12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault: These are chosen at random, I swear.
Bowling for Columbine / directed by Michael Moore (2002, DVD). Michael Moore, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Manson, Chris Rock, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Dick Clark, Richard Herlan, Fritz Hollings, James Nichols, Joseph Lieberman. This is not a documentary. This is Michael Moore's maudlin, yet powerful feature-length op-ed piece on our American gun and fear-based culture in the wake of the Columbine killings and 9/11. Frankly, the whole issue of gun control is one I can take or leave. It does not get me excited either way. Reading long impassioned threads on blogs about the subject make me yawn. Both sides present their statistics, etc. to prove their case, as Moore does here. I was given this DVD as a gift when it first came out, and only now have seen it a second time. To make his point, Moore uses some political activist publicity gimmicks. He obtains an interview with NRA honcho Heston under false pretenses, and then ambushes him. The soundtrack uses a menacing base to give gravity to certain segments, just like you see in political ads. Actually, as a cinematic essay, it is kind of cheesey. Still. There is more to like than dislike here. Terry Nichols' brother, James, comes across as a real nutjob, I mean really nuts, as do the members of the Michigan Militia. Yes, Timothy McVeigh country. Moore showed two cases, one being Columbine, where Heston and the NRA would hold pep rallies in towns that had just been the site of a school killing. Nice public relations there, NRA. What were you guys thinking? Chris Rock has a hilarious bit on bullet control. U.S. and Canadian cultures are compared in order to discover why their homicide rate is so incredibly low next to ours. A cartoon, "Brief History of the United States of America" kicks off a theme of how we live in a culture of fear. I have not had TV for almost a decade now, and whenever I do watch the news when visiting somewhere it does strike me that Moore is right on target here (no pun intended, really). The American media really does fan the fear, it is easy to see if you stay away from TV for awhile. Try it. And the whole fear industry includes the sales of firearms. I grew up around guns out here in logger country. The stereotype of the pickups with guns was par for the course and we didn't think much of it. My grandfather openly carried a pistol, even after he took three bullets in a gunfight that killed two other guys. My father had a loaded shotgun in the closet and he carried a concealed pistol. My ancestors shot and killed their way on the pioneer line across this continent dating back from Jamestown and the Mayflower (probably helping to wipe out my other ancestors-- the Shawnee). So when it comes to guns and America, I'm a real living product. When I was younger, I was against gun control on libertarian grounds even though I did not want to own one. But I have grown away from that and now recognize the paradox: To want a gun (hunters excluded) requires living in fear, and living in fear doesn't sound very libertarian to me. It sounds like living in fear. Maybe I started to change my view when I became a parent and didn't want a firearm in my house. As I pass the torch to the next generation some old time honored traditions, like having loaded firearms around the home, are worth a second look before blindly repeating some vague platitude about the 2nd Amendment. I feel more free without a gun than with one. Also, the growing strident tone of the gun lobby turned me off as it started to sound obsessive and, well, almost like a cult. But, maybe you have a different view. So shoot me. Back to the movie. In short, good message delivered in a hokey, grandstanding way.
Cry, the Beloved Country / directed by Darrell Roodt (1995, VHS). James Earl Jones, Richard Harris. Based on the novel by Alan Paton, the story is set in 1946 South Africa. The racial and economic injustice of that country is interpreted through the lives of two fathers (Jones and Harris), one black, one white. Jones, who plays a preacher, has a sister who is a prostitute, a brother who is a fire and brimestone yet athiest politician, and a son who is a murderer-- of Harris' son. This is a story with strong Christian themes, e.g., Jones' son is named Absalom. And Jones must have the patience of Job to endure the cascading misfortunes heaped upon him. As the preacher goes on a quest to bring together his fractured family, we ride along and are exposed to a country that reminds us of the segregated South and the American West of the conquered Indians. The one institution in this movie where people come together regardless of race is the church, the community of preachers. Christianity is portrayed as a unifying force, transcending race and politics. An oasis of hope in a brutal world. Yet not effective as a agent of broad social change. This is South Africa right after WWII, before Apartheid became law. Paton must've felt the iron was hot for action when he wrote this story, hoping to seize the moment. But it would take decades before a new system would happen. For us too. The language in the film is formal and almost Biblical. Jones and Harris give very understated, muted performances, and it works. Harris sticks with just whisper mode and we never get to see his trademark shouting here. These two great actors share the screen in only three scenes, and they are the most powerful moments of the story. Forgiveness and acceptance are shown as powerful tools for healing.
"Gourmet Night" (Fawlty Towers) / directed by John Howard Davies (1975, VHS). John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Connie Booth, Andrew Sachs, André Maranne, Steve Plytas, Allan Cuthbertson. "Ducks off, sorry." Frenetic and fun. In an attempt "to keep the riff-raff away" Basil institutes an elite "Gourmet Night" to attract a "better" class of clientele. Actually, I first started feeling sorry for Basil given the circumstances beyond his control and rude people thrown his way. But he managed to shake off any pity I might have for him by his reaction to events. As always, first-rate writing and cast. Fans of the Pink Panther films might enjoy seeing André Maranne. My favorite exchange in this one: Sybil: "I don't believe it." Basil: "Neither do I. Perhaps its a dream. [Bangs head several times on the counter] No, it's not a dream. We're stuck with it." I have felt that way many times. Daily, in fact.
Hell in the Pacific / directed by John Boorman (1968, VHS). Lee Marvin, Toshirô Mifune. Primal. An amazing movie in many ways. The premise: a downed American pilot and a Japanese soldier share a small isolated island during the twilight of WWII. The film has only two actors. And they are both superb, each able to carry the story, but with very different styles. I found it interesting that Boorman even used some Japanese cinematic tricks, like the intense zoom, to accomodate Mifune's method of acting. Boorman's decision to not use distracting subtitles for Mifune's dialogue was a great choice, we can pretty much tell what he is saying anyway just through the power of acting. The director has a respect for the audience I appreciate. Both actors in real life actually served in WWII, with Marvin being wounded by Japanese fire, which might account for the authentic feeling of his performance. This Robinsonade tale was made in 1968, a true year from Hell for Americans, when our country was experiencing a ripping and tearing of our national identity which has only grown wider since then. Vietnam; Martin Luther King-- one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century who really represented the ideals of this country-- was assassinated; Robert Kennedy-- who was still waking up but had potential-- was assassinated; Andy Warhol-- who represented our future self-indulgence-- was shot by a crazed feminist but lived on (how symbolic); Chicago Dem convention and Mayor Daley's machine; Pueblo incident; LBJ basically resigns from office; My Lai Massacre; George Wallace runs as a racist populist which results in turning the South into a Reagan Republican stronghold in the future; Richard Slimeball Nixon is elected with a minority percentage; The Phoenix program established by CIA; The Pope condemns birth control; The White Album, the Beatles' worst, is released; An electronic media that had a spine, not afraid to show flag-draped caskets, not as cowed by the government, and not a total brown-nosing suck-up toady like Fox gave us daily reports; And I was a teenager in 1968 and can remember almost all this stuff. WWII was the war of our parents. We heard about Hitler and Tojo all the time. It was still fresh in 1968. Boorman's film was no doubt an effort to bring some understanding to the era-- to give us tolerance. Yeah, sure, good luck in 1968. We are shown two men who trade testosterone dominance. One them even pees on the other to establish territory. How primal is that? They take turns being captive, but eventually make their personal peace. Not unlike the three male cats in my house. The American and Japanese soldiers' effort to survive both environmental challenges and cultural prejudices surpasses their allegiance to nationalism, a lesson we have yet to learn as a global community, so in this regard I salute Boorman. In trivial ways this film is not great. The weirdass and invasive soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin, a respected Hollywood composer, might work in another film, but not this one. Also, Lee Marvin actually sings in this movie. At first it is done as an effective method of psychological war, but later it hurts the audience as well. The film has a very unsatisfactory and abrupt ending. When they find a slight bit of relief, with modest modern comforts, they start to turn nasty and nationalistic again. And, surprise, alcohol was involved. Then there is a big explosion. Almost as if the writers and directors thought, "OK, I'm done now. Let's go home. There's a big game on TV I need to see."
Kids in the Hall. Season 1, episode 2 (1989, DVD). Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson. 30 Helens, Cabbage Head, Buddy, Having a period at the poker table. They are still sort of stagey in this early episode and playing to the studio audience rather than the camera. Fun.
Scarlet Street / directed by Fritz Lang (1945, DVD). Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea. There is no one in this film who deserves any sympathy, and that is how director Fritz Lang wanted it. A meek middle-aged bank clerk (Robinson) with an avocation of painting saves what he thinks to be a damsel in distress during a rainy Brooklyn night. One thing leads to another and soon the clerk, the girl, and her con-artist boyfriend are caught up in a game of mutual deceit. But it is the clerk who is the biggest con-artist, and biggest victim, as he duped himself into thinking he would actually be attractive or interesting to a wild woman young enough to be his daughter. And the awakening is cruel as she ridicules him near the finale: "How can a man be so dumb? I've been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you! Sick, sick, sick!" Robinson was younger than I am today when he made this film, and boy, what a feel-good feeling it was to watch him being told off. Right. The night scenes in this story have an atmosphere I'll call the Cynical School of Expressionism. The whole tone is something like "Alfred Hitchcock presents Walter Mitty Goes Postal." Lang's European eye coupled with the American hustle pace is sort of depressing as it depicts the speed of the downward spiral involving embezzlement, fraud, identity theft, homicide, domestic violence, and legal prejudice. Lang, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, presents a tale where everything is rotten to the core, from personal ethics to the court system. And there is no typical American happy ending here, folks. It is strange to see Robinson play a non-tough guy, but he pulls it off well, a tribute to his artistry. Dan Duryea is especially slimey as the con artist boyfriend. The song "Melancholy Baby" is the audio thread throughout the entire movie. This is a public domain movie, and apparently good copies are hard to find. My copy, from Digiview Productions is not in great shape, but I have seen much worse in the public domain prints. Lots of bowties in this one.
Under California Stars / directed by William Witney (1948, VHS). Roy Rogers, Trigger, Sons of the Pioneers, Andy Devine. Roy Rogers plays himself, the King of the Cowboys movie star who is just a regular guy. Even though it is 1948, everyone on the Roy Rogers Ranch still uses a horse as the chief form of transportation. The bad guys horsenap Trigger ("The Smartest Horse in the Movies"). And man, they are real bad. They need shaves, they fight dirty, and they use a crippled little kid and his cute dog to spy for them. Reeeeal bad. The adulation paid to Roy by everyone else in the story is sort of disturbing and cult-like, which makes this horse opera a little different than most. It was shot in a pastel "Trucolor." Stock character Andy Devine is his wonderful self and the Sons of the Pioneers join Roy for several musical interludes between fight scenes with those darned bad guys. Actually, Roy was still a hero to many of us boys when we were growing up. Later he became an outspoken Christian conservative, and most of us didn't. In fact, toward the end, we snickered at him. But when he passed on we knew a real authentic good guy was gone. My copy was produced by Madacy in the 1990s. I have had some experience with this company in a previous job, and whenever I see their label I say in a flat monotone, "Oh. Madacy. The mark of quality." For example: when I popped my copy of this movie into the ol' VCR player, I thought I was going to watch the 1946 Randolph Scott drama "Abilene Town." That is what it says on the label on the cassette and the container. It took my tiny two-cylinder brain a few seconds to figure out Randolph Scott was not going to be in "Under California Stars." Their new slogan, "Madacy: We Like To Mess With Your Head!" or "Madacy: Where You Have A 50/50 Chance Of Actually Watching What We Advertise!" or "Madacy: What The Hell? Why Not?" or "Madacy: So You Didn't Get To Watch What You Were Expecting-- Deal With It!"
A Midsummer Night's Dream / directed by Michael Hoffman (1999, DVD). Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Sam Rockwell, Gregory Jbara, David Strathairn. This film is beautifully shot, has a wonderful soundtrack, great production values, a big name cast, and is b-o-r-i-n-g. I will tell you why. By now you might have guessed that I purchase most of my VHS/DVD entertainment at the bargain bin, which is where I found this one, I think. Don't get me wrong. I love Shakespeare. The comedies I tend to get mixed up with each other-- except for this one. My favorite line: "Reason and love keep little company nowadays" I like to translate as: "Fondness makes the head grow absent." Set in Italy at the turn of the 19th/20th century, you would think the location, time period, and cast would make this a great film version of Shakespeare. But most of the actors here seem somehow intimidated by the Bard of Avon, using craft instead of art when they recite their lines. Shakespeare wrote music, not dialogue. I didn't hear any music, only words being recited. This was my third viewing of this movie and I have learned to fast forward to the good parts-- and by that I mean the substory of Bottom and Company as they prepare the play within a play. Kevin Kline, Sam Rockwell, Gregory Jbara and the others in this thread of the tale present the only part worth watching. In fact, I wish I could just isolate their scenes into a little mini-movie since their chunk is as good as the rest of it is bad. Kline is perfect as Bottom who is turned into an ass (get it?). I was happy to see the director did not use heavy prosthetics over Kline's face once he turned into a donkey. We got to enjoy his use of facial expression that way. But on then other hand, when Bottom transformed he basically looked just like me-- down to the strawberry blonde coloring, even matching the gray patch in my beard, except I don't have giant ears on top of my head. After I realized this physical similarity, it was disturbing to hear him called a "monster." Now I know why children cry and dogs growl when I walk into a room. Kline and his group knew how to sing Willy's lines and give them cadence and life. Sam Rockwell steals their last scene in an unexpected and beautiful way. This is a magical play, the best comedy in Shakespeare's works. Just not the best version. So watch this one, but use your fast forward button liberally.
"E. Henry Thripshaw's Disease" (Monty Python's Flying Circus ; v. 17, episode 36) / directed by Ian MacNaughton (1972, VHS). Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Fred Tomlinson Singers. And speaking of Elizabethan English writers: Tudor jobs, The life of Sir Phillip Sidney, Gay boys in bondage by William Shakespeare, "Am I disturbing you?", Church of St. Looney of the Creambun and Jam, The free repetition of doubtful words thing, "Is There?", Thripshaw's disease, Silly noises, The vicar and sherry. Palin has the most comic energy in this one.
Plan 9 From Outer Space / directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1959, VHS). Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Duke Moore, Tom Keene, Carl Anthony, Paul Marco, Dudley Manlove, Joanna Lee, John "Bunny" Breckinridge, Lyle Talbot, Criswell, Conrad Brooks, Tom Mason. "Can you prove that it didn't happen?" Don't you hate it when you enjoy what you think is a nice little secret and then everyone finds out about it and it gets to be a big deal? That's what I experienced with Ed Wood movies in general and this one in particular. There is a natural evolution for Woodians. First, you laugh at his movies, then you slowly start to realize the guy really was a true visionary. A conceptualist. A genius. His work was totally unique, there was no other director like him. But as you reach these last stages of Wood enlightenment, the rest of the world is just starting to discover him-- and they laugh. And if you try to explain the gifted side of Wood and his masterpiece, Plan 9, no one will take you seriously. Wood first came to my attention in the early 80s when this movie was touted inaccurately as "Worst Film of All Time" in the book "The Golden Turkey Awards." Then I fell in with a wild crowd of bassoon players, which included a veterinarian in Burien who showed cassettes on Beta and a librarian who had a lawnmower that was previously owned by Mason Williams, and we watched Ed Wood movies with morbid fascination until all hours. Those were the days, before Tim Burton mainstreamed Ed. Plan 9 was Wood's attempt to lift the veil on the government's secrecy concerning UFO activity. Through the aliens, the brutal every-man-for-himself and ignorant nature of our modern American society is revealed. What makes this movie so interesting is that Wood built the whole thing around a few minutes of footage of Lugosi, right before Bela's death in 1956. In the course of telling the story Wood asks the audience to suspend expectations of several natural consistencies, like day and night going back and forth in the course of a few minutes, different actors playing the same character, scars that move around, etc. The cast is wonderful. Wood must've been a very gifted director to bring out such unique and spirited performances from his actors. They might not be polished, but they have spark. Since Wood didn't really believe in more than one take, you are watching some pretty spontaneous and improvisational moments on the screen. Plan 9, watch it once and laugh, watch it twice and think.
"Psirens" (Red Dwarf ; VI, byte 1) / directed by Andy DeEmmony (1993, VHS). Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellen, Jenny Agutter, C.P. Grogan. A funny, slacker space opera version of Ulysses and the Sirens. This is the start of their phase in the Space Bug. A little lesson on seeing what we want to see. The test to determine the real Lister is my favorite scene. By this point in the series most of the tight dialogue had been replaced by one-liners, but it is still worth enjoying.
Kids in the Hall: Same Guys, New Dresses / directed by Dave Foley (2001, VHS). Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Paul Bellini, Conan O'Brien. A sort-of-documentary about the Kids' 1999-2000 reunion tour. The ambition, the ego, the drama, the robot dog! Probably not all that interesting to anyone unfamiliar with the great comedy group, and even then it gets sort of tedious. Mostly shot with a shakey and choppy camera, I suspect much of the wittier dialogue gets lost in some of the poor audio. We do a get a glimpse into their personalities and the dynamics of the group. They argue and bicker and have spats, yet it all works when the Kids hit the stage. It becomes obvious many of the characters we have grown to love seem be extensions of some part of each actor's personality. Some of the scenes I enjoyed included when Bruce talks about why a comedian should never crouch on stage (they lose power), the visit to Conan O'Brien, and a fascinating breakfast meeting where, among things, they beat themselves up over their 1996 movie "Brain Candy" (which I loved, even though it got panned). One of the few complete sketches we get to see is the hilarious "Jesus 2000," demonstrating how some capitalistic types have attempted to absorb Christianity. It is unfortunate they chose the name "Kids in the Hall," since it now has become something of a stigma as they approach middle age. All five of these men are excellent comedians with very different styles of humor, and they are never boring. Hang on past the credits on the VHS version, as there are more goodies that are probably packaged as extras on the DVD: Paul Bellini speaks, Kids' true confessions, Kevin eating soup (my favorite bit in the whole video), Dave's eye surgery, Bruce interviews himself.