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Thursday, August 31, 2017

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)

Fred Zinnemann’s perfectly pitched bio-pic, from Robert Bolt’s hagiographic play on Sir Thomas More standing on religious principle against Henry VIII, is just the sort of Oscar®-bait, award-sweeping, middlebrow Film-of-Quality (to use the old Cahiers du Cinéma pejorative) guaranteed to drive any self-respecting genre-oriented auteurist critic/academic to distraction . . . and blind them to it’s very real value. It was certainly no sure thing when Zinnemann signed on. Coming off an intriguing flop (BEHOLD A PALE HORSE/’64) and a couple of canceled projects, given a bare-bones 2 mill budget on a talky Tudor-era play, he then insisted on a cast with zero box-office appeal (mostly unknowns, newbies & theater stars). The film came in without an ounce of fat on it, all the better (and more handsome) for its simplicity. (Example: that marvelous Hampton Court exterior? A couple of painted flats from production designer John Box at £5000.) Yet, Zinnemann claimed the quality of cast & crew made this his easiest shoot ever. And if Paul Scofield occasionally betrays his long stage run as Sir Thomas, he’s more or less untouchable in the part. Has there ever been an actor with such control of dynamics? The tone he gets after wife Wendy Hiller tells him how she hates him for his unwavering moral stance, and he replies, ‘But you mustn’t,’ is simply unforgettable. Or Robert Shaw’s terrifying high moods as Henry; Orson Welles showing the power of color coordination as a red-robed Cardinal Wolsey in a barely furnished red room. (Where did they dig up Vincente Minnelli’s signature tint?) Above-and-beyond contributions from cinematographer Ted Moore, with a sprinkling of Hans Holbein as needed, and Georges Delerue’s propulsive score, a major player right from the credits. And if Bolt’s play never was quite as fine as once thought, too much the schoolboy crush on a flawless teacher (A MAN FOR ALL SEMESTERS?), it’s now easily balanced via Hilary Mantel’s stunning retell in WOLF HALL where this film’s villain, Thomas Cromwell, gets his fascinating and not unsympathetic due.* Even here, with Leo McKern playing the part, such a sly villainous touch, you sense Bolt knew things he left out.*

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Bolt also left out an ‘everyman’ character from the play, a foil, part guide, part questioner/ commentator who shows up in various guises. He was kept in a tv movie version w/ Charlton Heston & Vanessa Redgrave (briefly seen here in a cameo as Anne Boleyn).

READ ALL ABOUT IT/DOUBLE-BILL: *Mantel’s WOLF HALL covers the same part of Cromwell’s life under Henry VIII and goes pretty tough on More, convincingly so. Seen on PBS in three parts, it’s very somber, the book far more enjoyable.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

FRAULEIN (1958)

A blonde Dana Wynter (chilly & charmless, like a proto-‘Tippi’ Hedren) plays a German WWII survivor who finds a post-war friend in Mel Ferrer’s U.S. Army Major, once a POW escapee she reluctantly helped. Between these two meetings, she’s done what was necessary to get by: consorting with Theodore Bikel’s Russian occupying officer (much vodka tossed in potted plant); signing up for a brothel run by old friends (all unawares); working a dunk-tank at a naughty nightspot (she said she could swim); discovering her pre-war fiancé, now a one-armed shell of a man, no longer wants her (only the valuable ring he gave her). No wonder she’s such a drag. But as the plot requires everyone to take an immediate shine, the hangdog personalty, justified or not, keeps stopping things cold. With flat staging from Henry Koster (a charming director of light vehicles in the ‘30s, turned inert CinemaScope non-interventionist); Leo Tover’s equally flat lensing (studio mock-up Berlin for post–war devastation/backscreen projection for Rhine river sightseeing); and no chemistry between dour Wynter & gaunt Ferrer; the film would be a dead loss if not for Dolores Michaels as Dana’s soused & sassy piano playing pal. (Note the paperback cover which promises more than just a missing umlaut.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: James Edwards gets showcase treatment as a sympathetic black US Military officer who twice crosses paths with Wynter. A nice touch for the time, but unlikely since the army only began full integration in ‘48 while events here presumably occur in 1946 or ‘47.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Wynter in better form, try two years before with INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/’56 or two years after in SINK THE BISMARCK/’60. (She’s a brunette in both.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

THE PAINTED VEIL (1934)

Like the Somerset Maugham novel it’s based on, this striking Greta Garbo film can lay claim to being best of the second-tier. A modern redo (2006: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber) holds close to the book and is worth watching, but this glamorized telling, even with its deracinated ending, comes across strongly, a sort of 1934 Vanity Fair graphic layout revising favored Maugham themes. Underrated director Richard Boleslawski throws down the gauntlet from his opening shot, upending the languid early sound treatment Garbo was used to, replacing heavy-lidded romance with a quick, contemporary tempo. In a rush from her sister’s inapt marriage to her own ill-chosen groom (Herbert Marshall, also given electric jolts), Garbo leaves the comforts of home for Far East colonial society and an all but open affair with married George Brent. Always at his best away from Warners, his home studio, Brent gets a similar energy boost introducing Garbo to the suggestive delights of Hong Kong, a never-ending smile proffering more than bedside manners. Cuckolded, Marshall, in a rare passionate explosion, orders a choice: divorce or accompaniment on his work to an isolated cholera epidemic far from the city. Boleslawski handles this mostly with indirection & suggestion, while the men surpass themselves in swinish displays of wronged passion before blows of fate change perceptions. Physically, the film is staggeringly well shot by William Daniels, with a variety of multi-plane veiled & framed effects, marvelously seen in a fine DVD transfer. So too Garbo, rarely as goddess-like as she charms by struggling with a different approach. She must have found it all unusually exciting. Very much of its period, so you need to apply early ‘30s ground rules, but not to be missed.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Daniels & Boleslawski are very careful framing Garbo’s close-ups, often shared with someone on the far right side of the frame, slightly cropped, while Garbo's face is shown whole, a little lower, a bit on the left. But then, it’s hard to fault any shot in the pic, massed riots & oriental theatrical dance specialties included.

DOUBLE-BILL: For the best of Garbo’s second-tier silent pics, try Fred Niblo’s deliciously sinful THE TEMPTRESS/’26.

Monday, August 28, 2017

THE SPANISH MAIN (1945)

There’s little swash and even less buckle in this seafarin’ saga of an unjustly imprisoned shipwrecked captain who escapes to become an infamous pirate set on revenge against the villainous viceroy who locked him up. And if that plot sounds like CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35 (first in the Flynn/de Havilland/ Curtiz/Korngold series), it’s likely no coincidence. If only they’d also stolen some of the derring-do, sentiment & technique that made the Warners pics so smart & memorable. (Unexpectedly emotional, too.) Paul Henreid’s not a bad idea as a merry, heroic buccaneer (though he hasn’t the chest for it), and neither is Walter Slezak as a dastardly villain (sucking the life out of various tropical fruits), but director Frank Borzage, a specialist in romantic fatalism back to the silent era, is working well out of his fach, unable to engage his cast or put much brio into things. It all feels flat: staging, fights, special effects, miniatures, musical score. And while it’s fun to see how different studios handled familiar technical challenges (the ships & background cycloramas more toy-like @ RKO then at 20th/Fox or Warners), and its TechniColor print ravishingly well-preserved (often the case with less popular titles), only Maureen O’Hara as the bartered bride & John Emery as a turncoat pirate know how to play this particular game.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, stick to CAPTAIN BLOOD, freer/less codified than later/smoother Flynn vehicles (and all the better for it). OR: for Maureen O’Hara in one of these things, there’s the reasonably swashbuckling THE BLACK SWAN/’42 with Tyrone Power.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE BRIBE (1949)

Baroque film noir from M-G-M (of all places) sends undercover fed-agent Robert Taylor down Central America way to stop an airplane-engine smuggling outfit. And what a load of colorful, compromised characters are around to investigate! John Hodiak, ex-service flyboy with a bum ticker; his gorgeous wife Ava Gardner, nightclub chanteuse in a bum marriage; fat man Charles Laughton, shady facilitator with a bum foot; import/export smoothie with bum credentials Vincent Price; along with play-along locals and . . . bums. Taylor spends his time trailing people on land (in the shadows) and at sea (on a fishing boat), unable to decide between old-school Clark Gable raffish charm or new-school don’t-give-a-damn Robert Mitchum cool.* Laughton’s got the Sydney Greenstreet spot, but brings so much additional color & character to it, he steals the film as nimbly as he switches sides. Or would, if Gardner weren’t quite so devastatingly gorgeous. And if the film is often lackluster when it means to be atmospheric, the mood certainly perks up for a smash finale (a shoot-out chase in the midst of some local Carnavale, with literal fireworks used for violent punctuation). Apparently, Vincente Minnelli stepped in to helm this set piece for dull, diligent vet Robert Z. Leonard.* Likely a first collaboration for Minnelli & lenser Joseph Ruttenberg, who even manages to put up a semblance of glitter & suspense in the Leonard material.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Assuming it is Minnelli’s, this Carnavale climax is like a sketch for the powerhouse SOME CAME RUNNING/’58 fairground finale.

DOUBLE-BILL: See Bob Mitchum have a whack at this sort of thing in HIS KIND OF WOMAN/’51, with Vincent Price in uproarious, likeable form.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

ORANGES AND SUNSHINE (2010)

Another child displacement horror tale from the U.K.*, told decades after the fact, involving the forced removal of kids from ‘unacceptable’ (read single-parent) homes. Warehoused at government or church-affiliated dormitories, the children (age 4 to late teens) were told the lie that Mom was either not coming back or dead. Then, by boatload, shipped to Australia where Christian Brotherhood orphanages took them in. There, far from prying eyes, they found meager amenities (clothes, food, education), rough physical labor (building roads, their own dorms, ornate monasteries), along with occasional corporal punishment or molestation by ‘caring’ cassocked clerks. Our story, beginning decades later, finds Emma Watson, very effective as the British social worker who stumbles on the story, at first not believing, then expecting a handful of cases to follow only to be overwhelmed by thousands looking for lost family connections. Structurally, it makes for a problem never quite solved since nothing in the film matches some early scenes with gathering lines of now grown men & women waiting patiently to give information they hope may unlock lost pasts. (Or can’t match until the very end when Watson’s single-minded devotion to her work over her family is made clear in devastatingly concise fashion by her young son at a Christmas party.) Director Jim Loach (son of Ken) is careful not to push too hard on sentiment or tear ducts, staying away from easy victimhood (the migrants are a tough lot in spite of still exposed psychological wounds), but neither does he show much feel for dramatic composition; simple storytelling that goes a bit flat when it wants to speak plainly. Mostly though, it does speak anyway.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *You have to wonder how much the British idea, at least among the high, mighty & elected, of keeping their youngest out of sight at boarding school fits into policy rationales.

DOUBLE-BILL: A similar horror in Ireland is brought out in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS/’02. OR: High-minded self-righteous Ladies Society types grabbing children from poor but decent homes goes all the way back to D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16 where a short glass of beer is enough to speak against Mae Marsh. (Later reedited into a stand-alone feature as THE MOTHER AND THE LAW/’19.)

Friday, August 25, 2017

BACHELOR MOTHER (1939)

It's a set-up for one of those Hollywood farces that keep things going by force-feeding a simple misunderstanding with dumbed-down laughs, but this time done right. Sharp & consistently funny, with a sweet payoff that’s earned rather than stuffed into place. Ginger Rogers, in peak form, is the laid-off Christmas employee who spots a foundling outside an orphanage, then can’t convince anyone she’s not the mother. David Niven, super in his first above-the-title lead, is the department store scion who lets her stay on at work if she’ll keep ‘her’ baby. And Charles Coburn is Niven’s store-owning father, thrilled to have a grandchild . . . no matter the circumstances. (In a surprising subversive touch, the question of illegitimacy hardly causes a reactionary ripple. Nice.) Everything really comes together on this one, with Felix Jackson’s story getting most of the credit (even an Oscar® nom.), but probably more due to Norman Krasna’s beautifully structured, often very funny script, and Garson Kanin’s streamlined direction, done in a neat eighty minutes.* A semi-forgotten treat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *Before his war service, Kanin directed seven good-to-excellent pics from ‘38 to ‘41. His last, also with Rogers, TOM, DICK AND HARRY/’41, is exceptional; a prime candidate for musical remake. But while he continued to write for film, he pretty much gave up helming them. (Though not on B’way with 20+ directing credits.) Why he stopped is something of a mystery. Was it an anti-L.A. thing? Something involving wife/actress/writing partner Ruth Gordon? Or was he just happy to let their regular Hollywood director George Cukor deal with the film biz aggravation?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *The script works in a couple of dance segments for Ginger who stays completely in character out on the parkay. Delightfully so!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

THE BADLANDERS (1958)

More verbally than visually oriented, writer/director Delmer Daves had recently shown some unexpected filmmaking flair, and a particular talent for slow-fuse suspense, in 3:10 TO YUMA/’57. (A gift hinted at as early as THE RED HOUSE/’47.) So, no surprise that the best thing in this mid-sized Western comes in a deliberately-paced suspense sequence for Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine & Nehemiah Persoff (playing Mexican of all things) secretly working a ‘retired’ mine shaft under the noses of a working shift at an active gold mine. If only the rest of the film worked half as well. Ladd & Borgnine are a couple of framed cons, fresh out of prison and forced to partner up, along with explosion expert Persoff, on a time-sensitive gold ore grab. Katy Jurado shows up as a local tart Borgnine falls for, she corrals Mexican locals in a Cinco de Mayo battle royale finale, but this flourish is as underdeveloped as the rest of the film. As if the budget got clipped halfway in with various plot tangents left unexplored. (Not even enough cash for a fresh film score.) Not bad, but easily could have been better.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Cinematographer John Seitz, who shot for Rex Ingram (FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE/’21; SCARAMOUCHE/’23) and redefined film technique for Preston Sturges & Billy Wilder in the ‘40s, made his last six studio pics carefully lighting a rapidly aging Alan Ladd. The DVD’s darkened film source does him few favors, but Ladd was presumably happy with the results.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

MY FOOLISH HEART (1949)

WWII was a gift for unwed mothers in Hollywood pics since even ‘good girls’ ‘gave it up’ for the duration, ennobled, not ‘ignobled,’ by the gesture. And if the putative papa died while still in service, before ‘making things right,’ audiences, if not home towns, were inclined to be sympathetic. That’s the deal in this effective weepy from the fabulous Epstein twins, Julius & Philip, a romanticized declension from J. D. Salinger’s famous ‘Uncle Wiggly’ short story. (His sole Hollywood sale, and one he much regretted.) In a flashback from her miserable cover-up marriage to nice-guy Kent Smith, Susan Hayward relives her pre-war passion to flyboy Dana Andrews, the two stars generating considerable heat in some unusually racy rites of flirtation. Particularly rapturous under Lee Garmes darkened lensing, with helmer Mark Robson showing far more imagination than in later, larger pics. (A conversation seen but not heard from Hayward’s parents on a train. A love letter caught on a gust of wind. Lots more like this.) As Hayward’s college roomie/BFF, Lois Wheeler misses a chance to make a mark in a rare feature gig (producer Samuel Goldwyn failing yet again at female star grooming), but Robert Keith has a stellar turn as Hayward’s tender, worried & worrisome dad. Victor Young also came thru with an Oscar® nom’d ‘Pop’ title tune which he then plugs without mercy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: While Hayward got Oscar nom’d for almost having an out-of-wedlock child (switching saddles midstream, so to speak), Olivia de Havilland won the prize by giving hers up in TO EACH HIS OWN/’47, a fine example of the form. Modern mores have certainly laid waste to these old Hollywood tropes.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955)

Decent enough remake of HIGH SIERRA/’41 (Humphrey Bogart’s pre-MALTESE FALCON breakout) sees W. R. Burnett revising his own script but missing the earlier film’s drive & mythic elements. Everything’s more-or-less in place, with lenser Ted McCord, fresh off some extraordinary work on EAST OF EDEN, taking advantage of WarnerColor & CinemaScope (check out that Tropica Springs Hotel, inside & out), but too much just drifts along under Stuart Heisler’s non-interventionist WideScreen staging. Jack Palance, fine in Bogie’s spot, is the ex-con hired to rob a resort, with truculent Lee Marvin, whiny Earl Holliman & clingy Shelley Winters (defeated by bad hair) helping out. What could go wrong? A subplot held over from the earlier film with Palance wistfully helping a handicapped girl, remains sticky as ever. Wasn’t there a better way to show the guy’s softer side? Those who know HIGH SIERRA will get the most out of this one, spotting changing standards in film production, with its refashioned look the most striking element. Plus, surprise appearances from Dennis Hopper, Richard Davalos & Nick Adams.*

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *In addition to those hellos, its a feature film farewell to character actor Bill Kennedy. He’s the sheriff toward the end with Clark Gable’s moustache. The following year he’d begin a near 30-yr run hosting old Hollywood films on Detroit tv. Offering hilariously inaccurate answers to phone-in viewers.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, HIGH SIERRA; watch it first.

Monday, August 21, 2017

THE FORTUNE (1975)

For someone whose rep was being the smartest guy in the room, Mike Nichols made more than his fair share of irredeemable stinkers. Never more so than in the pair of losers that ended his Hollywood honeymoon: DAY OF THE DOLPHIN/’73 (a talking porpoise political thriller), followed by this laugh-free period farce.* And how to explain Jack Nicholson & Warren Beatty signing on, lamentably cute as a couple of dim-witted conmen out to fleece Stockard Channing from her inheritance. The gimmick is that loverboy Warren’s not quite divorced, so gets Jack to step up to the altar so they can legally travel to California (the Mann Act, don’tcha know) and cash in. Theoretical hilarity ensues when Jack & Stockard cuckold Warren even though (wait for it) they’re the married couple! Then they bungle the murder. Bad as this all is, and under Nichols’ heaviest hand it’s very bad indeed, the boys do have a certain Mutt & Jeff physical aspect that carries a scene or two along. (Beatty, unexpectedly tall, can’t keep his head in the PanaVision frame.) Poor Stockard Channing has no such luck, perpetually irritating, with those chipmunk cheeks that more-or-less doomed her film career from the start. She might be leading the touring cast of something Barbara Harris or young Liza Minnelli was starring in on B’way. DESIGN FOR LIVING FOR DUMMIES?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *To his credit, Nichols knew things had gone south and didn’t attempt another feature for nearly a decade.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Liza Minnelli fell off her own career cliff in the other one gal/two dumb conmen flop of '75, LUCKY LADY. Clear the air with Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING/’33.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

LE CHIAVI DI CASA / THE KEYS TO THE HOUSE (2004)

Pretty wonderful. Italian writer/director Gianni Amelio, now in his 70s, hasn’t received the Stateside distribution & attention he’s deserved. At least, the two that have made the rounds (OPEN DOORS/’90; LAMERICA/’94) show him at or near his best. So too this deceptively simple father/son bonding story that works a double twist with Dad (Kim Rossi Stuart) just meeting the 15-yr-old he abandoned at birth when the mother died. (He’s now established a stable lifestyle with regular employment, new wife, new child.) Trickier still, the teenage stranger who’s his son is both mentally & physically handicapped. Shying from sticky sentimentality, Amelio holds to near cinema verité techniques and even more strikingly, pares expected story beats & exposition/explanations down to a third of what you’d normally get, giving the film a restraint to counter the built-in emotional arc. (Plenty of tears all the same.) Andrea Rossi, the real handicapped teen, is an irreplaceable asset as the boy going thru hospital procedures in Berlin, wandering off on his own and generally testing this ‘new’ father. It meshes strongly against Stuart’s rather ‘dry,’ slightly stiff style, growing in confidence even as he is overwhelmed by feelings of responsibility, mixed with guilt, love, embarrassment & inadequacy. And there’s an elegant turn from Charlotte Rampling, a fellow parent whose experience (and language skills) both rescue & challenge.

DOUBLE-BILL: Amelio’s LAMERICA is getting tough to find, but is worth the effort. More timely than ever in the new EU political climate.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

BORN TO KILL (1947)

Hard-as-nails film noir finds quickie divorcée Claire Trevor (unusually glam) skipping out of Reno in spite of discovering a double-murder at her B&B. Reporting it would inconvenience her upcoming loveless marriage into San Fran society. But excitement (and danger) follows on the train back when she’s picked up by tough guy Lawrence Tierney whom we know as the hot-tempered psycho thug who killed that Reno couple. Trevor, as yet unaware, figures to play this studly wild card on the side while keeping up her staid engagement, but then is unable to stop her rich foster sister from marrying the guy. Worse, Tierney’s slightly more levelheaded partner in crime (Elisha Cook Jr, natch) shows up, trailed by Walter Slezak’s private dick who’s closing in, but willing to be bribed . . . by just about anyone. Some of this grows too thickly far-fetched for viewing comfort, but helmer Robert Wise (smoothly rising @ RKO into B+ pics) elides many of the more risible story bumps while working extremes he'd rarely try again, and letting lenser Robert De Grasse indulge his visually black-hearted inner soul. It’s all ridiculously entertaining with Trevor giving a masterclass in sexually self-destructive rationalization.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Blunt & brusque, Tierney’s romantic bruiser of a screen presence really pushed the envelope for Hollywood leading men. This film shows the peculiar macho anti-charm with a clear-eyed insight that kept his career at or near perpetual implosion, just the thing that caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye when casting RESERVOIR DOGS/’92.

Friday, August 18, 2017

THE BLOT (1921)

In their ongoing archive restorations, Universal recently pieced together the last major work of pioneering writer/ director/producer Lois Weber. Starring popular Billie Dove, SENSATION SEEKERS/’27 is something of a throwback to Weber’s earlier work, taking a stand on social issues of the day: booze, sex & Wild Youth of the Roaring ‘20s vs. Homely Christian values; ending with melodrama at sea in a big stormy rescue.* Perhaps a bit out of step for 1927, but Weber’s technical command is never in doubt. Yet she’d barely found work since this 1921 film, one of the last for her own production company. (And would barely find work after.) Perhaps the emphasis on social ills rather than plot, romance or action stopped resonating with John & Jane Q. Public post-WWI. The subject does sound dreary: genteel poverty among the clergy & teachers as reflected thru three suitors vying for the hand of lovely Claire Windsor, a poor professor’s daughter. Young Louis Calhern is the rich boy who finds the family too proud to accept his help; and rivals include a cash-strapped minister and a sweet neighbor boy from a large immigrant family cleaning up in the shoe trade. (This young actor is a natural, but who is he?) Weber edits & composes her shots in highly advanced manner for the period (the Thames Silents transfer on IMAGE is excellent) and the acting is, for the most part, pleasingly naturalistic. What’s missing is the risk-taking, scandal-courting excitement of earlier Weber topic films like her abortion-as-contraception among the rich in WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN/’16. Yikes! By comparison, watching your worn-out mother almost steal a chicken from the neighbors just doesn’t cut it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Unlike a contemporary female director, say Kathryn Bigelow, who works hard (too hard) to make you forget/not notice that a woman is (literally) calling the shots, Weber wants you to notice the woman’s P.O.V. in her work.

DOUBLE-BILL: *A subfusc SENSATION SEEKERS disk is currently available, but hopefully the new restoration will soon show.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

EDWARD, MY SON (1949)

Unsatisfying, but intriguing, Robert Morley’s second-drawer prestige play (a hit in London & on B’way) has aged in happy & unhappy ways. Losing the satiric edge of Morley’s distinctive acting style as leading man in its transfer from stage to screen, the infernal rise of Spencer Tracy, now in the role of corrupt capitalist, from bankrupt insurance fraud to knighted publisher/entrepreneur, can’t quite support itself as serious drama, yet keeps you involved wondering just how low this man will go. Edward, the son in question, is never seen (the play’s big gimmick), yet drives the action via Tracy’s law-skirting ambition, threats of blackmail & financial double-dealing, all done to enable the boy’s path to success. A horror story of scale-tipping entitlement that sees wife Deborah Kerr sink into middle-age alcoholism, run over, like everyone else (business partners, teachers, mistress, personal physician) to gain the bratty scapegrace advantage by any means. A disappointment on release, other than Kerr’s Oscar® nom’d perf, which now looks rather overcooked. (On stage, Peggy Ashcroft, a decade & a half older, and off the screen from ‘41 to ‘59, must have been perfect.) While Tracy, who was panned at the time, now looks caustically honest as a monster of self-justifying ethical lapses. There’s still a shock to his work, if none of the sly wit Morley presumably brought.* You get a taste of how it all might have come together in a long scene between Tracy and mistress Leueen MacGrath (a holdover, along with Ian Hunter, from the stage cast). Discovering a private dick outside her apartment, the couple turn tables on the guy and invite him in. A very neat, and neatly played scene. (Straight from the play?) More like this and the film might be more than an intriguing miss.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Tracy played just this sort of amoral success in the famous, if overrated, THE POWER AND GLORY/’33, an early, rather pretentious script from the young Preston Sturges, stolidly directed by the talented, if uneven, William K. Howard. OR: You can almost certainly get an idea of Morley in the lead watching him play G. B. Shaw’s military industrialist Undershaft in MAJOR BARBARA/‘41.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

LE NOTTI DI CABIRIA / NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957)

Federico Fellini all but dissolved his engagement with traditional narrative cinema after this masterpiece, an episodic tale of a Rome-based prostitute whose hopes for love are dashed again and again . . . and again. Can’t quit the life; can’t quit hoping. It’s a character Fellini worked up for his actress/wife Giulietta Masina in her first film (WITHOUT PITY/’48/Alberto Lattuada*), now brought center. Touching, hilarious, heartbreaking, often at one & the same time, with Fellini showing complete command of all the cinematic arts without calling undue attention to himself. He just makes it look easy. Perhaps it was for him. The off-hand, naturalness of the multiplane staging, like those early scenes of prosties & ’protectors,’ or the delicious set-ups when Cabiria finds herself convenient, if unlikely, sidekick to a big celebrity. Big laughs on camera angles. (Cinematography by Aldo Tonti.) And, of course, there’s Nino Rota’s memorably addictive score. Did Fellini miss seeing the art in his own artlessness? There’d be more great moments than great films in his future, though at first (in LA DOLCE VITA and 8½) he seemed to get away with it. But the loss was considerable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Often compared to Chaplin, Masina’s life-goes-on ending feels very close to THE CIRCUS/’28, she even sports the painted tear of a clown. Less noticed is Fellini’s connection in the film’s penultimate sequence (lakeside; sunset; silhouette; murderous thoughts) to Murnau’s SUNRISE/’27.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, SENZA PIETÁ / WITHOUT PITY. OR: While the B’way adaptation of CABIRIA into SWEET CHARITY/’69 was a disaster on film for director Bob Fosse and star Shirley MacLaine, you can just make out what a great stage show it was.

Monday, August 14, 2017

YOURS, MINE AND OURS (1968)

Sturdy & family-friendly, just the sort of old-school Hollywood product the studios were forgetting how to make at the time. And a surprise top-ten hit that holds up better than many a ‘with-it’ title of the day. As filmmaking, it’s frankly shoddy, with lazy gags, miserable tech standards and corny fourth-wall breakage that can’t hide Melville Shavelson’s thuddingly mechanical directing choices. It also ends, bizarrely for 1968, celebrating a draft notice to Vietnam. Lesson?: Never underestimate the power of a can’t-miss storyline! Henry Fonda: widowed navy man with 10 kids; Lucille Ball: widowed navy wife with eight. Mix ‘em all together and what’ve you got?; a sit-com situation that plays with real dramatic believability and affection, thanks to solid construction and a lot of good casting. Naturally of the kids, eighteen of ‘em! (with many future careers to spot), but mostly because of Fonda’s grounded work, unforced & sensible; and Ball’s technical mastery of even the most obvious physical shtick, her personal warmth & matchless audience connectibility. They also look great for their ages (63; 57), with a visible sexual chemistry bubbling away. (Though even the biblical Ruth might blanch to find Lucy expecting.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While male stars like James Garner & Jackie Gleason moved back & forth between tv & film, were there any female tv stars beside Lucille Ball in the '50s & '60s who sustained decent feature film careers alongside series work? (She also managed to grab the B’way musical WILDCAT on the way.)

DOUBLE-BILL: From a quarter century back, watch Ball’s tough cookie walk all over Fonda’s naïf in the odd, downbeat Damon Runyon tale THE BIG STREET/’42.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

EL ESPINAZO DEL DIABLO / THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)

Arriving when Guillermo del Toro was better known by Horror genre cognoscenti then by mainstream filmgoers (at least Stateside), this stunning work (certainly his best considered if not his flat-out best) remains frustratingly underseen. Something of a companion piece to the later, better known, PAN’S LABYRINTH/’06, it brings Gothic sensibilities to a story of war orphans as pawns to personal & political treachery during the Spanish Civil War, played with a cruelty Goya would have recognized along with a meta-physics angle (near tactile ghosts) that shouldn’t fit in, but does. At once epic & intimate, the film has the flavor of a folktale told in a style half Sergio Leone/half Taviani Bros. as a young teen is forcibly ‘parked’ at an isolated boys’ orphanage. Traditional hazing tropes from other boys follow, then bleed into even deadlier situations as Civil War closes in. While in the background, a cache of hidden gold, meant for the Republicans, is sought by a ruthless former orphan, now grown into wicked handsomeness and seducing his way toward his goal. Scary and sorrowful, del Toro’s hold on the material is complete, with a superb cast (the lead boy very fine, with eyes that have seen too much) and a trim budget imposing less-is-more visual discipline atypical of del Toro.* Unforgettable stuff, tough, heartbreaking, ummissable.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Like Tim Burton, del Toro’s latter films might be twice as good with half the budget. Including this film’s follow up, PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951)

Gray-listed star John Garfield and soon-to-be blacklisted ‘Hollywood Ten’ director John Berry pulled an impressive line-up of top tech talent in for this modestly budgeted indie. James Wong Howe, Harry Horner, Franz Waxman (cinematography, design, score), none of them phoning it in. (Waxman’s music is cousin to his SUNSET BLVD of the same year and Wong enjoys a lack of studio oversight/control with some extreme lens choices.) If only the script were equal to the execution. It certainly starts well as a botched payroll robbery leaves a cop & Garfield’s partner dead. Now on the run, Garfield hides at a public swimming pool where he (literally) picks up Shelley Winters under the guise of an impromptu swimming lesson. But the film has trouble figuring out just what Winters sees in Garfield’s hot-and-cold act and childish tantrums. Then, once he gets her home & takes her family hostage, a need for dramatic & logistical constriction defeat Berry’s limited technique. It runs out of steam just when it needs to build tension. There’s a nifty squaring-of-the-circle ending, and the short running time helps, but it’s minor stuff.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Garfield looks fine, but he was a sick man under a lot of pressure, dying of a heart attack the following year at 39.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With its man-on-the-run plot and shadowy look, RAN is usually tossed in the film noir bin, but it’s really closer to the French ‘poetic realism’ school, or rather, an American remake of same, as with LE JOUR SE LEVE/’39 becoming THE LONG NIGHT/’47.

Friday, August 11, 2017

THE RACK (1956)

After his breakthru on SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME/’56, Paul Newman returned for this decent (in both senses of the word) military courtroom drama that questions the limits of heroism against psychological torture. Well, sort of. Newman, a much decorated captain, is home, but facing Court Marshall for collaborating-with-the-enemy during two years as a P.O.W. Technically guilty, but with extenuating circumstances and explanations for his actions, the film is a carefully constructed obstacle course of personal issues (lost mom; kid brother dead in the war; emotionally unavailable/ regular-army dad) which wind up adding little to the court proceedings. But do add plenty of opportunities for overcooked speeches out of court, more than matching the parsed ethics in. The film derives from a Rod Serling teleplay and feels it, especially in the drab visuals from tv helmer Arnold Laven who might as well be auditioning for next year’s PERRY MASON start-up. (He didn’t get that, but did work with Raymond Burr on IRONSIDE.) It plays better than it sounds though, thanks to an excellent cast with Newman dropping his tortured countenance routine as the film goes on; and compelling, if rather theatrical, turns from Walter Pidgeon (Pops); Anne Francis (sister-in-law); Lee Marvin (unbowed P.O.W.); and especially Edmund O’Brien (bearishly pressing defense). Only Wendell Corey, as a sadder-but-wiser prosecutor misjudges his effects. Perhaps because he’s the sole repeater from the original broadcast and can’t find a fresh angle in Serling’s single-dimension dramatics.

DOUBLE-BILL: Remembered mostly for the 1954 film which ‘opens up’ the action, as a play, THE CAINE MUTINY is one-set courtroom drama till its somewhat specious divide-the-blame epilogue. Something it has in common with THE RACK.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THEY GAVE HIM A GUN (1937)

Ludicrous meller combines two well-trod storylines: War Pals returning home changed men (one for the worse); and Two Pals who love the same dame almost as much as they love each other (with the gal pal marrying the one she loves less). This shouldn’t have posed a problem for a big studio like M-G-M at the time, but the plotting & characterizations here are both seriously unhinged & utterly unconvincing. Spencer Tracy, in-between signature roles in SAN FRANCISCO/’36 and CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS/’37, gets the troublemaker/doughboy spot, doing the right thing if sometimes in the wrong way; Franchot Tone’s the sweet-natured small town guy who devolves from scared soldier-boy to sniper expert who enjoys the kill. Gladys George makes an unlikely WWI nurse/love interest (even at 37 she looks pretty used) who marries Tone when Tracy is mistakenly reported killed in action. Trying to make the best of things, she plays the good wife back in Chicago, doing needlepoint at home while Tone secretly makes hay as sniper supreme for the mob. Tracy bumps into his old pal; figures out the score; and pines for George who then informs on her hubby . . . to save him. That’s when things really go off the rails as Tone puts a hit on his wife; tries to go straight in jail but escapes to track down Tracy & George who sneak out of town using Tracy’s traveling circus as diversion. (?!?) Yet staying pure as the driven snow, natch. Director W. S. Van Dyke keeps a straight face by cramming the whole works into a tidy hour & a half and lenser Harold Rosson does make things shimmer. But with dense & despised M-G-M producer Harry Rapf in charge, no one bothered to tell him what a load of crap he was working on.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: With similar elements, including Gladys George in a better fitting role, Warners made the far superior ROARING TWENTIES/’39. And, as bonus, offering the chance to compare & contrast montage men Slavko Vorkapich (@ M-G-M) and Don Siegel (@ Warners). Vorkapich probably did the nifty titles for GUN, too.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

ENSIGN PULVER (1964)

Picking up the MISTER ROBERTS storyline a couple of months after the original film ended turns out not to be such a great idea. Unhappy with the first film, Joshua Logan, the play’s original director/co-author, had the reins right from the start this time, so has no one to blame but himself. It’s mostly more of the same: boredom, highjinks & a tyrannical captain on a WWII cargo ship, played in lumpy start-and-stop fashion. (Logan never did figure out film direction.) It’s as if he’d been rummaging thru first drafts of the playscript or sampling deleted scenes from the 1955 film. And when a new situation does show (Pulver & Captain fall overboard and deal with appendicitis), it’s a bad one. Missing the eponymous ‘Mister’ of the original, there’s no ballast for the support to play off of. (Comic handball without a back wall.) But good for talent-spotting with a host of up-and-comers on the deck: Jack Nicholson & Dick Gautier; Peter Marshall & James Coco; Larry Hagman & Al Freeman; many more, all working too hard for meager laughs. But then, so too the three leads: Walter Matthau’s over-scaled ‘Doc,’ parsing his gags; Burl Ives, bloated & yelling as the captain; and Robert Walker Jr,, indicating to beat the band as Pulver, he might be playing to a sit-com laugh track. All told, we're nearer McHALE’S NAVY than MISTER ROBERTS.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original MISTER ROBERTS wasn’t the great film everyone hoped for, but it comes across. OR: Recreate the ship’s film night, retitled DR. JEKYLL MEETS FRANKENSTEIN it’s really clips from THE WALKING DEAD/’36, a Michael Curtiz/Boris Karloff horror programmer that looks mighty tasty. (Not seen here.)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

RULES DON'T APPLY (2016)

Greeted with indifference from a film-going ‘demo’ largely unaware of Howard Hughes or Warren Beatty, this long gestating vanity project for its writer/director/producer/star is less a MISS than a WHY. Sadly so, since the final product (in spite of feeling as if it were still being re-edited as you watch) has enough merit to win contact; charming & funny, if more often melancholy, as Beatty mourns the lost Hollywood of his youth. (The timeline starts in 1959 when Beatty was in tv’s DOBIE GILLIS.) The basic idea, presumably in Bo Goldman’s original treatment (keep in mind Goldman hasn’t had an official film credit in two decades), seems to have been a sort of passing of the torch story with Beatty as the increasingly eccentric billionaire with too much on his plate, including moribund studio RKO, functioning as serendipitous matchmaker to a couple of Christian kids come to tinseltown to make good: Lily Collins, dreadful, with Liz Taylor eyebrows; Alden Ehrenreich, a James Dean brooder but with an easy charm. The blueprint? Likely George Stevens’ THE MORE THE MERRIER/’43. (Stevens’ career ended on the flop Beatty/Taylor ONLY GAME IN TOWN/’70. Also, MERRIER got remade by Beatty idol Cary Grant in his last film, WALK DON’T RUN/’66.) But something must have changed in development as the film took on more of Hughes’ rapid decline from eccentricity & paranoia to madness/dementia. And with Beatty, who’s pushing 80, as the fifty-something Hughes, the dye-job and darkened rooms make his skittish wooing of Collins extra uncomfortable. It may also explain the misuse of Mahler's Sym. #5: ‘Adagietto’ as her ‘theme’ music. And boy!, does he ever lay it on. Even more than Luchino Visconti did when he plugged it into his film of Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE/’71. All is revealed at the end, with Beatty exposed sans beauty regiment, looking grim and out-of-it. We’ve been watching DEATH IN HOLLYWOOD and haven’t known it. Along the way, an embarrassment of talent working at indecently small roles; except for Matthew Broderick who's not at all wasted in a gem of a perf. And if Beatty the actor is his usual uneven self, he does have a sublime moment singing a la Al Jolson. Too bad, seeing him briefly throw caution to the winds has the effect of highlighting all the wasted years.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Cinematographer/director Caleb Deschanel gets some great ‘60s flavor when he’s not hiding Beatty in shadows. But nothing competes with the period shots of LA. & Vegas back in the day. (Color by Deluxe®?) One marquee near Grauman’s Chinese advertises THE KING & I/’56 which is off by three years.

DOUBLE-BILL: For real Howard Hughes insight: Max Ophüls’ CAUGHT/’49; Jonathan Demme’s MELVIN AND HOWARD/’80.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

SHOOT-OUT AT MEDICINE BEND (1957)

With Randolph Scott in the middle of his 7-pic run of Budd Boetticher chamber Westerns* and James Garner gaining a following from tv’s MAVERICK, Warner Bros. finally released this little b&w Oater after a couple of years on the shelf. (Was it Garner’s first gig?) It’s an odd duck, if not in a bad way (shot on the cheap by Richard Dare who worked theatrical ‘shorts’ before he moved into series tv), with a largely comic tone except for serious bookends. Fresh out of the army, and still in uniform, Scott, Garner & comic relief guy Gordon Jones show up too late to stop an Indian raid on a farm community where the real culprit aren’t the ‘savages,’ but the dud ammo bought from a cartel of cons who’ve taken over just about everything in the town of Medicine Bend: sheriff, mayor, saloon & shops on Main Street. Seeking redress, our boys are robbed blind on their way into town, and the buck naked trio are lucky to get new clothes from a religious sect heading West. Once in Medicine Bend, the threesome nose around using ‘thee’ & ‘thou’ as a pious disguise to scope out the situation before taking action. Sounds plenty hokey, but it plays pretty well if you don’t mind the near complete lack of outdoor action. (Except for the bookends, this might just be the most indoor Western you’ll see next to Quentin Tarantino’s HATEFUL EIGHT.) Bonus points for a young Angie Dickinson, waiting behind a shop counter to pair up with Scott even if she obviously belongs with Garner, already showing his considerable charm.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: A final fight between Scott and baddie James Craig is nicely staged in a darkened department store/ warehouse and ends when someone gets ‘sickled’ to death. Yikes!

DOUBLE-BILL: *It’s always a good time to plug the Boetticher/Scott Westerns (most written by Burt Kennedy) which starts with SEVEN MEN FROM NOW/’56 and continues thru COMANCHE STATION/’60. And worth noting that the non-Kennedy BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE/’58 isn’t too far off MEDICINE in plot or tone.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

THE ACCUSED (1949)

Perhaps Loretta Young thought she was playing a female Raskolnikov in a variant on CRIME & PUNISHMENT. How else to explain the pop-eyed aspect of guilt from her psych-101 college professor after covering up the murder of molesting student Douglas Dick? He’s quite the disturbing presence in class: supercilious, brilliant, self-entitled; was she asking for trouble on that ride home? It’s an idea not much pursued in what soon devolves in a neatly run, if odd, police procedural with Robert Cummings pivoting from student guardian to lovestruck lawyer (what a summation speech he’ll give!) and Wendell Corey’s homicide dick missing the obvious as second suitor. William Dieterle & Milton Krasner meg & lens with zesty facility (the Universal Vault DVD looks just great) while plenty of tasty supporting characters turn in standout perfs, especially Sam Jaffe as a taunting, slightly sadistic crime lab techie. If only Young didn’t play these characters (see THE STRANGER/’46 and CAUSE FOR ALARM/’51 for further examples) as if she were still adjusting to new power brakes in a car. Unaware that a little pressure goes a long, long way.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Spot that cool movie billboard advertising Macdonald Carey & Gail Russell in MURDER early in the pic, a make-believe film anyone would want to see.

Friday, August 4, 2017

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

With WWII winding down, supply ship officer Mister Roberts works every angle to get out of the cargo biz and into action at sea. That’s the simple idea behind the wildly successful play that broke all its creatives’ hearts in this film adaptation. Adding insult to injury, the damned thing became the year’s top-grossing narrative film. The behind-the-scenes-saga starts with co-author/ play director Joshua Logan up to helm with either Marlon Brando or William Holden starring; Logan having fallen out with original star Henry Fonda, still touring the play at 50 with a worshipful cast all aping his gallant perf. Enter producer Leland Hayward with director John Ford in hand, but only if Fonda took the lead. Except Ford & Fonda couldn’t agree on the tone (noble undertow or rough-and-tumble with sentiment); and Ford, on a terrible drunk, threw a punch at his star. So, with cast on eggshells, location shooting wrapped. Back to the mainland studio for interiors . . . and hospital for Ford & his gall bladder. Enter stiffening Hollywood vet Mervyn LeRoy to cover the rest of the shoot, bringing in all the visual allure of Golden Age television. (On the other hand, Winton Hoch’s location lensing is flat out gorgeous.) And now, we go full circle with Hayward ordering a major re-edit, and some re-shoots, from original stage director Joshua Logan. Yet, in spite of it all, the seams hardly show and the film works pretty damn well. Fonda at times gives off a rote feeling, trying to recreate iconic moments, but the other three leads are remarkably fresh. James Cagney, is more comic than sadistic captain, and a real tonic for a play probably too worked out for its own good. (It doesn’t seem to hold the boards anymore.*) Jack Lemmon, at his youngest, thinnest & freshest, is far less mannered than later; and old smoothy, William Powell, in his final screen appearance, seems unable to put a foot wrong or mistime a line. What an extraordinary technician that man was. So, if not one for the ages, it remains a handsome, effective, bittersweet service dramedy; deservedly popular.

DOUBLE-BILL: Similar troubles on the last mega-hit B’way-to-film transfer with author/director Garson Kanin kept off George Cukor/ Judy Holliday’s BORN YESTERDAY/’50 only to be called in for major post-production tweaking to ‘fix’ the ‘improvements.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *They tried MISTER ROBERTS as a LIVE play-on-television special in 1984, looking sadly dated with Robert Hayes (AIRPLANE/'80), Charles Durning, Howard Hesseman & Kevin Bacon in the Fonda, Cagney, Powell, Lemmon spots.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

THE MIAMI STORY (1954)

Credit low-ball producer Sam Katzman for lining up an actual U.S. Senator to do the intro on this Miami Mob programmer. And give him a bit more for the snappy opening reel as a couple of Cuban enforcers get off’d as they exit a plane in Miami. News that comes as balm to local gang boss Luther Adler sitting poolside at his club, ogling fresh dames and planning his next move. Snappy stuff from prolific megger Fred F. Sears (nearly 80 credits before croaking at 44). The guy knew how to line up a shot to look like a movie, not tv. (Awfully fond of low angles.) But sooner than you wish, the good guys make the scene and the film pretty much folds its tent. There's a sort of secret citizens’ committee who dig up ex-mob guy Barry Sullivan, living with his son under a new identity, and hire the former wiseguy to front a phony Cuban outfit to take down Adler & Co.    Sears drives a pacey storyline, but nothing in here makes much sense. Sullivan hangs with the mob, spies with tv cameras and throws a mighty punch as needed. (Camera setups showing the punches all missing by a mile.) And while he fails to flip Adler’s shady dame (Adele Jergens), he does manage to get in bed (in every way) with her sister Beverly Garland. And, when a climax is needed, the kid (remember him?) gets kidnapped. With halfway decent plotting, Sears could have done something here. As it is, not so much.

DOUBLE-BILL: Adler was still playing this mob guy, senior division, in ABSENCE OF MALICE/’81.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Columbia’s DVD is anamorphic and plays 1.85:1 though the film was shot Academy Ratio (1.37:1). A very tight trim, especially on top, but no deal-breaker.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

WODEHOUSE IN EXILE (2013)

Charming, funny, touchingly sad, this modest BBC movie (Tim Fywell direction/Nigel Williams script) follows comic writer P. G. Wodehouse as he stumbles thru WWII as if he were one of his own dense characters; more Bertie Wooster than Jeeves. Caught flatfooted at his home in France as the Nazi Occupation rolls in, he spends a year in internment camp, making the best of enemy alien status in default mode, writing witty essays on his prison experiences to amuse himself & his fellow detainees. But when he broadcasts similar whimsy to then neutral America, his amusements come across as insensitive, possibly treasonous; clueless sops to German 'decency.' The case against him was always a stretch, careless & naive is closer to the mark. But the serious damage to his reputation, especially in England, was real and largely irreparable. The whole thing works thanks to some remarkably sweet-tempered, sly, empathetic role playing by Tim Pigott-Smith as Wodehouse; well supported by Zoë Wanamaker as a wife whose eyes are fully open to his awful situation, and from Julian Rhind-Tutt as a sympathetic army advisor. With nice period feel on a limited budget. More modest pleasures like this, please.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: These days, Wodehouse is probably best known for JEEVES & WOOSTER/’90-‘93, the Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie series. Though Musical Comedy mavens should tip their hat toward one of the co-creators (from the ‘teens thru the ‘30s) who wrested the form away from European operetta.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

GOD'S POCKET (2014)

Painfully self-indulgent on all fronts. A still-born feature film debut, for MAD MEN regular John Slattery who co-scripts, co-produces (one of 20!) & megs a downbeat Peter Dexter novel, pushing its tone toward mordant Elmore Leonard vaudeville & violence as a murder cover-up implodes among small-stakes low-life thugs in the unwelcoming town of God’s Pocket thirty years back. Pulling in every favor from what must be a considerable Rolodex, Slattery does land an impressive sounding cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman (a physical wreck in one of his last roles), trying to raise cash for his step-son’s funeral and landing in financial quicksand. Mourning mom, Christina Hendricks, screwing alcoholic columnist Richard Jenkins hoping he’ll investigate. John Turturro & tough mom Joyce Van Patten, who split a refrigerated warehouse as meat & flower butchers, trying to raise enough cash to pay off their own mob debts as well as Hoffman’s to rapacious mortician Eddie Marsan. And that’s just the half of it. It’s one of those films where everyone’s a character, but first an actor; with Slattery encouraging bad instincts & overripe eccentricities until they all cancel each other out. Method Acting Workshop stuff that’s only missing peer applause & brutally honest critiques coming from the sidelines.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hoffman may have been in rotten shape, but could still deliver the goods as seen in his next/last film A MOST WANTED MAN/’14. OR: See him work this territory to better effect in Sidney Lumet’s last film BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD/’07. (See both below.)