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Sunday, June 30, 2013

KILLER JOE (2011)

Now in his late 70s, this film is a likely end of the line for director William Friedkin. It also feels like an end of the line for all the Neo-Noirs made after the Coen Brothers’ BLOOD SIMPLE/’84 displaced old-school noir revival pics like BODY HEAT/’81 . . . but it’s probably not. Here, the story is one of those triple-cross murder-for-hire tales where a debt-ridden, thick-headed slacker botches up an easy-money inheritance plan; with a rumbling undertow of violence that erupts for a bloody climax. Adapted from a 1990 play by scripter Tracy Letts, it must have felt fresher on stage at the time. Friedkin works hard to jazz up his presentation, and, with the exception of Juno Temple as a thick-tongued virginal temptation for Matthew McConaughey’s unyielding hitman, he pulls out some smart perfs from his cast. Especially Thomas Haden Church, who finds his own rhythm & a laid-back wit to show how this cuckold crumbles. But Friedkin won't live within the limits of the material, asking lenser Caleb Deschanel to dazzle us with every shot, which only makes the basic material look as threadbare as the trailer-park furniture these lowlifes collapse on.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Sidney Lumet’s last pic, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD/’07, was also a Neo-Noir, and a darn tasty one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: McConaughey got the easy showy role and the money reviews on this one. But he sure was gosh-all-mighty careful about what he showed! Watch his big back-side scene. Has anyone ever stood quite so awkwardly nude to keep from going frontal. What a tease.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: After his seriously underrated SORCERER/’77 tanked with audiences & critics, Friedkin never regained the striking audience rapport he’d found on THE FRENCH CONNECTION/’71 and THE EXORCIST/’73. He’s been chasing that lost connection ever since, a poster boy for not trusting your own instincts. His new auto-bio, THE FRIEDKIN CONNECTION, seems fitfully aware of the problem.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

JIMMY THE GENT (1934)

This dandy James Cagney comedy is so darn entertaining, you don’t want to write it up, you just want to write snappy ad-copy. Jimmy is Fast, Furious & Funny as a mug who hooks up phony ‘heirs’ with unclaimed fortunes. Bette Davis, in one her best early roles, gives as good as she gets as an ex-assistant who decamped for a classier firm. (Platinum blonde here, Bette’s quite the dish once they figure out her hair.) Her new boss (Alan Dinehart) is also hilarious, suavely pawing Davis between tea breaks. Plus, a gaggle of tasty Warners regulars to play the grieving chiselers & wiseguys, with Allen Jenkins getting the best gags as Cagney’s chief stooge. Michael Curtiz slams his way thru in a neat 67 minutes and doesn’t put a foot (or a camera) wrong. And he manages this breathless pace without dropping a gag, plot reversal or character bit, all without a speck of background score to help move things along. The main event has Cagney locating the real heir to a mystery fortune, but forced to finagle since the ‘lucky’ heir is hiding out on a murder charge. For a change, the screwy plot mechanics really add up, but it’s the push-and-pull squabbling of Davis & Cagney that gives this that something extra. Makes you wanna go to the movies!

DOUBLE-BILL: When Davis hit the heights with MARKED WOMAN/’37, one Warners exec called her the female Cagney. But Warners didn’t like using their top two assets on the same project, so their only other film together was THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D./’41, a coarse comedy they plow their way thru. The big drama they didn’t share was 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING/’32. Cagney was in the middle of a contract dispute, so the part went to Spencer Tracy on loan-out; the only time those two were paired.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This was released just months before the Hollywood Production Code clamped down. So, we still get dialogue like this - CAGNEY to Golddigger: Look baby, what would you do for 500 bucks? GOLDDIGGER: Umm, I’d do my best!

Friday, June 28, 2013

PRO URODOV I LYUDEY / OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

The late Russian writer/director Aleksey Balabanov sets this strange, bewitching, ultimately confounding story of corruption, dependence & pornography in a sepia shrouded Pre-Revolution St. Petersburg. It’s really an amoral cautionary tale about society’s illicit desires. A doctor whose blind wife ignores him, preferring to coach the singing boy-soprano Siamese twins he adopted as infants. A widowed engineer with a bad heart who finds chaste love and an executor for his estate in his housemaid, leaving his grown daughter under the servant’s financial protection. The secret brother of the housemaid, a serial pornographer who specializes in S&M-lite, with elderly spankers who whip the naked bottoms of delectable young ladies. A list of bums soon to include the blind wife and the engineer’s orphaned daughter. It’s an unlikely group, yet Balabanov turns the oddest episodes into sexual mind-game roundelays with alternating upper-hands and, eventually, absurd tragedies as endgame. Balabanov steers us thru these dreamlike destinies with a master’s control of pacing , composition and silent-film grammar, memorable and inexplicable. Balabanov, only 54 at his recent death, is best known for violent films about crime in modern Russia, but this might prove a better entry point for many.

DOUBLE-BILL: David Cronenberg’s Freud/Jung bio-pic, A DANGEROUS METHOD/’11, didn’t quite work. (Keira Knightley is quite the stumbling block.) But its concerns and obsessions might look clearer after this.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

ABOVE SUSPICION (1943)

After 18 years & nearly 50 pics, this was Joan Crawford’s M-G-M swansong . . . and it’s not bad at all. A sort of sub-Hitchcockian edge-of-WWII adventure for Joan & Fred MacMurray, honeymooners pressed into a bit of espionage for the Brits. Hitchcock had gone down this path himself to tremendous effect on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT/’40, but this script looks to his British films, cherry picking from THE 39 STEPS/’35; THE LADY VANISHES/’38 and especially THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’34. (They actually steal the concert hall assassination, tossing aside half the suspense by explaining the plan post-event.) House megger Richard Thorpe had his gifts and here he seems to wake up about a third of the way in, with a major assist from lenser Robert Planck who gets some real texture into his shots and keeps Crawford from looking like a mannequin. He even finds some glam in MacMurray’s square jaw. (Then Fred uses that jaw to sing a Schubert lied!) Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen & a surprising Conrad Veidt bring solid support to a film which, on its own terms, works pretty well. Still, it’s a bit of a downer to see the sometimes off-puttingly intense Crawford pared down to companion status. Two years on, MILDRED PIERCE/’45 would come to the rescue.

DOUBLE-BILL: Silly as this one is, it’s much better than Leo McCarey’s similar, decidedly odd, ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON/’42, a big Cary Grant/Ginger Rodgers vehicle which probably sped this into production. Instead, try Gregory Ratoff’s clever indie, PARIS UNDERGROUND/’45 with Constance Bennett. That gal gets in & out of trouble all on her own.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)

Ever since those cobbling elves did a bit of overnight work for that struggling shoemaker, toys, pets & even plants have been leading busy, double-lives after the lights go out. Now, we’ve got video games mixing it up after the arcade closes for the night. Where screen characters from different machines (made in different eras) visit neighboring machines that run with different programs & rapidly evolving levels of digital sophistication. It’s a heckuva clever idea for a computer animated pic, and whenever WRECK-IT RALPH sticks to this conceit, it’s a treat to watch. The glitch is that co-scripter/director Rich Moore brings a tv sensibility to the package and won’t stick to his program. Bouncing around three or four games, we never get bearings on how the various electronic characters in each machine should behave, so when interlopers clash with the electronic natives, any consequences are nothing more than random zaps or harmless explosions. GAME OVER/RESET makes for a pretty inconsequential happy ending. The main story involves Ralph, the trash & bash villain of FIX-IT-FELIX. His quest to just once be the good guy has him seeking glory at other arcade console games which puts him in danger while leaving his own game Out-of-Order. If anything, the story has too much going on, and the many references to other kiddie classics leaves this one with an unsatisfying magpie quality. (THE WIZARD OF OZ/’39, gets a particular workout at the SUGAR RUSH console, though, in deference to Uncle Walt, the villainous King Candy in this Disney production is more loony Ed Wynn than stuttering Frank Morgan.) Jack McBrayer is just about perfect as the voice of that goodie two-shoes, Fix-It-Felix, but the rest of the starry vocal cast overdose on one-note characterizations. Happily, the last act stays with SUGAR RUSH long enough for us to get a feel for its design, which does wonders for increasing the participation factor. But this is one of those films where you keep thinking how much better it could be.

DOUBLE-BILL: Don’t miss the DVD’s Bonus Short, PAPERMAN/’12, last year’s Oscar® winner for Best Animated Short. A gorgeous b&w (with color accents) big city romantic fable about a chance meetings, skyscrapers and a blizzard’s worth of paper airplanes.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A STOLEN LIFE (1946); DEAD RINGER (1964)

Bette Davis had two shots at playing good twin/bad twin. First, near the end of her glory years (1937-‘46) in A STOLEN LIFE; and again, at the start of her gory years, soon after she relaunched herself with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?/’62. The earlier film is a first-class production, as shy Bette falls for Glenn Ford’s young dreamer only to watch helplessly as her more assertive twin sister moves in, marries the boy, then makes Ford over into a miserable go-getter. The film holds back coyly (much like Bette #1) before finally letting us meet the twin sister, but when they do, director Curtis Bernhardt & the Warners tech department make a swell job of it. Lots of cutting-edge trick shots for the two Bettes, with crosses & various overlapping bits. It‘s still impressive stuff. Even more fun is Dane Clark as the angry-young-artist type who almost makes ‘Nice Bette’ into a ‘real woman.’ This underappreciated vet out of NYC’s Group Theatre, combines the showiest aspects of fellow Group Alumni John Garfield & Elia Kazan in this neat supporting turn and all but steals the pic. Too bad Bette only has eyes for Ford. In the second film, the twin sisters haven’t seen each other in 18 years, as if one film were picking up from the last in real time. And the storyline does play out like an alternate take on the same set-up, but this pinch-penny production looks like episodic tv. The trick shots are front-loaded in this story, and much less effective, mostly static two-shots & stand-in doubles seen from the back. Disappointing stuff, only made worse by the airless megging by Paul Henreid, Davis’s old co-star from NOW, VOYAGER/’42. As 'Nice' Bette’s detective boyfriend, Karl Malden shouts half his lines and Peter Lawford looks much the worse for wear as 'Bad' Bette’s lover. Yet, the film is almost as much fun as STOLEN LIFE. Maybe because things happen accidentally in the first film while everything here is pure pre-meditated malice. Davis must have been in hog heaven; suddenly finding herself big box-office again, with two schlock tour-de-force roles where she only had to lose the girdle to find her character as the nice, dumpy twin; then put on the corset, heels & some good make-up for the rich bitch. Quite the comeback after playing grandmotherly Apple Annie to Glenn Ford’s dapper Dave the Dude in POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES just three years before.

DOUBLE-BILL: While you’ve got your Double-Bill right here, a sweet addition would be the original British version of A STOLEN LIFE/’39. It might be a stinker since the reliably underwhelming Paul Czinner directs his wife, Elizabeth Bergner, along with Michael Redgrave & Wilfrid Lawson. But until it becomes available, we’ll never know. Till then, check out this rare French poster.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

HOLD YOUR MAN (1933)

M-G-M moved fast after the huge response to Victor Fleming’s RED DUST/’32, quickly following up with this more modest, but equally irresistible Jean Harlow/Clark Gable vehicle. Scripter Anita Loos loads on Pre-Code attitude right from the start (the ‘meet-cute’ occurs in a bathtub) and then manages an even tougher trick, swerving from racy comedy into sentimental melodrama without seeming to change gears. The story is really tied to Gable’s redemption thru love as a two-bit con-man who surprises himself by falling hard for Harlow, his partner in petty crime. Then, just when he’s planning to make ‘an honest woman’ out of her, his lucky streak runs out. Sam Wood’s helming has unexpected zip, and there’s plenty of moxie in the supporting players, street mugs for Gable and, later, tough, funny broads when Harlow goes to prison. Heck, even dull Stuart Erwin shines as Harlow’s butter-and-egg man. But this one’s mainly the Jean Harlow/Clark Gable show. With youthful sheen & an endearingly cheap haircut, Gable is both period charmer & a contemporary knock-out. Harlow, at least for modern audiences, is so stylized, she’s something of an acquired taste. Don’t fret, when Loos writes the dialogue, it’s acquired in about five minutes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Watch enough of these ‘30 pics and you’ll discover that one of the few racially integrated ‘work’ settings were prisons. For some reason, in the male facilities, the black convicts were still stereotyped (sympathetically treated, but patronized ‘Darkies’) while female black convicts, as seen here, are played in a manner much closer to their white counterparts. But you can still test your racial sensitivity during a rousing prison rendition of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, where they edit in gag shots of an Asian & a Jewish inmate lustily joining in.

Friday, June 21, 2013

ROMA CITTA LIBERA (1946)

Originally titled LA NOTTE PORTA CONSIGLIO, this was opportunistically rechristened ROMA CITTÁ LIBERA with hopes of riding on the backdraft of the burgeoning international success of Roberto Rossellini’s Neo-Realist ROMA, CITTÁ APERTA/’45. But, while the film was shot on real back street locations, revealing Rome’s hidden underbelly, stylistically, there’s little ‘Neo’ and not much ‘Realism’ going on in this post-war ensemble piece. Instead, under the glossy gaze of Aldo Tonti’s slick noir lensing (the best thing in the movie), we follow the ironic trail that a pair of stolen pearl necklaces take as they get traded, mislaid & even re-stolen over the course of a long Rome evening. Interlaced vignettes showcase the life of a soft-hearted second-story man; a suicidal romantic loner; a typist who’s behind in her rent; a few cast-off lovers & crooks; a lovelorn American soldier boy; and an amnesiac politician who all come in contact with the wandering pearls. In theory, the story anticipates Max Ophüls LA RONDE/’50 and THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE . . ./’53), but in practice the film is a silly bit of fluff that advances its storyline thru coincidence & sentimental flourishes. (Though, speaking of coincidence, it does feature Vittorio De Sica, later one of the stars of EARRINGS. Here looking more like Charlie Chaplin than ever; click on our poster, he's the grey-haired man in the center.) Marcello Pagiero, who played a partisan in OPEN CITY, directs, keeping his fine cast moving forward. But there are just too many holes in the story for it to hold water . . . in any style.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Composer Nino Rota, not one to let a good musical theme go to waste, repurposed much of this score for Fellini’s I VITELLONI/’53.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

SCHASTYE MOE / MY JOY (2007)

Sergei Loznitsa moved over from documentaries to features with this ironically titled, over-praised Road Pic, a wintry journey into the Ukrainian heart-of-darkness. The film starts out in a recognizable fashion as a young truck driver heads out and meets a few eccentric types (deranged war vet; teenage hooker) before heading off into uncharted territory in an idiotic attempt to avoid a traffic tie-up. Hopelessly lost, he encounters villains on all fronts, from savage roaming thieves to uniformed thugs, before disappearing from the narrative. So much for our näif Candide. By now, Loznitsa has tossed in a few flashbacks to WWII era atrocities, presumably to show how little mankind has changed, before piling on new cases of human misery, climaxing in a violent epiphany that feels forced, caged off an old nihilist’s bucket-list. Oddly, the film has little documentary flavor to it, even during the long drives to nowhere. Perhaps Loznitsa is going thru a molting stage for better things to come. His latest, a WWII story called IN THE FOG/’12, has been well-received. But then, so was this.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a more persuasive view of Russian backwater towns & attitudes, try Andrey Zvagintsev’s stunning family drama/thriller THE RETURN/’03.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

LUO YE GUI GEN / GETTING HOME (2007)

The recent film from writer/director Yang Zhang can’t match the warmth, emotion & humanistic humor of SHOWER/’99, one of the great Father & Sons films, but that’s no reason to miss this charmer. Something of a tall tale, it’s a Road Pic, steeped in pitch-black humor, about a middle-aged construction worker who drags his best pal across much of China trying to get the guy home. The gimmick is that the ‘pal’ is dead, a corpse heading home one last time for a proper family burial . . . if they make it. Propped up on a bus bench or seated at a diner, rolled along the highway inside a tractor tire or draped over his friend’s back, the gags and set pieces are as old as the hills they pass. ‘Grieving’ at a stranger’s funeral just to get a meal; finding the only honorable guy on the bus is the hold-up man; a comical suicide attempt; the kindness of strangers & the cons that leave you flat broke. There’s a certain comfort in watching these old tropes getting aired out in such an alien culture, it freshens them up. It’s true that as the small incidents pile up, things get too convenient (just to keep the plot moving) and sentimental, problems not seen in SHOWER, but Zhang doesn’t try to hide his manipulations, playing them straight, which helps take the curse off. And he’s worked up a swell, fact-based twist ending that gets us out without having to wrap things up too neatly.

DOUBLE-BILL: Of course, SHOWER is what you’ll want to see. But this long trek home also brought Harry Langdon’s silent classic TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP/’26 to mind.

Monday, June 17, 2013

THE MAGIC FLUTE / DIE ZAUBERFLOTE (1975)

While the past two decades have seen a revolution in both Opera-on-Film and in capturing Live Opera Performance, nothing has yet to approach this enchantment. Ingmar Bergman filmed his adaptation of Mozart’s MAGIC FLUTE as if you were watching (and occasionally inside) a period staging. And, unlike many other versions, Bergman never puts his ideas in competition against Mozart. With unerring shot placements, Bergman can't put a foot wrong, a real pleasure next to the catch-as-catch-can ‘live captures.’ Made on a small budget for Swedish Television (hence the 1.33:1 aspect ratio), Sven Nykvist belies the limitations of shooting with a 16mm negative, finding a rich, detailed palette that easily accommodates the story’s quick mood changes. And there’s a lot of them since the story makes a still fascinating pivot about halfway thru when steadfast Tamino, on a mission to rescue Pamina for the Queen of the Night, discovers he’s working for the bad guys . . .er, girls. Bergman clarifies the story by identifying the noble ruler Sarastro as Pamina’s father, but otherwise sticks closely to the original (trimmed) libretto. Only two of the singers (the opera is sung in a pleasing Swedish) had international careers, Ragnar Ulfung, the threatening Monostatos, and a wonderful Håkan Hagegård, in a staggeringly successful charm-offensive as the Papageno of your dreams. But everyone, holding largely to a conversational tone, is lovingly cast, none more so than the three boy-soprano genii. Talk about an enchantment!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: The Criterion edition is from 2000 and could certainly use an upgrade. Taken from a 35mm transfer print, there’s more ‘crackle’ then you expect and even two of three visible tears, though the basic color density seems about right. Surely a restoration from the original 16mm negative would improve things? (Come on Swedish tv, get in those archives!) And hopefully, when the inevitable Blu-Ray does come along, they’ll remember to ‘stage’ the placement of the subtitles to match Bergman’s endearing use of placards for some of the catchy aphorisms.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: How many catchy tunes is one singspiel allowed to have?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

THE MASTER (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s much anticipated THE MASTER was the film of 2012 . . . until it wasn’t. Anderson, here on his 6th film as writer/director, hasn’t been able to wrap things up in a satisfying way since his first, HARD EIGHT, back in ‘96. Now he seems unable to get things going. This one tags along as a great American cult is established, a sort of near-SCIENTOLOGY racket dubbed THE CAUSE, with quasi-religious aspects dictated off-the-cuff by Philip Seymore Hoffman as its mesmerizing self-help guru. Struggling to increase on a small band of family & believers, it initially welcomes Joaquin Phoenix’s drifter, a haunted mystery of a man, damaged goods after his WWII service. But Anderson comes up empty on the only two questions that matter: what do the putative converts see in Hoffman, and likewise, what is it Hoffman sees in Phoenix’s aging wild child? Anderson seems unconcerned, too caught up in his cosmic compositions and empty grandiosity to bother with motivation or believability.* Dramatically, we might as well be cult scoffers. Amy Adams turns in a very good perf as the scarily calm wife of the prophet. But Hoffman is a bust, completely (and completely unexpectedly) uncompelling. Phoenix, looking a good decade too old for his role, is weirdly reminiscent of Montgomery Clift here. Alas, it’s the Clift of RAINTREE COUNTY/’57, possibly his worst perf. (And there’s little question Anderson spotted it, too. Check out the camera angle he used for Phoenix’s big confrontation scene with Hoffman’s son-in-law.) By story’s end, the only thing keeping Phoenix in the storyline is his billing. Have we been following the ‘wrong’ character? Is this why the film dropped out of sight?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Anderson’s just too talented not to stick with. But he’s repeatedly fallen into the pit of unearned monumentality; aka Michael Cimino-itis. A current, Euro-fed trend has lifted the rep of Cimino’s infamous, career destroying flop, HEAVEN’S GATE/’80. But you don’t need hindsight to see that the Cimino film that needs reassessment isn't GATE, but THE DEER HUNTER/’78 . . . and not up. A thought PTA might profitably chew on.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

KLOVN / KLOWN (2010)

Every country needs a Man-Child/Guys-Acting-Badly saga to call its own, ya? Here, the Danes clobber themselves with embarrassing social & physical pratfalls, as a couple of pals ‘impress’ a 12-yr-old nephew to tag along on their canoe trip to Libido-Land. Why bring the nephew? It seems that Frank, the more submissive of the two guys, hopes to show his unexpectedly pregnant ‘significant other’ that he’s loaded with ‘fatherhood potential.’ Naturally, things go badly, but there’s a surprising amount of snap to the material as the two leads (Casper Christensen & Frank Hvam, who also co-scripted) go far, far past expectations of bad/inappropriate behavior, while staying (largely) believable, (mostly) hilarious and (consistently) raunchy. (As Freud might have said, ‘Sometimes pitching a tent, is just pitching a tent . . . but not in KLOWN.’) To prime the pump, the IMAGE DVD includes a 2005 episode from the duo’s tv series, written by Lars von Trier, of all people. More than the film, it shows a slavish affinity to CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, but without the whiny quality that can wear you down. And it’s certainly no less funny for the similarity.

Friday, June 14, 2013

LES VISITEURS DU SOIR / THE DEVIL'S ENVOYS (1942)

While CHILDREN OF PARADISE/’45 holds the title as the most famous film to come out of WWII Occupied France, it only hit the screens after the German retreat. This film, the previous collaboration of helmer Marcel Carné & writer Jacques Prévert was the unlikely deluxe offering that hooked the French movie-going public while still under Vichy/Nazi rule. (Note our German Poster.) A period piece, set in the 1400s, its tale of love triumphant, even in defeat, held a timely resonance we can only guess at. No surprise that its popularity outside of France never matched the Carné/Prévert poetic-realism pics that preceded it, let alone art-house champ LES ENFANTS. Its simple story, often read as an allegory of Nazi Occupation, has the Devil sending two aids, posing as minstrels, to a court where a loveless marriage is being readied. Arletty, everyone’s favorite seductress, fascinates both the groom & the widowed father of the bride, causing misery all around. But her partner in despair-dispensation, stiffly handsome Alain Cuny, peals off the unhappy bride only to discover tru-love at last. (This pair is right out of PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE, with grace-notes from PETER IBBETSON’s ‘dream-true’ lovers.) It’s an aberration that brings forth the Devil himself in an overly ripe perf from a hammy Jules Berry. The film’s pace is dreamy (or hangs fire, depending on your mood), and the physical production remains very special indeed, thanks to a superb Book of Hours design from an uncredited Alexandre Trauner, working secretly in Free France to the south. A new Criterion DVD from 2012 shows off a stunningly clear restoration which does wonders for a film that lives or dies on texture. Check out the less pleasing old print on a fine historical EXTRA about the film production, as well as an imaginative original Trailer with a pixilated image that gives a picturebook effect.

DOUBLE-BILL: Carné, whose post-war films were less well received, tried to revisit some of the VISITEUR’s themes in his last film, LA MERVEILLEUSE VISITE/’74 where an angel drops in for an Earthly visit. The film was not a success, but perhaps makes a neat bookend.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

THE MIRACLE OF OUR LADY OF FATIMA (1952)

John Brahm, a journeyman helmer at various studios (and later tv), probably had his best run @ 20th/Fox in the mid-‘40s, giving good weight on tidy noirs like THE LODGER/’44; HANGOVER SQUARE/’45; and THE BRASHER DOUBLOON/’47. He seems an unlikely fellow for Bryan Foy (Warners ‘King of the Bs’ producer) to tap for this fact-based/faith-based story about three Portuguese kids from the sheep country, whose stubborn belief in a shared spiritual vision affects the whole country. Gilbert Roland is great as a non-believing scapegrace & surrogate uncle to the children, holding onto a nonjudgmental scepticism that helps scrape some of the piety off things. The rest of the cast (including the kids) threaten to cloy as simple, countryside types, but everyone tries to keep the Love, Faith & Charity goo to a minimum. They’re helped by lenser Edwin DuPar who gets unexpected russet tones out of the WarnerColor film stock, even when his ‘yellowed’ Old Masters interiors grow too tasteful by half. Max Steiner also got the message, largely holding back on the heavenly choruses and mostly sticking to Ave Maria variations, mainly Bach/Gounod. But you can’t wondering if the drift toward the oncoming Eisenhower era had a part in grooming this one for easy mass consumption. The story, and the immense shrine whose 1951 dedication undoubtedly jump-started production, point to some uncomfortable tests between faith & logic that need more of a response than the nuggets of wisdom we (supposedly) get from the Lady-in-the-Clouds (revealed as Mary of the Rosary). As told by the three kids, she’s all hellfire & doom, a real Old Testament scold. Meantime, the film tip-toes around the anti-clerical socialist government that ran Portugal at the time. Placing nameless generic administrators up against picturebook generic religiosity was about as far as you could go without causing controversy.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

ZHMURKI / BLIND MAN'S BLUFF / DEAD MAN'S BLUFF (2005)

DUMB & DUMBER meets PULP FICTION (or is it RESERVOIR DOGS?) in this cartoonishly violent tale of Russian mob enforcers back in the free-wheelin’ ‘90s. Helmer/writer Aleksey Balabanov hardly bothers to hide the Quentin Tarantino touches (or, if you prefer, early Guy Ritchie) as he follows a couple of comically awful Mutt & Jeff henchmen who keep blowing their latest assignment for The Boss, leaving them no option other than blowing away a series of rival thugs. The acting & situations in the first act are as coarsely delivered as a TeleMundo sit-com, but you start to notice sly bits showing up, like a long, static three-shot for a trio of lowbrow wiseguys who might be The Moscovy Three Stooges. Could there be method in the general anarchy? The main storyline follows a couple of briefcases: one of cash, one of heroin. When the money is successfully delivered, but the drugs are stolen, Mr. Boss sends his boys back to find the goods . . . or else. None of the players seem aware that the whole mix-up isn’t simple coincidence, but a grand plan, run by a police detective who’s calling in favors, hoping to clean up half his crime log as various thugs start bumping each other off. By the time the main action kicks into gruesome gear, we’ve either adjusted to the level of broad caricature or the cast have toned things down enough for us to tune in. (And a gaggle of plot twists with some of the gamesmanship of an Elmore Leonard novel also helps.) Those who hang in will be rewarded with a classic blissed-out goof-ball scene involving a punk doctor-in-training, called in after a messy game of ‘Dead Man’s Bluff’ (Russian Roulette). He thoughtfully consults his Basic Anatomy textbook before performing a painful bit of on-site emergency treatment. You have to wonder if Balabanov noticed how much this realistically amoral guy did to boost our sense of involvement?*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *We may never know since Balabanov died May 18th of this year, only 54. From this film, he seems to have been a wildly uneven/wildly exciting talent. A handful of his 16 films are available Stateside and surely worth seeking out.

Monday, June 10, 2013

SALLY OF THE SAWDUST (1925)

After a couple of ineffective shorts, W. C. Fields made his real debut in this D. W. Griffith adaptation of POPPY, the B’way hit that lofted him past his accustomed specialty spots as juggler & comic sketch man. Modern audiences need a moment to adjust to the non-vocal Fields, but it's hardly a problem for Fields who rarely spoke on stage during his international touring days. A bigger problem is that the story isn’t one of Fields’ dyspeptic knockabouts, but more a pastorale romance about his adopted daughter with accents (marvelous accents) of Fieldsian comedy, juggling and attitude. Even then, it’s still a frustrating film, largely because it so narrowly misses its potential, with Fields' routines only fleetingly glimpsed and Griffith not quite regaining the rural charm of his TRUE HEART SUSIE/’19 days. The story follows a young bride who runs away with the circus (literally); dying young and leaving her little girl to sideshow mountebank Fields. Years later, he works a carnival near what would have been the girl’s home; finds that her real grandparents have become rich, stuck-up country gentry; and decides to keep her family ties secret. But then the kid falls for the rich neighbor’s available son. As the grown up ‘daughter,’ Carol Dempster (Griffith’s try at replacing Lillian Gish) has a pleasingly goofy appeal, but can’t get much going with either Fields or with the young Alfred Lunt, playing a rather disinterested beau. True to form, Griffith tosses in a ride-to-the-rescue for his climax, and seems to be enjoying himself. With a bit of indulgence, you will, too.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Playwright Dorothy Donnelly, who wrote POPPY, had her biggest hit with operetta composer Sigmund Romberg on THE STUDENT PRINCE. Even showing up in his bio-pic (DEEP IN MY HEART/’54), played by Merle Oberon, and getting the big death scene! Griffith smartly moved the play’s setting to the present and also changed things so that Fields knew about the grandparents. (The sound remake, POPPY/’35, is also quite different.) But why didn’t anyone think of having Fields plan to fleece the family with his secret knowledge only to be held back when tru-love calls?

CONTEST: The KINO DVD has the fullest cut (113 min), the best image and a neat EXTRA with Orson Welles doing an intro. (It’s culled from ‘70s tv series of Silent Films.) Welles loved Fields as a theater-going kid (he once got booted for laughing too hard) and chummed around with the great, impossible man much later in Hollywood. But a more direct link exists between this film and filmmaker Welles. Find the link to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

L'APPARTEMENT / THE APARTMENT (1996)

This was writer/director’s Gilles Mimouni’s first feature film, and (to date) his last. Inexplicably well-reviewed & awarded, it even whelped a Hollywood insta-flop remake, WICKER PARK/’04. Under its original title, you expect a nod toward Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT/’60, and sure enough, Mimouni tosses up (to little purpose) a suicide intervention & a cracked compact-case mirror as homage. But his real target is Alfred Hitchcock. Specifically, VERTIGO/’58; plus dollops of REAR WINDOW and a famous bit from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN/’51. (The lifts have all the point & purpose of a movie quote on THE SIMPSONS, yet manage to be far more annoying.) Vincent Cassel, an actor generally immune to false gestures, bats his long eye-lashes and swoons after two & a half women as he dashes up & down staircases in pursuit of a lost love who may have returned. Is it the same girl? (Nope: Monica Bellucci’s got fat, puffy lips; Romane Bohringer doesn’t.) And what of his current fiancée, a blonde who thinks Cassel’s in Tokyo on business? (It’s the Barbara Bel Geddes part, in case you forgot.) Mimouni shows a decent hand at playing out linear timeline games, flashing back from different POVs, but neither the plot nor the characters are believable even within the construct of movie logic. And his slick gliding camera moves are, at best, a showy misapplication of Hitchcock’s succinct elegance. Painfully so when smothered under the faux Bernard Herrmann score of Peter Chase.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see a talented director stumble over VERTIGO, try Brian De Palma’s OBSESSION/’76 which also uses a faux Bernard Herrmann score by . . . Bernard Herrmann!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Better yet, just listen to Tom Lehrer doing his classic LOBACHEVSKY (PLAGIARIZE!), 'til you get the taste out of your mouth. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU_j5cQ2sfQ

Friday, June 7, 2013

THE BEST OF THE BADMEN (1951)

The title sounds like a clip compilation: Great Bad Guys of the Old West!! But there’s really a pretty decent story here with Robert Ryan as a straight-arrow army officer who becomes a reluctant outlaw when he shoots a paid provocateur to keep the peace after he’s received his discharge papers. Robert Preston is the venal bounty hunter behind the violence and the story’s loose cannon is Preston's vengeful wife, Claire Trevor. She shows up to help Ryan make his escape as these two join up with the Confederate Sympathizers (ex-Quantrill Raiders) who were the cause of the original complaint. And that's how Ryan goes off-the-ranch to work with these villains, taking down Preston’s security firm by robbing banks that are under his security company’s protection. Hey!, that’s a dandy storyline; and Ryan’s dandy playing Man-In-The-Middle. Too bad nobody’s got the budget or the movie-making chops to pull it off. (Where’s Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher when you need ‘em?) There’s a decent cast as the Younger Brothers & the James Boys (Walter Brennan, Bruce Cabot, Lawrence Tierney), and the unrefined TechniColor comes up sharp & clear. But they sure cut some narrative corners before making an abrupt finish.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Nearly a decade after his debut in Howard Hughes’ infamous ‘camp’ Western, THE OUTLAW/’43, Jack Beutel finally returns to the screen as Bob Younger, still playing 'the kid,' now with an unrequited crush on a rather mature Claire Trevor. Eight years back, Jane Russell’s cleavage kept OUTLAW off the screen for three years, but Beutel’s unrequited crush was directed toward . . . Walter Huston’s Doc Holliday. No kiddin’. And THE OUTLAW is such a spectacularly inept (and downright odd) film that it’s hard to tell if this was Hughes’ intention. In any event, the idle decade had taken the lean sheen off Beutel’s pretty-boy looks. He’s charming, but his career never recovered.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

SOCIETY LAWYER (1939)

This modest remake of PENTHOUSE/’33, with Walter Pidgeon & Virginia Bruce in for Warner Baxter & Myrna Loy, is a dandy B-pic to come out of M-G-M. The title suggests a courtroom drama, but we’re really closer to Nick & Nora Charles detective territory. Not too surprising with Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, the team who wrote the THIN MAN series, on the scripts. Pidgeon’s a crack lawyer whose shady clients embarrass his stuffy law firm & his high society fiancée. They both dump him. But when his ex’s new squeeze gets framed for shooting his shady ex, a risk-taking lawyer is just the guy you want on your side. There’s unexpected moxie from helmer Edwin Marin and top tech people like lenser George Folsey and Roger Edens to arrange a nightclub song for Bruce. (She’s a nightclub ‘chanteusey’ who helps Pidgeon solve the case and she even does her own vocalizing.) The comic relief is second-drawer stuff, but you’ve seen worse.

DOUBLE-BILL: See how PENTHOUSE, made in the Pre-Code era, compares with its redo.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Too bad the follow-up film for Pidgeon & Bruce, STRONGER THAN DESIRE/’39, didn’t stick with this set up. And too bad about the titles which should have been reversed.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

SAINT JOAN (1957)

Jean Seberg’s debut nearly ended her career. ‘Discovered’ by producer/director Otto Preminger, her decent, if unnuanced acting got pelted. But there’s plenty of blame to go around on this critical & commercial failure.* Graham Greene seamlessly trimmed George Bernard Shaw’s well-regarded play. But the nips & tucks weakened the verbal argument while leaving allusions to (rather than visualizations of) battles & pageantry, which proved frustrating as cinema. Action = Character in film; but it's Verbiage = Character in Shaw; trying to split the difference, Preminger & Greene created a lose-lose situation. Just as problematic, Preminger’s staging, recently transformed by the wide CinemaScope frame, goes flat in the less roomy 1.85:1 format. (Even Saul Bass’s graphics - titles & poster - aren’t up to his usual standard.) It’s as if Preminger, and what looks on paper like a mighty cast have all bent their efforts to match Seberg’s unvaried pace and general lack of variety. Well, all except John Gielgud, a natural Shavian who's commanding as the irony-bound Earl of Warwick. And qualified kudos to Richard Widmark whose daringly whiny Dauphin grows on you. Still, the play remains a splendid thing, with traces of CANDIDA and MAN AND SUPERMAN in theme and intellectual argument. You get a feel for what might have been in the Pre-Trial sequence just before Joan enters. Or try listening to it by following the link to hear Siobhan McKenna’s acclaimed perf, an international success which probably sparked the film. http://archive.org/details/BernardShawsSaintJoan

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *It’s hard to understand all the negative fuss over Seberg at the time. Now, the main trouble may be her unnerving facial similarity to (wait for it) Justin Bieber! Happily for all concerned, Preminger, Seberg & lenser Georges Périnal all regrouped next year for one of their greatest achievements, BONJOUR TRISTESSE/’58.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

SATANTANGO (1994)

At a jarring 7 and a half hours, SÁTÁNTANGÓ must be considered (literally) Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s magnum opus, but it’s neither his best, nor the best way into his mesmerizing maxi-minimalism. It’s a depressing tale, set in a small, isolated, deeply miserable farm village someplace in the Hungarian plains, where the autumn rains never cease, turning the fields into bogs and making roads impassable. Tarr structures the film in a series of discrete character studies, with occasional backtracks, over the course of a long rainy day, turning his attention ever so slowly from an alcoholic doctor to a trio of opportunistic conmen, from a mentally challenged girl to the local barman (apparently the only going concern in the village), clientless prostitutes, etc. The no-more-than-decent ‘restored’ FACETS DVD (non-anamorphic, interlaced picture, compressed grey-scale) arranges this first long day on two separate 2-hour discs which has the unfortunate effect of making the first four hours feel padded, larded with too many of Tarr’s signature long-long takes served up merely as technical display. No doubt Tarr feels the extended running time & visual contemplation is needed to set up the final three hours, a remarkable work in itself as the townspeople collectively give their savings to the conman and his associates on the vague promise of future success. Unexpectedly, the film’s high point drops everyone we’ve met for a stunning set piece, played out between a couple of detectives as they write up their report on these activities and take a break to eat lunch at their desk. All in real time. The scene is an astonishment; the film, not the masterpiece often claimed, but still pretty unmissable.

DOUBLE-BILL: Okay, not really a Double-Bill . . . after 7 & a half hours, no thanks! But newbies to Tarr would be better off getting to know the man thru his next film, WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES/’00, an unqualified masterpiece.

Monday, June 3, 2013

CRY WOLF (1947)

Another modern Gothic, another iteration/ripoff of JANE EYRE. This time it’s Errol Flynn, unswashing his buckle in the brooding Rochester spot, and Barbara Stanwyck as the rather mature Jane figure. The twist is that ‘Jane’ shows up at the gloomy mansion not as a naive tutor, but as the strong-willed widow of our tale’s unseen character. You can’t miss the template, and neither could Warners, who had Franz Waxman, a vet from REBECCA/’40, the modern faux JANE EYRE, write the score. Director Peter Godfrey lays on the Neo-Gothic chiaroscuro like a DIY homemaker overdosing on appliqué, but he does pull off a few scary bits. Taken on its own terms, and conceding a regrettable lack of connection between its leads, it’s not half bad. The real point of the film may have been Warners’ attempt to find modern roles for their expensive, troubled male star. Period films were so costly! Audiences didn’t respond, but in a brief, deeply creepy seduction scene, you can see what a cunning actor Flynn could be when he put his mind to it.

DOUBLE-BILL: Playing the tightly-wired sister of Stanwyck’s mysterious husband, the film did a poor job ‘introducing’ Geraldine Brooks and her film career was brief. But two years later, in THE RECKLESS MOMENT/’49, the great Max Ophuls showed exactly what they had hoped to get out of her.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

THE HOUR OF 13 (1952)

This little B-pic has a lot going for it. M-G-M, with cash tied up in Great Britain, made a number of films with great below-the-line talent hired at bargain prices. Here, lenser Guy Green, art director Alfred Junge and a Richard Addison score pump up production values, while, above-the-line, featured actors Roland Culver & Michael Hordern raise the acting bar. There’s even a nifty storyline, refitted from an old Robert Montgomery vehicle (THE MYSTERY OF MR. X/’34 - never out on video) about a suave jewel thief who can’t cash in on his latest caper because the gorgeous emerald that’s burning a hole in his pocket is also the main clue in a deadly series of cop killings. (A bit like M-G-M in England, forced to sit on its assets.) But, like a flawed stone in a fancy setting, the film falls flat due to sloppy story construction and charmless perfs from leads Peter Lawford & Dawn Addams. Director Harold French may have noticed the lack of chemistry too, since, after staging a swell fight to the finish, he doesn’t bother to sort out the romance at the Fade-Out.

 DOUBLE-BILL: Speaking of charming art thieves, whatever happened to the Coen Brothers remake of GAMBIT/'12?  Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz & Alan Rickman in a Straight-to-Video release?