Monthly Archive for April, 2013

The Last Detail

The Last Detail (4/29/13) TCM (1973 ****) Directed by Hal Ashby, screenplay by Robert Towne, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young and Carol Kane. Two Navy men transport a young kleptomaniac to the prison where he’ll spend the next eight years of his life. A few years back I read and loved (and reviewed) Towne’s screenplay for this film in a writing class-assigned book that paired it with his Chinatown script. I’d watched this film years ago, as a young man, but its subtlety and poetry didn’t touch me then like it did now, later in my life. Having lived through a lot of the experiences “the human condition” inevitably throws at you, I could sincerely respect Mulhall’s: “I hate this detail. I hate this fucking chickenshit detail!” line far more now. I’ve been a fan of Hal Ashby since first seeing Harold and Maude when I was age 16, and his deft direction was both invisible and perfect. In addition, if you ever encounter anyone who doesn’t think Jack Nicholson can act, showing them this film will quickly shut them up. His raw energy in this film rivaled a young Marlon Brando. In my review of the screenplay, I wrote that it was “a subtle character study, with barely enough plot to constitute a movie.” It’s true that on face value there’s not much of a story, though seeing it in film form made the trio’s journey more palpable. While The Last Detail may not be for everyone, and I can see why some might not appreciate it for what it is, I highly, highly, highly recommend it.

Hitchcock

Hitchcock (4/25/13) Netflix (2012 ***) Directed by Sacha Gervasi, based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette and Danny Huston. In the late 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock turned his back on his tried and true suspense formula and gambled everything to make a horror film named Psycho. While this film wasn’t exactly terrible, it felt throughout as though it had been a half-hearted effort, with much to like but also a lot that could have been so very much better. Anthony Hopkins spent the entire film in prosthetic makeup that looked to me less like Hitchcock and more like Danny DeVito’s Penguin had been disfigured in a car accident. It was a real odd mix of a film: Toni Collette was sadly underutilized as Hitchcock’s secretary, but James D’Arcy delivered an eerie performance as Anthony Perkins. My wife was particularly distracted and bothered by fantasy sequences in which “Hitch” spoke with Ed Gein, the mass murderer on which Robert Bloch’s novel was based. All in all, I was intrigued by the actual “making of Psycho” material and far less so by the speculative drama between the world’s best-known director and his wife. By strange coincidence, I watched this film two days after watching the documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007), especially considering that Hitchcock’s promotional strategy for Psycho (“Do not reveal the ending!”) was lifted directly from Castle’s big bag o’ ballyhoo.

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (4/23/13) TCM (2007 ***) Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, featuring interviews with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, John Landis, Leonard Maltin, John Waters and many others. The life and career of movie schlockmeister extraordinaire William Castle is presented in demented Documentar-O! This was a fairly well executed documentary, with plenty of great interviewees. The film’s subject was fascinating, particularly the accounts of how Castle repeated a pattern of spending as much time looking for the right gimmick than making his low-budget films themselves. Growing up, I saw most of William Castle’s films, with The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill leaving definite impressions on me. Of course I saw those films on Creature Feature, so I missed out on all the in-theater gadgets and shenanigans. Sadly, Castle’s personal story wasn’t an especially happy nor interesting one. The end of his career was all about a desperate (it would be easy to say “pathetic”) search for artistic respect. But he was thwarted at every turn, either by his own creative limitations or by circumstances beyond his control. This was nowhere more apparent than when he acquired the rights to the book Rosemary’s Baby, only to be forced to turn directing reins over to Roman Polanski.

Downton Abbey, Series 2

Downton Abbey, Series 2 (4/19/13) Netflix (2011 ***1/2) Series created by Julian Fellowes, starring Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith. Eight episodes plus a Christmas special, originally aired 9/18/11 – 12/25/11. “The Great War” comes to Downton Abbey, and the Crawley’s must “make do” when their home is turned into a recovery center for injured WWI officers. I’m still bewildered by how a period costume drama slash soap opera about people we have no basis for identifying with has been do damned engaging for my wife and myself. I suppose if I did a lot of searching I could find something universal in the situations in both high and low worlds. In many ways, it simply boils down to loving the characters, particularly the romantic relationship between John Bates and Anna Smith. I admit to being somewhat less interested in the other three or four romantic entanglements, however. As much as I enjoyed the show, I had occasional frustrations with some of the storytelling. It seemed like the slowly-evolving romance between the Crawley’s youngest daughter Sybil and the family chauffer, Tom Branson, played out as virtually the same exact scene repeated four or five times. I was also occasionally aware of certain unabashed soap opera conventions sneaking in, such as a facially disfigured veteran who claimed to have suffered from a nasty bout of amnesia. I mean, seriously. A disfigured amnesiac?

Invincible, Vol. 17: What’s Happening?

Invincible, Vol. 17: What’s Happening? (4/17/13) Comics (2013 **1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker. Originally published in Invincible #91-96. After being infected by the Viltrumite¬† virus, “invincible” teen Mark Grayson is sidelined (possibly permanently) while the series focus shifts to second-string characters, particularly Monster Girl and Robot Rex. Bluntly put, this was my least favorite of all the Invincible volumes I’ve read. In my reviews of Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics, I’ve often been a bit of an apologist for volumes that were… well, boring. And this was a pretty damned lame volume. I’ve never given a flying damn about Monster Girl or Robot Rex, and so finding them occupying roughly half the book’s pages was disappointing. I suspect it may have been done largely so that penciling duties between Ottley and Walker could be creatively split, with Walker penciling the extended “Monster / Rex” 700-year storyline. Will I continue reading? Yes, I suppose so. After all, I’ve been borrowing the books from a friend, so it’s not like it’s costing me anything more than the time it takes to read them. I only hope Robert Kirkman will find a way to make the series as captivating again as it once was. Given his track record, he may well surprise me. It would be nice if that happens sooner than later.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 17: Something to Fear

The Walking Dead, Vol. 17: Something to Fear (4/14/13) Comics (2012 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Originally published in The Walking Dead #97-102. Rick Grimes and company are forced to deal with the fallout from becoming the protectors of “The Hilltop” from some dude named Negan, who may or may not even exist. As you can tell by my three and a half star rating, this was one of the better volumes, and without giving anything away, it contains one of the more memorable scenes (and indelible images) in the entire 100-issue-plus series. The take-away of this volume was that there are bad-asses and there are bad-asses. And I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

Game of Thrones, Season 1

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (4/8/13) Netflix / HBO (2011 ****) Series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin, starring Sean Bean, Michelle Fairley, Lena Heady and Peter Dinklage. Ten episodes, originally aired 4/17/11 – 6/19/11. In spite of time playing AD&D in high school and college, I don’t consider myself much of a “swords and sorcery” kinda guy. Well, my wife and I finally jumped onto the dirty, bloody, full-frontal myriad-character-filled world of HBO’s Game of Thrones. And an amazing world it is, too, with lots of action, plot twists and well-drawn and varied characters. Given the scope of the show, it’s impressive that it only occasionally drifted into melodrama. And God bless you, HBO for including copious helpings of nudity motivated just enough by situations to avoid calling it gratuitous. I have to say, though, that I kept flashing back to an SNL sketch from last season in which Andy Samberg played the show’s 14 year-old “consultant.”

Makers: Women Who Make America

Makers: Women Who Make America (4/7/13) PBS (2013 ***1/2) Directed by Barak Goodman, Narrated by Meryl Streep, featuring interviews with Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, Billie Jean King, Barbara Walters and many more. Originally aired as three one-hour parts, on 2/26/13. This miniseries documentary examines the history of the women’s movement, including the personalities and conflicts that shaped it. Have woman in America really “come a long way, baby?” Considering recent political rumblings, like forces looking to overturn “Roe v. Wade,” it’s definitely a question open for debate. As a man raised by a single mother, I’m proud of growing up free of any misconception that women are somehow second-class citizens. Equality of the sexes has always been a given for me, and I’m glad I don’t carry around much in the way of male chauvinist / sexist baggage. Having said that, I’ve never honestly given feminism or the origins of the women’s movement much thought. This documentary was very informative and it gave me a greater appreciation for the courageous women (and some men) who were willing to stand up against the status quo and fight the righteous fight when it was pretty damned dangerous to do so. The documentary also provided a good understanding of context, particularly how the women’s movement came about in large part thanks to the civil rights movement. It also examined various factions within the movement who were often not in alignment as to what their goals were. The position of Betty Friedan, ground-breaking author of The Feminine Mystique, was decidedly different from that of Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine.

The Sessions

The Sessions (4/4/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Ben Lewin, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, based Mark O’Brien’s essay, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” An invalid poet, who must spend most of his day in an iron lung to survive, decides to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate. This film was based on the true story of polio victim Mark O’Brien and his sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Green. O’Brien’s story was a captivating one and the film’s frank discussion about sex was pretty refreshing, though it may not be the film you want to watch with your grandmother or your in-laws. In that respect, it reminded me of other sex-themed films, Kinsey (2004) and Hysteria (2011). The promoters of The Sessions made no secret that it includes several daring and indisputably plot-motivated nude scenes. In return for her full-frontal courage, Helen Hunt was nominated for (but did not receive) a Best Actress Oscar. Given the film’s constraints (modest budget, real life basis), it was exceptionally well-executed and well-deserving of its nomination for Best Picture. However, as very good as it was, The Sessions still missed being “great,” though by a decidedly slim margin. Interestingly enough, this was not the only film made based on O’Brien’s experiences. He was also the focus of Jessica Yu’s 1996 Oscar-winning short documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.