12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
"Reborn in America" (The Struggle for Democracy) / directed by Michael Girard (1989, VHS off-air). Louis L'Amour, Sen. Paul Simon, Jimmy Carter. OK, I am not sure at what juncture in history this program began, since my copy starts at a "now-in-progress" point, but the theme is the history of democracy in the United States. Using dramatization, interviews, and good old fashioned documentary investigation, the American episode of this apparently international in scope Struggle for Democracy series tracks our system of government from the Mayflower Compact (at least where my copy starts) to the era of George Herbert Walker Bush. Tracking the evolution of the concept of democracy, this segment links the Puritans to present day New England town meetings (and they are not like the Norman Rockwell romanticized version). It demonstrates how the crowd who wrote the Constitution (a much different mix than those who signed the Declaration of Independence) were terrified of democracy as we know it today. In the end, as we see in several modern (1989) case studies, it all boils down to money. Louis L'Amour in what was probably his last filmed interview describes the effect of westward expansion on the American development of self-government. Sen. Paul Simon, who was a presidential candidate in 1988 (and would've fared better without the bowtie (I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera)) and ex-President Jimmy Carter weigh in on the effect of money in politics. One theme throughout the entire chronology, the wealthy classes will always subvert the system in order to maintain their power. I was disappointed to see this documentary did not cover the fact the term "democracy" was basically a dirty word in America until World War I. In fact, the shutting out of vast portions of our citizens throughout history due to race, gender, or lack of property ownership was sort of glossed over. I believe this was a Canadian produced documentary (the interviewer using the term "oot" instead of "out" is a big clue) and sometimes those friendly neighbors to the North are too darn polite. But what it lacks in historical completeness it makes up for in showcasing three modern examples of how decent and grassroots local efforts were brutally crushed by both major parties in Massachusetts, Colorado, and California. The coin of the realm still tips the scales of justice. In terms of being a true democracy, the United States has made great strides, but has a long way to go.
SCTV (1976-1984?, VHS off-air). Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Martin Short, Harold Ramis. Krishna Sings Manilow, Give 'Em Hell Larry, Vic Arpeggio Private Investigator, Ben-Hur, Masquerade Funeral, Top Secret Feminine Product, Tobacco Paste, Dialing for Dollars. Flaherty in his Peter Gunn take-off as Vic Arpeggio reminds me of a Don Martin drawing. For those of you who have not had the joy, Martin was the best cartoonist to come out of Mad magazine, a publication I'm sure influenced Joe. John Candy plays Ben-Hur as if he was Curly Howard, and Harold Ramis has a hard time keeping a straight face. And so do we. This tape also includes ca. 1988 advertisements from the very odd Glen Grant Chevrolet in Burien and an infomercial on hair restoration, both of which are far weirder than anything SCTV could cook up-- and that is saying a lot! This is why I don't read fiction anymore. Real life is much more bizarre. SCTV did a good job in providing the mirror.
"The Final Problem" (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) / directed by Alan Grint (1985, VHS off-air). Jeremy Brett, David Burke, Eric Porter. One of the pivotal episodes, where The Great Detective faces off with his main nemesis, Professor Moriarty. It is strange to see Holmes as the prey rather than the hunter. After foiling a grand criminal conspiracy masterminded by the Professor, Holmes survives three attempts on his life. In a state of agitation (which is still relatively calm in comparison to the rest of us) Sherlock, with Dr. Watson alongside, attempts to vanish in Switzerland. But as we all know, all roads in this story lead to Reichenbach Falls, where this was filmed on location. Eric Porter was the perfect choice for the role of Moriarty. Gentlemanly and chilling, Porter has claimed this character as much as Brett has claimed Holmes. Oddly, in real life, the two actors died within a few months of each other in 1995. Conan Doyle attempted to kill off Holmes for good here, but the public wouldn't let him do it. Having created a fictional character myself (Morty the Dog) who took on a life of his own, I can (on an infinitestimally smaller scale) understand the creator's impulse to kill off and move on. A popular character is a blessing with an underside that you don't want to examine too closely. Alan Grint was one of the better of the many directors who had a hand in this series. He took advantage of the dramatic landscape and he knows how to effectively use music without clobbering us. This was David Burke's final appearance as Watson. When Holmes returns (oops, I gave it away) we have a new actor in the role. Burke performed a great service by smashing the stereotype of Watson as a bumbling dimwit, and creating an intelligent character who was a true "friend and colleague" to Holmes.
The Political Dr. Seuss / directed by Ron Lamothe (2004, VHS off-air). Traces the life and career of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to generations of Americans as "Dr. Seuss." Using film clips and interviews, we see how Geisel, described as a "personable zealot" used his "moral imagination" to spread his progressive views on race, populism, and the environment. He was from a German-American family, which I found interesting since many of America's foremost cartoonists in the 1800s/early 1900s were either German or German-American. Using his lecture-attending time in college to draw cartoons instead of taking notes, he perfected his style (I can empathize. I sold my grad school lecture notes doodles after I got my degree). Geisel moved into the world of gag cartoons and advertising, but eventually made his name as an ardent anti-Hitler editorial cartoonist for the left-wing PM magazine. During World War II the Army teamed him up with Spokane native Chuck Jones and they produced the Private Snafu animated training films. He moved into the realm of children's books after the War. Using a world of allegory in his creative thinking, the specific original source of the spark was buried by the time his books reached our grubby little hands when I first starting reading his stories. I had no idea until I was an adult that Yertle the Turtle was based on Hitler, for example. I ate his stuff up and consider him to be one of my main influences as a cartoonist. The way everything in his drawings look like they are on the edge of falling over, the energy, the cadence of his words, the celebration of fun, all appealed to me. The Cat in the Hat is a work of subversive genius. I always wondered why more of his books were not among those that right-wing fundamentalist Republican book-banners attempt to have removed from libraries-- Seuss was every bit as good as Vonnegut and Salinger. By the time I had moved on from Dr. Seuss to Robert Crumb, Geisel had changed the tenor of his books. In the late 1980s, I was updated to his work as I read his stories to my daughter. I found his later tales, dating from the 1970s onward, to be a bit preachy and heavy-handed. Even so, as one person says in this documentary, "He made it a joy to learn to read." And he did.
This is Spinal Tap / directed by Rob Reiner (1984, VHS). Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, Tony Hendra, Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley Jr., Fran Drescher, Patrick Macnee, Dana Carvey, Billy Crystal, Howard Hesseman, Paul Shaffer, Anjelica Huston, Fred Willard, Paul Benedict. "Such a fine line between stupid and clever." The idea of using a fake documentary as a movie vehicle was used before this one, most notably in Take the Money and Run (1969), and Real Life (1979). There was even a rock and roll fake documentary making fun of the Beatles, The Rutles (1978). But This is Spinal Tap is the one that first comes to mind when the term "mockumentary" is brought up. Meaner, sharper, and more biting than its descendants Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, Mighty Wind, etc. by the same ensemble, the brilliance of Spinal Tap is that it isn't really that far removed from the rock group reality at that time. MTV was just getting off the ground and not only were we treated to pretentious, self-important, pompous rock stars on video, but we got to see them interviewed and get televised backstage looks and realized they really were pretentious, pompous, and self-important. The self-seriousness of the real life rock groups is part of what makes this so funny. The actors accurately captured the sounds of each era as "documentary" film clips followed their careers from 1955 to the early 1980s, by which time they had become aging has-beens. Some of the music is actually pretty good, although the lyrics are super crude. Watch this on close-captioned sometime. My favorite scene is when the oblivious Nigel (Christopher Guest) sits down at a piano and plays a beautiful and delicate piece, totally contrary to what we have heard so far. When asked what this bit of musical serenity is entitled, Nigel responds with a blank and clueless tone, "Lick my love pump." What would Amadeus say?
Tupperware! (American Experience) / directed by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt (2004, VHS off-air). Kathy Bates (narrator). Tupperware is not just a product, it is a way of life. In the 1950s the invention of Earl Silas Tupper revolutionized food storage. It also provided an rare opportunity where housewives could remake themselves into businesswomen, gaining a measure of financial independence during the Dark Ages of feminism. The unique and much copied marketing method was the brainchild of Tupperware sales CEO Brownie Wise, who rose to become one of America's most visible female corporate executives in the 1950s. This well-made documentary really clips along, keeping us engaged with lots of film footage and interviews with Brownie's son, cousin, and several 1950s-era Tupperware saleswomen. It chronicles the abrupt purge of Wise in 1958, as "Tupperware, a company built by women, was ultimately run by men." And when I say "purged," I mean wiped from the memory of the company's history-- they even went to the trouble of burying copies of her book, Best Wishes, Brownie Wise. But it also traces her legacy. This film earned Kahn-Leavitt a well deserved Emmy nomination. It would appear this story, with the same director, will soon be remade as a motion picture drama. And I want to see it when it is released.
Welcome to Mooseport / directed by Donald Petrie (2004, VHS). Gene Hackman, Ray Romano, Marcia Gay Harden, Maura Tierney, Christine Baranski, Fred Savage, Rip Torn, Edward Herrmann (uncredited). Normally, whenever I see a film that was a "box office bomb" I try to be charitable when reviewing it. For example, I thought Tim Burton's Ed Wood was his best ever movie, yet it was one of his least profitable. However, in the case of this movie I must say it deserved to be a bomb. It isn't totally bad, only mostly. Even before the opening credits are over you already know these things: The viewing experience will be awful, the "eccentric small town" angle will get old fast, and the ability to endure sitting through this dog will depend on the performances of Hackman and Romano. Fortunately, both of the main actors are fun to watch. Hackman can save any film. Here's the plot in a nutshell: an ex-President and a plumber run for mayor in small Maine town, and in the process also have a contest concerning the affections of the same woman. So, is this a political, or, a romantic comedy? Well, it can't decide, and neither can we. The supporting actors in Hackman's world, including Christine Baranski and the great growling Rip Torn, as well as a grown up Fred Savage, help carry his side of the story. There are a few fun little political jabs in there, but nothing really knee-slapping or eye opening. Romano's half isn't so lucky. Ray himself, who apparently is a TV star I have never seen before (I realize this will make me come across as snob, but I'm OK with that) has a great deadpan delivery, but his portion of the tale was pretty lame in spite of his acting. I felt like his talent was wasted. Here is a cue. Hit the fast forward whenever the schmaltzy romantic music rears its ugly head. This story had a good concept but something went horribly, terribly, tragically awry.
Vincent / directed by Tim Burton (1982, VHS off-air). Vincent Price (narrator). The animated short film story of a seven-year old who worships Vincent Price, even to the point of reading Poe, digging in the family garden to exhume his "dead wife," and feeling like the house which is keeping him "prisoner" is alive. Price himself provides the narration in that honey flavored hammy voice we all know. How could anyone dislike this guy? Price was one of those actors who immediately evoked sympathy and connection. How he ever became linked to being a heavy in horror movies is beyond me. Even in his very best film, Theatre of Blood, where he is an actor serial killer knocking off critics in Shakespearean ways, we are still rooting for him. (Back in the mid-1990s I emerged from a risky surgery, apparently still under sedation, and announced a Price line from Theatre of Blood, "You see! Alive in triumph, and you thought me slain!") Price had a special balance of dignity and fun, yet he was never really as frightening as say, Lugosi, Karloff, or Lee. He had more range, and more humanity in his characters. I miss him. Burton's animations have a certain style which is far creepier than anything Price played, and this one is no exception. When his animation is used to augment live action such as in Beetle Juice, it is very effective. But when it is the sole fuse for expression, it gets tiresome. Even this short film tests my tolerance. And I'm not sure why. In fact, aside from his animated work, I consider Burton one of the greatest living directors. I will say this in his defense of my own criticism, at least his animations have a personal stamp. You know a Tim Burton produced animation when you see one. And I respect that. I just don't like them.
Jamaica Inn / directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1939, DVD). Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara, Leslie Banks, Robert Newton. Even great directors can produce a dog. This one is so bad Hitchcock didn't bother to make his trademark cameo appearance at any point. Apparently this film was really directed by Laughton's enormous ego as he luxuriated in a smug and sadistic role. Let's move on. Nothing to see here, folks.
Das Cabinet de Dr. Caligari = The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari / directed by Robert Wiene (1920, VHS). Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski. Considered one of the original horror films and an important landmark in the Expressionist art movement, Caligari has survived almost 90 years without losing any power. The static camera, before the days of pans and zooms, gives the movie a stagey feel, as if we are watching it live in a theater. Without any sound, or much artistic supplement with camera tricks, the actors really have to work extra hard to keep our attention. Add to that the very interesting angular Expressionist sets that threaten to be more interesting than the characters moving around them, and the thespians' challenge becomes all the greater. But it all works and results in a creepy and fascinating story. My version (Kino Video, 1996) has highly "augmented" the original. The film has been color tinted, where the entire frame is either sort of a blue or an orangish hue. The caption cards have been remade to mimic the Expressionist style, and they are in color. And finally I noticed the music was of exceptionally high quality. The two themes of sleep and madness, which run through the entire tale, are woven together in a haunting manner and fit the movie like a glove. Never overpowering, but always enhancing. Then I looked at the container and realized the soundtrack was composed and conducted by none other than our old Olympia friend known by many OlyBloggers, Timothy Brock. In fact, Tim probably gave this cassette to my family. Trivia buffs will enjoy knowing Conrad Veidt later went on to become an outspoken anti-Hitler activist and fled Germany due to his religious faith. One of his last films was that of the evil Major Strasser in Casablanca. Von Twardowski had to become a refugee as well due to his sexual orientation. He also portrayed a Nazi in Casablanca. Caligari is one of the best of the bunch from the silent era and a must-see for anyone who collects important cultural references in their cranium.
Cyrano de Bergerac / directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (1990, VHS). Gerard Depardieu, Jacques Weber, Anne Brochet, Vincent Perez, Roland Bertin. A long, rambling, visually lavish story about a soldier in the service of art and romance who can single handedly battle 100 men, but is too frightened to tell the women he loves about his feelings. Part of his insecurity traces to the enormous size of his schnozz, but fate offers him a proxy-- a brave but inarticulate pretty boy-- who presents Cyrano's letters and poetry as his own. A convoluted and dishonest way to communicate, which is just one of the many reasons Freudians would have a field day with the title character. The film could've been tightened up a bit. And maybe this is just my American taste, but I like stories that show rather than tell complicated relationships. A lot of the first minutes of the tale are spent explaining who is who to the audience. These are not major problems. The subtitles are always readable, the translation is smooth. The cinematography is rich and worth the time invested alone. But really, this is all about Cyrano, which means this movie is about Depardieu. Cyrano is always the center of attention. He reminds me of that quote about Theodore Roosevelt, "the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral." Reciting poetry during swordfights, he seems to embody to best and worst of French culture. The best being an appreciation for beauty, romance, poetry, gallantry, music, free thinking; the worst being extreme vanity, a thin skin quick to being insulted, a phobia of looking foolish. Am I generalizing when I say those who generalize hate being generalized themselves? For such an extraordinary fellow, his problem appears to be a common one. At one point after a vainglorious I-gotta-be-me-me-me rant, Cyrano's pal sums up the whole ball of wax with, "You act proud and bitter, but I know that she refused your love." Depardieu has no trouble commanding the screen. It is impressive how he can portray a larger than life figure without becoming an over-the-top ham, but he does. There is a battle with the Spanish Army in here, and the reasons for this war are not given. Perhaps the French viewer knows the historical reference. To me, with no reasons for the war outlined, the slaughter seemed abstract and pointless, which was probably the whole point of the story anyway. As Cyrano says, "Fate's a jester," as the last scene competes with Dr. Zhivago for life-is-cruel missed connections. The final pan had me mesmerized.
"Communications Problems" (Fawlty Towers) / directed by Bob Spiers (1979, VHS). John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Connie Booth, Andrew Sachs, Joan Sanderson. Probably one of the most mean-spirited of the dozen episodes, a guest named Mrs. Richards is so dreadful she accomplishes something we previously had thought impossible-- we feel sympathy for and side with Basil. Packed with an unusually high number of great and quotable one-liners, this one is still hard to sit through without feeling anxious. Perhaps this is due to the fact that for once we find ourselves rooting for Mr. Fawlty, but in the end we know he will be crushed by the Gods, as always.