12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
Rosemary's Baby / directed by Roman Polanski (1968, VHS). Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Grodin, William Castle (uncredited), Tony Curtis (uncredited voice). It has been four decades, and parts do seem a little corny today, but Polanski's work still holds up as a rival to Hitchcock in the Suspense Department. Filmed in NYC, the story opens and closes with aerial views of the Dakota while Farrow sings a haunting tune, plus many exterior shots of the infamous building appear in the story as well. The entrance where John Lennon was murdered in 1980 is featured frequently. This brings to mind the Beatles/Manson/Polanski/Tate Helter Skelter connection and once you start thinking about all the odd and tragic little premonitions in Rosemary's Baby you'll find real life more chilling than fiction, and then the scripted tale doesn't seem quite as frightening in comparison. Let's not forget Farrow and the Fabs in India as part of a cult. Nice quirky Polanski touches like clocks ticking, piano music down the hall. Some of the best dream sequence clips from the 1960s. Polanski has made the suspense all the more gripping by never letting us see the title character, we can only guess what is going on by the reaction of the other players. Mia Farrow, who was previously known as a television actress in an evening soap opera called Peyton Place (we kids were not allowed to watch this program as it was too "adult"), turned into an overnight film star as a result of her role as the waifish Audrey Hepburn-like Rosemary. And she deserved the recognition. Hard to believe old B-movie gimmick master William Castle was the producer here, someone must have convinced him to step aside as director. But Elisha Cook Jr. does show up as a nod to Castle, and William himself has a walk-on as the Man at the Phone Booth. Tony Curtis is the voice of the blind actor on the phone. Do not see this movie if you or your partner are pregnant. It just isn't a good idea.
"How Smart Can You Get?" (Car 54, Where Are You?) (1962, VHS off-air). Joe E. Ross, Fred Gwynne, Paul Reed, Al Lewis, Bea Pons, Richard Morse. Two NYC policemen named Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon (Ross and Gwynne) are just plain funny to look at as great comic characters before they even utter a sound. Toody the squat, lowbrow, talky clod with Muldoon the tall, thin, brooding, sensitive intellectual provided TV viewers a humane humor during more innocent times. This show, which ran 60 episodes from Sept. 1961-Sept. 1963, probably would not have survived much beyond the 11-22-63 JFK assassination had it attempted to continue. Imagine the hilarity of Toody and Muldoon swinging billy clubs and shooting tear gas at antiwar protesters, or the comedic situations of being in Serpico type plots. I remember watching this show when it originally aired and really liking it, so it is a little nostalgic for me. In this episode, headquarters attempts to split up the boys and pair them up with more "appropriate" partners, but to no avail. Gunther Toody has got to be one of the all time great names in fiction. Joe E. Ross acts like he's always plugged into an electrical outlet.
In Search of Shakespeare / directed by David Wallace (2003, VHS off-air). Michael Wood (Narrator). "It's easy to get carried away, isn't it, looking for William?" so asks documentarian Michael Wood. I'll admit, I only have half of the miniseries here, but what I've seen makes me want to hunt down the missing chunk. Wood's style of presentation is enthusiastic and infectious. We see him digging through archives and libraries. He visits sites where Shakespeare was known to have lived and worked. He tries to trace the life and literally walk the steps of the great writer who turned the English language into music. Wood's elfin appearance made my cat Spooky so hungry, he actually whapped his paws on the screen trying to catch the guy. There are very few talking heads here, and no attempt to imitate Ken Burns (which is something I'm starting to resent in more recent documentaries). Wood has his own style, and a great ability to teach by using classy cinematic shots and deliberate step-by-step building his circumstantial evidence that Shakespeare was an underground Catholic who was navigating dangerous waters between the government and the Religious Right. He also gives a stab at identifying the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. But Shakespeare is an elusive character. Wood does his best to reveal Shakespeare the man, but as if in reply through the character of Hamlet, the Bard of Avon wrote: "Why look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me you cannot play upon me."
The Shining / directed by Stanley Kubrick (1980, VHS). Jack Nicholson. Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson. One of the career highs for all concerned. What makes this horror film truly frightening is the common and banal subject matter-- a dysfunctional family going over the edge. Basically, this is about a recovering alcoholic and the consequences of one the worst dry drunks and relapses on film. Nicholson's odd cadence of speech, his sarcastic response to his family, his subtle stages of sinking into an evil pit-- as Bogart was the actor of his generation, so is Nicholson to ours. In fact, you could compare Bogart's performance in Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Nicholson here. Both actors expertly played the gradations to Hell. Nicholson's character's turning point came with the quote: "God, I'd give anything for a drink. I'd give my Goddamn soul for just a glass of beer." And so he does. Danny Lloyd gets my nomination for one of the great child actors of the 20th century. He has to stay away from Room 237 (which of course he doesn't), he has a supernatural premonitional "friend" named Tony who lives in his mouth and speaks through the index finger of his juvenile host, and he encounters a very creepy set of twins ("Hello Danny. Come and play with us. Come and play with us Danny. Forever, and ever, and ever.") Lloyd really carried his weight in this film and it is a tribute to Kubrick that he managed to coax such a performance. Shelly Duvall was perfect in her role. The right blend of fear and steel. Kubrick used his trademarks of big faces and wide angle symmetry. Some visual cues: the color is muted, except for red. The backgrounds are filled with Native American icons (this has another tired "Indian Graveyard" premise). Lots of mirror play here, as if they are a doorway. Stephen King, who wrote the original story, apparently did not approve of this film. Personally, I think this is one of best movies ever based on one of his novels. Sorry Mr. King. The soundtrack is outstanding. Kubrick freely used the music of György Ligeti without much regard for legal formalities (I suggest Robert W. Richart's György Ligeti, a bio-bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1990) for more information on this interesting composer). My VHS copy includes a "Making of" documentary by Vivian Kubrick. These type of backroom peeks, or options to use comments by the principals on DVD versions really diminishes the magic of the main show for me.
Malice in the Palace / directed by Jules White (1949, VHS). Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Shemp Howard, Vernon Dent, George J. Lewis, Frank Lackteen, Everett Brown (uncredited), Johnny Kascier (uncredited), Joe Palma (uncredited). I like Shemp more than Curly. The Shempster's shameless mugging was priceless. I know Curly is the People's Choice, and that is just fine. Curly was great. He makes me laugh a lot. I just happen to get more laughs with Shemp. This particular Stooges short is in the public domain and has been reproduced by all sorts of clowns, including characters selling VHS tapes out their car trunks in New Jersey. In this case my Reagan-era copy ("unconditional lifetime guarantee" says the container) comes from Trans-Atlantic Video, Inc. This episode pokes fun at the the Arabian stereotype, having the distinction of offending more people in 2008 than it would've in 1949. The first half of the jokes take place in a cafe, the second half in the Palace of the Emir of Shmow. The Stooges show up at the palace inexplicably dressed up as Santa Claus. Violence count: 25 head konks, 7 instances of food on the face, 4 stomach hits, two each of eye pokes, water on face, and face slaps. One each of chin hit, nose clipped, karate chop to the neck, a kick in the butt, and filled with water like a water balloon.
Le Procès = The Trial / directed by Orson Welles (1962, VHS). Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff. "The logic of this story is the logic of a dream-- a nightmare." Welles is unleashed here, giving us his worst and best. Preachy mumbly dialogue combined with amazing black and white Wellesian visual compositions. My copy was purchased used, and I see the previous viewer stopped the video halfway through, not a great sign. My copy came from the "quality" Madacy outfit, meaning the sound was out of sync and scratchy and the graphics were poppy and scraped. Based on one of Kafka's unfinished stories, this tale follows the tribulations of a man who is accused of a never identified crime. And woven into this very dreamlike world is a strong theme of sex vs. love, the latter of which appears to be an elusive quantity. Anthony Perkins' trademark nervous and vulnerable twitchiness is perfect for his role as the accused Mr. K. Old radio man Orson Welles felt compelled to read the opening to us, as well as orally present the acting credits at the conclusion. This movie can be tedious, but it does anticipate Gilliam's view of bureaucracy in Brazil, Beatlemania (which would arrive in the U.S. two years later), and the federal system of justice under the administration of George W. Bush.
White Heat / directed by Raoul Walsh (1949, VHS). James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Fred Clark, Steve Cochran, Jim Thorpe (uncredited). The last of the great Warner Bros. gangster/prison films. James Cagney, an aging, thickening relic of bygone days (but not played as such) is a total sociopath with a migraine mother complex. In the Age of Fedoras Cagney's criminal character is far more interesting than the dry and passionless law enforcement types on his tail, who spare no expense in time informing us about the technical details on how they snare their prey. When Cagney blows up at the end in a blaze of glory, it was not only goodbye to his character, but also a farewell to a genre. And what a way to go. I don't have many of my old boyhood relics, but one of my few surviving toys is a metal gasoline tanker truck, just like the one used in this movie. Oh, how I recall the many happy hours of playing "White Heat" with this toy truck. "Top of the world, Ma!"
Young and Innocent / directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1937, DVD). Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney, Percy Marmont, Edward Rigby. There are some Hitchcock staples here: innocent man on the run, climatic scene in front of an audience, trains, and lots of odd supporting characters. But if Hitch was a pioneer in the creative use of sound in the early 1930s, by decade's end he was returning to being visually innovative. In fact, there is a strong theme of eyes and seeing-- the villain's nervous eye twitch, the use of glasses as a disguise, children playing blindman's bluff, the song "Three Blind Mice" used as part of the soundtrack. Nova Pilbeam plays a young woman who is half child, half adult. This romantic murder mystery is lighter fare than usual for the director. The screen even looks brighter than his normal dark and shadowy mysteries. There is an amazing crane shot where the bad guy's identity is revealed and a mineshaft rescue scene that brings to mind the conclusion to North by Northwest. Moves along pretty slowly.
The Best of Ernie Kovacs. Vol. 1 (1952-1956, VHS). Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams, Jack Lemmon (narrator). One of the greats from the Stone Age of television. You get the sense you are watching an experiment in progress. Some of his ideas were brilliant, others fell flat. Most of his humor used music or sight gags and employed form over content, such as the always funny Nairobi Trio. Two characters he created, Percy Dovetonsils (reading a poem about dieting here) and the German radio DJ Wolfgang Sauerbraten seem more odd than funny today.
Club Paradise / directed by Harold Ramis (1986, VHS). Robin Williams, Peter O'Toole, Rick Moranis, Jimmy Cliff, Twiggy, Adolph Caesar, Eugene Levy, Joanna Cassidy, Andrea Martin, Brian Doyle-Murray, Joe Flaherty, Steven Kampmann, Robin Duke, Mary Gross. A strange mix in casting, with all that talent-- gone to waste! Director Ramis, who followed this one with Groundhog Day and Stuart Saves His Family (two excellent films) never seemed to get a handle on any story. Williams and O'Toole have enough ham between them to start a pig farm. A Caribbean resort on a former British colony finds itself a target in a political-capitalistic-real estate conspiracy. SCTV fans might be disappointed to see Moranis, Levy, Flaherty, and Duke not really using their natural humor-- although Flaherty does put a lot of energy in his all-too-brief appearances. Even Robin Williams seemed a little restrained. Andrea Martin is the only cast member who came close to a standout performance. The drug jokes really date this film. I will say there is a great soundtrack, courtesy of Jimmy Cliff who sings and isn't a half bad actor.
The Execution / directed by Paul Wendkos (1985, VHS). Loretta Swit, Rip Torn, Jessica Walter, Barbara Barrie, Sandy Dennis, Valerie Harper, Michael Lerner. This made-for-TV movie is set in Los Angeles in 1970. Five WWII German concentration camp survivors discover the Nazi maniac who tortured them when they were young girls is alive and well and running a restaurant in Malibu. So they set out to murder, no, "execute" him. This was an uncomfortable film to watch, not so much for content as for the bad acting, bad direction, bad dialogue, and bad music. It is just plain bad. Sandy Dennis and Rip Torn were well cast, but I had a difficult time accepting Loretta Swit (the main character) in the role of holocaust survivor. You would think a story like this would be filled with suspense and taut with ethical questions concerning justice vs. revenge. But the treatment was sloppy, melodramatic and unfocused. Too many subplots. There was a potentially great scene when a prosecutor enters a synagogue and witnesses 150 people all confessing to the same murder as a show of support. But it fell flat. The subject isn't trivialized, but the story seemed more like a predictable knee-jerk reaction than a real exploration. Rip Torn plays his part as the disguised Nazi well, but has to mouth some real awful script lines. Ever see that brief clip where Norman Mailer and Rip Torn get into a fight and Mailer tries to bite off Rip's ear and Rip tries to beat Norman's head with a hammer? Now that is much more interesting than this movie.
The Choice 2000 (Frontline) / directed by Michael Kirk (2000, VHS off-air). Tipper Gore, Laura Bush, James Sasser, Mary Matalin, Dick Morris, Karen Hughes. A PBS look at the two major party presidential candidates of 2000 in human terms. Fascinating how this documentary shows us two Americas: the ruling class and the wage slave class. Both of these gentlemen came from the former. Actually, we are never shown the wage slave class here. The Gore/Bush stories are mostly told by family and friends, but even so some zingers get in there. Gore's studied calculations, his enlisting during Vietnam as a political move, his use of marijuana and how that was handled with the press later, and the incredibly maudlin speeches about his personal crises are touched on. Bush's alcohol intake, possible cocaine use, his questionable military record and party hardy frat boy years are examined. By my calculations he developed that whiney tone we now all know so well about 1988, but the cocky smirk came much earlier. This documentary isn't really about their political views, rather it covers their political styles and how their upbringing shaped the way they approach the job of governing. When we elect a President we are electing an icon, a symbol, a style as well as a package of issues. Speaking as someone who didn't vote for either one of these guys, I found the coverage to be fairly presented. I'm sure partisans for either one would've wanted more critical coverage of the other fellow.