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Monday, February 29, 2016

1001 GRAMS (2014)

Drama is dosed out by the dram in Bent Hamer’s ‘late’ coming-of-age fable about a 30-something Ministry of Weights & Measures official who discovers the unquantifiable value of emotional connection when she takes her father’s place in Paris at an international ‘KILO’ convention. Composed largely in chilly Norwegian off-whites & blues, the story loses rather than gains interest when it blooms into fuller color under the Rabelaisian tutelage of a free-spirited Frenchman, an academic who gave up his position at the Institute of True Weight to work on its grounds as gardener. (An obvious idea that works better than it sounds, but still . . . ) Though not without passing charm, gentle laughs & off-beat visual dazzle (watch for a marvelous parade of blue umbrellas passing a line of trees), the story might have worked better condensed into an anthology film. As it stands, Hamer’s work feels uncomfortably perched between one of Aki Kaurismäki’s eccentric, yet satisfying minimalist fables; and a let-yourself-go screwball rom-com with, say, Irene Dunne or Jean Arthur.* (Come to think of it, the accident that brings on the third act is more like BRINGING UP BABY/’38.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *An odd pairing, but you can really see what Jean Arthur might have done with this in Billy Wilder’s bitter Cold War political comedy A FOREIGN AFFAIR/’48.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944)

Top dog in his German/UFA days, the great Fritz Lang fought for work & reputation during his two decade Hollywood run, slowly losing altitude & quality assignments. Often lumped with Hitchcock as a Master of Suspense, it’s a simplification that does neither director much justice.* But just this once, Lang really does seem to be trying for the Hitchcock Touch in an innocent-man-on-the-run British picaresque; ambivalent blonde beauty on the side. It’s got THE 39 STEPS/’35 written all over it, in spite of coming out of a novel by Hitchcock agnostic Graham Greene. Ray Milland plays neutral to fine effect as a compromised man-with-a-past who stumbles into a Nazi Spy Ring at a village charity fair. Soon, he’s a wanted man trying to clear his name and solve a series of fast escalating crimes as Fifth Columnists & Scotland Yard gain ground on him. Scripter Seton I. Miller (who also produced) leaves too many good ideas hanging (like those huge tailor’s scissors Dan Duryea’s villain uses to dial his phone . . . Yikes!), and Marjorie Reynolds leaves little impression at all (on Milland or the film) as romantic interest. But the film is never less than a pleasure to watch, with expressive artificial studio sets and too many good bits to miss even when things don’t quite add up. Lang would fix all that soon enough on WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET/’45, his Hollywood peak. (There’s your DOUBLE-BILL.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hitchcock always acknowledged Lang as an early influence, but he may also have nipped this film’s elderly book shop owner, and darkening sales floor, for VERTIGO/’58.

Friday, February 26, 2016

SONO YO NO TSUMA / THAT NIGHT’S WIFE (1930)

This early silent from Yasujirô Ozu shows less of his late style then the other five titles out on a pair of Criterion DVD sets. But that’s no problem, since Ozu shows unexpected levels of comfort & easy cinematic flair working inside unfamiliar (to him) genre boundaries -- here, crime & kiddie medical crisis -- just as he will on his classic post-WWII intimate family dramas. So it’s robberies, melodrama, urban chases & sentiment; a ‘job of work’ in John Ford's phrase, for a natural filmmaker testing the waters. The first act is particularly strong, jumping right into the middle of an armed robbery, and the subsequent chase by a score of armed cops thru moody streets in the warehouse district. We might be in an episode from a Fritz Lang DR. MABUSE thriller, all dynamic angles, shadows, ‘dollies in’ & monumental building columns for quick hide-and-seek escapes. As an opening, it probably sets the bar a little too high for the rest of the pic where we discover that the criminal on the run is the father of a sick little girl in need of expensive medical treatment. Mom & Dad (it’s the same couple Ozu uses in the more lighthearted TOKYO CHORUS/’31) stay up all night with the child, along with the craggy detective who’s been on their tail all along. Will he bring the criminal in or let the parents have a night for the child’s sake? Here, the film switches tones & slows its pace, moving from Lang to something more like Borzage or von Sternberg. (And with Hollywood posters covering the apartment walls, Ozu puts his preferences right in our face.) You’ll miss the sheer excitement of the opening, but the rest is equally satisfying, just in a different way. Very strong, though not yet very Ozu.

DOUBLE-BILL: Find more early silent Ozu Write-Ups below. All highly enjoyable. And on a separate disc, the start of his true form in I WAS BORN, BUT . . . /’32.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

LIFE OF A KING (2013)

This fact-suggested/modest-to-a-fault/Urban Inspirational stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as an ex-felon getting a hold on his life, and the lives of a few high school detention regulars, starting up a chess club. Fill in the blanks. Whatever interest remains here is less in what happens (you’ll guess every film-school consecrated story-beat) then in wondering if there’s still an audience waiting to see one of these uplift sagas. General Answer: YES! Especially if you tie it into some ethnic or religious niche market and aren’t ashamed to push old buttons in ways that seem new & sincere. Specific Answer: NO! Co-writer/director Jake Goldberger tics off all the boxes, but misses just the sort of detail you need to help us feel context & consequence. The film shows up D.O.A., assuming you don’t carry a torch for '80s cable pics. No surprise a token theatrical release topped out at 5 thou.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The modern Urban Inspirational probably started with Edward James Olmos in STAND AND DELIVER/’88: mathematics & Hispanics in for chess & Blacks.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As writer/director, Goldberger skimps so badly on info needed to build up rooting interest you wonder about possible dropped shots from a crazy-tight schedule. Even the foreignness of the game is barely explored/exploited. On the other hand, we are spared the showy CGI visualizations of chess moves & countermoves a larger budget might have tempted Goldberger into.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

IL SORPASSO / THE EASY LIFE (1962)

Dino Risi’s Italian road movie, a commedia all’italiana classic, earned quick word-of-mouth success, but took decades to gain equally well-deserved critical mass. Perhaps because Risi is so technically gifted when on form, with unerringly ‘right’ shots, an example of the-art-that-hides-art. Especially so when you’re dealing in comedy. (Fellow filmmakers noticed quickly, from EASY RIDER/’69 thru SIDEWAYS/’04 and NEBRASKA/’13, with many stops along the way. Though in filmmaking style & attraction to the painfully funny side of mid-life crises, Risi is closer to Blake Edwards.) Vittorio Gassman is phenomenal as the id-driven hedonist on the verge of out-pacing his looks & luck over a holiday wknd outside Rome. Jean-Louis Trintignant, pale & delicate next to Gassman’s robusto presence, is the emotionally constipated law student picked up as a companion after Gassman borrows his apartment phone. Not in any way a sexual pick-up (or is it?), these two hit the road, hunt up dates, eat a lot of fresh seafood & share awkward visits with relatives. Gassman, alternately exasperating & exciting, compellingly free-spirited & adolescently self-centered (often in a dangerous manner), makes Trintignant feel more alive, more in touch with the world and its possibilities, even with his anger, than he’s ever felt before. All this, brought off by both actors without special pleading for sympathy. Gassman's character, in particular, is often an appalling person, yet you see what draws people in. And few films give so much more on repeat viewing.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Gassman drives a great, if hardly pristine, Lancia Aurelia B24 Sport. Great on its own, but this one comes with a built-in 45rpm record player for those ‘60s ‘pop’ singles. So cool.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: When he’s working in French, Jean-Louis Trintignant is so well spoken he can often be understood by us non-natives.  In Italian . . . not so much.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

THE GRASS IS GREENER (1960)

A couple of insurmountable bumps slow this marital-infidelity drawing-room comedy down. First: it’s tough to buy Deborah Kerr leaving hubby Cary Grant for a spur-of-the-moment affair with Robert Mitchum. Sure, Cary’s a cash-poor Lord in an English manor that’s open to the public while Bob’s a tempting millionaire American oilman. But in films where men sport tuxes, it’s always going to be advantage Grant. Second: (only slightly more important) it’s a third-rate play, the sole feature credit for writers Hugh & Margaret Williams. Still, worth wading thru the strained first half to catch Grant working his magic on the back nine, enlivening the limited action as he explains it all to a ditzy Jean Simmons, Kerr’s nosy, gal-pal & audience surrogate. The ‘sophisticated’ twist is that Grant must let his wife run out her fling if he wants his marriage back, slightly soiled, but ‘intact.’ And while he appears passive, appearances can be deceiving. William Douglas-Home, master of this sort of light comedy at the time (see Vincente Minnelli’s smashing THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE/’58*), had it all over the Williamses, but watch what Grant is able to make of this pale simulacrum thru underplaying, agogic emphasis & sheer personal style. Plus, here & there, in scenes Lubitsch might have agreed to shoot (a medley of vacated paired chairs; a neatly staged duel in a corridor), Donen shows his formidable directing chops.

DOUBLE-BILL: The third collaboration for Grant & director Donen; the third for Kerr & Mitchum; the third for Kerr & Grant; and the third for Simmons & Mitchum!  Twelve pics!  How many have you seen? And that doesn’t even include Grant/Donen’s upcoming CHARADE/’63.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Apparently, Rex Harrison was set to play the Grant role, but dropped out to nurse ailing wife Kay Kendall, his delectable co-star on DEBUTANTE. You can get a pretty good idea of what Rex might have done with the part watching THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE/’64, written by drawing-room dramedy master Terence Rattigan who’d go on to write a play specifically for Rex all about his dilemma with a dying wife (IN PRAISE OF LOVE/’74).

Sunday, February 21, 2016

YVES SAINT LAURENT (2014)

You couldn’t call this bio-pic on the fashion icon useless; it could, serve as warning for any films in development on Andy Warhol or Michael Jackson, non? In over his head from the start, director Jalil Lespert goes thru the motions of charting high (and low) lights in the life of the famous, and famously troubled, designer, assisted (if that’s the word), now & then, with tagline narration from life & business partner Pierre Bergé. Pierre Niney & Guillaume Gallienne do what amounts to party turns as the couple: one acting out with the occasional female overnighter; the other diving into drugs & boy-toys. Once in a while, Yves boldly tucks a piece of fabric into a boring dress and . . . voilà, haute couture! When all else fails, season with a trio of arias from Maria Callas. Serving cocktails?: Libiamo from TRAVIATA; Suffering for your art?: Vissi d’arte from TOSCA; Fashion Show soundtrack?: the aria from LA WALLY they used in DIVA/’81. No cliché left unattended. YSL wouldn’t have let this leave the atelier.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Yet another commercial nonstarter for those Weinstein boys. Can anyone explain how they do it? Back in MIRAMAX days, finances were like the proverbial shark: keep moving forward or die. Today the Weinstein Company is more like a cinematic Ponzi scheme. One that Quentin Tarantino’s underperforming HATEFUL EIGHT may not be able to shore up.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Get a real haute couture fashion fix (plus Astaire, Hepburn, Thompson & Gershwin) in Stanley Donen’s miraculously right FUNNY FACE/’57. Think Pink!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A BULLET FOR JOEY (1955)

Shortly before Cecil B. DeMille granted Edward G. Robinson unofficial pardon from Hollywood’s ‘Gray List’ with a role in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56, Eddie G. was wrapping up a half-decade of Pinko Purgatory with two underwhelming B pics for Lewis Allen. The second one, ILLEGAL/’55, with Eddie as mob lawyer, limps along, but still bests this lame effort. George Raft co-stars as an exiled, nearly immobile crime boss who sneaks into Canada, with his old gang right behind him, to grab an atomic ‘device’ & scientist. Robinson, sedate but inexorable as the inspector on his trail, manages to add some class, say his idiotic lines and not simply walk thru the script’s inanities. No small accomplishment when even Audrey Totter, stalwart noir sleaze-pot seems embalmed. Yet, what an apt little story for Eddie G. to take on! Rooting out a Commie atomic spy ring when, back in the real world, his career was under a cloud from Hollywood's Commie Witch Hunt. Irony surely not lost on the great actor.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Just before Eddie got tagged by the Hollywood ultra-Right as a dangerous ‘Premature-Anti-Fascist’ (damn ‘modern’ art collector, too!), he turned in one of his best perfs in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s underrated/underseen HOUSE OF STRANGERS/’49.

Friday, February 19, 2016

SPOTLIGHT (2015)

A great story, a decent film . . . decent in all senses of the word. Not much else to say about Tom McCarthy’s film about the small team of special investigative reporters @ The Boston Globe’s SpotLight division who uncovered the disgraceful, systemic epidemic of pedophile Priests in the Boston Catholic Church . . . and borders beyond. On the plus side, the pre-digital/analogue bias of 2001 meant reporters still did research in actual locations (libraries & warehouses, so much more photogenic than computer screens & keyboards). On the negative, McCarthy can no longer shock with Priestly revelations, and he falls victim to ‘walking exposition’ shots in an attempt to add dynamism. McCarthy, who’s pretty new to the directing game, is so determined not to sensationalize his touchy subject matter, he lets things go a little flat just when they need to pop. Not much helped by Masanobu Takayanagi’s drab digital lensing which crucially misses the mood setting specificity of Gordon Willis’s cinematography for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN/’76, that film’s principal glory. Fortunately, there’s a strong cast on hand to play the reporters, lawyers, victims & Catholic leaders, with real standout perfs from Billy Crudup (sending off conflicting impulses with every cracked smile) and Stanley Tucci (nailing the pic’s broadest characterization) as lawyers, while back @ The Globe, Michael Keaton’s editor/reporter does his work selflessly inside the film fabric. Contrast with fellow reporter Mark Ruffalo who pecks nervously at each & every line, cancelling himself out. All told, a good film, to be sure; yet holding something self-congratulatory in its over-rapturous reception.

DOUBLE-BILL: In addition to the obvious choice of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN maybe a classic Warners press drama like FIVE STAR FINAL/’31 which paints its tabloid in a more ambiguous light.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY (1959)

A real stinker. This barely functioning Western has Joel McCrea as Bat Masterson cleaning up Dodge City after his straight-arrow brother (Ed Masterson, who knew?) is taken out of action before the big election for County Sheriff. Toss in a couple of pretty gals to woo; a gaggle of trigger-happy cowboys shooting up Main Street; a philosophizing doctor to run a roulette wheel; plus a mentally handicapped pal to save from a hanging and you’d think something would stick to the wall. But a pretty decent cast smell defeat in the air and wisely phone it in rather than risk embarrassment. Hard to see what else could have been done under Joseph M. Newman listless megging. Note how quickly it all wraps up so everyone can get the heck out of there.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: McCrea, who may have been thinking about signing off with this one, came back after a three year break to star in a proper send-off: Sam Peckinpah’s memorable RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY/’62.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

THE CROOKED WAY (1949)

Journeyman megger Robert Florey wastes a far-fetched, but intriguingly odd set up in this twisty film noir. John Payne stars, toughening up his lightweight leading man act*, as a WWII vet fresh out of rehab, but lost to amnesia. His service record gives him a name and a home town, but when he arrives he’s still in the dark. It’s everyone else who knows all about him! Cops, gangsters, ex-gal pals; he plays along with ‘em all, trying to fill in the blanks before they can take advantage of him. A great gag as the poor schmuck immediately gets picked up for questioning, punched out, or made love to by a series of virtual strangers. How can this idea miss? But miss it does. Playing a blank, Payne’s a little too blank; and Florey doesn’t get much out of a backstory that explains how Payne squealed on old partner Sonny Tufts, a nasty case now out for violent revenge. Still, worth a look if only for the ultra-noiry cinematography of John (Prince of Darkness) Alton, and for a nihilistic shoot-out climax at a warehouse so well staged it warrants a solo curtain call for Production Designer Van Nest Polgase, an unsung Hollywood sage who did the Astaire/Rogers musicals and CITIZEN KANE among his 300+ credits.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Payne’s following in the footsteps of Dick Powell, another light lead who reinvented himself as a tough Private Dick in MURDER, MY SWEET/’44 and the even better/funnier CORNERED/’45.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

SPEEDY (1928)

Harold Lloyd’s last silent release* misses the grand story arc & satisfying emotional heft of his very best films (THE FRESHMAN/’25; THE KID BROTHER/’27), but has its own episodic charm, action thrills & laugh-out-loud delight. Harold, a man of many jobs (if only he could keep one!), is at least constant to fiancé Ann Christy (a faceless replacement for the much missed Jobyna Ralston), but she won’t marry till Granddad settles his dispute with the big money men who are trying to shut down his little one-horse trolley line. After a couple of reels setting up the situations, Harold’s writing team pulls out the stops on three strikingly executed, superbly funny set pieces: A trip to Coney Island (every Luna Park ride now looking like a personal injury lawsuit); Harold driving a hack for a day (with Babe Ruth featured in a Mr. Toad-style wild ride to Yankee Stadium); And a two-tier finale to save the trolley with a curbside neighborhood donnybrook followed up with Harold making like Ben-Hur on a chariot-style trolley race to the finish. Plotting & gags are snatched here & there (Harold overhears plot details via adjoining phone booths @ Yankee Stadium), but deft timing & a general sense of goodwill easily win out in the end. Lots of fun; take the kids.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Criterion’s 2015 restoration is loaded with nifty EXTRAs: CHECK OUT the real life locations as they look today; SEE Harold in home movies without the prosthetic hand-glove he wore to hide his damaged right hand (imagine all those stunts sans opposable thumb!); WATCH the 1919 short BUMPING INTO B’WAY with adorable Bebe Daniels as a wannabee actress & an impossibly young Harold a wannabee playwright.

DOUBLE-BILL: File under Great Minds Think Alike: Buster Keaton filmed his own on-location New York City adventures the very same year in THE CAMERAMAN/’28. Many similar ideas & settings, totally different tone & execution. His last masterpiece.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *While SPEEDY is listed as Lloyd’s final silent, his next, WELCOME DANGER/’29, was all but completed without sound before gaining a synched soundtrack and going thru a partial reshoot to add dialogue sequences. A pure ‘thrill’ film (like SAFETY LAST/’23), the original silent version would certainly have been released in territories & towns not yet wired for sound. Alas, only the unsatisfying Talkie version seems to survive. Hard to believe since Lloyd owned & saved everything. Calling all Eastern European & South American archives!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

YOUNG BILLY YOUNG (1969)

Western specialist Burt Kennedy sometimes wrote, sometimes directed, sometimes did both, rarely with distinction. Early collaborations with Budd Boetticher gave way to standard-issue fare*, often tinged with a coarse, obvious comic angle. But there’s little comedy in this one (not much drama either, come to think of it), with Robert Mitchum taking on a temporary Deputy Marshall job in a lawless town to trap the man who killed his son. (Beware risible subliminal visual flashbacks.) On the way, he picks up sharpshooter Robert Walker, Jr., something of a surrogate son, and their contentious relationship pretty much runs the rest of the show. Lazy stuff, with poorly staged interiors and a climax that’s seems to finish before it starts. You do get to hear Bob amuse himself singing the insipid title track, and Angie Dickinson hangs her shingle up as a squeezable tart. Elsewise, the film should have been a showcase for Walker, but he loses the natural charisma war to erstwhile pal David Carradine whenever they share the frame.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Mitchum ended his feature film career on Johnny Depp/Jim Jarmusch’s artsy, little-seen DEAD MAN/’95, an acquired taste of a Western that’s anything but standard-issue.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS (1960)

One-of-a-kind Backstage-Western from director George Cukor (it's an enchantment or a shrug depending on your POV) follows a traveling theatrical troupe as they skip from town to town in the old West, stopping for dramatic engagements, on-the-road catastrophes, threats from displaced Indian scavengers and lovesick killers-for-hire. Loaded with incident, if not much traditional plot, its script was being rewritten by Walter Bernstein from Dudley Nichols’ draft during filming which probably accounts for the loose structure & lively spontaneity that gives it so much charm. Everyone (well, everyone but a miscast Antony Quinn*) turns in blissed-out comic perfs, no one more so than Sophia Loren as the troupe’s star, spectacular in a series of wasp-waist corsets & an unexpectedly becoming blonde wig. But what really holds everything together is the seemingly paradoxical mix of stylized art design & earthy naturalism of the film. Technically, cinematographer Harold Lipstein, art director Gene Allen & color-coordinator Hoyeningen Huene out-dazzle each other even if the current VOD could do with a color-corrected restoration. Cukor seems to be sharing his delight with us. Out of his fach, but in his element both on and off the stage, reveling in opportunities for sophisticated mise-en-scène wherever he finds it. The final climax is exceptionally well worked out, with a visual slapstick wit to it, and the earlier scenes of marauding Indians uniquely convincing, scary & unsettling. It adds up to very special treat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Maybe the producer simply called the wrong ‘Tony.’ Curtis is the ‘Tony’ they should have tried.

Friday, February 12, 2016

THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

The video era has made director Edgar G. Ulmer (auteur-in-chief of the quickie grade-Z pic) unintentional King of the subfusc Public Domain discount release. Dozens of intriguing titles, few in decent shape. So, all credit to Film Chest for a sharp restoration on this title. If only the film were worth the effort. Made in the wake of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN/’45 and Margaret Lockwood’s generically titled THE WICKED LADY/’45, this period piece (set in Bangor, Maine!) finds Hedy Lamarr glaring one male victim to pieces after another (Gene Lockhart, Louis Hayward, George Sanders) before ravishing them with alternating fits of devotion & derision. Made up to look as much like Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara as possible, Lamarr is too limited an actress to pull off the pic’s central idea that this ruthless, self-centered venal bitch isn’t necessarily feigning when showing her better nature. Lamarr shows nothing but calculation. Passionless instead of dangerous; ridiculous instead of compelling, nothing adds up dramatically. Ulmer does a pretty good job moving his players & camera around, hiding some unhappy studio sets, but this castoff melodrama defeats him. Douglas Sirk supposedly helmed the prologue with junior versions of the leads already showing their worst traits. It’s decidedly creepy.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see Ulmer work with a decent budget and a top flight cast, try RUTHLESS/’47 in Olive Films’ fine restoration. (see below)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

TÔKYÔ NO KÔRASU / TOKYO CHORUS (1931)

Yasujirô Ozu brings a mix-master’s sensibility to this charming domestic silent. Opening on school academy drills & hijinks Harold Lloyd might recognize, it abruptly jumps a decade ahead to follow the family & working life of one former student. A regular cut-up back in the day, now he’s a real butter & egg man (is there a Japanese term for ‘bland solid citizen type?’), trying to keep kids & wife happy and standing up at the office when a near-pensioner is unfairly let go. A dangerous bit of defiance during the Depression. But reconnecting with his strict old teacher, and having the courage to take a temporary step down, may open new doors. Ozu really gives himself a genre workout here, juggling tones & situations that have little reason to fit together. (Leo McCarey’s potluck comedies spring to mind.) And while it’s a lot different than his later films, Ozu-heads will pick right up on the endearingly obstinate behavior of the bratty son & whiny daughter. Tokihiko Okada, is exceptional (and exceptionally handsome) as the father, but all too little known having died less than three years after this from TB.

DOUBLE-BILL: Just a year later, Ozu arranged many of these themes in more personally recognizable form as I WAS BORN, BUT . . . /’32, perhaps his first masterpiece.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: On the Criterion DVD, a rare misfire from silent film pianist/scorer Donald Sosin who gives the whole film a sort of ‘20s jazz/ragtime buzz. Fine in the opening section; less so after that. Suggestions?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

I FOUND STELLA PARISH (1935)

Let’s see. There’s STELLA MARIS/’18, one of Mary Pickford’s best. And STELLA DALLAS, not so hot with Bette Midler in 1990, but great with Barbara Stanwyck in ‘37. Even better with Belle Bennett in ‘25. Of course, there’s always Brando yelling, “Stella! Stella!” Can’t place STELLA PARISH? No wonder, it’s trash. Or rather, as Kay Francis would have said, ‘Twash.’ Francis looks unspeakably glamorous as an American star of the London stage who skips town after opening night with nanny & child (an insufferable Sybil Jason) leaving romantically inclined producer Paul Lukas in the lurch. Hiding out in Manhattan under an assumed name, she’s uncovered by famous British reporter Ian Hunter, who not only finds her, but also falls in love. You’ll guess the rest. Idiotic, but watchable for those with a taste for 1930s women’s-magazine-fodder. It’s also worth a look for anyone curious about what those once ubiquitous personal appearance tours of the notorious might have looked like, since, after the revelations, Stella hits the infamy circuit as headliner before her bookings tumble from first-class playhouses to eight-a-day Burlesque joints. It’s just a five-minute set piece before Kay’s inevitable return to the top, but still an eye-opener. And far livelier than anything this film’s director Mervyn LeRoy did with the subject when he made GYPSY/’62.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Stalwart character actor Barton MacLane barely shows up (in shadow only) to blackmail Francis to America. How much plot got left on the cutting room floor?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Already in serious decline @ Warners, Francis still caught a few breaks there. Try Joe May’s CONFESSION/’37. (see below)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

BROOKLYN (2015)

Lovingly observed coming-of-age/coming-to-America period piece is mainly exceptional in being the sort of gimmick-free ‘shopgirl romance’ once common, now rare in movies. Why they went out of fashion is anyone’s guess. (Too ‘soft’ for high stakes pitch meetings?). Why this one is getting such acclaim is less mysterious: the genre’s sentiment & payoffs remain satisfying as a Sunday supper; it gets the details right without making a fetish of it (the small budget holds scripter Nick Hornsby & director John Crowley in check so they can't swamp the story in needless atmosphere); plus, niceness sells (only one villain in the pic). Saoirse Ronan manages the trick of being both plain & pretty as the Irish gal hoping for a future in NYC. Tough going at first, she’s soon working, studying, dating & chatting up customers while pneumatic tube cylinders come back with receipt & change. But a crisis back home reintroduces her to old country warmth and another possible beau. It’s all quite involving & touching, but when the film’s designated bitch returns to gin up the plot with some late third-act melodrama, it simultaneously gives the film a much needed jolt, adds a false sounding note, and pushes toward a quick resolution that doesn’t entirely convince. When Joan Crawford (and dozens of others) did these things in the ‘30s, the conventions of the day told you where they were going from the start. Now, we need more explication, especially against overwhelming chemistry pulling in an unexpected direction.

DOUBLE-BILL: The conventions of shopgirl romance were already shopworn in 1941 when they got kidded to fine effect with Ginger Rogers debating the merits of TOM DICK AND HARRY.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

This much delayed reboot is a lot like the genetically engineered dinosaur that runs amok in the new & improved theme park: bigger, badder, missing any sense of wonder. There’s only so much a director, especially an inexperienced one like Colin Trevorrow, can do on these corporate vehicles*, but surely he could have done more to help his floundering cast. The danger-prone brothers who inevitably get lost are less cute than cringe-worthy; a few international names, added in to beef up foreign grosses, are borderline unintelligible*; and poor Bryce Dallas Howard, playing a misogynist role model, is inexcusably irritating. Even Chris Pratt, effortlessly fun, silly & winning in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY/’14, comes off more clunky than hunky. And in place of story or character development, big panoramic shots to hide the running-on-empty screenplay. Exec producer Steven Spielberg held up the start date for a rewrite . . . so, it all could have been worse? Depressing.

DOUBLE-BILL: *One of the keys to Spielberg at his best was in how he merged corporate edge with artistic instincts. His two sides have long been severed . . . to the detriment of both. Watch the casual loss happen right before your eyes moving from JAWS/’75 to JURASSIC PARK/’93 to JURASSIC WORLD/’15.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *That’s Irrfan Khan of THE LUNCHBOX/’13 (see below) as owner of the park. The entire budget of which could have been covered by one day’s craft services on this film.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Director Colin Trevorrow is already ‘announced’ for STAR WARS: Episode IX. Did the folks @ Disney watch the film or merely gaze at the bottom line?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

S.O.B. (1981)

Blake Edwards’ Hollywood takedown, a deadly serious poison-pen mirth machine, is usually assumed to be wildly exaggerated for comic effect. True enough for some literally painful slapstick; the rest is, if anything, understated to avoid disbelief. With a dream cast skirting disaster by inches, Edwards works out comic riffs on past personal mega-flops. (DARLING LILY/’70 figures heavily as does the Julie Andrews/Robert Wise bomb STAR/’68, which really did get pulled from distribution, reedited & retitled.) Perfectly capturing the time, place & fear of what remained of Old Hollywood in ‘81, Edwards misjudges ‘the fix,’ putting faith in a little erotic dream sequence & a flash of Ms. Andrews’ perky boobs to save the day. As if. But he vaults over the misstep with a quartet of Hollywood pros: Richard Mulligan, Robert Webber, William Holden & especially Robert Preston who covers himself in clover as a hilarious, nearly wise Dr. Feel-Good.* And you can count on Edwards to reward deserving tv actors often ignored in features; here Robert Vaughn & Larry Hagman get to shine. If only the same could be said for an out-of-her-league Loretta Swit as the gossip columnist wife of Edwards’ original PETER GUNN actor Craig Stevens. Stevens' real wife, Alexis Smith, would have been just right in the part. Busy elsewhere?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Edwards got lots of PC grief using Mickey Rooney as the stereotyped comic Japanese upstairs neighbor to Audrey Hepburn in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S/’61. Damned if he doesn’t do nearly the same thing here using lowbrow comic Larry Storch as Julie Andrews’ Indian Swami at a big Hollywood funeral. Storch is very funny in the part and it’s obvious that Edwards feeds off his baggy-pants humor and the shock of rude energy it gives. It may not change your mind vis-à-vis Rooney, but it does help explain what it’s doing there.

CONTEST: *During the informal wake these four guys have while the rest of the cast is off at the proper studio-lot funeral, Preston tosses out a few quotes from HAMLET. Explain why to win a MAKSQUIBS DVD Write-Up of your choice.

Friday, February 5, 2016

GREEN MANSIONS (1959)

After Wyler, Wilder, Vidor & Donen; before Zinnemann, Huston, Edwards & Cukor; Audrey Hepburn’s charmed directorial fortunes took a hit when actor/husband Mel Ferrer grabbed the reins on this . . . romantic adventure?; magical-realism fable?; sub-symbolist drama a la Maurice Maeterlinck? Ferrer never made another Hollywood feature after this, so it’s hard to know just what he was going after. It’s not exactly bad, just odd, as may well befit W. H. Hudson’s once popular novel and Dorothy Kingsley’s fluttery, inadequate script. A pre-PSYCHO Anthony Perkins, with neck & jawbone to match Hepburn, is met fleeing a South American revolution. He’s out for Mayan gold and dares to search in the native’s forbidden jungle. But he finds no danger, instead, a dazzling forest spirit shaped just like Audrey Hepburn, an innocent beauty with a complicated backstory grumpily related to us by putative grandpa Lee J. Cobb. Ferrer uses real locations for much of the film, switching to soundstage artificiality in the forbidden zone, an idea that’s defeated far more experienced directors. (See Scorsese, NEW YORK, NEW YORK/’77.) Yet, even when it’s dying on screen (most of the time), it holds a certain morbid interest. Entertaining too, what with all the exceedingly fit indigenous types as entomological eye-candy in war dance rituals. Loads of music, too. Perkins sings a folk tune that might be a trial run for ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ and some of the sweeter jungle rhythms are from Brazilian great Heitor Villa-Lobos who runs with the Maeterlinck connection, leaning on Debussy’s PELLÉAS ET MELISANDE as style guide.

DOUBLE-BILL: From Ghibli Animation, Takahata’s THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA/’13 gets a lot closer to bringing this kind of thing off.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

MULHOLLAND FALLS (1997)

An ersatz CHINATOWN meets THE UNTOUCHABLES wannabe (atomic testing & voyeuristic sex films in for water rights & incest) with a roll-call cast (Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Treat Williams, Jennifer Connelly, Daniel Baldwin, Andrew McCarthy, John Malkovich, Kyle Chandler, Ed Lauter, Louise Fletcher, Rob Lowe, William Petersen . . . whew!; plus Bruce Dern showing that’s it’s possible to act in these things) and a truly terrible case of the cutes. Lee Tamahori’s mainstream Hollywood debut after making a splash directing the modern Maori themed ONCE WERE WARRIORS/’94, does him no favors. Set in the ‘50s, everyone might as well be playing dress-up in their crisp period hats as they suck endless ciggies & speed thru the streets of L.A. in curvy, soft-riding cars. On the plus side, Griffith’s original face is still intact, Penn & Malkovich duke it out for worst perf, and Nolte morphs inadvertently into character actor Pat Hingle. Even pros like composer Dave Grusin and great cinematographer Haskell Wexler seem off their game. Let’s blame producers Richard & Lili Fini Zanuck.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Two years on, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97 got this right.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For a change, the period giveaway isn’t the ladies’ hair-styling, but the men’s, especially all those untrimmed necks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

BEDEVILLED (1955)

Hiding in this muddle, a late effort from fast-fading helmer Mitchell Leisen, is a decent enough idea for a Hitchcockian thriller (or rather what a lot of folks think makes one), merging THE 39 STEPS’ innocent-man-on-the-run with priestly-guilt of I CONFESS/’53. Gussied up with shot-on-location Paris CinemaScope, Steve Forrest is stiff as a priest-in-training who throws in his lot with Anne Baxter’s troubled lady-with-a-past. (She’d done similar duty for Hitch in I CONFESS against Montgomery Clift’s priest.*) The first couple of acts are dreary stuff, with Leisen showing little comfort in the widescreen format or in displaying Parisian flavor. The plot has something or other to do with the murdered married lover of Baxter’s nightclub chanteusey; the cops & hoods chasing her; a race to get out of the country; and Forrest’s possible bending of religious vows for l’amour. Leisen isn’t a whiz on suspense mechanics, but the third act does a bit better balancing romantic temptation with churchly sanctuary. Maybe with a fresher print to show off Freddie Young’s lensing there’d be enough Gallic charm to cover a multitude of cinematic sins . . . but probably not.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Hitch’s I CONFESS. Better, and a lot more interesting, than its rep.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

DABBA / THE LUNCHBOX (2013)

Ritesh Batra’s debut as writer/director is more savory appetizer than entrée, and perhaps too low key for its own good, but also consistently charming & engrossing, with a great gimmick for a narrative engine in Mumbai’s famously efficient lunchbox delivery system. It opens on a neat visual essay as homemakers & shops in the teeming megalopolis stack & sack interlocking metal food containers for the daily pickup. Soon, each personalized parcel is crisscrossing the city thru a variety of conveyances, destined for some office desk in time for lunch. But occasionally, one goes astray, and a widowed, soon-to-retire claims clerk winds up with another man’s lunch, kicking off an unlikely friendship with the discontented wife behind the perfectly spiced food. Notes are exchanged surreptitiously, impersonal at first, soon growing almost uncomfortably intimate. Can love come via lunchbox courier? Intelligently, if at times over-literally worked out by Batra, and very well played by Irrfan Khan (the adult ‘Pi’ in LIFE OF PI/’12) and Nimrat Kaur as the young, disenchanted wife, the story is kept from any monotony with help from Khan’s new, resilient assistant Nawazuddin Siddiqui, sporting some of the looks & moxie of a young Tony Curtis. A slight adjustment to match the film’s strolling rhythm, and it’s all quite unexpectedly moving.