Thursday, March 25, 2010

Movies I *haven't* seen

I'm a movie buff, with my comfort zone being the 1930's through the mid-80's--though I'm not crazy about the 50's and have only recently begun exploring that decade's offering. Therefore, I pride myself on having seen most of the canonical Hollywood works of those years, and many, many lesser films as well (the lesser films being what my other movie blog, Michael's Moviepalace, is all about). The last movie I remember seeing at a theater multiple times was Angel Heart (1987)--OK, yes, I did go back to the cinema to see Titanic and Phantom Menace 2 or 3 times each, for the spectacle of the big screen.

What I've found surprising lately are the movies I haven't seen that one might expect a film buff to have seen. Following is a list of 10 such movies (no particular order); some I've avoided because of genre, some because they just don't appeal to me, and some I want to see but just haven't gotten around to them yet.

1. The Shawshank Redemption: When I taught college English several years back, this was the movie my students couldn't believe I hadn't seen. I like Stephen King, I don't like prison movies, so it's a toss-up. I'll probably see it eventually.

2. Pretty Woman: I don't like Julia Roberts, and the more I heard about this Disneyfied whore story, the more I became opposed to seeing it. I really don't think I'm missing much

3. Shane: I'm not a fan of Westerns, though I have seen a handful of the biggies (like Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Good The Bad & The Ugly). This one was out of circulation for a while, but now that TCM airs it on occasion, I have no excuse--I guess I need to see this one. Other big Westerns I haven't seen include Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Magnificent Seven.

4. Marty: I'm not a fan of kitchen sink realism, unless it's done by the Brits (Look Back in Anger, et al.). This one sounds just dreadful. I tried to watch The Catered Affair, another Ernest Borgnine movie written by Paddy Chayefsky, but gave up in the first half-hour.

5. Rebel Without a Cause: I've heard so much about this one, I feel like I've seen it.

6. An Affair to Remember (and the movie it was based on, Love Affair): I'm not a big fan of romances, especially 50's ones, and again, I feel like I've seen this one--I saw Sleepless in Seattle; doesn't that count for something?

7. Sergeant York: I like Gary Cooper in the 30's, not so much in the 40's. As with Shane, I imagine I'll see this eventually (TCM runs it every month, it seems) but I just can't get excited about it.

8. Ferris Bueller's Day Off: I keep seeing the same 10 minutes of this when I stumble across it on cable--where the principal comes to visit the supposedly sick Bueller at home. I like some other teen comedies of its time (Heathers, Clueless), so I'd probably like it.

9. Most of the Best Picture Oscar winners of the past few years: Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire. I just don't care.

10. Jerry Maguire: C'mon, I know the catchphrases ("Show me the money!" "You had me at hello"); isn't that enough?!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The mystical, new-agey theories about the end of the world coming in 2012 because that's when the Mayan calendar ends are total hogwash, but the old-school sci-fi buff in me can see a fun movie being made about these ideas. Sadly, 2012, which came out last year and is now on DVD, is most assuredly not that movie. It is about the end of the world, but the Mayan stuff which could have been made the screenplay interesting plays almost no part in the plot. What really happened, I think, is that Roland Emmerich (maker of better disaster films like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow) decided to do a remake of the 50's movie When Worlds Collide, in which Earth is about to be destroyed by another planet, and when he found out that Stephen Sommers (director of the Mummy remake and the terrible piece of celluliod crap called Van Helsing) had the rights to that--due out in 2012 according to IMDb--he threw in the Mayan theories as a convienent plot device, though it is totally jettisoned after the first few minutes of the movie.

Instead, the damned thing becomes yet another in a string of dumb movies (too much money spent on effects, not enough on screenwriting) in which an apocalypse occurs just so a man can become a better father (Day After Tomorrow, the Spielberg War of the Worlds, the execrable Signs). Here, that man is John Cusack, sleepwalking through his part as a divorced dad--though he does manage sly delivery of a few humorous lines now and then. Amanda Peet as his ex-wife (do ya think she might still love him?) and Tom McCarthy as her new partner (do ya think he might sacrifice himself so the exes can get back together?) are OK.

Two actors work up some presence: Chiwetel Ejiofor as a scientist who tries to warn the governments that freakish sunspots were shooting powerful neurtrinos at the earth, which could cause the core to heat up, which could cause planetwide earthquakes and flooding; and Woody Harrelson as a crazy radio host who spouts conspiracy theories at the drop of a hat (and who, of course, happens to be right about the coming apocalypse). Eye candy is provided by the handsome Estonian actor Johann Urb (pictured) as a Russian pilot who helps get Cusack, et al., to the government arks which have been designed to allow a handful (several hundred thousand, actually) to survive. Yes, the effects are pretty spectacular, particularly the fall of the Christ the Redeemer staute in Brazil and the flooding of the Himalayas, but any goodwill such digital destruction might have built up was itself destroyed by what amounts to an "extra" interminable half-hour ending after Cusack's family gets to the ark that comes right out The Poseidon Adventure (and without the camp presence of Shelley Winters, that's not a good thing) and feels like it goes dragging on for three hours.

Speaking of disasters, the film of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, also out on DVD, is atrocious. I was too old for the book to have been a touchstone of my childhood, but I do like most of Sendak's books, and I hate that Hollywood has done to this one what they've done to Dr. Seuss: taken very short, wonderfully whimsical stories aimed directly at kids and turned them into long, lumbering, bloated grotesqueries aimed more at adults who wish they were kids. The wild things themselves look great, actual people in big animal suits with facial movements done by CGI, but it's not worth sitting through the boring story about poor Max having to deal with adult neurotics in his escapist fantasyland. Shame on you, Spike Jonze. (Dave Eggers, co-writer, has no shame.) One pleasure: hearing Tony Soprano's heavy, mouth-breather voice (yes, it really is James Gandolfini) coming out of a Wild Thing's mouth.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Alices in Wonderlands

Tim Burton's take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland opened Friday, and since I run hot and cold on Burton, I may or may not see it, but the director did make a couple of interesting points in an recent interview. First, that the Alice story (the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the sequel Through the Looking-Glass) is not strong on narrative. Despite providing fodder for many literary, film, and television adaptations, there is really no plot there, just an episodic account of Alice's strange trip meeting odd creatures and dealing with illogical thinking. Secondly, Burton says that there is no iconic film version out there, so he felt less pressure to live up to any other artist's vision. I think he's right: the Disney cartoon of 1951, despite giving us the lovely little ditty, "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date...," is not especially memorable, and no other version I can think of has any claim to mass acceptance as THE Alice we all think of.

However, baby boomers who watched a lot of TV when they were young, like I did, may remember the 1933 Alice in Wonderland with great affection, as I do. The film has been mostly missing in action for the last 20 years or so, though I remember seeing it more than once on kiddie matinee TV shows in the early 60's. TCM ran the film once or twice several years ago, but it vanished down the rabbit hole again until last week when it was issued on video for the first time by Universal. The plot, such as it is: young Alice (Charlotte Henry), is frustrated with being kept inside on a snowy winter's day, so she falls asleep and dreams of an extended visit to the land on the other side of the mirror. She has silly and surreal encounters with strange creatures and wakes up all cozy back in her overstuffed armchair, with her kitten in her arms.

This movie may well have had an influence on THE WIZARD OF OZ six years later, not just in the trajectory of the plotline (it's not a big stretch from Alice to Dorothy), but in the fantasy sets, magical effects, and elaborate costumes. The impact of having so many guest stars is blunted because most of them are under so much makeup, they are unrecognizable. You certainly can't prove by me that it's really Cary Grant under the Mock Turtle outfit; he might have just dubbed in his weepy dialogue and odd song. The same thing goes for Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat, Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, and even W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. The most recognizable are Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter and the wonderful Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen. As an adult who was watching largely to spot the stars, the film came off to me more like a revue of short and vaguely comic sketches that, more often than not, have no real punch line or payoff.

My favorite bits: Horton and Ruggles singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat," which would not have been out of place in a Monty Python episode; the Duchess' freaky baby (Billy Barty) who turns into a pig; and Polly Moran as the Dodo, reciting "dry" history in order to dry off a soaking wet Alice. Charlotte Henry as Alice is serviceable but nothing more; she seems far too unflappable given all the bizarre and chaotic transformations she is witness to throughout. The creepiest (but also funniest) thing in the movie is the talking leg of mutton at the climactic party.

Also out on DVD from Warner Home Video is a 1966 TV film done by Jonathan Miller for the BBC. Though not the most faithful or satisfying version, it makes for very interesting viewing. First, though the DVD cover is in color, the film itself is in black and white which would seem to work against the story's colorful characters and settings. In practice, however, this makes the film feel far less dated than it might have been if it had been shot in Day-Glo 60's color. Also, the actors playing the odd creatures are not put in fantastic make-up or costumes, but in Victorian dress. Overall, the entire production feels quite contemporary. Alice (Anne-Marie Mallik, pictured at the top of this post) is a teenage girl who falls asleep in a summery field and moves through her dream world unimpressed by her strange encounters; she spends most of the film as though she's about to slip into a sullen snit. In the beginning, it seems like this is going to be about Alice finding out some truths about herself (she wonders out loud, "Who am I?"), but we quickly come not to care about her in the least.

Star-spotting here is much easier to do: John Gielgud is the Mock Turtle (at right w/Alice), Wilfrid Brambell (Paul's grandfather in Hard Days' Night) is the White Rabbit, Peter Sellers is the King of Hearts, and Michael Radgrave is the Caterpillar. The Cheshire Cat, in what amounts to a cameo, is played by a cat. The most fun is provided by Peter Cook as a prancing Mad Hatter, who is more fun in the finale than in his Tea Party scene, which is too successful at attempting to reproduce the tedium of a snooty afternoon tea party. Also enjoyable is Leo McKern in drag as the Duchess with the pig baby; his scene is short but quite amusing. The score, which is also a plus, is by Ravi Shankar. The movie assumes that its audience is already quite familiar with the work, and of course we are, so the whole thing has a dreamy, impressionistic feel to it which works in its favor. Actually, I quite liked the film except for Alice, which is the fault of the director rather than the actress. The DVD also contains an entertaining commentary from Miller, an 8-minute silent version from 1903, and a biopic about the real-life Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Carroll's Alice, done by Dennis Potter for the BBC the year before. Both of these films make for interesting viewing for adults, but I don't know that today's kids will enjoy them.