The Cobalt Screening Room Balcony

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Post by Space Cadet on 3/6/2020, 6:14 pm

Jeff, this is one of my "comfort" movies. From my perspective, it goes from homage, to satire, to screwball and back again. Every major and most minor players in this film manage to completely steal a scene at some point in the movie.

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Post by ghemrats on 3/7/2020, 5:57 pm

Post #314: I really like going into movies blind, that is, not knowing the entire plotline and conclusion before experiencing them. Sometimes I follow Amazon's suggestions based on my purchasing history; at times that pays off and other times I basically want to respond as the protagonist in *Pi* (1998) and take a circular drill to my head to erase what I've just gone through. But today's feature, *Blindfold* (1966) starring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale, made me want to open my eyes wide, stand in the front yard and spin around with my arms extended while singing "The hills are alive" with an idiotic smile on my face. (Actually, I didn't, because it's too muddy after the thaw, and the neighbors would tend to shout at me, "Hey, you can't wear white after Labor Day or before Easter, you fool." So I'm just sitting here smiling inanely that I didn't waste more money on a bad film. Joyce is smiling too, for both reasons.)

*Blindfold* nicely assumed its position between *Charade* (1963) and *Arabesque* (1966) as a stylish, generally suspenseful espionage tale brightened with splashes of colorful comedy. It's the type of spy film that redeems the 1960s from a decade-long slog of pale parodies like some of those I've commented on in the past month. The threat of violence is more sinister than actual body droppings while the plot zips along with actors who are comfortable with their roles, making the action and acting seamless, in service to the narrative. No reliance on gimmicks or trickery, just good old-fashioned semi-serious fun.

Rock Hudson is Dr. Bartholomew Snow, a six-time engaged psychiatrist with a fear of commitment, who is approached by National Security Chief General ("Call me George) Pratt (Jack Warden at his flustered best) with an assignment to continue treatment with one of Snow's former patients, scientist Arthur Vincenti (Alejandro Rey). Secreted away in an undisclosed governmental manse known only as Base X, Vincenti has suffered a nervous breakdown and remains almost comatose but committed to not sharing his secrets with anyone. According to "George," a ring of international spies are after the scientist with plans to sell his knowledge to the highest bidder, so time is of the essence; hence, Dr. Snow is spirited away blindfolded (get it?) to resume treatment, being returned nightly to his practice so he will garner no suspicion.

Wrong. Almost immediately he's snagged by CIA agents (notably Guy Stockwell) who draw into question the authenticity of the NSA credentials "George" has passed around. Faster than you can say "Hey, wha' happened?" Dr. Snow runs afoul of Vincenti's sister Vicki (the radiant Claudia Cardinale) who believes Snow is one of the people who kidnapped her brother. His mind reeling--who's who and what's what and whom can he trust and who gives a figgy fruitcake anyway when he's got Claudia Cardinale draped over him?--Snow tries to validate everyone's credentials with totally uncooperative bureaucratic governmental stonewallers who cannot divulge any information in the protection of national interests.

All this is done with a totally straight face and a tongue in the cheek until the bad guys tip their hands in Central Park, and the film turns to unexpected slapstick, the one scene in the film that seems weirdly out of place. Thankfully, after that brief diversion of kookiness, the humor levels out and the film continues on its merry way, into swamps both literal and figurative. Rock Hudson exudes an easy grace throughout the film, ably abetted by his feisty and laconic secretary Smitty (Anne Seymour doing her best Eve Arden impression). Working from the Lucille Fletcher (*Sorry, Wrong Number*) novel *Blindfold*, in his last film director Philip Dunne keeps the pace breezy and light while Claudia Cardinale fulfills the accolade extended to her by David Niven during filming of *The Pink Panther* (1963): "After spaghetti, you're Italy's happiest invention."

Befriended by Hudson during the filming, as he realized her discomfort at being away from Italy, Cardinale grew tired of her sex symbols status; *Life* magazine, at the time of the film's release, stated that "the Cardinale appeal is a blend of solid simplicity and radiant sensuality. It moves men all over the world to imagine her both as an exciting mistress and wife." In a July 1966 interview with *Life*, she confessed her fear of being over-glamourized and exploited, like Sophia Loren, and although she had several further U.S. films lined up, stated: "If I have to give up the money, I give it up. I do not want to become a cliché." With Hudson's support, she became friends with Barbra Streisand, Elliott Gould and Steve McQueen but never felt at home in Hollywood.

Dunne also cites Ronald Reagan as having auditioned for the role of the villain. "Seemed perfectly lightweight," he said. "I just didn't think he could handle it and told him so, and he said it was okay, that he was thinking of going into politics anyhow. If I'd hired him, he might not have gotten to the White House." That's just fine, because with the support of bit players Hari Rhodes, Brad Dexter, Ned Glass and Vitto Scotti (one of my favorite character actors, this time as Michelangelo, Vicky and Arthur's father, a mannequin maker), the movie holds its own charm (My wife thought it was "cute").

A really nice entry into the overloaded '60s spy game, *Blindfold* nonetheless stands on its own as a brisk popcorn romp with the principals at the height of their game. With a perfect Lalo Schifrin score to augment the action, without resorting to sounding dated today, the film offers a nice blend of espionage and energy. It's not Academy Award material, but then it doesn't aspire to be either. It just helps you feel as though its 102 minutes clipped past with good spirits, even if we don't find out what was so crucial about Vincenti's research. The Blu-Ray transfer is bright and clean, leaving me a little nostalgic for family-friendly escapades in which the most notorious harmful threat comes from a mule who doesn't like his tail touched. Like "Hainry" the mule who wanders the swamp, *Blindfold* is a kick that ultimately means no harm. And best of all, you won’t want to leave a nasty drillbit hole in your head after watching it.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/8/2020, 4:52 pm

Post #315:  One of the first routines I ever heard from George Carlin was recorded at the Roostertail in Detroit.  It was his now legendary motor-mouthed disc jockey at "Wonderful WINO in western Walla Walla," who played "stacks and stacks of wax and wax, the oldies but moldies, the newies but gooeys, countin' down the hits on the Top 700 records here on Wonderful WINO," who employed Al Sleet, the hippy dippy weatherman.  Classic stuff from a guy who was just starting an impressive career.  I still recall his ballad, "I sent my sinuses to Arizona, I sent my liver to Peru, I sent my lungs and my kidneys for the summer to Sydney, but I'm sending my heart to yoooouuu."  It was the perfect parody of the madness of DJs in the '50s and '60s.

But before that routine were the trailblazers, led by the man who coined the term Rock 'N' Roll, Alan Freed. He is also the subject of today's feature, *American Hot Wax* (1978), a certifiable box office bomb despite its effective capturing of the mania and controversy surrounding the first rock and roll concert.  Reviled by racists who wanted him to stop promoting black musicians to white audiences, hated by conservatives who feared "the Devil's music and jungle rhythms" drawing young people toward sin, and persecuted (and prosecuted) by law enforcement officials who saw pure joy as riotous rebellion, Alan Freed opened the floodgates for America's blues-inspired rockers.

*American Hot Wax* provides a thinly fictionalized account of Freed's efforts to bring this new form to the public, who clamored for more.  Well captured by Tim McIntire, the iconoclastic disc jockey staunchly refuses plug hits by Patti Page and Pat Boone in favor of such luminaries as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin' Jay Hawkins ("I Put A Spell On You") and Frankie Ford ("Sea Cruise"), all of whom appear in the film as themselves.  Equally fun to watch are Jay Leno in his film debut as Freed's chauffeur, Fran Drescher as Freed's secretary who has to fight off Leno's unwanted attention (and hands), SNL's Larraine Newman as an aspiring composer based on Carol King, Jeff Altman as a sleazy record producer who won't accept NO as an answer, and 14-year-old Moosie Drier as President of the Buddy Holly Fan Club with over 5,000 fans. Film director and writer Cameron Crowe (*Say Anything* (1989), *Jerry McGuire* (1998), *Almost Famous* (2000) among his hits) has a bit part. But in a fascinating turn, record producer Richard Perry (who produced such memorable hits as "Nilsson Schmilsson," the classic Harry Nilsson album, "No Secrets" for Carly Simon, and "Ringo" for Ringo Starr) also appears as the guiding force behind "Come Go With Me" from a doo-wop group.

Wall to wall rock and roll doo-wop classics carpet the film for a terrific sonic landscape that might well have you singing along.  Released a few years after George Lucas's mega-hit *American Graffiti* (1973), which inspired ABC's *Happy Days*, and critically well received on balance, *American Hot Wax* nonetheless weighed in on all-time domestic box office ranking of 4,915 on a scale of 5,000, with worldwide distribution ranking of 6,653 out of 6,700, clearly a bomb by any box office receipt numbers.  It was modestly budgeted at $4 million but grossed $7,932,571 worldwide, which is a shame for a film that will shake your nerves and rattle your brain.

I can think of few rock films that capture the giddy infectious energy of the emerging form as handily as *American Hot Wax*.  The shoot must have been organized chaos as cast members' dialogue tumbles over others' clamor, and hangers-on jockey for a glimpse of the charismatic Freed.  Not a traditional narrative, the free-flowing plot follows the events leading up to the grand rock 'n' roll concert, Alan Freed's Live Rock 'n Roll show at Brooklyn's Paramount Theatre.  McIntire is superb in his portrayal, offering a comforting shoulder to Laraine Newman's teen and her first exposure to acceptance through her music and a rare poignant moment with Moosie Drier who tears up at the mention of Buddy Holly's death.  It's certainly a telescoped view of the actual facts of Freed's career, blending fictional flair--The Chesterfields were based on Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Carol King never wrote "Since I Don't Have You," and the actual riot was in Boston in 1956, not 1959 New York as the film has it--and real events--Chuck Berry wears the exact suit he would have worn in 1959 since he kept his wardrobe for historical purposes as well as sentimental reason.

But while the film plays rather fast and loose with the details of Freed's struggles and final surrender to a payola scandal, which is barely intimated in the movie, it does capture the essence of the fury and uproar and unexpurgated joy of those early days.  Director Floyd Mutrux said, "It's about the rebel versus the establishment. And the battleground is rock and roll. This movie is about the music, the beat, the rowdiness, the excitement."  

Boston critics of the time responded to the influence of the fusion of rhythm and blues and acapella lyricism this way:  "Some of our disc jockeys have put emotional TNT on their turntables. Rock 'n' roll gives young hoodlums an excuse to get together. It inflames teenagers and is obscenely objective," said Massachusetts DA Garret Byrne, while Boston's Very Reverend John Carroll asserted,  "Rock is like jungle tom-toms readying warriors for battle. Its lyrics are, of course, a matter for law-enforcement agencies." Evidently they refuted the swaggering humor of Chuck Berry singing, "Looked at my watch and it was quarter to two/You know she said she didn't but i know she do/And we reeled/Yow, i was reelin' and a rockin' and rollin'/We were reelin' and a rockin' and rollin' till the break of dawn."

In writing for *Rolling Stone* Cameron Crowe recalls the film:  "I ask Lance Freed, standing quietly at the edge of the set, just how accurate the film is. 'It’s eerie sometimes,' says the son of the late Alan Freed. 'On the air, my father was a little more up, but in this context, the pressure of the anti-rock & roll element he was up against, it’s perfect. Tim McIntire understands the character. My sister couldn’t believe the mannerisms he captured. It’s a film, of course, but these incidents and my father’s lines, they’re true.' . . .  The Freed family eventually gave the project their blessing, but stipulated that they would supply the authenticity and the scrapbooks. And, a rarity, all those involved are happy with the final product. 'The reasons my father was busted [in the payola scandal] was not that he was set up,' says Freed. 'It’s because he was so f***ing in love with the music and he was blind. Nothing else mattered. I think they got it with this film.'"

*American Hot Wax* is a sprawling, raucous, sloppy bit of a time capsule moving in spurts and stops, but that's just fine because it's more an experience than a movie.  If you've ever tried to share a certain passage from a favorite song, just because its riff speaks volumes to you, and you've faltered in conveying why that combination of notes and mood was just so freaking awesome, you'll be in your element with this film.  It's the accumulated roar of great moments that exists only in those songs, a private embracing of fabulous memories, and revisiting some of the originators of the chills you felt on a first hearing of "Great Balls of Fire" or seeing Chuck Berry duck-walk across the stage is a visceral shock of recognition.

Frank Zappa once said, "Rock music is a necessary element of contemporary society. it is functional. It is healthy and valid artistically. It is also an educational (how to ask a girl for a date, what love is like). It was all the answers to what your father and mother won't tell you."  Hail hail rock and roll.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/9/2020, 4:51 pm

Post #316: My wife loves many of the shows on the Food Channel, but absolutely, resolutely hates *Chopped* for some reason. I don't know, I think it's rather fun to watch how chefs can concoct something moderately edible from their Mystery Baskets filled with Sawdust. . . Bondo . . . Paramount Potato Chips. . . Shelled Oysters. . . and Jujubes. So many disparate dishes co-mingling to produce wonderful culinary palate pleasers like a duck confit with a nice sear, sprinkled with the spiny crunch of Slim Chipley's finest snack finely ground with sawdust and paprika, showered with an oyster-Jujube reduction served on a bed of red cabbage bound by Bondo with red wine and slow-braised apples. (I try not to make it more than once every two weeks personally.)

But like the seemingly divergent ingredients of *Chopped*, our feature today, *The Descendants* (2011), mixes gentle humor, tense drama, pathos and deeply felt sadness with themes of forgiveness and redemption into a beautiful balance that landed the film on twenty-two critics' Top Ten Film List of 2011, along with one Oscar and 65 other wins and 146 nominations. Star George Clooney specifically wanted to make this film because so many of his roles presented characters who held it all together with charm and insouciance; this role gave him the opportunity to explore a man who is barely holding himself, his family and his life together (He seriously needs that Bondo).

Matt King (Clooney) is a hard driving Hawaiian attorney, estranged from his wife and two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) by his work, holding a tenuous relationship with them in his push for success. He is also sole trustee of his greater family's trust--25,000 acres of untouched prime land on Kauai, which the family is eager to sell to land developers since the trust expires in seven years. At the same time Matt's wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has met her fate in a boating accident that leaves her in an irreversible coma. This draws Matt into service of his daughters, the rebellious, substance-abusing 17-year-old Alex (Woodley) who harbors resentment toward both parents but moreso her mother and Scottie (Miller) who as a typical ten-year-old remains optimistic about everything. Rounding out the tensions is Alex's goofball boyfriend, the unfiltered slacker Sid (Nick Krause) who accompanies Alex wherever she goes.

Working from his Academy Award winning screenplay based on the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel of the same name, producer/director Alexander Payne (*Election* 1999, *Sideways* 2004) provides a clean realism approaching documentary precision to the film. It's a dynamic tour de force for both Clooney and Woodley, who work a delicate alliance in their every shared scene. Make no bones about it--this is not a comedy, though it offers few light moments because the pain is so palpable. Some audiences may feel the tone is too relentlessly downbeat--a fractured family learning how to lean on one another in the most dire of circumstances--but I was moved by my immersion into the characters' emotional landscape.

When Alex discloses to Matt the cause of her devastating rift with her mother, the film tackles an extra layer of hurt that drives two-thirds of the movie and ups the challenges that erupt in anger, betrayal and ultimately healing. A more expressionistic director would make much out of swooping cameras with oblique angles, but Payne allows the camera to record the honesty of the characters' actions and reactions to play out directly, rather than imposing style on them. That such wrenching hurt can take place in such a sunlit and beautiful location--some of the long shots of Hawaii are simply stunning--underscores the integrity of actors' portrayal of a family held together with spit and twine and white sand.

No big spoilers from me, but somehow the film for me stops short of being a morose pity party or a weepy soaper due to the methodical procession of realizations and the working-through of very human minefields of coping. Now I may have given the impression that this movie is downer, not the best fare to run just before a family trip to the circus or a Disney park. No, it's not a film you'll want to watch if your beloved hamster contracts pneumonia or dengue fever, but it is an adult How-Would-You-Handle-It excursion that will allow you to understand stages of grace.

Shailene Woodley raises her character to stand firmly beside George Clooney's usual nuanced performance, giving Alex a depth and backbone so frequently lacking in cinematic teenage characters (Jess one thing: do you have to use so many cuss words?). A supporting cast of Robert Forster as Elizabeth's protective and bitter father, Beau Bridges as Matt's laid-back but persistent cousin, and Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard as Julie and Brian Speer who figure into the plot late into the film--all provide deceptively easy fuel to Clooney's controlled fire and ire.

According to the *New York Times critics A. & O. Scott, *The Descendants* "for all its modesty, is as big as life. Its heart is occupied by grief, pain and the haunting silence of Elizabeth, whose version of events is the only one we never hear. And yet it is also full of warmth, humor and the kind of grace that can result from our clumsy attempts to make things better." Its 115 minute unfolding of grief and resolve move at a leisurely pace but for me never lagged; every ingredient in the recipe is measured for its optimal effect, and its final fade-out scene is just perfect, sweet, understated and indicative of why these people have become living beings, not just integers of plot and location.

As much as I love the work of Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Dennis Quaid and Jeff Daniels who were all considered for the role of Matt King, I'm glad George Clooney got the nod. I honestly could not see a similar result with the same emotional density if any of those great stars were at the heart of this film. This is one time I'm glad some of my favorite actors got Chopped so George Clooney could pull all those myriad Mystery Basket contents together into such a warm meal.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/10/2020, 4:53 pm

Post #317: ... And then there are those episodes of *Chopped* in which all the ingredients are fascinating, lively and full of spice, promising a dish that will blow the roof of your mouth into the orbit: Southern Fried Chicken Faces . . . Elmer's Glue. . . Pork Vindaloo . . . Jalapeno and Chipotle Chex Mix . . . and Milk Duds, all conspiring together to fix up a totally unforgettable gourmet dessert, a Frose Bombe Glacee, whipping the Pork Vindaloo and Milk Duds into a fluffy texture and placing it in the icer with some spicy pineapple margarita mix with a dash of Elmer's to hold it together in the mold of a fanciful bas relief Easter Egg on a bed of finely spun sugar grass, sprinkled with the Chex Mix for crunch over creme de menthe fondant cover, and garnished with candied Southern Fried Chicken Faces looking at one another on either side for a whimsical touch. Served chilled. Voila! It will be the festive talk of the town, an unmitigated disaster, sending your friends to the hospital vowing vengeance against you and your progeny into perpetuity.

Kinda like today's feature, *The Venetian Affair* (1966), which like our dessert is a bombe. Which is all the more confounding because its cast is a terrific assemblage of talent--Robert Vaughn (smack dab in the middle of *The Man From UNCLE* run), Ed Asner, Elke Sommer, Felicia Farr, Boris Karloff, Luciana Paluzzi fresh from her big role as Fiona Volpe in *Thunderball* (1965), Roger C. Carmel and Karl Bohm as a real, believable baddie. And it's based on a novel of the same name by Helen MacInness. I mean, come on! It's a serious spy movie with dramatic possibilities up the proctologist's domain, and it's filmed in Venice for that cool European vibe backed by a score by Lalo Schifrin. Wha' happened?

Unfortunately, all the gorgeously sculpted chess pieces are in place, but the first time film director Jerry Thorpe, who co-wrote the screenplay, is playing Go Fish (Do you have any. . . Kings?). After building up suspense and tension between particulars, we (wait for it) fade to black, switch scenes, go to the next day or two without transition. Do this a couple times and the audience tends to give up, go to sleep or grab a handful of Raisinettes or Sweet Tarts to keep them on board until Elke Sommer returns to the screen, even if she is dressed as a nun. Long stretches of silence punctuate truncated action sequences. Even the film's co-writer/producer E. Jack Neuman blows himself up in the opening sequence as if he knew they had botched something good. But at least we've got Julius La Rosa singing a verse of the closing theme as we tally the body count.

Requistioning Terry Malloy's wail from *On The Waterfront* (1954), the narrative really coulda been a contendah, coulda been some body o'work. It's a great premise: Down-at-heels journalist and former CIA agent Bill Fenner (Vaughn) gets sucked back into service by his old boss Frank Rosenfeld (Asner who has just the right gravitas for the role) to cover sabotaged peace conference involving Fenner's ex-wife Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer). Years ago Sandra was a suspected Communist spy, bringing Fenner's career and love life to an screeching halt. Now she may be after the MacGuffin, The Vaugiroud Papers, a document penned by Boris Karloff's esteemed doctor which could change the face of the Cold War and all nations involved. What secrets do the Papers hold? Ah, that's part of the mystery, but it ain't good. They've already moved an American diplomat (Neuman) to commit suicide by bomb during the peace conference--even though he was a swell guy otherwise.

It's a great kick seeing Robert Vaughn stepping (just a little hop actually) away from his Napoleon Solo character as Bill Fenner. He's an alcoholic, unshaven hunk of bitterness who slouches through briefings while underneath it all lies a wounded perfectionist who can still perform quite capably. And Ed Asner's Rosenfeld is just the right combination of autocrat and bureaucrat who wants results regardless of others' feelings. Together these guys form a truly interesting core from which the potential for a memorable thriller played completely straight lurks. The "Mystery Papers" present a genuinely chilling and threatening creep factor, and the scenes with Vaughn being subjected to their effects are ominous and unsettling.

But that aspect which drives the film is curiously underplayed for the most part, giving the film a run of the mill TV Movie of the Week feel when it should evoke dread. Part of the reason for that might well be Jerry Thorpe's background directing television series; the film doesn't flow like a movie, it's still stuck in 19-inch cathode ray tubes, building up momentum only to lose it in awkward pauses where commercials for Maybelline lash extenders and Clairol's Does She Or Doesn't She? debates are wedged alongside Salem cigarettes' urging you to "Take a puff--it's springtime!" (Remember, it's 1966). Consequently, there's a jerkiness to the flow, as if Thorpe is hindered by a mindset that the film has to fill an 89-minute time slot.

This blindering of the whole, then, forsakes not only great plot set-ups but squanders the talent. Boris Karloff is in the film for maybe two scenes which seem unmoored, capitalizing on who he is as an actor rather than how indispensable he is to the plot. Similarly, for all her heralding in the opening credits and her white-hot appeal following her from the Bond franchise, Luciana Paluzzi is given a literal throw-away role in which her entire screen time is reduced to, at the outside, an accumulated five minutes. Even Elke Sommer's role could be freighted with more intrigue and dramatic promise. Is she honestly trustworthy or is she really good at manipulation? The net result is, Well, she--oops, she's dead. So the point is moot. Oh, what a different film it could have been if Bond director Guy Hamilton hadn't backed out of helming it. Somewhere Fats Domino is singing, "Ain't that a shame?"

*The Venetian Affair* should not be confused with the eight "feature length" *Man From UNCLE* movies released around the same time, which were merely re-edited and expanded episodes of the TV series to fit an M- (early version of PG) rating and draw more revenue. Yes, like every *UNCLE* script it's introduced with "The ____ Affair," and it stars Vaughn, but it's tonally a different animal. Nor is it a Bond pastiche, parody or homage; there are no gadgets, snappy sexy patter, no debonair swilling of martinis. It's on balance more gritty, probably closer to real Cold War espionage than we'd like to think, but it's not the solemnity that drags it down--it's the pacing and it's the threat of very real violence, even though it's still crippled by a TV sensibility and style without the flash. Nertz.

The good news is it won't send you to the hospital or make you cry vengeance. Nor is it bad enough to push you into trying a Frose Bombe Glacee made from pork vindaloo and other savories and sweets. It's more like a Creme Fraiche that looks mah-velous but is made with Farmer Peet's Kettle Rendered Lard. (Mmmm, them's good eats)
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/11/2020, 4:17 pm

Post #318: When today's feature, *The Black Windmill* (1974), was first released on VHS (check the Smithsonian, I think they might have some historical record of such a format), it was among the most rare movies to find. Critically and popularly considered a failure, for many years it has languished in cinematic purgatory or remaining aloof in a non-US formatted PAL European copy. And that's too bad, because I saw it when it was released in a small cinema-pod with an audience of roughly seven people, and I really enjoyed it. Now that I've been able to track down a clean DVD copy from Kino Lorber (a generally solid company of obscure films), I still find it a taut, suspenseful thriller with a cool British edge that at the time American audiences found off-putting because star Michael Caine portrayed the main character Major John Tarrant, a British intelligence officer, too distantly dispassionate.

That criticism, I think, is easily misunderstood. Tarrant's training with MI-6 has ingrained in him a laser-focused determination; it hasn't turned him into an unfeeling automaton but an agent who must be coldly rational lest his emotions cause him to act rashly and destroy the objective. In this case it's an undercover mission to infiltrate a gang of arms smugglers supplying terrorists in Northern Ireland. He contacts a member of the organization, Ceil Barrows (Delphine Seyrig), the paramour of one of the organization's higher-ups McKee (the deadly John Vernon, who would parlay his vitriol into the role of Dean Wormer four years later in *Animal House*).

The agent informs his direct superior, Cedric Harper (Donald Pleasence) and the head of MI6 Sir Edward Julyan (Joseph O'Conor) of his early attempts to infiltrate the organization. But Tarrant's assignment gets personal when McKee and his men kidnap Tarrant's son, being used as a pawn in a complex plot to obtain discredit the agent and gain 500,000 pounds in rare uncut diamonds that are nesting in the Defence Ministry's safety deposit box. Aha, there's a traitor in the midst of MI-6, who has informed the terrorists of the diamonds and masterminded the kidnapping. And under the direction of the mysterious Drabble, the vicious McKee and Barrows stealthily frame Tarrant in that role by planting nude photographs of Barrows in Tarrant's flat with incriminating notes.

Since the OCD Harper has never appreciated Tarrant's talents, he is quick to believe the agent's complicity in the kidnapping but agrees to take a phone call from the kidnapper Drabble at the home of Tarrant's estranged wife Alex (Janet Suzman). Drabble coldly explains he knows who Tarrant is and is fully aware of the diamonds Harper has sequestered away, and he will be more than willing to torture the boy if Tarrant does not deliver the diamonds to a pre-arranged drop in Paris. Of course, as is common in thrillers like this, Harper feels bad about the boy being tortured and held against his will, along with the emotional toll it's taking on Alex, but, hey, those diamonds were earmarked for something else, and so, no go on the dough. Cue the quiet resolve and calculated concern of an agent going rogue.

Directed by Don Siegel, who was a montage director for Bogart's *Across The Pacific* and *Casablanca* (both in 1942) and whose *Invasion of The Body Snatchers* (1956), *Dirty Harry* (1971), and John Wayne's final film *The Shootist* (1976) are still enduring classics, *The Black Windmill* I feel is a solid entry in his powerful body of work. While it offers only sporadic bursts of action so common in his five collaborations with Clint Eastwood, it nonetheless sings with the tension of a wire pulled to its limits--and here's where I differ with some audiences: Michael Caine's seemingly calm demeanor masks a seething wrath when unleashed is harrowing. To see him burst into spontaneous displays of emotion would be antithetical to his internal combustion which fuels his actions.

No, it's not like *Dirty Harry*, which I imagine explains some of the expectations audiences held for *The Black Windmill*; it was Siegel's first European film, and his thirtieth feature, and it captures the methodical intensity of that intelligence community. Based on the Clive Egleton novel *Seven Days To A Killing*, it boasts strong performances from all supporting actors as well--John Vernon is calculating evil itself, totally unaffected by the child's screams which make the phone calls to the Tarrants very troubling (another reason audiences might have wanted to distance themselves from the film, though no actual scenes of violence against the child actor are shown). Janet Suzman gives a fine performance of inner strength and quiet isolationism as the mother who fears for her son but abides in faith in Tarrant's reassurances that he can save their son. Donald Pleasence provides just the right amount of fastidious fiddling without turning his bureaucrat into a caricature.

The showdown in the Clayton Windmills, south of Burgess Hill, in West Sussex, England, are not breakaway sets--the scenes were filmed in the cramped confines of the actual mills. In fact one of the stuntmen tumbling down its narrow staircases was severely wounded when he fell on his head, was hospitalized for a time and whose fall is used in the final print of the film as a one-take shot which could not be duplicated. A similar logistical nightmare onboard the hovercraft Sure shot at Pegwell Bay, Ramsgate Hoverport, says cinematographer Ousama Rawi, made the shoot challenging, since Siegel was given permission to film only in the scant moments when the hovercraft was in transport. Once it landed no filming could be done; this meant rigging lights and capturing scenes very quickly since time was of the essence.

Despite its sad reception, I find *The Black Windmill* a fine suspense film when stripped of expectations comparing it unfairly to the high-octane movement of other espionage offerings or the gritty visceral violence of Harry Callahan. Existing as its own tight cat-and-mouse game, *The Black Windmill* stands confidently on its own, punctuated with dry English wit and some bursts of menace. Just don't go trying to find it on VHS.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/12/2020, 5:51 pm

Post #319: You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, we all want to change the world. And when today's feature, *Viva Maria* (1965) was released in the United States, it became a touchstone in Texas for the Supreme Court, when it was banned within Dallas city limits for being too racy. (Sphincter says "What!") The case--Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. City of Dallas--established that censorship for minors was legitimate but not for adults. This was quickly followed by the Supreme Court case Ginsberg v. New York which established that 17 years of age constituted adulthood in cases of censorship, leading to the precedent that adult-oriented movies were acceptable as long as "no one under 17 is admitted without parent or adult guardian." Which is why we now have the MPAA Movie Ratings System under Jack Valenti's creation and guidance.

I am shocked and awed. You could film me for a Geico commercial to register a similar state of disbelief over how much I could save on car insurance by switching to the financial acumen of a British reptile who bakes biscuits for newcomers in the neighborhood. For me *Viva Maria* is an absolutely delightful film that MIGHT garner a PG rating in a radical Amish community for its one-time use of the excremental oath. Too racy? Indecent in 1966? Somebody was wearing his ten-gallon Stetson ten sizes too small, stanching the flow of blood to the brain or eating too many flapjacks prepared by Hop Singh laced with peyote on the Ponderosa.

Directed, produced and written by Louis Malle, *Viva Maria* for me is a spicy comedy-adventure film bursting with life and beauty. Filmed in lush Eastmancolor in Morelos and Guanajuato, Mexico in French, the film integrates its location and vast panoramas into the heart of the narrative. And with the lightness and sensuality of stars Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as the two Marias and ably assisted by George Hamilton as revolutionary Flores who steals Moreau's heart, this movie far surpassed any moderate expectations I may have harbored just by virtue of its marketing. (The trailer is a typical 1960s smattering of scenes not totally inciting the fun of the actual film.)

The plot itself does not convey the sprightly nature of the direction, which has made me an instant fan of Louis Malle, who knows exactly how to keep things moving with a knowing smile. The soundtrack from Georges Delerue is simultaneously sweepingly French and wonderfully evocative of the standard western conventions of sagebrush and equestrianism. With brisk introductions of a young Maria Fitzgerald O'Malley and her IRA explosives expert father (Fernando Wagner) in Ireland, we are ushered into young Maria's formative years accompanying her father's crusades against the British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A proud inheritor of her father's expertise after witnessing and participating in his death, Maria escapes capture as a young woman and travels to Central America's San Miguel in 1907. There she joins a circus of colorful supporting characters, taking the place of Janice, a burlesque partner in a female song and dance team, following Janice's suicide from a jilted affair.

Taking her lead from another Maria (Jeanne Moreau, hertofore known as Maria I), the inexperienced Maria II gives herself over to learning songs and dance moves to entertain the rowdy visitors to the circus. Experiencing a wardrobe malfunction in her novice run, Maria II accidentally rents her gown, much to the delight of the audience. Coaxed on by Maria I, she inadvertently creates the striptease, coyly enticing Maria I to follow suit. Of course by today's standards their routine is tasteful in its innocence with no gratuitous flesh or pulse-pounding gyrations that looks positively chaste compared to a Super Bowl Halftime Show. Which to me makes it that much more satisfying and joyful.

Of course the Marias become instant crowd pleasers, drawing customers to the circus in droves. Such attention allows the naive but eager to learn Maria II the opportunity to engage the attentions of suitors so she will no longer need to wail "I want to know what love iiiiiiiiissssss!" Soon she is tallying up her encounters by name on the wall of her dressing wagon, while Maria I waxes nostalgic for a lost love. Malle explained he was interested in making "a sort of burlesque boxing match—sexpot v. seductress"; according to *Time* Magazine, "After 16 weeks together, filming Louis Malle's Viva Maria! in Mexico, les girls hadn't come close to a blowup—even for publicity—and now they seemed downright cozy. 'We get along like two pals in the army,' murmured Moreau fondly." That chemistry is immediately apparent in their scenes together, propelling this film into my own person New Revised Favorite Film list.

*Time* continued, "[W]ith *Viva Maria!*, which aims at being little more than a fancifully photographed tale of two turn-of-the-century dance-hall girls who cheer up a Latin American revolution, Moreau saw a chance of expressing one of her firmest beliefs. 'Films have never shown the kind of relationship that can exist between two women,' she says. 'Men like to think that women must be constantly jealous of each other, never trusting, never in rapport. That is not true, of course, certainly not today. This film could show that.'"

Moreau's Maria I then finds solace in her immediate attraction to a captured socialist revolutionary Flores (George Hamilton) enslaved in stocks and chains by "El Dictador" (José Ángel Espinoza), enlisting the help of the circus strongman (Luis Rizo) to allow her access to Flores in his cell while chained to the wall. (Well, okay, that scene is pretty steamy, but no more so than is exhibited in Lindor chocolate commercials in which the model is fulfilled as a woman by one bite of the truffle.) But when Flores is mortally wounded by his captors, he begs a promise from Maria that she will continue his cause and fight for the good people of San Miguel. Thus equipped and bound by her word, she and Maria II, who has intricate knowledge of all things explosive, raise the passions of the people in revolt.

Stirring, exciting and comic, at times employing the manic energy of a Warner Brothers Looney Tune, the film fizzes along without a sputter as "Viva Maria!" becomes the chant of the oppressed in Central America. The circus performers--The Great Rodolpho Great (Claudio Brook) whose invention of a firearm with a curved barrel to shoot around corners becomes a running gag, Diogène (Gregor Von Rezzori) and his wife Mme. Diogene (Paulette Dubost) whose magic act involves doves, and assorted tumblers and acrobats--enliven the battle while offering an endearing portrait of an extended family and light-hearted comic grace notes.

People expecting a sex romp will find this tame, people who want a traditional western will find its revisionist Buddy Film with a gender reversal surprising, raconteurs of light fancy will thoroughly enjoy its breezy direction, and connoisseurs of female pulchritude will find Bardot and Moreau in their prime. Of course it's a little goofy with some sly anti-organized church-and-politics sentiments sprinkled in with satirical intent, but on balance it's a bracing diversion that checked off every box in my wishlist for entertainment.

How *Viva Maria!* can coexist alongside the sniggling, snickering, sophomoric sexual innuendo and skin of the spy genre and be singled out for "racy" content extending to the Supreme Court is beyond my wildest imagination. Matt Helm and James Bond can run through women like a box of Kleenex (Finish with one, toss it away, another one pops up ready to be used) during a bad bout of the sniffles, but a woman knowing more than one man is grounds for Better Call Saul Goodman for a Supreme Court date? Dang. Now you might see it differently, or you might use it as a litmus test for how dramatically tastes and depictions of sexual emancipation have changed since 1965.

Or you can just relax and enjoy yourself . . . but according to Johnny Law, only if you're 17 or accompanied by an adult. And by the way, make sure the kids are out of the room if a Lindor Chocolate commercial comes over the airwaves--you wouldn't want them to become enflamed by the orgiastic influence by a bonbon.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 3/12/2020, 8:06 pm

I've just become enflamed by the orgiastic influence of a bonbon.

Or it might just be the impatient anticipation of my first package of 100% dark roast Kona beans, currently winging it's way from the Hawaiian plantation, to my greedy grubby hands.
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Post by ghemrats on 3/13/2020, 7:16 pm

Post #320:  One of the signs of knowing you're too ingrained as an English professor is constantly correcting people on TV and in movies on their grammatical faux pas. I know they can't hear me, so the exercise is akin to yelling at people on *Wheel Of Fortune* for either not knowing an infinitely obvious puzzle ("It's a person. . . B_Z_  THE CL_WN") or in the same round wishing to buy a vowel ("Could I buy an E?" Yes, of course, you moron, it's BEZE THE CLEWN!).  I've trained myself to ignore most fractured English in songs--Hearing Bob Dylan sing "Lie Lady Lie, Lie across my big brass bed" would just be WRONG somehow). But the title of today's feature, *Wish I Was Here* (2014) irks the hell out of me. Come on, writer/producer/director Zach Graff--even Pink Floyd knew it was "Wish You WERE Here"! There's no good reason apparent in the film for your avoiding the subjunctive mood.

Okay, okay, I know I'm arguing Old School formality and "was" is acceptable, but I'm rapidly turning into a curmudgeon who will soon be railing at holograms to stay off my lawn.  That said, I enjoyed today's feature on balance, even though I increasingly find myself combing my Sam Elliott mustache while intoning, "Do you have to use so many cuss words?" at the screen.  As I've mentioned countless times before, I hold a pretty high tolerance for the F-Bomb, except in those cases when its usage takes me out of the film or disrupts the flow of conversation in it.  But when the first word spoken by the main character is the fractious epithet, and is repeated several times in the opening scene to his kids, without a hint of parental censorship, I can't get behind it.

The gratuitous hurler here is Aiden Bloom (Zach Graff), a desperately unemployed actor and father of two--Tucker and Grace (Pierce Gagnon and Joey King, a young woman who steals the show)--who are supported by his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson who glows on screen).  Through the financial support of Aiden's father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), the kids are enrolled in a pricey LA Orthodox Jewish day school until one day Gabe informs Aiden that he'll need to stop paying for the school because his aggressive cancer has returned.  

Yes, we've trodden this ground before: unsuccessful dream chaser forced to confront his responsibilities amidst growing tensions brought upon by the immutable reality of a dying parent while his children mature before his eyes and his supportive wife contends with sexual harassment in her dead-end job, sacrificing her own dreams in service to the family.  But Braff's screenplay extends some freshness, much as he had ten years before with *Garden State*.  In the ten years that have intervened, Braff still retains some of the heart and cleverness we saw in that film, but for me continues to misstep at times.  Of the two, I think I enjoyed *Wish I Was Here* a bit more, but it again fails to strike the perfect harmony of which it is imminently capable.

For one thing Aiden is largely too self-absorbed to be as likable as Braff (and I) wants him to be. His hermitic genius/nerd brother Noah (Josh Gad) is a bit too conscientiously isolated to be interesting until late in the film, and the first third to half of the film seems labored until it finds its voice; I found the set up tedious, holding promise but not enleaguing me to Aiden at all.  But when he begins fumbling his way into home-schooling the kids, and his relationship with his father deepens, there is a genuine slow transformation at work.  The lightness shown in the trailer, leading some audiences to believe *Wish I Was Here* is a comedy (which it's not really, though it has comic moments), starts to assert itself, with the kids as the impetus for it, and the last half grows a heart.

So there's the issue with the film as a whole: How do you convey the emotional and spiritual maturation of an absent father who is physically *there* everyday for his family but is mentally distracted by his own "dreams" to the point he can see little else?  That's an ambitious task which works in spurts and flashes.  So there are honestly touching moments in the film--dealing with daughter Grace's decision to cut her hair close to the scalp to assert her uniqueness, realizing and actualizing Tucker's dreams with a car salesman (Donald Faison, also from *Scrubs*), finally supporting and defending Sarah's right to work in a non-threatening environment, metaphorically and literally mending walls, helping a fellow actor (Jim Parsons) selflessly in auditions, learning how to say goodbye when so many words have been left unspoken.  These scenes draw *Wish I Was Here* away from the cliche to stand out and assert itself as something more.

A kind of sidebar here, which I hope will shed light on the role of language in film: Anyone who knows me is aware that I love the Coen Brothers' films because their dialogue is so integral to their visuals. In many ways, returning to my love of language, their carefully crafted characters' "voices" are an important reason for my admiration of their craft. For me the patois of *Raising Arizona* (1987) is such a supreme mixture of Old Testament formality and modern trailer park poetry that the visual splendor is *almost* secondary. *Fargo* (1996) and *The Big Lebowski* (1998), with every "You betcha" and "Uh, man" carefully mapped into its fabric of the script, stand for me as literary masterpieces perfectly delineating character through speech.  I don't care that between The Dude and Walter, the F-bomb strafes the audience a tallied 260 times--the usage is carefully placed for maximum impact.

But *Wish I Was Here* does not employ its epithets carefully--they are just fillers adding nothing, and as such tend to distance us from the users.  Instead of registering tension or exploring the internal landscape of frustration, in most cases the language speaks of inarticulate ranting.  David Mamet's use of language steels the aggressive, narcissistic drive of his salesmen in *Glengarry Glen Ross* (1992), his Pulitzer Prize winning play and film adaptation; the F-bomb becomes the last resort for the frustration of Ed Harris's character, helping us realize no matter how "bad" that word sounds, it's not harsh enough to express the aching angst he wishes to convey.  

Conversely, Aiden Bloom has scant little to complain about: he's living in a very respectable suburban community, he has not had to WORK for all the leisure he's afforded, his family is well adjusted and happy (at least on the surface), his kids are smarter than he is in many cases, his wife is more than supportive and smart and lovely, his brother lives in a trailer with a view people would kill for, and his father is a mensch.  What's to be so tightly wound over? And still, as we first meet him, he's a spoiled little snot who at 35 still pleasures himself while surfing the internet and complains about traffic.  He openly mouths off his "despair" with disparaging unfiltered linguistic patterns before his kids while amassing a small fortune in the family Swear Jar, of which he is the sole contributor.

Yes, I know, I'm making too much of this, but honestly but for its half to one-third *Wish I Was Here* would have lurched up my list of recommended movies; I think its last half outlines a very real, very personal struggle with growing up and accepting hard choices.  In much the same way *Garden State* tackled the tricky growing pains of people in their late twenties, *Wish I Was Here* wrestles with the angels of mortality and role modeling, determining how we bear the torch being passed to us as guiding influences grow older or infirmed by disease.  There are no classes, no texts preparing us for these trials which come upon us at times without much warning, and it's disquieting learning how much we don't know when we think we've got it all together.

Aiden Bloom finally learns, and we can too, to live in grace.  But when I find myself in times of trouble, REM comes to me, speaking words of wisdom:

Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts
Don't throw your hand
Oh, no
Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone
No, no, no, you're not alone
Well, everybody hurts sometimes
Everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

Be well. We'll leave a light on for you. . . with or without the subjunctive mood.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/14/2020, 6:27 pm

Post #321: Like for contrast: Take the Shiny Happy People dancing through the Snickering Sixties in day-glow psychedelic paisleys, gleefully abandoning the Gritty Fifties' rain soaked alleyways and tenement fire escapes for polished chromium headquarters that made Mr. Clean weep with joy. Now we head into the Sparse Seventies, capitalizing on terse dialogue, impassive open- and back-handed slaps that twist the recipients' heads, and the "hero" who freeze-dry everyone with one of the infinite variations of The Clint Squint. Their villains have jettisoned the ballast of moral judgment in favor of doing terrible things to small animals with a fork while dipping their breakfast donuts in acid. It's the time when film critics decry the anti-heroics of Dirty Harry as "fascist," while audiences with inexplicable clairvoyance prep themselves for the President's doing to the country what Kennedy did to Marilyn Monroe. Into this angry landscape of disillusionment comes the titular character of today's feature, *Charley Varrick* (1973).

Star Walter Matthau apparently hated this film, sending a note to producer/director Don Siegel (fresh from his blockbusting *Dirty Harry* 1971), registering his disapproval: "I have seen it three times, and am of slightly better than average intelligence (IQ 120) but I still don't quite understand what's going on. Is there a device we can use to explain to people what they're seeing?" Matthau openly discussed his displeasure with the film, causing Siegel to hold him responsible for the box office reception. In spite of these small hummocks, *Charley Varrick* today is routinely viewed as one of the most intelligent, well crafted action mysteries available, earning an impressive 86% four- or five-star ratings on Amazon and gaining such accolades from online critics such as Ian Jane (DVD Talk) as "*Charley Varrick* is one of Don Siegel's crowning achievements, a pitch-perfect seventies thriller highlighted by some great performances, fantastic cinematography and a tight, engaging script." It also holds an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so time has been kind to this film.

For me *Charley Varrick* is one tough onion, revealing layer after layer of rough hewn skin and an unapologetic distancing from sentimentality. Though removed from the over-the-top antics of Quentin Tarantino, who obviously drew inspiration from this film, it still manages to explore careful intelligence and planning over firepower. Charley Varrick (Matthau) and his wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) are former crop dusters and stunt pilots who are moved to rob small banks after they're put out of business. Allied with longtime colleague Al Dutcher (the uncredited Fred Scheiwiller) and the younger Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson, who was Dirty Harry's psychotic killer), the duo set out to rob the Tres Cruces bank in New Mexico, the opening sequence setting the scene for the ensuing 111 minutes.

With his signature economy and realistic feel, Don Siegel executes the robbery with whiplash editing and ferocious timing, leaving a trail of casualties including Silver Screen Western Legend Bob Steele as a plucky though silent guard in his final film. However methodically planned is Charley's getaway, it's not without unforeseen complications: Nadine is mortally wounded and Al never makes it out alive, leaving Charley and Harman to carry out the plan themselves--not realizing until later that the bank was used as a drop from mafia money laundering; consequently the $2,000 they anticipated has now conflated to $765,118 . . . with the extra price tag of an unforgiving mob coming after them.

Dispatched by bank president Maynard Boyle (the ever ominous John Vernon), the nattily attired human Terminator Molly (Joe Don Baker) takes off with the stone cold killing instinct of an ICBM to recoup the losses, issuing deadly service with a smile below dead eyes. Along the way the paranoid Harman drinks himself into nightly oblivion while Charley heists dental records to erase the trail leading to them, meets and beds Boyle's secretary Sybil Fort (Felicia Farr, Jack Lemmon's wife, their tryst standing as a great inside joke and a more than passing reference to Hitchcock), hires Jewell Everett (Sheree North) to forge passports though she betrays his confidence to Molly, and endeavors to find a loophole out of any bargaining with the mafia.

It's a no-nonsense narrative with Matthau plumbing his dark side in a role originally figured for Clint Eastwood, who passed on the script because he saw little redeeming quality in its protagonist. Good for us, because Matthau infuses the crop dusting Charley with his characteristic unmade-bed presence and a quiet intensity that humanizes the character in a dehumanizing turn of events. Siegel's SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) of exploring the maverick, the loner, "the last of the independents" (the original title of the film and Charley's slogan for his crop dusting service) is in its prime here, as Matthau brings a world weariness to the role that ultimately makes us want to root for him, even as everything around him seems to implode.

If Siegel's intent were merely to provide a good story punctuated with real-world brutality and confining imprisonment through his tight framing, *Charley Varrick* could be considered successful. But the inner core of the film reveals subtle rings of a more potent onion, as if the atheist in Siegel were substituting NuMex Dulce yellows for bread in communion services. The spiritual significance and symbology underscore the entire film, suggesting a sort of redemption for its pivotal characters. I know, you're saying What? In a gritty heist film? Indulge me--I think it makes sense. . . .

A few spoilers: From a narrative perspective the bank of Tres Cruces, Three Crosses, makes sense: There are crosses and double crosses sprinkled through the film in the characters' relentless pursuit of the dollar. But the name pulls from another source as well: There are three groups of three fatalities at the core--Nadine, Al Dutcher and Harman (good guys), just as they are counterbalanced by three officers killed in the robbery (next-level good guys, innocents) and three principal villains--Boyle, Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey) the colluding bank manager, and Molly (mafia bad guys).

If we further this structure, let's start considering the ever-present Phoenix motif (Charley's service logo is a phoenix; Tom (Tom Tully in his final film), the crooked Judas who informs on Charley after sending him to Jewell for his passports, has a phoenix hanging in his office, and view the cleansing baptismal fires from which the "new" Charley emerges as he sheds his dirty white flight suit). With those in place, entertain the notion of Good Friday--three crosses, one with a repentant sinner (Harman), one with an unrepentant sinner (Molly, one of the coldest killers from which tradition Anton Chiguhr emerges in *No Country For Old Men* (2007) also set in the desert) and one with Christ (Charley) who in the "final showdown" is not earthbound. There's a morality tale in there, I am convinced of it. And perhaps it's weirdly coincidental that *Charley Varrick* was originally intended as an Easter release (!).

But all that aside, along with the power punch of Lalo Schifrin's rousing score, the supporting players add great color with familiar faces, even if you may not recognize their names. Norman Fell plays the conscientious investigator Garfinkle, William Schallert plays the driven Sheriff Horton, Benson Fong is a sinister delight as Honest John, the restauranteur and mob contact, Don Siegel himself has a cameo as a high-rolling ping-pong player, and Marjorie Bennett is Charley's ubiquitous doublewide neighbor who sees all and hears all. If you look quickly enough you'll also see Matthau's son Charles first in the opening credits as he tries to saddle a donkey, and a few minutes later when he approaches the sheriff with news of the robbers' license plates (he's also on the swingset outside the bank). At the opposite end of innocence is Joe Conforte who appears as himself as owner of the Mustang Ranch.

According to Siegel, Matthau took the role predominately to fund his gambling addiction, in which he found an adrenaline rush from losing. But presented with a choice by his bookie, "Walter, I give you the option: You want your legs broken or your arm broken," Matthau decided to take just about any role which came his way. Again it's our gain, as another actor slated to play the part was Donald Sutherland, though many people close to the production suggest a version starring him would have upped the ante of sex and violence. So we're grateful several times over for Matthau's gambling habits.

*Charley Varrick* is hard nosed and unflinching, packing more menace and dry humor into its characters than unwanted, unneeded and underwhelming digital special effects of today's cinema. It's real, sharp and rewarding even as its tough exterior yields a message of redemptive faith from an atheist's perspective. But as musician Steve Taylor said, "They shiver with doubts that were left unattended/then they toss away the cloak that they should have mended/you know by now why the chosen are few/it's harder to believe than not to..."
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/15/2020, 3:43 pm

Post #322: How silly can you get? According to today's rollicking feature, *Top Secret!* (1984), pretty darned silly, and in these times we could really go for some inspired zaniness from the writers and directors of *Airplane* (1980), one of the funniest non-stop comedies of all time. No hyperbole, no brag, just fact, in the words of Will Sonnet. For my money, though *Top Secret!* was not a box office hit--Why? I plead--it does hold the distinction of being Weird Al Yankovic's favorite movie, and I think it's at least as funny as *Airplane* and the TV parody *Police Squad* from the same Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahms, with an assist from Martyn Burke, whom the Brothers credit with making their ideas work.

This time around we've got a WWII espionage send-up fused with an Elvis Presley movie parody starring Val Kilmer in his film debut as teenage heartthrob Nick Rivers, whose name came to his father while shaving. (I like to think a bunch of us in college created that joke first when we formed a rock and roll group, Nick Gillette And The Blades for a goofy talent night; I still have a photo of our debut and closing night, but we had a fabulous sax man who played two saxes simultaneously.)

Nick Rivers fills in for Leonard Bernstein as a cultural ambassador to East Germany, though Nick's claim to fame is the bouncy "Skeet Surfin'" whose first line, sung in giddy Beach Boys fashion, is "If everybody had a 12 gauge/With a sufboard too/You see em shootin and surfin'/From here to Malibu/Because he's totally b**hin'/Ridin waves and blastin' pigeons." So amidst a plot causing Roger Ebert to happily exlaim ""to describe the plot would be an exercise in futility," come spontaneous bursts into song that are just as catchy and memorable as their inspirations from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Beach Boys and doo-wop favorites of the '50s. It's all played with a terrific straight face, with cameos from Omar Sharif and Peter Cushing.

Though it's not necessary at all to know Yiddish and German, *Top Secret!* mines sly comedy gold by mixing the two throughout the film. Nick's hotel, for instance, "Hotel Gey Schlüffen" is translated from the Yiddish to "Go to sleep," and when the waiter asks Nick what his dining preference is, mixed along with the German is the Yiddish curse, "go take a s**t in the ocean." While these subtleties are just little Easter eggs in the soundtrack, the film ostensibly luxuriates in sight gags, *Airplane*'s raison d'etre, including one of the most inventive 88-second scenes I've witnessed. When Nick and his love interest Hillary Flammond (Lucy Guterridge), the daughter of a kidnapped German scientist, follow a lead to aid in the father's release, they visit a Swedish bookstore with proprietor Peter Cushing. The entire sequence is was staged, shot and then run backwards to simulate the Swedish tongue; it must have been a logistical nightmare, though according to the Zucker Brothers it took one rehearsal and one day to film in an uninterrupted take. Sight gags abound, even as the scene's dialogue played frontward and backward still make sense, and a close inspection shows book titles like *Lesbian Bars of North Carolina* and *Europe On 5 Quaaludes A Day*.

As is customary in legitimate films of this genre, Hillary's affections are tested when she and Nick, after a night of passion, meet with members of the French Underground, now headed by Hillary's long-thought-dead love Nigel (Christopher Villiers), with whom Hillary shared a *Blue Lagoon* (1980) inspired youth. Yes, Roger Ebert, you're right--the plot is just there to act as springboard for more sustained jokes and puns. To gauge the rapid-fire battery of humor, the Zucker Brothers have stated three minutes without a joke is far too long, as they endeavored to toss them out non-stop, and over its trim 90 minutes I found more to laugh at than an entire season of most sitcoms.

A glowing 89% of Amazon viewers rate this at four or five stars, and my own enthusiasm for this classic is admittedly unabashed. Val Kilmer is in perfect deadpan form as Nick, doing his own singing for the film, and as a subtle little aside to his personal life of the time, in the prison scenes you can find a picture of his then-girlfriend Cher hanging on the wall. Lucy Guteridge as Hillary ("It's a German name. It means 'she whose bosoms defy gravity'") brings earnestness to her heroine role, even as she measures the biceps and other muscles of her former boyfriend Nigel. Omar Sharif handles the Zuckers' indignities with stoic seriousness, adding ironic gravity to the madness exploding around him.

While some of the humor is a little adult for younger kids, *Top Secret!* blends the sophomoric with the cerebral (not too cerebral) for what I find as carefree riffing and laugh out loud lunacy. This one tops my comedy list as a film that never wears out its welcome in my house. If you haven't seen it, seek it out--it's due for a Blu-Ray "Special Edition" treatment in March (with hope not just on Region 2 format), but in my mind it's more than four times its $4.99 Amazon DVD price any day of the week. If you have seen it and enjoyed it, try it again--it doesn't grow old or dated. And remember the fateful words of Hillary Flammond: "For as long as a single man is forced to cower under the iron fist of oppression, as long as a child cries out in the night, or an actor can be elected president, we must continue the struggle."
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/16/2020, 4:00 pm

Post #323: There's one really funny joke in today's feature, *See No Evil, Hear No Evil* (1989), the third film collaboration between Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It occurs very early on in the subway when Richard Pryor, who is blind in the film, loudly feigns shock at discovering he's black. "Do Mom and Dad know?" he shouts while touching his face in mock panic. Beyond that inspired moment, the film basically careens and boinks along like a pinball while racking up a modest score.

But that's just me, I guess, because 90% of Amazon viewers rate it at four or five stars, proclaiming it's a comedy classic. Okay. I found it likable enough, and the interplay between Wilder and Pryor is fun, but I didn't find the basic propulsion of the narrative--Wilder and Pryor are suspected of killing a courier who's dropped a much-sought-after coin in a cigar box repository for change at Wilder's concession stand--really all that threatening or urgent. For me the film lacks some of the hectic drive of *Silver Streak* (1976) which was also the last time Wilder and Pryor were directed by Arthur Hiller.

It's certainly a high-level screwball premise: Dave Lyons (Wilder) who is deaf but reads lips meets is approached by deaf Wally Karew (Pryor) seeking a job at Dave's news and concession stand in New York. Following an initial confrontational skirmish they become close friends, guiding one another through the pitfalls of their disabilities, bonding over a bar fight during which Dave directs the flow of Wally's punches via time signatures on a clock face. At work one day a patron desperate to escape the attentions of a beautiful mercenary Eve (Joan Severance) ditches what appears to be a gold coin at Dave's stand while Wally picks up curbside newspapers. Eve shoots the courier and steals his briefcase while Dave's back is turned, though Dave turns in time to appreciate the curve of her legs as she leaves, and Wally, hearing the shot and taken aback by her Shalamar perfume, falls over the dead man. Naturally Dave picks up the gun as he helps Wally to his feet, and the police arrive just in time to arrest them.

At police HQ Captain Braddock (Alex North), frustrated with their disabilities, maddeningly interrogates them with a short fuse and develops an instant dislike for them. Meanwhile, Eve and her partner Kirgo (Kevin Spacey in his first major feature film role) determine Dave and Wally must have the coin and act as their attorneys, securing their release. Dave recognizes Eve's legs and Wally her Shalamar, and the madcap escape is on once the killers retrieve their coin. There's the obligatory stealing of a police car with Dave unable to steer being handcuffed from behind and Wally navigating traffic by Dave's instructions. It's all very broadly staged and amusing, while in my mind not really comically inspired.

The circuitous trail of the baddies, aided by Dave's ability to read lips from afar, leads our heroes through various ploys and counterploys as Dave and Wally move to retrieve the coin and clear their names. Sure, it's nice seeing the camaraderie of Wilder and Pryor again, and the basic premise has comic potential; I just found the ebb and flow of the narrative a little paint-by-number and reminiscent of too many buddy movies of the time, in spite of the blind and deaf conceits. I also found it a little lazy and distracting that Audrie Neenan played two parts--a police woman and a hotel maid--for no apparent reason, even though her total screen time amounts to less than five minutes. (Little things like that bug me.)

Gene Wilder apparently turned down the role twice due to its depiction of blindness and deafness, and was prepared to turn it down a third time when his agent urged him to meet with Tri-Star executives and negotiate his contract stipulating he be allowed to make script changes. Wilder also studied with Karen Webb, a speech pathologist from the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, in preparation for his role, and she would later become his fourth wife. Richard Pryor similarly studied with the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, who declined offers of proceeds from the film due to their concerns at opening night over the film's language, notably the ubiquitous F-bomb.

Critics were not kind to *See No Evil, Hear No Evil* even though it remained in the Number One movie slot for its first two weeks, netting an accumulated $46,908,987, recouping and topping its $18,000,000 budget. Roger Ebert gave it one and one-half stars, concluding, "What if the movie had made the relationship between its two guys one of necessity, not of friendship? What if they hated each other, yet still had to work as a team? That's an old formula, too-- most recently used by Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in "Midnight Run" (1988)--but it would have generated some tension. Instead, all we get are two really nice guys and some cardboard computer crooks."

I pretty much agree--*See No Evil, Hear No Evil* had a lot of potential, and many people still consider it a hit, but for me it was just okay, a pleasant way to spend 103 minutes if for no other reason to enjoy the stars, Joan Severance's undeniable smoky presence and the real cyst on Kevin Spacey's cheek which malady would be surgically removed after the production. For those keeping score, that tally adds up to a strange confluence of reasons to seek it out, but if it's on the rerun circuit it's worth sitting down to watch. For me, it's the old fall-back: Yup, it's a movie, all right.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Seamus on 3/16/2020, 5:02 pm

Great reviews Jeff. I loved Top Secret. I wanna see that photo of your debut night. I shall demand it sir!

Always enjoy how thorough the reviews are. I sometimes feel I need to do book reports on these movies and submit them for CC credits towards my degree.
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Post by ghemrats on 3/17/2020, 3:36 pm

If I spent any more time in school, Seamus, I would have died by degrees.

Post #324: [Eerily familiar four note theme repeating in the background as Our Narrator, smoke curling up to encircle him, intones through gritted teeth:] Submitted for your approval: The cast of a film currently under production, the subject: the Jewish holiday Purim, the cast: a rag-tag assemblage of would-be's, could-be's, and used-to-be's. Over the span of the next 86 minutes these purveyors of ego and the hopeful will enter a strange land where the cameras impassively record their every movement, their joys as well as their sorrows, their confusion and effusion, in a merciless rush to manipulate the media machine that resides solely and wholly in. . . The Christopher Guest Zone.

Today's feature, *For Your Consideration* (2006), director/co-writer Christopher Guest's follow-up mockumentary to *A Mighty Wind* (2003) commented on a short time ago, may not pack the same emotional resonance as the musical, but then the same ensemble group is back to parody the troubles and travails of filming an independent film and getting it to the market for Academy Award buzz. As in his previous films, *For Your Consideration* relies on a paper-thin outline supplied to its actors, allowing them to improvise all their lines in one or two takes, and the call list is mighty impressive:

Along with Guest and his co-conspirator for the main flow of the film, Eugene Levy, we follow Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Jim Piddock, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Richard Kind, Paul Dooley and Bob Balaban, all of whom you'll recognize from *A Mighty Wind*. But adding to the fun this time around are Simon Helberg (*The Big Bang Theory*), Ricky Gervais and John Krasinski (both from *The Office*, BBC and NBC incarnations), Sandra Oh (*Killing Eve*), singer Loudon Wainwright and guitarist Joe Satriani.

The story follows aging Marilyn Hack (O'Hara) and veteran actor turned kosher hot dog mascot Victor Allen Miller (Shearer) as the stars of *Home For Purim*, the 1940s-set drama about a family gathering in the deep South around the Jewish festival celebrating the victory over the attempted genocide described in the Old Testament Book of Esther. Hack plays Esther, the dying matriarch, Miller is her embattled husband, and Callie Webb (Parker Posey) is the estranged daughter who returns after a twelve-year absence with her lesbian lover (Rachael Harris as actress Debbie Gilchrist) and her devoted brother (Christopher Moynihan playing novice actor Brian Chubb). So with first-time director Jay Berman (Guest) at the helm, we see the film-within-a-film taking shape, though the film's producer, Whitney Taylor Brown, the noted Brown Diaper Service heiress, knows less than nothing about film production. When faced with changing the holiday, she floats the suggestion, "What if we do a, uh, a different holiday around the table, Easter, and just focus on the rabbit?"

It's a concatenation of missteps until news leaks that Hack's name might be bandied about for an Academy Award nomination, which energizes everyone and rockets the tension skyward. Then the buzz grows even more frantic when Miller's name is rumored to be up for Best Actor, sending studio executive clowns (Ricky Gervais and Simon Helberg) in to "tweak" the film into a blockbuster rather than a small independent feature. Scripters for *Purim*, Philip Koontz (Balaban) whose name is obscenely skewered by producer Brown, and Lane Iverson (McKean) are pushed to the sidelines as dialogue is changed, the script is tossed on the floor and Purim is deemed "too Jewish" and changed to Thanksgiving for a more inclusive approach. Iverson pleads at one point, "You can't throw the baby out with the bathwater because then all you have is a wet, critically injured baby."

There are sublimely goofy moments in *For Your Consideration* that will allow you to laugh out loud, particularly as the "stars" of *Home For Purim [Thanksgiving]* find themselves pampered by the media attention, hilariously sent up by Hollywood TV gossip magazine hosts Cindy and Chuck (Lynch and Willard's inspired but rock-solid parodies of the fawning hosts who seem to have coat hangers wedged into their mouths for a permanent ingratiating smile). Equally fun is a brief but funny satire of news programs with Sarah Shahi and Scott Williamson as Sanchez and Skip newscasters doing their best to laugh at weathergirl-cum-ventriloquist Nina Conti and her monkey puppet. (Her extended improvisations on the DVD deleted scenes are really charming.)

In an irony that could exist only in Hollywood, Catherine O'Hara's portrayal of Marilyn Hack won the National Board of Review's Best Supporting Actress Award, and she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the category of Best Female Lead. There was an equally ironic Oscar buzz for her work in *For Your Consideration* though the final result mirrors the same fate as Hack's in the film. And if you're into celebrity spotting, keep your eye peeled for Claire Forlani and Hart Bochner who appear as themselves.

The box office was less responsive to it than Guest's previous forays, with a world wide gross of $5,925,637 after a $12 million budget. Amazon viewers are basically impressed with 72% awarding it four or five stars, and Roger Ebert evidently found it wonderful: "Like Guest's other films, *For Your Consideration* is extremely funny and tinged with sadness and disappointment, the kind that accompanies all of our inevitable adjustments to dreams deferred and downsized. Because of that, even the most shameless characters retain some teensy core of dignity. The movie features some big laughs, a lot of modest ones, and performances so exquisitely fresh and precise that they make laughter almost irrelevant -- in a way that only genius can."

For me, a Christopher Guest maven, it ranks perhaps third after *A Mighty Wind* (2003) and *Best In Show* (2000), but it's still funnier than many painfully scripted comedies I've seen. [Reiteration of the four-note theme, the sonorous Narrator's voice-over intoning]: A short inverted epigraph to the proceedings: "In every actor there lives a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingale." If *For Your Consideration* is any indication of the relative truth of that adage, perhaps we might take a step back, take a quiet pause and determine as The Bard did, if, when the wind blows southernly you can tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw. . . in The Christopher Guest Zone.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/18/2020, 4:36 pm

Post #325: Oh Good Lord! I am almost embarrassed to offer the trailer for today's feature, the Michael Powell film, *Age Of Consent* (1969), actually a beautiful and charming movie sometimes favorably compared to an Art Film. Produced by director Powell (*A Matter Of Life And Death* commented on earlier) and co-produced by star James Mason, it is most favorably known for the feature film debut of the then-twenty-two-year old [Dame] Helen Mirren. But listening to the positively creepy announcer for the trailer juxtaposed against scenes taken out of context, you would think any minute the pandering soundtrack would start morphing into Boom Chicka Boom Chicka Wow Wong! of a vintage porn stag reel. For God's sake, wipe the drool from your chin, Mr. Announcer, and treat the film with some modicum of taste and restraint.

Filmed at Dunk Island and Purtaboi Island on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, this Australian production was hailed during its release in Australia, running uncut for seven months in theaters. But Columbia trimmed a full eight minutes (due to tasteful nudity by today's standards) from its 106 minute running time when it was released to American and British audiences. Now restored to its original director's cut and remastered under the urging and support of Martin Scorcese, a Powell fan, *Age of Consent* can be seen through Powell's eyes and intent on DVD. And contrary to the perfectly awful trailer, there is nothing prurient or pervy in it; it's a lyrical study, in Powell's words, of "the problem of Creation and the fact that this creation in the case of the painter was very physical. He will have to struggle, to fight, even more strongly than he will move away from reality."

James Mason plays Bradley Morahan, a successful Australian abstract artist who has grown world weary of the New York art scene. Seeking the passionate edge he once experienced and disillusioned that he might never paint again, he sequesters himself in what he hopes will be the isolation of his native Queensland with only his dog Godfrey and the island's bats for company. In true Powell fashion, the scenery is lush, exploding with color untouched by expanding, encroaching commercialism. Even so the island is populated, as he discovers, with a smattering of people, including the reclusive vitriolic alcoholic Ma Ryan (Neva Carr-Glynn) and her gorgeous, innocent and naive granddaughter Cora (Helen Mirren) who gathers and sells crayfish and oysters to fund her dreams of escape to Brisbane to become a hairdresser.

Holy Yipe! It now occurs to me that on paper (or pixelated screens) this really *does* sound like a bad '60s fever dream for both overstimulated youth and middle-aged Organizational Men. And Helen Mirren can certainly fuel that perception as an untapped beauty left alone to run wild among the coconuts. But I swear it doesn't play out that way; even though there is ample opportunity to see the nubile full nudity of Dame Mirren in her prime, it is not gratuitous but purely platonic and muse-worthy as Cora reawakens Morahan's passion to paint and sketch. Early on, following a pre-island romp with his girlfriend (Clarissa Kaye-Mason, whom James Mason would marry during the shoot), Morahan makes it clear that he is sated and not looking for anything but inspiration, which he finds in Cora, whom he pays to model for him.

The story languidly moves along, punctuated by a surprise visit from a grasping, needy friend Nat Kelly (Jack MacGowran) a gambler escaping a sizable debt, who provides comic relief and the opportunity to steal his buddy blind. Immersed in the newfound reigniting of his talent, Monahan devotes himself entirely to his craft, oblivious to the growing affection Cora holds for him while tolerating the abuse of her decrepit grandmother who swills gin with religious fervor.

The original, and now newly reinstated, soundtrack by Peter Sculthorpe perfectly compliments the island breezes, crystalline waters, and white sand, although when it lurches away from its instrumental sonic backdrop to drop in the ultra-cheesy lounge vocals of Alan Dean I wanted to feed my head into our paper shredder. Those vocal intrusions date the film severely and by today's standards risk turning its accompanying scenes into horrible parodies of their true intent. Personally I would rather shave with a dull cheese grater than hear Dean's attempts at soulful scene setting. Under those insertions I can easily understand why Columbia studio executives replaced Sculthorpe's score with one by Stanley Myers; anything--even a succession of WWF wrestlers pouncing on bagpipes filled with yogurt--would be preferable to Alan Dean's warbling.

For Helen Mirren *Age Of Consent* recalls some memorable firsts for her: her first trip to Australia; her first feature film; her introduction to such stellar film-making company as director Michael Powell and actor James Mason; and her first time playing an Australian. "In those days it was very bold, to put it bluntly. I was incredibly uptight and shy and nervous about it. But Michael was very, very sweet and made me feel fine about it. James was just great anyway. And the greatest thing of all was it was on a desert island. And if you can't drop your kit on a desert island and get in tune with nature, where can you?" And the climate was daunting to a young member of the Royal Shakespearean Company. "Cairns still had bars that women weren't allowed into, and I remember seeing a sign outside a bar saying something like 'Aborigine Throwing Competition on Friday night'. It was a slightly scary place to me, certainly, the far north of Australia, at the time. It was deeply sexist, racist, oppressive, conservative and frightening, from what I saw of it. . . . [but Powell] was like a firework, a Catherine wheel; exciting to be around but sometimes unpredictable."

So if you venture into this quiet exploration into the artistic consciousness, don't expect something cast in the mold of Matt Helm or Austin Powers' ancestors as the nudity is respectful and sensuous, especially juxtaposed against the craggy color of the coral and the cumulus cloudbanks. Many of today's audiences will find the leisurely pace too slow, the scenes playing out too languidly, and the lack of slap and tickle between Mason and Mirren as disappointing as a *Playboy* substituting Gauguins for centerfolds. But it's a lovely film nonetheless with no Michael Bay histrionic explosions, though I have to admit I wouldn't be opposed to a couple of carefully positioned nukes pointed in the general direction of Alan Dean. Well, you can't have everything. . .
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/19/2020, 4:05 pm

Post #326:  If today's commentary is littered with misspellings, I apologize, but since I've heard one can contract a virus by using a computer, I've found it a real challenge to write while wearing a hazmat suit.  I got mine on sale from the Howie Mandel Requisition Warehouse, quite a deal (or no deal) as the knuckles of the gloves are a bit worn from fist-bumping, but I think I'm safe as I write this from the fallout shelter of our subbasement lair.  We've stocked up on toilet paper and Twinkies, so I think we will be okay until the Zombie Apocalypse.  Hope you're doing the same because we're all in this together. We'll leave a light on for you, but if you stop over expect to stand a good forty-two feet away from us and bring your own hand sanitizer because we spent over four hundred dollars on the five bottles we just bought on eBay.

It all feels like a weird Stephen King novel, doesn't it? People being forced to reconnect with their kids and actually spend time with them?  The President struggling to retract his stance that these times are not a hoax perpetrated by "the Demoncrats? Cats and dogs living together!  Indeed these are scary times.  So isn't it comforting to realize there are movies out there to help us laugh and divert our attention from our own troubles?  You betcha, Red Ryder.  Unfortunately, today's feature *Pulp* (1972) isn't one of them, even though it tries really hard, so I have to give it points for being odd.

Released fast on the heels of the gritty drama *Get Carter* (1971) also starring Michael Caine and written and directed by Mike Hodges, *Pulp* tended to disappoint audiences because they had Caine's indelibly eetched gangster hero in their minds.  But Hodges had other, lighter notions to toy with in *Pulp*--the midadventures of a hapless but successful British pulp writer a'la Mickey Spillane who wanders into murder in Malta with the promise of great wealth.  Used to penning a string of sexually-charged novels with names like *My Gun Is Long* and *Kill Me Gently*, Mickey King (Caine) is more at home fabricating sex and violence in his mind rather than ghost-authoring the memoirs of mysterious celebrity who's hobnobbed his way through life playing gangsters and getting chummy with them.

While being transported to a remote island where he will be contacted by his employer's representatives, King meets Miller (Al Lettieri), who passes himself off as a curious English professor, whom King believes is his contact.  No such luck, as shortly after arriving at their hotel, through a room mix-up King finds Miller floating in a bath of what King believes is crimson bath salts, but is in fact a more sanguine mixture.  No slouch for deduction, King concludes he might have been the original target since Miller took King's room by mistake.

By the time we meet King's employer, the vain, demeaning practical joker Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney) who wants his cinematic life immortalized before succumbing to cancer, King encounters all manner of stock characters he can use in his next novel--Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander), Gilbert's steadfast right-hand man; Princess Betty Cippola (Lizabeth Scott in her final film role), who will only come out at night, lean and hungry type, who shares a history with Gilbert; Liz Adams (Nadia Cassini) as the ingenue with the long legs and hot pants; and an enigmatic Englishman (Dennis Price).  There's also a nice homage to Bogart as Robert Sacchi is on hand to call up Bogie's ghost, and Caine's laconic voice over holds well to the conventions of film noir to comic effect.

There's some wonky attempts at sight gags which mildly amuse, and the scenery is gorgeous especially when it's augmented by George Martin's score.  In fact a finely tuned ear can catch snippets and variations of the Fifth Beatles' production of "Got To Get You Into My Life," from the Beatles' *Revolver* album, which the great George Martin produced.  Some sly references to Beatles tunes pepper the dialogue as well, making it instantly likable for its clever allusions for those of us who never grew out of a Fab Four obsession.

But *Pulp* flopped when it was released, again due to audience expectations rather than flat performances.  It's all very silly and fun, though its humor comes more from a dry British wit than high level antics.  According to one of Michael Caine's autobiographies, Lizabeth Scott said that while she enjoyed the beauty of Malta, she was not pleased that most of her footage was cut out — eight scenes in all. Hodges noted that Scott was challenging to work with while shooting since she "hadn't make a picture in 15 years and I had to really coax her into coming back." She conceded to Caine that she was very nervous, though ultimately Hodges was pleased with her final performance.

All in all, then, *Pulp* is a nice little diversion, in no way a blockbusting comedy but more an intriguing little throw-back to the noir conventions with Caine wearing a typically "mod" [i.e., horribly dated] '70s haircut.  The plot offers a lot of whimsy and the actors are engaging, so it's definitely worth watching.  Taken for what it is rather than what people expected it to be after *Get Carter* (which I'll comment on in the coming days), *Pulp*, like the paper that inspired it, is enjoyable but disposable.  And even though it won't make you want to wash your hands afterward, it might be prudent to do so anyway.  Be well and keep breathing. I hear eBay has a great deal on Febreze--less than ninety-two dollars a can.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 3/19/2020, 7:56 pm

I've been workin' my way through comedy comfort movies of late. But I'll toss Age of Consent into the queue at some point.

Be safe out there kids.
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Post by ghemrats on 3/20/2020, 6:32 pm

Post #327: As a child of the fifties I've been reflecting on jingles from my childhood lately, I don't know why: "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, that is what I truly want to be-e-e, 'cuz if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener everyone would be in love with me," and "Nuthin' says lovin' like somethin' from the oven, and Pillsbury says it best." Wow, pictures of domestic bliss when "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee!" You can almost feel a kitcheny warmth, can't you, when Jif Peanut Butter was sold by a blue kangaroo? Years later my sons were treated to a jaunty little tune that smacked of delight, you may remember it too: "I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys 'R' Us kid, I don't wanna grow up Cause baby if I did, I couldn't be a Toys R' Us kid, More games, more toys, Oh boy! I wanna be a Toys R' Us kid." Of course it's a paean to greed and commercialism, but it also hearkens to a time of carefree gaiety and fun, imagination.

But now that they're in their thirties, my sons love Tom Waits, who spins those sentiments differently: "How do you move in a world of fog That's always changing things?/Makes me wish that I could be a dog Well, when I see the price that you pay/I don't want to grow up/I don't ever want to be that way/I don't want to grow up." Sometimes neither do I, as I find refuge in the ignorance of my youth when a wiener was a hot dog and not a disgraced politician who lived up to his name. But there are no more blue kangaroos and even the purple Grimace is homeless, living in a cardboard box and treated with disdain because he's obviously loaded with MSG and sodium. It's a Brave New World wherein you'll never see racing women breaking the tape "way out in front in their Maidenform bras" ever again, as evidenced by today's feature, *Bombshell* (2019) starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie. These are tough times for which no one has prepared us, because it seems times they are a'changin'.

Even Margot Robbie, who plays an "evangelical millennial" newbie to news broadcasting Kayla Pospisil, a composite creation for the film, expressed a lack of understanding how seriously our culture has shifted. "One of the lines that shocked me when I first read the script was that sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexual advances," she told the *Herald Sun*. "I always thought it required physical contact for it to be considered illegal or wrong. That really shocked me." Margot said recognizing that such harassment did not have to be physical, but also be verbal, prompted her to join the film.

For *Bombshell* shows twelve to fourteen different kinds of harassment in the marketplace over the span of its 109 minutes and more than 250 scenes. Cheese Louise, it's a real education that ranges from outright overweening discomfort and disgust at members of my gender to contextual misunderstanding that calls for--pardon the use of jargon, I hate it too--paradigm shifts.

At the center of the film, of course, is the toxicity of Fox News head Roger Ailes (an almost unrecognizable John Lithgow) as some of his charming and disarming charisma and profound likability masks a deep core of insecurity and horrific misogyny. One scene in particular--his demand for loyalty from Kayla who is eager to forge her success in the industry--stands as one of the most invasive, creepy exercises in male dominance I've ever witnessed. In fact, director Jay Roach, attuned to the toll it demanded of Margot Robbie, filmed the scene in a single take with multiple cameras so Robbie would not have to perform it more than once. Lithgow's Ailes is chilling--some even say too sympathetic--as Lithgow himself says he was playing "a man in the grips of his own compulsions [who] hates himself for it."

With executive producer Charlize Theron holding center stage as Megyn Kelly, but more than powerfully supported by Nicole Kidman (who plays Fox's Gretchen Carlson) and Margot Robbie, *Bombshell* shines a largely faithful light on the roiling silence and politics underpinning the Fox News Network under Ailes' watchful if paranoid supervision. Carefully crafted to show three women at various stages of their careers, director Jay Roach's film is not always easy to take: its language is raw, boiling over with a mixture of indignation and good-old-boy camaraderie, its actions reprehensible and vindicating, as separately the women's stories paint a dramatic unraveling of the carefully ignored, closed strata of power.

Winning one Oscar and twenty-one other awards along with 51 nominations covering every aspect of the film, *Bombshell* is a compelling adult drama with an amazing cast of supporting characters and actors, including a wonderful cameo from Richard Kind (*Mad About You* and countless other character roles) as Rudy Giuliani, Connie Britton (*Nashville* and *Friday Night Lights*) as the faithful Beth Ailes, Academy Award winnerAllison Janney as Susan Estrich, Ailes' legal counsel, Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch, and Kate McKinnon as Jess Carr, Kayla's confidante and sometimes love interest. The film itself is a cat's cradle of pulling tensions and crosshatching motives as the search for truth, justice (and presumably the American way) competes for attention in the powder keg of journalism, politics both internal and national as well as sexual, personal integrity and business-as-usual.

Look: Writing about sexual harassment and specifically *Bombshell*'s depiction of it is akin to negotiating a minefield on a balancing board in clogs while stabilizing a tray of thin-stemmed martini glasses on your forehead. Regardless of how careful your attempt at being fair and balanced, there are those who still argue over your lack of grace or insight. The world is no longer a block party with women discussing their cribbage points in their Red Halterneck Sweetheart dresses while the men hover over the barbecue singing in barbershop harmony, "but when it’s time to relax / Mil-ler stands clear (beer after beer) / if you’ve got the time (if you’ve got the time) / we’ve got the beer (Miller beer).” And *Bombshell* makes that abundantly clear.

Strip the political ramifications from the film, toss the moaning over political correctness out the window (that's not what this is about), stifle the urges to complain about liberal versus conservative monkey muffins, and track the trajectory of human decency. I don't care if you view Megyn Kelly as a martyr, a centerfold saint, a flaming Helen Wheels, or an opportunist--or perhaps a person; see Roger Ailes as Jabba the Hutt, Pizza the Hut, a misunderstood philanthropist, or an Olympic donut hurler--or perhaps a very flawed human being victimized by his power and upbringing. Whatever your inclination, watch *Bombshell* as an entertainment addressing cultural shortcomings helmed by actors at the height of their game. It may stir your ire, swell your passions or perhaps provide fodder for discussion; you might find it facile in its characterizations and suggest Fox hasn't been changed for all its moral posturing. But it's not a documentary--it's a drama, and to criticize it for its liberties is to decry *King Kong* for not breaking more windows in the Empire State Building on his ascent. You've missed the point: old behaviors, however deeply embedded, are just not *right* or acceptable any longer.

Jonathan Safran Foer said, "Time was passing like a hand waving from a train I wanted to be on," and for that reason "growing up"--that is, releasing, augmenting and replacing pictures that sustained us when we were kids--is not a passive endeavor. Old paradigms and microaggressions are being unearthed every day, and it's easy to fall back into the old "Calgon, take me away" fashions of yesteryear when it seems we just didn't need to *think* (or be aware of) so much or so deeply. At the heart of *The Honeymooners* we weren't thinking "Why, I didn't realize domestic abuse could be so much fun," because Alice Kramden could stop Ralph's "Bang! Zoom! To the moon, Alice!" with a withering glance that would reduce her husband to a yammering moop (Matter out of place) eking out, "Homina homina homina."

And when Campbell's asked Frankie Laine to growl, "How do you handle a hungry MAAAN? The Manhandlers. A roarin'est, ravenous hungry MAAAN--The Manhandlers!" few people actually believed soup ladled with a handful of vegetables would actually transform a raging bull into Bambi. And somewhere deep in our consciousness we men knew Brycreem (a little dab'll do ya") wouldn't actually cause ladies to dissolve in a puddle at our shoulders. But today we don't really harbor those quaint choices anymore, even if our bologna still has a first name spelled O-S-C-A-R. So it gets me wondering, What classic illusions and allusions will our kids and grandkids be singing fondly as our consciousness expands and our faults are openly displayed?

I guess that's not up to me anymore. So I guess I'll adjust my perceptions and say, "Have it your way, have it your way, hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us. . ." I don't mind "growing up" if it means "I'd like to see the world for once/All standing hand in hand/And hear them echo through the hills/For peace through out the land/(That's the song I hear)/I'd like to teach the world to sing/In perfect harmony/I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company." Here's to you all.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/21/2020, 5:00 pm

Post #328:  It's a curious cultural phenomenon and statistical anomaly that everybody's dog is undeniably the most faithful, loving and empathetic animal on the planet, just as everyone's children are unquestionably the most spectacular human beings ever to trod the earth.  Of course we realize at some level that's simply not true--because MY dog and sons are the only ones who genuinely fulfill that pronouncement. That's just biological fact not even worth disputing, so I just chalk it up to the deeply philosophical adage that the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.

Nevertheless, it's fun to sit back with today's feature, *Best In Show* (2000) and witness the human folly as competitors in the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show gush in enthusiastic enamoration over their pets (They obviously never saw mine).  Once again Christopher Guest has drawn his bead in deadpan mockumentary incisiveness on the foibles of American mania with his talented troupe of improvisational talent: Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy (who again co-wrote with Guest), Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Jim Piddock, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr. and Michael Hitchcock all spotlighting their comedy chops in a tight biscuit-sized 90 minutes.

This time around we have Floridians Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Levy and O'Hara) with their Norwich Terrier Winky; super uptight upper class yuppie Chicagoans Meg and Hamilton Swan (Posey and Hitchcock), with their Weimaraner Beatrice; nut enthusiast and budding ventriloquist Harlan Pepper (Guest) and his Bloodhound Hubert hailing from the fishing village of Pine Nut;  millionaires and two-time winners Sherri Ann and Leslie Ward Cabot (Coolidge and Patrick Cranshaw) with their Standard Poodle Rhapsody in White (a.k.a. Butch) aided by trainer Christy Cummings (Lynch); and proudly rainbow'd gay couple Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof (Higgins and McKean) and their Shih Tzu Miss Agnes. Rounding out the cast are commentators Trevor Beckwith (Piddock) and oblivious "color" commentator Buck Laughlin (Willard).

Culled from over 60 hours of improvised footage with just a sixteen-page narrative outline, *Best In Show* never pokes mean-spirited fun at the characters but weaves their vignettes into a mirthful chronicle of the lengths to which people will go to feed their dreams. Through these revealing snippets we come to know what drives them and contributes to their zealous pursuit of fame.  Some, like Harlan Pepper, are earthy, simple folk (in a DVD extra scene we get to see Harlan's pride and joy, his beach ball collection), and some, like the Flecks, keep unearthing new truths about their mates even after years of marriage ("Gerry Fleck: She had dozens of boyfriends. Cookie Fleck: Hundreds. Gerry Fleck: Hundreds? Cookie Fleck: [Thinks] ... Yeah, hundreds. Gerry Fleck: Well, I did not know that!"), as Cookie keeps meeting old flames along the way to the show.

These thumbnail sketches reveal all we need to know about the inner lives of these wacky characters and provide the framework for the show in which the dogs are almost incidental, so invested are we in their owners.  Meg and Hamilton, for instance, "met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other." while trophy wife Sherri Ann candidly discusses her love for her husband who is some 44 years her senior: "People say 'oh but he's so much older than you' and you know what, I'm the one having to push him away. We have so much in common, we both love soup and snow peas, we love the outdoors, and talking and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about."

To boost the comic value Christopher Guest specifically instructed Fred Willard not to research material on dogs to heighten the vacuity of his commentator.  As a result Willard filmed all his scenes in one and one-half days, offering some of his best lines with Jim Piddock who did voluminous research on dogs and their breeding, who also filmed his entire part in one day. Their chemistry is wonderfully balanced, creating some memorable moments as masters of ceremonial wit.

As a result *Best In Show* has been named on numerous Best Comedies Lists: *Premiere* magazine cited it as one of The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time, Bravo placed it at Number 38 on their 100 Funniest Movies List, and Yahoo placed it on their "100 Funniest Movies to See Before You Die" list. In addition it received fourteen nominations for awards throughout America and Canada, including the Golden Globes, and won eleven awards including American Film Institute's Movie of the Year, American Comedy Awards' Funniest Supporting Actor (Fred Willard), Funniest Supporting Actress (Catherine O'Hara) and Funniest Motion Picture, and even snagged a Best Comedy Award from the British Comedy Awards. It also scores high with Amazon's audience at 86% four or five stars.

Sadly, though, this leaves us with only one Christopher Guest film to comment on, *Waiting For Guffman* (1997), but the good news is it scores even higher among Amazon viewers at 92%, so that one will be commented on shortly.  Of course if you haven't tapped into the inspired madness that catapulted these great comedies into the minds and hearts of America, you can always step back to 1984 and (re)watch the outstanding *This Is Spinal Tap* which never grows old no matter how many times you rock through it.

Even though there can be only one winner at the Mayflower Kennel Club competition, there are no losers in this comedy. They may all be dogs, but they land on their feet with their dreams intact through the strength of the comfort afforded to them by owning caring, dedicated if flawed humans.  And in the final analysis, who really needs a blue ribbon to know unconditional love is still available in this day and age.  In my mind that makes all of us recipients of a very special bond and blessing. . . even if my dog's better than your dog (don't believe me? Just watch the commercial for Ken-L Ration with a young Richard Marx validating it).
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/22/2020, 5:22 pm

Post #329:  Every once in awhile a film comes out of nowhere and turns my head, making me wonder why it never really caught on since it's such an unexpected sleeper.  Then there are other times when a film can be relatively obscure and I can understand why, even though it's pretty pretty pretty okay overall. Today's feature, *Extract* (2009) with Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck and J.K. Simmons, is evidence of the latter.  Since I have rooted for the Underdog since the time of Wally Cox's character and his girlfriend "Sweet Polly Purebred," I had solid hopes for this film--and it fulfilled a few of them.  It's not quite a dog, but it's not a superhero either, even as "There's no need to fear--Underdog is here" still echoes in my head after watching it.

In many ways it's a companion piece to director/writer Mike Judge's *Office Space* (1999), a classic on so many levels, but this time the focus is shifted from employees to employer.  Joel Reynolds (Bateman) is founder and owner of Reynolds' Extract, a manufacturing plant of flavoring extracts (Cookies And Cream is a special favorite). He's an eminently likable guy, cast in the mold of *Arrested Development*'s Michael Bluth, even though he's beset by a flood of conflict: General Mills is interested in buying out his company at a sizable profit, his wife Suzie (a lovely if underused Kristen Wiig) has been unresponsive and somewhat unavailable lately, his obnoxious neighbor Nathan (the terrific and relatable David Koechner) won't leave him alone in his obsequiousness, and an unfortunate factory accident has rendered good ol' boy and future floor manager Step Wikinson (Clifton Collins, Jr.) less one testicle. On top of it all a manipulative vixen Cindy (Kunis) has just joined the crew with eyes on a lucrative lawsuit if she can maneuver Step into suing the company, thus scuttling the buy-out.

What a great set-up for more of Judge's patented brand of humor (you might recall he hit his stride on television with Beavis and Butthead and *King Of The Hill* after *Office Space*).  There is a lot to like in *Extract* with some very appealing performances.  J. K. Simmons is great in small bits as Brian, Joel's righthand manager who refers to everyone on the line as Dinkus, never deigning to learn their real names.  Jason Bateman plays Joel with such comfortable reassurance in his insecurities that he basically inhabits his role rather than plays at it.  David Koechner is an annoying highlight with his inability to Just. Stop. Talking. actually channeling at one point the memorable Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) in *Office Space* in his insistence on obtaining a check for a dinner neither Joel nor Suzie is interested in attending.  And the humor is fairly tame, sustained and wryly funny, relying much more on character and circumstance rather than outrageousness.

That's the good stuff.  But a few quibbles I have with the film knock it down a peg for me preventing my listing it as an indispensable Can't Miss comedy.  Overall it seems a little light, even slight at 92 minutes, lacking some development in key characters and motivations. I wanted to spend more time getting to know some of these characters. Kristen Wiig's Suzie specifically is paper thin, her role--and inestimable talent--ripe for more comic intervention and invention.  There's only one scene demonstrating her spit and vinegar, and its payoff is one of the few genuine laugh out loud moments. But largely Suzie, as she's written, could have been played by just about anyone, she's that interchangeable. More scenes fleshing out the character and allowing Wiig to do what she does well--showing depth and vulnerability while still capitalizing on her expert timing--would have given *Extract* a much-needed comic tension.

Similarly, while Ben Affleck's bartender Dean is pivotal and goofy enough, I just didn't buy the ploy he and Joel dream up to deal with Joel's intrusive sexual frustration:  Hiring a spaced out, one-celled gigolo surfer dude Brad Chavez (Dustin Milligan) to seduce Suzie, thus paving the way and justifying Joel's having his own affair with Cindy--doesn't seem plausible from the nice guy Joel.  That's the sort of dumb subplot you'll find only in lazy script-writing, and that it's played straight rather than in a tongue-in-cheek fantasy undercuts Joel's genuine affection for his wife.  It's a narrative leap just too stupid to make sense in an otherwise sharp and smart set of comic possibilities.  

Joel's indignation over Suzie's infidelity is equally puzzling, proving he wasn't up for the complicity of the scheme. And the rationalization that he green lights the action under the cloud of drugs is cheap justification to me.  I've never been a fan of drug-addled comedy to begin with, but this scene seems just tacked on and not a natural extension of the character's desperation.  Now you could and may complain that my criticism comes from a place in which I'm superimposing logic over a comic device that creates its own set of rules.  Okay, I own that, but at the same time Mike Judge has stated he wished to "ground" this film in some semblance of reality--and most of the film succeeds on that level. Playing it straight can be a terrific technique--when it's believable, or we can suspend disbelief.  But in this case Joel is smart enough to know he can't have it both ways--find moral justification for bedding an underling in response to a manufactured affair for his wife. He's not an idiot, even if he acts like one for comic effect.

In his dedication to verisimilitude, he shot *Extract* in an actual working factory, a water bottling plant south of Los Angeles.  Judge took the authenticity one step further by employing the plant's employees as extras in the backgrounds. "Those people were actually running, doing some bottling while we were shooting. There were people working on machines that were so loud in there they couldn’t hear anyone call 'action' or 'cut.' They were just doing their job," he said.

Also Gene Simmons' cameo as a shark-like attorney being attracted to Reynolds' Extract's blood in the water over Step's injury starts off at ten and rockets up to 120 too wildly.  It's funny at first to hear him offer a settlement if Joel will be willing to position his own testicles in a slamming door, but we don't have to hear it repeated ad nauseum.  Why do some people think the louder you act, the funnier it is?

Still, for all its flaws, *Extract* still struck me as an basically friendly comedy, despite its lapses.  Judge has said he had forty pages of the script finished following *Office Space* but was convinced by his representative team to shelve it, based on how badly *Office Space* performed at the box office. (Of course it has since become a cult classic on DVD and Blu-Ray.)  Instead he shifted his focus on *Idiocracy* (2006), a more commercial film which frankly I found far inferior to *Extract*.  That distraction, I think, explains some of the minor missteps in the final cut of *Extract*, which earned a re-visitation after *Office Space* grew in popularity in the home market.

Amazon's viewership ranks it at 75% four or five stars, with 14% rating it at a two or one star plateau.  So it's an acquired taste, to be sure.  Call me Crabby Appleton here, but *Extract* holds much potential and offers small rewards so give it a try when you haven't found a backlog of great comedies or you happen across it while switching channels.  Even though I think it was worth the $7.50 I paid for it and don't begrudge the zip of time I invested in it, I also can't help but feel a little disappointed by it overall. Instead of soaring over buildings in a single hound, this Underdog, like Dug, Charles Muntz's pet in *Up* released the same year (2009), seems a bit too distracted to be--OH, SQUIRREL!
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/23/2020, 5:42 pm

Post #330: Pop Quiz, Kids! What do Meryl Streep, Alan Cumming, Casey Wilson, Kristen Bell, and Neil Patrick Harris have in common? No, it's not that they all own wheel barrows, even though that's the first answer that comes into your head. No, they all call today's feature, *Waiting For Guffman* (1996) their favorite movie of all time. Alan Cumming in fact has admitted to NPR he could watch the film "about a million times." That is some serious dedication, almost as much as the locals' celebrating Blaine, Missouri's sesquicentennial founding by Blaine Fabin, who thought he had made it California.

The valedictorians among us will immediately recognize this premise as the work of director Christopher Guest with co-writer and co-star Eugene Levy in Guest's first mockumentary since his work on *This Is Spinal Tap* (1984). Since Michigan is now marshaled into state-wide lock-down, I figured we could all use another inspired laugh, this time in the form of a small-town production of *Red, White And Blaine*, the story of the town's humble origins, directed by Corky St. Clair (Guest), a spunky idealist proud of his "Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway" past. Joining him in his visions of parlaying this play into a Broadway hit are the good people of Blaine: Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), the town's married travel agents and regular amateur performers who audition with their rendition of "Midnight At The Oasis"; Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), a perky Dairy Queen employee with a penchant for stoic drama; Clifford Wooley (Lewis Arquette), a "long time Blaineian" and retired taxidermist who is *Red, White and Blaine*'s narrator; Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), a tragically button-down dentist determined to release his well buried passion for performance; and high school teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban) who conducts the orchestra but yearns to direct.

Working from a sixteen-page outline again, and edited down from sixty hours of footage, *Waiting For Guffman* was inspired by Guest's attendance at one of his kids' performance of *Annie Get Your Gun*. “I was just drawn to the idea how earnest everyone was, how devoted they were to do the best performance they could, albeit at the level that they were working at,” Guest said in the DVD commentary. “There’s something charming about the expenditure of energy to watch these amateurs.” That childlike innocence drives the folks of Blaine, as shown in their auditions, which caught Guest and Bob Balaban totally unawares as they were totally improvised by the actors themselves.

Even though Eugene Levy and Guest collaborated on the outline, filming became a challenge at times; the actors' improvisations were so inspired, Guest had to stop filming because Levy would frequently burst out laughing, breaking character at what his colleagues had come up with.

“There’s a rehearsal scene where Corky tries to teach us that move that we just saw in the apartment,” Levy recalls in the DVD commentary. “I was laughing so hard I actually worked my way to the back of the group, fell to my knees, and crawled off the set ... When these things are being improvised, you don’t want to ruin something that people are working so hard to create because find you it funny and you laugh instead of the audience laughing. The easiest thing to do is to slink off the set and let the scene continue.” That scene alone, shown in part in the trailer, is a highlight, as Guest chose to wear jeans for the choreography. “I said, ‘These are huge, I could wear them backwards!’ And I am wearing them backwards.” The result is hilarious.

Once the roles for *Red, White And Blaine* are cast, everyone rallies to amass the best little musical available to them. Again we learn the inner lives of the characters, their dreams and aspirations and artistic choices, as news filters down that Broadway producer Mort Guffman will be in the front row on opening night, sending their quest for stardom into the heavens. The musical numbers for the play are the only strictly scripted elements of the film, written by the same team who would go on to write for Guest's *A Mighty Wind* (2003)--Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and William Ross, who also conspired to write the music for Spinal Tap. So again they are catchy, spirited and absurd in their intentions.

One such musical number capitalizes on Blaine's being "The Stool Capital Of The World," with the song "The Stool Boom," in which President McKinley is presented with one of Blaine's signature footstools. Fred Willard recalls, “Going in, all of us thought we would just play amateurs trying to dance and sing, and there was some discussion whether or not we’d lip-synch or sing live. Well, much to our surprise, they brought in a woman, a choreographer, and she put us through paces like we were going to do an Off-Broadway show. We were all taken back with all these steps they had us do. The happiest moment of shooting was when we finished filming that number, and they said, ‘Okay, cut, let’s move on.'" Such was the dedication to authenticity.

Supporting roles are offered by David Cross, Michael Hitchcock, Paul Dooley, Brian Doyle-Murray, Don Lake, Larry Miller and Paul Benedict, nearly all of whom would follow Guest's cast into subsequent films. Along the way we're treated to some deliriously funny improvised dialogue, one of my favorite bits coming from Dr. Pearl the dentist (Levy): "I think I got a, a, an entertaining bug... from my grandfather... uh, Chaim Pearlgut, who was very very big in the, um, Yiddish, uh, theater, back in New York. He was in the, the very... the sardonically irreverent... "Dybbuk Shmybbuk, I Said 'More Ham'"... and that revue I believe was 1914, and that revue was what made him famous. Incidentally, the song 'Bubbe Made A Kishke' came from that revue." Another gem follows the reported UFO visitation leaving a crop circle.

Pop quizzes aside, because who wants a quiz when you're delegated to a small room with no windows and artificial light, here's hoping you all stay safe and sane in the coming days. I for one am finding great comfort in such delights as dusting, collecting stimulating reading matter for our accountant's tax preparation, washing windows and my hands with Windex, vacuuming the rafters in the attic and basement ceilings, and hunting lint bunnies under pieces of furniture I didn't know we owned; it's like exercising muscles long left dormant. It's a real undiscovered joy--or so my wife keeps telling me. And since repetition is a convincing argument for belief, the more she gushes over the fun I must be having, the more I'm apt to believe it. However you discover your untapped potential in these days, take time to laugh--today's feature is one way to do that. Who knows, you may even uncover a secret talent for bursting into song while hefting the refrigerator so you can find out the *actual* color and pattern of your kitchen tile. Be well. Be blessed; we're all in this together.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/24/2020, 5:23 pm

Post #331: When I was in college I knew two guys, way ahead of their times, who wore perpetual halos of professorial pipe tobacco around their heads. Coincidentally they both sported trim, compelling beards going just a tad prematurely gray in spots (perhaps due to their escaping saliva), and they completed their affectations by gesturing vaguely with the stem of their Billiards to make their points when engaged in conversation.

At some level I envied them for carrying off the facade so brilliantly: I could never grow a beard and smoking never appealed to me personally, but I did have one counterpoint to offer them--I had the voice which I could twist at will to replicate William Powell, who still stands as my prime example of how to smoke a pipe. In odd hours I labored at perfecting the slightly aristocratic, clipped cadence, flipping the diphthong and ending a sentence with a moderately subtle upturn for emphasis. Maybe, I hoped, I could find a contemporary Myrna Loy who was enamored of my voice and we could go to cocktail parties trading witty bon mots while she swilled champagne and I stuck with my Coca-Cola since I didn't and still don't drink. But had I ever taken up smoking, though I am glad I never did, it would have been only a pipe and it would have been out of deference to William Powell's influence.

Today's feature, the classic screwball comedy *My Man Godfrey* (1936), puts William Powell's debonair air on full display as he stars with his former wife Carole Lombard in the pure delight of the Great Depression. Posing as Godfrey, "the forgotten man," Powell radiates charisma, whether putting society diva Cornelia Bullock (the wonderfully bitchy Gail Patrick) on her glittery backside in the ashy residue of the New York City Dump by the East River or fending off the ditzy advances of Irene Bullock (spitfire Carole Lombard) in her family's Park Avenue, Manhattan, mansion.

Plucked from the Hooverville shanty town overlooking the 59th Street Bridge, Godfrey obliges Irene's desire to upstage her sister in a scavenger hunt, presenting a "forgotten man" to the snooty well-to-do's at the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel ballroom in a charity event. This confrontation alone fulfills the United States National Film Registry's decision to preserve this film for "cultural significance," as Godfrey's powerful dignity trumps the fawning posturing and vacuity of the idle rich. Indeed as Godfrey assumes the proffered role of butler to the Bullocks, we are treated to an enduring comic lesson on simple human grace and class versus insulated silver spoon animal husbandry.

The wealthy Bullocks are as zany and ill equipped for survival outside of their expensive, expansive dwellings as rhesus monkeys on acid. Matriarch Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady) flits around oblivion with barely a whit of common sense, her feet touching the ground only when she feels a floor-length fur draped around her shoulder by her protege, the "sensitive" artist Carlo (Mischa Auer) who has ensconced himself as a permanent fixture in the Bullocks' home. Irene (Lombard) is blissfully overdramatic and impractical, completely unaware of why riding a horse into the family library is improper, and her sister Cornelia (Patrick) remains a vindictive, spiteful narcissist who promises to make Godfrey's time with them as miserable as possible. Only patriarch Alexander Bullock (the gruff and hilarious Eugene Pallette who elevates any role he takes), sardonic maid Molly (Jean Dixon) and Godfrey himself possess the wherewithal to rise above the madness.

But when family friend, the socially prominent Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray) recognizes Godfrey from their days at Harvard, Godfrey urges his old friend to go along with his charade, suggesting Godfrey was his valet. All these turns and plot points unfold fluidly and organically in the magic of classic cinema that makes us appreciate the genuine wit and sophistication of times past. There are reasons films like this withstand the ravages of time and still teach us something today, over eighty years after their initial release. If you're slow to seek out films like *My Man Godfrey*, take the time to seek them out; if you recall them fondly, revisit them and relish their freshness.

William Powell and Carole Lombard had been divorced for three years when "Godfrey" was offered to Powell, and it was he who said he would take the role only if Lombard starred as Irene since their on-screen relationship so naturally patterned itself after their own chemistry together. The Criterion Collection edition I own offers some very rare outtakes, confirming that Lombard would occasionally ad lib lines peppered with swearing when she felt herself losing threads of continuity, necessitating retakes. (While today the excremental oath is so commonplace, it's more than a little amusing and jarring when you hear it coming from Carole Lombard.)

*My Man Godfrey* holds the rare distinction of being the first (and only film until *American Hustle* in 2013) to earn Oscar nominations for writing, directing and all four acting awards without being nominated for Best Picture. It is in fact the first motion picture to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, new categories added that year. The film was ranked #44 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 funniest comedies, and *Premiere* voted it one of "The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time" in 2006. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rare score of 100%, and Amazon viewers rate it at 90% four and five stars. Critics no less than Graham Greene have given it enthusiastic support, citing the scavenger hunt scene "perhaps the wittiest, as well as noisiest, sequence of the year."

And maybe it's just me but the opening credit sequence is pure Hollywood gold--one long pan of a city skyline with the stars', cast's and spectacular director Gregory La Cava's names lit up as marquees on the way to the opening shot beneath the 59th Street Bridge, feeling groovy long before Simon and Garfunkel wrote and popularized the tune and the structure.

I know I have strayed somewhat from my mission to concentrate my commentaries on small, neglected or long ignored films, but there's a special poignancy in re-watching this movie. Maybe it's coming from so much attention being paid to the economy today, or perhaps it's the reminder of basic human kindness that still asserts itself in times that test our resolve. But *My Man Godfrey*'s final moments are inspiring and hopeful, leaving us with a warm mental hug that we need and appreciate. I may not own a pipe, but imagine this commentary ending with an urbane voice-over and a pipe stem indicating mounds of other ashen choices in which you can plant your backsides if you skip this film. Asta? Please show our friends the door.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 3/24/2020, 6:32 pm

Oh Goody, an excuse to watch another of my "comfort" movies. I may even make it a double feature, along with It Happened One Night.
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Post by ghemrats on 3/25/2020, 4:00 pm

Post #332: Today's feature *Vicki* (1953) boasts about our titular character (Jean Peters), "She had everything a man could ever want!" I guess that would include an unlimited supply of pizza, steak and barbecue chicken wings, a Barcalounger with rolling heat massage, a sixteen-foot plasma TV with Dolby Surround Sound and multi-function remote directly linked via Bluetooth to the fully stocked refrigerator, a lifetime subscription to the Rita Hayworth & Gene Tierney Channel, a cream colored 1936 Cabriolet, access to world peace, perfect health, economic stability, tax exemption, rooms full of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and a libido as big as the Ritz. But what *Vicki* also has is a script that mirrors and remakes a superior film, *I Wake Up Sreaming* (1941) with Betty Grable and Victor Mature. I guess originality is too much to request, but she's still worth watching.

Unfortunately, the ubiquitous glamour model whose face adorns presumably everything from popular magazine covers to milk cartons and bubble gum cards is also deader than a mackerel when we first meet her, cracked on the head and falling in beauty like the night, sporting a fashionable toe tag engraved in flowing script by Faberge. Since this is a noir, let's contrast her concupiscent corpse with the craggy fatigue of Detective Lieutenant Ed Cornell (Richard Boone) who is on vacation but galvanized back into action upon learning of her murder. Cue the flashbacks.

As we first meet her vertically and very much alive, Vicki Lynn is slinging hash (for the impressionable among us, that refers to corned beef, not illicit pharmaceuticals) at a porcelain-tiled diner when our blandly compelling protagonist, well connected press agent Steve Christopher (Elliot Reid), and his tag-along but influential newspaper columnist Larry Evans (Casey Adams) salivate over her one night in the wafting aroma of their midnight coffee. Under Harry Horner's lightning direction, within minutes Christopher has her on his arm at exclusive nightclubs, hobnobbing with such luminaries as heartthrob Robin Ray (Alexander D'Arcy) on a fast track to Hollywood, leaving her sister Jill (Jeanne Crain) and Christopher in the dust of her success.

Flashbacks intermingle with the model's murder investigation with Christopher being fingered for it by the dogged determination of Lt. Cornell, whose explosive temper and interminable yelling all but propel police and suspects alike through solid brick walls. Even so simple as an offer of a cigarette might initiate Cornell's total nuclear meltdown, so intent is he on avenging Vicki's untimely demise. Richard Boone snarls, hisses, and sputters like a tenement steam radiator amped up beyond its ability to sustain the pressure, while Elliot Reid wheezes and whines like an Oscar Mayer wiener whistle in a hurricane.

Supporting cast members include Carl Betz (perhaps best remembered as Donna Reed's physician husband on her TV show) as a level-headed colleague of Cornell, Detective McDonald, and in a startling minor role Aaron Spelling, *Forbes*' eleventh most top-earning celebrity with over 218 producer and executive producer credits and an estate of a 123-room, 56,500 square foot single-family dwelling in over six acres of Los Angeles. Spelling plays the wiry and creepy hotel desk man Harry Williams with ties to Cornell.

For all its 85 minutes, you'll find easy allusions to the Otto Preminger quintessential noir, *Laura* (1944) with Gene Tierney, right down to the opening credits framed around a portrait of Vicki in the same pose as Laura, its echoey soundtrack and even Christopher and Jill's attending a showing of *Laura* in a movie theater. Clearly Fox was hoping to capitalize on the success of that film by jogging the audience's memories of far superior films while still lobbing a durable B-noir in their popcorn buckets.

It's very melodramatic, with its heightened sensibilities and Peters' saucy come-hither looks. Tiring of playing sexy roles Peters truncated her Hollywood career as "one of the greatest sirens" *Vicki* screenwriter Leo Townsend had ever seen, with her marriage to Howard Hughes, which lasted from 1957 until 1971. She disappeared from film, refusing to talk of her marriage, even though Hughes reportedly protected her wish for obscurity with security officers who kept tabs on her every day, as columnist Jack Anderson claimed that Peters was "the only woman [Hughes] ever loved."

Co-star Jeanne Crain bears a striking resemblance as Vicki's sister Jill, and she gives a well grounded performance even as some of the men surrounding her pump up the drama. In the 1940s and '50s Crain was nicknamed "Hollywood's Number One party girl," quoted as saying that she was invited to at least 200 parties a year. At her prime in the '50s she was pulling in roughly $3,500 per week, allowing her and her husband to live comfortably in Beverly Hills with their seven children.

*Vicki* is a modest entertainment, especially if you have not seen *I Wake Up Screaming* or *Laura*, and it's fast so your investment of time is never in question. It offers some nice touches, and though Jean Peters' acting is reserved to play second banana to her appearance, which is commented on by the characters often, Jeanne Crain delivers a solid sister role. Richard Boone is fun to watch as he shreds the scenery with rabid intensity, and Elliot Reid does his best to tread water. Yes, Vicki had everything a man could ever want . . . with one or two exceptions: breathable air and a pulse.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 3/26/2020, 5:00 pm

Post #333: With times such as they are, you might think that today's feature, *The Liquidator* (1965), was named after a spy who subdued his foes by squirting hand sanitizer in their eyes and then depriving them of toilet paper, but you'd be mistaken. British filmmakers in the '60s were too busy trying to figure out how to get busty women into bathing suits or weirdly fur-lined beds in swanky apartments to manufacture such far-fetched notions as a world crippled by the inability to know how to wash their hands or stay at home; that was just beyond the realm of their imaginations. Besides, that plot was too easy when they had million-dollar budgets designed to fabricate elaborate nuclear schemes employing maniacal laser-controlled weather machines, harnessing giant magnifying glasses in space trained to burn key cities like ant colonies into submission, and saturating the nations of the world with baby-proof aspirin bottles that cannot be opened with needle-nosed pliers, circular band saws or small caches of C-4 plastique while the world perished under the weight of stress headaches provoked by self isolation.

So take heart, America, *The Liquidator* avoids all those tropes in favor of low-key human frailty in the pre-Matt Helm and Derek Flint cartoon age. On the surface, based on the trailer, you might be led to believe this film is another kiss-kiss-bang-bang espionage-a-rama, but outside of the Shirley Bassey *Goldfinger*-lite theme by Lalo Schifrin, *The Liquidator* is surprisingly fresh and irreverent with Rod Taylor in the lead role. Its intentions are clearly indicated right off the bat with an animated credit sequence and a prologue set in black-and-white WWII footage when tank corps Sergeant "Boysie" Oakes (Taylor foregoing his Australian accent in favor of America's speech patterns) accidentally saves the life of British Intelligence Major Mostyn (Trevor Howard) from an assassination attempt in Paris. Mostyn promises to remember Oakes' heroics and repay him one day, thinking he is a skilled marksman.

But he's not, and he holds no penchant for killing whatsoever. Instead of the stone killer he's presumed to be, "Boysie" (who is not from Idaho at all) is content in the post-war years to manage a bird shop and engage in affairs with local women. So when Mostyn, now a colonel in the British secret service, and his superior (Wilfrid Hyde-White) discover their spy network is riddled with infiltrators, they decide the offenders need to be eliminated to prevent further scandal. All completely off the books, of course. Enter the easily recruited Boysie who has no idea what he's getting himself into, only that his lifestyle will be lavishly funded by the government in complete secrecy--he's even being given a codename, "L," for Liquidator, with an endless parade of beautiful women at his disposal.

As the Colonel tells him, "I would like to remind you that life is not all sex and sunlamps. You start serious training tomorrow. Early," Boysie trains with the best of them, becoming quite proficient in extending his wartime skill set. But when the times come for him to spring into action, not being able to bring himself to assassinate the offenders, he sub-contracts the jobs to an affable independent professional (the engaging Eric Sykes) with no discernible conscience or interest in his assignments' deaths. The less you know about the narrative, the more fun you'll have, though you should know Boysie is held by strict mandate that he cannot engage in relationships with any of his colleagues, a dramatically tough job when the Colonel's secretary is Jill St. John who is not above bending the rules a bit as long as it's done covertly.

The fun of this film comes from its departure from the standard spoofing of the time. Proposed as the first in a series, *The Liquidator* lived in a series of novels by John Gardner, who later would pen the continued adventures of James Bond following Ian Fleming's death. This film adaptation is a faithful carryover with Rod Taylor playing the lead with a smart tongue-in-cheek seriousness that never stoops to the level of parody or pastiche. He is a wholly singular character with just enough panache to be a believable, capable agent when it's required of him. Bad guys Sheriek (Akim Tamiroff) and his superior Chekhov (John Le Mesurier) for once are played for small laughs as moderately inept villains who see The Liquidator more as a pesky inconvenience than a sharp-witted operative.

Though the film doesn't employ gadgetry and high-tech chicanery, the cars are vintage--a 1962 Jaguar E-Type (XKE) roadster and a 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible coupe most prominently featured--and the fashions, tone and feel ostensibly avoid the conventions of the spy genre; in fact, Lalo Schifrin took deliberate pains to ensure his high-octane score steered clear of John Barry's Bond signatures. For me, these choices make me wish the studios had more aggressively sought to bring more of the character to the screen, as two more scripts were initially in the works but failed to yield results.

Eighty-seven percent of Amazon viewers were in on the gag, giving *The Liquidator* four to five stars, and time has been kind to it as it still holds up as a lighthearted bit of nostalgia. Jack Cardiff use of exotic locales in England, Monte Carlo and Nice Cote d'Azur, NIce, Alpes-Maritimes, France provides some nice eye candy as well, clipping along at a brisk and colorful 105 minutes. Sean Connery can continue to sleep in the rest of the uncontested, but Rod Taylor and crew bring a jaunty breeziness to the proceedings that can lift some of the weigh of social distancing from us all. No volcanoes, no gleaming steel infrastructures, no dire apocalyptic threats from big-headed megalomaniacs--just a guy fighting for his right to party under the boss's nose and stiff upper lip.

And in the words of *Hill Street Blues*' Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, "Let's be careful out there."
Enjoy.
Jeff

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