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Wednesday, May 31, 2017


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

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


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

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017


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

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

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017


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

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

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

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

WILSON (1944)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017


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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


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

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017


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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017


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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017


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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017


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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017


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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017


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

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

Friday, May 12, 2017


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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017


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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


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

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

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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


The dead are always with us, but they get better movie roles in wartime.* This WWII model has Spencer Tracy lost on a bombing run, leaving behind a mourning Irene Dunne for a new heavenly assignment as ectoplasmic wingman/mentor to pup pilot Van Johnson. It’s a one-sided relationship that grows uncomfortable when Van’s increasingly confident flyboy meets ‘that old gal of mine’ and love blooms. Sound icky? Perhaps. But it doesn’t play that way in wartime. (Something Steven Spielberg ignored to his cost when he swapped bombardiers for fire fighting pilots in ALWAYS, his 1989 remake.) Here, with the exception of Herbert Stothart’s typically lackluster score (heavy on ‘I’ll Get By.’), just about everything works. Even the dated special-effects flying action is better than expected. But it’s especially solid, even revelatory in the romantic first half where Tracy & Dunne bring out a rare erotic charge from each other. (Tracy, along with helmer Victor Fleming in their fifth & final collaboration, gave Dunne a lot of grief during production. She was plenty pissed off, but it may have helped bring out a tough, sexy edge not even seen in work with Cary Grant like THE AWFUL TRUTH/’38. Lordy, what a talent! Still remarkably youthful at 46.) The script isn’t without its purple passages, likely from co-scripter Dalton Trumbo; and Production Code objections jettisoned a sort of Wagnerian Liebestod/Immolation finale (Dunne as Brünhilde?) for a cop-out ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too’ ending that may just be an improvement. It’s a one-of-a-kind film, but also, one for a very specific time. So adjust.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/DOUBLE-BILL: *In many ways, this is like a militarized HERE COMES MR. JORDAN/’41, an earlier life-after-death fantasy keyed to the wartime market but centered on boxing. Character actor James Gleason is in both, but takes a different assignment here. JOE gives Ward Bond the analogous role.

Monday, May 8, 2017


Released barely a month after his death (to cash in on a funereal back-draft?), this Peter Sellers comedy has an undeservedly lousy rep. He made far worse. Something of a take-off from Christopher Lee’s largely forgotten Fu Manchu pics in the ‘60s (from the Sax Rohmer books* - see our poster), it’s spotty as hell, but often enough gosh darn funny, too. Sellers cycled thru three directors before hiring himself to complete it, yet the film has a unified, rather handsome style thanks to Jean Tournier’s rich cinematography and from a ‘Pomp & Hilarity’ production design from the superb Alexandre Trauner. (He’s tweaking Ken Adams’ classic James Bond sets, like MOONRAKER which Tournier had just shot.) Befitting Sellers’ fragile physical condition, most of the typically broad comedy is played on the dry/sedate side, with a welcome touch of wistful mortality to Sellers’ work as a Scotland Yard detective brought out-of-retirement. (The silly plot has Fu Manchu, also played by Sellers, sending minions around the world to steal ingredients for a youth elixir.) Sid Caesar is a bust as an FBI agent (his Italian mob shtick somehow more politically-incorrect than Sellers' 'Oriental' villain), but everyone else (David Tomlinson, Steve Franken, John Le Mesurier) get enough funny bits to make their mark. (Helen Mirren tap dances!) And while the finale is a dud (so too the opening diamond robbery via mechanical tarantula), the credit sequence is cool enough to make up for a lot.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Sellers actually had a second posthumous lead when Blake Edwards tried to keep his PINK PANTHER franchise alive by cobbling outtakes into the unfortunate TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER/’82; then used that as set-up for the Sellers-less CURSE OF THE . . . /’83 which had Ted Wass as a cluelessly unfunny Clouseau-like klutz. (It does include an inspired one-take gag involving wind, rain, an automated glass door & an umbrella.) Elsewhere, Alan Arkin, Roberto Benigni & Steve Martin all came to grief in the part. Sellers was indeed irreplaceable, even in second-tier stuff like this.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The five Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films (not seen here) are available as a DVD set. OR: The delicious (and very non-PC) fun & horror of Hollywood ‘Orientals’ Boris Karloff & Mryna Loy in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU/’32. (See below.)

Saturday, May 6, 2017


Don’t expect a catfight. Instead, a more-than-decent M-G-M programmer on modern divorce. Surprisingly, they‘re for it! Mary Astor plays the supremely selfish, hyper-controlling wife of successful lawyer Herbert Marshall. But so good at covering her intentions, so cunning in acting the injured party, no one spots her game. Even her adorable little girl and mother-in-law, all unawares, aid & abet. Leave it to dear old nanny to catch on to the act, step up and pull the wool from Marshall’s eyes. Turns out, he knows the score, just can’t admit it . . . or face up to the gorgon. But tonight, husband & wife will have it out! Post-divorce, one year later, it’s whirlwind romance with Virginia Bruce & a speedy marriage. If only Astor wasn’t poisoning the well with all the best people in town. The production is a bit threadbare; the child actor playing the daughter perfectly ghastly; and Robert B. Sinclair’s direction choppy at a harshly edited 61". Yet the topic & attitudes are fascinating here, alternately dated and advanced, with Astor’s bitch-wife subterfuges subtler than expected. Add in an amusing scene about stockings for Marshall in appellate court and for Bruce, a chance to break out of angelic mode to show some well deserved indignation. Just keep your expectations in check.

DOUBLE-BILL: A deluxe version of this situation came out from R.K.O. the following year with Cary Grant trying to drop duplicitous wife Kay Francis for fresh, honest Carole Lombard. It takes a big melodramatic turn, but works like a charm.

Friday, May 5, 2017


With THE NAÏVE AND SENTIMENTAL LOVER already taken on an early novel, John Le Carré went with a second choice title that fits nearly as well. Or so you might imagine in this big, confidant 6-part thriller about international deal-making in the illegal arms trade. We’re hunting down a particularly vile, smooth operator (Hugh Laurie, a little one-note) with Olivia Colman: British Intelligence, 40-ish, pregnant, squeaky-wheel sort. She lucks into a possible, if unlikely, inside ‘plant’ in civilian Tom Hiddleston’s unattached hotelier. But is he willing? Is he up to it? (Or only distractingly buff?) Le Carré’s story may be just good enough to get by (would Laurie really fall for Hiddleston's coincidental return?), yet feels immensely satisfying, a throwback to comfort-zone suspensers without hand-held camera jitter, obfuscating techno-babble, or assistants furiously typing fake code. Civilized relief on an uncivil subject. If only the characters added up or the plotting didn't go limp in the middle episodes. As a hotel man looking for a cause, Tom Hiddleston falls into the spy racket with only moderate guilt & ennui as motivation; and his libido-induced missteps with Laurie’s chilly mistress (Elizabeth Debicki) are less amour fou than Hitchcock Faux.* (See NOTORIOUS/’46 and/or NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59.) But so handsomely produced, debonaire in pacing, casting and in Susanne Bier’s stately, not stolid, formally beautiful helming. It gleans more pleasure from second-tier Le Carré than most find in first.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Le Carré remains unbeatable setting up red herrings & reversals of fortune, then fudges the easy stuff, like getting two people to bump into each other on the street.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Speaking of Hitch, watch Le Carré do a cameo, assaulted by a drunken Tom Hollander, great as Laurie’s gay aide-de-camp. (Hollander’s like Martin Landau in NbyNW.)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

THE BFG (2017)

What can you say? Not since HOOK/‘91? Maybe Steven Spielberg should stay away from London-based Kid Lit. This story of a dream-dealing giant who befriends a spunky orphan girl never gets off the ground. And Spielberg seems to know it, over-compensating with elaborate motion capture/CGI set pieces to cover up story & casting problems. The sort of empty technical tinkering we’ve come to expect from onetime Spielberg protegee Robert Zemeckis (POLAR EXPRESS’04; CHRISTMAS CAROL/’09), and what Martin Scorsese (of all people) defaulted to on the equally charmless, over-produced HUGO/’11. Things take a slight turn for the better in the third act when Penelope Wilton shows up, corgis in hand, as a decidedly practical Queen Eliz II. But far too late to make much of a difference. What a sad final credit for Melissa Mathison (E.T./’82; BLACK STALLION/’79) who adapted the Roald Dahl book.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: We direct your attention (once more) to Dahl’s scary, kid-friendly THE WITCHES/’90.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Dahl’s book has a following, but does anyone think Big and Friendly come to mind when you see BFG? Granted, the film didn’t lose 100 mill on its title, but still . . .

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Sidney Lumet’s second Tennessee Williams* (adapted by Gore Vidal) comes from one of those hapless, if often intriguing, late plays that revisit familiar terrain with new frankness. But for Williams, candor proved a double-edged sword, revealing truth as it dulled character, and thinning the texture by having sub-text upgraded to text. On stage, where it ran a month, Brian Bedford, Estelle Parsons & Harry Guardino played the roles taken by James Coburn, Lynn Redgrave & Robert Hooks in a film largely noted for receiving a rare non-porno ‘X’ rating. Something of a wreck, but also pretty good late-Williams, especially as variant for fans of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF/’58 and BABY DOLL/’56. It’s a moss-covered inheritance tale, with melodramatic third-act revelations Lillian Hellman would have recognized, as Hooks waits for sick half-brother Coburn to die and leave him the decaying family manse. Instead, Coburn returns home with bride in hand (Lynn Redgrave, a bit too screechy), a stranger who picked him up on a tv game show. Slowly piecing together the relationship of brothers who once shared favors in bed (favors one of the two can no longer perform), the isolated threesome alternately scheme & ogle as rain beats down and levees threaten to break. Yikes! Subtle it ain’t. But decidedly tasty for those who can hold tight thru a lot of torpid exposition in the early going. Also, Hooks is very good.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward & Maureen Stapleton should give interest to Lumet/Williams’ THE FUGITIVE KIND/’60. Saner heads will head for Richard Brooks’ turgid, entertaining CAT and Elia Kazan’s delicious BABY DOLL.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Thematically, Coburn splits the diff between Brick and Big Daddy in CAT, but squint hard and you can just see what he’d be like as Blanche DuBois.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Don’t blame cinematographer James Wong Howe, in fine form on one of his last credits, for the Tinker-Toy® flood finale.

Monday, May 1, 2017


With original director Robert Totten & replacement helmer Don Siegel each refusing credit, this minor Western became the debut feature for the prolific, if nonexistent, Allen Smithee. It also boasts a claim to fame with Richard Widmark & Lena Horne in an interracial romance neither objected to nor taken note of. Alas, there's little else of interest in this tv-ready Western about old ways giving way to new in the fast growing town where bullish Chamber of Commerce types want to force Widmark’s out-of-step/trigger-happy Marshall into early retirement. It’s one of those Westerns that wants to be a Greek Tragedy (hubris all over the place), but hobbled with the paint-by-numbers production values of Universal Studios in the ‘60s, where company head Lew Wassermann made even the classiest pic look like a Movie-of-the-Week. (Typically, the backlot Western town is all fresh paint & pasteboard.) Siegel, who bonded with Widmark on MADIGAN/’68, initially turned it down (script problems), but ended up coming in for the last week or two when Widmark refused to continue with Totten. He had a point. Much of the opening is blunt, obvious, almost comically overstated, but the real problem is that Widmark’s character doesn’t fit the storyline. He only shoots in self-defense and, in a real stretch, gets blamed for a suicide. A big fatalistic finale with the town council going ballistic is ridiculous. For Siegel, it was onward & upward, from galley to glory years. For everyone else, back to the tv grindstone.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: But credit this story for being the rare Western with a plot that doesn’t boil down to Stranger Comes To Town.

WATCH THIS NOT THAT: For an actor usually tagged as a tough urban type, Widmark made quite a lot of Westerns. Try Edward Dmytryk’s little-seen, undervalued WARLOCK/’59 with Henry Fonda & Anthony Quinn.