THE PREMATURE BURIAL: “I shall not kill you. That sorry task I shall leave to the earth.”

THE PREMATURE BURIAL – 1962 – 81 minutes – ★★★

Directed by Roger Corman

Starring Ray Milland (Guy Carrell), Heather Angel (Kate Carrell), Hazel Court (Emily Gault), Alan Napier (Dr. Gideon Gault), Richard Ney (Miles Archer).

 

As I was doing a little research for this write-up I noticed something.   A couple of different articles used the phrase “B-movie director” before Roger Corman’s name.  As if he needs some kind of qualifier.  I think you could make a strong case for Roger Corman as  the most influential filmmaker of the 20th Century.   Yes, he makes B-movies.  Yes, his plots often stretched the bounds of credulity.   But perhaps no-one else has overcome the limitations of small budgets as successfully as Corman.   And for the people who worked on his sets, it was akin to going to film school. This is a short list of directors who cut their teeth on a Corman set:  Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Brian DePalma, Curtis Hanson…I could go on, but you get the drift.   This dude influenced an entire generation of filmmakers, who went on to change the course of cinema.   And the assistant director on this movie, The Premature Burial?  A young man named Francis Ford Coppola.

Corman had the idea of adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Fall of the House of Usher to the big screen in 1960. One of the reasons it appealed to him was because Poe’s stories were in the public domain, hence no need to pay the author.  The studio  he worked for, American International Pictures, was used to small budgets and short shooting schedules.  Corman convinced them to make one color film in lieu of two black and whites, and they agreed. The gamble paid off because the film was a hit.  American International would go on to make 8 movies based on Poe stories.  They all starred Vincent Price, except for one:  The Premature Burial.

Ray Milland stars in this adaptation of the Poe story.  Of course that story was only eleven pages long;  essentially the movie is an entirely new story, with only the concept of being buried alive taken from Poe.  The story was adapted by Charles Beaumont, who wrote dozens of screenplays for The Twilight Zone TV show.

Milland is Guy Carrell, a well off man living with his sister Kate (Heather Angel) in the family house.  His dead father suffered from catalepsy, a condition in which a person can appear to be dead while still alive.  He believes that his father was buried alive, and worries that he may suffer the same fate.  He calls off his engagement to the lovely Emily Gault (Hazel Court), but she convinces him that she loves him no matter what, and they marry.

Try as he might, Guy cannot stop obsessing over being buried alive.  He builds a coffin and sepulchre for himself, equipped with escape mechanisms in case his worst fears come true.  He begins spending almost every waking moment in this tomb.  Finally his wife gives him an ultimatum; either her or the tomb. He chooses his wife.

Just when he thinks he has overcome his fear, strange things start happening.  The family cat becomes trapped inside a wall of the house.  The local gravediggers appear before Guy, then disappear.  Is he imagining all of this?  Finally he is frightened to death.  Or is he?   I will leave the surprises of the final act to the viewer.

This is an entertaining film,  although not really a frightening one.   It is a tale in the Gothic tradition.  The set design is visually compelling, if clearly fake. There is never a single moment in this movie when the viewer is not aware that he is looking at people on a constructed movie set, whether the scene is set outside or in.  And yet, somehow this visual motif works for a movie that has live burial as its main theme.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call the movie camp, but there is a hyper-real quality to the material.

The performances are all well-suited to the material.  Ray Milland in particular fascinates me.  Here is a man who never stopped working for half a century.  He won an Academy Award for best actor in The Lost Weekend; he starred in prestige pictures like Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder.  After a two-year run as the star of his own TV show, he spent the 60’s and 70’s appearing in a long sting of B-movies, beginning with this one.  His performance helps to elevate this film to something more than just a cheap shocker.  If you haven’t watched any of the Roger Corman Poe adaptations, this isn’t a bad place to start.  You probably won’t be frightened, but you will be entertained.

 

Advertisements

THE UNINVITED (1944): “If a spirit comes back, it’s for some particular purpose.”

THE UNINVITED – 1944 – 99 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by Lewis Allen

Starring  Ray Milland (Roderick Fitzgerald), Ruth Hussey (Pamela Fitzgerald), Gail Russell (Stella Meredith), Donald Crisp (Commander Beech), Alan Napier (Dr. Scott), Cornelia Otis Skinner (Miss Holloway).

Cinematography by Charles B. Lang

Music by Victor Young

Where to watch:  Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2013.

Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey.

(As I write this, it’s early October, so I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few “scary” movies.   I’m going to wander in the cemetery of forgotten films and see what I can dig up!)

In the rather lighthearted opening scenes of this movie, we are introduced to a man, a woman, and a dog.  The man and woman are siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, vacationing in an English coastal village.  Their dog chases a squirrel into a large, abandoned house, and they follow along.  They immediately fall in love with the house,  and impulsively decide to buy it.

The owner, an older man named Commander Beech, seems all too ready to part with the house, although his granddaughter Stella objects to the sale.  She was born in the house, and feels a strange connection to it.

Soon enough, brother and sister move into the house, and all is well for a short time.  Well, except for the small matter that the dog won’t go upstairs.  And the upstairs room that composer Roderick plans to use to write music?  There is an eerie, unearthly quality on display in this room.  It is always cold, even though there are large windows admitting lots of light.  Anyone who spends a moment in this room finds their mood turning melancholy for no reason.   Then, brother and sister are awoken by loud, pitiful, heart wrenching sobbing and crying, which can’t be located in the house.  “It’s everywhere and nowhere” says sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey).  The crying always disappears at dawn.

One example of Charles Lang Jr.’s haunting cinematography.

Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) the young woman who so objected to the sale of the house, meets Roderick in the village, and fills him in on some of the backstory on the house.  Stella’s mother died at the house, in a fall from a cliff.  There is a rumor that Stella’s father, a painter, was having an affair with a model, and this may have contributed to the plummet from the cliff.

So who is haunting the house then, Stella’s mother?  And if so, why is she a malevolent spirit, even towards her own daughter?  Maybe the model is responsible for the haunting.  As the movie progresses, the story about what really happened at this house will change, grow and expand more than once.  Ultimately, this story isn’t really about who is haunting whom.  It’s about character and atmosphere.

This is one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the idea of ghosts in a mature way.  This was not a comedy;  the spirit would not be discovered as a fake in the final moments;  and the effects are not cheap.  Most of the elements of the haunting are portrayed through acting and atmosphere alone.  First time Hollywood director Lewis Allen would have preferred to have no visible ghost at all, but Paramount insisted, so he created an effect that is simple, subtle, and believable.

Much credit is to be given to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr., and the haunting score of Victor Young (more on that in a moment), for filling this movie with a palpable energy and intensity.

The performances are great throughout.  In addition to Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, we have Donald Crisp as the crotchety Commander Beech, who seems to be hiding a secret.  The always charming Alan Napier turns up as Dr. Scott, the village doctor who tries to help Stella and the Fitzgeralds get to the bottom of the haunting.  Napier will forever be remembered as Alfred from TV’s Batman, but he was a stalwart character actor for half a century, with over a hundred film and TV credits to his name.   Cornelia Otis Skinner turns up in a small but powerful role as Miss Holloway, a doctor who claims to want to help Stella but seems to have other motives.  Her affinity for Stella’s departed mother deliberately evokes the way Miss Danvers felt for Rebecca in the Daphne du Maurier novel.   It is pretty clear that Miss Holloway felt more than mere friendship for the late Mrs. Meredith.  And finally we come to Gail Russell.

Gail was interested in art at a young age; she enjoyed both painting and sketching.  She was signed to a contract at Paramount based on her looks alone, despite having no acting experience, or any interest in acting.    One look at her and it’s easy to see why Paramount was willing to put her under contract.   Gail has an ethereal beauty, with large expressive eyes.  She was never comfortable in front of the camera however, always doubting her own abilities.  This is a real shame, because her performance in this movie is wonderful.  She was only 19 at the time of filming, in a role that requires a display of the full range of human emotion.

Gail took to drinking to steady her nerves, and basically never stopped.  She would act again, off and on.  She would also be in the papers as much for her displays of public drunkenness as for her acting.  She died at the unbelievably young age of 36, of liver damage from chronic alcoholism.

At one point in the film, Ray Milland’s character sits at the piano and plays a song he has composed for Gail Russell’s Stella Meredith.  He calls the song “To Stella by Starlight.”  Victor Young’s musical composition here is simply exquisite.  Little did he know that he was writing a song for the ages.  Because “Stella by Starlight” would become one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time.  There are literally hundreds of versions of the song, recorded by a who’s who of jazz greats.  Everyone from Charlie Parker, to Miles Davis, to Ella Fitzgerald, to Stan Getz, to Chet Baker, to Frank Sinatra have serenaded Stella.

This movie is not a “scary” movie by any stretch, certainly not by today’s standards.  But it is powerful, haunting, and unforgettable.   And yet, more so even than the power of the movie, it is the ghost of a song, and the ghost of a girl, that haunt this viewer the most.

There is a rumor that Gail Russell used to call a Los Angeles radio station and anonymously request  “Stella by Starlight.”  One DJ even claims that she called on the evening of August 25, 1961, the night of her death.

I like to imagine that every time someone plays “Stella by Starlight”, it is offered up as a prayer to Gail Russell; hundreds, thousands of prayers drifting into the night.  It isn’t that you weren’t good enough, dear Gail. Rather, you were too good.  Too good for the Hollywood machine that consumed you.  Too good for the studio men who just saw a beautiful girl and tried to reshape her, without ever thinking to ask what she wanted.   We understand, Gail.  We who sit in the dark, watching, listening, hanging on your every word.  If only that had been enough.

GHOST WORLD: “Well maybe I don’t want to meet someone with my interests. I hate my interests.”

Ghost World – 2001 – 112 minutes – ★★★★1/2

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban.

Where to watch:  Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2017

We’ve all known someone like Enid.  Remember the self-proclaimed “outsider” in high school who spoke dismissively of everyone?  The person who dressed with a seeming disregard for fashion, but simultaneously cultivated a look designed to attract attention?   When someone ridicules Enid’s green hair and leather jacket, telling her that punk is over, she angrily says that she is not displaying copycat punk, but a genuine 70’s punk look.  What’s the difference?

The movie begins with Enid (played by Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) graduating from high school.  And they have a plan, of sorts.  They will get jobs, and rent an apartment together.  That is as far as their concept of “adulting” has taken them.

While looking at apartments in the classifieds, the girls see a missed connection ad, written by a  man who helped a woman find her contact lens and believes they may have “had a moment.”  Enid responds to the ad, pretending to be the woman in question and setting up a date at a retro diner called Wowsville.   Enid and Rebecca show up at Wowsville to spy on the man and have a laugh at his expense.   When he shows up in his prearranged green cardigan, Seymour (played to perfection by Steve Buscemi) is just as pathetic as they imagined he would be.  But his growing discontent at his absent date becomes unbearable for the girls to watch.

What starts as a cruel joke leads to the  friendship at the heart of the film, as Enid follows Seymour home, and finds in him a kindred spirit.  Seymour is also an outsider, who claims he “can’t relate to 99% of humanity.”   Enid claims that she will help Seymour find a woman, and they bond over the course of the movie.

While Rebecca begins to move on with her dream, getting a job and finding an apartment, Enid seems stuck.  Those high school classmates that she looked  on with such disdain?  Perhaps she isn’t so ready to leave that world behind.   Her feeling of confusion, of being trapped in the netherworld between childhood and adulthood (whatever that is) is captured perfectly.  This movie does have a plot, and a story arc, but it is by no means a conventional film.  The genius of this movie is in the little things, the small details, the background characters that inhabit this almost fairy-tale world.

At least Seymour is self-aware enough to realize his life could be better.  He owns 1,500 vintage 78’s, having pared his collection down to “just the essentials.”    But he understands that his passion for his hobby has helped to sequester him from the world.  “You can’t connect with other people, so you fill your life with stuff” he tells Enid., a commentary not just on himself, but on consumer culture.   The sad irony is that in helping Seymour to expand his horizons, Enid begins to lose him, much to her disappointment.  After all, he is the one who gets it, who gets her.  He can’t become one of “them.”

There is an underlying theme in the film that attacks not just consumerism in general, but the lack of authenticity in modern society, whether in the 50’s diner that plays innocuous 90’s electronic bubble gum pop, the aptly named band Blueshammer or Enid’s art teacher (the always wonderful Illeana Douglas) who isn’t so much concerned that art moves people as that it makes a “statement”, and any statement will do.

This is a movie about people whose lives are in stasis.  Everyone is looking for a change, looking for the spark that will get them from here to there, wherever “there” may be.   No one is more symbolic of this than Norman, an old man sitting on a bench every day at a decommissioned bus stop, waiting for a bus that will never come.  Until it does.  Maybe belief has to precede action.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, and retains the emotional feel and overall aesthetic of the book, while expanding the story greatly.   The performances in the film are wonderful throughout, not only in the main characters, but also those who show up for a scene or two, or inhabit the background.   The late Brad Renfro has a good supporting role, as does the sublime Bob Balaban.

Ghost World is a movie that rewards multiple viewings.  There are so many subtle details are that easily missed.  Listen for the TV commercials, heard but never seen, for an oil company that cares about the environment.  Or watch the background of the scene where Enid and Rebecca go apartment hunting.   Did you see that young woman pass left to right, on screen for only a couple seconds?  (Yes I meant the pregnant woman, smoking a cigarette and toting an open bottle of beer! )  I won’t disclose any more;  I’ll leave it to you to find our own details.

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the music.  Most of the soundtrack consists of existing music rather than original scoring.  And the director Terry Zwigoff  assembled one of the most unique soundtracks ever created for film.  The opening credits feature  “Jaan Pehechan Ho” an Indian song from the 60’s movie Gumnaam, which is so infectious I couldn’t get it out of my head for days.  The bulk of the film features music from the 1930’s, early blues and Lionel Belasco instrumentals which fit so perfectly, it’s as if they were written expressly for the movie.

This is a movie that takes chances; it mixes tone, it doesn’t follow a conventional story line, and it has an ambiguous ending.  That can be a recipe for disaster if it doesn’t work.  In this case, everything works perfectly.  I love this movie.  I love every single minute that I  inhabit this world, and I’m sad when I leave it.

Some people see the ending of the movie as a pretty dark and final metaphor.  I guess it depends on what you bring to it, but I think this misses the overall tone of the film.  Enid ultimately wreaks havoc on the life of Seymour, and his only response is to forgive her.  In this forgiveness she finds the courage to believe in herself.  I think the future could be bright for Enid.  Maybe even Seymour will love again.  But he’ll always keep those 78’s.  Just the essentials, of course.

 

 

Woman of the Year: “You’re practically the only woman I would’ve walked out on last night.”

Woman of the Year – 1942 – 114 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by George Stevens

Starring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, William Bendix, Dan Tobin, Fay Bainter, Reginald Owen.

Where to watch:  The Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2017

Bogie and Bacall may be the most celebrated couple from Hollywood’s golden age, but Spence and Kate can’t be far behind.   Both Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were under contract at MGM studios in the early 1940’s, and both were riding high.   Tracy had won back-to-back Oscars in the late 30’s, and Hepburn was coming off of the smash hit play and film The Philadelphia Story.  They certainly knew of one another at the time Woman of the Year went into production, but they had never met.   So in this film we get the rare treat of watching not just two characters fall in love, but watching the actors fall in love too.

Womanoftheyear2

Spencer Tracy plays Sam Craig, a sportswriter for the New York Chronicle.   Early in the film Sam is sitting in his local watering hole with a couple of other sportswriters, when he hears a woman on the radio named Tess Harding (Hepburn) who has the nerve to disparage the game of baseball.  Sam is upset by this;  America is at war and baseball is our national pastime.  So he responds to Tess in his column, despite the fact that she is also a columnist for the same newspaper.  She responds to his column with one of her own, and the editor summons them both to his office; after all, he can’t have two of his columnists attacking each other.  This sets up one of the most memorable on-screen meetings of all time.  Sam is in a sour mood when he walks in the room, but his mood changes immediately when he sees Tess.  Their mutual attraction is unmistakable, from the first time they share the screen together.

This is in essence an “opposites attract” story, but the two characters don’t represent the stereotypes that the viewer might expect.  Yes, Tess is very worldly, speaking several languages, and well-versed in world issues.  But she is not demure;  she is actually more sexually aggressive than Sam.  And while he is a sportswriter, he is no coarse buffoon.  He speaks plainly and reacts rationally, even when faced with seemingly irrational events.

One of the joys of this movie is the way it plays with stereotypes, (for most of its length anyway).  Sam invites Tess to a baseball game, and there are funny moments as he tries to explain the game to her.  But by the end of the scene, she is fully involved, cheering the Yanks along with everyone around her.

Womanoftheyear3

Sam has a harder time adjusting to her world, and we get some more funny moments as he attends a gathering at Tess’s where everyone seemingly speaks a different language.   It is clear that these two are in love, and Sam impulsively asks Tess to marry him.  She agrees, and the rest of the film follows Sam’s growing disillusionment as he tries to adapt to her ever busy, ever changing world, and Tess’s ultimate realization that the wedding vows she utters are more than just words.

This film is funny and fresh for most of its length.  But it seems to take a slight step backwards in the final scene.  This scene, (which was a rewrite that Katherine Hepburn detested) mocks Tess’s lack of ability in the kitchen.  What makes the scene truly funny are Spencer Tracy’s subtle, almost deadpan reactions to what is going on around him.  But it also seems to imply that a woman can’t have it all in 1942.   While this closing scene marks the movie as a product of a different time, it is still worth viewing.  It is a genuinely funny comedy, which caused me to laugh aloud several times.  And of course, we also have the pleasure of watching Spence and Kate get to know each other, get comfortable with each other, fall in love with each other.

Womanoftheyear1

If you pick up the Criterion version of this movie, be sure and watch the two documentaries that are included.  Both are feature-length, and well worth the time.  The first is about the life and career of director George Stevens.  This documentary (written and directed by his son) paints the picture of a quiet, dignified man who created an impressive body of work and deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Ford, Hawks and Capra.   The other documentary is a tribute to the life of Spencer Tracy, narrated by Katherine Hepburn.  She speaks openly and honestly about their careers, their relationship, and his passing.  It ends with one of the most moving scenes I have ever witnessed.  In it, Hepburn reads a letter she had written recently to the long-dead Spencer Tracy, with her emotion getting the better of her at the end.  (You can watch this scene below.) What a brave woman she was, to share this with the world.  And what a great love she clearly had for him.  God bless them both.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: “I didn’t bring your breakfast, because you didn’t eat your din-din.”

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – 1962 – 133 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Marjorie Bennett, Maidie Norman.

Where to watch:   Warner Bros. Anniversary Edition blu ray (Comes in collectible digibook, with loads of extra features).

what-ever-happened-to-baby-jane

The new anthology series Feud debuts March 5 on FX, with season one (Bette and Joan) focusing on the often tortuous (and occasionally tortured) relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.   I expect good things from this series.  Creator Ryan Murphy hasn’t made a real misstep yet, and the casting of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in the starring roles certainly looks promising.  So this seems like a perfect time to take a look at the movie that launched the titular feud.

The movie opens on the vaudeville stage, with a young blond girl singing and dancing for a star-struck crowd.  She is not only a popular performer, but a bit of a marketing phenomenon as well.  Her father hawks life-size Baby Jane dolls (with matching blond ringlets) from the stage.   Jane’s dark-haired sister Blanche stands in the wings, radiating envy.  Not only does Jane get all the attention, she is also a spoiled brat.

Twenty years later, the tables have turned.  Blanche is a popular Hollywood actress, while her sister Jane struggles to keep herself out of the bottle long enough to act coherently.  One night after a party, an accident occurs, leaving Blanche paralyzed.  Did her own sister run her down?

This is the set-up of the movie, which jumps to the early 60’s, where we find Blanche (Joan Crawford) dependent on her sister Jane (Bette Davis) for her care.  Jane is resentful of her sister’s popularity before the accident, which had eclipsed her own, and resentful for having to care for her.   Jane is drinking far too much.  She also appears to be going completely bonkers.

This film does a marvelous job of slowly increasing the tension, as Jane’s behavior towards her sister grows more sadistic.  We begin to wonder if Blanche can possibly survive her sister’s cruelty.   I found myself really rooting for Blanche by the end of the film, which has an ending as strange and unpredictable as the movie deserves.

The first time I saw this movie was on late-night cable, maybe 15 years ago, and my memories were of rather campy performances.  Seeing it again, I was astonished at what a well-made film it is.  The bulk of the movie takes place in the Hudson sisters’ house, and the black-and-white cinematography, set design, musical score, and Oscar-winning costumes all combine to create a perfectly realized setting.   The acting is quite good throughout.  Joan Crawford creates a truly sympathetic character (and it takes a lot for me to sympathize with Joan Crawford.  Ever since seeing Mommie Dearest on HBO when I was about 10, she has thoroughly creeped me out).   And sure, Bette Davis’ performance does become campy at times, but in this particular role, I don’t think the term “too much” applies.

If you read enough of my reviews, you know I’m all about the character actors.  So I have to mention a couple. Victor Buono chews up the scenerey in his Oscar-nominated supporting role as a petulant man-child who is able to transform himself into a charming, Peter Ustinov-sounding English gentleman to woo Bette Davis out of some cash. Poor Victor died very young, but left his mark in this and a couple other fine roles.   And Maidie Norman is great as the housekeeper, who brings both tenderness and strength to her role.  Maidie had a long and prolific career, mostly in television.  If you are my age, you probably saw her in 15 different shows and never realized it.

Director Robert Aldrich had a very solid career, and he is almost forgotten today.  He basically launched the “crazy old lady” (some prefer “psycho biddy”) sub-genre with this movie, which had many imitators (most famously Aldrich’s own Hush, Hush  Sweet Charlotte).

The Feud series contends that the movie studio encouraged on-set rancor between the two stars.  I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly didn’t bleed over into the finished film.  (Well, Bette Davis does really seem to be enjoying herself when slapping and kicking Joan around).  It is rumored that  Crawford was upset when Davis received an Oscar nomination and she did not.  Bette Davis believed that Joan Crawford was campaigning against her, which may have contributed to her loss.  Or maybe, dear Bette, Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker because she deserved it.   At any rate, Crawford had the last laugh.  Because Anne Bancroft was unable to attend the ceremony, and Crawford made arrangements in advance to accept the award on Bancroft’s behalf if she won.  Crawford’s smile as she walks out to accept the award  is certainly quite gleeful.  How much of that is because Bancroft won, and how much because Davis lost?

At any rate, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a good psychological thriller that holds up well after 55 years.  Below you can watch the clip of Joan Crawford accepting Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for Best Actress.

 

 

Grosse Pointe Blank: “I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How have you been?”

Grosse Pointe Blank – 1997 – 107 minutes.   ★★★1/2

Directed by George Armitage.

Starring:  John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria.

Where to watch:  15th Anniversary blu -ray (which unfortunately contains no extra features other than a standard format trailer).

grosse1

Early in this film, the character Martin Blank (John Cusack) receives word of his upcoming ten-year high school reunion.  Most viewers will relate to Martin’s anxiety surrounding this event.  To go or not to go?  What will it be like to see everyone after so many years?  What if he runs into his old flame, a girl that he still hasn’t gotten over?  And the person he has been hired to assassinate, should he kill him before or after the reunion?  OK, maybe that last part is not so relatable.

Martin is a paid assassin,  who is good at what he does, and claims to have no moral qualms.  “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it” he tells his psychiatrist.  Martin is having recurring dreams about his high school sweetheart, Debi (Minnie Driver).  He stood her up on prom night, and still has some anxiety.  Of course this is nothing compared to the anxiety his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) experiences, because he has a killer for a client.

Martin Blank is being pressured by a business rival, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to join an assassin’s guild of sorts.  Martin wants no part of it, which makes Grocer unhappy.  It is at this point that Martin has a job opportunity in the same area that his reunion will take place, so he decides, after some prodding from his business partner (Joan Cusack) to kill two birds with one stone.  He can take out his target, and go to the reunion.

The rest of the movie is set around reunion weekend in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (hence the movie’s clever title).   The story is really two stories happening at once.  The drama of returning home after ten years, and reconnecting with family, friends and lovers;  and the day to day workings of an assassin who is himself being targeted by more than one person.

While this mixing of tone may not work for everyone, ultimately the film is funny, charming, and entertaining.   When Martin reconnects with Debi, there is a genuine chemistry between the two, which is fun to watch in all of their scenes together.  The ending of the movie does not quite work for me.  It is a bit frustrating to watch a movie that takes chances, and mixes tone well, kind of give up on itself in the last fifteen minutes, becoming very predictable.

The performances are great, throughout,  Cusack is a unique actor.  Give him the right material, and he fills a niche that nobody else could touch.  Come to think of it, one could say the same about his sister, Joan, who is also good in this movie.  Minnie Driver is just pitch perfect in her role.  Aykroyd plays his part over the top (does he know any other way?) but it works here.   Alan Arkin plays his small part so well,  you would swear it was written expressly for him.  This film is also a reminder that Jeremy Piven was funny before he became a total dickhead.

Director George Armitage is a bit of a mystery.  He came up in the stable of young directors that got their start under Roger Corman. (I don’t think you can overstate how influential a figure Corman has been to cinema). Armitage first made a name for himself with Miami Blues in 1990, which received positive reviews, but didn’t make a ton of money.  He didn’t direct again until this movie in 1997.  Why the long gap?  Grosse Pointe Blank would be the critical and commercial peak of Armitage’s career.  Another 7 years would pass before his next film, The Big Bounce, which was panned by critics and lost a lot of money.  Since then, Armitage hasn’t directed anything.  Again, I don’t understand the gap.   One would think he could have parleyed his success from Grosse Pointe Blank into other movie offers.

One cannot talk about Grosse Pointe Blank without talking about music.  The movie features snippets of dozens of songs, predominantly 80’s New Wave.  Minnie Driver’s character, Debi, is a DJ at the local radio station, which is an excuse to squeeze even more songs into the movie.  The late, great Joe Strummer of The Clash scored some music for the movie as well.  There is a great moment that features Guns ‘n Roses version of “Live and Let Die”, segueing into a muzak version of the same song as Cusack enters a convenience store.  I’m not sure if that was Stummer’s idea or not, but it’s a subtle moment that works well. I remember seeing this in the theater with my best friend Tom, and we both laughed at this moment.

This movie turns 20 this year, and it has aged pretty well.   So, if you like:  John Cusack, dark comedies, 80’s alternative music, or people getting stabbed in the neck with pens, this is the movie for you.  It is far from perfect, but it takes chances, and just like Martin Blank, it hits its mark more than it misses.

The disparate three: Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Music Man, The Player

Movies watched:  Fast Times At Ridgemont High  (home – 90 mins.), The Music Man (home – 151 minutes), The Player (home- 124 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  4 days, 12 hours, 2 minutes.

fasttimes2

I don’t know what possessed me to re-watch Fast Times At Ridgemont High.  Having seen Ferris Bueller again in the theater over the summer, I think I was interested in doing a comparison of sorts.  They are two of the smartest and funniest teen movies of the 80’s, but their approach to subject matter is dramatically different.

Over the course of the movie, we follow the exploits of several high school students, including jocks (Forrest Whitaker), stoners (Sean Penn, Eric Stoltz), shrinking violets, eager to experience teenage love but unsure how to proceed (Brian Backer, Jennifer Jason Leigh), and others who pass of their inexperience behind braggadocio (Robert Romanus, Phoebe Cates).

The cast are all quite good;  Sean Penn’s Spicoli is probably one of the most remembered, and quoted, characters from 80’s comedies.  Judge Reinhold is very good as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s older brother.   And Ray Walston, who quietly built a very solid and long-lasting career as a character actor, is perfect as teacher Mr. Hand, Spicoli’s comedic foil.

The movie takes a very frank and realistic view of sex, and yet the most memorable scene in the movie is a fantasy.  Of course I’m talking about Phoebe Cates’ topless scene, which is masturbatory fodder for Judge Reinhold’s character.

fast-times-at-ridgemont-high

This movie was made by a woman director (Amy Heckerling), a rarity in the 1980’s, and her touch is all over the film.  The very unromantic scene in which Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity (we see her POV as she is lying on the bench in the baseball field dugout, an older guy on top of her, and she is reading the graffiti on the ceiling) is something that more than a few women can relate to, in emotional tone if not in specifics.  And yet, Amy Heckerling still has the obligatory topless shot.  That’s an interesting tightrope to walk, but Heckerling demonstrated that she belonged in the “man’s world” of directing.

The mall scenes in this movie were shot in the Sherman Oaks Galleria,  which was nestled in the San Fernando Valley.  It is now long gone.  I visited that mall several times when I was a kid, and seeing the mall scenes, places I walked, shopped, ate, takes me back.  I can almost smell the Galleria when I watch those scenes.   Everyone who experienced high school  can find something to relate to here.

musicman1

I could expound on the joys of The Music Man all day.  It is my favorite musical, bar none.  I’m not a musical fanatic;  most of Rogers and Hammerstein’s stuff just doesn’t grab me, although I make an exception for The Sound of Music because, well, it’s just so darned good, no matter how sappy.  My introduction to this movie was the soundtrack.  My grandmother had a large vinyl collection, which I was allowed to play from a very early age, as long as I promised to handle her records with care.  I played all almost all of her records, some only once.  But others I grew to love, and The Music Man soundtrack was one.  Meredith Wilson, the author, has a unique way of writing, both musically and lyrically, and I took to it immediately.  So when I saw the movie on television when I was 8 or 9, I already knew all the songs.  It was so amazing to see the glorious visuals that accompanies the music, surpassing everything I had imagined in my mind.

As a child, I had the biggest crush on Shirley Jones as Marion the Librarian; I wanted to be the brilliant, dynamic Robert Preston, wooing her, singing to her.  The movie deals with a traveling salesman calling himself Professor Harold Hill, who is a shyster.  He comes into town, sells the townspeople on the idea of a boy’s band, collects money for instruments and uniforms, then leaves in the dead of night.  But in River City Iowa, he has met his match.  He forms a bond with Marion the Librarian (Shirley Jones) and her younger brother, Winthrop (played by a young Ronny Howard), and is forced to look at his choices in life, and make a change.  Will it be a change for the better?  I’m sure you can figure that out.  After all, this is a big Hollywood musical.  This movie might not be for everyone, but if you’re at all a fan of musicals, you could do worse than to spend a couple of hours in River City.  This is a movie I watch at least once a year, and I never tire of it.  It nourishes my soul.

musicman2

Finally, I re-watched Robert Altman’s The Player, because The Criterion Collection released it on blu-ray.  It looks fantastic, better than ever.  This movie is a very cynical look at Hollywood, and the making of movies.  It is just as relevant today as ever.

Some reflections:

The first shot of the movie goes on for several minutes, a bold opening which introduces many of the central characters, and gives us a sardonic look at the movie pitch process.  First of all, we see Buck Henry pitching The Graduate 2.  The fact that Henry wrote the screenplay for the original makes this joke really work.

I also thought it was really ballsy of Altman to have Fred Ward’s character reference Orson Welles’ tracking shot from Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s uninterrupted takes in Rope, within his own uninterrupted tracking shot!  And he pulls it off, the clever bastard.

player2

This is a self-referential movie that is in on the joke, winking to the audience as it tells the story of studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who may be on the way out.   He’s also receiving death threats at work in the form of post cards.   Griffin confronts the man who he believes is threatening him, and an accident occurs in a movie theater parking lot.  Or was it an accident?

Soon Griffin Mill is a murder suspect, dating the girlfriend of the dead man, and trying to keep his job.  In the Hollywood of old, the murderer never gets away with it;  justice must be served.  But the Hollywood of the early 90’s was all polish, all glamour, and times were changing.

When this movie first came out, seeing all the Hollywood celebrities who play themselves in this movie was very cool. Many of them are not even cameos;  they are extras, populating the background of various scenes.   Now, many of those people are no longer with us.  They are ghosts, haunting the background, adding a slightly more somber tone to the proceedings, and somehow making the movie even more effective.  There’s Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows.  Gone.  Jack Lemmon.  Gone.  James Coburn.  Gone.  Rod Steiger.  Gone.  Peter Falk.  Gone.

Let’s not forget director Robert Altman.  He’s gone too.  But he left behind one hell of a body of work.  Far from perfect, but every bit his own.  If you’ve never seen an Altman film, this is perhaps the best place to start.

player1