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Bob and Margaret (1998)
A quietly, and something screaming, hilarious animated sitcom
I can understand why some people don't like Bob and Margaret. It is a remarkably cerebral cartoon that's occasionally fairly serious in tone, occasionally a real downer, and where nearly every episode breaks down on some level to a debate of the finer points of ethics.
Consider, though, that all of the above can also apply to Seinfeld.
It helps to have a certain familiarity with British culture. That there are people out there like Margaret's parents, who barely acknowledge their daughter and her accomplishments, and profusely thank Bob for "taking her off their hands," and who wouldn't dare ask for something as presumptuous as food. Or Canadian culture - that the vulgar and obnoxious cousins Cookie and Melvin occasionally strike depressingly close to home.
As for the move to Canada, it doesn't particularly matter. Even in London, Bob and Margaret were forever alien in anything they attempted to do. Making them literal aliens is a reasonable next step.
The first time I watched Joe Dante's Matinee, I thought it was a clever but minor film about William Castle-style showmanship. I watched it again last night, and was struck with its odd profundity, a meditation on the linkage between youth, horror and war, a perfect sidebar for David J. Skal's book The Monster Show (recently reissued) that charts the history of atrocity through horror fiction. Against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the kids of Key West are concerned not only with the impending nuclear holocaust, but also with a man transformed by x-rays into a gigantic man-ant, Mant. This is the latest opus of showman director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), whom one of the young heroes says "it's surprising he's a grown-up". That's high praise indeed in a movie where the adults are either manic or incompetent or both. A merchant of schlock, he knows full-well what might happen outside Cuba, and knows there's nothing he can do about it. With his faithful star/companion Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarity) he sells nuclear annihilation fantasy as a distraction from real nuclear annihilation. But the line isn't always so clear. At a key moment the theater manage mistakes Woolsey's "rumble-rama" for bombs dropping and runs for his bomb shelter in panic. When Woolsey's teenage assistant threatens to destroy the theater Woolsey clears it by projecting a mushroom cloud and a raging fire onto the screen.
Navy brat Gene (Simon Fenton) reads Famous Monsters of Filmland and fears for his father on a ship in the Gulf. In a lot of ways he's much like I was five or six years ago- smart, sensitive, not shy but reticent around girls. Pint-sized conscientious objector Sandra (a very cute Canadian girl named Lisa Jakub) makes an adorable and strong-willed counterpart for him, standing tall and getting hauled to the principal's office for objecting to "duck and cover" and seeming touchingly small when Gene asks her out later. My favourite moment for her is when her pre-hippie parents being to launch into why it's not the government's place to tell us what to do and she says "I know" perfectly, with a note of bemused petulance. Gene and Sandra make an ideal pair who know exactly what to do when locked up in a fallout shelter together. Woolsey prophecises they'll have a great future - "They've already seen the coming attractions."
Dante obviously had a lot of fun with the film within a film, Mant, and it comes off much better than in Amazon Women on the Moon because here it has context. The movie borrows elements of The Fly, Hideous Sun Demon and The Incredible Shrinking Man, and sports such hilarious lines as "Human-insect mutation isn't exactly an exact science," and a scientist who contest feels the need to clarify his language when there's a woman in the room. And it features a giant radioactive insect clawing at a skyscraper, a much more tangible fate than nuclear holocaust. Dante reminds us that low art can express the zeitgeist as clearly as high art, and I that is a rare gift indeed.
Firebird 2015 AD (1981)
Pretty bad, all right...
Mind you, it does sport some fine Alberta Badlands scenery. Still, I wonder why the creators of this film overlooked a shining opportunity for an approximation of wit. In the fascist America of 14 years hence, private use of petroleum is not allowed. Who enforces this? Why, the DVC, the Department of Vehicle Control, represented by the surly chief, a plainly psychotic lackey, the woman who's secretly sympathetic to the rebels and a couple of other nondescript guys. Did nobody think that instead of the DVC, it should be have been... the DMV?
Ponder that, if you're ever bored enough to watch this.
St. Elmo's Fire (1985)
There is no possible, humanly reason to be interested in these characters
Most positive reviews of this movie can be summarized as "I was there, consequently this is a good movie". I say that is an insufficient reason to like ANY movie. This is a character-driven movie to . Not one of these characters would I like to speak to for more than five minutes. Let's do the roll-call. Rob Lowe, a slacker and dead-beat dad. Mare Winningham, the lummox who loves him. Judd Nelson, a charmless, philanderer. Emilio Estevez, whose infatuation with Andie McDowell is fueled not by heedless romanticism so much as a stalker mentality. Demi Moore, an empty-headed druggy. The most two likeable characters, Ally Sheedy and Andrew McCarthy, are a directionless whiner and a capon. No reviews have mentioned this, but they're all drinking alcohol in almost every scene, which probably explains a lot. So, you ask, what possible reason could there be to follow the exploits of these dreary character types? Search me.
The script is beyond lazy, falling into a predictable rhythm. Something comes between two of the friends, they squabble, another friend is in trouble, they come together again. Repeat. There is also a nastily homophobic undercurrent to the film, which probably thinks itself progressive since everyone is fine with McCarthy being gay, and McCarthy himself doesn't object to strenuously to others thinking him gay. But that's only because, thank God, he isn't! Sighs of relief all around. This is a deeply tiresome movie which makes me glad I'm not a fraternity, because then I could be a dreary boozing proto-yuppie too.
Au Pair Girls (1972)
Fun, sexy oddity of a spoof
I watched this movie the same day I first saw The Day the Earth Caught Fire, quite unaware that both movies had the same director. Had I not been alerted to this fact, I would never have guessed. It is a spoof of soft core British porn films to an extent, but also injects interesting dramatic material. The story is of four gorgeous girls who come to England as au pairs (doubtless using the Gorgeous Woman Only au pair service). Each of them only keeps their job for one day, for various reasons. Danish Randi is stranded with the rich kid son of her employer when his car breaks down, her clothes are soaked and they end up spending the night in a parking lot. Swedish Anita (a fun, delightful character who seems so liberated that she doesn't realize there's any alternative) shocks her employer by marching about the house nude and ends up being picked up at a casino by an amorous sheik (in the sheik's abode, a man sounds a gong every time he walks through the door). German Christa, a near-prudish virgin, is indoctrinated into London's swinging underground by her employer's daughter who wants to offer her as a sacrificial virgin to a rock star. Chinese Nan is taken to a manor house and begins a sad little affair with a sheltered pianist man-child, who seems to have the emotional maturity of a child half his age.
The odd thing is that the first two plots are funny and ridiculous, but the second two are tragic, as Christa realizes she has squandered her virginity on the ungrateful rock god and Nan scarcely seems happy to be regarded as a new plaything by her new bedmate. Both stories have tears. What's going on here? This stands in clear opposition to the brassy, fun nature of the other plots (and the atrocious upbeat theme song - you've got to hear it to believe it), and the ending that ties together all four girls in a riotously offhand and silly manner, as they all trot off to be the sheik's handmaidens, no questions asked. Also odd is that there's not all that much sex (though there is plenty of nudity). Anita does not actually have sex at all (and she doesn't seem to mind much, either!), and though the others do, it's hardly explicit at all.
All the girls are likeable, which is more than can be said for the men. Nan's swain, who refers to her as "it" early on, like she's one of his model ships, is a particular repellent creation, although strangely one of the most repellent, who slips his hand into Christina's pants, actually proves quite respectful of her. For a porn film, this is a rather well acted one. Guest handles the actors well, and provides some nice little touches (as when Anita applies a puff of perfume between her legs). The Au Pair Girls is a particular oddity, but not an unrewarding one.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
A small miracle
Werewolf movies are really few and far between, but when my local reviewer (in whom my faith is limited) declared Ginger Snaps to be the best made in the last 30 years, I took notice. I'm not sure where he got that figure from, but what are the contenders? An American Werewolf in London, most would say. It is a tolerable movie with effective bursts of humour, but stagy and overblown, with a completely unsatisfying end. What then - Wolfen, Silver Bullet, The Howling and its sequels? Wolf? An American Werewolf in Paris? No way. Perhaps the Neil Jordan's very odd and very Freudian In the Company of Wolves. John Fawcett's marvellous Ginger Snaps is close to the spirit of that movie than the others I've mentioned.
In the wake of Hannibal, here is a movie to remind me that gloss makes a horror movie less scary, not more. From its opening moments, Ginger Snaps seems drab and real, and is almost as evocative in its gray atmospherics as Halloween (or early David Cronenberg). Its moment of horror are, for once, actually shocking - the first attack on Ginger is scarier than anything in The Blair Witch Project. But it was only after the movie was over that I became really unnerved - here is a rare horror film scarier in its implications than in the gore on the screen. It has something to say about parental neglect (a telling moment is when Mimi Rogers as the mother says she's happy that her plan was working - letting her daughters come to her), STDs (to which lycanthropy is explicitly connected throughout), addiction and obsession, and even the spectre of violent sister-sister incest is palpable (as mother-daughter in The Exorcist). And menstruation. Blood is a consistent visual symbol from the first scene to the last; in fact, this is the only movie I've seen that might earn its R rating for "explicit scenes of menstruation." Carrie is the tale of a menstrual initiation gone terribly wrong, and so is Little Red Riding Hood. But this movie trumps them both - a psychoanalytic scholar could really sink his teeth in here (no pun intended). Even the title can be read different ways - is it a reference to what a werewolf's jaws can do? Or is it a description of what happens to Ginger's psyche (when her animalistic side takes over before she beats up another girl, there is an audible snapping noise on the soundtrack). I'd like to think it characterizes the essential difference between her and her sister Brigitte. Ginger may snap, but Brigitte never does.
I also admired the persuasive logic with which the story unfolds. I like that the Hollywood rules for dealing with werewolves (which Hollywood invented) are quickly swept aside. And when a character says "There has to be a cure, or else there'd be more of them" I was shouting "YES!" - monster movies always seem to ignore that fact. The research into herb lore to try to find a cure seems plausible and leads to a plausible solution (which, I would be remiss in not noting, seems a homage to The Werewolf of London.)
Copious praise must go to Emily Perkins in the lead role as Brigitte. She is completely believable from start to finish in what begins as a very unsympathetic role. But what a role it is! The character has a complete arc. She gets to play sullen, concerned, excited, scared, subtly in love (this is handled with particular grace), brave, determined, emotional, level-headed, crafty, she gets to surrender to her animal impulses and she gets to fight them off. She even manages to bring off a tender scene played with a hunk of animatronics! I cared about her character deeply, I felt a need to protect her. How rare for a horror film! Neve Campbell has nothing on this girl. I want more of her.
Mention must be made to the curious similarities to American Beauty, from uncomfortable dinner table scenes between parents and sullen daughters to a smart and resourceful drug dealer as the nominal hero. I wonder if these were intentional or unconscious.
There is a lot of humour in Ginger Snaps, but not of the tiring self-referential Scream variety. It is as cold and dark and bloody as the movie itself. Flaws? A few - I could have done without the occasional bursts of tuneless rock music on the soundtrack, but those were blissfully few. A few of the characters are overdrawn; the camera compositions are sometimes too studied. And, unusual and effective as the ending is, we needed to see one other thing before the curtain in order to complete the plot and the theme alike (those who've seen the movie should know what I mean). The ending is meant to be ambiguous, but this is a point where it should be unequivocal. Still, these are minor complaints. I'm not sure if it will be released in the States, but it's well worth a look, perhaps on video. But for Memento, this is the best movie I've seen yet this year. It's the movie that's restored my faith in the cinematic horror genre.
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
One of the finest
Probably the second best horror film made by Universal Pictures, after "The Bride of Frankenstein". It is melodramatic and not in the slightest campy. It is noteworthy for its lesbian slant (check out that scene with Nan Gray), and for having one of the first sympathetic vampires anyway.
Also interesting to note are the similarities to "Sunset Boulevard". Both involve a faded woman living in a decaying mansion with a manservant played by a director, and a doctor who tries to help the woman (in "Sunset Boulevard", of course, it was a script doctor). The similarities are so striking that it's hard to imagine Billy Wilder did not have this film at least partially in mind.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
An overlooked Ford film
It's certainly not on the caliber of his finest works, but Young Mr. Lincoln is still a fine John Ford film. Focusing on Abraham Lincoln's first court case, it veers a little too much into Sherlock Holmes territory, but does a good job of humanizing the legend. This is helped in part by Henry Fonda's excellent performance; he really shines, especially when making bawdy jokes. The ending sequence, where Lincoln symbolically steps forward into legend, is a piece of virtuoso filmmaking few directors could pull of.
Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)
No one has commented on this one yet?
I find that hard to believe! Anyone, allow me to rectify this. Blackadder's Christmas Carol has some of the funniest material of all the Blackadders. Set in Victorian times (Jim Broadbeat looks stunningly like Prince Albert), there's a neat turnabout this time - Ebenezer Blackadder is the nicest, most entirely selfless man in the whole of England! A visit from Robbie Coltrane, hilarious as the ghost of Christmas who decided to visit someone who's all ready nice for a change, shows Blackadder the naughty behaviour of some of his ancestors, not to mention the future. But Ebenezer draws the wrong conclusion. You can sense the relish in Rowan Atkinson's voice as he proclaims "Bad guys have all the fun!" - what he means is, playing bad guys is all the fun. Don't miss this one.
Earnest but not entirely successful adaptation
Inspired by my recent experience of seeing Cate Blanchett perform "Plenty" on the London stage, I rented the 1985 film version. It is a solid effort, and sports some excellent acting, but unfortunately isn't half of the play, but not for the usual reasons.
Films from the play are often undirected. This one is the opposite. It's overdirected. It's almost as if the director is to eager to cast off its stage roots, and he it swings too far the other way. For example, consider the scene at the reception with the Burmese diplomat. When Streep bursts into her ill-timed monologue, the camera moves into a close up. I think the scene plays better when we can see the reactions of the other characters.
Also, the humour doesn't really come through. The major laugh line in the play (along with one about inbreeding in a cut scene) is where the John Gielgud character remarks that having a mad wife is not a hindrance in the diplomatic corps. It was hilarious on the stage, but hardly elicits a smile in the movie. The problem isn't the acting - we know from "Arthur" and elsewhere what Sir John can do with a good line - but with the direction.
The other big problem is with the second-from-last scene. It plays well on the stage precisely because you don't know who it is with her until the end. Also, it was a mistake to make Codename Lazar her lover in France. It is better for him to be someone she just knew briefly, saw at his best and most courageous, and now learns is just as scummy as she is. Furthermore, it ties in ironically with her line about not wanting to sleep with someone you know.
I'm not a major theater-phile, and it annoys me to no end when people protest plays and musicals being made into films. So I surprise myself by saying that the stage is the place to see "Plenty".