Monday, January 16, 2017

The Grant Mystique: This is the Night

Roland Young, Cary Grant, and Thelma Todd in This is the Night (1932)

There are more films starring Cary Grant in my movie collection than films starring any other actor. No small feat given how many films I have with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Christopher Lee, respectively. I think John Wayne may have been in the lead until this Christmas, when my main Christmas gift was the Universal Vault Collection of Grant's early films, most of them from the pre-1950 Paramount library that Universal owns. They've been stingy with that library over the years. Many of the films in this set have never seen a commercial release for home video. In any event, this set has eighteen films, all made before 1935, before Grant was "Cary Grant," before he had fully developed the Grant persona (stolen from Leo McCarey on the set of The Awful Truth, if you believe McCarey on the matter). Grant's star became a supernova after 1937, when he began appearing in some of his best-loved films, including Topper and the aforementioned The Awful Truth. The films in The Vault Collection are not so well-known as a rule. Oh, it has the two films Grant made for Mae West, sure, and Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Von Sternberg, but those aren't really "Cary Grant" films, even if Mae West recognized a diamond in the rough when she saw one. West had an eye for diamonds.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winter 2016: Jazz

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

On the evidence of Whiplash and La La Land (2016), director Damien Chazelle sure likes jazz. He likes it so much that he wants to save it from its death spiral, single-handedly if necessary. Maybe he'll succeed. I don't know. I wish he'd try harder to save it with actual black people, you know? The people who actually invented jazz? But, like it or not--and this film doesn't--black people have moved on to other forms of expression, leaving jazz to (mostly white) academics and nostalgics. I think Chazelle is an academic, however much he wants to express a visceral passion for jazz in his films. There's a scene in La La Land where he tries to convey what jazz has become versus what he thinks jazz ought to be when he has his hero, Sebastian, a jazz pianist, trying to mansplain why his heroine, Mia, an aspiring actress, should like jazz even after she's said she doesn't like it. This resonated in my head with some recent articles in Seattle's The Stranger about bands one woman pretended to like to impress boys and it dropped me out of the movie for few minutes, a discordance that echoed back later in the film where the filmmakers tip their hats to Vertigo, which similarly follows a man who wants to remake a woman. So, basically, the politics of images in La La Land are somewhat problematic.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Winter 2016: Nocturnal Ocean Beasts

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Here are some comments on some of the films I've been seeing this month. I don't have the heart or fortitude for my usual jeremiads right now, so these are brief.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Doctor is In

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016, directed by Scott Derrickson) is the latest cog in Marvel Studios' massive marketing machine. By now, these are manufactured to a formula with varying levels of success. Marvel has a base level of quality they try to impose with that formula that usually makes the whole thing watchable despite the MCU being a shambolic behemoth slouching toward Bethlehem and all that.  Doctor Strange conforms uneasily to that formula. As a property, Strange is a singularly weird creation who never quite fit in with Marvel's main comics universe. As a token of his ill fit to that universe, it's been well over a decade since Strange headlined his own regular book. For the movies, he's a square peg that has been shaved of corners in order to fit into a round hole. The movie isn't entirely successful at this, and anyone who approaches the character with any kind of familiarity will wind up grousing about certain things. I'm such a person.

Doctor Strange was the first Marvel Comic I ever collected after receiving issue #33 of the 1970s series in my Christmas stocking one long-ago winter, so I have something of a personal stake in the character. He's a central part of my long love affair with comics. I have long runs of his stories including a complete run of his 1970s/80s comic and big chunks of his earlier appearances. I have almost all of his original 1960s stories by creator Steve Ditko in Strange Tales and reprints, and scattered other appearances after Ditko left the character. As you can imagine, I have certain prejudices about how the character ought to be done, but I'm not so fixed in them that I feel any entitlement to getting that character. Which is good, because the movie doesn't cater to my prejudices. This Stephen Strange is not my Stephen Strange. And if I don't like it, I can always go back to all those comics moldering away in longboxes in my attic.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Trans in Africa

Cleopatra Kambugu in The Pearl of Africa

There is a scene in The Pearl of Africa (2016, directed by Jonny von Wallström) in which the film's transsexual heroine watches the news as her country, Uganda, passes a bill outlawing homosexuality in a way that will surely get most gay people executed. This scene provided me with a dark shock of recognition. Watching it, I felt again how I felt on the morning of November 9, 2016, when I realized that I had awakened into a world that is now more hostile and inimical to my continued ability to live a full and happy life. I was reminded, not for the first time, that American evangelical leaders were the architects of Uganda's "kill the gays" bill, only now colored by the realization that these same genocidal "Christians" had ascended to the top of the American system thanks to this election cycle. Uganda was a proving ground. Now we move to the main event. Now we see if they can implement such a thing in America. Now there is no other United States to intervene to save us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

With A Little Help from My Friends

Rolf Lassgård in A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove (2015, directed by Hannes Holm) is Sweden's submission for this year's Oscars. It's not a perfect film by any measure. It relies a bit too heavily on flashbacks and it is sometimes too cute for its own good. Indeed, movies about curmudgeons who are made less curmudgeonly by the people around them are a dime a dozen. And yet, this worked on me. By the end of the film, I was profoundly moved by it. I've mentioned before that the experience of movie going is often more influenced by personal circumstance than by the relative quality of a film. This is the first film I've seen in the theater since before the election, and its generosity and kindness is something I didn't know I needed in the grim future I find myself facing. It is an unexpected comfort in dark times.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Hidden in Plain Sight

Kyle MacLachlan in The Hidden (1987)

The Hidden (1987, directed by Jack Sholder) is one of those films from the 1980s that took full advantage of the video revolution. A marginal hit in theaters, it found its audience in mom and pop video stores across the country. This was back when movies still had some kind of commercial half-life after opening weekend. Good movies--and The Hidden is a pretty good movie--could have a long commercial life even if no one saw them at the multiplex. I suppose this is still possible, but it's much more difficult in the present movie economy. There are so many more shows competing for eyes these days that a movie has to be something really special to survive the winnowing process. None of which really has anything to do with The Hidden beyond the suggestion that it is an artifact of a bygone era, but it's one that's worth your attention for all that. It's a pretty good low-budget genre picture with enough quirks to make it stand out from films of similar provenance.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Super Freaky

Castle Freak

Of the five films Stuart Gordon made from stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Castle Freak (1995) is the one that completely misses the mark. Lovecraft, famously, is very hard to film in any kind of faithful adaptation. Gordon's best films take all kinds of liberties with the material--ranging very far afield from the source texts in most cases--but still manage to capture some ineffable essence of Lovecraft while also bearing the stamp of their director's own personality. Castle Freak, by contrast, spectacularly misunderstands "The Outsider," the story on which it is nominally based. Rather than turning the tables on monstrosity and finding its horror in a cosmic loneliness--as the story does--it's a stock "nuclear family in peril" film in which the horror elements act as marriage counseling for a couple who are on the rocks. It's disappointing.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Like Father, Like Son

The Fly II

If David Cronenberg's The Fly is a drama with gooey special effects thrown in, then The Fly II (1989, directed by Chris Walas) is a melodrama with gooey special effects thrown in. Indeed, where the original film has no real villains, just several characters inflicting pain on one another in ways that real people inflict pain on one another, the sequel has very definite villains, almost of the mustache-twirling variety. Unlike Cronenberg's film, no one is going to call The Fly II a masterpiece. Certainly, some of the critical thrashing it received when it came out can be put down to outrage at the hubris of making a sequel to Croneberg's film in the first place. The remainder of the vitriol might come from the outrageous gore director Chris Walas throws at the audience. Cronenberg's film is gory, sure, but in this arena alone, the sequel outdoes it. As an example of the state of the art in 1980s practical monster movie special effects, this film rivals Carpenter's remake of The Thing.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Baying at the Moon

Howl (2015)


(2015, directed by Paul Hyett) is another iteration of the Night of the Living Dead/Rio Bravo siege film, in which a train full of diverse characters is stranded in the darkest part of the forest and waylaid by werewolves. It should not be confused with the film of the same name that tells the story of Allen Ginsberg. Indeed, there's no poetry at all to be found in this film. It's cinematic pulp fiction through and through. Not that there's anything wrong with pulp fiction so long as you keep your expectations reasonable.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Food for Worms


I was in high school the last time I saw Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979) in one sitting. I've seen bits of it in the years since. Its most outré sequences show up in the culture outside the context of the film. I mean, an ad for a satellite service borrowed the film's notorious "zombie vs. shark" sequence a few years back and nobody blinked. It's a sad comedown for one of the original video nasties.

In truth, I've never revisited it because back when I was a young whippersnapper, I didn't really like it even if it did tickle something in the gorehound I used to be. I admit that the version I watched with my friends all those years ago was less than ideal: it was a dub off of some fly by night TV channel. I don't remember its exact provenance. It wasn't a commercial dub because it was grainy and cropped and not even panned and scanned. It must have come off of cable because it had its nudity intact, to say nothing of its zombie cannibal feasts. It certainly delivered on the gore. THAT, at least, I remember with vivid clarity. The story? Well, that's another matter. Like many Italian horror films of similar vintage, I thought the stuff between the set pieces was boring.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Beyond this Horizon

Chris Pine in Star Trek Beyond

No one is more pleased than I am that the new Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond (2016, directed by Justin Lin) is head and shoulders better than any of the last six Star Trek films. You have to go back to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to find a film as satisfying as this one. Star Trek VI came out more than a generation ago. It's been a while.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Living and Dead Girls

This post was written a couple of years ago for a book project. That book has since fallen through, so I'm taking the opportunity to publish this on my own blog. Enjoy.

The case of Marlise Muñoz has been in the news lately. As I write this in early 2014 a court has recently ruled against the State of Texas, which has a law on the books preventing pregnant women from being removed from life support if they are brain dead even if it is against the wishes of her family or, indeed, of the woman herself. Marlise Muñoz’s wishes on the subject are not in question, and her family sued to have her removed from life support after a blood clot to the brain left her in a persistent vegetative state. This is another skirmish in the ongoing political war over reproductive rights, and in its most brutal essence, the Texas law codifies the fact that some parts of the body politic view women solely as incubators, whose desires and wishes for their own bodies are irrelevant. The court decision in the Muñoz case staves that off for a little while, at least until some other creative legislator tries another end-run around Roe v. Wade. (1)

You might wonder what the preceding has to do with zombies.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

I Ain't Afraid of No Ghosts

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters (2016)

I was rewatching John Landis's Animal House a few months ago when it occurred to me that I was rooting for Dean Wormer. He gets the best line in the film, after all: "Drunk, fat, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." Best, because in the grand scheme of things, it's so true it hurts. All of the Deltas in Animal House are dicks of the first order, who are only "better" than their more uptight rivals by virtue of being designated  anti-establishment anti-bourgeois smartasses. This sort of thing was big in the 1970s. Indeed, I've always chafed at most of the National Lampoon-derived films from that era: Caddyshack? Chevy Chase's character is a total dick. The Blues Brothers? Jake Blues is a total dick (Elwood is kind of a cypher). Stripes? Bill Murray's character is a total dick. Trading Places? Well, that film gets by on an attitude of anti-racism until it fumbles it all at the end with Dan Ackroyd's blackface Jamaican disguise (would that character actually do that? I think not) and a joke about one of the villains getting serially raped by a gorilla. Gross. Murray's Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters? Man, that character is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Who takes sedatives with him on a prospective date? A guy who is using his "research" to creep on blonde coeds, that's who. And what about that blowjob Ray gets from a ghost? Again, gross. So when I say that I think the new Ghostbusters (2016, directed by Paul Feig) is an improvement on the original, you should bear in mind that I don't think all that much of the original beyond a certain nostalgia for my moviegoing youth. The new film, for all its faults, doesn't ask me to identify with dickish and unlikable central characters.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Immortality isn't Forever

Michael Huisman and Blake Lively in The Age of Adaline

Here are some more capsule reviews of what I've been watching this spring.

The Age of Adaline (2015, directed by Lee Toland Krieger), in which Blake Lively's title character becomes immortal after a freak accident. Born in 1908, we catch up with her in the present moment, after she's shed several identities as protection against those who would poke and prod her as a lab rat. Adaline currently works as a librarian in San Francisco, where she catches the eye of tech wonderkind Ellis, who falls hard for her. The romance will never work, Adaline knows, even though she falls hard for him back. She's on the verge of shedding yet another identity and starting over. Meanwhile, she's plagued by the regrets that go with her long life, and must come to grips with her aging daughter, Flemming. Flemming is now ready for a retirement community while her mother remains evergreen and beautiful.