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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937)

Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood film is paradoxically more Langian and more idiomatically American than his initial Stateside pic, FURY/’36 . Henry Fonda & Sylvia Sidney are exceptional & heartbreaking as a doomed ex-con & the Public Defender’s asst who stubbornly believes in him as fate inexorably grinds away. Classics like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT/’49, BONNIE & CLYDE/’67, THIEVES LIKE US/’74 and scores of lesser ‘Wanted’-lovers on-the-run pics are unimaginable without this film that in many ways (certainly in its devious fatalistic plotting & in capturing the spirit of Depression era times) holds up better than the later films. (If only the original film materials were in better shape, alas!) Watch for a bank robbery sequence that could have come straight out of a Fritz Lang MABUSE pic and for his distinctively formal composition style (Leon Shamroy lensed) which only reemerged this consistently for Lang in SCARLET STREET/’45, WOMAN IN THE WIDOW/’44 and THE BIG HEAT/’53.

CONTEST: A film that often tops critics' lists as the all-time best lifted one of its iconic moments right out of this film. Name that famous film and the 'borrowed' iconic moment to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS write-up of any NetFlix DVD.

Monday, November 24, 2008

BUCCANEER’S GIRL (1950)



Unexpected fun. Hiding in a set of mediocre early 1950s pirate DVDs from Universal is this winning bit of nonsense starring that fetching non-actress Yvonne De Carlo as a stowaway who lands in the middle of a New Orleans trade war. The little remembered Philip Friend, with a tad of the old Ronald Colman charm, pulls off his faux pirate character (he’s really out to avenge a wronged father) while Elsa Lancaster, Henry Daniell & especially an alarmingly coiffed Norman Lloyd make up a tasty supporting trio. With better than routine megging from Frederick de Cordova, spirited musical interludes for Yvonne, neat miniature F/X on the seafaring battles and a pleasingly preposterous switchback/turnaround plot, producer Robert Arthur deserves kudos for not treating this as a routine programmer but as an opportunity to show off a bit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

AGAINST ALL FLAGS (1952)

Late swashbuckler for Errol Flynn has an undeservedly good rep. Megger George Marshall turned out a boilerplate pirate adventure w/ poorly integrated painted matte backgrounds canceling out a better than usual cast for Universal. (Maureen O’Hara, Anthony Quinn, Mildred Natwick, even character vet Robert Warwick shows up for auld lang syne, though nothing quite makes up for the appalling Alice Kelley as an Indian Princess). But the story is old as the hills (Flynn poses as a pirate to take down a safe haven for buccaneers); the dialogue flat (Flynn’s comic retorts are sad precursors for Roger Moore’s 007 asides); and the plot poorly structured (none of the incidents seem to add up to any sort of plan of action). Plus, Flynn looks fairly exhausted, out of breath and is poorly doubled in much of the action footage. (He still managed to break a leg.) Next year’s follow-up, THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, which brought him briefly back to Warners, allows Flynn a far more graceful adieu to the world of derring-do.

YANKEE BUCCANEER (1952)

Ho-hum pirate fare from Universal was rushed into production on the sets of AGAINST ALL FLAGS when Errol Flynn broke his leg. It has a perfectly acceptable set-up (young David Farragut boards his new ship carrying orders for it to go undercover as a pirate ship and expose a seafaring conspiracy), but there’s not much fun in the pinch-penny production, static staging or dull cast. Jeff Chandler & Scott Brady hardly light up the sky with charisma, but they’re veritable Oliviers next to dud leading lady, Suzan Ball. The ‘z’ is for zzzzzzz. Frederick de Cordova, who did the routine megging, became the longtime producer for Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW. And if you’ve ever wondered who okayed Carson’s astonishingly unattractive sets, have a look here. Those pirate outfits!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

LIAM (2000)

Stephen Frears, the most unassuming of master directors, brings intelligence & technical fluidity to this overly-familiar family drama set in a fading British industrial town during the depth of the ‘30s depression and the rise of radical political ‘isms.’ Told largely, but not exclusively, through the eyes of the entirely winning seven yr-old son who’s afflicted with a terrible stutter, the story first hits the expected warm & fuzzy notes (booze, sex, tough-love parents, the absurdity of a strict Catholic schooling), before turning remarkably dark and compelling when Dad (Ian Hart) loses his job, his pride and his bearings. In a lacerating perf, Hart disappears inside rantings and xenophobic violence as the quicksand of historical movements unhinge his better nature. But neither he nor Frears can do anything with the disastrous twist ending which all too conveniently turns to cheap & tidy theatrical tricks to round things up. It sours the entire film.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)



The three films Jacques Tourneur directed on the cheap to start up Val Lewton’s brief independent run @ RKO are among the most memorable of all B pics. ZOMBIE came second and it may be the most original of the lot as it’s so far removed from the well established horror tropes so effectively refreshed in CAT PEOPLE/’42 and THE LEOPARD MAN/’43. Instead, it’s a Gothic Romance with a calypso beat, a bit of a knock-off of JANE EYRE, but here the looney wife isn’t hidden away, she’s the zombie! Working with a stronger cast than Lewton had in his later pics, Tourneur lets the plot run in straightforward fashion while ladling on the tropical isle atmosphere, the triangular romance (two brothers, one nurse) and the voodoo theatrics, all abstracted by financial necessity to bare minimums . . and all the more effective for it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)



The steadily rising critical tides for writer Noël Coward, helmer David Lean & especially composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in the last decade have largely eliminated the old knee-jerk apologies or pleadings of guilty pleasure once used by defenders of this classic romance of stifled emotions. Even back in the ‘60s & ‘70s, no one gainsaid the performances (superb all around and transcendent in the case of Celia Johnson) or Robert Krasker’s steely-beautiful cinematography. Now, the old taunts of condescension & failed realism so often held against Coward seem not only self-serving, but incomprehensible. The Master knew exactly what he was after and what he was doing while Lean, happily serving the chamber-sized material, gives every character & plot turn the precision of a chronometer.

INDISCREET (1931)



Gloria Swanson was far more comfortable than most of her silent film colleagues in making the switch to Talkies, yet she had little more staying power than the rest of the silent glamor girls on the ‘wrong side’ of 30. (Even her big comeback pic, SUNSET BLVD/'50, couldn't revive a film career.) This rickety antique (about a grown-up gal who finds tru-love after giving her all to an unworthy beau) tries awfully hard to be modern & daring (a lot like those wildly successful Norma Shearer vehicles over @ M-G-M), but helmer Leo McCarey is not yet able to get his cast up to sound speed or to pick up his own pacing. (Hard to believe he’d make the great DUCK SOUP just two years on.) McCarey fanciers may enjoy seeing some of his standard themes of infidelity, trust & forgiveness (as seen in later classics like THE AWFUL TRUTH and LOVE AFFAIR) already in place & it’s a kick to discover that Swanson had a fully-trained, beautifully produced soprano voice (the songs were all filmed live). But even though she makes a better impression than her stage-bound romantic rivals, the film itself is a stiff.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)



The series of atmospheric shockers made at Val Lewton’s budget boutique never quite held to its best form after RKO reassigned director Jacques Tourneur elsewhere, but this early Robert Wise work comes close. It was the final pairing for horror icons Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi, but it’s the remarkable verbal sparring between Karloff and saturnine character actor Henry Daniell that gives this chiller its unusually intelligent tone. The title tells the tale, Karloff is a grave robber who grows too entrepreneurial, but even when the plot turns in obvious directions, the frighteningly dark look of the film (thanks to lenser Robert de Grasse who did such fine work for Lewton/Tourneur in THE LEOPARD MAN) retains a creepy edge. Watch everything come together in the remarkably simple & effective killing of a street singer whose death is abstracted into darkness and a stifled sound cue. Memorable stuff.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948)


Before finding his niche in a superb series of concise Randolph Scott budget-Westerns, Budd Boetticher ground out formula ‘Bs’ like this little detective story. Lucille Bremer stars as a reporter who thinks she’s found a corrupt judge who’s hiding in a posh local sanitarium. She bats her eyes just enough to get Richard Carlson’s appealing gumshoe to play psycho for her, get himself committed and find out what’s going on. (Just like Samuel Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR/’63!) Boetticher’s best work relied on real outdoor locations to reveal character traits & motivation. He was a natural for the wide CinemaScope frame. In this studio-bound piece, he’s cramped, unable to trigger the claustrophobic elements in the plot. Still, it’s fun to see Bremer in crisp B&W lensing without all the M-G-M fuss & glamour. The story goes that her ‘mentor’ @ M-G-M, producer Arthur Freed, had ‘moved on.’ She would too as this was her last picture. Under the circumstances, she’s darn good.

Monday, November 3, 2008

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)



After three successful pairings with Jacques Tourneur, producer Val Lewton continued his atmospheric horror pics @ RKO, promoting Mark Robson, his top editor, to director. And while Robson soon became a solid director, he never turned the minuscule budgets and crummy contract actors into a credible unified style as Tourneur had. Kim Hunter, in her film debut, leaves a cloistered school when her sister, the only relative she has, disappears somewhere in NYC. Just as she is beginning to find a set of friends and contacts in the city, as well as a job, she locates her sister’s trail and follows it right into a den of witches. Six have already died, pressured into suicide to protect the coven. Will her sister become the 7th victim? It all sounds promising, but only the opening and closing reels really come off, especially the tragic final coda.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

PITTSBURGH (2006)

This modest charmer stars that Frog Prince of movie stars, Jeff Goldblum, & a host of character actors all playing themselves. Goldblum needs a plan to keep his 20-something Canadian girlfriend in the States. Should he marry her or co-star in a stock production of THE MUSIC MAN? This eccentric idea sounds like a set-up for one of those Christopher Guest docu-style satires, but the tone is far gentler; Goldblum, on what was obviously a pet project, never pushes the characterizations or the concept toward cheap laughs at anyone’s expense. Unfortunately, the direction is routine t.v. stuff, the storylines peter out & Goldblum has zero screen rapport with his (real life?) girlfriend. Still, the whole idea of Goldblum as Professor Harold Hill is goofy enough to hold our attention. (If only we got to see a complete staged number.) Listen to his closed-mouth, jazz-inflected read-thru of ‘Gary, Indiana’ with Moby & Illeana Douglas to hear the possibilities. Harold Hill goes chill.

TIEFLAND (1940-‘41 - released 1954)

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite female filmmaker*, made this slightly mad romantic fable in Spain while the war raged back in the Fatherland. In theme, style & visualization, it’s very close to one of those fatalistic, ultra-romantic late silents Frank Borzage made with Charles Farrell & Janet Gaynor. Riefenstahl, looking both stunning & motherly, stars as a gypsy dancer who drives men crazy with a tilt of her head, a twist of the wrist & a smoldering glance. A bankrupt baron lusts for her, but needs to marry for money. He recruits a mountain shepherd to act as an in-name-only husband. Alas, our guileless peasant also falls for Leni. Only a fight to the finish will settle things. With its superb Spanish locations, atmospheric lensing and an odd but effective editing technique for the action scenes, there’s a lot to look at even when the film feels deranged or hopelessly dated. The weirdly artificial sets, so precise as to seem like scale models inflated to actual size, nicely mimic the operatic dramatics. Less acceptable is Riefenstahl’s culpability in using real gypsies ‘borrowed’ from concentration camps as film extras. Naturally, all were returned in good condition to face whatever hell was ahead of them. That Leni. Eyes wide shut till the end.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Apparently, Fritz Lang was Adolph's #1 choice . . . until Lang found out and fled the country.