Category Archives: Movies

Hypnotized boxer, doomed cosmos: movies viewed

LET’S DO IT AGAIN (1975) was the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby follow-up to Uptown Saturday Night in which the guys play the same characters (married, blue-collar guys) but with different names (as countless comedy teams have done before them). Their lodge’s building is going to be torn down and it’ll take $50,000 to start construction on a new building — which the Sons and Daughters of Shaka doesn’t have. Solution: Poitier uses his hypnosis skills to turn inept boxer Jimmie Walker into a champion, bet on him and clean up big. But of course, problems accrue and the gamblers they took for all the money are very, very PO’d … A lot of fun (though if you can’t bear to watch Cosby any more, and some people can’t, that doesn’t apply), very funny and with a great cast including lodge leader Ossie Davis, Denise Nichols and Lee Chamberlain as the wives, Calvin Lockhart and John Amos as the gamblers and Julius Harris as a thug. The writer says on the commentary track that he wrote the film so the wives would have a significant part to play, unlike the first film, and that they let Cosby improvise as much as possible to play to his strengths. It’s a shame the third film Cosby and Poitier made was the disappointing A Piece of the Action. “There is an orphanage with real orphans — they don’t even have things!”

AVENGERS: Infinity War (2018) is the show-stopping spectacular in which the mad titan Thanos sets out to acquire the Infinity Stones that will give him power over all reality, only to face the combined efforts of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the armies of Wakanda. Thanos (Josh Brolin) works much better than I expected given his face on-screen looks slightly silly; unlike the comics his goal isn’t love of Death but a noble desire to stabilize the universe by wiping out half the population (I presume the switch is because this is a)easier to explain and b)it makes him more sympathetic than if he were killing people to impress a woman). Well worth seeing, though not without flaws — given Thanos can just zap all his opponents with the reality stone, why is there even a fight scene? Why does he need all six gems (you’d think control of reality would do the trick by itself?). And the movie’s high body count will obviously be reversed, so I couldn’t get very distressed about it. Still if you like this sort of thing (I certainly do) it’s worth catching. “This will the greatest end in all of history.”

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One waitress works, another doesn’t: Idea vs. execution

My of-necessity delayed birthday gift from TYG was a trip to the musical WAITRESS at Durham’s performing arts center on May 6. We loved it. Later TYG streamed the Keri Russell/Nathan Filion 2007 movie that inspired it, and that rewatched as poorly as it did the first time I saw it (TYG didn’t care for it either). The concept and most of the plot is the same, but the execution is different, and the musical executes it better. Like Hodgson’s The Night World, it proves that execution is as important as concept.

The central character is a waitress, Jenna, stuck in an emotionally abusive (maybe physical — we never see anything but it feels like that), loveless marriage, pouring her repressed feeling out into her pies at the local diner. As the movie opens, Jenna discovers she’s pregnant, having lapsed and slept with her husband. She’s not happy to bring a baby into this relationship. Then it turns out her doctor just retired and now she’s stuck with Nathan Filion, a married out-of-town doctor who’s immediately smitten by her. Before long they’re having an affair. In other plotlines one waitress meets a rather stalkery guy online and marries him; the other, older waitress is knocking boots with the fry cook (they’re both married, but for various reasons, neither one is having sex). Finally Jenna ends her affair and walks out on Earl. Her wealthiest, crotchetiest customer (Andy Griffith) dies and leaves her the diner, so she’s able to start a new life on her own two feet.

As I said the first time, it’s a generic Quirky Southern Town film (TYG called it “typical indie chick flick”). The characters are not particularly likeable — everyone seems pissed and miserable — and they’re not very distinctive.

(The curtain from Waitress)

The musical does a much better job. First off, it’s a musical, and the singing and dancing are good. That automatically makes it more fun.

Second, the characters seem much more likable and much more distinctive. Dawn, the waitress who meets someone online, is just a shy, insecure young woman in the movie. In the play, she’s a history nerd who watches the History Channel all the time and has appeared as Betsy Ross 27 historical re-enactments. She also has a great song expressing her insecurity (“What if I like what I see/And he knows it?/What if I open a door/And can’t close it?”) which works better than anything in the show. Her persistent beau doesn’t come across as stalkery, and they’re a more believable couple (“The turtle and the elf — an epic love story!”).

In short it’s solid proof that execution is at least as important as concept.

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A dragonslayer and a slumdog: this week’s movies

ADVENTURES OF A TEENAGE DRAGONSLAYER (2010) is a fantasy comedy that rarely rises above a mediocre Disney Channel kids’ sitcom. The protagonist is a fan of a fantasy card-game who along with his friends has to convince Mom Lea Thompson and evil teacher Wendy Malick that their town has a troll and a dragon living in the sewer. The only detail of interest is that this reunites Thompson with several of her Caroline in the City co-stars. “This is strictly a G-rated date, understand?”

 

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) is one of those films that doesn’t entertain quite as much when I know how it all turns out (the dogs being ultra-needy while I was watching didn’t help). Even so, the quirky story of how a Mumbai street urchin turned “chai wallah” is seemingly able to answer every question on India’s version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? is still good viewing. As we work through the question list, it turns out that every answer lies buried in the kid’s personal life (“If not for Shiva, my mother would still be alive.”). Is he cheating? A genius? Or is it written? “A picture of three lions is seen in the national emblem of India. What is written underneath it?”

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Will the marvelous Mrs. Maisel go Overboard? Movies and TV

THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL is the only Amazon Prime series I’ve had the urge to watch so far (I don’t count Man in the High Castle as I watched that for Now and Then We Time Travel). It was worth it, though it doesn’t give me the impulse to check out their other offerings.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a Jewish 1950s housewife who seems to have a perfect life: kids, loving parents, husband Joel (Michael Zegen) is the love of her life and a good provider. His fondness for doing amateur standup comedy gives them both an excuse to hang out at Greenwich Village clubs and feel cool. Then one night Joel confesses that he’s miserable because he’s not good enough to turn pro, and that he’s been sleeping with his secretary. A drunken Midge wanders into one of the clubs they frequent and lets loose with a hysterical, profanity-laced rant on stage. Susie (Alex Borstein), the club’s booker, sees potential. Before Midge knows it, she and Joel are living apart and she’s launched on a new career as a stand-up comic.

What makes the series work is a)Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialog is just as sharp as when she did Gilmore Girls; good actors (Tony Shalhoub as Midge’s professor father among them); lots of 1950s detail; and that stand-up comedy is portrayed as a skill Midge has to learn. There’s an annoying assumption in fiction that if you don’t have enough talent to be awesome from the start, you’re not good enough. Midge runs into this when she starts doing stand-up sober and some of her sets bomb. Susie patiently (okay, Susie’s a grouch, she’s never patient) explains that everyone bombs. The comics Midge sees on TV don’t bomb because they did all their bombing years ago; it’s part of the learning process, not proof you’re a failure (Joel didn’t get that either). That’s refreshing. I look forward to seeing how Midge does in S2 (not airing yet). “I walked in on Nichols and May screwing — even their screwing is hilarious.”

OVERBOARD (1987) is one of those movies people describe as “problematic,” meaning in this case it has its charms, but it’s also unintentionally creepy (initial reviews indicate Anna Faris’s new remake isn’t any better). Goldie Hawn plays a selfish, shallow wealthy woman who refuses to pay Kurt Russell for a carpentry job, claiming it was sub-par. When she gets amnesia, her husband (Ed Hermann) decides to leave her in the hospital so he can cat around; Russell claims her and tells her she’s his wife so that he can take out the money she owes him in cleaning and cooking. Inevitably they fall in love and when Hawn gets her memory back they become a couple for real (as happened in real life during the film).

The film’s charms are the leads, both of whom are appealing and likeable actors; Hawn does really well playing horrified at the life she’s now living. I have friends who love the film for them. But the core of the comedy is Russell taking advantage of Hawn, a helpless amnesiac, and it’s kind of creepy, particularly as he doesn’t get even a little comeuppance for it. The classism also annoyed me: Russell and his buddies make the characters in My Name Is Earl look like high society.

And unfortunately the script isn’t as good as the leads. Most of the jokes and slapstick didn’t work for me at all. Despite the creepy factor, that’s probably more of a reason for not being enchanted by the film. With Katherine Helmond as Hawn’s mother; and Roddy McDowell as a butler who I wish the film had used more.   “No, they died — they never found each other and they drowned.”

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A bad baronet, a bad novel, Dr. Mabuse and Black Lightning: the rest of my week’s media

RUDDIGORE was Gilbert and Sullivan’s parody of then-stock stage melodrama elements, but it works even if you don’t know or care about the prototypes they made fun of (the orphan who looks to the Bible for guidance is here an orphan who looks for it in an etiquette book) it’s still very funny. A young farmer romances sweet orphan Rose, concealing that he’s the rightful heir of the bad baronets of Ruddigore, who are compelled to do evil every day or die in terrible agony. But when his rival in love exposes him, he must assume the accursed title … A great job as always with the Durham Savoyards, but it had some serious sound problems (one of the actors was almost inaudible and we were in the second row). “I sometimes think that if we could hit upon some word for you to use whenever I am about to relapse – some word that teems with hidden meaning like “Basingstoke” – it might recall me to my saner self.”

I like John Brunner and the text on Jeff Jones cover for BLACK IS THE COLOR promised an interesting yarn (voodoo in 1960s Swingin’ London!). Unfortunately, the story of a dissolute twentysomething who stumbles into an international conspiracy (South Africa plans to have a black militant commit a terrorist act, figuring Britain will stop condemning them for apartheid) goes with the theory voodoo is psychosomatic (it kills people because they believe it) which isn’t as interesting as real magic (and the ending reveal Maybe It’s Real is just trite). And while Brunner’s trying to avoid it, he ends up embracing the Superstitious Darkie cliche. Overall, a very talky, slow book, and any sixties spy show could have made better use of the premise.

THE RETURN OF DR. MABUSE (1961) — was the first Mabuse film not made by Fritz Lang, and it’s surprisingly good. Police inspector Gert Frobe gets pulled off vacation to investigate a US organized-crime plot to ally with a crime kingpin in Germany (US B-actor Lex Barker plays his first role in the Mabuse series here). Could it be a certain evil genius survived his previous film? As Gert Frobe digs deeper he discovers mysterious crimes, mysterious beggars and a suspicious prison before getting to the truth (which involves a mind-control drug, the series’ first shift into SF). Better than I remembered it. “The devil doesn’t pray — on the contrary, he wants to be prayed to.”

BLACK LIGHTNING was the CW’s newest superhero show, though taking place on a separate Earth from Supergirl’s or Flash’s. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a retired superhero, happy to make the high school he runs the focus of his world-saving efforts. But when the 100 crime cartel kidnaps his daughters, Jefferson is forced to go back into the field — and of course, can’t quit once he does. Like Luke Cage this is a very black show, but it also stands out from the crop by making Jeff a family man whose two daughters are just discovering their own meta-powers; that opens up storytelling angles that Oliver’s fatherhood this season on Arrow simply can’t deliver. I could have done without Tobias Whale as the evil albino (he’s that in the comics, but albinism=evil is a stereotype), but overall a very satisfactory season. “The devil deals the cards.”

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The name of the game is — Dracula! Two movies

Like rereading Sherlock Holmes, it’s hard for me to see DRACULA (1931) clearly — for example just seeing someone greet Bela Lugosi as “Count Dracula” without even reacting to the name now feels bizarre. Which shows what an hold Dracula has on us.

Stoker’s novel established a lot of what would be vampire canon for the next 90 years or so, and the movie solidifies it further. The vampire dressed in formal evening wear with the Hungarian accent. The vampire recoiling from sunlight (not an issue for Stoker’s Dracula). Though most later stories I’ve seen or read ignored that victims have to drink Dracula’s blood to rise as undead themselves, instead making the trigger having your blood drained. I don’t think having victims drink came back into fashion until Anne Rice, but since then it’s become common.

The movie itself? Pretty damn cool. Lugosi has a genuine screen presence as Dracula, and the spooky sets are awesome. That said, it feels awfully rushed in the final section (the whole thing only runs 75 minutes): Mina (Helen Chandler) gets turned and tries to seduce Jonathan, then Dracula takes her away, but it’s almost dawn and Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan) and Jonathan Harker show up and stake him. Lucy, who’s already risen as a vampire is completely forgotten.

Fears of crossing the line into bad taste also hindered the movie. We don’t see much of the vampire attacks. Because rats were just too gross, Dracula’s castle has armadillos instead. The difference shows in the 1931 Spanish-language version of DRACULA, which was on the same DVD (the main reason I bought it).

Carlos Villarias lacks Lugosi’s screen presence, but I can see why some people think this version did a better job. This was shot for the south of the border market so Universal didn’t have to worry about US censors. We see more of the vampire attacks, which adds to the movie (even though they’re tame by today’s standards), particularly Eva’s (the Mina counterpart) attack on Juan (and Lupita Tovar makes much more of an impression than Chandler). The movie runs an added half-hour, and most of it’s put to good use. The confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula is effectively drawn out (it’s also more intense). Lucy is at least dispatched off-screen. I don’t know I’d prefer it, but it’s definitely worth seeing. ”What gives vampires their power is that people refuse to believe in them.”

Horror expert David J. Skal provides the commentary track and a companion documentary, The Road to Dracula (narrated by Carla Laemmle, who speaks the first line in the movie, and was also part of the Laemmle family that ran Universal back then). Some of what Skal covers is stuff I know (the erotic and anti-immigrant overtones Dracula had for Victorians), but a lot of it I didn’t: the origins of “Nosferatu” (apparently someone just made up the word as it’s not actually Romanian), a history of the stage play (it was seeing the play that showed Universal the unfilmable novel could be done cost-effectively) and the enduring impact of the film. Though I have to wonder if it has the same impact for Generation X or millennials that it does for Skal or me (he’s a few years older) or whether their image of “vampire” automatically defaults to Lestat or Twilight‘s Edward (or for that matter, Geraint Wyn Davies in Forever Knight).

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Time travel, Lilliput and magic: TV, a movie and a book

One of the things I love about superhero comics is that they mash up everything — superpowers, super-science, the supernatural; Greek myths and extraterrestrials. The third season of Legends of Tomorrow gets that perfectly. As witness the final episode involves the Legends, an Amazon-trained Helen of Troy, and Jonah Hex battling a demon in 1800s North Dakota.

The overall arc of the season was the Legends fighting against a resurrected Damien Dahrk and his plan to create enough anachronisms to liberate the demon Mallus from a temporal prison. That led to several fun stories, such as Helen replacing Hedy Lamarr as a sex symbol in 1930s Hollywood (Timeless did a Hedy Lamarr story too; it wasn’t as good) or Julius Caesar leading an army of drunken frat boys to conquer Aruba. We also get a good addition to the cast in Ava, a Time Bureau agent whose button-down exterior hides a lot of passion. They even pulled off a time-loop story despite how often those have been done. I’m looking forward to seeing them back for S4 (it’s been confirmed). “A dirty hat. How … romantic.”

The Fleischer Brothers’ GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1939) focuses entirely on the Lilliputian section of the story: Gulliver washes up on the shore, terrifying everyone (I began imagining the movie as one of Marvel’s old school monster stories — “Gulliver is loose once more! Nothing can save us now!”) until he proves himself a friend. But with a war under way, can he resolve everything happily? The story is slight, but the art is absolutely beautiful. I was amazed at how much detail the Fleischers put into the actual work of binding Gulliver. “I owned a boat, a beauty too/Fifty times as big as … your shoe!”

MAGIC: 1400 to 1950s edited by Noel Daniel traces stage magic from the days of the “cup and ball” trick (which predates the scope of the book by a millennium and then some), through card tricks and sleight-of-hand to the bigger and more elaborate illusions of Robert-Houdin, Harry Houdini’s escapology, PT Selbit’s saw-the-lady-in-half (the text notes that sawing tricks were old hat by then, but switching from a man to a lady made it a classic) and the demands of vaudeville, music-halls, world tours, night clubs and TV and movies (the latter two, of course, ultimately pushing magic back to the bush leagues). A coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with photos and posters of various acts, this was a good read.

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Superstars, Sherlock Holmes and a Brooklyn attorney: movies

Seeing the recent TV presentation of JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (2018) on TV proves Ethan Mordden’s point that hearing a cast album is not the same as a live show. Although I’ve listened to the album dozens of times, I was really surprised how fast the early scenes before Jesus’ capture move. And I couldn’t tell just from listening how effective Judas’ suicide and Jesus’ ascension were onstage. That aside, the show was fantastic, full of energy, great songs and great voices as we watch the end of Jesus’ ministry in a grimy urban Jerusalem (if I’d had time, I’d have watched Godspell as a double bill for its more upbeat Urban Jesus). With John Legend as the Superstar, Brandon Victor Dixon of Hamilton as Judas, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and Alice Cooper a rather uninspired Herod. “Always knew that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I could make it if I tried/Then when we retire, we can write the gospels/So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”

For a more flesh and blood superstar, we have Joaquin Phoenix as a young Johnny Cash in WALK THE LINE (2005), playing opposite Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. While the leads are powerful and the movie is well-executed, as TYG pointed out, it recycles the same cliches as countless other musical biopics (the struggle to make it, the struggle to survive fame, drink and cheating, and being saved by the love of a good woman). Watchable, but I’m not sorry I gave it a pass when it was in theaters.“Tell me, what’s the one song you would like to sing to him?”

YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985) is the story of how Holmes and Watson met as boarding school teens, discovers a sinister serial killing in the neighborhood and ultimately unmask teacher Antony Higgins (who later played Holmes himself in 1994 Baker Street) as the leader of an Egyptian death cult. This comes off too much a kids’ film and not enough a Young Holmes movie — I could have done without the wacky comedy of the experimental flying machine, and the school could as easily be Hogwarts (see the plucky but poor students triumph over the snobs!). Nor does it help that the cult come off as unreasonable opposing English rule as the natives in, say, 1940’s Drums of Fu Manchu (to say nothing of being led by the very non-Egyptian Higgins). And while the hallucinatory F/X still look god, they’re not terribly fresh. “A mere fluctuation in character is hardly grounds for an investigation.”

Because the murder method in Young Sherlock Holmes involves driving men to suicide, I turned for a double-bill to THE SPIDER WOMAN (1943) which uses the same idea to much more effect. One of the best of the Rathbone Holmes, with Gale Sondergaard as a cunning, formidable foe and incorporating elements from multiple Doyle stories. The only thing that stops it being perfect is the unsatisfying death trap Sondergaard sets for Holmes at the climax. Still, well worth seeing. “Nature provides the means — the Spider Woman merely uses it.”

MY COUSIN VINNIE (1992) is, of course, the legal comedy in which rookie Big Apple attorney Joe Pesci (“Nah, I didn’t pass the bar on my second time either.”) comes to the aid of two “youts” accused of murder in a small Alabama town, only to discover he can’t save them without insight from spitfire fiancee and ace mechanic Marisa Tomei. Very funny (TYG, watching for the first time, enjoyed it too) and very well cast, with Fred Gwynne as the straight-man judge, Lane Smith as the prosecutor, Ralph Macchio as one of the ill-fated kids and Austin Pendleton as a stuttering public defender. This one was a pleasure to rewatch. “I’ll do my best to make it a simple in-and-out procedure.”

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Absurd comedy and creepy surveillance: this week’s movies

BEYOND THE FRINGE (1969) was the filmed final stage show of the once-famous improv troupe, which included Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. In this show they discuss the United States (“It’s a young country, isn’t it — a lot like Ghana.”) and each other (“We may be lower class, but Jonathan’s a Jew and that’s worse!”), explain both nuclear deterrence and WW II (“The only thing that can raise the tone of this war is a futile gesture.”) and in one of their classic skits a one-legged man auditions for Tarzan (“If no two-legged men audition in the next 18 months, you have a very good shot.”). Some of the humor doesn’t click with me, but a lot of it does. “No other country can boast of having the world’s second-largest radio telescope. Before long, we may have the third or even fourth largest, and without adding any equipment whatsoever!”


Fritz Lang had no interest in remaking Dr. Mabuse but by the late 1950s his career was fading, so when a German studio proposed the idea, he was interested. But as it turned out, THE 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE (1960) was not a remake but a second sequel, following Testament of Dr. Mabuse. It’s a very different movie from the first two, with the new Mabuse barely appearing in that identity — in fact there’s almost no criminal presence other than his coldblooded agent, Number Twelve. Instead the focus is on the cop (Gert Frobe) investigating a mysterious shooting and Peter van Eyck as a millionaire falling for a woman who’s life he’s saved. Throw in a mysterious clairvoyance, voyeurism, surveillance and you get a hell of a movie, even dubbed.“The life you have saved is threatening you — it means death for you!”

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Wild, Wild West: In living color, with slightly less sexism

Due to Trixie being ill last weekend, I wasn’t in the mood for watching any movies. However I did recently finish the second season of Wild, Wild West, so it gets this post all to itself. The two big differences from S1 are that it’s in color, and a lot less sexist.

Not non-sexist. It’s still a show where men are men and women are eye candy. However it’s not as over-the-top sexist as I found the first season, just average sexism for 1960s TV. It also had one memorable female role: Agnes Moorehead (best known as Endora on Bewitched) as Emma Valentine, a society matchmaker with a plan to take over the United States and a biting tongue. After her steampunk computer-matchmaking system processes Jim West’s taste, Valentine sneers that “your ideal girl is a combination of Helen of Troy, Aphrodite and Lola Montez,” the latter being a well known dancer/courtesan. There’s also an enjoyable female crime boss in “Night of the Poisonous Posey.”

Racewise, there are some problematic episodes. Sammy Davis Jr. in “Night of the Colonel’s Ghost” is an early example of the Magic Negro and Nehemiah Persoff gets into yellowface for “Night of the Deadly Blossom.”

Airing the show in color is a mixed bag. It’s nice to see, but it sometimes feels too bright and pastel. That may reflect that color TV was knew and they wanted to make the most of the palette. Or maybe not.

Dr. Loveless, played by the swaggering dwarf Michael Dunn, returns for four more episodes (the scene above is from “Night of the Bogus Bandits.”). The show tried expanding the rogue’s gallery with Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono), a sinister stage magician who leads a team of circus performers turned killers. Manzeppi appears in two episodes, but he really doesn’t work for me. He’s just too arrogant, and invariably seems to be four steps ahead of Jim and Artie, and I never really bought him as believable. Emma Valentine would have been fun to reuse but even though she escapes at the end of the episode, the teaser has her recaptured off-stage.

A minor change in the show is that Jim and Artie’s status as government agents are now publicly known. They’re famous undercover men; when Jim apparently kills Artie in “Night of the Skulls,” it’s front page news.

Overall, though, the series delivers what it did the first season. Lots of action and spectacular fight scenes, strong guest stars (Moorehead, Davis, Ed Begley Sr., Boris Karloff) and plenty of steampunk science (shrinking rays, robots, mind-control drugs, difference machines [not called that]). Plus the occasional supernatural-ish episode, whether explained away (“Night of the Wolf’) or not (“Night of the Man-Eating House.”).

I’m looking forward to S3, though there’s enough to watch I haven’t started it yet.

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