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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

WILD, WILD PLANET (1966)

Hack megger Antonio Margheriti (credited as Anthony M. Dawson) made low-budget Sci-Fi in batches. This one, reportedly second of four, will prove enough for most! Released Stateside in ‘67, the distributor must have hoped for a bit of helpful tailwind coming off that new tv series. What was it called? Oh, yes, STAR TREK. Here, Tony Russell (the American ringer in an Italian cast) as Space Station Project Captain, finds his mission threatened by an evil researcher working for ‘The Corporations.’ Turns out they're kidnapping scientists and shrinking them down to the size of dolls (for easy carrying?) when not repurposing extra arms on zombie enforcers. Jeepers! SpaceAge model rockets, still with a whiff of rubber cement about them, pass for F/X here, and the film’s fight director apparently knew one (and only one) Ju-Jitsu move which is used over and over. Best of all are the uniforms & costumes which look like Mom helped out for the High School Musical. (Yes, musical, with a big dance number as part of the plot.) Alas, like too many of these things, it sounds more fun then it actually is, though you do get to see Franco Nero (as a junior officer) just before he leapt from micro-budgeted crap to a small role in John Huston’s macro-budgeted THE BIBLE/’66 and then lead hunk in Joshua Logan’s mega-flop CAMELOT/’67.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: From a year before, Mario Bava shows what a big imagination could make of a small Italian Sci-Fi budget in PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES/’65.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

LE SAMOURAÏ (1967)

With a trench-coat mantle, concealing & revealing sangfroid and undemonstrative threat, Alain Delon is all smooth legato lines under the crisp brim of his fedora as the nearly still, nearly silent contract killer in Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist (or is it reductio ad absurdum?) thriller. His adversary? Chief Detective François Périer, all unfocused staccato energy. But even Delon’s existential cool won’t get you past the finish line in Melville’s fatalistic world view. Instead, an understated, unforgettable frisson to the journey, laid out by the director in impeccably staged chase & release set pieces, caught in gorgeous subdued shades of mottled grey, taupe, pale blue, textured walls (and one shockingly red telephone) via Henri Dacaë’s plus-perfect lensing, visually a good decade and a half ahead of its time.* While on the soundtrack, a more than reasonable facsimile of Miles Davis stoppered jazz stylings between the insistent tweeting of a coal mine canary. Just right. With its grace, precision, inscrutable women, and air-tight illogical logic, the film is to Melville what VERTIGO is to Hitchcock.

DOUBLE-BILL: *See Dacaë bring his French New Wave ‘A’ game to the American commercial cinema in the preposterously enjoyable nonsense of THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL/’78.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)

Considering how influential this film was in kickstarting the ‘Spaghetti’ Western, the careers of director Sergio Leone & composer Ennio Morricone (billed here as Dan Savio), and in pulling Clint Eastwood up from small screen to large, they’ve sure taken their time putting out a decent edition! Bad old versions may still be about, but a proper restoration, made for the 2008 Blu-Ray, set things right all ‘round. The trouble likely stems from the original negative which used a cut-rate WideScreen process called TechniScope that loaded two images onto every frame of 35mm film. (Leone used it for all his Westerns.) The loaded image doubled the width by using only half the space on each negative frame (putting one picture on top of the other). It was then squeezed and printed for projection in full-frame 35mm anamorphic; ‘pushing’ the grain in unpleasant ways that made even new prints look like dupes. So, kudos to whomever returned to the original negative to get the most out of them; and kudos to the film for being worth the effort. Like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN/’60, it’s an Akira Kurosawa remake (YOJIMBO/’61, uncredited), redressed from Samurai Japanese to South-of-the-Border Western (filmed, of course, in Spain). The story gimmick is that Eastwood, an opportunistic stranger in a violently divided town, manages to sell his loyalty & info (sequentially) to both sides, carefully pocketing fees from each faction. Leone’s later films enlarged on the basic model with his considerable talents & personal style intact, but the bigger scale (in the physical production as well as in plots & less abstracted characterizations) could feel a bit calculated in comparison to this succinct beauty.

DOUBLE-BILL: Leone followed up with Eastwood in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE/’65, but it’s not really a sequel. Imagine your own by returning to Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO/’61 before watching that film’s even better actual sequel, SANJURO/’62.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015)

Expanding smoothly from gently anarchic kiddie tv to gently anarchic kiddie feature (written & directed by Mark Burton & Richard Starzak), SHAUN is also delightful for any grown-up in the room. Retaining a near silent-film format (think Jacques Tati: exaggerated sound effects/gibberish dialogue), the story travels from rural slapstick to urban chaos when a runaway caravan trailer takes The Farmer for a ride, crashing in the big city. Recovering, but now with a case of amnesia, The Farmer no longer recognizes his own sheep or even his loyal dog when they come to his rescue. Anyway, who wants to be rescued when your half-remembered sheep-shearing skills turn you into an instant celebrity hair-stylist? And while the animals are trying to jog his memory, the city’s chief of animal control is busy rounding up stray sheep & dogs. (In the ridiculously difficult world of clay-model stop-motion capture, this villain is an amazing piece of character animation.) Great fun, big laughs, the Aardman folks, doubling down on their split with DreamWorks, hold fast to alternating sly & broad eccentric British humor, as well as in their punishing handcrafted artisan technique. (Check out the Extras to see just how insanely labor-intensive the process is.) And if no single character in this pastoral crew can match the soulful empathy level of Gromit (the pooch with the creased brow in the WALLACE AND GROMIT adventures), the characters make a close race of it.

DOUBLE-BILL: The SHAUN tv series is a bit less polished, a bit more kid-oriented, but none the worse for it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

THE OUTFIT (1973)

John Flynn’s tight little crime thriller is a lot like a Don Siegel movie. Not just any Siegel film, mind you, but one of the greatest, CHARLEY VARRICK. Each a tale of dirty money inadvertently stolen from the mob with sympathetic robbers pursued by professional hit men; the films also share Joe Don Baker as co-star, plus Sheree North in sleazy support. And just to make sure no missed the resemblance, each got an October 1973 theatrical release. Who schedules these things? But if OUTFIT never reaches the unheralded masterpiece status of VARRICK, it’s still a dandy piece of modernized knowing noir filmmaking. Robert Duvall is all keyed up as a just released prisoner looking for payback after learning that his brother’s murder came on orders from high class mob chairman Robert Ryan. Partnered with girlfriend Karen Black & trusted sideman Joe Don Baker, they circle back to Ryan in a series of raids on his gambling ops. Flynn, or some clever casting agent, populates each step of the way with a classic noir character type (Elisha Cook Jr., Tim Carey, Henry Jones, Richard Jaeckel and Jane Greer & Marie Windsor in the same film!), all with something real to do, it's no nostalgia parade. Taken from a Donald Westlake novel (writing as Richard Stark and feeling a bit like Elmore Leonard), the downbeat locations are gritty and well-caught by regular Siegel lenser Bruce Surtees. With a shot list as plain & functional as a Siegel pic, though with a few dead compositions Siegel wouldn’t have let go by. It’s a strong little film, but Flynn rarely had a chance to show his best form after this.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, CHARLEY VARRICK/’73.

Friday, November 25, 2016

MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE (1983)

A brief Stateside vogue for writer/director Nagisa Ôshima climaxed with the notorious dick amputation that ended IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES/’76; limped by the ghostly eroticism of EMPIRE OF PASSION/’78 and was snuffed out in this elegantly composed WWII Prisoners-of-War oddity. The story, unexpectedly traditional, is all East-is-East/West-is-West cultural barriers as Japanese ideals & ideas of honor & suicide bump up against Western decency & principled wartime surrender. Oshima tries breaking the pattern by fetishizing the brutality of the Japanese camp guards & officers and by eroticizing a power struggle of model-worthy high cheek bones & square jaw-lines of Commanding Officer Ryuichi Sakamoto & undaunted new prisoner David Bowie. As camp facilitator/translator, Tom Conti tries to tamp things down, but is unable to cut thru sexual/psychological tensions barely perceived let alone acknowledged. The film might have worked somewhat better without Bowie, any presumed box-office appeal losing out as distraction. And while Bowie successfully took up many personalities acting out the role of Pop/Rock/Punk/Glam musician, regular acting gigs proved mostly beyond his range.

DOUBLE-BILL: Bryan Forbes’ KING RAT/’65, a Malaysian set WWII-P.O.W. tale, is stronger than many better-known films of this type. Structurally (if in no other way), George Segal & James Fox hold the Bowie & Conti spots, but the guy to watch to see what a real actor might have done with Bowie’s part is Tom Courtenay playing a by-the-book pain-in-the-arse prisoner. OR: See Bowie come off in the visually stylish if otherwise underwhelming ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS’86.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A DOUBLE LIFE (1947)

This superb psychological thriller is like a genre unto itself: Theatre Noir. Ronald Colman, after three decades as the screen’s most gentlemanly romantic idol, turns dark & threatening as a B’way star who closes a lightweight hit (actually called A GENTLEMEN’S GENTLEMAN) to test the depths of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO. But danger lies that way, since Colman tends to over-identify with his roles; a carefree fellow playing Boulevard Farce, he becomes tortured, even dangerous playing tragedy. A first collaboration between director George Cukor and married scripters Garson Kanin & Ruth Gordon, the combination brought out an exciting, experimental tone, especially from Cukor, visually freed from studio strictures and reveling in location shooting, arhythmic editing, daring long takes & stylized angles. Strongly abetted by lenser Milton Krasner & editor Robert Parrish, Cukor was able to concentrate on working his cast to a frenzy. The film is remarkably scary at times, and shows technically unexpected physical chops. An out-of-the-blue propulsive fight scene for Colman & publicity man Edmund O’Brien; and a shockingly blunt, brusque sexual pick-up of trampy, young Shelley Winters by Colman, working a vein of sexual entitlement rare in films of the time.* And note how smoothly the film morphs from rehearsal into performance with Colman’s Othello, generally thought underpowered by theatrical fashions of the day, holding up to stunning effect as a film assumption. Even his swarthy makeup as The Moor remains acceptably modern in today’s touchy P.C. environment. Less successful is the murder investigation which runs a little too smoothly with the OTHELLO connection conveniently brought out by the medical examiner. But it hardly detracts from the achievement here, and that includes Miklos Rozsa’s pulsating, award-winning score.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Typed as a “Women’s Director’ (read ‘closeted gay’), Cukor bristled at the dismissive title having guided James Stewart, Rex Harrison & Ronald Colman to Oscars®. (And Laurence Olivier to an Emmy.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Both Miklos Rozsa’s auto-bio and Patrick McGilligan’s Cukor bio carried the title (A) DOUBLE LIFE.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Winters claimed to have based her role on roommate at the time Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

RADIO DAYS (1987)

Warmhearted and buoyantly funny (gutbustingly so in the early parts), Woody Allen’s memoir pic is comically precise & believably messy, affectionately charting his extended family over the war years, celebrating their peculiarities as they bump into each other (physically & psychologically) in a modest 2-storey house, emotionally steadied by the Golden Age of Radio playing in the background. Underrated (and under-seen) at the time, it’s something of a ‘lost’ Allen film, but a beauty, a great entertainment that’s deepens as it goes along. And what a cast! From a well-preserved Kitty Carlisle Hart at the radio ‘mic’ to the young Seth Green as Woody the kid, there are scores of perfectly spotted performances at home and in some wonderful quick-sketch radio vignettes. (Though a glam cameo from Diane Keaton offers a rhythmically self-indulgently song arrangement that breaks period protocol.) With spiffy recreations that aren’t wallowed in, but handsomely caught on the fly by Carlo Di Palma, shooting the second of twelve Allen films. All wrapped up in a tight 80 minutes.

DOUBLE-BILL: This one resonates not only with auto-bio pics like Fellini’s AMARCORD/’73 and Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER/’82, but also with touchstone stories invested with personal significance by directors like Minnelli in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44, Welles on MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS’42 and Renoir for FRENCH CANCAN/’55.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

HARRY IN YOUR POCKET (1973)

An apparent vanity project (there's no other explanation) for tv writer/producer Bruce Geller of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE fame, it was (thankfully) his sole attempt at feature direction. How ultra-competent James Coburn got mixed up in this is a mystery. It’s shockingly bad (LOVE BOAT bad), though just barely worth a look to see the throw-in-the-towel DeadStop of an ending. Coburn plays a seen-it-all master pickpocket, working the streets in what ought to be photogenic cities with failing old-timer Walter Pidgeon; leggy Trish Van Devere, the gal who ‘stalls’ the target; and upstart protégé Michael Sarrazin, ‘the Kid.’ In another film, you might note that Sarrazin & Van De Vere are too old by a decade, but that hardly registers amid the general level of incompetence. Think the poster looks bad? Take a peak at the film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lenser Fred Koenekamp must have been a very accommodating fellow. His next feature was PAPILLON/’73 for the super professional Franklin Schaffner who he’d worked with on PATTON/’70.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET/’59 is not only the essential existential pickpocket pic, but also an easy way to come by CRIME AND PUNISHMENT!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

AVRIL ET LE MONDE TRUQUÉ / APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

If Hollywood’s working model on animated features tends toward homogenized over-development (think DreamWorks with their be-true-to-yourself dicta, larded with winks at Pop Culture for the parental units), here’s a French product that might have benefitted with more corporate think. So wildly unorganized, self-indulgent & individual, it skips logical progression & human emotion, loading on fistfuls of half-baked ideas. An alternate reality fable of a civilization stuck with 19th Century technology, its scientists (and their advances) have all disappeared, grabbed in the maw of lizard conspiracists. (Lizard Conspiracists!!) Now, they're trying to track down a rumored immortality serum that three generations of one family may have, along with their aging, unlikable cat. Toss in a big-nosed spy to fall for our young heroine chemist and you have the semblance of a plot.* Or would if less time were spent on chases past old or re-imagined Paris landmarks. (Two Eiffel Towers?) The animation technique is unable to add much shading to largely incompatible characters, so there’s little to do but admire the handsome draftsmanship on some background layouts and wonder how an animated cat can be so unappealing. Two stellar casts signed on for vocal duties; French-Language cast on the poster, English-Language dub includes Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon, Tony Hale & J. K. Simmons, all sounding unconvinced. On the other hand, in his feature debut, composer Valentin Hadjadj sounds entirely convinced in a promising score with a touch of Berlioz to it.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The bulk of the story takes place in alternate-realty Paris 1941; one way of dealing with the real reality of a Vichy government.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Taken from Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel; followers may be more enthusiastic . . . or perhaps not.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

(THE LITTLE WORLD OF) DON CAMILLO (1952)

Broad and warmly comic, novelist Giovanni Guareschi found satirical-humanistic gold charting the post-WWII political foibles & changes of an Italian town in the Po Valley where a newly elected Communist Mayor collides with his own best ‘frenemy,’ a tradition-bound, reactionary priest.* Director Julien Duvivier wisely lets the material speak for itself, in the manner of French rural specialist Marcel Pagnol (of FANNY fame), and the episodic structure of the story gathers strength & believability as you grow familiar with the pragmatic quirks behind the characters’ stubborn facades. With every township decision a Right-Wing/Left-Wing standoff, the story only finds its footing midway in, when a work stoppage between the landowners and the field workers leaves the town’s livestock untended and suffering. A tragedy in the making, it forces Gino Cervi’s mayor and Fernandel’s priest to break into the communal barn and work together. Naturally, there’s also a Romeo & Juliet (or rather Pyramus & Thisbe) affair of the heart to bring everyone together, with Franco Interlenghi, one of De Sica’s SHOESHINE boys involved. But the film truly belongs to French character-star Fernandel, physically & comedically commanding whether he’s talking with Jesus (naturally, its a two-way conversation) or taking on a truckload of Reds brought in from the city. Filmed in both French and Italian, a restored version of the Italian-language version from KOCH-Lorber is the easiest to get a hold of. A double set with THE RETURN OF DON CAMILLO/’53, first of many sequels; not without its moments, but what was once broad is now forced, missing the first film’s distinctive earth-flavored charm.)

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Don Camillo films may lean a bit to the Left, but Guareschi himself pulled sharply Right, as can be seen in LA RABBIA/’63, a piece of crap essay-challenge film for Guareschi and film auteur manqué Paolo Pasolini.

Friday, November 18, 2016

DEKIGOKORO / PASSING FANCY (1933)

Well observed, if modest silent dramedy from a young, yet already experienced Yasujirô Ozu hangs a classic no-fool-like-an-old fool romance on a series of neighborhood relationship stories to excellent effect. Not yet old, but no longer young, brewery worker Kihachi is a single dad with a hard to handle ten-yr-old son (Tomio) and a best pal/drinking bud in Jiro, his handsome co-worker. Trouble strikes two ways when they rescue a pretty homeless girl (Harue) with a job at their local hangout and once more when the boy becomes sick. Girl trouble because Kihachi falls for the pretty waif, but she only has eyes for Jiro. Kid trouble when Tomio eats so many sweets he winds up in hospital. Naturally, all this works itself out in the end, but the script keeps things lively & intelligent while Ozu does wonders bringing up details that help the old tropes ring true. Starting right from the opening, when a storyteller recital finds the camera lowering its gaze to focus on a dropped empty pocketbook, stolen again & again by hopeful members of the audience. And note that eye patch on the boy. In any other film, it would foreshadow blindness or a brain tumor. But for Ozu, it’s just an eye patch; any presumed infection disappears without comment between scenes. (The kid's tummy troubles are self-inflicted via candy-buying spree.) Or later in the film when Jiro, who’s long refused to admit any feelings toward Harue, finally owns up to the obvious. Ozu, covering the exchange in a series of reverse angles between Harue & Jiro, purposefully places Jiro on the ‘wrong’ side of the frame, but only when he finally blurts out the truth. Ozu: filmmaker nonpareil.

DOUBLE-BILL: Of twenty previous films from Ozu, most are either hard to see or lost. But there’s already a masterpiece to his credit in I WAS BORN, BUT . . . /’32.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

ERCOLE SFIDA SANSONE / HERCULES, SAMSON AND ULYSSES (1963)

Having gained a Stateside fan base for Italian ‘Sword & Sandal’ pics in 1958 with Steve Reeves as HERCULES, director Pietro Francisci wound up the cycle with this relentlessly silly, unexpectedly fun triple-threat Greco-Judaic nonsense. A tasty storyline has Hercules & Co. shipwrecked by a sea monster, then washing ashore in Judea. The beefcake boys just want to sail home, but when Hercules bests a lion with only his bare hands, the evil occupying Philistines mistake him for their shadowy archenemy Samson. Now, Hercules’ only hope to prove his innocence and get back to Ithaca is to catch the real Samson for the King. Tough going, especially since the real Samson thinks this oddly dressed hunk o’ flesh is a Philistine spy hiding in Greek clothing! So much more becoming than his Hebraic loin rags! All this, plus the fleshly temptation of a deceitful, bathing Delilah!! The action is cleanly handled; effects (pasteboard rocks for throwing, scale model temples awaiting destruction) amusing if not exactly convincing, the musclemen yeasty; narrative structure remarkably assured; dubbing no worse than expected. As Hercules, Kirk Morris, though beardless, has the physique & expression of the Greek God of Lightning in Disney’s FANTASIA/’40; Iloosh Khoshabe (going by the name Richard Lloyd) makes Samson something of a lug, while Enzo Cerusico’s Ulysses is delicate & a little fey compared to the rest of the crew. Hey, it’s a long voyage.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If Hercules really needed to prove he wasn’t Samson, a quick peek ‘below deck’ would reveal the uncircumcised evidence, no?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

BLOW OUT (1981)

Fiercely admired, fiercely reviled, Brian De Palma’s first mature work has dated alarmingly, disappointing on all fronts. Commercially snubbed on its release (it began a 13-yr career purgatory for star John Travolta), the film is self-indulgently over-stuffed, with an inappropriately snarky tone in story, character, design & technique. Writing & directing, De Palma laces this paranoid political conspiracy thriller with echoes of BLOW UP/’66 and its offspring THE CONVERSATION/’74; Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick incident and the Zapruder JFK assassination film; a soft-core slasher opening that’s parody De Palma and more parody De Palma in the film proper. Withal the technical finesse, those long swooping shots & split screen angles, more onanistic than purposeful, he still needs to force-feed a wobbly plot. And so many unplayable character types! Travolta (as a sound effects man who accidentally records a hush-hush murder) and lead villain John Lithgow sound like amateurs. Still, better than Nancy Allen (Mrs. De Palma at the time) as a tart who gets in over her head, a role so insipid it rates as spousal abuse. And that’s not even counting the sick-joke tag-ending that must have sent De Palma home with a chuckle. At least, Vilmos Zsigmond’s lensing still glitters even as regular De Palma composer Pino Donaggio comes apart at the seams. This one’s best left to memory.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Early De Palma remains well served by PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE/’74 while the mature filmmaker he might have become is occasionally glimpsed in CARLITO’S WAY/’93.

Monday, November 14, 2016

AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)

Though it inevitably lacks the element of surprise found in the original THIN MAN/’34 (a bantering, debonair married couple casually mixing drinks & detective chores was something new on the screen), and runs an extra two reels, the second of five sequels to the sleeper hit is easily the best of the follow ups; and may have the best murder mystery of the lot. Pet pooch Asta loses dignity in a few forced comic bits, but everything else is neatly trimmed thanks to a smart/funny script from married writers Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, along with W. S. ‘Woody’ Van Dyke’s straight-ahead megging. And such an excellent cast of character actors for suspects when a wayward husband gets bumped off. Special fun from a young James Stewart & George Zucco sporting a pair of coke-bottle lenses. (Though Jessie Ralph, fine enough as soul-weary servants & loyal nannies, never convinces in her grand dowager roles.) Good as Myrna Loy & William Powell are at juggling Nick & Nora’s marital partnership (Loy a wonderful sport about everything, very modern), Powell’s the key in hiking these little films into something out of the ordinary. With the most precise technique in the biz, apt for comedy or drama, he never puts a foot wrong, consistently doubling results using half the effort of anyone else in town.

DOUBLE-BILL: In addition to the six THIN MAN pics, Powell & Loy co-starred in six more films. Try LIBELED LADY/’36 from the same year as AFTER, with Powell’s real-life romantic interest (Jean Harlow) paired with Spencer Tracy.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

THE QUIET GUN (1957)

This little Western with Forrest Tucker as Town Sheriff has a decent physical production and a neatly structured story about a land grab disguised as racial ‘cleansing.’ But it comes up awfully flat with a largely faceless cast & paceless direction from tv megger William F. Claxton. (Someone should have introduced him to side angles.) The opening shows promise as gunman Lee Van Cleef rides into town and roughs up stable-hand Hank Worden. If only the scene were better connected to a plot that has the town elders running a ranch owner off his land for 'living in sin' with a Native American mistress. Sheriff Tucker smells a set up, but he’s also concerned about the rancher’s estranged wife, coming in on the stagecoach and, for him, the girl that got away. If only someone was around to make a movie out of the thing. Claxton (or perhaps vet lenser John Mescall) comes up with a dandy camera position right at the end for a long one-take shootout, but it’s the only memorable composition in the pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: From Hollywood’s Department of Tall Tales: Did Forrest Tucker really have the biggest schlong in old Hollywood? Stories tell of Mario Lanza pulling his out at restaurants to whack his wanger on the table. John Ireland lost screen time on RED RIVER after Howard Hawks got word of him ‘showing off.’ Desi Arnaz & Milton Berle also have their supporters. But only Forrest Tucker was known to putt with his; dropping to his knees on the golf course to take a swing. (Sure, he had to lean forward a bit, but still . . . )

Saturday, November 12, 2016

TERRORE NELLA SPAZIO / PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965)

In a break from his horror speciality, Italian cult director Mario Bava slips into lowball Sci-Fi with this atmospheric thriller. Loaded with visual & story elements that would later be seen in STAR TREK and ALIEN, then closing on a meta-twist ‘reveal’ Rod Serling might have used in a TWILIGHT ZONE, Bava easily overcomes his starvation budget with imaginative color zones and some suspiciously spacious space modules. (In Space No One Can See You Wax The Floor!) With a nifty (dubbed) multi-national cast and an American ‘ringer’ in Barry Sullivan to assure Stateside financing. The set-up finds two spaceships answering a distress call on a dying planet. But soon the crews are also going south, only to find themselves reanimated as ‘host bodies’ for what’s left of the local population. (More like PLANET OF THE ZOMBIES!) Darn effective in its way, with Bava in very good form.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ridley Scott swears he never saw or heard of this film. But see ALIEN/’79 yourself to compare. (The prologue is still tremendous stuff.)

Friday, November 11, 2016

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)

Writer/director Philip Kaufman was hitting the sweet-spot of his maddeningly unproductive career when he took Tom Wolfe’s book on the ‘Mercury’ astronauts, encircled it with longing glances at Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier*, and galvanized it all into a Pop epic. Long, but fabulous, it’s beautifully paced (or was on the big screen, home viewing requires a touch more concentration), its commercial failure remains a mystery. (Was it the quick shifts in tone, from inspirational to snarky, ironic/satiric before going full heroic?) The cast is a spot-on miracle, from Sam Shepard’s Gary Cooper of a Chuck Yeager (ridiculously sexy against Barbara Hershey), to the Mercury 7 (Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn & Ed Harris standouts . . . and so young!). Even the wives, loyal & frustrated, are deftly particularized for a change; plus a breakthrough perf from a strikingly funny Jeff Goldblum. With production design & Caleb Deschanel’s lensing nailing period verisimilitude, it’s wildly nostalgic for any LIFE Magazine subscriber. The one chink in the armor is Bill Conti’s less than stellar score. Nothing wrong using real Holst & Debussy, but his own music is more like ‘The Derivative Stuff,’ including a main theme Glazanov might have claimed.* But not enough to hurt things, the film’s too playful & exciting to be held down.

LINK/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Producers Robert Chartoff & Irwin Winkler had used Conti on ROCKY/’76. (This film got him a payback Oscar®.) He’s an unimaginably square choice for Kaufman, lifting Holst & Debussy when he’s not tweaking Glazanov for an ‘original’ main theme. Here's Glazanov: The Seasons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTycARujjd0 
Here's Conti: RIGHT STUFF Main Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ges3kx7hoUQ

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Everything involving Yeager & the cadre of speed demon test pilots plays like a newfangled Howard Hawks flyboy pic. Try ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

WALT DISNEY: ON THE FRONT LINES (1941-45)

Fascinating & unique, this 2-disc set of WWII Disney animated shorts, plus the feature film VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER/’43, entertains and grabs you by the era. The shorts come divided into war-themed theatrical releases with popular Disney characters (Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, Chip & Dale), along with more straightforward instructional fare, some aimed North to Canada, others looking to the Southern Americas. The remastering is exceptional, everything pops off the screen, with seemingly bland topics (hygiene, food, taxes) given spoonfuls of sugar to make them didactic fun. A final section has some truly remarkable shorts including EDUCATION FOR DEATH (about Nazi-indoctrinated schoolkids) and REASON AND EMOTION, a near test run for the recent INSIDE OUT/’15. The feature film (VICTORY) is more artifact of its day, but hardly without historical & graphic interest. An imaginatively rendered lecture/proposal from author Alexander P. De Seversky (with boldly stylized animated examples to make the argument), fronted by a more cartoony prologue (History of Aviation). His theory?; switch the war from a ground to a passing game (a football analogy the artists surprisingly don’t pick up on); and a plea to unify Army & Navy Air Forces into their own separate unit. Like everything in here, it’s both entertaining & informative. And those animated shorts seem less directly aimed at kids then would soon become Disney norm as the cultural Zeitgeist began shifting from Disney’s pioneering art to the antiauthoritarian cast of characters led by Bugs Bunny @ Warners.

DOUBLE-BILL: With AIR POWER dedicated to military aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell, try Gary Cooper in Otto Preminger’s reasonably effective THE COURT-MARSHALL OF BILLY MITCHELL/’55.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note the short shrift given to Charles Lindbergh (newly controversial/unpopular as a war-time isolationist) in the animated history of aviation segment.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

THE CAREY TREATMENT (1972)

Everybody was running away from this one. Michael Crichton used a pseudonym on his novel; award-winning scripters Harriet Frank & Irving Ravetch, working with tv specialist John D. F. Black, jointly became the fictitious James P. Bonner; and director/co-producer Blake Edwards, after trying to back out, failed at having his name removed. Studio interference drove them to it (a typically crisis-ridden M-G-M), and for sure the film hopscotches thru its medical murder mystery to unsatisfying result, but not without a certain flair & oddball charm. James Coburn, cool, laid-back pathologist at a top Boston Med Center, falls into hospital politics, romance with dietician Jennifer O’Neill and investigating an illegal abortion gone wrong pinned on surgeon pal James Hong by hard-nosed detective Pat Hingle. (In truth, Hingle has a rather blobby nose.) Coburn’s interactions as amateur sleuth with the crusty Hingle are the best thing in here, they could have done a series together. There’s also some fun to be had ticking off the mores & attitudes on display of early 1970s middle-aged hipster lifestyle. (Hint: both amusing and embarrassing.) Edwards may have been miserable on the shoot, but he can’t help but turn out a slippery smooth product, even when forced to have Coburn scare the truth out of two lying gals as the wind up to Act Two and Act Three. A bit more variety might have helped hide the narrative seams & lacunae.

DOUBLE-BILL: Edwards book-ended this non-starter with two of his least appreciated pics, low-pitched Western WILD ROVERS/’71 and ruminative spy romance THE TAMARIND SEED/’74, both still waiting to be rediscovered.

Monday, November 7, 2016

CONVOY (1978)

All but unemployable due to health and addiction issues, to say nothing of the commercial & critical reception of his last four films (including a masterpiece in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA/’74), Sam Peckinpah signed up to direct this concept-looking-for-a-script package. (It had a hit song & the C.B. radio craze behind it.*) There’s something immensely sad seeing Peckinpah ape SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT/’77, even one with existential/nihilistic tendencies. (Or is it WHITE LINE FEVER/’75 meets BILLY JACK/’71?) The story, such as it is, has Ernest Borgnine’s Southern Sheriff out for revenge against a gaggle of truckers after he triggers a big bar fight with a racial insult. For some inexplicable reason, the truckers’ rebellion starts a Statewide populist uprising and scores of big rigs join in. The whole shebang doesn’t make a lick of sense, but at least some of the wrecks are well-staged. (But by whom? One dandy sequence has two big rigs making a sandwich out of a cop's car). On the other hand, the big fight scene that initiates all the to-do, which Peckinpah belabored over for a week, is like an inert parody of one his classic violence ballets, with pointless slo-mo punches & Hee-Haw comic reaction shots. Some of this is harmless fun, or is before an appalling cop-out of a tag-ending. With Ali MacGraw not quite so bad as you recall, Kris Kristofferson flaunting a long, lean torso and lenser Harry Stradling Jr fetishizing it between equally eye-catching vistas of trucks stretching to the horizon. All accompanied by a feeling of terrible cinematic waste.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Jonathan Demme’s much-praised/little-seen HANDLE WITH CARE (aka CITIZEN’S BAND)/’77 found a way to develop the C.B. radio craze into humanist comedy.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

SPLIT SECOND (1953)

THE PETRIFIED FOREST meets . . . THE ATOMIC BOMB!! No joke, that’s the deal in this Dick Powell directed hostage drama, his first megging. Stephen McNally finds a few unexpected nooks & crannies playing a vicious escaped killer who holes up in an old, deserted town right next to Ground Zero in tomorrow’s nuclear test. Yikes! He’s got two prison pals in tow, one with a bullet in his gut, and a gaggle of hostages he’s picked up on the way: including Reno-bound Alexis Smith, newsman Keith Andes, old prospector Arthur Hunnicutt, plus Jan Sterling’s drifter of easy virtue & Richard Egan, arriving late as Smith’s estranged husband, both in standout perfs. It all looks & plays a bit like '50s 'Golden Age' Television, though not in a bad way, and when the bomb hits, appears to incorporate some actuality footage seen in various documentaries about early nuclear tests. (A pre-fabricated ‘ghost’ town gets it.) The times were a’changin’ then and the script seems blissfully unaware of the extent of nuclear Fall-Out.* Radio announcements suggest locals go to their roofs to see the FLASH from the device. Yikes!

DOUBLE-BILL/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Nuclear Fall-Out indeed! Powell’s next as director, THE CONQUEROR/’56, was shot infamously close to a real-life nuclear testing zone and is now often cited in the long-term cancer prognoses for each of it’s four top-billed stars: John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz & Agnes Moorehead.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

THE ROBE (1953)

From an article with ROBE director Henry Koster fawning over 20th/Fox’s new WideScreen format:

With CinemaScope, a director is at last free of the camera and has an unparalleled chance to demonstrate his ability to move actors logically and dramatically. Now, more than ever before in motion pictures, he has room in which to work. He no longer has to worry about cramped action because of the hampering restrictions imposed on him by the camera. Now he doesn’t have to worry about ‘dolly shots’ and ‘pan shots’ and ‘boom shots’ and all the other camera movements; he is free to concentrate on the chief task of drawing superb performances from his players. (New Screen Techniques/Quigley Publishing 1953)

It goes on like this, a paean to the nullification of film technique. And, true to his word, there’s an hour & a half of pageant-like staging before he tries an action scene (a none too convincing sword fight), and a remarkable two hour wait before we get a close-up. In Koster’s defense, the article was almost certainly generated by the publicity department (he may have read it), and the limited ‘scope lenses available to cinematographer Leon Shamroy were restricting. (Curved frame edges, false depth of field impression, CinemaScope engendered ‘mumps’ on full-face close-ups, significant grain deterioration on optical printer effects.) At least film-goers didn’t get those 3D headaches. And the film? It’s not too far removed from the recent QUO VADIS/’51, with a few gender swaps, but it’s still early Christians in Rome, a couple of daring rescues, religious conversions, martyrdom . . . and that eponymous robe. Who knew Jesus offered salvation and a McGuffin? Richard Burton’s career boosting perf now looks very mannered; everyone around him defers to his grandeur and come off the better for it. And while Koster doesn’t hold to total renunciation of cinematic technique, he still runs the sorriest rescue e’re put on film as Burton & Co. tiptoe in to save Victor Mature from a Roman torture chamber.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Some of the very early CinemaScope pics really took flight on those huge movie palace screens. The sheer size put them over in a manner even the largest home video unit can’t accomplish. Still, this one’s awfully stiff.

DOUBLE-BILL: The quickly made follow up, DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS/’54 is sillier, shorter, a little looser.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Composer Alfred Newman reuses two major music cues out of his own score for THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME/’39. First in the rescue sequence mentioned above he makes like Korngold, then right at the end, with a magnificent 1 minute Hallelujah he first used to back Quasimodo as he saved Esmeralda. Except, he may not have written this brief, stupendous music cue which was also claimed by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ernst Toch. Studio violinist Louis Kaufman, who played all over town before switching to a concert career, supported Toch’s claim. But equally damning is how Newman reused the theme at least two times, like a dog pissing on something to claim ownership. THE ROBE slightly rearranges the cue and it’s also found in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE/’43. Here’s a link to a modern recording of the original arrangements. Rescue sequence at 12:20; Hallelujah at 24;40. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10ep6aaABpQ

Friday, November 4, 2016

PURSUED (1947)

This unusual Raoul Walsh Western, from a psychologically twisted original screenplay by Niven Busch, has the mood & tone of one of those relocated Greek Tragedies Eugene O’Neill set in 1800s New England. But shorter. Still pretty talky though, which doesn’t always play into Walsh’s strengths for action & slow burn violence. Robert Mitchum is very strong as an orphan boy, raised by Judith Anderson with her two as one of her own. But as Mitchum grows up, trouble comes his way from inside & out. INSIDE the ranch, he’s destined to marry adopted sister Teresa Wright (too nice for the role’s neurotic sexual angle*) and to grapple for ownership rights with a jealous adopted brother carrying an incestuous chip on his shoulder. OUTSIDE the ranch, one-armed Dean Jagger is waiting to have his revenge for some unspeakable past family incident Mitchum can only recall in fitful dreams. (You know it’s plenty bad since Jagger’s missing arm functions as a castration substitute.) It’s all put together with tremendous brio by Walsh and with staggering cinematography by James Wong Howe, heavy on various infrared shooting techniques. (Look close for a thrill of an edit as a window shade is pulled down and an armed man comes in on the cut.) Max Steiner’s score is a bit oblivious to what’s going on under the surface, and a few soundstage exteriors hurt the cause, but the film is just too intriguing to shake off.

DOUBLE-BILL: The sexual tension Teresa Wright can’t quite summon is all over DUEL IN THE SUN/’46, from the novel by this film's author Niven Busch. But Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND/’45, with its big psychological mystery ‘reveal,’ also comes into play. Both films produced by psychiatrist-addicted David O. Selznick.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *But if Teresa Wright is wrong, who’d be right? Barbara Stanwyck?, perfect but too mature in 1947. Anne Baxter?, Oscar’d that year for RAZOR’S EDGE; Susan Hayward (from SMASHED/’47); or Gloria Grahame (in CROSSFIRE/’47), both earning Oscar noms. Any ideas?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A FOOL THERE WAS (1915)

Theda Bara was a vamping sensation in this cautionary tale, stealing happy husbands from hearth & home; sucking them dry; moving on to the next victim. And Fox Films knew what they had, sticking Bara into ten more films that year, with legit directors like Herbert Brenon & Raoul Walsh, all now lost. Only FOOL, from little known helmer Frank Powell, survives, but it’s probably enough; when you've seen one disdainful look from Bara, you've seen them all. (Even if Powell’s aversion to anything but medium-full shots keeps them from having a proper effect.) It’s really rather an odd little film, skipping from shipboard meeting to Italian debauch without stopping for dancing, dinner or courtship. Instead, we get occasional title cards to remind us that it’s ‘Six Months Later;’ or ‘One Week Later.’ We only see the illicit couple having a perfectly lousy time of it; whatever was the attraction? The best moments show up early, as when Bara’s spurned lover suicides on an ocean liner she’s taking solely to follow her latest target. She even insists on positioning her deck chair directing on top of the blood-stained wood to be near her new mark. Quite the ghoulish touch. At least the film avoids a late moral awakening/redemption for the philandering husband to reunite with his family. An uncompromising touch that probably helped make this one stick.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Greta Garbo’s early Hollywood films perfected this man-devouring character. FLESH AND THE DEVIL/’27 is the best known, but try the deliriously sinful THE TEMPTRESS/’26, with normally staid megger Fred Niblo brought to a boil. (And in excellent shape on a TCM-Archives DVD collection of Garbo Silents.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

BLAST OF SILENCE (1961)

Before heading to L.A. and a life directing vapid tv shows (BRADY BUNCH; CHARLIE’S ANGELS); Brooklyn-born Allen Baron somehow managed to write, direct & take the lead in this sharp, micro-budgeted crime pic. Often lumped with early John Cassevettes, the film is a better match with the earlier streetwise films of Morris Engel, like LITTLE FUGITIVE/’53, in both location work & indie manners; its ‘60s Yuletide street scenes nicely caught by producer/lenser Merrill Brody. And hardly a trace of Cassevettes’ house-style Method Acting Exercising from the semi-pro cast. Baron, looking like a junior George C. Scott, plays a Cleveland-based hitman on a job in Manhattan taking out a mid-level mob guy. But casing the joint leaves him too much free time and he runs into an old school pal from orphanage days; and worse, the guy’s sister he once had a crush on. It throws him off his professional routine. A bit thin, even at 80 minutes, Baron piles on pulpy authorial narration as filler, and it’s pretty ripe stuff.* But the film has something good going on most of the time, and a tasty jazz score to carry you to the next downbeat location when it doesn’t.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/DOUBLE-BILL: *Narration read by an uncredited Lionel Stander and written by Waldo Salt under a pseudonym, both men BlackListed at the time. Salt, working under his own name, would gain an Oscar® working similar territory on MIDNIGHT COWBOY/’69.