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Sunday, September 28, 2014

NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1944)

When producer David O. Selznick worked up an itch to remake Vittorio De Sica’s Italian Neo-Realist classic BICYCLE THIEVES/’48, he naturally thought of Cary Grant to play the increasingly desperate, bike-searching dad. Cary Grant? Sounds like a stretch. Heck, it is a stretch. But in this often lovely, if less than successful, downbeat drama, you can see what DOS was driving at. (As did our anonymous Italian poster artist to your right.) Socially engaged playwright Clifford Odets added director’s hat to his C.V. with this one, to labored results; he can’t invigorate the airless, poetic, artificial sets, and gets unintentional laughs on his own overly dramatic lines. (‘They pinched Ma!’) But the basic story, which must have resonated deeply with Grant, pulls you in anyway as this scapegrace prodigal son, a drifter by nature, tries to stay in place long enough to take care of his dying mum. And since ‘Mum’ is Ethel Barrymore, back on screen after hitting retirement age & triumphing on B’way (and across the country) in THE CORN IS GREEN (see bonus shot: Ethel w/ bike),

in legendary form as a careworn shopkeeper with guilty secrets of her own, the film develops an unusually rich texture in spite of its many missteps. The wavering accents of the rest of the cast being the least of its problems. (p.s. Selznick never did remake De Sica. Though Chris Weitz did, to sorry effect, as A BETTER LIFE/'11.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Watch John Ford’s THE INFORMER/’35 to see how to bring this sort of poetic realism to life, possibly on some of the very sets since both films were shot on the RKO studio lot.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The original story is by Richard Llewellyn of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41 fame. And surely the opening narration in this film is read by Irving Pichel who did the same task on GREEN. Though he gets no credit for it, not even in IMDb.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

SEDOTTA E ABBANDONATA / SEDUCED AND ABANDONED (1964)

Pietro Germi’s follow-up to DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE/’61 hasn’t that film’s iconic title or its iconic international star (Marcello Mastroianni), but this Sicilian-set, sunbaked Black Comedy is every bit as brutal, frank & hilarious at dissecting society. This time, the problem isn’t getting out of marriage, but getting in one. Specifically, an up-and-coming family with enough daughters to tempt a likely suitor into engaging one sibling and impregnating another. With the family honor at stake, Saro Urzi, magnificent as the combustible Papa, works up an ever more complicated plan to corral all the wounded parties into place. It ain’t gonna be pretty. Germi’s comedy often has a near tragic edge to it, painted in broad, but specific strokes that keep his cast from turning into puppet-like caricatures; everyone stays all flesh & blood. With the filmmaking technique to bring off multiple self-serving POVs he reveals gaspingly funny humanity with deft camera moves (especially on interiors) and sharp editing that represent Italian cinema comedy at its peak.

DOUBLE-BILL: So many great Italian Social Comedies of the ‘50s & ‘60s. From Vittorio De Sica & Alberto Lattuada to Mario Monicelli & Dino Risi, with Ettore Scola doing his best to hold up filmmaking standards in later decades. A natural Sicilian pairing might be Lattuada’s darkly comic MAFIOSO/’62 with Alberto Sordi.

Friday, September 26, 2014

THE UNHOLY FOUR /aka - THE STRANGER CAME HOME (1954)

Inexplicably dull. In this suspenseless murder mystery/police procedural a husband returns from a fishing trip . . . four years late. His wife & three pals from the trip all thought him dead. Nope, amnesia. Now recovered, he returns to find one of his travel buds freshly dead and himself a suspect in the murder case. A decent enough set up for a small film noir; plus a late career appearance from Paulette Goddard, holding onto a bit of film glamour between her infinitely more interesting marriages. But the story, taken from a novel by the actor George Sanders, never gets off the back burner under Terence Fisher’s sleepy megging. (With its generally languid pace made even more insufferable by enough posh accents to fill a year’s worth of Masterpiece Theatre.) Goddard seems to be in fine shape, but looks unhappy under foggy lens enhancement she hardly needs, and foggy co-stars who do little to enliven things.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Perhaps William Sylvester’s blasé boredom as the returning husband brought him to the attention of Stanley Kubrick who cast him as the tight-lipped scientist sent to the moon to investigate filmdom’s most famous plinth in 2001/’68. Oh . . . that’s why he looks so familiar.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Lon Chaney’s caper scam THE UNHOLY THREE (silent in ’25 or as his sole Talkie in ‘30), the one with Harry Earles’ cigar-smoking ’midget’ playing an infant, has nothing to do with THE UNHOLY FOUR, but . . . well, you see the connection.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

LA PROMESSE (1996)

After a decade of documentaries, the Brothers Dardenne (Luc & Jean-Pierre) found their signature style on this, their third feature film. Typically issue-oriented, amid the lower rungs of Belgian society, their docu-influenced style, a relentless pursuit of character & story in charging, handheld close-up, can sound unpromising, or turn earnest & didactic. But when their subject fits the frame, the results can be devastating. At heart, this one’s a father & son piece, tough & heartbreaking, about the illegal immigrant racket, played for profit by Dad, taught step-by-step to his teenage son. But their back-alley enterprise starts to fall apart after a fatal accident, and the kid finds that an act of kindness scratches a small questioning moral core he's kept hidden behind rebellious bravado and family loyalty. Steadily involving, developing a near Dickensian power of observation, along with Dickens’ rhymed plotting, the Dardennes really threw down the gauntlet on this one. With remarkable perfs from Olivier Gourmet’s Dad and especially from a 15-yr-old Jérémie Renier. The Criterion DVD also does a superb job with Alain Marcoen’s starkly colored Super 16mm lensing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Films from the Dardennes take poorly to binge viewing. So, hold off on a second helping and head up to UK North for Ken Loach’s KES/’69, another tough coming-of-age story.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933)

The surprise in Mae West’s second film appearance (her first starring vehicle) is the load of melodrama squeezed between the infamous sexually suggestive quips & her signature honky-tonk vocals in just 67 minutes. We’re talkin’ white slave traffic, counterfeiting, prison break, police investigation, even Cary Grant as a handsome missionary for Mae to vamp. Each merely one more dramatic highlight for West to react to. And what reactions! She’s a changed gal from last year’s debut in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT/’32, with her stylized look firmly in place and the film’s tempo adjusted to match her swaying walking rhythm. A fairly elaborate period production (Paramount was placing a very big bet on her), it’s beautifully lit by lenser Charles Lang (those footlight-accented stage numbers), but limps a bit under the bumpy laissez-faire hand of actor-turned-director Lowell Sherman. Shot-by-shot, he makes some nice moves, but he can’t be bothered with transitions. An editor’s nightmare. West would soon adjust the comedy/drama/music mix, but tighter censorship and the fast growing disparity between her self-image vis-à-vis what the camera caught made her comet-like rise-and-fall one of the quickest in Hollywood cultural-icon history.

DOUBLE-BILL: Mae falls for Cary's missionary next door and doesn’t stop by for a visit? Talk about your missed opportunities! She must have thought about it too and hides out as a Salvation Army lass for part of KLONDIKE ANNIE/’36.

Monday, September 22, 2014

NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

Misplaced your VHS tape of THE USUAL SUSPECTS/’95? In denial about a possible OCEANS 14 sequel? Well, you’re in luck. This con-game caper about a gang of magicians who pull off a triple-cross bank job they don’t fully understand might just tide you over. Or will as long as you don’t care about plot, logic, plausibility, character continuity or the satisfaction of seeing things add up even as you’re being bluffed. Magic is notoriously tough on film; even worse with CGI on call. No doubt, that’s why Louis Leterrier megs with so much swooping obfuscation, covering everything up like brown gravy on a blue-plate special. But just as this denies us the homely pleasures of watching a trick neatly accomplished, so too his narrative becomes all flash & dash with no one making the faintest attempt to connect the dots. We’re not being tricked; we’re being dissed. Maybe it would matter less if the cast made more of a connection with each other, but they’re hardly introduced. Poor Isla Fisher, one of the four main magicians, pouts with less to do than her comrades. ‘Heck, even that faceless Franco kid gets his own sidebar sequence.’ (Actual quote.) Head detective Mark Ruffalo is either sporting heavy stubble or working up a beard, anything to keep that French/Interpol gal at bay. Maybe Jesse Eisenberg has the best idea. Talk fast and try for the world’s record in snarky smirks. Wait . . . wait for it . . . He wins!!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: If you’ve never seen them, USUAL SUSPECTS or the OCEANS 11 remake of 2001, as mentioned above, are fun to watch . . . once.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

TEST PILOT (1938)

The title & poster of this Victor Fleming production tell all: Clark Gable as cock-of-the-walk test pilot with nerves of steel; Spencer Tracy as best-bud mechanic; and Myrna Loy as the gal who gets between ‘em. But as things play out, the formulaic stuff is dross (Gable getting embarrassed at buying lingerie for his new bride), while the film finds considerable interest whenever it falls out of standard orbit. The first surprise is noting all the lifts Howard Hawks & Jules Furthman grabbed for ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39. (The iconic refusal of fellow flyers to even acknowledge the name of a just fallen comrade is just the biggest 'borrowed' shocker.) Many of the similarities surely stem from Frank Wead who wrote this original story as well as Hawks’ own earlier aviation centered CEILING ZERO/’36. But who was the source for character development that finds Gable with a hard-on for danger in the sky and Tracy nursing a (suppressed) hard-on for Gable on land? (Spence blows kisses at Clark and leaves a tag of gum on the plane for luck; Gable tussles Tracy’s hair & even gives his head a smacker.) Loy, in an enchanting perf, knows her place, masochistic to point of hoping Gable will someday slap her, just as he slaps ‘the lady of death’ in the air. (You need Gable’s star charisma to get away with the sort of self-centered shit behavior he’s defined by here.) In a Hawks pic, the sexual tension, what he called the ‘love story between two men,’ would be buried in sub-textual glowers, with actual screwing reserved for willowy gals built like adolescent boys. But Fleming was a lot more comfortable with grown up womanly women. He’s unabashedly tactile and the sexual equation is completely different. But it’s harder to spot with all that M-G-M polish adding ‘entertainment value,’ blunting the idea. But stick with it; get thru the first act for things to blossom. On the way, enjoy a fine Loy monologue where she talks herself out of marriage to a local ‘butter-and-egg’ man after she meets-cute with Gable when he pulls an emergency landing in her Kansas wheatfield. Technically, there’s more backscreen projection work in here than needed, and not only in the flying sequences. (Often a sign of re-shoots.) But a fair amount of excitement is built up with clever model work & some atypically fine editing out of M-G-M from Tom Held.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note that Fleming gets Gable to cry on screen here a year before he famously repeated the trick in GONE WITH THE WIND/’39. And check out how our French poster (see above) turns Tracy into a second Jean Gabin.

DOUBLE-BILL: No doubt ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS makes a fine pairing, but don’t overlook Douglas Sirk’s flyboy racing tale THE TARNISHED ANGELS/’57, taken from William Faulkner’s PYLON, himself a frequent Hawks collaborator.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

ANDROCLES AND THE LION (1952)

George Bernard Shaw’s whimsical take on the old fable about a Christian näif, a lion with a thorn in his paw, and their reencounter at the Roman Coliseum may not be his weakest play, it just seems so in this lame, painfully obvious adaptation. The cast & tech credits don’t look so bad on paper. Well, except for Alan Young, hopelessly over-parted as a holy fool of an Androcles. But the entire production is visually inert, with a cramped stage-bound look that suggests a tv ‘spectacular’ from the ‘50s. There’s a bit of fun seeing Jim Backus (of Mr. Magoo & GILLIGAN’S ISLAND fame) as a hardened Roman Centurion; and catching Victor Mature & Jean Simmons in a dry run for next year’s CinemaScope debut of Christians/Romans/Lions in THE ROBE/’53. Or, you might try to envision the original planned cast of Harpo Marx as a (speaking?) Androcles, with Rex Harrison & Dana Andrews in for Maurice Evans & Victor Mature. Then, again, some things are best left imagined.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Buster Keaton tackles the Androcles fable in less than a minute of footage as a toss-away gag during the Roman section of THREE AGES/’23, his hilarious send-up of D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16.

Friday, September 19, 2014

THE LOVED ONE (1965)

The distinctive voices of scripter Terry Southern (fresh off DR. STRANGELOVE/’64) and Tony Richardson (just Oscar’d® for helming TOM JONES/’63) are hard to miss in this adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s poison-pen satire to all things So. Cal. But with fish-in-a-barrel targets like OTT Hollywood cemeteries & the shifting sands of movie studio politics, their coarse efforts come off as hopelessly overcooked. Even with an impressively starry cast showing up for a scene or two (click on the poster to get the names), drawn by the filmmakers’ trendsetting hits, actual laughs are few & far between. John Gielgud, as a corpse, and Rod Steiger, as his embalmer, manage the only sustained piece of comedy in here, while Robert Morse is saddled with trying out a series of failed British accents and Jonathan Winters, in two roles, flubs his shot at starting a Stateside Peter Sellers franchise. Haskell Wexler’s b&w cinematography finds a soft, buttery look, but too often settles for ‘funny’ angles & fish-eye lenses, doing its part at conveying the film’s largely laughless results.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Few of director Frank Tashlin’s digs at American mores & culture in the ‘50s measure up to their high critical reps, but at his best, in collaboration with playwright George Axelrod on WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER/’57, they got a lot right that this film gets wrong.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955)

The posh period setting of Disney’s first CinemaScope animated feature was turn-of-the-last-century New England, but the tone is pure ‘50s. The primal childhood terrors of the classic Disney legacy pics of the late-‘30s & early ‘40s have, like the country’s Depression, been tamed; even war has gone from ‘Hot’ to ‘Cold.’ No wonder dramatic crises have become domesticated. Where SNOW WHITE got a royal consort; Pinocchio a resurrection; Dumbo that star-making turn; and Bambi an ascent to Prince of the Forest; now the payoff comes in joining a nuclear family . . . as long as you follow house rules & leave any wanderlust at the door. Welcome to Eisenhower’s America. The film retains its gentle charms, though the leading voices of Lady & Tramp are disappointingly unmemorable. But the Disney artists & craftspeople take easily to the very wide screen dimensions (early ‘Scope runs about 2.55:1). And the romance & adventures are enlivened, often in the nick of time, by funny set pieces, usually with vocals either by Peggy Lee (four roles, hilarious as two devilish Siamese Cats), or a couple of paisanos in the justly celebrated dinner-for-two ‘Spaghetti and a’meat-a-ball’ scene. (After which, those love-struck dogs spend the night together. Golly!) The action sequences are on the mild side, but a big race-to-the-rescue climax over rain-soaked cobblestone streets thru foggy moonlight is one of the loveliest bits of sustained background art direction in any Disney pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: Disney’s initial try @ CinemaScope Animation was the boringly pictorial Donald Duck short GRAND CANYONSCOPE/’54. TRAMP, calling far less attention to the new format, finds a manner that’s subtler, more effective & speaks volumes to the studio’s fast learning curve. You can check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iogedcegdtA

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

BLUE JASMINE (2013)

Woody Allen re-imagines the main players of the Bernard Madoff investment scandal (a Ponzi scheme with billions lost) using Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE as his structural template. And though it was extremely well received on its release, it already looks pretty forced, very square peg in round hole. It’s certainly well played (who knew Andrew Dice Clay had acting potential?), but even some of the best things in it don’t quite add up. Cate Blanchett, in the Blanche DuBois spot, does a dead-on Lauren Bacall vocal. It’s accomplished, alright, but quintessential Upper West Side; quite the wrong side of Central Park. A small thing, but endemic of too many little touches in the pic. Like showing her as SmartPhone savvy, but computer-phobic. (A generational gaffe by Allen?) Or being totally unrecognized as a disgraced public figure when she goes to live with her no-class sister on the West Coast. In today’s social media world? Just as jarring as having a trio of ‘Dese-Dem-Dose’ louts hang out to watch 'the fights' rather than football. What year is this film supposed to take place in? By the time Blanchett is babbling away to herself on a park bench, you’d have thought someone might have mentioned to Allen that she’d look less like a crazy person and more like someone on a cell phone. STREETCAR brought reserves of wonder & pity to its characters (along with Williams’ poetic voice); Allen merely shuffles between misogyny & the misanthropic.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Allen’s plot lifts come High (A PLACE IN THE SUN’51 becomes MATCH POINT/’05 or LA STRADA/’54 is shrunk into SWEET AND LOWDOWN/’99); and Low (LARCENY, INC/’42 inspires SMALL TIME CROOKS/’00). No doubt, a doctoral thesis will soon set them all out.

Monday, September 15, 2014

MISS GRANT GOES TO THE DOOR (1940)

This Public Service short from WWII Great Britain is a small gem, a pocket-sized Hitchcockian thriller about a pair of tough-minded spinsters whose smart thinking stops a Nazi invasion in its tracks. (Three guaranteed shocks on a seven minute running time.)

A quick look at the credits explains much: helmed by Brian Desmond Hurst (A CHRISTMAS CAROL/’51), with a story by Thorold Dickinson (the original GASLIGHT/’40; the even better QUEEN OF SPADES/’49). You may also recognize the great eccentric Martita Hunt, playing the less courageous of the two bitties, as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS/’46 even if IMDb doesn’t. (They've misspelled her name ‘Marita’ so no other credits come up.) But you may not recognize the name of film editor Ralph Kemplen, a regular for John Huston (AFRICAN QUEEN/51) and Fred Zinnemann (DAY OF THE JACKAL/’73). The amount of rural/small town atmosphere, quirky narrative & suspense this choice, talented group manages to squeeze into a 7 minute running time is damn impressive. Watch it for free here: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060021651 The print’s a little beat up and THE IMPERIAL MUSEUM is burnt into the middle of the image, but it just adds to the period flavor. Enjoy!

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Kudos to British Film Guide maven Leslie Halliwell who mentions this forgotten treasure in his personal memoir of growing up at the cinema SEATS IN ALL PARTS.

DOUBLE-BILL: Constance Bennett & Gracie Fields take on Nazis in Paris, but with glamour in the zippy, if not wholly successful feature MADAME PIMPERNEL (aka: PARIS UNDERGROUND)/’45.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

THUNDERBALL (1965)

Bloat came early to the James Bond series; by the fourth film. Not so much in passing a two-hour running time, but in selling size for its own sake, slowing things down as much as this outing’s misguided underwater battle scenes. (Who is that man behind the scuba mask? Do karate chops work in the ocean?) No longer merely a film series, or even a franchise, BOND was now an institution. And so it has remained. Bondsman come & go, some better than others: playful Roger Moore; dour Tim Dalton; suffering Daniel Craig. But note how key supporting players hang around to show the ropes to the new hires. They know the lay-out. THUNDERBALL had a huge anticipation factor, but it’s quality was slightly below average. It’s the one with Tom Jones on the title track; a breakaway yacht; two purloined atomic bombs; Adolfo Celi making like Aristotle Onassis as the villain; heavy foreign accents on the luscious femmes fatales; and a jet-pack for one. So what if the sadism & sexism have the slight moldy smell of a stack of PLAYBOY Magazines left in the basement, Sean Connery’s hair-piece is keeping up appearances.

DOUBLE-BILL: DR. NO/’62; FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE/’63; and GOLDFINGER/’64 are (respectively) 20, 15 & 20 minutes tighter. Better in other ways, too. OR: the unofficial, unhappy remake NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN/’83. With a witless title that tells all.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

ROBOCOP (1987)

Violent, hilarious, hilariously violent, the original ROBOCOP is just about everything you want in a Pop Action Classic. Paul Verhoeven helms with an easy, confident hand, skipping about from farcical newscasts to car chases without losing the basic narrative line . . . or leaving a glass surface intact. And what a nifty, thoughtful, beautifully structured little story it is. Fresh-faced cop is blown to bits on his maiden run, then retooled with indestructible machine parts as a Next Generation policing unit. But when the human part that’s still inside begins to remember his past, his family & the thugs who brutally murdered him, he switches into revenge mode. One superb set piece follows another, with Peter Weller’s Tin Man Police Officer augmenting a heavy hand of justice with unexpected glints of real emotion. Even better work comes from a supporting player, actually a rival Robotic Cop that’s all machine and 100% Stop-Motion anarchy. Few action pics from the ‘80s have aged this well. NOTE: The film was released at various lengths, but the excellent looking M-G-M DVD (at 143 minutes) appears to be the full Director’s Cut.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You’d never guess at Verhoeven’s straitened career from this pitch-perfect outing. But SHOWGIRLS/‘95 all but done him in as a mainstream commercial director. Squibs on STARSHIP TROOPERS/’97 and BLACK BOOK/’06 to come.

Friday, September 12, 2014

NOAH (2014)

Darren Aronofsky courted controversy simply by retelling the biblical flood fable everyone thinks they know. Of course, embellishment & elaboration on the shards of story found in the text are needed, but Aronofsky went too Gaia; or too Creator vs ‘Lord Our God (or G_d)'; even too vegetarian. He definitely went too Michael Bay-TRANSFORMERS. But perhaps all the misdirected attention was something of a blessing. Since, with the media fixated on busted budgets, reshoots & the thinning Paramount Pictures release schedule, no one bothered to notice what an over-produced load of manure this was. (No wonder with so much on hand.) With generally lousy perfs (the usual post-Method acting whispers); bungled action direction; CGI overkill from the deluge and even in a raindrop POV shot as it falls from the heavens to land on Russell Crowe’s grizzled cheek. Then, halfway thru, the parched storyline fails resuscitation with a stowaway, some baldly motivated sibling rivalry & a plot grab from Abraham & Isaac a few chapters away.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: John Huston’s THE BIBLE: IN THE BEGINNING . . . /’66. This uneven, magnificent mess of a film locates a fierce Old Testament tone which sets up the story of Noah (played by Huston) to work as light relief, a breather amid annihilation.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

SCARAMOUCHE (1952)

George Sidney’s second shot at swashbuckling was a big step up from THE 3 MUSKETEERS/’48, his relentlessly peppy first try at the genre. Especially, the spirited fencing scenes which are long, gracefully edited & generally much admired. But the tone remains coarse & corny, with tiresome comic business, period sets built on the cheap (lots of drapes) and jarring Bois de Culver Citie exteriors. Stewart Granger (as a vengeance seeking near-noble) & Eleanor Parker (as his Commedia dell’Arte partner) overwork their Kate & Petruchio routine, but Mel Ferrer’s deadly aristo shows style & menace as he falls for his court-appointed bride-to-be Janet Leigh, ravishing under Charles Rosher’s lens. (Her close-ups alone make a self-justifying case for the old squarish Academy Ratio frame.) But too much of the Rafael Sabatini novel goes missing, with basic romantic intrigue making a poor substitute for a rhymed narrative structure Alexandre Dumas might have signed off on.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The film’s not a patch on Rex Ingram’s 1923 silent beauty, grand entertainment that’s respectful of Sabatini and the whole damn French Revolution. Or . . . give Sidney his due as helmer with his follow up, YOUNG BESS/’53, an underrated Elizabethan drama with fine perfs, historical flavor & a sumptuous Miklos Rozsa score.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (1958)

From 1958 to 1967, writer-director Richard Brooks rummaged almost exclusively amongst literary giants: Dostoevsky, Conrad, Tennessee Williams, Sinclair Lewis & Truman Capote. Maybe he thought some of their quality would rub off. He started in DostoevskyLand, working off an adaptation from the Brothers Epstein (Julius & Philip) with a story clarified to the point of reductio ad absurdum. Sure, BK is a murder mystery, but it’s not only a murder mystery. We’d all guess the outcome and make a short night of it; MURDER, FYODOR WROTE misses a lot. Especially so when the texture of Russian life goes missing in the art direction, and philosophical/religious elements get tip-toed around or simply short-sheeted. A pity, since the film’s brothers are rather better than you expect. You can easily see the bits of himself Dostoevsky put into the three legit brother (Brynner; Basehart; Shatner) while Albert Salmi’s bastard blusters away in reasonable Bolshoi fashion. And though Claire Bloom looks gorgeous and does a neat slow-burn as the romantic cast-off, no one else quite comes off. Lee J. Cobb roars monotonously as Papa K, while Maria Schell’s turn as a shady seductress cold-cocked her Hollywood debut. (She uses the same naughty smile for every occasion. It’s like watching the return of Luise Rainer.) The original MetroColor on the Warner Archive DVD has faded and lost crispness, but boosting your monitor’s contrast, saturation & sharpness levels gives an acceptable pic. If only it could also improve the staging & editing of the film’s two most important scenes: the murder of you-know-who, and the big re-enactment explanation/confession. Fortunately, Brooks doesn’t have to deal with Father Zossima’s famous Christ parable since this crucial (if nearly unreadable) chapter never shows up.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Maria Schell had just starred in one of the great Dostoevsky adaptations, Luchino Visconti’s LE NOTTI BLANCHE (WHITE NIGHTS). An update that connects with its source material in a manner unimaginable from Brooks & Co. With Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Marais, an astonishment for a set & some bopping Italian Rock & Roll.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

KONEC SRPNA V HOTELU OZON / THE END OF AUGUST AT THE HOTEL OZONE (1966)

Artsy, minimalist, post-nuclear annihilation blather from The Czech Republic, vague enough to work as an ADD YOUR OWN ALLEGORY HERE vessel. It’s like a Mr. PotatoHead for Ethics Majors; plug in whatever features you need to make your case. No doubt, author Pavel Jurácek & megger Jan Schmidt were aiming for surreptitious commentary on their country’s Soviet dominated regime. (The boiling point of 1968 was well within sight.) But all we get is a rather unpleasant gang of feral young woman, led by an older, not much wiser gal who lived in pre-apocalypse times. (Meaning - A: Pre-USSR domination?; B: Pre-WWII?; C: Pre-nuclear era?; or D: All of the above?) They’re searching the countryside for victuals, supplies, ammo & possible others . . . male others. Even in 1966, this set-up had been worked to death; and it certainly shows no signs of stopping. We watch them kill a few animals along the way (very PETA-unfriendly). Then, after sloshing about in some fresh cow offal, they finally meet a living male specimen. Alas, Grandpa looks too old for procreational use. Worse, he owns an old wind-up gramophone with only one record: a 78 rpm disc of ‘The Beer Barrel Polka.’ Now, that’s a tragedy!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Another smeary transfer of a post WWII Eastern Europe pic from FACETS DVD.

Monday, September 8, 2014

BIG HOUSE, U.S.A.

There’s a veritable convention of classic tough guys in this prison break pic: fast-talking, diesel-powered Broderick Crawford; lumbering Lon Chaney, Jr.; creepy/crafty William Talman (the lawyer who kept losing to Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason), and the hovering, musclebound, shirtless menace of Charles Bronson. But patience, please; we don’t meet these threatening boys till the second act, when Ralph Meeker’s icy, compassion-free kidnapper gets sent up on a lesser charge. Howard Koch, before he become a respectable producer @ Paramount, directed this low-budget sludge-fest with an eye toward violent sensationalism that helps make up for his many deficiencies in staging, pacing and . . . well, in just about everything! And while the era didn’t allow for today’s on-screen depiction of mayhem & gore, the level of sadistic brutality, casual violence & cold-blooded murder might impress Quentin Tarantino. Heck, if everybody wasn’t dead at the end of this one, you might pull out an alternate cast for RESERVOIR DOGS/’92.

DOUBLE-BILL: The granddaddy of prison break pics, THE BIG HOUSE/’30, shows it’s early Talkie age, but in a good way, with smash perfs from Wallace Berry, Chester Morris & a callow Robert Montgomery under George W. Hill’s remarkably fluid helming. (Or, as mentioned above, RESERVOIR DOGS.)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)

Much-liked animated fare trips itself up from the get-go, faking a stop-motion look with under-powered CGI. And if ever a subject screamed out for the fanciful limitations of pixilation, it’s the World of LEGO. Still, the basic set-up from writer/directors Christopher Miller & Phil Lord feels right, pitting free-form/anarchic imagination against the rules of discipline & uniformity as Mr. Business (Master of Lego World) threatens to freeze all his pieces in place, while a 'Regular Joe' sort is inadvertently anointed savior by the girl of his dreams. The practical & philosophical implications of this fable have loads of promise, especially when you consider how every LEGO piece works from a base DNA that literally locks together as needed, while also allowing for thousands of mutations. MORAL: It’s the grounded imagination that soars. If only the story didn’t play out like a game of table tennis without a net. The lack of logic is explained in a late inning reveal that might surprise a 7-yr-old (or a fan of Miller & Lord’s HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER), but it’s little more than a cheat that lets them off the hook. Sometimes it’s better to draw inside the lines.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For some real stop-motion magic the kids may have missed, try CHICKEN RUN/’00 from the Wallace & Gromit folks.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

FACE THE MUSIC (aka THE BLACK GLOVE) (1954)

Terence Fisher directed many low-budget films noir for Hammer Films before he began rebooting horror classics in lurid EastmanColor. Alas, this one, in spite of a few tasty bits, feels phoned in. American Alex Nicol is the Big Band trumpet star who becomes a murder suspect after sharing a spaghetti dinner with a jazz singer he’s just met. He goes home; she turns up dead. The rest of the pic finds him roaming about as amateur dick, solving the crime between gigs. Nothing wrong with that set-up, but with little atmosphere, needless voice-over narration, bad acting, not much action or suspense and mood-killing well-lit corridors, it’s awfully weak tea for the genre. There are, however, three amusing oddities in the thing: attempted poisoning by trumpet mouthpiece (Yikes!); flirtation in rhymed couplets (droll, man, droll); and frame-up via 78 rpm record with one jazz man faking the style of another player so the cops’ll connect the wrong guy with the victim. (Neat-O!) Too bad the trumpet playing, by Pop-Jazz stylist Kenny Baker, is so piercing, high & unpleasant. He sounds like Doc Severinsen showing off his chops with a stratospheric high note on the old Johnny Carson TONIGHT SHOW.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Fisher gives better noir in MAN BAIT/’52.

Friday, September 5, 2014

BALL OF FIRE (1941)

Just off his sole Oscar® nom. (for helming the singularly unrepresentative SERGEANT YORK/’41), Howard Hawks segued straight into (of all things) a Billy Wilder comedy (co-scripted w/ Charles Brackett). A very likable film, no matter the authorship, it’s a slangy, wised-up riff on SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS with Barbara Stanwyck’s ‘chanteusey’ hiding from the law courtesy of 7 sweetie-pie professors living together on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (5 West 83rd St.) Plus an 8th, a real Prince Charming of a Professor, tall, hesitant, handsome, unintentionally elegant, naturally sexy . . . why it’s Gary Cooper. The gimmick is that they need Babs to help out with their encyclopedia entry on modern slang; and she secretly needs them to keep her on ice until her mob boyfriend (Dana Andrews) can arrange their marriage so she won’t have to testify against him. Reduced to essentials, we’ve got Jazz musician in trouble hiding out with the opposite sex till things cool down. That’s the basic storyline of Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT/’59; right down to a mention of that film’s motivating trigger, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Hawks is only partially successful at tamping down a major case of the cutes from the professors, but Stanwyck & Cooper smoothly work up a real emotional response with the aid of a stack of books to create a level kissing field. And note how cinematographer Gregg Toland, back on the Sam Goldwyn lot after shooting CITIZEN KANE/’41, pulls off lighting strategies that individualize the professors inside various single compositions.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE SWAN (1956)

Surprisingly, having Grace Kelly play a Princess on screen in her penultimate pic within days of becoming a Princess for real over in Monaco didn’t put this one over with the public. Yet this adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s wise & witty play has aged with considerable charm & now beats with unexpected emotion. In form, it’s no more than the old Ruritanian romance about a Commoner in love with a Royal. And we all know how that works out: accusations, recrimination, wistful tears, renunciation, quivering chin, stiff upper lip, goodbye forever. But Molnár turns it all into something of a Shavian meditation/exposition on social class and social classes, parsing out the fine points & differences with seen-it-all sanguine Hungarian acceptance and perfectly nuanced & timed character-based humor. Kelly, almost shockingly beautiful under Joseph Ruttenberg’s camera, is the royal catch for Alec Guinness’s amused, but indifferent Crown Prince. Seeing no spark, Princess Mom (Jessie Royce Landis) surmises a rival in Louis Jourdan’s Tutor-of-all-trades to the royal children. And that’s when love, the real thing, starts getting bunted about like some Royal Shuttlecock. Who knew Hollywood vet Charles Vidor could get this level of performance out of so many character eccentrics? Or lay back and let Mittel-Europa splendour speak for itself as backdrop? John Dighton gets sole script credit, but we can’t be very far removed from Maxwell Anderson’s tweaking of Melville Baker’s ‘20s B’way translation for Eva Le Gallienne and the young Basil Rathbone not as the Crown Prince, but as the young tutor. The stage production turned them both into stars, even though Molnár saved his best for the Prince’s final, memorable speech. Something about a swan . . .

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)

Writer/helmer Tony Gilroy retools the BOURNE Franchise with more Spy vs Spy nonsense in a template that’s closer to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR/’75 paranoia than the existential internecine turf wars of the original trilogy. Modestly effective (if you don’t pay much attention), it loses conviction toward the end when Jeremy Renner’s chemically hyped agent heads to Manila with brainy helpmate Rachel Weisz while all those nasty CIA bigwigs remain Stateside, lying to Senate subcommittees & furiously typing on computer keyboards. Worse, the medical rationale used to fuel the plot has the rug pulled out from it just as a previously unknown Bourne 2.0 (a deus ex machina baddie) enters as delaying tactic & ‘chase bait.’ The joke in this set up (and it’s the only joke in here) is that the ‘suits’ inside the film story are trying to shut down the whole BOURNE program, just like many Universal execs must have been arguing to shut down the BOURNE Movie Franchise as having run its course. But hunger for a James Bond style franchise of never-ending profits won out. The film, neither hit nor flop, announced a sequel for 2016. The advertising tagline: There Was Never Just One, a bit specious with Matt Damon returning for another go-round.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: THE BOURNE SUPREMACY/’04 is probably the best of the Doug Liman/Paul Greengrass trilogy with Matt Damon. Still, you’d be a bit lost without first seeing BOURNE IDENTITY/’02; and unfulfilled without BOURNE ULTIMATUM/’07.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

FOREVER AMBER (1947)

Kathleen Winsor probably had VANITY FAIR in mind while writing this randy period romp, but the film goes all Scarlett O’Hara and JEZEBEL/’38. Linda Darnell (distractingly blonde, but you get used to it) is Restoration England’s most ambitious vixen, flirting her way onto the lap of society, yet longing only for dashing privateer Cornel Wilde. We’re barely a step & a half above a typical romance novel, but where’s the juicy fun of (say) Margaret Lockwood in THE WICKED LADY/’45? No one seems to connect between the non-stop crises, dealt like a reshuffled deck of story beats from GONE WITH THE WIND/’39. Otto Preminger’s faceless megging doesn’t help though it surely looked better in the original prints. (The Fox Archive DVD is, at best, a dull facsimile of Leon Shamroy’s TechniColor lensing.) And the huge cast holds merely two standouts: George Sanders as a mischievous, dog-loving, sardonic Charles II; and the unfortunate Jane Ball, showstoppingly awful as Wilde’s American bride. So bad, it ended her career as abruptly as this film's pull-the-plug, truncated finish. A big hit just the same.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The time period is different, but Rouben Mamoulian’s VANITY FAIR adaptation, BECKY SHARP/’35, the first 3-strip TechniColor feature, shows how AMBER might have worked. Still waiting for the UCLA Restoration to become available, meanwhile follow the link to see what you’re missing: http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/restoration/becky-sharp-1935-restoration

Monday, September 1, 2014

PHILOMENA (2013)

Over the past three decades, few directors have run up a better batting average than Stephen Frears . . . or gained less credit for doing it; craft & range getting short critical shrift these days; even critical suspicion. That said, this undoubted success does feel a bit thin at times, betraying its provenance as a magazine feature that’s been puffed up to book length. A fact-inspired story, sadly familiar, about Irish Catholic practices & prudery involving unwed mothers, forced labor, and bartered babies. With lovely, often very funny playing by co-writer/co-producer Steve Coogan as the reporter, and by Judi Dench who makes Philomena as shrewd & blunt as she is trusting & naive. Any loss in narrative stride when the search for her long-lost son falls into Coogan’s laptop is overcome by the decency & emotion of its double climax of discovery & confrontation. It provides an honest emotional kick in answering the film’s (and a film-goer’s) prayers.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Shocking as this is, and shocking as the current priestly sex scandals are, any internet search will bring up noxious rationales & defenders by various apologists for the church. Suffice it to say, Philomena’s story is entirely believable even when you can see it being nudged into digestible form.

DOUBLE-BILL: For less benevolent confirmation on Irish-Catholic practices for ‘fallen women,’ see THE MAGDALENE SISTERS/’02.