This week it’s all about Quentin Tarantino, as his long-gestating, long-anticipated Inglourious Basterds arrives on the scene. Speculation runs high. Is this going to be a “great” film, another of the filmmaker’s trashy pop-culture masterpieces? Or is this going to be the mess that a lot of early reports have claimed? And even if it is a mess, will it be a glorious mess or just a plain old mess?
Whatever it is, Tarantino is certainly copping an attitude with his new baby and taking a page from the Clint Eastwood/Steven Spielberg playbook by insisting that the film be released—at least as much as possible—on 35mm and not on digital. You may recall that Eastwood pulled this on Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Spielberg demanded at least one 35mm print of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) be available at digital venues where such was possible. (Of course, after Flags underperformed, no such further demands came from Eastwood.)
The idea is that 35mm delivers a better picture. This is one of those debatable points that is hardly supported by the evidence of your eyes. Now, tech heads will argue specs and several other points—all the while overlooking the fact that every film made these days has been digitized for purposes of effects and editing and only then turned back into film. But the demonstrable fact is that digital neither scratches, nor fades, and is, if anything, sharper than a print. Digital is also more consistent, which is to say that lab errors and variable quality prints aren’t a consideration. I haven’t been able to find out Tarantino’s reasoning—maybe he wants the film to scratch and wear to better capture that drive-in-movie feel—but from my perspective, it’s senseless affectation.
Regardless of this technical issue, Inglourious Basterds is the movie to beat this week—only nothing is likely to do that, since its competition is the kid flick Shorts from Tarantino buddy Robert Rodriguez and a comedy called Post Grad that’s flying so low it’s practically off the radar. Locally, we can add The Cove, which is a pretty powerful documentary with a strong 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But it is a documentary, which limits its draw right there.
Personally, I’m delighted to see something with a bit of controversy come along by way of Inglourious Basterds—the very title of which got one theater chain’s knickers in a twist, to the degree that they refused to put up the posters in the belief that the title might offend the tender sensibilities of their patrons. (I like to fantasize that said chain was alarmed by the poor spelling and not that word, but I know that’s not the case.) There’s also the additional excitement of how much—like possibly their very existence—the Weinsteins have riding on this movie.
At the same time, there are still good films playing in area theaters: (500) Days of Summer, District 9, Ponyo, Julie & Julia and even Up are still to be found on local screens. We certainly have no want of options.
New on DVD
This is pretty grim. Hannah Montana: The Movie tops the list of mainstream releases on DVD this week. That’s the sort of news that could drive you to buy the miserable remake of Last House on the Left simply in response, but I’d advise against it. A much better idea is the Icons of Sci-Fi Toho Collection, a three-for-one collection of Ishiro Honda movies: The H-Man (1958), Battle in Outer Space (1959) and Mothra (1961). The set would be worth it for The H-Man alone, which is one of Honda’s best movies—and which has never been available in its proper wide-screen format till now.
Also worth noting is that Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980) comes out on Blu-ray, as does Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). There’s also—on plain old DVD—an extended (142-minute) version of John Cassavete’s Husbands (1970). This is good news for those who can get into Cassavete’s more-or-less improvisational cinema-talk fests. I confess I am not among those, but don’t let that stop you, since this one’s supposed to be his best.
Notable TV screenings
Turner Classic Movies continues its Summer Under the Stars series, which pays off in a couple of days of dividends at least. On the other hand, it’s certainly worth noting that Dunston Checks In has, yes, once again checked in at Fox Movie Channel. There’s a certain comfort in consistency, I suppose.
Miriam Hopkins Thursday, Aug. 20, starting at 6 a.m., TCM
Miriam Hopkins isn’t an actress who is to everyone’s liking, but I’ve always found her at least interesting—and on more than a few occasions a lot more than that. I’m pleased to see TCM turn over an entire 24 hours to her. The daytime crop isn’t much—though you might want to check out Old Acquaintance (1943) where she squares off against Bette Davis (who disliked Hopkins with a passion). The film—shown at 2 p.m.—offers Hopkins at her most irritating. But that’s OK, because she’s supposed to be irritating here. It’s worth sitting through if only to get to the scene where a fed-up Davis gives her a good shaking. An extremely satisfying moment.
The real treats come in the evening starting at 8 with a triple feature of The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933). These are the films—three of them anyway—that ought to have been part of TCM’s Ernst Lubitsch tribute back when they did their Great Directors series. This particular trio represents Lubitsch at the very height of his filmmaking power—and they’re terrific showcases for Hopkins, too.
For years The Smiling Lieutenant was considered a lost film, which in turn caused it to be downgraded as lesser Lubitsch. (Let’s call this rationalization.) When we finally got to see it, it turned out to be at least very close to Lubitsch’s best film—or so I will continue to claim. It’s first and foremost a Maurice Chevalier vehicle. He plays the title character—a genial womanizer (well, he’s Chevalier) in the Austrian army who becomes involved in an affair with a pretty violinist (Claudette Colbert) in an all-girl orchestra. That’s fine, except a bit of flirting with her is mistaken for flirting with a rather plain visiting princess (Hopkins)—and the only way out is for Chevalier to marry her. Of course, the marriage is a disaster, because he still loves the violinist—something Colbert ultimately sets to rights by turning Hopkins into a sexy little thing.
It’s constantly stylish and funny—with an unusual taste of the bittersweet about it. The problem is that it’s a musical and the songs aren’t all that hot. That’s something of a downside with a musical. In fact, it’s the only of Chevalier’s films of the era that doesn’t appear to have produced a tie-in single recording. Actually, “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” (the song Colbert uses to help transform Hopkins) is pretty good. The others aren’t bad, but they’re fairly undistinguished. Still, lyricist Clifford Grey deserves some kind of medal for rhyming “liver” and “quiver” in “Breakfast Table Love”—and possibly a military funeral to go with it.
Trouble in Paradise follows and is about as close to a perfect movie as you’re going to get. Here Hopkins plays a fairly petty thief (and accomplished pickpocket) who teams up with Herbert Marshall’s more accomplished thief (he describes himself as “the man who walked into the Bank of Monte Carlo and walked out with the Bank of Monte Carlo”). Of course, they also fall in love—a situation that becomes threatened when they set out to fleece a wealthy and beautiful perfume manufacturer (Kay Francis).
Every line is sharp and clever. Every camera move and composition is sophisticated and witty. And every performance is on the money, from the three leads to Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles, C. Aubrey Smith and even Robert Greig as the butler. The odd thing is that there are only two songs: a title song sung by Donald Novis over the credits and a radio jingle for the perfume company. Still, it’s the most musical film Lubitsch ever made, and that’s only partly due to what was then called its “interpolated” score by W. Franke Harling. It’s mostly just the approach. There is—if you look hard enough—the visible shadow of a microphone in one shot.That’s the sort of thing you have to look for to find a flaw.
Nearly as good—and affording Hopkins her best role of all—is Design for Living, an adaptation of the Noel Coward play that screenwriter Ben Hecht bragged retained only one of Coward’s lines. That might cheese Coward fans, but the rest of us don’t much care because of the splendid things he put in their place and Lubitsch’s typically stylish direction. This round Hopkins has no female competition, but stars with Gary Cooper and Fredric March as one third of what is really nothing more than a ménage à trois. The film skirts this by the trio having a “gentlemen’s agreement” that foreswears sex. Of course, this doesn’t work, and Hopkins ends up with both men whenever she’s alone with either. (And, yes, there’s subtext for days.) Even for a pre-code film, this is surprisingly sophisticated material.
Fredric March Monday, Aug. 24, starting at 6 a.m., TCM
Fredric March is an actor who isn’t as appreciated these days as he ought to be, so it’s nice to see him get a day under the TCM stars. He certainly deserves one. Personally, I’d have liked to see The Royal Family of Broadway (1930) with his brilliant impersonation of John Barrymore, and I live in hope that TCM will finally get around to ponying up to Universal to get Laughter (1930), one of the most sophisticated of all early talkies. Still, we do get a nice mix here.
The day starts with one of the most interesting—and little seen—of the films: Rouben Mamoulian’s We Live Again (1934). This is a Sam Goldwyn production from the period where Goldwyn was trying to turn Anna Sten into his very own Garbo. Sten wasn’t bad, but the public wasn’t buying it. This Tolstoy-based film—with a screenplay by a gaggle of writers, including Maxwell Anderson and Preston Sturges—is almost certainly her best. March is excellent as the nobleman who seduces peasant-girl Sten and is redeemed by his love for her. It’s an intriguing, somewhat odd film for Mamoulian. While it’s clearly his work in a number of ways, it also seems heavily influenced by both James Whale and Josef von Sternberg in terms of its stylization—not to mention an opening that looks like it might be out of a Soviet agricultural paen of the era.
For me, it’s the centerpiece of the day, but that’s mostly because it’s the rarest item on the list. There’s plenty of prime March to be found throughout the day and night, including A Star Is Born (1937), Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) and Anna Karenina (1935). I think the real question is—where is Death Takes a Holiday (1934)?