A Star is Born (2018)

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Reviewed 11/25/2018

Combined Rating 3.5/5

Frank’s Review:

How many times must a film be remade before the whole world knows how it ends?   Apparently, that has yet to be determined.   I know some folks who were not yet familiar with the tale.  Those folks shall remain nameless in the interest of charity to folks raised in caves.  Even still, I myself did not quite realize that A Star is Born had been unofficially slated for generational updates…offering a kind of quintessential  American lesson everyone should internalize because either it’s THAT important, or Hollywood is truly out of ideas.  In 2018, the fourth iteration of this bittersweet saga about the fleeting nature of fame hit the big screen, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, of all people.   And I have to say, despite the old hat, the clothes were new, and fit quite nicely.

Gaga inherited the Barbra Streisand role from the 1976 version (the poster for which, featuring assumed nudes of perm-clad Streisand and hippie-Jesus Kris Kristofferson in a staged embrace, may be one of the most disturbing images in filmdom).   Having said that, few could match Streisand’s pipes, making casting tricky.   Gaga, thankfully, is one of them, in her debut leading role.  Cooper, also directing, assumes the burden of our declining alcoholic rock star Jackson, who, despite serious flaws, manages to fall in love and motivate himself long enough to promote Ally’s gee-wiz talents, which initially find her performing in shady drag bars for 21st century flair.  He charms her in a mumbling kind of way, and rescues her from obscurity.  Queue Jack’s protective manager/brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) who must set a cinematic record for F-bombs matched only by Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.   The glint in Jackson’s eye is fading fast, as he clings to sobriety amidst a bevy of life-of-a-superstar snares and awkward family drama.  Even if we don’t predict his specific fate on the Thunderdome wheel, we sense this can only turn out one way for him.

What the film does well is explore the dichotomy of who we really are beneath the self-imposed mask of our public persona, and how difficult it is to manage expectations and even our true identity in the throes of disease that dampens it to fill a void.  Relationships seem impossible to maintain given self-imposed pressures within a rising sea of self-doubt, especially when the public is, by nature, unforgiving and fickle.  One scene symbolizes Jack’s public death in a severely cringe-inducing manner, at an award show honoring Ally’s official rise.  It’s the pinnacle moment where we know they’ve traded places…but to what end?  The inevitable fall of Jack is no surprise (again, to most), as we’re clued in throughout the proceedings with subtle harbingers and details that portend in retrospect.   We’re left hoping that Ally (or indeed Gaga in her own storied music career) doesn’t follow the same path, but we’ve seen too many times the temptations inherent in the business.  We can only console ourselves but for that brief crest of the wave and enjoy the fruits of their creative labor before it all potentially crashes down.  In the end, at least, it’s the music itself, sad, poetic, and ironically introspective, that lasts.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

What a lot of mixed emotions this one stirs up! I love the overall premise—it’s a Cinderella story, but with the music industry, and it most definitely is not a feel-good fairy tale. Ally (Lady Gaga) is an incredibly talented waitress by day, nightclub performer by night. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a jaded country superstar who stops by the club where Ally is performing on his way home after a concert, just because he ran out of alcohol and needs to keep his buzz going. It’s love at first sight, more or less, mostly because her talent blows him away. From that moment on, he practically stalks her to try to use his influence as a jump-start to her career. It works, and for a brief glorious moment in time, the two of them perform together, writing songs for one another and reveling in new love. But Jackson is an addict—Ally knows this from the beginning. As her star rises, he begins to self-destruct. Let me just say this: if you’re looking for a “happily ever after,” pass this one up. It’s suuuuper depressing.

But as much as I dislike sad stories, I’m also fascinated by the psychology of fame, and this film gives an inside look of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of adulation, as well as what it’s like to lose it. Jackson is a very sympathetic character, despite all the alcohol, the drugs, and the f-bombs (which became almost comical at certain parts of the film). What I loved most about him was that he wasn’t jealous of Ally’s success: he supported her every step of the way, and was proud of her, and continued to promote her even after it was obvious that she was far more popular than he was. But he also wanted her to stay true to her talent and identity, rather than “sell out”—changing her look and her sound to suit the public tastes. Ally does sell out, though (which I thought was particularly interesting, given the parallels between her character and Lady Gaga’s actual career: both are outrageously talented and capable of doing anything, and yet both reduced themselves to braindead lyrics with a catchy beat in order to cater to the masses. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Lady Gaga herself noticed the irony.) This is the other main source of tension between Jackson and herself, and perhaps part of what drives him further into substance abuse.

Ally, too, is a sympathetic character, though. I get why she sells out, especially since she resists it at first. All decisions in life are a cost/benefit analysis, ultimately—and the question becomes, is it worth it to you to compromise your values to achieve your dream? It’s not like the compromise is hurting anybody, and you’re greatly rewarded for it, so… why not? Also, how crazy would it be to have millions of people watching and weighing in on your every experience, good and bad? What must it be like to have normal human experiences, multiplied through the scrutiny of media attention? No wonder so many can’t handle it. So as much as I don’t care for sad films in general, and I certainly will never watch this one again, knowing how it ends—it’s definitely thought-provoking. (And also, the music is fantastic!)

*** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Since so much of the film revolves around alcohol, bar food seems appropriate: a burger, sweet potato fries, and local craft beer.

 

 

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Cat People (1942)

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Reviewed: 10/31/2018

Combined Rating: 3/5

Frank’s Review:

Martin Scorsese once said that “Cat People was as important as Citizen Kane in the development of a more mature American cinema.”  John Carpenter lists the film’s pool sequence as one of the scenes that scared him most as a child.  To these lions and many others, the film has left an irrefutable lasting mark on the horror genre, signaling the rise of the power of suggestion and influencing countless filmmakers in their quest to more effectively utelize subtlety.  The man responsible for this transition is RKO producer Val Lewton, for whom Cat People was the first of seven attempts to pitch horror into the realm of analogy and psychoanalysis.  While there is no doubt the film oozes atmosphere and pathos, it is a crux aspect of the film’s premise I had the hardest time with.

I can accept the basic horror-esque cliché of a woman turning into a beast to purge her repressed sexual frustrations.  I can even accept that said woman (Simone Simon) has developed a personal discipline that keeps her urges at bay, preventing untold carnage.  But what I cannot believe is that any man would willingly agree to a marriage without intimacy, for any reason…especially if that reason is that his wife thinks she’s descended from an evil race of cat people.  Men just aren’t that charitable.  I give our lead protagonist Oliver (Kent Smith) credit for being a sympathetic guy, but deference only goes so far.   Are we to believe that Irena’s urges are that much stronger than Oliver’s?  We never once see him fidget, or drink, or look remotely anguished while not consummating his bond for months on end.  We only realize he’s experiencing a strange new sensation called “unhappiness” when he politely says so.  Given that he thinks his wife crazy for most of the film, it’s that much more of a wonder why he doesn’t say to hell with it earlier.  If any man truly loved a woman in the history of cinema, this is it.  I don’t know, maybe chalk it up to a performance issue, but wifey as roommate feels far too contrived to be believable, and serves only to delay the inevitable climax.  I did feel far worse for him, in the end, than for her, even though we’re supposed to pity her Serbian “otherness” as a hindrance to her adaptation to American culture. It eventually took a slightly pervy shrink (the perfectly slimy Tom Conway) to finally unleash the cat in Irena, when he forces an unwanted kiss at a pseudo-session, curiously negating the idea that lust is the central trigger for transformation,  suggesting it’s far more arbitrary.  Regardless, this is the moment where the folklore becomes reality, and things wrap up rather quickly after that.

I was happy to see that at least one character dies, assuaging my inherent desire for more overt fare.  But I do appreciate the great care Lewton took in risking the fledgling profits of an already teetering studio to create something new and artistic, in the vein of the great Orson Welles before him.   The Universal monsters had already entered redundancy, and Lewton correctly surmised that timing is everything in pushing the envelope, and the medium, forward.  Cat People was his most successful effort, and amidst a bevy of unsatisfied urges, remains notorious as one of those classic turning point films.

***

Lauren’s Review:

I went into this one super prepared: Frank gave me a mini-dissertation at dinner before we went to the film, and then one of the Loft film scholars waxed poetic for like fifteen minutes beforehand as well. I felt like I was back in one of my college lit classes, particularly because according to the Loft guy, the theme is all about sexual repression. (That was always the conclusion my professors drew, as well.) I have to say, though—this time, that conclusion is pretty inescapable. The other main point of interest I got out of that intro talk was that Cat People was the studio’s attempt to dig themselves out of dire financial straits after Citizen Kane, now revered as the greatest movie ever made (for reasons I don’t understand—sorry, Frank), but which flopped at the time and went way over-budget. Horror was considered to be a guaranteed money maker, so the studio told producer Val Lewton to reuse the sets from Citizen Kane, and create a film to go with the evocative title they chose. That’s all he had to work with, apparently—the plot was up to him. Here’s what he came up with.

The story follows Irena (Simone Simon), an immigrant who hails from a Serbian village rife with superstition and legends—particularly of villagers who turn into cats. She meets Oliver (Kent Smith), and they fall in love with all the rapidity of a 1940s film (films back then never really belabored the love story much) and get married. But Irena won’t so much as kiss Oliver, because she fears that something dreadful will happen to him if she does. We’re not directly told what it is she fears, but given her obsession with sketching panthers in the park, and the way house cats react to her with violent dislike, plus her story of the evil that follows those from her village, it’s not too hard to guess. She explains to him that in the story, the Cat People will turn into large cats when they are emotionally triggered, either in anger, passion, or jealousy. Her husband is patient for awhile, but eventually he grows weary of his wife’s cagey behavior, and lack of intimacy. Oliver convinces Irena to seek psychiatric help, which she does, but reluctantly. His work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) then professes her love for Oliver, which of course triggers Irena’s jealousy. And that’s all it takes to unleash the beast within.

To Lewton’s credit, he relies on subtlety and suggestion to carry his horrific theme. The imagination is more powerful I think than even a CGI monster (Frank thinks these are terrible anyway, but I’m actually pretty impressed by what technology can render these days). But it’s certainly more powerful than anything a cash-strapped studio could have come up with in the 1940s. I also enjoyed the film far more because of the context I had beforehand, I think. Aside from that, I’m not a horror fan, but this wasn’t really a horror to my mind. The theme was supposed to evoke that emotion, but it really didn’t for me. Then again, I always feel emotionally removed from any film created before the 1980s, so it’s hard for any of them to really have their intended effect. In the case of horror, I definitely consider this to be a good thing!

***

Meal Pairing: Get Eastern European with pljeskavicas (ground beef or pork patties) consommé (chicken soup with noodles/dumplings) some Torshi (pickled vegetables) and a nice rakija (fruit brandy).  You can probably get ahold of the ingredients, depending on the size of your city.

Commando (1985)

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Reviewed: 10/18/18

Combined Rating: 3.25/5

Frank’s Review:

He’ll fight for love.  That’s what the Power Station’s closing credits power ballad affirms.  And boy does he ever.  Commando is Schwarzenegger at his bad ass, brawny best, dead square in the middle of the decade that made him.  If you’re looking for a heavy dose of macho bullshit peppered with memorable ‘80’s caricatures, it doesn’t get any more quintessential than this.  Despite (or maybe because of) massive collateral damage, incompetent cops and soldiers, and a near complete disregard for the law and consequences, John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) succeeds in assuaging every young boy’s cathartic fantasy, and indeed,  still makes this 41 year old want to fire a bazooka at something.

The “love” in question is Matrix’s daughter Jenny (played by the politically yet unspoiled Alyssa Milano).  We join her and her dad as they’re busy enjoying a quaint, carefree life holed up their mountain compound, entailing lots of ice cream cones, coloring, wildlife petting, and mystery sandwiches.   Oh, and occasionally Matrix carries around entire trees on his shoulders while his glistening pecs bounce around.  Until one day, an evil South American ex-dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya) has Jenny kidnapped and held hostage to force Matrix to assassinate the ruling president of Val Verde (the fictional country also used in Die Hard 2) thus allowing his reinstall by successful coup.  The current prez trusts Matrix, making him an unsuspecting assassin.  Apparently, all these guys go way back, and participated in various surly jungle campaigns of unabashed machismo together, for the American govt., until going rogue.  Matrix retired to his compound to raise his cutesy daughter, leaving the rest of his former team feeling rather butt-hurt.   The cast of goons, led by Bennett (The Road Warrior’s Vernon Wells) doesn’t initially realize Matrix has ditched the plan to go straight for Jenny after correctly surmising they will kill her even if he “does the job,” just to be evil, I guess.  Bennett is as awkwardly amusing and arrogant as any ill-built middle aged chainmail/leotard wearing lead henchman can possibly be expected to be.  His triggered crazy-town freak-out and climactic death scene are especially rewarding.

An impressive body count of 109 (recounted individually by Allaboutbubblegum.com) is both comical and justified, and includes the nameless mustached hordes of Arius’ elite paramilitary guard that ceaselessly line up as shell fodder for Matrix’s wrath as if in a live action game of Super Contra.   As Matrix tracks and dispatches our named goons one by one in creative fashion, he finds time to jump off a commercial flight in mid-take off, loot an Army surplus store, recruit an initially hesitant girlfriend, steal a plane, fight off cops at the Chopping Mall, don an unnecessary speedo, and participate in a breathtaking rapid edit, pre-raid suit-up montage, all while rattling off some of the most appropriate post-kill quips ever recorded on celluloid.  Notably amusing is how Matrix manages to simultaneously blow up every building on Arius’s compound, seemingly from within, with the planting of only 2 or 3 remote controlled external devices, obviously a homage to Rambo, released a year earlier.   Who needs reality when you have an unlimited supply of motivation?  By the time Commando is finished, you’ll be left wondering how he could have possible accomplished so much in only 11 short hours…as he was, technically, on the clock.  But the more important thing is that you, like Bennett, will have gotten to let off some steam.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

So I can’t say I went into this one exactly expecting Oscar gold. I was told in advance that some consider “Commando” to be the “worst film ever made”—but my husband owns it, and I made him watch “Crazy Rich Asians,” so there you go. I wasn’t dreading it too much though, since I honestly can’t think of any Arnold Schwarzenegger films I’ve seen that I truly disliked. Unlike many other stars who might share his type casting, Schwarzenegger just seems endearing to me, despite his overblown machismo. He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. It feels like he’s playing his roles tongue-in-cheek almost, which makes them far more palatable than they might be otherwise.

But in every other respect, “Commando” pretty much lived up to my expectations. John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) is a badass former special ops agent who has retired to spend more time with his daughter Jenny (a pre-pubescent Alyssa Milano, with a terrible haircut and some bad overalls—I think I had a pair like that in middle school, too). But some bad guys (of which actor Vernon Wells is chief) try to blackmail Matrix into performing a political assassination by kidnapping Jenny. Rather than carry out their wishes, Matrix goes rogue and performs some antics worthy of the Mission: Impossible franchise to rescue Jenny. But he’s on a deadline: said bad guys put him on a plane overseas to carry out their mission, but Matrix manages to climb out of the plane (after it’s already taken off on the runway), and escapes. Once the plane arrives at its destination, the bad guys will realize he’s not on board, and will presumably kill Jenny, so Matrix has about 11 hours to do his thing. The countdown feels a little like an episode of “24”: how many shoot-outs, explosions, and superfluous deaths can possibly go down in half a day? As it turns out: a lot. At least in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s world.

“Commando” is fairly thin on plot, and heavy on the action—but you can guess that from the movie poster alone. The script is cheesy, but in an innocent sort of way—it doesn’t feel nearly as dark as the same movie might if made today. And the acting is as good as it can possibly be, given what the actors had to work with. Not my cup of tea, of course, but I didn’t hate it. It was mildly entertaining, I’d say—even for a girl who loves musicals and rom coms.

***

Meal Pairing:  Bologna and Nacho Cheese Dorito sandwich on White Bread, cut in half on the parallel, and Mountain Dew.  You may substitute mystery meat if you don’t care for bologna.

 

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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Reviewed 9/25/2018

Combined Rating: 2.5/5

Frank’s Review:

As I sat waiting to observe inevitable relationship malfunctions of rich Asians for two plus hours, I consoled myself with the thought that at least these Asians would be “crazy.”  Slowly, it dawned on me that I had misread the admittedly enticing title.  While there are two undisputedly crazy/unhinged peripheral characters (the only two I found funny), the family of which the story revolves turned out to only be “crazy rich,” not “crazy, rich.”  Ah, I get it now.  What a disappointment. Typically, the first world problems of the insanely wealthy interest me about as much as a little league soccer game.  Unless, of course, Robin Leach is hosting.  Well, maybe I could be a smidge into it if the characters are complex, development occurs, and lessons are learned.  None of that really happens, save a proverbial, token twist, that I apparently missed altogether, involving mom’s hesitant softening towards Rachel, our would-be bride.  What is perfectly clear is that this big budget Busby Berkely style spectacle for the 21st Century is more interested in celebrating the emergence of Singapore as a destination capital than anything our characters are doing there.

The story, basically about a perfectly nice Asian boy’s attempts to convince his Chinese mother to accept his working class Chinese-American girlfriend, is an exercise in stock characterization and well worn tropes, goldwashed in visual splendor.  But wait, they suffered!  And what better way to emphasize that than with a pre-credit sequence of old fashioned whitey perpetrated racism against 1995 era mom.  Although quite fashionable in film these days, the episode is ultimately negated when even after Rachel proves her worth, 2018 era mom doubles down, driving her away for concealing a less than honorable aspect of her past.  Because the family reputation is king, it seems she will sadly “never be one of them.”  Even sweet grandma turns on Rachel faster than a Cubs fan after a blown save.   Nick, our leading man, remains willing to trade his status for the girl…but there was no doubt he would, as he had already decided to live in New York long ago.  Not much of a sacrifice there, outside of future first class airline tickets.  We’re also treated to an unnecessary secondary plotline featuring Nick’s sister and her unfaithful husband, apparently inserted to either pad out the movie a bit, or show that even ungodly rich women can have deuchy husbands too.  I had no idea.

Director Jon Chu’s laziness is illustrated by his decision to wrap up newly introduced conflicts in the next scene, giving what little tension there is no time to build.  What remains is a series of contrived and seemingly isolated scenarios that never really go anywhere.  Or even when they do, it’s to no end.  For example, Rachel’s girlfriend decides that if only Nick’s mom could get a sense of her intellectualism, she’d be impressed.  Queue meeting and conversation between Rachel and famous, random economics guru, conveniently happening within earshot of mom at the big wedding. But mom cares not.  Thanks for wasting precious minutes of screen time.  Nevermind…cut to another party.  And so it goes.  There is enough eye candy in Crazy Rich Asians to hold one’s attention, but it all feels like an exploding Chinese Happy Meal.  If there was a prize inside, it must have been blown under the lambo, because I certainly couldn’t find it.

**

Lauren’s Review:

I have to say, I love the title. It seems so un-PC, because—isn’t it supposed to not be okay to refer to anyone else’s race, ever? I thought that was considered taboo, like we were all supposed to pretend not to notice. Add to that the emotionally charged adjectives ‘crazy’ and ‘rich’, and the book couldn’t help but become a bestseller. You can’t not pick up a book with the title ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ if only to read the blurb on the back. Then when I found out it was a pseudo-Cinderella story, I was sold. Did it live up to the hype? Well… yes and no.

The story follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor and normal American girl in every way except that she’s Chinese by heritage. She’s been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) long enough for him to invite her home to Singapore to meet his family, as his date to a wedding. Only Rachel has no idea that Nick is basically royalty in Singapore: his family owns, like, everything. Long before Rachel ever arrives, she finds herself the gossip of social media, and the envy of every girl in Singapore, as she’s snagged their Most Eligible Bachelor. So far so good—but at this point, the story began to drag. About two thirds of the film does nothing but establish how smitten Nick is with Rachel, and how rich the Youngs are. (Oh, and then there’s this side plot about how Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) finds out that her insecure husband is cheating on her, though I couldn’t figure out why that was relevant.) Mixed in are increasingly overt confrontation scenes between Rachel and Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), as Eleanor does not believe that Rachel is “good enough” (read: Asian enough) to marry the Young family heir. This is the main conflict of the story, but it takes quite awhile to come to fruition. When it finally does, Rachel leaves Nick, forcing him to more or less decide between her and his birthright. It seems like his world and hers are irreconcilable… but there’s a heartwarming twist at the end. It’s not altogether unpredictable (and maybe not entirely believable if we were to fast forward a year to find out what their day-to-day lives together actually look like), but it did make the rest of the film worthwhile. At least I thought so.

Still, they could have chopped out at least 30-40 minutes of filler and still maintained the essential story. I like opulence as much as the next girl, but I don’t really need to see a depiction of the all-expenses-paid shopping spree on a deserted island, hosted by a shrieking girl in a skintight gold bodysuit. They’re rich; I got it. But aside from that, it’s a sweet, rather forgettable chick flick in which the essential goodness in the main character (Rachel) causes her to win over her enemy as a friend. And she gets the guy, to boot. We all love that story, right?

***

Meal pairing: Kung Pao Chicken over brown rice, boba tea, and eggrolls. (Wait… was that racist?)

 

 

 

The Naked Gun (1988)

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Reviewed: 9/9/2018

Combined Rating: 3.25/5

Frank’s Review:

From the files of the quintessentially Eighties TV series “Police Squad” comes the feature film, chock full of politically incorrect gags inspired by a lost era when believable plots were secondary to laughs.  The Zucker Brothers (Airplane, Top Secret) were masters of the decade’s slapstick sub-genre, successfully scraping the barrel for the ridiculous, the unnecessary, and the ridiculously unnecessary.  In this iteration, Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) foils a plot by the guy from Fantasy Island to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II at a baseball game.  Drebin’s well meaning yet inane detecting methods and policies, far from solving crimes, actually make things worse, and endanger lives unnecessarily (like the time when he shot five actors performing a Shakespeare in-the-park production of Julius Caesar, mistaking them for weirdos with knives).  Somehow he remained on the force, probably because “actors” are of little societal value, one of many brilliant digs.  Drebin only succeeds by accident, with what could only be deemed God’s favor and/or sympathy.  But in the end, you know the Police Squad will always get their man.

This style of sheer outlandishness is sorely missing from today’s anemic fare.  In general, comedy and political correctness don’t mix.  Watching PC comedies is like eating a spoonful of Drano…sure it’ll clean you out, but I’ll leave you hollow inside.  The 1990’s saw the domination of Rom Coms that offer watered down, feel good advice that rarely works in real life.  Somewhere along the line they ceased to be biting.  I miss comedy for its own sake, unfettered by an agenda or value platform that robs fun for fun’s sake.  The Naked Gun’s jokes make no effort to beat around the bush, which ironically, is what makes them memorable.  Modern comedy is probably better served under a different moniker altogether, but it’s certainly more boring, and in the end, anything but funny.

Perhaps it is sentimentality talking, but watching a still beloved and carefree O.J. Simpson play physical comedy for laughs harkens me back to a simpler time.  A time when you could gather a roomful of the world’s most evil men and not only take their evil for granted, but have our hero thrash them all…a vicarious thrill!  A time when great dramatic lions like George Kennedy could utter deadpan lines like, “Uh, they’re not here for you, Frank…Weird Al Yankovic is on the plane.”  A time when the still smoking wife of Elvis Presley could wrap herself in a full body condom to practice safe sex.  And a time when baseball legend Reggie Jackson could robotically utter, in a hypnotic trance, “I MUST KILL…THE QUEEN.”  Classic.  Of course, numerous sequels to the film were offered up, but none exude the magic of the original.  I’d rather watch movies like The Naked Gun over and over again to satiate my quotation fix than risk two hours on what’s being called comedy these days, which is I guess why I’ve seen it so many times, unapologetically.  I was giddy to expose my wife to it for this, her first time, and although not a fan of slapstick shenanigans, she admitted it was “cute”.  Score!  I can only pretend to imagine what the Zucker Brothers would be doing these days if audiences still had an appetite for their brand of humor.  But I promise you, I won’t rest until I expose as many folks as possible to the endearing legacy of these types of films.  Now let’s grab a bite to eat.

****

Lauren’s Review:

Guess which one of us picked this one. 🙂 The Naked Gun belongs to that specific genre of 1980s over-the-top slapstick comedy shared with Chevy Chase films (in fact, Chase easily could easily have been cast in the lead role here). Let me just put it this way: the opening scene involves Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielson) single-handedly beating the crap out of a roomful of the world’s most nefarious leaders. But he pauses to wipe the birthmark off of Mikhail Gorbachev’s head, and then declares, “I knew it!”

The basic storyline: Drebin’s partner Nordberg (OJ Simpson—who incidentally is a surprisingly good actor) gets caught investigating a bunch of sketchy drug dealers on a boat. He’s your classic Sad Sack caricature: everything bad that possibly can happen to him, does, yet he refuses to die—and so he is able to tip Drebin off to the name of the boat he was investigating (which was “I Love You”. You can imagine the misunderstandings that ensue). Drebin hunts down the owner of the boat, Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalbán), and pays him a visit (during which he accidentally kills Ludwig’s very expensive Japanese fighter fish, with Ludwig’s supposedly unbreakable pen). On his way out the door, he encounters Ludwig’s secretary, Jane (Priscilla Presley—cue cartoonish bow-wow-wow music as Drebin checks her out). Ludwig tells Jane to spy on Drebin, and she agrees to do so—but of course, she falls for him too. We later find out that Ludwig is planning the murder of Queen Elizabeth on her visit to the US. Drebin finds out about this, and humiliates both himself and the queen in an attempt to save her life, getting him booted off the police force. When Drebin finds out that Jane originally hooked up with him on Ludwig’s orders, he’s furious—but then she shows her loyalty by revealing Ludwig’s true plan to assassinate the queen at a baseball game, using one of the players as the assassin via hypnosis. Drebin then infiltrates the game—first as the opera tenor scheduled to sing the national anthem, and then as the umpire. In a ridiculous sequence, he feels up nearly every one of the players in an attempt to frisk them for weapons, until Reggie Jackson makes a cameo as the assassin. Oh, the drama!

Spoiler alert: the queen lives. 🙂 And while absurd scenarios really aren’t my sense of humor, there were still parts of the film when I laughed out loud (even while there were plenty of other parts that made me groan). I think I don’t really care for this brand of humor primarily because it’s so silly that I’m constantly aware that I’m watching a film, and the characters and scenarios can’t possibly be real. I want to get lost in a story, and become the character—no matter the genre. If it’s not designed to give me that experience, I tend to lose interest. That said, if larger-than-life is your cup of tea and if you’re looking for a comedy that’s about as subtle as a rhinoceros, this is probably a winner.

** 1/2

Meal Pairing: this one is an anti-pairing: avoid any meal involving boiled meat. (You’ll understand about halfway through.)

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth (1998)

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Reviewed: 8/6/2018

Combined Rating: 3.5/5

Frank’s Review:

Elizabeth can be jolly good Tudor age fun, if you don’t mind being six degrees of flummoxed along the way.  Period dramas of the palace court variety can be rather confusing, if one doesn’t enter into the proceedings with at least some basic knowledge of who the hell these people were, and especially of their relationship to each other.  It doesn’t help that we’re plunged into the action with no introduction towards the end of the reign of Queen Bloody Mary (daughter of Henry the VIII), as his other surviving daughter, Elizabeth, is still twirling in the fields with her maidens, whimsical, carefree, and ignorant of her impending power.  Even though I am a student of post-medieval English history, I found myself pausing the film intermittently, trying to untangle impending political allegiances and motives with the help of Mr. Wiki, to avoid confusing myself even further.

It also doesn’t help that the film plays a bit fast and loose with history.  For example, in reality, Mary’s husband, Phillip II of Spain, sat on the throne of England for four years between herself and the controversial accession of Elizabeth I, but this period of time is omitted completely.  Maybe that’s because Phillip didn’t even speak English, and it would have been just too absurd bothering to explain.  Instead, we find Elizabeth quickly being coronated upon the death of Bloody Mary, who, prior to her expiration, refuses to have her half-sister Elizabeth killed over her suspect Catholicism.  One finds this decision a bit shocking, considering the traditional frequency of executions within the royal families, especially over religion.  Not to mention that this particular Queen was, well, extremely bloody.  And so it is that Elizabeth, despite continued plotting by inherited, yet mistrustful pro-Catholic servants like the Duke of Norfolk, soon rules, like her infamous dad Henry VIII, as a Protestant.   She must learn the ropes quickly, and it seems she does.  From here, the film becomes a dicey rush through her early months as Queen, avoiding assassination attempts while attempting to hash out what, in fact, she’s required to do to keep her title.

On top of all this intrigue, romantic drama is nicely interwoven between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, played by the perpetually pouting man-boy Joseph Fiennes.  We never really doubt Dudley’s loyalty to the Queen, but we suspect this relationship is quite doomed when quickly perceived by Elizabeth as, frankly, too distracting.  But in its throws, it provides little something for the ladies too bogged down with all the politics.  I found the most interesting character to be Sir Francis Walsingham (the excellent Geoffrey Rush), Elizabeth’s die hard chief of security who wriggles his way into his job by craftily dispatching all challenges to her power, and by extension, his.  It could easily be argued that Elizabeth’s success, and in fact her very survival, is due to Walsingham’s staunch loyalty and brilliance of counsel.  It’s kind of a shame his name did not remain as well known as hers, throughout the successive centuries.  I’m sure any monarch would have loved to have him on the payroll, outside of any pesky, periodic government mandated ethics screenings.  In the end, Elizabeth does what any good biopic needs to do, eliciting a deeper interest in the real life subject matter and its ramifications.   However, I don’t believe I ever will grasp the hate-fuelled rivalry and vitriol between Protestants and Catholics that plagued Europe for so many eons until God sent Bono to stop it.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

Even though I like history and I’m drawn to all things British, I honestly think what intrigued me most about this film was the fact some author I follow bundled it in a giveaway image with Jane Austen films, and then I associated the two in my mind. Which in hindsight was dumb of me, because obviously… completely different historical time periods. But I also like Cate Blanchett in general, and the cover image was stunning, so, there you go. #marketing

I guess I wasn’t quite expecting such an intense drama, as I knew very little about the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). I knew she was called the Virgin Queen, but didn’t realize that she chose not to marry, despite strong council that she should do so and produce heirs to secure her throne. In the film, she is surrounded by those who plot to steal the throne from her, mostly because she is the first Protestant queen in a long line of staunch Catholics. But because her marriage options aren’t particularly compelling, she puts off the question and continues her affair with Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). Meanwhile, to heal the religious divide, Elizabeth severs ties with the Vatican — prompting a vengeful priest (Daniel Craig—looking almost exactly the same then as he does twenty years later) to attempt to assassinate her. The Scottish queen consort, Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant) also tries to have Elizabeth killed, so Elizabeth’s advisor, Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) kills her first, after which her daughter (also named Mary) becomes Mary, Queen of Scots. (History was bloody. Also, there were too many people named Mary. Elizabeth inherited the throne from her half sister Mary—also known as Bloody Mary.) Meanwhile, Elizabeth learns that her lover, Lord Robert, is actually already married, and publicly shuns him. He later turns out to have been in on one of the plots to usurp her throne, but she lets him live. It is this betrayal, at least in the film version, that causes Elizabeth to make over her appearance to resemble the Virgin Mary (there’s another one—albeit not from this period of history) and adopt the moniker, The Virgin Queen.

For what it was, the film was very well done: beautiful, very well acted and perfectly cast, I thought. There was an awful lot of intrigue and backstabbing going on—I’d have said too much (give the scheming a rest for heaven’s sake, let’s have some comic relief or something), except that’s what happened. One can hardly fault the film for that. It did make me exceedingly glad that I didn’t live in that time period, though, especially among the royalty. I guess it’s true what they say: it’s lonely at the top.

*** 1/2

Meal pairing: roast beef stew with carrots, onions, and peas, with a mug of ale—classic fare for the Renaissance upper class.

 

 

House of Wax (1953)

HouseofWax

Reviewed: 7/17/18

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Frank’s Review:

What can happen to the soul of man when the purity reflected by that soul is wantonly destroyed by another?  House of Wax, more than just a campy vehicle for 3D gimmicks, attempts to illustrate man’s innate desire to create beauty through art, and portrays the degree to which our identities can be tied to our desire, and what’s more, our ability, to create it.  The sudden loss of our capacity to “create” can twist our vision and dement our spirit.  Wax sculptor Henry Jarrod’s initial motives to not exploit or sell out his gifts for quick commercial success flame out when a fire started by his business partner to collect insurance on their bankrupt museum leaves Jarrod for dead.  He reemerges a changed man, having lost the use of his hands to mold and shape objects of beauty for their own sake.  The bigger loss is the innocence of the man himself, once echoed in his figures.  From this point, we know he is doomed in his new dastardly scheme to seek vengeance on the man, and the society, that caused his soul’s fall.

Vincent Price, on the cusp of becoming the undisputed king of B-Horror films, chose this film over a play in one of the best decisions made by a Hollywood actor.  He infuses his sculptor Henry Jarrod with a childlike passion for the wax figures he carefully molds, engendering sympathy for the monster he later becomes through his own victimization.  It could be that Price’s own experiences with the House Un-American Activities Committee allowed him to more effectively convey what it might feel like to have everything burnt down around you for seemingly little reason.  Perhaps he also sensed an opportunity to show his inherent range as an actor with a character who descends into madness, which would become a trademark of future roles.  You don’t necessarily root for Prof. Jarrod to succeed as much as sense the connection between his tragedy and his weakness.  But every exponentially rash and ill-conceived murder he commits hastens what feels like a summoning of his own tortured end.  It actually seems ridiculous that propping up freshly dispatched citizens covered in visage preserving wax would fool anyone for more than a few days, especially when their bodies have been coincidentally and conveniently stolen from the adjacent morgue, but one may forgive the outlandish plot device in service of the greater points being made.

The bluray release of House of Wax includes as a bonus feature Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), the film the headliner was based on.  Although Mystery has many narrative similarities, it ultimately fails to capture the excellent pacing and intensity of the remake, or (no offense to Lionel Atwell) offer the charisma of such a delicious lead.  From both films, however, many indelible images linger, especially the wax mask of Jarrod himself being inadvertently smashed off to reveal his true condition, and the melting of the lifelike wax figures, as the camera zooms in on their oozing faces.  Whenever I watch Toht the Nazi’s face melt sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I always think of House of Wax.  It is often cringe inducing when beautifully complex objects are crafted by real people only to be ruined on film.  All in greater service.  In this case, it is not in vain, as House of Wax will no doubt continue to burst through the cult layer of filmdom to earn greater exposure and regard as a horror classic as the years go on.

****

Lauren’s Review:

I’ve probably already established that I’m not a big horror fan, but if I’m going to do horror, this is definitely my style. Older films in general don’t approximate reality like the newer ones do, at least in my opinion—I don’t know if it’s a difference in the cinematography, or the script, or what, but I am always fully aware that I’m watching a film. While the concept of House of Wax was definitely scary, it didn’t feel scary because I never felt like I was in the story. In the case of horror, that’s a good thing.

Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price, whom I am learning is the king of the horror film genre according to my husband) is a talented artist of wax historical figures. But he isn’t bringing in money as fast as his business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) would like. In order to collect the insurance money and gain back his own investment, Burke sets Professor Jarrod’s museum on fire, destroying his figures and leaving Jarrod for dead. Only Jarrod isn’t dead—just horribly maimed and out for revenge. The disfigured Professor Jarrod pursues and murders not only Burke, but also his fiancée Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones). He’s not content merely to kill them, though: instead, with the help of two able-bodied artists, he creates a new Chamber of Horrors, depicting horrific scenes of historical torture. But he includes a representation of Burke’s murder, and casts a representation of Cathy in the role of Joan of Ark. Cathy’s roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) visits the museum and recognizes her, becoming obsessed with how Professor Jarrod managed to recreate such a lifelike version of her friend. Her suspicions make her a target to the seemingly restored Professor Jarrod (his face now looks exactly like it did before the accident); she pokes her nose where she shouldn’t, and a horrific scene worthy of Edgar Allen Poe ensues…

I don’t like being scared, but I enjoyed the film, and would categorize it as wholesome family entertainment despite the subject matter. I guess this is because it seemed “campy” to me, even though I can’t point to any one aspect of the film that was actually campy (defined as “so over-the-top as to seem farcical.”) Perhaps this was because the scenario itself seemed so far-fetched. We watched it during a howling storm, which also helped to enhance the Halloween-y feel (Frank is already counting down the months). Put it on your list for the month of October if you haven’t seen it yet.

*** 1/2

Meal pairing: It feels like Halloween, so beef stew (beef, carrots, and potatoes) with a mug of ale, with some caramel apples for dessert.