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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

BENEATH HILL 60 (2010)

Fact-inspired WWI trench-warfare pic is impressive looking (even on a Hollywood shaming 8 mill budget), but held back by boilerplate construction & a by-the-numbers script that doesn’t miss a wartime cliché. This time, old-fashioned storytelling virtues & solid craftsmanship are something of a liability, making the drama as airless as the fighting conditions. Fortunately, the largely true story holds unusual interest as an enormous underground bombing operation, led by Australian miners new to Army rules, burrows its way past the Belgium line. Sophomore helmer Jeremy Sims doesn’t always keep the action & characters as clear as they might be, but you get the gist of things, especially once Germans on the other side of the dig start listening in. Perhaps a more evenly divided story structure was originally envisioned, but couldn’t work within the tight budget. Instead, we get more Australian flashbacks than needed. Or so it seems since the main romance between Bella Heathcote & Brendan Cowell stays so cool to the touch. Cowell, a decade older than the man he’s portraying, is mid-30s rather than mid-20s, and the difference cuts against him dramatically on both fronts.

DOUBLE-BILL: The best sequence in Raymond Bernard’s fine WWI pic WOODEN CROSSES/’31 has French trench soldiers slowly panicking when they start to hear digging below. But all they can do is wait and hope for the inevitable explosion to come after the next troop rotation. Bought, but never released Stateside, the battle footage from this French pic was repurposed for Howard Hawks’ THE ROAD TO GLORY/’36 with that sequence more-or-less retained/restaged. Excellent DVD editions of both are available.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hard to imagine, but the satirical BLACKADDER GOES FORTH/’89, last of the series, ends with a real emotional kick as Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie & Co. make a dash over WWI trench lines.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Everybody’s at their worst in this piece of religioso-sentimental hokum . . . with Frank Sinatra’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks priest primus inter pares. (Or should that be ultimus inter pares?) Fred MacMurray is dull & painfully earnest as a P.R. guy who spots starry-eyed Alida Valli and winds up pitching her to studio head Lee J. Cobb as a replacement in his big Joan of Arc epic. (Heck, they could have just waited a few months for the Ingrid Bergman flop to come out.) No one seems aware (or is it concerned?) that their new star is sinking fast from a galloping case of T.B., dying soon after the last shot. Why, it’ll take a miracle to get this film released. That really is the plot and, yes, you’re supposed to find it all infinitely touching. Who knows, maybe you will.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hard as it is to believe, that natural Hollywood cynic, screenwriter Ben Hecht (FRONT PAGE/'31; NOTHING SACRED/'37), not only wrote this, but had a real taste for sentimental miracle stories. His BOOK OF MIRACLES gathers up seven of his own, and a further novel, MIRACLE IN THE RAIN/’56, made an imperfect, but far better pic than this.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Orson Welles was always a bit apologetic about this effective, atmospheric Nazi-on-the-run thriller. (No doubt, its strong commercial showing stung after masterworks like CITIZEN KANE/’41 and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS/’42 underperformed.) It’s certainly his most conventional film, a neurotic film noir with gruesome baroque touches and an overwrought tone, especially from Welles as the Nietzchean Nazi hiding-in-plain-sight and leading-lady Loretta Young as his painfully slow-thinking, perplexed bride. In contrast, Edward G. Robinson cruises calmly as the investigating agent*, with the rest of a superb supporting cast just as naturalistic as Welles & Young are full-blown UFA Expressionist.** (Wildly so whenever Bronislau Kaper’s score chimes in.) Anthony Veillers’ script takes its cue from Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT/’43 (big-time Evil meets Small Town America), but Welles must have done significant rewriting on a characterization that looks forward to his Othello and sounds like THE THIRD MAN’s Harry Lime. (Even noting how folks far below look like ants.) Available for years in subfusc editions, a new KINO restoration finally shows off Russell Metty’s marvelous dark lensing properly, making this a fine companion to their collaboration on Welles’ final Hollywood megging in TOUCH OF EVIL/’58. Alas, by then even Metty couldn’t locate those gaunt facial planes that make the 1946 Welles such a malleable photogenic marvel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: That’s legendary film producer Sam Spiegel hiding-in-plain-sight (and probably from creditors) under the name S. P. Eagle on this indie pic. An alias that inspired Billy Wilder to wire The Hollywood Reporter upon his marriage that the whole town was ‘S. P. EECHLESS.’

CONTEST: *Agnes Moorehead, who’d been in KANE and AMBERSONS, was Welles’ first choice for the Eddie G. investigator part. What other major role did Welles try (and fail) to get for her? Guess the answer and win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

DOUBLE-BILL: **For a more Wellesian noir, try the following year’s LADY FROM SHANGHAI/’47.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Famed stage actress Helen Hayes was going down for the count on her first Hollywood pic, a moldy MotherLove story of wrongful imprisonment & maternal devotion, when M-G-M’s production head Irving Thalberg saved the thing by reshooting about a third of the film, giving Hayes a motherly sacrifice in every reel. But it was the big, juicy climax where she’s a worn out hag who doesn’t let her doctor son (Robert Young) know who she really is, that probably got her the Best Actress Oscar®. Amazingly, it worked for audiences of the time nearly as well as M-G-M’s similar MADAME X/’29 and the old silent STELLA DALLAS/’25 had. (The latter pic has Jean Hersholt, who here plays a kindly mentor, as an uncouth suitor, a role taken in this one and in the official remake of DALLAS/’37 by Alan Hale.) Directed by Edgar Selwyn*, it’s pretty stiff and pretty terrible, but with so much story crammed in 73 minutes, not as slow as some other Talkie antiques. There’s even a neat story twist for gentleman-suitor Lewis Stone. And yet, the best perf in the thing comes from classic Depression kid, Frankie Darro as the teenaged son. But then, he’d just come over from Warners' THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31 and a bit of James Cagney’s acting rhythm must have rubbed off.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hayes was luckier on her next two pics, loan-outs to Goldwyn for John Ford’s adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s ARROWSMITH/’31 (with Ronald Colman) and Paramount for Frank Borzage’s shot at Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS/’32 (with Gary Cooper).

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Director Selwyn was the WYN in Samuel GoldWYN. Producing partners back in New York when Sam Goldwyn was still Sam Goldfish, the company’s name was GOLDWYN. The old gag is that Sam took the wrong half of each name, he should have been Samuel Selfish.

Friday, April 25, 2014


Debut pic from writer/graphic artist Joann Sfar is an imaginative, highly stylized bio-pic of French songster/ artistic gadfly/provocateur/ womanizer Serge Gainsbourg. (So far, Sfar has followed up with THE RABBI’S CAT, an animated feature of his own novel.) Gainsbourg, at least as portrayed here, lived less the heroic life promised by the film’s title than a toxically adventurous one, loaded with dramatic incident right from his start as a funny-looking Jewish kid/musical prodigy during the Nazi Occupation. A tantalizing mixture of grit, sexual confidence & self-loathing, strikingly realized as a kid by Kacey Mottet Klein and later by Eric Elmosnino, Sfar freshens the usual bio-pic tropes with graphic flourishes and a puppet-like doppelgänger Gainsbourg can’t quite move past . . . if in fact he wants to. But something goes terribly wrong with the second half of the film. It’s not so much that Gainsbourg’s story loses interest & empathy as he begins grazing thru a series affairs with stars like Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot & Juliette Gréco, or even distaste at his increasing dissipation. More likely, it’s the essential banality of French Pop, an acquired taste at best. All those toneless, whispering ingenues just don’t seem worth the effort.

DOUBLE-BILL: Try pairing this with another stylish failure, Kevin Spacey’s BEYOND THE SEA/’04, a near-vanity project on Pop singer/actor Bobby Darin.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

BROKEN (2012)

This indie pic, the megging debut of British theatrical director Rufus Norris, is heartfelt, sensitive and lousy; a fine example of a literary work that refuses to take to the screen. The story centers on young Scout, I mean, Skunk, an independent, motherless adolescent girl with a daddy fixation (pop’s a lawyer), an older brother, a problem with school bullies, a nose for trouble and various neighbors & plot elements also clandestinely retrofitted out of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. (A rape allegation from a slutty white-trash blonde as central narrative device? MOCKINGBIRD only had one; why not two wrongly accused for twice the drama?) As played by Eloise Laurence, Skunk even looks a bit like Scout (I mean, Mary Badham), and gets to know a mentally handicapped grown-up across the cul-de-sac from her house, he lives just past that British white-trash place with the explosive widowed dad and the three viciously psychotic sisters. (What? No tree with a hollow for secret knickknacks?) Director Norris knows things don’t quite add up so he tries a bit of non-linear editing, opening scenes at their climax then jumping a few steps back to show how we got here. Stylistic subterfuge that can’t hide all the inexplicably incurious lawyers, cops & teachers who make up the cast of characters. Though that’s preferable to the dream-of-death climax, a bathetic arthouse version of the current Fundamentalist Christian hit HEAVEN IS FOR REAL/’14. Yikes!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD/’62 or, for a fine British coming-of-age pic, AN EDUCATION/’09.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Crude, rude & lewd . . . pretty funny, too. This hit comedy about a make-believe nuclear family, hand-picked by a desperate local drug dealer as a prop to help him drive a jumbo-sized SUV loaded with marijuana across the Mexican border and back to Denver is purposely coarse & obvious, loaded with plot twists you see coming and gags too musty to raise a laugh-track response on the CW. But its fouled-mouthed manner is a con, toothless & harmless, barely disguising an old-fashioned fractured family comedy where kids & parents get tested in a series of funny crises that pull them together. And it’s that dichotomy of tone that make the wheezy script generate big laughs as a familiar structure and essential character decency spark against R-Rated scatological jokes, breezy sexual tension and a drug culture that’s changing so fast the film’s premise is already out of date. On its own, the juxtaposition is a pretty thin thread to hang 100 minutes on, but the trick of the thing is that we wind up caring about how the fake family is bonding, the four leads are just so damn likable. Jason Sedeikis (Dad) isn’t exactly loaded with acting chops, but there’s a kick just watching him take the old Fred MacMurray spot. As fake Mom, Jennifer Aniston has aged past her old bullet-proof look, and is all the better for it. And then there’s Will Poulter as the ‘son.’ Cast as a new Michael Cera, he breaks past the mold, looking so much like that freckle-faced kid Norman Rockwell liked to paint, you grin like an idiot whenever he’s on the screen. (See below - heck, even the ass is the same.) Budding megger Rawson Marshall Thurber finds a nice, unhurried pace for his cast, but he’s hardly a natural filming physical comedy. Setting up shots for chain-reaction shtick or roadhouse punches leave him flummoxed, begging for laughs instead of selling the gag. Yet it hardly matters.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Rumor puts a sequel in the pipeline. And while the writing team of Steve Faber & Bob Fisher did WEDDING CRASHERS/’05, this is more in the HANGOVER vein. And we all know how those sequels turned out. Guys, quit while you’re ahead.

Monday, April 21, 2014


Tepidly received Napoleonic Wars: Naval Division saga now looks uncommonly interesting. A familiar seafaring combo-platter with lively samplings from HORATIO HORNBLOWER/’51; and two other seaboard classics with films out in ‘62, BILLY BUDD and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. Alec Guinness, on brief hiatus from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, plays ‘Good Captain’ to Dirk Bogarde’s ‘Bad Lieutenant’ while a crew stocked with unwilling ‘pressed men’ seethes on the edge of revolt, led by another LAWRENCE slavey, Anthony Quayle, and given amateur legal advice, in a neat characterization, by the young, painfully thin Murray Melvin fresh off his Cannes’ Best Actor win for A TASTE OF HONEY/’61. Technically the film is something of a mixed bag, as rousingly convincing sea battles from future JAMES BOND helmsmen (director Lewis Gilbert & editor Peter Hunt) alternate with stage-bound action (and inaction) on deck, though it’s all handsomely lensed by Christopher Challis. But the only important battle is the psychological one between Tricky Dirk and the patiently suffering Alec. Together, they’re almost good enough to compensate for some awfully conveniently resolutions used to tidy up the last act. The best reason to watch may be the chance it offers to imagine Guinness as BILLY BUDD’s Captain Vere and Bogarde as the villainous Claggart. Infinitely better casting than Peter Ustinov managed on his interesting BILLY BUDD film that year when he miscast himself as the noble, tortured Captain and Robert Ryan as an effective, yet all wrong Claggart. As Billy, Terence Stamp in ’62 was just about perfect.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, BILLY BUDD.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: We're our own STotD having already written this up . . . but alphabetized under its Stateside title.  Very similar take on it four years back. Nice new poster though!

Saturday, April 19, 2014


René Clair, in WWII Hollywood exile, gave this comic-fantastic romance a crisp, flippant tone, skipping past the on-going misunderstandings that can make farce a pain. If only more in here were as witty as its omnibus prologue where a series of blackout sketches show a witch’s curse traveling thru generations; or later, when a divine montage features a chanting chorus of maternity ward infants. Fredric March & Veronica Lake make an odd pair as would-be Governor & revenge seeking witch, but their obvious mismatch adds a bit of texture to a plot that’s all but given away in the title. Susan Hayward, very young, very pretty, actually gives the best perf as March’s constantly jilted would-be bride. But the main performer is director Clair who gets a lot out of the simplest special effects while zipping thru the plot in a tidy 77 minutes. It hardly gives us time to note the film’s alarmingly callous view of mortality.

DOUBLE-BILL: World Wars do bring out a taste for morbidly supernatural comedies, see the only partially successful Nöel Coward/David Lean BLITHE SPIRIT/’45.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Considering the international rep & awards, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan casts the smallest of shadows Stateside. And this major Cannes-winner helps show why. It’s a rural-set Police Procedural, not the expected detective/investigation set-up typical of the genre, but the routine procedural police work on a crime already solved, with suspects in custody and various piece-work quotidian tasks slowly advancing: Locating the body on a long overnight drive; Carting it back to the morgue; Overseeing the autopsy; Writing it all up for the report. For writer/director Ceylan, the specifics of murder are neither Means nor End, what concerns him is the minutia of character, process . . . and cogitation. You’ve never seen such a meditative crew, even the culprit. Everyone so lost in their thoughts, the whole country seems slow on the uptake. Revelations, when they come, are more personal than professional, measured out in drams, inconclusive and only fitfully connected to the task at hand. It’s not uninteresting, but it does make for a thin texture, as if Ceylan couldn’t handle more than one . . . thought . . . at . . . a . . . time. (No wonder critics raved.) His rapt tone helps holds the picture together, enlarging reflective insights into personal epiphanies, but without the haunting Anatolian landscape (stunningly captured by D.P. Gökhan Tiryaki), you might wonder how much ‘there’ is there.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The title, an obvious reference to Sergio Leone, is a bit of a mystery. A weakness for letting facial ticks play out in CinemaScopic Close-Up may be the only thing these two have in common. Perhaps the title is meant ironically.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Guillermo del Toro’s latest would-be blockbuster is just about the glitziest GODZILLA pic e’er imagined. But don’t kid yourself, it’s still a GODZILLA movie. Or rather, a GODZILLA vs IRON MAN . . . er, make that GODZILLA vs AN IRON MAN BUILT FOR TWO movie. Give Toro credit for getting this mammoth thing off the ground, a 200-mill CGI monstrosity that zips you quickly thru a complicated backstory and onto the current mission. In brief: Monsters from the deep have returned in Attack Mode and only a program to revive some antiquated Giant Weaponized IronMan Machines can save Earth! Alas, Toro has a lot less success in finding characters (or actors!) who can run his little movie as well as they run those manned robots. Leading man Charlie Hunnam, presumably cast on his slight resemblance to Heath Ledger, is a hunky incompetent blank, a non-actor with zero chemistry for his screen partners. (‘I’m not getting any vital signs,’ someone says after he’s been injured. Too true.) Better results come from a trio of cheery hams, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day and especially Burn Gorman, the memorable ‘Guppy’ in tv’s BLEAK HOUSE/’06. But check out the clean, elegant design in the artist’s rendered poster right above to see in comparison what a bloated mess this became in production.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Go back to Toro’s THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE/’01 to see what a boon smaller budgets can be for storytelling & visual imagination. Or, if you really need a GODZILLA fix, go for the Japanese cut of Ishirô Honda’s original GOJIRA/’54, as fine & central to Japan’s post-war psyche as KING KONG/’33 was for Depression-Era America.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


All but faultless bio-pic about the mysterious & difficult life of Modern Primitive painter Séraphine de Senlis. Discovered by happenstance when employed as scrub-woman/housekeeper for Wilhelm Uhde, a renowned art collector and early buyer of Picasso, Braque & Rousseau, he returned after WWI exile to find she had matured into an even more complete & compelling artist. From sturdy peasant stock, but mentally fragile, Séraphine painted in a state of near religious ecstasy on small wood panels with paints rendered from gleaned elements, field flowers, pig’s blood, candle wax from church offertory candles. Later, Uhde supplied her with professional supplies and a stipend which led her into dangerous fits of grandiosity just as the Great Depression was altering the art market to his disadvantage. (The first half of the film does a particularly fine job at detailing the sheer labor involved in Séraphine’s daily routine circa 1914.) Her paintings, usually fruits, trees or flowers laid in circular patterns, come off as a cross between Rousseau, Van Gogh & Grand-mère Moses, but with a hallucinatory, mesmerizing repetitive quality all her own; instantly recognizable, instantly memorable. Beautifully paced by director Martin Provost, and lovingly rendered on Fuji 35mm stock by D.P. Laurent Brunet, its success none-the-less rests largely on a superb cast, especially Yolande Moreau as the tight-lipped, but increasingly manic Séraphine. The film pretty much swept the boards at the French Césars, deservedly so.

DOUBLE-BILL: While not really comparable as a filmmaking experience, viewers haven’t gotten this far inside the artistic mind since Andrei Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV/’66.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

QUEEN BEE (1955)

As writer, Ranald MacDougall successfully rebooted Joan Crawford’s career as leading lady with MILDRED PIERCE/’45; a decade later, he successfully booted whatever was left of it as writer/director of this Southern-Fried dish of domestic hooey. In this sub-LITTLE FOXES set up, Crawford’s raging ego rules her mansion-sized roost as she lunges about blindsiding her dipsomaniac hubby; plies her wide-mouth wiles on an old flame; drives a blonde to suicide; hires a vicious disciplinarian as nanny; entertains a feebleminded romantic rival from her past; and welcomes a young cuz from up North as personal playmate for hearth & home amid the magnolia trees. Artificial in the extreme, but played without style by a benumbed cast who either can’t or won’t make eye contact with their pedestaled star, the film is undoubtedly catnip for fanciers of late Crawford, but should be sampled with care by non-believers. They may wonder if the startling figure on screen is real or audio-animatronic. You sure can’t take your eyes off her.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The pretty little thing who comes to visit and stays as catalyst is Lucy Marlow, James Mason’s cute official date in the opening scenes of A STAR IS BORN/’54. Alas, someone sabotaged her looks here, turning her into a moon-faced Cupie Doll . . . or is she supposed to be Sniffles the Mouse?

Monday, April 14, 2014


In spite of a long & varied career with recent credits on cable’s TREME and the upcoming ROSEMARY’S BABY tv remake, Polish-born, Czech-trained, Netherlandian-named director Agnieszka Holland remains best known for her superb WWII Jewish-teen-on-the-run story EUROPA, EUROPA/’90. So a lot of people may have taken a been-there/seen-that attitude toward this fine & remarkable tru-life WWII Jews-in-hiding story which in précis sounds something like THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK IN A POLISH SEWER. Talk about a tough sell! But the story turns out to be richer & stranger than you expect, possibly because it sticks so closely to the facts, darker and yet far more hopeful. The modern bane of handheld camera work gets a workout in the early sections, but Holland lets up as the characters particularize themselves into the eleven who find special protection from the master of the sewers of Lvov, a man who tells himself he’s doing this for the money, but in fits & starts develops a complex, almost proprietary relationship with his secret charges. Tense & believable, ghastly & horrifying, at times oddly thrilling, and without any mournful cellos ripping off Kol Nidre on the soundtrack, this is a Holocaust-themed film that sees history plain . . . and is all the better for it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950)

Stocky film noir mainstay Edmund O’Brien parlays his expertise as a telephone wiring whiz into a job with an illegal bookmaking racket, rising quickly thru the ranks . . . straight to his doom. It’s all smashingly effective under the sharp megging of Joseph M. Newman, a modestly talented hack whose work here (more in the vein of great B-pic specialists like Joseph Lewis or Phil Karlson) seems transformed with the addition of legendary cinematographer Franz Planer, a first choice guy for the likes of Ophüls, Zinnemann & Wyler. The script doesn’t do much for the three gals O’Brien dates (Joanne Dru gets little motivation for swapping mob guy Don Porter for mob guy O’Brien; and an interesting subplot with lovelorn accountant Dorothy Patrick gets short shrift), but the behind-the-scenes gambling stuff & parallel-track police probe are neatly handled. While the big Boulder Dam climax is about as immaculate an action set piece as you will find. Hard to know who pulled this all together on such a small indie budget, even the background score by Sol Kaplan is a standout.

DOUBLE-BILL: O’Brien’s time-delay ruse for a last big score on the horses was pinched for the climax of THE STING/’73.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Long before his TechniColored melodramas for Universal in the ‘50s (WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56; IMITATION OF LIFE/’59), Douglas Sirk, on his second American pic, made this near-miss adaptation of Chekhov’s THE SHOOTING PARTY. The farce-inflected tragicomic tone of the great Chekhov plays are notoriously hard to get right in film (on stage, too), but Sirk, working on a shoestring budget for fellow-exile producer Seymour Nebenzal, gets nearly as close as Louis Malle did with his rehearsal film, VANYA ON 42ND STREET/’94 though nowhere near as close as Satyajit Ray did in THE MUSIC ROOM/’58 which has the advantage of not being by Chekhov but merely Chekhovian. Back to SUMMER STORM. Told in flashback from early post-Revolutionary days, the main story follows, in slightly appalled amazement, the romantic climb of Linda Darnell, a peasant girl who captures the hearts of a series of increasingly important lovers/mentors. Sig Ruman & Hugo Haas are fine as her corruptible father & lovesick middle-aged suitor, but the standout perfs come from upper-echelon types, George Sanders as an obsessed Judge, Anna Lee (very beautiful here) as his proper fiancee, and Edward Everett Horton as a supremely supercilious landowning Count in danger of running on empty even before the Communist takeover.* There’s only so much Sirk can do with the modest production values, or with Darnell whose butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth simper is as far as she goes. The passion needed to precipitate all the trouble seems beyond her means. The Production Code forces too many tidy resolutions, but the film retains interest and honesty in spite of it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *What a performance by Horton! Not the expected serious turn from a long favored jester, but a living response played thru comedy technique. He’s so naturally in tune with the multifaceted Chekhovian spirit it’d make Stanislavski sit up and take notice as this essentially silly man nails one emotion & piece of human folly after another.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, try Malle’s VANYA or Ray’s MUSIC ROOM.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


This prestigious, sweeping (and award-sweeping) historical about the religious wars between Catholics & Huguenots in 16th Century France is a hoot . . . though probably not meant to be. Working in an unaccustomed epic style, famed operatic regisseur & occasional film director Patrice Chéreau goes for a grim, moralizing tone, with modern horrors spilling into the streets, as the villainous Catherine de Medici (Queen Mother and the Mother-of-all-Queens) finds herself constantly thwarted in plans to herd her royal brood into a properly aligned dynastic destiny. But Chéreau keeps bumping up against the goofy plot mechanics built into Alexandre Dumas’ novelistic treatment of events. Imagine trying for a serious historical study of Louis XIV & XV using THE THREE MUSKETEERS as source material. Perhaps the wild swings in tone wouldn’t matter if Chéreau had the chops for handling multiple lines of action. For example, a big set piece involving a wild boar hunt should be running five narrative & motivational lines all at once, like a musical quintet in one of Chéreau’s opera productions. But he can barely juggle one or two. Still, this Games of Thrones-like power struggle has plenty to hold your attention, especially in the acting department. In chalk-white makeup as the aging Queen Mum, Virna Lisi attacks her role as fiercely as Gloria Swanson went at Norma Desmond. And while everyone else in the big cast gets their licks in, no one touches Lisi in pitch-perfect grief-stricken comic seething. (NOTE: The current subfusc DVD from Miramax needs a Director's Cut upgrade.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Daniel Auteuil & Vincent Perez, respectively husband & lover to Isabelle Adjani’s slightly zombie-like Queen Margot, were reunited three years later on LE BOSSU/ON GUARD!/’97, a remarkably successful faux-Dumas swashbuckler, directed with spirit, devilish charm & out-of-fashion moviemaking moxie by the rejuvenated hand of vet helmer Phillipe de Broca. Why deconstruct when the real thing is still so much fun?

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Heinrich Mann, brother of Thomas & BLUE ANGEL/’30 author, covered this territory in a pair of historical novels, YOUNG HENRY OF NAVARRE and HENRY, KING OF FRANCE. Lively, fascinating stuff, but very long.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Toeing the line between Vanity and School Project, James Franco’s mosaic portrait of Hart Crane and his dense poetry is told in a series of stop-and-go/splintered vignettes parsed out in chronological burps. Shot largely in b&w close-up (to hide non-period detail?), it fails to contextualize Hart’s writing in any helpful way, presumably the point of the project, since neither Franco’s rote oral readings nor printed excerpts on screen get his meanings (or even his sound) across. A couple of early scenes where kid brother Dave Franco plays the young Hart come off slightly better, his face takes better to b&w and we aren’t asked to make any literary connection. And there’s relief during a brief stop in Paris since the camera can pull back in confidence that period detail won’t be shattered. A walk in Notre Dame Cathedral in low-resolution color promises . . . something . . . but what? It’s nearly as pointless as a stop at an NYC bijou to watch Chaplin’s THE KID/’21 with some laugh-averse customers. Elsewhere, Hart/Franco goes blotto with abandon and takes on a couple of gay couplings with gusto*, but otherwise shoots so much of the rest of the film on the back of his head you start to feel like his barber. Nice hair, James . . . hmm, what a short neck.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The appropriate sex act for Franco in this film would be masturbation . . . intellectual masturbation.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Films about writers are very hard to pull off. And poets? . . . nearly impossible. But it can be done, try STEVIE/’78 with the great Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith, from the Hugh Whitemore play.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


The life & career of Jessie Matthews, Britain’s top musical-comedy film star in the ‘30s, took a turn right out of A STAR IS BORN when she let her husband, comic actor Sonnie Hale, take on directing chores. This, the first of his three-and-out attempts, made on the strength of Matthews’ fast-ebbing popularity, signaled the beginning of the end of her leading lady days, and gives a pretty choppy idea of how to put one of these comic romances together. (If only he’d given his editor a bit of movement to cut on, he just might have gotten away with it.) To his credit, Hale improves as the film goes on and the little love triangle between Matthews and her two romantic rivals makes a serviceable structure for hanging the music on. She’s a struggling singer/dancer in Paris who meets-cute at the food market with a food-snatching dog & his nice owner, a struggling inventor with a concave chest. It’s love; or t’would be if not for his French garret-mate, a struggling actor with a tiny talent and an equally concave chest. (Thank the Lord, Matthews, though thin, is also pleasantly bosomy.) Various romantic complications and song cues ensue, even a good new tune for Jessie to sing (‘Looking Around the Corners for You’) before we suffer thru her radio infotainment show and wait for Tru-Love to triumph over assertive behavior. No big production number, instead a ‘swellegant’ floor-show routine with a Pop-Up male chorus. And just as well since Matthews comes off best in intimate settings. If a cleaner DVD than the current Rank/VCI version ever shows up, it might even win a few fans.

DOUBLE-BILL: Matthews is probably best seen in an ensemble piece like THE GOOD COMPANIONS/’33, or in EVERGREEN/’34 with its clever story gimmick & some first-rate Rodgers & Hart songs.

Monday, April 7, 2014


Back in the ‘30s & ‘40s, every studio wanted their own Crazy Comedy Team. The Marx Bros. @ Paramount (later M-G-M); The Ritz Bros. @ 20th/Fox; The Three Stooges @ Columbia; and Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey @ R.K.O. till Woolsey died in ‘38. Wheeler played junior troublemaker to Woolsey’s owlish George Burns lookalike, but their films now play like comic afterthoughts, routine program fillers with de rigeur wacko gags, bad puns & forgettable songs. This one promises a tad more with a script from the young Joseph Mankiewicz, fresh off MILLION DOLLAR LEGS/’32 @ Paramount, pivoting from L.A. Olympics to International Peace Conference. The opening finds W&W as barbers to Native Americans (who sadly can’t raise a beard worth shaving!) before they get sent to Geneva as Indian Nation reps. It sounds like fun, but the film loses all narrative momentum once the boys take off (literally) for the conference, without the jokes or specialty routines to hold our interest. The film does rate a BLACKFACE ALERT for turning the conference assembly into a minstrel show, while offering many lesser, but cringe-worthy politically incorrect moments we might put up with if they were funnier. Alas (or is it fortunately?), they’re not.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Released a few months before DUCK SOUP/’33 took on similar international tensions & war fever, DIPLOMANIACS is in every other way left in the dust by the Marx Bros. classic.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


Sure, it’s another gimmicky suicide watch drama (will he/won't he), but deftly helmed by Henry Hathaway; well-larded with sharp sidebar vignettes to help ride out the main story tension; and phenomenally well cast, not only in the leading roles but by fistfuls of up-and-comers like Grace Kelly, Debra Paget, Jeffrey Hunter & Ossie Davis. Richard Basehart (37, but looking 27) wisely keeps a rein on the emoting as the sweet-faced would-be jumper on the 15th floor, and he sure catches a break when street cop Paul Douglas is the first guy on the case. You couldn’t find a better ledge companion. The usual gang of upper echelon police, crowd revelers, parents, ex-girl, nosy reporters and even a lunatic preacher soon get in the way. It’s all beautifully organized by Hathaway, and credit to producer Sol C. Siegel on getting such a flavorsome NYC-based cast together for a mid-level pic. But nothing tops the ultra-strict, ultra-succinct Freudian analysis done on the fly by Martin Gabel’s call-a-shrink. (You guessed it . . . it’s all Mom’s fault.)

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Lionized for his first & penultimate scripts (MARTY/’55; NETWORK/’76), Paddy Cheyefsky’s best writing came on the projects he wrote just before (HOSPITAL/’71) and just after those two calling cards. This largely ignored kitchen-sink drama was obviously designed as follow up to the enormous (and enormously unexpected) success of MARTY. Ernest Borgnine again stars, now living in the Bronx, a hack driver saving up to buy a long coveted taxi medallion. But his plans run headlong into his wife’s simmering passive resentment which find outlet in giving daughter Debbie Reynolds the formal wedding & reception she never had. In theory, nothing in this film should work. Yet as the dowdy wife, Bette Davis, a decade older than Borgnine and hardly salt-of-the-earth Bronx, gives an astonishingly naturalistic, vanity-free perf; Borgnine shows a rare restraint with hardly a yell; and Reynolds douses the twinkle & her typical ingratiation tricks. The whole cast ups their game, playing ‘ordinary little people’ without grandstanding or condescension. Even the apartment looks just right, with its tiny eat-in kitchen (Davis proves a whiz at the stove) or showing how a single bed can take over a room. The original Cheyefsky teleplay (which had Thelma Ritter in the mother role) was gently ‘opened up’ by Gore Vidal (of all people), given grimy atmospheric lensing from John Alton and, most surprising of all, fluid, intensely compacted megging from Richard Brooks.* Dumped by the studio as M-G-M was going thru regime change (not even a decent poster), naturally, no one went to see it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The biggest surprise here isn’t Bette Davis toning things down, as anyone who’s seen her late tv pic STRANGERS/’79 should know. (Just watch as she acknowledges Borgnine getting in from a night shift by not acknowledging him.) No, the real surprise, even more than Reynolds’ warmth & directness, is in Richard Brooks’ helming. He’d just switched over to the CinemaScope format and was struggling with the extra wide frame. Then again, even his earlier work in the old squarish Academy ratio (1.35:1) and then in the so-called flat compromise of 1.85:1 would often turn compositionally dead. He was always more of a writer. Compare, for example, his own stagy staging of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE/’55 with the professional snap and consistent style Jules Dassin found in Brooks’ script for BRUTE FORCE/’47. What made the diff here? Best guess is that AFFAIR, put into production largely on the commercial strength of MARTY, was shot using the same Academy Ratio framing of MARTY (1.35:1). Who wants to argue with success? But then cropped for projection at 1.85:1 after production for a more modern look, losing about 15% of the composition Brooks thought he was shooting. You can check out the increase in emotional intensity & claustrophobia that was gained by watching a few uncropped shots as they appear in film’s trailer on the DVD. What was unusual wasn’t cropping down the picture, but that Brooks didn’t know they would do it and didn’t compensate for it. Just a lucky bit of blindsiding via studio executive fiat.

DOUBLE-BILL: Follow the link below for a snapshot of A CATERED AFFAIR/’07, a near-miss B’way Musicalization that had its heart in the right place.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Political junkies who’ve run out (or wearied) of U.S. & U.K. dramas set in government’s hallowed halls can take relief (or at least variété) in this dishy French product. A gossipy, but believable peek behind the public & private curtain of Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to the Presidency, and made mid-term, it’s unexpectedly involving, unexpectedly evenhanded, and, for non-French audiences, unexpectedly easy to follow, no scorecard needed. Set out in three intersecting planks, it counterpoints Overweening Ambition; Imploding Marriage & Jealous Rivals, with platforms & positions taking a backseat to maneuvering. All too true, no doubt. Xavier Durringer, who largely works in French tv, is a whiz at clearly laying this all out, holding to a pace that feels fast but shouldn’t leave a non-French novice behind. And the acting & physical resemblances are spot on. Denis Podalydès (so good in Tavernier’s SAFE CONDUCT/’02) manages to keep Sarkozy from turning into a height-challenged caricature though Florence Pernel as his wife/political partner hasn’t quite got the material needed to flesh out a difficult role. But the film is ultimately stolen by Bernard Le Coq’s plus-perfect assumption of Jacques Chirac. So good, you’d vote him in as your Prez . . . not Chirac, Le Coq. The film stays pretty much on the surface, but entertainingly so.

DOUBLE-BILL: The first two seasons of VEEP/’12-‘13, out on DVD, are near abstract constructs. Devoid of party affiliation or useful political process, they hilariously capture the real smell of power politicking better than anything since YES MINISTER/’80-‘84 and YES PRIME MINISTER/’86-87.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Jean Arthur stars in this perfectly watchable domestic comedy as a remarried widow knocked for a loop when her ‘late’ husband turns up alive & well. It’s the old ENOCH ARDEN routine, a Hollywood standard, but told from the wife’s POV with added ScrewBall elements. The actual source material isn’t Tennyson, but Somerset Maugham’s play HOME AND BEAUTY, and even that gets a make-over with hubbies one & two (Fred MacMurray & Melvyn Douglas) now fighting to keep, rather than hand off, the wife.* It’s still a lovely set up, and nicely played, especially by Arthur (delighted by the possibilities), Harry Davenport as her more sensible dad and a very funny Melville Cooper as a confused butler. Joseph Walker photographs Arthur so she sparkles all the way thru to the slightly absurdist ending, but can’t do much to give director Wesley Ruggles the wit & patience for sophisticated comic embarrassment. Instead, the tone is forced whenever possible, with yuck, yuck music cues from Friedrich Hollander outlining everything like a kiddie coloring book.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Credit this as a rare Hollywood pic that doesn't tip its hand over the romantic outcome.

DOUBLE-BILL: The distaff side got an airing in MY FAVORITE WIFE/’40 the very same year. Irene Dunne’s a (gender swapped) Enoch Arden who returns to find Cary Grant, Gail Patrick, Randolph Scott. . . . and the same forced comic tone.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

LILITH (1964)

In his last film, writer/director Robert Rossen tried loosening up his stiff, formal visual style. But whether he was trying for a new look to reflect the unsettled minds of his story’s asylum inmates or merely jazzing things up with undigested technical grabs from New Wave garçons is unclear.* The slow dissolves, off-kilter angles & deep focus compositions, even with the subtle grey scale caught by lenser Eugene Schüftan, take over rather than abet the story. And what an odd story it is! Drifting after getting out of the army, Warren Beatty takes an intern position at what must be the world’s toniest sanatorium, a sort of insanity spa for the rich. His main patient is wild, but lovely Jean Seberg who seems more spoiled/neurotic than schizo. But just you wait! ‘Therapy’ consists of dates around town which inevitably turn romantic. But just who is doing the seducing? And is this seduction sexual or mental? No small matter to Beatty’s old townie flame (now unhappily married to Gene Hackman, assured in his film debut) or to Peter Fonda, a fragile fellow-patient carrying an unrequited crush for Seberg. All while Rossen pours on enough rain storms & churning water rapids to (metaphorically) drown Carl Jung. It’s all hopelessly unsatisfying.

DOUBLE-BILL: The surprise success of the low-budget DAVID AND LISA/’62 may have prompted this project. But, my!, does anything date quite as quickly as depictions of psychiatric treatment?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Sure enough, the style appealed abroad, as the film, a big dud Stateside, was hailed by many French cineasts.