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Sunday, February 26, 2017

THE DECAMERON (1971)

Italian literary agitator/provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini found international art house success serving up Boccaccio’s cruel comedy & bawdy behavior, gaining a welcome commercial bump from the evolving, less restrictive views on explicit nudity. (First erection in mainstream cinema?) Dispensing with Boccaccio’s storyteller (a sort of male Scheherezade), the nine chosen tales lean toward rude, crude & lewd in Pasolini’s heavy/overstated manner. ‘Cruel’ comes naturally to him; comedy & bawd, not so much. Taking the artist’s role of Giotto for himself, the rest is a mix of oddly-coiffed professionals & amateurs with odd teeth, each more annoyingly enthusiastic than the last. Had the film been done in English with decent synch-sound rather than poorly dubbed Italian, it’s rep would have sunk like a stone. But the real problem is, of course, PPP himself, that most unnatural of filmmakers. A few decent staging ideas come off during the church mural episode, but everywhere else, shot choice & editing is a hazard-course of missteps. (Must he set up every shot dead-center? Well, it does take your mind off the acting.) And when he goes for an artsy/frame-worthy comp, things come to a complete dead stop. Or rather, a series of fragmented dead stops. As in one of those late Roberto Rossellini ‘teaching’ films, the problem comes less from a lack of technique (the Nouveau Vague always celebrated Rossellini’s modest-to-a-fault skill set) than from contempt for process. As if craft would sully intellectual brilliance. As if, indeed.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Pasolini’s first & best pic, ACCATTONE/’61, had young Bernardo Bertolucci as creative wing-man, which must have made all the difference.

Friday, February 24, 2017

BLIND DATE (1987)

Indifferently received by critics at the time (and now, a 5.9 rating on IMDb), though a solid commercial hit, the years have been unusually kind to this Blake Edwards farce. Unfolding as a series of impossible slapstick staging challenges triumphantly solved by Edwards, it has junior exec Bruce Willis taking Kim Basinger to a company dinner unaware that alcohol turns her into the date from Hell. But unlike Edwards’ more formalist, nearly plot-free Jacques Tati-inspired THE PARTY/’68, that’s only the first act in a Dadaist chain of disasters that run amok on John Larroquette’s lovesick ex; William Daniel’s peeved judge; Willis’s turn from revenge to savior (with a spiked box of chocolates); and the traditional ‘Screwball’ interrupted wedding ceremony. Edwards’ technique is typically assured, with every kick in the pants perfectly timed & placed, capped by a stunningly executed penultimate comic set piece on the eve of the wedding that could serve as a film-course textbook. (And note the casually tossed off long takes all thru the pic.) Edwards had just fallen on his face aping Laurel & Hardy in A FINE MESS/’86, but this one delivers the escalating kinetic comic frustration (and release) that one missed.

DOUBLE-BILL: Martin Scorsese tried something similar using the NYC downtown scene in AFTER HOURS/’85. But the nervous laughs are few & far between, and leading man Griffin Dunne lends it the air of a vanity project.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Scripter Dale Launer petered out after a fast-track start (RUTHLESS PEOPLE/’86; BLIND DATE/’87; DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS/’88; MY COUSIN VINNY/’92. Falling off the map after turning writer/director on LOVE POTION No. 9/’92. (BLIND allegedly much rewritten by Edwards.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

THE SEVENTH SIN (1957)

Mezza mezza adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s THE PAINTED VEIL (second of three*) has almost no atmosphere, missing the cloistered Hollywood glamour (and cop-out ending) Greta Garbo & Herbert Marshall drifted thru in 1934; or the doom-laden tropical mildew Naomi Watts & Edward Norton sweated out in 2006. Made back when studios proudly sent their CinemaScope cameras out to capture exotic locales, this b&w production has flavorless mock up sets and obvious stand-ins for leads Eleanor Parker, Bill Travers & George Sanders on its handful of location shots. The story holds: bored, unfaithful wife, blackmailed by the doctor/ husband she never loved into accompanying him on a cholera epidemic mission outside of Hong Kong, reevaluates her choices on love, life & family . . . too late. Ronald Neame helms efficiently (with Vincente Minnelli called in for the slightly more fluid convent scenes), while Parker pulls off repentant tropes (she's not bad, a sort of refined Joan Crawford) and Sanders surprises with an unusually brisk & energetic characterization of a happy expat with local sympathies. But Karl Tunberg’s screenplay is turgidly stage-bound (we keep hearing about dramatic incidents) with everything played right on the nose, losing the oblique Maugham manner. You’ll forget you watched it the next day.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Listen up at a bridge party to hear Miklos Rozsa reuse the great neurotic waltz he composed for MADAME BOVARY/’49.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *As noted above, the other versions of this story from 1934 & 2006, though not without their own faults, get more than the superb novella’s title right.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

L’HOMME QU’ON AIMAIT TROP / IN THE NAME OF MY DAUGHTER (2014)

Now in his seventies, and not recently working up to past standards, French writer/ director André Téchiné finds something of his old form about halfway thru this oddly focused fact-inspired (was it a) murder case. Catherine Deneuve easily handles a thirty-year time span playing a glamorous Riviera casino owner, hanging on by a thread as a deep-pocketed rival (with likely Mafia connections) works to squeeze her out. With Guillaume Canet, her ruthlessly ambitious lawyer/factotum, and proxy voting authority on her daughter’s share of the business, Deneuve maneuvers a narrow boardroom victory to keep control. But when she denies Canet the managerial post he’s been coveting, it pushes him into enemy camp, along with the needy, entitled daughter (Adèle Haenel) he stokes with resentment and strokes with caresses. Téchiné concentrates on the business end, and lets the affair spin off axis of its own accord as Haenel becomes more emotionally dependant & unbalanced. Canet is working around a wife, kids, a less obsessed mistress and a struggling business. Is he a control junkie, or just attracted to trouble? (Once the film gets to it, the courtroom drama is less Third Act than extended epilogue.) Téchiné also hurts his cause shooting in hand-held ADHD camera style, as off-putting as the clingy Ms. Haenel. But as the story starts to clarify, and an outline of foul play begins to emerge, Téchiné dials back to a more classical/formal mode. Hold on and be duly rewarded.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Ms. Heanel might be sister to the young Elizabeth McGovern. Those cheeks & teary eyes!

DOUBLE-BILL: Films like THE LITTLE FOXES/’41; A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51; JAGGED EDGE/’85; and THE STORY OF ADELE H/’75 drift in & out of the film’s magpie storyline.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA (2013)

Nicholas Wrathall’s neatly turned documentary on the political provocateur/belles lettres author comes with a surfeit of curmudgeonly old man footage, but shows where Vidal got it right (the big picture) and where he got it wrong (the details). But is the once inescapable liberal intellectual still a force to be reckoned with five years after his death? Or the light-weight his critics charged, with self-regard as Achilles’ Heel? Wrathall is more true believer than doubter, though he couldn’t get what he needed from Vidal to bring out the late act betrayal of fellow contrarian essayist Christopher Hitchens, the spiritual son who failed. As for what survives; his great series of American historical fiction remains wicked, wise & unbeatably entertaining, a forced march thru the Great Men of D.C. (LINCOLN and BURR wonderfully jarring) and the still underappreciated collected essays. But what can be said of those philosophical/religious tomes of later years? Best to enjoy the film clips of slice-and-dice aperçu (extra naughty on the Kennedys) and perhaps go back to his finest film writing, the sly gay angle added to BEN-HUR/’56 and his unaccountably fine, moving adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s THE CATERED AFFAIR/’56 into one of Hollywood’s best kitchen-sink dramas. The man could surprise you.

DOUBLE-BILL: Vidal’s theatrical chef d'oeuvre, THE BEST MAN/’64 now looks stiff & dated as politics and as drama (very much the ‘well-made play’) while the above mentioned BEN-HUR and CATERED AFFAIR are just about perfect examples of their wildly different forms.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Fans of Orson Welles should check out the touching/hilarious obit/celebration Vidal included in his essay collection UNITED STATES.

Friday, February 17, 2017

U-NEUN NAM-JA / NO TEARS FOR THE DEAD (2014)

Korean writer/ director Jeong-beom Lee missteps in this action-thriller follow-up to his MAN FROM NOWHERE/’10. It starts well enough as Dong-gun Jang’s hitman extraordinare neatly dispatches everyone at a secret ‘Triad’ gang meeting in hopes of grabbing a FlashDrive loaded with Account Info & Codes to 100 mill in off-shore cash. But a sudden noise behind a padded door brings on a final Rat-a-tat-tat! And behind it, a little girl gets shot thru the heart. Turns out she was the mob accountant’s daughter and now a haunted, guilt-ridden Jang is assigned to track down the mother, who’s back in Korea, locate the missing FlashDrive . . . and leave no one behind. But instead of executioner, the assassin becomes her protector. And what a crowd to protect her from! After a deceptively quiet, get-to-know-you second act, Lee really lays on the action . . . too much of it. The pieces are often dazzling, but rarely connect into readable patterns; the helter-skelter randomness wears you down. A writing partner with more of a narrative bent might help.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lee’s second film, MAN FROM NOWHERE shows his promise in much better light.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)

Unlike the 2005 remix, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, big grosses/little ongoing interest (a real ‘jump the shark’ moment for team Tim Burton/ Johnny Depp), this earlier musical version had its negligible gross reversed by an ever-expanding post-theatrical fan-base. Easy to see why it initially flopped (it’s a dreadful film); easy to see how it grew an afterlife (childhood fantasy both bracingly chilly & illogical). It’s now ubiquitous author, Roald Dahl, was then an acquired taste, and he apparently loathed the film. (Was it the tweaking by uncredited scripter David Seltzer, or the low-rent WIZARD OF OZ production from David Wolper & director Mel Stuart, each stronger at documentary. (Often, Stuart’s staging is near self-sabotage.) The look of the film is alarmingly unattractive, and Arthur Ibettson, runt in the line of pioneering British colour cinematographers, doesn’t shy away from the hideous sets & costumes. (A chocolate waterfall spews something flushable. The overall lighting as savage as Dahl’s take on childhood.) And those songs. Yikes! Yet it starts to work in spite of itself around midpoint when Gene Wilder sidles in as the titular chocolatier who’s allowed five kids (in different shades of awful) to visit his secret workplace . Who is this fellow? What side is he on? Is he friendly or dangerous? Wilder’s acting choices are precise, like his carefully voiced singing. (He certainly gets the best song.) And if the film never gets too far beyond technical incompetence, it’s so distinctively odd it’s almost a match for the prickly Mr. Dahl. Whether he knew it or not.

DOUBLE-BILL: Dahl came fully to life in Nicolas Roeg’s exceptional adaptation of THE WITCHES/’90.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

LES INNOCENTES / THE INNOCENTS (2016)

Fact-inspired and deeply satisfying, this story out of post-WWII Poland mesmerizes from its opening shots inside a Catholic Convent as Sister Maria sneaks out on her devotions to track down a doctor. Avoiding Polish or Russian help (the sector is under Russian military control), she locates a small medical unit of the French Red Cross and convinces a young female doctor, working as a nurse/assistant, to help. Back at the convent, a nun has gone into a difficult labor, one of eight pregnant sisters, perhaps more; the result of Russian ‘liberators’ storming the convent after routing the Nazis. Desperate to keep this secret shame within their walls, the Mother Superior, herself a victim with a case of syphilis, can barely acknowledge the inevitable consequences. The young doctor faces the moral ultimatum of helping these nuns, already ashamed or in denial of what their bodies are telling them, or leaving them to their chances. All while maintaining long hours on staff with her unit. It’s riveting stuff, loaded with vivid characters, a dab of romance taken on the fly with a love-sick Red Cross doctor, honest suspense (though a false ‘quarantine’ alarm feels contrived*), tests of spirituality, and an unforgivable sin that may make the film too difficult for teens. (Family Friendly label applies only to high schoolers.) A great tale of courage & friendship between women that’s actually been made largely by women. And you can feel it, from director/co-writer Anne Fontaine down thru most of the technical crafts. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier earns special kudos for adding a touch of Vermeer portraiture in her lighting. And, within an all praise-worthy cast, Lou de Laâge, as the doctor, stands out for reining in her emotions and for unmissable old-school beauty. A real throwback to Golden Age standards, she’s like a cross between Leslie Caron (in her Gigi days) & the young Jeanne Moreau. Hollywood! If she speaks English, grab her up! If she doesn’t, teach her.

DOUBLE-BILL: A surprising list of major directors have a ‘nun’s story’ in them, try Robert Bresson’s overlooked debut, LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ/’43.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The quarantine gambit, used as a ruse to keep Russians out of the convent, might well be a true incident. Often as not, the phoniest moment in a bio-pic usually turns out to be true! Sometimes, especially in Hollywood samples of the form, the howlers are the only true incidents in there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

DAS LETZTE SCHWEIGEN / THE SILENCE (2010)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. When the exact pattern of a 23 yr-old rape/murder is repeated, the retired detective who never solved the original crime, picks up the new case along with his last partner who’s still on the force, but barely functioning after losing his wife to cancer. Last week’s Masterpiece Mystery? A bleakly wry Swedish police procedural recast in English for BBC/PBS? Normally, these similarities aren’t a big problem. But Swiss writer/director Baran bo Odar, working in Germany, isn’t able to revive the well-worn plot with either fresh characters (everyone works too hard at being interesting), psychological insight (you’re two steps ahead all the way) or technical pizzazz (from dream sequence to smash edits, applied instead of organic). Acceptable if you’re surfing cable for something to watch. But as a stand-alone, pretty tuckered out.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Some reviewers compared this to David Fincher’s ZODIAC/’07. An odd match, but if you go that way, at least trade up to Joon-ho Bong’s superb MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03.