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Thursday, December 31, 2015

FEAR AND DESIRE (1953)

Stanley Kubrick disowned his little debut feature, made when he was 25. (Then again, he pretty much disowned SPARTACUS/’60, too.) Shot on a dime, and running about an hour, it’s a poetic/philosophical non-specific war story about a handful of men behind enemy lines after a crash landing. They work up a plan to float their way to safety on a river raft, but one of them first wants to first play the hero card, taking out an enemy General before they head out, even at the cost of his life. Like a student film by some preternatural talent, and not without its awkward moments, there’s showy editing to hide clunky acting & bad dubbing. Plus future director Paul Mazursky losing his marbles after a killing. Blame Howard (GREAT WHITE HOPE/’70) Sackler for some frou-frou monologues: Brawny soldier musing on his uneventful life, ‘Ya try door after door when ya like the voices behind them . . . but the knobs come off in yer hand.’ (Jeepers!) Jejune stuff, but worth a look for Kubrickian themes to come, and for his remarkably expressive sun-dappled natural-light lensing. (Kubrick was already shooting for LOOK magazine.) Long available in questionable dupes, the recent KINO edition, sourced from the Library of Congress, is superb (though mislabeled anamorphic). It comes with a short-subject about the Seafarers International Union, shot in 16mm color. This two-reel ‘documentary’ is really an ‘industrial’ film, made by a hustling Kubrick working ‘Of, By & For’ the SIU. Fascinating stuff, capturing a long gone way of life for a small but powerful union.

DOUBLE-BILL: Did Charles Laughton see FEAR AND DESIRE before going into production on NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55? There are striking visual similarities.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

SPY (2015)

Good rude fun, if not quite as funny as it thinks it is. Writer/director Paul Feig runs hefty Melissa McCarthy thru her paces in a James Bondian farce that shows surprising affection toward Roger Moore’s late ‘70s cocky aplomb & super slick productions. (Moore’s Bond gets little love these days, yet his are the films most hit on: Mike Myers’ AUSTIN POWERS series, THE INCREDIBLES/’04 & here.) Feig’s story is, if anything, better constructed than most Bond pics with McCarthy switching from computer whiz for super agent Jude Law to field agent hunting down a nuclear device. Lots of obvious yuks from a big supporting cast show Feig leaning too heavily on quick reverses & inappropriate comeback lines. He might be writing ‘funny’ balloon dialogue over cute baby pictures. He does allow a real perf out of office gal Miranda Hart which almost makes up for Jude Law’s crucifying hairpiece. Yikes!* But watch McCarthy running in the long shots. She can’t. A hoppy little trot is about all she can manage. The film techies fake her big action stuff to fine, funny effect, but when Feig hits real comic paydirt like this, he ignores it. (Or doesn't know how to use it.) Might the inevitable sequel trade editing tricks for a bit of human comedy?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Could Law’s hair be a tribute to the whopper Sean Connery wears in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE/’67?

Monday, December 28, 2015

FEHÉR ISTEN / WHITE GOD (2014)

Hungarian writer/director Kornél Mundruczó earns credit just for letting unavoidable Holocaust & Roma allegorical chips fall where they may in this grim Girl and Her Mongrel Dog fable. It’s modern Budapest, and young Lili gets left with a father she barely knows when Mom leaves the country for a three month job. A clueless, forbidding parent, Dad barely takes in his daughter, but tosses her beloved mutt out. The rest of the film cuts between the girl’s late night hunts for her dog (when she’s not mooning over a slightly older boy in her school orchestra), and the dog’s increasingly desperate life as a canine tramp (food fights, dog pound, fight clubs) as the city authorities 'cleanse' the town of any 'impure' breeds. All brought to the screen by hundreds of real/non-CGI rescued animals (a mostly white little mixed pooch is an instant star) in action scenes that beggar belief at how they ever got done. (Fortunately, the violent fights are the least convincing with the dogs obviously tousling around enjoyably before scary growling & barks were dubbed on the soundtrack.) Eventually, the dogs have their day, annihilating the pound, its employees and taking back the streets. Even Lili may be in danger from her brutalized pet. And if it all doesn’t quite add up in the end, the action & sentiment more than compensate.

DOUBLE-BILL: Think 101 DALMATIANS/’61 meets CUJO/’83.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

STREET SMART (1987)

At 35, Christopher Reeve’s post SUPERMAN/’78 run as Leading Man ran out of gas with this gritty Jerry Schatzberg NYC urban drama. (Al Pacino & Sidney Lumet they ain’t.) A neat gimmick stands in for a plot: Struggling journalist invents a mega-pimp for a career-saving magazine article, then comes up against a real-life counterpart who not only likes the attention but buddies up to the writer in order to gain an alibi on a murder charge. (Maybe less Sidney Lumet than Sam Fuller, right down to the grabbed ending.) Made on the cheap by those hustling Cannon/Globus-Golan boys, it catches the tail-end of Manhattan’s graffiti-strewn/Fun City era (lenser Adam Holender smoothly folding in the Canadian location work). But verisimilitude largely stems from Morgan Freeman’s powerhouse perf as a controlling pimp with a hair-trigger threat mechanism, brilliantly handled without the usual huffing or puffing. Held back for decades as a Black actor looking for good roles, Freeman finally found his breakthrough @ 50. Now pushing 80, he’s moved on from pimps & chauffeurs to Detectives & Presidents.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Reeve must have been incredibly frustrated with his career arc. This film apparently only got set up as a package deal with the unfortunate SUPERMAN IV/’87. Was the problem physical? A big, handsome guy, Reeve proved unusually tough to shoot, as if made from mismatched parts. Watch when Schatzberg catches him from the back, he actually holds the screen with that broad back better than he does in straight-ahead portraits. Maddening.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

THE UNWRITTEN CODE (1944)

This little Columbia B-pic can’t quite put over its nifty wartime story. (From German refugee Robert Wohlman and vet Hollywood hack Charles Kenyon.) It starts well, right in the water after a Nazi U-Boat sinks a British ship loaded with (Irony Alert!) German POWs. Two German prisoners clamber onto a lifeboat where they find a wounded British officer, steal his uniform, then toss the still living man into the sea. One of the two, a British educated Nazi thinks he can ‘pass’ as the dead Brit and try to locate his fellow Nazis once they reach Stateside Prisoners’ Camp. Then what? An insurrection? A bit of nationalist mayhem? Opportunity may knock. And the set up only gets better once we’re ashore since the romantic couple who unknowing get in the middle of the Nazi plot are none other than Ann Savage & Tom Neal, soon to appear in Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic zero-budget DETOUR/’45 as the noir couple from Hell. Heck, there’s even a future Oscar®-winning lenser on board in Burnett Guffey to help one-time megger Herman Rotsten. Alas, the film's still largely a series of missed dramatic opportunities. But that needn’t stop you from fixing it up inside your head. Start by killing off the two tiny tykes who take on the Nazis with pellet rifles.

DOUBLE-BILL: In similar vein, B-pics like HITLER’S MADMAN/’43 and HITLER’S CHILDREN/’43 got Hollywood careers going for Douglas Sirk & Edward Dmytryk. Good luck finding copies.

Friday, December 25, 2015

SCROOGE (1970)

For a while in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Leslie Bricusse was the ‘go-to’ composer for a short-lived cycle of what might be called ‘Unnecessary Musicals.’ Largely remakes of well-loved literary classics, they tried to cash in on soundtrack albums for the generic tunes and 70mm RoadShow engagements with advanced pricing & reserved seats. DOCTOR DOLITTLE/’68; GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS/69; SCROOGE/’70; plus PICKWICK/’69 and PETER PAN/’76 on tv, all clearly better off with the songs removed. (All flops, too.) This lux version of Dickens’ oft-filmed tale works so hard to be another OLIVER!/’68, you can hear the dancers panting. As a straight telling, director Ronald Neame pulls off a decent, if unmemorable first two acts (Alec Guinness a scary/funny Marley; Edith Evans triumphant as the Ghost of Christmas Past), but Bricusse’s script completely falls apart in the crucial future section, while the joyous epilogue is little more than a desperate lunge to end the film with something analogous to the much praised ‘Consider Yourself’ numbo from OLIVER! And long before that, Albert Finney overdoses on his grumpy-voiced Scrooge.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The great Scrooge assumptions are Alastair Sim in ‘51; George C. Scott in ‘84 and Mister Magoo in ‘62. Magoo even gets a modest Jules Styne set of songs, but for a musicalization, there’s a fine full-length score from Alan Menken. Wonderfully performed on stage by Jim Dale (among others), it was botched as a Kelsey Grammer tv movie. The best of all CHRISTMAS CAROLS may be the hard to find slightly abridged/all Dickens AudioBook version from John Gielgud.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

MELVIN AND HOWARD (1980)

Something precious was lost when director Jonathan Demme gave up his quirky early dramedies for mainstream fare, documentaries (musical & political) & misbegotten remakes. In CITIZENS BAND/HANDLE WITH CARE/’77 and here, he tackled outlier Americana with the instincts of a fabulist raised on a film diet of Jean Renoir & Preston Sturges. M&H is the classic of the pair, a great American film on a great American hard-luck tale, the possibly true story of how one of life’s sweet failures hit the jackpot by giving a lift to an injured man out in the desert, a guy who looks like a bum, but claims to be Howard Hughes. Years later, after a couple of marriages, multiple kids, many dead-end jobs and uncrumbling optimism, Melvin Dummar (an irreplaceable Paul Le Mat) is named in Hughes’ mysterious handwritten will. But who’ll believe it? The film, beautifully built & voiced by Bo Goldman, does, implicitly. You will, too. But it hardly matters, which is part of Demme’s magic touch here. It’s all about the journey, and even more about total acceptance of all the characters we meet along the way with one pitch perfect perf capping another. And no real villains till we hit the courts. (Even the hard-nosed asshole of a boss Melvin works for as a milkman gets a decent treatment.) But top marks must go to Jason Robards’ Howard Hughes, who puts his character over in just a couple of reels, making the old creep touching, sympathetic & downright tuneful. The film remains a small miracle even if Universal's DVD dulls Tak Fujimoto’s pristine cinematography.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Demme’s follow up, SWING SHIFT/’84, was re-edited into something no one wanted to claim as their own. Supposedly, a Director’s Cut (or the materials for one) exists. But even as is, it’s possible to see the outline of a worthy early Demme.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Did music rights keep M&H unavailable for a time? If so, it was worth the wait just to see Melvin’s first wife (Mary Steenburgen) use The Rolling Stones’ SATISFACTION for her tv game show tap dance routine.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

THE FRONT PAGE (1931)

Largely remembered (when remembered at all) for serious war dramas (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30; A WALK IN THE SUN/’45; the underrated EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43), Lewis Milestone earned the first (and only!) Best Comedy Director Oscar® in 1929 for   TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS/’27. Made in the wake of Raoul Walsh’s WHAT PRICE GLORY/’26, the over-produced WWI prison escape buddy pic is now rarely shown, but does make Milestone seem less unlikely a choice for Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur’s legendary Chicago newspaper dramedy. The famous story (ace reporter plans to ankle job for marriage, but not if his wily boss can stop him) has been picked clean for years. (Even by its authors, who ‘borrowed’ their template for GUNGA DIN/’39.) Nowadays, best known with a gender-switched lead via Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY/’40; the original version is poorly served by Billy Wilder’s dispiriting 1974 remake, made in the cutesy wake of THE STING/’73. Which is all to say that this Early Talkie, now restored to reasonable condition on KINO DVD, is a real find; a gorgeous antique that honors the play in a hilarious & blisteringly tough fashion that still has you gasping at the audacity of Chicago city politics & newspaper ‘ethics.’ It not only hasn’t dated, it’s ahead of current headlines. (They do say ‘colored’ rather than African-American and everyone dresses better; elsewise, spot on.) Milestone seems utterly determined to blast thru the technical restrictions of the Early Talkie period, taunting his cameramen with impossibly fast moves and flaunting some technical flourishes. Not all of them work, and the soundtrack hasn’t come up as well as the picture. For that matter, Milestone always shot sound film as if he were still making silents . . . with dialogue tacked on. So, don’t look for that early Frank Capra rhythmic swing & pace you’d find perfected the following year in AMERICAN MADNESS/’32, which shares this film’s lead, Pat O’Brien, in excellent form. But even Capra couldn’t have cast it any better. Masterly perfs from a bevy of class character acts, and in Adolphe Menjou a triumphant turn as editor Walter Burns. A film so devilishly joyous, so heartlessly funny, it may have you second-guessing if Hawks’ version is the improvement everyone claims it to be.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: One of the DVD EXTRAs is a radio version from June 28, 1937 with Walter Winchell in for Pat O’Brien as reporter Hildy Johnson. But you may hit the repeat button when they announce the No-Show Special Guest . . . Amelia Earhart! Delayed in the air by her world spanning flight, she’s announced as being rescheduled for next week’s program. That would have been July 4th . . . and Earhart went missing July 2nd.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)

After much tv helming, Simon Curtis’s first feature is a paint-by-the-numbers drama. But sometimes that’s enough. The true story (truer than most of its ilk) is about Maria Altman’s legal battle to regain family art work stolen by the Nazis from their home in Vienna, later appropriated by Austria as National Treasures. Neatly played & structured in non-linear past remembrances as well as in the present where Altman gets help navigating international court procedures from a junior-league lawyer who’s not only a family friend, but also grandson to another L.A. German-exile, serial composer Arnold Schoenberg. The film is very much this year’s PHILOMENA/’13: stubborn senior, played by a beloved British Dame, on the hunt for a lost piece of her past; joined at the hip by a struggling professional in career-crisis, played by a lighter-weight actor. (Similar age differences, too.) Add on an immovable object in opposition offering false claims of reform once the two leads travel to (or from) the U.S. before a bittersweet have-and-have-not resolution. (Budgets & grosses also similar.) Well, why not? This film turns the trick equally well, maybe better.* Ryan Reynolds makes a bland lawyer (though he hardly competes with ‘wife’ Katie Holmes in luster lack!), but it matters little in the generally well-cast film. Not when it gives Helen Mirren such opportunities for bravura underplaying! Listen close, that’s no Austro-German accent on her. Instead, the unmistakable cadence & tones of Ingrid Bergman, and very effective it is. As indeed are the flashbacks, superbly conceived & all the more suspenseful for coming at us piecemeal from some safe place in the future.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Might as well take the suggested lesson in story construction and revisit PHILOMENA.

Monday, December 21, 2015

CONFESSION (1937)

Irresistible trash. Or rather, ‘twash,’ in honor of Kay Francis’s famously weak ‘r.’ Francis, a great louché force in Pre-Code days, was in decline @ Warners, but producer Hal Wallis gave her quite the lux production here. Including a glamorously delayed third-reel entrance, after classical musician (and serial seducer) Basil Rathbone digs his romantic claws into underwhelming teen virgin Jane Bryan. Kay, a past Rathbone victim, may have sunk from operatic Mezzo-Soprano to nightclub chanteuse, but she spots the canoodling couple in a private box and quickly sizes up the situation. How lucky that a marksman follows her on the bill with a backstage table full of loaded pistols! The rest of the film plays out at her trial, as she explains all in a big grand, tawdry flashback filled with tears, illicit romance, marriage, war, amputation (!) & motherly sacrifice. Oh, Kay!!!; so wronged, so stained, so noble. So delicious. Rathbone is tremendous here, falling in love for real . . . each & every time. As husband/father/cuckold, Ian Hunter is not so tremendous (though looks amusingly like DOWNTON ABBEY’S Hugh Bonneville). Director Joe May can’t do much with those first two reels, but sit tight, he turns it on once Kay shows up. A Big Man back in his German/UFA days (HOMECOMING/’28; ASPHALT/’29), he’s a little like Hollywood’s William K. Howard in finding fabulous shots for situations and then not able to tie them properly together. Still, piece-by-piece, quite a technique! And watch for that fine vulgarian Laura Hope Crews who’d just played the same bawdy gal-pal specialty against Garbo in CAMILLE/’36.

DOUBLE-BILL: For Francis at her best, go to 1932 with ONE WAY PASSAGE or TROUBLE IN PARADISE among seven releases; plus co-stars like Ronald Colman, Fredric March, William Powell & Herbert Marshall.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

HITLER: THE LAST TEN DAYS (1973)

Largely dismissed on release, this, the second of four major films to cover Hitler’s bunker Götterdämmerung* holds your attention with what appears to be reasonable historical accuracy; a strong international cast (accents & dubbing not-withstanding); clean, unfussy direction from Ennio De Concini; and a blisteringly convincing Hitler, alternately charged up & beaten down, from Alec Guinness. Concini probably doesn’t need the documentary war & atrocity footage he uses to fill us in on events, but they work to set up the monochrome segues into the fortified underground shelter. After that, much of the drama takes care of itself, with rising levels of panic & forced conviviality, often served with a sick comic edge. (Then topped with never-ending dollops of schlag.) Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri does exceptional work, not only in using limited light sources on stairways & tunnels, but also in handling a reduced color pallette (like the old 2-strip TechniColor) without making a show of it. 'Making a show of it' is saved for the sick joke that ends the film on a properly appalling note. (Courtesy of producer Wolfgang Reinhardt(?) whose father, the great Max Reinhardt, towered over German theater until having to flee the Nazis.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *The well-received (if overcooked) Bruno Ganz film DOWNFALL/’05, and Anthony Hopkins in THE BUNKER/’81 are available, but it’s hard to find the earliest version (also called HITLER: THE LAST TEN DAYS/’55) from G.W. Pabst w/ Oskar Werner, presumably in the role Simon Ward has here.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

VINCENT & THEO (1990)

Robert Altman’s admired, but little seen look at the Brothers Van Gogh (artist & dealer) was apparently conceived as long-form tv, then cut down to feature-length, losing the rhythm of life in the process. Instead, it feels tricked up into an all-hysterics passion play, especially in domestic scenes that always seem to end with something thrown to the floor: paint, letters, wine bottles, furniture. Life’s a mess in Julian Mitchell’s inadequate script, reflecting the musty, self-importance of bad ‘80s British theatre. A shame, too, since Altman gets fine scenes out on location exteriors, even as the brothers (Tim Roth & Paul Rhys) do some alarming scenery chewing. (Rhys a doe-like poseur; Roth eating enough paint to kill Vincent with lead poisoning.) A real curate’s egg, this one; and hard to reconcile with the sheer amount of work Van Gogh turned out in such a short period: 700 drawings & 800 oils in his last 6 years along with the beautifully observed/self-analytical correspondence with his brother.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: You’d think the struggle to paint would lend itself to the screen more readily than, say, writing or musical composition. Alas, no. Still, round off your Van Gogh seminar with the ‘50s melodrama of LUST FOR LIFE/’56. (Better than you recall even with a 40-yr-old Theo; and with real paintings in place of the coarse copies used by Altman.) Or go a bit deeper into the mind of a difficult painter of possible genius with THE HORSE’S MOUTH/’58, written & starring an uncompromising Alec Guinness.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

HORROR ISLAND (1941)

Slim pickin’s in this none too scary/played-for laughs haunted house pic. It opens well enough, suggestive as a Val Lewton R.K.O. suspenser. A dark & stormy waterfront night (well, dark, anyway); a piratical Leo Carrillo limping along the wharf then stopping at a locked shop. Is it a break in? Suddenly, a man in black cape is chasing Leo. Losing his balance, Leo falls in the water losing his peg leg, too. The wooden leg’s quickly retrieved, but one half of a secret treasure map, hidden inside it’s leather joint, is gone. No doubt, stolen by the mystery man in the cape! Neat. Alas, we’re watching one of those Universal programmers that substitute easy laughs for thrills . . . then misses both targets. Once Carrillo hooks up with bland Dick Foran at the shop he’d stopped at, the focus completely shifts. Foran thinks the map’s a phony, but starts up a touristy treasure cruise on the idea. And once we hit the island with his first group of tourists, it’s all yuk-yuk spooky house gags and wan Ten Little Indians murder mystery tropes.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: On the plus side, you do get a rare opportunity to watch a perfectly executed quadruple ‘take’ from the great comic technician Walter Catlett. He wakes up in bed to find he’s been sharing his pillow with a skull. Looks once; looks twice; looks thrice; finally reacts on look #4. Note the little stutter he slips in (like a grace note) on the pay-off look.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947)

Looking leaner & meaner than before his war service, Robert Montgomery directs himself in stylish fashion in this highly stylized, almost poetical, Ben Hecht/Charles Lederer scripted film noir. It’s Fiesta Days in a segregated border-town near Mexico, but that doesn’t concern Montgomery, out for a bit of revenge & blackmail against Fred Clark, a slick operator who’s been milking a government contract for illegal millions. Stumbling into the Mexican side of town, Montgomery finds an unlikely pal in two-bit carousel owner Thomas Gomez (overplaying to a surprise Oscar® nom.) and a sort of street angel to watch over him in Wanda Hendrix’s naïf waïf. Something’s slightly off-kilter about everyone in here, something fascinating, too, including Clark’s two-faced moll (Andrea King) and Art Smith’s sentient Fed Agent. Neatly produced, on a limited budget, with great use of atmospheric soundstage sets by lenser Russell Metty who’d bring similar tone & strength to Orson Welles’ border-town nightmare noir TOUCH OF EVIL/’58.  (Our British poster notes that the film is 'Not Suitable For General Exhibition,' but we're tagging it Family Friendly just the same.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Why so much food in this film? Every other scene has people sitting down and ordering something to eat. And what giant portions on offer!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

THE BIBLE: IN THE BEGINNING . . . (1966)

John Huston’s longshot epic, a sort of Cook’s Tour of the Book of Genesis, has long suffered from a dicey rep. But the years have been unusually kind to it, making what’s good look very, very good and the bad never less than an interesting response to myth. Christopher Fry’s script doesn’t worry over indigestible elements in his holy source material and tries not to skew Old Testament ideas thru a New Testament lens. His slightly studied King James’ inflections can sound self-conscious, but at least don’t jar. Huston approaches the stories as a series of shorts (producer Dino De Laurentiis originally envisioned different directors for each ‘chapter’) which means every missteps really counts. So while he easily manages all the censorship issues in The Garden of Eden, and most of the artistic ones, an inability to get anything going between his amateur Eve & Michael Parks’ vocal-dubbed Adam nearly stops the show before Cain & Abel come along in a handsome, near-balletic treatment. There’s even more improvement once Huston shows up as a pitch-perfect Noah, natural gift with animals to the fore. (He also narrates and does the voice of God throughout the film.) The second half opens with a very cool looking ziggurat Tower of Babel, but plays out as unintentional parody with the splintering languages calling to mind the poor post-synchronized soundworld of Italian films of the period. But then George C. Scott & Ava Gardner take over the main dramatic arc of Abraham & Sarah for the rest of the film and all goes well. (Well, all but the destruction of Sodom via mushroom cloud; a little too on the nose.) Huston got lucky with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; less so with composer Toshirô Mayuzumi, great in dissonant mode, not so much at religious uplift. But generally, Huston was pleased with the film, rightfully so.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: (LOL . . . )

Monday, December 14, 2015

MAN MADE MONSTER (1941)

Lon Chaney, Jr., George Waggner & Hans Slater began 1941 starring, directing & scoring this medium-clever, low-budget fright flick. Universal must have liked the results, bringing them back together for THE WOLF MAN at year’s end. And while this simpler tale misses Joseph Valentine’s posh lensing & Curt Siodmak’s inventive legend engineering, it’s decent enough in its own right. It certainly gets off to a dandy start in a zippy model sequence that has a speeding bus losing control as a powerful electric storm rages, flipping over before careening into high-voltage power lines. The only survivor of the crash is Chaney, a sideshow electricity magician. Perhaps he’s built up some sort of natural electricity ‘immunity’ performing his act! From there, mad scientist Lionel Atwill takes over, zapping away at the poor man until he’s induced a sort of wattage addiction. When fully charged, Chaney’s a superman. If only he didn’t keep running down. Naturally, this being a Universal monster pic, Atwill goes too far with his experiment and loses control as a crazed & glowing Chaney murders another scientist. Quickly caught by the police, and just as quickly brought to trial, he’ll get the chair! But how to electrocute a guy who thrives on the juice? Hiding in this nutty fun is a stab at drug addiction allegory, but the censors probably missed it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: At the murder trial, the defense fails with an insanity plea after testimony from a man listed in the end credits as ‘Alienist #2.’ An antiquated word for psychiatrist, the term will soon be better known since TRUE DETECTIVE’s Cary Fukunaga has wrested control of Caleb Carr’s long dormant bestseller, THE ALIENIST, from development hell & litigation for his next cable mini-series.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1949)

We’ve referenced Tom Hanks’ famous line from A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN/’92 before. You know, where he says, ‘There’s no crying in baseball.’ A sentiment disproved by nearly every quality baseball pic. And not just tears; half are full out tearjerkers. Here’s one that breaks the mold, a deft little tear-free comedy about a college chemistry prof whose experiment gets busted up by an errant baseball crashing thru his window. Soaked in what’s left of the formula, the ball suddenly repels wood. And we all know what baseball bats are made of. Off goes Mr. Professor to try for a secret pitching career in the Majors. Many complications arise: deserted fiancée, suspicious school president, mystery tonic shortage just as the season comes to a close. All handled with surprising ease and just enough plausibility for the fun to take off and for some real suspense to take hold. Then wrapped up in a perfectly executed, wonderfully satisfying twist ending. Welshmen Ray Milland doesn’t pitch all that worse than most American Hollywood stars who’ve tried, and the plot gimmick helps him get away with his sidearm slider. The simple special effects are still fun and director Lloyd Bacon rises all the way to competence. A breezy script and a good supporting cast fill things out nicely. (Paul Douglas, with his Yogi Berra build & speech patterns is a standout.) In its modest way, pretty darn hard to resist.* (NOTE: Excuse the lousy resolution on our rare Japanese poster.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *There’s an unhappy, if small, racist gag to beware of; and you can’t miss how times have changed from the days when a junior Prof would be openly dating a young student from one of his classes.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN FABIAN (1951)

An occasional producer/director, William Marshall had more talent for marrying movie stars (Ginger Rogers, Michele Morgan, this film’s Micheline Presle) than for making movies. While Errol Flynn, who co-stars with Presle, takes credit for a script that’s bad enough to make you believe he actually wrote it. (Still in demand at major studios, the writing credit probably explains his presence.) Presle’s a saucy house servant in old New Orleans who’ll do anything to scale the social ladder; Flynn’s an independent ship’s captain who helps her beat a trumped up murder charge. He even blackmails her old house boss, Vincent Price, to get her set up in business. Not that she’s grateful, instead, going back to Price for the social position. (Not too much adds up in this one.) For a climax, Flynn gets jailed for another murder, but Presle’s companion (Agnes Moorehead in constantly changing make-up) starts a town riot that settles just enough issues to end this thing. Don’t be fooled by the tasty title, Flynn’s more phlegmatic than adventurous. But if you do stumble upon it, note the exceedingly odd technical work on the soundstage shipyards.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The one interesting thing in here is the manner in which Flynn is constantly flattened by his female lead. Odd as movie material, but great fodder for a psychiatrist’s couch.

Friday, December 11, 2015

HER JUNGLE LOVE (1938)

Paramount Pictures must have liked the results they got teaming Ray Milland with Dorothy Lamour for THE JUNGLE PRINCESS/’36. Two years on, they’re back, now in TechniColor, for a rematch. In this silly thing, journeyman helmer George Archainbaud follows Milland & tiresome co-pilot Lynne Overman after they crash their plane on a tropical isle. That’s where they stumble onto Lamour . . . and her pets. She’s a sort of high priestess for a neighboring tribe of savages led by London-educated J. Carroll Naish, a native with a grudge against the white man. No surprises here, not even the volcanic ending. Not much fun either. (Other than Dorothy's cute pet chimp & lion cub.) Even the showcase color disappoints, with laughable model work, too many soundstage exteriors, and a general lack of imagination from lensman Ray Rennahan, here more TechniColor company man than Hollywood craftsman/artist. Occasionally, the script moves from merely silly to truly absurd (Curt Siodmak worked on the story), but it wasn’t enough to bring on a third JUNGLE pic for Dorothy & Ray. Maybe the first one was better.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT/LINK: As always, our choice for idiotic jungle adventure goes to the rich insanity that lies EAST OF BORNEO/’31. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GluxQ62t4QA

Thursday, December 10, 2015

REIGN OF TERROR (aka THE BLACK BOOK) (1949)

Anthony Mann’s smashingly effective low-budget historical takes on the French Revolution . . . and wins! Deep dark serious fun, with a zestful pace, a purposefully jarring visual flair (lensing by John ‘Prince of Darkness’ Alton, with likely assists from production designer extraordinaire William Cameron Menzies, credited here as exec producer), a suspense-filled/action-charged story, and a level of supporting character actors rarely seen in an indie pic. Robert Cummings, sans his usual ersatz charm, makes a dashing hero, searching the back alleys of Paris to find Robespierre’s secret book of proscribed revolutionaries. It’s the only thing that can stop the unhinged zealot from becoming dictator. Old love Arlene Dahl is suspicious of Cummings' motives, and various VIPs of the distressed Republic (Norman Lloyd, Richard Hart, a marvelous Arnold Moss) are either too politically slippery to trust or stuck in jail cells awaiting M. Guillotine. Nonsense as history, of course, but great for film noir mavens, with Richard Basehart in clover as a wily, villainous Robespierre. ‘Don’t call me Max!’ Tremendous stuff.

LINK: Alas, DVDs on this much abused Public Domain film are (inter)laced with troubles. DVD Beaver helps sort things out, but you’re probably okay if you just avoid the mushy ALPHA transfer. http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReviews21/black_book_dvd_review.htm

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Victor Hugo’s NINETY-THREE (as in 1793) set the template for French Revolutionary figures for generations. But Hilary Mantel, of WOLF HALL fame, turns many accepted ideas on their (barely attached) heads in A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY.

DOUBLE-BILL: Follow Mann & Alton on their next collaboration, a crisply shot & plotted immigration drama, very rough for its day, BORDER INCIDENT/’49. From M-G-M, of all places, starring a commanding Ricardo Montalban & an unexpectedly effective George Murphy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

THE BLACK STALLION (1979)

In hindsight, it’s easy to fault the United Artists execs mystified by this serious-minded childhood fable, doubting a commercial angle & all but refusing to release the film. (Exec Producer Francis Coppola snuck it into the New York Film Festival where it emerged a critical and commercial hit.) Yet, this enchanted boy-and-his-horse story is even more impossible to imagine coming out of today’s market-research/development hell driven studio system. Who would dare to demand the levels of concentration the film asks (and rewards) from the younger crowd, especially in its near-silent first half. But then, this isn’t a ‘family pic’ that’s only for kiddies; it really is for the whole family. Perhaps it helped that the creative team was nearly new to features: from director Carroll Ballard to scripter Melissa Mathison; from lighting-cameraman Caleb Deschanel to editor Robert Dalva. Same goes for Kelly Reno, the great freckle-faced kid discovered for the lead. And what a horseman! Divided in two quite different parts, the first half is the most original. After a ship-bound prologue, an all but silent survival story as a shipwrecked boy, and the princely horse whose straggling tether-line saved him, build up a relationship. Part two is more conventional, but equally well played; a sort of abstracted, or perhaps cleansed, horse race underdog victory tale. So much like NATIONAL VELVET/’44, they even got Mickey Rooney in something of the same role he played 35 years back. (Don’t worry, Mick’s probably never been better.*) Mathison, with a lot of help from the editing, pulls off a series of masterful story ellipses, skipping over sticky narrative beats without ever losing her audience or giving us time to question plausibility. While Ballard & Deschanel keep adding spells of wonderment, visually, of course, but also in coaxing elegant supporting perfs from Clarence Muse & Teri Garr. Three-plus decades on, it's even more an astonishment. Watch (and listen) to what they do with the big racing finish. Come to think of it, just how many great set pieces can one two-hour pic have? Be sure to take in the gorgeous end credits as well as some unusually useful EXTRAs on Criterion’s fine remastered DVD. Likable interviews with Ballard & Deschanel, plus their first collaboration on the short RODEO/’69 where every grain on the 16mm color stock seems to speak its own cowboy-bluesy tale.

DOUBLE-BILL: *While NATIONAL VELVET/’43 is the likely pairing, WHITE MANE/’53, from Albert Lamorisse of RED BALLOON/’56 fame, is even closer to the mark (and only 40").

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Even with E.T./’82 as follow-up, scripter Melissa Mathison had a paltry five more feature film credits thru 2015. Same for director Carroll Ballard.

Monday, December 7, 2015

THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON (aka PARADISE LAGOON) (1957)

J. M. Barrie’s play is one of those near-perfect conceptions that work even when execution isn’t all it might be. So, even if this adaptation comes up short on style, and Lewis Gilbert’s helming can’t hit the right pulse for its serio-comic tone, it still comes across. Especially in its two splendidly cast male leads. First, that perfect story: Shipwrecked on a deserted tropical isle, an Edwardian family & staff must switch roles to survive. Servants to Master; Masters to Servant. Even gone topsy-turvy, the class system goes on, just reorganized. Softer & more romantic than what, say, Shaw would have made of it; more grounded than Wilde; sentiment shows largely so Barrie can pull the rug out on emotional attachment. We might be watching LORD OF THE FLIES as drawing-room comedy. (Well, outdoor drawing-room comedy.) Most of the cast play a little too broadly, like a stock company out on the road. But Kenneth More is expectedly admirable (and unexpectedly fit) as Crichton, the perfect butler turned island king; while Cecil Parker, as his erstwhile employer/master, is a quivering tower of flip-flopping susceptibility. Both as wonderful as the play.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Worried that ADMIRABLE would be misread as ADMIRAL (‘Honey, what’s this WWII navy picture all about?'), the film was retitled PARADISE LAGOON for Stateside release.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

THE MOON'S OUR HOME (1936)

More desperate than ‘screwball,’ this romantic comedy sticks an ill-equipped Margaret Sullavan in the usual Carole Lombard spot . . than lets her squirm. Not that things would have been aces with Lombard in it, though at least the gowns would show with glamorous flair and the comic screaming would have been stylized rather than screeched. But there’s plenty of blame to spread around. Henry Fonda (Sullavan’s real-life ex by three years) is the adventurous best-selling author, hounded by female fans; Sullavan’s a temperamental Hollywood star running away from an arranged marriage. They meet-cute in a horse-drawn carriage in the midst of NYC traffic, then secretly rendezvous at a snowy cabin lodge, unaware of each other’s fame. Now & then (okay, twice), they get a quiet scene to display their usual charm, but elsewise, labored jokes in the extreme: Fonda is ‘atomized’ into submission with perfume; Sullavan gets a straitjacket as comeuppance. Pretty insufferable. One true oddity, though. Routine megger William Seiter flattens what might have been a highlight as Fonda & Sullavan go thru their nightly ablutions in separate train compartments built back-to-back with the 'fourth wall' removed. Staring at their respective mirrors as if they were staring at each other, unaware of the situation. Seiter does nothing with this set up, but reverses angles 180º when he cuts back; switching Fonda from right side to left, while Sullavan naturally flips from left to right.


Check out this magazine lay-out that helpfully ‘corrects’ his ‘reverse.’  (Click to expand.)  Sullavan, gifted & smart, never tried this sort of thing again. Fonda, gifted & smart, triumphed playing a variation of the same character in Preston Sturges’s THE LADY EVE/’41.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, THE LADY EVE, though, strictly speaking, Sturges’s pics are not ‘screwballs,’ they’re Preston Sturges pics, sui generis. For ‘screwball,’ tag along to Universal with Lombard where she was probably filming MY MAN GODFREY/’36 at the time.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: For once, Beulah Bondi, as Sullavan’s older assistant, lets someone else (Henrietta Crosman) play grandmother.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

AMERICA AMERICA (1963)

Elia Kazan made three more films over the next decade and a half*, but effectively closed his career on this highly personal, knowingly flawed film, touched with greatness even in its stumbles. Working off his own script & narrating in the first-person, ‘Gadge’ (the nickname Kazan loathed & lived with) tells his family origin story. How his hardheaded young uncle, a Greek living under oppression in Turkey, marched his way thru a series of unintentional adventures to get on a boat to America, America. At times, Kazan has some characters, especially the women who enter the story, over-explain what’s motivating our inarticulate protagonist, and you need tolerance for the post-production dubbed synch-sound (too many of the voice actors sound straight off a Russian shtetl, ANATOLIAN ON THE HOOF?). But the flaws matter less and less as the film gains in strength, even the weaker sections come loaded with marvelous ‘caught’ moments of location (phenomenal lensing from Haskell Wexler) and character. And the pacing is masterful (Dede Allen edited), a three-hour film that seems to last half its running time. How nice if BABY DOLL/’56, WILD RIVER/’60 and this film got the attention Kazan’s trio with Brando gets. But don’t hold your breath.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *After time off to write a big bestseller, Kazan filmed it, miserably. Then (as a favor to his son on his only feature film script?), a largely uncongenial independent film before being dragged back for an all-star stillborn fiasco that unspools as if they’d filmed the deal-memo.

Friday, December 4, 2015

SUPERNATURAL (1933)

More than slightly lunatic Pre-Code horror pic from Poverty Row producer/directing brothers Victor & Edward Halperin, here working with A-list players for a Paramount release.* It’s a two-tier tale of terror as phony psychic Alan Dinehart convinces wealthy Carole Lombard he’s communicating with her recently deceased twin brother. Meanwhile, personality researcher H. B. Warner is investigating the roaming spiritual emanations coming out of criminal masterminds after their deaths. He’s currently got a doozy of a dead subject in his home laboratory, a just executed serial murderess, freshly fried for a notorious post-orgy three-for-one slaying. Yikes! And there’s nothing phony about the latest psychic transference, a change immediately noticed by Lombard’s fiancé Randolph Scott. Alas, it all sounds like more fun than it turns out to be since the brothers Halperin are still megging in stiff Early Talkie mode, and our slumming cast look more than a wee bit embarrassed. (How’d Paramount get us roped into this nutty thing?) Watch close for a ‘no-cut’ trick shot when Lombard returns to her normal personality right at the end. It’s got to be the same sliding red-filter special-effect director Rouben Mamoulian & lenser Karl Struss worked up to get Fredric March seamlessly in and out of character(s) in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE/’31.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *All the major Hollywood studios tried cracking the code of those Universal Horror series. So cheap, so profitable, so franchisable! (Just about the only thing @ Universal they did covet.) It’s probably why the Halperin Brothers got this one-shot Paramount deal.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

MEN WITH WINGS (1938)

William Wellman, who flew in WWI and made his rep with an aviation classic on it (WINGS/’27), must have seemed a logical choice for this history-of-flight formula romance. At heart, a budget-padded programmer, some of the flying scenes are early TechniColor eye-poppers, but Wellman can’t get anything going on its standard two guys/one gal storyline. Fred MacMurray’s devil-may-care flyboy may prove irresistible to childhood gal-pal Louise Campbell, but they both underwhelm on-screen. (Campbell, promoted from B-pic leads, never did break thru.) And while Ray Milland’s loyal plane engineer, happy to wait (and wait) for his chance at romance, isn’t much better, he sure takes well to the early TechniColor camera. Lord, that man was handsome @ 30; he looks almost as good as the planes. And looks are the main thing here, TechniColored looks. Not just the air-borne primary-colored flying machines (lots of real action mixed with better-than-expected process stuff), but also the translucent color on some delicately toned location exteriors. An early scene in a field of wild flowers might be a living lithograph. (Studio interiors are another matter; visually dead in so many ways, including Wellman’s staging & composition.) All told, it's 'meh' as a pic, but one of the best examples of pre-‘40s TechniColor to be had (lenser W. Howard Greene) before the process standardized into a pudding rich impasto few were able to counter.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Look, it’s Donald O’Connor at the start of his mini-run playing younger versions of big stars. Here, he’s young MacMurray; next year, young Gary Cooper in BEAU GESTE/’39 (also for director Wellman) and then a kid vaudevillian who’ll grow up to be Eddie Albert in ON YOUR TOES/’39. (And, unlike Albert, doing his own dancing.)

CONTEST: Wellman must have kept scripter Robert Carson on retainer. They’d just done A STAR IS BORN/’37 and manage to steal a big moment for this pic. Name it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (2013)

Unnecessary. Ralph Fiennes encores as director/star in this bio-pic on a relentlessly social Charles Dickens, approaching middle-age without wifely emotional or intellectual support. Like many a rich, famous man, he takes an interest, and then sexual comfort, in a much younger mistress (from a family of actors), and generally deals poorly with the messy situation. Fiennes, shooting much of the first half in a fussy, close manner, also deals poorly with the messy situation. Worse, he’s unable to develop the cast chemistry to make us care about what drew these people to (or away from) each other. And a heavily foreshadowed train crash ends up making little difference, playing out like a tease. There is a story to be told here, but Fiennes misses it. Perhaps an earlier starting point; one that goes back to the early, unexpected death of Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law. A tragedy neither Dickens nor his constantly pregnant wife ever fully recovered from. Story notes to follow . . . 

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Fiennes’ acting/directing debut on a modernized Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS/’11 was uneven, but worth two looks on MAKSQUIBS. Look it up in our Search Box.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME (1937)

Underseen & underrated, director Rouben Mamoulian juggles a lot of genres in what might be called an ‘Eastern’ Western with music (it’s set in Pre-Civil War Pennsylvania). Irene Dunne, singing in her dad’s traveling medicine show, falls hard on the road for winning young farmer Randolph Scott (unusually energetic). But when the young man’s oil derrick ‘comes in’ at the wedding reception, bucolic romance, and his game young wife, take a back seat to business affairs & a fight against Alan Hale's railroad baron, who’s out to wreck the local oil entrepreneurs. A tough nut for a musical to crack. Enter Oscar Hammerstein & Jerome Kern, from the equally unlikely SHOW BOAT/’36, just filmed with Dunne over at Universal. And while HANDSOME is no SHOW BOAT, it’s a big, handsome thing on its own terms, with swinging rhythms in Mamoulian’s staging & camera moves that beautifully catch wide open spaces (lensing from Ted Sparkuhl) as well as intimate romance on artificial turf (lensing from Victor Milner) and a most unlikely ride to the rescue by Dunne’s circus pals (lensing by . . . actually, we’re guessing on who lensed what). Some of the plot strands feel rushed, but what a line-up of character actors to play them! (Major spots for Dorothy Lamour, Alan Hale, Charles Bickford, comic reliever Ben Blue & more). Akim Tamiroff and a bunch of kitty-cats get a spectacular bit as third-act villains, and William Frawley shines in an out-of-the-blue song-and-dance number. The score, with the notable exception of the luscious ‘The Folks Who Live On the Hill,’ is pleasant & characterful, if not quite memorable. But watch Dunne as she tries serenading the farm animals at breakfast and winds up with a barnyard chorus. All told, the film’s as worthwhile as it is unusual. (It may also had led to Mamoulian directing Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! on B’way in ‘43.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The opening of the title song lands within a whisker of the famous (not yet written) war-beat tattoo that famously takes over the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #7: Leningrad. Coincidence? Ah . . . yes.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/LINK: Peggy Lee’s version of ‘The Folks Who Live On the Hill,’ conducted by Frank Sinatra, is much admired if a bit on the self-conscious side. (Frankie walking on eggshells.) Bette Midler covered it slavishly on her Peggy Lee tribute album. (YOUTUBE has them both.) Instead, try Kiri Te Kanawa with Nelson Riddle. Remarkably successful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2t1zctDN5uw

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Tom Milne makes a fine defense of HW&H (and of Mamoulian in general) in his superb MAMOULIAN monograph originally out from Indiana University Press.

Monday, November 30, 2015

WHAT IS CINEMA? (2013)

Everyone knows Chuck Workman, the master clip editor who made a name (and a specialty) culling themed film compilations, memorable snaps of shared cultural history, for splashy award shows. Still best known for PRECIOUS IMAGES/’86 (100 years of commercial cinema in eight breathless minutes), his once fresh format has now been done to death. Even at the time, the real fun to his visual juxtapositions came less from cumulative effect than as ad-hoc NAME THAT CLIP party game. Here, he tries for something bigger, and falls flat on his face, mixing-and-matching mini-monologues (Talking Heads/audio voice-over) organized into loosely categorized montages that try to cover avant-garde & experimental work (and their makers) as well as the expected commercial heavyweights. Laudable in theory, in practice they end up cancelling each other out, neither adding up to more than the sum of their parts nor sparking interest in something heretofore unseen. (Though here and there, a jolt of negative clarity emerges as when Kubrick’s THE SHINING/’80 suddenly looks as studied and visually dead as EYES WIDE SHUT/’99.) As to our subject? ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN/’48 has as much to offer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: So, what is cinema? As philosophy, if not as physical object, Jean-Luc Godard got it right: ‘Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second.’ Or rather, Godard got it half right. Cinema has two parents. It was the Lumière Brothers whose actualitiés gave us truth @ 24 fps. (And as a bonus, in L'arroseur arrosé/1895, the basics for a century of narrative film.) But on the other side of our cinematic family, the ‘trick’ films of Georges Méliès churned out lies (or if you prefer, fantasy) at 24 frames per second. A hundred years on, digital/computer manipulation swings things advantage Méliès. Perhaps the question to ask is ‘What was cinema?’

Sunday, November 29, 2015

IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA / BLOOD BRIDES (aka) HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970)

A meager offering from Italian Horror (Giallo) specialist Mario Bava with his usual stylistics (zoom shots, gore, boobs, out-of-focus transitions) at half mast. Stephen Forsyth is the handsome, if gelid, bridal dress designer who slashes his models after they try on his latest creations. And when his detested wife catches on, she gets the same treatment only to return as a ghostly apparition. There’s even a dumb detective hanging around to miss obvious clues. Hard to know what attracted Bava here, though if you let your mind drift a bit some of the elements play out like a gender-swap gloss on Alfred Hitchcock’s MARNIE/’64, right down to the big 'peep-hole' explanatory psychological ‘reveal’ at the end, screen-filling red infusions, and a lead who can’t act much.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Bava was famous for his stylishly bold use of color, but early b&w pics like BLACK SUNDAY/’60 and BLACK SABBATH/’63 also rate high.


ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Forsyth gave up his film career after this, but perhaps Bava let him keep the stupendous pair of pajamas he wears at breakfast. Black & white, with stove-pipe legs and a silver belt against a pattern of interlocked vertical chains. Forget the bridal dresses, order the P.J.s!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

After 30 years, original writer/director George Miller reboots his MAD MAX franchise without taking the easy ‘origin story’ fallback option. Instead, diving straight into a new chapter and instantly erasing any lingering disappointment with THUNDERDOME/’85, the unhappy third chapter. And it’s really something to watch Miller @ 70, still able to organize some of the cleanest, most viscerally exciting & readable extended action sequences around. There’s just too much of them. Trapped by marketplace demands and the lure of unlimited CGI possibilities, Miller hits kinetic overload, pleasing the FanBoy gamer base clutching their replay buttons, but losing much sense of consequence. What’s really at stake when it’s so easy to pop back from deadly injury? (That goes for the ‘muscle’ vehicles as well as the muscle men.) And then, the final action fillip isn’t even good CGI. A shame, since the simple story is neatly embellished as a gaggle of runaway brides in the expected post-apocalyptic world try to drive their way to reach a rumored Green Zone with help from a couple of goonish bad guys who quickly turn downright sentimental along the dangerous journey. Now and then, the film pulls back for a stunning vista that might have come out of one of those early Chuck Jones’ animated CinemaScope ROAD RUNNER shorts, but too much of this Brave New World is less than convincing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink art design wedded/welded to primitive custom & fanciful industrial gadgetry. It’s still something to see, if you don’t mind the flat acting presence of hard-headed, thick-lipped Tom Hardy. The rare actor who loses personality when the face mask comes off.

DOUBLE-BILL: MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR/’81, with its classic truck battle sequence, the unquestioned champ in the series, plays perfectly well on its own.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942)

The real mystery on this little detective thriller (a decent enough programmer once the lead is offed) is why Edgar Allan Poe’s trio of Paris crime stories for proto-detective C. Auguste Dupin, the Rosetta Stone of ratiocination tales, haven’t been adapted by the usual suspects. We should be on the third or fourth PBS/Mystery iteration by now. True, the little stories need expanding, but that hardly disqualifies them from BBC/PBS attention. Heck, last time ‘round they added a prologue to Dickens’ not exactly narrative-starved OLIVER TWIST. And what of the plotty back-flips for THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD? As for this MYSTERY, well, Universal didn’t exactly go all out. Director Phil Rosen, a Monogram Pictures stalwart, proves a dull dog, though he does perk up a bit on backlot exteriors, just don’t hope for much Parisian flavor. Patric Knowles makes for an amusingly disengaged Dupin, here a sort of forensic chemical doctor; and the ancient Maria Ouspenskaya, as the victim’s ambivalent mother, retains her odd manner of looking past her fellow players. (No doubt searching for old pals from the Moscow Art Players.) Plus the always slightly bizarre Maria Montez as Marie Roget in her last near-normal role before Universal figured out how to properly use her (and TechniColor!) in a series of deliriously silly adventure pics.

DOUBLE-BILL: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is the Poe/Dupin story that gets all the feature & tv attention (’86; ‘71; ‘54; ‘32), none too happily.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

NOUS NE VIELLIRONS PAS ENSEMBLE / WE WON’T GROW OLD TOGETHER (1974)

Maurice Pialat’s clear-eyed examination of a miserable, inexplicable six-year affair, one of his most acclaimed titles, is like Strindberg for dullards. Poor Jean Yanne is (quite properly) physically repulsive as the casually married documentarian (you keep thinking his arm hair will graft onto his bed partner) contentedly stuck in an abusive relationship with younger, less sophisticated Marlène Jobert. He’s addicted to her and doesn’t know it; she’s working thru self-esteem issues. Every encounter rapidly descends into altercation or parting: Sometimes she leaves; sometimes he literally throws her out. It’s all meant to be brutally honest, with purposely drab lensing, crabbed compositions, jumpy continuity and a faux improvised feel to the perfs. (Like Cassavetes without the gloss of Method Acting Seminars.) Occasionally, the staging is so whacky & stiff (as when Yanne meets up with Jobert’s polite, but seething parents), you wonder if Pialat is trying for some sort of embarrassed comic effect. But, no, that’d be real Strindberg, Pialat is too serious for such trivialities.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pialat’s first feature, L’ENFANCE NUE/’68 or POLICE/’85 are valuable pics, nearly as good as the abstract humanism of an early short L’AMOUR EXISTE/’60 (on DVD w/ NUE).

Monday, November 23, 2015

LE PASSÉ / THE PAST (2014)

Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, here working in Paris, sticks close to main structural device of his breakout hit A SEPARATION/’11. Like a theatrical director progressively lifting scrim curtains on stage, he methodically uncovers long-held personal secrets to ricocheting emotional effect both within the film and on what we think we know. This time, a separated husband returns to France after four years in Iran to finalize his divorce; then winds up injecting himself into the complicated current affairs of his (near) ex. Unhappy kids from her previous marriage, plus a new boyfriend with a comatose wife & his own worrisome young son. All superbly cast, with the tough little brat of a kid 'acting out' in a painfully believable manner both heartrending and annoying. Farhadi trusts his audience enough to run a slow fuse on developments, but can’t quite hide a sense of enforced neatness in his dramatic design even as the plot grows more involving. Still, a film that reminds you of William Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead . . . Actually, it’s not even past,’ is worth a few missteps. Hopefully, Farhadi’s next won’t insist on making every character's hidden past as multi-layered as an onion.

DOUBLE-BILL: If you haven’t seen A SEPARATION, what are you waiting for? OR: For something completely different, try Tahar Rahim (the new man in this picture) in his stunning breakout pic, A PROPHET/’09.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

BANK SHOT (1974)

This ramshackle comic-caper is piffle, a low-rent cousin to THE HOT ROCK/’72 (a starrier adaptation of a Donald Westlake novel). George C. Scott, with an alarming pair of waggly eyebrows, is the bank heist genius who busts out of prison (via Caterpillar Tractor) with a new idea - don’t steal the cash, steal the whole damn bank. Specifically, a bank that’s using a mobile home as a temp location. Reattach a set of wheels and drive a fortune away. With pieces & players out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Wendell Mayes’ script bypasses reality (or suspense), but starts to lift-off halfway thru on its silliness quotient and a decent amount of low-brow comic energy. Gower Champion, in a rare film directing gig, dances past the sort of credible set-ups Blake Edwards might have worked out, instead concentrating on surprise landings and some very funny payoffs. He even picks up on the Looney Tunes idea in an extended one-take sequence played out as a lovely long-shot b&w silhouette. Unexpectedly likeable, with a blissed out ending of pure Dada absurdity.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, THE HOT ROCK.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Theater choreographers show a remarkably high success ratio transitioning into film directors. Like Champion, Michael Kidd & Jerome Robbins hardly got started, yet show mature, fluid, personal techniques from their first camera set-up. While the likes of Charles Walters, Stanley Donen, Bob Fosse, Herb Ross & now Rob Marshall managed to thread the Hollywood career needle.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Champion died the night before his smash production of 42ND STREET opened on Broadway. Yet no one in the cast knew he was dead when show producer David Merrick announced it on stage in front of a cheering (then quickly stunned), sold-out house during the show’s curtain calls. Why no one has turned this classic movie story into a classic movie is a mystery.

Friday, November 20, 2015

FAUST (2011)

Whether working maximalist (RUSSIAN ARK/’02); minimalist (POVINNOST/’98); or on something in-between (ALEKSANDRA/’07), maverick Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov has always been precise. Exactly the quality missing from this sprawling mess of a FAUST. A big award-winner* and much-acclaimed, the film charges forward with a fusty Bruegelesque mise-en-scène (in the sound design, too) that exhausts when it needs to enlighten. At least it opens well, emphasizing a scientific Faust as he digs thru the innards of a moldering corpse. His useful assistant, Wagner, thinks they might find the soul in there; next to the liver. But soon, Faust and his new pal (guess who) are meandering around town, looking for a meaning to life; or love (guess who); or just a place to take a bath. No small task for a devil with a body that’s put on backwards. Shot with rounded corners in the old Academy Ratio using lenses to slant the image, it’s also digitally degraded to over-expose the color-drained palette; a painterly headache occasionally relieved by a calmly beautiful composition. The last of a Sokurov tetralogy, he seems relived to be done with it.

LINK: *Winning the Golden Lion @ the Venice Film Fest becomes a bit more explicable in light of the competition. http://www.imdb.com/event/ev0000681/2011?ref_=ttawd_ev_12

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There's always F. W. Murnau’s silent FAUST/’26. But don’t write off Sokurov on this misfire. Try MOTHER AND SON/’97 or (for the sake of variety) FATHER AND SON/’03. Not easy viewing, but great.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1969)

Big, big film about those early, decisive air battles over the skies of WWII Britain. You know: where ‘never had so many owed so much to so few.’ Made with dozens of the Best British Thespians (click Poster) and James Bond-tested pros (producer Harry Saltzman; lenser Freddie Young; helmer Guy Hamilton), but a major bomb at the box-office. It looks impressive now; handsome & exciting, with great stunt flying of period planes & analogue effects that largely hold up. (Though keeping track of goggled flying combatants is always tough.) But celebratory war pics had slipped from sure-thing to tough-sell as the anti-military Vietnam Zeitgeist took hold. War films were now all cynicism & ironic folly: CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE/’68; OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR/’69; with KELLY’S HEROES and M*A*S*H*/’70 just around the corner. (On the other hand, PATTON/’70 managed to buck the trend.) Perhaps a generic quality to the triumphs & tragedies did this one in. Yet it’s still essential viewing. Not for the war it portrays, but for the war that went on in post-production that saw Sir William Walton’s film score scuttled (by producer Saltzman?) and replaced by Ron Goodwin's. Enter Laurence Olivier in full hissy-fit. Walton, England’s best known composer after Benjamin Britten, had famously scored Larry’s Shakespeare films. What to do? Check out the credits on most DVDs and only Walton gets screen credit, yet the music is all Goodwin until the last reel. And that’s when something fascinating happens. Forget the final little march over the credits, watch (or rather listen) to the big air battle about two hours in. Suddenly, not only do we get Walton’s infinitely more sophisticated score for most of a reel, but the usual air battle sound effects are all but completely pulled back. And a rather conventional, perfectly decent big-budget war film suddenly becomes something different, something epic, a sort of war ballet for fighter planes: British Spitfires against German Messerschmitts. Would it have worked for the entire film? (Apparently there’s a DVD with two edits of the film; one for each composer.) It surely couldn’t have hurt things commercially. And what we do have of it lends an abstract power to the image, making this a very different, far more interesting pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Who knew co-star Christopher Plummer was Ben Affleck’s dad. Not really, but lose that noble nose and you’ve got quite the facial match.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

GRACELAND (2012)

From the Philippines, writer/director Ron Morales neatly repurposes the set-up from Akira Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW/’63 and almost gets away with it. What remains intact is the misreported kidnapping of a V.I.P.’s kid. Turns out, it’s the rich guy’s personal driver whose child is being held for ransom. Even by that point, things are spinning out of control in very different fashion. Morales eschews the rigorous stylistic exercises of late Kurosawa for gritty cinema verite; and that goes double for his take-no-prisoners storyline. Here, the powerful businessman is a corrupt politician with a nasty taste for teenage flesh our driver is helpless to stop, especially with a sick wife & child to care for. Morales makes a lot of good moves with camera, plotting & cast, but gives in to one more amoral twist then the film can support right at the end. A ‘got’cha’ moment that might have worked in a slicker kind of production. (An Alternate Ending on the DVD hints at similar reservations by the filmmaker.) But for an early effort, a lot of powerful stuff comes thru.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW.

Monday, November 16, 2015

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)

Ironically, this mega-hit epic-Western, a critical embarrassment producer David O. Selznick never fully lived down, now looks more influential than his much Oscar’d literary adaptations & psychological suspensers GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 and REBECCA/’40. (It’s Selznick’s sole forward-looking pic, with a raw abandon that points ahead to mad souls like Nick Ray, Brian De Palma & Quentin Tarantino.) Before the personal drubbing, Selznick proudly took sole script credit for this ‘pop’ pulp, laying bare his uncomfortable infatuation with the film’s equally uncomfortable star Jennifer Jones. (She’d have the lead in four of his five remaining productions.*) And though the story makes feints at being interested in cattle wars & railroad rights, that storyline’s jaw-dropping climax hits at mid-point, leaving little but the sexual favors of Pearl Chavez (Jones’s ‘half-breed’ vixen) to work on. The catch-as-catch-can story construction problems begin right at the start with an elaborate prologue Selznick added for an uncredited William Dieterle after original director King Vidor ‘ankled.’ All told, seven directors were employed, including Second Unit man Otto Brower who staged the staggering ranks of horseback riders & military standoffs. (Vidor shot less than half of the film's total footage.) It all should be ridiculous, indeed, it is ridiculous, but also visually magnificent . . . in a ridiculous sort of way. Gregory Peck is swaggering & sexy as cat-like hedonist to older brother Joseph Cotten’s constipated do-gooder. Then Charles Bickford appears (from where?) to make nice to Pearl so Peck can emasculate him. (And Jones gives such an uneven performance, you never know whether she’ll be rolling on a dusty floor or having her make-up readjusted.) Lionel Barrymore, as Dad to Peck & Cotten, gives every line a thorough wringing; and his long-suffering wife Lillian Gish tries to die without losing all of her dignity. (She fails.) At long last, Peck & Jones play Western liebestod on sun-baked rocks while Dmitri Tiomkin stands in for Richard Wagner. And somewhere, a young Sergio Leone is getting a hard-on. It’s that kind of powerful nonsense.

DOUBLE-BILL: Watch Peck take on the older ‘good’ brother role, against Charlton Heston who’s got his old bad-boy role, in William Wyler’s undersung THE BIG COUNTRY/’58. (Alas, like a lot of Wyler, the film needs a Big Screen presentation to really take off.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *With the exception of Hitchcock’s contractually obligated THE PARADINE CASE/’47, Selznick either fired the director or significantly recut all his later films (all with Jones) in spite of hiring the likes of John Huston, Michael Powell, Vittorio De Sica & the very same William Dieterle he’d brought in to ‘save’ this film.

CONTEST: There’s an odd little mistake on the soundtrack of this film’s original trailer. Find it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

Friday, November 13, 2015

BIG HERO 6 (2014)

Committee-think rules in Disney’s bald-faced, award-winning shot at kick-starting an All-Nerd Super Hero franchise, an enormous, even shocking disappointment. At heart, a New Age (fan)boy-and-his-dog saga, it swaps out the canine for a pillowy robot always getting into endearing troubles. The first half of the film manages to orphan our already orphaned lad, offing a sibling & a mentor when a wicked master-of-the-universe corporate type steals his latest creation. (Ironic plot point coming from Disney, no?) But if the first half feels merely frantic and overly test-marketed; the second half, which re-introduces some smarty-pants nerds in IRON-MAN combat mode, lowers the characterization bar to SCOOBY-DOO levels.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Three of the four films HERO topped for last year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar® (BOXTROLLS; SONG OF THE SEA; TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA) easily best this proto-franchise. But try and check out FEAST/’14, the Oscar-winning short included on the DVD. Sentimental as a wet kiss from a puppy, and downright irresistible.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

FAUST (1926)

Grabbed by Hollywood after the international success of THE LAST LAUGH/’24, F. W. Murnau had two more German silents to finish. First, stumbling over his film-within-a-film TARTUFFE/’25, then recovering with this phenomenal, ultra-lux version of Goethe. (With more laughs than he got out of Moliere.) Adapting classics make for ‘iffy’ projects, but Murnau isn’t afraid to make this a tremendous show rather than a stuffy lecture. Maybe the well-known storyline freed him from spelling everything out, jumping right into the swirling cauldrons of Black Death, unsaintly redemption, and pacts with the devil as wingéd angels fight over the fate of mankind. The plotline isn’t so far off from Gounod’s German-maligned operatic reduction starting with our wizened philosopher/scientist regaining youth (and love) by signing the devil’s contract in blood. Murnau, with Carl Hoffmann on camera, brings it all to life with nearly unending visual astonishments. Many effects no more than beautifully designed/executed double-exposure tricks, others using models or mix-and-match trompe l’oeil via mattes, models or simple juxtapositions of scale. Some still confound analysis or are simply so artistically confident (those flights over the medieval cityscape!), you can only gape. Beautifully paced as storytelling, the acting now looks somewhere between ripe . . . and rot. (As the devil, the incorrigible Emil Jannings makes Charles Laughton look like a minimalist.) But the film is so all-of-a-piece, it still casts its powerful spell. One of the great Big Screen experiences, should you get the chance; meantime, KINO has the latest (and slightly shorter/106") definite foreign cut. Unmissable.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

After arranging a meeting of the minds for Sherlock Holmes & Sigmund Freud in THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION/’76, Nicholas Meyer’s next project had Jack the Ripper evade the police by fleeing to the future in H. G. Wells’ Time Machine. Then, in this intense and clever thriller, sending H. G. himself to present day San Francisco to catch him. Malcolm McDowell’s droll Wells, David Warner’s unnerving ‘Ripper’ and Mary Steenburgen’s up-to-date modern love interest bring plenty of charm, suspense & romance. But whereas Meyer only wrote SOLUTION, here he co-scripted and made a sub-par directing debut. A stronger D.P. might have helped (Paul Lohmann’s over-lit interiors & general lack of style is default Movie-of-the-Week); or better third act plotting to carry us past the weak points. Faults and all, it's still good fun. Steenburgen is a particular treat, with a delivery reminiscent of Jean Arthur; plus a swell throwback of a score from Miklós Rózsa (check out that love theme in the woods). Meyer’s next was the much-loved STAR TREK II/’82, but his directing skills never did get catch up to his writing, and gigs remained frustratingly elusive with a mere six features on his C.V. up till now.

DOUBLE-BILL: George Pal’s toylike THE TIME MACHINE/’60 makes for a nifty compare-and-contrast, but a more enlightened pairing, with many of this film’s problems corrected, would be John Carpenter’s STARMAN/’84.

CONTEST: When a flat tire adds suspense to a chase, Steenburgen does something unnecessary to gain help. Name it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on a DVD of your choice.

Monday, November 9, 2015

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1990)

Ever since Mickey Mouse was tamed from mischievous rodent to corporate symbol/family man, Walt Disney & Co. have never quit trying to reintroduce him as leading player rather than interlocutor. (Walt did it best himself on THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE in FANTASIA/’40.) For this attempt, Mickey gets a double-role as Mark Twain’s famous lookalike Tudor-boys from different parts of town. And while the traditional hand-drawn animation is sprightly & colorful, the characterizations, gags, songs and storytelling are anodyne as all get out, depressingly so. Even Mickey’s voice is gentled down from Walt’s original falsetto squeak. Fortunately, the current release in a Classics Shorts Series features a rude, scrappy Mickey (b&w/1933/vocals by Walt) fighting Dippy Dawg (a sort of pre-Goofy) for Minnie’s hand in a Knightly operetta called YE OLDEN DAYS. It’s not great Mickey, but next to PRINCE, it looks darn lively. Three other shorts round out the program (each about 7 minutes to PRINCE’s 25), but only the remarkably creepy PIED PIPER operetta (also from ‘33, but in color) really grabs you. Even as Germanic Fairy Tales go this is one from the darkside. With it’s No Way Out ending intact. Show it to three-yr-olds to keep ‘em up all night.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Errol Flynn had an unintentional test run for ROBIN HOOD in Warners 1937 version of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, made with real twins rather than photographic trickery. And what a score from Erich Wolfgang Korngold!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

BIG EYES (2014)

Tim Burton’s effort to get back to moviemaking basics (with a tenth the budget of recent efforts) may be laudable, even necessary, but ultimately founders on a storyline too fragile to support a feature-length film. Maybe a different POV or an earlier starting point (less newspaper columnist/more DOLL’S HOUSE backstory) could have added texture to this fact-inspired tale of the commercial juggernaut Margaret & Walter Keane made off their critically despised paintings & reproductions of sad-eyed waifs. (Burton’s personal collection of sad-eyed waifs includes most of his leading ladies: Winona Rider; Christina Ricci; Eva Green; Helena Bonham Carter.) The twist in the tale, that Walter took all the credit while Margaret did all the art, can hardly be considered much of a surprise; in Hollywood, it’s standard operating procedure!* And the all too obvious solution, painting a picture to settle the issue, proves . . . er . . . an all too obvious solution. Yet, the film has its visual pleasures, though not in the action scenes where Burton, unable to call upon an army of well-paid studio technicians, remains all thumbs, as always. But look at the San Francisco clubs; tasty as a late ‘50s Paramount VistaVision production. We might be enjoying Daniel Fapp’s smoky interiors for Danny Kaye’s THE FIVE PENNIES/’59. And speaking of pleasures, no surprise to find Amy Adams just about flawless as Margaret Keane.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *As in TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS/’93, directed by (wait for it) Henry Selick. Not that anyone’s hiding credit, but still . . .