Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) movie poster

director Nicholas Ray
viewed: 07/31/2015

Johnny Guitar wouldn’t be the first cinema classic that I didn’t totally get.

I would be willing to bet that I wouldn’t be the first one to not get Johnny Guitar.

It’s a very strange film.  It’s a Western, sure, but it’s so weird.  Joan Crawford is markedly uncanny as Vienna, the woman who runs her gambling house near a spot of a future railroad, but who is despised by the locals.  Mercedes McCambridge is the mousy troll who is stoking the fires against Vienna, spurred by her unrequited feelings for The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), who has a thing for Vienna.  Enter into this picture the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who plays well and shoots even better for a guy who doesn’t carry a gun.

The film is rife with subtexts, but also rife with campy bizarreness.  Crawford is both and earnest actress and an over-the-top figure of a woman with her stark lipstick and 50’s eyebrows and those wide-open eyes.  Dress her in blue jeans and strap a pistol to her hip and you’ve got some interesting gender politics going on at Vienna’s saloon.  After all, she has three devoted men working for her in her business, none more so that Old Tom (John Carradine), the most devout of the three.

There is also a Red Scare subtext, a witch hunt for the undesirables of the town which may seem more obvious than it did in 1954 (or maybe it was obvious then, too?  Who knows?)

It’s a strange film.  More atypical and anomalous than straightforward genre pic.

It’s oddity jars throughout, but somewhere along the line, I think I started enjoying it more.  By the end of it, I was thinking to myself, “What did I just watch?”  It’s something that probably makes more sense the more you have seen it, somehow becomes better the more you stop thinking it’s going to be like any other Western you’ve ever seen and just give in to the odd character of the film.

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 07/29/2015

I’ve been working my way through the American films of Fritz Lang (as well as the other German films by Lang).  The Big Heat is Fritz Lang film noir, one of the noirs with the adjective “Big” in the title (The Big Sleep (1946), The Big Clock (1948), The Big Combo (1955), and The Big Knife (1955) to name a few.)

This one stars Glenn Ford as a clean cop in a pretty dirty town.  When he starts investigating the suicide of a fellow officer, he finds out just how dirty the town is, and all the dames around him start dropping dead, including his beautiful wife.  The real stand-outs of the film are moll Gloria Grahame and thug Lee Marvin.  Grahame is an odd, funny girl until Marvin scalds her face with hot coffee in a fit of rage.  Marvin is all brutality like that.

Lang’s films are interesting, sometime more so in retrospect.  I’ve realized ones like You Only Live Once (1937) and Scarlet Street (1945) have totally grown on me.  But others so far have seemed like interesting if somewhat diminished films.  One viewing is rarely enough to really come to terms with a movie.

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) movie poster

director Monte Hellman
viewed: 07/27/2015

It’s been a long time now since I first watched a Monte Hellman film, the two in particular that really impressed me, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop and his 1974 version of Charles Willeford’s Cockfighter.  Quite sporadically, I’ve caught two of his Westerns, the 1967 film The Shooting (which is now out on a Criterion edition) and the 1978 film, China 9, Liberty 37.

Like a lot of interesting filmmakers, Hellman got his start working for Roger Corman, and Beast from Haunted Cave is a prime example of a 1950’s Corman picture.  Well, in some ways, it’s a prime example of a 1950’s Corman picture.  Maybe more prime would be Corman’s own Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) which is more typical in the lack of anything other than trying to get a movie made as cheaply as possible and not worrying as much about the product.  But maybe it was a movie like Beast from Haunted Cave that inspired Corman himself to strive a little harder.

The film looks a lot better than a lot of Corman’s films of the time (how much of this is the quality of the print, I don’t know).  But the actors and the script are also above the average, too.  What begins as a heist picture, filmed on location in Deadwood, South Dakota, turns into a creature feature at the then.  The heist part of the movie was apparently a retread to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith’s 1957 Corman flick Naked Paradise.

While the noir film aspect never fully achieves its utter realization, a cheap monster shows up to start attacking the characters and webbing them up in its cave.  So, in the end, it’s a Corman picture.  The rest of the film is a curious and interesting genre film showing a lot of promise.  The result is an interesting oddity.

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 07/26/2015

I’m kicking off a new round of watching those “great movies” that I’ve never seen.  I started this last year and saw several before getting somewhat sidetracked on other trends, including “The Worst Movies Ever Made”.  My latest push is inspired by a new list produced by the BBC of the 100 Best American Films of all time.  While this list has many of the usual suspects and also some questionable entries, it does afford me some clarity on the movies on this list that I’ve never seen.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is an odd one for me to have never seen.  I do love me some Billy Wilder (as does the BBC list — he’s on there five times for #100 Ace in the Hole (1951), #54 Sunset Boulevard (1950), #35 Double Indemnity (1944), #30 Some Like It Hot (1959), as well as this one which was his highest on the list at #24.)  I also love me some Jack Lemmon.  And this is one of those movies that seems to play nearly endlessly on TCM.  So, how I never saw it?  I dunno.

Lemmon is a cog in a big insurance firm in New York, loaning out his convenient bachelor pad to some managers to take their many trysts.  When he finally gets a promotion for his efforts, he’s spotted by the big boss, played by Fred MacMurray, who starts to ask for the same favors.  Only it turns out that his girl on the side is Fran Kubelik (the very lovely Shirley MacLaine), an elevator gal in the building for whom Lemmon has developed feelings.

While there are elements of comedy about the film, it’s no Some Like It Hot or The Seven Year Itch (1955).  Fran tries to kill herself in Lemmon’s apartment, and while he tries to get her taken care of, he’s also trying to keep everything together.

Between The Apartment and Double Indemnity, you can forget all about the fatherly My Three Sons Fred MacMurray and rather see him as one of Hollywood’s best ruthless villains.

I enjoyed the film.  Wilder’s popularity is well-earned.  I think if I had caught it at a younger age, I might have really connected with it.  I certainly would have fallen for MacLaine.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) movie poster

director Orson Welles
viewed: 07/26/2015

In the annals of Hollywood, there are many great films and many lost or corrupted films and the notoriety of studio tinkering versus the visionary director is legend.  That is without a doubt true of the patron saint of filmmakers, Orson Welles, and his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, of which he allegedly said:  “(the studio, RKO) destroyed ‘Ambersons,’ and ‘it’ destroyed me.”

And yet, this highly compromised version of the film, of which Welles spoke so negatively in its diminished state, still ranks highly in esteem.  It recently placed at 11 on the BBC’s list of “Greatest American Films”, and can be found on many other similar types of lists.

Adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel about the rise of the automobile and the downfall of a well-heeled American family, it stars Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter and Tim Holt.  The film is both sentimental about the time before a town or city’s streets were overrun by the horseless carriages and less sentimental about the downfall of a pompous family and its scion who lacked the vision and conscience regarding love and re-marriage.

For my money, it’s an interesting film with some fantastic shots and some glimmering depths, but winds up as a melodrama with limited effect.  It’s the long-yearned for image of Welles’ original vision, well-documented but long-lost that tempts fans and historians.  We, the film-going world of ever-after, were certainly robbed by the tinkering and the lack of foresight that allowed the studio to destroy the extra footage.  Welles is indeed the cinema’s patron saint, and sadly, he represents more “what might have been” than what still exists.

The Shining (1980)


The Shining (1980) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 07/25/2015

I’d last watched The Shining over a decade ago.  This viewing of the horror classic was spurred by my son’s interest in Stanley Kubrick, which began a short while back when I took him to see A Clockwork Orange (1971).  He’d since gone and watched Full Metal Jacket (1986) on his own (a film I’ve been meaning to re-watch for a while).

The Shining is a brilliant movie, no matter what Stephen King thinks.  In a lot of ways, it seems to do what movies fail to do these days: diverge successfully from the source material and create something entirely their own as well.  I’ve never read the King novel, but I’ve read a brief analysis of the film’s divergence from the original material.  I guess my response is: “Who cares?”

Brilliant as it is, it still has some quirks and flaws.  But it’s a mesmerizing, amazingly-photographed masterpiece.  The last time I wrote about it, I mentioned the oft-cited and radically innovative steadicam work, the amazing axe-swinging shots that follow the movement of the blows, and the amazing set that is the Overlook Hotel.  In the 12 years since I last wrote about it, the internet has made information more readily available.  It’s quite amazing to realize that most of the film is shot on a sound stage in London.  The amazing interiors are all sets.  While the original hotel that was used for the exteriors was shot in Estes Park, CO and is often referred to, the larger reality of the stunning locations are pure artifice.  Pure and amazing artifice.

I watched The Shining with both of my kids.  We’ve certainly been watching some material that might be considered dubious for a tween and a young teen, but when I asked my daughter what she thought about it, she was quite impressed by the film but said that it wasn’t the kind of thing that scared her or gave her nightmares.

Unlike, perhaps, a generation ago.

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

The Lazarus Effect (2015) movie poster

director David Gelb
viewed: 07/25/2015

Half-baked might be a generous way to describe this uninspired horror/thriller about university scientists attempting to revive dead animals.

I doubt we would have seen it, considering its rather poor showing critically, but Clara had been intrigued by the trailers and her interest persisted on its way to DVD.  Jump scares abound.

Minions (2015)

Minions (2015) movie poster

directors Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda
viewed: 07/25/2015 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

It worked for the Madagascar films.  The comic relief characters, the silly ones not voiced by anyone famous and typically stole the show eventually got their own film, Penguins of Madagascar (2014) and, you know, it was pretty good.  Now, freed from their Despicable Me franchise, the Minions get their own film.

The yellow, pill-shaped, gibberish-spouting minions are funny overall.  And they are popular.  Downright viral.  But their movie is pretty lackluster.

The filmmakers trade in big name celebrity voice acting of Steve Carrell’s Gru for Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm as Scarlett Overkill and her husband Herb, respectively.  And the story of the minions, from time immemorial surviving through the evolutionary process on Earth seeking an ultimate villainous leader winds up being a rather long and tedious, rather unfunny series of events.  It might elicit smiles but not laughs.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) movie poster

director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 07/24/2015

Back in January, Jason Ward of The Guardian wrote this intriguing essay/review about Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, asking the question “Is Kingsman the most conservative comedy this century?”  Not long after that, a friend of mine was posting similar questions on social media after he’d attended the movie with his son.  And the thought was planted for me, wondering about this movie.

I’ve watched all the Matthew Vaughn movies I’m aware of: Layer Cake (2004), Stardust (2007), Kick-Ass (2010), and X-Men: First Class (2011) and I’ve liked them all to varying degrees.  I don’t know that I’ve really analyzed the social underpinnings of any of them too deeply, with the vague exception of Kick-Ass whose thin line between cool and deplorable was crossed in the non-Matthew Vaughn sequel, Kick-Ass 2 (2013).

In film school, it’s all about analyzing movies for their underlying ideologies, so much information about patriarchy and capitalism that you tend to suck down with the narrative, hidden like a pill in sugar-coating, swallowing the whole.  But at the same time, movies do invite the brain to turn off (which I suppose is exactly the point), but it is an interesting conceit to have a film that hosts such a blatantly conservative dictum.

Kingsman is an adaptation from a comic book by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar, so how much of it is baked in at the start?  I can’t say.  It is a spoof or reinvention of sorts of the spy genre, featuring a secret society of nattily-clad gentlemen heroes who keep the world safe from villainy.

One thing that Ward doesn’t really address in his article is the fact that it is a private organization.  It is thus unlike James Bond, who is essentially a government employee, or at least is on “her majesty’s secret service”.  This is privatized superhero spying.  Which says a lot too.

That the villain is a “lisping, squeamish” climate change advocate does seem significant.  Samuel L. Jackson plays this role with maybe a little too much comic flare.  The whole movie is a comedy, not utterly arch, but still comic, while indeed also being remarkably cartoon violent.  Heads do seem to explode (though it’s more the arteries of the neck) turned into a firework display perhaps to limit the amount of digitized blood that would be spurting forth from the heads of so many.  Including a pretty clear representation of Barack Obama.  Who sides with the baddies and whose heads also blows up.

The film is both entertaining and problematic.  Though maybe more the latter than the former.  The massacre in the racist church, acted out by the would-be hero of the movie, played by Colin Firth, while under a mental derangement of hyper aggression and violence is one of the film’s balletic set-piece, synchronized to a booming soundtrack, gruesome and extreme, but troubling.  Is it meant to be troubling?  Hyper-violence ruled the day in Kick-Ass, the kind of brutal justice meted out by vigilantes in comics and movies that is essentially a release of vengeance and justified blood-letting.  In Kingsman, this scene in particular, is strange.

We like Firth.  We know he’s being manipulated into this shocking set-piece of carnage.  Are we meant to be disturbed as well as somewhat gleeful in the gracefully choreographed kill-a-thon?

Overall as a film, I found Kingsman okay.  Good. Not great.  Not something I would recommend.  But I’m also kind of fascinated with its politics and its weird layered variance of its political messaging.  Someone, I don’t doubt, will pore this over and come up with a more well-constructed analysis, perhaps, than even Ward offered.

In the meantime, I’ll move on.  And apparently so will Kingsman. I understand a sequel is in the offing.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) movie poster

directors Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
viewed: 07/22/2015

Pretty funny “mockumentary” style comedy about vampires living in New Zealand.  In part, from Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. Four vampire housemates ranging in age from 8,000 to 183 try to make a go of it as flatmates in Wellington.

Sweet and silly, I think it would be a great pairing with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) for your vampires in the modern world double feature.

I’m not writing much here but I did think this was a pretty funny movie.