Saturday, March 23, 2024

Happy (possible 120th) Birthday, Joan Crawford

Today is supposedly the birthday of Joan Crawford (born Lucille LeSueur).  What year? No one knows, because Joan wasn't telling.  The best guess is 1904, but Crawford claimed 1908, but it's somewhere in there.  So this is either her 120th birthday or it isn't.

We're fans of Joan and her work here at The Signal Watch.  

00's Watch: Pootie Tang (2001)

Watched:  03/22/2024
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Louis C.K.
Selection:  Jamie

It's easy to forget that before he got #metoo'd, Louis C.K. was maybe one of funniest, smartest guys working in comedy.  I was a fan of his FX show and stand-up.  And it's all the more remarkable he became what he did before his big fall, because this movie and his failed sitcom should have tanked his career.

Now, Pootie Tang (2001) is, hands down, one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.  It's one that gets funnier every time you see it, imho.  And while C.K. is listed as director and writer, I can only imagine how this thing was actually put together, because it seems like it was a bunch of late 90's stand-ups and comedic actors piling into a movie and doing bits.  I would *love* to see a "how this was made" doc.  

I am sure there are people who watch Pootie Tang and do not enjoy it, and those people are dead inside. Not everything lands, but the ratio of success is incredibly high.  And clearly the direction was "I dunno, just do your bit" for most of the film, including for Robert Vaughn who is happily chewing scenery and absolutely gets what his role is here.

Anyway, it's a great chance to see a ton of folks you know from TV and elsewhere as they were riding their wave or just before they blew up.  Heck, a teen-aged Kristen Bell is in the movie for about 20 seconds.  But you've got JB Smoove, Jennifer Coolidge, Reg E. Cathey, Wanda Sykes and more.  Star Lance Crouther didn't really do much more acting - which is a shame, man.  He's incredibly funny and charismatic.  Some of the comics aren't as big as they were, and I don't really know what happened to them - but I don't follow comedy.  Back in the day, Laura Kightlinger and Dave Attell were huge in comedy.  And both are still out there in various capacities and occasionally I'm still, like "hey!  Is that Dave Attell?" when I'm watching a thing.  But time, it does march on.

So, here's your unapologetic endorsement of Pootie Tang.

I have no idea what The Kids would think of this one.  This may be my new litmus test.

Noir Watch: The Big Combo (1955)

Watched:  03/22/2024
Format:  TCM
Viewing:  3rd?  4th?
Director:  Joseph H. Lewis
Selection:  'tis I

Sometime in my 20's (I'm now dangerously close to the end of my 40's) in trying to read up on and learn about film noir, I came across a single still image:

I mean, that is noir in a single frame there

Whether you are into film noir or not, it's possible you've seen this still, pulled for the final minute of The Big Combo (1955).  Upon learning the film's name, I went and found the movie.  It was one of the first things I'd call "film noir" which I intentionally watched on my path to better-knowing what we meant by "noir".  

And, hey, it was a really good picture to stumble into somewhat by accident.  If you're looking for something to tick all the boxes I tend to think of as elements of noir, it's hitting a lot of them - all except a true femme fatale.  We'll leave discussion of Out of the Past or Angel Face as prime example of the fatal-ist of femmes for another time (I have no quibble with Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, but she manages to somehow remain a bit sympathetic in her way, to me).  

We get:
  • obsessed detective
  • "pure" woman promising hope (and who is being corrupted!)
  • you're putting everything on the line for a girl
  • suffering in style, as Mueller would say

Upon a first viewing, I wasn't familiar with any of the players except Lee Van Cleef, and of course now know who Cornel Wilde, Brian Donlevy, Richard Conte and others are, and am a fan of their work on various levels (I really like Conte).  I had never heard of director Joseph H. Lewis, but more importantly, I was unfamiliar with the work of John Alton, director of cinematography.   

The story is a post-Laura tale of an obsessed cop (Wilde), but in this film, two obsessions, intertwined.  He wants to take down mobster "Mr. Brown" (Conte), but in his investigation, he's come across Brown's ladyfriend, Susan (Jean Wallace), who seems to be now more of an object or bit of property to Brown than a girlfriend, and she can't escape, constantly wrangled by Brown's two lackeys (Van Cleef and Earl Holliman).  Susan is spiraling as she deals with the hopelessness of her situation, and our cop, Diamond, is starting to crack a bit himself, as his own department thinks this is a wild goose chase and a bad way to spend funds.  And, of course, his boss says "well, you're in love with the girl," which is maybe true.  

There's an ex-girlfriend of Diamond played by Helene Stanton who only did a handful of pictures, but she's honestly really good in this movie.*  

Look, I don't want to spoil the whole story.  It's a twisty crime yarn with all sorts of good stuff, and what I think are stellar performances by everyone involved.  Wallace kills it as a Susan, I absolutely believe Wilde in this movie, and Conte is fan-fucking-tastic.  You will hate Mr. Brown!   Even if you kind of like his two pet psychos.

The movie is a really good entry point for how you got sex and violence into Hayes Code-era films, with what's clearly one of the dirtiest shots in 50's-noir (I just learned thanks to TCM's Dave Karger that Wilde was super-pissed his wife was in the scene).  And it features two gunmen who are clearly more than just pals.  

All of this is great stuff, and worthy of study.  But if I was going to tell you "watch this film" for a particular reason, it's going to be the cinematography.   This is sort of the apotheosis of noir light and shadow.  Sure, maybe Double Indemnity technically has some better tricks up its sleeve, or James Wong Howe is going to bend your mind a bit - and no shade on any of that work.  But, The Big Combo is here to show you how it's done with light and shadow, close-ups and wide shots and doing more with less.  It probably doesn't hurt that director Joseph H. Lewis was famed for finding interesting set-ups and angles, and this movie is full of them.  There's the assassination of McClure and Rita that stick out, Susan's attempts to escape, the dramatic lighting of the hospital room as Diamond tries to get to the bottom of things...  and of course the barely consensual encounter between Brown and Susan.  And of course I'd call out the entire final sequence where light is practically a character.  

Even if the story isn't your thing, or you can't hack 50's-era acting styles and narrative, it's worth seeing what John Alton did with some Klieg lights, some flags, some night shots, and a great eye.  

A lot gets thrown around as "this is noir!" by folks who have some specific ideas that are usually just scraping at the surface.  And I'm not saying you need Alton on a film or its not noir (or even the expressionistic use of light and shadow), but, got-damn, when he is the DP on one of these things, the results are stunning and it helped define a whole visual language we're still trying to grapple with.  

Anyway, no mistake he gets a big ol' credit at the head of the movie.

*and, my dude...  by the evidence presented, you may have made a mistake breaking up with Rita 

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Doc Watch: Hell on Earth - the Desecration and Resurrection of "The Devils" (2002)

Watched:  03/21/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Paul Joyce

So, I posted on the 1971 Ken Russell film, The Devils, and old college chum and podcast contributor, Ryan M popped into my social media to recommend this documentary (I'll link to his letterboxd review).  

I'm glad he did.  The movie is not your usual US or British cinema offering, and hearing what the thinking was, and what happened in production and upon release was fascinating.  The doc captures several of the folks involved in the picture 30 years on, still vibrant, and with clear memories of what they all considered a massively important film that was brutalized by a few critics and rejected by audiences.  

Were this Holy Mountain, I'd get some of the rejection by audiences and critics - Jodorowsky is brilliant, but his films are straight work to watch.  The Devils challenges a lot, but is not a puzzlebox to view.  As can happen, it seems The Devils may have simply spoken right past the critics who were concerned with "taste" and a lot of external factors rather than the film in front of them.  Which I absolutely understand, but that doesn't mean it isn't a failure of the critic or reviewer if you can't meet the film where it lives (and this is something even at this dumb ol' blog I try to do, and I know I still fail routinely).  

So, I'll leave it to you to read what Ryan M has to say on the key scene that was cut, it's re-discovery, and how it's handled over at his review (I agree with every word he writes).  I'll add in that if you think that scene is a blaspheme, you're missing the point of the film, and it would have been an absolute exclamation point on the film's major themes to keep it in.  

But also I'll chime in with how pompous the reviewer was and remains who dismissed the film.  And I deeply enjoyed watching him absolutely get owned by the documentary while refusing to give an inch.  

Not many movies get to enjoy this kind of retrospective or get to return to what amounts to the scene of a crime as it were, and get a chance to see something they thought lost.  I have 100,000 words on the complications of art and commerce, anti-censorship, et al.  But if you've been kicking around the blog long enough, you can probably guess my stance on these things (art and commerce is complicated!  Censorship = bad!).  Add in the peculiarities of 1970's British censorship, US-based censorship, dumb people and poor media literacy, and it makes for an interesting confluence of events vis-a-vis The Devils.  

If I have one last note - and the doc came out before the show, there's some real Garth Marenghi's Darkplace energy to the host and his presentation style.  I am guessing this was just a BBC thing at the time.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Great M. Emmet Walsh Merges With The Infinite

Actor M. Emmet Walsh, a staple of movies and television for about five decades, has passed.  He was 88.

How do you sum up the career and impact of someone who has been in more movies than you can count, and was terrific in every single one of them, no matter how large or small the part.  No matter if he played a lovable grandpa or a weird neighbor or the guy on the shop floor with a particular tale about working Nine Mile with Bill Parker (not that mother-scratcher Bill Roberts).

I know I recognized Walsh when I saw Blade Runner the first time, but for a guy who had just a few minutes on screen, he made a hell of an impression, and - for a while - he was "the guy who played Bryant" in my book.  

But he's been a hundred other things since - I was blown away by his menace in Blood Simple and his comedic timing in his brief scene in Fletch.  Of late, he'd been included in The Righteous Gemstones as Eli's elderly father and in Knives Out as the generation who grew up on him wanted to include him in their casts.

His voice was unmistakable, and he never quite had matinee idol good looks, but he was a great presence on screen, and so he worked tirelessly, right into the last year.  The man has 233 IMDB acting credits.

I'll miss seeing him pop up in new movies and shows, but with his filmography, it's also very likely I'll see him appear in movies that are new to me for years to come.

Here's to one of the good ones.

70's Watch: The Devils (1971)

Watched:  03/19/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Ken Russell
Selection:  Oh, no one was going to watch this with me

Years ago I'd read about the Ursuline nuns of Loudun and their possession.  I have no idea in what context I'd stumbled across it, but it definitely stuck in the back of my head.  In fact, when The Little Hours came out, I thought it was a riff on this event (it wasn't, and I didn't watch much of the movie when I saw it on HBO).  

I wasn't actually seeking this movie out in particular.  I saw a Ken Russell movie was on Criterion, I like a good challenge of a movie from time to time - and Russell does provide that.  It had Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, so I figured - sure, let's give it a spin.

For Americans, the closest proximate I would suggest would be The Crucible - but notch it up to an NC-17, add utter madness to the mix, way too many people, and a chance to lose faith in humanity for a bit, and there you go.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

80's Watch: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

Watched:  03/18/2024
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Richard Franklin
Selection:  Me

We recently spent a weekend in San Antonio on the Riverwalk, a famed tourist trap where you can get a margarita the size of a fishbowl and try not to fall in Texas' second grossest body of water (Buffalo Bayou of Houston taking first), a thin ribbon of the San Antonio River that runs near the Alamo (which is directly downtown SA), and is now flanked by innumerable restaurants and bars.  The running joke when someone asks you where to eat on the Riverwalk is to say "oh, the Mexican place with the umbrellas" of which there are about a dozen.

On our first night out, Jamie and I discussed Cloak & Dagger (1984), and realized it had been many years since either of us had seen the movie.  As a kid, in some ways, the movie really hit home.  I was 9 when the movie came out, I played tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, had a budding interest in espionage-type movies and my family routinely went to San Antonio for local-ish vacations - So I knew some of what I saw in the movie very well.

Cloak & Dagger is essentially a Hitchcock thriller with a child protagonist standing in for a Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant.  Kid sees something he shouldn't, kid has a macguffin, kid is pursued by nameless, mysterious forces that will do him in if he can't stay one step ahead - and he might get people killed along the way.

E.T.'s Henry Thomas plays Davey, a kid who loves his espionage table-top RPG in which he plays as agent Jack Flack.  He loves all the spy stuff, and has an imaginary pal in Jack Flack (played by Dabney Coleman in one of two roles) who is constantly goading him into playing out the role of spy in every day life.  While sent on an errand by his pal (William Forsyth!) who owns a gaming store - both RPG's and videogames (there is nothing new under the sun), Davey sees a guy get killed.  The guy hands him an Atari 5200 game cartridge of Cloak & Dagger, which is also the tabletop game Davey loves.  

No one believes Davey saw what he saw, and he's soon pursued by the killers.  Up and down the Riverwalk and around San Antonio.  

Yorgos Watch: The Favourite (2018)

Watched:  03/17/2024
Format:  Hulu
Viewing:  First
Director:  Yorgos Lanthimos
Selection:  Me

My viewing of Poor Things did finally get me to check out director Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite (2018).  I had intended to see this film eventually after seeing the trailer, but time is a slippery mistress.  Featuring four actors I quite like and what seemed like a curious sense of humor as indicated by the clips I'd seen, it seemed like a good time.

It was a good time.

To be clear:  I know absolutely nothing about British history, and the more I learn about the royals and monarchy, I feel pretty good about democracy and two-term presidencies.  As I said to my brother as we stood in Westminster years ago: "damn, this whole place is about 'get rich or die tryin'."

So, while I was aware Queen Anne existed, mostly because of architecture, furniture, I'd spent approximately no time learning anything about her until after watching this movie.  And if there's something that will send you down a Google-hole, it's an engaging two hour movie about melodrama run amok in the royal palace.  

Monday, March 18, 2024

Comedy Watch: Self Reliance (2023)

Watched:  03/17/2024
Format:  Hulu
Viewing:  First
Director:  Jake Johnson
Selection:  Jamie says I picked it

In general, I like Jake Johnson, whether in The New Girl or Jurassic World or voicing Spider-Man or whatever.  He's written and directed a smaller-ish film that's now on Hulu, a sort of modern thriller-comedy.  

The basic gist is that Jake Johnson is an office drone living with his mother after a bad breakup two year prior, and he is in a rut.  Go to work, work out at home a bit, spend time with his mom and sisters, and that's about it.  When he's picked up in a limo by Andy Samberg - not a character Samberg is playing, he's picked up by Andy Samberg.  Samberg takes him to a warehouse where two Greenlandish folks offer him the chance to star in a Dark Web gameshow where he will be hunted by people who are hunting him to kill him.  If he survives for thirty days, he gets a million dollars.  But there's a rule (which he insists is a loophole) that no one can kill him if he's physically with someone else.

The real appeal of the movie is whether you like Johnson's schtick or not, and then seeing Johnson goof around with a host of folks you generally already like.  Samberg, Emily Hampshire, Mary Holland, Anna Kendrick, Miriam Flynn, Natalie Morales, Boban Marjanovic, Eduardo Franco...