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Thursday, April 30, 2015

THE TERMINAL MAN (1974)

With about ten features over three decades, Mike Hodges is like a cult director without portfolio. His following stems from a debut pic, the smashingly violent GET CARTER/’71, and an enjoyably camp flop, FLASH GORDON/’80, with its day-glo color scheme & pop score soundtrack from Queen. This entry, a forgotten adaptation of a lesser Michael Crichton novel, is a not so farfetched mind control cautionary tale with computer whiz George Segal hoping to control his ultra-violent seizures by having a computer chip implanted in his brain. He’s the Epileptic Serial Killer. Crichton gimmicks often run to ground without much plot to speak of. A weakness Hodges tries to finesse by vamping thru elongated brain surgery and needlessly extended psychological interviews, padding up what comes down to the simplest of chase films. Aware of just how thin this all is, he bunts, pulling out a Stanley Kubrickian production design with smooth, clinical surfaces, airless compositions, and the chilliest cast of characters imaginable. The main visual references are 2001/'68 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE/'71, but you’ll spot prescient links to THE SHINING/’80. Odd, that film is six years in the future! Maybe not so strange, since Kubrick was a big Hodges fan, even helping to get the film a theatrical U.K. release after it sank without a trace Stateside. Did this film’s late rampage influence Kubrick on THE SHINING? See LINK to pick up the story. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-kaplan/encounters-with-mike-hodg_b_2932422.html

DOUBLE-BILL: This all sounds so intriguing, you wish the film were a little bit better. From the same era, try DEMON SEED/’77 which does a better job hitting many of the same buttons.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

KAGUYAHIME NO MONOGATARI / THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)

Exquisite. The animated films of Isao Takahata never found the mainstream Stateside audience of his Ghibli Studios co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. But here, in his likely swansong, he’s made a fable for grown-ups, tough & enchanted, that deserves the broad acceptance he never quite managed over here. Discovered inside a bamboo tree by a wood cutter, and raised by his wife, a tiny princess grows to maturity in the space of a season, happy with her countryside friends and with the rural rhythm of the days. But her adopted father wants only the best for her, and with gold magically harvested from the forest, they move to the city where the young beauty is schooled in formal manners, then courted by the great men of the realm. No doubt, you’ll guess much of the rest, though the film has more melancholy & cruelty than an audience-tested American product. But it’s the quietly spectacular, airy watercolor look of the film that’s so masterful here. As if the free-form animated drawing style of John & Faith Hubley were ennobled by Japanese landscape painting. The lightly textured images are simply dazzling. Too bad the all-star English language track delivers cute/sentimental business-as-usual characterizations that largely miss Takahata’s delicate tone. (There’s always the original Japanese track, but subtitles are more distraction than usual here.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Takahata’s last full-length animation, MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS/’99 (not seen here), broke dramatically with Ghibli house style. Not considered a success when released, it was probably a necessary step on the path to KAGUYA.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

HARD TO HANDLE (1933)

James Cagney returned to the Warners lot after one of his periodical walkouts (note the ‘Hey, Folks! – I’m Back’ ad copy) for this energetic, if scattershot, comedy. Only a step or two above a programmer, but loaded with Depression atmosphere, just about everyone in it is working some angle. Cagney’s an ‘ideas man,’ a promoter and something of a con-man. Currently in California, he’s set to collect on a big Dance Marathon when his partner takes off with all the proceeds. Even the prize money! Cue mob riot, with Cagney just a step ahead of the crowd. Picking himself up, dusting himself off, and starting all over again in NYC, he may be flat broke, but there’s always the next sensation to ballyhoo as he tries to win the trust of regular fiancée, Mary Brian.* He finds one, too. Grapefruit! (Wouldn’t you know.) Trouble is, she kinda prefers the mug when he’s not ridin’ high. A cute idea. With Mervyn LeRoy megging in crass, but lively style. But after the dance-till-you-drop opening, the story isn’t so much constructed as piled on. With rivals for all parties, and most of the best lines given to Ruth Donnelly’s mother-in-law to be. It’s watchable, but almost any Cagney pic of the period (fore or aft**) would be more satisfying.

DOUBLE-BILL: **Fore: THE CROWD ROARS/’32; Aft: PICTURE SNATCHER/’33. Or check out the lesser known, but hilarious JIMMY THE GENT/’34 to see this sort of thing nailed by the whole cast & crew. The bump in quality & brio from director Michael Curtiz is striking.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Cagney’s gal pal here, Mary Brian made more of an impression in the silents. She’s pleasant enough, if hardly distinctive. But she sure was busy in '33, nine pics!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

LETTER TO AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948)

Generally considered the best of Max Ophüls’ Hollywood films (it’s not, that’d be THE RECKLESS MOMENT/’49), but why quibble among his three late ‘40s glories? (CAUGHT/’49 fills out the trio.) This bittersweet romantic tragedy, set in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna, follows a teen on the cusp of womanhood (Joan Fontaine) spellbound for life in undeserved rapture to Louis Jourdan’s gifted & glamorous, if facile, concert pianist. Told in flashback, as the once-promising musician reads a confessional letter from this unknown woman, his rekindled memories explain his loss, but can’t change it. Superbly designed by Alexander Golitzen, and shot by the great cinematographer Franz Planer who did Ophüls’ earlier fate-filled Viennese romance, LIEBELEI/’33 (more echt-local flavor/less production fluidity). Unlike other pantheon directors attracted to similar material, say, Frank Borzage or Douglas Sirk, Ophüls steers clear of, rather than into melodrama, avoiding ‘bad’ laughs with a tart sensibility and an unchallenged technical finesse. (Watch how he almost repeats an overhead angle used when Jourdan brings an anonymous l’amour to his apartment, then adds a new flourish when Fontaine goes in. (It's like a visual equivalent to Chopin’s First Ballade where the main theme returns ‘corrected.’) Initially rejected at the box-office, perhaps Fontaine’s limited emotional range and Jourdan’s limited warmth were just too dry for popular consumption, that sec quality is now quite rightly prized.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ophüls refined this kind of story to near perfection in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE . . . /’53. But don’t ignore the tear-stained charm of LIEBELEI, mentioned above. No current DVD, but here’s an (barely) acceptable YOUTUBE link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGS7QopjqQc

Saturday, April 25, 2015

JOHN WICK (2014)

With backgrounds in stunt & 2nd unit direction, the wisp of a plot that runs Chad Stahelski & David Leitch’s debut pic comes as no surprise. What does surprise are all the big action set pieces (and the pic is nothing but action set pieces) that skimp on the clear logistics & spatial relationships that could have lifted them into building blocks of suspense & excitement rather than empty sound & fury. Even with only one good guy to keep track of! That’d be Keanu Reeves, the eponymous Mr. Wick, newly widowed former hit-man. Dissed by the spoiled scion of a Russian mob king, Wick reverts to deadly ways, and simple payback quickly escalates into one-man war. Willem Dafoe makes something out an underwritten mentor/wingman role, while busy actress Adrianne Palicki gives bad weight as a femme fatale. Certainly the thing looks stylish, with a droll edge to the violent doings and farfetched elements. (Though some hip graphic novel details curdle, like the lux Four-Star hotel for secret agents & assassins.) But the main point here is to see if Keanu Reeves, after a decade of career missteps, is still a commercially viable, Prada-worthy, ultra-cool action star. He is! He is! With a sequel already on the drawing board.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Coming in at a trim 20 mill, the film looks like it has more CGI than it probably does. Hopefully, the sequel won’t triple the budget and trip up via overkill.

Friday, April 24, 2015

THE GREAT WALTZ (1938)

From Orson Welles after touring RKO Studios: ‘This is the biggest toy train set any boy ever had.’ No doubt, the exact sentiments of French director Julien Duvivier, new to Hollywood after PÉPÉ LE MOKO/’37 swept the world box-office, and availing himself of the unfathomable resources at M-G-M studios. Stateside for a handful of jobs over the war years, his first was this berserk behemoth of an operetta, something to do with the life, loves & ländlers of Johann Strauss, Jr. Sincere & ridiculous (ridiculously sincere?), there’s much nonsense on Johann’s immortal waltzes & marches inspiring Vienna’s progressive revolution while he wavers between his goodie-two-shoes wife (an insufferably suffering Luise Rainer) and tempting coloratura Miliza Korjus (pronounced ‘Gorgeous’ as the ad copy would have it). But it hardly matters beside a series of musical set pieces staged & shot with riotous abandon by Duvivier, using wildly canted angles and arrhythmic editing quite at odds with the normal M-G-M playbook, gleeful cinematic horseplay, laid on with a trowel. It’s something to see, even if forgotten an hour after viewing. If only those stratospheric Korjus high notes dissipated with equal speed.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hard to believe, but Hitchcock did a slightly less fanciful Strauss bio-pic in WALTZES FROM VIENNA/’34. Not a success. Instead, see this film’s Strauss (Fernand Gravey, pronounced ‘Gravy’?) in Noël Coward's operetta BITTER SWEET/’33. It doesn’t all work, but much does, and Gravey (pronounced ‘Gray-vay’?) is very good, indeed.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A pet project of studio chief Louis B. Mayer, the film was a success, yet all three leads and director Duvivier had ankled M-G-M by the end of the year. For debuting Korjus & back-to-back Oscar’d Rainer, their movie days were pretty much over.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

DOM ÖVER DÖD MAN / THE LAST SENTENCE (2012)

A bio-pic from writer/director Jan Troell, the sort of film where the dead return for ghostly tête-à-têtes veiled in black. But then, the whole film might be veiled in black, or artsy grey monochrome, from its first elegant composition to its last. The fact-based story extols the journalistic legacy of Sweden’s Torgny Segerstedt, a strong-willed editor who made it his mission to bash Hitler early & often, increasingly in the face of rising fears from business leaders, friends, government officials, even the King. And as the clear-cut political scene darkened once Finland was attacked by a German-allied Russia, then twisted into diplomatic knots after Germany broke their treaty to invade Russia, Segerstedt held to his beliefs. But where the public Segerstedt was the soul of consistency, the private Segerstedt was the soul of inconsistency, parsing drams of affection & longing between his ailing wife, the wife of his best friend, and his office assistant. Dramatically, they add little to the political passions. You keep waiting for the next veiled ghost to turn up.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Troell got more traction with HAMSUN/’96, a Nazi-era bio-pic on the politic folly of Norway’s most famous author.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

THE FIREFLY (1937)

The old Rudolph Friml operetta had something or other to do with a stowaway who becomes an opera star. Heck, that’s the plotline in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA/’35!* So, this M-G-M film adaptation offers something completely different: Spain in the time of Napoleon. A beautiful singing spy. A mission jeopardized by romance. King Ferdinard taken prisoner. Then, five years of a brutal occupation before a chance at redemption. For her, for her lover, for the King, for Spain. THE END. (Reprise hit tunes.) No kidding, that’s the story, with cultivated songsters Allan Jones & Jeanette MacDonald (who also gets to show off her remarkable gams in some gypsy dancing). Taken on its own goofy terms, it’s rather fun, and solidly put together by Robert Z. Leonard. At least for the first two acts. Things grow downright weird in the third when the Frances Goodrich/Albert Hackett script turns serious with battle scenes & collateral damage. (When the French troops start gunning down cute Spanish kids you may wonder what film you’re watching.) Of course, Jeanette keeps singing away, right thru her prison bars. Friml’s unmemorable music also takes it on the chin. Lots of ringers to cover for him, from Falla to Rimsky-Korsakov. And that irresistibly catchy new number, the ‘Donkey Serenade,’ largely the creation of lyricists Bob Wright & Chet Forrest who rued the lost authorship residuals for the rest of their days.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *If the plotline of Friml’s 1912 operetta sounds like the Marx Bros., the replacement plot isn’t so far removed from Blake Edwards’ troubled DARLING LILY/’70 with Julie Andrews as a London Musical Hall star who's a secret German spy and a dazzling one-shot opening number, ‘Whispering in the Dark’.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

SOUTH OF ST. LOUIS (1949)

WAY south of St. Louis . . . like Texas/Mexico. The reference is to that part of the country, far from the Mason-Dixon Line, where allegiance to the North or the South during the Civil War was a fluid thing. That’s the situation for Joel McCrea, Zachary Scott & Douglas Kennedy, partners at Three Bells Ranch. Their place has been burned to the ground by Victor Jory’s Yankee crew of renegades, an act that pushes two of them into gunrunning for the South and the third into joining the Confederates, in a tale that’s more Western than war pic. Young Dorothy Malone plays the good girl McCrea hopes to come back to, and Alexis Smith the bad gal who’s got financial connections across the border. It’s an interesting set up that brings out the best from journeyman helmer Ray Enright, even if he can’t quite clarify the lines of action on some of the big set pieces. Enright’s game is likely bumped up by having Karl Freund as lenser. It’s a rare TechniColor credit for him, first since a pair back in the early ‘40s, and he seems to revel in the possibilities. Especially in the first two reels which have a looser feel to them. And what a print to show off his work! Released by Warners, but produced independently, it must have slipped thru the usual distribution cracks and quietly sat in near mint condition. Great clarity, with the original TechniColor dyes still aglow. An unpretentious B+ Western, but a good one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Smith is a knock-out here. Dig that wasp-waist. (Too bad they didn’t let her do her own vocals.) Dolled up for most of the film, she’s au naturale at the tag with beauty mark missing, but beauty intact.

Monday, April 20, 2015

OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945)

Warmly sentimental, but not too sticky, this modest family drama gets away with a lot by not trying to oversell things . . . and by opening with a murder. The killer? Child star Margaret O’Brien, with a well-aimed rock at an unlucky red squirrel. Seems she’s always missed before. (What a emotional hair-trigger that girl had. Milking ready tears with a sort of trembling terror. It can be a bit much.) It’s a sobering start, quickly followed by an even more uncomfortable scene with a mentally disabled young woman, all but imprisoned on her father’s farm, popping thru a fence to greet O’Brien & her younger cousin. Discordant notes that lend a hard edge to the many lighter incidents on the farm where exemplary parents Edward G. Robinson & Agnes Moorehead, of all people, are raising O’Brien. Moorehead has a rare chance to show a sympathetic side (under a shell of feigned indifference) while Eddie G. is just a peach (as movie dad & actor). Set in a small Norwegian-American community in Wisconsin’s dairy farmland, the pleasantly meandering pace finds plenty of interest in daily life even when the era’s studio production methods and Dalton Trumbo’s on-the-nose dialogue fail to convince. A subplot between glammed up big-city gal Frances Gifford, pulling a stint as a one-room school teacher, and local news publisher James Craig feels extraneous & doesn’t quite connect, but O’Brien’s little pal Jackie ‘Butch’ Jenkins is a trouble-making Penrod type Booth Tarkington would have recognized. The last act is liberally seasoned with melodrama and an impure Frank Capra finale, but you can always concentrate on the range & subtle acting choices Robinson finds. See just how far inward he goes at his darkest moment after having to shoot some threatened livestock. And kudos to megger Roy Rowland for not trying to sell the moment, but letting us spot it on our own.

DOUBLE-BILL: Watch Eddie G. play the dark side of this character in the psychological rural thriller THE RED HOUSE/’49. With Judith Anderson in for Agnes Moorehead. The film’s in Public Domain so beware of cheap knock-off editions. Try the link below for guidance. http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/dvd_reviews54/the_red_house.htm

Saturday, April 18, 2015

FEDORA (1978)

Meant as a wry companion piece to SUNSET BOULEVARD/’50, his classic Hollywood noir, Billy Wilder’s penultimate pic was always going to be a tough, out-of-its-time sell. But it really didn’t stand a chance after Wilder failed to sign up his dream-team leading-lady double act of Marlene Dietrich & Faye Dunaway.* As stand-ins, Hildegard Knef & Marthe Keller at their best couldn’t pull off the story’s requisite glamor & Golden Age Hollywood hauteur . . . and they’re hardly at their best. (The film barely got a Stateside release.)  William Holden, weathered but fit, has a role similar to BLVD.’s debt-drowned scripter, but he’s crossed over union lines to play a debt-drowned film producer betting on his charm & a shared romantic past to get Fedora (a reclusive Greta Garbo type) as star for a new ANNA KARENINA. In her late 60s, but fabulously well preserved, Fedora just might go for the deal, if only she weren’t surrounded by an entourage of ‘protectors:’ the Countess, her nurse, a personal physician & the chauffeur/bodyguard. Are they keeping her safe, or just locked up? Wilder must have known audiences would guess the secret to Fedora’s eternal youth, so he reveals it halfway thru (a la Hitchcock), then runs a series of flashback ‘reveals’ to fill in the missing pieces. Problem is, there’s really not much left to learn. As a late admirer, Michael York is a good sport playing himself, especially standing in line to view the open casket. If only the film weren’t also embalmed.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Wilder’s luck turned in the mid-‘60s. Whereas SUNSET BOULEVARD lost Montgomery Clift only to gain William Holden in his breakthrough role, Billy had no such luck recasting IRMA LA DOUCE/’63 with Lou Jacobi after Charles Laughton died; replacing Peter Sellers with Ray Walston after a heart attack on KISS ME STUPID/’64; or making up lost star power on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES/’70 when both Sellers and Peter O’Toole declined, even with so superb a duo as Colin Blakely & Robert Stevens.

DOUBLE-BILL: SUNSET BLVD. seems the likely choice, but a better match might be Joe Mankiewicz’s equally flawed THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA/’54.

Friday, April 17, 2015

JOHN PAUL JONES (1959)

Rebel, patriot, master of the sea, man on the run, Revolutionary war hero, there’s enough glory, excitement & dramatic incident in the life of John Paul Jones for a three-season HBO mini-series. Not that you’d guess by this stiff historical from burnt-out megger John Farrow which plays with all the verisimilitude, pulse & wit of a state-sponsored Sound-and-Light pageant. It’s enough to give waxworks a good name. Best not to name names (protect the innocent and all that), but mention must be made of Charles Coburn’s Ben Franklin who looks decidedly like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion. We hit rock bottom at an interview between Jones & George Washington (set in a papier-mâché Valley Forge) that for some reason hides the General’s face from us with some of the more awkward staging ever seen on film. Farrow (or some second unit man) steps up his game in a couple of action set pieces in the second half, which are also helped by better color values in the clean, if variable print used for the Warner Archives VOD, but it’s hardly enough to make much difference. The film was the first epic made by independent producer Samuel Bronston in his new bespoke Spanish studios. He’d hit pay dirt soon enough with EL CID/’61.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Go online or try your old encyclopedia for a quick refresher course on JPJ. What an amazing amount of living in a mere 45 years. Lots more to the man than ‘I have not yet begun to fight!’

WATCH HIS, NOT THAT: Revolutionary War pics are notoriously unsuccessful. Why not try Disney’s simple, but effective JOHNNY TREMAIN/’57?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

THE WEAPON (1956)

When a ballistic report for a recent accidental shooting surreptitiously solves a Cold Case left over from the war, there’s still one problem for Scotland Yard: the gun is on the lam! Held by the young lad who found it in a ruined building, then tussled with his pal over it, shooting him accidentally. (The victim’s doing fine, but the boy on the run thinks he’s a murderer.) Hiding out all over London town, he’s wanted by the police; by an American army sergeant; by his mom; and by the guy who hid the gun a decade ago. Even the boy’s playmates get in the act as amateur detectives . . . paid by the bad guy. Director Val Guest & lenser Reg Wyer get a lot out of their downscale London locations, especially when forced to maneuver action scenes in tight spaces. (Had they seen Elia Kazan’s New Orleans set PANIC IN THE STREETS/’50?) But the combination of easy coincidences to keep the plot moving; underutilized storylines (those kiddie detectives are barely used, and a brief romance with a nightclub hostess is painfully underwritten/unmotivated); most of all, dreary perfs from a cast that includes Hollywood ringers Steve Cochran & Lizabeth Scott. (The kid’s damn good, though.*) It’s one of those little films where they’ve got all the ingredients, but forget to light the stove.

DOUBLE-BILL: *’The kid’ is young Jon Whiteley who started & ended his brief film career with Dirk Bogarde in THE STRANGER IN BETWEEN/’52 (not seen here) and the odd, emotional THE SPANISH GARDENER/’56 where Bogarde’s surrogate dad comes up against Michael Hordern (in a fascinating perf) as a painfully distant real father.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

After Tim Burton’s stillborn APE reboot in 2001, the course-correcting RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES/’11 was a welcome, unexpectedly involving rebound. But now, it’s back to Ground Zero with this inexplicably well-received disappointment. (Note: all had similar big box-office returns.) After a graphic prologue on Earth’s viral depopulation, we meet an isolated society of great apes, living in the forest and unaware that a town’s-worth of human survivors are gleaning a meager life from the remains of a devastated San Francisco. Ah, if only these two had never bumped into each other! But bump they do, when a handful of humans go hunting up a new energy source. Alas, there’s not enough goodwill on each side of the sapien divide to offset a few trigger-happy Alpha-Males in both camps. And before Dr. Seuss can say ‘Butter Battle,’ a deadly war of escalation breaks out. Not a very original tall tale, but that’s hardly the problem here. Instead, lousy story construction, miserable acting (the human family unit at the core of the story is a sorry lot, and Gary Oldman phones it in as chief human), even the CGI comes up short. Nice massed effects, but closer action stuff, whether it’s apian fisticuffs, bareback horsemanship, or Jungle Jim moves on Golden Gate bridgework, don’t convince. (The beasts seem to move inside parentheses.) It’s always hard to know who’s responsible on these epics, but let’s point to director Matt Reeves whose previous budgets were about a tenth of what he had to spend here. (Hollywood Subtext: It's not what he got to spend here, but what he had to spend here. Elsewise, you're not making something worth the advertising budget.) Or maybe the special-effects department just held him prisoner. Naturally, he’s already been signed up for the next one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The screenwriters sweetly name the trusting orangutan ‘Maurice,’ presumably after actor Maurice Evans who played the very untrusting orangutan in the original PLANET OF THE APES/’68.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Stick with the 1968 original, even if the old frisson is now mere shadow. And the finely calibrated mix of shock & sentiment in RISEotPotA/’11.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

OUR MODERN MAIDENS (1929)

After a score of films in three years, featured player Joan Crawford broke out as M-G-M’s personification of ‘flaming youth’ in a trio of pics: OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS/’28; OUR MODERN MAIDENS/’29 and OUR BLUSHING BRIDES/’30. Not sequels, though aimed at the same audience, the first & last chart the chasm between silents & The Talkies; from carefree pre-Crash glitz to a working gal Depression ethos. High-gloss formulaic stuff, but loaded with interest; more than can be said for this middle number. Out barely a month before the stock market crash, it works too hard at being peppy, charting a romantic quadrangle that plays out when Crawford & fiancé Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. find their flirtations with Rod La Rocque & Anita Page turning serious. Workhorse director Jack Conway is out of his meat-and-potatoes element here, but still gets the job done, letting lenser Oliver Marsh play around with a zoom lens (rare at the time) and slowing down to let the relationship between Fairbanks & Page deepen without falling back on too many title cards. (Back in real life, it was Fairbanks & Crawford who married.) Decent enough, with Crawford’s dance routine much helped by silent shooting speed (22 fps shown at sound speed’s 24?), and with lots of sound effects & music tacked on. (A new Nacio Brown tune, ‘Should I,’ gets plugged to death.) Young Fairbanks comes off best, especially in a fun party piece that has him imitating the silent acting styles of John Barrymore, John Gilbert &, of course, his pop, Doug Senior, as Robin Hood. Alas, nothing else in here is nearly as memorable.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, DAUGHTERS and BRIDES hold far more interest.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT (1969)

Jean Giraudoux’s play, poetic whimsy masked as trenchant social critique (or is it the other way ‘round?) sinks under the weight of a full-scale production & multinational all-star cast better suited for a David Lean epic. The play, tough enough to pull off, works a series of star turns as the titular eccentric old biddy (a feathered Katherine Hepburn) leads a band of misfits, proletariat & not-yet corrupted youth in holding off a greedy cartel of industrial, military, religious & political heads who plan to wreck l’arrondissement drilling for oil. But fanciful allegory gets buried under director Bryan Forbes’ handsomely designed, prettily shot dawdle thru Edward Anhalt’s adaptation. Those who hang on can see the play finally take hold in a largely unaltered scene where the four main biddies (Hepburn, Giulietta Masina, Margaret Leighton and the phenomenal Edith Evans) have a go at each other. (Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to work.) And the following kangaroo court scene, a showpiece for Danny Kaye’s philosophizing rag-picker, also works pretty well, though it’s more G. B. Shaw (DON JUAN IN HELL) than Giraudoux. In the big cast, John Gavin’s evangelical Elvis and Richard Chamberlain’s doe-eyed student radical (those ‘68 Paris riots must be alluded to) are pretty bad, but Oscar Homolka makes for a hilarious commie commissariat. Originally meant for John Huston who ankled at the last minute, what might he have done with it?

DOUBLE-BILL: An expensive disaster, it likely put the kibosh on Hepburn taking the lead in George Cukor’s film of Graham Greene’s TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT/’72. Instead, Maggie Smith stepped in. A pity since Hepburn would have been better there while Smith would have been a natural here! And still might be if only someone could find the right form to suit the delicate material.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

RIDING HIGH (1950)

If Frank Capra’s POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES/’61, his deadly, over-stuffed remake of LADY FOR A DAY/’33, was a career-ending last gasp, RIDING HIGH, a remake of a lesser Capra pic, BROADWAY BILL/’34, comes across as something of a last hurrah. Trapped in a face-saving production deal @ Paramount after the collapse of his Liberty Films, Capra was licking his wounds and running-for-cover, roping Bing Crosby in as box-office insurance. The story, and nearly a dozen actors, largely repeat from the earlier pic,* with Crosby taking over the lead from Warner Baxter. Bing's a natural as the gadabout horse racing hound who can’t (or won’t) settle down as a business exec. (Paramount’s default Crosby mode was always fancy-free & irresponsible.) But the rewrite of Robert Riskin’s original storyline takes a big wrong turn having Crosby engaged, rather than married to the ‘wrong’ sister. (It might be a remake of HOLIDAY/ ’38 . . . with horses.) And with the Depression long gone, many of the crazy-comic money- scams used by Crosby & his merry band to drum up entry fees come off with a nasty, acid edge. (Der Bingle's new tunes could have been better, too.) Yet, for one last time, Capra seems fully engaged, cramming his mise-en-scène with the pacey moxie of yore, plus just as many of the old, eccentric zanies as he can pile on. And they’re not just there for show, but really get a chance to shine. William Demarest works double-time since he’s doing himself and Ned Sparks. And, wonder of wonders, an unbilled solo spot for Oliver Hardy in his final Hollywood credit, as mysteriously melancholy & funny as ever. Capra quickly turned in a second Crosby vehicle, the rather maudlin HERE COMES THE GROOM/’51, to finish off his Paramount obligation then swore off features for seven years.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Repeaters include: Raymond Walburn, Ward Bond, Douglas Dumbrille, Paul Harvey, Margaret Hamilton, Clara Blandick, Charles Lane, Frankie Darro, Paul Harvey and, of course, Clarence Muse’s stable ‘boy’ who gets less roughhouse from Crosby than he got from Warner Baxter 16 years ago. Progress.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned, BROADWAY BILL which was cannibalized for some of this film’s racetrack scenes. It has its own set of problems, but also a major advantage in co-star Myrna Loy as well as feeling entirely period appropriate & all-of-a-piece.

Friday, April 10, 2015

AGE OF UPRISING: THE LEGEND OF MICHAEL KOHLHAAS (2013)

Portentous 16th Century historical from helmer/co-scripter Arnaud des Pallières is well mounted, but dies a slow death trying to be the art-house ROBIN HOOD/BRAVEHEART Robert Bresson never got around to making.* A Frenchified take on real-life German merchant Hans Kohlhase, it mixes MAGNA CARTE/William Tell terroirs with a soupçon of Thomas More. As the wronged horse trader who raises a people’s army against a callous young Baron, Mads Mikkelsen is gravely noble from every lank of his stylish salt & pepper hair to his flat, indomitable abdomen, a buff man for all seasons. (No wonder he grabbed at the chance to play against type as pseudo-intellectual creep Hannibal Lecter on tv.) But natural movie star grace only goes so far with a director who’s not exactly generous in the info department. Avoiding any hint of pace or excitement, a much needed set piece, like an attack on a fortified estate, comes across as æsthetic corruption instead of cauterizing revenge. It’s all first-rate bloodless embalming.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *No diss meant on Bresson who put out thrilling kinetic set-pieces in early works like A MAN ESCAPED/’56 and PICKPOCKET/’59. Though, admittedly, by the time he made his own medieval art-house pic, LANCELOT DU LAC/’74, he’d lost his taste (or was it his touch?) for such things.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

CHEF (2014)

Puppy-dog likable pic about a bummed out chef who rediscovers his bliss (and his family) by trading in his restaurant for a food truck. It’s harmless enough, but under writer/director/star Jon Favreau it’s just like his character's signature chocolate lava cake dessert, too sweet on the outside and positively gooey on the inside. In fact, Favreau kickstarts his mid-life crisis noisily defending this dish, part of a menu he’s just been seen railing against. He should be agreeing with the criticism. Instead, like too much else here, Favreau undercuts his dramatic points with lazy sentiment, easy narrative escapes and feel-good music used as indiscriminately as brown gravy in a diner. You’ll see why so many people liked it, but the film’s more Sloppy Joe than Cubano Sandwich. Best Dish on the Menu: a breakthrough perf from Favreau’s sous-chef pal John Leguizamo, a little older, a little thicker, a little slower on the uptake, he registers on screen in a way he never has before.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Favreau, also older, thicker, slower, just registers as Louis C. K. on a bad day.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

DENVER AND RIO GRANDE (1952)

Solid, straightforward programmer from Byron Haskin, a sort of horseless Western about building the first narrow-gauge train route thru the Rockies, with two competing companies fighting over land rights. Edmund O’Brien, J. Carroll Naish & Dean Jaggar play tough, but honest for the eponymous D&RG line while dastardly Sterling Hayden & villainous Lyle Bettger scheme up deadly sabotage working for the bad guys. And it’s no fair fight since love interest Laura Elliot plays loyal secretary to Jaggar by day and devious informant to Hayden by night! All because she mistakenly thinks O’Brien murdered her surveyor brother when the actual culprit was . . . Sterling Hayden. Yikes! Wait’ll she finds out how wrong she’s been! Not that you’ll care much since the backstory & character biz remain on the sketchy side, as does some lame-O comic relief from Zasu Pitts & Paul Fix as geriatric lovebirds. Best to concentrate on the fine scenery & cool narrow-gauge trains which often look toy-like, but are the real McCoy.; all black engine smoke & white puffs of steam as they chug thru the mountain gorges. Uncomplicated & highly watchable.

DOUBLE-BILL: Haskin, O’Brien & Rennahan were just off another little Western, SILVER CITY/’51 (see below). It comes with a more developed story they have trouble pulling off. Instead, see what a superior talent like Jacques Tourneau brings to similar B+ Western terrain in WICHITA’55.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Early TechniColor specialist Ray Rennahan, no longer owning those big, prestige assignments of the ‘30s & ‘40s, was transitioning into tv work. In hindsight, his real skill probably stemmed from solving the problems and ‘riding’ the odd limitations of the early TechniColor process. Mastering the hazards & trick behavior of early TechniColor gave him what artistry he had. And one-by-one, as the technical problems were solved, his D.P. ordinariness was revealed. No wonder his best credits came on films he either co-lensed or made under exacting directors.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

THE FACTS OF LIFE (1960)

Bob Hope and Lucille Ball toy with infidelity in this painfully drab looking Melvin Frank/Norman Panama dramedy. (Visually, Frank/Panama desperately miss the layers of studio protection they’d grown accustomed to in their Paramount days.) Bored with their country club lives and taken-for-granted spouses (Ruth Hussey; Don DeFore), the duo unexpectedly spark to each other on vacation, then spend the rest of the film trying to figure out what to do about it. The surprise of the thing comes in how well Ball & Hope commit to the dramatic situation as actors. (Especially, Lucy who not only deflates Bob’s wisecracking ways, but even alters her look by working a good 10 pounds above her normal fighting weight.) The original idea must have started out as a So. Cal. suburban BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45, with comic seasoning instead of Rachmaninoff. But the script pulls its punches, concealing rather than revealing itself with slapstick & misdirection whenever things get uncomfortable. Partly a sop to audience expectations (Bob & Lucy cheating?*), it’s also partly the fault of ‘60s Hollywood movie morality. (In Italy, the affair would have collapsed upon consummation. In France, manly dysfunction at the ultimate moment.) But still worth watching for the expert playing and a neat bit of marital diplomacy between DeFore & Ball at the finish.

DOUBLE-BILL: The third of four Hope/Ball movie pairings, they’re at their finest in SORROWFUL JONES/’49 (a dream Nathan Detroit/Miss Adelaide that never happened). But they also play beautifully together in the little-loved CRITIC’S CHOICE/’63 (see below) which aims lower, but perhaps scores higher than FACTS.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Infidelity was something these two knew a bit about with Lucille having just sent Desi Arnaz packing over repeated wanderings, and Bob’s affairs the stuff of Hollywood legend as laid out in Richard Zoglin’s fine new bio HOPE: ENTERTAINER OF THE CENTURY which gives the man his due (and perhaps a bit more) without ignoring the precipitous decline.

Monday, April 6, 2015

THE TRIP TO ITALY (2014)

Actor/comedians Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon stage a second Cook’s Tour, swapping out England’s Lake District for the Italy of Byron & Shelley in this follow up to THE TRIP/'11. Better scenery, better food (though we see rather less of it), and fine Italian light to help warm up the boys’ grey complexions. (Coogan’s hair is also much improved, thanks to clippers.) But hard as they try (and trying too hard is much the problem), this continuation of their semi-improvised buddy/buddy routine comes off as deleted scenes from the earlier, larkier road pic.* Oh, they still load up on comical vocal impressions, delay family problems for travel writing & fine dining, fall into mid-life sexual foibles, try to crack up the same director (Michael Winterbottom), but the longueurs between rip-roaring hilarity are (ahem) longer. Barely touching on the far more interesting topic hovering before them: what happens to two friends who’ve reached different levels of success when one plateaus just as Mr. Runner-Up hits a breakthrough? And the wasted opportunity saps the joy from their shtick. (NOTE: The sweeping music that keeps returning is from Richard Strauss's FOUR LAST SONGS, but surely the film & IMDb have it wrong listing an Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recording. It's Jessye Norman w/ Kurt Masur, ya, ya?)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This being a sequel, the boys cite GODFATHER II as the only sequel known to have improved on the original. But this more-or-less universal critical opinion (NYTimes critic Vincent Canby was all but a minority of one in sticking up for the original) deserves testing. Ready? Imagine iconic moments from Part I. (Click, click, click . . . you’re already past a dozen, yes?) Now, Part II (Click . . . stuck at three or four, right? And with an extra hour’s running time.) Too bad the boys didn’t go for that undebatably better-than-the-first sequel, STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN/’82. No possible argument, and the choice would have given them a raft of new distinctive voices to caricature.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Without THE TRIP, this really won't make much sense. (See Write-Up below.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

MALAYA (1949)

You can all but hear the cast & crew dutifully punching the studio timeclock on this half-baked WWII adventure yarn, woven out of tablescraps & tropes from CASABLANCA/’42 and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT/’44. Spencer Tracy & James Stewart split the Humphrey Bogart roles while a bewildered Valentina Cortesa does double-duty in the Ingrid Bergman/Lauren Bacall slot. Not much rapport between her & Spence, and the boys don’t seem especially happy with things either, though Tracy looks uncommonly mean & lean for the period. (On the wagon? Ill?) The trick to the thing is rubber: Uncle Sam needs it for the war effort, newsguy Stewart, fresh out of the Pacific war zone knows where it’s stockpiled (Malaya) and knows a shady operator (Tracy) who can slip it past the isle’s skimpy Japanese occupation force. Sounds like a plan. Yeah, sounds like a plan, but the script can’t be bothered with even the slightest bit of logistical effort. Instead, our boys just seem to waltz in, wave at the bad guys; chat up café owner Sydney Greenstreet to get the local lowdown; then float the stuff out to meet a camouflaged US freighter with the help of eternally handsome Gilbert Roland leading a gang of mercenaries. Ah, war, just one big, inconvenient portage thru the tropics. On the plus side, it’s smoothly put together and megger Richard Thorpe flexes his considerable action chops in tight corners. But that breeze at your back isn’t the seasonal monsoon, it’s the winds of change in post-war Hollywood.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *A change Stewart would help lead on his very next pic, WINCHESTER ‘73 which rewrote the book for star contracts in 1950 with a profit participation.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930)

MoMA’s restoration of D. W. Griffith’s Talkie debut, a final historical epic from the faded film pioneer (available on a KINO DVD), adds fascinating footage long missing from most prints. (And still missing its accompanying soundtrack.) The most important addition is a brief, horrific look at a slave trafficking ship that moves the camera in to witness conditions for the human cargo. It’s but a moment of prologue, groundwork laid out to show the system that led to the Civil War, yet powerful enough to make this series of uneven biographical blackout sketches even more frustrating to watch than it had been. Griffith wasn’t much involved in the film’s post-production work, he’d been reduced to job-for-hire work, but it’s doubtful that he could have made the lumpy succession of waxwork dramatics and smartly edited location work play better than it does. The gap between Audio-Animatronics playlets fit for a Junior High Field trip and strikingly handsome lensing from Karl Struss on some remarkably fluid montage work constantly pulls you in and out of the episodic drama. Alas, mostly out. (Hard to know who’s to blame for an early scene that catches Walter Huston’s generally effective Lincoln in full stage makeup to gruesome effect.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Griffith quickly followed this major effort with his final project, a last-gasp micro-budgeted drunkard’s tale titled THE STRUGGLE/’31. Reviled on release, the reputations of his two sound films have now largely reversed. And since STRUGGLE is included on KINO’s DVD, it’s easy to judge. Particularly strong on NYC-location atmosphere, it ends with a career-appropriate race thru the streets finale. An awkward film, it requires considerable critical latitude to get past overplaying lead, vaudevillian Hal Skelly, but is worth the effort.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972)

Scrambling back to features after drifting into some unexceptional tv work (a tv film; a failed series), Anthony Quinn might have pulled off this urban-decay policier if only its intriguing ‘Blaxploitation’ vibe got past skin-deep appliqué. Or if tv director Barry Shear, who also co-produced with Quinn, showed the clear-eyed competence Joseph Sargent brought to similar elements in THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE/’74*. (No doubt, Quinn didn’t want a strong hand second-guessing him or he would have gone with someone like Sidney Lumet. Note his 'territory marking' freeze-frame tag.) But there’s still lots to groove on in this Harlem tale of three desperate locals who shoot up five mob guys & a couple of cops when they grab 300 thou in 'dirty money.' This sets up a heavy-on-the-violence chase with four different branches of enforcers tailing the three separated thieves. Two Mob Teams: One Black; One White. And Two Cop Teams: One Black; One White. Sometimes cooperating, sometimes at cross-purposes. It proves a bit much for director Shear. Quinn never quite finds his stride as the aging, id-driven urban dick, but Anthony Franciosa positively glows with every sadistic act as a MidTown mob power, while the always great Yaphet Kotto is alive to each new threat or any hint of racial condescension as the junior detective ordered to run the investigation. Excellent casting up and down the line, with fine Super Fly touches in the more flamboyant joints, and some of the blightiest urban blight of the era.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, PELHAM ONE TWO THREE gets the whole depressing '70s-era NYC/Fun City gestalt even better, and runs a dandy caper in the process.