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by request: ant-man (peyton reed, 2015)

Yesterday my wife told me I had to take her to the movies. I looked through the local listings and found little that I wanted to see that I thought she’d want to see. Finally, I tossed out Ant-Man, and it turned out that was one of her two choices. So Ant-Man it was.

At this point, I’m not sure I’m the audience for this. I see maybe one out of three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, so I’m never quite caught up. I saw the first Iron Man and the first Avengers, and I watch Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter. I’m a big enough fan of Hayley Atwell that I was glad to see her in Ant-Man, but I questioned her old-age makeup ... she looked maybe mid-50s, but shouldn’t she have been 70+ years old by then? (I didn’t see the second Captain America movie, where she was apparently even older.) Basically, what I’m looking for when I see one of the MCU movies is a standalone. I don’t mind that there are connections to other movies, and I can certainly see the appeal, but I don’t want to have to constantly ask questions about who is who.

Ant-Man works well for an audience member like me. There was more MCU-related stuff in the two brief segments during the credits than in the movie itself.

The movie was breezy. It didn’t look down on its audience, but neither did it take itself too seriously. The main actors were fine, and the occasional attempts to offer character background were unforced. A few of the special effects worked especially well ... I liked when Ant-Man was learning to work with ants, and there was real thought behind a couple of riffs (Thomas the Tank Engine, and The Cure, were among my favorites).

It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours at the movies. I didn’t expect any more than that. But I’m more excited about the upcoming season of Agent Carter. 7/10.

what i watched last week

The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). World War I picture, made when that war was still very familiar to audiences, was a huge hit. John Gilbert (“The Great Lover”) effectively played all facets of his characters, first as a rich and careless young man, then as one of the boys in the Army, and finally as one of many confronted with the ugliness of war. French actress Renée Adorée, who had been in films for several years and in show business since she was five years old, won audiences over as the love interest, especially in a famous scene where Gilbert teaches her how to chew gum. (Her movie career blossomed with The Big Parade ... sadly, she died of TB only eight years later.) Much of the film plays almost like a rom-com, and between the drawn-out courtship and the comic relief provided by Tom O’Brien and Karl Dane, my patience was wearing thin. But then the soldiers head for the front, marked by the ominous caption, “IT HAD BEGUN.” The battle scene that follows is intense, and while Vidor doesn’t film it as straightforward realism, the scene draws much of its power from showing the darker side of war. It’s what raises the film above the norm. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Guys and Dolls (Joseph L.Mankiewicz, 1955). 5/10.

by request: guys and dolls (joseph l. mankiewicz, 1955)

Today I welcome a new member of the By Request team, Diana, who offered several suggestions, of which this is the first to show up on the blog.

I just wish I could say more nice things about the movie itself. There may be some taste preference problems here ... “It’s just not for me” is a phrase I’m becoming more fond of as time passes. It’s not that I don’t like musicals ... when we did our Fave 50 thing a few years ago, I had four musicals in my Top 50 (five if you count “What’s Opera, Doc?”), while one of the others had no musicals and the third had only two, the highest at #39. It’s not that I don’t like 50s musicals, although we’re getting closer ... Singin’ in the Rain made my list, and Gigi came close. But I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals from the 50s that made it to the big screen (both Singin’ in the Rain and Gigi had non-Broadway source material). My favorite movie that meets the criteria is probably My Fair Lady, to which I only gave 7/10. (I liked Oliver! even more, but it was a 60s musical.)

So ... not for me. It’s also really long (2 1/2 hours ... not for me). All of which means I want to tip my cap to Guys and Dolls, even if it wasn’t for me. (OK, I’ll stop now.)

Except ... and I’m not saying anything new here. The oddball casting of Marlon Brando as the male lead pretty much brings this below the norm. (In fairness, if I remember correctly, Diana’s recommendation came when we were talking about miscast non-singers in movie musicals.) Marlon Brando is my favorite actor of all time, and he is game, here. He can carry a tune, although he can’t project worth a damn. You think he’s good enough, except there’s Jean Simmons, a “non-singer” as well, doing just fine ... she’s a good singer, she’s not just getting by, and she’s a good example of how to cast a non-singer in a singing role (i.e., pick someone with some background in music, and I don’t mean being able to play the conga drums). The worst comes when Brando performs “Luck Be a Lady” (the only song in the score that I recognized, for what it’s worth). The best you can say is that he gets through it, and again, I’d like to say what the heck, good enough, but then you remember that Frank Fucking Sinatra is in this movie. And Marlon Brando is singing the top song.

Especially early in his career, Brando was open to trying many different things. We remember the iconic roles like Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy, but in the 50s alone, he also did Shakespeare (a fine Marc Antony in Julius Caesar), Zapata, Napoleon (not all of these were good movies, of course). I think it’s pretty cool that Brando wanted to be in Guys and Dolls. But he was better as Zapata, where he was at least marginally more believable as a Mexican than Charlton Heston was in Touch of Evil.

Would I like Guys and Dolls if Sinatra had gotten his wish and played Sky Masterson? I would have disliked it less, is more accurate.

I tried, honest. It took me three viewings to actually get through the movie ... the first two times, I fell asleep by the midpoint of the film. But I kept at it, and the third time was a charm. 5/10. If you feel like having a festival, the four musicals that made my Top 50 were A Hard Day’s Night (#42), Singin’ in the Rain (#39), Cabaret (#32), and Top Hat (#12). And I had two Brandos in my Top 10: Streetcar (#9) and Godfather (#1).

catching up on books

Here are two books I’ve read recently that have nothing in common.

From Jeff Guinn, there’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, from 2013. The classic book on Manson is Helter Skelter, I suppose. It’s been forever since I read it. My memory is that I preferred Ed Sanders’ book, The Family. I probably thought I knew all that I needed to know about Manson, but Guinn proves me wrong. His book is detailed and heavily researched. You learn about his childhood, you learn about his various stays in penal institutions, and most importantly, you find that he drew quite a bit from Dale Carnegie and from Scientology. With the former, Manson learned techniques for influencing people (he wasn’t as interested in making friends). From the latter, he learned about how cults worked (he didn’t care about the religious angle). He then set out to find people who could give him something. Guinn notes that Charlie couldn’t have found a better place to begin his big project than San Francisco in 1967. Guinn doesn’t blame hippies or alternate lifestyles ... he just points out that people were pretty tolerant of oddball behavior (and Manson had a lot of that). He begins building his family there, but the story soon moves to Los Angeles, where Manson hopes to launch a music career. Again, I thought I knew the basics of the relationship between Manson and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, but Guinn breaks it down, clarifies things. By the time the murders take place, you can believe The Family would kill for Manson (fear was a big part of their actions).

In a timely sidenote, Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast, "You Must Remember This", has been focusing on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” for several weeks. It’s a great pairing with Guinn’s book.

The second book is Molly Knight’s tome on the recent history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, which came out a few weeks ago. It was a bit odd for this lifelong Giants fan to read an entire book about the Dodgers, but as I said on Twitter, I liked the ending (the Giants win the World Series, again, while the Dodgers don’t win the World Series, again). Knight doesn’t break new ground with this book, but she doesn’t have to, because she does such a solid, thorough job. She brings a lot to the table: a Dodger fan who, as she says, “grew up in the Top Deck at Dodger Stadium”; an efficient and clear writer; a worthy journalist; an honored stat head. She’s got all the angles covered, and the book benefits from her approach. We get to know Clayton Kershaw, take a peek inside Yasiel Puig, and most importantly, learn what a shitload of money can (and can’t) do for a major league baseball franchise. I got a greater appreciation for Don Mattingly, who maneuvers precariously between rich, antsy owners and temperamental superstars. (Knight doesn’t shy away from the whole story ... more than once, she notes that Mattingly is not known as a great strategist.)

Does Knight make me want to root for the Dodgers? Give me a break. If the Dodgers played a World Series against a team managed by Satan, I’d be cheering on the devil. Perhaps that’s a sign of how good Knight’s book is. Even a hardcore Giants fan will like it.

what i watched last week

Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990). There’s no use writing about David Lynch. I’ve said my piece. He is not my favorite director. Still, I occasionally catch up on his back catalogue. I’m sure Wild at Heart turned out just how Lynch wanted, and good for him. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern do a good job of playing Elvis and (I guess) Marilyn. Diane Ladd got an Oscar nomination for over-acting in a poorly-written part. Willem Defoe acts with his teeth. Let me quote Roger Ebert, and get out of here: “There is something inside of me that resists the films of David Lynch. I am aware of it, I admit to it, but I cannot think my way around it. I sit and watch his films and am aware of his energy, his visual flair, his flashes of wit. But as the movie rolls along, something grows inside of me - an indignation, an unwillingness, a resistance. At the end of both ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Wild at Heart,’ I was angry, as if a clever con-man had tried to put one over on me.” #895 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10, which is what I’ve given the majority of Lynch films I have seen (I did give The Elephant Man 10/10).

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972). For some reason, I think I don’t like Fassbinder, so I avoid his movies. I don’t know why this is, but it is true that another critic who avoided him was Pauline Kael, who admitted she didn’t get him, so perhaps it’s as simple as I never got a Fassbinder recommendation from her. Funny thing is, the one time before this I watched one of his movies, I liked it quite a bit (The Marriage of Maria Braun). This one also features Hanna Schygulla, although she is not the lead this time. I don’t know enough about the behind-the-scenes stuff about Fassbinder, and I’m not sure it matters, although I wasn’t surprised to find out his relationship with Irm Hermann was complicated ... he presents her in a very severe way in this movie. Bitter Tears plays a bit like if Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed All About Eve. There is a lot of catty dialogue, little of which seems sincere, so the film moves along and the characters (and actresses) are fun to watch, but I’m not sure there’s much more to the movie. #702 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971). Brutal, efficient crime drama with no likable characters, which somehow makes it feel quite modern. What it’s like? Maybe a British Point Blank? Some say this is Michael Caine’s finest performance. Speaking of which, the beginning of the film with the London gangsters had a real Performance feel to it. Once they moved to Newcastle, that was lost. If it was made today, I imagine the cinematography would be much more glossy ... here, it’s practically a kitchen sink movie. OK, I know it was remade a few years ago with Sylvester Stallone, and I didn’t see it, so maybe that movie had a bleak look to it as well. (And it was remade in 1972 as Hit Man, with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier, and no, I didn’t see that one, either, although it looks interesting.) This Get Carter is very highly regarded in England, but it’s good-not-great. #763 on that TSPDT list. 7/10.

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000). 7/10.

Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966). 9/10.

film fatales #3: daisies (vera chytilová, 1966)

(Suggested by The Film Fatales)

Here’s something I know next to nothing about: the Czech New Waves of the 1960s. I recognize some of the names ... Miloš Forman (who later directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus), Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way), Jiří Menzel ... and I’ve seen some of the movies (the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains). or at least recognize the titles. And I assume pretty much every country had its New Wave. But I stumbled onto Daisies, and thus stumbled onto one of the key films in the Czech New Wave. (The impetus for watching is that Criterion was featuring movies from 1966 on Hulu.) Daisies existed at the time just prior to the Prague Spring ... it came out a bit more than a year before Alexander Dubček took power. Immediately on its released, it was famously banned in Czechoslovakia for “depicting the wanton”. That may have warranted a ban according to the authorities ... the truth is, they described the film quite accurately. It does indeed depict the wanton.

Daisies is a delightful movie, as if someone dropped the Broad City women into the middle of a film revolution 50 years ago in Europe. Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová play two teenage girls who see emptiness in the world around them and resolve to fill their own lives with pretty much anything they want. They scam a series of sugar daddies, cadging expensive meals, they burst into a dance hall and wreak havoc. Most famously, they discover catered dinner before the guests have arrived, and proceed to randomly eat until they fall into a food fight. It sounds frivolous, but in the context of mid-60s Czechoslovakia, it’s a breath of fresh air. Cerhová and Karbanová perfectly express youthful abandon ... that the two were amateurs at the time is remarkable, and suggests Chytilová not only had an excellent eye for budding talent but also knew how to extract just what was needed from the actresses.

In a later interview, Cerhová said:

I think that Vera also wanted to explore the idea of destruction. So she showed these two young women who thought: if the whole world is so depraved, why not do the same thing, why not grant ourselves the same freedom to provoke, to go further and further? You can’t imagine how these scenes, where we threw down the table and the platters of a sumptuous banquet, were shocking in a country where people waited on line for hours in front of grocery stores.

The style of Daisies is, quite properly, abundantly excessive. Chytilová will do anything and everything, breaking rules left and right (pun not intended, but there it is). The sound editing is particularly impressive. The film is mostly lacking in narrative thrust, and that’s for the best ... often, experimental films will fart around with narrative, leaving an inscrutable mess, but Chytilová steamrollers over the idea of narrative, just presenting a collage of scenes of the two girls being wanton.

I had so much fun watching this movie. It reminded me of the first time I saw Breathless ... I loved that movie so much, I sat through it a second time right away. I want to say Daisies is unforgettable, but then I looked it up on the IMDB, and found something interesting. Apparently, I’d seen it before and given it a 9/10. I’ve never written about it until now, and I certainly don’t remember seeing it. So I guess it isn’t unforgettable. I’ll settle for saying it’s wonderful. As for a rating, who am I to argue with myself? 9/10. #407 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.