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Saturday, August 31, 2013

DER GETEILTE HIMMEL / DIVIDED HEAVEN (1964)

You know what you’re in for when a film about the separate worlds of East & West Germany has the chutzpah to call itself DIVIDED HEAVEN. Konrad Wolf’s pic, taken from the Christa Wolf novel, is one of those ‘thoughtful’ Communist Block tales that slipped thru the Soviet censors during a brief cultural thaw. Critics had to hail these cracks in the system quickly, before the authorities clamped down on the film’s release. (Hardly a problem confined to the past with China & Iran still coming down on their own Film Fest entries.) But nobly conceived or not, this ‘classic’ from the old GDR is one lousy piece of work, and only fitfully survives as a historical curiosity. The set-up is simple enough, SHE’s a naive young thing; bright eyes & bushy-tailed, pulling her weight in a factory job while studying to be a teacher. HE’s older; sadder, wiser & sexually experienced, a chemist with a new formulation he can’t get into production. Maybe he’d have better luck in the more open-minded West? What makes the film sound interesting is that it was made just as the French New Wave was sweeping over the continent, even East Germany. (Truffaut’s JULES ET JIM/’62 is all over the place.) But after a couple of reels, the yummy b&w WideScreen lensing grows ridiculously self-conscious. As one all-too-artful composition follows another, the colliding frame-worthy images begin to cancel each other out, like a German meal mit schlag on every dish. By the time we get to the covert rhapsodies on shallow Capitalistic tendencies versus noble Communist advances, you may long for the straightforward dodges of barefaced propaganda.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Wipe away the sham humanism with a healthy dose of East/West vulgarity: Billy’s Wilder’s uneven, often uproarious ONE, TWO, THREE/’61, shot as the Berlin Wall went up.

Friday, August 30, 2013

EROS (2005)

The best portmanteau pics always have one man directing all the stories. Think Max Ophüls LE PLAISIR/’52; Andrzej Munk EROICA/’57; Woody Allen EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX//’72; Vittorio De Sica L’ORO DI NAPOLI/54. So, there’s little surprise in EROS having three very uneven parts. The opening section, and the only reason to watch, finds Kar Wai Wong putting two favorite actors (Li Gong & Chen Chang) thru a favorite theme (unrequited love). It’s a tale about an aging beauty-for-hire, the dressmaker she has a literal hold on, and a fever that passes between them, also literal. Mesmerizing, slow and exquisite, it hardly represents anything new on the Wong palette, but it’s a fine encore to his larger doses of romantic fatalism. Steven Soderbergh is next up with, of all things, a sketch out of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. (That's be purposefully left out of YSoS.) A high-contrast b&w laugh-free wheeze with Alan Arkin in the Carl Reiner spot as a distracted shrink and Robert Downey, Jr. in the Sid Caesar spot (well, Sid as George Clooney) playing an alarm clock exec in full crisis mode. A couple of full color bookends point to a dream within a dream scenario, but this remains a one-joke dud that might have played better on some private occasion. Finally, a fillip from Michelangelo Antonioni, a spent force long before his mid-‘80s stroke. He’s still gazing at beautiful nonentities who are unable to communicate. At least they can dance. Or, the nude girls can, on a beach, offering non-verbal communication a la Isodora Duncan. Sad stuff to watch. (Included on the disc is a ginned up visit by a digitally mobilized Antonioni getting Up Close & Personal with that other Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, the one with the horns on his head.* The idea that our appreciation of Michelangelo is conditioned upon his appreciation of Michelangelo is a bit much.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Cecil B. De Mille thought his Moses, Charlton Heston, looked just like the Michelangelo. But here, in some big close-ups, the marble looks more like Laurence Olivier.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, try an anthology film by a single director. And keep your fingers crossed for a quick DVD release of the restored De Sica GOLD OF NAPLES. The ‘missing’ segment about a little boy’s funeral is stunning. Naturally, the distributors loped it off for the Stateside market. Technically, the brief segment shows the unmistakable influence of Ophüls on De Sica who had just co-starred in Max's EARRINGS OF MADAME DE . . . /’53.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

DRESSED TO KILL (1946)

The last entry in Universal’s modern-day SHERLOCK HOLMES adventures marks a modest return to form after the halfhearted TERROR BY NIGHT/’46. This is the one with a secret code hidden (somehow, somewhere) inside three music boxes; a puzzle so tricky it takes a couple of unintentional clues from Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson to jog Basil Rathbone’s Holmes into action.* There’s a bit of physical derring-do for the great man; an actual ‘follow-that-taxi’ moment; and a couple of effective stand-offs with Patricia Morrison’s smooth, stylish villain. If only helmer Roy William Neill had also found a bit of style (and atmosphere) for the first half of the film. Will this turn out to be the first ever fog-free HOLMES? Fortunately, things perk up once Holmes goes down to a London dive for some musical advice from an old, disreputable client. And the film maintains a proper course from then on. Did they know the series was ending? If they’d only thought to have tossed in some philosophical musings for Sherlock at the end, this would have made for a dandy (and graceful) exit.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Baby-Boomers will note how much Watson’s unknowingly helpful comments to Holmes are like Manfred the Mighty Wonder Dog was to Tom Terrific.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

BRAT / BROTHER (1997)

Aleksei Balabanov hit a nerve (and the local box-office) with this ‘New Russia’ gangster tale about a kid from the ‘stix,’ fresh out of military service, who says goodbye to Mom & small town life before heading to St. Petersburg where his big brother is a mob hitman. We follow this Pilgrim’s Progress as he makes some unlikely friends on the street and gets to know the territory; he hardly needs to ‘learn the business’ since his army training, presumably anti-terrorist, was like Prep School for his new occupation. Less stylized and less OTT then some of his later work, the film makes a great entry point on Balabanov, playing out with some of the raw edge of a classic ‘30s Hollywood gangster pic, more SCARFACE/’32 than SCARFACE/’83 . . . and all the better for it. The action is kept human-scaled and the issues reduced to near abstraction, more concerned with the modern mores that have seen St. Petersburg turn into a new Wild West. Not that Balabanov doesn’t stage some flat out fabulous chases & complicated hits. A combination rub-out/jazz-party staged simultaneously on two floors is a particularly cunning triumph. As the supremely confident new guy in town, Sergey Bodrov has some of the street-smarts and acting economy of a Russian Steve McQueen. But his tragic early death at thirty in ‘02 probably makes him more of a James Dean figure. (That would make Russia just about the last country with a film industry to have one.) Now, Balabanov has also died, just this May at the age of 54.

DOUBLE-BILL: The classic Hollywood gangster pic this most resembles is probably Bill Wellman’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31 with James Cagney’s breakthru perf. But for more Balabanov, there’s the much coarser sequel BRAT 2/’00 or the wild ride of BLIND MAN’S BLUFF/’05.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950)

It isn’t often that a confessional letter raises a gasp from an audience. But this twisty three-handkerchief noir manages the trick . . . and does it on a bluff. The oft-filmed Cornell Woolrich story is a classic assumed identity caper. Here, it’s Barbara Stanwyck, pregnant, penniless & unmarried, who takes on the name & persona of a young bride she’s just met on a train. The happy youngster is a little nervous, off to meet the in-laws for the very first time. Why, they don’t even know what she looks like! Cue Train Crash! The girl & her rich hubby are killed; Babs just happens to be trying on her new friend’s wedding band; and when the hospital assumes she’s this other girl, she’s just too weak to object. After all, she’s just given birth! With a combination of guilt, grit & desperation, Babs decides to play the part. She’s got a newborn son . . . er, scion to think of. And she just might have pulled it off, if only her new ‘brother-in-law' hadn’t fallen in love with her; and if the spineless bastard who knocked her up didn’t make a surprise appearance in town on the Blackmail Express. Helmer Mitchell Leisen was better known for lighter fare, but he handles this mixed genre smoothly, much helped by Daniel Fapp’s brooding chiaroscuro lensing for the heavier noir atmosphere of the last act. At 43, Stanwyck can still pull out all the stops, summoning some of the disturbing raw quality of her early films. And in her hospital bed, recovering from the train crash, she’s both deglamorized and more gorgeous than ever. Lyle Bettger brings a killer’s grin to his creepy villain, while the little remembered John Lund turns the slight stiffness that probably kept him from really breaking thru on screen into a tower of strength as the smitten brother. As noted above, the film is hardly without its share of melodramatic hooey, dark & stormy nights, etc. But it’s addictive entertainment, too little known.

NOTE: Here's an extra poster. Not sure if it's British or Australian, but they certainly gave it a blunt new title.

DOUBLE-BILL: Now that the early revelations in MAD MEN have helped to make assumed identities dramatically legit for a new generation, there’s less need to apologize for the gimmick. So enjoy NO MAN or one of the many official remakes: in French as J’AI ÉPOUSÉ UNE OMBRE/83) or as a Pop-Lite Hollywood remake, MRS. WINTERBOURNE/’96. No? Well, after the original there’s always the unofficial Rom-Com rethink of WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING/’95. Many others, too.

Monday, August 26, 2013

TERROR BY NIGHT (1946)

By the time this penultimate entry in Universal’s SHERLOCK HOLMES series came out, the films were running on fumes. Only the poster holds on to the old panache. It’s a mystery-on-a-train tale, more Agatha Christie than Conan Doyle, about a fabulous ‘cursed’ diamond that goes missing . . . or does it? The only real mystery here is how the cast seems to keep changing trains every time we cut to the next unmatched exterior stock-shot. ‘Chuga-chuga-chuga.’ That’s simple economy, of course, but the earlier pics worked hard to camouflage their small budgets. Here, no one seems to care. The execs knew what a ‘Holmes pic’ cost; what a ‘Holmes pic’ made. Good, bad or indifferent, the numbers pretty much stayed the same. Probably true, but it still doesn’t excuse all the dangling story lines among the ‘red herrings.’

WATCH THIS NOT THAT: Sidney Lumet’s all-star version of Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74 must be the luxest of all mystery-on-a-train movies. Brimming with deliciously funny turns by its knockout cast.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

ANATA KAIMASU / I WILL BUY YOU (1956)

An unimpressive outing from revered Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi. He seems to miss the ironic edge in this baseball saga, trying too hard to convince us of something we already know: Money Corrupts. The simple story is laid out in a jumpy manner that makes things a bit hard to follow, but basically we’ve got a hot baseball prospect & his university mentor being wooed by a handful of free-spending pro teams. The escalation in gifts & cash quickly start to cascade down thru the boy’s family (with the expected negative results) while we focus on one of the pro scouts & the player’s longtime handler. Kobayashi (or his scripters) needlessly complicate the situation with a health crisis that adds a bathetic note to the big dramatic choice of which team will win the bidding. So while the film succeeds in leaving a nasty taste in your mouth, perhaps a less melodramatic angle might have given us something to think about.

DOUBLE-BILL: Billy Wilder’s blackest film, ACE IN THE HOLE/’51, gives some idea of how this might have worked.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Keiji Sada, who had his signature role in this film as the sympathetic scout, keeps striking poses that make him look like a very lean Greg Peck. Meanwhile, the rumpled mentor, Tokue Hanazawa, is even more of a match for Michel Simon! Not a face you expect to see twice.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942)

The first of the twelve modern SHERLOCK HOLMES stories with Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce made at Universal during the war years is quite different than the other eleven in the series, almost a road not taken. It’s the only one not helmed by Roy William Neill, but by routiner John Rawlings who gets excellent visuals from lenser Elwood Bredell. The anti-Nazi story, all about German-based broadcasts of doom, has some nice angles to it, a villain you won’t guess in advance, and more fine supporting turns than Universal Studios could typically muster. But what really sets this apart is its sense of scale. This is the only pic in the series with something of an epic feel to it, in spite of its brief running time and budgetary compromises. It largely comes out of the clever juxtaposition of private & public scenes, from the use of quick-cut details & portraiture shots used to punctuate turning points in the narrative, and from sets that plant small groups in over-sized settings. It’s hard to say how much of this comes out of the Lynn Riggs/John Bright script, but someone shaped this one differently, and took pains to maintain a high energy level right up thru its memorable curtain speech, written by Conan Doyle on the eve of WWI and just as apt for early ‘42. The film deserves a much better rep than it has.

Friday, August 23, 2013

THE GUN RUNNERS (1958)

Don Siegel, everyone’s favorite no-nonsense helmer, couldn’t figure out why anyone wanted to make a third version of Hemingway’s TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and a cut-rate one at that. First up was Howard Hawks’ 1944 curveball classic with Bogie & Bacall falling hard for each other on the wharf; then, in 1950 Michael Curtiz played Hemingway more-or-less straight with John Garfield & Patricia Neal. Now, Siegel was getting Audie Murphy, in a rare turn out of uniform & out of the West, to run the fishing boat-for-hire and get into trouble, along with the pretty, but pizzazz-less Patricia Owens. Add in a dud script, a small budget and plenty of tough-to-shoot/tough-to-fake action at sea and you’ve got a nasty assignment. But never underestimate the blunt efficiency of this undersung master. A smart rewrite from Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST/’47; THE TALL TARGET/’51' & Siegel’s own INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/’56) and a great vet lenser in Hal Mohr can work wonders. The film’s no classic, Murphy’s awfully bland and Everett Sloane is no Walter Brennan as his lovable alcoholic sidekick. But Eddie Albert gives one of his best perfs as a scary, controlling ratfink gunrunner, in fact, all the male support is tip-top, though the gals lag behind the boys. There’s plenty of shore-town atmosphere and typically clean action set pieces & shocks, done with Siegel’s signature brutal edge. Pay special attention to his staging & camera placements during the final shootout out at sea; textbook stuff. NOTE: The film was made to be shown in an 1.85:1 ratio while the DVD comes from a full aperture print that holds a 1.37:1 image. Chances are the original prints would have been cropped down to 1.85:1 by the projectionist using a simple framing plate and, frankly, it looks fine that way. Just be sure to use your OverScan setting, not the anamorphic which will bloat all the images. (Bad on the tummies.) Or, just watch it in the squarish Academy Ratio it comes in.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT &/or THE BREAKING POINT. And there’s also John Huston’s KEY LARGO/’48 which nips the shipboard shootout for a finale.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: In his terse auto-bio, A SIEGEL FILM, Don Siegel doesn’t say much about how this one turned out, though the film is nothing to be ashamed of. He mostly talks about how painfully shy Murphy was, and reconstructs some amusing jousts with the film’s producer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

SHENG SI JIE / STOLEN LIFE (2005)

In drab, ultra-naturalistic style, Shaohong Li tells the old, old story of a wronged young woman, this time in the back streets of modern, impersonal Beijing. But a new setting isn’t quite enough to freshen things up. We follow a new university co-ed, out of her social depth after a hard-knock childhood growing up with her grandmother & aunt while her absent parents work at distant dead-end jobs. A lovely, but sullen girl, she briefly blooms with a first boyfriend, but soon gets pregnant and drops out of school. Worse, the boyfriend turns out to have a wife and another kid. Soon, he’s plotting to sell the new baby, sending our heroine into a deep depression and himself off to yet another young thing. The general gloom & doom in the atmosphere begins to feel forced, cribbed from some lost Thomas Hardy novel, TESS OF BEIJING. But the characters stop acting like living breathing beings about halfway in, especially, the young father whose baby-selling stratagems involve too much long-range planning for him to think up, let alone pull off. Disappointing.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ATLAS SHRUGGED II: THE STRIKE (2012)

After a critical & commercial drubbing on ATLAS SHRUGGED Part I/’11 (but with too much fanatical commitment to pull the plug), wholesale changes in cast & crew were only to be expected for Part II. (After viewing this, expect another round of wholesale changes for Part III.) Ayn Rand’s magnum opus on trains, planes & individual exceptionalism never did have the narrative pull of THE FOUNTAINHEAD, filmed in ‘49 with an all-star cast dodging the howlers in her own stilted dialogue. But surely there should be more to this follow-up than temper tantrums from rich kids who take the ball home so that no one else can play. The film does raise the production bar from the amateurish first outing, reaching the level of an ‘80s cable pic, and with the cast to prove it. But if you’ve ever thought ‘Who Is John Galt?’ an awkward catchphrase, nothing in here will change your mind. (Even worse is the potted mythological explanation of the title. If only they’d given that moment to Teller [the silent half of magicians Penn & Teller] making his talkie debut in a bit part. Or maybe he was there to assist in the mysterious disappearances that pass for plot in the mid-section of he trilogy.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The economics of this sequel is even more puzzling than Ms Rand’s continuing appeal. Presumably, the folks behind these films think her cult will lend a long shelf life to the titles. But the hard numbers are pretty tough to get past. Part I barely grossed the film’s small cost (about 4.5 mill), which makes for a real loss somewhere between 5 & 10 mill. The sequel cost double to make (about 10) and grossed 22% less, a painfully slim 3.5 mill. But don’t worry. All three parts are being made under separate production entities which can individually ‘disappear,’ kind of like the geniuses John Galt tucks away, avoiding any unpleasant out-standing bills. Is bankruptcy included in the tenets Selfishism?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

KONCHU DAISENSO / GENOCIDE (aka WAR OF THE INSECTS) (1968)

Another tale of Nature’s Revenge against mankind, this time it’s insects who take up arms . . . er, stingers & suckers to get back at us. There are a couple of neat model shots & some yucky swarming bug effects, but what makes this stand out are the odd Japanese trimmings that haven’t a chance at crossing International Pop Culture borders. Not so much the U.S. Military types who’d rather detonate an H-Bomb then let it fall into Communist hands, but what about that buxom blonde Holocaust survivor? Vamping a just married entomologist and creating a lethal strain of super-bugs while she oversees a gang of local cut-throats and plots to destroy the world. It’s all retribution for losing her family in a Concentration Camp. And she’s got the number identification tattoo to prove it, look for the big block letters just above her left breast. Unlikely as it seems, the filmmakers may well be taking this stuff seriously, wrapping things up with a nihilistic bang. Too bad they’ve already reported monster insects showing up all around the world.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ishirô Honda was the talented helmer who started all these monster pics with his classic GODZILLA (GOJIRA)/’54. Be sure to get the superior original Japanese cut. But first, try to find his sharpest, creepiest pic, THE H-MAN (BIJO TO EKITAINGEN)/’58.

Monday, August 19, 2013

THE EGG AND I (1947)

This wildly popular little comedy about city-folk newlyweds who get into all sorts of trouble starting up a chicken farm should be all tuckered out after birthing two cornpone tv series and a run of 'Ma' & 'Pa' Kettle hayseed comedies. But it holds up pretty darn well, with good-natured laughs that feel like they came out of a real place and not Sit-Com Land. Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray are immensely likable as the tenderfoot farmers, and while Fred really is a lot like Eddie Albert in the old GREEN ACRES show, Colbert’s characterization is entirely her own. No la-di-da glamour-puss, a la Eva Gabor, she rolls up her sleeves, lands in pig slop and fights an ancient stove to make the best of things. Sure the neighbors seem a highly eccentric lot, but not to anyone who’s met the local yokel neighbors at a weekend country home. The plot turns mechanical in the third act, wasting a big sentimental Capra-esque climax, but you’ll see why this was one of the year’s top-ten pics.

DOUBLE-BILL: Percy Kilbridge made a career out of his ‘Pa’ Kettle character, first playing him on stage in Kaufman & Hart’s GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE/’42, then reprising it on film. A close cousin to EGG, with NY’ers Jack Benny & Ann Sheridan getting screwed by contractors after buying a fixer-upper house in the country, both the play & the film have a terrible rep. Yet the film earns a lot of laughs, with Benny & Sheridan radiating charm & neat comic timing. (William Keighley had just helmed a better Kaufman/Hart farce, THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER/’42, which co-starred Sheridan and could have used Benny.)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

ICE AGE (2002)

The first in the popular ICE AGE animated series is just over a decade old, yet visually it’s already a couple of digital generations behind the curve. The story still comes off, though oddly, it’s the sweet/sentimental side that now works best, with the action & comedy set pieces lagging behind, often detachable from the plot. But even as we get engaged in seeing how a woolly mammoth, a giant sloth & a saber-tooth tiger bond as Three Unlikely Musketeers to beat all odds and return a lost infant to his father, the right side of the brain notes how compromised the computer animation resolution now looks, like switching back to a non-HD tv channel, particularly tough on the nap of all those animal coats which take on a blobby texture. (The same might be said of the disappointing vocal characterizations of Ray Romano’s mammoth & Denis Leary’s tiger.) Why primitive analogue animated techniques from the ‘20s & ‘30s should still look fully achieved within their own limited terms, still physically beautiful to the eye, while these recent computer marvels quickly age into a compromised (and even unattractive) electronic canvas is a puzzle.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It may be that the film’s driving force, director Chris Wedge, who only hung around to voice Scrat the Squirrel on the sequels, had similar thoughts about older animation techniques since the most striking visuals in the film come during a brief, and unexpectedly moving, analogue sequence where a cave painting comes to life in jittery hand-drawn style.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

THE SPIDER WOMAN (1944)

The fifth of Universal Studios’ updated Sherlock Holmes pics with Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce is one of their best, neatly structured, straightforward and effective. The plot isn’t echt Conan Doyle, but does use bits & pieces from the canon, including the opening which fakes the great detective's death in a watery spill. Don’t worry, Holmes quickly returns in one of his transparent disguises, hoping to get a leg up on the villain behind the ‘Pyjama Suicides.’ Not suicides at all but . . . murders most foul! Gale Sondergaard flashes a mouthful of sharp, shiny teeth as the wicked spider woman, up to her neck in an insurance scam and armed with henchmen of various shapes & sizes along with a seriously large tarantula. Good fun in its modest way with few of the longueurs & third-tier casting that weaken so many other promising entries. For newbies, it makes a good starting point for the whole series.

Friday, August 16, 2013

BATTLE HYMN (1957)

Rare enough finding a film about the Korean War; rarer still finding one with an uplifting tale to tell. This Rock Hudson-Douglas Sirk pic, sandwiched between two better-known (and better) collaborations (WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56; TARNISHED ANGELS/’57) is a fact-inspired story about an ex-WWII flyboy who leaves the pulpit and re-ups to train pilots in Korea. Hoping to both assuage & confront his guilt over a bombing run that laid waste to a German orphanage, he’s now hesitant to take the offensive, even when under attack, finding refuge in organizing an effort to help Korean war orphans. The film is loaded with kids, religion, gung-ho flyers, a chaste romance with a tragic local beauty, sentiment and even Dan Duryea, filmdom’s ultimate slimeball villain, as a jocular scapegrace Requisitions Officer. Plus, a last act that anticipates the famous kids march to freedom from THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS/’58 with Rock making like Ingrid Bergman. You may gag once or twice, some of it is laid on plenty thick, but Sirk had a way with melodramatic over-statement and the damn thing is better than it has any right to be. His tremendous technical command, including some remarkably clean action stuff, goes a long way to tide off all the heart-tugging.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Like Sophia Loren with Vittorio De Sica, Hudson wasn’t so much a better actor under Sirk, but a different one. Sharing some of the heavy religiosity of their MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION/’54, the film that ‘made’ Hudson, this one hasn’t that film’s rep. But without the narrative coincidences & creepy cult of good works society of OBSESSION, this lower profile pic is much easier to swallow.

DOUBLE-BILL: Inevitably, THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS/’58, also fact-inspired, with Bergman leading umpteen kids in umpteen verses of THIS OLD MAN on a march out of war torn China.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

NO TIME FOR LOVE (1943)

Claudette Colbert went straight from the advanced sexual roundelay of one of her greatest comedies, Preston Sturges’s THE PALM BEACH STORY/’42, to the more typically Neanderthal attitudes in this Mitchell Leisen picture. The fourth of seven pairings with Fred MacMurray, it’s another slightly distasteful Taming of the Shrew set-up with Claudette as an artsy magazine photog, forced to shoot some ‘sandhogs’ at a troubled tunnel construction site. That’s where she clashes (and falls) for he-man MacMurray who grabs her off her pedestal and ‘makes a real woman’ of her. More or less. Of its type, it’s rather well done, and Claudette does get a few bones tossed her way toward the end. (She also looks amazing here and, as usual, seems incapable of a bad line reading.) But probably worth a look as a time capsule of dated sexual role playing, along with some unexpectedly strong action scenes when the tunnel’s support structure gives way.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In hindsight, the oddest thing about NO TIME FOR LOVE is spotting all the elements in common with Leisen’s next pic, his disastrous film adaptation of LADY IN THE DARK/’44. Originally produced on B’way in 1941, the Moss Hart/Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin play-with-music was the stuff of legend. But the film finds Ginger Rogers hopelessly over-parted in the Gertrude Lawrence starring role and then makes things worse by dropping most of the musical dream sequences. (The only memorable thing in the film is the bizarre over-sized furniture when Ginger goes to see her shrink.) NO TIME gives Claudette a similar magazine job; a similar rich fiancé she doesn’t really love; a similar gang of ‘fey’ co-workers; a similar sexist pig type to be drawn to; even a big fat Freudian sex dream. (She also had taken the lead in the last Gertie Lawrence stage-to-film adaptation, SKYLARK/'41.) And this cast would not only have fit all the roles in DARK, but would have better up & down the line, especially the ultra-sophisticated Colbert. And she sings, too. Alas, Claudette was wrapping things up at Paramount, getting a fortune from David O. Selznick for SINCE YOU WENT AWAY/’44 and not about to get such a plum part on her way out the door. A huge loss all around.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943)

The third entry in Universal’s updated SHERLOCK HOLMES series has a dandy prologue as a few V.I.P. types rush to board a rare wartime flight from London to New York. The ones who continue on to D.C. via train give us a chance to sort out the government couriers, spies, enemy aliens & even accidental civilians before the lights go out and . . . something bad happens. The screenwriters seem to have cribbed a bit from superior thrillers like Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES/’38 & Carol Reed’s NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH/’40, but they run out of steam (or inspiration) once Watson & Holmes pick up the case back in London. From then on, it’s standard issue for the series, though with better than average villains in Henry Daniell & George Zucco. We do get a quickie tour of the capital for Holmes & Watson making their first Stateside visit, but no one thought to grab a two-shot of those two great icons Abraham Lincoln (at his memorial) & Basil Rathbone’s Holmes.

DOUBLE-BILL: All Holmes fans need to see Billy Wilder’s butchered, but still great, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES/’70. Robert Stevens is a Holmes for the ages while Miklos Rozsa’s unbelievably gorgeous score will have you aching to hear the entire violin concerto he wrote for Heifetz and which Wilder asked him to adapt for the film.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

MOON (2009)

Duncan Jones’s directing debut, from his own story, is ‘thinking man’s’ Sci-Fi that does well by its small budget, but can’t get past the magpie aspects of its themes & storyline. He’s even proud of his borrowings, holding up shards from 2001/’68; SOLARIS/’72; SILENT RUNNING/’72; among others, for us to admire. Even nodding toward THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH/’76 which starred his dad, David Bowie. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or even unusual, in these lifts, be it homage or plagiarism*, but not when the content, as presented, feels all used up. The same goes for lead Sam Rockwell. Always a welcome presence in supporting roles, something goes missing when he plays leads. Here, as the sole worker-bee on a moon-based energy harvesting site, he lacks a movie star's stillness and works too hard to fill in all the details. It leaves an audience with nothing to do. A rookie’s mistake the director should have picked up. The best thing about the film is the quietly elegant manner it maintains as Rockwell goes about his routine. Alas, Jones doesn’t trust his instincts and the film devolves into metaphysical cloning dialectics, with cheery prompts from a cute-as-a-button computer assistant (Kevin Spacey, all wrong inflections as a HAL-9000 voice) and a plot that stops making sense as soon as we hear the words ‘memory implant.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Satirist (and MIT Math Professor) Tom Lehrer has the best take ever on plagiarism. And while his ditty is about Research Scientists, it always springs to mind when lifts from better films are used as ‘homage.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU_j5cQ2sfQ

Monday, August 12, 2013

CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. (1963)

The film version of MR. ROBERTS, a great stage hit for Henry Fonda and the top grossing pic of ‘55; yielded a tv series; a forgettable sequel (ENSIGN PULVER/’64); and this Gregory Peck vehicle, MR. ROBERTS IN A PSYCHO WARD. Not really, but it might as well be. While the dramatic lever that made MR. ROBERTS/’55 work was watching the crew ‘act out’ with wild scams & antiestablishmentarianism in response to the monotonous routine of life on a WWII supply ship, CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. is set at a Stateside military psychiatric ward, so the ‘acting out’ is par for the course. (It’s like the difference between The Marx Bros. in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA/’35, where the boys stick out; and AT THE CIRCUS/’39, where they fit right in.) Here again is the rigid commander & his prized tree; the scheming junior officer who lives to break the rules; the girl with the gams who drives the men goofy; and our calm, sensible, quiet hero who rides the whirlwind, staying sane amid the madness. Heck, they even cadge the cabled death notice for a bittersweet climax. Megged by David Miller and very well shot by Russell Metty, it’s decent enough, but terribly square. The sort of military-life dramedy that M*A*S*H*/’70 would sweep away in a few years. Yet, the film demands viewing for highlighting a big generational shift in film acting. With all those deeply troubled servicemen, the film’s an orgy of big emotional set pieces. But while Greg Peck, Angie Dickinson & Tony Curtis (who does wonders with his thankless Ensign Pulver rip-off) play a waiting game and try to make the slapsticky comedy mesh with the serious stuff, the patients chew up the scenery in those sparsely furnished hospital rooms. And while Bobby Darin’s traumatized tough guy showed old-school bravado and earned him an Oscar® nom., the new-style interior implosion of a young Robert Duvall as a catatonic patient, pointed anyone with eyes in their head in a new direction.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see the real deal on psychologically wounded WWII vets, search for John Huston’s long-suppressed documentary LET THERE BE LIGHT/’46. Available for free on many sites, the visual quality isn’t great (a full National Archive restoration was only made in 2012). But the film, mostly interview sessions with traumatized men, is remarkable in any condition.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

COLLEGE (1927)

For Buster Keaton, a perfectly pleasant comedy is a something of a letdown. But after the critical & financial drubbing he took on THE GENERAL/’26, a slide into Harold Lloyd territory (specifically THE FRESHMAN/’25) must have looked like a safe bet. Buster’s a bookish lad, off to college and hoping to win over his old high school crush from a thick college jock by trying out for every sport on campus. The film doesn’t come to life until the third reel when Buster starts failing at temp jobs (soda jerk, ‘colored’ waiter*) and all those college sports. Finally, Buster finds his place as coxswain, just when the girl needs his help. In a neat reversal you saw coming, he dashes to her rescue with an instant mastery of all the athletic skills he’d been screwing up. Basically, a series of set pieces, some prime Keaton, some running-on-empty, it adds up, along with SPITE MARRIAGE/’29, as the least interesting feature in Buster’s canon. Don’t worry, more genius was on the way with two masterpieces the following year, STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. and THE CAMERAMAN. (The current KINO edition comes with Keaton’s last short, THE SCRIBE/’66, a modest Canadian effort all about work safety. It’s no match for Keaton’s previous Canadian short, the magical RAILRODDER/’65, but it nicely matches up with this feature as another Harold Lloyd tribute with Buster getting in trouble on an industrial site like a classic Lloyd ‘thrill’ comedy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: I - The much analyzed coda to this lightest of Keaton comedies takes a strange, bitter turn. In less than half a minute, and a handful of shots, we get the history of the married couple. And it’s no happily-ever-after; more like a tableau vivant via Strindberg.

II - Keaton fans always feel a pang watching an Olympic Team member pole vaulting for Buster. It’s the sole example of anyone stunting for Buster in the silent era. Usually, Keaton would stunt for others as well as himself. But watching the scene, the ‘sell’ isn’t the vault, but the landing roll thru the window. And that’s all Buster.

III - *Constant Readers will note that while Keaton plays a ‘colored’ waiter, we’ve posted no BLACKFACE ALERT. Why? Well, Keaton doesn’t use the traditional blackface mask & only does a touch of shuffling to confuse a customer. A neat bit of commentary, that. Plus, the presentation of the black kitchen/serving staff is all but free of the usual period stereotypes. No small thing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Keaton going all Harold Lloyd may have produced so-so results, but Lloyd going Keaton was another matter, producing what is arguably his greatest film, THE KID BROTHER/’27.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

LES MISERABLES (1958)

This lux French production of the Victor Hugo classic (starry cast, Technirama, TechniColor), now out in a 188 minute edition, offers more plot than other theatrical versions, but little in the way of passion, involvement or enlightenment. What it does provide is a near perfect, make that near plus-perfect, example of the justly maligned Cinéma de Qualité that drove the staff of Cahiers du Cinéma, including future filmmakers like Chabrol, Truffuat & Godard, to distraction, serendipitously kickstarting the Nouvelle Vague film generation in France and elsewhere. And if time has tamed some of their harsher opinions, it still fits the faceless near-competence on relentless display here. (And often worse than that, especially when Jean-Paul Le Chanois stages ‘close action,’ culminating in a ludicrous escape scene set in a Parisian garret.) There’s something cumulatively infuriating in watching so much tasteful waste, as scene after scene parades listlessly in front of proscenium-bound cameras. The cast, no doubt, looked ‘safe’ on paper, but with the possible exception of Bernard Blier’s stolid Javert & Silvia Monfort’s ungainly Eponine, there’s little connection made with the iconic roles. And unhappily, that includes the great Jean Gabin, portly & impassive as the lead Jean Valjean, a particular agony both for him and for us. (It's like watching Robert Mitchum sleepwalk thru the second part of WAR AND REMEMBRANCE. Though, in his defense, Bob was 72 at the time; Jean a mere 54.)

WATCH THIS NOT THAT: Alas, the two great silent serial versions of LES MISÉRABLES from 1913 (about 5 hours) & 1925 (about 7), are unavailable in video format. Barring those, the best bet is Orson Welles' radio drama with The Mercury Theatre team. Welles not only doubles as Valjean & the criminal mistaken for him, as Gabin does, but also plays a host of other vocal roles. Makes for fun listening. In 7 parts, it runs about 3½ hours, has a reasonable amount of the book’s plot (including the great escape-by-coffin from the convent), but no Gavroche, the child hero of the doomed Revolution. A good tv production from ‘78, with Richard Jordan & Anthony Perkins, is only available in a frustratingly trimmed 2 hour cut.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

THAT HAGEN GIRL (1947)

Shirley Temple, in her late-teen phase, plays a small town girl with a gossip-worthy past that only heats up when Ronald Reagan, her putative father, comes home after the war. He’s back to take over the law practice of his late mentor and hasn’t a clue that the whole town thinks Temple is his illegitimate love-child. The story chugs along in ways both simplistic & obvious as the school term winds down and romantic rivalries play out, leading to a few too many (and too convenient) last act revelations & resolutions. Some more than a little creepy. (The filmmakers seem aware of this, winding things up in a brisk, smooch-free manner.) But director Peter Godfrey unlocks an intriguing subversive streak in the material, upturning the Capra model of honest small town decency to emphasize the petty slights, willful miscommunications & suffocating atmosphere which he gets just right. For the first hour or so, it’s pretty effective before plot contrivances and some very easily refuted gossip push any legitimate issues raised into tidy boxes. In a sidebar, Reagan has an oddly chaste romantic encounter with a sympathetic schoolteacher, nicely played by Lois Maxwell, James Bond’s future Miss Moneypenny. And look for a very funny turn by a young Conrad Janis, a tv regular for decades, as an obnoxious student.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A snarky film book from the ‘70s listed this harmless pic as one of the 50 Worst Films of All Time, along with LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD/’61; IVAN THE TERRIBLE/’44 and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA/’74. No further comment necessary.

Monday, August 5, 2013

LA PRINCESSE DE MONTPENSIER / THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER (2010)

Vet French helmer Bertrand Tavernier brings an unearned note of serious consideration to what is basically a swoony bodice ripper with footnote-worthy historical trappings. Promised to one noble brother, but playing nooky with his smoldering sibling, our eponymous, irresistible Princess gives them both up when she’s bartered off by her father to a land-rich Prince. But their wedding night has hardly ended when war calls the jealous groom away, leaving her to the wise & tender mercies of the young husband’s lordly mentor, a Protestant sympathizer grown sick of battle. He too quickly succumbs, if only in spirit!, to her flirtatious manner, but she’s not done yet! A fifth suitor, the King’s metrosexual brother is equally smitten with Mélanie Thierry’s kittenish princess. And who could blame him from yearning for those kissable lips and a manner that dials all the way up from merely coy to deeply pleasant, never quite making it to the necessary purple passion. Set to climax at the infamous Huguenot massacre of 1565, the four principals work hard to avoid the usual baggage of period costume manners so they’re easy to relate to, but largely out of touch with their strait-jacketed society. Tavernier gets his best perf out of Lambert Wilson as the calm, reasonable, sadder-but-wiser Protestant who has renounced war and lives in a sort of perpetual spiritual, political & sexual no-man’s land. Just the man we don’t need extra help understanding. It’s everybody else who could use some sympathy & attention. And while the pace, color & rhythm pick up with the romantic & religious intrigues of the last act, none of the three survivors measure up to the emotional investment asked of us. Not necessarily a bad thing in a film, just not the one Tavernier was aiming for.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

TOP BANANA (1954)

That great baggy-pants comedian Phil Silvers won the 1953 Tony Award starring on B’way in this decidedly old-fashioned Musical Comedy about a great baggy-pants comedian who’s trying to keep his tv variety show on the air. It manages to be groan-worthy and irresistibly funny at one and the same time. But what makes the film version so fascinating is that it’s hardly a film at all, but a meticulous restaging of the highly stylized show (as seen during the L.A. tour?), produced with no concession to film technique, played full-out just as it had been on stage. Originally shot in 3D, in a rather astringent color process (Color Corporation of America), what survives is in decent physical shape, but only in 2D and missing almost two reels of material. Half the songs are gone, even some elisions in the middle of scenes, so, you need to watch creatively. Not hard for anyone who loves low comics as good as Silvers. Old time vet megger Alfred Green, presumably going for a you-are-there 3D effect, shot most of the film from two camera angles: Row H-Center and Row N-Center; a style Georges Méliès might have found static. The first act ends with a travesty of RIGOLETTO (another jester tale) with Silvers losing his glasses so he can blindly assist in an abduction of his own g’friend. The second act is all but plotless, relying on a big Back-To-Burlesque ‘Numbo’ for the great man, in Bert Lahr mode, culminating in a pricelessly vulgar sight gag involving a stripper’s windmill pasties. A divine moment. What remains of the Johnny Mercer score is tuneful enough, but poor Rosemarie, second-lead in the show, loses all her songs. (You can get a pretty good sense of the show, including a missing, hilarious Singing Dog routine, by streaming the Original Cast Album in stages as you watch the DVD. Check SPOTIFY.) No doubt, many will find the old gags wheezy, and the presentation antediluvian. But you never know. You just might laugh yourself silly.

DOUBLE-BILL: Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR/’82 is all about a tv variety show like this and is great good fun, especially Peter O’Toole as the tippling guest star.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

WINGS (1927)

As all good cineasts know, WINGS won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Or rather, it won ‘Best Production’ while F. W. Murnau’s SUNRISE/’27 won in a category labeled ‘Best Artistic Production.’ Retroactively, the Academy chose commerce over art, and designated WINGS as its official Best Pic winner. And why not? If it isn’t exactly on an artistic par with the Murnau, it’s still a dandy piece of pop entertainment, a far sight better than many a winner to come. Clara Bow was the film’s big draw, but her crush on flyboy Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers is really a sideshow to the big airborne battle scenes which ‘made’ the pic then, and make it now. The story gimmick is that the two small town rivals, boyish Rogers & gravely handsome Richard Arlen, are each vying for the affections of yet another girl, Jobyna Ralston, back at home, yet quickly become best pals in the sky. (It's all very bromantic.) Ralston only has eyes for Arlen, but he’s too much the gentleman to let on. Leaving Clara . . . ? Leaving her to go proactive, joining the ambulance corp to follow her guy to France. All well and good, in fact, neatly put together. But it’s the flying that’s the thing. Still pretty thrilling too, thanks to some truly innovative work by lenser Harry Perry who later topped this on Howard Hughes HELL’S ANGELS/’30. Here, when you see the boys in their cockpits, they’re really in the air, really spinning around, really flying the plane, even running the camera for their close-ups. It creates a sense of danger you can feel. Tough-guy helmer William Wellman steps up to his task, showing off his best early form, and not only in the sky. Look fast for a bit from a devastating Gary Cooper who needs but a minute of screen time to demolish the film’s two young leads with a blast of star wattage.*

DOUBLE-BILL:* There’s no good DVD at the moment, but keep on the lookout for Coop’s very own WWI aero-drama, LILAC TIME/’28 with Colleen Moore as the French girl who loves him.

Friday, August 2, 2013

BRICK (2005)

The only film easier to spot than a Sundance Audience Pick is a USC Film School Graduation project. Or rather, a first USC post-graduation commercial assignment. Here’s a perfect example (make that 'perfectly awful example') of the form.* Rian Johnson, who wrote & megged, came up with one of those High Concept ideas that sound good . . . if you don’t bother to think about it. Here it’s High School noir, a junior-league Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett number about a loner student who goes into action when his ex-girlfriend goes missing. He follows some leads, finds her dead, gets beat up a couple of times, then plays one student gang against another to find out who’s responsible. Oh, and don’t forget the lying dame love interest. It’s hard to tell just how parodistic Johnson means to be, he certainly didn’t let his cast in on the gag, so Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas and a host of much lesser talents are more-or-less on their own. But since it’s impossible to follow the storyline, Gordon-Levitt’s feats of ratiocination defy all attempts to follow along, especially with half the cast swallowing their lines, you just sit back and get pissed off at the moody changes in color saturation & useless jump cuts which pass for style.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *No kiddin', didn't realize this was a Sundance Prize winner until I chose the poster after doing the Write-Up.  Oy!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Raymond Chandler’s favorite Philip Marlowe was Dick Powell in Edward Dmytryk’s MURDER MY SWEET/’44. But those guys went even further, kidding-on-the-square to fabulous effect in their faux-Chandler follow-up, CORNERED/’45.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

KONA COAST (1968)

A true oddity. Richard Boone stars in his own vanity production, a sort of commercial home movie with a legit director (Lamont Johnson), a name lenser (Joseph LaShelle), a scenic Hawaiian location and a cast of local nobodies in support of a trio of fading Hollywood names (Vera Miles, Joan Blondell, Kent Smith). Plus!, a phoned-in Movie-of-the-Week background score. Rough, tough Boone plays an absent dad who’s out for revenge after the daughter he hardly knew overdoses at some Free-Love shindig down the coast. (The period trappings and general youthful ‘bopping’ are the film’s one true treasure.) Occasionally, the film rises to near-competence, but generally prefers to home in on Boone’s craggy features, creepy personality and relentless self-regard. Hard to believe, but Boone’s next gig found him co-starring with Marlon Brando in the little seen THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY/’68. (And equally hard to believe that he was just past 50.) After that, tv and supporting roles.