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Friday, October 30, 2015

WHITE WOMAN (1933)

Charles Laughton is extravagantly loathsome as a Cockney vulgarian lording it over his native workforce (with a handful of white outcasts as backup) on his rubber plantation in the jungle. But once he marries scandal-ridden beauty Carole Lombard, saving her from deportation, this self-proclaimed ‘King of the River’ starts to lose control of his coarse kingdom even as he piles on sadistic cruelties. Taken from what must have been a very rum B’way play (11 performances, with Laughton’s part taken by Montagu Love who brought similar terrors to Lillian Gish in the silent classic THE WIND/’28), the stage origins are plain to see in this sub-Somerset Maugham/Joseph Conrad piece. Yet, some real power-mad creepiness oozes out of the sweaty story tropes as trapped men try to pull Lombard into their personal orbit against the boss. And you can’t be sure which of the guys (Charles Bickford, Kent Taylor, Percy Kilbride) will be left standing. Atmospherically shot by Harry Fischbeck and directed in workmanlike fashion by Stuart Walker (he encourages a few OTT close-up reactions from his leads), the film holds you even when at its most ridiculous. What a Mr. Kurtz Laughton might have made in HEART OF DARKNESS. And Lombard, in spite of her bad early rep, is already making a mark, and exceptionally well-dubbed on her vocals by Mona Lowe.

DOUBLE-BILL: Maugham’s great novel in this vein is THE PAINTED VEIL, filmed twice: carefully cleaned up for Garbo/Herbert Marshall/George Brent in ‘34; and more realistic/faithful in 2006 for Naomi Watts/Ed Norton/Liev Schreiber. OR: Don’t forget the looniest of these mad island overseer films, EAST OF BORNEO/’31, also with Charles Bickford and available on YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GluxQ62t4QA

Thursday, October 29, 2015

THE BEAT GENERATION (1959)

For a time in the mid-‘50s, ground-feeding Hollywood producer Albert Zugsmith upped his game significantly with WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56; INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN/’57; TARNISHED ANGELS/’57; even Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL/’58. But he was soon back to cruddy exploitation fodder like this police procedural about a serial rapist, camouflaged & sensationalized as a daring look at those cool-cat coffeehouse hedonists known as The Beats. ON THE ROAD, it ain’t. Hard to imagine this ever being fresh territory, but it’s just possible that the ‘Daddy-O’ slang and middle-aged hipsters were still novel at the time. (Though FUNNY FACE/’57 was kidding this scene two years back.) Flatly lit, with its lack of production values cruelly bared in CinemaScope, it stumbles along until the inevitable capture-the-bad-guy finale gets improbably waylaid by a spontaneous hootenanny musicale! All that’s left is for the detective’s wife, possibly impregnated by the rapist, to give birth after her heart-to-heart with the smiling priest across the street. (We never do find out who’s Papa.) A pre-TWILIGHT ZONE Richard Matheson co-scripted, though you’d never know it (he’d worked for Zugsmith on SHRINKING MAN). As the lead dick, Steve Cochran shows he can chew gum, smoke and kiss the wife at the same time, while partner Jackie Coogan is rather good here (especially in drag on a sting operation). Ray Danton, slick, sick & handsome, manages to give a real perf as the bongo playing perv, but the film conks out just when it needs to be kookie.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Setting detective fare inside the latest L.A. trend usually works out pretty well. Two of Robert Altman’s best, THE LONG GOODBYE/’73 and THE PLAYER/’92, show how to do it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The only real mystery in the pic is what Louis Armstrong is doing in here. Playing the title tune on screen with his band then showing up for another song, he even interacts (as himself) in the storyline. Zugsmith calling in a favor for a marque name? Maybe that explains what Robert Mitchum’s son James, and Charles Chaplin’s kid Charles, Jr. are doing in the cast.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

SYNCOPATION (1942)

Ambitious little musical drama from RKO follows ‘pop’ music’s evolution from the largely black pre-Jazz groups of New Orleans in the early 1900s to Chicago’s all-white Swing Bands of the ‘30s. Paramount had just covered similar terrain with Bing Crosby in BIRTH OF THE BLUES/’41, but visually, this is the far more imaginative work, with director William Dieterle finding striking dramatic compositions for the musical numbers and touches of magic when he pulls the melodic rug out to spotlight the pure rhythmic hush of shuffling footwork on the dance floor. If only the story elements & construction weren’t so idiotic. Adolphe Menjou comes & goes as an architect who leaves New Orleans with daughter Bonita Granville to find success in Chicago. Granville gravitates to a couple of boys, one dies in WWI while the other, cornet playing Jackie Cooper, picks up on the jazz accents she’s brought from the South. By the finale, the black musicians only remain in the picture as ghostly influences. You really get the feeling that everyone was trying for something special, something out of the ordinary, which only makes the commonplace results that much more disappointing. (It also feels like 40 minutes of story material & character development was left on the cutting-room floor.) Harry James, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and many famous others take a bow in brief cameo appearances, and you do get to see Todd Duncan, the original Porgy from Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS, as a horn playing mentor in a rare film outing. But don’t get your hopes up, he doesn’t sing a note.

DOUBLE-BILL: Your second feature is right on the same Cohen Media DVD: a fistful of shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington & Cab Callaway, all in their prime.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)

Except for its disjunctive editing style & penchant for color-tinted filters, this bio-pic of famous physically-challenged physicist Stephen Hawking is so conventional, you forget you’ve watched it while you’re watching it. (Must be the expanding time continuum.) Loaded with acting talent, it’s medium effective (and affective) with Eddie Redmayne’s disabled cosmologist suffering nobly while still looking cute as a puppy. And Charlie Cox, who might be Ben Chaplin’s kid brother, making a tricky gentleman-caller role look easy. Maybe that’s the problem, everyone smooths over the bumps. (The price of adapting from one of your main subjects, the first Mrs. Hawking?) Even some triangulated DESIGN FOR LIVING marital problems leave no mark. Director James Marsh, fresh from documentary-land, uses a frenetic style while Hawking is still getting around on his own; calming down as his ability to move and even speak desert him. The exact opposite of what’s needed to get things across visually. And for an uplifting finale, choose A: Triumphal Speech/Standing ‘O’; B: Civic Honors/Knighthood; or C: Joyous Family Gathering. . . . CORRECT! It’s D: All of the Above!

DOUBLE-BILL: Another ailing physicist gets the glossy treatment in A BEAUTIFUL MIND/01 (as well as Ending ‘A’); but SHINE/’96, the Geoffrey Rush starrer about manic classical pianist David Helfgott, seems a better match.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

INTERSTELLAR (2014)

There were two cinematic nuclear endgames in 1964: Stanley Kubrick’s uproarious & devastating DR. STRANGELOVE or: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, for hep cats & hipsters; and just a few months later, Sidney Lumet’s earnest FAIL SAFE for the squares, a sort of STRANGELOVE FOR DUMMIES. Now, 46 years after Kubrick’s revelatory/irritating/unanswerable 2001/’68 we finally get that film's Squaresville mate in Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, with abstract ideas turned concrete and even positing a moral: Love Makes the World Go ‘Round. No joke, Love Makes the World Go ‘Round, that’s the moral. (Perhaps Nolan missed the note of irony when ‘We’ll Meet Again’ gets sung at the end of STRANGELOVE.) It’s not that INTERSTELLAR takes on 2001 in the straight manner of such laughable fare as 2010/’84 or CONTACT’97; Nolan’s too clever & modest (in a megalomaniacal way) for that. No, this story follows an Earth choking to death on its own dust (the okra crop has just failed!). But someone’s sending cryptogramic messages to Matthew McConaughey’s daughter, messages that lead this space-jockey-turned-farmer (!?) to a secret NASA mission that’s trying to find a replacement planet for the human race . . . on the other side of a Black Hole. Nolan, McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck’s beard and many others use up a lot of good will reserved from better recent projects on this one. (Though not perhaps Jessica Chastain who hasn’t stopped fiddling with her flyaway hair in about three years.) The first two acts are not without interest, and hold a certain restrained dignity in their dogged literalness. But the ginned up dramatics of the third show the makers with a lack of belief in their own material. When a disposable character notes that ‘this data makes no sense,’ you can only nod in agreement, and wait for the next structural trick. (Shh, the film’s HAL 9000 isn't the villain.) Or fend off the giggles when someone in dire straits says ‘It’s not possible!’ And our hero replies, ‘No, it’s necessary!’ Hey, Nolan, you’re trying for 2001, not STAR WARS, right?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

JET PILOT (1957)

Slightly ridiculous, surprisingly entertaining, Howard Hughes sat on his final production for seven years (and saw its budget hit an insupportable 9 mill.) before releasing it. The loopy story opens as Janet Leigh’s ace Ruskie flygal parks her jet on John Wayne’s U.S. base. Then it’s bicker-at-first-sight/mutual attraction for these two, with lots of Jules Furthman’s signature innuendo-laced dialogue in his penultimate credit. (WAYNE, with Leigh at a well-stocked Ladies Dress Shop, glancing at the bra-display mannequins: ‘See, we also believe in uplifting the masses.’ Jiminy Crickets!) Turns out, Leigh’s on a secret mission to get Wayne to ‘go’ for her, as in ‘go’ all the way back to Siberia. He takes the bait, but knowingly. Last to bail out is the defector. Director Josef von Sternberg, on his penultimate Hollywood assignment* does some of his best (and oddest) work here in that Dress Shop. One composition with a mannequin’s head placed between our mismatched lovers is a classic, but then, everything about this pair is a little off-kilter, delightfully so. And while you expect Jo to turn Leigh into a Sternbergian Goddess (he couldn’t care less about her Mid-West accent), who’da thunk he’d also make Duke look so gol darn glamorous. Not his usual craggy/handsome of the time, but . . . well, you don’t expect to see John Wayne get Sternberg's full Marlene Dietrich lighting treatment (above/just off the nose); or to respond to it so well. Even better are the generous Second Unit flying sequences (no doubt where those millions went to) with Chuck (‘Right Stuff’) Yeager doing the stunts. And all looking fabu in the gorgeous print sourced for the latest DVD editions.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hughes’ reasoning is always tough to figure out. Perhaps he held this back knowing that FLYING LEATHERNECKS/’51, a Nicholas Ray pic with Wayne & WWII planes, was in the pipeline at his studio. *Poor Jo saw his final Hollywood gig (MACAO/’52) released five years before this limped into theaters. (Via Universal since Hughes’ RKO was going under.)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

ERNEST AND CELESTINE (2012)

The popular French children’s classic is carefully reimagined in this quietly charming hand-drawn animated feature, also from France. It begins in a mouse orphanage where a strict governess keeps her charges in line with a nightly scary bear story. (The neat straight lines of little mouse cots suggests MADELINE also gets an occasional reading.) Only little Celestine bucks the system, imagining that the mice world below ground and the bear world above, needn’t make them natural enemies. (METROPOLIS/’27, anyone?) After all, there’s already an established symbiotic relationship with lost baby-bear teeth collected at night for use as replacements for missing mouse incisors. And Celestine soon gets a chance to prove her theory when she gets stuck above ground over-night and is found by Ernest the very hungry bear. But even should they work things out, will the bear society and the mouse society let them be friends? The problem for the creative team is similar to what the Disney artists faced adapting WINNIE THE POOH back in the ‘60s.* How to transfer the watercolor wash drawing style of the books off the page and onto the big screen? Keeping the essence while adding enough volume so characters work as weight-bearing figures in motion. This is all neatly handled by directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner; it’s the storyline that keeps fading in and out. (And, on the English-language track, an all-star vocal team far less apt than the French-language cast.) Best for the fanciful underground mouse world, and for one scary and one wintry flight of visual fancy.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Attention from the lyric translator, that is. The English-language track puts the accent on the first syllable of Ernest (ERN-est). But when this bear sings his street-musician spiel, we switch to French pronunciation (er-NEST) to match the melody’s scansion. Sacré bleu! Sloppy, sloppy.

DOUBLE-BILL: * At 25 minutes, WINNIE THE POOH AND THE BLUSTERY DAY/’66, the first of that series, makes a great companion piece. And talk about perfect vocal casting!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

UPTIGHT (1968)

Equally inspired and embarrassing, Jules Dassin (the most technically accomplished of the Hollywood Communist Witch-Hunt victims) ended two decades of European exile helming & co-scripting this rough-hewn remake of John Ford’s THE INFORMER/’35. (The Ford film is itself a remake of a little-known 1929 British Part-Talkie with Lars Hanson.*) Dassin (writing with actors Ruby Dee & Julian Mayfield) moves the story of the ousted, down-on-his-luck IRA member who drunkenly informs on his on-the-run best pal for the usual 20 pieces of silver, from Ireland to Cleveland, with the IRA replaced by a revolutionary Black Power cell. It’s one of those too clever by half ideas that might have worked if they hadn’t overplayed their dramatic hand tying it in with the inner-city riots that occurred in the aftermath of the MLK assassination. At heart an urban chase pic (with pauses for radical politics & philosophy), the genre elements feel like a cheap response to those eventful days & nights. Worse, Dassin makes a fatal casting error with debuting Julian Mayfield as the fast-imploding informer. Victor McLaglen may overplay his powerful, lumbering ox of self-pity and desperation in Ford’s version, but he’s always a charismatic lump. Mayfield, in a role that needs a Paul Robeson or a Forest Whitaker, is just a lump. (He never made another film.) That said, everything else in here is gosh darn fascinating, with a phenomenal acting line-up (Dee, Raymond St. Jacques, the great Roscoe Lee Brown as ‘nigger, stool pigeon & fag,’ Frank Silvera, Juanita Moore, and a smooth-as-Sam-Cooke perf from Max Julien), and a compelling physical look on screen (done on a dime) from two legends, production designer Alexandre Trauner & cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Along with Dassin, that reps a lot of White/Euro progressive sensitivity, and may explain the Expressionist/Super-realist sets & the throbbingly color-saturated actual locations. (On the other hand, Booker T. Jones’ score comes without any condescending Euro-art filter. Note bonus poster.)

It’s all something of an imaginary time-capsule, and probably easier to accept now than when it came out. But damn interesting stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL/LINK: * Either version of THE INFORMER: John Ford’s 1935 classic now feels overly curated, but still necessary. The adventurous can try wading thru the 1929 Part-Talkie on YOUTUBE in a scuzzy Public Domain print. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX5YSIxphz0

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

AGATHA CHRISTIE'S MISS MARPLE (1984-'92)

The ground has shifted since we last canvassed the many iterations of Agatha Christie’s classic MISS MARPLE Whodunnits.* Top recommendation remains with the redoubtable Joan Hickson, whose Marple has little in common with the dithering, twinkling, dotty old dears who usually take her on. Instead, a wise old bird who expects evil to show, neither shocked nor exactly displeased to find her view on the base nature of humankind confirmed. Yet, as her calm, Buddha-like stillness & powers of concentration materialize at one crime scene after another (‘Will that woman ever be gone?’), she grows unsettlingly more hilarious with each encounter. Far, far funnier than Miss Marples who try to be funny. Hickson isn’t merely the best of all Marples, she’s the only Marple. So, what’s shifted? Presentation. What had been a qualified RECOMMENDATION due to the subfusc/low-grade technical qualities of the old DVDs gets bumped up to Wholehearted Recommendation with the entire series looking fresh as new paint after a huge visual upgrade in the latest BBC restoration. (Check our poster for the cover you want to look for.) VOLUME One is fairly typical of the lot with two excellent episodes (#1 & 4); one pretty good (#3); and a clunker (#2, oddly the only film in the series from a ‘name’ director). As a whole, they remain modest little murder puzzles, but an easily acquired delight, not without their intriguing dark side.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: They really took a lot of care on these films. Note how that lovely, uplifting swell of music that leads back into the main Miss Marple theme at the end of each section is dropped in Part Two of A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED when death calls with unexpected emotional depth right at intermission. A nice touch.

LINK: * http://maksquibs.blogspot.com/2010/04/miss-marple-65-1961-200.html

Sunday, October 18, 2015

MOMO E NO TEGAMI / A LETTER TO MOMO (2011)

Too gentle, too pastel, too Japanese for the kid-based Stateside animation market, Hiroyuki Okiura’s fragile film has its moments, but can’t deliver on its delicate promise. The heartfelt story tags along with three spirit-goblins who watch over a young girl who’s just lost her father. For her, moving with mom from bustling Tokyo to the quiet old family place on a small chain of islands hardly helps. It’s all so . . . unrelatable. Teen years are tough enough, but just try making new friends when you spend half your time interacting with three grotesque, constantly hungry and pretty funny spirits no one else can see. If only there were a few advantages to offset the misunderstandings & embarrassments they keep getting you into. Some of the local terrain & activities are not without charm, and beautifully observed in washes of color, but the visual tone can also turn wan, with a dull matte-finish in the shade or the interiors. And a ginned up climax with a big ride to the rescue when Mom’s asthma suddenly acts up feels tacked on. The film earns its best laughs whenever a rude moment interrupts the rural peace (the frog-faced goblin has the best lines and the best delivery). But the film is probably of most interest to animé-heads.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ghibli Studios outclassed this with their mid-60s teenage saga from the same year FROM UP ON POPPY HILL/’11. OR: For a Golden Age Hollywood classic, there’s Elia Kazan’s superb debut A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN/’45 which has surprising similarities and nearly the same tear-stained grace-note ending.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN (1985)

With self-appointed Government-Secret whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden & WikiLeaks upon us, this fact-inspired/ stranger-than-fiction ‘70s precursor shouldn’t feel as dated or out-of-touch as it does. But something’s off right from the start when director John Schlesinger uses POV shots from the perspective of Timothy Hutton’s trained falcon, peering thru his little leather head gear. As things turn out, a host oddly forced character perspectives (thankfully not falcon-based) derail this promising espionage/buddy pic. You could assign the troubles to first-time scripter Steven Zaillian who lets the espionage game run on far too long before dashing thru an undernourished third act, but the generally lousy stylistics of mid-80s mainstream film production deserve just as much blame. As the seminary drop-out who takes an interim job with mid-level government security clearance, and then starts receiving high-security secrets thru some technical glitch via office teletype, Hutton gets a lot of his character across. Neatly cross-wiring high-minded (if specious) conscience-driven rationales about ‘sharing’ CIA information with Soviet agents to more personal Oedipal conflicts with an overbearing Dad. But his relationship with old childhood pal, and drug-addled fuck-up Sean Penn as his message courier never really adds up. Hard to see these two sharing a joke, let alone the remarkable low-maintenance espionage conspiracy they pull off . . . for a while. Or maybe it’s just Penn who can’t pull it off. Already into his Mini-Me Robert De Niro stage, his perf now looks all show/no tell. Fortunately, David Suchet is around as their wised-up, ironic Soviet handler to keep things tasty.

DOUBLE-BILL: Schlesinger’s tv film AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD/’83, another tru-life spy yarn is both slyer & more satisfying. Script: Alan Bennett; Star: Alan Bates; Subject: the Soviet-exile quietus of famed spy Guy Burgess.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

GUNMAN'S WALK (1958)

Unheralded, but excellent, this mid-sized Western from B-pic specialist Phil Karlson charts the sibling rivalry between wild Tab Hunter & mild James Darren. Van Heflin’s their rough, tough Dad who likes the reflection of his own reckless youth in Hunter, refusing to see signs of danger or even how much the kid resents the old man. Only when Hunter rides a Native American off a ridge in pursuit of a horse, and Darren proposes to the dead man’s ‘half-breed’ sister (Kathryn Grant) after a botched trial, do the changin’ times of advancing civilization force Heflin’s hand. Karlson stages this stuff awfully well, in town and out, though Columbia’s backlot Western street is visually none too inviting. And while some anti-racism & psychological markers are laid out too a little too plainly, Frank Nugent’s script (he was fresh off John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS/’56) is striking & effective. So too, Tab Hunter’s unexpectedly forceful perf. But just about everyone is good in here, and Van Heflin more than that. With a final flourish that may leave you in tears. Where has this one been hiding?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Once out on a Pan-and-Scan VHS tape, the current DVD is Region 2 compatible. But the film, in its proper WideScreen ratio, has been showing up on both TCM and on the digital-antenna GET TV movie channel.

DOUBLE-BILL: Trying to move past his Teen Idol days, Tab Hunter was even better playing another heel in next year’s THEY CAME TO CORDURA/’59, but his star was in fast decline.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

RUN ALL NIGHT (2015)

Liam Neeson’s first flop since carving out a healthy commercial niche as America’s aging tough guy/man-of-action in TAKEN/’08 turns out to be the best of the lot. And with Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed Neeson’s unwatchable NON-STOP/’14. Go figure. Yes!, let’s go figure. Well, the others were formulaic horror or vigilante actioners, generally well-made, easy to swallow. NIGHT’s a more sophisticated work, with a depth in character and a narrative that veers off-track now & then. Quality stuff. Exciting, too. But not what was expected. Neeson’s a down-for-the-count mob hitman forced to pull things together one last time when his estranged son (Joel Kinnaman, excellent) gets accidentally involved in a failed drug deal. Worse, the linchpin on the collapsed scheme is the loser son of Neeson’s old mob boss (Ed Harris, excellent). (Go ahead, put ‘excellent’ by the whole cast & crew.) Once the bodies start to drop, Dad’s the only guy with the skill set & instincts to set things right. But only if his son can give him a long night of absolute trust. Neeson brings in a lot of Robert Mitchum’s world weary grace (think FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE/’73; THE YAKUZA’74), but with more gas in the tank. (It’s a cheat to have Neeson snap back so completely, but you accept it.) And once past the needlessly fussy digital manipulation (a nasty case of Guy Richie-itis), the film properly lands in the semi-familiar terroir of ‘30s French poetic-realism, a precursor to Hollywood film noir.* It’s potent stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: *For some classic cinematic French poetic-realism, try Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert’s LE JOUR SE LÈVE/’39, with Jean Gabin in the obvious Neeson spot. Remade in Hollywood by Anatole Litvak with Henry Fonda as THE LONG NIGHT/’47, it’s hard to imagine this team not knowing the film. Or, at least, it’s title.

Monday, October 12, 2015

THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU (1969)

Director Basil Dearden’s try at plush, Edwardian whimsy doesn’t quite come off. It’s one of those films where cast & crew seem to be having more fun than you are. Loosely taken from the Jack London/Robert Fish novel about a Gentlemen’s Club of Assassins who secretly control international finance & governments thru deft murders, a likelier influence was THE WRONG BOX/’66, another sumptuous, civilized period comedy with a macabre plot.* And, thanks to its handsome, overstuffed production design (very William Morris), gorgeous cinematography (very Geoffrey Unsworth) and cast (very Diana Rigg), it’s often a pleasure to look at. But Dearden can’t balance the suspense elements with his tongue-in-cheek rogues out for lively adventure. The morbid plot has Rigg blindly hiring Bureau chief Oliver Reed to be the society’s next victim. He’ll have to take out everyone else on the board of directors to survive. As mocking hero, Reed hasn’t exactly got the light touch needed, though seeing him in one painfully transparent disguise after another may be the best joke in here. It’s not a bad pic, but imagine Hugh Grant in front of the camera and Blake Edwards behind to see how this might have taken flight.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Though not as good as you may recall, THE WRONG BOX certainly matches up nicely.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

UOMINI SI NASCE POLIZIOTTI SI MUORE / LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976)

Pop schlock cop thriller, sloppily written by prolific Fernando Di Leo, but helmed in jangly, effective style by Ruggero Deodato. Flipping from violent mob tales to equally violent special unit detectives*, Di Leo can’t be bothered with niceties like clues, investigation or actual police procedure as he tags along with the prettiest pair of arresting dicks in Rome (Marc Porel; Ray Lovelock) who speed on motorbike to the site of the next upcoming crime scene. (They get advance word thanks to their boss Adolfo Celi of THUNDERBALL/’65 fame.) After witnessing a violent purse snatching, the boys piggyback on their bike and take off on a wild chase all over Rome, ancient monuments & decorative stairways be damned. It’s the best thing in the pic (and apparently partially ‘stolen’). The boys have a nasty habit of not bringing ‘em home alive (avoiding the courts via street justice is so much easier), coupled with their even more alarming sexual harassment routines that do little to hide the platonic bromance of model-worthy cops with windswept locks: one blond, one brunette. And you know it’s platonic because when they screw the same broad (as part of a case!), they take on the willing gal consecutively. Eventually, the boys track down Mr., Big (look!, it’s art house fave Renato Salvatori), but this is best seen as a fine little time-capsule of ‘70s Italian mores & B-cinema. And no doubt an acquired taste.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Playing the same violent game, but switching from Mob protagonist to Cop protagonist was a tactic more or less forced on James Cagney back in the mid’30s. You have to wonder if something similar happened here.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

THINGS TO COME (1936)

H. G. Wells’ future-historical, which made its video rep over the decades via murky Public Domain editions of various lengths, has been visually restored (more like resurrected*) on Criterion and other specialty labels. Now, it’s the intellectual content that looks murky. It begins auspiciously as total war comes to Everytown on Christmas 1940 in a sort of Soviet-montage-meets-Fritz Lang prologue. And right from the opening, story, dialogue & acting give off a hollow, didactic ring of unearned imprimatur. Nothing improves as we dash thru a century of death & destruction, leading to a prosperous rebirth in ultra-modern cities with Progressives holding back Regressives by the skin of their teeth. (Wells’ package might seem more convincing if the good guys didn’t look like Proto-Fascists dictating decisions for those poor, deluded folk below.) So, what’s the continuing appeal? It’s all in the look of the thing, a très avant manner, call it World’s Fair Chic, that still sends off a charge (and a chill). Loaded with cool analogue F/X, the models, optical-printer superimpositions & traveling mattes were coordinated by various design experts (William Cameron Menzies, Vincent Korda, László Moholy-Nagy, Ned Mann) with mix-and-match official titles. If only someone had bothered to make Wells layer a bit of character humanity & dramatic development in with the lecture.

DOUBLE-BILL: While its groundbreaking futuristic visuals often gets THINGS lumped together with METROPOLIS/’27 (looking back) or 2001/’68 (looking ahead), it has little in common with either. Rather, with ill-defined political thinking and a fondness for speechifying rather than dialogue, it’s closer to the grand idiotic dreams of an Ayn Rand whopper like the inadvertently hilarious THE FOUNTAINHEAD/’49, though not nearly as fun.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Alas, for all the visual restoration, the film’s superb Arthur Bliss score still sounds distorted on the overloaded original soundtrack. Bliss recorded excerpts at the time (not off the original soundtrack) now on Dutton, but a fine modern recording of the Suite is out from Rumor Gamba & the BBC Phil on Chandos.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

THE PHYSICIAN (2013)

A big, old-fashioned, historically inaccurate, slightly corny, period entertainment, the sort of classically structured, plot-driven saga Hollywood rarely tries now. But they do in Germany, and with everyone speaking English everywhere you go! (No doubt trying for a Stateside theatrical release that didn't happen.) Based on one of those mega-bestsellers no one you know has read, it’s tasty fun on it’s own terms, just don’t expect it to rise much above a Renaissance Fair on the believability scale. Blandly handsome Tom Payne is the orphaned British lad who’s apprenticed to barber/surgeon Stellan Skarsgård, then gobsmacked upon meeting legit medicos in the isolated Jewish community. Where did they learn these miracles? So off he hies to Persia, hoping to learn from Ben Kingsley, greatest physician of the Eleventh Century, finding danger & romance along the way. The real interest here lies less in acquired medical advances or in keeping his Christianity a secret, but in the clash between a relatively enlightened Shah open to scientific enquiry, and the growing clan of religious zealots who want to shut it all down. Some things never change, East or West. The shiny production doesn’t always convince, the many CGI cityscapes are anything but an improvement on old matte painting analogue techniques; while the mix of accents can also be a pain along with a score that leans toward Maurice Jarre in the desert and on John Williams in town. Then again, originality is not the point. Instead, a Tall Tale with the world’s first appendectomy as climax; told graphically, with painterly compositions off a Hallmark gift card. Chances are, there’s an even better story in the facts.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a Hollywood comparison, try THE EGYPTIAN/’54, the first CinemaScope film to flop commercially.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

THE CONQUEROR (1956)

Hiding behind that title is what might have been called Genghis Khan: The Early Years, a big, slightly crazed (okay, ludicrous) epic with John Wayne as the once and future king of the Mongols . . . back in the day. A major production for Howard Hughes’s fast-fading RKO Pictures, it was an unhappy sophomore effort for singer/actor Dick Powell as director, with painfully stiff interiors matching a hopelessly stiff cast. Heaps o’ horses, though! Mountain-covering herds of them in some impressive action scenes as Tartars attack. (Likely the work of second unit director Cliff Lyons who’d do much the same on the next GENGHIS KHAN/’65 bio-pic.*) Forgettable as this is as product, the pic remains infamous for its Utah shooting locations near recent atomic testing ranges. We’ll never know how much nuclear fall-out stayed in the atmosphere, but we do know that all four top-billed leads (Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz, Agnes Moorehead) developed and eventually died of cancer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Look for a caravan-on-wheels in the Mongol campsite.  The first straw-covered mobile trailer to hit the market?

DOUBLE-BILL: *Khan hasn’t fared so well on screen. The ‘65 film is a trashy hoot and the Russian art-house epic, MONGOL: THE RISE OF GENGHIS KHAN/’07, was a trilogy that never got past Chapter One.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

THE UNFORGIVEN (1960)

There’s something uncomfortable about this John Huston Western. That’s often a dramatic plus, a sign of complicated reactions to characters & situations. Not so here; more like narrative indigestion. Taken from an Alan LeMay novel, author of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS/’56, the story has similar racist and anti-racist sentiments, but unlike Ford, Huston loses confidence in his story every time he’s forced to choose sides. At heart, it’s a simple ‘changling’ tale, with Audrey Hepburn as an adopted daughter who may be pure-blooded Indian. A lovely 31 at the time, she might pull off the part physically if she were half her age. (And might sound it if she could drop the tony Mid-Atlantic accent.) As the older ‘brother’ who runs the ranch, Burt Lancaster doesn’t get much closer to his role, though the two do make a starry couple and it was, after all, his own production company making the film. Supporting roles come off much better, with Audie Murphy very fine as the wayward brother, working again with Huston a decade after the director gave him his start in THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE/’51. And, of course, Lillian Gish, as their mother is a pioneering woman to the bone, briefly bringing the film up to its full allegorical potential playing a bit of civilizing Mozart on a new piano out on the open prairie. Though what she thought of Huston restaging the climax of THE BIRTH OF A NATION/’15 as the climax to this film can only be guessed at. Only the KKK goes missing from this blatant lift.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: What an odd acoustic is given to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Recorded in Italy with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, the cavernous sound stage keeps pulling you out of the pic. So too the aging print on this Kino Lorber DVD, dulling the superb lensing from Hepburn’s fave cinematographer Franz Planer (ROMAN HOLIDAY/’53; THE NUN’S STORY/’59; three more).

Monday, October 5, 2015

LOVE HAPPY (1949)

The Marx Brothers, kings of anarchic ‘30s comedy, went out not with a bang, but with a whimper on this cobbled together feature. Or so they say. Yet the film, more Marx Bros. addendum than stand alone project, generates nearly as many laughs as their last three @ M-G-M (AT THE CIRCUS/’39; GO WEST/’40; THE (perfectly dreadful) BIG STORE/’41). The original idea was for just Harpo, but Chico owed the usual gambling debts, so he came on board, and loyal brother Groucho showed up as Special Guest star. Half the film is taken over by a struggling musical comedy troupe Harpo looks out for; the other half involves a missing diamond necklace lost in a can of sardines. At least Harpo & Chico get better than average specialty numbers for piano & harp while Groucho gets to introduce Marilyn Monroe to the screen. The backstage stuff is no more than padding to bump the running time up to feature-length, but Harpo does get to work in some neat meta-physical gags with a distinctive Dadaist twist. (In one, Harpo ‘mimes’ a message to Chico . . . over the phone!) Some of the wilder jokes are possibly the doing of co-scripter Frank Tashlin, still making Loony Tunes @ Warners. Too bad they didn’t have a fantasist like René Clair to direct instead of dependable, earthbound David Miller. Even so, you can figure out the gags that don’t work in your head while enjoying the ones that do. Along the way, look close for Raymond Burr as one of the heavies, trying not to break up as he forces Harpo to smoke a huge rope pipe.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: At one point, Chico has to play a little bit of actual Chopin (the ‘Military’ Polonaise) to keep the plot moving. Wondering if he can play it supplies the only tension in the pic.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (1941)

Evocatively helmed by Henry Hathaway, this very loose adaptation of a long forgotten novel by the once ubiquitous Harold Bell Wright makes for a decent slice of backwoods Ozarks Americana. And lovely to look at in surprisingly delicate TechniColor for the time, coaxed out by lenser Charles Lang. Harry Carey, a great Western star of the silent era, gets a rare lead in an A-pic, co-starring as prodigal dad to John Wayne’s revenge-minded son. Betty Field, in a lovely perf*, is the neighboring gal who guesses at the relationship, but knows Wayne would kill Carey if he recognized the father whose desertion led to his mother’s early death. Unable to reveal his identity, Carey takes on the task of helping just about everyone in the little valley, altruistic behavior that just adds to the suspicions of his new neighbors. That’s especially true for stubborn, embittered valley matriarch Beulah Bondi, certain that Carey’s out to destroy her illegal moonshine business and steal the affections of her favored, but damaged son (a haunting perf from Marc Lawrence). At times, the melodrama and the locals’ earthy qualities are short on conviction or come off as condescending, but much is quite subtly handled. And a self-immolation climax is something of an astonishment.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Betty Field showed her remarkable range over her next two films, BLUES IN THE NIGHT/’41 and KINGS ROW/’42, and it may have been that chameleon quality that kept her from the major film career she seemed destined for. OR: For true Smoky Mountain authenticity, try Karl Brown’s sui generis location-shot late silent STARK LOVE/’27.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: John Wayne was famously rescued from B-Western purgatory via a standout lead in John Ford’s STAGECOACH/'39. And, in a lesser way, Harry Carey also found his way out of B-Western purgatory in 1939 with a standout supporting perf in Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. It didn’t make the 60ish Carey a star again, but it got him back in the majors.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (1954)

Ultra-tough prison meller shows its age in some sound-bite bromides on inmate sociology (quick-fix remedies via meals, guards, isolating psychos), but with dead-on casting & razor-sharp action staging from director Don Siegel in a great early credit, it's terse & effective all the way thru. Filmed by Russell Harlan in a god-sent location, an unused, slab-like maximum security unit at Folsom Prison, the film jumps to life after a brief documentary set-up, walking us thru a bit of lock-up routine. Prisoners down for the count with each clang of a cell-bolt. The riot that soon breaks out is meant as a principled stand, but soon spins out of control, spreading to other units with alarming speed; a domino effect perfectly handled by Siegel working on all cylinders. And look for a stunning sequence with hostages tied to a pipe along a wall that’s been prepped with dynamite to blow. Those hostages make for a Goya-worthy composition. Great (anti) poetic-justice ending, too, followed by a perfect, brusque tracking-shot out.

DOUBLE-BILL: Siegel went back to prison for one of his best late efforts, his last Clint Eastwood pic, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ/’79.

Friday, October 2, 2015

SEVEN SINNERS (1940)

Hollywood utility player Tay Garnett helmed more than his fair share of genre fodder, but rose to the occasion when given half a chance. Here, he’s on form and in his element, playing out story & character riffs to recall some of his best work in ONE WAY PASSAGE/’32 and CHINA SEAS/’35*. Marlene Dietrich, cementing her renewed top-tier status after DESTRY RIDES AGAIN/’39 (still exotic/less abstract), is another riot-inducing bar-hall ‘chantuesie,’ now in modern tropical climes. Drifting from port to port with a couple of loyal pals (klepto-pickpocket Mischa Auer & ham-fisted protector Broderick Crawford), she lands in a new sort of trouble when she falls hard for John Wayne’s Navy officer. The feeling’s mutual, but also a disaster for the career-minded Duke, especially when waterfront thug Oskar Homolka claims Marlene as his own; then calls in the goons to prove it. It’s nonsense, of course, but awfully well organized by Garnett. (Some OTT bar fights might be out of an Agnes de Mille ballet.) Lenser Rudolph Maté makes it all look like an easy shoot, and quickly susses out how to do right by the famous Marlene cheek bones, feathers, sparkly hats and a spectacular skin-tight ‘nude’ number, courtesy of designer Irene. And what an unusually deep acting bench from Universal Pictures: Dietrich, Wayne, Auer, Crawford, Homolka, plus Reginald Denny, Anna Lee, Billy Gilbert, even a nice bit for Albert Dekker for a not unhappy (how'd it get by the Production Code) ending.

DOUBLE-BILL: *If Lana Turner/John Garfield’s POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE/’46 is Garnett’s best-known; ONE WAY PASSAGE is his best; and CHINA SEAS most like this.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

CASH MCCALL (1960)

Why vet Warners producer Henry Blanke put B-list megger Joseph Pevney on this full-rigged prestige item is anyone’s guess. Pevney, not one to bring much to the party, manages to keep his big cast in line, but the film’s at best a missed opportunity. Natalie Wood, in a charming perf that doesn’t strain her natural limitations, is the daughter of Dean Jaggar, a manufacturing prez looking to sell out. James Garner’s Cash McCall is a likely buyer with two knocks against him: he’s more turnover specialist than company man, and he’s got a shared romantic past with Wood that ended badly. The script relies on too many contrived misunderstandings, especially a misogynist’s delight of a subplot with Nina Foch as a sexually frustrated virago. But many ideas & dialogue play with a nifty Shavian swing to them, sort of a sub-MAJOR BARBARA overview/dialectic on responsible capitalism. This from, of all people, longtime woman’s pic specialist Leonore Coffee on her last movie credit. But it all could have been so much better. Something Foch & Jaggar may have gossiped about as former supporting players on director Robert Wise & scripter Ernest Lehman’s EXECUTIVE SUITE/’54, a corporate drama that touches most of the bases missed here.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned, EXECUTIVE SUITE; the modern snark of OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY/’91 with Greg Peck, Danny DeVito & Dean Jones; or even BARBARIAN’S AT THE GATE/’93 with James Garner still at the game.