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Monday, August 31, 2015

PADDINGTON (2014)

A classic screenwriting steal for shrinking down a big plotty novel notes how SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR got winnowed down to THREE/’75. And, going in the opposite direction, an oft-copied template for loading on missing narrative thru lines (Kids’ Lit edition) uses Disney’s work on the largely plotless MARY POPPINS/’64 books as a model. That must have been the idea on this delightful pic about the little orphaned bear from Darkest Peru, who's spontaneously adopted by a posh London family. But, wait a tick, turns out, they’ve haven’t just gleaned a few structural lessons off POPPINS; they’ve ripped her off! It's an awfully similar family of four, living in an awfully similar London townhouse. Older sister/kid brother; slightly spacey, if well-intentioned mom; stressed-out dad who learns to loosen up & show affection. A nosy neighbor to spot the magical visitor who just happens to fly via umbrella on a gust of wind before bringing magic into everyone’s life. What? No fancy bank for a mini-riot? No problem, set your mini-riot at a similarly formal Explorers' Club. And be sure to find a surrogate father to get drummed out of the place. You can still end with Father & Son bonding over a kite . . . er, rocket launch, but only after Paddington Bear jumps right into a picture on a movie screen instead of a sidewalk. And, since POPPINS hasn’t much in the way of a traditional villain, bring in Nicole Kidman as Cruella De Vil from 101 DALMATIANS/’61. Lifts and all, this is pretty adorable (and imaginative) stuff. And blissfully short on logical explanations. Things just are as they are. Cheers!

DOUBLE-BILL: The film begs comparisons to recent family fare like FANTASTIC MR. FOX/’09 and HUGO/’11, except that the kids will actually like this one. You, too.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Hey! It’s a new LABEL! 'Cause Attention Must Be Paid to the fabulous sound design, especially in the orchestration & recording of the music score. Really stunning sound; those strings! We take this stuff for granted, but shouldn’t.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

THE CASUAL VACANCY (2015)

Three-part mini-series from the J. K. Rowling novel lifts the lace curtain on one of those fetching Lake District towns only to find a sinful PEYTON PLACE under the tea cozy; but with the ‘50s-era tell-all novel replaced by a Poison-Pen internet site.* The story-engine propelling the somewhat tired character revelations starts with a death on the parish council, a loss that leaves the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title. It means a special election, and a new board member who will tip the vote on commercial development of an estate long restricted for use as a Community Center. Rowling’s real target is modern Britain, and she writes a despairing portrait of hopeless lives, low social mobility & New Age class warfare. The film works best when it holds to her sense of brutal social comedy with a town apparently populated by Syltherin alumni. But Rowling casts her net too wide, stacking the deck with so much pre-determinism the comeuppances & tragedies give off little emotional kick. (The sheer loathsomeness of the characters must have been less off-putting on the page.) As elderly class- striving meanies, Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie* are deliciously appalling, but only young Brian Vernel, as a likable horny sod who turns out to be a first class shit, gets to play against his story arc and create something like a whole person.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Julia McKenzie has recently been busy as Agatha Christie’s dowager sleuth Miss Marple. Christie's world-view isn't all that far from Rowling’s, though you won’t find it in the McKenzie version. For that, you have to go back to the 1980s series, starring the remarkable Joan Hickson, where surprisingly dark undertones are pulled out of the stories and the cobblestone streets of St. Mary Mead. A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED/’85 probably pairs up best with VACANCY, though the current DVD edition is a soggy looking thing. OR: For a truly nasty, small town Poison-Pen classic, there’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU/’43.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

FEEL MY PULSE (1928)

Director Gregory La Cava (MY MAN GODFREY/’36; STAGE DOOR/’37), with one of the best (and loosest) comedy techniques in the Biz, wastes a nice set-up on this innocuous Bebe Daniels programmer. Orphaned, and chained to an eccentric will that makes her an over-pampered hypochondriac at 21, Bebe swaps Mild Guardian for Wild Guardian and finds she’s about to be forced into a world of romance, adventure & germs. No thank, you! She’d rather take refuge at her family’s mothballed sanatorium, unaware it’s been taken over by a gang of rum-running bootleggers. Quicker than you can say Speak Easy, slick front man William Powell gets his gang to hide in plain sight by feigning a variety of psychosomatic maladies as the spa's pretend patients and passing himself off as Bebe’s new personal physician. And he might have pulled it off if only his handsome assistant (Richard Arlen) didn’t fall for the poor little neurasthenic rich girl. A pretty sweet idea, loaded with comic possibilities, but La Cava barely develops it, tossing out little more than a bit of turf-war slapstick and a messy finale when the cops arrive. Fortunately, Bebe, Bill & Richard are highly watchable stars even in Grapevine Video’s subfusc DVD.

DOUBLE-BILL/LINK: William Powell stepped up from scene-stealing heavy to major leading man in another release from 1928, co-starring with Emil Jannings & Evelyn Brent in Josef von Sternberg’s phenomenal THE LAST COMMAND. (Available on an excellent Criterion DVD.) Arlen’s major film that year was William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE, a tremendous entertainment with Louise Brooks & Wallace Beery in tip-top form. Available in lousy Public Domain DVDs, check ‘em out on YOUTUBE, then watch this gorgeous restored trailer to see what it really should look like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S81cMoSP9OA

Friday, August 28, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

Clint Eastwood’s recent output has felt rushed into production before it's camera-ready. Understandable for a guy in his 80s, if not so good for the films. But this Iraqi war pic is impeccably made, well cast/acted & deftly constructed for clarity & economy. What’s more surprising is the controversial reception for such a conventional piece of work. A fact-inspired portrait of Navy SEAL sniper extraordinaire Chris Kyle, well played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, it charts the widening gulf between his sporadic homelife (wife, two kids) and four tours of increasingly disorienting/soul-numbing Middle-East duty. As seen here, Kyle’s tunnel-vision allows him to concentrate on the work at hand, taking down active targets regardless of who the ‘package-carrier’ is. Any global implications/repercussions would only get in the way of Kyle’s phenomenal success as a one-man death squad. Respected, but oddly alone and not particularly liked at home or at war, Kyle is likely something of a self-portrait for the workaholic Eastwood, a man with his own multiple relationship fiascos. (And just as weirdly political naive.) The film cheats with a counter-sniper nemesis, adding a specious note of false drama , but many of the action scenes would have pleased Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel. (Though not a climactic battle that adds too much literal fog-of-war to the mix.) By the time we leave Iraq for good, Eastwood has to rush thru an unsatisfying three-stage last act that may have been dictated by family concerns. (Something’s missing in here.) But it’s undoubtedly his best film in a long time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

FEAR STRIKES OUT (1957)

America’s Pastime takes a pyschiatric turn in the fact-inspired story of Boston Red Sox player Jim Piersal. So Freudian, even you’ll want to murder the father. A debut pic for the team of producer/director Alan Pakula/Robert Mulligan, and it looks it, with many an awkward transition and no depth to the acting bench in support of sparring father & son Karl Malden & Anthony Perkins. The story tropes of pushy pop living thru a talented son, the kid’s manic/depressive tendencies, a showy public meltdown on the field all feel tattered after six decades of Movie-of-the-Week psycho-dramas. So too, Malden’s habit of dramatically swinging for the fences on every pitch. What keeps us in the game is Perkins. So serious, so charming, so fucked-up, and with those crazy cantilevered shoulders that lend athletic edge to his switchblade physique. He’s the whole show, and worth the price of admission.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Perkins, who’d just made a believably handsome son to Gary Cooper in FRIENDLY PERSUASION/’56, here looks related to Cary Grant, especially in a few extreme close-ups. But Karl Malden as his pop? That’s some 7th inning stretch.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1946)

Though now best known as the source for its musicalized offspring THE KING AND I/’56, this ‘straight’ version holds considerable interest even without the middlebrow genius of Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes, condensing & restructuring. There’s certainly more room to tell its fascinating, if highly fictionalized story of a British widow who comes to Siam to teach the King’s children, then stays as a sort of unofficial court advisor. On the one hand, it’s a fable about holding off Western Colonialism; on the other, Anna’s espousal of European superiority make her a one-woman stealth hegemonizer. Paradoxically, the story grows more politically confounding the more it oversimplifies. No wonder it's regularly restaged as a musical as well as refilmed for the screen (five versions & counting). The big surprise of this first iteration is just how good Rex Harrison (in a Hollywood debut he found inexplicable) is in what became Yul Brynner’s signature role. YellowFaced (like all the film’s ‘oriental’ principals), he’s slightly absurd, fiercely watchable & totally winning, bringing the nuance & range of a great actor. A smaller surprise is how evenly this film’s Irene Dunne matches up to Deborah Kerr’s Anna in the Brynner film which, to mixed effect, sticks closely to a stage proscenium style that sometimes goes flat on screen. A problem director John Cromwell avoids here with help from Arthur Miller's Oscar'd lensing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: YellowFace outlasted BlackFace by decades, well into the late ‘60s. Check out Ricardo Montalban on HAWAII FIVE-O/’68. But it was also different in kind since, post silent film days, BlackFace rarely tried to realistically have an audience believe the performer was an actual Negro performer. Not so for YellowFace, where the likes of Alec Guinness & Flora Robson, to name but two from the early ‘60s, were meant to convince as Asians; BlackFace offered a highly stylized caricature, not quite a real person. Which begs the question, which of the two traditions was worse?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

THE INTERVIEW (2014)

Now available for home viewing without international incident, the juvenile misfire that was demolished by critics in North Korea and the Stateside press corps. Common ground, at last! At heart, a sort of updated Bing Crosby/Bob Hope ‘Road Pic’ comedy (THE ROAD TO PYONGYANG?), James Franco dumbs-down Crosby’s old-smoothy act, while Seth Rogen tries on Hope’s panicky hyperventilating. The plot (LOL) has tv host Franco’s fluke interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un turned into an impromptu assassination assignment by the CIA. (That really is like THE ROAD TO BALI/’52!) And it might have come off if only the film earned a few more laughs. (For the record, there are three; and one of those goes to Rob Lowe in a cameo.) Rogen co-directs in an ADD mode that only makes things more painful when the gags miss, but does manage to stumble thru in his usual blobby manner for those who respond. But what to make of Franco's comedic self-destruct? It almost makes you feel sorry for the Execs @ Columbia. Almost. Blearily emerging from dailies or rough cuts; wracking their brains for constructive criticism beyond ‘Off With Their Heads!’

DOUBLE-BILL: Gregory Peck, with a bomb in his brain & a ping-pong date with Mao, plays a straight, if limp version of this in THE CHAIRMAN/’69.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

CONFLICT (1945)

Little more than a glossy programmer, this Perfect-Crime thriller finds over-parted Humphrey Bogart as an unhappy husband whose wandering eye drifts toward Alexis Smith, his wife’s kid-sister. Robert Siodmak’s original story plays second-cousin to last year's hit GASLIGHT/’44, but with the killer rather than the victim getting the ‘gaslight’ treatment.* Not a bad idea, but Curtis Bernhardt’s helming smells of Summer Stock rep. There’s a typically amusing turn from Sydney Greenstreet as college psychologist/amateur sleuth, but the main interest comes early, in the harrowing depiction of a marriage gone dead between Bogart and a vicious Rose Hobart. They’re straight out of Edward Albee. (Bogie knew the territory, battling out a divorce from wife #3 Mayo Methot at the time.) Presumably, Warners was happy with the results, putting Bogart & Smith (along with Barbara Stanwyck) thru similar hoops in THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS/’47. You may feel more conflicted.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Siodmak found more thrills and a better murderer that year as director of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE/’45.

Friday, August 21, 2015

HOJE EU QUERO VOLTAR SOZINHO / THE WAY HE LOOKS (2014)

Disarming teen coming-of-age pic from Brazil about a platonic guy & gal twosome whose friendship is disrupted by the cute new boy in their class. The twist is that the guy’s been blind since birth and the girl, who’s long had an unspoken crush on him, finds she’s attracted to this new boy with his mop of black curls. Or is she jealous that her BFF seems to favor his new friend. Sounds awfully cute, but writer/director Daniel Ribeiro handles all the high school trials, tribulations & misdirected crushes with a light touch. And never tips into blind-boy bathos to show how tough & lonely things can get when you try to reach out to someone who literally might not be there, or in being a sightless rebellious teenage smart-ass to overprotective, hovering parents. Heartwarming stuff, winning without being sappy; no small achievement. Yet, there’s a built-in problem here. Built-into the DVD, that is! It’s Ribeiro’s own two-reel ‘sampler’ version of the same story (made in 2010 with the same three principals) which is, in almost every way, the stronger piece. Shot in the old squarish Academy Ratio (though probably cropped down to show at 1.85:1), it’s a better visual fit for this story then the feature’s WideScreen frame. There’s a similar fade on the three teens, each four years less vulnerable. And the missing schoolyard bullying & parental misunderstandings puts useful blinders on the action, concentrating focus. Probably, the only notable loss from the full-length pic is a neatly played shaving scene between Father & blind son. It’s paradoxical, but at five times the length (96" vs 17") something’s been lost. (It's the two-reel short with the slightly different title: EU NÃO QUERO VOLTAR SOZINHO/I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK ALONE that earns our Recommended label.)

DOUBLE-BILL: André Téchiné’s WILD REEDS/’94 remains the modern touchstone for this kind of story.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

THE MARAUDERS (1955)

Remember the big, handsome lug in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS/’54? The bro’ who couldn’t sing or dance? That square peg in a round hole was Jeff Richards, an M-G-M contract player granted a spot of star-in-the-making exposure. Here, opportunity knocks by way of a mean little Western that didn’t pay off career-wise. Likewise for its sharp director Gerald Mayer, and for languid love interest Jarma Lewis. All three demoted to tv gigs or just out of the biz within a couple years. And what an odd choice of vehicle to try and put them over, a nearly abstract storyline that sets Richards’ desert homesteader with a working well against paranoid-psychotic Dan Duryea’s tubercular villain. (Hacking like he’s auditioning for CAMILLE.) Duryea takes over a gang of cutthroats when his more civil boss gets shot during a failed attack on the homestead. Meantime, Richards, helped by a little family who’ve stopped for water, has Duryea & Co. (including a nasty Keenan Wynn) faked into thinking they’re up against a score of well-armed defenders. The death-rate is positively alarming, and two more come to grief post-credits, yet the film still manages a happy ending. A bit more story development might have made something out of this. Mayer showed real promise in his debut (DIAL 1119/’50) and co-scripter Jack Leonard has credits on a couple of ‘B’ classics (NARROW MARGIN/’52; HIS KIND OF WOMAN/51). But only the scenery-chewing Dan Duryea leaves an impression.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jeff Richards returned to the big screen as star of the dunderheaded Grade-Z ‘guilty pleasure’ Sci-Fi pic ISLAND OF LOST WOMEN/’59. Who can forget its immortal last line? ‘Why this metal alloy hasn’t been used since . . . the days of the druids!’

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

LEVIAFAN / LEVIATHAN (2014)

Andrey Zvyagintsev has yet to fully make good on the promise of his stunning debut on THE RETURN/’03, but this recent pic comes encouragingly close. A despairing, yet somehow vital look at corruption on every level of society in a small northern coastal town in Russia, it’s less cautionary tale than modern Book of Job. There’s even a local Orthodox Priest (also corrupt) to lay out the parable in précis. Zvyagintsev’s masterstroke recasts the biblical story with characters Gogol’s Inspector General would have recognized and, at least for Stateside audiences, following the old vaudeville sketch ‘Pay The Two Dollars’ to its extreme conclusion.* (That’s the one where a guy refuses to pay a small fine on his lawyer’s advice and winds up petitioning his case all the way up to Death Row.) Here, the juggernaut starts with an Eminent Domain battle that’s almost won for a local handyman by an old pal, now a savvy Moscow lawyer. But this being Russia, never underestimate the resilience of officials who are part of the chain of command. Or the complications that come from mixing vast quantities of vodka with an unhappy second wife; an attention-deprived step-son; and a handsome legal advocate. Beautifully paced & acted, Zvyagintsev finds striking locations whether he’s in the mountains or shooting in a bureaucrat’s soulless office building. What’s gone missing since THE RETURN is the way that film’s personal focus shed light on larger societal issues, a design of dramatic action he now works in reverse.

DOUBLE-BILL: Obviously, THE RETURN is a must. But also try Francesco Rosi’s superb HANDS OVER THE CITY/’63 for some Italian land-grabbing political corruption. *ALSO: You can see a classic rendition of ‘Pay the Two Dollars’ with those two well-known Gogol specialists Victor Moore & Edward Arnold in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES/’45. (A hard DVD to find, so, while it lasts, here’s a LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKT8QoboD1g)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

WOMAN OF STRAW (1964)

By the time British director Basil Dearden gets this promising murder-with-a-twist pic to the table, the dish has turned lukewarm. But in its first half, Ralph Richardson blazes away as a despicable tycoon, an ailing, aging millionaire despot who lords it over associates, house staff & heir-apparent nephew Sean Connery from his wheelchair, treating everyone like dogs. Literally so for his two African personal servants who are made to perform actual dog tricks. And now he’s planning on leaving his fortune to charity. No wonder Connery’s looking for a lever to shake things up. Enter Gina Lollobrigida, a gorgeous nurse with too much integrity to (initially) jump at Connery’s sneaky financial offer to get at all that loot. But it’s precisely her stubborn refusal to play along, with either Connery or Richardson, that turns the old man’s head and brings them to the altar. He molts; she sees a new man under the shell; Connery worries the old goat may live longer than he thought possible. So, just where does that leave the old man’s fortune? Pretty interesting psycho-sexual set-up by the halfway mark. Which is exactly when the film resets; turning into a standard, if third-tier DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER wannabee. (Connery/Lollobrigida/Inspector Alexander Knox in for Ray Milland/Grace Kelly/Inspector John Williams.) But without the clever forensic-based drama and meticulous logistical thrills of Hitchcock’s fun little classic.* (Dearden also drops the arhythmic staccato editing he uses in the first half.) Instead, farfetched & risibly dumb, with lazy plotting & a couple of fright-laughs when a pair of sun-glasses slip off a dead man’s nose. (A stab at covering all the implausibilities in a courtroom summation comes across as amateur obfuscation.) Elegant to watch though, thanks to dreamy locations, dreamy looking Gina & Sean, and Otto Heller’s dreamy lens work.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Might as well rediscover DIAL 'M,' Hitch’s elegant drawing room murder puzzle. (Now out in BLU-RAY 3D.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

THE IMMIGRANTS (2013)

With yards of ambition unmatched by commensurate talent, writer/director James Gray has achieved a charmed critical rep that rewards him on effort rather than execution. (A small output with yawning gaps between each tortured project helps amplify the ‘serious artist’ tag.) Hardly anyone actually goes to the films, but his strenuous push to connect with the Francis Coppola & Sidney Lumet lineage on his second & third pics (THE YARD/’00; WE OWN THE NIGHT/’07) gets offered as self-evident bona fides. WAIT! That’s our Write-Up on the last Gray opus, TWO LOVERS/’08, but it still hits the mark. This guy must talk up one helluva film to keep getting these D.O.A. projects off the ground. (He’s already filming something called THE LOST CITY OF Z for 2016 release.) This one’s a sort of Italian verismo opera thing (think CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA which actually shows up in LOVERS), but moved to early 20th century Lower East Side & Ellis Island. Marion Cotillard is an easy decade too old to play the innocent soul who lets Joaquin Phoenix's shady manager pimp her. She's hoping to bribe her sister out of the TB ward. And Jeremy Renner is scrunched & unmagnetic, anything but theatrical, as a striving magician who’d like to run off with her. (He might be playing the Richard Basehart role in LA STRADA/’54.*) Gray shoots most of the pic behind yellow filters (candles, gaslight, ya know) for that Tenement Museum diorama effect, while keeping the acting as hushed & subdued as a Tour Guide docent, winding up with a near complete misrepresentation of the period spirit. How does he think people survived, even thrived in these dreadful conditions? But at last, a real guilty-pleasure moment after Phoenix gets his jaw broken & falls into Brandoesque mumbling & mannerisms for a final aria, a male variation on STELLA DALLAS’s 5-hankie tear-stained sacrifice. Alas, nary a sniffle in the house.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There’s quite a lot of LA STRADA in here though it’s not quite the unofficial remake that Woody Allen’s SWEET AND LOWDOWN/’99 was.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Charlie Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT/’17, one of his greatest early achievements. (Charlie takes the Marion Cotillard role.) At a tidy two reels, you'll save 100 minutes.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

RETREAT, HELL! (1952)

Those Halls of Montezuma get a real musical workout on the soundtrack, but there’s blessedly little triumphalism in this tight, mid-budget Marines-go-to-Korea tale. Standard-issue stuff in most ways, you’ll recognize the principals: tough-as-nails commander; green kid from a military family; reservist with his mind on his wife & kids, getting into trouble by playing things safe; grizzled number two; even comic relief double act doughboys. But the film does well by them with well-sourced combat footage to support some unusually clear action direction from B-pic expert Joseph H. Lewis, unfazed setting up logistically sound combat maneuvers or unyielding swarms of Chinese infantry. It helps that the basic story, from early in the conflict, is all about a failed campaign that barely scraps by to fight another day. There’s little false bravado. Plus, if you get too far ahead of things, you can play make-believe studio head and recast with A-listers: Karl Malden in for Frank Lovejoy; Glenn Ford for Richard Carlson; Tony Perkins for Russ Tamblyn; and Robert Wise to direct. It wouldn’t necessarily be any better, but it’d sure cost a lot more.

DOUBLE-BILL: How many big-budget Korean war films were made at the time? BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI/’54 and . . . what? Indie stuff like Anthony Mann’s MEN IN WAR/’57 & Sam Fuller’s THE STEEL HELMET/’51 were more typical.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Who came up with the ad copy on the poster? ‘ . . . a bunch of husky guys with star-spangled spunk.’ Yikes! Good grief!? Sure, it was a more innocent time, but not that innocent. Somebody must have been sniggering up his sleeve.

Friday, August 14, 2015

THE GAUCHO (1927)

Douglas Fairbanks’ penultimate silent plays swashbuckling outlier to his other pics of derring-do; and may be all the better for it. Smoking, whoring, drinking, yet still our lovable, athletic Doug, he’s a South American ‘gaucho,’ running with a band of hard-riding outlaws who back him against a tin-pot dictator. Both hope to fleece the fortunes of a local shrine (The City of Miracles) until Doug gets a spiritual wake-up call and winds up saving the joint for Priest, Poor and Pretty Gal, the saint whose miracle got the place going. (See prologue.) Lupe Velez lays it on a bit thick as Doug’s jealous girlfriend, and the story is more a series of linked set pieces than grand story arc, but it gathers a fine head of inevitability by the third act. Watch for a staggering display of long-horned cattle flesh before they run over the town; and a downright scary tussle between Doug and a raggedy man, suddenly of no discernible volume, who infects Doug with the ‘Black Doom’ (leprosy). IMAGE seems to have the best DVD edition, but it’s a sorry fall-off from prints that were still circulating back in the ‘70s which did a far better job showing off Tony Gaudio’s superb lens work (including a 2-strip TechniColor sequence not seen here) and in doing justice to F. Richard Jones’ solid helming. A forgotten talent of great promise, his first Talkie (Ronald Colman’s BULLDOG DRUMMOND/’29) is already fully up on its feet, but he died at 37 the following year of TB.

DOUBLE-BILL: Odd that the outlier pic in Mary Pickford’s career, Ernst Lubitsch’s ROSITA/’23, should also be her most poorly preserved feature. Odder still, it was intentional since Mary, Doug’s wife at the time, couldn’t forgive Lubitsch for making her do things his way; and worse, making a success of it. (It only survives as a beat up Russian Archive print.)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

SUPERMENSCH (2013)

After a humiliating rejection on THE LOVE GURU/’08, Mike Myers tried to lift himself out of one major funk with this decent, if weirdly over-produced hagiographic documentary (less vanity project than vanity offering) about groovy celeb manager Shep Gordon. With hangdog physicality and laid-back attitude, Shep (everyone calls him Shep) landed a gaggle of hard rock/R&B clients (Joplin, Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, Teddy Pendergrass) without really trying, then, after sex, drugs & rock & roll, parleyed his success into celebrity chefs, actors, even the Dalai Lama (not strictly a client). Myers doesn’t trust his material, loading on aural/visual cues for every clause in every sentence. It’s witty fun . . .for a while. But soon, you notice a hollow tone developing as Shep (everyone calls him Shep) works his client list as substitute family. A man of too many friends, he’s searching for the unbreakable family bond that makes you return to the dining-room table even after saying something unforgivable, especially after saying something unforgivable. Myers, like everyone we see here, loves Shep (everyone calls him Shep), but is just visiting before heading off, refreshed and probably wealthier. Hosts of ‘exes’ are left unaccounted for in the interviews, but no doubt there’s plenty of hired help (also unseen) to clean up the physical & psychological messes Myers hasn’t interest in considering. In a blinkered way, it's delightful, with entertaining show-biz stories; but stuffed with an overwhelming sense of One-Percenter Entitlement. Hope you got over your funk, Mike.

DOUBLE-BILL: This would almost certainly pair up nicely with HIS WAY: A Portrait of Hollywood Legend Jerry Weintraub/’11 about the late wheeler-dealer/producer (not yet seen here).

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

JUBAL (1956)

There’s something of a Baby-Boomer divide on Glenn Ford. One of the last pre-Method Acting screen icons, Pre-Boomers were around in time to feel the pulse of his pre-1960s work, when Ford’s banked sexual charge still held a reserve of threat. But by the time those younger opinion-making Boomers came of age, Ford was reduced to coaxing heat out of embers. It’s why so many film-goers were caught off-guard at the emotional charge he could still call on for SUPERMAN/’78. Where had this quietly compelling presence been hiding? And that presence is one of reasons this standard-issue Western from Delmer Daves (splendidly shot in rich, dark tones on a very WideScreen by Charles Lawton) holds more interest than it probably deserves. It’s already a little late in the day for his ‘shy guy with a spine’ act, but Ford’s still effective as the new man on Ernest Borgnine’s ranch, fending off unwanted attention from the boss’s unhappy wife and glaring hostility after winning the foreman spot from jealous ranch-hand Rod Steiger. (Steiger & Borgnine, replaying characterizations from OKLAHOMA!/55 and MARTY/’55, who’d each be better served phoning it in, go full throttle to annoying effect.) A religious sect gets tossed in for narrative seasoning, but only a surprise appearance from young Charles Bronson as third-wheel/deus ex machina adds something fresh. He may be the best thing in the pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: Daves, Lawton & Ford got back together (in b&w and a less wide screen) to make a masterpiece, 3:10 TO YUMA/’57.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? (1966)

As uneven as it is inspired, Blake Edwards’ large-scaled WWII farce takes nearly half its running time to find its footing. But once it does, it hardly puts a foot wrong. It opens as General Carroll O’Connor assigns by-the-book Captain Dick Shawn to take a little Sicilian town using Lieutenant James Coburn’s over-worked ‘C’ Company. The city’s Italian forces are delighted to surrender, but only after tonight’s much anticipated end-of-hostilities festival. Wine, Women & Song . . . or more war? MEANWHILE: a couple of local yokels roam the ancient catacombs under the city, planning a bank robbery from below; U.S. Army surveillance misreads their aerial photos and plans a bombing run; Nazi surveillance misreads their aerial photos and retakes the town; the Italians have second thoughts about surrender; and Major Harry Morgan shows up, gets lost in the catacombs, and goes bonkers. Okay, that’s about half of what’s going on . . . and all at one & the same time. No wonder Edwards has trouble getting his narrative ducks in order, ya vol? Actually, no. Those ducks are all efficiently lined up for action. What holds things back over the long first act is less elaborate set-up & obvious gags, more personality imbalance. The tipping point comes not when all the action gets into gear, but when Dick Shawn’s overdrawn comic martinet gets drunk, gets laid, gets serenaded . . . and gets it, showing some humanity and loosening up to see the war Coburn’s way. Spoilsport duties get reassigned to Harry Morgan’s progressively loony Major. (It's a rare character blunder from Edwards who should have tried a button-down Bob Newhart type rather than Shawn’s overdrawn blowhard.) Suddenly, everything starts to work both as comedy and as beautifully staged action fare. And while no one can touch Morgan’s hilarious mental meltdown, Shawn is fine once his character comes ‘round, turning in a great second-half that includes a wild bit of drag. Everyone else goes ‘drag,’ too, military drag, with the absurdity of war shown via uniform swaps by Italian, American & German troops. (Who am I shooting at?) Handsome production, too, with a typically sophisticated look (Philip Lathrop lensed) that made Edwards’ output the best looking physical comedies of their era.

DOUBLE-BILL: Edwards had no problems starting DARLING LILY/’70, his WWI comedy/drama; the opening may be the best thing he ever cooked up. It’s the rest of the film that turns on him.

Monday, August 10, 2015

REILLY: ACE OF SPIES (1983)

Where has this British mini-series been hiding? A hair-raising tru-life adventure, it’s the reasonably fact-based story of Sidney Reilly: International Spy for King & Country . . . and Himself. Starring a commanding Sam Neill, with a touch of young Sean Connery about him* (something about the mouth, and that slash for a dimple), who carries the ball into 'enemy' camp over the first quarter of the last century, taking down foreign governments & fleets of war ships when he’s not filching top-secret security info or ladies’ hearts. The final two chapters (of twelve) lose a bit of momentum parsing early Soviet Union internecine Bolshevik battles, but the script is, in general, about as clear as these things can be. And without the padding that’s now so common. Bonus points for the host of famous faces floating by in supporting roles large & small (Alfred Molina, Leo McKern, John Castle, David Suchet, Bill Nighy, John Rhys-Davies, many more) and demerits for an unnecessary meta-physical/occult element, that horrid wig on Stalin, and for the Freemantle/Thames’ DVD which needs an upgrade. (But don’t let that stop you.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT/LINK/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Ridley, Shlomo Rosenblum, was supposedly one of the role models for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Ironic considering Fleming’s anti-Semitism. Here’s a review (lousy with SPOILERS) of a recent bio: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/sep/07/russia.artsandhumanities

Sunday, August 9, 2015

L’ARMÉE DU SALUT / SALVATION ARMY (2013)

A rare gay-themed autobiographical coming-of-age novel from Morocco, it marks the writing-directing debut of author Abdellah Taia. A character piece built from small incident, its teenage protagonist glides uncomfortably thru family life (cramped living conditions, admired older brother, bickering parents) and the streets of his working-class Casablanca neighborhood where he willingly (?) trades sex with older men for favor & affection. Ten years later, now a young man, Abdellah has moved on to European tourists, gaining a college scholarship in Geneva in trade. Taia is at his best in matter-of-fact observation, the congested homelife is striking and a surge of unexpected threat on a rented boat unsettling. But when the tension runs down, the texture grows thin, and Taia hurts his case with a serious casting error on his two Abdellahs. No way could the soft-featured, wide-eyed teen grow into that wary, sharp-featured young man.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

FLIGHT FOR FREEDOM (1943)

R.K.O.’s second whack at a fictionalized Amelia Earhart bio-vehicle (CHRISTOPHER STRONG/’33 came first*) grafts on a bit of WWII heroics in its search for a satisfying conclusion. As if that’s the problem. Playing substitute Earhart, Rosalind Russell wears her hair down as pilot-in-training to fatherly mentor Herbert Marshall, and up (in that extreme ‘40s sausage-roll style) as rival to studly flying ace Fred MacMurray. Engaged to Marshall, fated to MacMurray, some better coordinated flying schedules could have solved everyone’s problems. Or maybe if Roz weren’t so much more comfortable with the older guy. Director Lothar Mendes, nearing the early end of an uneven career, is hamstrung by the stop-and-start romance as well as from wartime budget restrictions that hurt the airborne camera trickery. Nice dramatic ‘backtrack’ farewell crane shot for Marshall, though. And check out Roz during a neat little scene after she’s just lost her first cross-country air race. Dropping her usual manner of landing every quip for maximum effect, she tries on a softer attack, looks softer, too, sounding much like (of all people) Barbara Stanwyck. What a difference it makes . . . for about half a minute. Then, back to rat-a-tat-tat.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG remains a faintly ridiculous, if fascinating folly, whereas Hilary Swank has yet to recover from her unfascinating AMELIA/’09 bio-pic.

Friday, August 7, 2015

THE KNACK . . . AND HOW TO GET IT (1965)

Another Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod British Sex Comedy from the ‘60s, this one about three London blokes (Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford, Donal Donnelly) vying over new-girl-in-town Rita Tushingham. Brooks, the smoothy with a knack for getting past the knickers; Crawford, the naïf hoping to learn how; Donnelly, there for ballast. Director Richard Lester, fresh off A HARD DAY’S NIGHT/’64, carries his distinctive, disjunctive camera style to its limit, helped (if that’s the word) by lenser David Watkin’s over-exposed/white-ash backgrounds and a knockabout slapstick silliness that leaves realism & gravity behind. All well and good. If only the sexual politics of Ann Jellicoe’s play hadn’t turned rancid with time. (A putative rape supplies the comic engine for the entire third act!) Or if Rita Tushingham still had some of the tough quirky charm that briefly made her seem a major screen presence in her TASTE OF HONEY/’61 debut. Social/cultural history mavens will have a field day (we really have come a long way, baby!), and it’s good to see how effective Michael Crawford’s horny virgin act was before it got broadened for Lester’s A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM/’66, then regressed to annoyingly fey for Gene Kelly in HELLO, DOLLY!/’69. (Here, he’s a ridiculously bony delight, but with intimations of the powerhouse performer he’d become on stage in BARNUM and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.) Others viewers, proceed with caution.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

DEAD END (1937)

When producer Samuel Goldwyn bought Sidney Kingsley’s social(ist) drama for Hollywood, he insisted on keeping the two sensational elements that made it such a hit at the Belasco Theatre: the teenage Dead End Kid delinquents, and the show’s ultra-realistic city street set. Together, they pretty much stop the film in its tracks. Director William Wyler lost his battle to shoot on location, but does manages to vivify action whenever he detours off that big set. Along with lenser Gregg Toland, some tenement interiors really make their mark. But much of the dramaturgy is turgid & dated: the Dead Enders over-rehearsed; Humphrey Bogart’s killer-come-home stagy, with Marjorie Main’s Ma turning away & ex-gal Claire Trevor now a diseased prostie. Allen Jenkins does better as Bogie’s gangster pal; so too Joel McCrea’s struggling architect, torn between rich gal Wendy Barrie and tough-luck union waïf Sylvia Sidney. There’s nothing wrong, or even untrue, about having NYC ‘Haves’ bump up against ‘Have-Nots’ (it’s Proletariat Agit-Prop drama 101), but this guided tour of a play feels like it’s been on the road too long.

DOUBLE-BILL: It was DEAD END’s bad luck to fall between two superior cinematic stools. Specifically, King Vidor’s early Talkie STREET SCENE/’31 (also from Goldwyn, also with Sylvia Sidney), a little stiff in places, but capturing something fresh & vital out of similar urban slum environmental drama; and the sheer Hollywood virtuosity of Michael Curtiz’s ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES/’38 (with the Dead End Kids caught between neighborhood pals Killer James Cagney’s & Father Pat O’Brien).

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Goldwyn hated all the atmospheric dirt on his big, beautiful city street set. Late at night, you’d find him with a broom, sweeping it clean.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

WAR ARROW (1953)

This B+ Western from Universal comes with a good cast and square helming from George Sherman, but it’s main lure may be as John Michael Hayes’ final script credit before starting his run of Hitchcock classics (REAR WINDOW/’54; TO CATCH A THIEF/’55; THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY/’55; THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’56). (Though you’ll have to look hard to find intimations of Hitchcockian themes & obsessions.) Not bad in itself, with a neat set-up that has Army Major Jeff Chandler going over the head of fort commander John McIntire to recruit & train a band of defeated Seminole Indians to use as a guerrilla brigade against a larger force of marauding Kiowas. Their easy success brings out the worst in McIntire, while a couple of headstrong women (Suzan Ball’s forward thinking Seminole and army widow Maureen O’Hara) take aim at the handsome new Major. Noah Beery, Jr. and Charles Drake do surprisingly well as comic relief aides to Chandler* and lenser William Daniels does justice to the beauteous Ms O’Hara once he figures out her bone structure. He’s even better shooting action out on the flatlands. But everyone’s defeated by a couple of lousy nighttime (Day-for-Night) soundstage exteriors. Yikes!, who dressed that set? Still, those who can deal with Dennis Weaver as an Indian Brave, and some painfully generic Western movie music, will find a thoughtful/inventive side to this one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hayes really had a great touch with comic seasoning. The Hitch we all think we know from those tv show intros largely comes out of the tone Hayes found for Thelma Ritter’s character in REAR WINDOW and from just about everything in TROUBLE WITH HARRY.

Monday, August 3, 2015

THE PASSWORD IS COURAGE (1962)

Fact-inspired, yet standard-issue WWII prison-of-war drama has much the same storyline as THE GREAT ESCAPE/’63. But without those pesky, scene-stealing Yanks getting credit for British derring-do or adding an hour’s running time. A bigger difference comes in a rollicking tone that makes this something of a missing link between STALAG 17/’53 and HOGAN’S HEROES/’65. Too bad indie director Andrew Stone’s can’t quite accommodate ‘rollicking.’ Fast changes from suspense to slapstick, and officious German officers hoist on their own petard need smoother clutch work. Here, it’s pleasant, but harmless. Too polite by half, so you never feel a real threat. Somebody needs to let loose with a big, fat raspberry . . . and get shot for it. The most interesting thing in here is barely touched on: the bromantic puppy-dog devotion of Alfred Lynch’s Corporal toward Dirk Bogarde’s heroically conniving Sergeant-Major which plays out as closeted subtext.

DOUBLE-BILL: Bogarde’s role gets split up in THE GREAT ESCAPE between Richard Atttenborough, Steve McQueen & James Coburn.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

SHOW THEM NO MERCY (1935)

Unexpectedly tough little hostage drama, the last release from 20th Century before merging with larger, but struggling FOX Corp., is a modest, but dandy suspenser. The film starts as a kidnapping drama (worried relatives, cops, Feds, an early name drop for J. Edgar Hoover), but it’s just set up for the main story of a young couple, their baby & their dog, forced by a storm to take shelter in an abandoned rural house. And guess who’s using that house as a hideout? The four kidnappers have already dropped off the kid and picked up the loot when they return, find the little family, then fight over what to do with them. Rochelle Hudson & Edward Norris are calm & believable as the parents, and the four henchmen (Cesar Romero, Bruce Cabot, Edward Brophy, Warren Hyman) make up a well-seasoned quartet of mismatched thugs. Cabot, the most sadistic of the bunch, gives an exceptional perf, and the film comes up with lots of smart twists to keep everyone busy before a shock of a finale. Journeyman director George Marshall makes good use of some real location shooting, but the standout craftsman is cinematographer Bert Glennon whose daringly minimal lighting schemes, with hardly any ‘fill’ in sight, would never have been allowed at most major studios.

DOUBLE-BILL: Next year’s classic hostage drama, THE PETRIFIED FOREST/’36, looks hopelessly stagebound next to this, though it has its own strengths.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

ESTHER AND THE KING (1960)

From Hollywood: Aging lion Raoul Walsh as producer-director-co-scripter; and a pair of B-Listers (Joan Collins, Richard Egan) for box-office insurance. From Italy: Everything else. It’s the ingredients for a CineCittá sword-and-sandal spectacular. But this Biblical drama, where the male tunics are cut very high and the women’s bodices very low (not actually made @ CineCittá), manages to lift itself a step and a half up from those bump-slash-and-grind spectacles. Maybe two and a half steps up. It’s actually quite watchable on it’s own period terms. Just keep in mind that 'period' refers not to 420 B.C.E., but to late ‘50s/early ‘60s CinemaScope holy pics. Still celebrated as Purim, the giddiest of major Jewish holidays, it’s an uncommonly interesting story with the noble Esther playing court sexual politics to bring down Haman, a sort of proto-Hitler politician in ancient Persia. The plot twist, at least as presented here, is that Esther falls for her ‘mark,’ who just happens to be the King, and uses her ex-fiancé to reveal Haman’s treachery. (With relationships nicely, if unintentionally complicated since Collins has so much more chemistry with her ‘Ex’ then she does with the King.) Walsh, whose late films grew progressively slack, returns to energetic form, with impressive numbers of extras filling his large canvas even if they have little to do. It’s likely that cinematographer Mario Bava, just starting his own directing career as a sort of one-man Italian Hammer Horror studio, shot a lot of the location/second-unit stuff. The best thing in here, two scenes made on some real ancient ruins, are almost certainly his. Too bad no one came up with much of a climax. Just another battle scene when we need a catastrophe or a miracle. Hey!, maybe Esther could have invented the recipe for hamantaschen?

LINK: http://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-hamantaschen-dessert-recipes-from-the-kitchn-45645