Category Archives: Movies

Send in the Marines! Or the shaolin! Or the Ghostbusters! Or the Sailor Scouts!

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944) is Preston Sturges’ screwball classic in which William Demarest’s Marine platoon discovers 4F Eddie Bracken has been lying to his mother about fighting overseas rather than disappoint her by not following in dad’s footsteps. Simple solution: the Marine fit him with a uniform and some spare medals, take him home and pass him off as a hero. Complication: everyone in town turns out to celebrate and opponents of the windbag mayor decide a war hero would be the perfect choice to run against him. And what about Ella Raines, the girl Bracken left behind, now engaged to the mayor’s son? A great comedy, and in an age where “thank you for your service” is supposed to be the automatic response to meeting anyone in the military, Sturges’ gentle mockery of soldier-worship (“Nobody knows what I did, they just know I’m a hero.”) hasn’t aged a bit. “They’ve got four bands out there — one medal isn’t enough!”

The second season of KUNG FU(1973-4) sometimes gets a lot closer to a conventional wandering-hero TV western than S1 did, but not so often it lost its distinctive charm (as noted in my S1 review, if you don’t want a white guy in yellowface as the Eurasian lead character, the charm may be lost on you). Among the memorable episodes are A Dream Within a Dream (Caine investigates an apparent murder, only the body vanishes) and Empty Pages Within a Dead Book (a vengeful Texas ranger learns the difference between Law and Justice) — and yes, the titles are definitely part of the charm. There are also some whimsical episodes such as The Spirit Helper (a young Native becomes convinced Caine is his spirit guide) and the zany two-part season ender, The Cenotaph, which includes a fight with a Chinese warlord who is emphatically not a master of the martial arts. With the TV season starting up, it may be a while before I get to my DVDs of S3, alas. ““That woman must have died of gallstones — 2,000 pounds worth.”

Rewatching the 2016 GHOSTBUSTERS remake during my Florida stay didn’t change my opinion that it’s a very worthy follow-up to the original, as “ghost girls” Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Johnson discover a seething misanthrope (if they’d made it this year, I suspect he’d be an incel) plots to raise the dead to terrify the living, Melissa McCarthy avoids a fatal high five, Mayor Andy Garcia insists he is not that mayor from Jaws and Chris Hemsworth tries to answer the phone. A shame it didn’t win over more people.  “Laborers such as you shall be spared until the end of the butchering, so make the most of your extra time.”

The third season of Sailor Moon, AKA SAILOR MOON S, uses much of the previous seasons’ formula (energy-draining monsters dominated by villains who keep failing and getting destroyed, but a bigger bad behind them), in fact too much for my taste. On the other hand, it has some good stuff, such as Chibi-USA’s relationship with the seriously ill Hotaru and the enigma of Sailor Scouts Neptune and Uranus, tougher, more mature and more experienced fighters (also lesbians, something dropped from the original US dub) who think the regular cast just isn’t hard core enough to stop the coming of the Messiah of Silence (I do like the episode in which Usagi demonstrates that silly and tenderhearted though she is, she’s still top dog on this show). I’m sure I’ll get to the remaining run eventually, even though I’ve never heard anything positive about it. What they say is true, I was naive and foolish — but I was also right!”

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Our heroes have always been bad guys: Movies and TV

Hank Pym forces ex-con Scott Lang to become ANT-MAN (2015) and reclaim Pym’s shrinking technology before former protegé Darren Cross can use it to create Yellowjacket, the ultimate killer. While I didn’t care for the drawn-out origin in Doctor Strange, this takes almost as long and it works, perhaps because Scott’s character arc is stronger. The cast includes Michael Douglas as Hank, Paul Rudd as Scott, Evangeline Lily as Pym’s daughter Hope and Corey Stoll as Cross (the villain from the first Scott Lang Ant-Man story). A real winner — I’ve rarely seen a film do so well with shrinking special effects.“I’m just destroying everything that gives your daddy’s life meaning.”

Errol Flynn’s classic THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) made a double-bill for both Ant-Man and last week’s viewing of Sherwood. Rewatching the story shows why Robin endures as a legend and symbol — the fight against tyranny and corruption and 12th century England’s 1 percent is probably always going to be relevant. Plus Flynn’s laughing swashbuckler makes being a rebel and an outlaw look like the most fun in the world. Alongside Flynn we have Basil Rathbone’s sneering Guy of Gisborne, Claude Raines coolly evil Prince John, Una O’Connor as a flirty servant, Alan Hale as Little John and Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck. Olivia deHaviland plays Maid Marion who like countless movie heroines has to be awakened by the hero to what’s right (you could also look at it as checking her Norman privilege). Given I just finished a book about Technicolor (review tomorrow) I was very aware of how gorgeous the movie’s colors are. “You’ve come to Nottingham once too often!”

THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996) which starts with Geena Davis as a school teacher afflicted with amnesia for everything beyond the past eight years — why that’s right, the missing years do contain a dangerous secret! It turns out Davis is a CIA hitwoman who’s unwittingly believed one of her cover identities is the real her — and she’s regaining her memories with the help of sleazy PI Samuel L. Jackson just at the point her former bosses are up to something very nasty (“Budget cuts? Is that what this is about?”).

This is a wildly over the top film (the protagonists take damage that would kill anyone without healing factor), but it’s also thoroughly entertaining. While Bourne Identity would be a logical double bill, the clip of 1973’s The Long Goodbye shown on TV makes me think that would make sense as well (even though I hate it): another story of someone faking their death, and Elliott Gould’s seedy PI, matching Jackson’s. With G.W. Spradlin as the president, David Morse as a sadist (“A woman is never as beautiful as when her face contorts in pain.”) and Craig Bierko as a smirking nemesis. “I was busy coming up with that ham sandwich line.”

After a disappointing fifth season, THE AMERICANS managed to finish its run with a bang. It’s a year or two after S5; Paige is now a spy in training, Philip’s working full-time at the travel agency (which is slowly collapsing) and Elizabeth, spying without him, is beginning to crack under the strain. Now with the US/USSR START arms-reduction talks in progress, the KGB assigns Elizabeth to spike negotiations if Gorbachev gives away too much; Oleg returns from the USSR to ask Philip to stop her. Will the marriage survive? Will Stan finally catch on to what his neighbors are up to? Will Paige find happiness? This leaves enough loose ends I wonder if they have a sequel in mind, but it’s still excellent. “You’re my best friend — the only friend I’ve had in my whole shitty life.”

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Add a movie to the wonders of the world!!

So I’ve been visiting friends in Florida and wouldn’t you know, Hurricane Michael was too. We made it through fine, but it disrupted our schedules enough that I’ll wait until next week to write about it all. So until then, here’s some movie posters for today’s post.

Contrary to the top of the poster, nobody thinks Taras Bulba ranks with the Pyramids or the Colossus of Rhodes.

Pam Grief and a great black supporting cast, what’s not to love?

One I’ve posted before, just ’cause it’s cool looking.

The Trip might make LSD look kind of cool and wild, but did you see the word “death” on the poster? So it’s anti-drug, trust them!

One of the smartest SF movies ever made, but they had to make it look like Robbie the Robot’s kidnapping Anne Francis.

Trust me, this crap wasn’t comparable to any of those movies. But they obviously knew Karloff’s face would be a selling point.

 

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Scooby Doo, thieves and Robin Hood: two movies, one play

SCOOBY DOO: Mask of the Blue Falcon (2013) takes place at San Diego Comicon parody (the in-joke costumes are a sight to see) where the big event will be an early screening of the new Blue Falcon and Dynomutt movie re-imagining the corny 1960s show as a grim Dark Knight (why yes, the Batman analogy is intentional). But now Blue Falcon’s archfoe Mr. Hyde (Shaggy: “He’s the monster that taught us to be afraid of monsters.”) seems determined to kill the project — could it be the actor from the TV show? The star of the movie who wants to get back to Serious Films? This is fun, though it makes me wonder if there’s any serious Dynomutt fanbase or if he just survives from being tied to Scooby-Doo. I also wonder if one of the voice actors deliberately made his obnoxious security head sound like Paul Lynde, a comic actor who did a lot of voices for Hanna-Barbera. “I have 22 turtlenecks, all the same color — I recognize patterns.”

RIFIFI (1955) lives up to its billing as one of the great heist films. A tough hood fresh out of prison gets an offer to participate in a smash-and-grab job on a Parisian jewelry store, but suggests that cracking the store’s safe, while completely impossible, would offer a much higher ration of risk to reward. Unfortunately there’s a crime boss who discovers what’s going down and decides to horn in … A first rate film, great looking (I think it must have been location shooting) and completely absorbing. “I liked you — I really liked you — but you know the rules.”

LeAnn bought us season tickets to the Playmakers theater as an anniversary present; while we missed the first show in August, we caught this month’s production, SHERWOOD: The Legend of Robin Hood at the end of September. This retelling of how Robin grew from a shallow child of privilege into a champion of the poor (“All of us in this country are traveling together.”) reworks the familiar adventures with a lot of fun and humor, and the staging positively flaunts that they’re doing epic adventure on a small budget. Marion gets a larger role than usual (she’s the master archer) and King John is constantly quoting Shakespeare, though nothing from Shakespeare’s Prince John. A fun start to our year of viewing. “‘Manners maketh man’ — that’s what my grandmother said right before they lopped off her head”

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A Baghdad thief, a Danish prince, a Japanese artist: movies

THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1924) stars the wonderful Douglas Fairbanks as a swashbuckling thief who falls madly for the city’s princess. He connives to abduct her as one of the suitors for her hand, but “When I touched your hand, all that was evil in me died.” (if his initial scheme puts the movie beyond the pale for you, now you know to avoid it). After he’s exposed, he and the other suitors set off to find a treasure worthy of the princess, but one of them is secretly scheming to take her and the city itself.

Like Fairbanks’ Robin Hood this is a good film easily outstripped by its successors, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and the Korda Thief of Baghdad. At 2.5 hours it’s longer than it needs to be. Enjoyable, and Fairbanks is an amazingly charming, athletic hero, but if you had to pick, Korda’s version is the one. “Allah hath made thy soul for happiness, but thou must earn it.”

HAMLET (1980) is one of a series of Shakespeare adaptations the BBC did back in the late 1970s/early 1980s (my first encounter with many of the plays). This stars Derek Jacobi as a prince very obviously upset by first losing his father, than seeing Mommy (Claire Bloom) marry someone else immediately, and that’s before Daddy’s ghost tells him it was murder, courtesy of scheming, unctuous Claudius (Patrick Stewart, with hair!). At 3.5 hours, this is the longest Hamlet I’ve seen (I believe the Branagh is longer) and doesn’t have the spark Kevin Kline’s version did; then again I wound up watching it with lots of family interruptions, so maybe the fault was with the viewer. “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay/Might stop a hole, to keep the wind away!”

CUTIE AND THE BOXER (2013) profiles Japanese artist Ushio Shinuhara and his wife Noriko, who fictionalized their relationship in her Cutie and the Boxer ‘toons. This feels oddly familiar — Ushio is very much in the mold of multiple fictional artists who treat their partner as a footstool on the road to success — but Noriko is more interesting, putting up with him but not coming off as the standard long-suffering spouse of fiction. Interesting, but not compelling. “Sometimes there are not enough nutrients for both of us.”

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A bandleader, a silent Frenchman and Dr. Mabuse (sort of): movies viewed

Anthony Mann directed two movies that gave Jimmy Stewart a darker edge, Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River. He also directed the very non-dark THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954), starring Jimmy Stewart as the once legendary band leader and June Allyson as the woman behind the man. This is a standard musical biopic showing Miller’s (largely fictitious) rise from struggling musician to band leader before he vanished flying over the English channel in 1945. The most interesting thing is Allyson as Mrs. Miller because she’s such a fantasy figure: drops her current boyfriend when Glenn calls for the first time in two years, infinitely patient and understanding, and finances his first band by saving money every week from the household accounts. With Henry Morgan as Stewart’s best friend and Louis Armstrong and Gene Kruppa playing themselves; well-executed with pleasant music, but it definitely suffers that it’s music from an older generation (I imagine millennials would be just as uninterested in The Mick Jagger Story). “I like Moonlight Serenade, you like Moonlight Serenade … but nobody else does”

LA SILENCE DE LA MER (1949) is Jean-Pierre Melville’s adaptation of the same-name WW II novel, in which a French gentleman and his daughter greet the German officer quartered in their house during the occupation with stony silence. They keep this up despite the charming officer’s willingness to monologue at length, declaring himself a Francophile who dreams of the day their nations will be one — only to learn near the end that his fellow officers have no more use for the French than they do for Jews. This created a fair amount of controversy over whether it was soft on Nazis or showing that even when they appear nice, they’re still the enemy; another controversy (as detailed in the multiple special features) was that Melville didn’t get the author’s permission. Instead he made it over a couple of years (he only scraped together money for one day’s filmmaking at a time), then offered to show it to a jury of resistance fighters to decide whether it was worth releasing (one of the interviewees scoffed that the chance of them saying no after he’d labored so long was nil). Well done, but more interesting than enjoyable. “Poor Beauty — she is at the Beast’s mercy but he insists on imposing his awful presence.”

French filmmaker Claude Chabrol was a big admirer of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films,  and in DR. M (1989) he got to make his own, including a poster that would have fit some of Lang’s films perfectly. When a wave of suicides strikes East and West Berlin, a detective (Jan Nicklas) sees a connection with Sonja (Jennifer Beals), the spokesmodel for a booming vacation resort. Beals insists that’s crazy, but it turns out sinister Dr. Marsfeldt (Alan Bates) is using her without her even knowing it. In the ultimate gamble for men’s souls, “Dr. M” is brainwashing people across Berlin to kill themselves, a plot he gloats can no more be broken than the Berlin Wall itself.

Of course as this came out right about the time the wall came down, the heavy use of the divided city made it almost instantly dated. Mabuse expert David Kalat says Dr. M also fell between the stools: not enough of a thriller for the mass audience, but not arty enough for Chabrol’s established fans. As the other films listed in Kalat’s Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse are unavailable, that wraps up this little cycle of rewatching. “It’s like God’s playing Russian roulette”

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Philadelphia Story: Movie vs. Play vs. Book

One of the things that struck me rewatching THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) was how effectively director George Cukor uses our eyes.

There’s a scene, for instance, where Mac (Jimmy Stewart) is checking out the array of high-priced wedding gifts in Tracy’s house. As he toys with some of them, we see (and he notices) the butler watching him warily in case he pockets something. He waits a second then withdraws, conscious he’s been pushing the envelope. There’s no dialogue; it’s all in the two men’s expressions and body language.

Later in the film, when Mac proposes to Tracy, the camera cuts to both Dex (Cary Grant) and Liz (Ruth Hussey), both of them startled and alarmed as that’s not at all what they want. Again, the visuals to the work.

Jeanine Basinger’s commentary track points out how different some of this is from the Broadway play the film is based on. Cukor can focus the camera on Dex’s face, then Liz; in the theater, we’d be looking at the whole tableau or more likely Tracy and Mac. Cukor’s camera use not only breaks up what might be stage-bound scenes (when Dex and Tracy rehash their marriage, the camera keeps cutting to the reluctant witness Mac) but makes sure we see what we need to see.

With print fiction, it’s a mix. Our words function like a camera; we can use them to point readers’ attention at whatever it needs to pay attention to. On the other hand, we can’t impart visuals as effortlessly. To show Liz and Dex reacting, we’d either have to tell their feelings (which is perfectly legitimate) or strain to focus on their expression (“Behind Mac, Liz’s face froze in a mask of alarm.”). Neither is as smooth as just pointing the camera.

Likewise, the sumptuous luxury of the household, the elegant gowns and suits, we’d have to describe them instead of effortlessly showing them.

Then again, it’s not really effortless. Sure, the images hit our eyes without any trouble or exposition, but it takes a shit-ton of hard work behind the scenes for that to happen. We don’t need set crews, set decorators or props to build a fantastic, beautiful mansion. Just words. And we don’t have to worry about casting.

It’s one reason I’m happy to work in print.

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The earth stood still for Mussolini on the 3:10 to Yuma: movies viewed

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) remains one of the classic SF films wherein the alien envoy Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on Earth to warn us that if we take our warmongering ways into space, galactic civilization will destroy us as a threat to universal peace; will we listen, or will we answer to Klaatu’s unstoppable robot Gort? This boasts excellent performances by Rennie, Patricia Neal as a woman who befriends him and Sam Jaffe as an Einstein-esque scientist, a good script (as Keep Watching the Skies says, it has flaws, but ones I can live with) and terrific special effects in Klaatu’s saucer and the ominous, silent Gort. It’s also unusual for its time in handwaving away the importance of the Cold War, Klaatu loftily dismissing US vs. USSR as a matter of no significance. The film iss almost 70 years old and it still holds up well. “If I am hurt, you must go to Gort. You must say these words to him — Klaatu Barada Nikto.”

By contrast, the 2008 THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is an utter mess: Keanu Reaves comes across as wooden rather than reserved, and the effects rely way too much on CGI (neither Klaatu’s ship nor Gort convinces the way the original did) and military hardware. And where the original had the whole world watching Klaatu’s arrival, here it’s a hush-hush government secret, which is a lot less interesting (but does justify lots of that military hardware). It’s also fundamentally pessimistic — Klaatu’s here not to warn us to change but to carry out a sentence of execution. The wasted cast included Jennifer Connolly in the Neal role, Jaden Smith as her son, Kathy Bates as a government overseer and Kyle Chandler as a nervous nellie. Stick with the original. “If Earth dies, you die; if you die, Earth survives.”

VINCERE (2009) is an Italian film about the exciting adventures of Mussolini as a boy — er, as a firebrand socialist in the early 20th century, and his passionate affair with the mistress he eventually abandoned. I just couldn’t get into this one, partly because I have no context for Italian politics of that era, partly because The Loves of Mussolini just feels creepy as a topic (though admittedly I was fine with Che Guevera’s early years in The Motorcycle Diaries). “A revolution is an idea that learned of bayonets.”

3:10 TO YUMA (1957) is an excellent Western in which drought-hammered, cash-desperate farmer Van Heflin becomes part of a posse taking down legendary outlaw Glenn Ford, then agrees to get him to the eponymous train and out of town for a $200 fee. But Ford’s gang know what’s happening and as the clock ticks closer, more of the posse start slipping away … Ford was originally offered the farmer’s part, but he works much better as the outlaw, his affable blandness making the role of an outlaw with a decent streak more plausible; Heflin’s neurotic twitchiness is perfect for the farmer. This would double bill well with High Noon (another abandoned hero having to stand alone against the bad guys), but also Rio Lobo, which was Howard Hawks’ riposte against both films (another embattled hero, but not at all tormented by Heflin or Gary Cooper’s self-doubts). Even standing alone, this is a really first-rate film (can’t speak to the remake, which I haven’t seen). “No matter where you took me, someone would be riding for help about now.”

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Screwball comedies and death: movies viewed

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) stars Katherine Hepburn as a beautiful divorcee about to marry again when drunken ex Cary Grant arrives at the festivities with tabloid reporters Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey in tow. Stewart is a complete, sneering cynic about rich people, but when he looks at Hepburn, he gets different feelings (much to Hussey’s displeasure) … The dialog is fun, the cast is awesome right down to the small roles and the romance plot packs in a few surprises. The one thing that dates the movie is its sexist insistence that Hepburn can be blamed for everything from Grant’s drinking to her father’s womanizing (she wasn’t devoted enough so he found a young woman who was); even so, I still rank it as a classic (but obviously YMMV).

This was a Criterion edition I picked up recently so it’s packed with extras. The commentary track by film scholar Jeanine Basinger discusses the challenges for Stewart (having to play someone who can be a serious rival to Grant for Hepburn’s affections) and for Grant (less of a dramatic arc than the other leads, fewer scenes) and a lot about the transition from the Broadway stage to film (Hepburn starred on stage, then used the film to erase her late-1930s rep as “box office poison”) which I’ll get to in another post. Other features include some backstory on the play and its writer, and two interviews between Katherine Hepburn and Dick Cavett. Overall, this was well worth the purchase price. “This is the voice of doom calling — your family is cursed unto the seventh son of the seventh son.”

BALL OF FIRE (1941) stars Gary Cooper as the leader of a research team (a former boy genius, he’s the only one under 50) who discovers their universal encyclopedia is decades out of date on the topic of slang. Recruiting people who can update that introduces Cooper to “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer who initially blows him off, then learns she needs to hide somewhere before the cops grill her for evidence against mob boyfriend Dana Andrews. So she shows up at Cooper’s mansion, flirts her way in … well we know how it’s going to end, but the journey sure is a delight. The cast includes Dan Duryea as a laughing hood, S.Z. Sakall among the scholars and Elisha Cook Jr. as one of Cooper’s other contacts. “I shall miss your keen mind, Miss O’Shea — unfortunately it’s inseparable from your extremely distracting body.”

Because my sister’s a big fan, I rewatched COCO (2017) during her recent visit. While I liked it on first viewing, the story of Coco trying to find his destiny in the land of the ead improved when seen on the TV rather than my iPad, as the colors and visuals were so much more vivid. “They drink the milk of the cactus — but it isn’t milk, it’s my tears!”

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Nothing to review today

So I’m just going to post movie posters I like. Back to normal next Saturday

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