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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

EDGE OF DOOM (1950)

Doomed indeed. Frances Howard Goldwyn, the very Catholic wife of indie producer Samuel Goldwyn, initiated this project, a sort of Catholic Guilt Noir about a troubled young man (Farley Granger) with priestly issues to settle and a mother just past Last Rites. For some inexplicable reason, his tale of woe & semi-redemption is fodder for a flashback/pep-talk, along with a calming cup of tea, from parish priest Dana Andrews (in narcoleptic mode) to his questioning novice. It all turns on the murder of a worn out priest (with his own desk crucifix!); the robbery of a movie theater cash box; a Plain Jane girlfriend tired of waiting; and a roomful of flowers for a first-class funeral service. Credit helmer Mark Robson & cinematographer Harry Stradling for giving it a glistening inner-city tenement menace so dark & atmospheric it cloaks much of the missing narrative logic; so the pic is unexpectedly watchable in spite of its faults. According to Granger’s excellent auto-bio (INCLUDE ME OUT), there were months of reedits, reshoots, even a post-release revamp; though what got added/altered is a mystery. (Maybe just that risible ‘let’s have another cup of tea’ tag line.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hitchcock’s films are brimming with Catholic Guilt, usually served on the side, but as a main course in the underrated I CONFESS/’53.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: As mentioned above, Farley Granger’s INCLUDE ME OUT.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

(LES AMANT DE) VILLA BORGHESE / IT HAPPENED IN THE PARK (1953)

A trifle, though not without nostalgic charm. Less in the film itself than in how it recalls the experience of college-town Art House cinema in the ‘50s: foreign-language omnibus pic; subfusc print (in this TeleVista DVD); spare subtitles; multi-national cast dubbed in French though mostly acting in Italian. Ah, the good old days . . . which were kind of the bad old days. Gianni Franciolini directed a few of these portmanteaux; here, six tales set in Rome’s Villa Borghese park (the short opening sketch is dropped in this U.S. release print), with enough major names (Vittorio De Sica, Gérard Philipe, Eduardo De Filippo) to lend marquee value. Story 1 has a failing student hoping to blackmail her professor with a kiss in the park.; Story 2 finds De Sica ditching his wife for a rendezvous with a young prospective mistress, only to be shadowed by her mom & jealous fiancé. (De Sica may have directed this segment, but not so you’d notice.); Story 3 sits De Filippo’s small-town father at a café in Rome’s famous park to settle an arranged marriage for his charming daughter. (The most stylish & assured piece in here.); Story 4 sends two kids & a nanny off on a boat ride so Mom can meet one last time with departing lover Gérard Philipe.*; Story 5 watches two competing hookers (one a knock-out/one second-choice) run away from the cops, then hiding out at a beauty contest as contestant & judge. Twice as long as the rest, this last story could have supported a feature, especially with Franca Valeri showing off assured comic technique as the girl least likely to. The stories all end with the Italian version of an O’Henry twist, it keeps them from being too obvious. But even without it, they give off a musty charm. And how clean & under-populated the great old park looks.

DOUBLE-BILL: The year before, five stories made up O’HENRY’S FULL HOUSE/’52 (see Write-Up below), but a better bet might be from the following year when De Sica made an omnibus masterpiece in GOLD OF NAPLES/’54. It also lost one of its six stories in the original Stateside release. Look for the complete cut of 2'18". (Worth every minute.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Shortly before he died, Marlene Dietrich told Ernst Lubitsch she’d found the perfect young actor to play Octavian (against her Die Marshallin) for his dream project, a non-operatic version of ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’ It was Gérard Philipe who might well be playing a test-run of the role here, especially in taking his leave. A real might-have-been moment.

Monday, June 19, 2017

THE CHAPMAN REPORT (1962)

Director George Cukor suffered more than his fair share of damaging post-production interference from second-guessing moguls. Half an hour bled from A STAR IS BORN/’54 after its initial release* and ‘clarifying’ voice-over narration & dumbed-down restructuring on BHOWANI JUNCTION/’56 being only the best known examples. And while much the same sort of distortion happens here, courtesy of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s hard to mourn the loss. Anyway you slice it, and DFZ sliced with abandon, the film would still be a dud. With a stylish quartet of Malibu women to sample, we follow their personal crises with stops for participation in a Kinsey-esque sex survey they’ve volunteered for. Amazingly, they all seem shocked!, shocked! when their mystery interlocutor has the temerity to ask about . . . their sex lives! (Did they think it would be Coke?; Pepsi?; or Dr. Pepper?) Jane Fonda, still learning to read lines, is the frigid young widow; Shelley Winters is cheating on her all-too-solid hubby with a commitment-phobic two-timer; Claire Bloom’s the alcoholic-nympho who digs debasement; and Glynis Johns plays comic relief, scared at the brink of ravishment with a hunky beach boy. The script, nearly as desperate as the ladies, wants to be daring, modern, adult, but (again like the ladies) has trouble taking the gloves off. (Those dress gloves! Were they still omnipresent in Cali/’62?) And the big revealing sex interviews? Empty soliloquy workouts for the gals. (But offering a fresh ensemble at every session. Check out Fonda’s stupendous white hat! Just the thing for research.)

Halfway in you realize what Zanuck was up to, trying to sculpt a newfangled version of an old hit, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES/’49, now with psychological trimmings. All better handled by writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz in the earlier pic, and whose nephew, Don Mankiewicz, just happened to co-write this.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, LETTER TO THREE WIVES which actually had FOUR wives until DFZ took a blue pencil to Mank’s first draft.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Lovingly restored in 1983 to something near it’s original condition/length.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972)

‘Too much’ was never enough for Brit filmmaker/ provocateur Ken Russell. But this largely overlooked bio-pic, on the intense, if platonic, relationship between manically gifted young artist Henri Gaudier (1891-1915) and older novelist Sophie Brzeska, finds purpose in excess, and far surpasses his better known/plusher films on Liszt, Tchaikovsky & Mahler.* Not that it’s without major faults of its own, starting at the top with fresh-faced ‘discovery’ Scott Antony, all wrong as Gaudier. (See self-portrait of the real Gaudier.)

Trying for artistic bliss & untamed spirit, he’s merely unfocused, ultimately exhausting. Dorothy Tutin's Brzeska gets closer to the maddening core of their odd partnership, but the real excitement shows up in stellar support from actors playing various avant-garde intellectual types (hilariously pretentious &/or insufferable), particularly young Helen Mirren as militant suffragette, bed partner and full-frontal nude goddess. Some superbly grungy sets from future ‘Queer Cinema’ pioneer Derek Jarman (putting the have-not into hovel) and resourceful lensing from Dick Bush reflect what must have been a real starving artist’s budget in a positive way. Maybe that very lack of funds helped keep Russell more on-track than usual, capturing something normally missed in artist bio-pics between his usual crudities & knee-jerk iconoclasm.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Russell’s at his very best in his early tv films, topped by SONG OF SUMMER/’68 on composer Frederick Delius. (And one on Edward Elgar, not seen here, has a fine rep.)

CONTEST: Spot the anachronistic Beatles reference to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (1956)

Intriguing adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, relocated to the US/Mexico border from France(?), is just good enough to frustrate by not being better. A literal Am-I-My-Brother’s-Keeper story, its Cain/Abel dichotomy is complicated by not quite knowing which role Van Johnson & older brother Joseph Cotten play. (This idea, directly expressed in dialogue, must be straight from the novel.) On a dark & stormy night, escaped convict Johnson, held back by flash floods from reaching his family in Mexico, seeks help from long-estranged brother Cotten. Financially well off, but in a barren marriage to Ruth Roman, Cotten has cut family ties to gain success . . . and buried any guilt for it. Director Henry Hathaway (with cinematographer Lee Garmes, CinemaScope & Deluxe® Color) can’t quite pull this off (let down by on-the-nose writing & playing), but still gets some tremendous effects from the SouthWest ‘Country Club Chic’ look in the well-to-do interiors of Cotten and, in a wicked party scene, their friends Jack Carson & Margaret Hayes. The latter, a tv actress, is particularly fine reveling in the chance to play mischief-maker, goading the worst out of her guests for the entertainment value. A final set piece, as the brothers patch things up trying for the border, is all but flawlessly run by Hathaway . . . which unfortunately exposes the tag ending as something of a cop-out. (Be sure to look for Harry Morgan in a perfect little scene at a roadside diner to see how this great supporting actor pulls the best out of Johnson.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With his M-G-M contract running down, Johnson did some of the best work of his career, often as borderline alcoholics. (In 1954 alone, heavy tippling in BRIGADOON, CAINE MUTINY and LAST TIME I SAW PARIS/’54.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Hathaway & Cotten are even more in their element in the TechniColor suspense of NIAGARA/’53.

Friday, June 16, 2017

ABOVE AND BEYOND (1951)

Visually dull with flatfooted staging, the writing/directing team of Melvin Frank & Norman Panama specialized in leaving the canvas blank for comedians like Bob Hope & Danny Kaye to romp in. Here, they drop the jokes (all but one, involving a low-flying plane & a water tower) for a rare serious outing, while staying visually dull with flatfooted staging. Robert Taylor, least fondly recalled of Hollywood’s top Golden Age stars, takes the lead in this fact-inspired story of the pilot who dropped the first Atomic Bomb. And with a woman’s angle filling half the pic as put-upon wife Eleanor Parker grows increasingly frustrated at being left in the dark.* Dramatically, all highly respectable, even attempting to deal with the difficult issue of innocent war casualties. But it’s a subject that calls for daring. (Unlikely at early ‘50s M-G-M; though not impossible; see John Huston’s RED BADGE OF COURAGE/’51.) This one's neither great nor awful, plodding ahead tastefully . . . which in a way is worse. Frank/Panama do manage a bit of atmosphere on the eve of the mission, and the bomb run lends some tension (how could it not?), but the film is only intense in being intensely unmemorable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Worried about appealing to ‘The Ladies,’ the trailer features encomiums from nearly every major female magazine editor & gossip columnist of the day. Starting with the holy press trinity of Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons & Sheila Graham.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In a brief, tardy appearance, Gen. Curtis LeMay adds his approval to the bombing. (He famously didn’t believe in the concept of innocent civilians and in ‘68 ran for Vice Prez on the George Wallace ticket.) To play him? Who else but Mr. Magoo! Er . . . Thurston Howell of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND!! Oh, it’s Jim Backus.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

THREE BLIND MICE (1938)

Made in 1938, but feeling five years behind the times; a lag that shouldn’t much matter after eight decades. Yet it makes all the diff in this modest romantic comedy since those involved know they’re handling stale goods and, under William Seiter’s routine megging, make a hard sell out of what ought to be light fun. The story is one more variation on the 'Three Girls Looking for Love' storyline, here with Loretta Young & two sisters leaving their Kansas chicken farm to find a millionaire in California. Parked at a swank resort, Loretta goes all La-Di-Da while her siblings act as her social staff. Sure enough, rich types Joel McCrea & David Niven come a’courting . . . but only one is really a millionaire. Young’s comic touch is harsh & overly bright, as if she were bribing us to chuckle, but if you hold on till the third act, the film detours into Screwball territory with a wild perf from Binnie Barnes as Niven’s hedonist sis. She’s not really as funny as she thinks, but her character, a beer guzzling lush in furs & couture, with a taste for hunky men, is so peculiar, you can’t take your eyes off her. Then the script pairs everyone up for a happy ending except her. How graceless.

DOUBLE-BILL: Joel McCrea's next attempt at this sort of thing came charmed with greatness (even wisdom), Preston Sturges’s THE PALM BEACH STORY/’42 with Claudette Colbert & Mary Astor effortlessly giving Young & Barnes a demonstration on how to play brittle sophisticated comedy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

THE STONE KILLER (1973)

This Michael Winner/Charles Bronson film came out the year before they struck vigilante paydirt with DEATH WISH/’74. (They’d been milking violence since CHATO’S LAND and THE MECHANIC in ’72.) But where DEATH WISH caught the Zeitgeist in having Bronson’s regular guy pushed toward shoot-em-up revenge, here he’s no fish-out-of-water agent of death just a trigger-happy cop with quick fists in the interrogation room. Leaving NYC for L.A. after shooting one punk too many, he winds up working both coasts when some suspects get bumped off mob-style. Coincidence? Connection? Turns out Godfather Martin Balsam (really?) is on a Mafioso consolidation spree and there’s been collateral damage. Winner was just about the coarsest of mainstream hacks: kick down a door and find a titillating lesbian couple, bluntly staged chases & fight scenes, action that slams but doesn’t build, and zoom-lensed non sequitor transition shots. At least he cast well, with actors who can take care of themselves. (Hey!, it’s John Ritter & Norman Fell before THREE’S COMPANY.) If he could only keep his coasts straight. (Where are we?) Or sort out his car chase drivers before wrapping things up with a cheap amoral tag and a witticism from Mr. Bronson. Perhaps the crap cinematography by Richard Moore was intentional.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Winner, who’s on the short list for Worst Film of All Time (normal budget division) with WON TON TON: THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD/’76, did try to break out of his rut adapting Alan Ayckbourn’s darkly farcical A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL/'89 (with Jeremy Irons as the unwitting Lothario in an amateur theatrical company - a fabulous project), but he simply hadn’t the chops for the job.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (SWEENEY TODD) (1936)

Before B’way composer Stephen Sondheim supplied musical cachet & cultural gravitas, SWEENEY TODD was Penny Dreadful stuff; camp, comic, playfully gross. As in this ‘Quota Quickie’ from George King, a specialist in these mandated British ‘B-pics,’ sops to the U.K. import/ export production ratio. Some directors, like Michael Powell & Carol Reed began there, then moved on; George King remained. This one, available in dupey, tv sourced prints with slightly cropped framing, features a grandstanding turn from the aptly named Tod Slaughter, wringing his hands & chuckling as the murderous barber. Hammy, but undeniably creepy, especially in the alternating rough/unctuous treatment of John Singer as young apprentice Tobias, recognizable from later supporting roles. Except for a brief tangent in the tropics, the story stays more or less the same (young sailor makes good; hopes to wed a wealthy man's young ward; is nearly turned into a human-meat pie!!). With suitably penny-dreadful production values, but not nearly as dire as you first expect; some of the secret back-street chambers have real Dickensian flavor, so too the flamboyant acting. (Something of Uriah Heep in this Sweeney.) Try to ignore the milling music that comes & goes to no particular purpose on the soundtrack. Added later for tv showings?

DOUBLE-BILL: Tim Burton’s trimmed 2007 rethink of the Sondheim musical is impressive, particularly on the male side.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

ALLIED (2016)

With the exception of FLIGHT/’12 (ducked here), Robert Zemeckis has sojourned for nearly two decades in cutting edge CGI TechnoLand & motion-capture performance. Results have been mixed. (As in some worked commercially/all creepy to sit thru.) It makes this try at traditional WWII romantic suspense seem less old-style thriller, more career intervention. Everything feels a little ‘off,’ right from the opening title that sees ‘ALLIED’ subliminally fade to ‘LIE.’ Glam spies Marion Cotillard & Brad Pitt meet for cocktails in Casablanca (‘of all the gin joints in all the towns . . . ‘*) playing faux married couple to run a dangerous Nazi takedown op. Real marriage follows back in London before Pitt gets confronted with the possibility that he’s just wed a German agent! Plots don’t come more old-fashioned than that. Yet with all the meticulous period detail and seamless CGI effects, plotting & attitude (cultural & military) fail to convince or add up. (Pitt’s accent is noted as too Québécois, but 21st century mores get a pass.) Credit for a great action set piece when Pitt sneaks in to occupied France and then has trouble getting out. (Staying out of the brig after this is another matter.) And look fast for some b&w wedding photos that show our handsome stars suddenly looking just right for their parts.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Speaking of Casablanca, or rather of CASABLANCA/’42, Steven Knight, whose tone-deaf script is the film’s biggest stumbling block really has no shame, tossing in a brave rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’ before a roomful of German officers as a major plot point.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Bertrand Tavernier’s LAISSEZ-PASSER/ SAFE CONDUCT/’02, tells a twin tale of WWII espionage & resistance from within the film industry that’s both thrilling and true.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

I THANK A FOOL (1962)

Late Susan Hayward vehicle, Made-in-the-U.K., is moldy as Stilton cheese, and none the worse for it. Taken from a novel Daphne Du Maurier might have disowned, it feels comforting, like a second-rate play you inexplicably enjoyed, ‘opened up’ for filming. Hayward, out of jail after 18 months on a euthanasia charge, is turned down for job after job before suddenly getting a position as companion/nurse to Peter Finch’s mentally unbalanced wife . . . and he’s the prosecutor who sent her to jail! Why has he searched for her, of all people? And just what’s wrong with wife Diane Cilento? Hayward’s late style tended toward over-determination, but here she’s relaxed & sensible, playing nicely against the conventions of Modern Gothic in the story. And just as surprising is Robert Stevens’ smooth megging, a tv director with a natural feel for the size & pace of a CinemaScope production. The twisty wrap-up is silly & barely motivated, but at least it’s speedy. Comforting in a proudly ridiculous, guilty-pleasure sort of way. Fun.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: After winning a belated Oscar® for I WANT TO LIVE/’58 (hardly her best), Hayward films always seemed to be sending her off to court. Here, twice.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hayward's at her youthful best in the under-seen beauty DEADLINE AT DAWN/’46 (see below), playing a ‘dance hostess’ who helps a sailor on a murder charge.

Friday, June 9, 2017

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

It’s disingenuous to feign disappointment with the increasingly rote exercises of MARVEL STUDIOS.* This one, which uses IRON MAN’s arrogant-scientist-laid-low template, was generally well-received, though not without a share of fanboy pushback. But it’s a lumpy piece of merchandise, a pedestal built to display another pedestal, as Benedict Cumberbatch swallows the Kool-Aid of career-advancement playing the eponymous doctor. (Looking like Pierce Brosnan; inhabited by Tom Cruise’s acting choices.) A forgettable story sends him to the Mystical East, hoping to find a spiritual cure for his surgical-worthy hands, crushed in a car wreck. Turns out, he’s a natural at inner-bliss/meta-physical incantations, but has to spend his time fighting world domination battles against Mads Mikkelsen, with raccoon eye makeup substituting for character. There’s a nice cameo from Benjamin Bratt as a former graduate of Tilda Swinton’s inner-cure swami institute, but everyone else just worries over their next lame repartee. It all gets sorted out (and made meaningless) via time continuum rewinds which, alas, aren't available for the viewer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film is loaded with phantasmagoric (fantasmagoric?) visual effects - traveling & collapsing thru time & space. They must have looked hallucinogenic on the big 3D screen. But in home viewing, much of the film's non-special effect scenes suffer from murky digital photography funk.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The film offers two follow-up teaser tags. Sneak peek or threat?

DOUBLE-BILL: *Even the best MARVEL pics (CAPTAIN AMERICA/’11; GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’14; DEADPOOL/’16) lose their footing or overplay their hand in the inevitable sequel.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

APARTMENT FOR PEGGY (1948)

There’s a pejorative tinge in saying a film is ‘nice.’ But here’s a film that’s nice in a good way; and in a smart way. Writing & helming in the wake of his MIRACLE ON 34th STREET success*, George Seaton dared to stay small with what first looks like an all too tidy tale of retired philosophy prof Edmund Gwenn giving up on life until he opens his home, heart & intellect to a young couple stiffed by the post-WWII housing shortage. SHE: Jeanne Crain; pregnant, motor-mouthed, resourceful / HE: William Holden; G.I. Bill Chem Major, guilt-ridden by a lack of income, feeling he’s falling behind. Seaton knows that we know what’s coming and smoothly plays out the whole curmudgeon-warms-up tropes in act one; much helped by expert playing from leads & support. And the film keeps making sharp moves, using much of the second act to highlight the frustrations of war brides losing contact with husbands challenged & changed by college experiences; then shifting to personal tragedy in the third act (without going maudlin) so Holden can work his manly sensitivity angle. (Solid & handsome as they come, Holden had a flair for showing the messy inside of a breakdown.) The first act theme (life is worth living) returns in a coda (served dry, with a twist) and only Seaton’s square megging keeps this from being a top pick. (See him fumble a comic set piece for Holden & Gwenn.*) But still plenty good enough. In fact, it’s downright nice.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Production head Darryl F. Zanuck took an inexplicable disliking to MIRACLE and thought he’d give Seaton a lesson opening this quintessential Christmas picture in June! Then the damn thing ran and ran; right thru the holiday season.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The overworked gag has Holden & Gwenn struggle to assemble a baby’s wash tub from ‘easy’ DIY instructions. You’ll find pretty much the same gag from Preston Sturges (same year/same studio), but with far better comic results, for Rex Harrison and a home recording machine in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS/’48.

LINK: The Victorian parlor song that runs thru the film, Michael Balfe’s I DREAMT I DWELT IN MARBLE HALLS, would have been part of everyone’s musical DNA at the time. Now, not so much. Here’s an early (w/ piano accompaniment) and later (orchestrated) link to recordings by Dame Joan Sutherland. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0FE6LlBWbQ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yebOy5Ne6bQ

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

RIKUGUN / ARMY (1944)

Keisuke Kinoshita’s fourth film was another wartime special, designed for the changing fortunes of 1944 and apparently commissioned by Army authorities. Something of a pep talk and a recruitment vehicle, if with a rather downbeat edge, it’s a multi-generational portmanteau pageant that begins in the battle-scarred midst of an 1866 war for supremacy between warring Japanese factions. Notably, the family arc we follow, with stops every decade or so for a fresh war, is on the losing side. After about four of these vignettes, the second half settles down to concentrate on a more modern story as a father, disappointed in own his war record, sees small hope for military advancement coming from his eldest son, a weakling and a bit of a sissy. Instead, the father leads a youth military-prep group in-between escalating comic fights with the factory owner who funds the organization. He hardly notices how his son has grown up, winning a fine army commission after all. Kinoshita gives us much of the war drama via commentary from non-participants, avoiding the action we hear discussed. An odd directorial choice, perhaps dictated by budgetary concerns. But it all leads up to a final sequence of real power, as the son heads to his deployment in China amidst thousands of marching troops in a festive citywide celebration to send them off. The film’s focus shifts to the mother, at first avoiding the spectacle, but then drawn to it in an increasingly desperate try to see her son in the big parade before he leaves. Kinoshita builds this sequence into an exceptionally strong set piece, as the mother struggles thru crowds for what could be a final look.*   It’s like an OTT silent film set piece from King Vidor, like the one in THE BIG PARADE/’25 where the French girl can’t bring herself to let go of her soldier boy as he’s being driven out of town. Here, it’s so effective, you have to think twice to remember the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese during the Chinese Occupation; leaving a sour taste to this historically interesting film.

DOUBLE-BILL: The complete Kinoshita WWII films are on Criterion/Eclipse - Series 41.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *John Ford gets a similar effect (in 20 seconds & a handful of shots) as Claudette Colbert moves to higher & higher ground for a last look at husband Henry Fonda as he marches off to face the British in DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK/’39.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

BORN TO BE BAD (1950)

All but unknown Nicholas Ray pic (you’ll see why) is a bitchy affair for Joan Fontaine, a bit long in the tooth as a New Girl in Town, hustling between San Fran’s artsy ‘smart set’ and old-wealth ‘social set’ to get ahead. And if that means dumping macho literary light Robert Ryan for her roommate’s monied fiancé (Joan Leslie; Zachary Scott), so be it. Fontaine positively purrs her way thru the role and the film has its moments in the first half, but too many plot complications & see-thru lies stop it cold before too long. Ultimately, Ray has neither the style nor much zest for this sort of trash. At least Mel Ferrer gooses things up in an early credit as an amusingly mediocre society painter, a wolf behind gay trimmings. And Robert Ryan gets a shot at something outside his usual brutes & borderline psychos, playing a suave, but rough-hewed writing talent (think James Jones/Irwin Shaw). He’s terrifically appealing, his enjoyment in the role infectious.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fontaine’s a regular Eve Harrington here (of ALL ABOUT EVE fame), filming right across town from this R.K.O. production over @ 20th/Fox.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Don’t skip the Alternate Ending on the disc with gives Joan a couple of extra turns of the screw . . . so to speak.

Monday, June 5, 2017

HARRIET CRAIG (1950)

Third go-round for George Kelly’s Pulitzer Prize winner must have seemed psychologically obvious even in 1950, like Ibsen For Dummies. Not a bad thing in some ways, there’s craft (or rather craftiness) to it, and Joan Crawford is frighteningly well-suited to her role as the house-enthralled Mrs. Craig, both controlled & controlling as she manipulates & lies her way thru a childless marriage to Wendell Corey, sabotaging his career & friendships to keep him close by, dependent on her alone. Relatives & servants get similar treatment, finally leaving her with only her freakishly well-ordered house as companion. (As if ‘bizarro’ Nora, from A DOLL’S HOUSE, finding herself alone, stayed inside when she slammed the door.) The film makes a basic mistake in opening up Kelly’s play, losing its single-set claustrophobia; and Crawford’s actions (and acting) are too transparent. One neat addition has Corey explicitly held thru sex, with Crawford’s short, manly hair style adding a dominatrix edge. (Still very striking under lenser Joseph Walker though director Vincent Sherman brings little flair even in house design.) But the part really doesn’t work without a sense of pity; here it’s Termagant’s Comeuppance. In ‘36, Rosalind Russell & John Boles took a more stagebound approach under Dorothy Arzner. What we really need is the lost ‘28 silent version with Irene Rich & Warner Baxter, perfectly cast, under forgotten writer/director William de Mille, older brother of you know who.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, the earlier Arzner (under the play title, CRAIG’S WIFE) . . . OR: To get a feel of what the de Mille silent might have been like, there’s his MISS LULU BETT/’21 a fine domestic dramedy with great perfs from manly Milton Sills & exquisite Lois Wilson.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

GOOD MORNING, MISS DOVE (1955)

You know the drill: small-town spinster teacher never realizes how many lives she’s affected over the years. (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE/’46 is like a guy version of the same idea, with wife & kids in the mix. Miss Dove even stops a panic run on the local bank for those who missed the Capra.) Henry Koster megs in his becalmed non-interventionist front-and-center CinemaScope style (he was livelier back in the ‘30s) and a light comic tone keeps things from getting too sticky. Along with some oddly stiff acting; as if English were everyone’s second language. But halfway in, you notice that Jennifer Jones’s Miss Dove is less severe disciplinarian/truth-teller, more vinegary, unyielding and needlessly rude; hiding 'the Terrible’ Miss Dove’s soft spot under a cruel comic edge. She's like a female Clifton Webb, the phenomenally popular cranky, know-it-all at 20th/Fox (where this was made). Webb, who came late to film, after decades on stage, made an unlikely leading-man. Fey, fussy, yet a top studio grosser, often as Dad to batches of children. Easy to see how this might have been developed for him. (Same dialogue; different clothes.) To some extent, it works well enough with Jones, these Most-Memorable-Teacher things always do. (Though perhaps not in Germany! - see bonus poster)

The trouble is that Jones has nothing like the sheer technique Webb built up over decades headlining B’way revues. (Romberg, Berlin, Porter & Kern all wrote for him.) So where Webb was tart, stylized, precise; Jones gives mannerisms by rote. She soon went back to glamorous suffering and returned the Clifton Webb act to Clifton Webb.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Until Webb retired and left Richard Haydn as a reasonable facsimile in THE SOUND OF MUSIC/’65.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Watch close to see the student population go from lily white to integrated over the decades. First a Jewish kid (with a matzo ball making mom) then during the final assembly, look fast for a black kid. Progress.

DOUBLE-BILL: Webb’s at his strict sweet-and-sour funniest in CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN/’50 . . . OR: For a more traditional spinster teacher number, see Claudette Colbert, John Payne & director Henry King take much of the curse off the format in REMEMBER THE DAY/'41.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003)

Piss poor, with witless dialogue, inept action (staging & direction), and a joyless tone, this comic book adaptation, a fantastic turn-of-the-last century adventure stocked with glosses on famous literary characters as a privy fighting guild brought together to battle a villainous mastermind, was a damp way for Sean Connery to end a career.*  The basic idea is INDIANA JONES meets the A-TEAM, but it’s more 'Triple A' division, with a story that doesn’t add up after a nifty initial prologue with a platoon of faux Germans invading British banks before a platoon of faux Brits retaliate by raiding a German weapons factory. Someone’s trying to start World War Zero, ya? But it’s all downhill from there, beginning with a second prologue that scoots off to Africa to enlist Connery’s Allan Quatermain in the eponymous league. From there, neither plot, characterization (not a memorable perf in the lot) nor shot sequence make much sense. Easy enough to blame over-parted megger Stephen Norrington (he hasn’t directed since), but plenty of shame to go around. The best thing in here, and very much worth a look, are the models & miniatures (vast cityscapes and sea-going sub) which lend the feel of a deluxe Pop-Up Picture book to things, and hold up far better than the all-too-quickly dated CGI monsters and explosions. Otherwise, pass.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Maybe that’s why he’s hiding under a hat in our poster.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Of course, Connery nails this sort of thing in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE/’89, second best of that series.

Friday, June 2, 2017

DEEP WATERS (1948)

Dean Stockwell makes an adorable hardluck kid in a sweet, but not overly sentimental pic that finds director Henry King working right in his comfort zone. Orphaned three years back when Pop died at sea, Stockwell, after running away from a series of foster homes gets a tryout with hard-shelled/soft-centered Anne Revere. If only he could spend all his spare time with Dana Andrews’ independent lobster fisherman (and hearty Portuguese mate Cesar Romero), it just might work out. Andrews’ connection to the kid is Jean Peters, his on-again/off-again fiancé and the boy’s social worker. Unsure of the surrogate-father relationship, she worries about Stockwell’s safety out at sea almost as much as the bad turn he’s taking on land. There are a couple of nice detours built into the story, but the real reason it works so well comes from how King handles his players (all naturals, has Romero ever been this good?, and watch for the great D. W. Griffith actress Mae Marsh as a worried neighbor); his locations (plain, but handsome Maine seascape & towns); his understated staging (with just the right positions to cover some scenes in one confident set-up); and by letting homely attitudes speak for themselves. The film’s largely low key, but not without a wallapalooza storm-at-sea sequence to show off some still powerful effects work. (Presumably from F/X specialist Fred Sersen & second unit helmer Joseph Behm.) And note it’s placing as a second act turning point rather than holding back to milk for an action finale. Just a lovely little pic. A shame the print isn’t in tip-top shape, but don’t let that stop you.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Warm, lovely, talented, Jean Peters had a major career quashed by her loathsome, jealous creep of a husband, Howard Hughes.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Cyril Mockridge contributes a fine, evocative score, very British/Frank Bridge, and gorgeously orchestrated by Maurice de Packh who seems to have freelanced around town when something special was needed. (See IMDb.com to spot the M-G-M/ Arthur Freed musicals he was brought in on.)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

HANA SAKU MINATO / PORT OF FLOWERS (1943)

Those who know the gently satiric post-war Ealing Studio comedies (e.g. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS/’49; THE LAVENDER HILL MOB/’51) will recognize tropes & tone in this bit of wartime escapism, yet still find the Japanese orientation a little jarring. A smoothly run debut for director Keisuke Kinoshita, out in ‘43 when the war seemed to be going well, no doubt explaining the relatively modest patriotic elements. It’s is a standard farce set-up about a couple of con men who land on an underdeveloped island where they ingratiate themselves before raising a syndicate to restart the old shipyards with shares bought by trusting locals. Naturally, they’re planning a hasty escape with the cash before any work starts, but plans go awry when love enters the picture along with an unknown ‘relative’ and worst of all, when war is declared!  !Bonsai!  (Hey, it’s a Japanese war pic, Pearl Harbor is celebrated.) Suddenly, their bogus plans take a practical turn as ship building is not only a boon to the community, but also patriotic & profitable.*  The playing leans to the broad side and some transitions are abrupt, but there’s more than just historical interest here. Especially with a cast that features fistfuls of actors soon seen in works from Ozu and Mizoguchi. Kinoshita continued making these wartime quickies, now collected in a Criterion set, and more prestigious fare later. But his films never really broke thru Stateside so that even his BALLAD OF NARAYAMA/’58 is better known in Shohei Imamura’s Cannes’ prize-winning version of 1983.* More reports on these wartime efforts to come.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Sure, it’s WWII Japan, but we might well be watching a sequel to THE MUSIC MAN or THE PRODUCERS.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *The heavy-weather subject matter of NARAYAMA (voluntary death in the forest for seniors) was D.O.A. in the Matthew McConaughey/Gus Van Sant SEA OF TREES/’15.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THESE THREE (1936)

Everyone’s a revelation in William Wyler’s first adaptation of Lillian Helman’s powerhouse play THE CHILDREN’S HOUR.* The story, which moves very smartly, follows two freshly graduated college pals (Merle Oberon; Miriam Hopkins) who start a small private girl’s school with help from Joel McCrea, a doctor at the local hospital. And while both are smitten (McCrea’s incredibly attractive here, in looks & personality), he only has eyes for Oberon. But between Hopkins’ jabbering Aunt & a ‘bad seed’ student (a truly terrifying Bonita Granville), we’re shown how a lie, gossip, circumstantial behavior & peer blackmail easily destroys ‘these three.’ Hard to imagine anything bettered on this one, even Merle Oberon drops her glacial manner with a role perfectly suited, while Hopkins shows wariness, warmth & steel beyond her normal range. And that’s to say nothing of the children. How Wyler got these holocausts of fits & tantrums from ten year olds is a mystery . . . and a triumph. The unspoken romantic triangle of Helman’s original play lost its lesbian angle to movie censorship, as well as its far bleaker curtain, elements Wyler was able to retain in the less well-received 1961 remake with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine & James Garner. (In '36, a smiley tag end is the film’s only pat moment, the one alteration Helman was likely to regret.) Time has made the remake almost as much a period piece as this, greatly improving its effect though still not equaling this bowdlerized beauty.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR looks better now than when it was first released. And this film’s Miriam Hopkins is exceptional as the dithering Aunt.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Meryl Streep made her film debut in JULIA/'77, punched by Jane Fonda’s Lillian Helman after suggesting that the play’s lesbian theme hit close to home.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE WANDERERS (1979)

Philip Kaufman’s coming-of-age pic (early ‘60s Bronx nostalgia from the Richard Price novel) may not live up to its cult rep, but is so entertaining you might not notice. One of those pics where latter-day critical standing is helped, rather than hurt, by a botched release and bad initial reviews, once it's been rediscovered as a hard-to-find collector’s item. (Clearance rights to its top-of-the-charts early ‘60s soundtrack must have been tough.) With a smash cast of near unknowns working on real locations, and heightened, not guyed, period detail calling just the right amount of attention to itself, the fairly free adaptation by Kaufman & wife Rose neatly juggles multiple ethnic gangs & crisscrossing storylines. Less successful are high school classes that are little more than set-ups for conflict and, surprisingly, much of the action stuff. The chases come off, but when fights break out, or a big football game turns riot, Kaufman swings big and misses. (Inexperienced actors? Budget limitations?) Still, he finds something special in charting the holdover cultural attitudes of a neighborhood left behind, slowing down for a few big moments-in-time episodes (JFK’s end; Bob Dylan’s beginning) which come across with unusual emotion & clarity. And how many films catch this much breakout talent in leading roles who all burned out before reaching their potential.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Released a few months earlier, Walter Hill’s even more stylized high school gang film, THE WARRIORS, set in the near future with more of a musical feel to it, probably stole this film’s commercial thunder. But then, Kaufman’s pic really has less in common with that film (or BLACKBOARD JUNGLE/’55 or WEST SIDE STORY/’61), than it does with Federico Fellini’s indelible coming-of-age pic, I VITELLONI/’53, whose small-town characters are out of school, unwilling to grow up & pushing 30.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

THE BLACK SWAN (1942)

The Warner Bros swashbucklers with Flynn/ Curtiz/Korngold handling swash, meg & score, especially the seafaring ones, must have been the despair of other studios. Impossible to best for romance/sweep/derring-do, with an unexpected emotional charge tapping into the war effort & FDR’s Four Freedoms. (Even before he made the speech in 1941.) That said, this is a good example of the competition and still comes across pretty well. Ben Hecht’s script makes quick work of a twisty plot that has three factions of pirates (good/bad/wavering) in constant conflict, while international alliances shift & legit government turns corrupt. All the while, shirtless buccaneer Tyrone Power competes with inconveniently engaged ruling class Maureen O’Hara to see who’s prettier. (She wins, but it’s a close call!) The big cast deliver, especially George Sanders hiding behind a big red beard, peeking under O’Hara’s bed-sheet!; and under a splendid period wig, Laird Cregar as real-life pirate Henry Morgan. Director Henry King hasn’t Michael Curtiz’s dynamism (he’s better at contemplative/slow-burn) and scorer Alfred Newman was no Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who was?), but they’re both in good form. Be aware that a new Blu-Ray edition has significantly sharpened the richly TechniColored DVD of 2006 to fine effect.

DOUBLE-BILL: Power’s best swashbuckler is landlocked, THE MARK OF ZORRO/’40, guided by Rouben Mamoulian’s feel for Southern Border atmosphere & his signature rhythmic direction.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Memory can play tricks, but doesn’t the archival cut contain a couple extra minutes near the opening for pirate pals Sanders & Power to carry on about what they plan to do with the captive beauties at their feet?  Bowdlerized for modern sensibilities?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)

Though little noted, Robert Altman’s iconoclastic high-tide as gonzo director/cultural guru lasted only six years, from M*A*S*H* in 1970 to NASHVILLE/‘75.* Even within it, only five of eight hold up, but none more so than this NorthWest pipedream of a Western. A literal pipedream for Julie Christie’s opium smoking Mrs. Miller, the entrepreneurial prostitute with a business proposition for Warren Beatty’s slow-on-the-uptake gamblin’ man. Together, as a scrappy mining town goes up, they build & run a dream whore house that draws in free-spending customers and death-dealing competitors. With a refracted physical & narrative design that always serves the story, Altman loads on gorgeous ensemble work in every corner. Something of a necessity with Altman & cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond pulling focus on secondary characters at any given moment in his tenderly ‘distressed’ film stock. More of that pipedream effect, extended from image to sound & narrative, as if thru mist & memory. All capped by a heaven-sent snowstorm finale as McCabe attempts to outwit three professional gunmen who’ve shown their colors in an unforgettable encounter with young buck Keith Carradine in his winning debut. A stunning piece of violence, one of the best things Altman ever did. As is the entire pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Modern viewers have few problem with Altman’s cluttered sound design & multi-layered dialogue. But what a brouhaha it made back in the day! One reason was that while Altman & his team worked with state-of-the-art equipment, the final ‘mono’ mix (later films used multi-track formats) was eventually played in ancient sound systems at local bijoux whose speakers and acoustic design were decades out of date, designed to ‘warm up’ dryly recorded optical soundtracks. They turned sophisticated sound design to mush. (So don’t wimp out and turn on the subtitles.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *Two of Altman’s best from this golden period never caught on, then or now: THIEVES LIKE US and CALIFORNIA SPLIT/ both 1974.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Apparently, Warners hadn’t a clue on how to sell this.  See poster.

Friday, May 26, 2017

WILSON (1944)

Passion-project for 20th/Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck and one of his biggest busts. (Allegedly, the priciest pic since GONE WITH THE WIND.) The idea was to use the presidential life of Woodrow Wilson, with emphasis on his doomed post-WWI League of Nations start-up, to push the ONE WORLD theories of Zanuck pal (and failed Republican Presidential candidate) Wendell Wilkie. Zanuck even optioned Wilkie’s book, but couldn’t find a way to dramatize it. Exactly the problem here! There’s incident aplenty: Princeton academic rises from Jersey governorship to Prez taking down the ‘Party Machine’ along the way; progressive initiatives won; lovely wife lost/lovely wife gained - gossip be damned!; World War to international statesman but with hopes dashed by a stroke. If only Lamar Trotti’s script dramatized & dialogued as much as it speechifies; a waxworks parade that might have been played by Disney Auto-Animatronic figures. Maybe if Wilson's faults & feet of clay were brought into the light? The man, a Southern ‘Gentleman’ by birth, all but singlehandedly returned Jim Crow race laws to D.C.*; then ruined his life’s work (and his health) thru stubborn self-regarding arrogance. Cedric Hardwicke finds something to play as nemesis Senator Cabot Lodge, but the rest of a huge cast is largely wasted on flights of exposition, while underrated director Henry King can do little but monumentalize small action on huge sets. There’s a nice WWI montage using newsreel footage (hey!, there’s Marie Dressler selling War Bonds with Doug Fairbanks & Mary Pickford) and lenser Leon Shamroy gets some spectacular TechniColor depth effects in the big convention sequence. Otherwise, a dud.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Ironically, the studios with the most memorable musical fanfares, Warners & 20th/Fox, often dropped them to telegraph that a film was out of the ordinary.  Here, we get a special DFZ logo like a Medallion-of-Merit signifying worthiness.  (It might have come from the same bag the Wizard of Oz finds achievement tokens for Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion.)  Small recompense for Alfred Newman’s bold brass signature flourish.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It’s apt that Wilson is shown enjoying real-life vaudeville star Lew Dockstader doing an impersonation of Teddy Roosevelt in BlackFace! And that Geraldine Fitzgerald, as his second wife, wins him over with a race-inflected punchline. Alas, both are meant to humanize him.

CONTEST: Eddie Foy Jr, seen here as his vaudevillian pop Eddie Foy Sr, played the part in how many feature films at how many studios? Hint: He doesn’t play Dad in THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS/’55, Bob Hope starred in that bio-pic though Foy did play the role in a ‘60s tv remake produced by Hope. But we’re only counting feature films here.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

POST TENEBRAS LUX (2012)

Indigestible Film-Fest Candy from Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas; award-bait as lyrical-wannabe headache-inducing Marxist-tinged muddle.*  That’s a literal headache BTW, as the film uses fish-eye lenses that distort for an astigmatism/blurred double-vision effect. (Presumably why the film’s format is square-ish Academy Ratio.) Very loosely, the film takes up divisions between monied & working class families, largely focused on one wealthy extended family (slim, elegant, Caucasian in appearance) living the country life surrounded (occasionally interrupted) by darker, plumper, bean-eating laboring types. Smoldering class violence may be in the air, and sure to erupt like Chekhov’s proverbial loaded gun (he even gets a mention), but not before a prurient visit (don't get your hopes up) to a pricey sauna/sex-club where the rich & bored pay for designated rooms servicing designated perversions.  Reygadas has a remarkable eye for just missing the necessary element to make a shot. Perhaps a clever strategy of æsthetic denial. Nah.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *If you think the film doesn’t end with a couple of British ‘Public’ School teams fighting it out on the rugby field, you’ve got another think coming.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Is Reygadas trying to meld the slow artful staging of Aleksandr Sokurov (try an early semi-success like THE SECOND CIRCLE/’90) with the savage class comedy & perversions of late Luis Buñuel (say, THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE/’72)?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1940)

Exceptionally well-produced ‘Women’s Weepie’ for Bette Davis in her prime lets her play saintly, wronged-against governess to a gaggle of troubled children as she fights a natural attraction to unhappy papa Charles Boyer and unearned antipathy from pathological maman Barbara O’Neill (Scarlet O’Hara’s mom in GWTW). Long, but consistently involving, with spectacular chemistry (or repulsion) from the leads, and unusual attention given in support from Helen Westley, Walter Hampden, Henry Daniell, Harry Davenport, George Coulouris & Montagu Love. (Warners, positively spendthrift with character actors.) And if eight decades have left the film with a fair share of sticky moments*, the fact-inspired story helps ground the melodrama in something like heightened reality as Boyer’s domestic crisis mirrors (and perhaps precipitates) the fading fortunes of the restored Bourbon monarchy he’s a part of, and the rise of The French Commune of 1848. (Read between the lines and there’s enough repressed sex & politics for a less romanticized/uncensored remake as a cable mini-series.) Anatole Litvak, who made his international rep directing Boyer in the doomed royal romance of MAYERLING/’36, returns to that film’s Max Ophüls-worthy opulence & fluid staging, now with extra Hollywood gloss.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *That’s some peachy Georgia accent on the cuddly tyke Davis nurses back to health. Of course, he’s really speaking French, so maybe he’s from Southern France.

DOUBLE-BILL: If MAYERLING and HEAVEN carried the torch for Ophüls, Litvak & Boyer show a Lubitsch like touch in TOVARICH/’37. And good luck finding a decent DVD.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

YOU GOTTA STAY HAPPY (1948)

1948 was pretty late in the day for a Screwball Comedy featuring a flighty runaway bride heiress. But here’s Joan Fontaine as a marriage-phobic rich girl who meets Mr. Right on her wedding night . . . to someone else. Mr. Right? That’d be James Stewart, an entrepreneurial war vet struggling to get his air-freight operation off the ground. Naturally, he misreads the situation in the hotel suite next door, but still comes to the rescue with a secret lift out of town on his freight plane. Anyway you slice it, this is all comic leftovers, made worse by one of those music scores that does the chuckling for you. Happily, the film quickly drops the forced gagging to find a lightly romantic comic rhythm for its mutually attracted (and attractive) leads under journeyman director H. C. Potter. (At his best later this year with even better call-and-response playing from Cary Grant & Myrna Loy in MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE.) The film builds a lot of goodwill as it flies NYC to L.A. with plenty of warm, funny support from Eddie Albert, Percy Kilbride & a clean-shaven Porter Hall among others. The forced comedy returns right at the end, but at least the music cues calm down . . . most of the way.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Mirroring the film plot, Stewart in real life was working for Fontaine (and then husband William Dozier) since it was her company, Rampart Productions, producing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rampart made its one & only other film this year, LETTER TO AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, a Max Ophüls masterpiece.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

PATERSON (2016)

Jim Jarmusch has been stealthily releasing a film every three or four years for decades; a dozen since 1980. But it’s been a while since one has seemed to matter this much. (Along with a welcome reduction in hipster quotient.) Simply shot, and beautiful in Jarmusch's minimalist style, it tackles an unusual topic (poetry & the mystery of creation) from an unusual proletariat angle. Traversing a week in the life of Paterson, N.J. bus driver Adam Driver (a bus driver named ‘Driver,’ and his film character named Paterson), the film closely observes his life habits with its small variations of regular hours, daily chores & duties of domesticity; a very routine routine. Yet, rather than dull artistic spirit, quotidian repetition feeds creative process, opening mind & thoughts experientially. A pretty tough concept to verbalize, let alone organize & pull off as film where time moves at the same pace for every viewer. Driver, a nearly perfect vessel here, fascinating in repose, is cinematically blessed with a forehead that ‘reads’ as thought. (Something of a Native American cast to his profile, though apparently not in his bloodline.) As his wife, Golshifteh Farahani (a name to stymie SpellCheck) is spacey & sweet, an eccentric homemaker, but a fine receptacle for his literary longings (the poems are charming & believably his). While the rest of a smallish cast, largely bar & work acquaintances, work gracefully as backstop to his still forming ideas. Jarmusch can’t quite maintain his design, giving in to questionable dramatic incidents to pump up the third act. And though you can see why he does it, the film has to land somewhere, you may wish he hadn’t. Still, a lovely piece.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Frederick Elmes’ cinematography really brings out a found bleak beauty in the streets & buildings of Paterson’s on-its-heels working-class town, even without the forested train trestle that pictorially bridges a ravine, a waterfall & the film.

Friday, May 19, 2017

DEATH ON THE NILE

After putting Agatha Christie back on the cinematic A-list with their well-appointed MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74, producers John Brabourne & Richard Goodwin double-dipped on a second All-Star whodunit with a whole new team. And while there’s a distinct drop in glamor (as in EXPRESS headline lovers Sean Connery & Vanessa Redgrave downsized here to Simon MacCorkindale & Lois Chiles), the results are more swings & roundabouts then losses. Our lead, Christie’s famously fatuous empty-vessel of a Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, flips from stiff, padded, stunt-cast Albert Finney to the more naturally appropriate Peter Ustinov, making small work of the task at hand without missing a trick or a self-reflexive laugh. Elsewhere, with the exception of bickering travelers Bette Davis & distressed paid-companion Maggie Smith, along with soused novelist Angela Lansbury (all three in high comic heaven), the other suspects (you can hardly call them characters) have neither the wit nor wattage so prodigally wasted in EXPRESS. (The surfeit in talent part & parcel of its enduring louche charm.) Yet isn’t NILE the better structured, better plotted murder mystery? (Hat tip to scripter Anthony Shaffer.) What fun director John Guillermin has gruesomely murdering our main victim over & over again as Ustinov proposes the next likely solution. (Surely the only murder mystery ever solved by recognizing the use of ‘conditional tense.’) And if Mia Farrow, as the jilted & vengeful fiancée, looks even thinner & paler than she did during her ROSEMARY’S BABY pregnancy, there’s still an unusual amount of blood spilled for the typically bloodless Ms. Christie.

DOUBLE-BILL: The producers eventually tapped the Christie well too often with a lousy Miss Marple for Ms. Lansbury in THE MIRROR CRACK’D/’80 and a diminished Poirot finding EVIL UNDER THE SUN/’82..

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Normally, it’s the ladies’ hair styling that goes wrong in period pieces. But here, the men look too contemporarily coiffed. Bring in the shears!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT / aka FALSTAFF (1965)

Even those who first saw CHIMES in rare screenings 30, 40 years ago, had little trouble looking past battered prints and subfusc sound to recognize a masterpiece. Now that’s it’s out in Criterion’s stunning restoration, it should be putting the lie to all the rot you still read about Welles’ post-CITIZEN KANE decline. Of course, it’s not. And Welles would no doubt be amused to see that when it comes to his Stateside reputation, John Ford’s famous line from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, ‘When the legend becomes fact . . . print the legend,’ still holds. (Ford wasn’t his favorite American film director for nothing.) The film, his own remarkable distillation of decades of thought & productions on Shakespeare’s ‘War of the Roses’ plays, is now condensed, concentrated on Falstaff, the fat knight he was born to play. It’s a physically stunning film, made on the usual Welles’ slim dime, with cascading brilliance on all sides. Standouts include John Gielgud’s guilt-ridden Henry IV; Keith Baxter as an open-faced/ secretly hard Prince Hal (later Henry V), torn between a chilly father and the warm mass (and mess) of Falstaff’s humane anarchy; Margaret Rutherford’s doughty Mistress Quickly (you have to go back to Marie Dressler to find the like, though even Dressler couldn’t have topped the ‘cold as stone’ eulogy). Really, too many character gems to list, held aloft by the unified look Welles gives to every detail (click on the charming costume/action sketch below),

with the now legendary Battle of Shrewsbury (still looking technically advanced) positioned dead-center, as the world pivots to darkness & melancholy. Only Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s lively score, the flip side to his doom-laden music for Welles’ OTHELLO/’51, tries to keep contact with happier times, while cinematographer Edmund Richard brings a chiseled, contrasty b&w in place of the refined grey scale he gave Welles on THE TRIAL/’62. As a boy, Welles worked on a series of books called ‘EVERYBODY’S SHAKESPEARE.’ but only delivered on the promise 25 years after CITIZEN KANE. He never made a better film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Back in radio days, Welles often played multiple parts. Not so easy in a film. But he could still dub vocals as needed . . . or even just for sport. Listen up here as he has a bit of fun voicing a sheriff who comes to Quickly’s inn looking to collect a debt from Sir John. Welles hiding from ‘Welles.’ Considering how he financed these things, it’s an apt gag.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Keith Baxter, such a wonderful, moving Hal (physically he’s like a more robust Anthony Perkins, Welles’ lead in THE TRIAL/’62) never got the film opportunities he deserved once CHIMES more or less disappeared. But he thrived on stage, even making something out of Shakespeare’s notoriously unplayable Marc Antony against Maggie Smith’s Cleopatra in Stratford, Canada.

DOUBLE-BILL: We’ve mentioned this before, but in a striking coincidence (if it is coincidence), Welles not only chose the same three Shakespearean subjects as Giuseppe Verdi for adaptation (MACBETH/’48, OTHELLO/’51, FALSTAFF), but made them in the same order.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

LA LOI DU MARCHÉ / THE MEASURE OF A MAN (2015)

Simply made in the old cinéma-verité/ documentary style, and all the more effective for it, Stéphane Brizé’s topical/award-winning film finds its drama following skilled-laborer Vincent Lindon as he looks for a new job. Middle-aged & downsized out of a well-paid tool-and-die union position, he does all the right things to get back on track. Retraining, deportment classes, Skype interviews, refinancing; each new humiliation quietly suffered. He’s lucky in his family with a sympathetic wife (though Brizé misses a trick in not letting us know if she works) and a great teenage kid, thriving in spite of various physical problems from cerebral palsy. (A scene with his school counselor is equally heartbreaking & wonderful.) Finally, Lindon (a professional actor surrounded by well-cast amateurs, he deservedly cleaned up on the award circuit) gets a decent, if depressing security gig at one of those huge faceless all-in-one superstores. He’s good at it, too. Note how Brizé jolts the drama ahead by skipping the steps that got him the position. And we’re so drawn in to Lindon’s improved fortunes that we’re relieved (to our shame) when a staff meeting is called, not as we suppose to announce a closing, but to deal with a tragic event. At the end, after overseeing one too many soul-draining, ego-bruising cashiered cashier incidents, Brizé offers a bit of prideful folly that doesn’t fully ring true. We’ve earned it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

GOD IS MY CO-PILOT (1945)

With the war nearing an end, Warners rolled out the ‘B’-team for this fact-inspired fancy on the famed China-based Flying Tigers fighter pilots. Dennis Morgan is his usual blandly pleasant self as real-life Col. Robert Scott, advancing from supply runs to bombing missions only to face a ‘what’s-it-all-about-God?’ personal moment. Thankfully, Alan Hale’s on hand as a missionary priest to let him know that . . . well, see the title. With personal backstory & group camaraderie but lightly sketched, the main focus goes to the action stuff; standard issue, like the rest of the film. But between process work, stock shots & newsreel combat footage, some airborne take-downs retain impact. And, in the film’s best sequence, Scott’s one-man attack on a Burma Road Japanese military convoy is exceptional. But who did it? Journeyman helmer Robert Florey? Asst. Lester Guthrie? Unlikely. Maybe Robert Burks & Roy Davidson, credited on the exploding aircraft F/X, were in charge? Elsewise, enjoy the good Franz Waxman score; be mildly appalled by an unusually high level of verbal Jap-bashing*; note a third-billed Dane Clark with only eight minutes screen time; and check out the tropical make-up on Raymond Massey’s Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, a Louisiana native of French stock. What ethnicity was Perc Westmore going for?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *As ‘Tokyo Joe,’ the Flying Tigers’ arch-enemy in the sky, Richard Loo earns credit for giving as good as gets in the trash-talk department . . . the buck-toothed heathen! (Actually, he has excellent teeth.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Warners spent more time & energy considering God’s position on warfare in SERGEANT YORK/’41. But then, that came out a couple of months before Pearl Harbor

Monday, May 15, 2017

BIANCO, ROSSO E . . . / THE SIN (aka WHITE SISTER) (1972)

Pretty dreadful. The post-war glory days of Italian cinema came to a screeching halt in the mid-to-late ‘60s. Most of the big names weren’t much affected, but standard commercial fare went into fast decline. Regardless of political leanings, producers & directors, terrified of seeming old-fashioned/out-of-touch, discarded old verities in cinematic grammar & craft, tossed aside in the hustle to survive. So a fine journeyman helmer like Alberto Lattuada, who’d given Fellini a leg up in VARIETY LIGHTS/’51, made sharp, near perfect dramedies both romantic (LA SPIAGGIA/’54) and cynical (MAFIOSO/’62), now looks hopelessly ill at ease in the lumbering sentiment & political sparring of this comic-tragedy. Sophia Loren is just as uncomfortable as a saintly, irreplaceable nun riding out the latest crisis at an overrun strike-happy hospital. Adriano Celentano is the comical communist orderly, leading the revolt (and he’s plenty revolting), but falling hard for the unavailable Sister Sophia. It’s one of those hospital-as-metaphor-for-society films popular at the time, but too lazy to stick with the conceit, jumping into backstory for Loren (pre-nunnery lost love) and street protests for schlubby Celentano. (A big star in Italy whose appeal didn’t cross over.) Kudos to Alfio Contini for some polished cinematography, but it hardly matters.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Lattuada films mentioned above are all great, with MAFIOSO (out on Criterion) easiest to find.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

HOSHI O OU KODOMO / CHILDREN WHO CHASE LOST VOICES (2011)

Now in his 40s, anime master Makoto Shinkai awaits a Stateside breakout. YOUR NAME/’16, a huge hit in Japan, caused barely a ripple here while this ambitious feature (aka JOURNEY TO AGARTHA, his second as solo director) didn’t get a proper theatrical release. Good as it is, you’ll see why. Neatly divided in half, it begins as a girl’s coming-of-age tale, then switches gears (and a few principals) for something of an Orpheus/Eurydice journey to the UnderWorld. That should make sense, the girl’s father died when she was a kid, and her unexpected expedition partner, her new teacher, is desperately seeking his late wife. Yet, the girl's father isn’t mentioned again, yet alone looked for. Odd. And those voices the girl heard in the mountains back in the opening half? Not space aliens, but souls from the netherworld, something confirmed with help from a rogue kitty-cat and a dreamboat boy, each visiting topside. It's how she discovers the secret portal that goes below, leading to a series of action adventures, dangerous flesh eating beasts, weird religious rites and the breaking of a few social taboos. ALICE IN HADES? All very Japanese in tone, especially compared to the first half. Plenty scary, too. (So, this one’s Kid-Friendly with Warning Lights.) Yet what an eye for landscape, spectacle, movement and architectural detail from Shinkai. Perhaps YOUR NAME, a teenage personality-swap tale, finds the sweet spot.

DOUBLE-BILL: Shinkai’s considerable gifts are better displayed in the gorgeous, concentrated final segment of 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND/’07.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

OPEN WINDOW (2014)

Something of a visual tour de force, a pointless one. Nacho Vigalondo’s over-twisted thriller builds little suspense, too busy exhausting itself in techno-onanism. Elijah Wood (no pun intended) is the laptop obsessed blogger who seeks digital revenge after a dinner with cult-film vixen Sasha Grey is canceled. Not that he’s initiated the computer hack of her life, he merely follows instructions from some unseen cyber-wiz who’s taken control of his system and won’t let him go. Suddenly finding himself in over his head in some nefarious murder plot (aided by a third party of camouflaged ‘helpers’), Wood is at the mercy of . . . . whom? And why? All happening in Pop-Up Windows cascading o’er his laptop without an edit in sight until, two-thirds of the way in, a car crash pushes us intermittently off the screen. By then, you’ll either have lost patience, the plot thread or just grown past caring about the next character reveal/plot reversal. Vigalondo, a natural filmmaker, keeps this airborne far beyond its natural expiration date. (No small thing considering porn-star Sasha Grey’s acting abilities.) But the mystery elements devolve into silliness, more like a detective drama parody from an old vinyl Firesign Theater L.P. where the lack of visuals made its brain teasing vagaries more fun to unravel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Since the film largely takes place on a laptop screen, maybe it would work better viewed on one. Nah.

Friday, May 12, 2017

IL DESERTO DEI TARTARI / THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (1976)

As the DVD package says, BEAU GESTE meets WAITING FOR GODOT in Valerio Zurlini’s existential epic.* Adapted from a once famous 1940 novel by Dino Buzzati, the cast list includes Vittorio Gassman, Max von Sydow, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Fernando Rey & Philippe Noiret; yet you’ve probably never heard of it. A stinker? Some uncinematic Euro-Centric lost-generation jeremiad? A plotless, philosophically-minded screed on the insanity of (metaphysical) war published on the cusp of a new outbreak? The story touches all the expected Foreign Legion tropes as a junior officer finds his jejune/romantic ideas/ideals of military adventure quickly replaced with rigid custom, brutal discipline & bitter cynicism from a motley core of worn out eccentrics at a border fort where everyone waits . . . and waits . . . and waits for the coming hordes of savages to overwhelm them. But here, as a literary work, not some potboiler, offered with the languid tone of an exhausted civilization on the verge of mental & moral collapse. And given a magnificent production in the spectacular ghost city of Bam, Iran, emptied by an earthquake into a barren, ancient desert metropolis. A perfect setting for the elaborate rituals of a dying aristocracy unraveling toward its end. More intriguing than successful, even as socio-political commentary, yet you know you’re watching something.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Possibly a better description posits a Foreign Legion pic divvied up for Michelangelo Antonioni on exteriors and Luchino Visconti on interiors.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The film’s producer/star Jacques Perrin can’t quite hold the screen as needed against that starry support. But comes thru at the end, wasting away in shockingly believable fashion.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

LADY IN THE LAKE (1947)

Using subjective camera POV for a whole movie (‘YOU solve the murder!’) is one those perennial ideas that sounds good if you don’t think too much about it.  Effective enough in small doses, it soon wears out its welcome and slows things down considerably.* Art may thrive on rules & limitation, but has anyone licked this particular trick? Even Orson Welles, who toyed with using the technique for his first film project, an adaptation of HEART OF DARKNESS, gave it up. (Later this year, Delmer Daves used it for the opening section of DARK PASSAGE/’47, helping Humphrey Bogart coyly hide facial surgery.) The technique is extreme, but having your lead be the camera is fun in limited doses, especially with director/star Robert Montgomery & cinematographer Paul Vogel pulling off some clever effects. Things You Can’t Miss: a big kiss right on top of us; a sock in the jaw. Things You Notice Subliminally: barely perceptible dissolve-edits when camera position or lenses need a quick change within a shot. But more often, the technique reduces rather than heightens visual storytelling, leaving a film that plays out like radio drama. (Probably because the technique restricts editing choices.) The case? Well, we’re in Chandler-town, so there’s plenty of hard-nosed dames & action, with P.I. Marlowe taking it on the chin before sussing out the mystery of an estranged wife gone missing and why police dick Lloyd Nolan has it in for him. Audrey Totter is in fine early form as a not-so-bad girl and Tom Tully’s police Captain gets a rare chance to evolve into something like a good egg. As Philip Marlowe, Montgomery is smooth & cynical, cackling with contempt even when he’s playing sincere. With a few more reverse angles to help out, he might have scored. As a one-off, this just gets by.

DOUBLE-BILL: Maybe something was in the air? In addition to DARK PASSAGE (see above), not so hot with or without subjective camera, Hitchcock played with extreme POV in the faux one-shot of ROPE/'48. OR: Stick with Montgomery starring in and directing the superior, if still peculiar film noir RIDE THE PINK HORSE/’47.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Like a mime using ten minutes instead of ten words to get a point across.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

TALL IN THE SADDLE (1944)

Convoluted John Wayne Western from R.K.O. works its B+ budget plenty hard, churning out heaps of plot, but without enough to show for all the effort & action. Mid-list megger Edwin L. Marin, a shoot first/hope for the best type (he probably just wanted to get home on time) rushes every shot. (Better than dawdling, though.) The story has Wayne hunting down the man (or men) who killed his new employer, with cattle rustling, ranch ownership, card sharps & lowbrow comedy (courtesy of Gabby Hayes) figuring into things. But why is every other guy Wayne meets trying to do him in? A vet supporting cast does well enough, defaulting into standard character mode, but Wayne’s young love interests (bad-girl Ella Raines/good-girl Audrey Long) overact badly. And Marin lets the tone swing so wildly, the story never gains traction, with bits of romance, action or comedy all hit and miss. It’s one of those films that probably played better on old Afternoon-At-The-Movies tv, where commercial interruptions dealt it out piecemeal.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Roy Webb’s score must have gotten into Dmitri Tiomkin’s head. That opening phrase grew into the Oscar nominated theme song from FRIENDLY PERSUASION/’56.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film provides a rare opportunity to catch Wayne kneading biscuit dough . . . with his fists. He even remembers to flour the ‘cutter.’