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Saturday, May 31, 2014

WORKINGMAN'S DEATH (2005)

Michael Glawogger’s nail-biting, heartrending, stomach-churning world tour of unrewarding, spiritually grinding, physically demanding work is MANUAL LABOR: EXTREME EDITION. But it’ll never make it as a reality series, it’s much too real. We go from supine coal extraction, in illegally reopened Ukrainian mines, to noxious sulfur gathering and a perilous mountain descent with the heavy load in Indonesia. Off to Nigeria, where it’s best to squint thru an open-air abattoir, an all in one-slaughterhouse/carcass processing carnival of carrion and move on to Pakistan where old oil freighters go to die and get blow torched into pieces for scrap. Finally, a brief stop at a Chinese iron works where the workers show a remarkably sophisticated grasp of the economics that will soon overtake their thriving factory just like the closed German plant, we see brightly lit as a historic industrial artifact for bored teens on an educational outing. Depressing as social document: what is the future for all this outmoded laboring?, but thrilling as film. It all but demands viewing.

Friday, May 30, 2014

THE DEADLY AFFAIR (1966)

George Smiley, the melancholic British desk-jockey spy master from the John Le Carré novels, made his film debut with a brief appearance in Martin Ritt’s film adaptation of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/’65. But he became a small screen legend when Alec Guinness took him on in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY/’79 and SMILEY’S PEOPLE/’82, making such a complete job of it that this fine characterization from James Mason, more fleshly, less daringly chilly & cerebral (with Smiley rechristened Charles Dobbs), has been unjustly forgotten. Adapted with unusual fidelity by Paul Dehn from Le Carré’s debut novel, CALL FOR THE DEAD, it plays out with unexpected clarity for a Spy vs Spy drama; no small feat with a double-helix plot structure that intertwines personal relationships, local police sleuthing, Christopher Marlowe and international conspiracies. Working with Freddy Young on camera, director Sidney Lumet is able to stretch in new directions, though his alarmingly speedy filming manner (how he must have made his British crew hop!) typically leaves his editor missing out on a useful angle or two. (Check out the clumsy set ups in the scenes between Mason and Simon Signoret’s clammy widow.) Lumet also got lucky with his cast on this one with memorable perfs from a smooth Maximilian Schell, a pleasingly plump Lynn Redgrave, and an endearingly narcoleptic turn from old, reliable Harry Andrews. Only Harriet Andersson, as Smiley’s (er . . . Dobbs’) beloved, but errant wife seems miscast. Unless you insist on counting Quincy Jones’s mostly misjudged score.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Le Carré followed up DEAD with a rather ordinary murder-mystery for Smiley, A MURDER OF QUALITY in 1962. This road-not-taken series novel shows the author moving, somewhat halfheartedly, into Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers territory. Happily, he went right back to international sleuthery, though the attempt is not without interest. And it’s short!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

THE MIND BENDERS (1963)

After VICTIM/’61, their critically acclaimed homosexual blackmail thriller, was rejected by the film-going hoi polloi, Basil Dearden, Michael Relph & Dirk Bogarde (director, producer & star) did penance, of a sort, with this ludicrous pseudo-scientific thriller on sensory deprivation & mind control. It opens decently, like an episode of Twilight Zone made by Hammer Films, as a zoned-out Oxford Prof steps out of a moving train, dying under suspicion with a briefcase full of cash. But then the inquiry starts up with John Clements investigator goading Dirk Bogarde into repeating the deceased professor’s dangerous isolation experiment to prove whether the dead man had turned-traitor selling secrets to ‘the enemy’ or had merely turned 'zombie' with a ‘bendable’ mind after treatment. Sounds like it might be nutty enough to play, but the test designed for Dirk plants a seed of jealousy against his pregnant wife, Mary Ure, and all we can do is wait for the inevitable green-eyed monster to show up. (Didn’t Dearden just make a contempo OTHELLO in ALL NIGHT LONG/’62?) It hardly matters, halfway in, you'll know just how the sensory deprivation volunteers felt.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sensory deprivation addicts will need to see Ken Russell’s ALTERED STATES/’80, taken from the Paddy Chayefsky novel. And ‘taken’ is the word since Chayefsky, who also did the original script, loathed the final result and disowned the film.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

THE MASTER RACE (1944)

Father & son producers Edward & Robert Golden, after a hit debut with HITLER’S CHILDREN/’43, followed up with a second Nazi-themed thriller set at the end of the war that orders a gaggle of German commanders to go incognito into newly liberated towns to start dividing & conquering all over again. Hitler is Finished! Long Live National Socialism! The plan’s mastermind is George Coulouris, a high ranking Nazi who begins to surreptitiously sabotage all the good will & good deeds the American, British & Soviet soldiers bring to a small Belgium town as its war-weary soldiers start drifting home. The basic idea of winning the peace was unusual for the time (the war was still raging), and this indie pic offers a technically impressive package with dark, moody lensing from Russell Metty and a believable war-torn town. No stars, but a good mix of fresh & seasoned featured players, look for a young Lloyd Nolan and little Gigi Perreau at the start of her cute-kid days. But whereas HITLER’S CHILDREN became something of a breakthrough for its director, Edward Dymtryk, this one comes out stillborn under the barely competent, often corny hand (and script) of Herbert Biberman. Best known now as one of the Hollywood Ten*, it does offer a rare example of a Hollywood pic that really does shoehorn some Rah-Rah-Russia, Soviet-style propaganda into the narrative mix, sticking a happy-go-lucky Red Army Doctor right in the middle of Belgium. How’d he get there?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Ironically, after both served a 6 month jail term, Biberman was one of the ‘Card Carrying Communists’ Dmytryk ‘named’ to clear himself in Hollywood.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

MAHANAGAR / THE BIG CITY (1963)

Perfectly poised, deceptively simple, deeply felt film from Satyajit Ray about family fissures in an over-crowded tenement apartment in Calcutta. The husband (Anil Chatterje), a bank clerk, is sole supporter for wife, child, parents & sister. A grim financial picture until his wife (Madhabi Mukherjee) decides to go job hunting. Landing the job, a tough door-to-door gig selling an automated knitting machine, turns out to be easy compared to keeping the peace at home with her new schedule & priorities. But real trouble only begins when she comes to realize that she’s good at her job, enjoys the experiences and feels quietly empowered by it. Ray keeps all the family members in motion with dramas of their own, showing how they impact on each other. The continual adjustments to changing situations keeps things from feeling either dated or dogmatic. The ending, which involves a confrontation & a reconciliation between the almost painfully reticent Mukherjee, her not quite unflappable boss and her husband's wounded pride is simply extraordinary. Calmly transcendent, and very Bengali.

Monday, May 26, 2014

KABE ATSUKI HEYA / THE THICK-WALLED ROOM (1953;'56)

This early work from Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi plays on issues of wartime guilt & responsibility he’d return to in his HUMAN CONDITION Trilogy/’59-‘61. Controversial in its day (its release was held up three years), the film looks like apprentice work and isn’t helped by poorly preserved elements. But it shares many of the shortcomings of his more fully achieved work, with too many dramatic pointers marking the path. The story follows a group of convicted war criminals stuck in the Japanese prison system years after the end of the war. But just how culpable are they? Kobayashi sticks to men below officer class, and in a series of flashbacks shows them ‘just following orders.’ No doubt, true for many, even most, but his choices end up obscuring rather than revealing cause & character. In the most interesting flashback sequence, outraged locals on some tropical isle revolt against the burial on their land of three executed Japanese soldiers, and for a brief moment, the move toward moral complexity denies easy closure. But then it’s back to prison for more pickled drama, an 'honor code' story as one of the men gets a 24-hr pass for his mother’s funeral which leads to a face-to-face meeting with the exonerated officer whose original order & courtroom lies put him behind bars.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM (2013)

Morgan Neville’s popular, award-winning, but shallow documentary about a handful of wildly talented backup singers (mostly black female artists active in the Pop and R&B world of the ‘70s & ‘80s) never gets past a by-the-numbers PBS American Masters vibe. Hosts of famous music industry types (frontmen & session guys) are so busy with blanket encomiums, telling us how great, decent, wonderful everyone is, the motivating idea of the film (where’d these gals go?; why didn’t they strike out/strike sparks on their own?) gets lost. The film doesn’t seem to pick up on one obvious answer: half the musical acts we know & love were led by shits. Maybe that’s what these gifted singers lack, the self-regard & calculated cool that can make the music all but irrelevant to commercial  success. Of the profiled singers, Darlene Love is the obvious exception. But her missed opportunity was more likely the result of deceit & mismanagement after signing on the dotted line with legendary producer (and real life Mephistopheles) Phil Spector.* The film is slickly made, with beautifully sourced, sharply restored archival footage; it's bound to make a lot of viewers happy. But it's also something of a wasted opportunity.

DOUBLE-BILL: You can see what’s missing in here by checking out STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN/’02 which has less happy talk, but plumbs deeper looking at Motown’s default backup recording band, the Funk Brothers.

LINK: *Or possibly not. Check out some fascinating comments @ IMDb on some debatable facts behind the official Darlene Love story. 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2396566/reviews?ref_=tt_urv

Saturday, May 24, 2014

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (1944)

Warner Bros. followed up THE MALTESE FALCON/’41 by pairing its two unlikely Mutt & Jeff character stars (Peter Lorre & Sydney Greenstreet) in a series of inexpensive, but slick looking mysteries. This one, an early credit for director Jean Negulesco after a series of well received short subjects, is probably the best of the bunch, a tidy thriller about Dimitrios Makropoulos (debuting Zachary Scott), a dangerously unscrupulous confidence man with a killer smile . . . make that a killer’s smile. Someone’s finally caught up with this fast-moving villain, but his backstory (along with a viewing of the corpse) intrigue crime author Peter Lorre. Maybe there’s a book in there.  Or maybe there’s cash to be had just from selling the info he’s already picked up. That’s what Sydney Greenstreet thinks, if only Lorre would share what he knew. But first, Lorre needs to fill himself in on this peripatetic scoundrel, picking up pieces of the puzzle from past victims. There’s more circling than action in the story, but the cast, dialogue & atmosphere are terrific. Negulesco, with his background in the fine arts, gets a lot of European flavor on screen, ably assisted by a heavily accented supporting cast, and by retaining FALCON’s D.P. (Arthur Edeson) & composer (Adolph Deutsch). The climax is a bit of a mess, but it doesn’t do much damage. Beautiful print from Warners Archive, too.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: The story structure -- writer visits a few of his subject’s past acquaintances and gets a handle on the dead man’s life thru their differing POVs (all told in flashback) -- is a bit like CITIZEN KANE/’41. Coincidence? Maybe not. It’s taken from an Eric Ambler novel,  whose JOURNEY INTO FEAR was filmed the previous year by Orson Welles’ Mercury Players. It’s only available in Region 2, but a Stateside compatible DVD can’t be too far off.

Friday, May 23, 2014

CITTA VIOLENTA / VIOLENT CITY (aka THE FAMILY) (1970)

Spaghetti Westerns & action fare from the ‘60s & ‘70s built a following for Italian director Sergio Sollima (a box set is out from KOCH), but this one came with Hollywood players in the leads and earned a belated Stateside release in ‘73 as THE FAMILY. (It also had classy tech credits with Aldo Tonti lensing and an Ennio Morricone score.  Now, Blue Underground DVD has restored about ten minutes of missing footage from its initial cut using the original Italian track & English subtitles as needed.) The opening and closing scenes are striking action fare: two all but silent set pieces, a sharply organized car chase thru the narrow streets, alleys & stairways of St. Thomas (it’s BULLITT GOES TO THE TROPICS), and a stealth sniper attack on an exposed elevator for a climax. The problem is everything in-between.  Charles Bronson, in ridiculously fit shape, is the hitman on vacation with slinky lover Jill Ireland (his real life wife and a perfectly lousy actress), but once ashore, they wind up chased on those winding island roads. Turns out, it’s Bronson’s own guys who are targeting him.  The rest of film sees Bronson tracking everyone down and coming up with Telly Savalas, his own lawyer and even the lovely (and frequently naked) Ms. Ireland either on his tail or out to double-cross him. This should play reasonably well, but neither Sollima nor co-scripter Lina Wertmüller bother to play by any rules of narrative continuity. Nothing adds up.  Worse, the distinctive Wertmüller thud of sexual violence and general misogyny gets dealt once too often. (At one ludicrous point, forced sexual violence between the Bronsons gets interrupted by a live-action illustrated lecture from Charles B. on . . . forced physical violence.) Still, those opening & closing action scenes are intriguing enough to recommend more Sollima.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

NIAGARA (1953)

Henry Hathaway’s physically ravishing infidelity suspenser (think POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE/’44 or DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44, but from the cuckold’s POV) gets just about everything right. Stunningly shot by Joseph MacDonald, largely on location, the film inadvertently became something of a last hurrah for 3-strip TechniColor in the old Academy Ratio. And there’s a swing to the pace & a stylized visual daring, especially in its tower murder sequence, that seems to have popped unbidden from the artistic subconscious of these solid Hollywood craftsmen. The film was also the first of Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 triple breakthrough (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE followed) and she never looked or came across better, odd line readings and all. She’s the younger, unhappy wife of Joseph Cotten’s neurasthenic husband, setting him up for an ‘accidental’ death at the hands of her lover. Two things complicate her lethal plot: a honeymooning couple at the same cabin motel overlooking The Falls (Jean Peters; Max Showalter), and the murder going wrong. A few plot holes are well covered by the general momentum while the period detail & naïf charm of Niagara Falls as it was is just about irresistible, perfectly caught, and wildly nostalgic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Jean Peters, who’s just great here, would only make seven more features before her jealous lunatic of a husband (Howard Hughes, natch) put the kibosh on her career. While Marilyn Monroe, with a different set of troubles, would complete a mere eight more.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

BITTER SWEET (1940)

It took only five risible seconds of dueling swordplay for Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy, Hollywood’s tethered operetta songbirds, to fall from the cultural mainstream (Squaresville division) to pure ‘camp.’ They never really recovered. Worse, it curdled the very idea of their earlier films, marking them down as an aberration in popular taste, niche marketeering for old foggies, whereas a film like MAYTIME, hardly their best work, was the top grossing pic of 1937. This Noël Coward operetta had been filmed to great effect in Britain back in 1933, enlivened with a witty, even heartbreaking flashback structure that highlighted the loss of romance in the modern jazz age. (M-G-M also managed to lop off Coward’s classic tune ‘If Love Were All,’ though ‘Zigeuner’ and ‘I’ll See You Again’ remain.) But with the whole cast swimming upstream against pudding-rich TechiniColor (Eddy looks, er, matronly), it’s hard to care about MacDonald’s engaged Brit skipping town with a Viennese music teacher. (In ‘33, Anna Neagle & the very Continental Fernand Gravey knew how to put these types over.) The director, ‘Woody’ Van Dyke, had often coaxed a teasing tone from the MacDonald/Eddy tag-team, matching their stolid, creamy voices to their frame-filling faces. But here, no one seems able to divine the casual romantic, bittersweet style Coward was aiming for*, and the film goes nowhere.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Coward himself called this ‘ a nauseating hotchpotch of vulgarity, false values, seedy dialogue, stale sentiment, vile performances and abominable direction.’ But what did you really think, Noël? More than that, after seeing it, he vowed to sell no more of his work to the movies unless he was personally involved. No empty threat since his next four projects were IN WHICH WE SERVE/’42; THIS HAPPY BREED/’44; BLITHE SPIRIT/’45 and BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45. And that 1933 BITTER SWEET? Hopefully, soon to show in a decent Stateside release as it’s currently available only on Region 2 DVD.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)

Those who didn’t make it to (or thru) the 2009 STAR TREK reboot (hands, please) may not be converted by the sequel, but may find enough reasons to stick with it. Okay, make that one reason, Benedict Cumberbatch in a villainous turn for the ages. This guy sells evil genius like nobody’s business, wiping the floor with the entire Starship Enterprise crew. Yet, while he makes it look like child’s play, he doesn’t coast, but works up something special, something psychologically playable in every shot. For the rest, the youthful replacements for the original tv gang remain hit-and-miss. Best is Simon Pegg, getting big laughs out of stale gag lines as a most irascible Scotty. Compare him with the poor guy who plays Bones (Karl Urban). They share the same Borscht Belt jokesmith, but not the timing to make these clunkers land. At least, Urban's a good physical match-up with dear old DeForest Kelley. Everyone else is a bit of a bore; and for some reason, the men all have lousy skin. A condition made worse by director J.J. Abrams who has his camera Push-In on every shot in some scenes. Sure, he coordinates well with the CGI specialists, but when it comes to working with actors, his thin theatrical output betrays him. No one connects. And his idea of dynamic staging is to stick a faceless extra (or an alien crew member) on a separate visual plane, carrying something useless in the background. But the main problem, and it may not be fixable, is Chris Pine as the young Captain Kirk. No worse an actor than William Shatner, though never as amusingly distinctive, his face doesn’t ‘take’ the light. An ensemble guy in a star spot.

DOUBLE-BILL: Might as well follow up with STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN/’82 for reasons that will be obvious from INTO DARKNESS.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: After the famously unflattering costumes in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE/’79, the uniforms were much improved for KHAN. But DARKNESS brings out a mesh thermal underwear look. They’ve got to strip the leads to show them off.

Monday, May 19, 2014

VICTIM (1961)

It’s the curse of socially progressive pics to date poorly, so ‘on topic’ they quickly fall behind the conversation. But Basil Dearden’s forward-thinking tale of closeted gays getting blackmailed in Pre-Swingin’ London avoids the earnest tone of do-gooder’s condescension by tethering its message to a first-rate suspenseful police procedural. The genre tropes help the medicine go down without much preaching to the converted or banging us on the head with obvious conclusions. Or, does so for about two-thirds of its running time. Dirk Bogarde, in a career realignment*, is the rising barrister who mistakenly believes he’s about to be blackmailed by a young man he’s befriended. Turns out, he’s read the situation all wrong; the young man’s trying to protect him. But it’s a tricky business in the U.K. with homosexual acts still illegal, and blackmail victims unable to go to the police without incriminating themselves. Bogarde realizes he can only fight back by putting his career & marriage on the line. The film has the devil of a time sorting out the relationship between Bogarde and his wife (Sylvia Syms), which is probably what kills the last act. Regardless of the resolution, she’s stuck with the short end of the stick . . . so to speak.


SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Bogarde closed the door on his matinee idol days here, moving over to art house regular and bringing his slightly weary, slightly decadent bi-sexual tone to projects for Losey, Fassbinder, Cukor & Visconti, among others. Yet he remained personally a bit coy about his own sexuality, in spite of multiple volumes of autobiographical writing. CLICK on this puff piece, published when VICTIM was released to see how times have changed.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

WORLD WAY Z (2013)

There’s really only one fresh idea in this 21st Century Zombie pic, but it’s a dandy: Speedy Zombies. Elsewise, it’s the expected combo-platter of OUTBREAK/’95 meets WAR OF THE WORLDS/’05 as Brad Pitt saves his family (and many earthly inhabitants) from a plague of zombies with derring-do and mass injections. The storyline doesn’t exactly hang together*, but Marc Forster’s pacey megging gives you little time to question the next move while carefully trimming the horror & grue down to a soft PG-13. (It sure pales next to something like Neill Blomkamp’s imaginative/emotional DISTRICT 9/’09.) The best things in here are the dark, epic look (very Ridley Scott) and its unexpectedly chancy mortality rate. The worst comes from some lazy plot twists like unguarded barrier walls or a plane that crashes within walking distance of a disease control facility. Note to Brad Pitt: You don’t have to rough up your looks into an uneasy facsimile of Russell Crowe, we know you can act . . . when you have to.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It’s hardly a secret that this film was extensively rewritten, reshot & generally remade in Post-Production. Perhaps that explains why the last act shifts from chase pic to laboratory suspense tropes right out of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN/’71. (Our poster gives a clue to the original last act. Click on it to expand.)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

TWO LOVERS (2008)

With yards of ambition unmatched by commensurate talent, writer/director James Gray has achieved a charmed critical rep that rewards him on effort rather than execution. (A small output with yawning gaps between each tortured project helps amplify the ‘serious artist’ tag.) Hardly anyone actually goes to the films, but his strenuous push to connect with the Francis Coppola & Sidney Lumet lineage on his second & third pics (THE YARD/’00; WE OWN THE NIGHT/’07) gets offered as self-evident bona fides. On this fourth pic (in 14 years), Gray leaves narrative drive behind for a character piece about a clinically depressed 30-something Jewish guy from Brighton Beach (Joaquin Phoenix), still living at home, who falls into two affairs: a parent-approved nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw); and a QT pash for that blonde shiksa Goddess living right in his apartment building (Gwyneth Paltrow) who's deeply involved with a rich married guy & the contents of her medicine cabinet. It's all dreary leftovers from the ‘50s, with Phoenix offering a mass of quivering Method Acting tics the likes of which haven't been seen in decades. Worse, he infects much of the cast with the bug. But then, with a Dad who wants to share his new Benny Hill DVDs; a fetching lover offering up THE SOUND OF MUSIC as her fave pic; and a ‘classy’ love object who thinks Brandy Alexanders are a sophisticated pre-dining cocktail, you might turn suicidal, too. (Gray’s latest, THE IMMIGRANT/’14, again with Phoenix, is just hitting the bijoux. Don’t miss missing it.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Gray tries to juice things up basting the film with an opera-tinged score. Note the main background vamp from Mascagni’s CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA. (Heck, after casting James Caan in YARDS & Robert Duvall in NIGHT, why not pay homage to, in this case, Coppola’s GODFATHER III/’90 which climaxed with the same piece.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While not a patch on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, Paul Mazursky’s shamefully neglected ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY/’89 lifts the NYC Jew in love with a blonde shiksa to tragicomic heaven, especially when the man’s ‘dead’ Jewish wife returns from the Holocaust alive.

Friday, May 16, 2014

THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS (1939)

Something of a shakedown cruise for second-string contract players @ M-G-M, this B-pic plays kid sister to THE WOMEN/’39, the big all-star/all-femme bitch-fest shooting elsewhere on the lot.* But in this Junior League edition, the guys are allowed on screen, waiting at the train station of their exclusive East Coast college when the gals arrive, hoping to stake a romantic claim at the annual campus party/debutante circuit. But there’s an outlier on the scene, taxi-dancer Lana Turner, invited on a drunken whim by young Wall Street scion Lew Ayres. Let the snobbery ensue! The story touches the expected bases as rich swells bump up against honest, hard-working, regular gal Lana (as well as working-his-way-thru-college guy Richard Carlson), while tentatively peeking at more interesting topics like social integration, sexual shelf life & class distinctions in a meritocracy. If only the film had time (or the wit & will) to go into these byways. Still, there’s fun in watching the young players try to stand out . . . and get their options picked up. And in seeing the struggle to find the best use for Lana T. She’s cute here, not smoldering, and even manages a swell dance routine. Too bad they left those shadowy social elements so undercooked.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Another likely template was STAGE DOOR/’37 which is hardly comparable, outclassing this in every way imaginable. M-G-M had just taken a whack at it (again with Turner) in DRAMATIC SCHOOL/’38, but you’ll find more parallels here, with near matching characters as well as an incipient suicide.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

DROGA NA ZACHOD / THE ROAD TO THE WEST (1961)

The ‘road to the West’ in this WWII endgame story is a train heading toward ‘the front.’ But as a Polish pic from the 1960s, this ain’t your regular military supply train, it’s an existential military supply train. At first, the Ruskies are in charge, with an officer who commandeers the rails and ‘recruits’ a pensioned engineer to get things up & running. The old man will work, but only with a proper assistant. What he gets is a young Pole with zero experience, but a great desire to get out of Russian territory and restart his life in one of the Polish towns they have to pass thru. Whether anyone will get past the bombs, strafing planes and even a switch from Russian officers to Germans is debatable. War, it seems, is Hell. Director Bohdan Poreba runs a decent show and stages some straightforward action set pieces to reasonable effect. (To the extent you can see them in PolArt’s smeary-looking DVD transfer.) But this is second-tier futility-of-war stuff at best.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Also out of Poland: Andrej Munk’s EROICA/’57 covers similar terrain to superb effect in a double-bill of two 40 minute stories.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES (1976)

More than a decade before he acquired Oscar-worthy respectability, Clint Eastwood helmed & starred in this end-of-the-Civil War Western, a Janus-faced career move that looked back at his anarchic past and ahead to his violence-with-consequences future. Yet, the film is neither awkward transitional work nor unsatisfying compromise; the spirit is still untamed, the style still happily slips to vulgar, the outlook still too cockeyed for critical esteem, but with a new, rigorous control. For many, it was then, and remains now, his best Western. In the opening scenes, Eastwood loses his wife, son & homestead, then spends the rest of the film hunting down the Union renegades responsible. First with a Southern outfit, and after the war, on his own. Or, rather, in splendid accidental partnership with Chief Dan George’s loquacious ‘Civilized’ Indian. Scripter Philip Kaufman, originally set to direct, brings a wide-ranging tone that leapfrogs from heavy drama to character comedy, forcing Eastwood’s hand as director into fearless directions that push him to his technical limits and beyond. (Some of the action staging misses the old Don Siegel clarity.) But with its satisfying ‘rhyming’ plot arcs, excellent cast, fine Jerry Fielding score and handsome Bruce Surtees lensing, the film more than holds up, it’s improved in the can.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: There’s a lot of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS/’56 in here, but the parallels aren’t pushed too hard. A decade on, Eastwood tried harnessing his PALE RIDER/’85 to George Steven’s SHANE/’53, adding a Messianic complex to drab & dreary result.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

HOLLYWOODLAND (2006)

Trying to follow in the undercover footsteps of CHINATOWN/’74 and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97, Allen Coulter’s HOLLYWOODLAND tasks Adrien Brody’s shady P.I. with digging up the truth behind the apparent suicide of tv Superman George Reeves, played by a blander than bland Ben Affleck in flashbacks. Paul Bernbaum’s script has a brief splash of suspense when Brody starts believing his own puffery about the suicide really being a murder, but the case feels nonexistent, a shaggy dog story as unconvincing as it is uninteresting. Worse, Coulter, a prolific helmer of high-end cable fare (BOARDWALK EMPIRE; THE SOPRANOS; HOUSE OF CARDS) is too easily satisfied with boilerplate visual cues to suggest all things past-present. No plug-in tableside telephones, but lots of stiff collars, gloves & grainy, desaturated color. If anything, shouldn’t the colors be more, rather than less, vibrant? Not only to suggest a sunnier & less congested L.A., but in counterintuitive dramatic contrast to the story’s downward curve. BTW: A big climatic moment that has Reeves’ supporting role in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY/’53 snipped out because he’s too identified with Superman is a long debunked Hollywood myth.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: When Diane Lane’s Hollywood dowager grows jealous watching her stud muffin sniff at younger competition, echoes of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD/’50 can be heard. Classic ‘50s Hollywood without the period filter.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Robert Wagner’s recent memoir of old Hollywood, YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, is a nifty surprise. A good read with a feel for the times, mores, lost spots & boîtes.

Monday, May 12, 2014

STORM CENTER (1956)

As one of the few films to tackle the ‘50s Communist Witch Hunts straight on, rather than allegorically, during the Hollywood Blacklist era, there’s a natural rooting interest in this cautionary fable about censorship at a small town library. If only Oscar-winning scripter Daniel Taradash, in his sole megging effort, had his camera, as well as his heart, in the right place now & then. (The only stylish moment on screen is the Saul Bass Opening Credit sequence.) Bette Davis, packing on an extra twelve years or so, is the long widowed city librarian who reshelves a controversial book extolling The Communist Dream; then watches her life, her town & even her favorite young readers succumb to lowest-common-denominator political hysteria & scapegoating. Davis thought the film failed because of a lack of emotional warmth from the troubled kid at the center of the action. She’s right, but Taradash, as both writer & director, deserves equal blame. Even with some excellent use of real locations in Santa Rosa, California, especially in public spaces, the studio interiors are visually dead. And Taradash hasn’t much knack at getting results out of the pro & non-pro actors in the cast . . . especially that bookish kid in the middle of things. Even Davis turns a bit colorless, pausing to think about kindness & decency before every cue. Just look how she lights up when she finally gets the chance to tell off her library replacement, Kim Hunter. The one standout is Brian Keith, frighteningly sure of his political instincts as a Red-Baiting city councilman in the ambitious tradition of Senator Joe McCarthy. These days, he comes off more like Senator Ted Cruz.

DOUBLE-BILL: Producer Julian Blaustein wasn’t afraid of movies with a message: World Peace with THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51; prejudice against Native Americans in BROKEN ARROW/’50. And handled without that Stanley Kramer air of self-importance.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A WONDER BOOK is a central prop in this story. A retelling of Greek Myths for young readers, it was once a standard in American Children’s Lit. Does anyone still read it?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

HOT RODS TO HELL (1967)

Stalwarts at 20th/Fox in the ‘40 & ‘50s, Jeanne Crain & Dana Andrews hardly knew what hit ‘em in this little exploitation vehicle from prolific producer Sam Katzman. The real pity is seeing another 20th/Fox vet, director John Brahm who’d moved into tv not long after two truly superior period films noir (THE LODGER/’44; HANGOVER SQUARE/’45), wasting his remarkable talent on this schlock. The nonsensical story has Andrews and his happy family heading West to run a roadhouse motel. Before they even arrive, they make quick enemies (and an easy target) for a bunch of young hot rod punks. The sets, costumes and rapidly evolving youth culture all get OTT treatment, matched by even more ridiculous acting. You expect the worst from the long-in-the-tooth teens as well as the no-name supporting cast, but what was Jeanne Crain thinking? The real threat in the picture is a lack of seatbelts for those kids in the backseats. (Extra points for having Mickey Rooney, Jr. and his band as the rock act.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: (Really another LISTEN to this.) You’re probably better off just hearing Paul Lynde sing ‘Kids’ from the Original Cast Recording of BYE BYE BIRDIE.* It makes the same point as the film, but funnier & a lot quicker. (*On the BYE BYE BIRDIE film Soundtrack, Lynde shares the number; much less effective.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

JOAN OF ARC (1948)

Lovingly restored to its original 145 minute length and pudding-rich TechniColor (adjust your saturation level accordingly), Ingrid Bergman’s dream project* is more diorama than drama. Stately pageantry & heavy religiosity hardly bring out the roistering best in director Victor Fleming, but he does seem intrigued working on the Pop-Up 'Book of Hours' sets art director Richard Day came up with. Really, everyone’s working their tail off, even some unlikely Hollywood ‘stock’ casting holds the advantage of keeping the gargantuan speaking cast straight. (In a rare moment of unintentional humor, Fleming has Joan bid farewell to her three favorite soldiers in a manner that recalls Dorothy with Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion in his own WIZARD OF OZ/’39.) The unsolvable problem is really Maxwell Anderson’s lumbering script (from his own play, an award-winning hit for Bergman on B’way) which never locates a dramatic fuse to the story. Joan’s initial encounters & conversions are glossed over and her capture by the enemy goes missing during intermission. (Come to think of it, intermission also goes missing.) Worse, he never finds a speaking tone (other than windy archaic) to fit the times & mood. That same year, John Huston & Richard Brooks pulled a working screenplay out of Anderson’s KEY LARGO by tossing out the original’s free verse; a tactic also used in the underrated PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX/’39. But those films had the advantage of being Saint-less.

DOUBLE-BILL: Perhaps Joan is easier to capture in silent film where we give her any voice we choose. DeMille’s JOAN THE WOMAN/’16, like this production, too huge to earn out, works well on its own terms. Find excellent editions for both JOANs on IMAGE-DVD. Of course, the greatest of all Joans is still Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC/’28, out on Criterion.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bergman had been in something of a career swoon when she plunged into Italian film & Roberto Rossellini after ARCH OF TRIUMPH; JOAN and UNDER CAPRICORN all tanked. (*Bergman even got Rossellini to document her 1954 performance in Arthur Honegger’s concert piece JOAN AT THE STAKE.) Her Italian films did no better, but in a way, the caesura in her screen visibility zipped her right past the awkward transition stage that slowed up so many maturing female stars after the 1940s. Instead, she returned, older, sadder, wiser and with a new kind of staggering beauty & deeper acting talent in the mid-‘50s, and never had to look back.

Friday, May 9, 2014

DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954)

Don’t be put off by a brief bit of sub-par backscreen projection in the opening race car scene, this downbeat B pic, early credits for director Richard Quine & scripter Blake Edwards, is a trim piece of work. Mickey Rooney, dropping the off-putting non-stop exuberance that made so much of his post WWII output a pain, is very effective as a socially withdrawn loner, a whiz auto-mechanic with dreams of racing in the big time. Out of the blue, he’s being vamped by pretty Dianne Foster, unaware at first that it’s just a tease to get him involved as getaway driver in Kevin McCarthy’s simple, but meticulously planned bank robbery. Loaded with fine location work (dig the ultra-lux streamlined details at Mickey’s car service joint and the easy access at a roomy strip of Malibu Beach), it’s a film that knows its way around L.A. (nicely caught by lenser Charles Lawton) as well as around its not so nice cast of characters. Only George Duning lets the ‘below the line’ side of things down with a phoned-in music score.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Rooney was rarely this brutally belittled for his lack of stature. The joking from co-workers really stings and takes on a not so subtle hint of sexual inadequacy, barely skirting the old production code.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

WHORE'S GLORY (2011)

One of the last works of acclaimed documentarian Michael Glawogger (58 when he died 4/14) is a selective tour of the international brothel scene. Alternately fascinating, depressing and challenging, it’s sumptuously designed in a manner that plays off (and frankly against) its disturbing subject matter. Divided into three sections, the film moves from fly-on-the-wall observation to confessional. We open with the shiny clean surfaces of a Thai ‘fishtank’ operation where the ‘girls’ are displayed behind glass, sitting expectantly as they wait to hear their number called. Things are far less antiseptic in the rabbit warren confines of a Bangladesh tenement workshop. Here, the halls are busy with clients, workers and the occasional sleeping child you need to step around. Then, to Mexico for Drive-Thru selection and a small bed in a warehouse cubicle. Climaxing, or rather NOT climaxing, with a XXX-sequence, probably necessary to complete the film arc. But Glawogger errs by having a cameraman in the room to get the ‘right’ shots, pornography instead of reportage. Surely a ‘fixed’ camera would have done the trick.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

THE GREEN YEARS (1946)

M-G-M split the difference on two coming-of-age classics, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41 and THE CORN IS GREEN/’45, co-opting the color GREEN in the title as they grabbed plot points and moved signposts from Wales to Scotland for this very sentimental education. A. J. Cronin’s novel might be prequel to THE CITADEL/’39, his better known country doctor/big city story.* And under director Victor Saville, it comes out as pretty sticky stuff. The first half works well enough as young Dean Stockwell, an orphaned lad with a scientific bent, is taken in by his eccentric relatives. Alas, he grows up into the pleasant, but hopelessly bland Tom Drake (Judy Garland’s ‘Boy Next Door’ from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44) and moons over an even blander ingenue, Beverly Tyler. Neither really survived the star push.** Instead, the film is taken over by the bickering family, especially Charles Coburn’s Great-Grandfather who lays on the darling-old-man shtick with a trowel. He also inherited Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion hairstylist. Yikes!

DOUBLE-BILL: *King Vidor's uneven film adaptation of THE CITADEL is at its considerable best in the first half when anarchist doctor Ralph Richardson shares screen time with idealist doctor Robert Donat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: **Was this film developed for rising star Robert Walker? Under M-G-M contract at the time and on track for bigger things, he certainly makes a better match with Dean Stockwell as his younger self.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

CHARULATA / THE BROKEN NEST (1964)

After THREE DAUGHTERS/’61 (TWO DAUGHTERS Stateside*), Bengali master Satyajit Ray returned to the writings of Rabindranath Tagore for one of his greatest films, a tale of intersecting relationship triangles set in the late 1880s. A wealthy man loves & cossets his wife, but gives his deepest attention to another mistress, his start-up political newspaper. A flirtatious cousin with a literary bent makes a visit and is encouraged by the husband to renew his wife’s interest in writing, and unknowingly steals her heart. And an unprincipled brother-in-law takes advantage of unearned trust, dipping into the newspaper’s assets, stealing something more tangible, if ultimately less important, than a lonely woman’s affection. Ray opens with a strikingly designed, nearly dialogue-free sequence, that shows wife Charulata as a beautiful bird stuck in her husband’s gilded cage of a mansion. The other introductions are blunt, even over-played in comparison, but these boldly drawn portraits quickly give way to infinite degrees of subtlety with small revelations bringing out devastating emotional responses. Like Ray’s THE MUSIC ROOM/’58 (not a Tagore adaptation), it’s about as close to Chekhov as movies get. (NOTE: Heaps of lousy, subfusc Ray DVD-transfers out there. Happily, Criterion has rescued a few lucky titles).

DOUBLE-BILL: *Hopefully, when TWO DAUGHTERS makes its belated appearance on DVD, we’ll get all THREE short stories. The shortest one, about a Post-Master in a rural village who ‘inherits’ a tiny, adolescent servant girl with the position, is enchanting & heartbreaking, a near perfect work of film art.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Trying to make something cinematic out of the writing process has defeated many a filmmaker.  But watching steel-tipped pens dipping into inkwells before dancing a graceful Bengali cursive on paper is an artful thing to see in and of itself.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

THE DYNAMITER (2011)

Tiny, but heartfelt indie pic from writer/director Matthew Gordon who’s yet to parlay Film-Fest success into either a theatrical release or another gig. Depressing, no? Yet, the pic rewards attention, working much the same terrain as Jeff Nichols’ MUD/’12, sans tricked out suspense tropes. A coming-of-age summertime tale, it follows a hardscrabble Mississippi teen just out of Middle-School, who filches from lockers & stumbles into fights. Less a ‘bad kid’ than a directionless one, he’s effectively orphaned, living with a fading G’ma, a mentally damaged half-brother and the occasional threat of a wised-up, no-good older brother he’d give anything to look up to. The surprises & epiphanies are small, but they carry a lot of weight, closing out a childhood that’s already gone largely missing. The acting from the non-pro cast shows more concentration than variety, and can feel a bit flat. But the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, with characters spinning in unexpected ways, showing shards of decency even when lesser angels & worse instincts reappear. Take back that ‘heartfelt’ description; ‘heartbreaking’ is more like it.

DOUBLE-BILL: Gordon’s obviously seen Truffaut’s coming-of-age classic THE 400 BLOWS/’59.  (KES/'69;  OF MICE AND MEN/'39; HUD/'63, too.)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

In spite of a neverending parade of Heathcliffs & Cathys over the years, the classic William Wyler/Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur adaptation (abridgement is more like it) with Laurence Olivier & Merle Oberon holds up extremely well. Better, in fact, then you may recall. The surprise of the thing, especially for 1939, is the wildness of it, the mad, brooding passion, it's no sedate Masterpiece Theatre picturebook edition. Olivier famously, and generously, always gave Wyler full credit for opening his eyes to the possibilities of screen acting, but what exactly did he mean? Physically, he’s transformed, broader and, in the early sections, almost wildly unkempt & dangerously handsome. A new sense of abandon added to control. But then, everyone is at their best, though Oberon is over-parted and not quite as apt as she was in THESE THREE/’36, also for Wyler. David Niven, as the nice young man who marries Cathy but can’t replace Heathcliff in her heart, has a dog of a part, yet shows an emotional involvement rare for him. And you could say similar things for much of the cast, even the aging make-up is above par for the period. All of it gorgeously shot by Gregg Toland, who shows many of the techniques that landed him CITIZEN KANE/’41. (The slightly clunky, mystical ending isn’t Wyler’s. Producer Sam Goldwyn stole it from his own THE WEDDING NIGHT/’35 and found some flunky to shoot it.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Wyler got even more out of Olivier in CARRIE/’52, from the Dreiser novel SISTER CARRIE. It's possibly his greatest film perf. Alas, Wyler had less success coaxing much out of Jennifer Jones in that one, even her diction is soggy. Only Ernst Lubitsch seemed able to manage that particular trick, and in a light romantic comedy no less, CLUNY BROWN/’46. On the other hand, Lubitsch got auto-pilot out of Merle Oberon on the indifferent THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING/’41.

Friday, May 2, 2014

DARLING COMPANION (2012)

After his fast-track start scripting Episode V of STAR WARS/’80 and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK/’81, Lawrence Kasdan moved to writing/directing his own ensemble pieces, like the 30-Something/post-college reunion BIG CHILL/’83, one of those iconic pics no one gives a shit about. Mixed success followed as he steered the same basic model thru various genres, returning to the less structured format of CHILL for GRAND CANYON/’91 and now DARLING COMPANION/’12, his first work in a decade and shallower than ever. Nothing wrong with the basic idea, a late middle-aged couple adopt a rescued dog shortly before their last kid marries. SHE really wants it; HE not so much. But when the dog runs off after the big wedding, three remaining couples are sorely tested as they hunt for the missing pooch, pulled apart by magnified petty grievances, then drawn closer than ever by common ties & a common cause. The problem, as always from this source, is that Kasdan has big truths he wants to impart, but little to say. And he populates his work with nearly abstract clichés instead of living characters. Hell, even Kasdan must know that finding Fido won’t change anything . . . except for Fido.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Recently, the French have been churning out great (if difficult) family relationship pics. Smart, touching, funny, infuriating, sexy, annoying and rarely too cute. (Though the hormonally-charged ingenues are a bit much.) Olivier Assayas’s L’HEURE D’ÉTÉ/SUMMER HOURS/’08 is a particularly good one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With a sobering gross under a million, COMPANION’s commercial dismissal may have jolted Kasdan out of his long-term sulk/funk and led him back-to-the-future taking a co-writing gig (with J.J. Abrams) on the next STAR WARS.