Saturday, August 15, 2015

Madventure Time

Thanks to RHPT for the link!

Marx Bros. Watch: Duck Soup (1933)

If you want to see Patient 0 for a goodly portion of American comedy, you really need look no further than The Marx Bros.  I can't even say the Marx Bros. are an acquired taste, because you either like them or you're dead inside.

I've written before, at some point, that few things in this world please me more than Margaret Dumont, and she is very much in the middle of this movie.  Here's our introduction to Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as he's introduced as the new Regent of the nation of Freedonia, thanks to Dumont, who has a crush on Firefly, getting him placed in office.

Harpo and Chico play spies from the neighboring nation of Sylvania, and, eventually, there's a war between the two countries.  Because.

Anyway, this is one of my favorite of the Marx Bros. movies.

Sure, the set-up mostly seems like an excuse for the Marx Bros. to recycle bits from their vaudeville act, and that's okay.  As Jamie rightfully pointed out - the thing about the Marx Bros. is that they don't rely on the sitcom formula of set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline that creates a sort of rhythm to the show (see: The Big Bang Theory).  They just go for punchline, punchline, punchline, and you just need to keep up.

If you've never seen it, well, it's a bit too late to catch it last night on TCM, but it'll be on again at some point.

80's Watch: Tapeheads (1988) - Let's get into trouble, baby

Tapeheads (1988) is most certainly a cult movie, but it's a sort of under-the-radar cult movie that feels like it should be one of those movies people talk about a LOT more than they do.  If people have seen it, it's one of the movies they saw 20 years ago, but probably not a lot since, and maybe not that many times.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Oscar Winner Watch: Birdman - Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - 2014

Man.  I really struggled with this one.

Let's make no mistake, Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) is a technical marvel, and the sort of thing you have to give a tip of the hat just for its audacious approach to style and technical function.  It wants to be a melding of cinema and theater (or: theatre), and I'm not one to say that doesn't occur.  It's also a movie that's going to demand repeated viewings, something Pauline Kael refused any movie, and I think she has a point (asking someone to watch your movie over and over to "get it" shouldn't be a point of pride.  But rewarding viewers who catch something new on the second viewing should be a life goal.).  Our actors are all good, all on point, and the performances are not lacking - even when one character is supposed to be a bad actor, he nails his line delivery of line delivery, demonstrating to everyone that this is going to be a disastrous performance.

Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015, and, of course, it's a movie about Hollywood's self-loathing and a desire to produce something better, something that matters as much as a well-written novel or beautifully produced play, and which isn't about superheroes and celebrity, even when that's exactly what Hollywood is exactly about on a good day.   Hollywood loves nothing so much as movies about itself (see: The Artist and it's Oscar win - and immediate dissolution in cultural memory after the fact - and how Argo made filmmakers into courageous action heroes), and even more so when Hollywood feels like a movie is doing their job for them and baring the artists to the public, as if to say "this is how Hollywood really feels, and what we really want to make if only there weren't so much money in making dumb shit for the flyover states.*"

The movie both criticizes and indulges in pretension in such a rapid fire, alternating current that it's hard to know what's satire and what writer/ director/ producer Alejandro G. Iñárritu actually thinks.  All of which makes a movie nigh-critic proof, because something is going on here, clearly, and if you get it wrong... well.  And, my god, the references and name-dropping.  Didn't you read Borges in undergrad?  No.  Shame on you.  You'd understand this scene and it'd be hilarious.  Otherwise you might mistake this as just a scene from yet another backstage dramedy about yet another at-his-wit's-end actor in crisis going through the motions you've seen before.  But, hey.  Good camera work.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Rin Tin Tin Watch: Caryl of the Mountains (1936)

So, mid-way through reading the Orlean Rin Tin Tin book, I ddi some Googling, as I had no real recollection of watching any version of a Rin Tin Tin movie.  Someone on eBay was selling an 8-disc set for $1 plus S&H, and for 8 movies, I figured it was worth the risk.

Caryl of the Mountains is a...  I have no idea.  53+ minutes of confused storytelling with a few pretty good stunts by Rin Tin Tin Jr., and the most lantern-jawed Mounty you'll ever see.  Pretty clearly low-budget, the movie is the sort of thing where you spend the first five minutes watching someone put mail in an envelope and lots of people talking when horses aren't riding.

This is the second Rin Tin Tin, one that never grabbed audiences in the same way that the original had managed to win over millions of people.  Of course, talkies hadn't done dog pictures a lot of favors (a point Orlean covers beautifully), and by '36, that had taken it's toll.

It's an interesting little time capsule of a particular kind of movie from a particular time, but it's not exactly something I'm suggesting folks run out and add to their collections.

Signal Watch Reads: Rin Tin Tin - The Life and the Legend, Susan Orlean (2011 - audiobook)

I am not entirely certain why I decided to read this book.  I've not read any prior Orlean, and I had literally never seen anything with Rin Tin Tin in it other than a few scant moments of the circa 1990 series, Rin Tin Tin: K9 Cop.  It is true that I like a happy looking dog, and I was marginally aware of a strange history of the pooch.  But after reading the Larry Tye Superman book, a topic I knew entirely too much about to ever wonder where it was going, and partially because, lately,  I've been thinking a lot about the lifespan of a media-driven concept - as the 20th Century and the first media giants fade in the collective memory, Rin Tin Tin seemed to be a good place to pick up that thread again as any.

Certainly I was curious as to what became of the media empire that I knew once existed and, today, there's not a kid out there who knows what the words "Rin Tin Tin" mean.

And, hey, it's about dogs.  I'm a fan.

Susan Orlean is perhaps most famous for the book she wrote, The Orchid Thief, which was turned into a Meryl Streep movie which I confess that I have never seen (Adaptation).  In Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Orlean traces more than a century of history, from the ramshackle, lonely and unpredictable childhood of Lee Duncan, the man who would find a litter of German Shepard puppies in a kennel within an evacuated German base in WWI France, straight through to the modern era of DVD's and memorabilia collection.  And, of course, the tangled existence of a very real dog who became a screen legend, only to become a fictional character with his passing, and becoming the sort of property that people wind up suing one another over until the value of the property has fallen through the bottom.

Orlean weaves her own story into the book, not one that's particularly remarkable as these things go, but it gives the reader context when it comes to her research, what sparked her interest, how the misty memories of both the dog on the television in the 1950's series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and her relationship with an knowable grandfather echoed back to her as she tried to bring the past into the present, with things both on the screen and real.  And, it's an honest approach as Orlean necessarily frames her experience hunting down the folks who are still alive from Lee Duncan's family, those associated with the show and a Texas woman who has been breeding heirs of Rin Tin Tin in Texas, and who was smart enough to run out and trademark Rin Tin Tin when Hollywood had not.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Yesterday marked the 83rd anniversary of the death of Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin the First

Passed August 10th, 1932

Crawford Watch: Possessed (1947)

You know, I probably like Joan Crawford more than your average straight dude born in 1975.  Thanks to Faye Dunaway's performance in Mommy Dearest, the Joan Crawford of legend has superseded the Joan Crawford who shows up in her movies.  But watching those movies, you can see why folks decided maybe Joan was a little on the intense side.  And, her personal reputation as one tough lady did nothing to soften that edge (look up her rise within PepsiCo some day.  Absolutely bad-ass.).

To get real, Joan Crawford was a great beauty in the 20's and 30's when she hit Hollywood, and as she aged, maybe some of that slipped on her.  She remained attractive, but there's only so attractive someone can be when anger seems to their default setting, and you can see it set in somewhere in their resting face.  Here's where this boomerangs back - because Joan Crawford said "screw you, I'm still playing the sexy dame in middle-age", and did not just disappear into motherly, unsexed roles - and it kind of flips back on itself that the iron will in there somewhere is attractive all on its own.

Probably the first Joan Crawford movie I saw was Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, which is a crazy movie to start to get to know Crawford.  I love that movie, and she's great in it, but Mildred Pierce, which I saw next, is still my favorite Crawford movie.  She's so damn good in it, and it's such a weirdly excellent movie for a movie about a lady making pies.

It turns out Possessed (1947) is sort of Yin to the Yang that is Mildred Pierce.  And I have new second favorite Joan Crawford movie (move over, Johnny Guitar).  It's not a mother and daughter coming up together in a tough world with lay-abouts for men and fried chicken joints as cash cows.  It's a woman on her own, trying to find love, witha  complicated relationship with her step daughter.  Oh, and she has schizophrenia.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sheep Watch: Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

Jamie's a sport and, thanks to that whole "we share a home" bit, she watches a lot of stuff she wouldn't select on her own (ex: The Keep).  But back when we started dating, one thing we could agree on was Aardman Animation's Wallace and Gromit.  We were both pretty big fans of Nick Park's adventures of an absent-minded inventor and his roommate/ canine companion, Gromit.

So, this evening, we made our way out to see Aardman's latest theatrical release, Shaun the Sheep Movie, a feature length of the animated TV series and Wallace & Gromit spin-off character.  The reviews seemed decent, I guessed, as it had a 99% at Rotten Tomatoes.

What I had forgotten, until the movie started, is that the Shaun the Sheep franchise has been aimed at very young kids.  So, you know, a 40 year old dude was not the intended audience.   But the thing about Aardman animation is that they've always focused on a broad audience, so parents need not worry about wanting to spend the run-time checking their cell phones and spacing out while inanity or Thomas the Train-level story-telling unfolds.

Dog Watch: Finding Rin-Tin-Tin (2007)

Because I like watching dogs on TV (ask Jamie), under other circumstances, I might have tuned in to this movie for about five minutes, realized it was terrible and getting worse with each passing moment, and moved on.  But I'm currently reading the Susan Orlean book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (2011), and so I was curious, I guess.  Rin-Tin-Tin is a character who was already on the shelf by the time I was a kid, with occasional blips of relevance (I remember Rin Tin Tin: K9 Cop on The Family Channel circa 1990 as it ran at the same during the same era as The Family Channel's Zorro reboot, which I did watch), and I plan to talk a whole lot more about Rinty when I discuss the book.

But I'm around 1967 or so in the book, so I have a ways to go before we get to this 2007 movie.  

Let's just say...  there's a point at which when you're trying to get your independent kids' movie made where you've agreed to film it in Bulgaria with a cast of unrecognizable actors on a shoestring budget, that maybe it's time, as a producer, to take a hard look at your film and say "why isn't anyone wanting to put money into this?  Maybe... just maybe...  it's time to take a step back and rethink everything."  That clearly didn't happen here, and while I hate to say it's worse than the Air Buddies franchise - because nothing is worse than the Air Buddies franchise -  at least I understand that those movies are aimed at very young children and are more or less using puppies as digital puppets.  They aren't a weird munging of real history, fake history, the horrors or WWI played down for laughs and fart jokes.

Michael Mann Watch: The Keep (1983)

So, a few days ago, pal JuanD posted something to Facebook about German electronic musical combo, Tangerine Dream, and - knowing neither Juan nor I had any better plans for Saturday, I got us all fired up, as I'd recently seen that Amazon Instant was offering up the 1983 Michael Mann opus, The Keep.

I didn't promise the movie would actually be good.  I'd seen it before.  But if you're looking for an extended mix and meshing of the finest in early synth odyssey and forgotten tone-poem movie making, well, my friends, have I got a commercially unviable flick for you.

The first time I saw The Keep was some point circa 1988.  I'd actually heard of Tangerine Dream thanks to a sci-fi book I'd read a year or so before (The Architect of Sleep) in which the first-person narrator was a fan of the band.  I'm thinking that I saw that name come up prominently and stuck with the movie.  In an era when most of what was on the radio was by Guns N' Roses and Janet Jackson, I didn't have a lot of Tangerine Dream immediately available to me, and this was the first time I'd actually heard them.  It's also possible I also saw the name of Miami Vice and Manhunter mastermind Michael Mann listed as director, but I don't remember when I knew the movie was his work.

If you've seen The Keep, it's kind of remarkable that I gave up an evening of my life watching the movie (and loved it), but back then, I had no real preconceived notions of what a movie should be.  Around that same time I recall watching My Life as a Dog, first with English dubbing and then with subtitles, on two consecutive nights, and agreeing with my brother that it worked much better with subtitles.

Later, I'd ask other people if they'd ever seen the movie, and realized that the completely random viewing on a local UHF channel that led to me seeing the movie meant I was one of very few people who'd seen it.  In college I met people who knew it either by reputation or because of the Tangerine Dream connection, but can't recall anyone who had seen it (though I suspect JAL had watched it, and I'm just failing to recall).  The studio has more or less disavowed the movie.  It's not really been available since VHS, and even the version available on Amazon is in SD.  When I saw the movie a few years ago at The Alamo, we weren't watching the 35mm copy the studio sent around for rentals.  We were watching the only copy the studio owned, and they so didn't give a shit about it, they were sending it out for viewings.

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