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Friday, May 31, 2013

BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1997)

The ultimate Hollywood sin? Self-inflicted ‘franchiside.’ And while THE EXORCIST II/’77 holds as champ chump, this follow-up to BABE/’95 isn’t far behind. (BABE - cost $30 mill/Original Stateside Gross - $66.6 mill; BABE II - cost $80 mill/Original Stateside Gross - $18 mill.) Perhaps you’ve forgotten BABE, the endearing tale of an adopted pig who saves his bacon by learning to herd sheep, an Æsop Fable for our times, told with a seamless blend of trained animals, puppetry & animation techniques, it made for a volume-filled verisimilitude you could believe in. But something went terribly wrong with both the story and the story construction here. There’s little conviction to the darker tone as the farm goes broke and Babe seeks his fortune in the big city. George Miller, directing as well as producing, blinks at the story’s implications, sidestepping three or four fatalities with back-from-the-brink feints that come off as equally mean-spirited and sentimental. Disney killed off Bambi’s mom for a first act finale and Miller won’t even lose a goldfish? Yet, amid the stumbles, a couple of reels midway thru find all the abandoned animals of the city coming together co-op style, then fighting an impounding. Saint-Saens comes up on the soundtrack and you remember what an unexpected joy the first film was . . .briefly. Soon things retreat into chaos with an endless, overblown action-climax and a tacked-on happily-ever-after epilogue. Even the returning trio of singing mice can’t save this one.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: BABE.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Miller reemerged with HAPPY FEET/’06. And damned if he didn’t franchiside all over again on HAPPY FEET II/’11.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

BIRD OF PARADISE (1932)

Everybody’s favorite throw-the-native-beauty-in-the-angry-volcano pic finally gets a worthy DVD release on KINO. Sourced from excellent nitrate elements held by the George Eastman House archive, it replaces all those murky Public Domain issues, revealing a physical beauty once only guessed at. For director King Vidor, the film was a huge leap forward from his last two, THE CHAMP/’31 and STREET SCENE/’31, superb works that functioned within the technical constraints of Early Talkie mechanics. No more. Now, the freedom of movement & fluid camera work of the late silents are back in action. (Maybe it’s a great leap backwards.) We also get a full background score from Max Steiner, one of the first, and something of a warm-up for KING KONG/’33. The old story doesn’t clunk as much as you might recall, opening with a great meet-cute during a shark attack (!) before settling down to tribal rituals (courtesy of choreographer Busby Berkeley) and a tabu love affair for the fleshly charms of Dolores Del Rio & Joel McCrea in erotic Pre-Code form. Yummy stuff.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

THE WRONG BOX (1966)

With the glorious exception of Ralph Richardson, hilarious as England’s most distinguished bore, everyone works too hard at being funny in this wild Victorian farce. The set-up, taken from a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, follows the machinations to get at a fortune pledged to the sole survivor of a school-boy ‘tontine,’ now whittled down to two elderly brothers (and their various relations) who play out a comic death watch. Megger Bryan Forbes loads up on stylish furnishings & William Morris wallpaper, but consistently keeps his camera too close to allow for comic breathing space, instead letting his starry cast go with nudge-nudge/wink-wink overplaying. Still, what a cast! Richardson, John Mills, Michael Caine, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Peter Sellers (in a bad turn), the great Wilford Lawson (in a divine swansong) & Cicely Courtneidge (the Edith Evans of the Music Hall). Forbes also indulges his wife, Nanette Newman, a handsome gal, miscast as an ingénue. But the indulgent spirit works in both directions, so you’ll laugh, and not even mind seeing the same messed up chase-finale that co-authors Larry Gelbart & Burt Shevelove used in the year’s other farce, that classic of ancient Rome, Titus Maccius Plautus’s A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM/’66.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *In a critical flip-flop, BOX now looks somewhat over-praised and AFTHOTWTTF, somewhat under. Directed by Richard Lester in the chop-sloppy manner of his famous BEATLES pics, the film overcomes stylistic pratfalls with comic pratfalls by endearingly low Stateside jesters & tony Brits on holiday, gamboling away on Tony Walton's suburban Rome sets which are something of a marvel.

Monday, May 27, 2013

NARCOTIC (1933); MANIAC (1934)

Shot on a dime for the exploitation market, these two oddities from Dwain Esper (paired on a KINO DVD) are siblings with a difference. MANIAC is a campy, DIY attempt at a Universal Horror pic; think zero-budget FRANKENSTEIN with a bit of ‘nudie’ action tossed in the mix. Fodder for the Mystery Science Theater wiseguys* and not far from Ed Wood territory. Whereas NARCOTIC, made just the year before, is something else again. A supposed exposé of one man’s decent into drug addiction, it's less the work of someone who’s never made a film then of someone


who’s never seen one. Jumping around in time, place & action with the logic of an unintentional Dadaist, Esper seems to be making up his own film grammar & syntax as he goes along, we might be deciphering the cries of a babbling baby. What did patrons of the day make of it? The best scene, if you can call it that, is a little drug shindig with a smorgasbord of stimulants, guests in formal garb and a glossary’s worth of the hep slang of the day in addict terminology. Little approaches this level of deconstruction in MANIAC, but within the stock footage Esper haphazardly puts in to pad out the running time is some truly nasty animal atrocity stuff and a remarkable clip from an Italian silent pic that’s superimposed over some villainy. KINO gives us a clip of this from the original film, MACISTE IN HELL/’25, a sort of Hercules in the UnderWorld pic, which looks pretty cool . . . in its creepy way. Sort of Italian-UFA style, and well worth checking out if you can find it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Why listen to those MST guys? Do your own obnoxious comic commentary.

DOUBLE-BILL: It’s its very own Double-Bill.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

LOVE IS BETTER THAN EVER (aka THE LIGHT FANTASTIC) (1950; released '52)

Plenty of drama on this one . . . all behind the camera. On screen, it’s painfully innocuous; a thrill-less romance between a New Haven kiddie dance teacher, 18 yr-old Elizabeth Taylor, and Larry Parks’ smooth-operator NYC theatrical agent, her senior by nearly two decades. These two are in love from the start, but she’s got to convince the mug he’s really the marrying kind. Director Stanley Donen manages some passable NYC atmosphere with just a couple of location shots, but there’s only so much he can do with this trifle. He shows off Liz’s gams, hides her dance steps behind a big bass fiddle and tries not to embarrass anyone. All gentlemanly stuff, probably because he & Taylor were in the midst of a major affair. A relationship Taylor’s mom & Howard Hughes (!) were each trying to sabotage with rumors that Donen was a Pinko fag. (So how come he’s screwing La Liz?) Taylor was just getting divorced from the horrid Hilton boy and Donen was leaving his first wife, Jeanne Coyne. (She’d soon marry Gene Kelly, who makes a cameo appearance here.) Meantime, there was an ex-Commie-Red on the set, co-star Larry Parks who’d soon testify before the infamous HUAC Committee and get BlackListed. (His next Hollywood production would also be his last, John Huston’s FREUD/’62.) So, this 1950 film didn't get a release ‘til ‘52, after studio chief & super patriot Louis B. Mayer had been forced out. Wait . . . there’s more! Take a look at Larry Parks. (See photo below.) Remind you of anyone? He’s a positive ringer for Taylor’s third hubby Mike Todd! (The one after second hubby Michael Wilding, the guy she left Stanley Donen for.) And Parks doesn’t just look like Todd, he might be playing Mike Todd, an older, take charge New York theatrical guy who sweeps Liz off her feet. (If only they’d have cast Joan Blondell, Mrs. Mike Todd at the time, to play Taylor’s mom.)

Mike Todd & ET
ET & Larry Parks
 

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oh, hell, this whole posting is a Screwy Thought of the Day.

Friday, May 24, 2013

MIKE'S MURDER (1984)

Writer/helmer James Bridges never quite recovered from the one-two punch of this artistic flop and his follow-up pic, the commercial, but cruddy PERFECT/’85. Here, he was trying for a French-styled thriller, more Claude Chabrol than Hitchcock, set in the midst of the High/Low intersecting worlds of ‘80s L.A. drug culture. Debra Winger’s a young bank exec whose on-and-off affair with a drifting tennis pro ends after his casual drug dealing escalates with fatal results. Winger finds she can’t turn the page without knowing what the hell happened and winds up learning some dangerous facts. It’s a great set-up, if only Bridges had the technical chops to pull it off. But a vague narrative tone needs precise shots; and Bridges is no Antonioni, there’s not a memorable image in the pic. Worse, a lack of chemistry between ‘Missing Mike’ and Winger makes her character look dim instead of blinded by a failed romance. (Too bad, Mark Keyloun has the necessary fast-fading pretty-boy insipid looks, but the guy just can’t act.) And a big thriller-diller climax, though reasonably effective, feels tacked on, less Hitchcockian than WAIT UNTIL DARKish/’67. Though it does give an unlikely grand piano a non-symbolic role to play.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The trailer hints at intimate (i.e. European) sex scenes missing from the final cut. No doubt, co-editor Dede Allen (under studio orders?) tried to make this a bit less artsy.

DOUBLE-BILL: You can imagine how this might have worked by watching Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER/’92.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)

This lesser-known work from Nicholas Ray (co-written with A. I. Bezzerides) is one his best. An unusual structure starts with an extended prologue that sets up the violent character of city detective Robert Ryan, and the numbing brutality of his assignments. His two partners, squeezed into cars & suits too narrow for such big men, find release valves in their home life, but the solitary Ryan is like a loose grenade with the pin pulled. In a fix after roughing up too many scumbags, he’s sent up north to cool down and help a county sheriff track down a killer. The shift in tone, and the start of a normal three-act structure, is signified by a distinctive Bernard Herrmann music cue.* But within minutes, Ryan is thrust straight into a chase for a mentally unbalanced killer thru the snowy countryside, accompanied by Ward Bond as the victim's avenging father. (He's also accompanied by one of Herrmann’s greatest agitato set pieces, very chromatic, with wicked horn licks & pre-echoes of his scores for NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59 and MARNIE/’64.) Ryan winds up meeting the suspect's sister, Ida Lupino, fashioning a real character out of mere dramatic convenience; and making their meetings the emotional center of the story, with a real D. H. Lawrentian aspect to it. Sometimes, Ray’s films get away from him, but not here. (Though the two sides of the story play better on second viewing.) It’s also quite dazzling on a technical level with fine perfs from actors you rarely see and some daring hand-held action camera work from George Diskant that still make a big impact.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Producer John Houseman was the likely connection to Herrmann from their days with Orson Welles at The Mercury Players.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ray was an uncredited co-director on John Cromwell’s THE RACKET/’50, something of a warm-up for the city side of this film. But with Ryan as a psychotic gangster and Robert Mitchum playing ‘good cop.’

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

PARANORMAN (2012)

This Stop-Motion animated feature has so many bewitching things in it, especially in establishing a sense of place, character development & community, that it’s frustrating to see it fall short of its potential. But technically and in story construction, everything feels about two drafts shy of production-ready, rushed along to meet a pre-scheduled release date. It makes for a very muddled middle. Still, it’s never less than passable, gosh darn likeable, and the opening & closing chapters function in a state of near bliss. Norman is the usual outsider kid you find in these things, ghoulish, friendless, and with a propensity for speaking to the dead. And that comes in handy when his Uncle dies, leaving Norman with the secret for keeping the peace between the living townies and the Zombie World hoping to attack. There are plenty of gags for parental units, school bullies and various undead types, and the film hits its peak in the penultimate climax as Norman takes on Zombies on one side and riotous, lynch-happy townfolk on the other. The final climax is both scary & touching, a technical tour-de-force with lots of digital effects blended into the Stop-Motion action. All good. But it also forces Norman to suddenly turn himself into an unlikely top-flight child psychologist. Not so good. Still, kudos to directors Chris Butler & Sam Fell for getting as much right as they do.

DOUBLE BILL: Butler did CORPSE BRIDE/’05 with Tim Burton, so similarities with FRANKENWEENIE/’12 were probably inevitable. Instead, try Suzie Templeton’s outstanding Stop-Motion re-imagining of Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF/’06. This Peter could be Norman’s Russian cousin though Templeton’s unity of vision quite outstrips all these films.

Monday, May 20, 2013

THE ROMANTIC ENGLISHWOMAN (1975)

Once you take away the three collaborations with thorny playwright (and Nobel Laureate) Harold Pinter, it’s hard to justify Joseph Losey’s post-BlackList reputation directing films in Europe. You’ll certainly need those Pinter works as hindsight if this bumpy marital-thriller is to gain even a reasonable measure of interest. Glenda Jackson, the moody wife of frustrated novelist Michael Caine, is taking a marriage break at Baden-Baden when she starts a momentary affair with mysterious gigolo Helmut Berger. Or is it just happening in Caine’s novelistic imagination? Things get more complicated when Berger all but invites himself into their home, provoking Caine to taunt his wife by keeping him around as assistant and general provocateur, unaware of Berger’s current troubles as a drug courier on the run. It’s a lot of plot for a plotless film! Especially since the main point is getting the three leads back to PinterLand in an ominously threatening second act with plenty of emotionally opaque darts to throw, courtesy of another acclaimed playwright, Tom Stoppard. If only those terribly non-Pinteresque explanations didn't keep getting in the way, what with Caine seeking to spark his dried out writer’s imagination (Check!); Jackson seeking passion & escape (Check!); and Berger seeking to avoid the thugs who are after him, but finding an emotional involvement new to him (Double Check!). We’ve dipped pretty far from faux-Pinter to sub-par-Pinter. Losey seems unconcerned, setting up his preferred window-framed shots and mirror images within a typically brusque style. Only, Michael Lonsdale, playing an enforcer out to get Berger, finds the droll unease that’s missing elsewhere. But it's too little, too late.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The early Losey/Pinter projects, THE SERVANT/’63 and ACCIDENT/’67 hold up brilliantly, chilly as ever.

Friday, May 17, 2013

THE MAN IN GREY (1943)

Gainsborough Pictures found a profitable commercial niche on this one, the first in a series of costume melodramas about randy Lords and wicked Ladies, usually in hideous Regency Period outfits. (Great for showing off Margaret Lockwood’s lovely bosoms!) This release set the pattern while upping the profiles of stars Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, James Mason & Stewart Granger. Calvert is the sweet young bride to the brooding Mason. He’s indifferent to her, but not to her old school chum, Lockwood, who soon starts plotting to move up from mistress to second wife. Meantime, Granger, who was ‘walking the boards’ with Lockwood as a traveling player, brings happiness & tru-love to Calvert, along with an offer to carry her away to his island estate . . . as soon as he wins it back from ‘the savages.’ There’s not a character or a plot point in here that hasn’t been lifted from something far better (The Brontes & Daphne Du Maurier are the main targets), but there’s still a bit of fun to be had seeing the nice Calverts & Grangers of the world being had by selfish villains like Lockwood & Mason. If only it weren’t so darn clunky. Watch for an appallingly staged fist-fight/duel between the boys; a typically eccentric appearance by Martita Hunt as the proprietress of a school for ladies; and (BLACKFACE ALERT!) young Harry Scott, in his one & only film role, as Toby, a blacked up Blackamoor. Were there no actual black kids in wartime England? (Plus, a BlackFace Bonus for Granger as Othello.) The recent Criterion DVD restores the original 116 minute running time, but the story still makes little sense.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: With so many good versions of JANE EYRE out there (‘43; ‘70; '11), why bother with Gothic imitations? Though, if imitation it must be, go with REBECCA/’40.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

MATINEE (1993)

Joe Dante fondly recalls teen-romance and the gimmick-happy fright-flicks of schlock-meisters like William Castle (THE TINGLER/’59; HOMICIDAL/’61) in this hit-and-miss coming-of-age comedy set during the scary days of the ‘62 Cuban Missile Crisis. (He'd have been about 16 at the time.) John Goodman & Cathy Moriarty are just great as a cash-strapped would-be mogul and his leading lady/factotum, and Dante neatly works in lots of affectionate cameos from B-pic vets in both the main story and in the hilarious film-within-a-film horror-spoof MANT – Half Man/Half Atomically Charged Ant!! (See bonus poster.) When the three lines of action (Preview Screening; Teen Dates; Nuclear Scare) all come together in the last act, the film turns into a comic fugue of the first order, but Dante has less success getting us there. Perhaps the teens are too darn generic, though that’s part of the gag. Perhaps, like MAD MEN, they get the period details right, but miss that ‘New Frontier’ spirit. (You can see a bit of what’s missing in a standout parody of a typical ‘60s Disney family comedy about a guy who’s not a shaggy dog or a monkey’s uncle, but a shopping cart. They’ve even managed to recreate the horrible ‘canned’ kiddie laughter those films pulled out of some temporarily Disneyfied Stepford Kids.) Don’t let the weak spots keep you away, spend some quality time spotting the fine period film posters on display at the theater when things get a little slow.

DOUBLE-BILL: Tim Burton’s ED WOOD/’94 covers a similar subject with a depth of response Dante wasn’t shooting for. A better match might be Robert Zemeckis’s I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND/’78, about The Beatles’ Stateside debut in ‘64 which is a treat all the way.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

VACANZE PER UN MASSACRO / MADNESS

Italian writer/director Fernando Di Leo has a considerable cult reputation in sleazy crime-thrillers (with soft-core porn trimmings), but you’d never guess it from this flaccid entry. Joe Dallesandro, the stoned & studly workhorse of the Warhol Factory*, is an escaped prisoner on a hunt for hidden stash. He kills a couple of gas station attendants (in risible fashion), steals a car and soon finds the isolated treasure cottage. Too bad The Three Bears are there on vacation: a braggadocio husband who’s consecutively 'servicing' both his timid wife and her amoral kid sister. Dallesandro, in the Goldilocks spot, watches the action while planning to get in and take over. A decent enough set-up, but Di Leo (along with Enrico Lucidi, in a lousy lensing debut) are all thumbs. It’s bad enough that the action sequences are so inept, but even basic spatial relations between characters defeat him. Some wretched interiors manage to show a bit of crass style (a nasty poster of John Travolta looms over much of the action) and we learn what a compact little guy Dallesandro is. 5' 6"; who knew? All other claims for this one sink in the muck of incompetence.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *This would never have been picked up for Stateside release if Dallesandro weren’t in it. No actor in any traditional sense, his attempts to show emotion or to be threatening involve the furtive eye movements of a Snidley Whiplash. Yet, he retains that rare unselfconscious charm most non-pros quickly lose. The only comparable film personality would be (no joke) Ruby Keeler, the tap specialist from those ‘30s Warner Bros./Busby Berkeley musicals. Like Joe, she never improved her acting (or for that matter her singing or dancing), or even her odd looks, yet when she looked down to check on her accurate, but clumsy footwork, she generated the same sort of charm Joe did looking down to frankly check out his manhood.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Dallesandro is at his most iconic in TRASH/’70 where he can just ‘be’ instead of attempting to ‘act.'

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

STRONGER THEN DESIRE (1939)

M-G-M tried teaming Virginia Bruce & Walter Pidgeon on a pair of programmers in ‘39, but it didn’t take. Pidgeon went on to Greer Garson while Bruce just . . . went on. This second outing has Pidgeon as a society lawyer (the title of their first film) and Bruce now plays his devoted, but neglected wife. She goes in for a bit of flirting in an attempt to get even, but it backfires tragically when some harmless letters lead to a blackmail attempt; an accidentally fired gun; and a murder charge against the dead man’s unhappy wife (Ann Dvorak). Now, a guilt-ridden Bruce needs to coax her husband into taking on the case and giving up their long delayed European holiday. It’s a decent, if familiar, set-up, and there’s some nifty Agatha Christie-style twists in the final courtroom scenes. But the pathological accents needed to make Lee Bowman’s suave blackmailer a real threat are missing. Or rather, they’re given to Rita Johnson, the rich bitch Pidgeon defends in the opening reels. Her stalking routine, which Bruce misreads as a two-way affair, is the most interesting thing in here. (Johnson & Pidgeon co-starred that same year in Jacques Tourneur’s NICK CARTER.) Here, under the paceless megging of supporting actor turned journeyman director Leslie Fenton, even the normally vivid Ann Dvorak barely registers.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original SCARFACE/’32 keeps Dvorak’s name fitfully alive, but try THREE ON A MATCH/’32, alongside Bette Davis & Joan Blondell, to see her at her best.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A TORINOI LO / THE TURIN HORSE (2011)

Turns out Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA wasn’t the only apocalypse fable playing the Film Fests of 2011. Bela Tarr, that ‘long-take’ Hungarian master, toured the circuit with one last film, wrapping things up not with a Trier Bang, but with a haunting whimper. Unlike Trier, a film natural who plays Provocateur Without A Cause, Tarr can’t take his hard won talent lightly. Yet he can misdirect us. This film, with its equine title and opening quote about ‘the horse of Turin,’ a beaten beast whose fate supposedly broke the spirit of the philosopher Nietzsche, points at Robert Bresson’s famous, if little seen, AU HAZARD BALTHAZAR/’66, a film about an over-worked donkey. Particularly so in Tarr’s opening shot, a tour-de-force seven-minute take where a hard-working horse is driven home thru gale force winds. As things turn out, it’s not so much the horse as the world that’s on its last legs. An aging farmer and his uncomplaining daughter, their land and properties in serious decline, guide us thru a dismaying daily routine as the world closes down and the winds pick up. Wind so strong, even an attempt to leave is quickly foiled. They can’t go on; they go on. It’s a rural landscape out of Samuel Beckett, though without the grim fatalistic humor of ENDGAME or GODOT. And yet, you become so caught up in the relentless, droning pace and tiny shifts of perception that depression, acceptance and potatoes become things of wonder. An amazing work; amazing to look at, too.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Tarr’s technically baffling long takes (a mere 30 shots over two-and-a-half hours) may be the key to his early retirement. With world cinema moving from film exposure to digital registration, Tarr would no longer be limited by the standard ten minute roll of film stock. Quit now, or lose your mind with the limitless capacity of digital downloading.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a narrative-driven melodrama about living with never-ending gale storms, try Victor Sjöström’s THE WIND/’28, a magnificent late silent vehicle for Lillian Gish.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)

The 2012 restoration of YELLOW SUBMARINE clarifies & intensifies the whole look of this famous animated BEATLES song-fest; it’s now more hideous than ever. There’s always been a lot of affection toward this film, and with all those great Beatles songs, why not? But does anyone actually like it? It’s the sort of Magical Mystery Mystical Mush that played into the idea of the Fab Four as wholesomely dopey; G-Rated fare that drove many a British Invasion groupie into camp Rolling Stones. The garish Peter Max color palette and limited animation techniques work better in short form (the two-minute trailer satiates) and when the Blue Meanies turn PepperLand into a monochromatic still-life, it’s an æsthetic improvement. (Looking on the brighter side, the photo-montage 'Eleanor Rigby' piece has a handsomely distressed appeal, and a couple of gags - Ringo’s ‘hole in his pocket;’ John’s ‘G-L-O-V-E’ ciggie - hit home.) But when The Beatles sing the world back to a full pigmentation, you’re still stuck with a couple of uninspired new tunes and too much verbal whimsy with that doppelgänger band. Best skip to the end to watch the boys goof about as themselves in non-animated form.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: At it’s core, YELLOW SUBMARINE is awfully SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. If, like many a mainstream critic, you find PEPPER the Greatest of all Rock & Roll Albums, this pic’s for you. But if, off the top of your head, you’d pull out five or six other BEATLES LPs to put on the turntable first, you may be less taken.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: An old animated short by Rudolf Isling & Hugh Harman tells a decidedly similar tale, right down to the color desaturation bit. Damned if I can think of the title. Meantime, Dave Fleischer’s MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN/’41 (aka HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN) also has a lot in common; is sadly underappreciated; and is a huge improvement over Fleischer’s far better known GULLIVER’S TRAVELS/’39. Just beware of the many lousy Public Domain editions, look for the ‘official’ DVD from Republic Pictures.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

HUEVOS DE ORO / GOLDEN BALLS (1993)

The French title (as per our poster) gets this just right. Bigas Luna’s follow up to the better-known JAMON JAMON/’92 is a sort of Spanish RAKE’S PROGRESS, a morality fable from the ‘boom’ years, with the young Javier Bardem (24 at the time) charting a fast-rise/fast-fall path after losing a youthful love to his best pal.* After this disappointment, Bardem cons & screws his way to the top with a skyscraper project, pimping his girl to snare an investor or marrying a near stranger for a co-signed loan. But when the facade crumbles, purgatory may turn up as a Miami ranch house, where the coffee is weak & the gardener (Benicio Del Toro) has bedroom eyes. As helmer, Luna shows a smooth technique and keeps the pace up, hardly slowing down for all the sex & orgasms; if only he didn’t push his cast to tear the screen to tatters. The men seem out to win the Anthony Quinn Indicative Acting Honorarium, and the gorgeous women have to accept degradations only a male writer could believe in. The film stuffs us with a whole Menú del día when a small tapas or two would have sufficed.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *That handsome pal is Alessandro Gassman, son of Vittorio Gassman which means that Shelley Winters was his step-mom. Yikes!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

MICKI & MAUDE (1984)

This Blake Edwards’ pic, from a wickedly sly original script by Jonathan Reynolds, is a sunny, L.A. vamp on French farce, the ones where the randy married man mistakenly makes two assignations for the same night at the Hotel Tryst, then spends most of Act Three running back & forth between two desirable women. (Substitute food for sex, swap the inn for a restaurant and you’ve got a classic Sit-Com episode.) Here, the man who loves two women is Dudley Moore, a news-feature reporter married to powerhouse Ann Reinking, and slipping into an affair with ‘cellist Amy Irving. Suddenly, after years of baby-lust, he’s got two pregnant gals on his hands . . . and he's married to both. Edwards manages not only to make the whole thing hilarious & believable, but to play two-thirds of the film in comic crisis mode without exhausting the possibilities for fun . . . or us. Pauses for breath come in a series of brilliant scenes played in long-take two-shots between Moore & his producer (the hilariously sensible Richard Mulligan) which may look realistic, but are shot in a subtly stylized manner typical of Edwards at his best. Look for one halfway thru where Moore & Mulligan play straight out at us for what must be a five or six minute take. Without these ‘calms between the storms,’ all the set pieces of Edwards’ patented elegant slapstick, airily caught by lenser Harry Stradling, Jr., would never take off. And the last of them, the inevitable double birth labor sequence, is as funny as anything in the Edwards canon.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Except for his underrated spy drama, THE TAMARIND SEED/’74, with music from JAMES BOND regular John Barry, Edwards had been partnered with music man Henry Mancini as far back as tv’s PETER GUNN/’58. So, it’s surprising to see Lee Holdridge as composer here, especially since Mancini did Edwards’ pics before & after. Odd. Maybe Blake had mistakenly scheduled two composers in for the same studio time?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

IMPORT/EXPORT (2007)

Ulrich Seidl’s bleak, but grimly fascinating feature follows a young Ukrainian female nurse who heads WEST in search of work and, similarly, a marginally employed young male Austrian heading EAST on dead-end service jobs. Their paths cross symbolically, but the real meeting point is in a shared sense of despair in the new Euro have-not culture. Shot in documentary style with a mostly non-pro cast, Seidl seems to shoot in an artless manner, with a fair amount of painfully unerotic explicit sex, but it doesn’t take long to notice the compositional touches, especially the white-on-white palette and his taste for still-life tableaux. The young nurse receives the more sympathetic treatment since she’s all but forced on her journey after months of half-wages, leaving her child with her mother. After a failed, and nearly comic, attempt at the phone/internet sex-trade, she winds up on the cleaning staff at a miserable government old-age home in Austria. But the film reaches its peak (if that’s the word for it) on the young man’s route, bringing coin-operated machines into a slowly emerging East that’s still weighed down by Soviet-Bloc style living conditions and economics. Here, in a large tenement complex of Roma (Gypsies), life has devolved into one of Dante’s hellish circles. There’s only one traditional story beat in the whole film, naturally it involves death, but the situation is plenty compelling without them.

Monday, May 6, 2013

L'ESPION / THE DEFECTOR (1966)

Montgomery Clift’s last film is usually written off as a low-budget test-run made solely to prove he was up for mainstream Hollywood work after four years off the screen.* But it holds surprising interest on its own. Its director, Raoul Lévy, a leading Nouvelle Vague producer on a rare helming gig, was aiming for a New Wave SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/’65 type of espionage thriller. But the Cold War/ East German intrigue cheats on its scorecard with professional spies, amateur spies & innocent dupes inconsistently switching teams with no explanation. And Lévy doesn’t appear especially gifted at keeping things straight behind the camera. Happily, the basic look of the film, marvelously caught by New Wave lenser Raoul Coutard, supplies a compelling atmosphere even when things don’t quite add up. Clift is game, but looks terribly frail, as if fresh out of a Concentration Camp, a backstory idea that might well have been followed up. It gives his stuntwork an extra edge of danger. The rest of the cast does well with their half-formed characters. Hardy Krüger is a lot like Oskar Werner’s character in SPY and Roddy McDowall is smooth, smooth, smooth as Clift’s secret handler. But the real treat comes when David Opatoshu’s Soviet spy-master greets an uncredited Jean-Luc Godard with a big Russian-style kiss on the lips. (And you thought Godard was a Maoist at the time.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The film Clift hoped to make was John Huston’s REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE/’67, but he died just months after completing this. Marlon Brando took over to startling effect. Then, a few months after Clift died, director Lévy committed suicide. And the film? It never received a proper Stateside distribution. (Note the title on the poster, THE DESERTOR.)

DOUBLE-BILL: The obvious choice is THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Even better, try Hitchcock’s failed espionage thriller from the same year, TORN CURTAIN/'66, which is loaded with strikingly similar story elements.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

LET US BE GAY (1930)

This once popular Rachel Crothers play must have been catnip for actresses back when big theatrical stars still toured. Les grande dames (say Kit Cornell or Gertrude Lawrence) could slum thru the prologue as a drab little thing who smothers her husband with too much love before kicking the bum out after a surprise visit from the horrid mistress he’s been screwing. Three years later, our little brown wren has gone glam, a much desired divorcée who sets men a’twitter . . . even her own Ex. Norma Shearer was in the middle of her ‘daring modern women’ phase when she made this, with a characterization & character arc she’d largely repeat in THE WOMEN/’39, and she’s pretty insufferable in both. In the prologue, she’s as awkward as the Early Talkie technology, which lends a touching quality, and remarkably lovely sans make-up. (A stunt still popular among glamor media gals today.) But once she becomes a fascinatrix, she’s insufferable, adding a little laugh or two on every single line. As the eccentric hostess who’s having people in for a wknd of flirtation, Marie Dressler gives the sort of grotesquely over-scaled perf only a great talent can sink to. She’ll get her laughs or clobber you. Everyone else is veddy, veddy Mid-Atlantic in manner & accent, treading water as the early Talkie machinery slowly churns around them. Only Rod La Rocque, as the errant husband (a role played on B’way by William Warren), comes off as human. Well, Rod and a gorgeous little baby in the prologue, an uncredited Dickie Moore, still around today & married to Jane Powell. For the record, Robert Z. Leonard is listed as producer, but actually directed while Shearer’s husband, Irving Thalberg, produced without taking credit. But you can spot many a retake & insert he insisted upon, killing whatever rhythm the film might have had with mismatched shots. 

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Norma Shearer’s rep has never quite recovered from all her noble suffering, and from being over-parted in the classy theater adaptations Thalberg thought suited her. But she's a positive revelation working under Lubitsch in THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27; getting slapped by sexy, young Clark Gable in A FREE SOUL/’31; and she almost manages the high comedy of PRIVATE LIVES/’31 . . . if you can deal with those gay little laughs.

Friday, May 3, 2013

BLACK FRIDAY (1940)

There’s a decidedly lunatic edge to this Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi vehicle. It’s a variation on the old HANDS OF ORLAC story (filmed in ‘26; ‘60; and as MAD LOVE in ‘35 for Peter Lorre), the one about the concert pianist who loses his hands in a train wreck, then gets new hands grafted on . . . the hands of a murderer! And damned if those digits don’t have an evil mind of their own. Yikes! Here, scripter Kurt (Curt) Siodmak has Stanley Ridges’ sweet-natured English professor sustain a brain injury. Lucky for him, his old medical pal Boris Karloff is around to transfer an available brain into his friend’s cranium. But it’s the brain of the man who ploughed into the good professor; and the guy is still alive!; but paralyzed so he can’t put up much of a fight. Double Yikes! Too bad he just happens to be a vicious gangster wanted on multiple murder charges. Triple Yikes! So, is it any wonder that Karloff is shocked, shocked when his sweet old friend starts acting like . . . a gangster! All he did was implant the brain of a gangster. Who’da thunk it? This delightful nonsense is given a pretty stylish treatment (for Universal) by Arthur Lubin, and Stanley Ridges has a grand time going all Jekyll & Hyde as the gangster/prof. Alas, this leaves poor Bela with a lousy supporting role as one of the rival gangsters. If you missed the credits, you might think it was Oskar Homolka playing the part. (Best guess is that Lugosi was set to play the Karloff doctor role, before some last minute casting changes.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Arthur Lubin helmed some stiff prestige items @ Universal (like their big TechniColor PHANTOM OF THE OPERA remake/’43), before getting stuck with Talking Mules & Horses in the FRANCIS Series and MISTER ED. But buried in his CV is IMPACT/’49, a nifty budget noir with a swell cast for an indie pic (Brian Donlevy, Charles Coburn, Ella Raines, Anna May Wong) and a twisty plot with a Got’cha coming/Got’cha going femme fatale not far off the Gene Tierney model in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN/’45. (IMAGE has the best available DVD.)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A LATE QUARTET (2012)

In the movies, opera audiences are all dressed-up swells; subscribers snore away at the Philharmonic; divas are all fat; and chamber music concerts are somber affairs played by & for dour intellectuals who’ve never tried a Bud Lite. It’s nonsense, but Yaron Zilberman’s debut feature buys right into the myth. (Or maybe he’s buying into the myth of late Ingmar Bergman: SCENES FROM A STRING QUARTET?) Here, four classical musicians discover long pasted over personality fissures starting to crack open when their eldest member (‘cellist Christopher Walken) puts in for retirement after learning he has early stage Parkinson’s. After that revelation, every scene is so overwrought with incestuous/internecine ramifications (affairs, professional rivalries, playing standards, perfectionism vs. artistic freedom) that the only possible way to handle it would be as a comedy. Alas, Zilberman hasn’t the faintest sense of humor (more Noah Baumbach than Woody Allen), piling on so much angst you dread the start of each new scene. At least, Walken gets a nice moment telling tales on Pablo Casals to a class of string students; there’s brief relief on a Frick Museum visit; and a teeny bit of fun when the trembly daughter of the group’s second violin & violist (Philip Seymore Hoffman & Catherine Keener) offers up a fast analysis of the four quartet members that’s exactly like Charlton Heston going on about his four chariot stallions in BEN-HUR/’59.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Most films get uptight & stuffy when classical music enters as plot, but Bernard Herrmann in HANGOVER SQUARE/’45 (with a mini-piano concerto) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (with a mini-‘cello concerto) in DECEPTION/’46 never got sniffy about melodrama.

CONTEST: Speaking of Korngold . . . in a brief appearance, the great mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie Van Otter (playing Walken’s late wife) is seen & heard in a brief operatic excerpt. First heard in 1920, her aria is closely connected to Hollywood not only thru its composer, but also thru that opera’s plot which closely mirrors a famous film. Name the opera and its doppelgänger film to win a MAKSQUIBS DVD Write-Up of your choosing.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

THE BLACK CAT (1934); THE RAVEN (1935)

These two co-starring vehicles for Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi, each ‘suggested’ by an Edgar Allen Poe story, are a lot alike: slow-moving fright-fests featuring mad doctors out for revenge, with victims trapped in some isolated setting on a dark & stormy night. Yet, they feel utterly different. RAVEN gives real attention to its storyline, nonsense about Lugosi’s retired doctor with a fixation on Poe and his last lovely patient. Enter Karloff, a villain by trade & looks, he's his unwilling henchman, selling obedience for an operation that will improve him inside and out. Instead, Lugosi turns him into a monster. (The make-up might be a trial run for Quasimodo.) Louis Friedlander (aka Lew Landers) brings a modicum of style & a rising pace for a climax loaded with Poe-inspired torture devices. It gets the job done.   Things move differently in the decidedly odd, architecturally splendid world of THE BLACK CAT. Here, only the decor needs to make sense. Plot points & characters wander around under a moody atmosphere of Bauhaus designs as Lugosi’s ‘good’ doctor seeks revenge against Karloff for past deeds. He finds a horror house of satanic rites, embalmed damsels (including his late wife) and the daughter he thought he had lost after the last war. All while a couple of clueless newlyweds claim medical attention after a road accident. (And it’s almost the same road accident that begins the other pic!) The director here was Edgar G. Ulmer, that eccentric master of zero-budget miracles & oddities in his sole major studio project, ignoring the conventional niceties of narrative cinema to concentrate on the physicality of his sets, decor (those table lamps!) & architectural details. It may be the least sensible of all the Universal horror classics. Yet, it’s also indispensable, and loaded with priceless dialogue --

Honeymooning Hubby: Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.
Lugosi: Supernatural, perhaps; . . . baloney, perhaps not.

DOUBLE-BILL:  Hey, this post already is a Double-Bill! 

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Particularly in BLACK CAT, nothing seems designed to add up, even the music suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, constantly morphing from one classical favorite to another: Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert & faux-Tchaikovsky, just another element to go ‘bump in the night.’ Too bad music arranger, Heinz Roemheld, hadn’t the balls (or the ‘rights’ budget) to use only Second Viennese School classics.