12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
Murder / directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1930, DVD). Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring, Esme Percy, Phyllis Konstam, Edward Chapman. A "highbrow shocker" play within a play within a play. The principal characters in this "wrong person convicted of murder" story are all actors playing actors. In order to trap the suspected real killer, the "play scene" from Hamlet acts as the inspiration. And there are audiences everywhere-- a Hitchcock hallmark holding up a mirror to you and me. The crowd that gathers around the murder scene. The crowd that attends the trial. The crowd at the circus that witnesses a horrible death. Hitchcock also offers up more cynical little observations on human nature, from petty bribery by the hero to peer pressure in the jury room when a life is at stake. The leading man, an actor, states, "We use art to criticize life." The choreography in this film is comic, in contrast to the plot and dialogue, which created a tension that kept my interest. Apparently the script was not entirely finished at the time of filming (this was only Hitchcock's third time filming a talkie, and I guess he hadn't developed a production pattern yet) so the cast had to improvise in many places, which gives the tale a lurching effect. As usual, this director liked to innovate. Murder is supposedly the first motion picture to use the technique of a voiceover to reveal the thoughts of a character. The tragic character who is "half-caste" is sort of mysterious. Does this status have a racial meaning, or does it have something to do with his transvestite life (a rather daring subject for 1930, I suppose)? Except for the bowtie, Herbert Marshall does an elegant job of playing the hero. Baby boomers will remember Marshall in the role of Inspector Charas in The Fly (1958), as he and Vincent Price observe a fly in spider web with a human head pleading "He-e-e-elp me-e-e-e-e-e!!!" Legend has it these two great actors required multiple takes for that scene and they finally had to not look at each each in order to complete it as they would just break out in uncontrollable laughter otherwise.
The Best of Ernie Kovacs. Vol. 2 (1952-1956, VHS). Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams, Jack Lemmon (narrator). The wild and live pioneer days of 1950s television, in contrast to the social reputation of that decade, was a time when many gifted creators were "trying it on." This was the right time and place for a poetic comedian named Ernie Kovacs who immediately realized the full potential of the medium. How far ahead of his time was he? Here's what I remember: My parents were big fans, and I can dimly recall how shocked they were at Kovacs' death as a result of a car accident at age 42 in 1962. Then he sort of faded away in social conversation until the 1968 appearance of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The newer show had built their format around the Kovacs formula of fast-paced, quick gags, many of them strictly visual. And Kovacs was correctly rediscovered by the public as the "owner" of this concept. So he was about a dozen years ahead of his time since his main show ran in the mid-1950s. This particular "Best of" volume is chiefly comprised of his musical humor pieces with very little dialogue. It is sort of like Fantasia, only live, and in black and white, and a lot funnier. As it is always with experiments, some of his jokes work, others don't. The Swan Lake ballet seriously performed by dancers in gorilla suits is one that works. The Nairobi Trio, used several times throughout his show, is a quintessential Kovacs mixing of musical and visual humor. In this volume they perform the "building blocks" number. We also get to meet Kovacs regular character Percy Dovetonsils reading a couple odes. Although he was known for his rapid fire speed, what was fast in the 1950s can seem slow today. Ernie would be 89 years old if he was still with us, but given the enormous influence he had on television comedy, I guess he still is.
Coffee and Cigarettes / directed by Jim Jarmusch (2003, VHS). Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joseph Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Michael Hogan, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, Katy Hansz, The GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, William Rice, Taylor Mead. Like coffee, this film must be an acquired taste. I gave up on the first try, put it away for awhile, came back, and finished the voyage (in 3 or 4 sittings) on the second attempt. In a bit of foreshadowing, I knew I might be in trouble after I popped the VHS into the machine and was treated to a preview of The Saddest Music in the World. But as it turns out, Jarmusch had a good idea here. Eleven brief encounters are presented like a book of short stories. Filmed in black and white, it has the feel of an edgy college project-- but I like that. All the meetings somehow involve cigarettes, along with coffee (or tea in some cases). A checker visual is always present, usually in the tablecloth but also on cups, napkins, light fixtures. The dialogue is such that the graphics make me think of the game of checkers, as if the characters are in some sort of social gamesmanship-- which indeed all of them are. But as Steve Coogan says here, "Comedy's such a difficult thing." And there are a few flaws that almost kill this film. First, Jarmusch has all the actors playing themselves. And you know, they are not as interesting as they think we think they are. Apparently, much of the dialogue is improvised-- and it drags. He also filmed this over a very long period of time, over a decade, and there is not much momentum. It lags and jerks in fits and starts. The final story does incorporate lines from some the previous entries, and it seems to me with a little more planning, the 11 scenes could've had more small connections like this providing the audience with more hooks. The best of the lot here was "Cousins?" with Molina and Coogan. If you really want to see a great film by Jarmusch, I suggest Broken Flowers. But not this one.
The Falcon and the Snowman / directed by John Schlesinger (1985, VHS). Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Pat Hingle, Joyce Van Patten, David Suchet. In the Summer of 1974 I was staying in Santa Barbara, California. Here's the kind of a geek I was in those days: I am in beautiful, sunny Southern Cal. with all sorts of diversions around me, both healthy and not, and I'm a young man. And what am I doing? I'm glued to a television in a small apartment watching the House impeachment hearings concerning the case of Richard M. Nixon. And I'm cheering. America works! But not too far away there was another young fellow about my age who was the son of an agent of the F.B. of I. According to this movie he watched the same live impeachment coverage and declared, "I don't care what these people say, this man is innocent!" as the House voted to throw the bum out. His name was Christopher Boyce. It was in this year, 1974, Boyce got a paper-pushing job in national security and as he encountered "Standard Program of Denial Recommended" papers from his superiors, he began to realize just how unAmerican our sanctioned spooks really were. He had a front row seat to the mischief the CIA was causing in all sorts of foreign governments, including our allies like Australia. Rather than becoming radicalized, he became disillusioned-- and greedy. So in 1974-1975, while I'm attending Evergroove and getting sneered at by my fellow locals as I'm doing dangerous things like writing papers about the meaning of Andy Warhol, good Republican boy Boyce is photocopying state secrets for the Reds. His childhood pal and former fellow altar boy, who also happened to be a drug dealer, enabled him to sell classified information to the Soviets in Mexico. Boyce (Hutton) earned the name "Falcon" from his hobby of falconry, and his pal Daulton Lee (Penn) the "Snowman" from his use of cocaine. Hutton and Penn's chemistry make this a movie worth watching. Although Boyce (Hutton) is the character going through the inner ethical struggle, I somehow found myself drawn more into the drama of Lee (Penn) and his world of lies built on fabrications built on a drug haze. Penn is really superb here. Their whole spygame collapsed not due to diligence of the Feds. Lee's arrest was just a fluke of mistaken identity-- by Mexican law enforcement. Real life always trumps fiction. David Suchet as a member of the Soviet group is a strong supporting actor and deserved a more prominent place in the credits. I strongly suspect Pat Hingle is merely Lyle Talbot somehow reconstructed and given a new lease on existence for another half century or so. I was disappointed to see the film ended with the duo's arrest and imprisonment in 1977. Boyce's subsequent 1980 escape from the prison at Lompoc (ironically, home to a few Watergate figures), his career as a bank robber in Idaho and Washington, and 1981 capture in Port Angeles cheats us out of a cinematic footnote I was hoping to enjoy-- if for no other reason than to see the Evergreen State as part of a Big Story. As I recall the burger joint where Boyce was arrested started marketing "Spyburgers" to cash in on their fame.
Grave Indiscretion / directed by John-Paul Davidson (1995, VHS). Alan Bates, Sting, Theresa Russell, Lena Headey, Trudie Styler, Jim Carter, Anna Massey, John Mills. This odd movie belongs to Alan Bates. The rest of cast is good, but Bates as Sir Hugo dominates the screen in his portrait of an eccentric and morbid member of the UK upper class. He's a real prick, but an entertaining and droll one. Sting is effectively chilling as the cunning butler who slowly takes over the role of master of the house. He is inscrutable, but his evil is clearly visible under a thin veneer of formal ceremony. Very well played. Apparently set in the 1940s, the fascination with dinosaur fossils on the part of Sir Hugo serves as a springboard for themes of predatory behavior, death, and survival. Crows (the descendants of dinosaurs) serve as a chorus throughout the story, sometimes they are even present in the house during meals. The most interesting and human relationship in this tale is between Sir Hugo and a nearby pig farmer. Tantalizing clues about their close friendship and history are never fully explained, but it adds some spice. Visually rich in a dark, swirling way but wallowing in disturbing scenes (such as a big dinner where the guests unknowingly consume a missing poet, or the discovery of a dead cow in the water, or Sir Hugo gleefully feeding live maggots to a giant toad at the dinner table), this isn't exactly the feelgood movie of the year. This is not a tight film, it rambles around. The use of voiceovers didn't work, but the story's splendid finale (without dialogue) makes up for that. This movie is hard to track down. It was originally released under the title The Grotesque, and later in the United States as Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets (I like that one). Grave Indiscretion is the U.S. VHS title. This has never, as far as I can determine, been produced on DVD for an American market.
Indictment: The McMartin Trial / directed by Mick Jackson (1995, VHS). James Woods, Mercedes Ruehl, Lolita Davidovich, Sada Thompson, Henry Thomas, Shirley Knight, James Cromwell. This was originally released as an HBO docudrama covering the seven year-16 million dollar case of the McMartin family, accused of running a child care center where bizarre ritualistic sex abuse was supposedly taking place. It resulted in no convictions. Solidly on the side of the McMartins, the story is told through the eyes of their defense attorney, Danny Davis. Portrayed as an opportunist, his aggressive cynicism eventually responds to a higher calling as he watches a modern day Salem Witch Trial unfold, "This case is a nightmare. They've got the train on the tracks, it's rolling and winning them votes and sound bites but no one's willing to put on the brakes!" The case itself takes a backseat to the public hysteria, while the media feeds the flames. This is really more a story about the legal system and news coverage than it is about child abuse. But it is a very uncomfortable film to watch on any level. I found myself wondering how the child actors in this thing fared later in life, since it seemed many of them had some fairly traumatic lines to deliver. The casting for this was 100% spot on. James Woods as Davis and Mercedes Ruehl as the prosecuting attorney were well matched and equally nasty. Henry Thomas and Shirley Knight, as two members of the McMartin family, were outstanding. Frankly, I don't remember this case in real life. I think it was just buried in the whole Satanist/Geraldo wave of nonsense that was being dangled in front of our faces by the media back then.
"The Copper Beeches" (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) / directed by Paul Annett (1985, DVD). Jeremy Brett, David Burke, Joss Ackland, Natasha Richardson. The story opens with Holmes and Watson having a little spat over the creative enhancements the latter employs in the course of providing written accounts of the Great Detective's exploits for all the world to read. But the real source of the tiff becomes apparent when Holmes admits he's bored. "The days of the great cases," he proclaims with that special Brett melodrama, "are past." But then a client with a very strange problem arrives. As far as mysteries go, most of the viewers will have figured out the solution long before the credits roll. But there are some weird characters and situations here that make this episode fun to watch. A slightly seedy country manor with the master of the house possessed by a creepy kind of cheer. Surly servants, one of them usually drunk. A killer dog roaming the grounds ("Someone's loosed the dog! It's not been fed for two days!"). Spikes, bars, and locks. A sadistic and unpleasant red-headed boy. Someone locked in the tower room. The whole thing borders on Gothic. But still, an average Holmes episode. Not terrific. Not horrible. Worth an hour of time. The original story is a quick read and filled with some great quotes I wish had been worked into the televised version.
Zoku Zatoichi monogatari = The Tale of Zatoichi Continues / directed by Kazuo Mori (1962, DVD). Shintarô Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama. The second (and last black and white) film of the long-running Zatoichi series. Zato Ichi is a masseur who roams the countryside of Japan in the era just before the arrival of Commodore Perry. He advertises his services by blowing a high-pitched whistle. The setting is not unlike that of American Westerns, where law enforcement is a Darwinian proposition. Ichi likes to drink, he gambles, he enjoys the company of loose women. Wherever he goes he's the stranger in these here parts. Although he at first appears lazy, when thugs or samurai try to mess with him they discover he's an expert swordsman. Oh, did I mention he's also blind? Ichi has a unique style of swordfighting, presented as poetic choreography. Since he's blind and needs to frequently stop to hear his bearings, the cadence of the action is not like normal cinema fare. All the subplots share a need to settle scores with the past, and since Ichi is the Mysterious Stranger With a Past, there are a lot of scores to settle. Ichi and his brother are played by real life siblings, something I started to suspect before the movie was over. I have probably seen about half of the 26 (1962-1973, 1989) Zatoichi films, but this is the only one where I've seen him get seriously hit in swordplay. Beautifully composed visuals, cheesey soundtrack, abrupt ending. Katsu instantly engages the audience and never lets us go. I was first introduced to this great series by none other than OlyBlog's own Rick. Little did we know as I watched my first Zatoichi in his living room that I would be reviewing them in this yet-to-exist blog a few years later.
The Big Snooze / directed by Bob Clampett (1946, DVD). Mel Blanc (voice), Arthur Q. Bryan (voice). This was the swan song for Surrealist Clampett from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Starting out like a typical Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs story, it suddenly takes a jarring turn when Elmer quits the whole animation game, tearing up his "contract." Then, as Elmer takes a Big Snooze (a play on Bogart's Big Sleep), Bugs realizes he really needs Elmer. "We've been like Rabbit and Costello!" he pleads. So, with the use of "Nightmare Paint," Bugs enters Elmer's pink cloud dream, sabotages it, and presents the audience with a series of images worthy of Dali. The DVD version does not censor the scene where Bugs takes the special sleeping pills enabling him to enter Elmer's dream ("Take Deze and Doze") which has been deleted from broadcast versions.
"The Spanish Inquistion" (Monty Python's Flying Circus ; v. 7, episode 15) / directed by Ian MacNaughton (1970, VHS). Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin. Jarrow 1912, Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, Zany link, Door-to-door novelty salesman, Decapitation animation, A tax on "thingie," Uncle Ted, Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition 2, Comfy chair, Semaphore version of Wuthering Heights etc., Central Criminal Courts charades, Waiting for the Spanish Inquisition. In the first half the actors are all searching for lines, turning the skits back on themselves. Terry Gilliam is incredibly over the top in the role of "Cardinal Fang."
O Brother, Where Art Thou / directed by Joel Coen (2000, VHS). George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Michael Badalucco, Ray McKinnon, Daniel von Bargen, Stephen Root, Gillian Welch. "It's a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart." Another amazing Coen brothers film with a regional feel, this time in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, those of you who were forced to read this in high school or college, like yours truly, will enjoy finding all the allusions. And there are many that have been covered ad nauseam in other reviews. Also references to The Wizard of Oz as well as other Coen titles. But there is another cultural reference, perhaps unintended, that a very observant co-worker of mine pointed out: The Three Stooges. The three convicts do have a similar dynamic. To underscore this point, there is a scene where the trio are in a movie house and I do believe the film on the screen features Ted Healy (1896-1937), the actor who gave the Stooges their cinematic start. Wonderful characters portrayed by wonderful actors. I'm aware some TV watchers who followed Clooney in his series, whatever it was, were not pleased with the choice to cast him in the lead role. This film was my first exposure to his acting and I thought he was great as the "know-it-all who can't keep his trap shut." He could easily be one of my relatives on my paternal grandfather's side of the family: a vain ladies' man, a verbose storyteller, a nonbeliever living in the Bible Belt, a con artist who isn't as bright as he pretends to be. I even had an uncle who escaped a chain gang! The white-robed Hardshell Baptists who meet at the river would be my paternal grandmother's family. My great-grandfather on that side would tell you the world was shaped like a cube because the Bible made a reference to the four corners of the Earth. Seriously. This story has an effective sepia tone, giving the beautifully composed scenes a period feel. Although the acting, plot, and visuals are all Academy Award worthy, it is really the music that is at the heart of this motion picture. It almost seems as if the plot revolves around the soundtrack more than anything else. Here's my name-dropping brush with fame: Dr. Ralph Stanley, one of the vocalists in here, was once married to my Dad's cousin. I've actually been to Ralph's house in the area of Clintwood, Virginia, the ancestral home of my surname. Great music, great movie.
The Rat Pack / directed by Rob Cohen (1998, VHS). Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, William Petersen, Zeljko Ivanek, Bobby Slayton, Dan O'Herlihy. This HBO made-for-cable-TV movie, it is safe to say, probably upset the Sinatra and Kennedy families. The title is misleading-- this isn't about the Rat Pack, it's about Sinatra and JFK and the Mob. The Rat Pack was, in my memory, a group of unfunny and maudlin Vegas entertainers who thought they were really hip, and a certain segment of people in my parent's generation bought the illusion. Most people my age (we're talking Boomer) considered them a joke. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop. The acting and direction of this film is good, my complaint here is with the script. The plot (set in 1958-1962) revolves around the assumption that Sinatra, in an effort to add Washington, D.C. as one of his power points alongside Vegas, L.A. and Chicago, uses his Mob connections to help JFK get elected. After the very questionable 1960 victory of Jack Kennedy (Illinois and Texas returns were, well, sort of "funny"-- this was one of Nixon's Six Crises), the Mafia felt betrayed when Attorney General Robert Kennedy actually tried to enforce the law. Although JFK's assassination is not covered here, the set up for certain conspiracy theories is pretty clear. RFK has not fared well in film docudramas, here and in Hoffa and George Wallace he is portrayed as a rich and spoiled Puritan. He deserves better than this. Someday, someone, somewhere, is going to make a motion picture where the complexity and evolution of Robert Kennedy is accurately covered. Anyway. Sinatra gets in over his head when he tries to transfer his entertainment power to the political ring. Easy to do. As he tells JFK, "You're going to be going toe to toe with Richard Nixon for the romantic lead in a movie called 'Presidential Politics.'" He was right, politics has a lot in common with the entertainment industry, as old Ron the Con proved. But Sinatra didn't recognize the difference between publicity and power. Real power. And his lesson was very hard. Frank "My Way" Sinatra, who was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, met his match with old Joe Kennedy (played by Dan O'Herlihy in his final screen appearance), who told Ol' Blues Eyes the facts of life. The real pivotal character here is Kennedy-in-law Peter Lawford, a guy who just wanted to act in motion pictures but was stuck in between the pitch and fell of mighty opposites. Lawford, not Sinatra, should've been the central character here. The actors who represented the real Rat Pack did a fine job, really, but special mention should be reserved for Bobby Slayton who played Joey Bishop. Slayton's presentation was the most dead-on to the real guy, yet Bishop's role in the Rat Pack was really minimized in this film. Joey had a talk show for a brief time in the late 1960s with a really super-annoying theme song as I recall. Rat Pack brush with fame: I saw Sammy Davis Jr. signing autographs at Disneyland in 1971.