what i watched last week

Face/Off (John Woo, 1997). This turned up on HBO … we thought to catch a few minutes and ended up watching the whole thing. It’s Woo’s best American movie, although I can think of at least half-a-dozen HK and Chinese Woos I prefer to this one. The plot is ludicrous, and there are times when Woo seems to be going through a checklist of his repertoire of tics (here come the doves in a church!). But John Travolta and Nicolas Cage do wonders with their roles. They are clearly having a blast, and are so good that you have to pinch yourself to remember that Travolta is playing the Cage character and vice versa. The face-exchange plot pretty much ensures there will be some contextual references to identity, but really, the movie is made by the two leads. 8/10.

Ultimately, Woo’s Hollywood career went about as well as might be expected, which is to say, it was disappointing. It’s a standard story: someone’s talent is recognized, he is signed, and then he’s asked to be something other than the talent that got him signed in the first place. Hard Target wasn’t all that bad, but the studio wanted him to tone down the violence, and he couldn’t get an “R”, so the studio re-edited it without him. Broken Arrow was better, and it made a little money, which led to Face/Off, where Woo had more freedom than he had gotten in his earlier American films. Unsurprisingly, it was the best of the bunch. Then came the dreadful Mission: Impossible II, the boring Windtalkers, and the merely-competent Paycheck. (Happily, Woo hadn’t lost his touch … when he returned to China, it was to make the magnificent Red Cliff.)

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956). I last watched this a little more than three years ago, and wrote about it for one of the very first “what i watched” posts. In that post, I mentioned that when I first saw the film many years ago, I thought it was “about” me and my addiction to caffeine. I then noted that in 2008, it still seemed to be about me, only this time I saw myself in the erratically terrifying dad. In 2012, I found myself identifying with the arthritis-like symptoms of the main character, which proves I’m getting old. I liked it enough to bump the grade a bit: 8/10. #569 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Features Barbara Rush as the female lead … she was last seen in these parts in It Came from Outer Space.

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011). An odd movie, mostly because it’s not very odd at all. It’s a thriller about a fast-spreading virus, but the action is presented in a matter-of-fact manner that quiets the thrills. It seems ripe for philosophical interludes (I am, after all, the person whose favorite book is The Plague by Albert Camus), but it sidesteps them. It’s got an all-star cast, with three Best Actress Oscar winners and a bunch of guys who have won or been nominated for Oscars of their own, yet it treats them all as actors first and movie stars second. The low-key nature of the film is nice, considering how many similar films crank up the cheap emotion and show lots of things blowing up. And it’s not overlong, and it’s never boring. But neither is it ever great. 7/10.

Drive, He Said (Jack Nicholson, 1971). This is the kind of film people mean when they speak of the golden age of American movies. Oh, it’s not great itself, but it fits right in with the times, and the filmmaking fits in with the golden age. Nicholson, in his first director’s stint (outside of his uncredited work in The Terror), avoids clichés, and as expected he gets the basketball scenes right. Plus, there’s student unrest and naked actors of both genders. It’s a worthy effort, but it’s not much good. 6/10.

Circus of Horrors (Sidney Hayers, 1960). This week’s Saturday Creature Feature is a typical British Hammer-inspired B-movie genre flick, with a slightly better-than-average pedigree. Donald Pleasance turns up for awhile. The lead is played by Anton Diffring, who appeared in well over 100 movies, doing everything from Truffaut to Jerry Lewis’ legendary The Day the Clown Cried. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe earned three Oscar nominations in his career. And it was distributed by the same company that released Peeping Tom the same year. I mention the pedigree because it’s more interesting than talking about the movie, which is OK but nothing more. 6/10.

what i watched last week

Slim pickings, what with the end of the semester, and so many TV series finishing off their seasons. I’m left with the “what shall I watch on my Kindle Fire while we lay here in bed relaxing” movies.

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004). Seemed like a good Fire choice, since it’s short, and the visuals are kinda lo-fi. I hadn’t seen it in almost six years; back then I wrote the following:

Ethan Hawke is a generally fine actor and he's very good here, but the truth is, I couldn't take my eyes off of Julie Delpy. It's not her looks ... she's pretty enough, but that's not what made her so compulsively watchable. She just does a great job of conveying both her submerged emotions and her open intelligence ... you often get one or the other, but not both like this. She deserves an Oscar nomination.

Delpy did get an Oscar nom (I saw this during one of my annual Oscar Runs, before I gave up on the idea because I couldn’t bear to watch another movie about Captain Jack Sparrow). But it was for Best Adapted Screenplay (along with Hawke and Linklater and Kim Krizan). She and Hawke clearly add to their own dialogue .. how much is unclear, perhaps, but it’s obvious that some of it is theirs. It all works so well, even if it sounds twee: couple who met cute nine years ago meet up again and spend an hour and a half walking around Paris, talking.

As for Delpy, early on, I looked at my wife and said, “I’ll bet you Mick LaSalle loves Julie Delpy”. She is so much his type: pretty-not-beautiful, smart, European, makes interesting career choices. Then I get up the next morning, and what do I see on Mick’s blog? “The Most Alluring Women in Cinema”, a slideshow of his favorites. Julie Delpy is there, and his description could have come just after seeing her in one of the “Before” movies: “You already feel like you’ve been on a date with her. And you already know what to do. Keep your mouth shut and let her do all the talking.”

Meanwhile, the first time I saw Before Sunset, I gave it 8/10. It’s stood the test of time so far: 9/10. #18 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 movies of the 21st century.

The Terror (Roger Corman, 1963). Two weeks isn’t enough to make a tradition, but we may look back on this period as the beginning of the Saturday Night Kindle Fire Creature Feature. Last week it was It Came from Outer Space. This time I went with a Roger Corman classic that was far more interesting in the making than it is on the screen. Corman had just finished The Raven, which starred Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, among others. He kept Karloff around for four days and shot a bunch of footage, using some of the same sets from the earlier picture. He then left the movie to his second-unit crew, which means parts of the film were directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and even Nicholson himself. To add to the complicated tale, a few years later, when Corman had Karloff under contract for two days, Corman told Peter Bogdanovich to make a movie using Karloff and clips from The Terror. The result, Targets, was Bogdanovich’s first film as a director. Meanwhile, The Terror is actually a pretty dull and shoddy affair, although Karloff manages a few scenes of pathos. You get to see Nicholson in his mid-20s, six years before Easy Rider. And you can’t go wrong with the immortal Dick Miller. But the incoherence is too much to overcome. 4/10.

dick miller

Charlie and I had a discussion going on his blog the other day ... LiveJournal makes it easy to include comments, I commented on one of his posts, he replied to my comment, I replied to his, etc. The topic was blogging, and whether or not it was good to tell specific, true stuff about yourself and others. In the context of this conversation, Charlie said of my blog, "Yours is on the not-personally-revealing side of the spectrum."

Partly I was proud when I read this, because I like to think I'm a mysterious person, that no one knows the "real" me, and I do a lot of dissembling, here and elsewhere, so people won't know much about me. But I was also depressed, because in truth, I want people to know everything about me. I am my own favorite subject (solipsism is great, everyone should try it). And I think I expose my inner being all the time on this blog. So it was depressing to find that in fact, I was not personally revealing at all. What, am I speaking in code here?

Of course, I am speaking in code. That's the whole point ... it's the dissembling process. Look at me, go away.

Tonight I'm watching Karen Sisco, which has maintained a pretty high level so far ... it's nothing special or revolutionary, not something you'd use to prove Teevee Is Good, but it's a fine show through the first month or so. Karen goes into a shoe store, and the man who assists her is played by Dick Miller. Now, every time I see Dick Miller, I think to myself, "Hey, it's Dick Miller!" Or, if someone else is around, I say it out loud: "Look, it's Dick Miller!"

The previous paragraph was not personally revealing. Except it was, to me. I'm telling you something about myself. I'm not telling you my deepest secrets, not fessing up to suicidal tendencies or admitting I'm overwhelmed with ecstasy. But I'm telling you about Dick Miller, as a way of telling you about myself. I know you probably don't even know who Dick Miller is, but I like it when I see him, and I'm telling you about my pleasure, and hoping you'll then know more about Steven Rubio.

But Dick Miller doesn't really say anything about me ... I suspect you can learn more about me from knowing I watch Karen Sisco than you can from knowing I like Dick Miller. So I'm being faux-revealing, or rather, faux-pretend-revealing (and is faux-pretend a double negative?).

Dick Miller has been in 120 movies (God bless the Internet Movie Database). He was "The Leper" in The Undead, "Heckler" in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, "Cop #1" in Beach Ball, "Team B Rifleman" in Executive Action, "Spectator" in Candy Stripe Nurses, "Bit Part" in Vortex, and "Horseshoe Player" in Motorama. He played "Walter Paisley," perhaps his greatest role, in A Bucket of Blood; in homage to that role, he was also called Walter Paisley in Hollywood Boulevard and The Howling and Twilight Zone: The Movie and Chopping Mall, and "Officer Paisley" in Shake, Rattle and Rock!. His part went uncredited in The Girls on the Beach, and in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and in The Legend of Lylah Clare, and in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. He was in Pulp Fiction, but his scenes were deleted ... he was in The Terminator, and he wasn't deleted. According to the IMDB, his "one-scene appearances in countless movies and TV shows guarantee audience applause." And in Rock and Roll High School, he delivered the immortal line, "They're ugly. Ugly, ugly people."

So now you know about Dick Miller. The question is, have I revealed anything about Steven Rubio?