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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MADEMOISELLE (1966)


British helmer Tony Richardson had a restless talent that pulled him away from the popular acclaim of films like his TOM JONES/’63 to adapt this darkly purposeful Jean Genet tale. (It’s his only foreign-language film.) As the repressed spinster-teacher, dubbed Mademoiselle for her fine airs, who is secretly creating havoc in her small xenophobic French town, Jeanne Moreau hardly needs to move a muscle to unsettle us. She unleashes fires, floods and poisons the water, all to assuage an unfulfilled desire for an itinerant Italian logger. Technically, the film is raptly handled, especially in David Watkins ' monochromatic WideScreen lensing, but Genet’s story attempts to split the difference between inexplicable evil and the disastrous effects of Moreau's psycho-sexual implosion. It ends up as neither fish nor fowl and Richardson cannot finesse the dramatic gap between the two approaches. (At times, it just comes off as a misogynist's PMS horror fantasia.) Even so, it makes for a pretty fascinating miss.

DERRIDA (2002)

I was all set to watch this well-received documentary about the celebrated (if progressively less influential) father of Deconstructive Literary Theory. But my copy of the DVD was so scratched up, none of my machines would play it. Someone had apparently attempted to deconstruct the disc!! (Purposefully? Accidentally? Carelessly? All three at once without knowing it?) This, of course, hardly keeps me from forming my own conclusions without the bother of having to sit thru the film itself. After all, text no longer matters. TEXT? SCHMEXT! I suggest you decode these words randomly . . . or backwards . . . or in patterns of syllabic complexity.

Monday, June 29, 2009

HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (1939)

20th/FOX honcho Darryl Zanuck invested more than the usual effort on this luxe TechniColor production about some fictional Hollywood pioneers. The old studio buildings are lovingly brought to life; a scene from Warners' Talkie breakthru, THE JAZZ SINGER/’27, is recreated with uncanny accuracy; a faux Mack Sennett one-reel comedy successfully mimics the old style, and even gets a few laughs. Well, why not? Zanuck got his start @ Warners in the silent days and worked his way thru the Talkie revolution*; he hired the 1939 Al Jolson to recreate the Al Jolson of 1927; and that film-within-a-film comedy short was directed not by the film’s megger Irving Cummings, but by silent-comedy short specialist Mal St. Clair. What Zanuck didn’t do was take the trouble to work up a framing story that wasn’t a hackneyed blob of soft-soap & hooey. Don Ameche makes a most unconvincing artistic film director and Alice Faye, without a song to sing, is more good sport than slapstick comedienne. Thankfully, the first half of the film features Buster Keaton in his best outing after years of Hollywood purgatory. A lot of misinformation on the silent era (and on Keaton) can be traced to this film, but it certainly helped the great man gain career traction & visibility. And check the outtakes on this DVD to see Buster break out in a big toothy grin when a stunt goes awry.

*Hollywood lore says that Zanuck was the man who fired Rin-Tin-Tin when The Talkies began because, ' . . . as you know, the dog doesn't talk.'

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Scott Eyman's THE SPEED OF SOUND: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution gets just about everything right that so many film histories get wrong. (Though, oddly, it skips over Alice Guy-Blache's early sound shorts made in France two decades before 'The Talkies.')

IMAGINARY WITNESS (2004)

Substantial AMC documentary on ‘Hollywood and the Holocaust’ starts off well in trying to show some of the ways Popular culture handled the rising German/Nazi menace pre-Pearl Harbor. But without the proper grounding in the societal & cultural background of the times, many of the points made are meaningless, if not outright misleading. In addition, the unavoidable selective (reductive) nature of these surveys means that generalities are trumpeted as truisms. So, the dramatic strength of THE MORTAL STORM (referenced here) is unanswered by the appalling weepie of the unmentioned ESCAPE (both 1940). Similarly, you’d never know that Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliantly hilarious black comedy TO BE OR NOT TO BE flopped while the formulaic comic nonsense of ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT did just fine (both 1942). And while it’s a treat to see films like Fred Zinnemann’s THE SEARCH/’48 brought into play, the post-WWII era becomes the usual paean to that (supposed) march of progress through George Stevens ‘ THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK/ ‘59; Stanley Kramer ’s JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG/’61*; and Steven Spielberg ’s SCHINDLER’S LIST/’93. Revisionist theories cannot come soon enough.

*Clips from the original tv production look surprisingly good . . . and it’s half the length!

Friday, June 26, 2009

WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931)

This forgotten early Talkie/Pre-Code adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play easily bests the ultra-plush 1940 M-G-M version with Vivien Leigh (in her favorite role) & Robert Taylor. The story is largely the same: American soldier in London falls for a fallen woman never knowing he’s been picked up, and she plays along until things start to get serious. He brings her home to mee his British relatives and asks for her hand. What’s a street walker with scruples to do? Helmer James Whale is best known for his Universal horror classics, but WWI drama was his calling card (specifically JOURNEY’S END) and he brings unsentimental sensitivity (and an awfully abrupt ending) to this unusually handsome production. (The trick art direction of Charles D Hall is easily spotted, but still a marvel under lenser Arthur Edeson.) The two leads, Mae Clarke (famous for ‘catching’ that grapefruit from James Cagney in PUBLIC ENEMY/’31) and Kent Douglass (aka Douglass Montgomery) are very raw, endearingly so in his case. Clarke, though fine in her big confession scene, is simply not up to the part. She all but disappears when Bette Davis. in only her third pic, shows up for a couple of scenes.

CONTEST: Name other lesser known versions of famous pics you think are, on the whole, better than the version we all know and love. Here's three possible examples that feature Ingrid Bergman: her version of GASLIGHT/'44 vs the British version also known as ANGEL STREET/'40 or perhaps her version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE/''41 vs the one made in 1932 or even her Hollywood debut in INTERMEZZO/'39 as set against the Swedish version of 1936 which starred . . . Ingrid Bergman. The best response wins a MAKSQUIBS write-up on any NetFlix pic of your choice.

FANNY (1961)



A Broadway musical of Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of life & love on the Marseilles waterfront hits the big screen with its film-challenged director (Joshua Logan) onboard and its wonderful Harold Rome songs tossed overboard. (The melodies show up on the spirited soundtrack.) Sounds none too promising, non? And didn’t Hollywood already crap this one up?* Yet, this FANNY confounds expectations. With its gorgeous location photography from the great Jack Cardiff (very Kodachrome) and the action neatly reduced to two hours & change, it all comes alive under the sort of visually fluid direction you’d expect from a Rouben Mamoulian, but certainly not from Josh Logan. (He returns to bad form for the film’s last act.) The story remains the same: Fanny loves Marius; Marius jilts her for a life at sea; old Panisse takes on the pregnant Fanny; Marius soon regrets his choice; Cesar (Papa to Marius) comments & advises on all issues. Horst Buchholz & Leslie Caron work too hard as the young lovers, but the eccentric waterfront gang all make their marks even if bad dubbing sinks Georgette Anys as Fanny’s Mamam. What is crucially missing is the broad but utterly specific Pagnolian powers of observation, and with local color & custom pared down to accommodate three film’s worth of plot, Charles Boyer can’t run the story the way Raimu did in his classic portrait of Cesar. But Maurice Chevalier, in his mid-seventies, is an unexpectedly fine (and specific) Panisse, with his joyful acceptance of Fanny’s situation memorably explicated. What a shame he didn’t get to record the score.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

DIE FALSCHER / THE COUNTERFEITERS (2007)

While it’s a truism that WWII Holocaust-themed projects are easy Oscar-bait, don’t hold its Best Foreign Language Picture Award against this generally fine film about a Nazi counterfeiting scam (British Bank Notes & American Dollars) that was designed to destabilize the world currency. The fact-based gimmick is that the operation was largely staffed with artisan Jewish prisoners held in a privileged unit inside a Concentration Camp. And the indispensable man needed to make it work was Germany’s top forger from the days before the war, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics). The moral dilemma is not so far removed from the British POWs in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57 who also kept themselves alive by aiding the enemy? How much effort is too much effort? When does sabotage turn into suicide? And what is the moral price of exceeding the expectations of the sadistic jailers who hold your life in their hands? Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitsky makes too many obvious choices, but he is unexpectedly strong at detailing the self-justifying insanity that turned so many Germans into enthusiastic Nazis. A moment with the camp commandant’s family shows a level of willful ignorance that can still shock after all these years and hundreds of films on the subject. The final sequence, set in a Monte Carlo casino shortly after the war has ended, rounds things off a bit too neatly. But perhaps this ironic coda is true. It’s nice to think so.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE (1914)


D. W. Griffith made this little remembered 6-reel feature in California while prepping THE BIRTH OF A NATION/’15. It’s inspired, though hardly based, on writings & themes of Edgar Allan Poe, anticipating Roger Corman’s cavalier mode of adaptation; in form, structure & execution it seems to have influenced the German expressionist films, notably THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI/’19 which even incorporates the same final twist; and in its use of poetic vignettes as narrative parallel, it foresees a favorite tool of C. B. De Mille. All very interesting, but it hardly makes the film itself more than a jumble of plot lines and half-baked ideas. Even so, Henry B. Walthall is astonishingly creepy as a Poe-saturated young man who dreams of murdering his Uncle so that he can marry the girl of his dreams, Blanche Sweet. A scene where he contemplates how best to shoot his dozing Uncle (in the head?, in the neck?, the heart?) is acutely disturbing. Bobby Harron & Mae Marsh are completely charming in supporting roles, but they, like so much else here, don’t get much development.

Monday, June 22, 2009

VIRGINIA CITY (1940)



This film was something of a sober-sided follow-up Western to the splashy TechniColor fun of DODGE CITY/’39, also starring Errol Flynn & helmed by Michael Curtiz. It has neither the rep nor the fans of the earlier pic, but in spite of its obvious flaws (Humphrey Bogart ‘s Mexican bandito is a particular horror), it holds uncommon dramatic interest not only for its split dramatic loyalties as the Civil War plays its coda, but in how it refracts on an America that viewed WWII either thru a prism of diehard isolationism or as an inevitable responsibility. Miriam Hopkins seems unable to settle on a look (she was still new @ Warners and older than her leading man), but her slight discomfort plays right into her confusion in choosing between Southern gentleman Randolph Scott & Northern spy Errol Flynn. The physical production & location work are outstandingly handsome under Sol Polito’s lens and the stunt work (largely from Yakima Canutt, who else) is jaw-dropping. Curtiz had gotten into so much trouble filming THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE/’36 that the shots are purposefully held until we can see that the horses are alright. And be sure to watch the two Looney Tunes included. The first is one of those goofy travelogues, but the best of its type, with a great ‘sick’ frog joke. While the second manages to almost hide a ‘Darky’ stereotype by zooming in on the objectionable frames. Should we be falsifying history like this?

A DATE WITH JUDY (1948)

Producer Joe Pasternak specialized in that most ungrateful of genres: the family musical, dear to the heart of M-G-M boss Louis B. Mayer. Sure, those Andy Hardy pics & MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44 made piles of dough, but L.B. also believed in them, even after WWII when journeymen meggers like Richard Thorpe made them as suffocating & insufferable as this. Jane Powell (looking as smooth as a porcelain doll under Robert Surtees ’ creamy TechniColor lensing) stars as a typical high schooler (with a trained soprano voice, natch) who ignores peppy, but pimply Scotty Beckett for dreamy, but older Robert Stack. He, in turn, only has eyes for Liz Taylor, divine @ 16, the snooty rich girl in town. Leon Ames repeats his ST LOUIS gig as negligent Dad to Scotty & Liz, while top-liner Wallace Beery, looking ill in his penultimate role, is a most unlikely avuncular Dad to Powell. Happily, Carmen Miranda shows up to teach Beery the rhumba, and in her first number she even gets to swing just a bit before she redons her Brazilian bombshell straightjacket with smiley Xavier Cugat. Then, it's back to those wholesome kids. The big song from the film, 'It's A Most Unusual Day,' is charming, but it couldn't be more off the mark. This one's as usual as they come.

Friday, June 19, 2009

J’AMERAIS PAS CREVER UN DIMANCHE / DON’T LET ME DIE ON A SUNDAY (1998)

Our story: A necrophiliac morgue employee gets a big surprise while ‘enjoying’ himself with one of his younger ‘clients;’ the dead girl wakes up! Talk about coitus interruptus! He’s good, he’s VERY good. At least that explains all those corpse POV shots we get from scripter/megger Didier Le Pecheur. Cinematic foreshadowing, I guess. Once revived, the punkish young woman joins in the S&M fun practiced by the whole disco-loving morgue gang, with just a little time out now & then for visits to a former morgue colleague who is beatifically dying from AIDS on a scenic isle. All this, plus loads & loads of philosophic talk and smokes, before we end things with a blink-twice-and-you’ll-miss-it wise blessing from beyond. Here’s a suggestion, just blink once, very, very slowly . . . and miss the whole thing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

SEUL CONTRE TOUS / I STAND ALONE (1998)

Another relentless diatribe from scripter/megger/provocateur Gaspar (IRREVERSIBLE/’02) Noé, who does nothing by halves. This one’s about a down-on-his-luck/down-for-the-count butcher whose miserable life journey makes ‘Murphy’s Law’ look like winning the lottery. The idea was to follow this ticking psychotic bomb as endgame closes in, listening to his ceaseless Right-Wing paranoid rants (mostly in voice-over) while he looks for work, drink, money, sex, undying love and a few choice victims to take care of. This hapless crumb of lost humanity is something Dostoevsky might have understood, but Noé uses his impressive film technique to goad him into action and tickle us with graphic sex & violence. The final scene is particularly horrific, but a trick ending leaves room for doubt about all the atrocities we’ve been watching. Maybe it’s time to just say ‘no’ to Noé.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

FANNY (1932)



In Part Two of Marcel Pagnol’s classic Marseilles trilogy, Fanny, who ended Part One by sending Marius off to sea, discovers she’s carrying his child. Perhaps Panisse, the middle-aged sailmaker who has long sought her hand, will still take her? He’s rich, widowed, lovestruck & childless. A ready-made heir might be a plus? Non? Naturally, serious & comic complications ensue, with many embellishments, especially from Cesar, Papa to Marius and now Grandpapa-in-waiting. A year after Alex Korda helmed MARIUS/’31, Marc Allégret has the technical facility to shoot more scenes on the streets of Marseilles, but paradoxically this only emphasizes the stagebound nature of Pagnol’s material. Some of the famous comic set pieces hang narrative fire. No matter. A third of the way in, the plot strands take hold and the familiar story comes alive once more. The warmth & humanity in the characterizations are, if anything, stronger than before, exceptionally so in the miraculous balance of realism & stylization of Raimu’s Cesar. The third act, when Marius returns and the blinders come crashing down, can make you catch your breath at Pagnol’s skill in parsing sentiment from sentimentality. Plus, you get some plus perfect patois putdowns: "I wouldn’t give your wife’s bouillabaisse to my dog!"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

LE GRAND VOYAGE (2004)



Ismaël Ferrroukhi debuted as writer/megger in this generally pleasing, but awfully familiar father/son tale. Nicolas Cazalé gets good use out of his fine sulky face as a French/Moroccan high school kid who gets dragooned by his taciturn old man (Mohammed Majd) to drive him all the way to Mecca for the Hadj. You can guess the rest. Kid resents, father knows best, life lessons learned, new understanding between generations, bittersweet ending . . . ah, humanity . . . ah, road movies. Fortunately, the film doesn’t push itself too hard at us (the relaxed pacing feels just right) and the performances, varied landscapes & masses of Hadj pilgrims (Hadjers? Hadjists?) easily hold our attention. But note, halfway thru the pic, an engaging middle-aged Turk shows up to get them out of a fix. Serendipity or scam artist? Kismet or commerce? Or maybe, he’s a character who might have been developed into a more original movie?

Monday, June 15, 2009

THIS SPORTING LIFE (1963)

Lindsay Anderson moved from documentaries to features with this famously brutish portrait of a rawly ambitious rugby player whose success at the game unbalances his life off the field. The set-up is not so different from a hundred & one Hollywood boxing pics (RAGING BULL/'80 is an all but acknowledged offspring), but the physical hazards of professional rugby (imagine American football without protective gear) certainly adds interest, as does the quick money/chump-change lifestyle and inter-personal wreckage back at home. As the sorrowful widow who rents out a room to Richard Harris's violent player, Rachel Roberts is both unforgettable & unfathomable. You can’t take your eyes off her, even at her most psychologically opaque. You do get the feeling that scripter David Storey, lensman Denys Coop & Anderson have watched a lot of Elia Kazan movies, especially ON THE WATERFRONT/’54, largely to their profit even if Richard Harris gets all but doused with visual allusions to Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy. The final scene plays out like a rugby re-do of the WATERFRONT finale. Still, Harris gets his own licks in, too, check out his unexpected vocal with the band at a local club.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958)


The fantasy world created via the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen is one of the great deposits of ‘guilty pleasure’ in cinema. But as soon as you hear the opening chords of Bernard Herrmann’s grand score (a de facto concert overture) under the imaginative credit sequence, you realize there’s little ‘guilt’ involved in enjoying this spirited adventure tale. And the quality holds up under director Nathan Juran, whose art director background helps explain the smooth integration of live-action & animated elements. The story moves like the wind that carries Sinbad & his shipmates off to their island of hidden treasure & terrifying monsters (some of the oddest looking creatures in the Harryhausen canon) and even the self-consciously stilted dialogue becomes part of the fun. Admittedly, the acting is uneven, Kathryn Grant’s Princess & Richard Eyer’s genie come off as ultra-American prototypes for Mattel action-figures, but most of the cast are quite effective if not on the level of a Conrad Veidt or Sabu in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD/’40. Even the much maligned Kerwin Matthews is a better Sinbad than you may recall, with a real knack for fighting off the Dynarama® monsters & skeletons (yes!) that Harryhausen would almost seamlessly ‘matte’ into the picture element. That qualifying ‘almost’ is not meant as a criticism; in fact, it's that artisanal quality which gives the Harryhausen films so much of their lasting charm. Lose that snooty high-tech attitude; go pre-CGI.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

CESAR & ROSALIE (1972)

It's Yves Montand who makes this menage à trois story ‘pop.’ He plays a self-made millionaire who has be #1 at all he tries: at business, at a party, at family gatherings, at being a guy’s guy at his weekly poker game (the smoke is positively alarming in this scene) and especially at being a great & caring lover to his beautiful young mistress Romy Schneider. But his edifice comes crumbling down when Sami Frey, a youthful former lover of Schneider, returns to the scene. Montand can’t seem to stop his inner Stanley Kowalski from crashing through the sophisticated surface he’s cultivated. And director Claude Sautet does a fabulous job not only letting him show himself at his worst, but in showing how both Schneider & Frey are alternately appalled and attracted by his violent fits & grand gestures of apology. The sexual politics of the time dates some things (Schneider makes an awful lot of coffee for the boys), but the story arc holds up beautifully. By the end of the film, these three seem ready to tackle a French edition of DESIGN FOR LIVING, gay sub-text and all. Too bad the currently available DVD (WellSpring) is such a smeary looking transfer, but it will serve till something better shows up.

BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (1983)

Shohei Imamura’s Cannes winner is a well-crafted period piece about a tightly-bound rural community in Japan where custom dictates a sacrificial journey to the mountain top when you reach 70. The story line is often incredibly tough-minded with swift/primitive ‘justice’ for families who steal provisions during a time of seasonal shortages and new 'blind' couplings for fertile widows & widowers, even across town lines. The constant juxtaposition of man living in harmony with nature and the brutality needed to survive this life has a natural dramatic pull & fascination to it. And the knowledge that time is swiftly passing for the 69 year-old matriarch of the family we are following adds layers of suspense & humanistic sentiment to the inevitable climax. But Imamura lays on the parallel’s between man & nature; the harshly beautiful land, the unyielding weather & a cornucopia of copulating insects, with a trowel. All the associative elements that we should be discovering on our own, are over-masticated for our edification. Or perhaps to gain points with international film juries.

Friday, June 5, 2009

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)



Tim Burton ‘s re-imagined take on Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical is a cheerless stylistic cousin to his stop-animation tales of grue, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS/’‘93 & CORPSE BRIDE/’05. It's a tremendous leap of artistic daring that pays off in his best live-action pic in years*, but it's hardly a complete success. The film opens beautifully as Todd and a sailor he’s met on ship return to a brooding, gloomy picture-book London. Unable to reunite with his wife & child, Todd settles for bloody revenge against his tormentors and, while he’s at it, as much humanity as he can get to sit in his barber’s chair. The horror grows exponentially, but not the black comedy which has been largely jettisoned along with more than a third of the score. And that legendary score is less consistent than theater-goers may recall. Unmemorable ariosi take care of the exposition and backstory while awkward melodic lurches in the concerted sequences are jarring; and then there's the customary Sondheim tic of climactic notes on closed vowel sounds. (At least, the cast isn't forced to strain away eight times a week.) Luckily, the men (and boy) all come off brilliantly (such characterful, accurate singing from Johnny Depp, Sascha Baron Cohen & Alan Rickman), but the three females all underperform. And though there’s more blood on display than you’ll find in a Samurai pic, there's surprisingly little suspense before we reach an ending that feels foreshortened; circumventing the cruelest cut of all and dribbling off to an unsatisfying final fade-out.

*I didn’t see CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY/’05; so sue me. (And please note that our poster is from a 1936 British 'Quota-Quickie' production.)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

This documentary on writer/director Terry Gilliam’s aborted Don Quixote pic proves that you really do make your own luck. For insurance purposes, a fiercely destructive hail storm and a star too ill to work ended things, but this show was never more than half a step ahead of disaster. Lack of funds, lack of planning, lack of technical expertise, lack of production coordination; the only thing not lacking were facile ideas from the fecund Mr. Gilliam. He’s loaded with ‘em, all bad. The little bit we get to see and hear is perfectly awful, particularly the proudly referenced central idea of having a modern day guy (Johnny Depp) dropped back in time as a slim Sancho Panza to Jean Rochefort ’s tottering Don Quixote. Even when he's at his best, Gilliam has trouble separating the wheat from the chaff, but here, it’s all chaff. And the really scary news is that he’s starting up this show all over again. Who the heck would invest in it? There really is a sucker born every minute.

NOTE: Gilliam’s grandest fiasco, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN/’88, is gleefully dissed by one & all here, even by Gilliam. But in spite of a wan Baron, it’s an endearing charmer. Everything else he touches is an acquired taste you may not wish to acquire.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

IF I’M LUCKY (1946)

Both Perry Como & Carmen Miranda ended their stint @ 20th/Fox with this modest-to-a-fault musical. Actually, the execution is so half-hearted, they seem to be ending their contracts while shooting it. And that’s a shame because they and the rest of the cast (Vivian Blaine, Harry James, the great Phil Silvers) are a pleasure to hang around with. The film is a wan remake of THANKS A MILLION/’35 (not seen here) about a down-on-their-luck band who hook up with a woeful gubernatorial candidate. They need the job, he needs some excitement. Neither of them know that his whole campaign is just a set up by corrupt politicos & big business types. Preston Sturges could have made a great farce out of this, but he moved to Fox two years too late. Alas. Here, the songs are as lackluster as the megging and the script misses (avoids is more like it) every interesting possibility in the story.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Como pretty much gave up on the acting biz after this one, but he’s so laid-back you can’t take your eyes off of him. Is he going to blow up? Is he going to fall asleep? His poor directors must have been in despair. Surprisingly handsome, surprisingly short; a deep well or an empty one; unknowable or just unresponsive? What a Gatsby he would have made! If Gatsby were a crooner.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933)

Though this Warners programmer is not without interest, megger Archie Mayo didn’t have a chance in making the bifurcated story add up. The first act promises much as a gang of junior thugs is hauled into court and sent off to reform school. The tone is surprisingly tough & legitimately emotional even as the expected tropes of a hundred prison pics come into play. (Unusually for the time, the facility is integrated and, in spite of some stereotypical ‘darkie’ humor in the courtroom, 'Farina' is allowed to be just ‘one of the guys’ for most of the film.) Then, we shift gears as James Cagney enters the scene as a political ward boss assigned to check the place out. At first, he’s utterly disinterested, but changes his tune when he sees pretty nurse Madge Evans who wants to reform the Reform School. (The whole Cagney plot tangent feels like an afterthought from some studio exec who wanted to stick Cagney into as many films as possible.) The film suddenly curdles into absolute hooey as the school becomes a happy boys’ club, a self-governing trade school for misunderstood toughs. But when Cagney needs to take care of business back in the city, the school returns to the clutches of evil warden Dudley Diggs and, before you know it, riots, murder, torture, barn fires; all hell breaks loose. And Cagney can’t get back since he’s on the lam for a shooting. The last reel is plenty exciting, if rather ridiculous, but this must surely be the one & only film that’s worse whenever Cagney's character shows up.

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

In the extended ‘director’s cut,’ this Ridley Scott pic still comes up short in spite of a clean, clear script from Steve Zaillian. Denzel Washington is just okay as a deceptively low-key, but ruthless drug kingpin in ‘70s Harlem. (The role seems made for Terrence Howard.) He undercuts his Mafia competitors by skipping the middleman & buying high quality drugs right from the source. Shipping comes courtesy of the U.S. military in Vietnam, but it’s endgame when the war winds down just as a Fed task force (led by a beefy Russell Crowe) closes in. Scott overreaches here, trying for too many GODFATHER moments, but his main problem remains (as ever) in mishandling the narrative line in his material. Washington runs his operation with his brothers & extended family, but we hardly get to know anyone which leaves us comfortably distanced from the situations. Same goes for Denzel’s Puerto-Rican wife. On the other side of the law, Crowe’s team of agents haven’t a character tic to chew on between them. The basic story is compelling and Scott has visual panache to spare, but he seems to miss the ironic tone of bitter, black comedy Zaillian has built into this mirror-image American dream. And, yes, MOD SQUAD fans, that really is an unbilled Clarence Williams playing Washington’s mentor Bumpy Johnson.

THE WIND THAT SHOOK THE BARLEY (2006)

This award-winning film from Ken Loach about the war for Irish independence is something of a companion piece to LAND AND FREEDOM/’95, his far superior (if underappreciated) film on the Spanish Civil War. We follow two brothers in the IRA, a natural warrior & an unwilling campaigner, through a series of escalating horrors. By the time a peace treaty is worked out, the reluctant revolutionary has been radicalized by British atrocities (and thru his own horrific acts of counter-terrorism) into zealotry while his older brother finds he can live with the compromises of political necessity. Loach wheels out the usual Irish trinity of drunkenness, religion & pig-headed pride, and adds an additional wartime trinity of torture, tit-for-tat violence & loyalty tests. But for all the noise, fury & harshly beautiful landscapes, the film feels emotionally inert, probably because Cillian Murphy’s unlikely patriot doesn’t hold on to ‘the cause’ out of principle, but as a sop to assuage his guilty feelings. Putting the Irish ‘troubles’ on an over-sized psychiatrist’s couch is an interesting thought, but not, I think, what Loach had in mind. If you can deal with the slickness and a miscast Julia Roberts, you might want to try Neil Jordan’s MICHAEL COLLINS/’96 which has great things in it, especially the stunning perfs from Liam Neesom, Alan Rickman & Stephen Rea.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: From certain angels, Cillian Murphy looks strikingly like Sissy Spacek. Most disconcerting.