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Sunday, June 29, 2014

SALINUI CHUEOK / MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003)

Turns out Korean phenom Joon-ho Bong, just out with an English-language debut pic (SNOWPIERCER/’13) after making his Stateside rep with one of the best horror/monster pics of recent vintage (THE HOST/'06), had previously shown his strengths on this tremendously assured, mood-jangling serial-murderer/police procedural. Suggested by a real, infamous Korean case, the investigation is being bungled by townie cops when a young, smarty-pants detective from Seoul takes charge. Or thinks he does. Bong finds an invigorating mix of tones with low-brow comic riffs bumping into nauseating police brutality on likely suspects, while never ignoring the horrific nature of the crimes or forgetting to carefully integrate set suspense pieces of action and stillness. It’s all held together thru Bong’s almost unnervingly apt mise-en-scène; the guy has an unerring nose for just the right camera set-up & shot selection. With fabulous casting choices on every role, the story is much easier to follow than typical for the genre, and the quick switches from farce to tragedy never seem forced on the material in either the main action, which is set in the mid-‘80s, or in the short, memorable epilogue set in 2003. Tremendous stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: Unless you’re completely allergic to the horror/monster genre, get thee to THE HOST.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

MUSEUM HOURS (2012)

An art-house film about an art house, the Kunsthisorisches Museum in Vienna, minimalist in execution, large in spirit & effect. Framed by the musings of a late-middle-aged museum guard, its wisp of a story has this pleasant man aiding a Canadian stranger, adrift in this formal city while waiting for some sort of outcome on a comatose relative. The two fall into the easy platonic short-term intimacy of strangers, touring the museum, the city and their lives, without any established pattern of behavior to hold on to. Filmmaker Jem Cohen is equally free to roam, letting the best incidents speak for themselves in the manner of a Frederick Wiseman documentary whether in or out of the museum. Avoiding character arcs & story beats, he discovers a compelling narrative built out of the smallest actions, stepping out of bounds briefly for an odd reverie where nude museum visitors view clothed portraits before reversing back to the usual nude portraits & clothed viewers. It’s the only conceit in the film that feels forced. A lovely, memorable work, though obviously something of a connoisseur’s piece.

DOUBLE-BILL: More musing o’er a night in Vienna in Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE/’95 which led to two well-received, woefully self-indulgent sequels.

Friday, June 27, 2014

THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006)

When did Brain De Palma stop being part of the conversation? Was it with a flop like FEMME FATALE/’02; or earlier, from the sour aftertaste of a hit like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE/’96? Certainly it was some time before this slick, but opaque murder mystery, a confusing sampler of bits from its betters (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97; CHINATOWN/’74; even SUNSET BLVD/’50 & THE BIG SLEEP/’46). Oozing film noir manner, laid on with a trowel, it’s nearly an unwitting parody: craggy voiced narrator; cool jazz score; lying broads with bedroom eyes; desaturated palette; but the heart & soul of a pastiche ad for deodorant, with lenser Vilmos Zsigmond & production designer Dante Ferretti whoring out to earn their keep. After employing the L. A. Zoot Suit riots as a ‘fun’ opening, someone had the clever idea of using Paul Leni’s great silent THE MAN WHO LAUGHS/’28 as a visual key to the mystery. But no one knows when to stop stirring the pot till it becomes impossible to follow. At least the unaccountably awful perfs from good actors keep things interesting in a grim sort of way. De Palma can still run an action scene like no one’s business when he wants to, look at an early multi-POV shootout. But he’s just as likely to over-lard things with empty displays of technical virtuosity. It could scare you off sampling his earlier work.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/READ ALL ABOUT IT: DAHLIA is taken from a mess of a book by James Ellroy, who was much better served by Curtis Hanson on L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. While hardly his best work, probably his most adaptable title is HOLLYWOOD NOCTURNES, a story collection from ‘94, especially a section that riffs on the theme of post-war heroism using a little junky B-pic called DADDY-O/’58 as framework.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pick any of the non-De Palma titles above. (If only someone would work up a better score for Leni’s marvelous silent. Calling Carl Davis!)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

YOGOTO NO YUME / EVERY-NIGHT DREAMS (aka EACH NIGHT I DREAM) (1933)

Another superbly realized late silent from Japan’s Mikio Naruse, further refining his skill set on one of his signature Working Woman stories. Here, an apparently single mother is employed as ‘hostess’ at a tough waterfront bar (she’s more like a roving Geisha) when her long-missing ‘ex’ unexpectedly returns home. A sweet, unambitious man, he hasn’t the will or drive to buck the depressed economy and, with his self-defeating hangdog demeanor, even the lowest jobs pass him by. Yet, he fully believes he can somehow support his wife & child. With what? Someone’s got to earn an income, especially when an accident and hospital bills show up. Naruse gets beautiful perfs from wife, kid, dad (exceptionally lovely work from a goateed Tatsuo Saitô), and finds telling details that make his small, rather melodramatic story feel grounded. Technically, he’s still got a yen for fast tracking Push-In shots, but there’s now point as well as punctuation to them. And, in a brief, but fascinating sequence that covers a police chase thru back streets after a robbery, the film presentation suddenly tilts toward Fritz Lang @ UFA to fabulous effect; an explosion in style that must have completely flummoxed the execs @ Shochiku Kamata Productions.

DOUBLE-BILL: As seen above, the Criterion SILENT NARUSE box.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

The prologue to Zack Synder’s SUPERMAN Re-Reboot is positively Shakespearean: ‘Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing.’ It’s the last days on an imploding Planet Krypton where villains are ironically saved via exile and an infant gets blasted to Earth. His Dad (Russell Crowe) may be doomed to die, but don’t worry, he’s available on Flash Drive. Once that’s out of the way, things improve quickly as Superman/Kal-El (Henry Cavill) lives out a few non-linear highlights from his itinerant life, earning hard-won maturity on a MidWest farm before displaying his hairy chest & a killer bod working at sea, then meeting-cute (and dangerous) with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in the frozen North. (Wait! Back-up! A hirsute super-hero? Positively revolutionary!*) This central section, before the exiled villains, led by a constipated Michael Shannon, make their return, is the best part of the film. Helmer Synder goes for an overcooked serious tone, with handheld camera and a drab palette, but it also takes good advantage of some effective moves from producer/co-scripter Christopher Nolan, revamping his DARK KNIGHT/’08 voodoo to good effect. But then that final battle goes on for a mind-numbing (and ear-numbing) 45 minutes. Even divided into three waves of action, it’s pure fanboy palaver, an Extended Director’s Cut for everyone.

DOUBLE-BILL: No one has topped the sheer visual ‘rightness’ of those early Fleischer Bros SUPERMAN animated shorts made for Paramount in the early ‘40s. Alas, no proper restoration, but a BOSCO/Image DVD gives a decent idea of their visual flair.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Oh for a transcript of the conference calls on whether or not to shave Henry Cavill’s chest. (They could have tattooed another egregious Product Placement on the extra blank space.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

DARK STAR (1974)

Sci-Fi/Horror film-meisters Dan O’Bannon (ALIEN/’79; TOTAL RECALL/’90) & John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN/’78; STAR MAN/’84) wrote & directed this cinematic amuse-bouche as a USC film school project (very 2001/’68; SILENT RUNNING/’72): cost: $55,000. Padded up to feature length for commercial release, it stuck around in smeary VHS dupes to haunt them as an object of cult worship & derision. Now, with a somewhat cleaned-up picture, a new HyperDrive Edition makes their shorter/original cut available to fanboys and newbies. With its slightly drug-addled spacemen, the woozy tale of a twenty-plus year mission to destroy unstable planets retains a knockabout silliness that’s very winning. Especially so, in a hilarious sequence that finds O’Bannon chasing down a loose ‘pet alien,’ a sort of pre-parody of his own ALIEN that earns extra credit by also sending up THE RED BALLOON/’56. With catchy DIY toy-like F/X, it’s irresistible in its shortened form, with a climax that prefigures GRAVITY/’13, and, in its low-tech juvenile way, is probably more realistic.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

SUSPICION (1941)

Two things even casual Alfred Hitchcock aficionados know about SUSPICION is that Hitch got a spectral glow on a possibly poisoned glass of milk by sticking a little light bulb inside the glass; and that a compromised climax weakened his original twist ending. Well, no one’s going to argue about that glass of milk. In fact, the whole film is lit with sumptuous attention to detail by lenser Harry Stradling. But that ‘weakened’ ending begs a second look. Here’s a speedy recap: Joan Fontaine, on the edge of spinsterhood, falls hard for Cary Grant’s dashing scapegrace. With an easy sexual manner alternating threat, passion & charm, he’s really a well-groomed bounder, lying his way from one personal cul-de-sac to the next. He’d likely murder for financial gain, and Joan might well be his next victim, a role she’d willingly play. Without getting into SPOILERS, the original idea worked toward an O’Henry-worthy twist that could have played as a deluxe episode of tv’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. But the reworked ending, especially as dialogued by Ernst Lubitsch collaborator Samson Raphaelson, comes off as something far less neat & tidy, more like an unresolved chord in spite of Franz Waxman’s surging love theme. Memorable stuff, with a strange & compelling ‘off’ tone beautifully sustained, along with stunning perfs from a bevy of character players, led by Nigel Bruce, supporting Joan Fontaine’s unusual heroine. Hitch gallantly gives her two separate intro shots: first as mousy train companion, then as a stunner on horseback. All told, it’s one of his most underrated titles.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In many ways, this British UpperCrust suspenser replays themes & even incidents from REBECCA/’40, Hitch’s Hollywood debut . . . but without producer David O Selznick breathing down his neck. ‘Dear Hitch: It is my unfortunate and distressing task to tell you that I am shocked and disappointed beyond words by the treatment of REBECCA. I regard it as a distorted and vulgarized version of a provenly successful work, in which, for no reason that I can discern, old-fashioned movie scenes have been substituted for the captivatingly charming du Maurier scenes.’ And so on for six pages. (See: MEMO FROM DAVID O SELZNICK.) But what was this early draft like? Chances are good that in tone, style & attitude, if not in plot, it was much like SUSPICION, wilder, stranger, infinitely more Hitchcockian. No wonder he put his own dog in the cast!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

KIMI TO WAKARETE / APART FROM YOU (1933)

Small, but beautifully observed late-silent from Mikio Naruse, about a Geisha mom who’s aging out of clients at work, and worried about a High Schooler son at home who’s falling in with a bad crowd of delinquent youths. In fact, he’s been skipping class for weeks, partly thru a lack of direction and partly from the shame of being a single-parent son of a ‘Geisha-Slut.’ Worse, he’s got a bit of a crush on his mom’s best friend at work, a younger Geisha who finds her job degrading, but keeps at it as the sole earner for her parents & siblings. The film’s short running time doesn’t keep it from working up considerable interest, especially during a bittersweet sequence that takes the son & the young Geisha to her seaside hometown, where hope curdles with the tide; and in simply letting us see the mix of traditional & modern (read: Western) cultures clashing on every street corner & in the background of every location shot. Though a lack of tidy resolutions and an emphasis on character over plot, may limit the film’s appeal, you needn’t be a Naruse completest to find it unexpectedly moving.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Naruse, already a seasoned master after three years & a score of films, does have an Achilles heel in his technical armor: overusing fast dolly shots to Push-In to Close-Ups for all sorts of dramatic emphasis. In the ‘60s & ‘70s, he’d have gone Zoom Crazy! Too bad he didn’t toss one at the gang members with their leather jackets & slouch caps. Too cool, Daddy-O, too cool.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1942)

No, not that A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, there’s no Titanic in sight. Instead, a sort of Dark & Stormy Haunted House of Screwball Murder Mystery, with Loretta Young & Brian Aherne as newlyweds just moving into a two-room flat (plus garden) at 13 Gay St. in Greenwich Village. (Real street, by the way.) Turns out they’re early, so the lights aren’t on, but blackmail & murder is running rampant! A delightful situation for Aherne’s murder mystery author, always hunting up his next plot. (No doubt, Columbia was hunting up a new Nick & Nora Charles/THIN MAN Series!) These slapsticky farces can turn dumb & tired pretty quick, but little remembered helmer Richard Wallace keeps everyone light on their toes & doesn’t oversell the hoary physical gags. There’s a real sense of silly fun here, even a couple of nifty scares, thanks to Joseph Walker’s spooky low-key noir lensing. Plus, witty music cues from Werner Heymann that support, rather than simply Mickey Mouse, the comedy. It’s no classic, but generally leans in the right direction; no small feat. (And one that Wallace managed to good effect in comfy little pleasures like WEDDING PRESENT/’36 and YOUNG IN HEART/’38.*) The film gets so darn sensible, they even let Young & Aherne go to the cops when they’ve got something fresh to report. Imagine that! Or maybe they just wanted another chance to show Chief Detective Sidney Toler out of his Charlie Chan drag.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It’s rare to see a Hollywood version of a Manhattan two-room flat that looks more or less like a Manhattan two-room flat. Kudos to art director Lionel Banks! And kudos to whomever it was who managed to get Loretta all sooted up in the coal bin without a whiff of a follow-up BlackFace gag. All she does is wash it right off. Hurrah!

DOUBLE-BILL: *Cary Grant & a blonde Joan Bennett make WEDDING PRESENT viable, but YOUNG IN HEART is even better, with a super cast and sweet Janet Gaynor hanging it up at 32.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE FIFTH ESTATE (2013)

The saga of WikiLeaks, the hotly debated internet disclosure portal for government secrets, went from news-(back)story-of-the-decade to who-cares indifference by the time this Bill Condon film came out. What the heck happened? Old news? Lack of star power? Or did we never notice it was gone . . . or ever been around? A more likely answer is that Condon gussies up his material with so much obfuscating visual style and sotto voce dialogue mumbling, it’s all but impossible to follow the action; so worried about losing his audience with a dry run-thru of events, he overcompensates with technical dazzle when he should be clarifying action, characters & general import. As WikiLeaks head Julian Asssange, Benedict Cumberbatch comes off as such a self-regarding arrogant creep, you can’t imagine him gaining anyone’s trust, let alone a cult following. While his erstwhile partner, Daniel Brühl, makes no impression at all, a blob. (For a giddy moment or two, you think Laura Linney just might be playing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Alas, she’s just a career State Department sort. Sigh.) Midway into the third act, the story focus narrows to follow the huge cache of US military info WikiLeaks got from Pvt. Bradley Manning and Condon figures he can drop the Attention Deficit direction without losing our interest. He’s right, the personalities & drama suddenly take hold. But it’s too little, too late.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In the ‘70s, paranoid political thrillers were a genre unto themselves. Richard Condon (no relation to Bill) wrote the screwiest, never more so than his JFK Conspiracy slapstick-thriller WINTER KILLS/’79.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

PRISONERS (2013)

Inexplicably overbuzzed serial-killer/abduction thriller from Denis Villeneuve tries for a deep-think vibe by adding an hour of running time to what is essentially a standard-issue PBS Mystery episode (think INSPECTOR LEWIS or WALLANDER). Don’t be fooled. This sobersided dirge-like detective tale doesn’t miss a story beat: Red Herrings; Emergency phone calls that keep us from getting that pivotal clue; Convenient police inaction; And a go-it-alone cop who won’t even put the lid back on a box of slithering snakes. It all starts with the disappearance of Hugh Jackman & Terrence Howard’s cute daughters. Jackman is an Iron Man/survivalist sort who, thinking detective Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t getting the truth out of main suspect Paul Dano, kidnaps him for a bit of ‘enhanced interrogation.’ The plot more or less falls apart when Howard & his wife (Viola Davis) join in Dano's torture rather than call the cops, but Villeneuve needs to keep the narrative ball rolling. Meantime, Gyllenhaal peals back layers of complication, getting closer to the truth. If only he could properly search a house or follow a suspect. Yet, it’s possibly the best work of Gyllenhaal's career, with a commanding presence previously unsuspected, brought off without the grandstanding Jackson falls back on.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try the first film in the RED RIDING TRILOGY/’09 (IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1974) to see this sort of thing done with a real bit of originality & flair.

Monday, June 16, 2014

MAGIC TOWN (1947)

Having written most of the classic Frank Capra pics of the ‘30s, Robert Riskin turned his own MR. DEEDS template on its head for his sole film as producer/writer. Instead of tossing a small town hick into the Big City, he spots James Stewart’s city slicker in Norman Rockwell-ville, lightly tweaking familiar relationships & life-lessons in a story arc of splashy entry, fast fall and last-minute revival. It doesn’t come off, especially with William Wellman fumbling the ball as director.* But it does hold a certain Bizarro World fascination until it collapses in a Capra-corn mash-up finale. (Riskin even lifts the kiddie army out of Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON/’39, written not by him, but by Sidney Buchman.) The plot gimmick finds Stewart (along with character pals Donald Meek & Ned Sparks in swansong appearances) discovering a statistically perfect homespun American town and planning to milk it by selling incredibly accurate opinion polls to political & commercial firms without having to canvas thousands of folks all across the country. But the plan can only succeed if the town stays just as it is and if the residents never figure out how they’re being used. Naturally, love, hubris & corruption (civil & commercial) poison the well, while the film withers from a lack of chemistry between a starchy Jane Wyman and Stewart soft-soaping the necessary tough exterior. Actually, the most interesting character in the pic is Kent Smith’s High School teacher, an old army pal of Stewart. But his potential as possible romantic rival & townie manipulator is underdeveloped, along with too much else in here.

DOUBLE-BILL: Riskin licked his wounds by writing MISTER 880/’50, a tiny charmer about detective Burt Lancaster tracking down the world’s worst (yet most elusive) counterfeiter (Edmund Gwenn).

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Here’s Wellman: ‘I wish I never started it. It stunk! It’s not my kind of film . . . and if you think MAGIC TOWN has anything good about it at all. There’s something wrong with you.’ Check out Joe McBride’s FRANK CAPRA: THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS (pg 506-507) for the sad little story. And the whole book for a sad big story.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992)

You can always count on director Michael Mann to deliver less than he promises. This one gets by better than most, even if the years have revealed every narrative seam. Still, thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis’s focus & sheer glamour as Hawkeye (frontiersman of modern morality & the only guy without a period accent), you may not notice (or care about) the defects. (You are likely to notice the lack of sharp image on the current Director’s Cut DVD. Interlaced transfer?) The adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel on the French/Indian/British war of the 1750s offers fine villains (Wes Studi’s vengeful Huron warrior; Patrice Chéreau’s witty, ambivalent French officer) and passionate love interest from Madeleine Stowe (posing as Parker Posey), but only the saturated color and the sweeping action (Mann manages to make massacres of British regiments pretty as a Watteau) have a shot at holding your attention next to Day-Lewis's tour-de-force animal magnetism. Faults and all, the film is irresistible.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The much admired score from Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones has a pleasing Irish flavor to it (along with those ubiquitous Pan Pipes) that’s neither English, French, Colonial nor Native American. Catchy, though.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

QUEST FOR FIRE (1982)

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s prehistoric fable is a self-conscious elaboration on Stanley Kubrick’s famous prologue from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY/’68. In the earlier film, a prehistoric donnybrook between a couple of prehistoric tribes leads to a prehistoric intellectual leap: the first prehistoric mallet! Used not for good (like beating a tattoo on a hollow log), but for amplified power as a lethal weapon! Ah, progress. Here, a trio of our early before-fathers are sent off to bring back a fresh source of fire. It’s a dangerous journey, with a motley, not to say unfriendly!, assortment of homo-sapiens, Neanderthals, & missing link types they must battle along the way. And keep an eye out for all the hungry beasts, extant & extinct! Entertaining on its own terms, it’s over-extended compared to Kubrick’s two-reel quick-step; and Annaud’s filmmaking technique keeps coming up short, missing crucial shots to help link the action together. Worse, the story never makes good on its implied mission. Instead, the eureka moment shows one member of our intrepid band of three, along with the noisome female they rescued on the way, closely observing a prehistoric fire-maker who uses the spinning stick method. No actual discovery of anything. (Well, one lucky traveler does discover the missionary position.) Kind of anti-climatic. Fortunately, Annaud isn’t hopelessly serious about it all and lightens things up with various prehistoric laughs, usually involving someone else in pain or someone else having sex. Gags that haven’t aged a day . . . or a few thousand millennium.

DOUBLE-BILL: The first twenty minutes of 2001.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Claude Agostini’s lensing rarely captures the wonder Annuad is going for, but Philippe Sarde’s pseudo avant-garde score, heavily influenced by some of the wilder classical music in 2001, is often very effective in its attention-getting way.

Friday, June 13, 2014

ROCKY MOUNTAIN (1950)

The last of three mid-sized Westerns tossed at Errol Flynn toward the end of his years @ Warners is taut, downbeat & serious, an unlikely effort from William Keighley who usually helmed lighter things. Set near the end of the Civil War, Flynn is leading a handful of men on a fool’s errand, hoping to start up trouble in California with help from a hard to find rebel leader. But the plans are interrupted when the men come to the defense of a stagecoach being attacked by Indians and wind up saving Patrice Wymore (shortly Mrs. Errol Flynn) whose engagement to a Union officer is sure to bring an army of rescuers, a Union Army. Stuck in the Nevada/California desert with no way out, Flynn’s only chance is to use the pretty Ms Wymore as bait for a trap. Handsomely shot by Ted McCord in some of the most haunting landscape this side of Monument Valley, the film largely avoids taking the easy way out, even if Alan Le May's screenplay falls back on too much voice-over narration to set things up (forgivable), and makes the usual implacable villains of faceless savage Indians (less forgivable). But very much worth a look, especially for some demonstration worthy horsemanship which doesn’t call attention to itself (look for Slim Pickens back when he was Slim Pickens), and a great little dog companion.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

HOM RONG / THE OVERTURE (2004)

No doubt this is the first film about the ranad ek, a traditional Thai music instrument something like a small xylophone set in a wooden hammock. (Lionel Hampton, with his double-mallet grip, would have loved it.) A fact-inspired drama built around the life of ranad ek master Luang Pradit Pairoh, called Sorn in the film, the story bounces back & forth between early years when his obvious talents were jeopardized by a rebellious attitude; and late years as an honored teacher & statesman when he took a stand against government modernization codes that used military force to ban native classical music.* Luckily, the culture, history & music, barely known in the West, holds enough interest to ride out a by-the-numbers treatment from director Ittisoontorn Vichailak. And the time shifts, meant to enliven the clichés, only make the personal relationships less involving, even confusing. A son comes home from study abroad with a piano & a jazz influenced style of playing, but since this relationship is new to the film, the pay off when Dad finds a bit of a groove on his ranad ek is weightless. It’s like that all thru the film, and no amount of speedy tracking shots into Close-Ups can hide the impersonal tone. Though it does allow Vichailak to show off Anuchit Sapanpong, the model-worthy young man with an Audrey Hepburn neck who plays young Sorn.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *A more positive sign of cultural modernization is the reduction in betel nut consumption that blackens the teeth of so many characters in the sequences set during Sorn’s youth.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938) / YOUNG AT HEART (1954)

Novelist Fannie Hurst remains a vital presence not so much for her weepy novels (are they still read?), but in film adaptations made and remade over the decades. IMITATION OF LIFE/’34 & ’59; BACK STREET/ ‘32, ‘41 & ‘61; HUMORESQUE/’20 & ‘46*; and SISTER ACT which became FOUR DAUGHTERS in the late-‘30s and then YOUNG AT HEART in ‘54. John Garfield made a huge splash in the first film, as the ethnic urban outsider (read New York Jew) who dirties-up the happy, clean, WASPy family of music professor Claude Raines and his four pretty daughters. And the girls are already in a tizzy over handsome young boarder Jeffrey Lynn. Something’s gotta give! Michael Curtiz dashes thru this version, cutting sentiment with Garfield as his trump card, a personification of the dangerous, new-to-the-screen Group Theatre vibe which matches up nicely with his chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. Nowadays, since just about everyone acts this way, the frisson is less, er, frissy, though still visible in contrast to the other players.

Sixteen years on, Frank Sinatra (only a couple of years younger than Garfield would have been) is the new ethnic urban outsider (read New York Italian). Sinatra hasn’t an actor’s vibe, in fact, he hardly changes his expression all thru the pic. (He finds his key and sticks to it.) He gets his outsider status, his ‘otherness’ simply by looking like he just stepped out of a Concentration Camp. (About to record his classic downbeat IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS album, he’s got the Ava Gardner blues written all over him.) Gordon Douglas helms at half-speed compared to Curtiz, tweaking the plot into operatic ecstasies of woe. And even with one less sister we gain thirty minutes. (An improved meet-cute a plus; a cop-out ending a minus.) Meanwhile, lenser Ted McCord heightens the studio soundstage look, a picture layout straight from Good Housekeeping Magazine. The artificiality suits Doris Day as the sunny girl who drops nice Gig Young for needy, dangerous Sinatra, ghettoized by the brightness. (Frankie’s visual tour-de-force comes later, in a suicide drive.) Day was in her prime in the mid-‘50s (pace the current critical celebration of her later, labored comedies), but matches up so smoothly with Gig Young’s tunesmith that the plot mechanics (and her fashionable ‘ducktail bob’) make her more of a masochist than may have been planned.

DOUBLE-BILL: These make a self-recommending Double-Bill, loaded with matching dialogue & camera angles for an unusually revealing look at the cultural ‘givens’ before & after WWII.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Make that a very loose remake on HUMORESQUE. The original silent is presumably closer to the book. One of director Frank Borzage’s best early efforts, even with a truncated ending, the tenement apartment scenes are particularly fine with period flavor, along with some uncomfortable period stereotypes, perfectly caught. Not yet out on DVD, the best Hurst pic may be Frank Capra’s superbly handled THE YOUNGEST GENERATION/’29, one of the few ‘Part-Talkies’ to take advantage of that bastard format.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

FROZEN (2013)

Oddly enough, this newly-crowned, all-time top-grossing animated pic was also something of a stealth game-changer: Reestablishing the Disney label as equal-player alongside PIXAR and the newer computer animation companies; Shifting the traditional action focus of its story from outside threat to inside threat, and delivering it with a non-symmetrical storyline that lent its moral focus to girl-power/girl-empowerment; And, most daring of all, reviving a non-hip/non-ironic integrated musical format barely half an octave below operetta, the genre that dare not speak its name. You can feel how tough this one must have been to work out, with ‘good guys’ turning bad and a romance that moves diagonally. (Did Disney-PIXAR head-honcho John Lasseter assign THE MAGIC FLUTE as homework?) The whole thing’s a treat, especially on home videos without the 3D distraction. And if the princesses, princes, commoners & icicled beauty are hardly unprecedented creations, that winning snowman (Olaf, voiced by Josh Gad) will be showing up for years, a freshly-minted Disney sidekick worthy of following in Jiminy Cricket’s snowtracks.

DOUBLE-BILL: It comes on the DVD, the marvelous new ‘old’ Mickey Mouse short GET A HORSE/’13 (which does lose some magic sans big-screen 3D).

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Face it MAKSQUIBS, this whole Write-Up is one big STotD. Yikes!

Monday, June 9, 2014

BITE THE BULLET (1975)

Writer/director Richard Brooks’ third & final Western is a straightforward turn-of-the-last-century endurance horse-race. Set on some of the bleakest, toughest terrain imaginable, Brooks gets it up & galloping quickly, introducing each character with the broadest of strokes. Like our lead, Gene Hackman. He rides in and immediately rescues an orphaned colt whose mare was trapped for the glue factory! (No kidding, check the signage on the little wagon.) Next thing you know, the thirsty colt gets handed off to a poor, but worthy country lad. So, Hackman’s the good guy, right?* Jan-Michael Vincent’s the young punk who needs to become a man; Ben Johnson’s the old-timer with a bad ticker; Ian Bannen a Brit sportsman; James Coburn the cool professional who knows the score (even about himself); and Candace Bergen’s the token female rider who can’t quite act. (Gosh, she’s gorgeous though! But just watch those reaction shots during Hackman’s big confessional. Lord!, she took a long time to learn her trade.) So, why is the film so darn pleasurable? Somehow, someone or something got the stiff filmmaker in Brooks to loosen up. Such a big, damn handsome thing (be sure you get the new transfer) with a visual swing Brooks never showed before or after. (Was it lenser Harry Stradling, Jr.?) The old one-foot-in-front of-the-other Brooks returns in the third act for a plot twist and a misjudged Slo-Mo finale, but it hardly dims the demonstration level look of the thing and all those feel-good perfs.

DOUBLE-BILL: Brooks’ second Western, THE PROFESSIONALS/’66, shot by the great Conrad Hall, is well known, but his strange, downbeat first try, THE LAST HUNT/’56, about slaughtering herds of buffalo, has an angry, powerhouse perf from Robert Taylor worth checking out.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hackman does get the best line in the pic, answering a hooker who asks him how he likes it with a laconic ‘without conversation.’

Saturday, June 7, 2014

SUPERMAN II (1980; 2006)

Sometime during the roll-out of SUPERMAN/’78, its slippery international producers finagled just enough cast and crew changes to cut costs and nip off a few unwanted profit participants. Notable amongst the missing were original director Richard Donner (replaced by Richard Lester) and Marlon Brando as a holographic SUPERDAD. New scenes and a new edit emphasized a coarser, goosiey tone, which upset the first film’s careful balance of comic book fun and gravitas. Twenty-six years later, director Donner got the chance, via producer Michael Thau, to revisit the footage and work up a semblance of his lost cut. But even with all the changes, the film still completely misses the first film’s careful balance of comic book fun and gravitas. Not that the original SUPERMAN was ever much of a classic. What it did have was a perfectly cast Christopher Reeve as Superman, and a masterful segment after the prologue, where lenser Geoffrey Unsworth spun real gold out of Superman’s Mid-Western teen years in the golden wheat farmland of foster dad Glenn Ford. Nothing comes close to that here, trading epic storylines for sloppy construction & the jokey style of a late Roger Moore James Bond pic. Except . . . except for one rather magical moment, culled from the screen test of Margot Kidder (dreadful elsewhere) and Christopher Reeve. It’s a Clark Kent/Superman ‘reveal’ scene and it’s impossible to miss the fresh, open playing they bring to Superman & Lois Lane here. Reeve, with more normal glasses & more normal hair then in the finished film, is also less beefed up, with a bit of becoming geeky, gauntness to his face. The difference is revelatory. Where did these youngsters disappear to as the grind of shooting wore on and on?

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The best part of Tom Mankewicz’s memoir, MY LIFE AS A MANKIEWICZ, who largely rewrote both SUPERMAN pics, is all about the production of these and how the sequel was taken away from Donner and reshot for contractual reasons, weakening the film, but strengthening the positions of wheeler-dealer producers Salkinds. The book came out after Mankiewicz died which may account for its unfiltered take on the whole mess. Just be wary of any Hollywood tales in the book he didn’t personally participate in.

Friday, June 6, 2014

YOYO (1965)

With a mere handful of titles to his C.V., French comedian/autuer Pierre Étaix, now in his 80s, must be thrilled to see his films lovingly restored and out on a Criterion set after legal tangles kept them hidden for decades. Showing strong influence from early French silent comedian Max Linder and from Buster Keaton (in profile Étaix looks a bit like Keaton in the ‘30s), the films are more in the mode of Jacques Tati’s observational musings by way of Fellini. But don’t worry, he wears his references lightly. In YOYO, he’s a rich sap (a bit like Keaton’s Rollo Treadway in THE NAVIGATOR/’24), who loses his fortune in three reels (shot silent-style) before adding TALK and joining the circus where an old flame and a young son await. Jumping ahead, he switches roles to play his own grown kid as YOYO the Clown. Moving forward, YOYO entertains during the war; little traveling circuses die; YOYO finds new success on tv while losing a bit of his soul & the old intimate person-to-person contact. Étaix is fine in the double role and moves the story along with playful touches and handsomely staged events. He has a particular fondness for playing off contrasts in scale, often using toy-like models for a gag. What’s missing are any laughs. ANY laughs. As in, not a one. Even chuckles are rare. For all its charm, the film never gets past a certain level of intellectual appreciation. It has the shape of comedy, it even has comic content, but he doesn’t quite cross over.* It’s a silhouette portrait of comedy rather than a fully fleshed out work.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Here’s an example: Hoping to end it all, the formerly rich Étaix needs a chair to jump off of. Enter repo-man; Exit chair; So much for suicide. The idea’s there, but Étaix brings neither comic impulse, rude life,nor development to the execution.


WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Happily, on the very same disk is Étaix’s follow-up pic, TANT QU’ON A LA SANTÉ (AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT YOUR HEALTH)/’66. Commercially no more successful than YOYO, it was reworked from a story film back into the series of shorts originally envisioned (with one replacement), and it’s infinitely better for the change, not afraid to get a little dirty for a laugh. A huge lift after the cultured sensibilities and sad clown aspects of YOYO. First up, a scary bedtime tale, elegant & funny; then a trip to the cinema; Modern Neurasthenic Times; and a final pastorale featuring a pair of frustrated romantic picnickers, an incompetent hunter, and a fence mender dressed a la Buster Keaton, pork pie hat and all. Perhaps Étaix is just more comfortable making shorts.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956) / ALL I DESIRE (1953)

Producer Ross Hunter and director Douglas Sirk starred Barbara Stanwyck in two of their signature melodramas. And if the first, ALL I DESIRE, is hobbled by a fudged story element, THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW is prime Sirk, a key work that should be as well known as the TechniColor masterpieces that surround it. It’s a women’s picture, as the genre used to be called, but with a male in the central spot. That’d be Fred MacMurray, family man with a lovely wife (Joan Bennett), three great kids, nice home, thriving business, yet always Fifth Wheel at home. Mid-Life crisis, Ho! Enter old flame, dynamic NYC businesswoman Barbara Stanwyck. He falls hard; she thinks about it; wife hasn’t a clue, just a knowing confidence & perfect contentment; kids think they know the score. Parsing the emotional/psychological landscape thru a perfect control of the mise-en-scène, Sirk, working with D.P. Russell Metty, is ever the master, with half-answers and half-resolutions stunningly realized.

If only the same could be said of ALL I DESIRE, which is paired with it on a Stanwyck DVD Collection. Here, Babs is having the Mid-Life crisis, going to her old hometown after a dozen years on the stage. Turns out, she left before a scandal broke involving loyal hubby Richard Carlson & impulsive lover Lyle Bettger. But with no chemistry between these three, it’s hard to care. Nothing much between her and the three kids she left behind, either. But the deal killer is with the youngest kid, nicely played by young Billy Ray. Mom’s a stranger to him, but not her old secret lover, Bettger. He’s like a second father. DING-DING-DING!! Right!, that’s the missing link. Bettger's the father! Or should be for the sake of the narrative. The whole story clicks into place if Bettger was the kid’s secret father. And cuckold Carlson knew it, but raised the kid as his own, anyway. Alas, someone (censors?, Universal execs?, Stanwyck?) nixed the idea . . . and killed the film.

DOUBLE-BILL: Casting Fred MacMurray as the unfaithful exec in Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT/’60 seemed to come out of the blue. More likely, it came out of THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

LE CERVEAU / THE BRAIN (1969)

At their best, the slapsticky comedies of Gérard Oury combine mess with delicacy, surviving their low hit-or-miss ratio by blithely ignoring it; another gag is always on the way. Classic comedy structure (Do It Right; Do It Wrong; Do It Funny) or demonstrating a compound gag before its collapse, isn’t the Oury way. Instead, routines play out all-in-one, with little care or pride in letting us see the thing happen, as a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton would have insisted. It’s all impossible stunts, illogical continuity and sleight-of-hand editing. But in the right mood, once softened up for his brand of silliness, he can sometimes get you laughing helplessly. This one gets about halfway there. It’s your basic train robbery comic caper with David Niven’s gang planning to repeat an infamous British heist in France. Jean-Paul Belmondo & Bourvil are low-level cons trying to horn in on the job; and Eli Wallach, hilarious as an over-protective Sicilian mob guy, is there to watch over his sexed-up little sister and grab what he can. Oury really gets his action mojo in gear for the big caper, even the lame gags start to work. Rare for the genre, it’s a handsome looking thing; like a Blake Edwards’ pic of the era. And dig the ‘Swingin’ ‘Sixties’ Carnaby Street opening with a title song loaded with groovy lyrics and ‘false’ rhymes that are a gas-gas-gas.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Olive Films offers a fine DVD of the French release which runs about a reel and a half longer then the English-language version filmed at the same time. Wallach seems to be doing his own French & Sicilian while Niven, who was living in France, definitely does his own talking. He’s fluent, but speaks with the most appalling British accent. So bad, you can understand him.

Monday, June 2, 2014

DIE VIER UM DIE FRAU / FOUR AROUND A WOMAN (1921)

Fritz Lang’s second collaboration with scenarist Thea von Harbou (later his wife) furthers her penchant for overloaded melodramatic claptrap (see: DAS WANDERNDE BILD/’20), but also displays Lang’s rapidly-maturing visual mastery. (His next pics were DESTINY/’21 and the astonishing leap of DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER/’22.*) Here, the story elements, even with the familiar Harbou hysteria, have a Langian ring to them as late-blooming marital love is tested under rumors of past infidelity. It all has something or other to do with a mysterious engagement night that left her tied-and-bound in bed while a thief sped off in the night. But what’s with those sleazy currency counterfeiters; the illegal diamond exchange that pilfers large rubies during luncheon trysts; a reappearing long-lost brother; or half of the cast spying on the other half? All the ingredients of a nightmarish Langian fever-dream, but minus the control needed to make sense of it. This long missing title barely survived, a single print was found in Brazil, with missing chunks of footage and its own Brazilian titles, now reverse-translated back into German & English. (Perhaps the original cut held together better.) In spite of its provenance, the elements prove quite watchable, a sharp image with minimal ‘blasting’ balanced against emulsion scratches & the expected odd continuity jump. Hard as it is to crack as a conventional story, its intimations of future work, impressive production values and visual swing make it a must for Lang completists.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Rather than DESTINY, skip ahead to MABUSE which has more visual & thematic elements in common with this one.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

THE LADY GAMBLES (1949)

Barbara Stanwyck never quite lost the harsh edge she acquired on Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44. Something about that nasty blonde wig never came off. But she certainly found a-hundred-and-one uses for this new, tougher personality. Here, it’s addiction. Not the ever popular struggles with drugs and/or alcohol, but gambling. And, daringly so, legal gambling as much as off-the-books stuff, played out in the shiny new attraction that was Las Vegas in the late ‘40s. Babs is there with writer husband Robert Preston. But while he’s working articles on the Hoover Dam, she gets drawn into the gambling racket by darkly compelling floor manager Stephen McNally. And she’d probably have kept her incipient addiction under control if only she weren’t so good at the game. Playing out largely in flashback after Stanwyck takes a particularly nasty back-alley pummeling, the typically hot-and-cold direction of Michael Gordon runs the gamut from routine to self-consciously clever right up to an unconvincing epilogue which wraps things up with a speedy all-in-one psychological explanation. But what keeps the film in your head is personal chemistry, or a lack thereof: Stanwyck’s near aversion from good guy Preston and her natural bond with McNally’s bad guy. Gordon seems aware of the problem, but is unable to follow up on its possibilities. Meantime, look fast for an early bit from bellhop ‘Anthony’ Curtis.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Betting fever was hot in ‘49 with Robert Siodmak adapting Dostoevsky’s THE GAMBLER as THE GREAT SINNER. It’s no success, but has its moments; especially in a tiny unforgettable bit from Ethel Barrymore. Or, to see Babs & Preston working in harmony, try C. B. DeMille’s UNION PACIFIC/’39.