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creature feature: the giant claw (fred f. sears, 1957)

As often happens with crappy movies like this, the trivia is more interesting than the movie. So I should mention a couple of things that didn't suck about The Giant Claw. The acting by leads Jeff Morrow and cult fave Mara Corday is decent. Some of the dialogue (writers were Samuel Newman and Paul Gangelin) is OK ... at one point, it sounds like outtakes from To Have and Have Not. Fred F. Sears does what he can with the low budget, which was pretty much his best talent as a director.

But that budget! The title monster is as ludicrous as any seen in 50s sci-fi. The legend is that Ray Harryhausen was intended to do the monster effects, until producer Sam Katzman decided to pay $50 (!) to a Mexican model maker. The resulting marionette elicits laughter every time it appears. (One of the trivia points of the film is that Morrow saw it in his hometown, but left before the movie ended because the crowd kept laughing at the monster and he didn't want to be recognized ... Wikipedia adds that "he allegedly went home and began drinking"). One standard way to save money on these films is to use stock footage, and Katzman certainly does this. But he also uses footage from other movies. The IMDB lists Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe as source material. Not to mention the general similarities to Rodan.

On a personal level, the best thing about The Giant Claw is that my wife picked it. I've been watching crappy Creature Features on Saturday afternoons for 60 years, but she usually rolls her eyes at the idea. So I was happy to watch this one, since I don't get too many opportunities to enjoy a Creature Feature with my wife.

the manchurian candidate (john frankenheimer, 1962)

CNN news anchor Jake Tapper has just released a novel that takes place, in part, on the set during the making of the 1962 Manchurian Candidate. The Criterion Channel saw an opportunity for cross-platform promotion, so they ran a special showing of the movie with Tapper tweeting commentary as it played. Or that was the plan ... you know how it is when you try something new. Nothing was working, nothing was in sync, and eventually Tapper and the attendees just came up with a workaround where we all pressed play at the same time and enjoyed the movie and Tapper.

The Manchurian Candidate remains a marvelous movie. It seems like whenever people watch it, they think it's timely, as if that version of 1962 never quite leaves us. How much of that can be attributed to John Frankenheimer and how much to Richard Condon, who wrote the novel, is hard to say. But it's interesting that a movie with paranoid visions of secret political shenanigans, with brainwashing and demagoguery and a certain off-kilter approach, keeps finding new appreciative audiences. Something like Lawrence of Arabia, which won Best Picture for 1962, might be revived on occasion and appreciated for the epic qualities and amazing cinematography, but I don't think people see that movie and think "it's still true today" the way they do with The Manchurian Candidate.

It's not a perfect picture, although some of its flaws can be equally seen as virtues. The meet-cute scene between the characters played by Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh is bizarre and ultimately unexplainable. To this day, no one seems to know what is going on in that scene, and it is never explained in the movie. But for some people, that scene is one of the most memorable in the entire picture.

Another odd and memorable scene comes when Angela Lansbury, playing Laurence Harvey's son, states her intentions after the master plan of putting a Communist in the White House succeeds ... memorable in part because she kisses her son on the lips. In this case, the confusing motives of Mother are a bit off, even for this movie. She says she is going to make "them" pay for underestimating her, but who they are and how she intends to extract revenge is never mentioned. Thus, it fits perfectly with the confusion surrounding the kiss on the mouth, and also fits with the overall unsettling feel of the movie, but in this one instance, I felt the confusion wasn't put to good use.

Frankenheimer does his best work here. A couple of years later he directed another paranoid film about government, Seven Days in May, and it's a good one, but it is much more straightforward than Candidate and thus carries much less resonance for modern audiences. #620 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

The opening sequence is one of the great scenes in film history.

music friday: rock and roll hall of fame part 3

[I'm going to take the next few weeks to adjust the current "acts I've seen live" theme. What will follow for a month or so will be artists I've seen, that haven't previously been featured in this long series, who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They'll appear in order of their induction, and I'll mostly avoid comments ... I'll just post some relevant videos.]

Eric Clapton, inducted 2000. (Cow Palace, 1974.) My wife and I started going to concerts together in 1974. First Dylan and The Band, then a Day on the Green headlined by CSNY and The Band. Clapton finished that streak off. I looked forward to this one, as a fan of Clapton since the 60s, and as someone who worshipped (and still worships) Layla. 461 Ocean Boulevard came out about the same time, which I liked. But my memories of the concert aren't overwhelming. Mostly I remember, accurately or not I can't say, that George Terry played way too many guitar solos given the presence of Clapton. Eric was 29. Here is the song he opened with that night.

Bonnie Raitt, inducted 2000. (Concord Pavilion, 1982, 1991.) When we saw her in 1982, she was touring behind Green Light. The next year she was dropped by her label. When we saw her in 1991, she had 4 Grammys in her pocket, and had released Luck of the Draw, which was as good as what people thought Nick of Time accomplished. Both concerts were top notch ... whatever else went on, she was consistent on stage for us. (For context, my favorite Bonnie Raitt album came out in 1975.) She was 31 the second time we saw her.

Talking Heads, inducted 2002. (The Boarding House, 1978.) A club date soon after they released their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Compared to what came later (think Stop Making Sense), this was a stripped down, elemental set. They were 26, 27, 27, and 29. Here are the first two songs from our show:

The Ramones, inducted 2002. (Davis Coffee House, 1979; The Warfield, 1980.) The first show was in a little place ... well, it was called the Coffee House. The next year they had moved up to a 2300-seat hall. They were great both times, although obviously I'd give the nod to the dinky club date. They were 28, 28, 30, and 30 at that first show.

geezer cinema: tenet (christopher nolan, 2020)

I write this on the day of our 48th wedding anniversary. Back on our honeymoon in 1973, when I still a film major, we made a point of going to the movies, and that ended up being a tradition: go away for our anniversary, watch a movie while we were vacationing. The beginning was inauspicious, Hitler: The Last Ten Days with Alec Guinness as the dictator. Over the years we've seen more than a few turkeys, probably because the kinds of movies in the theaters on Memorial Day weekend were, well, turkeys. I remember we did see The Road Warrior.

Geezer Cinema comes on Tuesdays, so our anniversary was a day early this year. It was my wife's turn to choose, and she picked Tenet. She is known to pick action films ... 22 of her 48 Geezer picks fall into the rough category of "Action" (I've only picked 4). This being a Christopher Nolan film, though, it was an arty action film, unlike, say, Angel Has Fallen.

If you asked me what I think of Christopher Nolan movies, I'd probably respond with some smart-ass comment about how I wasn't much for obscure films, arty, action-packed, or whatever. But when I checked, I found that Tenet is the 8th Nolan movie I've seen, and there isn't a bad movie in the lot. The Dark Knight and Dunkirk were a lot more than that, and even The Prestige, which I remembered as a film I didn't like, turned out to get a reasonably positive review from me.

So, Tenet. I feel like I should apologize for seeing it on my TV ... it's clearly meant for something like IMAX. It won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, and they are pretty impressive, even before you learn how much they avoided CGI and green screens. More important, many of those effects serve the story, visualizing what the plot has tried to establish. A lot of those effects are confusing, but less so than the talky script that tries to explain it all. Watching parallel time universes, one going forward and one backwards, almost makes sense when you see it on the screen. (Almost.) (Also, I don't really know if "parallel time universes" is an accurate description ... no one who watches Tenet actually knows what is going on.)

How obscure is Tenet? Just look at the titles of some of the video essays about the film on YouTube: "Tenet Explained: The Biggest WTF Questions." "TENET Explained: What Really Happened to Neil at the End." "TENET EXPLAINED: Time Inversion, Entropy, and More!" "TENET - Nolan Has an Exposition Problem." And my personal favorite, "Why You Can't Hear the Dialogue in Tenet". The latter is fascinating in part because a friend who had just seen the film told us we'd want to turn on captioning, which I assumed meant everyone would have British accents, since that often throws me off. Instead, the captions are useful because you can't hear anyone talking.

I seem to be talking about everything except whether I liked the film or not. Sure ... the actions scenes were inventive, and it was rarely boring despite running for 2 1/2 hours. A favorite of mine, Elizabeth Debicki, was the female lead. Debicki is a walking special effect ... for instance, the IMDB trivia page tells us:

Upon finding out that Elizabeth Debicki (who plays Kat) had been cast, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland immediately suggested to Christopher Nolan that they take advantage of her height, because "she's never gonna be shorter than anybody onscreen." Kurland put the already six-foot-three actress in heels for many of her scenes, gave her longer skirts so you could see the length of her legs, and cut her suits to enforce her linear quality.

Tenet may answer the question, what if Christopher Nolan made a James Bond movie? But while the action is fun to watch, there isn't enough of it, and there really isn't anything fun about the movie making no sense, much less that you can't hear anyone talk. Tenet is the kind of movie you'd need to see twice to even begin to understand it, but once was enough for me. #957 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

revisiting the 9s: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

[This is the second in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

The second movie in the series is Stories We Tell, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2017. At that time, I wrote:

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

(I notice that back in 2017, Stories We Tell was #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. It is currently at #116, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

One way Polley avoids being pretentious is by sneaking her methods into the film. The first time I watched it, I missed Polley's "trick" entirely until the closing credits. It's such an audacious move that everyone who writes about Stories We Tell must apologize for the spoilers they are about to offer, arguing that you can't talk about the movie without talking about the spoilers. This is an example of how extraordinary the movie is, for it's hard to think of a documentary that needs spoiler warnings. It's not a spoiler to say that someone gets killed at Altamont during Gimme Shelter, and while the audience for Stories We Tell might not know specifics about the lives of Polley and her family, you could look at Wikipedia to find out "what happened". The spoiler is in how Polley tells the story. (And this is as good a place as any to mention Michael Munn, the film's editor, who is exemplary in his work here.)

This is crucial. As at least one person asks, why would anyone be interested in the story of our family? The people have led interesting lives, the way all of us lead interesting lives. But Polley doesn't really make us interested in her family as much as she makes us interested in her "smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary". There is a meta theme here ... Polley makes a documentary that examines making a documentary. Where someone like Frederick Wiseman essentially hides what he is doing with his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Polley draws attention to her methods. Which makes the one big secret to her film all the more surprising, because the movie seems transparent, but it wasn't, at least not completely. And Polley doesn't use her "trick" to draw attention to her brilliant film making, she uses it to further emphasize the theme of family memories.

In an interview with Kate Erbland in 2019, Polley admits she is surprised at how resonant Stories We Tell is for so many people. What feels like a smartly planned approach turns out to been have something less controlled:

The fact that anyone saw a cohesive film in there is still amazing to me.... For me, the legacy is that anyone thought it was an actual movie, as opposed to just a complete mess that I never cleaned up.... At no point did I feel like I knew what I was doing when I was making it. It just felt like such a mess, it felt really unpleasant.

Polley accomplishes so much with Stories We Tell that it ends up being a perfect candidate for "Revisiting the 9s". Although as noted, I have never shied away from giving my highest rating to recent documentaries, I held back a bit with Stories We Tell, probably because Polley's accomplishments felt "un-documentary" enough that I treated it like just another great art film. Which it is. It's also a great documentary. It's a great film. I should have given it a "10" from the start.

pink: all i know so far (michael gracey, 2021)

Music documentary that resembles Don't Look Back. A mostly backstage look at a Pink tour that in theory illuminates the star in useful ways. In truth, All I Know So Far is too fond of its subject. We get an inspirational look at a different kind of nuclear family: Pink, husband Carey, and the kids Willow and Jameson. The kids are adorable, Carey is an amazingly patient dad, and Pink clearly loves the heck out of her kids. She explains why it's rare for female artists to tour once they become mothers, and we see her solution: bring the fam with her on tour.

As with similar documentaries, there is too little music for my taste. For most of the running time, we get snippets of songs at best. Which makes sense ... it's not a movie about her music as much as it is a movie about the family. We finally get a couple of nearly completely songs at the end, but I wanted more. Because of this, I don't think All I Know So Far would interest non-fans. Hardcore fans want to see everything about Pink, but the rest of the world probably gets the point after about five minutes.

We see the oldest child, Willow, becoming something of a budding performer herself. Earlier this year, she and Pink released a single, "Cover Me in Sunshine", that was well-received. And this past weekend, as part of the 2021 Billboard Music Awards where she was honored with the Icon Award, Pink performed a brief set of her hits, beginning with "Sunshine", featuring Willow joining Mom in some of Pink's acrobatics:

Here is the trailer:

at berkeley (frederick wiseman, 2013)

I've been a fan of Frederick Wiseman's work for a long time, going all the way back to his debut feature Titicut Follies in the late 60s. I've written about one of his films here once: Welfare. I've looked forward to seeing At Berkeley ever since it was released almost ten years ago, but Wiseman, still with us in his 90s, keeps a close watch on his movies, and they are very hard to find. I finally found At Berkeley on Kanopy, and spent most of a day watching it (it's just over 4 hours long).

The shots of campus and the scenes in classrooms and meetings are almost frightening in their nostalgic pull, I didn't recognize any people except for a brief few seconds of The Hate Man. But after about an hour-and-a-half, we're in a class where Mitch Breitwieser is teaching Thoreau to some students. The sound of his voice took me back in a delightfully pleasant way. I had taken that class, or something close to it, 30+ years ago, and while I was never quite convinced of Thoreau's greatness, Mitch was one of the great professors.
I still remember my first class as an undergraduate ... we were assigned The Great Gatsby (it occurs to me now that I later taught that exact course in 2000), and in my transferred-from-junior-college mind, I assumed this would be easy, because what could be said about Gatsby that was new? After one lecture, if memory serves, Mitch had gotten through a close reading of the first couple of paragraphs, through "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope". I knew then that there was a lot more to be said about Gatsby, and that Cal was another level from the Peralta Colleges.
Outside of a couple of brief sightings (and a segment of a Robert Reich lecture), that was it for people I recognized. I recognized lots of buildings, though. Seeing the faces of the young, idealistic students reminded me of how great it was to be involved with students at that point in their lives. I also started reliving some of my still-existing prejudices. I've always hated Chancellors. Didn't matter who they were, I hated them. Here, it was Robert Birgeneau, who is the closest thing to a central character in the film. He actually comes across as reasonable and pleasant, until late in the film, when protesting students take over the library for a couple of hours. Afterwards, Birgeneau reflects. "I'm gonna sound really old here. Protests I've participated in my life, serious protests, were about the Vietnam War. I got fired from my job for one day at Bell Labs for opposing the anti-ballistic missile system.... We took serious risks, actually, right? ... Now, protests have just become sort of fun out in Sproul Plaza." I traveled back to the times I experienced this kind of paternalistic faux-concern about students, and got pissed off all over again.
But is the movie any good? It's too long, sure, but Wiseman does cover a lot of what happens on the Berkeley campus, showing classes in several departments, faculty meetings, and the like. It's overwhelming, as most Wiseman movies are, because he never supplies context ... never tells us where we are, never puts up a subtitle telling us who is speaking. It's the fly-on-the-wall approach. I wished for more focus, but the truth is, I can't think of much I'd cut out ... maybe some of the faculty meetings. At one point, Reich tells his students, "I've spent half my life in the United States government, admin meetings, and the other half, a lot of them in faculty meetings, and I can tell you, faculty meetings go on twice as long. Why? Not because faculties are bad, but people in faculties like to speak. They like to talk. They are used to hearing themselves speak and they're used to watching other people nod in response. And so a faculty meeting is very, very long." If you spent part of your life at UC Berkeley (I was there for more than 15 years as undergrad, grad student, and teacher), you will get something out of the film. I noticed how beautiful the campus is. When I was there, I was always going from one place to another, and never took the time to appreciate that beauty. If you don't have that Berkeley connection, I'd suggest watching a different Wiseman movie. #602 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

music friday: rock and roll hall of fame part 2

[I'm going to take the next few weeks to adjust the current "acts I've seen live" theme. What will follow for a month or so will be artists I've seen, that haven't previously been featured in this long series, who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They'll appear in order of their induction, and I'll mostly avoid comments ... I'll just post some relevant videos.]

Etta James, inducted 1993. (Villa Montalvo, 1990.) She was 52 when we saw her, and she still had the powerful voice and the sexual stage presence. Clarence Clemons was the opening act. Villa Montalvo is an historic mansion in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Here she is in 1988, with a band that included both Albert Collins and Joe Walsh on guitar:

Van Morrison, inducted 1993. (Concord Pavilion, 1998.) Finally got to see Van, co-headining with Dylan, and Lucinda Williams as the opener. Now that I think of it, he was 53 at the time. I wish I'd seen him in his prime, but he was pretty good the night I did see him. Here he sings the title song from his most recent album at the time:

Neil Young, inducted 1995. (Cow Palace, 1978.) Easy to give this one context: the concert later became the movie Rust Never Sleeps. It may have been the loudest concert I ever attended.

Paul McCartney, inducted 1999. (Cow Palace, 1976.) The only Beatle I ever saw. This was the Wings Over America tour, which also made up the Rockshow movie. It was a good show, if not a great one. I'm gonna cheat, because Ram has just been re-released for its 50th anniversary. Here is my favorite song from that album (although votes for "Smile Away" will be considered):

geezer cinema: holiday (george cukor, 1938)

Hepburn and Grant in a rom-com (I guess I'm being anachronistic ... I think the term "romcom" didn't become part of the language until the 1970s ... but Holiday is a romantic comedy, so shoot me). Holiday is often compared to The Philadelphia Story, which makes sense. The two films share a common source (both from plays written by Philip Barry), Donald Ogden Stewart worked on both screenplays, George Cukor directed both movies, and they both star Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Holiday didn't fare well in comparison to the later picture, at least at the time. It came near the end of the period when Hepburn was famously considered "box office poison", while The Philadelphia Story ended that reputation. But Holiday is perhaps more highly regarded today, with its theme of how a person should balance their work life with larger considerations.

Holiday is not a screwball comedy, unlike its Hepburn/Grant predecessor Bringing Up Baby. In fact, it's not often very funny at all. At times, it's quite serious. But the playing, the casting, everything feels like a romantic comedy, and it's only after the fact that you realize the subtext was close to the surface. The plot is farce and much as anything ... Grant's self-made man is about to marry Hepburn's sister (they come from a very rich family), but eventually he and Kate realize they were meant for each other. The stars are good, as they usually were, and the support includes Lew Ayres underplaying the role of a drunken brother. Edward Everett Horton is always welcome, and he doesn't fall into his usual schtick here ... in his way, he is quite forceful. You can easily treat Holiday as a straightforward romantic comedy, but it benefits from a consideration of the depths of the two main characters. #943 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]