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July 2017

orphan black series finale

I gave Season One of Orphan Black a B+, but I also singled out star Tatiana Maslany, giving her personally an A. If you managed to miss Orphan Black over the past four years, it's about a group of clones, with the trick being all of them are played by Maslany. I wrote:

There have been many multiple personality roles over the years: Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, Sally Field in Sybil, Toni Collette in United States of Tara. And all of those actresses won awards for their work. But Maslany has a different task here. She isn’t playing one person with multiple personalities, she is playing multiple people with one personality each. And she pulls it off magnificently....

It gets even more complicated at times. Maslany (who is Canadian) plays Sarah (who is British) pretending to be Beth (Canadian). Alison (Canadian soccer mom) pretends to be Sarah (British petty thief). Helena (Ukranian) pretends to be Sarah. In each case, you know who is behind the mask. It’s like watching Face/Off, with Maslany in both the Nic Cage and John Travolta roles. Most of the time, Maslany is portraying one character, and she inhabits each one. It’s not just the wigs or physical tics … it’s as if you’re watching seven different actresses.

I gave Season Two an A-, but I didn't like it as much. The plot became convoluted in ways that made me realize I mostly didn't care. But Maslany was so good, I couldn't get enough. Eventually, she got her Emmy ... the year she won, she beat out an impressive list of actresses (Claire Danes, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Keri Russell, and Robin Wright).

Orphan Black lasted five seasons, ending this past weekend. While I lost interest in the overall plot arc, I never quit watching the show, and for those who did get into the mythology of the clones, I suspect five seasons was just right. The finale itself was satisfying. Many worse shows have run for far more than five seasons ... kudos to Orphan Black both for making it through five years and for quitting while they were ahead.

Over the years, my obsession with Maslany's performance only grew. Everyone joked about how she should have won an Emmy for every clone she played (I think the number was 7 at the time). And it was impressive, especially when a combination of special effects trickery and the judicious use of doubles for Maslany allowed for more than one clone on the screen at the same time.

But what was truly remarkable was the way in which, as we got to know the various clones of the years, as they became clear individuals, Maslany's skills disappeared. People would say they forgot she was playing multiple roles, but it was bigger than that sounds. I have a tendency to wonder about the heights of actors, and I look it up while I'm watching. So I know that this actress is 5'7" and that actor is 5'10". I also know that Tatiana Maslany is 5'4". But I lost count of the number of times I'd see, say, Maslany-as-Sarah interacting with Maslany-as-Cosima and want to look up who was taller, the actress playing Sarah or the actress playing Cosima. I said Maslany's skills disappeared, but that's not quite accurate. What happened was she was so perfect in creating these various characters that you really did forget they were all her.

I imagine everyone had their favorite clone. Mine was Helena:

While looking back at Orphan Black, I can't help but think of another series I obsess about even more, Sense8. In Orphan Black, you have sisters connected by their clone status. The sensates of Sense8 are different, though. Their connection is psychic, for lack of a better word. And perhaps because they are all played by different actors, their scenes together are emotionally powerful in ways the "tricky" scenes of multiple Maslanys are not. It's mostly apples and oranges, though.

Ultimately, I think I had it right from the beginning. Grade for series: B+. Grade for Tatiana Maslany: A.


the maltese falcon (roy del ruth, 1931) and the maltese falcon (john huston, 1941)

I'd never had the chance to see the 1931 version. This is Pre-Code, and you can tell. People clearly sleep with each other ... del Ruth uses a clock to indicate the passage of time, letting us draw our own conclusions about why people are still around in the morning. Joel Cairo is more clearly homosexual than in Huston's version ... heck, so is Wilmer and probably Gutman. These things were significant enough that when Warner Brothers tried to re-release it in 1936  ("post-Code"), they were denied by the Production Code office, because the movie was no longer appropriate. (This prompted WB to film a new version, Satan Met a Lady, with Bette Davis.)

The 1931 Falcon is a much lighter affair than the better-known 1941 version. Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade is much more the skirt-chaser than Bogart. Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly is far less conniving than Mary Astor. It's a breezy film, with little to suggest that there was a classic hidden somewhere in the source material.

I've written before about the 1941 version, in my dissertation, and when I chose it as my 18th-favorite movie in our Fave Fifty project a few years ago. I wrote then:

John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, realized from the start that Dashiell Hammett’s novel, with its terse style and realistic dialogue, was as perfect a screenplay as any novel could be. Huston allows Sam Spade to emerge, as he does in the book, as a self-interested hero with more than a little of the sadist in him.

What is missing from this film version is the critique of Spade that Hammett offers. Hammett uses the third-person to allow the reader to “see” Spade; the reader is encouraged to evaluate Spade rather than identify with him. Huston changes this perspective by shooting the movie largely from Spade’s point of view: while in the novel, Hammett’s description of Spade as he beats Joel Cairo is oddly distancing, as if the reader were interrupting Spade as he slept, the movie, with Bogart’s face showing clear enjoyment as he roughs up Cairo, allows the audience to feel superior to Cairo and to join Spade in his pleasure. The audience’s identification with Spade turns actions that would otherwise seem cruel into positive actions.

Though noteworthy for its seeming faithfulness to the novel, Huston’s movie does eliminate a final scene that is remarkable for what it shows about the movie’s desire to remake Spade’s image. Hammett leaves the reader with a hero who, for all his seeming victories, has lost more than he has won, someone who has alienated his best friend and sent his true lover to jail, someone who will return to a sleazy affair he had never enjoyed. It is a downbeat ending in line with Hammett’s cynical mistrust of heroic individualism. Huston omits this final scene, with its implications of failure, ending his movie instead with the barred elevator doors closing on Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Sam Spade walking down the steps, the faux falcon (“the stuff dreams are made of”) in his hands. Spade has lost his lover, but he has solved the case and avenged his partner. By dispensing with Hammett’s final chapter, Huston is able to maintain the aura of invincibility that Bogart/Spade has carried with him throughout the movie, in direct opposition to Hammett’s more despairing conclusion.

I should note that the 1931 film is much closer to Hammett than I would have expected, at least in the dialogue, which like Huston's movie, lifts plenty of lines directly from the book. Having said that, there is a fairly large space between the 1931 movie and Hammett's novel, primarily in the performance of Ricardo Cortez. It's possible at this point we just can't see anyone but Bogart in the role. But Cortez's Spade lacks the sadism of Bogart/Hammett.

There are historical reasons to was the Roy del Ruth film ... if you like Pre-Code movies, you might like this, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the later classic version. But there are better Pre-Code movies, and there is most certainly a better Maltese Falcon. The 1941 version is #276 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 1931: 6/10. 1941: 10/10.



creature feature saturday double bill

The Ghost Galleon (Amando de Ossorio, 1974). AKA Ghost Ships of the Blind Dead, Horror of the Zombies, Ship of Zombies, Zombie Flesh Eater, and The Blind Dead 3 (yes, it's a sequel, sort of). It's amazing to think there is more than one of these. As best as I can figure out, the "blind dead" are Templar knights whose eyes were torn out for their dabblings in the dark arts. They are zombies, the slowest-moving zombies in movie history, with no eyes. The plot doesn't matter, but if you're interested, here is the Amazon description of the film: "A boatload of stranded swimsuit models discover a mysterious ghost ship that carries the coffins of the satanic Templar, eyeless zombies who hunt humans by sound." Nothing is delivered ... the swimsuit models never get out of their clothes, the "boatload" consists of two women, and I'm not sure how we're supposed to figure out the thing about sound. Austrian lead Maria Perschy made movies with Huston and Hawks in the early-60s. Male lead, American Jack Taylor, was in more than a hundred movies, many of them Mexican and Spanish horror films. Bárbara Rey was Miss Madrid 1970. Rey actually has the best scene, when she is taken by the zombies. They are mostly doing their slow-moving arm waving, but Rey exhibits real fear for a couple of minutes before they cut off her head and eat her. The low budget is particularly noteworthy whenever we see the titular ship in long shot ... it looks like something Ernie would play with alongside his rubber ducky. The zombies look scary in a unique way, which lasts until they "move". The inside of the galleon is shot in spooky ways ... this would be the best part of the movie, except the film moves slower than a Templar zombie, so even the good parts are boring. 4/10.

The Corpse Vanishes (Wallace Fox, 1942). With a lot of these crappy B-movies, it's easier to just talk trivia ... there's little to say about the movie itself. Well, there is some classic dialogue, like when Bela Lugosi (who cares what the character's name is) is asked if he makes a habit of collecting coffins. "Why yes," he replies, "in a manner of speaking. I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.  Many people do so, my dear." Lugosi, who was 60, made so many bad movies that it's easy to forget they didn't all suck. The same year as this one, he made The Ghost of Frankenstein, which wasn't terrible, and only three years earlier, he had been in Ninotchka. But The Corpse Vanishes was bad. It came from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures, and one of the producers was the legendary "Jungle Sam" Katzman. It was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The characters included another legend, Angelo Rossitto, as a dwarf (Rossitto's long career stretched from Freaks to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The plot involves Lugosi stealing dead brides-to-be (he is the one who kills them ... they die at the altar ... oh yeah, they don't really die, they just exist in some type of coma) so he can extract something from them to inject into his ancient wife, resulting in that wife becoming young again. Oh, why do I bother? The only good thing about The Corpse Vanishes is that it is over in 64 minutes. 3/10.



music friday: winterland

Winterland in San Francisco was built in 1928 and served as an ice-skating rink while doubling as an arena for boxing matches and the like. In 1966, Bill Graham started using Winterland for concerts too big for the Fillmore (Winterland held about 5 times as many people). Over the years, countless acts played there ... off the top of my head, I saw Lou Reed, J. Geils, Robin Trower, the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen at Winterland. Parts of classic albums like Cream's Wheels of Fire, and Frampton Comes Alive were recorded there. It was the site of The Band concert filmed by Scorsese as The Last Waltz. Eventually, the sign outside the building read "Bill Graham's Winterland".

The sound was awful, the building was old, the neighborhood (Post and Steiner) nondescript at best. When Graham decided to shut the place down, the only reason to feel sad was nostalgia. I admit I was one of the sad ones ... I spent a lot of memorable nights at Winterland. It was a shithole, but it was our shithole.

Graham announced that the final month of 1978 would be devoted to a Winterland sendoff, capped by the traditional Grateful Dead New Year's Eve concert. On December 2, Van Morrison headlined, supported by Tower of Power and the now-forgotten Moon Martin. Tower of Power was only one of the local stars to appear during that month.

On the 15th and 16th, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band arrived. The first night was simulcast on FM radio, which made for a better-sounding bootleg than usual. Bruce was on fire (perhaps appropriately, his performance of "Fire" on the second night made it to his first live album). Whether it was the quality of the performance, the availability of the bootleg, or a combination of the two, that first night is considered one of his greatest-ever shows. They were also the only two end-of-Winterland shows we attended.

A couple of nights later, Kenny Rankin headlined ... whatever. Then, on the 28th ... SVT opened, a local band that had yet to record, but which featured the legendary Jack Casady on bass. Next up was The Ramones, and I don't think I need to remind you of how great The Ramones were at their peak. The headliners were The Tubes ... they began as a local act, but they had gone national, enough so that it made sense they headlined over The Ramones.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the penultimate concert. Greg Kihn opened, once again a nod to local artists (Kihn had yet to hit nationwide). And so, to New Year's Eve.

First up was The New Riders of the Purple Sage, yep, another local act. The New Riders often featured Jerry Garcia in their earliest years, and had been a part of Dead tours for a long time. They made perfect sense for the closing of Winterland.

Next up was an act with no Bay Area connections. Honestly, I don't know why they were on the bill, except that they were at the peak of their popularity: The Blues Brothers.

The eventual Dead concert became legendary. They played three sets, somewhere in the neighborhood of five hours, into the wee hours of 1979. You can see/hear the show on The Closing of Winterland, released on CD and DVD in 2003.

Here are a few samples from that last month at Winterland.

Click here for the audio of the entire first night Springsteen concert: Winterland

Most of The Ramones set:

The Tubes with their all-time classic, "White Punks on Dope":

Tom Petty, "Breakdown":

The Blues Brothers tackle "Flip, Flop, & Fly":

And, what the heck, all five hours of the Dead, with half-an-hour of backstage interviews at the beginning (featuring "Alan Franken") and the traditional descent of Graham as "Father Time":


directors i have obsessed over

After watching all of those Johnnie To movies, we began to wonder how he stacks up compared to other directors whose movies I have seen in quantity. This was a challenge to my OCD self, so I went to the IMDB, which holds more of my ratings than any other site, and with a little exporting and spreadsheet-fiddling, I came up with a long list. I shortened it to every director where I had seen at least ten of their films. This is imperfect ... there are plenty of movies I've never rated, for example. But it was a relatively easy way to get an eyeball on my taste preferences, if that indeed is what this indicates. Here is the list:

Spielberg 17
Hitchcock 16
Scorsese 15
Ford 14
Coens 13
Woo 13
Allen 12
Kurosawa 11
Eastwood 11
Bergman 11
To 11
Linklater 10

(Whoa, I had no idea it would come out like a table.)

When we guessed, off the top of our heads, who would be atop the list, both Spielberg and Hitchcock came to mind. I'm still surprised we were so accurate. The single biggest surprise to me was Clint Eastwood. And the single most surprising absence to me is Howard Hawks. (He just missed the cut with 9 movies, and I'm sure if I looked more closely, I could find a few that hadn't been rated. The other Nines: De Palma, Godard, Kubrick, and Miyazaki.)

When I posted this list on Facebook, my wife immediately asked to sort those directors by their average ratings. Thus:

Kurosawa (11) 8.6
Bergman (11) 8.5
Spielberg (17) 8.1
Hitchcock (16) 8.0
Woo (13) 7.8
Linklater (10) 7.7
Scorsese (15) 7.6
Ford (14) 7.5
Coens (13) 7.1
To (11) 7.0
Eastwood (11) 6.7
Allen (12) 6.2

I usually think of myself as wishy-washy when it comes to the Coens, but clearly I like them more than I realize. Also, in my mind, when I assign these silly numbered ratings, I tend to start around 6 1/2. If I like a movie but don't love it, that's a 7. If a movie is OK and I don't hate it, that's a 6. This tells me I've seen a lot of movies by Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen without liking them all that much. (For what it's worth, Hawks averages 8.6.)

Finally, since I've gone this far, here's something I post every few years, using MovieLens, which offers better breakdowns of my ratings than the IMDB, and has almost as many of those ratings. They have three categories I find especially interesting. First, there are movies I've rated that others have not. The leaders here are Paju, and Fear. They have only been rated by one other person. (The movie I haven't seen that has been rated more often than any other is Dances with Wolves.)

Then, there are what they call "Unusual Dislikes", movies where my rating is significantly lower than the average. The winner is I Am Sam. (My entire review: "What a revolting piece of shit.") I gave it 1/10 ... the average rating is 3.58.

Of course, there are also "Unusual Likes", movies I liked more than other people did. The top two are The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Rapture. I gave them both 10/10 ... their average ratings were 3.16 and 3.28 respectively.

a place in the sun (george stevens, 1951)

Elizabeth Taylor was 19 years old when A Place in the Sun was released. It was shot in 1949, when Taylor was only 17. This came after a lengthy period as an adolescent star, from National Velvet through Little Women. She was considered an exceptional beauty even then. By the time A Place in the Sun hit the screens, audiences had seen the still-teenaged Taylor in a few films, notably the two "Father of the Bride" movies. She was still known more for her beauty than her acting skills.

Montgomery Clift was a dozen years older than Taylor. He already had an Oscar nomination, along with his appearance in the classic Red River. He came to film after an extensive stage career ... he was more known for his acting than for his beauty. But he was indeed beautiful.

The beauty of the two stars of A Place in the Sun matters, because the audience gets so much pleasure out of their pairing that we gravitate towards them as a couple, which leaves Shelley Winters' Alice, who gets pregnant by Clift's George Eastman, as a third wheel. Winters was Clift's age, and had made a career for herself playing mostly blonde bombshells, a role she wasn't happy with. So when she tried out for Alice, she dyed her hair brown and dressed in nondescript clothes. She was the opposite of her image, and she got the part. But her effectiveness in getting the part, and then in playing the part, meant when she was on the screen, the audience was restless, wanting to see more of that beautiful couple. Not only that, but Clift and Taylor formed a great friendship that lasted until the end of his life ... not only were they good at acting like goony-eyed lovers, they really were close, if not lovers. Winters got her first Oscar nomination for A Place in the Sun (Clift got one, as well), but her character was very hard to like. I was reminded of Ethel Mertz. Vivian Vance was only two years older than Lucille Ball, but the combination of Ethel dressing far less stylishly than Lucy Ricardo, and Ethel being married to a man played by an actor who was 30 years older than the man who played Lucy's husband, meant that Vance was never allowed to have the good looks of Ball. In A Place in the Sun, Winters/Alice was not allowed to have any of the spark of either Taylor as Angela or Clift (or especially the two of them together).

I go into this in a bit of detail because I think it throws the film off a bit. Kael wrote, "The hero's jilted working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters) is not allowed even to be attractive ... If Elizabeth Taylor had played the working girl in this production, then the poor could at least be shown to have some natural assets. But Shelley Winters makes the victim so horrifyingly, naggingly pathetic that when Clift thinks of killing her he hardly seems to be contemplating a crime: it's more like euthanasia." David Thomson adds, "The Clift-Taylor bond is often cited as an example of screen chemistry. And that leaves the factory girl (Shelley Winters) as not just plain, whining, and awkward but as someone the entire audience wants to see murdered."

This is especially unfortunate to the extent that A Place in the Sun retains any suggestions of class distinctions. However George Eastman's path from leather-jacketed worker to his social climbing was meant to be seen, it comes across as the only move a sane man would make: from dowdy Alice to the wonders of Angela. It's less that George wants to escape his class background than that he wants to get together in perfect harmony with Angela.

A Place in the Sun works, and works well. Taylor and Clift are so great together that we get sucked in. I'm just not sure it plays so well when thinking about it afterwards. #599 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

I might as well post this clip ... everyone else does:


music friday: soundtracks

Went to see Johnnie To interviewed last night. It was a bit unwieldy ... he had a translator, so everything had to go through her ... but thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to Mr. To. At the end, they took questions from the audience, and one in particular fits Music Friday, I think. It was hard to hear the question, but it amounted to a request to make some of the great soundtracks from To's movie available ... on vinyl, if possible (half the audience laughed, the other half groaned).

To was a bit confused by the question, because in Hong Kong, soundtrack albums are not a big deal. But his solution was perfect: if you want to hear the soundtrack, go watch the movie again!

Here is a scene they showed last night, one of his most famous: the mall shootout from The Mission.

And here is one of the great moments in movie music history:


lifeline (johnnie to, 1997)

I finished my Johnnie To mini-festival with this one, which can be described in shorthand as Backdraft in HK. The thing is, I really hated Backdraft (2/10 ... don't even remember why, and it should get points for providing the soundtrack to the original Japanese Iron Chef).

The first hour of Lifeline presents us with the firefighters who will feature in the story. It's done well enough, I suppose ... some of the characters are interesting. And there are some brief firefighting scenes interspersed with the melodrama. But I was impatient ... this kind of character "development" usually bores me, since it is often shallow, and merely postpones the good stuff.

In fairness, the good stuff, when it finally arrived, was improved by our knowing the various characters, so I should probably leave well enough alone.

Because the good stuff is phenomenal. The last 40 minutes are gripping, like watching one of the better Mad Max movies, only with fire instead of cars. A large building is on fire, and it's one thing after another. The firefighters never get ahead of the game, and even when they stall the fire momentarily, another crisis arises. It's like an alien monster invasion movie, where everything the army tries against the aliens fails, and hope fades to nothingness. I don't know who deserves credit for the excellence here, so I'll just name some of the likely suspects: director Johnnie To, of course; cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung; editor Wong Wing-Ming; and action director Yuen Bun. The music by Raymond Wong adds a lot, as well. There's no point in breaking down the various segments of the fire scene. Just know that you likely will never see any similar scene that matches this one.

Lau Ching-Wan is excellent in the lead role, and everyone else is good enough. It takes a bit of patience to get through the first hour, but that patience is rewarded when the real action starts. 7/10.