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Saturday, August 30, 2014

THE BUCCANEER (1958)

Cecil B. DeMille ended 45 years in film with a thuddingly loud whimper, producing this D.O.A. remake of his own lively 1938 historical. Son-in-law Anthony Quinn’s painfully stiff megging usually takes the blame, certainly so in DeMille’s eyes, but there’s plenty of dead weight to go around, especially in the film’s inept story construction. OLIVE FILMS (already out with the yummy '38 edition) have sourced an impeccable print which helps the film get off to a jolly start as DeMille gives a personal introduction/blessing before the gorgeous title credits roll, followed by a weirdly artificial, but effective prologue with Charlton Heston’s Andrew Jackson & a young army recruit on a foggy, expressionistic, soundstage battlefront. Then the film proper starts . . . or rather, should start. Quinn immediately loses control of the narrative and never quite relocates it, wasting some good perfs (Yul Brynner; Charles Boyer; Heston), unable to bury some bad ones (E. G.. Marshall; Lorne Green; Henry Hull). And what’s up with Claire Bloom’s wild tomcat routine? Even a can‘t miss boy-and-his-dog subplot dies from weak casting. (Instead, enjoy the dueling toupees of Marshall & Brynner.) Dreary doings for a tale of venal & valiant pirates playing both sides in the War of 1812. But then comes The Battle of New Orleans; and you’ve never seen the like. Undoubtedly shot not by Quinn, but by longtime DeMille second unit man Arthur Rosson, we return to that fogged up soundstage battlefield as stunningly costumed Brits (in Technicolor/VistaVision RED) make their charge at Jackson’s patriotic units (in BLUE and BROWN). All laid out in the fashion of one of those historically-informed epic murals you might find on the curved walls of a State Capital Building. It out DeMille’s DeMille . . . if only for a single reel of film.

DOUBLE-BILL: C. B.'s original THE BUCCANEER from '38, especially for all those DeMille agnostics.

Friday, August 29, 2014

JOHNNY COME LATELY (1943)

James Cagney’s second attempt at indie production was better prepared than his first, but equally stillborn. He’d put out two films during a contract dispute with Warners in the mid-‘30s, but they were done on the cheap, and looked it. This time out, Cagney was coming off YANKEE DOODLE DANDY/’42 and was more careful with his behind-the-camera talent: John Van Druten on script; Theodor Sparkuhl to lens; Leigh Harline for the score. Helmer William K. Howard may have fallen off the A-list while falling off the wagon, but he had considerable style to offer (THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE/’34; TRANSATLANTIC/’31). And still, JOHNNY is doomed from its start. Everyone we meet in this sleepy Currier & Ives town is too cute for words, including the tramps who waste the opening reel laboriously setting the scene. There’s no energy supply (in a Cagney film!) as Jimmy meets-cute with senior stage doyen Grace George as the sharp-eyed bitty who runs the local paper. Oh, she’s a darlin’, too, but local business & political corruption has just about put her out of business till Cagney takes charge and turns everything around, shaming a few leading, but recalcitrant citizens into doing the right thing. Then taking off like Mary Poppins when the wind changes. It’s an unlikely, frustrating pic, not at all bad in places, and happily waking up halfway in when Cagney throws a chair thru a window. Worth watching just to see the great Hattie McDaniel taking over all her scenes and for Marjorie Main making like Mae West. But it certainly is in love with own do-goodness.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney memorably tackled a similar period pic @ Warners with Raoul Walsh, Olivia de Havilland & Rita Hayworth in THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE/’41.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

LA PIEL QUE HABITO / THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011)

Antonio Banderas returned to the gifted hands of his mentor, writer/director Pedro Almodóvar, in this clinically elegant horror pic, a twisty & twisted transgender fable of regeneration & revenge. And if that sounds like a mouthful, so’s the pic. Banderas, looking gravely handsome, does his best work in some time as a brilliant, slightly mad medical research doctor (think Moreau or Frankenstein), who fine tunes his skills at cosmetic reconstruction for personal ends. Almodóvar juggles a few more storylines than needed, but counters possible confusion with a slow narrative fuse and a series of ultra-stylish visuals that glide us past the story’s improbabilities & goofy OTT gore factor. (It’s like a Charles Saatchi wet dream.) And while this approach succeeds in damping down unintended giggles & incredulity, it also makes things a little dull between surprise reversals & delayed action. Special kudos to Alberto Iglesias whose score is like the bastard child of Philip Glass & Miklos Rozsa.

DOUBLE-BILL: Too many references to chart in here, from Dumas & Hugo to Universal Horror Classics. But the main artery of inspiration is undoubtedly Georges Franju’s poetic horror classic LES YEUX SANS VISAGE/EYES WITHOUT A FACE/’60.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (1935)

What did ‘going to the movies’ mean in mid-‘30s America? Back when much of the country, at least in urban areas, might regularly take in a couple of shows a week. Dress may have been considerably more formal (all those hats!); yet the movie-going habit infinitely more casual, spur of the moment rather than event oriented. And, of course, far less demographically (d)riven. The goal wasn’t to find ‘the thrill ride of the season,’ but ’a night’s entertainment.’ And this modest delight is a prime example of what people knew they’d be getting. Carole Lombard is gorgeous & enchanting as a barbershop manicurist at a luxe hotel, determined to use her position to find herself a rich mate to marry. But her first conquest is Ralph Bellamy, an eternal also-ran in A-list pics. Plus, he’s wheelchair-bound, at best a pal. Enter a refreshingly young, not quite fully formed Fred MacMurray, far more charming & sexy than he’d mature into. He looks good, he sounds good, he’s Theodore Drew III! If only his family hadn’t lost it all in the crash. And if only he didn’t share Lombard’s passion for holding out for a rich spouse. In fact, he’s already got one, he’s engaged! Ah, but since we’re at sophisticated Paramount, the film skirts the Production Code as near as possible while sorting things out, letting Mitchell Leisen & Ted Tetzlaff (helmer & lenser) give their stars the same streamlined, sexy art moderne look as the glamorous sets. By the time the film ends, you’ll want to move in.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lombard’s plump sidekick is delectable Marie Prevost, a silent leading player who had all but fallen off the casting sheets. It’s likely that Lombard gave her this late break. Alas, it didn’t turn things around for her and she’d drink herself to death in a couple of years . . . age, 38.

DOUBLE-BILL: Modern audiences no doubt will wonder why Lombard doesn’t simply opt for that nice Ralph Bellamy, wheelchair and all. But she’s never in love with him, the whole point of the film. Anyway, casting Bellamy was shorthand for ‘doesn’t get the girl,’ which is how these films got so much done in 80 minutes. And, in 1935, any patrician in a wheelchair came off as an FDR reference, a role Bellamy would make his signature piece on stage & screen (to slightly embalmed effect) in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO/’60.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS (1977)

As long as this deluxe tv mini-series, based on the Watergate Scandal roman-à-clef by leading participant John Ehrlichman, sticks close to the Oval Office, it’s good juicy fun. But interest wanes exponentially the further we move off the White House campus. Jason Robards & Robert Vaughn partner for a great Strindbergian Dance of Death as faux Pres Nixon & Chief-of-Staff H. R. Haldeman, creating scary creeps of their own rather than the expected impersonations. But the general acting level of the younger crowd drops into junior league soap opera, especially on the distaff romantic scenes. Dreary stuff. Only Tony Bill, in the presumed John Dean spot (good guy/turncoat), approaches three-dimensionality.* Actually, the most appalling thing in here may be the flamboyantly startling late ‘70s costumes & interior design. There's none of the overly self-conscious note seen in recent attempts to recreate the flared pants, elongated collars, wide lapels, dewy lip gloss and mauve walls. Here, it’s all taken-for-granted and right up to date. Especially noteworthy on the men, whose slouch and lack of muscularity shine out from the tips of their shoes to teeth dulled by cigarette smoke. Or maybe it was just the film stock. The long show wraps just as conspiracy starts to fray, but the ratings didn’t justify a sequel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Not a bad Watergate Primer for history-phobic teens. Just be sure to follow up with something documentarian on the subject.

LINK: *John Dean, that’s the real John Dean, just edited the last of the secretly recorded Nixon tapes for publication, showing our late Prez in all his tormented ghastliness. (All that forced bonhomie and trash talk on minorities as Nixon tries so hard to be one-of-the-boys.) Follow the link below for a recent interview from Dean on The Colbert Report: http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/ecplh0/john-w--dean

Sunday, August 24, 2014

LADIES IN LAVENDER (2004)

With its pastoral title, double dose of Dames (Judi Dench & Maggie Smith) and period setting in Cornwall, there’s good reason for dread: Forbear!, another cutesy retread with lovable eccentrics in an adorable town that time forgot. Chortle away as they put one over on those pesky government authorities who follow the rules & think they know best. But no!; think again; this pleasing little film turns out to be something else entirely. A different sort of fable about two elderly spinsters whose well ordered routine is upset when a young man (Daniel Brühl) mysteriously lands on the shore near their home. There’s a pleasing, vaguely D. H. Lawrencian undertow to it, as the sisters take the boy in like a rescued pet, only to find differing levels of affection & possession coming between them. All while the increasingly independent fellow reveals layers of personality associated with country (Poland), flight (the run-up to WWII) & vocation (violin virtuoso). The film was a one-off directing gig for actor Charles Dance, and he’s certainly cast it well, with superb turns from a jealous David Warner, Miriam Margoyles as the sisters’ housekeeper, Natascha McElhone as a gorgeous holiday painter, and what must be the most alarming fish pie e’er seen on screen. Less welcome are the crowded interiors which overtax director Dance’s abilities, and some dramatically contrived last act events that require telegrams & telephones to alternately show up or be forgotten about. It’s all a little too convenient, a little too pat, a little too sweet-natured. But the Dames make it worth your while, especially Maggie Smith in the less showy role.

LINK: The violin solos in Nigel Hess’s original score, and on some brief classical excerpts, are all dubbed (beautifully) by Joshua Bell. In fact, he played the main film theme as an encore at his recent BBC Proms appearance. Listen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dqdc4 (about 56 minutes into the broadcast). But hurry, it’s only online for the next three weeks.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lillian Gish & Bette Davis go thru similar paces in Lindsay Anderson’s odd, but touching THE WHALES OF AUGUST/’87.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

POLISSE (2011)

With a Jury Prize from Cannes and a Sundance Selects designation, don’t say you haven’t been warned! Writer/director/star Maïwenn’s docu-flavored police procedural on a juvenile protection unit comes across like a filmed ‘bible’ for some unnamed, plot-heavy, ensemble tv series, a sort of Frenchified NYPD BLEU: Pedophile Division, loaded with dated ethnic clichés and predigested heart-tugging tropes. The film reaches its nadir halfway thru when the unit parties-on after getting some good news on a case. Maïwenn, playing the unit’s emotionally & artistically stifled photog, reluctantly cuts a rug with the group’s tough-but-tender cop. The station’s token black (natch), he’s just been ragging on her, but loosens her up on the dance floor, getting her to lose the glasses and let down her hair. Not metaphorically, literally. And there’s more fun at the end with a ‘surprise’ suicide that Maïwenn (as director) intercuts with one of the rescued tykes doing gymnastics. Hey, they’re both flying thru the air, non?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Maïwenn is herself a sex crimes victim (in some countries) having started an affair with director Luc Besson @ 15 before marrying him & having a kid @ 16. Ah, l’amour.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Maurice Pialat/Gerard Depardieu’s near-classic POLICE/’85, out in a new transfer and good going two-thirds of the way.

Friday, August 22, 2014

THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1958)

A bit of conjecture . . . Self-starter producer Jerry Wald, gearing up a production slate for his semi-autonomous unit @ 20th/Fox could only look on in envy as M-G-M prepped Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, the perfect follow-up to his sex-ridden hit PEYTON PLACE/’57. So, grabbing married scripters Harriet Frank Jr. & Irving Ravetch, they stitched together a passel of William Faulkner, creating a Williams’ manqué, a Mississippi variant on CAT’s Brick, Maggie-the-Cat, Big Daddy trio, tossed in a bubbling burgoo of bosom-heaving, barn-burning, Southern-Fried family dynamics. The seams show with forced motivations & contrived blow ups, but under Martin Ritts’ laissez-faire direction, the film does avoid CAT’s Hollywood soundstage gloss with some real Southern dirt under its fingernails. The underwritten Brick & Maggie-the-Cat facsimiles go to Anthony Franciosa & Lee Remick while Paul Newman (who’d play Brick for real later in the year) is the charismatic drifter who challenges Remick’s proper schoolteacher sis-in-law, Joanne Woodward. All four sex things up, though only the last two became a real-life couple while trying on Southern accents that miss the relaxed ease of Angela Lansbury’s none-too refined madame. (Newman preens alarmingly, putting on faces & showing off his torso.) But the only perf to matter is Orson Welles’ bizarre interpretation of Big Daddy as played by (wait for it) W. C. Fields! Mumbling his dialogue, sweating thru a putty nose, slathering on various shades of (mulatto?) make-up, he’s an obstacle course for befuddled lenser Joseph LaShelle. Yet, magically, halfway thru, his daring starts to pay off. The stylized mewlings and gall grow crazy, touching, overbearing, a little triumphant . . . and he waddles off with the pic.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ritt & Wald faltered on their next Faulkner, THE SOUND AND THE FURY/’59. Instead, try Newman & Liz Taylor in Richard Brooks’ bowdlerized CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF/’58.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936)

Missing the romantic sweep & elan of the 1992 Michael Mann/Daniel Day-Lewis version, this earlier adaptation (scripted by Philip Dunne) provided the sturdy construction & refocused storyline both films use. (It’s still two British ladies under threat during the Pre-Revolution British/French/Indian colonial War, and falling for two inappropriate local boys.) Long available in subfusc Public Domain dupes, Hen’s Tooth DVD has the most acceptable picture yet. The film is probably of greatest interest for fans (or foes) of the posh remake, with director George B-list Seitz (later an ANDY HARDY specialist) fileting the story far more clearly than Mann does, and making the Brits even more fatuous fatheads till some last minute face saving. Not much characterization of the treacherous French (wonderfully handled by Mann), but Bruce Cabot is inexplicably effective as deadly Huron warrior Magua (all the leading Indian roles are taken by White actors) while Randolph Scott is handsome, ironic & more stoic than dynamic as Hawkeye.

LINK/DOUBLE-BILL: In many ways, the most interesting version of the story, and the only one that gives first position to the tragic story of older sister Cora & Uncas: Next-to-Last-of-the-Mohicans, is the silent version of 1920. Directed by Maurice Tourneur & Clarence Brown in tableau vivant style, dud Public Domain versions abound. Instead, try this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCc2M-SqQdg for a decent image along with some ill-chosen background music. (Mendelssohn, anyone? Bizet?)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

LES VAMPIRES (1915-16)

Violent underworld crime syndicates & masked urban avengers found their filmic form in FANTÔMAS/’13-‘14, LES VAMPIRES, and JUDEX/’16-‘17, the three best known serials from French pioneer Louis Feuillade. Remarkably, all are now available in largely complete DVD editions that turn what had been once-in-a-lifetime viewing experiences into something you can pull off your shelf. This ease of delivery, with its attendant loss of preciosity, inevitably dims our response, but the films’ inventive charm & quixotic reversal-of-fortune plotting (over the course of their 5 to 7 hours running times!), gain plenty of traction on sheer entertainment value. Feuillade’s trick was to put some of the wildest plotting (murders, suicides, ships blown out of the waters, gassings) into the most natural of settings, making evil a part of our basic habitat. (He hadn’t been injured out of WWI for nothing.) Technically, the films don’t really equal some of the work being done elsewhere at the time (though you won’t hear this mentioned much), it’s Feuillade’s attitudes that raise the sophistication bar. And never more so than in the second series’ great femme fatale, the memorably named Irma Vep (an anagram for ‘vampire’,) who steals the show (and our hearts) changing costumes & loyalties with immodest, immoral speed.

DOUBLE-BILL: A direct line courses from VAMPIRES to Fritz Lang’s DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER/’22, augmented by a century’s worth of film technique vaulted in a mere six years.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

SAFETY LAST! (1923)

Harold Lloyd, the Third Genius of silent comedy, has to be constantly rediscovered. Unlike Chaplin, who never left the scene/screen; or Keaton, who roared back in the ‘60s to challenge, if not overtake, top position, Lloyd keeps slipping from sight. Orson Welles, a superb film critic, opined that intellectuals & academics couldn’t buy into Lloyd's basic ‘Good American’ character, the hard-work-rewarded/Horatio Alger myth. (Welles undoubtedly saw Lloyd in light of his Booth Tarkington adoration, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS/’42 or SEVENTEEN, which he played more than once on radio.) Another suggestion has Lloyd intrinsically tied to the Jazz Age. (Chaplin Victorian; Keaton Historian; Lloyd contemporary and dated.) Others point to his reluctance at keeping his work in general circulation or having it shown on tv. (Like Mary Pickford, who had similar concerns, he also controlled his prints & negatives, and took good care of them.) There may be something to all these theories . . . but probably not. A more likely reason for Lloyd neglect is . . . SAFETY LAST! Plot: Harold’s career boosting publicity stunt is in jeopardy when his pal can’t climb up the side of a skyscraper, leaving Harold to do the job himself! THE END. Yes, it’s the one where Harold hangs on for dear life to the hands of a building clock, the iconic image of all silent comedy. And it’s a thunderingly well-made feature, with a clever set-up taking us to its thrilling & hilarious two-reel climb to the top. But effective as it is, the texture is wafer-thin, a cul-de-sac masterpiece that undersells Lloyd as a mere stunt comic without a safety net or a character to develop . . . beyond grabbing the next gasp or guffaw. Not to disparage LAST, which is something of a near-miracle at hooking & holding you in a vice-grip of panicked hilarity. But it also leaves audiences thinking they’ve seen all Harold has to offer when it only scratches the surface of this great comedian. GRANDMA’S BOY/’22; WHY WORRY?/’23; HOT WATER/’24; THE FRESHMAN/’25; SPEEDY/’28 and most especially THE KID BROTHER/’27 (a comic improvement on Henry King’s already very fine TOL’ABLE DAVID/’21), all loaded with real people to care about and laugh with. All more interesting in character & story development than the brilliant mechanical construction found in SAFETY. So, see this marvelous classic, but perhaps not as your first Lloyd. Certainly not as your first & last.

DOUBLE-BILL: See titles mentioned above. New Line released a restored Lloyd series a decade back, but now Criterion has redone SAFETY & FRESHMAN to fine effect with wonderful full symphonic scores by Carl Davis. Hopefully, more to come.

Monday, August 18, 2014

RED RIVER (1948)

Howard Hawks’ classic Western comes in two flavors: A Pre-Release version ‘narrated’ by brief journal entries, and running an extra half-reel; or in a slightly shorter theatrical cut Hawks claimed to prefer, with spoken narration from Walter Brennan’s character stitching things together. Anything Hawks said (about anything) needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt (‘fabulist’ is the nice term for him), and there are strong advocates for each version. But it should be noted that the slightly longer cut doesn’t feel a minute too long; a bit less Walter Brennan isn’t necessarily a bad thing; and (most important) the expanded ending in the so-called Pre-Release cut makes a far better case for the flawed ending. Quite the preamble!, but then, if RED RIVER is neither Hawks’ best, nor the best Western, you can make a pretty good case for it as the greatest of all Horse Operas, with a rolling natural pace, physical beauty & classic perfs that make its every dog-eared trope seem fresh & original. (Only a few soundstage ‘exteriors’ and a little process work fail to hold up.) The story of The Chisholm Trail, and the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, finds its template in (of all places) MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, with John Wayne’s Capt. Bligh thrown overboard by the debuting Montgomery Clift’s Mister Christian. (The parallels are more strikingly obvious in the BOUNTY Remake/’62, with Trevor Howard & Marlon Brando.) Wayne is in tremendous form, commanding & scary; while Clift’s sheer pleasure in playing cowboy is as contagious as his devastating charm & looks. Joanna Dru shows up near the end as a curvy deus ex machina, but Hawks strains in vain to ‘paste’ his one-of-the-boys line readings on her. Yet it hardly makes a dent in the general triumph. (In comparison, note the faded reps of the two All-Time Classics named on the film's poster.) 

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Cocked and Loaded Department: A priceless moment of Hollywood gay subtext occurs when John Ireland & Clift show off, compare, and then fondle each other’s revolvers. (Peeing contest to follow.) This bit comes straight (if that’s the word) out of Raoul Walsh’s early Talkie Western IN OLD ARIZONA/’28, where Edmund Lowe & Warner Baxter play the same sort of game.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

MIL NUBES DE PAZ CERCAN EL CIELO / A THOUSAND CLOUDS OF PEACE (2003)

The first feature release from rising Mexican writer/director Julián Hernández is a story of drifting youth, a search for love with the feel of a gay hustler’s notebook, even if our lead neither asks nor accepts payment, let alone keeps a journal or even contact numbers. Instead, the grand gesture of disappointment, tossing away cash or phone numbers as proffered. (A disdain only seen from cash-strapped romantics on the screen.) Hernández has likely made something of a study of ‘queer cinema’ classics like Pasolini’s ACCATONE/’61 & Gus Van Sant’s MALA NOCHE/’86, but the best things in here, along with Diego Arizmendi’s smoothly handsome monochrome lensing, are a few casual non-sexual encounters at a cafeteria or street shopping for a hard-to-find pop vinyl record. Then it’s back to moody, near silent glowerings and fatalistic narcissism while waiting for the next disappointing encounter.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, ACCATONE (with the loathsome Pasolini much helped by asst Bernardo Bertolucci) and MALA NOCHE.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

Decades ahead of the pack on release, the analogue effects in Stanley Kubrick’s game-changing thinking-man’s Sci-Fi classic are now decades behind the digital curve. Yet the film still convinces. And while sheer compositional beauty & attention to detail play their part, along with the film’s philosophical/metaphysical mysteries, the factor that makes it hang together may simply be Kubrick’s fearlessly slow tempo; a ‘real time’ aspect that lends weight, depth & scale to models & matte shots that can now be easily spotted. And it’s the use of classical music, with its extended time arc, especially the J. Strauss waltz & the Khachaturian, that lets him inch along without losing his audience. (Later he holds tempo & builds suspense with nothing but ambient noise & breathing on the soundtrack.) The first half is really a staggering achievement, climaxing on a gasp-worthy reveal before the intermission break. (You only see it for the first time once, so choose your viewing conveyance carefully! Alas, no more curved Cinerama® screens.) That said, the final section, JUPITER AND BEYOND, hits a wall, and Kubrick seems to know he’s boxed himself into a corner. The lightshow at least raises the hope of an appearance by THE DOORS (unrealized). But the solarized landscape flyovers are nearly an admission of defeat before we get a glimmer of the old Kubrick humor with a full tour (bathroom included!) of that God-awful Las Vegas Louis Quinze reproduction suite right before the final, glorious fetal peroration.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note the uncredited performers of Richard Strauss’s thrice played opening section of ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA. Some fool @ Decca/London records allowed Kubrick to use the track, but only if they didn’t mention conductor Herbert von Karajan & the Vienna Phil. Odd, since Karajan is credited, along with the Berlin Phil for their performance (on DG records) of The Blue Danube. Odder still, poor Alex North wrote an entire score for the film, styled on what he thought was Kubrick’s classical ‘temp track,’ only to show up at the premiere totally unaware that nothing he wrote had been used.

Friday, August 15, 2014

LA NUIT AMERICAINE / DAY FOR NIGHT (1973)

Intensely charming, witty without being light-weight, François Truffaut’s film about making a film has, with the passing decades, acquired gravitas. An intensely pleasurable ‘watch,’ it’s only after viewing (or re-viewing) that you realize how much is going on in here. Not only in the memorable characterizations of actors & crew (and what a cast to play them!) or in how he dovetails lines of action, alternating POVs in front, behind and in the camera, but also in how he matches technique & style to every point at hand. And what a stunning technique it is, as broad as it is deep, slipping in experimental editing tricks for emphasis while keeping melodramatic moments sec with his unique mix of sharp attack & fluidity, paradoxically staccato & legato at once. Or simply with a laugh to deflate a delicate situation. And it’s fun to think about the silly faux film being shot, MEET PAMELA. It’s like one of those ‘quality’ projects he railed against in his days as young critic. And he's equally generous with his enthusiasms, literally unwrapping a package of directors for us to revere, displaying books on Hawks, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Bresson, Lubitsch, Bergman, Buñuel, Rossellini & Visconti; then making special reference to Jean Vigo (with a street sign), Jean Cocteau (on a wall hanging), William Wyler (the likely source for the hearing aid Truffaut's wears as on-screen director) and Orson Welles (in a dream sequence). And what of Jean Renoir, Truffaut’s filmic father figure? He’s in every shot since the entire film can be seen as one big tribute/companion piece to FRENCH CANCAN/’54 with its milieu moved from turn-of-the-last-century Music Hall to a ‘70s movie shoot.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: After winning Best Foreign Pic in ‘73; the film was then nominated for three more awards in 1974 when it opened Stateside. As director, Truffaut competed against Polanski, Coppola, Cassavetes & Fosse. What a list! But the most memorable moment that night was when Ingrid Bergman, up for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, beat this film’s Valentina Cortese (as the struggling Italian actress) for Supporting Actress. None of the usual, ‘Oh, such an honor to even be listed with these fine . . . blah, blah, blah.’ Instead, “Oh, you’ve made a mistake! This should have gone to Valentina Cortese. We all know that person, that feeling.’ Well, something like that. It’s been many years. But what a gesture!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN (2012)

As self-adaptor, narrator & exec-producer, Salman Rushdie has only himself to blame for the failings of this faithful-to-a-fault mad dash thru his much acclaimed novel. It’s nothing less than the story of modern India (and its painful partitionings), told thru the eyes of a pair of changlings, one rich/one poor, born on the stroke of their country’s independence. Alas, Rushdie, loath to ‘kill any of his darlings’ in the screenplay, heaps on so much dramatic incident, eccentric characterization, political horrors & magical realism that the film cancels itself out by the time its ill-advised prologue wraps up. Someone on the production staff must have seen that the film needed to begin with the changlings’ birth. (Suggested opening line: 'I was born with the nose of my father.’) Instead, it all plays out like a Paki-Indian FORREST GUMP/’94, a comparison much disdained by Rushdie. Taken in parts, the film is not without its successes. (As presented, the dark reign of Indira Gandhi begs for a proper examination/dramatization.) But director Deepa Mehta can’t organize the pieces of this puzzle, and the sprawling narrative plays out like a deluxe illustrated edition in need of a scorecard.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Most of the film is in English, but the many subtitles which do show up are unchanged from the film’s big screen theatrical release and look mighty small (positively squinty) on an average-sized monitor. But this Virgil Films DVD comes without extras of any sort.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

GENGHIS COHN

This BBC telefilm (find it in BBC’s Diana Rigg DVD Collection) is a near miss, but an interesting one. A Post-Holocaust Dybbuk tale (taken from a Romain Gary novel), it follows the restless ghost (dybbuk in Yiddish) of a Jewish Music Hall comedian/ventriloquist (Anthony Sher) who returns from the dead to haunt his unpunished killer. Solid & de-Nazified, his target is now a police inspector (Robert Lindsay) working on a serial murder case. But as his interactions with the invisible dybbuk grow ever more peculiar, he starts to look like a prime suspect. He’s also starting an affair with war widow and Nazi fetishist Diana Rigg, a tough proposition with a dybbuk kibitzing on the side. Delicate material, nu? Yet the problem isn’t that the film goes too far toward inappropriate response, but that it doesn’t go far enough. It needs daring; it needs bad taste; it needs to be unafraid of being A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY BACK FROM DACHAU. (It needs a close look at Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE/’42.) Sher is also hampered by not having funnier material to help the conceit work. But Lindsay is superb in his impossible role as the detective, technique turning into character as he slowly takes on his avenging angel’s personality. And, as a bonus, young Daniel Craig shows up as Lindsay’s ambitious underling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

THE LOST WORLD (1925; 1960)

The first version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fantastic adventure story about a remote corner in the Amazon still inhabited by prehistoric wonders is hardly a good movie, just an irresistible one. There’s a lux cast for one of these things (Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Lloyd Hughes, saucer-eyed Bessie Love) and story beats so sturdy & tempting they were polished up and largely reused for KING KONG/’33. A fitting connection since that pop classic refines on the legendary stop-motion animation techniques Willis O’Brien’s gave rise to here. Truly special effects; and not nearly as primitive as you might expect, marvels even when they don’t convince, like bedtime toys magically come to life. (The pterodactyls are particularly lovely creations, and check out the little Humphrey Bogart snarls on the dueling dinosaurs.) The DVD edition packaged with the 1960 remake is in decent physical condition, sometimes better than that, though longer running times exist elsewhere. (More material or just different running speeds?) As for the 1960 remake . . . well, it’s an Irwin Allen production. As producer, Allen could make dumb fun (like THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE/’72). But when he produced and directed, you got something like BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE/’79. Plenty dumb . . . not much fun. Aimed at the kiddie matinee crowd, these dinosaurs are costumed lizards in backscreen projection, blown up & cavorting in terrariums next to plastic bonsai trees. (Can a lizard look embarrassed?) In the original prints, lenser Winton Hoch’s color scheme was incredibly vivid, nearly hallucinatory in the ‘fire walk,’ all tamed in the DVD transfer. Happily, they couldn’t delete the pet poodle Jill St. John’s totes along on the trip or keep Claude Rains seguing from this schlocky thing to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA/’62 as his next feature.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The remake has Mayan Native types as its threatening cannibals, taking the place of the first film’s bizarre Monkey Men, a missing evolutionary link. Worse, you also get Jules Cowles in modified blackface, the same character make-up he used in Buster Keaton’s SEVEN CHANCES/’25. And, speaking of Buster, surely ‘Jocko,’ the film’s heroic little Capuchin monkey is the same fellow who saves the day in Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN/’28 and in Harold Lloyd’s masterpiece, THE KID BROTHER/’28.


Monday, August 11, 2014

I TAKE THIS WOMAN (1940)

In six years and a dozen pics, M-G-M never did figure out what to do with impassively gorgeous Hedy Lamarr. Photographically, impossible to fault; dramatically, impossible to ignite. In the first of three tries with Spencer Tracy, they meet-cute by suicide! (He stops her from jumping off a transatlantic ship.) It’s not quite love at first sight, closer to ‘like at first sight.’ But he’s a Lower East Side welfare doctor; she’s a fashionable Upper East Side divorcée; and the rest of the film, an increasingly desperate hunt for a storyline. (Look fast for 7th-billed Jack Carson. Part of a missing story thread, you can spot him in the background for a single dubbed line of dialogue.) All we get is Tracy trying on the manners of society doctor, and the suicide of an underwritten supporting character. Charles MacArthur gets credit for ‘original’ story, whatever that may have been, and Tracy is charmingly low-key, but nothing makes much sense under W. S. Van Dyke’s lax megging. Though he does seem disturbingly pleased with the racially appalling ‘Darkie’ act he gets out of Willie Best’s ‘Sambo,’ quivering with excitement for a slice of Hedy’s birthday cake. Even those with a high tolerance for period stereotypes may cringe. And the whole shebang ends with a load of the purist CapraCorn hooey. Even Frank Capra might have blanched.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Much of what passes for story in here was lifted from the second half of M-G-M’s very own THE CITADEL/’38, a memorable, if uneven pic.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

FORBRYDELSENS ELEMENT / THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)

Lars von Trier, aging enfant terrible, and increasingly irrelevant cinematic provocateur, made his feature film debut with just the sort of artsy self-indulgence great talents often need to get out of their system to find their voice. A fanciful, ochre-toned, dreamscape, it’s a free-verse detective story about an unsolved serial murder case that maintains casual contact with logic, sense or narrative form. Instead, moody scene painting and id/ego battles of will, possibly ravings from a psychiatrist’s couch, mark the way ahead. In other words, it’s a pain to get thru. Trier, stealing the affectatious worst from some of filmdom’s best, arbitrarily culls from a few, favored film schools & directors (i.e. Germany’s UFA, Godard, Clouzot, Tarkovsky, et al.). Now & then, a visual wisecrack breaks thru, along with his unfortunate misogyny, but his real success was getting past this daunting folly, with a decade’s worth of films & tv to show for it. Then, the breakout success of BREAKING THE WAVES//’96 did him in, fed & enabled by the usual suspects: Film Fests; Academics on the lookout for cutting-edge theses; and critics hunting up bona fides to gnaw on. And while you can’t tell from this mess of a debut, the loss was considerable.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: You might start with BREAKING THE WAVES and work your way back; even better, begin with Trier’s underrated EUROPA/’91, a sort of deconstructed THIRD MAN/’49.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A YOUNG DOCTOR'S NOTEBOOK

With the current crop of cable (and streaming) mini-series growing ever longer and more ambitious (or is it pretentious?), this compact Bildungsroman about the learning-curve of a fresh-faced Russian doctor pulling duty in the hinterland (and sinking into addiction) is a four-bite, 90 minute treat. Taken from the fictionalized memoir of Mikhail Bulgakov, the adaptation imagines the grown doctor of 1934 (Jon Hamm) as ghostly mentor to his young self (Daniel Radcliffe) back in 1917. It’s a literary conceit/visual gimmick that pays off, with the Mutt & Jeff aspect of the two actors paradoxically aiding the illusion . . . and the fun in some spectacularly gory surgeries. (You may wish to cover your ears as well as your eyes.) The first episode doesn’t quite click into place (Radcliffe too eager-beaver; his staff not yet revealing their true, supportive nature), but they quickly turn the corner and find the right, irreverent, subversive, disruptive tone (not so far from the original M*A*S*H*’72), aided by a fabulous production design that stops a couple of versts short of realism. Hopefully, a promised Second Season won’t over-egg the pudding . . . er, blinis.

DOUBLE-BILL: Bone up on the time period with Sergei Eisenstein’s surprisingly consumer friendly debut film, STRIKE/’25. (KINO and IMAGE have good editions.)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

ONE GIRL'S CONFESSION (1953)

As writer, director, producer & star of a few low-budget crime-driven mellers, Czech exile Hugo Haas became something of a one-man hack . . . in a good way. Here, buxom blonde Cleo Moore lifts 25 thou off her creepy restaurant boss, payback for a wronged father. After a quick, happy stint in jail, she’s back on the streets, working a new waitressing gig while she lets the stolen 25 K sit tight. But when her new, friendly boss needs some fast cash; and a new romantic squeeze needs a loan, Moore knows just who to turn to . . . herself. Alas, her well-made plans go wrong with O’Henry-like twists of ironic fate, why if this girl didn’t have bad luck . . . Ahem. It’s that kind of story; that kind of film. Fortunately, a final O’Henry twist restores a sense of order so life can go on. Haas has all the makings of a nice little film noir here, and he runs an efficient show, but the film just bumps along, with ham-fisted acting and not much style. Worse, the compressed grey-scale on Paul Ivano’s lensing makes the already modest production values look like tv anthology fare of the day. What’s left is the odd blank sensibility Cleo Moore brings to her dishy role, and her manner of looking like Kim Basinger’s hitherto unknown sister from certain flattering camera angles.

DOUBLE-BILL: Apparently, THE GIRL ON THE BRIDGE/’51 (not seen here) is Haas’s best pic. Have a look and report back.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

DEATH IN VENICE (1971)

Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel on the corruptive power of beauty (or is it purity?) famously swapped literature for music, turning Dirk Bogarde’s Aschenbach from a writer into a sort of zombified Gustav Mahler. If nothing else, it provides cover for blanket use of the dreamy sounding Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. (Especially dreamy at the funereal pace played here.*) Gorgeous atmosphere trumps narrative as Visconti revives a lost world of pre-WWI privilege on the Lido with Bogarde’s character ever so slowly (and slightly ridiculously) succumbing to the spreading cholera epidemic, helplessly held in rapt homage to a youthful Apollo called Tadzio. (Played by Björn Andresen as if Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince had matured into an androgynous/adolescent copy of Dominique Sanda.**) Foolhardy & magnificent, the film is both unforgettable and a personal wet-dream for Visconti, with sly moments of self-recognition bubbling up just below the surface. Watch for Bogarde’s puppy-like pleasure when his getaway is spoiled, followed by an ecstatic return by boat as he stands to catch the sun. Essential viewing, even when Pasquale De Santis’s zoom lens pulls you back to the ‘70s.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Actually another HEAR ALL ABOUT IT: The Mahler Adagietto became so ubiquitous after its use here, it now shows up on SuperMarket Muzak tracks! Alas, the slow, slow pace has also become the norm. But it wasn’t always so. Mahler’s closest assistant/protégé, Bruno Walter, is dawdle-free in a revelatory version with the NYPhil (Mahler's old band) recorded in the ‘50s.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: **Dominique Sanda? Sounds implausible, but Sanda had just played Helmet Berger’s sister in THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS/’70; Berger had become involved with Visconti after THE DAMNED/’69 and would go on to play a sort of grown up Tadzio figure in Visconti’s marvelous, if maligned, CONVERSATION PIECE/74 which had Burt Lancaster as another Aschenbach, now back to the literary life. (CONVERSATION PIECE is only out in an unwatchable English-dub. Hopefully, an Italian-language version of this beautiful film will soon appear.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

THE GUARD (2011)

John Michael McDonagh’s debut as writer/director is made up almost entirely of familiar (make that over-familiar) elements: foul-mouthed eccentric cop is a brilliant mess at his job, a loner who thrives in the Irish boonies, dabbling on the dark side of cases while tending to his dying ma. Right now, he’s grooming a new, disposable partner fresh from Dublin when a fancy Yank from the FBI shows up, a black intellectual sort, working on a monster drug deal going down locally. But even if you think you’ve seen this kind of set-up once too often, McDonagh (older brother of Irish playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh) freshens the template by streamlining his narrative to work largely as character comedy between Brendan Gleeson & Don Cheadle playing out theme & variations on the old ‘ebony & ivory’ wisecracking routine. The gag, in its post-modern form, is as old as Burt Lancaster & Ossie Davis and as recent as Christoph Waltz & Jamie Fox, yet these guys beat the both of them. (Cheadle is really a remarkably resourceful actor.) Perhaps the trick is in the cool, clean visual presentation that shows a welcome influence from our best deadpan filmmaking moralist, Aki Kaurismäki, though without his signature blissed-out endings. McDonagh instantly becomes a man to watch.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Sony Classics should have found a better title for its Stateside release.

DOUBLE-BILL: It’s not just Gleeson’s Falstaffian girth that brings Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL/’58 to mind. Hmm, does that mean Cheadle’s in the Chuck Heston spot? Cool.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

NIGHT EDITOR (1946)

Janis Carter is a warped knockout as femme fatale in this low-budget police procedural. (The somewhat misleading title comes from a radio anthology show later reused for tv.) Carter’s a rich society type whose hobby is sleeping her way in & out of trouble . . . then getting off on the mess she leaves in her wake. Her main victim is tru-blue police homicide dick William Gargan, a solid-citizen sort with the cute wife, cute kid & sweet little home to prove it. But just now, he’s pulling overnight shifts with the Mistress Carter, and these two are canoodling in the car when they espy another couple also going at it . . . lethally, with deadly intent. Gargan’s filled with guilt ‘cause he let it happen to keep his affair hidden; Carter’s filled with regret ‘cause she didn’t get a look at the girl’s smashed head. Yikes! The plot spins out in a nifty series of twists with good noirish lensing from Burnett Guffey & Philip Tannura, but even as a Grade Z time-filler, too much goes missing under Henry Levin’s pro forma megging. You keep hoping for a bit of style, flair or eccentricity, then have to settle for near competence, while the devilish look in Janis Carter’s eye reminds you what’s missing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lots of DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44 in here. Maybe not enough.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

GIVE US THE MOON (1944)

How’d this little British Screwball land @ Gainsborough Pictures, home of romantic bodice-rippers? And how did Val Guest, the guy behind those QUARTERMASS Sci-Fi horror pics, come to meg & script? Just goes to show how little we know of the byways of UK cinema. Margaret Lockwood seems to be having a good time rattling off silly dialogue as a Russian con-artist, out to scam a rich ne’er-do-well with help from an indolent gang of comical White Russian exiles. That’d be hotel empire scion Vic Oliver (a David Niven type), pretty bland as the mark. Still, you can always count on Roland Culver, the Ruskies sedentary leader, for a few dead-on wry line readings. Everyone else works a bit too hard at being funny, funny, funny; but at least they wear you down pleasantly, winding up with a decent .275 comic batting average. Plus, there’s a fun debut by a teenage Jean Simmons as Lockwood’s kid sister.

DOUBLE-BILL: Continue the swanky hotel theme with some real Screwball action: EASY LIVING/’37 with incomparable perfs from Jean Arthur, Ray Milland & Edward Arnold along with one of Preston Sturges’s best early scripts & underrated megging from oft-maligned Mitchell Leisen.

Friday, August 1, 2014

LE COUSIN JULES (1972)

This austere beauty, a documentary on farm life in the French countryside, was Dominique Benicheti’s sole directing effort. Rapturously received upon release, it then more or less disappeared before a recent full bore restoration. (Venezuela’s ARAYA/’59 followed a similar path of forget & remembrance.) In meticulously curated WideScreen & EastmanColor, Benicheti painstakingly observes the quiet, isolated rural life of an elderly couple as they run a small farm and his ironworks ‘smithy’ in a manner that seems barely altered from the 1800s. Moving steadily from one task to the next, they pursue largely separate work routines long tempered down to absolute essentials. Technically, the film is immaculate, with a precision that’s both mesmerizing and, in its oblique way, intensely moving. As documentary, the style may look sui generis, yet it pulls from the tradition of Robert Flaherty*, the form’s father, who controversially (at least in hindsight) took a romantic view of his task, using scripted, even story-boarded action, which was then shot in documentary fashion. A search not for reality, but for a semblance of truth.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Included on the DVD, an unusually well done Extra on the film’s restoration that doggedly adheres to the feature film’s style in taking the time to detail the labor intensive process, and even explains the thrift-induced mysteries of the TechniRama WideScreen process.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Flaherty's MAN OF ARAN/'34.