Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Revival Preview: The Glass Wall at MFAH

My friend and University of Houston colleague Garth Jowett has always been a connoisseur of film noir, so if he says Maxwell Shane's The Glass Wall is the real deal, I'm inclined to believe him. The 1953 drama will be screened at 5 pm Sunday (Oct. 4) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Jowett will be on hand to offer what I'm sure will be a pithy introduction. How am I sure? Because he's already provided this pith for the MFAH website:

"The seldom-seen film noir The Glass Wall features issues that struggling immigrants faced when finding refuge in the United States after WWII. In his first American film, popular Italian actor Vittorio Gassman plays Peter, a concentration-camp survivor who stows away on a ship to New York in search of an American paratrooper he saved during the war. The immigration authorities give him 24 hours to find the man, known only as a jazz musician named Tom, before sending him back to Europe.The director follows Gassman on the gritty streets of New York, and captures the increased desperation of this Holocaust survivor as the deadline for finding Tom nears. A superb urban thriller, The Glass Wall fully captures a moment in time when many victims of the war were trying to enter the United States."

But wait, there's more: Here's what Nathaniel Thompson had to say about The Glass Wall on the Turner Classic Movies website:

"A cross between a dark chase thriller and picaresque view of urban Americana with a colorful gallery of characters, The Glass Wall is a slightly darker view of the ideals behind Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty than usual. It also features a major setpiece shot on location at the United Nations well before Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), while the presence of noir regular Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat [1953], In a Lonely Place [1950]) ensures its thriller pedigree as well. The supporting cast teems with familiar faces from a variety of postwar entertainment venues, most prominently the key role of the elusive Tom played by Jerry Paris, the TV actor-turned-director who gained fame as Rob Petrie's neurotic neighbor Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show; he subsequently went behind the camera for numerous television shows as well as an oddball assortment of feature films including the hip Jacqueline Bisset vehicle The Grasshopper (1970) and one of the last traditional romantic comedies, 1968's How Sweet It Is!

"Also noteworthy in the gallery of New Yorkers is stuntwoman-turned-actress Ann Robinson (best known for her leading role in George Pal's The War of the Worlds, 1953), busy character actor Joe Turkel (who went on to immortality in the 1980s as Tyrell in Blade Runner [1982] and Lloyd the ghostly bartender in The Shining [1980]) , colorful Douglas Spencer (also seen in memorable supporting roles in Shane [1953] and This Island Earth [1955]), and a young, briefly-spotted Kathleen Freeman, a seasoned TV actress who went on to earn a Tony Award for The Full Monty while becoming a reliable comedic supporting player in films like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Innerspace (1987).

"The film's director and co-writer, Maxwell Shane, was more prolific as a screenwriter than an auteur; however, the strong affinity for urban thrillers he displays here also carried over into two mysteries adapted from cult writer Cornell Woolrich (1947's Fear in the Night and 1956's wonderfully surreal Nightmare). He had written numerous programmers (mainly horror and westerns) in the 1940s, but the small handful of films he actually directed indicate a strong aesthetic sense he sadly left behind in favor of TV."

Even while toiling in television, however, Shane managed to distinguish himself: He wrote seven episodes of M Squad, arguably the most badass half-hour in TV history, a brutally efficient cop show that had Lee Marvin jumping out his car and shooting at people during the freakin' opening credits every week. Since Count Basie did the theme for the series, I'm sure Jowett -- who's also a jazz aficionado -- has pithy things to say about that curio, too.

Friday, September 25, 2015

His name is Smith. Sam Smith. And he sings the terrific new theme song for Spectre

"I'm prepared for this," Sam Smith sings -- sounding somewhere in that midnight-blue middle ground between assured and apprehensive. "I never shoot to miss." OK, that part sounds aptly James Bondian enough. But then Smith hits us with his best shot -- "For you I have to risk it all -- 'cause the writing's on the wall!" -- and it's clear that the folks behind Spectre, the new 007 action-adventure opening Nov. 6, are signaling that this time, maybe, Bond will... well, maybe let his guard down a bit?

(Of course, the last time 007 really let his guard down was in On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- and that didn't turn out too well, did it?)

"Writing's On The Wall" was co-written by Smith and fellow Grammy Award winner Jimmy Napes, and I have to say after, oh, I dunno, about a dozen or listens, that it strikes me as one of the very best Bond themes ever. But don't take my word for it. Starting today, you can downstream it here and/or buy it here.

"This is one of the highlights of my career," Smith says of his involvement in the Bondwagon. "I am so excited to be a part of this iconic British legacy and join an incredible line up of some of my biggest musical inspirations. I hope you all enjoy the song as much as I enjoyed making it."

Spectre producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli are equally -- and appropriately -- upbeat. "Sam and Jimmy have written the most inspirational song for Spectre," they said in a prepared statement timed to the song's Friday release, "and with Sam's extraordinary vocal performance, 'Writing's On The Wall' will surely be considered one of the greatest Bond songs of all time."

By the way: This is the first 007 theme recorded by a major British solo artist since 1965 -- way back when Tom Jones went ballistic with Thunderball.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

R.I.P.: Marcin Wrona (1973-2015)

Just a few days after his third feature, Demon, had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona died -- at the ridiculously young age of 42 -- Friday. I reviewed his film in Toronto for Variety, and while it was, I admit, a mixed review, Wrona liked it enough to blurb part of it in a Tweet. (Yes, the same quote that appears in his Variety obit.) You can judge the supernatural drama for yourself this week if you're attending Fantastic Fest in Austin. But I must admit: I am not thinking of the film right now so much as the fact that man who made it... well, as I said, was only 42 when he passed away. In other words, young enough to be my son.

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls... 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Trailer Park: Labyrinth of Lies

At last year's Toronto Film Festival, I had the privilege of reviewing Giulio Ricciarelli's Labyrinth of Lies, an intelligent and arresting fact-based drama about an ambitious German prosecutor's efforts to build cases against Nazi war criminals several years after World War II. The film -- which has been chosen as Germany's entry in the Best Foreign Film category of this year's Academy Awards -- opens soon in U.S. thaters. Here is a look at the trailer -- which, I am shamelessly proud to note, blurbs my original Variety notice.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Take 40: Toronto International Film Festival

Thought I might not make it back this year, but here I am: All ready to start viewing and reviewing when the press screenings start bright and early tomorrow morning. A sobering thought: I have already attended three-quarters of all the festivals in the history of the Toronto International Fim Festival. I'm keeping my fingers crossed so I'll make it to the 50th annual event. And beyond.