Now With More Than 3000 Reviews! Go Nuts - Read 'Em All!!

WELCOME! Use the search engines on this site (or your own off-site engine of choice) to gain easy access to the complete MAKSQUIBS Archive; over 2500 posts and counting. (New posts added every day or so.)

You can check on all our titles by typing the Title, Director, Actor or 'Keyword' of your choice in the Search Engine of your choice (include the phrase MAKSQUIBS) or just use the BLOGGER Search Box at the top left corner of the page.

Feel free to place comments directly on any of the film posts and to test your film knowledge with the CONTESTS scattered here & there. (Hey! No Googling allowed. They're pretty easy.)

Send E-mails to MAKSQUIBS@yahoo.com . (Let us know if the TRANSLATE WIDGET works!) Or use the Profile Page or Comments link for contact.

Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, September 30, 2016

THE FRISCO KID (1979)

Gene Wilder’s a Polish rabbi who needs to cross an ocean & a continent to reach his new position in San Francisco; Harrison Ford’s the cowboy bandit who reluctantly helps get him there after they cross paths: let the misadventures & mismatched friendship begin. A nice set-up, and a nice film. And if Ford’s still a bit raw, Wilder brings a sort of blissed-out contentment to his stranger-in-a-strange-land shtick that’s both touching & authentic. If only the script were less of a hit-and-miss affair; or if director Robert Aldrich had more of a light touch to go along with the action staging; or if lenser Robert Hauser’s soundstage lighting wasn’t as bright & unattractive as a Mel Brooks comedy (good out on location though); or if the Native American segment weren’t cringe-inducing. Ah well, sometimes you takes what you gets. And what does work here, mostly Wilder holding to his faith and taking just as much delight in misfortune as in good luck, is pretty special.

DOUBLE-BILL: Going a little left of field, there’s the French slapstick of THE MAD ADVENTURES OF ‘RABBI’ JACOB/’73. Too bad that film’s writer/director (Gérard Oury) wasn’t in charge here.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: There’s a lovely gag in here, a nice bit of real Americana, when Wilder loses all to a trio of con-men and is rescued by a community of what he thinks are fellow Jews. Turns out, the lookalike tribe is Amish and speak a German his Polish-inflected Yiddish can’t quite handle. Still, they manage to figure it out.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1956)

Steven Spielberg’s feature debut didn’t find much of a general audience on release (it still hasn’t).*  But just about everyone in the biz soon knew all about it; and that a new, assured voice had arrived. Sheer technical control gives off an almost fizzy delight in the constant multi-plane staging, a necessity in a story that’s basically one long car chase . . . with about fifty cars. Even better, he seemed able to get warmly funny perfs out of just about anyone: newbie stars like Goldie Hawn; old-hands like Ben Johnson; even toddlers. (Check out the wail when the little tyke gets hauled in front of reporters.) Dramatic balance in a story that moves from goofball to suspense to tragic is another issue, but it gets by, much helped by Vilmos Zsigmond’s handsome Americana lensing. (Watch for a spectacular sunset as two Louisiana cops drive down a highway; and a neat precursor to Spielberg’s signature zoom-in/pull back trick shot made famous in JAWS, seen here in a try-out shot from behind a sniper.) All in service of a sweetly appalling, fact-inspired story about a slightly dense young mom who cons her husband out of a Pre-Release Jail Facility after state authorities take away her little boy. The poor guy (exceptionally well played by William Atherton) would have been out in four months, but possible consequences don’t register to Hawn’s squirrel-brained character. Spielberg pushes the BONNIE AND CLYDE meets SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT aspects harder than he has to, the real couple were more White Trash than Folk Hero, but the kinetic rush of the action scenes is so precisely staged (and readable) that the cars, traffic & crashes take on a near human personality. The next film for Spielberg and producers David Brown & Richard D. Zanuck, the one with a fish called Bruce, had a lot less trouble finding an audience.

DOUBLE-BILL: Clint Eastwood’s A PERFECT WORLD/’93, with a surprising Kevin Costner, tells a similar story with a more consistent, downbeat tone. OR: See what Jonathan Demme gleaned from this for MELVIN AND HOWARD/’80.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: And yes, right from the start, Spielberg has John Williams on music.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Truly, one of the all-time worst ad campaigns. Just look at that poster.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

THE YOUNGER BROTHERS (1949)

This eminently missable B-Western from the Brothers Warner somehow gained TechniColor treatment. (From one ‘Brothers’ to another?) Whatever the case, those Younger Brothers prove no match for the Jameses in the Western Outlaw Brotherhood.* There’s a decent enough idea for development with the boys trying to keep their noses clean long enough to win full pardons while ex-Pinkerton agent Fred Clark attempts to trip them up (revenge for injuries he blames on them), and Bandit Queen Janis Paige (yep, Janis Paige!) busy setting them up as patsies on a big bank robbery. But everyone’s just going thru the motions here. Well, everyone but leading man Wayne Morris who must have been going thru the lunch wagon. Was he trying to eat his way off the pic? Even the TechniColor looks out of sorts in a studio print so dark you can barely make out the nighttime action. Maybe that’s for the best.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Check out the Youngers and the Jameses (amongst other brothers) in Walter Hill’s near-classic All-Star/All-Brothers Western THE LONG RIDERS/’80.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939)

Raoul Walsh, after a quarter century directing, started his great Warners run with this big, confident gangster saga. Often cited as the acme in the Warners Gangster Cycle, it’s certainly the plushest, with a strong cast working behind James Cagney’s fast-rising/fast-sinking (Prohibition/Stock Market Crash) WWI vet turned mob-chief. Priscilla Lane never connects as the sweet gal he improbably pines for, but everyone else (from Frank McHugh’s cabbie pal & Humphrey Bogart’s sadistic weak-cored thug, to Paul Kelly’s spaghetti twirling mob rival & Gladys George’s over-the-hill club hostess) give unforgettable turns. George all but steals the pic (she gets the famous last line), while Bogie’s weaselly rub-out is so vanity-free, it’s almost embarrassing to watch. Cagney, still lean, almost gaunt-looking, does one amazing thing after another, mostly in quiet moments or with his eyes. An unbelievably resourceful actor. Yet, as a whole, the film misses the raw & memorably näif dramatics of the early ‘30s classics. Like a lot of late-‘30s Hollywood product, it’s too polished for its own good, nothing sticks. Technically it may dwarf the primitive Talkies, but something precious is lost in smoothing out the rough edges. Freshness? Style? Verisimilitude? Attitude? Perhaps just too knowing. Still pretty great.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney’s mob beginnings are on display in THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31, or watch him & helmer Michael Curtiz keep things edgy the year before in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES/’38.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Parental Units!  There’s a veritable Between-the-Wars high school history lesson embedded in the dramatic structure.

Monday, September 26, 2016

THE MEDDLER (2015)

Susan Sarandon is more disturbing than delightful as a widowed mom with a near pathological need to be needed who moves to California to invade the life of her 30-something, unmarried, screenwriter daughter. The real writer/director, Lorene Scafaria, turns in a remarkably unbecoming passive-aggressive portrait of a challenging relationship, but seems to be under the impression she’s made a feel-good pic. Mom’s really more of an out-of-control controlling menace, yet the film has her bumbling her way into reuniting father & daughter; mother & son; brother & brother; gathering two romantic possibilities; even paying thousands for a near-stranger’s dream wedding. Something objectionable in every storyline, even as the film ticks off every structural ‘beat’ UCLA Film School has to offer. All shot with such glare-inducing brightness it makes the opening credits hard to read. Maybe to protect the innocent.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Hollywood never gets the simplest cooking scene right. Yet here, the one honest moment in the entire pic comes via a properly made Toad-in-the-Hole.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: If you have to have a feel-good pic about a busybody who can’t help but poke her nose into everyone’s life (for the better), you could at least turn it into a delightful goof-fest of a musical like BELLS ARE RINGING/’60 with the inimitable Judy Holliday. (BTW, the Pop song cuts in THE MEDDLER are tooth-achingly bad.)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

DURAK / THE FOOL (2014)

Utilitarian, but effective muckraking Russian film about a young plumber who tries to do the right thing after an emergency call on a burst hot water pipe uncovers the imminent collapse of a nine storey apartment building housing 800+ people. And since no good deed goes unpunished (especially in today’s Russia), his honest report uncovers a town’s worth of systemic corruption where everyone, from the mayor on down, has taken their cut by literally painting over structural problems to pocket allocated funds. Now, while it’s too late to fix the problem, there still might be time to find a scapegoat or two to pin the blame on. Caught in the crossfire, an idealist like our young plumber, can either get with the program or get out of town. Writer/director Yuriy Bykov knows his small town ethics and, with a couple of exceptions for old-school Soviet scenery-chewers, gets really striking perfs from a wide ranging cast that finds villains and decency in unexpected places. A touch more resolution at the end wouldn’t have hurt, but this is strong, honest work. How he got it thru film board committees is a mystery . . . but an encouraging one.

DOUBLE-BILL: For city contract corruption on a bigger scale (and a stupendous building collapse), try Francesco Rosi’s HANDS OVER THE CITY/LE MANI SULLA CITTÀ/’63 with Rod Steiger.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

Woody Allen tries on German Expressionism to little effect in a film that might have worked better as one of his New Yorker literary pieces. Largely drawn from Fritz Lang’s M/’31 (criminal city-gangs hunt down serial killer) and Kafka’s THE TRIAL (innocent putz caught in bureaucratic nightmare of assumed guilt), the film never finds the unified tone needed to make this nighttime house-crawl flippantly suspenseful. And the all-star cast feels wasted in glorified cameos when they’re not simply wrong for the part. Good work, however, from John Cusack who brings a touch of Russian intellectual despair as a wealthy whore-house habitué, like something out of Pushkin. Woody apes the style of studio-bound UFA (forced-perspective sets, damp surfaces, like G. W. Pabst with a Kurt Weill soundtrack), but cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, trying to distinguish this from the polished surfaces of film noir, hits on grainy low-contrast b&w and too much panning, as if Woody wanted to recreate the reduced grey-scale he remembered from faded prints first encountered at some West Side revival house in the ‘50s.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In their very different ways, Orson Welles and Béla Tarr offer far more engaged (and entertaining) responses to similar fare in THE TRIAL/’62 (difficult, but it grows on you) and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES/’00 (inexplicable and great).

Friday, September 23, 2016

IVANOVO DETSTVO / IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962)

One of the great feature debuts, Andrei Tarkovsky brought striking vision & elliptical story technique to what might have been just another heroic Soviet-Realist dip into the ‘Great Patriotic War’ Laid out in heightened realism for scenes at the front (where a river separates Soviet & German forces), and a more stylized dreamworld to capture a lost Pastoral past, the film mainly focuses on the unit’s top scout, 12 year-old Ivan. Stubborn & revenge-minded after losing his entire family, he’d only run away from a group home or military school. Plus, he’s the best reconnaissance man they’ve got. (A romantic sidebar between two officers & a young nurse has some trouble fitting in.) For the most part, Tarkovsky hits uncanny tones & rhythms that feel exactly right, pulling off a fable-like quality and epic sweep to this intimate war story. Uncredited story editor Andrei Konchalovsky probably deserves a nod for tamping down the Tarkovsky navel-gazing instincts that sunk so many of his acclaimed later projects, giving the film a narrative drive that carries us over the missing story beats of a more traditional film. (Tarkovsky mavens resent the note of conventionality, but this film, and his next, ANDREI RUBLEV/’66, gain grounding from Konchalovsky’s input, finding a happy medium between Tarkovsky mystical & Konchalovsky mundane.) Original in many ways, IVAN is still a first feature and the list of influences is long, from the Soviet CRANES ARE FLYING/’57 to Mizoguchi’s UGETSU/’53. Though the real touchstone may have been Albert Lamorisse’s WHITE MANE/’53.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Unexpectedly, after winning the Golden Bear @ Venice, the Italian Communist Press denounced the film! Ah, the ways of Party Line are mysterious. So too the reprieves , as the attack was soon ‘corrected.’

DOUBLE-BILL: *Try one of the ‘influences’ listed above (though CRANES now plays as unintentional parody).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)

John Huston’s much-admired, doom-laden caper pic may be too neatly plotted for its own good, too much the ‘well-made’ play. But it has pace, action, great character acting from its leading players, and captures substrata inner-city crime with less studio stylization, more Neo-Realistic grit than commonly seen at the time. Very well caught by lenser Harold Rosson in grainy, deglamorized style. (Elia Kazan went even farther that year in real inner-city locations with PANIC IN THE STREETS/’50.) Everybody gives standout perfs: jewel-heist mastermind Sam Jaffe fruity & straightforward; enforcer Sterling Hayden psychotic & stoic; safe cracker Antony Caruso chilly pro/tender family guy. The rest of the crew all get the same yin/yang treatment, a curse of the ‘well-made’ play. (There’s also a Production Code sop with a late-innings speech to let us know they've pinched the story’s corrupt cop. Delivered & shot with little conviction.) But even when the story turns mechanical, and the gears show, it’s so involving (and fun!), you may not notice that we never leave the shallow end of this melodramatic pool.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film gave a big break to Marilyn Monroe as shady attorney Louis Calhern’s sweetly dumb mistress. She’s good, too, though her chin looks different here than later and she needs the right angle to look her best. Something cinematographer Harold Rosson knew about, having been married to Jean Harlow.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The trailer is positively loaded with SPOILERS, so beware.

DOUBLE-BILL: Five years later, Jules Dassin would burn all the fat off the caper genre with the brutally honest, game-changing RIFIFI/’55.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

TREASURE PLANET (2002)

Ultra-ambitious, ultra-expensive (and ultra-catastrophic at the Box-Office), Ron Clements & John Musker’s Sci-Fantasy gloss on Robert Louis Stevenson’s TREASURE ISLAND mixes analogue & computer animation with panache, but is stopped in its tracks by character development missteps in both form & personality. Young Jim Hawkins, who puts the treasure hunt in motion, becomes a typically sullen, floppy-haired sit-com teen, a whiny pain, with shipmates who might have been drawn from the original STAR WARS’ cantina. Worse, the two other leads, an ungainly Captain Cat Lady and a doggish scientist, go all interspecies on us. Kind of icky; with the litter to prove it! As for Long John Silver, he’s a sort of Six-Million-Dollar Cyborg with Swiss Army Knife appendages. Everything’s too busy, too cute; and who’s the likely target audience? The creative staff didn’t figure that one out either which may account for the film’s lack of confidence in itself. What a cast of voice-actors, though! Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson, with sweet late-credit perfs from Roscoe Lee Browne & Patrick McGoohan. But about halfway in, just as Young Jim overhears the crew plotting to take over the ship, RLS’s foolproof storyline kicks in and things start working better. Narrative traction really bumps up with the appearance of B.E.N. (the novel’s ancient island castaway, re-imagined as a damaged robot with Martin Short on vocal). No Disney classic, but those who hang on will be reasonably rewarded.

DOUBLE-BILL: Disney’s own TREASURE ISLAND/’50, the one with Robert Newton’s famously hammy Long John Silver, has always been top-rated, but M-G-M’s lux 1934 edition, with Wallace Beery’s considerable LJS, has an ace in director Victor Fleming, unsung master of the YA form in films like CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS/’37 and THE WIZARD OF OZ/’39.

Monday, September 19, 2016

THE MISSION (1986)

For a brief time in the mid-‘80s, Roland Joffé was considered quite the prestigious helmer. (Pretentious to the detractors.) Whichever camp you fell into, his reign was brief; two films and out.* This was the second, a sort of White Filmmaker’s Burden saga about 18th Century Jesuits bringing their beliefs and good deeds to forest-dwelling South American Indians, only to find their ‘good works’ sacrificed on the commercial altar of financial & territorial agreements between Portugal, Spain and the Papal Authorities. Socio-politico catnip to scripter Robert Bolt who rehashes themes from his A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS/’66, splitting his upstanding man character between Jeremy Irons’ pure man-of-faith and Robert De Niro’s impure man-of-doubt-and-action. (De Niro even takes on Thomas More’s forced confession, played here as groveling apology.) And that’s Ray McNally as the Papal litigate issuing realpolitik justice a la Thomas Cromwell. In truth, the construct shouldn’t work at all (and not a jot’s worth of thought on how the Jesuits also destroy a unique indigenous primitive culture), but Joffé’s physical production captures something raw & awesome, helped by the South American scenic wonders so brilliantly captured by Chris Menges, and from Ennio Morricone’s apt & ravishing score. (Dumbfoundingly good.) De Niro, as he often does when working outside his urban-contemporary fach, relies on a one-size-fits-all intimidating stare. (Even more underwhelming with a young Liam Neeson working alongside him, and perfect for the part.) But Jeremy Irons, as the Jesuit leader, doesn’t put a foot wrong. And such feet! Joffé going all out with a ‘how beautiful the feet’ fetish in shot selection.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *After forgettable disappointments in Los Alamos (FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY/’89) and India (CITY OF JOY/’92), Joffé never really recovered from his risible rethink of THE SCARLET LETTER/’95 with Demi Moore. (In truth, it was over for Joffé when he tagged on a final accusatory stare from McNally after this film's end credits.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Less melodrama, more Christian humility in 17th Century Canada as Jesuit Missionaries try to convert Algonquins in Bruce Beresford’s fine/mysterious/unnerving BLACK ROBE/’91.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A ZORI ZDES TIKHIE / AT DAWN IT’S QUIET HERE (1972)

Big patriotic USSR war-porn corn from famous novel of beautiful, True-Blue (oops!, True-Red!) all women anti-aircraft unit. Shoot down many enemy planes (Huzza!, reward with nude sauna!), but get over heads when male commanding officer lead five ‘volunteers’ (‘Call out names’) into wood to hunt down pair of enemy scouts. Bolshoi trouble ahead when find not two, but sixteen in German unit. Soldier girl sent thru marshland for reenforcements, rest play-act as loggers, in hope to redirect Nazi column long way round lake. Writer/director Stanislav Rostotskiy show much fondness for visually idealized flashbacks of happy days, switching from monochrome to heightened color like for Jacques Demy musical. Very artistic, da? Then back to grim b&w reality. Tracking scenes in woods work best, as enemy spotted from afar; patient and believable. Happy ending too, at least for film, with Best Foreign Pic Oscar® nom., and USSR People’s Artist prize for Rostotskiy.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hollywood also like noble gals in WWII, beginning with SO PROUDLY WE HAIL!/’43.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

THE PROPHET (2014)

Kahlil Gibran’s famous novel-with-poems, known by just about everyone, read by . . . whom? (Apparently, it’s as ubiquitous a wedding gift as Dr. Seuss OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO is for graduations.) But as a movie, even an animated one, a tough nut to crack. What do you do with the poems? And what’s left without them? Writer/director Roger Allers, with Salma Hayek as driving-force producer, graft on a sentimental story about a silent little troublemaker (eventually voiced by Quvenzhané Wallis) who befriends political-dissident poet Liam Neeson as he journeys to the capital. Freed after a seven-year term, he thinks he’s being shipped home, but an unexpected stop in the city may be his last. It sounds like a workable solution, with eight ‘teaching’ poems recited along the route, each drawn in a different animation style by a different award-winning animator. But the story relationships all feel contrived or too cute. (The girl & her tough-talking mom are a particular pain.) And the main story’s animation style, partially chosen to let the more abstract/colorful styles used for the poems stand out, is tasteful in all the wrong ways. Computer-generated to ape watercolor earthtones, with slightly off-balanced, ill-proportioned bodies. And only a couple of the poems (sounding very New Agey) really come off in the given animation, ranging from the worst (Bill Plympton) to the best (Tomm Moore in what looks like an homage to Richard Williams). In sum, a very mixed bag.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hayek voices the mother, but for some reason they’ve made her look like Minnie Driver. Minnie Driver? Sue, Selma, sue!

Friday, September 16, 2016

YORU NO ONNATACHI / WOMEN OF THE NIGHT (1948)

Tough call on this forbiddingly dark post-WWII drama from Kenji Mizoguchi. Shot on blasted locations and drab interior sets, it focuses on single women trying to carve out a living before Japan’s late-‘40s recovery kicks in. Less stylized than his later films on similar subjects, it uses a Neo-Realist palette right from the opening as a struggling mother tries to sell some old clothes hoping to raise enough cash to buy food for her sick child. She comes away with a token’s worth of yen and some bitter advice: don’t sell your old clothes, sell yourself. And it’s mostly downhill from there with a sexually persistent boss at work (maybe he’ll pop the question), his dealings in opium (be a good girl and hide this package while the police poke around), even discovering he's carrying on a serious affair with your sister (now pregnant & diseased). Dire as this all sounds, Mizoguchi’s approach keeps you involved in the material, no small achievement since there’s almost certainly two or three reels missing. (Hard to get a handle on this as neither the Criterion DVD nor IMDb has much clarifying info.) But it does make a downward spiral into a fast slide. A brief respite in a women’s facility with a ‘tough love’ approach to wayward girls is loaded with interest and sharply characterized. But we’re in-and-out too fast. Frustrating, like a lot in here. Still, completists will need to watch, in spite of a subfusc print & borrowings from Beethoven’s Fifth(?!) in the music score.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *Non-completists are far better served by Mizoguchi’s last film on the subject, STREET OF SHAME/’56.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966)

Woody Allen’s goofball rewrite of an already silly Japanese Spy vs Spy film (reportedly something called KEY OF KEYS/’65) redubs all the dialogue as bespoke sketch-comedy (in English) to mild, if slightly overextended, comic effect. The main gag makes the film’s ‘McGuffin,’ the top-secret item everyone’s dying to get their hands on, a recipe for egg salad. But really good egg salad. A precursor of sorts to the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 formula (take a bad film and record voice-over snark), the jokes are few & far-between for the first couple of reels, but eventually, Allen’s wisenheimer voice & silly sounding non-sequiturs begin to hit their mark. And, as a bonus, the Image DVD has sourced an excellent print which reveals the Japanese original as a knowing bit of bright, trashy fun in its own right. Then there’s that comma, variously there or not there in the film publicity. WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? is a salutation. While WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY?, sans comma, is smutty, suggestive, salacious. So too this Image DVD with a soundtrack that comes two ways. The ever so slightly more risqué theatrical release; or the slightly bowdlerized version presumably prepared for tv sales. Fifty years on, both coming off as harmless.

DOUBLE-BILL: Allen’s real film debut as a triple-threat (writer/director/actor) came three years later in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN/’69, still decidedly funny stuff.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

COMMAND DECISION (1948)

M-G-M tapped nearly half their top male contract players for this formulaic WWII loneliness-of-command pic. Taken from a hit B’way play, there’s far too much action happening off-stage (er, off-screen). Not just in-flight action, but stuff happening right in the next room. And what a lot of speechifying these captains & generals make; top brass Walter Pidgeon & Clark Gable deliver back-to-back five minute orations. Maybe if the characters had more involving backstories? But the only one we really get into involves Captain John Hodiak, waiting to hear if he’s become a dad before his next bombing mission. (No points for guessing the outcome.) The main story angle has Gable running unacceptable casualties on preemptive air strikes against German jet plane factories, pushing against a fast closing window of weather opportunity. Lose this advantage and we could lose the war. But it’s a near impossible political sell. The big cast (note all those inappropriately smiling faces on our poster) are mostly camouflage for a skimpy plot. SURPRISE!; damned if it doesn’t work anyway. Moth-eaten character tics and worn-out story tropes seem nearly fresh; a master class in movie star acting. It has its limits, of course. For contrast, watch character actor Ray Collins as a civilian soldier with a technical specialty, to see something that digs a little deeper without making a fuss over it. Officially Sam Wood directs, but it sure looks like vet M-G-M producer Sidney Franklin was the man calling the shots.

DOUBLE-BILL: See the same basic idea done right in next year’s TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH/’49.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The most impressive visual element has huge war maps with small figures silhouetted in front. Cribbed from the original B’way staging of legendary scenic designer Jo Mielziner?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (2015)

Classic, oft-filmed Agatha Christie murder-mystery plops ten unfortunates on an isolated isle for some vague social gathering, then starts offing them one-by-one until ‘then there were none.’ But with no one else on the scene . . . whodunit? It’s an irresistible set-up (Quentin Tarantino pinched the idea for THE HATEFUL EIGHT/’15), but where previous versions play the material as black comedy or deadly farce, this BBC three-parter (Craig Viveiros/Basi Akppabio direction; Sarah Phelps script) takes the book seriously, perhaps too seriously. The first two parts work best, with an impressive physical production (great dark & stormy nights) and a wonderfully varied, pitch-perfect cast. Standouts include Douglas Booth as a stupendously rotten/ill-fated actor (no spoiler here, everyone’s ill-fated!); Aidan Turner steaming up the joint as a mercenary with no regrets (you’ll see why he’s in the James Bond replacement sweepstakes); and Burn Gorman (our beloved Guppy from BLEAK HOUSE/’05) as a cop with a taste for bashing ‘Nancy Boys.’* Plus, fans of the late Christopher Lee will delight in hearing Charles Dance pick up the mantle for doom-filled line readings. The last few twists, and the big reveal are a bit of an overheated tussle, but this is unusually strong Christie.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Speaking of unmentionable ‘trigger’ words, the book’s original U.K. title was TEN LITTLE NIGGERS, switched variously for Stateside publishing & film adaptations into TEN LITTLE INDIANS or AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. In this version, the poem that plots the murders has been defanged to Ten Little Soldier Boys. How long before that too needs to be sanitized?

LINK: Some swear by this relatively faithful Russian version; others can’t get past that peculiar style of indicative Russian acting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUntFahQUrE

Sunday, September 11, 2016

DEEP VALLEY (1947)

Forgotten convict-on-the-run thriller comes with psychological trimmings and hints of a more interesting, slightly perverse film hiding in plain sight just under the surface. (And what surface in Ted McCord’s thru-a-glass-darkly lensing!) Ida Lupino stutters in fear as the mistreated daughter of Fay Bainter & Henry Hull, a couple estranged within their rundown hillbilly home. But change is a’coming in the form a new highway, built with convict labor overseen by Wayne Morris. Lupino sets her eyes on one hardluck convict, Dane Clark, a guy who hits first and hardly regrets it. But then, he’s never had anything to strive for. So, when an avalanche at the work site sets him on the run, Lupino’s eager to help. Director Jean Negulesco might as well be auditioning for next year’s breakthrough on JOHNNY BELINDA/’48 (where the handicap is upped from stuttering to deafness*) while the plot mechanics recall Lupino’s moving work in HIGH SIERRA/’41. (Very fine here, in Hollywood tradition, she’s more beautiful than ever in deglamorized mode.) But the film keeps drawing back from its troubling issues. The parents kiss-and-make-up with indecent ease, while a stunning bit of acting between Bainter & Lupino that must have been influenced by Tennessee William’s recent THE GLASS MENAGERIE, isn’t followed up at all. Same for the strange sexual overtones that switch on between Lupino & ‘nice’ foreman Morris when he suddenly turns aggressive, pressing too hard after she brings him a beer. The pic’s a basketful of psychological open wounds just waiting to be addressed.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Second-tier stars, like Lupino & Clark, were also handy as a threats to similar, if much bigger star types. Lupino could be used to keep, say, Bette Davis ‘in line,’ while Clark did the same for (or is it to?) John Garfield. So, no accident that the studio let them go just as the bigger stars were also winding things down on the lot; no longer needed as leverage.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Lupino did play a blind girl in Nick Ray’s man-on-the-run thriller ON DANGEROUS GROUND/’51.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

MAX DUGAN RETURNS (1983)

A Prodigal Father story from Neil Simon. Written for the screen, not a play adaptation, it has its share of forced comic moments (the Simon gag reflex working for good & evil), but it largely avoids the metallic edge of his lesser stage work at the time.* Whether from an expert cast or from Herbert Ross’s no-frills/straight-ahead direction, the jokes feel more grounded, believably attached to emotional situations. Jason Robards, in lighter form than usual, is scapegrace dad to Marsha Mason (uncomfortably blonde here). A single mom raising teenage Matthew Broderick (debuting with preternatural comic timing), her father left when she was a child. Now he’s walked back in, anxious to make up for lost time before it’s too late (he’s got a bum ticker), with half a mill of ill-gotten gains to lavish on her. And then there’s Donald Sutherland, the legit new guy in her life who also happens to be a police detective. (Someone gave Sutherland a perfectly awful real cop hair cut. Neat touch.) Just right in scale & sentiment, the film quickly corrects course after any wrong turns and doesn’t overplay its modest hand. It’s truly nice.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Simon & Ross must have taken lessons from what didn’t work after collaborating on a somewhat similar stage-to-screen transfer, I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES/’82, tinny on every level.

Friday, September 9, 2016

CHAYKOVSKIY / TCHAIKOVSKY (1970)

A big galumphing 70mm Soviet mediocrity, this relic from the Brezhnev era pushed cultural hegemony at home and sought prestige abroad. Sergey Bondarchuk’s alternately jaw-dropping & inert version of WAR AND PEACE/’66 (7'7" and a billion dollars) remains the best known example of the form. Hack director Igor Talankin must have been in the good graces of the party bosses at SovFilm to get this lavish production off the ground; too bad he couldn’t get the infamous SovColor film stock to stabilize tint densities or stop fluttering. Charting the sorrowful life of Pyotr Ilyich as refracted in his compositions might have worked (in fact, it briefly does in a sequence on his opera PIQUE DAME*), but the film mostly sinks toward arbitrary narrative jumps as assorted waxwork figures come & go. And it’s not even bad enough to laugh at, like one of those classical music Hollywood bio-pics. (A SONG TO REMEMBER/’47, anyone?) Adding insult to injury, KINO’s embedded subtitles only display properly in anamorphic mode . . . except it’s not anamorphically mastered! Enlarge the ‘flat’ picture to fill the screen and half the titles disappear.) Long time Hollywood composer Dmitri Tiomkin returned to his Russia roots to exec produce this and to arrange/conduct the musical excerpts (alas, not very well recorded). All told, the film’s about as convincing as a 'Soviet Life' editorial of the day.

DOUBLE-BILL: The same year found Ken Russell mauling Tchaikovsky in THE MUSIC LOVERS/’70, hitting hard on the gay angle that goes missing from the Soviet pic. But to see Russell, and the classical music bio-pic at its best, try his superb tv-film SONG OF SUMMER: FREDERICK DELIUS/’68. OR: *PIQUE DAME fanciers should try to see Thorold Dickinson’s elegant & scary version of it, THE QUEEN OF SPADES/’49, with great perfs from Anton Walbrook & Edith Evans.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

PYGMALION (1938)

Pretty much a triumph all ‘round. In this superb filming (co-directed by Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard; delightfully scored by Arthur Honegger), George Bernard Shaw’s play moves at nearly twice the speed as its famous musical adaptation into MY FAIR LADY/’64, even accounting for the missing songs. (Though, at times, they really are missed.) Shaw, perhaps inadvertently, let his guard down on this transformation story about a common flower peddler who learns to speak & act like a lady by an eccentric phonetics professor. Much as he hated to admit it, this couple were meant for each other. (It’s why he wrote that contrarian epilogue about their futures apart.*) With one exception, the cast scores over the later film, especially Wendy Hiller who proves an all but unmatchable Shavian in her film debut. (‘50s tv clips of Julie Andrews in the role show a remarkably similar Eliza.) As Higgins, Howard is completely charming which is a bit of a problem. Playing at the very limits of his range, he’s too much the pushover. Missing Rex Harrison’s ‘attack’ and sense of threat in the part, Howard can’t get much past befuddlement. Still, it’s a legitimate reading and a lot is gained from filming this as a contemporary story of 1938, and in holding the production to something well below the gargantuan. Cinematographer Harry Stradling came back to shoot the musical; costume designers Schiaparelli & Worth, alas, did not. Live on stage, the Shaw play can now seem to dawdle, while the musical (largely adapted from the film, not the cooler stage version) is all but foolproof. On film, the dawdling is reversed. Just watch the confrontation scene between Eliza & Higgins when they meet at his mother’s after she’s left. In MY FAIR LADY, it just sits there. But here, in Hiller’s extraordinary reading, the brief slips in grammar can break your heart.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: At the royal ball, Eliza is ‘found out’ by a famous linguistic specialist. Seems she’s really a Hungarian Princess! Ironic, since the only Hungarian blood on screen is Leslie Howard! Hungarian on his father’s side.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Shaw’s famously sour epilogue, the one where he tells how Eliza married dim-witted loverboy Freddy Eynsford-Hill, was probably a reaction against the performance of the first Henry Higgins, Herbert Beerbohm Tree who felt the man too cold & unfeeling. (And he was playing against Shaw favorite Mrs. Patrick Campbell.) To mitigate, he’d toss flowers at her when she wasn’t looking! Presumably, all must have been forgiven since David Tree, who plays lovestruck Freddy Eynsford-Hill, was Sir Herbert’s grandson.

DOUBLE-BILL: Never seen MY FAIR LADY? Watch it first, then see PYGMALION. Elsewise, the musical tends to drag, especially in the second half. OR: See the Shavian dream-team of Wendy Hiller & Rex Harrison together in the rather less filmic MAJOR BARBARA/’41.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

ESCAPE ME NEVER (1947)

Journeyman director Peter Godfrey’s uninvolving remake of a romantic quadrangle story first made in 1935 (two brothers/two girls) opens in a lighthearted vein (with everyone playing too hard) before taking a forced tragic turn. The writing however is consistent, lousy all the way thru. We’re in studio backlot Venice, where a clean-shaven Errol Flynn is the talented, struggling composer whose relationship with single-mom Ida Lupino is threatened by his eye for the ladies. Seriously so when he meets-cute with Eleanor Parker’s rich society lady who just happens to be engaged to Gig Young, Flynn’s less talented brother. (Gig sports the missing Flynn mustache.*) Hopefully this foursome will work things out in time for the premiere of Flynn’s make-or-break ballet score. Not much convinces in this one, with airless soundstage mountain exteriors that wouldn’t pass for scenery in Flynn’s ballet; and back-and-forth romantic vows looking equally flat. Only the filmscore, an exceptionally melodic one from Erich Wolfgang Korngold holds interest. Korngold had stopped his concert & opera house composing during the war years, but as the war wound down, so too did his movie work. This, his second to last original film score (and last to be released) was followed only by another classical music story, DECEPTION/’46. An altogether better (if nuttier) film with a mini-cello concerto as its centerpiece, one he later expanded for the concert hall.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Pay no attention to that man in the poster, Flynn is sans ‘stache in this one which somehow makes him look altogether bigger.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, for fans of Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains & ultra-stylish New York apartments, DECEPTION.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

UTVANDRARNA / THE EMIGRANTS (1971) NYBYGGARNA / THE NEW LAND (1972)

Note the open space on this poster for the Stateside release of THE EMIGRANTS, Jan Troell’s intimate, painstakingly detailed epic on the Swedish migration to America in the mid-1800s. Meant to signify the new start/fresh slate the families hope to find after their treacherous journey, it could just as easily symbolize the missing film footage chucked overboard before Warner Bros. agreed to distribute the two-parter. Originally mini-series length, Part One still made its mark with a 40 minute trim, but Part Two wasn’t nearly as well received. And no wonder with an hour & 20 minutes tossed. Seen in Criterion’s restored edition, the full cut feels, well, not exactly shorter, but more satisfying. Anyway, there’s no need to binge watch. Liv Ullmann & Max von Sydow (quietly titanic) bring these archetypes to life as real people, with standout perfs right down the line. As von Sydow’s younger brother, dreamer to his doer, Eddie Axberg is exceptional. (Axberg also did the sound mixing, while Troell only shot, edited, co-scripted & helmed. Frontier work-ethic, alive & well in Sweden!) A tough and patient film, Troell asks for and earns trust & attention though he was still a minimally experienced director at the time. And that may explain two unforced errors: a modernistic score that’s good in its way, but puts a big ‘70s time-stamp on the production; and more damaging, an overly-stylized flashback realization of the younger brother’s misadventures Out West.* Fortunately, Troell’s mastery of narrative ellipses keeps things moving along over the few bad patches. It’s the nature of sagas to sow disappointment once the promising journey ends. Sydow’s smile of contentment at the end of EMIGRANTS being the highpoint/pivot. But with the restored scenes, there’s a momentum to each new hardship (weather, in-fighting, Indian uprisings) which helps to explain how & why they stuck it out. Few films get this great American story so right. (NOTE: Think of Part One as PG and Part Two as PG-13 - Family Friendly, not Kiddie Friendly.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *Jan Troell had his own kind of fiasco going Out West a few years later for producer Dino De Laurentiis who conned him into directing (with Sven Nykvist as cinematographer) a hopelessly limp remake of John Ford’s old disaster classic HURRICANE/’79. An experience that quickly sent Troell back to the Old World.

Monday, September 5, 2016

THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951)

The main thing telegraphed in this Hitchcock wannabe is the plot, heavy with juicy bits out of REBECCA and SUSPICION. Actually, there’s more interest in the film’s under-served backstory which has Valentina Cortese’s WWII Concentration Camp survivor using the identity papers of a friend who didn’t survive; a friend who left a young son with a rich aunt in San Francisco. But the aunt has died, and now the estate will go to distant relative Richard Basehart if Cortese can’t prove her identity. A dicey problem, one easily solved when Basehart abruptly marries Cortese. Is it for love or money? If only the child’s nanny weren’t so officious & domineering. Or so close to Basehart. Maybe it’s just her imagination & outsider status acting up. So thinks smitten family lawyer William Lundigan . . . even after Cortese’s car runs out of brake fluid on those hilly San Fran streets. Yikes! There’s fun to be had watching a first-rate technician like director Robert Wise working Hitchcockian terrain. He may not bother to stick a lightbulb inside a glass of poisoned milk (it’s orange juice here), but many shot choices & shadowy stairs give away his game. Still, it's all largely boilerplate stuff. (Here we go again . . . again. Forgot all about writing this one up a few years back! Hey, it’s that kind of pic. Sometimes there’s a big change of mind when that happens . . . not this time.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Wise moved up from superior technician to finding a real voice on his very next pic, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A better mystery than any found in the film is why the career of solidly handsome, sympathetic leading-man William Lundigan never quite took off.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

HIT! (1973)

Fed Agent Billy Dee Williams is still grieving for a daughter lost to drugs when he pulls up short in the middle of thrashing a local dealer. One more punk off the streets, what’ll that do? What’s really needed is a major offensive against the slick cartel of drug operatives working out of Marseilles. But he’ll need a fresh team of undercover agents to pull it off. That’s the set-up for this weirdly constructed revenge story from Sidney J. Furie, a director who coarsens everything he touches. The main gag in this one is the unlikely assortment of helpers Williams recruits (each a victim of the drug trade in one way or another) and the ad hoc plan Williams puts into place. (One character, a recovering drug addict, has to walk into a restaurant and instantly get hired as a waitress before walking into a dress shop and instantly starting to work as a fashion model.) Fortunately, a frisky cast was hired to play the ex-cons & lawmen (Richard Pryor mumbling asides like some hip inner-city W. C. Fields is a standout), but too much goes unexplained while a deadly finale is more ridiculous than suspenseful. Furie does his best work toward the end of the second act, suddenly switching the tone to comedy, especially welcome in a neatly played car chase sequence with Williams and a pair of comic hit men. Then, back to Marseilles for more sneering at those entitled drug lords. If there’s a mid-point between sledgehammer & subtle, Furie hasn’t found it.

DOUBLE-BILL: No doubt, this one was pitched as a side story to the wildly successful THE FRENCH CONNECTION/’71, yet in some ways it prefigures FRENCH CONNECTION II/’75.

Friday, September 2, 2016

THE ADVENTURES OF GERARD (1970)

A mess, but not without a certain knockabout charm. The idea was to twist Arthur Conan Doyle’s rollicking stories of Napoleonic officer Etienne Gerard into something on the order of TOM JONES (the movie, not the book) meets MONTY PYTHON (that series just getting under way). But the producers working in Italy’s CineCittà Studios made a bizarre choice in Polish New Wave director Jerzy Skolimowski who spoke neither English nor Italian and whose previous budgets would have been less than this film’s craft services. So, no surprise to find the first half of the film all but impossible to follow with Gerard (lightweight, if pleasing Peter McEnery) barreling thru Spain, breaking the fourth wall for comic asides as he faces deadly local militia, British Red Coats & anyone else taking up arms against pasty-faced Napoleon (Eli Wallach!?). Everything’s a bit out-of-scale here, except for love interest Claudia Cardinale, she’s perfectly in scale! Also pretty funny, especially when last seen literally up a tree. By then, a wayward plot has seeped in (Gerard’s secret message may be a ruse!!) and something like narrative momentum is taking hold just as armies start doing back flips over retaining walls and fighting breaks out. More absurd than (a)political, the film has dated less than many of the anti-war/anti-authoritarian period epics popular at the time. And it would have collapsed if it were even slightly better.

DOUBLE-BILL: Skolimowski’s had what must have been a frustrating career directing in the West. He filled in dead spots with acting gigs. But try his superb MOONLIGHTING/’82, riveting stuff about illegal Polish workers in London during changing times at home, starring a very young, very effective Jeremy Irons.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

NEVER LET ME GO (1953)

A real dog. Clark Gable, uninvolved & a bit saggy, is a Moscow-based reporter who falls for (and marries) Bolshoi ballerina Gene Tierney but can’t get her out of the country, shut down by spurious Cold War visa restrictions. He’ll have to sneak back in by boat and smuggle her to freedom with help from fellow bereft groom Richard Haydn and sea-faring mate Bernard Miles. Remarkably few complications arise, and those that do are neither believable nor exciting. (A car chase toward the end briefly allows THIRD MAN lenser Robert Krasker to dust off his glittering nighttime technique.) No doubt, the true purpose was letting M-G-M tap into some frozen British assets by filming in the U.K., but it sure makes a sorry finale to the four decade career of producer/director Clarence Brown, here as producer only. The uneven megger, Delmer Daves, tasked with running the soggy show, seems fully aware he’s working on a stinker. Everyone else, too.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Gable had run this plot before, co-starring with Hedy Lamaar in COMRADE X/’40, a big flop in its day (not seen here). Instead, take a hint from the small role Theodore Bikel has as a young naval officer who loses a vodka-drinking contest, and catch his promotion to Soviet submarine Captain grounded off the Maine coast in the delicious Cold War comedy THE RUSSIAN ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING/’66 with Alan Arkin in a fab film debut.