the best offer (giuseppe tornatore, 2013)

I try to avoid spoilers, and sometimes I am very successful. I had no idea what The Best Offer was about. I knew it had Geoffrey Rush, and I knew it was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, who also made a film I liked OK, Cinema Paradiso, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I didn’t know the plot. I didn’t even know what language it was in.

I mention this because the biggest problem with The Best Offer is its almost complete lack of originality. It harkens back as far as The Blue Angel (1930), through the film noir years, all the way up to 2013. The story of an aging man falling for a young, beautiful, and mysterious woman has been told many times, and for The Best Offer to stand out, it needs to either do the same old thing in an excellent manner, or to present a twist or two to keep our attention. It does neither.

And yet the truth is, I barely noticed these things until I was well into the film, and I suspect this was because I came to it cold. I wasn’t thinking, “This better be as good as The Blue Angel”, because I was barely thinking anything at all. I took the movie at face value, and maybe that’s the best way to approach any work of art.

But gradually, I saw the film settling into the patterns of a dozen movies from the past, and the experience of watching became rather empty. If I’d known more about the film in advance, I might have seen the emptiness much sooner, but I was intrigued ... until I wasn’t.

It looks luscious, and Rush is good enough to make the silly plot believable. Donald Sutherland wiggles his eyebrows occasionally. Sylvia Hoeks didn’t do much for me as the young apple of Rush’s eye. For all of the attempts at mystery, ultimately I didn’t think it was mysterious at all, other than the fact that nothing makes sense.

Ennio Morricone did the music, if you’re a completist when it comes to his work. And there is nothing awful about The Best Offer, if you want to while away 131 minutes. But I’m going with 6/10.

the screaming skull (alex nicol, 1958)

I should create a new category for movies like this. Call it “Creature Features”. There are no actual creatures in The Screaming Skull, but it’s the kind of movie that turned up on late-night Creature Features TV shows. It was done by the MST3000 guys. That kind of movie.

Often, the trivia is more interesting than the actual movie, so here goes. Director Alex Nicol also appears as a mentally challenged gardener, which makes sense, as Nicol had been acting throughout the 50s (The Screaming Skull was his first directorial effort). Female lead Peggy Webber is still with us (91 years old) ... she is a big figure in radio and appeared in Welles’ Macbeth. She is nicely summarized in the title of an article about her from 2015, “Radio Theater's Peggy Webber Is 90 — and Cooler Than You”. The producers used their tiny budget well, as there are only five characters, and all of the action takes place in the same place. It’s not the kind of cheapo movie where no one knows what they are doing ... the camera is always where it belongs, the acting is acceptable, and the music is helpful. That music is by Ernest Gold, who won an Oscar two years later for Exodus. The cinematography is by Floyd Crosby, who had himself won an Oscar all the way back in 1931 for Murnau’s Tabu. (And he’s the father of rocker David Crosby.)

And with that, I’ve dispensed with most of the trivia. Well, I could mention that this American International Picture was released as part of a double bill with Terror from the Year 5000.

And the movie? As I mentioned, it’s competent. It doesn’t suck. It’s over in 68 minutes. But it’s also clichéd, obvious, and boring. It’s Gaslight without the entertainment, and if that’s a spoiler, well, this is a B-movie from almost 60 years ago, I think the spoiler time period has elapsed on this one. 4/10.

the host (bong joon-ho, 2006)

I wrote about The Host almost ten years ago, and I guess you could it was a case of damning with faint praise, when I devoted a mere one sentence to what I thought was a 7/10 movie: “Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it.” Having just watched it again, I have to say, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking back in 2008. At the least, I should have realized that “a few dozen rungs” is a lot.

Partly, I have context now, having seen a lot of Korean horror since 2008. Just to take Bong’s movies, there are Memories of Murder, Mother, and Snowpiercer (the latter actually being his American sci-fi-action flick). In other words, I’m a fan of Bong and Korean movies in ways I wasn’t when I first saw The Host, so I’m more predisposed to like it.

There are other little things ... Scott Wilson, who’s had a long career in everything from In Cold Blood and The Great Gatsby to The Walking Dead, has a cameo at the beginning of the movie. And Doona Bae, who I hadn’t noticed before in several movies, but who is a fave of mine on Sense8, so now when I re-watch The Host, there’s Bae as the archer. These are the kinds of things that bring a familiarity to The Host that wasn’t there before.

But enough explaining. I still missed the boat, because The Host isn’t just a few dozen rungs better than Sharknado, it’s in another league. The monster is cheesy but intriguing. The political undercurrents are there without taking over the movies. And the core characters, from a dysfunctional family that responds in various ways to the monster’s appearance, are finely-drawn and interesting in their own right. The Host works as a family drama, even without the monster.

Plus, the comedy isn’t stupid, and like the politics, it never overtakes the movie.

I still think I’d start with Mother if I wanted to introduce someone to the work of Bong Joon-Ho. But The Host is getting closer. #104 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st cenury. 8/10. (At this rate, if I watch it again in 2026 and 2035, I’ll give it a 10/10.) (Trying to imagine me watching a Korean monster movie when I’m 82 years old.)

a woman, a gun and a noodle shop (zhang yimou, 2009)

In 2009, Zhang Yimou’s recent filmography included such movies as the Oscar-nominated historical adventure Hero and House of Flying Daggers, both nominated for Oscars. Steve Fore had some smart and pointed critiques of Hero in the comments thread. He noted that his early-90s films were Zhang at his peak, but after that, he seemed to succumb to the desire to please the Chinese leaders. He wrote, “House of Flying Daggers, is Hero lite, a deliberately ‘entertainment’-oriented martial arts action movie that all but screams ‘NO POLITICS HERE, NO SIRREE BOB.’”

The point is, I’m thinking of Zhang for his epic adventures, but he may have already spilled over to the entertainment side of film making by 2009. Which better explains why he made A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop.

This movie is a remake of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. He dumps the plot into an earlier century, in China, but it is recognizably Blood Simple. To be honest, I saw the Coens’ movie so long ago I barely remember it, but I’ll take everyone’s word that Zhang is taking off on the American movie.

To be sure, I don’t see what the point is of this remake, but an artist goes where their muse leads them, I guess. The film looks great, as all Zhang’s films do. But I like to have something besides pretty pictures when I watch a movie. A Woman contains a lot of slapstick, which isn’t normally my cup of tea. I never shook the feeling that some of the humor was funnier if you were part of Chinese culture. The actors who perform most of the slapstick just annoyed me. The twists and turns of the plot didn’t interest me.

The best things I can say about A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is that it wasn’t made for me, so YMMV. But my mileage says 5/10.

anything goes (robert lewis, 1956)

Musical with a nice pedigree, but it falls flat. In the 1930s, the play, with Ethel Merman, ran for more than a year. A movie came out in 1936 with Merman and Bing Crosby. Twenty years later, here comes the remake, and Bing Crosby is back. But the plot has nothing to do with the original. In fact, other than the title, the two movies have only one thing in common: several Cole Porter songs. Bing Crosby, Cole Porter, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor ... what could go wrong?

Well, this movie is dreary. Everyone seems to be going through the motions. You get Porter classics like “Anything Goes” and “I Get a Kick Out of You”, but not much else. Zizi Jeanmaire does a ballet number that stops the show, and I don’t mean in a good way. The plot, a farce about love, lacks sizzle, which makes sense when one of the couples of Bing (53 years old) and Zizi (32 years old).

Gaynor is the best thing about the movie, the only person with a pulse. I’m reminded of a Randy Newman article in Rolling Stone back in the early 70s.

Once he went to see Liza Minnelli rehearse a TV dance number, and after it was over she asked him how he liked it.

"You were a real Mitzi Gaynor out there," he replied, an assessment that apparently did not impress Liza. "But I always liked Mitzi Gaynor," Randy explained later with a shrug.

The great Glenn “DVD Savant” Erickson points out that the best film version of the song “Anything Goes” remains the opening scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:

Here is the whole movie, if for some reason you are dying to see it:


throwback thursday, new blu-ray player edition

Got a new Blu-ray player yesterday. Everyone streams nowadays, so you can get Blu-ray players for cheap. To test it out, I watched a favorite of mine, Don’t Look Now. I wrote a fairly long post on this four years ... it was a request at the time. It’s worth reading, including the comments section:

By Request: Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).

I got the Blu-ray just after I’d watched it for the above post, which is why it sat unopened for four years. It looks and sounds great, no surprise since it’s a Criterion release. I still love this movie after many viewings over the years.

Even though the new player is mostly functional and lacking many bells and whistles, it has many more features than my old Panasonic that served me well for so long. Most of those bells and whistles are irrelevant to me ... you can watch Netflix and Amazon and all that stuff, but I already have a Roku box, a Chromecast dongle, and an Amazon Fire Stick, so I don’t really need that. The one improvement that I’ve already taken advantage of is Bluetooth. I listened to the movie on Bluetooth headphones. It worked fine, and I didn’t have to worry about being too loud while my wife was working down stairs.

godzilla’s revenge (ishirô honda, 1969)

The title has nothing to do with the movie, and it would probably be better to use an alternate English title, All Monsters Attack, which is at least closer to what we see on the screen.

I’m sure many people think all of those old Japanese Godzilla movies are equally bad, with perhaps a nod to the original, which is actually a fine movie. Well, even fans of the movies tend to agree that Godzilla’s Revenge is the worst Japanese-made Godzilla movie of all time. Just think of how bad some of those movies are, and then try to imagine the depths to which Godzilla’s Revenge must go to take the title of Worst Ever.

For instance:

The fight scenes among the monsters are footage from earlier Godzilla movies (and not necessarily the best ones). Godzilla does not go on a rampage in a city with a large population. He lives on something called “Monster Island”.

“Monster Island” doesn’t actually exist ... it’s a place the hero, Ichirô, dreams about when he sleeps.

Thus, none of the monsters, including Godzilla, are “real” within the context of the film’s universe.

Ichirô is a latchkey kid who lacks parental advice because they are always working, and who is regularly bullied by the other kids.

When Ichirô dreams of Monster Island, he hangs out with Godzilla’s son, who speaks, thus allowing them to have conversations where Son of Godzilla explains that his dad is trying to teach him not to be a coward.

When Ichirô is awake, he uses his dream memories to emulate Little Godzilla, finally getting the courage to fight back against the bullies.

Oh, there’s also a plot about two bank robbers that are captured thanks to Ichirô.

Seriously, this is one awful movie. And I confess, I watched it on our DVD copy. Yes, I own Godzilla’s Revenge. 2/10.

high noon (fred zinnemann, 1952)

It’s hard to talk about High Noon after all these years. It almost exists more as a symbol or representative of its time than it does as an actual movie. And I can’t help but bring some of that baggage to my watching it again.

There’s all the stuff surrounding the Hollywood blacklist. Supposedly, High Noon is an allegory about the blacklist, although I think this isn’t nearly as obvious as is assumed, unless all it takes to be an allegory is to have a situation where everyone turns their back on the hero. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was working on High Noon when he was called before HUAC. He refused to “name names”, and was subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood, after which he moved to England. Stanley Kramer was the producer of the film, the same Stanley Kramer who later made a gazillion “socially relevant” movies of variable quality, the same Stanley Kramer for whom the Stanley Kramer Award of the Producers Guild of America was created after his death, dedicated to movies which “illuminate provocative social issues”. Kramer wanted Foreman kicked off of High Noon because Foreman wouldn’t name names. There are various versions of this story.

Meanwhile, other people had problems with High Noon, most notably John Wayne, a passionate believer in the blacklist, and director Howard Hawks. Together, they later made Rio Bravo, claiming it was intended as a counter to High Noon. It’s all a big mess ... what really matters is Rio Bravo is arguably the best Western ever made, while High Noon is barely even a good film.

High Noon “works” ... the setup is irresistible, with the near-real time action, the train carrying the bad guy into town, Gary Cooper forced to stand alone. On the surface, it’s worth seeing. All of the other stuff makes it more interesting as a cultural document, but the movie itself is basic, simple, easy to take in. Cooper is far too old for the part of Will Kane, but he does exude Essence of Cooper. Grace Kelly is mostly wasted, and the part where her Quaker character shoots a bad guy is confusing at best. It’s fun seeing Lee Van Cleef in his first role. I’m not trying to keep people from watching High Noon, although they’d be better of watching Rio Bravo. But its status as a classic is unearned, in my opinion. #393 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (I should add that the theme song of the movie, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’”, which won an Oscar and was a big hit, becomes unbearable after the 3,000th time you hear it during the movie.)

the panic in needle park (jerry schatzberg, 1971)

Noteworthy for the appearances of many actors at or near the beginning of their film careers, starting with the leads, Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who had worked in the theater. Both had minor roles in one film prior to The Panic in Needle Park ... they were effectively unknowns. Coppola used Pacino’s performance here to convince the studio to let him cast the actor as Michael Corleone. Richard Bright, soon to be known as Al Neri from the Godfather movies, is also here in one of his earliest movies, as are actors like Raúl Juliá, Joe Santos, and Paul Sorvino. The screenplay, by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, was their first. And it was only the second feature directed by Schatzberg, who was (and perhaps still is) known as a photographer who took the picture that became the cover of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

So there’s a lot of talent from before they got famous (Winn may give the best performance ... she won Best Actress at Cannes ... but her last film was in 1978, so she never really “got famous”, she was just that person who was so good in Needle Park). And the talent shows. Pacino and Winn carry the movie. As was so often the case in the early years, Pacino reminds us of Bruce Springsteen at a similar age. Winn’s gradual descent into a junkie’s life is highly regarded to this day. All down the line, the cast feels carefully chosen to climb into the skins of their characters.

Care is also taken to make New York City look “real”. More important, care is taken to make the junkie life look “real”, with detailed sequences of fixing and shooting up, and plenty of junkies asking everyone they meet if they are carrying.

It is so careful, in fact, that it misses some of the messiness of these characters’ lives. Or rather, the messiness looks constructed. There is a distance in the filmmaking, despite the attempt to get in the audience’s faces. Pacino and Winn give convincing portrayals of junkies, but they never convinced me they weren’t performances, which goes against the realist feel of the film.

It is also a very dreary picture, which is perhaps appropriate given the subject matter, but there is none of the humor of the similar Sid and Nancy. That film had more than just junkies, which made their story more heartbreaking. But Pacino’s character is on heroin from the beginning, and Winn’s character is clearly headed down the same trail. The result is a movie that might be “good for us”, and might turn us away from drugs because there is nothing exciting about what we see, but I can’t help wanting more. I wish one of those extras playing junkies had tried to steal one of the movie cameras. It might have seemed spontaneous, and there is nothing spontaneous here.

The Panic in Needle Park is impressive. It is worth seeing for a variety of reasons. But it is far from great. 7/10.

doctor strange (scott derrickson, 2016)

I was only a casual comic book reader as a kid. When we were sick, our dad would often stop at the store on his way home from work and get us a 7-Up and a comic. But I didn’t keep up, didn’t know much about them.

In 1970-71, though, I had my first chance to be a hippie, which meant I did a lot of psychedelic drugs. I’m relying on Wikipedia here, because of my aforementioned lack of knowledge about comics (by then, I’d discovered comix, but that’s for another discussion), and because, well, who remembers what we did when we took a lot of psychedelic drugs? I don’t know how we discovered the books, but somehow we became aware of Dr. Strange. Again using Wikipedia, I can state that Dr. Strange became its own comic book in June of 1968, beginning with Issue #169 (because it was a continuation of the Strange Tales series, which had introduced the Doctor in 1963). There were 15 issues of Dr. Strange, running through November of 1969, before Marvel took a different route, leaving Strange to pop up now and then, finally settling in for a long run in 1974. All of this comes from Wikipedia ... I lost track of Dr. Strange after those months as a hippie.

We bought all 15 issues of the late-60s Dr. Strange, and read them over and over. Funny thing is, I barely remember them now. When I was watching Doctor Strange, I realized I had little idea of what was to come, which was fine. The one thing I thought I remembered was that Strange wore a cape ... turns out I was thinking of the Cloak of Levitation, which eventually turns up in the movie.

This is a bit pointless, describing things I didn’t remember as if they had something to do with my experience watching Doctor Strange. But I did come to the movie with a bit more happy anticipation than I usually do for the Marvel movies, which I am not up to date on (I do watch a few of the Marvel TV series). I was willing to give the movie a chance, which I don’t always do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (OK, I liked Ant-Man a bit.) And yes, I liked it. I don’t know how it played with the Marvel fans, but it did make a shitload of money.

Much as is currently the case with Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange had a casting controversy because Tilda Swinton, who played The Ancient One, is not Asian. In the comics, he is a Tibetan man ... Derrickson has a complicated explanation for why he wanted to avoid stereotypes, with the solution being to turn the character into a Celtic mystic played by Swinton. I admit this didn’t bother me, since Swinton is always so odd, she is sui generis no matter who she is playing.

The cast was good overall, although I was pleased to find that “Mads Mikkelsen admitted that with all the computer-generated imagery he got a bit lost on how to film his scenes”. He was great, of course, but when I watch these movies, I often wonder what it’s like to try and act in them.

I didn’t care about the mystic angles, which were likely my favorite parts in my hippie days, but neither did ruin things for me. It’s just a case of accepting the world created in the film, and they’ve done well with that here. I have no idea how it all fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that doesn’t bother me when I’m watching Jessica Jones, so it’s OK here, as well. It gets in under two hours, is a good blend of CGI spectacle and solid, human acting. It’s not a waste of time, which is to say, it’s at least as good as Ant-Man. 7/10.