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Beautifully photographed terrible movie.
3 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers

This is a terrible movie that normally I would not watch but I was desperate. I have no recollection of its being released. It's a 1987 release, and I was reviewing films at that time so possibly it went straight to VHS. Its not even listed under this title on the IMDb but as The Vern Miller Story after the famous gangster. That's right, while I'd never heard of Vern Miller there was a real life gangster named Vern Miller, and this kinda is his story. Not any more inaccurate than most screen biographies, but maybe a little less. But what has me bowels in an uproar about this film is not so much how terrible it is, but how wonderful the visuals are. How can a film be so terrible but look so good? It means virtually writing two reviews for the same movie. Its easy to dissect the shortcoming of the scripted and directed parts of the film but far more difficult to praise the visuals. Actually the excellent visuals highlight the dramatic shortcomings. Action sequences are non sequiturs with succeeding scenes failing to follow up on the action. They're sort of stranded and exist on to themselves. There is no dramatic timeline, no progression, no development of themes. Characters pop in and out of the narrative without much individuality. Its hard to know who these people are and what their connection is to each other and Vern Miller. Miller is talked about as something special but beyond being a cold blooded killer he doesn't seem particularly adept. The opening, pre credit sequence is a good example.

A couple of what are usually described as "jazz babies" are seen on a country road in a roadster. He is wearing what's supposed to be a raccoon coat, he has a silver flask which he places playfully in his girlfriend's crotch. Suddenly a sedan rolls across the road and the roadster hits it and stops. Out steps Scott Glenn and it comes to pass that he identifies himself by taking out two huge revolves from shoulder holsters and shoots his initials in the door of the sedan. Then the movie credits begin. What have we just seen? Was it a robbery? Car hijacking. A kidnapping? Double murder? Who knows, but its never referred to again. Its is visceral and emotional in that it seems as though there is some menace in this highway stop, but its never followed up. This recalls similar scenes in Bonnie & Clyde and Badlands, both with radically different results, but this has NO resolution. What did I just see? It was well photographed, but what just happened?

The rest of the picture is like that. Vern Miller goes to work for Al Capone (not factual), and I guess because of the budget, he is not seen in an elaborate office or swank restaurant surrounded by sycophants, but in a cramped room. The actors surround this Capone are mostly bland and faceless, small town preppy guys with no personalities. In fact all of the actors seem recruited from a college drama department or a dinner theater. No character develops, they just are. I found myself living that old Jerry Seinfeld routine where a guy watching a movie can'r distinguish between the different actors. "Wait, is that the same guy? Oh, its a different guy. Or is it?"

The women are just as interchangeable and act like middle school seductresses. Adventurous crimes are flattened out like a sheet of paper that needs to be folded like origami to resemble something. Its just monotonous and mundane. A mundane gangster film, how did they do that? The thing just dribbles on until the climactic set piece, the raison d'être of the film, which is a recreation of the famous Kansas City Massacre, when a gang tried to free Frank Jelly Nash, a notorious bank robber, being transferred under FBI custody. They made their attack in front of the Kanas City train station.

No doubt the budget was very small, so instead of a big city location, a hick town of the type where looking three blocks in any direction reveals wheat fields was used. It reminds me the Monty Python gag where two groups of housewives stage the Battle of Hastings by attacking each other with handbags. The action is fast and confusing. Maybe as confusing as in real life as its now generally acknowledged that the deaths were mainly the result of wild police gunfire. Four cops and Frank Nash all died. The FBI claimed that Adam Richetti and Pretty Boy Floyd were Miller's accomplices but that was probably one of Hoover's ploys to arm the FBI and give them powers of arrest. Richetti was later captured and executed for the crime. So this is a total botch. You have to figure they could have done better in finding an urban setting for the shoot out. The rest is anti climax.

The real Miller was found dead near Detroit in what has been assumed was a mob hit in retaliation with for the failure of the Kansas City job or more probably killing a New Jersey gangster. Which reminds me there is no sense of geography in this picture. Its all back roads and lonely stores and rural gas stations. people speak with generic drawls. Dialogue scenes are difficult to hear and conversations flaccid. But everything looks great. There are close ups in perfect focus. Medium shots perfectly lit. Long shots artistically framed. They're even reasonably joined together but they're not enough to tell a story.
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Capra's first all-talking picture. An amusing rarity.
9 November 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The Donovan Affair

The Donovan affair has two distinctions. It was the first all talking picture directed by Frank Capra. And it a semi lost film. There are complete prints of the film. It has been transferred to safety film and there are preservation copies in existence. However it was made in the earliest talking picture era (1929) using the Vitaphone process which meant it was shown in theaters using the sound on disk method, where the sound track was synchronized to the film. Unfortunately, no copies of the soundtrack disks have been found. Furthermore, no copies of the script have ever been found. There was a censor's dialogue guide which proved to be inaccurate. This means that beyond its original release it was impossible to show it.

Some enthusiasts decided to take on the impossible. They were going to resurrect the dialogue through a combination of lip reading and guesswork. So a band of actors have recreated the dialogue track six times in the past 22 years, each time improving on the last. So each showing is an event. This past October, Bruce Goldstein at the Film Forum, presented two performances of The Donovan Affair complete with sound effects and even static to simulate the background noise of an 80 year old soundtrack.

To be sure this is no lost work of art as say the many, many lost reels of Greed are. It pales in importance to say Hitchcock's first sound film, Blackmail (which was not without its tribulations.) Started as a silent, its transformation to sound presented a problem because the leading actress, a nice London home girl, was played by a heavily accented Czech actress. Hitchcock had to have another actress speak the lines off-camera, dubbing the lines live, so to speak. The very same technique used to present The Donovan Affair at the Film Forum.

The picture itself is a familiar one. A very familiar one indeed. There is a dinner party which takes place during a thunder storm. There is a guest at the party who is a terrible rotter who's existence threatens the well being of several of the other guests. The Mr. Donovan of the title. The lights are turned off for a bit of business with a glow in the dark ring and when they go on again Mr. Donovan is slumped dead on the table, a huge carving knife in his back. Its a set up that was so "done" that even in the twenties it couldn't be played straight. Later, in the 30s, it found new life in the hands of Philo Vance or Nick and Nora Charles. Why is it I can remember some dialogue from a Charlie Chan that goes something like this: "Everybody in this room has a reason to hate grandfather" "Look pop, the lights are flickering"? Even The Family Guy did a two episode take on the same premise. Its played strictly for laughs. Like most early talkies, its based on a Broadway play. Most run-of-the-mill Broadway plays of the 1920s seem to have been written strictly for gents in evening dress and the ladies in frocks. As The Donovan Affair was released before the crash and depression that didn't count against it.

In Frank Capra's autobiography he says that at this time the studio, remember, Columbia was a faintly disreputable poverty row organization (Columbia, the germ of the ocean), their only asset was Jack Holt. Basically, every picture at Columbia was a Jack Holt picture. His lantern jaw visage was the model for both Dick Tracy and Al Capp's parody, Fearless Fosdick. Holt here is the detective who must solve the case from the assembled suspects. Everyone had a good reason for wanting Donavan dead. Holt is accompanied by Fred Kelsey as his comical sidekick who is given most of the broad comedy duties. Kelsey was an ex-Keystone cop and played the lead detective in the Laurel & Hardy Murder Case. Here he's often paired up with Hank Mann who was also a Keystone cop and is sort of his nemesis playing a doctor with a stutter and a wife who won't shut up about her twins. Jack Holt shows up and informed that the body has been moved, admonishes the dinner guests that the next time they have a dead body not to move it. There is a running joke between Holt and Kelsey where Kelsey answers each of Holt's commands with the query Now?

There is a second murder, identical with the first. Once again the lights are turned out again, a couple, well more than a couple, of red herrings and a guilty party easier to guess if you haven't seen the picture than if you had. This time the body isn't moved so there's progress of some sort. If you're like me and would rather see a picture you haven't seen, good, bad, or indifferent, rather than an absolute classic you've been watching many times over sixty years, then you will delight in The Donovan Affair. The cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff is first rate. There are none of the static crowding over the microphone which has been parodied in films about the early talkies. You're sure not to have seen it. It also is off handedly pre-code. Certain details would have been changed five years later after the imposition of the dreaded code. And of course Capra completests will have to see it. There was some talk about recording a new sound track and issuing a DVD. Then you'll be able to see this most rare Capra talkie.
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How did this junk win ten Oscars?
23 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Then there was THE English PATIENT. There had been a lot of partisan conflict pro and con over THE English PATIENT. It won no less than ten Oscars™ including Best Picture. Yet there were some who complained bitterly. There was an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine grows exasperated at her friends and colleagues mooning over the film to the point where her boss insists on taking her to see the film and while he sits there teary eyed she squirms in her seat and just shouts out "Die already!"

Everyone is aghast at Elaine's reaction as they sit teary eyed, overwhelmed by the romance. But what is the romance? It's nothing more than our old friend infidelity, except here it's clothed in the veddy veddy colonial carryings on in Cairo and the western desert in the period before WW2. Falling in love by campfire light while reading Herodotus. Oh please. It reminds me of love scenes in movies where we're assured that it all takes place on 800 thread count sheets. It's making love. I always seem to hear the gravelly voice of Henry Miller saying, "Don't you mean f**king?"

Of course the story is told in flashbacks. Now usually flashbacks are a narrative devise used to reveal the plot non-sequentially. But here the use of flashbacks is merely to draw out this basic story of infidelity and revenge for more than two hours. It's like one of those $500 hamburgers. It's got wagyu beef and truffles but it's still a hamburger.

If it were taking place in a Bronx tenement it would all be over in half an hour. It would be just another double murder/suicide. But with everybody downing gin and tonics at the club and a bit of the old scholars shuffle in colonial offices, it presents a certain retro romanticism (at least as far as furnishings and accessories go) which is beyond the experience of the audience but which they want to believe existed. I've been to these places and people are so bored that adultery is the rule rather than the exception. There's nothing else to do but to screw each other's wives and when that grows tiresome to have a bash at the local brothels. A steady flow of tourists is a bit too much to be hoped for.

Tits and ass with class Lenny Bruce would call it. This drawing things out reminds me of reality TV or the quiz programs which tease before they say the answer is right and we'll get to see something we're promised after some adverts. This is why Elaine became so frustrated.

Of course the action, while filled with incident, is patently absurd. First of all, it doesn't pass my Lady Bracknell test. One suicide by bi-plane can only be regarded as a misfortune. But two suicides by bi-plane suggests carelessness. Just a little gold flake on our burger.

Then there's the part where our hero walks three days through the desert to bring back some help for his love that he leaves battered and bleeding in a cave. He finally makes it to the British outpost. Somehow in between the first bi-plane suicide and our hero's arrival WW2 has broken out and instead of raising the alarm and getting help for his lady love, he is interned. The interment is done by a sergeant major. Now they may be the backbone of the British Army but they do not have the authority to arrest and intern people willy-nilly. If someone walked into town from the desert and there was anything suspicious about him, he would have to be debriefed by Intelligence, which would have meant he would have been interrogated by an officer. Once he met an officer they would have matched up friends in Cairo and help would be on the way.

The fact that he had a foreign name would have meant little because obviously he was a gentleman. There was a similar incident in WW I where a British spy was found in the Sinai with the name Meinertzhagen and he turned out to be a British Officer (see the incident in The Lighthorsemen). So, no British Sergeant Major was likely to assume the authority of an officer in interning a foreign gentleman whatever his name or nationality was.

But OK, lets move on.

When our hero is interred and escapes it's the first days of the war. The Afrika Korps arrived in early 1941. What had he been doing until then? He delivers his maps to them in exchange for a bi-plane that had previously been squirreled away. Hadn't he returned to the cave in the year and a half of freedom? So he too smashes into the desert with horrible burns. He is rescued and brought to a British medical unit.

Now this gets me. Instead of sending him on to an equipped hospital in Tobruk or Alexandria or Cairo even, they schlepp him through the loss of Tobruk, the victory at El Alamein, the landings in Sicily, the fight up the Italian boot to wind up in Florence (champagne for the burger?). He's a burn patient after all and they hold on to them moving him around from battle to battle for four years. Not sending him to a hospital. Seems a bit incredible. Seems insane.

Thus the other reason for the flashback structure–time makes no sense here. On the Wikipedia page for the novel it's categorized as "meta fiction". I know Borges was able to freeze a bullet in time to give a philosopher about to be executed time to finish his work. But that was exactly what the story was "about". Here time means nothing. It's just something to be dipped into to supply incident and drama. Its crudely manipulative, exposed by its distortion of any logic, by its deliberate defiance of verisimilitude.
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Plenty of action and great scenery packed into an hour.
13 October 2014
You know the stories of these programmer westerns, also called "juveniles" were trite. There's the "good guy", here George O'Brien, and there's the villain, always scheming to grab all the money, and who seems to be winning in the struggle right up until the very end. And there's "the Girl" who hates the hero until the very end when they decide to get married. But these pictures succeeded or failed with their audiences by their ability to deliver ACTION. The Painted Desert has plenty of action packed into less than a hour. First of all there is the beautiful scenery of just riding across the undulating desert with its scrub vegetation of Red Rock Canyon. Then there's a stamped and a perilous run of ore loaded wagons along a vertiginous cliff and lastly a great mine explosion. I note that IMDb informs us that much footage was lifted from an earlier, 1931, version. Even excepting that the cinematography from Harry Wild, later a master of noir cinema, is remarkable. There is a scene inside the mine that's drop dead gorgeous. I don't want to make a big deal about what is just an hour's entertainment, but its pleasant to report on a film which maintains a dignity and integrity when far more prestigious productions have strayed into inarticulate spectacle.
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Class war at sea.
2 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Written by Hollywood Ten screenwriter John Howard Lawson, this crackles with class resentment. The blasé privileges of wealth: i.e. Going to the office at eleven and working furiously until noon, are thrown into a maelstrom of class war. It starts with the usual, per the period, bunch of night club swells dressed to the nines, blithely decide to take a yachting journey to San Francisco. While they talk about the crew in disparaging terms, the steward seethes at being ordered about, being blamed for their faults, etc. While the rich lounge on deck drinking highball, the crew is restricted to the heat of below decks. A storm, which the rich welcome for a bit of excitement, seriously damages the ship, giving the steward the opportunity to mutiny and take over the ship reversing the situation. Its clear that Lawson was writing a parable of Class War. Its always been my hypothesis that early talkies became unpopular not because of their crudeness because of the early recording equipment, but because the subject matter, mostly 1920s theater, was made instantly passé by the depression. Men in white tie at the country club dance, fluttering flappers trying to decide between one vapid stockbroker or another. These became chokingly irrelevant in the depression. Here this begins in the same way but gets down to the ugly truth quite quickly. That this wasn't popular at the time is obvious. The O'Neill type ending doesn't help. Lawson was to take a lesson from this and spread Communist propaganda in more subtle ways later in his career. He was, however, just as doctrinaire, becoming the head of the Communist Party cell in Hollywood.
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A 9 minute film about the breaking of the 4 minute mile gets it wrong, all wrong.
29 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Some people will note under the "goofs" section that while this little short declares John Landy of Australia was the first man to break the four minute barrier, in fact it was Roger Bannister who ran the first four minute mile. A "goof"? The whole reason for this film was to tell the story of the four minute mile. And they got THAT wrong? Will they make a film about Willy Messerschmitt inventing the airplane? Russia landing a man on the moon. If you're making a film about the breaking of the four minute mile and you anoint the wrong man and not mention the real record breaker you aught to get out of the movie business. Which RKO did the year this was made.
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A cute little western that affectionados will love, others, maybe not.
21 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Hollywood COWBOY

This was a pleasant little surprise, a clever and entertaining programmer western. It's a modern day western, a mix of roadsters and horse riding, familiar as the so called Autry Fantasy. In this case it seems that some actual logic entered into the existence of these two dimensions to exist side by side. The cattle ranchers who have to round up their cattle are saddle bound. Visitors from the outside world drive cars. But that's just one little witticism.

The picture begins with a series of newspaper headlines to the effect that the city is cleaning up the gangsters who are running the protection racket. The head bad guy, played by Charles Middelton, none other than the immortal Ming the Merciless himself, decides to lay low for a while and take their racket to the countryside and inopportune the cattle ranchers. Their techniques are very up-to-date, using an airplane to buzz the herds and scatter them preventing their going to market. So there's that, somewhat typical western plot, somewhat updated.

There's Maude Eberne playing the crusty old dame role to the hilt, resisting the evil entreaties of Charles Middleton. She has, wait for it, a beautiful daughter. Now throw in a joker in the form of George O'Brien, star of an enormous string of 30s cowboy pictures playing Jeffrey Carson, star of western movies. They are filming in the area and have just completed the last shot. A writer chum from New York (G. Gatsby Holmes (!)) running away from a divorce subpoena wants O'Brien to go camping for a few weeks and is in the habit of quoting Shakespeare. Yeah, this is a western where the Bard is liberally quoted. The henchman of the villain rough up the beautiful daughter and O'Brien saves the day while still in character. Known as a "meet cute". She doesn't realize that he's a movie star and for the rest of the film he has a wry smile on his face as people think he's just some sort of saddle bum named Buck. Satirizing class differences lends a farcical aspect to the story.

O'Brien has a sidekick played by Dan Wolheim, for a programmer he was more than just good. He plays it as a rough precursor to Fred Mertz, grouchy. Buck and his two sidekicks have been taken on by Eburne as cowpunchers. Then we have the heat turned up on the farcical as the rancher's beautiful daughter is being courted by a New York scion to a Park Avenue fortune or whom she has no regard whatsoever. But he is total denial. Check out his name: Westbrook Courtney and he wears an ascot and drives the most beautiful Rolls Royce roadster. The comedy comes when he notices beautiful daughter and "Buck" getting together and he takes Buck aside to tell him, for his own good, to know his place because he's only going to be disappointed and hurt if he tries to romance a lady above his station. Of course George O'Brien finds the whole affaire amusing. As a movie star he outranks the Park Avenue scion.

So Courtney is out in the RR roadster and come across a wanted poster with George O'Brien's picture on it. Of course its a prop left over from the movie he was filming. Courtney can't wait to tell everybody they have been harboring a criminal. Everybody, including the Cattleman's Association, gets hot under the collar that they've caught a dangerous criminal, so beautiful daughter goes to warn "Buck". More farce as she lets on that she knows his secret, which means to him that she's found out that he's a movie star and to her that he's a wanted criminal with a price on his head. Courtney calls the sheriff who arrives expecting to arrest a criminal. Now if this had been most any other programmer western, O'Brien would have spent the last twenty minutes of the film under suspicion as the bad guy in disguise, put in jail and breaking jail to capture the real bad guy and prove himself innocent. Here the sheriff walks in on this proto lynch mob and has a good laugh because he knows that he's the actor from the recently departed film company and the wanted poster is just a prop. In these pictures the Sheriff is usually a boob willing to believe the first superficial story placed before him.

Of course it seems as though O'Brien doesn't take anything seriously because he's the only one aware that he's in a movie and can rise above it. He finally speaks up and asks if anyone's noticed that all of their cattle troubles began when Middleton, remember, he's the villain, arrived in town and began selling protection? How many westerns, how many movies in general, is it so obvious that all of their troubles are easily identified as being a villain's doing, yet they always focus on some innocent, usually the hero, because really without it there's maybe 20 minutes of story? And the crime is usually the murder of the heroine's father which she reacts to with mere petulance and anger. Hey, its just a programmer western! Significantly they were referred to as "juveniles in the day.

Then it really begins to get good. O'Brien has a plan. He calls a movie stunt friend to fly out and when they commence their cattle round up the bad guys bring out their beat up biplane only to be trumped by this beautiful all silver Ryan ST monoplane. They force the biplane down and he tells them where the bad guys hide out is. They bomb it sending them scurrying and they are rounded up by the cattlemen and O'Brien and the beautiful daughter kiss and all's right with the world.
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Trade Winds (1938)
This review is all spoilers. Bewarned!
14 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This is an amusing little trifle. No more or no less. A charming cast, a fast pace, snappy dialog, charming players, a very silly story and a naked and unexplained denouement. The film started with the footage Tay Garnett made during a round-the-world sail. Or at least as far as Bombay sail. What to do with this footage? Dorothy Parker and sometime husband Alan Campbell, and Frank Adams, an ex-reporter and music composer who co-wrote I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now concocted a story about a classy broad who thinks she shot and killed a man and escapes San Francisco by going west to Hawaii, Japan, China, etc. She is being chased by the World's Greatest Detective, the dumbest flatfoot on the force who never-the- less is high ranking, and said detectives secretary. So you see the background shots are used as the backgrounds of all the places they go. Miss Parker is responsible for some mighty clever lines, lines which gave Ann Southern a whole career.

This was produced by independent producer Walter Wanger who released through United Artists. Wanger could do what he wanted and obtained the services of Frederick March who had previously acted in a Parker script A Star Is Born for independent producer David Selznick. March's agent was David's brother Myron. Joan Bennett was married to Walter Wanger and perhaps the most famous or even important aspect of this film is that Joan went brunette in this film and never went back. As they say. Ralph Bellamy was stuck in the middle of a career where he would get scripts to read in which characters were described as "Ralph Bellamy type". His name in the film "Blodgett" was the same as the want to be star in A Star is Born. Getting failed "B" actress Ann Southern from nowhere was brilliant. No doubt the 4' 11" Parker used the 5' 1" Southern as an avatar for her whit, especially her smart-woman-in-a- man's-world be-bop. Blodgett is a direct rip off of Shakespeare's Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing (which might be a title suitable for this film). Sidney Blackmer is featured and appears in one scene and is out of there faster than you can say Janet Leigh. Tommy Mitchell is in two scenes, both shot on the same set, and is also featured. Wanger padding out the cast for the price of two days work.

The ending is maddening. The murder is revealed to prove Bennett's innocence in the first ten minutes but the film just goes on as if nobody heard. Of course in those days people didn't worry about such things as extradition or jurisdictions so our detectives go off in pursuit. The put-upon secretary goes on after them. March and Bennett fall in love and Bennett is betrayed and sent to trial. A trap is set for the real murderer based on the idea that they will be the people who don't show up at a party. Only they do show up at the party or else there wouldn't be a climax. The thing is the murderer, the backstory, the motive or even who these people are is never explained. I guess its not really important as the story skims along purely on the surface, sort of like the drama skims in front the back projections from Garnett's journey. Everybody, that is movie goers, knew the context of film conventions. They could connect the dots. At one point March buys a ticket from a cabin on a departing ship under the name Mr. & Mrs. Jones and Bellamy and Southern are tricked into taking it. So they decide to get married. A Dorothy Parker joke.

The sets are by Alexander Toluboff and a young Alexander Golitzen and the cinematography by the matchless Rudolph Maté. Garnett never made a stupid film or directed a bad scene so Wanger did his job correctly and hired the best people for his film.

I guess today the film from the journey is more valuable than the negative and rights to Trade Winds. It shows a world which no longer exists and that is priceless.
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The Man Who Fell to Earth (1987 TV Movie)
Awful example of how hacks reduce a film classic into a cheesy TV movie of the 80s variety.
3 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Textbook example of how a classic film can be screwed up into a hack TV movie. The thing that is the most obvious is that everything is pitched to the materialist aspirations of a TV audience. The woman is a New York artist, a flaky non-stop talker single mother (just like them), with a delinquent son, who lives in a huge Soho loft on Broadway no less. The relationship between mom and the son is a big plot element. Everything seems reduced into a small domestic situation. When she finds out that the neighbor who shows interest in her and her son is the head of a big corporation she gets angry that he's so rich. Yeah, its that sort of a film. And for a "timeless" story its embarrassingly anchored in a moment in the 80's. It panders to a low bow middle American TV audience who want to be reassured that this is the way it is "there" among "those people". The kids with boom boxes on roof tops, people dressed as spacemen in discos, giant lofts with lackadaisical artists daubing here and there at a canvas. Its as phony as the dubbed in traffic sounds in outdoor street scenes. Its just another job to be walked through. No one, from the director or writer down to the smallest bit actor actually believes that there doing anything of worth. Before I found this surfing on a weird cable channel in the afternoon when I ill never knew it existed. I can recommend this for film students who want to line these two films side by side to see how the business works. And P.S., I just hate that low key, wall to wall, synthetic piano noodling in the background, SOP for TV movies. Its just a different audience for an 80s TV movie than an early 70s theatre film and the differences are definitive of how to pander to the former. Of course today, 25 years later, they know better how to pander to the more ADD affected audience with such concoctions as LOST. Look up Bobby Roth's filmography and there is a list of hip but soon abandoned semi sci-fi TV featuring shorter but more intense scenes. The same old same old endlessly reshaped and sold.
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Accurate history of Philip ll Spain in case anybody cares
11 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Almost every historical movie is mostly movie and very little history. The fault of La conjura de El Escorial is that for once it might be too much history. The action takes place in the court of Spain's King Philip ll. The year is 1578 and the crisis is about the war against the rebels, Protestant supporters of William of Orange in the Netherlands. There are two views at the court. The aging Duke of Alba, a blunt military man, would go to all out war, and the young and progressive Prime Minister, Antonio Perez, (Jason Isaacs)objects to the expense of the war and argues for a negotiated settlement.

The Spanish regent in the Netherlands was Don Juan of Austria, the hero of Lepanto and bastard of Charles V and Philips' half brother. Philip is worried that Don Juan might be too ambitious so Perez sends Juan de Escobedo (Joaquim de Almeida) to be Don Juan's secretary. Sort of a plant but Escobedo turned and became Don Juan's man. This is all about Escobedo. He returns to Madrid and becomes aware that Perez has been treacherous, maybe even treasonous, manipulating the situation to his own advantage, sowing doubt in the king's mind against Don Juan. Perez's lover/coconspirator is the Princess of Eboli, (Julia Ormond) complete with eyepatch. Escobedo comes into possession of papers proving their disloyalty and they plot his murder. After poisoning fails they have him set upon in the streets and murdered on Easter Monday 1578. The rest of the film is rather like Costa-Gavris' Z, as the plot is uncovered as a 16th century police procedural.

Though it's a Spanish film, I saw the film dubbed into English with Spanish subtitles and the voices were so similar and the men period properly bearded that it took a couple of minutes to distinguish the protagonists. The film is just straight ahead history. There is sub plot of a doomed love between a constable (Jurgen Porchnow) and a poor morisco girl (Blanca Jara). Escobedo was poisoned three times but in the film there is only one attempt. Just necessary concision. There is a rather desultory sword fight, routine stuff. Other than that one could write a tolerable term paper from having seen the film.

It could be interesting if you're interested in history. However there are no good looking ex- models in their 20s with great cheekbones, David Bowie on the soundtrack, 'splosions , Perseus not marring Andromeda and other anachronisms, so it will not, as they say, find its audience. TORA TORA TORA the story of Pearl Harbor told from both points of view and tirelessly researched and recreated was, sorry, a bomb at the box office. The sequel MIDWAY, which made use of a lot of left over material and was full of soap opera conventions watered down and sentimentalized history, made money at the box office. Several years ago I saw a Czech film from the socialist period about the Munich crisis of 1938. It was an education but, again, not something the general public could be interested in. However I am now fully conversant with the minutia of the period. This role, the historical film, the accurate historical film, has been supplanted by the widespread contemporary technique in documentaries of recreation. Documentaries now have cast lists, props and costumes.

Once upon a time, in fact from the very beginning of the feature film, the historical costume picture was a staple of the film industry. These were basically fiction films like say The Three Musqueteers. It is a rarity today, the challenge being to contemporize everything for a young audience, but in truth, an historical film which was both excitingly cinematic and accurate is a promise which the cinema has left unachieved except in rare instances like THE PIANIST. British war movies of the 50s and 60s tended to be non sensational and accurate. But that's what they call the living past. The remote past is anybody's game. GLORIOUS BASTERDS played as fast and loose with recent history as a gladiator or crusades picture do without drawing attention to themselves. We know how WW2 turned out but how many know how the 3rd Crusade ended? The pity is that film is the perfect medium to recreate history and history is itself more exciting than the dull assemblies of clichés and standardized stories which attempt to pander to a narrow minded audience.

King Philip is the king because we are told he is. His behavior does not categorize him as cruel, generous, greedy, brave or any other comfortable stereotype. People tend to want to easily pigeonhole characters to facilitate involvement in the story. A rooting element its called, usually based on prejudice and preconceived ideas. A drama containing Richard The Lion Heart and Philip Augustus of France will play to the audiences notion of Richard as a hale fellow, honest, fair, magnanimous, open and brave while Philip is sly, untrustworthy, cowardly etc. Find a jolly, open faced actor for Richard and a mean, narrow faced one for Philip. Let the audience figure it out from there. In this picture Philip ll is merely a man, a clever and experienced one at that, but merely a man. He is capable of errors but he doesn't go around in a perpetual temper tantrum as movie kings so often do.

The version I saw was 128 min. but there is a 150 minute version too. I think they cut out some courtroom action as well a fuller explanation of Perez' and Eboli's motivation for their plot.

Unfortunately, while the story of La conjura de El Escorial is faultlessly presented, it is nothing that would interest a contemporary audience in the first place. Even tarted up it would be like colorizing an old movie no one is really interested in anyway. For the history student only lightly familiar with the period and events, its an education.
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Awful picture you may be amused with enough to kill 45 min.
1 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This is a really moronic film but as it went along within its own context I must admit I was amused. So my warning is to dump it in the first 5 minutes if you don't like it or you will kill another 40 minutes. As it is even low comedy has a floor and this is in the basement. The humor is that of the burlesque theater and it wouldn't surprise me if the writers came from that discipline. Its always interesting to see "B" movies "star" players usually consigned to feature rolls in "A" pictures like Guy Kibee. Of course this is no ordinary "B" but a cut below, one of Hal Roach's "streamliners" or 45 minute movies which didn't even qualify it as a feature. The lead here is Frank Faylen, who was more of a bit player in "A"s and a featured player in "B"s but here has the lead. He plays the typical American wise guy, a standard Commedia del Arte figure in films of the era. This film had its own niche at the far edge of propaganda. However well or poorly the war was going, whatever the newspaper headlines or radio reports, watching the axis as the victims of slapstick gags was a morale boost. Set up as burlesque skits we have a submarine with 5 crewmen, a tribe with 5 members, etc. just the number of people who can fit on a stage. There is no real narrative and the logic would even frustrate W. C. Fields. Hitler wants to make a treaty with some African country with is vital to the war but we never learn why. The leader of this country will only deal with the head man so Hitler is going to sneak off in a U- Boat but Mussolini and a Japanese general find out and are going along too. Meanwhile the crew (or at least 5 of them) in a lifeboat of a torpedoed merchantman arrive on the very shore of this African country. This African country is run by an absolute dictator (Ian Keith) who dresses like an Arabian Night movie Arab but speaks with a British RP accent and acts like he's out for a night of fun. He lives in a tent, there are a handful of people around and thats it for the African Country.

Faylen assumes the identity of a magician (!) and sets up a number of gags which result in maximum discomfort for the axis. The jokes and gags sometimes pour forth at speed and sometimes they come lumbering in slo-mo. Pure slapstick action with the occasional pun thrown in like "The New Oder". The gags can be sub Three Stooges in concept like the pillow fight. The pillow fight was interesting because apparently they had a machine dropping feathers or feather like objects from the flies which never stops! The seamen capture the U-Boat and they all escape with Hitler & co as prisoners.

It gave some psychological relief for audiences to laugh as Hitler was kicked in the pants by a regular American guy. BTW Hitler was played by Bobby Watson who made a nice show business dollar playing Hitler during WW2, playing Herr Schickelgrubber in no less than 9 films.
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This is where we came in let's go.
13 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
There is a history of films which were so bad that they were sold on that basis. They were called "chasers" and were first used in Vaudeville. Shows were continuous and the only way to get people to get up and leave and free up a seat to be sold was to play something that no sane person would want to sit through more than once. Later when the double feature was introduced with continuous shows they were used. This is what The Emergency Case was.

It is based on the vaudeville sketch. Even more forgotten then vaudeville, was the use of sketches and dramatic scenes in the line up of singers, comics, dancers and acrobats and others. Sometimes they showcased celebrities and gave them a excuse to be exposed on stage to the public like a champion fighter or famous murderer. O.J. would have gone into vaudeville and traveled around America and a little scene would have been written for him.

So this is a vaudeville sketch or maybe even a sanitized burlesque sketch. This is what a burlesque sketch about a fake doctor and the cop's wife looks like after all of the rude and suggestive material has been taken out.

Its pretty terrible with a weak punch line not even delivered by the "comic"! The jazz at the beginning and end is pretty good and if typical of the period it was sort of a high point for pop music.
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O velkou cenu (1922)
Plucky lass wins the big race and heart of the good guy.
10 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Also known as Grand Prix and Race For Life

Typical Victorian melodrama, typical for the age, maybe even a little retrograde. Story is about widower Harry Vard, an ex-racing driver and currently chief engineer of the Sylvan car. He has three children, one older daughter, Nelly, and two younger ones. An old schoolmate comes to him for a job and he gives him one. Nelly has a boy friend, a self described student Karel who is really the son of the owner of a rival car firm, Meteor. The old school chum tells a sob story and gets Harry to sign a loan for him from Sylvan's owner and then absconds. Harry is depressed and Nelly breaks a date with Karel who is taken up by a vamp. To make up the money Harry agrees to drive the firm's car in a Grand Prix race even though he promised his late wife he wouldn't. He is killed in practice. Immediately the married owner of Sylvan makes the moves on Nelly, and, when she defends her honor, has her thrown out of her apartment. She moves in with her grandmother and deposits her sister and brother in an orphanage. Karel, the vamp having dumped him, tries to apologize but his letter is stolen by the Sylvan owner. Nelly finds a job but discovers that the driver for Meteor in the Grand Prix has been kidnapped and talks the Meteor owner into giving her the car to drive but just then an assistant arrives with news that he signed up a couple of the Mercedes drivers who were idle. The owner is touched by Nelly's disappointment and gives her last year's car and tell her if she can make it to third he'll pay her the winner's share out of his own pocket.

Pretty standard stuff.

Then comes the race, the only reason to see this picture. Not that its anything authentic. The "racing cars" are enormous open touring cars complete with headlights and tool boxes on the running boards and a serpentine horn with a rubber bulb. There's a quick shot of the equally huge all white Mercedes team at the 1914 French Grand Prix which are at least stripped for racing. But the race begins with one car after the other starting at intervals under a fantastic Bohemian Art Nouveau start sign. The cars race over empty dirt roads. Undoubtedly under- cranked here and there, it still is fascinating to see these big cars at speed, clouds of dust rooster tailing behind them. Nelly's car isn't running so well and her mechanic repairs the car while at speed by going out on the running board and leaning on the fender. No CGI or process shot, it's a great stunt. Later the mechanic counter balances the car around turns like a racing sailboat. Of course Nelly wins the race. Then is taken to the hospital for exhaustion. Karel has returned in time to see the race and learns the truth and gives the Slyvan owner a good thrashing. Nelly recovers and marries Karel and everybody happy.

Not the most artistic film, it shows an almost automobile free Prague, country highways, both with numerous pile of horse flop. Then there are these cars racing on the dirt roads. This picture is principally interesting because of it glimpses into the reality of Bohemia circa 1922. BC. Before cars.
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A little noir with some little unexpected pleasures for the enthusiast.
9 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Hunt The Man Down is a routine little noir of slightly more than an hour in length but rich in its characterizations so not a total waste of time. It's a strange combination of Call Northside 777 and Chandler's Farewell My Lovely which was filmed as Murder My Sweet. A short order cook in a one arm joint thwarts an armed robber and his photo in the paper reveals him to be an escaped murderer who escaped his trial 12 years previously just before the verdict was to be read. Now if you ignore the plot hole that a man wanted and nearly convicted of murder and facing the gas chamber would stick around Los Angeles you can watch him as he passively is rearrested. He draws Gig Young as his public defender who, though initially skeptical of his client's innocence, goes about proving it.

The writer was a hack who slid into TV series easily as did the veteran hack director, George Archainbaud who had been making "B" pictures and western programmers as long ago as 1917. The cinematographer was a genius, Nick Musuraca, and the playing by a phalanx of character actors, most of whom I believe were radio regulars, including the estimable Iris Adrian, make this a very enjoyable little picture. Veteran oh-I-know-him villain Gerald Mohr, who had been in hundreds of radio plays and series and who was the stentorian voice over at the beginning of TV's The Lone Ranger, many of which were also directed by Archainbaud, makes a rare benign appearance.

It doesn't hurt that there is a lot of filming done on the 1950 streets of Los Angeles. And not just the usual recognizable landmarks but places with a breathtaking ordinariness that are somehow even more interesting than seeing an exterior of the Brown Derby. The film can't pretend that its anything other than a piece of work. By 1949 20 % of films were independently produced. By 1957 it was up to 57%. Pushed by the Paramount consent agreement and headed for TV, cut price films were being churned out. It's merely a coincidence that Hunt the Man Down was made in the middle of the noir era. A few years later and it would have been a cheap western or sci fi horror picture.

Hunt The Man Down shares many of the budgetary virtues of other noirs: concise storytelling, brisk pacing, location shooting, lack of distracting sub-plots and themes, no nonsense acting. The cinematography is wonderful which is consistent with classic noirs and the direction is uninspired but competent which is all that's needed for a decent noir. The writing is passable because, as they say, the writer stole from the best. There is one superb line, however. A witness is in a bar drinking and Gig Young's father is trying to get him away by promising him better liqueur and the man agrees, saying "You're right, I've drunk better alcohol out of compasses". A jewel in a dung heap. Hunt the Man Down was also made during the black list era and what better a match-up than an outlaw writer and a cheap producer. I don't know if the writer was a front or if the script was subjected to a polish job by a blacklisted writer. Only time will tell.

The courtroom denouement is more than just a little over the top but its all wrapped up so neatly and so quickly so where's the complaint? And Gig Young's father, a retired one armed police detective, is played by Harry Shannon who also played the father of Charles Foster Kane. If you love noirs you will enjoy this film but if you expect profound cinematic art you will be disappointed.
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Dull 'A' picture which interestingly straddles two eras.
5 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
There is absolutely no reason to see NO LEAVE, NO LOVE. It's not really awful, or terrible, just a lot of milling about to little effect. Just another routine offering which aimed at mindless entertainment and failed. It is of some historical importance however as it represents the fault line between wartime entertainment and post-war films. This has all the hallmarks of a wartime film. The sub-genre is the soldier on leave. To get a decent leave in the war one had to be a war hero and the one here is probably the biggest male star to come out of WW2, Van Johnson. He has a wise guy hustler buddy, Keenan Wynn. They spend a lot of time in night clubs and radio stations allowing for frequent interruptions for musical numbers. There are two bandleaders in this picture. Bandleaders were the glamorous pop idols of the day. In this picture they are Guy Lombardo and Xavier Cugat which shows that the audience was defined as strictly squares from Delaware. I'd like to see a contemporary film about the era play some of this schlock instead of the acceptable jump songs like In The Mood or Sing, Sing, Sing. Wartime "A" films were a little bit of everything (and an inspiration to Bollywood) and popular music acts were interspaced between narrative exposition.

Another trope of the era was the housing shortage with it's hilarious and zany mix-ups. A pompous industrialist and a Russian opera singer share their hotel suite. War Hero can't wait to get back to marry his girl in Indiana. There's another girl who has a big hit radio show that the War Hero appears on (actually his wise guy friend pretending to be him, more hilarity) who is asked by War Hero's mother to keep him there so she can get a train in order to tell him to his face that his girl isn't, ah, available to him anymore. Somehow a Medal of Honor winner can't handle a dear John letter and is terrified on the radio. And so on. Guess who he falls for. Guess who her father turns out to be.

The formula, plot music act plot music act, existed as early as Buck Privates and The Fleet's In. Compare to a late example like Kiss Them For Me (1955) (which loses the music and features mid 50s style hair and clothes.) It was what people wanted t see when they went out to the movies. The problem here was that the war ended and all of these issues were in the past and not au courent. This in not what people wanted to see. People were obsessed with getting married, starting a family, getting a good job, getting a house and a car. Warner's bought The Voice of the Turtle, a great wartime Broadway hit for the return of Ronald Reagan and it bombed. On The Town was a great wartime Broadway musical hit but wasn't filmed until some years later and covered the change in a simple line of dialogue explaining why there was a female cab driver still on the job even though the war had ended and the male drivers had returned. It didn't pretend to be taking place during the war.

So No Leave, No Love (it's title seems to promise a different story) has a framing devise that tells the story as a flashback. Now I don't know if the film was filmed as a soldier-on-leave picture and they had to go back and film the beginning and end parts, of if the scenes were added at the script stage or if it had simply been planed that way. The fact that there are two cinematographers credited seems to argue for a re-shoot. It is interesting because a hallmark of the noir is the flashback but here it is used not in bitterness but warm nostalgia. Remember all that stuff we used to think was so important a year ago? Well, no one is interested.

Far more important is that the framing devise illustrates the transition to a post war sensibility which can be simply put as - date; mate; and procreate. That baby boom didn't just come from nowhere. The opening scene shows Van Johnson in the father's waiting area of the maternity ward. Then he tells his story to another expectant father. At no moment does anyone in this picture exhibit even a slight betrayal of actual human behavior. People just act like they're in a movie. The cliché acting in the expectant father's waiting room is just so stylized to make Noh seem improvised.

Of course these pictures are nearly unwatchable today and what we remember from this era are the cheapo "B" movies known as film noir, the great "nay" to the sunny "yes" of "A" films like this. Maybe if the noirs had been the popular genre there would be missing another 50 million Americans and my apartment wouldn't be so expensive but America was just happy to hump away for about 20 years after the war churning out brats. The last shot is of the new born nine pound boy, the ghostly "aahs" can be heard from sixty some years across the ether. So instead of the happy ending being a trip to the altar, we have Mom and Dan and baby make three. There's no reason to see this film unless you want to see the cinematic mid ocean rift between wartime and post war films. But if you're a sociologically bent cineast its kind of a don't miss.
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Are kids today as young as we were then?
14 September 2009
When I was an art critic I decided that it wasn't part of my job to warn people about the Thomas Kinkades of this world. The people who found Kinkade artistic were not going to be dissuaded by reading my criticism if they read art criticism at all. Likewise I'm not going to get into making a real movie critique of George Pal's ATLANTIS: THE LOST CONTINENT. It was made for a juvenile audience and indeed a majority of the favorable and even enthusiastic comments made on IMDb recall having first seen the film when about age 11. It is what it is and that's that. What I wanted to write about was the opening narration, the picture's set-up,which proposed a series of unexplained similarities between two continents which had never been in contact. Each and every example is wrong, not just a little wrong, and not just a lot wrong, but insanely each example of the similarities between continents is in fact the exact opposite. They are definitive examples, proof even, of the total and absolute lack of contact between continents before Columbus (the brief Viking experiment excepted). Meso-American and Egyptian pyramids were no constructed on the same principals, the Mayans lacked knowledge of the true arch. The Meso-Americans had no knowledge of metallurgy no matter how much they admired Gold. The Mayan calendar had no similarities with the Gregorian, the earlier Julian or the even earlier lunar calenders and their system of mathematics preceded the European system particularly in its use of zero by a couple of thousand years at least. The banana, native to the Malay peninsula but perfected in India did not grow in America but there were dozens of other things that America had that were unknown in the eastern hemisphere from corn, turkeys and chocolate to rubber and tobacco. This opening narration would be hilarious if it weren't for the fact that a lot of ill-educated adults believe this stuff today. Just take a look on the Internet. I mean they could have been clever a come up with a slightly believable set of examples to entice the gullible, but this list is too silly even for a very silly, juvenile movie. I guess kids today wouldn't appreciate a movie like this today not because its so unbelievable but because the special effects are so crude. If you can sell adults today this comic book stuff the kids are sure to eat it up.
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The Party (1968)
Laugh until tears rolled down both cheeks.
31 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this when it first came out and I remember liking it but wondered if there wasn't something more. Like some of the more undervalued films of the era they were held to an unreasonably high standard. Some of the more regarded films have aged rather badly while others which disappointed have held up rather better.

Watching THE PARTY the other night I found myself laughing out loud alone in a room. The toilet scene had me uncontrollably. There is no plot of course, just a series of sight gags. It's a throwback to the Mack Sennet days. You arrived at a location with some notes and started filming and saw what happened. Comedy was built and not written out. Some gags are planned but it was incumbent on the artist to build on them. In this case the artist was the comedian-Peter Sellers. The director was more or less the enabler.

Sellers does the entire film in a slightly broad Indian accent but while he is a pratt he's not a total idiot. He is moral and without a mean bone in his body. He's just a clumsy screw up and what else would you want for a comedy? Of course he was responsible for more bad pseudo-Indian accents than anyone else in history.

And Steve Franken is superb in support as the drunken waiter, a classic comedy part, known as a pi55 act in English Music Hall. This is one of the classical touches Edwards uses. There are more than a few hints that this film is something of an answer to Jacque Tati's sublime PLAY TIME (1967) where instead of making a film on a bespoke set the size of a small city it is done on a single sound stage.

The rest is just for laughs. No message, no lesson. Just comedy tonight.

And one irony, The "Good Girl", Claudine Longet, who needs to be protected from evil old Mr. Divot (!) the lecherous producer (are there any other kind) played by the follicularly devious Gavin MacLeod, was later tried for shooting to death ski star Spider Savitch. She did it but it was ruled an accident. But that's another movie.
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How I Won The Weird
8 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS might be the weirdest big budget studio released film I have ever seen. Though it looks like a WW2 movie Tarantino disagrees and says that it isn't a WW2 movie at all, I guess in the same vein of Magritt's painting of a pipe C'nest pa une pipe. This is not a documentary Tarantino says relieving him of the burden of historical authenticity, anachronism and accuracy. There are many arguments in Tarantino's favor (he ends the war and kills off Hitler in Paris nine months early). Most films are unhistorical in direct proportion to the remoteness of the subject. Recently I saw this Hallmark version of MARCO POLO and it was like an insane man's version of reality. But who knows or cares. ONE MILLION B.C. move to the front. Westerns are notoriously anachronistic, even recent ones like Blake Edward's SUNSET which perversely turns all of the facts 180 degrees. These are not documentary's after all. IB has been preceded by Jerry Lewis' codeine drenched WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT (1970) and WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR DADDY? (1966) This film was written by one of the worst comedy writers ever, whose scripts must have looked hilarious on the page to executives with no sense of humor. These films are basically time travel films where modern day people are thrust onto a period set in rented costumes and play out a made up story. Everybody speaks in English and putting on a Nazi uniform and pretending to be a high ranking officer is the de rigor scene in every film. It's not abut WW2, its about two hours. Its only a movie. As long as you can get punters to accept the premise you're home free. High school cute kids playing medieval knights with a David Bowie soundtrack, nothing new. The difference is that most educated people know how WW2 ended but few know how the Third Crusade ended. What Tarantino has done is place WW2 in the same remote territory as every other "historical" film.

Most of these films (WHAT, WHICH) are negligible because of the Ed Wood factor, their meanness of spirit matched by a meanness of creation. What's shocking about Tarantino's film is that it is fluidly cinematic and masterly made. I recently saw SECRET MISSION (1944) about a clandestine British mission in France. It was a wartime flag waver that everyone took seriously at the time, as if, yup, this is the way it is or near to it. Now of course we've all seen better films on the subject, endless documentary's on the Hitler (History) channel and memoirs and biographies and Ph.D. studies and obituaries and we know better. I now realize that a favorite Brit-com of mine 'ALLO! 'ALLO, made 40 years later, was nothing but a broad parody of an absurd pretend rendition of reality. It's set in WW2 but not any real WW2. The ridiculousness is obvious now but today we know better. When it comes to IB we don't even care anymore. It's only a movie, an alternative reality anyway so don't sweat the history.

So the environment occupied by IB is acceptable as a fantasy, a place to play in and to make a movie in. The big problem for me was one of tone. Nearly every extended scene seems to occupy a different logical environment. One scene is played for comedy the next for horror the next for melodrama and are paced for their singular needs. And some seem to exist solely as a set piece.The opening title "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France", coupled with Ennio Morricone's music evokes not a fairy tale but a continuation of the Maestro's work, Sergio Leone. One might expect sparse dialog and action sequences or maybe even burlesques of action sequences and a story of emotions driven by image and music. Alas the script features dramatic set pieces consisting of dialog and situation to drive the story. It's strangely static for long stretches. BTW the music has mostly been adapted from the soundtracks of other films, dozens of other films.

A word about Brad Pitt's performance-He pulls some excellent Clark Gable faces and I couldn't but picture him as Dillinger. Lost performance.

I usually am not concerned with such things as opening week-end box office and the like but I wonder how this will go down with the general public. I don't think the anachronisms will offend the greater audience but they don't care about period films at all. In terms of commercial bonanzas this might rank with Colorization and synthetic movie stars of the past. Very interesting. But pointless.

P.S. It might be churlish of me to mention this considering how thickly the anachronistic broth bubbles but surely the Jewish "Bear" who bashes out Nazi brains with a baseball bat would seek to emulate Hank Greenberg rather than the goyish Ted Williams.
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You stewpid woman....
3 August 2009
I'm sure that viewed during the war it was taken seriously but viewed today, with a critical eye, and I don't mean an aesthetic eye, its absurdity is what is called camp. It was only watching this film that I realized that the British TV series 'allo! 'allo! (1982-1992) was a broad parody. The central characters are two veddy veddy British chaps in trench coats wandering around in and out of the woods. Always in their trench coats. There's the cafe run by a Cockney in a beret always at odds with his wife. All we need is for the local flick to drop by and say "Good moaning". Even though people took this seriously at the time it boggles the mind to think people could really believe espionage

was actually conducted this way. For fans of the TV series this is a must not miss. I just wonder how stoned Croft and Lloyd were after seeing this film on TV 30+ years after having seen it in a West End cinema and realizing how absurd it all was and how they didn't notice 30 years before.
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The anti-depression version of Dillinger.
2 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The concerns and gestalt of every age (not to mention hairstyles) are reflected in the films made in that age. In the 30s the Dillenger persona was used by playwright Robert Sherwood in his drama of Existential Angst - The Petrified Forest. This made a star out of Humphrey Bogart who consciously copied Dillinger's mannerisms. At the end of the 30s W.R. Burnett imagined an older, wizened Dillinger, with graying temples, being paroled after years in prison through the influence of a crime boss to lead a robbery in High Sierra and wind up in a slightly more dignified death.

The two direct presentations of the Dillinger story were in the late 40s by a noirish pre-TV Movie movie starring real toughguy Lawrence Tierney. This film was so cheap that only one car, a contemporary Packard I believe, was used both for Dillinger and the FBI, in fact all cars in the drama. John Milius' version was a 60s movie in all but date, presenting a post Bonnie and Clyde anti establishment version of the story. Warren Oates' version was big hearted, swaggering and wry. Ben Johnson as Melvin Pervis was upright and unbendingly moral but gracious.

Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES is a post-911 take on Dillinger. If anything this picture should have been called DILLINGER, or JOHN AND BILLIE except for the fact that the target audience can not be reliably expected to know about anything from before they were born, or at least since they've been on-line. The cheeky bank robber played Johnny Depp seems to be just even all of the time, as if he's on Zoloft. Dillinger says what he's doing is fun be he doesn't look like he's having fun. He's passionately in love but he just looks so, I donno, even. At the end of the picture Dillinger is in the Biograph Theater watching Manhattan Melodrama and as Clark Gable is going to the chair he says something about living fast and dying as he lived and there is a minimalist smile which can almost be discerned in Depp's lips. I guess in the age of Botox this counts for expressiveness. It's nothing about 1934.

Like poplar music, the (secret) context of popular films seems to be which drugs were ascendant at the time of a film's manufacture. Its all about 2009. Torture and widespread wiretapping are a part of this picture so nobody's liberal creds are in danger of being questioned.

There is a tremendous amount of bustle about the picture. The opening is almost unwatchable with rapid cutting, camera movement in every shot movement in every frame. No doubt to not offend the ADD community it can be nauseating to the older demographic. There are a huge number of actors milling around the two major characters but its strange that it was nearly impossible to identify any individuals. They had a glaring sameness not only within each group but with each other. Beefy but bland guys, gangster or FBI man, they were mere background. There are only two personalities on view and one is one note and the other excessively wan.

Oh other people are seen doing things, but that's about all. Considering the modern stricture of shooting in medium close-up (for TV I'm told) with limited depth of field everyone and everything seems to be mere background for Depp. Speeches, other than his, are no longer than sound bites.

Christian Bale as Pervis has one operating system - intense. That is his one and only personality trait. He has no back story and doesn't have anything to say except to give orders to capture John Dillinger.

I feel there must have been about 20 minutes cut out dealing with the Pervis-Hoover relationship. This was famous because Pervis got all of this publicity and Hoover was jealous - for the good of the bureau of course. In this version Hoover seems more sinned against- a senator kills an appropriation increase for the FBI. Hoover vows to get it by getting more publicity. In fact the FBI spent one third of its total budget that year on capturing Dillinger.

This brings up some interesting material which Michael Mann brings in for the first time - The influence of the Mafia in closing the trap around Dillinger. Frank Nitti and the Mafia controlled the vice rackets including bookmaking which went across state lines. If a National Crime Bill were enacted because of Dillinger it would effect their businesses. Since Dillinger was betrayed by a madam and the mob controlled all of the whore houses it seems to be a straight line. On the other hand while Hoover played up the Dillingers of the era he categorically denied that there was anything like organized crime or La Cosa Nostra and went on denying it until the infamous 1957 Apalachin, New York meeting. Hoover used to actually go to the track with Lucky Luciano who complained about how much money it cost him to fix the races so Hoover could win a $2 bet.

Its not a terrible picture, nor even a bad one. It's entertaining for what it is and a break from wizards and princesses and cute animated animals and space warlords and whatnot. A costume picture with some good music and everything that moves in gleaming black enamel (the Locomotive positively shines. Its a clean machine.) The locations are spectacular, in most cases the original like Little Bohemia and a series of banks that speak of an era when every business was proud to show the world it had taste and the civic responsibility to give its community something beautiful. Its actually far better looking than the period was, which was a depression. No Walker Evens, Dorothea Lange or Ben Shann need apply. You want Johnny Depp as the bad man John Dillinger, you got him. I think I'll stick with Warren Oates. That was actually fun.
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Funniest prison comedy since Laurel and Hardy
24 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I met this girl in Utrecht, Netherlands named Paula. We briefly shared an attic. I've met and known a lot of pretty girls in my life but none were prettier than Paula. She was just about to begin a job working as an usher in a local movie theater. The film playing that night was MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. Now I must tell you that the Maxter once did a six month bit in a North African prison. I was surprised to find out that Paula did two and a half years in Algeria. I went to visit her on her first night of work not knowing what the film would be. When we came to both the trial and especially the prison sequences we both couldn't stop laughing. It was more like summer camp than a North African prison and we knew what some dank pestilent hole in Turkey would be like. I'm afraid my roaring - "Oh Billy" while he wanks off in the prison visiting room - set her off so much that she was fired. Oliver Stone won an academy award for the script which is a different sort of laugh maker, and hey, Alan Parker was one of my favorite directors but its just so much crap, like a piece of crap under twelve coats of automotive enamel with chrome do-dads. It looks good on the screen but take it home and to heart and you've been poisoned.
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These Pretzels are making me thirsty!
17 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The next time you're tempted to think of some actor or acting student as being too too precious and effete because they were taking classes on breathing take a look at Larry David's performance in WHATEVER WORKS. Larry David as Larry David - brilliant! Larry David playing someone other than Larry David - No Apparent Function. Timing is everything in comedy but LD reading someone else's words becomes an effort to get the words out correctly and only partially funny in the narrow "whine" bandwidth. He even has a look on his face, not the same but analogous to Bush's moronic smirk, when he managed to get some difficult name nearly right. Larry, I love you but you can't act. At all.

Not that anything Larry could have done to save this thing. Its not terrible, its just disappointingly mediocre. The first problem is the script. This is something Woody Allen has dug up from his trunk. All writers have unrealized projects that they drag out. Preston Sturgis was famous for his terrific run of hits in the early '40s. When he became famous his spread himself thin with outside work but went back into his trunk to pull out scripts he wrote and didn't sell in the 30s. When he ran out of scripts he ran out of luck.

WHATEVER WORKS had originally been written for Zero Mostel who died in 1977. So how old does that make this script. It shows its age. Sometimes I realized that the script played like a stage play, sometimes it seemed to be a dramatized short story. Its the old, obvious middle aged man sex fantasy. Making it with some young chick. There were a series of films like BREEZY and SAVE THE TIGER where free love hippie chicks hitchhiking in LA become attached to the balling they were receiving from William Holden or Jack Lemmon. Free love, man. And there were losta knock-offs. Lotsa middle age movie producers out there.

Larry David plays a genius physicist who specializes in Quantim Theory. We are told this but there is nothing about David's persona which even suggests this kind of intelligence. He's clever as say the average TV comedy writer. Just more of a bully. He finds a dumb blond on his doorstep and then the script writes itself as they say. He seems to live in the loggia of an abandoned "el" station or maybe the stairwell of the boys gym in a barely converted ex- public school. She's a runaway from Alabama and her parents follow her and are transformed by the magic of New York City from straight bible thumpers to happy perverts. Sort of like what Terence Stamp did to the family in TEOREMA.

The script just goes round and round until it stops. The End.

The other remarkable thing about this film is how Woody Allen cut corners to trim his budget to the reduced availability of cash. There is a (typical Allen) scene where Larry and chick are brought together by a Fred Astaire film on TV. Only there is no angle to show what they're watching. There is some music but I couldn't identify it. Maybe it was from one of his lesser known 40s film but not from a classic. There is no dialogue or singing either. To have shown a clip from an Astaire film would have involved a set of very expensive rights - to film, to music, to Astaire's image. All throughout the film I couldn't help noticing that there seemed to be scenes missing certain shots, whole scenes missing, whole sequences ignored. The music credits are a fraction of what Woody usually uses. There were some repeats from past films. I wonder if Allen already owned the rights to some songs. Woody was famous for completing entire films and then shelving them to re-shoot with another cast. Here he takes what he can get done on the money he has. All I could think of was "Woody in reduced circumstances". The line about the pretzels was funnier.

Oh, it's also a message picture - you should only live and be well and try to enjoy yourself as long as you're alive. Amen.
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For Pete's Sake leave this un-disinterred. RIP
22 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I didn't see this picture, FOR PETE'S SAKE, when it came out because the notion, as the picture was marketed at the time, about Barbra Streisand turning tricks to support her husband, was ugly and prima facia ugly. Now that I've seen it I have to say I'm glad I didn't waste a dollar or how ever much it cost to see a movie at the time. It is flat out awful. Really it's nothing more than a series of gags constructed for Babs that are executed on a sub- I Love Lucy level. It's strange because director Peter Yates has shown himself to be a master of very complicated mise en scene in action films like BULLET. Here it's clear that no one working on this picture has the slightest sense of humor.

Pete, a cab driver, wants to be rich and has the opportunity to invest in pork bellies (see, its funny already). His wife borrows the money from a loan shark and can't pay it back. Instead of being rubbed out for not paying back her loan her contract is sold, first to a madam who turns out Babs but, guess what, she has a series of hilarious accidents and never actually has sex. So typical. Right down to Pretty Woman, Hollywood movie hookers never, ever, have sex. Then one belabored, unfunny, poorly played and poorly executed gag after another. Michael Sarrazin, as Babs' husband, is injected onto the screen at intervals for reasons neither he nor the director really understands. In the old days, when women ruled the box office, women were the biggest and most important stars. The male stars were known as leading men. They were around to give the women something to play off of. In FOR PETE'S SAKE Barbra Streisand doesn't need anyone else to play off of. As a comic she has eliminated the straight man. The results are monumentally flat. And so unfunny. Just terrible.

This will make you appreciate Peter Bogdanovich all the more, his ability to produce a coherent, constantly funny comedy with multiple characters playing off each other. Even the little known I WONDER WHO'S KILLING HER NOW, with a similar structure, is a masterpiece compared to this ego trip. I have the terrible feeling that Streisand had become a monster by this time and did everything her way, and the only that was photographed here was her out-sized ego. It's not for nothing that this bummer never gets revived. Like Orson Wells she directed from in front of the camera. Except that Wells had talent. Streisand only has fans.

P.S. As if one didn't have enough reason to hate these people for appearing in a crap movie, check out the huge apartment across the street from Prospect Park. In New York we hate people with great apartments like this especially if they're rent controlled.
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Where's a bloody horses head when you need one?
5 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I have to agree with most of the negative comments here. This was so bad, just dreadful. Its obvious that MGM stayed in the Our Gang business just so the hypocrites who ran MGM could point to the moral, family type entertainment they manufactured. This is just the type of heavy- handed crap that children have naturally rejected for generations. There were no real kid stars in these films which shrank from two reels (20 min.) to less than a reel. Three peripheral types are in the lead. Production values are non-existent with a standing residential front making do as a school. Imagine a school with one wooden door. Did you go to a school like that? Even in those days there were laws, except for, I guess the meanest one room schoolhouse. Which this isn't. Just the slamming home of the message- kids please stay in school if you want to get ahead in life. In other words: Shut up and do as we tell you. So this is just more propaganda. Of course the witless and artless delivery of the message certainly meant that it was ignored by the children. Hey, how did it effect Bobby Blake? But not by the adults who slapped each other on the back to congratulate themselves on their good works and a job well done.Back to making the real dough with Lana's tits.
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The Twonky (1953)
A cautionary tale of TV from the future
15 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This may have nothing to do about nothing, but a college film student friend of mine was taking a course in American Studies and had to write a paper on the relationship between the film industry and the establishment of early television. I gave him the run down and when he showed me his paper it was 180 degrees from what I had told him. Then he showed me his text book and damn if the text book wasn't 100% wrong about what had actually happened. The professor of the American Studies class was a South Korean with a PhD. in American Studies from a South Korean University and therefore a certified expert in American Studies.

The textbook author, a Johns Hopkins professor no less, was too young to have experienced the era he was writing about and appeared to have established a hypothesis, and then bent some facts, ignored a lot of other facts, shoehorned non-compatible ideas and reinterpreted events to suit his thesis. His idea was that the film industry had taken control of television from the very beginning. As someone whose had a TV since 1948 and can remember as far back as 1949 with certainty I know that this is completely wrong. Yet this is what's taught in out Universities. It gives one pause to think what about what we accept as history from more remote times?

Famously the film industry was offered (before WW2) Television first. It was thought that films could be distributed electronically from central points saving on prints, projectionists, physically transporting reels of film, etc. The offer was rejected. Television was taken up by the Radio Industry. NBC and CBS along with DuMont and Westinghouse were the first to start up stations. It fit into the radio model pattern, sponsorship, shows of 15, 30 and one-hour lengths. Sponsors bought time for particular shows and became identified with the shows. Often sponsors or their ad agencies produced the shows themselves.

The film industry's response was to go out of its way to ignore television. In 1951 MGM released WALK EAST ON BEACON where the script has to go through back-flips as the FBI use television surveillance but can't mention the word television. In THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR the voice of God is heard by families clustered around the family radio. At Warner Brothers, no television set was allowed to be seen in any set shot for the company. Independent producer Sam Goldwyn was more forthcoming, expressing the sense of doom that the other moguls refused to articulate when he predicted that people would stay home to watch bad movies for free instead of going out to pay for bad movies.

Only Universal, owned by the Music Company of America, the major talent agency in Hollywood, went into television with their Revue Productions. This was actually illegal because it was a clear conflict of interest for a company to both represent talent and produce (employ them) but they got an exception because of a deal made by the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan. Reagan went from 18th vice-president of SAG to president because the other 19 guys quit to go into independent production because of the Consent Decree and being a producer and actor's union official was a Conflict of Interest. The actors like Robert Montgomery, David Niven, Charles Boyer etc. went on to produce TV series. When Ronald Reagan also went into production with Revue it was a secret and illegal if not unethical.

But in 1951 the film industry was basically in ostrich mode. Arch Obler was a radio hot shot, representing absolutely the summit of the mediums achievement. His show LIGHTS OUT was universally admired. LIGHTS OUT was a sort of precursor to the Twilight Zone, heavily weighted as a writer's medium, taking up serious subjects in a fantastical genre.

Obler had already begun writing and producing for TV when he shot THE TWONKY. This was not a film industry production but an independent (yeah, they had them in those days) production. Most of the action takes place in one large house, one might speculate that it was Obler's. The actors, starting with Hans Conried, were all stars from radio. The film can be "listened to" as a radio show. Almost all of the action is shot either in the house or on location, pretty much on the fly. Though listed as a 1953 release (it ran in only three theatres) it has been reported as being filmed in 1952 though from the appearance of Conried's daughter, Trilby, filming must have started in 1951.

This film was like a living example of LIGHTS OUT, a cautionary tale of the one eyed monster taking over everybody's life, controlling consciousness, defining the context of human life all under the aegis of helping mankind. By the end of the decade Rod Serling would have perfected the form and could easily have made The Twonky as a half hour teleplay.

So unlike the official Film Industry, Obler not only recognized and participated in the new medium, but also called out a warning that some interactive TV from the future could dominate all human life on the planet, even the right to be wrong.

A more modern rethink of this prospect can be seen in Sam Peckenpaugh's last film, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983), which had the advantage of having observed some 35 years of a television saturated society.

The film industry wouldn't begin to pry its way into television until the middle to late 50s. Sponsored programs disappeared in the 70s as TV stations just sold time.
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