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Monday, July 31, 2017

THE SANDPIPER (1965)

At peak commercial cachet, and positively bloated with glamour, Dick & Liz (that’d be Burton & Taylor) are fabulous (in the mythical sense) & embarrassing in producer Martin Ransohoff’s iniquitous surf-side romance. The whole ludicrous package pulled from his ‘original’ story,’ which turns out to be a gloss on Somerset Maugham’s RAIN. (The one about the hypocritical minister who falls for a sexual, free-spirited woman.) Massaged into shape by pricey scripters Dalton Trumbo & Michael Wilson, it juggles scenic California exterior locations with studio interiors shot on Paris soundstages. (To help keep the tax-man away.) Vincente Minnelli & lenser Milton Krasner find some good angles on La Liz (she alternates between startlingly pretty and blobby under hide-it-all ponchos by Irene Sharaff), playing a bohemian artist living in a beachfront lean-to that might pass as a Pier One store. But when her son is ordered to attend an elite private religious school, Reverend Burton starts hand-delivering status reports, and succumbs to baser instincts. Taylor's odd acting choices have her flying off the handle at the drop of a hat when not holding things up for a proto-feminist speech; then snuggling down for post-coital musing with a wounded sandpiper nesting in her hair. Eva Marie Saint is around for contrast as Burton’s ‘B’-cup wife, unable to compete with the Taylor mammaries. In a famous howler of a shot, Liz modestly covers up with too petite hands when Dick interrupts a posing session for Charles Bronson’s sculptor. All this plus Beach Front Hootennanies; never-ending cool-jazz variations on Johnny Mandel’s ‘The Shadow of Your Smile;’ and a final bittersweet resolution. Lordy, what a show.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Listen up as Liz imagines a solitary life like Robinson Caruso, the world-famous tenor castaway.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Dick & Liz are infinitely more fun in their previous guilty pleasure THE V.I.P.s/’63.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

HELEN OF TROY (1956)

Thanks to a no-name international cast, this Sword-and-Sandal pic/ Greek Division, gets dumped in the low-budget, camp exploitation bin alongside the likes of Steve Reeves' HERCULES pics. Justly so for much of the first half, as a dubbed cast (even on their own voices) hangs back so Rossana Podestá’s Helen & Jacques Sernas’ Paris can meet-cute before high-tailing it off to Troy, showing all the heat & passion of a tv shampoo commercial. But, as you might expect of a Robert Wise pic from the time, this isn’t the whole story, as becomes apparent in the far superior second half that opens up for battle, siege and that old Wooden Horse o’ Mine. Turns out, it’s a really big show after all, with pricey talent in all positions ‘below the line’ to prove it. Not quite good enough to carry all before it, but with the complicated story immaculately run, and enough effective set pieces to make it worth sticking out. Plus, a big missed opportunity to savor since young Brigitte Bardot is on hand to steal a few scenes from her mistress as a pert handmaiden. No one’s going to think she's trying to sell shampoo!

DOUBLE-BILL: The elaborate techno-gloss of Wolfgang Petersen’s TROY/’04 doesn’t lay out the classic tale in as clean-limned a style, but the starry cast carries eye-popping glamour.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949)

Pitch black film noir flirts with self-parody from the start. A Carol Burnett comedy sketch would have toned things down, especially bad-girl Lizabeth Scott’s ’s eye-popping perf. (Asleep she’d be overdoing it.) The setup, as can be seen in our OTT poster, has rocky couple Scott & weirdly understanding hubby Arthur Kennedy taken aback when a passing car pitches a travel bag with sixty-thou in unmarked bills into their backseat. Turn it in or keep it? The rest of the first half plays out like some demented version of Zola’s THÉRÈSE RAQUIN with inimitable sleazebag Dan Duryea showing up to woo Scott (by slapping her around, natch) and reclaim his ill-gotten gains. It’s good/bad fun if you’re in the mood, and happily the level of filmmaking improves halfway along when mystery man/good guy Don DeFore shows up to get to the bottom of things. Director Byron Haskin has a couple of fondly recalled Sci-Fi credits on his C.V., but mostly hackwork, as here. Still, few noirs are quite so diligent at ticking off every box in the genre, so fans of the form (or newbies learning the ropes) with want to dig in.

LINK/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Attention to the DVD edition since many a subfusc Public Domain disc out there on this title. Look for Flicker Alley who offer a standout restoration. http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film5/blu-ray_reviews_72/too_late_for_tears_blu-ray.htm

DOUBLE-BILL: This probably pairs up best with grade-Z noir like Edgar Ulmer’s minimalist DETOUR/’45 or twisty plotted IMPACT/’49.

Friday, July 28, 2017

23 PACES TO BAKER STREET (1956)

Pipping Paramount to the post, 20th/Fox beat Hitchcock’s MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’56 into theaters with this similar offering by a month.* Call it ‘The Man Who Knew Not Quite Enough’ with Van Johnson’s depressed, embittered blind American playwright accidentally overhearing some nefarious plot at a London pub (murder?; kidnapping?; robbery?) and turning amateur detective. Aided by mildly comic valet Cecil Parker and ex-assistant/ex-fiancée Vera Miles (glad to see any enthusiasm), if not by skeptical police, he pieces the plot together in spite of his handicap. (BTW: the word ‘blind’ never comes up.) With excellent use of London locations, nicely caught by lenser Milton Krasner (even in a disgraceful Pan-and-Scan DVD of this CinemaScope pic, the only current option), director Henry Hathaway builds a series of wry, suspenseful set pieces and gets an exceptional perf out of Van Johnson, nicely underplaying his handicap. The big climax (more Hitchcock, now from READ WINDOW/’54, and a look ahead toward WAIT UNTIL DARK/’67) ought to play better than it does. Perhaps the cropped frame hurts; more likely the plot’s grown too weedy for maximum effect. But don’t let that keep you from this snappy, well-observed mystery-thriller.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Naturally, the filmmakers couldn’t have seen Hitch’s yet to be released remake, but the original MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’34 made for easy pickings.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: You'll need to go back to MURDER!/’30 to find a Hitchcock where the lead takes the initiative seeking out a mystery to solve rather than having a threat come their way unbidden, forcing them into defensive detective action.  Probably the most common misunderstanding in Hitchcockian pastiche.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

KID GLOVE KILLER (1942)

Fred Zinnemann got bumped from shorts to features with this tidy police procedural, a programmer made to showcase rising contract players Van Heflin & Marsha Hunt as a twosome running the city crime lab. Their current case involves systemic political corruption which has led to the murder of a newly elected mayor just starting to go after the kickbacks from a city-wide protection racket. No wonder he got blown up. But while Heflin & Hunt test evidence, with the support of crusading D.A. (and third-wheel pal) Lee Bowman, the two-pronged storyline finds Bowman moving in on Hunt (romantically); and Heflin moving in on Bowman (suspiciously). 85 years of filmed forensic sleuthing has a built-in disadvantage since their breakthroughs now look a little 'old hat.' On the other hand, 85-year-old analogue research, clues & techniques do have a camera-friendly advantage. (Magnified evidence slides; so much eye-appeal compared to computer read-outs.) Zinnemann can only do so much with some of the film’s lumbering comic bits, but watch his work in the lab using door frames, glass reflections & angles to enliven every shot with a sense of pace and place.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oddly, after hitting the A-list on only his third pic, THE SEVENTH CROSS/’44 (with Spencer Tracy), Zinnemann regressed, making two ‘Butch’ Jenkins’ kid stuff before starting for real with THE SEARCH/’48, made with Neo-Realistic flair in post-war Germany.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

THE ROAD TO HONG KONG (1962)

A decade after Paramount pulled the plug on the Hope/ Crosby Road pics, Bob & Bing tried to revive the old self-mockery, casual surrealism & knockabout self-referential charm in this indie one-off. And their film is no toss-off but a legit offering with top-flight talent from top to bottom: Producer/ writer/directors Melvin Frank & Norman Panama; Jimmy Van Heusen & Sammy Cahn songs; Jack Hildyard lensing (with camera operator Gerry Fisher, no less); even Maurice Binder for snazzy title credits; with a space age story that kids the Cold War, sends the boys to the moon, and finds use for Joan Collins & Robert Morley along with a gaggle of cameos (Frank & Dean; Peter Sellers, et al.). What’s missing are laughs. We get the shape of a joke, but something’s off in the rhythm. (And a big demerit for stealing Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES/’36 mechanical auto-feed gag.) Collins is certainly a main culprit; watch how things pick up near the end with a tankful of fish and old gal pal Dorothy Lamour showing up to toss the ball back. And then there’s Der Bingle, born the same year as Hope (1903), he looks a decade & a half older, his soft-shoe comic timing now an odd fit for Hope’s jokey sparkplug manner. It’s really not a bad film of its sort, just a little bit sad.

DOUBLE-BILL: Very much ‘of their time,’ none of the Road Pics live up to past reps. Top-of-the-year grossers in their WWII heyday, without grim war news in the background, something goes missing. ROAD TO MOROCCO/’42 probably holds up best, with the funniest title song.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

THE LAW AND THE LADY (1951)

Falling somewhere betwixt Wilde, Maugham, Coward & Douglas-Home, playwright Frederick Lonsdale gently plied similar comic angles of Upper Crust Brits, as in ON APPROVAL and THE LAST OF MRS. CHENEY (this one’s original title). APPROVAL has the better gimmick (a trial marriage farce), but CHENEY’s setup nicely recalls Lubitsch’s TROUBLE IN PARADISE/’32 as a romantic pair of unmarried con-artists fleece the rich till a third-wheel romance turns serious. (With a gender switch so it’s two men/one woman.) An Early Talkie with Norma Shearer in ‘29, it was remade in ‘37 on Joan Crawford*, and now (third time’s the charm?) as a rare appropriate post-war vehicle for fast-fading Greer Garson. If only the execution were brighter. Michael Wilding is deft & charming as her confederate, playing butler to their nouveau riche quarry, while newcomer Fernando Lamas already shows his odd repellent arrogance & sexist stance as the unexpected rival. Even with a gabbled ending, it’s amusingly worked out, but producer Edwin H. Knopf, a specialist in classy snooze-fests, directs for the first time in a couple of decades and brings little to the party. One well-composed shot and one imaginative trick edit (a couple of jump cuts!) in the whole pic. Garson has to work thru an unbecoming brunette look, but largely pulls it off, keeping the insufferable noblesse oblige to a minimum. Tolerable stuff.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Someone @ M-G-M must also have noted the parallels, getting TROUBLE’S Samson Raphaelson on that 1937 script.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see what Wilding could do with this sort of thing, try to find Alex Korda’s superb ‘48 version of Oscar Wilde’s AN IDEAL HUSBAND, with Wilding leading a scrumptious cast. An unknown gem, miles ahead of the 1999 adaptation.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Doesn't the title make this sound like a Western? Where the heck was market research?

Monday, July 24, 2017

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

The snarkiest, wittiest, hippest, cleverest and (thanks to current events*) possibly least paranoid of Cold War Communist Conspiracy thrillers, taken from the Richard Condon novel, plays out with the circular logic of a M. C. Escher lithograph. Under George Axelrod & John Frankenheimer’s expert writing & directing, Frank Sinatra & Laurence Harvey are an unexpectedly well-matched pair of brainwashed Korean war vets who wind up on different sides of a fast unfolding political scheme they must stop yet barely understand. Bending timelines in realistic & surrealistic flashbacks without dropping a narrative stitch, only a couple of meet-cutes for the boys (Janet Leigh for Frankie; Leslie Parrish for LH) now look a little forced. Add on Angela Lansbury, a stand out even in a great supporting cast, with an astounding perf as Harvey’s manipulative mom, and watch as the generally comic tone imperceptibly darkens into suspense. (The kind of suspense that still works on a fourth or fifth viewing.) And who but Condon could pull off a have-your-Commie-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario using a fraudulent Commie Witch Hunt of military personnel as cover for a real government-takeover Commie Conspiracy. Topped by a further incestuous twist or two to the labyrinth. An incredible entertainment.

DOUBLE-BILL: Some think highly of the 2004 remake . . . who are these people? (See below.)

LINK: *Hear NYTimes’ resident conservative Ross Douthat’s thoughts: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/opinion/manchurian-president-trump-russia.html?_r=0

Sunday, July 23, 2017

HILDA CRANE (1956)

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

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

THE WORLD OF SUSIE WONG (1960)

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR . . . (1950)

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

THESE THOUSAND HILLS (1959)

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

VIDEODROME (1983)

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

TOU ZE / A SIMPLE LIFE (2011)

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

SWEETHEARTS (1938)

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

TILL THE END OF TIME (1946)

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

A HANDFUL OF DUST (1988)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THESE WILDER YEARS (1956)

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

THE UNSUSPECTED (1947)

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

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MOROCCO (1930)

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

THE LINEUP (1958)

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

THE FOUNDER (2016)

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

THE IRON CURTAIN (1948)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

PRINCE OF PLAYERS (1955)

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

BAMBI (1942)

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

THE NICE GUYS (2016)

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

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

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

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

PARIS (2008)

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

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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

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

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

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