off the boat and giving a million-dollar sheen to this quickie, he’d just made a Stateside debut in Cukor’s HOLIDAY/’38, with Zinnemann, Ophuls & Wyler among past & future collaborators.

DOUBLE-BILL: *William Wellman’s 1939 BEAU GESTE was a near copy of the even better silent version made by Herbert Brenon in ‘26 with Ronald Colman. (Hard to believe, but Colman, with that one-in-a-million voice, thought this silent film was his best.) Alas, no video edition has ever done justice to this beauty, even though the original elements are in great shape.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012)

Buried inside this noisy, joyless ‘3-quel’ (or is it ‘prequel’) to the original MIB, a hipster comedy about secret agents of the Federal Bureau of Alien Investigation (the FBAI?), are one or two neatly spotted stealth gags. In one, Emma Thompson’s agency head suddenly starts speaking in tongues; the other, set in the film’s gimmicky flashback to 1969, needs no more than having a car radio switched on. Everything else in here occurs in a mirthless vacuum more concerned with diagraming elaborate time-jumping metaphysics than in mining for comic opportunities. Surely, the last of the series.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: And yet, the film holds real fascination for career gazers who get a rare chance at watching a major star go into hiding right in front of their eyes. A decade past MIB-II/’02, Will Smith is no longer the young pup next to Tommy Lee Jones’s grizzled, comically laconic agent. At 44, the high-spirits & youthful braggadocio now look like over-weaning self-regard, a classic case of Robert Downey, Jr. syndrome. Smith works considerably better against Josh Brolin, cleverly cast as Jones’s younger self. Brolin, who happens to be the same age as Smith, plays junior partner in their scenes together which lets Smith play straight-man/big-brother. It’s something new for Smith, a Tom Hanks role. Hell, Smith even looks a bit like Hanks in certain shots. Sounds a little goofy, but Smith must have been thinking along similar lines since he's vacated himself from the big screen for a couple of years.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original MEN IN BLACK/’97 remains good goofy fun, even a touch scary.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (1937)

Here’s the set-up: Big Hollywood silent star stumbles in his first Talkie even as his leading lady thrives. Soon, he’s lost everything, too proud to accept her help and too stubborn to alter his image. THE ARTIST/’11, that pleasing silent-by-choice award-winner, right? Well, yes, but also this sweet little B-pic from Columbia starring that real-life fading silent film star Richard Dix. Here, he’s a cowboy star who flops when he’s forced to wear fancy duds & speak romantic dialogue. Who’s making outdoor Talkie Westerns? There’s some pretty corny stuff in here, and a bathetic sub-plot with a sick little kid who believes in his cowboy hero, but lots of goofy fun, too. Plus, some more than decent behind-the-scenes Hollywood fare. Harry Lachman megs briskly, helped by an enthusiastic cast (Fay Wray is a charmer), and superior work from Frank Capra’s regular lenser, Joseph Walker, who adds glamor & style you don't expect in a programmer. (Watch him wipe a decade of disappointment off Dix in a couple of portrait shots late in the film.) The script is downright cavalier about its timeline (that sick tyke doesn’t age a day), but all is forgiven with a couple of neat plot twists that bring Dix back into favor. Plus, there’s a real Hollywood insider treat at a party with Hollywood Stand-Ins pretending to be the real thing. And they actually hired the real Stand-Ins for this knock-out scene. What a hoot!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You can check out the stars and their Stand-Ins @:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029056/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast Note that you won’t find a listing for Irene Dunne’s Stand-In. Yet, that must be her greeting Dix. That is, it must be the real Irene Dunne. Probably working on the Columbia lot, she must have come over as a favor to her old CIMARRON co-star. A very classy gesture.

DOUBLE-BILL: Of course, you could pair this with THE ARTIST (mentioned above), but why not check out Dix in one of his best roles as the Native American torn between old ways and modern life in REDSKIN/'29. The scenes in Indian territory were shot in 2-Strip TechniColor and, for once, the limitations in palette perfectly fit the look of the SouthWest. (This title is available in TREASURES III: Social Issues in American Cinema - National Film Preservation.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

HARAKIRI (1919)

Fritz Lang was still learning-on-the-job in this early silent, an expansion of Puccini’s 1904 opera MADAMA BUTTERFLY. Cio-cio-san, the orphaned geisha who marries the thoughtless American Naval officer in the opera becomes O-Take-San, a sheltered girl whose father can’t stop a powerful Buddhist Priest (Bonzo in the opera) who demands the girl for his religious order. The father commits harakiri, but O-Take-San is saved thru her marriage to Olaf, a Swedish Naval officer (Pinkerton in the opera). The rest more-or-less follows the opera plot, the husband quickly goes home, she has a child and waits for his return, refusing all offers of marriage, and so on. Lang tries hard for a picturesque Japanese style, but the careful compositions remain still-lifes waiting to be vivified. And then there’s all those Germans playing Japanese. So tall! So many big noses! And what are we to make of the actual Asian extras hanging about? No doubt, Langians will want to have a look. Others may safely take a pass. (Part of an 'Early Lang' set out on KINO, this one features a moody background score with fleeting bits of Puccini, some BUTTERFLY, but more TOSCA. Go figure.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Tragic Orientalism must have been in air in 1919. Try D. W. Griffith’s chamber-sized masterpiece BROKEN BLOSSOMS/’19, with Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess & Donald Crisp. (There’s also a straight version of the old Belasco play, MADAME BUTTERFLY/’32, starring Sylvia Sidney & Cary Grant(!), but it doesn’t seem to be currently available.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

LA BETE HUMAINE / THE HUMAN BEAST (1938)

This modern adaptation of Émile Zola’s hair-raising novel about a train engineer with an inbred tendency toward violence plays odd-man-out in the socially engaged, left-leaning humanist pics Jean Renoir made in the ‘30s. (And nothing like his earlier Zola adaptation, the eye-popping sophomore effort, NANA/’26.) But there’s little mystery to its place in Renoir’s line-up, Jean Gabin asked for him. France’s biggest star had just made two with Renoir (THE LOWER DEPTHS/’36; GRAND ILLUSION/’37) and they turned out pretty well . . . Besides, they’d get to play railroad engineer on those big locomotives. Sure enough, the opening reel is nothing but Gabin (with the superb Carette as stoker) taking a run into Le Havre under real steam, on real tracks & a real train. Thrilling stuff, simply as an actualité. And then the twisty plot of madness, jealousy, murder, and a femme fatale as ‘fatale’ as they get (sweet looking Simon Simone before she was Cat Woman in CAT PEOPLE/’42) kicks in. Zola’s great rolling storyline has, of course, been severely trimmed, and his appalling, nihilistic ending reduced to a personal tragedy, yet the story feels faithful in most of the important ways. Only Joseph Kosma’s punchy music score gets in the way with a few over-cooked chords. Critical theorists try to force this film into patterns that lean toward proto-film noir or French poetic-realism. (It’s film thesis heaven.) But neither really fit. If anything, it’s helpful to think of this as Renoir’s first (possibly greatest) Hollywood pic. So, naturally, when he did get to the States, he made nothing like it. (NOTE: Rewatched and thought of more to say . . . so, why not a second Write-Up.  Different poster, too.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Halfway in, packing a bag to leave town, Gabin is revealed as the only actor in cinema history who knows how to properly fold a sportscoat for a suitcase. Flip one shoulder over the other so it’s turned inside out, then fold in thirds. No wrinkles. No wonder that notorious hausfrau Marlene Dietrich was nuts about the guy.

DOUBLE BILL: Fritz Lang, who had successfully remade Renoir’s early Talkie LA CHIENNE/’31 as SCARLET STREET/’45, had less luck turning this into HUMAN DESIRE/’54. It has its admirers, but the loss of visual control from his previous pic, THE BIG HEAT/’53, is palpable.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: It’s a bit of a cheat to simply suggest Zola’s original book . . . but what a read!

Friday, April 5, 2013

ATLANTIS: THE LOST CONTINENT (1961)

Those with a soft spot for George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE/’60, and the lesser-known 7 FACES OF DR. LAO/’64, probably won’t mind the general air of silliness & glaringly obvious cost-cutting stratagems Pal used on this low-budget adventure pic. With endearingly toy-like sets, effects & acting, the story also takes care to point up an anti-nuclear message simple enough for a child to pick up on. Anthony Hall (aka Sal Ponti) is pretty (and pretty amateurish) as a Greek fisherman who saves Atlantis Princess Joyce Taylor from the depths before bravely sailing her home thru uncharted waters. Landing in the great civilization of Atlantis, he soon finds himself enslaved in a corrupt society on the edge of the precipice. You can guess the rest. (Though perhaps not the big lift straight out of THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS/'32.) There’s lots of borrowed footage for the catastrophic climax (from THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII/’59?), plus painted backdrops suitable for a high school play along with an ancient Cityscape swiped off a Lionel Train hobby table. The fun of the thing is that Pal never minds if we experience the fakery as fakery. John Dall, in his last film role, sports an alarming yellow dye job as a campy villain, with a naughty, and unexpectedly open, interest in all the beefcake flesh around him. (He nearly makes a pass at young Hall.) And listen up for Paul Frees, one of the great voice-over specialists of his day, who narrates and seems to have dubbed about half the male supporting cast.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

IDI I SMOTRI / COME AND SEE (1985)

About halfway into Elem Klimov’s film about one boy’s journey with WWII Belorussian partisan fighters, he briefly strikes the exact right tone. After digging up a gun left near his home, running off to join the militia, losing all his family and most of his group as the Nazis push forward, he’s dashing thru open plains with his surviving commander and a friendly cow. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a flare lights up the sky and they are under fierce attack by an unseen enemy, scattering away from the deadly tracer bullets coming from rapid machine-gun fire. Terror, majesty, survival instinct, legendary peasant toughness, the sequence has all the attributes so painfully missing from the rest of the film. But Klimov doesn’t seem to know it. Soon, we’re back, cataloging war atrocities with a panoramic tour of one of the hundreds of villages the Nazis annihilated during the horrible first wave of easy victories. Klimov shoots much of this using an odd, if distinctive style, with long held portrait shots in uncomfortable close-up alternating with vast tracking shots covering multiple horrors with sweeping one-take camera moves. You can almost see him hoisting the Stalin Prize. (Not that they called it that anymore, though the film did indeed win the Moscow International.) Klimov, a mere 52 at the time, never got to make another pic.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Klimov was the husband of fellow Soviet director Larisa Sheptiko whose last film, THE ASCENT/’77, does better (at least in its first half) with another story of partisan courage & sacrifice during the Great Patriotic War. (Naturally, neither film mentions Stalin’s role in leaving Russia open for these early appalling losses.) Better yet, opt for Andrei Tarkovsky’s IVAN’S CHILDHOOD/’62, a truly great film about a young boy fighting in WWII Russia.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

BIG BOY (1930)

Note the ad (just to the right) promising the Al Jolson of THE JAZZ SINGER/’27 and THE SINGING FOOL/’28. Two subsequent flops had left Warners with ‘a Jolson problem’ on their hands; and this was only his fifth pic. Reuniting Jolie with Alan Crosland, who megged his Jazz Singing debut, seemed a safe bet. And, as extra insurance, they adapted a stage-tested hit, one where Jolie didn’t just ‘black up’ for a few ‘Numbos,’ but played Black all the way thru. No theatrical minstrelsy, but a more-or-less actual Black characterization, a Negro horse jockey who saves the day for the nice white folk he works for. (Until the encore, when Jolson appears sans make-up, threatening to sing ‘Sonny Boy.’) Alas, director Crosland had lost touch with the fast-moving advances in Talkie technique, what passed muster in ‘27 now looked antique. And the show, an old-fashioned wheeze in ‘25, was now positively arthritic. From today’s perspective, it seems a desperate move. Don’t kid yourself, it was pretty desperate in 1930, too. Jolson was off the screen for three years before returning at another studio.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oddly, the best thing here is a flashback where Jolie plays his own G’pa back in plantation days. Instead of the weak original songs he gets in the modern story, he sings a couple of spirituals backed by a chorus of black singers, real African-American people. Darn if he isn’t good. Especially when he plumbs his unexpected lower extension while lightly swinging the rhythm. Even in our post-ironic cultural milieu, where sophisticates collect pickaninny artifacts, what are we to make of this scene?