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.


music friday: one i didn't attend

If you’re on Facebook, you couldn’t have missed this one. List a bunch of acts you’ve seen live, add one act you’ve never seen, and ask your Facebook friends to tell you which one is the lie. Here was my list, with Music Friday tunes attached:

k.d. lang, “Crying.”
Malcolm McLaren, “Waltz Darling.”
Paul McCartney & Wings, “Live and Let Die.”
Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark, “Electricity.”
Sha Na Na, “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.”
Ike & Tina Turner, “Proud Mary.”
Quicksilver Messenger Service, “Edward the Mad Shirt Grinder.”
Youssou N'Dour, “7 Seconds.”
Gary Wright, “Dream Weaver.”
Blondie, “One Way or Another.”
Hootie and the Blowfish, “Hold My Hand.”
Sun Ra, “Retrospekt.”

BTW, the lie was Quicksilver.


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:

4/10.


music friday: happy daily mix

From Daily Mix 2. No comments this week ... I wrote last night (4/20), and was in no shape to come up with words.

Etta James, “Tell Mama.”

Otis Redding, “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”

Ben E. King, “Stand by Me.”

The Impressions, “It’s All Right.”

Jimmy Reed, “You Got Me Dizzy.”

Isaac Hayes, “Theme from Shaft.”

The Ohio Players, “Skin Tight.”

Professor Longhair, “Cry to Me.”

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition.”

Otis Rush, “I’m Satisfied.”


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.


13 reasons why

[Spoilers aplenty]

To get the basics out of the way (and if you are reading this, you know the basics, so this isn’t really a spoiler), 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high-school student and recent suicide who left behind a box of cassette tapes that she recorded just before she killed herself. Each side consists of Hannah singling out someone who is in some way one of the 13 reasons. There are seven tapes ... the B-side of the seventh tape is blank, because she only needs 13 sides to tell the story. The subject of the first tape gets the box of tapes and listens to them all, after which they give the box to the subject of the second tape, who etc etc until all thirteen subjects have heard all of the tapes. The person who has the box throughout the series is Clay Jensen, and as he listens to the tapes (one per episode ... yes, there are 13 episodes to the series), we get flashbacks to the events on the tapes.

The performances are solid from top to bottom, but two actors are most important. Dylan Minnette plays Clay, and he is equal measures sympathetic and irritating, which is entirely appropriate for the part. The should-be-star-making role of Hannah goes to a newcomer from Australia, Katherine Langford, and she is the best thing about the show.

13 Reasons Why does a great job of showing the endless trauma of attending high school, where awful big things happen occasionally, but where mostly awful little things happen every single day. If you aren’t one of the cool kids, you’re screwed. Many of us got through high school by becoming part of a subculture of non-cool kids. But there are always those who are both non-cool and friendless ... it barely matters if the kid is actually cool and actually has friends, if they don’t recognize those facts ... and their high school lives are abysmal. Hannah is new to the school, and almost immediately she gets slut-shamed, from which she never regains a positive status among her peers. She has some friends, but she tends to push them away, usually because those friends are unthinking and do things that hurt Hannah (these things being the focus of each individual tape recording). 13 Reasons Why shows how cliques work in high school, and how reputations are made. It does this is a mostly realistic way.

Knowing how the story ends creates an ever-growing tension as we watch the episodes. Hannah’s life is crumbling before our eyes, but in the flashbacks, the kids don’t realize their part in how Hannah’s life ends ... to them, it’s just high school. Eventually, events shatter the composure of some of the kids ... auto accidents, physical assaults, things that can’t be ignored. But only Hannah, the author of her story as she records the tapes, takes in the accumulation that threatens to ruin her.

The implication is that Hannah commits suicide for the 13 reasons, and in the context of the series, this is believable. Some have criticized the show, though, for blaming events, when many suicides come from a place of deep depression that might be chemical rather than social. Hannah is increasingly disturbed, and she becomes crucially sensitive to how others treat her, but there is never a suggestion that she might have a chemical imbalance that could be alleviated via drug therapy. No, Hannah’s suicide grows entirely out of those 13 reasons, all of which are about how she is treated by others. (This also leads to a final “message” that we all just need to treat each other with more kind attention.)

The decision of how to show the most horrible events in the story are powerful, and I don’t think there’s any reason to dismiss the approach the show takes, although some will find it too hard to watch these scenes (which is partly the point). There are two rapes, and while the first is mostly in the dark, the second is much more visible. Director Jessica Yu (she did two episodes ... other directors include Tom McCarthy, Helen Shaver, Gregg Araki, and Carl Franklin) shows just enough visual context that we know what is happening, but she spends almost the entire scene on the girl’s face. We see the trauma, and we see on her face the terrible way she becomes an empty shell. Far from being exploitive, the scene is sickening and upsetting.

Hannah’s suicide is also unbearable. In that episode (directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez), we see the final hours of Hannah’s life, and then we watch the final minutes. Many have complained that the actual suicide (via slit wrists) is so graphic it could serve as a how-to for troubled viewers. But the people behind 13 Reasons Why specifically wanted to avoid the usual presentation where we see the suicidal person about to commit the act, then cut to someone discovering the act after the fact. They wanted to show the ugliness of suicide. They insisted that the audience was repulsed. I have seen a few comments claiming that 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide. Well, the actual suicide is the least-romantic act imaginable.

There is, in fact, very little romanticizing being done throughout the series. We are always aware of the effect of the accumulation of events on Hannah’s psyche, and at no time do we think, gee, I wish I was Hannah.

While the series is on Netflix, I strongly advise against binge watching it. It would be emotionally overwhelming, for one thing, and each episode deserves processing before moving on to the next. The series is too long, and at times it is repetitive, but it’s a bit like the way Clay listens to every tape from start to finish. You’ll want to do the same with 13 Reasons Why.

I want to single out a couple of actors. Justin Prentice does such a great job of playing a rich, privileged jock that you always want to slap the smirk off his face when he shows up. And then there is Wilson Cruz, who first came to our attention in My So-Called Life as Rickie Vasquez. Cruz appears as a lawyer in a handful of episodes in 13 Reasons Why, and between the ever-lasting love his fans have for Cruz, and the obvious connections between his first series and this one, it is delightful to see him. (His character is named “Vasquez”, which has led some to imagine it’s just Rickie, grown up with a new first name.)

Finally, I have read a few people saying 13 Reasons Why promotes revenge. This supposedly even makes suicide more appealing, since Hannah gets “revenge” by exposing everyone in her tapes. Again, there is nothing in this show that makes me wish I had led Hannah’s deeply sad life. (People looking for a revenge drama might check out the fine vigilante show, Sweet/Vicious.)


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.)