yellow submarine (george dunning, 1968)

It was fun to revisit Yellow Submarine after so many years. I can remember sitting through it twice in one day during its first release, and it has kept most of its charm to this day.

The plot is a bit of fluff designed to work as many Beatles songs as possible into the movie, and as such, it seems a bit harsh to criticize it for what it was, is, and always will be. Nonetheless, that's the part that doesn't really recall my fondest memories, and when the film is sluggish, that's usually the reason. But the animation is wonderful, and the music, as expected, is the best thing about the movie.

The animation takes a kitchen sink approach, filled with a variety of styles. This work is so lovely, you might miss the fact that it is fairly simple compared to what we get from animation today. "Limited animation" is something I associate with cheap Saturday morning cartoons from Hanna-Barbera, but here, what appears atop the backgrounds is so inventive that you never find yourself thinking of Yogi Bear or Huckleberry Hound. As is perhaps inevitable, many of the songs come across like the music videos that became popular later. Two setpieces in particular are outstanding: "Eleanor Rigby" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". The latter in particular marvels in its use of rotoscoping. In the use of setpieces, Yellow Submarine is reminiscent of Fantasia.

The music is just as good, even though the soundtrack album has always largely been dismissed. With reason ... that album features two old Beatles tracks and a lot of George Martin's background music for the movie. Because of this, the four new songs get lost in the shuffle, and that's too bad. Paul's "All Together Now" is a trifle, but John's "Hey Bulldog" packs some bite, especially musically. The surprise champion here is George, who contributed two songs, one of which, "It's All Too Much", is among the best he ever put out.

Yellow Submarine is far more than mere nostalgia. If it ran another ten minutes, it would have overstayed its welcome, but as is, it is a welcome addition to the Beatles film output, even if they had little to do with it. It doesn't reach the heights of A Hard Day's Night, but it is a solid #2 among their movies.

 


two directors

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964). We can't ignore what we bring to the table. My admiration for the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer grows from his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I put at #15 on the 50 Favorite Films list I did some years back. I've looked forward to seeing his other movies, but I've mostly been disappointed. Neither Vampyr, his first movie after Joan of Arc and his first talkie, nor Ordet, his penultimate feature (Gertrud was the last) did much for me. So I didn't know what to expect as I settled in to Gertrud. I could imagine the style of the film, but whether I liked it or not was up for grabs.

It turns out I liked it quite a bit. Based on a play, a fact Dreyer makes little attempt to disguise, Gertrud is a talky examination of the place of love in life, centered on a woman in her mid-30s who realizes the love has gone out of her marriage. She makes attempts to find new love, or to rekindle old loves, but eventually she appreciates that the kind of love she seeks is not forthcoming from any man. The ending is not sad, but perhaps bittersweet. Dreyer films this with very long takes ... there are fewer than 90 shots in the two-hour movie. Some may find the style to be too off-putting, but I was sucked in, and it seemed appropriate to the material. While the conversations between the characters are quite intimate, their bodies do not reflect this. The characters are constantly looking off into space as they talk ... rarely does anyone look at the person to whom they are speaking. The words tell us of a desired intimacy ... the eyes tell us that intimacy may never happen. (In a coda, with Gertrud as a much older woman, the people are finally looking at each other as they talk.)

Nina Pens Rode, who plays Gertrud, has gotten much praise for her performance, but I confess I found her unconvincing. If you disagree, you will surely find Gertrud to be a classic, and many will share your view (it is #83 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). She didn't ruin the movie for me ... in my own personal canon, this falls short of Joan of Arc (as most movies do) but I found it far better than the other Dreyers I have seen.

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013). I came to Enemy is a much different manner than I did for Gertrud. My wife selected it off of Netflix ... I'm not sure why, it has Jake Gyllenhaal, maybe she likes him, mostly she picks movie she can knit to. I knew nothing of the movie, so I settled in, clueless about what was to come (which is usually how I like it). It is safe to say I didn't like Enemy. It got decent reviews ... Peter Hartlaub did a fine job of describing it as "what might happen if someone let Terrence Malick make a 'Twilight Zone' episode, with a quick rewrite by David Cronenberg." The clue for me may lie in that description, since I am not a fan of Malick and I run hot and cold on Cronenberg. Gyllenhaal has a double role as two men who look identical, and he got praise for his work here, although I felt it was nowhere near as good as J.K. Simmons in Counterpart. Villeneuve creates an ominous atmosphere, but for me, the movie went nowhere, even as I could tell something was being attempted. I lost patience, and I wasn't convinced by what Hartlaub called "an occasional cameo from an apropos-of-nothing giant spider." I didn't roll my eyes very often, but I was always on the verge. It was only after the film ended and I looked it up to see what others thought that I found out who the director was. The first film of his I saw was Incendies, which I found quite powerful. Later came Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, all of which I liked, if not as much as I liked Incendies, still enough to make me want to keep my eye on Villeneuve. All of which makes me wonder what I might have made of Enemy if I knew in advance that it was by a director I liked. When I watched Gertrud, I was ready to compare it to an all-time classic on the one hand, and a couple of not-so-classics on the other. I wanted to give Dreyer a chance, though, and so I was pleasantly surprised when I liked the movie. If I had known I was about to see a movie by Villeneuve, I would have started off anticipating a good movie. But I didn't have that extra push that comes from looking forward to a film by a favored director, and for me, it fell far short even before I knew who directed it. Meanwhile, there are plenty of "what Enemy means" videos on YouTube if you are so inclined after watching it.




film fatales #42: bombshell: the hedy lamarr story (alexandra dean, 2017)

This is something of a Dual Film Fatale entry, given that it's a documentary about Hedy Lamarr directed by a woman.

I was looking forward to a film showing how Lamarr's work as in inventor was buried underneath her image as a great screen beauty. And that topic is always in the background. But much more of the film than I expected is devoted to Lamarr's career as an actress. And that career is not the most interesting thing about Lamarr. I wanted a movie about an inventor who was also an actress, but what I got was a movie about an actress who was also an inventor.

Obviously, the two go hand in hand. And the time spent on her acting career does establish a setting whereby Lamarr's intelligence might be ignored. Dean is kind enough to avoid much analysis of Lamarr's acting ... her fame came from her beauty, not because she was a great thespian.

I'm wondering if they spend relatively little time on her inventions because they weren't as engrossing for the audience than just showing pictures and clips of her in her prime. I don't want to press this point too much ... Dean does not ignore the inventor in favor of the beauty ... but it's the inventions that make this story more than just another tale of a Hollywood goddess.

Nonetheless, Lamarr's life story is a fascinating one, and a documentary is the way to go. The information is here. Lamarr was as smart as she was beautiful.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: welcome home, roxy carmichael (jim abrahams, 1990)

Winona Ryder usually makes a movie better just by her presence. A movie like A Scanner Darkly is great on its own, but Ryder fits right in. Heathers wouldn't be nearly as fun without Ryder. She can't rescue a truly awful movie ... nothing could save Alien Resurrection. But more than once, she has been the best thing about a middling film, like Girl, Interrupted (which, admittedly, had a remarkable cast beyond just Ryder, including Angelina Jolie, who won an Oscar).

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael is Winona Ryder's movie. Without her, we've got an afternoon special. Perhaps this is no surprise ... Karen Leigh Hopkins, who wrote the screenplay (her first), later was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for a TV movie, What Girls Learn, and still later won a Humanitas Prize for co-writing a TV movie, Searching for David's Heart. Director Jim Abrahams is more surprising ... once the "A" in ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, who gave us Airplane!, Police Squad!, and the great Top Secret!).  Roxy might seem a departure, even a career change, but Abrahams next two films as director were Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux. So let's just say Roxy Carmichael was an anomaly in the career of Abrahams.

The movie really does have a stock after school special setup. Winona plays Dinky Bossetti, an adopted teenager in the Midwest who is misunderstood by everyone. She finds a confidant in a school guidance counselor played by Laila Robins, which leads to the following scene, where the counselor responds to Dinky's outpouring about herself by suggesting, "What do you say we comb your hair?" (Shades of Molly Ringwald giving Ally Sheedy a makeover in The Breakfast Club.)

It's the reversal of what happens to Ryder's character in Heathers ... she starts out looking clean-cut, but ends the movie like this:

Winona heathers messy

Of course, there's something resembling a happy ending in Roxy Carmichael, as Dinky (and her new boyfriend) learns to accept herself.

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael isn't as awful as my description suggests. The small-town setting walks a proper tightrope between real and parody, the cast is fine, the movie is over in 95 minutes. And Winona Ryder makes every scene she is in worthwhile (and she is in almost every scene). But the movie hits some of the wrong buttons for me ... I have certain emotional requirements when it comes to rebellious teenagers, and they don't involve combing the heroine's hair. My recommendation is to watch Heathers again. Or, if you want to revisit the heyday of ZAZ, watch Top Secret!.




creature feature: the day of the triffids (steve sekely and freddie francis, 1963)

This would be a case of a classic mess, if it was a classic. Instead, it's just a mess, one of those movies where the story of its making is far more interesting than what ends up on the screen.

It's based on a popular book by John Wyndham (who also wrote the book on which Village of the Damned is based ... that movie is far better than this one). I have memories of reading this as a kid, and then seeing the movie on TV, back when I'd watch anything Creature Featurish. The plot features monster trees that eat people (the Venus flytrap is trotted out as scientific evidence such a thing is possible), and it turns out it wasn't easy making monster trees very scary. They move slowly, and, well, they're trees. The basic concept, of a world on the verge of apocalypse, can be intriguing, as we have seen from dozens of movies over the years. This particular execution of the concept, though, is anything but intriguing. It looks cheap (especially on the washed-out print I saw), and there's not much effort to crank out a low-budget classic ... nope, it's just cheap. While I don't really remember the book, the movie is apparently a dumber, more monster-oriented version of the original story, which doesn't help. Howard Keel is the lead ... Keel made his name in 1950s musicals like Show Boat, Calamity Jane, Kiss Me Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He doesn't get to sing here. In fairness, he isn't bad in Triffids, it's just hard to care. There's no one else of note in the cast, although my wife thought the female lead, French actress Nicole Maurey, looked familiar (a perusal of her filmography gave no indication of why this would be, unless my wife spent a lot of time in her childhood watching Secret of the Incas).

Whatever budget existed apparently ran out before they had finished the film, although "finished" may be an exaggeration ... when they were done, they had a movie that was less than an hour long. So back they went, with a different director (Francis), two new actors (Janette Scott and Keiron Moore, listed in the credits as appearing "By Special Arrangement", whatever that means), and a new subplot taking place in a lighthouse that, other than being a place where the triffids are attacking, is completely unconnected to the rest of the movie. The result was a movie that lasted 93 minutes, which was long enough to be released.

I admit I found unfortunate humor in a few scenes where people, blinded by the arrival of the triffids (don't ask), wander around tripping over things. Mostly I just kept wishing I was watching Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) ... there is no connection beyond being English sci-fi from the 1960s, but I love the Quatermass film ... I often wish I was watching it.

There are stories about a possible restoration of the movie, which would make it look better but which would still be stupid. There was a BBC TV adaptation in the early 80s that is supposed to be better, and another TV version a few years ago, neither of which I've seen. One thing I can say with authority is that the 1963 film version isn't worth your time.




what i watched

The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960). An entertaining version of the H.G. Wells story, with Oscar-winning special effects that don't look too bad in 2018. The recreation of turn of the century London is fun, with an entertaining group of That Guys (Alan "Mr. Ed" Young, Sebastian "Mr. French" Cabot, Tom "Vertigo" Helmore, and the ever-present Whit Bissell, who  also appeared in a 1978 TV-movie version, as well as the TV series The Time Tunnel) and Rod Taylor in the lead. The scene of Taylor traveling forward in time is well-done ... he ends up in the year 802,701! There he meets up with an age-inappropriate Yvette Mimieux (she was 17 when filming began, Taylor was 30), and romance ensues. Life in the future is split between the Eloi, who wander around in a daze, and the Morlocks, who eat the Eloi. Once the Morlocks make their appearance, things fall apart a bit ... the costumes are a bit too much in the spirit of man-as-ape, albeit after radiation. There's what passes for a happy ending. The Time Machine isn't quite worth hunting down, but it's enjoyable if you come across it. It's better than the 2002 remake.

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016). A standard biopic that does decent justice to the characters. Most of the changes to the real story are minor and forgivable. The film occasionally falls into White Savior mode, but not enough to ruin the movie. The three stars (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) are all good, and since biopics stand or fall on the performances, they make an OK movie into something special. Of course it's inspirational, if that's your cup of tea. Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it lost to Moonlight, which is more than appropriate, Moonlight being a much better film. (Both of those films feature Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for Moonlight.) Hidden Figures will satisfy people who like biopics, and isn't too bad for the rest of us, either.




miami vice (michael mann, 2006)

I am not a big fan of the movies of Michael Mann. I was a fan of his 1980s TV shows, Miami Vice and especially Crime Story with the great Dennis Farina. But the Mann movies I've seen mostly leave me feeling "meh". I did like The Insider, but the rest all fall into the "OK but nothing more" category. The film version of Miami Vice isn't any better or worse than Ali or Collateral ... I'm not sorry I've seen them, but I don't have a desire to see them again. The cast is interesting, but most of them are buried ... there are three main characters, played by Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and Gong Li, and for once the woman is more than just a trinket. But I didn't notice Justin Theroux until the movie was half over, John Hawkes barely had any screen time, Naomie Harris was a trinket except near the end. Some of the other characters were cast by good That Guys like Ciarán Hinds, John Ortiz, and Dominic Lombardozzi, plus there was Elizabeth Rodriguez of Orange Is the New Black.

The movie looks great, as Mann's films usually do. And the look is what matters ... I doubt Mann gave much of a shit about the confusing plot. The result was a movie that was better to look at than to think about. #646 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a favorite critic of mine, because while he likes stuff I don't care for, he is brilliant at explaining why he finds greatness where I find emptiness. After watching Miami Vice, I tweeted, "Just watched the movie version of Miami Vice, and I kept thinking to myself, I bet liked this movie." He replied, "Loved it." He also reminded me of one of his excellent video essays (he is a master of these), "Zen Pulp", on Michael Mann. I highly recommend following that link for a smart, detailed response to Miami Vice and other Mann works.

 


what. (bo burnham, 2013)

It's not really a movie, just a TV stand-up special by, as the IMDB calls him, "the famous Internet musician," Bo Burnham. I'd never heard of him, but he's getting raves reviews for his first feature as writer/director, Eighth Grade, so I gave this a try.

Burnham's show is more than simple stand-up ... he uses recordings of voices and music, he mimes, he plays music live, and he runs around a lot. It's all quite inventive and energetic, if not my own cup of tea. A lot of the material is hit or miss, and he seems to build this into the show, rather like when Johnny Carson would tell a dud joke in his monologue just so he could respond to the groans in the audience. He adopts a faux-confessional mode, broken up by songs like "Beating Off in A Minor" ... as he explains, "'A Minor' the key not the felony." There is a healthy dose of shock humor that sneaks up on you because he looks a bit like a choirboy.

He's still in his mid-20s, and his influences are clear, especially the frantic pace of Robin Williams. My favorite parts were the brief non-sequiturs that reminded me of Mitch Hedberg ("My friend asked me if I wanted a frozen banana, I said 'No, but I want a regular banana later, so … yeah'.") or Steven Wright ("I spilled spot remover on my dog and now he’s gone."). Like them, only with the energy level ramped up to a 100. It gets tiring keeping up with Burnham, even or especially when he's clever.

There's a lot of talent here, and I can imagine Eighth Grade could be a good movie. But I've probably seen enough of his stand-up.




the lion in winter (anthony harvey, 1968)

If you feel the urge to see a Peter O'Toole movie, try Lawrence of Arabia or My Favorite Year. They are both better than The Lion in Winter.

If you feel the urge to see a Katharine Hepburn movie, try Bringing Up Baby or The African Queen. They are both better than The Lion in Winter.

If you feel the urge to see a movie about Henry II, try Becket ... it even has Peter O'Toole. It's not as good as the movies I mention above, but it's better than The Lion in Winter.

At one point in The Lion in Winter, Henry says, "There's a legend of a king called Lear, with whom I have a lot in common." He's not wrong, but, in case you hadn't noticed, James Goldman, who wrote The Lion in Winter, is not Shakespeare. If you feel the urge for similar dramas, watch any of the versions of King Lear out there. Anthony Hopkins stars in a new one I haven't seen, nor have I heard good things about it ... it runs under two hours, which should be right up my alley, but Lear needs the extra time, like Olivier's version that ran 2 1/2 hours. Hopkins is in his 80s, now ... you can't have a young Lear. Hopkins actually makes his feature film debut in The Lion in Winter, as Richard the Lionheart. If you feel the urge to watch a movie where Richard the Lionheart shows up, try The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

I could go on, but why bother? The truth is, The Lion in Winter is a perfectly satisfactory movie. Peter O'Toole yells a lot, Katharine Hepburn does Katharine Hepburn, there's even a James Bond connection (Timothy Dalton also made his film debut in this one). The movie was nominated for seven Oscars and won three (Hepburn, adapted screenplay, and score, by John Barry ... another 007 connection!), because it's the kind of movie that got Oscar nominations in those days. (Hepburn actually tied with Barbra Streisand, which I think is still the only time this has happened.) It was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Oliver!, a film I like that has seen its reputation fall over the years. Still, you know the drill ... if you feel the urge to watch an Oscar-nominated Best Picture of 1968, try Oliver!.




two by antoine fuqua: the equalizer (2014) and (by request) the equalizer 2 (2018)

In 1982, I saw The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) for the first time. The early 80s were a great time for watching action movies. The first two Indiana Jones movies ... The Terminator ... the first Mad Max. It was such a good time that I would often go to see more marginal action movies, because even when they were dumb, they offered a good time. Escape from New York was one. I saw the first Rambo movie (First Blood) ... I even paid to see a much lesser Stallone film, Cobra. And we can't forget the King of all of these movies, Arnold, who had a great decade, and was the epitome of "even when dumb, they were great". Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, Predator, The Running Man, Total Recall, Terminator 2, and others ... what a run!

It's not that my tastes have changed all that much, but I don't have a desire to revisit 1980s action. Of course I'll always watch Road Warrior, and the better Arnold movies (not just the Terminators, but Predator and Total Recall). But while I still love great action movies, I'm not so big on the mediocre ones anymore. Something like Mad Max: Fury Road is simply a great movie, but it's not alone ... it is once again a good time for action movies, especially if you move outside the USA. The Raid films of Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais ... Korean horror classics like Train to Busan and anything by Joon-ho Bong. Attack the Block. Black Panther.

Who knows why I no longer have patience for the fair-to-middling action movies? Just because I loved Road Warrior didn't mean I avoided all the other action movies ... on the contrary, that movie probably had a lot with why I went to the lesser films. But Korean horror movies mostly make me watch more Korean horror movies. (It's like when I first discovered Hong Kong action movies ... I'd watch a couple of HK films a week, not just action, either.)

All of this is a long-winded way of saying I wasn't impressed with the two Equalizer movies from Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington. Both films have things to offer, most importantly Denzel himself.

Fuqua is a solid director who rarely goes wrong (his first film, The Replacement Killers, was an unfortunate stinker, unfortunate because it was Chow Yun-Fat's first American film and thus was a real letdown). I told my wife that Fuqua is the ultimate in what I called "Robin Is Knitting" movies, where she knits and watches movies and TV where she doesn't need to pay attention: Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Magnificent Seven, the two Equalizers. His movies are usually successful at the box office, starting with Training Day, the one of his movies that really stands out. Not overwhelming box office smashes, but, to use The Equalizer as an example, that film made $192 million on a budget of $55 million (if you're wondering why they made a sequel.) Fuqua pleases audiences more than he pleases critics ... his last five features (including EQ2) have received CinemaScore grades of A-, A-, A, A-, and A, while Metacritic assigns those same five films within a range of 41-57 on a scale of 100.

Denzel Washington is great in the two Equalizer movies. You don't think too much about him being too old to play an action hero, because he doesn't move around that much to begin with ... and it's not like Big Steve Seagal limiting his movements because he can't get around anymore. No, Denzel's acting in these movies is like what Clint Eastwood does, i.e. not much. Clint squints his eyes and the combined power of every role he ever played lends weight to those squints. Yes, Denzel is like Clint, except where Eastwood never seems to be acting, Denzel is always acting. Not in a showy way, but just enough so we understand his character is always thinking three steps ahead. And if, like Eastwood, Washington rarely shows emotion in these movies, nonetheless he is expert at showing the emotion just beneath the surface. It's a master class from a master.

As for the rest? I would have loved these movies in the 1980s. Now I can take them or leave them. The Equalizer 2 was especially obvious ... characters turned up for a few minutes, and their only purpose was either to be a victim so Denzel could get revenge, or be the bad guy that Denzel revenged on. Orson Bean (Orson Bean!) turns up, gets a decent amount of screen time, and his part could have been eliminated and no one would have noticed. The Equalizer 2 kept me awake for two hours, even if my attention started fading near the end. But it was no Training Day.