Sunday, July 23, 2017

I didn't care for The Big Lebowski

So I watched The Big Lebowski off my DVR this weekend. It's on DVD and Blu-Ray, and for people with the HBO package, it's going to be on various channels in that package multiple times this week. Check your box guide. Having said that, however, it's a movie that left me cold.

Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is an unemployed slacker in Los Angeles who generally goes not by his legal name, but by "The Dude". His one love in life seems to be bowling, as he bowls in a league on a team with his friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi). One night after getting home, he finds that there are two men there waiting for him. Those men, it turns out, are loan sharks, and they want him to pay back the large sum of money he's borrowed from them. And when he can't -- and claims he doesn't know anything about the money -- one of the men pees on his Oriental rug.

It turns out there's another Jeffrey Lebowski out there, no relation to the Dude. This one is a wheelchair-bound businessman (David Huddleston) who runs a charitable foundation helping inner-city would be child entrepreneurs. His current trophy wife is apparently spending money like there's no tomorrow, and she's the Lebowski responsible for the loan sharks' showing up. So the Dude wants his namesake to pay for the damage to the carpet, since it's the elder Lebowski who's gotten into all this trouble.

A few days later, the Dude gets a call from the other Lebowski's personal assistant Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Apparently Mrs. Lebowski has been kidnapped, and if the Dude is willing to take part in delivering the ransom -- after all, the kidnappers wouldn't recognize him -- there's a substantial reward awaiting him. Things start to get really complicated from here. The elder Lebowski's daughter (Julianne Moore) gets in on the action, since the ransom money is coming from the foundation, what with the elder Lebowski only having a stipend from the foundation and not his own wealth. And that's the least complicated part.

So what didn't I like about the movie? A lot. It's not just that the plot is complicated; it's that it often came across as incoherent. There was one bit about the Dude's beater car being stolen and then finding a high school kid apparently responsible for it that didn't seem to fit in with the rest of the movie. And some of the bowling scenes seem to serve no purpose but to pad out the plot. I couldn't figure what John Turturro's character was doing, either, other than being unfunny.

And for unfunny characters, there's Walter. I consistently wanted somebody to beat the crap out of him because he was almost uniformly an unfunny jerk screwing things up for the Dude, as with the original ransom delivery that went wrong. The whole "I served in Vietnam" shtick was also stupid and tedious, as was the constant swearing. Julianna Moore and her artist sidekick were also unfunny, although at least not jerks.

There's also the cinematography, which engages in a lot of unorthodox camera angles and film techniques, especially in shots of bowling balls and pins. These seemed to serve no purpose other than for the filmmakers to say, "Look! We can do techniques like this now!"

The end result of all of this was, for me, a confused mess that was supposed to be funny but isn't. And yet, the movie is on the IMDb Top 250 list, which means that it's obviously got a lot of fans out there. So if you haven't seen it before, you may not want to take my opinion on staying away from it.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Where's the one-armed man?

One of the films that I watched off my DVR recently since I saw that it's available on DVD from the Warner Archive collection is John Ford's 1947 film The Fugitive.

Few of the characters have actual names here, as they're all supposed to archetypes for a story that, as the opening titles tell us, is one that is as old as the Bible itself. Enter Henry Fonda, playing The Priest. He winds up at a church somewhere that's obviously Mexico, although as those opening titles tell us could be anywhere a thousand miles on either side of the equator. In that church he meets A Native Woman (Dolores Del Rio), who asks him to baptize her baby. This The Priest does in a very Protestant way, speaking in English instead of Latin and referring to the Holy Ghost, a phrase I never heard at any Catholic Mass I sat through; Catholics use the "Holy Spirit" instead.

Anyhow, it turns out that what The Priest is doing is dangerous, because a strongly anti-clerical government has taken hold in this district. (Again, you'd think a craven Vatican in this era would have worked with the government.) The police, in the form of The Lieutenant (Pedro Armendáriz), are trying to rid the district of every last priest, and Fonda's seems to be the last one. Our priest tries to do his priestly duties, while running into a thief who is also a police informer (J. Carroll Naish).

Into all of this comes the Gringo (Ward Bond), who is, like the priest, a fugitive from the law, although in this case he's escaping the American authorities and hoping he won't be extradited back to the States. There's a big reward on his head. So the informer figures he can come up with a plan to get the priest to minister to the Gringo, which will eventually bring the authorities in....

The story is obviously a loose retelling of the Jesus story, with Fonda being the Jesus substitute, Armendáriz being Pontius Pilate, and Naish being Judas. (There aren't really any disciples, however.) As such, the story isn't badly told, although it's told in a way that I found off-putting and difficult to get into. As I said at the beginning, the characters don't even have names (if they do, they're almost never mentioned), since they're all archetypes. And it's all told in an elliptical visual style with a paucity of dialog. The result is a bit of a slog at times.

All of that is unfortunate, since the performances are for the most part good, and the cinematography excellent. Some of the camera shots, however, are a bit too blunt in trying to make the point of the story; I suppose you could also use the word didactic to describe them, which never seems to be a good thing.

The final result of all this was a movie I found it hard to care for, even if it tends toward uniqueness in its storytelling. But that originality in its methods (if not the story itself) is something that a lot of people praise highly. So this is one you'll probably want to watch for yourself.

Friday, July 21, 2017

North to Alaska

So I made it a point to watch North to Alaska off my DVR, since it's going to be on FXM Retro tomorrow morning at 7:35 AM. It's also avaialble on a cheap DVD and Blu-Ray, the latter being under $10 the last time I checked the TCM Shop, so you can still catch it if you don't have FXM Retro. And it's more than worth a watch.

John Wayne plays Sam McCord, who has struck it big in the Alaska gold rush outside Nome circa 1900. Sam is in a mining partnership along with his friend George (Stewart Granger), and George's kid brother Billy (Fabian, obviously there for the teen crowd). Sam is throwing money around like there's no tomorrow, and he's setting off for Seattle to get provisions. Fortuitously, George's fiancée Jenny is in Seattle, so now that George is rich, he's ready to marry Jenny, and Sam could do worse than to pick up Jenny in Seattle for George. Just before leaving for Seattle, Sam meets newcomer Frankie (Ernie Kovacs), who is clearly a con artist trying to bilk people out of their money. This is an obvious bit of foreshadowing.

Anyhow, Sam gets down to Seattle, and looks up Jenny. It turns out she's a servant in a rich family's house. Also, she couldn't be bothered to wait for George, so she went and married the butler. Oops. But Sam is fortunate enough to meet Michelle, nicknamed Angel (played by Capucine), at a burlesque house. They become friends, and through spending time together, Michelle begins to fall in love with Sam and is willing to follow him back to Nome. Of course, Sam thinks she's doing it to pretend to be Jenny so that George will still have a wife.

When we get back to Alaska, there are two main plots. The first is the obvious one of Michelle not being George's fiancée, and Michelle really preferring Sam to George. Never mind the fact that there's also Billy around lusting after Michelle even though he doesn't have anything close to the experience necessary to win the heart of a woman like Michelle. But there's another plot line involving Frankie. Apparently Michelle knew Frankie in the lower 48, and Frankie is trying to jump Sam and George's claim. He finds somebody who spent some time on the land and cons that person into filing a counter-claim, and Sam and George also get the impression that Michelle might be in on it.

It all ends pleasantly enough, however, as this is the sort of movie that you can see a mile away that it's not supposed to be anything serious and heavy.

North to Alaska is yet another of those movies that really has nothing groundbreaking, but works as more than serviceable entertainment. John Wayne was a lot better at comedy than he's often given credit for, in part because he didn't make all that many comedies. I'm not the biggest Stewart Granger fan, but he does nothing to drag the movie down. Ditto Fabian and Capucine, although they're the two who get the movie's one really weak scene, in which Fabian sings a song to her and then gets drunk at dinner. It's the comedic storyline, however, that's the real winner here, and that's what makes the movie entertaining.

North to Alaska probably won't stick in your mind as long as other movies, but what it sets out to do, it does well.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #158: The Chosen One



This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is The Chosen One. I'm not certain if this was conceived as having some sort of religious significance as in people thinking they're called by God to do something (pick your favorite version of the Joan of Arc story), but in any case I decided to pick movies with people chosen in other ways:

Great Expectations (1946). Pip (John Mills) plays a young man in early 19th century England who has a really difficult life, being orphaned and living with a tough aunt and uncle, until he suddenly is told of a benefactor who has left him a substantial sum of money. Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) introduces him to Estella (Valerie Hobson), and things proceed from there. There have been other movie versions of the Dickens story, although this is the one I've seen.

The Best Man (1964). Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson play two candidates who are the two leaders for the presidential nomination at their party's convention, although neither has a majority of the delegates, so they have to work other delegates to try to gain a majority and become the nominee. Needless to say they resort to all sorts of underhanded tactics, especially Cliff Robertson's character. Lee Tracy is excellent as the dying ex-president who represented the party back in the day.

42nd Street (1933). Ruby Keeler is chosen to be the understudy for a new Broadway show, but she ultimately gets to be the star after the original lead (Bebe Daniels) injures her leg and can't dance. Of course, Ruby Keeler couldn't really dance, either, but that's another story. This is the ultimate backstage musical, and the one that made Busby Berkeley a star, although his choreography would become much more elaborate in later movies.

I'll be really curious to see what other people picked.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

They re-issued Noah's Ark?

It's not all that long ago that I blogged about the part-talking Noah's Ark. Apparently Warner Bros. re-released it 25 years later. They made a promotional short to go along with it, and that short, Magic Movie Moments, is showing up on TCM overnight a little after 3:15 AM, following I Confess (1:30 AM, 95 min plus an intro/outro).

I can't comment on the short, since I haven't seen it, although the one IMDb reviewer suggests it's little more than an extended trailer for the movie. I have to admit, however, my surprise that Warner Bros. would have picked Noah's Ark to re-release. When it comes to silents, I've always thought the comedies hold up better, and the two-reelers are the easiest to get into just because they're short. In particular, though, I'd think a part-talkie like this would be a harder sell still.

If I had been in charge of selecting movies for re-release, I'd probably select some tent-poles with big stars, like the Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca) and James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy) movies, and possibly some good Bette Davis titles. The Adventures of Robin Hood would, I think, also be another excellent choice. But what do I know? I'm not a studio boss.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Barrandov

I've mentioned on quite a few occasions before that I listen to what used to be the various international short-wave broadcasters, most of which are only on the internet any more. Indeed, I've linked to a fair number of stories over the years.

So my ears picked up when I listened to this past Saturday's edition of Radio Prague's English broadcast. They're starting a new series on Barrandov Studios, the Prague production facility that produced many of the well-known Czech films, as well as hosting western productions after the fall of the Iron Curtain, since production in central and eastern Europe was cheaper and the cities could pass for all sorts of vaguely eastern European locations. (And as we saw in Gymkata a few months back, even further east, although that was the former Yugoslavia, not the former Czechoslovakia.)

The first episode in the series is an interview with a set constructor, Štěpán Červený. The link above links to a text that is a close transcript of the audio. There's also an option to stream the audio online, and one to download the MP3 directly. That's a ~2MB MP3 file, with the interview running around four minutes. (I don't know the precise length of that file; I timed it listening to the full half-hour program.)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Martin Landau, 1928-2017


Martin Landau (r.) with Johnny Depp in a scene from Ed Wood (1994)

Actor Martin Landau, whose career spanned over 50 years, from the stage in the 1950s to working with Tim Burton in recent years, has died at the age of 89. Landau eventually won an Academy Award in the Burton-directed Ed Wood, playing Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was supposed to star in director Wood's Plan Nine From Outer Space, but rather unceremoniously died early in the production.

As for Landau, one of his first notable roles is probably in North by Northwest, where he plays one of James Mason's henchmen. Landau worked in TV with notable roles being on Mission: Impossible and later the cult series Space: 1999 where he worked opposite then-wife Barbara Bain in those daft 1970s "futuristic" uniforms.

In addition to Ed Wood, Landau was Oscar-nominated twice in the late 80s for Tucker and Crimes and Misdemeanors. I didn't realize that he was also an acting teacher, and a well-respected one at that.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

George Romero, 1940-2017

Writer/director George Romero, who jump-started the zombie movie genre with 1968's low-budget Night of the Living Dead, has died aged 77.

Night of the Living Dead is a wonderfully creepy little movie in which the zombies become zombies not long after dying and start going after people because of an insatiable desire for their brains. Eventually, they trap a small number of humans in an isolated house in the middle of nowhere in western Pennsylvania, with the people turning on each other as they can't figure out how to deal with this unknown menace.

Night of the Living Dead led to several sequels, as well as a whole bunch of other moviemakers making their own zombie movies in the past 20 or so years. Granted, being a low-budget movie, it has some plot holes, such as the fact that humans should be able to move faster than the zombies, and that it's not as though there should be all that many zombies considering how many people die each year. But the horror works, and here we are.

Night of the Lepus

I noticed that Night of the Lepus is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so I watched it off my DVR in order that I could do a full-length post on it.

The movie starts off with a dramatized news report of how mankind introduced rabbits into various places that weren't the species' natural habitat, and how it resulted in the rabbits getting loose and, well, breeding like rabbits so that they became a pest. Among the places mentioned in this report is the US Southwest.

Cut to the real action. Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is an Arizona rancher who's found that the rabbits are eating him out of house and home. He doesn't want to poison them because of the obvious deleterious effects that would have in the longer term. So he calls Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley), the president of his old alma mater, to see if their sciences department can do something. Fortunately, there are two visiting researchers, the Bennetts (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh) who are doing relevant research, trying to find some sort of contagious disease that will leave the rabbits sterile.

Unfortunately, the Bennetts have an idiot daughter Amanda. She doesn't understand what a control group is, and thinks it unfair that her parents are experimenting on cute little bunnies. So she switches two bunnies between the control and experimental groups, and then asks her parents if she can keep one of the bunnies from the control group. And this is where her parents are profoundly stupid in a way that severely tests one's disbelief: they let her keep one of those rabbits. She naturally picks the one she moved from the experimental group. Even dumber, she brings the bunny with her when the Bennetts visit the Hillman ranch! The bunny gets away.

Unfortunately, the Bennett's research is a failure in that their injections don't lead to the rabbits' becoming sterile. The side effect is that they become gargantuan, like 150-lb rabbit big. Oh, and they also become carnivorous, so they start attacking people.

The idea behind Night of the Lepus really isn't a bad one. In fact, as I was watching it, I couldn't help but think of Them! and the giant ants. And yet, Night of the Lepus has the reputation of being a ridiculous almost cult classic. Why is this? I think that the movie winds up being not as good as Them! in part because the script requires people to act in utterly implausible ways -- real life scientists would never have let their daughter screw with the experiment like that. There's also the fact that this one came relatively late in the horror cycle of dangerous creatures.

The bigger reason, I think, has to do with the effects. Every time they need to show the giant rabbits, there's this bizarre music, with regular-sized rabbits running around sets of miniatures. And then they took this footage and slowed it down. The result is just ridiculous unbelievable and laugh-inducing, and every time the action switches from the humans to the rabbits, any possibility of horror goes right out the window. And then there are the scenes when rabbits kill humans, which are even sillier.

Night of the Lepus is, however, ultimately well worth a watch both for the ideas and for its inherent silliness. The Warner Archive DVD is unfortunately a bit pricey.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Take one down, pass it around

Some time back, I recorded 100 Rifles when it aired on FXM Retro. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 11:15 AM and again on Monday at 9:15 AM, so I figured that now would be a good time to watch it and do a full-length post on it. (The movie is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.)

The movie starts off with a hanging: Sarita (Raquel Welch) sees her father being hanged by a representative of Gen. Verdugo (Fernando Lamas). Verdugo is the military commander of the Mexican state of Sonora circa 1912, and Sarita is part of the Yaqui people who don't like the Mexicans. Sarita's dad apparently got a rifle from the Mexican forces which was forbidden him, and that's enough to hang him for.

Cut to one of the big towns. Verdugo is there on a military visit, while watching from a hotel room is Joe Herrera (Burt Reynolds). Joe doesn't want to be seen, and for good reason. Into all this comes Lydecker (Jim Brown), who it turns out is looking for Herrera. That's because Herrera is wanted back in Arizona for robbing $6,000 from a bank. Lydecker is there to bring him back, claim the reward, and get a job with the police as a result. The Mexicans don't care for any of this, and are perfectly willing to kill both Herrera and Lydecker because of Herrera's motives for the bank robbery.

It turns out that Herrera is of mixed ancestry, having a father from Alabama and a mother who was Yaqui. Herrera claims to have spent the $6,000 on women and whiskey, but Verdugo knows that the money was really spent on obtaining rifles for the Yaqui so they can resist the federal government's depredations. That, of course, is highly illegal.

Rounding out the main cast are Dan O'Herlihy as a representative of the railroad, who really just wants the trains to keep running and doesn't care how that happens or who's running them, and Hans Gudegast as a German adviser to Verdugo, who thinks committing genocide is just fine and dandy.

Anyhow, Lydecker has no desire to stay in Mexico, except that circumstances force him to stay. Verdugo is going to execute him and Herrera together, but the two are saved by the Yaqui, and Lydecker reluctantly joins up with them because there is no other option. To make matters worse for him, the Yaqui want him to be their "general".

100 Rifles was actually made in Spain; I would have thought it was made in Mexico. It's well-enough made, although it's yet another movie that doesn't feel as if it's treading any new ground. Everybody does adequately, and the movie is entertainig, but it's also the sort of thing that I don't think is particularly memorable. Still, because it entertains it's more than worth a watch.