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Sunday, December 31, 2017

THE PRIZE (1963)

Four years after Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST reset the bar for espionage suspense/thrillers with comic edges, they were proliferating in the new James Bond series & cutesy variants like this Paul Newman starrer.* Featuring a Kommie Kidnapping Konspiracy in the midst of the Nobel Prize ceremonies, it’s worth a look, but coarse & dull rather than witty & sharp. And positively chock-a-block with lifts from the earlier film courtesy of Ernest Lehman who wrote ‘em both. (So who’s he gonna sue for plagiarism, himself?) We get twists on the famous crop-dusting scene; a living room ‘swapped-out’ to hide a crime; a plot point’s worth of imbibing; that disrupted art auction relocated to a Nudist Convention; a sharpshooter to save the day at the finale; even Leo G. Carroll. And many more; lifts not so much quoted as diminished. Mark Robson, not a helmer to trip the light fantastic, shrugs off lousy tech work (those process plates!), but won’t shake a leg to lose a reel of running time. Fortunately, the late scenes give up on wry sophistication to find more comfortable footing playing the suspense straight. Add on the winning Elke Sommer, a good sport in her first Hollywood lead, and you’ve got a workable proposition.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Two years on, Newman moved from a reasonable facsimile to real if regrettably lesser Hitchcock with TORN CURTAIN/’66, yet another Iron Curtain espionage/scientist yarn.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

MEGAN LEAVEY (2017)

It’s all there in the poster: Rin Tin Tin goes to Iraq.* A fact-inspired/inspirational story about the real life Megan Leavey, a marine who came from a broken home and found a better life working the (literal) dogs of war; found love (canine/permanent; human/temporary); took an injury with her dog/partner; and fought to recover her health (mental & physical) and the dog they said couldn’t be adjusted for adoption out of the war zone. How is it? Well, quite okay; or is until it goes a bit Hallmark haywire in a too predictable third act. (Dog people won’t mind.) In her first feature, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (a rare woman given a shot at helming a war story) doesn’t exactly get everything out of the situations (she’s no Kathryn Bigelow!), but also doesn’t push them harder than necessary (she’s no Kathryn Bigelow!). Kata Mara looks awfully delicate to make it thru marine training, while other top players (Edie Falco, Common, Bradley Whitford) are over-qualified for what’s asked of them. But it’s a nice story and a nice film.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Now in Lassie’s shadow, RIN TIN TIN was the bigger star in his day, with a real WWI backstory, nicely told by biographer Susan Orlean of ORCHID THIEF/ADAPTATION/’02 fame.

Friday, December 29, 2017

THE PROMISE (2016)

Another wannabe David Lean epic, terribly old-fashioned as filmmaking (which is fine), barely adequate as involving story (which is a problem), about the Armenian Genocide by the Turks during WWI. A systematic slaughter, still unacknowledged in present day Turkey, the film was largely ignored on release, yet generated major organized, presumably Turkish, social media ‘trolling.’ The production was put in motion by the late Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American who trafficked in movie company assets as if he were trading Monopoly Board Game Properties, it’s less Passion Project than Religious Indulgence, those church pay-offs that helped you skip Purgatory in the AfterLife. Kerkorian was a particularly dreadful example of one of those money manipulators who left mortally damaged properties behind them while personally coming out ahead . . . and never a look in the rear-view mirror. No doubt, he knew this would tank ($100 mill price tag, but who really knows?), wisely kicking off the year before it came out. In his late 90s yet still keeping the loss off his credit/debit balance sheet. And the film? Of course, the true story is devastating, but here we burrow into DOCTOR ZHIVAGO/’65 territory as young medico Oscar Isaac (with moist Omar Sharif puppy-dog eyes) sidelines a mousy wife during WWI for a grand passion with citified beauty Charlotte Le Bon (underwhelming) amid social/political eruptions. She’s already spoken for by beaded American journalist Christian Bale, doing double-duty (ZHIVAGO-wise) as both Tom Courtenay and Rod Steiger. Meanwhile writer Robin Swicord & writer/director Terry George are unable to hold back the witticisms (‘Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder’) though the dramaturgy rarely falls below acceptable. If only the film were significantly better . . . or significantly worse. But then, film quality is something Kerkorian never gave much thought to.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Is there an alternative on this woefully undercovered subject? Till one shows, try Elia Kazan’s AMERICA AMERICA/’63 on his Anatolian Greek Uncle’s journey out of Turkey.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Five to One the title refers not to anything in the film, but to Kerkorian’s personal ‘promise’ to get this made before he died.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

KAOS (1982)

The title refers to a place, not a condition; in Sicily, where Italian writer Luigi Pirandello was born. (And returned to in later years.) For writer/directors Luigi & Vittorio Taviani, it caps their best decade (ALLONSANFAN/’74; PADRE PADRONE/’77; NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS/’82*) in an area of Italy new to them. The stories all turn-of-the-last-century, but set in conditions primitive enough to seem timeless, aided by the Taviani non-interventionist style and from their collaboration with poet/screenwriter Tonino Guerra. A long haul at three hours, but never a drag. After a brief prologue to ‘bell the crow’ who flies over spectacular scenery to find the stories, we start with THE OTHER SON where a mother longs for her two boys, gone to America with no word back while a third son, living nearby, is ignored by the mother who believes him cursed. MOONSICKNESS is, of all things, a sort of naturalistic Italian werewolf tale. Sexy, scary, compassionate, it’s a classic Taviani peasant fable. Then, comic relief in THE JAR, about a rich land owner (Ciccio Ingrassia, a ringer for Vincent Price), a huge olive container, and a repair job gone wrong. Funnier than these earthy fables usually are, even if it outstays its welcome. No surprise that the final tale, REQUIEM, is the most serious. A revolutionary themed story of farmers working without land rights, but insisting, against the wishes of the estate owner that they be given some land where they worked & where they will die to be buried in. Then a brief, utterly lovely memory piece for an aging Pirandello come home, to recall his mother’s dangerous boat voyage to join his father in exile. Each beautifully (and distinctively) handled, the experience somewhat similar to a Late 1800s/Early 1900s Romantic Symphony. Something by Mahler or Bruckner in Four Movements: ANDANTE; ALLEGRO; SCHERZO; ADAGIO. (The epilogue quotes Barbarina’s arietta from Mozart’s MARRIAGE OF FIGARO.) The film works perfectly well one story at a time, but you’ll likely watch straight thru. A remarkable work.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned above, all three essential, though the first is hard to find.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951)

Waylaid by a flood of biblical proportions on the way to her hanging, brittle Ann Blyth (and guards) gets stuck at a convent hospital isolated by the storm & knee-deep in displaced locals. Angry at her fate in the world, even at the delay in her end, she goes from caustic contempt to hopeful humility as Claudette Colbert’s Sister Mary (fabulous here) takes time off from crisis nursing duties to break rules sacred & profane on a mission to prove the girl is innocent of her brother’s murder. Fortunately, she’s been convicted on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, a tissue of plot contrivances from playwright Charlotte Hastings to set up a rickety whodunit with Catholic trappings.* Toss in doubt-filled fiancé; doctor & neurotic wife; strict Mother Superior; dotty comic-relief cook; resentful civilian nurse and shake well. Ludicrous as it all sounds, director Douglas Sirk & glamor cinematographer William Daniels (shoring up his rarely used noir credentials) make quite the stylish show of things. Turn off the right side of your brain and enjoy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: How directors & cinematographers love Nuns in Habit! Especially in serried ranks assembled. A wet dream of rhythmic staging & composition. (Even austere Robert Bresson couldn’t resist the mix of nuns & murder: LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ/’43.) As for their behavior . . . ? Here, Colbert is willfully stubborn, proud to a fault, disobedient and always right, yet manages to lay all the credit on God. Even when Mother Superior does something as appalling as destroying exculpatory evidence to make her point.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *The play, a three-week flop on B’way under the title THE HIGH GROUND, had a cast that included Marian Seldes, Ruth McDevitt & Patricia Hitchcock.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY (1989)

By some distance, the best project writer/ director Paul Mazursky ever got his hands on; but alas not his best film. More comfortable with episodic structures, he misses the thru-line of interlocked story juggling built into Isaac Bashevis Singer’s wild, tragic, sex farce, making this something of a D.I.Y. assignment for the viewer . . . but worth the effort. Ron Silver (looking like Bob of Bob’s Burgers when bared in the tub) is a Holocaust survivor now living near Coney Island in 1949, scratching out a living ghostwriting lectures for rich, popular Manhattan rabbi Alan King. Married to the Polish shiksha peasant who saved him, he’s also carrying on with 'maybe' divorced manic/ depressive Concentration Camp victim Lena Olin. Then, as if life weren’t complicated enough, ‘dead’ wife Anjelica Huston shows up, very much alive and with her own claims on him. Singer runs this emotional CYCLONE Roller-Coaster as a horned-up elliptical roundelay, each new complication a painful laugh of emotion, shock & recognition. You get a taste of how good it could be when Mazursky pauses in the subway long enough for Silver’s eyes to study the directions pointing Right-to-Manhattan; Ahead-to-The Bronx; Left–to-Brooklyn. If only there were more visual wit and control of the purposefully messy storyline. A pivotal clarifying scene with Mazursky as Olin’s bitter husband should help, but doesn’t. Even so, with its fantastical story of a different kind of ‘living dead,’ and a distinctive cast bringing an absurd sense of comic/tragic fate to life, it’s an intensely enjoyable, great idea of a film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You get the feeling Mazursky was thinking Sydney Pollack (safe) when he should have been thinking Woody Allen (goosey).  Still, to its credit, as FAIL-SAFE was to DR. STRANGELOVE in ‘64 (square, noble, slightly plodding); so SOPHIE’S CHOICE/’82 is to this.

Monday, December 25, 2017

THE DEAD (1987)

A stunning achievement. John Huston’s final flourish. In practice, nothing more than a long post-New Year’s dinner party (an hour’s worth of screen time), followed by a carriage ride to a hotel for married couple Donal McCann & Anjelica Huston (twenty minutes more). Yet carrying a charge sufficient to send out emotional ripples strong enough to change how you look at the world. Tony Huston’s script (undoubtedly with an able assist from father John), based on one of James Joyce’s DUBLINERS stories, does a miraculous job setting up about twenty dinner guests, and, with an Irish cast to die for & pitch-perfect production, give them just enough head to make the most of the small events, squabbles, foibles and moments of kindness, pity & affection we watch them live thru. You soon know them all, almost intimately, and forgive their faults. (A generous leave-taking blessed by an off-stage song from Frank Patterson’s high, unforced Irish tenor.) Then, over the long ride home, and during a remembrance/confession back at their hotel, the feeling that your world has been shaken by a stranger’s epiphany of long lost love. The film is a chamber piece that reverberates with the overtones of a great singer in a small room.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Among the party entertainments (piano solo, poem, dramatic recitation), the most ancient of the spinster aunts sings a somewhat bowdlerized translation of Bellini’s Son Vergin Vezzosa from I PURITANI in the ruins of a voice. No doubt, Joyce knew a literal translation: (‘I’m a charming virgin in a wedding dress.’) might shock the guests.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Had Yasujirô Ozu been an Irishman (or set a story in early 1900s Dublin), it might have been this. Huston even uses interstitial ‘pillow’ shots between scenes like Ozu.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

THE BOOK OF LIFE (2014)

Disappointing. With elements of two recent animations (FERDINAND and COCO*) in the mix (pacifist bullfighter/ musician goes to the land of the dead in search of tru-love), director Jorge R. Guitiérrez proves less in charge than lead producer Guillermo del Toro. And that’s a problem as we get the worst of del Toro’s otherwise considerable style: uninterrupted visual excess. Mexican tradition is plenty elaborate to begin with, and the death enraptured theme tricky to pull off as family fare, but here, every frame is overloaded to the point of sensation fatigue. And it panders to a presumed Stateside commercial base, book-ending the main story with a pointless museum field-trip for a handful of trouble-making U.S.A. school kids. Worse, back in Mexico, the generically feisty heroine comes across in much the same contempo manner. While around her, the film pitches more pop reference gags in dialogue & music than a DreamWorks product. As often the case in these aggressively overactive CGI films, the best things in it are the title or end credit sequences (here the credits) which throwback to old-fashioned hand-drawn techniques (or reasonable facsimiles thereof). And what a difference they make! Clarifying & refining the image; exciting & even more stylish/stylized, but with space to breath. Could it be sold to today’s audience? Pretty iffy.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Not seen here, but COCO/’17 was rapturously received. As for FERDINAND, tough to top Disney’s 1938 short FERDINAND THE BULL, available in various collections.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

WIFE WANTED (1946)

Slinky & soigné at the height of her stardom @ Paramount & Warners in the early ‘30s, Kay Francis bid declassé adieu producing a trio of B-pics at distinctly non-soigné Monogram Pictures. This, last of the three, was neatly helmed by Phil Karlson, already smart & efficient in an early credit, and matches Kay to her character as a fading actress going into real estate, but the story doesn’t make enough sense to build any suspense. The business, run by smooth Paul Cavanagh, has two sides, a ‘legit’ real estate company and a fraudulent Lonely Hearts Club marriage racket. (Overseen in a ferociously fierce turn by Veda Ann Borg, the only interesting thing in the pic.) Francis doesn’t know it, but she’s really there to pull in ‘marks’ with her famous name & sexy rep because (surprise!!) the real estate side of things is also a scam operation. Too bad no one explains how this all works, or how she wises up with help (and a bit of romance) from undercover investigating reporter Robert Shayne. Lenser Harry Neumann tries for sheen, but, this being Monogram, subfusc processing holds him back. (What did these films look like on release?) Poor Kay, fading away, like the proverbial old soldier, and at only 41.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Instead, try one of Kay’s best late outings, CONFESSION/’37, stylishly helmed by another Hollywood fade-out, Joe May.

Friday, December 22, 2017

WITHOUT LOVE (1945)

Like the substitute nylons, coffee & tires of WWII, this Philip Barry romantic comedy from the period, a stage vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, is entirely synthetic. Coy to the point of nausea, even by the chaste standards of the times, it’s one of those labored marriage-of-convenience farces, structured around D.C.’s infamous wartime housing shortage. Spencer Tracy (reluctantly taking over from Elliot Nugent who suffered thru this on B’way), is a once-burned/ marriage-phobic research scientist who moves his lab to the basement of Hepburn’s family manse. For her part, Kate’s pleased to help the war effort, and even while holding tight to her late husband’s memory, agrees to tie the knot for appearance sake. You can guess the rest. Keenan Wynn labors under the delusion he’s a scream as a dipsomaniac cousin, while Lucille Ball adds a bit of pace in a nothing role. Oh, did we mention Spencer sleepwalks when the plot needs a nudge? Really! With a cute doggie nipping at his heels. Oh, the pajamas! Oh, the hilarity! Oh, my God.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hard to believe Barry, with the same assist from scripter Donald Ogden Stewart, did HOLIDAY/’38 and PHILADELPHIA STORY/’40 with Hepburn. Those films had George Cukor directing rather than Harold S. Bucquet. This one is very oddly cut (post-production second thoughts?). Check out a long get-to-know-you sequence with Tracy playing ‘Clair de Lune’ on the piano as Hepburn steals in to listen to see just how bad the set-ups & editing get.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: To make amends, the DVD comes with a real ‘out there’ Tex Avery cartoon, SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA, a politically incorrect masterpiece from the great animator. Note the Bette Davis vocal for Cinderella’s speaking voice; standard practice @ M-G-M. Over @ Warners, the animated shorts made fun of Katharine Hepburn. ‘Really they did, really.’

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I TARTARI / THE TARTARS (1961)

It sounds like fun: Orson Welles, chief of the wily, savage Tartars vs. Victor Mature, head of the honorable Viking clan, on collision course over whether to crush or protect the Slavs. An Italian co-production with M-G-M (megged by journeyman vet Richard Thorpe*), there’s the expected cast of thousands for battle scenes; a pair of babalicious royals to pet & kidnap; lots of exposed leg (mostly the men . . . except for Orson who sticks to Tartar Tents); and a wisp of a plot as peg for action & spectacle. (One nice touch: a cross-clan love affair that ends in roll-call voting by hatchet toss!) But at a bare 83 minutes, there’s little time for character complications or twists of fate to enliven things. And a truncated ending is no help, either. On the other hand, where else could you see Welles, tipping the scales at 300+, swinging a scimitar before riding some poor horse into battle.* (Okay, it’s probably not Orson on the charger, but even the idea is uncomfortable.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *Richard Thorpe turned very bitter toward M-G-M following an abrupt sendoff after his largely unsung decades of loyal service. (25 years retirement and not a peep or sentimental memoir after nearly 200 directing credits.) Instead, for a glimpse of a fading A-list Hollywood director trying to keep his career afloat on an Italian loan-out, try Vincente Minnelli’s slightly hysterical TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN/’62. OR: *Come to think of it, Orson does similar battlefield labor (to comic purpose) in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT/’65.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

THE BIGAMIST (1953)

Last in a series of issue-oriented B-pics directed by Ida Lupino, produced & (mostly) scripted by then husband Collier Young*, offers a surprisingly delicate & sympathetic treatment of a subject ripe for exploitation. Edmund O’Brien’s the man in the middle, a traveling salesman with second wife Ida Lupino (and child) in L.A., and first wife (and business partner) Joan Fontaine in San Francisco. And he might have pulled off this ‘Captain’s Paradise’ indefinitely if he weren’t being vetted by Edmund Gwenn for a planned adoption with childless Fontaine. (No spoilers, the film’s all flashback.) Lupino handles this all with simple assurance, if skimming the surface at times, but generally letting the situations speak without any of the expected melodrama typical of the period. You have to search for villains, even O’Brien is more lonely and depressed than scoundrel, feelings nicely parsed in a late speech from Gwenn. There’s a neat twist in a doubled-up meet-cute for Lupino & O’Brien (celebrity bus tour*; then Chinese restaurant), with nothing quite comparable for Fontaine who, instead, gets final shot as partial amends, plus the more glamorous treatment. The film’s more worthy than exciting, but it’s honest stuff, more than decent in every sense.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Mirroring the film, producer Young was married to both Lupino and Fontaine . . . just not at the same time! He split with Lupino in ‘51 and married Fontaine the following year. Not many female directors at the time, even Lupino moved into series tv after this with the exception of THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS/’66. A surprise hit with a sequel she didn’t helm.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *The bus tour where O’Brien & Lupino meet is a Tour of Star Homes in Beverly Hills: Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Jack Benny and (an in joke) Edmund Gwenn. Not a super mansion or walled-off estate among them, but middle-class (well, wealthy/upper middle-class) style abodes not so different from what audiences might strive to achieve back when the super rich made maybe 10X what you made, rather than the 500X of today.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

MY MAN AND I (1952)

While variations on ‘Stormy Weather’ play in the background (as in ‘don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather, since my man and I ain’t together’), tough guy director William Wellman pulls out the hoke, anointing Ricardo Montalban patron saint of immigrant chumps. He’s Chu-Chu Ramirez, proud new U.S. citizen doing migrant farm work with his Mexican pals, but with a goal in mind while they lay about, gamble & drink away their wages between harvests. Not Chu-Chu! He reads his secondhand encyclopedia (up to ‘D’), meets-cute with sad-eyed lush Shelley Winters, and insists on getting paid the ninety bucks Wendell Corey owes him for clearing a field while unhappy wife Claire Trevor put the moves on him. Calm, honest, content, Chu Chu has faith in America, but the system sure looks rigged against him when he’s dragged into court after a shooting incident. What’s really being rigged here is the screenplay and acting, though it’s nice to see Corey in a repellent role that suits him. Wellman, with lenser William Mellor, shoots most of this little B-pic in the flattest of styles, then suddenly brings out low-key film noir lighting for a prison break. (Striking, too. Second unit stuff?) Corny as the whole set up is, it might have worked with better chemistry between Montalban & Winters; blowsy & drunk in the role (untamed by Wellman), her appeal hard to fathom.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: With both Montalban & Fernando Lamas on the lot, M-G-M had one too many Latin Lovers for an A-List breakout. See what might have been as Montalban burns up the screen in Anthony Mann’s blistering illegal immigrants pic, BORDER INCIDENT/’49.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

BOY ON A DOLPHIN (1957)

Less well-known than its travelogue-oriented CinemaScope brethren (20th/Fox lost rights, hence video limbo), director Jean Negulesco works with lighter foot & more spontaneity than in his earlier efforts in the form, enjoying the simple story & tasty Greek settings. (And gets smash lensing from Milton Krasner.) Sophia Loren's the sponge-diver who bumps into the eponymous statue, a priceless 2000 yr-old artifact, hidden in the watery deeps. She has two options: help honest archeologist Alan Ladd secure it for Greece (and chump change for Sophia & her romantic Romanian partner) or sell it to highest bidder Clifton Webb, eager to spirit the treasure out of the country for his personal collection. That’s about it, but it’s enough. Originally cooked up for Cary Grant & Gina Lollobrigida, Cary insisted on reteaming with new love Loren after THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION/’57. (Filmed first/released later.) But Cary’s wife nearly drowned when the Andrea Doria sunk, and he dropped out. Enter Alan Ladd, Hollywood’s second-shortest leading man against Hollywood’s second-tallest leading woman. And with the switch, a hot romantic vehicle became more of a straight treasure race. Call Rewrite! Walking ditches were dug to equalized height on tracking shots, scenes restaged for one party to stand & the other to be seated at a table. All the quick changes seemed to loosen up Negulesco, who came closer to his best form from back when his pics were so much smaller. (Though the end is a bit of a mess.) It’s modest stuff, but the fun on the set proves contagious; and Sophia truly looks truly spectacular.

CONTEST: The film trailer must have been worked up before Hugo Friedhofer wrote his score as the music used is by another famous composer. Name him to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Friday, December 15, 2017

ABSOLUTE POWER (1997)

Over-produced political conspiracy thriller, from a trash novel by David Baldacci, is good fun . . . up to a point, sort of Richard (MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) Condon for Dummies.*  Clint Eastwood megs & stars as a classy thief who hits museum drawing classes between upscale robberies. But he gets in over his head after accidentally witnessing U.S. President Gene Hackman roughing up his mistress from behind a two-way mirror in the midst of a haul. (At times, you wonder how much of the cast are in on the film's comic angles.) Anyway, the sex turns into a nasty murder scene, followed by a major cover up by Secret Service guys Scott Glenn & Dennis Haysbert who are themselves taking orders from White House Chief of Staff Judy Davis. (A tarantella between lovestruck Davis & Prez Hackman at a White House reception ought to be a major highlight; alas, it’s outside Eastwood’s range and falls flat.) Meanwhile, police dick Ed Harris is closing in on Eastwood for the crime (and romantically for estranged daughter Laura Linney), but unable to make logistical sense of the complex murder scene. Eastwood lends everything polish when it needs edge, but still delivers an entertaining empty-calorie smoothy you forget as you watch.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: He’d never have gone for it, but what if Eastwood played compromised Prez and Hackman the second-story man. Instant dramatic bump up.

DOUBLE-BILL: *While Condon’s MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE/’62 and PRIZZI’S HONOR/85 are rightly prized, the spirited lunacy of William Richert’s attempt at Condon’s WINTER KILLS/’79 (a Kennedy Assassination Shaggy Dog Story w/ Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Tony Perkins, et al.) is sui generis paranoid crazy shit.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)

Orson Welles had a real feel for Booth Tarkinton, and especially this elegant & elegiac chronicle of a horse-drawn, genteel America drawing to a close, lost to a revolution of speed & the combustible engine. He played the lead on radio, as he had in Tarkinton’s SEVENTEEN (twice*), but stuck to writing, directing & producing this second film, his follow up to CITIZEN KANE/’41. Infamously butchered in his absence (he was in So. America, filming IT’S ALL TRUE to benefit the ‘Good Neighbor’ policy), the film lives as a masterpiece maudit, with his effort standing out the more so in relief against later cuts & the imposition of added footage. The first three reels seem largely intact, and about as good as anything in the American cinema as Welles sets up the last great days of the Amberson family thru a failed courtship for Joseph Cotten & Dolores Costello, the impermanent rise of a spoiled Amberson scion (Tim Holt*) and his immediate attachment to Cotten’s assured daughter (Anne Baxter) upon their return. As one subtly stupendous set piece after another is deployed, the pattern & style for Welles' commentary on what’s been gained & lost in culture & society is crowned with an astonishment: the last great formal ball at the old Amberson mansion. Stunning in its fluid visual orchestration, it would make Max Ophüls swoon. (The Visconti of IL GATTOPARDO/’63 & Coppola of THE GODFATHER/’72, as well.) The middle three reels aren’t far behind (with character acting of legend from Agnes Moorehead & Ray Collins as Aunt & Uncle), but you do notice gaps in narrative continuity before the last act comes along with added footage (three major scenes, including the finale) that neither look nor sound like the rest of the film. Yet these blunders by the studio aren’t enough to spoil the spell cast by Welles & his team. We should all have such ‘failures.’

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Indulged in his first film by the ultra-efficient lensing of Gregg Toland, Welles grew impatient with the meticulous, time-consuming Stanley Cortez. But, oh!, the results.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Hard to imagine Welles playing the teenage lead of SEVENTEEN with that voice. But then, that’s the voice Welles had at 17! PENROD is probably Tarkinton’s best known title (the character now seeming more child delinquent than scamp), AMBERSONS, his Pulitzer Prize winner, holds up beautifully and finds Welles adaptation shockingly faithful to the text.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Is there another actor with as low a profile as Tim Holt who appeared in so many classic pics? STELLA DALLAS/’37; STAGECOACH/’39; THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS/42; HITLER’S CHILDREN/’43; MY DARLING CLEMENTINE/’46 and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’48. It’s quite a list.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

BRIDGE TO THE SUN (1961)

Belgium director Etienne Périer & scripter Charles Kaufman must have left half the drama on the table in what remains of Gwendolen Terasaki’s fascinating tru-life story of life in Japan during WWII. As strongly played by Carroll Baker, she’s a classic Southern Belle with rebel streak who falls for independent-minded Japanese embassy attaché James Shigeta. Leaving D.C. for Japan as newlyweds, the gauche but charming bride blunders thru all the expected cultural adjustments while Shigeta is confronted with rising military belligerence from his colleagues. Labeled as a peace-monger and married to a blonde girl from Tennessee, their path of honorable resistance all but impossibly narrow, and only growing worse as the war effort turns desperate. Then, when the war does end, and Shigeta’s character is needed as liaison between the Emperor & General MacArthur (titanic events largely skipped on screen), he finds his health broken. A tremendous story opportunity, visually alive simply in watching blonde Baker maneuver as a stranger in a strange land, let alone the trials of being a suspected foreign enemy. If only someone had the moviemaking skills to take advantage of the dramatic situations. Mini-series, anyone?

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For three years (CRIMSON KIMONO/’59 to FLOWER DRUM SONG/’61), Hawaiian-born James Shigeta looked set to become Hollywood’s first mainstream Asian leading man. Hollywood wasn’t ready. Instead, four active decades as a tv ‘guest star.’ It’s a living.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

Bouncy Early Talkie has young James Cagney as a hotel bellhop running small town cons with platonic partner Joan Blondell. And while it’s not chump change (horny Guy Kibbee is taken for a few thou), Cagney’s an ambitious boy and jumps to a bigger town (and bigger fish) only to fall for a fake counterfeiting scam run by Louis Calhern.* Licking his wounds and covering his loses (so Blondell won’t know), he finally hits NYC, wins big, but loses Joan to smooth banker Ray Milland who turns out to be not much of a catch. Typically zippy and fun, in the slaphappy Warners manner (lots of real slapping, too!), Cagney sells harder than he needs to, but is so irresistible you won’t mind. Blondell’s at her most attractive and there’s a nifty action sequence near the end so Jimmy can have a bit of gunplay. A programmer, but a good one.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Jack-of-all-genres director Roy Del Ruth sets up the weirdest backscreen projection shot covering nothing but the back bench of one of those open ‘30s roadsters. With no car elements in the frame, it looks like a ride on a traveling sofa.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney perfected this guy in JIMMY THE GENT/’34. Pitch-perfect in all departments, with a better plot, Bette Davis, loads of tasty supporting characters & general hilarity.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Calhern simply towers over all the Warners contract players in here. Jack Warner had a positive mania for hiring guys as short as he was.

Monday, December 11, 2017

WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Much as Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER/’11 turned to WWII for its origin story, giving unexpected textural elements to standard SuperHero tropes in an era half-familiar to modern audiences; so too DC’s WONDER WOMAN conceives its Isle-cocooned Amazon Princess Warrior by tossing her into WWI-era England to search out her nemesis; then at The Front with her motley all-male gang. A striking (and welcome) move away from the dank, dark, dour tone DC & Warners have been using elsewhere, and with the bull’s-eye casting of Gal Gadot as WW, a smash mix of looks, fighting spirit & unfazable attitude. Plus, a change in directors from humor-resistant Zack Synder to female empowering Patty Jenkins. (Note the early billing on our collectable poster - click to expand.) Jenkins manages to keep the tone light, and usually stops short of the dreaded irony button. (Alas, not the case for romantic lead/action partner Chris Pine who piles irony onto every other line.*) If only Jenkins were equally good at period tableaux: London’s streets are out of a toy train gift box, Amazon Isle a hideous floral mess, and she completely misses what should be the film’s ‘topper’ after WW blows up a church tower to take out a German sniper. Those ground floor church doors are still waiting to be flung open for a triumphant entrance. Still, generally good fun, with a super smart & sneaky perf from David Thewlis.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *After a breakthru in HELL OR HIGH WATER/'16, Pine, back in a tent-pole franchise, resumes putting quotation marks on all his dialogue. Maybe it’s just those eyebrows.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

COUNT THE HOURS (1953)

With only nine days of shooting and the tightest of budgets, Don Siegel and ace lenser John Alton almost make this ‘hopeless’ murder case defense story work. If only Karen DeWolf’s script had a bit more surprise & nuance. After an elderly farm owner & his housekeeper are murdered during a nighttime robbery, married caretakers Teresa Wright & John Craven living in the cottage next door are quickly pinned with the crime. He did the shooting; she panicked and got rid of the gun. Only he didn’t do it and the gun that would have proved his innocence is now lost. Court appointed attorney Macdonald Carey reluctantly takes the case, then goes on to wreck his personal & professional life by bankrolling their defense and hunting the real killer. The film takes too many obvious/simplistic turns working its way thru this, and the occasional slapdash look often exposes threadbare working conditions. But there’s good atmosphere & clever use of real locations mixed in, especially when Alton gets a chance to work his ‘Prince of Darkness’ magic. And what telling characterizations Siegel finagled out of his mongrel cast, including a tasty early turn from wild-eyed Jack Elam.

DOUBLE-BILL: Carey brings similar commonsense purpose & courage (as newspaper editor rather than lawyer) to Joseph Losey’s harrowing migrant injustice story, THE LAWLESS/’50.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

BLOODY MAMA (1970)

Made fast & cheap, in the receding wake of game-changer BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67, Roger Corman’s take on a less photogenic Depression-era crime-spree family has aged beyond exploitation to honest tawdry. There’s little concern for period niceties or unified style in technique & acting (the Corman form rarely rose above klutzy, part of his charm), the film becomes both BONNIE AND CLYDE retort in its refusal to glamorize (no fashion trends here), and something of a Southern-Fried evil American doppelgänger to Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE. And warming to that task, none other than Shelley Winters as amoral, incestuous pack leader to a family of degenerate sadists who rob & kill with spontaneous abandon. With the bonus of seeing her scrubbing buck-naked son Robert De Niro in one of those portable zinc tubs. Actually, she takes on all the boys (4 or 5; you can lose track of this well-built clothing-optional crew) in bed, bath & beyond, though Robert Walden seems to prefer former cell-mate Bruce Dern, soon adopted as new family member. The script goes light on robberies to concentrate on two abductions, a pretty girl who learns too much (Pamela Dunlap) and wealthy family-man Pat Hingle who manages to service Ma when requested. It’s really quite an audacious work, though awfully rough-and-ready, with lenser John Alonzo very uneven on his first feature. Actually, some of his mismatched shots give off an inadvertent kinetic charge. It exemplifies what’s right and what’s wrong in here.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, BONNIE AND CLYDE which looks pretty arch these days.

Friday, December 8, 2017

CHURCHILL (2017)

This year, Winston Churchill is busier than ever. Award-bait turns from Gary Oldman & John Lithgow (DARKEST HOUR; THE CROWN), a constant, if unseen presence in DUNKIRK, plus this, for the Booby Prize. Woefully unconvincing, it was mercifully lost in the shuffle. Brian Cox blusters his way thru a Winston petrified into political paralysis as a lone, hysterical voice against the Normandy Invasion; unable to see past memories of his WWI fiasco at Gallipoli. All well and good, but his constant hectoring and out of control behavior, held back to some extent by Miranda Richardson’s Clemmie Churchill, offer Cox little variety, he’s all huff & puff (literally), then given a bow for unearned credit. Director Jonathan Teplitzky hardly helps his cause, unable to work around his tight budget (a pre-invasion gathering of soldiers would hardly fill a single boat) and he’s not much help to a cast largely unequal to their famous characters.* Of all the Churchill bio-pics made after Albert Finney opened the floodgates with THE GATHERING STORM/’02, this seems quite the worst.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Like John Slattery, who makes no connection to General Eisenhower at all. And he should be a dream of a role to play what with that balding pate & a voice barely half a step away from Clark Gable. Those who recall the elections of ‘52 & ‘56 will know that Adlai Stevenson’s speaking voice was remarkably close to Ronald Colman. Gable & Colman, what a casting coup!

WATCH THIS NOT THAT: As mentioned above, GATHERING STORM is fine (if no better) and should make for neat comparisons with Oldman’s new bio-pic, DARKEST HOUR, covering nearly the same Pre-War events.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

SPLIT (2016)

Facing increasing budgets & diminishing returns, M. Night Shyamalan went back-to-basics on his last two films, with production costs in line with ‘craft services’ on critical write-offs like THE LAST AIRBENDER/’10. Perhaps too much back-to-basics since SPLIT turns out to be that old standby, the split-personality thriller. An actor’s delight for James McAvoy, gleefully sashaying about as 23 (plus one) personalities; and that extra one, pure violent, controlling ‘id,’ with a plan to kidnap two teenage girls that goes off course when a third girl, a misfit outsider type, comes along for the ride. Guess who makes it out alive? Meant to be scary, creepy, suspenseful, Shyamalan never gets much past unpleasant, before adding a risible self-referential twist tag as his curtain. Those who liked his early pics (or didn’t reject their surprise ‘reveals’), may still enjoy his odd habit of framing shots about 20% too close, or how he covers his tracking shots with generic ominous music cues. Others may be satisfied with just the trailer.

DOUBLE-BILL: Shyamalan’s little-known first film (a film school graduation project?), PRAYING WITH ANGER/’92, is a fascinating embrace of commercial filmmaking tropes & technique. The raw talent is astonishing, in spite of a story that has him playing an ultra-Americanized kid visiting India and single-handedly solving caste discrimination issues. The shining technical ability is jawdropping; the starry-eyed self-serving self-absorption maddening.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

DU SAL ÆRE DIN HUSTRU / MASTER OF THE HOUSE (1925)

That most austere of directors, Carl Theodor Dreyer, doing an I LOVE LUCY? Back in Danish studios after making MICHAEL/’24 in Germany, this adaptation of a domestic ‘problem’ play isn’t so far removed from a Lucy & Ricky sit-com template. The one that finds Ricky Ricardo ineptly (and hilariously) having to take over Lucy’s domestic chores, and finding himself in over his head with kids, kitchen & a recalcitrant vacuum cleaner. Naturally, Dreyer plots out a serious version of that setup, where a husband turned tyrant after losing his business drives his wife into a nervous breakdown with demands & selfish behavior. Only his old nanny stands up to him (hadn’t she whipped his ass when he was a boy?), sending the wife off to Mother for a rest cure and teaching Dad a painful lesson by not giving him a moment’s peace at household duties large, small & demeaning. Even to changing diapers & taking punishment by standing in the corner with hands behind his back. This may well have been more comic on stage (Dreyer’s pacing is very deliberate), but what makes it unmissable is Dreyer’s use of space with perhaps 90% of the film playing out in a single multi-purpose living room that, with but minor adjustment, serves for dining, sleep, homework, laundry, sewing, coffeehouse (what’s a Dreyer film without pots of strong Danish coffee?) and smoking area. Pop’s transformation, when it comes, is surprisingly swift, but Nanny sure makes the ungrateful sot work for his forgiveness. Desi Arnaz might not have survived the tough love treatment.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Lucille Ball idea may less of a stretch than seems as Dreyer’s stunning PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC/’28 found its martyr not in some tragedienne, but in light stage comedienne Falconetti. Her only screen appearance.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The reconstructed score on Criterion’s DVD is largely made up of classical pieces adapted for solo piano, making for odd juxtapositions like Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ & salami sandwich.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

NINOTCHKA (1939)

While political comedies usually spoil fast as sliced avocados, Ernst Lubitsch’s famous ‘Garbo Laughs’ vehicle, where her Russian ideologue thaws to romance in capitalist Paris, shows almost no sign of aging. If anything, the first half plays funnier, the second warmer & more touching than it has since its Pre-War first-run. Almost everyone in the film has never been better. Not only Greta Garbo, charming & relaxed in a manner she’d never attempted, but all the men who support her. Melvyn Douglas, with a high polished glamor hiding deficiencies perfectly suited to his well-dressed gigolo; the troika of incompetent Russian negotiators (straight men in the original draft till Lubitsch saw their comic & sentimental potential); and a devastatingly self-revealing turn from stage actress Ina Claire, who needs but a glance at her competition to know Garbo has her defeated in looks, youth & depth of feeling.* Even Bela Lugosi, in a small but telling bit as a Moscow apparatchik who sends a reluctant Garbo back to the West, is indelible yet human-scaled; a trick no one else ever brought off. Technically, Lubitsch had dropped his flashy early manner for candor, holding showy moments back as reserve. Yet look how carefully he sets up the big ‘Garbo Laughs’ moment with a five-minute two-shot (less one insert shot) of Garbo & Douglas at lunch. (Garbo never stops eating so it couldn’t have been more than one or two takes.) You expect these built-up moments to fall a little flat, especially on repeat viewings. Not here. The laughs are all real . . . and delightful; life changing. Nitpickers can point to the typically overlit M-G-M sets, all that chintz & finery on display. Yet somehow, at M-G-M, the least director-friendly of all major studios, Lubitsch had nothing but masterpieces: THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27; THE MERRY WIDOW/’34; NINOTCHKA; and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER/’40, which may be best of all.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: As prestige items, Garbo’s vehicles were usually saddled with the stultifying musical scores of Herbert Stothart. (His main theme in CAMILLE/’36 sounds like ‘Makin’ Whoopee!’ in half-time.) Lubitsch was having none of that and brought in a European emigre he’d found, Werner R. Heymann, for the film’s spritely score.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Ina Claire’s looks didn’t ‘take’ to camera, though here since she’s meant to be a bit past prime it’s no problem. She's at her considerable best in her last film before this, THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM/’32 (one of those three girls hunting for Mister Right things). But her defining moment on screen is found in a single line of dialogue from George Cukor’s early success THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY/’30. Playing a sort of Ethel Barrymore actress, the line (which is nothing on the page, yet too good to give away) has something to do with knitting and you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s enough to show why she starred in over 20 B’way productions, including BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE which Lubitsch made just before NINOTCHKA with the same writers, Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder.

Monday, December 4, 2017

KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE (1950)

Having just made a pile of dough for Warner Bros playing tough-guy/psycho killer in WHITE HEAT/’49, James Cagney encored the characterization for his own production company with Warners just releasing. It has its moments, but not a patch on its older sibling. With drably efficient megging via Gordon Douglas, Cagney goes from prison break to new hood in town, even picking up on the kid sister (Barbara Payton) of the prison pal he left behind. After that, the film drifts from one action scene to another, hoping we won’t notice the lack of connective dramatic tissue. Instead, Cagney uses & abuses partners (including laughably corrupt cops Ward Bond & Barton MacLane) and even switches pretty girls, succumbing to Helena Carter’s spoiled rich girl. (Cagney must do more smooching here than in all his other pics combined. Yet, still spends a honeymoon night in separate twin beds! Ah, the Production Code.) Added to ill-motivated romance, a courtroom flashback template that adds nothing, not even clarity. WHITE HEAT fans may want another go on the ride, but it only diminishes the brand. And Cagney seems to know the score, overcompensating by overplaying.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: This film began something of 5-yr Cagney decline; major flops even with John Ford (WHAT PRICE GLORY/52) and Raoul Walsh (A LION IS IN THE STREET/’53). But then his 1955 annus mirabilis with Oscar nom (LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME); top grosser of the year (MISTER ROBERTS); and a George M. Cohan reprise/cameo (SEVEN LITTLE FOYS).

Sunday, December 3, 2017

WHO'S GOT THE ACTION (1962)

Writer/producer Jack Rose & director Daniel Mann followed this little Dean Martin sex farce in a similar key with WHO’S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED/’63. Somebody must have liked it . . . but who? The set up has novelist Lana Turner relieved to find hubby’s affair ain’t with babes but with bookies. Now he’s in hock to a mob betting syndicate (big enough to use a UNIVAC electronic brain) for 8Gs. Yikes! Together with Dino’s law partner Eddie Albert, Lana secretly takes over his betting to teach him a lesson just as the guy hits a winning streak. Now, she’s the one in hock. Worse, mob man Walter Matthau wants his client back. Toss in a pair of comic judges (John McGiver; Paul Ford) and a flirty neighbor who’s Matthau’s main squeeze, and you should get a reasonable facsimile of those modern mores comedies Jack Lemmon served up (usually with director Richard Quine) over @ Columbia. Those films haven’t aged well, but at least you can still see the comic footprint. Not here. Mann can’t supply the pace, heedless attitude or heartless efficiency. Even lenser Joseph Ruttenberg, who also did SLEEPING, can’t lend much fizz or glamor. On B’way, you’d slip out after the first act.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If you do stick around, Ford & McGiver’s buddy act raises a grin, and Matthau’s broad playing eeks out two honest laughs.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

THE SPLIT (1968)

Plain spoken caper pic (with ‘60's filmmaking stylistics) has quite the cast: Jim Brown, Diahann Carroll, Ernest Borgnine & Julie Harris (in an alarming red wig) working the con; plus an impressive undercard of Donald Sutherland, Warren Oates, Jack Klugman, Gene Hackman & James Whitmore. Even a funked up Quincy Jones score. (No doubt the starry/stars-in-the-making line-up the doing of producers Robert Chartoff & Irwin Winkler.) Brown gets things rolling by anonymously ‘testing’ his pickup crew with on-field challenges before Julie Harris lays out the plan: secure a football stadium cash office for an unscheduled playoff game, then watch the cash roll in with tickets @ 10 & 7.50! But Post-Game, the loot goes missing and all hell breaks loose; enter Hackman as a just-corrupt-enough police dick. Sounds fine & dandy, but where the producers did themselves proud in casting, they failed miserably with action chopless tv director Gordon Flemyng. A lummox at calling the shots, the suspense is under nourished, fights ineptly staged and tricky set pieces unreadable, hitting bottom in a laughable sauna shootout. Talk about a con job. 

(And check out this Italian poster that hides the film's black lead.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For someone who never quite figured out the acting game, Brown sure made a lot of pics. He's better served in supporting roles, like THE DIRTY DOZEN/’67 from the year before.

Friday, December 1, 2017

PITFALL (1948)

Under director Andre De Toth, the old story of a ‘good’ family man who falls for a bad girl is less big city film noir than suburban film gris, downbeat, sober, realistic. As if Ozzie & Harriet got in major trouble thru sex & lies. And if it doesn’t fully come off, it’s lots more interesting than many that do. Dick Powell plays a ‘butter-and-egg’ man, an insurance exec bored with his ‘perfect’ little life (wife/kid/two-car garage) before he even meets Lizabeth Scott after getting Raymond Burr’s report on her. Scott, sympathetic for a change, is the girlfriend of busted embezzler Byron Barr and Powell’s there as RePo man on the pricey gifts he bought for her with ill-gotten gains. But something deep clicks between these two, and Powell’s ready to drop the wife (Jane Wyatt) & kid to run away. He quickly regrets his actions, but then can’t shake off that hulking investigator (Burr) who’s also got the hots for Ms. Scott, and who gets busy pouring poison about the affair into embezzler Barr's ear right before his prison release date. Loaded with low-key, sympathetic perfs and a believable social milieu, as well as a smart rue-tinged ending, you can feel how much everyone was invested in this modest indie production . . . and it sticks with you.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

BEWITCHED (1945)

Famous for his creepy LIGHTS OUT radio show, Arch Oboler also turned out the occasional film. Specializing in a sort of TWILIGHT ZONE meets ONE STEP BEYOND shtick, over-the-air he could be counted on for a decent jolt or two. A result undelivered on film, a medium he had little aptitude for. Every shot, every edit a dud; pacing, performance, decor, composition, a checklist of poor choices. Especially when he tried something showy. No Edward D. Wood Jr., production standards @ M-G-M provided a certain level of polish. But maybe that just makes it all worse. In this ‘daring’ drama, an over-parted Phyllis Thaxter plays a just-engaged schizophrenic with a split personality disorder. Running away from the evil voice inside her head*, she heads east to NYC where she finds a job, a lawyer boyfriend, and an old flame to murder. But who did the killing? Angel Phyllis or Devil Phyllis? Either way, someone’s going to the electric chair which should take care of the both of them. Even kindly psychiatrist Edmund Gwenn can’t work up a defense after seeing the truth. Maybe at the time, this passed with its bold new topic, but hard to see how. A real stinker; and capped with a cop-out ending that couldn’t have satisfied then or now.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *According to IMDb, that’s classic film noir bad girl Audrey Totter speaking inside Thaxter’s head as her evil alter ego. Best thing in here.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: What a lot of screwy camera set ups from six-years-and-out lenser Charles Salerno.

LINK: As always when Oboler gets a mention, we’re happy to provide a LINK to his famous LIGHTS OUT 10 minute creep-a-thon masterpiece, THE DARK! It’s the one with a once-heard/ never-forgotten sound effect of a man turned INSIDE OUT!! Nothing touches the original broadcast, but it’s hard to track down on youtube. Here’s a later version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSmEh8TxswQ

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

UMIMACHI DIARY / OUR LITTLE SISTER (2015)

Hirokazu Kore-eda pays the sort of attention to life’s surface ripples most filmmakers reserve for high drama, getting you to adjust to his wavelength & rhythms. This time in a quiet, but deeply felt story about three sisters who invite their teenage half-sister to move in with them after meeting her at their estranged father’s funereal. The transition is a happy one, but cracks start showing up from various repressed resentments between the older sisters: romantic entanglements, career changes, possible loss of the family home. It’s as if their new half-sister were an inadvertent catalyst/agent of change. But it’s the nature of this film to calm the waters and have things work out; and a pleasant one to join in on, especially with such an attractive cast. (Sachi, the oldest sister played by Haruka Ayase, in particular.) Well-received (deservedly) and compared to the family-oriented dramas of Yasujirô Ozu (mistakenly), any story of four sisters (and cherry blossoms) can’t help but nod toward Kon Ichikawa’s fathoms deep & treasurable THE MAKIOKA SISTERS/’83, but this is very satisfying on its own terms.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, MAKIOKA SISTERS, masterful filmmaking that’s a tough act to follow. So, maybe see SISTER first.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

99 RIVER STREET (1953)

Once a count or two away from being Heavyweight Champion, now a cabby with a damaged eye & a dissatisfied wife. It's John Payne in tough-guy mode, about to fall for a couple of scams that might take him out for good. One’s small & nasty: a sweetheart/actress pal (Evelyn Keyes) using him as a tool to get an acting job; the other’s even worse, with his slutty wife setting herself up for a permanent getaway with a violent jewel thief. But then, both plans blow up in everyone’s face, and Payne goes on the lam to try & untangle the multiple mess before he lands in jail . . . or gets dropped off a pier! Made in the wake of KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL/’52, Payne & director Phil Karlson lay on loads of glistening noir flavor (with what looks like a very tight budget) thanks to a major assist from lenser Franz Planer. (The dockside finale an exceptional display of trick matte effects.) But this second pairing for Karlson & Payne dials up all the acting & plot turns to ‘eleven,’ pushing the envelope past extreme. Just how much of this are we supposed to swallow? Then, about halfway in, the cast & crew seem to notice just how batty it all is and the film makes nodding acquaintance of its own absurdist noir sensibility, turning the corner from ridiculous to ridiculous fun. So, hang in there, and enjoy!

DOUBLE-BILL: Edward Dmytryk & Dick Powell made a similar escalation, upping the ante from the relatively straight MURDER, MY SWEET/’44 to the slightly delirious CORNERED/’45.

Monday, November 27, 2017

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016)

A documentary that plays like a fable, think MULAN/’98, or even NATIONAL VELVET/ ’44, as a young girl triumphs in a role traditionally reserved for men. And this time without gender disguise. Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a 13-yr-old Mongolian schoolgirl determined to continue the family line of hunting for game with trained eagles. With her father’s remarkable support, she already knows the basics, practicing with his hunting eagle before heading out to find a 3-month old eaglet of her own.* Mission accomplished, the next step is months of training and entry in the national eagle competition. The first ever female participant and the youngest. The last section, in the frozen mountains, is the eagle’s first hunt rite-of-passage, Aisholpan’s too. Thrilling stuff, top to bottom, beautifully realized on a wisp of a budget, yet looking like a major production from director Otto Bell largely thanks to Simon Niblett’s staggering cinematography. (Somewhere, David Lean wants to get his hands on a drone camera for a few aerial passes.) The story could use a bit more expansion/ explanation in the middle training/competition section, and it’s hard to think of anything that could top the initial rocky capture in the bird’s craggy lair. But there’s plenty of wonder in the whole fascinating story.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *This section also covers home & school where we see less tomboy and more gossipy, nail-painting 13-yr-old girlfriend and star student. Just a super kid!

DOUBLE-BILL: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s GRASS: A Nation’s Battle to Survive/’25 is an early, thrilling documentary about a nomadic tribe in (then) Persia moving with their herds over snow-covered mountain passes on a twice-annual drive for grazing land.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937)

In dueling productions on B’way, Leslie Howard had just gone head-to-head against John Gielgud in HAMLET (and lost), and in Hollywood against Norma Shearer in ROMEO AND JULIET (and lost), when he got a chance to send up Shakespeareans on and off-stage co-starring with Bette Davis as a battling theatrical couple. (Think ‘the Lunts’ whose constant bickering in TAMING OF THE SHREW on and off-stage led to Cole Porter’s KISS ME KATE.*) The gimmick here is super-fan Olivia de Havilland, engaged to Patrick Knowles, but carrying a torch for Howard that’s threatening both couples. Warners wasn’t exactly the studio for sophisticated continental comedy, you’re more likely to find sub-Ferenc Molnár confections @ Paramount. Yet how well this turned out! Funny & relaxed, with deft playing all ‘round, and hardly any pushing. (See next year’s BOY MEETS GIRL for a typical harsh & hasty Warners comedy.) Howard, not only hilarious & charming, but also getting to show some serious Shakespearean chops simply by not taking things too seriously. He & Davis as R&J, fighting sotto voce on-stage as they die; SHREW quotes over kippers at breakfast; tossing off a ‘7 Ages of Man’ as he packs. Just as good is Eric Blore, stealing all his scenes as Howard’s ultra-devoted valet. Disproving the idea that ‘no man’s a hero to his valet,’ Blore’s plainly in love with the guy. You’ll be too. And from ‘utility player’ helmer Archie Mayo who rarely got such congenial assignments over a long career.

DOUBLE-BILL: *While M-G-M’s KISS ME KATE/'53 is (ahem) uneven, most of the original B’way cast was captured to good effect in a reasonably complete 1958 tv abridgement.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

NI LE CIEL NI LA TERRE / NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH (2016)

Clément Cogitore’s debut feature is all eerie, suspense-ridden atmosphere, capturing the low-level thrum of war’s constant menace, ‘relieved’ only by outbursts of violence. We’re at some blasted Afghanistan military outpost where a small unit of French soldiers attempt to coordinate with locals (to little effect) and hold back Taliban fighters. An all but pointless exercise in an ill-defined mission. And things only get worse when some men (along with the company dog) go missing, as if vanished. A search leads to a meeting with enemy Taliban (uncannily staged to have them emerge out of rock & land). It’s no ambush, instead, a standoff as both groups blame the other for their own unexplained ‘vanishings.’ No captures, no kidnappings, no fatalities, and no explanation. Agreeing to a temporary truce to search for the missing, all they come up with are more mysteries involving ancient caves; tethered goats in remote locations (what could they signify?); and a local adolescent with the answer of a true-believer. Shot in an effective mix of grainy POV shots, scavenging hand-held work & dramatic lighting that conceals as much as it reveals, Cogitore manages to work all the way thru to an ending both tidy & unresolved.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Extra credit for dialing down the usual actorly intensity often seen in these stories. With no one busy auditioning for their next gig.

Friday, November 24, 2017

THE COBWEB (1955)

A psychiatric clinic where you can’t tell the patients from the doctors? An old gag, but a good one; likely a true one. And certainly the case in Vincente Minnelli’s slightly unhinged ‘50s meller. (It seems even more so with Leonard Rosenman’s largely atonal underscoring making even simple acts (opening the ‘fridge; driving a car; hanging up drapes) come over with near lunatic edge. Speaking of drapes . . . Well, that’s the story engine, a new set of drapes for the sanatorium library. Shall it be cost-conscious burlap to please long time accounts manager Lillian Gish? Something chic from a top Manhattan designer to give Gloria Grahame, wife of clinic head Richard Widmark, a bit of purpose in an empty life? Or something of/by/for the patients as part of the on-going treatment for mixed-up John Kerr (in his film debut) under the guidance of widowed art therapist Lauren Bacall? Add in doctor Charles Boyer as a soused roué who ignores wife Fay Wray; addled Oscar Levant with a hardcore mother-fixation; and scared of the world Susan Strasberg. All of them prowling around a series of chic curated furnished rooms you’d either die to move into or panic to flee from. (Leave it to Minnelli to equate decor not only with character & plot, but to destiny, fate & kismet.*) Undoubtedly a faintly ridiculous dramatic smorgasbörd, yet pretty irresistible; with a swank sense of composition that just won’t quit and keeps this from simply becoming a mere ‘guilty pleasure.’ (Minnelli, scoring with regular lenser George Folsey.) In the theater, these OTT ‘50s melodramas could crash & burn on a single ‘bad laugh’ from some insensitive clod, but hold up (and fascinate) seen at home on the couch in spite of the loss in sheer scale & sensory overload.

DOUBLE-BILL: Minnelli was able to relax Bacall into showing more range (and more technique) than she often mustered on screen. Check out her comic chops in their follow up DESIGNING WOMAN/’57.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Speaking of kismet, it’s hard to believe the book leaves Bacall in as abrupt a fashion as the film does. No doubt a Breen Office Production Code imperative.

CONTEST: When Kerr & Strasberg go to the movies, the exit music tells you what they’ve just seen. Tell us the title to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

RAMROD (1947)

Dark, brooding, exceptional Western with Joel McCrea & Veronica Lake on the same side of a showdown between violent free-range cattlemen & sheep herders. Sheriff Donald Crisp, playing everything strictly by the book, just manages to keep order, but he’s losing control of Preston Foster & his ranchers. That’s when Lake, behind McCrea’s back, makes a dirty move of her own, ordering up a self-inflicted first strike then laying the blame on Foster & his men. But the dodge blows up in her face starting a new, even deadlier level of tit–for-tat violence with murders and a possible shooting war. Director André De Toth & lenser Russell Harlan get the most out of these conflicted characters, and even manage to make the usually lackluster Don DeFore shine as McCrea’s wrong-side-of-the-law pal. (Or is it just that DeFore looks trimmer & younger than remembered?)

DOUBLE-BILL: The Western took a turn toward greater complexity in ‘47, or did for famous one-eyed directors like De Toth & Raoul Walsh in the psychologically-minded PURSUED.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Joel McCrea really towers over petite Veronica Lake who looks frail, almost brittle, like a Dresden Porcelain figurine. That’d be fine is her acting weren’t equally frail.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

THE SEA WOLF (1941)

The narrative confidence & sheer technical bravura of this film’s opening (at just over a reel) is so brilliantly handled by all hands (on deck & on set), you’ll want to hit pause for a round of applause. It’s classic Golden Age Hollywood at its most assured, spinning a complicated story into clear, continuously exciting entertainment; with leads, supporting players & crew all at the top of their game. And note the well-deserved solo credit card to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, second only to director Michael Curtiz. Robert Rosson did the fine job on Jack London’s tricky tale of sadistic ship captain Edward G. Robinson & a cutthroat crew, as well as John Garfield’s anarchist-on-the-run. Add-in Ida Lupino’s desperate streetwalker & Alexander Knox’s literary intellectual, both plucked out of the sea.* The speed this gets put into place is thrilling, along with Anton Grot’s production design & Sol Polito’s fog-bound atmospherics. Told with a vicious, grown-up tone & nihilistic attitude that can still shock, there’s something to make you jump or gasp every few minutes as the ship reveals what the bloody hell is really going on. WOLF has taken ages to show on DVD, largely because of a re-release that clipped nearly a reel & a half off the original running time, with inestimable damage to Curtiz’s editing rhythms. Part of this was simply a trim for a double-bill with the similarly trimmed SEA HAWK/’40. But in WOLF’s case, there was also a bit of politically tinged ‘lefty’ speech-making to worry about from Rosson (an ‘admitted’ Communist who ‘named names’) and an acting line-up of Blacklisted & Grey-listed actors like Howard Da Silva & even Eddie G. You really couldn’t trust Eddie. Not only was he what was known as a ‘Premature-Anti-Fascist (meaning various liberal/humanitarian causes supported before war broke out), but he also had a world-class collection of impressionist & modern art. An obvious danger to society.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Golden Year of the Golden Age of Hollywood is always awarded to 1939, a year where one director (Victor Fleming) could turn out GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ. But ‘41 has it champions, what with CITIZEN KANE; HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY; HOLD BACK THE DAWN; LITTLE FOXES, MALTESE FALCON; SERGEANT YORK; SUSPICION; HERE COMES MR. JORDAN; BALL OF FIRE; TOM, DICK AND HARRY; THE LADY EVE; NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH; MEET JOHN DOE; THAT HAMILTON WOMAN; STRAWBERRY BLONDE; SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS; 49TH PARALLEL; DUMBO; HIGH SIERRA; and yet another wolf, THE WOLF MAN; to name but a few. (And that’s only English-language pics.) Take that 1939! Heck, take that 2017.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Knox & Lupino’s meeting is a neat gender reversed swipe from Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll’s in Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS/’35.

Monday, November 20, 2017

HER CARDBOARD LOVER (1942)

The trailer crows ‘Grand New, Brand New,’ but it’s M-G-M’s third go at this puerile French Boulevard play, seen on B’way in 1927 with Jeanne Eagles & Leslie Howard in roles now inadequately taken by Norma Shearer (in something of a humiliation) and Robert Taylor (working too hard). The main gag has Shearer, in her screen swansong, stuck on caddish lover-boy George Sanders and hiring Taylor to keep her from acting on her worst instincts. The job fits Taylor fine since he’s already positively, if inexplicably, twitterpixed over M-G-M’s time-tarnished doyenne of original contract players. No surprise to find her coming ‘round to him in a slightly more action-oriented third act added to the sedate play script. It’s meant to be very ‘La-Di-Da’ (a first act all about evening clothes restrictions), and if you watch how Sanders throws his lines away rather than holding forth like the two leads, you can see how this just might have worked in ‘40s New England Summer Stock with Leading Ladies of a certain age and fascination. Kit Cornell? Ina Claire? Gertrude Lawrence? Tallulah? Heck, director George Cukor had over-seen a stage revival with none other than Laurette Taylor. So, he certainly knew the score, but maintained something of a soft spot for Shearer in what was their third film together. Perhaps he admired her sheer persistence & work ethic from time on ROMEO & JULIET/’36. Alas, traits largely unsuited to this gossamer material.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cukor was fresh off similar unhappy career-ending duties with Greta Garbo on the ill-fated TWO-FACED WOMAN/’41. He’d return to form (and then some) with GASLIGHT/’44.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)

More like The Fall of Producer Samuel Bronston who channeled hefty profits, goodwill & much creative talent from EL CID/’61 into this hubristic deadweight; then never recovered. There’s plenty of wrong to go around here, but the main problem is that the writers (even with ‘your free gift’ historian Will Durant as ‘Consultant’*) could neither whip up nor lick the storyline. And the film trailer promises ‘A World . . . An Empire . . . A Motion Picture!’ Not quite. First half of a three-hour slog has Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius crawl his way to chilly death while daughter Sophia Loren (in Balmain on the Tiber fur) longs for preferred successor Stephen Boyd (in unbecoming blond locks) and stares daggers at nutso brother/would-be heir Christopher Plummer’s Commodus. (Plummer gives the fruitiest perf in the pic; atrocious, but lively.) To everyone’s relief, blind philosopher Mel Ferrer pulls the ol’ poisoned apple gag on Aurelius, hastening his demise to keep the line of succession in the family. And with Plummer installed as a new mad emperor, the usual Bread & Circus Sword & Sandal tropes take over as we move from frosty Germanica to a massive Roman Forum reconstruction of truly spectacular scale. You feel bankrupt just looking at it. (Not since Henry King & Lillian Gish rebuilt Renaissance Florence in ROMOLA/’24, without resorting to miniatures, mattes or trompe l’oeil, has anything so gobsmacking been seen on screen.) Plus, grunting stars (Anthony Quayle; John Ireland); speechifying poetic types (James Mason; Omar Sharif; even old Finlay Currie), all to little purpose, while Dmitri Tiomkin’s odd score enters in its own aural acoustic with pastiche Bach (an organ sonata for the opening credits); fake Rimsky-Korsakov (Eastern Empire revolt); and a Rossiniana tarantella for the dancing throngs finale. The film is not without defenders (I’m looking at you, Martin Scorsese), but it's no EL CID.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Orson Welles, with a fortieth the budget, was shooting CHIMES OF MIDNIGHT/’65 on the Bronston lot a stage or two away from all this mishegas. There’s the ‘consultant’ Bronston should have gone for.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In an attempt to liven up the first half, Yakima Canutt’s staged a very BEN-HUR like chariot race between brotherly competitors: Boyd, now as ‘good guy’ & Plummer doing the sub-textual/suppressed gay ‘bad boy’ honors.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ridley Scott must have taken notes on this when he was working up GLADIATOR/’00.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

LA TORTUE ROUGE / THE RED TURTLE (2016)

Michael Dudok de Wit’s Man vs Nature/Man with Nature survival tale, the first non-Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli, is stunning stuff. Beginning as a Robinson Crusoe shipwreck fable, it neatly switches gears into something of a Creation myth with an Eve who appears . . . let’s just say, not via man’s rib. Told as a near-silent film*, without any dragging or artsy manners, de Wit avoids even a hint of the overly precious or pretentious, finding a rhythm (of life) in his pacing with just a few big action-oriented set pieces. (Yet, there’s a gasp-worthy moment or two of beauty or suspense in every reel.) An opening storm at sea, with waves out of a Japanese period print, sets the tone, but merely hints at the range of superb backgrounds & vistas that envelop these simply drawn characters and the whimsical atoll wildlife who lift the mood as needed. Very special, with unexpectedly broad appeal.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The silent film storytelling technique isn’t too far from the island sequence for Boy and Horse alone in THE BLACK STALLION/’79.

Friday, November 17, 2017

CHINA SKY (1945)

With its all-star cast of ‘YellowFace’ principals, the 1937 adaptation of Pearl Buck’s magnum opus THE GOOD EARTH/’37 makes uncomfortable modern-day viewing. (Same for DRAGON SEED/’44.) But this relatively modest effort is hardly an adequate substitute. Here, China & its people are merely exotic background to a love triangle between a female doctor at a Chinese clinic and the American doctor who got the hospital up and running, now returned from America with a new wife. Even as WWII erupts around them, and ‘Japs’ threaten to overrun the town, these three play out romantic jealousy tropes until Randolph Scott’s handsome doc notices he married the wrong dame! Under journeyman megger Ray Enright, lady doc Ruth Warrick & bitchy bride Ellen Drew telegraph their entire character arcs at first glance, so the film drags even at 80 minutes. Anthony Quinn & Carol Thurston get the only two Yellowface spots (she almost passes; Tony’s cosmetic Asian eye-lid crease defeats his face), but at least the other Asian roles are cast with actual Asians, so that’s something. Just not enough.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Quinn, in real life Mexican/Irish, got away playing almost every ethnic type out there, generally without serious prosthetic help. Not here.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH, especially in its first half, still an impressive watch, though anyone under 35 may find the whole YellowFace concept not so much insulting as bizarre. Yet, even in dramatic roles, the custom lasted decades after the far more stylized BlackFace was laid to rest. It still shows up in comic mode, but does seem to have died out for drama back in the ‘80s.