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Sunday, November 30, 2014

FOREVER FEMALE (1953)

B’way set dramedy about a 40-ish actress who finds herself competing against an ambitious young thing in art and in life, on stage and off. ALL ABOUT EVE/’50? Well, yes, but also this depressingly lousy adaptation of ROSALIND, a little known one-act/three-hander by James M. Barrie. Ginger Rogers, in her uncomfortable sophisticated mode, is the threatened star; William Holden is a regular-guy playwright; Paul Douglas (making it nearly watchable) is the producer carrying a torch for ex-wife Ginger; and an absolute horror of adorable moxie called Pat Crowley is the cunning little vixen. (Paramount gave her a special end credit as Star of the Future, but she soon crept back to tv.*) Megged by Woman’s Pic Specialist Irving Rapper; adapted by the reliably funny/clever Epstein twins; with Harry Stradling’s glam lensing, this easily could have been better.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *An inside gag sticks Crowley in a touring company of THE NIGHT IS BLUE, a reference to THE MOON IS BLUE, filmed the same year, with the same leading man (William Holden) and an equally annoying ingenue in debuting Maggie McNamara. A popular type in '53, this sort of ingenue would soon morph into 'early kook' Shirley MacLaine.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a great action star, Holden sure did a lot of play adaptations. Early signature roles in GOLDEN BOY/’39 and OUR TOWN/’40; pre-breakthrough leads in DEAR RUTH/’47 and THE DARK PAST/’48; and prime star turns in THE MOON IS BLUE; SABRINA/’54; PICNIC/’55; STALAG 17/’53; THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG/’60; and a much underrated job in the otherwise overrated THE COUNTRY GIRL/’54.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE DESTRUCTORS (aka THE MARSEILLE CONTRACT) (1974)

A slick, empty package with Anthony Quinn’s Paris-based U.S. intelligence officer hiring Michael Caine’s devil-may-care contract killer to ‘take out’ suave drug dealer James Mason; then trying to call off the deal. A typical faceless, if plush-looking, international tax-dodge production of its day, or so it seems. In its own way, it’s also more like a contract killing then a creative endeavor, with bankable names signing up without wanting to know the details. They’re as much victim as hitman. At least it's well shot by Douglas Slocombe on well-chosen French locations in Paris & Marseille, and decently helmed by Hollywood journeyman Robert Parrish in his final credit. But producer/scripter Judd Bernard can’t be bothered working out the plot’s twists & turns; all those stars are ‘on the clock.’ Instead, a few car chases and Caine eavesdropping on Mason thru a cracked door to move things along. Baby-boomers will enjoy spotting JFK’s press secretary Pierre Salinger in a bit; and Quinn fanciers will note how handsome he looks. Something different about the shape of his head . . . or good hair-styling.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The film’s original title, THE MARSEILLE CONTRACT, is a dead giveaway on the pitch that probably sold this as an expansion on THE FRENCH CONNECTION/’71 Euro-set up.

Friday, November 28, 2014

TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1946)

This swanky-smooth Woman’s Weepie, yet another ENOCH ARDEN iteration/variation, finds Claudette Colbert’s pregnant WWI widow marrying kindly boss George Brent without quite being able to love him. Twenty years on, with a second son by Brent and the first unaware of his true parentage, a distinguished Austrian chemist in questionable health limps into her life as a new specialist at her husband’s company. It’s . . . her husband!; the first one! But so changed, she doesn’t recognize him. Ah, but he recognizes her. And, as it’s now 1939, the son he never knew he had (Richard Long) wants to dash off to Canada, join the RAF in England, and probably get killed just as the father he never knew he had did! Er . . . didn’t. (I’m so confused.) Jolted at the thought of losing her boy, the last link to her ‘late’ spouse, Colbert starts making mental connections. It all sounds a bit ridiculous, hell, it is a bit ridiculous, but it was an enormous hit at the time (Welles’ biggest) and you can still see why. The prologue with Welles & Colbert as newlyweds is awkward stuff; she looks stiff, he looks like the Pillsbury Lieutenant Doughboy. But Welles comes alive as an actor when he returns as the physically ruined, displaced Austrian, bringing along an adorable war victim in debuting Natalie Wood. And what a second entrance Colbert makes on his reintroduction, coming down the stairs in a knock-out black outfit by Jean Louis, on loan from Columbia.* In fact, all the tech work is unusually lux for an indie (Independent Pictures): a Max Steiner score; Joe Valentine lensing; art design by a just Oscar’d Wiard Ihnen. It’s the most stylish work ever by journeyman megger Irving Pichel. Check out his shot sequence as Welles hunts up his runaway son at the station before he can catch his train. Even the over-lit, over-dressed manse for Brent & Colbert comes off as a witty jab at stuffy M-G-M with Brent gamely offering a game of golf, a swim, tennis or a ride to his boys. He’s got the worst part in the pic, but he’s Father of the Year.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Costume designer Jean Louis also got to dress Rita Hayworth as GILDA/’46 this year. One of the greats, he deserves more attention. Check out his cheeky interview with John Kobal in his classic Hollywood collection 'People Will Talk.'

DOUBLE-BILL: Welles stayed with Independent Pictures for his follow up, THE STRANGER/’46, his biggest commercial success as writer/star/director hyphenate. (And playing a character who’s like an evil doppelgänger of his role here.) Ironically, these two big hits were released thru RKO, the company that dumped him after KANE/’41 & AMBERSONS/’42 flopped. And there, in a nutshell, was Orson Welles’ dilemma.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014)

Baseball pics are notorious hard sells at the box-office. But this one sputters along by sending Jon Hamm’s struggling sports agent to cricket-crazed India to hunt up Major League pitching prospects. Fact-based and foolproof, with plot beats courtesy of JERRY MAGUIRE/’96, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE/’08 and TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE/’12, if only everyone weren’t so gosh darn likeable. Heck, even their little falls from grace are only there to form a more perfect character arc. You can all but hear producer Joe Roth phoning in fuzzy development notes, like a prompter giving noisy cues at the opera. Only Alan Arkin, as a likeable curmudgeon of a scout, digs himself a little bit of free acting space. For the rest, Craig Gillespie might as well be megging on a doggie ‘choke leash.’

DOUBLE-BILL: Lake Bell, the film’s afterthought love interest, tears up watching Gary Cooper play Lou Gehrig in PRIDE OF THE YANKEES/’42. You’d cry too if someone made you watch it with the top & bottom of the image cropped to 1.85:1.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bill Paxton, the boys' likeable baseball coach (natch), has looked precisely the same on screen for thirty years, topping Jean Arthur’s long held record.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE VALLEY OF DECISION (1945)

M-G-M must have been thinking HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41 on this one. Pittsburgh steel foundries are in for Welsh coal mines, but labor strikes, Upstairs/Downstairs relationships, malicious gossip, children leaving home, moms with compromised health, dying dads & romantic renunciations abound. All that’s missing is . . . well, just about everything. It’s all reduced, in typical plush M-G-M house style, to over-produced mush. A sort of styleless anti-verisimilitude with solid pro director Tay Garnett completely out of his element, even the acting is all over the map. The main interest comes in watching young, fast-rising Gregory Peck as the steel family scion (already devastating in his third pic), and noting how Greer Garson, as the house maid from a laboring family who selflessly refuses Peck’s proposals, has suddenly become insufferable. She seems to condescend to everyone, even to her own character, with a voice that’s gone from cultivated to clabbered. Her reign was brief, about six big pics in six years, but away from roles that had her placed on a ladylike pedestal, her decline painfully stately. It was her next, ADVENTURE/’45, with its famous ‘Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him!’ tagline, that took the blame. But this hit was the turning point. It’s just that in the wake of Peck’s phenomenal pull, no one noticed.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Garson had just played a house maid who married her boss in MRS. PARKINGTON/’44 (not seen here). She’s brunette in that one, and somehow Gladys Cooper, Greg Peck’s mom here, is Greer’s daughter there! No stretch for Garson who in real life had married the actor who played her son in MRS. MINIVER/’42.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

WISE BLOOD (1979)

Twelve years after pleading nolo contendere on Carson McCuller’s Southern Gothic REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE/’67, John Huston won his case with Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Baptist Gothic. A small film with major ambitions, it brings off the grotesque, crazed eccentricity of its religious con-men & fanatics in a straightforward manner, retaining much of O’Connor’s off-the-beat humor though, alas, with more pity than actual laughs. Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif with a welcome touch of Buster Keaton to him) is the returned soldier boy, off to the big city to spread the word on his Church of Jesus Christ Without Jesus Christ. Cluelessly confident, he might be Gershwin’s Porgy heading north to New York on his goat cart. But O’Connor’s great insight made Hazel a cultural insider in spite of his extreme actions, and Huston lets her full-blown cast of lunatics and down-and-outliers interact without coming off as precious literary consructs, but as fleshly characters. The whole cast & crew seem inspired under Huston’s controlled laissez-faire direction, while the lack of period flavor (undoubtedly the happy result of a very tight budget) keeps the material from easily distancing itself; instead, a Neo-realist vibe that’s hard to shake off. Only Alex North’s score lets down the side, not with its ‘Tennessee Waltz’ variations, but on some ill-advised comic background music better suited to a SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT telepic sequel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Criterion DVD has a priceless EXTRA of O’Connor giving a short introduction before reading one of her stories to a university audience. Essential stuff, and very funny.

Monday, November 24, 2014

IDA (2013)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film is as severe & beautiful as late Dreyer or early Bresson. Shot, by Ryszard Lenczewski & Lukasz Zal, in a nonjudgmental, pearly gray monotone, it’s an origin story of a young Polish woman in the early 1960s, on the cusp of taking her vows to become a nun. An orphan, she’s surprised to hear she has an Aunt, surprised to be sent to meet her in the city, then even more surprised to discover she was born a Jew. The rest of the film, something of a road pic, has the worldly Aunt, a former judge during the communist doctrinaire ‘50s, and this young girl of untested faith following clues that lead to some very dark areas in their past. Pawlikowski has an unusually precise visual style, using various framing devices & a largely static camera in classic Academy Ratio, then placing his cast toward the bottom of his double-framed pictures. Only after some personal revelations & catharses does he move the compositions’ center-of-gravity to the middle of the screen, as if a great weight has been lifted. The device sounds flat & obvious on the page, but proves effective, even moving in practice. And by holding tight to the personal, the film gains something universal.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fred Zinnemann’s THE NUN’S STORY/’59 is all event-filled narrative compared to this, yet while it ends rather than begins in WWII, the films’ endings tie them together in an intriguing manner.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The DVD from Music Box retains Pawlikowski’s preferred boxy Academy Ratio, but has it mastered in anamorphic/16x9 WideScreen, using black bars to achieve the correct 1.33:1 image. Viewed in Standard Format, you’d wind up with a 1:1 image. Oops!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

LE COMPLOT / THE CONSPIRACY (1973)

Well-cast political thriller about a handful of disgruntled ultra-right military officers suffering thru a sort of macho French/Algerian post-partum depression. They try to get over it by working up a secret plan to free their figurehead general from jail and hopefully rouse public opinion to their lost cause; all while police & military forces try not to step on each others’ toes long enough to uncover the conspiracy & arrest the leaders. A near farcical element hangs over these tragic doings, as wishful thinking, incompetence, self-delusion and collateral damage spill out on both sides. If only writer/director René Gainville saw it, taking advantage of the possibilities in the material with enough style to gauge the difference between the artless and the inept.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The story is something of an unofficial prequel to Fred Zinnemmann’s exemplary DAY OF THE JACKAL/’73 about an assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle released just two months later.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

MEIKYU MONOGATARI / NEO TOKYO (1987)

It took a few decades for this trio of shorts, mid-‘80s State-of-the-Art anime, to show up on Stateside DVD. But while the visuals remain fast & trippy, the little stories drag it down. The first segment lasts about 10 minutes and hasn’t much storyline to speak of . . . which may explain its relative success. Instead, we get a kiddie, a kitty and circus-themed elements. The director, Rintaro, by-passes stock anime drawing formulas to good effect starting from the monstrous cave-mouth of Moloch, a vision straight out of the early Italian silent spectacular CABIRIA/’14. Next, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s car racing apocalypse brings on standard smash-ups to significant sound, fury and little effect. Last up is Katsuhiro Ôtomo (of AKIRA/’88 and STEAMBOY/’04 fame*) in the longest of the shorts at just over 20 minutes. Set in some half-built city of the future, like Brasilia, where the rainforest is winning a battle of reclamation against the builders. A lonely engineer gets dropped off to shut things down, but the mechanical workforce won’t cooperate. There’s an intriguing ‘Heart of Darkness’ vibe here, but like the film as a whole, we’re left with only the hints of an idea.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Ôtomo’s AKIRA has been remastered. Renew your anime bona fides with a revisit. Maybe you’ll like it better this time . . . maybe not.

Friday, November 21, 2014

RETURN TO PARADISE (1953)

About five years after his SOUTH PACIFIC stories were musicalized on B’way (and five years before being embalmed on film), James Michener had his big screen initiation on another tale of tropical paradise lost . . . and found. As storytelling, it’s sometimes bumpy going, yet it captures a measure of island culture ‘otherness’ better than many of his other projects did. (And might have claimed more sans ‘50s censorship in nudity & various racial taboos.) Gary Cooper, looking much healthier than in last year’s HIGH NOON/’52, is a drifter who lands on a small Pacific Island where a puritanical missionary keeps the locals in line with the fear of God & a trio of brutal henchman. Cooper easily overthrows this tinpot dictator & gains the islanders’ respect, but remains phobic about putting down roots. But friendship, war, wary love, a child and the pull of absence can change a man like Cooper. It may even change the spots on a missionary zealot, which sets up the story arc before a downed war plane full of horny American flyboys brings things to a head. Director Mark Robson refrains from pressing motivations, no facile explanations for Coop’s reserve, moving the film forward in shorthand. And though Coop is a good twenty years too old for the first half of the story, he plays with great charm and a believable right hook when needed.

DOUBLE-BILL: Robson also did the next Michener adaptation, THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI/’54, a larger, more prestigious pic, but already showing a bit of bloat.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

COULEUR DE PEAU: MIEL / APPROVED FOR ADOPTION (2012)

In Belgium, this award-winning/homegrown animation was titled COLOR OF SKIN: HONEY (see poster) which gets closer to the 'in-betweener'/alienation theme its author & real life subject, Jung, went thru as a Korean orphan adopted at 5 by a European family. Struggling in his adolescence to fit in, or find his place, the film is heartfelt, but frustrating, with a general look that's subdued watercolor anime spasmodically laced with berserk touches that might have come off of Bill Plympton’s drawing pad. Some old family movies add a pleasingly touch; less so the live-action shots of an adult Jung visiting Korea. But the main problem is that Jung & co-writer/director Laurent Boileau focus almost solely on episodes that have the young Jung constantly ‘acting out.’ We never pick up on the quotidian rhythm of his life, it's a backward glance that’s all trees and no forest.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While not strictly comparable, Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS/’07 brilliantly shows how to animate a coming-of-age/cultural rupture story.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

THE RED DANUBE (1949)

Little-known post-WWII drama about the handling of displaced persons in a divided Vienna is more interesting than its title or year-of-release might suggest. It sounds like some Red-Baiting/Witch-hunt melodrama. Instead , we get Walter Pidgeon as an agnostic Colonel, billeted in a convent while maneuvering thru repatriation cases with Soviet counterpart Louis Calhern. Their main argument pivots on former Russian prima ballerina Janet Leigh who’s lost in a deepening relationship with Peter Lawford’s lovestruck Major and doesn’t want to go back. What’s intriguing is that this fairly conventional affair takes a backseat to Pidgeon’s personal struggle with the convent’s Mother Superior (Ethel Barrymore*) as his war-induced crisis of faith starts to influence his political/military responsibilities and he hits an international wall of inhumanitarian regulations. No doubt, this was all laid out better in the novel (Bruce Marshall/‘Vespers in Vienna’), but enough gets into the film to carry you past a lot of dramatic missteps. Director George Sidney steps up his game, much helped by Charles Rosher’s stunning cinematography. Watch as he brings back the glory days of silent cinema on his intro shots of Leigh (Rosher wasn’t Mary Pickford’s main lenser for nothing!), plus unusually good art direction in a studio faked Vienna and a typically rich Miklós Rózsa score.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Mother Superior is a wise old darling, natch, but how nice to have Ethel Barrymore around to tart up the old cliché.

DOUBLE-BILL: The divided post-war cities of Berlin & Vienna, split into Allied Sectors, made for some great drama (great location shooting, too) in films like THE SEARCH/’48; A FOREIGN AFFAIR/’48 and THE THIRD MAN/’49. But it also made a delightfully witty backdrop on Powell/Pressburger’s joyous, forgotten, updated DIE FLEDERMAUS in OH . . . ROSALINDA!!/’55, all studio artifice and a one-of-a-kind nutcase movie unlike anything. A huge critical & commercial flop, it’s an awfully lovable miss.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The Soviet threat, as presented here, may have looked naive & overstated at one time. But just about any post-Glasnost Stalin bio now paints a pretty grim picture for repatriates, particularly for returning POWs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

36 HOURS / (aka) TERROR STREET (1953)

Something of a missed opportunity, an innocent-man-on-the-run pic with all the elements for a bargain-basement sub-Hitchcockian noir/thriller, but no follow thru. Dan Duryea (in as the British production’s contractual Hollywood ringer) plays a US army major gone AWOL on a surprise Trans-Atlantic visit to patch things up with his estranged wife. But, after a few clumsy flashbacks fill us in, he gets to her new apartment just in time to see the good lady rubbed out. Then, he's knocked out! Left to look like her killer with just 36 hours to clear himself; find the real gunman; and make it back to the plane . . . Whew! I’m exhausted just typing it up. Director Montgomery Tully grabs some nice, grubby London location shots & manages a few dynamic camera set-ups when he’s not flattening out action stuff, but too much of the plot & character development are full of holes. Duryea seems eager to get it over with, shouting his lines and not quite making eye-contact with a cast of British nonentities, as if asking who got him into this thing?

DOUBLE-BILL: Make it a 36 HOURS fest with George Seaton’s unrelated 1965 suspenser with James Garner’s WWII US Major tricked into giving up D-Day details to Rod Taylor’s Nazi Major.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NAE-GA SAL-IN-BEOM-I-DA / CONFESSION OF MURDER (2012)

Korean writer/director Byeong-gil Jeong debuts on this tricked-up serial killer pic that keeps slipping into Jackie Chan action/comedy territory, especially in a couple of exciting, if OTT, car chase set-pieces. What reaction is Jeong going for? Or is the disconnect simply cultural lacunae? After a furious prologue (murder, wounded cop, rainy streets, heavy chase action, the works), the film jumps ahead 15 years, when the Statute of Limitations allows the world’s cutest serial killer to publish his memoirs with impunity. The press & public love the guy (lots of squealing teenage girls); only the original cop on the case and relatives of the dead still call for justice. But how? And what if the book is a fraud? It’s at this point that everyone starts taking the law into their own hands and Jeong starts switching gears, jumping from bloody torture to wacky martial arts comedy tropes, with dollops of brooding attitude and a bit of mystery to the affair that might fool an eight-yr-old movie novice who wasn’t paying attention. Still, quite a slick package for a directorial newbie, with good perfs and sexy swagger around the edges even when the story loses focus. Let’s hope he uses a co-writer on his next project.

DOUBLE-BILL: For a Korean serial killer film that mixes tones and still packs a wallop, try MEMORIES OF MURDER/’03, an early work from the phenomenal Joon-ho Bong.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (1941)

Independent producer Edward Small belied his name in a series of adaptations from some big Alexandre Dumas novels, starting with THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO in 1934. Megged with budget-stretching moxie by Rowland V. Lee, the film found its heart in Robert Donat’s melancholy swagger, leaving a mark none of Small’s follow-ups could quite match. This one came closest with a dashing turn from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., getting close to his father’s old brio as the once-conjoined twins (convincingly ‘sold’ with solid analogue camera tricks) out for revenge; forceful, if bumpy, helming from Gregory Ratoff; and for a villain, character actor Akim Tamiroff as film’s shortest, stoutest lethal swordsman. (The final duel is seriously undercranked, but impossible to hold against him.) Yet, what ultimately makes this one go is Dumas, adding an unexpected emotional core to the brothers’ relationship with a spiritual, para-normal, psychological element. It pushes Fairbanks past his limits as an actor, but he gets the idea across. Beware Public Domain copies!; the latest DVD edition from Hen’s Tooth is complete and sourced from excellent materials.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jean-Claude Van Damme updated the story (himself!) in DOUBLE IMPACT/’91. Not seen here, the film has its fans.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME (1991)

Elegant, witty, touching and occasionally understandable, Errol Morris’s film essay on cosmologist Stephen Hawking is as much life story as illustrated look at his theories. Hawking, prized for his Deep Space deep think, but famous for his long-term survival with ALS, is a subject fraught with unavoidable dangers and undeniable interest. No surprise then to find it recurring on screen in bio-pic form as THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING/’14. Scientifically, you may not come away with much more than a vague idea on how some energy manages to escape out of Black Holes, but a more substantial takeaway is probably æsthetic, tumbling not out of space, but out of Morris’s sheer visual delight in his subject & subject matter. Skirting digital illustration for a more painterly, even abstract approach, interspersed with personal interviews (beautifully lit by lenser John Bailey* in carefully controlled settings that look real, but are as synthetic as Hawking’s electronic speaking voice), the film easily holds your attention if not your train of thought.

DOUBLE-BILL: The bio-pic mentioned above should hit home formats in a few months. OR: *How wise & appropriate that cinematographer Bailey’s very next film was another meditation on the nature of time, GROUNDHOG DAY/’93.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The book, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, has sold over 10 million copies . . . and been read by dozens.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

MAGNIFICENT DOLL (1946)

Much derided Founding Fathers fiction about Aaron Burr & the Madisons (James & Dolly) via Pop historical novelist Irving Stone, of LUST FOR LIFE’s Van Gogh and AGONY & ECSTACY‘s Michelangelo. As a prettified Dolly, the early White House hostess-with-the-mostest, Ginger Rogers hurried her post-war decline while director Frank Borzage did nothing to halt his. Yet the film is quite watchable, at least on its own terms as fanciful, romantic hooey. Surprisingly, the prologue, which should fit Borzage like a glove, charting the progress of Dolly’s loveless marriage to Stephen McNally’s devoted Quaker, is the worst thing in the film, with Ginger wildly overplaying her cold-to-the-touch bride. But the plot perks up once Burr & Madison enter the scene as adversaries in love & politics even as Borzage’s direction stays flat & impersonal. David Niven & Burgess Meredith are both unusually well cast; Niven showing a frightening edge as the ambitious, unstable Burr; Meredith finding good use for his typically ripe line readings. How else would the Father of the Constitution talk? Rogers finds a comfort zone once she hits her own age, though little can be done with the patriotic wallapalooza of a speech she’s got to deliver at the end. Viewed with historical blinders, it’s fairly tasty hooey, just don’t take a test based on it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The casting director must have been wearing those historical blinders, casting a short guy as Jefferson and a tall one as Hamilton.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Gore Vidal’s BURR, one of the great historical novels, covers much of this territory in grand, ironic style.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THE GATEKEEPERS (2012)

With MiddleEast politics & conflicts in even more flux than usual, Dror Moreh’s documentary on Shin Bet (Israel’s other secret service, the internal left hand to Mossad’s right) looks more than merely insightful, it looks essential. At its most basic, an elegantly visualized Talking Heads Essay Film told by six wise, but deadly, old owls, former heads of the agency, it succinctly intercuts surveillance footage, maps & landscapes, adding digital manipulation to allow us to follow the missions & arguments under discussion. All riveting stuff, laid out with a rare clarity, even when drifting into the shadowy morality plays of ‘Secret Ops.’ And while the POV comes from hardened anti-terrorist professionals, the descriptions of how choices were made comes across as more pragmatic than prejudicial, softened over time with unexpected reflections. Fascinating, thought-provoking, terrifying stuff, though the film could profitably lose some of the ominous, reality tv background music.

DOUBLE-BILL: Too bad Steven Spielberg & scripter Tony Kushner couldn’t have watched this as a primer before trying to get inside the heads of the Israeli Mossad agents in MUNICH/’05.

Monday, November 10, 2014

BABES IN ARMS (1939)

The first of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland Let’s-Put-On-A-Show musicals lives on more in memory than in viewings. Loosely based on the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart B’way show of 1937 about some children of down-on-their-luck vaudevillians who figure they can raise a show of their own, the film drops most of the score and most of the plot, turning into a sort of kiddie 42nd STREET/’33 by its last act. Rooney & Garland are at their freshest here. (That boy really could act, sing, dance, clown & tear your heart out . . . if only you could stop him from doing them all at once!) But the film is sentimental punk, in retrospect, hard to see how it out-grossed it’s very expensive M-G-M sibling, THE WIZARD OF OZ, that year . . . and at a quartet the cost. Things hit something of a low just as the pic needs a lift, when (BLACKFACE ALERT!!) their show turns out to be a big, ol’ Minstrel Show with everyone we’ve met blacked up for the occasion. Judy gets two treatments! ‘Darkie’ make-up as the minstrel act’s ‘Second Endman’ (Mickey is, of course, First Endman) and then a dip into Lena Horne’s paint-box as a saucy gal singer. (No blackface in the original show, just great Black talent from the Nicholas Brothers, Harold & Fayed.) No wonder the film went missing for a few years. Three follow-ups were made, each more elaborate, if not much better, though it’s fascinating to watch Mickey grow more desperate as he ages without growing; and Garland showing more of the nerves that would eventually undo her.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It wasn’t unusual for Hollywood to buy a B’way hit and toss out most of the musical numbers. BABES keeps only the title song & the popular hit WHERE OR WHEN. But while most B’way shows were lucky to spawn one or two songs that became standards, these Rodgers & Hart discards include ‘The Lady Is A Tramp,’ ‘My Funny Valentine,’ ‘Johnny One-Note,’ and ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again.’ Good gravy! In their place, a couple of old hits, including one from Arthur Freed in his first credit as film producer, and a song from Harold Arlen & ‘Yip’ Harburg (note they're uncredited on our poster), taken from an Ed Wynn show called HOORAY FOR WHAT! A forgotten revue that yielded a boatload of talent Freed would soon hire for his legendary musical film unit: Arlen, Harburg, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Alton, Hugh Martin, Kay Thompson & Conrad Salinger. Hooray for What, indeed.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

TOPAZ (1969)

The fault-line on this third-tier Alfred Hitchcock political-thriller can be found in the film’s MacGuffin, Hitch’s oft-cited term for the thing everyone in the film is looking for, but which needn’t concern the audience. Here, it’s nothing less than the discovery of a network of Soviet agents in the French Cabinet just as the Cuban Missile Crisis is about to implode. A MacGuffin fraught with importance! Even a big explanatory speech, not unlike Mr. Memory in THE 39 STEPS/’35, but with weighty international import replacing the delightful, old inconsequential double-talk. Add in the fact that everyone in jeopardy is either a spy, a counter-spy or a resistance fighter, with nary an innocent man in sight, and you can see that the story, taken from a typically ponderous Leon Uris novel is a fine example of what’s often misunderstood as Hitchcockian.* Er, yes, all very interesting . . . but how's the movie? Well, from a nearly dialogue-free Prologue in Amsterdam, thru three acts in NYC, Cuba & Paris, it’s something of a Curate’s Egg, good in parts. Best watched that way, too, for a few set pieces. The Cuban segment is noble & deadly, a shame as it holds the film’s greatest shot: a romantic murder and a gun going flaccid. (But, oh!, that tinkly fountain by the dining room.) Hitch knew the film was D.O.A., letting it go out with the worst of the three endings he tried. Fortunately, the DVD splices on the best of the lot. And it's worth sticking around for the last act in Paris which has the best perfs. (Only Roscoe Lee Browne back in the NYC segment gets anywhere near the level of Philippe Noiret in France.) Plus, Hitch seems to give lenser Jack Hildyard his head in the European locations to fine effect.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *So, why did Hitch choose to make TOPAZ? Contrary to what you may have read, Hitch’s previous pic, the little liked TORN CURTAIN/’66, another Cold War espionage thriller, was no flop, but one the year’s Top Ten grossers. But with no project on tap, Hitch was open to ‘suggestions’ from his masters at Universal, meaning his pal and one-time agent Lew Wasserman. Wasserman had okayed a very expensive book sale for the Uris bestseller. Uris even got to write his own screenplay. (Not that Hitch used it.) And to Wasserman, the material was another Hitchcockian Cold War thriller, just like that moneymaking TORN CURTAIN. In Hollywood, you’re either a working director, or your dead. Hitch made the pic. (This should probably be labeled SCREWY CONJECTURE OF THE DAY.)

DOUBLE-BILL: After this, Hitch downsized to superb effect on FRENZY/’72.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945)

Nonsense as history; nonsense as film. At least, there’s the music, you think. And there is. Excerpts dubbed for Cornel Wilde’s hearty Frederic Chopin in José Iturbi's hearty Chopin style, or orchestrated as background fodder by Miklós Rózsa, like a never-ending Chopiniana suite. Actually, the best scene in the pic finds Liszt sight-reading a Polonaise and Chopin joining in. If only they’d get thru the end! You also get Merle Oberon as George Sand, changing from pants to a dress to woo the sickly composer. She might be her own romantic rival! Especially when she’s preaching Selfishness (a la Ayn Rand) to the ailing composer who insists on concertizing for Polish freedom fighters. And don’t forget Paul Muni as discarded teacher/mentor, destroying his acting reputation in a single film with a performance so meticulously overwrought, he might be auditioning for the lead in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE . . . both leads. Naturally, the film was a big, big hit with 6 Oscar® noms.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In its more sophisticated way, IMPROMPTU/’97 is nearly as ahistorical about Sand/Chopin; less Hollywood, more NOTTING HILL, so to speak. But it’s entertaining stuff with a funny, bitchy tone and a perfectly cast Judy Davis as George Sand.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

ARRUGAS / WRINKLES (2011)

(Not quite) tough-minded animated film, taken from a graphic novel by Paco Roca, effectively charts the rapid mental & physical decline of a dining-table’s worth of retirees at an old-age home. Drawn in a flat, antiseptic style, presumably to match the flat, antiseptic living conditions, the film occasionally flares into colorful reminiscences of better, earlier days as aging minds drift toward things past. And it’s this sort of obvious response that pretty much holds for the whole film, leaving more original visual ideas unexplored. Conspicuously missing is the inevitable depersonalization of continuous replacements; instead, an escape escapade that’s hard to swallow, and a focus that narrows down to two unlikely roommates. One is fading into Alzheimer dementia while the other, something of a nasty conman, excuses his behavior as realism, yet rages against the night to keep his friend from landing in the mental purgatory ward of the upper floors. Good intentions, but a missed opportunity all the same, with a squishy sentimental center.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT/READ ALL ABOUT IT: Split the difference between these categories with Roz Chast’s new graphic novel CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT which gets almost everything right that’s missing here.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This poster seems to be trying for a TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE/’03 vibe . . . don’t you believe it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

UPSTREAM (1927)

From a cache of ‘lost’ films recently found in New Zealand, a serendipitous deadend for a few old film exchanges, comes a charming, little programmer from John Ford, made two years after his breakthrough on THE IRON HORSE/’25. A comic character piece with a romantic triangle at its center, it's set in a theatrical boarding house for has-beens and also-rans which gives Ford lots of opportunities to create a tight community of likable eccentrics. Best of the lot is a vaudeville comedy act, Callahan & Callahan, with an Irish Callahan and a Jewish Callahan. (Look out Gallagher & Shean!) But the main story centers on a Two Guys/One Gal knife throwing act,* and what happens when one of the guys gets a rush call to play Hamlet in London simply because he comes from a famous acting family. That’s about it for the plot, but it’s often cleverly observed stuff, with witty camera work and the briefest of third act wrap ups. Light romantic comedy may be atypical Ford fare,** then again, the studio-bound settings and tight community drama would show up all thru his work, right up to his final film, 7 WOMEN/’66, a film so rarely seen it might as well be considered ‘lost;’ as in lost in plain sight.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The girl in question, Nancy Nash, did a quick fade after this, but her two suitors, Earle Foxe & Grant Withers could be seen in Ford films for many years. They do well enough here, especially Foxe who goes amusingly ‘high hat’ after his Shakespearean success. But the biggest impression they make is simply being big, that is tall, towering over everyone else in the pic by a foot or more.

DOUBLE-BILL: **And yet one of Ford’s unexpected treasures is THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING/’35 which set up Jean Arthur as one of the great romantic-comedy screen comediennes . . . and she was playing against Edward G. Robinson²!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

ON THE JOB (2013)

Hyper-charged, fact-inspired police thriller, familiar in tone, technique & story structure from Hong Kong pics like INFERNAL AFFAIRS/’02 (itself retooled as THE DEPARTED/’06), finds fresh drama from its Filipino settings (in & out of prison) and believability in the moral & political string-pulling corruption playing out behind the violence. The basic idea, ingenious enough for a caper pic, finds a powerful business & militia shadow government hiring long-term prisoners as hitmen enforcers. Secretly released for a job, they return behind bars before anyone’s reported them missing; perfect alibis for perfect kills. But when a smart, well-connected Fed investigator joins forces with a stubborn, old-line cop, they trace the line between all those upper-echelon dots of corruption, and make the most of their opportunity when a newbie executioner botches a hit. Director Erik Matti makes the criss-cross plotting easy to follow (in spite of some murky nighttime lensing from the Red Epic digital camera system), while his well-assorted cast helps maintain narrative clarity (no scorecard needed). And check out those serious Tony Chiu Wai Leung vibes coming from leading-man Piolo Pascual as the handsome, good-guy investigator.

DOUBLE-BILL: An ON THE JOB-2 sequel is in the pipeline for 2015.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

WONDROUS OBLIVION (2003)

Needlessly lousy 1960s coming-of-age story splits the difference between SHANE/’53 and TO SIR WITH LOVE/’67, in paint-by-numbers fashion. Set in a lower-middle-class London row-house world where young David Wiseman eats, sleeps & dreams cricket; if only he could play the game. So when a Jamaican family moves in next door, he’s thrilled to find a coach, mentor & surrogate father-figure in cricket-mad Delroy Lindo. But in a neighborhood that barely accepts David’s Jewish family, welcoming the only black family on the block is bound to stir up trouble. Especially when your lonely immigrant mom, a wartime refugee, grows equally attached to the manly man next door. With lenser Nina Kellgren, director Paul Morrison works up a fine, over-saturated look for this period piece, none of that tasteful subdued, faded photo nonsense, but nothing else convinces. The characters swing & sway as needed by the next plot point; and with so many story & character arc clichés to get thru, the piece has the depth & feel of an after-school tv special that’s more Development Notes than believable drama.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The post-war tradition of coming-of-age stories between a young white kid and an older black man probably began with Clarence Brown’s finely observed adaptation of Faulkner’s INTRUDER IN THE DUST/’49, but the film remains (unaccountably) little seen.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

SCOOP (1987)

Evelyn Waugh’s distinctly acerbic tone gets softened to its advantage in an adaptation of his between-the-wars newspaper satire. Michael Maloney is a little too docile, but very likable, as the countryside nature journalist who winds up covering a non-existent civil war as foreign correspondent in a small African state. Buffeted about, but getting the hang of things as he goes along, he’s Candide with a typewriter, rising thru misunderstanding, disinterest & incompetence; his own & his employers. ‘How To Succeed In Fleet Street Without Really Trying.’ The tone wobbles at first, with director Gavin Millar putting ‘quotes’ around his characters so we know when to laugh. But once Maloney meets up with Herbert Lom’s shady agent provocateur/businessman, things settle into a sort of Somerset Maugham as corrected by P. G. Wodehouse groove, and the smallest of touches turn quietly hilarious. (Even noisily so when ‘Begin the Beguine’ shows up as a new Revolutionary Anthem.) There’s tasty supporting players out on location in this surprisingly lux production, but it’s the likes of Denholm Elliot, Donald Pleasence & the great Michael Hordern who truly stand out in a series of small, eccentric turns back in Mother England.  (A London Weekend TV Movie, so no proper poster.  But a very cool book jacket worth clicking on for expansion.)

DOUBLE-BILL: If you can find it, Alan Ayckbourn’s A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL/’89 does something similar to Jeremy Irons as the new guy in a local amateur theatre company, but you'll need blinders to get around Michael Winner’s all-thumbs megging.