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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

MAFIOSO (1962)

The great Alberto Sordi stars in this blackest of comedies as a Milan factory manager who takes his chic, Northern wife & blond girls on a long-deferred vacation to his hometown in Sicily. While his new family meets, greets & faces off with the old family & the old ways, Sordi is being sized up by the local mob. Is the man who left home and ‘made good’ still a man of honor? This lethally funny (make that lethal & funny) story has little in common with typical Hollywood mob pics. (John Huston’s eye-popping adaptation of Richard Condon’s PRIZZI’S HONOR/’85 gets near its startling wavelength.) It has a fine, sharp eye for cultural clashes and Lattuada’s helming pulls landscape, character & narrative together in a manner that brings Budd Boetticher’s Westerns to mind. But Lattuada’s great achievement stems from avoiding the all but inescapable romanticism that pervades even the toughest of Hollywood mob tales. There’s no easy identification with thuggery or the kinetic appeal of violence, no sentimental asides or dramatically broken oaths of loyalty; just calculation, crime, comic monstrosities and queasy choices.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks! – 1955, Henri Langlois, Founder of the Cinémathèque Française (A ridiculous overstatement, no doubt, but those who know Louise Brooks’ C.V. will see the point.)

There is no GODFATHER! There is no THE SOPRANOS! There is only MAFIOSO! - 2010, MAKSQUIBS, Hack DVD Blogger (A ridiculous overstatement, no doubt, but those who know Alberto Lattuada’s masterpiece will see the point.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

IVANHOE (1982)

If you can accept the ground rules of ‘80s television (an ultra bright/ultra sharp picture element for your ‘Trinatron’ tv; the glossy make-up & shag hair stylings; skimpy crowd scenes and the barely functional megging), this turns out to be a remarkably effective (and full) version of the Walter Scott classic. John Gay was a whiz @ churning out these redo scripts and the cast, at least on the male side, is largely better than M-G-M’s 1952 epic. There’s James Mason, Anthony Andrews, Michael Hordern, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover and Sam Neill who gallantly makes like a young James Mason as that noble, romantically conflicted villain Brian de Bois-Guilbert. The two women, Olivia Hussey & the underwhelming Lysette Anthony, are no match for the young Elizabeth Taylor and a stately Joan Fontaine, but that loss is offset by having Robin Hood & his Merry Men in their proper place. (M-G-M downplayed their role since Disney was releasing another Robin Hood pic that year.) What grand storytelling and what surprisingly rich characters Scott pulls out of the expected stereotypes. If only Allyn Ferguson’s dim score had some of the old Miklos Rozsa magic to it. (NOTE: That's a poster from the 1913 version!)

CAREFUL (1992)

An early feature from Winnipegian Guy Maddin, an artsy Canadian auteur who favors purposefully distressed visual & audio elements to heighten the ironic edge of his work. This is one of his better conceits: in an isolated mountain town, all sorts of dysfunctional family crises are played out sotto voce for fear that any loud noises (yelling, gun shots, caterwauling) might set off the incipient avalanches that loom above. The sequences shot on strikingly artificial mountainsides & townscapes make exceptional use of the long lost film techniques Maddin cultivates (tinting, toning & two-strip color; expressionist acting out of UFA-Germany; the lo-fi audio of Early Talkies; and the ‘blasted’ look of worn-out 16mm dupe prints), but the sibling rivalries grow tiresome as his visual palette runs riot then runs out of steam. He seems unable or unwilling to bridge the chasm between clever concept and finished product. But the journey is not without interest.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Moviegoers have been remarkably loyal to James Bond, slogging thru staggering levels of mediocrity. But as a rare asset at moribund United Artists (M-G-M/Columbia Pictures now share rights and FOX put out the DVD), there are too many interested parties to let the old nag die. Hence, the collective sigh of relief when the latest Bond (Daniel Craig, rough & compact) re-energized the franchise in CASINO ROYAL/’06; and hence, the collective groan over the follow-up. Truth be told, CASINO wasn’t all that great, while QUANTUM boasts that rarest of Bond attributes, a good underlying story. But you can hardly follow it. Not only the narrative, but also in the action sequences which have been Mix-Master’d to death (the 2nd unit director is just off THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM/’07), ignoring the fun of seeing cause & effect play out. (A big set piece @ an opera house must have read well, but it’s muffed with logistics that don’t hang together and supporting players we’ve barely met.) With so many of the familiar Bond routines expunged as old-fashioned & corny, Bond becomes just another over-produced action pic. (NOTE: Didn't anyone notice where the oo7 logo-gun was pointing in this poster?)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


In the last & least of Fritz Lang’s WWII thrillers, Gary Cooper plays a professor who’s recruited by the O.S.S. to get a nuclear scientist out of Italy. There are some startling set pieces in here (a brutally quick assassination in the dark; a messy & shockingly violent hallway fight that’s ‘covered’ by street singers just a few feet away; Coop chattering away in German), but the film as a whole is awkwardly played and unconvincing. Lang’s previous WWII fare (MAN HUNT/’41, HANGMEN ALSO DIE/’43, MINISTRY OF FEAR/’44) may be uneven, but their unconventional narratives are fascinating and they share a visual grammar as ‘Langian’ as a MABUSE pic. Even better were the two masterful films that came just before this, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW/’44 and that unrivaled gem SCARLET STREET/’45. But this formulaic tale comes off as both flat & far-fetched.

Monday, March 22, 2010

BOLT (2008)

A real surprise. This relatively unsung computer animation from Disney (not PIXAR) is a bit cavalier in ‘sampling’ well-known plot twists, but the mix-up from newbie helmers Byron Howard & Chris Williams is bright & winning. Bolt is a rescued pup, brought up to believe he’s the super-hero canine he plays on a cable show. So, when the script has his teen co-star kidnapped, he runs off to save her, and comes face-to-face with . . . the real world! Not the most original concept, but plenty usable. And new enough for its intended audience. Bolt is voiced by John Travolta whose unforced delivery is the best thing he’s done in ages. Miley Cyrus shares top-billing as Bolt’s teen co-star, but it’s more like a glorified supporting gig. The real co-star is an abandoned, street-smart alley cat brilliantly voiced by Susie Essman. (ALLEGRO NON TROPPO/’76 fans may be reminded of the Sibelius/Valse Triste kitty.) But all the supporting animals shine. There’s a nifty hand-drawn sequence that takes us westward on a stylized map of the States and watch for a huge emotional swipe from Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH/’25 just before the fiery climax. (Walt would have approved, he stole from Charlie all the time.) Best of all is what’s not in here. No pointless Pop references, no wise-guy gags and not a potty joke in sight. Huzza!

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Right after HIGH NOON/’52 and right before FROM HERE TO ETERNITY/’53, Fred Zinnemann made this crushing flop. Minimally adapted from Carson McCuller’s semi-autobiographical play & novel, it remained his personal favorite. You’ll see why it didn’t connect, it’s almost uncomfortably true to McCuller’s poetic realism, but with it’s stylized theatricality retained it gets inside some of the fears of adolescent passage in a manner rarely seen. (Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55 and Delmar Daves’ THE RED HOUSE/’47 find similar notes.) Julie Harris (debuting @ 26) is all exaggerated elbows & social frustration as 12-yr old Frankie who dreams of riding off with her older brother on his honeymoon. More situation than narrative, we’re stuck with Frankie in the alternately comforting & claustrophobic confines of a hot kitchen along with her young cousin (the heartbreakingly splendid Brandon de Wilde) and a black domestic with troubles of her own (a magnificent Ethel Waters). Lenser Hal Mohr reaches all the way back to SPARROWS/’26, his great Mary Pickford film, in some of his effects, and movie mavens will spot an almost grown up Dickie Moore as a soldier who tries to pick up Frankie. But the real magic comes at the end of Act II when Waters, de Wilde & Harris join in singing HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW. A bit of B’way magic, turned into cinematic gold by Zinnemann’s tact, taste & reserve.

CONTEST: This was a Stanley Kramer production, now released as part of a big DVD set with intros by professional widow & keeper of the flame Karen Kramer who makes yet another gaffe by claiming film debuts here for original cast members Harris, de Wilde and Waters. Hmm. Ethel Waters had actually made occasional film appearances starting in ‘29, working under such little known directors as W. Van Dyke, Minnelli, Duvivier and Elia Kazan. (With an Oscar nom. for his PINKY/’49.) Kramer misses the fourth member of the original B’way cast kept in the film. Guess who to win our usual MAKSQUIBS prize, a Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice. And no Googling. Thanks.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Stanley Kramer used controversial issues the way most Hollywood producers utilized sex & violence, as leavening & cover for a multitude of cinematic sins. His work, over-ambitious & under-realized, came off better when he only produced. But in this film (a painfully coarsened version of Katherine Anne Porter’s phenomenal bestseller), his typically stolid megging is helped along by the double narrative propulsion Porter achieved in her crisscrossing storylines (think GRAND HOTEL on a German ship in the early ‘30s) and via the time constraints of a fixed travel schedule. Visually, the single set forced Kramer to focus on the fascinating faces of his starry cast (Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner, George Segal, José Ferrer, Michael Dunn) and he gets stellar support from the superb analogue F/X production work of the prince of process, Farciot Edouart & matte wiz Albert Whitlock, along with unusually fine b&w lensing from the uneven Ernest Laszlo. It’s a really big show, and it holds your attention, even with the obvious choices and pat twist endings scripter Abby Mann pulled out of Porter’s portentous sea saga. (In the ‘intro,’ Karen Kramer, who’s become something of a professional widow, lies about Stanley getting an Oscar© nom for Best Director. Guys, this is not a hard fact to look up.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Goodness knows, Katherine Anne Porter got plenty of critical brickbats on her long gestated novel. But what marvelous things are in it! Those two terrifying kids Ric & Rac alone make SHIP OF FOOLS worth reading.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Simple, but highly effective low-budget horror film about a small British town that collectively sinks into a coma for half a day. Seven months later, all the fertile women deliver weirdly beautiful blonde kids who rapidly grow into brilliant, emotionless children. A local outbreak of Asperger’s Syndrome or an alien invasion via stealth conception? George Sanders, in remarkably sobersided form, is the local scientist (and ‘father’ to one of the boys) who thinks he can teach the little heathens humanity as one might teach table manners. His optimism will be sorely tried. Helmer Wolf Rilla avoids shocks tactics & showy effects, but his homely blandness gets under your skin in its own way, turning the ordinary into a cudgel of terror. The end product is creepier than scores of better known fright flicks.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Young Martin Stephens followed up his demonic child in this film with another off-kilter kid in THE INNOCENTS/’61, based on the Henry James classic THE TURN OF THE SCREW. In that film, he uses his own voice, but he sounds dubbed in this one. And by a young woman. Creepier & creepier.


This follow-up to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED/’60 largely misses the banal/everyday quality that helped make the first film such an unsettling sci-fi thriller. In this one, six new super-gifted alien children are brought to London to be studied, tested, fought over by government agents and coveted by military types. Their strange powers make them invaluable to each group, but the creepy kids want none of it. They manage to find temporary refuge in a condemned church, but they are soon under siege and a disastrous outcome looks inevitable. It’s standard horror pic stuff for the era with spooky camerawork, chilling music, scientists with foreign accents and an incompetent military . . . all the usual suspects. Not bad for its type, but the earlier film is special.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


This joked-up redo of THE MALTESE FALCON, made five years after the mediocre Ricardo Cortez version, and five years before the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart classic, is something of a head-scratcher. It’s star (Bette Davis) and helmer (William Dieterle) had each moved past such Grade ‘B’ shenanigans (unlike co-stars Warren William & the irritating Marie Wilson); so what were they doing here? A punishment? Just keeping busy? The answer is probably found @ M-G-M where Dashiell Hammett’s light-hearted detective yarn THE THIN MAN/’34 was about to sire a sequel, AFTER THE THIN MAN/’36. THE MALTESE FALCON was the only Hammett title Warners owned; why not gag it up? Alas, refitting Sam Spade & Co. as a larky murder mystery with renamed characters, a major gender reversal & a gem-filled horn in place of the famous black bird didn’t turn out to be such a great idea. (Dieterle & lenser Arthur Edeson only seem happy toward the end, staging an atmospheric rain-soaked climax.) There’d be no sequel to SATAN, but Huston’s straight take on the book, with Edeson repeating as lenser, would prove that third time’s the charm.


The first film version of Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective story holds a bit of interest as a companion piece to the famous John Huston/Humphrey Bogart 1941 pic. Ricardo Cortex is a randy Sam Spade (lots of Pre-Code sexual innuendo), who greets each plot twist with an insipid grin. A poor substitute for Bogie’s insolence & romantic fatalism. Worse, it keeps the film from gaining any sort of dramatic traction. But he’s hardly alone in missing the point, the whole crew, which looks decent enough on paper (Bebe Daniels, Dudley Diggs, Dwight Frye!, Una Merkel), exhibit none of the magical alchemy between actor & role that Huston conjured up ten years later. This version even fudges the plot structure with a tricked up ending that makes a mockery of Spade’s ethics & intentions. As standard early Talkie fare, this is an acceptable 1931 release, but little more.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


There’s little excuse for this one. The rise & fall of Chess Records, the great Chicago-based company that brought The Blues and Rhythm & Blues to national attention in the ‘50s, has all the sex, violence, music & cultural interest necessary for a dozen movies, and there’s enough talent on hand here to make it happen. But Darnell Martin, megging from her own heavy-handed script, drags it down with too many formulaic storylines, over-cooked performances, inept pacing, structural cul-de-sacs and historical inaccuracies that can’t be sloughed off as ‘dramatic license.’ And the constant visual clichés. Oy! Then, exec producer Beyoncé Knowles starts chewing up the scenery as a drug-addled Etta James and you know you’re stuck inside a ‘Vanity Production’ of monumental ambition. Only Eamonn Walker cuts thru all the by-the-numbers ‘50s atmosphere as a demonically vivid Howlin’ Wolf, but he’s working in a vacuum. Hell, even the insert shots of spinning ‘45s seem to be turning at 78rpm. It doesn’t exactly help to build confidence.

Friday, March 12, 2010


It's good news for Potter fans that scripter Steve Kloves has returned after the underwhelming ORDER OF THE PHOENIX/’07. Less welcome is the retention of David Yates who megs like a muggle. His main idea this time out is to (quite literally) drain most of the color out of the story in an attempt to capture the elegiac tone of J. K. Rowling’s penultimate volume. Glum is about all he can manage. The sole gag in 2 & ½ hours involves . . . gagging! Things pick up about halfway thru with a CGI-heavy Quidditch match that (almost) makes sense of the game, and there's a spirited return to form for Potter pals Rupert Grint & Emma Watson after their partial eclipse in the last pic. Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry holds to the standard he reached under Mike Newell in GOBLET OF FIRE/’05, but his challenge here is partnering Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore & Jim Broadbent’s Slughorn since Yates’ idea of characterization is to have them dozing off on screen. It fits right in with Yates’ sleepy ideas on screen composition. Luckily, Rowling’s narrative drive finally kicks in and the improved CGI effects work wonders as long as we stay in Hogwarts' wizardly environment.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

BLACK ADDER (Remastered: The Ultimate Edition) (1983-89/1999)

Brit-Coms are like litmus tests for the funny bone,* and this Rowan Atkinson series has a cult following that rivals STAR TREK. This six-disc DVD set contains all four series (six-episodes each) along with a handful of specials, including the wan finalmento Millennium Edition which does manage to bow out with a face-saving double-twist ending. The show follows a remarkably small handful of characters thru a darkly dyspeptic alternate history (1-Plantagenet, 2-Elizabethan, 3-Regency, 4-WWI) that’s as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish & short’ as any Hobbesian could wish. And, at its best (in series 2,3 & especially 4), often appallingly funny. Just be prepared to wade thru a lot of dialogue that substitutes noise & rudeness for actual humor. You’ll find your own way into its special curmudgeonly delights only to be brought up short by the sheer daring of its breathtaking end. (It’s the final moment you wish M*A*S*H* had dared to do and its serendipitous making is uncovered in one of the set’s Extras.) The truly remarkable cast (Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, et al.) helps you skate past a lot of lame non-sequiturs and, when all else fails. you can marvel at the shockingly skimpy production values. Compared to Series 2, THE HONEYMOONERS looks like Versailles.

*My test paper goes positively purple for YES, MINISTER and YES, PRIME MINISTER.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Looks as destiny, a great theme for Hollywood, gives this Joan Crawford vehicle just the kick she’d been missing in recent pics. (Her M-G-M days were winding down.) Ingrid Bergman had already played this role (back in her Swedish days) about a gang of blackmailers run by a tough, embittered, heavily scarred woman. Her latest target is an unfaithful wife with a husband who just happens to be a leading plastic surgeon. The scam goes wrong, but the doctor is intrigued by this heartless soul with the disfiguring wound and he offers to try and transform her monstrous looks. After a year of painful operations, she’s become a stunning woman, but is her newfound beauty skin-deep or has her character changed? The second half of the film supplies a test when her lover from the bad old days asks for her help. A family fortune is at risk, a child stands between him & an enormous inheritance; and the film lowers its sights for conventional, if effective, melodrama. George Cukor helms with a darkly stylish edge unusual for ‘40s M-G-M (Robert Planck’s lensing is exceptional) and the courtroom flashback structure is handled with real imagination. But once Joan goes into nanny mode, the film shifts to automatic. Producer Victor Saville brings Continental flare to some of the casting choices, but it's Cukor who brings a whiff of depravity to the opening scenes and allows Conrad Veidt’s dangerous lover his head while restraining Crawford's usual make-up & emoting.

CONTEST: Veidt & Crawford reach a turning pont in their relationship in a scene that ends with them laughing hysterically seated on a piano bench. A concept George Cukor must have liked since he used it before . . . and with an actor who appears in this film as half of that earlier duo. Name the player & the film to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Friday, March 5, 2010

HELP! (1965)

The Beatles are just as winning in their sophomore effort as they were in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT the year before. Things Forgotten: Ringo was so much shorter than his band mates. George threw ‘like a girl.’ John still evinced a sunny disposition. Paul barely retains his modesty with the help of a Wrigley’s Gum wrapper. And the songs; except for the title track, they’re all about dating! David Watkin’s color cinematography & those proto-music videos looking lively & fresh in this superb restoration. What a cool chord progression in "You’re Going to Lose that Girl.’ Things Remembered: Richard Lester’s directorial fun & games and the clever ‘mockumentary’ format that gracefully covered up a lot of slapdash in the first film have been feebly replaced with an indigestible jumble of James Bond, GUNGA DIN and THE PINK PANTHER. It hangs like an albatross over the good stuff. If only they had taken the plunge and continued developing the story with scabrous playwright Joe Orton. Oh well, enjoy what’s here and bugger the rest of it. Wait, that’s what got Joe Orton kicked off the project.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Composer Johnny Green, who wrote a magnificent score for Edward Dmytryk’s previous Civil War pic (the doomed RAINTREE COUNTY/’58), all but cold-cocks this one right from the start with a numbingly awful theme song. And that’s a shame because this admittedly workaday production improves as it goes along, helped by the casual approach of its ultra-professional cast & crew. Nobody’s trying to oversell this fact-suggested whopper. William Holden is very effective as an apolitical cattleman who’s just delivered 25,000 head to the Union Army. But these are the desperate final days of the war and he’s kidnapped by a Confederate Colonel (Richard Widmark in an unusually overwrought perf) who’s got a far-fetched idea about rustling up them-there cows, and not a notion on how to do it. The logistics involved making this happen turn out to be a lot more involving than the standard-issue personality clashes the script comes up with, especially when Dmytryk (and his second unit) pull off a stampeding climax that’s sort of a Charge of Heavy Bovine Brigade. It helps make up for the earlier dead spots and those God-Awful overlit interiors that were standard shooting practice back in ‘60s Hollywood. So darn ugly.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: When his career started to wind down in the '70s, Dmytryk started to teach and to write. His auto-bio has an off--putting title (IT'S A HELL OF A LIFE BUT NOT A BAD LIVING), but it's one of the better efforts in this small category. Worth a look, especially for his early days as a film editor in Golden Age Hollywood, his work as a speedy Grade B director @ RKO and his first hand account of the bad old BlackList days.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Typically mordant, surrealist fare from the master, Luis Buñuel. It’s an all but plotless film about an eerie situation that develops following a late-night dinner party. Something is off right from the start, but only the house staff feel it, fleeing the mansion without quite knowing why. It’s not just that sheep & a bear are roaming the halls, nor embarrassed discomfort after the first course crashes to the floor before it’s served. It’s true that small scenes are being inexplicably repeated on screen, but the characters can’t be aware of blips in the linear time sequence. Well, something is in the air when famously, memorably, the evening goes from unsatisfying to calamitous as all twenty guests, plus the butler, find themselves unable (or just unwilling?) to leave the drawing room. For days, for weeks, for . . . ever? In hindsight, this famous film is something of a warm-up for THE DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE/’72, which had all the rich financial & creative resources unavailable to Buñuel on this earlier Mexican production. Yet many artists lessen their achievements with added polish & refinement. How characteristically perverse of Buñuel to reverse this usual artistic equation.

Monday, March 1, 2010


Just as producer Val Lewton was ending his famous series of artsy low-budget thrillers @ RKO, Robert Siodmak came over from Universal Studios to make a new batch of cut-rate Gothic entertainments. This one’s probably the best known, a superbly crafted old-dark-house murder-mystery about a mad-man who’s killing off young, but imperfect women. You know from the start that Dorothy McGuire is at risk since she’s a mute servant girl to George Brent, Gordon Oliver & Rhonda Fleming, members of a dysfunctional family who are waiting for their gruff matriarch to kick off. That’d be Ethel Barrymore who gives one of her toughest, most commanding perfs. Fans of the Lewton unit will be pleased to see many holdovers in cast & crew. (Actors Kent Smith & James Bell, expert noir lenser Nicholas Musuraca, scorer Roy Webb.) And if Lewton’s projects revealed the limitations of an inspired amateur (especially once helmer Jacques Tourneur left him), Siodmak shows the gains & losses of professional polish.