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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

CARDINAL RICHELIEU (1935)

Irresistible historical nonsense from Victorian melodramatist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, still known from THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII. (And for convincing Charles Dickens to soften the ending of GREAT EXPECTATIONS.) No doubt, his play is stiff as a detachable celluloid shirt collar (Henry Irving made his name on it), but producer Darryl Zanuck has Rowland V. Lee to carve things up neatly. Lee had a real gift for mounting this sort of barnstorming claptrap at-a-price as he did on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO/’34 with Robert Donat.* This example of the form has 17th Century French nobility up in arms against Richelieu (George Arliss) for consolidating all their powers into the hand of Edward Arnold’s ungrateful Louis XIII while taking a nice cut for himself. On the romantic front, Maureen O’Sullivan is a pretty ward for dashing Cesar Romero to fall in love with and for the philandering King to covet. (Romero’s character is hilariously daft, changing allegiances faster than the chorus in a Gilbert & Sullivan first-act finale.) Those who know Arliss only from slow early-Talkies like DISRAELI/’29 will be pleasantly surprised to find a forceful & cunning stage presence, with touches of dash & humor on display. He’s a delight, as is the whole film which just gets better as it goes along. The films Zanuck made before merging with FOX are tough to get at, so kudos to 20th/Fox-Cinema Archives for the V.O.D. copy.

LINK/DOUBLE-BILL: You can compare Lee’s nifty handling of this terrain by watching Arliss’s previous historical, THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD/’34, which never quite gets going under Alfred Werker. (Though it does end with a split-reel of early 3-strip-TechniColor.) It may not be out of DVD, but you can check out a decent dupe at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk93JIkolAU

Monday, March 30, 2015

THE MIND READER (1933)

‘Con Man falls for Mark’ in this Warner Bros. programmer that should have been better. It starts well enough with well-cast Warren William working dead-end scams as a carny snake-oil salesman with partners Allen Jenkins & Clarence Muse. Fortunes improve when they step up from hair-tonic & ‘painless’ dentistry to fortune-telling with William as Chandra the Mind-Reading Psychic. Fun stuff; moxie & shenanigans against small town suckers. But the story hits a snag when William falls for trusting Constance Cummings and brings her along as a new assistant without thinking he’ll have to clue her in. How’s that suppose to work? She catches on; He promises to go straight; Returns to the bad old ways; A disgruntled client gets shot (don’t ask); She takes the rap! Is this making sense? Stuck in the midst of this folderol, a striking bit of hysteria from Mayo Methot (Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, at the time) as a woman who took Chandra’s advice and got burned. Nice going, Mayo! But in spite of the cast & production team pitching in, the story refuses to hold water.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Phony fortune-telling & film just seem to go together. Try Tyrone Power, at his best, in NIGHTMARE ALLEY/’47, a film just begging to be remade. OR: For a better Warren William, take one step back for the stupendously funny/naughty EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE/’33 with Loretta Young and the all-time great gag line involving (wait for it) chess.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

UN MALEDETTO IMBROGLIO / THE FACTS OF MURDER (1959)

Pietro Germi co-wrote, directed & stars in this finely observed crime drama made just before his international breakthru with DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE/’61. While brilliantly formatted as a Police Procedural, from robbery on the unfashionable top floor to domestic murder in the ritzy lower flats of the same building, Germi (who plays the chief detective) gives equal time to the cross-pollinating lives of this cross-section of classes in fast modernizing Rome. With his distinctive tone of mordant Neo-Realism, notched up via vicious comic archetypes, firmly in place (is this the case in his earlier work?), Germi seems unable to put a foot or a camera position wrong. Same with casting instincts that see Claudia Cardinale in an early standout role, and a smarmy turn from I VITELLONI’s Franco Fabrizi. Plus, Leonida Barboni’s rich b&w location lensing, as seen in MYA/Belmondo's immaculate DVD edition. (Not WideScreen, so set your screen ratio accordingly.) The only downside is that so many earlier Germi pics remain unavailable Stateside.

DOUBLE-BILL: You might be able to locate the NoShame DVD of Germi’s previous pic, THE RAILROAD MAN/’56 (not seen here).

Saturday, March 28, 2015

EX-LADY (1933)

After fifteen film roles in two years, Bette Davis was upped to star-billing for this poorly received retread of ILLICIT/’31, an early Talkie for Barbara Stanwyck. Here’s Bette: 

 I wasn’t box-office enough yet to carry a film, and a more unsuitable part in a cheaper type film I don’t think could have been found to launch me into stardom. It was a disaster. The Hollywood Reporter review I have never forgotten. It said, ‘Why didn’t Warners shoot the entire script of EX-LADY in one bedroom on one bed.’

Tawdry stuff, even for Pre-Code days. But perhaps that’s what makes this so interesting now. Davis, a successful commercial artist, and boyfriend Gene Raymond, running a small advertising agency, are perfectly content sans marriage. Or they have been. Now, Raymond’s changed his mind and wants to tie-the-knot even if Davis thinks that having to share their lives, rather than wanting to, will upset everything. And that’s just what happens. Retreating to separate living quarters helps, at first, but now they suddenly turn jealous over little flirtations: Hers with Monroe Owsley; His with Kay Strozzi. Maybe it’s not that you compromise for your marriage to work; maybe marriage is the compromise, and no more than the best of a bad bargain. There’s a modern (well, post ‘60s) tone of sexual liberation vented plainly, if carefully here that remains striking. Something that wouldn’t be fully worked thru for decades in mainstream Hollywood. Some of the dialogue and attitudes, especially from Davis’s female POV, could have fit right in to a film like TWO FOR THE ROAD/’67.* Under Robert Florey’s laissez-fare megging, it’s really not much of a movie, and the drama, structure & dialogue all get short-changed in one way or another. But Davis, at her sleeky blondest, in outfits keyed to match her platinum hair, is already a riveting presence; while the naturally platinum Raymond gives what may be his best perf which, alas, isn’t saying much. But one scene, a painful bore of a dinner party given by a soused Frank McHugh, shows what might have been.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, Stanley Donen’s non-linear/New Wave rom-com TWO FOR THE ROAD.

LINK/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In the ‘30s, female reporters were always modeled on Hearst news gal Adela Rogers St. Johns; female evangelists on Aimee Semple McPherson; female aviatrixes on Amelia Earhart; and female commercial artists on Neysa McMein. Less known then the other three, she was to ‘McCall’s’ what Norman Rockwell was to The Saturday Evening Post (though she did many Post covers, too). A famous hostess & general gal pal to the Algonquin Round Table wits, she even had a longstanding ‘open marriage’ like the one contemplated by Davis. Here’s a link to some of her best magazine work: http://www.americanartarchives.com/mcmein.htm

Friday, March 27, 2015

METEOR

Samuel Z. Arkoff, legendary schlockmeister of American International Pictures, was never so bad as when he tried to be good. And he’s really trying to be good on this (relatively) big-budget disaster of a disaster pic: Ronald (POSEIDON ADVENTURE/’72) Neame to meg; Sean Connery leading a near All-Star cast (mostly past-peak names & tv guest stars); and a barrel of lousy special effects. (Lousy for the time, too.) You see, there’s this giant meteor tumbling toward Earth and only a combined effort from the USSR and the US of A can stop it. If only the superpowers could trust each other before Time Runs Out. (Hey, TIME RUNS OUT . . . a great title for next year’s disaster pic: make it WHEN TIME RAN OUT/’80; with bigger stars in an even worse movie.) Back to METEOR, where the space weapons & ships look like Revell Plastic Models to better match the sets, the flatly lit cinematography and the stilted dialogue on a story without proper set ups. (Isn’t mankind always somehow to blame on these things?) Oh well, Natalie Wood, looking older, but quite lovely in very little make-up, gets to speak lots of Russian, her native tongue, while director Neame, who can’t be blamed for those Tinker Toy rockets, gets to restage some POSEIDON-like escapes in a mud-flooded subway. They even manage to blow up the World Trade Center a couple of decades before the fact. The only creepy/scary thing in here.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Connery returned to James Bond in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN/’83 after following this fiasco with another five or six under-performers. NEVER was never much liked, but made heaps of dough and stabilized his career for a final two decade run.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

THE WET PARADE (1932)

Director Victor Fleming had yet to shed that musty early-Talkies’ rhythm when he started this prestige item for M-G-M, a historical pageant on the relative evils of alcohol and prohibition, from Upton Sinclair’s screed of a novel. (RED DUST/’32, Fleming’s next, shows him back up to speed.) Prohibition was still on the books, yet John Lee Mahin’s script allows for unexpected nuance detailing a cure that’s worse than the disease. Alas, Fleming’s stiff form in the two-reel prologue on the rapid alcoholic decline of genteel Southern family head Lewis Stone makes heavy-weather of the melodrama. Things pick up when we head North for the opening round of Prohibition with a terrifyingly violent turn from a dipsomaniac Walter Huston. (Very OLIVER TWIST/Bill Sykes.) Things pick up even more in the last act when Jimmy Durante (all ‘hot-cha-cha’ enthusiasm) shows up as a seasoned Prohibition Agent assigned to work with Huston’s straight-arrow son Robert Young. (The film covers about 15 years, yet the ‘youth’ generation of Dorothy Jordan, Neil Hamilton & a very good Bob Young, don’t age a day.) In many ways a frustrating pic, yet with a lot more than mere historic interest, it’s unusually rough & topical for controversy-shy M-G-M.

DOUBLE-BILL: Many a modern take on Prohibition (say, BOARDWALK EMPIRE/’10) could gain by a pairing with this antique. (Though not enough to help BE’s desultory/repetitive Season 4.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: M-G-M production head Irving Thalberg wasn’t producer of record (Hunt Stromberg got credit), but he’d still have been in charge. So, it’s a bit of a shock that two years later, with Upton Sinclair running for Governor of California on the EPIC platform, Thalberg shot ’man-on-the-street’ interviews for free Statewide distribution with faux ‘tramps’ pledging their votes to Sinclair and the socialist paradise he’d enact. Swift-Boating; circa 1934.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

This bald-faced attempt to peel off some of the goodwill (and hefty commercial success) of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL/’11 plops an Indian restaurateur-family across the road from a destination countryside French dining establishment for some fill-in-the-blank food porn. It’s as flavorless as they come, with lousy French accents (Helen Mirren, what were you thinking?); dollops of chemistry-free romance between a couple of young chefs-in-training & two equally stubborn late-middle-aged codgers; and, considering the subject matter, alarming cooking gaffes. Our Indian chef startles the food world with stale, pre-ground spices saved from a devastating fire years ago. Really? That’s after he’s made his bones with a ‘test omelet’ for Madame that comes out of the pan about two shades too dark for her old-school cuisine tastes. And would Madame beat eggs for an omelet with a whisk and not a fork? Oo, la-la!!! What would Madeleine Kamman think? Blandly inoffensive, at best, half an hour later you’ll be hungry . . . for a better movie.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Yet another sappy yarn from Lasse Halström, it goes on a good 40 minutes after the story's played out. So boring, you start hoping for a stealth truck to appear out of the blue on that damn stretch of road between the two restaurants and run someone over.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For some real French food porn, hie thee hence to BABETTE’S FEAST/’87.

Monday, March 23, 2015

LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (1933)

Pre-Code meller has Barbara Stanwyck playing gun moll to Lyle Talbot & his gang of bank robbers. She plays up to the armed guard while the boys take their positions. The unlikely ruse gets her quickly arrested, but just as quickly released when public crusader (and childhood pal) Preston Foster defends her. Grateful to the guy, she fesses up . . . and goes to jail for her honesty. Not a bad first act. But the script stops making any sense after this, with a wayward secret letter; a botched jail break by her former gang; a duplicate prison passkey; and a panicked gun shot to resolve all outstanding issues. There’s some nice glistening cinematography from John Seitz, making a rare visit to the Warners lot, but nobody bothered to see if the pieces would fit together.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The unlikely co-directors, low-budget specialist Howard Bretherton and A-lister William Keighley (well, B+ guy), were just off THE MATCH KING/’32 (Keighley’s debut) a superb fact-inspired con man’s tale with Warren William in probably his best role and a great look from talented, little known lenser Robert Kurrle who died young.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)

Long established as a major achievement from Robert Altman’s early ‘70s hot streak (rightly so), it’s easy to forget the initial resentment generated by this smartly reimagined Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe deconstruction. (United Artists rushed in a larky second ad campaign from MAD Magazine’s Jack Davis to reposition the film; note our schizophrenic posters.) Whatever was the problem? A considerable step up from the last MARLOWE pic (James Garner/’69); traditionalists got a decent Robert Mitchum take from FAREWELL, MY LOVELY/’75. But this New Age California Marlowe offered a much needed jolt, often comic, but never stooping to guy the material, in Leigh Brackett’s screenplay. (After four scripts for Howard Hawks, including THE BIG SLEEP/’46, she’d next work on STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK/’80.)

Brackett plays the stories & characters very close to the vest before pulling the strands together (Marlowe helps a pal ‘disappear’ just as some stolen loot & a murder rap come to call), so the opening reels play out in the same California haze so atmospherically caught by Vilmos Zsigmond in his squint-your-eyes,‘flashed negative’ lensing. With the exception of Sterling Hayden’s Hemingwayesque writer, Altman casts the film, to striking success, with a series of unlikely dares. Elliot Gould, always at his best for Altman, effortlessly wears Marlowe’s ironic sadism (though his spiffy vintage car was a bad call) while the real-life notoriety of Nina van Pallandt comes thru as the lying femme fatale. Baseball’s Jim Bouton, LAUGH-IN’s Henry Gibson, and that mediocre director Mark Rydell as a vicious hood, all manage to freshen murder-mystery archetypes. Plus, a bonus in a bulked up, very young Arnold Schwarzenegger eager to strip down. Not everything works here, Altman doesn’t have the technical chops to run a tricky set piece where Gould, on foot in the streets of L.A., chases after a car. But there are many more hits than misses in this site specific, tone specific, era specific effort that busts open and honors its well-worn genre.

DOUBLE-BILL: After much wandering, Altman returned to form putting Chandleresque tropes inside the movie biz on THE PLAYER/’92, though Michael Tolkin’s cynical script hasn’t aged as well as Brackett’s.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

NAVY BLUE AND GOLD (1937)

Standard-issue military academy pic is all hazing, football & gobs of sentimentality as three sentimental gobs-in-training go to Annapolis. Top-billed Robert Young is the Alpha-Male jerk who needs to grow up; second-billed James Stewart’s the regular Joe with a secret behind his name; and sixth-billed Tom Brown plays the rich-kid runt who gets kicked around and comes up smiling.* Not a lot of surprises, but its fun to watch M-G-M trying to figure out what the heck they could do with this lanky Stewart kid. Hey, let’s put him on the Navy football team! All 6'3"/140 lbs. of him! Oof! (He’d break thru for good in ‘38 w/ Margaret Sullavan in SHOPWORN ANGEL; Ginger Rogers in VIVACIOUS LADY and Jean Arthur in YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU.) For romance, there’s pleasant, ineffectual Florence Rice as Tom Brown’s sister, navigating between Young & Stewart; and for gridiron inspiration, Lionel Barrymore takes to his sickbed. It’s that kind of pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Diminutive Tom Brown spent a lot of movie time in military academies. Before making ANNAPOLIS FAREWELL//’35, he got an early career push (which didn’t quite take) in William Wyler’s rarely revived, but fascinating TOM BROWN OF CULVER/’32 which featured the striking, if brief debut of 18-yr-old Tyrone Power. (And good luck trying to find it.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The script forces Young to lay on the prick act pretty thick. The better to redeem himself later. But before the big football game climax, he does a good deed in the boxing ring against a bully boy. Director Sam Wood resorts to the usual under-cranking for some phony excitement. But if you’ve got variable speed on your player, try slowing things down to regular speed and you’ll find a neatly staged bit of fisticuffs with Young far more convincing in real time action.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

ALFREDO, ALFREDO (1972)

The bleak comic stylings of Pietro Germi fell off the international circuit after the marriage off/marriage on wars of DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE/’61 and SEDUCED AND ABANDONED/’64. But he kept at it in Italy and got a Stateside reprieve for this later look at the institution by hiring Dustin Hoffman (at his commercial peak between Peckinpah’s controversial STRAW DOGS/’71 and PAPILLON/’73 with Steve McQueen) as leading man. And it’s no stunt casting, Germi finds a useful runt-of-the-litter/common man appeal in Hoffman for this tale of an Italian schlemiel who lucks into the girl of his dreams (Stefania Sandrelli) only to find out that wedded bliss can turn into a trap once ego-booting constant attention becomes emasculating possession. Having a mistress on the side (Carla Gravina) helps, but with the belated change in Italian divorce laws, Dustin may simply be exchanging his current miserable marriage for a new one. Hoffman’s character narrates the film to great effect and the broad (make that very broad) playing clicks into place under Germi’s phenomenal technical control. (So good, he even coaxes out laughs with under-cranked action, a gag that almost never works.) What Germi can’t quite get away from is that he’s been down this road before; and to better effect. But the film grows on you and holds enough sparks and enough big laughs to get away with it’s slightly stale qualities.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A couple of DVD issues. The generally fine MYA/Belmondo disc while not restored is sourced from a good print in Academy Ratio (4x3). Presumably shot with an ‘open gauge,’ the film would have been cropped by the projectionist into a WideScreen format between 1.6 & 1.85:1. So watch 'as is,' squared off, or self-crop by zooming up one notch. Just don’t use the enhanced 16x9 setting which stretches the image for an anamorphic fill. Also: the DVD offers Italian or English, but no subtitles. But since only the English track uses Hoffman’s voice, it’s probably the best choice even for all you multilinguals.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I DOOD IT (1943)

This hodgepodge vehicle for a rising Red Skelton and a fading Eleanor Powell was Vincente Minnelli’s unlikely, little remembered follow up to CABIN IN THE SKY/’43, his astonishing all-black musical debut. The plot, a loose refit from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE/’29, has Skelton mooning over actress Powell, who marries him just to get back at her wandering fiancé. It’s a surprisingly distasteful set-up, as it was for Keaton, but since no one pays much attention to it, the film halfheartedly chugs along, with stops along the way for a tacked on bit of WWII espionage (John Hodiak plants a bomb under the theater, don’t ask) and a somewhat happier batch of specialty numbers for Powell (cowboys & lariats), along with the film’s true bright spot, a plot-free, removable reel featuring Hazel Scott’s jive-piano variations on ‘Taking A Chance On Love’ and ‘Jericho,’ a big ‘numbo’ for gorgeous Lena Horne & chorus.* The jolt in energy helps Minnelli thru the big comic-romp finale before the film splices in a socko dance finale for Powell lifted from one of her earlier pics. (Boo!) Presumably the studio was happy with the results since Minnelli’s next assignment was the big-budget, big prestige mega-hit MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44.

DOUBLE-BILL: Skelton’s maximalist mugging in a role designed for Keaton’s minimalism is a bit hard to take, but he does get his laughs. More than can be said for his try, with Powell, at recreating Keaton’s classic get-the-drunk-wife-in-bed routine. Here, more of a laugh-free acrobatic routine. Keaton revived it in Paris with his wife in the ‘50s to considerable acclaim. Skelton had better luck with a handful of bespoke Keaton gags in his Civil War comedy A SOUTHERN YANKEE/’48.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *That all-black reel was designed for easy removal in certain Southern theater-circuit exchanges of the era. (Boo!)

CONTEST: The title is something of a mystery. A catch-phrase of the day? Any good explanation (true or false) wins a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a film of your choosing. (Yea!)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

STRANGERS MAY KISS (1931)

After her silent-film ingenue days, Norma Shearer established herself as a ‘daring’ modern woman, tempting fate with sex, men & amorality in Pre-Code Talkies. It sounds like wicked fun, but usually plays out in M-G-M’s typical high-toned, sleepy mode. On this one, George Fitzmaurice doesn’t so much direct as quietly tag along while Norma toys seriously with journalist Neil Hamilton who wants a travel-mate; and less seriously with tipsy pal Robert Montgomery who’d like a wife . . . or maybe just another highball. But Norma has her mind made up after her trusting Aunt is deceived by her unfaithful Uncle. Alas, her world-tour of bliss is short-lived and a disgraced Norma becomes a wanton woman in Europe. But when both Hamilton and Montgomery reappear in her life, she gets to decide what to do all over again! But will they still be interested in ‘used goods?’ Von Sternberg & Dietrich could have gone to town with this set-up. Here, only the gowns (by Adrian) and a young, polished Robert Montgomery have any of the style needed to make it go. Shearer is at her worst, with a carefree laugh on every line and a cantilevered hairdo that must have sent her home with a crick in the neck. On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered what people mean in old novels when they are said to be ‘chaffing,’ get a load of Hamilton & Shearer giggling with delight at everything they say.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a better shot at Pre-Code Shearer, try Clarence Brown’s A FREE SOUL/’31, with Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard & Clark Gable bringing her down to Earth.

Monday, March 16, 2015

RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958)

Before he fell into the big-budget trap of corporate-style moviemaking in the late-‘60s, Robert Wise was turning out some of the best mainstream genre pics of the ‘Fifties. From the classic Sci-Fi of DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51 to his still underappreciated boxing pic SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME/’56. From the ensemble boardroom drama of EXECUTIVE SUITE/’54 to everybody’s favorite WWII submarine pic, RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP. And rightly so. It’s near perfect commercial filmmaking, with top perfs from a pitch (and yaw) perfect cast. (Note what a fine supporting actor Don Rickles was before he became an insult comedian.) Apparently co-stars Clark Gable & Burt Lancaster didn’t get along off screen which probably helped their on screen characterizations as Sub Commander & ‘Second.’ John Gay’s script puts up one beautifully judged, believable story beat after another, with ‘reveals’ you won’t see coming, built around a solid production that convinces without calling attention to itself. (The sea-going models of the day are obvious, but not distracting.) Plus the all-time best sonar ‘pings.’ They even manage to keep the patriotic bombast under control. Basically, the film plays better than ever.

DOUBLE-BILL: No need to bother with a plot précis, but just in case: Gable, licking his wounds after losing sub & crew in the Bongo Straits, gets command of a well-drilled sub Lancaster is due to take over. Pushing a sullen crew to their limits & skirting official orders, Gable heads back to the Straits for another try at his nemesis, with Lancaster offering, at best, reluctant support. You’ll find the same character set-up of newly assigned, seasoned commander & popular, overdue ‘Second’ playing out between Harrison Ford & Liam Neeson in Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER/’02. Great if you can just get by a misconceived hyped-up/fake-out opening reel.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

KARI-GURASHI NO ARIETTI / THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY (2010)

Earlier versions of Mary Norton’s popular YA novel THE BORROWERS have emphasized plucky slapstick comradery against the problems of scale for a family 4 inches tall secretly living amid normal-sized human ‘giants.’ Like the 1997 live-action Disney pic, a natural follow-up to HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS/’89. But this elegant iteration from Studio Ghibli’s Hiromasa Yonebayashi, working off a treatment by master animator Hayao Miyazaki, is all adolescent melancholy and wistful/wishful watercolor halftones. It’s lovely to look at, but its inner calm & sense of quiet acceptance (Buddhist?/Zen?) has the unfortunate effect of boosting a creepy Freudian undertone in its main characters, while its impossible puppy love story, as played out between a miniature 14-yr-old girl and a depressed invalid boy, turns all gooey, fatalistic gloom. (Plus slightly weird sexual tension when he ‘palms’ her.) With flat vocal perfs by its Stateside cast adding to the general ennui, it’s less THE BORROWERS and more TINY PILFERERS. Even a desperate lunge toward suspense & comic relief in the third act with exterminators & an excitable housekeeper hardly cause a ripple. This one goes wrong from the core.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Though Arrietty turns the pages of her book left-to-right, most of the cast has a generic Western look . . . except for a Wild Boy little person and the family housekeeper, both drawn with Asian/Japanese features. An odd choice even if the original story is British.

DOUBLE-BILL: Everybody forgets about the delightful, and technically dazzling, DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE/’59 featuring an amazingly young Sean Connery in an early lead.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

DARK HAZARD (1934)

W. R. Burnett’s novel (see poster) makes a pleasingly off-beat Warners programmer in the second of three Burnett stories to star Edward G. Robinson. It misses the iconic standing of his LITTLE CAESAR/’31’ and the grand comic surprise that is THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING/’35*, getting by with its unusual subject (canine race track gambling) and by the rare instance of having two gals fighting over Eddie G. He’s a heavy gambler, up one day at the tables; then losing it all on the horses. Starting over in a small, conservative town, he swears he’ll go straight in order to win the hand of Genevieve Tobin, but then can’t turn down a swell job at the dog track. Soon, he’s back with his old crowd, including coarse gal pal Glenda Farrell, and the old pattern of lucky streaks & crapping out returns. On the bum and tramping around, he tries returning to Tobin, but can’t stop himself from buying a broken down race dog (Dark Hazard) . . . and all bets are off. Alfred E. Green megs by-the-numbers, but the story is laid out, and resolves itself, in such a peculiar manner that the film easily holds your interest. Not nearly enough dog or training action, but a couple of standout Pre-Code moments that have Robinson confessing to a game of strip poker (Eddie keep your pants on!) and even apologizing for not being able to get it up during an illicit rendezvous. (Do we really want to think about these things?) In fact, the tag at the finish has him boasting of being ready for action. Eddie, you're sharing too much!

DOUBLE-BILL: *At last available on DVD, THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING, one of the most delightful, surprising and undersung of Hollywood classics. Robinson, in a double role as a tough gangster (natch) and the milquetoast accountant mistaken for the guy, untangles the mess with loyal Jean Arthur who breaks thru as a full-fledged star after a decade in film under the nimble & rousing direction of John Ford. Yep, that John Ford, showing romantic, farcical & pacey chops. Who’da thunk it?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

DOWNSTAIRS (1932)

With his career in a tailspin, former silent film idol John Gilbert tried a Hail-Mary pass playing a sexed-up, blackmailing louse of a chauffeur in this randy Upstairs/Downstairs tale from his own original story treatment. Racing thru the household like a virulent virus, he beds the old cook for her life’s savings; steals into the heart of an innocent newlywed and gives her a first orgasm; then blackmails the unfaithful Baroness to keep his position in the household when he’s caught with his hands in the . . . till. And with impeccable references, God knows what he’s been up to before! A real bastard, you say. Indeed, a real bastard, with a titled father who never acknowledged him. The film certainly has spunk & spirit to it. Sort of a male companion piece to Jean Harlow’s scandalous doings in RED-HEADED WOMAN/’32 out two months earlier.* Gilbert underplays well, for once, but director Monta Bell, in a late assignment, never did get the rhythm of the Talkies and too many scenes just sit there. Though not two infamous set pieces. In one, Gilbert tells off the old hag of a cook while trimming his nose hairs, picking at it, digging out a bit of ear wax, wiping it off on his shirt front, grabbing her savings, then burping. Yikes! And the second, a blistering verbal attack from newlywed Virginia Bruce browbeating the boring sex technique of stuffy husband Paul Lucas. Double yikes! But the best moment comes when Gilbert breaks a symbolic glass dome and replaces it with a cheesy counterpart.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: John Gilbert & Gloria Swanson have long been the Poster Boy & Girl for silent film stars ‘done in’ by the Talkies. But their tales need to be taken with a big grain of salt. Swanson lost a couple of years in a disastrous partnership with Joe Kennedy and, in spite of complete vocal ease and a lovely trained, light soprano of some distinction, never quite got momentum back before her style started to go out of fashion. But poor maligned Jack Gilbert!; the Great Silent Screen Lover with the effeminate voice and popping eyes. Tossing away scripted dialogue in his Talkie debut to mouth ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ just as he had in the pre-sound era. The real story is that almost all silent film stars quickly lost their box-office mojo after earning big, unrepeatable returns on a Talkie debut. Here’s the list of M-G-M’s top stars from their own 1926-27 publicity roster: Lillian Gish; Marion Davies; Ramon Novarro; Norma Shearer; Lon Chaney; Buster Keaton; Mae Murray; & John Gilbert.

Of the eight, only Norma Shearer retained her position after the early ‘30s. It’s hard to think of any full-fledged stars (not counting rising Leading Players like Gary Cooper or Joan Crawford) who fully transitioned, or indeed became even bigger stars in the Talkies other than Shearer; Ronald Colman; Marie Dressler (with a career lacunae in there, same for Will Rogers); Greta Garbo & Wallace Beery. That’s about it. While rumors stick like urban legend to Gilbert’s rapid decline, the true cause was far more mundane: Generation Shift. Goodbye, Roaring ‘Twenties; Hello, New Stars for a New Deal.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Watch what Jean Harlow gets away with (and with what charm) in RED-HEADED WOMAN. And note a debuting Charles Boyer as her chauffeur in the tag ending. (Boyer blows everyone off the screen with a moment’s footage.) Fun Fact: Both these films were shot by Harold Rosson who went on to marry Harlow whereas this film’s ravaged Virginia Bruce would soon marry Gilbert.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

THE YOUNG SAVAGES (1961)

The plots may twist & turn; the violent young punks shake, rattle & roll; but in the end it’s always Society’s Fault in juvenile delinquent pics of the '50s & '60s. As the Jets gang boy says in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ from WEST SIDE STORY/’61: ‘Hey!, I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived!’ This East Side Harlem Story, nearly as näive & simplistic as the rest, has aged better than most. (Earlier examples, like Nick Ray’s KNOCK ON ANY DOOR/’49 with Humphrey Bogart & John Derek look painfully dated.) Here, the gangs are Italian & Puerto Rican; the victim blind, but maybe not so innocent; and the prosecuting Asst. D.A. a success story who pulled himself out of the old neighborhood. That’d be a perfectly cast Burt Lancaster, finding complexities where his ambitious boss sees an open-and-shut career-making case. This was the feature film that lifted John Frankenheimer out of tv, and he makes a meal of it, offering showy dynamic angles & fancy tracking shots to prove he’s really making movies. It doesn’t hurt too much, and the acting & location lensing make up for a lot directorial overkill. (Though it’s damn hard to get much of a threat out of kiddie hoodlums in such adorable leather & cap outfits.) Still, the third-act courtroom scenes put Frankenheimer back in his natural comfort zone. One on-the-stand interrogation between Lancaster & the victim’s sister is really exceptional. Hell, even Shelley Winters, an old flame of Burt’s and now mom to one of the accused, gives a restrained, disciplined perf. In fact, she’s great, and looks just right.* As does much of this well-crafted piece of Kennedy New Frontier dramatic sociology.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Italians in Harlem, you ask? Yes, still a fixture at the time though fading fast. Now, only that world-famous overrated/over-priced Italian-American insider joint, RAO’S remains from the old days. Though with Harlem’s current gentrification, everything’s up for grabs once again.

DOUBLE-BILL: Frankenheimer did four more films with Lancaster. Best of the bunch, and one of the great underseen WWII pics, is THE TRAIN/’64.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

GODZILLA (2014)

What makes the latest GODZILLA iteration so depressing isn’t found in its all too convenient boneheaded story beats (‘Does that train with the nuclear warhead happen to be going to San Francisco?’) or in its lazy character development (everybody lets their kids drift off in the middle of a catastrophic event, right?). Nor does it follow from CGI monsters so dark & grey they’re either lost in the general visual murk or unable to interact with action occurring in front of the ‘blue screen.’ (Not that much is going on out there with inert leading-man Aaron Taylor-Johnson equally unable to interact, like some human ‘blue screen.’) And the problem isn’t the film’s ‘other’ monsters (the ones apparently hatched from the Chrysler Building) or even the laughable rugs on the head of poor Bryan Cranston. (A ‘youthful’ one in the film’s prologue is a wallapalooza.) Nope. What makes this GODZILLA so gosh darn depressing is that director Gareth Edwards has already been tapped to meg the sequel! And announced for some future STAR WARS project. That’s depressing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original Japanese cut of the first GODZILLA (GOJIRA/’54), man-in-a-monster-suit/model effects and all, remains far more interesting & effective. For something more up-to-date technically, WORLD WAR Z/’13 holds up about 2/3's of the way; while Joon-ho Bong’s THE HOST/’06 holds its place as the best monster pic of the new millennium.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

STRANGER ON THE PROWL / IMBARCO A MEZZANOTTE (1952)

In 1952, Paul Muni had run out of ‘distinguished’ Hollywood projects and director Joseph Losey was on the cusp of the studios’ Commie BlackList when they made this all but lost manhunt pic in Italy. (Better translation: MIDNIGHT DEPARTURE.) It doesn’t have much of a rep, in fact, it’s barely known, and the U.S. release print put out by Olive DVD is a little beat up, but it’s a fascinating one-off that almost works. Muni’s a weary, nameless tramp, hoping to raise some cash on an illegal gun and then ship out of the country. Midway thru the pic, he crosses paths with the secondo piatto, a cocky local kid who steals a bottle of milk from a small shop just as Muni makes a grab for a small round of cheese. Muni accidentally kills the store owner trying to keep her quiet and the kid runs off as police close in. He thinks they’re after him for stealing the milk. On the run together or hiding out for the rest of the pic, the relationship of these two and the merged storylines give the film an unusual structure with added interest coming from a combo platter of Italian Neo-Realism in the post-WWII ruins of Livorno, Italy, and French Poetic Realism, possibly modeled on LE JOUR SE LÈVE/’39 (remade Stateside as THE LONG NIGHT’47). Not everything works here, to put it nicely, the drama turns convenient & sentimental in the last reel or so, but Muni, playing with emotional blinders on, is generally very effective, barring a quick physical rejuvenation toward the end. And the little Italian pal (Vittorio Manunta) is just great. Losey, always a difficult man to judge, delivers hit-or-miss work, but responds strongly to the dilapidated city & living conditions, much helped by lenser Henri Alekan who’d soon show Italy’s glamorous side in William Wyler’s ROMAN HOLIDAY/’54.

DOUBLE-BILL: Roberto Rossellini’s GERMANY YEAR ZERO/’48 is probably the best Neo-Realist match-up for this, with its own strengths & weaknesses.

Friday, March 6, 2015

NOISE (2007)

Aussie writer/director Matthew Saville gets this character-driven, atmospheric police thriller off to a disturbing, crepuscular start tailing a distracted young woman (Maia Thomas) as she waits for the subway in a Melbourne station, lost in her noise-cancelling head phones. (All portentously captured on film with considerable flair by lenser László Baranyai.) From the platform, the car looks empty, ominously so. Taking a seat by the door as they automatically close, the train jolts forward, and a previously unseen woman, hidden by a bench partition, slumps to the floor with a thud . . . dead. Turning to look, the young woman now sees what had been hidden from her platform view: Six commuters on the floor. All shot. All splattered with their own bloody. All dead. And no way off till the next stop. A tough opening to top, but Saville barely tries. Instead, the search for the serial killer, and the girl’s fear of his coming back for her, are awkwardly folded into the life & times of a young beat officer (Brendan Cowell) facing down an onset of tinnitus (ringing in the ears/deafness) that’s got him demoted to overnight duty in a mobile police caravan unit. The two stories eventually meet up, largely thru happenstance in an arbitrary manner that holds little dramatic tension, satisfaction or sense of inevitability. And the brief flurries of action fall flat in Saville’s hands.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Between swallowed consonants & strong Aussie accents, optional subtitles on this FilmMovement DVD are a must . . but frustratingly unavailable. Instead, check your local tv listings for the nightly Police Procedural lottery, as needed.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

It’s easy to see why Steven Spielberg is thinking Chris Pratt/INDIANA JONES reboot! The actor is already channeling Harrison Ford in this much-liked MARVEL SuperHero pic; less Indy than Han Solo of the original STAR WARS/’77. Same exact age, too (35). And that’s hardly the sole STAR WARS debt from writer/director James Gunn: character line-up, character relationships; distressed spaceship & tacky bars; plus more story-beats than you can shake a Wookie at.* And that’s alright, the main problem (or rather, the problem for non-FanBoys) is the messy mise-en-scène curdling the screen with so much superfluous CGI imagery that action scenes are all noise & general chaos. Readable lines of action/reaction and the joys of logic & physical skill that made the early STAR WARS such participatory pleasures are lost in a contest to see who has the biggest joy-stick. Like a TIMEX watch that ‘takes a licking and keeps on ticking,’ the incessant blasts & bashings pall with no consequences to show for them. What's at stake? Our five adversarial treasure-hunters bond as guardian warriors, boo-hooing into our hearts with weepy backstories worthy of Little Nell. But where a Dickens was always prepared to ‘kill his darlings,’ the power of the Hollywood franchise now runs the show. That takes mortality out of the picture, and sentiment becomes sentimentality. Still, with its cool dudes (especially the two animated team members) and funny throwaway lines, this hipster’s STAR WARS is weightless, inconsequential fun.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *One way it’s definitely not like STAR WARS is in its use of ‘70s/’80s pop/rock singles. Just the sort of sales-friendly soundtrack marketing idea John Williams had to fight against. Though an early symphonic music cue in here does lean on Williams. Not STAR WARS, though, more E.T./’82.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

MAN WANTED (1932)

With her streamlined, art moderne sexiness, Kay Francis brought some of Paramount’s raffish, sophisticated naughtiness to the proletariat Warner Bros. when she switched studios in 1932. But too many of her Warners projects were underdeveloped, skipping crucial links (as here) or simply giving out somewhere in mid-second act (like her next with director William Dieterle, JEWEL ROBBERY/’32). But taken ‘as is,’ these early Pre-Code releases are generally good company in their ‘daring’ manner. In this one, Francis looks aside while her polo-loving husband (Kenneth Thomson) plays the field . . . post-chukker. Kay doesn’t mind, she’s busy as a high-powered magazine editor with a handsome new male secretary (David Manners) to concentrate on. Sure, he’s officially engaged to Una Merkel, but doesn’t Una get along better with Manners’ roommate, Andy Devine? Yep, it’s a standard gender-reverse rom-com. It’s just that in this one, the surprises come not from any plot twists, but from twisted attitudes. For a change, it’s the boys who are sharing the one-bedroom flat; and not a word on how emasculating it must be for the guy to be working for a powerful female boss. That was unusual even for the Pre-Code period.

DOUBLE-BILL: Francis made all her best pics this year. At Warners with the fatalistic romance of ONE WAY PASSAGE/’32 (with William Powell perfectly cast); and a return to Paramount for the subversive comic-capitalism romance of an Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece, TROUBLE IN PARADISE/’32.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lenser Gregg Toland in a rare showing on the Warners lot (on loan from Goldwyn?) makes magic with some gorgeous night-time lighting. Check out a little twilight scene at the boys’ apartment.

Monday, March 2, 2015

PARADE'S END (2012)

There could hardly be a better moment to watch this Tom Stoppard adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s novel than now when it can function as corrective, a sort of anti-DOWNTON ABBEY (Season One). Once more the wealth & social hypocrisy of England’s Upper-Crust collide with the grim reality of WWI. But here, beautiful manners & manors, groveling minions & glamour aren’t cosseted by the benign charm of the rich & tasteful, but usurped by disagreeable prejudice & frankly despicable behavior hiding under the guise of brutal honesty. It’s a chilly society full of mutually agreed upon misunderstandings used to prop up personal & professional opportunities in love & war. The multiple storylines pivot on a series of comically bad interlocked relationships; none worse than the marriage between stoically proper, honest-to-a-fault Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his loathsome, if fascinating wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). She tries to provoke him into any sort of reaction; he falls hard for a mousy suffragette (Adelaide Clemens). She ignores the war; he finds it a release. Without making it easy for us (in fact, he’s merciless), Stoppard builds up tremendous interest in all of them. Awful as Sylvia is, Tietjens does plenty of damage to himself thru sheer bloody-minded passivity. And you can’t take your eyes off the whole mess; made even messier since all three leads are seriously miscast. Hall misses the John Singer Sargent beauty that might account for her bitchy allure (think Vivien Leigh/Scarlett O’Hara); Clemens comes off as too intellectually dim; and Cumberbatch pulls more faces than the young Charles Laughton.* What was he thinking? Perhaps he felt physically wrong as a character always being called ‘oaf’ or ‘ox’ or even ‘fat.’ (He calms down halfway thru.) Yet, the rest of a large impressive cast is miraculously right. (Roger Allam in particular as a blunt, slightly thick officer.) No one seems to read FMF anymore. Is the film faithful to the book? As a mini-series, it’s unnervingly watchable and might well improve with a second viewing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Laughton could often be embarrassing, but at his best, he was an embarrassment with genius.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

LE MÉTIS DE DIEU / THE JEWISH CARDINAL (2013)

It sounds interesting: a fact-inspired film from Ilan Duran Cohen’s about Jean-Marie (Aron) Lustiger, a Jewish boy who converted during the Nazi occupation and rose to become Archbishop of Paris, all while firmly maintaining his identity as a Jew. Like Jesus, non? But it feels rushed, with too many bumps edited out of the story. Once he’s risen, the story sorts itself down to two lines of action: the Cardinal’s tense relation with his disapproving father; and the Cardinal’s tense relation with his largely approving boss, Pope John Paul II. The situations come to a head during his father’s burial (should a Cardinal say Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead?); and when a stubborn (make that tone-deaf) set of Carmelite nuns open a convent in Auschwitz, right where the Cardinal’s mother died during the war. It provides for a fine double climax with a chance to see the two most important men in the Cardinal’s life from new perspectives. But the dramatic possibilities feel glossed over and don't quite register. Perhaps the film misses too much of the backstory and of what one suspects must have been a difficult adolescence. It could have provided the film’s missing intellect & heart.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The basic situation could have prompted Yogi Berra to repeat what he said upon learning that the Mayor of Dublin was Jewish. ‘Only in America!’ (BTW: a closer translation of the French title might be GOD’S MONGREL or GOD’S HALF-BREED.)