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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

THE D. I. (1957)

As star & director, Jack Webb brings his distinctive flat, staccato DRAGNET style to this by-the-book service meller about a tough-as-nails marine Drill Instructor (guess who) who can’t get thru to the major screw-up in his unit. Prepare to be unsurprised. Turns out, the kid (Don Dubbins) fucks up or plays sick in a desperate attempt to get out of the Corp when he really wants to succeed in what turns out to be the family business. Webb rides him for all he’s worth, but what finally does the trick is a one-shot dose of Psych 101 indirectly received from Mom! And, speaking of things Freudian, Webb’s 40-Yr-Old (Emotional) Virgin has gone a’wooing, only to find he’s got commitment phobias of his own. (There’s an unintentional suggestion for an interesting tangent storyline about the possibility that love & contentment will leave the Sarge tame & ineffective, but no one follows up.) For cinematic pizazz Webb throws on a few low-angle shots & transitions that have him walking straight into the camera. He even lets some of the real-life marines in the cast make with the comic relief. But the main feeling you get is that Webb never figured out that his tv shows worked by opposing his signature rat-a-tat-tat police tactics against the quotidian routine of the outside world. The contrast was particularly effective when DRAGNET returned to tv for a second run in the late ‘60s, plopping an increasingly anachronistic Webb in the middle of the culture wars. But here, on a military training base where everybody’s working to the same rhythm, things quickly turn monotonous.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a modern version of these tropes, you can catch Colin Farrell going thru all the basic training clichés before reaching manhood in Joel Schumacher’s TIGERLAND/’00.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

CASEY'S SHADOW (1978)

Martin Ritt made too many good films to be written off as the styleless laissez-faire helmer he’s often taken for. Though he does show a bit more obvious adventurous spirit working in b&w (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/’65; HUD/’63) than on his color pics. But here, working from a decent, if formulaic triumph-of-the-underdog script, and without favored cinematographer James Wong Howe, he’s not so much a dull dog as a dutiful one. Walter Matthau, off his big surprise hit as a tippling, curmudgeonly Little League coach in THE BAD NEWS BEARS/’76, is back with a pack of tough/cute kids. Only this time the sport is quarter-horse racing and the trio of kids are his own. (By the look of things, there might well have been three separate moms and maybe a surrogate stud as Dad to help explain the lack of family resemblance.) Matthau’s pretty odd casting as a Louisiana Cajun horse trainer, anyway, though he makes it work in his own quirky manner. The story runs along pleasantly enough for a couple of acts, but things go off the rails in the third. Not only does the story turn darker than the tone of the film can handle, but the script can’t decide on which of three possible endings to use . . . so they use ‘em all!, one after the other. Try to ignore the propulsively dreadful down-home song-plugging score from Patrick Williams and instead concentrate on a really sharp supporting perf from Alexis Smith as a classy trader in horseflesh. Fifty-seven at the time, making her only a year younger than the rumpled Mr. Matthau, she’s the very definition of what’s meant by ‘one fine figure of a woman.’

DOUBLE-BILL: Matthau had a thing for the track, trying another horse-racing tale a couple of years on (with no more commercial success) with a fourth version of Damon Runyon’s LITTLE MISS MARKER/’78. He’s far better cast, with a truly great moment where he pours the cream off the top of a bottle of milk for his own use before letting the little girl he’s stuck with have some for her cereal. But, like all too many Runyon adaptations, the film feels bloated with the cutes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY:  Don't forget to count the hidden 'NINAs' in the Al Hirschfeld drawing above.  Click on the caricature to enlarge.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

THE WHALE (2013)

Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK has proved an elusive beast on screen. So, a modest cable pic on the true story behind the famous novel sounds like a possibility. Turns out truth, in this instance, is definitely not stranger than fiction. The film is harmless, yet somehow infuriating. (As missed opportunity?) It does clear up Melville’s masterstroke; switching obsessives. It’s not the whale who holds a grudge against a whaling ship, but the captain of a whaler with a grudge against one particular white whale. And it’s this turnabout that turns incident into art. Even for what it is, this factoid seafaring adventure feels almost pointless, with paint-by-numbers characterizations and plug-in shots of our special guest star whale swimming underneath deep waters to no discernible purpose after the first attack takes out the ship. Martin Sheen is on hand as a survivor, now grown elderly, to tell the tale in flashback, no doubt boring the hell out of his interlocutors. You keep hoping they’ll rip up their notepads at the end and say, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT/LINK: It sounds unlikely (heck, it sounds the height of sheer folly), but the only worthwhile adaptations of the Melville classic are Orson Welles’ eccentric/effective theatrical piece MOBY DICK REHEARSED and the recent opera from Jack Heggie. Here’s a trailer from a 2014 production: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M38aPclaRP8 and a promo/rehearsal clip of the Welles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8l_nePrA958 (The opera is variously available; the Welles apparently not.)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

O ESTRANHO CASO DE ANGÉLICA / THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA (2010)

Only the very young or the very, very old could get away with the anodyne banalities* dutifully acclaimed in the films of that late centenarian Film Fest habitué Manoel de Oliveira. Like his previous ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL/’09, it’s another Luis Buñuel manque pic about implausible/impossible love. This one about a substitute photographer tapped at the last minute to take a few final snaps of a rich & beautiful young bride who has unexpectedly died. Imagine the man’s surprise when he looks thru his view-finder and sees the dead girl open her eyes and offer an inviting smile. Instant soulmates! The pleasant young man soon withdraws into personal reverie, staring out doors & windows, hoping to see . . . what?; and generally creeping out everyone he comes in contact with. De Oliveira tries to give all this a hushed plausibility, with fitful touches of grace & humor. But he holds onto his compositions until they go visually dead. And while some whimsical ghostly encounters & unshowy visualized metaphors lend a touch of low-tech, Georges Méliès charm to things, you wade thru a lot of dead space (as well as paceless non-pro acting) to earn a few drams of dramatic recompense, along with a wet dream liebestod.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The CinemaGuild DVD includes de Oliveira’s charming silent portrait of life along the Douros River (DOURO, FAINA FLUVIAL/’31), shown with its 1934 music track. Made in the tradition of late silent ‘City Portraits’ (Berlin’s PEOPLE ON SUNDAY/’30 is the best known), it’s a loose edit of various moments of work & play. Watch de Oliveira try for a bit of drama when a street accident causes an ox-driven cart to take off. His montage technique strains to recreate the action, but hasn’t the chops to pull it off. Still, the print looks lovely, and the sense of time & place strong.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Why not ‘Banal Anodynalities?’ Now, that’s got a ring to it!

Friday, September 25, 2015

HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957)

John Huston made something of a companion piece to his own THE AFRICAN QUEEN/’51 with this mismatched near-romance wartime adventure. It’s always been in the shadow of the earlier pic (though it was a very big hit). Less original, perhaps, but equally exciting & delightful, with selfless perfs from Deborah Kerr & Robert Mitchum easily matching the star aura of Kate Hepburn & Humphrey Bogart in QUEEN. And without any of that film's showboating or cashing in on their own well-defined personalities. This time, the war is WWII, and Mitchum’s stranded marine encounters Kerr’s missionary nun on an otherwise deserted Pacific isle. Their plan to escape is quickly halted by a wave of Japanese military, landing on the little island and forcing a series of close-call incidents. Funny, touching, suspenseful, and consistently believable, since Huston keeps the scale of events reasonably limited, the heroics plausible and lets the two leads do the rest. It’s just about a perfect example of the form. Very underrated on the Huston C.V., and showing an easy command of the new WideScreen format with help from lenser Oswald Morris who steps back from his highly stylized work on Huston’s MOULIN ROUGE/’52 and MOBY DICK/’56 for ultra-smooth naturalism.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rather than AFRICAN QUEEN, try FATHER GOOSE/’54, something of a comic riff on this.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

ALIBI FOR MURDER (1936)

Back in the ‘30s & ‘40s, Hollywood studios tried to maintain a few bread-and-butter Murder Mystery series. Cheap, modestly profitable, they kept contract talent usefully busy and helped train/show off newbies. Even little Columbia Pictures had Boston Blackie; Crime Doctor; and the Lone Wolf ratiocinating away. This toss-away programmer didn’t make the charmed circle, yet the one-off shows more promise than some that did. It starts out in dandy fashion as a gaggle of about-to-be suspects deplane (or rather de-zeppelin) off the just landed Hindenburg. Yep, that Hindenburg, a year before it blew. (What an ending that might have made!) Waiting to interview the latest celebs in town is radio newshound William Gargan (a forgotten leading man of the ‘30s on his way down to supporting roles). Gargan’s quite good here, smooth & solid, and the film zips along in spirited fashion under hack helmer D. Ross Lederman even when the plot doesn’t exactly add up. (World-renowned scientist is murdered for his latest discovery . . . or maybe not.) No help from the flat supporting players, not even from Dwight Frye of DRACULA/’31 fame. (Though the comic relief sidekick manages to grab some attention by being painfully unfunny.) Still, not a bad lesson in how these things got developed.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Peter Lorre MR. MOTOs from 20th/Fox are the gold standard for these things.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TU SERAS MON FILS / YOU WILL BE MY SON (2011)

Gilles Legrand’s dynastic drama aims for the sweep of a sturdy 19th century novel, tidied up in the tradition of a Lillian Hellman ‘well-made’ play. On its own terms, it works pretty well, but ultimately lacks texture & verisimilitude, rural wine-country cinematography be damned, with characters who give up everything on their first appearance. At heart, a prodigal son tragedy, or rather, a prodigal surrogate son tragedy, it charts the imploding relationship of a gifted, but ruthless, if not despicable, grand seigneur widower wine baron, and the decent, underperforming son he baits to disappoint on cue. Enter the handsome, confident son of his longtime, long suffering estate manager. Back from a glamorous California gig to visit his ailing papa, he’s ready-made to fill the on-coming leadership void on the estate, displacing the real son. (Proving blood isn’t thicker than wine.) The plot and backstabbing don’t exactly sneak up on you, but do hold your interest in spite of relentlessly dour perfs and Legrand’s director’s chair gaffes; fittingly, if unintentionally, paralleling weaknesses of le vrai fils.

DOUBLE-BILL: Douglas Sirk’s great surrogate sibling rivalry pic, WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56, is often called to mind though we’re closer to underrated land sagas of the period like Henry King’s winemaking THIS EARTH IS MINE/’59 or Delmer Daves’ tobacco farming PARRISH/’61.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967)

With this film, it was three times & out for Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, the spy who came in with black frame glasses. Caine actually returned to the character decades later on a couple of forgettable cable pics, but the theatrical run died here; probably from the huge shift in tone from the first two relatively realistic films to this third OTT, hit-and-miss self-parody. Surprise, surprise, the goofball mess has aged better than its sobersided siblings. Not that it seems so at first. The film, a move to commercial cinema for BBC’s uninhibited helmer Ken Russell (infuriating & talented from the get-go) doesn’t nail its tone of lifted-eyebrow absurdity for quite some time. But hang on, it does, as Caine figures out who’s behind the computer-voiced villain ordering him to deliver a coffee thermos of virus infected eggs to Karl Malden in chilly Finland. Even then, you still can’t tell just whom anyone is working for? Crazed Texas anti-communist fascist Ed Begley? Lovely spy of unknown allegiance Françoise Dorléac? Sly Russkie General Oskar Homolka? Or is everyone just out for themselves? Truth be told, they’re all working for James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, prefiguring the loose, mocking style of ‘70s Roger Moore Bond pics on a more limited budget, and with the indispensable advantage of Michael Caine’s multi-task acting. Scorned on its release, the film now looks prescient in style & content, and still sharp thanks to Billy Williams’ lensing. It’s also more fun than the Mike Myers spoofs.

DOUBLE-BILL: Karl Malden returned to those newfangled computers the following year, trying to keep Maggie Smith & co-scripter Peter Ustinov from fleecing his company in HOT MILLIONS/’68.

Monday, September 21, 2015

THE BLACK ARROW (1948)

This version of the oft-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson War-of-the-Roses novel is from indie producer Edward Small, known for pinching modest budgets into lux-looking literary swashbucklers (THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO/’34; THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK/’39). But director Gordon Douglas, moving up from cheap programmers like the DICK TRACY series, is hemmed in by the backlot locations of Columbia Studios where Small had a production deal. Even with the sprawling novel whittled down to a sort of ROBIN HOOD knockoff, it’s undercharged, and a size or two too small. (Poor Edgar Buchanan fails³ in the familiar Alan Hale, Eugene Pallette and Patric Knowles ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD/'38 spots.) Louis Hayward makes a bland hero as the young knight, home from war to find his Uncle (purring, slithery George Macready) running the castle after murdering Hayward’s noble father. (Shades of HAMLET.) Fortunately, there’s a network of support from secret forest dwelling fighters, including the vengeance-seeking Black Arrow bowman who helps lead him to the truth by including a message with every lethal shot. The film’s not bad, just blah. The one real kick comes late in the game when an unexpectedly fair-minded, funny, even sympathetic Duke of Gloucester (pre-Richard III days) comes on the scene. Too bad he can’t make damsel-in-distress Janet Blair worth fighting over.

DOUBLE-BILL: Producer Small took a more traditional approach to RICHARD III in TOWER OF LONDON/’62 with Vincent Price as villain King and Roger Corman as villain megger. Far less interesting than the balanced cameo seen here, but the film has its supporters.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS (1952)

This baseball biopic on ‘30s pitcher ‘Dizzy’ Dean, is a programmer that knows its place, pleasant piffle that sticks to the basics, doesn’t oversell itself, and works up considerable goodwill. As the future Hall of Famer, Dan Dailey doesn’t show much zip on his pitch, but a lanky athletic bod & thick neck help him look the part. Plus, that easy con man’s charm to help him get away with Dizzy’s sulky, bad behavior . . . for a while. Joanne Dru is almost too attractive as the forgiving (if knowing) wife, while the debuting Richard Crenna already gives rock-solid support as kid brother/fellow pitcher ‘Daffy.’ The usual sports story arc is in place: Dizzy rises fast on natural ability; throws his arm out thru pure hubris; hits bottom (drink & gambling); followed by a return to grace; unusually for a baseball pic, sans tears. Never twas a falser line spoke than ‘There’s no crying in baseball.’ It’s just about the weepiest cinematic field of dreams out there. (And for the Baby Boomers: cameo appearance by Chet Huntley.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/DOUBLE-BILL: This was the final credit of the near-great, infinitely troubled Herman J. Mankiewicz, co-writer, with Orson Welles, of CITIZEN KANE/’41. Scripting PRIDE OF THE YANKEES/’42 back in a happier decade helped get him this assignment at a career low point, along with some string pulling by kid brother Joe Mankiewicz, top dog at 20th/Fox at the time. Between all the drinking, Mank must have worked at just about every major Hollywood studio, and pissed off every exec in town. Yet, somehow producing the best Paramount Marx Bros. pics; some classic play adaptations @ M-G-M and literally scores of uncredited rewrite ‘saves.’ But he may have been most famous, even beloved, for his self-destructive behavior & bon mots. Everyone had a favorite, usually the one about America’s pulse being wired directly to the ass of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, told directly to Cohn at a screening. But surely the best came out after a supper party faux pas where, in the middle of a fancy formal dinner, a tuxedoed Mank violently erupted between courses, vomiting all over the linen, tableware and ladies’ couture before sheepishly assuring his hostess not to worry, everything was alright because ‘the white wine came up with the fish.’

Saturday, September 19, 2015

MICHAEL COLLINS (1996)

Large-scale biopic from Neil Jordan, on the eponymous Irish revolutionary, stages some impressive urban battles scenes & mass panic (he gets in/gets out without showing off), but comes a cropper on the intimate stuff. Liam Neeson proves a fine, even inevitable Collins, but Jordan takes a disastrous turn tying political action to a collapsed ménage à trois between Collins, best pal Aidan Quinn and a painfully miscast Julia Roberts. (JULES AND JIM/’62, anyone? Or is it DESIGN FOR LIVING/’33?) Roberts was shoe-horned in as box-office insurance (not that it helped), but how to explain political committee meetings with all the engagement of an audio-animatronics test? Or why Alan Rickman's rival independence leader Eamon de Valera is all stage whispers & melodramatic pauses. Weak as this sounds, the story is so darn fascinating you’re pulled in anyway. Especially during the first half, when the fight is against British rule (there's a standout turn from Charles Dance as an over-confident British commander and an amazing one from Stephen Rea’s volunteer informer) rather than the last act’s deadly Irish vs. Irish endgame.

DOUBLE-BILL: Neeson’s ROB ROY/’95, from the previous year, did triple the biz (and deserved it), but got a little bit lost behind the inexplicable BRAVEHEART/’95 juggernaut.

CONTEST: What Hollywood leading man of the ‘30s spent his teens as courier for the real Michael Collins? The first correct answer wins a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice. (No Googling, please.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

LIBERI ARMATI PERICOLOSI / YOUNG, VIOLENT, DANGEROUS (1976)

The considerable cult built around Italian writer/director Fernando Di Leo, largely for his violent mob/revenge pics of the early ‘70s, comes with a built in problem: the guy’s not much of a megger. Enter commercial director Romolo Guerrieri, who brings hardy technical chops to this characteristic Di Leo script, with a sweet series of action set pieces (including a spanking Milan-set car chase) and generally screwing up the tension. Sounds like a big plus for Di Leo, but stronger execution proves something of a mixed blessing, exposing other problems lurking under the cunning plot mechanics, like simplistic socio-politics, arbitrary character motivation, facile juxtapositions. Set in fashionable Milan, the story follows a trio of wild well-to-do aimless young men (later joined by a recalcitrant girlfriend) over a violent spree of robbery & murders; hunted down by solid, stolid detective Tomas Milian. In the worst scene in the pic, he chastises their moms & dads for laissez-faire parenting. Painfully retro psychology, even for the era. And doubly hard to swallow since, other than Guerrieri’s edit-happy action stuff, the film’s best idea comes out of making the boys equal opportunity anarchists. Acting out against authority, school chums, fellow criminals, even campers, but bopping about like a boy band.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Worth a look just for the mid-‘70s Milano clothes, cars & grooming. (BTW, the original Italian title is closer to FREE, ARMED, HAZARDOUS.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: No color process mentioned in the credits, no doubt some Tri-Pack/EastmanColor knockoff, but it puts out the greeniest Day-Glo green you’ve ever seen.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

PRINCE VALIANT (1954)

Early CinemaScope swashbuckler is no classic, excepting Franz Waxman’s sumptuous score, but remains good lively fun from stem to stern. Wasp-waisted Robert Wagner makes an alarmingly pretty Viking Prince (page boy tresses in alt) who hopes to save his father’s Christian kingdom by joining King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable. Welcomed by Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden with an appalling MidWestern accent), he’s suspicious of James Mason’s suave Sir Brack and wooing platinum princess Janet Leigh when not being stalked by the mysterious Black Knight. (Hmm, who could that be?) Naturally, the mix-ups get sorted out, but not before helmer Henry Hathaway puts everyone thru their action paces. Stirringly handled for the period, with a blistering broadsword battle at the climax (backed by some daringly weird scoring from Waxman) and a quaint painterly look to some of the vistas & matte shots where lenser Lucien Ballard matches the old Sunday Supplement comic strip this comes from. (Always the densest half-page graphic in the paper, scripter Dudley Nichols locates a clean narrative line out of the famous Hal Foster characters.) The 2004 DVD release only looks its best in the last third (from about reel seven on), but a newer digital restoration for Blu-Ray may have improved things.

DOUBLE-BILL: In sweep, pacing & unexpected emotional charge, the ‘50s WideScreen swashbucklers can’t match the older Errol Flynn/Michael Curtiz/Erich Wolfgang Korngold classics. Instead, play fair by comparing VALIANT with something contemporary like the inane KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS out the same year. David Butler must have megged from a reclining position (was it Passover?), while his remarkably strong cast (Rex Harrison, George Sanders, Laurence Harvey) barely keep from cracking up. You, too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

THE HOWARDS OF VIRGINIA (1940)

Hollywood dogma holds quill pens & men in powdered wigs as sure drags on the box-office. Ergo, avoid all stories on the American Revolutionary War. But maybe the old canard is more a symptom of cause & effect, reflecting duds like this misfire. Producer/director Frank Lloyd, in fast fade mode less than a decade after prestige items CAVALCADE/’33 and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’35, can’t find a rhythm for his story about Cary Grant’s hot-headed backwoods boy courting society gal Martha Scott against the wishes of her distinguished brother Cedric Hardwicke. The two marry anyway, raise a brood, build a mansion in the wilderness, then fight the Revolutionary War! It’s a lousy story with one good angle (Cary can’t love his eldest, born lame like brother-in-law Hardwicke) and one good perf (Hardwicke, who given half a chance almost brings the thing to life). But the camera never favored Martha Scott, she makes a matronly glam gal, and Grant seems nearly unhinged whooping things up as a heehaw patriot. We’re plop in the middle of his early peak period, yet Grant gins up the boisterous enthusiasm as if he were still gagging things up on GUNGA DIN/’39. There’s a slight improvement in the more serious last act, but it comes far too late to make much of a difference. If forced, have a gander at Richard Carlson’s improbable Thomas Jefferson and note that Grant’s youngest is, of all people, Tom Drake (Judy Garland’s MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44 ‘Boy Next Door’) playing his first credited role.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try John Ford’s DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK/’39, with Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert and the great Edna May Oliver, a fine antidote to nobler-than-thou Revolutionary War pics.

Monday, September 14, 2015

I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941)

Like a Blue Plate special with no entree under the gravy, this change-of-pace assignment for Lite-helmer H. Bruce Humberstone & musical comedy star Betty Grable is a studio-bound film noir murder mystery smothered in low-key light atmosphere. The not-quite-there plot has Grable’s waitress sister, Carole Landis, espied by a trio of NYC promoters: Victor Mature, Allyn Joslyn & Alan Mowbray; respectively hack PR guy, hack reporter & hack stage has-been. They glam her up to put her over in high society, but quickly lose her to Hollywood’s siren call. Or would if Landis hadn’t gotten herself killed first. Whodunnit? One of the trio?; stammering apartment desk clerk Elisha Cook Jr.?; large loose cannon detective Laird Cregar?; a jealous Grable? (Say it ain't so!) A perfectly doable set-up, but Post-Production conniption fits (note our Original Title poster) resulted in a heavily patched restructuring, smoothed over with two painfully overworked music cues: Alfred Newman’s MANHATTAN STREET SCENE theme (you’ll know it when you hear it) and OVER THE RAINBOW (how’d Fox ever get the rights from M-G-M?). It’s really a rather odd little film with Mature looking as young as he ever did (not much); the ill-fated Landis looking very yummy; and Grable as mysteriously underwhelming as ever.

DOUBLE-BILL: The underrated Mature is something of a forgotten noir icon. Try Henry Hathaway’s KISS ME DEADLY/’47 with Richard Widmark’s giggling psychotic debut.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

PIXAR SHORT FILMS: Volume 1 (1984 - 2006)

This collection of PIXAR shorts (including their initial LucasFilm releases) includes a little film on the company’s beginnings. But that story is best told simply by watching the technical & artistic leaps in the DVD’s first five digital animations: ADVENTURES OF ANDRÉ AND WALLY B./’84; LUXO JR./’86; RED’S DREAM/’87; TIN TOY/’88 and KNICK KNACK/’89. Prep work for their first feature (TOY STORY/’95), these giant, baby-steps may look simple, even primitive (that baby in TIN TOY is one scary looking toddler), yet are remarkably lovely in their limited fashion. (No surprise really, so were/are the very first films ever projected from back in 1895.) The other titles come from shorts tacked onto later feature releases, up to the marvelous LIFTED/’06. The outlier here is MATER AND THE GHOSTLIGHT/’06, a second helping from CARS/’06, one of the few indifferently received PIXAR releases. It gets special treatment as pet project of company head John Lasseter who thinks he can flog it into a critical as well as a commercial success. And he probably can; it’s his very own ATTENTION MUST BE PAID property.

DOUBLE-BILL: More goodies, if less historical interest, in PIXAR SHORT FILMS: Collection 2/’12.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

DAS SCHLANGENEI / THE SERPENT’S EGG (1977)

Ingmar Berman’s paranoid period political thriller, a one-off genre pic for him, and much derided on release, now looks uncommonly interesting. Technically, it’s something of a stunner, with a big budget courtesy of producer Dino De Laurentiis to recreate ‘20s Berlin at its panic-stricken mega-inflationary nadir. The film sets up midway into the storyline, so we play catch-up from the start as David Carradine’s stranded circus performer finds himself under suspicion for a series of ghoulish deaths, including his brother’s apparent suicide. Together with Liv Ullmann, not long divorced from the brother, they’d done a trapeze act, but she’s now scratching out a living in a nauseating cabaret. As these two warily approach each other, past associates seem to be leading them toward some dark, explanatory secrets, but they may be engulfed by the city’s crumbling atmosphere or by Gert Fröbe’s police inspector before finding anything out. Bergman, out of Sweden on some personal tax debacle, didn’t like working away from his home base, but his German tech crew did spectacular work here, as did regular lenser Sven Nykvist. Some of the German actors overdo things (they all smoke ‘in character’), but Ullmann does well in a green fright wig while Carradine lets his physical presence (much like Keanu Reeves here) get a tricky mix of endurance & passive masochism across. The film smells of post-production fiddling here & there (who added the narration?), and can feel like a series of striking set pieces without resolution, but it really shouldn’t be missed. (09/11/15)

DOUBLE-BILL: The film is closer to ‘70s political thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW/’74 (Alan Pakula/Warren Beatty) than to other Bergman pics.

Friday, September 11, 2015

THE SINGLE STANDARD (1929)

Greta Garbo’s penultimate silent, undoubtedly rushed into production* to beat the switch to All Talking pics (note our poster), underserves its title. Uneventfully helmed by journeyman megger John S. Robertson (and lensed by Oliver Marsh standing in for Garbo regular William Daniels), the plot only glances on the double standard between men (sow those wild oats!) and women (not without a chaperone!). Instead, working a storyline with Garbo dumped from dashing Nils Aster’s round-the-world yachting expedition and falling back on steady, loyal, boring, infinitely forgiving (ugh) Johnny Mack Brown to marry. Soon, there’s a young son to adore, yet Mom fears Aster’s return would drive her to distraction/desertion. WAIT! It’s like ANNA KARENINA all over again. Compared to Tolstoy, filmed (poorly) by Garbo as LOVE in ’27, and under its real name in 1935 (better), this variation is just okay, though it’s fun to see Garbo in one of her rare appearances as a mom. (The mom of your dreams.) Sharp viewers will wonder why Garbo wastes her time on Aster & Brown when young, positively glowing Joel McCrea shows up for a bit at the start as part of a trio of unfaithful swains at a ritzy party. Garbo & McCrea, now there’s a pair to get in a lather about.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Actually, Listen All About It. The soundtrack on the Warner Archive DVD is from the original 1929 music discs. Scored by Dr. William Axt, it’s a particularly fine example of how silents would have been accompanied at the better theaters. Axt, one of the best known specialists in Silent Movie Music cues, and a dozen others, can be sampled on the fine CD PIONEERS OF MOVIE MUSIC (New World Records), compiled & conducted by Rick Benjamin.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *You know M-G-M is just going thru the motions with Garbo when they leave her hair alone. It looks gorgeous, but for some reason, on her bigger productions they wouldn’t stop fussing with it until they had created a publicity-ready frizzy (or plastered) disaster.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

SAIKAKU ICHIDAI ONNA / THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952)

The story of a fallen woman, who falls and falls and falls. But under Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, the classic sad-sister elements are ennobled into high drama, and even higher cinema. Framed in a long flashback as an ill, middle-aged Oharu contemplates her past while visiting a temple, Mizoguchi’s remarkable control allows the film’s slow rhythms to move things along with deceptive swiftness. Oharu’s troubles begin at court where she spurns an arranged marriage for love with a man below her station. The man is executed; Oharu and her parents exiled. Next time, her father arranges to sell Oharu for breeding. She’s to be concubine to a rich man with a barren wife. But success is short lived. So too a brief moment of happiness as wife to a handsome, caring entrepreneur. And there are three more levels of purgatory to get thru (in a downward trajectory) before she’s working the streets in a rented kimono. It’s hard to figure out just how Mizoguchi keeps this from turning into soap opera or The Perils of Pauline, or perhaps Douglas Sirk. But his detailed eye and matter-of-fact multi-plane staging (a special gift of Japanese helmers who edit with the assistance of sliding panel doors, boxy apartment construction and narrow streets with circumscribed views) never settles for easy sentiment. OHARU may not have the transcendence of his next film, UGETSU/’53, but it has a power of its own.

DOUBLE-BILL: A woman’s place in a restricted society, and Mizoguchi’s technical finesse with long takes and elaborate tracking shots, make Max Ophüls’ THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D . . ./’53 not such a stretch for a Double-Bill.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

RELATOS SALVAJES / WILD TALES (2014)

Oscar® nom’d six-pack pic from Argentina has five bleakly comic, easily digested tales of revenge, plus one furious social farce that leaves the rest behind. The first four revenge tales are near blackout sketches of various lengths, neatly played, if a bit familiar; enjoyable in spite of director Damián Szifrón’s predilection for gimmicky POV camera placement. Recent real life events have unavoidably curdled the first story (about a defeated man who uses an airplane for suicide/revenge), but the next three make their mark: Delayed justice at a roadside diner; Rich man/ Poor man road rage; and a successful engineer whose life spins out of control after his car gets towed for illegal parking. (That fourth one yet another iteration of the old ‘Pay the Two Dollars’ skit.) But stakes get raised in the fifth story, the only one that isn't really a revenge story, but a parable on social injustice that sees personal & civic corruption, class division and the art of the deal played out to help a rich man’s son get away with vehicular manslaughter. A near perfect half-hour, unfortunately followed by the seriously miscalculated tale of a blowout Jewish wedding where the bride takes revenge on her unfaithful groom. Meant as a hoot, it falls flat on its face . . . as do the bride & groom. Stick to stories 2 thru 5.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

DON'T LOOK NOW (1973)

Few films offer a better (make that more idealized) example of the sort of adventurous professionalism that turns critics of a certain age misty-eyed with brain-dead nostalgia for a phantom ‘70s cinema that never was. Much like the empirically unsupportable ‘Golden Age’ Era of ‘50s television, too many touchstone ‘70s pics now seem less artistic achievement than intriguing shortfall . . . or worse. But while many films on director Nicholas Roeg’s maddeningly short C.V. fit that description, this one is surely his breakout masterpiece, the rare iconoclastic thriller that builds as well as tears down. Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie are phenomenally well-paired as a married couple in a crumbling Venice, trying to move past the tragic death of their daughter. But an offhand meeting with a blind psychic and a serial killer on the loose in the old city gets in the way of things . . or does it help them along? The film is all mood (very tense), atmosphere (very dank), color-coding (very red slicker/very boysenberry overcoat), and sex (very good). And if the infamous scary ‘got’cha’ denouement now looks less frightening than facile plot clean-up, the pleasures in holding on while the narrative lines come into linear focus remain very satisfying.

DOUBLE-BILL: Career-wise, Roeg really took it on the chin in the ‘80s, but briefly returned to form on THE WITCHES in 1990, one very scary Kid-Friendly pic.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922)

There’s never been anything quite like this eye-popping oddity from Danish helmer Benjamin Christensen. A sort of documentary tour of witches & Devil worship, it goes back, via woodcuts & engravings, to ancient Egypt & the Renaissance, before using reenactment footage for longer/weirder/scarier tales from the Middle Ages and beyond. (Our modern, secular age finds psychological maladies substituting for yesteryear’s Satanic possession.) A jump from sober-sided illustrated lecture to the phantasmagoric comes when Christensen ups the ante in the second of seven chapters, personally leaping into view to play Beelzebub. How serious are we to take these things? Especially when Christensen seems to hang off to one side, giving subtext, examples & footnotes as needed. Loaded with detail, meticulous sets and, in its second half, striking special effects for broomstick flying, kiss-my-ass orgies (no, really!) and delectatious torture sessions that produce confessional family denunciations, it’s still powerful. The work of a true believer . . . or of a supreme ironist? Criterion’s restored edition is probably the best out there, but some of tinting & toning is so darkly saturated that crucial detail is lost. You can barely see that Christensen is lewdly waggling his tongue like a panting dog as the devil.  (NOTE: Family Friendly? Sure, if there's a Goth teen in the house.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Christensen never quite followed up on this. His six late-silent Hollywood pics sound as interesting as Victor Seastrom’s (both did a Lon Chaney masochistic specialty number) or Paul Leni’s (each with comic Haunted House pics), but they don’t really come off. A better pairing is Carl Dreyer’s deeply disturbing witch-burning classic DAY OF WRATH/’43. Christensen convinces you that he believes; after Dreyer, you believe.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

THE HAPPY TIME (1952)

Charles Boyer is genial pater to a household of horny French-Canadian Huguenots in this puberty-fixated coming-of-age memoir. Based on the stories of Robert Fontaine (and Samuel Taylor’s hit B’way adaptation), there’s a great basic idea to this slice of 1920s nostalgia in positioning these guilt-free French-Canadians against their puritanical Ottawa neighbors. It makes the merest suggestion of gonad-influenced behavior cataclysmically disruptive to outsiders, but warmly approved at home. If only script & execution were worthy of the situations. As the father, Boyer is more or less perfection, even putting over a Father-and-Son talk about sex, lust & love. No small thing. But director Richard Fleischer, just off his great low-budget noir THE NARROW MARGIN/’52, is almost completely out of his element, pushing a good cast toward constant overplaying. (As if they expected an added laugh track.) And it's not only B’way holdover Kurt Kasznar, the dipsomaniac sibling who lives across the street, playing to the back of the house, but also Marcel Dalio’s Grand-père & Louis Jourdan’s philandering wine merchant brother. (BTW: In real life, Dalio was a year younger than Boyer.) The women at home (Mom & her pretty new helper) aren't too interesting, and former Disney star Bobby Driscoll is a bit stiff as the pubescent teen (pun intended), but they're still fun to watch. So too the film in spite of its gaucheries.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Even without Dmitri Tiomkin’s overactive score, this feels like a musical waiting for song cues. Sure enough, Kander & Ebb did the honors in a failed late ‘60s version that earned a Tony Award for Robert Goulet, now playing a traveling photographer, in the Louis Jourdan spot. It’s one of those frustrating musicals that almost works.

Friday, September 4, 2015

COMPANEROS (1970)

Second-tier Spaghetti-Western specialist Sergio Corbucci caught some welcome blowback notoriety when Quentin Tarentino found inspiration (okay, really just a title) in his DJANGO films.* And this non-DJANGO pic isn’t all that different from those earlier Corbucci pics, perhaps a bit more consistent in execution. (Not necessarily a good thing since it stunts ‘highs’ as well as ‘lows.’) Franco Nero, square of jaw, blue of eye, is again treading around war-torn revolutionary Mexico, this time with a boxcar full of guns & munitions. But which faction should he sell to? Tomas Milian, a largely comic bandito in cahoots with a venal General? Fernando Rey, a professorial pacifist revolutionary with a youthful following of trigger-happy Marxists? The standing Mexican army? What about Jack Palance, a shady business profiteer, currently searching for Senor Rey who’s being held prisoner North-of-the-Border? Milian & Nero wind up working together, a partnership of convenience, as one set piece follows another to varying effect. Corbucci can be awful lazy at times (when in doubt, toss in a Gatling gun), then turn around and nail a tricky location trail sequence that’s largely defined by character placement within landscape. (He certainly has some unusual ideas about what the Rio Grande looks like!) And while you don’t get the blissed-out pay-offs found in a classic Sergio Leone film, you do get more Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack. This time with a lulu of a main theme wailing away with chorus.

DOUBLE-BILL: The first DJANGO/’66 has a lot good stuff in it. OR: See what il maestro does with similar elements & a similar set-up in Sergio Leone’s lesser known DUCK YOU SUCKER/’71. (See Write-Ups below.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

CAULDRON OF BLOOD (aka BLIND MAN'S BLUFF) (1970)

Alas, no cauldron of blood in sight. Would a cauldron of flesh-melting acid do? This very cheap, very late Boris Karloff chiller (he died before it came out) has the feel of an Italian giallo horror pic . . . minus blood, female nudity, scares or perversity. So, what’s left? A variation on one of those Wax Museum tales, Karloff’s blinded sculptor uses the bones of real cadavers to build his statues from the inside out. What he doesn’t know is that Viveca Lindfors, the wife who blinded him (don’t ask) finds it’s easier to kill than collect; murdering likely candidates, then boiling their flesh off and setting up the skeletons so blind Boris can get down to work. If only photo-journalist Jean-Pierre Aumont didn’t get in the way with a magazine assignment on the famous artist. Ugh. Pretty tepid doings. And while Karloff had gotten used to this sort of claptrap, Aumont at least had Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT/’73 to look forward to.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Karloff’s last decent film was probably TARGETS/’68, Peter Bogdanovich’s debut pic. Not a total success, but Karloff gets off a memorable monologue that serves as a proper personal eulogy.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

BLOOD AND SAND (1922)

Rudolph Valentino had shot to stardom a year ago on Metro’s THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE/’21. So, Paramount knew they had a sure thing with a second Vicente Blasco Ibáñez adaptation, especially with June Mathis repeating on scenario. And to some extent, they did. But the career move from Metro also meant swapping director Rex Ingram for Fred Niblo, and cameraman John Sietz for Alvin Wyckoff, a drop from inspired to professional. The story’s less inspired, too, charting the quick rise of Rudy’s poor country lad from rural corridas to big city bullfights before a rapid fall when he ignores his loyal, little wife (Lila Lee) for a cruel, sophisticated woman of the world (pop-eyed Nita Naldi). Niblo slavishly copies Ingram’s formal compositional style, but his frame goes static; and he lets Valentino indicate thwarted passion with looks of indigestion. Still, pretty entertaining stuff, especially in the yummy looking 2001 KINO edition (109") with its cleverly compiled Spanish-tinged background score.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Check out the clever, if hardly seamless, editing of stock shots & bullfight actualities with the fictional footage. It saved Paramount tons of bucks and made the reputation of film editor (later director) Dorothy Arzner.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake is also about one-half of a good film. With exceptional use of color & movement in the early childhood scenes. But it too falls apart once wicked senorita Rita Hayworth turns up to steal Ty Power from saintly Linda Darnell. (Though it does replace this film’s deadly philosopher with Laird Cregar’s lively bullfighting critic. See Write-Up below.)