12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from the dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
"Broken Toe" (I Married Joan) / directed by Ezra Stone (1953, VHS). Joan Davis, Jim Backus, Geraldine Carr. This episode was originally filmed in the Jurassic Period of television. The setting was mostly in a hospital, which was a very frightening place to be in 1953. For a few brief seconds a married couple can be seen in the same bed, probably a first for TV viewers. Best scene: in an effort to be closer to her hospitalized husband, Joan attempts to check into the facility as if she was getting a motel room. By the time Joan Davis was my age, she was dead as the result of a heart attack. And that's too young. This series had a brief revival in the early 1980s through CBN reruns (where I first saw this series), but she deserves more recognition as for being the warm and likable comedienne that she was.
The King is Alive / directed by Kristian Levring (2000, VHS). Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, David Bradley, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Brion James, Peter Khubeke, Vusi Kunene, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Chris Walker, Lia Williams. A group of mostly Europeans find themselves stranded in a north African desert. In the face of struggling to have their basic needs met, one of them cooks up the idea to produce a version of King Lear as a way of keeping the group occupied. Hey gang, let's put on a show while we barely manage to meet the requirements of primal existence! Not exactly the feelgood movie of the year as the players peel back the layers of European civilized behavior and start to act like normal urban Americans. This Danish film was the fourth to be produced under the terms of the Dogme 95 rules: [1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found). 2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot). 3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place). 4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera). 5. Optical work and filters are forbidden. 6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.) 7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.) 8. Genre movies are not acceptable. 9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm. 10. The director must not be credited.] Noble motives. How precious. And how limiting to creativity. Who died and made the authors of this document God? This motion picture appears to follow the Dogme 95 standard, and the result is one visually amazing but essentially boring and pretentious bit of whiney, hand-wringing twaddle. So call me a barbarian. I'm OK with that.
Married to the Mob / directed by Jonathan Demme (1988, VHS). Alec Baldwin, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack, Mercedes Ruehl, Matthew Modine, Oliver Platt, Dean Stockwell, Trey Wilson, Colin Quinn, Tracey Walter, Al Lewis. A quirky comedy about a young Mob widow who attempts to reinvent herself and live a normal life, gaining unwanted attention from both the F.B.I. and her old circle. Stockwell as the crime kingpin and Ruehl as his jealous wife really steal the show. Modine's character (who by the way had 4 cats in the story) didn't seem convincing as a federal agent, so his unprofessional transformation from investigator to lover wasn't all that intriguing. Baldwin's role was too brief. The excellent David Byrne soundtrack gives the work some edge. Hang around to watch the final credits for the frosting. Still holds up well after two decades.
"Royal Episode 13" (Monty Python's Flying Circus ; v. 12, episode 26) / directed by Ian MacNaughton (1970, VHS). Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland. The Queen might be watching, a coal mine in Llanddarog Carmarthen, Toad elevating moment, All purpose truss, Goldfish, Birdwatchers' eggs, Pigeon fanciers, The insurance sketch, The Queen tunes in, News at ten, Intensive care unit exercises, St. Nathan's Hospital for Young Attractive Girls Who Aren't Particularly Ill, St. Gandalf's Hospital for Very Rich People Who Like Giving Doctors Lots of Money, Exploding version of "Blue Danube," Dormitory in a girl's public school, Invasion of Normandy, Pepperpots in a submarine, A man with a stoat through his head, Lifeboat, Cannibalism, A visit to the undertaker, Studio audience storms the stage in utter disgust, The Queen tunes in again. Interesting how Python mixes their most utterly tasteless jokes with the UK royal reverence into one episode, creating a stormfront of comic tension that was probably more effective with their fellow Brits than with us Yanks.
The Package / directed by Andrew Davis (1989, VHS). Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Tommy Lee Jones, John Heard, Dennis Franz, Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala. A well crafted military-industrial-complex thriller set in the final treaty-making days of the Cold War. Certain shadowy US/USSR parties join forces in planning to stage an incident in order to keep the conflict alive. The story moves from East Berlin, to D.C./Arlington, to Chicago during the Christmas season where the "Peace on Earth" theme provides a contrasting background. Includes Chicago Nazis, Jackie Brown, and, believe it or not, at least four Oldsmobile Cieras, one of which is a chief action car! Yes! More confirmation of the excitement factor of this much-maligned extinct make and model of car. Nice casting, but more Pam Grier please. The original 1989 audience had more buttons to push than today's viewers. First, the official ending of the Cold War itself was a welcome event, but there was a lot of uncertainty that came along with it. Now we have a whole generation of Americans who never grew up with the Soviet Union as our Nemesis and Bad Guy. Second, there are lot of unspoken nods to the JFK assassination: snipers, alleged coverups, the use of a "patsy." That 1963 scab won't heal until all of us who remember it are dead, and maybe even that won't keep it from being an unresolved point of pain. There are some interesting conflicts between military and civilian cultures as we see Hackman operating between the two while solving the mystery.
The Pianist / directed by Roman Polanski (2002, VHS). Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Julia Rayner, Jessica Kate Meyer. The greatest film by one of the world's greatest living directors. This motion picture is in my top ten of all time. You know how a movie can be so bad that you can't watch it all the way through? Well, this is the only film I've seen where it is so good I wasn't sure I could watch it all the way through. It is that powerful. Based on the real life story of Jewish/Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911-2000) with a little of Polanski's own biography thrown in. Through a series of small miracles and his own personal Akido, Szpilman somehow survived the nihilism of Nazism when living as a resident of the Warsaw Ghetto. Right from the opening scene, we see the attempt by Szpilman to live a life dedicated to his music even in the face of Nazi bombing. And this concept of art (in this case, music) as salvation even when basic needs are stripped away continues through the story. Polanski demonstrates the consequences of late radicalization in the face of a very subtle, very evil governmental brutality as if he was peeling back the thin layers of an onion. In many of his movies, Polanski has piano music played by "someone down the hall" as an effect. Well, here we get to meet the guy at the keyboards. Brody has the perfect face for this role. Cartoonists recognize the enormous power of eyebrows in emoting certain expressions when we draw faces. Brody has those eyebrows, and they were used to amazing effect. I also like Polanski's use of muted color and the contrast he produced when it was employed with a bright background light. In addition to Szpilman, another true-life hero portrayed in this story (by Kretschmann) is German Army Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who knew old Adolf "Stinky McFartomatic" Hitler was a deranged psychopath. Hosenfeld worked to shield Szpilman and other Jews from Der Schicklgruber's twisted genocidal murder rampage. Poor Poland. When the Soviets drove out the Nazis they got Stalin in place of Hitler, which was not really much of an improvement. A cinematic masterpiece.
"Stasis Leak" (Red Dwarf) / directed by Ed Bye (1988, VHS off-air). Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Norman Lovett, Clare Grogan, Mac McDonald. Not one of my favorites. A garbled and confusing episode involving time travel and alternative universes. The Cat says it best when multiple selves of his crewmates show up, "If he's you and you're him, and you're him and he's him, am I still me?"
"Demons & Angels" (Red Dwarf) / directed by Rob Grant, Juliet May, Doug Naylor (1992, VHS off-air). Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Hattie Hayridge, Robert Llewellyn. Thanks to a "Triplicator" device, the RD crew meet their "lower" and "higher" selves aboard two other Red Dwarf ships. This episode is easily one of the very worst in the entire series. Some sample dialogue-- Kryten: "These are our higher selves. They are the people we could've become if all negative aspects of our characters were removed" / Rimmer: "You mean hippies?" / Kryten: "With respect, Sir. You think Jesus was a hippy" / Rimmer: "Well he was. He had long hair and he didn't have a job. What more do you want?"
La collina degli stivali = Boot Hill / directed by Giuseppe Colizzi (1969, VHS). Terence Hill, Woody Strode, Bud Spencer, Glauco Onorato, Victor Buono, Lionel Stander, Eduardo Ciannelli. One of the better Spaghetti Westerns told by a gifted director who died too soon. Provides a unique blend of circus images, Jazz soundtrack, Shakespearean references, and close-ups so close the human face can be considered part of the landscape. The whole circus thing really made this surreal, particularly the scene where little people in clown suits gang up and beat the bejeezus out of a villain in the middle of a dusty street. The Hill-Spencer duo is back again, along with the chemistry and subtle humor. This boils down to an economic tale, with Big Business screwing over the working stiffs. Strode, Stander, and Ciannelli (in his final film) are very strong supporting characters. I was looking forward to Buono being his usual hammy self, but he seemed more toned down than I expected. Onorato, as the chief bad guy enforcer, looks too much like Hill. I kept getting confused over who was who at the start. My copy was reproduced from a chipped up print (SBR, Inc.), but in a way that made it feel more authentic. Magnifico!
"To Hell and Back" (American Gothic) / directed by Oz Scott (1996, DVD). Gary Cole, Paige Turco, Jake Weber, Brenda Bakke, Sarah Paulson, Lucas Black, William Morgan Sheppard. Maybe the title should've been "To One Hell of a Relapse and Back." Actually, this program is sort of like that family show, The Wonder Years, except it is seen through the eyes of a small town South Carolina boy who possibly possesses hidden supernatural powers and regularly converses with his deceased and angelic sister. Oh, yeah, and the Sheriff is either Satan or one of his top minions. Plus, the neighbor digs a grave-like hole in his pumpkin patch at night and howls at the Moon. But wait, there's more. The local schoolteacher is a nymphomaniac and the local doctor is a recovering alcoholic who carries the guilt of losing his family to a car wreck. Except for those things, it's pretty much like The Wonder Years. In this one Dr. Crower takes a sip from a bottle and has one Hell of a relapse, courtesy of Sheriff Buck. Oh, I almost forgot, there's a ghost dog in here too.
Blue Ice / directed by Russell Mulcahy (1992, VHS). Michael Caine, Sean Young, Ian Holm, Alun Armstrong, Bob Hoskins, Charlie Watts. An early 90s version of a hardboiled detective/spy story. Slow at the start, but it does pick up a little in the middle, this is the story of a retired British spy called back into solving a mystery by circumstance. "Blue Ice" is a reference to the fatal randomness of enormous chunks of ice falling off of jets, a bit of natural anarchy totally accepted by hero Caine, who appears to be one of the few actors having any fun in this film. While all others are deadly serious here, Caine sort of floats above the material in an airy and almost comedic way-- and saves the picture as a result. Nice soundtrack, helped by the fact the retired spy now runs a Jazz nightclub (shades of Peter Gunn!) Bob Hoskins brief role had real spark, and although it was probably a good thing to limit his appearance to just a few minutes, he helped jumpstart this thing when the tale needed it. Watch for Stones drummer Watts in the house band. Caine and Holm, distinguished actors who were both (give or take a couple years) 60 in 1992, look pretty ridiculous running around with guns in suspense-filled shootouts. The drug-induced interrogation scene is very trippy, corny, and came in from Left Field. I'm sure this motion picture was panned when originally released, but it has enough eccentricities to make me like it.
Betty Boop and Grampy / directed by Dave Fleischer (1935, DVD). Mae Questel (uncredited voice). A black and white movement piece with no real story. About as close to total form as I've seen in a Betty Boop cartoon. Basically, Betty and her pals go to visit crazy inventer Grampy and then engage in being wild and musical party animals. A lot of fun. I'm betting this little gem helped some folks, at least for a few precious moments, forget there was an economic Depression. And it could probably help coax some modern viewers out of the Blues as well. The opening scenes provide a good example of how Fleischer used his special depth perspective technique in the backgrounds. As an aged and hairy-faced crab myself, I shellfishly love the fact that the old guy with the beard was the last person still up and dancing while everyone else had crashed.