12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
The Mission / directed by Roland Joffé (1986, VHS off-air). Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson. I bet I'm the only person to review this movie who mentions Jimmy Durante in the text. Set in the high mountains of South America in the 1750s, this tale presents an idealistic Jesuit priest (Irons), a slave-trading mercenary (De Niro), and a crafty political figure (McAnally). Well written in the sense that it can be looked at in several different ways and remain engaging. It is a story about idealism, cynicism, and realism. No, wait. It's about religion, the military, and politics. No, wait. It's about imperialistic dominant cultures and a portrayal of an early version of the military-industrial complex. No, hold it. It's about redemption and relapse. It's about making a choice to run away or connect with humanity. It's an allegory for the Reagan era. It's whatever you want to see. Although music has a central role in the story and there are some fine musical moments, the soundtrack is generally annoying. However, this is one of those movies that would have a quote from a critic declaring it to be "Visually Stunning!" which it is. My copy was taped off of NBC back in 1991, and the commercials were included. I love the way they'll run a bouncy ad for Budweiser immediately after a well-acted emotional scene. Also the way they breathlessly promote the upcoming news, "News at 11! Body pulled from river! Boy attacked by giant snake! Plus, Mariners highlights! Fear, fear, and sports!" This film is not the feel-good-movie-of-the-year. It makes me appreciate that great quote from the late Jimmy Durante, "Why doesn't everyone leave everyone else the Hell alone?" This film has a real bummer of an ending, and in the final result the losers in the struggle between the three main characters are the Native Americans.
"The Golden Age of Ballooning" (Monty Python's Flying Circus ; v. 19, episode 40) / directed by Ian MacNaughton (1974, VHS). Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin. The Golden Age of Ballooning, the Norwegian Party, Zeppelin, the German Cabinet (dead) in the sitting room-- no! the drawing room, Mill on the Floss. Lots of turning back on itself and ample use of jokes about the French and Germans. This was the first episode of their final season, and John Cleese had left the group to create Fawlty Towers. His absence is conspicuous. But in some ways the final six shows are my favorites. Although Cleese was a funny guy to watch, as in his famous "silly walks," his real humor was in his dialogue. He was really a wordmaster and liked quick, fast jokes. After his departure the group became more narrative in their stories, and the visual jokes increased. Plus they employed a little Dada that previously was not so evident.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor / directed by Dave Fleischer (1936, DVD). Voices by Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, Gus Wickie (all uncredited). The first of the Technicolor Popeye cartoons. Popeye, with Wimpy in tow, rescues Olive Oyl from the clutches of Sindbad (Brutus). The villain lives on an island populated by enormous wild animals, fun monsters, and a two-headed giant. The Fleischers used a multiplane camera, creating an amazing 3-D effect. The use of comic sound was expertly applied, and for once I have a copy with decent audio. I laughed out loud at the use of Sousa music when Popeye goes into his Spinach Berserkergang. Clocking in at 16 minutes, this is longer than an average Popeye cartoon but it goes by fast. This film was nominated for an Oscar, and in 1994 was voted number 17 in the "50 Greatest Cartoons" list by 1000 animation professionals. Although I would have chosen some other Fleischer titles, this one placed the highest on that roster for that studio. I would love to view this cartoon on the big screen.
"Nanarchy" (Red Dwarf ; series VII, byte 3) / directed by Ed Bye (1997, VHS). Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellen, Chloë Annett, Norman Lovett. The second of a two-part story, the first being "Epideme." Kryten employs the use of nanobots to replace and rebuild Lister's arm. Holly (the Lovett version) is rediscovered and he still kicks bottom. Back in the late 1990s, this episode was my introduction to the whole concept of nanotechnology. Not being an avid SF reader or very inclined to follow science and technology news, it took a BBC comedy show to bring me up to speed.
Saturday Night Live Presidential Bash / directed by Dave Wilson (1992, VHS off-air). Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Dan Aykroyd, Richard Benjamin, A. Whitney Brown, Gary Busey, Chevy Chase, Ellen Cleghorne, Jane Curtin, Rodney Dangerfield, Nora Dunn, Chris Farley, Michael J. Fox, Al Franken, Tom Hanks, Buck Henry, Jan Hooks, Eric Idle, Jon Lovitz, Tim Meadows, Dennis Miller, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Kevin Nealon, Ron Nessen, Laraine Newman, Randy Quaid, Gilda Radner, Ron Reagan, Chris Rock, Julia Sweeney, Terry Sweeney. History majors with a sense of humor will love this one. Broadcast on the weekend before the 1992 Presidential election, this special presented a compilation of the best political skits in the (then) 18 year history of SNL. Hosted by Hartman as Clinton and Carvey as both Bush I and Perot, no party or candidate is spared. This made me laugh out loud in several places no matter what era they were covering or what party they were ridiculing, but I'm sure part of that was due to the fact that I have vivid memories of political figures now obscure. I was in college when SNL first aired and had more or less followed the show for the first 15 or so years. The cast in the late 1980s/early 1990s had some real spark, and this sampler will show you why. Younger viewers might need footnotes to get some of the jokes. Hartman and Carvey were among the very best in SNL when it came to political humor. Some of the political game players portrayed include: Bill Clinton, Admiral Stockdale, Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Bush, Tom Foley, Jack Kemp, George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, Dan Quayle, Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Clarence Thomas, Sam Donaldson, Joe Biden, Pierre DuPont, Sandra Day O'Connor, Diane Sawyer, Nancy Reagan, Pat Schroeder, Peter Jennings, Michael Dukakis, Cap Weinberger, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, Lillian Carter, Barbara Walters, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, David Eisenhower, Roslyn Carter, Walter Cronkite, John Dean, Anita Hill, Billy Carter, Pat Robertson, Howell Heflin, and David Frost. Ron Nessen and Ron Reagan appeared as themselves. Some of the standouts for me were Hartman's Clinton and Reagan, Carvey's Bush I, Perot, and Strom Thurmond, Jan Hooks as Nancy Reagan, Jon Lovitz as Dukakis, Aykroyd's Bob Dole, Gary Busey's Billy Carter, and Al Franken's very excellent Pat Robertson. I miss Phil Hartman.
SCTV (1976-1984?, VHS off-air). Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Tony Rosato, Martin Short, David Rasche, Bill Murray, Linda Hopkins, Hall & Oates. Melonvote, Way to Go Woman, Mailer vs. Vidal, The Expert from Kovak, Benny Hill Street Blues, National Midnight Star, Gerry Todd Show, Crazy Hys, (Bing) Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Carpets Galore, Ride Like the Wind, DiMaggio's on the Wharf, Ethel Merman's Wake Up and Love Me, Great White North (topic: dog scoops), Mr. Boom Microphone, Days of the Week, An Evening with Edith Prickley Live from the Melonville Baths, Monster Chiller Horror Theatre, Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Slave Chicks, Stars in One with Brock Linahan, Joyce de 1/2 Witt's Half Legs, Edison Gum, People's Court, Farm Film Celebrity Blow-up with Dustin Hoffman, Al Peck's Used Fruit, Days of the Week, Larue Fish Flakes, Sammy Maudlin Show, Chariots of Eggs, Conversational New Yorkese, Sweeps Week, Night of the Prime Time Stars, The Long Hard War, Murray's File, Shower in a Briefcase, Donohue, Great White North (Topic: back bacon, snow chains), SCTV Satellite, 60/20 with Earl Camembert, Tex and Edna Boil's Organ Emporium with Free Budgies, The Lone Ranger Show, Pirini Scleroso Chateau la Feet, Farm Film Celebrity Blow-up with Neil Sedaka, Scrapco Presents Artisans and their Art, Days of the Week. -- Blame Ed Grimley. I had occasionally run across snippets of SCTV as I compulsively tapped the remote button late at night, like any normal person in my gender, but it was Martin Short's character, Ed Grimley, that suckered me into SCTV in early 1983 during the "Night of the Prime Time Stars" episode. Then television viewing was never quite the same as the SCTV world opened up. Disjointed notes on this disjointed tape: John Candy was one angry guy, and his humor seems to come from a well of rage. Flaherty's Bible, I would bet money, was Mad magazine. If the skit involved music, that meant Eugene Levy, probably the most complex cast member. O'Hara is delightfully unhinged. Bill Murray has a nice guest shot as Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. This was irreverent comedy with a heart, a rare combination in the "Age of Malaise and Despair." In "An Evening with Edith Prickley Live from the Melonville Baths" Flaherty gives us his Heston impression, which was sort of eerie to watch on the same week Chuck died. Hyperlocal trivia connection: "Melonvote" has two candidates we never see named Haskall and Wexler, in honor of director and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Wexler's son lived in Olympia while attending TESC in the 1970s and was a roomate of one of my buddies.
"The Red-Headed League" (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) / directed by John Bruce (1985, VHS off-air). Jeremy Brett, David Burke, Roger Hammond, Tim McInnerny, Eric Porter, Richard Wilson. This is a case Holmes finds "Most refeshingly unusual." And even though "it is quite a three pipe problem," plus requires a violin concert to meditate upon, it is obvious the Great Detective has solved this case in his head early on and only needs to act upon his theory to make it true. This is the most humorous of all the Brett Holmes episodes and can make me smile after repeated viewings. There is even a rare point where both Holmes and Watson share a healthy bond of laughing out loud at an inappropriate time. The Darwinian world of London street life is captured very well as background, and the outdoor camera shots are beautifully composed. The beat of hooves upon brick must've been a peculiarly urban sound in the 1890s, as well as the hawking of products. Richard Wilson was wonderfully over the top and has excellent straight-faced comic timing as conman Duncan Ross. This episode gave us our first glimpse of the evil Professor Moriarty. At the conclusion of the story, Holmes quotes Flaubert in French, fittingly translated into: "The man is nothing, the work is everything." No matter what some of you say (You know who you are. Yes, you! And you! ), I am not a candidate for the Red-Headed League. I come from a long line of red-heads, I brought a beautiful red-headed girl into the world, but I myself am a blonde. OK, OK, a strawberry blonde. Anyway, I enjoy this episode. Jeremy Brett is still lean, hungry, energetic and a joy to watch in this one.
The Question of God: Sigmund Freud & C.S. Lewis / directed by Catherine Tatge (2004, VHS off-air). Declan Conlon, Peter Eyre, Simon Jones, Armand Nicholi. Parenthood cured me from spinning my wheels when it came to the Big Picture. It seemed that one day I was sucking down a beer while sitting on the floor of a student apartment (sans chair or couch) engaged in "what does it all mean?" discussions with other questioning souls, and the next day I'm married, a homeowner, and trying to get that spoon of babyfood into my infant daughter's mouth as she spreads it all over herself and the highchair tray. Of the two scenarios the latter one is more connected with the Big Pic for me, but as a participant I did not have the luxury of thinking too hard about it. So when I viewed this video, all 4 hours of it-- Yes, 4 hours-- it was like going back a few decades. This is not only about the question of whether or not God exists, issues such as love, morality, evil, suffering, happiness and free will are tackled. Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis are used as representatives of opposing views. What could be (and sometimes is) a program that has the potential to be mind-numbingly dull is partially rescued by use of documentary film and photos, dramatization, and interviews with scholars. There is even a debate between the two principals as portrayed by actors. The fast-forward button needs to be hit once the roundtable discussion from talking heads presents itself. Remember, this baby is 4 hours long. But all in all, the narrative is given in a way that most of the time kept my interest. It seems to me that Freud vs. Lewis boils down to science vs. Christian faith, logic vs. romanticism. I like the way this program demonstrated how events in the personal lives of these two shaped their views, and how they both responded to the dark side of human nature (both world wars, anti-semitism, and the rise of Hitler), and the dark side of nature nature (the influenza pandemic, which claimed the life of Freud's daughter). Lord of the Rings fans might enjoy the Tolkien/Lewis connection being covered. My mind likes Freud, my heart likes Lewis.
The Third Man / directed by Carol Reed (1949, VHS). Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Lee Strasberg (uncredited). Set in Vienna after WWII, the city is occupied by the four Allied powers and the war-weary citizens are walking on eggshells, scraping by to make a living. It seems that after the War there were a host of films examining the nature of personal evil. Just because the Nazis had been vanquished didn't mean evil itself had as well. This is a movie that should never be colorized. It is darkly humorous with snappy and jaded dialogue. The story moves right along and keeps us hooked. There are amazing faces among the supporting cast of odd characters. The zither soundtrack is fresh and original-- and acts as a commentary on the action. And the film has a perfect ending in the final shot. Harry Lime, played by Welles, becomes the central character by pure buildup. His screen time is minimal. In fact, Welles has only one scene with any extended dialogue in which he utters the key line of the story to Cotten's character, "What do you believe in?" It is presented as almost a throwaway piece of the script but Welles delivered it so expertly. He really could act when he wanted to. Joseph Cotten as the American writer of cheap Western paperbacks who drinks a little too much was perfectly cast. Why is that whenever I mention Cotten I'm frequently met with, "God, I hate that guy"? I don't get it. Trevor Howard as the British military cop makes a good foil for Cotten. This movie entered the public domain awhile back and as a result many cheap copies, like mine, were cranked out. My Goodtimes Home Video version used a print that was not of the highest quality, to be charitable, even though the container claims "Guaranteed Superior Quality Video Tape and Recording." Plus, sometimes the videocassette itself sort of wobbles in the player, sometimes not. Today I was lucky. It is interesting to contrast the feeling of this movie with another internationally made title at the start of that decade, Casablanca. By the end of the 1940s, romanticism and idealism were seen as costly extras in a world getting sucked down into fear and the Cold War. The British Film Institute called this movie the best British film of the 20th century. The American Film Institute placed it at number 57 in the top 100 American movies. The film deserved to placed on those lists, but this story does not belong to any one country.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre / directed by John Huston (1948, VHS). Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, John Huston (uncredited), Robert Blake (uncredited). Set in Mexico in 1925, three down-on-their-luck Americans set off for the Sierra Madre in search of gold. One of them (Huston) is a grizzled veteran of such expeditions, and acts as the foreshadower. "When the piles of gold begin to grow," he warns in advance, "That's when the trouble starts." Another, stiffly played by Tim Holt, is an innocent. Holt's stilted but sincere performance actually enhances his character as he serves as sort of an everyman plug-in, tempted over and again by greed with varying degrees of success and failure in this moral struggle. But it is Fred C. "I need dough and plenty of it" Dobbs, played by Bogart, who serves as the sacrificial lamb to the God of Greed. With each frame his thin veneer of civilized behavior is stripped away in increments until he is transformed into a primal demon motivated by paranoia and avarice. Both Hustons, father and son, won Oscars for this picture. But Walter Huston was really more of a co-star than a supporting cast member. This is the role where Huston gave the world the "Walter Huston Dance," and shared one of the most infectious laughs in movie history a couple times in the story. One of the all time great fight scenes takes place here, Bogart and Holt squaring off with Barton MacLane in a Tampico bar. There is no action music, no magic spring back up when being hit. It is stark, graphic and brutal. And powerful. The soundtrack is OK when the scenes take place in cities or villages, but up in the mountain shots it gets monotonous. Maybe I should say "mounotonous." Heh. The visuals are pure John Huston, with that trademark sideways lighting and visual clarity. I always liked the language in this story, e.g. Dobbs: "Do the mug in, I say ... All three of us haul out our cannons and let him have it." Dobbs' use of English was an inspiration for me when I wrote dialogue for Morty the Dog. Watch for uncredited performances by director Huston (man in white suit) and a very young Robert Blake, the little boy who sells Dobbs a lottery ticket. I saw this on the big screen at Evergroove in the 1970s, and when Huston said, "We've wounded this mountain. It's our duty to close her wounds. It's the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she's given us. If you guys don't want to help me, I'll do it alone," the audience cheered. One of the best of the Bogart movies.
The Education of Gore Vidal / directed by Deborah Dickson (2003, VHS off-air). Gore Vidal, Eli Wallach, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., George Plimpton, Joanna Woodward, Sidney Lumet, Spalding Gray, Charles Durning, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Anne Jackson, Karenna Gore, Paul Newman. An admiring portrait of that bastard child of the governing class, Gore "I have my own TV crew at all times" Vidal. Although I suspect he is personally unpleasant to be around, I have always enjoyed Vidal's preoccupation with power politics and his refreshing cut-through-the-crap analysis of United States domestic and foreign policy. He was also an early pioneer in coming out of the closet, featuring Gay characters in his novels for a mainstream audience-- something that took some guts at the time. I first became aware of him while watching the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, engaged in debate with William F. Buckley (Vidal called him a "crypto-Nazi" on live TV), the both of them barely able to conceal their rage. Vidal repeated this performance with Norman Mailer shortly after. But man, could that guy write. Back when I read fiction, I read his novels Julian, Washington D.C., Burr, Lincoln, 1876, and Empire. In this documentary Schlesinger states, "History is an argument without end," and Vidal presents his historical arguments through the vehicle of fiction. Attacking the work of generations of American hagiographers, Vidal's novels present our founding fathers and icons like Lincoln in more human terms. I found Burr and Lincoln to be among the very best works of historical fiction I have ever read. But for all of Vidal's enthusiasm in attacking the act of worshipping our leaders, this is a pretty fawning piece of documentary work. There isn't a lot here that is critical or challenges Vidal's philosophy. And I'm saying this as someone who likes him! This visual essay needed a Little Vidal to cover the Big Vidal, someone sharp tongued, nasty, and funny. Just like Gore himself. A few bits of trivia: Part of this was filmed at his home in Ravello, Italy-- and fans of the Bogart movie Beat the Devil (one of my favorites) will recognize the terrain. Also, this documentary might well be the very last time we ever saw George Plimpton and Spalding Gray on film.
Die, Monster, Die! / directed by Daniel Haller (1965, VHS off-air). Boris Karloff, Nick Adams, Freda Jackson, Suzan Farmer, Patrick Magee. This has all the hallmarks of a typical American International "horror" film of the 1960s: surreal credits in gaudy colors, frightened villagers warning the stranger to stay away from "that place," a mysterious fog enveloping an islolated estate, a creepy and decaying mansion, menacing characters in black shrouds, portraits of mentally deranged ancestors, a strange butler, a patch of land where nothing will grow, unearthly howls of dubious origin, horrible unGodly experiments, hideous mutations, Patrick Magee, killer plants, skeletons, a family cemetery, a big fire at the end! Whew. Well, you say, if this is American International it has got to be directed by Roger Corman and it must star Vincent Price. But no. If you are used to the Corman/Price works, this one will strike you as very different even though the externals are all there. In his directorial debut, Haller is subtle and subdued compared to Corman. Even his colors are muted in comparison. The performances of Vincent Price were always a special treat for me to watch. Just by appearing on screen, he could elevate any film. He was fun. But he was never one to instill horror. Karloff does. With the exception of The Conqueror Worm, Price always evokes our sympathy no matter what his role. Not Boris. Karloff had more gravity than Price when it came to playing the heavy. Nick Adams, as the romantic lead, is a cut above most of the actors Corman cast into the same roles. For starters, he can act, which is usually a good thing if you are being paid to pretend on the screen. It is a very weird feeling to see a building burning down at the end of an American International movie that isn't the same stock footage Corman used in most of his films during the 1960s. This one is a bit too slow, although just watching the initial setup of the locale and characters is very good. Then turn it off after the first 15 minutes or so.