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Saturday, February 28, 2015


Everybody’s just going thru the motions in this undercooked programmer that stars William Powell as a talented, but struggling lawyer (with deliciously bad hair-styling) trading in his unwashed Lower East Side clientele for a high-powered Park Avenue firm, better grooming & dishable ladies to represent. Loyal, down-to-earth secretary Joan Blondell moves uptown with him, but stays grounded as Powell crashes & burns in the rarified altitude before plotting revenge on the political machine & nobs who done ‘im wrong. Nicely paced by William Dieterle in his light early manner, with typically memorable support from tasty Warners contract players. But the script skips over the details of Powell’s botched cases & his legal comeback, leaving all the situations & issues vague to the point of abstraction. They might as well be filming a diagram. With little chemistry between Powell’s arch, ironic manner and Blondell’s earthy warmth, you get something less than the sum of the film’s already modest parts. Still worth a look for that awful hair (very Clarence Darrow) and for lenser Robert Kurrle’s penultimate credit before his early death.

DOUBLE-BILL: Wiseguy lawyer pics were a dime a dozen at the time. Try THE MOUTHPIECE/’32, also from Warners, for a much better example of the form. Starring Warren William at his sleazy best, it hit theaters just a few months before this one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Listen up for a bit of Yiddish from William Powell. James Cagney did the same that year in TAXI!/’32, but with more gusto since he’d picked some up from the neighbors as a kid.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Jonathan Demme made this misbegotten Hitchcockian thriller between HANDLE WITH CARE (aka CITIZEN’S BAND)/’77 and MELVIN AND HOWARD/’80, two humanist dramedies so welcoming, nonjudgemental & alive with political/cultural savvy they seemed to herald an American Jean Renoir. It never happened. Instead, Demme became 1: A man of many interests & causes; or 2: A filmmaker without focus. Whichever camp you fell into, much of his once edgy work now looks prematurely dulled. No chance of the reverse happening here! LAST EMBRACE is almost shockingly inept. Loaded with Hitchcockian winks (think VERTIGO/’58; SABOTEUR/'42; NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59), it has Roy Scheider as a wet whippet tracking down the person (or entity) out to get him. As his mysterious helpmate/femme fatale, Janet Margolin is a lost cause with exposed breasts, while a supporting cast of (then) little known stage actors (Christopher Walken, John Glover, Mandy Patinkin, all handpicked by young casting agent Scott Rudin) overact miserably. At least, Miklós Rózsa shows up to score the thing, but he’s in retread mode, far less effective than his late work before & after this. Worst of all, inexplicably so, regular Demme lenser Tak Fujimoto finds new, inappropriate shooting styles for every scene. Any way you slice it, the film is, at best, a needless mediocrity.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Scheider’s next Hitchcock manqué, Robert Benton’s STILL OF THE NIGHT/’82 (co-starring Meryl Streep), was merely disappointing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Toward the end of his twentysomething film run @ Warners, Richard Barthelmess hit another issue-conscious button in this muckraking meller on the plight of the American Indian. Star of a Wild West Act playing the Chicago World’s Fair, his Indian identity is all show, skin-deep at best. Long off the reservation, he goes back to see his dying father and finds a corrupt federal system robbing his people of their remaining possessions, land & customs. Awakened to a new calling, a reckless act of revenge gets him arrested. But he escapes with help from fellow Sioux Ann Dvorak (only the supporting players are real Native American) and flees to the Indian Affairs Commission in Washington to make his case. Cue third act complications. Barthelmess and director Alan Crosland, both in decline @ Warners, work a little too earnestly to put this over in spite of careless story development & limited budget. But the unusual subject matter keeps interest up. And there’s much needed help from Clarence Muse, a superb black actor doing his darndest to avoid ‘colored’ stereotypes as pal & valet to Barthelmess, setting up racial prejudice parallels & cultural vibrations just by sharing the frame. Watch for a tiny scene that speaks volumes as Muse waits at night off the reservation for Barthelmess to drive by & pick him up.

DOUBLE-BILL: William Wellman’s far better produced HEROES FOR SALE/’33, a sort of modern Job story, shows just how fast studio confidence in Barthelmess had slipped. OR: Another modern Indian torn between old & new cultures in Richard Dix’s REDSKIN/’29. Fine location atmosphere & stunning 2-strip TechniColor lensing.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Mick LaSalle examines Barthelmess as actor & social provocateur in his fascinating, if overstated, DANGEROUS MEN: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Just engaged, and working for his future father-in-law, wealthy NYC man-about-town David Manners is bored in Kansas where he’s trying to close a business deal. Turns out, the whole little town is shut down; it’s Sunday, everyone’s in church. And that’s where Manners spots a very young, very beautiful Loretta Young playing the organ. Recently engaged or not, it’s love at first sight. And you believe it with Young, her face a little softer, a little rounder than later, a traffic stopper at 19. You can guess the rest: small town gal takes up his offer to move to the Big City only to be hurt & bewildered when she finds out her perfect beau is already engaged. Cue kind-hearted doctor pal George Brent (fresh & appealing) and opportunistic B’way producer Louis Calhern (the other kind of fresh) to move in. Yet under Thornton Freeland’s modest megging, the surprise is how level-headed the trashy old tale plays out. Manners, who always got these lousy roles, gets to be unusually straightforward about what he truly wants and what he settles for. Young is, if anything, even more pragmatic about her desires & her personal accommodations. And gal pal Una Merkel is around to make wisecracks and turn a few cartwheels. It’s a bitty thing, but often making better dramatic choices than you expect . . . until they suddenly toss in enough ludicrous melodrama for two films & a short-subject in the final reel. Public disgrace; murder accusations; emergency surgery; death-bed confessions; the works. The producer of record was Hal Wallis, but the desperate lurch toward dramatic tripe reeks of production chief Darryl F. Zanuck, soon to go it alone @ 20th Century.

DOUBLE-BILL: A real beauty in the same vein is Clarence Brown’s POSSESSED/’31 with Joan Crawford & Clark Gable.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Never one to sit and wait for inspiration when the muses don’t oblige, Woody Allen’s perfectly willing to filch. And so it goes for this pleasant enough, if slightly damp, rom-com about a world class illusionist (Colin Forth) who visits a fabulous estate on the Côte D’Azur in the pre-Crash ‘20s to unmask phony psychic Emma Stone. Often lovely to look at, in an off-hand sort of way that skirts travel brochure prettiness, its characters are out of a Noël Coward social comedy (like HAY FEVER), and its plot mechanics left in undeciphered shorthand. And why not? Allen knows we’re ahead of the story from the start, going so far as to hide his sole twist by under-casting a major role so we won’t see it coming too soon. All well and good. But what can be said of his mash-up of THE PRESTIGE/’06 and PYGMALION/’38; MY FAIR LADY/’64? (That’s PRESTIGE the book; film unseen here.) Not only in having Firth’s magician trying to takedown Stone’s phony medium, but in lifting the book’s unifying central magic device (‘In A Flash!’) as Firth’s big stage finish and as trump card for the film’s final ‘reveal’ before the romantic epilogue. And while Allen is hardly alone plying an umpteenth variation on the Professor Higgins/Eliza Doolittle relationship, he must be the first to rewrite ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face’ as a duo! (It comes in two finite sections with Firth’s near-Higgins partnered by Eileen Atkins as his aunt. Earlier, Stone joins them for a scene that might well have been a PYGMALION outtake.) And the film wraps on a near facsimile staging of MY FAIR LADY’s final curtain! No wonder Colin Firth puts so much Rex Harrison into his role.

Friday, February 20, 2015

HI, NELLIE! (1934)

In a reunion for some of the cast & crew of I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG/’32, actors Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell & Edward Ellis, helmer Mervyn LeRoy & lenser Sol Polito shifted from heavy dramatics to lighthearted wisecracking. The effort shows. Most of the first half is something of a miscast programmer, a newspaper comedy about a principled editor (Muni) who holds back on a hot, but unconfirmed story only to find himself demoted to writing the popular, but nauseating ‘Heartthrob’ column. Muni, never light on his feet, was more comfortable loathing Ms Farrell in FUGITIVE than as frenemies here. LeRoy & Polito, a bit bored with a formulaic script that’s all set-ups & reverses, play around with showy high-angle shots & tricky framing devices (transom windows, glass doors, etc.). Anything to keep the interest up. Happily, things improve when an old missing-persons case, the one that got Muni demoted, dovetails with something from the HeartThrob files. Suddenly, the film rises out of programmer mode and turns into a sharp (and sharply played) underworld takedown, with Muni leading half the newsroom (including deadpan expert Ned Sparks) on a mob investigation that doesn't quite add up, but is paced so fast you hardly notice the gaping plot holes. LeRoy ditches the fancy shots as soon as the production starts to ante up for more elaborate sets, like a nightclub with an indoor Merry-Go-Round bar. It’s still nothing to phone home about, and the fancy photo-work is missed, but it’s reasonable fun.

DOUBLE-BILL: LeRoy had a more serious outlook on these things a few years back in the slower paced, but effective early Talkie FIVE STAR FINAL/’31. Too bad the news hounds from that film (Edward G. Robinson & Aline MacMahon) didn’t get cast in this one, the first half might have worked as well as the second.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Especially in left profile, Muni, looks strikingly like the young Frank Capra. Maybe Howard Hawks caught that angle before casting him as SCARFACE/’32.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

EL DORADO (1966)

A less than gentle decline is usually conceded on the trio of like-minded Westerns Howard Hawks made with John Wayne over the last phase of his career. A slide from the classic RIO BRAVO/’59; to the fair EL DORADO; to the unfortunate RIO LOBO/’70. But seen plain, a case can be made for this winning middle child. Leigh Brackett’s initial script didn’t start as a RIO BRAVO retread (as its unusual triple prologue amply demonstrates), but once Wayne returns to help soused pal Robert Mitchum, holed up in the El Dorado sheriff’s office as the bad guys come to town, the jig is up for anyone who knows the earlier film. Yet, like a lot of second iterations, with so much already in place, you can take advantage of not having to force. Not more relaxed (more relaxed than RIO BRAVO would be asleep), but that Hawks makes us as comfortable in the story as he is. (Think of Jean Renoir explaining why he always wanted to make a Western: ‘It’s because they’re all the same. It gives an artist complete freedom.’) Comparing the casts, substituting Arthur Hunnicutt & James Caan for Walter Brennan & teen-dreamy Ricky Nelson is a wash (or better), while Mitchum, in for Dean Martin, ups the ante on all fronts. (He also ups the weight total, playing dueling guts with Wayne.) And a nod to lenser Harold Rosson, out from retirement to give Hawks the most sophisticated color palette of any of his films. On the debit side, and it’s a serious one, the woman are hardened parodies of the Hawksian ideal. He got away with it one last time in BRAVO thanks to Angie Dickinson’s natural warmth & expert comic timing; these gal pals are out of their depth simply as actresses. But with Wayne & Mitchum limping off together for the last shot, it hardly matters.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: James Caan, a fresh young thing at the time, was raw enough in the acting department to be adorably funny. (Hawks didn’t clue him in to the comedy.) But what’s with all his looped dialogue in the early scenes? Called Mississippi, it’s possible he cooked up a Southern accent so bad they dropped the idea and had him dub over a week’s shooting.

DOUBLE-BILL: No surprise, RIO BRAVO. (RIO LOBO is best left for Hawks’ completists.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

LA FRANCE (2007)

While hardly a complete success, much is magically right in Serge Bozon’s highly original WWI drama, a Jean Vigo First-Film Award winner @ Cannes. (A prize he’s had little success following up.) Sylvie Testud stars as a young bride searching for her husband (Guillaume Depardieu) who’s gone missing in the fog of war. With shorn hair, flattened chest and pants, she ‘man’s up’ to join a wandering regiment hoping this will (somehow) get her closer to her spouse. It takes a while for her to be accepted by the little army group, and by the time she’s admitted to the brotherhood, it’s become obvious that this wandering outfit isn’t heading toward the war at all. A series of close calls & adventures has a realistically random feel to it; a tone regularly upset by comradely sing-alongs of Pop-flavored tunes that might have come from ‘60s London. With an odd assortment of instruments and rangy high tenor keys, these ad-hoc musicales sound like classic Brechtian theatrical stunts meant to undercut emotional involvement. Yet, in practice, you’re drawn in rather than distanced by them as the story grows progressively darker with the men revealing their goal and discovering the sexual identity of their fresh faced volunteer. Shot with elegant restraint by Céline Bozon (wife of Serge?), it avoids special pleading or tears, bringing a sober-sided clarity of vision to the horror of war and to the wonder of happenstance. As a movie, it may prove to be a one-off, but it's a memorable one.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a less peculiar, and certainly cornier, more romantic take on similar ideas, try A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT/’04.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


South Korea’s phenomenally gifted Bong Joon Ho (or Joon-ho Bong, if you prefer) turns out the best John Carpenter film* in two decades as his English-language debut. A dystopian fable (another!) played on a moving train, it’s well-made, if frankly unnecessary, a good step-and-a-half down from Bong’s more originally conceived Korean pics (MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03; THE HOST/’06), but loaded with energy & promise. Set in the near future, where Global Warming has been ‘cured’ into total Global Freeze, humanity survives on a class divided, self-sufficient Super Train that circles the planet. But revolution is stirring among the proletariat, packed like cattle in the miserable end cars, who rise up to fight their way toward the front, past every violent challenge, thru every compartment on their way to the First Car engine room . . . and Mr. Big. That’s all there is to this, with a story structure that plays out, appropriately enough, as straight-ahead as a railway flat apartment. But Boon teases out clean action & suspense between the class & physical warfare with his solid technique and a host of eccentric opponents. Like many a foreign director before him, Boon’s superb eye is not yet matched by his ear, so some of the dialogue and acting fall short. (Tough-guy lead Chris Evans goes blank at all the wrong times.) But the perfs generally make their mark, including Boon regular Kang-ho Song, and, in a seriously wild turn, Tilda Swinton and her alarming dental work. The plot and some parallel editing get a bit messy toward the end, but the film’s cool look, deftly mixing CGI and scale-model work in a nod toward Fritz Lang/UFA in their slightly unreal manner, carry the day.

DOUBLE-BILL: *While Boon’s earlier work is a must (see above), perhaps something from John Carpenter’s heyday might be best. Try THE THING/’82 or ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/’81.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


(SPOILERS all over the place.) This gay-themed British film opens with a ‘reading of the banns’ wedding reception for Bachelor #1 and Bachelor #2, capped by a mighty blast from Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony on the soundtrack. (Oh, those classy Brits.) Soon, Bachelor #1 is off for a quickie with a cute wait-staff boy, slipping his wedding ring to the hot lad so he’ll have to call back. But no!, our socializing hottie hits a gay club, just missing a hook up with a looker who turns out to be a vicious psychopath. (Mother issues, natch). But kismet calls when a gang of homophobic toughs beat the shit out of the lad, leaving him half dead for Mr. Psycho to stumble upon after he’s clobbered someone else! He doesn’t want to help the boy, he wants to help himself . . . to that wandering wedding ring that's lying on the grass. But wouldn’t you know it, bad karma hits Mr Psycho when a new hook up gives him a thrashing. So, it’s off to hospital where he’s tenderly tended to by (wait for it) Bachelor #2! Yep, our jilted newlywed is the Emergency Room doc. And what a lot of questions spring to mind when he spots his new husband’s ring, so casually used as bait, on a bloodied boy toy. Multiply these contrived coincidences by a dozen or so characters (mostly gay or on the ‘low-down’), toss in some unsympathetic wives and, for a smidgen of starry-eyed solace, budding young love between a virgin teen & a 30 yr-old gay neighbor for statutory rape/romance to complete this 'inspired by true events' Clapham Claptrap. Scripter Kevin Elyot, who’d soon adapt CHRISTOPHER (Isherwood) AND HIS KIND/’11, must have been trying for KEVIN AND HIS KIND here. Filmed like a Masterpiece Mystery episode by Adrian Shergold (but with lots of annoying fisheye reverse tracking), the film is pointlessly bookended by a delicate young black violin prodigy who’s also attacked as an outsider in his community. How the likes of Rupert Graves & James Wilby got pulled into this is the real unanswered question.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For the sort of morally ambiguous, sexually frank Queer Cinema this is aiming at, try Alain Guiraudie’s L’INCONNU DU LAC (STRANGER BY THE LAKE)/’13. Mesmerizing & unsettling in equal measure, and with real cinematic personality.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


The blockbuster disaster pics of the ‘70s got going under the hand of ‘solid-citizen’ helmers like George Seaton & Ronald Neame before wending their way down to professional hacks Irwin Allen & Jack Smight. Whatever was ‘Pop’ stylist Richard Lester, a outlier director from his early Beatles days, doing on one? A slam-bang job is what he was doing; making JUGGERNAUT that rare disaster pic with a sense of cinematic ownership & personality. Omar Sharif is the slightly blasé captain of a mediocre cruise ship at sea with 1200 paying passengers and seven stowaway bombs timed to blow. Richard Harris is the ace demolitions expert parachuted in over stormy seas to shut them down . . . tick, tick, tick. A familiar tune, but freshly played thanks to a bifurcated script that builds legit suspense (and a few good jolts) as it hops from dry land police investigation to events at sea that alternate weirdly commonplace activities for the passengers with nail-biting danger for the crew. Thru it all, Lester maintains a chilly, even imperious tone, refusing to milk situations for easy fears & tears. No doggies saved; no romance rekindled; no eternal bonds of friendship forged. Much helped by Gerry Fisher’s handsome, sophisticated lensing, far from the overlit studio sets expected in these things, Lester’s equally helped by Fisher (or someone) holding down his stylistic excesses. And he certainly helps himself calling in favors from every actor he’d ever worked with. What a cast! Harris, Sharif, David Hemmings, Anthony Hopkins, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, Freddie Jones, joined in small roles by distinctive talents like Michael Hordern, Cyril Cusack & Roshan Seth. At a slick 110 minutes, there’s not a moment wasted.

Friday, February 13, 2015


Edward G. Robinson, with just a wisp of ‘Yellowface’ make-up, is the honorable ‘hatchet man’ of a powerful Chinatown 'family' in this Tong War meller. And while all the principals are Caucasian actors in Yellowface, appearances range from Robinson’s token application to the full Asian war-paint of young ‘Oriental’ lovers Loretta Young & Leslie Fenton. (Fenton, playing a Chinese mobster, looks like a young Chris Walken.) Anyone with an aversion to antique, non-ethnic race casting, even with historical blinders firmly in place, should probably pass. The prologue shows Eddie G. doing his lethal duty, taking out a pal he knew back in the old country; then inheriting the man’s lucrative business and spousal rights to his 6-yr-old child. 12 years later, in a much modernized Chinatown, the girl has matured & assimilated into a teenage Loretta Young, still willing to honor her late father’s pledge, but also developing a yen for Fenton, Robinson’s hipster bodyguard. So, when Robinson has to go out of town on Tong business, the younger generation makes hay. Developments that lead to tragic consequences back in the Old Country. In it’s way, it’s really quite satisfying hokum, from a David Belasco play (see poster), with a doozy of a grisly, ironic, Pre-Code ending. Moving nicely for a 1932 production, there’s demonstration-worthy art direction from Anton Grot and typically inconsistent megging from William Wellman. He’ll nail the hard stuff before blowing the simplest reverse-angle camera set up. (And this was his best period.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: YELLOWFACE vs. BLACKFACE: One of them tries to convince; one to caricature. Even accounting for period conventions, it makes one of these not-quite dead-and-buried practices considerably more insulting & unacceptable than the other. But which one?

DOUBLE-BILL: It’s not really an apt match-up, but everyone’s favorite Chinatown Tong War (certainly the funniest) is found in Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN/’28. (Watch Buster as he films the action from a collapsing platform that becomes a serendipitous camera crane just when he needs one.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Clint Eastwood’s other film for 2014. Is he speeding up his output at the age of 84, or just rattling them off before mind & body give out? Heck, post-AMERICAN SNIPER/’14, he can probably do whatever the hell he wants. That said, this adaptation of B’way’s still-running ‘Jukebox’ Musical about Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons feels as if it were rushed into production, much like his previous directing gig on J. EDGAR/’11. It’s okay, just not quite ready for taping. There’s one major shift in it, not in tone, but in format; altering the presentation to drama-with-songs, and only sampling the Jukebox Musical form during a rousing closing-credits medley. There, its brightened color palette and street-style choreography make for an audience pleasing encore, but could it have worked for the whole film? Hard to say, but this drab, predictable drama of ‘mooks’ brought together, then torn apart by commercial success & overreach, needs all the stylized touches it can muster. There’s a lift each time one of the boys looks to the camera and breaks the ‘fourth wall’ with character info or story exposition. It helps camouflage the derivative feel of the storyline and those Brill Building ‘Pop’ pablum songs, that Dick Clark-approved soundtrack that nearly killed Rock & Roll in the Post-young Elvis-early R&B/Pre-British Invasion-MOTOWN era. So, when we hear a record exec deride Valli’s comeback solo as ‘that art song,’ and it turns out to be the Bobby Darin-like ‘You’re Just Too Good To Be True,’ you kinda know where you’re standing.

DOUBLE-BILL: It’s been a while, but THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY/’78 was long considered tops in this category. (It’s a film you remember with affection, but are probably wise not to revisit.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Five 2014 trailers on this DVD: THE JUDGE; HORRIBLE BOSSES 2; TAMMY; EDGE OF TOMORROW; GODZILLA - and not an original idea in the bunch. Apparently, EoT plays better than its GROUNDHOG DAY-meets-DISTRICT 9 trailer looks. But what a sorry lot!, with the sentimental story-beats of THE JUDGE scraping bottom in faux quality product.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Undercooked, but fascinating; it’s GRAND HOTEL/’31 in a skyscraper,* but with featured players instead of an All-Star cast. Warren William (on loan from Warners for a rare M-G-M gig) is in crisis mode from the get-go, ruthless at dispensing cutthroat business deals or personal charm as he works to keep his 100 storey skyscraper. Already balancing a wife & mistress, he’s soon grooming a fresh young thing on the side while varied office romances brew on every floor below among the likes of Jean Hersholt, Anita Page, Norman Foster & Wallace Ford. A lively set up, if only theatrical impresario & sometime movie megger Edgar Selwyn had the technique to make it swing. The film starts brightly enough. Well, not brightly, but showy, in the plush M-G-M manner. (Parquet floors everywhere you look!) But Selwyn either can’t sustain the rhythm to pull us over narrative bumps or was defeated by the usual post-production committee reshoots of Irving Thalberg’s M-G-M. And the cultured tones of Hedda Hopper, Verree Teasdale & Maureen O’Sullivan can wear you down when you’re not being put off by sexual harassment passing as healthy male libido. (Poor Norman Foster gets the worst of it in his pursuit of O’Sullivan.) Things improve in Act Three when the plot pivots from love-and-sex to stocks-and-bonds as a market tip grows out of control and starts wreaking havoc. By then, just enough real 1932 financial desperation and frank Pre-Code amorality gets thru to make this a lively show even when it’s not quite working. (Note our hardcover book tie-in poster with the title altered to fit the pic.) 

DOUBLE-BILL: *SOULS actually hit movie theaters a couple of months before GRAND HOTEL, but they really don’t pair up. Instead, try John Stahl’s neglected ONLY YESTERDAY/’33, a less than thrilling unwed mom meller that opens with an absolutely stunning 2-reel Wall Street Crash prologue. OR: For Pre-Code/Warren William mavens, see how much appalling behavior he gets away with back on Warners home turf in the shamelessly enjoyable EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE/’33.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Though not particularly associated with historical epics, Tony Curtis paired up nicely with Kirk Douglas for zesty, tongue-in-cheek fun in THE VIKINGS/’58 and then, a bit flat-footed on the more serious SPARTACUS/’60. In his own shot at the form, he tries keeping one foot in each camp . . . and falls on his face. Taken from Gogol’s tale of freedom-loving Cossacks and Polish oppressors, it's certainly quite the show: battles, immense squads of horsemen, forbidden love, lusty campfire pep songs, the works. And no costs spared. (Kino Lorber’s restored DVD is a revelation after decades of color-starved knock-offs.) But, except for a perfectly parted Yul Brynner (in an admittedly very broad perf) and Franz Waxman’s equally perfectly pitched music score*, everything else in the film is either miscast or off the beat. Curtis only looks comfortable in a brief scene at the very end of the film, when he’s disguised as an enemy warrior, and shows little chemistry with teenage leading lady Christine Kaufmann whom he’d soon marry. Director J. Lee Thompson, a talented hack with a surprisingly strong CV (he’d just done GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61 and CAPE FEAR/’62) is wildly out of his fach, and seems to know it. Things start well enough, with a handsome credit sequence and an opening battle that boasts unusually clear delineations of allegiance, alliance & action. But once Curtis hits manhood and heads off to UoK (University of Kiev), we might well have clicked ruby heels and landed in a land of touring operetta. Lots of singing, which isn’t bad, it’s just that the slick studio look of the town might be Old Heidelberg with Tony playing Student Prince. And the wacky tone never quite straightens itself out when things need to get serious again.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *One of Franz Waxman’s last scores, and one of his greatest even if he does write Cossack folk tunes that all sound like Austro-Hungarian Csárdás. But who cares when the tunes and the craft are this good? Here’s the Credit Sequence/Overture from a City of Prague recording of the complete score played loud, fast & splashy: And here’s the full Gathering of the Cossack Clans' 'Ride To Dubno’ music cue, performed with mounting tension by John Wilson and his HUGE symphony orchestra as an encore at the 2013 BBC London Proms. How many French Horns did Waxman ask for?

DOUBLE-BILL: For a look at what TARAS BULBA was aiming at, try Anthony Mann’s EL CID/’61.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

ELENA (2011)

Until LEVIATHAN/’14, none of Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s pics had the impact of his stunning debut, THE RETURN/’03. That’s certainly the case here. Yes, its beautifully observed and just about perfectly realized on its limited terms, but the project simply hasn’t got enough going on, above or below the surface. It’s a tale of ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots,’ New Russia style, with a rich retiree who lives with his middle-aged, if younger second wife in splendid modern apartment isolation. She’d been his nurse, and is still something of a servant in the relationship, which is not without mutual benefits and affection. But when a medical crisis arises, the wife worries about her future and inheritance. What’s to become of her deadbeat son and the boy’s wife & kids who all but live on her indulgence? And now, her sickly husband has his mind set on helping the careless daughter who blithely ignores him, as a newly proposed will proves once more that blood is thicker than water . . . but it’s not yet down on paper. Cue ominously repetitive Philip Glass music. So, with the ailing man’s pill regimen at her disposal (and her son’s financial future on the line), something’s gotta give. Not so far from James Cain territory here. In fact, knee-deep in it, but with slo-mo delivery meant to add depth & earnest ethics to the tropes. Instead, in spite a few stunning moments (a gorgeous Vermeer-like medium close-up of the wife with curtains as backdrop; an out-of-the-blue gang attack on a camp of vagrants), Zvyagintsev directs with a swizzle stick, stirring all the fizz out while adding little of substance to compensate.

DOUBLE-BILL: THE RETURN or (not seen here, yet) LEVIATHAN.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Woebegone sequel to Michael Crichton’s WESTWORLD/’73 reopens the DELOS Theme Park with new & improved replicant humanoids catering to every whim $1200/day can buy. There’s Roman Orgy World; Lusty-Busty Renaissance Fair World; or Gravity-Free Sex in Outer Space World. At the price, you might do better with a Vegas suite & a high-class hooker. And what about all those deaths a couple of years back when the WestWorld robots went kerflooey? No wonder business at the park needs goosing. Enter Peter Fonda & Blythe Danner, squabbling reporters with a past, offered a chance to look around the place. Young & cynical, these news hounds want to publish some dirt, not the puff piece DELOS Exec Arthur Hill hopes for. With this set up, opportunities for suspense & satire abound, but are lost somewhere between the lame script, lame production & lame perfs. When Fonda’s inevitable replicant shows up, you hope they've added a little personality to the mix. Or, at least, tossed his sports jacket with the leather patches. Yikes!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Face it, Crichton’s WESTWORLD is more fun to think about than to watch. Clunky stuff, but a joy next to this drab thing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Is our poster trying to hide something?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


MARVEL stumbles badly in this sequel to THOR/’11. Not that the initial film was bursting with kinetic wit & originality, but it did have something of a plot you could follow between the outbursts of CGI imagery. In fact, two plots: an Earthly exile tale with mortal romance (think Superman/Lois Lane) balanced against a quasi-Shakespearean sibling rivalry story of Thor & his warrior brother Loki for the King’s favor (think Henry IV; Prince Hal; Hotspur). The new film still hops back-and-forth, faster than ever once a gateway flue is discovered, but the latest threat, a sort of evil red ectoplasm, proves impossible to dramatize . . . and about as exciting to fight as the flu. As musclebound Thor, Chris Hemsworth has apparently completed his inexpressivity training; as his underused mom, Rene Russo finally gets something to do . . . play intergalactic corpse at a Viking Funeral; and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is banished to a fashionably furnished cell that might fetch 4 thou/month on the NYC rental market. Everyone else either phones it in or tries to make something fresh out of lame comic tag lines that might have been written for Roger Moore’s 007.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For the nonce, these MARVEL pics seem commercially all but impervious to issues of quality. Make them and fanboys will come; especially if you give it the GAME OF THRONES vibe seen here. But with two more Thor outings in the pipeline (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON/’15; THOR: RAGNAROK/’17) there’s got to be a point of diminishing gross returns. Yes? (Ha! Just skip a release cycle before recasting the inevitable reboot with the next generation.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Elmore Leonard’s novel tone of narrative authority, delayed menace, side-swiped humor & pop-up violence has proved elusive to catch on film. Even when Leonard does the adapting, as he does here. This Depression Era piece has a devilishly clever scam, mean & funny, that puts Patrick McGoohan’s Federal Agent back in touch with army bud (Alan Alda), a hillbilly brewmaster with a cache of moonshine. It’s 1932 and McGoohan is betting on FDR taking the White House, lifting Prohibition, and opening a window of opportunity for a ready-to-go booze backload before the legit distilleries get up & running. And, should Alda refuse to deal, McGoohan’s partnered up with Richard Widmark & his trigger-happy bootleg boys. Elmore runs his story structure and reveals character quirks with cagey craftsmanship, playing close to the vest to make the most of every plot reversal. But director Richard Quine loses the beat every time the film switches locations, falling back on a dusty Southern Fried Depression patina that’s generic when it needs to be specific. McGoohan does finds a note of cracked authority that's missing from Alda’s slouch, but their cornpone accents are something to wonder at. Heroically awful. Widmark’s really no better, but at least it’s fun to hear him reprise the psychotic whine of his early, showstopping villains. Overall, not enough convinces. But look fast for the naked backside of young Teri (Terry) Garr and for the great jazz vocalist Joe Williams in support as Alda’s protector. His accent is spot on.

DOUBLE-BILL: Elmore was revisiting this territory as late as JUSTIFIED/’10-15.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


James Stewart’s last lead (when he was just 63) was in this decent enough Depression Era whopper that shoulda/coulda been better. He’s an ex-con, fresh out of jail with a $25,000 check to show for his 40-yr stint. Kurt Russell (a charmer in an early post-Disney gig) and Strother Martin tag along as his just released pals, but their dreams of a new start bump against George Kennedy’s corrupt prison official & David Huddleston’s two-faced bank manager who plan to grab the loot and leave three bodies. The storyline is probably too straightforward for its own good, especially in the first half, but top-notch support keeps things interesting. As does a spirited Stewart, perhaps invigorated by his cheap, state-issued glass eye. The problem is that the populist tone & period elements need a bit of patience & gentle coaxing to make their mark. The sort of touch director Marty Ritt might have gotten out of a Ravetch/Frank script. (Think HUD/’63; CONRACK/’74; MURPHY’S ROMANCE/’85.) Instead, we get awful Andrew McLaglen, a director whose specialty is hitting us over the head with the obvious. He pretty much wrecked the even better story Stewart did with him last time out (THE RARE BREED/’66). At least this one gets by, much helped by lenser Harry Stradling, Jr. who can’t do much with the overly neat sets (very Henry Ford-Greenfield Village), but who gets miraculously right 1935 color values up on screen. If only Henry Vars’ dreky, tv-ready score were half as good. He must have been hand-picked by McLaglen.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note our poster with a substitute title of pure desperation from Universal UK.

DOUBLE-BILL: Martin Ritt did Depression Era to fine effect in next year’s SOUNDER/’72.