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Friday, October 31, 2014

THE LOST MOMENT (1947)

This adaptation of Henry James’ lyrically spooky THE ASPERN PAPERS gets tantalizingly close to success, earning an ‘A’ for effort if something less on execution. The story sends New York publisher Robert Cummings to Venice where he rents rooms in a grandly shabby palazzo owned by the surviving aged mistress (Agnes Moorehead) of a great romantic poet. (Think Shelley.) Hoping to find a packet of their love letters for publication, Cummings is both stymied & fascinated by caretaker niece Susan Hayward who seems possessed by the history of the house & by her ancient aunt. Character actor Martin Gabel, one of Orson Welles’ original Mercury Players, and a regular producer/director on B’way, helmed his one & only film here. And, with much help from Hal Mohr’s inspired lensing & a phenomenal backlot Venice via art director Alexander Golitzen, the film is, shot-by-shot, a gem. But the wonderful shots don’t quite add up and the script gets stuck on a few narrative bumps. Yet, the main problem may be two over-parted stars. Cummings’ range won’t encompass his character’s loss of stability once the situation swings out of control; and Hayward never makes the leap past neurotic to poetic. You only have to imagine, say, Leslie Howard & Vivien Leigh in the roles to see what’s missing.

DOUBLE-BILL: David O. Selznick came up even shorter trying for something similar the following year with Jennifer Jones & Joseph Cotten in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE/’48.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

PILOT #5 (1943)

Spectacularly unconvincing WWII programmer from M-G-M was an early credit for George Sidney who’d soon find his niche megging splashy musicals & sudsy bio-pics. There’s not much he can do here as flyboy Franchot Tone tries for a bit of personal redemption when he volunteers for a suicide bomb run out of war-torn Java. As we wait to hear the outcome, his fellow flyers fill in the island’s Dutch commander (and us) with flashbacks covering his misspent civilian days working for a corrupt political machine. Hopelessly padded even at a brief 70 minutes, there’s enough bad acting for a film twice as long. Gene Kelly gets the worst of it as an Italian-American with naive fascist leanings, while Marsha Hunt, as Tone’s sadder-but–wiser wife, and Steve Geray as a Dutch Major with a French/Hungarian accent fight over the scraps. (Sidney & scripter John Hertz survived this one, but producer B. P. Fineman never made another feature.) Look quick for an early walk-on from Peter Lawford who looks & sounds like a real soldier in this company.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Kelly didn’t fare much better in his other WWII drama (CROSS OF LORRAINE/’43), but Tone (who must have been free-lancing) had much better luck fighting it out psychologically in Billy Wilder’s just released FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO/’43.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973)

Brutal, nihilistic, with plot & motives pared to near abstraction, this forgotten film from Robert Aldrich (a commercial & critical nonstarter) was conceived as absurd tragic farce, pulp fiction with trace elements out of Samuel Beckett & Eugène Ionesco. In Depression-era America, everyone ‘s looking for a hand-out. Just don’t go hunting up a free ride on railway conductor Ernest Borgnine’s train; he’ll gladly bash your head in. It’s a challenge Lee Marvin’s #1 Bum can’t let pass, even with novice drifter Keith Carradine tagging along. Like a TOM & JERRY cartoon with real bruises, the film escalates in danger & excitement, never pausing for backstory or explanation; it’s id all the way. Technically, it must have been an absolute bitch to film. And while Frank DeVol’s somewhat uncomprehending score gets in the way, a leathery cast of bums & train workmen, along with wide-ranging cinematography from Joseph Biroc, could hardly be bettered. Carradine was still learning how to act on the job, but he’s such a compelling physical presence you don’t mind waiting while he figures things out. The film is sui generis, even for the tough cinema of Robert Aldrich.

DOUBLE-BILL: The film is to Aldrich as BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA/’74 would be to Sam Peckinpah the next year: master statements completely misread or ignored on release that could have finished their makers off for good, but didn’t. Witness THE LONGEST YARD/’74 from Aldrich and CONVOY/’78 from Peckinpah.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: 20th/Fox couldn’t figure out why the director & stars of THE DIRTY DOZEN/’67 didn’t raise any kind of audience, so they kept tweaking the title . . . to no effect. (see bonus posters)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ONE IN A MILLION (1936)

After three Olympic Figure-Skating Championships (‘28; ‘32; ‘36), 24 year-old Sonja Henie turned pro to lead a touring Ice Show and take a shot at Hollywood stardom. On the short side, with a pug nose and a round, smiley face, she became one of filmdom’s odder novelty acts, offering a cheery, all-purpose pose between specialty numbers. Figure skating at the time was rhythm-oriented and nearly jump-free, but she spins like a dervish and must have been a whiz at the old compulsory etching on ice of loops & curves. (Look sharp for this early on.) Unsure of her commercial pull, this debut pic is on the basic side; a try-out with lots of supporting acts to share the burden: an all-girl band; a trio of comic siblings; a slapstick harmonica orchestra*; Don Ameche (sans moustache) for romance; Jean Hersholt as a sentimental papa; and Adolphe Menjou to run the narrative, yelling all his lines as a cash-strapped producer. Add in a pretty good romantic ballad (‘Who’s Afraid of Love?’) and Henie hardly has time to hit the ice. Later films would up her rink-time, the over-all budget and bump up from Ameche to Tyrone Power as co-star. But they’re really not so different, nor much better. And after ten films, it was back to live touring shows.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Borrah Minevitch & his Harmonica Rascals get almost as much screen time as Henie gets to skate. And while a little bit of funny harmonica playing goes a long way, there’s real interest in seeing that one of the players in his band is Black. And he’s not there to louse things up or go into a minstrel routine, just a featured player who brings some swing to the mix. An integrated music group on film in 1936 would have been no small thing; it may well have been a first.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951)

You can feel a bigger, better picture struggling to climb out of this well-made Western, but the basic situation is strong enough to keep things memorable. William Wellman, a very uneven director, often finds a tough, handsome plainness in this straight-forward saga of a west-bound wagontrain with 140 good woman, ‘hired brides’ led by handful of men. The original idea was from Frank Capra, who probably planned something plusher & starrier. It's a gimmick, but a good one, adapting well to Wellman’s harsher treatment as the women get forced into doing a man’s work. As wagonmaster, Robert Taylor still shows a nap of charm on his rough exterior, his lack of variety less problematic surrounded by so many strong, broadly drawn women. And if the story seems to be missing pieces here and there, it keeps a move on, with someone killed off in almost every reel and convenient dramatic dodges kept to a minimum.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Everybody gets mated up at the end, except for Henry Nakamura, the film’s winning, short-of-stature Japanese cook. All he gets is a little doggie for company. Maybe because he doesn’t touch a pot or pan in the whole pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: John Ford’s WAGON MASTER/’50 is the obvious choice (with Mormon travelers in for women). But John Wayne’s THE COWBOYS/’72 matches up even closer with a bunch of kids forced to do a man’s job on a cattle drive.

Friday, October 24, 2014

POMPEII (2014)

Disaster pics are picnics for pencil-pushers. Toss in all the plot complications you want, then let the Big Bang (or whatever disaster’s on call) clear the decks. Literally so in something like TITANIC/’97. Scores settled, troubles resolved, Gordian Knot blown to smithereens. So, why is so little going on in ancient Pompeii? With our main characters barely casting shadows on screen, the pissant problems hardly call for end-of-the-world pyrotechnics to sort themselves out. GAME OF THRONES’ Kit Harrington is a near blank as the shortest Gladiator in town, while poor Emily Browning, his upper-crust fate-mate, is not only forced to marry an evil Keifer Sutherland, but to wear Angelina Jolie’s make-up. Sutherland’s villainy is a weightless thing (he’s no Donald Sutherland!), while everyone else wanders about, trying to figure out what movie their role came from. GLADIATOR/’00? SPARTACUS/’60? THE SIGN OF THE CROSS/’32?* That last one, a fine piece of perversity from C. B. DeMille, may have inspired the lackluster special effects. Sure, CGI does wonders for smoke, flames & spewing hunks of Vesuvian lava, but some of those cityscape shots look like miniature models C. B. might have signed off on. They’re kind of cute. Better than the unconvincing falling CGI structures or the typically lousy slice-and-dice fight scenes from megger Paul W.S. Anderson. A specialist in DEATH RACE and RESIDENT EVIL pics, this second attempt at period action expired in theaters without help from any natural disaster.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *DeMille’s SIGN OF THE CROSS has been restored to full Pre-Code naughtiness with no CGI needed for Claudette Colbert’s milk bath or for the twinkle in Charles Laughton’s eye over his Nubian Guards. It’s a delicious absurdity though slow to get going.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1949)

Now that Columbus Day is being celebrated, if not rechristened, as Indigenous People’s Day, it’s instructive to see a bio-pic from the days when the ‘discoverer’ of the New World wasn’t plagued with guilt, buyer’s remorse & controversy. (And when ‘discoverer’ might have been written without apologetic quotation marks.) Alas, that’s about as instructive as this one gets. Not that it doesn’t hit on a few known facts about the man, but that the film (or perhaps the Rafael Sabatini novel it’s based on) covers a lot of empty biographical spaces with boilerplate adventure tropes and crises averted at the last-minute. (No surprise when land is spotted just in time to stop a mutiny.) Director David MacDonald seems stymied by the pageant-like sets at the Spanish court & mediocre seafaring effects, forced into static shots to preserve the visual illusions. But then, the script & actors aren’t really that much livelier. There’s a bit of fun watching Fredric March as Chris play against his actual wife (Florence Eldridge) as Queen Isabella while looking elsewhere for romance (just as he did in real life). But only the always imposing Francis Sullivan, as Nemesis #1, gets a bit of character & devious motivation to work with before the film rather abruptly stops. (And the compromised print used for VCI’s Rank Collection isn’t enough of an improvement on earlier editions to sell this on its TechniColor looks.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Columbus hasn’t fared well on the big screen, but a 4-part miniseries from 1985 (not seen here), with Gabriel Bryne fronting a large multi-star cast, has a decent rep.  (LINK: On the other hand, WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE/’45, a largely forgotten WWII home front pic, puts Christopher Columbus at the center of a one-reel operetta travesty by Kurt Weill & Ira Gershwin to hilarious effect.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDlBqCW3Z18)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

Michael Crichton’s scary Ebola From Outer Space tale plays out like a shaggy dog story in Robert Wise’s methodical, uninvolving film adaptation. Producer/director Wise made his sci-fi rep with THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51, but this film’s attempt at sober-sided minimalism misses the earlier film’s News Reely feel. Instead, we might be passengers in some Corporate Sponsored World’s Fair exhibit, riding a track-bound vehicle into our very own microscopic adventure. Streamlined, color-coded sets, and an isolated Top-Secret lab facility set the scene for four scientists to investigate the mystery disease, but the story construction is as flat as the acting, neither exciting nor technically convincing. And then, when the action climax shows up, the film jettisons its raison d’etre for an old-fashioned (foot) race to the finish, and a moral on wisdom of inaction. You have to wonder who, other than Crichton, was in on the joke from the beginning.

DOUBLE-BILL: More Scientists vs. Modern Plagues in OUTBREAK/’95 and CONTAGION/’11 . . . and with equally uninvolving results.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CAUGHT (1949)

After a six year hiatus, war-exiled Max Ophüls had the misfortune of having Howard Hughes as boss on his first Stateside gig in 1946. He didn’t last long, and the film went thru four more directors before its disastrous release as VENDETTA/’50. But Max never forgot the constant fear & humiliation, working up a portrait of Hughes & his experience for the ‘heavy’ of this dark women’s pic, the second of three classics he made before returning to Europe for four more masterpieces before his untimely death in 1957. Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason & a remarkable Robert Ryan are all in peak form in this unusually structured story (the script is by Arthur Laurents, but Ophüls’ input is felt everywhere) of a pretty working-class naïf who meets-cute with a Captain of Industry billionaire who proposes on a whim. Ophüls, with a willing Ryan in the Hughes spot, locates the shabby glamour, power-mad psychosis & contempt of the man in a few brief strokes. While Mason, who doesn’t show until act two, is simply devastating as the generous inner-city doctor who offers Bel Geddes a way out, if she’ll only grab at it. Their side of the story, fine as it is, is more conventional, yet Mason makes even the offer of a drab winter coat infinitely touching & deeply romantic.* The film is simply terrific, as is everyone in the superb supporting cast, along with wondrously dark lensing (with heaps of Ophüls' signature tracking shots) from Lee Garmes who may have shot MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS/’42 for Orson Welles, but here gives Ophüls a look that’s more CITIZEN KANE/’41.

DOUBLE-BILL: CAUGHT is book-ended by LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN/’48 and THE RECKLESS MOMENT/’49; Ophüls’ first US pic, THE EXILE/’47 is an outlier in his output and has always been hard to locate.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Mason would work similar magic in RECKLESS MOMENT purchasing a cigarette filter tip for Joan Bennett. And speaking of magic, watch Ophüls hold off on frame-filling close-ups of Ryan vs. Mason for maximum effect later.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

COPACABANA (1947)

Groucho Marx was a still agile 57 when he made his brotherless debut co-starring with 'Brazilian Bombshell' Carmen Miranda, playing leading lady along with her usual specialty numbers. A scattershot musical comedy that’s never had much of a much of a rep, it’s not bad at all; a mess of a farce with pleasant, forgettable songs, but also pretty darn funny. With their act flopping as a duo, Groucho switches to agenting one client: Carmen; then winds up double-booking her @ The Copa in two guises: Fiery Carmen & Sultry Fifi. No one tries too hard to make sense of the plot, but there’s a winning/grinning cast who seem to be having a lot of fun playing along. (Check out toothy Andy Russell, a smooth boy singer who makes something charming out of his nothing role.) Made on a tight budget by vet helmer Alfred E. Green (a Hollywood hack off the biggest fluke hit of the year in THE JOLSON STORY/’46), the film boasts a rich look from lenser Bert Glennon and even carries a bit of NYC vibe. Miranda easily handles the non-specialty material in her role and Groucho wisely called in radio gagman Sydney Zelinka to polish up his wisecracks. Much better material than he got in those late M-G-M vehicles. And when Groucho introduces a second Groucho as a new club act, then watches himself perform a crack Kalmar & Ruby* numbo in full stage makeup, the film briefly tops all expectations.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Fred Astaire & Red Skelton play Kalmar & Ruby in the underrated M-G-M musical THREE LITTLE WORDS/’50.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note the emphasis on Miranda in our South-of-the-Border poster.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

DISTANT DRUMS (1951)

Before rejuvenating his Hollywood A-list position in HIGH NOON/’52 (finding a fresh heroic core by playing into rather than against his rapidly aging self), Gary Cooper had to get thru this reasonably effective Raoul Walsh programmer, last in a spate of critical & commercial duds that started in ‘49. Set in the 1840s, Coop leads a select military unit sent against long odds to recapture a fort and open central Florida for Zachary Taylor’s army. The nighttime raid works, but not without leaving Coop, his soldiers & a band of rescued civilians out-manned & out-flanked by incoming warriors of the Seminole Nation. And the only way out is thru the Everglades: swamps, ‘gators & water-moccasins. Walsh ought to be in his element with this action-oriented adventure, but his staging never adds up to much excitement across the muddy terrain, while the interpersonal stuff is a non-starter due to colorless support from Richard Webb’s regular army type & forgettable Mari Aldon playing an impure Southern Belle. It’s not a bad film, Cooper even works up a bit of Indian dialogue for scenes with his half-Native American son. But it comes off as secondhand goods.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Walsh led a far more energetic military group thru impossible terrain with death at every corner in his fine WWII drama OBJECTIVE, BURMA!/’45, which strongly recalls King Vidor’s even more interesting, if flawed, NORTHWEST PASSAGE/’40.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Even in Olive Film’s much improved DVD release, Sid Hickox’s day-for-night shooting looks like a sludgy, blue-filtered mistake.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934)

Morbid, murky & romantically menacing, Alberto Casella’s play has proved remarkably sturdy in many formats. A Pop Liebestod that’s been remade as MEET JOE BLACK/98; revived on tv; and recently musicalized; it's a symbolist-influenced FLYING DUTCHMAN, Richard Wagner by way of Gabriele D’Annuzio.* Here, Death (Fredric March) takes a short break from his usual tasks to taste of mortal pleasures & figure out why no one ever invites him to the party. It’s all very chic, amusing & sophisticated . . . until Death gets Laid, then all bets (and promises of good behavior) are off. As a late Pre-Code film release. it’s clearly physical sex, not chaste love, that forgettable Evelyn Venable is offering, which neatly ups the ante. Mitchell Leisen, showing off visually in an early directing gig, with fine assists from Hans Dreier & Ernst Fegté in the art department and lush monochrome lensing from Charles Lang, starts up in tempting fashion with a drunken, daredevil drive. But it all goes kerblooey about halfway in as high style gives way to a stagebound Maxwell Anderson script that plays out like some sub-Dracula pic. Or maybe it’s the Carpathian accent March uses. Death needs a more stylized package to convince us. Maybe smooth Ronald Colman or ironic William Powell might have unlocked the grand romantic gesture Casella is looking for. But it’s certainly different than your ordinary cinema prestige item.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Casella even bothers to name a rival suitor Eric, just like Wagner in DUTCHMAN.

DOUBLE-BILL: Death takes a forced holiday in ON BORROWED TIME/’39, with world mortality on hold from family sentiment instead of libido. And, in Sir Cedric Hardwicke, a Grim Reaper you can believe in.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

BAD MA RA KHAHAD BORD / THE WIND WILL CARRY US (1999)

Enigmatic (make that typically enigmatic) film from Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s car-fixated auteur. A beautifully observed piece, built on a wisp of narrative that brings a group of city types (from Tehran?) into a rural community for some ill-defined purpose. Their leader, the only one of the group we properly meet, chats up the locals on the declining health of the town’s centenarian. Reserved, but unfailingly polite, the villagers seem unable to refuse a request while a young boy, busy with school exams, acts as unofficial guide. He’s helpful, too, yet there’s something prickly (and faintly comic) in all the relationships. Perhaps it’s because no one’s quite sure what’s this stranger is up to. And his crew always seems to be off hunting up fresh strawberries. He’s referred to as ‘engineer,’ but wants it put out that he’s there looking for treasure, whatever that might be. Meanwhile, he spends half the film chasing up ‘hot spots’ to find cell phone reception. Best spot: mountain cemetery. Kiarostami works up answers to a few of these story strands as the film drifts along, but the point isn’t explanation, but contemplation. And the slight edge of mystery has a satisfaction of its own in this beautifully paced, richly visual abstraction of a film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Kiarostami makes a rare misstep using a tight mirror's POV shot for the stranger’s morning shave. Uncomfortably close, in more ways than one, and too clever by half.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014)

Paramount Pictures reboots the Jack Ryan franchise after a 12 year hiatus by degrading Tom Clancy’s quasi-serious/realistic geo-political thrillers into another MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Even putting M.I. scripter David Koepp on the thing. (And just when they finally turned out a dandy M.I. pic, GHOST PROTOCOL/’11, sans Koepp.) It’s a ludicrous thing, opening with a tri-part Young Jack prologue before making him a covert SHADOW ACCOUNTANT on Wall Street. Sent to Moscow to stop a dastardly plot to disembowel the U.S. economy (as if our own banks weren’t perfectly capable of doing it themselves), he squares off against Moscow money mogul Kenneth Branagh, continuing his Laurence Olivier act (now from MARATHON MAN/’76). Branagh also megs, tossing & turning his way around the action scenes to less effect than he did on THOR/’11. Elsewhere, Keira Knightley follows her guy (to Moscow?), largely to put someone in danger, but at least looks well with an extra five pounds on her. More than can be said for our hero, Chris Pine, whose face closes up the more you light it. The only real suspense to the thing is imagining Paramount honcho Brad Grey going over the film’s breakeven grosses and trying to decide if he should opt into a sequel. Don’t do it, Brad!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: And, speaking of Brads . . . go for the Brad Bird directed M.I. GHOST PROTOCOL. A real surprise, that, and Bird’s not coming back to do the next.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Look for an uncredited Mikhail Baryshnikov in a nice bit as Branagh’s Deep-Cover Russian boss.

Monday, October 13, 2014

CHAPLIN AT ESSANAY: Volume 2 (1915)

The early Charles Chaplin film years are easy to parse: scores of appearances as a fast-rising Keystone beginner in 1914; self-apprenticeship in 1915 as writer/director/star/producer of 15 shorts @ Essanay; then initial comic mastery over a dozen releases for Mutual in 1916. Image DVD has put out the often overlooked Essanays on three discs with Vol. 2 offering a good taste of this transitional phase. (BEWARE of many bad editions!) The first title, THE TRAMP, is often taken as a sort of mission statement whereas Chaplin’s preferred name for his screen self was The Little Fellow. In any event, many touchstone elements are debuted here as Charlie lands on the farm of leading lady Edna Purviance after being robbed by a trio of drifters. After a day’s labor of barnyard chores & comic destruction, the three drifters show up to cause more trouble. But Charlie, who’s fallen hard for Edna, foils the plot only to find out that the grateful Edna is already spoken for. So, it’s a solo shuffle down the road of life; a shake-off-the-blues quick-step kick, and Charlie’s jaunty gait returns as he walks briskly toward the future. All shot from behind in a manner as unlikely for the time as the pathos. Striking as all these elements are, Chaplin hasn’t yet figured out how to integrate them; they show up a la carte. The untapped possibilities no doubt exhausted Chaplin. So, it was back to Keystone basics for his next, BY THE SEA. A scenic location; a bit of knock-about; a pretty girl; a day’s filming; release. Next up, WORK. Now, Charlie’s thinking again. Pulling a cart like an ox, he gets his partner to their next wallpapering job. Once at the house, the family gets in the way. Not of his messy work, but of his pursuit of Edna! Mayhem ensues. More importantly, a film maker shows up . . . Charlie Chaplin! Suddenly he’s staging elaborate chaos with action starting in one room and spilling over to the next; even from floor to floor with quick edits. It’s as if a previously unknown directing gene in his DNA clicked on. The last two films here, A WOMAN, with Charlie teaching a lech a lesson, lets him hide under unsettling drag makeup which he shows off in full-frame close-up, and THE BANK, which is nearly worthy of one of the Mutuals, going from cleverly inappropriate juxtaposition gags to a grand dream sequence where Charlie saves the day, gets the girl . . . then wakes up.

And the films might be even more impressive had Chaplin kept pristine prints & negatives as he would soon be in a position to do. Simple and crude as these films can be, they were replayed for decades. Note our small poster with WORK retitled as THE PAPERHANGER with a drawing of Chaplin that’s probably from the ‘40s.

DOUBLE-BILL: On to The Chaplin Mutuals!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

AACHI AND SSIPAK (2006)

Seriously scatological animation out of South Korea is fast, rude, funny . . . and largely indescribable. An illogical mess that, at its best, rewires your brain as you watch. (Check out the MAD MAX/’79 road chase opening sequence @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO_4eaZKdjg to see how you handle the extreme cartoon violence and fecal fecundity.) The set up is a familiar unexplained/unexamined dystopian future, but in a goof on the dark secret of SOYLENT GREEN/’73, this Mega-City runs on human poop!

It’s what they use to make the addictive Juicy Bars everyone wants. Streetwise Korean dude Aachi & his musclebound American blockhead pal Ssipak are partners in low level crime, working the illegal Juicy Pop trade for fun & profit. Right now, they’re caught between martial law city authorities and the deadly Diaper Gang minions, an organized army of crime. Fortunately, those Diaper Boys are plentiful, but easy to take out . . . they’re disposable. (Yucky, yuck, yuck.) That’s the general tone here, with silly story construction to match. But animation fan boys won't mind since writer/director Jo Beom-jin’s visuals are so consistently inventive & energetic. (And possibly Bowdlerized in Mondo’s Stateside edition. Did they also change the music track?) Not for all tastes, and not for the tyke set, though the Middle School crowd is bound to discover it.

DOUBLE-BILL: Japanese anime classic AKIRA/’88 is all over this one.

Friday, October 10, 2014

JUDEX (1963)

Georges Franju’s homage to the silent serials of Louis Feuillade (FANTÔMAS/’13*; LES VAMPIRES/’15; JUDEX/’17) is as absurd & enchanting as the originals. Fantastic whoppers about criminal gangs with larceny in their DNA and the daring, eccentric crime-busters who risk all to stop them. Sans super power, they’re more precursor to BATMAN than MARVEL. The Tintin adventures also come to mind, and with some of the charm, wit, oddity & directness that went missing in Steven Spielberg’s speed-crazed adaptation. Here, a man wearing the head of a noble bird appears at a fancy dress party to do a few magic tricks and murder the host . . . thru suggestion! Turns out some old family history needs avenging just as a banking/blackmail scheme is coming to a head. The intricate plot is kept remarkably transparent by Franju who plays his story with the sophistication of a Jungian fairy tale. Same goes for the visual palette, with a varied grey-scale that vaults from the noirish chiaroscuro of a nighttime rendezvous to the pearly soft gray monochrome mist of a James Whistler study of country lanes. A wonderment to look at.

With memorable perfs (including a great kid helpmate), and neat sleight-of-hand camera tricks. Wonderful fun in its faux naïf telling. Too bad Franju had little interest in varying his signature ‘walking’ gait. A bit of swing in the filmmaking rhythm might have bumped him out of his connoisseur niche.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Claude Chabrol took on Feuillade with a reworking of FANTÔMAS/’80, but the results are too stilted and self-conscious.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

EARTHQUAKE (1974)

The cycle of all-star/big-budget disaster pics that started with AIRPORT/’70 hit a prestige peak and its ‘camp’ tipping-point at almost the exact same time when A-listers in THE TOWERING INFERNO opened only a month after the B-listers & rumbling SENSURROUND!* of this typically cheesy Jennings Lang production. The point of these things was to get as many recognizable Hollywood types in danger as quickly as possible; then watch them claw their way out . . . or not. But this example of the form was out of the cruddy Universal Studios assembly-line world of top-agent turned Movie Mogul Lew Wasserman, so everything looks like a ‘70s Movie-of-the-Week, no matter the budget. Even worse, Mario Puzo plots it like one. With not-so special effects out of a contemporary GODZILLA pic, we’re far below the gold standard of disaster pics past like SAN FRANCISCO/’36, THE RAINS CAME/’39 or even THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH/’26. But a few incidental pleasures remain, mostly unintentional laughs. Like when George Kennedy’s tough cop adds in the fact that the little girl he saw killed by a speeding car was Hispanic. Chuck Heston’s sports jacket & Victoria Principal's hair-do are pretty wonderful, too. But the only reputations that truly survive this one are lenser Philip Lathrop who buys into that ghastly overlit Universal fluorescent look pre-earthquake, so he can not so subtly subvert it post. And that great matte painting whiz Albert Whitlock, ignoring the insultingly poor composite work by the Universal tech department to concentrate his considerable talents on two overwhelming, long-view streetscapes that boast a poetic surrealism Fritz Lang might have signed-off on back in his UFA days.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In most venues, the big SENSURROUND speakers were visible in the four corners of the theater. Don’t sit too close!, those sub-woofers really shook up the joint during the quakes. The gimmick returned to little effect on Jack Smight’s dull WWII pic MIDWAY/’76, but gave a nice lift to ROLLERCOASTER/’77, on screen if not at the box-office.

DOUBLE-BILL: Might as well check out THE TOWERING INFERNO, just to see how much worse the ‘classier’ competition is.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

MAN OF TAI CHI (2013)

Keanu Reeves’ debut as director-star hyphenate is dead-on-arrival. A Martial Arts actioner where even the fighting hero looks bored. But imagine the sequels! MAN OF PILATES! MAN OF ISOMETRICS! MAN OF FREE WEIGHT TRAINING!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Given the percentage of screen time given to Martial Arts sequences, plus separate credit for action director, Reeves vanity title should be co-director. But give him full credit for digging up his Fight Club extras straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s infamous orgy scene in EYES WIDE SHUT/'99.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Commercially, Reeves career has been all but dormant for over a decade, long enough to have skipped an entire film-going generation. For a reminder of his surprising range & immense charm, check him out in SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE/’03 where he’s so effective he throws the film’s romantic ending entirely out of whack.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

CAREER (1959)

For about five minutes in the middle of its last act, this turgid meller about an ambitious, hard-luck actor is jolted to life by an abruptly terminated tv audition. It seems our anti-hero actor (glowering Anthony Franciosa) is perfect for the job, but out of luck because of his past association with a Leftie Off-Off B’way theatrical company and its card-carrying Commie honcho Dean Martin. Holy Smokes! A Pinko Dino! It may represent the earliest sympathetic take on ‘50s McCarthy Witch Hunt Blacklisting victims in film. So, its not a complete surprise to discover real-life Blacklisted scripter Dalton Trumbo having an uncredited hand in the screenplay. If only the rest of the film held equal interest. Instead, we get Franciosa as a talented actor who misses his chances with too much drive & a hangdog expression; Dino selling out for the Hollywood life; Shirley MacLaine grabbing at boys & booze 'cause her B’way producer dad won’t give her attention; and that nice lady in the theatrical office, Carolyn Jones, waiting for Franciosa to notice her between those lousy road tours she booked him into. All while the passing years are ticked off in every other scene with either an anniversary to celebrate or a pregnancy to complicate matters. Prolific B’way director Joseph Anthony may have smiled knowingly at the soapy plot turns, but, to his credit, he’s become far more comfortable as moviemaker since his stiff early gigs on THE RAINMAKER/’56 and THE MATCHMAKER/58.

DOUBLE-BILL: Backstage mellers were all the rage in the late ‘50s. With STAGE STRUCK/’58 (a botched remake of MORNING GLORY/’33) and a mishandled MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR/’58 just two of the more prominent examples.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

BELLISSIMA (1951)

Everyone’s at their unexpected best here. Unexpected because warm, humanistic & funny aren’t what you expect from either forbidding grand maestro Luchino Visconti or from earthy, explosive Anna Magnani. Merciless honesty is more their forté. (You get that too, on the side with everything.) Largely shot in & around Cinecitta Studios, it’s the story of an open casting call for a cute little girl with Magnani as the über-Mama who’ll do anything to grab her sad-faced tyke a screen test. Just as long as everyone thinks she’s bellissima. Minus a firm hand, Magnani’s force-of-nature persona could swallow films whole or turn routine. But under Visconti’s steady gaze and careful shot choice (lots of long shots), she doesn’t hit a false note. (And still young enough for her looks to devastate as well as demand.) Watch her outlast her husband in a domestic fight, then instantly turn down the hysteria & waterworks once she’s won her point. Oversized, but true. Working off Cesare Zavattini’s clear-eyed script, both appalling and honest, Visconti juggles the comic & pathetic with the same edgy clarity. Even giving a romantic sidebar a painful kick in the shins when needed. All perfectly cast with nosy neighbors milling about; a frightened lug of a husband with a big heart; and Walter Chiari’s charmingly deceitful, ultimately heartless studio assistant. And if the ending now looks too ironically neat, it’s a minor demerit on a classic that’s also a great introduction to all its players in front & behind the camera.

DOUBLE-BILL: The director of the film within the film is Alessandro Blasetti whose FOUR STEPS IN THE CLOUDS/’42, also from a Cesare Zavattini script, is often held as a precursor to Italian Neo-Realism. (Not currently available Stateside, unlike this beautifully restored BELLISSIMA from ‘e-one.’) A loose remake, A WALK IN THE CLOUDS/’95, with Keanu Reeves & Anthony Quinn did it’s briefly hot director, Alfonso Arau, no favors.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Check out those two assistant directors: Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli who stayed with Visconti for SENSO/’54.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954)

This decidedly uncomfortable romantic-comedy skirts unknowingly(?) close to LOLITA territory, putting 22 yr-old Debbie Reynolds on the lap of 51 yr-old Dick Powell. (She’s supposed to be 17 and gets away with it; he’s supposed to be 35 and doesn’t.) The film never really finds its way past an idiotic set up that parks Debbie’s shrieking juvenile delinquent at Powell’s pad for the holidays. The hope is to keep Reynolds out of juvey jail and gin up some fresh subject matter for Powell’s stale Hollywood scripter. Naturally, they bicker away until realizing they’re meant for each other. Creepy as it sounds, much of the writing & playing is better than you expect, without the dumb misunderstandings that usually keep these things in motion. An early feature credit from cartoonist-turned-feature-director Frank Tashlin, it largely avoids the stop/start rhythm of his later gag-studded efforts, restricting his visual games (for better & worse) to the occasional odd camera placement for comic emphasis. For the record, Glenda Farrell, as Powell’s unmarried, middle-aged secretary, gets off a pip of a line on giving motherly advise: ‘I happen to have typed STELLA DALLAS.’ More like that could have overridden a lot of discomfort.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Reynolds’ home studio, M-G-M, must have liked this RKO production, giving her a similar follow up in THE TENDER TRAP/’55. Wan stuff, except for its smash one-shot credit sequence with star Frank Sinatra swinging the title track. But it helps explain the career arc of this film’s little remembered sidekick, Alvy Moore. Destined as second choice to David Wayne and Jerry Lewis at the time, TRAP has the higher profile Wayne in the same spot Moore gets in this less prestigious pic. And you can watch Moore in Jerry Lewis mode in 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE/’55 which even has Kerwin Matthews in the Dean Martin slot. Ironic that SUSAN helmer, Tashlin, was something of a mentor to Lewis which could explain the unusual attention he gives Moore in what may be his best screen perf. (Too bad Tashlin didn’t spend just as much time trying to tone down Ms. Reynolds.)

DOUBLE-BILL: For a noir take on blocked Hollywood screenwriters who bring home sweet young things, try Nicholas Ray/Humphrey Bogart’s scalding IN A LONELY PLACE/’50.

Friday, October 3, 2014

AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

David O. Russell undersells his own work in this snarky re-imagining of the Ab-Scan scandal, turning out a Martin Scorsese homage, in style if not content: GOODFELLAS-lite. Even finding a spot (uncredited) for Robert De Niro’s threatening comic shtick, his only string these days. The film follows a couple of sharpies (Christian Bale & Amy Adams) who get caught running mid-level cons by Bradley Cooper’s blindly ambitious Fed agent. But Cooper isn’t content nabbing small fry, not when he can use them to go after politicians, industrialists & mob guys. Jazzed-up by the possibilities, and by Adams’ cool heat, this would-be con master doesn’t know he’s left himself open to be played. Though a bit complicated in the telling, particularly in the first act, things settle down for some good, nasty fun, with zippy comic support anywhere you turn; blood drawn as needed. Louis C. K., as Bradley’s harried boss, and Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s infuriating dumb-bunny wife are particularly fine. As are the three leads, Cooper, making good on earlier promising perfs; Bale, daringly broad to fine effect; and the preternaturally gifted Amy Adams, bosoms flying, showing what Jane Fonda might be like if she could only act. The comedy is often LOL funny, but also very bleak, with a voice not much seen or heard on the big screen since the heyday of Richard Condon adaptations like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE/’62 and PRIZZI’S HONOR/’85. And, like those classics, the black, absurdist tone resonates with some, but may fall completely flat with their neighbors. If we could just get Russell to trust his audience & himself a little bit more with his tune.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above: GOODFELLAS/’90; THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (the original John Frankenheimer, please); PRIZZI’S HONOR.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

HIT MAN (1974)

Cult favorite GET CARTER/’71, an unusually raw revenge outing for Michael Caine from underperforming helmer Mike Hodges, got a pointless 2000 remake with Sly Stallone. But who knew Ted Lewis’s source novel (‘Jack’s Return Home’) had also been trotted out as a Blaxploitation pic? The basic set-up still follows a brother’s hunt for the man (or men) who killed his sibling, but now the vengeful brother is . . . er, a ‘Brotha.’ Specifically, Bernie Casey, a thickly muscled type who unfortunately lacks the focus & charisma to lift this vehicle out of second gear. Not much help from George Armitage’s wan script & megging, either. A shame because the cultural extremes of 1974 Funk are plenty fun to check out. Casey’s color-co-ordinated outfits (and hat for every occasion) are an eye-searing treat, and the wide variety of Afros will bring back many nightmarish memories for anyone who ever got seated behind one. Pam Grier, in a role that hardly lives up to her second billing, has the most impressive ‘do,’ but since she plays a porn actress, you may not always be checking out her hair. Nice transfer, too.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rare is the Blaxploitation pic that lives up to its decidedly funky trailer. Instead, see Pam Grier at full wattage in Quentin Tarantino’s superior JACKIE BROWN/’97.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957)

Terrence Rattigan’s THE SLEEPING PRINCE, written to coincide with Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation, was poached by Marilyn Monroe and producing partner Milton Greene as their initial film project. (It was also their last.) Your basic Ruritarian romance, but set in a London embassy, it stars Laurence Olivier as a chilly, charmless Regent, running his little country till his son comes of age, and Monroe (in a role Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh played on stage) as the young, spirited actress he hopes to seduce. It’s a tired bit of fluff that Olivier, as director, makes worse by stuffing it with ‘cinematic’ treats (a coronation parade & ball) that make Rattigan’s tidy play look tinny. So much pomp, so little circumstance. Worse, he’s so cold to the touch, we can’t fathom Monroe’s attraction. (When he does warm up, halfway thru, he’s suddenly very funny.) Famously troublesome to work with, Monroe does fall into the same rhythm on speech after speech, and Olivier makes things harder with pointlessly fussy camera moves he hoped would enliven this stagebound vehicle. Still, Marilyn’s natural gift for light, romantic comedy, especially when she doesn’t have to play dumb or dramatic, always comes thru. Lenser Jack Cardiff lights her like a ripe peach, softening that overly-determined chin, quite unlike the lacquered look she’d been getting at 20th/Fox. And the sway of her body line in her formal gown, with the lower abdomen slightly curved, is spectacularly sexy. Monroe's acuity may have been debatable, but she definitely had a certain cunning about herself, or rather, about her self-presentation. (Shocking to think she only had three more films in her.) What a shame these two great stars hadn’t come together on William Wyler’s CARRIE/’52. Monroe was born for the Jennifer Jones role and Olivier’s greatest film perf would have gained the visibility it deserves. (Plus, instead of Monroe wearing everyone down, multi-take task master Wyler would have worn her down.)

DOUBLE-BILL: The film about this production, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN/’11 doesn’t quite hold up, though Kenneth Branagh is often spot on as Olivier even when they have him quoting dialogue from John Osbourne’s not yet written THE ENTERTAINER/’60 as self-criticism. A real cheap shot, that.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The current Warners DVD advises that the print has been ‘Modified to Fit Your Screen.’ Not so. This is one of those Academy Ratio films that would have been shown either in the old-fashioned squarish frame or slightly cropped by the projectionist, probably down to a modestly wide 1.66:1. So don’t let the notification bring out the purest in you.