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Sunday, May 31, 2015

THE CORN IS GREEN (1945)

In Emlyn Williams’ effective, if very old-fashioned, ‘well-made’ play, a stubbornly pragmatic, middle-aged teacher butts heads with a poor but gifted mining town lad, and guides him thru personal missteps to an Oxford scholarship test. An all but foolproof story, and yet its two high-profile adaptations are both near-misses. This 1945 version, with a padded & cosmetically aged Bette Davis, still a decade too young as teacher Miss Moffat; and George Cukor’s 1979 movie-for-tv with Kate Hepburn, all bones & a decade and a half too old. The age factor may not be a deal-breaker, but the play, a sort of gender-reversed PYGMALION affair with autobiographical Welsh accents, is so straightforward that every little detail counts. Cukor’s version also suffers from the structural defects of debuting scripter Ivan Davis (how can you fumble this storyline?), while here, director Irving Rapper can’t make peace with those artificial Warner Bros.’ soundstage exteriors. (You'll find more verisimilitude in this stage-entrance still of Ethel Barrymore’s original B’way production then in either film.)

Still, the basic pull of the story, changing the course of a young man’s life thru knowledge & the right educator, is strong enough to withstand many gaffs. The Davis vehicle now looks a far sight better than Hepburn’s, though a 1969 BBC-Play of the Month with Wendy Hiller, greatest of all Eliza Doolittles as Miss Moffat (that female Henry Higgins) sounds tempting.

DOUBLE-BILL: Find variations on this theme in SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN/’63 and EDUCATING RITA/’83.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Our German poster gives some idea of the film’s content while Hollywood's steers shy of . . . everything!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

ROAD TO BALI (1952)

Sixth of the seven self-mocking/self-referential ROAD pics from Bing Crosby, Bob Hope & Dorothy Lamour, it’s the last of the contiguous series via Paramount. (A trip to HONG KONG a decade later was a non-starter with Lamour downgraded to glorified cameo.) Here, the boys are discovered doing their vaudeville act ‘down under’ in Australia. Running away from an over-determined bride, they ship out to dive for treasure, meet up with Princess Lamour and get shipwrecked on a tropical isle where they are greeted as tonight’s main course! Alas, the silly fun of earlier outings now feels a little stale, weighed down by TechniColor, weak songs & reflexive gags. It also doesn’t help that Bing & Dot (in her last starring role) seem a decade older than they did five years back when ROAD TO RIO was the improbable top-grosser of 1948. But hang in there, everything suddenly improves in the extended last act. Better tunes, wild gags that might have come from Frank Tashlin (he’s not credited), some really funny asides from Hope, and a plot that veers into something of a travesty DESIGN FOR LIVING with Lamour wanting a two-fer; an accidental lip-lock for the boys before they go thru a marriage ceremony & share a honeymoon bed. With weirder things to come. After this, they really had nowhere to go.

DOUBLE-BILL: Go all the way back to ROAD TO SINGAPORE/’40 to see how it all started. The formula isn’t quite in place yet which turns out to be a good thing.

Friday, May 29, 2015

O'HORTEN (2007)

After a discouraging shot at Stateside filmmaking (FACTOTUM/’05), Bent Hamer returned to his native Norway for this modest-to-a-fault coming-of-retirement-age fable. Odd O’Horten is a 67 yr-old train engineer who misses his own farewell after-party; misses his final train run; misses the lights-out call at his health club; heck, even his favorite pipe goes missing. With few acquaintances, let alone friends, only his mother holds an emotional claim, and she’s lost to senility. Yet, over the course of a few days, while trying to find a rhythm to his new life as retiree, Odd (yep, that’s his first name) has a series of serendipitous meetings, adventures & personal revelations that wake up his inner life, a world of regrets & feelings he never thought he had in him. It’s easy to see what Hamer’s aiming at, but Odd’s near Job-like acceptance of what’s next is nearer to pathological passivity than to the classic Holy Fools of, say, Peter Sellers’ Chance in BEING THERE/’79 or silent clown Harry Langdon. They brought us along on their journeys to unlikely bliss, Odd just wants to keep his pipe lit.

DOUBLE-BILL: Often lumped together with Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, the comparison does Hamer few favors. Try an early Kaurismäki like SHADOWS IN PARADISE/’86 or ARIEL/’88, marvels of supple wit, color composition, legerdemain narrative, believable character reversals, and big unexpected laughs.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

SINCERELY YOURS (1955)

Incredibly hokey, and more than a bit creepy, this one-off starring vehicle for ‘50s tv & nightclub phenom Liberace adds a half hour of piano specialties in remaking THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD/’32, an antique vehicle for an old George Arliss & a young Bette Davis. Now, it’s Liberace who loses his hearing mid-concert, only to find new meaning in life playing deaf fairy godfather to strangers in the park by eavesdropping on their lives via binoculars & a newly acquired virtuoso skill at lip-reading.* A big flop in its day (note our pure desperation Double-Bill pressbook ad), it’s not so much bad as odd. (Okay, it’s also bad.) Even the piano playing’s odd. Pulling the rhythm like taffy on pop fluff is one thing, but playing classical party pieces with one foot on the brakes and one on the accelerator can leave you woozy. (One of the writers gets in a sly classical music joke when Liberace asks for requests and a grande dame snob calls for the Scherzo movement from Brahms’ Concerto in B-Flat Minor. A neat trick since neither of Brahms’ two piano concerti has a Scherzo movement, and the key is actually B-Flat Major. LOL - Oh, those Hollywood jokesters! Anyway, the request goes missing, substituted by variations on the Beer Barrel Polka.) Joanne Dru & Dorothy Malone are all glammed up with no place to go as rivals for Lee’s affection; you get the feeling he’ll always stay true to his Steinways, Bechsteins & Knabes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Going deaf at 12 didn’t stop Evelyn Glennie from becoming the best known solo percussionist in classical music today. (But can she Boogie-Woogie in triple time?)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

MIMI WO SUMASEBA / WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995)

Studio Ghibli animation can skew toward the kids (TOTORO/’88; KIKI/’89) or toward adults (WIND RISES/’13; SPIRITED AWAY/’01), but this feature from Yoshifumi Kondô aims at the CW demo, female ‘tweens.’ (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It’s all junior high rivalries & embarrassment, raging hormones & unrequited first love; led by a scatter-brained girl whose adorable-quotient can be calibrated by the viewer’s age. Naturally, she’s a bit of an outsider, giggling over possible boyfriends with her BFF girlfriend, reading every book in the library and trying to figure out what direction her life should take. A question amusingly answered when she follows a wandering cat into a new neighborhood and a new set of interests, including a slightly older boy who knows exactly what he wants. He’s off to Italy to become a luthier! Something you don’t see in many YA stories! Hmm, YA stories, maybe writing’s in her future? There’s a fair amount of charm in the characters and situations (life at home is especially well handled), but nothing to match the sweeping landscape vistas of Tokyo that constantly pull your attention away from the foreground, and a story that never sorts itself out. Plotlines are abruptly dropped; music & peripheral characters are introduced to little effect; then the film takes a disastrous turn illustrating one of the girl’s perfectly awful fantasy tales. Ultimately, the whole thing feels like apprentice work. Perhaps it was since Kondô, who died at the age of 47 without making a second film, was a likely successor to Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli.

DOUBLE-BILL: George Stevens’ I REMEMBER MAMA/’48 is far less sentimental about a young girl’s early romantic writing, sending her back to her notepads with orders to ditch the over active imagination and write about something she knows and feels.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

YOUNG BESS (1953)

Startlingly fine, largely unheralded storybook treatment of Elizabeth Tudor’s wilderness years (timed to Elizabeth II’s Coronation Year) is definitely not for the historically minded.* But taken on its own terms, it’s remarkably successful entertainment. Director George Sidney’s other period pieces (THREE MUSKETEERS/’48; SCARAMOUCHE’52) are as bright, shiny & thoughtless as the musicals he’s best known for (ANNIE GET YOUR GUN/’50; SHOW BOAT/’51; ANCHOR’S AWEIGH/’45). But BESS courts an unusually dark & sober look for an M-G-M TechniColor production, presumably reflecting the preferences of cinematographer Charles Rosher, who worked almost exclusively with director Sidney toward the end of his career. How Rosher got away with such a restricted color palette here is something of a mystery. Not that he cuts down on saturation levels or skimps on his signature Hollywood portrait iconography. Jean Simmons (as the young Elizabeth) & her then husband Stewart Granger (as a highly romanticized Thomas Seymour) are positively ravished under Rosher’s lighting schemes. With limited opportunities, Deborah Kerr is fine as step-mother Catherine Parr, while Charles Laughton, with even less screen time, reprising his Henry VIII after 20 years, gives a masterclass on ham acting of genius, catching something large & true in a deathbed scene. In fact, the entire cast is unusually strong, with a bracing dash of strangeness to the Prince Edward of Rex Thompson (later Deborah Kerr’s son in THE KING AND I/’56). And all wrapped up in a Miklós Rózsa score that nods respectfully toward Erich Korngold’s PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX/’39. LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH64ZlgGl0I

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The charges against Granger’s character in the film were anything but spurious. Thomas Seymour’s brother Ned (the film’s main villain) was the good guy of the pair.

Monday, May 25, 2015

L’APOLLONIDE (SOUVENIRS DE LA MAISON CLOSE) / HOUSE OF PLEASURES (2009)

Bertrand Bonello’s sexually frank, but stately tour of a turn-of-the-last-century high-end Parisian brothel is meticulous . . . and, as GIGI’s Gaston Lachaille might say, a bit of a bore. Lolling about the lounge & dens of iniquity, we watch as rich, blasé middle-aged men pass silent judgement on the high riding breasts of available girls in their late teens to late twenties. Any expectations of stimulating sociability (games, music, drink, conversation) barely materialize, with sex as collateral damage. No wonder half the men in the place are falling asleep. And with all there was to do in Paris at the time! Occasionally a crisis flairs up: STDs; pregnancy; a ghastly physical mutilation that turns a girl into a female Gwynplaine (THE MAN WHO LAUGHS/’28). But the biggest crisis comes when the house is forced to close from rising rents & rumors of changes in the law. (Bonello isn’t exactly spendthrift with narrative details.) It leaves the girls, little more than indentured servants of the house, with little future to speak of. At its occasional best, the film floats just above the floor, like one of the prostitute’s opium dreams. But the texture grows wearily thin, even with Bonello goosing his soundtrack with anachronistic jolts of R&B music.

DOUBLE-BILL: For another look at a brothel that's being forced to close, try ADUA E LE COMPAGNE/’60 with Marcello Mastrioanni, Simone Signoret and a trio of transitioning hookers.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

DRACULA UNTOLD (2014)

Hard to know what the producers were thinking on this wholly underwhelming Dracula pic. An origin story out of Transylvania, liberally seasoned with GAME OF THRONES accents, it finds Vlad the Impaler (everyone calls him ‘Vlad’) succumbing to the undead powers of a chalk-faced Charles Dance in order to protect hearth & home from invading Turks. Largely a series of epic battles, heavy on CGI bats, its debuting creative team fails to make the leap from commercials to commercial cinema. In storytelling, dialogue, acting, visual design & composition, hopelessly deficient, often idiotic. (A nighttime battle with half the forces blindfolded manages to put the players as much in the dark as the audience.) The only elements that stand out are the film’s poster art and Vlad’s abs. (Alternate title: DRACULA: GYM RAT.) For a real scare, at the end, an epilogue threatens a modern-day sequel! Happily, soft grosses may have put a stake in that particular undead heart.

DOUBLE-BILL: Francis Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA/’92 is a dramatically inert, Edwardian fashion show. EXCEPT for its reel-and-a-half prologue: a spectacular, ultra-stylized Vlad the Impaler origin story.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: DRACULA author Bram Stoker supposedly based his character on his employer, the great Victorian/Edwardian actor Sir Henry Irving. Why no one has attempted an origin story that takes off from those two (Stoker was Irving’s valet/dresser) is a mystery.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

CHAIN LIGHTNING (1950)

Unlike most Golden Age Hollywood stars, Humphrey Bogart hasn’t got a cache of forgotten gems waiting to be rediscovered. Whereas a Clark Gable might be just as well served with a retrospective of rarities than with his best known stuff, for Bogie, the films to see are generally the films you do see.* That’s certainly the case on this also-ran programmer (last on his old Warners’ contract?) about a WWII fighter pilot who finds his post-war feet testing newfangled jets for airplane mogul Raymond Massey. The main conflict finds Bogie hustling up speed & distance records while his wartime engineer pal Richard Whorf works behind the scenes on a more important, but less glamorous emergency safety pod unit for the plane. And there’s competition off the job, too, for plush, smoky-voiced Eleanor Parker. But journeyman megger Stuart Heisler can’t make the romantic triangle ring, and the special effects are as unimaginative as they are unconvincing. It’s another deservedly forgotten Bogart vehicle.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *One little known Bogart pic very much worth reviving is BLACK LEGION, an eye-popping KKK takedown in Warners’ best muckraking manner.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: On the Warner Archive DVD, the audio-synch is slightly off all thru the penultimate reel (probably three or four frames off). Just enough to drive you a little nuts.

Friday, May 22, 2015

ACE OF ACES (1933)

John Monk Saunders, Hollywood’s go-to writer on WWI flyboys (WINGS/’27; DAWN PATROL/’30 & '38; THE LAST FLIGHT/’31), finds variations on his usual themes in this anti-war pic. Cynically unmoved at war’s parade, fine-arts sculptor Richard Dix plans to take a pass on WWI, much distressing his patriotic fiancé Elizabeth Allan. Cut to an airfield in war-torn France where he quickly rises to hard-hearted pilot; while she’s now a disillusioned nurse amid the dying. No big story surprises then, but everyone makes a decent job of it. Silent-screen star Dix has grown a little more confident with dialogue, nailing a tricky Paris reunion scene where he convinces Allan to lower her guard (and her garters) for a two-day pass. And the film would be even better if helmer J. Walter Ruben varied the pace now & then. But there are some neat plot & character reverses; a fresh cast of flyboys without the usual movieland suspects, and an unusual look to the aviation scenes, using an effective mix of real stunt flying & good model work. Too bad about the cop-out ending.

DOUBLE-BILL: Richard Dix may be a year stiffer on screen in THE LOST SQUADRON/’32, where a trio of WWI vets (Dix, Robert Armstrong, Joel McCrea) fly stunts for tyrannical director Erich von Stroheim, but it’s a better story. And hopefully, out soon on DVD.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

THAT CERTAIN WOMAN (1937)

Bette Davis plays a woman with a past (teenage mob bride); a present (annulled marriage to rich boy Henry Fonda); and a future (motherly sacrifice & triumph) in this unconvincing suds-fest from writer/director Edmund Goulding who should have known better. A remake of his own Early Talkie THE TRESPASSER/’29 (a big hit for Gloria Swanson), Bette positively glows as secretary to unhappily married Ian Hunter. He gallantly supports her marriage to Fonda, but the relationship can’t survive the disapproval of wealthy father-in-law Donald Crisp. It’s annulment . . . and a secret child. Four years on, Fonda’s remarried and crippled his new wife in a driving accident! So when he (and his dastardly papa) discover Bette’s raising the family heir, something’s gotta give. Then, just when you think things can’t get more ridiculous, in rolls Anita Louise, Fonda’s wheelchair-bound wife! She’s here to meet the little son she could never have conceived (conceived of?). As she & Davis play a rousing duel of motherly sacrifice, we might be watching one of those old movie parodies on the Carol Burnett Show.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Goulding did far better by Bette in DARK VICTORY/’39; THE OLD MAID/’39 and THE GREAT LIE/’41.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

THE BABADOOK (2014)

Last year’s art-house fright pic is an imaginatively scarifying, horrifically elegant chamber thriller about a single mom and her manically obsessed, troubled little boy. The missing father died on the trip to hospital the day his son was born, and the kid’s been ‘acting out’ ever since. Now an anxiety-ridden seven, he’s armed himself with various sharp-tipped homemade weapons to keep any monsters at bay, a menace at home, a threat to relatives, a terror at school. And his constant need for safety monitoring & pleas for attention have left Mom too exhausted to function. It’s a desperate situation; perfect for a Babadook!, the malignant force of evil they find in a Children’s Pop-Up book. (A book that might have frightened Edward Gorey.) Writer/director Jennifer Kent brings compositional rigor and the shock of believable dread to her haunted house story, holding back on genre gore & technical gimmicks. Instead, the simple thrust of her presentation gets deep into your head & under your skin. Great perfs up and down the line, especially from the little kid (Noah Wiseman) whose pre-Babadook tantrums prove a tough act to follow, even for an implacable monster. As Mom, Essie Davis miscalculates her dynamics down to a barely audible murmur, presumably to give contrast during the possession scenes, but it hardly lessens the general effect. NOTE: Another Family Friendly pic that's NOT a kiddie pic! Think teens; middle-school and up.

DOUBLE-BILL: With style & tone more old-school EXORCIST/’73 or THE SHINING/’80 than modern day horror pic, it’s nice to see Stephen King & William Friedkin quoted on the DVD cover. But while there’s a touch of Kubrick’s formal control here, if with more warmth in the actors' blood, what really springs to mind is Suzie Templeton’s dark & handsome Stop-Motion animation of Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF/’06.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

LILTING (2014)

Small and unsatisfying, Hong Khaou’s debut feature fails to tease much of a story out of a young man’s untimely death. Lost in their separate grief, his stubbornly unassimilated immigrant mom and his male partner make an initial furtive contact but can’t break thru long held (closeted) secrets. Khaou parcels out info on his three principals (two alive, one dead) thru incremental, non-linear bites, measuring out drams of pointless misdirection and bringing in a translator for the mom who’s managed to avoid picking up a word of English. Not that verbal skills have stopped her from making a cute conquest at her senior citizens apartment complex. And while none of the action, situations or relationships seem to add up, Ben Whishaw, as the surviving lover, kills off any remaining interest with a character created entirely thru fidgets. Rubbing his face, pulling his nose, chewing his scruffy beard; he’s either highly tactile or borderline autistic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The only possible reason to stick around is for a chance to catch up with dear Peter Bowles (Guthrie Featherstone from the old RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY series) as the mother’s blunt, horny and slightly mystified senior citizen suitor. (On the other hand, they loved it @ Sundance.)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT (1965)

Odd that Woody Allen’s film debut as writer/actor is so little known. One of those Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World sex comedies from the ‘60s, it feels pretty forced now, with everyone trying too hard to be ’up to date’ and ‘with it.’ Peter O’Toole is rather charming as the romantic fool who’d do anything for fiancé Romy Schneider . . . except set the date. If only his handsome face didn’t catch the light ‘just so’ and drive bevies of beauties into his arms. And dear, oh dear, what screen beauties they are! Ursula Andress, Paula Prentiss, high-fashioned & funny Capucine, and hordes of runners-up. Maybe nutty analyst Peter Sellers, in long hair & Mittle-Europa accent, can talk him thru the crisis? Or, at least, pick up on the leftovers. Meantime, sidekick/pal Woody hopes to move in, or at least kibbitz, if a short guy is needed. Anyone for nebbish? Director Clive Donner occasionally tries to stage a bit of action, but largely seems content to hang back and hope this mess will get fixed in the editing room. No such luck. (Richard Lester he ain’t.) There’s always that catchy Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Tom Jones title track; a Carnaby Street ‘Pop’ look via lenser Jean Badal (soon to work wonders on Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME/’67); and a goofy stab at Richard III from Sellers in an otherwise discipline-free outing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Producer Charles K. Feldman brought similar wayward ‘60s excess to his James Bond fiasco, CASINO ROYALE/’67, which at least offered one grand set piece for Deborah Kerr as a whacked out nun.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As helpfully noted by Talk Show vet Dick Cavett, Peter O’Toole is the only actor whose first and last names are each euphemisms for the male genitalia.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

PICTURE SNATCHER (1933)

Early peak Cagney, Pre-Code, Politically Incorrect, and more entertaining than it has any right to be. Jimmy’s a mob guy, out of Sing Sing and quitting his gang for the reporter’s racket. He finds a pal in boozing editor Ralph Bellamy, currently reduced to scandal sheet employment. Maybe Cagney’s low-down connections & lack of scruples will be an edge in the field? Between a candid snap at an electric chair execution and slugging dames on the kisser, Cagney also manages to peel off Bellamy’s faithless gal pal, wreck the rep of his nemesis police captain whose cute daughter he’s getting serious about, and redeem himself by the skin of his teeth . Lloyd Bacon directs in an atypically lively style, much helped by Sol Polito’s atmospheric lensing (check out some near 3D deep-focus set ups) which takes advantage of Robert Haas’s grimy back-lot NYC art direction.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney was shoehorned into THE MAYOR OF HELL/’33 right after this, but then got a plum assignment, hoofing his way to glory with Ruby Keeler in FOOTLIGHT PARADE/'33.

LINK: Cagney tags the film saying ‘Vas you dere, Charley?’ A mystery to modern audiences, it was the popular catch-phrase of radio comedian Jack Pearl. See him in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3FPleejIEg

Friday, May 15, 2015

SABOTEUR (1942)

Everybody knows the climax to this Alfred Hitchcock film: Man hangs by a thread from the Statue of Liberty. The rest, not so much. More artistic bunt than solid hit, it remains fun, fascinating stuff, Hitch’s first All-American pic after the faux British duo of REBECCA/’40 and SUSPICION/’41, the American naïf in war spooked Europe FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT/’40, and a one-off screwball, MR. & MRS. SMITH/’41. Working with a medium budget & medium stars, Hitch plays safe with a sort of Stateside 39 STEPS/’35 innocent-man-on-the-run story, loaded with exciting/witty, technically savvy set pieces and a striking physical presentation. (Especially the first two or three reels, and of course that amazing climax.) Just not enough of the sleight-of-hand narrative misdirection & storytelling economy of the earlier classic. Heading East as they tail the real saboteurs, Robert Cummings & Priscilla Lane struggle without the star wattage & glamorous likablility of Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll. And there’s a lack of chemistry, not between Lane & Cummings, but between Lane & Hitchcock. Norman Lloyd makes a grand film debut as the 5th Columnist with weak stitching in his jacket sleeve, and supporting villain Alan Baxter glows with real Hitchcockian perversity going on about long hair on little boys. Yikes!

READ ALL ABOUT IT: It’s hard to argue with Hitchcock’s own assessment: 

Looking back on SABOTEUR, I would say that the script lacks discipline. I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay. There was a mass of ideas, but they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with sufficient care. 

(From François Truffaut’s classic interview book HITCHCOCK.)

DOUBLE-BILL: The writing/directing team Powell & Pressburger took a similar trip across Canada in their superbly worked out 49TH PARALLEL/’41.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

LUCKY (2011)

Modest, pleasing indie from South Africa follows a just orphaned 10 yr-old Zulu boy (Lucky) who leaves his village to join his uncle in the city. Unwelcome in his new home, and with the money his mother left for schooling already grabbed by the uncle, Lucky’s run out of options before he’s unpacked his small bag of possessions. But, determined to play a cassette tape message left by his mother, he courts the friendship of an elderly Indian widow in the rundown apartment complex. (He’s spotted a tape player in her home.) Together, they achieve a wary sort of surrogate relationship, teasing out small favors and secrets as Lucky tries for emotional/physical contact which the old lady vigorously repels. Old habits of caste & apartheid separatism still run strong for her. Generously handled by director Avie Luthra and well acted (Indian ‘granny’ Jayashree Basavaraj is exceptional, and Sihle Dlamini’s Lucky is as sturdy, smart & stubborn as he looks), the film may not entirely convince, but its tough-minded sentiment is very winning.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This film is available in the Film Movement series of world cinema. (Often Third World cinema.) A group that rates a high percent of titles not just worthy, but good.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

DU ZHAN / DRUG WAR (2012)

A generic title, a generic plot, but Hong Kong director Johnnie To manages to liven things up with so much zesty characterization & sharp narrative feints, he refreshes this undercover sting operation story. Or does for the first two-thirds. Louis Koo is the high-level drug boss caught with enough meth to get the death penalty. His only way out? Work with the police to take down his associates. But how far can the cops trust him? A familiar tune, but To lays it out so cleanly (sort of a cross between Michael Mann & Don Siegel) that action becomes charged with wit. And he gets a tremendous boost from second lead Honglei Sun as the hard-charging Police Captain, a dour fellow who breaks past his natural reserve to mimic some of the wilder drug dealers when he’s undercover. Third Act blues set in with too many cop brigades, allegiance reversals & armed combatants shooting it out during a crazed auto pile up. You’ll need a scorecard to keep things straight. Super tag ending, though.

DOUBLE-BILL: With 60 directing credits, there’s a lot of To to get to. ELECTION/’05 would be a good place to start.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

F.I.S.T. (1978)

At the time, the level of anticipation for Sylvester Stallone’s delayed follow-up to ROCKY/’76 proved impossible to meet. Norman Jewison’s period drama about a Jimmy Hoffa-like union boss was, at best, an unfocused piece, but it was sold & seen as a referendum on Stallone. Was ROCKY a fluke? Could the guy even act? In the event, the pic failed commercially & critically, and Stallone never again tried to move beyond personality acting, stabilizing his image with a retreat into ROCKY II/’79 and never looking back. The first half of the film still holds a primitive, if not particularly powerful appeal, though the entire cast acts rings around Stallone. With few resources to call on, he blusters or plays sotto voce, hoping for dramatic effect. Much of the dull thud stems from Joe Eszterhas’s debut script, okay during the late ‘30s union building scenes, but not up to the growing compromises with the mob. Meanwhile, an offbeat romance with Melinda Dillon feels shoehorned in so Stallone can recharge some Rocky likability. But the film completely stops in its tracks midway thru with a twenty year jump to the late ‘50s anti-corruption Senate Hearings; a fixation on Rod Steiger’s remarkable hair-piece as a Kennedy-esque Senator; and an attempt at endgame uplift that’s something of a disgrace for all concerned. Only the rich vibrant period look of cinematographer László Kovács manages to consistently come across. Fresh off the period naturalism of NICKELODEON/’76 and the period stylization of NEW YORK, NEW YORK/’77, he splits the difference to fabulous effect. He even pulls out a chillier visual tone for the late ‘50s, but the production design doesn’t follow his lead. By then, you get the feeling everybody’s written this one off.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *But not United Artists! Blindsided by critical brickbats & public indifference, a revamped ad campaign tried to sell this as THE GODFATHER meets ROCKY. (Click on our second poster to see.)

DOUBLE-BILL: A darker look at Teamsters & the Mob (HOFFA/’92) from David Mamet, Danny DeVito & Jack Nicholson was no more successful. (It also blew Hoffa’s famous disappearance. Not at home, as seen in F.I.S.T., not in some little roadside dive (as per HOFFA), but in a nice, upscale place you might take Mom to: Machus Red Fox. Not their original location in downtown Birmingham, MI, but the one in a suburban strip mall a few miles west @ 15 Mile & Telegraph. Just think of the ironic/dramatic possibilities of Jimmy R. being ‘escorted’ past a bunch of blue-hair ladies on his way to . . . ?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

WALK ON WATER (2008)

Patently ludicrous. Israeli helmer Eytan Fox may not be much of a filmmaker (at his best he touches the prosaic), but he’s found a viable film-fest niche in gay-themed closet-case macho military stories. This one latches onto a cool-as-a-cucumber Mossad assassin who returns from a successful mission in Turkey to find his wife has killed herself. Unwilling or unable to treat or acknowledge repressed psychological trauma, his boss sends him off to play tour guide to a couple of German siblings, grandkids of a suspected Nazi war criminal. If Mossad can find the old guy, they could take him out before he dies of natural causes. It’s a perfectly decent, if wheezy, set up for a thinking man’s thriller. But oh!, how it plays out! German sister is living on a kibbutz and learning folk dancing; German brother is there on a visit, trying to get her home for papa’s 70th b’day . . . when he’s not floating in the Dead Sea with his hunky, homophobic, covertly bi-curious(?) bogus tour guide, or hooking up with a gay Palestinian. Few of the scenes or relationships add up (better acting might have helped), and go completely off the rails when we head back to Germany. Then, a pandering epilogue to ‘straighten’ everything out. Oy veh iz mir!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR (1935)

HERE COMES THE NAVY/’34 must have been still playing in third-run houses when Warners offered up a second-helping of James Cagney & Pat O’Brien in slightly different uniforms. This time, O’Brien’s a flight instructor for the Marine Air Corp and Cagney’s an old pal turned stunt pilot he’s bringing in. Will cock-of-the-walk Cagney learn to play by team rules? Will gal pal Margaret Lindsey stay true to O’Brien in the face of Cagney’s ‘id’ appeal? And will ambulance driver Frank McHugh finally get a customer to cart off to hospital? (Odd comic relief that, no? Still, McHugh scores big with a silly bit of Busby Berkeley song-and-dance.) More recruitment infomercial than story, but loaded to the gills with stupendous daredevil stunt flying & smartly faked process trick work for the boys’ airborn close-ups. (Just how much of the film was actually handled by director Lloyd Bacon and not the 2nd Unit?) Best of all, a fascinating look at what might as well be a practice run for the Normandy Invasion a decade before the fact. With half of the film given over to flying & various military drills, Cagney plays more broadly than usual, yet manages to be obnoxious and irresistible. When O’Brien was doing this character a couple years back, he never got much past obnoxious. It’s piffle, but fun.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Margaret Lindsay, as always, is pleasant enough, but no match for Cagney. Much more comfortable playing against O’Brien. It makes you wonder why they didn’t revamp the ending.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney & O’Brien are at their serious best in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES/’38; at their comic best in TORRID ZONE/’40.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

ONE MINUTE TO ZERO (1952)

Sandwiched between the sharper definitions of WWII & Vietnam, the Korean Conflict’s rep as the ‘Forgotten War’ is undebatable . . . in Hollywood. And even rarer to find a major film on the subject made during the fighting, as here. Robert Mitchum, bulked & powerful, is the tough, pragmatic colonel, trying to hold the line against the first waves of attack from a communist-sponsored North. Ann Blyth, brittle as ever, is an idealistic U.N. health rep (and WWII war widow) unwilling to see what’s coming: Love during Wartime; Opposites Attract; Battle scenes & Camaraderie; the works. Plus a budding pop classic, Victor Young’s ‘When I Fall In Love,’ in endless repeat mode on the soundtrack. Vet director Tay Garnett can’t get past a lot of WWII-era movie clichés, the comic & romantic interplay are as generic as they come, but some explosive battle scenes in the field have a new technological savagery to them. (With only one bad model shot.) And while it wraps up with extended hold-the-fort bravura, the film’s true climax comes earlier, with a morally-compromised stand-off that forces Mitchum to take aim at a North Korean supply ammunition convoy hidden among a mass of innocent refugees. It’s the sort of war atrocity conundrum the film isn’t able to process. That in itself, an inadequate, if welcome sign of progress.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hard working, gruff-voiced character actor Charles McGraw, who all but steals this film as Mitchum’s top-sergeant, was fresh off his best role, starring in Richard Fleischer’s dandy, low-budget film noir THE NARROW MARGIN/’52.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

ALYAH / ALIYAH (2012)

In this debut feature from Elie Wajeman, Pio Marmaï is Alex Raphaelson, a small-time recreational drug-dealer in Paris, pushing thirty and trying to turn his life around before running out of options & boyish charm. With an estranged father and a hard-luck brother always desperate for cash, Alex grabs at the chance to join a cousin who’s moving to Tel Aviv to open a restaurant/club. But to make the ‘aliyah,’ the immigration to Israel, Alex will have to connect with the Jewish identity he’s spent most of life ignoring. Worse, he’ll need to raise his share of the financial investment which means stepping up on his casual drug operation, as well as cutting off a serious new romance. Shot in semi-documentary style with natural light & hand-held digital camera, Wajeman’s delivery has a believable feel to it, but seems unaware its principals are such a collection of self-centered schmucks.* It makes the on screen relationships tough to swallow and the film impossible to emotionally invest in.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Then again, Alex’s gentile love interest, a typical sexy, pouty-lipped blonde, may have her ‘schmuck-alert’ in working order since she speaks of missing his ‘little hatless dick.’ Ah, those French ingénues, so passionate . . . so blunt.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

NORDWAND / NORTH FACE (2008)

Fact-inspired historical about scaling the unconquered North Face of the Eiger may prove too romanticized for hardcore climbers, but so exceptionally well-made most won’t care.* Set in 1936, shortly before the Nazi Olympiad, the proposed ascent was sold to the German public as another chance for Aryan manhood to triumph over all international challengers, though ironically only Austrian & German pairs took up the dare. Director Philipp Stölzl keeps a close focus during the big climb, letting the dangers speak for themselves rather than pumping up the hazards & glory in Wagnerian terms. (Though not without a bracing soundtrack from Christian Kolonovitis that leans less toward Straussian Alpine Symphony than echo of Bruckner 4.) Stölzl is even better in the more contemplative first half, pacing & editing in a classic, confident (slightly unfashionable) tradition. Occasionally, he can be too obvious, parallel cutting between rough mountain conditions and luxury first-class service for spectators & reporters, but most political reverberations get a more nuancéd treatment. In a fine cast, Benno Fürmann’s brawny, thoughtful German climber stands out, blessed with one of those Viggo Mortensen/Javier Bardem craggy, handsome, light catching faces. Though he’s actually a couple of decades too old for his real-life character.

LINK/DOUBLE-BILL: *For a straighter look at the climb, here’s a link to THE BECKONING SILENCE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_n_5fUBD6c

Friday, May 1, 2015

THE SHANGHAI STORY (1954)

With prestige projects that go back to the ‘teens, it’s surprising to find Frank Lloyd, after taking the last decade off, back in the director’s chair for this low-budget ensemble piece. Always more solid-citizen than inspired artist*, he calmly keeps this hostage drama on the incremental move, dotting his ‘I’s and crossing his ‘T’s before each narrative step. Hardly necessary when we’re already ahead of this story about a gaggle of foreign nationals held in Shanghai hotel purgatory by Communist Chinese authorities who are pressuring their ‘guests’ to reveal the spy amongst them. Those evil-hearted ‘oriental’ sadists of movieland may have morphed from 1930s Chinese Warlords and WWII Japanese combatants to 1950s Commies, but the old tropes never change. The bad guys still shoot the little girl’s dog, they still get duped by sexy Eurotrash gals, and you still get to see Caucasian actors in a leading Asian role or two. Formulaic as it is, it starts to work in its way after a bit, with some neat characterizations from a second-tier cast, including an unusually trim Edmond O’Brien (the doctor), Ruth Roman (the shady lady) and Richard Jaeckel (outfitted as a very ‘butch’ sailor boy). A nonsensical romantic tag end may cause a giggle, but on the whole, the film is a pretty rust-free piece of work from Lloyd.

DOUBLE-BILL: While this was Lloyd’s penultimate pic, another old warhorse, John Ford, ended his career in similar fashion with 7 WOMEN/’66 (not seen here), a Chinese Warlord hostage drama that has Anne Bancroft (taking over from an ailing Patricia Neal) in what sounds like a combination of the roles Roman & O'Brien play here. 

*OR: To see Frank Lloyd at his spirited best, try his silent THE SEA HAWK/’24 with Milton Sills & Wallace Beery. Tremendous stuff, with a completely different storyline than the 1940 Errol Flynn classic.