The Catch-Up, Part Two (Speaking Of Edition)

I may have accidentally stumbled onto how I can actually set an endpoint to this Catching Up business, and hasten the phenomenon of actually seeing a pinprick of light in this seemingly endless tenebrous tunnel: I’ll watch TV.

See, Friday nights that I don’t have a show are the nights where I can settle into my movie chair and watch three or more movies in a row. This is by necessity more than inclination: scheduling rather than solicitude. Last Friday, as a bit of a warm-up, and because it’s now in its second season and cropping up on my timeline again, I decided to watch the first episode of Legion before moving on to stuff on my Movie Watchlist. You know, find out what the shouting was about.

This is my brain on Legion.

I am not a binge watcher. I like to watch an episode of a TV series, then think about it for a while (you know, the way the format was originally intended).

Last Friday I watched the first six episodes of Legion‘s first season before dragging myself to bed at 2am.

Hey, everybody from my timeline a year ago saying how great and confounding and downright amazing it was, you were right. So now I will kowtow to my magic DVR and – unless showrunner Noah Hawley sucks me in again, no promises – alternate it with episodes of the recently-cancelled The Expanse which I have been hoarding like bullets in a Mad Max movie. I guess I should find some way to lay my hands on the first season of Westworld, too. Maybe this will stem the ever-regenerating list of back-filed reviews waiting to be written.

Speaking of which:

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Well, what you have here is your bona fide classic, re-issued in a stunning blu-ray by Warner Archive. Spencer Tracy is one-armed WWII veteran John MacReedy, who gets off the train at the titular town, claiming he’s “only going to be here a day”. Black Rock is a desolate little desert community that’s incredibly tense about this stranger’s arrival. And that’s all I’m gonna tell you, because I find myself in the odd position of not wanting to talk about a 60 year-old movie. There are two mysteries at play in Bad Day, and unraveling both is essential to your enjoyment of the film. Director John Sturges makes sure we are in the same boat as the movie’s characters: we know as much about what Black Rock is hiding as MacReedy, and we know as much about MacReedy as the townspeople – which is nothing in both cases. And the solutions are pretty satisfying.

If nothing else, the cast alone should convince you this movie needs to be watched. Besides Tracy, there’s Robert Ryan as the town boss, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin as his two bully boys, Dean Jagger as a worthless drunk of a sheriff, and Walter Brennan as the town doctor and undertaker. That’s five Oscar winners right there. Anne Francis runs the local garage, and John Ericson is her brother who runs the hotel.

Francis’ presence as the sole woman in evidence in Black Rock is the one detail that gnawed on me during my viewing; finding out later that  Sturges cut out all background characters to make Tracy seem even more isolated and outnumbered didn’t do much to diminish that gnawing, but it at least made it more understandable.

Shot in CinemaScope, Bad Day really forces you to confront the remoteness of the location (odd that leery MGM suits insisted that a standard 4:3 version be shot simultaneously) (and even odder that it was accompanied by a 4 track stereo soundtrack on a movie with almost no score). That blu-ray does it full justice, and if you don’t have access to an actual repertory house theater, that’s the way to go.

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

And speaking of Warner Archive…

The opportunity to see a feature film directed by Chuck Jones was irresistible. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a well-regarded children’s book; it’s the tale of latchkey kid Milo (Butch Patrick in the movie), whose school has crushed him into a youthful pile of ennui. Finding a magic tollbooth in his living room, he drives a toy car though it (in the movie, turning into a cartoon), and journeys to the land of Dictionopolis, where he gets involved in your standard heroic quest to save the kingdom, rescue princesses, and learn the value of knowledge. The book is a clever affair, full of puns and wordplay, and has been justly compared in that respect to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

An actual problem in its translation to screen is that Juster’s novel, which is itself a satirical take on the state of education, somehow becomes drab and preachy, even if the color palette becomes brighter. There is too much HERE IS YOUR LESSON, STUPID KIDS, and far too little allowing Jones to inject some humor into the proceedings. I thought I was going to really enjoy this during the first self-conscious song during the live action sequence, where our Sandpiper-esque chorus croon about “What will happen to Milo” but then we descend into Dictionopolis and thereafter every song is absolutely dreadful, only compounding the misery.

It’s really a shame when you’ve got some heavy hitters in the voice department doing their usual best – Mel Blanc, June Foray, Daws Butler, Hans Conreid, Les Tremayne. The movie was actually completed in 1968, but MGM’s ongoing financial woes delayed its release, with minimal promotion, until 1970. I was honestly watching TV with an eye towards movie trailers in those days, and I recall only a 10 second ad for The Phantom Tollbooth, featuring Butch driving through that gate and turning into a cartoon. I guess it was effective enough that I remember it fifty years later. MGM closed its animation department almost immediately after the release.

Juster reportedly hated the movie. I can see why.

Chuck Jones’ legacy as a creator of quality shorter fare is unassailable, at least.

The Ritual (2017)

Speaking of people shouting about things (we were two movies ago): this was getting a buzzy moment on social media when it cropped up on Netflix, so yeah, sure, why not? You may have noticed, I do like a good horror movie.


You’ve got five friends (Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton and Paul Reid) out for a lengthy hike/camping trip to honor a dead friend (tragic backstory that will get mined thoroughly, you can be sure). One gets injured, cutting the trip short, but instead of heading back down the trail they used, it is decided to cut through the forest, which will only take one day instead of two.

Everyone who thinks this is a bad idea, raise your hands.

Of course, things like compasses don’t work in the woods, there are strange runes on the trees, a night in an abandoned cabin yields weird nightmares, and there is something in the woods following them.

As I said, I like a good horror movie. This means in the past decade I’ve watched a lot of movies with people wandering around lost in some creepy woods. It’s like my Dracula fatigue: I’m in almost desperate need of something besides Blair Witch with a dash of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-house”. Most of the reviews I’ve sampled don’t like the third act, which is the only part I really liked – it’s the point at which The Ritual finally gains its own identity. It just arrives too late for me to recommend it.

Speaking of wandering through creepy woods:

Annihilation (2018)

  • This is director Alex Garland’s follow-up to his 2014 Ex Machina, which, as is traditional, I will be watching later in the year.
  • A meteor crashes to Earth, bringing with it “The Shimmer”, an expanding field that changes the environment as it expands. Five women (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) go into the Shimmer in an attempt to find out why the earlier teams never came back – except for one (Oscar Isaacs), Portman’s husband, who is now dying for unknown reasons.
  • Smarter people than me quickly pointed out that this is basically Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.
  • That’s a very strong cast all bringing their A+ game to a story that requires some really questionable decisions on their characters’ parts.
  • It also has some king-hell horror movie moments.
  • The strongest of these, known as “The Screaming Bear”, is a creature straight out of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series: a predator that speaks in the voice of its last victim.

It may be this last item that got my goat and refused to give it back, in combination with The Ritual: I’ve lost count of the number of writing projects I’ve given up because I finally decided they could be seen as derivative of other works, not original stuff dredged up from my psyche. I should apparently get over myself and write those damned stories, because other people that do get them made into movies (even if Garland didn’t re-read Jeff VanderMeer’s novel before writing the screenplay).

Annihilation is still worth a watch, even if I can’t give it the enthusiastic referral I had hoped.

Oh, hey, speaking of not-enthusiastic referrals:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Extended Edition (2016)

My pal Dave told me that this version added some character beats that actually made him feel better about the movie. So blame this on Dave.

  • It does.
  • The movie is still a goddamn mess.
  • So much of a mess that anybody that comes to me complaining that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mess for trying to set up the MCU’s Phase Three is going to be strapped to a chair and forced to watch this Clockwork Orange-style. All three hours and two minutes of it.
  • I was really hoping for some illumination as far as what the hell Luthor’s endgame was supposed to be because I’m a gullible sap.
  • I can only assume that every time I see people on the Interwebs talk about how this was the best movie of the year, they are speaking in such heightened irony that I almost can’t hear it, but my dog can.

Zack Snyder v Superman (2016, Warner Brothers)

I am never, ever going to get over my essential bitterness toward Zack Snyder’s interpretation of these characters. From Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel to his pre-production statement of “This Batman kills”, those are major violations of the ethos of the characters I grew up with. Yes, this is a fat old fanboy moaning that his childhood has been violated, but for a better reason than “girls have cooties” (obligatory jab at Star Wars “fandom”, come at me, bro). Superheroes are aspirational characters, and the MCU’s Captain America has been a better Superman than Henry Cavill has ever been allowed to be (at least until Justice League). A major part of that aspiration has been going to great lengths to avoid taking life.

Gosh, this getting ranty.

*sigh* At least it gave us Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Even if it did murder Jimmy Olsen. And Mercy (again). And…

Crap. Should have quit while I was ahead.

Well, now I’m into the beginning of March of this year. That’s something.

Year-End Movie Catchup Edition

So. we’re coming up on New Years, and I have, surprisingly not been watching movies constantly. My wife’s had some health issues that have required my hovering helplessly over her while she tries to shoo me away, so let’s just say I haven’t really been in the mood lately.

That hasn’t really stopped me, just slowed me down somewhat. Once I realized the only thing keeping me glued to The List was me, I calmed down considerably. I’m probably going to miss the self-imposed year’s end deadline by one movie, and if that causes the world to end, well, I’ll be giving the Mayans hell in Xibalba. “One movie? Really?

This also hasn’t stopped me from devising next year’s list. I’ll post that after New Year’s. I’m looking forward to it.

So what did I manage to accomplish?

936full-major-dundee-posterMajor Dundee is a problematic movie, apparently as much to make as it is to watch. This was supposed to be Sam Peckinpah’s first big-budget movie, but new studio management cut his budget and his production time, so it’s likely a minor miracle that Peckinpah didn’t leave bullet holes in office walls. He and star Charlton Heston clashed mightily (though Heston at least once interceded on the director’s behalf) and the movie was eventually taken away and recut from two and a half hours down to a more manageable two. What I saw was a restored 136 minute version.

Heston is the title character, a Union soldier chafing under his assignment to run a prisoner of war compound. The possibility of more action is offered by the rampage of a murderous renegade, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his band of Apaches. The only problem is, to form a regiment large enough to pursue and engage the enemy, he has to recruit a number of his Confederate prisoners, who are led by an old friend, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). He also has a number of outsiders and general sketchy types, such as Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong as a two-fisted clergyman with a hate on for the Injun who decimated his flock. Not to mention James Coburn as a one-armed scout. And a number of black Union soldiers who want to prove they’re just as good as the white soldiers.

This is a hell of a setup for an action movie, a ragtag bunch who’d just as soon shoot each other as the enemy. You already know that there’s going to be some internal skirmishes, some respect is going to be garnered, some unlikely friendships are going to be formed.

MAJOR_DUNDEEWell, forget all this, this is a revisionist Western, and we have no time for it. In fact, Peckinpah made a damned good start on the revisionist western with his first feature, Ride The Wild Country, and there had certainly been others,  but Dundee is Peckinpah’s put-up-or-shut-up to the others. He had been shopping around a movie about George Custer, but decided Dundee hit the same points his Custer project intended to, and accepted the job. Our mob follows Charriba through Texas and into Mexico, and after a nighttime engagement that goes poorly, Dundee and troops head into a nearby village, where they engage instead the occupying French army, gaining the admiration of the much put-upon village but garnering a new formidable enemy.

Once they decide to head to this village, Charriba is going to vanish from the proceedings for the next hour or more. The conflict becomes more between Dundee and Tyreen, especially when Senta Berger crops up as a German woman helping the unfortunates in the village. Dundee gets wounded while dallying with her, is smuggled into another village for treatment, falls into an alcoholic fugue until Tyreen and men sweep back in to extract him, and then we are – finally! – back into the movie we started.

major_dundee03No wonder this was cut. The first 45 minutes and the last 15 serve up a fairly coherent story. The other hour and fifteen serves to give us a pencil sketch of the rest of Peckinpah’s movie career – echoes of the far superior The Wild Bunch abound –  but prove to be a slog, especially Dundee’s Lost Weekend segment. It is to Heston’s credit that Dundee is a pretty unsympathetic character, especially for a title character, and plays him as such – which probably gave the studio suits more than a little stomach acid on top of the other ulcers the movie was giving them.

For me, the best part of the movie is watching what would become Peckinpah’s stock company – Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, and especially Warren Oates – as backup singers in the troop, and wishing they had been given more screen time. Which would also have been ruthlessly cut out, anyway.

badlieutenantherzogProblematic in another way is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is a spiritual (at least) follow-up to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 movie starring Harvey Keitel. This one stars Nicolas Cage. I do like Cage a lot – he plays crazy and obsessed like few actors, but he needs a good director for guidance, or the result is simply bad cinema. But if there is one director who knows how to handle crazy, it’s Werner Herzog, and Bad Lieutenant is one of Cage’s better outings as an actor in some years.

Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans detective who saves a prisoner from a flooding cell just after Hurricane Katrina, injuring his back in the process. Prescribed vicodin for the pain, McDonagh is, six months later, a high-functioning junkie, but the high-functioning part is starting to get dubious. When his contact at the Evidence Room cuts him off, McDonagh starts looking desperately for other drug sources, even as he gets deeper into a drug-related multiple homicide investigation. Finally he screws up big time and he finds himself allied with the man he was hunting down: drug lord Big Fate (Xzibit) after which things get even worse.

The central question of “Did Bad Lieutenant even need a sequel?” is one that’s never really answered. There’s a general try to match the earlier movie’s visceral punch, but it never quite succeeds. Even with hallucinations of iguanas and Eva Mendes as Cage’s hooker girlfriend, it generally looks and feels like an HBO drama gone slightly off the rails. Worth seeing, but not life or game-changing.

Layout 1 (Page 1)Continuing my twisted anti-hero run was Drive, which everyone was exclaiming about earlier this year. Ryan Gosling earns his movie star stripes as Driver, a mechanic who works Hollywood auto stunts when he can, and moonlights as wheelman for crimes when he can’t. Driver is a prodigy on wheels, amply proven in a tense getaway sequence at the very beginning of the movie. More or less by accident, he meets his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son. They hit it off, Driver finds himself falling in love with her… and then her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison.

Standard owes some shady types protection money from when he was inside, and they want him to pull a pawn shop robbery to clear his debt. When Irene and her son are threatened, Driver offers to be the wheelman for the job. But there is a deeper double cross going on, and Driver finds himself in possession of a million dollars and two dead associates. The path from there gets tangled, but it all comes down to two minor-league gangsters, played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, and Driver goes on the offensive to save the woman he loves.

drive-movie-1Drive is an impressive-looking movie, with an often beautiful synthesis between image and sound, and a beautifully modern soundtrack; this is the best Michael Mann movie that wasn’t made by Michael Mann. Though I find myself more than willing to credit Driver’s ability behind the wheel, I find myself wondering just how the hell he became savvy enough to take out three professional hit men. Then again (shrug), it’s an action movie, sort of. When has that ever stopped me enjoying one? Ron Perlman is good as usual, but the real revelation is Albert Brooks, playing a fairly normal businessman capable of turning into a vicious thug at a moment’s notice. He’s very good at the quiet menace thing, and he was up for several best supporting acting awards, although not the all-important Academy Award.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn has a nice filmography behind him, and is apparently now developing the movie version of The Equalizer. I loved that show, and Drive proves him a very good fit for the material.

sucker-punch-2Speaking of material – and I used the word flawed a little earlier – I finally watched Sucker Punch before the year was out, and found why I was able to buy the two-disc Blu-ray edition for three bucks and change.

I don’t know where to start, so I’m not going to. Ugly, muddled story in an ugly, muddled world. The “Fantasy Realms” stuff was gorgeous, and makes me wonder why Zack Snyder didn’t just make a live-action anime if that was the intention. What I found myself sitting through was Zack Snyder first attempting to make a Baz Luhrmann movie, then deciding that Tarsem Singh fella had some good ideas, too. This is one destined for the SwapaDVD pile, and they likely already have a dozen or so on file.

Also, Carla Gugino, honey. What gypsy did you piss off that you keep being in movies like this? Do I need to call someone?

300px-JohnnyfirecloudpostThough I’ve a couple of others, Johnny Firecloud is the last movie I’m going to jam into this post, as it fits the twisted anti-hero motif that seems to have spontaneously generated itself. This is on a Something Weird double feature disc with Bummer!, another David F. Friedman-produced flick, and it actually proved itself to have some surprises in store.

The first surprise was the 20th Century Fox logo at the start. The second was that the movie was shot in Panavision. This was not the grimy revenge flick I had been led to expect by the trailer and exploitation movie books. This was intended to be released to hardtops, not drive-ins.

This is Friedman’s most expensive movie, to be sure. Apparently he put aside his usual animosity toward investors and actually put together a SAG shoot, with a commensurate uptick in quality, both in production value and talent.

firecloud14The title character, Johnny Firecloud (Victor Mohica) is an American Indian who returns from Vietnam to find his home town more than ever under the thumb of rancher Colby (Ralph Meeker), and things worse than ever on the reservation. Colby has it in for Johnny, mainly because he got the rancher’s daughter pregnant before shipping out (though this is something Johnny doesn’t know).  The town Sheriff, played by David Canary, is the unwilling tool by which Johnny is hassled, until things rather come to a head when Johnny’s grandfather is lynched, and the Indian schoolmarm gang-raped by Colby’s goon squad. Then Johnny, who once sneered at his grandfather’s “traditions” goes on the warpath and offs the good squad in bloody traditional ways, like scalping, tomahawks to the head, being buried up to the neck and left for the buzzards, you know. The usual.

Firecloud tries to take the high road when it can. It takes nearly an hour to get to the warpath segment, an hour of racism, character work, and a general tour of Asshole Town. The trailer, of course, concentrates on the bloody revenge aspect, but as i said – that’s all in the last half-hour. The reason why Sheriff Jessie bends the knee to Colby is rather startling for ’75 – turns out that while he was in the Army, Jessie was raped and then dishonorably discharged as a homosexual! Colby’s daughter, played by Christina Hart, also gets some more dimension as the story progresses. Hell, the movie’s end – which ends on an unfinished note, though the pieces are in place for Colby’s final comeuppance – even takes the high road.

johnfirecloud2cd017xwRalph Meeker was really a good actor who got stuck playing rotten bad guys because he was so good at it. He wanted to play the Sheriff, to get a sympathetic role for the first time since, probably, Paths of Glory, but nope. You got the villain role, man. David Canary usually gets singled out as the one thing that almost salvages Johnny Firecloud, and that is the truth. Canary has five daytime Emmys for his work on All My Children, and they ain’t just for show. His turn as the tormented Jessie is about as three-dimensional as anybody gets in this movie, and the cinema’s loss was definitely TV’s gain.

sacheenI guess we can’t go without mentioning the movie’s stunt casting, and that’s Sacheen Littlefeather as the doomed schoolmarm, Nenya. Littlefeather is most famous as the woman who appeared for Marlon Brando at the ’72 Oscars to turn down the Best Actor Award for Godfather and deliver a short manifesto on the mistreatment on Indians. (No matter your politics, you have to admit that took guts on the lady’s behalf. I still remember the boos from the audience.) Of course, at this cynical remove, we can also reflect that her birth name was Maria Cruz, and she was only half-Indian – but then, that’s probably more than Frank DeKova, who played the grandfather, Chief White Eagle. Hell, even the star, Victor Mohica, was really Puerto Rican.

Johnny Firecloud comes that close to being a good movie, but it didn’t make a choice. It tried to be Billy Jack crossed with Walking Tall – and that’s a concept that gets a movie made, but to what end? The cast of characters of a decent morality play is there, but  the execution of the revenge portion seems rushed, and when Jessie’s deputy mentions all they have to do is stake out Johnny’s dwindling list of victims, he speaks for the audience.

Then again, you’re listening to someone who expected a gritty, nasty little revenge flick and got – well, Billy Jack crossed with Walking Tall. And I actually didn’t like either of those, anyway.

So there we are. Lookie there, it’s New Year’s Eve and I only have one movie left to watch. See you on the other side, where I’ll blither about that.

Happy New Year!