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Sunday, January 31, 2016

THE HURRICANE (1937)

At first glance, John Ford’s 1937 output (this disaster epic for producer Sam Goldwyn & WEE WILLIE WINKIE for Shirley Temple) seems impersonal; professional ‘jobs of work’ in Ford speak. But a second look finds the director much less out of his fach than in films like THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING/’35 or MOGAMBO/’53. (Both excellent, BTW.) HURRICANE, from a novel by MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY authors Charles Nordhoff & James Norman, grabs a lot of plot from Hugo’s LES MISÉRABLES, with Jon Hall as a sort of Polynesian Jean Valjean and Raymond Massey doing implacable Javert as a rule-bound island governor. Fordian themes spring largely out of the underlying racial injustice that runs the plot, and from a trove of supporting characters we’d revisit in many Ford films to come. Most notably, Thomas Mitchell’s tipsy doctor; a role that leads (with many a stop!) all the way up to Edmund O’Brien’s LIBERTY VALANCE/’62 newspaper editor . . . and beyond.* There’s not a lot of subtlety in most of these types (it is a big special-effects disaster pic), but the broad playing is as large in spirit as it is in scale. And the eponymous analogue destruction designed by James Basevi, just off SAN FRANCISCO’s earthquake, holds up remarkably well once you get past some poor model work in the prologue.

DOUBLE-BILL: *One of those ‘and beyond’ pics being Ford’s late, enjoyably eccentric DONOVAN’S REEF/’63 which returns to Polynesia (more or less), to racial themes, to Jack Warden in a sober doctor’s role, and even to bringing this film’s Dorothy Lamour out of semi-retirement.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

ON THE BOWERY (1956)

Though generally spoken of as a documentary (and internationally awarded or nominated as such), Lionel Rogosin’s unusual film is no such thing. Standing somewhere between the orchestrated/reenacted semi-documentaries of the pioneering Robert Flaherty, and the on-the-streets Italian Neo-Realist style, Rogosin made a scripted drama on terms a documentarian would have recognized, but cast his story, bent his tale and shaped dialogue to fit a well researched, but preconceived dramatic arc. Antecedents include director/lenser Morris Engel’s LITTLE FUGITIVE/’53, a gentle alter-ego of NYC neighborhood street-life, or even the Merian Cooper/Ernest Schoedsack’s jungle-set exotic wonder CHANG/’27, a Kiplingesque family fable largely filmed with documentary techniques. Rogosin focuses on a couple of Bowery types: the habitual panhandler who’ll never leave; and the new guy on the block who thinks he can still see a sober way out. Largely character driven, and loaded with priceless actuality grabs, a noticeable verbal deadness rises whenever the leading players need to hit set up lines to move things along or make a specific point. What ends up holding your attention is the pic's striking, portraiture-heavy lensing from the little known Richard Bagley. Like thumbing thru a special ‘On Skid Row’ edition of LIFE or LOOK magazine. And in the film’s main subject, Ray Salyer, an endlessly photogenic 'found' leading man with the sort of road-to-ruination grace & looks of jazz legend Chet Baker. (Real-life alcoholic actor Dana Andrews an even closer physical match.) Tellingly, none of the film’s creatives left much of a post-BOWERY trace; which helps explain this film’s real, if over-inflated legend.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Heavily influenced by the film, John Cassavettes swapped out the gauche, ultra-naturalistic non-professional acting of Rogosin’s Bowery bums for the studied, showy pseudo-realism of his Method Acting pals, adding a deadly note of ‘vanity project’ to the formless repetition & peer critique role playing that pass for depth in too many of his films.

DOUBLE-BILL: Check out the Bowery of 1915 in Raoul Walsh’s remarkable REGENERATION, a technically advanced booze-fueled meller loaded with unforgettable Skid Row street grabs.

Friday, January 29, 2016

ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939)

The third go-round for those glamorous, avocational detectives Nick & Nora Charles of THIN MAN fame (William Powell & Myrna Loy, unmatched in technical chops & charm) hasn’t anything as slyly subversive as the original’s Christmas Tree ornament target practice. Still, halfway in, once the new parents park their ‘blessed event’ off-screen, the twisty murder mystery settles down just enough to free up the distinctive tone of marital bantering that made the first film such an unexpected delight. This time, the case in question is one of those tiresome ‘a-murder-is-announced’ affairs, and it’s hard to pay much attention before a corpse or two baffles the police . . . and sends Nick off to the liquor cabinet. He gets a little high, the characters turn a bit more eccentric (Marjorie Main a refreshingly laissez-faire landlady), and the usual red herrings & complications defeat all Nick's attempts to parse things out for us during the traditional suspect soirée finale. Not that you’ll mind.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Generously spaced over 14 years, the six THIN MAN pics (‘34-‘47) offer a guide to incremental Hollywood decline on two fronts. First, a fall from the first two ‘A-‘ productions down to ‘B+’ in the middle, and finally the boilerplate B pics of the final pair. Second, a chance to see the spontaneity of the post-Talkies/mid-‘30s wake-up give way to the over-polished professionalism & studio system formulas of the late-‘30s/WWII era.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

THE STUDENT PRINCE (1954)

Corny and old-fashioned even when new, Sigmund Romberg’s operetta (arrogant Ruritanian Crown Prince finds love & humanity in the hoi polloi of university life before royal duties call him back forever) enchanted audiences for decades until the form fell hopelessly out of favor just about the time this remake came out. And it still might have worked if this large-scale M-G-M production didn’t feel like its sets, costumes & dialogue were ordered out of a catalogue. The film retains a certain notoriety because wayward singing sensation Mario Lanza supposedly ate his way out of the lead. (At any weight, he’d be impossibly wrong for the role.) Instead, his pressurized tenor (everything sung like Puccini) is neatly lip-synched by tall, handsome, lean, hopelessly bland Edmund Purdom whose Mid-Atlantic tones clash mercilessly against Lanza’s Philadelphia vowels. (And in profile, Purdom looks enough like James Franco to make you think he’s lost his face along with his voice.) As the local tavern lass he falls for, it’s a relief to hear Ann Blyth taking over the vocal high-wire act from screechy Kathryn Grayson who’d just left the lot. If only she didn’t look and act like an articulated mannequin with the head of a different model #. Producer Joe Pasternak added three new songs (all stinkers) and loaded up on good supporting players (John Hoyt, Louis Calhern, Richard Anderson, John Williams, S. Z. Sakall, John Qualen, Edmund Gwenn - that’s two Edmunds in one film!), but flat early CinemaScope staging from journeyman megger Richard Thorpe keeps them all quite literally in line. In spite of many missteps, the plot still rates high on heart ‘tuggabilty’ quotient, and it’s hard to know if a better presentation would have made much difference.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ernest Lubitsch got dream perfs out of Ramon Novarro & Norma Shearer in his sublime 1927 silent version, but the DVD editions don't do it justice. An older one plays with stodgy organ as backing; a newer one has a Carl Davis score that drops all Romberg. INSTEAD: try the unlikely pleasures, goofy fun & real sentiment of Stanley Donen’s Romberg bio-pic DEEP IN MY HEART/’54 released just months after PRINCE.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE (1959)

Hewing G. B. Shaw’s subversive Revolutionary War drama down from four acts to about 80 minutes (action & animated chapter intros included) paradoxically makes this lux adaptation seem more talky than the play. Trimming Shavian dialogue & speechifying in pursuit of speed robs us of wit, form & function, so the first half of the film, as character & issues are ordered into place, look bare & pedestrian under Guy Hamilton’s flat megging. Fortunately, the actors & ideas (even the pale visuals) gain in strength & purpose about halfway in as Burt Lancaster’s peacemaking pastor finds revolutionary spirit; Kirk Douglas’s reckless black sheep rebel discovers noble purpose; and Laurence Olivier’s wised-up British General rues the fickle nature of timing in war’s fortunes. (He also acts the pants off everyone else in the pic.) As the reverend’s wife uncomfortably drawn to Douglas’s dashing malcontent, little-known Janette Scott is a near complete loss, but she’s easier to ignore once the action gets going. As for GBS, that inveterate writer of detailed stage directions & explanatory second-thoughts would have loved the delightful animated stop-action figures that go marching to war between acts on screen. Manipulated stick figures were right up his alley.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

BANG! BANG! YOU’RE DEAD! (aka OUR MAN IN MARRAKESH) (1966)

Ignore the idiotic title AIP gave this comic spy caper for Stateside release. Heck, ignore the original title, too, since THAT MAN FROM RIO/64 and OUR MAN IN HAVANA/’59 take a back seat to Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’56 in this farcical low-renter. The aim of Harry Towers’ original story no doubt was to copy Blake Edwards’ success using TO CATCH A THIEF as a takeoff point for the sophisticated slapstick of THE PINK PANTHER and A SHOT IN THE DARK/’64. (The producers even got Herbert Lom & Burt Kwouk from SHOT to formalize the connection.) Here, it’s government documents rather than a stolen pink diamond, and our international cast is out of a lower drawer. Yet the pic’s pretty good fun all the same. Or is until a big mess of a finale. The plot finds six possible suspects on a tour bus, one with $2 mill. in a briefcase, pay-off for shady Herbert Lom & sideman Klaus Kinsky. (Klaus playing a sort of Herbert Lom Mini-Me.) Lovely, likable Senta Berger is the ‘good’ spy in the group, and Tony Randall (showing his considerable leading man chops in place of his usual fey hysterics) is an American tourist in over his head with international conspiracy and with Ms. Berger. Hang in thru the first two reels (for some reason very washed out looking) for the silly story to start finding its feet and even a touch of charm. The skill set of routine megger Don Sharp lands somewhere between good and good-natured, but low expectations work in this film’s favor.

DOUBLE-BILL: Revisit some of this film’s opening locations in Hitchcock’s habitually underrated THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH remake.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

DISHONORED LADY (1947)

Only the title and a shortchanged murder trial remain from Margaret Ayer Barnes & Edward Sheldon’s 1930 credited play.* Instead, scripter Edmund North moves his drama into the fashion magazine world of LADY IN THE DARK, the brilliant musical play rubbished on film in 1944 by Mitchell Leisen & Ginger Rogers. Here, Hedy Lamarr, in one of her rare engaged perfs, gets the Rogers’ role as a magazine editor in psychological distress, pursued by a rich older man (John Loder), a sharp, brittle co-worker (William Lundigan), and a studly outsider in pathologist Dennis O’Keefe. (The tallest trio of suitors e’er seen in a single Hollywood film, all six foot plus!) Morris Carnovsky is the wise psychiatrist connecting Lamarr’s two worlds once she leaves the magazine. And he’s the key to her defense when they collide in a murder. It’s all B-pic nonsense, of course, but neatly packaged by journeyman helmer Robert Stevenson. And with a cool bonus from either producer Jack Chertok or composer Carmen Dragon who found a way to use Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous Romeo & Juliet Fantasy as background music to a violent murder. They must have confused it with the same composer’s Francesca da Rimini.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Optioned by M-G-M, the play, an updated poisoning case from the 1850s, was vetoed by the Hays Office before M-G-M rewrote it for Joan Crawford as LETTY LYNDON/’32. Barnes & Sheldon sued (and won) all the way to the Supreme Court. Their injunction still stands, so you’ll be able to see LETTY LYNDON in about a decade.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: LADY IN THE DARK on film is a botch, a disgrace. Only worth seeing for the mind-boggling oversized furniture in the psychiatrist’s office. Thirty years ago, Barbra Streisand could have done it. Twenty years ago, Madonna. Today? Lady Gaga? (I know, I know, Madonna & the movies, not a match made in heaven. But the legendary play starred Gertrude Lawrence who, like Madonna, could neither sing, act nor look attractive.)

Friday, January 22, 2016

THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945)

Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1922 play on the redemptive power of love is sentimental whimsy, but effective sentimental whimsy . . . and less sticky than a brief description has it sound. Designed as a sort of post-WWI balm, this second film version was made just as WWII was ending, and it’s best to keep the period in mind. Two wounded souls: HE - disfigured & depressed from a war injury/SHE - a homely spinster hiding a gentle artistic spirit, find that the power of love can be physically transfigurative, helped by a neighboring blind musician and the older cottage caretaker still mourning a lost love from the last war. (Told you it’d sound sticky.) And it largely works here thanks to a cast that refuses to push too hard (Dorothy McGuire, Robert Young, Herbert Marshall, Mildred Natwick) and the plainspoken ways of a director (John Cromwell) unadept at visual poetry. It’s also a bit underpowered which helps to keep the ‘goo’ out. The print sourced for the current/official VOD has an unfortunate compressed grey scale (prepared for ‘50s broadcast tv?) and Roy Webb’s score is unmemorable (you keep hoping Bernard Herrmann will turn up with his GHOST AND MRS. MUIR cue sheet), but sheer niceness winds up carrying a lot of emotional weight, much helped by a trio of disturbingly unsympathetic perfs from Spring Byington, Hillary Brooke & Richard Gaines from Robert Young’s dashing, now lost, past life.

DOUBLE-BILL: The 1924 silent version (with Richard Barthelmess & May McAvoy) sounds interesting but is only available from Grapevine Video, home of the duped 16mm reduction print & hit-or-miss canned music score.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

HIJÔSEN NO ONNA / DRAGNET GIRL (1933)

A poster for Lewis Milestone’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30 hangs on an apartment wall in this late silent from Yosujirô Ozu, but the Hollywood influence is all Frank Borzage romantic fatalism in this slightly confusing tale of gangsters based at a boxing club; and the molls, good girls & sisters they tangle with. Loaded with inventive angles & clever details (particularly in the office where one of those ‘good girls’ works), Ozu sets up too many romantic twists & shifting allegiances between his none too threatening thugs to keep easy track of. (Perhaps Japanese audiences have less trouble.) But once the relationships click into place for the last two reels, and the main couple reunite for ‘one last robbery’ (the one that always goes wrong), the missing pieces in the drama don’t much matter. Till then, best for Ozu completists.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Ozu has a neat bit showing his romantic tough guy abnegating a preference for those expensive 12" Victor Red Seal 78rpm records. He doesn’t want his buds to think he’s not a populist thug.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ozu’s earlier Hollywood influenced gangster pic HOGARAKA NI AYUME (WALK CHEERFULLY)/’30 does this all rather better.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

CAIRO (1942)

The dark early days of WWII sparked some of the lighter wartime comedies, like this farcical spy yarn that tosses an American greenhorn into international intrigue. Naturally, the sap confuses his mystery ‘contact’ with the Nazi spy (and vice versa). Hilarity (and eventual romance) ensues. Or would four months later @ Paramount in Bob Hope’s MY FAVORITE BLONDE/’42.* Alas, we’re billeted @ stuffy M-G-M, our newsman/spy is blandly pleasant Robert Young (without a decent comic hook as the small town reporter on special assignment), and the lady who ain’t a spy is singing star Jeanette MacDonald, game but overloaded with talkie exposition in place of a character. It’s harmless, but story & dialogue are too lazy (or dumb) to be much fun, while ‘Woody’ (One-Take) Van Dyke megs flatly, pausing here & there for self-referential film yucks. (The only good gag in here has Young deciphering Jeanette’s coloratura into Morse Code.) Mona Barrie makes a decent impression as the real Nazi spy, but the sole cause for rejoicing is the chance to see Ethel Waters in a rare screen appearance. She’s MacDonald’s maid (natch) and performing partner! (Hope she’s paid overtime for her two songs.) Unexpectedly, these gals show some real rapport. As a bonus, you get a shot at seeing Waters & Dooley Wilson (her B’way spouse on CABIN IN THE SKY) duet & work a cute little scene. Wilson would segue to Warners for Sam in CASABLANCA/’42 while Waters would get Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, a bigger ‘colored’ star, as hubby in the superb film version of CABIN IN THE SKY/’43.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *As mentioned, Hope & Madeleine Carroll in MY FAVORITE BLONDE/’42. OR: For a straighter, if not exactly serious thriller on the same naive American reporter/international espionage idea, Hitchcock’s prescient FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT/’40.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

POIL DE CAROTTE / CARROT TOP (aka THE RED HEAD) (1932)

Julien Duvivier’s sound remake of Jules Renard’s classic French novel doesn’t quite equal his 1925 silent beauty, but is plenty good all the same. The story, slightly more compacted, remains largely the same as in the earlier film, following the downward emotional path of young Carrot Top, a late, unplanned, unloved 10-yr-old rural kid who is only noticed by his parents & siblings when they feel up to scolding someone. Yet the film, set during summer school break, is hardly all doom & gloom, finding time for pastoral hijinks to show Carotte’s basic irrepressible nature. Beautifully observed in character and locale (Marcel Pagnol would have approved); and very striking technically for a 1932 film shot on location (Pagnol wouldn’t have noticed). Too bad that Duvivier lets his already theatrical cast press too hard for effect, it can feel over-rehearsed. That's especially the case for Robert Lynen’s otherwise physically perfect Carotte and Simone Aubry’s grim hysteric of a mother. The 1925 film is also overplayed, but it works better in silent film context. Regardless, the climax & epilogue remain just as devastating.

DOUBLE-BILL: Excellent release of the silent version on Lobster/Facets. Try it first.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

BRIGADOON (1953)

Achingly romantic & emotional on stage (logic obliterating, too); flatfooted & dunderheaded on screen. Lerner & Loewe’s musical fable about a Scottish village that rises but one day every hundred years, the two American hunters who stumble upon it, and the complications of love probably plays better inside a listener’s head than in front of his eyes.* That said, the film’s oft derided sound stage exteriors are much improved by a color-corrected 2005 DVD release boasting huge dioramas the Museum of Natural History would kill for; curated realism which ought to work neatly in an ‘integrated’ musical. (Think OLIVER!/’68 rather than SOUND OF MUSIC/’65.) But everything feels false rather than heightened. Gene Kelly, in a role meant for a singer, loses his two big ballads ( FROM THIS DAY ON, THERE BUT FOR YOU GO I, you can hear the unhappy results in the disc’s EXTRAs) and has to camouflage the numbers that remain with a soft shoe routine & a generic pas de deux. As the local lass he falls for, Cyd Charisse is at least a fine replacement for unavailable RED SHOES’ star Moira Shearer. And, in a happy surprise, Van Johnson is just right as Kelly’s alcoholic BFF. (In the play, Johnson’s character neither sings nor dances, so you know he’d never fit in. The film can’t resist giving him a buck & wing routine with Kelly & the townsmen. Fun, but all wrong dramatically.) And what of director Vincente Minnelli’s first encounter with CinemaScope? Longer takes and fewer close-ups (CinemaScope gave some actors ‘the mumps’), but he gets it together with three strong set pieces toward the end: the arrival of the Clans for a wedding; a big chase to stop a Brigadoon runaway, and a gorgeous human tidal wave of nighttime NYC restaurant schmoozing. (Forget the Scottish tartans, dig those 21 CLUB tablecloths!)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Probably the best way to experience BRIGADOON is in John McGlinn’s superb studio recording of the complete score. Real theatrical air and an unbeatable cast of B’way singing actors, plus a fabulous ‘Irish’ tenor in Brit John Mark Ainsley.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Think about BRIGADOON for more than a minute and you start to wonder what happens if someone has to pee in the middle of a hundred year night.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

MASADA (1981)

The hefty mini-series of the ‘70s & ‘80, once regular players on the Big Three Broadcasters, now look bloated, a little threadbare or tuckered out. A quick peek at ROOTS/’77 says it all and explains remake talk. Similar objections could be made against MASADA, a six-hour haul about the Roman Empire’s siege of a thousand Jewish Zealots holding out in a naturally protected mountain fortress. Yet, the film has aged better than many of its ilk since its fact-inspired story (a generation after Christ) remains both compelling on its own and loaded with contemporary relevance even after 35 years of much altered Mid-Eastern politics. It’s also considerably better acted than most, especially by Peter O’Toole’s glamorous wreck of a Roman commander, unhappily charged with taking out one more insurrection getting in the way of Pax Romana. As his stubborn, rebellious, bearded Jewish adversary, Peter Strauss struggles to give life to the modern agnostic the script hopes to sop off as a character, occasionally sinking into Charlton Heston-lite mannerisms, but just as often finding simple, effective line readings. Good support too from actors like Anthony Quayle & Barbara Carrera, respectively engineer & mistrustful lover to O’Toole.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: . . . by you! Here’s how. Director Boris Sagal keeps things moving & orderly, but his compositions don’t exactly teem with dramatic life. Help out by cropping the film from its original Academy Ratio of 1.33:1 up to 1.85:1 for a far more dynamic picture. (Careful, not the anamorphic 16x9 setting, sometimes called FILL, but a straight OVERSCAN increase.) What’s lost thru frame enlargement is insubstantial, perhaps because the film was also designed to play in a shortened theatrical cut abroad. (See poster.) That said, the final reel does lose much in the cropping, so jump back for the last ten minutes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Something of a family affair, director Sagal cast his son Joey in a little role and even found a spot as dialogue coach for wife Marge Champion Sagal. Yep, Gower Champion’s ex.

Friday, January 15, 2016

THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)

The last of three major collaborations from Bette Davis & director William Wyler, and the most prestigious, if not necessarily the best. Adapted by Lillian Hellman from her own ripe melodrama about three venal, backstabbing Southern siblings, Wyler’s film is so cunningly staged & cinematically savvy, even minor events play out as dramatic masterstrokes. Note a father/son shaving scene (brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland just off CITIZEN KANE/’41) that hatches a major plot twist or the spatially connected character introductions from a dozen equally memorable visually orchestrated episodes. The higher-browed critics tend to bemoan Hellman’s air-tight melodramatic constructions, so ‘well-made’ they suffocate. But they also earn their audience-pleasing ‘ring,’ or do at their best. Call it honest pandering. Even powerful when you get to watch so many pros running thru their paces at this level. Remarkably, most of the supporting cast are making film debuts (five from B’way) with Wyler guiding Dan Duyea, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge & Charles Dingle toward substantial careers. Yet, it’s still Davis’s film. Wyler wanted a more naturalistic Regina than Davis gave him; she’s more bird of prey . . . and with the hat to prove it, only removing her death mask make-up once at her dressing table; just enough to show a human face under the icy grip. A brief sighting that lends a note of real tragedy to Hellman’s greedy roundelay.

DOUBLE-BILL: You can get a good idea of what Wyler brings to the directing table by contrasting this film with Hellman’s WATCH ON THE RHINE/’43 helmed by Herman Schumlin. Schumlin, the original stage director of LITTLE FOXES and RHINE was much helped by an exceptionally lovely perf from Davis, but is otherwise cinematically dead in the water.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

DAVID GOLDER (1930)

Probably the biggest revelation in Criterion’s JULIEN DUVIVIER IN THE ‘THIRTIES set, DAVID GOLDER is all but transformed in a restoration that lets you see the film anew.* Duvivier’s debut Talkie (released nearly in tandem with his final silent, AU BONHEUR DES DAMES/’30, his modern take on Zola’s great mercantile novel), there’s nary a technical limp in the film, with Georges Périnal’s roving camera literally gilding past the mobility limitations of the early sound era, allowing Duvivier to refine his images in depth, darkness & constricted frames to fit the dramatic moment. Even the acting, though richly theatrical, largely comes across in this powerful, if not so original story of a wealthy Jewish money manipulator/investor surrounded by friends & family who only prove loyal to his earning power. Suddenly in failing health, Golder at last can question what it is he’s been working himself to death for. As Golder, Harry Baur could be Emil Jannings’ yiddisher cousin, with a large-scaled perf that gains once he’s set things up with some very broad character strokes. The rest of the cast splits between the men (mostly good) and the women (misogynist screechy). In particular, Golder’s putative daughter is hard to read/hard to take, suffering for tru-love & Papa’s largess. Was she meant to come off quite so unsympathetically? Fascinating stuff all the same on many levels: social, political & as film history.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: The David Golder of Irène Némirovsky’s novel seems less Rothschild than Serge Alexandre of STAVISKY fame. Yet that financial scandal (filmed in ‘74 by Jean-Paul Belmondo & Alain Resnais) was a few years off.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Those who only only remember this film from back in the day thru subfusc art-house prints with limited subtitles that had you guessing at much of the plot should definitely give the film another go in this stunningly successful restoration.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

FADING GIGOLO (2013)

Those who miss the Woody Allen urban sex farces of the ‘80s & ‘90s might try this reasonable facsimile. Writer/director/actor John Turturro even got Allen to co-star, showing his best comic form in years playing a rare books shop owner (B’way & 81st/across from Zabars should you care to visit) forced to close down the family store. Delightfully married to Tonya Pinkins and (presumably) step-dad to her gaggle of rambunctious kids, he comes up with the crazy idea of pimping out Turturro, his part-time assistant, as an off-beat gigolo. And, for a little while, it works splendidly, until they meet an intriguing woman in Brooklyn, a young, Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis), living a sort of half-life since her husband died. And here the film breaks down a bit since Turturro isn’t able to stir up the hesitant passion needed to raise the jealousy quotient of Paradis’s longtime admirer Liev Schreiber, neatly cast as a neighborhood Hasidic police acolyte. Turturro seems aware of the problem, gilding the film in buckets of Golden Hour light, hoping to camouflage the missing romantic element. Oh well, the other two-thirds play very nicely just as they are. Very sweet, very fun, a little paler than need be.

DOUBLE-BILL: Try the underappreciated MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY/’93 to see how Allen mixes up the pace on a wry comic throwaway piece.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

UN CARNET DE BAL / DANCE CARD (1937)

Post-War Art-House Movie Theaters (oops, ‘Theatres’) always had a sure-fire booking in pairing two 1937 Pre-War Julien Duvivier classics: PÉPÉ LE MOKO (still a title to conjure with) and this near-forgotten enchantment. Duvivier made better films, but few as memorable as BAL, with its can’t-miss set-up of a rich, still young, Unmerry Widow (Marie Bell) searching for something she missed in life by tracking down the promising partners listed on an old dance card from her debut ball of twenty years ago. Naturally, no one’s life has turned out just as expected, but our widow finds out something about herself all the same. The trick of the film, and what makes it so compelling, is the widow’s graciousness and the opportunity for Duvivier to cast a wide net in a series of one-reel character sketches played to the hilt in the various styles of his all-star cast. (See poster.) And with Duvivier fitting his technique to each; at its most extreme in the darkest of the playlets, shot with cantered angles, as Bell visits a once brilliant medical student, now a shabby sea-side doctor who assumes she’s come for an abortion. Brutal stuff. Other stories are ironic, sentimental, slightly comic, even uplifting, though now & then a bit abrupt due to lost footage. (Ten or so minutes lost, don’t let it worry you.) The stories never get too far below the surface, but sometimes, with a film this well put together, a thin texture can suffice.

DOUBLE-BILL: Shirley MacLaine visits a series of men from her past in WHAT A WAY TO GO!/’64; and the Julien Duvivier-phobic François Truffaut had Jeanne Moreau track down the assassins who done her wrong on her wedding day in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK/’68. OR: Run your own ‘50s art-house with Duvivier’s PÉPÉ LE MOKO as second feature.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

INSIDE OUT (2015)

Last year’s Pixar hit looks like a ‘lock’ for all the major feature animation awards; deservedly so. A clever anthropomorphized brain scan of the emotional ‘humours’ warring inside the head of 12-yr-old girl just uprooted from her happy Minnesota life when Dad moves the family to San Francisco, it’s sweetly comic, touching & wildly imaginative. Perhaps a bit relentlessly so. You can all but feel the weekend pressure to come up with something awesomely creative for writer/director Pete Docter at the Monday morning staff meeting. (That visual degradation sequence earned someone major bonus points.)  Still, very entertaining stuff even when it could use a few more belly laughs. (The best gag in the pic shows over the end credits with a peek inside a kitty cat head.) There’s a great vocal cast handling each emotion (Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, the superbly self-sacrificing Richard Kind). Though Amy Poehler, with the toughest assignment carrying the pic as Ms. Goody-Two-Shoes ‘Joy,’ might have leaned less toward Ellen DeGeneres panicky accommodation and more in the direction of Doris Day sunshine. (Also on this disc, LAVA, a mating fable about a couple of animated serenading volcanoes, and the strangest idea for a short in Pixar history.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Woody Allen did something of a live-action INSIDE OUT, to side-splitting effect, in the last chapter of his hit-and-miss adaptation of EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX/’72. Hardly Family Friendly in the normal sense (it’s about getting an erection), high school kids should watch when the parental units aren’t around.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/LINK: We’ve mentioned this before, but horror aficionados hear the words Inside/Out and think of radio’s all-time creep-out from a LIGHTS OUT episode: THE DARK. The chilling tale of a haunted house where all the victims are turned . . . INSIDE OUT. Shut off the lights; hit the PLAY button and hold on till the final gruesome sound effect to hear a man turned inside out! Yikes! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuPn828oHJU

Friday, January 8, 2016

HOGARAKA NI AYUME / WALK CHEERFULLY (1930)

This late silent from a young Yasujirô Ozu is a merry, sentimental delight, a gangster’s redemption tale Warner Brothers might have developed . . . in Japan. Opening with a clever fake-out robbery which leads straight into an action chase scene as a couple of small-time hoods get away with a bit of larceny. Spirited genre work from Ozu. Who’d thunk? The boys are loosely aligned with larger gangs who meet & greet with hilarious little jigs of recognition, like MOTOWN back-up singers, but everything changes when handsome Kenji-the-Knife (with the tattoo to prove it) falls for lovely office worker Yasue. Romantic complications ensue (jealous past admirers), then budding love all but collapses when Yasue discovers her new boyfriend lives on the wrong side of the law. Can he go straight for love? Will Yasue’s boss force his attentions on her? And what of Kenji’s longtime thieving partner? Ozu shows ease & style at every plot turn, going in for just the right visual detail to make something special out of small moments. And a bit deeper than that for an unexpectedly touching scene when Kenji breaks up with his longtime partner in crime. The third act is all redemption, slowing down a bit, but not enough to hurt things. Then, right at the end, a couple of signature Ozu interstitial shots, quiet little compositions between scenes often called 'pillow shots.' Here, a courtyard of clotheslines and wooden pins waiting for the laundry. A portent of glories to come.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

MOBY DICK (1956)

The whales may have dated, but this John Huston/Ray Bradbury triage adaptation of the mighty Melville tome has only strengthened over the years. With a handsome, dramatic ‘etched’ look, built from a limited TechniColor palette, cinematographer Oswald Morris & Huston achieve a distinctive, if occasionally fussy, lithographic/storybook setting; it’s particularly effective in the imaginatively cast introductory scenes before we ship out. Not a sign of Gregory Peck’s Captain Ahab till the middle of the fourth reel. (A delayed star entrance if ever there was one.) And it’s here opinions divide.* A major disappointment on release, the failure was largely charged to Peck’s slow burn restraint as the obsessed, self-immolating Captain hunting up an unnatural revenge against an unnatural nemesis. And if his acting choices now look better than remembered, he’s still miscast. The experience is like biting into something sweet when you were expecting savory. Maybe good, maybe bad, just not what you expected. (The score, a one-off from Philip Sainton, is also not what you expected.) Pay special attention to a late scene where Ahab refuses to help search for a missing boy from another ship. Suddenly, Peck nails the character. The film’s worthwhile whichever side of the Peck fence you come down on.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *A decade on, George C. Scott would have been an easy choice for Ahab; PATTON/’70 something of a near cousin. But who at the time had the star clout & acting chops needed? You can see what Spencer Tracy might have done by watching PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE/’52, right down to his playing adversary against this film’s Starbuck, Leo Genn. A better bet is found in RUN SILENT RUN DEEP/’58, a submarine drama with two possible Ahabs: Burt Lancaster or (no kiddin’) Clark Gable.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

ROMAN SCANDALS (1933)

A couple of years after Will Rogers took the ‘wayback’ machine to King Arthur’s Court in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE/’31, Eddie Cantor, his old ZIEGFELD FOLLIES stablemate*, time-traveled from modern day West Rome, Oklahoma to Ancient Rome for this tiresome comedy. A few of the gags still land, but hardly a thing is done with the fish-out-of-water premise. Why couldn’t Eddie teach some Romans the Charleston? Organize Praetorian Guards into a baseball team . . . or unionize them for a wildcat strike with real wild cats from the Forum? Maybe serve up some ‘exotic’ cuisine like pizza or spaghetti? Instead, the usual young lovers & laughing gas routines; a trio of medium Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs; an over-extended chariot race to the finish. Even Busby Berkeley comes up short on his patented dance routines (BLACKFACE Alert!), but for one bit of perversity where Cantor in BlackFace shrinks to half his size in the steam room (Berkeley had a penchant for midgets) only to hydrate back to normal size & color after a dip in the pool. Many hands worked on this one . . . too many.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Cantor & Rogers only shared a FOLLIES stage in 1917 & ‘18. Elsewise, Flo Z. used one or the other most years from 1919 thru ‘27.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/LINK: Cantor’s demeanor & delivery, in spite of so-so material, is fascinating, much like BIG BANG’s Jim Parsons at times. (The short Jewish version.) He was even better before producer Sam Goldwyn defanged him for Hollywood. Check out how modern his stage persona was in this sound-on-film short from 1923. He could step in for Jimmy Kimmel tomorrow. (And yes, that’s no typo, 1923.) https://archive.org/details/eddie_cantor_1923

DOUBLE-BILL: Cantor took the wayback machine again (to diminishing returns) in ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN/’37.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

BEST SELLER (1987)

As soon as you spot Larry Cohen’s writing credit, and hear a snippet of Jay Ferguson’s all-synthesizer score, you know your in for a schlock thriller. (Confirmed by a schlock theme song over the end credits.) But with decent megging from John Flynn and surprisingly invested perfs from James Woods & Brian Dennehy, it’s pretty tasty schlock. (Or is until a mess of an ending.) Dennehy plays one of those author/cops (think Joseph Wambaugh*) whose best work lies behind him until a villain from the past (Woods) appears with a proposition for a new tell-all book. What if I feed you the murderous habits of a local political/industrial VIP? I vouch for the dirt; you write the book. And Dennehy can believe it all since his male Scheherazade was once this guy’s hit man. Will Dennehy write it up for publication; or write the scary creep up for past killings? Filmed with more honest location stuff than usual for an ‘80s quickie, and with nice pacey action sprinkled along the way, there's only a few sub-par supporting players (Dennehy’s blank kid; Victoria Tennant’s chilly scold of an agent) and that fumbled finale keeping this one from its lively potential. Worth seeing, especially for Dennehy who generally found better roles on stage than on film.

DOUBLE-BILL: *See James Woods in real Wambaugh: THE ONION FIELD/’79; THE BLACK MARBLE/’80.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

LA PROIE / THE PREY (2011)

Second-tier man-on-the-run thriller from France is missing the action chops needed to cover the usual genre implausibilities. Logic & logistics; info & injuries; Eric Valette’s showy helming camouflages rather than convinces; you can’t buy into the story. Story & structure hew closely to the well-worn Andrew Davis/Harrison Ford template from THE FUGITIVE/’93, itself a gloss on Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59.* Only here, the ‘innocent’ guy is guilty. Guilty, that is, of a bank robbery that has jail mates & old partners salivating over long hidden loot. It’s the serial killings he’s being chased for after his daring (if hard-to-swallow) escape that he’s not guilty of. There’s a small kick in seeing the babalicious Alice Taglioni in what amounts to the Tommy Lee Jones role of lead detective, but most of the film is so pumped up, it’s plum-tuckered out. French prison dramas have racheted things up, politically and cinematically, in pics like UN PROPHÉTE/’09. If you’re searching for empty calories, try La Pâtisserie

 WATCH THIS,NOT HAT: As mentioned, UN PROPHÉTE.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *One bit of NORTH BY NORTHWEST untackled by THE FUGITIVE was the hanging-by-your-fingertips/Mount Rushmore ending. Fear not! Valette sticks it in here, with a forest ravine standing in for the American Presidents and Stéphane Debac in for Martin Landau.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Director Andrew Davis did a more official Hitchcock remake on DIAL M FOR MURDER/’54, losing a third of its plot to make A PERFECT MURDER/’98. The real mystery is how a director capable of making a good pic with Steven Seagal (UNDER SIEGE/’92) could fall off the map for the last decade.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

DUMA (2005)

Carroll Ballard mavens who bemoan a meager output since his feature debut in THE BLACK STALLION/’79 (six films in 3+ decades) can see his dilemma crystalized in DUMA, his likely last. Not because it isn’t pretty darn wonderful, it is, it is! But because, at heart, it’s a rather conventional, if artful, family film, a blissed-out Boy-and-His-Cheetah fable, THE YEARLING/’46 meets BORN FREE/’66, with a side order of modernized Huck Finn/Slave Jim beefing up character development. Ballard’s open vision, nonjudgmental attitude & craft remain, but magic, inspiration & Jungian undertow show up only intermittently. Still, it’s a film that's tough not to fall for, with an impossibly handsome cast (man, child, beast, terrain) working old tropes, but not pushing too hard. With new angles cunningly caught by Ballard & lenser Werner Maritz. It's said cheetahs are the largest big cats who purr. And, even with impossibly high expectations not quite met, you will too.

DOUBLE-BILL: Disney’s CHEETAH/’89 tells a similar tale (kids/cheetah/Africa/return to the wild) in standard kiddie-formula mode. Damned if it didn’t bring in ten times this film’s gross. No surprise considering Warners’ dismal/dismissive release. Note our clueless poster which might be advertising GARFIELD IN AFRICA.

Friday, January 1, 2016

LA TÊTE D’UN HOMME / A MAN’S NECK (1933)

You can feel French director Julien Duvivier breaking thru the last fetters of early Talkie technical limitations in this intensely visual policier, adapted from a Georges Simenon Inspector Maigret novel. As is often the case with Simenon, solving the crime is second to character & milieu, but Duvivier keeps all three balls in the air just the same while brilliantly capturing the seedy nightclubs, back-streets & garrets of Pre-War Paris with frightening, grease-stained verisimilitude. The murder plot starts when a broke middle-aged nephew casually mentions the fortune coming his way once a rich Aunt dies. He’d give ƒ100,000 to make it happen. And somebody secretly takes him up on the offer. The rest of the film covers everything post-murder: the fall guy, the investigation, police station rivalries, closing in on the real guilty parties. Loaded with great perfs, Harry Baur’s superb Maigret is something of a warm up for his Javert & Porfiry in famous (if overrated) French films of LES MISÉRABLES/’34 and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT/’35. And Russian/Siberian actor Valéry Inkjinoff is simply outstanding as the resentful, tubercular suspect. But it’s largely Duvivier who makes this a knock-out. Heck, even the credits swing into view with panache. Look for it in Criterion’s Eclipse set of four early ‘30s Duviviers.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Scrawled on the wall of a nightclub: ‘Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, He’s Playing the Best He Can.’ Did François Truffaut find the title for his 1960 film here? No Duvivier fan, Truffaut bunched him with other French 'quality cinema’ hacks. Yet it’s hard to imagine him not responding to Duvivier silents like POIL DE CAROTTE/’25 or AU BONHEUR DES DAMES/’30 . . . or to these early innovative Talkies. ALSO: Charles Laughton, Burgess Meredith, Franchot Tone & Robert Hutton in a post-War Paris English-language remake now out on KINO DVD:THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER/’49.