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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

MR. TURNER (2014)

Mike Leigh’s bio-pic on the great British painter is fiercely conceived, offering him up in the tradition of difficult, eccentric, curmudgeonly geniuses, a Beethoven with a brush. No fast rise to success here, just the last act of his life & career when his paintings became less heroic & representational, the famous marine scenes refined into air, light & volume. A loss of scope & detail can make these late works hard to read properly on the home screen, though the big scenic vistas from lenser Dick Pope register, but DVD viewers have the advantage of optional subtitles to help get thru mumbled dialogue, arcane references and a variety of period accents. Leigh offers more ‘show’ then ‘tell’ here, with psychoanalyzing & backstory justification kept to a minimum. Instead, lived in portraits & settings, including a wallapalooza recreation of a Royal Academy Art Show. It’s generally effective if sometimes a bit frustrating. No doubt Leigh’s intention, much helped by his superb cast and by Gary Yerson’s unusually challenging, modernist score.

DOUBLE-BILL: Leo McKern (of RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY fame) played Turner in a 1979 docu-drama/lecture called THE SUN IS GOD. Hard to find (even on IMDb.com), but it has shown up at the British Film Institute, so it must exist.

Monday, June 29, 2015

INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENT (1938)

The Charlie Chan unit @ 20th/Fox had a gap to fill between Warner Oland’s last outing as the famous detective (CHARLIE CHAN AT MONTE CARLO/’37) & Sidney Toler’s first (CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU/’38). Hence, two near-CHAN pics: MR. MOTO’S GAMBLE/’38 (probably the weakest MOTO), refitted from a ready-to-go Chan script; and this topical ‘Dangerous Orient’ adventure which might as well have been. Worldly George Sanders ‘meets cute’ with amateur reporter June Lang on a boat heading to war threatened Shanghai. Smooth, but threadbare, Sanders takes on an illegal guns & ammunition sale from a dying passenger only to find himself on the run with a belt-full of cash after a botched delivery, and falling for a local chanteuse who may be setting him up for a rival gang of cutthroats. Oh, and there’s that pesky bomb attack due any minute. June Lang & newsreel guy Dick Baldwin make an exceptionally dopey pair of secondary lovers, but the main espionage stuff isn’t half bad. Delores Del Rio, spectacularly made up as a Latin Garbo, sings nicely & gives blood infusions as needed, while John Carradine & Leon Ames make entertaining heavies. (Poor George Sanders lives down a caddish pencil-thin mustache, but not the curled & brilliantined hair.) Drop June Lang and most of the opening reel, and you’ve got a decent B-pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: More ‘Dangerous Orient’ drama in the very same locale in Frank Lloyd’s THE SHANGHAI STORY/’54, now with Communists causing all the trouble.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

MADAM SATAN (1930)

When his independent production company collapsed in the late ‘20s, Cecil B. DeMille took a 3-pic deal @ M-G-M and only made things worse. DYNAMITE/’29 proved an acceptable early Talkie beginning, but he soon had to bow out with a half-hearted re-remake of his own THE SQUAW MAN/’31 after he turned in this bizarre near-operetta, the biggest bomb of his career.* By 1930, even M-G-M had moved past this sort of boulevard farce in aspic; see what director George W. Hill & writer Francis Marion managed that year in THE BIG HOUSE and MIN AND BILL. By comparison, DeMille looks technically and thematically dead in the water, revamping his old silent marital comedies with snail-paced pseudo-sophisticated banter replacing inter-titles, but still the familiar wandering husband, unappreciated wife, tippling bachelor pal, and flirty maid or mistress. Fortunately, after an hour of talky torture, DeMille sends everyone off to a costumed masked ball in a Zeppelin and goes into operetta mode. (Heck, the plot isn’t so far removed from DIE FLEDERMAUS.) For bad taste and OTT production values, this lunacy takes some beating, especially when a storm blows up and everyone has to parachute to safety & marital happiness. DeMille’s lost all control: spectacularly silly effects; huge obstacles as sets; a tone that wavers from romantic to corny comic. It’s not just a bad movie, it’s a disgrace. Only the costumes from Adrian, wild to wildly sexy, know what’s up. 

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *To his credit, DeMille knew the light had gone out, and took a long travel break in Europe & Soviet Russia before humbling himself with a return to Paramount, his old home studio . . . and renewed glory.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: This is the sort of thing the Marx Brothers were sending up in their early Talkies, THE COCOANUTS/’29 and especially ANIMAL CRACKERS/’30 which shares the adorable Lillian Roth with this film.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

CRY OF THE CITY (1948)

Director Robert Siodmak doesn’t miss a film noir trick in this pitch-perfect example of the form. A wounded Richard Conte, nabbed for shooting a cop, slips out of his hospital bed and right into a cache of stolen jewels. He’s hoping to raise a fresh bankroll and skip out of the country with his girl. Standing in his way is . . . well, just about everything. There’s indomitable detective Victor Mature & partner Fred Clark; his own disapproving father; a crooked lawyer secretly holding the jewels; and Hope Emerson, in a great supporting turn as a threateningly large masseuse/partner in crime. Conte’s mom & kid brother are in his corner, along with Shelley Winters’ sympathetic taxi driver, but you just know fate’s gonna keep knocking on the door. Siodmak works those slick streets and claustrophobic interiors like nobody’s business (shooting real NYC locations as if he were on the Fox backlot) and composer Alfred Newman replays his classic ‘Street Scene’ music cue to set the mood. Look for the official DVD release from FOX and refrain from narrative nitpicking.

DOUBLE-BILL: A follow-up, not a sequel, to KISS OF DEATH/’47. With a slimmed down budget that, if anything, helps.

Friday, June 26, 2015

SISTER KENNY (1946)

Acclaimed scripter Dudley Nichols needed a John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann or Leo McCarey to tame his delusions of importance. Writing, directing & producing for himself, he made stiff, noble, deep-think projects that wrought melodramatic quicksand hunting up gravitas. (His next, and last film as director was a slice-and-dice abridgement of Eugene O’Neill’s MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA/’47.) A shame, since this hagiographic bio-pic has a good, if familiar, story to tell. Sister Kenny was a nurse in the Australian countryside, forced to confront a polio outbreak with little more than her own instincts & commonsense nursing. (A vaccine was still a decade away even when the film was released.) Yet, she had uncanny success using a rigorous treat-the-symptoms regime of physical therapy. The film charts over thirty years of struggle, personal sacrifice, official rejection & ineffective aging makeup on Rosalind Russell, too stiff & noble by half. Same goes for the film, with its flat staging & visually dead camera set-ups. (A farewell scene for longtime fiancé Dean Jagger is like taking a college course in bad mise-en-scène.) Occasionally, Nichols attempts to lighten the load with a dance or a bit of comic misdirection, but it never feels organic. Come to think of it, neither does most of the serious stuff.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: On paper it shouldn’t be any better, but MADAME CURIE/’43, with Greer Garson & Walter Pidgeon under Mervyn LeRoy off a Paul Osborn script (the likely redeeming element) actually comes off.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

I COMPAGNI / THE ORGANIZER (1963)

With scores of pics never getting Stateside release, Italian writer/director Mario Monicelli remains largely known & celebrated for BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET/’58, a founding film in the socially engaged, post-war commedia all’italiana style of the ‘Boom’ years. With their bleak/ambiguous endings & tragic undertones, they achieved universality thru Italian specificity. Famous titles like Pietro Germi’s DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE/’61 and De Sica’s MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE/’64 carried the genre forward, along with directors Dino Risi, Ettore Scola, Alberto Lattuada & others. Monicelli’s I COMPAGNI (literally COMRADES), is a topsy-turvy part of the tradition; a full bore Zola-esque period tragedy (a la GERMINAL) about a textile workers’ strike in turn-of-the-last-century Turin, magnificently worked up in commedia all’italiana attitudes. Heartbreaking, jaw-dropping, painfully funny, grimly realistic, it’s an unknown astonishment ripe for the basic film canon. Marcello Mastroianni, in one of his greatest roles, is powerful & quietly devastating as an on-the-run union agitator, delicately grabbing opportunity as it presents itself. Watch him jump a beat ahead when Annie Giradot’s prostitute offers to share her bed. Commie & capitalist commingling. Silly to pick & choose among a more or less perfect cast, but pay special attention to young Franco Ciolli. In his sole film appearance, he’s unforgettable as Omero, an older boy in the mill charged with keeping a kid brother at his studies. Lucky in his casting, Monicelli also got lucky with his locations (or just smart), finding a stunner of a factory to retro-fit into a labor-intensive torture plant. And even luckier in cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno who makes the most of every possibility at work and in the slum-scape tenement life nearby*, often shooting in a manner that recalls the orthochromatic film stock of early silents.** The film is unmissable.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Rotunno shot this between Visconti’s THE LEOPARD/’63 and De Sica’s YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW/’63, giving each a different, perfectly judged look.

DOUBLE-BILL: **The early parts of the modern story in D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16 (later released separately as THE MOTHER AND THE LAW/’19) were an obvious influence here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)

Even the credit sequence is designed to look ‘old-school’ in writer/director Scott Frank’s self-conscious adaptation of Lawrence Block’s gloomy private eye novel; call it ‘downer noir.’ Set in 1999, but cinematically retro-styled to the mid-‘80s, it’s pretty effective on its limited terms. Too bad it got positioned as the latest Liam Neeson action/revenge thriller, disappointing his fans with something more in the vein of a Bob Mitchum world-weary crime yarn.* The main hook to the thing finds a pair of psychopathic torturers kidnapping women linked to drug sellers. Flush with reserves of illegal cash and eager to keep cops out of the loop, these dealers make easy marks. That’s where Neeson’s Matthew Scudder comes in, ex-cop/unlicensed P.I., he’s a perfect fit to investigate. There’s lots of compromised characters everywhere you look, on both sides of the law, and cleanly run set pieces to make up for occasional narrative confusion. Neeson even picks up a sharp black kid (Brain ‘Astro’ Bradley) as sidekick & surrogate son. Street-smart/computer savvy, he also functions as a nod toward progressive ‘80s racial stereotypes. Near the end, the film has some trouble calling it a day with one too many gruesome twists before wrapping up. (Is it in the book?) But don’t let that put you off.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Mitchum’s first shot at Philip Marlowe in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY/’75 comes off much better than his second, THE BIG SLEEP/’78. OR: Try his Asian noir, THE YAKUZA/'74.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Twenty-one producers on this film, but none able to keep the ad campaign honest.

Monday, June 22, 2015

FOYLE’S WAR (2002-08; ‘10; ‘13; 15)

(Slightly Revised Reposting) This British based WWII homefront drama turned out exemplary tv for a remarkable 19 (make that 28) episodes over five eight seasons. A deceptively subdued series about a chief detective whose local investigations get entangled with the war effort, it consistently moved into morally grey areas that brought a sharp focus to skewed wartime priorities. The regular cast and guest stars were uniformly strong, with Michael Kitchen’s Foyle reaching Alec Guinness levels of subtle revelation. Over most of the run, his two aides, the delicious & deliciously named Honeysuckle Weeks and the gallantly handsome Anthony Howell, endearingly even started to pick up some of Kitchen’s mannerisms. Modern films about WWII are allowed to be a lot more realistic than the old classics (sex, cussing, violence), but they just as often miss the essential spirit of the era; something that was often far better caught in films made at the time. At its best, especially in its first two seasons, FOYLE'S WAR beautifully balanced the strengths of both old & new values.

DOUBLE-BILL: After a hiatus, writer/creator Anthony Horowitz brought Foyle to post-war London for two series of Cold War stories. The first three episodes (Series 7) waded a bit hesitantly into this John Le Carré territory, but the final three shows (Series 8) triumphantly regained the distinctive form, flow & tone of the original series.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

HOLIDAY IN MEXICO (1946)

Typically dopey (er, wholesome) ‘family’ musical from the Joe Pasternak unit @ M-G-M charts the romantic foibles of Jane Powell & Roddy McDowall as they suffer (and overplay) thru those awkward teenage years. Slackly directed by George Sidney, it runs an unconscionable 128 minutes, without so much as a peek at Mexico. In fact, we barely seem to leave Jane’s suspiciously spacious living room! The plot, such as it is, has Jane getting a crush on pianist José Iturbi while one of her teen pals falls for Walter Pidgeon, her widowed ambassador dad. He barely notices either of them, too busy wooing old flame Ilona Massey. Oh, and band leader Xavier Cugat is around to play at parties between Jane’s soprano trilling (drifting sharp above the staff) and Iturbi’s boogie-woogie & Rachmaninoff abridgements. (The Second Piano Concerto comes in at three and a half minutes!) Painful as all this is, the film is essential viewing for all Film Musical Mavens for the four or five production numbers with Cugat or Iturbi that are Stanley Donen’s first solo directing gigs away from Gene Kelly.* The Iturbi specialty numbers use the piano’s black glossy surfaces as mirrors to fussy effect, along with inside-the-piano/looking out camera set-ups. (A rookie's mistake.) But the stuff with Cugat & Co. show real filmmaking imagination. Already, those signature Donen crane shots are in place, augmented with cool riding platforms (out of camera range) for Xavier or his vocalist. It makes for a stupendous traveling shot with a near 3D effect. Fast-Forward thru the dross, to find the good stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Barely 22 here, Donen had already done game-changing work with Kelly on COVER GIRL/’44 (the doppelgänger dance) as well as the famous live action/animation combo for the Gene Kelly/Jerry the Mouse sequence in ANCHORS AWEIGH/’45, the previous Pasternak/Sidney/Iturbi pic. Weighing in at 143 minutes!

Friday, June 19, 2015

THE BOXTROLLS (2014)

The poster links this to Laika Entertainment’s CORALINE/’09 and PARANORMAN/’12,’ though the films share neither directors (here Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi) nor sensibilities. Victorian Gothic, rather than Modern Day Goth, this fable about a kidnapped boy, presumed dead at the hands of the Boxtroll Monsters, but living happily as one of them, is something of a good-natured mess. The script takes a while to sort things out, and the creative team tends toward Stop-Motion overkill as if the technique were a competitive sport. But you’ll eventually warm up to the characters & story as a town of fearful snobs slowly figure out they’ve been lied to by a quartet of social climbing villains and that the Boxtrolls are themselves harmless victims. Thirty-percent less effort might have made this twice as effective (check out any Aardman Animation for confirmation*), but there’s still plenty to delight in here. Especially the endearingly funny vocal & animated characterization of lead kid ‘Eggs,’ wonderfully voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright. Not one for the ages, but perhaps for a weekday night.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You keep expecting this crew to break out into a showstopping number from OLIVER!/’68 or some other early Dickens musical adaptation. Maybe that’s what’s missing.

DB: *Why not start with Aardman’s wicked & hilarious CHICKEN RUN/’00.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967)

This prankish fright pic (a long talky set up for one good scare*) somehow sticks with moviegoers of a certain age, mostly ‘boomers.’ Perhaps because it effectively ended Audrey Hepburn’s charmed career. (She returned for a few films a decade later, but after all the MY FAIR LADY/’64 to-do, getting an Oscar nom on this supplied a classy out. Pity she didn’t get it for TWO FOR THE ROAD, her other ‘67 release.) Playing a lovely blind lady, she holds down the fort (a NYC ground-floor apartment) while a trio of urban blackguards (Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Jack Weston) run a charade around her as they search for a missing doll loaded with dope. (Who knew henchmen were into amateur theatrics?) Helmed in a straightforward fashion by James Bond specialist Terence Young, he’s tied to the sloppy construction of Frederick Knott’s not-so well-made play. (Unlike Hitchcock with Knott’s DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER/’54 which really is a well-made play.) Hepburn’s very good, very lovely, and doesn’t overdo the blind act , but the real standout is the perverse perf from Alan Arkin. Playing a thuggish creep, as well as two fake-out characters wearing elaborate makeups (to fool a blind lady?!), he charts new levels of self-absorbed combustible menace that would prove wildly influential, think Scorsese, Keitel, De Niro. (It’s why Quentin Tarantino wanted to do the role on B’way in a flop revival.) We’re still trying to figure out why the villains didn’t simply burgle the joint while Audrey was out at her School for the Blind.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *At one early screening, a teenage girl got so scared at the big moment, she jumped up high enough to land in the lap of a stranger two seats over! I know, I was the lap.

DOUBLE-BILL: Filling dolls with little packets of dope is popular in the movies. See Don Siegel’s low-budget gem THE LINEUP/’58 with its great perfs from Eli Wallach & Robert Keith. While you’re at it, tack on a missing First Act (say, with the boys hiding the stuff on unsuspecting tourists for later collection after it zips thru customs) and you’ve got a smash remake.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

SONG OF THE SEA (2014)

Three of the main creative team from THE SECRET OF THE KELLS/’09 (art director Ross Stewart; composer Bruno Coulais; writer/director Tomm Moore) significantly up their game in this visually enchanting, animated fable. We’re still juggling a few too many Irish folkloric ideas for narrative comfort, but the basic idea of the jealous aftereffects on an older brother when his mother is lost giving birth to a baby sister grounds the more fantastic elements in real emotion. And what a dazzling, colorful, glowing spectacle comes out of the siblings’ adventures when Grandma takes them away from Dad on his isolated, island lighthouse and the unhappy kids bond attempting the dangerous journey back, alternately helped & threatened by creatures from both the real world & from Celtic mythology. (LINK: This trailer only hints at the rich, imaginative look & sophisticated design, but check out those Japanese watercolor ocean waves.)  http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3423186713/?ref_=tt_ov_vi ) Those who were intrigued, but not wholly convinced by KELLS should definitely give Moore & Co. another try. This is pretty special stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: Moore did a segment on the recent animated adaptation KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET/’14 (not seen here). The idea sounds illusive, quixotic, intriguing. Then again, it may be a complete embarrassment.

Monday, June 15, 2015

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)

Jack Finney’s replicant parable itself gets replicated every couple of decades. From the classic ‘56 original to this classy ‘78 remake; then Abel Ferrara’s rogue redo (BODY SNATCHERS/’93) before domestication as THE INVASION/’07.* Lots of mileage for a magazine serial. But the basic premise (human beings are being replaced by soulless doppelgänger pods) is just too juicy a horror premise, and useful as allegory. (The original was claimed by both anti and anti-anti Communists.) This Philip Kaufman version, working off W. D. Richter’s script, is certainly the hippest, with a San Francisco vibe that recedes as calm, but militaristic poddies gain in number. And with a dash of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/’68 added. What it ain’t is scary. Or even thought provoking, like the original. Instead, elegant textures, glistening surfaces, fast-changing P.O.V. & camera stylistics; Kaufman hides any feelings of intellectual slumming by going arty. Very watchable though, with lenser Michael Chapman making ripe Caravaggio portraits out of good guys Donald Sutherland & Jeff Goldblum. Leonard Nimoy does a neat turn as a fatuous pop psychologist and Veronica Cartwright couples perfectly with Goldblum in his medicinal mud baths. If only Brooke Adams, Sutherland’s reluctant romantic partner, didn’t act as if the pods had got to her right from the start.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Try the later versions of ‘93 & ‘07 (not seen here) and report back with your own comments.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Nice cameos from Kevin McCarthy & Don Siegel, star & director of the ‘56 classic. Just imagine Siegel, a real form-follows-function sort of mise-en-scène guy reacting to Kaufman’s formal screen compositions. No wonder this runs 115" & Siegel’s 80".

Sunday, June 14, 2015

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘other’ 1940 Best Pic Oscar Nominee, the one not produced by David O. Selznick. And, unlike the award-winning REBECCA, it feels like a Hitchcock pic . . . about 25 minutes in. Up to that point, this politically topical thriller tags along with news-beat reporter Joel McCrea as he gets up to speed on the international peace movement in New York & London. But it’s a move to Amsterdam for the next conference that gets Hitch up to speed, displaying a lux Hollywood version of his personal cinematic style in a masterfully organized assassination sequence, played under umbrellas. After that tour de force, one picaresque set piece follows another to smash effect. (And one dud, Edmund Gwenn’s unlikely retired hitman.) Only the non-starter romance between McCrea & Laraine Day holds things down. Hitch always regretted missing out on Gary Cooper for the lead, but McCrea’s great, with a mid-weight approach to this American naïf in the woods that's both attractive and makes dramatic sense. It’s Day who drops the ball; wholesome & efficient as daughter to Herbert Marshall’s peace ambassador, she doesn’t connect with McCrea or Hitch. (Her cool-to-the-touch facade works better against Cary Grant’s heat in MR. LUCKY/’43.) But with so many spot-on supporting players (George Sanders, Albert Basserman, Eduardo Ciannelli); phenomenal production values & eye-popping visual effects (check out the fine EXTRA on Criterion’s DVD); as well as fun-to-spot Hitchcock motifs (tower plunge/nuns; a Mr Memory style MacGuffin; even probable ideas from Hitch’s never made TITANIC film, refitted for the plane crash at sea); its terrific entertainment.

Friday, June 12, 2015

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

In spite of a mid-December/Oscar-bait release date, Ridley Scott’s semi-secular take on the story of Moses, opened to general indifference. Less TEN COMMANDMENTS redux than Hebrew SPARTACUS/’60, it pleased neither camp. It certainly opens poorly, with a long, unconvincing prologue that all but flaunts a modern, anachronistic attitude amongst the Egyptian royals. (Scott, pushing too hard for a contemporary feel.) Physically unconvincing, too, in its CGI Egyptian megalopolis. Things improve once Moses hits the road, er . . . unbeaten desert path, but no one ever establishes a comfort zone inside the material. Certainly not Christian Bale’s Moses, reaching for Daniel Day-Lewis gravitas and missing. (Though he’s better than Joel Edgerton’s fratboy Ramses.) Ridiculous as C. B. DeMille’s '56 epic often is, he was never uncomfortable in his convictions and, in his lumbering fashion, pulls you along with his nose for story. Ah, story sense, Ridley Scott’s old Achilles’s heel, disabling the film at all key moments. Those who see MOSES as likely action film fodder will enjoy some of the spectacle and the elegant color pallette. Some CGI effects work splendidly when set in motion: the seven creeping creepy plagues, plunging chariots, a roiling Red Sea tsunami, very cool. Assuming ‘cool’ is the word that springs to mind for Old Testament texts.

DOUBLE-BILL: Burt Lancaster was MOSES THE LAWGIVER/’74, cut down from a 6 part Euro-mini-series to a 2½ hour Stateside theatrical. With a big name cast, Ennio Morricone score, Anthony Burgess co-scripting, it sounds interesting. Just don’t get your hopes up.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

LES CHEVAUX DE DIEU / HORSES OF GOD (2012)

Nabil Ayouch’s fictitious, but convincing look at how the strings of Islamic fanaticism were pulled to recruit the Casablanca suicide bombers of 2003 follows a handful of kids, soccer playing neighborhood toughs who will, over a decade, be groomed for religious martyrdom. Working from Mahi Binebine’s novel, Ayouch overloads on cause-and-effect incident (a murder, closeted gay guilt) when all he needs is the nearly complete social, cultural & educational vacuum shown at the heart of these lives, waiting to be filled. A better line of drama is found in the sibling rivalry between two of the recruits; one radicalized during a jail stint and jealous of the attention being given to his less worthy brother. (A modern Prodigal Son parable.) Unexpectedly, we see no organized religion of any sort in the lives of these young men or their families other than the fanatic extremists. Can this be the case? Yet another vacuum ready-made for religious mischief. Really more cult than religion, with manipulating Islamic extremist doctrinaires supplying the only purpose these young men will ever know. Fascinating, terrifying stuff, beautifully observed and intensely distressing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ayouch’s latest, MUCH LOVED/’15, about prostitution in Morocco, is currently being suppressed locally after a very limited release. Watch for it; he’s a natural talent.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

VENUS IN FUR (2013)

After sinking under the prestige of his two previous play adaptations (DEATH AND THE MAIDEN/’94; CARNAGE/’11), third time’s the charm for Roman Polanski. Working smoothly with playwright David Ives, this kinky two-hander acts out a sort of Strindberg-lite psychological striptease between modern playwright/stage director Mathieu Amalric (a ringer for Polanski) and tardy auditioning actress Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s real-life wife). Since the play-within-a-play is taken from one of those sexually ‘advanced’ S&M Viennese confessionals of the late 1800s, the possibilities for who’s-on-top revelations are endless, especially with each character slipping back & forth between their own personalities and the play script. (Filmed in French, the subtitles alternate fonts when they verbalize in character, clarifying situations, but losing some of Ives’ off-balance effects of personality alienation, at least for non-French speakers.) Polanski can hardly put a foot wrong, blending hints of erotic suspense with comic beats and managing to hold back any underlying disbelief in the general situation; then reveling in a final reverse that’s as logical as it is absurd.

DOUBLE-BILL: See Polanski direct himself thru a different kind of psychological torment in THE TENANT/’76, an underrated experiment lost between CHINATOWN/’74 and TESS/’79.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (1953)

Workhorse director Allan Dwan, on the job since the early ‘teens, must have been scratching his head at the wavering tone of this hussified Western. Not that any such niceties slowed the old pro down. It’s a tricked up Civil War tale, mostly serious, but with a bemused air, about a border town (Border City, natch) where deeds of non-neutrality are met with a rope by Madam Mayor. A wary truce keeps the Yankees five miles North & the Rebs five South, which doesn’t stop Quantrill’s Raiders from riding in to seize the town’s secret lead deposits. But the real action plays out between Quantrill’s spitfire wife (Audrey Totter) and that new gal in town, Joan Leslie, an upstanding type who inherits Border City’s racy saloon from her murdered brother. Often faintly ridiculous, but staged with a mixture of solid craftsmanship & sheer carelessness; you get the feeling everyone’s phoning in-between shots, begging their agent to get them off it. (Even lenser Reggie Lanning whose interiors are flooded with enough light to shop for produce.) John Lund, as a townie who hides his Confederate commission to woo Leslie, is duller than usual, letting us know at the end that ‘No one won the war, we just stopped fighting.’ Right.

DOUBLE-BILL: Wilder Western femininity can be found in JOHNNY GUITAR/’54, with a classic score from Victor Young & Peggy Lee who wrote one of this film’s two ill-fitting tunes. OR: See Brian Donlevy’s first crack at Quantrill in KANSAS RAIDERS/’50. Even better (if you can find it): stick with Dwan for SILVER LODE/’54, a smash little Western from the following year.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The good folks at Olive Films sourced a near-mint print for this transfer, but someone wasn’t paying attention to the audio which is riddled with ‘wow & flutter’ whenever there’s music on the soundtrack.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE (1947)

The middle entry in Bob Hope’s MY FAVORITE series (post-BLONDE/’42; pre-SPY/’51) isn’t as solidly constructed as the first, but is still pretty damn funny, with Bob in peak physical & verbal comic form. He’s a baby photographer, jealous of the glamorous private detective working in the next office. (Why it’s Alan Ladd!*) Sitting in for the absent dick, he takes on a crazy case for Dorothy Lamour (very sharp, very appealing) and winds up on the run from a host of threatening supporting actors (Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Jr., Reginald Denny, et al.). These farcical plots can grow awful tiresome awful quick, but Hope’s execution at the time was just about untouchable. And kudos to unsung director Elliot Nugent just for keeping up with him. Check out the staging (and Bob’s deft physical technique) in a lunatic bedroom scene where Peter Lorre keeps trying to leave a clue for Bob to pick up. A bit with a dresser drawer would have pleased Chaplin. NOTE: Lots of lousy Public Domain copies out there so Buyer Beware. One from BCI (not seen here) has a decent rep.

CONTEST: *In addition to Ladd, a second uncredited cameo ends the film in a unique, not to say hilarious, manner. At long last, Bob . . . Well, you figure out the surprise to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on a DVD of your choice.

Friday, June 5, 2015

STARRED UP (2013)

David Mackenzie’s ferocious father/son prison drama doesn’t know when to lay off, finally beating itself up into an ineffective pulp. It opens with documentary flavor as a muscled-up 19 yr-old kid is processed into the same big-time facility where his dad is doing time. That’s the gimmick, with Pops equally protective and competitive about how his kid will get by in the clink’s byzantine caste system. Constant brawls & psychopathic acting out make the boy dangerous to himself & others, yet also gain him entry into group therapy sessions that again leave the father ambiguously for and against it. Plenty of drama here. But Mackenzie is so afraid of interest running down, he overloads on violence & power plays; you can’t believe the kid would last a night against a system this organized & corrupt. Halfway thru, the plot can only move forward by having various inmates & guards behave with a level of loyalty & trust they would have abandoned years ago.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Tribeca Films tacks three trailers on this DVD, each a troubled-youth/coming-of-age story tinged with violence; none heard from after distribution pick-ups at some festival.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

GRAND PIANO (2013)

It sounds like a fun little thriller: Talented, but traumatized, classical pianist has his comeback concert short-circuited when a mystery man threatens to shoot him mid-concerto if he plays a single wrong note! Alas, we’ll never know if this DRIVE meets PHANTOM OF THE OPERA mash-up could work since the execution from scripter Damien Chazelle & megger Eugenio Mira is pure amateur hour. (So too the film’s ‘original’ piano concerto by Victor Reyes, a wan pastiche of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mantovani, Ferrante & Teicher.) Even if you go along with gaffes like no rehearsal, having the grand placed behind the orchestra or the unintentionally hilarious stadium-style public-address introductions (‘Ladies & Gentlemen! Please welcome tonight’s conductor!’), when’s the last time you saw a classical soloist playing off his music score? Didn’t that turn unfashionable with Liszt? Then again, not even Liszt could simultaneously send text via cell phone, converse on Blue-Tooth and be note perfect! Lucky John Cusack gets to (literally) phone-it-in as a dastardly off-screen voice. But the idiocies hardly abate for Wood, spiffy in his cummerbund, dashing off-stage for instructions in the middle of the first movement; or having our prick of a primo uomo conductor stop to deliver a not-so funny speech between the first & second movements. Heck, let's have intermission between the second & third movement since Wood is off someplace again. Obviously, no one involved in this thing has ever been to a classical concert . . . it’s likely they’ve never been to a movie.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Is Elijah Wood aging into a youngish Brad Dourif?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a classical music thriller that doesn’t insult your intelligence, try John Brahm’s HANGOVER SQUARE/’45 with Bernard Herrmann’s stunning mini-concerto finale.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

FATHER GOOSE (1964)

Cary Grant’s penultimate film, and last romantic lead (he segued to Daddy Cupid for WALK DON’T RUN/’66), really holds up, just like the man himself. A minor work from Peter Stone, fresh off scripting CHARADE/'63, Grant’s last classic, it’s a featherweight gloss on THE AFRICAN QUEEN/’51 with boozy loner Grant tamed by starchy Leslie Caron; WWII in for WWI; and a gaggle of war-displaced girls as an extra obstacle. It should all be too cute for words, but Ralph Nelson, who normally helmed well-intentioned issue-oriented stuff, finds a holiday spirit, and manages to coax out just enough threat, character arcs & well-timed cracks to justify the generous running time. The girls & Caron are delightfully impossible (who knew Leslie had comedy chops?), but the film is all Grant’s. The part doesn’t call on his full resources, none of the closed, dark menace and measured restraint of the ‘40s here. This is the good-humored Grant everybody wanted to be, or copy. And how they tried. At the time, 'they' included Rock Hudson in MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT/’64, with Howard Hawks as guide; Greg Peck in Stanley Donen’s ARABESQUE/’66; and Paul Newman under Hitchcock in TORN CURTAIN/’66. Later decades would see their new leading men touted as the next Grant: Burt Reynolds in ‘80s; George Clooney now. Hugh Grant got a little closer, but only to ‘Cary Lite.’ Then you see the real thing, even in what amounts to a modest encore, and they all come off as margarine to butter.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lenser Charles Lang does even better by Grant then he did in CHARADE; helped by having Grant start out as a beachcomber bum before he cleans up. The end result is perfectly devastating. And with only one 'soft' lens shot in the pic.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014)

The worldwide gross on all three HOBBIT pics landed north of 900 mill; that’s 900 mill each. Somebody must like the thing . . . but who? Relentlessly churning with violent, if largely non-threatening, massed CGI battles, toy-scape towns, cardboard characters with alarming hair, and a wisp of a plotline, the final installment has devolved into an ugly, charmless drag. Anyone would think Tolkien had darkened his tone from LOTR . . . if anyone watching cared. Lemming-like, crowds flock to see D.O.A. 3-quels like MATRIX REVOLUTIONS/’03, THE HANGOVER PART III/’13 and this, no doubt more from habit than hobbit. (To say nothing of STAR WARS I, II & III.) And now Peter Jackson is moving on, hoping to fix TINTIN in its second outing. Can’t someone get this talented writer/director/producer out of his box?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Martin Freeman does yeoman’s work as head hobbit, but there’s an awful lot of bad acting by famous folk in here.  Getting up to pitch when you’re already over it tells.

Monday, June 1, 2015

THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (1983)

This, the third of four films Steve Martin made with Carl Reiner directing, may be the most consistently funny of the lot. A Horror Film sendup, it’s something of a companion piece to Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN/’74, if more ‘50s HAMMER FILMS than ‘30s UNIVERSAL, and missing Brooks’ unified vision. Reiner puts Martin thru his paces as a brilliant, if crazed, neurosurgeon, trapped in a hellish marriage to gorgeous, but ruthlessly avaricious Kathleen Turner. Very va-va-voom at the time. What a pity she didn’t come with the disembodied brain-in-a-jar Martin’s telepathically fallen for! (Voiced by Sissy Spacek, Southern twang intact.) Compared to the SNL/Lorne Michaels’ spinoff pics of the era, BRAIN remains silly, fresh & outlandishly funny. Mysteriously so when you factor in Reiner’s all-thumbs helming. So weirdly bad, it acquires a morbid fascination. Will he ever spot a proper camera set up? Or coherently stage a comedy bit? Maybe he’ll get us from Room A to Room B without tripping over his angles? The lack of directing chops pretty much doomed all his other films, yet somehow, it doesn’t seem to damage his Steve Martin foursome.* Even though they look just as cramped and poorly paced on the little screen as they did in big movie theaters.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The other three were THE JERK/’79 (the sole big hit); DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID/’82 (a noir stunt film); and ALL OF ME/’84 (best of the lot, if not the funniest).

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Cinematographers love to light Martin. Known as The Man With No Pores, his face as smooth as a baby’s bottom.