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.


  1. You saw some great films this month!

    My favorite of this group is The Court Jester. I am surprised you hadn’t seen it before, it was all over TV when I was a kid. It was my first exposure to Glynis Johns (even before Mary Poppins) and I fell for her instantly. A uniquely bewitching woman, perhaps just a bit too eccentric for massive stardom but always welcome and a fine actress. Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker and Rathbone are all wonderful but out of the supporting cast it’s Mildred Natwick and her terrific patter interchange with Kaye that comes to mind first when I think of the film. Great though all of them are this is Danny Kaye’s film, he’s a perpetual motion machine and completely hilarious.

    Martha Ivers is a great role for Barbara Stanwyck, her last real villainess during her major star period. She’s a combination of silk and sandpaper making it easy to see how she so handily manipulates both Douglas (so young and atypically weak) and Heflin (I think the film ultimately belongs to both he and Stanwyck but he is very strong). Lizabeth Scott had an interesting screen presence but I think her remarkable similarity to Betty Bacall did her no favors career wise.

    I enjoyed this version of The Scarlet Pimpernel though there was a TV take on the story in the 80’s with Anthony Andrews in the lead, Ian McKellen as the villain and a ravishing Jane Seymour as Marguerite that I prefer (color and more action added a lot to the story plus I like Andrews more than Howard) but it’s a tie between Merle and Jane in the beauty department. Both films differ from the book (a great fast read) in terms of perspective-the novel is told from Marguerite’s point of view but by necessity with the way the story unfolds cinematically it must be Percy’s vision that is presented. Usually that sort of change bugs me but since it makes sense in both instances this time it didn’t.

    I doubt that I’d watch the Bill Cunningham doc again but it was well done and a fine introduction to someone I wasn’t familiar with.

    The Informant started well but for me fell apart as it went. I didn’t hate it but I can’t say I thought much of it either.

    I have limited patience for Christian Slater and next to none for Patricia Arquette (a personality vacuum) but I did give True Romance a shot. I wasn’t a fan but it’s been a long time.

    Bless Daniel Radcliffe, most performers in his position would take the safe route (or not work at all) but he seems to be game for just about anything plus he seems like a really good guy. Guns Akimbo is one I haven’t heard of until now but knowing he’s in it I’d be willing to give it a shot.

    Can’t say the same for Tickled.

    1. I'm surprised I hadn't seen The Court Jester before now as well. It seems like a natural for family fare--it almost certainly played at least once a year somewhere accessibleto me, but I somehow missed it.

      Christian Slater is turning in some good work of late. My wife gave him rave reviews in Mr. Robot, and I liked his work a great deal in The Wife.

      Stanwyck is great in Martha Ivers, of course, but I think it's very much Heflin's film in a lot of ways. Evidently, I should seek out the '80s version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. It feels to me like this earlier one works specifically because I expect so little from Howard--he works really well as the foppish dandy because he's so milquetoast.

      Radcliffe is having an intersting career, and good on him. This, Horns, Swiss Army Man and certainly others are weird and strange, and I love that he's doing this. Elijah Wood is doing very much the same thing.

      Tickled is hard to recommend, but it's kind of fascinating.

  2. True Romance is a classic film as I always tend to prefer Tony Scott over Ridley as I think he's a more consistent filmmaker than Ridley. The Informant! is underrated and hilarious. The rest I haven't seen.

    1. I get what you mean about Tony Scott. He definitely has a specific vision of what he wants, and True Romance is some of his best work.

      I have a feeling you'd like Guns Akimbo for the same reasons I did.

  3. The Court Jester is one of my films I put on for an injection of joy in life. Had a bad day? Watch The Court Jester, your day is much better. Good day? Makes it great.

    Tickled is so strange, you can only really tell people to watch it without much context. The bizarro twists need to be experienced cold.

    I think I would have enjoyed Leslie Howard and The Scarlet Pimpernel more if I hadn't seen the Anthony Andrews one from the 80s, which is so good, gives more background to the characters. We see Marguerite and Sir Percy meet and fall in love. And Ian McKellen is brilliant as well.

    Sounds like this was a good viewing month.

    1. I guess I really do need to find that '80s Scarlet Pimpernel.

      I agree on Tickled. It's such a bizarre ride from start to finish.

  4. On the topic of films released in 1993 you haven't featured on this blog (like True Romance), have you ever seen (or rewatched recently) either Carlito's Way or What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Both hold up extremely well for me today.

    1. Gilbert Grape was already on the ever-growing list of catch up movies.

      Carlito's Way wasn't, but is now.

  5. I absolutely love Leslie Howard in the Scarlet Pimpernel. His fop is just so delicious.

    1. In that respect, it actually works that there aren't any real action sequences. I buy him completely as a fop. I'd have a much harder time buying him as an action hero.