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Thursday, July 31, 2014

THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

George Clooney’s big old-fashioned WWII adventure pic is pretty lousy. Not because it’s old-fashioned moviemaking, but because it’s bad old-fashioned moviemaking.* The motivating idea isn’t so much its fascinating story of art experts buddied up as a military unit and going off to Europe to search out & defend Western art treasures at war’s end. No, it’s more like Clooney ‘jonesing’ to direct & star in a middle-aged THE GREAT ESCAPE/’64. But like so much of his work, as actor as well as director, everyone on screen is having all the fun while the audience never gets past the celebrity rope line. Poor composer Alexander Desplat, charged with finding a jaunty theme to match Elmer Bernstein’s famous GREAT ESCAPE tag, at least has the decency to let some embarrassment show. Something you can’t say about Bill Murray’s distracting self-indulgence; the disposable use of top-billed foreign-born co-stars; camera set-ups you can't edit into a simple apartment conversation; or Clooney’s galling filch from the end of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN/’98 so he can give his pop a cornball cameo.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Burt Lancaster & Paul Scofield burn up the screen covering similar terroir in John Frankenheimer’s assured WWII nail-biter THE TRAIN/’64.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Clooney’s other directorial efforts (IDES OF MARCH/’11; LEATHERHEADS/’08; GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK/’05; CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND/’02), display lots of ambition & good intentions, but who grades on effort & Hollywood Glamour? (LOL)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

STARS IN MY CROWN (1950)

A slice of pastoral Americana from an unlikely source, noir and psychological-horror master Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST/’47; CAT PEOPLE/’42). In truth, folksy backwoods bucolic stumps him at first, but the film gathers interest as it goes along, smoothly building up dramatic angles without overselling the small town epiphanies. Joel McCrea’s the new preacher in town, an ex-Civil War soldier not ashamed to flaunt a gun or dirty his hands to get the job done. Before long, he’s found a no-nonsense match in Ellen Drew and informally adopted her orphaned nephew (Dean Stockwell). Over the course of a hazy summer, a new Doc tries to fill his father’s beloved shoes (James Mitchell angry & off-key); an outbreak of typhoid will test the conflicting beliefs of Doctor & Pastor; and the town’s favorite black ‘uncle’ (Juano Hernandez) will be under pressure to sell his property for a new mineral mine. Tourneur finds his groove in the second half, when the mood darkens with sickness running thru town and that kindly cracker-barrel crowd turning up in costume as the KKK, fixin’ for a lynching. The big showdown is at once inspiring, patronizing, powerful & all too happy to let villains off the hook. Oh, those charitable Christians, what won’t they forgive next. It’s really an awfully nice film. Now, on to the next hymn.

DOUBLE-BILL: This is really John Ford or Henry King territory. Specifically Ford, with an opening that might be a MidWest HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41, then quickly turning to a couple of pics Ford made with Will Rogers: DR. BULL/’33, for the typhoid outbreak, and the Irwin Cobb adaptation, JUDGE PRIEST/’34, which Ford loosely remade as THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT/'53 largely to include its anti-lynching climax. Though that film's Charles Winniger, no more than this film's Joel McCrea, gets close to Rogers’ slo-mo populist magic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With Amanda Blake as the new doc’s love interest and James Arness as Alan Hale's oldest son, STARS is a veritable GUNSMOKE ‘pre-union.’

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947)

Comedian & B’way performer Danny Kaye spent his first three pics making retrofit Eddie Cantor vehicles for Samuel Goldwyn, the indie producer who brought them both to Hollywood almost two decades apart. Wildly successful at the time, the films now look awfully forced, surviving on a thread of specialty routines featuring Kaye’s musical mimicry. But this fourth film, an adaptation/expansion of James Thurber’s famous short-short story, is a good deal better. Or is until they work up a real-life adventure to augment Mitty’s fanciful daydreams. The basic idea makes Mitty a pulp fiction writer at a big publishing house where his overactive imagination finds good use; a nifty idea, and one that Thurber didn’t seem to object to.* But once they wedge Mitty into a spy/assassination tale, the whole point of the story gets lost. Worse, the plotting turns dumb & lazy. Still, the outline is there and the dream sequences are a gorgeous hoot, filmed in demonstration-worthy TechniColor by Lee Garmes, along with some amazingly convincing process/backscreen trick shots from John Fulton. And Kaye’s mastery of solfeggio (all that musical tongue-twisting) is quite astounding. Was it shot ‘live?’

DOUBLE-BILL: Ben Stiller’s recent MITTY/’13 (not seen here; a $100 mill vanity project?) didn’t catch on, instead try John Schlesinger’s BILLY LIAR/’63 (with Tom Courtenay & Julie Christie). No official connection to the Thurber, but much closer in spirit. And look for BOOK REVUE/’46 (in various Looney Tunes collections) to see a faux ‘40s animated Kaye in excelsis.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *You can read up on scripter Ken Englund’s collaboration with Thurber in Max Wilk’s compendium, THE WIT AND WISDOM OF HOLLYWOOD. Thurber was particularly unhappy about losing two dream sequences. One involving Mitty’s death by firing squad(!) and a sort of Irish INFORMER tale with Kaye singing ‘Molly Malone’ straight. (He also recorded it ‘straight,’ and very nicely done.) Both segments apparently survive in the Goldwyn vault.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

NAVRAT ZTRACENEHO SYNA / RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON (1967)

A sanatorium tale from Evald Schorm, very Czech New Wave, made during the run up to the brief Prague Spring of 1968, until Alexander Dubček’s reforms were crushed by Soviet tanks. Yet, even before that smothering political put-down, there’s no sense of freedom, only modern angst-ridden worries, and the film plays out as one more all-too familiar allegorical mental hospital drama. Here, a young man tries to recover from a suicide attempt, an act presented as a self-indulgence for someone who has so much: wife, child, helpful parents, good job. But each time he gains early release from the facility, something sets him off and it’s back for more treatment from his decidedly nonchalant shrink, plus extra attention from his (nymphomaniacal?) wife. So . . . um . . . er, the message is . . . Czech Society chomping at democracy’s bit, but not quite ready for freedom? Alas, that really does seem to be the idea. And while Schrom has a fine eye for strong compositions (lots of frames within frames within frames) the grainy realism and natural lighting become something of a drag after a while. And, with so much repetitive behavior, you long to shake somebody up just to see what might happen.

DOUBLE-BILL: Everybody seemed to be in mental institutions in the mid-‘60s. You might try Jean Seberg & Warren Beatty in Robert Rossen’s LILITH/’64 though any decent cinema shrink would advise against it.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

RICH AND STRANGE (EAST OF SHANGHAI) (1931)

After a striking Talkie debut on BLACKMAIL/’29, Alfred Hitchcock took some odd turns before finding his voice with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’34. (Credit producer Michael Balcom with the assist.) But from that brief wilderness period, this rather intriguing mess of a film seems to have caught Hitch’s imagination. RICH shows up via an early inheritance that lets a bored married couple take off on a world cruise where they soon become STRANGE to each other. HE falling under the spell of a venal adventuress who says she’s a Princess. SHE turning a confirmed, old bachelor into a lovesick pup. You keep expecting to hear someone singing Cole Porter’s ‘At Long Last Love,’ the one that asks if it’s ‘the good turtle soup, or merely the mock?’ Then, in something of a structural coup, the story draws down to a fourth act that dumps shipboard romance with a return focus on the warily reunited couple. Technically, the film is unexpectedly shabby, yet full of imaginative touches, especially when Hitch ignores early sound technology and simply shoots silent. The opening half-reel might be a UFA Expressionist piece. Largely written by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, the film easily rewards looking past a lot of awkwardly staged moments, especially for Joan Barry as the wife. A near ringer for Madeline Carroll of THE 39 STEPS/’35, she dubbed the vocals for Anny Ondra in BLACKMAIL and might be considered the first classic Hitchcock blonde, if this weren’t such atypical Hitchcock. (For a change, most Public Domain DVDs are pretty watchable.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

MR. LUCKY (1943)

As an ex-pat Cockney gambling ‘promoter’ Damon Runyon might have recognized in this wartime dramedy, Cary Grant runs a double scam: dodging the draft with a dead man’s I.D.; and seducing a society dame to fleece the gambling den at her charity ball. Two things get in the way: the dead guy turns out to be overdue on a jail term; and then Cary goes all patriotic with the society loot, turning good-guy against his wiseguy pals. It’s a neat set-up, with imaginative megging from H. C. Potter and ultra-swank lensing from George Barnes. What keeps the film from having a higher profile is its leading lady, Laraine Day. She’s pleasant enough, shiny & wholesome, but, without a trace of glamour or mystery, no match for Cary. Worse, she knows it and overcompensates by trying too hard. It makes some of the already alarming tie/castration gags even more uncomfortable. (As Grant’s comic sidekick, Alan Carney is equally weak.) A pity since the film has a lot going for it, especially when Grant, almost impossibly attractive here, demonstrates a bit of beginner’s Cockney rhyming slang. (Real Cockney slang is much harder to figure out since they drop the rhyming word.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Grant must have enjoyed working with Potter since they reteamed on the smoothly funny MR. BLANDINGS BUILD HIS DREAM HOUSE/’48 with Myrna Loy a fine match as Mrs. Blandings.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The catchy but uncredited tune Grant’s always whistling is the Dietz/Schwartz classic ‘Something to Remember You By,’ familiar to fans of THE BAND WAGON/’53 as a background chorale at that film's classic post-debacle party.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

LOST HORIZON (1937)

Inundated by digital restorations, director’s cuts and instant access, movie mavens never had it so good. (Certainly never better at home. Back at the Multi-Plex, a less attractive universe.) And for those who look more to the past, the birth of the preservation revolution can be pegged to three high profile reconstructions, curated in the ‘70s & ‘80s out of compromised, hard-won sources: Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON/’27; George Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN/’54 and Frank Capra’s LOST HORIZON/’37. Each mutilated by their own panicked producers after commercially disappointing initial runs with 20 or more minutes of trimmed material purposefully destroyed to avoid any artistic second guessing. More resurrection than restoration, their second-coming premieres were very big deals in a way now hard to imagine. NAPOLEON and STAR selling out Radio City Music Hall and HORIZON @ the then Graumann’s Chinese Theater. So, huzzahs to the restoration pioneers. (And to the hardy audiences who bought the tix!) Of the three, Capra’s pic is the most problematic both as a film and as a restoration.* A woozy anti-war fable that plants a motley group of Caucasian stragglers from strife-torn China into Shangri-La, a timeless paradise that plays out like a White Man’s Burden fantasy, set in a sort of International Style Hollywood estate meant for the Barcelona World’s Fair. With a society that’s like a benevolent Mini-British Raj where culturally advanced Euro-types wisely rule over happy, laboring Asiatic Peasants. How Capra, with his Sicilian chip-on-the-shoulder/underdog background, failed to pick up on author James Hilton’s paean to class-divided purgatory is the one true mystery in the film. Fortunately, he manages some excitement, especially in the prologue and, with a magnificent understated perf from Ronald Colman, staves off self-destruction from sheer silliness. (Not so of the far more disastrous ‘73 musical remake.) Or does until the wrap, a Hail Mary pass even Capra couldn’t make. (Hey! It's another unintentional double-take review! Check out our thoughts from six years back.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Ronald Colman’s second go at James Hilton was in RANDOM HARVEST/’42, a gasp-worthy amnesia weepie. Absurd as it is, the cast, direction and plush, studio-bound M-G-M æsthetic are so all-of-a-piece, the damn thing is positively irresistible.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *While the soundtrack for the original 132 minute running time was intact, visual gaps remain, filled in with pan-and-scanned production stills. That’s okay, as are the grain variations sourced from different surviving prints. But restoration techniques have come a long way since chief restorer Robert Gitt worked his wonders. Hopefully, the inevitable Blu-Ray release will take a fresh look at everything.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ORLACS HANDE / THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)

Robert Weine’s directing credit on THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI/‘20, that paradigm of German Cinematic Expressionism, has long seemed its most expendable creative element. An idea largely confirmed by his work on this oft-made, irresistible story about a famed concert pianist who loses his hands in a train crash, has experimental surgery to graft on a couple of replacements, than finds himself fighting for digital control only to discover that the matched pair came from a freshly executed murderer! And that the little darlings at the end of his arms have somehow retained a mind & a will of their own. Talk about muscle memory! But Weine makes everyone sleepwalk thru the story as if he were filming CALIGARI II. But without that film’s abstract designs & weird 2-dimensional scenery flats, along with its grotesque carnival air, his painfully stiff staging quickly turns soporific. The film might have been made in 1918. Things pick up a bit toward the end when a fresh murder leads to a series of shocking confessions & explanations (Hercule Poiret might have been stumped), but even Conrad Veidt’s onanistic wrist-wrestling and a recent film restoration out on KINO can’t bring this one to life.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Instead, try MAD LOVE/’35, where German cinema exiles Karl Freund & Peter Lorre do their bit for the Orlac story. It’s an uneven, but memorable pic, with Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) as an overwrought Orlac and striking visual intimations of CITIZEN KANE/’41.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

RIO GRANDE (1950)

The last entry in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy is often considered a bit of a weak sister next to the formal beauties of FORT APACHE/’48 and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON/’49. But its looser, less structured form holds different pleasures and it’s probably more helpful to think of it as companion piece to its immediate predecessor, the amiable WAGON MASTER/’50, another under-appreciated Ford Western.* John Wayne, still long, lean & handsome working under his own thinning hair, is the Army Colonel trying to put down an Indian revolt near the Mexican border. His son (a very fine 16-yr-old Claude Jarman) has joined the regiment after flunking out of West Point, and now Wayne’s estranged wife, a perfectly cast Maureen O’Hara, shows up to try and buy their son out of his enlistment. While the action simmers on the back burner, the film spends most of its time & energy on horsemanship, comic army routines and a heckuva lot of singing. (Four-part harmony from the Sons of the Pioneers.) Sometimes Ford can feel as if he’s treading water with these asides, dawdling for his own amusement, but here, the gags, stunts & songs take on the natural rhythm of army life. (The neatly-paced comic stuff is LOL funny.) And the same unforced quality holds when the action kicks in for the last act. With a surprisingly strong emotional pull from the double family dynamic of home life & army life, it makes for a lovely film. (NOTE: South of the Border, the Rio Grande River is called Rio Bravo, as per our poster. No connection with the John Wayne/Howard Hawks film from 1959.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *Ben Johnson, back in support here and offering some breathtaking horsemanship nearly matched by Harry Carey, Jr and a game Claude Jarman, got a rare leading role in WAGON MASTER.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

WOOING P. L. TRAVERS is more like it. This somewhat over-celebrated bio-pic about a somewhat over-celebrated musical only delivers on its promise at the very end when our stubborn, disagreeable author unexpectedly finds herself emotionally overwhelmed at the Hollywood Premiere of her own MARY POPPINS, a film not much to her liking. Even here, after a film’s worth of flip-flop flashbacks to Travers’ Australian youth, director John Lee Hancock needlessly underscores the author’s thoughts with specific mini-flashbacks to the tough Aussie childhood Travers spent decades creatively mining and distancing herself from. And this lack of trust in letting an audience make connections on their own is largely the style he holds to all thru the pic, leading us by the nose much like one of those second-rate Disney pics from the period covered. (Note a poster for BABES IN TOYLAND/’61 standing as silent warning in the background when Travers first arrives at the Disney Studio campus.) Tom Hanks glad-hands his way around the film’s whitewashed Disney, but Bradley Whitford does standout work as an increasingly desperate film producer. Oddly, the period recreations of early ‘60s California and turn-of-the-last-century Australia come off as charmless and unconvincing. A problem equally true of the little girl who plays young Travers in the flashbacks; though a clean-shaven Colin Farrell as her father does his best work in years. (Sans stubble, and with a touch of age creeping up around the eyes, he gains empathy as well as facial mobility.) Still, without Emma Thompson as POPPIN’s nearly impossible author, the film would be as pointless as MARY POPPINS/’64 without the pungent note of vinegar Julie Andrews dosed on her practically, perfect nanny.

DOUBLE-BILL: Might as well see how old MARY POPPINS is holding up in its 2014 digital restoration. (Maybe one of these clean-up jobs will let Dick Van Dyke redub his infamous Cockney accent.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

LES MAUDITS / THE DAMNED (1947)

René Clément’s tenuous hold on the list of major French helmers is largely supported by two titles, FORBIDDEN GAMES/’52 and PURPLE NOON/’60. And while neither quite lives up to its shining rep, Clément can usually be counted on to find some tight corners (narratively & literally) that at least let him show his impressive technical chops. Here he does it working inside the restrictive confines of a German U-Boat with much help from lenser Henri Alekan. It’s a near foolproof WWII endgame story as a small submarine crew leaves Oslo with a handful of Nazi officers, plus a few high-ranking officials, relatives & lovers, for a relocation trip to South America. Trouble calls when an injured passenger needs a doctor, leading to a quick stop to kidnap doctor Henri Vidal. There’s not a lot of surprises in this sort of thing, but Clément still manages to drop the ball on some promising set ups. The best one has the good doc raising the stakes on a crew member with a sore throat, claiming the guy’s contagious and hoping a growing quarantine might lead to a divide-and-conquer escape path. But nothing comes of this, or from four or five other plans. And they don’t so much fail as drift off. Frustrating. The story still largely comes off (foolproof, natch), with excellent atmosphere and a fine lead in the handsome M. Vidal who’d be better known had he not died young from a heart attack. And look for Michel Auclair as an amoral, bi-sexual opportunistic schemer. A decade later he’d play the Parisian Existentialist philosopher Audrey Hepburn goes to Paris to meet in FUNNY FACE/’57.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Is this the only WWII sub drama (ever) that doesn’t call on those distinctive sonar ‘Ping-Ping-Ping’ echos?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

OVERLORD (1975)

Admirable, if modest to a fault, WWII drama about a young British conscript prepping for the Normandy invasion. An art-house pic, but one that hits all those typical recruit’s rite-of-passage clichés : Drills; Drinks; De-Virgination; Duty; Dawdling; Demerits; Diary; and Touching Letter Home. With his limited cast & budget, director Stuart Cooper expanded the film’s scope with innovative use of documentary footage from the remarkable war film collection of the Imperial War Museum. Not just the occasional battle shot, but routine military-service ‘actualities’ used as ‘dailies,’ incorporated into the fabric of nearly half the film. And while some shots inevitably jar from differing film stock & grain fluctuations in the source materials, cinematographer John Alcott (Stanley Kubrick’s go-to lenser at the time, his next shoot was BARRY LYNDON/’75) does wonders with period lenses to smooth out edits & transitions. What he can’t do (what no one seems able to do), is connect with the lost attitudes of the times, a tangible element that's only more apparent when juxtaposed next to the real stuff. Cooper, and co-scripter Christopher Hudson, also errs with too many visual premonitions from our soldier-boy, daydreams of destruction, loss and death-in-battle. By the time the real action shows up, it’s anti-climatic. Worthwhile taken on its own terms, with memorable ‘found’ footage like the bizarre beach-clearing gizmos, but this war memoir sees WWII thru WWI blinders.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

STALINGRAD (2013)

You’ve got to give techo-junkie megger Fedor Bondarchuk points for chutzpah; not just anyone could have re-imagined the Battle of Stalingrad as Snow White and the 7 Patriotic Eunuchs! And in IMAX 3D! Pointlessly bookended by a modern natural catastrophe, the tale is told in flashback by a son of the teenaged girl who was protected & impregnated (don’t ask) by a cross-section of Soviet stalwarts, all holding out in an apartment building as the Germans close in. No Wicked Stepmom, instead, a shrieking Nazi Commandant who sends in forces led by a noble huntsman besotted by a blonde willowy Ruskie gal who reminds him of his deceased Aryan wife. Bondarchuk pours on CGI and digital editing tricks like a chef trying to disguise spoiled meat, but you won’t believe in a single bullet, let alone the tanks, air strikes or naval fleets that clog up the visual texture. Logic & logistics are not a Bondarchuk priority. For that matter, does he really want to compare the Nazi invasion with a natural disaster? It's all slightly appalling.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Fedor is the son of Sergey Bondarchuk, the Soviet-approved mediocrity who megged & starred in WAR AND PEACE/’67, almost certainly the most expensive film ever made. Then followed up with his English-language debut on Dino de Laurentiis’s WATERLOO/’70, a critical/commercial disaster for all concerned. How fitting that Fedor is now set to continue the tradition, following this film, and his Sci-Fi INHABITED ISLAND pics, all indifferently received outside of Russian, by prepping his English-language debut with Homer’s THE ODYSSEY! Will lightning not strike twice?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Within its limited scope, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s ENEMY AT THE GATE/’01, w/ Jude Law & Joseph Fiennes is a pretty decent, pretty exciting film on the Siege of Stalingrad. Better yet, there's Tarkovsky’s remarkable IVAN’S CHILDHOOD/’62, though it’s not set in the city.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932)

After decades of copy-cats, lifts & parody, there’s still a lot of juice & legitimate outrage in this fact-based, socially-conscious saga that set the standard for those classic Warners muckraking melodramas. Paul Muni, a WWI vet who unjustly lands in a Southern chain-gang prison, is at his considerable best in what amounts to a modern LES MISERABLES. Working without the elaborate historical getups he became known for, he instead puts out an aura of stoppered violence, holding the film at constant attention while inferring a charge of indifference at his audience. A few players still affect early Talkie mannerisms, but most of the large cast is very strong, particularly Glenda Farrell in a self-lacerating perf as a golddigging spouse. Mervyn LeRoy helms in his early, pacey manner, before success, bigger budgets & the easy life @ M-G-M stifled his better instincts. Yet much of the film’s effect undoubtedly stems from the sheer luck of coming out just as the Talkies were finding an early maturity. The lack of polish and background musical score lend a near-documentary flavor, perfectly matching the subject matter. With its lack of grandstanding, tight structure and unflinching, gasp-worthy Black-Out finale*, the film still does Hollywood proud.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In his auto-bio, LeRoy claims that a blown fuse during rehearsal suggested the visually striking last shot. Unmentioned there (or anywhere in the book), is the great cinematographer Sol Polito, responsible for shooting virtually all of LeRoy’s best work @ Warners.

DOUBLE-BILL: Oscar® tidied up their calendar year by skipping festivities in 1933, resetting eligibility dates with a year and a half’s worth of films for ‘34. And what a list of nominees! - A FAREWELL TO ARMS; SMILIN’ THROUGH; and FUGITIVE all left over from the second-half of ‘32; with 42ND STREET; LADY FOR A DAY; LITTLE WOMEN; PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII; & STATE FAIR from ‘33; along with prestige winner, CAVALCADE, Noël Coward’s UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS/DOWNTON ABBEY precursor. All that, plus Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS win for animated short.

Monday, July 14, 2014

O SOM AO REDER / NEIGHBORING SOUNDS

Out of Brazil, a debut feature from Kelber Mendonça Filho that’s simultaneously disturbing, compelling and more than a bit perplexing, long on atmosphere/short on explanation. A multi-POV portrait of a dozen or so lives in and around a condo-plex in Recife, Brazil, with a rumble of implied threat, obliquely stated, in the air. What’s troubling all these people? Mostly well-to-do, they start affairs; slip tranquilizers to howling dogs; and make courtesy calls on a paterfamilias who owns half the neighborhood but prefers country-life to the habits of his wayward heirs. Like his nephew, a rich boy with a temper who vandalizes cars to no purpose. Delivery men enter as if from another planet, welcomed as a change of pace and for the occasional bag of pot they sell with the bottled water. But first they need to get past a series of locked doors, gates & fences, briefly opened, quickly re-locked. And now, this well-ordered community is adding a private security force that looks more like a protection racket. One safeguard too many? Filho orchestrates his multiple lines of action with an easy touch, keeping up with storylines as you might with a distant relative, so that by the time you ask about a new relationship, it may already be over. While, in the film’s most daring sequence, barely seen boys from a poor favela can be heard dropping in out of trees. To what purpose? Or is the real threat something already inside the gates? Talented as Filho is, the film’s success feels a bit thin as the DVD’s accompanying short has him playing the very same card. A warning sign on things to come?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

ARAYA (1959)

Margot Benacerraf’s nearly forgotten documentary on the Araya Venezuelan salt marshes, and the locals who have ‘farmed’ them for centuries, has been rediscovered & restored for our amazement. In beautifully shot, stunningly composed monochrome, the sheer drudgery of the task (like ants working at small, repetitive tasks that fit into a larger design) is like finding a lost relic of an ancient world still functioning. The salt work begins for the men when they are still children while the labor intensive process starts by ‘cutting’ salt blocks from the floor of the marsh; followed by a series of carting, stacking, and rinsing, until they are piled up into enormous pure white saline pyramids. Living on arid land where nothing will grow, the men choose salt work or fishing in the sea, though generally follow what their fathers have done. The women of Araya run the home, care for the children, sell surplus fish in nearby towns, and cart fresh water home from visiting tanker trucks. A never-ending cycle . . . or appeared so at the time. Remarkable as this is to see, Benacerraf overloads on proletariat clichés with a narration that sounds like a parody of Hemingway in OLD MAN AND THE SEA mode, Man subduing Nature with such simple, honest labor, you half expect to spot a photog from Soviet Life Magazine standing just out of frame. And the younger salt loaders wind up looking so fit (and erotic - see poster), the film starts to feel uncomfortably like a ethnographic subject for Leni Riefenstahl (from her African studies) merged with her mythological OLYMPIA/’38 prologue, leaving a most unpleasant aftertaste.

DOUBLE-BILL: Savor ARAYA’s powerful images, then rinse off any salty residue with Albert Lamorisse’s WHITE MANE/’53, a boy-and-his-horse fable set in a similar environment.

Friday, July 11, 2014

THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947)

Something got lost when this comic-thriller went from stage (a year & a half on B’way) to screen. Under director Peter Godfrey, it goes THUD in the night. Humphrey Bogart’s a morbidly talented artist with a wife, an alarmingly precocious kid and Barbara Stanwyck as his blindsided mistress. She’s shocked to find out he’s married, but once the old wife croaks they start their own peachy-creamy life, until Alexis Smith gets all neighborly, offering herself as a new inspirational canvas for Bogie. Now, it’s Stanwyck’s turn to go all woozy after drinking the nightly glass of milk her husband brings up before beddy-bye. (People sure drank a lot of milk back in the day.) Godfrey would bring much the same Po-faced sincerity to his next film, CRY WOLF/’47, this time with Stanwyck & Errol Flynn, and a much more even tone. Here, everyone seems to lose confidence in the piece as it goes along. At least, Bogie gets to pull out all the stops in the last reel before going out with a decidedly goofy curtain line, nailing the boneheaded tone everyone’s been searching for.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For Stanwyck in hysterical invalid mode, there’s always SORRY, WRONG NUMBER/’48, though it’s not a patch on the original radio drama with Agnes Moorehead. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r5GZral6zs (Even better is the parody version of same w/ Stanwyck & Jack Benny, but it’s hard to find.)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

INDAGINE SU UN CITTADINO AL DI OGNI SOSPETO / INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970)

Now out in a spiffed up 4K restoration, Elio Petri’s award-winning/calling-card pic remains a purposefully hard nut to crack. It’s not, as you might expect, the story of a high ranking official too important to tag with a crime, but a chilly parable on behavior & consequences. A big city Head of Homicide, just upped to the Political Division, murders his mistress mid-coitus, then carefully leaves a self-revealing trail so he’ll be found out, and still get away scot-free. It’s CRIME AND NO PUNISHMENT, with an end-title quote from Kafka, though both references are misdirections, at best. If anything, it’s an up-to-the-minute Brechtian-style farce lifted to the ‘70s and translated by Dario Fo: call it ENTITLEMENT ITALIAN STYLE. To which, Petri adds an off-putting in-your-face camera technique, haranguing cascades of dialogue and a cast of characters you’d be happy to lose in a crowd. It all sounds more interesting, more accomplished than Petri, a less-than-meets-the-eye filmmaker, more provocateur than auteur, was able to make of it. Little of his small output came to the States, but INVESTIGATION retains an unlikable integrity that fitfully keeps it alive.

DOUBLE-BILL: With the same leading actor (Gian Maria Volonté) and similar concerns, Marco Bellocchio’s SLAP THE MONSTER ON PAGE ONE/’72 pivots from cops to newspapers for a more nuanced perspective on corrupt officialdom and misplaced guilt. But like Petri, Bellocchio’s Stateside rep boils down to a single film, in Bellocchio’s case his debut pic, FISTS IN THE POCKET/’65, an astonishment he could never quite live down . . . or up to. For the moment, other work is hard to find.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

BEYOND THE SECRET DOOR (1947)

The last and least of four films Fritz Lang made with Joan Bennett suffers all sorts of woes, but especially from the German director’s growing Hitchcock envy. The story structure may have been pulled out of Bela Bartok’s BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE opera, but it’s heavily seasoned with swipes out of REBECCA/’40 and SPELLBOUND/’45. Alas, something went very wrong along the way and it all plays out like some Freudian text with herky-jerky reactions from what on paper looks to be an excellent cast: Bennett; Michael Redgrave in his Stateside debut; Anne Revere; Barbara O’Neil; Natalie Schafer; and a smashing ‘off’ adolescent perf from Mark Dennis as a resentful step-son. The story sends Joan Bennett on a long trip after she comes into her inheritance. There, she recklessly meets & marries a near stranger (Redgrave) who neglects to tell her about his step son, his late wife, his financial troubles or his collection of preserved historic rooms of death and murder thru the ages. What? Yes, a little underground museum in his estate, but with one room permanently locked. What could possibly be in there? Er, Rochester’s mad wife? The whole situation is simply too bizarre to work, and Lang’s abrupt handling of his cast adds plenty of unintended guffaws. (To be fair, a new studio administration hacked away at Lang’s original cut.) Odd as this all is, and the film was a commercial & critical disaster for Lang, the goofy thing builds considerable suspense in the third act, much helped by bringing forward Miklos Rozsa compelling score. (Rozsa doesn’t call on the theremin as he did on SPELLBOUND, but something strange is going on with the instrumentation. Reversed tracks in the orchestral mix? Probably not, but that’s what it sounds like.)

DOUBLE-BILL: MAN HUNT/’41; WOMAN IN THE WINDOW/’44 and SCARLET STREET/’45 are the other Bennett/Lang pics.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

THE LONE RANGER (2013)

When a film grosses a billion dollars, it’s bound to leave a mark on its maker. And when a crap sequel, one of those titles you don’t so much want to see as want to have seen, pulls in that kind of loot, reactions can confound a career. A Catastrophe of Success of the sort that may have stymied the Wachowski Siblings when their two unloved MATRIX sequels churned out big bucks before they promptly landed in shitsville with SPEED RACER/’08; CLOUD ATLAS/’12 and possibly the newly delayed JUPITER ASCENDING.* Is this what happened on this ludicrously over-produced Western, a chillingly expensive vanity project for the star (Johnny Depp) & helmer (Gore Verbinski) of the increasingly useless (if profitable) PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series? The kicker is that these two had a charming, eccentric success with their off-kilter animated Western, RANGO/’11. Maybe the blame lies with mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, exiled off the Disney campus after this tanked. And what an odd, joyless, film they all made, as if excess, in and of itself, were funny, exciting, memorable. There’s no human contact in the thing, with Armie Hammer a near blank as the Ranger, unmemorable villains, lackluster heroine, and all the action set-pieces lifeless, laughless, suspense-free Rube Goldberg contraptions encrusted in CGI. With an ending out of Spielberg’s TINTIN/’11, plot & structure freely sampled from LITTLE BIG MAN/’70 and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST/’68, the best thing in the film is a simple little number that finds our heroes spooking the badguys with shadows & lanterns in a mine shaft. Maybe Verbinski will find the soul of his next pic in there, too.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, RANGO.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *We’re lifting the phrase, The Catastrophe of Success, from Joseph McBride’s fascinating, if overly bitter, Frank Capra bio.

Monday, July 7, 2014

MACBETH (1948)

Orson Welles tried to rejigger his fast-fade Hollywood trajectory with the low-budget legerdemain of this ‘quickie’ MACBETH, shot @ little Republic Pictures, home of the Western. It’s tremendous stuff, alive & exciting, but its shameful reception had Welles altering his original Scottish-tinged soundtrack & trimming off a couple of reels to little commercial effect. He’d wait a decade for his next Hollywood production. Restored on Olive DVDs to its original glistening edge, it’s not much like a Western, but rather like one of those famous Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneau poetic-horror numbers made @ RKO just as Welles was being pushed out of the place. (The phenomenal witches with their bubbling tangible clay apprehensions could have come from I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE/’43 . . . or from Welles’ own legendary ‘Voodoo’ MACBETH of 1936.) http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/voodoo-macbeth This MACBETH suffers sins of omission (where’s the third murderer?); sins of commission (Welles devised an unnecessary Christian Priest as counterweight to the Pagan witches); a few poorly staged scenes that look like Golden Age Television Play-of-the-Week stuff; and from its debuting Lady Macbeth, Jeanette Nolan, who hasn’t the depth of response to properly feed into Welles’ rapturously tortured King. But it also has the narrative thrust and visual thrills to trump its few problems. (The DVD could have alleviated even more had it come with a subtitle track.) At the time, the film was commercially & critically obliterated by Laurence Olivier’s award-winning HAMLET/’48, which has its own strengths & pleasures. But from a cinematic standpoint, Welles towers over all comers with a technique even further ahead of its time than CITIZEN KANE was in ’41. The film’s persistent lack of appreciation remains both incomprehensible and inexcusable.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: What are the odds that Welles and Giuseppe Verdi would adapt the same three Shakespeare properties (MACBETH; OTHELLO; FALSTAFF) and do them in the same order?, with each making a composite of plays for Falstaff. And what are the odds that the same speedy cinematographer, John Russell, would be used by Welles here, and by Hitchcock on PSYCHO/’60 to help keep the costs down?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: Okay, not really a Screwy Thought, instead, a suggested Screwy Party Trick for the vocally gifted. Try reciting the great (and mercifully short) ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy in your favorite Hollywood voice. Boris Karloff or Bette Davis are pretty easy to do. Very impressive! Ah, where have all those distinctive Hollywood voices gone? Now that everyone whispers all the time, grand eccentric voices have been flattened out.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

About an hour into Kar Wai Wong’s stylish bio-pic on the life & times of Ip Man, Kung Fu Master: Wing Chun Division, Ip lands in post-WWII Hong Kong. Approaching middle-age, Ip finds himself less a man without a country than a man without Martial Arts cred. In a battle that would reestablish his bona fides, Ip faces off against ‘The Razor,’ a Kung Fu rebel-with-an-edge, a straight edge. The fight may be vicious, but the musical accompaniment on the soundtrack is not. Instead, an orchestral version of ‘Casta Diva,’ the great soprano aria from Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece NORMA. That’s when the film’s design clicks firmly into place; it’s a Bel Canto Martial Arts pic.* At least, that’s the idea. But with two & a half reels lopped off and structural reshuffling by the Weinstein Company as ransom for a Stateside release, it’s impossible to know if Wong’s brought it off. The first hour sticks to Ip Man’s rise against the masters of various Martial Arts disciplines in pre-WWII China; his subsumed passion toward Gong Er, the beautiful daughter of the past GrandMaster; and the quick destruction of his world as Japanese occupation takes hold. The rest of the film, now set in 1950s Hong Kong, takes on the crossed paths of Ip and Gong Er, now a practicing physician. Suddenly, her backstory moves front & center, but the flashback structure feels shoehorned in. The Weinstein cut (it’s all boxes-within-boxes) clarifies narrative at the cost of sucking emotion, wonder and excitement out of the film. Even as is, Tony Chiu Wai Leung is a rock as Ip Man and no doubt the original cut will eventually show up. ('The Weinstein Company Presents the Much Anticipated Kar Wai Wong Director’s Cut! Sorry, no refunds for already buying the earlier botched edition.') Oh well, it’s worth a second viewing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Bel Canto: literally ‘Beautiful Song;’ but in practice, bel canto's traditional vocal acrobatics are merely the starting point for an attitude toward lyric-drama that uses perfect vocal technique (ease, flexibility & brilliance) to get to the heart of things. Hmm, sounds like advice from a Kung Fu master.

Friday, July 4, 2014

THE SECRET AGENT (1996)

British playwright Christopher Hampton added director to his usual writing credit on this Joseph Conrad adaptation, his second shot as hyphenate. A fascinating Dostoevsky-like tale of foreign born or influenced anarchists in 1880s London, the story had been brilliantly modernized by Hitchcock for the jittery 1930s as SABOTAGE/’36 (aka THE WOMAN ALONE).* But while Hampton is more faithful to Conrad, his film, in spite of a generally excellent cast, compelling action and strong period detail, is much less successful. As director, Hampton seems unable (unwilling?) to vary the pace or take advantage of the suspense built into the premise, the film never gets into gear. The opening is promising with Bob Hoskins hosting a small group of socialist malcontents, agitators, Fabians & anarchists in his flat while his wife, an uncomfortable Patricia Arquette, and her mentally damaged kid brother (Christian Bale), help her Mom pack up to move. Surprisingly, for those who know the Hitchcock pic, it’s not an especially unhappy household, but as Hoskins finds himself pulled in various directions by officials digging for explosive info; foreign embassy types pressing for that big bang against British confidence; and underground bomb-makers dreaming of self-destruction (a stunning little perf from Robin Williams); he starts to crack, clinging to the younger wife he may have completely misread. Obviously, you can’t entirely miss the mark with this level of material, the situation literally detonates with drama. But Hampton might as well be helming underwater, accompanied by the repetitive music patterns of Philip Glass on the soundtrack.

DOUBLE-BILL: *There’s always been confusion on the Hitchcock pic since he used the title SECRET AGENT on his first film of 1936 which was taken from Somerset Maugham’s ‘Ashenden.’ His Conrad adaptation, also 1936, came out in Britain as SABOTAGE and then was retitled THE WOMAN ALONE for Stateside audiences. BEWARE of Public Domain issues on this one; stick to the fine Criterion DVD.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

BARBARA (2012)

In this German art-house suspenser, story-beats, like the fog, come in on little cat feet, but come they do. It’s 1980 East Germany, and Barbara (Nina Hoss), a doctor under political suspicion and STASI surveillance, lands at a provincial hospital. With a dashing West German lover who sneaks in for visits, she carries an air of wary indifference to her new assignment while plotting to flee West. But a growing attachment to some of her patients, and a soulful staff doctor may get in the way. Director Christian Petzold does a neat job on this slow-burn thriller, catching the paranoid times & personal humiliations without constant nudging. But while those narrative story beats add pace & a pervading sense of threat to Barbara’s maddening, if understandable stoicism, it also makes some of the tricky plot turns come off as a little too neat & tidy, like a ‘well-made’ play from the ‘40s. As the good doctor, Nina Hoss can’t always parse the diffident rudeness of her thrice-burned character from looking like she’s just a bit slow-on-the-uptake. But Ronald Zehrfeld, as the sadder-but-wiser chief hospital doctor, drawn to the woman under Barbara’s hard shell, is a real find; the most sympathetic German leading-man in decades. Hollywood, snap this guy up!

DOUBLE-BILL: The great, recent German morality pic on STASI is THE LIVES OF OTHERS/’06 from Florian Henckel-Donnersmarck, sadly, still licking his wounds after THE TOURIST/’10 and waiting on his next project.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE (1968)

On anyone’s shortlist of great cinematographers, Jack Cardiff also directed some quality pics. This wasn’t one of them. Very French New Wave, though more voyeuristic Roger Vadim than Cahiers du Cinéma intellectual, with Rolling Stones muse Marianne Faithfull taking on the Brigitte Bardot sexy-number spot by taking off her clothes. (A censored Stateside release was retitled NAKED UNDER LEATHER.) Working at her Dad’s book shop, Faithfull turns unfaithful on her Milquetoast British fiancé when sexy customer Alain Delon whisks her away for lessons in love & motorcycles. It’s ecstacy²! That’s about it plotwise, as Cardiff jazzes things up with blasts of solarized color for a Swinging ‘Sixties psychedelic edge. And it just might work as a Mod mood piece if only Faithfull weren’t so hopeless on screen. Whatever magic she had in real life gets lost in translation. Period detail and unintentional giggles hold some interest, especially a well-placed bouquet of roses that keeps Delon decent before bursting into Red Solarized Sensations when he gets aroused. Oh, Alain! You naughty, naughty beautiful boy!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Much more fun if you switch to the Cardiff Commentary audio-track.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

With many editions undoubtedly in the pipeline (Extended Cut; Director’s Cut; Complete Trilogy; 3D; Home Study), it’s still possible to note that the initial DVD release of the second film in Peter Jackson’s HOBBIT extrapolation trilogy holds unexpected delight. The tone has been lightened, the pace zips along with delightful character readings & battle scenes that hold powerful mass against fantastic flair. All a dedicated HOBBIT maven might wish for. Until you realize you’ve been enjoying an auto-loaded ad for LEGO: The Hobbit Game. Oops! Then the actual film starts up with all the self-important ballast, ponderous CGI and endurance test length of the first HOBBIT pic. No doubt, those already hooked will make merry with the results, eating up each of its 161 minutes. Indeed, four or five of its set pieces are excitingly worked out, even if the climatic use of molten gold looks like instant butterscotch pudding. But heavens, what would J.R.R. Tolkien have made of the GAME OF THRONES tilt given his fable? On the acting front, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is holding up well (looking more than ever like Timothy Q. Mouse from DUMBO/’41 as rendered by Rembrandt), and Benedict Cumberbatch, his boss over at BBC’s SHERLOCK, makes a grand vocal addition as Smaug-the-Dragon. While, Ian McKellen and poor Orlando Bloom seem all used up.

DOUBLE-BILL: If you’re going to bother, best start with THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Adventure/’12 which (surprise!) has been repackaged with 13 additional minutes.