Lolita (1962)

Lolita (1962) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 07/08/2018

The last time I saw Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita was not terribly long after I had read the Vladimir Nabokov novel. Both of these events were around 25 years ago. I’ve considered the novel to be one of the best I’ve read in my life, one I’ve recommended time and again, and something I’ve meant to revisit. I recalled finding Kubrick’s Lolita a bit of a disappointment.

Now, decades later, the novel not so fresh in my mind, re-watching Lolita evoked a much different response.

The black comedy, driven not just by James Mason’s obsession with Sue Lyon’s Lolita, but by Peter Seller’s manic scene-stealing romp as Clare Quilty, is in many ways an argument that cinematic adaptations do their best when they don’t adhere to the source material so avidly. Surely, fans of the novel will be annoyed, but it arguably makes for better cinema.

Like many a Kubrick film, it’s an experience in and of itself. And surprisingly and unsurprisingly, it seems like it would be the perfect companion piece to Dr. Strangelove.

Also, Shelley Winters is fantastic. Shelley Winters is always fantastic but she’s super duper fantastic here.

Dudes (1987)

Dudes (1987) movie poster

director Penelope Spheeris
viewed: 05/23/2018

Jon Cryer makes a cute punk.

Penelope Spheeris’s Dudes is very 1987, a transition between between early and late Eighties. It’s also a then present day revenge Western featuring punks versus thugs (also played in part by punks).

It exists between light-toned comdey and a darker sense of drama, also between pure Indie film and something more commercial.

A decent oddity, fitting well in the center of Spheeris’s oeuvre.

The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

The Devil Is a Woman (1935) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/21/2018

“If It Isn’t Pain (It Isn’t Love)” is an excised musical number by Marlene Dietrich, trimmed from Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman. It’s an apt conceit for what the film portrays, which many have read as a thinly veiled interpretation of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s relationship, with Lionel Atwill’s Don Pasqual standing in for the director. Dietrich, as Concha, is as always, herself.

Cut down and re-titled, The Devil Is a Woman isn’t as successful as other films of Dietrich and von Sternberg. The director also shot the film, and the sequences of the carnival are lush and vivid as anything from his earlier films. But the story and the writing, told in a large part in flashbacks as Atwill regales the young, good-looking Cesar Romero of the way that Concha has strung him along, feels less sophisticated than perhaps it should.

While the film portrays something romantic and dramatic, there is also something farcical running through it. A tone I took as intentional, a self aware sense of irony, perhaps?

The Devil Is a Woman isn’t my favorite, Dietrich-Sternberg film, but as always, Dietrich’s wardrobe is amazing.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/16/2018

Josef von Sternberg’s biographical drama about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress, has a lot of the Silent Epic about it: lavish sets, huge cast, and intertitles. Again, he dolls up Marlene Dietrich in lush, over-the-top outfits and figures her as the beauty among beauties, the woman above all others.

The Scarlet Empress comes at the very end of the Pre-Code Era, and it’s a decadent, bizarro piece of Hollywood extremes.  The Expressionistic sets are insane and wild, imaginative and evocative, while bearing only loosely to anything of historical or cultural accuracy. The matte paintings could use some work perhaps and the miniatures of Moscow are kind of silly. But those sets, they’re astoundingly weird and awesome.

Adapted in part from Catherine the Great’s own memoirs, the story tells of the young naif Princess Sophia, married off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia to bear him a male heir. Peter is a simpering weirdo, trapped in a childish state, his mother, Empress Elizabeth, a cold and demanding ruler. Sophie is renamed Catherine, and herlessons in life teach her to take charge of her world, sex life (with a litany of lovers) and eventually of all of Russia as well.

I was struck as The Scarlet Empress could be a possible inspiration for Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon?

Sternberg depicts a world that is perverse, ornate opulence, heaped up in grotesqueries, doused with sadomasochism, lust, and icy passion. Such a visual fantasia.

 

 

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/14/2018

If you’ve ever wondered why Marlene Dietrich is considered a sex symbol, just watch Shanghai Express. She is the definition of  movie star here, shot by director Josef von Sternberg and cameramen Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe into absolute iconic pure classic Hollywood cinema.

The cinematography is breathtaking, especially lighting and capturing  of Dietrich. Her outfits, stunning and sublime.

“Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” – Shanghai Lily

Set during a Chinese civil war, the film takes place, largely, on the train of the title, en route for Shanghai but delayed and manipulated by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a particular player in the country’s unrest. Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily”, an imported courtesan, who runs into an old lover (Clive Brook).  Anna Mae Wong is another mysterious figure on the crowded train, though there is just nowhere enough Anna Mae Wong in the film.

A pre-code gem, Shanghai Express is all intrigue, exotica,  and glamour. All dreamed up on some Hollywood sound stage.

Homicidal (1961)

Homicidal (1961) movie poster

director  William Castle
viewed: 05/11/2018

Arguably, William Castle directed more movies before he became the William Castle we’ve come to know and love. I’m sure no character like Castle just suddenly started being William Castle, but it wasn’t until he began financing his own films and adding his persona and his requisite gimmicks that the real William Castle started making movies.

Homicidal was the fifth of these pictures and is often brushed off simply as a cheap response to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). While it’s no secret that Castle imagined himself a true competitor of Hitchcock, and Homicidal came out on the heels of Psycho, it’s maybe best to see it on its own terms than in comparison with Hitch’s masterpiece.

It starts with a pretty confusing, if titillating opening, in which Emily (star Jean Arliss) shows up at a Ventura, CA hotel and entices a bellboy to marry her toot sweet. Trying to follow along logically is the real rub, because when she stabs the justice of the peace and takes off, it takes a few minutes to make sense of what is going on. The whole plot is such a tangle of confusion and high weird nonsense, which could be great, but then when it’s all spelled out and done and everything makes sense, it’s less satisfying than when it was confusing.

The key to Homicidal is Jean Arliss, who apparently landed the lead by coming in dressed as both her striking blonde self and also as a convincing man. Gender gets bent but not broken in Homicidal, and Castle is more interested in “the twist” than in the underpinning pop psychology that could have made this more salacious.

Still, pretty fun stuff.

 

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde (2017) movie poster

director David Leitch
viewed: 04/11/2018

Atomic Blonde fetishizes neon more successfully than it fetishizes the Eighties. Though the soundtrack is heavily retro, the aesthetic is much more a 21st century one.

Charlize Theron kicks a lot of ass and looks great doing it, which is really what this movie is about more than anything.

The end of the Cold War Berlin setting is an interesting choice for a throwback spy flick. But the story doesn’t have much intrigue. I mean, how could the turncoat be anyone other than James McAvoy? He’s not just the only other actor of note but the only character given any development. It’s also kind of funny how Theron towers over him in bare feet or heels.

The highlight is the drawn out stairwell fight scene.

I dug the music and all but by the only tracks truly from the period setting of 1989 were Public Enemy and Ministry. Is that just me being nitpicky?

The Strangler (1964)

The Strangler (1964) movie poster

director  Burt Topper
viewed: 04/09/2018

The Strangler is low-rent Hitchcock with Victor Buono as a serial killer. Director Burt Topper ekes out some nicely shot sequences, and the editing is sharp.

Buono, would’ve made a good John Wayne Gacy, is here a man seething with barely repressed rage at his mouthy and harsh invalid mother (Ellen Corby). He obsesses over dolls, nurses, and young girls at an amusement park. One of which, Diane Sayer, is great as the sassy ring toss girl.

It’s a passable B-picture, relying on some more by the book police procedural and paperback psychology.

 

The Book of Henry (2017)

The Book of Henry (2017) movie poster

director Colin Trevorrow
viewed: 04/07/2018

How did anybody think this was a good idea for a movie?

The Book of Henry features an 11 year old boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who has more intellect, acuity and emotional intelligence than anyone else in the movie.

He knows more than his mom (Naomi Watts), a nice but shallow single mom waitress who crushes on video games and wine. Henry does all the family paperwork and trades on the stock market having built a serious next egg…but she still works in a diner because…?

He also knows that his cute neighbor, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), is getting molested by her step-dad (Dean Norris), and while his calls to child protective services aren’t going anywhere, he’s devised up a plan that can be executed from beyond the grave, to set things right.

Henry is the envy of his younger brother, who has none of Henry’s mad skills at making Rube Goldberg-style contraptions.

Henry spends the whole movie boysplaining to everyone.

The Book of Henry is a deeply, profoundly bad movie. Not any fly by night bad movie no flash in the pan this is a bad movie for the ages. I’m not calling Colin Trevorrow a great director but he’s not the problem . It’s funny that they thought anyone could direct this crap. It’s the script, stupid.

But of course it’s also unintentionally hilarious. The absurdity levels on this movie are impressive, as Henry (from beyond the grave) directs his mother to murder. Boysplaining it FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE!

Because on top of all this maudlin and soppy familial love and goodness, Henry gets brain cancer and dies. And what does he say, “I should have thought of that.” The one thing he didn’t foresee.

I may have to add this to the Wikipedia page of “films considered the worst” because, I think it belongs there.

The Fly II (1989)

The Fly II (1989) movie poster

director Chris Walas
viewed: 04/07/2018

“I’m a human fly
and I don’t know why”
– Interior/Rorschach

Graduating from special effects and creature design to director, Chris Walas birthed The Fly II three years after David Cronenberg’s well-noted re-make. And yeah, it’s no Cronenberg. And Eric Stoltz and Daphne Zuniga are no Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. But it’s still a pretty entertaining sequel.

Martin Brundle (Stoltz) is already part fly (on his father’s side), so he grows up super fast and super smart and when he hits sexual maturity, he starts metastasizing into human fly.

Of course, where the film excels is in the gruesome effects.  There is a reason that Google tries to complete your web search “fly 2 dog”. I’m sure Martin wasn’t the only one scarred by that. I actually found it kind of funny.

But there is a lot more: a head squish for the ages, an acid bath full head and torso melt (also for the ages), and then the surprising happy ending, in which the villain gets Cronenberged and left as a thing like a mutant zoo creature.