Saturday, September 25, 2010

indelible moment: "Bell, Book and Candle"

Richard Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958) is one of those rare films that not only seems to improve with age but also strikes me as ageless. It's timelessly contemporary, whether you saw it in '58, '88 or '08.

In that sense, it's magical, a quality that drives its most enchanting sequence - when Kim Novak and her cat Pyewacket bewitch Jimmy Stewart, complemented by George Duning's lilting theme, hummed by Novak, and James Wong Howe's shimmering cinematography. (Duning, by the way, came to call his title track for the film ... "Kim's theme.")

The moment is creamy, dreamy and, well, indelible.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

cinema obscura: Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956)

Much has been written about Frank Sinatra's decision to suppress - momentarily, at least - two of the titles in his filmography, Lewis Allen's "Suddenly" (1954) and John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), both considered too politically incendiary by the actor-singer.

But missing from the discussion is another compelling Sinatra film that went missing seemingly decades ago - Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956), a flawed but gripping character-driven Western in which Sinatra skillfully plays a cowardly punk who exploits the notorious reputation of his brother, a ruthless killer.

His Johnny, a pathetic, reprehensible figure, bullies his way through life by referencing his brother's dubious accomplishments.

Sinatra's urban profile works well to disconnect his character from the sagebrush mise-en-scène here. He's clearly out of his element, just as Johnny is alien in this landscape of rough-hewn people. Johnny is a poseur, giving a "performance" based on terror and sadism, and Sinatra nails this aspect in a portrayal impressive for its subtlety.

A definite bonus: Sinatra's leading lady here is the criminally underused Phyllis Kirk.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Anton, Addison et les autres


The beleaguered film critics fraternity - and I do mean fraternity - received something of a respite this week with two major announcments.

Now, two announcements may not seem like much, given the slow, agonizing death of film criticism that we've been witnessing for the past few years. But with 60-some long-time movie critics having been offed by their ungrateful employers to date - a phenomenom documented by Sean P. Means, of The Salt Lake Tribune, in an on-going column, rather mordantly titled The Departed - every opportunity helps.

Turner Classic Movies was the first to weigh in with a release drumbeating its special Critic’s Choice showcase, which will air each Monday and Wednesday night during October, starting Oct. 4 with critic/historian Leonard Maltin, editor of "Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide," and the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan. The segments were taped in July.

A total of 16 movie critics will be participating, each introducing two movie picks with TCM's Robert Osborne in tow. Sixteen movie critics - 14 men and two women. I repeat, fourteen men and two -count 'em - two women.

All white.

So exactly what's wrong with this picture?

I think I just answered my own question. The participants are all fine critics and, frankly, several of them are friends, but where's the diversity that's a unique contemporary feature of the criticism community?

The lone two women involved - Kim Morgan and Susan Granger - are solid picks because they represent distinct opposite ends of the film-reviewing spectrum. Granger is a pro with years of experience and Morgan is a ubiquitous contributor on The Hit List, the MSN movies blog, and the author of the compelling, wittily narcissistic blog, Sunset Gun .

But there are more than two women out there reviewing film today.

Well, ok, off the top of my head, there's Manohla Dargis of The New York Times; Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly; Amy Taubin of Film Comment and The Village Voice; Christy Lemire of The Associated Press; Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post; Betsy Sharkey of The Los Angeles Times, Farren Smith Nehme of the blog, The Self-Styled Siren, and particularly Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Did I miss anyone? Apologies.

And criticism isn't the exclusive purview of Caucasians. Some exciting criticism is being written by (and spoken by) reviewers who are African-American, Hispanic and Asian. I would like to think that whoever put this promising feature together for Turner knows exactly who is out there in terms of contemporary film criticism. I would hope so.

BTW, I say this as someone who doesn't exactly subscribe to political correctness. But c'mon.

The second announcement came from Roger Ebert who got things right with the hyping of his eponymous new show for PBS stations, "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies," to be hosted beginning next January by AP's Lemire and NPR contributor (and former New York Times critic) Elvis Mitchell, with the aforementioned Morgan and Omar Moore, of The Popcorn Reel, as occasional contributors. And Ebert will be participating not only on his own show but also as one of Turner's choice critics.

Roger is a terrific critic and an extremely generous person, but I can't work up much enthusiasm for this project. Ideally, at this point in his life and career, I would have loved to see him mentor and nurture young, aspiring critics, something more behind the scenes. But that's just me.

And so the most heartening "critic news" for me this week was the return of Manohla Dargis to her film-reviewing berth at The New York Times. Dargis, who has been absent from the Times since June 20th, made her comeback with a review of Joaquin Phoenix's "I'm Still Here."

Believe me, she was much missed.

Note in Passing: Dargis is one of two first-string film critics at The New York Times, the other being A.O. Scott. In its profile of the Critic's Choice segment in its "Now Playing" guide for October, Turner lists Scott's credentials as "chief film critic" for the Times. No, there are two of them.
"You're out of your league here, young woman!"

Saturday, September 04, 2010

cinema obscura: Mark Robson's "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" (1971)

If you've wondered whatever happened to Mark Robson's 1971 film version of the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. play, "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," starring Rod Steiger, Susannah York, Don Murray and George Grizzard, you'll be happy to know that it still exits - sort of. No thanks to Sony, which now owns the old Columbia film library. But more about that later...

This is yet another studio film that has never been released on DVD, Laser, VHS or Beta.

Steiger does his inimitable Hemingway thing as Harold, an adventurer who seemingly got lost in the Amazon and possibly died, leaving a wife (York) and son (Steven Paul) behind.

His wife has moved on in many ways when Harold suddenly materializes with an oddball sidekick (William Hickey, who else?). Much to his chagrin, Harold discovers that things have changed during his absence. Pamelyn Ferdin plays the titular Wanda June, a deceased child who plays shuffleboard with Jesus while commenting on the action.

An odd film, not great but definitely worth seeing.

The only known existing 35mm print (a new one) of the film was screened at San Francisco's invaluable Castro Theater three years ago - in August of 2007 - a rare showing that gave me hope that perhaps, just perhaps, Sony was preping the title for an upcoming DVD release. But it never happened.

Sony has been doing great work of late. It's really come through in many areas. Let's hope that this eccentric, eclectic work makes its to-do list.

Finally, a word about Mark Robson: He is an unsung filmmaker I shall forever honor for such contributions as "The Seventh Victim" (1943), "Home of the Brave" (1949), "Phffft!" (1954), "The Bridges of Toko-Ri" (1954), "Trial" (155), "The Harder They Fall" (1956), "Peyton Place" (1957), "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" (1958), "The Prize" (1963), yes, "Valley of the Dolls" (1968) and "Limbo" (1972).

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

clooney channels bronson

Anton Corbijn's "The American" is much like its star - sinewy, thoughtful and not at all unpleasant to be around.

The star, of course, is George Clooney.

In terms of narrative, "The American" brings to mind Gene Hackman's famous opinion of an Eric Rohmer film in Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975): "It's like watching paint dry." Which means that nothing much happens in this moody, atmospheric tale of yet another hit man (or a vague variation on that occupation) preparing for his final gig.

What Clooney's character exactly does is some kind of intricate prep work for the real assassin, all played out without much dialogue in a location fairly dripping with ambience. (That would be Abruzzo, a mountainous region East of Rome.) This is the kind of existential material that Alain Delon and director Jean-Pierre Melville confronted so memorably in 1967's slinky "Le Samourai" and that Jean-Paul Belmondo and our own Steve McQueen both tackled regularly with assorted filmmakers.

But the actor who comes to mind while watching Clooney do his movie-star thing is Charles Bronson who one can see having addressed this material with either Michael Winner or Terence Young as his director.

Recommending a film like "The American" - adapted by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth's much better-titled novel, “A Very Private Gentleman” - is tricky. It is definitely an acquired taste but, once tasted, easy to savor.