12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from the dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
Richard III / directed by Richard Loncraine (1995, VHS). Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Kristin Scott Thomas, John Wood, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Edward Hardwicke, Tim McInnerny, Bill Paterson, Denis Lill, Dominic West. All my fellow buddies of the Bard need to see this abridged and classy interpretation of a play that, until I saw this film, never really grabbed me. The title character always seems so one-dimensional and the supporting folks more complex as they grappled with their willingness to enable. Set in the UK in the 1930s, the producers imagine a military uniformed Richard taking over the throne under the cloud of fascism. McKellen's natural delivery of Willy's language gives it life and music. A wonderful cast. The only person missing was Freddie Jones, and how they managed to skirt the English law requiring him to be in every film production is beyond me. The fine acting was framed by a director who had a good eye for well composed shots. Also, some of the best lines were not spoken, but given in body language. Listen carefully to the words of the song during the Big Band music dance scene at the opening and you'll hear Marlowe's "Come live with me and be my love ..."
The Rutles: All You Need is Cash / directed by Eric Idle, Gary Weis (1978, VHS). Eric Idle, John Halsey, Ricky Fataar, Neil Innes, Michael Palin, George Harrison, Bianca Jagger, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Ron Wood, Terence Bayler, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Lorne Michaels, Mick Jagger, Roger McGough, Paul Simon. Quite possibly the earliest Rock mockumentary feature-length work, predating This is Spinal Tap by six years. This very thinly disguised humorous tribute to the Beatles made perfect sense to those of us who grew up with the Fabs when it was released in 1978. To subsequent generations a lot of the comedy based on the greatest Supergroup-of-all-time trivia is possibly diminished or even lost. There are four Pop influences blended together to form this beautiful little work: Monty Python, Bonzo Dog Band, Saturday Night Live, and the Beatles themselves (or at least one of them). Python-- Eric Idle wrote and co-directed the film, and also played the McCartney character to devastating effect. During the Monty Python's Flying Circus television series, Idle was terrific in the serious BBC documentary host role he used in many short skits. That concept was extended here, and Idle himself plays a dual role as the main onscreen narrator. The presence of Palin in a couple places only heightens the welcome Python ambiance. Bonzo Dog Band-- In the 1960s this group was obscure but gained a hardcore American following. I first heard them in the 1970s and instantly loved their music. They had even appeared in the cast of the Beatles ill-fated motion picture, Magical Mystery Tour. Neil Innes was not only connected to the Fabs, but he had appeared in several Python episodes as well and in the feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A very gifted composer and singer, Innes played the Lennon character with deadly accuracy. Saturday Night Live-- Lorne Michaels served here as Executive Producer and hauled in members of the early SNL cast to fill in supporting roles. Radner, Belushi, Aykroyd, Murray, Franken (see the current Senator from Minnesota with wild hair!) and Davis supply brief bits to add some spark, and all of them give some American spice to a piece that has a mostly Brit feel. Michaels himself makes an appearance as an actor! The Beatles-- George Harrison appears in one part of the film as a journalist. This gave the Rutles the official stamp of approval. That was a Big Deal in 1978. I must say as an artist and producer, George was my favorite ex-Beatle. Apparently John loved the Rutles, Ringo was ambivalent, and Paul was chilly. The Rutles managed to really capture a lot of the Beatles sound and formula through different eras (thanks to Innes), and many of the parody songs really are quite good on their own. A brilliant work that, unfortunately, might only appeal to an audience within a certain age range. If I'm wrong, I'm glad.
Song of the Thin Man / directed by Edward Buzzell (1947, VHS). William Powell, Myrna Loy, Keenan Wynn, Dean Stockwell, Patricia Morison, Gloria Grahame, Jayne Meadows, Don Taylor, James Burke (uncredited). The final installment of the six-film Thin Man series which began in 1934. This is a tired, predictable entry into the canon. The alcohol-induced snappy patter of detectives Nick and Nora Charles has slowed down. (Snappy Patter, doesn't that sound like the name of Vaudeville performer?) During the Depression they were a diversion, but after WWII it was time to move on. This one has lots of tried and true movie staples that worked in the 1930s (Irish cops, "Follow that car," gathering the suspects for the Big Showdown, hobnobbing with Big Bugs, Cute dog, etc.), but seem outdated in 1947. In fact, Nick and Nora appear to be hopelessly out of date and time as they have difficulty deciphering Jazzman Keenan Wynn's slang. Dean Stockwell was a kid once, and the fact he was in this movie as a child actor makes it tremendously weirder than it would be otherwise. This is a film really made for musicologists. Not only is it a snapshot of "dangerous" music at the time, but there are a string of scenes where the primary characters expose us to a wide variety of popular music played at different clubs as they search for a singer. Powell was a very natural and talented actor, and it is only through his efforts this movie is worth watching at all.
WarGames / directed by John Badham (1983, VHS). Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Ally Sheedy, Barry Corbin, Michael Ensign, Maury Chaykin, Eddie Deezen, Jim Harriott. Mix fear of computer technology with Cold War anxiety and you have a film that really pushes some hot buttons for Americans. At least it did during the Reagan years when the President's saber rattling rhetoric and military adventurism had many citizens very concerned. Teenage hacker Matthew Broderick breaks into a DoD computer by accident and engages the machine in a nuclear war game. Problem is, the computer can't distinguish a game from reality. The gizmos in here all looked so modern when this was first released: floppy disks, dialup, Telnet, dot matrix printers, VHS. Even that Galaga game-- which I enjoyed playing as well in 1983. Still, I love the fact our hero had to use the library in order to solve some of the major puzzles. And he used a card catalog! Part of this was filmed in Seattle and on Anderson Island (they tried to pass off the latter as being somewhere in Oregon). Some of you might recognize real-life TV newsman Jim Harriott as himself in one scene. One major weakness, supposed Seattle boy Broderick pronounces the name of the Beaver State as "Ory-gone." A fun period piece with a universal message.
"Strong Arm of the Law" (American Gothic) / directed by Mike Binder (1995, DVD). Gary Cole, Paige Turco, Jake Weber, Lucas Black, Nick Searcy, Matt Craven. Four Yankee shakedown artists terrorize business owners in Trinity, S.C., but learn the hard way it doesn't pay to cross Sheriff Buck. Although director Binder's roving camera technique got on my nerves this episode had more focus than usual, keeping the plot tight. Most of the time the camera was very close to the action, putting us right in there. We are starting to see the Sheriff using his demonic supernatural powers in a more overt way now.
The Best of Dana Carvey (1999, VHS). Dana Carvey, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn, George Wendt, Linda Hamilton, Tim Meadows, Kevin Nealon, Mike Myers, Sean Penn, Corbin Bernsen, Del Zamora, Michael McKean, Danny DeVito, Robin Williams, Chris Farley, Dennis Miller, George H.W. Bush, Patrick Swayze, Chris Elliott, Julia Sweeney, Sigourney Weaver, Kristy Alley. When Saturday Night Live first aired in 1975 I was in college and part of the original target audience. Before ditching the television set in 2000, I would catch the show off and on over the years. The era of Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman is my favorite period of SNL. They had a high concentration of talent in that cast, with the gifted Carvey presenting some of the best characterizations and impersonations. In this collection we see him as: Ross Perot, John McLaughlin, Hans, Church Lady, Garth, Senor Marco the Pepper Boy, Massive Headwound Harry, Regis Philbin, George Michael, Prince Charles, Robin Leach, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, Strom Thurmond, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Dennis Miller, Tom Brokaw, George H.W. Bush, Johnny Carson, Grumpy Old Man, Italian Waiter, Keith Richards, Quiz Masters Contestant, and George F. Will. Fun stuff. Like eating candy.
Capote / directed by Bennett Miller (2005, DVD). Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, Clifton Collins Jr., Mark Pellegrino, Bob Balaban. A classy biopic tracking the activities of Truman Capote during the period he was researching and writing In Cold Blood (1959-1966). Hoffman won a well deserved Academy Award for his portrayal of the title character. Capote, with the help of old friend Harper Lee, initially begin investigating and uncovering material for writing magazine articles about the murder of a rural Kansas family, but as the story grew as big as life they realized they had a major book in the making. In the course of getting to know the Kansans and interviewing the imprisoned killers, we realize the title of Truman's book, In Cold Blood, could well describe the author himself as much as his subjects. But then, with Capote, everything he did was about himself, all topics in all situations came back to him being the center of attention. We see the author is actually a more devious and bigger con artist than the murderers, and Truman knew it. As Capote himself is quoted regarding one of the sentenced men: "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day, he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front." I really enjoyed the director's visual composition, use of muted color, and subdued soundtrack. Also the little touches like the reference to Beat the Devil and the ever mysterious use of the number 237, which I suspect is starting to become a cinematic in-joke. I find it interesting that after their Kansas experience, Harper Lee became famous as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and then retreated from public view, while Capote was showered with fame for In Cold Blood, but never really wrote anything again on that scale. Instead he became a television personality and appeared to make a living just being a famous person. The fact he was turning into a modern Narcissus fascinated by his own reflection in a pool of alcohol is hinted at in this motion picture. But here's the deal-- for all of Capote's faults, In Cold Blood is one great book. I recall being impressed by the work when I first read it a few short years after it was released, but having difficulty reconciling the amazing writing with the public clown I kept seeing on the tube called Truman Capote. His post-In Cold Blood career might be worth a sequel movie.
The Dangerous Brothers Present: World of Danger / directed by Paul Jackson (1986, VHS). Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Norman Lovett, Jennifer Saunders. OK, I'm sure this series of skits could've been considered anarcho-on-the-edge when they were originally unleashed in the 1980s. But today it seems like a lot of yelling with violence that makes the Three Stooges look like Quakers. Loud, lowbrow, and exhausting to watch. It is possible the Dangerous Brothers served as an inspiration a few years later for the Sizzler Sisters, as seen on Kids in the Hall. A good video to pop in the player if you want to drive away unwanted guests.
Faust, Eine deutsche Volkssage / directed by F.W. Murnau (1926, VHS). Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, Frida Richard, William Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert. Atmospheric, creepy, and dreamlike-- this classic story based partly on Goethe's version must've blown audiences away in 1926 with visual effects that, over 80 years later, remain impressive. My copy (Kino Video) is in pristine condition, which helps in erasing the time barrier. It has a haunting and sophisticated soundtrack composed by our own Timothy Brock and performed by the Olympia Symphony Orchestra, so I imagine there are many copies of this thing floating around Oly. Fantastic work guys! Emil Jannings was very effective as that bastard, the Dark Prince, and it is one of the great weaknesses of silent films that we are unable to enjoy the treat of what he sounded like when he threw back his head and let go with a wicked laugh. Interesting to note Mephisto's appearance anticipates Lugosi's Dracula by a few years, except for the cute little tail. He literally looms over the lives of the characters, striking deals, exploiting faults, and appealing to the baser side. How fitting that Jannings himself later became an enthusiastic Nazi, endorsing the same sort of evil havoc in real life he is portraying in this motion picture. But in the end, "Say the word and you'll be free. Say the word and be like me. Say the word I'm thinking of. What's the word? The word is Liebe."
It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time / directed by John Trent (1975, VHS). Anthony Newley, Stefanie Powers, Isaac Hayes, Yvonne De Carlo, John Candy. What can you say about a movie where the first three scenes include bathrooms and what people do in them? With a cheesey soundtrack, made-for-TV feel, visually flat directing, the title of this film probably expresses what the writers must've felt after they viewed the finished product. Anthony Newley, one of the worst singers in entertainment history, is better as an actor. In fact, his expressive version of ham is the only part of this effort worth watching. He did seem to enjoy himself as he performed a series of pranks, political dirty tricks, and exercises in social engineering. Now for the part that really amazed me-- the brazen dishonesty in packaging this thing by the now (I assume) defunct EDDE Entertainment. Marketed in VHS in the early 1990s, they shortened the title to simply A Good Idea! starring John Candy with the actor's mug taking up most of the display space. For some of us old SCTV fans, this is a draw. Problem is, the young Candy is only on the screen for a few minutes. It was his first credited role in a feature film. Nowhere, even in the small print, does the container mention the name of the main star-- Anthony Newley. Bogus! Bogus! Bogus! Lame! Lame! Lame! Shame! Shame! Shame!
Time After Time / directed by Nicholas Meyer (1979, DVD). Malcolm McDowell, John Warner, Mary Steenburgen, Charles Cioffi. With the aid of his Time Machine, H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper from 1893 London into 1979 San Francisco. When this was first released I saw it in a movie house and because someone else was driving, I had to sit through the entire picture. In more than a couple home viewings I have tried to give this title another chance but I always find myself hitting the fast forward. It really starts bogging down very quickly. Up to 1979 McDowell was known for daring and risky film roles, and then suddenly he popped up in this very commercial and conventional venture. Maybe I'm still harboring a three decade old disappointment in entertainment expectations. The movie isn't all bad by any means. When Wells (McDowell) finally tracks Jack the Ripper (Warner) to a Bay Area hotel room, Jack flips stations on TV going from one violent scene to another and then declares: "The world has caught up to me and surpassed me. 90 years ago I was a freak, today I'm an amateur." We also get to see Jack in quite the Disco-liscious dance club. But when I go through my next round of thinning out the video vault, this one is departing the shelves and finding a new home.
The Quiet Man / directed by John Ford (1952, VHS). John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford, Arthur Shields, Tiny Jones (uncredited), Philip Stainton (uncredited). This major contribution to Hollywood's long love affair with Ireland and Irish-Americans is one the Duke's best films. Master director John Ford, who we associate with black and white Westerns, gave us a romantic comedy shot in color in an idealized Ireland. This guy really knew how to compose a shot and frame the characters-- the film is worth watching just for his visuals if nothing else. Ford's direction is like poetry, the form of his work is frequently more captivating than the content. Wayne, as the Irish-born American returning home, finds himself navigating through a crowd of odd and quirky personalities as he attempts to settle down and marry. He's still John Wayne and still walks like Albert in the Birdcage, but I suspect this role was a bit of a stretch for him-- and John Ford for that matter-- and it worked. Some interesting observations here on the American/Irish cultures clashing. Although the story is set in the 20th century, it is difficult to pin down in what year the story takes place. O'Hara (who speaks the native tongue at one point in the story) and an aging Fitzgerald are wonderful, but I especially enjoyed the performance of the blustery Victor McLaglen. McLaglen delivers my favorite line in the story, "He'll regret it til his dying day! If ever he lives that long."