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it's halloween, so go watch the babadook

Looking for a movie to watch on Halloween? I recommend The Babadook. I wrote about it two years ago:

The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).

The Babadook is currently ranked #563 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


by request: marshall (reginald hudlin, 2017)

A couple of weeks ago, writing about Wonder Woman, I questioned the need for the Chris Pine character. It felt timid, as if the audiences wouldn't go to see the movie unless there was a guy in a main role.

I had the same feeling while watching Marshall. There are some who argue that the film is unfair towards Sam Friedman, the Jewish lawyer who works alongside Thurgood Marshall. Whether this is true, my own question was, why choose a case like this, that allows for a lot of screen time for the white guy, in a movie supposed about Thurgood Marshall? Nothing against the real-life Friedman, but at times the movie plays as if it should have been called "Friedman". As Alissa Wilkinson wrote, in a piece titled "Marshall is named for Thurgood Marshall. Why isn’t he the movie’s protagonist?":

The main problem with Marshall, unfortunately, is that the movie’s protagonist isn’t Thurgood Marshall at all. The young lawyer enters the story fully self-possessed and confident in both the rightness of his cause and the justness of insisting on his place in a society that would get rid of him, and everyone like him, if it could. ... The true protagonist of Marshall is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance lawyer in Connecticut who gets roped into helping on an explosive criminal case that touches off racial prejudices and discovers within himself a desire to fight for civil rights, too.

Marshall is an entertaining movie, especially if you like courtroom dramas, and if you accept it for what it is, rather than what you might hope it will be, you should be fine. Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad are fine in the leads, Sterling K. Brown and Kate Hudson do well in secondary roles, and Marshall's old buddies Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston show up. While I was watching it, I liked it more than the above might suggest, and even after the post-mortem, I don't hate it.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

creature feature saturday: the amazing mr. x (bernard vorhaus, 1948)

There was a great SCTV sketch featuring Count Floyd and Monster Chiller Horror Theatre. The movie was one Count Floyd hadn't seen before, Whispers of the Wolf, but he can just tell by the title that we're going to be "scared right out of our pants". It turns out the film is directed by "Ingmar Burgman" and if there's any horror in it, it's of an existential nature.

I can imagine a Creature Features program back in the day running The Amazing Mr. X based solely on the title. Mr. X is Alexis, a psychic who can communicate with dead people. The movie is a hybrid horror/noir, and it seems like the noir aficionados like it more than the horror fans. In truth, there isn't a lot of horror in The Amazing Mr. X, and it is also true that most of its effectiveness comes from the atmospheric setting, which may make it seem more noirish. But other than the look of the film, there isn't much noir in this movie. It's mostly just a well-made B-picture that surprises with decent performances and a plot twist or two. If you caught it late on a Saturday night, you might struggle to stay awake, but if you watch it at a reasonable hour, you'll find a solid little film that gets its work done in 78 minutes.

The excellent cinematography is by John Alton, who won an Oscar a few years later for An American in Paris. Sadly, the movie fell into the public domain, meaning there are a lot of bad prints out there (including the one I watched on Amazon), which does a great disservice to Alton's work.

The cast includes Turhan Bey, once known as "The Turkish Delight", as Alexis, and Lynn Bari, a former WWII pinup girl known as "The Woo Woo Girl", as Christine, the woman he tries to sucker. Cathy O'Donnell, who made They Live by Night the same year, turns up as Christine's younger sister. Toss in 50s sci-fi regulars Richard Carlson and Donald Curtis, and Virginia Gregg, one the great voices of old-time radio who also did the voice of the mother in Psycho, and you have a better-than-average group for a B-movie. 7/10


music friday: fats domino

In the summer of 1970, a friend and I lived in a church in San Francisco for a month. We'd just gotten out of high school, the minister at the church said we could stay there, so we pretended to be grownups for a few weeks. (Well, my friend almost tried ... I didn't quite make it.)

We hung out a lot at a nearby park that we called Dog Heaven. I'd wanted to be a hippie so badly, this was my chance to live the dream. I'd walk around The City barefoot ... what a moron. One night we walked to Fillmore West, which was a couple of miles away ... saw Sha Na Na, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks.

Another night, we ordered delivery from a dessert place that advertised on KSAN. It was called Magnolia Thunderpussy, and their specialty was ... well, I'll let Wikipedia describe it:

Magnolia Thunderpussy ... was a San Francisco burlesque performer, radio personality, filmmaker and restaurateur. Thunderpussy operated two San Francisco restaurants in the 1960s: the one at 1398 Haight Street (at the corner of Haight and Masonic), which bore her name, featured a late-night delivery service and erotic desserts such as "The Montana Banana", which was an unsplit banana, representing a phallus, served "erect" in a food service "boat" with two scoops of ice cream, representing the other components of male genitalia, with shredded coconut, representing pubic hair, and a small dollop of whipped cream at the end of the banana.

One day we were walking around the Fillmore District, and this drunk guy came over to us. I thought he was a 100 years old, but he was probably more like 35. I had just turned 17, anything older than 30 seemed ancient to me. He had a lot of missing teeth, and he smelled like the proverbial brewery, but he was in a very good mood, so we talked with him for a bit. Suddenly, he started singing to us, and it was a song I knew:

I admit, I was a little scared by this man. Which was ironic, because Fats Domino, whose song the drunk man was singing, never, ever scared me. His voice, instantly identifiable, always brought a smile to my face, even when he was singing sad songs. His excellent piano playing, combined with his vocals and the great backing from guys like Dave Bartholomew, Earl Palmer, Lee Allen, and so many others, produced one wonderful single after another. He cut a million of them ... he sold more records than you can imagine. He was a titan of the early days of rock and roll ... hell, he predates rock and roll, his first single coming out at the end of 1949. Almost 20 years later, he was back on the charts with "Lady Madonna", which was a tribute from Paul to Fats.

Robert Christgau wrote:

Domino was the most widely liked rock and roller of the '50s--nobody hated him, which you couldn't say of Elvis, or Pat Boone, who despite the color of his skin charted just two more top 10 records. Warm and unthreatening even by the intensely congenial standards of New Orleans, he's remembered with fond condescension as significantly less innovative than his uncommercial compatriots Professor Longhair and James Booker. But though his bouncy boogie-woogie piano and easy Creole gait were generically Ninth Ward, they defined a pop-friendly second-line beat that nobody knew was there before he and Dave Bartholomew created "The Fat Man" in 1949. In short, this shy, deferential, uncharismatic man invented New Orleans rock and roll.

"Invented New Orleans rock and roll" ... that's pretty much like saying he invented rock and roll. But he wasn't scary, the way all of the other pioneers could be. Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee, Little Richard ... they could be scary. But not Fats.

Here he is, late in life, on the great TV show Treme:

tv catchup

Better Things. Season One: "Adlon is the perfect center of a show like this, and all three of the actresses who play her daughters are strong (casting of kids is often the downfall of shows with families). Definitely looking forward to Season Two." So far, so good. Season Two is getting raves for being even better than last year. I can't say I notice the difference ... it's still the same show, with the same strengths. Adlon directs every episode this season, and if it wasn't already clear, Better Things is her show. The show's family feels real, no matter if the events of a particular episode are a bit outrageous. And despite Adlon being the perfect center, she is very generous with the actresses who play her daughters. An excellent show. The most recent episode as I type, "Eulogy", was outstanding, called the season's best by many, and the show has been renewed for a third season.

Broad City. Abbi and Ilana are actually showing signs of growing up a bit, best personified by Ilana's new job, which she is actually good at. Having said that, it's still Broad City. Last year I said, "Comedies like this are never 100% perfect, but when Broad City hits, nothing compares." That still holds true. And the episode where they do mushrooms is an all-time classic. The follow up, where we meet Abbi's mom, was also wonderful.

Curb Your Enthusiasm. Nothing seems different, a few episodes into the first new season in six years. This is not where you start if you've decided to dive in, nor is it the place to give it another try if you've seen it before and found it wanting. But fans are happy, I imagine. Perhaps it's just a matter of degree, but at times Larry seems even more cruel than ever.

The Deuce. Some typical David Simon tics: lots of characters, most of whom get plenty of screen time, and a slow, gradual movement into the milieu of the show. Also some great acting and writing. Another winner from Simon.

Mr. Robot. The Season Three premiere featured a monologue by Elliot that will be watched long after the series has died. A sample:

I can stand here and blame Evil Corp and every conglomerate out there for taking advantage of us, and I can blame the FBI, NSA and CIA for letting them get away with it, blame all the world leaders for aiding and abetting them, and blame Adam Smith for inventing modern day capitalism in the first fucking place, and blame money for dividing us, and blame us for letting it — but none of that's true. The truth is, I'm the one to blame. I'm the problem. This was my fault. All of it. I did this. Fuck me.

Outlander. The first several episodes kept Claire and Jamie apart, and the show is always better when they are together. But the wait was worth it ... their reunion episode, "A. Malcolm", made up for lost time while reminding us once again of how much the male gaze is absent on this show.

The Strain.  Done after 4 seasons and 46 episodes. Four seasons may be just right ... The Strain never got too crappy, although I'd argue it also never got great. But it was good enough for four seasons, thanks in part to a cast that was generally solid (although Zach was always irritating, I think he was written that way).

Supergirl. I bring this up because the new season has just begun. I don't know why I still watch, which isn't to say it's a bad series, just that it's nothing special and there are other things to watch. They have done a good job with the lesbian relationship.

The Tick. Half a dozen episodes in what is either a truncated first season, or the first half of a longer season. Every version of The Tick has its moments, and this one is a bit darker as it deals with Arthur's semi-traumatic real life. It's OK, but my wife likes it more than I do, as she always has.

If you are looking for a show to binge, I'd go with Better Things, since there is still a reasonable number of episodes. Besides that, the best shows on the above list include Broad City, Mr. Robot, and Outlander, with The Deuce likely to join them.

film fatales #32: persepolis (marjane satrapi and vincent paronnaud, 2007)

I revisited this movie in honor of Danielle Darrieux, who died a few days ago at the age of 100. She does the voice for the grandmother. Darrieux was 90 when they made the film. Catherine Deneuve played her daughter (not for the first time), Marjane's mother, and Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter, played Marjane.

Satrapi and Paronnaud decided to record the voices of the main characters before they did the drawings (Satrapi, of course, did the drawings in the original graphic novel), which was interesting. I hadn't thought of the implications for the English-language dub until I watched a making-of featurette. Those voices were done in the usual fashion, with the voice actors speaking in time to the animated characters. I've never seen the English version, and while I'm sure it's good, the point here was to watch Darrieux. (Deneuve and Mastroianni did the English voices, too.)

Darrieux said of the grandmother, "She's an uninhibited character, who's not afraid of anything. She's politically incorrect and a straight talker. I love talking dirty, so I felt really comfortable with the character!" 

I've written about the movie before, and didn't see anything in particular to change my mind, other than enjoying Darrieux a bit more knowing she had finally died. #177 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


creature feature saturday: i walked with a zombie (jacques tourneur, 1943)

The writing credits for I Walked with a Zombie on IMDB include the following: "Charlotte Brontë (novel) (uncredited)". The story is that producer Val Lewton didn't like the title, or the story on which the film was to be based, so he instructed his writers to use Jane Eyre as a basis for the story. (Wikipedia lists I Walked with a Zombie on its page dedicated to "Adaptations of Jane Eyre".)

Frances Dee plays a nurse from Canada (she's the Jane Eyre stand-in, I guess) who takes a job caring for a woman (Jessica Holland ... Mr. Rochester's wife?) who lives on a Caribbean island. The woman is a "zombie" due to a fever she acquired ... she has no willpower of her own, so she needs full-time care. There's a romance involved (the nurse falls in love with "Rochester"), and a backstory that explains that the Hollands brought slavery to the island. The treatment of zombies is intriguing. For the natives, voodoo is a part of life, and to some extent, the film adopts this stance. There is a careful refusal to come down on the side of either rationalism or mysticism. The supernatural elements might be "real" ... they might be brought on by the Holland family's connection with slavery. This, combined with the smart use of shadows, make for an atmosphere full of portent, all done on a tiny budget. While the acting is adequate, that atmosphere is what puts I Walked with a Zombie among the classics of horror. And it's all done in 68 minutes.

It should be obvious that this is not a typical zombie movie. It's easy to understand why Lewton didn't like the title. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, 8/10.


danielle darrieux

Danielle Darrieux has died at the age of 100. I once called The Earrings of Madame de ... my 14th-favorite movie of all time. Here is what I wrote about it:

Charles Boyer’s description of his marriage to Danielle Darrieux’s Madame de (we never learn her last name) is also a perfect description of the film: “superficially superficial.” Nothing could seem less interesting to me on the surface: a period romance about the rich, where people go to balls and flirt and wear fabulous clothes. But the milieu actually works to focus us on love; as Kael wrote, “By removing love from the real world of ugliness and incoherence and vulgarity, Ophüls was able to distill the essences of love.” I was reminded throughout the film of Renoir’s Grand Illusion, another film that showed us how honor worked amongst the upper classes. In Renoir’s film, class was the spanner in the works, but here, it’s gender: Madame de doesn’t operate under the same strictures of honor that her husband and her lover do, and eventually, no one trusts anyone else.

Madame de can’t be trusted because she lives outside the code that directs the men in her life. As long as she merely flirts, she’s playing her proper role. When she falls in love, though, she oversteps her boundaries. She doesn’t realize this at first, and she tells what seem to her to be little white lies, not understanding that lies of any kind exist outside of the men’s code of honor.

It’s a remarkable achievement, to take a shallow character like this Countess and make us understand her suffering. Early in the movie, she suffers only from the need to cover her gambling debts. Falling in love with a Baron played by Vittorio De Sica changes her, but when she blossoms, her men want only to clip her petals.

Ophüls is sympathetic to the men, as well, recognizing that the roles they are forced to play constrict their lives. Boyer’s admission late in the film, “I’m not particularly fond of the person you’ve made me out to be,” implicates both his wife and himself. He falters because of his attachment to his code, she because she doesn’t accept the code.

The main performances by Boyer, Darrieux, and De Sica are exquisite, individually and as they work together. And Ophüls’ trademark tracking camerawork draws us into the story, its lushness revealing as it entices.

I've also written about La Ronde, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Persepolis, although I don't mention Darrieux in the latter.

by request/film fatales #31: spielberg (susan lacy, 2017)

A friend pointed out that if a documentary about Steven Spielberg makes it into the Film Fatales category, there may be something wrong with the selection process.

There is a lot to like here. The interviews are interesting and, at times, revealing ... Lacy has made a career out of interviews, she's great. And Spielberg is one of my favorite directors. I've always liked Close Encounters the most of all his movies, and I love that it's a "personal" blockbuster. Something like Star Wars is only personal to the extent it reflects George Lucas' connection to the movies of his youth, but Close Encounters is "about" Spielberg.

The film is also long enough that Lacy can cover most of Spielberg's career, from stuff he made as a kid to Bridge of Spies. And we hear from enough different people ... fellow directors, crew members, critics ... that you get a good sense of what it is like on a Spielberg set (while he can seemingly picture and entire movie in his mind, he is also open to suggestions from co-workers).

It really is a solid overview of Spielberg's career, with the interview format (and Lacy's skills, and Spielberg's willingness to go the extra step in his participation) working well to attach Spielberg-as-person to Spielberg-as-artist. I'm convinced now that Close Encounters was not Spielberg's only "personal" movie.

With all of this, I feel I'm being picky to note that despite Lacy's proclamations that she didn't intend to make a lovefest, Spielberg doesn't always stand on the better side of hagiography. Lacy seems to know this. As Greg Braxton noted, "The tone of the documentary is primarily positive — it is clear that Lacy is a huge admirer of Spielberg’s work. ... Lacy acknowledged that some viewers and observers of Spielberg may find fault with the tone of the documentary. 'I am proud of the film,' Lacy said. 'Now I’m just nervous on how people will react. I know there will be those who will feel I wasn’t critical enough. But, hopefully, people will get past that.'" Braxton then adds a telling anecdote: "What matters most to her is Spielberg’s stamp of approval. When he called and said he loved it, 'I felt myself shaking. I was in tears and said, ‘You have to know what this conversation means to me.’"

I certainly sympathize. I am a big fan of his movies, and I don't know that I'd have the whatever to be anything other than praiseworthy in his presence. But I think that admiration detracts some from Spielberg. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)