Sunday, September 25, 2016

See Emily Play

The Americanization of Emily (1964) was written by Paddy Chayefsky, and it shows. It is an overwritten mess, falling into the crack between late screw and early modern comedy. But it's a lot of fun.

It stars James Garner as a cynical Navy dog robber in the last days of WWII. A "dog robber" is the guy who makes things happen, who greases the wheels, who comes up with the good food and booze for his officer's dinners. He works for a political Admiral, played by Melvyn Douglas. When Garner comes to London, he runs around hustling all the good food and patting the corpswomen on the butt. But his driver, Julie Andrews as Emily, doesn't appreciate that kind of behavior. She has lost her husband and brother to the war. Her nation has starved and deprived itself for the effort, and then the Americans show up, throwing around Hershey's bars and nylons, and expect to be loved for it.

Garner has different views of war - he thinks it gets people killed, and should be avoided at all costs. He has dedicated himself to staying out of combat and enjoying himself as much as possible in the circumstances. He even delivers a long Chayefskyesque monologue on the subject to Emily and her dotty mother.

It's a good monologue, but it isn't hard to see Chayefsky at his typewriter behind the scene. But it isn't just the improbable dialog. The second act twist is that Emily falls in love with Garner because he is such a coward - she feels secure that she will never lose him to the war. Fair enough although Andrews' motivation doesn't seem quite real (even though she gets her own monologues). Then, the third act.

Admiral Melvyn Douglas starts getting a bit weird, demanding that the first to die on D-Day be a sailor, for the glory of the Navy. James Coburn, another dog robber who has been concerned about nothing but getting the WAVEs into bed, decides to go all gung-ho and make sure that that first dead sailor is Garner.

Of course, Coburn is great in this role, with his giant toothy grin. But does he make any sense? Does Andrews' reaction make any sense? Does any of it? At least the Admiral's behavior can be explained by a mental crackup.

Nonetheless, we liked this quite a bit. It was directed by the recently deceased Arthur Hiller, who keeps things moving. Garner, Douglas, and especially Coburn are always fun. Julie Andrews has a lot less to work with, even though she's the title character, but she's not bad.

I'd say, watch this if you like mid-century anti-war war films, if you like Garner and Coburn, and you like or don't mind well-crafted but lumpy screenwriting.

In conclusion, Victor Victoria is a better Garner/Andrews movie.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Gimme Shelter

We went into Take Shelter (2011) expecting a variation on 10 Cloverfield Lane: A possibly crazed man locks some people in a shelter, claiming that he is protecting them from some horrible apocalypse. This premise was strengthened by the "Coming Attraction" on the DVD, for Retreat, which is the same thing on an island. Take Shelter isn't really that movie.

It stars Michael Shannon as a regular working guy in Iowa or Ohio or some flat place. He works in construction, likes to drink beer and hang out with his buddies. His wife, Jessica Chastain, does some sewing for vacation money, but mostly stays home to take care of their deaf daughter (Tova Stewart, a deaf kindergartner - not an actress, but a real shining presence). But Shannon starts to have bad dreams, dreams about a storm. Not just a storm, but a world ending cataclysm. So he starts cleaning out the storm cellar.

Minor spoiler - the family does wind up in the storm cellar. But it's not what I was expecting at all. Mostly it's about Shannon's deteriorating mental condition. He hides it from his friends and his wife for as long as he can. He can't tell his wife about one dream because it made him wet the bed, and there's no way he's going to admit to that. So there's a good bit of stuff about masculinity and mental health. But it also keeps you off balance wondering whether he's right about the coming disaster. You wind up rooting for apocalypse, because it would prove he's not crazy.

This is the first feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who seems to specialize in moody stories in rural settings that explore the male psyche. This isn't really my thing, but I liked it here a lot.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Unusual Punishment

Who is your favorite Punisher? We've seen the Thomas Jane version, the Lexi Alexander/Ray Stevenson version, and the John Bernthal version in the Daredevil TV series. Now, we've also seen the first film version: Dolph Lundgren in Punisher (1989).

It starts with Frank Castle blowing up a mob boss mansion with the boss (and himself) inside. So the Punisher is now dead, although police detective (Lou Gossett Jr.) is still watching out for the vigilante decimating the underworld. He even gets some help from a cute partner, Nancy Everhard.

Meanwhile, the Yakoooza are moving into the vacuum left by Castle. They kidnap the children of the remaining mobsters as leverage. Now, the mob and Castle will have to work together to get them safe.

All through this, Lundgren rides around in the sewers on a motorcycle, looking about 2 smudges of eyeliner away from an Adam Ant video. Seeing him meditating naked in the sewers would be more badass if he didn't cross his eyes. But when he starts fighting, oh boy, look out. It's particularly fun to see him go up against the Yakuza ninjas, whose leader, played by Kim Miyori, looks great in black skintight jumpsuit.

It's funny how closely this story tracks the Daredevil version, right down to the Yakuza. I was expecting to see a Castle more like John Bernthal: beat-up and lumpy faced. Instead, he is quite the handsome chisel-cheeked New Wave haircut boy. Of course, the whole movie stinks of the 80s, so maybe I'm just picking up background radiation.

Anyway, I think our favorite Punisher movie is the Lexi Alexander, and John Bernthal our favorite Punisher. But we love Dolph in this, and in fact went and watched Johnny Mnemonic next, to see him as Street Preacher. Halt sinners!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Strange World

Anyone who was paying attention to fantastic literature in 2004 knows about Susanna Clarke's book. Many of those were excited to hear that it was made into a TV series: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015).

It is set in an alternate England around the time of the Napoleanic wars. In this England, magic is considered real, but never practiced, as that would be ungentlemanly. But one eccentric gentleman of York, Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) demonstrates "practical" magic and changes everyone's mind. He's a reclusive scholar who jealously protects his books and his secrets, with only his thuggish butler (Enzo Chilenti) for company.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) has just inherited his father's fortune. He would be happy to fritter it away, but his fiancee (Charlotte Riley) wants him to be someone. So he decides to become a magician - and it works.

Mr. Norrell gets involved in English politics when he brings the Prime Minister's fiancee back from the dead. This also gets him involved with another kind of politics - the fairy court. The backstory of the alternate England is that it was once ruled by the Raven King, a magician who was served by fairies, and possibly undone by them.

The series (like the book) has fun with a number of themes - fame and politics, the possible futility of military magic, and the deviltry of fairy gifts (as a metaphor for addiction?). Parts are funny, parts are frightening, and the relationship between Strange and Norrell, Strange and his bride, and so on, are just human.

It is also well cast and set, with the budget this kind of production needs. Worth watching.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Doll House

Hey MST3K fans! Have you heard about the new podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads? Trace Beaulieu (Dr. F), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) and Carolina Hidalgo (young standup) meet each week to discuss a movie or whatever they feel like. So some reason, they did an episode on Valley of the Dolls (1967), and, for our sins, we decided to watch it.

Although you've probably heard of it, or at least the Jacqueline Susann novel it's based on, you probably haven't seen it, nor had any desire to. But it was strangely enjoyable, and for all the reasons you'd expect. It's the story of three or four women and the men in their lives as they deal with show business and the big city.

Barbara Perkins comes to New York from her small Vermont home town to make it big, or at least to become a legal secretary. Her boss is agent Paul Burke, who manages aging Broadway broad Susan Hayward. Hayward is obnoxious and abrasive and gets Patty Duke kicked off the show for being too talented. The show also features a stacked chorus girl, Sharon Tate, who has to trade on her looks because her talent won't carry her. They find love, heartbreak, and sometimes, painkiller addiction.

Although this is all very cheesy, I did like Patty Duke's character, Neely. Although the part is probably inspired by Judy Garland, I got a bit of a Janis Joplin vibe from her (although in 1967, Janis was just taking off, and no one knew what her end would be). She wears a turtleneck and love beads, and sings with a certain ferocious attack. Her big number is pretty poppy, but seems to be in 7/8 time, which is pretty rad.

Also, she's the character who gets deepest into the pills, gets rehabbed, relapses, etc. Tate's character has a good arc, with tragedy after tragedy, culminating in a mastectomy that will surely wreck her burgeoning porn career. But she's kind of an afterthought. The voice-over viewpoint character is Perkins, and she's kind of boring.

Although the last scene (spoiler) where her boyfriend comes to see her and she walks out on him is a doozy: She walks out on him, but it's her house! She just walks away! Does he live there now? Where does she live?  In his apartment? Does he get her car too? So we are left with many questions.

If your question is "what are dolls, anyway?", I have answers. Although I'd never heard the expression, "dolls" are slang for pills, named after dolophine, a synthetic opioid now known as methadone, supposedly named after Adolph Hitler. And now you know... the rest of the story.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

And Welcome to It

We went into Jurassic World (2015) with low expectations and they were more than fulfilled. We enjoyed JP back in 1993, but skipped the sequels (should we go back and watch?). Satisfied customers, but not really fans. JW seems like it was aimed at fans, but we normals liked it too.

It stars Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson as two kids being shipped off to Jurassic World so there parents can have some space to get divorced. Their aunt, Bryce Dallas Houston Howard, is the park director, and too much of a busy exec to keep an eye on them. She is spending her time selling rights to a new, gene-spliced, totally made up dinosaur, Impervious Rex!

The existence of this park is somewhat problematic. They lampshade this by having a comic-relief control room guy wear a T-shirt from the original park, and be told that it is in poor taste. Yes, it is - that was a disaster, many people were killed, not just lawyers. And yet, 20 some years later, people flock to the new park and their biggest problem is that the T-Rex is too boring - we need an Incredulous Rex!

But it isn't all about mayhem. Chris Pratt is working with a team of velociraptors, teaching them to obey his commands, so that Vincent D'Onofrio can sell them as weapons! Which seems about as useful as using an Alien, but what do I know about arms dealing?

Anyway, dinos get loose, kids in peril, various bad guys and extras get killed, Pratt and Houston get moony, and lots of cool set pieces. Like everyone, I loved Pratt training the raptors. He had a great Star Lord style to him (with perhaps a bit of Indiana Jones), and the raptors were given interesting personalities.

Along with the set pieces (whale-sized mosasaurus eats a shark like a minnow!), the movie is replete with references to the original. We didn't get most of them, because we saw it in the last millennium. The ending --NO SPOILER-- was one big reference, and made very little sense.

In conclusion, I assume that NOW humanity has learned that reviving dinosaurs for thrills and entertainment is a bad idea, and will stick to using them for strictly military purposes.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Right Stuff

Another arthouse-horror movie: Let the Right One In (2008). This is the Swedish movie remade in America as Let Me In.

It stars Kare Hedebrant as a slight, mild 12-year old boy. At school, a small gang of bullies intimidates him. He broods and keeps a scrapbook of brutal murders. One night after dark, he meets a little girl in the playground, Lina Leandersson. She is dark and mysterious, and, although they get along, she says she cannot be his girlfriend. She has moved in next door, with a mysterious older man. She can't enter a room without being invited. She doesn't feel the cold, and is only seen at night. It is no spoiler to say that she is a vampire.

The feel of the movie is very Scandinavian - cool, austere, restrained. It is set in a mid-sized town in the 1980s or 90s (I think), with the spare, modernistic architecture of the decades just previous. The light of day is cold; it's warmer at night. One of the corpses is even found enclosed in a block of ice.

The blood and violence isn't that extreme. The intimacy of the look at the lives of the children is more disturbing. Hebebrant's relation to his bullies is almost sexualized, and of course he is a beautiful child, as is Leandersson. Although the movie doesn't cross boundaries, it might inch up to them and make adults uncomfortable.

Beautifully made and acted, very creepy. So my question is, do we watch the American remake? Or is this the right one?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Christmas Carol

Carol (2015) is a bit of a departure from our usual run of action, comedy, and SF. It was Ms. Spenser's suggestion. This seems appropriate, since Carol is a "women's picture", but it is also a departure from her usual horror selections.

It is set in the 1950s. Cate Blanchett is Carol, a fashionable woman out Christmas shopping. Shopgirl Theres (Rooney Mara), wearing the company-mandated elf hat catches her eye and they share a "moment". They slowly begin a friendship, which very slowly becomes much more. But Carol is being divorced, for reasons that aren't spelled out, but have something to do with another close woman friend. Carol is in danger of losing her beloved daughter, especially if morals enter into it.

Carol is directed by Todd Haynes, who I know mainly as the director of Cate Banchett as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. But I think he is considered to be more of an inheritor of the Douglas Sirk tradition - technicolor melodramas about the emotional life of suburban women. They live in beautiful homes, wear lovely fashions, and suffer sterile lives of repression. Haynes keeps the feel and art direction, but makes some of the unspoken subtexts explicit - like homosexuality.

The story comes from a Patricia Highsmith novel. She wrote a lot of detective stories, like The Talented Mr. Ripley. She also wrote both pulp and literary lesbian life stories. Of course, by tradition, they have to end in tragedy. After all, even today, "the Lesbian Dies" is a trope. But this novel and movie are different. It isn't exactly a happy ending, but nobody has to die - not even Corey Michael Smith (Gotham), the creepy guy they meet on their road trip.

Yes, Carol and Theres go on a road trip, but this isn't Thelma and Louise.

I'd just like to mention the odd name of Mara's character, Theres, pronounced "Tirez", only to say that know a Theres, a friend of friends. And she is kick ass.

In conclusion, this is really a Christmas movie, and we should have waited to watch it in season. Also, we probably should have watched The Witch over Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Randolph Rides Again

As promised, we continue with the Budd Boetticher Westerns with The Tall T (1957). Although there are comic elements, it is a very different beast from Buchanan Rides Alone.

It stars Randolph Scott, who used to be ramrodder and top hand for Mr. Tenvoorde at the Tall T Ranch. I had to look that up, because it is pronounced like "Mr. 10-40", and I don't think they had multi-weight lubricants in the old West. He lives at his own place on the Sassafree. On his way into town, he meets a station master and his son at a lonely stagecoach station, and promises to bring the boy back some candy. He meets up with coach drive Arthur Hunnicut, driving old maid (Maureen O'Sullivan) and her sleazy new husband, then heads for some hi-jinks with Mr. 10-40. The tone is light and silly.

He hitches a ride back to his spread with the bride and groom, but when they reach the station, the tone changes. Without too many spoilers, let just say that they meet up with some bad men. The leader of the gang is Paladin himself, Richard Boone. His gang consists of a cheerful idiot (Skip Homeier) and a creepy psycho gunman called Chink (Henry Silva!). Next comes the war of nerves: Scott and the civilians vs. the bad guys.

Boone makes an interesting bad guy - philosophical, glad to have people to talk to who aren't twitchy killers. He sometimes wishes he had taken a different path. But that doesn't make him Scott's friend.

The story comes from an Elmore Leonard novel. It has lighter moments, brutal violence (offscreen, mostly) and psychological depth. Chink is creepy, Boone is interesting, and so on. But Scott's cowboy is both honest, honorable, and deadly competent. It's the code of the old West.

Monday, September 5, 2016


The Witch (2015) (a.k.a. The VVitch) is one of those American Colonial horror stories, about how witch hysteria does more damage than actual witchcraft would. Except it isn't because there are real witches.

This is not much of a spoiler, because we see the witch pretty early on.  The story starts with a pilgrim family being expelled from the community for some sort of doctrinal disagreement. They move to a lonely spot near the woods, and build up a little homestead. But the baby disappears when the oldest daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) is supposed to be watching it, and we see it's fate. This is not suspense, this is horror.

But there is suspense and horror in the movie. The family is falling apart. The farm is a bust - they are going to starve in the winter. Mom is disconsolate over the loss of her child. The little twins are kind of spooky, chanting nursery rhymes that become more and more like Satanic invocations addressed to their billy goat, Black Philip. It gets worse when the younger brother is almost taken by the witch, and comes back poisoned and delirious. Also, one of the silver cups that Mother brought to the marriage is missing, and she thinks Thomasin stole it.

So there is a lot of the canonical suspicions, accusations, and paranoia ripping society and the family apart. The father seems like a righteous man, humble before God and prayerful, But he is also a poor farmer and terrible hunter, and God does not seem to be disposed to help him out. And also, the woods harbor real monsters.

Ms. Spenser is the one driving our horror viewing, but I try to steer towards art-house horror like this. The dialog is VERY authentic Colonial, a lot of it from contemporary sources. The look is artful as well, composed shots of the pitiful homestead backed by the grey and menacing woods. I'm a little concerned about the mixed messages: the witch scare is all about way fear and suspicion turns people against each other, and that's the real terror - except the REAL terror of kids being torn limb from limb.

Still, it's an interesting approach and lovely movie, very creepy. Recommended.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

SPOILER - He Does Get to Rap

Graffiti Bridge (1990) is the last of Prince's movie trilogy. In some ways, it's a sequel to Purple Rain; in some ways it's just silly.

Once again, Prince and Morris Day are rivals in the Minneapolis dance scene. Day and Prince have half shares in Prince's club, maybe the one they working in in Rain. It is failing because Prince is trying to be David Bowie. Seriously, he wears weird geometric black-and-white outfits and dances in an angular fashion to some mildly avant-garde music. Meanwhile, Morris Day and the Time are bringing the funk with super-tight stepping. In fact, Prince gets dogged in his own club. Embarrassing!

During all this, we get glimpses of a Ingrid Chavez watching from the background and writing poetry under a bridge. SPOILER - she is an angel. I guess this is obvious - Prince voice-overs about angels, Ingrid interior-monologues about how she doesn't understand human emotions, and so on. But I thought she was just a bit naive, or possibly on the spectrum. Anyway, Prince is into her - he drives by her at the bridge on his motorbike, but doesn't shove her in like in Rain. Of course, Morris Day has to try to seduce her, as part of his war with Prince.

There isn't as much musical battle as you might hope for. There is one cut each for the other clubs in the neighborhood - one owned by Mavis Staples and the other by George Clinton. There's the usual running joke about Prince not giving anyone else a chance to contribute creatively - one of his band members wants to rap. But he let's Mavis and George and the Time have plenty of room to funk out.

Last SPOILER - Chavez lets herself be run over by a truck to get everyone to realize that the musical battle is wrong, and they shouldn't be fighting but loving each other, and besides, Prince's musical setting of one of her poems wins the battle anyway. At this time, I haven't realized she is an angel, and I am very upset that everyone is so cool with her sacrifice - straight-out suicide - because it let Prince and Day forget their differences and shake hands. But she's an angel, so it's cool.

So we get Prince as a conflicted outsider fighting loutish Morris Day - but without motivating Prince's angst in his family drama. We get the girl who is being fought over, but she isn't a girl really. We even get the band member who wants to do his own thing. It has a lot of the same beats as Purple Rain, but it doesn't have the strength. Also, the songs are not as strong.

Now that we've seen all three, I'm going to give my unpopular opinion: Cherry Moon is my favorite Prince movie.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Ten Dollar Town

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) is the first Budd Boetticher movie we've watched. I know because he is often mentioned in Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule's Movie Quiz. Now I don't have to take a pass on that one. I picked this one to ease me into it, because some blog (can't find it now) said it was a comedy.

It stars Randolph Scott, as apparently all good Boetticher Westerns do. As Buchanan, he rides alone into Agry Town, just across the Mexico border, heading for West Texas. There he meets several of the Agry clan, like the sheriff, the hotel keeper, the judge, and a belligerent young drunk in the bar. After Scott is charged $10 for a room, $10 for a steak, and $10 for a bottle of whiskey, he remarks, "This sure is a ten dollar town." Saying it while looking right at a bar girl gives it a little extra oomph.

Well, it seems a Mexican lad comes in and kills the drunk Agry boy, for unmentionable crimes against a woman. Although Scott is just a bystander, the sheriff (the boy's uncle, I think) hauls him in, too. He escapes a double hanging, one thing leads to another, and it looks like it will be a while before he makes it to West Texas.

Scott is great in this: laconic, friendly, mild in the face of nastiness. Your basic decent cowboy. On the other hand, he doesn't seem to be that great at getting out of trouble. He doesn't even really ride alone, he keeps picking up sidekicks, like Manuel Rojas and L.Q. Jones.

Since this is supposed to be largely a parody on the other Scott/Boetticher Westerns, I suppose it would have been better to have waited until we had seen a few. But we're doing it the other way round. Next up, The Tall T.