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Thursday, October 31, 2013

HITCHCOCK (2012) THE GIRL (2012)

2012 was a big year for Alfred Hitchcockiana with two behind-the-scenes pics and a new #1 ranking for VERTIGO/’58 as SIGHT AND SOUND’s all-time greatest pic. HITCHCOCK, the theatrical film, is loosy-goosy fluff, with Anthony Hopkins & Helen Mirren giving broad (and broadly inaccurate), but entertaining portraits of Hitch & wife Alma during the making of PSYCHO/’60. The film includes fantasy elements with Hitch talking things out with real-life Psycho inspiration Ed Gein. But even the non-fantasy side isn’t much concerned with factual integrity. And while it would be impossible to list all the gaffes, it’s hard to mind in this generally harmless, largely charming film. Some are just plain fun to spot, like a reference to big grosses for Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis 4 years after their split, wondering how actresses Janet Leigh & Vera Miles got so chummy when PSYCHO gave them no scenes together or shooting days in common, even why we’re on the Paramount lot when the film was shot @ Universal.

HBO’s cable pic, THE GIRL, is something else again. Fronted by dazzlingly believable perfs from Toby Jones & Imelda Staunton as Hitch & Alma, the film toes the line of fear & dread cultivated by professional Hitchcock ‘pathographer’ Donald Spoto. No doubt you’ll be shocked, shocked to hear about a Hollywood moviemaker who makes a pass at his lovely leading lady. How he treated her miserably on set just to get the shots he needed. Or, and here’s the real kicker, how he held her to that long term contract she’d signed. Oh, were you thinking of David O Selznick & Jennifer Jones? Or the entire list of contract players @ Howard Hughes’ R.K.O.? Face it, Hitch may have been something of a shit to Ms. Hedren, his new discovery for THE BIRDS/’63, but just how unusual was his creepy behavior? The real mystery is how he chose her in the first place. With her brittle look and chirping voice (she seems to have no vocal overtones), there was indeed a twittery quality to her that worked for THE BIRDS, plus, a manner suggestive of arrested psychological development (that voice, again) for MARNIE/’64, his most fascinating of failures. But, sadly, the girl couldn’t act. Right from the opening of THE BIRDS, where she has to play the sort of bantering comedy Grace Kelly nailed in the early scenes of her classic Hitchcock trio, Hedren is painfully amateurish. (Not at all the case with the talented Sienna Miller who plays her but looks more like another Hitchcock novitiate, Kim Novak.) Hitch certainly didn’t help himself when he moved his production deal from Paramount to Universal where the tech departments let him down again & again. For that, Hitch could thank his brilliant, but devious, artistically clueless master agent, Lew Wasserman who was taking over Universal. You’ll find him in HITCHCOCK, played by Michael Stuhlbarg behind a pair of thick black-framed glasses.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of Hitch & Alma, co-wrote a surprisingly lively & open book on her mother that unofficially informs both of these films.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

LE AFFINITA ELETTIVE / ELECTIVE AFFINITIES (1996)

Everybody’s playing Werther in Paolo & Vittorio Taviani's film adaptation of this early Goethe novel, smooching at an unobtainable party while fully anticipating some predetermined tragic consequence. Isabelle Huppert & Jean-Hugues Anglade meet again after 20 years; quickly get married; then sabotage their newfound bliss by adding his architect pal (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) and her godchild (Marie Gillain) to their lives; making up a quartet at romantic cross-purposes. We can see where this is heading right from the start, and so do the players. Only those filmmaking Taviani brothers seem capable of surprise. A truly strange event unsettles the second act when husband & wife produce a love child who favors not them, but their guests. Then it’s back to swooning predestined fatalism. With three of the four leads dubbed into Italian, there’s an extra layer of distancing to fight thru, along with that slightly ‘off’ quality the Tavianis bring to the table, an artisanal quality with agogic editing rhythms all their own. (Note all the Tavianis listed in the credits.) It’s hardly a complete success, but loaded with strange, memorable things, like a little girl in red, screaming from afar as she runs thru a ripe field.

DOUBLE-BILL: The Taviani brothers never recaptured the Stateside audiences of PADRE PADRONE/’77 and NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS/’82. Even a well-received recent pic, CAESAR MUST DIE/’12, about prison inmates putting on Shakespeare, barely got released over here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

THE MUMMY (1959)

Even those without the DNA strand for late ‘50s Hammer Studios Horror pics may respond like true believers on this one. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee take their usual roles as man-of-science and monster, while Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster & Jack Asher helm, script & lens with unusual refinement, everything seems more of a piece here than in the better known FRANKENSTEIN/’57 & DRACULA/’58 reboots. Better paced, too, perhaps because a Mummy need only be relentlessly implacable rather than speedy. Though, Lee gets a move on when needed, bringing up emotion with nothing but his eyes to show thru the dust & cloth. Nice supporting cast, too, with only Franz Reizenstein’s score not quite up to snuff. And if it lacks the haunting beauty & dreamlike logic of the old Boris Karloff ‘32 classic, offering little to compare with Karloff’s creepy crepe-like skin, it does have more Mummy screen time, more deadly action and a great EastmanColor look for its flashbacks to ancient Egypt.

DOUBLE-BILL: Neither the Karloff pic (a rare directing job by cinematographer Karl Freund) nor the zippy CGI spectacle from 1999 is strictly comparable, but they each work on their own terms.

Monday, October 28, 2013

CORIOLANUS (2011)

Revitalizing Shakespeare’s least favorite tragedy by shooting great hunks of it as a faux live-feed from CNN with shaky hand-held cameras now looks downright old-fashioned. These days, a period setting in ancient Rome (pre-Emperor Republic days), with togas and lots of road work would look positively refreshing, even radical. Ralph Fiennes stars & directs John Logan’s adaptation of the text, and his stylistic take does clarify issues as Caius Martius (later Coriolanus) wins military battles vs. his implacable foe Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler, game if occasionally tongue-tied). Alas, when he puts himself up to lead the Senate, Coriolanus has all the charm & political savvy of a General George Patton. What future for a man who’d rather be right than Consul? Fortunately, much of the film drops the CNN concept and plays in a sort of timeless no-man’s-land, very effectively, too. Brian Cox is a rock of support as the general’s front man and Vanessa Redgrave really gets something to chew on as a mother who definitely doesn’t know best. If only the modernization didn’t feel so old hat, this might have cracked one of Shakespeare's tougher nuts.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see how this might have come off, try Orson Welles’ much maligned, but highly effective budget abstraction of MACBETH/’48. (Of course, that also died at the turnstile.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oops! Wrote this up about a year back. It happens when I think I’ve seen something on the big screen rather than video. Well, an interesting comparison with only modest variations. Plus, for a change, the later squib is more succinct! (And a slightly cooler poster.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

NICK OF TIME (1995)

John Badham’s slick thriller tries to run too many gimmicks at once, like a cable series with a season’s worth of plot twists compressed into 90 minutes. In fact, that’s the first gimmick, it’s one of those ‘real time’ pics with Johnny Depp as a single dad who’s picked at random to assassinate Governor Marsha Mason in the next 90 minutes (tick-tick-tick) . . . or ‘Never see your little girl again.’ That’s gimmick #2. There’s little Badham can do to help us swallow this idea, why should Christopher Walken & his gang of baddies pluck some schmo they spot at the Amtrak terminal to play amateur gun man? Some of the gimmicks show promise, like having the hotel staff coming to Depp’s assistance, or a quick flash of alternate reality plucked from Ambrose Pierce’s AN OCCURENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE. But Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script is too lazy to properly work things out. Instead, clues are conveniently overheard as needed. (At one ludicrous point, Depp gets Walken to open up in front of Charles Dutton’s shoeshine guy simply by saying he’s deaf.) Still, the film is worth a look just as a reminder of how good Depp can be playing a normal guy. He’s fallen so deeply into playing outliers and working up crazy attention-getting character masks that you worry if he can still play (or be accepted playing) a Regular Joe. Especially since his last shot at it, in THE TOURIST/’10, made his normalcy into a bit of a freak show.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS/’35 is the granddaddy of these innocent-guy-gets-mixed-up-in-assassination/espionage-plot pics. But the trick that lets the audience swallow the set-up, no matter how farfetched it turns, is that our rube isn’t chosen, but falls into danger.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1916)

An antique, and a bit of mess, this early silent adaptation of Jules Verne’s oft-filmed story adds hunks of the sequel, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, but then uses a freshly minted set-piece to serve as climax & explanatory backstory, sort of an Ali Baba thing which a helpful Title Card tells us was ‘never told by Jules Verne!’ Indeed. Naturally, this ersatz addition is the best thing in here while Verne’s carefully interlaced plotlines are left a hopeless tangle in this confusing picturization. As a historical curiosity, it’s worth a look for some early underwater film work (as enervatingly slow then as it is nowadays) and for a rubbery giant squid attack. (How many rubber trees gave up their lives for this to happen?) Otherwise, feel free to skip to the non-Verne stuff at the end for some decent 1916 action filmmaking. And watch for a sassy overheard shot of war drums during the final build up. Props to Alexander Rannie & Brian Benison whose excellent score, found on the KINO edition, lifts up this scene and the rest of the film.*)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There’s always Disney’s likable 1954 version, with James Mason’s commanding Captain Nemo. But a 1961 MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, less interested in Verne than in showing off some Ray Harryhausen pixilated monsters, has a Bernard Herrmann score* that rises far above its surroundings. Try the link below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4TKbiJa0n4

Friday, October 25, 2013

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (2012)

Richard Nelson, an American wright of elegant plays everyone assumes are British, doesn’t exactly hit the ground running in his first film script, a rich, but highly speculative account of a late ‘30s visit to President Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home by the British Royals. With war looming in Europe, a charm offensive was needed . . . on both sides, hindered by a lack of confidence by a new King & Queen without much glamour; and by the unusual relationships between Franklin, Eleanor & enough close friends, in-laws, mistresses & bosom companions for a couple of scorecards. Franklin’s latest (putative) affair arises gently, with a distant cousin during a spin in a specially rigged car run all by hand . . . so to speak. Up to this point, we might be seeing some poor relation to Nöel Coward’s HAY FEVER (say, Woody Allen’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY/’82), but everything improves rapidly once The Royals show, like a good dinner party that clicks into place. And just such a party turns out to be our main subject. First a formal dinner, then the famous picnic where the King was served all-American hot dogs sans utensils. Darned if he didn’t eat ‘em up, just like a regular chap . . . er, regular guy. Bill Murray, after years of coasting, shows real acting chops as FDR, lightly touching on the famous voice & mannerisms, while Samuel West makes something of his own out of stuttering King George VI. Together, a late night chat between King & President becomes the clear highlight of the film, with a Shavian wit to it that lets us see how FDR used his handicap to his advantage. The whole cast shines under Roger Michell’s smooth helming, though Laura Linney, as cousin Daisy, is inching ever closer to perennial award-worthy nobility. (NOTE: Once again, we should point out that a 'Family Friendly' tag does NOT mean a Kiddie Pic, but a film that might interest the whole family. This film has a bit of sex on (near) display. But hey, ain't that how you get a family?)

DOUBLE-BILL: Roger Michell’s PERSUASION/’95 got a bit lost during the last Jane Austen adaptation cycle, but it’s surely the grittiest and, quite possibly, the best of the lot.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955)

See, there’s this man with a giant forehead! And he’s on the hunt for the world’s most exceptional minds! Secretly testing them; picking the best of the bunch; flying them to a secret lair to begin the great task! John Galt from Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED? No? Actually, it’s Dr. Exeter from this decently produced, but generally lousy ‘50s Cold War-era Sci-Fi pic. (Anyway, Rand published two years after this came out.) Jeff Morrow, wearing a big prosthetic forehead, is Exeter, our putative John Galt character, but really an alien being charged with saving his fast fading planet. And, wouldn’t you know it, things don’t go as planned. Stiff Rex Reason (his real name) is the hunky daredevil doc who winds up going on a space ride to help an alien race, along with sexy scientist Faith Domergue. This should all be a lot more fun than it is, but the plot never adds up to much and the film has little to offer beyond its eye-popping TechniColor restoration and glossy effects.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: William Cameron Menzies’ INVADERS FROM MARS/’53 is just one example of the many Cold War era Sci-Fi alien scare pics that top this limp thing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Baby-boomers may remember this in WideScreen. Begun in ‘53, it was one of many films caught in the trap of starting production just before the switch away from the old Academy Ratio. This film, apparently, was originally projected thru a framing aperture that cropped the 1.37:1 image to show as 2:1. The latest DVD goes back to the squarish ‘full-screen’ format so that everything that got filmed shows. But feel free to zoom in one level for your very own cropped image of 1.85:1. (Just don’t use the anamorphic/16x9 setting.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

TELEFON (1977)

Considered something of a dud when released, this Don Siegel/Charles Bronson espionage thriller now looks considerably better. As director-for-hire, Siegel can’t do much to camouflage the farfetched ‘sleeper-agent’ plot (very MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE/’62), but there’s a lot of pleasure in getting reacquainted with his clean, direct, all but styleless efficiency that has him parsing action & exposition without a wasted move. Bronson’s natural reserve as an actor is very effective as a Russian agent who’s sent Stateside to stop Donald Pleasance’s rogue KGB officer from activating middle-aged sleeper-agents after a couple of decades hibernation. (Amazingly, their ammo’s right on hand, and their suicide pills still potent 20 yrs after their expiration date!) As an age-appropriate partner, Lee Remick works surprisingly well with Bronson, watch their body language in a tight plane interior, but not even Don Siegel can make anything but hash out of a C.I.A. manhunt that plays like an afterthought. Fun ‘70s-era computers, though. Michael Butler’s sharp lensing comes up pretty soft in the current DVD transfer, but don’t hold your breath for an upgrade.

DOUBLE-BILL: Siegel’s next was his last big success, an exceptional reunion with Clint Eastwood on ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ/’79.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

WHISKY (2004)

While not quite the classic its many international awards might indicate, this minimalist charmer from Uruguay delights with its off-beat sense of humor & interpersonal mysteries. It’s young filmmakers, Pablo Stoll and the late Juan Pablo Rebella, have obviously paid close attention to early Aki Kaurismäki (and perhaps late Luis Buñuel), but still sing a droll tune of their own in this three-hander about a middle-aged sock manufacturer who asks his long time assistant to pose as his wife when his brother from Brazil (also a sock manufacturer) comes to town for the anniversary of their mother’s death. From this set up, three wary relationships play out, almost in slow motion, with a quiet comic edge rising from human foibles bumping into each other. Especially so, when the younger, livelier brother insists on extending his visit with a trip to the nearly deserted grand hotel of a once vibrant oceanfront resort town. The film never finds the ‘found beauty’ of a Kaurismäki composition, with its visual balance & blocks of vibrant color, nor do they attempt the dense narrative stratagems Kaurismäki manages without you realizing it. Here, if you think you’re just moseying along, chances are, you are just moseying along. But it’s often a pleasurable stroll, and there’s a neat payoff you get to put together inside your own head.

DOUBLE-BILL: Kaurismäki’s early ‘Proletariat Trilogy’ pairs up nicely. Especially, THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL/’90 or ARIEL/’88, which also makes a fine introduction to his work in general.

Monday, October 21, 2013

IS MY FACE RED? (1932)

There were enough fast-paced newspaper dramedies in the early ‘30s to support sub-genres such as this little number about a Walter Winchell-like gossip columnist. Right now, he’s riding a speakeasy murder ‘exclusive,’ juggling longtime B’way steady Helen Twelvetrees against society dame Jill Esmond, and still making time for his nightly radio broadcast in-between hitting all the night spots in town. But with no rat-a-tat-tat pace and Ricardo Cortez smiling wanly (and only showing chemistry with the terrific Arline Judge as his loyal secretary), the stakes & energy level are distressingly low. And what’s with that Italian accent from film heavy Sidney Toler? He already sounds like Charlie Chan. The megging from William Seiter does little to enliven things, but there’s a brief reprieve near the end when he suddenly sits on a single low camera set-up for an entire three-page dialogue scene. Suddenly, the film seems to have possibilities.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Lee Tracy, B’way’s original Hildy Johnson in THE FRONT PAGE, was born to play this sort of thing. Try BLESSED EVENT/’32, one of his best. Zippy, nasty, and with a tasty debut from a very young, very funny Dick Powell.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

KILL LIST (2011)

Ben Wheatley’s British indie pic, as tough as it is weird, got a buzz-worthy critical reception, but only a token Stateside release. It opens, like many a hit man tale, as a psychotic professional killer, with troublesome family issues, takes on a new assignment with an old partner after weathering a botched previous job. Act Two morphs into a freak out horror show when their second victim turns out to be involved in dealings even more heinous than murder-for-hire. Then, Act Three lands in, of all places, Wicker Man campground, for a trick ending that works too hard to shock. Wheatley gets credit for stretching his small budget, but his penchant for micro-managed jump-cuts grows wearisome (the jangle-factor soon dissipates). And must his cast delivery so much dialogue while eating? Hard enough to decipher what’s being said between mumbles & local accents. File this one under less than meets the eye.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Add your own neat comic spin to the proceedings by noting how much the lead couple look like Kelly Ripa & (from certain angles) Ricky Gervais. Pointless, but amusing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While the films aren’t strictly comparable, Neil Maskell’s stressed out, explosive Dad, brought Terry O’Quinn’s great creepy work in THE STEPFATHER/’87 to mind.  (Along with late Kubrick.  Yikes!)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

ST. IVES (1976)

Less a movie than a ‘deal memo’ that slipped into production, this limp Charles Bronson pic tries for a ‘MALTESE FALCON’ vibe with John Houseman making like ‘fat-man’ Sydney Greenstreet, Jacqueline Bisset in the Mary Astor spot as a lying femme fatale and even Elisha Cook, Jr. (from the original) in a small role. Maximilian Schell has what should be the Peter Lorre role, but you’d hardly know it. What a shame they didn’t also borrow the storyline. Instead, we get Bronson as a tough crime writer with gambling debts who’s hired by Houseman & Co. as go-between to help recover some stolen papers. Something or other to do with an international crime syndicate. Don’t ask. It’s dreary stuff, with megger J. Lee Thompson, scorer Lalo Schifrin & and even lenser Lucien Ballard all phoning it in. A quick shot of a young, slack-jawed Jeff Goldblum is fun to spot, but Bronson soon takes him out of action and the film goes right back to sleep.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Bronson was at his best the previous year, co-starring with James Coburn in Walter Hill’s fine debut pic, HARD TIMES/’75, finally out in its original WideScreen format.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN (1925)

Oscar Wilde’s epigrammatic drawing room ‘dramedy’ (‘dramedy’ of manners?) made for an unlikely early Hollywood masterpiece from Ernst Lubitsch. And he managed to do it without resorting to a dull series of ‘witty’ title cards. Instead, locating psychological insight, finessing licit & illicit affairs, painting the rigid British class system and larding his tale with ‘Lubitsch Touches,’ his unique visual aperçu, a combination of framing & staging strategies that called on space, character placement & shifting scale to covertly develop gags & drama out of opposing social forces. And, Lubitsch being Lubitsch, that would include furniture, doorbell buzzers & a mislaid fan. The story follows two main scandals: in one, an insecure young wife flirts with a dashing, if caddish, gentleman (Mary McAlvoy; Ronald Colman), unaware that her husband is being gently blackmailed by an adventuress hoping to regain a foothold on respectability and even marry rich old Lord Lorton (Bert Lytell; Irene Rich; Edward Martindel). Her leverage is that she’s the long lost, secret mother of Lady Windermere. But once Lord Windermere’s assistance starts looking like a love affair, only sacrificial mother-love can come to the rescue of reckless behavior. There are any number of lousy Public Domain editions to avoid, but the transfer on MORE TREASURES From American Film Archives - Program 3 is quite good, and comes with a bunch of spiffy extras, including a heartbreaking look at a few Movie Trailers for lost silent features. There’s one for a 1926 GREAT GATSBY with Warner Baxter; a spectacular looking BEAU SABREUR/’28 with a spectacular looking Gary Cooper; THE AMERICAN VENUS/’26 with Louise Brooks; and, from Lubitsch, THE PATRIOT//’28, a huge production that was his final collaboration with Emil Jannings. Only these tantalizing glimpses remain.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two sound versions (not seen here), THE FAN/’49 and A GOOD WOMAN/’04, have poor reps, but keep an eye out for Alexander Korda’s strikingly fine adaptation of Wilde’s greatest play, AN IDEAL HUSBAND/’47. It’s Korda’s best work as director, with an unmatchable cast in roles not unlike the dramatis personæ of WINDERMERE. With a fine DVD available in the U.K., it can’t be long before it shows up Stateside. Till then, skip the archly handled 1999 film which pointlessly ‘opens up’ Wilde’s perfectly crafted play and has Minnie Driver (Minnie Driver!) speaking his dialogue.

Monday, October 14, 2013

WHERE LOVE HAS GONE (1964)

Director Edward Dmytryk, producer Joseph E. Levine & scripter John Michael Hayes made so much money for Paramount adapting Harold Robbins’ THE CARPETBAGGERS/’64, his roman-à-clef on the young Howard Hughes, they quickly regrouped for a second helping of Robbins schlock. But whereas the first film came out good trashy fun, this one was just trashy. This time our distinguished author plays off the sensational real life murder of Lana Turner’s gangster/boyfriend by her daughter, with Susan Hayward in for Lana, now a promiscuous sculptress, though she barely seems wanton enough for all the to do. Certainly not from her new hubby (a hopelessly flat Mike Connors), who quickly loses his architectural mojo when he lets his rich new mother-in-law (Bette Davis, e-nun-ci-at-ing every syllable) run his life & drive him to drink. Years after the inevitable divorce, Connors is reformed, but his poor daughter (a screechy Joey Heatherton) is a mess . . . a mess with raging hormones & a deadly awl. (Sculptor’s tool, natch.) It really shouldn’t be as terrible as it is, but even the tech elements look lousy, as if Hollywood standards had fallen off a cliff sometime between these two 1964 adaptations. Maybe they did.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Check out the hilarious camera placement when Hayward slashes away at a garish portrait of Mom. It’s from behind the painting. Presumably the P.O.V. of one of the film’s many color-coordinated walls. And watch for a 20-yr flashback with everyone looking exactly the same.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, THE CARPETBAGGERS shows how this sort of thing can be both well-crafted & fun, while the Henry Hathaway prequel to that film, NEVADA SMITH/’66, is even better.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

EXPORTING RAYMOND (2010)

And the trailer looked so funny. Phil Rosenthal, one of the top creative guys on EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND, flies to Moscow to help start up a Russian version of the popular domestic Sit-Com, rechristened EVERYONE LOVES KOSTYA. Struggling to retain the show’s tone of wry, observational humor, he’s met with wacky comic exaggeration, Soviet-era production facilities and non-starter ideas about designer duds for his cast. It’s hard to know who you’d rather strangle first, Rosenthal with his unchanging quizzical expression or the uncomprehending Russian tv pros he’s up against. A couple of sidebar looks at life & times away from the studio give a bit of relief, they might work as the ‘light’ feature on a Sunday Morning news show, but this painfully conventional documentary offers little enlightenment other than the notion that ‘bland’ loses little in translation.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

DES HOMMES ET DES DIEUX / OF GODS AND MEN (2010)

Xavier Beauvois’s fact-inspired film of modern martyrdom, set in Algeria during a 1996 uprising of Islamic fundamentalists, calmly watches as seven members of a small Catholic monastery (and, later, a visitor from the local diocese) decide what actions (if any) they should take to protect themselves. Welcome members in the local community, and the only medical resource in the area, the men are fully aware of the encroaching danger, but are unwilling to adjust, neither accepting protection from the military nor able to deny treatment to the rebels when asked; they're A MONASTERY FOR ALL SEASONS. But, as with Robert Bolt’s version of Thomas More, something’s gone missing. For More, as portrayed in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS/’66, it was the irony of embracing the ‘principled’ religious edicts of a politically-minded Pope. For DES HOMMES, it’s the idea that religious conviction & daily routine immunize against consequences. Is their (lack of) response noble & courageous or blind & vain? The film seems to have made up our mind for us. Handsomely put together and superbly acted (even when the seven monks make you think of Disney’s 7 Dwarfs), but without the abstracted stylization, pace & theatricality Fred Zinnemann was able to give the earlier film, it weighs you down when it wants to haunt you.

DOUBLE-BILL: Those with a taste for the monastic life (and a lot of patience) can soak up a year’s worth of solitude & quiet atmosphere with INTO GREAT SILENCE/’05.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

LES FELINS / JOY HOUSE (1964)

French director René Clément’s reputation seemed to hover on and off the proscribed list of ‘Quality MovieMakers’ held in contempt by the ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ crowd. And, in truth, even the titles that keep his name alive (FORBIDDEN GAMES/’52; PURPLE NOON/’60) don’t quite match the encomiums found on the packaging. So, it’s no surprise to find this lighter effort, a sort of shaggy-dog thriller, so eager to tap into creepy, crawly DIABOLIQUE/’55 territory, it fritters away its possibilities. Alain Delon, a stud on the lam, is fleeing some revenge seeking Stateside killers when he’s plucked out of a French homeless shelter by a couple of chic chicks (Jane Fonda & Lola Albright) to serve as their new chauffeur. If it sounds too good to be true, it is; a situation Delon soon scopes out when he investigates the many closed rooms in the cousins' over-decorated mansion between rival bouts of l’amour. Turns out there’s a fourth side to this budding triangle. Clément knows what he’s after, trying to cover plot holes with decor, but the fun leaks out with the logic. On the other hand, Fonda, long before she started exercising & became self-conscious about her acting, is something to see.

DOUBLE-BILL: Going all outlier here, THE BEGUILED/’71, Don Siegel’s unexpected Civil War morality tale traps Alpha-Male soldier boy Clint Eastwood in a horror house of love-starved women.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935)

Pricelessly, even painfully funny W. C. Fields comedy finds the great man living in a kind of domestic chamber–of-horrors with a shrewish second wife, a couple of appalling in-laws and a loyal, good-hearted daughter. Life is just one comic gem of frustration after another as Fields confronts tipsy burglars in his basement; collects four traffic tickets in six minutes; loses his job by taking his first afternoon off in 29 years; and generally lives the Life of Job . . . in a neat seven reels. Ionesco and Beckett had nothing on Fields when it comes to the absurdity of modern life . . . but could they juggle cigar boxes?* Everyone gets to be mean & hilarious in this one, with ripe theatrical turns played straight to the gallery. (Grady Sutton is a particular tower of asinine behavior.) Clyde Bruckman, more of a gag man (with Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd on his C.V.) than a director, uses homely proscenium set-ups that tap into a theatrical energy, so there’s always some forward movement whatever the pace. Look for Fields’ long-time mistress, Carla Monti, doing quite nicely as his understanding secretary. It’s a real part, too, with a chance to shine on a few tongue-twisting lines explaining what really went on when Fields went AWOL.

DOUBLE-BILL: Field’s silent version of this one, RUNNING WILD/’27 (not seen here), has a so-so rep, but it’s director was the great comedy director, Gregory La Cava, of STAGE DOOR/’37 and MY MAN GODFREY/’36 fame. Apparently, it uses the same basic set-up but charts a very different narrative. No DVD, yet, but adventurous types might want to try the subfusc dub on YOUTUBE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVW_lhu3ltk

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Considering that Fields juggled his way around the major theaters of the world, his films rarely caught him ‘in the act.’ But there’s a pretty complete record of his Cigar Box routine in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY/’34.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012)

Few famous film quotes bat quite as high an inaccuracy percentage as Tom Hanks earns for ‘There’s no crying in baseball.’ It’s hard to think of another sport quite as weepy. And that goes double for movies about baseball. This one manages the unlikely trick of pitching (that’s story pitching) BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY/’73 meets ON GOLDEN POND/’81. Clint Eastwood, in raspy-voice, curmudgeon mode, takes the Robert De Niro/Henry Fonda spot as an aging major league talent scout who’s losing his sight and needs to reconnect with his powerhouse daughter. That’d be Amy Adams, batting for Michael Moriarty/Jane Fonda in the line-up as the high-powered attorney who takes a break from her job to sort out her well-tended grudge against Pop, all the while helping him hold on to his job. Hmm, which makes Justin Timberlake . . . Katherine Hepburn? No, that’s not right. Well, anyway, they’re all down South to check on a promising hitting sensation, a nasty blowhard type who’s got a weak spot only Clint can spot. But who’ll believe him? Newbie megger Robert Lorenz gets a nice lazy rhythm going, but he can’t seem to keep away from adorable photo-ops: a bar fight, a midnight swim in a pond, diners with sassy waitresses, clog dancing . . . CLOG DANCING? The last reel kicks in with a whole laundry list of cheap dramatic payoffs that might have worked in a different, less laid-back sort of film. (Does the peanut boy really have to be the next Sandy Koufax? Geez.) Still, the company is pleasant enough, and Amy Adams a good deal more than that.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see Clint deliver in late curmudgeon mode, try GRAND TORINO/’08. Or, for a baseball fix without tears, there’s always IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING/’49. (Alas, VHS only. Get on the ball 20th/Fox.)

Friday, October 4, 2013

THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE (1947)

When John Van Druten ‘opened up’ his trim ‘three-hander’ for the movies, he turned the biggest hit of his career into a very ordinary romantic-comedy, with little trace of the play’s purported enchantment. Eleanor Parker, in a failed bid at catching the mannerisms & charm Margaret Sullavan brought to the original stage production, plays a young actress just getting over a casual affair she took too seriously. Still licking her wounds, real love is the last thing she’s looking for. But it’s just what she finds when gal pal Eve Arden dumps a nice soldier boy in her lap when a better prospect unexpectedly turns up. Arden, normally the most reliable of players, gives a desperate sort of perf, lunging at quips she’d normally toss off to twice the effect. Blame megger Irving Rapper who has his cast plant both feet before delivering. The freshest thing in the film is Ronald Reagan, top-billed in a Triple A project, at last! It’s not his best work, but as a decent guy who’s comfortable in his skin (and even in the kitchen), he knows how to relax and still make his mark.

DOUBLE-BILL: Irving Rapper muffed the stage magic of two more classics in film adaptations of THE CORN IS GREEN/’45 and THE GLASS MENAGERIE/’50. On the other hand, he had much better luck turning Louis Verneuil’s flop ‘two-hander,’ OBSESSION, into the deliciously over-ripe film ‘three-hander,’ DECEPTION/’46.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Two tell-tale Production Code moments to look for. Watch for a quick cut of Reagan going back to his hotel when it’s obvious he really spent the night . . . and not on Parker’s daybed. No doubt, a sop to top censor Joseph Breen. And what’s the deal with Kent Smith’s producer? His part, the casual lover who dumps Parker, is only spoken of in the play, but note how holding to Production Code niceties make him seem either gay or, perhaps, an asexual chum, giving off a vibe Parker misreads. Intentional or no?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

POPPY (1936)

A. Edward Sutherland first directed W. C. Fields in the silent feature IT’S THE OLD ARMY GAME/’26; remade in ‘34 as Norman C. McLeod’s far superior sound film, IT’S A GIFT/‘34. Here, the pattern is reversed, as Sutherland megs the inferior sound remake of Fields’ first silent feature, SALLY OF THE SAWDUST/’25, well handled by D. W. Griffith, a man not generally known for comedy. POPPY, staged in 1923, was Fields’ first big stage success outside of revue formats like the Ziegfeld Follies. With a lightly sentimental plot and a co-star from Hollywood (Madge Kennedy), it still had space to showcase Fields' specialty act and let him play an actual character. Griffith made any number of structural changes for his film version, mainly to highlight leading lady Carol Dempster. But he also clarified the backstory of a ‘wronged woman’ as well as her link to the Carny Con Man who, years later, hopes to use his informally adopted daughter to fleece some wealthy locals, passing her off as their long lost granddaughter. The gimmick is that she really is their long lost granddaughter. Griffith’s smartest move was also the simplest, moving it out of its period setting to bring in a livelier, modern pace. Sutherland’s film goes back to 1883, and lets everyone fall into Fields’ increasingly slow drawl. The film plays like an early ‘30s release from FOX, and never does get up on its feet. A possible explanation is that Fields was ill during the shoot (note all the lousy stunt doubling), but that hardly excuses the rest of the cast. While this obviously holds a singular trump card over the silent film just by offering up those dulcet Fieldsian tones, Griffith’s earlier version remains preferable in every other way, a real charmer.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As noted above, SALLY OF THE SAWDUST even with its silly ride-to-the-rescue finale; or IT’S A GIFT for a blast of Fields in his absolute Paramount Studios prime.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

You know something’s seriously off in this opening salvo of Peter Jackson’s Super-Sized tri-part prequel to LOtR when you get giddy merely at spotting Gollum, that evil little pixie, crawling out from behind a rock. After three long hauls thru LOtR, who’da thunk his annoying calls of ‘Precious’ would sound so welcoming? To be fair, the film actually finds its footing two sequences earlier, when some rocky Mountain Monsters come to life. (Jackson seems to have finally figured out how he might have managed KING KONG/’05 . . . and does it in a neat eight minutes.) Presumably, Jackson had mentally moved on after three LOtR pics, and tried pretty hard to get someone else on this. No wonder, the first two acts feel dutiful & lifeless, with guest appearances from old team members like Cate Blanchett & Christopher Lee coming across with all the vivacity of a Royal visit to a Children’s Hospital. Wave. Smile. Move On. Maybe, the big improvement of the last act can be seen as an indication of better things to come. Hopefully, with a couple of gags that aim higher than Kiddie Pantomime . . . and fewer uplifting music cues.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hollywood ECON-101: Topic: Milk That Cow:

  1. HOBBIT the Book - one-fifth as long as LORD OF THE RINGS the Book.

  2. HOBBIT the Movie Trilogy - estimated running-time to exceed LOtR the Movie Trilogy.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

SOUND OF MY VOICE (2011)

Newbie megger Zal Batmanglij & writing partner/actress Brit Marling got a distrib pick-up, but almost no commercial traction on this MumbleCore/Psychological Thriller about a pair of amateur video investigative journalists trying to crash a nascent mini-cult. The laughably transparent leader claims she’s from the future, but it’s hard to believe anyone would follow her to Dairy Queen for a free double-dipped cone let alone paradise. The film spends most of its time trying to tantalize us, vigorously applying the supernatural/metaphysical ‘maybe’ factor, all the way to a ‘gotcha’ denouement that feels more like narrative surrender than the gasp-worthy moment they were aiming at. Those who can keep their focus thru the flat uncadenced acting that passes for naturalism in these things (just imagine giving the cast a good slap every now & then) may get something out of noting how much the peer-pressure inside the cult resembles the group-think mentality at Film Fests that gives so much crap premature commercial/artistic buzz.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Gold Standard for ghostly paranormal tales remains Henry James THE TURN OF THE SCREW; disturbingly filmed as THE INNOCENTS/’61. But Jeff Nichols’ TAKE SHELTER/’11, while hardly a complete success, is a nearer companion piece, right down to its infuriating ‘gotcha’ twist-ending.