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Saturday, November 30, 2013

SMILEY'S PEOPLE (1982)

Alec Guinness returned as George Smiley, John LeCarré’s impeccable, noiseless master spy in what is generally considered a slightly lesser follow-up to TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, the game-changing mini-series of 1979. Well, perhaps, but who would forgo six more chances to see Guinness cogitate, polish his extra-large eye-glasses & strategically withhold emotion, wasted action & information on his careful route to capturing Karla, his Soviet spy-master counterpart. A few actors come back from TINKER, and the replacements and new characters have no trouble fitting in under helming from Simon Langton that purposefully holds to a bare simmer, yet grows increasingly suspenseful over its six episodes. This is one of the few mini-series that makes you wish you could stretch out the end, the way you slow your reading pace to savor the last few pages of a favorite book.

DOUBLE-BILL/READ ALL ABOUT IT: Smiley was introduced in LeCarre’s debut novel CALL FOR THE DEAD/’61, filmed as THE DEADLY AFFAIR/’66, a Sidney Lumet film with James Mason as one Charles Dobbs, a renamed & largely reimagined George Smiley. LeCarre’s follow-up novel, A MURDER OF QUALITY/’62 (filmed for tv with Denholm Elliot in ‘91), misused Smiley as a sort of Agatha Christie amateur detective. Oops. Yet THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY, which finds Smiley rewarded as MI-6 caretaker-in-chief in the period between TINKER and PEOPLE, awaits dramatization.

Friday, November 29, 2013

BONSAI (2011)

Except for its cinematographer, none of the creative principals in front or behind the camera on this bewitching little art film has more than a handful of credits. Yet, it’s the ‘find’ you long to stumble upon in the corner of some film fest. Chilean writer/director Cristián Jimenez has a wonderfully unobtrusive eye for handsome, narrative-charged compositions, even his choice for the background of the chapter titles radiates with visual pleasure. Here, he balances grace & emotion with an easy touch in a story that unfolds on two timelines, set eight years apart. Diego Noguera is the young, struggling writer who’s just been underbid for a job typing up a famous author’s latest hand-written novel. Rather than admit to the disappointment, he starts a charade for his girlfriend, buying four notebooks that match the author’s and handwriting a novel of his own to type up. For a story, he dives into the recent past, his own romantic life eight years back when he was still in college. The set up is somewhat farcical, and the film has much warm humor to it, but the tone is more romantic than comic, eventually darkly so. The cast is attractive (in and out of clothes) and the situations grow intensely involving, even though Jimenez does let everyone take their time more than he ought to. Chances for a major career working out of Chile is anyone’s guess, but original voices that dazzle quietly, speaking rather than yelling, voices worthy of comparison with an Aki Kaurismäki, are too rare to ignore.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

UNE AFFAIRE DE GOUT / A MATTER OF TASTE (2000)

Bernard Rapp’s psychological co-dependency thriller doesn’t quite add up (or come off), but the basic idea holds your attention even as it reminds you of something better, say, Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter’s THE SERVANT/’63. Bernard Giraudeau plays a master-of-the-universe business type who hires Jean-Pierre Lorit, a boyishly handsome waiter, as his ‘taster’ . . . but there's more than food involved. Not sex, exactly, something closer. He's taking over his life for companionship, blood-brotherhood, a doppelgänger made from scratch. But for the concept of the story to work, we need to be as readily seduced as Lorit is; and Giraudeau comes across as little more than a rich, controlling, narcissistic asshole. Actually, the most intriguing character, and the film’s best perf, comes from Charles Berling as the personal chef. Playing Mosca to Giraudeau’s Volpone, he’s on to everything that goes on, and knows how to manipulate all parties. But instead of working off of Berling’s POV, Rapp tries to camouflage the film’s thin texture with a flashback structure that finds an elderly Jean-Pierre Léaud (Truffaut’s famous film alter ego) playing investigating jurist to most of the principals, killing off any possible suspense.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In addition to THE SERVANT (see above), Orson Welles’ fascinating, if hard to love, MR. ARKADIN/’55 also keeps coming to mind.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)

After hitting up Barcelona, London & Paris for inspiration (and cheaper production costs), Woody Allen took his cinematic Cook’s Tour off to Rome . . . for rest & relaxation. While intersecting four or five regrettably pat tales-of-the-city comes easily to Allen, getting them up & running proves too much trouble. That generic title is the first clue that we’re on auto-pilot. And not even his; Neil Simon’s!, with a stale gag for every situation. But hang on, once past a comically arthritic Act One, with characters dumbed down to a tenth their normal IQ to facilitate the set up, the film comes up to a slow boil, turning pleasingly silly, even if it never makes contact with its location as Allen’s previous Euro-pics did. Depending on your taste & mood, about two-thirds of the sketches ‘land,’ with the locals coming off best: the tenor who only sings well in the shower (a wet recital is a hoot); Roberto Benigni getting 15 minutes of fame; a sexually charming hotel thief. The most daring idea has Alec Baldwin playing a sort of sometimes real/sometimes ectoplasmic mentor to Jesse Eisenberg.* A bewitching idea if you can tolerate Eisenberg, plenty annoying on his own, twice so filling in as a young Woody Allen. In fact, there’s a Woody Allen part in each of the sketches! Turns out, Roberto Benigni now makes a better Woody Allen than Woody Allen.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Baldwin’s role isn’t far removed from the ghostly Humphrey Bogart mentor of Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM/’72. But since we’re in Rome, pair this with THE WHITE SHEIK/’52, an early Fellini that’s an obvious inspiration.

Monday, November 25, 2013

OSLO, 31. AUGUST / OSLO, AUGUST 31st (2011)

From Norway, Joachim Trier’s low-key downer uses DOGMA’s barebones filmmaking style to track a day in the life of a suicidal 30-something as he leaves his anti-addiction clinic for a job interview in Oslo, along with a series of ad-hoc reunions with past friends. Brutally honest without being in any way revelatory, the film degenerates from situations to set-ups, with one encounter after another used as an excuse to trigger escalating negative reactions. It comes off as too impressed with itself, pleading for attention that ought to be reserved for its fast-falling protagonist, a still young man with too many chips on his shoulder. Hard to see how someone in such fragile condition got approved for a day pass in the first place, but the film is as determinist as a Calvinist after a missed train connection. On the positive side, credit Trier with not making too much of a meal out of every step down the rung: the first drink, some swiped cash, finding an old drug supplier, all handled as casually as grabbing the bus on a familiar route.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The downbeat cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Hubbert & Gabriel Byrne all signed on for Trier’s English-language debut, but the film was scuttled when investors got cold feet. Maybe the shock of disappointment will cause Trier to lighten up.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

BRAVE (2012)

Something obviously went very wrong @ Pixar on this one; and it went wrong at conception. You can feel all those creative minds (and multiple directors) trying to coax it to life, but the narrative stubbornly plays out like a series of second-guesses that could improve, but never quite fix the basic problem. Our lead, Princess Merida, a modern-thinking tomboy rebel type (a concept that must seem tired even to pre-teens), refuses to choose from three possible suitors. Instead, she finds a witch, buys a potion, and winds up turning Mom into a monstrous bear, just like the one who cost Dad his leg back in the day. This isn’t a story; it’s a Freudian castration substitution nightmare! Dark as this is, the film fights off all implications with modestly successful comic busyness, but the underdeveloped characters and unwieldy animation designs are equally problematic. Only the impeccable background design team lives up to expectations. (Along with Merida’s springy red tresses.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: That’s Kelly Macdonald, the gangster’s wife from BOARDWALK EMPIRE, behind the vocals for Princess Merida. But she also might be behind the visuals for Queen Elinor. Emma Thompson does the voice, but the face is all Macdonald.

Friday, November 22, 2013

FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH (1933)

It’s raining cats & dogs out there, you can hardly see a thing, and a London bus swerves too late to avoid a collapsing construction crane. CRASH! Two passengers are killed in the accident, but which two? Ahh! . . . there’s the gimmick. And you won’t find out which two die till we flashback (courtesy of Big Ben running counterclockwise) on the six or seven stories that put a dozen riders, along with a driver & conductor, on that doomed double-decker. This clever British pic, loaded with talent in front & behind the camera, and neatly directed by Victor Saville, lets each of its funny or sentimental vignettes make their mark, and you won’t need a scorecard to keep things straight. That’s musical-comedy star Jessie Matthews squabbling with Ralph Richardson, her unlikely school-teacher/fiancé; Edmund Gwenn takes a hilarious Turkish Bath and just might lose a fortune on a bad stock tip; little-remembered comedy actor Max Miller really stands out as a slippery, fast-talking Cockney antique dealer with dubious goods to barter; plus, a couple of two-timing middle-aged love scenes, one humorous, one pathetic; and Emlyn Williams (who also wrote the film’s tasty dialogue) as an opportunistic blackguard out to blackmail nice Frank Lawton. It’s something of an All-Star cast, and a few technical crudities caused by a modest budget & the inevitable substandard British production values of the period shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the heck out of this. Plus, as a historical extra, it’s serves up a fine gloss on the variety of British acting styles still intact, just before the Talkies and the mass media homogenized everything.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a good Hollywood take on the form, with an even starrier cast, try PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER/’52.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

NASANUNAKA / NO BLOOD RELATION (1932)

The two films included on this disk in Criterion’s silent film 3-pack from Japanese director Mikio Naruse (the feature-length women’s drama NO BLOOD RELATION and the largely comic three-reeler KOSHIBEN GANBARE/FLUNKY, WORK HARD!/’31 [excellent title!]), are his earliest surviving efforts, and still have the feel of apprentice work. In both film technique & story construction, there’s a show-offy, 20-something quality Naruse would soon leave behind. (At least, judging by STREET WITHOUT END/’34, also included in the set.) The short, a neat piece of comedy about two struggling insurance salesmen who’ll do anything to make a sale, uses the financial pressures of depression era Japanese suburban life to underpin the gags, but just barely survives a jumpy editing style and a Soviet-style montage-of-attraction flourish that appears out of the blue at the climax. It's fun to watch, but it sticks out in quite the wrong way.

Mikio Naruse - circa '32

There are similar missteps in the feature-length film, especially in Naruse’s addiction to fast tracking shots that push in to the action. Effective when used sparingly, here they never stop coming. Still, what an interesting piece of women’s magazine fiction this is. A Japanese actress returns from Hollywood, rich and hoping to find the child she deserted six years ago. Her kid’s doing well with a beloved step-mother, but the father's business is headed toward bankruptcy and his cold-hearted mother is more than willing to grant child custody to the rich actress if she’ll save the business . . . as well as her plush life style. Sounds plenty lively, but even better is a sidebar plot involving the actress’s venal brother, a con man with a wily assistant, who makes his living running swindles. It’s a disappointment when we find out, after the lively prologue, that these two are secondary figures in the drama. And its odd to see both the short & the feature toss a kid in harms way to facilitate dramatic endings. Fascinating stuff, though. And there's so much more Naruse left that has yet to show up Stateside, even with half his output now considered lost.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It seems ungrateful to complain about Criterion's release of these rarities, who else would bother? But the new music scores accompanying these films are disappointing. Too sober for the short subject; too stolid for the feature. With the feature, you can always play & repeat Manuel De Falla’s NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN as background music; mysteriously, it works on every non-comic silent film ever made, though no one knows why. But the short needs something jazzy going on to support the slightly desperate comedy, before switching gears for the dramatic ending. You’re on your own for this one.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

HENRY AND JUNE (1990)

Under Philippe Rousselot’s honeyed lensing, the artists, writers & professional sex trade workers of ‘30s Paris, look impossibly alluring, lit from within in Philip Kaufman’s glamorized version of the sexual life, times & infamous diary of Anaïs Nin. In hindsight, the cast looks even stronger than it must have on release with early credits for Uma Thurman, Richard E. Grant & Kevin Spacey as friends & lovers to Maria de Medeiros’ Nin, whose old-fashioned heart-shaped face & petite form have something of Merle Oberon to them.* While Fred Ward, thicker & certainly balder than everyone else, is charged up, unexpectedly charming and far more convincing than the usual cinematic writer figure as TROPIC OF CANCER author Henry Miller. In so many aspects, the film is an exemplary model for a literary biography. And yet, except for a brief montage where we join Brassaï on a nighttime round of flash photography, the situations & personalities turn out to be less interesting than we imagined, shrinking rather than expanding as Kaufman nails them down in perfectly lit, fluid-free sexcapades.** Nin & Miller were writing about many things, and sex may have been the most important, but they certainly weren’t writing about a photoshoot, which is what we too often settle for here.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Speaking of Merle Oberon, her best work is in THESE THREE/’36, William Wyler’s superb first adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR. The relationships, if not the plot, have a lot in common with HENRY AND JUNE, though the lesbian relationship was dropped in 1936 and needs to be inferred. Alas, this remarkable film has yet to get a Stateside DVD release. But it’s out in Europe so it should show up eventually.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: **The sex scenes are, oddly, hot, but tidy, perhaps in a failed attempt to curry favor with the ratings board which, in any event, refused an R rating, instead, christening the new NC-17 on it. Today, it’d rate an easy R, even with a bit of sweat added to the rutting.

Friday, November 15, 2013

IMPARDONNABLES / UNFORGIVABLE (2011)

André Téchiné, probably the last classicist of French cinema, was pushing 70 when he made this character study that promises more than it delivers. That's especially so in the first half which toys with the menacing pattern of a deconstructed genre pic like Téchiné's own SCENE OF THE CRIME/’86. Alas, his interests here lie elsewhere in a story populated with unforgivably self-centered jerks we don’t feel nearly as generous toward as we're asked to. André Dussollier plays a popular crime novelist who moves to Venice for his work and unexpectedly finds himself marrying real estate agent Carole Bouquet, almost on sight. But when his absurdly selfish, puffy-lipped daughter goes AWOL on a visit, heartlessly leaving a husband & kid in the lurch, he hires his new wife’s ex-lover to investigate; and then secretly hires the investigator’s son (fresh out of prison) to follow his wife. Well, Bouquet is acting mysteriously. Could she be involved in the disappearance? Having an affair? More likely, they’re all just acting like shits for no discernible reason. Téchiné orchestrates the multiple storylines, and sexual attractions (straight, gay & bi-curious), with typical elegance, aplomb & economy (who else jumps two steps ahead so seamlessly, without wrecking the narrative line?), but once you realize that there’s no mystery or conspiracy going on, no genre thriller aspects to the thing, it all starts to feel pointless; a series of Eurotrash pas de deux relationship dances going nowhere. NOTE: There’s a frighteningly believable act of animal cruelty in here, a strange & violent reaction by a gang of gay street toughs, as unnecessary as it is unbelievable . . . even impardonnable. Whatever was Téchiné thinking?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Sounds odd, but in profile, Carole Bouquet is an absolute ringer for Julie Andrews. Now, imagine Luis Buñuel casting Mary Poppins instead of Bouquet in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE/’77. What a delicious idea!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The gay-themed drama WILD REEDS/’94 is generally considered Téchiné’s masterpiece, but almost anything of his with Catherine Denueve (SCENE OF THE CRIME; MY FAVORITE SEASON/’93 or the recent GIRL ON THE TRAIN/’09, not seen here) would be a better place to start.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

THE GIRL FROM IOth AVENUE (1935)

After Bette Davis’s career took off with OF HUMAN BONDAGE/’34 @ RKO, she returned to Warners, her home studio, and was promptly hustled thru nine pics in two years. Six of them programmers, like this slapped together adaptation of a forgotten twenty yr-old play (OUTCAST/Hubert Henry Davies) that finds her blue-collar gal falling into a tipsy surprise marriage with Ian Hunter, a recently dumped society swell out on a bender. The script & production are straight off the rack and Davis must have been bored to tears playing one of those supportive, good wife parts. There’s more creativity in the film’s striking poster than in a barely updated script that’s equal parts cliché & holes. Can they make a go of an accidental marriage? Will he stop pining for the dame that got away? Can Bette tone up her act to fit in with the Upper Crust? In spite of her antipathy, Davis could be awfully good in these things, and she looks quite fetching in Orry-Kelly’s tightly tailored outfits. One of her hats is a peach. There’s also some neat, goofy support from a couple of Hunter’s bachelor pals and a brief, nakedly masochistic perf from Dr. Frankenstein, himself, Colin Clive, as Hunter’s past rival. Maybe the play might show a bit of life if megger Alfred E. Green wasn’t phoning it in, making this 1935 film look as if it had sat on the shelf while styles in film making & sound technology passed it by.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It was films like this that made Davis try to break her contract. She lost her case in court, but won the war back on the lot with a triumphant return to Warners in ‘37 where she was met with the greatest run of parts ever: 25 films in a decade, more than half classics. Yet there’s plenty of good pickin’s even in some lesser known titles from her galley years: THREE ON A MATCH/’32; 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING/’32; JIMMY THE GENT/’34; BORDERTOWN/’35; that’s a career’s worth of roles for many a Hollywood star.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: In Whitney Stine’s MOTHER GODDAM, one of the better film-by-film looks @ Davis (and with a great running commentary by Davis herself), this film is so little thought of, they screw up the title as THE GIRLS FROM 10TH AVENUE.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

HELL'S HALF ACRE (1954)

Not every film boasts Don the Beachcomber as Technical Advisor!, but when you’re making one of the first shot-on-location Hawaiian films noir, you want that real tropical atmosphere. And, for about a reel & a half, that’s what you get as soft island music plays, and wounded war vet Wendell Corey lets himself take the rap for a murder he doesn’t commit. But don’t get your hopes up, this little crime drama from Republic Pictures goes to pot right after that promising prologue. Turns out, Corey’s hiding from his past; specifically, deserted wife Evelyn Keyes, just landed in Honolulu and hoping to track him down with the serendipitous help of local cabbie Elsa Lanchester. “Underworld info, dearie? I know just the place.’ And we’re off to Honolulu’s ultra-seedy district, Hell’s Half Acre, where Keyes goes to work as a Taxi Dancer, waltzing with lowlifes and hoping to catch a clue. But do the bad guys like to dance? And what if they’ve already got a date? Key Luke, Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, is fine as the local ‘oriental’ police chief*, but no one else comes thru, not even Elsa, normally a dependable loony bird. Only lenser John L. Russell, who’d shoot PSYCHO/’60, does much with the cool Hawaiian opportunities, though patient viewers are rewarded with a late appearance by noir standby Marie Windsor, apparently married to tough guy Jesse White, the old Magtag Repairman!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *No one calls anyone Asian in this film. ‘Oriental,’ now only used for rugs, seems to have been the preferred race designation. At least, in movies at the time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR (1952)

An uncommonly interesting idea gets wasted in this halfhearted ‘Problem Pic’ on alcoholism. A shame, since the basic idea of an AA guy getting emotionally involved on a mentoring assignment, then cheating on his wife and his sobriety is a good one. We see how finding someone who understands what he’s going thru in a way his ‘normal’ wife never could might tempt him. And Ray Milland is particularly good as the sober, but weakening ad exec, almost happily married with kids after surviving some epic benders, like a best case follow-up to his character in THE LOST WEEKEND/’45. Joan Fontaine is lightly deglamorized as the struggling actress Milland helps get off the bottle, but poor Teresa Wright has little to do but be bland, pregnant & loyal as the wife & mother. An unfocused script with an abrupt ending is the main problem here, but director George Stevens, just off A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51, hardly helps matters. He seems to have lost all touch with a conversational tone, overcompensating the film’s modest requirements with odd, jarring edits & pointlessly arty dissolves. Meantime, the plot advances by desperation, like having a lovers’ rendezvous in the Egyptian wing of the museum interrupted when Milland’s kid shows up with his school class. All the while, composer Victor Young mercilessly plugs his big, fat, slushy romantic tune, no doubt, hoping for a hit record.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: That B’way production Fontaine supposedly stars in might be AIDA @ the Old Met. Did theatrical dramas really look anything like this in the ‘50s?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While not the landmark film once thought, THE LOST WEEKEND (see above) has lots of great, seedy NYC atmosphere to go along with Milland’s still impressive drunk act.

Monday, November 11, 2013

HOTARU NO HAKA / GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

Along with his better-known partner, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata is the still active co-founder of Japan’s Ghibili Animation Studios. And while his films have never acquired the Stateside profile of his partner’s work, this horrors-of-war story, about an orphaned teenage boy & his kid sister trying to scrape by during the chaotic WWII endgame in Japan, has a fierce following and now a new DVD remastering. It’s one of those films that says all the right things (whose side can one be on when innocent children suffer?), yet winds up pulling more tears out of its principals than out of an audience. As the inseparable siblings slide toward a desperate end: mother lost to firebombs; father presumably lost to the navy; distant relatives giving little comfort; and a prideful attempt to live alone in a deserted shelter turning the boy into a scavenging thief and the girl into a malnutritioned shadow of her spirited self; the tragic events start to feel mechanical, with the two children corralled into big issue topics. And Takahata, at least in this film, doesn’t have the sheer visual command of his more famous animation partner, while the use of ghostly flashbacks & those glowing fireflies that live but a day begins to feel awfully calculated.

NOTE: The on-going popularity of this film in Japan appears to have inspired a live-action remake (see poster). Its hard to think this would be an improvement.

DOUBLE-BILL: Takahata must have taken some of his inspiration from René Clément’s equally honored, equally acclaimed, equally overpraised FORBIDDEN GAMES/’52, another film that looks at WWII from a child’s POV. François Truffaut’s minority view was that it failed because the kids weren’t believable, too solemn & thoughtful, and, perhaps, that’s the underlying problem with FIREFLIES, as well.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The children’s WWII wartime experience in John Boorman’s HOPE AND GLORY/’87 can’t be compared with the horrors Takahata has to deal with, but the film remains breathtakingly original.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A STOLEN FACE (1952)

This little thriller from HAMMER FILMS, made in the years before their signature horror pics, has lots of good ideas in it . . . all easily found in better movies. The main lift is from A WOMAN’S FACE/’41, a Joan Crawford remake of a Swedish Ingrid Bergman film, the one about a badly scarred woman whose criminal life is tied to her maimed features. Might a spot of plastic surgery ‘cure’ her inside and out? Here, Paul Henreid plays the doctor and Lizabeth Scott’s the bad-seed character. That is, it’s Lizabeth Scott in the part after the surgery. That’s because Henreid falls hard for the real Lizabeth Scott character, a concert pianist he can’t have since she’s already engaged. And when you can’t possess the woman you love, you surgically alter a prison patient to look just like her. Of course! Too bad she’s the same bad seed under that new face. He’ll just have to teach this lowlife criminal how to act like a lady. That’s when the original Scott returns on the scene, having dumped her fiancé! What’s a successful plastic surgeon to do? Murder his failed experiment? I count major plot borrowings from A STOLEN LIFE/’46, VERTIGO/’58, EYES WITHOUT A FACE/’60; PYGMALION/’38 and AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY/’31; in addition to A WOMAN’S FACE. Some of these films were already made, some hadn’t yet been thought of, but all are improvements. Too bad the script is so clumsy & silly since director Terence Fisher manages a pretty slick look under the circumstances and the actors aren’t phoning it in. Noir babe Lizabeth Scott even looks fresh & happy, quite a change from her steamy/recently-abused default mode.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: All the pics referenced above are well worth watching. Try AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, Josef von Sternberg’s lesser-known take on the Dreiser classic that also became George Steven’s A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51.

Friday, November 8, 2013

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949)

Cecil B. DeMille ended the 1940s, his most ludicrous decade, with this ridiculously popular, not to say ridiculous, Biblical number. Shot largely on airless soundstage sets, to match the clunky airless dialogue, the film spends most of its energy trying to redeem Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah from deepest villainy. But in the recent, whoppingly bright DVD restoration, Hedy looks so damn pleased to be back on an A-list movie project, the real redemption isn’t for her character, but for her career. (She’s like a slightly less deluded Norma Desmond in a return to the limelight nearly as brief.) Victor Mature’s Samson, as beefy & thick of neck as a linebacker in the off-season, got scant help from his director after he nixed wrestling with a live lion. The stuffed replacement DeMille gave him is infamous in Hollywood, but then, the rest of the action staging is just as weak. Flat as this all is, and with acting straight out of a local bible pageant, DeMille’s storytelling instincts remain in place and he manages to carry you along, even if you giggle on the way there. Things liven up for the third act, with a couple of darkly lit scenes for a blinded Samson at the grindstone to add some much needed vivant to the tableaux before we head off for that big temple finish. It’s all something of a trial run for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56, with many a similar role & situation, except everyone keeps saying ‘Oh, Samson, Samson’ instead of ‘Oh, Moses, Moses.

DOUBLE-BILL: As the Saran of Gaza, a King who can never possess Delilah’s love as Samson does, George Sanders has the role Yul Brynner would get in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56. But Sanders, who’s the best thing in here, would reprise nearly the same role in IVANHOE/’52, now pining for a young Elizabeth Taylor.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

NO (2012)

Pablo Larrian’s all but irresistible film, from Antonio Skármeta’s play, tells the unlikely, fact-inspired story of how a young advertising executive (an indispensable Gael García Bernal) crafted slogans & an upbeat commercial campaign to win the 1988 plebiscite, ending the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. With its light, populist touch & forward-thinking message (‘Happiness Is Coming!), the campaign’s biggest obstacle may have been the clueless coalition of Leftist political parties who brought Bernal in as consultant. Fortunately for Chile, the Right was even more humorless and out of touch with the fast-changing South American Zeitgeist. More a great subject than a great film, Larrain tries to liven up a story we’re two-steps ahead of by using a period-based Cinema Verité visual style with a near Academy Ratio frame, lots of ‘hot’ light camera diffusion and haloed color registration artifacts. It helps him incorporate archival footage (make that ‘archival video’), but too often the events play out on the surface, artful applique that avoids as much as it reveals. Even the threats by thuggish authority figures & corrupt police, accurate though they undoubted are, don’t vibrate with the lasting effects they must have had at the time. And while enough comes thru to make for a satisfying story arc, it leaves the relationship between Bernal’s left-leaning creative idealist and Alfredo Castro as his right-leaning realist boss as the only fully fleshed out relationship in the film.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

Smart and economical, this taut film noir is a classic example of the form. Boasting a gloss & technical finish beyond its modest budget, it brings out tour de force work from Richard Fleischer, Earl Felton & George Diskant, helming, scripting & lensing with imagination & daring. The plot mechanics are pretty straightforward; tough-guy detective Charles McGraw has to deliver mob widow Marie Windsor to L.A., by train from Chicago, to testify before a Grand Juror . . . and see that they don’t get rubbed out first. But when hit men finger the wrong lady on the train, a well-scrubbed innocent (Jacqueline White) traveling with her kid, McGraw’s suddenly got two dames to protect. Fleischer was probably at his best on smaller pics, willing to try an odd lens (look at an intimate little scene at a station stop midway thru), nifty hand-held stuff down train corridors, even shifting POV action shots in a close-up fight. (Hey! I just got kicked by a guy’s shoe . . . and I’m sitting in the audience!) And there’s swell use of window-framed shots that either double the action on a second plane or use the glass surface as revealing ad-hoc mirrors. All done on the run, embedded in the action without making a big artistic fuss over it. Plus, one of the great ‘reveals’ in film history. And we get out in a quick 72 minutes.

DOUBLE-BILL: Auteur-in-his-own-mind Peter Hyams added stars (Gene Hackman, Anne Archer) and half an hour’s running time in a 1990 remake that has its fans. (Not seen here.)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

KAGIRINAKI HODO / STREET WITHOUT END (1934)

HE waits anxiously at a prearranged location. (He’s going to propose.) SHE is rushing to meet him. (And planning to say yes.) But she’s hit by a car on the way there and whisked off to hospital. Leo McCarey’s LOVE AFFAIR/’39, or his redo AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER/’57? Nope, it’s a late silent from Japanese director Mikio Naruse; and the missed rendezvous isn’t the climax of Act Two, but a stepping off point for the main plot which winds up being more of a Douglas Sirk melodramatic tragedy than comic-tinged romance. Here, the girl’s a waitress in a pancake joint, and the initial boyfriend drifts off from the story after he’s stood up, replaced by the careless driver who turns out to be the rich scion of a well-placed family. He falls for the quiet, charmer he injured, but Mom & his horrid sister refuse to accept this working class girl who doesn’t know how to how to treat the house servants or even how to dress. Naruse probably over-stuffs his film with sub-plots, some quite fun like the starving artist neighbor, others puerile women’s magazine fodder like a proffered movie contract, a dramatic digression that goes nowhere. But the film quickly hooks you, in spite of some missing footage, wrapping up with fatalistic grace stunningly handled by Naruse with some unexpected vigorous editing. A rare treat, one of a Criterion trio of silent era Naruse.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In Japan, silent films were often shown with a live narrator/storyteller, a Benshi, many popular enough to have their own following. (Akira Kurosawa’s brother was a well-known one.) And it must have figured into why silent film lasted a few extra years over there. (Why hasn't some company tried to recreate the practice on a DVD's alternate audio track?) But note that when Naruse sends his lovers to the movies, they go to see Lubitsch’s wonderful early Talkie Musical THE SMILING LIEUTENANT/’31, presumably with sound.

DOUBLE-BILL: F. W. Murnau’s unfathomably great, unaccountably forgotten CITY GIRL/’30, another late silent, also takes a coffee shop girl (and what a coffee shop!) away from the workplace with an unexpected marriage, but to a farm boy. (Avoid all Public Domain prints; look for the MURNAU @ FOX box set.)

Monday, November 4, 2013

NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED

Before earning cult notoriety for horror/exploitation pics like MACABRE/’58 and THE TINGLER/’59, William Castle ground out programmers like this pseudo ripped-from-the-headlines drama, released thru Columbia Pictures. Here, he fritters away some decent dramatic possibilities in setting (New Orleans warehouse district & docks) & subject matter (waterfront corruption) borrowed from a couple of famous Elia Kazan pics (PANIC IN THE STREETS/’50; ON THE WATERFRONT/’54). Castle megs in a flat visual style, but tries to compensate by letting his cast ham things up, the worst of both worlds. Rarely have emotion & plot twists been quite so baldly ‘indicated.’ (Actually, the best acting comes from some stiff, real-life city officials, stunt cast for verisimilitude; along with background extras seen in a few ‘stolen’ pick-up shots.) The basic plot & structure are perfectly workable (out-of-towner exposes dockside pilfering at his own risk after a fast rise inside the union), and there’s even a romantic misstep by the lead that raises some interesting possibilities. Not that anyone bothers to follow up on them. After a while, assuming you’re still watching, you can amuse yourself imagining what some B-list ace like Phil Karlson or Don Siegel, both gigging @ Columbia around this time, might have done with this set up and a chance to shoot some action scenes in real New Orleans locations.*

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *As comparison, check out what Karlson does with Reno, Nevada even in a punk film like 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE/’55, or Siegel working the streets of San Francisco in the considerably better THE LINEUP/’58.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Quentin Tarantino’s tricked-up interracial buddy pic splits unevenly into two halves. First up is a neatly trimmed one-hour pre-Civil War fable about a ruthless, if cultivated bounty-hunter (Christopher Waltz) who frees black slave Jamie Foxx to help him track his latest quarry. And while the levels of violence & gore now hit modern ‘R-Rated’ limits, the b&w buddy/buddy Zeitgeist bar has seen little movement since the days of Burt Lancaster & Ossie Davis in THE SCALPHUNTERS/’68. And it’s still audience pleasing stuff. But once Leonardo DiCaprio shows up as a sadistic ‘mandingo’ plantation owner in Part Two, the fable curdles into pastiche Spaghetti Western. (It's also twice as long.) As Foxx & Waltz head South to rescue Foxx’s wife, splattery violence, circumlocutionary flurries of non-dazzling dialogue & badass behavior take the place of real story-telling, a big comedown from the narrative force Tarantino once flaunted in PULP FICTION/’94 and JACKIE BROWN/’97. (Or does more credit belong with Roger Avary & Elmore Leonard on those?) Samuel L. Jackson, as DiCaprio’s wicked house slavey, does himself proud in old-age make-up swiped from Woody Strode in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY/’62, but Waltz pretty much steals the pic. This must have come as quite a surprise to Foxx, usually the center of attention, but here unable to even get anything going with mate Kerry Washington. (So little, you wonder how Jackson figures out their backstory.) Maybe it’s time for Tarantino to stop working up his own stories magpie-style and try another adaptation.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While many anachronisms are in here on purpose, surely someone could have told QT that ‘panache,’ as Waltz uses it, didn’t acquire its modern meaning of ‘dashing style’ & ‘pizzazz’ until Edmond Rostand recoined it for CYRANO DE BERGERAC in 1897.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944)

Anthony Mann spent his galley years helming a lot of low-budget noirs, but this early effort from his start at little Republic Pictures is more mini-California Gothic, with nods toward REBECCA/’40, SUSPICION and a premonition of LAURA/’44, out two months later. William Terry (one of those faceless leads who faded away once the war ended and the boys came home) plays a wounded vet on his way to meet his girl, a pen pal he’s never seen. On the train home, he meets-cute during a train derailment (!) with a very young, very pretty, very female doctor. Then, when he goes to meet his putative girlfriend at her cliff-side mansion, he only finds an over-possessive mother, a timid live-in companion, and a grand portrait of the girl he’d been dreaming of during his recovery. No doubt, you’ve guessed the rest. But while the structure is largely telegraphed in the first two reels, the triple denouement is considerably weirder then expected. Virginia Grey makes brisk work of the good doctor while Helene Thimig &, especially, Edith Barrett, as Mom & servile companion, work up a disturbing vibe of destructive co-dependency. The film is just a programmer, but lenser Reggie Lanning manages a plush look inside the big creepy house, and Mann gets us out in just under an hour. Too bad the music department keeps tossing in comic music cues that kill the mood.

DOUBLE-BILL: Mann’s great unheralded ‘B’ pic is THE TALL TARGET/’51 about a plot to kill Lincoln as he travels to Washington for his inauguration. Why no one has tried for an upgraded remake is a mystery.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: All you IMDb mavens beware!, the little story summary on this title is a big spoiler.

Friday, November 1, 2013

HARLAN: IN THE SHADOW OF JEW SUSS (2008)

Veit Harlan, one of top German directors during WWII, specialized in large-scale historicals with big patriotic themes. His final wartime spectacular, KOLBERG/’45, a Napoleonic-era drama of German sacrifice, was even given precedent over the military during production, with thousands of Nazi soldiers brought in from the front to fill in the ranks for Harlan’s film. (Clips seen here, in restored AGFA-Color, look damn impressive, in an impersonal way.) But this film, along with Harlan’s output before, during & after the war, is rarely shown because of his most (in)famous film, JUD SÜß/’40, a prime example of Nazi cinema anti-Semitism. (The story had actually been filmed in England a few years previously, with Conrad Veidt in a sympathetic portrayal.) Certainly, the clips shown in this documentary look appalling, but who knows how the film would play in hindsight. As it is, Felix Moeller’s documentary is as frustrating as it is fascinating. Harlan, married three times, has a lot of kids & grandkids with contradictory ideas on the man, many coming up with what you might call the Alec Guinness defense, in that Harlan, like Guinness in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57, may have been forced to make these films (well, that film), but couldn’t help but make a good job of it. The film goes over this idea in laborious detail, but it winds up holding your attention, often thanks to the film clips. And then, one of Harlan’s daughters turns out to be Stanley Kubrick’s widow! She tells us about the film Kubrick contemplated making about what it must have been like to work under the Third Reich.* But what we really need to see are the films. How else to understand the man, his era and his choices?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There’s always a strong emphasis on the patriotic & propagandistic films made in German during the Nazi-era, but sheer escapism was what the public clamored for. Why not a documentary on these films? Could anything be more naturally Brechtian, more clear on the ‘banality of evil,’ then detailing a hard day carrying out crimes against humanity before having a relaxing evening at the Bijou laughing at a silly/romantic operetta? Maybe that was the film idea Kubrick had in mind?