Category Archives: Movies

Let us sample some Christmas treacle

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for more than a year knows, I love immersing myself in Christmas movies. I spent about a decade of Christmas mornings alone before moving up here (family scattered all over the map) so I compensated by watching a mix of old classics and new TV movies until I was stuffed with Christmas cheer. Normally I’d have started right after Thanksgiving but with the weeklong stretch before December, it didn’t feel quite right.

As a result I caught FAME (1980), in which aspiring musicians, actors and dancers struggle to graduate from a performing arts school while also coping with family, teen angst, career struggles, insecurity and love.While I enjoyed the TV-series spinoff, I’d never seen the movie before; pleasant enough, and I absolutely loved one twist when a rejected dancer appears to be contemplating suicide. “Who cares if it wasn’t ready? They liked it!”

Next comes some new-to-me Christmas stuff, but even by my low standards it was disappointing. A BAD MOM’S CHRISTMAS (2017), for instance, plays like a TV spinoff special jacked up to a feature film. Original Bad Moms Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis struggle to stay afloat under the demands of being a Mom At Christmas, an effort made worse by their various mothers (wild child Susan Sarandon, overbearing diva Christine Baranski and insufferably perky Cheryl Hines) all showing up for a long stay. Despite some amusing moments (Hahn as the raunchiest mom has a lot of those), the themes about Christmas have been done before, and better.  “You should never have to watch your mom lick your boyfriend’s nipples!”

SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS (2013) is sufficiently Christian that I was surprised the Wise Handyman who helps everyone out didn’t turn out to be Jesus.  Eric Roberts and Vivica A. Fox are the parents watching their kids cope with drugs, sex and petty theft before discovering Jesus and Christmas Pageants Are the Answer. Forgettable. “You’re going to write the script. We need seventeen speaking parts.”

I fear my iPad is finally expiring, which may be why CHRISTMAS CRUSH (2012) kept crashing when I streamed it. Fortunately a movie abouta twenty-something returning home for her high school reunion where she’s surrounded by her far more successful old friends, gets a shot at reuniting with her high school crush and fails to notice her male bestie still has eyes only for her probably isn’t going to surprise me any. Not that I require rom-coms surprise me (as I’ve said before, love is a cliché) but it didn’t interest me much either.

I think I may stick with the tried and true for the rest of the month. Because even fluff like 12 Dates of Christmas is better than that troika of treacle above.

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Women solving mysteries: this week’s movies

 

FRIDAY FOSTER (1975), which I listed in Tuesday’s memorable films post, is a blacksploitation throwback to 1930s films about fast-talking, female reporters such as Glenda Farrell’s Torchy Blaine series, though it’s actually based on a newspaper comic strip (the first with a black female lead). Pam Grier is Friday, a camera jockey trying to figure out the connection between a friend’s murder, “black Howard Hughes” Thalmus Rasulala, fashion designer Eartha Kitt, gay drug dealer Godfrey Cambridge, lecherous clergyman Scatman Crothers and a mysterious conspiracy called “black widow.” The plot has some huge holes (I honestly can’t see what the bad guys would have gained from killing Friday) but it’s fun and Grier is charmingly sexy (she also hops into a number of beds without the movie doing any slut-shaming, which is cool). With Yaphet Kotto as Grier’s PI boyfriend, Jason Bernard as a schemer Ted Lange as a pimp and Jim Backus as the Evil White Mastermind. “Sex is on the male mind every other minute … and on the female mind every other second.”

Normally when a movie trailer promotes T&A as much as STACEY (1973) I assume that’s all the movie has to recommend it. As it turns out, this is pretty good as a low-budget PI thriller with Anne Randall (whose impressive T&A are displayed quite a bit) as the gumshoe (happily a very competent one) hired to check out a wealthy widow’s potential heirs. What she finds includes adultery, homosexuality, group sex and of course, murder. Fun, though the ending chase feels like padding at times. “Never trust anyone you haven’t been sleeping with for a while.”

INCENDIES (2010) is a French/Canadian film in which an Arab immigrant’s will denies her adult children the right to put up a gravestone until they find the brother they didn’t know they had and the father they thought was dead. Investigating, the daughter learns about their mother’s past as a pacifist idealist, an angry terrorist, a torture victim and a heroic prisoner (“They call her the woman who sings.”) and where the rest of their family is hiding. Very good. “Childhood is a knife stuck in your throat.”

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Films that made an impression: the second five posters

Following up on last week’s post about movies that made an impression, for various reasons:

There was nothing like Blazing Saddles (1974)when it came out and I was flabbergasted. A mainstream movie that had that much profanity? And dirty jokes? To say nothing of dealing with race, and in a comedy no less. Not to mention just nuts in so many ways. As if that wasn’t enough, I first saw it at a friend’s house on a cable channel that was — get this — devoted to showing nothing but current movies, all uncut. My god, what an amazing development in TV!

Like Star Wars in the previous post, Casablanca (1942) had me walking around in a daze after I saw it (a showing while I was in college). An amazing movie with an all-star cast, a great theme song, drama, Nazis and some incredible lines of dialog (“I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”). Still one of my all-time favorites; I have that poster on my wall.

I never saw any blacksploitation movies when they were showing on the big screen (they were at the drive-in, I didn’t have a car) but I caught the trailer for Friday Foster (1975) on TV and immediately crushed on Pam Grier. She was probably my first big-screen crush (I had quite a few from TV) and while the movie isn’t her best from that era (I think I’d pick Coffy), it is a lot of fun. And Grier, as a news photographer, is just as stunning as she looked in the trailer.

1968’s The Yellow Submarine was a mindblowing experience (again, one I didn’t go through until college). The absolutely wild pop art animation was stylistically unlike anything else I’d seen in animation, throwing in weird stuff purely for the sake of weird (this is a plus). The score is, of course, awesome, and I think those guys they had in the lead have some real potential as singers.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) was a movie that just left me glowing with its warmth and affection for humanity, and it’s belief that just being a good person matters. I remember after seeing it I went and found one of my friends and just hugging her and telling her how much I liked her because I was just overflowing with warmth for other people. It’s not one I can watch every Christmas the way I do some, but it’s a really charming movie.

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Librarians, Dungeons and Dragons, mad science and cartoons: movies and TV

The fourth and final season of THE LIBRARIANS has the team coping with not only a new wave of magical threats but the need to tether the Library to reality (a ritual that will put more responsibility on Flynn than he’s ready for) and the return of Flynn’s original Guardian, Nicole (from the first Librarian TV movie, Quest for the Spear), immortal and very pissed off. The usual fun, though while the ending (involving banishing the Library and the dystopia that results) was good, it wasn’t great (possibly because I’ve seen too many stories where a last minute bit of time travel resolves everything). “They say you can kill a man but not an idea — but I did just that, I killed the idea of the Library!”

Right-wing Christian Jack Chick became legendary for his bizarre “Chick Tracts,” comic strips showing how watching Dark Shadows or playing Dungeons and Dragons would damn your soul to Hell. The short film DARK DUNGEONS (2014) is a comedy fantasy that takes the latter premise literally: two nice young Christian college women are seduced into playing D&D (“People have tried to get those RPGers off campus, but they’re just too popular!”), after which one of them turns to Satanism to get real magical power while the other snaps under the strain. Fun, but the elements it adds to the original don’t all work, from errors (clerics don’t cast magic missile) to making Debbie as ignorant about Christianity in the end bit as she was in the Tract, even though she’s now written as Christian. And throwing Cthulhu into the mix felt like they didn’t have enough faith in their premise. Still, I did enjoy this. “I am proud to announce that more people have decided to become homosexuals this year than ever before!”

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) didn’t lighten the purging phase of colonoscopy prep as much as I expected so I didn’t laugh as much as I usually do. Still, it’s never a waste of time to watch Frankenstein descendant Gene Wilder reanimate dead flesh, Marty Feldman robbing a brain depository (“It was someone called … Abby Normal.”), Teri Garr showing off her knockers (it may show a generational gap that while I think of this as her big role, TYG thought of Mr. Mom), Cloris Leachman gets outed as Victor’s ex (“He was my — boyfriend!”), Peter Boyle tap dances and Richard Haydn and Kenneth Mars round out the cast. “Tonight we shall hurl the gauntlet of science into the frightful face of death itself!”

THE TOP 10 FORGOTTEN CARTOONS OF ALL TIME doesn’t live up to its billing; the cartoons are perfectly entertaining, but they’re not better than lots of other obscure ‘toons I’ve seen (as four of them come from the 1930s Rainbow Parade series, I wonder if rights to that series influenced what was picked). Still, I did enjoy watching a rabbit trying to wear out a hound dog the night before a hunt, honeymoon couples going “Dancing on the Moon,” an RCMP-clad Cupid uniting two squabbling neighbors, the Toonerville Trolley comic strip coming to life and the rough-hewn mutt Dog Face protesting against being a pampered pet. The weakest was probably the one I was most interested in, Ub Iwerks’ (Disney’s partner in Walt’s early career) “Happy Days,” about a group of kids going fishing. “If he’s a real burglar, I’m Seabiscuit — wait, I am Seabiscuit!”

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Posters for memorable movies

You may have seen or participated in the Facebook meme where someone calls on you to post posters for 10 movies that made an impression on you. I was tagged by a friend, so I figured I’d replicate my list for the blog.

Captain Blood (1935) was the movie that sparked my interest in old films. Based on the Rafael Sabatini novel (which is even better) it has doctor Errol Flynn falsely convicted for an uprising against James II, transported to the brutal life of a plantation worker in the Caribbean, then leading a breakout to become a pirate captain.It’s a glorious swashbuckler that established Flynn as a star. I’ll never forget watching it on the big screen in college and hearing a gasp sweep through the audience when we got a closeup of him smiling into the camera.

I caught Crack in the World (1965) during college vacation. Years later I remembered it as an apocalyptic film, a disaster movie on a global scale. Rewatching in my twenties, I discovered it was drawing-room SF, or more precisely board room SF: the end of the world (a botched attempt at tapping Earth’s core as a power source starts ripping the planet in two) appears second-hand, as Dana Andrews and his worried colleagues sit around a conference table watching stock footage of ruined cities. The romantic triangle (Andrews/younger wife Janette Scott/colleague Kieron Moore) is given at least as much screen time as any actual world saving. So the film taught me that my memories aren’t always accurate, which is why I always try to watch movies for my film books, if I can.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) shows how society’s perception of old movies can be just as misguided. John Wayne’s name embodies military heroism and right-wing “pro-American” attitudes in movies (I’ve known people who think Wayne himself embodies military heroism even though he opted to stay in Hollywood rather than enlist). Here, Wayne is certainly heroic as a career Marine but the movie portrays him as a dumb lug completely unfitted for civilian life; John Agar, who’s going to serve for the duration of the war, then return home and get out of uniform, is unambiguously the type of man America needs, not career soldiers. It’s a great movie (except the ever-talentless Agar) but if it was made today, people would be shrieking about how it disrespected the troops.

I saw Ball of Fire (1941) in college and it launched me on a lifelong crush of Barbara Stanwyck (I watched it again recently and it holds up well). She’s tough, no-nonsense, flirtatious, beautiful and probably won’t be any less so even after she falls in love with Gary Cooper (or whoever). She wasn’t my first movie crush, but she’s one of the top ones.

I walked out of 1977’s Star Wars in a daze, as did everyone I saw it with (a large group — we’d all heard it was something special). From the moment the Imperial destroyer appears on screen and keeps appearing (it was so. damn. big) there’s not a moment when I felt bored or uninterested. Great special effects, a fun pulp story, a classic villain with James Earl Jones’ voice, what’s not to love? I certainly kept loving it the seven or eight times (maybe more) I saw it in the theater over the next few months. And the last time I watched it, it was still awesome. And no, it will never be A New Hope to me.

The remaining five next week.

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A prophet and a showman: movies viewed

A PROPHET (2009) is a French-Italiam film in which an Arab (Tahar Rahim) stuck in prison for six years becomes the gofer for a Corsican kingpin who values his skills (his first task is to kill another prisoner) but still treats him like shit. Slowly, though, the protagonist begins to learn the system and, as he gets more responsibility, build a network of his own, leading to an inevitable confrontation. This is a good, absorbing crime drama, though not quite what I was in the mood for when I watched it. “I like porn set in castles better.”

MATINEE (1993) is a film I absolutely love, and firmly believed I had on DVD, so when I realized I didn’t, I ordered it. John Goodman plays producer Laurence Woolsey (based on William Castle, a hack movie maker but a genius at promotion), who’s premiering his new movie Mant! (“Half man — half ant — all terror! Filmed in Atomovision!) in Key West in 1962  in hopes of attracting a national distributor. Everyone in town is freaking out over the Russians having missiles in Cuba that could blow them to kingdom come, but Woolsey figures that’s just the thing to get his movie more attention. Meanwhile local teens including military brat Gene Loomis, nervous buddy Omri Katz, an anti-war Lisa Jakub (“You’ll puke up your internal organs!”), and sexually experienced Sherry Harris all work out their own dramas. The adult cast includes Cathy Moriarty as Woolsey’s star actor, Robert Picardo as a theater owner, Jesse White as a distributor and Kevin McCarthy as Mant‘s “General Ankrum” (referring to veteran SF movie actor Morris Ankrum, a joke I made myself in Atoms for Peace). “I feel I should warn you that the story of Mant! is based on scientific fact.”

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Samurai and lovers: movies viewed

SANJURO (1962) is Akira Kurosawa’s riff on his previous film Yojimbo. Once again, Toshiro Mifune plays a ronin who stumbles into a power struggles, in this case between the wise leader of the local samurai clan and scheming underlings plotting to take over. This time, though, the disgruntled, constantly crabbing Sanjuro sides with the good guys on the principle that the idealistic samurai supporting their lord will get themselves killed otherwise. A good film, with a great performance by Mifune, who steals every scene he’s in.“I dislike saying this after you so kindly rescued us, but killing is a bad habit.”

Despite some admiring reviews BLUE VALENTINE (2014) was too much an aimless slice of life to work for me — as Leonard Maltin put it, the scenes are good, but the film is less than the sum of its parts. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a dysfunctional couple who married in starry-eyed haste and in the present are repenting at leisure; both leads give great performances but that didn’t keep me watching. “In your dream where I’m doing what I really like, what would that be?”

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Enter Tom Baker, Davros and Harry Sullivan; Fourth Doctor, First Season

They say your first Doctor is your favorite, but I think I like Tom Baker in DOCTOR WHO even more than William Hartnell.

None of the Doctors have much use for the powers that be. William Hartnell sneered at them, Patrick Troughton shrugged them off, John Pertwee snarked at them. Baker meets them with a mocking smile, like a michievious kid who can’t wait to pull a trick on some stuck-up twit. All the Doctors stir up trouble, but the Fourth Doctor relishes the opportunity.

Baker’s stories are probably the episodes I’ve seen most, because they ran in constant daily rotation on PBS in the 1970s. The first season holds up well, though the special effects get pretty bad — worse than most past seasons, I think, because they’re a little more ambitious.

The first serial, Robot, is a Pertwee UNIT story, reminiscent of Invasion of the Dinosaurs: a cabal of technocrats plots to build a perfect world, and steals an unstoppable super-robot to do it. It adds Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) as a new companion, so that if Baker wasn’t suited to action scenes, they’d have someone to handle them. Baker was perfectly suited, so Harry wound up being superfluous, often little more than a buffoon, particularly as Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) and Baker played off each other well. Most significantly, this serial establishes that regeneration is a normal Time Lord ability in contrast to a freak power of the TARDIS (Hartnell to Troughton) or compelled by the Time Lords (Troughton to Pertwee).

THE ARK IN SPACE is a much stronger story, the first to use the horror elements that would be a recurring part of the next few seasons. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive on an orbiting space ark holding humans in suspended animation against the day when polluted Earth becomes livable again. The day has arrived, but so have the Wirrn, insectoid parasite s laying their eggs on the Ark and whose larva have taken over Noah, the ark’s leader.

That leads directly into THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT, a two-part serial. On behalf of the space station survivors, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry check out Earth to see if it’s really livable. Wouldn’t you know, a Sontaran has captured some of the few surviving Earthlings as a run-up to taking over the planet. This one is competent, but effective.

 

And then came THE GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, one of the all-time classics. The Time Lords tell the Doctor that the Daleks will inevitably conquer the universe unless someone aborts their creation. The Doctor, Harry and Sarah arrive on Skaro when it’s riven by a thousand year war between the Thals and the Kaleds that’s reduced the planet to an irradiated wasteland. Davros, a Kaled scientist has a solution: forced evolution of his people into a form that can thrive in the radiation, even though it will require a mechanical transport to move around and kill … and while he’s at it, why not eliminate all those inconvenient emotions?

A solid, six-episode arc anchored by the grim tone (the Thals are no longer unambiguously good guys) and by two performances. Michael Wisher as Davros manages a voice that sounds just like a human Dalek, intense yet monotone. As his coldblooded aide Nyder, Peter Miles is equally memorable.

Unfortunately the season doesn’t do as well by the Cybermen in the final segment, REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN. Arriving at the space ark back when it’s just a minor space station, the good guys become embroiled in a struggle between the human crew, the Cybermen and the Vogans, inhabitants of a planet of gold. Gold, you see, can be used to clog up Cyberman respirators, choking them, which is an unconvincing weakness. The Cyber-actors use their own voices, and the Cybermen come off way too emotional. A disappointing finish to a solid season.

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One book, one movie, one crime of the century

As I didn’t get much read last week, I thought I’d pair the nonfiction book I did finish with a movie based on the same topic, Harry Thaw’s murder of legendary architect Stanford White in 1906 and the events that up to it. Despite the movie’s insistence in the opening narrative crawl that it took its story from the trial transcripts and interviews, I’m not surprised the script plays fast and loose with the facts, though I am surprised at the sexism.

First, the backstory. Sixteen year old chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit became a guest at the home of Stanford White, cheerfully riding on the red-velvet swing in his apartment and oblivious this let him stare up her dress. White subsequently drugged and raped Nesbit (left, in a photo by Sarony Studios), though her mother convinced Evelyn to stay with him (he was a very generous patron). After a couple of years, Nesbit learned White had other lovers and broke it off. She married the very wealthy Harry Thaw, who upon learning about the rape gunned down White at Madison Square Gardens (which White had designed).

THE GIRL ON THE VELVET SWING: Sex, Murder and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Simon Baatz feels remarkably contemporary in its retelling. Like several #metoo targets, White comes off as a calculating predator, encouraging more experienced chorines to bring him girls like Nesbit, winning her trust, then slipping her the knockout drops (and afterwards assuring her nothing bad had happened, all the chorus girls did things like this). Likewise Thaw’s trial includes a jailhouse snitch (an attorney who offered to destroy Nesbit’s credibility in return for the prosecution dropping an indictment against him) and doctors willing to find Thaw insane for the right price (Thaw initially claimed he had the right to avenge his wife, which got him a hung jury; only after that did he settle for insanity).

The story still didn’t grab me. In contrast to the racist elements and injustice covered in Honor Killing, this is a fairly straightforward story of sex and scandal, nowhere near as shocking as it must have been back then. Nor does Baatz get into the era as much as I’d have liked — the sex lives of other chorines, whether White was an outlier or unremarkable for his era and class, etc. The high point was after Thaw escapes the asylum and flees to Canada, leading to such oddities as the American cops trying to get him out of jail with a writ of habeas corpus (a tactic usually used against police, not on their behalf).

THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING (1955) presents White (Ray Milland) as an innocent party in all this; sure, he falls in love with Evelyn (Joan Collins) the moment he sees her, but he’s a gentleman and refuses to betray his wife (they only acknowledge in passing that he had other lovers)! But even though he resists, in the end the little minx seduces him, oh how tormented he feels! Enter Thaw (Farley Grainger), an unstable man obsessed with the way White socially outclasses him, gets the best reservations and is just a superior guy; his pursuit of Evelyn is simply because White once possessed her. The rape is a delusion Thaw forces Evelyn to agree with, so Thaw can rationalize that he wasn’t first.

But even Thaw is a woman’s fault; his mother (Cornelia Otis Skinner) tells Evelyn that after accidentally smothering her first son as an infant, she tried to overcompensate by smothering Thaw with love (“The womb in which he grew was a chamber of horrors!”). This was what the 1950s called “momism,” the idea that overpossessive, overprotective mothers destroyed their sons’ lives — though of course, not being possessive and protective enough would destroy them too.

The ending, which shows Evelyn working in a show barely above burlesque for a leering crowd of men seems to be meant as punishment for the little slut who got White killed. And ignores that she went on after the murder to have a successful vaudeville and film career. It’s interesting to see how in ignoring the facts, the writers made the women look as bad as possible and the old lecher look innocent.

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Illusions and Adoption: movies viewed

THE ILLUSIONIST (2010) is an aging magician in the 1950s, bouncing from music hall to music hall to even less promising gigs (performing in a pub’s bar at one point) as rock-and-roll and movies continue to eat away at the audience. This was a Jacques Tati script he died without making, and like lots of Tati’s films it gets by with very little dialog. Unfortunately it gets by without any spark, just plodding along; disappointing, as its creator also made the wild Triplets of Belleville.

MOTHER AND CHILD (2009) is a movie composed of three interwoven plot threads. In one, Annette Benning as a hot-tempered, brittle nurse tormented by having given up her child for adoption decades earlier; can friendly nurse Jimmy Smits put a smile back on her face (one thing I do like about the film is that the men fill the emotional support role); Naomi Watts is the given-up child, now a cold fish of an attorney who winds up getting pregnant from an affair with Samuel L. Jackson; Kerry Washington is the third strand, a woman struggling through the adoption maze to find herself a baby. Very well acted and certainly dramatic, but Watts’ character is so emotionally detached she feels more like a Vulcan than a human. And the subtext for much of the movie is that adoption is a tragic thing that rips a mother and baby apart and haunts them forever. John Sayles’ Casa de Los Babie would make an obvious double bill. “Why did she say that to you? Why wouldn’t she say that to me?”

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