Pulp Fiction / directed by Quentin Tarantino (1994, VHS). John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Maria de Medeiros, Rosanna Arquette, Uma Thurman, Frank Whaley, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel. One of the best movies out of the 1990s. It is almost as if Tarantino shot a normal film, cut it up in the editing room, threw the pieces on the floor, and then randomly spliced it back together out of sequence. Almost. Tarantino's nonlinear and ultimately circular method of storytelling demands a little more work than usual from the audience, which we are more than willing to do as he fills the screen with dynamic action, intense characters, and smart dialogue. You can tell this was put together by a pop culture junkie as this story is jam packed with Boomer icons in almost every frame. I particularly enjoyed the references to the "Durward Kirby Burger" (anyone else out there remember him?), the brief clip of Clutch Cargo on television in the Willis/Walken flashback (Clutch Cargo was one of the weirdest cartoons ever), and of course the nod to the ultimate in hip places, McCleary, Washington, when Travolta pours a glass of McCleary Blended Scotch Whiskey in Uma's home. The soundtrack, exclusively composed of pop songs and surfer music, only enhances the cultural pizza concept. Basically the tale is quilted together by a series of individually titled mini-movies. Although each one is strong enough to stand on its own, they are connected in fun ways. My favorite is "The Bonnie Situation," featuring Travolta, Tarantino, Keitel, and the really amazing Samuel L. Jackson. I'm sure this part was inspired by The Cat in the Hat: Thing 1 and Thing 2 have to clean up the spot before Mom comes home. But in this case the "spot" is lots of blood and a corpse. Keitel's ominous bowtie adds to the sick humor. The one character I found myself caring about and cheering was the boxer, played by Bruce Willis. Perhaps this was due to the fact he is the only person in the tale who exhibits a heroic quality, doing something just because it is the right thing to do. And we like heroes. A movie that demands to be viewed multiple times for those not easily offended by strong language.
"Holoship" (Red Dwarf) / directed by Juliet May (1992, VHS off-air). Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Hattie Hayridge, Jane Horrocks. When the crew finishes watching a romantic movie, and Lister is in tears, Rimmer offers his own review: "I thought it was the worst pile of blubbery schoolgirl mush I've ever been compelled to endure. I consider it an insult to my backside who was forced to sit here growing carbuncles through such putrid adolescent slush." But then he is abducted and beamed aboard a Holoship, run a by a crew of fellow holograms. And they are snobby and arrogant, so of course Rimmer wants to join them permanently. But he soon finds himself in a situation where he must chose between his career or romantic love. An unusual episode in this series, where Rimmer actually experiences some emotional growth. This one has a tighter script with more focus than we are accustomed to. Jane Horrocks adds some class to this story.
SCTV (1976-1984?, VHS off-air). Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud. Bob's Big Guy Restaurant, Earl Camembert on urban transit, Tracking the unknown with Edith Prickly, Count Floyd, Dr. Tongue's Evil House of Pancakes, Irv Goldfarb Show, Maurice Wong's Bali Indonesian Cuisine Restaurant, Laser-Matic Quickflash, Sunrise Semester with Moe Green (bookkeeping), Unnecessary surgeon ("No ailment too small, no fee too high"), Ted Gordon-- malpractice lawyer, Johnny LaRue exercise show, SCTV news with Floyd and Earl, Wara! Wara! Wara!, Backstage, Gregory Peck on "Stop those depressing ads," The girls of Vienna, LaRue goes beserk, Yoga with the Swami, SCTV news, Captain Combat, Cooking with LaRue, Gus Gustofferson-- security guard, Spray-on-socks, Sunrise Semester-- classical Greek, Sammy Maudlin show with Lorna Minella/Bobby Bittman/Trish Nutley (who tells them all off), Shakespeare's greatest jokes, Match unto my feet, Backstage, Ronco no sweat sauna air conditioning system, Crosswords (with Richardson and Gielgud), The Exorcist of Oz, $211,000 triangle, Words to live by. This is mostly early SCTV, offering us glimpses of prototype characters to come. Richardson and Gielgud seem very out of place, although their brief "Crosswords" skit has some charm. The production values are really low-rent in this phase of the series and the ensemble is still attempting to find a voice. A rough draft feel and perhaps only funny to hardcore fans with an academic bent.
"The Problem of Thor Bridge" (The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes) / directed by Michael A. Simpson (1991, VHS off-air). Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, Daniel Massey, Celia Gregory, Niven Boyd, Andrew Wilde. This was the final time Simpson acted as a director in any filmed effort, and it is a shame as this was a very good episode in the series. Most of the premise of the story was revealed in the clever silent opening sequence, where the dynamics of a dysfunctional family was revealed through window openings, almost like panels in a graphic novel (I'd use the older term "cartoon" or "comix," which is actually more appropriate, but they lack the cultural gravity of "graphic novel". O Brave New World!). Jeremy Brett gives us the Holmes we love in an energetic performance. As a point of trivia, I learned I share a Huguenot heritage with the Great Detective in this story, but I doubt we are related. For openers, he is a fictional and last I looked, I'm still very real. Wait let me check to make sure. [Whacks self in face]. Yup, I'm here. Holmes seems more absent-minded and distracted than we are used to, and Watson plays the role of a true partner providing essential and practical help. Daniel Massey, who is an eerie echo of his father, Raymond, plays a brash, bossy, and wealthy former U.S. Senator from the Far West. Massey's American fits the British stereotype ("These Americans are readier with their pistols than our folks are"). A good, solid episode.
Auntie Mame / directed by Morton DaCosta (1958, VHS off-air). Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, Peggy Cass, Lee Patrick, Lee Waterman, Yuki Shimoda. In the twilight of the Men's Fedora Era, we are treated to a contrived and stagey idea of what an eccentric free spirit is supposed to be. The dialogue is sarcastic and mean. The acting belongs on a stage, not a screen. The main character is too manipulative and vain to warrant a lot of sympathy. There are some fun wordplays, such as an estate in Georgia called "Peckerwood" and a WASP enclave called "Mountebank." The line, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death," starts to feel condescending after repeated utterings.
"The Senior Citizens Outing" (Keeping Up Appearances) / directed by Harold Snoad (1995, VHS off-air). Patricia Routledge, Clive Swift, Josephine Tewson, Judy Cornwall, Geoffrey Hughes, Mary Millar. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground in British comedy. On the one hand there are works of genius like Fawlty Towers, and on the other we have programs like this one. I realize Hyacinth Bucket has quite a following of devoted fans. I suspect, like many other BBC offerings, this series is an acquired taste. Part of the joke is the persistent cluelessness of the obnoxious main character. But there is something missing. It feels like the comic timing is not quite on the mark.
No! No! A Thousand Times No!! / directed by Dave Fleischer (1935, DVD). Mae Questel (voice). Presented on a stage for an audience, Betty and her handsome boyfriend fend off the advances of an oily villain. Poking a little fun at the old fashioned melodramas, but seems kind of tame for a Fleischer cartoon.
Before Women Had Wings / directed by Lloyd Kramer (1997, VHS off-air). Tina Majorino, Ellen Barkin, Oprah Winfrey, Julia Stiles, John Savage, Burt Young, William Lee Scott. Set in Florida in the early 1960s, this made-for-TV (ABC) movie is a case study in family violence and alcoholism-- including all the enabling, lying and covering up by the victims. The visuals are in a soft sepia tone, giving the whole presentation the feeling of being a memory. Indeed the voiceovers of the little girl would suggest that, but it is confusing. Her language and vocabulary sound like it comes from an adult, and she is talking in hindsight, yet the voice is that of a child. The soundtrack is pure made-for-TV and designed to hit the heartstrings. This is a hard topic to present on prime time television, so I salute the producers (Jay Benson, Kate Forte, Oprah Winfrey). Interesting that the character portrayed by Oprah sort of mirrors her role in our culture as the dispenser of advice-- advice gained only by life experience. For all the weaknesses in the dialogue, the acting is high quality. I was especially impressed by Tina Majorino, who was only 11 or 12 at the time. She managed to hold the story together in a convincing way.
Family Plot / directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1976, VHS). Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black, Ed Lauter, Cathleen Nesbitt, Katherine Helmond. This light dark, or dark light comedy was Hitchcock's final film and one of his more underrated works. The story centers on two couples. Although all four people are con artists, one couple (Dern/Harris) is clearly more likable and "good" while the other couple (Devane/Black) are bad-- bad enough to cross the moral border and perform murder to get what they want. The two sets are mirror images of a sort. Harris as a fake psychic lapses into a weird voice as she "channels" lost loved ones. Harris' mannerisms and method of talking eerily anticipate J.Z. Knight's schtick. Supposedly, Ramtha contacted Knight less than a year after this movie was released. Coincidence? Bruce Dern is her smarter-then-he-looks taxicab driving boyfriend. I'm glad when I drove a cab I didn't have to wear a stupid cap and (shudder) bowtie like he did. William Devane is quite possibly the most evil and repulsive villain I've seen in any Hitchcock movie, which is saying a lot. Hitchcock brings in some his standard tricks, like creative crane shots (the cemetery scene is beautiful) and reusing the North By Northwest idea of a car careering out of control down a winding road on a cliff. In one scene we see a sign for Bates St. He also has, as the title suggests, a strong family theme throughout the story-- looking for lost family members, scenes in family settings like a church or a Mom and Pop diner. There are two or three curious references to the Mormons, perhaps included due to the LDS emphasis on family. John Williams' appeared to have adapted his soundtrack around Hitchcock's quirky personality with real sensitivity to the story. Unlike many Hitch films, this one didn't have a big conclusion in front of an audience. It finishes with Barbara Harris giving the movie/video/dvd viewer an intimate wink. Alfred gave us an unexpected and twist ending to his whole career with that wink.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters / directed by Ishirô Honda, Terry O. Morse (1956, VHS). Raymond Burr, Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Frank Iwanaga. Gojira re-released in Anglo form. He's big, he's in a bad suit, he breathes smoke, his acting is almost comical, he's-- Raymond Burr! Hehe. No, silly, it's Godzilla, King of the Icons! The original 1954 Japanese-only Gojira was censored for all references to Americans messing with atomic weapons in wartime. Then a chain pipe-smoking Canadian posing as an American journalist "Steve Martin" (no kidding) was added to the story in the editing room. Apparently, Burr's scenes were all shot in a 24 hour period in the United States. The end result is a clumsy comedy. Burr is just about the only cast member who has lips that match the words when he talks. When most Japanese actors talk to him in the same camera shot, we only see the backs of their heads. The continuity problems are a bit jarring, especially when Burr's wounds move around his face from scene to scene. Frank Iwanaga, who was filmed with Burr in the American version, is a true fireball of blandness. Like many other Godzilla films, this one is sluggish. Even the orgy of horrible destruction as the giant radioactive reptile destroys Tokyo fails to make me feel justified in the time invested watching this. This early Godzilla sort of resembles a deranged Muppet. At the very end, my interest picked up a little when a Japanese scientist discovered a lethal atomic-like weapon to kill the creature, and the people go through a debate on whether or not to use it. In light of Japan being on the receiving end, twice, of such concentrated destruction, this scene added some pathos to the story. But of course by this time I'm almost numb with boredom. One line did sink in, "You have your fear which might become reality, and you have Godzilla, which is reality." There's a lesson there for all of us. In spite of the flaws, this is Citizen Kane when compared to the 1998 Godzilla version.
The House on Carroll Street / directed by Peter Yates (1988, VHS). Kelly McGillis, Jeff Daniels, Mandy Patinkin, Jessica Tandy, James Rebhorn, Gregory Jbara, Trey Wilson, Kenneth Welsh. This is Alfred without the Hitchcock. An HBO movie set in the Red Hunting days of 1951, this tale of suspense involves commies, Nazis, and a conspiracy by a right-wing Joe McCarthy-type American politician to smuggle German war criminals into the U.S. for "national security" work. There are many Hitchcockian tricks and themes employed: voyeurism, secret agents, expensive crane shots at cemeteries, chase scenes involving big audiences, a blonde heroine doubting her own sanity, trains, using a famous landmark (in this case, Grand Central Station) for the Big Scene. The central character is named Emily Crane, perhaps a sister to Psycho's shower girl, Marion Crane. But having many of the same ingredients of a Hitchcock does not a Hitchcock movie make. This film has a made-for-TV schlocky soundtrack, a soft-focus look, a lack of tartness in the dialogue, a lack of tautness in the plot, and a sudden, unsatisfactory lame-o ending. It is filled with loose-ends and the talents of many fine actors are squandered. Jessica Tandy and Trey Wilson sort of show up and vanish with little impact on the story. James Rebhorn has about two seconds of motion picture time, and no lines. Jeff Daniels has a goofy and kind face, I was never convinced he could be an agent for the F.B. of I. Mandy Patinkin's ("Oh, no! This movie has the [shudder!] 'Curse of Mandy!!'" declared a fellow film reviewer when Patinkin's name appeared in the opening credits) hamminess as the evil Senator was enjoyable, I must admit. I was able to make it through this work in one sitting for various reasons: I had a nice bowl of popcorn; the production values were good and I'm a sucker for 1950s cars; there was a fight in a bookstore among all those monographs, giving us exciting mono-a-mono action (a little pun there for you librarians); the government was portrayed not as a powerful monolith but more accurately as a confederation of warring gangs. Still, for no apparent reason I felt compelled to take off my shoe, calmly wag it at the screen in an act of apparent half-hearted scolding, and then put it back on my foot. Who knows why? I sure don't.
Sleepy Hollow / directed by Tim Burton (1999, DVD). Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Caspar Von Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Lisa Marie, Christopher Lee, Martin Landau (uncredited). In this dark, swirling tale spiced with humor and populated by over-the-top actors (even the horses are big hams), the real stars are director Burton and soundtrackmeister Danny Elfman. The 1799 New York City slicker Ichabod Crane visits the sticks and attempts to use scientific methods of criminology but finds himself faced with a supernatural foe. From the first minute there is no mistaking we are watching a visually rich Burton film, and I found myself settling in with high expectations to enjoy a tale told by a master storyteller. I was not disappointed. Burton chose to use muted earth tones throughout the story, creating an atmosphere of reading a story on parchment-- very fitting. Lots of comic fainting, maybe too much so. You can tell Burton owes a lot to Vincent Price and Roger Corman. The moral of this story: real estate is the root of all evil.