Friday, September 28, 2012

170. MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS (2012)



Thanks to Mark Ruffalo, this is the best Hulk movie ever once they get around to him, but an also-ran for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans - bad costume again, and didn't he cry "Avengers Assemble!" even once?), a bleh for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a non-starter for the pair who aren't even properly costumed or addressed as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). I couldn't believe that the latter's super power was basically that she was a woman who had been around and knew how to play men. Scarlett Johansson obviously didn't waste any time learning a Russian accent, and I don't think I saw her sting anyone, but she scores the movie's funniest moment in the movie (see pictured), scowling portentously over a handgun as alien warriors drop through some kind of galactic gateway in the sky over Manhattan. As for Hawkeye, if anything happens to Daniel Craig, they can drop that guy Renner right into the Bond slot and no one will ever know he's gone.

I admit this is marginally better-written than most of the Marvel stuff, but why were people so excited about this, going back to see it again and again? The villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a snooty Asgardian god with an inferiority complex, is dwarfed by his own hat and the evil he visits upon the world is only trivially explained. Iron Man is a egomaniacal jerk with an unbelievable scientific bent, Captain America is patriotic, Hulk is angry, Fury is authoritative ("That is NOT an option!" he barks at a dying man)... everybody here is reduced to single adjectives, but of course, the screen is so crowded with people, there is no time to shade or develop any characters in meaningful ways. Of all the Marvel books, THE AVENGERS was always the most simplistic anyway, always focusing on highly combustible superhero egos. The best Marvel comics always had a human dimension; it's what made them unusual and remarkable for their time, it's what made their superhero dramatics more plausible; they gave us food for thought that we could take to nourish our own lives. This movie doesn't really have any of that, just a message about how eccentrics and outsiders are important too, with gifts of their own to bring to the table when their country needs them. Who knows, maybe it'll inspire some comics geeks to vote.

Viewed via Amazon Instant Video.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

169. QUADROPHENIA (1979)



This teen drama set in 1965 -- adapted from The Who's 1973 rock opera follow-up to TOMMY by Dave Humphries (THE HAUNTING OF JULIA), Martin Spellman (DEFENSE OF THE REALM) and its director, Franc Roddam -- has a cult following but, despite some terrific scenes and some memorable characters (like the gnomish, lovesick, little pre-punk girl played by Toyah Willcox), it feels even more narratively half-baked than Pete Townshend's musical scenarios tend to be.

Why is this character Jimmy (Phil Daniels, pictured) our protagonist? What is his arc? We know he's a Mod, which sets up what begins to be a conflict as his boyhood pal Kevin (Ray Winstone) returns from a stint in the Army as a Rocker, but this thread peters out when Kevin is mistakenly beaten by a group of Jimmy's mates, who mistake him on sight for another Rocker who's owed their revenge. What does Jimmy get out of the pills he takes? What attracts him to being a Mod? Some of these questions are addressed by the album, but the album also presents Jimmy as a romantic, which is not at all how Daniels portrays him, which reminded me more than once of a teenage James Woods. He's clearly hung up on Steph (Leslie Ash, pictured), an attractive, pally sort of girl who's looking for the handsomest date and the best time, but he's not shy about her -- maybe the speed helps him to overcome that shyness, but we're never shown the internal struggle. As the narrative progresses (one hesitates to call it a story, it's so elliptical), bits and pieces of the rock opera filter into the soundtrack like pins on a map, not unlike the Who pics and posters amid the naked ladies pinned to Jimmy's bedroom wall, to remind us this is an adaptation that's headed at least to the final song if not a final point. The synthesizer-washed music feels so much not of this time, and so much not spiritually emanated from its obnoxious hero, that the film almost certainly would have managed better without it -- with the exception of that necessary closing song, "Love, Reign On Me."

Where the film ends up is with Jimmy at the brink of an awakening, which is where most stories involving awakenings begin to be told. He reaches a point, after a series of disappointments, where he can suddenly see that the things most meaningful to him, were just a laugh to everyone else. The only gesture toward a definition of the title is a shot of Jimmy's moping expression reflected in a battery of four rear-view mirrors on the right side of his Lambretta scooter. (I also noticed that Sting -- who's very stiff in this, especially when he dances -- drives a GS scooter, thus bearing his real name initials, which probably annoyed him.) I'm not saying QUADROPHENIA is bad; it's far from my favorite Who album in the first place, and the film is not anything remotely connected to my own life experience, nor does it give me enough reasons to care about Jimmy's. TOMMY, which was, also had the benefit of Ken Russell directing it, which gave the loose storyline a coherent and compelling visual vocabulary that made it substantially irresistible.

QUADROPHENIA was recently issued (by Criterion on Blu-ray and as a two-disc DVD set) in its uncut version, which includes some frontal male nudity in a bathhouse scene. Their new presentation also introduces a magnificent new 5.1 mix that brilliantly scatters the different sonic layers of the various Who tracks, giving it something close to the Quintophonic presence of Russell's TOMMY. (It needs to be played loud because some of the dialogue becomes muffled at lower volumes -- for example, I missed the former, ringing clarity of the party bloke who finishes Roger Daltrey's "Why don't you all just f-f-f-f-" in "My Generation" with an exuberant "Fuck off!", though it should be there in the original 2.0 mix also included.) The 1.77:1 framing looks beautifully refreshed and contemporary, with added sheen and depth, totally belying the fact that this film is now over 30 years old. The extras include a feature-length director's commentary, interviews with The Who's co-manager and sound engineer, archival set documentation, and more. A booklet with notes by critic Nick James and Pete Townshend's original album liner notes is also provided.

Viewed via Criterion Blu-ray.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

168. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011)


David Gelb's documentary about 85 year-old sushi master Jiro Ono -- whose tiny restaurant in Tokyo has a one-month waiting list, no menu, fewer than 10 seats and no indoor toilet -- is a mostly deadpan, appreciably austere study in craftsmanship, passionate work ethic, and the burdens of tradition and heredity.

Jiro, who makes one piece at a time and watches you eat with a grim, cat-like visage, left his unhappy home at the age of nine, describes how he was forced to succeed by having no other alternative, opining that it's the worst thing parents can do to offer their children a comfortable home they can always come back to, no matter what. His own son, Yoshikazu, now in his 40s or 50s, may not live with his father, but he works diligently by his side, as he has done since his teens; his own situation is in some ways enviable, as he has learned from the very best, but also awful. As one of his colleagues notes, Jiro earned his top-of-the-line three-star Michelin rating as a sushi chef on the basis of his son's preparations exclusively, and Yoshi will never be recognized for his own expertise once he inherits the family restaurant unless he somehow manages to become twice the master his father is.

As with any film rooted in food (BABETTE'S FEAST comes to mind), it's frustrating not to be able to sample the delicious, highly textured food we're shown, or to be told (for example) what Jiro is brushing onto his sushi just before he serves it -- oil? soy sauce? or something still more exotic? But as a food critic interviewee explains, Jiro's mastery is rooted in his ability to reduce the artform of sushi to its barest, yet most flavorful essentials, a useful detail that sends the viewer's own tastebuds on a reductive journey of their own past experience. Like the subject himself, JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is a humble but centered and expressive film about the pursuit and imposition of divine artistic order upon one of life's greatest pleasures.

Viewed via Netflix.    

167. THIS IS CINERAMA (1952)














I continue to have awestruck memories of my initial exposure to the miracle of Cinerama in childhood -- the parting of those pleated curtains felt, to me, like the parting of the Red Sea -- and this, the original Cinerama release, is something I've long wanted to see and experience. Flicker Alley is bringing THIS IS CINERAMA to Blu-ray, preserving the original three-camera, curved screen, panoramic experience by means of incorporating the proscenium at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Los Angeles, whose curtain and screen were digitally photographed and recreated here, with the film inserted in the Smilebox format. This results in a truer-to-experience, more satisfying memento than was HOW THE WEST WAS WON, the first Smilebox release of a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the budget allotted to the 18-month restoration -- mastered from a 65mm composite negative -- was not on the same level as that earlier release, a feature film that also benefited from the lessons learned about this potentially static medium in the interim.

The primary fault with THIS IS CINERAMA, as a home video experience, is that it required its cinematography to be locked down, keeping much of its spectacle at a distance in order to be all-encompassing. So, while the overall image looks quite nice and ripely colored, with good contrast, there is a fair amount of minute detail -- leaves, rocky terrain, stage design -- that is too microscopic to be clearly defined. No matter what you do, nothing is going to change the fact that this film is more than half a century old. Obviously, the larger your screen, the closer you sit, enabling the image's periphery to dominate your own, the more accurate a demonstration of Cinerama you'll receive; otherwise, you might find it interesting to stand with your nose about 12 inches away from your screen during, say, the opening Rockaway Park roller coaster ride, to get an idea of how much of a sensory experience this film originally delivered in 1952. Because the playback is flat, however curved it may pretend to be, the centermost of the three filmed panels will appear to bulge forward, making images intended to appear concave, look convex instead. It's not Cinerama itself, but a souvenir of that experience.

Introduced and narrated by Lowell Thomas, the Merian C. Cooper production -- which also introduced stereophonic sound to the movie-going experience -- packages an epic tour of the technology's possibilities, not unlike the subjective "Hat" demo reels seen in Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), though the content here is no longer calculated to knock anyone's socks off. Things get off to a rousing start with a wild rickety roller coaster ride, but then things settle way down for a long time with performances by a church choir and pipe organ, a beautifully staged opera performance at La Scala, the Vienna Boy's Choir, some cloggers, a Florida-based water show (which made me wish that THE ENDLESS SUMMER had been shot in Cinerama), and more -- topped off by an extensive aerial tour of the United States from coast to coast. On some levels, the film is fascinating as a cross-section of what US adult audiences of the 1950s considered luxurious, funny, patriotic and holy, but these same aspects can become grating at feature length, leaving the viewer feeling stuck in a church pew and/or a propaganda-happy political rally. I'm happy to be shown the majesty of the Grand Canyon, but to have "America The Beautiful" driven down my throat at the same time dampens my appreciation of its natural majesty. As drawn into the technology as we might be -- and the sheer futurism audiences were seeing here qualifies THIS IS CINERAMA as a kind of retro-science fiction -- its occasional overbearance and tastelessness makes one ready to take a break by the time the Intermission comes. Mine lasted over 24 hours.

I think most people who see the film now, for the first time and without the grace of nostalgia there to billow their sails, will find it on the tedious side; nevertheless, seeing THIS IS CINERAMA is an experience that every devotée of cinema should have -- as an insight into where our world was 50 years ago, and who our parents or grandparents were in their relationship to that world. Flicker Alley's Blu-ray includes a nice 20m documentary about the film's digital restoration process, a 5m "breakdown" reel meant for use in case the film snapped, a detailed audio commentary (which I've not yet sampled), an alternative post-Intermission opening geared to European audiences, and much more.

Viewed via Flicker Alley's Blu-ray, which streets September 25.      

Sunday, September 16, 2012

166. THE GLASS CAGE (1961/64)

This independently made psychological thriller, shot in Los Angeles, has a complicated history. It was made under the present title in 1960 and first shown publicly at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1961 with actor John Hoyt (who also co-produced and co-scripted) in attendance. In 1964, it was acquired by Futuramic Releasing, the company who chopped Mario Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY down to the incomprehensible WHAT!, and given a brief theatrical release in New York under the title DON'T TOUCH MY SISTER. It subsequently became part of a short-lived TV syndication package under the moniker DEN OF DOOM.

The only directorial job of Antonio Santéan (the screenwriter of DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY), this is not unlike a shot-on-location police procedural with the poetic, off-kileter atmosphere of a classic OUTER LIMITS episode. Hoyt stars as a world-weary police lieutenant, but the real lead is Robert Kelljan (the future director of the Count Yorga movies) as younger police sergeant Jeff Bradley, whose assignment to a case involving a shot man's fatal fall from a second floor ledge introduces him to Ellen Sawyer (Arline Sax), a shy, overly sheltered young woman who admits to firing the shot at the intruder in self-defense. Things take a slow turn toward psychological horror as Jeff becomes enamored of Ellen, whom he soon recognizes as emotionally fragile and living too much under the sway of her more psychologically assertive twin sister Ruth (also Sax). As Jeff's cautious courtship proceeds, more signs arise that Ellen is more deeply disturbed than he suspects, for reasons eventually traced back to the proverbial moment of trauma.

Under her subsequently adopted name Arlene Martel, Arline Sax starred opposite Robert Culp in the OUTER LIMITS episode "Demon with a Glass Hand" which, like her nightmare sequence here, was shot in LA's famous Bradbury Building. Also featuring Elisha Cook, Jr. in a creepy, pivotal role and King Moody as a greasy artist appropriately named Tox.

Will be reviewed at greater length in VIDEO WATCHDOG 171.
 
Viewed on Sinister Cinema VHS.

Friday, September 14, 2012

165. SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)

























Sometimes there are movies quietly waiting for you to discover them like loaded guns. I was innocently cleaning my office when I found, in separate round snapcases, a pair of screeners that TCM had sent to me back in January, of Josef von Sternberg's DISHONORED and SHANGHAI EXPRESS, both starring his great muse Marlene Dietrich. I knew of them but had never seen either of them, the sort of presumptuous relationship those of us who gravitate to underexplored cinema sometimes have with acknowledged classics. Rather than spend another half hour deciding what to watch at the end of my day, I put on SHANGHAI EXPRESS and it went off in my face; I spent the next 90 minutes as entranced as I have ever been in a motion picture.

I think it's probably one of the ten greatest films I've ever seen, possibly the absolute zenith of everything I've seen from the 1930s... but keep in mind that I've yet to see Sternberg's other American films with Dietrich, who is an absolute revelation here. Every close-up she's given by DP Lee Garmes, working with an unbilled James Wong Howe (one of them is pictured), is an absolute masterpiece, which is not something you can say about Greta Garbo, even in QUEEN CHRISTINA. One of the questions that kept hitting me after this film ended was, "How could I have known Dietrich all my life -- from THE BLUE ANGEL, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, TOUCH OF EVIL -- but never seen her?" That is because I waited until my present age to see SHANGHAI EXPRESS.

I need to write about this film (as well as DISHONORED, which joins it in a two-disc set from TCM/Universal) with the detail and respect it deserves, so I will reserve that task for VIDEO WATCHDOG. But, if you haven't seen SHANGHAI EXPRESS yet, you really must.

Viewed on TCM/Universal DVD.

164. THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954)


























Scripted by Crane Wilbur in his fourth decade as a screenwriter, THE MAD MAGICIAN adds to a pulp sensibility that extends as far back as Wilbur's script for the Lon Chaney silent THE MONSTER (1925) while capitalizing on his then-recent success HOUSE OF WAX (1953), also starring Vincent Price and also shot in 3D. In this case, Columbia opted to shoot in black-and-white and to assign director John Brahm, the auteur behind the late Laird Cregar's main masterpieces of menace, THE LODGER (1944) and HANGOVER SQUARE (1945).

One gets the sense that Wilbur's story, while conceptually solid -- Gallico the Great (Price), an accomplished designer of magic tricks, is prevented from becoming a stage magician in his own right due to contracts with businessmen and other miscellaneous blackmailers -- wasn't fully fleshed-out, because the film is not only padded with another appearance from Mr. Paddleball but shows the supplemental conceptual input of Brahm with its Victorian rooming house setting and a gratuitous, somewhat half-hearted restaging of the bonfire sequence from HANGOVER SQUARE. The subplot of the police investigation, the pretty assistant (Mary Murphy) whose detective boyfriend (Patrick O'Neal, who would go on to become a sort of ersatz Vincent Price in CHAMBER OF HORRORS) cracks the case... all this is recycled from HOUSE OF WAX, and goes back even farther to the writings of Edgar Wallace. For all that, the film retains its hold thanks to Vincent Price's then-still-fresh and vigorously vicious brand of villainy, which here is dealt the added allure of magic and disguise, with Price donning some ahead-of-their-time latex masks (designed by Gordon Bau) worthy of Fantômas himself. John Emery is wonderful as Gallico's malevolent rival the Great Rinaldi, and Eva Gabor plays the ambitious wife Gallico lost to his well-moneyed clutches.

The film works best with young viewers, as an adult sensibility can see how much of this was conveniently tossed together; I loved this as a kid, and some of that love carries over to now. I'm certainly indebted to it for being the first movie in my experience to warn me about dealing with ungenerous and unscrupulous businesspeople. One of the beloved parts of the picture involves the heroine unwittingly picking up the wrong package, which, unbeknownst to her, contains a severed human head, and Gallico's (Price's) desperate attempts to retrieve it... at first from her, then from a cab, and then from the police department. Seeing it again, I was disappointed to find the sequence not only not as suspenseful as I remembered, but in that it culminates offscreen and is recounted in dialogue as being without incident, also an enormous cheat. For all that, the buzzsaw and crematorium scenes are not to be missed.

Viewed (in two dimensions) on Sony HD.
  

163. THE JUGGLER (1953)
























Edward Dmytryk (whose early career encompassed THE DEVIL COMMANDS, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN and MURDER, MY SWEET) directed this involving psychological drama, which screenwriter Michael Blankfort based on his own novel. The film stars Kirk Douglas as Hans Muller, a once-celebrated Jewish entertainer who is relocated from the concentration camp he has survived, minus his wife and children who perished there, to a kibbutz in Haifa, Israel. Unwilling to admit his past except to a little girl (played by future SPIDER BABY star Beverly Washburn, who is excellent here), he finds adjustment to survival difficult and he flees his safe haven, seriously injuring a patrolman who asks for his papers. On the road, he makes the acquaintence of Yehoshua (Joseph Walsh, the future screenwriter of Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT), an optimistic young Jewish orphan who wants to learn from Hans the art of juggling, and their relationship begins the healing of his shattered mind. Hans is eventually identified as the patrolman's attacker by a Dutch witness (HOGAN'S HEROES' John Banner) and he and the boy are brought back to the kibbutz after an eventful misadventure into an unexploded minefield. Hans' recovery is attended by Ya'El (Milly Vitale), an attractive resident of the kibbutz who encourages him to stay and give his life meaning by doing good works there with her. The supporting cast includes Paul Stewart, Charles Lane and Alf Kjellin.

The film's exteriors were shot on location while most of its interiors were shot in the studio in Los Angeles, but it's a worthy example of well-meaning, humanistic, socially responsible, constructive cinema by a filmmaker who was subsequently denounced by the HUAC as one of the "Hollywood Ten" and thrown into prison for refusing to incriminate acquaintences affiliated or formerly affiliated with the American Communist party. After months of incarceration, he renounced his original stance and did name names, which freed him and allowed him to work, but which compromised him in the eyes of both sides in the matter, in ways that didn't halt but certainly affected the course of his career. Future actress Daliah Lavi recalls being a 10-year-old "mascot" on the set of this picture, when it was filming on location near her home in Shavei Zion, less than a decade away from playing Douglas' love interest in Vincente Minnelli's TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN. She recounts the story in her interview in the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG (#170).

Viewed via Turner Classic Movies.   

162. TELSTAR: THE JOE MEEK STORY (2008)



Hearing "Telstar" by The Tornados for the first time was a galvanizing moment in my young life, and I've always been fascinated by the legend of do-it-yourself record producer Joe Meek and loved the unique sounds he got onto tape. Likewise, I've been hearing for years that a number of high profile names, including Tom Cruise, have wanted to be involved in a film telling his story, so I was taken aback to discover this fully-fledged UK biopic buried in the "Gay and Lesbian" files of Netflix, which is where you can also find LOST IN TRANSLATION assigned to a list of  "Cerebral Comedies."

There is a great deal about this film that can't be faulted, and ever so much more that can. From the very beginning, the film hurls itself into the ambitious yet misguided task of balancing a sort of manic GARAGE DAYS musical comedy, with lots of minor characters interacting to verge on a point of excitement, beyond which lies the details of heavy depressive STAR 80 tragedy. The energy of it is highly captivating, but the story it tells is rooted in rewritten or disregarded history, informed almost exclusively by the sensationalist approach taken by a notorious BBC ARENA segment devoted to Meek. It overlooks the fact that Meek wasn't just a guy who set up shop in his apartment with hopes of shoehorning his way into the record business, that he was in fact an accomplished recording engineer for major studios in the 1950s. It also makes the various bands he recorded -- including The Honeycombs ("Have I The Right") -- seem like jokes with interchangeable parts, and some of the stories it dramatizes (like Mitch Mitchell, as a young session player, wetting himself in response to Meek pulling a gun on him, à la Phil Spector) don't give us a clear idea of the individuals involved until just before the end credits assigns everyone a proper name. I can't even be sure this happened, since the screenplay by director Nick Moran and James Hicks is also not above inventing incident for the sake of a more time-rooted story, like John Peel showing up to interview Meek for the BBC years before John Ravenscroft adopted that professional name, or Brian Epstein sending Meek tapes of "his boys," in the hopes he'll produce them, which he casually tosses into the dustbin, unheard, with a dismissive "Yeah, yeah, yeah..."

Kevin Spacey appears as Meek's manager Major Wilfred Banks, to give the film some international boxoffice clout, while Con O'Neil gives a powerful, invested performance as Meek. It's riveting on its own terms, especially as he reaches and surpasses his breaking point, though it's not at all true to surviving footage of Meek and inside testimony, which seems to agree that he was always sweet and deferential until those times when he snapped under pressure. I was particularly offended by the insensitive, condescending way the film depicted Meek's obsession with his discovery Heinz (JJ Burt) and the graphic way in which the film depicted his suicide, which again not only doesn't jibe with the eyewitness's account but shows callous disrespect to the artist. Likewise, while the film portrays one of Britain's great originals, a true autodidact and visionary, TELSTAR spends a good deal of its time finding ways to sensationalize and denigrate him, from the best of his ideas to his merest human failings. And so parts of the film I found strangely exhilarating, while much of it left me feeling confused and angry.

Viewed via Netflix.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

158-161. FANTOMAS (1980)


























The individual titles of these films would be:

158. L'ECHAFAUD MAGIQUE ("The Magic Scaffold"), directed by Claude Chabrol.
159. L'ETREINTE DU DIABLE ("The Devil's Embrace"), directed by Juan-Luís Buñuel.
160. LE MORTE QUI TUE ("The Corpse That Kills"), directed by Juan-Luís Buñuel.
161. LE TRAMWAY FANTOME ("The Phantom Railway"), directed by Claude Chabrol.

This sequence of films is regarded as a French television mini-series, yet they are in every vital way four self-contained, feature-length adaptations of Pierre Souvestre & Marcel Allain's early 20th century pulp novels about the genius of crime, Fantômas. The character had previously been dramatized in five silent serials by Louis Feuillade; a 1920 American serial (that was rumored, perhaps falsely, to feature Boris Karloff in an early, small role); a 1932 feature directed by Paul Fejos; a 1947 film by Jean Sacha, and a trilogy of proto-BATMAN camp comedies made in 1964-65 starring Jean Marais and Louis de Funès. This group of films follows the intermediary examples of Georges Franju's 1963 Feuillade adaptation JUDEX and his 1974 pastiche SHADOWMAN (NUITS ROUGES), both scripted by Feuillade's grandson Jacques Champreux, to film a version of the character that is at once true to the novels and their societal effect on such early 1900s groups as the Surrealists. They cherry-pick the best attributes of all these forebears, add a sense of Franju's poetry and a visual palette that recalls Edward Gorey (himself a devotée of the books), while restoring to the character his right to viciousness. Too often, the cinema has done to the character exactly what Feuillade's serials were charged with doing -- romanticizing his criminality -- which Chabrol and Buñuel prove isn't necessary to make Fantômas riveting. In Chabrol's first story, however, there is the added wink of making all his victims overbearing characters guilty of selfishness or egotism.   

Helmut Berger plays Fantômas, who is initially thought by many to be a figment of the hard-working Inspector Juve's imagination. Juve is played, superbly, by Jacques Dufilho, as a quirky but on-the-money sort whose own battery of crime-fighting tools runs the same gamut as that of his demonic adversary -- funny disguises, elaborate traps, faked deaths. They are so comparable that, as in the books but never before in the films, one might easily suspect them of being bound in some way -- as brothers, as a delusion, as a psychological inverted projection. (This is now standard-issue hero/villain dynamic in today's superhero films.) Gayle Hunnicutt, so wonderful as the svelte cat-suited familiar of The Man Without A Face in SHADOWMAN, here plays Lady Beltham, a wealthy amoral socialite who falls for Fantômas after he murders her husband. Pierre Malet is the male ingenue hero Jérome Fandor, itself a false identity assigned by Juve to an orphaned acquaintence so that he might infiltrate a gossip sheet newspaper and help him to blame (the as-yet-unproven) Fantômas in a series of sensational news stories.

I'll be writing about these films at greater length in an upcoming issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Viewed via INA French import DVD. Unfortunately, no official release of these films has yet been issued with English subtitles or dialogue, though the lip movements sometimes suggest that the films may have been shot (at least partly) in English.

157. HORST BUCHHOLZ - MEIN PAPA (2005)

























This bittersweet and sometimes uncomfortably frank documentary was directed by the subject's son, Christopher Buchholz, and Sandra Hacker. I was pleased to find it included -- with English subtitles for those moments not spoken in English (the language the family spoke at home) -- as a bonus disc in the German release of DIE HALBSTARKEN, one of the actor's breakthrough roles, which was not so generously subtitled. Known abroad for his work in such films as TIGER BAY, ONE TWO THREE and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Horst Buchholz has long been a source of fascination for me. I have vague childhood memories of seeing him in a film shown at a drive-in, which ended with his suicide, my first exposure to suicide. Years later, when I discovered films like ASPHALT and TEENAGE WOLFPACK (the US title of DIE HALBSTARKEN), I was all the more impressed by his undeniable star quality and his placement as an early avatar for the New German Cinema. But I have also always wondered why such a compelling figure didn't go further with his magic touch -- and it's a question this film acknowledges and pursues without ever quite nailing an answer. The director's father was a secretive man, and more than one of his interview segments here finds him worked into tight corners with aggressive questioning, which he finally breaks by lighting a cigarette and suggesting they get something to eat.

There are also questions which the German actor's Jewish wife, former actress and now theatrical agent Myriam Bru refuses to answer, like "Do you miss him?" -- yet she acknowledges her late husband's "little affairs" and, most interesting, her attempts to save him from committing professional suicide. (When I saw TEENAGE WOLFPACK, I wondered why he hadn't been scooped up for WEST SIDE STORY, and here's the answer: They wanted him, badly, but Horst "didn't feel like working." He was likewise wanted for the Alain Delon role in THE LEOPARD, but Horst replied "fuck you" when he was asked by an assistant to submit a photograph to Luchino Visconti of himself wearing only undershorts.) We also see Christopher commiserating with his sister Beatrice, now a Sikh known as Simran Kaur Khalsa, about his absences, his problems with communication, expressing affection, and so forth. Christopher goes right after his quarry with his camera's assistance, directly asking his father about his attempts to destroy himself his alcohol, a drunken automobile accident that landed him in a detox clinic, and also about the homosexual side of his bisexuality, which apparently became dominant for him sometime in his middle age. It makes for uncomfortable viewing because Horst fights so hard to retain his mystery and pride.

The film contains numerous clips from films rarely seen in America (I'd love to see his star turn in THE CONFESSIONS OF FELIX KRULL, based on Thomas Mann's final novel), as well as vintage home movies and newsreels of the headline-making marriage of RESURRECTION's costars Buchholz and Bru. Strangely enough, regardless of his accomplishments as an actor, I came away from this film with somewhat less respect for Horst Buchholz as a man and with tremendous respect and admiration for his widow, who -- one can see -- was his anchor and lifeline, who set her own promising career aside to provide that for him. As for the film, it is understandably a bit self-absorbed, as much therapy as documentary for its author, but there is no denying its value as an explanatory footnote to its subject's uneven filmography.

Viewed via Arthaus Premium Edition import DVD

  

156. BICYCLE THIEVES (LADRI DI BICICLETTE, 1948)


Vittorio de Sica's seminal neorealist drama is one of the great Italian films, habitually included on lists of the greatest works of international cinema. It is the very simple story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), an unemployed man in postwar Rome who obtains a job that requires him to have a bicycle, which he obtains with some difficulty, only to have it stolen his first day at work -- as he is affixing a movie poster to a public wall. Accompanied by his spirited, preternaturally mature son Bruno (the extraordinary Enzo Staiola), Antonio takes to the streets in the hope of recovering it, only to be tortured by shame and hunger to the point of thievery himself.

I admired this film tremendously but, for me, it isn't commensurate with the more lacerating humanistic quality of De Sica's UMBERTO D., which followed a year or two later. To look at it closely and honesty, the Ricci family is depicted from the outset as a little too good to be true; these scenes prepare you a little too consciously for the other shoe to drop. Likewise, Maggiorani isn't quite so expressive an actor without Staiola there to externalize the anxieties of his conscience, while the film's real heart exudes from Lianella Carell, who plays the wife and mother of the family, given the appropriately Madonna-like name of Maria. When all is said and done, the film's entire journey doesn't quite top the sucker punch power of an early shot which follows the attendant of a pawn shop, where Maria has taken her best linen to help with the purchase of the bicycle ("We can sleep without sheets"), as he climbs a towering system of shelves where he tosses the rolled material atop dozens of others of its type.

While watching BICYCLE THIEVES for the first time, I had the feeling I've derived from other De Sica films -- that, in the great banquet of cinema, the best of his films embodies its bread. They are that basic, that fundamental and that honest.

Viewed via Arrow Films Blu-ray/DVD combo import set, though it is also available in a similar two-disc set from Criterion domestically. Both sets share a healthy amount of supplementary contents, including a documentary about screenwriter Cesare Zavattini.   
 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

155. THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935)


And forming the final panel in the W.C. Fields/Kathleen Howard/Tammany Hall triptych is this little number from director Clyde Bruckman, which worries the inconsequential into a most amusing pastime. We open with an extended sketch in which Ambrose Wolfinger (Fields), a mild-mannered sort of the maritally embattled type, ritually removes his socks in preparation for a good night's sleep but is perpetually postponed in this necessity by wrong numbers in search of the maternity ward, his hectoring wife Leona's (Howard's) suspicions about why he should be receiving late night summonses from the maternity ward, and eventually a pair of burglars (Walter Brennan as Legs Garnett, Tammany Young as Willie the Weasel) who break into his basement and, upon discovering there several barrels of applejack free for the sampling, take an extreme turn from a would-be robbery into a nostalgic, caterwauling basement singalong that grows exponentially whenever it's discovered.

The next red-eyed morning, Ambrose, a bookkeeper with a catastrophic filing system only he can understand (it's the shove-it-into-the-rolltop-desk principle), has not taken a day off in a quarter-century and covets the morsel-like opportunity of a front row seat at the upcoming wrestling match between Hookolakah Meshobbab (Harry Ekezian) and Tosoff (Tor Johnson... that's what I said, Tor Johnson). His $15 ticket is stolen by his worthless leach of a brother-in-law Claude Neselrode (Grady Sutton), unassailable in the eyes of his Murray Melvin-lookalike mother Cordelia (Vera Lewis), about whose wished-for death Ambrose lies to his trusting employer to steal an afternoon away for himself. As comedies tend to have it, he gets caught (in the gutter, with a secretary no less), but as sentimental Fieldsian comedies have it, he is also exonerated. Mary Brian co-stars as Hope, the grown daughter of Ambrose's first -- and apparently happier -- marriage, who is her father's only source of sincere love and support.

Bruckman authored several of Buster Keaton's best short vehicles and wrote/directed THE GENERAL (1926 - how's that for a first feature film credit?), as well as one of Fields' funniest shorts, THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (1933), before shooting himself with Keaton's gun in 1955 at the age of 60. This was his final shot at directing and, while it's perfectly enjoyable fare, it doesn't have quite enough variety of situation, quotability or hyperbole to give it a whole lot of staying power. Of course, I watched this one after IT'S A GIFT and YOU'RE TELLING ME!, which share some key cast members, so they tend to run together with this one, whose title I couldn't explain, even if there was a trapeze in it. And there wasn't.

Viewed via Universal import DVD, but I believe it's available domestically. 



 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

154. YOU'RE TELLING ME! (1934)


Directed by Erle C. Kenton two years after ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, and featuring ex-manimal Larry "Buster" Crabbe in its male ingenue role, YOU'RE TELLING ME! is a solid W.C. Fields vehicle -- parts of it are every bit as funny as IT'S A GIFT (made three films later in his bumper crop year of 1934), but it also allows itself some seriousness and sentimentality, being more grounded in story than routines.

This was the film that introduced the great Kathleen Howard to Fields' universe, but here she plays Mrs. Murchison, the judgmental socialite mother of Crabbe, a handsome suitor who wants to marry Pauline (Joan Marsh), the ever-supportive daughter of would-be inventor and town drunkard Samuel Bisbee (Fields, loathed by his wife Bessie, played by a woebegone Louise Carter) but is forbidden to do so, as the Bisbees are (shudder) "from the other side of the tracks." Sam, upset at having ruined Pauline's shot at happiness, opts to commit suicide with some spoonfuls of iodine while aboard a train; his attempt fails, and when he sees a bottle of iodine on the table of a fellow passenger -- unbeknownst to him, Princess Lescaboura (Adrienne Ames, pictured) -- he presumes her to be on the same path and intervenes with a "life-saving" pep talk, which charms the traveling royal into visiting his home town and setting all his troubles to rights with a little reflected glory.

In an unusual twist to what one might expect, Fields' insane inventions (like the puncture-proof tire) actually work but bizarre shifts of circumstance prevent them from being recognized as anything but crackpottery... until the happy ending. As the princess, Adrienne Ames is remarkably beautiful and charming in a role that seems like it may have been written with the hope of casting Greta Garbo (how amazing would that have been?); this film would turn out to be the zenith of a short-lived screen career that ended, three marriages later (one of them to Bruce Cabot), with her tragic 1947 death from cancer at the age of only 39.

Viewed via Universal import DVD.

153. IT'S A GIFT (1934)


Norman McLeod's IT'S A GIFT is commonly regarded as W.C. Fields' best movie. I'm not entirely sure that it is, some others seem better rounded, but its reputation likely has something to do with its purity: there's no teenage love story shoehorned into this, no second-billed celebrity guest stars, and it's not based on a famous novel or anything. It's just an unabashed collection of brilliant comic sketches on the theme of the age-old war between Man and Wife and Man and Life. "You all gotta remember one thing: I am the boss of this house!" whispers Harold Bissonette (Fields) to his selfish daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol), lest his domineering wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard) overhear. He's barely able to run his own dry goods store, which a single customer -- the blind and deaf Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) -- manages to reduce to a shower of shattered glass before Baby Dunk (Baby LeRoy) and his inept help (Tammany Young) render it temporarily "Closed on Account of Molasses." Able to anoint his embattled pride only by spreading a false rumor that his surname should be pronounced "Bis-o-nay," Harold dreams of getting rich someday and settling down in California orange grove -- a plan his wife staunchly opposes. But when wealthy relative Uncle Bean kicks the bucket, he pays cash on the barrelhead for a California grove he's never seen and the family pack up and head west.

So many funny moments: Fields trying to shave 100 different ways while his teenage daughter hogs the bathroom mirror; the boistrous-voiced store customer who wants to buy ten pounds of kumquats; the kitchen table banter; and especially the extended tour de force sequence of Fields trying to get some sleep on a precarious porch swing, an endeavor serially thwarted by various passers-by (one in search of a certain LaFong, Carl LaFong), a coconut, gabby neighbors, a squeaky laundry line, and gravity. "'Tis not a night for life," he sings to himself while preparing his lonely bed, "'tis not a night for love." Rare is the man who can't see himself in this.

Viewed on an import Universal DVD. 

152. BITE THE BULLET (1975)


This was writer-director Richard Brooks' (THE PROFESSIONALS) final contribution to the Western genre, which is apt because it subtly depicts the eradication of real Americana by the insidious introduction of American business and its advertising concept of "Americana." Set at the beginning of the 20th century, it pits a group of nine horsemen (including one woman, played by Candice Bergen with a bit too much school-taught enunciation to be dropping her g's) against one another in a newspaper-sponsored 700-mile race across the desert. The prize is $2,000 but everyone has a different reason for wanting it, explored in some sensitively written character study: Mister (Ben Johnson) is a veteran of the Confederate Army in the Civil War, whose medals are worth nothing to pawn and wants to be on the winning side of something that will make people acknowledge him; Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen) is a British devotée of the West who is racing to participate in a waking dream; the Mexican (Mario Arteaga) simply needs the money to survive, and becomes addicted en route to the then-legal pain reliever Heroin, which he uses to nurse a toothache; Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a tough kid full of anger and braggadocio who wants to gain a quick reputation; and then there are two former members of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders: Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman), who is doing it simply to be doing something, and Luke Matthews (James Coburn), who wants to win to get rich, and has gambled on his victory so extensively that his victory will mean enough financially that he can offer to pay a second-ran more than they would gain by winning. Both of these men, but Clayton particularly, have lessons to teach Carbo about what it means to be a man and a horseman, which he gradually learns, but it's more obvious to us than to them that they are really attempting to stave off the corruption of sensibility that is the coming century.

For some reason, even at 131 minutes, this worthwhile film suggests it could have been great if indulged with a more expansive running time. When the characters reach their great soliloquies or moments, in a few cases they feel not wholly earned, as if we haven't gone through enough with them for their words to carry the maximum weight. It may be true that this is how it is in life -- we don't always get to know people, or understand them as they would like to be understood -- but this is drama, regardless of the film's occasional pretensions to realism. It also feels chaotically edited at times, particularly during the epically mounted sequence of the race's commencement, which looks and feels believably random and confusing but might have gained more with focused storyboarding. Nevertheless, the scenery is spectacular, it expresses a rare responsibility toward animals (while at the same time abusing some of them mercilessly with wire trips, falls off cliffs, etc), and there are excellent supporting performances by Dabney Coleman, Robert Hoy, John McLiam (Herb Clutter from Brooks' masterpiece IN COLD BLOOD), Sally Kirkland, and Jean Willes as the whorehouse madam, a rare (and final) screen appearance for the actress, a staple of late 1950s/early 1960s television. There is also a rousing Alex North score, remixed in 5.1 and isolated on Twilight Time's Blu-ray disc.

Viewed on Twilight Time Blu-ray disc, limited to only 3000 copies.

151. THE SLAVE (IL FIGLIO DE SPARTACUS, 1962)


This Steve Reeves adventure dates from what Derek Elley, in his essential book THE EPIC FILM, aptly described as the "covered chest" phase of his career, but it at least finds him in good hands. Sergio Corbucci had previously directed Reeves in DUEL OF THE TITANS (1961), which memorably pitted him against his muscled screen rival Gordon Scott, and he would go on to prove himself one of the top contenders -- maybe the top contender -- among the sub-Sergio Leone directors of Italian westerns, being responsible for such later titles as MINNESOTA CLAY (1964), DJANGO (1966), NAVAJO JOE (1966) and THE GREAT SILENCE (1968). This, a sequel of convenience to SPARTACUS (which, after all, had first been filmed by Riccardo Freda as SPARTACO/THE SINS OF ROME in 1953) -- in which an orphaned Roman centurion is exposed by his medallion as the offspring of the great rebel leader and destined to free the slaves of Rome as his father dared -- is not quite as steady an achievement as those others but it benefits enormously from Egyptian location shooting and some top-notch support, namely BLACK SUNDAY's Ivo Garrani as Julius Caesar, Claudio Gora as Crassus (who meets a superbly grisly end), and the Cleopatra of Italian pepla and the original figurehead of Italian horror, Gianna Maria Canale as Claudia, the covetous wife of Crassus, a character whose fate gives Canale perhaps the finest and most haunting closure of her screen career.

Reeves, dubbed as usual by George Gonnaud (who voices most of the male characters), is clean-shaven and, though not at his competition figure, still impressively built; his performance, however, seems lazier than usual and, once Randus accepts his destiny as the son of Spartacus to don a helmet in the manner of a superhero secret identity and lead the attacks against Crassus and Caesar by night, his downsized physique allows him to be easily doubled in numerous action sequences, likely by Sergio Ciani.

Warner Archive's disc-on-demand is offered without extras in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and it runs nearly 103 minutes, slightly longer than the official US release length of 100m. Though it doesn't have the glassy clarity of a digital remaster, it captures the flavor of 35mm matinee very well -- so expect some healthy grain, dark contrasts (making the day-for-night shots actually convincing) and colors varied and full of juice.

Viewed on Warner Archive DVD-R.

150. BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958)


Richard Quine, who directed most of Kim Novak's vehicles for Columbia, doesn't quite get the most out of this one, but it has an abiding deliciousness about it. You can see it in this frame grab of Novak and her familiar Pyewacket, the compositional highpoint of James Wong Howe's curiously muted color photography, and it's there in the cocktail that this specific combination of players provide. Scripted by Daniel Taradash (PICNIC) from a play by John Van Druten, it pairs Novak and James Stewart (just prior to their classic teaming in Hitchcock's VERTIGO, and already comfortable together onscreen) as two neighbors in a Manhattan apartment building, fated for familiarity. Stewart is book publisher Shepherd Henderson, and Novak is Gillian Holroyd, a member of a local witch coven along with beat club bongo player Jack Lemmon and a ditzy aunt played by Elsa Lanchester, who is given a rare opportunity in her middle age to look (in my view, anyway) as lovely as she was. Stewart is dating painter Janice Rule, an old college roommate of Novak's who says the wrong catty thing, prompting Novak to disrupt their romance with a love spell that sends Stewart into her arms instead. Witches can neither experience love nor shed tears, according to the lore here, which telescopes a third act twist in which Stewart becomes aware of the spell and Novak finds herself unexpectedly in the grip of real love.

There's a pleasant enough (if monotonous) supporting role for Ernie Kovacs, as the hapless alcoholic author of popular mondo-themed books whom Gillian conjures back to the Big Apple as a present for Shep, and scenes for Hermione Gingold and Howard McNear. But nearly all the film's pleasures are sensuous, and thus ideally well-served by Twilight Time's new Blu-ray edition, limited to 3000 copies, which presents George Duning's elegant stereo score on an isolated track and offers Howe's subtly expressionistic color photography with enough grain to keep its crispness honest.

Viewed via Twilight Time Blu-ray disc

149. KICK-ASS (2010)


Based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. (which I have not read), I found this film by Matthew Vaughn extremely disagreeable. Being disenchanted with the tone of contemporary superhero films in the first place, and increasingly contemptuous of what appears to be their general purpose, I found KICK-ASS almost analogous to a catalogue of my reasons why. The residual effect of this film is to discourage imagination, to equate heroism with lawlessness and aggression, to pervert idealism, and to encourage audiences to feel entertained by the psychological corruption and ultimately physical abuse of an innocent.

Aaron Johnson is the star of this movie, about a comic book fan named Dave Lizewski who decides to become a powerless but idealistic masked crimefighter called Kick-Ass, but it is effectively stolen from him by an extraordinarily charismatic and capable performance by Chloe Grace Moretz (pictured) as Hit Girl, a pre-teen trained to become a crimefighter by a frankly psychotic father who, in his Batman-like suit and Adam West voice, is known as Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). Under his younger colleague's tutelage, Kick-Ass acquires some chops he's sadly lacking from the get-go, but his naïveté trips him up when he is charmed into accepting another wannabe, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), as a sidekick -- not realizing that he is actually the son of local crime boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), intent on setting him up and taking him down.

Even though Hit Girl is shown giving as good as she gets, for the most part, the grand finale becomes sickening as she lies helpless on the floor of D'Amico's office, bloodied and helpless to ward off his punches and kicks. When the action sequences are set to manic speedfreak music cues, Vaughn equates what these kids are endangering their lives for with mere cartoonishness and visceral sensation, and when he references Morricone's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE score, it feels rather too Entry Level an attempt to ape Tarantino. I'm not interested enough to write about it at greater length; suffice to say, I found all its emotions to be misplaced and counterproductive. Naturally, there's a sequel coming to your local Ludovico Clinic.

Viewed via Netflix.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

148. LORD JIM (1965)


I put off seeing this Richard Brooks film for many, many years, for the same reason I had no interest in seeing LAWRENCE OF ARABIA for most of my life: because it looked, from a distance, as though the roadshow-sized adventure would overwhelm the human element. However, in both cases, a human story is told; in the case of this Joseph Conrad adaptation, it's the story of a ruined man, shamed and robbed of his self-respect, who finds redemption in an alternative way of living and is given a second chance. Furthermore, it offers the human element of a superb cast, with the likes of Akim Tamiroff, Jack McGowran, Christian Marquand, Walter Gotell, Andrew Keir and John Richardson buried deep within its minutiae.

Like Brooks' BITE THE BULLET (1975, which I'll be reviewing here as #152), this film has the length of an epic, yet the feel of a somewhat diminished one. Some characters of obviously greater depth and promise are dashed off as mere sketches and rewarded with single soliloquies, like Daliah Laví's "The Girl", while some great actors (James Mason, for example) seem to have signed on for the promise of having more to do. Indeed, Mason's second-billed role as the pirate Gentleman Brown -- the most decisive encounter of Jim's (Peter O'Toole's) life -- is introduced quite late and must always share the screen with fellow scoundrels Curd Jurgens and Eli Wallach. A great deal of expense appears to have been thrown at ships and period settings that are used as brief illustrations rather than properly lived in and inhabited, but the Cambodian locations used in the second half of the film are appropriately alien and haunting.

Originally photographed and released in 2.20:1 70mm prints, LORD JIM tends to be shown on cable and other outlets today in 1.78:1 pan-and-scan transfers at best, which is what I watched. It was recently reissued on DVD-R through Warner Archive in a transfer that should be truer to its intended impact. The miniature work involving the ships (credited to Wally Veevers and Cliff Richardson) is wonderful, and one reason the film remains potent is that all of its spectacle involving actors takes place in real space in real time; if remade today, a lot of this would be done with CGI and it would not feel one-tenth as engrossing, dangerous or heroic.