Sunday, January 31, 2021

Blaze of Glory

Film: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

Every year when the latest version of the 1001 Movies list comes out, I decide which of the movies I haven’t seen is going to be the one I save for last. This year, the choice was clearly going to be Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu if you prefer the original French). On Letterboxd, 45% of the ratings are five stars, and more than 85% are four stars or more. It was very much a case of saving the best for last.

Sometimes I don’t like to show my hand, but I’m going to for this. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is everything I want in a romance film. It’s beautifully filmed, filled with lingering and tender shots, and best of all, tragic. I’m not apologetic about this—tragic romances are better specifically because they are tragic romances. It’s the yearning that makes them work, that sense of living a whole life in a few days that makes them beautiful. And that, flatly, is Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Glows in the Dark 'Cause He's Iridescent

Film: The Invisible Ray
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s something wonderful about old school horror movies. They aren’t really that scary any more in any real way, but there’s a particular feel to them and style about them that is like nothing else. The Invisible Ray from 1936 is one of those from that era that mixes special effects that look cheap by today’s standards, science that makes absolutely no sense, and overacting typical of the age and genre. It also features Boris Karloff being a bad guy and a rare turn for Bela Lugosi as a selfless hero.

Unorthodox scientist Janos Rukh (Karloff) calls a group of scientists together to witness a new experiment in his house. Rukh has invented a telescope that can collect unique rays from what he calls the Andromeda Nebula that can reveal past events on the Earth. Essentially, this ray allows Rukh to “travel” back in time in the sense that he can move to a distant place and view the earth—and because he is light years away, he is seeing past events. He can also project these events. He does so, and the event he shows everyone is a meteor laden with an unknown element crashing into southern Africa.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Cancer of the Pseudonym

Film: The Dark Half
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

Stephen King sometimes recycles locations and, because of this, characters. Sheriff Alan Pangborn, the thin blue line in the city of Castle Rock, Maine. If you’re watching “Castle Rock,” you know the character, played by Scott Glenn. Alan Pangborn shows up in a few of King’s novels, and thus a few of King’s movies. In The Dark Half, Pangborn is a more minor character, but he’s also played by Michael Rooker, which is a strong point in the movie’s favor.

The Dark Half is very much a film tied to King’s own career. Just as Misery was a sort of evil love letter to his fans, The Dark Half is King coming to terms with his alter-ego, Richard Bachman. There are a lot of parallels here between the film’s main character, writer and professor Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), and his pseudonym-come-to-life George Stark (also Timothy Hutton).

Monday, January 25, 2021

My Dog Wasn't This Dangerous

Film: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

About 20 years ago, we decided to get a dog. It was a rare case where I named the pet before we got the pet; I decided that no matter what, that dog was going to be named Baskerville. Bass lived to 16, and my mother never once failed to complain that I had given this name to a corgi mix and not a hound. Anyway, The Hound of the Baskervilles (the 1939 version) has long had a place close to my heart. I’ve seen other versions of this and I’m familiar with the source material in this case. It’s a good story and this is the first pairing of the classic Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce version of Holmes and Watson.

Our story features Holmes and Watson solving the case of a young man named Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene). Sir Henry has just inherited Baskerville Castle on the Scottish moors because of the sudden and surprising death of his uncle. As it happens, there is an ancient curse affecting the Baskerville family. Because of the depravity of an ancient ancestor, the Baskervilles are cursed to be attacked by a giant spectral hound. While the previous lord of the manor is said to have died of a heart attack, many of the people of the area are blaming the hound.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Five for the Price of One

Film: Tales from the Crypt
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

I ride a number of hobby horses on this blog—Tarantino is overrated, “coming of age” stories for girls are always about inappropriate sex—but one that seems to come back over and over all the time is the value (or lack thereof) of horror anthologies. Anthologies are always iffy because the quality is rarely consistent. That said, older anthologies tend to be better in general. That being the case, I had some hope going in to Tales from the Crypt from 1972. That it includes Peter Cushing and Ralph Richardson among others made me hopeful as well.

And, well, it’s not bad. Tales from the Crypt naturally has a framing story and then has five short tales all taken from the pages of EC Comics titles like “The Haunt of Fear” and, well, “Tales from the Crypt.” A group of five people show up for a tour of some catacombs where they are confronted by a robed man (Ralph Richardson), who is our Crypt Keeper. He then shows each of them a tale of dire warning about some terrible misdeed they are planning to commit. Well, kind of. We’ll get to that in a second.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Statistically, a 1-in-365 Chance

Film: Happy Death Day
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on the new portable.

If someone tells you that you should watch Happy Death Day, there is almost a guarantee they will tell you it is a combination of Groundhog Day and Scream. It’s close to an apt comparison. There’s a great deal of Groundhog Day in this movie, and it is also a slasher, but it doesn’t have anything close to the wit that makes Scream as good as it is. This should not be seen as a knock against this movie. To be honest, most horror movies and movies in general don’t have the wit of Scream.

The elevator pitch of Happy Death Day is that Teresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is murdered on her birthday by a mask-wearing killer. Every morning, she wakes up in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) to live the day out again until she is killed. While the morning and afternoon seems to be the same every day, Tree tries out something different every night, but still ends up dead. When she confesses this to Carter (who forgets every morning, of course), he recommends, since she remembers the previous days, that she attempt to figure out who the killer is. And so, she does.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Not Another Insane Asylum Movie

Film: Gothika
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

Movies like Gothika make me so angry. I like the bulk of this cast and the plot has a lot of elements that should be right in my wheelhouse, but very little about this movie actually works. This is a surprisingly dumb movie in almost every aspect. There are some good scares and some decent moments here and there, but overall, this is a movie that decides to skate far past the line on implausibility. And, much to the film’s detriment, I’m not talking about the supernatural stuff. I’m willing to buy into ghosts and possession for the length of the running time. No, the problems with Gothika are everything else.

Psychiatrist Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) works in a mental hospital run by her husband, Doug (Charles Dutton). One rainy night, Miranda is driving home and drives off the road when she is startled by a young woman (Kathleen Mackey) in the middle of the road. Miranda has an unexplainable event happen when she approaches the woman. Three days later, she wakes up in a cell in her own asylum under the care of former colleague Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr.). She discovers that her husband has been brutally murdered and that she is absolutely the prime and only suspect. Got that? Good—if you don’t want Gothika spoiled, stop here. The rest of this review should be considered under a spoiler tag. To really address just how much this movie is a problem, I need to dive into the full range of garbage.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Doctor Is In...Kinda

Film: Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

I enjoyed The Abominable Dr. Phibes when I watched it. It was strange, but it was right in the wheelhouse of Vincent Price. Our anti-hero, Phibes (Price) was horribly disfigured in a car accident on his way to the hospital where his wife has died on the operating table. Blaming the doctors for his accident and his wife’s death, Phibes takes his revenge on them with bizarre death traps. I didn’t expect or even want a sequel, and yet here we are with Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Phibes is the same, but pretty much nothing else is. This movie is tonally different from the first and goes in directions that the first never really hints at.

At the end of the first movie, Phibes has enacted his revenge, and he joins his wife in a sarcophagus and replaces his blood with embalming fluid. So, naturally, we’re going to reverse that process for this movie. Phibes (still played by Vincent Price), well, rises again. And suddenly Phibes is an expert on an ancient Egyptian burial site and a magical river that gives and restores life to people. His plan is to take the body of his wife Victoria (Caroline Munro) to this place at the right moment in time for her to be resurrected and the two of them to be granted something akin to immortality.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Failed as a Species

Film: For Sama
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I honestly don’t know where to start with a film like For Sama. This was evidently a Frontline documentary shown on PBS stations. The film is essentially a compilation of five years of raw footage from the siege of Aleppo in Syria. I don’t really know the politics except to say that this is more or less the attempted genocide of the Kurdish people. The Syrian government, Hezbollah, and Russian military attacked civilians repeatedly, and the civilians held out for half a decade.

During this time, journalist Waad Al-Kateab went to school at Aleppo before the revolution began, became involved, met her husband Hamza, got pregnant, and gave birth to her daughter, Sama, who is named in the title of the film. The film is very much made for Sama, whose early life was spent in a hospital in the middle of a city being subjected to missile attacks and gunfire, while her mother filmed and her father operated what was eventually the only hospital in that part of the city.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

What I've Caught Up With, December 2020

Technically, True Romance wasn't on the list of suggested movies, but I've put it here simply because I think it deserved to be here. It's one I hadn't watched in more than a decade, and I really should have watched it again. Also, it seems like as I take movies off this list, more keep getting added on. I'm consistently at roughly the same total number of films, very much treading water in that respect.

What I’ve Caught Up With, December 2020:
Film: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

This movie was probably the biggest hole in my Barbara Stanwyck viewing history, and boy, was it worth the wait. Not only does this have Stanwyck at her best, it’s also Van Heflin’s return to the screen after his military service and Kirk Douglas’s screen debut. Young Martha Ivers (Stanwyck) kills her wealthy aunt accidently and winds up in a loveless marriage with childhood friend Walter (Douglas). Their childhood friend Sam (Heflin) returns to town as a drifter and causes trouble because Martha and Walter suspect what he as over them. Also features Lauren Bacal-esque Lizabeth Scott as a potential femme fatale, but it’s Stanwyck who really claims that role. While Stanwyck is the title character, this is absolutely Heflin’s film.

Film: The Court Jester

There are classics of family film, and in that pantheon sits The Court Jester. Like Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye is immediately likeable on screen, someone who we immediately want to “win” the plot. The Court Jester is probably best described as a musical comedy version of Robin Hood, with Kaye as the hapless jester hypnotized, bamboozled, tricked and otherwise forced into plots of rival kings. It’s ridiculously silly, wildly entertaining, and appropriate for any audience. Kaye is ably assisted by a great cast, including Basil Rathbone, Glynis Johns, and Angela Lansbury. How have I not seen this before? How is it possible that Family Classics on WGN Sunday mornings during my childhood never ran this movie?

Film: True Romance

I’ve seen this before, but it’s been more than a decade and it really warranted a rewatch. I’ve never been shy about my distrust for the work of Quentin Tarantino, but I have to hand it to him on this one--True Romance is a dandy screenplay with memorable characters. It’s also a film with a cast list to die for, with some heavy hitters in just one or two scenes throughout. A comic book store clerk played by Christian Slater gets set up with call girl Patricia Arquette by his boss. They decide to get married, the clerk kills her pimp and they run off with a suitcase full of cocaine. The suitcase is the film’s MacGuffin, but it’s really about, well, the true romance. It’s a hell of a fun ride.

Film: The Informant!

This humorous look at a huge price fixing scandal that takes some insane twists and turns as the main mole for the FBI turned out to have embezzled millions of dollars and took kickbacks and lying about virtually every aspect of his life. While the underlying story is incredibly serious, The Informant! is played for laughs, and it really is very funny. Matt Damon is very good as the mole/criminal Mark Whitacre, and the cast is filled with good character actors and comedians, many in small roles. The true standout here, though, is the whimsical and pitch-perfect soundtrack from the late Marvin Hamlisch.

Film: Guns Akimbo

So what do you do if you are Daniel Radcliffe and never need to work again for the rest of your life, but really like making movies? You make insane things like Guns Akimbo. Radcliffe is doing whatever the hell he wants, and that apparently means a comic book-style first-person shooter that is the bizarre hybrid lovechild of The Truman Show and The Running Man. I don’t really want to spoil it by going into plot here because this is a movie that needs to be experienced with a minimum of spoilers. Is it good? I don’t know, but it’s absolutely insane, and I respect the hell out of that insane vision.

Film: Steamboy

The DVD cover art for Steamboy proudly proclaims that it is from the same person as Akira, which should have been something of a warning. Akira is a gorgeous movie, but makes about as much sense as taco-flavored ice cream. Steamboy is a little more coherent, but it’s also a film that is filled with a great deal of bombast. In a steampunk world, a kid named literally Ray Steam deals with his father, grandfather, and others creating steam-powered weapons. It also includes the requisite ultra-annoying shrill character who demands everyone pay attention to her. Pretty but weird, and I don’t buy Anna Paquin’s British Isles (Irish?) accent as Ray MostImportantThingintheWorld…er…Steam.

Film: Bill Cunningham: New York

A fascinating documentary about Bill Cunningham, who is the exact meeting point of fashion photographer and modern cultural anthropologist. While Cunningham did high fashion photography, he became best known for his “On the Street” column in The New York Times. Like many who are obsessive about one particular thing, Cunningham is filled with quirks, but also seemed to be a genuine person, often refusing payment to prevent being controlled. I know nothing about fashion and care even less about it, but this is fascinating not because of the clothing or even the people, but the way trends move and change over time and exactly what that means.

Film: Tickled

What starts bizarrely enough with a video of mens’ competitive endurance tickling events quickly devolves into gay bashing and threats of lawsuits. What is presented, at least by some, as a strange athletic competition turns out to be (not surprisingly) homoerotic low-level BDSM followed up with extortion and threats to the “competitors.” While I do try to live by the motto of “your kink is not my kink but your kink is okay,” when that turns out to be the sort of thing that ends up ruining people’s lives unfairly, it's hard not to feel like that's part of the kink that could be shamed. Fascinating but also terrifying in real ways. Absolutely demands to be seen.

Film: 1922

There are a couple of things that indicate a story was written by Stephen King. If it takes place in Castle Rock, for instance, it’s King. One of the few non-Maine places that belongs to him is Hemingford Home, Nebraska, which is where 1922 takes place. A farmer named Wilfred James quarrels with his wife. He wants to farm; she wants to move to Omaha, or perhaps St. Louis. Seeing no other way out, Wilf kills his wife with his son’s help and drops her body in the abandoned dry well. Things do not improve. This is an upsetting tale that is very much from the mind of King. Good roles for Thomas Jane and Neal McDonough. Molly Parker is underused, but excellent as well. King, who is so much a product of being Down East, does Midwestern gothic remarkably well.

Film: The Scarlet Pimpernel

Up to this point, there’s been exactly one film (Pygmalion) where I haven’t been bored by Leslie Howard. Oddly, that’s true for The Scarlet Pimpernel as well, despite this kind of being an action movie. Kind of. It’s sort of the first-ever superhero tale. A British nobleman (played by Howard) pretends to be a witless dandy, but is in reality the Scarlet Pimpernel, a master spy, swordsman, and disguise expert who rescues condemned nobles from the guillotine in revolutionary France. It works because Leslie Howard is absolutely the epitome of a fop who cares more about the state of his cravat than geopolitics. The parallels to Zorro, Batman, and others are obvious, but it started here. The problem? The movie prefers not to actually show any real action, which works very much to its detriment. Merle Oberon, as always, is gorgeous.