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Saturday, December 31, 2016

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940)

Golden-Age Hollywood meets Jane Austen in this highly massaged, but very entertaining, reduction of the novel, revised by (of all people) Aldous Huxley from a stage adaptation. Everything happens at once here, with characterizations bumped up (or flattened if you’re a stickler) into easily readable ‘types.’ Yet it certainly works on its own terms, unexpectedly zippy for an M-G-M prestige package from director Robert Z. Leonard. It's also exceptionally well-shot by Karl Freund (whose meager credit listing is more like a snub) and hilariously costumed as a series of Regency gaffes by Adrian. (Greer Garson gets a reprieve in a sort of hunting outfit with a plaid sash late in the going.) The basic story remains: Five dowry-poor Bennett girls in a home they’re about to lose; fresh beaux in town, rich dandies & dashing officers; class divisions, parental complications; and witty observations for the opposites attract lead couple. Narrative streamlining dampens the Austen tone, emphasizing sweet, minimizing sour, but the range of personalities comes over, with two great comic vulgarians in Mary Boland’s cunningly transparent Mother Bennett, and Edna May Oliver’s dowager dragon-lady. Plus spectacular disdain, yielding (a bit too quickly) to gobsmacked rapture from Laurence Olivier's Mr. Darcy, getting effects thru precise enunciation others couldn’t achieve with a three-page soliloquy. As the pretty sister, Maureen O’Sullivan is . . . very pretty; and even Garson comes within striking distance of an actual human being. (Though that lady-like vocal tone of hers could curdle a glass of sherry.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Having run out of Austen titles to adapt (or re-adapt), producers now turn to spin-offs. Zombie Jane Austen? Really? So why hasn’t someone thought to follow Lydia Bennett in her mad flight to London, without benefit of marriage, to that Mr. Wickham blackguard?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Herbert Stothart, least interesting of major studio Hollywood music directors, was still swiping classical music tags long after his peers had largely abandoned the practice. It often feels like cheating, but here, in a coach racing scene, a lift from Smetana’s THE BARTERED BRIDE is apt & funny.

Friday, December 30, 2016

THE IRON GIANT (1999)

After a disappointing first-run, Brad Bird’s debut animation feature caught on well beyond any usual cult following, mainstreaming its way into a brief theatrical re-release in a slightly extended ‘Signature Edition.’ The extra five minutes are fine, if you even notice them as the film still starts with a striking prologue bringing our eponymous robot down from space to a storm at sea, and still has a bit of trouble finding its sweet spot getting past some generic exposition & relationship gags between single mom & young son. Of course, we know that Boy & Iron Monster will bond after they ‘meet cute’ and spend half the film hiding out from authorities as they get to know each other. But the film’s special tone comes less from story development than in the warm, evocative hand-drawn look Bird brings to 1950s small-town & countryside Maine; and the complications that arise when we learn that the Giant isn’t merely a weaponized robot, but an actual weapon, now painfully becoming a weapon with a conscience. It gives the film an emotional & intellectual tug rarely found in films aimed at kids . . . or anyone. And with the loveliest of tag-endings.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Heavy DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51 influence in here. Composer Michael Kamen even notes that Bird had Bernard Herrmann music on the temp track when he first saw the pic. Mostly from EARTH? Maybe Warners will put out a Bernard Herrmann edition.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

L'AVEU / THE CONFESSION (1970)

Perhaps because it wasn't as imitated as Z (his 1969 breakthrough political thriller), Costa-Gavras’ admirable, if less-known follow-up now seems the more original work.* A fact-based saga on early ‘50s Communist ‘Show Trials’ in Prague, based on a memoir from Lise & Artur London, it cultivates slow-burn horror rather than Z’s escalating kinetic tension. Yves Montand again has the lead, co-starring with wife Simone Signoret, he’s a high-ranking Party Minister caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of false accusations launched by a chain of command running back to an aging, paranoid Stalin. The narrative structure dabbles in non-linear elements, but mostly sticks to Montand as he is brought into isolated detention and systematically worked over (physically & psychologically) for incremental incriminating confessions, ‘evidence’ for use against a raft of mostly Jewish top officials. The film is all tiny details, pain & pacing, with Costa-Gavras keeping us appalled & at attention. And not without an undertow of absurdist black humor, especially when Montand’s main interrogator (a superbly amoral Gabriele Feretti) decides to freshen up his client’s looks before trial with booster shots and a sun lamp during practice sessions. Of course, Costa-Gavras can’t answer the ultimate question: why such loyalty to a systemically cracked system? His philosophical thinking tends toward action, instinct & personal motivation, not conceptual depth. But on its own terms, this is strikingly good.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The rep on the third in this Political Thriller trio, STATE OF SIEGE/’72, is more didactic/less controlled. No doubt, it deserves a fresh look.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE GREEN PASTURES (1936)

When Marc Connelly’s ‘All-Colored’ Old Testament fable finally made it to DVD, it came with a warning foreword on the film’s racial stereotypes. (One of a series of releases to display it.) But unless you take exception to the word ‘Negro,’ the film, though very much of its day, is unlikely to offend, retaining much of its original charm & wide-eye naiveté as it re-imagines Biblical stories thru the eyes of a little girl at Sunday School, dictated by her own life experience. (Chaplin did much the same when his Tramp imagined heaven in THE KID/'21)  Not an up-to-date treatment; how could it be?; why should it be?, but loaded with substantial opportunities for Black talent rare at the time. As film artifact, it’s less in the tradition of ’30s All-Black productions like PORGY AND BESS (opening that year on B’way), CABIN IN THE SKY or THE ‘HOT’ MIKADO; more in line with Warner Bros. hankering for a prestige stage spectacular a la the Shakespeare/Reinhardt A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM/’35. As with that production, an original stage director co-megged with a more tech savvy film director (here Connelly & William Keighley); each was atmospherically shot by Hal Mohr; both with Erich Wolfgang Korngold on music (in DREAM, arranged Mendelssohn, here just two short cues - THE CREATION and THE FLOOD between spirituals from the Johnson Hall Choir); and both films turning up among the year’s top-grossers. (MIDSUMMER’s flop rep was due to excessive expense.) The show doesn’t avoid a sentimental/condescending view of poor Southern Blacks, built not only into the material, but into the Progressive fabric of the day, yet too effective & affectionate to read as cultural putdown.

DOUBLE-BILL: Three of the leads (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Rex Ingram & the marvelous Oscar Polk) are also in Vincente Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY/’43, so too the Johnson Hall Choir.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The last Warners release to have a Black lead must have been BIG BOY/’30, a mere six years back, yet starring Al Jolson in BlackFace.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

AMORE MIO AIUTAMI / HELP ME, MY LOVE (1969)

Italy’s Alberto Sordi directs himself in this commercial comedy meant largely for local consumption. And it’s just that provincial outlook that gives this minor dramedy both its modest interest and its cultural limitations. Sordi, rich & happily married to Monica Vitti, is shocked to hear her confess to loving another man. It’s a secret; even from the handsome guy she’s fallen for, but still throws Sordi’s rational, modern husband for a loop. A real love affair might burn itself out, but undeclared passion is a shadow forever. Someone’s got to tell the third party. Even if it has to be Sordi! A fine set-up for marital discord, and Sordi & Vitti (showing unexpected physical comedy chops) are swell, but the film feels uncomfortable in all the wrong ways. Not so much in its sticky situations, but in its making. Sordi, even with Carlo Di Palma lensing, tends to work too close, with angles that won’t cut. Worse, after his big (non)confrontation with the (non)lover, a darkening tone (slaps & beatings for wife & son, a downbeat ending) feels dramatically unsupported. Still, not without interest, thematically and as evidence of declining standards in late-‘60s commercial Italian cinema.

DOUBLE-BILL: Stateside baby-boomers may recall Sordi from THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES/’/’65. Get to know him properly in classic Fellini I VITELLONI/’53 or classic Lattuada MAFIOSO/’62.

Monday, December 26, 2016

THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963)

Generally considered the runt of the litter in a weak period of Disney animation, this soggy adaption, from the once (if not so future) T. H. White version of Arthurian legends, covers the adolescent years of kingly tutoring with eccentric wizard Merlin. The visual gimmick, which should have fit like an animated glove, has sorcery transmogrify young Arthur into various animals for life-lessons in unique POVs (fish, squirrel, bird). Yet there’s little magical about them: colors tasteful & dull; comedy tacked on or generic; songs unhummable; lots of talk/little action; and unimaginative smoke bombs for the transformations. Even the famous sword pull goes for little. And the DVD makes it easy to see exactly what’s missing by including a great late-‘30s Mickey Mouse short, BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR/’38. Vivid TechniColor, pacey excitement, richly comic action with a winning narrative push, and Fred Moore’s superb iteration of the pre-refined Mickey (see sketch sheet - click to enlarge).

With Walt Disney himself doing far more (falsetto) vocal work as Mickey than usual, it's a one-reel tour-de-force.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: King Arthur & Co. show up in too many disappointing films to keep track of. Best bet remains Jon Boorman’s EXCALIBUR/’82, a sort of hippy-commune take on Camelot, studded with Wagnerian motifs. Or there’s Robert Bresson’s severe LANCELOT DU LAC/’74, a Knights of the Round Table for intellectual cine-masochists.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979)

With a typically blunt, self-evident title, this late Don Siegel film is a fact-inspired paradigm of his signature no-frills æsthetic. Clint Eastwood, perfectly cast as a new prisoner on the fortress-like isle, there after escaping from other establishments, is determined to do the impossible: get out. The film, sticking to a moderate pace as it moves steadily forward (like a great conductor holding the tempo on Ravel’s BOLERO), refuses facile acceleration to force tension; instead, putting its faith in dispensing or withholding just the information needed to gain the desired effect. How Siegel got this out of newbie scripter Richard Tuggle (only two credits after this) is something of a mystery for this most unsung of American film masters. Bruce Surtees, who did a lot of late Siegel (and early Eastwood), puts out beautiful steely images though the DVD long available from Paramount needs an upgraded transfer to clean up some dark, murky sequences and its non-anamorphic WideScreen. The cast could hardly be bettered, with a big career bump for Fred Ward as a fellow escapee, and a masterful piece of work from an alarmingly good Patrick McGoohan as the cold-blooded warden.* With fat-free story development and nearly abstract characters (backstories are few and far between), the film is both model & acme, a masterclass in commercial Hollywood minimalism.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Patrick McGoohan is one of those actors best-remembered for tv work with too much technical facility for their own good, and taken for granted because of it.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Siegel’s chapter on this film in his auto-bio, A SIEGEL FILM, is particularly lively & funny, a neat look at late-‘70s studio politics & obstacles.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

THE HOODLUM SAINT (1946)

M-G-M botched a pretty good idea here. Poached from Warners where it was THE ROARING TWENTIES/’39: James Cagney? Humphrey Bogart? Raoul Walsh? WWI vet comes home to find his old job taken? Falls to the gutter before turning wise & ruthless? Plays one employer against another as he moons over a good girl and takes for granted a lovestruck nightclub singer? Sound familiar? Don’t forget to include a splashy Stock Market Crash montage. Maybe M-G-M borrowed a print. They did change the angle. Cagney worked outside the law, a Prohibition Era booze-running mob guy. M-G-M has gentlemanly William Powell run a similar course from inside the system, moving from muckraking journalist to profiteering banker, and losing his humanity in the process. (Hey, that’s the pretty good idea!) If only someone were around to take the reins. Norman Taurog directs on auto-pilot and producer Cliff Reid was closing out his career at 50. Powell, thirty uncomfortable years older than romantic interests Esther Williams & Angela Lansbury (and with a lousy dye job in the early scenes), does what he can with the underwritten script. But with so many colorful characters (Damon Runyon mugs, inspirational priests, sweet bitty cleaning ladies), and a charity scam added to beef up the third act, the story collapses in beatitude. Where THE ROARING TWENTIES sent Cagney up cathedral steps to die, Powell climbs them to get religion. The difference between Warners & M-G-M in a nutshell.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Sometimes, M-G-M let Angela Lansbury do her own singing (PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY/’45; TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY/’46), sometimes not (HARVEY GIRLS/’46; here).

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned, THE ROARING TWENTIES.

Friday, December 23, 2016

THE BIGGEST BUNDLE OF THEM ALL (1968)

Seriously terrible, a caper pic less movie than actuated deal memo. Director Ken Annakin, fondly recalled for some mediocre family fare, was the journeyman hack you called when you couldn’t get the journeyman hack you wanted. Here, he vamps to little avail after Robert Wagner & gang nab retired Mafia boss Vittorio De Sica for his fortune. Turns out, there’s not a lira to him. As alternative, De Sica suggests they join forces to steal 5 mill in platinum; his old pal Edward G. Robinson can set up the con. None of this makes much sense, in its absence, Annakin tosses Raquel Welch’s bust at us as distraction. Top-billed, Raquel is . . . well, enthusiastic; fourth-billed, but with the largest role, De Sica doesn’t worry the details. (Smart guy, he’s got gambling debts to pay off.) A laugh or two comes via gang member Godfrey Cambridge, a winning, eccentric presence at the time, but poor Bob Wagner turns in a flat/sour perf, even his hair looks defeated.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: De Sica had recently directed his own international caper pic, AFTER THE FOX/’66, from Neil Simon’s debut screenplay, with winning turns from Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, Victor Mature & Martin Balsam. It’s uneven, but loaded with solid laughs, real Italian atmosphere and a general sense of messy fun.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

LE DERNIER DIAMANT / THE LAST DIAMOND (2014)

Standard caper pic about stealing the World’s Largest Diamond (yawn) has glamorous leads & tasty locations, but never quite sells its premise. Bérénice Bejo is too naive as a first-time seller, thrust into the spotlight after her mother’s death, and Yvan Attal’s on-parole master thief is too much the romantic softie. Writer/director Eric Barbier must have noticed, and overcompensates for his own stale material with over-active direction that’s close, choppy, agogic, largely obscuring the working mechanics of a criminal gang we barely meet. (With only five films over twenty-five years, perhaps he’s just too eager to show his wares.) Fortunately, a bit past the halfway mark, the ‘successful’ robbery goes Topsy-Turvy, pulling the rug out from all sides of the action. To his credit, Barbier again takes note, calming down on his fancy cinematic footwork and parsing out his retwisted plot to decent effect. Though we’d be better off without the corny tag-ending.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Capers don’t have to be loaded down with got’cha twists to hold our attention, just a believable set-up and the info to follow (and empathize with) the criminal element.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

THE RESCUERS (1977)

Credit for kickstarting the ongoing revival in feature-animation (Disney & otherwise) rightly goes to THE LITTLE MERMAID/’89. (And more specifically, to its showstopping ‘Under The Sea’ production ‘numbo.’) But before that breakthrough was possible, Disney had to shake off the doldrums of a trio of unmemorable titles released after 101 DALMATIANS/’61 lifted a shaken studio from the go-for-broke expense of SLEEPING BEAUTY/’59.* This film, the only title of the period to earn a theatrical sequel, was the unsung hit that let the company turn the page. Modest, but endearing, it plays with melancholy air & hushed tone, following a pair of mice (members of a Rescuer Society @ the U.N.) assigned to find a kidnapped orphan girl. Traveling south via passenger albatross, they discover she’s being held to help in a treasure hunt for the world’s largest diamond. With few of the usual forced gags and a textured, painterly look (a new refinement in tracing methods reduced the heavy outlines in use since the late-‘50s), the film comes loaded with memorable characters (a manic dragonfly, a couple of scary funny ‘gators, Geraldine Page’s off-kilter villain, and the soft-spoken brave little orphan kid), the storyline flows calm but steady. Even the background score shows some improvement with longtime ‘house composer’ George Bruns’ Pavlovian response music cues replaced by competent craftsman Artie Butler. (Still a ways to go on this front, though.) The film’s an anti-frenetic charmer.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The four Disney animated features released between DALMATIANS and RESCUERS were SWORD AND THE STONE/’63; JUNGLE BOOK/’67; ARISTOCATS/’70 and ROBIN HOOD/’73. Of the four, only JUNGLE BOOK rates, but maybe it’s time for a reevaluation.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Successful beyond anyone’s expectations, RESCUERS was wildly popular in Japan where it now looks, well, not exactly like a Ghibli Studio anime, but as close as Disney came to that style.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

AFERIM! (2015)

The constable from a backwater province in 1835 Romania may be in declining health, but with help from his grown son, he’s still able to track down a runaway Gypsy slave. Charged with stealing money, it’s really the Provincial Lord’s honor that’s been taken . . . or perhaps given. No matter, the punishment’s sure to exceed the crime in writer/director Radu Jude’s award-winning film. Stunningly realized in WideScreen monochrome, with a medieval feel in spite of the 19th Century setting, it consistently finds the horror of rural life and a kind of grisly humor in those unenlightened times. Illiterate peasants, bad enough in ignorance, can’t compete with the ‘educated’ priests & authorities in offering up prejudice & tall tales as knowledge. And beneath both, Gypsy slaves, like one young boy who briefly attaches himself to the constable before a new buyer can be found. Yet, after traveling over this Bruegelian landscape, our constable comes across as one of the more decent souls. A rather terrifying thought.

DOUBLE-BILL: Less second-feature than encore, a contemporary short subject also by Jude included on the DVD, an unexpectedly sweet father/son story, THE TUBE WITH THE HAT/’06.

Monday, December 19, 2016

MADAME SANS-GÉNE (1961)

Over-produced comic-historical, from Victorien Sardou’s oft-filmed play about the unlikely career of Napoleon’s laundress (Gloria Swanson & Arletty both did it earlier) misses the rollicking tone the same director, Christian-Jaque, caught in FANFAN LA TULIPE/’52.* Here, everybody press so hard, high spirits feel like work. Sophia Loren, in a role that’s a Washer Woman Marianne (the idealized symbol of La Republique), shouts her lines to diminishing effect moving from laundry proprietress to camp follower to designated Queen. (Nappy’s running dry on presentable relatives to elevate.) Robert Hossein, loyal army man-of-the-people in thrall to the Revolution & then to Bonaparte, carries Madame along for the ride. Physically all wrong for Sophia, Hossein’s burly, blunt appearance & manner is the one thing adding texture & ballast to a production that’s all Carnavale. If only some of the fun projected off the screen. There’s a good score from composer Angelo Francessco Lavagnino (Orson Welles tapped him for OTHELLO/’51 and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT/’65), but the film comes off as oafish.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Other versions are hard to track down. Swanson’s, filmed in France in her ‘20s Paramount heyday, is lost. The 1941 Arletty film sounds promising, though, especially with Albert Dieudonné, Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON/’27, repeating as Bonaparte.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *As mentioned, FANFAN LA TULIPE; great fun and an early break for Gérard Philipe.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

MISTER JOHNSON (1990)

Even at his considerable best, Bruce Beresford favors the neat & tidy, crisply tucking in all dramatic corners. Cinema as ‘well-made’ play. His best known pics, BREAKER MORANT/’80 and DRIVING MISS DAISY/’89 were, indeed, both adapted from ‘well-made’ plays. But here we have something looser, messier; uncomfortable to play, uncomfortable to watch in a way Beresford rarely is. And while the film opened & closed without leaving a trace, Beresford thought it the best film he’d ever made. He was right. It’s early 1920s, East Africa, British Colonial period & all that, and Mister Johnson (debuting Maynard Eziashi) is a local native striver working as clerk to Pierce Brosnan’s town magistrate. Clever & incompetent, Johnson cultivates all the exterior trappings of British civilization (oops, civilisation), but underpinned with African sensibilities. The dichotomy cuts two ways, consistently getting him into trouble yet offering highly original solutions to intractable problems. For Brosnan, the main task is getting a road built to the main highway, but Johnson may not keep his position long enough to get it finished. That’s alright, he can always go into trade with local dealer, and casual racist, Edward Woodward (in an appallingly honest turn, half comic/half tragic). Treated by employers and by his own people, with equal suspicion, Johnson gayly burns his bridges as he moves onward & upward, but there’s a limit, no? The film is funny, insightful, tragic and devastatingly fine. Excellent extras, too, on a new Criterion edition.

DOUBLE-BILL: The only other major film from author Joyce Cary is THE HORSE’S MOUTH/’58 with Alec Guinness as an irascible modernist painter. (Guinness got an Oscar nom for his script.) BTW, this Joyce Cary is the well-known male novelist; the well-known female Joyce Carey is the character actress best-remembered as running the train station food counter in BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45.

Friday, December 16, 2016

POINT BREAK (1991)

Just your basic bank robber pic . . . except the gang disguise themselves in Hallowe'en masks as Ex-Presidents and spend their down time ride, ride, riding the wild surf at the beach as Zen Surfer Dudes. And hey, it’s all cool, until an FBI agent, with the traffic-stopping good looks of the young Keanu Reeves, infiltrates the happy little commune by wooing an ex-lady pal of main dude Patrick Swayze. As silly as it is irresistible, until ZERO DARK THIRTY/’12, this was actually Kathryn Bigelow’s only big grosser, and it’s not hard to see why, even as you giggle at W. Peter Iliff’s idea of snappy dialogue; inane plot turns; and the chemistry-free, off-putting love affair Keanu gets stuck with. (Tori Petty’s surfer-babe really sets your teeth on edge.) As action pic, it’s is a mix of super-charged excitement, and off-hand stumbles; Bigelow excelling on tricky camera maneuvers, flubbing the easy stuff. But Patrick Swayze, at the tail end of his brief heyday, makes a princely Lord of the Board; Gary Busey runs roughshod (in a good way) over every cliché as Keanu’s high-maintenance partner; and the mystifying Mr. Reeves his irreplaceable sui generis flat-voiced self. (Don’t underestimate the guy, he can rivet attention slowly chewing on a doughnut.) Just don’t forget to store your brain in long-term parking before you hit the play button.

DOUBLE-BILL: The much reviled redo (POINT BREAK/’15, not seen here) swapped out surfing for Extreme Sports; few bothered to watch.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID (1948)

A near miss. Nunnally Johnson must have written this Mid-Life crisis fable with William Powell in mind. Hard to imagine anyone else striking his whimsically touching tone just so. Certainly not journeyman director Irving Pichel who misses the vein of fancy in Johnson’s tale of a convalescing husband on a dream Caribbean vacation with his wife. About to turn the big Five-0, and fighting the idea, he notices his wife flirting with a roué while he's paying too much attention to an adventuress. Trifles really, Powell’s real focus is less conventional, a speechless mermaid he’s fished from the ocean (Ann Blyth). You keep expecting this to turn stupid, one of those forced farces with funny explanations and dodgy missed sightings. Instead, the film grows quiet, a little melancholy, and, thanks to Powell’s remarkably subtle playing, invested with real emotional charge. And without much to support him in the way of production. Perhaps Powell, who knew a thing or two about slow recoveries (he’d spent a couple of years off the screen as a successful recipient of experimental radium cancer treatments), found something more personal in here then he’d planned. The film’s no more than a shaggy dog story, but Powell brings it texture & a touch of humanity. BTW, as Powell’s understanding wife, the little remembered Irene Hervey is just great, lovely, too.

DOUBLE-BILL: Nunnally Johnson hit the Mid-Life crisis jackpot (somber, solemn & serious edition) writing & directing THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT/’56 with all his principals suffering.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ATTILA (1954)

It may sound like a low-budget/low-brow Sword-and-Sandal muscleman pic (helmer Pietro Francisci did go on to start the HERCULES cycle of the late-‘50s), but this is actually a big-budget/low-brow historical about everyone’s favorite Hun, with Anthony Quinn moonlighting off Fellini’s LA STRADA as a growlly Attila. In fact, there’s a whole legit cast in here: from Hollywood, Eduardo Ciannelli; Sophia Loren, fresh off a career breakthru in GOLD OF NAPLES/’54; Irene Papas (not that you’d recognize her); and from France, Henri Vidal & Christian Marquand. Starry behind the lens, too, with Aldo Tonti supported by no less than two legends, Giuseppe Rotunno & Karl Struss. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis & Carlo Ponti, this film has a lot going for it . . . on paper. But what a wobbly vehicle for all the effort. Everything feels inauthentic, even when they (occasionally) try to stick to the facts. A shame, since the details they avoid are far more interesting than what we get. And with a short running time of 75 minutes, why not carry on thru Attila’s dancing death on his wedding night? Instead, a lame attempt to equate Attila with Hitler and battle scenes with herds of horsemen. Maybe funds got tight; maybe Quinn was ready to get back to the States; or maybe it’s a story that works at either 75 minutes or three hours. These films tend to fall into Public Domain purgatory, but LionsGate, in a SOPHIA LOREN collection, offers a pretty decent transfer.

DOUBLE-BILL: After Anthony Quinn’s ATTILA, why not Victor Mature’s HANNIBAL/’59? This one really is Sword-and-Sandal crap, largely of interest because B-pic cult figure Edgar Ulmer takes directing credit.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014)

Writer/director J. C. Chandor seemed to come out of the blue with MARGIN CALL/’11, his thoughtful Wall Street meltdown/thriller, superb & insightful. Then, promptly went back in with two hours of Robert Redford battling storms at sea. (ALL IS LOST/’13, not seen here.) Third up was this poorly chosen drama about systemic corruption in the New York heating oil racket back in the bad old 1980s. (Now, there’s a topic to stop traffic!) With a visual palette covered o’er with ochre scum to capture the fractious mores of a dark era in the city (and of the principals), the film aims for a Francis Coppola/Sidney Lumet vibe and gets the worst of both. (Late Coppola narrative fatigue; Early Lumet assumed moral superiority; plus lead Oscar Isaac making like Al Pacino as homage.) In its drab manner, the film slowly pulls itself together by the third act, as Isaac grovels to keep a major deal afloat while his drivers & delivery trucks are attacked by unknown agents; and an Asst. D.A. builds a case against his fast-growing company. David Oyelowo is just great in this role, but doesn’t get the screen time he needs until he scores in a late, ambiguous scene alone with Isaac. Instead, we get a little too much of Jessica Chastain’s supporting secretive wife/opaque business partner, and from company lawyer Albert Brooks in a fright wig. Flaws & all, it’s worth sticking with as Chandor is the real deal in spite of dramatic miscues*, and the film improves as it goes on. But a little more consideration of his audience when picking topics might help his films (and Chandor’s career) from going back into the blue.

DOUBLE-BILL: A similar sort of company war, but between rival ice cream truck operators, mostly played for subtle laughs, was the inspired subject of Bill Forsyth’s gorgeous COMFORT AND JOY. A forgotten Christmas treat with a tremendous turn by Bill Paterson in the lead.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In theory, this ought to pair nicely with James Gray’s pics on morally strained conflict between ethics, family-run business & the low-level mob (THE YARDS/’00; WE OWN THE NIGHT/’07), but unlike Chandor, Gray ain’t the real deal.

Monday, December 12, 2016

BYÔSOKU 5 SENCHIMÊTORU / 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND (2007)

With his new anime (YOUR NAME/’16) Japan’s second highest grosser of the year, Makoto Shinkai finds himself hailed as ‘the next Hayao Miyazaki.' An accolade that asks too much of this modest early effort, a three episode animated idyll that moves from puppy love to unrequited love to recollected love. But if it doesn’t quite make the case for Shinkai, this fresh, talented voice backs a pretty darn gorgeous product. Charting the course of two linked kids over two decades, the film hops fitfully forward thru mood & characteristic Japanese reserve, holding plot to a minimum as BOY and GIRL move to new towns while keeping in touch with the rapidly evolving technology of the time. (Some of this zips by via text screen messaging, but stick to the Japanese track w/ subtitles or lose the essential flavor.) Moving from school days to island-set adolescence, Shinkai saves his full animated arsenal for the visually stunning third episode set in Tokyo. Here, the separated couple come within a whisker of reconnecting, only to be brought up short by a coup de théâtre commuter train.* It’s but one of a series of breathtaking moments in this highly abbreviated segment, and it definitely sets you up for more Shinkai. But he’ll need more narrative thrust to grow his films past the one hour mark; mood, tone & atmosphere get you only so far.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Charles Chaplin’s A WOMAN OF PARIS/’23 ends with two ex-lovers in a similar near miss, but it’s too common a trope to be even an inadvertent quote. On the other hand, the visual jolt Shinkai uses to shut the meeting down is straight out of Buster Keaton’s two-reel silent comedy ONE WEEK/’20. And can it be entirely coincidental that Keaton’s first feature-length release, THE THREE AGES/’23, was also a trio of inter-related shorts, running precisely the same 63 minutes?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The title refers to the speed of a falling cherry blossom petal.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942)

20th/Fox tried to tap into the profitable B-pic Horror market with this John Brahm shocker and companion release DR. RENAULT’S SECRET/’42. Neither really turns the trick, but this modified werewolf tale is the better bet. More a forensic detective yarn than supernatural chiller, it’s closer to Fox’s Sherlock Holmes outing, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES/’39, than anything out of Universal Studio. Though its probably most interesting as a preview for two great suspensers Brahm would soon make @ Fox.* Here, we get a lot of pseudo-scientific research, stormy weather, a gloomy mansion set on a cliff, bad comic relief, and only brief glimpses of the monster; someone had been doing their homework prep on this one. But formula & atmosphere only gets you halfway there, and the story never comes together. Some of this stems from a cast of also-rans who can’t find the right tone for the genre, but more from relationships without much emotional investment. It’s easy to watch, even easier to forget.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Unsung & underused, John Brahm would soon drift toward a career in episodic tv. But not before giving a taste of what might have been with THE LODGER/’44 and his masterful HANGOVER SQUARE/’45. Both starring unlikely leading man Laird Cregar, George Sanders and, in HANGOVER, a Bernard Herrmann score for the ages.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: What’s with the smiley faces on the poster?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964)

Much admired anti-war dramedy, a typically over-written broadside from Paddy Chayefsky, wears it’s ironic edge on its sleeve, as if it were the first to take on the phony glorification of war. But helped by Arthur Hiller’s dutiful direction*, and by a pitch-perfect cast, some of this comes across with unusual charm (especially in the way Julie Andrews’ stiff Brit warms to James Garner’s cowardly Yankee realist). Chayefsky never was one to ‘kill his darlings,’ explaining, at length, too many things we should notice on our own. Often a speech ends with a one-line tag that could have served for the whole scene, even improved on it. An early door-stopper has Garner pulling a tough-talk ‘cure’ on Andrews’ delusional widowed mom, leaving her with honest melancholy and cold tea. Meant to be bracing & hard-headed, it’s more like grandstanding; though not nearly as disingenuous as Garner’s Normandy Beach/D-Day cowardly heroics used by Chayefsky to set up a cop-out have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too flip-flop finale.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Only Andrews’ second feature (post-POPPINS/pre-SOUND OF MUSIC) and followed by TORN CURTAIN/’66. Note the difference in chemistry between Andrews & Garner vs Andrews & Paul Newman in the Hitchcock pic. And the difference it makes in Andrews’ screen presence.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Hiller’s lack of sparkle actually helps ‘ground’ Chayefsky, as in the best of his later scripts, THE HOSPITAL/’71. More stylish helmers like Sidney Lumet (NETWORK/’76) & Ken Russsell (ALTERED STATES/’80) over-egged the Chayefsky pudding.

Friday, December 9, 2016

THE LAST SOUL ON A SUMMER NIGHT (2012)

Apparently an expanded cut of writer/director Daniel Nearing’s own CHICAGO HEIGHTS/’09, each claiming Sherwood Anderson’s rural portmanteau classic WINESBURG, OHIO (an entire town living in quiet desperation) as source, though you’d hardly know it without being told. Relocated to a largely black Chicago suburban

community, this refracted adaptation goes forward in short, choppy, disconnected narrative bits shot in artsy high-contrast b&w. And such shots!; each a frame-worthy fraud, over-composed & dead to the touch; it's less a film than a jejune graduation project. Just add in forgivable amateur acting and unforgivable self-indulgent camera angles on every damn set-up. And since the narrative is all but impossible to follow, especially if you know the Anderson novel, there’s little to do but hope Nearing got all this artiste manqué crap out of his system. And that he’s kinder to his actors’ blemished complexions in the future, this one’s pure pore-ography.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Going out on a limb, Nearing’s next, HOGTOWN/’14, sounds better and was very well received. (But so was this!) OR: To see this sort of indie, self-indulgent, b&w grad-thesis pic done right, try Gus Van Sant’s MALA NOCHE/’86.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

MR. IMPERIUM (1951)

Less debut than sabotage. Two years after Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Ezio Pinza pulled off a smash late career twist starring in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC (ten minutes into the show, he’s singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’), he went Hollywood . . . in the worst way. This hopelessly inadequate King & Commoner story has Pinza (pushing 60 at the time) uncomfortably wooing songstress Lana Turner (pushing 30). Twelve years after their budding love affair yielded to Affairs of State, he tries again. Only now she’s a glamorous movie star; he’s waiting on a plebiscite that may restore the monarchy; and it all feels a little creepy. Toss in a handful of forgettable tunes (Lana with an excellent voice-double; Ezio softly crooning top notes); Barry Sullivan as frustrated fiancé; and heavily accented romantic patter played in deadly master shots thanks to co-scripter/megger Don Hartman (a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby specialist who never wrote again). With zero chemistry between the leads, M-G-M held off releasing until Pinza’s next (STRICTLY DISHONORABLE) came out and died. Pinza’s moment had passed.

LINK/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Two years on, in his third & final film, Hollywood figured out what to do with Pinza: have him play an opera singer!; he’s Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin in the glossy Sol Hurok bio-pic TONIGHT WE SING/’53. Fun, but dumb, it also flopped, and is now hard to find. (Worth it for the handsome production, classical music stars, and the only time Pinza sang his famous Boris Godonov in Russian.) Instead, hear him on some classic 78rpm recordings. Here he is in 1928 with Rosa Ponselle, the greatest Verdi dramatic-soprano of her era with the greatest Verdi lyric-bass of his, in La vergine degli angeli from LA FORZA DEL DESTINO. (This is the best current transfer on youtube.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-kYkReOW4g

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

¡THE THREE AMIGOS! (1986)

At its occasional best, the inspired silliness of this comic Western, it’s THE MAGNIFICENT 7 meets THE THREE STOOGES, can make you ridiculously happy. And when not so inspired, enough goodwill spills out South of the Border to carry things along. With eye-popping color values and a fun mix of Mexicali locations and pointedly fake studio sets (just the thing for a cowboy’s moonlight lament), John Landis megs with real affection for the genre, following a trio of down-on-their-luck silent film Hollywood cowboys who accidentally come to the aid of a town plundered by banditos. Steve Martin, Chevy Chase & Martin Short (more Tinman, Scarecrow & Lion than Stooges, with Chase struggling to match his pals’ comic chops) make a fine team, singing, strutting and bringing up Dorothy Gish’s name whenever possible. (That’s Dorothy, mind you, not Lillian.) Meantime, bandits argue over the meaning of the word ‘plethora’ (a touch of comic genius there) or unwrapping a birthday sweater. So funny, you hardly much mind when the staging goes dead (Landis talks a better game than he sometimes pulls off) or when a climax fizzles. You’re probably still smiling at something from ten minutes back.

DOUBLE-BILL: In a similar vein, Rouben Mamoulian’s delicious THE GAY DESPERADO/’36 has Leo Carillo as a Mexican bandit who wants to be just like the American gangsters he’s seen in the movies. Designed as a showcase for tenor Nino Martini, the film does better by Carillo, young Ida Lupino and especially for a hilarious Mischa Auer hiding under an enormous sombrero.

Monday, December 5, 2016

CORNERED (1945)

After MURDER, MY SWEET/’44 turned into a ‘sleeper hit’ for RKO*, Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott & John Paxton (helmer, producer, writer) reunited with ‘the new’ Dick Powell (tougher, chewier than ‘the old’ lightweight Powell) for a follow-up film noir. But without the narrative order imposed by a Raymond Chandler tale, style & attitude were redoubled to fill the dramatic vacuum and the ultra-hard-boiled manner implodes . . . in a good way. Even compared with the celebrated confusion of murder mysteries like GILDA/’46 and THE BIG SLEEP/’46, this film's web of secret relationships & deadly lies are positively impenetrable; Powell ends the film with an offer to explain all the bodies to the Argentinian police as a sort of living scorecard. And why not? He’s the chump who’s been tracking down the fascist killer of his French wife all the way from Europe to South America, finding something nasty under every rock, and with the conks on the head to prove it. Dmytryk, normally a solid-citizen sort of director, gets off to a straightforward start, but loosens up considerably once he notices the arbitrary nature of the action. Same for a tasty crew of supporting male character actors (ladies less tasty), especially Walter Slezak as a shifty henchman happy to work either side of the fence. Just don’t expect him to last out the film.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Everything’s a little stiffer in MURDER, MY SWEET, but the plot adds up.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

CROSS OF IRON (1977)

Sam Peckinpah’s blunt, often powerful Russian Front/Nazi Retreat film is something of an apolitical cheat with Herr Hitler either unmentioned or heartily loathed by his own army. The sole ideologically-minded soldier, a despised internal spy, winds up with his pecker bitten off. For the rest, violence & near certain death interrupted by personal grudges (rooted in lingering class differences) & the flawed grace of being an honorable warrior during relentless shelling & enemy attacks. Working again with lenser John Coquillon, Peckinpah finds a look & rhythm that lets him intersperse his signature slo-mo action editing with explosions to punctuate dream-like horror on & off the battlefield, and hallucinations at a convalescent hospital. James Coburn, with an indifferent on-and-off German accent, gives a commanding perf as the indispensable insubordinate Sargent with a motley platoon of warring eccentrics under him. James Mason, playing yet another German officer (back to Rommel in ‘53; on to his Nazi enabler in next year’s BOYS FROM BRAZIL/’78) and David Warner hit their marks perfectly in the C.O. office, but Maximilian Schell is a little too ‘Snidely Whiplash” then he needs to be as the vicious, cowardly officer who’ll undercut anyone to get his Iron Cross. Peckinpah, going thru a series of post-GETAWAY/’72 flops at the time, overspent and hacks the ending. Best to celebrate what did get done; a considerable achievement and his last piece of sustained filmmaking.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: With an undeserved rep made after his EXODUS theme became a Pop hit, Ernest Gold became house composer for Stanley Kramer. These two were made for each other, but his over-emphatic score here is nearly as much of an impediment as the botched ending.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

DR. RENAULT'S SECRET (1942)

Close. After CHARLIE CHAN and MR. MOTO ended their runs at 20th/Fox, B-pic producer Sol M. Wurtzel needed an inexpensive replacement. (In 1942 alone, he turned out 15 pics.) One idea, not much favored @ Fox, was Horror. But with Universal coining cash on their monster line-up and Val Lewton’s suggestive fright-fest starting @ RKO (CAT PEOPLE/’42), this (alongside companion pic THE UNDYING MONSTER/’42) was Fox’s attempt at the genre.* It’s a one of those mad scientist things, with George Zucco, very good here, tampering with animal & human genes to produce unhappy sub-human J. Carrol Naish, looking miserable in modified Mr. Hyde make-up, while daughter Lynne Roberts and fiancé Shepperd Strudwick ignore all the obvious clues that something’s gone terribly wrong. Director Harry Lachman, with many a CHARLIE CHAN behind him, pulls off some lively, atmospheric work, especially in a few unexpectedly rough & kinetic action/murder scenes. Plus, the general level of Fox studio polish is a treat for this sort of quickie production. But does the plot have to be quite so obvious and the dialogue so idiotic? And why no French flavor to match the supposed locale? Everyone’s a misplaced Brit, like the inexplicable cast of Martin Scorsese’s HUGO/’11.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Odd to see well-known supporting players like Mike Mazurki and Arthur Shields go uncredited in significant roles.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Write-Up of companion pic THE UNDYING MONSTER to follow. John Brahm, who made the superb HANGOVER SQUARE/’45 directed, so there's hope.

Friday, December 2, 2016

SAUSAGE PARTY (2016)

Going on 80+ minutes, you wonder how Seth Rogen & his writing/directing posse are going to dig up enough raunch to feed their food-based computer animated coitus gags. We’re in a supermarket world where horny wieners try to ‘make’ those soft split buns, supported by produce & vegetables, then wised-up by non-perishable goods who know what happens once you’re been ‘chosen’ to go past the doors. It ain’t pretty! The tight-budget animation grows a little tiring, those shiny plastic surfaces singe the eye, while the storyline & laughs sag even as they shift from vulgar ‘blue’ material to plots out of BABE/’95 (you’re going to get eaten!) and TOY STORY II (how’d we wind up here/how do we get back?). But halfway in, things take a decidedly subversive (anti)religious allegorical turn, with God & faith itself gleefully exposed as fairy tale scams. Intellectually helped by an ejaculate Stephen Hawking, this little film becomes that rarest of birds, a mass market Hollywood paean to atheism. Who knew? That said, the film surely could have been a lot funnier; with too many rude stereotypes cuing undelivered laughs. (Family Friendly? Oh, why not, but let them watch on their own.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How could the filmmakers not include Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies? The tops in sexually suggestive snack food with sweet lickable creamy goodness sandwiched between two pliably soft oatmeal labia . . . er, wafers you gently pull open to get at the . . . Yikes! Maybe if the film had been ‘X’-rated.

DOUBLE-BILL: Woody Allen’s EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX/’72 has a couple of dud sketches, but most remains funny, weird and occasionally wonderful.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

LE GAMIN AU VÉLO / THE KID WITH A BIKE (2011)

Lesser, but still very fine, from the brothers Dardenne (Jean-Pierre & Luc), tackling a modern ‘wild child’ story both tough & tender. Thomas Doret, in his first film, is ‘the kid’ in question, a virtual orphan, abandoned by a single dad who’d rather move on. Unwilling to accept the situation, the boy’s a stubborn terror of unfed sensitivities, striking out at anyone trying to help; including Cécile De France, a woman met by happenstance at a medical clinic. They bond, to wary effect, when she gets his stolen bike back to him and then takes him on as a wknd foster guardian. But he’s still a handful, wrecking her current romance and finding the worst possible surrogate father-figure to impress with misplaced loyalty. Short & episodic, the film has the quality of an twice-told tale, and if some limitations in the Dardenne style of filmmaking show (a robbery that’s a narrative tipping-point fails to convince), their refusal to explain away the foster mother’s tenacious commitment in either psychological terms or thru backstory offer something more, a sense of mystery and the magical benevolence of a fable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Beginnings: The Dardennes forge past their strict Neo-Realist ways to work with well-known actors. Endings: Apparently, the last of their films shot on 35mm.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sounds goofy, but the kid that THE KID most calls to mind is . . . PINOCCHIO/’40! Though it does make Ms. France a combination of the Blue Fairy, Geppetto and Jiminy Cricket.