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Monday, March 31, 2014

THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958)

Best remembered for Universal Horror pics like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON/’54 and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN/’57, Jack Arnold popped up @ Paramount for this neat quickie, handsomely shot by Ernest Laszlo, about some kids who band together to sabotage the initial launch of a new nuclear missile program. They’re all children of the program’s scientists & technicians, armed with secret info (or is it orders?) from an ‘intergalactic brain’ beamed down to earth via space rays. Sounds dopey, but it’s unusually well handled, with an easy-to-swallow Peace-Nik Message familiar from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51 and dozens of lesser Sci-Fi moral fables. Michel Ray has a doe-like quality as the kid’s leader, he’s Peter Pan to these Lost Boys & Girls, though he nearly loses the oldest of the group who’s just turning puberty corner. (A darn sharp reading of the Peter Pan myth that.) The cast is much stronger and more interesting than typical in these things, with significant once & future credits on the likes of Chaplin’s THE KID, Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA; plus iconic tv shows like THE RIFLEMAN, THE ADDAMS FAMILY & GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Pop culture spotting of a very high order.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The MST3K gagsters used this film for one of their snark fests which presumably explains a misleadingly low IMDb score. So be sure to get the recent Olive Films DVD edition. Taken on its own terms, this is quite a success.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

CRY HAVOC (1943)

THE WOMEN meets the 300 in this stagebound film adaptation of Allan Kenward’s flop B’way play about army & volunteer nurses stuck in WWII Philippines as the Japanese close in. Trying for throat-lumping sacrifice & patriotism, it overloads on dramatic incident . . . when not making like BABES OF BATAAN. (See poster.) Scripter Paul Osborn holds his nose on all the crises and largely sticks with the play’s all-gal gimmick (though look fast for Robert Mitchum dying on a stretcher), but the ensuing artificial texture in script & production places this far off the comfort zone of director Richard Thorpe, slowly moving up from B-pics. If it all proves too mechanical in feeling & structure to give off much emotional charge, there’s some pleasure in watching all those featured female players working away together; stalwarts like Margaret Sullavan & Fay Bainter as well as undersung good-time gals like Joan Blondell & Ann Southern.

DOUBLE-BILL: Paramount had SO PROUDLY WE HAIL/’43, their own Philippine nurse drama, out a couple of months before this M-G-M release. It’s not exactly better, but with a starrier cast and a more consistent/confident tone, it does feel more comfortable with itself.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF (1962)

With hundreds of writing & directing credits under various names, the maddeningly prolific Jesús Franco (aka Jess Frank; David Khume; Lulu Laverne!, et al.) got his first international attention on this cheap, but effective horror pic. The main storyline is lifted out of Georges Franju’s poetic horror classic EYES WITHOUT A FACE/’60*, apt for a story that ‘lifts’ victim’s faces for grafting on a surgeon’s facially disfigured daughter. But unlike Franju’s sui generis chic dread & haunted atmosphere, Franco is something of a bargain-basement magpie stylist, bopping on classic Universal ‘30s horror, John Brahm’s 1940s Goth, the roving POV of Hammer Films and just about whatever else caught his fancy. And ‘catching his fancy’ is exactly what the mad, bad doctor is trying to do, especially when he spots a perfect match for his injured girl. Too bad this target’s beau just happens to be the lead detective on the case! Hmm. Considering all the silliness, the film boasts some striking location work, along with more box-office boosting nudity than was usual for the time. Bosoms aside, the best thing in here is the strange, blinded assistant who does Orlof’s bidding just for the pleasure of human contact as he carries his curvy quarry back to the castle’s spooky operating room. The second best thing, at least in the recent KINO-Redemption Series DVD, is the sharp, obsessively knowledgeable expert burbling away on the Commentary Track. This guy needs a life! Someone might also let him know that the biggest gag on the opera poster is listing Meyerbeer instead of Gounod as the composer of FAUST.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Dr. Orlof is played by the hard working Howard Vernon, a regular in Franco pics, who, at times, shows a striking resemblance to Jonathan Frid of DARK SHADOWS fame.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Franju’s output was a fraction of Franco’s. Really a fraction of anyone’s. But no one should miss LES YEUX SANS VISAGE.

Friday, March 28, 2014

THE ILLUSIONIST (2010)

Sylvain Chomet’s much-delayed follow up to THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE/’03 is an odd duck, even for an uncategorizable animated film aimed at grown ups. Taken from a never-produced 40-yr-old script by Jacques Tati, France’s wry, anti-modernistic comic filmmaker, it’s a gloss on Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT/’52 (happily without the speechifying since Tati hardly speaks at all), that follows the declining career of a traveling Music Hall magician and the sweet-but-selfish young naïf who briefly latches on to him for affection and to escape her dead-end job. Moving from France to London, and then up thru Scotland, the film is a treat just to look at, with a few dazzling vistas opening up the largely intimate, slightly frustrating storyline. But it’s hard to mind the film’s limits, which honor Tati’s spirit & longueurs, as does the leading character, a kindly animated version of the great man that includes his practiced hesitations and heavy-treaded lurch thru portals of every manner. The film is a connoisseur’s piece, and a charmer.

DOUBLE-BILL: Just as Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT gains from knowing his earlier work, this film gets a leg up with a dose of Tati: 101. Chomet covertly suggests MON ONCLE/’58 with a glimpse of it in a movie theater. Good choice. Use it as prep.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

MUD (2012)

A contemporary Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn find a new man-on-the-run in this belles-lettres thriller, the sophomore effort from writer/director Jeff Nichols. As in TAKE SHELTER/’11, the screenplay smells of college desk-drawers & short-story competitions, but he’s dropped the supernatural for this coming-of-age tale. In its place, Matthew McConaughey hides out on some deep-south islet, trying to lower an abandoned boat down from a tree (!) with the help of a couple of independent middle-school boys already coping with serious parental issues. Nichols is just loaded with filmmaking talents (great perfs, a daringly measured riverside pace, naturally dramatic use of spatial relationships), but he weighs himself down with symbols, surrogates & foreshadowing, as if producing Cliff Notes to go with his own story. When the climaxes show up, we’re so over-primed for snake bites, military sharp-shooters & home demolition, nothing makes an effect. Maybe he hoped to camouflage all the elements lifted straight out of SHANE/’53.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: After this and THE TREE OF LIFE/'11, young Tye Sheridan is in danger of becoming the go-to boy for tough sensitivity. But his scruffy pal, Jacob Lofland, displaying a dose of young River Phoenix in the Huck Finn part, leaves us with a bit of character mystery.

DOUBLE-BILL: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s astounding THE RETURN/’03 is a Russian film that takes no prisoners as it goes on the road with two boys and their non-surrogate father.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

NANNERL, LA SOEUR DE MOZART / MOZART'S SISTER (2010)

For about half its length, this fictional account of the Mozart family’s Grand Journey thru the major European cities (around the time Wolfie was 10 and sis Nannerl 15) paints a believable and touching portrait of the mixture of pride & profit Papa Leopold got for his efforts. Of course, the real value lay in exposing his unfathomably gifted boy to the cultural & musical influences of the day. But as the film goes along, the temptation to stuff modern sensitivities/sensibilities on the action, with poor Nannerl fighting class & sexual battles two centuries before the fact, prove irresistible and drag everything down with it. The main non-family action involves a suggested romance between Nannerl & Le Dauphin of France, father of Louis XVI. Is there any factual basis in the idea? The birth/death dates alone make it seem unlikely. While any notion of Nannerl having a hand in Mozart’s early work is both silly & irrelevant since no important Mozart composition was penned when she was around. And if it never reaches the libelous (not to say ludicrous) intentions of Peter Shaffer’s AMADEUS/’84, the dramatic demands of political correctness make all the handsome period recreations more or less useless. (Just as the ‘natural’ candlelight photography makes too many interiors non-visible.) Not even the music, mostly non-Mozartean, comes to the rescue. Certainly not the schlurpy romantic harmonies they try to pass off as Nannerl’s gift to Le Dauphin.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT; READ ALL ABOUT IT; SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Some of Mozart’s most delightfully scatological letters were for Nannerl back in Salzburg, written as he toured Italy (with Papa) & France (with Mama) after she had ‘retired’ from their co-prodigy act. (Mozart’s mother died suddenly in Paris when he was about 16, and his tact and psychological insight in presenting the news to his father in two letters are as stunning as they are heartbreaking. See letters 106, 107 & 108 in the link.) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5307/5307-h/5307-h.htm#link2H_4_0004 The fall off in the siblings once close relationship stems from Wolfgang's move of independence to Vienna and his subsequent marriage to Constanza Weber. A reaction in line with Papa Leopold’s general disapproval. If anywhere, that's where a workable, worthwhile story of Nannerl lies. There are many editions/translations of the letters; or go for Maynard Solomon’s excellent general bio MOZART: A LIFE. And there’s also Andre Previn’s 5-part video presentation: MOZART ON TOUR/’91. Much better handled than usual with these things.

Monday, March 24, 2014

THE ICE HARVEST (2007)

The smell of defeat is in the air (and on all the faces) right from the start of this non-starter, a late work from the more typically effervescent Harold Ramis.  A would-be Elmore Leonard tale of ineffectual swindlers, John Cusack’s the low-level mob lawyer who partners with Billy Bob Thornton’s strip club operator to skim a couple of million bucks from a shady client. What could go wrong? The first clue is in the credits. With script credit going to Richard Russo & Robert Benton, you have to assume that the writing/directing team of the superb uncategorizable NOBODY’S FOOL/’94, and its middling noirish follow-up TWILIGHT/’98, had their own plans for this, but couldn’t get it off the ground. Enter Ramis. It’s too self-conscious to take flight, though some grisly doings in the middle have a bit of remembered flair from early Joel & Ethan Coen. If only there was a fresh idea in the mix. As it stands, every time the lighting goes sultry for femme fatale Connie Nielsen, you wonder what audience demographic this could possibly play to.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As Sidney Lumet showed in his swan song, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD/’07, there’s still life in this sort of thing. Or, you could see how the Coen’s breakthrough pic, BLOOD SIMPLE/’84 is holding up.

THE SILVER FLEET (1943)

It’s a surprise to find the iconic target logo of The Archers on a film not Written & Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger of RED SHOES/’48 fame. But this rousing whisper of a WWII pic finds them producing for yet another writing/directing team, Vernon Sewell & Gordon Wellesley. Contemporarily set in Nazi Occupied Holland, this emotionally clipped counterfeit traitor story follows shipyard owner/operator Ralph Richardson who plays Quisling for the Germans (taking it on the chin from the locals for doing so) while secretly reviving the spirit of Holland’s legendary national hero Piet Hein with various hidden acts of sabotage. The film gets off to a bumpy start, Sewell & Wellesley seem to be learning how to direct on the job, but they pull themselves together with the help of Archers talent like lenser Erwin Hillier and, especially, designer Alfred Junge. (A big set piece in the third act where a formal dinner party is raided by soldiers is quite imaginatively handled.) In any event, the story turns deeply satisfying while the level of acting goes thru the roof. Googie Withers & young Willem Akkerman are all the more effective for being so restrained as Richardson’s unquestioningly supportive wife & son; quite in opposition to the scenery-chewing Nazi crew led by Esmond Knight’s food slurping villain. But, naturally, the film belongs to Ralph Richardson who moves from strength to strength as silently as a cat, gleaning every bit of warmth, humor & courage off the page and onto the screen without giving his hand away. It’s the work of a master, far too subtle to join the award-worthy throng. (NOTE: The image on VCI’s DVD looks both over-processed & over-exposed, but is the only one out there.)

DOUBLE-BILL: One of the best WWII counterfeit traitor pics is . . . (wait for it) . . . THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR/’62 with solid perfs from William Holden & Lilli Palmer and pacey megging from . . . (wait for it) . . . George Seaton.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

RENOIR (2012)

With its incessant golden-glow lighting scheme, picnic-worthy countryside settings and soft-soap epiphanies, Gilles Bourdos’s RENOIR feeds directly into the view of Impressionism as art for the comfy bourgeoisie. A (hopefully) discredited idea that ignores the movement’s original revolutionary impulse, blinded by its eventual triumphant popularity.* Precisely the wrong way to go about telling the story of aging master painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir; his WWI wounded son, future film director Jean; and Andrée Heuschling, the impossibly difficult girl they possessed as muse, respectively on canvas and in bed. There’s a natural curiosity in just seeing the Renoir household with its coven of fleshly female servants tending to an old, crippled man who can not stop painting. But every oh-so-authentic fact-based incident goes ‘splat,’ like the faux-Erik Satie soundtrack from Alexandre Desplat that gilds this hothouse lily.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: At one point, Jean projects a clip from Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16 (or possibly the revamped reduction, THE MOTHER AND THE LAW) even though it had yet to be shot, let alone released internationally. So, you might watch that. But for a look at what a strange, difficult, unknowable and largely unphotographable person the real Andrée Heuschling (aka Catherine Hessling) must have been, try Renoir’s fascinating silent film of Zola’s NANA/’26. A truly terrible actress, yet with a mesmerizing self-willed screen presence about her. The film is something of an astonishment.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Speaking of Zola . . . how lucky to have his L’OEUVRE/THE MASTERPIECE as a vivid reminder of early impressionist struggles as Paul Cézanne, Zola’s old friend who never forgave the great novelist for using him as model, starts the modernist movement.

Friday, March 21, 2014

CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940)

After breaking the Hollywood barrier that kept writers from directing their own scripts (with THE GREAT McGINTY/’40, his uproarious take-no-prisoners political satire), Preston Sturges went straight on to this more modest charmer. A chamber-piece compared to McGINTY, it occasionally shows its origins as an unproduced play, but once it gets going . . . look out!, the Sturgean wit & wisdom take off in language as unique & specific as G. B. Shaw or Tom Stoppard. It’s a sweet fable, with Dick Powell’s desk jockey hoping to leapfrog his way to success (and marriage to Ellen Drew) by winning a big radio contest. Or maybe the next. But when a trio of office mates punk him with a gag telegram, Powell thinks he’s really won the 25-thou Grand Prize for his goofy coffee slogan, and things quickly grow out of hand. These farces of misunderstanding can turn pretty darn tiresome pretty darn quick, but Sturges keeps switching gears on you, making decent types out of the usual villains and managing to run his plot without making everyone act deaf, dumb & blind. The expected crew of Sturges zanies are seen here in chrysalis, but the corporate execs & ethnically-mixed tenement neighbors generate plenty of laughs in this pupa stage. The shorter than usual running time helps, too; no one overstays their welcome. And Raymond Walburn, a Sturges regular usually confined to backup player, gets a rare chance to solo as Chief Coffee Baron, percolating with one priceless line reading after another.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Switching from McGINTY’s William Mellor to Victor Milner as lenser for this and for three future projects @ Paramount did a lot to increase Sturges’s emotional & romantic range. But it was the great John Seitz (on SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS/’41; MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK/’44 and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO/’44) who helped make Sturges-the-director as brilliantly original as Sturges-the-writer.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

UN TAXI POUR TOBROUK / TAXI FOR TOBRUK (1961)

Locally popular French WWII dramedy is a mediocrity, double-dipped in obvious ironic twists of fate right up to a surprise ending that’s more insulting than existential. The set up plops four French soldiers and a German officer in a small truck with limited supplies somewhere in the North African desert. And with Field Marshal Rommel in retreat, its not clear which side controls the nearest supplies stations. So, which way to go? Hard to figure out when your nominal prisoner, German officer Hardy Krüger, is the best informed guy in the group. FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX/’65 fans will enjoy seeing Krüger doing a trial run for the later pic, though any comparison in character complexity does this film no favors, while the French quartet includes the likes of Charles Aznavour & Lino Ventura in reasonable form. But Denys de La Patellière megs with such little imagination that the vast desert holds no mystery, and even a mine field brings little drama to the party.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How to explain the film’s hometown rep? Perhaps French audiences, weary of WWII dramas w/ Vichy collaborators & resistance heroes simply longed for a battlefield story with grunts in non-green berets.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970)

This, the second of five pics shared by no-nonsense helmer Don Siegel and no-nonsense actor Clint Eastwood, should be better known. A very tall tale from Budd Boetticher, with a sharp, funny script from Albert Maltz, it spots Shirley MacLaine as a nun-on the-run in the middle of Revolutionary Mexico. She ‘meets-cute’ with Clint when he saves her from a trio of rapists, then gloms on to him for protection & retribution against the French Occupying forces hunting her down. He’s less interested in honor & nation-building than in a loot-filled strongbox he hopes to find at the finish line. The pic has the inappropriate grisly humor, sturdy narrative drive and clean, readable action you expect from Siegel, joined to stylish color lensing from the great b&w stylist Gabriel Figueroa and an exceptional score from Ennio Morricone. It all gives the film a plush feel & a lux finish Siegel rarely bothered with. But don’t worry, when the big fort attack comes, Siegel puts up a fugue of wartime destruction, a battle in counterpoint with every moving part showing.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: MacLaine and Siegel made a tough match. But when he’d had enough and walked off the pic, she started making nice to get him back on set. Look for their ‘before-and-after’ moment about an hour into the film. The ‘tell’ is when she stops using mascara. Suddenly, Shirl pulls back a bit, relaxes, and turns in a much improved perf. Lots more in A SIEGEL FILM, Siegel’s no-nonsense working auto-bio.

Monday, March 17, 2014

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)

Generously greeted tv pic (theatrical abroad), immaculately helmed by Steven Soderbergh, and remarkably uninteresting. The saga of aging ivory-tickler Liberace and blond boy-toy Scott Thorson has few surprises: Campy entertainer lands his latest 20-something, but moves on when the youthifying pixie dust fails to rub off. A couple of bizarre incidents add color, especially when a taut-faced Rob Lowe shows up as a feel-good plastic surgeon, but in spite of numerous awards & nominations, the two leads are crucially, even cruelly, miscast. Matt Damon is supposed to be a teenage object of lustful affection, but well into his 40s, he looks slow on the uptake rather than hot, young & innocent. (Great ass though!) Michael Douglas gets all the non-essentials right, but can’t bring the flamboyant Liberace to life. When he walks on stage nothing happens; he doesn’t connect. Where’s Mr. Showmanship? The wardrobe’s in place, but none of the flair. The costumes might be wearing him. (See Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen to see what’s missing.) Douglas certainly got the reviews; chucking your personal vanity and smooching Matt Damon will do the trick for a mainstream movie star. Though, with Damon looking just like a ‘70s Kristy McNichols, how hard was it to pucker up?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A year after Liberace died, Victor Garber played him in a tv movie before grabbing his next role the very same year in another tv bio . . . Ernest Hemingway, natch.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

FASHIONS OF 1934 (1934)

You know from the exposed navels (and three nude inches below!) that this came out a few months before the Hollywood Production Code clamped down on such naughtiness. But the rest of the crazed fashion spectacular stuffed inside this silly little comedy speaks in the uncensorable code of Warners dance master Busby Berkeley. A typically OTT musical ‘numbo,’ it begins with 200 Lovely Models with strapped on feathers astride figureheaded harps, like some mad S&M chorus line. Soon, the camera takes flight for an overhead shot of phallus & orifice consecration rites as models below manipulate ostrich plumes into a pulsating facsimile of a flower bud that opens its petals to reveal an erect, penetrating model. Yikes! Did Georgia O’Keeffe faint . . . or sue? Oh, there’s also a little movie plot surrounding this insanity, ‘the ‘Story of a Gay Rascal Who Fooled 50 Million French Women!,’ according to the trailer. Oo-la-la!! That’d be William Powell, on the cusp of a career-saving move from Warners to M-G-M. Here, he's a broke promoter who gets struggling fashion designer Bette Davis to help him steal the latest Paris designs before they leave the couturier salons. There’s help from Hugh Herbert’s soused ostrich farmer and Verree Teasdale’s phony Russian Countess. (How could you possibly be phony with that name?) Together, they fend off the lousy French accent of that veddy, veddy British actor Reginald Owen, along with a plot that can’t decide on any particular storyline. All good fun if you’re in the proper mood.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The print used for the Warner Archive VOD must have been from a re-release that reduced the title to FASHIONS. No doubt Warners, licking its wounds after seeing Powell reclaim major stardom in M-G-M’s THIN MAN, wanted to squeeze this one dry with post-1934 bookings.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

CHICO & RITA (2010)

The jazzy rhythms of pre-Castro Cuba & some Bebop stylings from ‘50s NYC work nicely with the stripped down animation in this bumpy love story between piano-man Chico and his dream vocalist Rita. But after the visual & musical peak of a car ride thru the streets of pre-Revolutionary Havana, the pic gets waylaid & weighed down by an over-determined storyline of missed personal & professional opportunities. It’s always hard to pinpoint blame in the ensemble creative world of animated features, but co-writer/co-director Fernando Trueba of the similarly overpraised/over-awarded BELLE EPOQUE/’92 makes a likely culprit. There’s a lot of MAMBO KINGS/’92 in here, but even more of Martin Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK/’77, none of it helpful. That goes double for Chico, nearly as loathsome as Robert De Niro's sullen sax playing swine, while Rita gets heartbreak from the lives of Dorothy Dandridge & Rita Moreno, falling into a life of slutty victimization. Whatever were they thinking? Best let your mind go blank during the trashy dramatics and focus on the graphic design & jivey music.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: 2003's TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE gets all this stuff right.

Friday, March 14, 2014

WESTERN UNION (1941)

Fritz Lang had no sooner finished his JESSE JAMES/’39 sequel, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES/’40, when 20th/Fox assigned him another Western. The title’s from Zane Grey, but this is an ultra-traditional horse opera, awash in flaming TechniColor, savage drunken In’juns, bouncing chuck wagon, telegraph poles marching Westward Ho!, and a rivalry between Randolph Scott’s classic ‘Good Badman’ and Robert Young’s rich Eastern tenderfoot, competing for leadership on the line & in romance with blandly pretty Virginia Gilmore. And damned if it ain’t one fine show, not so far off the C. B. DeMille model of UNION PACIFIC/’39, but lighter on its feet. In fact, the whole pic has a real Hollywood swing to it, quite at odds with the UFA æsthetic Lang usually cultivated. But as a German exile, where the myth of the Wild West looms large, Lang must have taken lots of pleasure simply in making a big outdoorsy Western. You can feel his enthusiasm coursing thru Edward Cronjager’s gorgeous location lensing and in some relaxed perfs from Scott, Young and the tasty supporting cast. All capped off with a series of neatly handled action set pieces and a dandy shootout finale that’s clean as a blueprint diagram, but heaps more exciting.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: A passion for geometric patterns made Lang a natural for Native American art, touring Indian Reservation sites during production. But, as Patrick McGilligan notes in his Lang bio, THE NATURE OF THE BEAST, after Lang finished shooting, Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck ordered up much of the most offensive In’jun footage. Zanuck also takes the blame for bumping up Slim Summerville’s tiresome comic-relief shtick as a scaredy-cat cook. Welcome to the studio-system, Fritz!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

ZORBA THE GREEK (1964)

After playing every ethnicity under the sun (and largely getting away with it in spite of a fairly mundane Irish-Mexican heritage), Anthony Quinn found his signature role playing an aging iconic Greek life-force who attaches himself as major-domo to Englishman-abroad Alan Bates. The over-familiar theme may be ‘Life’s a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death,’ but writer/director Michael Cacoyannis (Mihalis Kakogiannis) avoids turning out a macho AUNTIE MAME by emphasizing the savagery & strangeness found in Crete’s land, people & rituals.* And if he can’t quite avoid the ethnological clichés of Family of Man portraiture, he certainly isn’t afraid of overstatement or of getting his hands dramatically dirty. Against so many larger-than-life characters, Bates is the real miracle in the film, finding size & scope inside his quieter character. The story sets him up as needing to shake up a mundane literary life, yet he’s really the most daring fellow in the pic, hiring Zorba to pilot his future on little more than a whim. The dramatic climaxes are mostly back-loaded, which gives you plenty of time to appreciate Walter Lassally’s gorgeous b&w cinematography. And if the big set pieces don’t always convince, those terrifying harpies who swoop in after a death are likely to haunt your dreams, along with one of the great cinematic friendship epiphanies waiting to take your breath away at the very end along with that famous music cue.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *ZORBA did indeed get domesticated for B’way consumption as a musical. And was successfully revived as a cutey-pie act for the tone-deaf Quinn.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

SNABBA CASH / EASY MONEY

With career-boosting turns from helmer Daniel Espinosa & lead Joel Kinnaman, two fast sequels, a rumored English-Language remake and Martin Scorsese slapping his imprimatur on for a Stateside release*, you expect a bit more than this formulaic man-in-the-middle drug-run gone wrong mob tale. At least, the set-up brings out a couple of nice plot twists as striving college Econ Major Kinnaman drools at his chance to drop his chump-change cabbie job and join the Scandinavian upper-crust. He’s already got the looks, and it just so happens that his cab outfit boss sidelines in drug smuggling. And, wouldn’t you just know, one of his rich new pals is scion of a struggling bank looking for some fresh bigtime cash flow . . . no questions asked. Alas, the drug dealers come in two deadly varieties: Stocky, dark, hairy Arabs; Stocky, dark, hairy Serbs. That makes Kinnaman, lean, blond, smooth to the touch, just the finance-savvy guy they need to make connections. But whom can he trust?, and whose side does he play on when an internecine war starts up? It’s a situation that’s grown cable-weary, with actors too pleased at their own crowd-pleasing ticks. But Espinosa shows real talent at quiet moments, letting things flow naturally. The rest is the usual faux-adrenalin hand-held bobble, interrupted by big action set-pieces that are all sound & fury, missing the pleasures of watching a thing happen.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Marty’s fans didn’t show and the sequels never opened theatrically over here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

KUROI KAWA / BLACK RIVER (1957)

Revered in Japan, director Masaki Kobayashi never quite broke thru Stateside, and the recent spate of DVDs from Criterion are unlikely to change things. Certainly not BLACK RIVER, an ill-shaped tale of down-and-outers falling by the wayside during Japan’s post-war recovery. We watch thru the eyes of a passive 20-something student who’s rented a room in a squalid warehouse that’s been partitioned into separate living spaces. With his studies constantly interrupted by marital feuds, dying or spying neighbors, horndogs from the nearby U.S. military base & other unwanted guests, he finds himself in the unlikely position of romantic rival for a pretty waitress against a slick, dangerous gang boss (Tatsuya Nakadai). Kobayashi has an abrupt style that keeps cutting away from the action (kineticus interruptus), while letting his cast erupt at will. But the sordid scene and the sheer level of misery, envy & backstabbing retribution offer a certain grim fascination. The political pay-offs & corruption shown are regrettable, yet Kobayashi must know we can’t mourn the inevitable destruction of this dank world.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Kurosawa worked similar terrain to fine effect in his Gorky adaptation, THE LOWER DEPTHS/’57 with Toshiro Mifune. And the Jean Renoir version from ‘36 is even better, with great perfs from Jean Gabin & Louis Jouvet.

Monday, March 10, 2014

CHUNG HING SAM LAM / CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994)

Maybe the “pop’ style and visual romanticism of Kar Wai Wong’s breakthrough pic (his third as director) has been too influential. Whatever the reason, the film now seems a pretty, but empty vessel in search of a soft drink. In the first of two separate-but-unequal billet-doux, Brigitte Lin’s temptress-in-a-bad-blonde-wig leads Takeshi Kaneshiro’s pineapple-addled cop on a mystery tour that ends in a shooting. Then, in the more substantial second story, another cop (Tony Leung) licks his wounds after being dumped by his girl, slowly realizing he’s become an object of desire for Faye Wong’s lunch counter attendant. There’s an off-the-charts ‘cute-quotient’ to the cast, especially Faye Wong with her Jean Seberg routine, but it’s the nearly abstract use of color, space, tricked up editing & scripted personality quirks from Kar Wai Wong that holds this together. For many, it’s enough to offset a twee tone that leaves you hungry for another film after an hour.

DOUBLE-BILL: Tony Leung & Takeshi Kaneshiro reunited as strategizing warrior and methodical storm prognosticator in John Woo’s RED CLIFF/’08;’09 which didn’t get the Stateside traction it deserved, thanks to a brutally shortened theatrical-release cut. But, at full length, the 2-Part edition is tremendous fun. Now, Kar Wai Wong’s latest, THE GRANDMASTER/’13, starring Leung, has suffered a similar amputation in a botched Stateside release. Hopefully, the original cut will show on some near-future video release.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Thanks to a few misspellings in a previous MAKSQUIBS Write-Up that kept this from popping up during a SEARCH, this is an unintentional rewrite. Four years on, the film’s charms have largely curdled. But take your critical pick.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

LAKPOSHTHAPARVAZ MIKONAND / TURTLES CAN FLY (2003)

This moving wartime tale from Bahman Ghobadi tracks the disrupted lives of an army of young kids, many orphaned, many walking-wounded, who scavenge up a life near the Iraq/Turkey border by gleaning the fields for land-mines. They’re lead by a tough 13-yr-old wiseguy nicknamed Satellite (for his talent at bringing in tv signals) who sells & barters the salvaged weapons when he’s not maintaining territorial rights. One rival, an armless boy with his own group, earns easy protection because Satellite falls for his lovely young sister and also because he has a mysterious ability to predict the future. Ghobadi gets some miraculous work out of his amateur cast (some of the sidekicks are unforgettable), but the film runs out of narrative steam about halfway in. Perhaps we can’t help but bring too much hindsight to a film made before post-war tragedy overwhelmed Iraq, or maybe the problem stems from a dropped secondary storyline involving a border-hopping doctor trying to find that forecasting boy. As it stands, Ghobadi has little choice but to tease out the next tragic moment and hope that the allegorical aspects of children fighting territorial wars comes thru.

Friday, March 7, 2014

BANK HOLIDAY (aka THREE ON A WEEKEND) (1938)

Carol Reed started to get critical attention after making this well-received dramedy about a handful of mid-to-lower class couples & families grasping at fun in one of those ghastly British shore towns. But balanced against the travails of too many people working too hard at having a good time, is Margaret Lockwood as a maternity nurse in a story more serious & more adult than the rest. She’s wavering between a long-planned, unchaperoned trip with unofficial fiancé Hugh Williams, and her sudden, unexpected emotional attachment to the nice young man back at the hospital who’s just lost his wife in childbirth. As director, Reed orchestrates these stories with ease and witty visual flair, moving back & forth with a fluid touch between beachfront adventures and the young widower’s loneliness & growing despair. Managing to keep the usual condescension toward ‘little people’ at their leisure out of the mix and even wangling in a bit of unexpected color-blind casting. Look sharp to see a young & handsome Michael Rennie as a Guardsman and a typically amusing piece of character comedy work from the great Wilfird Lawson, Alfred P. Doolittle in PYGMALION that year. Nowadays, Reed tends to be taken for granted, his most famous pic, THE THIRD MAN/’49, pegged as a collaborative effort with credit flowing toward Graham Greene, Orson Welles & Anton Karas’s zither. Don’t believe it, the guy was a natural.

SPOILER: The script missteps in the last act. Not only by dropping the infant boy from the storyline, but by messing up Lockwood’s ride-to-the-rescue climax. Lodge would never have gone for poisoned gas, the tone’s all wrong for the film. What should have happened is for Lockwood to dash in, with cops breaking down the door, only to find Lodge safe, sound . . . and surprised. Cut to the train arriving back at the resort just as Lodge, Lockwood & baby step off for a wknd. No wonder the Brits couldn’t break into other markets.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

MIMI METALLURGICO FERITO NELL'ONORE / THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI (1972)

Lina Wertmüller’s brief, shining moment in the cultural discussion began with this socio-sexual comedy, only to expire a mere three films (and three years) later. The films were all big, noisy, contrarian tracts with pleasures that diminish pic by pic, irregardless of the order seen. And, as quickly as it had appeared, her voice largely vanished from the American theatrical film scene. Which makes MIMI as good a place as any to start. Giancarlo Giannini stars as a married Sicilian metalworker who returns home with a mistress & their kid after being exiled up north for voting Communist. But when he’s cuckolded by his all but forgotten wife, he plots a revenge against the little bastard’s father, seducing & impregnating his wife. Back on the work front, hardball tactics from organized crime types and political blandishments from right-wingers lead Giannini away from his few remaining proletariat convictions . . . life’s complications go on. Wertmüller stirs the pot with outrageous juxtapositions of scale & image, pushing laughs and serious points at us like a carnival barker. She’s relentless. The influences of Fellini and Pietro Germi are obvious*, but her coarse tone wears you down. (More and more as you see her other pics.) As the free-spirited mistress from the north, Mariangela Melato talks a mile a minute, gets her laughs, and, for a startling moment right at the end, looks exactly like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Everyone else overplays like mad, cancelling each other out even as Giannini’s buffo act (Marcello Mastroianni-meets-Charlie Chaplin) supplies a rooting interest.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DY: Giannini’s character is nicknamed ‘Mimi,’ like the heroine in Puccini’s LA BOHEME. He even quotes the opening line of her intro aria, ‘Mi chiamano Mimi.’ Yet, much of the film’s ill-fitting score is taken from Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA, the Callas Cetra recording of ‘53.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Germi’s DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE/’61 w/ Mastroianni. Like the difference between fresh mozzarella & the supermarket stuff.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

BON VOYAGE (2003)

Best known for prestige items like his dutiful CYRANO DE BERGERAC/’90, Jean-Paul Rappeneau was a throwback to the old school Cinema-of-Quality directors so loathed by the coming Nouvelle Vague generation @ Cahiers du Cinéma. This film, apparently his last, is a big WWII adventure (with comic trimmings) that follows its loosely connected cast (a spy, an actress, her lover(s), a scientist (w/ a stash of heavy water), politicos & a prison escapee) as they flee to the south when Paris falls. Handsome to look at, with a ricocheting plot that’s all cross & double-cross chases, it’s fun in an impersonal corporate manner, but Rappeneau doesn’t know when to let a scene bloom or when to press, and his action staging might have come out of an instruction manual with a couple of missing pages. It’s like one of those plush late ‘50s or ‘60s Blake Edwards’ war comedies . . . but helmed by John Sturges. The film crashes whenever leading lady Isabelle Adjani shows up as a vain movie star whose complete self-involvement gets everyone in trouble. She keeps an ironic distance, hiding behind the joke instead of embracing it. She might have done better to follow the lead of co-star Gérard Depardieu who plays it straight, locating his laughs behind a real threat. (He also temporarily dropped 50 lbs. which helps.) Yvan Attal, as the escaped felon, and Peter Coyote’s multilingual mystery man do equally well, but the rest of the cast is as blandly efficient as the film itself. Actually, the film is worse than efficient . . . it's tasteful.

DOUBLE-BILL: Bertrand Tavernier’s SAFE CONDUCT/’02 takes its suspenseful WWII comic adventures seriously. A true behind-the-scenes tale set in the film industry of Occupied France, its first half suffers from a bad case of roving camera syndrome, but pulls itself together thrillingly in part two.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

PONY EXPRESS (1953)

Unless you were called SHANE, Paramount wasn’t a great place to be a Western in ‘53. A point confirmed by Charlton Heston with ARROWHEAD and PONY EXPRESS (a reworking of James Cruze’s 1925 follow-up to THE COVERED WAGON/’23). Both scripted by Charles Marquis Warren, a prolific Western routiner, they sport unfashionable attitudes toward Native Americans, poorly fashioned plots and precious few old-fashioned movie-making virtues. Heston & Forrest Tucker plod along as Buffalo Bill Cody & Wild Bill Hickok, advance men for the upcoming Pony Express. And they also have to fight off a confederate of California secessionists plotting against their success, a group that includes Rhonda Fleming . . . until she falls for Chuck. Paramount coughed up a decent budget for this, but under Jerry Hopper’s journeyman megging, it unwinds like a programmer. Playing a tomboy with a bad case of unrequited love for Heston, Jan Sterling does well with the character clichés. She certainly has fun bathing in a twin tub next to Fleming, letting us enjoy some serious bosomy pulchritude.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Heston made quite a few Westerns. He’d have popped for the modern deep-dish allegory of WILL PENNY/’68; Film Mavens keep hoping Peckinpah’s MAJOR DUNDEE/’66 will live up to their dreams of it; Heston agnostics opt for his supporting perf in William Wyler’s undervalued THE BIG COUNTRY/’58. Truth is, Chuck’s ‘best’ Western isn’t a Western at all. It’s Anthony Mann’s EL CID/’61.

Monday, March 3, 2014

I CONFESS (1953)

Falling between two of Alfred Hitchcock’s best known titles from his uneven Warner Bros. days (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN/’51; DIAL M FOR MURDER/’54), this noirish thriller (with Neo-Realist leanings) is often classified as ‘minor’ Hitchcock.* A misplaced tag, perhaps stemming from a basic idea that’s too near Hitchcockian perfection to trust: After taking the confession of a murderer, a Priest finds himself Prime Suspect in the killing . . . yet can’t speak up without breaking Holy Vows. Yikes, talk about Catholic Guilt! That side of the story plays out beautifully, with glowering skies over cobblestoned Quebec and Montgomery Clift capturing the priest’s mental shifts with powerful restraint. (Hitch may have found method acting techniques a pain, and Monty may have been mystified by his Po-faced master, but the results are phenomenal, an absurdly underrated perf from a year that saw Clift later working under Vittorio De Sica & Fred Zinnemann.) With fine supporting perfs from O. E. Hasse & Dolly Haas as the guilt-ridden foreign-born couple, but also a secondary plotline that comes up short, a big Red Herring involving a past love affair between the pre-ordained Clift and Anne Baxter’s society wife. Apparently, stronger illicit activities (an on-going affair, a secret child) were ix-nayed by the very pro-Catholic Breen Commission censors, reducing the lengthy flashback scenes into dreamy filler with not enough at stake. Even Dmitri Tiomkin’s score only comes to life when he quotes the famous medieval Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) theme. File this under ‘good,’ rather than ‘great’ Hitchcock, but not ‘minor.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Have your own Priestly Cassock Fashion Showdown between wasp-waisted Montgomery Clift and the slightly more swaggering Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville’s LÉON MORIN, PRÊTRE/’61. Such dashin' fashion.

DOUBLE-BILL: Unconventionally downbeat & documentarian, Hitch’s THE WRONG MAN/’56 took up similar concerns and was similarly underrated.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Early French autuerists, like Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol in their Hitchcock monograph THE FIRST FORTY-FOUR FILMS, never considered I CONFESS a minor work, rating it near the top.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

PAHA MAA / FROZEN LAND (2005)

This award-winning Finnish pic is like LA RONDE of Misery, a strung together collection of hard luck tales as friends, lovers, fathers & sons, spouses & complete strangers bump into each other’s lives amid the modern morass of cold, cruel life in Finland. It’s both impressive . . . and a bit much, an unending parade of lost jobs, empty cash accounts & broken relationships. What keeps you watching is that director Aku Louhimies is such a natural, a technical sharpie able to handle any mood. From drab realism to glitzy action, plus a straightforward manner that lets wild coincidences seem inevitable instead of the dramatic contrivances they really are. (It's less BABEL/’06 than AMORES PERROS/’00, thank goodness.) He even manages a wisp of gallows humor when an instrument of bloody murder finds a second use in the clean-up. (You’ll feel guilty for laughing.) If only the script didn’t keep hitting the reset button every time things stop looking wretched. The bad turns begin to feel arbitrary.

DOUBLE-BILL: Finland must rival dentistry for suicide rates. Why not an Aki Kaurismäki pic to lighten the mood? He also travels thru darkness, but manages to move toward the light in spite of setbacks & bad karma. Try an early fable like ARIEL/’88 as an antidote to Louhimies’ ultra-Hobbesian view.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION (2009)

The long-running Merchant-Ivory brand of civilized cinema found quietus four years after producer Ismail Merchant died; four years before house-scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died and two years after director James Ivory finished production and found token distribution for this stillborn pic. It’s the wan story of an untenured Prof who bumbles his way to the Uruguayan estate of a deceased author he has a grant to bio. Cultivating consent from surviving wife Laura Linney, mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother (Anthony Hopkins) turns out to be only half the battle; maintaining interest may be just as hard in spite of (or is it because of?) blunt prompting from his career-oriented g’friend. Some handsome location shooting and messy interdependent personal relationships should provide a reasonably involving literary stroll, but no one behaves like a recognizable human being. Actions, motivations, dialogue, all coming off as forced or idiotic, with the tone of a bad British translation of Chekhov from the ‘50s. Hopkins, playing the dead writer’s world-weary gay older brother, manages to create a character with his usual quirky agogic speaking rhythms. Everyone else sinks. Though none more so than Omar Metwally as the absent-minded Prof, spectacularly inadequate as an object of desire with a doe-like self-regarding manner that curdles as you watch.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A telling moment in the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala ROOM WITH A VIEW/’85 finds Maggie Smith & Judi Dench lost on tour in Italy. ‘Throw away your Baedeker,’ suggests adventurous Dench to timid Smith. Figuratively, that’s just what these filmmakers did in their best pics.