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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013)

The first in a series of fiscal calamities from the high-stakes 2013 blockbuster brigade, Bryan Singer’s epic adventure had the sweetly acrid aroma of critical Schadenfreude already clinging to it. It managed to be both under and overrated. The old tale gets freshened up with a clash of Commoner/Royalty romance; a tone that neatly splits the difference between wisecracking & heroic (though too contemporary to swallow); and a good cast, with the lackluster exception of Eleanor Tomlinson’s Princess. As Jack, young Nicholas Hoult has a wicked grin when he gets the chance to show it, and a witty charm about him, but he can’t save the film from its haphazard story construction (try the original KING KONG/’33 to see how they screwed up the template*) or from the decision to go CGI on the giants. Once the film gets rid of the human villains, these computer generated beasts are the only threat left. Oh, there’s lots & lots of them, a whole army’s worth, but you keep thinking they're around only because they've become technically doable. A problem that’s been playing out to dispiriting effect over this very pricey, digitally imagined, 3D summer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In addition to the odd distinction of editing and scoring Tent Pole pics, multitasking John Ottman has added producer to his credit line. A Hollywood first?

DOUBLE-BILL: *Just in case you missed the connection to KING KONG’s home, check out the poster above. Skull Island, anyone?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965)

The cult reputation for this cautionary Behind-the-Scenes/Hollywood saga would have surprised its makers. They knew a stinker when they saw one; and had the post-production wounds to prove it. (Note the obfuscating film poster.) Scripting off his own novel, Gavin Lambert’s moved his junior league A STAR IS BORN from the ‘50s to the ‘30s. So, the tone feels all wrong right from the start, with weak period flavor and too many story-grabs from the famous Judy Garland/George Cukor pic of ‘54*. And not only story points got lifted. As the teen singing sensation who rebels against studio head Christopher Plummer, a game, but over-parted Natalie Wood is given Garland’s gamine look from STAR’s ‘Lose That Long Face.’ Heaps of interference on this Alan Pakula/Robert Mulligan collaboration left the too-much-too-soon storyline as a series of unconnected dots, but it’s hard to imagine it working at any length. Only at the very end, during a black-comedy suicide attempt, do you get a sense of what must have drawn so much talent to the project. We’re left with a few tasty crumbs: Ruth Gordon’s looney gargoyle of a mom; a blast of erotic authority from Chris Plummer; the impossibly glam young Bob Redford; and a couple of pastiche musical numbers from Herbert Ross that show some spirit in spite of Wood’s leaden skipping & inability to lip-synch.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Apparently, Cukor didn’t mind all the story ‘lifts,’ sitting down with Lambert for a series of career interviews, published as ON CUKOR. Much later, Lambert would also write a bio of Wood both intimate & sympathetic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Roddy McDowall’s major-domo to studio chief Plummer is one of those Hollywood Fix-It guys who know where all the bodies are buried, but would never tell. Much like the real McDowall. Even today, many believe a long awaited Tell-All memoir was only waylaid by the fast-moving cancer that killed him.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Cukor’s first go at the STAR IS BORN story was called WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD/’32, and it remains an overlooked beauty.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955)

The real draw of this ‘Perfect Crime’ pic isn’t its lackluster caper climax, but all the location shooting in Reno, Nevada, 1955. The main story comes bookended with tasty real-life interiors from Harold’s Club along with their incredibly cool adjoining car garage. It's automated elevator parking system gets a starring role in the film's final chase. Blunt, efficient helmer Phil Karlson is in his element here, pulling off action scenes and getting plenty of gorgeous high-contrast noir town atmosphere from journeyman lenser Lester White. It’s the rest of the pic that’s a bust. A quartet of superannuated college ‘kids’ (age 29 to 34) visit Reno where Kerwin Matthews, the genius of the bunch, works out a foolproof robbery. Not that he needs the cash, it’s the intellectual challenge he digs, along with his comic-relief buddy Alvy Moore. (Watching these two is like seeing Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis play Leopold & Loeb.) Unfortunately, the main story is all about their dorm pals, Korean war vets Guy Madison & Brian Keith, who get tangled up in the scam. Madison’s really there to woo Kim Novak and to try out as a William Holden replacement for the studio. (Holden was about to wrap up his Columbia Pictures contract with PICNIC/’55 playing against Kim Novak as, of all things, a superannuated college kid!)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You can really see the fast decline in late-‘50s studio house style comparing the rich photography & wide ranging grey-scale of this Karlson pic with his THE BROTHERS RICO/’57 made just two years later. One by one, all the studios switched to a flat, evenly lit standard which became increasingly hard to buck. Even the strong-mined Fritz Lang, also at Columbia at the time, went thru similar grey-scale compression as early as THE HUMAN BEAST/’54. Martin Scorsese thinks that the change had something to do with tv broadcast picture standards, they had to be compatible with the tv monitors of the time. Possibly, but there must be more to the story. Studios were going thru financial crunch time so you can’t overlook cheaper film processing & development techniques as a probable cause. Paramount seems to have been the Hollywood studio that held out for quality the longest while Universal, under the notorious Lew Wasserman, sunk the lowest. Especially in color, where everything was lit like a Movie-of-the-Week right into the early ‘70s.

CONTEST: Spot the iconic shot from this film that Mike Nichols stole for THE GRADUATE/’67 and win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the DVD of your choice . . . assuming we can get a hold of it. (Our old source, NetFlix, seems to be dropping older film titles by the bushel-full.)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

FLIGHT COMMAND (1940)

You can feel M-G-M tiptoeing their way into the war in this pre-Pearl Harbor number, a formula FlyBoy tale with a split personality, each half equally forgettable. The first part has Robert Taylor trying to fit in as the rookie pilot, but getting hazed by senior ‘Hellcat’ flyers until he proves himself in the air. Then, we get a big gear shift when commanding officer Walter Pigeon heads to D.C., leaving lonely wife Ruth Hussey (in a off-key, unsympathetic role) to fall hard for the romantically clueless Taylor. There’s a decent amount of legit flying footage, those stubby little planes look terrifying flying in close formation, an experimental radar system to tie the two halves together, and a lot of F/X flying scenes which sometimes work and sometimes don’t. It’s a poor fit for romantically inclined helmer Frank Borzage, but with three asst. directors, the action footage probably wasn’t his problem. At least lenser Harold Rosson gives the intimate scenes some portrait-worthy glamor and Red Skelton makes his feature film debut in the comic relief spot. That last, something of a mixed blessing.  (NOTE: Our Belgian poster is presumably from after WWII.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Borzage was fresh off THE MORTAL STORM/’40, an anti-Nazi heartbreaker with James Stewart & Margaret Sullavan, both in devastating form. But something seems to have gone wrong for him starting with this film, and he never regained his form. His earlier Robert Taylor pic, THREE COMRADES/’38, is infinitely better. That is, the film is infinitely better, with wonderful perfs from Sullavan, Robert Young and especially Franchot Tone, working off a script co-written by F. Scott Fitzgerald script. Taylor? . . . still not so hot.

Friday, July 26, 2013

THE DARK MIRROR (1946)

Heaps o’ fun. Olivia de Havilland tries out her good twin/bad twin act in this psychological murder tale which cleverly uses only her ‘bad’ side profile for the big breakdown scene at the climax. But then, the whole film has a smart swagger to it with helmer Robert Siodmak serving up noir style ‘neat,’ and lenser Milton Krasner keeping the key lights low. Nunnally Johnson’s script cheats toward the end, with one twin unconvincingly ‘gaslighting’ the other, but much of the story is unusually sharp. Structured like a traditional ‘whodunnit,’ the gimmick is that Thomas Mitchell’s police lieutenant can’t get the nice twin to rat out the guilty party, and he certainly can’t charge them both when only one (which one?) is guilty. Lew Ayres pours on the bedside manner as a psychiatric twin specialist who thinks he’s got it all figured out. But even he might be in over his head. Technically, the process shots & optical printer stuff still look great, and the doubling effect only falls down on some of the easy tricks that substitute a body double from the back. Go figure.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The long-standing feud between real life sisters Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine gets quite the (fictional) work out in a big speech on sibling rivalry from Lew Ayres’ doctor. Must have made for an interesting day at the studio.

DOUBLE-BILL: Finally out on DVD (hurrah!), John Ford’s THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING/’35 is one of the best doppelgänger Hollywood comedies. Edward G. Robinson is just great as both a tough racketeer & the lookalike Milquetoast, and Jean Arthur has a star-making turn as a sympathetic, but highly confused, confidant.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972)

The first of six Robert Redford vehicles helmed by Sydney Pollack (seven if you count THE HORSE WHISPERER/’98, directed by Redford a la Pollack) is over-strenuous Old West myth-making about a putative Mountain Man who leaves mankind behind to hunt, trap & skin in the Wild Rockies. But with bilious John Milius scripting, heavy lies the concept, starving the relationship between man, weather & landscape to spend most of its time in human conflict. Against his will, Jeremiah keeps doing the decent thing, picking up needy souls like moss on a rock; and getting punished for each good deed. Only when Jeremiah takes up serial revenge can he find his preferred solitary lifestyle and sing his song of selfishness. It’s the Western Ayn Rand longed to write; Jeremiah Johnson as John Galt. Pollack seems stuck betwixt & between, unable to stage the action sequences and worried that too much contemplation would try an audience. It makes for a film that’s both 20 minutes too long and/or 40 minutes too short.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Perhaps a fuller cut was originally planned. Elsewise, why bother with a RoadShow Presentation on a film that runs 108 min? Even with Overture & Entr’acte tacked on, it’s still only 116 min. (Not counting INTERMISSION.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Akira Kurosawa’s DERSU UZALA/’75 gets infinitely closer to a Mountain Man mindset. And, in a thrilling set piece where Uzala and a surveyor from the city fight the elements to build a shelter in a snowstorm, nature initiates narrative in a manner beyond anything seen in JJ.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

THE GAMBLOER AND THE LADY (1952) HEAT WAVE (1954)

This is Volume Three in the Kit Parker/VCI Hammer Film Noir series, featuring low-budget two-fers made by the iconic British company before they found their particular niche in Sci-Fi and Horror. Produced in partnership with American Robert Lippert, they usually star a fading Hollywood ‘name’ and sometimes use a Hollywood director to call the shots, everything else is all U.K. In this set, most of the interest comes from the B-side, a dandy little James M. Cain rip-off called HEAT WAVE for no apparent reason. Ken Hughes, who went on to larger, though not necessarily better, things, pulls off the doom-laden flashback format with aplomb and some impressive low-key lensing from Walter Harvey. Alex Nicol, a sort of cross between Sterling Hayden & Ralph Meeker, plays a failing hack novelist drawn into an affair with a big, bad, beautiful blonde who’d like to see her rich old man die before he changes his will. What a shame that Alex has already buddied up with her old man. Then again, what’s a broke, horny fellow to do? Mighty familiar doings, but served up in a fast, tasty manner until they drop the ball right at the coda. GAMBLER has the bigger Hollywood name in Dane Clark and a decent storyline about an American entrepreneur in London who runs a few illegal, but classy gambling joints before he gets in over his head trying to fit in socially with his ritzy clientele. Kathleen Byron, the crazed nun from Powell & Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS/’48, is his self-destructive ex, but the gal to watch is Naomi Chance, a positive ringer for Kate Winslet, as his new friend Lady Susan(!). Alas, the film, megged by Hollywood’s busiest hack, Sam Newfield (273 directing credits and dead at 64!), is lousy stuff with laughable character turns by some veddy, veddy bad British thesps and the threadbare look of a ‘50s anthology tv series. Nice opening teaser, though.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two near cousins, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE/’46 and DOUBLE INDEMNITY/'44, are probably too lux to put up next to HEAT WAVE. Instead, try Edgar Ulmer’s classic no-budget DETOUR/’45 which runs exactly one minute shorter at 67 minutes.



Tuesday, July 23, 2013

MISTERIOS DE LISBOA / MYSTERIES OF LISBON (2010)

Chilean-born, French-based Raoul Ruiz (1941-2011) had a major international career (100+ titles), but almost no Stateside presence off the fest circuit. His final work, NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET/’12, released posthumously, was a metaphysical bore, but received de rigeur critical nods and a token release. A better entry pic might be this late magnum opus which has more convincing champions. Trimmed for DVD release, it’s still a haul; two parts of a couple of hours apiece, structured like spokes around the wheel of young João, a charity case in the post-Napoleonic Era. Each time we meet a new ‘spoke,’ we find a secret relative and yet another complicated backstory that ties in to everything else we’ve seen. After a while they all seem to outstay their welcome with even the priest in charge of the boy turning up with three or four past (secular) identities. Ruiz treats all these scandals in a Po-faced fashion, letting us take the romantic excesses of love, sex, sin, guilt & honor as seriously or satirically as we wish. But, especially in the Part One, the execution is inert, with flat acting, staging, lighting & pacing, plus ceaseless lateral tracking back & forth that’s reminiscent of those painfully slow-crawling zooms in Roberto Rossellini’s dry-as-toast late-career ‘teaching’ pics. Things improve for Part Two, though a scorecard for the characters might help, Ruiz isn’t much for personalizing close-ups. But he does start conjoining camera moves to landscape, action & character, and a couple of the performers boldly connect with their parts. In spite of instructions? Hard to know what Ruiz wants, his rep for playful attack & subterfuge must come from his earlier pics. (He's often compared to Jean-Luc Godard.)  But wouldn’t we all be better off reading a couple of Borges stories? (Done quicker, too.) Well, 98 film titles to go. We await revelation.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It’s tough to beat Visconti on this sort of thing, though the tone is involved, not askance. Try SENSO/’54 which touches similar bases of romantic folly, pride, honor & national loyalties in 1860s Italy.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

LADY FOR A NIGHT (1942)

Think of it as an experiment in alternate casting. John Wayne in as Rhett Butler; Joan Blondell as that noble madame Belle Watling; Hattie Noel plays Mammy; Ray Middleton’s a sort of soused Ashley Wilkes; and Blanche Yurka (the famous Madame De Farge from A TALE OF TWO CITIES/’35) takes on . . . Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers? Well, when you mix-and-match GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 with REBECCA/’40, somebody’s got to play the house villain. Blondell is a social climbing Riverboat Queen who uses her profits to marry into Memphis society only to find that money can’t buy her love, status or acceptance. And the story just might have worked . . . at some other studio. But not at Republic where even a decent budget and a respectable supporting cast sink under Leigh Jason’s hack megging of a script no one bothered to straighten out. Poor Joan survives a riverboat fire, multiple social snubs, a runaway horse, a fatal mint toddy and a murder trial, only to be taken down by Walter Plunkett’s appalling costumes. He may have designed GWTW, but he makes Joan look like a tank. Wayne is wasted as Blondell’s Fairy Godfather and the ‘Darkie’ factor runs pretty high for modern tastes. (Though, PC or not, the Hall Johnson Choir singing ‘Ezekiel Saw De Wheel’ is a wonder.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Joan Blondell was fading into second-leads and character parts, not necessarily a bad thing. Check her out in Elia Kazan’s phenomenal debut pic, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN/’45.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

UCHU DAIKAIJU GIRARA / THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (1967)

Ticky-tacky sci-fi fun from Japan released just a year before 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY/’68 permanently upgraded the genre from low-ball kiddie fare. This one opens with some last-minute instructions before Lift-Off to Mars! Look out for that UFO, the one that looks like a banana cream pie! It’s been stopping all our missions to Mars! Sure enough, the trip is aborted; not by bananas but by sticky little asteroids. And the crew returns to Earth with a sample, a blinking rock which promptly heats up, melts thru the Earth’s crust and reappears as a full grown Giulala monster! (A sort of indestructible 200 ft. tall reptilian chicken!) The rest of the film turns into the usual fable of (barely) non-nuclear mass destruction with an erector-set Tokyo getting crushed by an angry Giulala who also takes out scores of impotent military tanks & kamikaze pilots. Finally, the astronauts come up with a rescue plan, but manage to leave the door open for possible sequels. Most of the fun is in the first half, with lots of amusing model work for the space flights, a nifty miniature launching pad complex and cool ‘International Style’ set & furniture design on the moon station that might pass for a V.I.P. lounge at the NYC 1964 World’s Fair. (Just one of many odd points in common with 2001!) And what’s up with the blonde European female astronaut? We haven’t seen one of those since Fritz Lang’s WOMAN ON THE MOON/’29.  (NOTE: It was hard to choose just one poster. So, here's another.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Dig that catchy Pop tune covering the opening credits; groove to the nifty dance beat all over the background score; swoon for the brief ballad at the end. This score would have earned high marks on American Bandstand.



Friday, July 19, 2013

MONSIEUR LAZHAR (2011)

Warmly-received, nicely-observed French-Canadian pic about a class of grammar school kids adjusting to their new teacher, a slightly formal, older man with an Algerian background. The story hook is that the kids are recovering (in stages) from the trauma of losing their original teacher to suicide, and the equally traumatic, secretly held personal history of their new teacher who only recently lost his family back in Algeria due to some unexplained political troubles. With occasional missteps & modest breakthroughs, the wary students and the reticent teacher manage to confront psychological demons in spite of warnings to stick strictly to the approved curriculum. The script works hard to keep from going all warm & fuzzy on us, but about halfway in you start to feel the film force-feeding ‘correct’ responses, as if we were fourth graders needing a nudge in the right direction. You long to raise your hand and start asking the filmmakers some of the tough questions the film paints over with pat psychological responses.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For some refreshing childhood anarchy, go with Jean Vigo’s ZERO FOR CONDUCT/’33 or François Truffaut’s warm, but sharply etched SMALL CHANGE/’76.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

SUMMER AND SMOKE (1961)

SUMMER AND SMOKE didn’t have the initial success of Tennessee Williams’ first two B’way dramas, GLASS MENAGERIE and STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but an Off-B’way production in ‘52 established both the play & its leading-lady, Geraldine Page. Yet this film version has sunk under the radar (possibly due to Williams reworking the material into ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE), and the loss is significant since the film isn’t far behind Elia Kazan’s famous adaptations of STREETCAR/’51 and BABY DOLL/’56. It's yet another of Tennessee’s Sacred & Profane love stories, sort of a deep-fried TANNHÄUSER, about a Reverend’s daughter ( Page as spinster-in-training) who yearns for the hedonist next door, Laurence Harvey’s doctor’s son. Between stops for guilt, redemption & cockfights, these two opposing forces transmogrify into . . . opposing forces! Harvey finds his soul & a bride while Page ends up with one of Williams’ Angel-of-Death types, playing a liebestod by bringing in a sexually available traveling salesman (Earl Holliman!) right at the end. A shame that the film gets off to such a poor opening, a couple of lousy soundstage exteriors defeat helmer Peter Glenville, not a fluid director at the best of times. But things quickly improve and you adjust to the slightly poetic, elevated dialogue as Charles Lang’s fever-pitch lensing starts to add shadow & heightened realism. The perfs are big (Rita Moreno, Una Merkel, John McIntire, Thomas Gomez), but not coarse, as in Richard Brooks’ film of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF/’58. The effect is big, too. And if Page is almost too expert, she’d just done Williams’ SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH on B’way (it would also be her next pic), an underrated Laurence Harvey looks to be a natural Tennessee Williams’ stylist. What a Shannon he’d have made in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA/’64.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This was the year Paramount threw in the towel on their wonderful VistaVision film format. In fact, lenser Lang had just shot ONE-EYED JACKS/’61 for Marlon Brando in VistaVision. But his Panavision work (2.35:1) looks ravishing in this DVD from the good folks @ OLIVE who’ve been combing the Paramount catalog for goodies.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

SKYFALL (2012)

To celebrate 50 Years of Bond . . . James Bond, the latest installment does it’s darndest to bury the coasting & mediocrity that have been nearly as consistent to this franchise as sky-high grosses. Culminating a decade-long trend to add top-flight talent, you’ll find heaps of Oscar® nom’s & wins on C.V.s above and below the line. It's a far cry from the days when roles like M, Q or Moneypenny went to actors known largely for those cameos; when B-list stunt-casting filled the ranks of super-villains; or when journeyman meggers alternated with 2nd-unit action specialists in the director’s chair. Instead, SKYFALL comes off as a reasonably good Secret Service actioner, rather sober-sided until a larky last act tosses in a few iconic Bond toys, music themes & quips to groan at. There’s a downsized villain who skips world domination for personal revenge, and a big sex scene all about shaving that’s a bust, but the pic largely comes off. The problem is that you might as well be watching BOURNE or maybe MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. (Though Roger Deakins' elegant & exact compositions save us from ‘fashionable’ jittery camera work, and there’s far less masturbatory CGI than the current norm. If only someone could still stage a believable punch or get the logistics straight on a gun fight.) In many ways it’s a better Bond, a paradigm of a modern spy thriller. It’s just no longer unique.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Still looking for 7th billed Albert Finney? That’s him at the climax, playing the Bond family retainer up in Scotland. It’s a role that must have been written with Sean Connery in mind. Alas, the original 007 holds a long-standing grudge against the producers. (Hmm, wonder if it involves money?) Too bad. It sure beats THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN/’03 as a farewell.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (1937)

After seven hits together, Fred Astaire took a break from partnering Ginger Rogers in this frustrating, commercially unsuccessful musical. The film boasts some classic (and a few so-so) George & Ira Gershwin numbers, but helmer George Stevens stumbles over a tiresome P. G. Wodehouse plot well-larded with eccentric Brits and the usual musical-comedy misunderstandings. (There’s a Cockney servant lad you’ll want to strangle, but also a touch of divine Wodehousian lunacy in Reginald Gardiner’s Opera-Maniacal house butler. IMDb lists one ‘Mario Berini’ dubbing Reggie’s aria from Flotow’s MARTHA, but surely that’s Allan Jones warbling away.) The film’s main claim to fame comes from having comedians George Burns & Gracie Allen, along with ingenue Joan Fontaine, doing triple-duty for the missing Ms Rogers and coming up short. True enough, but Fontaine’s brief la dance sur l’herbe with Astaire isn’t nearly as bad as they say (she’s certainly charming & pretty); while Burns & Allen and Astaire make for a real toe-tapping treat. (Less so in the hyped Oscar®-winning ‘Fun House’ sequence then in the peppy hoofing routine that proceeds it, with whisk brooms in ‘Put Me To The Test.’ But the best thing in the pic may just be Joseph August’s magical lensing for Fred on Gershwin’s extra memorable ‘A Foggy Day.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In their last stage show, THE BAND WAGON (a 1931 B’way revue that has little in common with the great Vincente Minnelli pic of ‘53), Fred & his sister Adele regularly brought down the house on ‘Hoops,’ a number that had them trotting ‘round & ‘round a turntable before making a quick, exhilarating exit. And you can find it recreated here! Revived for Fred & Gracie in the Fun House sequence with a trick comic ending for Gracie.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

BLIND HUSBANDS (1919)

After four years of knocking around the biz, mostly as a villain-specializing actor, Erich von Stroheim somehow talked Universal boss Carl Laemmle into letting him direct & star in an adaptation of his unpublished novel, THE PINNACLE. The terribly simple plot gets by on little more than a husband who takes his wife for granted and Stroheim as the Prussian officer who moves into the vacuum. But that, along with an Alps setting and the inevitable mountain climbing climax, turns out to be more than enough to spin a tale on using the natural mese-en-scène Stroheim had on call. And while he has yet to reach his later heights of realism & perversity (admittedly, a mixed blessing), his filmmaking proves, right from the start, something of an astonishment. Watch for a rack-focus shot toward the end of the first act that catches the wife looking at her carefully-put-together self in a bedroom mirror. Working closely with cinematographer Ben Reynolds, the shot holds as the focus shifts from the wife on the right hand side of the composition in a medium close-up to her husband in full shot filling the left side (inattentive, lying in bed). The frame holds as we dissolve over the husband to show the couple in happier times before the dissolve reverses to the husband still on his bed and finally pulling focus back to the wife at her mirror where she's been throughout the changing composition. Psychologically & technically, this is unheard of command for its time. (Naturally, Ben Reynolds gets his name misspelled in the credits.) There are dozens of telling visual moments like this in the film, including a remarkable guilty-dream sequence for the wife, and only the occasional moment of silent-film over-acting. It makes the loss of Stroheim’s next film, THE DEVIL’S PASSKEY/’20, all the more unfortunate, leaving a bare four completed productions directed by Stroheim. (Though it helps that they’re all masterpieces.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The first part of this film’s climax is like a mirror-image of the famous finale of Stroheim’s GREED/’24. Here too, our male rivals will fight to the death; not over money, but over a woman; not in the water-starved heat & low-elevation of Death Valley, but atop the snowy heights of The Alps; and not chained together by handcuffs to face certain death, but freed to live or die when the husband cuts their safety-line rope, untethered from a shared fate.

Friday, July 12, 2013

THE ROCKET MAN (1954)

Sentimental nonsense about an orphaned tyke who gets a honest-to-God working Ray Gun from an honest-to-God apparition of a SpaceMan. And the gizmo sure comes in handy when he spends a foster week with a kindly Justice of the Peace who's going to need all its magical powers to stop a big bad political boss from buying the orphanage in a money-making scam. Charles Coburn & frog-voiced George Winslow, who’d just played old & young satyrs against Marilyn Monroe in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES/’53, are reteamed, along with a decent enough cast with Spring Byington, John Agar and a very young, very pretty Anne Francis. But the kicker to all this slop is that the film represents the one & only Hollywood writing credit of Lenny Bruce! Yep, that Lenny Bruce. You won’t find much scatological, counter-culture attitude in here, but hipsters may want to check out this Lenny Bruce road-not-traveled.

DOUBLE-BILL: One of the weirder Eisenhower Era pics on kids getting into Sci-Fi trouble is THE INVISIBLE BOY/’57 with Robbie the Robot from FORBIDDEN PLANET/’56. (It comes as a BONUS on the FP-DVD.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

BREWSTER'S MILLIONS (1945)

This oft-filmed farce, the one about a guy who has to quickly spend a million bucks to inherit another seven, has served ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Jack Buchanan, Richard Pryor(!), and here, Dennis O’Keefe. (Bonus posters below.) Farce is a tough nut to crack on film since the misunderstandings that lead to all the comic confusion could usually be explained in two or three lines of honest dialogue. Avoiding that discussion is half the battle, but can wind up being more annoying than comic. This one puts the structural gimmick right in the dead man’s will, holding Brewster to a pact of silence about why he’s got to spend, spend, spend. Smart move. Allan Dwan helms in a bright, energetic & mercifully fast manner, keeping his attractive cast on their toes and neatly tying scenes together with long horizontal tracking shots that cover a lot of territory. He gets some really strong supporting perfs out of players like Mischa Auer & June Havoc, and delightful ones from leads Helen Walker & particularly Dennis O’Keefe who shows some real comedy chops delivering a four-page diatribe in a single take. You don’t expect this much good, dumb fun out of a little B-list indie firm (Edward Small Productions); and you also don’t expect to find the kind of sharp looking transfer you get on this Hen’s Tooth DVD.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Was Dennis O’Keefe Hollywood’s tallest leading man? It’s hard to find his exact measurements, but he sure towers over the 6'2" Mischa Auer.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (1971)

After producing THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57 and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA/’62, Sam Spiegel knew something had gone terribly wrong with David Lean’s follow-up pic, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO/’65 . . . Sam Spiegel hadn’t produced it. Worse, it wound up being the biggest cash-cow of the lot! Nothing to do but make his own damn Russian Revolution Romance: LIFE WITH NICKY. It turned out to be a rotten idea, one Spiegel never fully recovered from. Designer John Box & lenser Freddie Young, two vets from LAWRENCE and ZHIVAGO, came on board, plus Franklin Schaffner, freshly Oscar’d for PATTON/’70, to direct. But nothing could invest those Romanov waxworks with rooting interest. You’d have to go back to Louis XVI & his Marie to find a royal couple equally slow off the mark, incurious & unsympathetic. Schaffner rouses himself for Lenin & Co., at least those revolutionaries seem to be doing something, but little holds your attention. Even the pageantry bores, and the little-known leads fade before our eyes while the better-known actors get flavorless cameos. The film did get Set Direction & Costume Oscars, but that’s like winning Miss Congeniality.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Did the filmmakers really wish to convey the idea that a Russian Leopold & Loeb did away with Rasputin?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It has a perfectly awful rep, but the best part of this story is much better served in M-G-M’s RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS/’32. It actually manages to accumulate some real Russian flavor, most likely from its director Richard Boleslawski, a Moscow Arts Theatre vet; and it's got Ethel, Lionel & John Barrymore in their only joint appearance. This was Ethel’s first sound film, and while she takes most of the film to find her rhythm, it’s worth the wait.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED (1957)

No doubt, we’ll never run out of world threats grave enough to kickstart more Apocalypse film scenarios. Today, it’s Global Terrorism & man-induced climate change; in the ‘50s we had the Cold War & nuclear proliferation. But just when (and how) a genre largely confined to cheap kiddie-matinee fare turned into today’s big-budget/3-D Summer spectaculars is something of a mystery. (It can’t all be explained by the combination of ultra-sophisticated computer imaging with ultra-simplification of dramatic demands.) This one’s a particularly woeful example of its genre & era, with documentary footage largely substituting for any kind of F/X as the earth erupts and buildings collapse. (Those old analogue Special-Effects are often the main reason to check out these films.) On the other hand, you do get to enjoy the token female scientist on the team (Kathryn Grant Crosby) as she pours coffee and explains the bulge in the Earth’s crust with a comparison to an expanding cake of yeast. (She must have studied domestic science.) And keep your eyes open for a truly remarkably set, a cross-section of an airplane cabin where scientists & generals use folding chairs, corded telephones & sit around a bridge table. Everything in place but the thin mints.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Though not all it’s cracked up to be, the generally accepted Gold-Standard for this sort of thing is THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE/’61.

Monday, July 8, 2013

THE TATTOOED STRANGER (1950)

In the wake of the new trend toward making on-location police procedurals, like Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY/’48, this tiny, but highly effective/efficient little noir was soon forgotten. With a no-star cast & crew who soon drifted into tv or simply out of the biz, there’s no hook to hang a cult following on. But it’s a neat piece of crime solving, and it comes loaded with pricelessly crummy NYC period detail from neighborhoods already in the process of being swept away by urban renewal as the film was being made. (Lots of construction sites pop up.) We might be watching the end-of-days for the city New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell once walked around & wrote his small masterpieces on. The story involves a ‘Jane Doe,’ found dead in an abandoned car in Central Park. Old-school detective Walter Kinsella gets the case and bristles at having to show his peppy new partner (John Miles) the ropes of homicide investigation. A sweet gal botanist from the Natural History Museum (Patricia Barry) comes on board to identify a clue and supply a bit of romance and, eventually, suspense. The film’s a happy surprise if you don’t expect too much; and as a bonus, there’s a young & eager Jack Lord trying to get in a line of dialogue. (He’s abruptly cut off in his first scene, but scores in his second.) Edward Montagne gets a lot out of his tight budget, moving his camera freely since so much was dubbed and shot without sound. The deeper mystery is the disappearance of the pic’s smart, funny leading man, young John Miles who did nothing after this second credit. With a friendly boyish quality (a bit like Jim Hutton in the ‘60s), he’s wisecrackin’ & openly horny . . . in an honest American way. Whatever became of him? Illness? Blacklist? Trust fund? Maybe we should investigate.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

ALL NIGHT LONG (1962)

Patrick McGoohan makes a great Iago in this jazzed-up modern take on Shakespeare’s OTHELLO/1604, but everything else lags far behind. That is, everything except the music which finds greats like Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth & Charlie Mingus playing themselves on screen. It’s the play that goes missing. Paul Harris & Marti Stevens are over-parted in the Othello & Desdemona spots. Surrounded by jazzmen of various races, Harris is denied Othello’s ‘otherness’ while Stevens is hobbled by a look that’s pure Marlene Dietrich. And someone had the bad idea to load up on the motivation behind McGoohan’s villainy. He’s jealous of Harris’s success and needs Stevens for his own putative band. But pinning down Iago’s malice tames it, makes it ordinary. Daringly, the whole show is played out in a single set, a fancy loft owned by Richard Attenborough in the Roderigo role. In theory, this should help give everything a claustrophobic vibe, but director Basil Dearden doesn’t find a visual style to make this studio construction come alive. (Using real locations on SAPPHIRE/’59 brought a lot more out of him.) And it all sounded like such a good idea.

DOUBLE-BILL: George Cukor’s A DOUBLE LIFE/47 is another modern take on OTHELLO with Ronald Colman playing the Moor on-stage & off. Or stick with Shakespeare, especially Orson Welles’ eye-popper from ‘52.

Friday, July 5, 2013

THE NICKEL RIDE (1974)

After his debut as the tormented priest in THE EXORCIST/’73, Jason Miller must have looked like star material in the making; an idea quickly scotched by this downbeat follow-up. In an early, pretentious script from Eric Roth, Miller plays a sort of middle-management facilitator for the mob, adjudicating rival claims and securing warehouse facilities for those truckloads of stolen merch. But old ties are loosening, his mojo is running low, and a last-shot deal for a turn-around is falling apart. It’s that purest of post-Vietnam/Watergate parables: DEATH OF A SALESMAN in Mob-Land. Jack Lemmon just got Oscar’d doing it in Steve Shagan’s dreary SAVE THE TIGER/’73. This one’s somewhat better since director Robert Mulligan gets a lot out of his grimy L.A. locations, choreographs a couple of good suspense sequences and coaxes quirky supporting perfs from Bo Hopkins & John Hillerman. But we never see (or even suspect) what once drew people to Jason Miller’s Willy Loman-esque character. He’s not tragic, just a pain.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Much like his handsome son, Jason Patric (whose Grandfather was Jackie Gleason!), Jason Miller seems to reflect less light than gets thrown his way. Father & son are like two Black Holes, not just lacking energy, but sucking it out of anyone they’re on screen with.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Peter Yates’ FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE/’73 gets this sort of thing right, with a host of magnificent perfs headed by the much lamented Richard Jordan and starring Robert Mitchum in a great, late perf. Lemmon got Oscar’d that year, Mitchum not even nominated.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949)

Uninspired mystery tale about a radio singer (Gloria Grahame) who takes a bullet near the heart after a heated argument with her mentor (Maureen O’Hara). Things look grim for the both of them: Grahame may die; O’Hara wants to confess. Fortunately, old pal Melvyn Douglas doesn’t buy O’Hara’s story and finds a friendly ear in Gotham dick Jay C. Flippen (and his murder-mystery loving wife Mary Philips). It’s hack work for helmer Nicholas Ray on his third pic, but at least he could enjoy a honeymoon on set with new wife Gloria! (Their next was that ultra dark near-masterpiece, IN A LONELY PLACE/’50 with a terrifically scary perf from Humphrey Bogart.) The main interest here lies in watching scripter Herman J. Mankiewicz, on his penultimate credit, reusing his CITIZEN KANE/’41 story construction to format this trifle. Here, we open with a shooting instead of a death, but the jumble of flashbacks with various P.O.V.s to get at the truth, and their non-linear order is pure KANE.* Alas, nothing keeps the film from collapsing halfway thru on its own storyline.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Pushing 50, Melvyn Douglas is really too old for this sort of thing. Perhaps his true function is structural . . . he’s ROSEBUD!

DOUBLE-BILL: IN A LONELY PLACE, see above.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

SAPPHIRE (1959)

Few things date faster than films with progressive social agendas. A decade or two on, they look patronizing, simplistic and smothered with uplift. So all credit to this sharply-etched British police procedural about the murder investigation of a light-skinned black girl who was ‘passing’ as white. Director Basil Dearden sticks to the pace of his two investigators, methodical Nigel Patrick and instinctive Michael Craig, who pretty much steals the pic spouting the commonplace, off-hand racial clichés of the day as if they were truisms for the ages, yet thinks he hasn’t a racist bone in his body. But what really sets this one apart, is all the fine location work from Harry Waxman whose EastmanColor lensing of a very non-touristy London has been miraculously revived, especially for those who only know it from old, faded prints.

DOUBLE-BILL: 1959 was also the year of Douglas Sirk’s magnificent version of IMITATION OF LIFE, from Fannie Hurst’s classic ‘passing-for-white’ meller, first filmed (wonderfully) in 1934.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012)

The title is irresistible. The movie? Not so much. No doubt it sounded like a crackerjack idea to get high-tech vampire whiz Timur Bekmambetov out of Russia to meg. But his homegrown vampire hits (NIGHT WATCH/’04 and DAY WATCH/’06) didn’t go over Stateside and this proved equally unfathomable/unpalatable. At first, there’s a sense of amusing gall in filling up ‘Lincoln lacunae’ with secret vampire-hunting excursions, even a kind of nutcase logic to it. But Bekmambetov scrambles the goofball idea with CGI action sequences so disjointed that nothing adds up, each shot feels like a discrete unit. And things only get worse once we skip ahead to the Civil War with the vampires joining Team South and lousy aging make-up for all the non-non-dead. (Or should that be ‘the un-undead?’) The fun in these ‘what if’ fantasies is seeing how a crazy idea plays out against a background that’s as fact-driven as possible. But little in here follows thru on characters we know all too well. Heck, they can’t even get their vampire mythology right. (Silver bullets are for werewolves. Right?) Hard to know if the cultural fumbling falls on Bekmambetov or scripter Seth Grahame-Smith, fresh from regrettable work on Tim Burton’s unhappy DARK SHADOWS/’12. At least the non-CGI stuff is elegantly lit by lenser Caleb Deschanel, and you could hardly improve on the actors. Benjamin Walker has a great physique (head & bod) for the young Lincoln, and wins bonus points by letting us see what a young Liam Neeson might have done with the part. Rufus Sewell is under-used, as usual, but excellent as the baddie while the real standout is Jimmi Simpson as Lincoln’s ambivalent buddy. A nice step up from the snide intern he used to play for David Letterman on THE LATE SHOW.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It’s not exactly great, but THE WIND AND THE LION lets Brian Keith take a ripping shot at playing a pre-Prez Teddy Roosevelt.