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Sunday, July 23, 2017

HILDA CRANE (1956)

Misfiring on all cylinders, you can just make out the tawdry melodrama writer/helmer Philip Dunne must have been aiming at. Without much in the way of style or social commentary, he’s no threat to masters of the form like Douglas Sirk   . . . or even Mark Robson. Jean Simmons is tight, overwrought & unaccountably loud as a divorcée² who reluctantly goes home to the same insular university town she left years ago, only to find she's pursued by the same two guys she left behind: caddish professor Jean-Pierre Aumont and dull, successful contractor Guy Madison. Can an independent-minded woman find happiness with either type? Dunne probably never should have tried building this on Samson Raphaelson’s flop play, with one controlling bitch mother (Madison's); one chilly, unloving bitch mom (Simmons’); and enough Freudian guilt to warp each one’s only child. There’s little to do but hang around and wait for dramatic inspiration to spark between inadvertent giggles. Then, halfway along, a lethal plot turn kickstarts a series of crises and eventual resolution hardly worth the trouble . . . or inadvertent giggles.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Out the same year, Douglas Sirk’s great WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

THE WORLD OF SUSIE WONG (1960)

In the movies, guys tumble for hookers in one of two ways: either going in without knowing, having the dirty secret exposed by a rival (just beating a tearful tell-all), then having a crisis over ‘used goods’ (think ANNA CHRISTIE/'23; ’30); or they know from the start and won’t admit to feelings because of . . . the ‘used goods’ issue (think MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE/’64). Different roads/same destination. WONG opts for the latter as William Holden, taking a sabbatical to try his hand at painting, snags a cheap apartment in what turns out to be a Hong Kong hotel/brothel. That’s where he spots the girl he met on the ferry (debuting Nancy Kwan), who turns out to be the joint’s top hooker. Hired by Holden not for bed, but for portrait, complications ensue via Michael Wilding’s lonely lush (for Suzie) and via lonely bank clerk Sylvia Syms (for Holden). But what really sells the film is the extraordinary look of the thing, stunningly realized in Geoffrey Unsworth’s eye-popping location lensing (non-location studio sets also unusually fine) and from what must be the most imaginative, vigorous megging Richard Quine ever managed. Kwan, pretty raw-toned here, mistakes irritating for mysterious & intriguing, but her Natalie Woods looks (they could be half-sisters) helps her get away with it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Paul Osborn’s more rounded stage version had France Nuyen & William Shatner in the leading roles, but is now remembered largely for critic Kenneth Tynan’s use of the title as a putdown for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s FLOWER DRUM SONG which he famously (if inaccurately) labeled ‘A World of Woozie Song.’ Ironically, the 1961 film version of that musical would be Kwan’s next role.

Friday, July 21, 2017

THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR . . . (1950)

Purposefully plain, this little religious number might be too piously modest to fit in with the evangelical offerings now playing under-the-urban-radar at Bible-Belt bijoux. But the tune would be familiar. The idea, a can’t-miss amusement, is seriously meant, all about the effects on everyday people (literally Mr. & Mrs. Smith) when God hacks the broadcast airwaves for a week’s worth of radio addresses. On it’s own terms, it’s not badly done, thanks to Charles Schnee’s purposefully flat, well-ordered script and William Wellman’s purposefully unimaginative megging. (Not a big stretch for Wellman at the time.) We spend most of the time with a typical Norman Rockwell kind of family (see poster): James Whitmore doing his minor-league Spencer Tracy thing; Nancy (Davis) Reagan, the pregnant little wren of a wife who shows spunk by sneaking an extra slice of buttered Wonder Bread after breakfast; cute growing boy with paper route, Gary Gray, who gets the best bit in the pic pantomiming Dad’s daily battle with the old clunker. (Other attempts at comic ‘humanizing’ are less congenial.) The real surprise is just how Old Testament this particular Lord is, scaring his flock back to their preferred house of worship, then leaving them on their own to think things over. (And resting on the Seventh Day, don’tcha know.) The film, something of a mission statement from Dore Schary on his way to ousting Louis B. Mayer as M-G-M production head, finesses it’s way around choosing a Voice of G_d, but it might well have been Dubbed by D_re. As the old Hollywood saying would have it: If you want to send a message, call Western Union . . . or Dore Schary. He lasted five years.

DOUBLE-BILL: Swap out Ectoplasmic Lord for Heartthrob Space Alien and you’re damn close to THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51, out the following year and looking better than ever.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

THESE THOUSAND HILLS (1959)

Big-theme Western feels whittled down a size or two, as if someone lost confidence in the material between conception, development & production. You’d never guess a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel lay behind it. Don Murray & Stuart Whitman play opposites-attract cowpoke pals. Murray the ambitious striver with visions of a cattle empire; Whitman more go-with-the-flow roustabout. So while Murray discards the tart who gave him the stake that led to fortune & quick political rise; Whitman marries his and slides into life on the wrong side of the law. All while their wild little town matures as a force in Montana’s march toward civilized ways. And by the time Murray realizes how he’s lost his soul in a grab for success, it’s probably too late to change things. Director Richard Fleischer & lenser Charles Clarke get a lot out of their handsome locations, but the film goes a little dead indoors. Maybe producer David Weisbart just didn’t have the clout (or interest) to follow thru on where the drama seems to point. Story & character arcs go missing, and half of the last act (most likely a piece of courtroom drama) simply isn’t there. Plus, it’s hard to maintain rooting interest for Don Murray (or anyone) once he opts for blandly proper, society gal Patricia Owens over lit-from-within/girl-with-a-past/ cornflower-blue-eyed Lee Remick.

DOUBLE-BILL: William Wyler covered similar terrain (with all the size you could wish) on his habitually underrated THE BIG COUNTRY/’58.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Note how our poster works the contemporary card, downplaying any period Western elements. Too many tv Westerns at the time?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

VIDEODROME (1983)

There’s a good-sized cult for David Cronenberg's Sci-Fi psychological/philosophical thriller about a cable tv operator (James Woods) who gets too entangled in his programming . . . that's literally entangled. Even that simple description should give some idea of a film over-stuffed with half-baked ideas Cronenberg would handle with more technical elan, verbal wit & structural cohesion in THE FLY/’86 and his sick-o masterpiece CRASH/’96. Basically, a power-of-suggestion yarn, tricked up with gross-out effects for Woods after he comes across the underground VideoDrome broadcasts that start to control his mind & body via torture & snuff VHS tapes.* Once Woods grows a (metaphorical?) slit in his abdomen, Cronenberg imagines a sort of asexual frontal fisting technique that monstrously ‘plays’ him from the inside out. (How'd he get this stuff past the censors? One horror gag leaves a gun in his gut, like a doctor remembering a surgical tool after sewing up the patient.) Naturally, there are insurgents trying to take down the VideoDrome guys, but since they seem equally bad, rooting interest is beside the point. As a film project, much of this is more interesting/influential than successful, with a lot of amateur acting keeping us at arm’s length . . . perhaps not a bad thing. (But what a difference an actor like Jeff Goldblum makes in THE FLY.) Still, there hadn’t been anything quite like it, certainly not from Canada!

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, both FLY and CRASH make a better case for Cronenberg.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There’s an immortality angle connected with the tapes, amusing when you consider the main place to find them now is in a dumpster. Landfill immortality.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

TOU ZE / A SIMPLE LIFE (2011)

More like a deceptively simple life. Using well-known actors in Neo-Realistic terms, but with a compressed timeline, acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui charts the last act of nanny & housekeeper Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), 60 years & four generations with one family. Most of her old charges have dispersed to other cities, but she still is taking care of Roger (Andy Lau), a busy, successful film producer. He appears to take her (and her many duties) for granted, but when Ah Tao suffers a stroke, beginning a long slow decline, in spite of modest temporary improvements, he is there for her; the bond of family, even surrogate family, always present, if not always in plain sight. Small details in her relationships with other family members, some of whom return to visit, along with residents & staff at her moderately depressing nursing home, hold surprising interest, brought off without maudlin sentimental stroking. Hui lets any tears come honestly in their turn, using an easy technique that incorporates a closely held POV, briskly abstracted thru linear jumps forward without warning. A lovely, heartfelt film that makes you want to see more Hui, though hopefully without so many uncomfortably over-lit interiors.

SCREWY THOUGH OF THE DAY: Andy Lau is classic Hong Kong, but that nose is strictly French New Wave.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

SWEETHEARTS (1938)

This, the lightest & gayest (the right 1938 word) of the splashy Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operettas, was also M-G-M’s first full-length 3-strip TechniColor feature. Something of a reward for last year’s top-grosser, MAYTIME/’37. The plot of Victor Herbert’s 1913 show (the usual Ruritanian nonsense about a princess working as laundress . . . in Zalinia!!) was jettisoned for a medium-funny backstager worked up by Dorothy Parker & Alan Campbell* about blissfully married songbirds (guess who) hoping to wrap up their long-running B’way hit and give Hollywood a try. Naturally, there’s a misunderstanding (about a canoodling personal assistant) to set off a crisis, but happily it doesn’t come into play till the last act. Most of the piece boasts unexpectedly relaxed playing from the stars, loads of gorgeous (if variable) early TechniColor work, a disposable fashion show for Jeanette and gargantuan specialty numbers, like a novelty dance from Ray Bolger and that revolving staircase (w/ matching draped curtains) built for THE GREAT ZIEGFELD/’36 pulled out of storage for the occasion. Even the plotty last act isn’t a total loss what with its nifty Slavko Vorkapich montage (the Busby Berkeley of trick editing) detailing a miserable tour of one-night stands as Nelson & Jeanette partner up in separate cities with their opposing understudies and start longing for a reunion. KISS ME, KATE it ain’t. But then, neither was KISS ME KATE once M-G-M got hold of it.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Parker claimed to have done just about all the writing in her 'partnership' with two-time husband Campbell.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

TILL THE END OF TIME (1946)

William Wyler’s WWII homecoming classic, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, pretty much sucked the air out of returning soldier problem films in ‘46. But this little progammer is too formulaic to stand out anyway, other than providing an early showcase for Robert Mitchum & Guy Madison. What's best in it comes & goes early as we’re zipped thru an abbreviated demob program with a battery of physical & mental tests before getting OK’d for discharge. Then, a third of their back pay (so they don’t blow it all in one place) and transport by stages home. Alas this is all taken care of in about one reel. After that, the guys struggle to fit in and get their lives back in gear in a brave new world of normalcy. They can’t take it. Madison, no actor, but painfully handsome (Warren Beatty pretty, with the same nose and a great baggy worsted suit in the second half), finds he can't get off the mark except for the spark he takes to young widow Dorothy McGuire. She’s playing the field a little too hard, trying to avoid commitment & a confrontation on her loss. Mitchum’s got a plate in his head, but won’t deal with it, while another wartime pal, Bill Williams, lost his boxing career when he lost his legs. There are some nice scenes in here, but it’s the sort of story that sets everything right at the end with a big barroom brawl. And then there’s that title tune, a popularization/vulgarization lifted from Chopin, Polonaise in A Major; fiercely plugged when the score isn’t playing Bishop’s ‘Home, Sweet Home’ for Madison’s return or Brahms’ Lullaby when he goes to bed. It’s that kind of film.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Cute little Jean Porter is a bit much (she’s supposed to be a bit a bit much) as a sort of Shirley Temple bobby-soxer next door with a heavy crush of Madison. Turns out, Temple left the cast to honeymoon with new hubby John Agar. Good news for director Edward Dmytryk (workmanlike here) as he married Porter two years on; and stayed married till he died 50+ years later.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Selena Royle, as the ex-boxer’s mom, gives her boy a pep talk about another fellow who made good without the use of his legs. In fact, he became President. A welcome reminder that FDR’s handicap was not so much hidden from the public, as seems to be more & more accepted these days, but just not referred to, as if it would have been in bad taste.

DOUBLE-BILL: Of course, BEST YEARS remains the film on the subject, but for an off-kilter try on the returning vet theme, one that almost works, try THE CROOKED WAY/’49, a Robert Florey pic that takes John Payne out of rehab and forces him into a twisty film noir.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A HANDFUL OF DUST (1988)

Having made his mark on the mini-series of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED/’81, Charles Sturridge no doubt seemed the go-to guy for further Evelyn Waugh adaptation. But the mix of glamour, regret, gay-ish romance, Catholicism (lapsed & found), and class comedy proves less useful here. Instead, the distinctive tone of drift, envy, (self)-loathing & dark, bitter satire called for proves beyond his range. And not helped by having all three leads come across as if they were playing behind stage scrims. It’s early ‘30 uppercrust England, and while James Wilby & Kristin Scott Thomas make a handsome, if ill-matched titled couple, they’re barely walking thru a life in his magnificent, if slightly hideous, family ‘pile.’ Bored even with her little boy, ‘Lady’ Kristin offs herself to London where she takes a small, posh flat and a small less posh lover (Rupert Graves). But tragedy interrupts this idyll of iniquity, revealing character flaws just below the polished surface. Typical of Waugh to find comic angles stemming from unspeakable sorrow, but comic they be. If only Sturridge were a bit less afraid of them. Still, some supporting players get a shine on: Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston and a devilish Alec Guinness taking great pleasure in the story’s swerve into Joseph Conrad territory, reveling o’er a lifetime of reading (and re-reading) LITTLE DORRIT . . . ‘the horror; the horror.’*

DOUBLE-BILL: What Waugh has worked on screen? Certainly not the recent BRIDESHEAD diminution of ‘08. More satirically straightforward stuff, SCOOP/’87; BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS/’03; DECLINE AND FALL/’17 (the last not seen here), find everyone overplaying for small comic return. THE LOVED ONE/’65 may be too weird to write off, but also . . . too weird. And the old BRIDESHEAD mini-series (priceless just for John Gielgud) lives best in memory.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In an odd coincidence, Guinness had just triumphed in Christine Edzard’s unusual double-sided take on LITTLE DORRIT/’87.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THESE WILDER YEARS (1956)

After a rough patch in the early ‘50s, James Cagney returned to form with four films in ‘55, including top-grosser MISTER ROBERTS & an Oscar® nom. for LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME. Still able to set you back on your heels when needed (see SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL/’59; ONE, TWO, THREE/’61), he also worked a gentler side, as here in this sentimental stroll to find the boy he fathered, then deserted, before becoming one of America’s top industrialists, back in his college days. (Supposedly twenty years ago, though he looks, and it feels, more like 30.) Barbara Stanwyck, softer than her norm at the time, is doyen at a ‘fallen women’ home, placing the illegitimate offspring with upstanding married couples, and obstacle to Cagney’s quest. Pulled into court by slick company lawyer Walter Pidgeon, the attitudes on single/teenage moms & adoptee rights have changed enough to add some interest to the proceedings . . . just not enough. Roy Rowland, a drab director with a positive horror of style, pace or rhythm, goes along with the prevailing flattened look of the day: compressed grey scale, even lighting across the frame, the tv-ready look. Fortunately, all three leads take care of themselves and manage to create a semblance of dramatic motion until the mawkish subplot takes over. (Fresh-faced pregnant kid with health crisis. Yikes!) The film lines up three bathetic minefields in a row for a finish, and even Cagney can only take the stink off two of them.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Dean Jones earned his debut credit with a nice little bit that has you thinking he might be Cagney’s boy. Turns out, it’s Don Dubbins, whom Cagney does wonders for in a surprisingly touching, only slightly forced, scene.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

THE UNSUSPECTED (1947)

Like LAURA on steroids . . . and not in a good way.  That 1944 hit serves as obvious template in the early going of this slightly ludicrous (if watchable) murder mystery among the backstabbing Manhattan glam set. Portrait of a missing beauty who returns from the dead? Check. Multiple suitors & gossip-wielding media sophisticates? (Broadcasters instead of publishers.) Check. Air rife with perversion & near-incestuous longings? Check. Director Michael Curtiz lays on the dark-and-stormy atmosphere with a trowel, but can’t make much sense of a too twisty plot in what was meant to be a breakout first-release for his new production company with a fresh star in weightless leading man Ted North. (Renamed Michael for the occasion, he was never heard of again.) Elsewise, Joan Caulfield as the girl everyone longs to lay is upstaged by tasty supporting turns from Audrey Totter & Constance Bennett while Claude Rains in yet another impersonation of viperous radio critic/personality Alexander Woollcott, enjoys himself, but pulled off the same stunt to better effect against Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in DECEPTION the year before. (That one's worth it just for the outré modern sets from this film’s designer Anton Grot, and for the Erich Wolfgang Korngold score w/ mini-cello concerto. See below.)

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned, DECEPTION/’46.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MOROCCO (1930)

Made after THE BLUE ANGEL/’30, but released before (in the States), the second Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg film (of seven) marks a tonal shift from Berlin coarseness to Hollywood finesse and blissed-out romance. Conjured out of Paramount backlot artifice by Sternberg (working as his own art director?) and cinematographer Lee Garmes, the heat between provocative down-on-her-luck cabaret singer Dietrich and long-drink-of-water Foreign Legionnaire Gary Cooper is palpable. So too the humiliation & erotic abasement of Adolph Menjou’s wealthy also-ran suitor. (Sternberg’s de rigeur coitus-denied alter-ego, softened from the Janning’s sadistically dominated professor of BLUE ANGEL, to Menjou’s obliging masochist, thriving thru regret.) The pacing remains Early Talkie languorous, if much smoother than in BLUE ANGEL; all moonlight, shadows & coded action. But with so much atmosphere, and with such striking people to stare at, who could mind? Two films on, in SHANGHAI EXPRESS/’32, Sternberg would hit on a near perfect balance of wit, charged romance & suspense, with miraculous pacing that helped set the modern standard, achieved without background score. But this heavenly kickoff, with it’s memorable Jules Furthman dialogue, is essential stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: For some reason, SHANGHAI EXPRESS is a tough get on home video. Go for Dietrich & Cooper reteamed in DESIRE/’36 (with director Frank Borzage doing the honors on this Ernst Lubitsch pic since he was running the studio at the time). It comes with one of Dietrich’s best songs, ‘Awake, In A Dream.’

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Dietrich made two of the best ever examples of mise-en-scène in the last shots of this pic, and of Lubitsch’s much underrated ANGEL/’37, both with her striding on the diagonal thru a static frame. Each could serve as definition of the term.

Monday, July 10, 2017

THE LINEUP (1958)

Classic, if wildly underappreciated, this B-pic from Don Siegel, meant to cash in on a then popular tv police procedural of the same name, got lost in the shuffle. TV fans wouldn’t pay, everyone else figured it was just the tv show on a big screen. They all missed out on a dandy thriller. Siegel runs it as a San Francisco picaresque, with loads of cool locations as a couple of pathological hit men (explosive El Wallach; implosive mentor Robert Keith) track down a list of tourists & locals who have no idea they’ve been used to smuggle packets of pure-grade heroin into the country, hidden inside toys & antiques innocently carried back to the States. Dealing out one crafty suspense sequence after another, each set in a picturesque San Fran locale, Stirling Silliphant’s script moves right along, skipping a first act so we never see the initial arranged purchase. (Something a bigger budget might have played around with. Remake, anyone?) But what really sets this apart are the characterizations. Not the police, they’re standard, pulled in from the tv show. But those unknowing drug ‘mules,’ solid citizen, seaman or tourist. Plus Richard Jaeckel’s flask-sipping pro driver. Most of all, the superb teamwork from Wallach (self-improving his grammar out of a book when he's not toying with a gun), and from Keith, in a career peak perf, as his mentor (a steadying hand who turns terrifyingly psychotic, showing his pathological underbelly when things go wrong). Siegel, working brilliantly with vet cinematographer Hal Mohr, gets just about everything out of his cast & material. Already in his late 40s and ready for the big time, he’d bounce in & out of mid-budget features & tv before breaking onto the A-list a decade later with Clint Eastwood in COOGAN’S BLUFF/’68.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/CONTEST: There’s a serious goof involving the little girl who finds a hidden bag of heroin inside her antique Asian doll. Name it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

THE FOUNDER (2016)

Generally well-received, then largely ignored, look at the indomitable rise of MacDonald’s usurper Ray Kroc could be held as a prime example of the pitfalls of end-of-the-year Award-Season mentality. Rushed out for a brief Oscar® qualifying run at year’s end before ‘going wide’ in hopes of reaping critical buzz (standard op for a hard-to-place prestige item), it got lost in the crowd even as its Weinstein stablemate LION won 6 noms.* In truth, the problem was less in a botched release then in an under-realized product. Frustratingly so, as you can see the outline of a more effective, more eccentric pic (once envisioned?) right below the surface of what director John Lee Hancock & scripter Robert Siegel pulled from the material. You get a feel for the artistic road not taken right from the start, watching Michael Keaton's Kroc trudge 1950s Stateside byways with his multi-mixer shake maker, finally coming across the original McDonald’s hamburger joint. A living breathing dream of modern efficiency-oriented Americana, it’s love at first sight/site with Keaton & burger-brothers Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch bopping rhythmic dialogue back-and-forth, chomping at the bit to work their inner Robert Preston; sniffing each other out like flimflam salesman & Iowa locals in a road company MUSIC MAN. But the partnership sours as it blooms, and high ideals darken as Kroc’s killer-instincts pervert toward something more like CITIZEN KANE. (Here, the ‘tell’ is a divorce propositioned at the dining table.) It’s a great concept, merging MUSIC MAN and CITIZEN KANE, but the makers lost their way (more likely got cold feet), scared of the eccentric stylization the project was begging for. Instead, a decent bio-pic, with good perfs; no more. A shame, even adding some bright shiny ‘60s-style TechniColor (think BACK TO THE FUTURE/’85) might have made all the difference.

DOUBLE-BILL: Francis Coppola showed a similar lack of gumption & confidence when he revamped TUCKER/’88 (failed American dreamer with cars instead of hamburgers) from Comden & Green stylized musical into standard bio-pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Weinsteins show a Ray Kroc ruthlessness every award season, throwing their slate at the wall, seeing what sticks, flogging it to death.

Friday, July 7, 2017

THE IRON CURTAIN (1948)

A miscast Dana Andrews might have been doing penance for his Commie-cheerleading WWII propaganda turn in THE NORTH STAR/’43 with this fact-inspired espionage drama ripped from Canadian headlines. Fresh out of Russia, with a plum assignment in Ottawa as a decoding cypher clerk at the Soviet Embassy, Andrews’ True-Believer status is doubly tested: at work where stolen atomic secrets are being traded; and at home where his wife & child are thriving under Western democracy. What does it say about your way of life when being sent home is a punishment? Andrews misses the sense of isolation & otherness needed to goose up the unsurprising story, not even an accent to set him apart. And Gene Tierney, as his wife, isn’t allowed to go out and experience a different way of life. Why not show her going overboard in a consumer society? Instead, he’s buried under the usual grim Soviet comrades; and her conversion needs but a three-room flat & friendly neighbor. Made in the familiar style of one of those Louis De Rochemont docu-dramas popular at the time (Andrews had just made one, BOOMERANG/’47), this comes off as a missed opportunity. Director William Wellman does ratchet up a decent level of suspense in the final story arc when no one will take a look at Andrews’ spy revelations. But the most interesting thing in here, June Havoc’s sexually assertive embassy drudge who knows how to be loyal and play the system for ‘the good life,’ largely disappears after the first couple of reels.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: No doubt, it sounded like a good idea to underscore the film with top USSR classical composers (Prokofiev, Khachaturyan, heaps of Shostakovich 5th), but the music is so much stronger than what’s on screen it draws attention away from the drama.

DOUBLE-BILL: Joseph L. Mankiewicz shows just the sort of imagination missing here in his underseen fact-based WWII embassy espionage drama 5 FINGERS/’52; wonderful perfs from James Mason, Danielle Darrieux & Michael Rennie.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

PRINCE OF PLAYERS (1955)

Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the first CinemaScope pics to fail at the box-office shows up on DVD in cropped Pan-and-Scan format. Fortunately, if that’s the word, it was also the directing debut of long-time 20th/Fox scripter Philip Dunne, and he shows so little aptitude for dramatic composition (WideScreen or Square) the loss is minimal. Line-‘em-up and keep ‘em in focus. (Actually, no small thing with the early Bausch & Lomb lenses.) A lateral tracking shot backstage is rare enough to give off a jolt; and the last shot in the pic startles simply by bothering to come up with dynamic use of space. A shame, because in spite of the film’s poor rep, it’s quite an entertaining piece of factoid hooey on those famous Booth Shakespeareans: alcoholic, a touch mad, brilliant. Richard Burton gets a welcome amount of recitation as the talented Edwin. (Most of the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene, with Moss Hart’s script cleverly placing him in a brothel balcony against Maggie McNamara’s pretty good Juliet standing below.) Raymond Massey flails away as the failing father and mush-mouthed John Derek descends into assassin-mode as John Wilkes. (Twas actor’s jealousy that made him do it!) Too bad Moss Hart, fresh off writing A STAR IS BORN/’54, didn’t take up Darryl F. Zanuck’s offer to try his hand at directing. Most of his great B’way successes were (poorly) adapted by others, but his original Hollywood scripting (GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT/’47; HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN/’52; STAR IS BORN and this) make him 3½ for 4. Then again, his next project, back on B’way, was directing MY FAIR LADY. (And after that, CAMELOT with Richard Burton.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In spite of his movie career, Burton truly was born for the stage, often uncomfortable on film. Critic Walter Kerr movingly made the point upon Burton’s return to the stage taking over the lead in EQUUS. (Then, in the 1977 Sidney Lumet film, he overacts it.) Here, some play excerpts come off far less mannered than what we have of his Shakespeare elsewhere. Including the unhappy modern-day/dress rehearsal HAMLET under John Gielgud in ‘64. But one shot of him, in bed with his ailing wife, humming a song to comfort her, has him showing star quality he rarely mustered on screen.

LINK: From 1890, a LO-FI wax cylinder recording reported to be Edwin Booth reciting a bit of OTHELLO. The calm, almost untheatrical delivery typical of his style. Like Eleanora Duse, audiences were often initially puzzled by a lack of grandeur & size, only gradually succumbing to his subtle anti-histrionic effects. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LM82m1MJn_g

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

BAMBI (1942)

Last of the animated Disney foundation features (after SNOW WHITE/’37; PINOCCHIO/40; FANTASIA/’40; DUMBO/’41) and too expensive to earn out in initial release (so too PINOCCHIO and FANTASIA). Disney wouldn’t try again till CINDERELLA/’50, with streamlined techniques to reduce the time-consuming/ labor-intensive/ hand-drawn detail that made the first five legend. BAMBI must be the most unusual of the bunch, with a pastoral/watercolor look and little in the way of plot. It’s observational drama, a couple of years in the life of a young deer, with a tone more realistic, less cartoony than the studio had attempted. Seen again, it’s fascinating to note how the art directors move set pieces in & out of naturalism, alternating gentle fun & tragedy. Usually with ‘man’ as villain.* (A spring-fever sequence could have been a ‘Silly Symphony’ short with mating rituals that have Bambi bed down with Faline once his voice drops, and Thumper the rabbit climaxing when touched. Yikes!) That wise old owl?, not only vegetarian, also a ringer for popular culture maven of the day Alex Woollcott. But let the sexual innuendoes and jumps in tone fall where they may and concentrate on the drop-dead gorgeous backgrounds. Then follow the link to this NYTimes piece on Tyrus Wong who was largely responsible for their look. Abstracting down from the overdone undergrowth burying the characters & effects, he brought an Asian influence that clarified/abstracted the look, sometimes with simple washes of color and hints of detail. Some of the most sophisticated art in the Disney canon, hiding in plain sight.

LINKs: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/05/arts/design/how-bambi-got-its-look-from-900-year-old-chinese-art.html https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/movies/tyrus-wong-dies-bambi-disney.html

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Imagine the political protests if this anti-development/anti-gun film came out now.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

THE NICE GUYS (2016)

Going back to his beginnings (make that from before his beginnings), writer/director Shane Black reconfigures his own LETHAL WEAPON/’87 for more buddy/buddy comic chaos, set a decade earlier, and with Private Eyes instead of cops. The story’s a bit of a mess (catalytic converters, political protests & pornography, deferred daddy duties), which doesn’t matter too much; the structure & direction also a mess, which does. Pretty fun though, with Ryan Gosling’s slow-think dick grooving on period detail; and tough-guy partner-of-convenience Russell Crowe all fat & happy for the occasion. Nice supporting turns, too, from Angourie Rice as Gosling’s sharp teenage daughter; an eerily preserved Kim Bassinger as a wily Justice Department attorney; Beau Knapp’s dyed-in-the-face henchman; and Matt Bomer’s birth-marked assassin. If only the film weren’t quite so eager to launch a potential franchise (grosses came in a bit shy) or look like it was more fun to make than to watch. Still, enough mischief gets thru. Hard not to think the studio is missing a trick not going for the sequel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Crowe hasn’t been this enjoyable in many a moon. There’s something about actors giving in to their inner slob that makes an audience happy.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

Ana Lily Amirpour’s voguish, well-received modern vampire pic, less artful than fashionably artsy, has all too quickly devolved into a Do-Not-Return bottle of Sundance buzz. Bathed in WideScreen monochrome cool, it stars a white T-shirted James Dean wannabe* who roams a decaying town crushing on his classic roadster, a pear-shaped cat & the bloodsucking stranger who sleepwalks thru town trolling for victims. Amirpour lays on the dread & atmosphere with an impasto knife; then hangs around to watch it dry. With little talent for dramatic composition, she coasts on eye-candy magazine layout shots, favoring static, angst-ridden stares of gelid passion. (Offering plenty of time for deep-think theorizing.) Small wonder that the recent release of her dystopian follow-up, THE BAD BATCH/’16 (with Keanu Reeves & Jim Carrey, no less), opened to near complete indifference except for a few critics playing catch-up.

SCREWY THOUGH OF THE DAY: *Much of Dean’s iconographic appeal stemmed from only appearing in color films at a time when that wasn’t ubiquitous, especially in serious drama. Now, b&w sets you up.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For artistic engagement with this subject, try Carl Dreyer’s inexplicable VAMPRY/’32. (Look for Criterion’s 2-disc set.) OR: Béla Tarr’s WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES/’00 to see what Amirpour may have had in mind.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

PARIS (2008)

Writer/director Cédric Klapisch, a Gallic Woody Allen wannabe, toasts a few arrondisements in a hormone-addled cross-sectional portrait that would have been excoriated had it been in English, but gains a pass en Française for perceived Gallic charm & City of Light sagacity. The OO-La-La La Ronde kicks off when a young revue-dancer learns he’s got a bum ticker. But depression lifts once sis moves in (Juliette Binoche with three squalling kids) while he awaits a transplant. Espying a possible sex partner across the street, she’s off to interview their target, posing as a research interviewer. Alas, the sexy young thing’s taken, though not averse to bedding a prof forty years older who’s TEXT-stalking her. No prob, a neurotic co-worker can fill in as coital back-up. And for sis? A'marketing she shall go, finding a friendly fish monger who's wounded & needy since his ex died. More such delightful tales, given with little embarrassment (they're meant to be celebratory) & unearned affection. The ‘cute factor’ is slightly down from Klapisch’s recent CHINESE PUZZLE/’13, but Paris might just think about suing PARIS for defamation of character.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Jean-Luc Godard’s TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER . . . /’67, made before collage, philosophy, politics & didacticism cannibalized his moviemaking instincts.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

The poster tips Ben Affleck’s hand: a $110 mill vanity project as writer/star/producer, catching a ride on the Hubris Express in a suit that, like the film, is a couple of sizes too large for him in this dud Roaring ‘Twenties saga. He even looks odd, as if he dunked his face in cold water to firm it up before every shot, and bulked up (for an upcoming SuperHero role?), yet looking like a waxwork Gene Kelly.

There’s also a perfectly lousy story, from the Dennis Lehane novel, about prohibition turf wars in Boston (Irish vs Italian) with Affleck’s WWI vet turned unaligned/principled indie stick-up guy losing it all before getting a shot to run the rum business in Florida for one of the families. Beating off adversaries right & left (rival gangs, KKK, Christian Revival movement fanatics), a couple of set pieces have a handsome glow, if little excitement or logistical grounding. But it hardly matters when only Brendan Gleeson playing Copster Dad (gone after the prologue) passes ‘The Fedora Test.’ You know, the one that asks younger actors, ‘Do I look like an asshole in a period hat?’ Oh, yes, Ben, yes, yes, yes.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Heck, choose just about any Warners gangster pic from the ‘30s, preferably with James Cagney. Early rough & ready like THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31; or polished and slightly pre-digested like THE ROARING TWENTIES/’39.

Friday, June 30, 2017

SMART WOMAN (1931)

Early Talkie from Gregory La Cava runs the old story of a straying husband who mends his ways when led to believe the wife is enjoying a fling of her own. Tepid stuff, but worth a look to see La Cava abruptly figuring out how to accommodate sound. While most of the film follows the dialogue like a dog trolling for a treat, signs of cinema keep popping up. Note how spurned wife Mary Astor (sharp & charming) greets faux love interest John Halliday in overhead shots, with camera movement, composition in depth and a grand staircase giving rhythm & pace to vapid drawing room dramatics. Real filmmaking!; back from the dead zone of Early Talkie technical tyranny. (And giving a brief glimpse at the Gregory La Cava of MY MAN GODFREY/’36 & STAGE DOOR/’37.) It’s also a rare chance to see Robert Ames, a might-have-been star who drank himself to death by the end of the year at only 42. In a lousy part, love-blind hubby falling for blonde Golddigger while Astor pines, he’s expert at the task. No wonder he made 20 pics in less than three years. The film’s an antique, of mostly historic/technical interest, but La Cava & Astor fans should dig in.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The big other might-have-been star from 1931 was Robert Williams, co-star with Loretta Young & Jean Harlow in Frank Capra’s PLATINUM BLONDE/’31. Dead from appendicitis that year at 37. On screen, he was a bit like Lee Tracy who was a might-have-been star who didn’t die, but peed his career away. Literally. On a drunk during the filming of VIVA VILLA/’34 he pissed over his hotel balcony and on to some Mexican Cadets marching below.

DOUBLE-BILL: Three from this film, Ames, Astor & Edward Everett Horton co-star with Ann Harding in an excellent, if stagebound, version of HOLIDAY/’30, the great Philip Barry play best known from George Cukor’s ‘38 beauty with Kate Hepburn, Cary Grant & a repeating Horton. Yet, the earlier film is unexpectedly fine, and Mary Astor, a far stronger sisterly rival than Doris Nolan was in the redo, serves the drama as revelation.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

PARIS BLUES (1961)

The Beat Generation meets Kennedy’s New Frontier in racially integrated early ‘60s Paris. That’s the setting (and setting is whole deal here) in this otherwise wan romance² about a pair of tourists (Joanne Woodward; Diahann Carroll) who fall in with a pair of jazz men (Paul Newman; Sidney Poitier). Tussling between the sheets when not roaming the town and debating Artist’s Life vs Conventional Family or La Vie de M. Noir vs Civil Rights activism back in the States. All in all, quite pleasant, and fun to watch director Martin Ritt locate his inner charcoal-sketch stylings under lenser Christian Matras (Jean Renoir & Max Ophüls in his past; Luis Buñuel in his future) as they take on some Parisian nabs designed in classic forced perspective by Alexandre Trauner. (The sets work out better than the real locations. The exact opposite of Ritt Stateside.) But drop the music (which includes a couple of set pieces for Louis Armstrong as well as a Duke Ellington score) and the dramatic pickings grow slim. Basically, will Paul make a mark as serious jazz composer, will guitarist pal Serge Reggiani kick his drug habit, and which couple holds on. Newman, working his usual self-centered cad routine of the time, looks incredibly fine; Woodward struggles against a bad hairdo; Carroll is impossibly pretty; and Poitier, ah, Sidney. He’s the real reason to watch. Dandy playing fake sax, but more importantly, looser, sexier, more comfortable in his shoes than in any other film. Perhaps, like his character, he’s just so gosh darn happy to drop the ‘credit-to-his-race’ striver roles he so often got stuck with, allowing personality angles rarely on display to shine out. He’s a knockout.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/LINK: Good as she is here, Carroll wouldn’t make another feature until 1967. Though she did return to Paris . . . Paris, Broadway, that is, in Richard Rodgers’ 1962 musical NO STRINGS, as a fashion model who falls for Maine-boy Richard Kiley. Now, she’s the one who doesn’t want to go back to the States. Here’s the opening number: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo3yq4zMTMU

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

SMILIN' THROUGH (1932)

Insufferable romantic claptrap, in M-G-M’s signature Early Talkie style: chintzy taste; stolid camera work; ersatz British refinement; Mid-Atlantic accents. Based on a whopper of a play by Janes Cowl & Murfin, it was silent in ‘21 (same director Sidney Franklin), and musicalized for Jeanette MacDonald in ‘41. A tragic backstory has Fredric March, as rival suitor, take a pot shot at the wedding of Leslie Howard & Norma Shearer. A generation on, Howard still mourns his loss while March’s son (also played by March) falls for Howard’s niece (also played by Shearer.) Luckily(?), WWI intervenes to sort things out. Franklin’s helming is alarmingly stiff in the first two acts, slightly livelier post-war. But the writing & acting! Howard, already showing good form in THE ANIMAL KINGDOM that year, looks faintly embarrassed; March mans up to pull off a cornball renunciation scene; but what to make of Shearer?, tossing in a carefree laugh at the end of every God-damn line until you want to strangle her. (Who wouldn't want to strangle someone named 'Moonyeen?') And this from her best period when she normally played ‘daring’ Pre-Code ladies in slinky, revealing outfits. Here, she prefigures the worst of her latter Great-Lady-of-the-Theatre manner. Naturally, the film got a Best Pic nod from the Academy. The one dud on a still highly entertaining list. LINK: http://www.imdb.com/event/ev0000003/1934?ref_=ttawd_ev_1

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Though still very 1932 in sentiment, style & technique, the Frank Borzage/Gary Cooper/Helen Hayes version of another WWI tragic romance, Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, no less (see below), puts this film to shame on every level. Look for the uncensored cut. (BTW: Borzage also directed the 1941 Jeanette MacDonald SMILIN’ THROUGH.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The theme song for this version, as in 1941, was written as a tie-in for the silent film. (See sheet music cover to your left.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA (1965)

Alexander Mackendrick’s sophisticated, if oddly unsatisfying adventure film (kids; pirates; mutiny; murder & miscarriage of justice) never finds its proper tone. Though it certainly dives straight into the action, opening on a tropical storm that ravages the island home of The Thorntons, forcing a decision to send the children home to England for proper schooling & manners. But when their ship gets overtaken by buccaneers, the kids wind up sailing off with a band of pirates led by Anthony Quinn & James Coburn who are soon being pursued as kidnappers/murderers. The story has a lot going for it (plus Douglas Slocombe lensing), but the playing is unfocused & overcooked. It soon grows wearying, especially Quinn & the kids.* And Mackendrick, no Carol Reed in child wrangling, gets a spotty perf from young Deborah Baxter whose closed face barely registers . . . anything. Worse, he fumbles some crucial action scenes. (A climactic stabbing makes no sense at all.) A pity since the story’s dark turn is loaded with possibilities.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The playing really does leave you exhausted, as if you’ve binge-watched a 10-episode series, a format that might make a better fit for this sea-faring tale. Cable-programmers, check on the rights!

Monday, June 26, 2017

THE COLLECTOR (1965)

In his third film, Terence Stamp draws down his natural aura to play a sort of British cousin to Norman Bates in William Wyler’s exceptional adaptation of John Fowles’ debut novel. Disturbingly quiet, emotionally closed off, socially immature, Stamp’s routine of office drudgery is broken by a passion for butterfly collecting. But when a big win in the National Football Pool sets him up as a country gentleman on a lonely estate, he finds a new type of ‘butterfly’ to collect in student-artist Samantha Eggar. Kidnapped & figuratively pinned down for display, Eggar puts up physical & psychological resistance, confounding Stamp’s expectations of friendship & love for all his attentions. Basically a two-hander, the film is largely without boilerplate thriller aspects (though an ill-timed visitor, with accompanying bathtub overflow, is faintly comic/nail-biting stuff), more concerned with intellectual envy, class resentment & life-or-death gamesmanship. Wyler paces & structures the film as if the built-in limitations of the storyline simply didn’t exist; and successfully mines for depth rather than variety in his two largely inexperienced leads. A feel-good film it’s not, but creepy & satisfying in its unique way. (Excellent tech, too, with Robert Surtees’ Hollywood shot interiors & Robert Krasker’s location work in England, perfectly in synch.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Who else but William Wyler would opt out of THE SOUND OF MUSIC/’65, where he was well into pre-production, to take on this small, challenging chamber piece? It shows the range of subjects Hollywood trusted him with; and the distrust (largely misguided) of too many film academic types who hold range of content as a signifier of impersonal output. (It’s does make for an unwieldy monograph.)

CONTEST: The old Hollywood Production Code, still in effect in ‘65, got pushed against two ways here. Name them to win a MAKSQUIBS Write Up of your choosing.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

KANTAI / HOSPITALITÉ (2010)

This early credit for fast-rising Japanese writer/ director Kôji Fukada shows easy sophistication in both story & technique, and an unexpectedly witty tone that (calmly) echoes Jûzô Itami. The tale’s an old one: the outsider who moves in and quietly takes over; here played out as a darkly comic sex roundelay at a small family-owned print shop with living quarters above. Everyone seems to be cheating in some manner (with cash, flesh or affection), not in the hectic near-miss of French Boulevard farce, but with the resigned discomfort & off-kilter drawing-room sensibility of Brit playwright Alan Ackbourn. Fukada’s structural gimmick ups the ante one modest outrage at a time, trapping the store proprietor into capitulating after he beds the stranger’s wife, a mysterious blonde foreigner. Similar hazards lurk for his recently returned divorced sister; his much younger second wife; and her slacker brother. All neatly dovetailed in Fukada’s no-sweat style (hiding under a thin coat of realism) that allows you swallow the more outlandish moments in this modern ‘comedy of humours,’ even if some tidy explanations wrap things up a little too neatly. But with excellent perfs and spot-on camera placements even in the tightest of corners, Fukada is a guy to watch, in this and in the future.

DOUBLE-BILL: Similar ideas get a darker workout in Harold Pinter/ Joseph Losey’s THE SERVANT/’63 with Dirk Bogarde & James Fox.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

What an over-crowded mess of a poster. Accurate, though. With LEGO MOVIE guys Phil Lord & Christopher Miller dispatched to producer status, the reins fall to Chris McKay in a feature debut that finds him tucking in all the gags & Pop Culture references he’s been saving up during years of tv work. (Afraid of not getting a second chance to use them?) Exhilarating or exhausting? The answer lies mainly in demographics. (Though Fanboys may pall finding moralistic/philosophic nods at Individual vs Group Think and Hero/Villain Co-Dependency not too far off PIXAR’s INSIDE OUT/’15.) As in the previous LEGO pic (see below), there is a feeling of missed opportunity seeing CGI used on Peg-like critters born for Stop-Motion techniques. But if nothing else, the film does its fair share in lightening the mood of recent DC Comics gloom-fests.

LINK: Here’s some irresistible real LEGO® Stop-Motion STAR WARS® action. Heaps of this stuff on YOUTUBE®. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkSJVAa5aXY

Friday, June 23, 2017

THE ROOKIE (2002)

Competition is fierce, but Tom Hanks spouting off about ‘No crying in baseball’ (in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN/’92) may top the charts for the most inaccurate, if highly quotable, line in film. And not only at the movies; imagine an All-Star Game without some tear-clogged anniversary salute. This film, a tru-life fairy tale about a high school science teacher/coach, who missed his shot at the Majors, only to find his pitching form at 37, is a veritable three-hankie male weep-athon . . . and pretty much irresistible. Not a lot of surprises, but neither Mike Rich’s script nor John Lee Hancock’s direction push harder than they have to. In fact, the film is improved by the relative lack of film savvy; bigger skill sets might have curdled sentiment. It’s also helped by an unusual, slightly unwieldy structure: double prologue (local legend; childhood-on-the-move); followed by Two Halves in Three-Acts² (high school team makes good; comeback pitcher makes better). All unexpectedly satisfying; and well played, if admittedly a couple of reels longer than it has to be. (A fault uncorrected in later films by this writer or director.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The film wouldn’t work without Dennis Quaid. Believable as a ball player (is he truly a leftie?), it’s the sort of star presence perf that never gets award traction, especially in a ‘light’ entertainment. But when you’ve earned early fame showing your ASSets (ass & shit-ass grin), you pay a price; and Quaid knows it. He’s long demurred gratuitous ass flashing, though he certainly looks fit enough to get away with it. Lately, he's even shut down the full-bore grin, as if withholding it makes him, ipso facto, a serious actor. But wait here till 1'50", when he hits The Majors, for a welcome re-emergence.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

THE DECKS RAN RED (1958)

Writer/director Andrew Stone, with his co-producer/editor wife Virginia, had a knack for pulling off large-scale pics on the proverbial dime. But where at times it felt as if they’d bitten off more than they could chew, this less ambitious project feels just right; lean & mean, emphasis on mean. James Mason is perfectly cast as the new ship’s captain, an emergency transfer from fancy luxury liner to grimy freighter. Expecting resentment from the rough-and-tumble crew, he’s unaware/unprepared for crewmen Broderick Crawford & Stuart Whitman, a couple of malcontent sociopaths with a plan to kill everyone on board, damage the ship, then float in to claim a million bucks salvage. And when sexy Dorothy Dandridge comes aboard with her husband, the replacement cook, she becomes one more opportunity to rile things up. Stone quickly starts turning the screws on this one, setting up one neat suspense piece after another, with stabbing cuts & composition ‘reveals’ that really make you jump. Much helped by his use of a real ship with tight corridors & the relentless chug of the engines. (The only ‘music’ in here.) No-frills tech work also plays its part, efficient & effective, with special kudos going to tv lenser Meredith Nicholson who figured out how to light in mighty tight spaces. The film is nothing fancy, but in a good way; with honest, neatly played action, believable thrills and those extra creepy perfs from Crawford & Whitman, who goes after Dandridge like a man possessed. Who knew this bland leading man had it in him?

DOUBLE-BILL: Another surprise at sea, Richard Lester’s subversive ‘disaster pic,’ JUGGERNAUT/’74 with Omar Sharif & Richard Harris playing mind games as ship’s captain & mad bomber.

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.