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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

NEVADA SMITH (1966)

A prequel (in little more than name) to 1964's top-grossing THE CARPETBAGGERS, director Henry Hathaway trades in that film’s pulpy Hollywood glitz for something considerably darker. Only scripter John Michael Hayes (in one of his last credits) gets held over, fully on board for a switch in tone closer to THE SEARCHERS/’56. Indeed, the prologue is right out the John Ford classic as Steve McQueen races home to find his family savaged, not by Indians, but by a trio of cut-throat thieves (Karl Malden, Marin Landau, Arthur Kennedy). Half-Indian himself, McQueen spends the rest of the film methodically tracking them down, one after the other. Filmed with clear-as-a-bell action & lensing (Lucien Ballard), the eventful storyline starts to feel a bit force-fed (especially when Raf Vallone's priest comes on the scene), but you’ll be too caught up by old-fashioned craftsmanship and new-fangled graphic violence (still shocking at times) to mind.* (McQueen either gets away with, or simply allows a remarkable amount of death & destruction to play out while he single-mindedly seeks his revenge.) But the film is a significant (and influential) achievement that would undoubtedly have a higher critical rep had it not been sired by such a tawdry (if fun) Harold Robbins bodice-ripper.

DOUBLE-BILL: Oh heck, CARPETBAGGERS is just too fun to skip. And note that film's typically glossy, over-lit ‘60s look which Hathaway & Ballard successfully avoid.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *According to IMDb, the initial running time was pared by a full reel, so it’s possible that some motivation & continuity got lost in those ten missing minutes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE (2001)

Flush with confidence (and cash) after renewed success with their animated features in the ‘50s, Disney bet the barn on the hugely ambitious, visually lux, budget-bustin’ SLEEPING BEAUTY/’59 . . . and lost. Jump ahead four decades, and it’s deja vu all over again with Disney doubling down after their rejuvenation in the ‘90s with a pair of largely hand-drawn animated Sci-Fi/action-oriented fare: ATLANTIS/’01 and TREASURE PLANET/’02. The first film’s busy, bewitching look is a wonder, but may have confused some customers. Who was this made for? Too intense for the tykes; ‘kid stuff’ for the Junior High set; and too darn goofy dramatically. The tone works against the Jules Verne-ish story of 1914 hi-tech submarine adventure as a dangerous mission to find the lost underwater civilization of Atlantis goes awry. With a dated checklist of ethnic characters in support (Spanish spitfire; suave Italiano; Polynesian natives discovered & exploited; and a Black/Native-American modeled after Mr. Clean), but three Caucasians to run the show. When did this go thru development hell? 1973? Animation mavens will want to take a look, it’s impressively laid-out. But, along with TREASURE PLANET, the films were so financially disastrous, they pretty much killed off traditional hand-drawn animation for anything but kiddie pics & arty imports. And the film’s directors (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise) have yet to regroup for another feature.

DOUBLE-BILL: Word is TREASURE PLANET (not seen here), equally strong visually, also has better story & character elements in spite of being an even bigger cash catastrophe. While traditional hand-drawn animation from Disney delighted that year on the lighter, kid-friendly (and much less expensive) LILO & STITCH/’02.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s an AVATAR/’09 vibe to the storyline, no?

Monday, August 29, 2016

DEVOTION (1946)

Rarely shown, generally dismissed bio-pic on the Brontë clan turns out to be uncommonly interesting, in spite of (or is it because of?) a load of fictionalized elements. Actually, it’s no more reality-challenged than dozens of similar fact-shy Hollywood biographies, and those Brontës really were a household of fascinating mental cases.* (Looking for dour realism?; try André Téchiné’s LES SOEURS BRONTË/’79.) You do need to accept soundstage exteriors subbing for Yorkshire Moors, but director Cutis Bernhardt builds up considerable interest on a B+ budget, with a fine Erich Wolfgang Korngold score and a first-rate cast tugging the streamlined narrative along. Only two of the sisters do much writing in this version (Ida Lupino’s Emily & Olivia de Havilland’s Charlotte), but many other details are not so much inaccurate as reorganized for dramatic flow. More sins of omission than sins of commission. Only Paul Henreid, as the new curate in town, sinks under the weight of double romantic duty to both sisters. (The real life character didn’t come on the scene till much later in Charlotte’s life.) And, no small thing, the film really does makes you want to go back to the wild, uncharted emotional world of the books. Or, at least, find a film version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS or JANE EYRE to fall into.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Fans of GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 will note that headstrong, full-bosomed Charlotte brings out the Scarlett O’Hara in de Havilland; while, by comparison, Lupino’s emotionally guarded Emily leans toward Melanie Wilkes, the role de Havilland actually played. (Not as crazy as it sounds when you imagine Margaret Mitchell swooning over those Brontë classics.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Claire Harman’s CHARLOTTE BRONTË, covering the whole crazy-brilliant family, is being hailed as the new definitive bio.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Ready for release in 1943, Warners held back while de Havilland’s contract breaking court case (the same case Bette Davis lost in Britain) got under way. De Havilland won; then did the unthinkable by winning an Oscar® over at Paramount(!) for TO EACH HIS OWN/’45. So, when Warners finally released this in 1946 they visually demoted her in their advertising to what looked like a supporting role. Also note on our poster how Warners makes this period piece look like a contemporary meller. (See above)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I SAW THE LIGHT (2015)

Not the first rodeo for a bio-pic on Country Music legend Hank Williams, but after sinking without a trace it could well be the last. As ‘not bad’ films go, this one somehow manages to be entirely unconvincing (from the first shot), bereft of energy (from the first shot) and lacking interpersonal chemistry (from the first shot). Lord!, sounds as depressing as the lyric from a forlorn Hank Williams song. (Was that his secret? Opposing a catchy tune with poetic warnings of doom & gloom?) Tall & morose, Tom Hiddleston’s Williams gets the exterior elements & hits the notes, but his vocals don’t move across the bar-line. And he comes out of the gate already defeated by a hard-scrabble life, poor health & alcoholism, leaving his character no place to go. Similarly, inexperienced director Marc Abraham fails to get below surface detail to Deep South ‘40s attitude. You keep wondering why these 1970s types drive around in WWII era cars. (Or why, in early scenes, so many draftable guys are in town.) Add on poorly faked home-movie footage & mock docu-interviews (narrative bridges for missing continuity); plus a cast & crew who appear to have noticed things weren’t working out; and you get that weird feeling of a movie soldiering on after they've thrown in the towel.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: With Gary Busey at his best (and thinnest), THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY/’78 smartly runs one of these shows using medium accuracy, hearty role-playing & unapologetic corn as needed.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

LA CHIENNE (1931)

After convincing his producers of his ‘Talkie’ bona fides with an efficient little farce (ON PURGE BÉBÉ/’31), Jean Renoir made his second sound film, what might be called the first real Renoir (and first masterpiece) in this remarkably fluid, location besotted pic. Shot in the working-class nabs of Paris, with live street noise adding realism to a seamy melodrama, it helps the interlocking elements acquire a naturalistic bent. At heart, it’s a crime-of-passion story well-stocked with the coincidences and delayed justice you might find in a James Cain novel. Michel Simon, cashier & amateur painter, leaves his gorgon-of-a-wife (to a presumed dead first husband!) to pursue his art & a young mistress. No innocent she, her pimp takes all she gets . . . including Simon’s amateur paintings which wind up sold as her’s. That means the mec is also pimping for Simon! Naturally, things end in murder, miscarried justice, embezzlement and exile from bourgeois society (if not without a bemused twist). The film barely shows it’s age in the 2014 restoration out on Criterion; and not only in its physical condition. It’s strikingly fresh in thought, technique & acting style. Renoir finding his form all at once.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fritz Lang remade two Renoirs: LA BÊTE HUMAINE/’38, disappointing as THE HUMAN BEAST/’54; and LA CHIENNE, triumphantly transmogrified into UFA/German Expressionism-meets-Hollywood as SCARLET STREET/’45. Stylized & artificial where Renoir is naturalistic, Lang is only slightly hampered by censorship issues (sex; prostitution; criminal justice) as he emphasizes suspense elements. Not that character isn’t part of the mix. There’s nothing in CHIENNE to quite equal the vision of Edward G. Robinson at an ironing board, wearing a kitchen apron as he slices calf’s liver before dredging it in flour.

Friday, August 26, 2016

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1937)

Certainly the best adaptation of the Mark Twain classic, this large-scale effort from Warners turned into an accidental trial-run for next year’s ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD/’38 after James Cagney ‘ankled’ that mega-production, leaving this film's fast-rising Errol Flynn to take over. ROBIN HOOD, one of the great Hollywood classics, and one of the first to profit from 3-strip TechniColor, casts a long shadow over this lesser effort, but there’s plenty to enjoy here as well. Director William Keighley tended to the lighter side of things at Warners, it’s why Michael Curtiz took over from him in the middle of the ROBIN HOOD shoot. But that light tone is just right for bringing out the Dickensian narrative drive in Laird Doyle’s script. Twain was more ironic/philosophical. The film gets a big kick out of having real identical twins as beggar boy (Billy) & Prince (& Bobby Mauch). (Playing royalty, Bobby gets the big tear-jerking emotional scenes, like his touching breakdown in front of new pal Flynn on learning his father, the King, has died.) But with their lack of actorly manner, MidWest accents and infectious giggles, both boys are a delight. Naturally, this being Warners, the supporting players are a tasty lot, with Montagu Love a bluntly fascinating King Henry VIII. But once Flynn shows up (and that’s not until the sixth reel) as the boy’s protector (who’d believe the young lad Prince in such dirty rags?), he easily takes over the film with his brash confidence. Good yeasty fun, all the way thru.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Never one to miss a publicity angle, the film goes all out for the pomp, show & suspense of a Kingly Coronation for its ride-to-the-rescue finale. What if the beggar boy is crowned King? After all, the real coronation of King George VI was due May 12, 1937 and the film officially opened on the 8th. Now that’s showmanship!

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Or rather, Hear All About It: The DVD edition looks fine, but the soundtrack, at least the music, is murky. No small thing since it’s one of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s strongest scores. Make up for the loss by listening to his violin concerto where the third movement uses themes out of the movie. Try Gil Shaham w/ Andre Previn on DG. (In the film, listen up when a Lord rides off in the middle of Edward’s coronation to find the Great Seal of England. It’s the intro to the concerto’s coda. And with hardly an alteration.)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

IN NAME ONLY (1939)

Few films rile up an audience so vehemently as this carefully curated romance between Cary Grant (unhappily married to social sociopath Kay Francis) and the winning widow he meets-cute and falls for, Carole Lombard. Audiences work up a positive lather of disgust watching Francis, who married Grant solely for cash & caché, poison the well to keep his family thinking she’s the wronged party and any chance at happiness for the chaste couple at bay. It’s especially tough on Lombard, raising a young daughter, living with her hysterical man-hating sister and waiting, waiting, waiting for the divorce Francis has promised Grant. And things only gets worse when, in a fit of drunken Yuletide misery, Cary catches pneumonia.* It looks bad, says Doc to father Charles Coburn, even dimmer without any hope to give Grant the will to live. Hope!, exactly what Francis shows up to shoot down! Keep in mind you’re in Woman’s Weepie Land, where incidents & plot twists shock, amaze and generally work to keep the next plot absurdity moving along, and you’ll have a dandy time. And should the level of emotional manipulation offend, focus on Lombard as vanity-free Goddess. (Oh, that's what stars used to be.) Or note the alarming number of continuity errors director John Cromwell let pass.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cromwell had just made the bathetic, if better known MADE FOR EACH OTHER/’39 for David O. Selznick, also starring Lombard & Coburn. In that one, they're waiting for an airplane carrying a vial of live-saving serum for Carole’s little boy. The film’s a dog, but it did get James Stewart, playing her young hubby, on Hollywood’s ‘A’ list.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It’s fun watching Grant reverse the sickbed routine he’d play in NOTORIOUS/’46 where Ingrid Bergman does the beautiful expiring act. She’s much better at it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987)

Whereas George Lazenby from the otherwise tasty ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE/’69 is pegged as the James Bond who never was, this film’s Timothy Dalton, suiting up twice for the role, is the forgotten Bond. A shame too, since he’s got just about everything you’d want in the part: power, grace, saturnine looks & high-to-low social mobility. Perhaps a bit shy in the humor department compared to Sean Connery’s unique balancing act, Dalton still manages the lame witticisms without embarrassment. Perhaps it was just the Zeitgeist of the times, the skinny lapels, or the need for a major course correction after Roger Moore’s increasingly mirthless frivolity. (Bond as deflating soufflé.) Yet Dalton didn’t quite catch on. Directed by stunt specialist John Glen, the big set pieces are all bang-up jobs. With big technical improvements and an exceptional compound action-finale featuring interlocked movement between planes, horse-riding Afghan Rebels (a nice turn from Art Malik), Russian defenders & armaments, a rooftop chase in the Casbah and a scramble on an airborne cargo plane. Each step readable, even plausible in an over-the-top way, nicely supporting a human-scaled plot about smuggled guns, diamonds & raw opium. If only Glen were half as good working in tight quarters, or knew how to help his supporting cast. Maryam d’Ado gets nowhere playing the dull femme fatale/love interest. And you’d need to go back to Jimmy Dean in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER/’71 to find a bad guy as underwhelming as the split villainy of this film’s Jeroen Krabbé & Joe Don Baker. Forgotten or not, Dalton easily ranks between Connery & Daniel Craig in the Bond hierarchy.

DOUBLE-BILL: Dalton’s follow-up (LICENSE TO KILL/’89) was darker, grimmer, and not much liked. After a six-year hiatus, only the producers, Desmond Llewelyn’s ‘Q’ and Monty Norman’s James Bond theme music returned for GOLDENEYE/’95.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015)

Back in his art house heyday, it took some time for the latest Peter Greenaway film to reveal itself as philosophically addled art porn for the coffee-table book set. Now, he can be seen plain at first sight. Progress. His latest, barely released Stateside, follows Revolutionary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein thru his post-Hollywood sojourn in Mexico, buggering up an interminable project on The Soul of the People while learning the joys of buggery from his handsome bi-sexual guide. (The ‘Unrated’ film is either ‘Hard-R’ or ‘Soft-X.’) Greenaway shows little interest in the massive filming Eisenstein did (the actual footage has been stitched together to miserable effect more than once), concentrating largely on Eisenstein’s erotic awakening and general dissipation. That, and the usual crap about artist as idiot savant, with buckets of artsy display canceling itself out; think late Federico Felllini meets late Ken Russell. Greenaway, who never met a showy composition he didn’t like, here shows a particular fancy for triptychs. (Give a man a digital camera . . . ) But besides missing the big picture of Eisenstein’s response to a different sort of People’s Revolution (earthy/sensual), Greenaway also mangles plenty of little details, the Jewish Eisenstein is uncircumcised (plenty of chances for foreskin spotting); Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks get placed at Universal Studios instead of self-owned United Artists; Eisenstein lenser Eduard Tisse handcranks at half-speed; Eisenstein even loses a major film (OLD AND NEW) from his C.V. Then, like gravy on a blue-plate special, Greenaway covers up his mess with a soundtrack full of Prokofiev, mostly LOVE OF THREE ORANGES and ROMEO AND JULIET, nothing from the Eisenstein films.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s better Eisenstein in the tale of his aborted Hollywood film @ Paramount, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY/’31. A project taken over by Josef von Sternberg and later famously remade by George Stevens as A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51. Oops! EISENSTEIN IN HOLLYWOOD, just announced as Peter Greenaway next project. Yikes!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO (1935)

A sweet-natured trifle, pleasant enough, but where’s the third act? Ronald Colman’s a Russian Prince in exile, reduced to driving a hack. But with a stake from his fellow ex-pats, he takes on the baccarat tables at Monte Carlo and has the run of his life. A ’gentleman’ would return and probably lose it all the next night, but Colman takes his winnings and leaves town. The cheek! He’s followed by brother & sister act Colin Clive & Joan Bennett, put up to it by the casino owners, with a big reward for luring him back to the tables. And it should be easy, since Colman’s fallen hard for Bennett’s blonde beauty. If only she hadn’t fallen for him as well. Now, the only way to stop him from losing everything is to keep him from finding out. Directed with a light touch, but little flair by Stephen Roberts, it’s held together (just) by Colman’s immense charm, that distinctive falling cadence to his voice, and his staggering precision in weighing the smallest of effects. The actor as jeweler. But the ending is so short-circuited, you wonder if 20th Century studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck pulled the plug in anticipation of his upcoming merger/takeover with FOX.

DOUBLE-BILL: Colman, who worked sparingly, was unusually busy in ‘35 with this little film a palate cleanser between CLIVE OF INDIA and A TALE OF TWO CITIES. OR: If it ever shows up on DVD, TOVARICH/’37, a superior Russian ex-pat story, with former-royals Claudette Colbert & Charles Boyer employed as French house servants.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

EYE IN THE SKY (2015)

Something of a throwback to what used to be called a ‘thinking man’s’ thriller (gender-neutral replacement term, anyone?) about the ways, means & morals of modern anti-terrorist drone warfare. There’s a ‘60s feel to Gavin Hood’s film, very Sidney Lumet, only past suspense tactics (like will we hit the target!) have gone by the wayside. The titular ‘eyes in the skies’ make that nearly a given. In its place, new obstacles like conflicting multi-national rules-of-engagement, or signing off on possible collateral damage to innocent civilians. And because most decisions happen in video-enabled war rooms with political appointees weighing in, or at bunkers halfway ‘round the world staffed by military joystick jockeys, war philosophy as well war mechanics fall askew between the abstract and the concrete. Or do except for some old-fashioned, and extremely well-played, on-site fast-thinking heroics by a local field-agent/fighter, superbly played by Barkhad Abdi. Everyone else is equally fine, with Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam & Alan Rickman (in one of his final perfs) standouts. Only an overly emotional response by trigger operators Aaron Paul & Phoebe Fox (a Debra Winger clone) ring false. Not that they wouldn’t be shaken by events, but that the jitters would likely kick in at some random post-event moment. But this is nit-picking on a tight, tense 90+ minutes, which also functions as corrective to much of the thoughtlessly violent military action fare flooding the market. Though it's hard to imagine much crossover. (Another quick reminder that our FAMILY FRIENDLY label does not necessarily mean Kiddie Fare, but often a good 'talking points' pic for, say, parents & teens.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

THE GATHERING STORM (2002)

Award-bait HBO pic about Winston Churchill’s struggles in the mid-‘30s: calling out the rising German menace to deaf ears in Parliament while suffering a series of home-based crises. Cast from strength (Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Derek Jacobi, Linus Roache, Lena Headley, Hugh Bonneville, Celia Imrie, Edward Hardwicke and Toms Wilkinson & Hiddleston), it’s so rife with real locations, handsome costumes & lush scoring, it all but swamps Richard Loncraine’s sedate helming; not so much well-made as well-appointed. But it does go down smoothly, like auditing a history class with an ‘entertaining’ prof. Perhaps the dramatic conflict would have taken flight with more age-appropriate casting. Here, Albert Finney’s Winston is played about a decade older than he was at the time, while nemesis Prime Minister Baldwin (Derek Jacobi) looks a decade too young. That’s a twenty year swing, and it adds an extra note of sympathy to the Churchill ledger. And since we’re already on his side . . . well, it doesn’t exactly help ignite a drama we know by heart.

DOUBLE-BILL: A less acclaimed sequel, INTO THE STORM/’09, with Brendan Gleeson & Janet McTeer taking over as the Churchills looks more intriguing. (Plus, Bill Paterson is in the cast! Always a good thing.) Write-Up to follow.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

THIS LAND IS MINE (1943)

Awkward, but affecting, Jean Renoir’s second American film, co-produced & scripted with Dudley Nichols, is a WWII resistance story set ‘Somewhere In Europe.’ (Read France.) Charles Laughton, by turns embarrassing & revelatory (often at one & the same time), is a pathologically timid schoolteacher with a mother complex and a crush on fellow teacher Maureen O’Hara. He’s put to a stress test as the town splits between get-along types; self-justifying collaborators like O’Hara’s fiancé George Sanders; venal collaborators (like the Mayor); and heroic undercover resistance fighters printing subversive leaflets or throwing bombs (like O’Hara’s devil-may-care brother Kent Smith). Nichols' script works up considerable narrative tension pulling these dramatic threads in front of the nose of Nazi Officer Walter Slezak, but then hurts his own cause overwriting character & motivation. We keep stopping for a clarifying speech. And no one gets more of them than Laughton, especially when uplifted to patriotic conspirator, grabbing the martyr’s torch at his murder trial. It’s a stunning display of courtroom theatrics, as is his fear-induced blubbery panic attack during an air raid, and a masterful coughing fit upon trying a first cigarette (a truly inspired scene). But when did he earn this degree in theatrical public speaking? Just too many fits & starts in Nichols’ script. While Renoir, though the film did nicely on its small budget, is ill at ease working inside the Hollywood system, and in spite of some notable action sequences, unable to find a French walking pace working in English.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The same year saw fellow filmmaking exiles Fritz Lang & Douglas Sirk, in HANGMEN ALSO DIE/’43 and HITLER’S MADMEN/’43, release similar Nazi Occupation stories.

LINK: And 1943 also saw the release of Humphrey Jennings’ documentary-styled THE SILENT VILLAGE, which used the town of Cwmgiedd, Wales to tell of the Nazi annihilation of Lidice, Czechoslovakia.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SE9MLxf1kZk

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

GIGI (1958)

At its core, this Vincente Minnelli musical film is the story of an only child who refuses to join the family business; the family, all female, the business, Courtesans-R-Us. Designed with the kind of meticulous care for turn-of-the-last-century detail you might expect from Luchino Visconti, the film’s Paris is idealized enough for songs to break out, yet solidly real. Loaded with fleeting memories in image & song, it’s as if producer Arthur Freed knew it was going to be his unit’s Götterdämmerung. (Only a flop drama and a straight stage-to-screen musical transfer remained in front of him.) Gigi (Leslie Caron, suddenly no gawky kid, but a sophisticated stunner) is the flighty teenage girl who flaunts Beaux Arts society, choosing to get married rather than get laid. (Bourgeois morality looks pretty swell when your beau is the richest man in Paris!) The discussions are witty, and remarkably frank considering it’s a family musical from 1958, constantly moving into uncomfortable territories. With the old guard delighting us even as they function in the story as structural villains. It’s the secret to the pic’s staying power. Aided by a gorgeous Lerner & Loewe score that mimics their MY FAIR LADY in the nicest of ways, Minnelli (consciously or unconsciously) abets the story’s generational shift with a hidden visual coup as young lovers Louis Jordan (Gaston) & Caron scamper on a real beach with real donkeys & a real sunset while, watching from a terrace above, old lovers Maurice Chevalier & Hermione Gingold (mis)reminisce on a studio mock-up in front of a painted cyclorama sunset. Old Hollywood looking down, ever so gracefully as they’re replaced by the New Hollywood. (The idea repeats with Chevalier’s specialty number, straw hat & all, in another studio mock-up of Paris out of his days at Paramount in the ‘30s.) The current DVD has also finally laid to rest the montage of Gigi portraits which once replaced Louis Jordan’s final silent musings before he succumbs (after walking out on her for the fourth time) to Gigi’s unspoken wants. Handled in seven or eight of the most beautiful shots ever placed on film (Joseph Ruttenberg lensed): dark ochre stairway, moonlit blue cobblestones courtyard & fountains, park statuary, a rearing horse & carriage in silhouette, a return to Gigi’s apartment in that most distinctive of Minnelli reds. Then, quickly wrapped up in a strikingly advanced sound & visual jump-cut to end an entire era of musical moviemaking.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Alan Jay Lerner’s THE STREET WHERE I LIVE, more theater than film memoir, has a chapter on GIGI that gives one of the best looks at the inner workings of the Freed Unit.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

THE SEAS BENEATH (1931)

The only thing John Ford did better than make movies was hold grudges. John Wayne famously made his shit list for most of the ‘30s, so too this film’s leading man George O’Brien. After making him a star in THE IRON HORSE/’24, Ford pretty much cut him dead after this fourth collaboration, finally calling him back for FORT APACHE in ’48. Maybe the break soured Ford on this excellent naval mission pic; or maybe it was being forced by his producer to use an incompetent actress as leading lady.* Viewed without Ford’s contrarian slant, the film’s a surprisingly tough sea-going yarn, uncommonly vigorous & uncommonly action-oriented for an early Talkie, if not without some stiff joints from the vagaries of location shooting at the time. O’Brien captains a WWI navy boat, disguised as a merchant vessel in hopes of baiting a deadly German U-Boat into showing itself for battle. A surface attack would allow an American sub, moving in tandem, to lay in with torpedoes. Ford manages this on the high seas, with hardly a faked shot, and Dudley Nichols’ script does a super job mixing in neat comic riffs between the shipshape duties. As one of the German officers, Jon Loder is a standout; so too, Steve (Gaylord) Pendleton as a junior office stranded in a port town who sneaks onto an enemy boat in the film’s most daring sequence. Everything else is helped by having the Germans speak German, and by casting really young kids as sailors. And no overplaying allowed by Ford. Even the blathering Irish humor gets the door slammed in its face. Literally. Sure, the film’s a period piece, but also a treat.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *At least, that’s what Ford says in Peter Bogdanovich’s book JOHN FORD/UoC Press.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

CORALINE (2009)

Writer/director Henry Selick brings typically elaborate stop-motion animation to Neil Gaiman’s story about a disaffected teen girl who learns to: Be Careful What You Wish For! Visually bewitching, maybe too much so (Selick might find a Hieronymus Bosch canvas lacking in activity), the storyline, about finding a ‘perfect’ alternate family in a parallel universe thru a secret panel door, feels cobbled together in tone & incident magpie style, mostly from Roald Dahl, Madeline L’Engle and Hansel & Gretel; with INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/’56 as chaser. In spite of the borrowings (because of them?), it all comes across as good spooky fun, with sharp characterizations and creepy elegance in the designs of people & settings. Coraline herself is a super role model, too. If only Selick had a producer less æsthetically like-minded than Tim Burton. Maybe a spell with the less-is-more Aardman Animation folks could help him locate the sweet-spot between too-much and too-little in his work? And what an episode of SHAUN THE SHEEP Selick might make.

DOUBLE-BILL: Instead of finding another stop-motion animation, just rewatch the credit sequence. Twice the fun in hindsight.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

THE ARISTOCATS (1970)

Even as Walt Disney turned his attention to theme parks & legacy in the ‘50s, his studio still found the creative resources to put out a series of memorable animated features. Nothing to challenge the pre-war classics, but good enough to imprint many a childhood memory. But after his death in 1966, and the release of THE JUNGLE BOOK/’67, the animation department went to auto-pilot. (And stayed there until THE LITTLE MERMAID/’89.) Not that the studio felt a decline, the tepid fare were box-office hits. So too the studio’s increasingly insipid live-action pics . . . for a while. This wan copycat cartoon is a sad illustration of the product, a mash-up of LADY AND THE TRAMP/’55 and ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS/’61 (with a soupçon of JUNGLE BOOK), but with dogs swapped out for cats. It’s shockingly bland, even in its physical look. Excepting a couple of atmospheric cobblestone streetscapes, there’s little of the expected Disney polish, and none of the angular surprise that made the similar pen & ink style of DALMATIANS so distinctive. What passes for plot is largely dialogue driven, and the characterizations have that predigested quality you find in the company’s live-action product of the period, only a tv sit-com laugh-track is missing. At least, Maurice Chevalier, briefly on hand, lends this Paris-based film a touch of Gallic flavor singing the title song; the rest?, inexplicably cast with Brits or Southern-Fried Hee-Haw types. Eva Gabor does have her all-purpose European accent as the mother cat, but her kitties sound pure Stateside suburban. Phil Harris, voicing the ‘Tramp’ character, supposedly a French countryside cat who rescues the kidnapped brood, does his usual low-rent Bing Crosby routine. They even call him O’Malley, the name Der Bingle used as the priest in GOING MY WAY/’44! (And production staffers ordering in lunch from Big Boy, thought ‘Slim Jims’ were croque monsieurs.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Of the seven also-ran animated features in this period, the best of the lot is probably THE RESCUERS/’77 which at the very least has a superb villain in Geraldine Page and a warmed up pallette. (ARISTOCATS’ butler villain is a complete nonstarter.) OR: Uneven in storytelling, but visually très chic: A CAT IN PARIS/’10. (see below)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: . . . by the DVD picker! Make sure you don’t confuse this film with THE ARISTOCRATS/’05, a docu-pic about the dirtiest joke ever told.

Friday, August 12, 2016

LOVE & MERCY (2015)

This unusual, and unusually effective, bifurcated bio-pic about Beach Boys’ creative head Brian Wilson, double casts the role with Paul Dano as the brilliant young musician falling into mental instability, and John Cusack taking over in middle-aged psychosis. Bill Pohlad, in a beautifully detailed return to directing (only his second pic after 25 years producing), keeps up tension by shifting between the two time periods, letting narrative gaps fall where they may, but comes up against a dramatic roadblock in the more conventional aspects of Wilson’s partial recovery. (Shhh . . . SPOILER ALERT . . . He’s saved by the love of a good woman.) There’s only so much Elizabeth Banks can do with this cliché other than pop her eyes at the outlandish behavior by Paul Giamatti’s hipster/control-freak psychologist (and his outlandish hair piece) as she waits for her opportunity. But the film is saved by returns to earlier days. Dano’s scenes with his awful dad are standouts, though a psychotic episode involving cascading noises at the dining table exploding in Wilson’s brain misses the element of fun percussive ‘natural’ music going on. Something Wilson should react to playfully, not with a panic attack, a mirror of his far-out ideas on musical sounds for one of his over-produced albums. (Oh, Phil Spector, you have much to answer for.) And how nice, in the later sections, to see John Cusack calling up old acting instincts he hasn’t had an opportunity to display recently.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (1967)

Caught between two record-breaking musicals (MARY POPPINS/’64; SOUND OF MUSIC/’65) and two career-deadening ones (STAR!/’68; DARLING LILY/’70*), TMM’s the hit mid-sized Julie Andrews musical that got away. Julie’s winningly cast as a self-starting, Roaring ‘Twenties country mouse who gets in step with Modern Big City ways in the tunefully clever opening number. Alas, nothing else lives up to the prologue. And filmmaker George Roy Hill misses a trick by doing it as voice-over rather than gaining proper musical-comedy stylization by having her sing on screen. If he did, we’d probably see her tonsils since lenser Russell Metty gives everything such an alarmingly bright look (like a shopping mall), coarsening an already broadly satiric storyline about Julie hunting up a rich boss to marry while ignoring perfect soulmate (and generally adorable goofball) James Fox. Worse, the romantic farce is buried under a misconceived White Slavery racket run by ‘Orientals’ and an ethnically-challenged Beatrice Lillie. Still, thanks to the incredibly assured Ms. Andrews, the first half totters along well enough. Things really bog down after Intermission. (Big Family Musicals might as well have been bloated on purpose to meet the expectations of RoadShow engagements. A blight that helps explain why Carol Channing’s eccentric millionairess pads out the running time with needless musical specialties.) Mentally separate the wheat from the chaff, and a sweet little demi-musical is hiding in here.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Those two musical flops are wildly uneven, but ultimately more interesting than MILLIE. After they sank, Andrews waited more than a decade for movie-musical redemption with VICTOR VICTORIA/’82.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Neither Andrews nor Channing got to make the film version of their B’way successes. But this ‘20s period piece at least gives some idea of Andrews in THE BOY FRIEND (a decade aft) and Channing in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES two decades on. (A few years after this film, Channing played in a revised version of BLONDES retitled LORELEI.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

DEADPOOL (1016)

Marvel's SuperHero template is now so standardized & rigid, this recent addition to the product line can toe-the-line even as it razzes the formula. Or so it would have you think. It’s really kidding on the square, finding new paths to old profitable verities. Right from the opening credits, a self-reflexive gag that lists character types in place of specific people, it’s raunchy & relentless, grabbing laughs with the pacing and rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of an insult comedian, pummeling us into submission. (Hey, Mr. Deadpool! You win already!) For non-fanboys, the structure can feel off-balance: an origin story about a Special Forces Mercenary-turned rechargeable SuperHero that hits the ground running in its second act before falling back to the beginning to play catch-up. Happily, newbie director Tim Miller & his team know that sometimes less is more, turning in a film nearly half an hour shorter than your average Marvel Man at just 100 minutes. It’s almost as fit & lean as Ryan Reynolds, showing lots of appeal (and ass) as the Motor-Mouth Wonder Boy. Good thing, too, since the rest of the film consists of him playing various games of catch with an assortment of lesser supporting players: sidekick, cabbie, lover, baddies and some pleasingly farfetched CGI ultra-violence. Maybe the next chapter will have more in the tank than wiseass wisecracks to offer. (Plus an equally tight budget to keep the creatives from spoiling the child.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Kudos to whomever came up with that well chosen ‘oldies’ song list. And, speaking of oldies, for casting Leslie Uggams (Leslie Uggams!) as Deadpool’s Blind Housekeeper.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

GOJIRA TAI GAIGAN / GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

Kid-friendly monster pic is fun stuff . . . until those darn monsters show up! With a fresh cleanly scrubbed early ‘70s WideScreen look, the story follows a young cartoonist trying to sell his latest graphic characters (one’s a Japanese ‘Tiger’ Mom) when he bumps into a young woman on the run from some corporate exec types. Dashing off, she accidentally drops ‘the McGuffin’ (you know, the object in a film everyone fights to possess), a tape recording only monsters can understand, oddly contained in what appears to be a birth-control pill dispenser. What’s behind it all? Turns out, those programmers over in Godzilla Tower are really evil aliens from another planet. (You can tell from their shadows which reveal them as . . . interplanetary cockroaches!) Yikes! That girl-on-the-run, along with some do-gooder pals are trying to stop the aliens from implementing Absolute Peace, really a plan to contact Monster Island with that tape recording to generate a coastal attack by all the beasties and draw out the real target: Godzilla! Double Yikes! Alas, about halfway along, the film devolves into endless monster battles (puppets; guys in monster suits; Tinker-Toy Models) and a little of this stuff goes a long way. Worse, poor Godzilla has by now long lost his old threatening mojo and now plays strictly for Team Humanity. Much like what happened with Disney’s Mickey Mouse, who slid from his early days as anarchist disrupter to corporate spokesman; so too, Godzilla fell from Avenging Nuclear Id to Gaia Defender of Mankind. No wonder they never seem able to successfully revive the guy. (And that's a SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY if ever I heard one.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original GODZILLA movie, Ishirô Honda’s GOJIRA/’54, in the original Japanese cut without the scenes added with Raymond Burr for Stateside release, is still the one to go for. In tone, closer to THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51. Also, later this year, TOHO Studios out with GODZILLA: RESURGENCE. Same-o/same-o?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

MR. HOLMES (2015)

Slight, but satisfying. Bill Condon’s sentimental muse on the great detective in his dotage unpacks a trio of mysteries in solving the puzzle of Sherlock himself, before mind & body betray him. Splitting focus between his professional past in London; a search for mental rejuvenation in Japan; and a plan to hold on to a dignified seaside retirement; the film is less interested in dazzling ratiocination than in uncovering jolts of humanity in the aging eccentric. Naturally, with Holmes at 93, the game afoot is a stroll, a pastorale, chamber music that leans on past themes. While handsomely laid out, and beautifully crafted, it largely gets its effects thru pitch-perfect casting, especially in the interplay between a failing Holmes and his housekeeper’s wilful young son, refreshingly played by Milo Parker. As Holmes, Ian McKellen seems to have not only borrowed John Gielgud’s considerable nose for the role, but also his considerable manner, to his obvious delight, and ours.* And in the current Holmesian climate of non-stop CGI & ADHD, a successful film of this modest size is no small thing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Billy Wilder’s witty & melancholy THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES/’70 brings an earlier romantic failure to light, though on a much larger scale. With Robert Stephens’ Holmes a thing of legend.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/LINK: *Sir Ian may have had Sir John in the back of his mind since a whole BBC series was done with Gielgud as Holmes, no less than Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson, and, in one memorable instance, Orson Welles as Prof. Moriarty! Follow the link to explore: http://www.openculture.com/2016/04/hear-the-new-adventures-of-sherlock-holmes-the-vintage-radio-drama-starring-john-gielgud-orson-welles-ralph-richardson.html

Saturday, August 6, 2016

STACHKA / STRIKE (1924)

Time was, filmmakers like Woody Allen & Brian De Palma (THE SIMPSONS, too) could count on audiences to recognize a classic film quote from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. But the master of Agit-Prop & Revolutionary montage is less in the conversation than he once was. His big three (POTEMKIN/’25; IVAN I & II/’45), in a critical decline parallel with that of the old Soviet Union. Whatever that might mean! Artistically, the guy needs a reset. Perhaps a move away from the Art-of-Cinema-101 syllabus and back to his debut would help. A swift moving action-melodrama, with wonderfully overdrawn characters, alternately stirring & satirical, it’s loaded with visual wit and strong sentiment, even when narrative turns slightly opaque. (A few extra titles for Non-Revolutionary Russians might help. In fact, one of few things wrong with the generally superb KINO DVD edition is a lack of period feel to the sparse inter-titles. No Cyrillic-looking font for English?) The story, set in recent Tsarist days, and neatly organized in parenthetical chapters, concerns a stolen factory tool; a false charge of theft; the innocent worker’s suicide at his workstation; the quick escalation to general work stoppage & a called strike; an ignored list of demands; the fat-cat owners refusal to negotiate; police & military actions against the struggling workers; a dastardly piece of explosive provocation; a stirring ride to the rescue; the battle lost; and a promise to keep up the social struggle! Power to the Soviet! (Not the people, mind you, the committees . . . but that’s another issue. One that would get Eisenstein into heaps of personal trouble. Including the squashing of what may have been his ultimate masterpiece, BEZHIN MEADOW/’37.) Go for KINO’s fine restoration with its fine score from the Mont Alto Orchestra.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Eisenstein always contended he learned filmmaking largely from D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16. And boy, does this film show it. Near quotes all thru the thing, mostly from that film’s Modern Story which Griffith eventually released separately as THE MOTHER AND THE LAW/’19. For Eisenstein, more jumping off point then homage.

DOUBLE-BILL/LINK: More Eisenstein? Try his lesser known OLD AND NEW/’29 (aka THE GENERAL LINE) ahead of the iconic titles. OR: To see the connections, Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16. The recent Cohen Media restoration looks like the one to plump for. Here’s a link to their on-line trailer. http://cohenmedia.net/films/intolerance

Thursday, August 4, 2016

LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS / CHILDREN OF PARADISE (1945)

A one-of-a-kind sumptuous treat, this lush, swoon-worthy period romantic drama from writer Jacques Prévert & director Marcel Carné, set in the 1830s, was improbably made during the French WWII Occupation. A feast in every department: acting, characters, sets & costumes, plot (dovetailed symmetry like a great 19th century novel), sentiment, violence, heartbreak, guilt-shaming kids . . . the works. All this you know. What’s needs mentioning is that the 2011 Pathé restoration on Criterion (replacing their earlier set) adds crucial resolution/definition to a film whose soft original texture made even decent prints look ‘dupey.’ And improvement to the soundtrack proves even more substantial. Of course, the grand story is so involving (all 3 hours & 10 minutes of it) that a battered VHS with pixel drop-out couldn’t stop you from squinting your way thru. But how nice to have it looking better than it has in decades; and sounding better than it ever has.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Note our poster. Yes, a scene from the film, but taken as if from the outside. The extra set-up would have wrecked a follow-up gag that’s pure composition.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Carné gets little love from auteurists & academics. And it’s true he’s only at his best collaborating with Prévert. But, any way you slice it, this is some kind of gorgeous/stylish moviemaking. No doubt, having Léon Barsacq and Alexandre Trauner on Production Design could make anyone look good, but check out a couple of gasp-worthy cinematic moments when Jean-Louis Barrault unexpectedly comes upon Arletty, his great lost love, in Part Two. First, with a simple reverse-angle; then, handled via purely theatrical mise-en-scène as a curtain is thrown open to reveal the lovers. Ah, love is so simple; so too, perfect framing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949)

One of a batch of ‘social problem’ films that started flowing out of post-WWII Hollywood, it’s taken from Arthur Laurents’ play, but with Anti-Semitism swapped out for Black/White racial tensions in Carl Foreman’s script. The trade-off is a bit of stretch, especially toward the end, when the episodic flashback structure leaves all the big reveal solutions in the hands of Jeff Corey’s nice Russian/Jewish psychiatrist. He helpfully explains away the psychosomatic paralysis of the film’s sole Black character (very well played by James Edwards), tricking him toward recovery after his dangerous mission on a Japanese occupied island left him unable to walk. There’s really no way to get past the slightly patronizing attitude embedded in the material. Perhaps onstage, where the paralyzed soldier was also Jewish, it played differently. (Few things date faster than socially progressive attitudes in the movies.) So why the ethnicity swap from play to film? Go back a couple of years to Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE/’47 (a far better film, BTW). Based on a Richard Brooks novel that dealt with homophobia, an unthinkable topic under the strict Hollywood Production Code, that film swapped out Gay Victim for Jewish Victim. That left BRAVE needing a new, and au courant, daring element. Hence, Black Guy in/Jewish Guy out . . . Voila, social relevance! Mark Robson directs stiffly on stiff sets, and producer Stanley Kramer reaps kudos (if little Box-Office) for tackling ‘important’ subject matter. Special credit to Frank Lovejoy as a decent soldier, able to work with bigots & blacks alike while nursing his own private dramas. He’s the best thing in the pic. Something that can’t be said for Dimitri Tiomkin’s over-indulgent score.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, CROSSFIRE.  OR: Try to hunt down John Huston’s documentary on post-WWII psychological trauma treatment LET THERE BE LIGHT/’46.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

THE FOG (1980)

With the phenomenal success of HALLOWEEN/’78 and the tv movie ELVIS/’79 behind him, much was expected from writer/director John Carpenter’s follow-up project. But this tepid spooker, a loose collection of Terror Tropes in search of a place to park, made him look not ready for prime time. At heart, it’s your basic ghost revenge tale, with the reincorporated victims of a hundred-year-old crime returning under the cover of a wayward fog to Antonio Bay so they can have their way with the townie descendants who murdered them for their gold. Some of the effects have a plush look to them, belying the film’s tight budget, but Carpenter gets next to nothing from his actors. (They hardly seem to know each other.) And attempts at suspense boil down to ham-handed parallel editing or Carpenter (wearing his composer hat) raising the key & volume on one of his signature repetitious little themes.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The film turned out to be a temporary misstep as Carpenter swiftly moved on to his best work: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/’81; STARMAN/’84; BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA/’86.

Monday, August 1, 2016

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)

Freely expanded by scripter Richard Matheson from the oft-filmed/irresistibly-titled Edgar Allan Poe short-story, this is generally considered the strongest of the Vincent Price/Roger Corman horror pics. And perhaps it is. Blessedly free of Corman’s directorial comic touches, it nevertheless pulls its basic plot and various twists from those facetious Haunted House thrillers.* Here, our 16th Century truth-seeker is John Kerr, brother to Vincent Price’s recently deceased wife. Unexpectedly knocking at the castle door, he’s determined to find out what caused his sister’s death, and there’s loads of possible suspects! Not only in that neurasthenic brother-in-law, but also the attending physician, Price’s kindly kid sister, a couple of suspicious servants, and just possibly a ghost in the form of his undead sister. Yikes! Kerr’s search inevitably leads him to the cellar, a dungeon where Price’s late father kept a fully functioning torture chamber . . . still in working order! Much of this plays far better than the low-grade acting would indicate, even when the sets looked trucked in from some defunct traveling opera company. (That’s where those DON CARLOS sets went to!) But on its own terms, it works. Even Price, popping his eyes, dramatically lowering his voice and using chronic indigestion as a Method actor might feed off personal memory. Floyd Crosby’s densely colored lensing can be a little stiff, Corman keeps lining up his cast as if prepping for curtain calls. But most of the shock cuts still land; there’s an elegant line to the matte paintings; imaginative paint swirls in the credit sequences; and a rousing semi-atonal score from Les Baxter that needs no apology whatsoever.

DOUBLE-BILL: *You’d be surprised how close a lot of this is to THE CAT AND THE CANARY/’27; ‘39)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: File under truth in advertizing: John Kerr keeps his blouse on as the blade swings ever closer. (And it's PanaVision, not CinemaScope.) Still, very nice poster. (Click to expand.)