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Thursday, June 30, 2016

ALL MY SONS (1948)

With his posthumous reputation on the rebound, thanks to front-line international directors turning out abstract or avant VIEW(s) FROM A BRIDGE and THE CRUCIBLE, it’s a jolt to come up against Arthur Miller’s own voice in this marginally ‘opened up’ film version of his first real stage success. It’s a post-WWII scold of a play about two star-crossed families and a batch of defective war-plane parts. Miller’s construct has the daughter of one partner (the guy who ‘took the rap’ for the crime) engaged to the son of the partner who got off on a lie. Add on the son’s missing-in-action brother; a neurotic mother in denial; the girl’s brother, unwilling to let the scandal rest; and a gaggle of nosy neighbors on all sides of the house; and you never have to wait long for the next shoe to drop. Miller lobs one in your lap every couple of minutes. Like so much of his work, it’s Ibsen For Babies; very ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE meets THE WILD DUCK*, with bits of MASTER BUILDER to firm up characterizations. At a certain drab level, what with backlot studio-set ‘kitchen sink’ realism, it works. (Or rather, works on you.) And there’s some good acting on the male side of things (Edward G. Robinson & Burt Lancaster a fine, if unlikely Mutt & Jeff/father-and-son team); the ladies, generally less lucky. Poor Louisa Horton, debuting as Lancaster’s intended, pretty much started & stopped her feature film career right here. And for bad writing, Miller-style, a reconciliation scene between Howard Duff’s angry young lawyer and Mady Christians, as Robinson’s guilt-ridden wife, takes some beating.

DOUBLE-BILL: *While Miller’s translation/adaptation/reduction of Ibsen’s ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE has received multiple tv outings, his plays & original scripts have had a rough go as feature films. With his best shot at an original script, EVERYBODY WINS/’90, a nicely off-center private detective fandango for Nick Nolte & Debra Winger (see below), less rhetorical/judgmental than his norm, largely ignored but a good choice for Miller agnostics.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

CHUGYEOGJA / THE CHASER (2008)

Debuting Korean writer/director Hong-jin Na shows preternatural action chops in this well-received thriller, but can’t pull off the story’s wild swings in tone. Basically a police procedural with a twist, the detective is an ex-cop, now running a small call-girl operation. (Legal in Korea?) Recently, his ‘girls’ keep running out on him; possibly lured by recruiters to work for bigger outfits. Using one of his regulars to bait a trap, the former detective uncovers something far darker than he could have imagined. And with his old police buds in crisis mode & otherwise engaged, he’s got to call upon old instincts to nab a psycho serial killer. Eventually, the real police do come into the picture, but wind up looking like the Korean Keystone Kops, inept & weirdly blasé, even after finding out the scope of the crimes. (Hong-jin Na making a beginner's mistake in having their actions dictated by, rather than running, the plot mechanics.) Lots of good work in here though, especially in the performances which help you get by some needless narrative confusion, questionable story construction and off-putting slips in tone.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hong-jin Na has two more films out (not seen here), THE YELLOW SEA/’10 and THE WAILING/’16. Meanwhile, for a superior Korean serial killer investigation, don’t miss Joon-ho Bong’s superb MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE (1958)

Sandwiched between mega-hits PEYTON PLACE/’57 and IMITATION OF LIFE/’59), this also-ran Lana Turner meller can’t figure itself out. Ludicrously cast as a U.S. war correspondent in WWII London, Turner has the wardrobe, apartment & personal maid to be presentable on any assignment, wrapped in a lush mink coat when not sporting a ‘Raincoat by Aquascutum,’ as per the credits. Comfortably engaged to boss Barry Sullivan back in the States, she’s carrying on a major affair with BBC broadcaster Sean Connery, unaware he’s married with kid. (Unavoidable SPOILERS ahead: Read At Your Own Risk!) So when Sean dies in a plane crash and the war suddenly ends, Lana’s left not just an emotional wreck but in an emotional vacuum. How to get past her funk? Maybe she could visit his hometown?; maybe bond with his kid?; maybe stay as a guest of his wife in his house?; even help her with a book of his collected war broadcasts? A design for cathartic breakthrough, or photogenic breakdown? Remarkably, thanks largely to a wonderful perf from Glynis Johns as the wife, you can swallow quite a lot of this. If only Turner could forego wounded nobility for her character’s self-centered heart of darkness. (Or if the film figured out that Johns, learning of the affair, can finally see her late husband as something other than a plaster saint.) But even as romantic claptrap, neither Lewis Allen’s megging nor Stanley Mann’s script is up to the possibilities.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Connery’s ‘introducing’ credit could just as easily have gone to Master Martin Stephens who plays his little boy. Over the next few years, Stephens was Britain’s go-to acting lad in classics like VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED/’60 and THE INNOCENTS/’61.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While the original posters have Connery fourth-billed (and in smaller font), this poster moves him ahead of a very generic-looking Lana Turner. Oddly, Connery’s looks don’t ‘pop’ in this film’s monochrome, but would in next year’s TechniColored DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE/’59.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)

Theoretically, this ought to be the standout film in the series of combination live-action/stop-motion adventures produced by Charles H. Schneer & animated by Ray Harryhausen. It’s one (of four) with a Bernard Herrmann score*; has a cast of real actors instead of nobodies (Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Gary Merrill, Herbert Lom); a swell Jules Verne novel as its source; even a legit director with a knack for action in Cy Endfield. Alas, any hopes for a more unified artistic product are illusory. Instead, the usual mix of ginned-up showmanship (monsters & Sci-Fi elements) in place for Verne’s carefully designed storytelling rhythms & delayed surprises. Oh well, still good fun on its own terms, though with less than convincing matte painted vistas, along with a fair amount of leftover Verne holding things together as outline (Civil War escapees balloon to a not-so deserted isle), and a smash set piece with giant bees no kid will soon forget.

LINK/READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Make that Hear All About It. Herrmann’s score deserves a proper outing. Many recordings of various excerpts out there, and a hard to find soundtrack album. Here’s a link with Herrmann conducting his own extended suite. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4TKbiJa0n4

Saturday, June 25, 2016

UNDER PRESSURE (1935)

Modern audiences are at something of a disadvantage on this action-dramedy/buddy pic as its brawling leads, Edmund Lowe & Victor McLaglen, already had a long established character relationship as co-stars, working (often with director Raoul Walsh) on their rivalry act for a decade, back to WHAT PRICE GLORY/’26. There, they fought each other & WWI; here, they sweat it out under the East River as ‘sweathogs,’ digging a tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan; and trying, between personal tiffs, to beat Charles Bickford & crew who are burrowing toward them from Manhattan. Do the teams meet in the middle, or blow the works, along with their health, in punishing pressurized air tube conditions. The film assumes we know these guys too well to bother with much character development, but there’s enough action, one-upmanship and nights with the girls (one game but genteel/one loyal but gamey) to make this pay off. Some of the special effects are now on the quaint side, but a lot of the physical production remains impressive. (Especially the main drilling room which might have inspired a Diego Rivera mural.) And no way could you still find the believable body types who make up the crews. Truly a lost manly form, they look like boxers from the turn-of-the-last-century.* It gives the film a verisimilitude you just can’t buy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *McLaglen was a noted prize-fighter in the early 1900s, even fighting an exhibition match against Jack Johnson.

Friday, June 24, 2016

UNFINISHED BUSINESS (2015)

Overlooked, slightly off-center workplace/business trip comedy came & went with little notice (and even less love tossed its way). But behind a pretty funny trailer lies a pretty funny film.* Helmer Ken Scott brings an ‘80s vibe to the filmmaking (in a good way), merged with looser, up-to-date social attitudes found in Steve Conrad’s script. It’s a combination that frees up his players just enough to keep his comic learning curves from turning into character straitjackets. Coarser than need be (‘Glory Holes’ & prosthetic dicks, can’t get coarser than that!, though mercifully free of gay-anxiety panic), with Dave Franco’s virginal doofus working his shtick awful hard. But the story of a little company that could is sweetly good-natured and fun. As the two senior partners, Tom Wilkinson is fine as ever, while Vince Vaughn adds to his easy comic command with a fearless emotional openness most leading men his age & bracket have started closing down at this career stage. We’re damning with faint praise, but that’s a good deal more than many a currently successful comedy rates.

LINK: *Here’s the trailer - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bM5vyZBQFA

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Few things screw up an actor or director’s head like good work poorly received (or vice versa). Hopeful Vaughn, who’s been on a bad recent streak, keeps his own counsel.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

THE WITCH: A NEW ENGLAND FOLKTALE (2015)

Robert Eggers’ writing/directing debut, an artfully teased out horror pic seen thru a digital lens darkly, gets a lot just right. A chamber-sized shocker out of Old New England, it’s about a tight-knit family of seven who leave the community to strike out on their own, only to find devilish troubles in the woods surrounding their farm. Someone’s infected/possessed, and everyone’s suspected, with family members disappearing, and Satanic sightings reported from even the youngest. Murky & vague (more than necessary thanks to a mumbling cast & eye-straining digital desaturation), with a creeping sense of dread as the father puzzles things out and the family turns accusatory. The filmmaking is talented & proficient, with dialogue given a Biblical (make that Devilish) turn of phrase. Yet the real mystery is why it’s so stubbornly ineffective. Not a shiver, chill or fright in sight, nor wonder or pity. (It’s Canadian-made & clinical; afraid of giving offense?) Quite popular though, and you may feel otherwise. Perhaps the director will connect more directly on his next project.  (NOTE: Family Friendly label for teens not tykes.)

DOUBLE-BILL: When it comes to taking witches seriously, no one comes near Carl Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH/’43. The Anti-Crucible, it makes believers (or is it non-believers?) of us all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS (1956)

Brisk & light-hearted, this modest, underrated Western is one of the better late credits for Clark Gable & director Raoul Walsh. Gable’s a con man, on the run right from the start, racing his horse thru some spectacular terrain in Lucien Ballard’s luscious CinemaScope lensing. Following up on a tip, he heads for an isolated homestead, landing plop in the middle of four man-hungry (putative) widows and their suspicious/tough-minded mother-in-law (Jo Van Fleet). The draw is a fortune in stolen gold, hidden by the four sibling-husbands before they took off. The wild card in the set up; one of the husbands may still be alive . . . but which? Margaret Fitts gets story credit, but its Richard Alan Simmons’ script providing first-class structure & dialogue. An excellent package, with Walsh showing some of his old form and giving each lady a chance to shine, especially Eleanor Parker who proves an exceptional foil for Gable. Watch for a delightful, unexpected mini-musicale for Gable & the romantically inclined (okay, horny after two manless years) widows.* Gable may be a bit weathered to cause all the commotion, but his relaxed charm is still a powerful presence, right thru the film’s satisfying, neatly plotted wrap.

DOUBLE-BILL: Gable & Walsh reteamed (to little effect and forty extra minutes running time) on next year’s ante-bellum drama, BAND OF ANGELS/’57.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Alex North’s wrote a fine score, but the real musical highlight comes in the dance episode to variations on ‘Red River Valley’, undoubtedly the work of orchestrator Hershy Kay. New York-based, with only a few Hollywood credits, Kay famously orchestrated Leonard Bernstein musicals (CANDIDE; WEST SIDE STORY) and put together scores for Georges Balanchine @ NYCB, some with an Americana slant sounding much like this zippy episode.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

LOVE LETTERS (1945)

The top romantic amnesia pics of WWII came early (RANDOM HARVEST/’42) and late (LOVE LETTERS/’45) in the war. Largely indefensible, they’re both faintly ridiculous constructs, yet so cleverly loaded with emotional triggers they detonate in some secret (nay, shameful) part of the brain you’ve no control of. (The left lobe, no?) Of the two, James Hilton’s HARVEST is the nuttier, more inexplicable success. But somehow M-G-M’s plush packaging takes hold of the enterprise. It’s magically all-of-a-piece under Mervyn Leroy’s corporate megging, with a dashingly haggard Ronald Colman falling in & out of his WWI-injured memory while loyal Greer Garson takes dictation and waits for a mental breakthrough. You really don’t know whether to laugh or cry. William Dieterle’s LOVE LETTERS is something else again. Or rather, it’s CYRANO DE BERGERAC again . . . now with amnesia for dream girl Roxanne! Oh, they also toss in a murder mystery to beef things up. Joseph Cotten is the Cyrano character, writing love letters for a lug-headed army bud and falling for unseen pen-pal gal Jennifer Jones (alarmingly lovely; shedding her usual neurotic overtones) in the amnesiac Roxanne spot. And with Ayn Rand on script (yes, that Ayn Rand), the letters positively brim with poetic passion. But then, so does the whole film under Dieterle’s highly stylized/artificial studio look. Good thing, too, as the story would collapse in a more realistic treatment. Here, the Grimm Fairy Tale tone is just about perfect . . . and largely indefensible.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The first time Cotten & Jones got together, in David O. Selznick’s SINCE YOU WENT AWAY/’44, Cotten played surrogate uncle. Now, producer Hal Wallis bumps him up to lover. Third time out, with Selznick & Dieterle in charge, Cotten can’t quite connect with an ectoplasmic Jones in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE/’48. Three roles that chart the obsessive (more like devourering) relationship, and eventual marriage of Jones & Selznick. (Selznick even brought in LETTERS’ superb glamorizing lenser, Lee Garmes, when Joseph August’s unusual photographic treatment for JENNIE gave Jones a harsh unromantic look.)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

NIE YIN NIANG / THE ASSASSIN (2015)

Last year, the Cannes Film Fest directing award went to Taiwanese master Hsiao-Hsien Hou for this unsatisfying art-house Martial Arts contemplation; visually rich/dramatically inert. At heart a revenge story about a stolen bride, raised (by nuns!) to kill the man she never wed, along with much of his royal house, currently in the middle of a breakaway war against their own provincial overlords. The pacing is glacial (which isn’t a problem); the story informationally undernourished (which is). And while some sequences are hypnotically lovely, paradoxically earthy & otherworldly, too much goes by in a fog of unexplained characters & inexplicable war stratagems. Who could this one have been made for? And why do so many international film fests play in intellectual/commercial vacuums, as if purposefully cultivating the worst of both camps?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Don’t let this wrong turn keep you off Hsiao-Hsien Hou. Try his early DUST IN THE WIND/’86, a small town/big town story as simple, true & moving as a Dear John letter.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: IMDb lists the film as shot & formatted in the old squarish Academy Ratio (1.37:1). Not quite. The fine Well-Go DVD is mastered for anamorphic playback and shows in something that looks closer to 1.66:1.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hungarian Béla Tarr had a similar misadventure when he brought his art-house sensibility to genre material in THE MAN FROM LONDON/’07.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

WHITE HEAT (1949)

Irresistible gangster pic, often cited as a run-of-the-mill project only elevated by James Cagney’s top-of-the-world perf, is far better than that. In fact, it’s pretty great all ‘round, with clever story construction loaded with narrative dodges to keep you off-balance; pitch-perfect casting on all sides (especially from the gals: Virginia Mayo’s venal, unscrupulous moll, Margaret Wycherly’s vicious/suspicious ‘Ma’); and Raoul Walsh’s furiously paced helming of Ivan Goff/Ben Roberts’ smart script.* Yet, it is Cagney who makes it immortal. More unhinged & dangerous than before (thicker, too), he’s a walking wound of malevolent negative energy, flaying his own emotional triggers, then howling in pain as he waits for them to go off. (He must have been a scary presence on set.) The opening is especially fierce, as Cagney & his gang kill four while robbing a train. Giving himself up on a lesser charge as cover/alibi, and gaining a short sentence, he’s buddied up in jail by Edmund O’Brien’s undercover cop who hopes to get Cagney, and his secret backer, once they’re back outside. Simple enough set up, but oh, how Cagney, Walsh & Co. ring the changes.

DOUBLE-BILL: *When Cagney released his psychotic side one last time for the fine, if lesser known SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL/’59, he brought in HEAT’s writing duo of Goff/Roberts for a polish.

Friday, June 17, 2016

DET SJUNDE INSEGLET / THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

The Ingmar Bergman classic, of course. (Celebrate with our double dose of poster art: New & traditional.)  One of those films everyone knows, but perhaps haven’t actually seen. And the surprise of it, after decades of presuming it a pretentious, intellectual bore from some college intro-to-film-as-art course, is what a witty, entertaining work hides behind the forbidding reputation. Not everything holds up after six decades, the noisy variations on the famous Dies Irae melody (one of the oldest in Western culture) can sound overblown, and some of Gunnar Fischer’s lighting (largely a high contrast wonder) use more ‘fill’ on interiors than you’d see today. But little else shows its age or begs stylistic apology. Right from its quick-start opening, the images as death makes a courtesy chess call on Max Von Sydow’s noble knight, back from wasted years in The Crusades, are famous for a reason: once seen, they are impossible to forget. And the series of encounters for knight & his more earthly squire* may be dark, but never dreary, often touched with verbal exchanges that are, by turns, comic, humane or legitimately puzzling. All of it, turned out by Bergman with effortless economy in gesture & storytelling concision. Try the fine new transfer on Criterion; surprise yourself.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *While there’s an inevitable Don Quixote/Pancho Sancho vibe to the film’s Knight & Squire, there’s an even more personal Bergman connection to ‘Jof,’ one of the traveling players who come under the knight’s protection, as he seems a direct link with Bergman’s Papagano from his film version of Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE/’75.

DOUBLE-BILL: Bergman’s penultimate shot, with a circling dance of death in the background, might have come out of Abel Gance’s LA ROUE/’23 which also ends with a circle dance on a mountain. But there, it’s a dance that rejects death’s call. (See LA ROUE in the remarkable 2008 restoration from Lobster DVD.)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

HIGH SOCIETY (1956)

Two words that don’t spring to mind in relation to Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra are Road Company. Yet, that’s what you get on this reasonable facsimile musicalization of the Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart starrer THE PHILADELPHIA STORY/’40. There’s a good Cole Porter score, a typically underrated late effort*, and a fine fourth wheel in Celeste Holm*, but too much character development & comedy go missing with nearly an hour cut from Philip Barry’s original play. Worse, Kelly, as the rigid society gal who stoops to conquer her blind spots, misses nearly every laugh. The timing, blunt directness & brittle nature Hepburn turned on & off with such alarming precision are nowhere to be seen. (High comedy is no beginner’s game, and Kelly only made about ten features.) Crosby (as the ‘ex’ who wants her back) and Sinatra (as the gossip scribe who strays from his intended) might have worked, at least they play nicely together, but the trimmed script tosses out their motivations (reformed alcoholic/serious author). All that’s left is the dramatic outline and an emphasis on some of the play’s more unpleasant attitudes. Barry’s resolution for unforgiving daughter & roaming dad feels particularly moldy. Still, if you’ve seen the original version, and don’t mind hideous, antiseptic sets (could the lack of taste be deliberate?), the songs are rather ‘swellegant,’ and Kelly stunning as ever in her Hollywood swan-song.

ATTENTION MJUST BE PAID: *Porter’s late scores get taken for granted. But with two new standards, an old standard, a great novelty number, plus a charming throwaway (‘Little One’), why complain?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Cary Grant & James Stewart were more than a match for roles played on stage by Joseph Cotten & Van Heflin. Hepburn was less taken with young, glamorous Ruth Hussey in for B'way's Shirley Booth, neither young nor glamorous. Here, Celeste Holm probably gets closer to Booth’s original conception.

DOUBLE-BILL: A Philadelphia Main Line society gal in real life, Kelly must have thought moving the story to Rhode Island ironic. Even more ironic, playing a princess in her underrated penultimate pic, Ferenc Molnár’s wise, hardheaded romance, THE SWAN/’56.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ZHANTAI / PLATFORM (2000)

Early feature from Jia Zhang-Ke watches with eerie precision, using long simple takes, as the 1980s play out in and around the town of Fenyang, Northern China. Seen thru the eyes & changing lives of a gaggle of twenty-something traveling performers, it’s no longer the Mao, Mao, Mao, Mao World of their parents & the authorities, but what’s to replace the old verities? Surely, there’s more to it than Pop music culture (with its heavy Western seasonings) and colorful, inexpensive clothing. But just try putting a name, number or ethical standard on it; especially for a new generation going thru a very delayed adolescent rebellion. Jia Zhang-Ke plays this as an ensemble piece, people come & go, or get replaced by younger members joining the troop with more up-to-date/Westernized styles. Personal identification, at least for a non-Chinese audience, can be tricky, making this less a story or character driven pic, than one of fast-devolving mores & moods. It's the sort of cultural dislocation you might get moving from one side of the world to the other, all happening while running in place. A change that goes all the way down to that new No Smoking sign on the bus. Economically executed, it’s a tough memory film with cascading emotions unexpectedly popping up at inconvenient moments.

DOUBLE-BILL: Must see more Jia Zhang Ke!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

GO WEST (1925)

Sweet-natured and hilarious, this is probably Buster Keaton’s gentlest feature, a pastoral Western with his most unlikely leading lady, Brown Eyes, a Holstein cow. Tossed by fate off a train out West, Buster tumbles his way to a cattle ranch where he’s saved from a charging bull by his new bovine gal pal. (Note Steer P.O.V. shot . . . horns & all!) But, as we all know, cows eventually have to go to market, even Brown Eyes. And it’s up to Buster to make sure the herd arrives on time to save the farm for his boss (and the boss’s cute daughter) while keeping Brown Eyes out of harm’s way. Working in a quieter, lower key than usual, and with less spectacular set pieces or life-threatening stunts, Buster remains astonishingly inventive & funny. He’s simply working more in the manner of ‘close up’ magic; silent film magic. Yet miraculously holding to the standard of realism (well, surrealism) he preferred in his features. Getting herds of cattle thru the streets & shops of L.A. must have been a nightmare, but not as mind-bogglingly impossible as getting a performance out of Holstein that's as expressive as a trained dog. Has it ever been tried again . . . without extensive camera or CGI trickery? And watch for a great moment in a poker game after another player, accused of cheating, pulls a gun and orders Buster to ‘Smile when you say that!’ Buster, who took official story & directing credit on this (he might as well have done the same on all his silent work), makes everything in here look effortless . . . don’t you believe it.

CONTEST: Once more, Buster uses D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16 for gags. While THE THREE AGES/’23 played with its idea of having a similar story play out in different time periods (Pre-Historic; Ancient Rome; Modern Times), here he borrows names: ‘Brown Eyes’ from the Huguenot story of INTOLERANCE, and 'Friendless' from the character called ‘The Friendless One’ in that film’s Modern section. But Buster also steals a famous moment from a later Griffith masterpiece for a funny little gag. Spot it, and the film it comes from to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

LITTLE EYOLF (1982)

Strongly cast, straightforward Ibsen, from a BBC collection, keeps this difficult late work in motion, even when it’s all talk. A strange, compelling play, at times uncomfortably realistic, it’s a chamber piece for a sour married couple (Diana Rigg/Anthony Hopkins), their disabled son (Eyolf), the husband’s (half)-sister (Emma Piper), her persistent suitor (Charles Dance) and the Rat Charmer (Peggy Ashcroft), a shabby character who lures pests out to sea where they drown. In the cumbersome psychological world of Ibsen, you know someone will follow this old bird to a bad end since character is as much catalyst as destiny at the final curtain. The first act brings Hopkins’ author manqué back from the mountains where he’s suspended work on his grand treatise about Human Relations; a subject he knows nothing of. Rigg, the wealthy wife who’s happily supported him, now finds him changed, no longer all hers. But whom to blame? Incestuous passion from his loving sister? A surge of interest toward the child she finds an annoyance & he ignores? The play truly opens up after a tragedy with the second & third acts given in near abstract settings that might house Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, with bared emotions & slashing truths served ‘neat.’ It’s a great gaping wound of a play.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Here’s your chance to see Rigg & Dance together three & a half decades before GAME OF THRONES.

Friday, June 10, 2016

GILDA (1946)

The famously off-kilter romantic noir looks better than ever in its new restoration, out on Criterion; a festival (make that Carnivale) of light, shadow & silhouette from cinematographer Rudolph Maté, Rita Hayworth’s designated lenser at the time. The plot, something or other to do with Nazis in South America & cornering the market in Tungsten Steel, has never made much sense (Joseph Calleia’s local detective wraps it all up in a single line of dialogue), but the suggestive atmosphere of double-dealing & love/hate characterizations make their own narrative logic. Hayworth’s Gilda spends the whole movie making fabulous entrances, or rather her hair does, duking it out with former playmate Glenn Ford, now junior partner & obedient lapdog to Gilda’s surprise husband, club-owner/man of the world George Macready, a man with a rapier wit and a rapier! (Phallically hidden in his walking stick.) The DVD comes with a couple of supplemental talks. In one, Martin Scorsese & Baz Luhrmann dig into this sugary dessert and pretend to find something serious & significant to say. As if we enjoyed ice cream only for the calcium. Critically speaking, very ‘70s, very dated. (Give Luhrmann this year’s Obvious Prize for telling us those staggering form-fitting gowns Jean Louis designed for Hayworth are meant to suggest nudity.) On the other hand, a second supplement from film critic Eddie Muller posits a dandy gay/bi/masochistic sub-textual explanation to the Macready/Ford relationship. Suddenly, the film’s opening nighttime wharf scene makes sense; it’s a pick-up! Alas, this leaves the plot as baffling as ever. And calling this film‘s Two Guys/One Gal dashed bromance a rarity is also a stretch, to put it mildly! The real story is that under Charles Vidor’s slashing forward momentum direction, sultry style carries all before it.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: An educated guess has the uncredited Ben Hecht (in Post-Production?) writing all that clarifying narration for Glenn Ford to deliver. Without it, we’d really be lost.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU (1954)

Ultra-charming romantic comedy for Judy Holliday (and a debuting Jack Lemmon) gives the tough-to-cast comedienne a perfect role as a nobody who wants, more than anything, to be a somebody. So, she rents a big billboard in New York’s Columbus Circle, puts her name up and waits for fame to strike. Lemmon, a freelance documentary filmmaker, likes everything about this off-center gal, except her obsession with empty celebrity. But damned if it doesn’t seem to be working for her. Even gaining a rich rival suitor in smooth, handsome Peter Lawford, who’s real passion is for Holiday’s billboard space. Garson Kanin’s witty script isn’t shy about pushing the Joy of Hoi Polloi at us, but director George Cukor keeps the sentiment as trim as possible, with lots of tasty Manhattan location shooting (still rare at the time), and, at a particular low moment, a real cinematic coup in a little indie-style movie short Lemmon makes as a farewell offering. A bit of movie magic that’s feels as fresh & modern as an award-winning student film from next year. And what a treat to watch Jack Lemmon before he built up his debilitating acting arsenal of tics & mannerisms. Watch Cukor turn this novice into a movie star in the film-within-the-film; it’s the moment where Lemmon compares his Regular Joe profile to Peter Lawford’s arrow-collar man perfection.  (And note the completely accurate copy under his ‘Introducing’ picture on our poster: ‘a guy you’re gonna like.’)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Kardashian Clan must have studied this film like a textbook . . . then learned all the wrong answers.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a more jaundiced view of similar ideas (in a stagier treatment), try A THOUSAND CLOWNS/’65.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: After LA STRADA/’54 and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA/’57, Italian actress (and wife of Federico Fellini) Giulietta Masina often found herself compared to Chaplin. But she’s a lot more like Judy Holliday, right down to their 1921 year of birth. Check out the matching big, dark mischievous eyes on these two.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

MAISIE (1939)

Delightful, talented, good-lookin’ & largely wasted; Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with Ann Southern. (Lucille Ball had similar hiding-in-plain-sight troubles before chucking big screen for small.) Southern's vibe was something between Joan Blondell’s tough good-girl and Jean Arthur’s wry sentiment, plus she could really sing though not in this MAISIE start-up pic, first of a series of ten. She’s a show girl, stuck in Hicksville, who talks her way into a job on a farm run by Robert Young for absentee owner Ian Hunter. Actually, he’s due for a rare visit to the place, hoping to make a fresh start on his failing marriage to Ruth Hussey. Too bad she’s a rotter, thru & thru; something Southern immediately spots. There’s a lot of dramatic action packed into the film’s 85 minutes, and a melodramatic third act right out of left field. (Hint: there’s a murder trial.) Involving stuff all the same, with a cast that’s fun to be around. Maisie never did settle down, there’s new man in every film.

DOUBLE-BILL/LINK: Southern got herself an A-pic lead in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A LETTER TO THREE WIVES/’49. OR: Hear more MAISIE in her radio incarnation here: https://archive.org/details/AdventuresOfMaisie

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Southern was a stylish/sophisticated singer, perfect for Kurt Weill’s LADY IN THE DARK/’54 which she did as a tv spectacular. You can find the original tv cast album on Spotify. (Avoid the direct tv track recording of same.)

Monday, June 6, 2016

SICARIO (2015)

With this Mexican Drug Cartel Thriller, Denis Villeneuve completes his journey from overpraised Canadian arthouse/action director to Michael Mann manqué. (Can’t call him a second-rate Michael Mann since Michael Mann already fulfills that position.) It’s not a bad piece of work, just a carefully dressed-down Standard Operating Procedural about a Hostage Unit SWAT Team Member (Emily Blunt, dutiful & dull) who stumbles into a ‘Dark Ops’ drug task force run by freewheeling Alpha Male Josh Brolin (chewing gum in lieu of character development) and man-of-mystery Benicio Del Toro, a freelance avenger not picky about ethics or what side of the fence he’s working on. The film has an expressively dusty (and dusky) look to it, thanks to Roger Deakins' carefully considered lensing, and Villeneuve isn’t afraid to patiently set up big moments with small payoffs. But the story feels like used goods with preordained twists and turns; known to them and to us. Maybe that’s why he has everyone speaking in whispers; if we can’t make out what they’re saying, maybe we’ll imagine something fresh is happening.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: No fool he, Villeneuve opted out of the sequel (SOLDADO).

Sunday, June 5, 2016

UNA GIORNATA PARTICOLARE / A SPECIAL DAY (1977)

Ettore Scola’s lonely souls drama speaks sotto voce, but is so beautifully observed & such a technical tour-de-force, it transcends what is, in essence, a stage-worthy two-hander. (The original screenplay was indeed later adapted for live theater.) The ‘special day’ in question comes in May 1938 when half of Rome is out watching Hitler & Mussolini seal their alliance via grand military parade. Left nearly alone in their large apartment complex (a magnificent structure, sort of Italian Bauhaus/Futurist in style, and a major character in the drama - see our poster for a peek) are Sophia Loren’s overworked/underappreciated stay-at-home mom (six kids; unfeeling husband); and, across the courtyard, Marcello Mastroianni, a worldly bachelor who’s recently lost his radio job for being ‘degenerate,’ code at the time for homosexual. (Playing against type, each superb & fully committed.) Their relationship has to start some way, so Scola lets Loren’s pet myna bird get loose, perching just outside Mastroianni’s window. It’s the first of many slightly forced moments in the film as the two find excuses to meet up thru the day. But so well played, and so stunningly designed & executed you go along with it. Pasqualino De Santis’s lighting & camerawork is quite extraordinary. The man who gave rapturously golden light to the studio set artifice of Luchino Visconti’s CONVERSATION PIECE/’74, here using real locations and a palette paradoxically desaturated and rich to set the tone. Some of the tracking shots, like the opening tour of Loren in her apartment getting the family up, are gasp-worthy. So too, the film; flaws, obvious touches and all.

DOUBLE-BILL/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Favored @ Cannes, Jury Prez Roberto Rossellini threatened to walk if the Taviani Brothers weren’t awarded for PADRE PADRONE/’77, much more his sort of film. Some say the stress led to his death months later. Try ‘em both, have your own contest! Back @ Cannes, they made up for the snub in 2014, giving Scola a ‘Best Restoration’ award.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Almost twenty years later, Loren campaigned for the leading role in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY/’95, losing to that well known Italian Meryl Streep. No doubt, Sophia was too old for the role, but look here to see what she might have done with it.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

THE SINGING FOOL (1928)

This numbingly awful follow-up to Al Jolson’s THE JAZZ SINGER/’27 was a phenomenon, holding the top-grossing spot for a decade. A ridiculous, poorly made piece of hoke (Jolie’s singing waiter hits it big; marries glamor; loses wife & kiddie; sinks like a stone before crawling back for more tragedy . . . and another hit tune!!), but Synch-Sound rather than content drew them in. (The Bros. Warner, to their financial chagrin, long thought Jolson the draw.) While THE JAZZ SINGER had packed wired-for-sound theaters, how many were up & running? Usually claimed as the first Talking Picture, it is and it isn’t. Largely a silent pic with recorded music & sound effects, its song numbers & a few lines of off-the-cuff dialogue were recorded in the Warner synch-sound system already in use for short subjects. But if not the first Talkie, it does hold a real claim for (of all things) christening The Silents, a term previously unknown. It strikes about halfway in: Jolson, singing & kidding around with his mother, is stopped by an angry shout from his father. Instantly, something’s missing, a vacuum created as the synch-sound stops. The film seems to stagger; then the music track returns. The birth of the Talkies? Or the birth of The Silents? Before this, they were simply ‘The Movies,’ or occasionally Shadow Plays. Paradoxically, this makes Jolson, the man famous for bringing voice to the screen, not the first Talkie star, but more a last Silent discovery. And it’s why this follow-up film, with the huge increase in theaters equipped for the Rube Goldberg contraption that was Warners’ synch-sound-on-disc system - see below/click to expand

(it's 60% talk & song/40% silent with inter-titles) was America’s first chance to see and hear him. Then, their curiosity sated, a shockingly fast loss of interest.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Stick with THE JAZZ SINGER. (WARNING! - Both films earn BLACKFACE alerts!) Wrongly decried as second-rate by most film historians, JAZZ SINGER may be corny & heavy-handed, but it’s also well constructed (the original play is by Samson Raphaelson who hated the film’s sentimentalized ending) and boasts a big handsome production from helmer Alan Crosland.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A much needed comic song, ‘The Spaniard That Blighted My Life,’ was removed from all SINGING FOOL prints due to a law suit. Here it is, lip-synched by Larry Parks to Jolson’s own vocal in the inexplicably popular THE JOLSON STORY/’46. (VICTOR/VICTORIA/’82 fans will note its likeness to that film’s ‘Shady Dame From Seville,’ right down to the travesty coloratura.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2T_ONrXCtY

Thursday, June 2, 2016

TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967)

One of the first mainstream Hollywood films to take real advantage of the grammar & techniques coming out of the French New Wave; not merely sample jump cuts, speedy zoom lens shots & nonlinear narrative for a fashionably up-to-the-minute look. Stanley Donen’s slapstick Scenes From A Marriage is a sui generis romantic dramedy, alternately serious & satiric, carefully worked out for sentiment, laughs & jumping timeline in Frederic Raphael’s tightly interwoven script. Possibly, a little too tight, some of the riffs & running gags have acquired a tinny tone over the years. But faults and all, this remains one of great romances in film; Powell/Pressburger’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING/’45 one of the few to match it in sophisticated romantic sparks. Audrey Hepburn & Albert Finney make an intriguing physical mismatch that somehow fit together over a decade’s worth of changing cars & clothes covered in the film. (Hepburn’s hairstyles alone a sort of program guide keeping things straight.) Almost all the vignettes hit their mark (a car trip thru France with a ghastly married couple & their child-from-hell a particular comic horror), and the film has a mystifying way of upping the emotional ante each time we bounce back to some earlier moment in the relationship. All immeasurably helped by Henry Mancini’s graceful score; his personal favorite. It’s a very special film.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Raphael is probably tougher on Finney since he’s an obvious alter-ego. (A few moments in here were revisited in his more auto-biographical AFTER THE WAR/’89 mini-series.) Check out Donen’s devastatingly brisk manner in handling a chilly one-night affair.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

TRUE CONFESSIONS (1981)

Like all Ulu Grosbard’s films (a grand total of seven over four decades), this re-imagining of L.A.’s infamous ‘Black Dahlia’ murder is just somber enough to be taken as serious. The film, co-written by L.A.’s prestige underachievers John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion* has a double gimmick built into it. First: this telling positions the gruesome murder of a wannabe actress turned hooker into a scandal that rests inside the venal power structure of the Catholic Church/L.A. Diocese. (Lots of visual plums for location shooting; lots of opportunity for showy character acting under flowing robes.) Second: the leads reverse casting expectations with the hot-head detective role going to thoughtful/contained Robert Duvall; and his kid brother, the intensely interior Monseigneur, a man whose religious mission is all but usurped in his rise as power ‘fixer’ for the Church, taken by the usually explosive Robert De Niro. Denied his intimidating stare, his main acting tool for decades (now usually seen in parody), something goes dead for De Niro. (See THE LAST TYCOON/’76 or THE MISSION/’86 for further examples from the period.) Duvall is, of course, a more varied & generous artist; plus, he can take care of himself, even with contrived physical outbursts and Grosbard deadening every cue with contemplative pauses.* The younger actors also fall by the wayside, but old fogeys like Burgess Meredith & Cyril Cusack hold to their own rhythms and survive. You also get a chance to see those twin leprechauns Charles Durning & Kenneth McMillan in the same film. Helps to keep ‘em straight in your head.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The film, hyped as part of THE GODFATHER tradition (De Niro, Duvall, Catholicism) is really more Neo-Noir CHINATOWN/’74. Same for Brian De Palma’s unfortunate take on the case when he filmed James Ellroy’s misfire novel THE BLACK DAHLIA/’06. Ellroy had done ever so much better (with director Curtis Hanson) in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’91.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *At one inexplicable moment, Grosbard has De Niro remove his shoes after golf before taking time to watch De Niro remove a different pair at the rectory before bed in the very next scene!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Dunne & Didion may well be L.A. literary saints/deities for their work on the page, but their film C.V. is something appalling.