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Monday, October 31, 2016

O MENINO E O MUNDO / BOY & THE WORLD (2013)

Alé Abreu's lively animation (think colored drawing pencils on heavy-weight paper) gives unusual texture to this wide-eyed adventure. Drawn in a style that mixes childish wonder & the simplicity of stick figures with patterns multiplying to infinity, it pulls you inside its tale tall of a spunky rural lad who leaves home to look for the father forced to hunt for work far off in the big city. Along the way, the boy finds brief friendships, a tagalong mutt, and a rapidly evolving industrial society turning mean & impersonal as the city nears. The tone, more thoughtful than funny, with mumbled faux-dialogue, isn’t far from Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME/’67, with a neat homage to a Harold Lloyd ‘thrill’ sequence and a less successful spate of live-action footage to pound home the politics just when we need a bit of rude comic invention. And a little storytelling clarification would be nice when the last sequences seem to collapse what we’ve been watching into one boy/man/grandfather character before bringing us back to the film’s beginning. Best not to struggle with the story arc and simply enjoy the episodes as they come, the densely worked out spare images and the superb use of Brazilian music & rhythms.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While not a ‘kids’ film, it’s also not not for kids. Just have those colored art pencils & quality drawing paper ready in case someone gets inspired.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

YUME JÛ-YA / TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS (2006)

Omnibus pic of ten one-reel sketches taken loosely from Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki, with barely a stinker in its odd 100 minutes (some odder than others). And it includes the penultimate work from 91-yr-old master Kon Ichikawa. Here’s the brief: 

  1. Wife leaves husband for a hundred year wait with (make that as) a goldfish.
  2. Young samurai fails to do the honorable thing . . . that's the lesson. (From Ichikawa, still stylish & economical, shooting in silent monochrome with a single red element.)
  3. In 1908, a father of five children (and one on the way) imagines a deformed son (who may be himself?). A panic dream or his next short story?
  4. A guest speaker in a strange town looks for the lecture hall only to find shadows of his own sickly childhood.
  5. A wife desperately gallops away from the gore & misfortune of her domestic life; winds up sharing breakfast with her understanding husband. (Weak & mystifying.)
  6. Comic relief, at last! A master wood carver demonstrates his rhythmic swing-and-sway 'phantom' sculpting technique, inspiring a local to try it. (Funny, or is it a metaphor for filmmaking? Yikes!)
  7. Another fishy fish story, animated & in English, about a sailor on a mystery ship filled with various species and one lovely lady. He wants to connect, but goes overboard into a sort of 2001 - ‘Jupiter and Beyond’ Kubrickian ocean.
  8. All the boys are catching crayfish, except for Mitsu who pulls in a monstrous snail-like thing. He brings it home as a pet; Mom wants it out of the house; Uncle wants a snack. (A tale so strange, Soseki, our late author, shows up just to be confounded.)
  9. Dad’s off to war, mother & child pray for him at temple. But the boy gets stuck at the place, catching peeks of his father at the front . . . and still at home.
  10. A comedy wrap-up about a returning prodigal stud. He left with a beauty and found out first-hand how sausages are made. Now, he wants no part of it!
Lots of real visual treats in here; but perhaps best seen in stages.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

STATION WEST (1948)

Few leading men reestablished their default screen-selves as readily as Dick Powell did, moving from goofy juvenile tenor @ Warners to utility star player in stylized romantic comedies for René Clair & Preston Sturges before surprising everyone as tough guy private-eye in the mid-‘40s. And he’d continue evolving into middle-aged solid citizen gigs @ M-G-M before turning producer/director. This one, back in his R.K.O. detective period, plants his self-deprecating wiseass character into a Western, which proves a genre too far. Journeyman director Sidney Lanfield can’t make the story add up (neither will you)*, but the basic idea sends Army Lieutenant Powell out West undercover to track down the killers of two soldiers, lost in a stagecoach gold robbery. And the town’s just loaded with suspects & characters to choose from: Burl Ives balladeer/hotelier, Agnes Moorehead’s goldmine owner, Raymond Burr’s debt-plagued lawyer & Jane Greer’s gambling house proprietor. Greer’s the real reason to pay attention, so cool, so calm, so collected . . . so amoral. One of the great ladies of noir (thanks to OUT OF THE PAST/’47), Howard Hughes had her under contract and kept her on a very short leash. If only the film didn’t keep dropping the narrative ball, this one could have added up to something.

DOUBLE-BILL: Powell had his big mid-career break in Edward Dmytryk’s fast-paced Raymond Chandler gumshoe classic MURDER, MY SWEET/’44. And they’re both even better in the Chandleresque hooey of CORNERED/’45.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Lanfield’s exposition/dialogue stuff is awfully flat, but things get considerably lively elsewhere, including a nasty piece of fisticuffs between Powell & Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. From uncredited assistant-director Joel Freeman?

Friday, October 28, 2016

THE LITTLE PRINCE (1974)

In an era when Hollywood studios wanted big galumphing RoadShow Family musicals, Lerner & Loewe’s modestly-scaled, philosophically minded attempt at the classic Antoine de Saint-Exupéry grown-up kid’s book probably never had a chance. Trimmed down before release, then quickly dumped as a total loss by Paramount, it’s certainly not without its problems. Neither Richard Kiley’s downed pilot nor Steven Warner’s lost Prince feels quite right (and those wigs!); while the first half of the film only accents the book’s occasional cloying whimsy. But things improve as they go along with lenser Christopher Challis giving the show a one-of-a-kind picturebook look. Director Stanley Donen was right to be defensive about the film, some truly magical things happen. Especially when Bob Fosse, in a rare late front-of-the-camera appearance, shows up as a snake, sand-dancing in the Sahara. (Michael Jackson definitely took notice.) Or when Gene Wilder comes on as a hard-to-tame fox. It’s worth grinding your teeth thru some of the awkward bits to get at the good stuff as this final Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe score, though far too lushly scored*, is pretty gorgeous stuff.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Lerner had similar concerns with the initial orchestral arrangements in GIGI/’58, but also had the clout to get them pared down & re-recorded. Not here.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

OMOHIDE PORO PORO / ONLY YESTERDAY (1991)

Japanese anime master Isao Takahata never had the breakout Stateside commercial success of Hayao Miyazaki, his partner at Studio Ghibli. And you can probably see why in this gentle charmer. Extravagantly lovely, especially in densely colored scenes of countryside farm life, the story moves in parallel planes as 27 yr-old Taeko takes time off from her Tokyo office job to spend her vacation doing farm work with relatives. No Club Med for this city girl, she likes getting her hands dirty. While there, she finds herself falling for a young organic farm visionary, but doesn’t seem to realize it, largely because she’s being trailed by that parallel storyline, her 10-yr-old/fifth grade self, as she tries to figure out how family & social issues that went unresolved back then are still driving her decisions. It’s an immensely charming idea, witty and bathed in visual rapture, richly hued in the ‘now,’ carefully rinsed watercolor for the ‘past.’ And while some of the Japanese cultural reticence and stultifying politeness can fend off emotional involvement, the bigger problem is structural. Takahata, who added on the adult story to the manga picturebook the film came from, doesn’t take proper advantage of the possibilities for integrating the two time frames until the very end. Literally, only as the end credits run does he finally figure out what he should have been trying to do all thru the pic. Instead, the flip-flop lines of action distance us from both stories just when we need to be drawn in. Still, it’s all sweet natured and sweetly told; and that final end credit sequence is blissfully cathartic. Maybe the film would come together better with a second viewing?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Family Friendly note: Some of the schoolyard taunts & putdowns are generated by frank Sex-Ed talk and the divide between ‘tweens’ who are already menstruating and those who aren’t. Very accurate stuff, too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

XIA NÜ / A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)

Even with a big, enthusiastic cult following, King Hu’s Chinese Martial Arts film, overlaid with a schmear of Buddhist philosophy, has been more influential then seen. At least Stateside. (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON/’00 being the best known offspring.) Set in some distant feudal past, the story places a simple portrait painter, with a comic nagging mother, in the midst of a political war between masses of Imperial forces and a beautiful runaway daughter-of-the-court who’s rented the haunted house next door along with a couple of renegade generals. Naive, sentimental, monumental & sometimes too dark to tell what’s going on, the acclaimed film only partially holds up; and earns yawns with a three-hour running time. The big battle scenes, with the usual large forces of darkness against a handful of honorables, feature a lot of creative (and advanced for the time) acrobatic swordplay and wire-work for those impossible trampoline-worthy leaps. (It makes warfare look like a game of badminton played with gyroscoping human shuttlecocks.) Then a mystical finale that’s less Zen enlightenment than moral dodge.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

THE ANTOINE DOINEL SERIES (1959 - '79)

Packaged by Criterion as THE ADVENTURES OF ANTOINE DOINEL, a title that best fits the last three of the four & a half films François Truffaut made with Jean-Pierre Léaud as his quasi alter-ego. The first two, the most autobiographical, are by far the best, with LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS (THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS)/’59, one of the great debut features. Right from its opening shots, as if guided by the spirit of Jean Vigo, Truffaut shows himself a natural, with an easy technical facility most filmmakers struggle for decades to achieve. Antoine is already a toughened, yet disarmingly sweet-natured 14-yr-old kid headed for trouble when met, with dicey relationships with mom, step-dad, school & the truth. Yet, what pleasure he takes in all his foibles & failures, even as they escalate toward a punitive military academy. And watch how deftly Truffaut switches gears from the warmth toward his cast of hilarious non-pro kids, to reveal a sudden flair for action & suspense when Antoine steals a typewriter. (And what an image as he navigates sidewalk traffic with the heavy thing.)

The second film, ANTOINE ET COLETTE (it’s a half-hour short culled from LOVE AT TWENTY/’62), picks up with Antoine finding a first job, first apartment, first love. Alas, unreciprocated, though the girl’s parents are encouraging. Such dinners! Truffaut was rightly proud of this one, nailing a tricky cusp-of-adulthood moment. Returning with non-Scope/Eastman Color for BAISERS VOLÉS (STOLEN KISSES)/’68, Doinel is drummed out of his military service and hunts up a series of jobs to botch while lunging at love & domesticity. The story is less interior, presumably less autobiographical, but often very funny in its own way. DOMICILE CONJUGAL (BED & BOARD)/’70 repeats the format to lesser effect with Truffaut & cast forcing comic payoffs as marital problems, infidelity & a baby come into play. If only the film had more magical moments like the unexpected appearance of M. Hulot entering a Metro station, his umbrella handle getting caught on a stairway railing.* By the time we get back to the story in L’AMOUR EN FUITE (LOVE ON THE RUN)/’79, the characters have little to do but reminisce (with many a helpful film clip from the series as illustration) while setting up a resolution with the least interesting character in the entire saga, played none too well by Dorothée. (An actress with neither last name nor character.) Summing up; books one & two: essential; three: delightful in it’s own way; four & five for completists.



ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Note, showing up like some apparition, it is M. Hulot, but not Jacques Tati. Instead, that’s Tati’s costume designer and occasional double Jacques Cottin as Hulot.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Woody Allen must have looked long & hard at how Truffaut handles action & dialogue in the apartments of the last three films in the series. Heck, he took notes.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961)

Three decades after Frank Capra hit the ‘A’ list (joined at the hip with writing partner Robert Riskin), adapting the wiseguy sentiment of Damon Runyon’s LADY FOR A DAY/’33, he left the arena for good with this thuddingly misconceived flop of a remake. The story is largely unchanged (elderly apple peddler, a lucky charm to raffish NYC mob man, needs his help to keep her engaged daughter from finding out she’s a tramp), but something’s gone missing in the new treatment. Okay, everything’s gone missing. A lot of the loss comes in making the story a period piece (not that Capra had much choice in ‘61). But where the zestful earlier film played as a tough & funny Depression Era fairy tale, the remake seems to run at half-speed. (And its forty-five extra minutes make the cast look like dunderheads.) A few players glean laughs (mostly Peter Falk & Edward Everett Horton), and Bette Davis, a most unlikely Apple Annie, at least keeps her dignity, but others aren’t so much miscast as defeated. Especially Glenn Ford, whose soft attack is like anti-matter, and Arthur O’Connell as a Spanish Count. You know you’re in trouble when you’ve got Arthur O’Connell playing a Spanish Count. With a thirty year retirement ahead of him, Capra seems relieved to throw in the towel.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, Capra’s LADY FOR A DAY, about the best of all possible Damon Runyon adaptations.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Over-stuffed & bloated, POCKETFUL plays like a Hollywood embalming of a B’way musical. Begging the question, why hasn’t someone musicalized this story?

DOUBLE-BILL: Swansong for Capra regular supporting actor Thomas Mitchell following stellar perfs in DEEDS; LOST HORIZON; MR. SMITH and WONDERFUL LIFE.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Capra’s career-long fixation on the erotic nature of water running over glass gets a final workout as debuting young lovers Ann-Margret & Peter Mann bill & coo.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

SLEEPER (1973)

When people talk about the flat out funny pics Woody Allen use to make, this is what they’re talking about. (Co-scripted with Marshall Brickman, his fourth & final Allen collaboration, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY/’93, was the last in this carefree comic vein.) The basic idea, RIP VAN WINKLE meets 1984 (but 200 years in the future) is all but foolproof; and if some of the gags are a little too easy (reversed reputation jokes on food, literature & art) or a few dated references need annotation (Teachers’ Union Prez Albert Shanker was pretty obscure even at the time), most still land. Demerit points for undercranked action & lazy moments where Diane Keaton & Allen talk over each other to hide lagging comic invention. But generally, Woody works his material to fine, funny effect. Even when he hasn’t the physical skills & discipline to deliver on his attempts at silent comedy shtick, he pulls it off with just the idea of slapstick, looking back toward Harry Langdon and forward to Peter Sellers. And what a clever (and frugal) decision to craft the future out of ‘found’ modern buildings, as Truffaut & Godard did in FAHRENHEIT 451/’66 (which has a similar look) and ALPHAVILLE/’65 (which doesn’t.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Allen took the leap into legit filmmaking on his next, LOVE AND DEATH/’75, but no one noticed at the time. OR: The two French New Wave films just mentioned.

Friday, October 21, 2016

BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHT (2008)

Where MARVEL pumps out a never-ending stream of SuperHero blockbusters, rival D.C. Comics sweats bullets on each dicey new release. No wonder they keep coming out with BATMAN resets, safe harbor with a variety of demographically designated product, from the ‘camp’ of the old tv series to Christopher Nolan’s darkness trilogy. So too in the myriad of animated BATMANs on offer. (One intriguing idea, a sort of graphic novel sprung to life, should work, but doesn’t.*) This one, a collection of short, medium-dark adventures, features six stories running about a reel each, with different production crews handling the limited animation technique in distinctive styles. The opener is the most fun with three street toughs relating separate encounters with the urban crimefighting legend that literally draw their hero in different lights. One makes him a near-satanic figure, much like the villain in Disney’s NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN from FANTASIA/’40. But none of the six has much room for character development, the conflicted conscience that makes Batman a standout among SuperHeroes; nor proper time for misdirected narrative, everything is too straightforward. But it’s often handsome to look at and marks the return of vet Batman voice-over actor Kevin Conroy who has a cult following of his own.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The animated DVD version of the graphic novels came out in 2009 as BATMAN: BLACK AND WHITE.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

ZARAFA (2012)

Another foreign animated pick up from the good folks at GKIDS, this time from France (with a fine alternate English-language track), directed by Rémi Bezançon & Jean-Christophe Lie. Visually a treat, like a deluxe-edition illustrated storybook, it tells the very tall-tale of how a brave (also clever, also stubborn) African boy runs away from a slave trader only to wind up bringing Paris its very first giraffe. (With many a friend & enemy on his adventures over land, sea & desert.) Drawn with a stylized, elegant hand, it’s a beauty to see, and also to hear in Laurent Perez Del Mar’s witty score with its echoes Maurice Jarre’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. If only the story wasn’t such an episodic mess. Told as a folk tale by the village elder to a group of young African kids, it’s also a bit too violent & intense for the presumed under-10 demographic what with slave trade, murder, alcoholism & traumatic separations. (So, Family Friendly with reservations.) And kids over ten may find the animation technique too traditional & old-fashioned, without the expected hip, ironic/contemporary edge. It’s sincere. Exactly the thing fans of Ghibli Animation will get into. They’ll also note the resemblance of this film’s main comic figure (the balloonist) to various Ghibli Mad Hatter types.

DOUBLE-BILL: The GKIDS DVD comes with a short semi-animated documentary, THE GIRAFFE OF PARIS/’57 which does an excellent job telling the true, rather melancholy story.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

ANIMALS (2012)

What are the odds? Two films released the same year featuring sexually blocked guys in a confining/confiding relationship with a walkin’/talkin’ best pal of a Teddy Bear. Great minds think alike? (If only.) But where Seth MacFarlane’s TED was a potty-mouthed sex comedy on separation anxiety for an emotionally thwarted man-child, Spanish writer/director Marçal Forés is charting child-man rites-of-puberty. And unlike TED’s corporal bear-toy, here the conceit is more of an angst-driven CALVIN AND HOBBES: The High School Years. It works pretty well for the first half-hour as Pol, our teen protagonist, wrestles with friendships (loner or social animal?); budding romance (boy or girl?); home life (no parents, but older controlling brother to rebel against); school assignments (skip class or study with guest-star/teacher Martin Freeman). But tag-along Teddy quickly slips from clever crutch to conceptual drag; even after Pol ties him to a rock and tosses the toy off a bridge. Then it’s back to pampered, oversensitive ‘emo’-types at his elite English-language High School. (Very hard to give a shit about these rich kids.) Maybe if Forés let his cast pick up their cues without so many pensive pauses, or had the filmmaking chops to handle the brief flurries of modest action. Instead, all that self-defeating teenage behavior turns self-defeating.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Included on the disc, a little, quickly made student film from Forés, also called ANIMALS, which takes the conceit about as far as it needs to go in a sketch of a scene later expanded into the full feature. Happily, without the cast of teen-dream brooders. OR: Many think highly of DONNIE DARKO/’01, an obvious influence.

Monday, October 17, 2016

GIRL CRAZY (1943)

The fourth & last of the big Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals feels like it’s missing a few pieces. (It runs 2 reels shy of the second & third in the series.) A very loose adaptation of a 1930 Gershwin musical starring Ginger Rogers & a debuting Ethel Merman, Judy takes songs from each, overwhelmed by Busby Berkeley’s messy staging of “I Got Rhythm,’ but knocking the heck out of ‘Embraceable You.’ (Wonderfully staged by Charles Walters, he also partners Garland; so good, he keeps stealing focus.) The story element, such as it is, retains the basic set up (NYC playboy goes West), but adds a struggling college for Mickey to save with a big rodeo we never quite see. (The ‘missing’ 2 reels?) Some of the show’s best songs hide as underscoring via Tommy Dorsey’s band, though June Allyson pops up in the prologue to share ‘Treat Me Rough’ with Mickey while poor Nancy Walker shows up later and gets nada. (She’s briefly heard in a deleted vocal included on the DVD.) No doubt producer Arthur Freed, who’d just paired Garland with up-and-comer Gene Kelly in FOR ME AND MY GAL/’42, saw that the series had run its course.

DOUBLE-BILL: Garland made a guest appearance with Rooney (playing a neutered Lorenz Hart, of Rodgers & Hart fame) in WORDS AND MUSIC/’48 shortly before Mickey left M-G-M. And they might well have reunited on the underrated SUMMER STOCK/’50 if Rooney’s star hadn’t dimmed. (Gene Kelly got the gig.)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

HEAT AND DUST (1983)

Two years before breaking into the commercial mainstream on A ROOM WITH A VIEW/’85, the writing/directing/producing team of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala/James Ivory/Ismail Merchant (and toss in regular composer Richard Robbins) made this palimpsest of a film about a wayward British wife in 1920s India,

and the grand-niece (two generations on) who returns to the scene of the scandal. Ravishingly colorful in Walter Lassally’s unfiltered lensing, it’s ultimately, like too many other Merchant-Ivory productions, close, but not quite there. Greta Scacchi is lovely as an administrator’s wife who disdains the British colony's clubs & intra-socializing for the exotic/erotic company of a local Prince (an excellent Shashi Kapoor). Even without the dangerous civil/political situation hovering around the crumbling Colonial structure, her relationship is a threat to all parties. Christie, who knows the story from old letters & an elderly survivor who’s already filled her in, uses the trip to India less for research than for personal discovery only to find her own trajectory following her Great Aunt’s in unlikely, but happier ways. If only the film didn’t come out as a series of awkward lurches, with Christie giving a fiercely mannered perf. But it has a charm to it, and certainly holds your attention.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT / PARIS BELONGS TO US (1961)

Of the major French New Wave directors, Jacques Rivette was something of an acquired taste; more accurately the least acquired taste. And you’ll see why from this first feature, fascinating & foolish in equal measure. The first (and better) half of the typically overlong film follows the circuitous path of young university student Betty Schneider who falls in with a semi-professional theater crowd working on a production of Shakespeare’s rarely produced PERICLES. It’s doubtful anyone on set read the thing, but Rivette’s interest lies more in the intellectual/self-centered/self-destructive circle of 20 and 30-somethings falling in and out of tortured relationships. Right from the start, there’s a missing party, a young Spanish musician who committed suicide (or was he killed for political reasons?). A tape of his music made for the play is also missing and the film is structured on Schneider’s search for it. But a second murder (or was it suicide?) flips the film in something of a shaggy-dog political thriller with vast inexplicable conspiracies (Communist? Fascist? Pure Paranoia?) called out if never seen, as Schneider dashes around town trying to save her director, her brother, and a couple of American political exiles. (However does she afford the taxis?) Unlike Truffaut, Godard & Chabrol, Nouvelle Vaguers who got their debuts out before him, Rivette hasn’t the film chops to pull off his effects. (And gets little help from cinematographer Charles L. Bitsch.) He reaches for spontaneity and settles for arbitrary, but there’s something to be said for watching so many ‘ids’ bump heads together.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film takes place in 1957, but the characters (sort of a French ‘Beat’ generation) already look ripe for the 1968 uprisings.

Friday, October 14, 2016

THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2015)

Fact-based story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught Indian theoretical mathematician who leaves his mother & young wife in Madras, India after Cambridge professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) offers him a passage to England. Inexperienced writer/director Matt Brown runs his film on three issues: the difficulties of cultural & family separation; casual and not-so-casual racism on & off campus; the clash between Ramanujan’s instinctual brilliance vs. Prof. Hardy’s insistence on detailed ‘proofs’ before publication. But writing down the steps that led to a theorem is unnatural for Ramanujan (handsomely played by Dev Patel), who ‘sees’ the finished solution whole, more in the manner of a musical prodigy or a religious revelation, and rebels against having to show the thousand moves needed to get mere mathematical mortals there. Oddly enough, it's the very problem of the film which also assumes results without proper dramatic grounding, slighting the story's emotional payoffs. But if the film never hits its potential (production errors also trip things up; why so dim all the time?), the story holds just enough fascination to carry you along.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Irons’ under-examined Hardy comes across a lot like writer A. E. Housman (of ‘Shropshire Lad’ fame), or rather, as Housman is portrayed in Tom Stoppard’s play THE INVENTION OF LOVE; though here, Hardy's repressed nature is barely addressed. The play, one of Stoppard’s finest, has no film or tv adaptation, though a few scenes can be found on youtube.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

NOBODY'S FOOL (1994)

Warm, but unfuzzy character study of an aging small-town ne’er-do-well has Paul Newman playing an older version of his signature scapegrace. A flop at just about everything he’s tried, he spends a winter week bumping into his past, present & future, uncomfortably reconnecting with an extended family of rejected friends & relations: Ex-Wife; Ex-Employer, Ex-gal-of-his-dreams, estranged Son, Grandson, work partner. Only to find, to his surprise, how essential he is to everyone in town even as he wades thru the unraveling mess of his so-called life. Wry, human-scaled, beautifully observed & deeply touching in the hands of writer/director Robert Benton (from the Richard Russo novel*), the film holds surprising parallels with Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE/’48 (they even toss in a dilapidated house to restore, a land-grabbing villain & possible jail time), but gives humanistic affirmation without resorting to celestial interference & wingless angels. (How this small gem got thru the ‘90s studio system is a miracle big enough to earn Clarence those wings.) And what clever casting: ringers like director Gene Saks as a one-legged lawyer; Melanie Griffith & an unbilled Bruce Willis, both fine & unexpectedly relaxed; Jessica Tandy, sublime in her last role; and up-and-comers like Margo Martindale, Philip Seymore Hoffman & Dylan Walsh all shining in support.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Newman’s final acting role (excluding some vocal work) was in EMPIRE FALLS/’05, a mezza mezza HBO two-parter taken from Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

PATTON (1970)

The bare ambient sound, static camera shot and screen-filling American flag that appear without preamble as George C. Scott’s General Patton takes the stage were so striking, even confrontational, that it was easy to miss just how square the rest of this big-budget WWII bio-pic was. Franklin J. Schaffner, working off Francis Coppola’s smart script, was the sort of craftsman director who needed to put one foot in front of the other, cross his t’s and dot his i’s before moving to the next story-point. (The same trait that gave unlikely ballast to a Sci-Fi/Fantasy like PLANET OF THE APES/’68.) Here, with Scott more or less the whole show even among a cast of thousands, the approach can turn stiff & overly monumental. (Like the waxwork German officers following the General’s every move from a Nazi war-room who might have been drawn with crayons.) But on its simplified terms, this orderly film with its rudely brilliant protagonist is very satisfying, loaded with awesome pre-CGI battles often seen from a commander’s distance (crystal clear in a 65mm negative process), and filling as a turkey dinner.

DOUBLE-BILL: Scott reunited with Schaffner for ISLANDS IN THE STREAM/’77, a Hemingway project that almost works. But this time, Schaffner’s solid-citizen helming held the film back.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How weird was 1971? Weird enough for 20th/Fox to put out a post-Oscar® double-bill of PATTON and M*A*S*H*. Odd bedfellows politically, and a running time of nearly 5 hours. Yikes!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

BABES ON BROADWAY (1941)

Third of the four wildly popular Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland let’s-put-on-a-show musicals has an even more idiotic storyline then second entry STRIKE UP THE BAND/’40, but offers compensation in a striking bump in production values and an equally striking change in Garland’s advance from girlhood to womanhood. This time, the kids (and many talented pals) are struggling actors waiting for their big break. But first, they’ll have to help a bunch of British war refugee kids & local settlement house tots with a fund-raising Block Party before cleaning up a dusty old theater for their semi-professional show. Good deeds that land them in a big-time B’way revue featuring a huge cast in a BlackFace Minstrel routine. Yep, we're back to the original sin of American ShowBiz, the BlackFace Minstrel Show. And this time, it's not just appalling, even worse, it’s uncomfortably superb. You cringe, you applaud, you feel unclean. (Give it our highest BLACKFACE WARNING.) Director Busby Berkeley, never entirely at ease in this adolescent series, really delivers in all the big production stuff, and he's truly on fire in the physically stunning Minstrel show. So too Garland, ‘corked up’ for Harold Rome’s ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones.’ (Ironic in a way it never was pre-Obama.) Confounded by all this demeaning glorification?; try star-spotting cameos from Donna Reed, Margaret O’Brien, and (a real toughie especially for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE fans) a quick glance at Robert J. Anderson, the great kid who played the teenage James Stewart. Not listed on IMDb, he shows up right after the British refuges gift Rooney with a thank-you watch.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Vincente Minnelli designed (and filmed?) the theater ghost ‘Numbo’ that finds Judy & Mickey dreaming themselves into famous actors of the past. The fluid staging & camera technique is more Minnelli than Berkeley as Mickey hams Mansfield’s Cyrano; George M. Cohan & Harry Lauder. Judy lets her costumes do the impressions on a couple of singers and then a recitation (in French) as Sarah Bernhardt that sounds weirdly like Liza Minnelli.

DOUBLE-BILL/LINK: The Rudolf Ising cartoon on the DVD (DANCE OF THE WEED), is a nice looking gloss on FANTASIA/’40 (excellent background work, less effective flower ballerinas). But the gagsters at Warners did this even better with A CORNY CONCERTO/’43. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRcctLL_3FQ

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Why a Family Friendly label on a BLACKFACE WARNING film? Hiding ugly things doesn’t make them go away. How else to understand where we are and how we got here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

THE QUIET MAN (1952)

Supreme contrarian that he was, it’s somehow appropriate that director John Ford’s biggest commercial success should be largely disparaged by many of his most doctrinaire academic defenders. Long a dream project for Ford, the film was just too popular, too Irish (make that ‘stage’ Irish), too pleasing (or corny) to stand with his more ornery classics; a misreading that still holds in auteur-ville. And while not exactly incorrect - it is very Irish, very likable - the objections (never a problem for regular film-goers) miss the main point of this story about an Irish-born/American-bred boy who returns to find the old homeland just as he imagined . . . and entirely different & foreign; told thru a series of encounters that test out Ford’s great post-WWII theme about the clash between legend and fact. It's famously articulated in the ubiquitous quote from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62: ‘When the legend becomes fact; print the legend.’ But it pays to remember that Ford consistently did the exact opposite; only to lie about 'the facts' he had just shown us. (Or if not bald-face lie, skirt the truth; seen most clearly at the end of FORT APACHE/’48 with John Wayne nimbly feeding the legend about his disastrous commanding officer, a Colonel Custer stand-in.) Here, Wayne spends most of the film falling into the divide between his blinkered romantic vision of Ireland, and the reality of entering what turns out to be a real, culturally mystifying place. Decked out with fabulist characters & visual design, the film triumphs as fable even when its TAMING OF THE SHREW elements jar.* Wayne & Maureen O’Hara are wonderful together, decidedly sexy; and the closing curtain call Ford arranges enchanting.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Thank goodness O’Hara is such a big strong gal and ‘gives as good as she gets.’ Elsewise, we couldn’t enjoy the delicious non-PC moment when an elderly local offers Wayne ‘a fine stick to beat the lovely lady.’

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Ford abruptly jolts us out of the film’s pastorale pace in a short & brutal flashback, done in silent German Expressionist style, to help explain Wayne’s character. Seeing Ford pull this visual tour de force out of a hat, and watching him effortlessly get-in/get-out in under a minute is awesome (and unexpected) stuff.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

HAIL, CAESAR (2016)

Three Hollywood luminaries of varying fame & wattage were said to ‘know where all the bodies were buried.’ All took their secrets to the grave. One was child (and ape) actor Roddy McDowall; the other two, M-G-M hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff & M-G-M studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix. Enter the Brothers Coen (Ethan & Joel), out to make a sort of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL pastiche satire of ‘50s scandals & studio backlot skullduggery. Sounds fun, sounds right up Coen Snark Alley. Alas, they chose the wrong tour guide!; passing on hair-dresser confidant Guilaroff (knows all, tells nothing, takes on intractable problems & permanent waves) for infamous sweep-it-under-the-carpet/tough-guy Mannix. Kind of a flat creative decision, no? Well, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much, since the crises are either ho-hum or overly far-fetched (Commie Kidnap Conspiracy; Pregnant Unwed Swimming Star; Singing Cowboy Goes Drawing Room); and the pastiche song-and-dance; Aquacade; and Biblical Epic stuff not nearly as funny as the real thing. (Though one multi-hued set in the QUO VADIS take-off is gratifyingly hideous.) For the rest, Tilda Swinton is a treat playing twin gossip columnists not as Hedda Hopper & Louella Parsons, the forgotten models, but as Cate Blanchett. Hilarious! And Alden Ehrenreich charmingly lassos his way toward stardom.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: The Coen boys find more legit laughs in their dramas than they do in ostensible comedies like this, THE LADYKILLERS/’04 or THE HUDSUCKER PROXY/94.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Irresistible. Country Bunny meets City Fox in Zootopia, capital of a New Age World (more OZ than METROPOLIS) where predator & prey live in peaceful harmony. (In scale-adjusted neighborhoods to match various species.) The odd couple gimmick is that Bunny’s newbie cop and Fox’s two-bit street scammer are forced to work together to find out why some predator beasts are regressing into old savage ways. (With underlying race allegory playing out with minimal forcing, no one says ‘Can’t we all just get along,’ or anything like that.) Here and there, writer/directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush fall into tired gagging (the Godfather shtick is awfully moldy by now), but most of their character, story & visual ideas are fresh, funny, suspenseful & exciting. Makes you wonder why more animated pics haven’t tried on the Police Procedural format: solid narrative structure; easy character introductions; built-in episodic/picaresque framework; plus, it lends itself naturally to sequels. Special kudos to Jason Bateman’s Fox in the vocal cast; and a tip of the hat to whomever thought of using comic legends BOB AND RAY’s Slow Talkers of America routine* for the sloths who run the DMV office.

LINK: *And here they are, probably from a 1980s TONIGHT SHOW appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qvrh73BVraE

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Another overly bright DVD, presumably to compensate for the image darkening in 3D projection systems (or is it from the glasses?). In any event, why they don’t readjust light levels for 2D home viewing is a puzzle.

Friday, October 7, 2016

STRIKE UP THE BAND (1940)

This was the second, and weakest, of the four let’s-put-on-a-show musicals for Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney, early productions out of M-G-M’s Arthur Freed unit. Quickly turned out in the wake of the mega-successful BABES IN ARMS’/’39, it’s a High School Musical without the Depression & unemployment issues that shadow the earlier film. (Also without the BlackFace Minstrel Show.) In their place, a plot about rebooting the school band as a ‘swing’ outfit to win a gig on Jazz King Paul Whiteman’s radio show; story beats courtesy of puppy-love tiffs & ginned-up medical emergencies; but always making time for Rooney’s heart-to-heart guidance counseling from Mom or the nearest available surrogate parent. (Too bad none of them stopped him from padding the film out with two interminable reels of Old-Time melodrama.) Three numbers come off pretty well: Rooney & Co. in the superbly swinging ‘Drummer Boy;’ director Busby Berkeley showing some of his old form in geometric patterns on ‘La Conga;’ and a weird little stop-motion animation routine for fruits & vegetables thought up by visiting future director Vincente Minnelli. Garland looks & sounds adorable here, though very much subservient to Rooney who shows his multiple talents with less exhausting desperation than usual. Perhaps because the film story has so little at stake.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The DVD’s cartoon-short, Rudolf Ising’s ROMEO IN RHYTHM, is an exceptional piece of animation, but take warning that the fierce racial stereotyping (shanty-town Black Crows in a ‘hep’ R&J parody) comes without any historical/cultural distancing.

DOUBLE-BILL: The title song is from an otherwise unrelated Gershwin musical, a flop political satire meant to follow OF THEE I SING. Why they didn’t find a spot for Garland to sing the show’s great ballad (‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’) is a mystery. No doubt, it sounded swell in the show’s original pit band which included Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey & Jack Teagarden, a group recreated in Anthony Mann’s GLENN MILLER STORY/’56 for the slightly later Gershwin show (also the last in the Judy/Mickey series) GIRL CRAZY.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS (2015)

Small & phoney, this well-received mismatched-couple comedy has to put blinders on all its characters to reach the finish line. A second feature for tv writer/director Michael Showalter, he’s happy to set up embarrassing comic situations & relationships, only to find himself out of his depth and teasing his way out of trouble. Here, lonely eccentric spinster Sally Field falls for the new hunk at work (Max Greenfield) leading to miscues in an unlikely friendship she thinks might turn romantic in spite of a two-generation age gap. In a French comedy (or a more dangerous American one), they’d get drunk, screw, then deal with the embarrassing consequences. But Showalter’s been nursing the tv teat too long to push against likability norms. Instead, plot beats & dramatic tropes substituting for real human foibles. And the basic idea that Field is so ‘unhip’ she’s ‘hip’ just isn’t enough to explain all her new relationships; her character runs out of steam halfway thru the pic. (Showalter tries compensating with a forced hoarding addiction subplot, presumably for some third-act catharsis/resolution.) A shame, since the lack of polish from the film’s small budget offers lots of believable texture and the leads are awfully good, though with extremely variable support. Showalter may simply be too facile for his own good.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bet you can quickly think of a dozen senior guy gets much younger gal (if only for a while) titles. Now, try and come up with an example where the genders are reversed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949)

The Disney ‘gap’ years of animation purgatory (with collected shorts of varying quality doing service as features) lasted from BAMBI/’42 to the post-war renewal of CINDERELLA/’50. But a path out of the slump was in plain sight the year before in this little two-fer. Bing Crosby sings & narrates the main event (note the poster billing), a scary Hallowe’en ride from Washington Irving’s ICHABOD CRANE, and it's very much in line with other well-made Disney ‘gap’ releases. But the real deal shows up in the opening segment, MR. TOAD’S WILD RIDE, taken from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS (a kid’s book in rep only), featuring some of the best story & character animation seen at the studio in a decade. A riotous bit of anarchy about Toad’s serial manic enthusiasms, it’s got great gags; taut story construction; perfectly composed set pieces; a memorable gang of villainous weasels; loyal/lovable sidekicks; dizzying moments of gasp-inducing panic; even a moral for Toad to sabotage. Any wonder this little film inspired the best ever ‘C’ ticket ride at the original DisneyLand? (Still operating? Still landing in Hades?)

DOUBLE-BILL/READ ALL ABOUT IT: As mentioned, Grahame’s THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS is more Lake Country pastorale than kiddie book, you’ll wind up reading for your own enjoyment. Such writing! And check out Terry Jones’ labor of love full-length version (called MR. TOAD’S WILD RIDE/’96 Stateside) made with Monty Pythoners & others.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

Writing/directing team Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, with lenser Jack Cardiff & production designer Alfred Junge, prestidigitated a stunning TechniColored Himalaya from the depths of a suburban London studio in this one-of-a-kind religioso-psychological thriller. Deborah Kerr is the Sister Superior, sent with a gaggle of Nuns to teach, farm and treat the body & soul of suspicious natives. Setting up shop in a mountain aerie palace once used to house concubines, Sister Kerr comes up against two unexpected road blocks, the manly, disdainful British trade agent (David Farrar sporting sexually provocative shorts) and worse, the increasingly exposed neuroses of her order (and herself) stuck inside Our Lady of Perpetual Neurasthenia. Farrar notes that there’s something in the atmosphere bringing it out, but the slightly ‘off’ quality really comes from the distinctive filmmaking of P&P (The Archers) who technically go their own way, giving many of their films a sort of handmade artisanal quality, especially in the arrhythmic editing. You’re always a wee bit off-balance under their charge. Sometimes this comes off as too much of a good thing, but here it works like a charm; a creepy scary sort of charm as Kerr fights off memories of a happy past life as well as the micro-society breakdown she’s supposed to be in charge of. While all thru the pic, the sheer audacious look of things remains a wonder to behold. How ever did they pull it off?! (Look for the recent, 2010, Criterion DVD upgrade with much improved color consistency & picture sharpness.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Powell brought in composer Brian Easdale to write the insistently active, game-changing film score using lots of vocal murmurs in the orchestral mix for storm & emotional highlighting, very Verdi/RIGOLETTO.

DOUBLE-BILL: The Archers followed this up with the unjustly overlooked SMALL BACK ROOM starring this film’s levelheaded David Farrar going a little off and crazed nun Kathleen Byron now acting as steadying influence.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

THE BIG HANGOVER (1950)

A specialist in glossy relationship comedies for B’way & Hollywood, Norman Krasna would occasionally direct his scripts. His first try, PRINCESS O’ROURKE/‘43, is a modest charmer, but this second attempt is D.O.A., a strange, sour sort of comedy with an anti-discrimination message tucked in for importance. (In its social concerns, it’s got Dore Schary, new co-head of M-G-M, written all over it.) Here’s the comedy part: Van Johnson, new man at a clubby, high-end law firm, has returned from the war with an alcohol problem . . . he’s allergic to the stuff. Recovering from battlefield wounds in a monastery that blew up, he nearly drowned in the friars’ brandy reserves and now goes blotto from any sort of spirits. But in his new job, he’s caught the sympathetic eye of Elizabeth Taylor, daughter of the law firm head, and she takes him on as a personal project. Krasna doesn’t do much with this painfully unfunny set-up, and makes things worse with spatially inert staging and stop-and-start pacing from his entire cast. As if no one wanted to pick up their cue to deliver the next deathless witticism. Here’s the message part: the firm’s working for a client who wants to keep a perfectly acceptable Asian doctor (and his pregnant wife) out of a new & costly housing complex. Johnson looks jusifiably pained throughout, while Taylor has yet to find an adult acting manner (she’d locate it over her next two films, FATHER OF THE BRIDE/’50 and A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51). Slim pickings all ‘round, other than figuring out who’s the mystery man playing Taylor’s dad. He’s Percy Waram, a B’way regular with scores of stage credits, but very few film appearances. A most uncomfortable film actor, he must have been a stand-in for an unavailable William Powell who’d play Taylor’s dad in another dud, his M-G-M swansong, THE GIRL WHO HAD EVERYTHING/’53.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film’s hardly a success, but Johnson’s alcoholic WWII vet in BRIGADOON/’54 cuts much closer to the bone (even with minimal screen time) than he does here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)

After three sequels, a t.v. series and a new remake, it jolting to see John Sturges’ original (itself a redo in Western drag of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI) for the mediocrity it is. Occasionally, as in a sweeping action sequence with bandit horsemen riding thru town, or when the best of the gunmen hired to protect the town (Steve McQueen & James Coburn) try to top each other in sheer coolness (lanky Coburn walks away with it), you can see the fan appeal. But take away the famous Elmer Bernstein theme music (the sole magnificent thing in here*), and there’s a lot of dramatic dross and some surprisingly bad acting. Brad Dexter, forgettable as a dense fortune-hunting outlaw; Horst Buchholz, painfully inauthentic as the Mexican ‘Chico;’ Robert Vaughn, sincere in all the wrong ways. The remaining four certainly make their mark, but Eli Wallach’s villainous bandito still runs them off the screen. Likely it’s one of those films you need to see at the right impressionable age.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, the Kurosawa original (trimmed by nearly an hour in the Stateside release that inspired this remake); OR: Check out how the socio-political changes of the ‘60s helped Sam Peckinpah & Co. blow this to smithereens in THE WILD BUNCH/’69.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Marlboro Cigarettes imprinted Bernstein’s bold theme on a couple of generations, but his next Western score, THE COMANCHEROS/’61, may be even better.