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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

In the ‘50s, Disney Animation found a path to profitability going domestic. Out went the dark, Germanic stuff; in came American suburbs and two car garages. A CINDERELLA/’50 fit for a sit-com; a PETER PAN/’53 as American as Booth Tarkinton’s PENROD; while 101 DALMATIANS/’61 and LADY AND THE TRAMP/’55 lived in the suburbs. Not so this big ticket item. A deliberate, ambitious and wildly expensive look back at the pre-war classics, it was Disney’s Armageddon . . . in 70mm. They should’ve seen it coming. With a flattened, elegant Book of Hours pageant look, some of the multi-plane crowd scenes are stunningly ‘staged’ (the film has always been a magnet for animation-heads), but the film’s story & characters are inert. Beauty herself is completely passive, her main task is sleeping; the bland Prince out-acted by his horse; by-the-numbers comic support; even the much admired villainess & her gargoyle cohorts stylistically lifted from more memorable realizations in SNOW WHITE, FANTASIA and THE WIZARD OF OZ. The all-Tchaikovsky score works wonders at setting the scene, but other than the famous waltz, the adaptors can’t locate a singable tune. (A ‘funny’ duo for the two Kingly dads is as weak as anything in the animated Disney canon.) Perhaps Walt was just too busy plotting & planning DisneyLand to notice.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Voice actor Verna Felton, First Fairy Godmother here and in CINDERELLA/’50, sure sounds like Maureen Stapleton, no?

CONTEST: Of all the lousy tricks critics use to make big, empty talking points, the worst is . . . well, let’s not give it away. But I just used that trick to make a general point. Spot my cheat to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

L'INCONNU DU LAC / STRANGER BY THE LAKE (2013)

Camus, Antonioni & Patricia Highsmith meet New Queer Cinema in Alain Guiraudie’s David Hockney Still-Life of a thriller. That sounds a mouthful, a real inedible mash-up, but, if anything, the film proves too refined, as deliberately digested as cud in a cow’s four-stage tummy. Set in the south of France by an isolated lake that serves as a gay cruising zone, writer/director Guiraudie uses repetitive action & shots to chart the meetings, hook-ups, and then the reaction (or lack thereof) to an almost casual murder seen by one of the cruisers while hidden in the surrounding wood. But while we in the audience immediately process the information, the witness hangs in a sort of voyeuristic limbo, starting a passionate, morally unsettling (and probably dangerous) affair with the killer. The sex is explicit*, the pacing hypnotic and the implications vague & unnerving. And, happily, all pretentious blather saved for the disc’s (easily avoided) accompanying director’s interview. The film comes off as a series of unlikely events & friendships, including a strikingly original Mutt & Jeff relationship between the lake's odd-man-out straight guy & the witness. Haunting stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: A Highsmith classic like STRANGER’S ON A TRAIN/’51 may be loaded with gay subtext, but this story matches up more closely with Luchino Visconti/Marcello Mastroianni’s much underrated version of Camus’ THE STRANGER/’67. Alas, though it’s shown up on YOUTUBE, the film's Giuseppe Rotunno cinematography needs the Big Screen (those Matisse blues!) to make its mark.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Ah, for the days when coupling actors only had to worry about the freshness of their partner’s breath.

Monday, December 29, 2014

THE GROUP (1966)

With its social commentary downplayed, characters coarsened and hit-or-miss period detail, Mary McCarthy’s (in)famous novel about the post-college journey of eight Seven Sisters grads is reduced to plot, plot, plot . . . entertainingly so. Sidney Buchman’s script structures it like some SuperSized version of one of those Three Best Gal Pals pics*, with eight Vassar virgins taking on life in mid-‘30s NYC. Love, marriage, kids, mortality; it’s Careers played for real. Sidney Lumet helms with broad strokes, square staging and hop-skip-and-jump pacing; not too subtle, but never boring. The acting though is very uneven, with half ‘the group’ seriously over-parted. You keep expecting them to break into The Telephone Number from BYE BYE BIRDIE/’63. (The men give better perfs, but only Richard Mulligan’s ‘lay ‘em & leave ‘em’ Lothario is more than a purpose-built cipher.) As a catty non-Group member, Carrie Nye shows them all how it should be done**, purring like a Mid-Atlantic pussycat with lethal claws.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Step back a year for a lower income bracket take in Warners' superior THREE ON A MATCH/’32 with Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell & Bette Davis. (And see what the period really looked like, especially in make-up & hair styling.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: One of Pauline Kael’s best long form pieces was ‘The Making of The Group,’ collected in KISS KISS BANG BANG. Great behind the scenes stuff, great ‘think piece’ stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lots of links in here. **Carrie Nye’s husband, Talk Show host Dick Cavett recently starred in a stage dramatization of the infamous feud/libel lawsuit between Lillian Hellman & McCarthy, initiated after an interview where McCarthy japed that ‘every word she (Hellman) writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’ Taped live for PBS as HELLMAN v. McCARTHY/’14, it’s lively stuff.

And since THE GROUP is often seen as a sort of 1930s SEX AND THE CITY, how fitting that the only nice guy in the whole pic is played by James Broderick, father of Matthew whose wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, might well think of producing a remake as a limited cable series.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

COME LIVE WITH ME (1941)

It’s no more than a pleasant mediocrity (a half-developed script from M-G-M’s backlog?), yet it’s probably Hedy Lamaar’s best outing from a brief A-list run that barely covered WWII. As a Viennese war refugee involved with a married man (Ian Hunter), she’s about to get booted back to Nazified Austria when she meets-cute with on-the-bum author James Stewart. She needs a husband; he needs a check. You can guess the rest. But Clarence Brown helms without the forced tone you usually get in these formula dramedies; plus there’s a neat gimmick in the plot that could have raised the bar (and the temperature) if only someone had taken the time & effort. (Stewart was being rushed thru a couple of final productions before starting military service.) Back to that missed opportunity of a gimmick: Ian Hunter plays a book publisher and Verree Teasdale is not only his wife, but also his top book scout. Believing herself happy in their ‘open marriage,’ she has no idea that Stewart’s auto-biographical manuscript is all about her husband’s actual mistress. If only this situation had been expanded, or if the Teasdale role had been cast with a stronger star. (Especially since Lamaar actually connects with her co-stars here.) Say, a Ruth Chatterton or a Kay Francis. (On stage, Teasdale’s character would have been the starring role for a Kit Cornell or a Gertrude Lawrence.) Still, fun to improve this one in your head as you watch, and, as a bonus, a tremendous, throwaway gag involving Stewart and what he thinks is a naughty piece of ladies’ undergarments.

DOUBLE-BILL: Stewart calls his book WITHOUT LOVE, a title picked up by Philip Barry two years later for his companionate marriage play. On B’way w/ Katherine Hepburn; then filmed with Kate & Spence in ‘45, and as forced an outing as he ever wrote.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The old gal playing Stewart’s aphoristic g’ma is Adeline de Walt Reynolds in her film debut at 78. She’d rack up 37 more credits over the next two decades.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

MADEO / MOTHER (2009)

While less consistently audacious than the preceding releases from Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong (the serial-killer drama MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03 and THE HOST/’06, his off-the-beat monster pic), this Mother-Love story is pretty fabulous in its own way, and only gets better with a thrilling turn to the dark about halfway in. The seemingly simply story follows some well-worn paths as a single mother fights flimsy evidence & recalcitrant police detectives to prove her son’s innocence on a murder rap; an especially difficult task since her only child is a mentally challenged young man with a faulty memory for detail. But just when you think you’ve seen this one before and know where it's headed, the film begins flipping all expectations . . . without holding a single ‘got’cha’ against us. Bong’s technique is so sure (he seems to hold the whole film process in one hand), he’s able to fluidly shift in and out of linear & non-linear narrative lines, then dip into dream sequences between nerve-jangling shock edits or blissful vistas of peaceful repose, as easily as if he were doing the backstroke. Then wrap things up with satisfying endnotes that take us far beyond any simple solutions.

DOUBLE-BILL: Boon has come over, so to speak, with an English-language debut, SNOWPIERCER/’13. Write-up to come.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

AMERICANO (2011)

Actor Mathieu Demy gets an intriguing trailer out of his first stab at feature film directing. Let’s see: French real estate broker goes to SoCal after the death of his estranged mother to wrap up her affairs. Turns out Mom left him a garage-full of worthless mementos, but willed her apartment to some ‘Lola,’ a ‘working girl’ at a dive bar in Tijuana no one knows much about. A decent enough set up for a mystery tale. But Demy, who plants his camera on himself whenever possible, uses a mourner’s grief & depression to explain acting out like an impulsive asshole when he’s really just trying to keep his plot in motion. (Yep, it’s his original story, too.) And while we might go along with this as a moody mood piece, his behavior turns hopelessly idiotic. Anyway, who can give a shit about someone who parks a classic red Mustang convertible in a bad Tijuana neighborhood with the top down, his cash, passport, clothes & legal documents in the trunk, then be surprised to find it stolen the next morning? And not even a rental, but a car he stole/borrowed from his mom’s best friend (Geraldine Chaplin). Idiotic impulsive asshole behavior, si? As the putative Lola (who Demy instinctively trusts since he’s a sentimental idiotic impulsive asshole), Selma Hayek shows off a pair of seriously glam legs. It’s the film that doesn’t stand a chance.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a tasty mystery chase thru Mexico, try Don Siegel’s THE BIG STEAL/’49, a sort of noir lite with great perfs, especially from leads Robert Mitchum & Jane Greer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

LES PETITS MOUCHOIRS / LITTLE WHITE LIES (2010)

Ghastly. It’s bad form to write-up something you bailed on, but after an hour of punishingly stupid ensemble dramedy, a sort of Gallic BIG CHILL with better wine, forced conviviality, puerile inter-relationships, endless group meals, and bed hopping that only reenforces your most cherished stereotypes of how annoying the French can be on holiday, self-preservation instincts kick in. Can this be the same Guillaume Canet who wrote & directed the superb TELL NO ONE/’06? (Shows how much harder comedy is than suspense.) But enough. (With apologies for even beginning.) The only reason to bother at all is for a WATCH THIS, NOT THAT suggestion. Exactly the idea of Marion Cotillard’s character has when she tosses a bedmate post-sex to watch a DVD of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s soccer comedy/drama/revenge exposé COUP DE TÊTE/’79 with the late, great Patrick Dewaere. Nearly unknown Stateside, this wild ride/tall tale about the French regional soccer leagues is more REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE/’55 or ON THE WATERFRONT/’54 than ROCKY/’56. Though Dewaere himself is closer to, say, William Holden in STALAG 17/’53. With a meager 4 Comments on its IMDb page, it would seem to be a masterpiece waiting discovery. And it’s not as if Annaud & Dewaere are unknown talents. (Hey, Criterion, how ‘bout an ‘Unknown Dewaere’ series?) Canet’s latest disaster, BLOOD TIES/’13, a real career-killing flop, is out on DVD, why not COUP DE TÊTE?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Only our second title written up after an abbreviated viewing. So, to protect the innocent participants, a visually anonymous poster.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

THE CHILDREN'S HOUR (1961)

Lillian Hellman’s stage breakthrough was this ‘daring’ play on the personal & professional destruction that follows the made-up tattle of a school-girl on a supposed lesbian affair by the operators of her private all-girls academy. And it was Hellman herself who successfully bowdlerized the script into a conventional heterosexual triangle for the film THESE THREE/’36. Twenty-five years on, that film’s director, William Wyler, thought he could retackle the subject without the censorship. Oddly, the remake, adapted by John Michael Hayes, now feels more stagebound than Hellman’s earlier version; its starry new cast, at best, a wash. (The kids, slightly less than ‘a wash.’) Hellman was at pains to point out that the lesbian angle wasn’t important, but rather the power of a lie. Here, the lie of an entitled, vicious little brat. Well, maybe. Largely written off when first released as behind the times (where the original was ahead), the town’s overreaction to Audrey Hepburn & Shirley MacLaine being in what used to be called a ‘Boston Marriage’ was received with condescension. So unsophisticated. Fifty years on, the film now seems as much a period piece as the ‘36 original. And can probably be more readily accepted as such. As for Hellman, she’s surely mistaken about the dropped lesbian theme making no difference. Restoring it seems to change everything, informing every decision made by Shirley MacLaine’s secretly attracted, closeted character. James Garner, very good in a role that’s more plot point than person, is around to hold Hepburn to the straight and narrow, so to speak. It’s probably the element most in need of rethinking for a modern audience. In any event, time has been unusually beneficial to this well-wrought piece. While still no match for the earlier film, it’s a deeply felt, considerable achievement in its own right. And what movie maven would pass up a chance to compare & contrast lensers Gregg Toland/’36 & Franz Planer/’61 working with Wyler on such similar material?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY I:Note our poster: a still from a presumably cut trial scene?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: A successful B’way revival with Kim Hunter & Patricia Neal may have blinded Hellman & Wyler to the fast changing social/sexual Zeitgeist.

DOUBLE-BILL: Alas, THESE THREE still awaits Stateside DVD release.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

THE BIG OPERATOR (1959)

Low-grade tabloid fodder with Mickey Rooney as a corrupt union boss who’s got to turn a couple of tool & dye guys (Steve Cochran & Mel Tormé) before they testify against him. He plays nice (job offers & raises); he plays long game (buttering up the wives); he plays strong arm (Mel gets canned, Steve threatened); he plays vicious (beatings, human torching). But nothing works until he kidnaps Cochran’s boy (young Jay ‘Dennis the Menace’ North). It’s mostly tv talent behind the camera, with an OTT jazzed-up score and some nice b&w CinemaScope location lensing between the violent encounters & flatly lit interior sets. Plus, a decidedly weird mix to the cast with Jackie Coogan, Mamie Van Doren, Charles Chaplin, Jr. & Jim Backus. (Backus gets to fight it out in an action scene!) Rooney, looking unusually trim & fit for the period, is plenty effective, just don’t expect the nuances of Cagney or Eddie G. But Cochran gets the best bit bringing a carful of honest union guys to rescue his kid by remembering (and retracing in reverse!) every sound he heard while blindfolded during what must have been a 45 minute drive. It might be one of those Marx Bros. routines with Harpo pantomiming ‘clues’ for Chico to decipher.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a serious take on this sort of union/city politics corruption, Francesco Rosi’s Naples-set HANDS OVER THE CITY/’63 with Rod Steiger is pretty hard to beat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Speaking of Italian pics, two years before, Steve Cochran had the lead in Michelangelo Antonioni’s IL GRIDO/’57. Now this. He must have had some crazy agent!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

YOSSI (2012)

Israeli director Eytan Fox follows up on his gay-themed military story YOSSI & JAGGER/’02 with this wet noodle of a ten-years-after sequel. Now firmly buried in his hospital routine, Dr. Yossi sees to his patients, but has closed down any personal life. Rebuffing all stabs at socializing from friendly co-workers, Yossi goes out of his way to run an examination on his ex-lover’s mother, then winds up telling her (and her husband) what they never knew about their son. Info that’s hardly welcomed. So far in, the fine perfs & Fox’s fluid technique help overcome a pretty thin texture, but suddenly the film lurches into an updated travesty of Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE. (Just in case we miss the reference, Yossi’s got the paperback to hand and Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’ from the 5th Symphony on his car’s CD player.) It starts when Yossi helps four stranded Israeli soldiers get to a waterfront resort. (No, not the Lido.) One of the gang plays hunky Tadzio to Yossi’s chunky Aschenbach, but there’s neither explanation nor motivation for this budding relationship. Nor for any other in the pic, come to think of it. It’s all dramatic contrivance/convenience, piffle that makes less sense the more you think about it. The reverse that has Tadzio pursuing his Teddy Bear of an Aschenbach is particularly mystifying. (Daddy issues, no doubt, as he mentions that he’s not ‘out’ to his parents.) Fox has a fairly substantial rep on the ‘queer cinema’ circuit. Can his other films be quite this rotten?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There’s always Visconti’s DEATH IN VENICE/’71; but his lite modern take on its themes in the stunning, much maligned, CONVERSATION PIECE/’74 gets much closer to what Fox flubs here. Alas, an Italian language version has yet to show up Stateside and the English dub is a laughable atrocity. Wait.

Friday, December 19, 2014

THE SILENT PARTNER (1978)

After earning his bona fides as the coolest cat in early ‘70s American cinema (largely thanks to his trio of Robert Altman pics), Elliot Gould’s career went very flat very fast. M*A*S*H* derivatives as insultingly bad as S*P*Y*S and WHIFFS did the trick. So, this little Canadian thriller came as a welcome surprise. A sub-Hitchcockian entertainment, very STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, it has Gould’s bank-teller anticipating a robbery and contriving to slip most of the loot not to Christopher Plummer’s vicious thief*, but to himself. A neat trick . . . until Plummer figures out the scam and comes a’callin’. Susannah York does well as a confused bank co-worker while Céline Lomez is sexy (if no actress) as a two-faced femme fatale. And look for young John Candy in a bit. In hindsight, it’s easy to see this works less from the decent enough helming of Daryl Dukes than from a sharp, nasty script from Curtis Hanson of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97 fame. A frustratingly unfecund filmmaker, this gives us an extra chance to see his suspense savvy in spite of a few too many plot contrivances. As for Gould, he never did find his way back to the top of the A-list heap. But this film reminded audiences of what they liked about him and how charming he could be. Five decades (and counting) later, he’s still at it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Someone worked up a daringly creepy make-up for Plummer, using a touch of mascara to unsettling effect. Almost as scary as his Captain von Trapp.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

The zippiest charter member in Universal Studios’ Horror Classics gets off to a quick start. No preamble, no set up, no Act One. Instead, we plunge in to find Claude Rains already invisible and on the run; back story & personal relationships to be filled in anon. It gives extra momentum to James Whales’ helming even when the editing goes static. (An early Talkie leftover at some studios.) Except for Rains’ tour de force vocals as Mr. Invisible (what a creepy laugh he cooked up!), not much can be done with the more serious roles, but the townspeople are all stellar eccentrics. And the analogue special effects remain witty marvels with just a few traveling matte shots showing their age in a bad way. The fun's not only in John Fulton’s awesome bag of trick shots, but also from simple fake-out mechanical effects, and the rich look from lenser Arthur Edeson. Universal hadn’t caught on (or is it caught up?) to full background scores (Franz Waxman would add that in to spectacular result on Whale’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN/’35), but in all other ways, most satisfying.

DOUBLE-BILL: Universal did themselves no favors with their INVISIBLE sequels. But John Carpenter’s maligned flop, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN/’92, knows what it’s up to.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

THERESE DESQUEYROUX (2012)

The last film from literary-oriented writer/director Claude Miller is, appropriately enough, taken from a French novel by Nobel Laureate François Mauriac. A tale of social conventions, emotional constraints & stoppered passion, it plays like a cross between Ibsen & Claude Chabrol, with Audrey Tatou holding back her acting range as the rich, likely bride to her best friend’s older brother. Conjoined, the family lands will cover the county. A cool, distanced formality defines the couple (he hunts; she smokes), but their pattern is upset when the sister-in-law discovers passion with a rich, but inappropriate young man. Charged with stopping things before they start, Thérèse does the family honor proud, but finds herself redefined in ways she can’t recognize or admit to. And then her thoughts take a deadly turn. Miller allows the story to wander naturalistically, without the sort of reverses or payoffs implied, holding the narrative close to countryside and customs. And if ‘well handled’ makes it sound a bit dull, so be it. Perhaps the 1962 Georges Franju version (not seen here), told in flashback from Thérèse’s trial, gets more of a pulse by letting us see things play out in perspective.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Tatou may be too controlled here, confusing ‘holding out’ with ‘holding back.’ The role and the film in some ways recall the trio of films William Wyler did with Bette Davis, particularly THE LITTLE FOXES/’41, another loveless all-in-the-family drama with mariticial tendencies. And while Tatou is more subtle & realistic than Davis, she’s ultimately far less entertaining and (shh) less memorable.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

MARLOWE (1969)

About a half-hour in, James Garner (as private dick Philip Marlowe) & Carroll O’Connor (as a bothersome police Lieutenant) walk down a grand staircase to the lobby of Garner’s pleasingly ornate L.A. office building. The dialogue is nothing special: clues, snark & exposition; yet this little traveling shot perks everything up, even the viewer, because, suddenly, something in this damp murder mystery actually looks like a movie, not some gussied up tv show. We’re getting an inadvertent front row seat to the death throes of the old studio system, just before the ‘70s started to shake things up, exacerbated by clueless/aging studio execs panicked by change, hiring faceless tv talent at a price, tossing in 'daring' sex references & nods at ‘hippie’ culture, and then hoping for the best. Here, they bet on tv director Paul Bogart who, even with vet lenser William H. Daniels*, can’t get a handle on big screen composition or use Raymond Chandler’s L.A. locations to inform action & character. Garner makes for a tall, sardonic Marlowe, there’s some cute casting choices (Jackie Coogan, Bruce Lee), and Sterling Silliphant’s script hits some funny/nasty beats between the heavy-lifting gumshoe stuff. It’s not really bad, it’s just unnecessary.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *William Daniels meets William Daniels meets William Daniels as the famous lenser lights William Daniels the character actor and holds a shot on a tv monitor showing a Greta Garbo clip from his own GRAND HOTEL/’32.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Marlowe’s been famously played by hosts of actors (including Mitchum, Bogart, Dick Powell, even Robert Montgomery in mirror shots), yet while this blah modern day version was largely ignored, the next Marlow, Elliot Gould in Robert Altman’s flavorful THE LONG GOODBYE/’73, got under the skin of traditionalists. Welcome to the 'seventies.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

CODE TWO (1953)

A trio of testosterone-charged police recruits opt into the motorbike brigade for the action, for the extra pay . . . and for those cool uniforms. Jodhpurs! (The Harley-Davidsons have a certain appeal, too.) The first half of this little programmer sticks to training exercises (and Keenan Wynn’s mentoring), but once they hit the streets, one of the boys is bumped off by a modern day cattle rustlin’ outfit and his buds take up the case. A fun idea, a sort of Western on motorbikes. If only someone showed a bit of effort. Even a big climax featuring hanging cow carcasses, meat hooks and a huge, open vat of ‘quick lime’ barely registers under Fred Wilcox’s staid megging. (Imagine a fine noir sadist like Jules Dassin with that set up!) Oh well. Instead, check out the rising contract players being sent thru their paces, Ralph Meeker, Robert Horton, Jeff Richards and Chuck Connors in a bit.* The likely reason this one got made.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Meeker’s supposed to be cocky & irresistible, but comes off as a charmless asshole. Qualities that limited his career, but served him very well in Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY/’55. Horton & Connors did mostly tv. And if you think you recognize the lesser-known (but built!) Jeff Richards, he’s one of those SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS/’54 . . . the non-dancer forced on director Stanley Donen.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

LORD JIM (1965)

As writer/director/producer, Richard Brooks can’t quite pull off his hat trick of turning Joseph Conrad’s dense novel into a linear action-adventure vehicle for Peter O’Toole. The contour of the story remains (ship’s officer disgraces himself jumping off a sinking ship that doesn’t sink, then tries to find redemption away from the civilized world), but Brooks tends to demonstrate when he only needs to imply, falling back on narration & extended philosophical speeches that try for a literary tone, but only over-clarify. With Freddie Young lensing, the film is shot-by-shot handsome to look at. But when Brooks puts the pieces together, it’s 1+1=1. And by the time O’Toole starts to lead his little army of local indigenous peoples against baddies Eli Wallach & Curt Jürgens, he’s become such a natural warrior, and grown so mechanically clever improvising fighting equipment, he might be playing Lord Jim MacGyver. Taken in that spirit, the film is stirring, romantic adventure, if more Robert Lewis Stevenson than Conrad.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: James Mason’s agent got him co-star billing for about 20 minutes work in the last act. He’s very effective as a particularly unscrupulous ‘gentleman’ scoundrel, but not even Mason’s purring tones can sell the deterministic ending Brooks wants us to buy.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/DOUBLE-BILL: DICK CONTINO’S BLUES, a short story in James Ellroy’s 1994 collection HOLLYWOOD NOCTURNES is a modern LORD JIM story just waiting for film treatment. The cowardly act comes out of the Korean War and the heroic redemption comes about during the making of the crappy, but enticingly titled DADDY-O/’58 which may, at one time, have been out on VHS.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT (1950)

Low-budget crime specialist Joseph H. Lewis was just off GUN CRAZY/’50 and beauteous but inert Hedy Lamarr was riding high after SAMSON AND DELILAH/’49 when they unwillingly came together on this atmospheric illegal-immigration meller. Lewis, who had envisioned a story of struggling internationals, stuck in Cuba and trying to slip into the States, wound up having to glam things up for Lamarr; and Hedy knew all too well that making a programmer after a C. B. De Mille spectacular would put the brakes on her career rebound. No doubt, they were both right to complain (Lewis called the film ‘a stinker’), but even while the characters & plot development go undernourished, the first two acts move so well, and are such a crepuscular, backstreet visual knockout, you barely note what’s missing dramatically. A well-cast John Hodiak plays an immigration officer sent to Havana to investigate George Macready’s lucrative trade in smuggling illegals into Florida. Lamarr’s one of the foreign nationals hoping for a ride (she’s got oodles of charm, but no cash) and Hodiak hides undercover as a monied Hungarian willing to buy in. There’s not enough interest in the simplistic manner that the plot and the budding romantic triangle work themselves out. But man!, the real Havana locations & ambiance are something to write home about.

DOUBLE-BILL: B-pics were never a strong point @ M-G-M, but lenser Paul Vogel had a bit of run with this film, DIAL 1119/’50 and Anthony Mann’s very fine THE TALL TARGET/’51, before someone took note and moved him up to larger budgets.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

BIG JAKE (1971)

This late John Wayne Western is a surprisingly respectable outing. George Sherman, an old-line helmer from Wayne’s B-list days, is no Ford, Hawks or Hathaway, but he gets a nice rhythm going in this kidnapped grandson saga, and doesn’t force a roistering tone at us like the dreaded Andrew McLaglen, Wayne’s usual hack director.* Something of a family affair, Wayne’s got two of his sons in here (and a third on as producer); plus old-timers Maureen O’Hara; Hank Worden; Harry Carey Jr.; John Agar; even Robert Mitchum’s son Chris. (A few of ‘em don’t know much about acting, but that’s part of the charm.) The best support comes from Bruce Cabot as an Indian pal and from a great mangy version of Lassie. (And damned if the dog & the Native American don’t get the exact same treatment all thru the pic.) Agin’em, a whole posse of bad guys to take down ‘with extreme prejudice,’ led by a deeply creepy Richard Boone. So, lower your gaze, ignore a couple of lousy soundstage campfire settings and you might understand how this throwaway project made that year’s Top Ten grossers.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Wayne apparently took over a fair amount of the directing when Sherman proved too ill to work on the tougher locations. He’d done much the same for the aging Michael Curtiz on THE COMANCHEROS/’61, a film with the same DP (William Clothier) & composer (Elmer Bernstein).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TORPEDO RUN (1958)

Standard WWII ‘sub’ drama gets substandard treatment in this pinch-penny production from M-G-M. Glenn Ford & Ernest Borgnine head a crew hunting down the Japanese Aircraft carrier that led at Pearl Harbor. But their only shot at the war ship puts a civilian transport freighter in harm’s way . . . and Ford’s wife & daughter are prisoners on board! Ford works his usual slow-burn to modest effect here . . . when he doesn’t let the pilot light go out. But the main problem is a confounding lack of visual flair from director Joseph Pevney. It’s hard to avoid cool compositions in a WWII sub, but his proscenium soundstage style misses that old claustrophobic feeling. (And the scale model effects used at the time for ships at sea rarely convinced.) Sonar junkies will get their fix of ‘Ping-Ping-Ping’ echoes, and the last act develops a decent amount of tension once the boys head back for a second try after a visiting Tokyo Bay. But WWII sub flicks were thick on the ground in the late ‘50s, and this one never did stand out. Pevney quickly drifted into tv and the film drifted on to double-bills.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s a fair amount of background score in the film but no credit for either composer or music director. Very unusual for a major studio film at the time.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Dick Powell, in directing mode, had just made THE ENEMY BELOW/’57, a roll-call of WWII submarine iconography; even better, RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP/’58 with Robert Wise taking dramatic advantage of off-screen friction between Clark Gable & Burt Lancaster.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

KAZE TACHINU / THE WIND RISES (2013)

‘What I really want to do is direct.’ That’s what film actors always say, right? But what about film directors? What do they ‘really want to do?’ HINT: it ain’t acting. Nope, what they really want to do is direct . . . direct a David Lean film. But who’da thunk Japan’s master animator Hayao Miyazaki had the David Lean bug? Yet, here he is, on his swansong pic, making what is in every aspect (except for its elaborate dream fantasies) the closest thing to a David Lean pic since . . . David Lean. (A PASSAGE TO INDIA/’84 was Lean’s last.) In telling the personal & professional story of Jirô Horikoshi, lead designer of Japan’s WWII ‘Zero’ war plane, Miyazaki’s gets it all right: the magisterial pacing & visual sweep; the march of history & strong narrative grip; huge, meticulously laid out set pieces to (literally) shake up destiny; love & labor lost; one stirring composition after another to contrast small detail against limitless vistas; delicate windswept parasols dueling landscape-filling trains that smoke their way across horizons. All in hand-drawn animation. Even familiar Lean faults are echoed as major characters turn disposable and political blinders shield us from uncomfortable/unanswerable moral questions. As an audience, we might be Alec Guinness in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57, unable (or is it unwilling?) to see the consequences of our actions. Horikoshi’s personal story may be largely invented for the film, but with this level of craftsmanship, emotion & beauty, it’s hard not to get caught in Miyazaki’s spell one last time. (NOTE: Family-Friendly, but no kiddie pic.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Miyazaki’s other aviation-themed pic, PORCO ROSSO/’92; still wildly underappreciated.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

PALS OF THE SADDLE (1938)

The first of eight low-budget Westerns John Wayne made for Republic Studios as part of their ‘Three Mesquiteers’ series. (And as part of his post-BIG TRAIL/’30 career purgatory.) Mighty low fare on the Hollywood pecking order, shortly before director John Ford made him an A-list lead in STAGECOACH/’39. Even as a routine ‘oater,’ this is pretty dispiriting stuff, with Wayne & his ranch-hand buds mixing it up with some bad guys mining poison-gas minerals and good guys (actually a good gal) who turns out to be a government agent. Megger George Sherman (a specialist in this sort of work) calls for lots of undercranking to boost the outdoor excitement, rarely a good idea. But it’s better than his downright peculiar staging on interiors. (Line up; stare straight ahead; twist as needed.) Odder still, a Dadaist touch from one of Wayne’s mesquiteer pals who rides around with a ventriloquist dummy. Plumb lonesome, I reckon.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Cy Feuer, later the legendary producer of GUYS AND DOLLS & other B’way musicals, ran the music department @ Republic Pictures. Cheap Westerns got by with reused music cues, but listen out when some WANTED posters of Wayne go up. Feuer samples the intro to Un Bal, the second movement of Hector Berlioz’s SYMPHONY FANTASTIQUE. And it’s no slip, he brings the tag back when Wayne sneaks into the mineral warehouse. Berlioz would have loved it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

GHARE-BAIRE / THE HOME AND THE WORLD (1984)

Don’t be put off by the flat visual style of its first two reels, this late Satyajit Ray film grows increasingly subtle & sophisticated in look and theme until it has gained the depth & texture of a great, morally complex novel. (It’s adapted from Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.) Victor Banerjee (the same year he made PASSAGE TO INDIA for David Lean) stars as a wealthy landowner in 1907, eager to give his wife a Western education and a taste of modern personal independence. His hopes are surpassed, but with tragic consequences when he opens his home and estate to an old school chum, now a political radical bringing a toxic mix of charm, strict ideology, corruption, religious intolerance & romantic passion. Yet even as his wife goes thru a sort of delayed adolescent rebellion in a matter of weeks, Banerjee won’t force a resolution he wants made of free choice. Banerjee is remarkably transparent in a role that could seem both passive & opaque; so too Ray in this late masterwork.

DOUBLE-BILL: Twenty years earlier, Ray’s CHARULATA/’64 took a contemporary look at some of the same ‘women’s issues’ seen here, and with an even better actress in Madhabi Mukherjee.

Friday, December 5, 2014

THE OTHER LOVE (1947)

A surging neurotic edge runs under this sudsy woman’s vehicle and helps make up for the compromises in story, production & execution. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a world-famous concert pianist with a touch of TB to clear up. Whisked to a lux mountain sanatorium, she promptly falls for strict but caring doctor David Niven; all the new patients do. But when he keeps his distance, she rebels against her treatment, dashing off with hot-to-trot race car driver Richard Conte. He’s unaware of her disease; she’s unaware of just how ill she is; Niven's unaware he's holding back as he’s never fallen so hard. Such a tangle! Taken from what presumably is a tougher short story by Erich Maria Remarque, this ain’t no MAGIC MOUNTAIN. But director André de Toth, working nicely with vet Stanwyck lenser Victor Milner, keeps things moving and intriguingly uncomfortable when he’s not fighting against his modest indie budget and some stiff soundstage Alpine exteriors. Or rather, he does until Babs runs away from her diminishing options only to wind up first threatened, then rescued, by smoldering croupier Gilbert Roland. His frank sexual charge and instant chemistry against Stanwyck obliterate whatever is supposed to be going on with the Niven/Conte rivalry. All accomplished in about four minutes of screen time.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *The heat wafting off Babs & Roland was repurposed as part of the complicated backstory in THE FURIES/’50.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Composer Miklós Rózsa had sanatorium music cues to spare after SPELLBOUND/’45. But what he really wants is to write one of those movie mini-concertos for Stanwyck to play over the credits. (Apparently dubbed by Ania Dorfmann.) Alas, not even Rózsa can work up another ‘Warsaw Concerto’ (the faux Rachmaninoff written by Richard Addinsell for DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT/’41) in a mere 45 seconds.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE BIG PARADE (1925)

King Vidor’s ‘everyman’ WWI war film, the highest grossing film of the silent era, now out in an exceptional restoration sourced from original elements, with a fine new score from Carl Davis. Yet even at its considerable best, admittedly not all of the time, the film has nothing like the impact it once had. Less because its themes, incidents & details have been reused to death (when not being gleaned for things missed); more because Vidor’s filmmaking faults & virtues don’t infringe on each other. In the Vidor canon, the Good, the Great and the Flat work discretely, making his films something of a Stop/Start proposition. Planned as the first effort in a WAR, WHEAT and STEEL trilogy, who but Vidor would name his protagonist in the camaraderie, horror & lessons of all out war James Apperson? (As in ‘A Person.’) A reach in ambition & mock humility worthy of D.W. Griffith; a director whose merits/demerits are hopelessly intertwined. Still, when the ‘good’ is this good, you have to take it as offered. And in about five or six thrilling set pieces that alternate intimacy with large-scale events (like the end of Part One from the Call to The Front to the clinging farewell for lovers John Gilbert & Réné Adorée, both at their very best), the chaff falls away to reveal Vidor, and the silent cinema, at their sweeping visual best.

DOUBLE-BILL: Vidor, Gilbert, Adorée & Karl Dane followed this up by welcoming Lillian Gish to M-G-M in a superb LA BOHÈME/’26. Then, a final Gilbert/Vidor collaboration in the recently rediscovered BARDELEYS THE MAGNIFICENT/’26 - see below.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Vidor’s A TREE IS A TREE, one of the least boastful, most charming auto-bios from any Hollywood director.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

SPIES OF WARSAW (2013)

Like one of those WWII espionage pics about a Nazi spy who can’t get his superiors to believe his secret info on the upcoming Normandy Invasion, this British mini-series, set in pre-WWII Poland, finds its French operative unable to convince his superiors that a Nazi invasion will come not against the well-defended Maginot Line but thru the supposedly impenetrable Belgium woods. A fresh take on an overworked subject, and it gets you thru the first half of this not-so-hot adaptation of Alan Furst’s Spy-vs-Spy novel. But by Part Two, an ill-chosen, chemistry-free cast; lax megging; and lack of any discernible French, Polish or German flavor wears off any novelty that remains. David Tennant is particularly off his game, narrow-shouldered and passionless, with little urgency in the field or between the sheets. And what’s with the shooting & staging of the action scenes? Were they farmed out to apprentices?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try George Seaton’s surprisingly strong THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR/’62.

Monday, December 1, 2014

THE HARDER THEY FALL (1956)

Humphrey Bogart’s last pic, a ‘No-Holds-Barred’ takedown of the pro-fight game, is nearly as rigged as the fights in the film. An oversold package of simplified ethics & rudimentary boxing a child wouldn’t buy, it’s dumb-downed dramatics for the same hoi polloi the script so contemptuously labels as paying two dollars of blood money for a taste of the action. In the last act, a welcome touch of grey moral terrain sneaks in when Bogie is forced to reveal some hard truths to the fighting freakshow he’s paid to pass off as a legit contender; and also when the reigning champ grows truculent at not getting the credit he thinks he deserves on a ring fatality. But generally, director Mark Robson lets Philip Yordan’s script play rope-a-dope with the audience. Entertaining in its way, with Bogie belying his real life health concerns, it’s probably best viewed for the way it slavishly follows ON THE WATERFRONT.* With Jan Sterling’s blonde, voice-of-conscience wife in for Eva Marie Saint; Rod Steiger’s screaming boss in for Lee J. Cobb; Nehemiah Persoff’s sweating accountant in as . . . Rod Steiger!; and Marlon Brando split into Bogart for a moral awakening and Mike Lane’s Toro-the-boxing-giant to get beaten to a pulp right before an uplifting finish. And no complaints from the writer since Budd Shulberg wrote WATERFRONT and the novel this comes from.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Already seen ON THE WATERFRONT? Try Jules Dassin’s masterful NIGHT AND THE CITY/’50 for a Pro-Wresting variant.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

FOREVER FEMALE (1953)

B’way set dramedy about a 40-ish actress who finds herself competing against an ambitious young thing in art and in life, on stage and off. ALL ABOUT EVE/’50? Well, yes, but also this depressingly lousy adaptation of ROSALIND, a little known one-act/three-hander by James M. Barrie. Ginger Rogers, in her uncomfortable sophisticated mode, is the threatened star; William Holden is a regular-guy playwright; Paul Douglas (making it nearly watchable) is the producer carrying a torch for ex-wife Ginger; and an absolute horror of adorable moxie called Pat Crowley is the cunning little vixen. (Paramount gave her a special end credit as Star of the Future, but she soon crept back to tv.*) Megged by Woman’s Pic Specialist Irving Rapper; adapted by the reliably funny/clever Epstein twins; with Harry Stradling’s glam lensing, this easily could have been better.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *An inside gag sticks Crowley in a touring company of THE NIGHT IS BLUE, a reference to THE MOON IS BLUE, filmed the same year, with the same leading man (William Holden) and an equally annoying ingenue in debuting Maggie McNamara. A popular type in '53, this sort of ingenue would soon morph into 'early kook' Shirley MacLaine.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a great action star, Holden sure did a lot of play adaptations. Early signature roles in GOLDEN BOY/’39 and OUR TOWN/’40; pre-breakthrough leads in DEAR RUTH/’47 and THE DARK PAST/’48; and prime star turns in THE MOON IS BLUE; SABRINA/’54; PICNIC/’55; STALAG 17/’53; THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG/’60; and a much underrated job in the otherwise overrated THE COUNTRY GIRL/’54.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE DESTRUCTORS (aka THE MARSEILLE CONTRACT) (1974)

A slick, empty package with Anthony Quinn’s Paris-based U.S. intelligence officer hiring Michael Caine’s devil-may-care contract killer to ‘take out’ suave drug dealer James Mason; then trying to call off the deal. A typical faceless, if plush-looking, international tax-dodge production of its day, or so it seems. In its own way, it’s also more like a contract killing then a creative endeavor, with bankable names signing up without wanting to know the details. They’re as much victim as hitman. At least it's well shot by Douglas Slocombe on well-chosen French locations in Paris & Marseille, and decently helmed by Hollywood journeyman Robert Parrish in his final credit. But producer/scripter Judd Bernard can’t be bothered working out the plot’s twists & turns; all those stars are ‘on the clock.’ Instead, a few car chases and Caine eavesdropping on Mason thru a cracked door to move things along. Baby-boomers will enjoy spotting JFK’s press secretary Pierre Salinger in a bit; and Quinn fanciers will note how handsome he looks. Something different about the shape of his head . . . or good hair-styling.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The film’s original title, THE MARSEILLE CONTRACT, is a dead giveaway on the pitch that probably sold this as an expansion on THE FRENCH CONNECTION/’71 Euro-set up.

Friday, November 28, 2014

TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1946)

This swanky-smooth Woman’s Weepie, yet another ENOCH ARDEN iteration/variation, finds Claudette Colbert’s pregnant WWI widow marrying kindly boss George Brent without quite being able to love him. Twenty years on, with a second son by Brent and the first unaware of his true parentage, a distinguished Austrian chemist in questionable health limps into her life as a new specialist at her husband’s company. It’s . . . her husband!; the first one! But so changed, she doesn’t recognize him. Ah, but he recognizes her. And, as it’s now 1939, the son he never knew he had (Richard Long) wants to dash off to Canada, join the RAF in England, and probably get killed just as the father he never knew he had did! Er . . . didn’t. (I’m so confused.) Jolted at the thought of losing her boy, the last link to her ‘late’ spouse, Colbert starts making mental connections. It all sounds a bit ridiculous, hell, it is a bit ridiculous, but it was an enormous hit at the time (Welles’ biggest) and you can still see why. The prologue with Welles & Colbert as newlyweds is awkward stuff; she looks stiff, he looks like the Pillsbury Lieutenant Doughboy. But Welles comes alive as an actor when he returns as the physically ruined, displaced Austrian, bringing along an adorable war victim in debuting Natalie Wood. And what a second entrance Colbert makes on his reintroduction, coming down the stairs in a knock-out black outfit by Jean Louis, on loan from Columbia.* In fact, all the tech work is unusually lux for an indie (Independent Pictures): a Max Steiner score; Joe Valentine lensing; art design by a just Oscar’d Wiard Ihnen. It’s the most stylish work ever by journeyman megger Irving Pichel. Check out his shot sequence as Welles hunts up his runaway son at the station before he can catch his train. Even the over-lit, over-dressed manse for Brent & Colbert comes off as a witty jab at stuffy M-G-M with Brent gamely offering a game of golf, a swim, tennis or a ride to his boys. He’s got the worst part in the pic, but he’s Father of the Year.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Costume designer Jean Louis also got to dress Rita Hayworth as GILDA/’46 this year. One of the greats, he deserves more attention. Check out his cheeky interview with John Kobal in his classic Hollywood collection 'People Will Talk.'

DOUBLE-BILL: Welles stayed with Independent Pictures for his follow up, THE STRANGER/’46, his biggest commercial success as writer/star/director hyphenate. (And playing a character who’s like an evil doppelgänger of his role here.) Ironically, these two big hits were released thru RKO, the company that dumped him after KANE/’41 & AMBERSONS/’42 flopped. And there, in a nutshell, was Orson Welles’ dilemma.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014)

Baseball pics are notorious hard sells at the box-office. But this one sputters along by sending Jon Hamm’s struggling sports agent to cricket-crazed India to hunt up Major League pitching prospects. Fact-based and foolproof, with plot beats courtesy of JERRY MAGUIRE/’96, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE/’08 and TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE/’12, if only everyone weren’t so gosh darn likeable. Heck, even their little falls from grace are only there to form a more perfect character arc. You can all but hear producer Joe Roth phoning in fuzzy development notes, like a prompter giving noisy cues at the opera. Only Alan Arkin, as a likeable curmudgeon of a scout, digs himself a little bit of free acting space. For the rest, Craig Gillespie might as well be megging on a doggie ‘choke leash.’

DOUBLE-BILL: Lake Bell, the film’s afterthought love interest, tears up watching Gary Cooper play Lou Gehrig in PRIDE OF THE YANKEES/’42. You’d cry too if someone made you watch it with the top & bottom of the image cropped to 1.85:1.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bill Paxton, the boys' likeable baseball coach (natch), has looked precisely the same on screen for thirty years, topping Jean Arthur’s long held record.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE VALLEY OF DECISION (1945)

M-G-M must have been thinking HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41 on this one. Pittsburgh steel foundries are in for Welsh coal mines, but labor strikes, Upstairs/Downstairs relationships, malicious gossip, children leaving home, moms with compromised health, dying dads & romantic renunciations abound. All that’s missing is . . . well, just about everything. It’s all reduced, in typical plush M-G-M house style, to over-produced mush. A sort of styleless anti-verisimilitude with solid pro director Tay Garnett completely out of his element, even the acting is all over the map. The main interest comes in watching young, fast-rising Gregory Peck as the steel family scion (already devastating in his third pic), and noting how Greer Garson, as the house maid from a laboring family who selflessly refuses Peck’s proposals, has suddenly become insufferable. She seems to condescend to everyone, even to her own character, with a voice that’s gone from cultivated to clabbered. Her reign was brief, about six big pics in six years, but away from roles that had her placed on a ladylike pedestal, her decline painfully stately. It was her next, ADVENTURE/’45, with its famous ‘Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him!’ tagline, that took the blame. But this hit was the turning point. It’s just that in the wake of Peck’s phenomenal pull, no one noticed.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Garson had just played a house maid who married her boss in MRS. PARKINGTON/’44 (not seen here). She’s brunette in that one, and somehow Gladys Cooper, Greg Peck’s mom here, is Greer’s daughter there! No stretch for Garson who in real life had married the actor who played her son in MRS. MINIVER/’42.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

WISE BLOOD (1979)

Twelve years after pleading nolo contendere on Carson McCuller’s Southern Gothic REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE/’67, John Huston won his case with Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Baptist Gothic. A small film with major ambitions, it brings off the grotesque, crazed eccentricity of its religious con-men & fanatics in a straightforward manner, retaining much of O’Connor’s off-the-beat humor though, alas, with more pity than actual laughs. Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif with a welcome touch of Buster Keaton to him) is the returned soldier boy, off to the big city to spread the word on his Church of Jesus Christ Without Jesus Christ. Cluelessly confident, he might be Gershwin’s Porgy heading north to New York on his goat cart. But O’Connor’s great insight made Hazel a cultural insider in spite of his extreme actions, and Huston lets her full-blown cast of lunatics and down-and-outliers interact without coming off as precious literary consructs, but as fleshly characters. The whole cast & crew seem inspired under Huston’s controlled laissez-faire direction, while the lack of period flavor (undoubtedly the happy result of a very tight budget) keeps the material from easily distancing itself; instead, a Neo-realist vibe that’s hard to shake off. Only Alex North’s score lets down the side, not with its ‘Tennessee Waltz’ variations, but on some ill-advised comic background music better suited to a SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT telepic sequel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Criterion DVD has a priceless EXTRA of O’Connor giving a short introduction before reading one of her stories to a university audience. Essential stuff, and very funny.

Monday, November 24, 2014

IDA (2013)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film is as severe & beautiful as late Dreyer or early Bresson. Shot, by Ryszard Lenczewski & Lukasz Zal, in a nonjudgmental, pearly gray monotone, it’s an origin story of a young Polish woman in the early 1960s, on the cusp of taking her vows to become a nun. An orphan, she’s surprised to hear she has an Aunt, surprised to be sent to meet her in the city, then even more surprised to discover she was born a Jew. The rest of the film, something of a road pic, has the worldly Aunt, a former judge during the communist doctrinaire ‘50s, and this young girl of untested faith following clues that lead to some very dark areas in their past. Pawlikowski has an unusually precise visual style, using various framing devices & a largely static camera in classic Academy Ratio, then placing his cast toward the bottom of his double-framed pictures. Only after some personal revelations & catharses does he move the compositions’ center-of-gravity to the middle of the screen, as if a great weight has been lifted. The device sounds flat & obvious on the page, but proves effective, even moving in practice. And by holding tight to the personal, the film gains something universal.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fred Zinnemann’s THE NUN’S STORY/’59 is all event-filled narrative compared to this, yet while it ends rather than begins in WWII, the films’ endings tie them together in an intriguing manner.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The DVD from Music Box retains Pawlikowski’s preferred boxy Academy Ratio, but has it mastered in anamorphic/16x9 WideScreen, using black bars to achieve the correct 1.33:1 image. Viewed in Standard Format, you’d wind up with a 1:1 image. Oops!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

LE COMPLOT / THE CONSPIRACY (1973)

Well-cast political thriller about a handful of disgruntled ultra-right military officers suffering thru a sort of macho French/Algerian post-partum depression. They try to get over it by working up a secret plan to free their figurehead general from jail and hopefully rouse public opinion to their lost cause; all while police & military forces try not to step on each others’ toes long enough to uncover the conspiracy & arrest the leaders. A near farcical element hangs over these tragic doings, as wishful thinking, incompetence, self-delusion and collateral damage spill out on both sides. If only writer/director René Gainville saw it, taking advantage of the possibilities in the material with enough style to gauge the difference between the artless and the inept.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The story is something of an unofficial prequel to Fred Zinnemmann’s exemplary DAY OF THE JACKAL/’73 about an assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle released just two months later.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

MEIKYU MONOGATARI / NEO TOKYO (1987)

It took a few decades for this trio of shorts, mid-‘80s State-of-the-Art anime, to show up on Stateside DVD. But while the visuals remain fast & trippy, the little stories drag it down. The first segment lasts about 10 minutes and hasn’t much storyline to speak of . . . which may explain its relative success. Instead, we get a kiddie, a kitty and circus-themed elements. The director, Rintaro, by-passes stock anime drawing formulas to good effect starting from the monstrous cave-mouth of Moloch, a vision straight out of the early Italian silent spectacular CABIRIA/’14. Next, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s car racing apocalypse brings on standard smash-ups to significant sound, fury and little effect. Last up is Katsuhiro Ôtomo (of AKIRA/’88 and STEAMBOY/’04 fame*) in the longest of the shorts at just over 20 minutes. Set in some half-built city of the future, like Brasilia, where the rainforest is winning a battle of reclamation against the builders. A lonely engineer gets dropped off to shut things down, but the mechanical workforce won’t cooperate. There’s an intriguing ‘Heart of Darkness’ vibe here, but like the film as a whole, we’re left with only the hints of an idea.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Ôtomo’s AKIRA has been remastered. Renew your anime bona fides with a revisit. Maybe you’ll like it better this time . . . maybe not.

Friday, November 21, 2014

RETURN TO PARADISE (1953)

About five years after his SOUTH PACIFIC stories were musicalized on B’way (and five years before being embalmed on film), James Michener had his big screen initiation on another tale of tropical paradise lost . . . and found. As storytelling, it’s sometimes bumpy going, yet it captures a measure of island culture ‘otherness’ better than many of his other projects did. (And might have claimed more sans ‘50s censorship in nudity & various racial taboos.) Gary Cooper, looking much healthier than in last year’s HIGH NOON/’52, is a drifter who lands on a small Pacific Island where a puritanical missionary keeps the locals in line with the fear of God & a trio of brutal henchman. Cooper easily overthrows this tinpot dictator & gains the islanders’ respect, but remains phobic about putting down roots. But friendship, war, wary love, a child and the pull of absence can change a man like Cooper. It may even change the spots on a missionary zealot, which sets up the story arc before a downed war plane full of horny American flyboys brings things to a head. Director Mark Robson refrains from pressing motivations, no facile explanations for Coop’s reserve, moving the film forward in shorthand. And though Coop is a good twenty years too old for the first half of the story, he plays with great charm and a believable right hook when needed.

DOUBLE-BILL: Robson also did the next Michener adaptation, THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI/’54, a larger, more prestigious pic, but already showing a bit of bloat.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

COULEUR DE PEAU: MIEL / APPROVED FOR ADOPTION (2012)

In Belgium, this award-winning/homegrown animation was titled COLOR OF SKIN: HONEY (see poster) which gets closer to the 'in-betweener'/alienation theme its author & real life subject, Jung, went thru as a Korean orphan adopted at 5 by a European family. Struggling in his adolescence to fit in, or find his place, the film is heartfelt, but frustrating, with a general look that's subdued watercolor anime spasmodically laced with berserk touches that might have come off of Bill Plympton’s drawing pad. Some old family movies add a pleasingly touch; less so the live-action shots of an adult Jung visiting Korea. But the main problem is that Jung & co-writer/director Laurent Boileau focus almost solely on episodes that have the young Jung constantly ‘acting out.’ We never pick up on the quotidian rhythm of his life, it's a backward glance that’s all trees and no forest.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While not strictly comparable, Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS/’07 brilliantly shows how to animate a coming-of-age/cultural rupture story.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

THE RED DANUBE (1949)

Little-known post-WWII drama about the handling of displaced persons in a divided Vienna is more interesting than its title or year-of-release might suggest. It sounds like some Red-Baiting/Witch-hunt melodrama. Instead , we get Walter Pidgeon as an agnostic Colonel, billeted in a convent while maneuvering thru repatriation cases with Soviet counterpart Louis Calhern. Their main argument pivots on former Russian prima ballerina Janet Leigh who’s lost in a deepening relationship with Peter Lawford’s lovestruck Major and doesn’t want to go back. What’s intriguing is that this fairly conventional affair takes a backseat to Pidgeon’s personal struggle with the convent’s Mother Superior (Ethel Barrymore*) as his war-induced crisis of faith starts to influence his political/military responsibilities and he hits an international wall of inhumanitarian regulations. No doubt, this was all laid out better in the novel (Bruce Marshall/‘Vespers in Vienna’), but enough gets into the film to carry you past a lot of dramatic missteps. Director George Sidney steps up his game, much helped by Charles Rosher’s stunning cinematography. Watch as he brings back the glory days of silent cinema on his intro shots of Leigh (Rosher wasn’t Mary Pickford’s main lenser for nothing!), plus unusually good art direction in a studio faked Vienna and a typically rich Miklós Rózsa score.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Mother Superior is a wise old darling, natch, but how nice to have Ethel Barrymore around to tart up the old cliché.

DOUBLE-BILL: The divided post-war cities of Berlin & Vienna, split into Allied Sectors, made for some great drama (great location shooting, too) in films like THE SEARCH/’48; A FOREIGN AFFAIR/’48 and THE THIRD MAN/’49. But it also made a delightfully witty backdrop on Powell/Pressburger’s joyous, forgotten, updated DIE FLEDERMAUS in OH . . . ROSALINDA!!/’55, all studio artifice and a one-of-a-kind nutcase movie unlike anything. A huge critical & commercial flop, it’s an awfully lovable miss.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The Soviet threat, as presented here, may have looked naive & overstated at one time. But just about any post-Glasnost Stalin bio now paints a pretty grim picture for repatriates, particularly for returning POWs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

36 HOURS / (aka) TERROR STREET (1953)

Something of a missed opportunity, an innocent-man-on-the-run pic with all the elements for a bargain-basement sub-Hitchcockian noir/thriller, but no follow thru. Dan Duryea (in as the British production’s contractual Hollywood ringer) plays a US army major gone AWOL on a surprise Trans-Atlantic visit to patch things up with his estranged wife. But, after a few clumsy flashbacks fill us in, he gets to her new apartment just in time to see the good lady rubbed out. Then, he's knocked out! Left to look like her killer with just 36 hours to clear himself; find the real gunman; and make it back to the plane . . . Whew! I’m exhausted just typing it up. Director Montgomery Tully grabs some nice, grubby London location shots & manages a few dynamic camera set-ups when he’s not flattening out action stuff, but too much of the plot & character development are full of holes. Duryea seems eager to get it over with, shouting his lines and not quite making eye-contact with a cast of British nonentities, as if asking who got him into this thing?

DOUBLE-BILL: Make it a 36 HOURS fest with George Seaton’s unrelated 1965 suspenser with James Garner’s WWII US Major tricked into giving up D-Day details to Rod Taylor’s Nazi Major.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NAE-GA SAL-IN-BEOM-I-DA / CONFESSION OF MURDER (2012)

Korean writer/director Byeong-gil Jeong debuts on this tricked-up serial killer pic that keeps slipping into Jackie Chan action/comedy territory, especially in a couple of exciting, if OTT, car chase set-pieces. What reaction is Jeong going for? Or is the disconnect simply cultural lacunae? After a furious prologue (murder, wounded cop, rainy streets, heavy chase action, the works), the film jumps ahead 15 years, when the Statute of Limitations allows the world’s cutest serial killer to publish his memoirs with impunity. The press & public love the guy (lots of squealing teenage girls); only the original cop on the case and relatives of the dead still call for justice. But how? And what if the book is a fraud? It’s at this point that everyone starts taking the law into their own hands and Jeong starts switching gears, jumping from bloody torture to wacky martial arts comedy tropes, with dollops of brooding attitude and a bit of mystery to the affair that might fool an eight-yr-old movie novice who wasn’t paying attention. Still, quite a slick package for a directorial newbie, with good perfs and sexy swagger around the edges even when the story loses focus. Let’s hope he uses a co-writer on his next project.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a Korean serial killer film that mixes tones and still packs a wallop, try MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03, an early work from the phenomenal Joon-ho Bong.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (1941)

Independent producer Edward Small belied his name in a series of adaptations from some big Alexandre Dumas novels, starting with THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO in 1934. Megged with budget-stretching moxie by Rowland V. Lee, the film found its heart in Robert Donat’s melancholy swagger, leaving a mark none of Small’s follow-ups could quite match. This one came closest with a dashing turn from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., getting close to his father’s old brio as the once-conjoined twins (convincingly ‘sold’ with solid analogue camera tricks) out for revenge; forceful, if bumpy, helming from Gregory Ratoff; and for a villain, character actor Akim Tamiroff as film’s shortest, stoutest lethal swordsman. (The final duel is seriously undercranked, but impossible to hold against him.) Yet, what ultimately makes this one go is Dumas, adding an unexpected emotional core to the brothers’ relationship with a spiritual, para-normal, psychological element. It pushes Fairbanks past his limits as an actor, but he gets the idea across. Beware Public Domain copies!; the latest DVD edition from Hen’s Tooth is complete and sourced from excellent materials.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jean-Claude Van Damme updated the story (himself!) in DOUBLE IMPACT/’91. Not seen here, the film has its fans.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME (1991)

Elegant, witty, touching and occasionally understandable, Errol Morris’s film essay on cosmologist Stephen Hawking is as much life story as illustrated look at his theories. Hawking, prized for his Deep Space deep think, but famous for his long-term survival with ALS, is a subject fraught with unavoidable dangers and undeniable interest. No surprise then to find it recurring on screen in bio-pic form as THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING/’14. Scientifically, you may not come away with much more than a vague idea on how some energy manages to escape out of Black Holes, but a more substantial takeaway is probably æsthetic, tumbling not out of space, but out of Morris’s sheer visual delight in his subject & subject matter. Skirting digital illustration for a more painterly, even abstract approach, interspersed with personal interviews (beautifully lit by lenser John Bailey* in carefully controlled settings that look real, but are as synthetic as Hawking’s electronic speaking voice), the film easily holds your attention if not your train of thought.

DOUBLE-BILL: The bio-pic mentioned above should hit home formats in a few months. OR: *How wise & appropriate that cinematographer Bailey’s very next film was another meditation on the nature of time, GROUNDHOG DAY/’93.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The book, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, has sold over 10 million copies . . . and been read by dozens.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

MAGNIFICENT DOLL (1946)

Much derided Founding Fathers fiction about Aaron Burr & the Madisons (James & Dolly) via Pop historical novelist Irving Stone, of LUST FOR LIFE’s Van Gogh and AGONY & ECSTACY‘s Michelangelo. As a prettified Dolly, the early White House hostess-with-the-mostest, Ginger Rogers hurried her post-war decline while director Frank Borzage did nothing to halt his. Yet the film is quite watchable, at least on its own terms as fanciful, romantic hooey. Surprisingly, the prologue, which should fit Borzage like a glove, charting the progress of Dolly’s loveless marriage to Stephen McNally’s devoted Quaker, is the worst thing in the film, with Ginger wildly overplaying her cold-to-the-touch bride. But the plot perks up once Burr & Madison enter the scene as adversaries in love & politics even as Borzage’s direction stays flat & impersonal. David Niven & Burgess Meredith are both unusually well cast; Niven showing a frightening edge as the ambitious, unstable Burr; Meredith finding good use for his typically ripe line readings. How else would the Father of the Constitution talk? Rogers finds a comfort zone once she hits her own age, though little can be done with the patriotic wallapalooza of a speech she’s got to deliver at the end. Viewed with historical blinders, it’s fairly tasty hooey, just don’t take a test based on it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The casting director must have been wearing those historical blinders, casting a short guy as Jefferson and a tall one as Hamilton.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Gore Vidal’s BURR, one of the great historical novels, covers much of this territory in grand, ironic style.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THE GATEKEEPERS (2012)

With MiddleEast politics & conflicts in even more flux than usual, Dror Moreh’s documentary on Shin Bet (Israel’s other secret service, the internal left hand to Mossad’s right) looks more than merely insightful, it looks essential. At its most basic, an elegantly visualized Talking Heads Essay Film told by six wise, but deadly, old owls, former heads of the agency, it succinctly intercuts surveillance footage, maps & landscapes, adding digital manipulation to allow us to follow the missions & arguments under discussion. All riveting stuff, laid out with a rare clarity, even when drifting into the shadowy morality plays of ‘Secret Ops.’ And while the POV comes from hardened anti-terrorist professionals, the descriptions of how choices were made comes across as more pragmatic than prejudicial, softened over time with unexpected reflections. Fascinating, thought-provoking, terrifying stuff, though the film could profitably lose some of the ominous, reality tv background music.

DOUBLE-BILL: Too bad Steven Spielberg & scripter Tony Kushner couldn’t have watched this as a primer before trying to get inside the heads of the Israeli Mossad agents in MUNICH/’05.

Monday, November 10, 2014

BABES IN ARMS (1939)

The first of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland Let’s-Put-On-A-Show musicals lives on more in memory than in viewings. Loosely based on the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart B’way show of 1937 about some children of down-on-their-luck vaudevillians who figure they can raise a show of their own, the film drops most of the score and most of the plot, turning into a sort of kiddie 42nd STREET/’33 by its last act. Rooney & Garland are at their freshest here. (That boy really could act, sing, dance, clown & tear your heart out . . . if only you could stop him from doing them all at once!) But the film is sentimental punk, in retrospect, hard to see how it out-grossed it’s very expensive M-G-M sibling, THE WIZARD OF OZ, that year . . . and at a quartet the cost. Things hit something of a low just as the pic needs a lift, when (BLACKFACE ALERT!!) their show turns out to be a big, ol’ Minstrel Show with everyone we’ve met blacked up for the occasion. Judy gets two treatments! ‘Darkie’ make-up as the minstrel act’s ‘Second Endman’ (Mickey is, of course, First Endman) and then a dip into Lena Horne’s paint-box as a saucy gal singer. (No blackface in the original show, just great Black talent from the Nicholas Brothers, Harold & Fayed.) No wonder the film went missing for a few years. Three follow-ups were made, each more elaborate, if not much better, though it’s fascinating to watch Mickey grow more desperate as he ages without growing; and Garland showing more of the nerves that would eventually undo her.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It wasn’t unusual for Hollywood to buy a B’way hit and toss out most of the musical numbers. BABES keeps only the title song & the popular hit WHERE OR WHEN. But while most B’way shows were lucky to spawn one or two songs that became standards, these Rodgers & Hart discards include ‘The Lady Is A Tramp,’ ‘My Funny Valentine,’ ‘Johnny One-Note,’ and ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again.’ Good gravy! In their place, a couple of old hits, including one from Arthur Freed in his first credit as film producer, and a song from Harold Arlen & ‘Yip’ Harburg (note they're uncredited on our poster), taken from an Ed Wynn show called HOORAY FOR WHAT! A forgotten revue that yielded a boatload of talent Freed would soon hire for his legendary musical film unit: Arlen, Harburg, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Alton, Hugh Martin, Kay Thompson & Conrad Salinger. Hooray for What, indeed.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

TOPAZ (1969)

The fault-line on this third-tier Alfred Hitchcock political-thriller can be found in the film’s MacGuffin, Hitch’s oft-cited term for the thing everyone in the film is looking for, but which needn’t concern the audience. Here, it’s nothing less than the discovery of a network of Soviet agents in the French Cabinet just as the Cuban Missile Crisis is about to implode. A MacGuffin fraught with importance! Even a big explanatory speech, not unlike Mr. Memory in THE 39 STEPS/’35, but with weighty international import replacing the delightful, old inconsequential double-talk. Add in the fact that everyone in jeopardy is either a spy, a counter-spy or a resistance fighter, with nary an innocent man in sight, and you can see that the story, taken from a typically ponderous Leon Uris novel is a fine example of what’s often misunderstood as Hitchcockian.* Er, yes, all very interesting . . . but how's the movie? Well, from a nearly dialogue-free Prologue in Amsterdam, thru three acts in NYC, Cuba & Paris, it’s something of a Curate’s Egg, good in parts. Best watched that way, too, for a few set pieces. The Cuban segment is noble & deadly, a shame as it holds the film’s greatest shot: a romantic murder and a gun going flaccid. (But, oh!, that tinkly fountain by the dining room.) Hitch knew the film was D.O.A., letting it go out with the worst of the three endings he tried. Fortunately, the DVD splices on the best of the lot. And it's worth sticking around for the last act in Paris which has the best perfs. (Only Roscoe Lee Browne back in the NYC segment gets anywhere near the level of Philippe Noiret in France.) Plus, Hitch seems to give lenser Jack Hildyard his head in the European locations to fine effect.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *So, why did Hitch choose to make TOPAZ? Contrary to what you may have read, Hitch’s previous pic, the little liked TORN CURTAIN/’66, another Cold War espionage thriller, was no flop, but one the year’s Top Ten grossers. But with no project on tap, Hitch was open to ‘suggestions’ from his masters at Universal, meaning his pal and one-time agent Lew Wasserman. Wasserman had okayed a very expensive book sale for the Uris bestseller. Uris even got to write his own screenplay. (Not that Hitch used it.) And to Wasserman, the material was another Hitchcockian Cold War thriller, just like that moneymaking TORN CURTAIN. In Hollywood, you’re either a working director, or your dead. Hitch made the pic. (This should probably be labeled SCREWY CONJECTURE OF THE DAY.)

DOUBLE-BILL: After this, Hitch downsized to superb effect on FRENZY/’72.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945)

Nonsense as history; nonsense as film. At least, there’s the music, you think. And there is. Excerpts dubbed for Cornel Wilde’s hearty Frederic Chopin in José Iturbi's hearty Chopin style, or orchestrated as background fodder by Miklós Rózsa, like a never-ending Chopiniana suite. Actually, the best scene in the pic finds Liszt sight-reading a Polonaise and Chopin joining in. If only they’d get thru the end! You also get Merle Oberon as George Sand, changing from pants to a dress to woo the sickly composer. She might be her own romantic rival! Especially when she’s preaching Selfishness (a la Ayn Rand) to the ailing composer who insists on concertizing for Polish freedom fighters. And don’t forget Paul Muni as discarded teacher/mentor, destroying his acting reputation in a single film with a performance so meticulously overwrought, he might be auditioning for the lead in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE . . . both leads. Naturally, the film was a big, big hit with 6 Oscar® noms.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In its more sophisticated way, IMPROMPTU/’97 is nearly as ahistorical about Sand/Chopin; less Hollywood, more NOTTING HILL, so to speak. But it’s entertaining stuff with a funny, bitchy tone and a perfectly cast Judy Davis as George Sand.