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Monday, June 30, 2008


An aging, but still vital King & Queen are at each other’s throats; the three sons are in competition for the succession; and a major national holiday looms forebodingly; shall we hang the holly . . . or each other? Wait, that’s THE LION IN WINTER and this is another Chinese historical epic from helmer Zhang Yimou. Chow Yun Fat & Gong Li are the Emperor & Empress, but she’s not the birth mother which is a good thing since she’s dallied with one of her ‘sons.’ Now, the Emperor has commanded the royal physician to poison her (she knows all about it) and the Empress is plotting a military coup (he knows all about it). So when the wife of the palace doc turns out to be the long lost birth mother, all hell breaks loose in some spectacularly staged warfare set inside the confines of the enormous palace grounds. (The Emperor has a special detachment of men all costumed as Irma Vep!) It’s all exciting and gorgeous to look at, if not always perfectly clear, but Yimou can’t properly integrate the sweeping action sequences with the intra-familial drama. Still, it’s quite an eyeful.


George MacDonald Fraser adapted his own satiric swashbuckling novel and must have been terribly disappointed with the results. No doubt, Richard Lester seemed the likely megger after his MUSKETEERS films (Fraser's plot freely samples THE PRISONER OF ZENDA and Dumas's THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK), but nothing gels and there have been no follow-ups. Fraser's implied comic tone feels forced under the stiff staging and Geoffrey Unsworth's ultra-lux lensing, and the impressively eccentric supporting cast (Alastair Sims, Michael Horden, Lionel Jeffries, Joss Ackland) get nothing to work on. In a small bit right at the start, Bob Hoskins supplies just the right tone, but the three leads (Malcolm MacDowell, Oliver Reed & Alan Bates) are all misused, particularly MacDowell whose curdled face drains any surprise out of his cowardly triumphs. (The ladies don't register at all.) Stick with the addictive books or try BLACKADDER with Rowan Atkinson & Hugh Laurie for a bit of the Fraser spirit. (see TOM BROWN'S SCHOOL DAYS)

JUST PALS (1920)

This modest Buck Jones rural dramedy(a five-reel feature) was John Ford's first pic @ Fox Studios. The print is in reasonable shape and the film turns out to be a real charmer. Jones was pushed ahead @ Fox to keep Western superstar Tom Mix in line, but under Ford he comes across as a far more natural actor, with a modern style and brooding good looks. He’s the scapegrace in a small rural town whose life is turned about when he falls for the local schoolmarm & also finds himself unexpectedly in charge of a runaway kid hobo. Ford's use of landscape and train settings are so charged with character and drama that the ensuing melodramatic improbabilities seem not contrived, but inevitable. Indeed, the first half of the film may have influenced Chaplin's THE KID/’21, but then the plot piles up as Buck has to save the boy from reward hunters, his girl from a charge of raiding the local memorial fund and himself from a lynch mob! All in 50 minutes! D. W. Griffith remains Ford’s model, but his own voice is already unmistakable.


A powerhouse cast helps to jazz up this very square boardroom drama which helmer Robert Wise & scripter Ernest Lehman (in the first of four award-winning collaborations) play strictly at right-angles. Fredric March, Walter Pigeon, William Holden, Dean Jagger & Paul Douglas are the execs up for the top spot when the company president drops dead. Barbara Stanwyck holds the deciding voting shares, Louis Calhern holds some unraveling stock, Nina Foch holds the phone and Shelly Winters (looking very fine) & June Allyson hold hands. There's not enough variety to the drama, but Lehman gives everyone tasty bits to chew on, saving his real ammunition for Holden's tour-de-force final oration. Holden got stuck with this sort of over-articulate speechifying for decades, and he always made it work. But the best perf comes from a shockingly snarky Fredric March who all but becomes Richard Nixon (from back in his ‘Tricky Dick’ days). Just watch him blot the tell-tale sweat off his lip.

Friday, June 27, 2008


This largely unsatisfying vehicle for Fanny Brice, the real Funny Girl, is her only early Talkie to survive intact. There’s a certain built-in interest in seeing what made her such a popular performer, but you can probably get closer to what made her legend by checking out her guest appearances in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD/’36 singing ‘My Man’ and THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES/’46 for a sample of her no-holds-barred comedy technique. Sketch comedy has a notoriously short shelf life, but she’s riveting just the same. (see below) BE YOURSELF is an antique bit of sentimental tosh with Brice fighting to keep her man ( a boxing champ) from falling for a gold-digging dame. Billy Rose was her husband at the time and he turned out a few sub-par songs which are slackly helmed by Thornton Freeland. But do check out those nightclub designs from William Cameron Menzies.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


For his last pre-hyphenate credit, Billy Wilder came up with the very cute premise of eight cloistered Professors forced out of their academic shell when they need to research ‘slang.’ But ‘cute’ was never the forte of helmer Howard Hawks and the third act complications devolve into Damon Runyonesque comic mob tropes that only remind you how much better Wilder handled this in SOME LIKE IT HOT/’59. (One of the Profs even references the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.) The ultra-smooth Samuel Goldwyn production polish also tends to slow things down, but the extraordinary rapport between Gary Cooper & Barbara Stanwyck makes up for a lot of rinky-dink twinkling from the other professors. Wile away the longueurs deciding who’s playing Sneezy, Grumpy, Sleepy, Doc, Bashful, Dopey & Happy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Staggeringly effective WWII thriller from the writing/directing/producing team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger follows six survivors from a German U-Boat set aground in Hudson Bay, Canada. Led by a sharp & ruthless Nazi ‘superman’ (Eric Portman), they make their way east in picaresque fashion like one of Hitchcock’s innocent-man-on-the-run pics. Except, no one here is innocent. (Perversely, Hitch would set his Nazi Ubermensch story in ultra-close quarters: LIFEBOAT.) Pressburger structures the film as a series of one-act turns for high caliber actors (Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey), but he’s unable to maintain the emotional pitch of the superb sequence set in a self-contained German religious commune which features standout perfs from Anton Walbrook, Glynis Johns & Niall MacGinnis. Technically, the film trickery is something of a miracle (check out the tech credits, yowsa!), plus a score from Ralph Vaughan Williams. It all beautifully tees off the great Powell/Pressburger/ARCHERS films that followed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


You can almost hear the edifice of old Hollywood crumbling in this witless one-note thriller manque. Reliable M-G-M vets Tay Garnett & Joe Ruttenberg helmed & shot it, but the film looks & plays like a cheap programmer for Loretta Young in mid-career free-fall. Her hubby (Barry Sullivan) is a bedridden WWII hero who believes that both Young & his best-pal/doctor are trying to kill him. He’s mailed an incriminating letter and the suspense comes in watching Young sweat in mounting panic as she fails again & again to stop delivery. No joke, that’s the plot! The last act brings unintentional laughs as Loretta jumps in fear at every ring of the doorbell. And everybody's stopping by! (It's like a Carol Burnett sketch.) This all might (that’s might) have made some effect if she & the good doctor actually were trying to do the creep in (shades of Garnett’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE), but with the lamentable Dore Schary running M-G-M, thinking small was the norm.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


The fifth entry (of eight) in the endearingly odd series is one of the best. Norman Foster, who directed six episodes. co-wrote the tight script which opens with Moto (the irreplaceable Peter Lorre) escaping Devil’s Island with fellow inmate Leon Ames. Naturally, Moto is secretly there on a case, budding up to Ames because he’s part of a British-based murder-for-hire scheme. Back in London, Moto gets Ames to employ him as valet so he can uncover the whole criminal organization. (Lorre has a great time playing duo Asian stereotypes off each other in a manner that only a German refugee Hungarian Jew working in Hollywood could have done at the time. And without a speck of jaded irony.) Physically, Foster does wonders with the low-budgets he had to work with and he has far better casts than similar series usually got (Henry Wilcoxon & Erik Rhodes both give tasty perfs). He's even able to keep the dopey comedy to a minimum on this one. Go Moto!

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Dunderheaded JFK conspiracy tale somehow caught the fancy of some of the best known progressive Hollywood liberals, including actors Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer & scripter Dalton Trumbo. David Miller megs as if he’s making a Very Special episode of DRAGNET and uses documentary footage from ‘63 as if he were buying irregular job lots. (please see WINTER KILLS below which, to draw a far-fetched analogy, plays a sort of goofball DR. STRANGELOVE to this film's staid FAIL-SAFE)

Friday, June 20, 2008


Judd Apatow’s big screen megging debut with its easy-concept self-explanatory title earns kudos just by casting Steve Carell rather then, say, Adam Sandler in the leading role. Carell, who also co-scripted, keeps the humiliations and farcical situations just within believable limits, losing quick pay-offs to gain a bit of emotional ballast which radiates thru the whole cast. Well, the male half of the cast. In the midst of all the raunchy frathouse behavior that barely camouflages the squishy heart beneath the scatological jokes, you may notice that all the guys get to be sweet & sour, while the girls are one-note set-ups for plot points. (Except for Jane Lynch, who plays a tough, but randy boss.) Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd & Romany Malco make a great comedy team of sex advisers and Catherine Keener, as the object of Carell’s desire, does what she can with her undercooked role. (Wouldn’t an E-Bay marketeer have some appreciation for toy collectibles & original packaging?)

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Solid WWII spy drama stars William Holden as a compromised Swedish-based American businessman who is blackmailed into working undercover for the Allies. The deeper he gets in, the more he begins to care about his mission, especially when he falls in love with his main contact in Germany, Lilli Palmer. (Holden looks as worn as Palmer looks radiant, and they use the difference for honest dramatic effects.) The talkative script from megger George Seaton tends to spell everything out for us (in his long career he rarely let his visuals run the dramatic action), but he’s at his best here. In addition, Seaton gets a lot of help from an exceptional production design and, especially, the sophisticated lensing from Jean Bourgoin, just off Jacques Tati’s MON ONCLE. The last act, with Holden exposed & on the run, has suspense, pace & momentum. And from George Seaton!

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Nicholas Ray’s helming debut holds up beautifully. It’s based on the same book (THIEVES LIKE US) that Robert Altman used 25 years later (see below), but Ray plays out a contemporary story where Altman returned to Depression days which distances the romance & tragedy. There’s nothing new in the basic story (3 convicts on the lam rob banks until ‘the kid’ falls for a girl and wants out), nor in the manner that Ray emphasizes the fatalistic noir aspects of the story. But the film holds particular interest as a stylistic fulcrum between Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE/’37 (which also charts a BONNIE & CLYDE tale) and Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55 (which has little narrative connection). Jay C. Flippen gives a remarkably blunt performance as one of the convicts, but the film is mainly about its young lovers. And if Cathy O’Donnell’s doe pales next to Farley Granger’s fawn, this remains one of Ray’s more dramatically balanced works, thanks to strong collaborators John Houseman & Charles Schnee, producer & scripter.

CONTEST: A well known folksong that's used as musical material for the film's score is the eponymous theme of one of the all-time great romance pics. Name that film and win the usual MAKSQUIBS prize, a Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice. Remember, no Googling or IMdB searching. These contests are too easy already!


THIEVES and CALIFORNIA SPLIT/’74 were the last films Robert Altman made before he was tagged a genius, a creative curse similar to writers winning the Nobel Prize. He eventually recovered his form, in fits & starts, but never again had the run of masterpieces he helmed in the early ‘70s. An earlier version of this story (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT/’49, see above) was guilt-riven romance with contemporary noir trimmings, but Altman effectively returns to the novel’s mid-30s Southern environment, and with little of the cutesy self-consciousness seen in comparable Depression era pics like PAPER MOON/’73 or BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67. Altman helps set the scene by keeping period radio on the soundtrack. It works just fine as long as word & image move on separate tracks, but hearing ROMEO AND JULIET during the big love scene is one of the film’s few missteps. Altman also draws a narrative demarcation line between the bank-robber convicts and the doomed love story of the youngest robber & his innocent girl. You know the end is near when they do cross. Keith Carradine, as the kid, & John Schuck, as the psychopath in the gang, are beyond praise. And if Shelly Duvall perfectly fills her role, you’ll still see why she had a foreshortened career. It’s not her odd, but compelling face, but her posture, of all things. You feel she literally can’t carry a film. But for this brief moment, Altman was able to carry just about anything.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Marco Tullio Giordana’s ecstatically received 'novel on film' covers the social & political history of Italy from the mid-sixties to the present (Il Boom to Bust & Back) via one extended family (particularly two opposing brothers) and a couple of close friends. But rather than show how the drift of events affected everyone, the narrative places a cast member at every other national crisis. The Florence floods serve to reunite estranged brothers. And they’re back, as cop & leftist sympathizer, for the ‘68 riots in Turin. The Red Brigade? Hey, that’s no anarchist, that’s my wife! Sicilian mob trials & assassinations? Our big sister is one of the judges. And so on. Substitute American Baby Boomers and USA high tide events to see just how soapy the whole set up really is. Fortunately, the second half of the film leans toward personal matters, allowing the sweep of incident and attractive cast to grab our emotions, though you can’t help but notice how everyone ages like an old Hollywood movie. No hair loss, no weight gain, no blotchy skin or added wrinkles, just a distinguished touch of gray in the hair. So handsome on those Italian men.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Francis Veber has made French Boulevard farce look natural on the screen for decades. There’s no secret to his formula, it’s just that no one else does it so consistently. He sets up character & situation not in an act, but in a single reel. And at his best, as he is here, no one needs to act stupid just to keep the complications humming. COMPERES plays out that old stand-by, ‘Too Many Dads.’ A troubled teenage kid runs away with his girl and gets mixed up with her nasty gang. His mom calls two old flames (the unbeatable team of Pierre Richard & Gerard Depardieu) to help find him, telling each that the boy is his son. As wild card, Depardieu is also hunting up evidence against mob types who are soon on his tail. Veber can be faulted for fumbling the choreography on a couple of physical gags (as slapstick technician, he’s no Blake Edwards), but he knows what he needs to get in each & every shot, gets it, & then gets out. Stylistically, it's not so far removed from Don Siegel's blunt practicality, if Siegel could tell a joke. But then, Pierre Richard is so inspired here, anyone would come up aces. (Except perhaps Ivan Reitman, who gave us FATHER’S DAY/'97, the gruesome Hollywood remake of COMPERES starring Robin Williams & Billy Crystal. Just typing up those names gives me the willies.)


Farley Granger & Cathy O’Donnell quickly followed up on their successful pairing in RKO’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (see below) with this unmemorable M-G-M programmer. Helmer Anthony Mann pulls off some flavorsome NYC location stuff, but everyone involved knows this one’s going nowhere. Granger plays one of the little people in the big city who steals a couple of hundred bucks so that his wife (O’Donnell) doesn’t have to have their baby in the city ward. But when he finds he actually stole 30 grand, and that a dame was murdered as part of the scam, he just wants to give it all back. Sidney Boehm’s script is all function & no fun and neither the villains nor the all-knowing detective (Paul Kelly) bring much flair to the procedural proceedings. Scorer Lennie Hayton gets in some jazzy licks, and lenser Joseph Ruttenberg has fun working the gritty side of the street, but the pickings are slim here.


These two Pare Lorentz documentaries are the cinematic equivalents of those iconic Depression Era photos by government sponsored photogs like Walker Evans. Simple, powerful and often quite beautiful images of the destructive force of Nature & Man, the film's effectiveness has largely been overtaken by later efforts that have gone beyond these early studies. What keeps these films indelible are Virgil Thompson’s uncluttered background scores which are all the stronger for their lack of embellishment & studied simplicity. The classical music company NAXOS has issued thrillingly restored prints of these small treasures with newly recorded soundtracks & narration. Since all the footage was shot without sound, the obvious improvement in recording techniques should make the old original tracks, with their overloading & distortion, expendable. But the new recording comes off as tame & homogenized, crucially missing the vivid musical personalities heard on the crumbling old tracks.


Once upon a time . . . Max & Dave Fleischer were the only animators who tried to adopt the Disney model of costly cartoon features. MR. BUG (also known as HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN and as BUGVILLE in the current Legacy DVD release) was their second and last shot at the form. It’s a big improvement on their better known GULLIVER’S TRAVELS/’39, but when it came to narrative & emotion, the Fleischers proved unable to think big. Hoppity is a sort of James Stewart character who tries to lead all the insects in his ‘town’ to a new home when their city lot comes under attack by developers. There’s a trio of villains to overcome (two of them channeling Abbott & Costello) and a lovely lady bumblebee to strive for. Even in this mediocre transfer, the film has a lovely & wildly inventive look, great gags and a tasty little score from Frank Loesser & Hoagy Carmichael. In fact, it’s a modest delight. But it won’t haunt your dreams like classic Disney, like DUMBO which came out just a month before this.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

ZOU ZOU (1934)

Elaborate Josephine Baker dramatic musical is a triumph . . . for Jean Gabin. At the start of his career, this squat, big-featured lug already displays most of his star qualities; he even sings with swaggering confidence. Pic’s a big backstage story with Baker’s Creole laundress taking over for the temperamental star, having a great success, but losing Gabin to a blonde after rescuing him from a murder charge. And by the way, the blonde’s her best friend & Jean’s her adoptive sibling. (Don’t ask.) Squint and you can just see what made Baker such a phenom. But she’s more of a scenic-point-of-interest than an actress, a vivacious vamp who mugs for every shot, sings with a nasal tremolo (quite a big range though) & dances after her own fashion. A film natural, she ain’t. Megger Marc Allegret’s attempted Busby Berkeley numbers are hopelessly ill-staged, composed, routined and edited, but there’s undeniable period flavor here.

ZODIAC (2007)

Having made his rep with gory, atmospheric psychological-chillers, megger David Fincher turned sobersides for this fact-based serial killer saga. He got his best reviews & his worst box-office for his troubles. The story is less about the eponymous serial killer than about how the desultory investigation destabilized the lives of a series of obsessed reporters & detectives. Clocking in at a mind-numbing 158 minutes, Fincher has succumbed as well. A talented cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey, Jr & Mark Ruffalo) all speak in such indecipherable mumbled monotones that those who’d like to follow the obtuse slo-mo investigation had best punch up the subtitles.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Rinse off Fincher’s ponderous self-importance with Joon-ho Bong’s MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03.


Considering its botched opening (Shakespeare, Barnum & Ziegfeld as heavenly neighbors) & the Dali meets Tanguy meets Lux Detergent finale, to say nothing of its tortured production history, this plotless revue hits a remarkably high batting average. All the FredAstaire numbers score, with "Limehouse Blues" something of a neglected masterpiece. Red Skelton does his classic Guzzler’s Gin and Fanny Brice, daringly egged on by helmer Roy Del Ruth, gives a masterclass in comedy stage technique. Watch her work away at Hume Cronyn’s face. Only Judy Garland, playing dress-up in the 'Madame Crematon' sketch, unexpectedly tanks. It heralds the neurotic camp appeal that would too often plague her great talent. And note how yummy all those full-figured, curvy dames are; Lucille Ball, Esther Williams, Lena Horne and Cyd Charisse, not a Size 0 in sight.


Just as the B’way musical RENT (see above) updated LA BOHEME to lower Manhattan in the 1980s, here’s a silly Viennese variant from the mid-‘30s starring the soon to be married operatic couple Jan Kiepura & Marta Eggerth, each handsome of face & voice. ( Now in her 90s, Eggerth still is.) They made dozens of light musicals before leaving German territories during WWII, but some may recall Eggerth as the star who briefly steals Gene Kelly from Judy Garland in FOR ME AND MY GAL/’42, so it’s doubly amusing to note how much Kiepura looked like Kelly. In this far-fetched version of the opera story, Eggerth plays a consumptive character who's actually cast to sing Mimi (of all roles) and manages to die onstage (for real!) just as the curtain falls. What a trooper! What an exit! The old print only gives glimmers of the great Franz Planer’s cinematography, but it’s an interesting treat for canary fanciers.

NOTE: Those intrigued might also like to check out Eggerth vs Garland in PRESENTING LILY MARS/'43 where she's so good they had to cut her big number and redo the finale to tilt the film back in Garland's favor.


A phenomenally well made triple-cross mob story about a disgraced cop from Kobe who brazens his way into Tokyo’s top two rival gangs and plays both against the middle. He's trying to discover who murdered the only detective who kept faith with him during his three-year jail stint. It's filled with ultra-imaginative visuals, a color design Jacques Demy might envy (great B&W scope shots with just a stroke of color & an assortment of color-coded phones you'll want to collect), superb pacing and readable action sequences that thrill without a glimmer of CGI. Genre helmer extraordinaire Seijun Suzuki makes this film feel & look decades ahead of its time. Tough guy Joe Shishido (very much in the Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson mold) makes all the physical action and plot machinations feel inevitable. But mostly, it’s Suzuki, piling one stunning image upon another who lifts this into pulp heaven. De Palma, Scorsese & Tarantino are all in his debt. Why is this film so little known?


1939 was a John Ford trifecta year with three outstanding slices of Americana pie, STAGECOACH, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and YML. This one moves a bit deliberately for audiences (then & now, it was a commercial flop), but it stays with you. After staging a half dozen iconic moments, each granted that one extra memory-inducing camera set up, courtesy of Ford & lenser Bert Glennon, Lamar Trotti’s clever script settles on a sketchy murder & the ensuing trial as a fulcrum to test Lincoln’s evolving public & private personae. Thanks to Henry Fonda’s grave & funny Lincoln, Ford brings off some brilliant & unexpectedly Janus-faced moments that keep the man from turning into a plaster saint, while peopling a full gallery of memorable characters. Pauline Moore & Marjorie Weaver belie their modest careers with strong characterizations of Ann Rutledge & Mary Todd while Alice Brady, Richard Cromwell, Ward Bond, Milburn Stone, Spencer Charters & Donald Meek are merely the best of the rest. Not to mention cleffer Alfred Newman’s heart-tugging Ann Rutledge theme which Ford memorably reused decades later in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/'62.

CONTEST: Henry Fonda's fake nose was recently brought out of storage to help a certain actress win a Best Actress Oscar. (No, I'm not kidding. It's the same damn nose!) Be the first to name the film, role & actress and you, too, can win our usual MAKSQUIBS prize, a Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD of your choice.


You know this story of infidelity, murder and miscarried justice comes from a literary novel because the lead, a writer manque (natch), gets to screw everything in sight. Five partners in multiple encounters of a varying graphic nature. Gives a whole new meaning to penmanship. Set with over-determined grimness on a coal barge in the late ‘40s, Ewan McGregor has an affair with the boss’s wife (a drab Tilda Swinton) while also shagging his ex. When the ex accidentally drowns, McGregor watches from the sidelines as an innocent man takes the blame, getting in a few new conquests while waiting for the verdict. Megger David Mackenzie isn’t able to keep the narrative clear enough to generate much tension (is he following the non-linear time continuity from the novel?) so he ladles on the dreary texture of lower-class British sludge like a chef covering up a spoiled entree with gravy.


Kid-friendly W. C. Fields pic is disappointingly aimed squarely at the family radio audience (hence Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy) and never rises to the Dadaist heights of the great man’s final two outbursts (THE BANK DICK & YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN) from 1940. Not that there aren’t pleasures to be had as Fields runs his threadbare circus & deconstructs a society shindig. But we keep stopping for good-natured ribbing between man & puppet when Fields’ true nature & genius lies in his lack of kidding. Throttling that wooden-necked doll can’t compare to threatening a live Baby Leroy.

YI YI (2000)

The extended running time of this extended-family drama isn’t quite earned in Edward Yang’s multiple POV Taiwanese portrait. Book-ended (actually studded) with family rituals of marriage, birth, death, first love, first love revisited, etc., Yang’s stately, yet emotionally charged handling of encircling domestic dramas, playing out in public & private spaces, is immaculate movie-making. (Only the melodramatic touches toward the end ring false; the film is best at moments of charm & gentle humor.) Aided by a superb compositional eye, graced with miraculous mini-dramas in single long shots and flawlessly cast, the intra-family dramas are satisfying, yet perhaps just miss the emotional epiphany Yang aims for.

THE YARD (2000)

Over-plotted civic corruption drama apes SERPICO and THE GODFATHER, which its 2-hr running time can’t accommodate. Back in Bkln after jail, Mark Wahlberg gets in fresh trouble when best pal Joaquin Phoenix plants him for a murder rap. It all has something or other to do with James Caan’s train repair shop which isn't playing fair with the competition, but is now getting outbid & outplayed. Times change. You can't go home again. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. It's that sort of storytelling. Throw in Ellen Burstyn, Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway (surprisingly effective), Steve Lawrence (even better), and you’d think somebody would have shown up to watch. Director James Gray hits his targets, but lays it on pretty thick (and pretty dark, someone turn on a light!), & the film missed the pop/cultural Zeitgeist by a mile.


A smart story about insurance fraud at sea comes off thanks to nice chemistry between co-stars, Gary Cooper near the end of his career & Charlton Heston smack in his best period; spit & polish courtroom drama spotlighting Michael Redgrave, Emlyn Williams, Alexander Knox & Cecil Parker; and a typically savvy script from novelist Eric Ambler. The opening reels which are largely a two-hander for Coop & Heston on a crumbling freighter will take you by surprise. If only helmer Michael Anderson was more than a competent routinier and the soggy special effects a bit more special.


By the time we reach the final film in Satyajit Ray’s APU trilogy, we feel so close to the leading character (played now by Soumitra Chatterjee), we react to the events in his life as if he were our own son. He smiles or recites a favorite quotation and tears of pride well up. But the story & execution are so beautifully realized, we’d be goners even without the backstory. Apu is now grown, struggling to write & support a wife he’s married thru happenstance. (Chatterjee & Sharmila Tagore make a wonderfully handsome couple. In a taxi ride, she looks like a young Indian Vivien Leigh.) When the inevitable blow to his amazed happiness comes, he is totally unprepared and refuses to be a father to his troubled son. Ray manages all this incident without a whiff of forced dramatics, yet never underplays a moment. Essential.


Thomas Hardy’s novel is largely a study of land and character, rather than plot. (Marriageable country beauty chooses to wed a couple of steps up and regrets the fine honest longtime neighbor she rebuffed, with tragic consequences, natch.) So any adaptation had better make the woodland and its people compelling. But with the notable exception of Rufus Sewell, with those startling Bette Davis eyes, no one makes enough of an impression in this handsome, but bland rendition. You can’t exactly fault the work, it’s honest enough, but just not memorable. You begin to tote up all the missed opportunities.

THE WOMEN (1939)

Claire Booth Luce’s loathsome play gets the all-star M-G-M treatment . . . and how. Director George Cukor, still licking his wounds from that little Selznick Civil War drama, does what he can with Anita Loos & Jane Murfin’s slight improvements to the script, but you can’t alter the basic contempt Luce has for her little foxes. Norma Shearer nobly holds the heel of her palm to her forehead, Roz Russell shrieks & looks imposingly tall while Joan Fontaine is ditsy & looks impossibly lovely. While poor Joan Crawford, as the no-class working girl (she steals hubbies and then cheats on her prey) doesn’t even rate a decent hairdo. Fortunately, Act II takes us off to Reno where Paulette Goddard, Marjorie Main and the great Mary Boland bring some real comic timing to the ersatz material. ‘THE WOMEN . . . it’s all about Men’ was the original tag-line. And in Luce's anti-feminist farce, damned if it isn’t the case.


Superior entry in the Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce WWII era Sherlock Holmes films is possibly the most straightforward & respectful of the Universal series, though a bit too somber for its own good. The unwelcome updating is kept to a minimum and the handsome dark look and carefully worked out shots by regular helmer Roy William Neill turn poverty production values into noir positives. But what gives the film a jolting dash of the creeps is the fine saturnine presence of its thick-featured villain, Henry Daniels, who lends some polish, class & threat to the usual mix of B-list contract actors.


William Richert’s debut as writer/helmer was this eccentric adaptation of Richard Condon’s paranoid political fantasia loosely built atop the Kennedy assassination. Unwilling (or unable) to try and mix comic & dramatic elements a la PRIZZI’S HONOR or THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (two other darkly comic Condon fables), he settled for wacky characterizations amid a Kafkaesque comedy landscape. In spite of a general technical incompetence, the pic is irresistibly entertaining on its own terms with a whoopin’, hollerin’, scenery chewin’ cast of oversized personalities. We're talking John Huston, Sterling Hayden , Richard Boone, Elizabeth Taylor, Dorothy Malone, Anthony Perkins, Toshiro Mifune, Ralph Meeker & Eli Wallach, each dishing up conflicting conspiracy theories to straightman Jeff Bridges who shows off the second most expressive brow in filmdom. (Only Gromit of ‘Wallace & Gromit’ fame tops the Jeffster.) Can this modern Candide uncover the truth before getting rubbed out? And will I have the slightest idea what's going on by the time the credits roll? (please see EXECUTIVE ACTION above)


You’ve got to wade thru a mighty sea of ham-fisted Army/Navy slapstick donnybrooks to reach the often extraordinary heights in John Ford’s bio-pic of his friend & collaborator Frank ‘Spig’ Wead. At its best when detailing the impossible romantic bond between John Wayne’s Spig & his wife (Maureen O’Hara), there’s also a compellingly odd love match between Wayne & his loyal Navy-mate Dan Dailey, especially during their workouts when Spig becomes paralyzed. It’s a one-of-a-kind epic, alternately tender, romantic, pig-headed, coarsely obvious & emotionally devastating. Wayne, playing under his own hair, is amazing here, and there’s good fun in watching Ward Bond ‘do’ John Ford in a cameo perf. Just be prepared to hold tight during the many cringe-worthy bits, the payoff is worth the effort.


David Lynch’s hallucinogenic scary-fairy tale manages to keep its game face on for about half its length, but dies in the flat plains of Texas where lovers-on-the-run Nicholas Cage & Laura Dern hole up. With (purposefully?) cornpone accents and tricked up ultra-violence, Lynch loads up on topless babes, glitzy sex & gore in case we resist the road-trip to Hell references to the Wizard of Oz. William Dafoe is creepier than usual (this is an achievement?), ditto Cage making like Elvis & Diane Ladd making like Dern’s mom. She is, in fact, Dern's mom, but here it seems a stretch. Lynch seems stuck preaching to the converted when he has so much more to offer.


Undervalued M-G-M women’s pic (taken from a magazine serial) has few champions. Perhaps its little moral lessons annoy not because they are so much of their time, but because they still hold up. A blissfully happy super-rich couple (Clark Gable & Myrna Loy in a miserable role) find they can’t handle the assumptions of workplace impropriety when you’ve got a secretary who looks/talks/walks like Jean Harlow, no matter how efficient. And she just would call her boss, ‘Dear.’ (Has any film done better at showing the good-natured selfishness a likable boss uses to trample on the personal time & space of a favored employee?) The young & gangly James Stewart hangs around as a sop for the happy ending, but you’ll spot the pic’s real ending in a superb shot that helmer Clarence Brown sets up right after Harlow sorts things out between Gable & Loy. She slowly walks down a long office hallway one last time, alone. The shabby DVD transfer does the M-G-M sheen no favors, but as a makeweight there's a nifty ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ extra which plays like a Warner’s social-issue pic done in a zippy 20 minutes.


Helmer Gillo (BATTLE OF ALGIERS) Pontecorvo’s debut is a Marxist/Soviet agitprop meller about a Sicilian fisherman (Yves Montand) who uses dynamite for bait, thumbing his nose at the authorities and turning his back on the emerging local Co-Op. Trying to better himself, he dreams the capitalist dream and gets a big engine & the big debt that goes with the investment. When things go awry, he takes chances, disses his fellows by dynamite fishing near the coast, and the inevitable tragedy occurs. Shot with a weirdly effective mix of leftover Neo-Realist tenets, movie stars (Alida Valli is Montand’s wife), cute kids, WideScreen color & a supercharged music score, it’s all so steeped in political predetermination that you may get the giggles on reflection. But it works like crazy while you are watching, and Pontecorvo would both purify and move beyond Stalinist doctrines after witnessing the USSR playing with dynamite in Hungary just weeks after WIDE BLUE was released.


The first pic in the legendary collaboration between horror masters Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning was this modest drama from 1919 which officially stars the little remembered Priscilla Dean. She partners Chaney in scams to rob rich swells of their jewelry. But when she falls for one of their marks, her better nature proves that a rose may bloom even in a gutter. Browning got a lot of atmosphere out of just a few sets and produced a handsome look as far as the deterioration on the one surviving print allows us to see. (Hats off to the Netherlands film archive for sharing so much of their treasure.) There’s not quite enough plot to carry us along, but it’s always instructive to see Chaney working in make-up mufti, outside his usual fach.


A combo-pack DVD on adventurer-photographer Varick Frissell, who died young in an explosion on the eponymous seal hunting ship. WHITE THUNDER is a bio of Frissell that barely lives up to its fascinating subject, but nicely sets up the early talkie it's paired with. THE VIKING is officially directed by George Melford, an A-list silent director who faded fast with sound. (His swansong, EAST OF BORNEO/‘31, is an unintentional laugh riot.) Fortunately, Frissell seems to have been in charge of all the Newfoundland location shooting, and his reality footage is so filled with extraordinary shots of sealers, churning ice floes, full-rigged ships, sea & sun that you’d gladly put up with twice the cornball "two guys & a gal" hokum so mechanically delivered by the talent-challenged cast for the precious glimpse Frissell captured of life on the sea as it had been lived for generations.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Frissell & The Viking get a chapter in Kevin Brownlow's typically terrific film history book THE WAR, THE WEST AND THE WILDERNESS.


Somehow, after REMAINS OF THE DAY/'93, the James Ivory/Ishmail Merchant films lost their footing. That film was based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, and this, their final completed film as a team, is from his original script. It caused little stir, but in its peculiar manner, it’s not without charm & a certain lunatic interest. The time & place is 1930s Shanghai, shortly before the Japanese occupation. Ralph Fiennes wants to create the perfect international bar/hangout. (RICK’s in Casablanca would seem to be the template even though that film wasn’t out yet, but no matter.) He finds the perfect hostess in impoverished Russian Countess Natasha Richardson, but barely has time to enjoy his private club when war breaks out and he must sail off to Macao with his little Jewish tailor friend . . and with the Countess. But not before helping her retrieve her daughter from the prideful family she unswervingly stooped to support when times were tough. And if all this doesn’t sound quite goofy enough for you, add in the fact that Fiennes is a blind, disillusioned American diplomat. It's a stretch.


If you can suspend all disbelief as the 45 yr-old Richard Burton performs athletic feats of derring-do, this WWII actioner, with a delicious plot twist revealed halfway thru, is good fun. In an aerie German fortress, an American general awaits rescue. But getting up there (helmed in pseudo-documentary style by Brian Hutton since this is a cliffhanger with real cliffs) is only the set up for the main event. The film turns out to be half GUNS OF NAVARONE/'61 & half THE STING/'73. Much was made at the time of the flamboyantly theatrical Burton working against that cinematic minimalist Clint Eastwood, but they make a fine and funny tag team. (Like a macho Laurel & Hardy.*) Watch close to catch Eastwood’s minuscule facial variations as Burton trippingly lays out his tissue-of-lies scam. Priceless.
*Hmm, I'm thinking Burton as Hardy & Eastwood as Laurel.


Satiric black comedy stars Shirley MacLaine (near the start of her self-consciously kooky period) as a serial wife with a fatal Midas touch: one by one her husbands gain fabulous success only to meet sudden, not to say, grisly deaths. Hubbies #1 & #2 (Dick Van Dyke & Paul Newman) get the worst of the Betty Comden/Adolph Green material, but things improve considerably for #3/Robert Mitchum & #4/Gene Kelly. (#5/Dean Martin sort of bookends the film while Bob Cummings gets equal billing playing her shrink . . . Bob Cummings?) Adolph Green, a legendary movie buff, structures each episode as a parody of a specific genre, each amusingly underlined by underrated helmer J. Lee Thompson. But even with the better material held back for the latter half of the film, getting thru all those hubbies is a long haul. Your DVD player can help you elide the dead spots so you can at least watch Mitchum do his stuff. In addition to giving everyone (especially MacLaine & Newman) lessons on how to throw away broad comedy for maximum effect, Bob must be the only Howard Hughes imitator who intimately knew the guy.* And it shows. (Wonder if Leo Di Caprio watched this for pointers? . . . Nah.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *Hold that thought . . . Robert Ryan, who also knew the creepy bastard, played a Howard Hughes inspired character, to scarifying effect, in Max Ophuls' superb CAUGHT/'49.


On-the-cheap Warners musical sounds like goofy fun (West Point amateur show gets drilled into shape by a tough B’way professional) but finds almost everyone at a career nadir. James Cagney went thru a bad patch in the early ‘50s (here he looks & acts like a stove-top percolator with the top off) and he wouldn’t recover until his next Doris Day pic, the remarkable LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME/’55. A few good numbers can make these things bearable, but on this one, Jules Styne & Sammy Fain couldn’t work up a single memorable tune for the likes of Doris Day, a game Virginia Mayo or the under-rated Gene Nelson. Only a smoothly handsome Gordon MacRae gets to shine, but this is grim doings.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Half religious allegory (3 strangers appear on Christmas Eve to help a struggling family), half black comedy (the strangers are escaped Devil’s Island convicts) and all hooey. With Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, Basil Rathbone, Joan Bennett, Leo G Carroll, lensman Loyal Griggs, Frederick Hollander music & Michael Curtiz megging, you expect . . . well, something better than this. But in his second VistaVision pic, Curtiz makes the airless & studio bound WHITE CHRISTMAS, his initial film in Paramount's WideScreen format, look breezy by comparison. Only Joan Bennett maintains a bit professional dignity amidst the witless, farcical doings.


Typically inane, but colorful (make that Techni-Colorful), Fox musical could have used some memorable tunes, but the plot mechanics work out better than usual (at 80 minutes there’s no time for dawdling), and the brief establishing shots of Cuba are a plus. Alice Faye is a Macy’s salesgirl whose busted holiday cruise leaves her in the unromantic (if athletic) arms of ship exec John Payne. The leading roles seem designed for Betty Hutton & Eddie Bracken, but this is Fox not Paramount. Still, they’re game and charming while supporting couple Carmen Miranda & Cesar Romero are in excellent form. Thanks to Hermes Pan, Cesar’s ballroom dance number with Faye makes for a tasty surprise. The big lug can really move around a dance floor!


Hurrah!, a high-concept comedy blockbuster that lives up to the hype. It begins with a certifiably perfect plot (two best buds crash weddings for easy lays, but come to grief when true love rears its head), then raises the ante with a smart production, perfect casting & David Dobkin’s surprisingly elegant direction. While the second act is overextended and unable to maintain the initial level of comic inspiration [we’re trapped for too long with a Kennedyesque family that’s half screwball & half psycho/sexual loony bin; the fall guy is painted with misjudged viciousness; and Will Ferrell’s OTT feral act goes on too long just when the film needs to wrap up], Owen Wilson & especially Vince Vaughn make a tremendously entertaining duo.


There’s something about those Spanish speaking revolutionaries that brings out the gaseous windbag in Hollywood filmmakers. But even compared w/ JUAREZ/'39, FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLLS/'43 and VIVA ZAPATA/'52, John Huston’s disastrous WE WERE STRANGERS is something special.* The cast would do nicely in a film about a mental sanitarium; Jennifer Jones makes a stab at an accent, Gilbert Roland gets to sing, strum and look devilishly macho, Ramon Navarro dashes through his dialogue madly and John Garfield seems to be desperately looking for an exit. Dramatically, the fine line that STRANGERS posits between terrorism and over-zealous freedom fighters is finessed in true Hollywood cop-out fashion while Huston manages to flub the modest chances for dramatic action. The film was, in every way, a complete disaster, but the next collaboration from Huston & producer S. P. Eagle (aka - Sam Spiegel) was a little thing called THE AFRICAN QUEEN/'51, which paid off everyone's bills.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Along with the rest of the world, I haven't see the recent 2-part CHE from Steven Soderburgh, but it sure sounds like it fits the pattern. And just for the record, I've got a soft spot for JUAREZ, the film that is. (Since this was posted, CHE has been added to the MAKSQUIBS archive. And, yep, it does fit the pattern.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For something that breaks the pattern of talkative revolutionary grandstanding, try the flawed, but still delectable OUR MAN IN HAVANA/'60, the final Carol Reed/Graham Greene collaboration. Cuba's Communist Revolution broke out just about the time they were filming Noel Coward 'picking up' Alec Guinness in a Men's Room.


Sam Goldwyn’s second try to make a big star out of solid, stolid Anna Sten turned from Zola to Tolstoy for its material. Rouben Mamoulian ’s last two pics had starred Garbo (successfully) & Dietrich (un), so he was the go-to guy for screen divas. But with 20 minutes of the handsome, but short film used to show off Russian dance, music & religiosity, Tolstoy’s RESURRECTION is reduced to an outline while poor Fredric March spouts philosophical blatherings as rendered by Maxwell Anderson & Preston Sturges (!). Things are even worse for Anna’s luckless peasant who is quickly loved & left, buries her child and then gets railroaded (figuratively & literally) to Siberia. Sten’s next film was her final try for the gold ring and it might have done the trick, but by the time King Vidor ’s fascinating and much underrated THE WEDDING NIGHT got released, neither the public nor Goldwyn cared anymore.

CONTEST: Goldwyn may have given up on Ms Sten before he even released the last film he made with her, but he did remember the memorably romantic ending of THE WEDDING NIGHT. In fact, since nobody went to see it, he felt perfectly justified re-using the concept of the fadeout on WEDDING NIGHT for one of his most famous productions. Name that film and describe the cribbed scene to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on any NetFlix DVD of your choice.


Stephen Gyllenhaal ’s film tries to honor the elaborate continuity of Graham Swift’s acclaimed novel, but the unusual time structure doesn’t add enough to the texture of the story. Or is Gyllenhaal’s technique just not up to handling all the metaphysical time & character jumps? The basic story attempts to join Thomas Hardy back-country tragedy (lost fortune, botched abortion, doomed brother) with Terence Rattigan ’s THE BROWNING VERSION (out-of-touch teacher loses wife & position). There are some good perfs (Jeremy Irons gets a chance to work on screen with his wife, Sinead Cusack, and she’s scarifyingly fine), and some bad ones (Ethan Hawke is just too irritatingly self-regarding as a self-regarding character), but it’s refreshingly brief. Did the veddy British novel place its school in the USA?


Once past an unnecessary prologue, this straight-forward account of FDR’s mid-life crises nicely lays out how he & Eleanor found previously untested strength by incorporating, rather than fleeing from, their public & private demons & limitations. Vet megger Joseph Sargent gives his excellent cast plenty of acting space & Kenneth Branagh responds by mining interior layers he rarely shows while Cynthia Nixon thankfully underplays Eleanor’s social gaucheries. Jane Alexander moves on from her old role as Eleanor to play FDR’s mother Sara without malice or exaggeration. David Paymer & Tim Blake Nelson also shine as aides, even if poor Kathy Bates isn’t given a thing to do. We’re still in the same basic territory covered by the glossy SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO/’60, but the slight change in tone from mythic to human makes it all fresh & moving. Too bad a generic score keeps reminding us that we’re watching an HBO movie.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, the B’way transfer SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO is still effective even if it now plays like a musical with the songs removed .


This one note domestic tragedy works damn hard to be powerful (the spirit of Thomas Hardy hovers all over the place), but Tim Roth (moving behind the camera) encourages a veritable orgy of self-embalming acting exercises. Ray Winstone is the seemingly solid dad who is secretly buggering his almost adult daughter. His teenage son is both horrified and possibly jealous, but too horny & scared to do anything about it until he sees evidence of the same crime starting up with his new baby sister. It’s certainly horrific stuff, but the story neither adds up nor goes anywhere. As the (willingly?) unawares Mom, Tilda Swinton is always worth watching, and Colin Farrell fanciers can spot him in an early bit. Like so many actors turned director, Roth opts for an almost plotless character study and turns out painfully earnest stuff.


I bailed out of my last Tom Cruise pic, so all credit to Steven Spielberg for taming Tommy’s tantrummy tics to human scale , but that’s as far as my enthusiasm goes here. The 50s original retains a certain naive charm & the design elements are elegant & memorable, but nothing there (or here) will ever touch the panic & terror of Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast.* So, what’s the point? As a 9/11 allegory, the story is painfully inadequate & as a scare pic the thrills have been over-masticated. Watching a little dysfunctional family coming together with their distant/divorced dad when crisis hits home seems flimsy recompense for all the slaughter. In particular, Dakota Fanning’s over-rated combo platter of E.T.’s Drew Barrymore 's tough whimsy & Fay Wray 's screams makes one ambiguous about her constant peril. And Spielberg doesn't even attempt to explain the survival journey of Cruise's lost & found teenaged son. A puzzle of a pic. In Welles ' telling, everything in Jersey gets incinerated by the end of Act One. No such luck here.

*Personal WAR OF THE WORLDS story. New Jersey: Hallowe'en 1938: My 11 yr-old mother is having a sleepover with a neighborhood friend and listening to Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy. Suddenly, the friend's mom comes crashing into the house in a panic. She's hysterical but manages to switch the radio dial over to catch the "news" which is (oddly) only being put out by a single station. Yep, the one that normally broadcasts Orson Welles & the Mercury Players in this time slot. Why isn't this news on all the other networks? What news? Why, Martians have invaded New Jersey. It's the end of the world! And then this mom starts sprinkling Holy Water over the door to the house, over the girls (including my non-Catholic mother), over herself and, of course, over the blessed radio. Ten minutes later, someone calls to let her know it was all a prank. That's story-telling!


George Pal ’s influential mid-‘50s version of the H G Wells classic (does anyone still read it?) looks uncomfortably like one of those stiff, color saturated, studio bound pics Cecil B De Mille was making in the 1940s. And with good reason as De Mille was an unofficial godfather to the production and his tech people are all over the credits. Still, if you hold your nose over the amateurish acting ensemble and concentrate on the painterly effects and the crazy art moderne alien mechanical designs ("pay no attention to all those strings on the spaceships") the film remains a fun watch. Did Spielberg use the briefly glimpsed aliens as a template for his own E.T.?


Enchantment on the level achieved by Nick Park & his gang of plasticine manipulators in these animated shorts is not to be taken for granted or lightly. You’ll note a technical bump up on these artisinal works going from A GRAND DAY OUT thru THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE, but the basic characters & tone were in place right from the start. The recent feature film was every bit as delightful, but the short form may well fit the boys better. (Financially, alas, features are the only way to pay off the costs.) Surely I’m not alone in finding that Gromit reminds me of an old friend in both personality and looks. (That expressive furrowed brow.) Wallace reminds me of someone, too, but who? Who? True manna from heaven, these.


Helmer James Mangold hardly earns points by starting his Johnny Cash bio-pic with the hoariest of all structural cliches, the life-story flashback just before a career defining concert. But thanks to immensely likable perfs by Joaquin Phoenix & Reese Witherspoon as Cash & June Carter, & a welcome lack of ‘push’ in depicting life crises on a human scale, you don’t feel pummeled by the usual over-hyped myth factor. The story arc -- hardscrabble youth, early struggles, finding your voice, finding tru-love – is the same damn story arc of a typical THIS IS YOUR LIFE episode or a Susan Hayworth ‘50 bio-pic. Phoenix can’t quite get the oddly sharp intonation that made Cash stand out amongst country music’s typical below-the-note wailing and Mangold isn’t exactly generous in detailing other characters (note the flavorless bandmates), only Waylon Malloy Payne makes a mark as a young & evil Jerry Lee Lewis. But it’s still a welcoming piece of work.


Skip THE POOL SHARK/'15, a wasted, though silent, opportunity at documenting Fields in his physical prime, but rejoice in the rest of these early ‘Talkie’ shorts where Fields is seen perfroming some of the stage material he used between his silent film days and his return to Hollywood. The first time you watch these oddities, you may find yourself staring blankly at the screen hunting for conventional laughs and not finding them. And then, returning a couple of years on to the same material, fighting off uncontrollable fits of hiccup-inducing guffaws from the very same items. Fields expanded some of these gags & ideas in his features, but here he’s at his rawest, meanest, Dadaist(est), lewdest & purest. In the annals of American comedians, his popularity & influence on European artists ranging from Beckett to Bunuel is second only to Buster Keaton, and you'll see why. (Check out THE PHARMACIST for a direct precursor for a gag in Bunuel's THE DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE/'72.) But be warned, those who don't 'get' Fields will be baffled.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Is THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER the greatest American film of all time? Yet, it's hardly a film at all.


Classic Ingmar Bergman is just the sort of stark morality/mortality/religious period drama we associate with the great man, even though he actually made relatively few pics in this artfully composed Carl Dreyeresque manner. And thank goodness! Still, the 13th Century fable about a young maiden who is raped & then killed on her way to church, and of the quick retribution by her father when the murderers take shelter on his prosperous farm, is a remarkable piece of filmmaking which manages to embed its debate (on the need for God in the face of his apparent absence) inside the very pores of the usual Bergman players, each shimmering under Sven Nykvist’s stunning b&w images.

TEMPEST (1982)

In a modern ‘take’ on THE TEMPEST, Paul Mazursky can’t come up with thematic, narrative or emotional equivalents that do any sort of justice to Shakespeare’s gorgeous original material. Reimagining the unjust banishment of Prospero as a mid-life crisis for a famous Greek/American architect is, at best, inadequate if not insulting. And by using the malevolent force of John Cassevettes, in what was surprisingly his very first attempt to carry a mainstream film in the leading role, Mazursky just adds injury to insult. Yet, so many charming and memorable moments pop up along the way that you can see (just) how tempting the original idea was and how it might have been developed. Gena Rowlands always sounds gin-soaked to these ears, but the rest of the cast is fine, especially debuting Molly Ringwald who makes a marvelous Miranda. When she, Susan Sarandon & Raul Julia do one of the frequent musical turns, the film opens up to us. For more film adaptations of THE TEMPEST you might want to try it with sci-fi trimmings in FORBIDDEN PLANET/’56, Western-style in YELLOW SKY/’48 or experimental in PROSPERO’S BOOKS/’91. Hey, here's an idea; could someone please have a go at Shakespeare 's THE TEMPEST?!

VICTORY (1919)

1919's THE MIRACLE MAN was Lon Chaney’s breakthrough pic, but he had 7 releases that year and this may have been the classiest of the bunch. (Naturally, a sizable chunk of his legacy has been lost.) It's superbly directed by Maurice Tourneur (Jacques ' papa), stunningly shot by René Guissart, and tersely adapted from a Joseph Conrad story by the great Jules Furthman (billed as Stephen Fox). The first half of the story plays like one of those Somerset Maugham stories while the second half is more like Jack London, not a bad combination. Solitary islander Jack Holt meets soul-mate Seena Owen on a bustling neighboring island and they sail off to his lonely home on a whim. Jealous Wallace Beery (looking like Sig Ruman, of all people) sicks some adventurers on them (including Chaney in a fabulous Spanish make up) and in defending his home and the lady, Holt discovers that no man is an island . . . even a confirmed bachelor islander! With its beautifully preserved picture elements, this smashing entertainment is no classic, but it sure makes a great intro for anyone who'd like to get a handle on what regular commercial fare was like back in the silent picture days.

VICKI (1953)

There’s a halfhearted attempt to recapture a bit of the LAURA mystique in this lame redo of I WAKE UP SCREAMING, but no one’s up to the task. In this murder mystery film full of off-putting perfs, Jean Peters gets the booby prize, she’s both weird & amateurish as the murdered dame. But Richard Boone, in an early assignment, is also off the deep-end with his unmotivated outbursts. He’s like a precursor of the Steppenwolf mode of over-acting. Elliot Reid, with his odd vocal delivery certainly seems to be hiding the truth and Jeanne Crain, who gets top billing, must have wondered how she fell so fast from better productions.


After the immensely popular AMELIE, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the combination of actress Audrey Tautou & megger Jean-Pierre Jeunet could make a Mallomar out of the Holocaust. And that’s what they start off doing to WWI in this sweeping romantic picaresque of a tuba playing, polio scarred waif who’s searching, searching, searching for her fiance 2 years after the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. But this time, Jeunet is working from an old-fashioned potboiler by Sebastien Japrisot who knows how to load up & deliver flashbacks, plot twists and clues within a formal structure that swoons with beloved cornball elements right out of RANDOM HARVEST and CYRANO. All Jeunet’s techniques & CGI effects, & even Jodie Foster, can’t quite bury the good-natured character tics and audience pleasing plot mechanics, even if the big emotions never pan out as they should.

Friday, June 6, 2008

VENUS (2006)

Peter O’Toole has been looking glamorously wasted for decades, but in spite of being able to coast on presence alone, nothing has calcified his great talent. Kudos to Roger Michell, who helmed the fine Jane Austen adaptation of PERSUASION/’95, for asking for the actor as well as the man. The script tries too hard for memorable sentimental moments (a waltz between two old coots, pill-swapping breakfasts, last walks; set-ups all, no matter how camouflaged by Hanif Kureshi’s potty-mouthed script), but O’Toole is able to make his randy old man come off as gallant, mainly because the young object of his attentions (Jodie Whitaker) is such a mug. The shock of the thing is watching O’Toole make like his old acting partner Kate Hepburn, leaning on lost youth & beauty for audience rapport while covering up his sagging neckline with swatches, and letting decrepitude pass for great acting. Damned if it ain’t.


Claire Denis’s pic is like a mordant pendant to Kieslowski’s DECALOGUE series; he'd have titled it A SHORT FILM ABOUT F...ING. A Paris transit strike leaves Valerie Lemercier stuck in traffic on her way to a dinner. Charitably picking up a semi-handsome pedestrian, they’re get nowhere fast . . . or do they? Through a series of elliptical cuts, snips of tiny details, flashes forward & back/actual & imagined, even a soupcon of magical realism, Denis creates an effective cocoon for a romantic night of passion. Vincent Lindon is cagey & carnal as a man who's perfectly happy to turn a city-wide shutdown into a sort of free-floating pick-up bar. But Denis curdles her concoction in the very last shot when Lemercier all but throws her beret in the air in a gesture of pure post-coital pleasure, and then joyously sprints home. The film effectively deconstructs into "Mary Tyler Moore Gets Laid."


While its understandable that Mira Nair fights against being pigeon-holed as an Indian filmmaker, she has never recaptured the cultural/emotional specificity that made MONSOON WEDDING such a richly stuffed yet perfectly proportioned entertainment. In this solid if attitudinally modernized adaptation, she alternates the comical ruthlessness of Regency period mores with conventional sentiment & emotion. This seriously undercuts Thackeray’s originality in merging these opposing forces into that unstoppable engine of social change, Becky Sharp. Reese Witherspoon makes like Nicole Kidman's kid sister to medium effect while Gabriel Byrne refines his usual vampire act with vocal inflections snatched from the current Prince Charles. He's funnier than he's ever been. But it’s left to those nasty old stage actresses (Eileen Atkins & Geraldine McEwan) to steal all their scenes and provide a bit of mannered verisimilitude.

THE VALET (2006)

French helmer Francis Veber has been churning out comedies sweet & savory for close to four decades and he still can work up a fine, funny and even thoughtful product that’s perfectly cast & immaculately directed (see THE CLOSET/'01 for a recent example), as well as being primed for Hollywood diminution (see THE BIRD CAGE/'96, THE TOY/'82, FATHER'S DAY/'97, et al.). But this boulevard farce about a fiercely jealous industrial titan who wants to have his cake & eat it, too (he hires a hapless parking valet to play ‘beard’ to his young mistress) struggles to maintain interest even at 85 minutes. The cast sound like a pleasing group (Gad Elmaleh, Alice Taglioni, Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott Thomas), but they all seem to know they're cast in the wrong roles. A fizzle.


Agnes Varda is such a naturally gifted filmmaker that watching her subvert her talents in expiration-dated didactic tales stuffed with half-digested socio-politico tracts and deconstructionist tendencies can be depressing. Personal penance for being married to that master of the frivolous Jacques Demy? Nonetheless, this episodic study of the last weeks in the life of a handsome, young & fiercely independent female drifter -- told in flashback with break-the-fourth-wall commentary from those she met – is brilliantly wrought and tough as nails. (It also serves as counterweight to Sean Penn ’s delusional/self-centered INTO THE WILD.)


This WWII British programmer is better than you'd expect. It's fascinating to compare our touchy avoidance of a commercial drama centered on the World Trade Center terrorist attack, when here, at the war's height, and less than two years after the events referred to, we get a standard formulaic tale of rival reporters, gal (Valerie Hobson) & guy (Richard Greene), told with all the well-established romantic trimmings and dramatic/character tropes. The plot involving fringe Peaceniks secretly led by 5th columnists and Nazi spies is treadbare, and the big 'reveal' of the sinister network comes too late for maximum suspense/effect. But Harold French keeps things moving, Hitchcock’s former regular cameraman Bernard Knowles has fun shooting in recreated "blackout" conditions and the art directors do wonders on a budget suggesting London during the blitz.


Official Hollywood history gives John Ford’s STAGECOACH credit for reviving the Grade-A Western in 1939 after years of low-budget eclipse. But ‘39 also saw Cecil B. De Mille having a last fling at the genre with this lively epic.* C. B. all but invented the Hollywood Western with THE SQUAW MAN/'14, when California still had a Wild West patina to it, and he had recently scored a hit with THE PLAINSMAN/'36, a rare big-budget mid-‘30s ‘oater.’ De Mille has a genuine comfort level with the Western in contrast to his habitual stiffness in both ancient & contemporary subjects, though you need a high tolerance for the process work & miniatures that are always a bit of pain in his pics. Here, the romantic triangle between Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck & Robert Preston is nicely set off by deceitful corporate intrigue (Brian Donlevy & Co.) & broadly effective comic relief from Lynne Overman & Akim Tamiroff. The finale is nothing less than a restaging of D. W. Griffith’s climax to THE BATTLE AT ELDERBERRY GULCH/'13, right down to the pistol behind the ingenue’s virginal head, and damned if it doesn't still work.

*NORTH WEST MOUNTED POLICE/'40 and UNCONQUERED/'47 could each be called 'near' Westerns, but stinker would be a closer fit for the former.


Though helmer Jean Negulesco was at his best making mid-budgeted films @ Warners in the ‘40s, he’s mostly remembered for his travel-happy CinemaScope pics @ Fox in the ‘50s. (They’re tremendous fun when properly seen on a ‘really big’ screen.) But his pre-'Scope work for Fox gets lost in the shuffle, including this awkward version of an Ernest Hemingway story made with fellow Warner emigres, writer/producer Casey Robinson and a haggard looking john Garfield. It’s an interesting film that doesn’t quite come off about an expatriate jockey (Garfield) and his unhappy son who barely manage to keep ahead of the gamblers & ‘fixers’ on the racing circuit. With neither the kid nor ‘la femme’ (a Paris café owner with a chip on her shoulder) supplying the expected warmth & interpersonal chemistry, the film can’t decide whether it wants to play tough or sentimental, which gives the film a sec quality you hardly expect from a set-up that’s not too far from THE CHAMP. As a threatening mob type, Luther Adler steals all his scenes, just as he did three decades on doing similar duty in ABSENCE OF MALICE. And dig those crazy extras in the night club scenes. What’s ‘Daddy-O’ in French?


Philip Kaufman may have less to show for his great natural gifts then any American filmmaker of his generation. After writing THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES/'76 & helming THE RIGHT STUFF/'83 & this film, he went on to crud like RISING SUN/'93 & TWISTED/'04, hard to fathom. Perhaps BEING looks better now than it did back when. Just as comparison, the Best Pic noms at the ‘88 Oscars were ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, DANGEROUS LIAISONS, RAIN MAN, MISSISSIPPI BURNING and WORKING GIRL. Go figure. The thrilling cast seen here seem positively haunted by roles with so much character, sex, history and passion going for them. Daniel Day-Lewis (looking like Egon Schiele) is phenomenally engaging as the womanizing doctor whose life takes us through the ‘68 Czech political crisis, but everyone deserves gold stars: Lena Olin, Erland Josephson, Derek de Lint, Stellan Skarsgard, Juliette Binoche (she gets two gold stars), plus one of the great film dogs, Karenin. In ‘88, filming in Czechoslovakia was off-limits, but Pierre Guffroy’s art direction and Sven Nykvist’s lensing are small miracles of trickery & delight, while the script Kaufman & Jean-Claude Carriere crafted from Milan Kundera’s unadaptable classic is exemplary. Three hours long & not a moment wasted.

UN FLIC (1972)

French helmer Jean-Pierre Melville’s last pic pales in comparison with the series of near-masterpieces that preceded it. (Pale indeed, even the cinematography has a washed out look.) It’s one more crime caper (bank robbery, train robbery) and it feels phoned in. Richard Crenna, of all people, leads a slackly uninteresting gang of thieves as poor Alain Delon sits off to the side as the titular detective; he’s barely in the picture, figuratively & literally. As you’d expect, Melville pulls off some meticulously staged dialogue-free scenes, but the big set piece (a robbery on a speeding train) is hopelessly compromised by F/X miniatures out of a Tinker Toy set. Catherine Deneuve is around to look glamorous and even gets away with killing a man, but you’ll hardly notice.


Late ‘50s suburban farce is loosely structured in the preferred style of writer/helmer Leo McCarey. This does wonders to relax Paul Newman’s usual comic overselling, but not so much for Max Shulman’s observational satire. Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, plays . . . er, Newman’s wife, an overactive community booster with no time for conjugal bliss. Joan Collins, in her best screen perf, is the sexy neighbor whose hubby is always out of town. She’s after Newman and gets her shot when Joanne sends Paul off to Wash, D.C. to try and stop a Top Secret military project under construction right in their own home town. (It’s a rocket launching site! That's sure to stay under wraps once it's up & running.) The comic shenanigans come & go with small effect and blessedly little push which gives the film the distinctive, if inexplicable charm which was McCarey’s special gift. It’s his penultimate film and you can feel that his career is winding down, yet he remains sui generis . . . and essential.


Universal hoped to top their big-budget Lon Chaney vehicles (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME/’23 and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA/’25) with this late silent, but they couldn’t have known what an artistic triumph they had stumbled into. Paul Leni, a master of stylized Gothic atmosphere out of the German UFA Studio, died not long after making this almost unbearably dark tale of a mutilated child who grows up to be a clown only to discover he is heir to a British title, estate & fortune. Will he survive his horrible good luck? This miraculous restoration shows Leni as a helmer who had everything: story sense, mastery of camera movement, pace & editing, great rapport over a motley group of actors working in varying styles, and an art director’s appreciation for sets & atmosphere. (He was one more brilliant protege of the legendary German stage director Max Reinhardt.) Conrad Veidt is unforgettable as the grotesque hero and you’ll be glad that Leni softens the typically fatalistic Victor Hugo ending. The KINO DVD comes with a fine ‘Making Of’ documentary, but I wish there was a modern soundtrack in addition to the antique original synch-sound discs. Sure, they're 'authentic,' but they make the film seem undeservedly quaint.


This Fritz Lang indie production about civilian resistance to the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia was the sole Hollywood credit his fellow German emigre, playwright Berthold Brecht achieved during his Hollywood sojourn. The result is terribly uneven with Lang cleverly camouflaging the film's slim budget, but having less success with the wildly fluctuating tone. A lot of unintentional dramatic gaffes vie with stirring nationalistic melodrama in Brecht’s cleverly braided plot. Another wartime emigre, French master Jean Renoir hit similar landmines in his contemporaneous WWII resistance drama, THIS LAND IS MINE. And if Renoir’s work is ultimately more moving, you can’t take your eyes off either of them. Brian Donlevy is fine as the assassin-on-the-run, but Anna Lee is overparted as the confused young woman whose patriotic sentiments are sorely tested. (You keep mentally replacing her with Claudette Colbert or Margaret Sullavan.) But most of the supporting cast is indelible, especially those inspired by Brecht to let ‘er rip, naturalism be damned. Just the idea of the ultra-right-wing 'John Bircher' Walter Brennan spouting Brecht’s didactic left-leaning anthems makes this one unmissable.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: For an exceptional account of the European intellectuals who found a curious sort of creative self-imprisonment during their WWII Hollywood days in and around Hollywood (the list includes Lang, Brecht & this film's composer Hanns Eisler, among many others), check out Otto Friedrich's wonderfully readable & mordantly funny CITY OF NETS. And for a recent book on the real Reinhard Heydrich, whose assasination is central to this story, try Laurent Binet's well-reviewed HHhH.


There’s visual magic in the opening scenes of Samira Makhmalbaf’s film about itinerant Irani teachers: We open on a group of hardy young men walking over the rugged mountain terrain near the Iran/Iraq border. They each hold a blackboard precariously on their backs which makes them look like some hybrid animal, half man/half bird. Especially, when they flock together in defense to hide from an attack plane that can be heard though we never see it. Nearby, a real flock of birds hovers in a circling action before calming down. This is the work of a master. (Mistress? The director is female.) Alas, Makhmalbaf can’t maintain this level of invention when the story turns to follow two separate groups of homeless refugees: an elderly human caravan of poverty & misery who are trying to return to their ravaged hometown; and a toughened group of boy smugglers, wary of 'helpful' strangers, even of a putative teacher who only wishes to spread a bit of knowledge. It’s a short film that tends to repeat its heartfelt themes, but you never lose the feeling that Makhmalbaf chose to follow the wrong teachers.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


The rise & fall of Matthew McConaughey as a good ol’ boy who is first wooed, but eventually undone by mentor/father-figure Al Pacino (in a minor key repeat of his DEVIL’S ADVOCATE turn), should be enough to hang a movie on. The fact-based story gimmick is McConaughey's gift for picking Pro-Ball winners for an illegal gambling operation, but the filmmakers find little dramatic charge and no surprise in either the story or character arcs. The script also fails to disguise the more unsavory aspects of the high stakes sports betting demimonde, alternately celebrating & condemning, which leaves an actor as technically unequipped as McConaughey directionless when he should be running the show. Helmer D. J. Caruso provides little help, but a pro like Pacino knows how to take care of himself and has some fun making like Camille with an on-again/off-again heart condition to chew on. And if this leaves an underused Rene Russo, as Pacino's wife, stuck with some real suffering (a thankless role), that's what big movie stars sometimes have to do. It's just this sort of self-preservation that the film needs to be about, but no one noticed the parallel.

TRUMAN (1995)

With a decent impersonation of HST from Gary Sinise & a naughty smirk from Diana Scarwid’s Bess, this bio-pic ought to be better. Alas, the script just dips into David McCullough’s bestseller, like a student with a highlighter pen, skipping tasty character material for tableau vivant worthy moments. A big problem since helmer Frank Pierson manages to make a budget of five million look like two. And with barely 20 minutes spent delving into Truman’s pre-political life -- one failure after another, all met with "can-do" Missouri blinders -- how can we understand or develop a rooting interest in Harry S's amazing ride/rise to the top.


After churning out masterful pics in a variety of genres, from Woman’s Pics to Swashbucklers to Westerns, Musicals, Horrors & CASABLANCA, Michael Curtiz wrapped up his Warner Bros. contract with this sentimental story about a struggling Catholic university and a disgraced football coach. No doubt everyone had GOING MY WAY in mind, with John Wayne & Charles Coburn uncomfortably making like Bing Crosby & Barry Fitzgerald, respectively. Since Wayne’s a coach instead of a priest, he gets a cute little daughter (the dreadful Sherry Jackson), a scary ex-wife (the alarming Marie Windsor) and a virginal social worker (poor Donna Reed) to play off of. In a weirdly developed storyline, Wayne cheats to bring in his winning team and Coburn admits defeat, yet this sobering bit of reality in the last two reels feels every bit as fraudulent as the happy ending we'd been expecting. One of the Duke’s odder outings.


This almost distractingly handsome adaptation of the old Celtic tale hews closely to the Camelot legend (Launcelot=Tristan, Guinevere=Isolde, King Arthur=King Mark), which can't help but make the illicit lovers look ungrateful to that nice King. To have any chance of pulling off this old tale, the leads need sexual chemistry that's strong enough to destabilize our natural sympathies, but neither James Franco ’s pretty-boy posturing nor Sophia Myles ’ pouty Kate Winslet stylings set off depth charges of romantic inevitability. Instead, it's King Mark, in a typically outstanding perf from Rufus Sewell that draws us in. Perhaps it's those empathetic 'Bette Davis' eyes and a voice that sounds naturally wounded, but he just wipes everyone else off the screen. Isolde comes off as an immature dope for looking elsewhere. Helmer Kevin Reynolds (the man who made that guiltiest of guilty pleasures, RAPA NUI/'94) keeps the story running nicely, but his action stuff and battle scenes are by-the-numbers.* And there's no love potion! In Tristan & Isolde?
*SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oddly, speaking of story sense vs. action chops, exec producer Ridley Scott has the same sort of problem, but reversed! Great action chops . . . and no story sense. If only these two directors could have a child!


Writer/director Barbet Schroeder is maddeningly inconsistent. Here, Jacques Dutronc is a gambling addict who needs to control his mania long enough to pull off a can’t-miss scam. But, typically, Schroeder won’t establish just what attracts the main players to each other. As if he hasn't the time or interest in setting up character motivation so we not only don't understand why someone is doing something, which is okay, but we also don't care about the outcome, which isn't okay. Also, the best gambling pics (like BOB LE FLAMBEUR) use gambling as counterpoint; the dirty secret being just how boring addictions are to folks not so inclined. Ever spend an evening with a drunk or a NASCAR buff? Dutronc, so good in PLACE VENDOME (see above), is superb here, a smoothy going to seed, & Leandro Vale does well as his apoplectic partner. But the film is ultimately inconsequential.


The post-Walt/pre-Eisner era at Disney hit rock-bottom in the mid-‘70s, when the studio re-released a defanged version of their fine 1950 adaptation of TREASURE ISLAND (a critical & commercial success that Walt was particularly pleased with) to avoid getting their first-ever PG rating. Walt would have been as livid as the flesh tones on Robert Newton ’s memorable Long John Silver had he but known. The offending footage has now been restored, but not alas the picture quality which has a lot of spackling and imprecise Technicolor registration that keeps Freddie Young ’s superb lensing from looking its best. No matter, the story is even tastier (and trickier) than you remember, Bobby Driscoll ’s non-Brit Jim Hawkins is fine, and the relatively modest supporting cast & production does the job smartly.