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Saturday, January 31, 2015

HELLGATE (1952)

Western specialist Charles Marquis Warren flattens out a good cast and a good story in this loose reworking of John Ford’s THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND/’36.* That one’s about Samuel Mudd, the doctor who innocently set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg only to find himself jailed as co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination. Here, horse doc Sterling Hayden tapes up the ribcage of a South-sympathizing guerrilla and is sentenced to life at Hellgate, a sort of landlocked Devil’s Island out in the desert. Menacing Lieutenant Ward Bond runs the place; snarling inmate James Arness runs Hayden’s cell; and a tribe of bounty-hunting Indians, along with the arid setting, make escape all but impossible. Meanwhile, back at the farm, wifey Joan Leslie petitions Washington for justice just as a typhus epidemic hits Hellgate. The piece is just loaded with dramatic possibilities, and, for a low-ball production from indie outfit Lippert Pictures, an impressive production outlay in man, horse & location work. But dynamism is missing from Warren’s presentation while the compressed grey-scale b&w processing make it look like a tv anthology show. Pity.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *As mentioned above, PoSI, a perennially underrated title. Ford, and Ford scholars (unhappy with leading man Warner Baxter?), write it off as another under-realized Civil War project. But it, and Baxter, are very good.

Friday, January 30, 2015

DJANGO (1966)

Too fat to be joined at the hip, but the two Sergios, Leone & Corbucci, were present at creation as godfathers to the Spaghetti Western. Sergio Leone heading up the A-Team and Sergio Corbucci taking the B-Team. No shame in that; Spaghetti Westerns go far down the alphabet. DJANGO, probably his first distinctive pic, is out via Blue Underground in a generally excellent transfer of the full (all violence included) 92 minute cut. It's a four-cornered fable that finds Franco Nero’s army-of-one hauling a Gatling gun around in a coffin as he alternately plays with, then against, a motley gang of Mexican revolutionary cutthroats who are fending off armies North and South of the Mexican border. The battles and fights are blunt, busy & exciting, if not especially believable. (The technical bravura & daring originality of Sergio Leone don’t enter into the Corbucci helming equation.) But the film has its own strengths in Franco Nero’s calm cruelty and in some really fabulous art direction. Particularly, in the dead town where half the film plays out in a saloon full of harpies and on the color-drained main street, a masterpiece of dramatic design. Too bad the big climax is kind of a letdown, missing the flair & suspense of an earlier set piece that finds Django & his multi-purpose coffin going rogue for a fortune in gold powder.

DOUBLE-BILL: Corbucci churned out heaps of product, little available Stateside. But from later this year, see him put Burt Reynolds thru his paces in the violently effective NAVAJO JOE/’66. And, of course, there’s Quentin Tarantino’s largely unrelated DJANGO UNCHAINED/’12; best in its first hour.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

HEISEI TANUKI GASSEN PONPOKO / POM POKO (1994)

This animated folk-fantasy from Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata makes an unlikely candidate for Stateside cross-over. The main storyline has packs of ‘tanuki’ (raccoon dogs) calling a truce to take on a common enemy: the rapid industrial & housing developments that are taking away their forests. Easy enough to relate to, but the shape-shifting animals are difficult to keep straight*, while the generally defeatist tone is, frankly, a bummer. The film has been translated, but not situated culturally. Even with a constant narrator as guide, the quick-changing ways of the critters come off as arbitrary rather than daringly adventurous. Worse, it tends to negate any emotional connection. Perhaps a more stylized painterly presentation, like the strolling perspective in a series of Japanese landscape vistas, or some such artistically confining principle would help focus our attention on formal design rather the waylaid character & story elements. As it stands, the film only highlights the achievements of Takahata’s Ghibli partner Hayao Miyazaki.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *A few of the macho raccoon dogs stand out thanks to their prominent testicles. Yikes! Great opportunity for a talk about neutering with the kiddies.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Stick with BAMBI/’42.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LILI (1953)

Baby-boomers are deservedly fond of this pocket-sized, sentimental musical. Really a semi-musical with just the one song (‘Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo’) and a pair of mini dream-ballets. (Note that M-G-M’s Original Soundtrack ‘lp’ -- see below -- takes up just one side of a 10" disc.*) As for sentimentality; well, it’s pretty tough-minded for kid-friendly fare featuring an attempted rape, a barely averted suicide, plus a girl’s dream of sexual awakening. And that’s just the first act! Leslie Caron is perfectly cast as an orphaned gamine who falls twice: first for Jean-Pierre Aumont’s suave circus magician; then another kind of fall, this time right into Mel Ferrer’s puppet act as a serendipitous naïf interlocutor. From there, we have only to wait for Lili to ‘see’ behind those puppets to hit a happy ending. Yet the series of small revelations experienced in a mere 80 minutes are unexpectedly devastating. There’s real surprise in the amount of emotion coming from Helen Deutsch’s beautifully structured script and Charles Walters’ no-frills helming; it could easily have been a very sticky fable. But with its fine supporting cast and undersold uplift, you’re easily won over by all the care and detail work in here. It keeps beating your expectations: that simple grey painted backdrop for the final ballet; the lack of villains; letting Caron do her own vocals (hurrah!); and truly outstanding portrait work from lenser Robert Planck. Look sharp for a magnificent shot of Caron taken from behind the puppets, framed by the blue tulle of a puppet’s dress as she sings along. Back in the silent days, a close-up like that might have made a career. Especially with Caron perfectly poised between gawky youth and the beauty revealed in GIGI/’58.


LINK: *B’way got around to making a proper musical out of LILI in Bob Merrill’s CARNIVAL. (An early stage direction credit for Gower Champion who stars on Side Two of our LILI ‘lp.’) A forgotten charmer, it was enchantingly revived by NYC’s ENCORES! in 2002 with Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Mel Ferrer role; Douglas Sills, hilarious in the Jean-Pierre Aumont part; Anne Hathaway, fresh out of Juilliard & instantly making a name for herself as Lili; and a fine foursome of puppets from the Muppets Workshop stealing every scene they were in. Especially when they pretended to be reading their lines out of prompt books. Here’s a LINK to a bit of Hathaway live on stage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNZ8uaw_dDE

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

THE MAN IN THE NET (1959)

The rap on director Michael Curtiz holds that the dynamic Warner Bros. workhorse (90 films over twenty-five years) lost his creative mojo when he left the studio in the mid-‘50s. What’s left out of the consideration is that Curtiz ankled just as WideScreen pics ambled in. The pageant-like staging stratagems used in THE EGYPTIAN/’54 (20th/Fox-CinemaScope) or to introduce VistaVision on Paramount’s WHITE CHRISTMAS/’54 were to some extent dictated by nervous studio execs Curtiz catered to as ‘new boy on the block.’ (After four decades of megging!) Add in the tiny selection of lenses available (especially in ‘Scope), plus the huge commercial success of CHRISTMAS (the year’s top grosser), and you can see why the normally combative Curtiz would go along with the bland style.* Not here. Working on an independent production, he comes close to his old form, revving up this whodunnit with a generous smear of childhood poetic realism and a big assist from lenser John Seitz, also in a notable return to form after B-pics & tv gigs. Alan Ladd (with a bloated face & looking past his age) is an ex-commercial artist trying to make a go as a fine arts painter. A loner, he pals with some of the local kids who come to watch him sketch, but is barely social at all, unlike his high-strung, alcoholic wife (Carolyn Jones, trying to go full Bette Davis, but coming up short). When the neurotic dear suddenly goes missing, presumed dead, circumstantial evidence points to Ladd and the nice rural town suddenly turns vicious. Ladd goes on the lam, hiding out/helped by the local kids he’s befriended. Reginald Rose’s script is too blunt to pull us in properly, but there’s just enough to give Curtiz & Co. something special to work with. And while it's no NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55 or WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND/’61** in the lyrical mortal fable department, it does work up a special tone worth attending to.

DOUBLE-BILL: **NIGHT or WHISTLE would pair nicely with this, but keep a look out for THE PROUD REBEL/’58, an even better Ladd/Curtiz collaboration with Olivia de Havilland & Ladd’s own kid as his deaf son. It too is beautifully shot, with an unusual yellowish palette, by another never-Oscar’d great, Ted McCord.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Rejecting that bland early CinemaScope style, one of the treats in the Judy Garland/’54 version of A STAR IS BORN, especially in its first two reels, is watching director George Cukor shred the standard, stolid, ‘Scope stylistics of the day. He almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten away with such daring at his home studio (M-G-M), but as an expensive hired-hand helmer on the Warners lot, working with his own non-house visual crew, he’s positively fearless, even experimental. (Of course, this being Hollywood, the worm turned, the production lost money, and a grinning Jack Warner chopped the negative down to size, making sure to destroy all the discards.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

GERONIMO (1962)

THE RIFLEMAN must have been on hiatus for tv star Chuck Connors to get into Apache drag as this film’s blue-eyed Geronimo. Made with that popular show’s creative team, it’s not as bad as you might expect . . . but then, what were you expecting? By ‘62, there’s not much frisson in seeing this tale of defiance told from a Native American POV; or even in having the US Army as the villain, chasing a once proud people off their land treaty or no. But it is a surprise to find the Apache principals still being played by non-Indian actors. A surprise and a disappointment; heck, Chief Thundercloud played Geronimo on screen back in 1939 and again in 1950.) Connors does his low-rent Charlton Heston thing as the noble warrior and lets his soon-to-be wife Kamala Devi deliver English elocution lessons as his takeaway bride. They’re largely unconvincing, but the soul of verisimilitude next to Ross Martin’s aide-de-campfire from 2nd Avenue. At least, the largely made up story has a big, lux feel to it; and a clever idea in giving Geronimo a wound that won’t heal. It’s positively Wagnerian, like Amfortas. It’s not only a swell metaphor for enduring Native American troubles, it also helps set up a much needed action set piece (a well-staged escape-from-town) in the middle of a drawn out siege.

DOUBLE-BILL: 1993 had two GERONIMO pics, a forgotten TNT tv film and a major miss in GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND which did serious career damage to helmer Walter Hill, writer John Milius & Jason (Black Hole) Patric, an actor able to suck the life out of anything near him.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

KOI NO TSUMI / GUILTY OF ROMANCE (2011)

Perverse, if stylishly-handled, thriller from writer/director Sion Sono is half murder case procedural; half female empowerment via prostitution; half prim housewife bursts homely boundaries. No wonder the film feels over-stuffed. Divided into five chapters, but pretty much functioning as a traditional three-act, the film opens as two mix-and-match corpses, found in the ‘Love Hotel’ district, are discovered to be the half human/half mannequin remains of one. The crime, told in flashback, plays in kinky contrast to the well-adjusted homelife of the female chief detective on the case. But Sono peels back layers on all his characters, including the detective, revealing unexpected connections & role reversals so you’re never quite sure who’s holding the reins in the mind, power or sex games. At times playfully grisly, at others winkingly suggestive (hard ‘R’ sex; ever growing sausage samples), and a strong, freaky denouement with a clever tag ending to paper over a lot of repetitive action.

DOUBLE-BILL: It’s now a bit of a hoot, but THE EYES OF LAURA MARS/’78 (script by John Carpenter) took the kinky sex thriller/murder-mystery to a new level in its day. 

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Sono errs badly plugging in Mahler’s Adagietto for a bit of unearned emotion. But after getting Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Ravel & Rachmaninoff in BIRDMAN, why complain?

Friday, January 23, 2015

BIRDMAN (2014)

As a charter-member of the Give Michael Keaton A Tom Hanks Role Now And Then Club, it was a kick to hear all the buzz coming off this high-visibility project. But as particulars leaked out from over-hyped Film Fest showings, it seemed clear that the usual pretentious befuddlements of writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s would dampen any anticipation. (Subtitled OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE in case you harbored any hope.) The film’s a meta-physical whimsy with Keaton rejiggering his faded career as a flying SuperHero by going on-stage in his own Raymond Carver adaptation. Really, that’s the plot. There’s a load and a half of technical obfuscation, largely superfluous to the theme or action, using a much commented upon appearance of one unedited take.* Too clever by half, the technique has the tail wagging the dog as we chase characters from behind for too many interconnected scenes and then find we have to play them out with compromised lens choices (often fish-eye) that add unwanted psychological distortion to a story that needs to be seen plain if its going to add up to anything other than a freak show. Oh well. Many seem to get off on the excess and the actors all seem to be having a whale of a time. (Make that a ‘wail’ of a time.) Though the women are hard to keep track of. And why all the gaffes about B’way? Half-price previews? A NYTimes writer rooting against the success of an original drama on B’way? Critics sitting on-the-aisle at Opening Night? When did these people last go to the theater? 1962?

DOUBLE-BILL: Time has been unusually kind to George Cukor’s A DOUBLE LIFE/’47, with Ronald Colman going all Method-Actory on Othello in Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin’s theatrically knowing script under Milton Krasner’s brooding lens.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hitchcock attempted the one-shot look on ROPE/’48, hoping to build real-time suspense as the clock ticked. So did Aleksandr Sokurov in his fantasy documentary RUSSIAN ARK/’02. But with events playing out over a week or so, it’s a show-offy obstacle/distraction here. No doubt, Iñárritu’s idea of an artistic challenge.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

ANGEL FACE (1952)

This Otto Preminger film noir has seen its rep rise over time, but it probably carries too many shopworn story & character elements for its own good. Preminger runs the narrative like an actor who needs to ‘indicate’ to get his points across; it works, but the labor shows. Jean Simmons is a spoiled heir, too close to her father, stifled novelist Herbert Marshall, and too distant from rich step-mom Barbara O’Neil. This already dangerous triangle gets thrown completely out of whack when Robert Mitchum’s ambulance driver shows up after an ‘accidental’ gas leak in O’Neil’s bedroom. He’s already in a relationship, but that doesn’t slow down Simmons . . . or Mitchum. In fact, all the couplings are more than a little ‘off’ here: cue big romantic piano theme from Dmitri Tiomkin and lensing from Harry Stradling that’s more darkly glamorous than stark noir. Under Preminger, the perfs & production are unusually smooth, with a couple of real jolts to the system, but he seems to lose interest in the third-act trial scenes. A pity since Leon Ames’ defense attorney might be an urban sketch for the sort of pragmatic attorney Preminger would be drawn to, with far more ambiguity, in ANATOMY OF A MURDER/’59.

DOUBLE-BILL: Just about any noir with a scary/murderous dame at its center and a juicy murder trial would pair up nicely (too nicely, it’s the film’s weakness). But instead of the usual suspects (DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44; LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN/’45; POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE/'46), try the cheap, twisty illogic of IMPACT/’49.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE (1978)

Much belated follow-up to THE GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61* brings over a couple of the earlier film’s characters, but little else. It’s simply another far-fetched WWII derring-do mission, but with less gravitas (a plus); a shorter running time (another plus); ludicrous plotting (a minus); sucker-punch witticisms for dialogue (minus); sub-standard action direction until the final blow-out pyrotechnics (another minus); and a notch or two less star power (surprisingly, a wash). Robert Shaw & Edward Fox are the theoretical holdovers (in for Greg Peck & David Niven) with add-ons Harrison Ford (sporting ‘70s hair-styling) & Carl Weathers (sporting ‘70s black empowerment attitude). The gimmick is that they don’t start out on a mission together, but are forced to collaborate when their transport plane goes down near their various assignment locales. A clever set-up, but the execution of both the film and narrative structure is catch-as-catch-can sloppy until James Bond specialist director Guy Hamilton finds just the right tone (at last) for his slam-bang finale.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Big, plush and slightly corporate, all patriotic boys go a bit bromantic for THE GUNS OF NAVARONE whose true follow-up was the decidedly dull disaster MACKENNA’S GOLD/’69, a true guilty pleasure, that. A better match-up with FORCE 10 might be WHERE EAGLES DARE/’68 with Richard Burton & Clint Eastwood making an unexpectedly good heroic tag team.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

NOORDZEE TEXAS / NORTH SEA TEXAS

Small, precise, beautifully observed coming-of-age story from Belgium, the first feature-length pic from Bavo Defurne is a ‘60s (?) period piece that builds a complex relationship between its characters, coastal environment and the changing weather as touchstone to teenage moods. 15-yr-old Pim is best pals with 18-yr-old neighbor Gino, all but a member of the family. The sexual play between the boys may just be horny fooling around for the older boy, but it’s a serious crush for Pim, a sensitive kid, barely noticed at home by a sluttish mom turning to fat. Over the course of three years, Gino moves on to a regular girlfriend, his kid sister waits impatiently for Pim to notice her and Pim’s mom grows less concerned then ever. Emotional tidal waves to a teen with no ballast to keep him grounded. All given sharp visual dimension with cramped home interiors in contrast to the handsome matte look of a waterfront locale, lovingly realized by cinematographer Anton Mertens (via Red One digital) and production designer Kurt Rigolle who lets us discover the period elements on our own rather than clobber us with them. Then, there’s that memorable bar where Pim hangs out during his mom’s dates.

Possibly inspired by the famous mansion in the middle of nowhere from GIANT/’56, this one gives the film its name. A tacked on epilogue rounds things off a little too clearly/neatly, when they might well have ended with a preceding funeral, but does little damage.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Jelle Florizoone, who plays Pim, ages from 15 to 18 with subtle conviction. Slight adjustments in hair, height & lighting do the trick without the fuss of a big budget pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: All those wild reeds waving in the coastline breeze should lead you straight to André Téchiné’s similarly themed (far more substantial) WILD REEDS/’95.

Monday, January 19, 2015

INHERENT VICE (2014)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Dead-On-Arrival adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s verbally dense L.A. detective yarn is a stoner CHINATOWN wannabee.* (It’s a Passion Project - SLAP! - It’s a Vanity Project - SLAP! - It's a Passion Project - SLAP! - It’s a Vanity Project.) Loaded with unlikely actors in unlikely roles, they’re less a cast than a bunch of personal favors called in for the occasion. Joaquin Phoenix, as the blissed out private investigator sorting out ex-lovers, a missing real estate tycoon & a sexually perverted drug organization, gives us his impression of Sean Penn in a Jeff Bridges role, but made up for the old PLANET OF THE APES. (See below) He’s not much worse, or more unhinged than everyone else in the starry cast . . . just less hygienic. If only a couple of jokes clicked, we might get an angle on the possibilities Anderson saw in the material. Instead, with a painstaking gaze, each overly controlled, artfully composed shot puts another nail in the coffin. The poster above got it half right: In Selected Theaters December 12; Nowhere January 9.


WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *The plot (?) seems closer to THE LONG GOODBYE/’73 than to CHINATOWN/’74; and Robert Altman’s once derided film is a reimagined deconstructed wonder. OR: Maintain the CHINATOWN connection with Robert Towne’s near-miss TEQUILA SUNRISE/’88.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

PARIS BRÜLE-T-IL? / IS PARIS BURNING (1966)

Big, handsome, slightly dull WWII historical, built to grab the same crowds who flocked to THE LONGEST DAY/’62. But even with the full RoadShow treatment (advance tix; 70mm blow-up; overture & intermission), it never quite took off. Scene-by-scene, director René Clément does some meticulous work (impeccably lensed by Marcel Grignon), but the all-star international cast are either consigned to cameos (often for a quick, ironic death) or get one-note roles designed to move things along. A few vet names manage to connect (Orson Welles, Charles Boyer), but only Gert Fröbe, as the German General with orders to either hold or destroy Paris as the Allies advance and the local resistance splinters with Gaullists right and Commies left, gets something approaching a character arc. (Strange that a script from Gore Vidal & Francis Coppola should lack narrative transitions or momentum.) LONGEST DAY used hokey personal stories & coincidences to build suspense & audience identification; but the PARIS palette runs sec, only to uncork something a little bland, a little flat. (NOTE: Dubbed in the dead acoustic common to the period, the film probably plays better in English than in French. But double back just to hear a bit of Glenn Ford’s General Bradley in French. It’s stupendously silly.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Clémént’s earlier WWII German occupation pic, LA BATAILLE DU RAIL/’45, is rougher, more personal & more convincing, though equally low on characterization & structure. OR: Volker Schlöndorff’s just out DIPLOMACY/’14 (not seen here), a two-hander debate drama between the Swiss Consul General & the German Military Governor of Occupied Paris (the Welles & Fröbe roles).

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/LINK: Composer Maurice Jarre (Oscar’d that year for DOCTOR ZHIVAGO/’66) was a very naughty boy here, largely filching his main musical tattoo from Dmitri Shostakovich’s famous wartime Symphony #7: Leningrad. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwfgQG7n_L0 (Go about 10 minutes in for it.) And here’s Jarre’s ‘Resistance’ theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf-Yl3Li9rU (Go about 3 minutes in to hear it take over.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

MILANO CALIBRO 9 / CALIBER 9 (1972)

The first in Fernando Di Leo’s Mafioso Trilogy is a violent triple-cross bagman story out of Milan. No film classic, but far superior to the Palermo-based third entry IL BOSS/’73. It certainly starts well with a pass-the-loot prologue that follows a $300 thou package as it’s handed off five or six times before landing with the thug-in-chief who opens it to find nothing but paper inside. Someone’s gonna pay! Three years on, a mid-level mob guy gets out of jail and is pressed for the missing cash. Has he got it; or not? Various mob groups; cops; his old girl; everyone thinks so. Di Leo teases this out with escalating violence and a smartly picked cast of characters (and character actors) who make things easy to follow. But what an odd technique he has. The location work is satisfying and clear (if not particularly inventive or exciting), but interiors are airless, often like an Italian version of DRAGNET, right down to the stiff action/fight stuff. All shot with camera set ups you might choose if you were making a home & office furniture catalog; wholesale, not retail.

DOUBLE-BILL: Coming Soon to this Space: THE ITALIAN CONNECTION/’72, the middle part of Di Leo’s trilogy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Gravely-voiced Lionel Stander dubs his own English as the big bad Americano boss. But the film plays better in Italian w/ subtitles. And there’s a suitably gravely Italian voice to match Stander’s distinctive growl.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS (1957)

Hard to spot a girl in black stockings or much of a murder mystery in this woebegone Grade-Z production. Just an unusual location at a Utah resort and the waste of its reasonably tasty cast (friendly Lex Barker; cult-baddie Marie Windsor; unstoppable John Dehner; and B’way & stardom-bound Anne Bancroft). But should you happen upon a copy, have a looksie at the clean graphics of its opening credits (very Otto Preminger/Saul Bass) and hang around to watch some young weekenders as they mill about for a better look at the first murder victim. Someone must have put out a call to a lot of wannabee actors in L.A.: Hie thee off to Parry Lodge in Kanab, Utah for a day’s work as extras . . . and bring your own wardrobe. And so, for the briefest of moments, you can see what these young hopefuls really looked like, how they made up and held themselves without much in the way of studio interference. Just a bunch of twentysomething would-be actors wearing their best informal party clothes and hoping to be noticed. Hollywood cultural anthropologists & ‘50s ‘costumologists,’ take note.

DOUBLE-BILL: More double-down than double-bill, but from the era of buxom-blondes compare & contrast this film’s Mamie Van Doren with England’s Diana Dors in the preferable MANBAIT/’52.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

Thin-textured, minimally engaging spy yarn from John le Carré trails a stateless Chechen Muslim on the run in Hamburg, Germany where he’s gone to claim an inheritance. The size of the legacy and questions of possible terrorist connections bring out multiple government security agencies, the usual state & international groups, each vying to work the case in their own way. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last roles, heads the least powerful but most sophisticated of the lot, a small, under-the-radar outfit that tries to play fair with its suspects, hoping to facilitate a connection (or a cash flow) that will lead to a follow-up target. Internecine politics between the spy organizations hold all the interest here, but they get far less screen time than the ordinary cat-and-mouse games of follow the suspect/follow the money. Director Anton Corbijn, of George Clooney’s similarly damp THE AMERICAN/’10, hardly a dab hand in the suspense department, pulls together a very uneven cast; the women largely miscast, the men painfully underused. (What on earth is rising star Daniel Brühl doing in this throwaway role?) But you do get another chance to watch Hoffman put a part together. Fat to the point of being hobbled, he tries out a neat Euro-accent between constant smokes & whisky. Run a scene over with your eyes closed to concentrate on the vocal. He’s using an Anthony Hopkins voice (with a touch of Hopkins’ noted imitation of Richard Burton) as the beginning point to build up his character. After that, it’s all some sort of magic in his head.

DOUBLE-BILL: In the Bill Nighy spy-mini WORRICKER: TURKS & CAICOS/'14, writer/director David Hare shares similar concerns, similar political sympathies and an awfully similarly final plot twist with this Carré piece. Just as sleepy, too.

Monday, January 12, 2015

CRUISING (1980)

Hunting for a sensational comeback after SORCERER/’77 and THE BRINK’S JOB/’78 scuttled his gilt-edged FRENCH CONNECTION/’71-EXORCIST/’73 rep, William Friedkin found something to sensationalize, all right. At heart, a bread-and-butter undercover-dick serial murder investigation. But what bread!, what butter!, since the serial killer trolls in the S&M gay leather bar scene of the NYC Meat District. The gimmick to these things, as always, is to see just how far our undercover protagonist (a too old Al Pacino) will go to protect his assumed identity; especially since he’s the bait. For writer/director Friedkin, it's a problem of prurience: a kinky sex show that's meant to pander and repel. Friedkin’s response is to sidestep the usual Police Procedural tropes of a traditional murder mystery manhunt and go for a more ambiguous European style of art house cinema. (This even affects the sound design with its non-instrumental background score from composer Jack Nitzsche’s and an odd acoustic to its heavily looped, voice-disjunctive dialogue track.) Cinematic bi-curiosity that leaves Friedkin stranded with one foot in each camp. There’s still a lot of interest in the film simply as pre-AIDS document. But as thriller, the only scary thing in here is Al Pacino’s hedonistic dancing. Yikes!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film tiptoes around Pacino’s level of participation, compared to, say, DONNIE BRASCO/97, where Al plays the mob guy and Johnny Depp the undercover who goes ‘all the way in.’ Well, how ‘all-the-way-in’ would a 1980 film star at a gay leather bar go? (The handsomely remastered DVD seems to have lost a line where Pacino claims he’s hung “like a horse.’) He does get pawed, tied up and possibly receives head just before going back to his steady girl (Karen Allen) for a comparative blow job. Friedkin, the squarest of squares, misses even the hint of a gag here as the camera closes in on Pacino’s blank expression.

DOUBLE-BILL: Urban legend holds that an XXX sequence, now lost, was shot during production. In INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR/’13, James Franco cogitates on the possibilities and even films a few bits of putative recreation. But the film is mere stunt, intellectual masturbation posing as an art thing. Instead, for a good idea of the sort of film Friedkin had in mind, try Maurice Pialat’s POLICE/’85 with a still young & swaggering Gérard Depardieu as the police detective caught in his own passions. The last act collapses into l’amour fou cliché, but not enough to sour the effect.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)

Call it sophomoritis, or creative fatigue against DreamWorks house style; whatever the case, DRAGON 2 is a step-and-a-half down from the winning start to this Boy and his Dragon franchise. Too big, too busy and overproduced in a commercially-knowing kiddie-kaffeinated manner.  (Even the poster is a confused mess. Compare below with the first film's.)  

The story gets split in half with young hero Hiccup finding the mom who deserted him as a child now playing foster mother to an isle of lost dragons; then he takes on a vicious warlord who uses mind control to harness his dragon army. It’s hard to know if it’s the execution or the story development that went wrong first, but surely the parental drama is misconceived. Shouldn’t Hiccup at least have some trouble forgiving mom; perhaps coming ‘round once it’s too late. Instead, the filmmakers just pile on more flights & fights. On the plus side, the facial animation is just fabulous, you can read every passing emotion on Hiccup’s brow. But the vocal cast must have smelled story problems and overcompensate, selling the big moments by clobbering us with any gag or emotion they can find. It’s still a fun watch, with a few rewarding payoffs, but must every scene be a relay race?

DOUBLE-BILL: You’ll need to see HtTYD/’10 first; then cross your fingers for the already announced (hopefully decompressed) HtTYD3.

Friday, January 9, 2015

THE OKLAHOMA KID (1939)

James Cagney played ‘good’ badman to Humphrey Bogart’s ‘bad’ badman twice in 1939; in THE ROARING TWENTIES (a big ticket Warner debut for vet helmer Raoul Walsh) and in this tease of a Western from dogged studio mainstay Lloyd Bacon. KID gets lost between TWENTIES and EACH DAWN I DIE (Cagney’s other powerhouse release of ‘39), but it’s a sweet little treat all on its own, a Western made by, and even for, non-specialists. It sneaks up and winks at you. The opening sequence is a dilly. Bogie, outfitted by Prada of the West, and his gang of cutthroats hold up a stagecoach, grab a big silver payout meant for the Indian Tribes, then find themselves held up, losing the loot to Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid who manages to make a convincing gang all on his lonesome. (Loaded with kinetic energy & fancy location spotting, can this really be the work of Lloyd Bacon or did some 2nd Unit sharpie call the shots?) The film relaxes thereafter, with a fight for the soul of the new town of Tulsa springing up between Bogie & his vice peddlers vs a circle of do-gooders around Rosemary Lane, the gal who’s claimed Cagney’s heart. Spun out without an ounce of fat in a neat 80 minutes, lenser James Wong Howe manages some fine dusty vistas and there’s a pretty fair Oklahoma Land Rush, largely via stock & ‘borrowed’ footage.* And, as bonus, you can work up your own idea of what THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD/’38 might have been like had the original casting idea of Cagney instead of Errol Flynn come about. In hindsight, it seems ridiculous, Flynn simply is Robin of Locksley. But he only got the role when Cagney walked out on his contract in ‘36. And it’s not hard to envision this ‘might-have-been’ from what we see here. Of course, this Oklahoma Robin keeps his ill-gotten gains for himself, but you can still make out the sketch of that other thieving character.

DOUBLE-BILL: *For some great original land rushes, look to William S. Hart’s TUMBLEWEEDS/’25; John Ford’s 3 BAD MEN/’26 and CIMARRON/Wesley Ruggles-‘31; Anthony Mann-‘60. Or try the opening of Ron Howard’s FAR AND AWAY/’92; then skip to the end for his unintentionally hilarious camera move representing Tom Cruise almost giving up the ghost.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

ALCESTE À BICYCLETTE / BICYCLING WITH MOLIÈRE (2013)

This underachiever treads thru some classic Molière, hoping, without much luck, that something will stick. A pained-looking Lambert Wilson is the successful tv actor trying to coax a reluctant old colleague (toothsome Fabrice Luchini) back on the stage for Molière’s THE MISANTHROPE. The perfectly workable gimmick here is that the all but retired Luchini really is a misanthrope, ripe for the role if he’ll only admit it. Soon these middle-aged men fight over who plays lead and who second, test drive every line, weigh every accent and vie for the new girl in town. (As for what this young woman sees in them . . . ?) Anyone with a vague notion of the play will guess where this is going, but we never get much below the surface of the characters in or out of the play. We’re busy with detours on a disgruntled cabby, a dodged vasectomy or a budding porn performer looking for acting tips. The little Molière we do get comes out as dead rhetoric between clenched teeth & gargled ‘R’s.’ And Molière’s masterful tone in this heartache of a comedy, a sort of nihilistic melancholy, is left all but untouched.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Though Molière is constantly staged and adapted for tv, remarkably few films have been tried. A DON JUAN/‘98 and a larky bio-pic (MOLIÈRE/’97) are typical disappointments. English speakers are better off digging up the superb rhymed translations of Richard Wilbur. His MISANTHROPE adaptation is on YOUTUBE, but in a not so hot production. Instead, read it out loud yourself. You’ll be speaking in rhymed couplets for days after.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

AIRPORT (1970)

Big, square & corny, George Seaton’s last credit as writer/director has the clunky across-the-board commercial appeal of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, but in contemporary mode. With much the same out-of-fashion mix of stolid acting, stiff staging and step-by-step plot mechanics to move things along and tie up loose ends. On its own terms, it still pays off and is undoubtedly more fun to watch now than it must have been at the time. (With neat-o visual pop-up panels for that extra-dated look.) It’s the last stand of the old Hollywood machine, revved up one last time and earning a prestige bonus in 10 Oscar® noms as well as the year’s top grosses. (Double what second-place M*A*S*H made.) The star turns are fun to watch, even in Edith Head’s weirdly unbecoming outfits, and if the comic bits are groaners (Helen Hayes twinkles alarmingly), it all makes for a fascinating comparison with Maureen Stapleton who plays on a different level than everyone else. Here’s a précis: Pilot Dean Martin & airport manager Burt Lancaster wade thru marriage crises while end-of-his-rope passenger Van Heflin threatens to blow a bomb in flight and George Kennedy races to clear a blizzard-stuck jet off Runway 29 so the stricken plane can attempt a landing. And there’s more, more, more! Something of a last hurrah, not only for Seaton & tarnished Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking, but also for Heflin, character actress Jessie Royce Landis, composer Alfred Newman and 50 yr-old producer Ross Hunter.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Producer Hunter had spent all his twenty year career @ Universal, juggling shlockly projects with smooth Doris Day pics and classic Douglas Sirk mellers. But he fell afoul of Universal mogul Lew Wasserman going far over budget on a film the studio figured to tank. Instead, it was the hit of the year and Wasserman couldn't let the shmuck get away with being right; that’s Hollywood’s greatest sin. (Moguls forgive, but never forget.) Hunter moved over to Columbia, produced what is arguably the worst big budget film in Hollywood history (his musicalized LOST HORIZON/’74) and never made another feature film. Wasserman continued to drag Universal down, down, down, until an unlikely kid director (Steven Spielberg) saved his tuchus with JAWS/’75, another cost overrun pic. At least, that’s the usual Wasserman/Hunter rift explanation. But check out the sexless marriage between Burt Lancaster & Dana Wynter in this film. He’s disinterested; she’s having affairs; they’re a couple only in name & on charity committees. Wasserman & his wife might have served as role models for this fictional pair.

DOUBLE-BILL: Compared to its three sequels (AIRPORT(s) 1975; ‘77; ‘79) this looks like Visconti’s THE LEOPARD/’63. And note those crap sequels (largely hack work via Wasserman pet producer Jennings Lang) started right after Hunter self-sabotaged on LOST HORIZON.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

KAZE NO TANI NO NAUSHIKA / NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)

With teen-fronted dystopian tales thick on the ground, this early anime feature from Hayao Miyazaki may have lost some of its cutting edge, but at least it’s now available in its original cut. A butchered release from ‘85 titled WARRIORS OF THE WIND lost a couple reels, reconfigured the story line and sidelined Princess Nausicaä to supporting character on its poster (see below). That said, this tale of a poisoned planet slowly killing its remaining inhabitants as they pointlessly wage war against each other, isn't quite top-tier Miyazaki.

It has that over-stuffed/too fecund quality seen in some of his most acclaimed, if not best pics. Not that you’ll mind during the stunningly drawn & designed nighttime action scenes of stars, battles & mass movement, all gorgeous as ever. But the characters aren’t as fully rounded, either in form or character, as they’d soon be, with the generic-looking Princess Nausicaä something of a goody-goody Christ figure sans accompanying sacrifice. Friend to all, she sees goodness behind every evil motive & adversary, saving the planet by earning merit badges.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

DEAN SPANLEY (2008)

MY TALKS WITH DEAN STANLEY is a trifle, a piece of Edwardian England whimsy, but a lovely one. And the film version is loaded with old favorites in new roles that give them something to chew on. (No phoned-in paid appearances here.) Peter O’Toole is splendidly irritating & charming as Jeremy Northam’s emotionally stoppered dad. But when their weekly visit leads to an eccentric lecture on the transmigration of souls, a chance meeting with Bryan Brown (a dealer in hard-to-find imports of dubious legality) and Sam Neill’s Dean Spanley (an Anglican cleric with a passion for dogs & Hungarian Tokay) becomes the first step toward a spiritual & emotional breakthrough. Don’t be put off by the fuddy-duddy first act, the film quickly warms to its task as a funny, quirky and unexpectedly moving meditation on times past/times lost and the possibility for change at any stage of life. Toa Fraser, working off Alan Sharp’s witty script, keeps the story focused on essentials, resisting temptations to wallow in sentimentality. (Tight budgets can be a blessing that way.) The film apparently went a’begging for theatrical Stateside distribution, but don’t let that put you off.

DOUBLE-BILL: You have to go all the way back to character actor James Gleason in HERE COMES MR. JORDAN/’41 (remade as HEAVEN CAN WAIT/’78) to match O’Toole’s reaction shot on coming face-to-face with reincarnation. Perhaps it has something to do with their shared combination of fragility & resilience.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

IL BOSS / THE BOSS (1973)

A clean limned internecine gang warfare tale from Mafiaso specialist Fernando Di Leo that avoids the usual Italian commercial cinema overkill, but can’t find much to take its place. We’re in Palermo, just in time to see one of the main mob clans rubbed out at a private porn screening. It’s the work of mob man Henry Silva, a Po-faced executioner with what proves to be a wandering allegiance. Then, a girl’s kidnapping forces the hand of the three remaining families to sort out a pecking order while corrupt police and impotent action committees go thru the motions. It’s a fine set up for a citywide power struggle, but Di Leo never gets below the surface nor does he show the technical chops to build much suspense. Action sequences don’t provide enough information. Is the stalker close to his target? Is that hallway even on the same floor? And the obligatory nude wench (the kidnapped mob daughter) is such a walking masochistic, misogynist cliché you want to send Di Leo to some remedial feminist workshop. Weak as it is, it’s pretty watchable stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Even though Silva & Richard Conte (he’s the eldest of the Palermo bosses) did their own English-language dialogue looping, the film has far more conviction when played in its Italian dub with English subtitles.

DOUBLE-BILL: This film is last in a trilogy that include CALIBER 9/’72 and THE ITALIAN CONNECTION/’72.

Friday, January 2, 2015

GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

MANDINGO/’75 meets the MONDO CANE/’62 boys when shock-meisters Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi helicopter thru time, down to the Old South where they visit plantations and see the sights (and sites) of Pre-Civil War slavery. Half fantasy documentary (done on the grandest of scales); half exploitation pic (torture & titillation abound); and 100% jaw-dropping; it’s been shocking viewers in lousy prints of various lengths for decades. Now out in a well-produced DVD from Blue Underground, the film can make a case for itself . . . or try to. (Certainly little can be done for the film’s embarrassing modern day Black Power On The Beach epilogue.) The film might be easier to defend if only the black slaves didn’t come off in such a depersonalized manner compared to all the memorable sadistic white masters. Or if we didn’t know that the film had been shot in ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s Haiti with a black 'Cast-of-Thousands' poor & hungry enough to strip & grovel with historical accuracy. If that’s the word.

DOUBLE-BILL: Largely reviled on release, Richard Fleischer’s slave meller MANDINGO (not seen here) has built up a substantial fan base.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

THE WIPERS TIMES (2013)

This modest, but neatly turned WWI tele-pic from the BBC flew under the radar. (As might have been expected with radar yet to be invented!) It’s an unlikely, but fact-inspired tale of an Ypres-based regiment who come upon a printing machine in a bombed warehouse and, bored between spasms of deadly action, put it to use. With gallows humor & satirical edge, they publish a morale-boosting weekly that tweaks ‘front’-phobic officers between mordant commentary and doggerel poetry submitted by sentimental doughboys . Some of the material is re-imagined in a hit-and-miss cabaret format, but helmer Andy De Emmony mostly takes advantage of his limited budget by sticking close to a few men in tight quarters (er, trenches), with just enough large-scale action to bring out the horrors of war against the forced spontaneity of putting out a cheeky rag for soldier-boys. (A cemetery bombing and a trench-full of gassed Germans suffice.) Ben Chaplin long out of the Hollywood rat race and now in his mid-40s, remains a handsome, likable presence, and shows effortless command as Regiment Captain, ably assisted by the pleasingly rumpled Julian Rhind-Tutt. Michael Palin brings a walrus-worthy mustache and laid-back manner to the sympathetic general who brushes aside complaints against the paper, though the script might have come up with more than one naysayer in the whole British Army. Believable, unpretentious and nice, not your typical WWI Lost-Generation saga.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rowan Atkinson’s BLACK ADDER GOES FORTH/’89 takes his conniving character to the trenches of WWI for a final series of appalling comedy and an unexpected, dead-stop end.