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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)

It's the little Grande Dame Guinold that could. Worked up against all the odds by producer/director Robert Aldrich as a co-starring vehicle for Joan Crawford (whom he’d worked with before) and Bette Davis (whom he hadn’t), the film is often miscategorized as camp drag queen horror from a pair of decaying Golden Age Hollywood legends. But grouping this with the many other sadistic fright pics for faded old-timers that followed in its successful wake undercuts the authentic masochism of Crawford’s stoic playing (though she seems unaware of how Aldrich is using her polite/pathetic zigzags), to say nothing of the film’s true glory in the carefully calibrated delusion of Davis at work & play. ‘Gaslighting’ and torturing the wheelchair-bound older sister who topped her as a star when they moved from vaudeville to the movies, Davis is working on some other artistic plane of cackling bitchery; hysterical in every sense of the word. (She might have been hatched in Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.) The film could use a bit of trimming, and the real ‘30s movie clips meant to show Davis as also-ran and sis as a natural give, if anything, the opposite effect. (And what beautiful film grain & lighting in the old Davis pics.) But the film still gets its effects across; something few of the copycat thrillers delivered.

DOUBLE-BILL: Conceived as a Davis/Crawford follow up, HUSH . . . HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE/’64 got a break when Olivia de Havilland stepped in for the indisposed Crawford. An infinitely more subtle actress (not necessarily an improvement in these things), she works extremely well against Davis, and keeps the surprises from being telegraphed. It’s more of a dumb-fun thrill ride than BABY, with Agnes Moorehead’s housekeeper doing duty as resident gargoyle, and a real tape-worm of a title song.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

FOR ME AND MY GIRL (1942)

Judy Garland became a grown-up star and Gene Kelly made his star-making film debut in this vaudeville-era musical (larded with dramatic heavy-lifting) from producer Arthur Freed, just hitting his maturity @ M-G-M. Judy’s working the small town theatre circuit, grinding out a song-and-dance act with George Murphy to put her kid brother thru med school, when pushy up-and-comer Gene Kelly poaches her for better things. THEY instantly fall into a routine that taps her true potential; SHE instantly falls for the guy, knowing he’s a charming heel. After hits, misses & Gene’s roving eye, they finally get a call to play The Palace when WWI catches up to Gene with a draft notice, something he’d do anything to avoid. Busby Berkeley, directing in a relatively naturalistic mode (for him), can’t hide the berserk third-act plotting needed to soften Kelly’s abrasive character and give him a heroic act of redemption (there were 21 days of reshoots), but still gets a lot of emotion out of the big cast. In the end, the lumpy results were stupendously successful; deservedly so.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You can spot the exact moment Garland transitions from kid-to-adult star right in the middle of her singing ‘After You’ve Gone.’ Some of those 21 days of reshoots might well have gone toward the insert reaction shots used to point this up. Kelly, who’d been sitting out a dud contract with David O. Selznick, suddenly found himself prime casting for a role not so far removed from his B’way breakthrough in Rodgers & Hart’s groundbreaking PAL JOEY. All of which leaves poor, pleasant, heat-free George Murphy as the Ralph Bellamy of musical comedy leading men, always the third wheel. (That’s three SCREWY THOUGHTS for the price of one.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Instead of a second feature, check out the EXTRAS on the DVD. Judy’s debut in the TechniColor short LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBARA/’35 (loaded with Hollywood stars in rare color cameos - Buster Keaton; Andy Devine; Gilbert Roland; Ida Lupino); and the better known musical short EVERY SUNDAY/’36 with Garland scatting jazz against Deanna Durbin’s remarkably assured, warm-voiced coloratura. Note that the opposing styles aren’t used to show modern pop winning against classical snobbery. In fact, it’s Deanna who brings in the crowds. Exactly what she did when Universal scooped her up after this and stuck her in a series of films so popular they saved the studio from bankruptcy.

Friday, January 27, 2017

MISTER BUDDWING (1966)

Gimmicky amnesia tale has James Garner piecing his identity back together thru the kindness of (female) strangers. And everyone’s so gosh darn helpful! Are we really in big, ol’ impersonal NYC? (Truth be told, this was just as New York was starting its decline into urban blight, the ‘Fun City’ years, offering a fresh dramatic take all but ignored here.) A slatternly Angela Lansbury has the stranger in for coffee and even hands him a fiver on his way out. Jack Gilford chats him up at his kosher cafeteria then picks up the check. Katherine Ross, just leaving her college class, is the first of three women whom Garner (mis)recognizes as ‘Grace.’ She’s happy to hang out as director Delbert Mann jump-cuts in & out of incidents from Garner’s troubled past. Struggling actress Suzanne Pleshette and a swanky, soused Jean Simmons also go thru the same routine, unintentionally reactivating Garner’s memory. The dramatic trick is that each in turn also plays the role of the mysterious ‘Grace’ in the subliminal flashbacks. Dale Wasserman, who’d just written the B’way version of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, tries pathos, tries humor, tries suspense, but can’t get anything going. Farfetched is the best he can do. And Mann getting little charge out of the real NYC locations, attempts a bit of Nouvelle Vague stylistic action to liven things up. No go; the film’s a dud. And, after a decade of dully prestigious feature work, Mann largely returned to tv.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Gregory Peck, working off a cleverly structured Peter Stone script, had just done the amnesia shuffle to better effect in Edward Dmytryk’s MIRAGE/’65.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

CRASH (1996)

David Cronenberg gives ‘car porn’ a whole new meaning in this serious sick joke psychological chiller. Not to be confused with the award-bait pretentions of Paul Haggis’s CRASH of 2004, it has more in common with something like FIGHT CLUB/’99: secret society addicted to masochistic violence, but pan-sexual rather than onanistic. Equating sex & violence is common enough, but where others might use a car crash as sex metaphor or substitute, Cronenberg proffers it as foreplay to ‘the act.’ James Spader, whose filmmaker is introduced shooting a soft-core sex scene, is recovering from a serious car accident when he’s hit on by crash-junkie Elias Koteas. Turned on to an underground cult of the walking wounded, Spader joins in the hunt for the next thrill-crash and sexual-release. The film hits its peak recreating James Dean’s fatal wreck using mock-up vehicles for unprotected stunt collisions. But then goes from weird to merely voyeuristic in a front-seat ‘sexcapade’ for Spader & a brace-supported (yet wonderfully flexible) Rosanna Arquette. Spader is fine in an impossible role, his baby-doe look playing nicely against everyone else’s rough edges. Alas, Deborah Kara Unger as his wife, is a washout, working too hard at slinky-toned glamor; and Holly Hunter’s intriguing doctor goes missing just when we need her. But if Cronenberg is unable to pull off this life-is-just-a-bowl-of-social-ennui modernist fable, it’s still a one-of-a-kind freak show.

DOUBLE-BILL: Exceptionally shot by Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky, the look often recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s WEEKEND/’67, another car culture critique of modern society.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

DIE BRÜCKE / THE BRIDGE (1959)

Bernhard Wicki’s influential anti-war film, from a German POV, raises unusual levels of discomfort & moral complexity. With collapse imminent near the end of WWII in Europe, a small German town with the frontline approaching, sees its Nazi leaders fleeing and military units in retreat. Those who remain go about their empty routines, startled to see high school boys still excited to get their draft notices. Mustered thru a minimal training, seven of the classmates are assigned to defend a local bridge, a span they were still playing games on last week. But when their commanding officer goes missing, they never receive orders to abandon their post as the Americans approach and the bridge is targeted for defensive destruction by their superiors. Wicki refuses easy character defense, none of the ‘Good Nazi’ traits so typical of the period. In some ways, the boys are the last true-believers, though only one a real fanatic, shining examples of a lifetime’s propaganda, inertia, incurious stupidity & meaningless sacrifice. Wicki isn’t unsympathetic to their tragedy, but he also doesn’t let them off the hook. Scary stuff, technically immaculate, with no way out for youths or spectators. Wicki had a hard-knocks directing career after this, but the German New Wave probably doesn’t happen without him.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *Officially beginning with YOUNG TORLESS/'66 from Volker Schlöndorff who does a graceful intro on this DVD.

Monday, January 23, 2017

MOONLIGHT (2016)

Ever since André Téchiné’s WILD REEDS/‘94 raised the bar on gay coming-of-adolescent films, other filmmakers have despaired of getting within striking distance. All the more credit, then, to writer/director Barry Jenkins for coming near the mark, at least in the first two-acts of this insightful, poetic and a bit too self-regarding work. Split formally into three sections (Grade School; High School; 30-Something Adulthood), we follow the young Chiron as he walks a fine line thru more than his share of childhood identity crises. Bullied, and eventually brutalized, both in & out of school, his mother an inconsistent mix of love, worry, disregard and a worsening drug habit, he finds an unlikely surrogate father-figure in a local drug dealer, and a surrogate mother in his girlfriend, the couple unexpectedly non-judgmental about his sexual identity questions. The jump to high school is smoothly handled, with events rising organically out of concise dramatic incidents even when Jenkins’ all andante pacing feels forced on the material. And that forced feeling turns problematic in the third section, with Chiron too neatly closing the circle on his emotional journey. The film goes, quite literally, touchy-feely.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, WILD REEDS.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

CHASING MAVERICKS (2012)

‘And the good they die young’ . . . especially tradition-breaking athletes on screen. See dueling flop Track & Field bio-pics PREFONTAINE/’97 and WITHOUT LIMITS/’98 for a prime example. And here’s another commercial dud all about teen surfing phenom Jay Moriarty and his tough-love guru/mentor/trainer/father-figure. It’s not really a bad film, there’s lots of cool action ‘captures’ to please the faithful, but with all the salt-water blather, non-fans may not swallow this ZEN AND THE ART OF SURFING meets A SURFER’S SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION. And it's scuppered by miscasting at the top with Gerard Butler’s verbally-challenged surf-sage showing little rapport or emotional bond to debuting Jonny Weston, a blankly pretty Teen Beat type sans enigmatic charisma.* (Though it’s fun to think that’s Sarah Silverman as Butler’s wife when it’s really make-believe twin Abigail Spencer.) Behind the scenes, more tragedy as early-onset Alzheimers robbed the film of director Curtis Hanson, with Michael Apted stepping in to finish shooting and ‘post.’ Hanson died four years later, never really having fulfilled the astonishing promise of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: An Israeli poster because, like the film’s monster waves, it also breaks left-to-right.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *As comparison, the Steve Prefontaine bio-pics catapulted Jared Leto & Billy Crudup.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT (1962)

Touted as Tennessee Williams’ first comedy (the sublimely funny BABY DOLL/’56 doesn’t count?), this modest domestic dramedy (with an equally modest B’way run) badly oversells its comic premise before settling down for a sadder-but-wiser last act that rehashes themes from CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Two marriages in crisis: Newlyweds who hardly know each other (Jane Fonda, in sex-kitten mode; Jim Hutton, too nervous to consummate); and the groom’s Korean war bud (Anthony Franciosa) whose wife & boy have just walked out after he quits a cushy job from combustible father-in-law John McGiver. These guys are both playing Brick from CAT. Or rather, they each get about half a Brick.* Fonda and Lois Nettleson, the other wife, have lesser problems to work thru (mostly self-image stuff), but Williams neatly fillets this morass of identity issues into what might pass as a wise & witty third-act . . . if you downed enough cocktails during intermission. (Oops, that only works at the theater.) Lost (to censorship?) is a fascinating sidebar involving Franciosa’s ‘sissified’ son. Was there more in the play? The trouble with the film comes early, with the first two acts played at an unsustainable fever-pitch meant to pass for comedy under George Roy Hill’s stagey direction. (His first feature film gig after doing this on B’way.) Fonda is very green here, screaming at poor Jim Hutton in place of any real comic technique. But then, only Franciosa gets anything like a comfortable Tennessee Williams rhythm going. Even the reliable John McGiver looks a little lost. If only they weren’t working so hard to make this fun, fun, fun, it might have come off.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, Richard Brook’s coarsened & bowdlerized CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF/’58.

Friday, January 20, 2017

RACE (2016)

Like 42, the 2013 Jackie Robinson baseball integration pic, the story of Track & Field legend Jesse Owens’ heart-stopping victories at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany gets aimed squarely at 5th Graders. But where 42 was too corny to sit thru, this even more unlikely tale of triumph over racial prejudice is so spectacularly flatfooted you can’t stop watching. TV director Stephen Hopkins proves a triple-threat with wan period recreations boasting cheap CGI backgrounds; suspense-free races (the staging!, the angles!, the editing!, the pacing!); all topped with dead-to-the-touch acting. Who the hell gets a bad perf out of Jeremy Irons? Will track coach Jason Sudeikis sound insincere on every line?* And couldn’t they find a Jesse Owens to transform from gawky-athlete-at-rest to graceful-gazelle-in-flight? Things improve slightly at the Berlin Games, how could they not? But why the kid-gloves treatment for controversial Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl? They do manage an effective little scene for David Kross’s German athlete & Owens, but we’re soon back to the track to screw up a final flourish as Owens steps in to run relay for a banned Jewish athlete. Really, how can you blow this story?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Riefenstahl’s famous OLYMPIA/’38 documentary is the longest, artsy-ist Sports Newsreel ever made. And with a kitschy faux-Greek Games prologue that many take seriously. (Check out the tasteful ‘nude’ look on the ‘ancient’ athletes.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Sudeikis is the rare actor who flunks the Fedora Test which holds that any contemporary actor who can pull off wearing a fedora should be able to act whatever’s going on underneath it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

FRANCOFNIA (2015)

Regrettable. After the art-house meditations and tour-de-force one-take pyrotechnics of Aleksandr Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK/’02 became an unlikely commercial hit, it was inevitable that his eccentric guided tour of Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum would attempt replication at another world-famous museum. It took a while, but here we are, winding thru the galleries and history of the Louvre, with special focus on the strange pas de deux between French museum director Jacques Jaujard and German Officer Franz Wolff-Metternich. Together, they formed an improbable alliance that saved nearly the entire museum collection during the Nazi Occupation. A phenomenal story, but poorly served in this misguided essay film which is all deep-think Sokurov digressions, punctuated with stiff historical re-enactments that might have come from some lost History Channel docu-drama. Near self-parody for Sokurov, with awards & acclaim auto-response for past achievements. To get the real improbable story, look elsewhere . . . elsewhere on the same disc, since planted in the Extras is a moving & imaginative knockout of a documentary, THE MAN WHO SAVED THE LOUVRE/’14, that does it justice.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, THE MAN WHO SAVED THE LOUVRE. OR: Two different takes on the near loss of French Art Collections during the Occupation: From Volker Schlöndorff in DIPLOMACY/’14 (not seen here) and from John Frankenheimer in the action-oriented THE TRAIN/’64 with Burt Lancaster going up against Paul Scofield.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

You don’t expect a ‘60s Civil Rights drama (with a side order of feminism) to resonate in such a contemporary way. Yet this pleasingly unexceptional film does just that. (At the same time, along with this year’s FENCES and LOVING, also giving a swift kick in the pants to clueless commentators blathering on about today’s ‘worse then ever’ racial attitudes.) A fact-inspired story about the largely unsung Black female math specialists who worked for the early space program in Virginia under conditions of strict segregation both within and without the base. The story, cleverly structured to show how the walls broke down on different schedules inside & out, focuses on three remarkable gal pals, one hoping to move up to engineering, one in charge of a staff of ‘computer girls,’ and Taraji P. Henson in the glamour spot as the natural talent too gifted to be held back from the theoretical math of space flight programming. In a story arc as predictable & comforting as your Great Aunt’s holiday dinner, the emphasis on Henson is a bit of a misstep, since the strongest drama comes out of the introduction of an IBM MainFrame computer and its galvanizing effect on Octavia Spencer & her staff of possibly obsolete computer girls* which gets shortchanged. Director Theodore Melfi fights off a few rookie missteps (a blackboard POV shot?), but also has the smarts to find a lifetime of injustice in the simple juxtaposition of ‘separate-but-equal’ coffee percolators. (Though how much better if he hadn’t pointed it out to us.) And the vivid KodaChrome look of the exteriors makes for a nice period touch.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Who cast the lean-faced, thick-haired John Glenn? Balding men of America demand an answer!

DOUBLE-BILL: No Blacks and No NASA Women, but Philip Kaufman’s Mercury Space Program epic, THE RIGHT STUFF (which includes a properly hair-challenged Glenn) just keeps looking better & better. OR: *For a cautionary comedy on IBM MainFrame computers, try Tracy & Hepburn in DESK SET/’57.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

DRAGONWYCK (1946)

Writing, and then producing since the Talkie transition, Joseph Mankiewicz finally made his directing debut with this slice of Gothic hooey. A mash-up of JANE EYRE, REBECCA and GASLIGHT, it made an odd choice for a Hollywood literary sophisticate. Set in 1830s New York State, a backstory has independent tenant farmers breaking away from Vincent Price’s land baron, while its front story gives Price a rare romantic lead, falling hard for Gene Tierney, his invalid wife’s beautiful companion. Passion, poison, scandal, a new heir, a progressive country doctor with bedroom eyes to match his bedside manner, it all goes exactly as you expect. If only there was a bit of swing to the presentation; or if it had more fun running the course. Mankiewicz, always a bit stiff shooting his own scripts, gets a handsome look from ace lenser Arthur Miller (interiors at Tierney’s parents’ might be out-takes from HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41), but plot holes & disappearing characters take a toll. So too Price in the sort of role James Mason, Anton Walbrook & Charles Boyer all but owned at the time.* Ersatz Gothic has its place, but this one isn’t a convincing fake.

DOUBLE-BILL: Whether called ANGEL STREET or GASLIGHT, Walbrook (in London), Boyer (in Hollywood) and Price (on B’way) all took a turn at the sadistic romantic cad who drives his young bride to the brink of madness. But to see what Price misses here, look to James Mason’s breakout perf in THE MAN IN GREY/’43.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The film’s missing producer was the ailing Ernst Lubitsch who assigned the project to Mank as director, but removed his own name after disagreements. No one is quite sure why as Mank adored Lubitsch. Best guess is that Tierney, who Lubitsch did wonders with in HEAVEN CAN WAIT/’43, was made to play her gauche outsider with such polished elegance, the film’s dramatic structure collapsed. (Next year, Mankiewicz would make a spectacular course correction with Tierney on THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR/’47.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

ÉTAT DE SIÈGE / STATE OF SIEGE (1972)

Hard on the heels of Z/’69 and THE CONFESSION/’70, the third political thriller with Costa-Gavras directing Yves Montand never found the high profile of the previous two. Perhaps its fictionalized, fact-based story is too balanced, finding compromised principles on all sides. Montand plays an American agent-in-plain-sight, a 'not-quite CIA' specialist in organizing police & military tactics to take down left-wing radicals for ‘friendly’ right-wing dictatorships. Kidnapped by one of these groups, Montand clams up on particulars and defends his work in long discussions with his abductors. On the outside, Costa-Gavras shows the government controlling news coverage and detectives closing in on rebels. It’s well put together, yet somehow lacks urgency & immediacy. A new writer, a new lenser, and a decision to show the outcome at the start all may have played a part, too. Then again, Costa-Gavras never quite recaptured his initial spark in any of his later works. (And, no, we're not forgetting MISSING/'82.) Avoid disappointment, watch the three in reverse order.

DOUBLE-BILL: As noted, Z and THE CONFESSION. Costa-Gavras was stuck with the Big Issue label for so much of his career, an intriguing black comedy like THE AX/’05 never even showed up Stateside. Good luck finding it! And if you do, tell us about it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

LA TÊTE HAUTE / STANDING TALL (2015)

The main reason to watch this film about an incorrigible teen delinquent (scotch that: the only reason) comes in seeing the inner workings of France’s remarkably generous (scotch that: remarkably indulgent) Juvenile Justice System. Do out-of-control Gallic teen menaces really get this level of financial support; one-on-one ‘client’ attention; second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth) chances; massage therapy(!); entry-level job placement; birthday picnics and scenic countryside bungalows? Sign me up! Writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot, who made a decent showing with Catherine Deneuve in the middle-age Road Pic ON MY WAY/’13, really comes a cropper on their second collaboration with Deneuve as Juvie Judge to Rod Paradot’s teenage bad boy. Fatherless, with a barely functioning mom, he’s been ‘acting out’ since he was a tyke. Now 16, with escalating criminal offenses, he’s sent thru a series of facilities in an effort to turn his life around before he hits his majority. The path includes a brief jail term in hopes of jolting him into life’s consequences, with a trail of worn out teachers, jailers & case workers along the way. ((We’re told he’s a really smart kid with potential, but Bercot doesn’t show it.) Finally, the needle moves after a careless car crash that nearly kills his kid brother; a vicious kick to a sympathetic seven months pregnant counselor; a ‘successful’ date rape that turns into tru-love*; and fatherhood @ 17. All quite bizarrely offered as positive events that knock some sense into him. Really? Once the credits roll, chances are this guy deserts wife, infant son, brother and even the mom he weeps for, in about two months. (Scotch that: two weeks.) As the self-destructive juvie, Paradot gives the sort of hyped-up self-lacerating perf that calls attention to itself and earns hyped-up award buzz. Deneuve is fine as the patient, redoubtable judge; better yet, Benoît Magimel as a harried, but sympathetic counselor who appears to have just one case on his docket.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Selected to open Cannes 2015 . . . which says much about the film & about Cannes.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *You got that right, Bercot presents teenage date rape as a character builder.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Brothers Dardenne do much better with a similar story in THE KID WITH A BIKE/’11.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

6 DONNE PER L’ASSASSINO / BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964)

Visually strong, if typically frustrating, Italian Horror from maestro meggger Mario Bava, brimming over with indelible images in lurid EastmanColor as a half dozen curvaceous models at an exclusive Fashion Salon fall victim to a masked serial killer. The film gets cited as the start of the ‘Giallo’ tradition (a specialized Italian strain of gory thrillers), but there’s not a bared breast in sight. Instead, Bava, riding on the downdraft of '50s/'60s Italian cinema, where high standards mirrored the rise & fall of Italy's post-WWII ‘Il Boom’ economy, runs the show along the lines of the country's pervading solid, shared film technique. He even manages to get some decent acting out of his chic models, and from the film’s Hollywood ringer, Cameron Mitchell. One image of a freshly drowned model, shot from under the water, with blue, blue eyes and red, red lipstick is alone worth the price of admission. But the story! The script! Low priority stuff for Bava. 'Bad things happen' is about as far we get. (Even with a near quote out of, of all things, DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44.) As emotion, as narrative, he’s always running on empty. How he gets as far as he does without gas is a credit to his craft, and what ultimately limits him.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *Perhaps Bava is better served in anthology films like BLACK SABBATH/’63 where each narrative only has to support about a half hour of screen time.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Bava went to some trouble to have his multinational cast speak (or rather ‘mouth’) in English for a more convincing ‘dub.’ Even so, the film plays best in Italian. But lookout!; one of the submenus on an otherwise excellent VCI DVD has the Italian track marked as French . . . and vice versa.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

EL ABRAZO DE LA SERPIENTE / EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)

Fascinating, and phenomenally effective, a culture clash in the Amazon Jungle inspired by the diaries of two European researchers who came to the forest decades apart, helped by the same Native shaman. Columbian writer/director Ciro Guerra structures the film in parallel paths 40 years apart, cutting back & forth without confusion between early and mid-20th century action. The earlier sequences begin as a desperately ill German explorer (and his native guide, rescued from the horrors of rubber plantation work) seek out young shaman Karamakate in hopes of finding a cure. Believing himself the last of his tribe and living in isolation, Karamakate can only offer temporary relief, but agrees to go with them to find a special plant & permanent cure when told that members of his tribe still exist far up the river. Intercut with this journey, another European researcher comes to find the healing plant that may (or may not) have been found 40 years ago. Remarkably, he’s helped by the same shaman, still isolated, now forty years older and with a fragile memory. Two journeys, equally thrilling & mysterious, Tribal in outlook rather than Euro-Centric. Amid the wonder & terror, a pair of encounters across the decades with hidden Christian societies are particular standouts, both harrowing cinematic achievements and conceptually challenging. Eventually, when the medicine is found, Guerra switches from the film’s rapturous WideScreen monochrome*to indulge in a bit of ‘60s psychedelia, a Light Show display that’s a little too 2001: Jupiter and Beyond for its own good, but you’ll be too far gone to take exception. Riveting stuff that puts the kibosh on many a better known film covering similar subjects. Oscar® nominated for Foreign Language pic, rightly so.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Photographers have largely made peace with digital formats, but still swear by old-fashioned chemical processing & celluloid film stock for Black & White. See why here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

Even those who don’t give a fig about STAR TREK (and siblings), may shake their collective heads at the sheer ordinaryness of this generic, action-packed space adventure. Director Justin Lin, of the FAST AND FURIOUS series, has unsurprisingly made a FAST AND FURIOUS STAR TREK movie. Précis: A distress call from a far off planet sends the Enterprise into a trap, Phase One of a colossal act of planetary revenge & destruction. This should fit nicely into the old Gene Roddenberry STAR TREK formula: Intergalactic physical threat? Check! Menace with a philosophic note? Check! Maybe too much for our crew to handle? Check! But the filmmaking response is scuttled, along with the Enterprise, in an overload of eye-catching, but baffling effects-driven CGI battles that might fit any space epic: STAR TREK: The Video Game. Dramatically, we need some kind of inadequate defensive action from our motley crew before they are forced to take up arms against a doom-laden ticking clock. Off they go on offense with an ad-hoc paradoxical blend of Mr. Spock’s logic & Capt. Kirk’s instinct. And if ship doctor ‘Bones’ gets involved, a dash or two of emotion. The film sings the template, but misses the tune; and the only emotion comes from a pair of dedications in the end credits.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Not sure why, but Korea turned out the best poster. Maybe because after decades of indifference, the series has started catching on overseas just as it slips Stateside.

DOUBLE-BILL: And STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, the latest series, due out soon.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016)

After something of a hiatus back in the ‘90s, John Le Carré adaptations are once again regular events. But this one, coming on the heels of the well-received NIGHT MANAGER mini-series, got overlooked. And though it’s not hard to see why, Le Carré-heads, willing to make allowances, may be pleasantly surprised. The solid idea tracks a brash Russian cash manipulator (Stellan Skarsgård) based in Morocco and worried that his dealing days are numbered. Trying to flip a last deal into a one-way ticket out for him & his family as defectors, he’s reeling in the usual super-rich Russian oligarch as leverage along with a high-ranking British politician attached to the same venal line of credit. But the only British agent biting is Damien Lewis, currently on the outs at the Home Office. Skarsgård will have to complete the delicate deal ‘on spec,’ without getting any assurances. (And with no idea that Lewis is working without authority.) The big gimmick (and miscue) on the thing, is the needless addition of an innocent married couple (Naomie Harris & Ewan McGregor), tourists who become go-betweens. It’s a MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH formation, naive couple drawn into deadly international conspiracy. But where Hitchcock sold an unlikely situation by having the couple’s son kidnapped, Le Carré has no equivalent mechanism to help us buy into the scheme. Altruism certainly doesn’t cut it. A shame because, in spite of director Susanna White overloaded artifice (she sure is fond of shooting reflections!), the corrupting influence of Russian money could hardly be more timely, and the cast is all you could wish for. Ms. Harris, in particular, is quite the find, and McGregor, looking considerably older, is suddenly a gripping camera subject. Of course, they might have given Harris & McGregor a kid and had it kidnapped . . . nah.

DOUBLE-BILL: With NIGHT MANAGER doing so well, a mini-series remake of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is in the works for next year.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

WOMAN'S WORLD (1954)

No studio was more attached to the ‘Three Girls’ story arc then 20th/Fox. Add in Bausch & Lomb CinemaScope lenses, and it was a match made in WideScreen composition heaven. This iteration of the formula made three-in-a-row for director Jean Negulesco after HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE/’53 and THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN/’54, but a considerably less distinctive one minus the inadvertent Pop Art proclivities of MILLIONAIRE or the travelogue gush of FOUNTAIN.* Instead, car mogul Clifton Webb brings three top sales reps to New York to find a new General Manager. And it’s not just the men getting a lookover, so too the wives; measure up or muster out. As the title song has it, ‘It’s a woman’s world, but only because . . . it’s his.’ Yikes!* There’s confident Van Heflin & sexually aggressive consort Arlene Dahl; plain-spoken Mid-Western Cornel Wilde & loyal little grey wren June Allyson; or up-from-the-ranks dyspeptic Fred MacMurray & neglected wife Lauren Bacall going thru the motions. Structured in the manner of a whodunit, right down to a dining room denouement, the script leans toward the thuddingly obvious, Allyson & Dahl particularly over-doing things. But with so many character flaws & changing positions to get thru in 90 minutes, shortcuts are understandable; especially when they're passably entertaining. And it’s certainly fun watching Bacall sweep the board in class & presence. Famous for feline good looks, she’d just come back to the screen for MILLIONAIRE after a three year baby-break. Somehow, in the interim, she’d found acting chops and a kind of technique. A pro in the good sense.

DOUBLE-BILL: The ‘serious’ corporate boardroom drama in ‘54 was EXECUTIVE SUITE. No color, no CinemaScope, but a starry cast (including this film’s June Allyson) and the first in an unmatched string of 11 hits in 12 years for scripter Ernest Lehman.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Yes, sexual roles & politics were a different language in the mid-‘50s, but it’s still a shock to see not only how things were, but how much had been lost on this front since the 1930s & ‘40s.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Unlike the restored anamorphic dazzle on DVD for MILLIONAIRE and FOUNTAIN, WORLD comes in a merely acceptable, slightly drab ‘flat’ letterbox VOD edition.

Friday, January 6, 2017

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016)

This stop-motion animation from the House of Laika moves on from their previous ‘Goth’ mentality to embrace ‘Japonisme’ in a visually lush fable; enchanting when it sticks to the subject of storytelling, less so as it descends into Martial Arts & Monsters. At first, the CGI-assisted puppets & effects hold stylistic unity as we meet a careworn, fearful Mother and her sunny, independent son (a town favorite for his epic storytelling shows). But once the afterlife spirits come down on them, and annihilate the town, the boy begins an orphan’s journey quest of recovery and the film overdoses on technical display. You also start to notice problems in character design, especially in the son’s jaunty personality (very All-American-boy), not helped by forced gags out of a DreamWorks focus group, and poor vocal acting.* Worse, you can see how this should have worked watching the marvelous first act as the kid holds the town in thrall with his origami creations acting out epic tales. Everyone buys into the fantasy of folded paper springing to life, acting out roles, dancing & fluttering to attention thru collective spirit & one boy’s power of suggestion. And a misconception, since instead of celebrating the power of storytelling magic as community will, the story makes this not a shared visualization, but something really happening. What a letdown. Still, the first act remains a treat. The rest, a battle lost; poetry-turned-prose, with the imaginative power of LESS succumbing to the commercial considerations of TOO MUCH.

DOUBLE-BILL: Laika projects tend to impress & enchant before coming up short. For a more rigorous stop-motion æsthetic, try them in CORALINE/09 or PARANORMAN/’12.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In the leads, Charlize Theron & Matthew McConaughey are so inadequate you think about switching to the film’s original Japanese language track (w/ subtitles), then remember they are the original soundtrack.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

INTO THE STORM (2009)

Writer Hugh Whitemore returns with more Winston Churchill in this sequel to his pre-WWII drama THE GATHERING STORM/’02. But like the carbon copy that loses the crisp lines of the original, this second helping lacks definition. There’s a distinct loss in size & style in replacing Albert Finney & Vanessa Redgrave with Brendan Gleeson & Janet McTeer as the Churchills, shrinkage that’s generally mirrored in the physical product. Maybe if Whitemore hadn’t structured the story as flashbacks from war’s end, with an irascible Winston waiting for the 1945 election results as the film dips in & out of the war years. We sacrifice the arc of military strategy and the epic sweep of history for a little bit of election suspense. The film also takes less advantage of locations (smaller budget?), and offers diminished star power in supporting roles. (Though nothing diminished in Bill Paterson’s Clement Atlee, typically superb as this unassuming political threat.) You can see just what's been missing in a brief scene that finds Iain Glen’s King George tricking Churchill into reconsidering his idea to accompany troops on D-Day. But with so many actors trying on Churchill these days (John Lithgow, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon*), you could also look elsewhere.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Gambon nails it as well as anybody in the reasonably satisfying CHURCHILL’S SECRET/’16.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Not much in favor these days, but Churchill’s wartime memoirs, beginning with THE GATHERING STORM, remain very readable . . . with many a pat on the back for its author.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

EL CLUB / THE CLUB (2015)

Currently repped in theaters with JACKIE/’16 and NERUDA/’16, Pablo Larrain was first noticed (at least internationally) for his delicate balancing act directing the witty anti-Pinochet film NO/’12. But between those three projects, Larrain directed and wrote this award-winning disappointment . . . let’s blame the writing. Shot with continuous hazy diffusion, to reflect the characters’ equally hazy moral sense (oh, symbolism), the script is Larrain’s fantasia on the distressingly real ethical runaround used by the Catholic Church to hide priestly misconduct (pedophilia, baby swaps, golf outings) from secular authority, the press & the public, keeping all the dirty linen in an apostolic hamper. Here, at a little beach community house in Chile, a handful of the semi-defrocked, along with a fallen nun as caretaker, let the days unravel, feel sorry for themselves, grouse, go thru motions of devotion and enthusiastically train a greyhound for local races. But it’s all coming to a stop, or at least to a head, as a mentally-disturbed victim taunts them from the street, and an official Vatican rep threatens to shut the place down. Larrain doles this out in teaspoons, desperate to shock us with revelations we’ve already guessed at (like a lack of contrition), before finding a violent deus ex machina to close the book on this ethical conundrum. But is it an ethical conundrum? The crimes aren’t against the church, but against the community. In the pew or out, below the age of consent, on church grounds or off, buggery is buggery, no?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a look at the troubled modern priesthood, and some rare evenhandedness with the subject, try Nanni Moretti’s THE MASS IS OVER/’85 which may also be his best film.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

ROUGHSHOD (1949)

Unusually involving mid-range Western skips the ubiquitous Stranger-Comes-To-Town straitjacket largely by staying out of town. Instead, three prison escapees ambush three men at a campfire, killing them for their horses & a change of clothes. At the same time, a foursome of saloon gals, just kicked out of town, get stuck on the open road when their surrey breaks down. Picked up by a couple of brothers herding horses back to their ranch, it’s a match of convenience at best, and quickly starts to fall apart when two of the girls break off. Dangerous, too, since one of the desperadoes is out for revenge against the elder brother. It sets up some crisscross dramatic goals that play out strongly against the usual romance & confrontations, yet the film never quite hits its potential. Director Mark Robson makes good use of the rocky landscape, but has less success controlling the pace. The film kind of dribbles along. And while John Ireland’s cold-blooded killer & Gloria Grahame’s slightly-used hostess get the job done, pleasant but colorless leading man Robert Sterling gives off little heat. (Where’s Joel McCrea when you need him?*) Somebody could have made more of this one.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Claude Jarman, the nice kid brother here, worked with McCrea next year in THE OUTRIDERS/’50’ (not seen here). But it’s his other 1949 release, INTRUDER IN THE DUST, reuniting him with director Clarence Brown who discovered him for THE YEARLING/’46, that’s really worth hunting up.

Monday, January 2, 2017

AJEOSSI / THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (2010)

(Deep breath, please.) Outside a Korean nightclub, police are prepping for a major drug ring bust. But before they can give the green light and start making arrests, the goods are stolen by a club dancer and taken to her apartment in a downscale Seoul neighborhood. That’s where her lonely little girl is skipping school and trying to make friends with the secretive young pawnbroker who works & lives in her building. But she’d better hurry, the rest of those foiled villains are in hot pursuit, desperate to retrieve the sample bar of high-grade heroin. An initial raid at the pawnshop turns deadly . . . for the gangsters. They haven’t a chance against his martial arts skills. So the thugs go for a soft target, kidnaping Mother & Child before letting the pawnshop guy know he can get them back by delivering a message to a second gang, a Japanese outfit trying to weasel in on the deal. It’s a set-up, but while the gangs and police are hunting Mr. Pawnshop down (just who is this guy?!!), it’s revealed that drugs aren’t the only commodity in play. There’s also a nice bit of business going on in live human organ extraction for transplants, with premium prices on little girl offal. Yikes! (Exhale.) Preposterous doings, no doubt; but also, in the hands of writer/director Jeong-beom Lee, preposterously entertaining. Only the second of his three films, he boasts a natural kinetic technique with a clean narrative line that movies with plots half as complicated can’t muster; joined to a tremendous cast of memorably shady creeps, an honorable bad guy for the big-thrill climatic knife fight; reasonable props for hard-working cops; and in Bin Won, our stoic/laconic pawnbroker with a ‘Special Ops’ past, a tragic personal history and alarming good looks to go with the chiseled abs, a natural screen idol. (Why he dropped out of the acting game after this film is the real mystery.) Turn off the right side of your brain and enjoy. (Family Friendly, but not for the kiddies.)