Will Pfeifer's Blog

September 23, 2017

After a brief flurry of activity on this blog last month, I quickly (and surely) reverted to my usual lazy ways. So here, as the end of September draws near, is the brief recap of movies I watched way back in August. Let's hope I remember them...

I'd seen this movie years ago, but I'd forgotten how good it is. Based on a hit play, it never entirely loses its staginess, but in this case, that's a feature and not a bug. By keeping its theatrical roots, "Dead End" works as both a melodrama and as a portrait of The Way Things Are Today (or at least The Way Things Were in 1937). It's like something Barton Fink might have concocted if he hadn't gotten stuck on that Wallace Beery wrestling picture. And, even though "Dead End" was released in 1937, long after the Production Code began its crackdown on all things salacious and subversive, the movie is surprisingly dark, with prodigal hoodlum "Baby Face" Martin (Bogart) returning to his old stomping grounds only to find out his ex-girlfriend (Claire Trevor) is a VD-ridden prostitute and his mother (Ma Kettle herself, Marjorie Main) wants nothing to do with him. Those are just a few of the notable names in this frankly amazing case, incidentally. You also get Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Allen Jenkins and Ward Bond, plus the eponymous Dead End kids, who got their name (and fame) from this play/movie and rode it for decades. They're much more rough around the edges here, with future gang leader Leo Gorcey betraying the others and almost getting "the mark of the squealer" -- a slashed face, in other words. The moral of the story? "Snitches get stitches" is far from a modern invention.

So much fun, and I finally found it on Blu-ray. This is really one of the all-time great movies about movies, a celebration by director (and movie fan) Joe Dante of the sort of gleeful promotional nonsense guys like William Castle concocted to put people in the seats. Here he takes the form of Lawrence Woolsey, wonderfully played by John Goodman as the proverbial huckster with a heart of gold. He breezes into a small coastal town during the Cuban Missile Crisis to screen his latest monster movie, "Mant!," and the schlock film, the actual crisis, teenage hormones, faked protests (by John Sayles and Dick Miller!) and a few dozen other elements combine to cause chaos during the premiere showing. It looks great, it has a big heart and it's a lot of fun, especially if you're a movie fan (and if you're not, why are you still reading this). I was left with one question, though: Is John Goodman the single most underrated actor of the modern age? I mean, has he never not delivered a noteworthy performance?

I liked it again upon rewatch, though maybe just a tiny bit less than I did during its theatrical run. (The battle near the end dragged a tad, I'm sorry to say.) Still, what works works beautifully, from the character arc of Rocket (!) to the genuinely touching funeral of a certain character. If you want a more extensive review, here's my original write-up.

I'd read a lot about this movie, mostly in books like "Hollywood Hex" that stressed the fact that this violent take on Shakespeare was the first movie Roman Polanski directed after the Manson murders. I'm not buying that book's premise that the film was "cursed," but it's pretty obvious that Polanksi (not the lightest of filmmakers at his cheeriest) was channeling some pretty dark stuff into this 1971 version of The Scottish Play. It's great, truly great, not just as a Shakespeare adaptation but as a piece of cinema, with Polanski and co-writer Kenneth Tynan putting the insanity and paranoia of the story front and center. Jon Finch and Francesca Annis are surprisingly young for MacBeth and his Lady, but it works beautifully, with their ambition dragging them down paths they barely realize they're on. Polanski turns the whole tale into a grimy, gritty nightmare that feels horribly real, even when it's clearly treading into dark fantasy. There's a surreal dream sequence that manages to top the one in "Rosemary's Baby" (oddly, it also features a crowd of naked old people) and the violence is genuinely brutal, with some unnerving bear baiting at a feast and the final fate of MacBeth (spoilers!) reaching some sort of feverish peak. Thank you, once again, to the fine folks at Criterion for releasing this one on Blu-ray. 
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Published on September 23, 2017 15:18 • 1 view

September 21, 2017

It's been so long since I've written one of these promotional posts, I almost forgot to do it (and, of course, I blew my deadline in the process). Anyway, the first issue of The Librarians arrived in stores on Sept. 20, courtesy of the fine folks at Dynamite Comics.

That's the cover above (with art by Karl Moline), and there are variant covers as well for all your collecting needs. Inside the issue, there's script by yours truly and art by Rodney Buchemi. It's based, as you probably guessed, on the popular TV show, and I managed to include some of my own interests into the story, including those cheesy documentaries from the 1970s about Noah's Ark, bigfoot and other unexplained phenomena. It's a fun, fast read and I hope you'll pick it up -- it's a bit different from other, more super-hero-oriented books I've written, but at its heart it's an adventure story with humor, suspense and some wild trips into the secrets of the world.

Check out a preview here, and if you want to order an electronic copy, click here. And, as always, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to post them below.

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Published on September 21, 2017 04:29 • 3 views

August 15, 2017

Here it is, the wrap-up of last month's movie recap which does not, for once, come at the last moment,  (Or after the last moment, as we saw recently.) As a bonus, the three movies were all movies I was seeing for the first time, and all of them were very good -- which might explain why I tended to ramble on a bit this month.  Read on, cinema junkies...

The story at the heart of "Experimenter" is a strange one, and Michael Almeyerda's movie does it justice by being pretty damned strange itself. In 1961 at Yale University, researher Stanley Milgram brought in two volunteers claiming he was studying the effect of punishment on learning. The first volunteer would read questions and, when the second volunteer got them wrong, he would administer a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks. No matter how much the "student" begged for him to stop, the "teacher" was instructed -- gently but firmly -- to keep pressing the button that delivered those shocks. Naturally, the experiment actually had nothing to do with punishment or learning but was really designed to see how far an average person would go in torturing a complete stranger when ordered by an authority figure. (The shocks weren't real, and the "student" was in on the experiment.) This was a timely topic in 1961, with the horrors of Nazi Germany not long past and the trials of the war criminals and their "I was following orders" defense even more recent. (And it would become timely again, unfortunately, with the Vietnam War and the My Lai Massacre.) What's exciting about "Experimenter" is that it doesn't treat Milgram's work as some dry history lesson. Instead, using frequent (but subtle) elements of surrealism, Almeyerda (who wrote, produced and directed) conveys the eerie vibe of the era and the unnerving implications of what Milgram was discovering. The film's secret weapon is Peter Sarsgaard, who brings his intelligence and cool demeanor to a role that makes the most of it. I'd had this one sitting on the shelf for awhile, not ever feeling the urge to watch it, until one night when nothing else seemed compelling. I'm damn glad I popped it into the Blu-ray player -- it's one of the best movies I've seen in awhile, and I'm sure I'll be visiting it again before long. There's a lot to unpack within its scary smart 98 minutes.

All those complaints about this being the third version of Spider-Man never made sense to me, because this was the first version that was going to be part of the, ahem, Marvel Cinematic Universe. As good as the first two Sam Raimi films were (and I’ll admit to having a perverse soft-spot for the oft-reviled dance sequence in the third), for me one of the most interesting things about the comic book Spider-Man is that he’s the average guy in a world filled with Thors, Hulks and Captains America -- and it's something I wanted to see translated to the big screen. That’s one reason I loved the airport battle in “Captain America: Civil War” and was looking forward to more in this film. Some people said there was too much Iron Man in "Spider-Man: Homecoming," but for me, the contrast between the heroes – even when they were wearing eerily similar costumes – was a big draw. The early scenes, where Spider-Man tries to fight crime but can’t actually find any, are some of the best in the movie and really capture what sets Spider-Man apart from every other superhero. Stan Lee once said something along the lines of “he’s the hero who could be you,” meaning that he doesn’t have any idea of what he’s doing, either. (Side note: This is something I really tried to capture in my long-ago DCU comicbook, “HERO,” especially in the first arc.) Spider-Man's learning curve essentially takes the entire movie to complete, which feels real, and in certain seems Peter actually seems in way over his head. (The ferry disaster is the obvious one, but I also like how he was genuinely scared on the Washington Monument.) Tom Holland was perfect for the role – he had charisma, sure, and the guy can act (note how I singled him out for praise in “The Impossible” way back in this post), but most of all he seemed young. He felt like an actual high school student (even if he’s not), and the school scenes, with his realistically diverse set of friends (including Tony Revolori of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as none other than Flash Thompson) were some of the best things in the movie. Even better was the film’s villain. If the Marvel movies have a consistent weakness, it’s usually the badguys, who tend to be a little bland and lacking motivation. But Michael Keaton, who’s undergoing the sort of career renaissance you almost never see, brings a real sense of menace and humanity to the role of “the Vulture” (though he’s never really called by that name). You don’t merely understand why he’s committing those crimes, you even sympathize with him to a certain extent. And I’d argue Peter Parker does, too. Keaton’s speech about how the big guys don’t really care about the little guys seems to fuel his decision at the end of the movie. I’ve gone on longer than I planned to about this movie, but I really (really) enjoyed it, as if you can’t tell. One more thing: I won’t spoil the last line of the movie, but I will say that (a) it’s hilarious (b) it’s perfectly delivered and (c) it’s followed by the Ramones, who just like Spider-Man, hailed from Forest Hills, Queens. What the hell more do you want?

I liked “Baby Driver.” A lot, in fact. But I didn’t love it – and boy, did I go in wanting to love it. I consider Edgar Wright one of the few directors working today with a perfect batting average. Every movie he’s made so far, from the “Cornetto Trilogy” (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”) to his wildly imaginative adaptation of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” has been a feast, both visually and comedically, with the sort of wit and style you just don’t see much in these days of cookie-cutter, focus-grouped films. And “Baby Driver” has plenty of wit and style, too, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that, in the end, it didn’t quite add up for me. Maybe it's as good as your average very good movie -- or even better, really -- but it's not pretty much perfect way that Wright’s previous films are. (I also think it should have ended about five minutes before it actually did, say, when Baby was on the bridge – but I did enjoy the reveal of baby’s actual, hilariously fitting name). Still, like I said, it’s very good, and though this probably reads like a “bad” review, it’s not. So here, in the interest of encouraging you to see it, are some things I loved about it: The car chases are truly great, thrilling and funny, leaving you with an adrenaline rush that has you wanting to gun it as you leave the theater parking lot. The cast really brings it, with the standouts being Jon Hamm, whose performance starts strong and gets better as the movie goes along, and Jamie Foxx, bringing a real sense of menace and danger to his role. And, to no one’s surprise, Wright, the man who choreographed a zombie beat-down to Queen in “Shaun of the Dead,” pairs the action up with some truly inspired soundtrack choices. I need to see it again to check how close the visuals match the songs, but knowing Wright, I’m guessing it’s damn close. And, despite what I might have implied at the beginning of this review, I do want to see it again. It’s very, very good. It’s just not as good as Wright’s previous work – but trust me, that’s a damn hard target to hit.

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Published on August 15, 2017 19:13 • 1 view

August 13, 2017

After four posts about various New York films, you might think I'm sick of writing about movies on this blog. And frankly, you'd be sort of right. But not completely, and that's the key. Hell, I'm always up for talking about any sort of movie-related topic. Like, say, for instance, the movies I watched last month...

I might be the only person of my generation (or, for that matter, still alive) who's actually a fan of Joe E. Brown, a big-mouthed (literally!) comic actor who had his heyday in the 1930s but is probably best remember for delivering the classic final line of Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot." I'd enjoyed some of his pre-Code baseball comedies, like "Fireman Save My Child" and "Alibi Ike," so when I saw the description of the plot of "Circus Clown" on TCM included both "runs away to the circus" and "falls for a female impersonator," I knew I had to tune in. The circus portion was oddly convincing, mostly because as a young man, Brown really did run away with the circus and came back with the acrobatic skills to prove it. (He was a gifted physical comedian.) And though the female impersonator plotline was more of a prank played on our hero by some sideshow wiseguys than any sort of gender switcheroo, it did prove an interesting preview of his falling for Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot." (Though in this movie, he wound up beating the hell out of the pranksters.) All in all a swell little 1934 comedy with a little romance, some good sight gags and a pretty impressive performance by Brown as both Happy Howard and his dad, Chuckles Howard. Check it out next time it's on TCM. Then maybe two living people will be Joe E. Brown fans.

Rewatched this one with the wife, and it held up pretty well. It still has that strange element all M. Night Shyamalan films have, where the characters speak in a stilted, overly formal style like they're robots who learned English from a program and are trying to pass for human. I really wish M. Night would let someone (me?) give his scripts a final dialogue pass before he rolls film, because as this movie proves, when he's in his groove, he can deliver an imaginative, entertaining little thriller. I'm still excited to see the sequel that the ending implies, but I'm hoping he films it soon. A certain bald, big-name movie star isn't exactly getting any younger...

Solid little comedy/drama about a woman (Melanie Lynskey) who seeks justice after burglars steal her laptop and her grandmother's silver. It becomes mostly comedic when she encounters an oddball (Elijah Wood) who fancies himself a bit of a vigilante, then becomes mostly dramatic when they encounter the guys behind the burglars and the bullets (and blood) start to fly. From writer/director Macon Blair, who starred in the similarly themed (though much less comedic) "Blue Ruin," this film works best as a character study, as Lynskey (who's excellent) uses her quest for justice to break out of the depression and anomie that's been constricting her life. The Elijah Wood character, with his bravado and nunchuks, walks the edge of being too big of a joke, but he winds up landing on the right side and, by the (surprisingly violent) end, I was genuinely invested in his fate, too. It's on Netflix right now, so you've got no excuse for not checking it out.

Up next: A bizarre movie about an even more bizarre experiment and not one but two (two!) theatrical releases.

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Published on August 13, 2017 14:32 • 1 view

August 12, 2017

Here's the final list of five New York movies, including some indisputable classics and one choice that surprised even me, the guy making this list. Oh, and there's a list of other movies I didn't include at the end, so save your complaints and "Hey, what about..." comments on Facebook for the next guy to be foolish enough to attempt a list like this.

The Seventh Victim: Producer Val Lewton’s other great New York movie. This one takes place in Greenwich Village (or at least the RKO backlot version of Greenwich Village) and focuses on a group of Manhattan Satanists more than 20 years before “Rosemary’s Baby.” Refreshingly short and unnervingly strange, it manages to make typical New York locations, such as subway trains and restaurants, feel distinct uncanny. Great bleak ending, too.

Sweet Smell of Success: Again, of course. One of the all-time great New York movies, and one that – thanks to some amazing location shooting on the part of cinematographer James Wong Howe – really captures the restless energy of 1957-era Manhattan. As a bonus, the film is utterly New York-centric, with a plot involving columnist and press agents that could take place nowhere else.

The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3: Insanely entertaining from start to unforgettable finish, this is one of those movies that, like Bill Murray’s “Quick Change” (a movie that just missed this list) is fueled by the idea that New York City, more than anything else, is a colossal pain in the ass where it’s almost impossible to get anything done, whether its holding a subway car hostage or rescuing the hostages on a subway car. Either way, it’s more trouble than its worth.

Taxi Driver: Well, of course again. It's one of the all-time great New York movies, even if (or actually because) it shows the city at its absolute worst. And Travis himself is the city (or at least that city) in microcosm -- paranoid, racist, borderline insane, alone in a crowd and prone to bursts of terrifying violence. What's still surprising is that, as dark as the movie is (and it's arguably the darkest movie Scorsese has ever made, which is saying something), it's never less than mesmerizing.

Vanilla Sky:
Like I’ve said before on this blog, this is a movie I originally disliked when I saw it in the theater, but have come to somehow …. love? … with the passage of time and over repeated viewings. It’s a mess in many ways, but that seems to sum up the mood of end-of-the-century America, and specifically New York, and even more specifically, a very wealthy person’s version of New York. At any rate, it’s a fascinating portrait of the city, from the deserted Times Square at the beginning to the final sequence, which includes the (then destroyed) Twin Towers.

And, apologies to: A lot of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Spike Lee and John Cassavetes movies. "The Warriors." "Dog Day Afternoon." "The French Connection." "Saturday Night Fever." "Escape from New York." "The Crowd." "Midnight Cowboy." "42nd St." "Gold Diggers of 1933." "The Thin Man." "My Man Godfrey." "Pride of the Yankees." "Saboteur." "Arsenic and Old Lace." "The Lost Weekend." "Miracle on 34th St." "The Naked City." "Rear Window." "Rope." "North by Northwest." "Bell, Book and Candle." "The Manchurian Candidate." "Joe." "Shaft." "Live and Let Die." "Serpico." "Soylent Green." "God Told Me To." "Network." "Cruising." "Maniac." "Fort Apache The Bronx." "Ms. 45." "Nighthawks." "Prince of the City." "Basket Case." "Q." "Tootsie." "C.H.U.D." "Ghostbusters." "Street Trash." "Wall St." "Bonfire of the Vanities." "Joe Versus the Volcano." "Quick Change." "The Fisher King." "Quiz Show." "Pi." "Rounders." "Eyes Wide Shut." "American Psycho." "Requium for a Dream." "Panic Room." "Elf." "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." Various and sundry Marvel movies. "Cloverfield." "Synecdoche New York." "Inside Llewyn Davis." "The Big Short." And probably a few more, but that's it for now.
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Published on August 12, 2017 05:30 • 27 views

August 10, 2017

Here's the penultimate post in the New York movies series, with what's probably the most eclectic set of films yet. High society, low society, obsessed artists, a fractured family and the first of two sets of Manhattan-based Satan worshippers...

Metropolitan: I couldn't have less in common with the rich kids in Whit Stillman's 1990 debut, but there's something about the story of this group, nostalgic for a time that they barely knew, that gets me every time. And though it was shot at the end of the go-go '80s, Stillman gives the whole movie a fascinating make-believe feel, with the Christmas lights, tuxedos and evening gowns (all on kids who seem to be playing dress-up) almost, but not quite, achieving the storybook vibe of "The Royal Tenenbaums" a decade before its release.

On the Bowery: Maybe the exact opposite of "Metropolitan," a 1956 semi-documentary about hardcore alcoholics and the lives they lead in Manhattan's Bowery. Shattering and fascinating, it earned Lionel Rogosin an Oscar nomination, and no wonder -- I've never seen a movie like it. At times, it's so penetrative and exposing of these men that you almost (but not quite) feel like looking away. Hollywood movies -- even dark, despairing ones like "The Lost Weekend" -- always manage to make bars and taverns feel like cozy shelters from the cold, cruel world. Not this movie. The bars -- and the men who live in them -- are some of the saddest, grimmest places you've ever seen.

Portrait of Jennie: 
This movie has a glaring hole at its center, in the presence of Jennifer Jones, who’s completely wrong as the titular Jennie. (But, since producer David O. Selznick made it for her, it wouldn’t exist otherwise.) One thing it does beautifully, though, is create a vision of a dreamlike New York, full of sunlit artist’s garrets and friendly Irish bars.

Rosemary’s Baby: Taking place almost entirely in the famous Dakota Building (called “The Bramford” here), Polanksi’s classic thrives on the sort of sophistication Manhattanites are famous for, played beautifully against the naïve innocence of poor Rosemary. It feels completely, utterly believable, which is an impressive achievement for a movie about an infant fathered by the devil.

The Royal Tenenbaums: Not so much set in New York as in "New York," Wes Anderson's painstakingly created alternate version of the city, inspired by New Yorker short stories and long forgotten children's books. You've got the Green Line buses, the Gypsy Cab company, the 375th Street Y and other fictional landmarks, while Anderson deliberately left out any actual NYC landmarks. There's a scene where Pagoda (Kumar Palana) meets with Royal (Gene Hackman) near the water, for instance, where Anderson had Palana stand so he was completely blocking the State of Liberty in the shot.
Coming up next: In the final installment, we meet those other, less well-known New York Satanists; hang with Tom Cruise; ride the subway and see not one but two all-time classic Manhattan movies -- one from the ultra-cool 1950s, one from the ultra-sleazy 1970s.
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Published on August 10, 2017 18:39 • 1 view

August 9, 2017

Continuing the series of my favorite New York-set movies ... though, let's be honest, by "New York" I mean "the city" and by "the city" I mean "Manhattan." After all, it's not like there are a lot of famous New York State movies out there, though, if I recall, "His Girl Friday" sure mentions Albany a lot, and I'm pretty sure "It's a Wonderful Life" takes place in upstate New York. Anyhow, back to Manhattan (but not "Manhattan," because, as you'll soon see, it's not on this list...)

Die Hard with a Vengeance: The original "Die Hard" confined itself to a single office building, and its sequel expanded the location to an airport, but this third film (much better than its immediate predecessor) uses most of Manhattan as its gameboard, sending Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis (a year after they starred in "Pulp Fiction") on an increasingly wild goose chase that illustrates, over and over, what a colossal pain in the ass NYC can be. And though the Twin Towers don't actually play a part, you wouldn't be seeing shots like the one above a few years later, for obvious reasons.

Hannah and Her Sisters: "Manhattan" seems the obvious choice (hell, just look at the title) and "Annie Hall" is a classic New York movie by anyone's measure, but for me, the Woody Allen movie that really shows off the city is this 1986 film. From the architectural tour Sam Waterston gives Carrie Fisher and Dianne Wiest to the Michael Caine-Barbara Hershey affair that starts in a bookshop (above), it's a beautiful picture of the city -- even if, thanks to Allen's hilarious out-of-touchness, it does contain the single least realistic portrayal of a punk show ever captured on film. Stick to Bobby Short jazz performances, Woody.

The Hudsucker Proxy: I'm pretty sure any actual locations for this 1994 Coen Brothers movie were filmed in Chicago, not New York, but either way, it's a beautiful, impressive, sometimes breathtaking look at how magical the city could appear, circa 1958, to an eager young go-getter from Muncie, Indiana. One of my all-time favorites, and hell, another movie I wouldn't mind living in. Maybe, with my years of newsroom experience, I could land a job at the Manhattan Argus and finally win that Pulitzer...

King Kong: Again, of course, even though the movie mostly takes place on Skull Island with only the very beginning and memorable climax set in a gloriously fake version of 1933 Manhattan. It''s been written about time and time again (including by yours truly), so let me just add that I can't think of another movie where a single image has summed up the colossal, crazy, borderline surreal of the city so perfectly.

Little Fugitive: A wonderful little 1953 movie about a boy (Richie Andrusco) who mistakenly thinks he's killed his brother (don't worry -- everyone's OK) and runs off to Coney Island. The plot is just an excuse to showcase the amazing verite footage of Coney Island, with little Richie exploring the place as he tries to avoid the authorities. A time capsule in the best sense of the term, it's both a genuinely sweet, involving film and a fascinating look at a bygone era.

Coming up next: New York society at both its highest and lowest, a tale of artistic obsession, a storybook portrait of a screwed up family and one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
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Published on August 09, 2017 18:25 • 1 view

August 8, 2017

Inspired by a recent episode of the excellent Pure Cinema Podcast, here's part one of my own list of some of my favorite New York movies. (Four parts might seem a bit excessive, but if you've been reading this blog at all, you know I need to fill up this thing by any means necessary.)

You'll probably notice a few classics missing -- "The French Connection" and "Do the Right Thing" are two big names that didn't make my cut -- but this list does manage to combine the iconic (a certain movie about a giant gorilla) and the obscure (a documentary about winos). Like most movie nerds, cinematic depictions of New York shaped my ideas of the city long before I ever set foot in it, and if I missed the classic 1930s version or the midcentury glories of 1950s and 1960s Manhattan, I at least got a glimpse of the grimy, gritty sleazy era when I first visited New York in the mid 1980s. 

The Apartment: Well, of course. It's probably my favorite movie of all time, and even though the interiors and a few exteriors (including C.C. Baxter's titular apartment) were shot in Los Angeles, it still captures the glory of 1960s New York better than any movie or TV show I've ever seen. In fact, if I could live in a movie, I'd probably pick this one.

Blast of Silence: This no-budget crime drama, written/directed by Allan Baron and produced/shot by Merrill Brody, tells the story of a hitman who travels to New York at Christmas to (what else?) complete a job. Almost completely forgotten since its 1961 release, it was praised in the seminal book "Incredibly Strange Films" and, finally, released on DVD by Criterion. Shot with no permits, it offers a fascinating look of the city at yuletide, complete with unwitting extras who can't help but stare at the camera. Who could blame them?

Cat People: Another all-time favorite. Val Lewton's groundbreaking horror film didn't have a single frame filmed in New York, but somehow it manages to capture the essence of 1940s Manhattan, including some memorable scenes in (fake) Central Park and sequences set in various restaurants, apartments and basement swimming pools. So damned evocative it hurts, but in a good way.

City for Conquest: Great corny old Warner Bros. melodrama where James Cagney plays a hard-luck boxer and Ann Sheridan plays his would-be girlfriend, both struggling (and -- spoiler alert -- failing) to make their dreams come true in the big city. Cagney's brother is a composer who goes on and on (and on) about "the energy of the city," which is the subject (of course) of the masterpiece he's working on as Cagney puts his life on the line in the ring to support him. As a bonus, there's a homeless guy (played by Frank Craven, who originated the similar role of the Stage Manager in "Our Town") who pops up every so often offering commentary on life in the city. "City for Conquest" isn't  believable, not even for an instant, but it's still pretty damned great in the way only a vintage Jimmy Cagney Warner Bros. movie can be.

Dead End: Just re-watched this one on TCM a few days ago, and I was struck by how insanely good it is -- and what a unique portrait of New York it offers. Based on a stage play, it uses some imaginative sets (the original play was designed by the legendary Norman Bel Geddes) and convincing use of miniatures to compress the worlds of ultra-rich and dirt-poor into one tight space. It never looks real, not exactly, but it does feel convincing, and that's what counts. I'll have more to say about it in a few weeks, when I do my August recap.

Coming up next: A few more modern movies, including at least three in color. Plus, an amazing look at Coney Island in its prime starring no one you've ever heard of.
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Published on August 08, 2017 17:37 • 3 views

August 1, 2017

I’ve set a new record for procrastination of the recap of movies I watched in June, which you’ll realize if you look up at a calendar and realize the month is now AUGUST. At any rate, July was a busy month, with comic book work, yard work and cleaning out a flooded basement work. So, without any (more) delay, here’s what I saw a long, long time ago. I’m keeping this short and sweet – partly because I can barely remember these movies.

I’d heard great things about this R-rated X-Men film, and it pretty much lived up to my hopes and expectations. It’s amazing how Hugh Jackman, a tall, good-natured Australian, has come to almost perfectly embody comics’ resident short, cranky Canadian. He’s especially good here (and especially cranky) living in a dystopian semi-future, on the run and playing the reluctant dad in a decidedly dysfunctional family, with Professor X and Weapon X serving as he surrogate father and daughter. Nice, if strange, to see the very funny Steven Merchant playing a mutant with a tragic backstory (and, to be honest, front-story), and the final shot of the movie, when lil’ Weapon X makes a telltale adjustment to the cross on a certain grave was damn near perfect – and actually brought a lump to my throat. If, back in the very early 1980s, you had told young me that an R-rated Wolverine movie would be one of the best movies of the year when I turned 50, I wouldn’t have believed you … but I would’ve been waiting through those decades to see if maybe, somehow you were actually telling the truth.

The first time I watched this a year and a half or so ago (thanks again, TCM Underground!), I was so stunned by the sheer strange incompetence of the film that I barely noticed anything else. But this time around (and yes, I might be the only person alive who’s willingly watched “Abar the First Black Superman” twice), I was struck by something else: its surprising sincerity. True, the film is amateurishly made by any standard, with some of the least-polished performances ever (awkwardly) captured on film, but that only serves to highlight how hard the filmmakers are trying to tell their story of racism, black empowerment and frustration at the violence and despair faced by African-Americans back then (and, sadly, now). It’s not a good movie, not exactly, but there is something at its center – a real heart and desire to share a story that needs to be told, no matter how clumsily it does so. If you have any interested in cult movies, blaxploitation or cinema of the 1970s, give it a look the next time it shows up on TCM Underground. At the very least, you’ve never seen anything else quite like it.

The only thing this 2017 film has in common with “Abar The First Black Superman” is that it’s also trying to say something about what it means to be black in America. Jordan Peele’s impressive directorial debut, however, says it with style, wit and no small amount of sharp, satirical humor. This one’s been written about quite a bit recently, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets more press in a few months as Oscar predictions and Best Of lists start filling the web, so I won’t add to the stack with my own musings. (Well, not much anyway.) Plus, the film has so many surprises, both large and small, that I don’t want to risk spoiling anything. Like most horror movies, “Get Out” is more enjoyable the less you know going in. I will say that it’s refreshing to see a movie – especially a horror film – that actually rewards replaying in your head once the final credits roll. I kept spotting new connections and bits of foreshadowing that Peele cleverly embedding in the film without spelling them out. “Get Out” isn’t a complicated film, but it is a smart one, and it requires – and rewards – a level of attention from its audience.

As I’ve said before, my favorite thing about Turner Classic Movies (my favorite channel) isn’t its dedication to showing the established Hollywood classics – they're are great, but I can see them anywhere. What I really love are the forgotten films that fill its schedule during the off-hours. Films like, for instance, this 1942 B-picture, part of the “Boston Blackie” series starring Chester Morris as a reformed criminal who now (get this!) fights crime. They’re not great movies, but they are fun, offering the sort of entertainment that a mid-level hour-long TV drama delivers today. (And, at a mere 67 minutes, “Alias Boston Blackie” isn’t much longer than those TV shows.) As a bonus, this 1942 film delivers a swell dose of nostalgia, with a yuletide setting and a goofy plot about a convict escaping prison dressed as a clown who then needs Boston Blackie to prove he’s actually innocent. It’s decidedly low budget, but there’s a decent car chase and a strange running gag involving a guy who keeps losing his breath and needs to be hit. Now that’s exactly the sort of thing I tune into TCM for!
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Published on August 01, 2017 17:46 • 2 views

July 4, 2017

In celebration of America's 241st birthday, here's a list of movies, decade-by-decade, that somehow manage to paint a picture of the our country that, while not entirely accurate, holds some sort of cock-eyed truth...

The 19-Aughts: The Great Train Robbery (1903)
It's not quite set in 1903 (it's based on an 1896 play), but it's short, it's violent, it's about money and guns, and the last shot has, for no narrative reason, a guy shooting directly at the camera (something Scorsese tipped his hat to at the end of "Goodfellas.') Watch the whole thing right here.

The 19-Teens: "Birth of a Nation" (1915)
Again, not set in the decade it was made (it's a Civil War/Reconstruction story, after all), it was still sadly timely in 1915 and, even more sadly, is still timely today. It's appalling on many levels, not the least of which makes the Klan the heroes who "save the day," but it was also arguably the first American blockbuster movie. Figures.

1920s: "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) 
Not Cagney's greatest movie, or even his greatest gangster movie, but a fascinating, entertaining portrait of the gangster era from beginning to end, with Jimmy starting as a wide-eyed doughboy, transitioning to a prosperous bootlegger and dying forgotten and defeated on the steps of a church.

1930s: "Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933)
From the opening performance of "We're In the Money," which gets shut down mid-song due to lack of funds, to the crazed, surreal, heartbreaking finale of "My Forgotten Man," this Busby Berkeley musical extravaganza sums up the bleak insanity of the Great Depression as well as anything, and it's entertaining to boot.

1940s: "Cat People" (1942)
There's no shortage of World War II movies I could've put in this spot, everything from "The Longest Day" to "1941," but I figure this movie feels uniquely American: the big city, fear of (and exotic attraction to) foreigners, work in the defense industry, a sort of free-flowing anxiety lurking just under the surface and a sense of gung-ho optimism pitted against a darker, older European threat. Plus, as I've said dozens of times on this blog, I love this movie.

1950s: "Quiz Show" (1994) 
Not just a pitch-perfect recreation of the 1950s with a pretty stellar cast (including the aforementioned Martin Scorsese), but one of the best illustrations I've seen of how a country that once embraced people who were almost scary smart transformed into the celebration of idiocy that fills TV screens today. By the way, when is someone going to release this on Blu-ray?

1960s: "The Right Stuff" (1983) 
Possibly my favorite movie about America, this epic look at the early days of the space race manages to be funny, cynical, exciting, contemplative and downright inspiring in its off-kilter patriotism. Amazing cast, spectacular use of pre-CGI special effects (along with stock footage) and some clever running gags that tie the whole thing together. I love the Tom Wolfe book, which goes into much (much) more detail, but this movie manages to be the perfect distillation of that tome.

1970s: "All the President's Man" (1976) 
Of course, right? It brings the biggest story of the 1970s to the screen just a few years after it actually happened. Plus, it manages the insanely difficult feat of telling a very complex story that audience knew the ending to -- and making it suspenseful. All the wonderful cynicism and grunginess of 1970s cinema (this was the same year as "Network" and "Taxi Driver," after all) with just enough patriotic optimism to make us feel good about our country during that Bicentennial year.

The 1970s into the 1980s: "Boogie Nights" (1967)
It's not subtle, but the way Paul Thomas Anderson's masterful look at the adult film industry breaks in two on New Year's Eve, with poor William Macy shooting himself, celluloid giving way to videotape and everything taking a distinctly darker tone works beautifully, if bleakly.

1980s: "Wall St."
Again, of course. Oliver Stone's morality tale about the then-modern world of finance can't quite resist admiring Michael Douglas' ruthless corporate raider, but it's told with such old-fashioned skill that you almost don't notice that until repeated viewings. Another movie that ends on a note of optimism, though this one, entertaining as it is, is probably mostly unearned. Still, a movie I'll watch anytime it's on.

1990s: "Hackers" (1995)
It's like every annoying trend of the 1990s threw up on itself, then rolled around in it. Hey, I never said these movies had to be good

20-Aughts: "Vanilla Sky" (2001) 
Cameron's Crowe's "cover version" of the Spanish film "Obre Los Ojos" isn't perfect by any means, but there's something about it that makes me watch it every couple of years or so. The movie has an intriguing combination of colossal ego (thanks, in part, to the casting of Tom Cruise, but also thanks to Crowe himself) with a search for identity combined with an admittedly intoxicating portrait of what it must have been like to be incredibly rich in New York City at the turn of the century. The fact that it was filmed before Sept. 11, 2001, but released after -- and that Crowe kept images of the Twin Towers in the movie -- adds to the feeling that, for good and bad, "Vanilla Sky" captures a very specific moment in time.

20-Teens: "Get Out" (2017)
I'm a white guy benefitting from all sorts of privilege, but even I can tell that we're living in, to put it mildly, racially dicey times. Jordan Peele's smart, scary horror satire sums this up as well as any movie of recent years, showing that the problem isn't just with over-the-top, Confederate flag-waving racists, it's also with white folks who show every sign of being enlightened, Obama-loving liberals. Like many great American movies -- "Network," "Dr. Strangelove," "Wag the Dog" -- Peele's film proves that the best way to get to a difficult truth is often to make a comedy about it.

And speaking of satire...

Bonus: 2500s: "Idiocracy" (2006)
Mike Judge's blistering satire about a future America so dumb it can barely survive barely survived itself, with a tiny run in theaters and a shame-faced release on video. It's there, though, that it found its audience, and it's generally acclaimed as one of the best (if most brutal) comedies of the 2000s. So packed with clever details it requires repeated viewings to catch them all, "Idiocracy" only has one real fault: It assumes it would take 500 years to reach that level of stupidity when, it turns out, it only took about 10.

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Published on July 04, 2017 07:13 • 39 views

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