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Christmas movie binging begins!

But before I start the constant flow of Christmas treacle into my brain, I caught a few other items Thanksgiving weekend:

A young couple become something RICH AND STRANGE (1931) when a relative’s gift of money lets them travel around the world, only to find themselves pulled apart en route by everything from seasickness to romantic rivals (a dignified veteran falling for the wife, a golddigging fake princess preying on the husband). This Alfred Hitchcock film has some striking visual moments including the husband’s silent-comedy style evening commute and its frustrations and a moonlight walk across a ship’s desk that focuses entirely on feet and floor. However the film’s story is trite and uninteresting, even though The Hitchcock Romance considers it a masterpiece. “The thing about beautiful women like you is that you don’t want enough.”

I had much more fun with ROADSIDE PROPHETS (1992) whose biker protagonist strikes up a new friendship only to have the guy die minutes later. The biker impulsively pays for the cremation, then sets out to scatter his buddy’s ashes at the place in Nevada he requested — assuming the place is findable. Along the way the protagonist meets the usual array of road-trip oddballs including a hero-worshipping teen, a vagabond stripper, a terminally ill couple, an officiousmotel clerk, John Cusack as a dine-and-dash petty crook (“It’s entrapment — the sign said ‘free buffet’!”) and David Carradine, Timothy Leary, Arlo Guthrie and Abby Hoffman in cameos. Self-consciously quirky, but a lot of fun. “I didn’t get to be a management trainee by breaking rules!”

And now the Christmas stuff — CHRISTMAS PERFECTION (2018) combines the premise of 2007’s  Snow Globe (the female protagonist is magically transported to the perfect Christmas village) with William Dean Howell’s short story Christmas Every Day, in that the village never stops celebrating Christmas. No surprise, the protagonist is soon sick of perfection and thinking her imperfect male best friend is looking much more attractive. This is too sugary and low-key to work for me, and there’s something unsatisfying in her BFF/love interest (like they carefully calibrated the soft spot between “conventional” and “too oddball to be sexy.”). “This is some kind of reality show where they gaslight the children of divorce with happiness!”

SNOW GLOBE (2007), by contrast, seems to be turning into a Christmas perennial for me. Christina Milian is really likable as the lead, a Brooklyn baker who’d love an old-fashioned Christmas but her Italian/Cuban family are so loud and obnoxious and green lasagna is their traditional Christmas dinner — but then Milian stumbles into a world inside a snow globe where everything Christmas is picture-perfect. Part of why I like this is that where the preceding movie buts the blame on the protagonist (too much of a control freak to tolerate imperfection), Milian has valid reasons for getting fed up with her family, even though they all work it out in the end. Rewatching, I do wonder about how the magic works — the village is literally in the snow globe, but it somehow has an independent existence — but like wondering how Santa’s sleigh gets around the world so fast, it doesn’t stop me enjoying.  “Aren’t you having an existential crisis right now?”

I’ve had the soundtrack of RAGTIME (based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel) on my iPod for a while and love it, so I plunked down the money for TYG and me to catch a local production. It was money well spent as 1906 America deals with Emma Goldman, polar exploration, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini and a Ragtime pianist who retaliates for his true love’s death from a police beating with a wave of terrorism, all set to music. Powerful, though downbeat (reminding me of the book American Movie Musical‘s argument that where musicals traditionally showed music bridging strife in the community, modern productions no longer see the rifts as bridgeable). The production was minimalist in design (you can see the set above, though parts of the show took place on the risers above the audience) and used modern dress but effective nonetheless. My only complaint is the way the script paints Nesbit, a rape victim, as some kind of publicity-seeking adulteress. “When you’re trapped/And destruction seems imminent/Look to Houdini/The ultimate immigrant!”

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A smuggler, a teen detective and a power struggle: movies viewed

SOLO (2018) is, of course, the story of how young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) got a Wookie BFF, won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), lost his Great Love (Emilia Clarke), made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs and shot first (doing so in the final showdown with Woody Harrelson can’t be unintentional). This was a lot of fun, but not entirely satisfying — my big problem is that Han comes off too noble an anti-hero to be the money-hungry cynic and crook of A New Hope.  With Thandie Newton as a crime lord. “Did you forget? Never trust anyone.”

NANCY DREW — DETECTIVE (1938) stars Bonita Granville as an impetuous Nancy, convinced the mysterious disappearance of an old spinster right before she could donate her wealth to Nancy’s school is a sign of something sinister (spoiler: she’s right). While I’m not terribly familiar with the Carolyn Keene novels, Granville’s wide-eyed naif seems less like the book version and closer to amateur female sleuths like Deanna Durbin in Lady on a Train. This has the odd catchphrase “I’ll bet you $23.80” (supposedly it’s a standard WPA weekly paycheck) and I wonder if Nancy driving her own car didn’t have different meaning back then (it’s common today for a teen, but I imagine it must have been an unattainble fantasy during the Depression). “The password was bluebell — and a bluebell is also a larkspur.”

Granville becomes NANCY DREW — REPORTER (1939) as part of a school competition, then contrives to cover a sensational murder trial in which her woman’s intuition tells her the accused is innocent. Trying to prove otherwise, of course, plunges her and quasi-boyfriend John Litel (they don’t seem to be dating, but she’s quite possessive of him) into deadly danger, not to mention boxing. This was an improvement on the first film. “The man had a cauliflower ear.”

SKIN GAME (1931) is another of those stiff upper lip dramas Hitchcock seems to have made in his early career, a stagebound adaptation of a John Galsworthy play (even Juno and the Paycock opened the sets better). Ed Gwenn gives an excellent turn as a man of business whose plans for a country village put him on a collision course with the local squire, with both of them playing increasing hardball until a tragedy ensues. Better than Easy Virtue, but if this had become a lost film, cinema would not have suffered.. “Papa, may I spit in his eye?”

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Marital discord in Ireland and Scandinavia: movies

DIE NIEBELUNGEN: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) is Part Two of  Fritz Lang’s silent film (I watched Part One, Siegfried, a couple of months back) and disappointing after the epic fantasy of the first. Here, Siegfried’s wife Kriemhild is not only dealing with Hagen murdering him but her brother’s refusal to punish his loyal follower. When Attila (yes, the Hun) proposes marriage, Kriemhild agrees, convinced she can turn him into a deadly weapon against Hagen. And if her family get in the way, too bad … This is a much a more straightline story than Siegfried and correspondingly less interesting; I’m also unclear why Hagen kills Attila’s son at a crucial turning point (from what I recall of reading the prose Niebelunglied, this is a problem with some versions of the story too). Impressive visually though. “You swore on the edge of your sword.”

Alfred Hitchcock again — JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1930) is a filmed stage play I’d never imagine comes from the same director who later made Rope. Where the later movie is visually compelling despite taking place on a small set, this film comes off way too stagebound, though Hitchcock uses sound to create a sense of things happening off-screen.

The story didn’t work for me either, though apparently it’s much-beloved in Ireland. The story involves a working class family with a shiftless father, goodhearted daughter, son who’s fighting for Irish independence and Mom trying to keep it all together. When a wealthy relative leaves them an inheritance it looks like the clan’s hard luck story is turning around. Then it all comes crashing down and their doom is so heavy-handed I don’t know I’d have cared even on-stage (but a good stage production would certainly work better than this film). “Yes, that’s right — I have fallen to so low a state.”

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Love in the 1980s, plus Hitchcock plus Sarah Connor: movies

Set in 1988, TAKE ME  HOME TONIGHT (2011) has a great 1980s soundtrack, but it’s more interested in mimicking films of the era than really evoking the decade. Topher Grace is an MIT grad reduced to working at a video store (I don’t think they ever explain why) and largely avoiding his old buddies. Then he learns the high school crush he never dared speak to will be at the Big Party tonight, so he decides to show, dragging along sister Anna Faris (struggling to choose between Cambridge and Marriage) and his best friend. Will he get the girl? Will he be outed as a failure? I found this too trite to care. Buffy‘s Michelle Trachtenberg plays a punk. “Don’t call yourself a failure — you’re much worse than that.”

Rewatching THIEF OF HEARTS (1984) I think I actually liked it even more than when it came out. Steven Bauer plays Scott, a burglar who rips off Mickey (Barbara Williams) and her husband and discovers his take includes Mickey’s diaries, wherein she pours out her frustration and her fantasies. Intrigued by the passionate woman he reads about, Scott sets out to become her perfect lover — but as Think Like a Man put it, the trouble with pretending to be a better man is that sooner or later you have to live up to it. Part of what makes this work is that they don’t shy away from Scott being a stalker, rather than a dream lover. With David Caruso (later to enjoy brief TV stardom) as Scott’s psycho sidekick “I bet I can tell your favorite ice cream flavor.”

BLACKMAIL (1929) is the first Alfred Hitchcock film in the set I’ve been watching that feels close to the style that made him famous. A young woman has an argument with her cop boyfriend, flirts with an artist, goes up to his studio then stabs him when he assault her. Will her boyfriend learn what she did? Can she keep her mouth shut when an innocent man becomes a suspect? Minor (though Hitchcock Romance argues it has a lot of minor elements that would crop up in Hitch’s later career) but a quantum leap over Easy Virtue. “Scotland Yard? If not for Edgar Wallace nobody would have ever heard of them.”

TERMINATOR: Dark Fate (2019) has a lot in common Terminator: Genisys: using T2 as a template, major changes to the timeline, and another alt.Skynet, the AI Legion, becoming the threat to the future. It works a lot better, however as it has fewer time paradoxes and sticks closer to the spirit of the series, particularly in bringing back Linda Hamilton as a gruff, gunslinging older Sarah Connor. Natalia Reyes plays Dani, a Mexican woman who finds herself the target of Gabriel Luna’s liquid-metal Terminator, with Sarah and time-traveling cyborg Grace (Mackenzie Davis) as her only hope for survival, and the future’s. While I wouldn’t bet on the poor box office killing this franchise, if this is the last movie, it’s a good note to go out on. “So your plan is to slip across the U.S. border with an illegal Mexican immigrant and a woman who once had her own episode of America’s Most Wanted?”

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Two fighters, one superhero: movies this week.

I was frustrated to discover my DVD of  DIE NIBELUNGEN: Siegfried (1924) was scratched enough the last 40 minutes were unwatchable (I compensated with a German edition uploaded to YouTube). Fritz Lang’s film itself, though, is superb, telling the legend of Siegfried who over the course of the film forges a sword, slays a dragon (a really impressive sequence — Full Metal Alchemist: The Movie has Lang filming it during a visit by Elric to our world) and then helps the weakling king Gunther win the warrior queen Brunhilde under false pretenses (helping the king invisibly during trials of strength) in return for the hand of the king’s sister. Hmm, it’s possible this will not end well …Great-looking and impressively epic; I do hope Part Two is in better condition. “Whoever forsakes loyalty to the blood brother shall perish at the wayside, all honor lost.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE RING (1927) is a romance about a small-time boxer whose rise in the rankings becomes a personal quest when he discovers his wife is stepping out with the current champ. A vast improvement over Easy Virtue, with some excellent visuals, such as the opening scenes of carnival gaiety. However the romance is less than compelling (the wife is so faithless, it’s hard to be happy he wins her back) and one character drops the n-word mid-movie, neither of which is a plus.

SHAZAM! (2019) reworks Geoff Johns’ New 52 version of the original Captain Marvel (the name change is because Marvel’s Captain Marvel has that name trademarked so DC’s version can’t use the name in the title). Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a tough street kid desperate to find his long-lost mother, now stuck in his umpteenth foster home and unable to see it’s a good one. A wizard (Djimon Honsou) gives Billy the power to transform into super-powered Shazam (Zachary Levi) but neglects to tell him that Sivana (Mark Strong), who was turned down for the gig, has now freed the Seven Deadly Sins and plans using their power to steal the Shazam-magic.

I’m glad they shot for an upbeat film rather than grim-and-gritty because Cap — er, Shazam — is a light-hearted character. But Levi’s Shazam comes off more like a nine-year-old than the focused, tough-nosed Angel and Strong’s Sivana is generic in his evil evilness (making him a Child of Abuse is a cliche — and having his father played by John Glover makes this feel like a Smallville reboot); the goofy comic-book version would have fit the mood better. The Seven Sins are also surprisingly dull, just big CGI monsters; despite Honsou warning that they’ll corrupt the world, they’re more about killing and destroying. They might as well have been Plutonians.

The best part of the film is Billy bonding with his family and finding a way out of his loneliness. It’s sweet, but it’s not enough to save the film. “You seek a purer soul, old man — but none are worthy.”

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From Mystery Island to Mauthausen and all points in between: movies

MANHUNT OF MYSTERY ISLAND (1945) is a fun serial from Republic Pictures, despite Richard Bailey’s ineffective performance as ace criminologist and nominal hero Lance Reardon. To make up for that we have veteran serial villain Roy Barcroft scowling as Captain Mephisto, who’s imprisoned a brilliant scientist on Mystery Island to steal the secrets of his invention for broadcasting electrical power wirelessly. On the good guys’ side we have Linda Stirling (who appeared the year before in Republic’s Tiger Woman), who’s not only more fun than the hero, she’s extremely capable, saving him a half-dozen times and proving she’s a crack shot even with her arms bound. Like many serial villains Mephisto has a secret identity, created by using a “transformation machine” to change back and forth from one of the owners of Mystery Island (some sources refer to this as reincarnation or time travel but no, it’s just a physical change by pseudoscientific gobbledygook). Definitely fun if you’re into old-time serials. “It’s dangerous — but we’re all in danger, every moment that man lives!”

DRESSED TO KILL (1947) wraps up Basil Rathbone’s run as Holmes (horrifying fans at the time) with a reasonably ingenious mystery. Patricia Morrison plays a female schemer strangely determined to collect three music boxes by fair means or foul, but what secret do they contain that she’s willing to kill for? This has some nice touches like Morrison setting a trap for Holmes by leaving her distinctive cigarette at a crime scene (“I’ve read your monograph on distinguishing 140 types of tobacco.”). “So fearfully awkward to have a dead body lying around, don’t you agree Mr. Holmes?”

TYG recently bought the DVD of DADDY’S DYING … WHO’S GOT THE WILL? (1990) which I’d vaguely assumed was a lowbrow Southern comedy. It’s actually a well-done dramedy about a family (wild child Beverly D’Angelo, frustrated Tess Harper and abusive jerk Beau Bridges) showing up at their dad’s deathbed alongside various partners (most notably Judge Reinhold as D’Angelo’s hippy boyfriend). I don’t like it as much as she does, but I did enjoy it. “I don’t think it’s God’s will you have six husbands before you’re 40.”

Alfred Hitchcock again — EASY VIRTUE (1927) is what The Hitchcock Romance would classify as an ironic romance, in that the obstacles triumph over the lovers. A beautiful divorcee (another example of Hitch’s Innocent Accused trope, in this case accusations of adultery) finds new love only to have it slip through her hands due to the hostility of her husband’s family turning him against her (it’s already doomed by the time her past comes to light). This filmed adaptation of a Noel Coward play interested me even less than The Lodger but the heroine’s relentlessly hostile mother-in-law is very much the forerunner of countless nightmarish mother figures in Hitchcock’s later works. “We married because we loved one another — no explanations were necessary on either side.”

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF MAUTHAUSEN (2018) is a Spanish docudrama set a Nazi-run camp for Spanish communists shipped there by Franco. One of them becomes assistant to the camp photographer relentlessly documenting the brutalities around them; when he realizes the Nazis will want to destroy the evidence someday, the assistant sets out to preserve as many photos as possible. Effective at showing (as the director Ernst Lubitsch once put it) that it no more takes sadism to run a death camp than it does a laundromat; the callousness with which the Nazis deal with their charges is chilling. “The party is paranoid and it needs to clean up its mess.”

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Sherlock, She-Ra and Jack the Ripper: movies and TV

Continuing my viewing of the Basil Rathbone Holmes filmsTHE PEARL OF DEATH (1944) remains a personal favorite, a relatively faithful adaptation of Doyle’s The Six Napoleons. A stupid stunt by Holmes enables Moriarty-esque mastermind Conover (Miles Mander) to steal the priceless Borgia pearl, but where did he hide it? Does the theft tie in with a series of brutal murders by a killer who likes to break his victims’ backs and then smash plates? A solid story, with Mander fine in his vicious role, backed up by Evelyn Ankers (much better as a bad girl than the wharf rat in Voice of Terror) and acromegalic Rondo Hatton as the brutal “Creeper.” “I don’t like the smell of you — an underground smell, the sick sweetness of decay.”

Moriarty himself returns in THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945)with Henry Daniell as an understated but ominous Moriarty (I can easily buy him as a mathematics professor) who actually gets some of Doyle’s dialog from The Final Problem. Unfortunately he’s in a mediocre movie involving hypnosis and an implausible blackmail scheme involving cutting off women’s fingers. This is narrated by Gregson, one of Doyle’s secondary detectives, which doesn’t add much (apparently the producers felt Dennis Hooey’s buffoonery as Lestrade wasn’t needed when they already had Watson for comic relief). However Daniell does manage to pull off one of those “let’s not put a bullet in Holmes right away” drawn out endings that annoy me so (“I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”). “Then we shall walk together through the gates of eternity, hand in hand.”

TERROR BY NIGHT (1946) has Holmes and Watson taking a train to safeguard the fabulous Star or Rhodesia, only to have the gem disappear en route with its minder dead. Could it be the woman traveling with her husband’s corpse? The dead man’s mom? The couple with the tea pot? Is it possible the real mastermind is Sebastian Moran? Competent, but no more than that, with Dennis Hooey returning and Watson at peak levels of stupid. “Col. Moran was directly responsible for what nearly turned out to be my premature death on three separate occasions.”

At six episodes, the third season of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER is even shorter than S2, but in compensation it’s very good. The story arc focuses on Hordak’s plans to open a portal and bring through the full Horde but the strength is in the character bits: Hordak and Entrapta bonding, Shadow Weaver switching sides, Adora freaking from the fear she’s failed everyone, Katra demonstrating she’s really as good as she thinks she is. Highly recommended. “I’d sooner see the world end than let you win again, Adora!”

When I picked up the Holmes DVDs at the library, I also snatched up a collection of early Hitchcock films. THE LODGER (1926) is widely seen as the first “Hitchcockian” film as it addresses one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, an innocent man under suspicion. Based on a successful British novel (which the film’s script reworks radically) this has silent star Ivor Novello as the gentlemanly eponymous boarder striking sparks with his landlady’s daughter — but is it possible he’s also the mysterious Ripper-esque serial killer, the Avenger? This shows Hitchcock Romance‘s point about Hitchcock’s romantic streak as the heart of the film is the romance triumphing over the obstacles (suspicious parents, a disgruntled former boyfriend). Unfortunately that doesn’t make it interesting — it’s more a dry run for future classics than substantial in itself. “When I put a rope around the Avenger’s neck — I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger.”

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Women, rubber, luck, Hitchcock and ‘toons: books read

I’ve been meaning to reread THE MISMEASURE OF WOMAN: Why Women are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex or the Opposite Sex by Carol Tavris as research for Undead Sexist Cliches and finally did so. Tavris looks critically at the assumptions men are the default normal setting for homo sapiens, and that women are a defective copy, so when women do it differently, they’re doing it wrong. Tavris doesn’t deny women and men are different, but sees the differences as rooted in different life experiences rather than fundamental biology, and she shows how the explanations shift constantly; brain science, for example, “proves” men are superior because their brains are bigger, or more specialized, or particular parts of the brain are bigger, depending which theory is currently popular. Despite coming out in 1992, still timely; even though sociobiology seems to have vanished into the trash can of science, evolutionary psychology has filled the same place.

THIEF AT THE END OF THE WORLD: Rubber, Power and the Seeds of Empire, by Joe Jackson, shows why several Doc Savage novels such as The Flaming Falcons revolved around the USA getting its own rubber supply. Starting in the 19th century, rubber became as vital as oil would be to the 20th: waterproofing, insulation, molding into plastics, and as a cushion wherever mechanical parts in engines had to smash up against each other. The only source was South America, in part of the Amazon, until a Brit named Henry Wickham smuggled some seeds out, a shining triumph in an otherwise unsuccessful life. Complicating his efforts were Brazilian authorities interested in stopping such acts of biopiracy, and the classism and bureaucracy of the British government (collectors such as Wickham were considered lower-class, less scientists than gardeners). Overall, very good.

CITY OF LOST FORTUNES by Bryan Camp caught my attention because of his discussion on John Scalzi’s blog of the roles luck and trickster figures play in the novel. In practice, it’s a fairly standard urban fantasy set in New Orleans and being the demigod son of some Trickster doesn’t make the protagonist any snarkier or more anti-authoritarian than, say, Harry Dresden. So not for me, but if you like urban fantasy more than I do … One thing I do notice is that the power level is notably higher than most urban fantasies I’ve read; Dresden took a lot longer to actually start squaring off against gods.

THE HITCHCOCK ROMANCE: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films by Lesley Brill argues that far from being cynical, Hitch’s films hold up love and marriage as the ideal end game for his protagonists, though not necessarily an attainable one. Brill divides much of Hitchcock’s output into Romances (true love triumphs over past tragedy [Marnie] or current obstacles [North by Northwest]) and Ironic which uses the same tropes and elements, but the lovers are dragged down (Vertigo). Heavy academese made this a slow read, but Brill’s persuasive enough I’ll keep it handy if I ever go through a Hitchcock rewatching cycle.

THE FIFTY GREATEST CARTOONS offers a nice range of viewing between #1 (What’s Opera Doc?) and #50 (Felix in Hollywood), including UA, Warner Brothers, Tex Avery, Disney and assorted indies. The picks (based on a survey of professional animators) include the landmark Gertie the Dinosaur, the unconventional The Old Mill, Tex Avery’s classic Northwest Hounded Police (“Don’t look now/use your noodle/You’re being followed/by Sgt. McPoodle.”) and weirdies such as Bambi Meets Godzilla. I’m not sure this list is one for the ages — would anyone my niece’s age get the parody elements of The Dover Boys and does it work without them? — but I still enjoyed this. The book includes a listing of various collections containing the ‘toons, but it’s a 1990s book so they’re all videotapes.

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