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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

WELCOME (2009)

French writer/ director Philippe Lioret makes a ‘nice’ film on a tough subject: illegal refugees in Calais, and it still ends in tragedy. Firat Ayverdi, looking a bit like the young Zach Braff, plays a 17-yr-old Kurd out of Iraq, desperate to reach his girlfriend who’s moved to London with her family. But with immigration authorities overseeing the port city’s commercial bottleneck, and on to every stowaway trick by train, truck or boat, the only option could be the most ridiculous; swimming across the Channel. And the boy can’t swim. That’s how he comes to meet Vincent Lindon, exceptional as a gruff swimming instructor who goes from indifference to involved to surrogate dad as he trains this stubborn, polite, romantic kid. The story may not be loaded with surprises, but the playing and emotional growth between the leads is handled with unusual grace. (Nice use of foreign language issues with everyone at odds in various half-learned tongues.) And with reverberations, especially on Lindon’s relation with his ex-wife, distrustful building neighbors, and a cop charged with enforcing new immigrant laws, all playing out to heartbreaking effect. The story isn’t above falling into convenient plots beats & ‘accidental’ meetings to move things along, it might have played better with less realism (and with a less ironic title). But it comes across well enough; thoughtful, effective, not nearly as ‘knee-jerk’ liberal as you’d imagine.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jerzy Skolimowski’s MOONLIGHTING/’82 with Jeremy Irons, an undeservedly forgotten film about Polish construction workers stuck in London.

Monday, February 27, 2017

BOUND FOR GLORY (1976)

Beautifully observed & intensely moving, this bio-pic of folk song legend Woody Guthrie may be the only Hollywood film to give its director of photography a first-position solo title card in the opening credits. A distinction well-earned by Haskell Wexler whose dusty skies and low-yellow lighting scale capture the mid-‘30s Depression era in all its terrible beauty. And that’s merely the start of this unusual film’s achievements charting the early hard-scrabble arc of Guthrie’s days on the road, quitting a Texas town crushed by winds both natural & economic to tramp West only to find an equally depressed California where he’ll stumble upon fame & a measure of immortality balladeering for the union man. Everyone involved is at their best here, with director Hal Ashby showing quiet authority at a steady measured pace, beautifully coordinated with David Carradine’s casual command as the caustic & caring Woody Guthrie. Without skimping on ornery stubbornness, wanderlust & womanizing, Carradine, in the role of lifetime, goes all Gary Cooper to fine effect, long, lean, full-lipped. The narrative structure goes a bit limp looking for dramatic resolution over Guthrie’s refusal to compromise principles. But so much is perfectly caught, it’d be plumb capitalistically greedy to ask for more. Woody would have urged us to share the wealth. Watch out for an early magnificent dust storm effect making its terrifying way into town (presumably a matte effect via Albert Whitlock) and for some pioneering steady-can work during a drive thru a California Workers Camp. NOTE: A new remastering on Twilight Time is sure to improve on the old, barely adequate M-G-M disc.

DOUBLE-BILL: John Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH/’40, with David Carradine’s father John in a major role, is an obvious influence; so too Frank Capra’s MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN for likely role-model Gary Cooper.

SCREWY THOUGH OF THE DAY: Even with multiple Oscar noms(6) & wins(2), GLORY was largely overlooked. Check out the earnestly awful trailer to see what scared people off. Poster’s pretty lousy, too.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

THE DECAMERON (1971)

Italian literary agitator/provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini found international art house success serving up Boccaccio’s cruel comedy & bawdy behavior, gaining a welcome commercial bump from the evolving, less restrictive views on explicit nudity. (First erection in mainstream cinema?) Dispensing with Boccaccio’s storyteller (a sort of male Scheherezade), the nine chosen tales lean toward rude, crude & lewd in Pasolini’s heavy/overstated manner. ‘Cruel’ comes naturally to him; comedy & bawd, not so much. Taking the artist’s role of Giotto for himself, the rest is a mix of oddly-coiffed professionals & amateurs with odd teeth, each more annoyingly enthusiastic than the last. Had the film been done in English with decent synch-sound rather than poorly dubbed Italian, it’s rep would have sunk like a stone. But the real problem is, of course, PPP himself, that most unnatural of filmmakers. A few decent staging ideas come off during the church mural episode, but everywhere else, shot choice & editing is a hazard-course of missteps. (Must he set up every shot dead-center? Well, it does take your mind off the acting.) And when he goes for an artsy/frame-worthy comp, things come to a complete dead stop. Or rather, a series of fragmented dead stops. As in one of those late Roberto Rossellini ‘teaching’ films, the problem comes less from a lack of technique (the Nouveau Vague always celebrated Rossellini’s modest-to-a-fault skill set) than from contempt for process. As if craft would sully intellectual brilliance. As if, indeed.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pasolini’s first & best pic, ACCATTONE/’61, had young Bernardo Bertolucci as creative wing-man, which must have made all the difference.

Friday, February 24, 2017

BLIND DATE (1987)

Indifferently received by critics at the time (and now, a 5.9 rating on IMDb), though a solid commercial hit, the years have been unusually kind to this Blake Edwards farce. Unfolding as a series of impossible slapstick staging challenges triumphantly solved by Edwards, it has junior exec Bruce Willis taking Kim Basinger to a company dinner unaware that alcohol turns her into the date from Hell. But unlike Edwards’ more formalist, nearly plot-free Jacques Tati-inspired THE PARTY/’68, that’s only the first act in a Dadaist chain of disasters that run amok on John Larroquette’s lovesick ex; William Daniel’s peeved judge; Willis’s turn from revenge to savior (with a spiked box of chocolates); and the traditional ‘Screwball’ interrupted wedding ceremony. Edwards’ technique is typically assured, with every kick in the pants perfectly timed & placed, capped by a stunningly executed penultimate comic set piece on the eve of the wedding that could serve as a film-course textbook. (And note the casually tossed off long takes all thru the pic.) Edwards had just fallen on his face aping Laurel & Hardy in A FINE MESS/’86, but this one delivers the escalating kinetic comic frustration (and release) that one missed.

DOUBLE-BILL: Martin Scorsese tried something similar using the NYC downtown scene in AFTER HOURS/’85. But the nervous laughs are few & far between, and leading man Griffin Dunne lends it the air of a vanity project.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Scripter Dale Launer petered out after a fast-track start (RUTHLESS PEOPLE/’86; BLIND DATE/’87; DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS/’88; MY COUSIN VINNY/’92. Falling off the map after turning writer/director on LOVE POTION No. 9/’92. (BLIND allegedly much rewritten by Edwards.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

THE SEVENTH SIN (1957)

Mezza mezza adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s THE PAINTED VEIL (second of three*) has almost no atmosphere, missing the cloistered Hollywood glamour (and cop-out ending) Greta Garbo & Herbert Marshall drifted thru in 1934; or the doom-laden tropical mildew Naomi Watts & Edward Norton sweated out in 2006. Made back when studios proudly sent their CinemaScope cameras out to capture exotic locales, this b&w production has flavorless mock up sets and obvious stand-ins for leads Eleanor Parker, Bill Travers & George Sanders on its handful of location shots. The story holds: bored, unfaithful wife, blackmailed by the doctor/ husband she never loved into accompanying him on a cholera epidemic mission outside of Hong Kong, reevaluates her choices on love, life & family . . . too late. Ronald Neame helms efficiently (with Vincente Minnelli called in for the slightly more fluid convent scenes), while Parker pulls off repentant tropes (she's not bad, a sort of refined Joan Crawford) and Sanders surprises with an unusually brisk & energetic characterization of a happy expat with local sympathies. But Karl Tunberg’s screenplay is turgidly stage-bound (we keep hearing about dramatic incidents) with everything played right on the nose, losing the oblique Maugham manner. You’ll forget you watched it the next day.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Listen up at a bridge party to hear Miklos Rozsa reuse the great neurotic waltz he composed for MADAME BOVARY/’49.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *As noted above, the other versions of this story from 1934 & 2006, though not without their own faults, get more than the superb novella’s title right.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

L’HOMME QU’ON AIMAIT TROP / IN THE NAME OF MY DAUGHTER (2014)

Now in his seventies, and not recently working up to past standards, French writer/ director André Téchiné finds something of his old form about halfway thru this oddly focused fact-inspired (was it a) murder case. Catherine Deneuve easily handles a thirty-year time span playing a glamorous Riviera casino owner, hanging on by a thread as a deep-pocketed rival (with likely Mafia connections) works to squeeze her out. With Guillaume Canet, her ruthlessly ambitious lawyer/factotum, and proxy voting authority on her daughter’s share of the business, Deneuve maneuvers a narrow boardroom victory to keep control. But when she denies Canet the managerial post he’s been coveting, it pushes him into enemy camp, along with the needy, entitled daughter (Adèle Haenel) he stokes with resentment and strokes with caresses. Téchiné concentrates on the business end, and lets the affair spin off axis of its own accord as Haenel becomes more emotionally dependant & unbalanced. Canet is working around a wife, kids, a less obsessed mistress and a struggling business. Is he a control junkie, or just attracted to trouble? (Once the film gets to it, the courtroom drama is less Third Act than extended epilogue.) Téchiné also hurts his cause shooting in hand-held ADHD camera style, as off-putting as the clingy Ms. Haenel. But as the story starts to clarify, and an outline of foul play begins to emerge, Téchiné dials back to a more classical/formal mode. Hold on and be duly rewarded.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Ms. Heanel might be sister to the young Elizabeth McGovern. Those cheeks & teary eyes!

DOUBLE-BILL: Films like THE LITTLE FOXES/’41; A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51; JAGGED EDGE/’85; and THE STORY OF ADELE H/’75 drift in & out of the film’s magpie storyline.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA (2013)

Nicholas Wrathall’s neatly turned documentary on the political provocateur/belles lettres author comes with a surfeit of curmudgeonly old man footage, but shows where Vidal got it right (the big picture) and where he got it wrong (the details). But is the once inescapable liberal intellectual still a force to be reckoned with five years after his death? Or the light-weight his critics charged, with self-regard as Achilles’ Heel? Wrathall is more true believer than doubter, though he couldn’t get what he needed from Vidal to bring out the late act betrayal of fellow contrarian essayist Christopher Hitchens, the spiritual son who failed. As for what survives; his great series of American historical fiction remains wicked, wise & unbeatably entertaining, a forced march thru the Great Men of D.C. (LINCOLN and BURR wonderfully jarring) and the still underappreciated collected essays. But what can be said of those philosophical/religious tomes of later years? Best to enjoy the film clips of slice-and-dice aperçu (extra naughty on the Kennedys) and perhaps go back to his finest film writing, the sly gay angle added to BEN-HUR/’56 and his unaccountably fine, moving adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s THE CATERED AFFAIR/’56 into one of Hollywood’s best kitchen-sink dramas. The man could surprise you.

DOUBLE-BILL: Vidal’s theatrical chef d'oeuvre, THE BEST MAN/’64 now looks stiff & dated as politics and as drama (very much the ‘well-made play’) while the above mentioned BEN-HUR and CATERED AFFAIR are just about perfect examples of their wildly different forms.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Fans of Orson Welles should check out the touching/hilarious obit/celebration Vidal included in his essay collection UNITED STATES.

Friday, February 17, 2017

U-NEUN NAM-JA / NO TEARS FOR THE DEAD (2014)

Korean writer/ director Jeong-beom Lee missteps in this action-thriller follow-up to his MAN FROM NOWHERE/’10. It starts well enough as Dong-gun Jang’s hitman extraordinare neatly dispatches everyone at a secret ‘Triad’ gang meeting in hopes of grabbing a FlashDrive loaded with Account Info & Codes to 100 mill in off-shore cash. But a sudden noise behind a padded door brings on a final Rat-a-tat-tat! And behind it, a little girl gets shot thru the heart. Turns out she was the mob accountant’s daughter and now a haunted, guilt-ridden Jang is assigned to track down the mother, who’s back in Korea, locate the missing FlashDrive . . . and leave no one behind. But instead of executioner, the assassin becomes her protector. And what a crowd to protect her from! After a deceptively quiet, get-to-know-you second act, Lee really lays on the action . . . too much of it. The pieces are often dazzling, but rarely connect into readable patterns; the helter-skelter randomness wears you down. A writing partner with more of a narrative bent might help.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lee’s second film, MAN FROM NOWHERE shows his promise in much better light.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)

Unlike the 2005 remix, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, big grosses/little ongoing interest (a real ‘jump the shark’ moment for team Tim Burton/ Johnny Depp), this earlier musical version had its negligible gross reversed by an ever-expanding post-theatrical fan-base. Easy to see why it initially flopped (it’s a dreadful film); easy to see how it grew an afterlife (childhood fantasy both bracingly chilly & illogical). It’s now ubiquitous author, Roald Dahl, was then an acquired taste, and he apparently loathed the film. (Was it the tweaking by uncredited scripter David Seltzer, or the low-rent WIZARD OF OZ production from David Wolper & director Mel Stuart, each stronger at documentary. (Often, Stuart’s staging is near self-sabotage.) The look of the film is alarmingly unattractive, and Arthur Ibettson, runt in the line of pioneering British colour cinematographers, doesn’t shy away from the hideous sets & costumes. (A chocolate waterfall spews something flushable. The overall lighting as savage as Dahl’s take on childhood.) And those songs. Yikes! Yet it starts to work in spite of itself around midpoint when Gene Wilder sidles in as the titular chocolatier who’s allowed five kids (in different shades of awful) to visit his secret workplace . Who is this fellow? What side is he on? Is he friendly or dangerous? Wilder’s acting choices are precise, like his carefully voiced singing. (He certainly gets the best song.) And if the film never gets too far beyond technical incompetence, it’s so distinctively odd it’s almost a match for the prickly Mr. Dahl. Whether he knew it or not.

DOUBLE-BILL: Dahl came fully to life in Nicolas Roeg’s exceptional adaptation of THE WITCHES/’90.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

LES INNOCENTES / THE INNOCENTS (2016)

Fact-inspired and deeply satisfying, this story out of post-WWII Poland mesmerizes from its opening shots inside a Catholic Convent as Sister Maria sneaks out on her devotions to track down a doctor. Avoiding Polish or Russian help (the sector is under Russian military control), she locates a small medical unit of the French Red Cross and convinces a young female doctor, working as a nurse/assistant, to help. Back at the convent, a nun has gone into a difficult labor, one of eight pregnant sisters, perhaps more; the result of Russian ‘liberators’ storming the convent after routing the Nazis. Desperate to keep this secret shame within their walls, the Mother Superior, herself a victim with a case of syphilis, can barely acknowledge the inevitable consequences. The young doctor faces the moral ultimatum of helping these nuns, already ashamed or in denial of what their bodies are telling them, or leaving them to their chances. All while maintaining long hours on staff with her unit. It’s riveting stuff, loaded with vivid characters, a dab of romance taken on the fly with a love-sick Red Cross doctor, honest suspense (though a false ‘quarantine’ alarm feels contrived*), tests of spirituality, and an unforgivable sin that may make the film too difficult for teens. (Family Friendly label applies only to high schoolers.) A great tale of courage & friendship between women that’s actually been made largely by women. And you can feel it, from director/co-writer Anne Fontaine down thru most of the technical crafts. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier earns special kudos for adding a touch of Vermeer portraiture in her lighting. And, within an all praise-worthy cast, Lou de Laâge, as the doctor, stands out for reining in her emotions and for unmissable old-school beauty. A real throwback to Golden Age standards, she’s like a cross between Leslie Caron (in her Gigi days) & the young Jeanne Moreau. Hollywood! If she speaks English, grab her up! If she doesn’t, teach her.

DOUBLE-BILL: A surprising list of major directors have a ‘nun’s story’ in them, try Robert Bresson’s overlooked debut, LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ/’43.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The quarantine gambit, used as a ruse to keep Russians out of the convent, might well be a true incident. Often as not, the phoniest moment in a bio-pic usually turns out to be true! Sometimes, especially in Hollywood samples of the form, the howlers are the only true incidents in there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

DAS LETZTE SCHWEIGEN / THE SILENCE (2010)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. When the exact pattern of a 23 yr-old rape/murder is repeated, the retired detective who never solved the original crime, picks up the new case along with his last partner who’s still on the force, but barely functioning after losing his wife to cancer. Last week’s Masterpiece Mystery? A bleakly wry Swedish police procedural recast in English for BBC/PBS? Normally, these similarities aren’t a big problem. But Swiss writer/director Baran bo Odar, working in Germany, isn’t able to revive the well-worn plot with either fresh characters (everyone works too hard at being interesting), psychological insight (you’re two steps ahead all the way) or technical pizzazz (from dream sequence to smash edits, applied instead of organic). Acceptable if you’re surfing cable for something to watch. But as a stand-alone, pretty tuckered out.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Some reviewers compared this to David Fincher’s ZODIAC/’07. An odd match, but if you go that way, at least trade up to Joon-ho Bong’s superb MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03.

Monday, February 13, 2017

FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG (1955)

Jean Simmons & Stewart Granger co-starred in a couple of underrated pics over their 10-yr marriage, this the lesser of the two.* Largely a straightforward London-based period thriller about wife murderer Granger and the housemaid who blackmails him not for money, but for love & possession. Her motives & actions adding a decidedly perverse angle to standard plot twists not brilliantly handled in the script; DIAL M FOR MURDER, this ain’t. For that matter, director Arthur Lubin is no Hitchcock. But soundstage sets (interiors and exteriors) confer a certain visual unity to the doings amid the cascading fog of a London ‘pea-souper,’ as caught by lenser Christopher Challis. Bill Travers gets in nice support as the jilted fiancé of an upper-crust lady Granger has designs on, but the general level of effectiveness can only go so far against a plot that falls back on mistaken identity and confessional letters to keep things moving in the right direction. Good chilly fun as far as it goes, but it could easily have gone farther.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The earlier pic (it also stars Deborah Kerr) is YOUNG BESS/’53, about Elizabeth Tudor’s road to royalty. Unexpectedly smart & involving, with director George Sidney megging handsomely and a glory-drenched Miklos Rozsa score that should be better known. (See Write-Up w/ LINK below.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

INDIGNATION (2016)

Prolific novelist Philip Roth, a tough nut to crack on screen & rarely attempted, got the two pants/one jacket special last year. Ewan McGregor, miscast as lead & director, crashed & burned on a major novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL, while this relatively minor work, from vet producer James Schamus (hyphenating up as writer/director), got something of a dream critical reception. (Though not much coin.) Was it low expectations? Roth, drawing on his own early ‘50s experience as working-class Jersey Jew plopped into MidWest Liberal Arts college, puts his fish out of water/chip-on-his-shoulder student on a virgin atheist’s pilgrim’s progress of intellectual intercourse, comic & uncomfortable; Schamus gets stuck at uncomfortable. Or does he not see the comedy in the inferno? It leaves the more dramatic aspects, parental separation & a tricky (make that tricky-dickie) affair with the usual mentally unbalanced/high-maintenance gentile Goddess unmoored. Even when you can figure out the tone Schamus aims at, as in a tense discussion between troubled student & imperturbable College Dean Tracy Letts, the scenes all seem to play back-to-front. As the Roth figure, Logan Lerman is a nice kid when what's needed is whiny, funny, hopelessly horned up; his troubled lover (Sarah Gadon) one of those unbalanced fascinators (think Sylvia Plath or Zelda F.), paramours who have a hard time coming off the page. Great work from Letts, though, and from Linda Emond as an emotionally smart, worried mom. And what’s with the paired bathetic bookends? Is it Roth or Schamus? Either way, they ring false.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While hardly a complete success, Robert Benton’s THE HUMAN STAIN/’03 (with Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman & Ed Harris) shows honest engagement with Roth. Why has no one tried SABBATH’S THEATER?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

JULIA MISBEHAVES (1948)

Absurdly misconceived ‘daring’ marital comedy for Greer Garson; an obvious, if unsuccessful attempt to liven up her stuffy image. Garson, unable to do wrong during the war years, was unable to do right post. The fatal pivot began with ADVENTURE, the ‘Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got ‘Em’ surprise flop of '45. Then, two years off before DESIRE ME became the M-G-M’s one & only pic to go out without a directing credit. (George Cukor, Jack Conway & Mervyn LeRoy did the deed. Not seen here, it has its fans.) Now in free-fall, Greer, hiding under an unbecoming new hair-style, reunites with comfy co-star Walter Pidgeon to try wacky comedy. It’s a sort of Irene Dunne reject, with Garson as a bit actress in London who never got around to divorcing her husband, now invited to the wedding of daughter Elizabeth Taylor* whom she gave up as a toddler. Naturally, this wild mother-of-the-bride upsets all the relationships, but what a sour edge all the jokes have. The film didn’t instantly end her career, as M-G-M did for Greta Garbo in the similarly painful TWO-FACED WOMAN/’41, but the handwriting was on the wall.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Taylor’s rep has her going straight from enchanting child to gorgeous grown up. But at 16, she can look pretty awkward, with stooped posture and a big bulging forehead. Two years on (see FATHER OF THE BRIDE/’50) she’s fully emerged from chrysalis.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Journeyman contract director Jack Conway, in his swansong, really phones this one in. At M-G-M since 1925, even his good films would have been better under someone else.

Friday, February 10, 2017

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

45 years after THE LAST PICTURE SHOW/’71, Jeff Bridges figuratively steps into the boots of Sam the Lion in this modest, but effective cops-and-robbers meditation. (Hard to believe Ben Johnson was a mere 53 when he played Sam; Bridges is 67.) Taylor Sheridan’s original script sets its leathery characters in today’s economically busted North Texas, but the mind-set goes back. Not so much to LAST PICTURE SHOW’s early ‘50, but to it’s filmmaking era of ‘70s indie cinema, when a police procedural could mosey along at a walking pace, even wear a social conscious on its sleeve. (It’s partly this sense of film culture nostalgia that’s getting the film overpraised; it works just fine without the critical oversell.) Ben Foster and, especially, Chris Pine give expert service as deadbeat brothers working a series of two-bit ‘teller-drawer’ bank robberies, raising just enough cash to pay off a series of loans, taxes, fines & child support to wash the slate clean and save their late mom’s ranch. Bridges is the about-to-retire Texas Ranger piecing the case together with Gil Birmingham’s sidekick of an officer. Together, they’re a working delight, with Bridges’ appalling racial slights tucked in, at once wounding & funny. Director David McKenzie takes a leap forward here, as if regulated by the Texas heat to stop forcing his material and enjoy the view, along with the stubbornly eccentric characters (leading & supporting) and letting the squalid land & lives speak for themselves. It’s the sort of project that’s drifting to cable these days. But what a relief to get it without filler bloating it up to ten episodes. A reminder of how much you can get done in 100 minutes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Too bad the budget didn’t stretch far enough for 35mm film instead of whatever excellent digital system they used. You can almost taste the missing textural element.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, LAST PICTURE SHOW.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE! (1972)

‘Spaghetti’ Western meets THE DIRTY DOZEN in this odd (though not odd enough) Civil War actioner with top-lined James Coburn, Bud Spenser & Telly Savalas. Director Tonino Valerii, who’d follow with the popular MY NAME IS NOBODY/’73 for Sergio Leone, puts together propulsive battle scenes, but moves his plot forward with conveniently overheard conversations, planted Boulevard Farce style. And many a blackout cutaway to cover up all the narrative culs-de-sac. Still, it’s a decent enough set up, spotting Coburn in front of a motley crew of condemned cutthroats who’ve joined his suicide-mission to save their necks . . . temporarily. Coburn’s got three goals: Recapture the fort he surrendered to Johnny Reb without a fight; Steal a fortune in Confederate gold; Wreak personal revenge against fort commander Telly Savalas. It’s possible that the ill-defined moves & motives add up better in longer cuts released abroad (up to half an hour extra), but only the 90 minute Stateside release has Coburn doing his own vocals. So, cuts and all, best to stick with the sharp looking Kino-Lorber DVD. These things are what they are, a decent time waster with Coburn in fighting trim, a likeably chunked out Bud Spencer, Savalas holding a silent menacing stare in lieu of much dialogue, unnaturally large chins on the convict-fighters and little attempt to hide either the Spanish locations or Spaniards dressed in grey, going down as Johnny Reb.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Go back a year for some real Sergio Leone/James Coburn in the underseen DUCK, YOU SUCKER/’71. Leone wasn’t planning on directing that one either, but Coburn & co-star Rod Steiger shamed him into it. It takes its time gearing up, but once it does, boy, oh boy!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This film’s composer, Riz Ortolani, honors Ennio Morricone with ‘the sincerest form of flattery’ all thru the pic.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

KISS ME KATE (1953)

Possibly the most sophisticated B’way Musical of its era, this fiercely clever backstager, with a show-within-a-show and a racy, top-drawer Cole Porter score, had the misfortune to land with some of M-G-M’s least sophisticated talents. (The A-listers on the M-G-M lot were busy elsewhere, filming that best of all backstagers THE BANDWAGON.) The basic concept holds, squabbling exes play out a sort of personal Taming of the Shrew backstage while putting up a new production of the Shakespeare original on-stage. Too good an idea to miss entirely, but they try, oh, they try. And start right from the beginning, tossing out the unbeatable curtain-riser, ANOTHER OPENING, ANOTHER SHOW, for two deadly reels in the apartment of leading man Howard Keel as he tries to woo ex-wife Kathryn Grayson (shrill & brutally overparted) with Cole Porter himself playing his new songs. (Really crew-cut Ron Randell, perfectly awful.) Then, flirty Ann Miller drops in to tap out ‘Too Darn Hot’ for no good reason. Things improve, how could they not?, once we head to the theater and get a little closer to the play script. (Though every single alteration in story & structure is for the worse.) But if some of the stage action & musical performances come across (Bob Fosse dazzles with a taste of his jazzy future in ‘From This Moment On’), the behind-the-scenes dramatics are strictly high school theatrics. Did producer Jack Cummings (a Louis B. Mayer son-in-law) and director George Sidney even notice? Maybe they were too busy ensuring that enough props were tossed directly at the 3D cameras . . . only to have the film largely go out ‘flat.’ Then, right at the end, adding insult to injury, Porter’s musical setting of Kate’s wifely abjection, the ironically played climax of the play, gets axed so Grayson can recite it seriously. Seriously?

LINK: Hardly a song lyric isn’t bowdlerized here. Listen out for the changes and a taste of the original production in this tantalizing clip of Alfred Drake recreating his role singing THE LIFE THAT LATE I LED in one of those late-‘50s tv ‘spectaculars,’ a tab version of the show with some original cast members. In diction, characterization, precision, humor & ease of delivery, the guy was the real deal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-E2GM5bB3IY

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A London theatrical taping, based on the most recent B’way revival, doesn’t really work, a failed compromise between film & stage technique. But that 1958 tv version, in a lousy b&w kinescope, is available.

DOUBLE-BILL/Cautionary Edition: Screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley and producer Jack Cummings (uncredited) reunited to screw another Cole Porter stage hit in CAN-CAN/’60. They even dropped the show’s biggest hit, ‘I Love Paris.’

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

LOS VIAJES DEL VIENTO / THE WIND’S JOURNEY (2009)

Fabulist cinema about, of all things, accordion culture in 1968 Northern Columbia. Ciro Guerra’s richly imagined film recalls the Taviani Brothers, say, NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS/’82, but intimate rather than epic; South American rather than Italian. It really is the story of an accordion and a reluctant accordionist. A special, hard to play instrument, it’s taken an unhealthy possession of current ‘keeper,’ middle-aged troubadour Ignacio. Recently widowed, he’s now desperate to return the accursed accordion to its original master hundreds of miles away. Joined by a young acolyte who wishes to learn its secrets (and just get out of town), their long, dangerous journey is studded by a series of startling set pieces that border on magical realism, tested by natural terrain & human foible. A village accordion competition with improvised verses used to attack. A sudden command for accordion accompaniment to a duel of love & honor on a wooden bridge. A sacred convocation of indigenous drummers hoping to earn a blood baptism. A brotherly meeting (and fare-the-well) at a mountain abode. Even murder . . . of an accordion! All unlikely, all enthralling. (With perhaps two too many. Must there always be a cock fight in these things?) The pacing can turn a bit glacial at times, but if it’s a trudge, it’s a bewitching one. Never more so than at journey’s end.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, SHOOTING STARS; or more Guerra with his remarkable follow up, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT/’15. (See below)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Who knew ACCORDION would be such a fun word to type?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

SENZA PIETÁ / WITHOUT PITY (1948)

Roughly made, but fascinating Italian film, a melodrama with Neo-Realist trimmings from director Alberto Lattuada (who’d later make MAFIOSO/’62) & co-scripted by Federico Fellini (who’d later make . . . well, you know). It lays out the inner-workings of an Italian coastal town in the aftermath of WWII where everything runs on Black Market capitalism, overseen by a pitiless man-in-white who pulls all the strings. And that would include a host of lost women, drifting into prostitution while trying to raise cash to go home, send home, or bribe their way out. One of them memorably played by Fellini’s actress wife, Giulietta Masina, in something of a try-out for NIGHTS OF CABIRIA/’57. Here, she’s a girl who gets away while a less lucky new friend, Carla Del Poggio (Lattuada’s actress wife), is jailed on a trumped up charge after rescuing an American soldier during a shooting incident. That’d be John Kitzmiller (well remembered for a turn with Sean Connery in DR. NO/’62), he’s one of the many black G.I.s trying to stay in Italy rather than go home to face Stateside prejudice. He winds up unlikely protector to Del Poggi, but the cards, or rather, the contraband wars, are stacked against them. Loaded with clichés in theme, story & character, and substituting easily digested passive/progressive racial politics for a leading man (Kitzmiller is one happy-go-lucky, spiritual humming, non-sexual being), they do manage to get close to the target anyway. But it's more historical curiosity than convincing drama.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In addition to Lattuada & Fellini, there’s quite the check list of emerging Italian talent in here: producer Carlo Ponti; music Nino Rota; co-writer Tullio Pinelli; designer Piero Gherardi; cinematographer Aldo Tonti.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

Undoubtedly Mel Brooks’ best film, a deliriously funny, sharply observed take-off/love letter on the great cycle of ‘30s Universal horror films. (Mostly FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF . . . , with a hunk of R.K.O.’s KING KONG.) But why so much better then the rest of Brooks’ output? Obviously, much credit goes to Gene Wilder who came up with the idea, co-wrote, brilliantly stars & insisted on staying close to the source, especially in the look. Setting up a b&w feature film in 1974 was no ‘gimme.’ But a real story and a unifying style gave Brooks a discipline in execution he’d never held to before; nor would again. (THE PRODUCERS/’67, his only other original with a story that matters, is devoid of style.) Here, Brooks & Wilder keep the jokes grounded in genre (compare with the anything-goes gags in Brooks’ proto-Hitchcockian HIGH ANXIETY/’77), and the plot builds enough traction to tug any clunkers along. The cast, a festival of comic loons at peak level, are all standouts, but Peter Boyle’s monster earns special kudos for his unique song-and-dance chops and for the blissed-out hilarity of a long sequence with Gene Hackman’s inadvertently sadistic blind hermit. As painfully funny as W.C. Fields in IT’S A GIFT/’34 with his own destructive blind man.* American comedy doesn’t get much better than that.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: File under ‘Don’t Try This At Home’ - note that the film is structured not in the usual THREE Acts but in FOUR. Fade-outs make the act breaks easy to spot. They teach this script in film school . . . and always get this wrong.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Hackman’s hermit doesn’t look much like the lonely soul in the old FRANKENSTEIN pic, instead going for a startling likeness of director John Ford’s brother Francis Ford, a regular supporting actor in the Ford company. (See profiles below.)

Francis Ford in THE QUIET MAN

Gene Hackman

Friday, February 3, 2017

LORE (2012)

Well received, though not quite good enough, LORE is a WWII end-game film taken from a child’s POV. Lore, at fourteen she’s the eldest of five siblings, is left in charge after her pro-Nazi parents flee the advancing Allies. Trying to reach grandmother who lives across the international sectors that now divide defeated Germany, the children reluctantly latch on to a wandering Jew, a survivor with secrets of his own. Alone & directionless, the young man suddenly finds his Jewish identity papers an asset, especially to sympathetic American soldiers. It certainly sounds intriguing, but it plays a little too neat. Or is it the manner of Australian director Cate Shortland with hard to read close-ups predominating and only letting us know as much as the children do. Indoctrinated in Nazi ideology by the missing parents, they’re certainly an ungrateful lot, slow to adjust to the fast changing situations and tragically unaware of just how tough & unsentimental you’d need to be to survive years on the run. The script also has its troubles moving to the next step along the route. At its best in moments of split-second confusion and its worst when trying to be dramatically thoughtful, considerably weighing down its own endgame.

DOUBLE-BILL: Agnieszla Holland’s EUROPA EUROPA/’90 covers more ground with less forcing.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

BLINDFOLD (1965)

Hopeless. Writer turned writer/director Philip Dunne (HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41; THE ROBE/’53) was an unlikely choice on this lightweight thriller from Universal, meant to hit the same notes as CHARADE/’63. Rock Hudson & Claudia Cardinale more-or-less stand-in for Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn, but the package lacks the sparkle, macabre wit, style & clever plot twists of that Stanley Donen/Peter Stone film.* Hudson, playing a womanizing shrink with commitment fears, is secretly helping the military with a paranoid ex-patient, a brilliant scientist now considered a flight-risk for defection. Waylaid by spirited sister Cardinale, they wind up on the run from bad guys, good guys and a few in-between guys; falling in love while trying to sort them all out. Dunne, whose best work was done on prestige projects @ 20th/Fox in the ‘40s & ‘50s, hasn’t the light touch for these things, the supporting cast is particularly overwrought, hammering out character tics & punch lines, and Cardinale’s scratchy voice just bounces off Hudson’s suave baritone. Lenser Joseph MacDonald, a fellow 20th/Fox refugee, does well by the bridle paths of Central Park, only to succumb to the hideous overlit interiors so typical of Universal house-style in the ‘60s. By the third act, Dunne stops caring about making any sense of things, eager to get it over. Finished at 57, he must have known he’d made one pic too many.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Universal still wanted another CHARADE and soon gave Donen & Stone a shot at it with ARABESQUE/’66. In this one, Gregory Peck & Sophia Loren more-or-less stand-in for Grant & Hepburn. And if the film is, at best, only a reasonable facsimile of what worked so well in CHARADE, it gets a lot closer to the target than BLINDFOLD ever does.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

PRIME CUT (1972)

After John Boorman reconfigured the rules of engagement on violent revenge pics in POINT BLANK/’67, everyone wanted in on the action. But director Michael Ritchie was too much the sophisticated satirist to run this Mob Enforcement/Meat Packaging tale at face value. A MidWest cautionary tale, it’s more whack-o than whack, bumping its violent/absurdist tone up from Elmore Leonard level (an adaptor’s dream), then up again past Carl Hiaasen (an adaptor’s nightmare) into something really far gone, perverse & deliciously overripe. And damned if he doesn’t pretty much get away with it. Gene Hackman (billed after the title in a role he must have signed for pre-FRENCH CONNECTION/’71) is the Kansas City cattle king, successful enough to have stopped paying kickbacks to Chicago. But the Mob demands their cut, and hires Lee Marvin to head West and lay down the law. Once there, it’s mano-a-mano mayhem & shootouts, with Hackman’s angelic-looking farmboy henchmen chasing Marvin & his Chicago goons thru waving fields of virgin wheat. There’s even a bright red thrasher in a sequence Ritchie sets up as a variation on Hitchcock’s crop-dusting set-piece from NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59. And off-the-wall moments as Hackman glad-hands businessmen from a meat buyer’s convention, offering nude orphan girls he’s cooped up in cattle pens, drugged for easy pickin’. That’s where Marvin takes a fancy to Sissy Spacek (in her debut) and turns unlikely protector. One more side to a plot that seems to be missing more than a few pieces. At a very short 86 minutes, who knows what else got left behind.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Chicago’s Meat Packing heydays were long gone by 1972. Was the film production downgraded from expensive period piece to lunatic contemporary? A Depression Era setting would make more sense in many ways, but perhaps it plays better in the absurd.