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Friday, March 31, 2017

BOMBERS B-52

The B-52 was the military bomber that captured Baby Boomers imaginations. Thousands of school-age kids even got to gape at the interior of the gorgeous beasts on Field Trips. So this flimsy little story may generate unearned nostalgia among a certain aging demographic. Others, unless drawn to cool late-‘50s color & design, will find little holds attention other than an occasional screen-filling set-up Gordon Douglas (or some Second-Unit director) finds to accommodate the big planes. Karl Malden, Master Sergeant to the incoming fleet of bombers, is under pressure at home to retire after 20 years service. But daughter Natalie Wood rethinks her position after meeting Malden’s new C.O., Colonel Efrem Zimbalist Jr. The two guys have a bad history going back to Korea that comes to a boil on an endurance test flight that goes bad. None of the drama takes hold, and the 20-yr age gap between Wood & Zimbalist makes him seem a bit creepy, leaving Malden to gnaw away on some pretty bare dramatic bones. Wood, though, is at her prettiest, and drives around in a positively lickable yellow convertible. Check it out in the trailer where the colors really ‘pop.’ And don’t miss the Chuck Jones animated short included as an Extra, BOYHOOD DAZE, about a daydreaming kid who has some wild imaginary adventures after he’s sent to his bedroom as punishment. A real CALVIN AND HOBBES vibe on this one, though one section on a Great White Hunter in Darkest Africa may bruise delicate sensibilities. That’d be a shame though as the design & execution of the African warriors, from war masks to marathon-slim legs, is too celebratory & elegant to miss.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film isn’t so different than the quasi-recruiting military pics made in the run up to WWII. But with no war to plug into, Tyrone Power & Errol Flynn get swapped out for daddy-figures like Malden & Zimbalist.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: That’s attention paid to our unknown Danish poster artist, who absolutely nails the Malden nose. (Give it a click to see it grow.)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (2016)

Heaps of fun, brisk, witty, almost anti-romantic; not your usual Jane Austen chick flick. Writer/director Whit Stillman’s arch diorama of Jane Austen’s LADY SUSAN surveys a roundelay of uppercrust match-making between the rich and the richly eccentric. Honoring the Austen manner of testing, but largely preserving, the social order before giving everyone their richly earned desserts. Kate Beckinsale brings a manic edge to widowed, cash-poor Lady Susan, wearing out her welcome at one estate after another as she charms the men with scandalous flirtation and manipulates the women hunting up suitable mates for a willful daughter and possibly herself. She’s a bit too transparent for this festival of insincerity & feminine guile, but her obvious enjoyment wins you over, along with the film’s otherwise pitch-perfect cast. Stillman leads us thru a logjam of characters with editing choices & sharp entrances to clarify the densely packed, mischievous narrative. Like Lady Susan, he divides & conquers, using comic visual touches of formal introductions and on-screen titles as a helpful scorecard to hold down the clutter of fast-moving events. A near continuous delight that might have been all too precious. Deservedly popular, made for a mere 3 mill; hard to see why Whitman’s only made six features in 25 years.

DOUBLE-BILL: As period-appropriate Jane Austen adaptations go, a touch of gritty realism gives the 1995 adaptation of PERSUASION nearly as distinctive a flavor as the farcical overtones here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

ARRIVAL (2016)

Denis Villeneuve, who specializes in well-reviewed/award-winning quiet disappointments (hey, he’s Canadian), tries for hushed gravitas & scary wonderment in this Alien Encounter story. Somber, sobersided, shamelessly bookended with funereal beats of a daughter lost to some unnamed incurable disease, it begs to be taken seriously. But beyond the up-to-date technical rigging, it’s just the latest mash-up of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS; DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and that TWILIGHT ZONE fave: TO SERVE MAN, sans wit, wisdom or reason, laid out in stately fashion with a murky palette. You know the deal before the film starts: giant spaceships park around the planet; hoi polloi in fear & awe; deep-think scientists assume goodwill & humanist/liberal leanings; hard-ass military types certain of alien pretext to war or colonization. Heck, we even go all Cold War with China & Russia threatening belligerent action unaware the visit is meant to bring communication & harmony to an increasingly unsettled world. The irony! All while beautiful brainy linguist Amy Adams, hoping for more examples of 'speech' from the beings, doffs her spacesuit, braving the spaceship atmosphere for closer contact . . . and a decent camera angle for her upturned nose. So too physicist/partner Jeremy Renner . . . but without the adorable nose. And why not, he’s given nothing else to do other than come up with cute names for the intergalactic beastie boys. (Abbott & Costello. No kiddin’, that’s what he comes up with.) Let the translation begin! Rosetta Stone? We don’t need no stinking Rosetta Stone! (The sole bit of humor comes when alien communication smoke rings suddenly appear on screen bearing subtitles, tasteful subtitles.) Someone called this the best Sci-Fi pic since CONTACT/’97.  A comment tough to top.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While there’s nothing quite as momentous as having to remember the phrase ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto,’ like Patricia Neal in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51, Amy Adams does try for similar narrative drive with ‘Non-zero sum game.’ Not quite as catchy. Anyway, isn't symbiotic the word she's looking for?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Any film mentioned above but CONTACT.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I'LL CRY TOMORROW (1955)

Very popular, sadly dated. Susan Hayward, something of a forgotten star these days, is considerably below her best in this bio-pic charting the rise & fall (and then medium rise) of alcoholic songstress Lillian Roth. The film gets by once Roth’s touches bottom and lands at Alcoholics Anonymous, where she finds sympathetic ‘sponsor’ Eddie Albert, a sweetheart AA guy laid low by his polio-induced limp. But the first two acts are painfully over-wrought, with Hayward delivering songs & heartache with a steely determination that would put The Little Engine That Could to shame. And look what she’s up against: Jo Van Fleet’s oddly crazed stage-mother; a handsome fiancé who unexpectedly expires mid-song; then depression on the road eased when a nurse/companion suggests a bedtime booze tonic. Addiction, ho! This specialist also nudges our gal into a couple of mismatched affairs (one guy’s a lush; one’s a sadist). Yikes! Finally, attempted suicide, flatly staged like everything else under Daniel Mann’s stolid megging. Little helped by Arthur Arling’s lusterless b&w lensing and a near complete lack of period detail from the M-G-M art department. Many of these faults were simply mid-‘50s studio style, but they still stop things cold. So too Hayward’s bumpy lip-synching, even though she’s 'singing' to her own vocal tracks.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hayward was far more yielding in much the same role in the low-budget SMASH-UP/’47 which also has Eddie Albert hanging around to pick up the leftovers. OR: Playing their own competitor that year, M-G-M had another ‘30s girl singer/guy with a limp bio-pic in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME/’55. Director Charles Vidor struggles in CinemaScope, but Doris Day & James Cagney shine.

CONTEST: Though not playing the same role, Lillian Roth & Susan Hayward shared another title in productions done a decade apart. Name it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

On his third pic as writer/director, Jeff Nichols comes up against the law of diminishing returns; and it’s not as if his first two (TAKE SHELTER/’11; MUD/’12) were paragonic.* (See Write-Ups below.) Ignored on release*, it’s the curse of overpraised-talent-found-out, here as a pretentious CGI-afflicted muddle. Young Jaeden Lieberher, a Messianic figure to a Waco-like religious cult, but actually a kind of extraterrestrial ‘star-child,’ has been abducted by his own father (Michael Shannon, the good guy for a change), with help from pal Joel Edgerton. The little kid has an appointment in Samarra, or some such axis point, to complete his life mission, but with his confounding powers of divination (and as nuclear light-bulb) both the Feds & a couple of heavy-handed cult operatives are hot on the trail. Needless to say, the film goes heavy on meta-physical hooey and light on logic or follow-thru, though government psychological expert Adam Driver tries his damnedest to play fair and parse the meaning of the boy being on this earthly plane. The film’s real purpose is to mark a move in Nichols’ visual pilfering, exchanging the Kubrick-meets-Mallick meta-physics finale of TAKE SHELTER to a Spielberg-Mallick æsthetic. Deeper and deeper into shallow waters. You get the feeling that Nichols talks a great game at pitch meetings, but knows he’s shooting blanks. Or maybe this was just a package deal with LOVING, his other film of 2016.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Stick with Robert Wise’s classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Exec produced by new Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a cost of 20 mill and a gross of 4. That reps a (tax write-off) loss of like 30. Ah, Hollywood accounting.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *'Paragonic?’ Hey, if you can’t make up words in your own damn BLOG . . .

Saturday, March 25, 2017

BOYS' NIGHT OUT (1962)

Well-cast (frustrated) sex comedy, written for the screen, but much like one of those lightly sanitized Hollywood adaptations of a slightly smuttier B’way original. (It’s something of a transitional piece, as if the leering libido of George Axelrod’s SEVEN YEAR ITCH met Neil Simon’s ODD COUPLE on an apartment hunt.) Four suburban commuters (James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Duff, Howard Morris) meet every Thursday after work, dreaming of debauch, settling for scotch & soda. If only they had a little den of iniquity. Of course, once they get the pad, and, thru a silly misunderstanding, an available girl to meet them there (on separate nights, of course), they do everything but . . . well, you know. The big gag is that Kim Novak’s girl of their wet dreams is really a sociologist writing a grad thesis on guys just like them. Pretty lame; pretty tame. Yet the playing, direction and most especially, the Kennedy/New Frontier-era decor is a hoot, much livelier than the norm for these things. Plus, all the boys are in tip-top form (Randall is a sort of genius at this stuff) while Novak shows unexpected chops playing the comic bait. There’s enough LOL moments to put it ahead of many a better known sex-farce from the period, including some from its director, Michael Gordon, like PILLOW TALK/’59 with whom it also shares cinematographer & scorer.

DOUBLE-BILL: Normally the best of sideman, Randall shines playing a more conventional leading role in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER/’57 which does equally well by director Frank Tashlin & writer George Axelrod.

Friday, March 24, 2017

LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (1962)

This fine, nearly forgotten film, bobbed to the surface in 2005, thanks to the brilliant lyric drama Adam Guettel made from the same novel. (Structurally very close to the film, but for a delayed major character revelation.) And good as the film is (it’s probably director Guy Green’s best), it does seem to be missing emotional subtext; something beautifully supplied in Guettel’s rapturous score. Ironic, since the film is a rare non-musical for producer Arthur Freed, M-G-M’s Master of Musicals, as well as his last completed feature. Taken from Elizabeth Spencer’s well-received book, the unusual story concerns a vacation romance turned serious between young Florentine George Hamilton, caught by the fresh innocence & beauty of American Yvette Mimieux touring Italy with mother Olivia de Havilland. Unnoticed in the babble of half understood Italian & English, is that the girl isn’t merely childlike, but mentally handicapped, stuck with the capacity of a 10-yr-old. For the mother, the relationship promises the fulfillment of an impossible dream (marriage, children, normal life); for the daughter it’s simply unadulterated love. Played out in superbly chosen locations, many not used previously, all looking startlingly open & available, still relatively untouched by today’s mass tourist-riven culture. It’s also a very grown-up pic for the period, right down to the forthright, if unconsummated, flirtation between de Havilland (exceptionally lovely here) and a nicely relaxed Rossano Brazzi as Hamilton’s well-to-do father. Coming in significantly under budget, nicely reviewed and earning more than decent box-office, why Freed never managed to get another project going can best be explained by the musical chairs executive anarchy at the top of the flailing studio. No wonder Freed missed the autocratic decision making of former M-G-M chief Louis B. Mayer.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: George Hamilton comes across with a pretty decent, if inconsistent, accent as the lovestruck Italian. Infinitely better than the one Warren Beatty mangled in THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE/’61, or the embarrassing one attempted by Matthew Morrison playing Hamilton's role in the B’way musical.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

THE LODGER (1944)

Everything comes together in this perfect paradigm of a mid-budget/ mid-‘40s Hollywood thriller. Having dipped their toe in Universal style horror w/ UNDYING MONSTER/'42, 20th/Fox & director John Brahm found their own voice superimposing Oscar Wilde sensibility onto the atmospherics of the psychological thrillers Val Lewton was conjuring over @ R.K.O with Jacques Tourneau.* Working off the same Marie Belloc Lowndes novel Hitchcock used in 1927, this Jack-the-Ripper story leans more toward suspense than mystery, and without Hitchcock’s trick ending. But then, with hulking Laird Cregar as the lead, no use trying to hide your hand. He’s fabulous, a strange sort of beast, scary & sympathetic, touching on perverse sexual notes with a revulsion toward pretty Music Hall artistes and a fixation on the miniature portrait of his brilliant lost brother. Merle Oberon has one of her few good roles as the singer/dancer living in the same house while Sir Cedric Hardwicke, as her uncle, revels in playing a lower class type than he usually got a shot at. George Sanders can only do so much with his underwritten inspector, but Sara Allgood brings some effective odd touches as the observant landlady married to Hardwicke. Good as the supporting cast & script are, the real show is Brahm & lighting cameraman Lucien Ballard as they rise to meet the promise of Cregar’s unique villain. What an Oscar Wilde this 6' 3" 300 pounder might have made.

DOUBLE-BILL: Much of the creative team returned next year on the equally superb, and even more original, HANGOVER SQUARE/’45. OR: *Completing the circle, M-G-M's excellent Wilde adaptation of PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY/’45 with Sanders as a Wilde alter-ego.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Look (and listen) during the climax for some really fabulous backstage/strobe-like lighting effects, and then when the soundtrack all but drops out to highlight Cregar’s heavy-breathing terror. Stunning stuff.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

SOSHITE CHICHI NI NARU / LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (2013)

Gifted writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda skirts a cavalcade of squishy issues in this warmly effective family drama using that hoariest of ideas, a Switched-At-Birth mix-up. Open with two adorable 6-yr-olds as subjects/ victims before raising your bid by making one set of parents wealthy over-achieving A-listers with an antiseptic life-style and elite Private School on the horizon for their only son. On the other side, carefree unambitious parents, with a messy lifestyle for three rambunctious independent kids. A set-up that's pure 1950s Psych 101. Did we mention that wealthy Dad is also taller, more handsome, with a fuller head of hair and . . . mother issues! Koreeda doesn’t miss a trick! Yet he gets away with the melodrama & over-simplified class issues not thru embracing & stylizing them, a la Douglas Sirk, but with a spare, elegant visual style that refuses to push obvious buttons. Instead, big teary moments elided by jumping over as many plot beats as possible without losing the thread of the story. By film’s end, as two sets of parents deal with choices they may live to regret (especially in light of ‘rich father’s’ personal/emotional growth), you may feel as teary & conflicted about things as everyone on screen.

DOUBLE-BILL: In the modern era, Switched-At-Birth stories come across as a cheap dramatic gimmick, easier to swallow as comedy. START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME/’70, with priceless perfs from Donald Sutherland & Gene Wilder as mismatched twins, is a mess of a film that works comic magic.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LIFE WITH FATHER (1947)

After a record-setting 8-year run on B’way; endless touring editions; boffo box-office for this film adaptation & multiple Oscar® noms (plus long-term influence on other nostalgic Father Doesn’t Know Best comedies), this once ubiquitous property has seen its cultural footprint shrink to little more than a half-remembered title. Why so? The film remains quite lively under Michael Curtiz’s pacey, if impersonal, direction; the jokes still land, even politically incorrect ones, with a tart freshness true to its 1880s period. (We’ll omit Mother’s muddled ideas on finance.) All smartly trimmed and lightly opened-up by play-to-screen specialist Donald Ogden Stewart. Casting is near perfect with Irene Dunne & William Powell sparking to each other, off each other and magically inside the material. (Powell often alarmingly funny in a role that can come off as simply overbearing.) The four red-headed sons are nicely delineated; one discussion between the youngest two about Father possibly going to Hell a special delight. There’s even a very young, very pretty Elizabeth Taylor as visiting romantic interest in a role Teresa Wright originated on B’way. But the film fell into Public Domain, tossed into the video market with miserable subfusc image & sound. (Faded color or b&w? A reasonably watchable disc, inaccurately listed as ‘Restored’ on Amazon, is available.) Worse, between its B’way opening in 1939 and the 1947 film, its thunder was largely stolen (along with much else in the script) by Vincente Minnelli’s easily superior (and far more personally engaged) MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44. (So much so that when LwF was adapted for a tv series, the role of Father was taken by Leon Ames, just as in ST. LOUIS.) 'Great being the enemy of good,' FATHER now takes a back seat. But even with it’s famous last line sanitized (‘Dammit!’ still too strong for a family pic), the film has much going for it.

DOUBLE-BILL: Both Irene Dunne and Powell were winding down great careers. But where Powell went into a graceful decline, Dunne topped one iconic mother with her another in I REMEMBER MAMA/’48.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Disney also drew heavily from this when structuring characters & story for the narrative shy MARY POPPINS/’64 books, especially in finding their Mr. Banks.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

LA PARTIDA / THE LAST MATCH (2013)

Cuban-based gay-themed pic is nicely played & culturally fascinating, even when it takes a melodramatic wrong turn, blindsiding itself in a cluttered third act. It starts after a pickup, a pickup soccer match, that is, when one of the players comes to the aid of another during a post-game mugging. Two aimless guys, one married/one engaged, each with a young kid to support, one turning to pawn shops for cash, the other turning tricks, mostly with gay male tourists. (The scenes of Havana’s open, gay-for-pay ‘meat market,’ with hundreds of largely straight guys looking to make a quick buck, is eye-popping stuff.) But complications arise when one of the hook-ups, a well-to-do Spanish tourist, looks like a possible long-term relationship. Even more complicated when feelings between the two young men lead them past the soccer field and into uncharted emotional territory. But writer/director Antonio Hens goes off-message with a loan-shark subplot taking over the late action, and when nobody in the story reacts in a believable way to one of the guys being offered a try-out with a semi-pro soccer club. ¿Blowing off a shot at professional soccer? ¿In Cuba?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A Spanish director made this in Cuba. Was it released there?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

MOSKVA SLEZAM NE VERIT / MOSCOW DOES NOT BELIEVE IN TEARS (1980)

Few tears, much schmaltz . . . even more hooey. Is Russian version of typical Amerikanski 3-Girl pic: THREE KOPEKS IN FOUNTAIN. Tricked out with time jump as 20-something gal pals go from idealistic late ‘50s Khrushchev days to compromise & disappointment under Leonid Brezhnev's USSR and deal with hitting the big 4-0. Such girls! Such boyfriends! Such table-talk & meals! Such overacting! Especially early as over-age stars feign peppy youth. So peppy! (If film in English, drek quotient much easier to spot.) From writer/director Vladimir Menshov, stiff, static, unimaginative, like new Moscow housing project. (In smeary SovColor & NonWide Screen.) Plenty forced laughter; plenty weeps; plus one gal gets to have it all! Job, daughter, manly man showing up out of the blue (with plenty hairy chest & plenty sober disposition). If only he can work thru male chauvinist instincts. Perhaps film look dated now, da? Nyet!; always lousy. But, was 1980, USA boycott Moscow Olympics. Good time to see that Ruskies just regular folk with joy, sorrow & nice apartment. Hey, they even make bad chick flick. Nostrovia!

DOUBLE-BILL: Hard to pick a worst scene out of so many, but a picnic pastorale, loaded with colorful characters grilling shish-kebab will do. It’s like the bohemian shindig Rock Hudson takes older, uptight new girl Jane Wyman to in ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS/’55 . . . minus the artistry of Douglas Sirk.

Friday, March 17, 2017

BILL (2015)

Working a little too hard at claiming the sophisticated silliness vibe of MONTY PYTHON or BLACK ADDER, the folks from Britain’s popular HORRIBLE HISTORY series (not seen here) take on the young William Shakespeare of ‘the lost years’ (1589 - 1593) to reasonably good-natured effect.* Though lamed by a couple of bad story ideas (Spain's King Phillip II and Shakespeare’s wife Anne in London?), the general tone of ‘anything goes’ gags & twisted literary references manage to come across with enough comic charge & witless charm to make their mark. The look of the thing is often quite convincing (and fun), more so than in many a serious look at the period. (At least they let some light in.) And the mentor relationship between Shakespeare and dangerous Christopher Marlowe pays off nicely, especially when he shows up a la Banquo’s Ghost. If only director Richard Bracewell and writers Laurence Rickard & Ben Willbond showed a little more faith in the pleasures of good dumb fun, leaving behind more of the goofy anachronisms, tangled plot and de rigeur iconoclastic irreverence.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Coming soon to a cable or streaming service near you: WILL/’17, a new series on the very same ‘lost years.’ (Hey, it can’t be any worse than ANONYMOUS/’11 or SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE/’98, one of the many recent Oscar® Best Pics you’d be wise not to revisit.)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

EN MAN SOM HETER OVE / A MAN CALLED OVE (2015)

Likeable, if not really very good (in spite of a Best Foreign Film Oscar® nod), writer/director Hannes Holm’s character study of grumpy old Ove, retired, depressed, widowed, suicidal, is a dramatic cheat with bitter comic trimmings. It follows a tried, if less than true, story arc, warming up a scold thru forced human interaction (neighbors new, old, Iraqi, & young), occasionally pausing for a botched suicide attempt accompanied by flashbacks to joys & sorrows past. The filmmakers, no doubt, think they’re being tough & honest having Rolf Lassgård’s Ove stay offensively disagreeable, though his eventual warm-up is never in doubt. But he comes off as such a fierce, even threatening asshole, you can’t figure out why the good-hearted neighbors (and they’re all good-hearted) return for fresh assaults. That said, some of the gags & quick reversals-of-fortune have a recognizable edge of human comedy, especially a running gag involving car-brand loyalties. (And there's a great lump of a cat.) But once this Scrooge starts taking on incremental warmth thru the installment plan, the sympathy-begging revelations start to feel force-fed.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: If the film’s main musical theme sounds familiar (it’s derived from the second movement of Schubert’s E Flat Piano Trio), it could be from its prominent use as the ‘traveling' theme in Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON/’75.

DOUBLE-BILL: Clint Eastwood, in excellent late form, takes a similar redemptive interior journey in GRAN TORINO/’08.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

FINDING DORY (2016)

Thirteen years after FINDING NEMO/’03, an unnecessary sequel. This one finally builds up a head of steam in its last act, with a series of action set pieces around a marine conservation facility, but too much of the film is less fish story than technical exercise for the PIXAR underwater CGI department. (Same holds for PIPER, the Oscar’d short included on the DVD as an Extra.) Worse, the incessant heart-tugging grows annoyingly repetitious, like Dory’s short-term memory loss. Worse, the incessant heart-tugging grows annoyingly repetitious, like Dory’s short-term memory loss. Perhaps Dory the Blue Tang fish just works better as sidekick rather than lead.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: At times, the film seems divided against itself as oceanic naturalism stops the more cartoony elements from paying off in laughs or drama. PIXAR digitally painting themselves into a corner.

DOUBLE-BILL: And for the adults: short-term memory loss is also the driving force in Christopher Nolan’s breakthru pic, MEMENTO/’00.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ROMANCE IN MANHATTAN (1937)

Francis Lederer & Ginger Rogers get a nice rapport going in this R.K.O. romantic-dramedy programmer, but can’t quite make it come off. He’s an illegal Czech immigrant (shy of the entry fee, he jumps ship) and she’s an under-employed chorine who meet-cute over coffee & donuts. Unofficially staked out on her apartment roof, Lederer’s quick rise toward the American Dream is stymied by a taxi-drivers strike; missing identity papers; a couple of welfare biddies out to ‘save’ Rogers kid brother; and a crooked lawyer with empty promises. While the texture of the film is stymied by a lack of location shooting (though some of the fakery is cleverly done), the film gets a big boost from its tasty supporting players. (Did R.K.O. have Sidney Toler, Arthur Hohl, Donald Meek & J. Farrell MacDonald all under contract?) The film also offers an opportunity to see more of the promising work of director Stephen Roberts, just 40 when he died a couple of years on. (A noticeable Capra vibe in this one.) But you can really feel the R.K.O. ‘Number Crunchers’ figuring out the projected grosses and deciding the film couldn’t support the cost of further development to fix what, at best, was a B+ programmer. Too bad, especially for Lederer who never broke thru as a romantic lead after coming over from Czechoslovakia.

DOUBLE-BILL: Check out Lederer’s career trajectory with a look at the delightful Mitchell Leisen/Billy Wilder MIDNIGHT/’39 where he plays support to Don Ameche’s taxi-driver, a starring role that might have been his.

Monday, March 13, 2017

HISTOIRE IMMORTELLE / THE IMMORTAL STORY (1968)

The first time Orson Welles directed himself on screen, he drops a snow globe memento & dies to begin CITIZEN KANE/’41. The last time he directed himself in a story film, he drops a sea shell memento & dies to end THE IMMORTAL STORY. Tidy symmetry for a career anything but tidy! This lovely, intimate, melancholy memory piece, a one-hour film for French television, first in an unmade series of Isak Dinesen stories, certainly makes for a graceful farewell, though it’s not much taken up by Welles acolytes. (Various film ‘starts’ are still being sorted out for possible release, but Welles never completed another narrative pic.) Dinesen’s meditative tale tackles the limits of wish-fulfillment as a rich aging man with the yen, the cash & the power to bend myth toward reality buys his way into that old saw about an aging impotent man, a young sailor substitute, and the young girl fanning their mutual fantasy. And what a wealth of imagination, feeling, tone & color Welles brings to it, offering a pallette in his first color film of red Vincente Minnelli walls & Vittorio Storaro’s crepuscular atmosphere. (The lensing is by Willy Kurant.) All accomplished with a magician’s sleight of hand, as Welles makes poetically abstract yet believable Macao China out of carefully chosen angles from his own house in Spain and the use of a few long sheets of Chinese calligraphy wrapped or draped over lintels & about columns. Jeanne Moreau is the girl, worried about passing herself off as a 17 yr-old virgin in the manner Sarah Bernhardt did in her 60s, striding to the front of the stage to declare ‘I am Jeanne d’Arc, 15 years of age!` As the sailor, prolific tv actor Norman Eshley is a Terence Stamp knock-off, but with a better, nobly sculpted nose Welles must have coveted as much as his character covets the young man’s virility. (Welles, who had issues with his insubstantial nose, goes au naturel.) Sad, beautiful, mysterious, most of all fitting.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Little did Jean Renoir realize when he used Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as a score for THE GOLDEN COACH/’52, that the recently recovered, little known music would soon turn classy middlebrow cliché. Much the same here, as the spare Eric Satie piano music used by Welles for underscoring went from unusual to ubiquitous soon after the film appeared.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

IN OUR TIME (1944)

Brutally misconceived wartime drama from Warners, continuing their tour of Nazi occupied territories, moving from the lighthearted tone of DESPERATE JOURNEY/’42 early in the war when things looked their worst, toward more somber fare like EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43 once news from overseas began to improve.* By ‘44, the invasion of Poland five years back must have come up in rotation, but what an ill-suited story was concocted for it. It opens as Ida Lupino, assistant & lady’s companion to Mary Boland’s rich, eccentric antique dealer, is swept off her feet after meeting-cute with rich, handsome, older Paul Henreid. Off they go as man & wife to his fabulous estate where Lupino finds she’s instantly in over her head. REBECCA/’40, anyone? This opening turns out to be something of a dodge, since the real drama involves getting new husband Paul Henreid to stand up against his class-stodgy family and work with his plucky bride to make a go of his moribund estate. All told, it's a surprisingly unflattering portrait of Henreid with his growing backbone ultimately tested not by old family traditions (formidable though Nazimova’s mother, Nancy Coleman’s sister and the superstitious peasants are), but by blitzkrieging Nazis. A record farm crop, a beloved estate, all forfeit to the war. It’s really quite an odd film; intriguingly unconvincing.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Probably the best films in this Warners cycle of contemporary WWII films with a European angle are EDGE OF DARKNESS and WATCH ON THE RHINE/‘43. RHINE, barely adapted from Lillian Hellman’s play, is an awfully stiff piece of filmmaking, but it certainly captures the moment, with superb perfs from Paul Lukas & a touchingly subdued Bette Davis. (What a shame they didn’t go with Mary Boland instead of that old fraud Lucile Watson as Bette’s mother.) OR: See Lupino and this film's director Vincent Sherman triumph in the tough-as-nails sisterly sacrifice of THE HARD WAY/’43.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

DEUX HOMMES DANS LA VILLE / TWO MEN IN TOWN (1973)

Crap. Like one of those bloviating Stanley Kramer pics that shams importance via subject matter. Here, writer/director José Giovanni, with a nod toward LES MISÉRABLES, takes on capital-punishment with Alain Delon as a Jean Valjean figure, an ex-bank robber trying to go straight in the face of hard-luck tragedies; a Javert-like police chief who has all the time in the world to hound his reformed bête noire; and an aging, nearly inert Jean Gabin to offer sage advise as some sort of ill-defined prison official. (Presumably meant to recall Victor Hugo, Gabin’s more like Spencer Tracy in his late Kramer period.) Painfully bad as this is, it pales next to Giovanni’s all-thumbs megging, with a needlessly active camera that, if it hasn’t found the wrong placement by the start of a shot, does so by its finish. (You get a physical jolt when he occasionally hits le set-up juste.) Delon, to his shame, produced this vanity piece which shows either specific bad judgement or a sad general decline in movie-making standards in France at the time. Probably both.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How does Delon’s character afford all those beautifully tailored suits?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Desperate for a DEUS HOMMES flick? Try Jean-Pierre Melville’s noirish DEUX HOMMES DANS MANHATTAN/’59. Minor Melville, but still Melville.

Friday, March 10, 2017

POSSESSED (1931)

Five minutes into this Pre-Code/ Early Talkie beauty, the essence of M-G-M’s hold on Depression-Era audiences is caught in a single scene, almost a single shot, as Joan Crawford’s small-town factory girl gazes in wonder as a series of train cars, lit from inside against the encroaching night, slowly glide by, displaying a world of riches & luxury she’s only dared to imagine. Each window a living diorama of upperclass wish fulfillment: immaculate chefs in white; a personal housemaid ironing your things; a romantic couple dancing in a private car three windows long; finally, on this moving stage set of dreams, a gentleman sitting on the rear platform to offer you a glass of champagne. It’s a rare show of unblinking class envy & desire, a compact between Hollywood and audience the film will spend its time serving as Crawford leaves Wallace Ford’s local butter-and-egg man on the spot to head toward big city dreams. Once there, she’s quick to find a likely protector in Clark Gable’s up-and-coming lawyer with political ambitions. But a nasty divorce has left the man gun-shy, so Joan’s quickly acquired sophistication makes her consort rather than wife. Years later, her small town beau has moved up in the world just as Gable’s rising political fortunes necessitate her disappearance. Here the dramatic corn starts getting laid on pretty thick, but Gable & Crawford’s late scenes, including her big renunciation, find them at an early peak of gorgeousness, so much is forgiven; even an ending Frank Capra couldn’t have pulled off. Clarence Brown does a honey of a job directing here; strong perfs all ‘round (Crawford warm & pliable, before she developed that hard abstract edge) with densely worked out location shooting for the early factory town scenes. But it’s that early train reverie you’ll remember, a defining moment, remarkably self-aware and glowingly shot by Oliver T. Marsh.

CONTEST: Taken from a play with a less up-front heroine by Edgar Selwyn, a man who can lay claim to a piece of the M-G-M studio name. Explain why to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

HORNET'S NEST (1970)

A styleless stylist like near contemporary Don Siegel, Phil Karlson hewed to the straight & narrow narrative line. But, unlike Siegel, never got past B+ pics. And if those budgetary limitations keep this blunt-edged WWII thriller from getting past its more far-fetched components, Karlson runs such a clean, confident show, you go along with it. Rock Hudson, in great physical shape if looking more ‘70s than WWII, can’t dawdle under Karlson’s no-nonsense hand as the sole survivor of a special sabotage unit sent into Nazi-occupied Italy to take out a major dam. Alone and injured, he falls in with a gangly gang of teen partisans eager for revenge against the Germans who murdered their families. With their baby faces and tougher-than-nails attitude, it’s an irresistible set up as Hudson trains them as mission replacements and the kids force him to add on a personal revenge test run. It's like THE DIRTY DIAPER DOZEN . . . but in a good way. There’s an awful lot of whistling in the film (secret signals & esprit de corps, don’tcha know) and a few uncomfortable sexual story beats (a female German doctor gets attacked twice; and those baby partisans sure spend a lot of time in nothing but raggedy underpants), moments Karlson, to his credit, doesn’t shy from. Same holds for some uncomfortable moral questions. War's made some of these kids cold-blooded killers. Still, there's one big question even Karlson can’t finesse: how come American forces want to blow up a irreplaceable dam with the war coming to an end?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The main theme in Ennio Morricone’s score is distractingly close to his FISTFUL OF DOLLARS/’64 theme.

DOUBLE-BILL: John Wayne used kids in much the same way for the cattle drive in COWBOYS/’72, an altogether classier, if not really much better film. (Super John Williams’ score, though.)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

THE LONELY TRAIL (1936)

From John Wayne’s 'galley years' between THE BIG TRAIL/’30 and STAGECOACH/’39, a typical B-Western from his recent move up to new Republic Pictures. (When a move to Republic is ‘up,’ you know you’ve been down.) Here, Wayne’s a Union soldier gone home to Texas where post-Civil War Reconstruction has gone corrupt with local extortion & ‘justice’ a shot in the back. Wayne quickly wises up, but joins the carpetbaggers with his comic sidekick to set things right from the inside. It’s standard doings in most ways, but with enough oddities to hold your attention. Especially when Texas vigilantes ride out on horseback, torches ablaze to help Wayne back at the fort. Except for the missing white robes, these guys are only a step-and-a-half away from BIRTH OF A NATION Klansmen. Plus, cringe-worthy ‘Darkie’ humor, though with a twist. Here, performers like ‘Snowflake’ Toones & Etta McDaniel (sister of Hattie) use the implicit subterfuge in their shufflin’ act for something explicit, jumping into stereotypical singing & dancing as an alarm to warn about Yankee carpetbaggers heading their way. A gag you’d expect to find in a film from the ‘enlightened’ 1960s. The film may be third-run fodder for the Kiddie Matinee set, but hiding in plain sight, a tiny protest.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: A dangerous horse-riding stunt has Wayne galloping after Ann Rutherford and her runaway horsecart. But the guy who does the jump from charging horse to wagon-bed has got to be that great stuntman/action coordinator Yakima Canutt.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

PHAEDRA (1962)

It's Greek Tragedy as LA DOLCE VITA in this hit-and-miss Jules Dassin update. The basic love triangle remains as Raf Vallone’s Greek shipping tycoon sends queenly wife Melina Mercouri to entice estranged step-son Anthony Perkins home. Only Step-Son finds Step-Mom a little too enticing. Dassin, reveling in a real budget after scraping NEVER ON SUNDAY/’60 together on a dime, uses the handsome production design to fine effect (crowds of EuroTrash!; ships & shipyard cranes!, ladies in couture!, an Aston Martin!), but has trouble figuring out how naturalistically his worldly mythological cast of characters should speak. Tough when Mercouri brings largeness but little range while Perkins has range without largeness. (His small-features giving him a puppet-like vibe.) Perhaps with more rehearsal (and more discipline from the exuberant Ms. Mercouri), their relative strengths & weaknesses could have interlocked into something whole. Instead, a sort of magnetic repulsion, especially compared to Vallone who has the bearing & range to bring the whole package to life . . . and buries the worst lines under a strong Italian accent. Yet there are times when you can’t look away (for better and for worse): an impromptu discus challenge at a dance party; Mercouri in white, slicing thru mourners in black; Perkins spiraling out of control to a mad soliloquy. Maybe Dassin just went with the wrong 1960 film, he should have skipped LA DOLCE VITA and gone with L’AVVENTURA.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

THE PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945)

Fact-inspired WWII hokum about a wisenheimer who wises up after losing his sight fighting ‘the Japs’ in Guadalcanal. Apparently, the war action with three marines killing scores of attacking enemy forces from a small dug-out is largely true, and pretty effective on screen. The problem is with the rest of the film as John Garfield’s tough-mug routine is corny & off-putting, offering Eleanor Parker little cause to pursue. Post injury, with recovery stymied by denial & self-pity, forward motion comes solely from his nurse, best pal & girl dissembling ‘for his own good.’ Uplift with a sour note is fine, but Albert Maltz’s Oscar® nom’d script makes it all feel contrived, and more than a bit dishonest.* As a writer, he’s more in his element working up impromptu political debates in the rehabilitation ward or letting Dane Clark’s Jewish pal give Garfield a combo pep talk/lecture on the ‘handicap’ of prejudice.* Delmer Daves, never the most fluid of directors, lets his cast press too hard, and the best visual moment, a spare nightmare sequence for Garfield with infra-red & camera-negative images, is likely the work of some specialty unit. Disappointing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *One of the Hollywood Ten/ Unfriendly Witnesses, Maltz was the likely role-model for Louis C.K.’s character in TRUMBO/’15. He’s also one of writers Billy Wilder had in mind when he said of the Ten, ‘Only two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.’

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Dane Clark was one of those back-up players studios liked to have on hand to keep bigger stars in line; in his case, a certain John Garfield! It’s unusual to find them cast in the same film, and as BFF. Also funny to hear Clark give Garfield (né Jacob Julius Garfinkle) the lowdown on under-the-radar Anti-Semitism, a speech Garfield would lay on Gregory Peck in GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT/’47.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Delmer Daves was just as uneven calling the shots on his next directing effort, THE RED HOUSE/’47, from his own fascinating/frightening script. What a leap he’s made by the time of his best film 3:10 TO YUMA/’57.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

LES DAMES DE BOIS DU BOULOGNE (1945)

Robert Bresson, self-flagellating French auteur, patron saint of cinematic denial, went outlier in his second film, wilting under the spell of Diderot as adapted by Jean Cocteau. (Bresson’s debut pic, LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ/’43, far more in keeping with his ever-increasing severity.) The story, reminiscent of the oft-filmed LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, finds a pair of bored lovers ready to move on, but in graceful friendship. Then true passion spoils the game when the man finds real love with a young dancer, unaware he’s being set up by his former lover for the ultimate fall . . . inappropriate marriage. There’s a sensuous line to everything about this film, even in technique; Bresson going all ‘culinary,’ in the Brechtian sense. Check out that fancy vertical tracking shot as the former lovers argue while he rides down the apartment elevator and she follows via the encircling staircase. (Not that Bresson doesn’t hold such technical mastery in reserve in his later work. It’s always there, just rarely displayed in such a pleasurably showy manner, sans hairshirt.) Using professional actors in all the roles (for the last time?), Bresson (or was it Cocteau’s manner of putting everything in ‘quotation marks,’ even in casting?) gets fabulous perfs all ‘round, particularly from Maria Casares as the sadistically vengeful former lover. Best known as the dreary unloved wife in LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS/’45, she's much better as perp than victim.

DOUBLE-BILL: Vittorio De Sica runs similar story elements in the last episode of L’ORO DI NAPOLI/’54, but with marriage used for masochistic rather than sadistic purposes. Try to find the uncut version (6 stories/138") which includes the remarkable funeral sequence; charming, funny, heartbreaking, stunningly realized in long elegantly designed crane shots that De Sica must have picked up working for Max Ophüls on EARRING OF MADAME D . . . /’53.

Friday, March 3, 2017

DESIRE ME (1947)

This infamously troubled production, a ‘dark-and-stormy-night’ romancer about a war widow who becomes involved with her late husband’s prisoner-of-war buddy, is a brooding, choppy mess . . . and probably the best of Greer Garson’s post-WWII pics. With four uncredited directors* (George Cukor; Jack Conway; Mervyn LeRoy; Victor Saville), major reshoots and a third-wheel leading man whose character changed with every rewrite (he’s as variable as the wind), it grows in interest not in spite of flaws, but because of them. (Though a cobbled ending comes off as creative surrender.) But get past an unfortunate prologue, and you’ll hit on something intriguingly (D.H.) Lawrencian, much abetted by Joseph Ruttenberg’s doom-and-gloom drenched lensing which only heightens the unexpectedly dark, richly-textured sea-coast production design. That’s where prison survivor John Hart comes on the scene, hoping to step into the shoes of his dead army pal Robert Mitchum with the widow Garson. She’s been holding out for Mitchum's return, but now thinks she’s able to move on. But is she? What if Mitchum isn’t dead? And what does Hart know? None of these dramatic hurdles are conquered in the unfocused script, but roll with the punches and something grown up & unexpectedly neurotic/erotic emerges from the shattered pieces; an honorable failure not to be despised.

LINK/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Also no musical credit. But it's long-time M-G-M composer/arranger Herbert Stothart, never much of a tunesmith, but he does rather well here, getting a lot out of Charles Trenet’s ‘Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir’ which is also uncredited. You’ll instantly recognize it in this LINK to Jean Sablon’s classic recording. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHYC6SYI-9Q

DOUBLE-BILL: The story of two POW pals, one presumed dead, the other moving in on the ‘widow’ is handled with typically striking late-silent visual style in Joe May’s HOMECOMING/’28 with a great perf from Lars Hanson (Lillian Gish’s co-star in THE WIND/’28). OR: Fresh from his B’way breakthru in DARK OF THE MOON, this film's darkly compelling John Hart never recovered in Hollywood from a flop debut. But check him out in Anthony Mann’s French Revolution B-pic thriller REIGN OF TERROR/’49 (aka THE BLACK BOOK).

Thursday, March 2, 2017

FIREPOWER (1979)

Typically crappy action-oriented product of its day aims low . . . and misses. More package deal than movie, it’s just the sort of violent nonsense for the international marketplace that earned producer Sir Lew Grade the nickname Sir Low Grade. This one has a starry-sounding cast in a revenge story, hopping thru picturesque locations to grab a secretive super-villain & production cost tax breaks. In on the chase, Sophia Loren’s widow; James Coburn’s semi-retired hitman; second-story man O. J. Simpson, along with notable marqué names in support (Eli Wallach; Vincent Gardenia; Anthony Franciosa; George Grizzard; Billy Barty) and a couple of real oddities (Victor Mature in his final feature & Jake LaMotta). It might be mindless time-wasting fun if only someone (anyone!) knew how to stage, shoot & edit an action scene, or run the logic-defeating narrative. Instead, Sir Lew hires hack megger Michael Winner, whose production company, ‘Michael Winner Limited’ succinctly describes his skill set. Limited. These films were all Pre-Sold, often behind the scenes at the Cannes Film Fest, usually on little more than a wing, a prayer & a poster. Why they stuck with talentless hacks when they’d already made their dough back is a mystery.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Unavoidable in the ‘70s & ‘80s, where has the Action/Exploitation audience gone? To Horror? Zombies? Sci-Fi? Tarantino? Maybe an algorithm could get them hooked on old classic movies?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

TYCOON (1947)

This ten-ton turkey from R.K.O. has John Wayne’s rough, tough railway engineer fighting his boss (mega-rich, autocratic Cedric Hardwicke), but falling hard for daughter Laraine Day. (Hard to explain why since there’s no chemistry between them. But then, lack of chemistry was Day’s specialty.) Object of contention? Hardwicke wants to tunnel thru a mountain; Wayne wants to build a bridge. There’s a big, big cast and lots of dynamite blasting going on (‘Fire in the hole!!’), but nothing adds up. And the TechniColor look is seriously out of control with exterior sets out of a stage musical and paint-by-the-number sunset tints. But that’s nothing compared to the idiotic drama (obstacles to the right/obstacles to the left) that has Wayne turning ruthless & bitter before Mother Nature (cue model trains & special effects) teaches him a lesson in loyalty, work relationships & marriage counseling. Hack director Richard Wallace can’t take all the blame, some goes to producer Stephen Ames who’s in over his head, and to writer Borden Chase (RED RIVER/’48) who should have known better.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Odd that it's Hardwicke, not Wayne, as the titular tycoon. And nice to see a young Anthony Quinn not as some supporting ethnic prop, but all suited up as a junior exec.