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Sunday, April 30, 2017

J'ACCUSE (1938)

Abel Gance, who took silent cinema to its limits in four astonishing films (from LA DIXIÈME SYMPHONIE/’18 to NAPOLEON/’27), never got the hang of The Talkies. Or rather, never got past The Talkies, with sound films stuck in the technical LimboLand of stiffly staged dialogue scenes interrupted by jagged arrhythmic kinetic sequences that might have come from some forgotten silent. Here that’s literally the case with the clumsy inter-cutting of wartime footage in this follow up to his post-WWI screed J’ACCUSE/’19. (Not, as often stated, a remake.) The earlier film, at once awkward & masterly, is as much love triangle as melodramatic frontline war drama. Loaded with coups de théâtre (coups de cinéma?) featuring masses of real soldiers stopping by to shoot a fictional scene before heading back to real war, real shooting, real death. Twenty years on, Gance revisits that film’s endgame battle in a 40" prologue to set up a love & war rivalry between soldiers Victor Francen & Marcel Delaître, the latter with a young daughter & conflicted wife (Line Noro). Only one man is fated to survive a final fatal push into enemy territory, but not before pledging to renounce his love. Picking up post-war, we find Francen denying his feelings for both the wife and the daughter, growing up with a major crush on him. But what can it matter when Francen is too busy to notice, working up a fantastic machine that will prevent future wars. If only his nebulous idea (Gance avoids specifics) hadn’t been weaponized by his own factory boss to use in the upcoming international conflict! It’s enough to drive a man mad . . . and does as Francen suffers enough to get a rise out of all the dead & buried soldiers of WWI. An army of Peacenik Corpses to shock the nations! Overloaded by Gance with enough poetical double-exposure effects to shame the finales of BIRTH OF A NATION/’15 and INTOLERANCE/’16 combined. Appropriate for a career that started out rivaling D. W. Griffith before curdling into the empty grandiosity of a Cecil B. De Mille manqué.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Though not without its own longueurs & overreach, Gance’s 1919 J’ACCUSE (on a fine restoration from Flicker Alley/Lobster Films with a busy Robert Israel score) is overwhelming.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If only Gance’s plea for peace in 1938 Europe were half as credible as the jingoistic war spirit of his masterpiece NAPOLEON.

Friday, April 28, 2017

TRUE CONFESSION (1937)

Carole Lombard, Queen of Screwball Comedy, is at her screwiest as a pathological liar who talks her way into a murder rap hoping to jumpstart husband Fred MacMurray’s legal career. A struggling lawyer, all he needs to succeed is get her off on a big juicy case . . . if he gets her off. Yikes! (If it sounds a bit like CHICAGO, scripter Claude Binyon started out as a Chicago newspaperman and knows the territory.) While she’s glamorously shot by regular cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (watch them send-up Garbo as Queen Christina while in a jail cell), the character is Lombard’s most extreme.  Demented, often unlikable, near psychotic. Were the filmmakers aware of just how far they were pushing things? And while not involved with the murder, she’s guilty of just about everything else in here, and gets away with it all, gets rewarded for it. (Not that anything’s been planned or thought thru.) Perhaps the lack of consequences, or rather the success of consequences, is why the film plays better on second viewing. But even on first viewing, a crazed spark of magic appears when John Barrymore shows up to start the second act as a retired criminologist/barfly and deftly shuffles off with the rest of the film as a would be blackmailer.

DOUBLE-BILL: Strictly speaking, with no rich upperclass twits in sight, this is more ‘Crazy Comedy’ than canonical ‘Screwball.’ For a prime example of that form, go back half a year to another Paramount Pic, EASY LIVING/’37.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

DER STAAT GEGEN FRITZ BAUER / THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER (2015)

Nearing the end of his career, German Attorney General Fritz Bauer finally gets a strong lead on the whereabouts of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, but little support in following it. It’s the late ‘50s and Bauer, the rare case of a returned German Jew in the Adenauer government, is both surrounded and stymied by the ex-Nazi officers, many former SS, he’s forced to work with. The last thing they’d want is for Herr Eichmann to go on trial in Germany, spilling long-buried war stories. So Bauer tries an end run, working his operation thru Israeli Mossad agents. Effective, but illegal; and technically traitorous. It’s fascinating true stuff, and writer/director Lars Kraume finds a good new angle with a gay blackmail subplot involving Bauer’s past and, in the present, an assistant on the ‘down-low.’ Yet the material doesn’t reach full potential. The characters come across (the assistant especially well-cast, with the guilty look of a handsome ex-Nazi Youth now going to fat), but trips to Israel, Argentina or Paris miss out on tension & style. Maybe if Kraume had filled us in on some of Bauer’s earlier accomplishments? A major figure in the fight for internal de-Nazification, we only get the info we need at the end of the film. It gives this more than decent film the low impact of a school report.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fritz Bauer is a supporting character in the Oscar® nominated LABYRINTH OF LIES/’14 (not seen here), a similarly themed story that takes place half a decade earlier.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

LI’L (P’TIT) QUINQUIN (2014)

As if David Lynch made a long-form BBC/PBS police procedural (like BROADCHURCH) set in Northern France*, Bruno Dumont’s remarkable work is strange & compelling, sometimes too much so. Richly textured in scenic wonder & revolting gore, it’s something of litmus test, especially for the casual viewer who may be thrown off by oddities in place, character & crime . . . or simply bored. At its core, it’s a serial-murder police procedural, with the usual eccentric older detective & junior partner hitting the road to get to the latest victim or question likely suspects while handsome coastal views and farmland vistas roll by. Dumont casts non-professionals with ‘local’ features, but behind the bad teeth & facial tics, the two cops might be Chief Insp. Morse & Sgt. Lewis.* Everyone’s something of a mongrel around here (thinning stock?), including Quinquin, a tough, rascally kid with hearing aid & the slightly twisted face of a fixed harelip. Running roughshod with pals around town when not with his surprisingly sweet girlfriend, he’s closer to the grisly crimes than he realizes. The film is as much a portrait of place as of murder, with Dumont finding his rhythm & character eccentricities in the local terroir. (So unlike latter-day Lynch, imposing quirky sensibilities from creator down.) Made to be shown in four parts on tv, the WideScreen images play even better as a single, stand-alone movie. Given the chance to insinuate, there’s odd charm, fascination and a wild humor to it.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *As chief inspector, Bernard Pruvost might be country cousin to classic French character actor Michel Simon.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *David Lynch usually comes into the conversation on this film. But Dumont is really more Henri-Georges Clouzot (LE CORBEAU/’43) meets Ari Kaurismäki (THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL/’90).

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

REMEMBER? (1939)

Famous as the Golden Year of Golden Age Hollywood, 1939 also had it’s share of stinkers. Few stinkier than this brutally misconceived cuckold comedy that finds best pals Robert Taylor & Lew Ayres flipping Greer Garson as if she were housing property. Actually, she was property, property of M-G-M; hence this rush job after GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS made her an instant star at the alarming age of 35. Journeyman comedy specialist Norman Z. McLeod co-wrote & megged so give him most of the blame*, but Robert Taylor deserves credit for making an already unlikable character a positive paragon of self-centered upperclass entitlement. Lew Ayres does what he can as a slightly soused third-wheel, but Garson murders every line with her fluted tones and oddly unflattering look. (The fluted tones remained; the look triumphantly revised.) Perhaps nobody on the lot was second-guessing the dailies since producer, writers & director had turned out a big popular hit with TOPPER/’37, a Post-Mortem Screwball Comedy, of all things. Not this time. The film wraps with a bit of chemically induced amnesia. We should all be so lucky.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While the set-up isn’t all that different from the Lubitsch/Hecht adaptation of Noël Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING/’33, that film's execution was far beyond the reach of these hack filmmakers. M-G-M was probably hoping for something along the lines of Joan Crawford in either LOVE ON THE RUN (w/ Gable & Franchot Tone) or THE BRIDE WORE RED/’37 (w/ Robert Young & Tone). Either way, they were aiming low.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Of course, the upside to being a journeyman comedy director like McLeod is that you’re apt to stay out of the way when you’ve got W. C. Fields or the Marx Bros.

Monday, April 24, 2017

I PADRONI DELLA CITTÀ / RULERS OF THE CITY (1976)

Italian writer/director Fernando Di Leo has a modest cult for his bluntly effective, brightly colored urban crime pics. With more crude energy than finesse, his mob stories keep your attention even as they miss on style & technique. Here, his usual qualities (or lack thereof) are reversed, with smartly handled, even swaggering action/chase sequences in & around Rome(?) showing hard-nosed filmmaking savvy in support of a pretty thin story. Progress? (He still can’t stage, shoot or edit a fight to save his soul.) The story pits top mobster Jack Palance against Edmund Purdom’s two-bit loan shark operator, but the real action follows a couple of low echelon enforcers (Al Cliver; Harry Baer) who work up an inside scam that should leave them holding the assets of both sides, and with a cold dish of revenge on the side. Di Leo works up plenty of twists & turns in his street chases, not so much in his plot. Only the unexpected homoerotic angle between the boys surprises. Mostly, this is breezy fun and looks good in the non-anamorphic DVD from RARO-Video.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: An earlier Stateside release (slightly trimmed) came out as MISTER SCARFACE even if Palance looks about the same as usual. And playing Luigi, the loan shark boss, that's the very same Edmund Purdom who took over THE EGYPTIAN/’54 for Marlon Brando and who stood in (and lip-synched) for a too fat Marion Lanza as THE STUDENT PRINCE/’54.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

JIMMY P. (2013)

Full Title: JIMMY P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. And so it is, doubtless to the frustration of anyone expecting a more conventional, plot-driven recovery story. French director Arnaud Desplechin, working comfortably in his second English-language pic, doesn’t spell everything out detailing the case of a WWII Native American vet (Benicio Del Toro) crippled by debilitating episodes of blindness & migraines. Sent to a special clinic in Topeka, Kansas run by Karl Menninger (yes, that Menninger), the staff doctors are unable to diagnose the cause and send to New York for Mathieu Amalric, an uncertified French psychiatrist (well, he tells everyone he’s from France) with a bent for analysis using an anthropological lens. If the wounds aren’t physical, and only triggered, not induced by war memories, might the underlying cause be cultural or genetic? Playing out in opaque, yet fascinating moments of partial revelation, this exceptionally well-acted piece is taken largely from session notes. (Desplechin adds a pleasant, if fictional, romance for Amalric & the visiting Gina McKee for the sake of variety and to help fill in the doctor’s backstory.) With a deep-textured palette punching up period detail (none of that faded photograph crap), the film is often startlingly convincing even if the a la carte narrative choices, which exclude as much as they include, won’t be statisfying to all.

DOUBLE-BILL: Desplechin is at his best in A CHRISTMAS TALE/’08 with a big all-star French cast, including Amalric, a Desplechin regular.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

RISEN (2016)

From ‘Affirm,’ a new division of SONY Pictures’ releasing modern stories for the ‘Christian Values’ market, an old-fashioned throwback; a modestly budgeted Biblical Epic that plays as a Judaean police procedural. Joseph Fiennes, beefed up from SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE/’98 days, is the Roman Tribune assigned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth, beefed up from EQUUS/’77 days) to find out what’s happened to the body of ‘Yeshua’ post-crucifixion. He’s gone missing! You know the rest: Tribune investigates; meets disciples; questions his own beliefs; fights off old Roman pals; sees the Light; joins the Tribe. Kevin Reynolds, who partnered Kevin Costner on Christ-Lite allegories (ROBIN HOOD/’91; WATERWORLD/’95), runs a decent show, but can’t get past boilerplate History Channel/PBS production values; or a Jesus who’s more friendly Camp Counselor than Christ. And while the film is never despicable, like last year’s abomination remake of BEN-HUR, it’s hard to imagine this preaching to the non-converted. Which is pretty much the whole point, no?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Another largely Anglo-Saxon gang of disciples in here.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Reynolds is responsible for one of filmdom’s true oddities, the Easter Island drama RAPA NUI/’94, a film as distinctive as RISEN is anodyne.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

Maybe a film can be too imaginative? How else to explain the disappointing commercial response to this wondrous terror-of-childhood dreamscape pic? Or was it doomed by an undeserved/ misguided PG-13 rating? Or simply lost in a tide of similar stories of young kids coping in unique ways with a terminal illness in the family? Whatever the case, the film is too good to miss, even with a couple of miscues that leave the film with an unexpected emotional reserve. (Maybe not a bad thing, that.) Young Lewis MacDougall is outstanding as the inward-looking, artistically talented 9-yr-old, acting out at home & bullied at school as he deals with his increasingly sick mom. Raging against the inevitable, he’s equally hurt by his divorced dad’s wayward attention (living in the States with a new family) and fighting tooth-and-nail against moving in with Grandma Sigourney Weaver (treading warily on a light British accent). Into this emotional mess, the boy, thru dreams & drawings, conjures up a living tree-monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), an alternating messenger of terror, comfort & confounding teaching-fables. Three fables, to be exact, appearing with the inevitability of the Dickensian spirits Marley told Scrooge of, but shown as enticingly beautiful animation. (A digital process with the look of a living watercolor, a marvel to behold.) This leads up to a fourth fable, told not by the imaginary tree-beast, but by the boy; a tale of uncompromising (and devastating) honesty, topped by a final revelation that both closes and expands the circle of life. It leaves you not in tears, but in dry-eyed wonder.

DOUBLE-BILL: Director J. A. Bayona is Spanish, though he’s been working internationally for a few years, now. This may explain why the film brings Guillermo del Toro (with an English accent) to mind. Less the hyperventilating fantasy world of PAN’S LABYRINTH/’06, than the under-appreciated youthful terrors of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE/’01.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Listen up during the second tale when Fernando Velázquez’s fine score tips its hat with a brief allusion to Mussorgsky’s NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN in honor of its debt toward FANTASIA’s satanic mountain monster.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

THE WIZ (1978)

Four months after emptying theaters with a stultifying film adaptation of SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, Universal Studios released another ten-ton musical turkey, pretty much killing the genre for a generation or two. The conceit seems doable: retell THE WIZARD OF OZ as an All-Black Urban Fable, but flailing execution from director Sidney (what-am-I-doing-here) Lumet; scripter Joel Schumacher (and you thought BATMAN & ROBIN was my worst credit); lenser Oswald Morris (I think I’ve misplaced my lights!) are painful. And the cast? Diana Ross, miscast as a grown-up Dorothy (her Auntie Em suggests she teach High School to find young men!); Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, charming but unable to act (with fast spins in place of actual dance routines); and Lena Horne uncomfortably hanging from the Heavens. None of them ever made another feature film. Most shocking of all is how technically crude it looks compared to the 1939 classic, as if film technology had been receding for the last 40 years. Even the sound (from MOTOWN & Quincy Jones) seems disconnected from the image . . . how appropriate.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While no official credit is given to the 1939 M-G-M film, just the B’way musical and to L. Frank Baum’s original novels, anyone who’s read one of the many OZ books can see that Schumacher’s script gets structure, incident, even some slightly altered dialogue straight from the earlier film. Legally, how’d they get away with it?

DOUBLE-BILL: As noted above, SGT. PEPPER’S. Too bizarrely misconceived to loathe. George Burns as Mr. Kite and an embarrassed Steve Martin in his film debut among the many victims.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

ANTHROPOID (2016)

Fact-based WWII Czech resistance story on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, chief administrator of the Nazi occupation, is well handled, but too Standard Issue.* The killing of SS General Heydrich, third in the Reich chain of command, was certain to cause major reprisals, but too important to pass on. The film largely follows two (out of a handful of) Czech & Slovakian agents (Cillian Murphy; Jamie Dornan) on assignment from London who parachute back in to bolster the decimated local resistance units. A fascinating, exciting war story, but writer/director Sean Ellis makes it hard to get a handle on characters & action by leaning too heavily on hand-held close-ups & busy editing (it also robs the technique of effect when he finds better use for it later); while uncomfortable dips into melodrama with a pair of romances and ‘rhymed’ plot elements might have worked in a different sort of film. A shame since much of this true, tragic history is handsomely caught, as if on the run. Of the leads, Jamie Dornan brings something less than 50 shades of personality with him (he’s easily outflanked by heroic confederates with far less screen time), while the fortunate Mr. Murphy was born with a camera-ready face just waiting to take the light.

DOUBLE-BILL: *You’d hardly accuse Fritz Lang of anything Standard Issue in his version of the same story. Made soon after events as HANGMEN ALSO DIE!/’43 (Bertolt Brecht’s sole Hollywood credit), the tone goes a bit bizarre at times and the acting uneven, but it builds relentlessly. On a smaller scale, Douglas Sirk gives a different side of the same story in HITLER’S MADMAN/’43.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

OCTOPUSSY (1983)

In stark contrast to recent James Bond pics (aiming at serious/ settling for dour), Roger Moore’s penultimate turn as 007 must be the most lighthearted of the series. And none the worse for it. The ridiculous plot has a rogue Russian General trying to pin a nuclear explosion on the US with help from Louis Jordan’s mysterious Fabergé Egg collector. With a plot more picaresque than political, and stunts more human-scaled than usual (the traditional pre-credit action sequence is a particular treat), the film develops relaxed glamor & what-the-hell swank. (Though art direction & color design are hideous enough to notice.) Politically correct it ain’t: Jourdan as Indian Prince? Moore weaponizing snake charmers; walks on burning coal; a borrowed sword from a sword swallower; and using a bed of nails to 'nail' a villain? Yikes! Still, Jourdan & Moore make a bemused pair of rivals. (As if they’d just come from a croquet match off the set.) If only the femmes fatales were better. One of them earns a pass for being crowned Miss Sweden (watch her confuse kissing with lunch), but what to make of Maud Adams’ Octopussy? She’s been Bonded in MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN/’73 (one of the weakest entries), but here she can barely read a line of dialogue or share a look with the still charming Mr. Moore. Whatever the case, the film, while a hit, was considered poor enough for a toughened up reboot on A VIEW TO A KILL/’85, with Moore suddenly out of his comfort zone then out of the series.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How did Jourdan keep a straight face while saying ‘Octopussy, Octopussy” to the doubting Maud Adams? Oscars® have been won for less.

Monday, April 17, 2017

EXTRATERRESTRE / EXTRATERRESTRIAL (2011)

From the decidedly warped mind of Nacho Vigalondo, currently confounding indie audiences with COLOSSAL/’16 (not seen here, but apparently a remix of his debut pic TIMECRIMES/’07, see below), comes a comic variation on Denis Villeneuve’s excruciatingly lofty ARRIVAL/’16, played out as if the cast of FRIENDS or SEINFELD lived a block or two down the street from the alien space ships. (And five years before its progenitor! Must be a sign.) In truth, Vigalondo’s goof is a hit-and-miss affair, but also mucho fun. It opens the morning after, after a hook-up, that is, as an attractive, hungover 30-something couple react thru yawns to the huge UFO in the sky. Neighborhood? Largely deserted. Utilities? Off-and on. Plump needy/nerdy/next-door pest? Knocking on the door. Girl’s trusting, longtime boyfriend? Coming up the walk, gullible as ever. Turns out there’s plenty of comic opportunities working out these relationships while trying to open a giant, indestructible jar of peaches and wondering if the person you’re speaking to has turned into a humanoid alien presence. And plain silliness when Vigalondo needs to shake things up. (Or runs out of good ideas.) The talent is obvious, so even when he falls flat on his face the camera's in just the right spot.

DOUBLE-BILL: Probably best to start with Vigalondo’s TIMECRIMES. It’s also on the messy side, but with more meat on its bones.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

UNDISPUTED (2002)

Walter Hill’s mash-up of prison & boxing tropes is good dumb fun even as it turns punchy halfway in. With a flashy, over-medicated editing style, you can just keep up with the plot, which hardly matters since the film is out to tickle, not to provoke. Wesley Snipes, laconic boxing champ of the underground Maximum Security Prison Circuit (wha?) faces his biggest challenge when Heavyweight Champ of the Outside World Ving Rhames is sentenced to six years on a rape charge. (Maximum Security on a rape charge; who’s this guy’s lawyer?) If only some jailbird was around to work out the logistics, grease the right palms, make the connections to let these two champs meet in the prison ring for a secret fight. Enter the film’s true wild card, Peter Falk, hilariously potty-mouthed as an ancient Mob vet, a not quite spent force from the Meyer Lansky era. Pulling strings & twisting arms from his cozy prison quarters, with the help of a young acolyte, he knows how to turn a fight no one can know about into millions for all concerned. (It’s this sidebar action that keeps the second half of the film in gear.) Hill is oddly cavalier about selling the fight stuff. Both in and out of the ring, the blows never seem to register. Maybe by choice since realism would collapse the concept. But taken on its own limited terms, it’s a pretty entertaining bout.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hill’s had a very hit-and-miss career considering his smash directing debut with the underappreciated street boxing fight pic HARD TIMES/’75, with Charles Bronson & James Coburn in peak form.

Friday, April 14, 2017

HANGOVER SQUARE (1945)

Still a large menacing presence in spite of dropping 100 pounds in a matter of months (then dropping dead at 30), Laird Cregar wasn’t happy when 20th/Fox chief Darryl Zanuck remade his hand-picked project into a second helping of THE LODGER/’44, his star breakthrough as Jack-the-Ripper, also with director John Brahm & scripter Barré Lyndon. But hard to argue when a film improves on earlier success; scarier, tighter, more honest in storytelling, with an outline that draws on Stevenson’s JEKYLL AND HYDE the way LODGER did from Wilde’s DORIAN GRAY. And what a clever reenforcement of Stevenson’s personality split by having Cregar’s composer torn between classical composition with good girl Faye Marlowe and popular song for sinful Linda Darnell. Brilliant in execution and concept, with a faultless supporting cast and a striking physical production that climaxes in the concerto premiere with Brahm’s visual orchestration a match for the stunningly effective (and just plain stunning) Bernard Herrmann score, ending the film with the solo piano chords of his ‘Concerto Macabre.’ Unmissable.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Vincent Price more or less took over the casting vacuum left by Cregar’s death. Less arch than Price, Cregar’s more a physical match to the younger Raymond Burr. (Were those guys ever young?)

DOUBLE-BILL: For something approaching Brahm’s success in the final concerto set piece, try Vincente Minnelli’s Waltz Sequence to Miklós Rózsa’s soaring, off-kilter music in MADAME BOVARY/’49 or Abel Gance’s hypnotic piano recital in THE TENTH SYMPHONY/’18. That one’s silent, of course, but put on something manic & Schumannesque.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

THE LAST VOYAGE (1960)

Andrew Stone, often with wife Virginia as editor/co-producer, was an indie filmmaker drawn not to small, personal projects, but to big, impersonal commercial fare; knock-offs of studio blockbusters made-on-the-cheap. (And even when they came out first, they still felt like knock-offs.) At his best, the films had an endearing, homemade quality, bumping along from one incident to another with can-do, inconsistent style; at less than best, clunky & obvious, corny & hard to swallow. This one, a sort of TITANIC FOR DUMMIES disaster pic, is one of his best. Neatly mounted on a decommissioned luxury liner and handsomely shot by the great Hal Mohr in a late credit, Stone gets points for upending story construction along with his boat, largely skipping de rigueur first act story vignettes & character intros (while faint rumblings of trouble are ignored) to go straight to the inferno below decks. Collapsing three acts into one, he cuts back & forth right from the start between onrushing firestorms; officers arguing over containment vs. evacuation; and panicking passengers. The main family unit has Robert Stack trying to save trapped wife Dorothy Malone, gruesomely screaming along with ghastly red-headed tyke Tammy Marihugh. They’re helped by a shirtless Woody Strode, who really should be aiding top engineer Edmund O’Brien in his battle with menacingly sanguine Captain George Sanders. (Sanders flies well above the genre standard for this sort of thing with a detailed & sympathetic portrait of a limited man unable to rise to the occasion.) Much of this is quite spectacularly well-staged & gripping, with parallel-editing D. W. Griffith would have recognized, along with endorsement of his unabashed melodramatic spirit. Nifty explosions, too! And with such a tight budget, Stone can’t be bothered with warm reunions. It helps keep the running time at half the length of those Titanic pics. That's a relief.

CONTEST: Name the connection between this film and Astaire/Rogers’ SWING TIME/’36 to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your Choice.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957)

Before drifting into the ranks of journeyman episodic tv directors (all the way down to THE LOVE BOAT), Jack Arnold made a lasting impression in ‘50s Universal Sci-Fi/Horror. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE/’53; CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON/’54 and this modest winner are, each in their own way, surprisingly fresh to revisit. Often copied and/or camped up, the more ‘knowing’ redos had bigger budgets and more sophisticated F/X (with or without CGI), only to look more dated. Maybe they try too hard & do too much, winding up less effective than the originals that influenced them. Of the three mentioned above, INCREDIBLE has the most strikingly uncluttered storyline: Atomic Mist triggers irreversible, unstoppable shrinkage in typical male suburbanite. That’s pretty much all there is . . . and all Arnold needs. Fun, often funny, or rather witty, with wonderful shock cuts as our radioactive hero is revealed on smaller & smaller stages to fight mighty battles against smaller & smaller ‘monsters’ (house cat, spider, water drain, brother-in-law). Yet the film really doesn’t come across as ‘camp;’ Arnold’s neat as a pin direction; the acting, especially from leading man Grant Williams; and Richard Matheson’s perfectly structured, psychologically astute script are ‘all of a piece,’ playing out with unexpected emotional resonance. Just the right running time, too, finishing before you come up with unanswerable questions. And the analogue special effects? They’re simple, straightforward, largely believable; though that stale piece of cake reeks of papier mâché. (Edible, non?) And who flubbed the scale ratio on those diner coffee cups? Andre the Giant would look like he had small hands holding one.) If only Universal had popped for a stronger score, this semi-precious stone would shine twice as bright.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Orson Welles, shooting TOUCH OF EVIL/’58 for the same producer (Albert Zugsmith) at the time, tried to curry favor doing voice-over for the ‘teaser’ trailer. No luck, Zugsmith recut EVIL against his instructions, anyway. It took 40 years for the Welles cut to come out.

DOUBLE-BILL: If INCREDIBLE is Scale as Horror Pic; Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR/’24 is Scale as Silent Comedy. Equally philosophical; more laughs.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

I SEE A DARK STRANGER (1946)

After THE LADY VANISHES/’38 for Alfred Hitchcock and the Hitchcockian NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH/’40 for Carol Reed, writing partners Frank Launder & Sidney Gilliat hyphenated up, adding directing & producing planks as a sort of B-Team Powell/Pressburger. This sharp WWII espionage adventure, out just after the war with an unlikely comic slant, shows them at their best. Their directing chops were always limited, but if action is awkwardly staged, the suspense stuff comes across nicely, and the film is just too bouncy & clever for serious niggling. Deborah Kerr, in a career-making perf, is the stubborn Irish lass who thinks she’s joining the I.R.A., unaware she’s in cahoots with a gang of veddy British Nazi spies. Trevor Howard’s a British Officer on leave, instantly smitten by her looks and blunt rudeness. She’s a puzzle . . . and a challenge! He trails her on a hunt for a little Black Book hidden on the Isle of Man, trying to deduce what she’s up to and that she stays out of harms way. Good thing too, since both the Nazi gang and Army & Police units are in hot pursuit. The pace is furious; the plotting not always clear (a jump to England confuses); the characters vividly drawn. With Raymond Huntley, a standout as one of the German agents, and a gaggle of hilariously thick Brits everywhere you turn. It’s wicked clever and deeply satisfying fun.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Note our poster from the Stateside release. Re-titled THE ADVENTURESS, it lost about a reel’s worth of footage. An HVe edition has the complete 112" print, officially sourced from the Janus collection in reasonably good shape.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

ADA (1961)

Unexpectedly tasty ‘Lewdsiana’ political drama, larded with bad Southern accents & zero period flavor (only the cars know it’s the late ‘30s*) as newbie Governor Dean Martin weds Happy Hooker Susan Hayward. Characters based, ever so loosely, on Earl Long & Blaze Starr (Paul Newman & Lolita Davidovich in BLAZE/’89). Quality-wise, it’s no ALL THE KING’S MEN, Robert Penn Warren’s novel on older brother Huey Long, but a trashy affair with Martin’s hapless Southern Governor led by the nose for fun & profit by political boss Wilfred Hyde White (Dixie drawl smothered by flinty British accent). But that all changes once Hayward wins over the Doubting Ladies Brigade and lends the Governor a spine. Or would change if her horizontal past didn’t come back to haunt her. The film’s first half is hard to swallow, but as the plot ramps up from tall to outrageous tale, everyone seems to relax. Even Daniel Mann, usually a drab director, loosens up with cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg. They’d just collaborated on some wild mise-en-scène in BUTTERFIELD 8 and now alternate between over-decorated interiors and bare washes of background color. It does wonders for Hayward who gets to hold back, for a change, and even play someone her own age. Martin is no longer showing the respect toward acting briefly seen in SOME CAME RUNNING/’58 or RIO BRAVO/’59, but can still get his licks in. And there’s good support from Martin Balsam as a good guy and from a demonically smiling Ralph Meeker as a baddie. A final showdown in the capital is just icing on the cake; empty calories in a good cause.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, BLAZE.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *A movie marque advertizes William Powell & Luise Rainer, presumably in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, so you know it’s supposed to be 1936.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

FURY (1936)

After fleeing Nazi-Germany (with a stop in France to make LILIOM/’33), Fritz Lang spent two years in L.A. limbo waiting for new employer M-G-M to sign off on a project. And while he’d never admit it, Lang’s career was almost surely rescued by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, segueing from writer to producer under Louis B. Mayer’s protection at the time. Mank worked up a treatment (credited to Norman Krasna) for the sort of socially-conscious pic you’d never expect from M-G-M. And while the film is hardly without its awkward & naïve moments (something Lang-in-Hollywood would never quite shed), his first Stateside film remains powerful & artistically impressive. Spencer Tracy, still new at the studio, found his dramatic footing playing an Ordinary Joe, jailed on very little evidence for a kidnapping charge on his way to meet fiancée Sylvia Sidney. But when word of the arrest gets out, the small town turns into a lynching inferno, with the jail burnt down along with the innocent man locked inside. Only he’s not dead, just hardened, lost to the spirit of mankind and seeking revenge against the upstanding citizens of the mob who ‘killed’ him. Let them all stand trial for his murder . . . he’ll enjoy the spectacle. Lang gets some fabulous effects throughout the pic, holding at times to German Expressionist principles (greatly helped by Joseph Ruttenberg’s lensing), particularly in the use of mass movement while spotting telling detail within the crowd. Not everything works: courtroom tactics, character quirks and some ham-handed clue planting can now seem a little obvious. But not enough to hold back the impression of a society dominated by its worst elements or to lift the stench of his own burning flesh Tracy conveys. (The fellow Tracy, and most of the cast, really wanted to strangle was the infernally demanding Fritz Lang.) Not even a slightly softened ending can wash the bitter taste of this one out of your mouth.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lang was such a monomaniacal perfectionist bastard on set, he pretty much burned his bridges at M-G-M. So too, in a different way, producer Joe Mankiewicz who made this difficult ‘message’ picture over the objections of studio head L. B. Mayer. So when it came out to strong reviews, and even a bit of profit, Mank was really in the doghouse. He’d made the greatest of all Hollywood errors . . . being right. He’d eventually have his contract assigned to 20th/Fox, where he'd write and direct.

Friday, April 7, 2017

JASON BOURNE (2016)

A solid consensus has BOURNE.2 (BOURNE SUPREMACY/’04) as pick of this three-plus-one Ludlum litter. So, why, other than sheer greed, bring back the team from 2 & 3 after a decade for another helping? A glance at the slipping gross for Jeremy Renner’s BOURNE LEGACY/’12 is part of the answer, but what drew both returning star & director Matt Damon & Paul Greengrass? Out to prove they still had the right stuff? Career insurance against future flops? Whatever the case, the boys show you can go home again; just not why. Plotwise, it’s the usual nonsense about CIA director Tommy Lee Jones working to silence Damon’s incoming outlier, with the film at its best in an extended cat-and-mouse London set piece where Greengrass’s signature splintered action technique briefly takes hold. Elsewhere, codified violence, dull in spite of the slash-and-burn stylistics. Damon, pumped up like Popeye after a can of spinach, still makes a fine go-go action hero, but except for Vincent Cassel’s Energizer-Bunny of a nemesis, everyone else phones it in. Even Greengrass, still refusing to put his stunts into any sort of logistical context, settling for vacuum-sealed Pop entertainment. But listen up during the final Cassel/Damon showdown for a gruesome sound cue as Monsieur’s outstanding nose takes a serious hit. Crrrrunchhhhh! Holy Batman & Robin!! It’s the one laugh in the pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Splitting the difference between James Bond (last at Sony) and Paramount’s MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, you can see what Universal is trying to hold onto with this series. But where can it possibly go?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

THE ENFORCER (1951)

Humphrey Bogart must have been awfully eager to wrap up his Warner Brothers contract; why else bother with this brutally inconsequential whimper of a police procedural? He’s a big city D.A. about to crack open a Murder-for-Hire racket when his star witness backs out . . . permanently. With the case going to court tomorrow, Bogie flashbacks his way thru four years of casework detailing how this Murder, Inc. went operational, with ‘blind’ assignments leaving no motive for police to hang a homicide on. Strictly cash, strictly random, strictly without personal links. But a misidentified victim offers half a chance to save his case as the intended target remains unharmed, and unaware of the danger she’s in. Can Bogart get to her before ‘they’ do. Not such a lousy idea, really, but nothing generates any heat or mystery. Everybody just going thru the motions under action-challenged megger Bretaigne Windust, and flummoxed by such baffling new terms as ‘contract’ & ‘hit.’ Really? Even at the time, how hard could it have been to suss them out? Bogart barely gets in one wimpy punch, but things perk up briefly for the final set piece, a race-to-the-rescue filmed out on location, backed by real Main Street small town storefronts. (Possibly helmed, as too the decent opening, by an uncredited Raoul Walsh.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Cinematographer Robert Burks, who gives the film a damp, dark sheen, its main redeeming feature, followed this up with another story playing on the possibilities of motiveless murder, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN/’51, first of his 12 with Alfred Hitchcock.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

THE CLOCK (1945)

Wartime romance (G.I. finds love in the Big City on a 2-Day Pass) skirts the line between tender & sappy in a surprisingly engaging manner. Surprising since what looked unalterably sappy back in the ‘70s, has seemingly toughened up over time, relatively speaking, all the way back to tender. Working with the inevitable background projections that passed for NYC locations at the time, Vincente Minnelli, directing his first straight drama, manages a real feel for the city on sets big (PENN Station, enormous & stunningly handled) and small (milk truck interior with friendly driver). The story, think WWII-era BEFORE SUNRISE/’95, has lonely soldier-boy Robert Walker meet-cute with Judy Garland over a broken shoe-heel. They spark, tour the town, have an over-night adventure delivering dairy products (almost too cute), then lose each other on the subway before reconnecting and racing to get married. The film has a loose, experimental feel to it; and Walker’s lost-boy charm does wonders to center Garland, she’s depressurized. Look fast to spot producer Arthur Freed giving Walker some matches, and for Freed Associate Roger Edens on the piano at a nice restaurant. They even let milk truck driver James Gleason play against his actual wife, Lucile Gleason when he takes the couple home for breakfast. Minnelli pulls off some daringly long takes, but none more daring than Gleason himself, who wins the prize for longest time driving via process shot without bothering to watch the road. Except for an over-active score (with heavenly female chorus), this modest charmer is currently holding up nicely. And don’t skip THE SCREWY TRUANT, a really ‘out there’ Tex Avery/Screwy Squirrel cartoon Extra.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Minnelli is almost certainly the guy responsible for working up the film’s convincingly multiracial cast used in little spots all thru the pic. Hardly a crowd scene goes by without Asians & Blacks doing pretty much what everyone else is doing. Most unusual for the period.

DOUBLE-BILL: Walker made something of a specialty playing shy soldier-boys in both comic (SEE HERE, PRIVATE HARGROVE/’44) and tragic mode (SINCE YOU WENT AWAY/’44). The latter, an awkward & remarkable homefront epic, made just as Walker’s co-star/wife Jennifer Jones was shifting her affections to that film’s producer David O. Selznick. It meant that, for once, someone other than Garland was the needy emotional basket-case on set.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

ARUITEMO ARUITEMO / STILL WALKING (2008)

A masterpiece from Hirokazu Kore-eda; a one (and a half)-day-in-the-life family reunion drama that quietly implodes with rude, blunt character comedy. As the film opens, mother & grown daughter are prepping lunch for three generations. The grandparents are getting too old to live by themselves and the daughter is thinking of moving in with her husband & two kids. Four people too many for grumpy granddad. Her brother is also making a rare visit, bringing along a new wife & step son, for the twelfth anniversary of the eldest son’s death by drowning. (The unworthy fellow he saved will also make his awkward annual visit.) For writer/director/editor Kore-eda, it’s both set-up and plot, enough to ring the changes in the family dynamic, finding action in incremental relationship adjustments staged in depth with minimal camera movement. Kore-eda may be working in the tradition of Yasujirô Ozu (a late classic like GOOD MORNING/’59, right down to the ‘pillow shots,’ those little interstitial still-life buffers between scenes), but, though precise & gently paced, the tone & filming style are Kore-eda’s own, with every character at one point or another showing fangs behind the excruciatingly good manners. Or, in the case of the grandparents, barely bothering to hide them. Told with an underlying grace, humor, rhythm & thoughtfulness that holds to the flow of life, it’s a remarkable (and remarkably emotional) achievement. Built out of perfectly composed shots that never call attention to themselves.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: No names/no titles, please, but this effortlessly puts all those clumsy, plotty, beat-driven Hollywood family-gathering pics to shame. Yes, the ‘good’ ones.

DOUBLE-BILL: Other Kore-eda films seen here don’t quite match this, instead, as mentioned above, Ozu’s GOOD MORNING.

Monday, April 3, 2017

LION (2016)

You probably have to reach back to FIELD OF DREAMS/’89 to find prestige wannabe quite so bald-faced at hunting up familial tears . . . and landing so short. Fact-based, but stinking of Weinstein Brothers Oscar®-bait (6 noms./0 wins), the film’s all wet when it wants to be touching. Dev Patel, the adopted Indian son of Aussie parents, now grown into pleasing manhood, drops out of a career-oriented program to search for his lost past. Literally lost as he was only five when he fell asleep on a train that carried him from his home to far off Calcutta. His Dickensian adventures as a child (trying to find a way back, or simply a meal & a place to sleep) make up the best part of the film, though even here, Garth Davis, helming his first feature, hasn’t an interesting shot in him; even with all India’s teeming humanity wherever you turn. There’s also something odd about the structural choices made in playing the storyline (linear thru-line or bouncy time jumps?), as if the order was worked out post-production with the writer & director frozen out. Nicole Kidman gives a striking perf as the adoptive mother interested in ‘broken’ children, but Rooney Mara & Patel never connect as romantic couple. (An embarrassing Hop/Skip/Jump meet-cute goes nowhere.) Even little Sunny Pawar can only hit the adorably lost button so many times. The sole emotional charge comes with an end title about a brother’s fate. Some payoff.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Also released in 2016, though made the year before, Patel does better (and shows a lot more chemistry) with Jeremy Irons in the underappreciated MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY. OR: For big city confusion made clear, discover India’s amazing lunchbox delivery system, only touched on here, in DABBA/THE LUNCHBOX/’13. (see below).

Sunday, April 2, 2017

ZWARTBOEK / BLACK BOOK (2006)

Returning to the Netherlands, where his SHOWGIRLS-induced stench is less persistent, Paul Verhoeven also returns to the same sort of WWII Dutch Resistance tale that triggered his breakthrough in SOLDIER OF ORANGE/‘77. This one’s a big old-school war epic about a beautiful young Jewess on the run after her hiding place gets bombed and a brief family reunion is sabotaged. She lands in the middle of an ambitious resistance cell, assigned to romance a top Occupation Force Nazi Officer, collecting info, planting ‘bugs,’ working to save prisoners from execution . . . and falling in love with the enemy. It’s all only slightly less believable than Carole Lombard’s mission in Ernst Lubitsch’s comedic TO BE OR NOT TO BE/’42, but that’s hardly the main problem. The glitch is that every story turn is more ludicrous than the last, with Verhoeven turning all he touches coarse & childish. The technical chops are impeccable, the guy knows his stuff, but why paint everyone (heroes & villains) as disagreeable rotters? And a big hiss for an X-rated version of Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew’ list, swapping out ‘eyes, hands & senses’ to concentrate exclusively on ‘organs;’ specifically breasts & pussies. Helpfully illustrated, breathtakingly vile. And, for what it’s worth, while the men generally come off pretty well, the women are mostly contemptible . . . and not just at acting.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Looking for old-fashioned WWII Dutch Resistance? THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR/’62 offers well-made Hollywood; FLAME AND CITRON/’08 local product for Mads Mikkelsen fans; or even Verhoeven’s own SOLDIER OF ORANGE.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

Frustrating. Loaded with ideas (too many), settling for an unearned self-congratulatory air, writer/director Matt Ross proves unequal to his tricky subject matter. New at the game (it’s his second feature), he throws in the towel toward the end, going awfully easy on his lead, a doctrinaire antiestablishmentarian who’s also something a closet paterfamilias fascist. That’d be Viggo Mortensen, radical back-to-the-earth ideologue, imposing a sort of Marxist survivalist creed on his family in the feral NeverLand backwoods of the Pacific Northwest. The six kids are happy, healthy and more than a touch crazy (easy pickin’ for sainthood or sociopath), spouting philosophy & literature from Dad’s eccentrically chosen home-school curriculum. But two crises threaten as first-born son hides a stealth plan for the Ivy League and when their mentally unbalanced mother suicides at the fancy sanatorium her wealthy parents have been paying for. Bustled off on a Merry Pranksters’ bus to catch the funeral, Ross switches gears into Road Pic mode with semi-comic incidents as hit-and-miss as his staging.* Then lets the film fall apart in the last two reels, like a literary conceit that doesn’t add up. We might be watching Dad’s fantasy resolution.

DOUBLE-BILL: No less problematic, THE MOSQUITO COAST/’86 handles similar ideas without whimsy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Ross really misses a trick when the family dares lunch at a diner. Appalled at the processed crap on offer, Dad hustles everyone out. Yet before splitting he spots the one menu item that might have passed muster: Pancakes! Flour, milk, egg, butter, salt, baking powder. Seven orders, ma’am; hold the fake maple syrup. Even Ross should have seen the possibilities in so many over-sized plates & over-sized portions on a small table-booth.