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Friday, August 31, 2012

THE DEBT (2010)

Who knew Israeli Mossad agents were so touchy on their secret missions? Who knew they’d screw things up by secretly screwing? (Oh, those romantic triangles!) Who knew they used scary straight razors on prisoners instead of safe electric models? And who knew they were such big fans of John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62? So nu? John Madden, working far off his fach of civilized literary entertainments, really isn’t the helmer for a tricky spy thriller, especially one with parallel timelines. From the mid-’60s, we follow three Mossad agents as they kidnap a Concentration Camp doctor while simultaneously, in the mid-‘90s, we watch how the same agents were treated as heroes for a job no one knew they botched. The agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds) don’t really match up with their younger selves (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington), but separately the two groups are effective enough, and the situations aren’t without dramatic promise. But the big set pieces, the suspenseful core of the movie, are too messy to follow clearly, never building up the expected suspense. We’re nonplused when we should be biting our nails. And the convenient trick ending is mighty hard to swallow.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: THE DEBT is a remake of a 2007 Israeli pic of the same name (not seen here). Why not check out another LIBERTY VALANCE influenced pic by, of all people, Bernardo Bertolucci, based on a story by, of all people, Jorge Luis Borges! It’s THE SPIDER’S STRATAGEM/’70, a tale of a patriot’s son who returns home to discover that his late father may not have been the great heroic figure everyone always said he was. Bertolucci tips his hand to the Ford pic not only by showing ‘what really happened,’ but also by having Dad’s old compatriots play themselves in the flashbacks. So, just like James Stewart, John Wayne & Co., everyone’s about thirty years too old. Bertolucci, being European, uses this as a Brechtian devise, to distance us; Ford, being American curmudgeon, never acknowledges what he’s up to.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

LADY FOR A DAY (1933)

As Frank Capra noted in his auto-bio, his career divides neatly into before MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN/’36, and after. And while the post-DEEDS films are now more famous, sad the film maven who ignores the ones made ‘before.’ IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34, of course; but also those early Barbara Stanwyck pics; the nearly lost horse-racing drama BROADWAY BILL/’34*; AMERICAN MADNESS/’32, a topical bank-run tale that helped changed the pace of American cinema; and this blissful dramedy from the GUYS AND DOLLS world of Damon Runyon. It’s an amazingly confident piece of work (especially coming from poverty row Columbia Studios), about Apple Annie, a street-wise charity case who’s the good luck charm of Broadway racketeer Dave The Dude. But Annie’s in a jam. Her sweet, young daughter thinks Annie's a rich dowager, and now the kid’s bringing her fiancé & prospective father-in-law to town to meet her. The complications make for one of the most perfectly structured comedies in American cinema, thanks largely to Capra’s regular scripter Robert Riskin. And that’s Capra’s regular cinematographer, the great Joseph Walker, making it all shimmer with the widest of grey scales in the stunning restoration on a new Inception DVD. When Capra’s really cooking, he gives good weight in every category, comedy, sentiment & suspense all working together. Plus, a cast of flavorful wiseguys rising to the occasion with pool hustler Guy Kibbee & a hilariously dour Ned Sparks as stand outs. May Robson makes Annie less of a dear and much rawer than you expect, while Warren William’s smoothly attractive Dave the Dude is Sky Masterson & Nathan Detroit rolled into one.**

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Capra’s final pic was a largely miscast, unhappy remake of this classic. Earlier, Capra had slightly better luck redoing BROADWAY BILL as the semi-musical RIDING HIGH/’50 for Bing Crosby & Jane Wyman. (That’s when B’WAY BILL got so hard to find.) Capra musicalized the wrong film, LADY would have been the natural choice. What an Apple Annie Angela Lansbury might have made a decade back. With a Jerry Herman score?

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Joseph McBride’s FRANK CAPRA: The Catastrophe of Success goes very hard on Capra (and the Capra myth). But when read alongside Capra’s own THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE (which McBride is ‘shocked, shocked’ to find self-serving), you get a pretty good feel for the man, his work & his times.

DOUBLE-BILL: ** Warren Williams came darn close to breaking out as a major star in '34, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in both CLEOPATRA and IMITATION OF LIFE. But it never took hold for him.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (1955)

After splitting with M-G-M, his home studio for more than two decades, Clark Gable moved to 20th/Fox for this overseas adventure (‘the CinemaScope camera takes you to Hong Kong!’) & a Western follow-up, THE TALL MEN/’55. Both were shot by Leo Tover, but for some reason, SOLDIER's print quality is much the fresher of the two in their recent DVD restoration. And a good thing, since in every other way, this is the less interesting project. A standard issue rescue tale, it stars Susan Hayward as a stubborn wife who falls hard for Gable’s shady expatriate businessman who she reluctantly hires when her journalist hubby (Gene Barry) goes missing in mainland China. Hayward, not quite ‘hubba-hubba’ enough to pull off the part, did all her shooting in Hollywood, but everyone else is really in Hong Kong, at least for the exteriors. Edward Dmytrk, who did his best work earlier in his career helming modest noirs, keeps things moving confidently, if without too much excitement. But he’s stuck with Ernest Gann’s adaptation of his own novel which never takes more than one step at a time. Gene Barry’s captors are a tame & slow-moving bunch, and poor Michael Rennie’s British liaison officer might as well have been abducted since he disappears for most of the pic. (Too much competition for the aging Gable?) Worst of all are some excruciating scenes in an 'ex-pat' Irish Pub. Dmytrk appears to have shot these scenes with his eyes closed. And who’s to blame him.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: From the same year, John Wayne’s anti-Commie Chinese adventure BLOOD ALLEY, helmed by Wm Wellman & co-starring Lauren Bacall, has a lot more juice to it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

FLUSHED AWAY (2006)

You miss the tactile touch of the plasticine models from the very first shot in this computer animated feature from the good folks @ Aardman, home of Wallace, Gromit and CHICKEN RUN/’00. But once the company severed ties with Dreamworks Animation, after this feature underperformed @ the box-office, Aardman quickly went ‘back to the future’ with their mischievous kiddie-fare series, SHAUN THE SHEEP/’07, telltale fingerprints & all. On this big-budget feature, you can almost feel the creative staff catering to ‘story notes’ (real or imagined) from Dreamworks’ honcho Jeffrey (the Shrek-meister) Katzenberg, pushing for a more frenetic pace & pointless pop references. Not that FLUSHED is without its delights. Though it never leaves London-town, this is basically a variation on the city mouse/country mouse fable, with a decidedly bland set-up (with echoes of HOME ALONE and TOY STORY) & even blander main characters. (The underground mini-city that exists just past the sewer is no MuchkinLand of possibilities, either.) But the animators make things work anyway, getting plenty of solid laughs out of the frog & slug chorus lines. And, bonus points to Ian McKellen who makes the evil toad mastermind a wicked vocal impersonation of Simon Callow at his most orotund. (They even gave Callow ‘Special Thanks’ in the end credits. For being a good sport?)

DOUBLE-BILL: The relatively simple pixilated animation of SHAUN THE SHEEP (see above) were made for the less demanding technical specifications of broadcast tv, but neither that, nor their short running times (about 8 minutes each) make them any less enjoyable. (And the farmer’s dog, obviously a close relative of Gromit, is almost as remarkable an actor.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

DESPAIR (1978)

If you kill your doppelgänger, is it murder . . . or suicide? That’s the overriding issue of this artfully rendered, if perplexing, film from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, working off a Tom Stoppard adaptation of a Vladimir Nabokov novel. It’s just the sort of posh international production Fassbinder might have stuck with had he been able to slow down and stop churning out his more modest film projects & mini-series. He wrote & directed more than 45 titles in little over a decade. In theory, this ‘difficult,’ often beautiful, art film should answer some questions about Fassbinder quality vs Fassbinder quantity, but his pluses & minuses don’t rise & fall in relation to budget & production schedules. They all just seem to happen at once. Here, Dirk Bogarde stars as a German-based chocolate manufacturer whose life is falling apart just as the Nazis rise to power. Desperate to get away from an unfaithful wife & his all-consuming business, he plans to disappear. What a pity that no one else sees much of a similarity between Bogarde & his chosen doppelgänger. The bare bones of the plot only hint at the tone & texture in this art house extravaganza, but Fassbinder probably erred in casting Bogarde, good as he is, in a role that constantly calls to mind his classic portrayal of Aschenbach in Visconti’s DEATH IN VENICE/’71. More morbidity is just what this pic doesn’t need. Stoppard’s script is also problematic, never quite deciding whether or not to clarify Nabokov’s themes & storyline. But physically, the film has come up beautifully in Michael Ballhaus’s recent restoration. Those mauve chocolate labels are really something. Something awful!

CONTEST: When Bogarde goes to watch a silent movie (still possible in the early '30s), Fassbinder makes a technical error in presentation. Catch the gaffe to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)

Clint Eastwood took a smart gamble on this quirky caper pic, giving the reins to newbie writer/director Michael Cimino. Handsomely shot & well-acted, but already showing the unearned grandiosity that would sabotage his career, Cimino immediately establishes a nice rhythm in this buddy/buddy tale of young drifter Jeff Bridges (in blue socks & magically dirt-resistant, hitched-up white slacks) and on-the-lam bank robber Clint Eastwood, hiding as a traveling preacher when not being chased by ex-partner George Kennedy. Moving north thru a series of escapades & tight escapes, Cimino puts too much eccentric whimsy into every character. But once all the boys gather to restage an old robbery, there’s nobody left to introduce, and the film gains real suspense & excitement. Cimino brings off some big set pieces like a pro, cars & gun play are no problem, but he can’t get his angles to work on a simple fist fight . . . or a bit of sexual horseplay. Which brings up the odd preponderance of homosexual flirtation between Bridges & Eastwood. Platonic buddy/buddy relationships are a staple in this genre, but Bridges goes much farther here, leaning in as if hoping for a kiss, showing off his healthy hetero ways with too much bravado, sharing post-caper cigars with Clint like some post-coital ritual. And Cimino works up the angle, too, needlessly dressing Bridges in drag (fetching drag at that) for his part of the caper and remembering that Shakespeare used the phrase ‘to die’ as a reference to sexual orgasm.* The film’s no classic, but who’d have guessed its promise would turn so empty so fast for its writer/director.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Bridges, who is just fantastic here, is obviously aware of the gay angle, but did Eastwood get the memo? (And did he check out the poster?!-see above) Perhaps, like Charlton Heston in BEN-HUR (to a jilted Stephen Boyd) or like Ralph Richardson’s Othello to Larry Olivier’s Iago, they didn’t let Clint in on the underlying motivation. Howard Hawks’ buddy/buddy relationship stories are full of this stuff, and never more so than in THE BIG SKY/’52 with Kirk Douglas & Dewey Martin.

WINNIE THE POOH (2011)

The A. A. Milne estate was very reluctant to deal out animation rights on WINNIE THE POOH to Disney, or to anyone. And this spanking new mediocrity certainly shows why. The Disney POOH shorts from the ‘60s & ‘70s managed to be both gentle & respectful, teasing out playful visual conceits by locating the famous ‘100 acre woods’ right on the pages and even inside the print of the books. That idea is superficially continued here, but you can see by checking out the snippet from Wolfgang Reitherman’s original animated adaptation*, seen here with a new soundtrack as a three-minute ‘Mini-Adventure’ extra, that the remarkable feeling for graphite line & airy watercolor wash has been smoothed over and super-saturated for the new product line. To say nothing of a dumbed-down storyline suitable as babysitting fodder. No wonder the feature, less its hefty credit sequence, runs under an hour. Jim Cummings does double-duty recreating the voices of Sterling Holloway’s Pooh & Paul Winchell’s Tigger, but only Craig Ferguson brings anything fresh to the party as Owl. Especially in a half-reel fandango about a mythical beast called a ‘Backson’ which swaps out the original book illustrations (a springboard for the old team, a straitjacket for the new) to work up a variation on the old ‘Pink Elephants’ numbo from DUMBO/’41, which just happens to be the all-time favorite cartoon feature of Disney/Pixar animation head John Lassiter.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: So many perennials and so many dramatizations from a single time & place: THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS; those teeny Beatrix Potter books, POOH, PETER PAN, DOCTOR DOLITTLE, ALICE IN WONDERLAND. What a era for Children’s Literature the turn-of-the-last-century was in Britain. Here’s a picture of the original stuffed toys, given to the New York Public Library by the original Christopher Robin. Long held @ the Donnell Branch, they’re currently in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at least while the Donnell is under (de)construction.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *The Reitherman shorts have been collected under the title THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH/’77.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

THE TALL MEN (1955)

By the time Clark Gable & Raoul Walsh got together for three films in the mid-‘50s, they were running on fumes, especially Raoul. It turned their second & third collaborations into snoozes, but here the casual helming from an increasingly disinterested Walsh gives this standard issue cattle-drive Western a relaxed quality that feels just about right.* Gable and kid brother Cameron Mitchell are a couple of Civil War vets gone bad. They’re all set to rob Robert Ryan when their victim offers up an opportunity instead of a money bag. Drop the stick ups and take charge of the huge herd of cattle Ryan wants to move from Texas to Montana. Along the way, they pick up feisty Jane Russell and wind up fighting over her, a big outfit of cattle marauders & most of the Sioux Nation on the trip back North. The scale of the production scale is huge, but just about everything else is pretty basic with a tone light enough to let Russell sing a bit & show off her spectacular curves in a corset as a chain of none too surprising story points play out. The current DVD looks a bit dull in the first half, but improves noticeably once we hit the trail. And a triple twist ending winds things up in a quick, satisfying fashion. Sometimes a lack of artistic ambition is just the ticket for an old fogey Hollywood vet.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The late Westerns of Howard Hawks, like his underrated EL DORADO/’66, cultivate a similar ‘strolling’ quality. And this film’s producer turns out to be Howard’s kid brother William Hawks.

DOUBLE-BILL: Compare this drive North with Walsh’s early-Talkie drive West in his static, but handsome 70mm THE BIG TRAIL/’30 with young John Wayne in buckskin.

Friday, August 24, 2012

GONE BABY GONE (2007)

After a run of bad acting gigs, Ben Affleck rebooted his career, writing & megging this well-received missing-child detective yarn. Considering all the positive buzz, it didn’t exactly light up the box-office, and you’ll see why. It’s a lousy story. Casey Affleck, who can’t quite work up the energy to clear his throat, is a small-time private dick who works cases with his g’friend (Michelle Monaghan). Shy of experience, they’re an unlikely hire when a cute 4 yr-old girl goes missing, a high profile case with lots of cops & press. The trail starts at home, with the kid’s drug-addled mom and her various low-life associates. Affleck uses some local connections to get a leg up, and quickly gloms onto a couple of savvy cops who are working the case, an excellent John Ashton and Ed Harris who seems to have stolen Aidan Quinn’s voice, gestures & hair. The story resolves itself three or four times, presumably following the structure of Dennis Lehane’s novel, using up more red herrings than an Agatha Christie Poirot, while laying the ‘Baahston’ atmosphere on with a trowel. But no amount obfuscation can turn a final charge of child abduction, multiple murder (including a police officer) and a near drowning into much of a moral conundrum. Are we visiting Boston or Chinatown? And while an early action sequence is shot & edited to be an indecipherable mess on purpose, that’s no excuse for the other set pieces in the pic.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Affleck’s follow up, THE TOWN/’10, though also overrated, was a significant step up.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

CALL OF THE WILD (1935)

Jack London’s famous title has been trotted out four or five times, but has anyone actually filmed its story? This very loose adaptation has tough guy Clark Gable betting & losing everything he’s slaved for before partnering up with ex-con Jack Oakie to find a secret Yukon gold mine. On the way, they grab a big, strong pooch named Buck & a dainty, impeccably made-up lady named Loretta Young. (Gable seems quite torn between these two, but the dog keeps you warmer at night.) Young was also looking for that mine, but lost her husband on the snowy trip. Meanwhile, dastardly prospector Reginald Owen not only wants to put a claim on the mine, he also wants revenge against the dog! You don’t expect a lot of surprises with this kind of set up, but everything went a little screwy in the third act. A character played by Katherine DeMille disappeared entirely (look at the end credits under Marie) and Jack Oakie incurs no bad luck after his dice come up ‘snake eyes.’ (This switcheroo actually throws his whole perf off since it offers nothing dramatic to balance against his light-hearted mugging.) Even the Young/Gable relationship takes an odd turn you didn’t expect. Helmer William Wellman must have thrown a fit at all the changes, a reel & a half tossed aside. Another director might have found something refreshing in how these abrupt changes moved things away from business as usual, but Wellman just throws in the towel with a lousy final gag that’s feels both jerry-rigged and distasteful. Too bad, scene by scene, there’s some nice stuff in here, with well-matched studio mock-ups against the handsome location stuff. That mountain stream Gable & Young wade into looks FREEZING cold.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While various bios note the affair Young & Gable had during the shoot (she split for Europe and returned with an ‘adopted’ daughter), they rarely note that Young got Gable ‘on the rebound’ after ending a devastating affair with Spencer Tracy while making MAN’S CASTLE/’33. How many married men did the ultra-religious Young fall for?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

COLD WEATHER (2010)

Writer/megger Aaron Katz pushes the ‘mumblecore’ envelope, adding the suggestion of a genre plot to the usual navel-gazing slackers that populate these ultra-low budget affairs. Playing out like a cross between a mystery/thriller & a shaggy-dog story, three pals from Portland (natch) run interference (in a highly laid-back manner) when an ex-girlfriend, back in town from big, bad Chicago, goes missing along with a company briefcase loaded with contraband McGuffin. Katz pulls off some neat, nearly abstract suspense maneuvers, often only showing one side of the ‘action,’ and the thing is basically harmless enough. But the life-style details of stunted early adulthood in the NorthWest have been masticated to death in similar fest-ready pics while the mystery/thriller elements come off as half-hearted goofs on secret codes & surveillance snacking. For those who like this sort of thing . . . this is the sort of thing they’ll like; others may be less forgiving.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While the internet struggles to find a financial model to support the mumblecore movement, the films seem to be falling fast from favor with just a few breakout writers & performers moving on up. But really good zero budget pics get made all around the world all the time. And, blessedly, without the note of self-congratulation that sticks to too many that earn the Sundance seal of approval.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Take two Ari Kaurismaki DVDs and call me in the morning. For a fair comparison, stick to his modest early work, say ARIEL/’88 or THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL/’90.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

ELEPHANT BOY (1937)

An enchantment. It’s easy to see how the world fell for Sabu, the orphaned Indian boy who made his debut in this neat adaptation of Kipling’s short story. Along with his bull elephant, Sabu signs up with his father & a team of locals to search the jungle for elephant herds, led by a great white hunter. (Allergic to British Raj stories? The non-PC factor is pretty low here.) Naturally, dangers & hardships are encountered, but Sabu has been told that if he sees the elephants dance, he’ll be reckoned a true hunter, like his father & father’s father. Documentarian Robert Flaherty (of NANOOK OF THE NORTH/’22 fame) had failed to complete two previous mainstream collaborations (WHITE SHADOWS IN THE SOUTH SEAS/’28 w/ Woody Van Dyke and TABU/’31 w/ F. W. Murnau), but he & Zoltan Korda worked on the same wave length, sharing a romanticized naturalism along with a love of location shooting. Spliced together, the slightly choppy quality of mixed footage only increases the general feeling of verisimilitude. You can feel how hard this was to get on film, now all the more precious & poignant with the loss of so much Indian wildlife. There are more elephants in some shots than survive in all of India. And now that Criterion has restored the Sabu/Vincent Korda productions, you can really see them. Sabu learned his part phonetically, and his speech can be a little difficult to understand, but he’d never be so unimaginably pure again, with triumphs & tragedies that can still make your heart swell.

DOUBLE-BILL: For another fictional jungle adventure shot with a documentarian’s tools, you can’t beat Cooper & Schoeodsack’s CHANG/’27. (Look for the Milestone DVD.) It’s also a great intro to silent pics. Or try the other great Kipling pics of 1937: WEE WILLIE WINKIE from that most unexpected filmmaking duo - John Ford & Shirley Temple! (Warning: lots of hearty British Raj stuff in this one.) Or Victor Fleming’s masterful CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS with Spencer Tracy & Master Freddie Bartholomew breaking all hearts.

Monday, August 20, 2012

SWEET CHARITY (1969)

Something of a late ‘60s time capsule (for better & for worse), Bob Fosse’s directing debut came close to ending his film career. It sure threw Shirley MacLaine for a loop, downsizing her to tv before she took a five year sabbatical. Whatever happened? Fosse had a big B’way success on this adaptation of Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA/’57 that turned Giulietta Masini’s too-trusting tart into an NYC taxi-dancer, giving his fabulous wife, Gwen Verdon, the lead. (Tantalizing, incomplete clips of her in ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ are on YOUTUBE.) But on this first pic, Fosse tries too hard to make everything ‘filmic’ and New Wavy, with zoomy zooms, reversed footage, daft angles and Sammy Davis, Jr., all in those day-glo period colors & costumes. Worse, in the age of the RoadShow movie-musical, even a family unfriendly production was expected to come in two sizes too large & 40 minutes too long. Shirley MacLaine gives it her all; that’s a problem, too. Her natural kook routine had hardened into a commodity and she never developed the musical-comedy ‘chops’ to reenforce her instinctual gifts. Maybe if Fosse had some idea of where to plant the camera, he might have run cover for her. But can' find a decent angle until well into the second half, leaving her horribly exposed. Check out the little subway scene between MacLaine & her nice boy friend to see the difference a couple of good camera placements can make. Then Fosse tosses in another needless large-scale production number that ignores his principals, leaving them, and us, stranded. On stage, this gave Gwen a breathing break; on screen, it’s what you leave on the cutting room floor.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Future star spotters can find early appearances from Ben Vereen (dancing in ‘Rich Man’s Frug,’ one of those good, but dispensable numbers) and the remarkably open face of young Bud Cort, playing a Flower Child. Best of all, at least for B’way mavens, is a chance to see WEST SIDE STORY’s original Anita, Chita Rivera, stealing every bit of ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ which Fosse seems to have modeled on Jerome Robbins’ choreography for ‘America.’ Chita not only outdances co-stars MacLaine &; Paula Kelly, but also any memory of Rita Moreno playing her part in the movie version of WSS.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA/’57, with Mrs. Fellini, Giulietta Masini.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976)

There wasn’t much love lost between Marlon Brando and co-star Jack Nicholson (or his director Arthur Penn) on this one. A hipster Western by anti-establishmentarianist Thomas McGuane, Nicholson’s horse thief is meant to gain our rooting interest against the capitalist rancher & against Brando’s ‘regulator,’ the film’s anarchistic angel of death. Jack found acting against a legend who used cue cards instead of learning lines unnerving, and Penn found his own authority constantly questioned by a portly icon who hid behind bubble baths and a roving Irish accent. Or so went the buzz at the time. But there’s method to Brando’s madness. He wasn’t simply spoiling a trendy counter-culture Western, timed for the 1976 bicentennial, he was blowing it up, deconstructing tropes for fun and profit. He couldn’t quite pull it off, the set-up works largely against him and roots for rising star Nicholson. But in his first outing since the one-two commercial/critical punch of 1972's LAST TANGO IN PARIS and THE GODFATHER, Brando figured he could do pretty much whatever he wanted to do. Alas, after this, what he wanted to do was sell out. For the record, there’s a fine perf from Harry Dean Stanton as Nicholson’s senior partner in stolen horse flesh; a painfully inadequate one from Kathleen Lloyd as Jack’s love interest, the rancher’s free-spirited daughter; and an odd John Williams’ score that brings back the larky mode he used for THE REIVERS/’69. Not great, but a step up from those trendy out-of-focus foreground dandelions seen in Michael Butler’s groovy lensing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Arthur Penn’s rep never quite recovered from this; only four more pics (all failures) over the next four decades. His calling cards pics (THE MIRACLE WORKER/’62, BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67, LITTLE BIG MAN/’70) are more honored than watched, yet the film he made just before this, NIGHT MOVES/’75, is something of a revelation. One that sadly was smothered by misguided comparisons with Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION/’74 which shared leading man Gene Hackman.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

HELVETICA (2007)

A font freak’s delight! Gary Hustwit’s smartly handled documentary is both a celebration and a skeptical look at the dominant typeface of modernism, the one with the cool, clean design that’s made it our default font. Paradoxically bold & neutral, it’s a graphic design element that’s of our time & timeless. The interviewees, a pleasingly motley crew, don’t bury us with workshop jargon, using a focus that’s broad enough to cover a world’s worth of signage and narrow enough to explain the tiny variables that can affect popular reactions, irregardless of what the text is actually saying. The battle between HELVETICA boosters & naysayers isn’t exactly evenhanded, the negative spinsters put too much faith in ‘70s Pop-Rock album covers and the unreadable mixed fonts of alternative magazines, items that have dated with alarming speed. Still, there’s more fonts than can be found in this film’s philosophy.PAPYRUS, anyone?

 SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Ubiquitous as it undoubtedly is, does anyone dream in Helvetica?

Friday, August 17, 2012

CIMARRON (1930)

Along with C. B. De Mille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH/’52 and AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS/’56, this early Western ‘Talkie’ always places near the top of those snarky Oscar's ‘worst’ Best Pic lists. And while it’s hard to defend EIGHTY DAYS (though the original 30 fps Todd-A.O. prints must have been something to see), the other two cornball epics are basically irresistible. Helmer Wesley Ruggles gets right to it, opening with a spectacular 1889 Oklahoma Territory land rush, then plowing forward in a surprisingly successful attempt to cram in most of novelist’s Edna Ferber’s usual over-stuffed multi-generational narrative. The characters are cut from the same cloth used in SHOW BOAT*, written just before this, so naturally Irene Dunne (fresh from touring in that musical) and that great eccentric Edna May Oliver, the original Parthy on B’way, take on similar parts. (Oliver is consistently hilarious while Dunne’s role also parallels the citified girl with racist attitudes who falls for a burly Westerner that Liz Taylor played in George Stevens’ ponderously self-important Ferber adaptation, GIANT/’56.) These two, along with George E. Stone, as a sympathetic Jewish merchant (Ferber’s portrait of her own dad), already evince performing styles perfectly suited for the still-new sound process. But just about everyone else, including stentorian lead Richard Dix, declaim in stiff early-Talkie style. Yet, the antique nature of the filmmaking (the production is physically stupendous), and the struggle to hit a more modern cinematic presentation, plays right into the themes at the heart of Ferber’s tall-tale, the growth of Statehood & civilization vs the wanderlust of the adventurers who got us there; along with Ferber’s interest in Native American rights. (It was African-American rights in SHOW BOAT and would morph into Mexican-American rights in GIANT.) Ferber always massages her stories one generation past the bursting point, and this one could use a hefty snip in act three. But in its endearingly clumsy fashion, it’s holds up as big, juicy, honestly corny entertainment.

DOUBLE-BILL: While CIMARRON cleaned up at the Box-Office and at award time, Raoul Walsh’s big 70mm Western from the same year, THE BIG TRAIL flopped, sending new star John Wayne into Poverty Row purgatory for a decade before John Ford rescued him (and to some extent the entire Western genre) with STAGECOACH/’39.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *And the publisher bragged about the similarities.  (See book ad.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

RECKLESS (1935)

Of the eleven pics David O Selznick produced under father-in-law L. B. Mayer during his unhappy two-year stint @ M-G-M, two flopped, eight came out well, and this one just came out. It sounds like a sure thing, and it made some bucks, but something went seriously wrong. Designed as a Joan Crawford vehicle (B’way musical star marries a self-destructive charmer, but soon returns to the stage & the arms of her old mentor), the package was refitted for Jean Harlow with Victor Fleming helming his third Harlow pic, and Franchot Tone & William Powell as the friendly rivals. But the ramshackle story is a mess with Act One drowning in whimsy; Act Two building up an oddly compelling hard romantic veneer (with all three stars lowering their guard*); then an abbreviated Act Three wrapping things up without a shred of conviction or believability, as if everyone had had enough of the thing. A couple of huge, lumbering musical numbers are thrown in, so we get a snatch of Harlow singing & dancing before her doubles take over. (Watch close during an impromptu number at Roz Russell’s wedding for a fancy optical ‘swap out.’) But this one’s a miss . . . and a waste.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Fleming &; Harlow show their stuff (and how!) in RED DUST/’32 and BOMBSHELL/’33.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Where does this fascinating middle section come from? It’s as if F. Scott Fitzgerald, who worked @ M-G-M a few years before and after this film, had shown up with story notes. It makes the whole film worth watching.

CONTEST: What’s the link between Rosalind Russell in this pic and in her most iconic role? Name the link and the other film title to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

KES (1969)

After projects for the BBC, indie filmmaker Ken Loach stepped up to features with this remarkable work, an utterly convincing & memorable portrait of a Northern England coal-mining town (Yorkshire), and specifically a directionless working-class kid who finds & trains a kestrel, a sort of small hawk or falcon. 15 years old, and the runt of his class at school, his success with ‘Kes’ brings him a sense of purpose & personal worth, a feeling he keeps bottled up from his distant mum, his mean-spirited older brother and his classmates. At least, he does until one thrilling moment, one of the great scenes in British cinema, when he opens up in front of his class thanks to a tough, but sympathetic teacher. But his breakthrough will be short lived. Cast largely with non-professionals locals, Loach coaxes a series of one-of-a-kind character perfs that are terrifying & hilarious in a manner Charles Dickens would have appreciated. (Young David (Dai) Bradley as the boy and the school staff are particular wonders.) Criterion has beautifully restored the natural look & lovely grain in the atmospheric lensing of Chris Menges and there are English subtitles for Stateside viewers who will find the dialect, slang & mumbles of the territory all but indecipherable.

SCREWY  THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The acting is so remarkably loose & natural, it makes you wonder why modern self-indulgent Method Acting styles are considered in any way, shape or form realistic.

DOUBLE-BILL: François Truffaut’s SMALL CHANGE/’76 brings a Gallic joie de vivre to its essentially happy portrait of French small-town kids. Where Loach devastates, Truffaut’s cast, raised in sunshine instead of by the coal pits, can honestly end their story with a smooch.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

DOCTOR DOLITTLE (1967)

The original Hugh Lofting novels have recently been re-released with ‘pruned’ texts to reflect modern sensitivities; the off-hand racism of WWI-era Britain could be fierce. If only this ten-ton musical could be ‘fixed’ as easily, though 'political correctness' is the least of its problems. Lofting’s early stories about the good doctor who talks to the animals were written as letters from ‘the front’ to his children, and their rural charm echoes Kenneth Grahame’s THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS and anticipates James Herriot’s ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL. Alas, this film was made in the wake of the mega-success of THE SOUND OF MUSIC/’65 and designed as a great, big RoadShow event with Overture, Intermission & Soundtrack tie-in. (“Doomed before they even take the vow,’ as Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins said in MY FAIR LADY/’64 before he got tapped to play & talk/sing Dolittle.) Composer, lyricist, scripter Leslie Bricusse deserves most of the blame for his generic tunes & hopelessly unfocused storyline, but producer Arthur Jacobs & megger Richard Fleischer must have known what they were getting into. At least, musical stager Herbert Ross finds a modest vein of enthusiasm when Richard Attenborough & his circus show up. The song he gets is perfectly dreadful, but Ross finds a lovely solo spot for Dickie right at the end. In fact, Attenborough looks far more like the Dolittle seen in the book illustrations, but Rex, to his credit, brings remarkable conviction & his devilish charm to an impossible role. (He even gets the film’s one great shot. Look sharp, he’s riding a giraffe and it lasts about a second.) Other than that, you can wonder at Anthony Newley’s unique vocal delivery as an Irish sidekick and note how the script changes its mind about pairing him up with Samantha Eggar’s proto-feminist. She prefers the elderly Rex while Newley, recalling his Artful Dodger in David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST/’48, buds up with Master William Dix, a little blond tyke who inexplicably tags along.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The best reason for watching this is as background to THE STUDIO, John Gregory Dunne’s classic inside look @ 20th/Fox over the course of the disastrous year of 1967.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who died at the young age of 51 in 1973, must have the oddest C.V. in the biz, alternating flop, family-friendly musicals like this, GOODBYE, MR CHIPS/’69, TOM SAWYER/’73, HUCKLEBERRY FINN/’74 with the original PLANET OF THE APES pics . . . plus, Woody Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN SAM/’72.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

NANIWA EREJI / OSAKA ELEGY (1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi found his great subject in this modern story about a high-spirited office girl who sabotages her own prospects to get her father out of debt & to raise tuition expenses for her brother. The theme, also seen in his period pieces, boils down to the limited choices for women in Japanese society*, but even this contemporary tale finds Isuzu Yamada’s character with few options beyond agreeing to live as her boss’s mistress, and to suffer the social consequences. Too ashamed (or is it proud?) to reveal her reasons, she is despised at home, despised in society (even her headdress singles her out as living a sham life), and eventually despised by the young man she should have married. (A sequence involving the police is almost too painful to watch.) The film gets off to a bumpy start, switching in a confusing manner from the girls’s home, the boss’s home and life at the office in an abrupt fashion that is likely the fault not of Mizoguchi, but of lost footage. (The original running time may have been 90 minutes, which means two reels of material has gone missing.) But once the relationships become clear, the missing footage & spotty look fade away while Mizoguchi’s strengths come into focus. Later films would add dramatic & visual nuance, but his feminist slant is already firmly in place and devastatingly effective.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *This is the earliest Mizoguchi available, so we have to make assumptions about his first dozen films . . . and put our faith in the error-prone hands of IMDb & Wikipedia. Yikes!

DOUBLE-BILL: Criterion has this in a 4-film Mizoguchi set called FALLEN WOMEN, but the swinging big band music that plays under the credits triggers thoughts of Hollywood where Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck would have snagged the lead. Try Stanwyck in an early (pre-Populist) Frank Capra pic like FORBIDDEN/’32. Or maybe Davis as a principled street walker who also sacrifices for family in MARKED WOMAN/’37. It’s very melodramatic, in the usual Warners manner, but with a great last shot not so different from Mizoguchi’s here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

DRIVE (2011)

This existential action/thriller from Nicolas Winding Refn tries too hard to be cool, it’s more like a fashion layout from the editors of VOGUE (circa late ‘70s) than the abstract L.A. noir it strives to be.* And while it’s glossy fun for a while, Refn loses control in the third act, with unintentional laughs & action sequences that play out like one of those glitzy internet serial car commercials. Ryan Gosling, with a slow-mo puppy-dog face for every occasion (check out the priceless puss he puts on after bashing in a henchman’s head) is the professional driver who does movie stunts & crime runs without breaking a sweat. But when he goes all sentimental for the gal down the hall, the one with the cute kid & the ex-con hubby . . . well, no good deed goes unpunished. Soon, the little robbery that was supposed to settle all the old scores pulls in a million bucks of mob money, and everybody’s a target. Gosling gets heaps of sexy rapport with two-timing Christina Hendricks in a small role, but nothing with co-star Carey Mulligan playing the blond good girl. And, in spite of mucho hype, the dark turns from mob partners Ron Perlman & Albert Brooks come off as stunt casting.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Of course, there’s more to the movies than being cool. But if you want to be cool, the first rule is: Don’t try to be cool . . . or, at least, don’t let 'em see you trying.   Ergo:

  • Godard/Belmondo/BREATHLESS/’60 - Cool;

  • McBride/Gere/BREATHLESS/’83 - Trying to be Cool. Or -

  • Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s GET SHORTY/95 - Cool;

  • It’s sequel BE COOL/’05 - Misnamed.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: When it comes to sentimental hoods who put their lives on the line for a nice lady, it’s tough to top Max Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT/’49. Alas, it’s not on DVD. But you can see the sort of lone-wolf abstraction Gosling might be capable of in one of the classic Alain Delon/Jean-Pierre Melville collaborations. Try LE SAMOURAÏ/’67 or LE CERCLE ROUGE/’70.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fans of this should see Michael Mann’s THIEF/’81 and Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER/’78 which are both on the same wave-length.

Friday, August 10, 2012

POLITIST, ADJECTIV / POLICE, ADJECTIVE (2009)

Award-winning Romanian film, written & helmed by Corneliu Porumboiu, walks in lockstep with a young detective as he pieces together a weak case against a highschool kid who’s been sharing hashish with a couple of friends. Technically, it’s dealing; he could get seven years. So, wouldn’t justice be better served by tracking down his source rather than screwing up three young lives for an infraction that’s not even a crime in the rest of the E.U.? Shot in a handsome minimalist style (you’ll find more edits in the trailer than in the film itself), and with many scenes playing out in ‘real’ time, we’ve got space to mull over police ethics & the glacial pace of change in the post-Soviet environment. This naturalist beat places the film firmly in the art-house category, but the pace is easy to adjust to while the characters constantly surprise us with intellectual depth (the film’s satisfying climax ignores guns & chases for semantics) and there are traces of humor as dark & complex as high-end baking chocolate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1952)

While HIGH NOON usually gets credit (or is it blame?) for starting the trend for ubiquitous story ballads in Westerns, this Fritz Lang pic, released a few months earlier, already offers a wallapollooza of the form. Just when we start adjusting to the stylistic hurdles of Lang’s peculiar take on the genre, our singing narrator starts crooning about ‘HATE, MURDER and REVENGE,’ releasing unintentional giggles all over the place. It all started when the fiance of cowpoke Arthur Kennedy was left dying & defiled in a robbery gone wrong. Soon, he’s paired up with Mel Ferrer’s outlaw, hoping this bad man will lead him to Marlene Dietrich’s secret hideout. That’s where he thinks he’ll find the villain. Fairly standard doings in this Daniel Taradash script. But unlike Lang’s earlier Westerns, made under Darryl Zanuck’s watchful eye @ 20th/Fox, this was a Howard Hughes production, with a tight budget that found Lang mixing natural locations with unnatural studio mock-ups, a NeverNeverLand closer to the made-up West of German novelist Karl May than reality. (Hughes also may have hacked away at Lang’s preferred cut.) With acting & camera set-ups that emphasize a static relationship between objects & people, and brief tics of violence always threatening to erupt, the film needed to be ‘all of a piece’ to come off. But the tone is wildly inconsistent, which makes it hard to find a way in. Especially with that darn song popping up at just the wrong moment.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lenser Hal Mohr last worked with Dietrich when she played Frenchy in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN/’39. This time out, Frenchy is the name of Mel Ferrer’s character. And damned if he doesn’t get all the glamor treatment. Marlene was not amused.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two years on, Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR/’54 doubled down on this film’s artificiality, with lots of help from the good folks @ TruColor processing; and a superlative score (with a delish title song worth all the ubiquity) from Victor Young, sung by Peggy Lee.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953)

Of the three Japanese masters who jointly made their belated entry on the international film market in the 1950s (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi), Kenji Mizoguchi is usually considered the toughest nut for a Western audience to crack. But while there’s nothing particularly off-putting or difficult about this ghost-ridden fable of two couples riding out the interminable civil wars of feudal-era Japan, the distinctive tone can jar. Two neighboring farmers, one an artistically gifted potter with a son and the other his occasional assistant, try to take financial advantage of the conflict by firing a batch of earthenware before the warring armies march thru. Leaving behind his wife & young son, the potter heads to the big city to sell his work, along with his assistant (who is mad to join the wars as a samurai) and his wife who is an expert oarsperson. The men each find their own personal traps, putting wealth or glory above family duties, and everyone winds up paying a fierce price in the end. For years, this stunning film was betrayed by inferior prints that masked the washed look of charcoal sketched landscapes of the original prints, a matte-textured surface that is now lovingly rendered in the Criterion DVDs. But there’s still the tradition of Japanese ghost stories, with their matter-of-fact tone about things supernatural. It’s a bit of a leap for Western audiences, but the payoff is immense, one of the most devastating, subtle & moving endings in cinema. So, adjust!

DOUBLE-BILL: It may sound like an odd match (okay, it is an odd match), but one of the few Hollywood films to deal in a similarly matter-of-fact manner with a narrative ghostly presence, and hardly a special effect in sight, is Joseph Mankiewicz’s marvelous romance, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR/’47. While the film may be no more than good Pop entertainment, the superb British-influenced Bernard Herrmann score really can stand comparison with Mizoguchi.

Monday, August 6, 2012

CONTAGION (2011)

Steven Soderbergh’s curiously uninvolving viral plague roundelay gets off to a great start, confirming a long-held suspicion that Gwyneth Paltrow would somehow or other eventually be responsible for infecting the world with a fatal disease. After that, the film plays out as an all-star race between cough & contact; rumor & riot; science & sanity. Structurally, it’s force-fed to us in a manner familiar from the ricocheting interpersonal plots of tricked-up scripts like BABEL/’06, CRASH/’05 or AMORES PERROS/’00. How odd that Soderbergh, working off Scott Z. Burns’ script, with more story justification for billiard ball dramatics, winds up with something that feels, if anything, more contrived. Maybe the format is simply inadequate to the immense social dynamic . . . or maybe it’s simply a matter of timing, with Soderbergh’s coming too late to the party. So, while the film is immaculately made, thoughtful & timely, suspenseful, and occasionally touching, it comes & goes without leaving a trace. Like one of those harmless viruses we never take note of.

DOUBLE-BILL: Wolfgang Petersen’s OUTBREAK/’95 turns a similar story into Pop Schlock, but who could forget Dustin Hoffman in his ‘Bio-Hazard suit’ glory, looking like Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in that tank helmet.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Was it really necessary to give Jude Law bad teeth to go with his bad ethics?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

1941 (1979)

Hollywood was positively dizzy with schadenfreude when Steven Spielberg tanked on this jumbo-sized WWII comedy. The huge commercial & critical success of JAWS/’75 and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/’77 had set him up for Hollywood martyrdom (and in his 33rd year!) with this laughless farce about L.A.’s post-Pearl Harbor hysteria. Not that it’s his worst pic, (there’s HOOK/’91; ALWAYS/’89; THE LOST WORLD/’97), but it’s surely his least funny. (There are more laughs in SCHINDLER’S LIST/’93.) Like many a megger, Spielberg’s a whiz at spotting gags in dramas where it’s less comic-relief than tension-relief, but in his one purely comic outing, he pushes too hard, the characters become loathsome. Even a good comic idea, like a ‘lost’ Jap/Nazi sub forced to navigate with a toy compass out of a CrackerJack box, gets tossed aside. Technically, the film is a fun watch, and John Williams comes up with a swaggering march theme when he isn’t forced into musical pastiche for some dopey self-referencing joke. And the one well-received sequence, a wild Jitterbug Dance contest, now looks joyless, strenuous & oddly choppy. Spielberg still defends this one, but, taking no chances, it remains the only comedy on his long, long C.V.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Norman Jewison’s THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING/’66 gets infinitely more out of a similar coastal invasion storyline with great underplaying leads working perfectly against OTT supporting comics. Compared to 1941, it’s a relief . . . and a lesson.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

THE FUGITIVE (1947)

In 1947, author Graham Greene’s great film collaborator made a near masterpiece about a man on the run from the law, hunted, haunted & doomed. Owning up to a film’s worth of self-deception, denial & fear, he accepts death with tragic self-awareness and a hint of God’s grace. In outline, this might be Greene’s acclaimed novel, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, but it’s also a description of Carol Reed’s ODD MAN OUT, a film Greene had nothing to do with it. Reed & Greene would join forces the following year for THE FALLEN IDOL/’48, then go on to THE THIRD MAN/’49 and OUR MAN IN HAVANA/’59. Greene’s acclaimed man-on-the-run novel landed with John Ford & scripter Dudley Nichols who must have hoped to recapture the terse poetic tone they achieved in THE INFORMER/’36. But they wound up eviscerating Greene’s tale of a ‘whiskey’ priest (with a bastard child!), trapped in a Godless police state and running away from his destiny. And while THE INFORMER thrived in the artifice of RKO’s backlot, the real Mexican locations in Gabriel Figueroa’s gorgeous, studied monochrome lensing overpower what’s left of Greene’s story; and the religious sentiment gets buried under Richard Hageman’s ponderous score. As a Madonna figure, Dolores Del Rio looks up in beatific attitude like a Mexicali Luise Rainer; J. Carrol Naish hams mercilessly as the Judas figure; and poor Henry Fonda gets a coat of caramel-colored make-up and a long drink of slow-witted piety. Only Pedro Armendáriz, as the one true believer in the whole Junta, feels like he belongs in his role.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Even bad Ford can be pretty compelling. And THE FUGITIVE is so rapturously shot, it creates a certain cumulative power that you can release by watching it as a silent movie. (It also has the advantage of removing Nichols’ poetical yakking & Hageman’s musical treacle.) Try Manuel de Falla’s NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN as background score. For some reason, this piece works with every non-comic silent pic.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: ODD MAN OUT certainly makes an interesting comparison . . . for those who’ve seen this. But why not watch Fonda grapple with Catholic guilt in Hitchcock’s perennially underrated docu-drama THE WRONG MAN/’56.