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Friday, February 28, 2014

JOHNNY GUITER (1954)

Nicholas Ray’s fever-dream of a Western has Joan Crawford, in slightly crazed form near the end of her leading-lady days, as Vienna, a farsighted saloon owner holding on to her place till the railroad comes thru. She’s mistrusted in town, especially by Mercedes McCambridge, her sexually frustrated rival for the Dancin’ Kid. What McCambridge doesn’t know is that Joan’s tru-love is about to come a’callin’, a certain Johnny Guitar (long, tall, stolid Sterling Hayden). But between the railway’s explosive excavations, a deadly stagecoach holdup and a bank robbery that occurs just as Vienna cleans out her account, the lid on this emotional pressure cooker of a drama is fated to burst. Working in the inflamed hues of Republic Pictures’ TruColor process, lenser Harry Stradling finds a palette that exceeds Philip Yordan’s purple-prose script. There’s always a few spots in these ‘50s meller that prove too much for modern audiences to get past, and stifling unintended howlers was never a Nicholas Ray strong point. Even his masterful BIGGER THAN LIFE/’56 elicits a goodly share of unwanted eruptions. But who cares when the dramatic thrust is so bold, so sure; when the blast of color so primeval (those Crawford blouses!); the action so thrilling, and never more so than when McCambridge exults in fiery triumph. That last one does create a bit of a structural problem. How do you follow GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG? And speaking of music, Victor Young plugs his ‘Johnny Guitar Theme’ mercilessly, but what a tune to plug! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FeKiFNko6o

No surprise that the film has steadily gained critical favor, moving from Camp Classic to Revered Masterwork, but why think of these categories as mutually exclusive?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Not many people in Hollywood (well, not many actors & directors) know their way around a kitchen, even a fake studio kitchen. But watch Vienna as she cooks up some eggs for Johnny. Not only does Crawford use a bit of bacon drippings to fry up the eggs, she even tosses the empty shells in the coffee pot! That’s an old-fashioned, now rarely seen trick to clarify boiled coffee. (The technique is still used on bouillon.) Does it show up anywhere else in the history of film?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

CRY VENGEANCE (1954)

Mark Stevens, a journeyman actor who made a decent rep playing tough dicks in films noir, stars in and makes his directing debut here. Rounding up the usual suspects (and plot) for a typical noir outing, Stevens, as director, is all thumbs, turning out a near vanity project. He’s a wronged cop, fresh from jail, now tracking down the goon who planted the car bomb that killed his wife & kid, and scarred him for life. He finds the guy way up north, in pre-Statehood Alaska, but . . . it’s the wrong guy! Can ya beat that? Worse, the guy ends up dead anyway; Worser, it looks like Stevens is the guy who done it; Worsest, the punk who really did plant the bomb is coming to Alaska, hoping to finish what he started. Hey!, that doesn’t sound bad at all, though you’d never know it from Stevens’ flat direction & monotone acting. The fights are particularly bizarre, with flurries of missed punches taking out an assortment of toughs, coppers and the occasional dame. The sole bright spot is Skip Homeier, a platinum blond baddie with a touch of masochistic swagger. (The pic may be a bust, but who could resist these Euro-Posters?)


WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Even in his breakthrough film THE DARK CORNER/’46, a tasty noir from Henry Hathaway, Stevens is aced by co-stars Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb & William Bendix.

DOUBLE-BILL: As a teen, ‘Skip’ Homeier recreated his startling stage perf as a Nazi Youth transplanted to the American heartland in TOMORROW, THE WORLD!/’44. Stagy as hell, but fascinating.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A NEW LEAF (1971)

Elaine May’s peculiar debut as writer/director/actor goes beyond the usual incompetence that passed for New York Film School comedy technique at the time, she seems actively contemptuous of the medium. How else to explain the consistently lumpy look, amateurish staging and hack editing in this oddly cast romance. Walter Matthau, with an on-and-off Mid-Atlantic accent, stars as an upper-crust twit who discovers he’s run out of cash. Under the gun, he finds a rich, available nebbish, ripe for the plucking, in Elaine May, only to wind up fixing her complicated financial estate & affairs while growing attached to her flaky personality. Fairly standard doings, with a story arc and enough quirky lines to give off some rooting interest. But May’s shot choice is so consistently ‘off,’ that a decent camera set up near the start of the third act (a simple staircase angle) creates a jolt, a jolt of unexpected adequacy, unintentionally pulling you out of the pic. Pro that he is, Matthau finds a way to get his laughs, and there’s a tidy piece of character comedy from George Rose, extra-sec as his valet. As for May the comic actress? She simply hasn’t the physical chops to carry a leading role that needs a Jean Arthur or a Judy Holliday. But at least she doesn’t give off flop sweat like the rest of her cast.

DOUBLE-BILL: May gave up directing after HEARTBREAK KID/’72; MIKEY AND NICKY/’76 and that infamous financial fiasco, ISHTAR/’87 which, taken in small doses, is pretty funny.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

OLD YELLER (1957)

Fondly recalled Disney meller is A Boy And His Dog For All Seasons, a gloss on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Boy And His Fawn classic THE YEARLING, a far richer book & film. But while this little Disney title is outclassed by the posh earlier production, it works after its own fashion, particularly for those who can stomach Disney ‘house style’ or ever owned a mutt. Tommy Kirk gets third billing, but the best part as the adolescent kid left to run the farm when Dad goes off to sell the herd. (Kirk never got another shot at something this serious, stuck in one bumbling comedy after another until he was summarily dropped by the studio.*) Dorothy McGuire & Kevin Corcoran are around as Mom & kid brother, but the real helper is a big ol’ mongrel who soon proves his worth. Too much of the film has a second-hand look to it, with stock shot cutaways of cute critters, an oddly cramped color palette (especially indoors) and that God-awful cutsey-poo musical background scoring Disney stuck to in the ‘50s & ‘60. (Come to think of it, even longer than that.) It’s one thing to make films with kids in mind, but once Walt turned his attention toward theme parks, too many Disney pics started to talk down to their presumed audience, predigesting dramatic action like a bird feeding its young thru regurgitation. Yuck.

DOUBLE-BILL: With a poetic script from Paul Osborn, knockout lensing by Charles Rosher and some remarkable kid actors under the sure hand of director Clarence Brown, THE YEARLING/’46 can still take your breath away. Plus, vanity-free perfs from Gregory Peck & Jane Wyman.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Okay, the book hasn’t been written (yet), but there’s a great subject in the hard luck tales of Disney’s three principal boy actors of the ‘40s; ‘50s and ‘60s: Bobby Driscoll, dead @ 31, a homeless drug addict; Matthew Garber, the little boy from MARY POPPINS and two more Disney pics, dead @ 21 from some sort of food poisoning; *and this film’s Tommy Kirk, blackballed off the Disney lot as a gay man @ 24. How’d Kurt Russell ever come thru?

Monday, February 24, 2014

THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955)

Going back at least to 1912 and the Gish sisters debut in D. W. Griffith’s AN UNSEEN ENEMY, the hostage drama is a perennial dramatic construct that’s both worked to death and improbably sturdy. So, it’s only half a surprise to find this mid-‘50s suburban iteration holding up as well as it does. And with the old story this well handled, you can get a charge on the film's sheer craftsmanship. Vet helmer William Wyler, with lenser Lee Garmes, goes for tremendous depth-of-field focus, multi-layering action inside the house in a manner that suggests 3-D, often putting all his principles in a single composition that takes in different playing spaces so we identify with the family as a unit. It makes them a believable force against the three violent escaped prisoners holding them hostage and helps us buy into some of the less convincing plot manipulations. Humphrey Bogart obviously wanted another go at his Duke Mantee characterization from PETRIFIED FOREST/’36. (He’d just redone it on t.v.) Here, in his penultimate film, he’s less stagy, less stylized and just plain nastier than he was twenty years ago. Against this, Fredric March’s family guy has to be both terrified father and strong defender. Wyler apparently wore him down with as many as fifty takes to get what he needed. It certainly did the trick.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This film is often referred to as a play adaptation, but not exactly. Joseph Hayes wrote the fact-inspired story as a novel, as a film script and as a play. The film was actually shot before the play opened, then contractually held back until the stage version (with Paul Newman & Karl Malden in the Bogie & March spots) completed its B’way run.

DOUBLE-BILL: Check out Bogart’s breakout perf in PETRIFIED FOREST. Pretty stagy, no? The acting gem in that film is a young & pretty, totally unaffected Bette Davis.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

SARATOGA (1937)

This big, formulaic romantic comedy from M-G-M is largely remembered for being the last film Jean Harlow made. She died during production and the last three reels have to make do with a stand-in, some bad voice-over and a very large hat. Alas, even when the real girl is on screen, the Production Code has just about sucked the life out of those zingers Anita Loos always wrote for Harlow. (Instead, we get nervous whispers about repressed sexual urges.) Worse, she’s stuck with a terribly, terribly couth Mid-Atlantic accent as part of the plot. Still, the basic idea comes over as Harlow fends off a natural inclination toward raffish bookmaker Clark Gable as she tries to stay true to her new fiancé, rich Wall Streeter Walter Pidgeon. Fat chance, especially since Harlow’s betting on the horses to buy back the family stud farm for G’pa Lionel Barrymore. Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that the film feels cobbled together, but it’s still worth a look. Less for Harlow than for Gable, who gives one of his last loosey-goosey perfs, positively extruding sexiness. And Ms. Loos gives Clark a great tag line for just about everyone, ‘I love you kid.’ Special fun when he mixes it up with Hattie McDaniel a couple of years before they continued their unconventional love-match in GONE WITH THE WIND. They also share a song, trading verses to Cliff Edwards ukelele accompaniment.

DOUBLE-BILL: Spencer Tracy’s little known NOW I’LL TELL/’34, fictionalized stuff about infamous conman/gambler Arnold Rothstein, spends a ton of time in Saratoga, but this fascinating pic has never made it to video. Instead, try the '30s horsetrack atmosphere in Frank Capra’s undervalued BROADWAY BILL, also ‘34.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

LA BEAUTE DU DIABLE / THE BEAUTY OF THE DEVIL (1950)

The great years for writer/director René Clair came & went with the late silent/early Talkie period. After that, his charm, wit & flights of surrealistic fancy played out on such a smooth surface, little could grow on them; the films retain pleasure, but no resonance. This variation on the Faust legend, his second pic upon returning to France after the war, is a big production, with grand designs via Léon Barsacq, but the ideas feel secondhand, post-war allegory on greed & ‘the bomb,’ that plays with little consequence. Michel Simon, a ham actor whose occasional genius goes missing here*, starts out as Faust, the aged scientist/philosopher, but he soon swaps bodies with Gérard Philipe's boyish Devil which allows Simon to overact wildly as Mephistopheles for most of the film. It all feels closer to Offenbach’s TALES OF HOFFMAN (out via Powell/Pressburger in ‘51) than to Goethe. Nothing inherently wrong there, but it’s one of those films where the players seem to be having a jollier time than the intended audience. (Sometimes called BEAUTY AND THE DEVIL.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Simon’s genius returned on his next pic, the sublime LA POISON/’51, Sacha Guitry’s fatal philosophical farce, yet to show on Stateside DVD.

Friday, February 21, 2014

THE HIGH BRIGHT SUN (1965)

Ralph Thomas, a house director at British-based Rank Films, made eight featherweight comedies with Dirk Bogarde before switching gears for this final collaboration, a political thriller about a rule-breaking British officer in Cyprus stuck between an uncooperative American archaeologist (Susan Strasberg) and her host family’s involvement with partisan terrorists. The film, also known as McGUIRE, GO HOME! and A DATE WITH DEATH, gets off to a rocky start, but takes on uncommon interest once Bogarde begins investigating a political murder. On the debit side, Strasberg’s brittle presence is a pain and George Chakiris, as the terrorists’ ruthless hothead, needs his WEST SIDE STORY/’61 sharkskin suit to register, but the rest of the cast is very effective. Even the lack of action chops from director Thomas comes off as flatfooted honesty, splitting our sympathies between oppressors & patriots. A state of affairs that suits Bogarde’s natural dramatic inclinations. Especially so when Denholm Elliot shows up as an undercover agent who works with a very free hand. Their few scenes together crackle with a near-erotic tension missing from anything that goes on between Bogarde & Strasberg.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The merely decent DVD transfer from VCI offers only a full frame (1.37:1) picture. But, judging by the opening credits, the print format was always meant to be cropped by the projectionist, probably with aperture plates somewhere between 1.66:1 to 1.85:1. A common practice for the period, the film looks far more dynamic slightly cropped. Try your OverScan or a Zoom-1 setting.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

RAMONA (1936)

Third go-round for Helen Hunt Jackson’s period tale of a Spanish gal in old California who falls in love, marries, then finds tragedy with an American Indian. Sounds just right for Loretta Young and Don Ameche, no? Considering the casting conventions of the time, they do well enough under Henry King’s uncharacteristically brisk helming, assuming you can accept Young in dark, brunette tresses and Ameche’s distinctively non-Native American profile. The story’s good guys and bad guys come off as very P.C., but you have to wonder if victimizing the Noble Native American is just as culturally harmful as making them all vicious savages, as per scores of cheap Western Serials. (When it comes to the Indian Nations, the level of patronizing sentimentality grows in direct proportion to a film’s budget.) In any event, the true purpose of this production was to let 20th/Fox get their mitts on the newly perfected 3-strip TechniColor process on a story with scenic settings to ravish the eye with purple mountains majesty, fields of yellow wheat and flesh tones you’d want to lick. Mission accomplished.

DOUBLE-BILL: A restoration of the 1928 version w/ Dolores Del Rio & Warner Baxter is being unveiled in March: http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/events/2014-03-29/special-screening-ramona-1928

Or, if you just can’t imagine a Latino actress playing a Spaniard, there’s D. W. Griffith’s two-reeler from 1910, with Mary Pickford hiding under a dark wig as Ramona. It’s an antique, of course, but not without a certain charm and considerable tragic force.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: David O Selznick’s production of THE GARDEN OF ALLAH/’36 was probably the glamorous highpoint in the first wave of 3-strip TechniColor features. But the process really came of age when Warner Bros. did without a TechniColor specialist as cinematographer, forgoing the likes of Ray Rennahan (BECKY SHARP/’35); W. Howard Green (ALLAH) and this film’s William V. Skall to stick with brilliant house lensers Sol Polito & Tony Gaudio for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD/’38.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

KEY TO THE THE CITY (1950)

Loretta Young & Clark Gable’s third & final collaboration* was this good-natured fluff about a couple of mayors who meet at a convention where they ‘click together like a key in a lock,’ according to the pic ad copy. It’s an opposites attract set up that has Mayor Young, conservative New England spinster*, finding a match in Mayor Gable, working class Pacific Coast guy’s guy. Any real issues are swept aside for the usual romantic misunderstandings and goofball adventures. Silly costume party?; comic lock-up in jail?; newspaper scandal?; tipsy marriage proposal?; All present and accounted for. A pity since the opening reels, briskly helmed by George Sidney, try for something a bit better, more in line with a Kate Hepburn/ Spencer Tracy battle of the sexes. But a bad case of the cutes and a directionless script leave it flailing, especially in what passes for a climax: fisticuffs for four. As sidekick to Gable, the great Frank Morgan takes a last bow, but it’s another old hand, Lewis Stone, who really shines, sharing an old vaudeville routine with Gable that has them gabbing away on the phone, unaware they’re in adjacent phone booths.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Young & Gable’s two other collaborations were THE CALL OF THE WILD/’35 and unacknowledged daughter, Judy Lewis/’35.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Billy Wilder’s bitter-pill of a political rom-com, FOREIGN AFFAIR/’48, shows the sort of imagination & daring KEY so studiously avoids. Jean Arthur’s spinster Congresswoman is a lot like Loretta Young’s character, but how Wilder ups the ante!, raising the stakes by sending Arthur off to find love & corruption in post-war Berlin. And while John Lund is fine as her compromised suitor, what a role it would have made for Gable . . . and what Gable would have made of the role!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

KARAKTER / CHARACTER (1997)

Oscar’d for Best Foreign Pic*, Mike van Diem’s film adaptation of this Dutch Bildungsroman comes off as faux Dickens, discards from GREAT EXPECTATIONS.* We follow an ambitious chap of unconventional parentage as he overcomes all obstacles and finds his life's vocation at a law office. Posh in design and cast with memorable faces in every role, it still feels completely canned. Van Diem wields a florid technique that calls too much attention to itself, dazzling himself rather than serving his story. If only he’d put the same thought & energy into narrative & motivation. As it stands, the one-note characterizations can’t support the socio-political weight he asks for, and it makes the sadistic Capitalistic lending tactics of the boy’s tacetly acknowledged father come off as contrivance instead of powerful allegory. The fault may well stem from source material that doesn’t much distinguish between self-defeating stubbornness & self-deluding stupidity, but that hardly let’s van Diem off the hook.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *If you want to see GREAT EXPECTATIONS, go for the real thing, particularly David Lean’s lightened 1946 beauty.

SCREWY THOUGH OF THE DAY: *Oscar’s® Foreign Pic winners have always been a crap shoot. Nevertheless, someone must have noted what a clunker this was since van Diem has (uniquely in this winner’s club) never made another pic. (Info per IMDb.com.) Yet, look at the critical encomiums that show up on the DVD packaging from some of our more prominent reviewers! File under, ‘You can fool all of the people some of the time.'

Monday, February 17, 2014

HEAVEN'S GATE (1980)

The current ‘Party Line’ in academic film circles holds that the Hollywood Auteur Era rose from the wreckage of the old Studio System in the late ‘60s only to fade when JAWS/’75 and STAR WARS/’77 established a new (and evil) BlockBuster mentality. But the case is weak, not only because those days (and films) look less golden than they once did (though you’ll nay convince a Baby-Boomer of it), but equally because those two iconic hits are as personal to their makers as they are commercial; more ‘70s apogee than death knell. To find a tipping point, Michael Cimino’s legendary artistic & commercial fiasco is the more plausible pivot. Sold by United Artists as a David Lean of a Western, this historic travesty of the Johnson County Wars follows that oldest of Western standby plots, the immigrant farmers against the free-range cattle barons. Handsome to look at, but dramatically inert, it moves along one useless set piece at a time: Commencement; Waltzing grads; Roller skating Slavs!; Snobby gentlemen’s club fight; and a drunken philosopher for wry commentary. And, for romance, it does indeed find a David Lean film to ape . . . RYAN’S DAUGHTER/’70!, his disastrous MADAME BOVARY rip-off. (Surely it can’t be the same plot . . . but it is! Older lover (Kris Kristofferson/Robert Mitchum); Young military oppressor as rival (Christopher Walken/Christopher Jones); Orgasm-friendly love object (Isabelle Huppert/Sarah Miles); Revolting ethnic community under threat from Militia.) Of course, Lean’s flop merely stopped him from making films for 15 years; Cimino took United Artists down with him. But now the film is back, restored to (more or less) it’s original cut thanks to new ‘Party Line’ dogma that claims it as unsung masterpiece. Led by the French cineasts (who else?*), who no doubt respond to the film’s vague anti-capitalist/anti-militaristic/pro-Marxist leaning and love playing contrarians, the film was overdue for cult plucking.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The best thing about HEAVEN’S GATE (other than Sam Waterson’s portrayal of Simon Legree) is Vilmos Zsigmond’s spectacular cinematography. If you’d like to see what he can do with a Western, by all means watch Robert Altman’s terrific McCABE & MRS. MILLER/’71. Note that the new Criterion DVD of HG has a telling Restoration Demonstration that looks less like a clean-up operation than a complete color palette overhaul. The old print has the ‘tasteful’ autumnal look that helped separate Old & New Hollywood at the time. Now, Cimino has opted for something less consistently mournful. Does it rep the original look more truly?

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Steven Bach, the UA production exec on HG, recollects every behind the scenes horror in his classic tell-all FINAL CUT written in 1985. *He even forecasts: ‘HEAVEN’S GATE was over . . . . Perhaps European reaction would be more enthusiastic. It is well known, after all, that the French revere Jerry Lewis.’

Saturday, February 15, 2014

HOODLUM EMPIRE (1952)

Well, here’s something unexpected: ALL ABOUT EVE/’50 meets the Kefauver Hearings on Organized Crime/’50-‘51. The story follows a returning soldier-boy, freshly decorated after overseas duty in WWII, who fights from getting pulled back into the family mob biz. (Why it’s EVE meets Kefauver meets THE GODFATHER/’72!) Stuffed to the gills with B+ character types (Brian Donlevy, Claire Trevor, Forrest Tucker, Gene Lockhart, Luther Adler) and bits for fresh faces who’d be around for decades (Whit Bissell, Richard Jaeckel, Bill Schallert), this rare non-Western from Republic Studios should be more fun than it is. But leading man John Russell and megger Joseph Kane find themselves all but lost working territory far off the range, especially with a script that lurches toward inanity as multiple P.O.V. flashbacks (that’s the ALL ABOUT EVE part) keep interrupting the big Committee Hearing as our heroic soldier-boy fights to clear his name. Lenser Reggie Lanning tries for a rich film noir look, but he’s defeated by meager production values, cityscape cycloramas that would have defeated Alfred Stieglitz, director Kane’s flat action staging and a shoot ‘em up finale that turns unintentionally comic.

CONTEST: This film’s Godfather character was, in real life, closely connected to that other Godfather (Marlon Brando) even though they never made a film together. Come up with the connection and win a MAKSQUIBS DVD Write-Up of your choice.

Friday, February 14, 2014

INDISCREET (1958)

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with half a century’s worth of collective film history behind them, put on an acting clinic of relaxed charm & undiminished glamor in this ultra-smooth stage transfer from Stanley Donen. It’s a trifle, a theatrical amuse-bouche (School of Ferenc Molnár) wrestled out from the remains of Norman Krasna’s misbegotten play by . . . Norman Krasna! (Hard to figure out how Charles Boyer, Mary Martin & director Joshua Logan flamed out with it on B’way.) Bergman plays a sadder-but-wiser stage actress who falls hard for Grant’s financier/diplomat knowing full well he’s stuck in one of those unbreakable marriages so popular with playwrights & scripters before the ‘60s sexual revolution and eased up divorce courts made such things irrelevant. But an ironic twist to the relationship’s status quo just might screw things up. That’s about it for the plot, but it’s more than enough for a film that’s aged better than you might expect. There’s good support from cast & crew, and even if lenser Freddie Young didn’t get on with Donen, you’d never guess it from the rich look. (Just be sure to avoid the drab Artisan DVD issued in 2001.) Donen really knows what he’s up to, playfully starting the film with a pair of opening curtains, never overselling set pieces, encouraging Grant to cut up with some improvised hoofing on a Highland Fling, and famously splitting his screen to put Grant & Bergman in bed together visually if not physically, even while separated by the English Channel.* (And note our German poster which seems to promise a sequel to that other Grant/Bergman pic, Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS/’46.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *You’ll find a similar split-screen double-bed trick shot in a mediocre Screwball Comedy called WEDDING PRESENT/’36 that stars Joan Bennett and, of all people, Cary Grant!

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The chapter on INDISCREET in Stephen Silverman’s Donen bio, DANCING ON THE CEILING, shows the stars to be every bit as pleasant & winning as the film.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

IBUN SARUTOBI SASUKE / SAMURAI SPY (1965)

Don’t be fooled by the generic title, Masahiro Shinoda’s period piece isn’t your typical Samurai action vehicle. It’s 1614 and authority in Japan has split between a ruling clan, a regrouping challenger clan and a third nonaligned party. Naturally, everyone’s spying on everyone else, so its natural for 'everyone' to assume that independent samurai master Sarutobi Sasuke (memorably played by Hiroshi Aoyama) is working for . . . for whom? That’s the question no one seems able to answer, in spite of much blood letting. (Oops, stylized samurai kills, so minimal blood letting, but lots of falling bodies.) And while a Western audience is bound to have some trouble keeping tabs on the constantly changing alliances, Shinoda brings such a master’s touch to his WideScreen compositions and to editing choices that are like close-up magic, slipping us away from expected action, that he seems to be rewiring samurai tropes as he goes along. And just as impressively, bringing us along with him, even when he tosses in some paranormal wire-assisted leaps. Probably not for chop-socky fanboys, but adventurous art house types may find his abstract kinetic style addictive.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As Sarutobi Sasuke, leading man Hiroshi Aoyama stands out in a film loaded with fine character perfs. Yet after a mere 18 pics, his career petered out in the early ‘70s. It’s hard to find info on him (Googling bring up a popular motorcycle racer of the same name), but with a nose Jean-Paul Belmondo might not sniff at, his striking presence has no trouble selling a samurai stand-off with a One-against-Forty fighting ratio. Listen for a great bit where he tells some prisoners he's rescuing to wait until he can kill off enough of those pesky guards.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

COMME UNE IMAGE / LOOK AT ME (2004)

Agnès Jaoui is a French actress who occasionally directs, to scripts from hubby Jean-Pierre Bacri. This one got a Cannes writing award and, ergo, the most Stateside attention. It’s another French Comedy of (Bad) Manners amongst the sort of low-level intellectual types you might click past on some book/chat show. Specifically, a damp, middle-age novelist and the unhappy/unwieldy daughter who’s so resigned to acting out toward the self-centered, narcissistic clan she lives with that she drives away a decent guy who’s trying to break thru her defense mechanisms. Nothing wrong with that set-up. And the milieu of writers at various stages of their careers, hangers-on, and (here’s something new) a voice teacher and some of her singing students, make you bend over backwards to give the film a chance. But after a while, you realize that everyone in the film is like that guy (or gal) at a party who's looking over your shoulder while talking to you, hoping to spot someone more interesting/more important/better connected to chat up. These opportunistic party-goers come in three varieties: Those who do it but feel bad about doing it; Those who do it without feeling bad about doing it; And those who do it without even realizing that they are doing it. If only Jaoui & Bacri knew that the real shits come out of the first category, the ones who ought to know better. And in a film entirely dependent upon wise & witty observation, this is a fatal blow to our involvement. Especially since Jaoui's lack of visual aptitude leaves the interiors dead on sight. Too bad, a lot of clever perfs go to waste.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There are too many fine, contemporary French family dramedies going unseen. Olivier Assayas SUMMER HOURS/’08 is a good one to try.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

THE BIG HEAT (1953)

After a half decade of uneven work, Fritz Lang regained his form one last time on this classic film noir. Basically a police procedural, it loosens up the usual structure by forcing Glenn Ford to work outside the system as an ex-detective. And it may be Ford’s position as rogue cop that allows the film to go as far it does, with meticulous set pieces from Lang that still resonate with violent shocks. Ford, an honest cop in a town drowning in systemic graft, is given a personal reason to bring down the corruption, but he still must put a measure of trust in Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin’s amoral moll, if he wants to pull it off. As Mr Big, the smoothy pulling the strings, Alexander Scourby is no DR. MABUSE, Lang’s infamous über-villain from his UFA glory days. But with the focus on Ford’s avenging good guy, the film successfully drops Lang’s German-Expressionist-in-Exile mode for something closer to Hollywood norm. Not only in the rhythm and editing, but in iconic perfs from Ford, Grahame, Marvin . . . and a pot of boiling coffee.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: So, why wasn’t Lang able to repeat this success? His next film, again with Ford & Grahame, THE HUMAN BEAST/’54, is a pale redo of Jean Renoir’s LE BÊTE HUMAINE/’38. Literally so, as Columbia Pictures had started compressing their b&w grey scale. (Marty Scorsese opines that tv production standards had a lot to do with this, but the subject hasn’t been properly investigated.) Then came the WideScreen revolution & CinemaScope, a frame ratio Lang thought fit only for snakes. Even Patrick McGilligan, in his fine bio, FRITZ LANG: THE NATURE OF THE BEAST, has trouble figuring this out.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS (1933)

Top-billed Bette Davis can’t do much to fix this little programmer from Warners, the plot grows progressively nutty, but she seems to be having a darn good time under Roy Del Ruth’s spirited helming. Lewis Stone, on an inexplicable loan-out from M-G-M, is the calming head of NYC’s Missing Persons’ Bureau, a wise old hand happy to bend ethics into a pretzel to rejoin families & locate bodies. And there’s an office full of eccentrics to help him out, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, all good company. If only Pat O’Brien, a brawler fresh from Robbery, would get with the program. Enter Bette Davis. She says she’s hunting her missing hubby, but events prove otherwise . . .to put it mildly. Her story may be one whopper after another, but O’Brien’s gone love blind and falls for every one of them. Even when Davis suddenly goes from blonde to brunette in a matter of minutes for the last scene.

DOUBLE-BILL: With a few cast holdovers (Davis, Jenkins, Alan Dinehart) and similar story elements, Warners brought in their A-Team (James Cagney, director Michael Curtiz) for another whack at this idea. Transformed into JIMMY THE GENT/’34, it’s a near classic.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

THE ROAD TO GLORY (1936)

You don’t expect a big WWI film from a pantheon director like Howard Hawks to go missing. At least, not without good reason . . . like maybe it’s a stinker. Turns out, this is no stinker, but it does have plenty of reasons to have gone missing. Apparently, Darryl Zanuck @ 20th/Fox got Stateside distribution/remake rights to Raymond Bernard’s French WWI epic, WOODEN CROSSES/’31*, but mainly for it’s striking war footage. Enter Howard Hawks, charged with finding a story to match the cannibalized action stuff. Obviously, the general idea of men funneled to the front stayed in place, along with a magnificent set piece about the Germans laying a mine by tunneling under the French trenches. But the basic plot elements were pinched from two earlier Hawks war films: THE DAWN PATROL/’30 (flight commander must send waves of replacement off to die) and TODAY WE LIVE/’33 (girl makes rivals out of two war buds). It’s a handsome production, well structured and excitingly paced, even without any background music till the (literal) melodramatic finale. Yet the thing just sits there, refusing to come to life. Love interest June Lang is part of the problem, a sad-eyed nurse who likes Warner Baxter’s Captain, but loves Fredric March’s Lieutenant, she barely registers. But it’d still work if only the men in the case, Baxter & March (both excellent in their way), got their ‘bromance’ off the ground. The classic Hawks love story between two men (the phrase is his) always carried a homoerotic tinge. It’s perfectly balanced between John Wayne & Monty Clift in RED RIVER/’48; uncomfortably overheated between Dewey Martin & Kirk Douglas in THE BIG SKY/’52; and just plain missing between Baxter & March on this one. Only Gregory Ratoff, as the pipe-smoking Sergeant, captures the distinctive Hawksian tone . . . and he’s the comic relief!

DOUBLE-BILL: *Raymond Bernard is known Stateside largely for his 5-hour LES MISÉRABLES/’33, but WOODEN CROSSES/’31 is the better work. Both are out on Criterion DVD.

Friday, February 7, 2014

HOUSEBOAT (1958)

This painfully formulaic domestic comedy stars Cary Grant as an absentee widower trying to reconnect with his three kids and Sophia Loren as the directionless daughter of a famous Italian conductor who accidentally falls into his life incognito as a housekeeper/nanny who makes everything better. (What is this, MARY POPPINS/’64?) Writer/director Melville Shavelson, a Bob Hope/Danny Kaye specialist who really should have known better, is unable to move things along without making everyone behave in an idiotic manner we’re supposed to find both hilarious & adorable. (Perhaps they did at the time. The film was very successful and even got an Oscar® nom. for best Original Story.) Visually, things are just as bad with huge chunks of exposition played in front of dead process shots and on airless soundstages. Grant, who’d just lost Loren to her future husband Carlo Ponti, seems less out-of-touch dad than bewildered discard. And Loren, who’s does well with the kiddies, looks unaccountably drab, made up as she were still lip-synching to Renata Tebaldi’s voice in AIDA/’53. (Someone must have noticed since she was given an entirely new, lighter look for the big climatic dance sequence where she suddenly looks like her fabulous self.) Grant happily returned to form on his next, NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59 while Loren continued her up & down ways with English language pics, though never again let a cinematographer mismanage her look as the usually gifted Ray June did in what turned out to be his final film.

DOUBLE-BILL: Shavelson & Loren reunited, with Clark Gable in for Grant, to somewhat better effect on IT STARTED IN NAPLES/’60.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969)

Muriel Sparks’ fictionalized personal history about a memorably eccentric middle-school teacher at a conservative all-girls school in Scotland was tidied-up into a well-made-up play by Jay Presson Allen, then pressed like a flower in Ronald Neame’s careful film adaptation. Even ‘opened up’ for the camera, the first half can’t slough off the play’s predigested tone of over-simplified psychological motivations, but about an hour in, the sheer level of acting rises to such heights it easily blots out all reservations. Particularly so when Maggie Smith’s Brodie flares up in self-defense against Celia Johnson’s antagonistic superintendent. Smith really pulls out the stops, refusing to play down dangerous/unattractive elements in a character all too easily sentimentalized & glamorized into a sort of cuddly Auntie Mame positive life force. It’s a tremendous gift for the rest of the cast who may not win our sympathy or pull out a droll comeback line, but who do get a chance to hold their own against the fascinating character tsunami of Smith’s Brodie.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Robert Stevens, married to Maggie Smith at the time, gives a swaggering perf as the school’s randy art teacher. He looked headed for a major film career after this, but his follow up, Billy Wilder’s resounding flop THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES/’70, put a quick kabosh on international stardom. It also gave us a Holmes for the ages.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

CLOUD ATLAS (2012)

The ‘fanboys’ who got hooked on THE MATRIX Trilogy/’99;’03 stayed away in droves from this meta-physical mash-up. It’s a love-and-war-thru-the-ages saga, with multiple, rhyming story lines scrambled up mix-master fashion. The obvious reference points are D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16 and Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS/’27*, but Andy & Lana Wachowski, along with collaborator Tom Tykwer, cast a very wide net. The basic idea dumps Tom Hanks ‘out of the cradle, endlessly rocking’ and into six fables that span the ages (but who’s counting?), hiding him in plain sight behind make-up, prosthetics & funny accents, likely discards from Tim Conway’s wardrobe on the old Carol Burnett Show. The big, big cast all chime in, playing recognizably in a main role, then heavily-disguised for cameos. (Susan Sarandon gets the best nose, a real whopper.) The hop, skip & jump narrative lines in the first half are pretty much impossible to navigate without a scorecard or multiple viewings (for the masochist crowd), all as joyless, crude & indecipherable as the Second & Third parts of THE MATRIX. Those who hang in here are rewarded with a visual fugue of cross-cutting ride-to-the-rescue finales (truly right out of INTOLERANCE), fun in a corny sort of way whether comic, tragic, sacrificial or heroic. But no amount of CGI can camouflage the lousy action staging or give Jim Sturges the Martial Arts grace Keanu Reeves mustered up to sell this stuff back in his MATRIX days.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Might as well take the bait and grab INTOLERANCE (a superb new Blu-Ray from Cohen Media will hopefully show on DVD) and the much discussed, ‘truly complete’ METROPOLIS, out on KINO. Both run a bit shy of 3 hours . . . just like CLOUD ATLAS. Both were major flops in their day . . . just like CLOUD ATLAS. Both found their reps steadily growing to classic status over the decades . . . just like . . . er . .

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

DARE MO SHIRANAI / NOBODY KNOWS (2004)

Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda goes for High Concept ideas, even at the risk of putting himself in a dramatic straitjacket. His latest (LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON/’13) uses that oldest of standbys: Switched-at-Birth Infants while this earlier film extrapolates from a tru-life tale of four young siblings living secretly on their own after Mom splits for good. The story hints at prostitution as the cause of Mom’s departure, but all we know for sure is that the landlord doesn’t know about the three younger kids; financial resources are dwindling, no one’s in school; and the oldest of the bunch, at 12, is losing his sense of responsibility to fast creeping rebellious puberty. At almost 2 and half hours, Koreeda gives us too much time to think things thru, so as the tiny social order starts breaking down and the kids begin to stick their noses out of the apartment and bring in friends, the situation stops adding up. And when events take a tragic turn, sense & sympathy pull us out of the emotional involvement he wants to ‘double-down’ on. There’s lots of fine observational stuff in here, and an enchanting perf from Yûya Yagira as the oldest boy. But a couple of last act fumbles (the glowing warmth of camaraderie at a baseball game and a still-frame non-resolution) play with little conviction, as if even writer/director Koreeda had stopped believing in his script.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Yûya Yagira won Best Actor @ Cannes for this. He’s great, but there’s something not right about giving young kids big acting awards, non?

Monday, February 3, 2014

COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN (1942)

While you can still feel how the rush to get this topical wartime pic into movies houses left it with some unresolved story construction problems and pinch-penny production issues, any loss in polish is easily made up for in urgency. With John Farrow’s straight-forward helming & Irwin Shaw’s plain-spoken script, Paul Muni radiates calm decency & resolve as a Norwegian widower watching in quiet despair as his small fishing town is first occupied, then brutalized by the Nazis. On the run after organizing the local resistance, Muni stumbles upon a secret airbase nearing completion and is forced to risk sailing past the Nazi guns to reach contacts in Britain. There would be many films like this made as the war progressed (even more after it ended), but this early entry remains effective & moving, largely because its random casualties prove unwilling to cheat death.

DOUBLE-BILL: Warner Bros. brought a more stylized, elaborate, even fantastic note, plus an all-star cast (Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson), to a similar Norwegian resistance story in EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43 with Lewis Milestone helming.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Listen up for an early bit from Lloyd Bridges as a lost (and unlucky) Nazi driver. And keep your eyes open to see Lillian Gish in her modest return to Hollywood after a decade on the B'way stage.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

KAWAITA HANA / PALE FLOWER (1964)

Masahiro Shinoda’s quotidian yakuza story is an uncompromised beauty. Ryô Ikebe, stoic perfection as a mid-level gangster, comes out of prison to find his old gang has merged with their long time rival. So, what was the point of the murder he got sent up for? And how long before a new rival organization will have to be dealt with? No wonder he’s in an existential funk, drinking, gambling and pushing his loyal girlfriend into marriage with a respectable office worker. Besides, he’s too busy obsessing over a high-priced call girl he’s run into at the illegal gambling dens. With the measured hauteur of a fashion model, this beauty lives without a past or a future, sampling whatever thrills she can find thru wild gambling binges, fast cars, drugs and, when suggested by Ikebe, riding shotgun for a kingpin’s assassination. Shinoda brings a combination of restraint, control and fitful excitement to his gorgeous b&w CinemaSc0pe frame, and there’s a fine dissonant score by the great Tôru Takemitsu that switches to Bach (sung in English, possibly by Janet Baker) for the yakuza’s final hit. Inexplicably unknown Stateside, the film is a nihilistic near masterpiece.

DOUBLE-BILL: Stateside, Shinoda’s best known film is probably the arrestingly titled, highly stylized DOUBLE SUICIDE/’69, but PALE FLOWER makes a far better introduction.