Saturday, August 19, 2017

Hitchcock, Affleck, and Ford

Lifeboat (1944): written by John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie), William Bendix (Gus), Walter Slezak (Willi), Mary Anderson (Alice), John Hodiak (John), Henry Hull (Rittenhouse), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), Hume Cronyn (Stanley), and Canada Lee (Joe): Hitchcock's 'Bottle Show' movie remains a surprisingly prickly delight to this day, with terrific performances and tense direction. The survivors of a U-Boat attack on a freighter are stuck in a life boat with a survivor from the U-Boat, also sunk during the exchange. The set-up is a lot like the earlier Stagecoach, if you couldn't get off the titular stagecoach without drowning.

Various class issues play out, as do issues of bigotry and vengeance. People die. The dialogue crackles, especially when spoken by Tallulah Bankhead in one of her rare film appearances. She's a quick-talking female reporter who could be played by Rosalind Russell a la His Girl Friday. Lifeboat defies current Hollywood stereotypes and plot points by not killing the black guy first: nope, Lifeboat kills a baby first. A baby! And the black guy turns out to have the warm family life that all the white characters lack! Good old Hitch. If only we had more like him now. Highly recommended.

Presumed Innocent (1990): adapted by Alan Pakula and Frank Pierson from the novel by Scott Turow; starring Harrison Ford (Rusty Sabich), Brian Dennehy (Horgan), Raul Julia (Sandy), Bonnie Bedelia (Barbara Sabich), Paul Winfield (Judge Larren Lyttle), Greta Scacchi (Carolyn Polhemus), John Spencer (Det. Lipranzer), and Bradley Whitford (Kemp): Veteran screenwriter Alan Pakula's turn as a director wowed people in 1990 with this courtroom thriller. The heavyweight list of actors helps a lot, with stand-out turns from Raul Julia, Paul Winfield, and Brian Dennehy. Harrison Ford is fine, though his haircut is weirdly ridiculous.

Presumed Innocent succeeds or fails on the basis of how well it plays 'Whodunnit?' with the audience. Accused of murdering a colleague he'd had an affair with (Greta Scacchi), Harrison Ford's Chicago-based Assistant District Attorney has to survive a wealth of circumstantial evidence. Or did he do it? Scacchi's ADA Carolyn Polhemus is about as distilled a version of a femme fatale/career-bitch as one ever gets, while Bonnie Bedelia gets stuck with the role of the weepy, wronged wife of Ford's ADA.

The movie holds up pretty well, though it would hold up better if the film-makers had kept the novel's coda, which contextualizes the ending in a way that makes logical sense and adds depth to certain performances. Of course, the movie leaves everything in that leads to this coda, so you can just pretend the coda is there once you discover what it is. Recommended

The Accountant (2016): written by Bill Dubuque; directed by Gavin O'Connor; starring Ben Affleck (Christian Wolff), Anna Kendrick (Dana Cummings), J.K. Simmons (Ray King), Jon Bernthal (Brax), Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Agent Medina), and John Lithgow (Blackburn): Ben Affleck plays an autistic accountant who's also a super-assassin philanthropist. Basically, he's BatRainman. The Accountant is a competent, entertaining thriller. Don't ask more of it. Lightly recommended.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Ten Graphic Novels for People Who Don't Read Comics

There are dozens of others that could fit this list. Note that I avoid super-heroes and their fellow travelers science fiction, fantasy, and horror in this list because all these things put some people off.


Louis Riel by Chester Brown

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse


Kings in Disguise by James Vance and Dan Burr


Maus by art spiegelman


American Splendor by Harvey Pekar and many artists


The Book of Genesis by God and Robert Crumb


Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez


Can't Get No by Rick Veitch


From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell


Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Junk Bonds

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): adapted from the Ian Fleming novel by Simon Raven and Richard Maibaum; directed by Peter Hunt; starring George Lazenby (James Bond), Diana Rigg (Tracy), Telly Savalas (Blofeld), and Gabriele Ferzetti (Draco): George Lazenby remains a mostly baffling choice to replace Sean Connery as James Bond. I say 'mostly' because I assume his status as an unknown fashion model caused the producers to believe that they would have much more control over him than they would over a more established actor.

Lazenby is terrible: wooden and totally absent of charisma. However, he isn't much helped by the movie. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is painfully long and slow.  It's also got some of the most ridiculous scenes in Bond history. A few problems...

  • It wastes its best asset -- Diana Rigg as Bond's love-of-his-life Tracy -- by sidelining her for the middle third of the movie. 
  • It gives Blofeld his least cinematically interesting Doomsday Plot (seriously, there's no way to dramatize a biological attack on the global food supply, so the film-makers don't even try). 
  • It gives Blofeld his most pathetic Doomsday Goal (to be made a titled nobleman and be granted amnesty for all previous crimes).
  • It dresses Bond up in a frilly shirt that's clearly the model for Austin Powers' frilly shirts.
  • It puts Bond and Tracy through a car chase that puts them inside a car race inside a tiny oval, thus leading to Tracy asking not once but at least twice 'How do we get out of here?'. The way you came in, maybe?
  • It involves not one (fine) but two (enough already!) downhill ski races.
  • It involves a climactic bobsled race because Blofeld uses a bobsled to escape his mountain-top HQ and Bond chases him in another bobsled. What is this, the goddamned Winter Olympics? Eventually, the two of them end up in a wrestling match in one bobsled. OK, that would be an interesting Olympic event.
  • It keeps the downbeat ending of the Ian Fleming novel for no apparent reason other than to see how a downbeat ending played with movie-goers, I guess.

Sean Connery would replace George Lazenby for the next Bond movie, (plus ca meme chose!) Diamonds are Forever, before giving way again to a new Bond. That would be Roger Moore, who would have a much more successful career than George Lazenby as 007. This stinker is not recommended except for its awfulness.

Becoming Bond (2017): written and directed by Josh Greenbaum; starring George Lazenby: Part documentary, part broadly acted docudrama, part George Lazenby's 77-year-old talking head. Becoming Bond tells the story of how Lazenby won and then intentionally lost the role of James Bond after only one movie (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), ostensibly because he refused to sign a 7-picture contract with the Bond producers. 

The Bond material is interesting but somewhat scanty -- the viewer will have to endure nearly an hour about Lazenby's pre-Bond life, which writer-director Josh Greenbaum seems to find nigh-endlessly fascinating. Your results will vary depending on how many scenes of Lazenby having sex, getting the runs, having sex, selling cars, taking LSD, and having sex you can tolerate. 

As another reviewer noted somewhere, you may also be distracted by the fact that the actor playing Lazenby looks and acts a lot more like Sharlto Copley than Lazenby. On the bright side, there's a lot of female nudity, if you look for that sort of thing in documentaries about George Lazenby.

If you're interested in the Bond movies, the movie is interesting though frustrating. Greenbaum spends perhaps 20 minutes on the material about On Her Majesty's Secret Service, far too little in a movie that clocks in at about 95 minutes. Lazenby himself comes across as a bit of a lucky yob, and the film itself strongly implies that he stopped acting after On Her Majesty's Secret Service, an implication belied by his dozens of IMDB screen credits after the Bond movie, including a stint as Superman's biological father Jor-El on the early 1990's Superboy TV series. The film also makes much of how popular Lazenby was as the new Bond, which seems like at least a bit of a stretch given that even adjusted for inflation, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the 21st highest grossing Bond film in North America out of 25. Lightly recommended.

The Living Daylights (1987): adapted from the Ian Fleming short story by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum; directed by John Glen; starring Timothy Dalton (James Bond), Maryam D'Abo (Kara), Jeroen Krabbe (Koskov), Joe Don Baker (Whitaker), and John Rhys Davies (General Pushkin): Competent, occasionally bland movie introduced the world to Timothy Dalton as James Bond. He's fine, for the most part, though he and the film-makers strand Bond between Sean Connery's grimly mocking Bond and Roger Moore's self-mocking Bond. Like Rambo in Rambo III, Bond gets help from the Afghanis who would become the Taliban. Oops. Jeroen Krabbe and Joe Don Baker make for an underwhelming pair of Bond villains, while Maryam D'Abo is fine but a bit bland as Bond's (only) love interest. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Price and Nesbo, White and Red All Over

The Whites (2015) by Richard Price: Richard Price's newest crime novel is a delight from start to finish, a pungent look at police and criminals and New York City. Our protagonist is Billy Graves, a Manhattan night-shift detective whose past as a member of a group of patrol cops who called themselves the Wild Geese may finally be catching up with him.

Billy is a flawed, wounded, introspective protagonist. He's also a very good detective who finds himself in two parallel situations that may not be so parallel. Someone seems to be stalking Billy and his family in pursuit of vengeance for some unknown wrong. And the lives of perpetrators investigated by Billy and his former Wild Geese are being snuffed out -- these perpetrators were never convicted for their crimes and are thus known to Billy and company by the slang term 'Whites.'

Price deftly draws the characters and their relationships, presents cop life in all it sordid details, and presents page after page of note-perfect dialogue. It's the sort of novel that someone who loved The Wire would love. Highly recommended.

The Redbreast (2000/ Harry Hole#3-Oslo Trilogy#1) by Jo Nesbo, translated into English by Don Bartlett: The Nazi Occupation of Norway supplies the back-story for this, the third of Jo Nesbo's detective-thrillers about Norwegian police officer Harry Hole and the first of the 'Oslo trilogy'-within-a-series. Harry gets caught up in trying to track down an assassin who was one of the Norwegians who fought alongside the Nazis during the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two.

Harry is on pretty good behaviour in this novel as he fights his demons (alcoholic and otherwise). Section dealing with the Norwegian collaborators of World War Two and the war's aftermath fascinated me -- it's not an area of history I knew anything about beyond the name 'Quisling.' The depiction of Harry's detective work is also top-notch. Norway itself fascinates, in the past and present, in Nesbo's depiction of Neo-Nazis and apologists and unctuous civil servants and historians and many others. Recommended.

Chaplin on Chaplin

My Autobiography (1964/ This edition with new introduction 2007) by Charlie Chaplin: The first third of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography was excerpted and sold as its own book, My Early Life. This suggests that Chaplin (or someone in his estate) knew that his autobiography was excellent pretty much right up to the point that he became the most famous person, film star or otherwise, on Earth -- in 1916, roughly speaking.

The first third details Chaplin's Dickensian childhood in London, England. And it is detailed, and marvelously described. Chaplin didn't use a ghost writer -- the prose is all his, with some corrections for spelling and grammar. He's a gifted memoirist, at least until he becomes famous. Then he becomes an anecdotalist, with the narrative switching to an exhausting string of Chaplin's encounters with famous people.

The first third of My Autobiography, though, is dynamite. Chaplin draws a picture of late Victorian England that is grimy but often full of life and heartbreak. His early adventures on the stage as a member of a travelling acrobatic troupe, as an actor, and ultimately as a dance-hall comedian are memorable and informative.

The introduction to this edition -- written 40 years after the initial mid-1960's release -- notes some of Chaplin's curious omissions. Unless his long-time collaborators are actresses, he omits them almost entirely. He also omits almost any mention of the process of making his films, especially once he's on his own. His first two wives get less than a page's worth between them. He does deal with his 1940's trial and subsequent exile to Switzerland, along with his last marriage, to the then-18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill when Chaplin was in his mid-50's. He fails to mention his last movie -- A King in New York -- at all. 

Oh, well. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, depending on your tolerance for name-dropping, especially when many of those names have faded into history. The several pages devoted to Chaplin's relationship with William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies are probably the most rewarding of the lot.

One thing is certain -- Chaplin was no Communist, even if he did get branded as such for some of the speechifying he did in person and on film. He really, really loves money and he lets it show. Given his impoverished background, it all makes sense.

In all, My Autobiography is immensely rewarding for the first 150 pages or so. After that, one really must proceed at one's own risk. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Austin City Limits

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): written by Mike Myers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil), Elizabeth Hurley (Vanessa Kensington), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): The first and by far the freshest of the Austin Powers movies was a moderate hit in theatres and a giant hit on home video, thus paving the way for two sequels.

Canada's Mike Myers indulges his love of many things English and a few things Scottish (and a few thing Canadian) in creating his groovy hero -- the glasses are a nod to Michael Caine's bespectacled spy in The Ipcress File and others, while the film parodies James Bond movies and The Avengers spy series while also homaging Our Man Flint and a lot of other previous comedies, including The Pink Panther movies. The distinctive, Quincy Jones "Austin Powers Theme Song" (not its real name -- that would be "Soul Bossa Nova") originally came to Myers' attention when it was used as the theme song of the El Cheapo 1970's Canadian game show Definition.

Anyway, Myers just gets in there and keeps swinging with physical comedy, body-horror comedy, puns, and winks to the audience. It works beautifully for the most part, as does co-star Elizabeth Hurley, who's funny and fresh and seems to have real chemistry with Myers. Myers' Blofeld-parody Dr. Evil is also funny here, possibly because Myers doesn't have him do a parodic rap number as he will in the subsequent two movies. Highly recommended.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999): written by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, and Fat Bastard), Heather Graham (Felicity Shagwell), Elizabeth Hurley (Vanessa Kensington), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), Verne Troyer (Mini-Me), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): More of the same, only louder and grosser. Verne Troyer still steals scenes as Mini-Me all these years later, and Mike Myers continues to be a gamer, this time playing three characters. 

Sending Austin back to the 1960's jettisons much of the first movie's 'Fish Out of Water' comedy. And Heather Graham, also a gamer, just isn't all that funny as the perpetually wide-eyed Felicity Shagwell. Myers' comic grotesque Scotsman Fat Bastard grows on you, especially his repeated verbal riffs on eating babies (and Mini-me). That he wears a delivery-man outfit with an 'FBD' patch on it (Fat Bastard Delivery, I presume) cracks me up with its attention to detail. Recommended.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002): written by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard, and Goldmember), Beyonce Knowles (Foxy Cleopatra), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), Verne Troyer (Mini-Me), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): The Austin Powers franchise runs out of steam pretty quickly here. An opening piece of meta-comedy doesn't play as funny as it sounds, while the celebrity cameos now seem like something of a drag. 

The funniest bits all seem to involve Michael Caine as Austin's swinging spy daddy in a nod to Caine's formative influence on the glasses-wearing Austin as a glasses-wearing superspy in 1960's spy films The Ipcress File and Billion-Dollar Brain. Beyonce and Myers have no chemistry, which at least allows Beyonce to escape the movie with her dignity intact (unlike Heather Graham in the previous installment, stuck in bed with Fat Bastard).

Padding the movie are lazy parodies of British boarding schools (and perhaps the first Harry Potter film), The Silence of the Lambs, and possibly Myers' dramatic turn in the film 54. Beyonce is charming and cute as a bug. Roller-skating Dutch egomaniac Goldmember (Myers again) is grotesque without being particularly funny. There are enough laughs for an Austin Powers completist, but the subtitle of this third film in the Austin Powers 'trilogy' could very well have been So Very Tired. Lightly recommended.