12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
Todo sobre mi madre = All About My Mother / directed by Pedro Almodóvar (1999, VHS). Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Candela Peña, Antonia San Juan, Penélope Cruz, Toni Cantó. Although jampacked with Big Issues (gender roles, AIDS, social tolerance, grief, transsexuals, etc., etc.) this motion picture is really about testing the boundaries of unconditional love between parent and child. After a single mother in Madrid loses her teenage son when he is hit by a car, she returns to Barcelona in order to complete some long overdue emotional business. The fairly low-key main character is surrounded by a colorful cast, many with their own parental issues. This is a difficult movie to classify as it is by turns tragic, comic, and bizarre. Almodóvar's sense of timing is such that he manages to walk us down a twilight zone between maudlin and farce without fully embracing either one-- and somehow it works. The cadence between sadness and humor is expertly orchestrated. Lots of play within a play, all-the-world's-a-stage (All About Eve [hence the title of this movie] and Streetcar Named Desire being the main vehicles), and wearing social masks winks and nods taking place here. When Miller in Repo Man spoke of the "lattice of coincidence," he was anticipating the plot twists of this story. Winner of the 1999 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Get out the hankies if you cry at movies.
Barry Goldwater: Photographs & Memories / directed by Don Hopfer (1995, VHS). Hugh Downs (narration), Barry Goldwater. A 30-minute documentary on Barry Goldwater the photographer. An avid outdoorsman in love with Northern Arizona, he began to graphically record the landscape and people of that region starting in the mid-1930s. As his interest grew, he met and was influenced by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Goldwater's visual chronicles of Native American culture of that era reveals a sensitivity and an artistic eye one would not expect a politician to possess. But then Goldwater always was full of surprises. Barry himself talks about how his photographic and filming activity, which took him across the entire state, was a key factor in starting his path to elective office. The soundtrack is a little too sappy for my taste, but otherwise this profile of Goldwater the artist is engaging. A nice contribution in providing a biographical chapter for one of the most unique and straight-talking post-WWII American political figures. I seldom agreed with Sen. Goldwater but I always admired him.
Stormy Weather (The Century: America's Time; v. 2) / directed by Roger Goodman (1999, VHS). Peter Jennings (narration). Neil Simon, Robert Mitchum, Melvin Belli, Ossie Davis. Covers 1929-1936, and it somehow seems fitting I'm viewing this on the final day of the reign of the Decider, George W. Bush. By 1932 America seemed almost on the brink of revolution. Labor and unemployment riots, the Dust Bowl, an army of homeless people roaming the country and riding the rails, Hoovervilles, a quarter of the population jobless. Communism started looking good, 100,000 Americans emigrated to the Soviet Union. It was the only time in U.S. history more people were leaving the country than coming in. Movies and radio provided a rare escape. But the nation had to change some basic preconceptions concerning the role of government and turned to Franklin D. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" Roosevelt. FDR's massive public works programs didn't solve everything, but the mood had changed. Even so, there were demagogues like Huey Long and Father Coughlin waiting for Roosevelt to stumble. The President's landslide 1936 re-election served as testimony to how quickly the voters had changed their minds about ideas that had previously been denounced as radical. Quite a bit of attention is given to Germany, another Western democracy, as a mirror of what could've happened here-- and also as a bit of foreshadowing for the Big One. Archival film footage is interwoven with firsthand accounts of the era by the famous and the obscure, American and German. A good general overview of some very tough years.
Death Becomes Her / directed by Robert Zemeckis (1992, VHS). Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Isabella Rossellini, Fabio, Sydney Pollack (uncredited). The same director who brought us the Back to the Future cycle and Who Framed Roger Rabbit once again demonstrates his cartoony special effects sensibility in this dark comedy. Couple the Boomer obsession with extending our adolescence to the grave with a very jaundiced view of man/woman relations, toss in a bit of science fiction, and here you are. Willis plays a passive, balding, cardigan-wearing Republican who drinks too much and is seen as nothing more than some kind of trophy between rivals. As Hamlet said, "'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes between the pass and fell incensed points of mighty opposites." Streep, Willis, and Hawn surprisingly click as a comedy trio. Good casting for the supporting roles, particularly Pollack and Rossellini. There is a part where Willis is barely hanging on a gutter by his suspenders while being ordered by Streep and Hawn to drink the youth potion, then he eschews the liquid by dropping the vial and letting it fall several stories below. For a few brief seconds he gives them this special sort of look of combined illumination and serenity. It's beautiful. It's a turning point. Whatever it is he had at that moment-- I want it-- but not necessarily under those circumstances. Of course, then his suspenders snap and he also falls several stories, but such is the condition of existence. Listen carefully to the eulogy given at the end of the movie by the pastor.
Fellini - Satyricon / directed by Federico Fellini (1969, VHS). Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli, Capucine. When I was a grad student at the UDub during the Carter/Reagan cusp, one of my favorite teachers was Paul Pascal, an excellent and energizing faculty of Classics. In one of the classes I had with him, we read The Satyricon, or what remains of it, written by Petronius in the decadent time of Nero. Dr. Pascal made that novel come alive for us, enabling his students to see the Romans in a very unflattering and human light. Even so, this educational foray did not prepare me for what a weirdass motion picture Fellini cooked up based on the novel. This film is like watching someone else's very uncomfortable dream, except I made the mistake of seeing this right before I went to bed, so then it became my very uncomfortable dream. Fellini, a former cartoonist who managed to bring that sensibility to his motography, quickly induces his audience into an altered state by visually packing the screen with disturbingly rich high production value imagery. Just the incidental background occurrences could be a movie within a movie. Even four decades later this still can be an unsettling experience for the viewer. The depiction of Rome's cruel decadence mirrors the unrest and ambivalence of the era in which the film was created. In 1969 humans walked on the Moon-- an amazing achievement-- but also in that year we had Vietnam, riots, and an acceleration of social change that made many people fearful. Fellini very effectively reflected the 1969 popular social uncertainty in this motion picture while ironically contributing to it at the same time by producing this freaky work. The subtitles from Italian to English seem a bit skimpy, but it doesn't really matter. I wish the dialogue had been spoken in Latin, actually. Dr. Pascal once said that if he knew what Roman music really sounded like, that would tell him volumes about their culture. Fellini's interpretation is that they used tribal-like chants with strong percussion, giving the soundtrack a cult feel. Federico Fellini left us with a great artistic enigma in this film. And I like that.
"The Christmas Show" (Dear Phoebe) / directed by Don Weis (1954, DVD). Peter Lawford, Marcia Henderson, Charles Lane, George Winslow, Jesse White, Grady Sutton (uncredited). Dear Phoebe was a short-lived early televised situation comedy, running from Sept. 1954-Apr. 1955. Compared with other shows of that time period it had above average writing and direction. Lawford, in his pre-Ratpack days, played a breezy newspaper lovelorn advice columnist. In this episode he helps a dysfunctional family reunite on Christmas. The frog-voiced kid in here (George Winslow) who plays a troubled child called Joey reminds me of the "Joey Did It" phrase from our own Puget Sound Three Cats and a Penguin short-lived series. Lots of TV faces here familiar to Boomers but you never knew their names: Charles Lane, Jesse White, Grady Sutton. If only the mid-1950s solution to reuniting families could be so easy. Lawford's subsequent downward slide was tragic.
Casablanca Express / directed by Sergio Martino (1989, DVD). Jason Connery, Francesco Quinn, Jinny Steffan, Donald Pleasence, Glenn Ford, Robert Evans. This is a WWII espionage story concerning the Nazis taking Winston Churchill prisoner as he travels on a train in Morocco called "The Casablanca Express." I'm going to perform a public service here. Don't bother seeing this. Really. This is bad. Really bad. Not up to Zardoz badness, but still bad. Even though this was filmed in an exotic location, the soundtrack and visual composition didn't seem to really celebrate the local atmosphere. A made-for-TV fakey ambiance was superimposed on the whole enterprise. Even my four cats thought this was awful as evidenced by their coughing up hairballs while this played. Disappointing to see Francesco Quinn, who was so good in Cannes Man, show up in this dog. The plot was confusing and the director assumed those of us in the audience would find some connection in the many "meaningful" looks the actors gave to each other. But I, for one, didn't. Veteran actors Donald Pleasence and Glenn Ford (in one of his last roles) look too ill to play their parts. There is a suggestion in here that Churchill knew about the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack in advance but did nothing to stop it in order to draw America into WWII. The fight scenes are stiff and predictable. My DVD copy (by Digiview Productions, the trademark of "quality") has horrible audio filled with static. In short, this film is not worth 75 minutes of your precious life.
The Drowning Pool / directed by Stuart Rosenberg (1975, VHS). Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Murray Hamilton, Melanie Griffith, Richard Jaeckel, Coral Browne, Gail Strickland. A sequel to the 1966 mystery Harper, where Paul Newman plays private investigator Lew Harper. Set in Louisiana, Harper is called in to investigate a case of blackmail. This is a pretty ordinary private eye story, complete with old girlfriends, hostile local police, a nymphomaniac teenager, crazy old woman, and an evil developer with his thugs. The last character was wonderfully played by Murray Hamilton, who I swear must have used Lyndon Johnson as his model. When the developer extolls the virtues of wrecking an island in the course of oil drilling for the sake of the economy as opposed to using the land for a bird sancutary, Harper asks: "Did you come to that conclusion out of patriotism or just greed?" "Little of both, Mr. Harper," he answers, "like most men of wealth." Nice soundtrack using Louisiana Bayou music and Jazz. Weirdly, an instrumental version of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" is the theme for the bits shared by Newman and Woodward. The scene from which the title is derived is one of the few original ideas in the plot. Although the story might not be anything special, it is a treat to watch a great actor like Paul Newman in this role. The guy has been dead only a few months and I already miss him.
Shi di chu ma = The Young Master / directed by Jackie Chan (1980, DVD). Jackie Chan, Pai Wei, Feng Tien, Shih Kien. This is early Jackie. There are qualities we have come to always associate with his work here: use of common objects as weapons in creative ways, a Keatonesque sense of comic stunts, and exaggerated English dubbing. But there are other facets of this title that seem unusual to those of us who are used to his later efforts. For openers, even though his Hong Kong films were badly dubbed, Jackie usually badly dubbed himself. Not so in this one. And it just doesn't work. Jackie's use of zooming in and out with the camera in his role as director simply doesn't make sense. The fights lack the fluidity of his later movies. Most of the action seems choppy and stilted. But I love the comedy in this motion picture. In some ways, I can see the influence of the Three Stooges. Jackie's running interactions with the Chief of Police are among the funniest scenes I've seen in any of his films. An interesting window into the early developing career of someone who is now a major international star. Go Jackie!
The Hare-Brained Hypnotist / directed by Friz Freleng (1942, DVD). voices by Mel Blanc, Arthur Q. Bryan. A case of double Karma. Elmer Fudd employs hypnotism as a way of subduing forest animals while hunting. It backfires on him when Bugs Bunny employs the same trick and convinces Elmer he is a rabbit. And as a result Bugs has to contend with his own "twicky wabbit." One of the few episodes where Elmer actually comes out on top. This one is early enough that Bugs doesn't look quite fully formed yet. At least not like the Chuck Jones version we Boomers easily recognize. Note the WWII reference at the conclusion of this cartoon.
"Archaeology Today" (Monty Python's Flying Circus ; v. 10, episode 21) / directed by Ian MacNaughton (1970, VHS). Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland. BBC comedy and sport, Coming soon-- luxury flats, Archaeology today, Flaming star, An appeal for sanity, An appeal on behalf of the National Truss, Wife swapping, Dr. Darling, Mugsy Spaniel, Eggs Diamond, Mr. Sniveling Little Ratfaced Git, Australian mosquito hunters, Gay judges, Beethoven and the vacuum cleaner, Colin "Chopper" Mozart-- ratcatcher. The Beethoven sketch never fails to crack me up. Must appeal to my Right Brain.
North by Northwest / directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1959, VHS). Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau, Edward Platt, Ned Glass (uncredited). I think the title for this suspense comedy comes from Hamlet, "I am but mad north by northwest, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a chainsaw" or something along those lines. One of Hitchcock's best, it incorporates so many of his tried and true ingredients: spies, a blonde, famous landmarks, an innocent man on the run, sexually charged dialogue, mistaken identity, a cynical view of human nature, key conversations held out of the movie viewer's hearing range, who to trust?, an audience within the film itself watching the drama unfold (in this case at an auction and a lodge), the heroine's wardrobe acting as a clue. And, of course, the average guy who rises to the occasion and becomes the hero. Only in this case it isn't really an average guy, it's Cary Grant. Once an interviewer said to him, "Everybody would like to be Cary Grant," to which Grant replied, "So would I." Grant plays a NYC advertising executive ("Ah Maggie, in the world of advertising there's no such thing as a lie, there's expedient exaggeration ...") who gets caught up in Cold War intrigue. This time Hitchcock didn't use Jimmy Stewart, who runs hot and in-your-face. The cool and distant Grant in 1959 really anticipated the style and elegance of the soon-to-come Kennedy administration. James Mason as his nemesis really compounded the "élan factor." The U.S. government is not exactly shown in the best light, perhaps reflecting a popular weariness over the antics of both sides during the Cold War. At one point, when an agent attempts to recruit Grant, he retorts, "You listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders depended on me. And I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed." There are two very memorable scenes that set this apart from other Hitch movies: the cropduster attempting to kill Grant, and the final showdown on the faces of Mt. Rushmore. The concluding shot of the train and tunnel is quite naughty. Traditional Hitchcock elements mixed in a fresh way.