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Monday, November 30, 2015

WHAT IS CINEMA? (2013)

Everyone knows Chuck Workman, the master clip editor who made a name (and a specialty) culling themed film compilations, memorable snaps of shared cultural history, for splashy award shows. Still best known for PRECIOUS IMAGES/’86 (100 years of commercial cinema in eight breathless minutes), his once fresh format has now been done to death. Even at the time, the real fun to his visual juxtapositions came less from cumulative effect than as ad-hoc NAME THAT CLIP party game. Here, he tries for something bigger, and falls flat on his face, mixing-and-matching mini-monologues (Talking Heads/audio voice-over) organized into loosely categorized montages that try to cover avant-garde & experimental work (and their makers) as well as the expected commercial heavyweights. Laudable in theory, in practice they end up cancelling each other out, neither adding up to more than the sum of their parts nor sparking interest in something heretofore unseen. (Though here and there, a jolt of negative clarity emerges as when Kubrick’s THE SHINING/’80 suddenly looks as studied and visually dead as EYES WIDE SHUT/’99.) As to our subject? ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN/’48 has as much to offer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: So, what is cinema? As philosophy, if not as physical object, Jean-Luc Godard got it right: ‘Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second.’ Or rather, Godard got it half right. Cinema has two parents. It was the Lumière Brothers whose actualitiés gave us truth @ 24 fps. (And as a bonus, in L'arroseur arrosé/1895, the basics for a century of narrative film.) But on the other side of our cinematic family, the ‘trick’ films of Georges Méliès churned out lies (or if you prefer, fantasy) at 24 frames per second. A hundred years on, digital/computer manipulation swings things advantage Méliès. Perhaps the question to ask is ‘What was cinema?’

Sunday, November 29, 2015

IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA / BLOOD BRIDES (aka) HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970)

A meager offering from Italian Horror (Giallo) specialist Mario Bava with his usual stylistics (zoom shots, gore, boobs, out-of-focus transitions) at half mast. Stephen Forsyth is the handsome, if gelid, bridal dress designer who slashes his models after they try on his latest creations. And when his detested wife catches on, she gets the same treatment only to return as a ghostly apparition. There’s even a dumb detective hanging around to miss obvious clues. Hard to know what attracted Bava here, though if you let your mind drift a bit some of the elements play out like a gender-swap gloss on Alfred Hitchcock’s MARNIE/’64, right down to the big 'peep-hole' explanatory psychological ‘reveal’ at the end, screen-filling red infusions, and a lead who can’t act much.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Bava was famous for his stylishly bold use of color, but early b&w pics like BLACK SUNDAY/’60 and BLACK SABBATH/’63 also rate high.


ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Forsyth gave up his film career after this, but perhaps Bava let him keep the stupendous pair of pajamas he wears at breakfast. Black & white, with stove-pipe legs and a silver belt against a pattern of interlocked vertical chains. Forget the bridal dresses, order the P.J.s!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

After 30 years, original writer/director George Miller reboots his MAD MAX franchise without taking the easy ‘origin story’ fallback option. Instead, diving straight into a new chapter and instantly erasing any lingering disappointment with THUNDERDOME/’85, the unhappy third chapter. And it’s really something to watch Miller @ 70, still able to organize some of the cleanest, most viscerally exciting & readable extended action sequences around. There’s just too much of them. Trapped by marketplace demands and the lure of unlimited CGI possibilities, Miller hits kinetic overload, pleasing the FanBoy gamer base clutching their replay buttons, but losing much sense of consequence. What’s really at stake when it’s so easy to pop back from deadly injury? (That goes for the ‘muscle’ vehicles as well as the muscle men.) And then, the final action fillip isn’t even good CGI. A shame, since the simple story is neatly embellished as a gaggle of runaway brides in the expected post-apocalyptic world try to drive their way to reach a rumored Green Zone with help from a couple of goonish bad guys who quickly turn downright sentimental along the dangerous journey. Now and then, the film pulls back for a stunning vista that might have come out of one of those early Chuck Jones’ animated CinemaScope ROAD RUNNER shorts, but too much of this Brave New World is less than convincing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink art design wedded/welded to primitive custom & fanciful industrial gadgetry. It’s still something to see, if you don’t mind the flat acting presence of hard-headed, thick-lipped Tom Hardy. The rare actor who loses personality when the face mask comes off.

DOUBLE-BILL: MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR/’81, with its classic truck battle sequence, the unquestioned champ in the series, plays perfectly well on its own.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942)

The real mystery on this little detective thriller (a decent enough programmer once the lead is offed) is why Edgar Allan Poe’s trio of Paris crime stories for proto-detective C. Auguste Dupin, the Rosetta Stone of ratiocination tales, haven’t been adapted by the usual suspects. We should be on the third or fourth PBS/Mystery iteration by now. True, the little stories need expanding, but that hardly disqualifies them from BBC/PBS attention. Heck, last time ‘round they added a prologue to Dickens’ not exactly narrative-starved OLIVER TWIST. And what of the plotty back-flips for THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD? As for this MYSTERY, well, Universal didn’t exactly go all out. Director Phil Rosen, a Monogram Pictures stalwart, proves a dull dog, though he does perk up a bit on backlot exteriors, just don’t hope for much Parisian flavor. Patric Knowles makes for an amusingly disengaged Dupin, here a sort of forensic chemical doctor; and the ancient Maria Ouspenskaya, as the victim’s ambivalent mother, retains her odd manner of looking past her fellow players. (No doubt searching for old pals from the Moscow Art Players.) Plus the always slightly bizarre Maria Montez as Marie Roget in her last near-normal role before Universal figured out how to properly use her (and TechniColor!) in a series of deliriously silly adventure pics.

DOUBLE-BILL: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is the Poe/Dupin story that gets all the feature & tv attention (’86; ‘71; ‘54; ‘32), none too happily.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

NOUS NE VIELLIRONS PAS ENSEMBLE / WE WON’T GROW OLD TOGETHER (1974)

Maurice Pialat’s clear-eyed examination of a miserable, inexplicable six-year affair, one of his most acclaimed titles, is like Strindberg for dullards. Poor Jean Yanne is (quite properly) physically repulsive as the casually married documentarian (you keep thinking his arm hair will graft onto his bed partner) contentedly stuck in an abusive relationship with younger, less sophisticated Marlène Jobert. He’s addicted to her and doesn’t know it; she’s working thru self-esteem issues. Every encounter rapidly descends into altercation or parting: Sometimes she leaves; sometimes he literally throws her out. It’s all meant to be brutally honest, with purposely drab lensing, crabbed compositions, jumpy continuity and a faux improvised feel to the perfs. (Like Cassavetes without the gloss of Method Acting Seminars.) Occasionally, the staging is so whacky & stiff (as when Yanne meets up with Jobert’s polite, but seething parents), you wonder if Pialat is trying for some sort of embarrassed comic effect. But, no, that’d be real Strindberg, Pialat is too serious for such trivialities.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pialat’s first feature, L’ENFANCE NUE/’68 or POLICE/’85 are valuable pics, nearly as good as the abstract humanism of an early short L’AMOUR EXISTE/’60 (on DVD w/ NUE).

Monday, November 23, 2015

LE PASSÉ / THE PAST (2014)

Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, here working in Paris, sticks close to main structural device of his breakout hit A SEPARATION/’11. Like a theatrical director progressively lifting scrim curtains on stage, he methodically uncovers long-held personal secrets to ricocheting emotional effect both within the film and on what we think we know. This time, a separated husband returns to France after four years in Iran to finalize his divorce; then winds up injecting himself into the complicated current affairs of his (near) ex. Unhappy kids from her previous marriage, plus a new boyfriend with a comatose wife & his own worrisome young son. All superbly cast, with the tough little brat of a kid 'acting out' in a painfully believable manner both heartrending and annoying. Farhadi trusts his audience enough to run a slow fuse on developments, but can’t quite hide a sense of enforced neatness in his dramatic design even as the plot grows more involving. Still, a film that reminds you of William Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead . . . Actually, it’s not even past,’ is worth a few missteps. Hopefully, Farhadi’s next won’t insist on making every character's hidden past as multi-layered as an onion.

DOUBLE-BILL: If you haven’t seen A SEPARATION, what are you waiting for? OR: For something completely different, try Tahar Rahim (the new man in this picture) in his stunning breakout pic, A PROPHET/’09.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

BANK SHOT (1974)

This ramshackle comic-caper is piffle, a low-rent cousin to THE HOT ROCK/’72 (a starrier adaptation of a Donald Westlake novel). George C. Scott, with an alarming pair of waggly eyebrows, is the bank heist genius who busts out of prison (via Caterpillar Tractor) with a new idea - don’t steal the cash, steal the whole damn bank. Specifically, a bank that’s using a mobile home as a temp location. Reattach a set of wheels and drive a fortune away. With pieces & players out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Wendell Mayes’ script bypasses reality (or suspense), but starts to lift-off halfway thru on its silliness quotient and a decent amount of low-brow comic energy. Gower Champion, in a rare film directing gig, dances past the sort of credible set-ups Blake Edwards might have worked out, instead concentrating on surprise landings and some very funny payoffs. He even picks up on the Looney Tunes idea in an extended one-take sequence played out as a lovely long-shot b&w silhouette. Unexpectedly likeable, with a blissed out ending of pure Dada absurdity.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, THE HOT ROCK.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Theater choreographers show a remarkably high success ratio transitioning into film directors. Like Champion, Michael Kidd & Jerome Robbins hardly got started, yet show mature, fluid, personal techniques from their first camera set-up. While the likes of Charles Walters, Stanley Donen, Bob Fosse, Herb Ross & now Rob Marshall managed to thread the Hollywood career needle.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Champion died the night before his smash production of 42ND STREET opened on Broadway. Yet no one in the cast knew he was dead when show producer David Merrick announced it on stage in front of a cheering (then quickly stunned), sold-out house during the show’s curtain calls. Why no one has turned this classic movie story into a classic movie is a mystery.

Friday, November 20, 2015

FAUST (2011)

Whether working maximalist (RUSSIAN ARK/’02); minimalist (POVINNOST/’98); or on something in-between (ALEKSANDRA/’07), maverick Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov has always been precise. Exactly the quality missing from this sprawling mess of a FAUST. A big award-winner* and much-acclaimed, the film charges forward with a fusty Bruegelesque mise-en-scène (in the sound design, too) that exhausts when it needs to enlighten. At least it opens well, emphasizing a scientific Faust as he digs thru the innards of a moldering corpse. His useful assistant, Wagner, thinks they might find the soul in there; next to the liver. But soon, Faust and his new pal (guess who) are meandering around town, looking for a meaning to life; or love (guess who); or just a place to take a bath. No small task for a devil with a body that’s put on backwards. Shot with rounded corners in the old Academy Ratio using lenses to slant the image, it’s also digitally degraded to over-expose the color-drained palette; a painterly headache occasionally relieved by a calmly beautiful composition. The last of a Sokurov tetralogy, he seems relived to be done with it.

LINK: *Winning the Golden Lion @ the Venice Film Fest becomes a bit more explicable in light of the competition. http://www.imdb.com/event/ev0000681/2011?ref_=ttawd_ev_12

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There's always F. W. Murnau’s silent FAUST/’26. But don’t write off Sokurov on this misfire. Try MOTHER AND SON/’97 or (for the sake of variety) FATHER AND SON/’03. Not easy viewing, but great.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1969)

Big, big film about those early, decisive air battles over the skies of WWII Britain. You know: where ‘never had so many owed so much to so few.’ Made with dozens of the Best British Thespians (click Poster) and James Bond-tested pros (producer Harry Saltzman; lenser Freddie Young; helmer Guy Hamilton), but a major bomb at the box-office. It looks impressive now; handsome & exciting, with great stunt flying of period planes & analogue effects that largely hold up. (Though keeping track of goggled flying combatants is always tough.) But celebratory war pics had slipped from sure-thing to tough-sell as the anti-military Vietnam Zeitgeist took hold. War films were now all cynicism & ironic folly: CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE/’68; OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR/’69; with KELLY’S HEROES and M*A*S*H*/’70 just around the corner. (On the other hand, PATTON/’70 managed to buck the trend.) Perhaps a generic quality to the triumphs & tragedies did this one in. Yet it’s still essential viewing. Not for the war it portrays, but for the war that went on in post-production that saw Sir William Walton’s film score scuttled (by producer Saltzman?) and replaced by Ron Goodwin's. Enter Laurence Olivier in full hissy-fit. Walton, England’s best known composer after Benjamin Britten, had famously scored Larry’s Shakespeare films. What to do? Check out the credits on most DVDs and only Walton gets screen credit, yet the music is all Goodwin until the last reel. And that’s when something fascinating happens. Forget the final little march over the credits, watch (or rather listen) to the big air battle about two hours in. Suddenly, not only do we get Walton’s infinitely more sophisticated score for most of a reel, but the usual air battle sound effects are all but completely pulled back. And a rather conventional, perfectly decent big-budget war film suddenly becomes something different, something epic, a sort of war ballet for fighter planes: British Spitfires against German Messerschmitts. Would it have worked for the entire film? (Apparently there’s a DVD with two edits of the film; one for each composer.) It surely couldn’t have hurt things commercially. And what we do have of it lends an abstract power to the image, making this a very different, far more interesting pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Who knew co-star Christopher Plummer was Ben Affleck’s dad. Not really, but lose that noble nose and you’ve got quite the facial match.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

GRACELAND (2012)

From the Philippines, writer/director Ron Morales neatly repurposes the set-up from Akira Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW/’63 and almost gets away with it. What remains intact is the misreported kidnapping of a V.I.P.’s kid. Turns out, it’s the rich guy’s personal driver whose child is being held for ransom. Even by that point, things are spinning out of control in very different fashion. Morales eschews the rigorous stylistic exercises of late Kurosawa for gritty cinema verite; and that goes double for his take-no-prisoners storyline. Here, the powerful businessman is a corrupt politician with a nasty taste for teenage flesh our driver is helpless to stop, especially with a sick wife & child to care for. Morales makes a lot of good moves with camera, plotting & cast, but gives in to one more amoral twist then the film can support right at the end. A ‘got’cha’ moment that might have worked in a slicker kind of production. (An Alternate Ending on the DVD hints at similar reservations by the filmmaker.) But for an early effort, a lot of powerful stuff comes thru.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW.

Monday, November 16, 2015

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)

Ironically, this mega-hit epic-Western, a critical embarrassment producer David O. Selznick never fully lived down, now looks more influential than his much Oscar’d literary adaptations & psychological suspensers GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 and REBECCA/’40. (It’s Selznick’s sole forward-looking pic, with a raw abandon that points ahead to mad souls like Nick Ray, Brian De Palma & Quentin Tarantino.) Before the personal drubbing, Selznick proudly took sole script credit for this ‘pop’ pulp, laying bare his uncomfortable infatuation with the film’s equally uncomfortable star Jennifer Jones. (She’d have the lead in four of his five remaining productions.*) And though the story makes feints at being interested in cattle wars & railroad rights, that storyline’s jaw-dropping climax hits at mid-point, leaving little but the sexual favors of Pearl Chavez (Jones’s ‘half-breed’ vixen) to work on. The catch-as-catch-can story construction problems begin right at the start with an elaborate prologue Selznick added for an uncredited William Dieterle after original director King Vidor ‘ankled.’ All told, seven directors were employed, including Second Unit man Otto Brower who staged the staggering ranks of horseback riders & military standoffs. (Vidor shot less than half of the film's total footage.) It all should be ridiculous, indeed, it is ridiculous, but also visually magnificent . . . in a ridiculous sort of way. Gregory Peck is swaggering & sexy as cat-like hedonist to older brother Joseph Cotten’s constipated do-gooder. Then Charles Bickford appears (from where?) to make nice to Pearl so Peck can emasculate him. (And Jones gives such an uneven performance, you never know whether she’ll be rolling on a dusty floor or having her make-up readjusted.) Lionel Barrymore, as Dad to Peck & Cotten, gives every line a thorough wringing; and his long-suffering wife Lillian Gish tries to die without losing all of her dignity. (She fails.) At long last, Peck & Jones play Western liebestod on sun-baked rocks while Dmitri Tiomkin stands in for Richard Wagner. And somewhere, a young Sergio Leone is getting a hard-on. It’s that kind of powerful nonsense.

DOUBLE-BILL: Watch Peck take on the older ‘good’ brother role, against Charlton Heston who’s got his old bad-boy role, in William Wyler’s undersung THE BIG COUNTRY/’58. (Alas, like a lot of Wyler, the film needs a Big Screen presentation to really take off.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *With the exception of Hitchcock’s contractually obligated THE PARADINE CASE/’47, Selznick either fired the director or significantly recut all his later films (all with Jones) in spite of hiring the likes of John Huston, Michael Powell, Vittorio De Sica & the very same William Dieterle he’d brought in to ‘save’ this film.

CONTEST: There’s an odd little mistake on the soundtrack of this film’s original trailer. Find it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

Friday, November 13, 2015

BIG HERO 6 (2014)

Committee-think rules in Disney’s bald-faced, award-winning shot at kick-starting an All-Nerd Super Hero franchise, an enormous, even shocking disappointment. At heart, a New Age (fan)boy-and-his-dog saga, it swaps out the canine for a pillowy robot always getting into endearing troubles. The first half of the film manages to orphan our already orphaned lad, offing a sibling & a mentor when a wicked master-of-the-universe corporate type steals his latest creation. (Ironic plot point coming from Disney, no?) But if the first half feels merely frantic and overly test-marketed; the second half, which re-introduces some smarty-pants nerds in IRON-MAN combat mode, lowers the characterization bar to SCOOBY-DOO levels.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Three of the four films HERO topped for last year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar® (BOXTROLLS; SONG OF THE SEA; TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA) easily best this proto-franchise. But try and check out FEAST/’14, the Oscar-winning short included on the DVD. Sentimental as a wet kiss from a puppy, and downright irresistible.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

FAUST (1926)

Grabbed by Hollywood after the international success of THE LAST LAUGH/’24, F. W. Murnau had two more German silents to finish. First, stumbling over his film-within-a-film TARTUFFE/’25, then recovering with this phenomenal, ultra-lux version of Goethe. (With more laughs than he got out of Moliere.) Adapting classics make for ‘iffy’ projects, but Murnau isn’t afraid to make this a tremendous show rather than a stuffy lecture. Maybe the well-known storyline freed him from spelling everything out, jumping right into the swirling cauldrons of Black Death, unsaintly redemption, and pacts with the devil as wingéd angels fight over the fate of mankind. The plotline isn’t so far off from Gounod’s German-maligned operatic reduction starting with our wizened philosopher/scientist regaining youth (and love) by signing the devil’s contract in blood. Murnau, with Carl Hoffmann on camera, brings it all to life with nearly unending visual astonishments. Many effects no more than beautifully designed/executed double-exposure tricks, others using models or mix-and-match trompe l’oeil via mattes, models or simple juxtapositions of scale. Some still confound analysis or are simply so artistically confident (those flights over the medieval cityscape!), you can only gape. Beautifully paced as storytelling, the acting now looks somewhere between ripe . . . and rot. (As the devil, the incorrigible Emil Jannings makes Charles Laughton look like a minimalist.) But the film is so all-of-a-piece, it still casts its powerful spell. One of the great Big Screen experiences, should you get the chance; meantime, KINO has the latest (and slightly shorter/106") definite foreign cut. Unmissable.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

After arranging a meeting of the minds for Sherlock Holmes & Sigmund Freud in THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION/’76, Nicholas Meyer’s next project had Jack the Ripper evade the police by fleeing to the future in H. G. Wells’ Time Machine. Then, in this intense and clever thriller, sending H. G. himself to present day San Francisco to catch him. Malcolm McDowell’s droll Wells, David Warner’s unnerving ‘Ripper’ and Mary Steenburgen’s up-to-date modern love interest bring plenty of charm, suspense & romance. But whereas Meyer only wrote SOLUTION, here he co-scripted and made a sub-par directing debut. A stronger D.P. might have helped (Paul Lohmann’s over-lit interiors & general lack of style is default Movie-of-the-Week); or better third act plotting to carry us past the weak points. Faults and all, it's still good fun. Steenburgen is a particular treat, with a delivery reminiscent of Jean Arthur; plus a swell throwback of a score from Miklós Rózsa (check out that love theme in the woods). Meyer’s next was the much-loved STAR TREK II/’82, but his directing skills never did get catch up to his writing, and gigs remained frustratingly elusive with a mere six features on his C.V. up till now.

DOUBLE-BILL: George Pal’s toylike THE TIME MACHINE/’60 makes for a nifty compare-and-contrast, but a more enlightened pairing, with many of this film’s problems corrected, would be John Carpenter’s STARMAN/’84.

CONTEST: When a flat tire adds suspense to a chase, Steenburgen does something unnecessary to gain help. Name it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on a DVD of your choice.

Monday, November 9, 2015

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1990)

Ever since Mickey Mouse was tamed from mischievous rodent to corporate symbol/family man, Walt Disney & Co. have never quit trying to reintroduce him as leading player rather than interlocutor. (Walt did it best himself on THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE in FANTASIA/’40.) For this attempt, Mickey gets a double-role as Mark Twain’s famous lookalike Tudor-boys from different parts of town. And while the traditional hand-drawn animation is sprightly & colorful, the characterizations, gags, songs and storytelling are anodyne as all get out, depressingly so. Even Mickey’s voice is gentled down from Walt’s original falsetto squeak. Fortunately, the current release in a Classics Shorts Series features a rude, scrappy Mickey (b&w/1933/vocals by Walt) fighting Dippy Dawg (a sort of pre-Goofy) for Minnie’s hand in a Knightly operetta called YE OLDEN DAYS. It’s not great Mickey, but next to PRINCE, it looks darn lively. Three other shorts round out the program (each about 7 minutes to PRINCE’s 25), but only the remarkably creepy PIED PIPER operetta (also from ‘33, but in color) really grabs you. Even as Germanic Fairy Tales go this is one from the darkside. With it’s No Way Out ending intact. Show it to three-yr-olds to keep ‘em up all night.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Errol Flynn had an unintentional test run for ROBIN HOOD in Warners 1937 version of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, made with real twins rather than photographic trickery. And what a score from Erich Wolfgang Korngold!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

BIG EYES (2014)

Tim Burton’s effort to get back to moviemaking basics (with a tenth the budget of recent efforts) may be laudable, even necessary, but ultimately founders on a storyline too fragile to support a feature-length film. Maybe a different POV or an earlier starting point (less newspaper columnist/more DOLL’S HOUSE backstory) could have added texture to this fact-inspired tale of the commercial juggernaut Margaret & Walter Keane made off their critically despised paintings & reproductions of sad-eyed waifs. (Burton’s personal collection of sad-eyed waifs includes most of his leading ladies: Winona Rider; Christina Ricci; Eva Green; Helena Bonham Carter.) The twist in the tale, that Walter took all the credit while Margaret did all the art, can hardly be considered much of a surprise; in Hollywood, it’s standard operating procedure!* And the all too obvious solution, painting a picture to settle the issue, proves . . . er . . . an all too obvious solution. Yet, the film has its visual pleasures, though not in the action scenes where Burton, unable to call upon an army of well-paid studio technicians, remains all thumbs, as always. But look at the San Francisco clubs; tasty as a late ‘50s Paramount VistaVision production. We might be enjoying Daniel Fapp’s smoky interiors for Danny Kaye’s THE FIVE PENNIES/’59. And speaking of pleasures, no surprise to find Amy Adams just about flawless as Margaret Keane.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *As in TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS/’93, directed by (wait for it) Henry Selick. Not that anyone’s hiding credit, but still . . .

Saturday, November 7, 2015

OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE (1967)

With just seven features over three decades, British helmer Jack Clayton’s once considerable rep never had the chance to recover from the drubbing he took when his over-hyped try at THE GREAT GATSBY/’74 underwhelmed. (The real blame likely belonged to a Mia Farrow unworthy of all the bother. Or would that be Zelda?) Still, it’s easy to see what all the fuss on Clayton was about even in this flawed project, a odd-duck item about a gaggle of just-orphaned kids who hide Mom’s death, afraid of the world outside and of what might happen next. There’s a LORD OF THE FLIES/’63 (kiddie fascist microcosm) meets WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND/’61 (kiddie religious hysteria) vibe to this cloistered tale, but lacking the isolated locales of those stories, it’s tougher to buy into the set up. Fortunately, halfway in, Dirk Bogarde shows up, in a marvelously appalling turn (and an equally appalling bowl haircut) as the kids’ putative long-lost father. But is he there to help the little dears keep up appearances or to fleece them? The change in tone doesn’t exactly make you swallow the concept, but it sure shakes things up! Clayton gets a series of spectacular perfs from the kids, and with strikingly particularized behavior. Watch for Mark Lester & Pamela Franklin shortly before they made their marks in OLIVER!/’68 and PRIME OF JEAN BRODIE/’69. As well as Phoebe Nicholls as the tot who gets her hair cropped off as punishment, looking precisely as she would playing the devout sister in BRIDESHEAD REVISTED/’81 and over the decades in many BBC imports. Plus a surprise writing credit from Haya Harareet (the love interest from BEN-HUR/’59) who otherwise had retired to be director Clayton’s wife.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, FLIES and WHISTLE, but for even better creepy kids from Jack Clayton, try THE INNOCENTS/’61, his unbeatable adaptation of Henry James’s TURN OF THE SCREW.

Friday, November 6, 2015

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943)

Director Edward Dmytryk was making this little Universal horror pic when his recent pic, HITLER’S CHILDREN, became the ‘sleeper’ hit that bumped him up to B+ features; and the best pics of his career. (Ironically, Dmytryk only made the A-list after serving time in prison as one of the Hollywood Ten.) CAPTIVE is hooey, of course, and seems to be missing a finale at a brisk 61 minutes, but it's not without a few tasty fright-filled moments & decent camp appeal. John Carradine makes for a rather sedate Mad Scientist, specializing in gland-swapping between species and various eugenics-based atrocities. (In hindsight, a timely subject in 1943!) So, why not purloin a few glands from his new & pretty patient and turn that intelligent gorilla he met at the circus into a bewitching woman? (Wha? Hard to get too worked up over a man in a gorilla suit anyway.) Meanwhile, back at the big top, animal hunter Milburn Stone is having trouble working inside the cage with his lions & tigers when Carradine’s lovely, if unnatural gorilla gal (South American bombshell Acquanetta) shows up just outside his cage and mesmerizes the beasts. Okay, it’s painfully dopey. But the wild animal act, culled from earlier footage with Clyde Beatty, is darn frightening stuff. Talk about non-PC animal rights. Yikes! Dmytryk does a reasonable job with what he’s got to work with; the cast pitches in (especially Carradine); and the editing & camera tricks work up a decent level of suspense. Or do until that where-did-it-go ending. But our barely awake Gorilla Gal, Acquanetta, brings little to the party. Universal took note and let her go the following year after a couple more pics.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A rare romantic lead for likable Milburn Stone (‘Doc’ Adams in GUNSMOKE). He must have been the only Universal contract player who physically ‘matched-up’ with the recycled action footage of lion-tamer Clyde Beatty.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

PIETA (2012)

Korean director Ki-duk Kim shows an easy command in this twisted Mother-Love saga, seasoning his revenge-thriller with family secrets & sick comic touches. Superbly structured, the story follows a cavalier loan-shark collector who specializes in crippling tardy clients (often with their own tool-and-die equipment) then sitting back to collect accident insurance as payoff. Complications arise when he’s confronted by a mad woman who claims she’s the mother who abandoned him 30 years ago. Seeking forgiveness, nothing seems to faze her, at one point adding a kick to help her son break a guy’s tibia at work, at another, lending a hand to help get him off. Yikes! Could she really be his mother? Or is this some test or trick from his rarely seen boss? Kim probably takes more time than he should teasing this out, but solves his puzzle in satisfying fashion with wonderfully clean technique and vivid perfs all ‘round. Jung-Jin Lee, who plays the blankly vicious, oddly sentimental enforcer brings sleepy bedroom eyes, incipient jowls and just a hint of a snarl on the upper lip. He’d make a perfect Korean Elvis. (Count that as a SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY.)

DOUBLE-BILL: More (even better) Korean Mother-Love in Joon-ho Bong’s MOTHER/’09.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956)

Saturday matinee horror fare for the kiddies, cheaply made, but not despicable. Eager archaeologist John Agar and bored colleague Hugh Beaumont (pre-LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) uncover a gaping hole on a mountaintop that leads them to a mysterious underground civilization . . . with monsters, but no way out! Fun, and with cool allegorical feints at racial & gender equality since the place is run by an all-male albino nobility who lord it over pigmented lady acolytes and worker colony reptilian slaves in a state of constant violent revolt. Creepy looking things, clawing thru earthen walls on guerrilla attacks, yet more misunderstood then evil. The film’s ultra-tight budget makes for some poorly integrated matte paintings & model shots, just as it leaves a few cataclysmic events (like the merely suggested earthquaking finale) as ‘noises-off’ effects. But if newbie megger Laszlo Gorog can’t quite rouse his cast or freshen up his few ‘standing’ sets, he’s not unaware of the possibilities for nifty dissolve transitions in editing near-blackout cave wanderings. All told, a relatively spirited goof that’s both fun . . . and fun to make fun of.

DOUBLE-BILL: Better financed, with bigger names, purpose-built sets & color, THE LOST WORLD/’60 and THE TIME MACHINE/’60 work much the same territory.

CONTEST: There’s another film from three or four years later that also might well be called THE MOLE PEOPLE, but in WideScreen and color. It’s got a terrific trailer with lots of guys running over a blasted landscape and jumping into rabbit holes for safety. Whatever is it? Come up with the title to win a MAKSQUIBS movie Write-Up of your choice.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: . . . by you! Another ‘50s Universal film shot in Open Matte-Full Frame (1.37:1), but meant for cropping by the projectionist (via aperture plate or black screen framing scrims) down to about 1.85:1. The DVD gives you the full frame image, but ‘push-in’ one notch for DIY theatrical enlarging (sometimes called FULL). Just don’t use a 16 x 9 setting (sometimes called FILL) as the anamorphic stretch will fatten up the image.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

AUF DER ANDEREN SEITE / THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (2007)

German/Turkish director Fatih Akin shows his talents and faults in this well-received film, eventually stumbling over his own roundabout storyline which has the ‘rhymed’ cadences of a 19th Century serial novel. (Hugo might have blanched at the convenient coincidences.) Baki Davrak, in the pic’s best perf, brings a welcoming presence to his German university professor from Turkey (natch) who winds up back in Istanbul running a little German-language bookshop after his overbearing father (a Turkish Anthony Quinn sort) goes to jail on a manslaughter charge when he accidentally kills his Turkish hooker/girlfriend during a quarrel. Davrak hopes to find, and help, the dead woman’s missing daughter, unaware that she’s now a political radical on the run who’s just gone to Germany, unknowingly crisscrossing his move, hoping to find the mother she doesn’t know is dead! Not to worry, she meets-cute with a female student on campus, and starts a love affair before getting deported . . . back to Istanbul where she’s promptly jailed on a political charge. Not to worry, her new gal pal follows and rents a spare room from the bookshop guy who is (as you no doubt recall) searching, searching, searching, and totally unaware that his new tenant is in Istanbul to meet with the missing person he’s been looking for! Not to worry, the passionate, if vaguely idiotic girlfriend visits her jailed lover, sneaks a message out, and follows its hand-drawn map to a hidden gun that was ‘parked’ on a rooftop before the political radical had left Turkey to go to Germany to find the mother who was no longer alive then return to Istanbul only to land in jail. Whew! And now, her idiotically trusting lover walks thru a bad neighborhood with a gun in her loosely held handbag. Not to worry, the great German actress Hanna Schygulla as the girl’s mom shows up in Istanbul to forgive whoever is still around. Akin plays this farfetched farrago with a straight, not to say humorless, face, unafraid to show the radicals as so self-centered, you may start to root for Turkey’s near-police state cops. But with pitch-perfect casting, canny pacing and remarkably apt location shooting*, he gets away with a lot of it. (Or does on the award-circuit.) Akin’s obviously going to make something great before long, but this isn’t it.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Akin finds a lot of style and dramatic emphasis drawing out the natural colors found in his real life locations, not unlike Aki Kaurismäki in an early film like ARIEL/’88.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

PITTSBURGH (1942)

Randolph Scott & John Wayne are a couple of coal-mining pals who go from rambunctious to ambitious after taking a gander at glamorous Marlene Dietrich in this low-rent rehash of M-G-M’s BOOM TOWN/’40. Scott takes the Spencer Tracy role as the nice guy who follows the lead of ‘alpha-male’ Wayne in the Clark Gable spot. That leaves Dietrich, for the first time in her career, shadowing another glamour girl, Claudette Colbert. It’s standard B+ fare for Universal, rather poorly megged by Lewis Seiler, with Dietrich knowing she’d be better off with dependable Scott, but unable to get Wayne out of her system. Halfway thru, things get a bit more interesting when they drop BOOM TOWN for an earlier Tracy pic, THE POWER AND THE GLORY/’33 where Tracy loses his soul in single-minded pursuit of business success. Now, both guys are in Tracy parts!* Scott as M-G-M’s softened Tracy and Wayne fumbling a bit as the hard-nosed, abrasive Tracy from his FOX days. Doubly odd since Wayne’s catch-phrase to Scott is ‘I love ya, Cash. So help me, I love ya.’ It might have worked with a different director or if WWII didn’t necessitate a patriotic redemption for Wayne’s intriguing heel, along with a load of didactic lecturing on all the uses of coal tar (!), palaver clumsily shoe-horned in by folksy narrator Frank Craven. Disappointing.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Neither BOOM TOWN nor the over-rated POWER AND THE GLORY (scripted by Preston Sturges) live up to their reps. Instead, try Wayne & Dietrich together in SEVEN SINNERS/’40

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Of course, there are many Two-Pals-Fighting-Over-A-Gal pics and plenty about guys who lose their souls going for the big brass ring in business. But the writers here really do seem to have set their eyes on BOOM TOWN (a big recent hit) and GLORY (with a narrated flashback structure letting us believe that a main character is no longer with us).