Joe Sixpack's Film Blog: December, 2002

Hi there...! Welcome to my weblog of off-the-cuff reviews of movies that I've seen in theatres, watched on TV, picked up from the library, or recently rented... I suppose I watch a lot of films (you be the judge), so I figured there wasn't any reason I shouldn't add a few movie reviews to the Slipcue site, along with the music reviews and other goofy junk that I've already been posting for years. Besides, this will save John Ashcroft a bunch of time from on having to put a surveillance tap on my account at Ye Olde Video Hut... Other reviews, including a few artist profiles and other monthly review columns are available at my Film Review Index

December 16-31, 2002


"Meet The Feebles" (Spectrum, 1989)
Kiwi genius director Peter Jackson's early cult classic, Meet The Feebles, is a relentless parade of grossout gags and cliche-busting transgressions, performed with a cast of grotesque, Muppetlike malcontents. The material is sporadically quite funny, although little of the humor is all that surprising. The only bit I found genuinely offensive was the AIDS-related subplot, otherwise... sex, drugs, eating disorders and goo-and-guts violence? Meh. Been there, done that. I do wonder, however, if the folks who did that TV series with Seth Green had to pay Jackson for the rights to use his idea for a seedy, anti-Muppets puppet show... I sure hope so, 'cause the TV show was pretty lame.

"Midway" (Universal, 1976)
This would-be epic '70s retelling of the Battle of Midway tries the same methodical approach as Tora! Tora! Tora! yet falters in the dramatic department. It's a bit too talky, although war buffs will probably appreciate its step-by-step delineation of the grand strategies and little quirks of fate that allowed the Americans to win this pivotal naval engagement. The clash at Midway took place in the summer of 1942, less than a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and was itself a response to the Allied air raids on Tokyo and other targets in the Japanese homeland. The stunning victory shifted the balance of power in WWII, allowing the Americans to stalemate Japan in the Pacific, and concentrate their efforts on more decisive actions in Africa and Europe. The problem with this film lies mostly in the light-handed direction of its star-studded cast. The back-slapping he-man bonhomie of the Naval brass falls flat in scene after scene... but when you pin your dramatic efforts on an actor as wooden and insincere as Charlton Heston, well, what do you expect? Henry Fonda, however, is solid in his role, and Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum and James Coburn all do their bit, as do Pat Morita, Toshiro Mifune (as Admiral Yamomoto, naturally), and a slew of notable supporting actors. A socially liberal subplot involving a Japanese-American girl in love with a young American fighter pilot also falls flat; it's interesting to see an early critical look at the internment of Asian Americans, but again, the drama revolves around Heston (who cannot convey true emotion) and the actress in question is actually a worse actor than he is. This film isn't great, but it does a good job explaining the significance of the historical events. Worth checking out, but slow and mechanically directed without much attention to the actors.


"Cat People" (RKO, 1942)
A fun, hokey horror flick about a weird-looking Croatian gal (Simone Simon) who carries an old-world curse that prevents her from falling in love, lest her passion turn her into a man-eating were-panther. In case the plot's psychological ramifications were lost on you the first time, the cast also includes a suave psychiatrist who gets hired by the cat lady's frustrated newlywed husband, to tell her that these marital problems are all in her head. He finds out differently when her strange allure leads him into some mighty unprofessional doctor-patient relations: kiss-kiss, claw-claw!! Naturally, this B-movie classic has plenty of screamingly hilarious MST3K-worthy moments, particularly around the strained domestic life of the newlywed couple. Also has some nice "serious" cinematic touches. (Remade in a more sexually explicit 1982 version starring Natassja Kinski as the cat lady. Weird cast note: Simon is a dead ringer for '90s "teen" actor Katie Holmes... now that's scary!!)


"Adaptation" (2002)
We missed the film we wanted to see -- Catch Me If You Can -- and settled for this one instead. As far as I was concerned, this had two marks against it: I loathe Nicholas Cage and I wasn't all that wild about Being John Malkovitch... But when they announced that the other films were sold out, I didn't want to be a buzz kill and said, sure what the heck... But, boy howdy! was I surprised by what screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jones came up with this time!

The film's title refers less to biological evolution than intellectual, and specifically to the unique problems of writing a film script (or any work of art) based on a someone else's story. How do you tell these stories? And more importantly, how do you *sell* these stories, particularly when you want to tell them intelligently, and yet make your frat boy agent and the rest of the Hollywood studio system happy with your work. When this film opens, we see screenwriter Kaufman being ignored and shooed off the set of his last film -- he's so schlumpy and rumpled that no one on the crew gives him a second thought. This time around, he places himself squarely in the action, as a brilliant but self-loathing artist, whose lofty principles and self-doubt conspire to produce a massive case of writer's block. A fascinating project lands in his lap -- adapting an offbeat "New Yorker" article about renegade orchid farmers into a feature film script -- but he flounders as the project becomes a metaphor for his own yearnings for truth and beauty. The script proceeds on several parallel tracks: Kaufman writing about the magazine journalist (played with good-natured abandon by Meryll Streep) who is in turn writing about an eccentric flower collector (played by Chris Cooper, one of the most underrated character actors in American cinema)... The story-within-a-story premise implodes and veers off the road as Kaufman proves to be an ingeniously unreliable narrator. He pokes fun at Hollywood, the beast whose belly he inhabits, but in a gentle and affectionate way, rather than the heavy-handed hand biting of films like "The Player" and "Time Code"... another welcome (and unexpected) change of pace. The humor is fairly highbrow, but this is a movie that, once it finds its audience, is sure to keep 'em rolling with laughter. It's the feelgood egghead comedy of the year, entirely original and madly creative... and highly, highly recommended! [At The AMC, 1000 Van Ness in SF.]

"My Lady Of Whims" (1925)
This somewhat abrupt (42 minute long) Jazz Age silent features Clara Bow as a free-thinking flapper who has moved to New York City to have a little fun and become an artist of some sort. Her wealthy, high-society father sends a private detective into the seedy warrens of Greenwich Village and haul her back into respectable society. The detective is a real jerk, bossing her around and threatening her friends, even though they'd never met before, yet in the moralistic parameters of this film, it's his arrogance and manliness that win her heart. Looking back, I think most of us would wonder what his problem was -- all those dancing parties and speakeasy bars look pretty fun to me, especially with cuties like Clara Bow running around. The flimsy plot is just an excuse to show off her incredible good looks -- that smile and -- oh! -- those eyes!! Works for me.


"Back Street" (1961)
A dull tear-jerker romance film, featuring Susan Hayward as a feisty fashion designer who falls for a married man (played by a geefy, Rock Hudson-esque John Gavin) who also just happens to be a millionaire businessman. It's OK, though: the husband is excused for having an affair because his wife is an alcoholic golddigger who won't let him out of her clutches. (Vera Miles, who was a hottie!) The film -- which plays out like an old-fashioned '50s romance comic -- was so dull that I stopped watching, bleary eyed, two-thirds of the way through, although I suspect a drunken car crash may have freed the young lovers from the wife's oppressive yoke. Sluggishly plotted and full of what was meant to pass as glitz and glamour. Pretty silly, and obviously a good candidate for fans of 'Fifties camp culture.


"The Big Clock" (RKO, 1948)
A disjointed, lesser noir flick, featuring Charles Laughton as an all-powerful publishing magnate who seeks to pin a murder he committed onto one of his trusted employees. Ray Milland plays the clever editor slated to take the fall; the film flounders as Milland makes dumb mistake after dumb mistake: getting drunk with his boss' mistress, lying to his wife about his whereabouts and generally blundering about making things worse. The growing pile of evidence against him is meant to ratchet up the suspense, but there direction and script are both so poor that the story seems preposerous and never picks up speed. Laughton's performance is adequate, Milland is a bit irritating. Elsa Lanchester has a supporting role as a kooky modern artist, and a young Henry Morgan (later known as Colonel Potter on TV's MASH) plays a silent hired thug. Skippable.


"Enigma" (Columbia Tristar, 2001)
An offbeat spy thriller, featuring Dougray Scott as a brilliant Glaswegian encryption cracker, hard at work in the thick of the British effort to break the Nazi's secret codes in WWII. But while the dash-dot-dashes drifting in from abroad hold menace of their own, there's plenty of trouble on the home front as well, as Scott and co-star Kate Winslet soon find out. A nicely paced, somewhat erudite, mystery film, with a plot that isn't all that surprising, but still quite engaging. Recommended.


"Three Comrades" (RKO, 1938)
Franchot Tone, Robert Young and Robert Taylor star as three friends who survive the rigors of World War One, and stick together as business partners during the economic hard times that followed. In many ways, this is an explicit continuation of the better-known All Quiet On The Western Front. It is also based on the work of novelist Erich Maria Remarque and also presents an atypically sympathetic view of the Germans who took part in the war (at least of the common soldiers...) This film deals less with the horrors of war than with its social aftermath, and with the collision of Germany's cultural rigidity with an emerging modern world, at times stifling, and at others liberating. Nazism is dealt with somewhat elliptically; one of the three friends is a left-wing idealist and runs afoul of a right-wing mob, leaving the other two to pick up the pieces. The film was behind its own times, though: even though open hostilities had not broken out with the German Reich, by the late 1930s World War Two was all but inevitable, and the film's ending, in which our heroes abandon the charred husk of the Old World for the romantic horizons of the New, is simply wishful thinking. By the time this film came out, walking away from the mistakes of the past was hardly an option: the spectre of war had already reared again, and was hardly going to let these young men out of its clutches. Still, if you completely ignore the reality of the times the film was produced in, this succeeds finely as a conventional tragedy-romance. F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently started the script, which was the only screenplay he himself wrote, but it was taken away from him at the last minute, after the producers decided his lofty philosophical musings were too dense to translate into Hollywood boxoffice success.

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