Category Archives: Movies

The Clan Assembles

Unbeknownst to Lexington, a Clan assembles for an evening of mayhem.

The South is renowned and mostly disowned for its Klan. Dividing and judging people by the shades of their skin…foolishness. Politically and physically acting on that foolishness…shameful. We know better.

Dividing and judging people for what’s going on voluntarily in their bedrooms…foolishness.

Dividing and judging people……foolishness.

We have important and glorious things to do with our days and we need the talents of everyone to do them. Could we please keep our eye on the ball here?

But…

…this is not that kind of clan.

Instead of the KKK, one could call this group, the CCC (Classical Cinema Clan).

One could.

In the interest of full disclosure, one should reveal that “Classical” refers to the age of the members rather than the quality of the films. This octet has amassed over 500 years on this planet. I can’t accurately speak to their whereabouts before then, though I harbor suspicions.

One would assume that in 500+ years, some wisdom would have also been amassed and perhaps it has, but that’s not what this assemblage is about. No, the CCC is probably about as foolish as the KKK, but much more benign. Their foolishness is much more centered on good pizza and happily bad movies than lynching and gerrymandering. Their rants tend to be more about the uselessness of ubiquitous standing ovations rather than Hillary’s emails or Stormy’s career choices.

While I personally believe our country is diminished by the hijinks of the KKK, I can’t honestly assert that Lexington is in any way enhanced by the activities of the CCC. Who is made better by our devouring (inhaling?) of an “Ultimate Warrior” from Puccini’s Smiling Teeth or a “Hudson” from Big City Pizza, followed by a double-feature of War Gods of Babylon and Carry on Cleo?

Well…of course WE are…but the pleasures are ephemeral at best and the digestive dreams that ensue rival those of Dickens’ Scrooge.

Be that as it may, no damage is done by the CCC. No animals are harmed – in fact, Chloe the wonder pup and the only female in the group, scores big from “pizza bones” slipped to her clumsily and surreptitiously by the easily charmed clansmen.

We assemble in the kitchen, munching on beer cheese and chips, drinking wine, bourbon, beer, and herbal tea, filling the time until the pizza arrives with stirring accounts of various physical ailments (500+ years, remember?). That sounds deadly and it is but it doesn’t last long. The discussion morphs quickly into passionate descriptions of current projects of the clansmen. Here, I should point out this group is comprised of a painter, a director, an attorney, a writer, an actor, a teacher, a critic, and a junesboy…all occupations that our current governor would consider useless. The members of the group always have something going on; a script, a play, a showing, a concert… And every one of this group has performed on stage. Thus, there is always much to discuss.

The Writer has just finished a new play and, not being averse to a little self-promotion, offers; “Richard III got a bum rap.”

The Lawyer; “So…you’re sayin’ Shakespeare was puttin’ out fake news?”

The Teacher; “Maybe he’s a victim of the Deep State.”

The Actor; “Oh yeah. I got yer Deep State right here.”

The Critic snorts and giggles ominously.

The Director; “I remember one day in Montana I drove 836 miles to watch some Udder Pagans play baseball and do some unmentionable things to local cows. I remember thinkin’ that Montana was a Big State and perhaps an Odd State, but I never remember thinkin’ it was a Deep State…and I don’t think I ever met anyone named Dick there.”

This was met with a significant pause as we pondered all the images and possibilities sparked by that pronouncement.

Finally the painter summed it all up; “What kind of pizza did you order and what are we watchin’ tonight? Any pulchritude on deck?”

Junesboy answered; “I ordered copious pizza – the best kind. As for the flicks, I thought we’d start out with some old trailers, followed by an old local commercial featuring The Actor talkin’ ‘bout a rubber ducky, and then move on to the Ed Wood rarity; Devil’s Night Orgy.”

The Painter replied; “I’m very happy.”

Two Sharp Knives

Movie night!

Tonight’s opus gruesome is TWO SHARP KNIVES.

This is a 1950’s made-for-TV dramatization of a story by Dashiell Hammett.

Aha!

That’s why I watched it. How bad could something written by the author of THE THIN MAN and THE MALTESE FALCON be?

Well…

It was part of the Westinghouse Studio series. Westinghouse’s slogan at the time was; “You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse”.

Sure of what?

You certainly couldn’t be sure of a quality piece of entertainment.

No.

No sir.

However there were points of interest;

  • A very young Abe Vigoda plays a very young cop. I’m stunned that such a thing was possible as a very young Abe Vigoda.
  • The commercials for Westinghouse washers and dryers feature a Westinghouse store owner inviting you to bring your dirty clothes to his store for a free demonstration. Now there’s a gig.

I came away thinking (to paraphrase George Kaufman); Westinghouse should close the studio and keep the store open late at night.

I watched this…so you don’t have to…you can owe me.

Dinner With Nick and Nora

Movie Night!

Didja ever play the mental game of planning the guest list for an ideal imaginary dinner party? I do it all the time. Most of the time I include Nick and Nora Charles from THE THIN MAN.

If Nick and Nora are among your guests, you’ll feel secure in the success of your dinner party as long as the bar is amply provisioned and a stylish cocktail shaker is at hand. You know there’ll be no awkward gaps in the table chatter and there could quite possibly be some fascinating party crashers named “Rainbow” Benny, “Face” Morgan, or “Spider” Webb.

Warning: there could also be gunplay.

Throw in some weepy drunks, a befuddled police detective or two, a crooked bookkeeper, a murderous jockey, an inscrutable Asian, a socialite grande dame with sleepy siblings, a bitter rejected lover, a gardener with or without his mustache, and you’ve got a shindig that Anita Madden would covet.

I would even let them bring their dog. Our Chloe would totally ramble through the house with their Asta. The pups could swap tips on expanding their respective household dominance which is already near total.

I could pretty well watch “Thin Man” movies forever.

Another Hamilton?

Neil Hamilton…Whatta Career!

Let me pose a question for all my geezer theatre friends. If I offered you an acting career that included roles;

  • As Beau Gest’s brother
  • As Nick Caraway in THE GREAT GATSBY
  • In two Fu Manchu films
  • And two Tarzan films
  • TV appearances in MAVERICK
  • ZORRO
  • 77 SUNSET STRIP
  • THE REAL MCCOYS
  • THE OUTER LIMITS
  • PERRY MASON
  • THE MUNSTERS
  • And MISTER ED
  • Oh wait…and then you get to play Commissioner Gordon in the TV show BATMAN.

Would’ja take it?

Well, that was Neil Hamilton’s career and he’s starring in tonight’s 1941 cinematic delicacy; DANGEROUS LADY. It’s a “Thin Man” knock-off and not great, but Hamilton’s not bad and it ends with a frozen-in-place “THE END” kiss – well worth the price of admission (in this case; free).

Did I mention an appearance in MISTER ED? Whoa!

Casting the Runes

We live in a golden age of things to watch.

There’s the addictive Trump Reality Show broadcast 24/7/365 by CNN, MNBC, and Faux News.

HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc. are producing their own wonders.

The Oscars might have suffered a decrease in viewers, but THE SHAPE OF WATER deserved every good thing that has come its way. When Sally Hawkins offered that egg to her new amphibian friend I was filled with wonder and trepidation.

That being so, why spend time on 40-50 year-old film adaptations of 100 year-old ghost stories?

Perhaps, because at times they also fill me with wonder and trepidation.

The ghost stories of M. R. James are erudite, they are a luxurious read, and if read thoughtfully, they are scary as hell.

Page-turners? No.

Sleep disturbers? Oh-h-h-h, yeah.

Two of his stories; “O’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “Casting the Runes” are not only effective as stories but seem particularly useful for film treatment.

The multiple times I’ve watched the 1968 BBC Omnibus production of “O’ Whistle” featuring a remarkable performance by Michael Hordern (mumbling, insular, soaked in intellectual hubris), unseat my ease every time.

Jacques Tourneur directed CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) based on James’ “Casting the Runes”. I am unabashedly of the legions of film fanatics that revere Tourneur’s work with producer Val Lewton; CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN, and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

<<  Let’s take a quick time-out here. I hear the snickering over I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. You could not be more wrong. It’s a voodoo rendering of JANE EYRE and totally mesmerizing to watch…though, admittedly the appearance of Sir Lancelot, a calypso troubadour is a head-scratcher.  >>

Tourneur’s treatment of James’ story is not faithful, but who cares? Dana Andrews captures our interest and sympathy. We tag along breathlessly as he un-puzzles the situation. Niall MacGinnis is charmingly and gleefully evil. I would considered it a life well-lived if I never met the man. Séances, mysterious storms, hypnotism, curses on parchment, trains, planes, and automobiles in Britain – what’s not to like?

Thanks to my receiving another box of delights today from my friends at Sinister Cinema, tonight I watched a 1979 British TV production of “Casting the Runes” featuring Iain Cuthbertson and Jan Francis. Once again the adaptation is loose, but once again, who cares? The premise is plausible, the threat is real, the mechanisms are eminently difficult but doable…and the outcome is troubling. I’d call that; “mission accomplished”.

As loose as these adaptations are and as gifted as the adapters are, I can’t help thinking if the original story had not been so very fine…

Perhaps one more mosey through the M. R. James canon might be in order.

All the President’s Men

Notes on a re-screening (#9, I believe) of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

Rotary phones, paper slips at the Library of Congress, typewriters, walkies-talkies, real taxis with lights on the roof, phone booths and phone books, Rolodexes, legal pads, smoking in an elevator…these give such texture to a story untamed by 21st century whitewashing filters.

I enjoyed THE POST, but it’s not ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

The journalism depicted in ATPM is sharper, harder earned, elbows are pointier, and the stakes are higher. That resonates with me these days.

Jane Alexander’s anguish is palpable. It also resonates with me these days.

There is hope expressed;

“The truth is these are not very bright guys and things got out of hand.” –Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat.

After a day of Sam Nunberg, this is what hope sounds like.

A Close Encounter Revisited

Movie Night!

We cling to and cherish what constants we can find in our lives.

Well…..maybe not death and taxes…but most of ‘em.

For example, these are some of the verities upon which I depend;

  • Melinda Dillon will forever be Ralphie’s mom, possessor of all wisdom concerning the ocular hazards of Red Ryder BB guns.
  • Richard Dreyfus will forever haunt the drive-in restaurant and eat popsicles with Wolfman Jack and just miss appointments with Suzanne Somers.
  • Francois Truffault will forever make films about making films with Jacqueline Bissett and the exquisite Valentina Cortese in the totally sunny South of France.
  • Terri Garr will forever be Buck Henry’s befuddled date in the Steve Martin comedy short; THE WAITER.

I sleep better knowing these things are forever true.

Then along comes CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

Everything I thought I knew about these people…forget it.

Plus, there are visitors from outer space pickin’ up hitchhikers.

Double plus, I can hum the alien theme song.

I love it.

“Sometimes you do…”

I was lucky enough to work on the stage version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for about eight weeks one summer. There were so many moments of inspiration in the text it would have been easy to slip into the creative trap Peter Brook refers to as “holy theatre”. Fortunately, we had a fiercely intelligent director that kept us out of danger.

Of all those inspirational moments, I think my favorite was Atticus’ explanation of courage;

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Sometimes you do…

That phrase has gotten me through a few difficult decisions.

It seems useful to turn to it again just now.

Thank you, Ms. Lee.

Don’t Just Move…Stand There!

I’ve been pondering mobility, or rather the lack of it, as an important element in some horror films.

Normally, we’re a lot more a’feared of a terror whose current location is uncertain and moves mysteriously and quickly (ala the alien in ALIEN or Zika-carrying mosquitoes) than we are of a known and fixed enemy like…say…a patch of poison ivy. I don’t fear poison ivy, I avoid it like the plague that it is. I can’t outrun much on this planet, but I can outrun poison ivy. It can’t “cut me off at the pass”. Mosquitoes however…those little suckers are everywhere! This is the stuff of most horror flicks.

But there are a number of horror films that feature stationary menaces or menaces that move at glacier-like rapidity. I happen to have viewed a couple of these recently; THE LIVING HEAD (Mexican), and THE HEAD (German). Two other previously viewed films; THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN and DONOVAN’s BRAIN (both USA), would also fall into this sedentary and thus far inadequately studied category; films about living heads with no bodies (no legs, arms, wings, or driver’s licenses). The writers of these films are required to strive mightily to make these threats plausible since anyone could escape by simply falling down and crawling.

So, how do they do it?

Well, in THE LIVING HEAD and THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN, we are shown mesmerized worshipers of the head toting it about from place to place. No one seems to notice or care until it’s too late.

In DONOVAN’S BRAIN the title brain (aka the leading lobe) enforces its desires through emanations (wouldn’t that be a great name for a baseball team or a doo-wop group?) In THE HEAD it’s as if the writers don’t even try. The threat simply exists as a sideshow to be gasped at. Meh.

Until Brendan Fraser, mummy films had much the same problem. Bandage-bound Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee were not precipitous critters. Writers on these films worked hard to either trip or trap. They would trap their victims in a corner, or just trip them repeatedly, or paralyze them with fear. Fainting was a popular and useful (to the script writer) response. Plausibility fled as the mummy shuffled.

Two films come to mind that actually turned this lack of mobility into a positive. In THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, those malevolent pods can’t move, but are placed where they are most effective by previous victims of the pods. This is effective because of the mathematics of the situation. One victim begets two. Two beget four. Four beget eight. Eight beget… You see the problem. The rapid and devastating multiplication of zombie-fied neighbors and public officials is completely plausible and scary.

I hate pods to this day. I look at sugar snap peas and tremble.

In the beginning of the film THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, the title plants apparently cannot move. But after the Earth’s population is blinded by a handy meteor shower, the plants pull up their roots and reveal their slow, but inexorable mobility. The fright factor soars. Kudos for the writer! BUT, look how hard it was to make effective – handy meteor shower? Please.

And that’s my point. Writing is hard work. Why make it harder? Writers should unleash their terrors, not nail their feet (or whatever might pass for feet) to the floor.

Indulge me one more example.

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS featured mountains that grew quickly (stay with me, now) and fell on you if you were foolish enough to stick around and watch.

Let that sink in…but don’t let it fall on you.

This film reminded me of my one and only visit to Phoenix, Arizona. I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw, not too far away, a butte. Is that the correct term? There were two impressive houses built snugly into the base of the butte. I remarked to the bellman that I would be fearful of living in those houses because of the possibility of gigantic rocks falling on me. He replied that the rocks never fell.

Let that sink in.

I gazed again at the butte surrounded by the Greyhound-Bus-sized boulders that formed the 60-70 foot high slopes of the butte. It reminded me of my California-living friends who blithely dismiss earthquakes as a factor in their lives with; “But the weather’s so nice all the time.”

Blissful denial…perhaps that’s the key to the monolith monsters’ path to success. Well, it might work for malevolent mountains but it’ll never get you elected president…or…

Give me a moment, I’m letting that sink in.

Japanese Noir

I watch some fairly awful movies with great regularity and glee. Nothing could promise less and truly deliver accurately on the promise than movies like THE GIANT GILA MONSTER or I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF? I maintain to this day that GILA MONSTER could have been nominated for an Oscar for best song in a movie. Hey, sure the song (chant?) is cheesy as hell, but it was a slow year for movie music. GIGI was better? I’m not so sure.

And TEENAGE WEREWOLF has points of interest.

  • Teenage boys are known to fret over their complexion and when they might start needing to shave. This flick posits a bizarre take on both anxieties.
  • Plus, watching Michael Landon struggle to bring life to this title character by grunting his lines (human and lycanthropic) makes the viewer ponder if this early acting challenge aided or impeded his mature dramatic efforts (Little Joe in BONANZA and the dad in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE). It’s a head-scratcher for 30-40 seconds.
  • If this story were remade today, it would probably include a scene in which Nick Saban would pay a recruiting visit to our high-school werewolf promising to change Alabama’s football schedule to all night games.

What delights.

I also watch Japanese movies with regularity. They usually fall into one of two categories;

  • Happy foolishness featuring Godzilla or his runnin’ (actually flyin’ buddies) buddies Mothra, Rodan, Ghidra, et al.
  • Seriously serious films directed by Akira Kurasawa (the man is a god to me).

But tonight’s 1961 Japanese film is a new experience for me. None of the actors are wearing rubber suits, Tokyo is not destroyed, Toshiro Mifune is not in the cast, and thousands of mounted warriors with helpful identifying flags are not raising the dust.

ZERO FOCUS (I haven’t a clue as to the meaning of the title) is beautifully directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. I prowl the overnight offerings of Turner Classic Movies just in hope of finding flicks like this.

If you are a fan of film noir and Hitchcock, this is your meat.

  • It’s in black and white.
  • There are trains.
  • The characters speak Japanese, but the language of the film is “bleak”. I happen to be fluent in bleak – I suppose it’s from doing too many Sam Shepard plays and walking out on too many productions of WAITING FOR GODOT.
  • There are trains.
  • The plot twists and then twists again.
  • The characters play for keeps. Those who die stay dead, though occasionally we wonder.
  • Did I mention the trains?
  • Segments of Japanese post-war society of which I was totally ignorant are explored (dredged?).
  • I cared about every one of the characters in this story.

This is fine storytelling.

The acting is also fine. Excuse me for throwing some names at you, but these ladies are new to me and I was so very impressed.

  • Yoshiko Kuga is plain, pathetic, smart, and determined.
  • Hizuru Takachino is polished and desperate.
  • Ineko Arima is heartbreaking……………….just heartbreaking.

These women drive the film. How unusual is that for 1961?

Behind these performances, the music is gripping.

I was so taken this film by Yoshitaro Nomura, I proceeded to watch reputedly his best film; THE CASTLE OF SAND. Lucky me.

THE CASTLE OF SAND contains another satisfying quota of “noir” elements.

  • It pairs an older/wiser investigator with a younger/more energetic partner (I’m hearing the theme music from THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO now). They work on the case in question separately and come back together to compare their discoveries. Those discoveries are meager, but spark progress in each other through this cross-pollination. Yes, there are some “Eureka!” moments, but not the usual Hollywood kind. Mind you, I’m not knockin’ Hollywood “Eureka!” moments. They’re usually pretty exciting storytelling. But it’s intriguing to see these two hard-working, sweating, high-integrity guys tease just enough new information to keep their investigation flickering.
  • The film has bar scenes, dining car scenes, and police headquarters interview scenes. Check, check, and check.
  • Again, it has trains. I know that sounds strange but this is always good for me. It makes me a passenger with no control. I am caught in a powerful, loud machine hurling me towards the next chapter in the adventure at hand. Gulp.

The film does not have Ginzu knives.

But wait! There’s more!!

Unlike ZERO FOCUS, this film is in color. Mr. Nomura uses that color to exploit the beauty of rural Japan. Imagine if the Ingmar Bergman of SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT had shot a film in rural Kentucky in early summer. The vistas are impossibly green and people stand small in them. The roads/trails are generally straight and so are the people. Integrity is high – tolerance is low. Hospitality is ubiquitous – charity is rare.

The acting in this film is perhaps not as uniformly fine as in ZERO FOCUS, but the portrayal of the older detective by Tetsuro Tanba (fellow James Bond aficionados will remember Mr. Tanba as Tiger Tanaka in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) is very nice.

The treasure in this film is the remarkable way the resolution is revealed and, as in ZERO FOCUS, the intriguing use of music. Our detectives apply for a warrant to arrest their suspect. To do so, they must present their case to an assembly of police officials. As they tell their story we see their story in painful and lush flashback. As they speak and we watch, everything is underscored by a piano concerto written and played in concert by our prime suspect. The camera smoothly and logically and relentlessly moves from police conference to rural saga to concert performance. I could not look away. The plot twists as the story is unveiled are effective and startling………and plausible.

This is a gem.