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Thursday, March 31, 2016

PILLOW TO POST (1945)

Unexpectedly decent! Positively okay! Not bad! We're damning with faint praise, but on these WWII romantic farces (Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl Thru Silly Misunderstanding/Boy Gets Girl Via ‘Hilarious’ Technicality) ‘decent’ rather than ‘painfully forced’ is nothing to sneeze at. Maybe because the plot is built on real issues (women in the workplace); or because Ida Lupino & William Prince pair up so nicely (bound by the housing shortage); or even because director Vincent Sherman is out of his element and lets events ride, the film doesn’t dumb things down too much in a search for easy laughs. Instead, the set-up sticks Lupino on the road, selling oil-drilling equipment for her dad’s firm; unable to find a place to stay other than an Auto-Court that’s only open to military couples. Hunting up a groom-for-a-night, she finds nice Lieutenant Prince who goes along with the idea only to find his commanding officer (Sydney Greenstreet) renting the next unit. The gag quota gets filled out with a very pregnant neighbor and a tall, handsome oilman Lupino flirts with to make a sale. Louis Armstrong & Dorothy Dandridge show up for a number and Willie Best, usually stuck playing the worst sort of ‘darkie’ humor gets a shot at something slightly less demeaning. Don’t knock him for being so good at his job.

DOUBLE-BILL: Director Sherman and Lupino can be seen at their considerable best in the heavy-dramatics of THE HARD WAY/’43. OR: For a similar story from the same period about a sham marriage, this time between a shy traveling salesman and an unmarried pregnant country girl afraid of her ultra-strict papa, there’s Alessandro Blasetti’s superb FOUR STEPS IN THE CLOUDS/’42. Remade with Keanu Reeves & Anthony Quinn to small effect as A WALK IN THE CLOUDS/’95.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

THE PALEFACE (1948)

Wildly popular Bob Hope comedy Western has aged oddly. Bob’s in particularly good form as traveling dentist and stooge bridegroom to Jane Russell’s Calamity Jane. (She’s in good form, too!) Bob doesn’t know she’s using him as part of a plan to stop a gang of renegade gunrunners from selling arms to the Indians. And while the Politically Incorrect Levels run dangerously high, that’s less of a problem then the over-stuffed, rich TechniColored production* which lolls under Norman Z. McLeod’s laisser-faire direction. Co-scripter Frank Tashlin wrote fistfuls of his signature cartoonish visual gags (and must have included staging & camera angles to make sure they’d work under McLeod), but no one bothered to connect the dots between the film’s best bits. (Unhappy with the results, Tashlin wangled directing reins for SON OF PALEFACE/’52.) Still, the pieces are plenty fun, and the film was a career saver for Russell (she’s even better in the SON OF . . sequel), otherwise held hostage and kept all but inactive by her contract to creepy Howard Hughes.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *One of the original TechniColor specialists, the lensing of this film’s Ray Rennahan got progressively less interesting as the tricky three-strip process grew easier to control. In the ‘30s, nearly every shot was something of an experiment; by the ‘40s, a standardized, pudding-rich saturation was consistently achievable. Artistry diminished thru technical advance.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Other than Eddie Cantor, did any comedian introduce more American Songbook standards than Bob Hope?  Here, he charms the dickens out of the Oscar® winning ‘Buttons and Bows.'

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

SLAP SHOT (1977)

Best known for shiny corporate successes like THE STING/’73 and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID/’69, George Roy Hill tossed out his playbook, shed ‘the cutes,’ and went all loosey-goosey on this messy, highly entertaining sports pic. Charting the fast-fading course of a minor league hockey team in a depressed rust-belt town, the film lets Paul Newman skate one long victory lap as the manipulating player/coach who holds his team’s wild final season together by going to hockey’s dark side. (You know, the ‘I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out’ mentality.) And, even with an ending that bogs down with excess self-congratulation, it’s all pretty darn funny. (Scripter Nancy Dowd, writing from life, did little else, but this was plenty.) Hill does a canny job of casting (a threesome of hockey goons, the Hanson boys, earned a deserved cult following in hockey circles; and Brad Sullivan, he’s the sex-obsessed player with the hangdog expression, is equally memorable), and what luck that all the appalling period details of late ‘70s style were already in place to help set the tone. No comment needed for the era’s personal grooming and fashions to make their comic point. (Newman’s outfits deserve their own Hall of Shame.) Same for the grainy film stock & grimy production values of the day, a perfect match for the WTF attitude of the film and the national mood, as if every foreground and background were in on the joke. Sports pics blossom in three varieties: Inspirational; Weepy; or Down-and-Dirty. Look elsewhere for the first two types; grab this one for the third.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ron Shelton’s TIN CUP/’96 makes a worthy companion (and with a near perfect ending). But to really see what’s possible, nothing touches Patrick Dewaere in the Jean-Jacques Annaud/Francis Veber minor league soccer takedown COUP DE TÊTE/’79, sadly unknown Stateside.

Monday, March 28, 2016

JOHNNY APOLLO (1940)

Just about everyone’s at their best (in front and behind the camera) in this Wall-Street-scion to Gangster pic; if only the storyline didn’t let down the snazzy production. Director Henry Hathaway, at Paramount for most of the ‘30s, was out to dazzle, showing his wares & a surprising penchant for pushing the boundaries of Production Code violence, in his 20th/Fox debut, with a big assist from Arthur Miller’s rich lensing. Physically, the film’s a knockout; so too the cast with Tyrone Power in best form as the spoiled college boy who toughens up quick when Pop goes to jail for embezzlement and only mob guy Lloyd Nolan will give him a job. Dorothy Lamour has the role of a lifetime (plus a great pair of songs) playing Nolan’s sad-eyed moll and falling for Power. Even Charles Grapewin gets a chance to show his stuff as Nolan’s alcoholic lawyer. (Milk & whiskey, please.) But it’s mostly Hathaway who slams this one across with an effortless display of cinematic style & action chops, nearly getting away with the catch-as-catch-can plotting. (Don’t blame him for the happy tag ending. The film's really over on Lamour’s slow walk out of prison. Be brave; hit the STOP Button before they break the bittersweet mood.)

DOUBLE-BILL: You’ll find almost the exact same ending, and nearly the exact some cop-out tag in WIFE VS. SECRETARY/’36 with Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, James Stewart & Myrna Loy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hefty Edward Arnold may seem an unlikely physical match as Power’s pop, but Ty’s real dad was (if anything) even larger. (On the other hand, Power’s son, born just after his death, is a ringer for his handsome dad.) Check out Tyrone, Sr. in Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL/’30, playing villain to a very young John Wayne.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

THE OUTRAGE (1964)

Between HUD/’63 and HOMBRE/’67, Paul Newman, director Martin Ritt & cinematographer James Wong Howe swung for the rafters and missed badly on this heavy-handed, poetically pretentious RASHOMON adaptation. Taken from a B’way retelling of the 1950 Kurosawa classic that retained his Japanese setting (see album cover, below), the film adaptation mercifully avoids any YellowFace issues by relocating the action to a Southern bordertown where three strangers (Edward G. Robinson, Howard Da Silva & William Shatner, staring into the void) are cogitating over a recent murder & rape case.

In a trio of flashbacks, the three involved principals (murder victim Laurence Harvey & wife/rape victim Claire Bloom in deep-fried Southern mode, Paul Newman in alarmingly swarthy make-up as a randy Frito-Bandito*), offer variant scenarios before Da Silva, a witness to the crimes, chimes in with a fourth view. Whom to believe? All? None? Or is truth unknowable? Worth a look if only for the striking, stylized train depot soundstage exterior with a positively Biblical threatening-storm cyclorama backdrop where the strangers take shelter and chew the cud. (The rest of the film plays out on natural locations; a fresh disappointment every time we cut back to that rainy, artificial depot, as atmospheric & visually compelling as something from late silent cinema. Very Josef von Sternberg.) Howe had recently achieved similar effects in the water tank on THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA/’59, but the look is even better in WideScreen monotone. (It also helps to have Eddie G. working the joint.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Someone must have felt that Newman’s famously piercing blue eyes wouldn’t show in b&w and wreck his Mex-make-up . . . someone was wrong.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

THE KID (1921)

Charles Chaplin’s famous first-feature comes up miraculously fresh (in physical condition and as comic drama) in Criterion's 4K digital release. The story of an abandoned infant, found in the garbage and raised by Charlie (reluctantly, at first; then joyously), obviously had special personal resonance for Chaplin, who had his own street urchin past. No wonder everything rings true, from broadest comic exaggeration to heart-tugging emotion. This DVD uses the slightly abridged version Chaplin prepared for the film’s 1972 re-release (with his new score opting against ‘Mickey Mousing’ to support the gags) which removed three short parenthetical episodes from the mother’s story.* The real surprise for many will come in seeing its sharp, crisp direction. Chaplin’s technical prowess is often misjudged/underrated because of stiff moments in his later sound films, and to a lesser extent from the artificial look used in THE GOLD RUSH/’25. (As if that film would get more laughs if the frostbite were real.) But from any standpoint, this film is a stunning piece of work for 1921. In particular, Chaplin shows major action chops in the big fight and following chase sequence after the authorities come to take little Jackie Coogan away from their garret home. Loaded with gags to leaven a serious brawl (Coogan with hammer; Charlie with flour bowl), Chaplin even finds a sort of logical comic ballast in his low center-of-gravity waddle to help him nimbly scamper over the steep rooftops. Watch for a fabulous angle with Charlie moving over the roof while, in the background on the streets below, the truck drives on with a terrified Jackie in the back. All in a single deep-focus shot. Or, in a less-is-more camera set up, the mother (Edna Purviance) dandles a stranger’s baby (screen right) just as Jackie (her unknown child) opens the apartment door to enter (filling screen left). Perfectly simple . . . but perfect.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Fortunately, the dropped scenes are included on the disc EXTRAs. You’ll see why Chaplin took them out, but the film’s much fuller with them in. Best to view the whole batch before watching the feature. They work perfectly well without set-up or explanation and don’t act as spoilers. Quite unlike Charlie’s deletions in his shortened 1942 re-edit of THE GOLD RUSH/’25 which does considerable damage.

Friday, March 25, 2016

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

Square and old-fashioned, effectively so, Steven Spielberg tries the Cold War on for size and finds, of all things, heroic U.S. Constitutionality personified by legal insurance specialist James B. Donovan. Played by Tom Hanks, in likable everyman mode, he’s assigned to defend Mark Rylance’s Soviet spy, annoying half the country by insisting on all rights for the accused foreign agent. Reviled by many, he proves uniquely useful when the Berlin Wall goes up, leaving two Americans (a spy pilot & a student) on the far side of the Iron Curtain, sudden candidates for a prisoner exchange with Hanks' erstwhile client. And who could be better positioned to facilitate the tricky swap? But what should be a riveting suspense tale, proves a little anodyne in the telling, straightforward & smooth textured, like some putative YA novel by John Le Carré* that's been lightly seasoned with unconvincing comic beats. (The result of a Joel & Ethan Coen script polish?) Even the usually impeccable Spielberg eye for composition goes a bit flat here, as if he remained unconvinced. The film has its heart in all the right places, but more as Civics Lesson than as drama.

DOUBLE-BILL: *John Le Carré SMILEY’S PEOPLE/’82, the underrated follow-up to the superb Alec Guinness mini-series TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY/’79, also climaxes on a Bridge of Spies. But for a unique look at Cold War paranoia & absurdity, Billy Wilder’s coarsely comic, scattershot farce, ONE, TWO, THREE/’61 (made as the Berlin Wall was rising) takes some beating.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: With John Williams unavailable, Spielberg turned to Thomas Newman for his film score. It shows.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

MRS. DELAFIELD WANTS TO MARRY (1986)

By the time she made her last few tele-pics, Katharine Hepburn had long given up on acting, or even playing herself. Instead, a sort of Special Guest Appearance version of Kate the Great came to call, even when she had the leading role. It’s particularly so for the wan trio of dramedies written especially to harness what remained of her legend by playwright James Prideaux. And unlike the pair of tv films she’d done with director George Cukor, these three films, all directed by George Schaefer, have the visual texture of movie-of-the-week fodder (like slightly shabby furniture in a once grand house), death for the genial tone of wit & whimsy Prideaux is aiming for. (It works better in the last act where Kate gets to speechify wise & sentimental.) This one, first of the three, is an updated (if that’s the word!) ABIE’S IRISH ROSE fable: senior division, with Hepburn falling for the nice Jewish doctor who saved her life (Harold Gould, excellent) while both families (hers: rich WASP society snobs/his: Jewish intellectual snobs) work to scuttle the budding romance (hers: with prejudice/his: with rudeness). Alas, Prideaux’s stereotypes, on both sides, are a good four decades past their final sell date. A shame, since there’s something to be said for a film that lets seniors show a sexual side of things. (Hepburn hadn’t done this much lip-locking since the ‘fifties!) And the combination of her kids' embarrassment at the physical aspects of the romance, and fear of an upset inheritance, would have made a dandy storyline for Douglas Sirk.*

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *It did, it did! See Sirk's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS/’55.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

GIRLS' DORMITORY (1936)

Odd little programmer about a senior at an all-girls academy who develops a crush on the head-master. What’s odd is that the film is for it. Button-cute Simone Simon (a girl so nice, they named her twice) made a premature Hollywood debut as the sole French student in this German ‘finishing’ school. (The rest of the student body is all-leg & pure Hollywood.) Murmuring Herbert Marshall, the middle-aged object of her affection, is already semi-attached to staff teacher (and co-author of his books) Ruth Chatterton, but a recovered love-letter from Simone, even though she was only imagining, threatens scandal and changes everyone’s relationship. Director Irving Cummings keeps it unbalanced, shooting in a stylized manner that loads up on static, close-up reaction shots, and generally finding angles to keep us on our toes. Meantime, someone in 20th/Fox’s script department must have seen MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM/’31 as there are just too many shared elements for coincidence, though naturally that film's lesbian angle & tragic ending have been . . . what is the word? . . . rectified for Production Code approval, straightened out and glossed over for a happy ending. (Well, it's meant to look happy.) The film is too weird to pass over, yet only holds a tiny place in film history as Tyrone Power's first film @ Fox. In a small role (ninth-billed), he’s so devastatingly young, dark & handsome, he’d grab the lead in the studio’s big historical LLOYD’S OF LONDON later that same year.

DOUBLE-BILL: A Czech film by the same name came out this year (MÄDCHENPENSIONAT), but it’s unavailable and something of a mystery. Instead, try MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM/’31, long a cult classic for socio-political reasons, it’s quite a well-made film for the period though a current DVD on ArtHaus is problematic.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

THE MERRY WIDOW (1952)

Clueless remake of the Franz Lehar operetta fails to make contact with its enchanting source material or to find any style of its own. M-G-M owned the property (a 1925 silent from Erich von Stroheim with an invented backstory; or Ernst Lubitsch finding an emotional center for Jeanette MacDonald & Maurice Chevalier in ‘34), but this Joe Pasternak/Curtis Bernhardt production rejiggers the plot (rich widow Lana Turner wooed for King & Country by Fernando Lamas’s handsome Count Danilo) into mistaken identity farce, with a soupçon of Cinderella added at Maxim’s. (Look quick to see Gwen Verdon dancing in the restaurant’s Jack Cole floorshow. Hopelessly anachronistic, but the only good thing in here.) The score is reduced to a trio of tunes for Lamas to sing in his pleasant , if wayward voice, with Turner’s vocal double briefly joining for half a verse of the famous waltz. Saucy Una Merkel, a part of the earlier Lubitsch remake, holds her own against the cringe-worthy sets & costumes, but the rest of the supporting cast sink in amateur theatrics & moldy jokes. Maybe if Lana’s period costumes were more flattering . . . ?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, Stroheim’s silent adaptation, a huge hit in its day, still loaded with perverse touches; or the heavenly Lubitsch version (lyrics by Lorenz Hart) finally available in good shape thru Warner Archive.

Monday, March 21, 2016

THE INNOCENTS (1961)

After a chilly, if successful, job interview, there’s a long scenic journey to a new, imposing place of employment. It’s certainly a beautiful estate, but so isolated, with a foreboding atmosphere as if evil spirits hovered over the few people living on the grounds. Death haunted? Ghosts seen thru window panes? Even the living seem possessed. Maybe they’re all going mad . . . maybe I am? Yes, it’s THE TURN OF THE SCREW, Henry James’ famously ambiguous ghost story. Who knew it was also template for Stephen King/Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING/’80? Right thru its fatal garden twilight finale. But where Kubrick’s odd duck of a film comes up very short between climaxes, Jack Clayton’s masterful pic finds a near perfect balance between the demands of earthly & otherworldly evil. As the new governess put in charge of two precocious, over-attached orphans, Deborah Kerr calibrates degrees of mental distress to stunning effect, while Clayton builds unsettling perfs from his two child actors. (Particularly from the unnervingly assured Master Martin Stephens.) The script is credited to William Archibald & Truman Capote, but sounds more like the work of John Mortimer who settled for an ‘additional’ dialogue credit. There’s certainly no mystery about Freddie Fields’ superb cinematography (on a b&w/CinemaScope high after his equally fine work on SONS AND LOVERS/’60 for Jack Cardiff). Everything in here gets under your skin; and never more so than when Kerr and her young charge share a far too mature intimate kiss. Shocking stuff here, hard to shake off.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Fans of Hitchcock’s fascinating, if flawed, early ‘60s films THE BIRDS/’63 and MARNIE/’64 can get a pretty good idea of how those films might have played with a real actress in the ‘Tippi’ Hedren roles watching Kerr. At 40, Kerr was nearly a decade older than Hedren, older then any Hitchcock leading lady, but what a difference she’d have made!

DOUBLE-BILL: Clayton’s career lagged after THE GREAT GATSBY/’74 disappointed. But he made a fine literary horror pic with SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES/‘83.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

THE WATER DIVINER (2014)

As vanity projects go, Russell Crowe’s directing debut is decent enough, a mid-sized WWI epic about a father leaving his farm in Australia to search for the three sons he lost to the battle of Gallipoli. For reasons barely explained, explored or exploited, his talents as water diviner (a debatable art at best) prove vital in locating the boys (two dead, one missing), while just as much time is spent gaining a separate peace with old Turkish enemies from the war, and in bridging the emotional void between a wife Crowe has lost to war’s grief and to a possible new soul-mate. There’s a real story in here, but Crowe makes the beginner’s mistake of emphasizing everything equally, clobbering us over the head to make sure we don’t miss a point. Faults and all, it plays out reasonable well, before the third act stumbles into hero-worship self-parody as Crowe plays forensic sleuth as well as patriotic war avenger (with his old enemies!) before finding a cricket bat that allows him to take on Greek philistines like some latter-day David. Then, back for chemistry-free flirtation with chilly co-star Olga Kurylenko. Crowe has more success with the film’s handsome visual production and bromance with Yilmaz Erdogan, excellent as the defeated Turkish general trying to do the honorable thing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Keep up the search for missing WWI vets with unconventional flair in LA FRANCE/’07 or more conventionally on A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT/’04.

Friday, March 18, 2016

HITLER'S MADMAN (1943)

Remarkably, 1943 found three of Europe’s best directors, each in Hollywood exile, releasing films on the underground Nazi resistance. Jean Renoir with a sabotage story set in rural France, THIS LAND IS MINE, while both Fritz Lang (in the urban-set HANGMEN ALSO DIE) and Douglas Sirk (in rural setting) took on the real-life assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich, so-called Nazi Protector for the Czechs (frighteningly well played here by John Carradine). The films are all uneven, even awkward at times (Lang & Renoir never did become ‘Hollywood idiomatic’ like Sirk), but each displays a raw emotion and enough dramatic power to compensate for some artistic bumps. MADMAN’s tight indie budget (the film was an M-G-M pick-up) brings obvious shortcomings in production & casting (a wan Clark Gable substitute in leading man Alan Curtis; Karl Hajos’s over-insistent score), but it’s still a considerable achievement, building tension as it goes along, and studded with fine set pieces; particularly in the assassination sequence and in how the townspeople gather up courage in the face of Nazi atrocities. And not many pulled punches, even in the finale, a lift from Frank Borzage’s superb THE MORTAL STORM/’40 which might have been better camouflaged.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE, all but essential viewing after this.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Cheers to leading lady Patricia Morrison (best remembered as the original 'Kate' in Cole Porter's KISS ME KATE, on her recent 101st birthday!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

TOMORROWLAND (2015)

Disconcertingly terrible, the kind of misstep that calls for reevaluation, particularly of its previously unsullied writer/director (also animator) Brad Bird. Going all in for uplift with this pep-talk against negativity, Bird dresses his Up With People shtick inside a fable about ‘chosen geniuses’ who bravely go forth (in a manner that looks like kidnapping) to some imaginary-yet-real CGI-heavy TomorrowLand, daring to bring hope and a future back to a dying Earth. The specific palaver (brilliant young girl rekindles former wunderkind’s idealism) has a self-defeating overelaborated production (The Jetsons meets Disney’s Magic Kingdom @ the 1964 World’s Fair) that fails to reach dramatic lift-off or find a thimbleful of logic. And whatever happened to Bird’s deft hand working with limited actors? The man who once found comic nuance in Tom Cruise lets a grizzled George Clooney overcook his character right from the opening shot. And George is the lucky one; disappearing off-screen for half the film. In his stead, two action-oriented female leads (youngish Britt Robertson and younger Raffey Cassidy), both charmless automatons (though only Cassidy actually plays one). Robertson a particular horror, every line & expression a fresh annoyance. Best case scenario: Brad Bird takes Sam Goldwyn’s advice and lets Western Union deliver the messages . . . or send them out with better packaging.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Presumably, Disney was hoping to find another movie franchise in their copyrighted theme park history. (TomorrowLand is long gone from DisneyLand, ya?) It makes the film’s nostalgic trip to the 1964 World’s Fair something of a stretch, but at least a pleasant one since the brief recreation is, along with the film’s cool graphic animated end-credits, the best thing in here. On the other hand, why make a film called TOMORROWLAND and fail to revive the second coolest ‘lost’ ride from the park*: Flying Saucers, sort of floating, air-propelled, Space-Age Dodge ‘Em cars. Infamously hard-to-maintain, the ride was apparently shut down for good in 1966.

CONTEST: *Yes, second coolest ‘lost’ ride from old DisneyLand. Name the ‘first’ coolest and win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice. (Subjective contest, anyone?)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a realistic/down-and-dirty battle royale between Positivity and Negativity, try Mike Leigh’s underrated, surprisingly difficult HAPPY-GO-LUCKY/’08.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

CESARE DEVE MORIRE / CAESAR MUST DIE (2012)

Still at work in their 80s, the Taviani brothers, Paolo & Vittorio, had all but dropped out of the film conversation after 1993's FIORILE when they resurfaced to take Berlin’s Golden Bear for this unusual documentary that isn’t a documentary at all. Set in Rebibbia’s High Security Prison in Italy, it follows along as a select group of long-term inmates audition, rehearse, stage & eventually perform their intimate, emotionally charged version of Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR. (The text seems to be a modern Italian translation.) Book-ended by scenes filmed in color at a performance, most of the film is in an unexpectedly glamorizing monochrome that abstracts the drab prison settings into a series of artful geometrical constructs that look more elegantly minimalist than confining. Even odder, after starting in relatively straight documentary form (fascinatingly so in an audition sequence that puts inmates thru their paces by the simplest of means, reciting basic personal info, first with sadness/then in defiance), the Tavianis use this as a jumping off point, continuing with what amounts to a staged version of a documentary. A recreation of what happened during the prison rehearsal process, played as a drama on top of Shakespeare’s. Some of this doesn’t quite come off, depending on how good the prisoners are as actors, but is almost always fascinating. And, at its infrequent best, as when the play text is ‘caught’ within a prison space, gleaning something of the flavor & spontaneity of a work like Orson Welles’ film of OTHELLO/’52. CAESAR is one of those rare films that may be better when it's not quite working. (And pay special attention to the hefty inmate playing Caesar, he’s a natural.)

Monday, March 14, 2016

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1966)

The great B’way musical-comedy from George Abbott, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart, the one about a wily Roman slave working multiple cons to win his freedom, was considered something of a miss in its film adaptation. The Sondheim contingent missed all the cut songs while everyone else found director Richard Lester’s choppy, interventionist editing style (so effective on The Beatles’ HARD DAY’S NIGHT/’64 and HELP/’65) counter productive to baggy-pants comedy. (A natural showstopper like ‘Everybody Ought To Have A Maid’ loses comic point diced into stylized music video.) True, but what the naysayers failed to notice is just how much gets thru. The farce still gets plenty of laughs and the stranglehold story construction is cleanly parsed & fun to follow. And if stage holdovers Zero Mostel & Jack Gilford as the house-slaves sometimes seem over-rehearsed*, Phil Silvers, as the next-door courtesan dealer, & Michael Hordern, as the horny, hen-pecked husband, are consistently inspired; Buster Keaton, sweetly comic in a late career victory lap; and moments where gawky, lovesick Michael Crawford channels a bit of Stan Laurel pixie dust. The biggest surprise in the film is just how gorgeous it is, and how believable this ancient Rome feels. Miles ahead of ‘serious’ Hollywood spectacle like QUO VADIS or CLEOPATRA in visual sophistication. (Not the dancing girls, though! They’re pure ‘Mod-‘60s floorshow.) Those ochre-colored costumes and dazzling muraled interiors are by production designer Tony Walton, captured by lenser Nicolas Roeg before he turned indifferent helmer. So if the film isn’t all it might have been, and barely survives an over-extended chariot chase before its quick wrap up, you can fix the problems in your head while mentally recasting a remake with new-generation comedians. (Bill Hader for any role he wants!)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/DOUBLE-BILL: Be sure to hang on for the stunning end-credits from ill-lucked animator Richard Williams. A legend for ROGER RABBIT and those PINK PANTHER credit sequences, he lost his dream project after missing a completion date, only to see it twice mangled by others, first as THE PRINCESS AND COBBLER then as ARABIAN KNIGHT. Now, thru a remarkable ‘fan edit,’ you can watch it on youtube in something near its original form as THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. (Set your streaming resolution for HD. -- Grrr: Currently, only Parts 1, 2, 6 & 7 are up and running.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZibUpH-AME&index=1&list=PL18B0CA620B61D076

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Pauline Kael once described Zero Mostel as an on screen visual obstacle course. So it’s telling that he was best captured on film in THE PRODUCERS/’67 by a director with no technique to speak of, Mel Brooks.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

HAGANENET / THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (2012)

Well-received film from Israeli writer/director Nadav Lapid touches a nerve, but underserves its intriguing story. It’s a prodigy tale, not of math, music or chess, not even spelling, but of a 5-yr-old poet. With a disinterested nanny and a father too busy at his restaurant to appreciate his pint-sized wonder, it’s left to a hands-on kindergarten teacher to cultivate his overlooked art. But the depth of the boy, and the abrupt nature of his spontaneous composition, unsettles her, particularly as she’s on the cusp of her empty-nester years. Bored & too comfortable with a loving teddy-bear of a husband, she drifts helplessly as interest & nurturing in her little prodigy overheat into dangerous obsession. A marvelous idea, but Lapid is one of those filmmakers who lives to put a foot wrong with every character arc & story turn. Particularly so in the melodramatic plunge that passes for a third act; managing to do too much and not enough. He also does himself no favors handling the child like one of those grave little alien children from the old British horror pic VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED/’60. Or in leading lady, Sarit Larry. As kindergarten teacher/delusional surrogate mother, she's one of those Black Hole actors who not only lack any screen energy but manage to suck it out of everyone around them.*

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Well-known practitioners of Black Hole Enervation Syndrome (BHES) include Jason Patric, John Shea and most Super Heroes out of costume.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above; a great excuse to rewatch VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

Friday, March 11, 2016

(NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE'S) TWICE TOLD TALES (1963)

Three creepy stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne, all introduced & starring Vincent Price, are collected in this half-hearted try by United Artists to crash the low-end horror film market then being dominated by Roger Corman @ American International Pictures & British-based Hammer Films. Visually cramped when they’re meant to be claustrophobic; wet when we want ‘camp’; dull instead of ominous; only our collective ‘need-to-know’ gene, the DNA that says ‘open that door/what’s going to happen next’ keeps us watching. The first two stories are both about potions: one for youth; one a contagion of poison. Neither exactly thrums with moviemaking panache under routine megger Sidney Salkow. A shame on the second tale which intriguingly echoes Victor Hugo’s LE ROI S’AMUSE* (the source of Verdi’s RIGOLETTO). The rhythm perks up a tad on THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES, played as a straight haunted house/buried treasure morality piece. (Price, playing a different role, was also in the very free adaptation of 1940 from German ex-pat Joe May.) The models & effects are on the tacky side, but some blood-dripping walls are 'the dope.’ Perhaps the pic would play better by watching only one story at a time. At two hours, saving the best for last isn't enough to keep things from sagging.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Too-literate-for-his-own-good writer/director/producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz got off the worst pun in Hollywood history when he was an M-G-M exec trying to defend some inexplicable decision made by fellow studio producer/director Mervyn LeRoy. Questioned on what LeRoy’s rationale might have been on some long forgotten decision, Mankiewicz promptly came up with the likely cause: LeRoy s’amuse.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION (2015)

Previously on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE . . . Brad Bird surprised all with GHOST PROTOCOL/’11, the M.I. pic of your dreams. Or nearly . . . no Barbara Bain. In her absence, Bird helmed a Roger Moore-era James Bond pic of your dreams. Okay, that was THE SPY WHO LOVED ME/’77 . . . but you get the idea. And we know how the Bond experts punted the follow-up, MOONRAKER/’79, scuttling revived tropes thru overuse while losing a hard-won balance of randy fun & OTT thrills to settle for coarse winking & OTT stunts. And so it goes for ROGUE, opening in jokey fashion (very nudge, nudge/yuck, yuck) before trying to segue into serious territory via slackly staged action sequences & barely motivated character arc reversals. Christopher McQuarrie, more writer than director, hasn’t much to offer in the way of action chops (close-work is all now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t edits while big set pieces are kinetic free-for-alls that don’t add up.* (The slick car/motorbike chase sequence looks like it was handed off to 2nd Unit specialists.) Not that the targeted audience seemed to mind. They may even have located something to pass for a plot while scoping out Tom Cruise’s oddly inconsistent facial features, a different haggard look from every angle. Depressing stuff. Naturally, McQuarrie is already signed up for the next M.I. With TC, apparently, already hard at work . . . on his face.  (They say the puffiness goes down in a couple of months. See below)

TC: 2015/2016

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Whereas M.I.-3 took a big plot swipe from Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS/’46, here we get an overripe homage to Hitch’s assassination set piece from his ‘56 remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, but with a Vienna staging of TURANDOT in for oratorio at the Royal Albert Hall. Alas, nothing at the State Opera House maintains contact with logistical sense, the very opposite of Hitchcockian precision. They even manage to get the climactic note of 'Nessun Dorma' wrong. (Hint: It's the penultimate note: Vin-cer-o.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above M.I.4 . . . or THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. Even better, Brad Bird’s animated shot at ‘70s Bond-love, THE INCREDIBLES/’04.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

THE WHITE ANGEL (1936)

Kay Francis, Our Lady of Louche, Warners’ Pre-Code provocation in plunging décolletage, is certainly a long shot for Crimean War über-nurse Florence Nightingale. Especially in one of those hagiographic bio-pics William Dieterle was starting to specialize in, the second of six helmed. Yet, if the script never quite locates enough dramatic line to hang a feature on, the standards of fact-to-fiction are reasonably met, and the mid-section with Nurse Nightingale overcoming hostile military routine (deftly filleted in sharp perfs by Donald Crisp & Montague Love) to clean up the mess that passed for hospital care has an honest magnificence simply as studio product, largely due to the thrilling professionalism of lenser Tony Gaudio & great art director Anton Grot. The expressive tomb-like atmosphere they create makes up for much that’s glossed over in the film’s streamlined narrative. A major flop in its day, it’s no embarrassment. Though no one would exchange this buttoned up Kay for the naughty Ms. Francis of her hedonist heyday.

DOUBLE-BILL: Once acclaimed, Dieterle’s bio-pics have long fallen from favor. Yet they still work on their own simplified/generalized terms; and better than that in his slightly loony JUAREZ/’39 and the more than slightly remarkable DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET/’40.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

KINGS ROW (1940)

Two years after visionary production designer William Cameron Menzies & functional director Sam Wood collaborated on Thornton Wilder’s idealized OUR TOWN/’40 (a far darker locale than your high school likely made of it), they brought its doppelgänger to the screen in KINGS ROW, where Peyton Place meets Grover’s Corners. Moody & insistently Freudian, the story finds neuroses at every turn: inherited insanity; sadism; a mutilating surgeon; corrupt bank managers; barnyard deflowering; wrong-side-of-the-tracks class prejudice; female hysteria; and filmdom’s scariest chin wart! Told largely thru the adolescence & young adulthood of four best friends (Ann Sheridan; Robert Cummings; Betty Field; Ronald Reagan), all very turn-of-the-last-century ‘emo,’ the mix often runs too high to take as seriously as the film would like us to. But, like one of those OTT Eugene O’Neill experimental/modernized Greek tragedies, it’s all so gosh darn compelling you can’t stop watching even when the third act threatens to tip over trying to fit everything in. It’s also magnificent to look at (James Wong Howe & Robert Burks lensing); legendary in its Erich Wolfgang Korngold score (listen to how John Williams nipped the opening fanfare for STAR WARS); and often brilliantly acted. Ann Sheridan is heartbreakingly lovely & empathetic as the working class kid; Ronnie Reagan in his best perf (yes, it's the one where he screams, 'Where's the rest of me!,' though he flunks his brief final epiphany); and if Bob Cummings can’t ring up much more than a look of indigestion in moments of crisis, some old line supporting actors (Charles Coburn; Claude Rains; Henry Davenport; Maria Ouspenskaya) are all plenty memorable with minimal screen time.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/READ ALL ABOUT IT: Even in a more innocent world of close male-bonding, the presentation of Cummings & Reagan is exceptionally charged with fleshly physicality. Does Ronnie really need to mention that they’ll have to share a bunk? (Perhaps the book was clearer about all this.)

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, OUR TOWN; and good luck finding a watchable edition amongst all the cruddy Public Domain offerings.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

COTTAGE TO LET (1941)

Don’t be fooled by its ‘name’ director (Anthony Asquith) and starry cast (John Mills, Leslie Banks, Alastair Sim, Michael Wilding), this comically skewed wartime espionage pic has ‘Quota Quickie’ written all over it. And is modestly enjoyable as such. Banks, an eccentric mechanical genius working with young Wilding on a new bomb sighting device in his country estate, let’s his ditzy wife see to their cottage rental property. Turns out, it’s been promised to some rambunctious London evacuees; a hospital recovery unit for injured soldiers; and as a vacation retreat. Vacant for months, it’s suddenly wanted by all three at once! Alas, this fertile comic idea gets smothered by some Spy vs Spy vs Spy intrigue as various London agencies secretly post men in the place to watch over Banks’ war work, unaware of a gang of local Fifth Columnists and a possible German plant. Ah well, the spirit is willing and the cast fun to watch, but so much more could have been done.

DOUBLE-BILL: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger nailed this sort of fun WWII British propaganda in 49TH PARALLEL/’41 and ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING/’42.

Friday, March 4, 2016

THE LOCKET (1946)

Slightly crazed (and crazy entertaining) ‘bad seed’ meller opens on a big society wedding for Gene Raymond to mystery gal Lorraine Day. That’s when uninvited Brian Aherne forces his way in, a previous husband hoping to spill the beans to the latest groom before it’s too late! Cue flashback for Aherne to make his case; Day’s a klepto-sociopath! Don’t believe it? Well, Aherne got fooled on his wedding day to her years back when he should have listened to Day’s ex-boyfriend Robert Mitchum . . . cue Bob’s big flashback of romantic woe with this sick chick. What screwed Lorraine up? Where did it all go wrong? Cue big flashback for Lorraine to learn the childhood origin trauma. (For those still counting, that’s a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. Flashback³! And not a moment’s confusion in the telling.* Eat your heart out INCEPTION!) Mid-budget film noir specialist John Brahm was just off one of his best (HANGOVER SQUARE/’45) when he made this furious little winner. The opening reels are a bit too jarring, but it quickly settles into its own anti-logic, offering more thrills & surprises than it has any right to. Stylish camera grabs, too, with a big wedding march climax that’s worth celebrating. And Lorraine Day, a leading lady who never quite made star, finds that the lack of sincerity that may have been her Achilles’ Heel works for her here, pointing to a want of conscience and a missing moral compass. In the film’s most harrowing scene, Brahm (helped by ace noir lenser Nicholas Musuraca shortly before he shot OUT OF THE PAST/’47) moves his camera in so close, you see right thru Day’s heavy make-up to the mottled flesh quivering with something near self-recognition. Sure, it’s just genre stuff, but at times, transcending the usual Hollywood straitjacket.

DOUBLE-BILL:*When it comes to piggyback flashbacks, Michael Curtiz & Humphrey Bogart topped ‘em all with the simultaneously running flashbacks in PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES/’44, taking the count all the way up to . . . is it four or five? Everyone loses count.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

CULT OF THE COBRA

Six ‘Ugly American’ soldier boys get caught crashing a religious snake cult on their last day overseas and wind up being followed home by one of the cult members: a snake out for revenge! Make that a snake that’s metamorphosed into lovely Faith Domergue! (Sort of like the movie CAT PEOPLE, but after the fall.) Faith dutifully goes about her deadly business, always in the form of a snake (okay, the shadow of a snake), until she finds herself developing second thoughts of human kindness upon falling hard for one her putative victims! Dopey, kiddie-matinee stuff to be sure, though it looks a bit better than it might thanks to Russell Metty’s smooth lensing. (Amazingly, Metty went straight from this dreck to the TechniColor glory of Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS/’55.) And it’s also not too disgracefully acted by pleasant nonentities like Marshall Thompson & Richard Long. Still, awfully tame fare that’s probably best appreciated (if that’s the word) as a comparison to something like CAT PEOPLE/’42 which manages to build a small masterpiece out of equally ridiculous material, makes sense while you’re watching it and even runs a reel shorter. Best thing here is the cool poster; though tv buffs will enjoy seeing David Janssen running a dimly lit bowling alley in a scene that hopes to do for this film what the famous swimming pool scare sequence did for CAT PEOPLE. No such luck; no such skill.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The new WideScreen formats coming in at the time made it harder for cheap little horror pics to build up claustrophobic terror. Too much space to fill up; harder to focus a viewer's attention. Not that Francis D. Lyon’s megging would be much improved in the old, squarer Academy Ratio.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, CAT PEOPLE/’42.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

THE LODGER (1927)

There’s something peculiar about the lodger who’s just taken a room at the Buntings’ home in London. Always pacing. Or going for stealthy midnight walks. And why has he taken all those paintings of golden-haired beauties off his walls? Now he’s stealing the affection of the Bunting daughter from her detective beau! Should they be worried? Nah, ‘He’s not that sort,’ as an inter-title puts it, ‘queer, but a gentleman.’ If only his characteristics didn’t match up so closely with that Jack-the-Ripper guy making the neighborhood rounds!! Alfred Hitchcock’s third feature, a very German Expressionist silent, was the first film he’d take full ownership of. Rightly so. A dreamy sort of thing, with wonderful visual trick shots and a stronger sense of dread than suspense. It’s a kick to see Hitch find his directing form, less in showy shots, like an isolated hand sliding down a bannister or a ceiling of glass that reveals the pacer above, than in simpler psychologically realized mise-en-scène as when our dashing lodger (Ivor Novello) dashes to ‘rescue’ the daughter from the handcuffs of her teasing cop boyfriend. With astute angles, framing that delineates character & a bumped up pace, suddenly Hitchcock controls & reveals narrative and subtext thru his visuals. Just the sort of touch to mark Hitchcock as a master in the making. (NOTE: Beware Public Domain dupes! An M-G-M licensed DVD listed as ‘Premiere Collection’ could be bettered, but is more than acceptable.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Hitch always seemed a bit embarrassed about DOWNHILL/’27, his Novello follow up, but it’s an excellent meller about a young man kicked out of school after covering for a friend. OR: 1944's THE LODGER, a fine, ultra-foggy B-pic from director John Brahm with Laird Cregar & George Sanders, all warming up for the even better HANGOVER SQUARE/’45.